Read on for an exclusive extract from ‘One Summer in Monte Carlo’ by Jennifer Bohnet.
ONE SUMMER IN MONTE CARLO
‘Nanette, this has been the perfect day. I’m so glad you agreed to be our wedding planner. You’ve done an amazing job. As for this place,’ Vanessa gestured around, ‘it doesn’t get any more romantic than this. Ralph and I can’t thank you enough for finding it,’ and Vanessa hugged her friend tightly.
The two of them were standing in the grand entrance hall of Dymond Park Hotel, the eighteenth-century manor house that a far-seeing local hotelier had bought and turned into the most aspirational wedding venue in South Devon. Once the home of a local aristocrat, the house stood at the end of a drive lined with tall silver birch trees, today though, their branches were bare of the silvery leaves which rustled in summer like tinkling water. The private chapel, set in the middle of a snowdrop-covered field, with views tumbling down the Devonshire countryside towards the distant River Dart sparkling in the late-afternoon winter sunshine, had proved to be an ideal venue for Vanessa and Ralph’s winter wedding.
Nanette smiled at her friend and employer. ‘I must admit to being worried about organising your big day. It’s been such a long time since I’ve done anything like it.’ She paused. ‘I did wonder whether I was still up to it.’
‘You did a great job. No question about it,’ Vanessa said.
‘You were a beautiful bride,’ Nanette answered.
‘Right, enough of this mutual admiration society. I need to talk to you urgently.’
Nanette looked at her anxiously. ’Can’t it wait until you return? You are only away for the weekend. Incidentally, you have to leave in about ten minutes,’ Nanette said, glancing at her watch. ‘Surely Ralph must be wondering where his new wife is?’
‘He knows I’m with you. It’s important for me to talk to you before we leave. I have to ask you something.’ Vanessa glanced at Nanette. ‘You know that Ralph has got this big filming project lined up in the Amazon?’
‘He was telling me it’s his biggest project yet,’ Nanette said, remembering how enthusiastic Ralph had been earlier. ‘He’s really passionate about this film, isn’t he?’
‘He wants me to go with him. We’d have a week’s belated honeymoon in Brazil and then I’d become part of his team filming the documentary in the rainforest.’
‘For the whole of the five months?’ Nanette looked at her friend wide-eyed. Personally, she couldn’t get her head around the prospect of spending such a long time in a rain forest away from civilisation.
‘How do you feel about being away for so long? What about the twins and your business – Oh,’ this, as realisation dawned. ‘You want me to step into your shoes while you’re away?’ Nanette took a deep breath. ‘Looking after the twins, fine, I’m used to that, but running the business? I don’t think I could do that.’ Nanette shook her head. ‘Organising today with the help of your office, is one thing, running your business in your absence, would be totally different.’ Vanessa ran a highly successful PR business with clients ranging between official government bodies, small businesses and the media. Nanette looked at Vanessa anxiously. ‘You know I haven’t done any office work since…’ She shrugged and didn’t finish the sentence. ‘I did think after organising today, I’d ask you if I could come in and do a regular stint in the office to help get me back into the swing of things, but being in charge—’
‘No, no, I don’t want you to run the business,’ Vanessa interrupted. ‘Caroline is more than happy to look after that side of things for me – she’s been taking on more responsibility recently anyway. But I do want you to carry on looking after Pierre and Olivia for me.’
Nanette gave her a relieved smile. ‘Of course, I’ll look after the twins while you’re away, no problem. But five months is a long time. What happens if there’s an emergency? Do I have full responsibility? What about Mathieu?’ Nanette couldn’t help but think about Mathieu, the twins’ father. Surely, he should be the one taking care of the nine year old twins while their mother was away?
There was a pause as Vanessa fiddled with the sprays of freesias pinned to her wedding dress, before she sighed and looked directly at Nanette.
