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About the Author
I was born and bred in Devon, down in the south west of England. it's a lovely area and it's no surprise that I've used it for four of my books. I lived and worked in Italy for eight years, before coming back with my Italian wife and our daughter. I've been writing since I was 12. I write all sorts, from thrillers to historical novels and, above all, humour. They say I've got a very English sense of humour, even if my mum was Scottish and my dad was Welsh.
Read an Excerpt
Faye ran her hand across her forehead and it came away damp. The late May weather in London that morning had been cool and overcast, but here in the south of France there wasn't a cloud in the sky and the high temperatures were even surprising the locals. The little hire car she had picked up at Nice airport was supposed to have air conditioning, but either it was broken or she just hadn't been able to fathom out how to make it work. Whatever the reason, even with the windows fully open, it was like a furnace in there. But the air-con, she knew full well, wasn't her only problem. She now had an even more serious one. She was lost.
She braked as she came to an anonymous turning to the right, slowing to little more than walking speed, muttering to herself in frustration as she looked for some indication as to which way to go. Then, as the car drew level with the turnoff, the frustration turned to annoyance. She definitely recognized the rusty old oilcan inverted over the top of a fence post, the red and white paint gradually peeling off in the hot Provençal sunshine. There was no getting away from it. She had definitely driven past this self-same spot only ten minutes earlier.
Giving an exasperated snort, she pulled the car onto the dusty verge at the side of the narrow road, turned off the engine, and reached once again for the map the man at the car hire desk had given her. It wasn't the most detailed map in the world and she wasn't the best map reader in the world, but one thing was clear: map or no map, she was lost – lost and alone.
She glanced out of the windows. There wasn't a single sign of human habitation anywhere – just fields, hills, occasional trees, and the hot, dry road. For a moment, she felt a wave of emotion threatening to overwhelm her and shook her head angrily. She had been miserable enough over the past few months and being alone was nothing new to her. She took a few deep breaths and gripped the steering wheel, trying to work out what to do next. She was here now and she had a problem to solve. Crying wouldn't help.
As she looked back out through the windscreen, knowing she was going to be late for her interview unless she worked out pretty quickly where she was, a figure accompanied by a big black dog appeared from a gap in the dry stone wall just a short way ahead of her. As she watched, they crossed the road, disappearing up a narrow footpath between two dusty cypress trees.
Faye didn't hesitate.
Jumping out of the car into the full heat of the sun, she hurried over to the two trees and saw the retreating shoulders of the man a little way ahead of her. She called out, but he didn't respond, so she cleared her throat and called again, louder. This time she saw first the dog, and then the man, stop and turn round.
'Hello, please could you help me? I'm lost.' Even in her best French this sounded pretty pathetic, but she was desperate. To her relief, the man started retracing his steps along the track towards her.
'Did you say you're lost?' From his accent he was from these parts, but his tone wasn't particularly welcoming. Nevertheless, Faye nodded, praying he would be able to help her. As he reluctantly walked back to her, the dog, a handsome black Labrador, came charging up to her, tail wagging. Just as he looked as though he was going to jump all over her, there was a sharp double whistle and his master's voice rang out.
The dog stopped dead, only a few feet from Faye, and waited for his master. She was impressed and relieved. She loved dogs, but she was on her way to an interview after all, and the last thing she needed was to be leapt upon by a dog, however friendly his intentions might be. She took a step back and studied the man surreptitiously as he approached.
He was wearing a battered T-shirt that had once advertised a Rolling Stones European tour. From its faded appearance, the tour in question had probably taken place in the years before the surviving members of the group had reached pensionable age – and that was a good while ago. On his feet were equally scruffy trainers and his strong, brown legs ran a long way up before disappearing into his sand-coloured shorts.
Sensing her eyes on him, he looked towards her and, to Faye's considerable surprise, she realized that he was very, very good-looking. Somehow, out here in the wilds of deepest rural Provence, she hadn't expected to meet a man whose face could have come off the front cover of a fashion magazine. She swallowed hard before answering.
'Afraid so. Totally lost. I'm looking for St-Jean-sur-Sarde the chateau to be precise. I was told to follow the signs for St-Jean and then turn right after the restaurant in the centre of the village. Only I can't seem to find any road signs at all and I'm just going round in circles.'
The man nodded. Satisfied that the dog wasn't going to jump all over Faye, he released his grip on the collar and reached up to pull off his sunglasses. As he did so, Faye noted the network of lines around his eyes that would no doubt have been airbrushed away by a photographer. As it was, they only served to add character to an already remarkable face.
His eyes met hers for a second before he dropped them again and, in spite of herself, Faye was fascinated. They were the most amazing and unusual colour: a very light yellowy brown. They gave her the surreal sensation of looking into the eyes of a lion or a tiger – and a very fine-looking male of the species, although by the look of him, a rather unhappy male of the species. She was wondering why the expression on his face was so glum when he shot a glance at her, his expression not exactly hostile, but definitely lacking in warmth.
