Sweeter Than Wine

Bordeaux, France, Early June

Chapter 1

Nicole

The bus pulls away, leaving me in the middle of Bordeaux wine country. Vines border the road to right and left, stretching into the distance as far as I can see. The fresh air, laden with unfamiliar scents, is intoxicating.

I stare up at the house. It’s built on the only ridge for kilometres around. Château Ravel. I know not all Bordeaux winegrowers live in palaces and I wasn’t expecting a real castle. But I wasn’t expecting this either. My heart gives a nervous flutter. Chance will be a fine thing, I think. What would I give to live in a place like this!

The house is huge, a long-fronted modern building of brick and decorative stone, two floors, with a landscaped garden. The whole property is surrounded by a metre-and-a-half-high wall topped with a metal railing. It’s fronted by an ornate metal gate, which lies open giving me a perfect view. It isn’t a typical French house but reminds me of something you would find in the middle of the English countryside. Two cars are parked on the drive, a silver Mercedes saloon near the front door and a small red hatchback half way along.

Everything shrieks of luxury: the neat stone paving, the picture windows keeping watch over the greenery of the Gironde countryside; the perfect symmetry of the shrubs and flower beds. The front door, of solid wood carved with a grape motif, is protected by a stone portico supported on pillars. I wonder whether I’m going to be glad or sorry I answered that ad. Live-in housekeeper and companion wanted, it read, and I thought why not? I need a full-time job, away from the flat, from Maman, Jean and their talk of marriage.

My adventure nearly ends before it has begun. I’m about a third of the way along the drive when a youth on a bicycle swings round a corner from the side of the house and almost knocks me off my feet into the shrubbery. I feel the draught of air as he passes. His muttered Pardon is almost lost in the breeze of his going as, head down and pedalling hard, he sweeps out of the gate and onto the road.

I’m recovering my balance when the front door opens and a young woman of around thirty comes out. Looking as if she’s swallowed something with a nasty taste, she stomps down the drive. I smooth down my skirt, straighten my glasses on my nose and resume my walk in the opposite direction.

‘Good luck with that,’ the woman sniffs as our paths cross midway between house and gate. She gets into the hatchback and reverses along the drive. A disgruntled applicant, I guess. In half-an-hour’s time, maybe I’ll feel the same way.

I catch my first glimpse of my prospective employer. She doesn’t look intimidating. She offers her hand and then stands aside to usher me indoors. ‘You must be Nicole,’ she says.

***