The Bordeaux Betrayal
Barnes & Noble
Simon & Schuster
Series: The Wine Country Mysteries #3
Published by: Scribner
Release Date: August 12, 2017
When Valerie Beauvais, author of a book on Thomas Jefferson’s travels through the wine regions of France and Italy, turns up dead near Lucie Montgomery’s Virginia vineyard, Lucie is certain Valerie’s murder has something to do with a 200-year-old bottle of Bordeaux Jefferson may once have purchased for his good friend George Washington. Though Lucie plans to auction off the valuable bottle at a charity auction, others have different plans for what’s becoming a wine to die for. As Lucie and her eccentric winemaker Quinn Santori bring in the last grapes of the season, Quinn’s controversial past becomes intertwined with Valerie’s death and the rare Bordeaux. As Lucie unravels the secrets of a long-forgotten wine scandal involving fraud and betrayal, she discovers a web of deceit affecting not only the international wine world, but her own world as well.
For those interested in the riveting, real-life account of the now-famous “Jefferson bottles” — a cache of wine discovered behind a bricked-up wall in Paris in the 1980s — I recommend The Billionaire's Vinegar: The Mystery of the World’s Most Expensive Bottle of Wine by Benjamin Wallace. The true story behind the priceless, controversial bottles was the basis for The Bordeaux Betrayal and has been reported on in the press for a number of years. Wallace’s meticulously researched book, which pulls the story together, will keep you up reading past your bedtime.
Chosen as a November 2008 Killer Book by the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association
"Crosby has concocted a rare vintage that offers many subtle flavors of romance, scandal, passion, and violence. Add Lucie Montgomery to the growing list of women whose unusual occupations open the doors to murderous adventures."
—Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine
"The third of Crosby's excellent series features a beguiling combination of wine lore, history and mystery."
"Crosby, a journalist who lives in Northern Virginia, infuses this full-bodied novel with the clarity of a reporter, the bite of a good Pinot Grigio and more than a hint of local color. Mystery lovers will enjoy the intelligent plot and well-drawn characters, oenophiles will savor the winemaking angle, and Virginians will revel in Crosby's spot-on descriptions of people and places. Give this one the order of merit."
—The Richmond Times-Dispatch
"If wine be the nectar of the gods, Ellen Crosby’s series of wine-flavored mysteries is a heady quaff for us mere mortals... The Bordeaux Betrayal is a long swallow of pure delight."
—Easton (MD) Star-Democrat
"Red wine and murder pair up nicely."
—Chicago Tribune, Hot Summer Reads
"Completely charming with its luminous descriptions of the Virginia wine country, this third in a series is a complex mystery with very human emotions."
—Romantic Times, Top Pick
Q. How did you come to write The Bordeaux Betrayal?
A. For several years I followed a news story about the questionable provenance of a cache of bottles of Bordeaux with Thomas Jefferson's initials etched in them which were discovered in the 1980s behind a bricked-up wall in Paris. The bottles had originally been vetted by Christie's auction house in London and later sold to wealthy collectors for a significant amount of money. In recent years, however, a man who owned three of the famous bottles began to suspect that he had been duped, so he set out to prove -- sparing no expense -- that the bottles were fakes. The story had always interested me -- but when I learned that after Jefferson returned to America as Ambassador to France, he continued to order his wines from abroad, both for himself and his good friend George Washington, the idea for THE BORDEAUX BETRAYAL came to me. Would a bottle of wine once destined for George Washington that turned up 200 years later -- also of dubious provenance -- be a wine to die for?
Wherefore by their fruits shall ye know them.
Always do sober what you said you’d do drunk. That will teach you to keep your mouth shut.
St. Thomas Aquinas once said sorrow could be alleviated by good sleep, a bath, and a glass of wine. Lucky him, if that’s all it took.
Hector died shortly before Labor Day, the last event in a tumultuous summer weighed down by heat straight out of Hell’s waiting room. He’d been like a father to me, managing the crew at my family’s vineyard in the foothills of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains for the last twenty years. His death came hard on the heels of my latest auto accident, when the front end of my old Volvo collided with the back end of a large buck. And that event had been preceded by Hurricane Iola, whose wicked ways wreaked havoc just as we were about to harvest our white wines. If the month of August had been a fish, I would have thrown it back.