‘I know it’s a huge ask, but I need you to look after the twins in Monaco.’ Vanessa held her hands up in a conciliatory gesture as Nanette looked at her aghast. ‘I know, I know. You vowed never to go back and I promised you wouldn’t have to.’ She hesitated before continuing. ‘Mathieu has agreed to have the twins live with him for six months provided you go too and look after them like you do here for me. He says he’s too busy to become a school-gate dad.’
Nanette turned away and watched silently as an all-enveloping mist began to rise from the river and drift up towards the chapel and the hotel. The afternoon was turning cold as the last rays of sunlight vanished. Damp air began to swirl around them as the reassuring presence of the old chapel became an eerie outline as the mist swallowed it up. Nanette tried unsuccessfully to suppress a shivery shudder of apprehension at the very thought of returning to Monaco. Painful memories of the place she’d pushed into the darkest recess of her mind began to swirl into her consciousness.
‘Can’t Mathieu come over here?’ she said, turning back to face Vanessa. ‘I’ll willingly look after the twins here.’
Vanessa shook her head. ‘Apparently not. He says it’s impossible for him to leave the country for so long right now. He’s got some sort of business deal going through and needs to be there.’ Vanessa placed an arm around Nanette’s shoulders. ‘I realise I am asking a lot. I know how difficult it will be for you to even think about returning and if you can’t face it, I will understand. So will Ralph,’ Vanessa said. ‘But please, will you consider the idea while Ralph and I are away this weekend?’
Nanette sighed. ‘Okay, I promise I’ll think about it. I’ll even run the idea past Patsy and see what her reaction is, but I’m ninety-nine per cent certain it will be the same as mine. A big fat, no way.’
* * *
After the happy couple left for their weekend on Burgh Island, staying at the iconic art deco hotel situated there, Nanette scooped the twins into a waiting taxi and headed off to the station to catch the train to Totnes, where the three of them were spending the weekend with Patsy, her older sister. With only ten months between them, and both inheriting their mother’s dark auburn hair and brown eyes, they were invariably taken to be twins themselves. Sibling rivalry was something that simply didn’t exist in their world and they’d been inseparable growing up. Later, separated by their choice of degree courses – Art History for Patsy and Business Administration for Nanette – they’d still talked daily via Skype and quickly signed up to WhatsApp. Patsy had used her degree to obtain a job with the National Trust and had worked as a curator for them in several of their properties. Nanette, who loved to travel, had soon found herself working in the high-octane world of Formula 1 motor racing – to the delight of her father, who’d loved the sport.
When their parents died in a boating accident seven years ago, Patsy and Nanette had consoled each other and become even closer, if that were possible. After Patsy met and married Bryan, a Devonshire farmer, and settled into her role of farmer’s wife like a born countrywoman, she’d insisted that Nanette regarded Blackberry Farm as their family home. ‘Until you get married, of course, and have your own home.’ But that had never happened.
As the train sped through the Devonshire countryside, with the twins both playing games on their iPads, Nanette gazed unseeingly out of the window, deep in thought. One question and one question only kept running through her mind. Dare she return to a place that still haunted her dreams? Going back to Monaco would open up old wounds, remind her of what she had lost. Vanessa would surely understand if she told her there was no way she could return.
They’d met on the very first day of the Business Administration course they had both signed up for and struck up an instant and lasting friendship. They’d been through a lot since they’d known each other: job hunting, Vanessa’s marriage, the birth of the twins, the divorce from Mathieu and now her wedding to Ralph. Not to mention Nanette’s own major life trauma that Vanessa had helped her survive. Patsy was Nanette’s sister and best friend, but Vanessa had become more than a close second.
Nanette was happy with her life the way it was these days, although if she was honest with herself, she was living an easy life, a half-life in truth. She was safe and secure doing a job with people she loved but with little excitement. So different to the one she’d worked hard for when she was younger, before it had been cruelly snatched away from her three years ago.