'The chateau, eh? So, you've come to see our local celebrity, have you?'
Faye nodded cautiously, reaching down to pat the dog's head. 'I've been sworn to secrecy, so all I can tell you is that I'm going to the chateau.'
He nodded approvingly. 'Quite right. She keeps herself to herself and why not?' He ran a bronzed hand through his mop of rich chestnut hair and Faye was unable to stifle a brief image of Didier that leapt, unwanted, into her head. There had been a time, not so long ago, when that same simple action from her former boyfriend would have stirred her, but now, after all that had happened, the only stirrings she felt were of anger.
The sadness had finally begun to wear off, and in its place had come resentment and a deep mistrust of men, particularly tall, handsome men. Although she was rational enough to know it was unfair of her, she felt her expression harden towards this Frenchman, but he didn't appear to notice. 'Anyway, getting to the chateau's easy. Just carry on up here for about a kilometre and then turn left by a tumbledown barn. No signs on that junction either, I'm afraid. So, just turn left. Left, okay?'
Just to reinforce the message, he extended his left arm - a strong, brown arm, covered with sun-bleached hair. 'That'll take you down to St-Jean and you'll see the church on your left and the Coq d'Or on your right. Then, just like they told you, turn right straight after it and the chateau's only a few hundred yards up the road. It's on a little hill. You can't miss it.'
Faye gave a sigh of relief. 'Thank you so much. I had visions of driving round these roads for ever. I'm so glad I came across somebody with local knowledge.' She caught those amazing tiger eyes once more, but both he and she looked away again immediately.
'Anyway, now, I must go. Goodbye.' He gave that same double whistle once more and the dog jumped to his feet. The man and the Labrador had already turned away before she managed to reply.
'Well, goodbye and thank you.' Faye stood there and watched the two of them disappear down the track. It wasn't his fault he had reminded her of Didier. Maybe this man wasn't a lying, deceitful cheat, but she had no intention of finding out. Shaking her head, she returned to her car and set off in the direction of the chateau of St-Jean-sur-Sarde.
The chateau certainly was quite a place. Faye drew up in front of an imposing pair of wrought-iron gates and climbed out to press the bell set in one of the gate pillars. There was no name, just a button. A few seconds later, a yellow light on top of the post began to flash and the gates started to open inwards with a mechanical hum. She jumped back into the car and squeezed carefully through the gates, continuing up a sweeping gravel drive, lined with colourful oleander bushes in full flower – the red, pink, and white contributing to make a striking display. Beyond them was a lush green lawn that wouldn't have looked out of place in the gardens of Buckingham Palace. Evidently the chateau had its own irrigation system.
She drew up at the foot of a fine stone stairway leading up to the front door and sat in the car for a moment, composing herself and admiring the view. From here she could see right down as far as the limestone cliffs of the hills beyond. Just down the slope from her was the village, a collection of red-tiled roofs clustered around the old church, its square tower pierced with Roman arches.
The heat of the sun had made the air hazy, but she felt pretty sure the dusty line on the horizon might be the mighty Maritime Alps. Although it hardly seemed believable on a day like today, the proximity of the mountains would probably mean cold winters and she wondered, for a moment, whether she would be here to experience that. All round the village the fields were filled with bright green vines and ripening corn, with serried rows of wonderful purple lavender bringing flashes of colour from time to time.
Turning back towards the chateau, she saw that this was even more impressive. It occupied the top of a small hillock and had probably started life more as a fortified castle than a manor house, its powerful stone walls rising up several storeys to a tiled roof. It had no doubt been built at a time when the owner had needed his home to provide protection from his enemies as well as shelter from the elements. It wasn't absolutely enormous, like some castles Faye had seen, but it was very beautiful.
Over the centuries, window openings had been pierced in the walls and a fine entranceway built, opening out onto the terrace. This terrace extended along the front of the building, punctuated by green and yellow splashes of colour provided by lemon trees in ancient terracotta pots, and a mass of red and pink roses climbing the rugged walls. It was simply stunning.
Of course, Faye thought to herself, that was no surprise. She had been expecting something pretty imposing, after all. The owner of the house, the lady she was here to meet for the first time, was none other than Anabelle Beech, and she was genuine Hollywood royalty. No longer contemporary royalty, but definitely one of the all-time greats. Her name conjured up memories of iconic films of the postwar era, where she had appeared alongside such movie colossi as Humphrey Bogart, Gary Cooper, and James Stewart. Often compared to Grace Kelly as one of the most beautiful women in the world, there was no doubt she would have more than enough small change to buy even a fabulous place like this.