Fortunately autumn arrived in a kinder mood. The withering temperatures receded and the low-slanted sunlight washed everything in softer colors, blurring the sharp edges of the shadows. The air no longer smelled as though it had been boiled and the relentless metallic sound of the cicadas began to wane. Tonight, on an October Indian summer evening, the bullfrogs’ serenade sounded plaintive.
I’d invited Mick Dunne, my neighbor and a man with whom I’d had a white-hot affair last spring, to dinner and a lecture on wine at Mount Vernon. Though we’d only just arrived, he’d glanced at his watch three times in the last fifteen minutes. Each time, I pretended not to notice.
When Joe Dawson, my cousin’s fiancé, had given me the tickets, I figured asking Mick would be a good way to let him know I’d moved on since last spring and that we could still do things together as friends. Besides, he’d just planted thirty acres of vines on land adjacent to mine. We needed to get along.
Right now, though, unless George Washington turned up to offer him a personal tour of the place or told him they could nip down to the whiskey distillery, I already regretted the evening. Though Mick tried to mask his restlessness with well-bred feigned interest as only the British can, I knew he was bored.
We walked along a shady path that bordered an expanse of lawn known as the bowling green. Washington had planted some of the larger trees—tulip poplars, white ash, and elms—himself. I reached for Mick’s arm to keep from stumbling on the uneven terrain. Ever since a car accident three years ago left me with a deformed left foot, I need a cane to keep my balance. Mick glanced down as I slid my arm through his. Another opportunity to peek at his watch.
I gave it one more try. “There’s a fabulous view of the Potomac River from the other side of the mansion. Wait until you see it.”
“Really? How marvelous.” It sounded like I’d just offered him a cigarette before he got the blindfold.
“There’s also a sundial in the middle of the courtyard. Too bad it’s nearly sunset or you could check the time there, too,” I said. “Since you’ve been doing it so often.”
There was a moment of stunned silence before his laugh erupted like champagne fizz. “Sorry, love. I’m distracted tonight.” His arm slid around my waist. “I didn’t mean to be rude.”
Love. Had it slipped out or was it intentional
“Why did you come, if you’re not interested in this lecture?” I said.
His arm tightened. “I am interested. But not in some woman giving a dull talk.”
My face felt warm. “Joe said she’s supposed to be riveting.”
She was also Joe’s friend. I moved out of the circle of Mick’s arm.
“Not many people here,” he said. “She can’t be too riveting.”
“That’s because it’s a select audience. I’m sure she’ll be fascinating.”
He stuck his hands in his pockets and grinned like I’d said something amusing. “Have you read her book?”
“I haven’t even read the newspaper since August we’ve been so busy with harvest.”
“Then let’s have dinner and slope off. Come on, Lucie. Who cares if we stick around?”
“Joe cares. I promised him we’d stay for the whole evening. Anyway, I think her book sounds interesting. She followed Thomas Jefferson’s voyage through the European vineyards when he was ambassador to France.”
I got another gun-to-the-head look from him. “Why isn’t she at Monticello if she wrote about Jefferson? What’s she doing here?”
“Because Jefferson bought a lot of George Washington’s wines for him. And she is going to Monticello. I think Joe said she’s going to wrap up her book tour in Charlottesville. She just finished traveling around California. Now she’s doing the East Coast.”
We had come to the ivy-covered colonnade connecting Washington’s servants’ quarters to the main house. In the distance the river gleamed like dull pewter. I led Mick to the embankment where the ground fell away, leaving a view of the Potomac that stretched to the horizon. In the dusky light, the river—friendlier to pleasure boaters and fishermen as it snaked ribbon-like past Washington—looked vast and depthless here at Mount Vernon.
We stood in silence until finally he said, “You were right. It’s an incredible view.”
I had not expected him to sound wistful. “I thought you’d like it.”
“Those cliffs remind me of Wales.” His voice was soft with nostalgia. “We used to go up from London on summer holiday when I was a boy. My Lord, how I loved it there. On the north coast, the castles are perched on the bluffs just like this, except it’s all rocks to the Irish Sea.”
