Story Excerpt

Desperate House Wines

by Marilyn Todd
 

excerpt2_Desperate-House-Wines
Art by Shutterstock.com

Benjamin Hardcastle didn’t know much about women. If he had, he wouldn’t have invited his wife, his girlfriend, and his estranged daughter to spend the weekend in an obscure vineyard in the southwest of France. Leastways, not all at the same time.     

He might also have warned them that this wasn’t any old obscure vineyard in the southwest of France. It was his. He’d bought it with the proceeds of his lottery win and wanted them to share his excitement.

Unfortunately, investments was another flair outside Benjamin Hardcastle’s sphere of expertise. As a small, independent supplier of wines to local restaurants, there was a reason why Le Château d’Aphrodite was going cheap. Ravaged by the COVID crisis, when restaurants closed for months, putting many out of business in the process, the vineyard was in deep, dark, dire financial straits. And it didn’t help that the closest thing Benjamin knew about winemaking was how to open a bottle.

As it happened, Gabriel Larroque didn’t know much about women either. He was a winemaker by trade, and a damned good one at that. Which wasn’t why he’d been hired to manage the vineyard. A long-distance lorry driver by trade, Benjamin didn’t know his bonjour from his merci, and desperately needed someone whose English was perfect. Happily for him, Gabriel turned out to be much more than a bilingual expert. He was a good listener, which is what Benjamin needed more than anything else. Until the day he was found dead in his own cellar, and zat was not ze only problème. Monsieur ’Ardcassle was very much alive at eight p. m. Not so an hour later—and this was where things got tricky.

Death was hardly accidental, and it most certainly wasn’t suicide. Benjamin Hardcastle was found tied to a chair with half a ton of clingfilm wrapped round his face.

Which is where things got even trickier. The doors to the outside were locked, only four people had a key, and CCTV showed that no one had entered or left the estate. In other words, all four key holders were inside Le Château d’Aphrodite that night, and Gabriel could have sworn that the three women were with him the entire time that Benjamin was missing.

 

“Poppycock.” The wife, technically the widow, spiked her hands through her hair. “The idea that it was one of us is balderdash.”

Sometimes, Gabriel thought that English people invented words simply to annoy foreigners.

“It’s perfectly obvious that someone resented the takeover, broke in, and took their revenge. My money’s on the previous owner.”

“That would be difficult, Madame ’Ardcassle—”

“Faye. Please. Since we’re effectively under house arrest until those idiot police find the real culprit, the least you can do is call me Faye.”

“Of course. Faye.” She was a fine-looking woman. Not an ounce of fat either, despite teetering on forty, and would be even more handsome if she ditched that unflattering blond bob that British women seem addicted to. “But it is ’ard to see how the former proprietor could have killed your
’usband, when zey buried ’im last spring.”

“Ex-husband! Do you know how long we’d been separated? Five and a half years, and still the bastard wouldn’t sign the divorce papers. I mean, seriously! How long can you stay angry with someone?”

“’E wasn’t angry, ’e was hurt.”

Two days had passed since the swarm of police, technicians, and forensics crews had vacated the premises, and quite frankly, if a hurricane had swept through, it would have left less of a mess. Gabriel had only gone down to the cellar once since then, summoning every ounce of courage to face the spot where his employer’s life had been sucked so viciously from him, and he wasn’t ashamed to admit that his hand was shaking as he’d eased open the door. In the four months that he’d worked here, their bond of friendship had grown stronger by the day, and the idea that someone—anyone—could do such a wicked thing was sickening beyond belief. Especially in this dark, dusty, silent sanctuary, almost spiritual in its solitude, where bottles lay undisturbed for years except by the spiders.

“I understand that. I do.”

They were in the office, which looked like it had been ransacked by a pack of naughty children. Gabriel trying to sort the paperwork, Faye rolling up the cables, after the police had taken away Benjamin’s laptop, phone, and tablet, without bothering to unplug them from the wall.

“Thing is, I’d been living a lie for so long, and when he talked about starting a family, I couldn’t pretend anymore. Obviously, it hurt him. Me coming out like that. And maybe I could have handled it better at the time. But five and a half years is way too long to hold a grudge.”

“’E didn’t resent you being gay.” She broke my heart, Gabe. “He was ’urt because you didn’t confide in ’im, and the marriage was a sham—”

“Sham?” Faye scrubbed at a patch of graphite stains that Gabriel knew from experience, when the police dusted for fingerprints after his parents had been burgled, were never going to shift with soap and water. “He’s the one who shacked up with the first little bitch to bat her fake eyelashes at him. How do you think that made me feel?” She waved her soggy sponge with menace. “Supplanted by the sort that, if a burglar broke in and stole the TV, she’d run after him and say Here, you forgot the remote. God knows what he saw in her.”

Attraction of opposites would be Gabriel’s guess. Brunette, where Faye was blonde. Bubbly, where Faye was serious. A hands-on hairdresser, where Faye worked in an office.

