But Jacqui, in her briefing on our drive in from the airport, had assured me Claudine always dressed smartly for dinner. Not a custom that I’d ever understood, and since the food would taste the same no matter what I wore while eating it, I’d never seen the point.
I did, however, see the point of trying to convince my hostess I could do the job that I’d been sent to do. And that meant blending in. I knew the trick of that.
Deliberately I turned my back on what the mirror showed me, found my suitcase, and began to change.
* * *
Claudine Pelletier was studying my skirt.
It was one of my favorites, a rich voided velvet on silk chiffon, cut on the bias and wonderfully weighted to swirl round my ankles whenever I walked. I was sitting just now, facing Jacqui and Claudine across the round tea table in the salon on the ground floor—an elegant room lit by sconces and table lamps, with a piano between two tall French windows that faced out towards the front terrace and drive.
My cousin, as ever, was flawlessly dressed with each hair in its place, but it heartened me to see that Claudine appeared to have hair that, like mine, had a mind of its own. Hers was graying attractively, silver strands glittering under the lamplight amid the black, looking like nothing so much as the tinsel that sparkled on the little Christmas tree out in the entry hall.
I could see that tree from where I sat—the twin set of doors to the entry hall had been propped open—and if I turned and looked past Claudine’s shoulder I had a straight view through an open arch into the dining room, clear to the back of the house where another door set at an angle led into the kitchen. Denise had been back and forth twice through that door, setting out our aperitifs: sherry and slices of thin bread spread with pink pâté.
Claudine told me now, “It’s a very unusual color.”
It took me a moment to realize she meant my skirt, not the pâté.
She asked, “Is it violet or blue?”
I glanced down at the fabric. “It’s indigo. Blue.” I could name nearly all shades of blue. It was my favorite color; the color that made me feel centered and calm.
“Yes, I see.” Claudine nodded. “It’s lovely.” Her English was polished, and she used contractions and idioms with so much ease that I wondered if she’d lived or studied in England, but I didn’t ask her. I tried not to ask people too many questions, in case I asked ones they considered too personal.
I simply returned her smile, noticing for the first time that her brown eyes were youthful. That didn’t surprise me. Although she’d told Jacqui she’d just celebrated her sixty-third birthday, she looked ten years younger, her face full and all but unlined.
She hadn’t asked me anything of consequence since we’d come down—no questions about ciphers, or my background, or my training—and there’d been no mention of the diary of Mary Dundas. Instead we’d talked of very minor things: the weather, and our flight from London, and the color of my skirt. I wasn’t sure what purpose this discussion had, and having spent the whole day planning how I could impress her, I was thrown a bit off balance now by being given no real chance to do so.
Jacqui kept the conversation going with, “That’s new.”
She nodded at Claudine’s piano. I’d admired it silently when we had first come in—an older upright, inlaid handsomely and gleaming in the lamplight.
“It wasn’t here,” said Jacqui, “when I visited before.”
“It was in the house, but not this room,” Claudine corrected her. “It was half-buried by the papers in my study, but Denise’s son takes lessons now and so we moved it here, where he could practice.”
Jacqui smiled. “He’s quite the little entertainer, that one. It was magic tricks when I was here in June.” My cousin had a soft spot when it came to children, and it showed in her tone as she said, “Sara, darling, be prepared. He likes to have an audience.”
Claudine agreed. “But now for his school holidays he’s gone to have a visit with Denise’s parents. So our days are quiet.”
I was privately relieved. I didn’t dislike children, but being around them made me feel tense and uncomfortable. They were so unpredictable, bundles of energy, frequently loud and demanding attention—and often affection—in ways that I just couldn’t give them. If Denise’s son was looking for an audience, he’d find me disappointing.
And Claudine would, too, unless I found a way to copy Jacqui’s easy way with small talk.
“Surely that’s new,” she was saying to Claudine, her gaze having moved to the painting above the piano, a street scene in winter. “You had a man’s portrait hanging there, before.”
“Yes, it is new.” Claudine smiled. “You have a good memory. The man in the portrait had eyes I wasn’t fond of. They would follow me. I sold him and bought this instead.” She lifted her sherry glass. “There are two more things I’ve changed in this room. Two more things that are new. Can you find them?”
A strange sort of challenge, I thought, till I noticed my cousin was smiling in her turn, and realized that it was a game. Not a game I could play, as I hadn’t been here before, but Jacqui’s keen gaze was already sweeping the salon expectantly.
“There,” she said finally. “The tapestried chair by the fireplace. That’s new.”
“Yes, and what else?”
Jacqui kept up her visual search of the room, but she seemed to be having more trouble with this final item, whatever it was.