I believe that it is possible to miss a place you love so much that the ache is physical. I’d read that Washington pined terribly for his home when he was away from it—which was often—fulfilling his duties as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army or in Philadelphia as the first president. Staring at his cherished view, which had changed little since he and Martha looked out on it centuries ago, I knew I, too, would be homesick for this breath-taking place, just as Mick sounded homesick now for the north coast of Wales.
A bell rang behind us and I turned around. The western sky was the color of liquid gold and the mansion appeared to be sitting inside a rim of fire. Silhouetted figures began to converge on the columned piazza.
“The tour must be starting,” I said. “I wonder where Joe is.”
“He’ll turn up.” Mick’s arm slid around my waist again and this time I let it linger. As we reached the house, I saw a man and woman framed like a cameo in one of the colonnaded archways. Lantern-light from the east courtyard illuminated his face as he leaned close to her, placing a hand on her shoulder. The woman tucked a strand of shoulder-length blond hair behind one ear. Then she reached up and pulled his head down for a long, slow kiss. I couldn’t stop watching them. The man was my cousin’s fiancé, Joe Dawson. I did not know the woman, but she sure as hell wasn’t Dominique.
“Come on,” Mick said. “The crowd’s moving. We’ll miss what the guide is saying.”
Either he hadn’t seen what I just witnessed or else he didn’t recognize Joe.
I had taken this tour so often over the years I could practically give it, but Mick, who had moved to Virginia six months ago, had never been to Mount Vernon. We began in the dining room, the largest room in the house, which had been restored to its original colors—two eye-popping shades of Washington’s favorite green. I was glad to see Mick interested in the docent’s talk, but I couldn’t stop thinking about Joe and that blonde.
It didn’t take long before I found out who she was. Someone jostled an elderly woman as the group moved out of the dining room. The book she’d been holding hit the floor and landed at my feet. I picked it up. European Travels with Thomas Jefferson’s Ghost by Valerie Beauvais.
Joe had been making out with the guest of honor.
“Thank you so much, dear.” The woman smiled, pearl-white teeth in a face as wrinkled as old fruit. “So clumsy of me.”
“So clumsy of whoever bumped into you.” I’d picked up the book face down so I was staring at the author photo. No wonder they’d splashed it on the back cover. She had the racy good looks of a fashion model, a slightly lopsided smile, and a sly, almost naughty expression like she’d been talking dirty with the photographer. Stunning but tough-looking. By the time our tour finished winding in and out of the house and up two flights of stairs, I decided I didn’t like Valerie Beauvais.
Turned out I had company. After we’d seen the house, everyone spilled out on to the lawn where buffet tables had now been set up for dinner. I saw Ryan Worth, wine critic for The Washington Tribune, sitting in one of the Windsor chairs lining the piazza. He got up and waved, heading toward Mick and me. On the way he flagged down a waiter holding a tray of champagne flutes. Ryan handed a glass to me, then helped himself to two more for Mick and himself.
“Don’t be a stranger,” he said to the waiter. He clinked his glass against ours. “Tell me why you two have to be here. I came because I’m getting paid to introduce the guest of honor.” He looked like he’d been asked to gargle with Drano.
Ryan wrote “Worthwhile Wines,” a weekly column that was syndicated in more than two hundred newspapers, a statistic he frequently enjoyed quoting. Short, wide, in his late-thirties, with thinning black hair, his Van Dyke mustache and pursed-lip smile made him appear slightly sinister, or else like he knew something I should but didn’t. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of wines and wine history, though sometimes he took himself too seriously, acting as though he were sharing information he’d brought down from the mountain on stone tablets. Still, I respected him. He knew his stuff.
“I’m here because Lucie dragged me,” Mick said.
“Oh, come on,” I said. “We’ve been over this. Dinner and a talk. How bad can it be?”
“Obviously you’ve never heard Valerie.” Ryan covered his mouth and faked a yawn. “She may look like a babe but she can clear a room faster than someone yelling ‘fire.’ As for her book—”
“Talking about me behind my back?” Valerie Beauvais had a husky Bacall-like voice with a hint of a drawl. “Hello, Ryan. I hear you’ve got the pleasure of introducing me tonight.” Her smile seemed to mock him.
Close up her eyes were even more arresting as she took us all in, dismissing me and settling suggestively on Mick, as though there were already some private joke between them. I wondered where Joe was.
