tracy
"The French Connection"
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Prologue

W.C. Fields got it wrong, Shelley McCleery thought. All things considered, she'd rather be anywhere but in Philadelphia.

And that old adage about April showers bringing May flowers? Someone should have told the City of Brotherly Love. It was May and it was pouring buckets, enough to leave six inches of standing water at every major intersection in Center City. Shelley had actually seen someone attach pontoons to his wheelchair.

And, p-le-ease, if one more perky TV weatherman said the rain was good for the farmers, she was personally going to shove his Doppler radar where the sun didn't shine. "Come off it," she'd informed the cashier at Starbucks earlier that morning. "The nearest agricultural region is southern New Jersey, and nobody, I mean, nobody, cares about Jersey."

He'd nodded and given her the wrong change.

Now inside, things weren't much better. The conference room of Dream Villas Enterprises may have been dry, but it was so stuffy even the philodendron perched atop the filing cabinet - a plant propagated to withstand the abuse of countless bank lobbies and orthodontists' offices -- had packed it in more than three weeks ago.

Shelley could sympathize. It wasn't easy sitting in a room where the most distinctive feature was a beige filing cabinet. It set the tone for the whole office décor: cheap and nasty. Cheap she didn't have a problem with. Given her pitiful salary and unpaid college loans, Shelley couldn't afford that kind of problem. But ugly - that was a whole other matter. Call her a throwback, but she was firmly of the opinion that the world would be a much better place if everything were rendered in tempera, covered in gesso, and lit with a soft medieval glow.

Yeah, call her a throwback. She sighed.

"What was that, Shelley dear?"

Shelley looked up. Sitting at the head of the conference table was Lionel Toynbee. Reading glasses slipped down his pencil-thin nose.

Lionel, founder and owner of Dream Villas, was checking the proofs for the latest newsletter of his travel firm that specialized in renting luxury European estates - estates that featured top-of-the-line plumbing against the backdrop of fading Flemish tapestries, grand marble staircases and massive gated entrances, preferably emblazoned with crests for families like Romanov and Medici, or even those parvenus, the Windsors.

"Shelley?" Lionel repeated, turning her two syllable name into three, so that it became "She-el-ley." It was a habit that she found particularly annoying, second only to the measly salary Lionel paid her. "The piece on the Montfort chateau comes across very well."

Bowled over by Lionel's rare outburst of praise, Shelley almost fell off her chair. But then she quickly realized the reference wasn't to her prose. It was about the seventeenth-century castle built on the ruins of a medieval convent on the outskirts of Aix-en-Provence in southern France.

"But take out that line about the cool, damp walls of the subterranean caves. They make the place seem old." Lionel tsked. "In theory, customers say they like atmospheric old things like caves, but they don't really want to know the details. Talk up the whirlpools in the bathrooms instead. More jet sprays, less caves." He turned to the next page.

"Fewer caves," Shelley corrected under her breath, the curse of having a mother who was a tenth-grade English teacher. She took her blue pen and deleted the line, and was about to flip the page when her eyes rested on a quotation from Madame La Comtesse de Montfort herself. Shelley stared at the words: "To savor the snow-white blossoms of the almond trees that cover the hills in springtime is to tantalize the senses with a pleasure so exquisite, it marks the soul ever after."

She saw the passage was missing a closed quotation mark and was about to make a notation, when she stopped and reflected. Would she, Shelley wondered, ever be able to forget the world of missing punctuation marks and experience a pleasure so profound it would mark her soul ever after?

The fax machine in the conference room hummed into action. She looked up. Was it a sign from above?

The cover sheet had a hand-written message scrawled in large letters: "Monsieur TOYNBEE. URGENT. PERSONAL."

"Looks like something for you, Lionel." She passed it across the table.

Lionel moved his lips as he read silently, then slowly lowered the fax to the table. "My, God. Franćoise, the Comtesse de Montfort, has died." He removed the yellow HermŹs silk ascot from around his neck and patted the moist sheen that had popped out on his baby-smooth forehead.

Speaking of baby-smooth, Shelley had recently discovered a bill from a society dermatologist in the "accounts payable" folder of her desk drawer. But the evidence for Botox injections and dermabrasion was beside the point, especially in light of Lionel's obvious distress - the ascot was, after all, silk. "I'm so sorry," she said. "I know you and Madame la Comtesse go back a long way."

