This is the opening chapter of Book 2 in the Ville Rose Series
La Minoterie, Montauban, Aveyron, France, 21st May 2035
“He’s not my biological father, is he?” Juliette attempted to keep the hostility from her voice but her mother looked up sharply and swung round in her chair. Alarm registered in Patricia’s astonishing green eyes and she pushed her long, dark hair behind an ear in a characteristic gesture.
“What on earth do you mean, Juliette? Who isn’t your biological father?” She stood, hesitated briefly, and then moved swiftly towards her daughter, her arms outstretched. Juliette stepped sideways, avoiding the embrace.
“Gabriel, of course. Gabriel isn’t my biological father, is he?” She shrugged away Patricia’s hand which was reaching out for her. “I heard you two speaking last night. Who is this Frédéric you spoke of? Papa, eh… Gabriel, said that I had a right to know who he is! What did he mean?”
The older woman sighed and, her shoulders slumped, retreated to the leather chair in front of her desk. It, too, seemed to sigh resignedly as she sank into it. “Come here my darling” she whispered. “Come and sit down, Juliette.” Juliette remained defiantly in front of her mother’s study door, her arms folded across her chest, her legs astride.
“Just tell me the truth, Maman, I need to know the truth! If Gabriel isn’t my father, then who the bloody hell is?” Patricia winced at the expletive and rubbed her eyes wearily. “Maman, I am waiting! For God’s sake, I do have a right to know!” Juliette was angry now, extremely angry.
Patricia looked up and saw her child’s blue eyes flashing with fury, her fair skin flushed with emotion. Her blond, curly hair framed her face in an unruly tumble and the freckles across her nose simply accentuated her pretty complexion.
“I mean, it’s pretty bloody obvious, isn’t it? I don’t look like you, I don’t look like Papa. I don’t even look like Michel! Even my own brother doesn’t look like me!” She hesitated and then her voice calmed. “Of course Michel doesn’t look like me. He looks like you two, doesn’t he? Only I have stupid red hair, freckly skin and horrid pale blue eyes. So who was this Frédéric? Was he your lover?”
Patricia recalled Gabriel’s recent words: ‘If you don’t tell her, she will find out, believe me.’ It was the moment she had dreaded for the past eighteen years and despite her husband’s advice, she had not been able to heed it. The day she had admitted to herself that Frédéric was a liar, a cheat and a drunken gambler, she had vowed that he would never have anything to do with her unborn child. How could she ever admit that she had fallen in love with a man that had gambled away hundreds of thousands of her money? A man who had slept with at least two other women during their short time together? A man who had attempted to rape her and even struck her on several occasions when he was completely drunk? How could she tell her daughter that this evil man had pretended that he had wanted a baby and then rejected her before she was even born? What sort of father was that?
She hated the way Juliette swore but it seemed to be a modern syndrome. Freddy was a swearer she thought. She has his colouring, his English good-looks.
Silence vibrated around the room. “Yes, he was my lover” Patricia whispered eventually. “But he was never your father. He left me before you were even born. Papa, Gabriel, is your father. He was there with me on the day that you were born. He has been here with us ever since. He loves you and he’s also your legal father. Forget about Frédéric. He was a mistake. He was nothing.”
“It’s alright for you, Michel. At least you know who your father is. My father could be anyone. He could be a monster, a murderer. Or he could be a brilliant musician or an artist. Why won’t she tell me who or what he is?” Juliette paused and looked away from her brother. She gazed over the gentle ripples on the lake’s shimmering surface to the woodlands beyond and sighed deeply. “Do you know what she said, Mike? She said he was a mistake! How could the man who is my father be a mistake?” Head in hands, she slumped forward over the old wooden table at the water’s edge. Michel saw her shoulders heave as a sob wracked her body. He had been lying on a towel, chewing on a long strand of grass but when he realised his sister was crying, he leapt to his feet, scrambled onto the bench beside her and threw an arm around her shoulders.
