Skinner: Finding Solid Ground
A few days later Max was sitting at the metal table outside in his courtyard when he heard the groan of a motor and stood up peering down the drive; an ancient truck over laden with Duflotís household goods ground its way up the drive and turned down the narrow dirt road that would take it to the farmhouse. He breathed a sigh of relief.
Shortly Mme. Duflot was coming around the house arms outstretched, "Max, Ooooh Max," she grabbed him around the shoulders for a good hug and stood back looking at him. "You look well, Max and I am so happy you are here."
"Iím happy to see you too," he smiled a broad smile. She had not changed a bit from what he remembered.
"Tomorrow I will come and cook for you and clean for you, yes?"
"Yes please, Iím afraid itís all a bit of a toss-up right now."
"I will put it to rights, ah Max you look good." She pinched his cheek and sauntered off through the house to have a look at his toss-up.
The Duflotís were not exactly family but he had known Francis Duflot for probably three decades and there was a kind of friendship there, although neither completely trusted the other. Max went back to the stack of account books on the table. Heíd been trying to put them in some sort of order to find out exactly what the estate was producing. It amused him that his Uncle had no order to his bookkeeping, all different sized account books, some thick some thin. He remembered in his movie about the garage wine and paid particular attention to see if that bit might be true but heíd found no evidence of it.
He was down in the cellar the next day examining the bottled wine stored there when Ludivine called down to him that he had a visitor. Max dusted himself off and went to see who it was.
"Hi Max," It was Penny from Chambord. "Iíve come to invite you to share a bottle of wine with my father, this afternoon at four if that will be okay with you?"
"Oh well yes, thanks. Tell your father I will be there," he called as she turned her motorbike around and sped off. He supposed there were advantages to not having a house phone.
Aubrey Duncan was explaining the complexities of the wine they were about to taste. Max listened but it made no impression on him. Wine was either good or bad he was not an expert. He was actually more interested in Connie, who had been persuaded to join them on the terrace. As he looked from one sister to the other he could see a resemblance although their coloring was a little different. Connie, he noticed, looked everywhere but at him and he smiled to himself and took the glass Aubrey had filled.
"I donít believe youíve met my eldest daughter, Connie." Aubrey poured out wine in her glass.
"Actually I have, rather embarrassing situation with a chicken." He glanced at Connie who was concentrating on her glass of wine.
"A chicken? You didnít tell me youíd met." He looked at Connie.
"Was I supposed to?" she asked. "I took the basket of croissants over and he had a chicken in the house."
Aubrey smiled a little smile at his daughter, "In the house?"
"Iím not sure how it got in, but there it was in my bedroom. Iíd managed to get it to the front door when she arrived." Max explained.
Aubrey laughed, "Well these old buildings have their own quirks. Iíve given up on lizards we co-exist in peace."
"But not with scorpions, I hate scorpions." Penny sipped her wine.
"Lavender," Max offered, "lavender will repel them; we keep it in all the rooms."
"Thanks, Max, Iíll remember that," Penny beamed at him.
"What do you think of it?" Aubrey asked taking up his glass of wine.
"The wine, itís very good." Actually it was and he was enjoying it.
"That, Max is what a careful blending of your grapes and mine will produce."
"Really, I must tell you, Aubrey I know next to nothing about making wine. Everything I was taught about it in my youth has gone by the wayside. I went a different direction after university."
"What direction did you travel, Max," Aubrey narrowed his brown eyes.
"Banking, I was a trader in London." Max took a drink of the excellent wine wondering if heíd blundered, he was expecting to be asked what firm heíd worked for.
"Trading stocks and bonds? Iíve never quite understood that but I understand itís quite profitable and no doubt youíve done well."
"Yes quite well, thank you."
"Well Iím a winemaker, have been all my life. My family owns a large vineyard in Napa. Iím the youngest of two brothers and so I came here one year with my wife on a wine tasting tour and fell in love with the place. We talked about buying a place out here, but then she died rather unexpectedly and I spent a few years wandering about until I came back over here for a few days and ended up owner of this estate. Penny here finished up her college education and followed me over. Connie came to her senses and joined us a couple of years ago."
"I spent all my holidays here with my uncle. I was in school in England from the time I was nine."
"Boarding school we call them, Iíve never understood the English for wanting to send their children off to school."
"In my case it was a blessing of sorts, my home life was not the best; if it hadnít been for my Uncle Henry I think I would have been a very unhappy lad."
"Well, letís drink to happy futures eh, Max?" Aubrey smiled and regarded Max over his glass.
"Iíll drink to that," Max smiled a guileless smile.
Penny had been watching Max and although she knew he was slated for her sister, she thought he was absolutely lovely. She loved his accent and the cute smile he had. She felt like kicking Connie under the table, probably her mind was off adding up figures, sheíd hardly looked at him.
Connie was in fact very aware of Max; he was seated to her right and her eyes had taken in his hands on the table, the way he held a wine glass, how he wore his watch over his wrist, how far up his shirt sleeves were rolled and the light springy hair on his forearms. She knew a lot more about what was underneath that shirt than she wanted to think about; every once in awhile she caught his scent, masculine and mysterious. Her mind was off on these trails when suddenly her father was standing up and he and Penny disappeared into the house.
Max tilted his head toward Connie, "What do you do here?"
"Keep my fatherís books."
"Iíve been trying to sort out Henryís books, very simplistic sort of bookkeeping but scattered about in an array of different binders some undated."
Connie smiled, "Rather a chore for you, I would imagine youíre used to spreadsheets."
"I was yes." Max noticed how the sun caught the highlights in her hair, red and gold amongst the dark brown waves that fell on her shoulders. "What do you do when you arenít working?"
Connie looked up quickly catching the blue green of his eyes, "Not much of anything, I read, work in my herb garden."
"Iíve been away from here for years and forgotten how beautiful it is here: I wonder if youíd mind giving me a tour of the area, when you have time of course. Iíve found Uncle Henryís Harley in the garage and I thought it might be a good way of getting around since the streets are so narrow and often cobbled so that you canít drive through them."
Connie took a breath, she didnít really wantÖ"Max, thanks for asking but I really donít want to get involved with you."
"I wasnít asking for involvement, only a tour guide. I am a gentleman."
"Iím sure you are," he had the most beguiling smile, "Iím not sure Iíd be that informative about the area."
"Iíve got a tourist mapÖplease." He pulled out all the stops biting his lip and looking up at her.
She couldnít resist him, "Okay, I donít work on Mondayís."
"Excellent, Iíll pick you up around ten."
As if on cue Aubrey and Penny came back outside with another bottle of wine; Aubrey smiling looking from one to the other as he opened the bottle.
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