“Don’t let it go to your head, Val,” Ryan said. “I’m not doing it for free. Besides, your publicist groveled and I took pity on him.”
For a moment she seemed startled, then her eyes grew hard. “Funny. He said the same thing about you.” She focused a slow-burn smile on Mick, ignoring Ryan. “I don’t think we’ve met. Valerie Beauvais.”
She held out her hand and Mick shook it. “Mick Dunne. And Lucie Montgomery.”
Valerie didn’t shake my hand. “I’ve heard of you,” she said. “You own a vineyard and you’re holding that auction.”
Who had told her that? We’d barely publicized the auction, a fundraiser for a program for homeless and disabled kids in the D.C. metro area. One of my former college roommates, now the program’s executive director, came to me for help after I’d raised a bundle of money for the local free clinic last spring.
“That’s right,” I said to Valerie.
“How’d you manage to get that bottle of Margaux?” she asked. “You must be very persuasive.”
It didn’t sound like a compliment. “You’d be surprised,” I said. “And it’s for charity.”
In 1790 Thomas Jefferson ordered a shipment of wine for himself and his good friend George Washington from four of the greatest French wine estates in Bordeaux – Châteaux Lafite, Margaux, Mouton, and d’Yquem. Apparently some—or perhaps all—of the shipment never made it to either Mount Vernon or Monticello. One bottle, with the initials “G.W.”, the year, and “Margaux” etched in the glass, turned up centuries later in the private collection of Jack Greenfield, owner of Jeroboam’s Fine Wines in Middleburg, Virginia. A week ago Jack called me and offered the wine for our auction. That was the good news. The bad news was that it was in poor condition. More than likely, he’d said, it had turned—now probably a bottle of very old, very expensive red wine vinegar.
Still, it represented liquid history. And it would be the jewel in the crown for our little charity auction. When Ryan heard the news, he’d offered to write about it in “Worthwhile Wines.”
“You’ll get national attention thanks to me,” he said. “Syndicated in—”
“I know. More than two hundred newspapers,” I said. “Thanks. That would be fabulous publicity.”
But his column didn’t run until tomorrow. Someone had already told Valerie about the wine. Her smile was gloating. She knew I had no intention of asking how she’d found out.
Ryan polished off his champagne and grabbed another flute from a passing waiter. “Anyone else? No?” He gulped more champagne and stared hard at Valerie. “God, Val, you’re priceless. Just because you have to sleep around to get what you want doesn’t mean everyone else does. Who told you about the Margaux? I wrote about it in my column, but it isn’t out yet.”
She laughed like he’d just told an off-color joke that she’d enjoyed. “I had lunch with Clay Avery at a place called the Goose Creek Inn. He let me read it,” she said. “You know he wants me to write for the Trib, don’t you? Sorry, but he’s bored rigid with your columns and all that trivial crap you write about. Plus he says you’re a pompous ass.” She winked. “Guess you ought to start calling it ‘Worth-less Wines,’ huh? You might want to dust off your resume. Don’t tell Clay I told you.”
Clayton Avery owned the Washington Tribune, but he’d retired from actively managing it. He still had an eye for the ladies—the younger, the better—so I could easily imagine him taking Valerie out to lunch and letting her flirt with him. What I couldn’t imagine was Clay, a true Southern gentleman, telling Valerie what he thought of his wine critic in such crass terms.
Ryan’s face turned a mottled shade of red. “Maybe Clay had a little too much to drink at lunch, but I doubt he’d hire you,” he said. “If an original thought ever ran through your head, Valerie, it would be lonely. And that includes your Jefferson book. Has your editor discussed the plagiarism with you yet?”
For a second I thought she might throw her champagne on him, but then she must have remembered that he was introducing her after dinner.
“You’ll pay for that.” Her lips barely moved. “You don’t know what you’re talking about. Excuse me. I’m at the head table. Don’t screw up my introduction, Ryan. Try to stay sober. I’ve heard stories about you, too.”
Ryan stared at his nearly empty glass after she left, waggling it back and forth. “’Scuse me, folks. I need a moment. Save me a place at your table, will you?”
“Sure,” I said.
“Let’s make sure we don’t sit too near the head table in case they start throwing the cutlery at each other,” Mick said after Ryan left.