Pierre and Olivia were nine now and soon wouldn’t need her constant presence in their lives, but mentally she’d consigned her need to decide about her future until they were older. Vanessa’s request today though had set her mind racing and her thoughts spinning out of control. Nanette sighed. She’d talk to Patsy about it. See if she thought going back was a possibility – or even a good idea.
Patsy was standing waiting for them on the platform as Nanette shepherded Pierre and Olivia off the train.
‘Hi. Everything go according to plan? Good. You look like a princess in that frock, Olivia. Did you enjoy being your mum’s bridesmaid? Of course, you did, silly question. And you, Pierre, how are you doing? You look very smart in that posh jacket. The car’s parked right outside. We should be home in fifteen minutes. I expect you’re looking forward to your supper – or did you fill up on wedding goodies?’
Simply listening to her, Nanette felt breathless. She was always amazed at the speed at which Patsy spoke and sometimes found it difficult to get a word in, let alone answer any questions.
‘It was a lovely wedding. Such a shame you couldn’t be there. Vanessa sends her love. How are you? Any news? I think you’ve put on weight since I last saw you,’ Nanette said quickly, when Patsy finally took a breath.
‘I’m fine. My news can wait until later. Talking of weight – you could do with putting on some, you’re scrawnier than ever,’ Patsy said, with sisterly bluntness. ‘I hope you are eating properly – or has organising the wedding stressed you out?’
Briefly, Nanette wondered what Patsy’s news was likely to be as she answered her sister. ‘I’m fine.’ She glanced across at her sister as the twins ran ahead to the car. ‘I need to run something past you later. Need your advice.’
Patsy gave her a quick concerned look. As they reached the car and she unlocked it, the twins clambered in and did up their seatbelts. ‘Okay.’
She was really looking forward to this weekend break. She probably was stressed, she realised. Life recently had been busier than she’d become accustomed to for the past three years and she was tired after all the excitement of planning and organising the wedding. The twins always enjoyed themselves on the occasions she looked after them on the weekends Vanessa had to travel for business and she brought them down here. They would disappear for hours at a time, exploring the woods and surrounding fields and helping Bryan around the farm, while she and Patsy did sisterly things. Fifteen minutes later, Nanette sighed happily as they turned on to the farm lane.
‘How’s Bryan’s mum? Enjoying her new home?’ Nanette asked, as they passed a pristine bungalow at the top of the farm track.
‘Think so, but you know Helen. Drove Bryan mad for the first week or two, wanting shelves put up and cupboards moved, but she’s finally got it as she wants, although the kitchen will never be right – it’s far too small! And, of course, she’ll never like living there as much as she enjoyed the farmhouse, even though she moaned for years it was too big and draughty. She’ll be joining us for lunch on Sunday as usual, so you are sure to hear all about the drawbacks of having to live in a modern bungalow.’ Patsy smiled at her sister.
Once the twins had been fed and settled in their rooms, and Bryan was in the study working on the farm accounts, together Nanette and Patsy went into the sitting room to make themselves comfortable for a sisterly chat.
‘Glass of wine to toast the happy couple?’ Nanette asked, holding out the bottle of champagne Vanessa had insisted she take.
‘A small glass,’ Patsy said. ‘I shouldn’t really, but I don’t suppose a sip will hurt junior, Aunty.’ She grinned mischievously at Nanette.
‘Oh, congratulations,’ Nanette said, jumping up to hug her sister. ‘That’s your news? I’m going to be an aunty. You and Bryan must be so thrilled. I know you both longed for a family. When’s it due?’ She quickly pushed away the tiny shaft of jealousy that pierced her heart. Her time would come, wouldn’t it?
‘Late July, early August. No definite date yet, but knowing my luck it will be right in the middle of haymaking. Can you be here? I really, really want you around. Helen is already threatening to move back to help out. Promise me you’ll tell Vanessa you need to be here. You can bring the twins.’ Patsy looked anxiously at Nanette.