Faye glanced down at the rather short skirt she had chosen, beginning to regret not having dressed up a bit more formally for her first appearance before the great lady. Well, she told herself, it's too late now.
As she opened the car door, she heard a cacophony of barking and came close to closing the door again and locking it. It sounded as if the Hound of the Baskervilles himself was in there, straining to get out. Cautiously, she made her way up the steps until she was level with the half-glazed front door that was visibly shaking. By this time, Faye was also close to shaking. The door, set into a carved stone surround, was made of sculpted oak and, thankfully, it looked solid, even though the upper half was made up of little square red, white, and blue stained-glass panels. Staring at her through the base of one of these, was the source of the noise.
A shiny black nose and an intimidating set of gleaming white teeth were very much in evidence, as were a pair of bright eyes that studied her approach. Then, as she and the dog made eye contact, the barking suddenly stopped, leaving Faye's ears ringing. The dog dropped back to the floor, and in place of the barking, she heard low whines emanating from inside.
At that moment, the door was opened by a slim, grey-haired man in jeans and a crisp white T-shirt, his other hand firmly gripping the dog's collar.
'Good morning. You must be Faye. We've been looking forward to meeting you.'
He spoke in English, with a soft American accent, and he might have been seventy or so. He shot a glance down at the dog, who was wagging his tail so hard, the whole back half of his body was wiggling. 'You must tell me your secret. I've never seen Marlon so pleased to see somebody before. I'll let him go if you're all right with dogs. He'll probably try to jump up at you, but just push him down.'
Faye looked at the dog whose intentions were now unmistakably friendly and nodded her head. 'Hello, yes, I'm Faye Carter. Do let him go. I'll be fine.'
A split second later she found herself pinned back against the door by a pair of hefty, mercifully clean, paws – a big hairy Labrador head stretching upwards, a pink tongue trying unsuccessfully to reach her face. Marlon was definitely very, very pleased to see her. She recovered her balance, persuaded the dog to return to all fours, and bent down to stroke him. As if by magic, feeling her touch, he slid down onto the floor and rolled over, all four legs in the air, emitting an assortment of happy canine grunts. His tail was still wagging furiously, doing a very efficient job of sweeping the polished oak floor.
'That's quite amazing.' The grey-haired man was still looking very surprised. 'We normally have to shut him in the kitchen when somebody comes to the door.' He stepped to one side and waved her in formally. 'Anyway, welcome to St-Jean, Faye. My name's Eddie Marshal. I'm Miss Beech's PA.'
Faye walked in past him, trying not to trip over the dog. As she did so, she noticed a grey ponytail hanging down Eddie Marshal's neck – not something normally to be found on an elderly gentleman. On closer inspection, there turned out to be a still-handsome face underneath the lines and wrinkles, and a definite sparkle visible in his pale blue eyes. She smiled back at him and held out her hand. 'I'm very pleased to meet you, Mr Marshal, and did you say his name was Marlon?'
The man accepted her hand and shook it, before nodding towards the dog. 'Named after the great man himself. Miss Beech knew Brando well and has always admired him. Now, if you'd like to come into the sitting room, I'll go tell her you've arrived. She hasn't been too well for the past couple of days and she has the nurse with her at the moment, so I'm afraid you might have to wait for a few minutes.'
He led Faye, closely accompanied by the dog, along the corridor, limping slightly as he walked. The walls were lined with paintings – not old masters, as one might have expected in a medieval environment such as this, but modern, abstract and impressionist paintings that, remarkably, sat very well in this antique setting.
At the end of the corridor they turned into a gorgeous high-ceilinged room, furnished with surprisingly modern leather sofas and armchairs. The ceiling was supported by hefty carved beams, the detail of the predominantly floral design picked out in red and gold against the dark wood. The floor was a stunning chequerboard of centuries-old pink and cream terracotta, worn down by the passage of countless feet. At the end of the room was a monumental stone fireplace, supported by sculpted pillars on either side. It was breathtaking.
'Now, what can I get you?' Mr Marshal was still standing by the door. 'Over the years I've become pretty good at making cocktails. How about a Manhattan?'
Faye glanced at the time on an antique grandfather clock in one corner of the room. She had got up at the crack of dawn for her flight and it was still only just eleven o'clock, so although it might have helped to soothe her nerves, it was definitely too early for alcohol. She shook her head regretfully. 'Thank you very much, but as I'm driving back to the airport again this afternoon, I'd better not.'
'Of course. Well, a coffee maybe, or a cup of tea?'
'A cup of tea would be lovely, thank you.'
'Any special type of tea?'
'Just bog-standard builders' tea please, with a drop of milk.'
'"Bog-standard builders' tea ..."' She saw him smile, savouring the expression. 'I'm sure we can find some of that. I'll ask Claudette to bring you a cup.'
Excerpted from "To Provence, with Love"
Copyright © 2017 T. A. Williams.
Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.
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