“Of course you know who your father is!” he cried, pulling her into his embrace. At sixteen, he was two years younger than Juliette but already he was taller, bigger and stronger. He had inherited his father’s dark good looks but his green-grey flecked eyes were his mother’s. He had always looked up to his sister; she was feisty, brave and clever. He had hardly ever seen her cry and her distress was unusual and worrying. “Papa is your father, our father” he murmured now. “You know he is. How could you ever doubt that?” She did not answer him and so he continued to hold her, rocking her gently as she wept against his chest.
Eventually she pulled away and looked up at him, her eyes red-rimmed and watery from crying. She wiped her nose with the back of her hand and her body shuddered as she took a deep breath. “I heard them talking about him late last night. I suppose they thought I was asleep, but I’d been reading and went downstairs to make a coffee. They were in the study, talking about my birthday. I couldn’t resist listening in; I wondered what they had planned.” She took another great, shuddering breath and grabbed her brother’s hand. “Instead I found out that I am a bastard. I was born before they were married. And Papa is not my biological father.”
“What did they say? What made you think that? After all, they’ve known each other since they were kids! They were at Uni together in Toulouse.” They were speaking in rapid French, as they always did together. When they spoke with their mother, they normally spoke in English and with their father, it was always in French. His English was still sketchy, difficult for him.
“It’s because it’s my birthday tomorrow. I suppose Papa thinks that because I’m eighteen, I will officially be an adult and therefore I have the right to know the truth about my parentage. Anyway, they were arguing about a man called Frédéric. Papa was saying that Maman should tell me that this Frédéric was my real father.”
“But how can that be? What did Maman say?” Michel asked, his voice confused, his brow wrinkled in concern.
“She was crying, I could hear her crying. So I went away. But today I asked her what it was all about and she admitted that she’d had an affair before they were married. She said it meant nothing and that Papa was my real father, my legal father.” Juliette looked back at the lake and hesitated. “I guess she must mean that he adopted me after they got married.”
“But where is this Frédéric? Did you ask her?”
“Yes, I asked her but she said she didn’t know. Didn’t want to know, she said. “It’s as though she doesn’t think it’s important!” She turned back to her brother and took hold of both his hands. “But it is important, Mike, it’s very important to me. I’ve got to find him, find out more. Do you understand?” Michel squeezed her hands and nodded.
“Well, if she won’t talk about it, then why don’t you ask Papa?”
At fifty-two, Gabriel Eugénie was still a good-looking man. His endless work on the vineyard in Albas had kept him lean and strong. His face was deeply tanned and lined from working in the hot summer sun and the cold winter months. He was passionate about the wines from Chateau Eugénie where they specialised in a Cahors Malbec, or ‘black wine’ as it was known locally. The family spent the week days and nights at the old chateau in Albas, which was just ten minutes from Cahors. Juliette and Michel were both at school in Cahors but in September, Juliette would go to the University of Toulouse, where she had recently won a place. Michel loved the vineyards of Cahors almost as much as his father and his future lay in the fields of Albas. There was no doubt that he would eventually take over from Gabriel. Juliette, however, was a gifted linguist and intended to read English and Spanish at university. Her childhood on the farm had been a happy one but now she longed for the independence that life in Toulouse, in the ‘Ville Rose’ as it was affectionately known, would bring.
The house at Montauban, La Minoterie, belonged to Patricia. She had bought it when she was thirty-five and pregnant with Juliette. She loved it with an intense passion that her family shared. They were always happy to travel the sixty kilometres back to Montauban at the weekends where they enjoyed the peace and quiet of the beautiful Aveyron countryside. Gabriel’s elderly mother, Hélène, still worked alongside her son in the vineyards, though very much in an advisory capacity now that she was eighty-eight. She preferred to spend the weekends at her beloved chateau without her family. They had come to La Minoterie now for a blissful two weeks, to celebrate Juliette’s eighteenth birthday and to enjoy the first really warm days of the summer. The old mill house lay in a valley with rolling hills behind it and a shimmering lake in front, which was surrounding by heavy woodlands. During the hot months that would follow, the family would swim every day in its silky, warm waters.