“I think they already both drew blood. Wonder how much they’re paying him to introduce her,” I said.
“No idea, but he must be desperate for the money. God, he hates her.”
As we walked over to the buffet table I saw Joe Dawson holding Valerie’s chair for her. She sat, flashing her lopsided grin as he took the seat next to her. They kissed briefly and she stroked his cheek. This time Mick noticed.
“Is that Joe with Valerie?” he asked.
“Anything wrong between him and Dominique?”
“There might be, after tonight,” I said. “Joe said he knew Valerie when they were doctoral students at UVA. He never mentioned they were such good friends.”
“They’re more than good friends,” Mick said. “They’ve slept with each other.”
I didn’t need to ask how he knew. An electrical charge ran through me from the barely-below-the-surface voltage lines we’d laid down on the nights he and I slept together.
“Dominique was still living in France when Joe started working on his Ph.D,” I said. “It must have happened before they met.”
Mick stared at me in the restless, hungry way that both scared and aroused me. He picked up my hand and kissed my fingers. I shivered. “They’re still lovers,” he said. Ryan finally joined us, holding a plate heaped with food and another full glass of champagne.
“You all right?” I asked.
“Have a seat,” Mick said.
“Thanks. I’m fine. Sorry about that scene earlier.”
“Forget it,” Mick said.
“She’s a fraud,” Ryan said. “And she knows how to goad me. I shouldn’t have let her get to me.”
“You accused her of plagiarism,” I said. “Are you sure about that?”
He blew out a breath that sounded like air leaving a tire. “Hell, yeah, I’m sure. You think she wrote that book herself? Or her other one, on the first harvest at Jamestown?”
“If she didn’t, who did?”
“The Jamestown book.” He ticked items off on his fingers. “One, she was sleeping with one of the archeologists when they discovered that James Fort wasn’t washed into the river like everybody thought it was for the past two hundred years. Two, the glass they found, the artifacts dating from the first harvest in America in 1609—she got lucky because he was the one who unearthed them. Three, her boyfriend spoon-fed her everything. It doesn’t get much easier than that.”
“What about the Jefferson book?” Mick asked.
Ryan looked pained. “That book was my idea. I planned that tour of the vineyards Jefferson visited. When I went down to the UVA library and Monticello for some preliminary research, I ran into her and stupidly told her about it over a drink. Next thing I know, she pitched it to her publisher and they bought it. I was dead in the water when I finally got around to putting my proposal together.”
“So who wrote the Jefferson book?” I said.
He was incredulous. “Have you read it?”
I said, “No,” and Mick shook his head.
“A kid in grade school could have done a better job. She plagiarized the good parts. What she wrote is pathetic. The reason she’s traveling all over the country on a book tour is because her publisher is trying to recoup the whopping advance she got based on the Jamestown book.” He sat back in his chair and downed more champagne. His goatee quivered and the pursed lip smile looked pinched.
Someone came over and tapped Ryan on the shoulder. “You’re on,” he said. “Time to introduce her.”
I wondered if he was the groveler from Valerie’s publisher.
Ryan stood up and put a hand on the table to steady himself. “Sometimes I hate myself for being such a whore,” he said. “I wish I hadn’t said yes to this.”
Despite his acrimonious feelings, he gave a perfectly correct, if unenthusiastic, introduction to Valerie and her book. He also apparently decided to cut his losses since Valerie knew about the Margaux, and brought up the wine, its connection to George Washington, and our auction. He ended by plugging his column. Valerie glared at him as she got up to take her place at the podium but he walked past her and kept on walking. He never did return to our table.
Her talk was a sleeper, literally. Mick leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes. A moment later, I heard his breathing, regular as clockwork. Even Joe’s head bobbed once or twice like he might be nodding off. We’d clearly been invited to pad the attendance numbers. When Valerie finished, I nudged Mick.
“It’s over,” I said. “Safe to wake up now.”
“Jefferson made it back to Paris at the end of his trip.”
“I like happy endings. Guess I don’t need to read the book.”
“Me, neither. Let’s go. I’d like to avoid both Valerie and Joe.”
Mick took my hand and we started to walk across the lawn towards the colonnade. Someone touched my arm.
“I want to talk to you,” Valerie said. “I don’t have much time.”
