"Yes, Penny, it is the light. Artists have come to Provence for centuries."
Penelope hesitated, knowing that it was best she say something now, and not let Clémence find out from someone else. "Laurent is taking me to an exhibition this evening."
Clémence stiffened a little. She looked up at Penelope from behind a wing of perfectly coiffed blond hair, her eyes wide. "This evening...at Avignon?"
As an upmarket property broker, Clémence spread her net wide. "I believe so. He wants to support a friend—and the press will be there. He does enjoy being mentioned in La Provence, doesn't he?"
"He's becoming quite vain about publicity, it's true. It will be the opening of the new exhibition at the Gilles de Bourdan Gallery. I hear that Nicolas Versanne is showing some of his new paintings. Nicolas and Claudine Versanne—you met them at Laurent's dinner party, remember? Claudine is director of the Museum of the Ochre Paints at Roussillon. What a good idea to ask you to come, too."
"'Come, too?'" Penelope smelt a rat. "Are you going?"
"I might drop in."
Penelope felt the cosy tête-à-tête with the gorgeous mayor receding into the middle distance. She was never quite sure about the current status of Clémence's sophisticated relationship with him. There had been a fling earlier in the year, and possibly others in the past, but that seemed to be over. And Penelope's own feelings on the matter were complex, to say the least.
"It's only the evening out he promised me weeks ago, you know, after all the...unpleasantness in the village. We were going to go last week, but one of his friends had a crisis and he had to cancel. It's very sweet that he's keeping his word."
"I should introduce you to my musician friends," said Clémence, apparently not willing to be outdone as far as expanding Penelope's social circle was concerned. "They play together in a group, and they are always looking for new players. They perform from time to time around the Luberon. Perhaps you might be interested in joining them?"
Penelope had always loved playing for an audience. As a closet show-off she found the exhilaration of performance addictive, and it was one of her main regrets about her staid and conventional life in England that she had given up playing in public. The idea of performing with a group in France intrigued her.
"Well, I'd love to meet them and hear them play."
"In fact, Penny, they are giving a concert in Viens in a few weeks' time. Why don't you come along with me then?"
Viens was the village fifteen kilometres away where the Valencourts lived in some splendour. Their palatial house boasted curving marble staircases, medieval stone carvings, and walls bearing aristocratic escutcheons. So far, Penelope had not been introduced to M. Valencourt. Come to think of it, she didn't even know his first name. Maybe he would be there. Penelope couldn't help her curiosity, but Clémence had a habit of waving away any direct inquiries.
"That is very kind of you. I would love to do that," said Penelope. Sometimes she couldn't imagine why she had been so wary of Clémence's brittle exterior. Her heart was in the right place. It had just taken a couple of local murders to locate it—an option admittedly not available to all.
"By the way," Clémence said, pulling a pretty frown. "What are you wearing?"
Penelope looked down at her old Laura Ashley dress and cardigan. The comfortable canvas shoes and the bare, slightly goosepimply legs that she was intending to shave later. "I wasn't expecting visitors."
Her former estate agent gave her a pained look that implied any Frenchwoman worth her salt would be visitor-ready at all times.
Penelope was used to this by now. Their fledgling relationship was founded on the difference between a Frenchwoman and an Englishwoman, both d'un certain âge. It went without saying that the Englishwoman knew her place as the underdog in matters of fashion. But she was learning new tricks fast. Why, it had been weeks since a single croissant had passed Penelope's lips for breakfast, let alone two.
She listened respectfully as Clémence advised her that a well-cut little black dress was always acceptable attire at an art world gathering. In exchange, Penelope gave her opinion when Clémence asked her view on advertising property in the British press. And she put the date of the concert in Viens in her diary.
* * *