It was a glorious late October morning. Under a sapphire sky, the Luberon ridge rippled down into the valley and the warmth of summer lingered. An immense cathedral quiet seemed to stretch to the distant hills.
On the terrace of Le Chant d'Eau, Penelope Kite breathed in deeply and drew the bow across the strings of her cello. The first note came out as a growl, followed by a low rumble. As her bowing became more confident, the tone gained in purity.
The music calmed her. Not that her jitteriness today was a bad thing. Nothing like those first weeks in St Merlot, when she had been a woman in volcanic form, erupting in the heat of August. It was amazing how much she had achieved in such a short time. The ramshackle old farmhouse had been replastered and repainted. The electrical rewiring had been completed. She had recently taken delivery of a large woodburning stove, and soon she would have two new bathrooms.
Even more satisfyingly, she had made friends. And, after much anticipation, tonight was the night she was going out to dinner with the mayor of St Merlot, the knee-tremblingly handsome and charming Laurent Millais. Third-time lucky, she hoped. Frustratingly, something always seemed to get in the way.
But so far, so good. He had called to confirm. The plan was to drop in first to the opening of an art exhibition in Avignon, and then have dinner at La Coquillade at Gargas. Just the two of them. La Coquillade was a very smart restaurant and boutique hotel surrounded by olive groves, pools, and vineyards and renowned for its romantic atmosphere. Penelope felt a surge of excitement, then slapped herself down. Laurent was merely keeping his word that he'd take her out to celebrate the solving of two murders that had disrupted her first months in the Luberon. No need to make a show of herself.
She should try to concentrate on the music.
* * *
She was tackling a particularly fiendish passage when the familiar sound of scattering stones on the track announced an unscheduled arrival. The car clattered down the drive, spitting gravel, then skidded to a halt with the squeal of a braking system pushed well beyond its comfort zone.
Penelope knew immediately who it was. She rested her bow and waited for the click of stiletto heels on the flagstones.
Clémence Valencourt appeared on the terrace in beautifully tailored cropped black trousers, with a tight white silky top that showed not even a suspicion of middle-aged bulge, a look Penelope could only aspire to. Copious loops of costume pearls and gilt topped off with what looked like—and probably was—a genuine Chanel jacket. The petite Parisienne smiled, revealing perfect white teeth. "That was very good, Penny. I recognise it—Rachmaninov? Continue, please!"
"Well. If you don't mind, I should just finish this section. It's a tricky bit and I've nearly mastered it."
"Impeccable. You finish, and I will listen as I make us some coffee."
Penelope ran through the difficult section a few more times until the smell of coffee became too compelling to ignore.
Clémence brought two cups outside and they sat companionably at the white café table under an olive tree in a galvanised steel planter. Sheer bliss, thought Penelope, as she tipped her head back in the sunshine. It was such a pleasure that the air was still warm enough to be able to sit outside, even in the middle of autumn.
"Penny, I did not realise how well you played. You have many surprises for us, n'est-ce pas?"
Penelope accepted the compliment—for indeed it was one—from this chic, cultured woman who had become an unexpected ally. "Well, I used to be so much better, but I am getting there. It just takes time. But this 'is' my time, the chance I longed for to take up some of my interests again. Music. Gardening. Maybe even some painting, though I haven't done any of that since I got married."
"Yes, Penny, we all benefit, sans husband."
Penelope was itching to quiz her about M. Valencourt, who was away so often, but Clémence continued without drawing breath.
"And you are an artist as well? Mon dieu, what talent has arrived in St Merlot!"
Penelope was never quite sure when the Frenchwoman was sending her up. "I wouldn't say I was an artist—but I have always wanted to learn to paint properly, and here seems to be the perfect place."