“If it’s any consolation, Benjamin didn’t like your new life partner, either. Felt she was . . . what is the word? Sponging off you. Zat you were living in a nice big ’ouse with a good job in sales, paying all ze bills, when she contributed nothing.”

“Bianca’s a street artiste. There’s no money in her line of work, and don’t forget, if he’d signed those bloody papers, half the proceeds from the house—which is just an end-of-terrace, by the way—would have been his.”

Calls herself the finest living statue south of London, but truth is, Gabe, the only reason she stands still all day is coz she’s too bleedin’ lazy to get a job.

“That was pure spite on his part, saying all Bianca did was take, take, take. From the outset, he was hell-bent on undermining our relationship. Couldn’t accept that I was happy, and belittling my partner was his way of punishing me. Sod it.” Faye opened the office window and threw the sponge as far and as hard as she could. “I’ve had enough of cleaning, I’ve had enough of Benjamin, I’ve had enough of the whole damn bloody lot.”

The door would have rattled on its hinges had it not been made of oak. Gabriel turned towards the window. The police were convinced that hate was the motive for the murder, and since all three women nurtured it with passion, it was simply a question of deciding which one was the killer.

The wife? On the grounds that her husband wouldn’t give her what she wanted, namely a divorce, then brought her across to rub her nose in it.

The girlfriend, Melodie? Not because she and the victim had split up several months ago—funnily enough, just around the time Hardcastle won several million on the lottery, and the first she found out about the win was here. But where she was looking forward to a romantic reconciliation, she arrived to find that she was expected to share him with two other women, including that bitch of an ex.

And then there was the daugh-ter. Chloe. The girl whose mother Benjamin dumped the second he found out that she was pregnant. For twenty-four years, Chloe had no idea who her father was, until a letter landed on her doormat, telling her that she’d won a weekend in France, all expenses paid. At which point Benjamin dropped his paternal bombshell, somehow expecting this bright, spunky stranger to welcome him with open arms.

Gabriel couldn’t fault the reasoning. Betrayal is a powerful motive, and hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, but—

“Okay. What was Fayetal Attraction saying about me this time?”

Melodie’s voice made him jump. He hadn’t heard her come in.

“That I’m the sort who tiptoes round the house so as not to wake the sleeping pills?”

Despite the situation, Gabriel smiled. “Something like zat.”

“You know she was the reason Beni and me split up?”

She didn’t give him a chance to answer.

“Long-distance lorry drivers are hardly ever home, but when he was it was Can you fix the washer on the tap? The fence post’s broken. The hinge on the kitchen cupboard snapped. . . . But what really got me was, he never said get a plumber, hire an electrician, look it up on YouTube and fix it yourself, you useless cow.”

You have to remember, it was still my house, Gabe. I had responsibilities—

“He spoke very ’ighly of your DIY skills.”

“Damn right. The salon would be running at a loss if I called in a professional every time a bulb popped or the U-bends clogged.”

Big brown eyes filled with tears. From grief, at losing the only man she ever loved? Regret, for what could have been? Or were they tears of conscience?

“I thought Beni was The One, I really did, but the way he jumped every time Fayetal Attraction snapped her fingers—? He spent more time at hers than he did at mine, and that’s why I wouldn’t take him back. At no stage, not once, did he promise to stop going round, then out of the blue I got this.”

She showed Gabriel the text.

Whatever it takes to make us work, I’ll do it, babes, and that’s a promise.

“Ever since we split up, he’d been bombarding me with e-mails, texts, and calls, swearing on his mother’s grave how much he loved me, how he’d make it up to me, but I never believed him until he sent this.”

Remember that big house in the country you always dreamed about? Now you can stop dreaming.

“There was a flight ticket attached—God, you won’t believe how excited I was when he picked me up at the airport. I felt like a bloody teenager, and that was before he told me about the lottery, and the vineyard he’d bought for us to run together. I physically pinched my arm when we drove through those wrought-iron gates and up the long gravel drive to this. Honestly, Gabriel, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.” The light in Melodie’s eyes suddenly hardened. “And what happens? The first face I see when we go inside is Faye’s. I’ll bet he even drove her over too. That bitch never does one damn thing herself.” Melodie picked up the jade goddess that acted as a paperweight and hurled it at the wall. “I’ll give him Aphro-bloody-dite!”

Gabriel watched the warm September sun bathe vines that stretched out to infinity. If the police thought the women’s feelings for the deceased revolved around hate, it was nothing compared to the anger and resentment they felt for one other—which is why it made no sense that any of them would kill Benjamin. Each other, oui. He wouldn’t have thought twice had it been one of their bodies lying dead in the cellar/pushed down the stairs/battered with a lump of firewood/throttled with finely manicured hands. But anger and resentment isn’t enough to warrant wrapping cling film over someone’s face. Holding it in place takes time, planning, and commitment, not to mention the sheer physical effort. To lash out in the heat of the moment is one thing, but this? This was cold. Ice cold. Also, Gabriel would have noticed if any of the them had slipped away for that amount of time.

Wouldn’t he?