Lionel strummed his fingers on the fax. After a moment he looked up. "Wha-at? Oh, it's not that. It's the chateau. It's aw-aw-ful! The family is threatening to take the property out of our catalogue before the start of high season."

 

Chapter One

"You'll never guess what happened today." Shelley slid into the booth at the Down Home Diner and looked up. "Oh, Paul." She pulled a wad of paper napkins out of the dispenser on the table. "If you're not going to bother to wait to eat, could you at least not drip your cheese steak all over the place?"

Paul Gufstavsen, the pride of St. Cloud, Minnesota, took the napkins and swallowed. "Listen, I've just come off a double shift at the hospital, so don't complain. The important thing is I came."

"From what I understand, you always were a bit premature." The comment came from the horsy-looking woman who'd just arrived. She gave Paul an overly sweet smile that was anything but nice, before turning her attention to Shelley. "Move over, girlfriend, I'm starving."

Shelley scooted down while Abigail Braithwaite stashed her briefcase under the table and sidled the straight skirt of her St. John's suit along the bench. Abigail had recently been made partner in a white shoe law firm and was also an heir to a fortune based on little things - coal, steel and the building of the transcontinental railroad. So naturally she could afford to wear St. John suits. Shelley's couture, on the other hand, was exclusively TJ Maxx.

Shelley waved off the waitress' offer of menus and waggled her finger in Paul's direction. "I'll have what he's eating, but with Cheez Whiz and onions."

Abigail nodded. "You can get me the same." She waited for the waitress to leave before flaring her nostrils at Paul. "Only a heathen -- or someone from the hinterland -- would have a cheese steak without Cheez Whiz and onions."

Paul munched undisturbed. "My Midwestern heritage is a burden I proudly bear. Besides, I seriously doubt that cheese steaks were a staple of your toney family, even if they do come from the area. Tell me, again. Where exactly is the family estate located along the Main Line?" He turned a puzzled brow in her direction. "I seem to have forgotten."

Abigail sat up straighter, if such a thing were possible. "Stop trying to act the innocent. It's Haverford, as well you know, having visited more than once when you and Shelley were what I can only euphemistically call ‘an item.' Thank God she saw the error of her ways and told you to take your little stethoscope elsewhere."

Shelley cleared her throat to restore order. "Abby, stop picking on Paul. Anyway, as you well know, our break-up was entirely amicable." Translation: she no longer got sex, but she still picked up his dry cleaning.

Not that Shelley's comments would in any way establish a permanent détente. To say Abby, her best friend, did not get along with Paul was the understatement of the year. Even Abigail's initial evaluation had been less than enthusiastic. "I can understand the appeal of his blond, Scandinavian good looks and his above-average intelligence, but beyond that -- I mean, if he's going to be a doctor, does he have to be an ear, nose and throat specialist?"

And when Shelley related these comments back to Paul - she had been in that stage of their relationship when she thought they should share all -- he had responded: "I don't know where she comes off criticizing me. Not when she talks about going to Brandeis instead of Bryn Mawr as her act of rebellion -- a gesture undoubtedly lost on the vast majority of the population. Hell--" a rare example of Paul blaspheming and evidence of his rancor, "--I don't even get it."

The relationship had only deteriorated over time. No matter. She needed their attention - divided or otherwise - now.

"If you two ever stopped to listen to yourselves, you'd realize you sound like something out of a bad Tennessee Williams play -- without benefit of an intermission," Shelley forged on. "And I really need you to focus on something else for a change - me."

Abigail sniffed. Paul gazed at his food.

Shelley nodded. "Good, thank you. It's like this -- I wanted to talk to you because I just found out today that the Comtesse died."

Paul looked up. "Which one was she? The condo on the Algarve or the villa in the Piedmont?"

"Paul, we're talking about a woman who recently died. She was more than just a piece of property."

He picked up his cheese steak and took a healthy bite. "Shelley, I'm a doctor. I see death everyday."

Shelley seriously wondered if Paul witnessed death everyday in an ear-nose-and-throat residency, but she didn't press the point. It wasn't worth it - much as their relationship hadn't been either.

Abigail patted her hand. "I'm sure it was very upsetting. A donation to a charity of the family's choice is always appropriate." She leaned back and smiled benevolently when the waitress brought their order -- it was like the Queen at the grand opening of a pensioners' home in Bournemouth. Then she turned to Shelley. "So which property was it anyway?"

