When Clémence had left, Penelope went back to her Rachmaninov. But it failed to catch fire or to calm her conflicting emotions. Much as she had come to like her, seeing Clémence still made her feel inadequate. There were so many necessary improvements to implement, both to the crumbling old farmhouse and to her person.
This time last year she had been a bored middle-aged divorcée in Esher, taken for granted by the family and missing work after her boss retired, and she decided to leave, too. True, it had been a nightmare in Provence at first, what with the dead body in the swimming pool, but she had discovered layers of St Merlot's history that she might never otherwise have known. Not an ideal way to become known as a femme fatale, maybe, but she had made some interesting friends in the process, not least the mayor.
The thought of him sent her scurrying upstairs to assess the possibilities of finding a well-cut black dress in her cupboard.
* * *
The pile of discarded clothes grew.
After more fruitless tussling, she slumped onto the bed and switched on her iPad. She bypassed the predictably depressing news stories in the Daily Telegraph online after a cursory glance at the headlines, but couldn't stop herself reading some nonsense about what milestone birthdays should mean for your wardrobe. Penelope didn't like the sound of that "should." That was another reason she was happy to have left Surrey: all the bossy expectations of the English middle classes. Do this. Do that. Go to this restaurant. Eat kale. Read this book. And now, wear these clothes.
There was nothing more than common sense for those who had recently turned fifty. Style icon Inès de la Fressange urged her to aim for sensuality rather than sexiness, "as it was stronger." This gnomic utterance was accompanied by a list of items to jettison, which included glittery blousons, embroidered and studded skinny jeans, and very high stilettos—none of which Penelope had ever been remotely tempted to buy in the first place.
Downstairs, she made herself a cup of strong British tea and wondered why she felt like a teenage girl steadying herself for a first date, especially when any effort would be pointless. Laurent Millais was way out of her league.
On the dot of six, Laurent arrived in his blue Mercedes. It matched his eyes, a felicity that Penelope suspected was far from coincidental.
"You look very elegant," he said.
In the end, she had gone for stark (and slimming) simplicity: a loose black silk top over black cropped trousers and high heels. "Thank you. So do you."
He was devastatingly attractive in a casual black linen suit and pale blue shirt. His floppy, honey-coloured hair was still sun-streaked from the long Provençal summer. On an Englishman of the same age it would have looked too long, but it was perfect for Laurent Millais, showcasing his wonderful cheekbones, classical straight nose, and smooth, tanned complexion.
He bent down to kiss her three times on the cheeks, left-right-left. Penelope hoped she wouldn't let herself down by going red and having a hot flush as his lips lightly brushed her skin. She breathed in his lemony wild herb cologne.
"I shall drive like an English gentleman, not so fast," he said as he opened the passenger door for her. "I know you don't like to race around the bends like we all do."
"That would be most considerate."
True to his word, they had a pleasantly sedate drive down to the main road along the valley floor with none of the nervy clutching for the door handle and pressing down on an imaginary brake that was a feature of any ride with Clémence. As they bowled along a nearly empty road past apricot orchards that flamed with scarlet leaves and dormant lavender fields of pale grey corduroy, Laurent chatted of this and that: village matters concerning St Merlot's knottier problems, such as the recent disappointing quality of the wild boar pâté supplied by the Epicerie-Fruiterie and whether the boules used by the pétanque team should be paid for by the mairie.
"Of course, it is merely a gesture of support," he continued. "I doubt that the money we give the players ever gets further than the bar. None of them have any intention of replacing boules that have served them so well for decades."
"What's happening with the Priory development?" asked Penelope.