‘I’ll be here,’ Nanette promised. ‘Even if Vanessa is still paddling her canoe up the Amazon.’
‘Vanessa’s going up the Amazon?’ For once, Patsy seemed speechless.
‘Yep,’ and Nanette told her sister about Ralph’s wish to make his new wife part of his film team. Patsy took it for granted that Nanette would be looking after the twins whilst Vanessa was away.
‘The three of you will all be able to come down regularly. Oh, I’m really beginning to look forward to the next few months.’
Nanette shook her head. Perfect time to tell Patsy about Vanessa’s request. ‘Afraid not, Patsy. Mathieu has agreed to have the twins to live with him in Monaco while Vanessa’s away.’ She took a sip of champagne before adding quietly, ‘The only condition is that I have to go with them.’
Patsy’s eyes widened in incredulity. ‘You’re not serious? I know it’s nearly three years ago and you’ve supposedly recovered from all the trauma, but are you sure you are strong enough mentally to face things out there? You’re bound to meet up with certain people; certain situations are going to bring back painful memories.’
Nanette nodded. She also knew how village-like the Principality was, with its own drumbeat of gossip sweeping down the well-heeled streets. ’I know. My first reaction when Vanessa mentioned it this afternoon was no, no, no.’ Nanette swirled the wine in her glass thoughtfully. ‘Vanessa’s been so good to me – I owe her so much. I’d feel as though I’d let her down if I don’t agree. I know she desperately wants to go with Ralph.’
‘I’m sure she’ll understand if you say you can’t do it though,’ Patsy said. ‘Surely Mathieu could find someone local to help look after the twins for a few hours each day after school. Doesn’t his father, what’s his name, Jean-Claude, live nearby? I’m sure he’d be delighted to have some bonding time with his grandchildren. Personally, I don’t think you need to go at all.’
Nanette was silent for some seconds before looking at her sister. ‘I was thinking, coming here on the train, that maybe I do need to go – return to the scene of the crime, as it were. Being airlifted out so quickly left a lot of questions that in my mind have never been answered. There were also a lot of people I didn’t get to say goodbye to.’
‘Not many of them have been in touch with you since though, have they?’ Patsy demanded. ‘Not even he, whose name shall not be mentioned unless I’m blaspheming, despite insisting he was acting in your best interests at the time.’
Nanette flinched. ‘Perhaps by going I can finally close that particular chapter of my life and begin to look to my future. I can’t be Vanessa’s housekeeper-cum-childminder forever, the twins are growing up,’ she said quietly.
Patsy shook her head. ‘Oh, Nanette. If you feel like that, I don’t know what to say or suggest. I just don’t want you being hurt again. I’m afraid you’ll find going back a lot harder than you expect. Could you cope with any recriminations that might occur? If you do go and things get too difficult, promise me you’ll come straight back here, with the twins if necessary.’
‘Where else would I go?’ Nanette said quietly. ‘The thing is, what do I do if I don’t agree to take the twins to Monaco? I was so shocked I didn’t think to ask Vanessa what would happen if I said no. What if I refuse and the twins go to Monaco anyway, where does that leave me? My job and my home will have disappeared. I’ll have to find somewhere else.’
‘Oh, come on, Nanette. Vanessa has always treated you as part of her family. That’s not likely to change,’ Patsy said. ‘She’ll probably offer to find you a job in the office. She’s certainly not going to throw you out on the street.’
‘I guess you’re right.’ Nanette sighed, looking at her sister. ‘Are you all right? You look a bit pale,’ she asked, concerned.
Patsy put down her virtually untouched glass of champagne. ‘Excuse me – don’t know why it’s called morning sickness, mine comes morning, noon and night,’ and she disappeared in the direction of the bathroom. ‘Back in a mo.’ An ashen Patsy reappeared a few minutes later. ‘If you don’t mind, I’m going to go to bed. We’ll talk more tomorrow.’
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