Shelley started to mentally count to ten, but quit at six. "The Comtesse owned the chateau in Aix-en-Provence, north of Marseilles."

Paul paused in thought. "A quaint abode. Eight bedrooms, five-and-a-half baths, four with whirlpool baths. Vineyard. Swimming pool. Riding stables nearby."

"As you can imagine, Lionel is totally distraught." Shelley said.

"I bet. He makes a pretty penny off that property, and he's probably scared stiff that the family is going to pull the plug on the contract."

"Was she also one of his, you know…?" Abigail nodded discreetly.

"Lovers?" Shelley supplied the word. "I'd say it's a reasonable guess."

Paul snorted. "Please, Lionel didn't get his inventory by using the Yellow Pages. We all know that he's slept with, or attempted to sleep with, half the aging aristocracy of continental Europe -- his personal touch has been in places you don't want to know."

Abigail shivered and looked down at her untouched food.

Shelley pointed a finger at her chest. "Not that I'm defending the horny bastard, but you have to admit the one place he's never put his mitts is on me." Being a naturally modest person, she didn't mention that while maybe not in the same league as Jennifer Lopez or Nicole Kidman in the looks department, she wasn't exactly chopped liver either. Auburn, shoulder-length hair, combined with a firm, rounded derriere and well-toned legs, gave her a definite Julia Roberts allure -- Julia Roberts with an extra fifteen pounds.

Paul shook his head. "Shell, get real. It's not like you have any property on the Riviera worth renting."

What could she say? McCleerys weren't Riviera types: not only did they freckle in direct sunlight, they lacked that essential je ne sais quoi -- inherited wealth. "Okay, I get your point. But I'd still like to get back to my dilemma. You see, Lionel is intent on keeping the rental for this season."

"Simple." Paul shrugged. "He goes over and wines and dines the Comtesse's daughter and weaves his usual magic."

"That is just so irritating," Shelley protested. "Why do you necessarily assume that some woman would agree to just about anything if she was showered with a little attention?"

Paul smiled smugly. "Ah-h. I get it. There is no daughter, is there?"

Shelley conceded with a shrug. "Only a grandson."

"How old?" Paul asked.

"From the limited information I've got, probably around thirty."

"And Lionel's not considering extending his sexual tastes to members of the male species?"

Shelley shook her head. "No, not even when it comes to the Montfort chateau."

Abigail shifted in her chair. "So what's the plan?"

"Well, the plan is still for Dream Villas to pay a condolence call - in person, naturally," Shelley said. "But Lionel's not going. He feels it might not be a good idea for him to resurface at a family event. You see, he and the Comtesse were an item before she became a widow."

"Oh-h. So, if Dream Villas needs someone from the company to go…" Abigail raised one eyebrow. Shelley nodded.

Paul waved from his side of the table. "Hell-oh? Am I missing something here?"

Shelley turned her head in his direction. "About that condolence call…"

"Yeah?"

"Well, I've just been promoted from newsletters."

There was silence.

"Well?" Shelley looked around expectantly. "Any opinions? I realize this would be an entirely new direction for me to take. So I really, really want your input. In my own mind, I'd like to think I should try my hand at it. Expand my horizons. Push the envelope, so to speak."

Paul looked horrified. "Why don't you let someone else push their own envelope? Let them wine and dine the grandson and heir."

Shelley pulled back. "Don't tell me you're jealous?"

He made a face. "Of course I'm not jealous. It's just that you've never dealt face-to-face with clients. You're used to being support staff, handling the paperwork and stuff like that." Paul furrowed his brow sincerely. "I mean this with all the best intentions, of course."

Shelley blinked. "God, Paul. You think I'm a total wuss, don't you? No wonder our relationship didn't work out. And here I thought it had something to do with the fact I never made your mother's recipe for salt cod."

"Forget the salt cod," Abigail interrupted.

Shelley nodded. "Gladly."

"And to get back to your question -- despite what the Boy Wonder here says, I think you're perfectly capable of being a front man -- front woman, really. The thing of it is, you just haven't given yourself many opportunities to shine in that venue. Not surprising when you consider that family of yours." Abigail accompanied the last comment with a dismissive wave of her hand.

"Please, it's not as if I were abused as a child. Many people have parents who get divorced," Shelley downplayed.

"But how many people have a father who runs off to join the circus?"