Juliette found Gabriel working in the kitchen garden at the back of the house. He was never really happy unless he was toiling in the soil. Today he was busy planting out his tomato plants; tying up the delicate stems to a network of metal frames. He had grown the little plants from seed in the old greenhouse which looked as though it was almost as ancient as the house. Years ago, he had spent months repairing the old structure, replacing missing or broken glass panes and re-pointing the old brickwork. Confident that they had seen the last of the spring frosts, he was happy to let the warm sunshine of southern France do its work and nurture the embryonic tomatoes.
Juliette was carrying two cups of strong, black coffee which she knew he would appreciate and would tempt him to down tools for at least the time it took to smoke a Gauloise.
“Ah ma petite, how good that looks! How did you know your Papa was in need of a shot of caffeine!” Gabriel carefully placed the tray of seedlings on a low wall and sat down beside them, reaching into the pocket of his dungarees.
“And a shot of nicotine!” laughed Juliette, joining him on the garden wall. Her father shook out two cigarettes and lit them both, before passing one to his daughter.
“Don’t tell your mother!” he winked and they shared a conspiratorial smile as they always did. Patricia did not approve of her husband smoking, let alone her daughter. However, she quietly turned a blind eye to their habit, as long as they did not smoke in the house. “So to what do I owe this pleasure?” Gabriel asked. “I’m quite sure it isn’t just a Gauloise you want. There is always an alternative motive when my daughter seeks out her Papa!” Patricia smiled at him and blew out a thin spiral of smoke in a very practised manner. She paused and then frowned.
“That’s just it, Papa. I’m not your daughter, am I?” She hesitated. “And you’re not my father, are you? No, don’t deny it!” she said quickly as he attempted to interrupt her. “I spoke with Maman this morning. She told me that someone called Frédéric is my biological father. But she won’t tell me anything more. You know I will always love you, Papa, but I must know the truth about my parentage.”
Gabriel took a deep pull on his cigarette and then threw back the shot of coffee in one gulp. He rubbed his forehead with a mud-encrusted hand and sighed deeply. “I have always told your mother that we should explain to you what happened. But, you see, she has tried to block the whole terrible time from her memory and will not speak about it, even to me. I have to say, I cannot blame her. He was a bad man and did not deserve her love.”
“How could she have loved him, if he was so bad?” Juliette cried. “How could she have had an affair with him, become pregnant? I just don’t understand!” She shook her head in disbelief and ran a hand through her mop of curls. Gabriel could see the hurt and confusion in her pretty blue eyes.
“My poor little one, I am so sorry. I will tell you what I know, but I’m afraid it isn’t much.” He inhaled once more and then stubbed out the cigarette. He reached for her hand. “As you know, Maman and I met whilst we were at university. We were both eighteen, young and in love. Your mother had to return to England where she’d been awarded a place at Oxford - she was only in Toulouse for a year to improve her French. We lost touch… for a number of reasons.” Juliette nodded her head vigorously, willing him to go on. “Well, a year before I found her again, some seventeen years later, she met a man called Frédéric Goldberg in Toulouse.”
“Is he French, then? What was she doing in Toulouse? I thought she lived in London when she was a young woman?”
“Yes, she did live in London and no, he wasn’t French. Your mother has always been a travel writer; in those days she was working for an English newspaper, The Times, and she was writing a piece about Toulouse, I believe. Frédéric, or Freddy as he was known, was selling houses in the area. It was a summer job, I think.”
“So he’s an estate agent, is he? Well, that’s not so bad!” Juliette grinned. “And so, what happened next?”
“She fell in love. I only met him once but I imagine he was a good-looking man when he was young.” Juliette saw a flash of anger, or was it pain, in his eyes and he rubbed them briefly, as if trying to erase a sudden memory. “You have inherited his colouring: blue eyes, blond hair…”
Juliette grimaced. “I hate my hair, hate my colouring!” Gabriel chuckled and squeezed her hand.
“You are very beautiful, as beautiful as your mother, but in a different way. Oh, Jus, how I love her! She is everything to me…”
“Yes, yes, Papa” Juliette interrupted. “I know you do, but please, get on with the story! What happened next?”