“About what?” But I knew about what. The Washington wine.
“I’ll meet you out front in the courtyard,” Mick said, “after you’re done here.”
I nodded, wishing he’d stayed.
“I’m giving a talk to some kids at Middleburg Academy tomorrow,” Valerie said. “I thought I’d drop by your vineyard on my way and see the wines you’ve got for your auction. Check them out for myself. Let’s say nine o’clock. That will give me time to get to the Academy by ten.”
Middleburg Academy was the private girls’ high school where Joe Dawson taught history. So he and Valerie were seeing each other tomorrow, too.
I hate being bullied or told what I will or won’t do. “The public will get a chance two days before the event to preview all the wines we’ll be auctioning. You’re more than welcome to have a look then.”
Her eyes widened and she drew her head back. She looked like a snake about to strike. “Honey, you haven’t got a clue what you’ve got sitting in your wine cellar. If you’re smart you’ll let me come by tomorrow.”
I leaned on my cane and moved my face close to hers. “I’m plenty smart and I know the Margaux isn’t in the best condition. Don’t worry. We’ll be up front about it.”
“The Margaux.” She gave me an imperious look. “I knew you didn’t know what you had. I’m talking about provenance.”
“Valerie!” Her publicist showed up at her elbow. “Where the hell have you been? People are leaving. You’ve got to get over to the signing table now. Come on.”
She said over her shoulder as he hustled her back to the piazza, “I’ll see you tomorrow, Lucie. Nine o’clock.”
I told Mick about the conversation on the way back to the gravel parking lot just outside the mansion grounds.
“Do you think she knows what she’s talking about?” I asked.
“There’s one way to find out, isn’t there?” We’d reached his car, a black Mercedes. He opened the door for me. “Let her look at the wine and hear her out.”
“I don’t like the way she tried to push me around.”
“So don’t let her look at it.”
“This affects you, too, you know. You agreed to have the auction at your home.”
“I’m missing some connection in your logic.”
“You don’t seem that bothered by what she said.”
“I’m not.” He glanced over at me. “Darling, stop it, will you? Make a decision and forget it.” His words were clipped.
I stared out the window as the D.C. skyline came into view across the Potomac. The Capitol and the Washington Monument stood out like cardboard pop-ups on the otherwise flat landscape before disappearing as we turned west for the forty-five mile drive home to Atoka. Mick found a jazz station on his satellite radio and we listened in silence to wailing saxes, piano riffs, and smoky voices for the rest of the trip.
“Are you all right?” he asked. We had stopped at the lone traffic light in Middleburg. The next town was Atoka. “You’ve gone awfully quiet.”
We didn’t speak again until he turned off Atoka Road onto Sycamore Lane, the private road that led to the vineyard and Highland House, my home.
“If you don’t let her come by tomorrow you’re not going to be able to get it off your mind. So do it and that’ll be the end of it,” he said.
I smiled in the darkness, wondering how he knew what I was thinking. “All right, although I think she just wants to stir up trouble. What would she know about that bottle that Jack Greenfield wouldn’t know? Ryan said she’s dumb as a post.”
“You know the difference between men and women? Women make up their minds more than once. You agonize over every detail. Blokes just decide and we’re done with it.”
“Is that a criticism?”
He pulled into the circular drive in front of my house and stopped the car. “Take it any way you like.”
I knew what was coming next. After four months of abstinence his kiss was like drinking from a well after a journey through the Sahara. I’d forgotten how much I missed him, or maybe I hadn’t let myself think about it. His breathing was hard and shallow as he lay me back against the seat. I wondered why he wanted to make love here first when we could just go inside and do it in my bed. I felt dizzy as his hands moved to unzip my dress. I arched my back to make it easier for him.
“Bloody hell!” He sat up suddenly. “I knocked my knee on the gearshift.”
I started to laugh and pull him down on top of me, but it was over for him as quickly as it started. He untangled himself from my arms and sat back up. “Maybe we shouldn’t. Not tonight. Sorry, love.”
My face was flushed and my clothes were disordered. He’d unhooked my bra and I was having trouble re-hooking it. I tried to dress without looking at him.
“You all right?” he said. “Sorry. I just—”
“Please don’t apologize. We haven’t come to that, have we?”