"It's a common enough fantasy."

"For little boys, not for a thirty-five-year-old insurance salesman from Schenectady. Then there's your mother."

"Mom's not so bad," Shelley protested.

"We're talking about a woman who communicates with daisies!"

"It's bromeliads, a completely different family. They're epiphytic tropical plants, pineapples, for example."

That silenced Abby. But only for a moment. "I'll take your word for it. Anyway, it just proves my point. Despite growing up amidst these familial peculiarities, you've definitely got the right instincts. Just look how you extricated yourself from an academic profession that would have left you buried in library stacks and, instead, made the switch to the business world."

Paul snorted, aquiline nose and all. "Where she spends her time in an office on the phone with foreign repairmen."

"Ah, but what she does with those repairmen," Abigail said forcefully. "Do you realize Shelley's the only woman I know who can get repairmen to do what she wants when she wants -- and in several foreign languages? Darling, with that kind of talent, you could run most Fortune 500 companies."

Shelley shrugged. "So I know how to say ‘sump pump' in French, German, Italian, Spanish, and, if I stretch it, Portuguese. That's not the issue. What's really at stake is whether it's wise for me to drop everything -- and we are in the busiest time of year for finalizing arrangements -- and rush off to try to retain the biggest contract that Dream Villa has, under what are extremely delicate circumstances. Why just last week, when I met with Leonard, my landlord, I was the one who offered to raise the rent by three percent when he told me Medicare no longer paid for his mother's home healthcare. I mean, how do you think I am going to fare with a grieving French count?"

Paul shook his head. "You should have had me talk to Leonard. You always were too soft hearted."

"But, thankfully, not so soft hearted that she made your mother's salt cod recipe," Abigail argued in rebuttal. "Salt cod! It sounds like something the Pilgrims would have eaten!"

"Some of your relatives, no doubt," Paul shot back.

"Enough!" Shelley threw up her hands. "I've really had it. I want to discuss something important to me, and not have to negotiate between people who go at each other like the West Side Story's Sharks and the Jets."

"Actually, I always secretly wanted to be Chita Rivera," Abigail let drop off-handedly.

Shelley narrowed her eyes. "I mean it. This is not about you. It's about me - rather I."

"All right." Abigail shrugged. "You want my opinion on you?" Shelley nodded. "I think that you'll do a fine job. That said, you should feel free to call me at any time during contract talks to recommend tactics or counteroffers -- or even things like what fork to use at a formal dinner party. You know these aristocrats - they're big on elaborate table settings."

Paul took a deep breath. "You want my opinion? Don't go. If nothing else, I don't like the idea of you out there all on your own."

Shelley stared at the checkerboard tiles on the floor and thought. Finally she looked up. "All right, then." She placed a determined hand on the table -- first making sure that she wasn't about to dip her fingers in mustard. "Abby, I appreciate your support. I really do. And I know you don't mean to be holier-than-thou -- you just come by it naturally, having spent too many of your formative years doing things such as pouring tea. But if I'm going to do this, I'm going to be the one to take charge of the teapot." Shelley frowned. The image was a little weak. Never mind.

She turned to Paul. "And Paul, stop feeling you have to protect me from myself. I realize as the son of a Lutheran minister you equate love with pastoral care. But you never loved me when we were going out, and you don't love me now that we aren't. You just feel compelled to enlighten me. As surprising as this may seem, I managed to do quite fine for almost thirty years before we met, and I have managed to function very smoothly since we broke up. In fact, as far as I can tell, you're the one who needs help. Without me, you wouldn't have a clean shirt to put on your back. Really. Do you even know where the dry cleaner is?"

She held up her hand when he started to say something. "Hear me out. I've had enough of being the responsible daughter and friend, seeking out a safe but unfulfilling job, falling in and out of almost-but-never-quite love. I've decided to turn over a new leaf. A new kick-ass side is about to emerge." She paused, then smiled slyly. "And if the circumstances call for it, maybe even a wild, party-girl side."

Abigail's eyes grew wider. "Am I hearing what I think I'm hearing?"

"I'm sorry, what does that have to do with going to France?" Paul scrunched his brows in confusion.

Shelley leaned back against the banquette and crossed her arms over her chest. "Paul, you're a bright, sensitive fellow. Okay, you're not particularly sensitive, but you are bright. You figure it out."

(Copyright, Louise Handelman, 2004)

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