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Sieste in Peace - Dyslexia Friendly

Sieste in Peace - Dyslexia Friendly

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Book 4 of the Saint-Maurice Mysteries

A retreat into the wellness of art turns into a brush with murder

I’m worried. Why is my sexy assistant acting so strangely? Is he connected to the three deaths that occurred in and around Saint-Maurice on the same day? I promised the police that I, Julie Belmain, photographer extraordinaire, wouldn’t investigate, but this time it’s personal.

With a friend under suspicion of murder and my mother on my case about the involvement of a famous spa resort, it’s impossible for me to keep my promise, but my assistant proves unreliable. Why is he late for work? Why does he disappear for days on end?

But most importantly, why does he get shot right when my ex-husband is released from jail?

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Beaujolais Blood: An unputdownable puzzle of a mystery (The Saint-Maurice Mysteries Book 2)
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  • Chapter 1: I want to see your pants

    ‘Lift your skirt higher! I want to see your pants.’ The things you say when you’re a peekaboo pin-up photographer…

    As a special favour to my friend Marie Madora, I was making an attempt at herding cats. Group shoots had never been my favourite and I usually tried to avoid them. My slightly naughty style of picture always made my subjects giddy, but in a group they tended to veer towards rowdy. And then, of course, there was always that one who had been taken hostage and wasn’t particularly comfortable. Today it was a timid woman named Amélie, plucking at her false eyelashes while the others preened in the dressing room mirror.

    But I’d deal with her later. Right now, Marie had her moment in the spotlight – she practically danced towards the heap of magazines strewn about as though she’d tripped on them, then sat daintily on top. I’d met her a few months after I’d moved back to Saint-Maurice and had done a shoot with her before, but she’d made a mess of the pictures. Although she’d been born with a left arm that didn’t extend beyond her elbow, that hadn’t been what held her back. Today, holding up her skirt and petticoat with her hand and putting her stump to her surprised mouth, she’d finally got the hang of my style. And now that she didn’t hide her face under layers of make-up any more, she’d found confidence in her natural beauty. So much, in fact, that she’d convinced me to do a group shoot with her and her friends. Paid, this time, since I wasn’t trying to find out if she’d murdered anyone.

    Looking back, it seemed outrageous that I’d ever suspected her, but then, I’d learned in the meantime that killers aren’t always the ones you’d suspect. Just as the people who become your friends aren’t always the ones you’d think. Like this bunch of women right here, who seemed mismatched in every way but were clearly very close friends. My friend Marie was a Dutch woman who’d made a fortune in inflatables. She’d brought a short, perky, black-haired Irish woman named Moira who said she liked things quiet and traditional, but who was staying in the new Centre de Prédiction a few hills over in Blacenas. Combining health and wellness with a kind of divination, that place was anything but traditional, though in spite of local and national advertising, I still didn’t know exactly what it was or did.

    One of Marie’s other friends, Nienke, was also Dutch. I knew her because she was married to my mother’s friend Cédric. Her fiery red hair streaked with a blondish grey was a contrast to her gentle character. She spent most of her days crafting and knitting brightly coloured scarves and socks for orphans in Eastern Europe.

    The only woman in the group who made me nervous was Amélie. While the others were now laughing and pointing at the photos on the wall, she couldn’t get into the spirit of my art style. In my experience, women like her were only thinking over and over again how much they did not want to be here, instead of opening their minds to the possibility of having a good time. I had some tricks up my sleeve, of course, but they required time alone with the woman in question, which often made the rest of the group feel abandoned.

    And that is why I employed an assistant. He could take care of the group while I took one of them aside, and by the time I would have converted the one, the others would hardly have noticed I was gone. That was the plan. Usually. Today, my assistant hadn’t bothered to show up yet. Had he not knocked on my door asking to be my assistant? Should he not then at least try to be here when I needed him?

    Ordinarily, I would have managed and later rubbed his face in the fact that I didn’t need any men in my business, least of all him, but Thibault had not been himself lately. So not only was he not here to help me, he added to my troubles by making me worry about him.

    I finished up with Marie and had to make a decision on whether I’d take Amélie aside to do her solo shoot first or take everyone outside for the group photos. I wanted to capture the group while their energy was still high. But if Amélie wasn’t comfortable, she’d ruin the group photos too.

    I could, of course, try calling her by some animal name, like Beau always did, but I didn’t think that particular trick would work to my advantage. Wrong gender. Also wrong face, wrong age, and wrong character to call a woman my goat or my shrimp. Most women would let a handsome young man get away with flirty name-calling, but Julie Belmain, thirty-one and counting, was too dignified to make that technique work, despite her not-so-dignified profession. Ask all my thoroughly dignified ancestors: a Belmain sets the right example. They were turning in their graves because of me already, so I’d better not add insult to injury.

    Maybe I could use the big fan? The skirt would go up, but the success of the picture depended on the client’s reaction. A surprised smile was what I was going for, not the embarrassed blush and deer-in-the-headlights eyes I would probably get. I suppressed a sigh and straightened my back, determined not to show my apprehension as I joined the group to fetch Ms Difficult.

    Without my camera present, even she was having a giggle. With their colourful fifties-style dresses, red lips, and hairsprayed pin curls, the group looked transported from the Golden Age of Hollywood.

    ‘But don’t you agree?’ Marie was saying. ‘It’s weird being the same age as old people.’ The others protested with fervour, and she hastily added, ‘Present company excluded, naturally.’

    Amélie grinned. ‘And then suddenly your spouse is getting old. It’s bad enough that I’m sagging, but why are the outsides of his beautiful legs suddenly bald? I did not sign up for this!’

    Moira, the dark-haired woman, who had a prominent cleft lip scar, snorted. ‘Yeah, your life sucks.’