“He sold her this house, that I do know.” Gabriel waved a hand vaguely towards the old millhouse. “Probably the only good thing he ever did. They had a short affair, less than a year, but during that time she lived with him in London. He cheated on her with other women, he was a gambler and an alcoholic. He stole her money - lots of it!”
“But how did that happen? Why could he steal from her?”
“I don’t know the full story, but I understand that he persuaded her to sell her flat that had belonged to her grandmother. It was worth a lot of money. She bought La Minoterie - property here in France was very cheap then - and on her behalf, he invested the rest in a new London property that was still being built. When they split up, she found he had gambled away half her investment - about half a million pounds, which was a lot of money in those days.”
“It still is! But why did they split up? Surely if Maman knew she was pregnant, she wouldn’t have wanted to leave him?”
“That was when he hit her, when she told him that she was having a baby. He had hit her a few times before, especially when he was drunk, but this time it was bad. He also told her he didn’t want a child. She did the right thing to leave him. He did not deserve to be a father!” Gabriel clenched his fists and Juliette could see the anger etched on his face.
The image of Goldberg sprawled across the drive in front of the house, his nose bloodied, flashed across Gabriel’s mind. He was not a violent man and was not proud of what he had done. But he still meant what he had said at the time: ‘If you ever touch her again I’ll kill you’.
Juliette was quiet for a while, digesting what he had said. “So how did you and Maman get together again?” she murmured eventually. “Had she already had the ba… was I already born?”
Suddenly his face softened and he turned to her. There were tears in his eyes.
“I found her. Her cleaner’s son worked on my farm and by chance, he told me about this English lady, Patricia Montagu, who was living alone in Montauban. I couldn’t believe my luck! I came here and found her!” He smiled at the memory and then went on: “No, she hadn’t had the baby yet. She was pregnant - and went into labour whilst I was there! I drove her into Montauban and you were born that night. I was with her throughout the night. It was as though I was meant to be your father…” He reached for her and held her close. “I am your father, Jus, your Papa. And I love you very much.” Juliette allowed him to hold her for a while but she was still impatient for information. She pulled gently away and urged him to tell her more.
“But where is he now? Does he know about me? Has he ever tried to contact me?”
Gabriel thought about Goldberg’s visit to La Minoterie just a year after Juliette had been born: the bastard wasn’t interested in his daughter; all he wanted was Patricia! “No, he has never tried to contact you. He came back to France once, when you were still a baby. He tried to… eh, molest your mother… but I sent him packing. He had no interest in you, especially when he saw that you were a girl.
“We don’t know where he went after that and we have never heard from him again. In fact, we don’t even know if he is still alive. He was a heavy drinker, so perhaps he drank himself to death?
“After we were married, I asked your mother if I could adopt you. She wanted that very much and so when you were about two, I went to London to see if I could find him. We knew where he’d worked but when I went to his office, they told us he’d left the company. And then I spoke with one of the secretaries, Suzie, I think she was called, and she told me that he’d been sacked. His flat was repossessed because he was in debt and he kept arriving at work drunk. She didn’t know what happened to him after that.”
Gabriel thought back to conversation with the woman called Suzie. At the time, he’d suspected she was lying, that she knew more about Goldberg than she was prepared to say. But he’d reached a dead end; no-one seemed to know any more about him.
“So what did you do? About adopting me?” Juliette asked.
“We told the officials here that we believed he was dead. We had to do that, you see, so that I could adopt you. And over the years, it is what your mother has come to believe. It brings her peace of mind, and so that is how we have left it.” He turned to face her once again and lifted her chin with a grubby finger. “And that is how you should leave it, Juliette. Forget about it, the man is not worth worrying about. You know I will always be there for you; surely that is enough?”
Juliette leaned forward and kissed her father affectionately, shaking her head slowly. “No, it isn’t enough, Papa. Unless I find my father there will always be a little piece of me missing.”
By Gillie Bowen
From United Kingdom
Facebook URL http://Facebook.com/VilleRoseSeries