“No, of course not. Look, Lucie—”
“It’s okay. Goodnight. Thanks for coming with me and being a good sport about this evening.”
I escaped from his car before he could say anything else. I’d taken two steps when I realized I’d left my cane in the Mercedes. My face burned as he handed it to me.
“Let me know how it goes with Valerie,” he said.
I kept my voice deadpan. “Sure.”
As soon as I got inside I undressed and went straight to bed. All night long he’d been sending an unmistakable message that he wanted to rekindle our relationship, hadn’t he? So what just happened? Did he want to jerk my chain to see if I’d still respond?
He found out, all right, but I had no intention of letting it happen again.
At least I hoped not.
Valerie never showed the next day. Nine came and went and so did ten. I went to my office to finish the monthly tax return we needed to file with the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. It was overdue but harvest had been a bear and we’d worked almost around the clock. I punched figures into a calculator and wondered why the government couldn’t find someone to draw up these forms who spoke the same English I did.
The phone rang and “Middleburg Academy” showed up on the display. After last night I didn’t feel like talking to Joe. I let the call go to the answering machine.
He sounded agitated. “Sorry to bother you, but I was wondering if Valerie Beauvais was still there. I’ve got a second period American History class in the middle of meltdown. She promised to come by and talk to them this morning and she hasn’t shown. Could you call me when you get—”
I picked up the phone. “Hey, Joe. You’re looking for Valerie? She never came by here, either.”
“You serious? I just called her cell and got her voice mail,” he said. “The Academy put her up at The Fox and Hound last night. She hasn’t checked out but she doesn’t answer the phone in her cottage. The staff swears she’s not on the property and says her car’s gone. I can’t figure out where she went.”
“Sorry I can’t help.” I didn’t like sounding brusque but Valerie could take care of herself and if she was lost then she wanted to get lost.
“I hate to impose but do you think you could possibly—”
The Fox and Hound was just up the road from the vineyard. He wanted me to check on his girlfriend. I cut him off. “I’m pretty tied up here.”
“I’d go myself but I can’t leave the kids and I’m worried about her. Please, Lucie? If you could just swing by and see what’s up, I’ll owe you. It’ll take you less than fifteen minutes.”
I propped my bad leg up on the credenza and stared at the photos lined up on it. Framed pictures of my parents, my brother Eli with his wife and daughter, my sister Mia, Hector and his family, and photos taken with Quinn, our current winemaker, and Jacques, our former winemaker, with our crews at harvest. I picked up a silver-framed photo of Dominique and Joe at the Goose Creek Inn’s fortieth anniversary party when she officially took over as owner. Both of them laughing and clowning as they fed each other cake. Except for the clothes they were wearing it could have been their wedding day.
He had been trying to get her to set a date for the past few years but my workaholic cousin always found a reason to postpone. Joe was a patient man, a good man—like an older brother to me.
“All right,” I said. “How do I get in touch with you after I check the Fox and Hound?”
I heard his sigh of relief. “Call the school and they’ll put you through to the phone in my classroom. And thank you.”
“Don’t mention it,” I said.
I’d left my new car, a red Mini Cooper convertible with white racing stripes, in the winery parking lot. I put the top down and grabbed a baseball cap from the back seat to keep my hair from blowing in my eyes.
Many of the roads around Atoka and Middleburg were ancient Indian trails now lined by Civil War-era stacked stone walls. Some were paved but many were still dirt or gravel because this was also horse-and-hunt country and it was better for the horses. Almost all of these pretty country lanes were hilly, filled with twists and turns that followed the contours of the land or Goose Creek as it meandered its way to the Potomac River just past Leesburg. I could drive them with my eyes closed because I knew them so well, but the corners were treacherous for anyone new to the area or not paying attention.
The bright yellow SUV lay on its roof in Goose Creek at a sharp elbow bend in Atoka Road. The moment I saw it I knew it was Valerie’s. I pulled off the road and reached for my phone, murmuring a prayer. As near as I could tell she had made no effort to get out of the SUV.
The woman who answered my 911 asked calm, quiet questions. I gave her what little information I could. She promised help was on the way and I hung up.
I waded into the chilly water. Valerie hung suspended upside down, trapped by her seat belt. Her face was bloody and she wasn’t moving.
I wondered if I was too late and she was already dead.
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