“Sorry.” Melodie sheepishly picked up the paperweight, inspecting both it and the wall for chips. Considering jade, stone, and goddesses had withstood thousands of years of weathering and abuse, it was hardly surprising that there wasn’t so much as a blemish. “The funny thing is, Beni said he chose this vineyard coz the statue reminded him of me.” She giggled. “I said, I hope you don’t mean shallow, love, coz that thing’s polystyrene.”

Benjamin was livid when he took possession of the vineyard. Bastards stripped the place completely, Gabe! Everything from the sockets on the walls to the light fittings, the cooker, the plant pots, and what really got my goat was that they took the sculpture that defines the bloody wine.

Ah, but he had to understand that this was France. If it wasn’t listed on the contract of sale, then everything belonged to the seller; it was their right to take it. Morality was a different matter.

“Apparently the family wanted ze original for its sentimental value.”

Melodie snorted. “You mean its retail value, being marble.”

Gabriel was inclined to agree, but what’s done is done, there was no going back. His eyes followed a hare scampering between two rows of vines. People said Benjamin bought the vineyard for all the wrong reasons, and in many respects they were right. The subtleties of terroir, aspect, and climate washed right over him. Vintages didn’t concern him. Grape varieties? Who cared? And as for the different appellations . . . !

Non, he pitched his tent here, having fallen in love with the endless rolling hills, the mild, sunny climate, and that, in his eyes, Saint Émilion wasn’t synonymous with wine. Au contraire. He was captivated by this beautiful medieval gem, whose steep, narrow streets were lined with timber-framed houses, and which boasted an underground church carved into the rock. For the same reason, Bordeaux conjured up a sweeping, elegant city, full of bridges, spires, and fountains, while he was attracted to Aphrodite for the honey-coloured stonework dripping with purple wisteria, offset against dazzling white shutters. He liked the hand-drawn label on the bottle, depicting the goddess atop her dais, with a ring of neatly clipped box trees at her feet. He found peace—who wouldn’t?—in the silence and solitude of the cool, dark, earthy cellars where the wine was aged in gigantic oak barrels. And he was tickled pink (whatever that meant) by the circular stone tower that once housed pigeons, whose droppings fertilised the soil. Most of all, though, he was drawn to the idea of being in charge of his own destiny, and often joked that if he never saw another motorway services in his life, it would be too soon.

So oui. Benjamin’s motives might not be conventional, but mon dieu, that man had passion. Determined to turn Aphrodite’s fortunes around, he advertised for an expert to manage the estate and who, over the course of time, could teach him the process of winemaking inside out. Not for him, playing lord of the manor. He wanted to be hands-on from literally the ground up, even if that involved backbreaking pruning, de-budding, and tying back the vines, often in sub-zero temperatures dawn to dusk. Unfortunately, that same passion drove him to overspend, and by the time Gabriel took up the reins, almost every penny of the lottery win had gone. Much of it had been swallowed up by paying over the odds for the vineyard, the rest by throwing money at all the wrong things.

That’s why you’re here, Gabe, to keep the finances on track, but what’s Château d’Aphrodite without its goddess? Château Empty Pole, that’s what.

Gabriel sympathised with what Benjamin felt was a swindle, but right now the priority was getting the business back on its feet before splashing out to replace expensive marble statues. Plastic (not polystyrene!) was less than ideal, but once it was impaled on that sad, empty pole, the only people who would ever know the difference were the workers on the estate. Who’d just be grateful for a job.

Long after Melodie left, he remained at the window, gazing across vines that stretched to infinity. Did any view define peace and calm better? Except appearances can be deceptive. Like swans on a river, paddling against a raging current yet all the time looking serene, the vines were also hard at work. Hectare upon hectare were quietly but industriously swelling their grapes to produce the right amount of sugar to yield the right amount of alcohol in the late summer heat, while simultaneously juggling acids, tannins, and other chemical compounds to create the perfect balance for the wine. Another month, though, and this peace and calm would be a distant memory. The deer, boar, and hares that called these vines home would seek refuge in the woods—but the harvest was just the start of the frenzy. After picking, the grapes needed to be sorted, to ensure no unripe or rotten fruit went into the crusher, though these days, mechanical presses did all the hard work. They looked traditional—the spitting image of old wooden wine presses—but behind the facade, they were very much state-of-the-art. But oh, how excited Benjamin was about mastering the art of fermentation. How keen he’d been to learn how clarification of the wine came about. Before bottling his very first vintage . . .

An ache filled Gabriel’s heart. Would he still be here to supervise the delicate filtering process his friend had so very much been looking forward to? To oversee the young wine being transferred into oak barrels to age?

He tidied away the last of the paperwork, locked the safe, and did a quick reconciliation of the company’s bank balance, all on automatic pilot. Because the only thing he could think about was what he wouldn’t give to see the next generation of Château d’Aphrodite being bottled, then raising a toast to his friend—secure in the knowledge that justice had been served and a killer brought to book.

Which, right now, seemed impossible. . . .

 

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Copyright © 2022. Desperate House Wines by Marilyn Todd