    ‘What? You know my son. He’s so annoying, France should use him as their secret weapon in the next war.’

    A clamour of both objections and concurrences erupted, and I raised my camera and my voice to get them back to the matter at hand. Group shoot it was. Maybe the other women would sweep Amélie up in their excitement.

    ‘Ladies! I’d like you all to line up on the edge of the pool, please.’

    While the others whooped and cheered, Amélie’s smile withered as she trudged after her friends. This could only end in disaster, but what could I do? I racked my brain for something – anything – to spark some enthusiasm without putting her negative attitude in the spotlight.

    ‘Amélie, you go in the middle. I’m going to make you the centre of attention. Come on girls, group hug around Amélie. Show her some love!’ It worked, if only a little. At least Amélie relaxed and even showed a little smile, but she was far from excited. ‘All right, now when I say so, raise your skirts as if you’re being splashed. Unfortunately, my assistant is not—’

    ‘Willing to get wet. But I can splash with the best of them.’ Beau sauntered out into the garden, carrying a fishing rod. Though tardy to the point of we’ll-talk-about-this-later, his timing was perfect. I didn’t know whether to be angry or relieved, but I couldn’t give voice to either in front of my clients, so he was forgiven. For now.

    ‘Don’t think you’ll catch much here.’

    It sounded like a joke to the women, but Beau knew me well enough to hear the reprimand. There were only nine years between us, but that didn’t make me want to mother him any less. Instead of giving an explanation though, he turned with flawless aim to Amélie and bestowed upon her his starlight smile. ‘You look amazing.’

    Magic. There was no other way to explain it. How else could he know exactly who needed the boost, and how else could he deliver that boost so accurately? Amélie seemed to grow two inches, her chest rising, and her eyes starting to sparkle. She pushed the others into position, lifted her skirt, and took on the perfect surprised pose, while Beau found a thick branch at the bottom of the garden to hit the water with.

    The challenge here was to get all four women to look good at the same time. Hopefully while the water droplets were still flying, but that’s what post-production is for. I switched my camera to burst mode and signalled Beau that I was ready. He knelt by the pool while I told the ladies to move their chins forward and down. They dutifully obeyed me, but forgot immediately when Beau hit the water with the stick and they all got soaked. My camera rapidly fired off the shots. If I could have, I would have crossed my fingers, superstitious as it was. With a shot like this, you need a lot of luck.

    While the women howled with laughter and tried to chide Beau, I quickly withdrew into the shade to check the pictures. One good one. Two. Maybe three. That would do. I let out a breath. After my failed attempt with Amélie, my confidence had been dented, but this helped me get back on top.

    ‘That was beautiful, mes dames. Can I ask you to retire to the dressing room for your next outfits and a refresh of your make-up?’

    As they filed back into the studio, giggling and shaking water off their hands, I shot off a text to my make-up artist Maile to fix Amélie first so I could take her solo shots while the others were still changing.

    ‘Caught anything?’ My tone was light, but I had my scolding-mother face on.

    Beau avoided my eyes. ‘Oh, I don’t use a hook. I just tie a piece of bread to the line and watch the fish nibble on it.’

    ‘How humane. It must have been fascinating to watch.’

    ‘Not as much as the change in that woman’s face just now.’

    Oh! Could he get any more obnoxious? He knew I’d needed him just now, and he thought that made up for his lack of work ethic. Well, we’d see about that!

    After the shoot, of course. I still needed him.

    I threw him one last seething look, which he pointedly ignored, and joined the women in the dressing room.

    Amélie was enjoying herself now that I didn’t want anything from her. ‘They call this olive skin, though I have yet to encounter an olive of this colour. They’re either black, green, or purple, so someone with real olive skin would have to be from outer space.’ She held up her arm in demonstration.

    Moira sighed. ‘I wouldn’t mind olive skin. Mine’s the colour of an old newspaper.’ She looked wistfully at the back of her hands.

    ‘There are skin-coloured olives,’ Nienke remarked. ‘But they’re called blonde olives, though anyone with hair that colour would not be called a blonde. Red, maybe, but most of them still have a tinge of green on them. It’s not a healthy colour, for skin or hair,’ she decided.

    ‘Wait till you see those mealworms at the Centre de Prédiction,’ Moira said. ‘Most of them look green, whether it’s from starvation, envy, old age, or some natural beauty mask.’

    Marie rolled her eyes. ‘Why do you go there if all you do is rant about the people and the things they do? It’s not like it’s a cheap place. You’re still welcome to stay with me, you know.’

    Moira shook her head with a grin. ‘No! I love ranting! I’m the only one who pays through the nose to not partake in the sage burning, mud baths, and floatation therapy. My wellness goes up leaps and bounds watching other people do that to themselves while I gorge on a smuggled-in bag of crisps.’

    The others chuckled, though I heard Nienke mutter, ‘I burn sage sometimes. It’s very soothing. Though a little masculine.’

    My make-up artist signalled me as she swivelled Amélie’s chair, and I took a step forward. ‘Ladies, I’m sorry to break up your fun, but it’s time for Amélie’s shoot. As you were.’

    I took Amélie, who had completely defrosted, through to my office, where I’d laid out a few poses she could choose from. The others had already done so on their first appointment, but Amélie had been hesitant and I’d told her she could always choose in the moment. Now, she stepped up to my desk and immediately pointed to Hold the Phone.

    ‘If I do that one, could you make my legs look slimmer at the top?’

    I smiled apologetically. ‘I don’t shave off pounds, but I do make peaches of oranges when it comes to skin.’

    She thought about that, then nodded. A small smile slowly grew into a bigger one. ‘Oui… Yes, that would work. Let’s do it.’

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