The Touch Ch. 36byGreenFingers©
WARNING TO READERS - This is a long, rambling, multi-part story and VERY British. The individual chapters will make more sense if read in sequence.
This Chapter is dedicated to the group of ex-pat Guys and Girls on Ibiza and Menorca who have supported this story from the beginning; this is the chapter I was tucked away on the boat editing in the afternoons. It was a real pleasure to meet you this summer, the meal and drinks were great...... my treat next year.
The Touch Pt. 36 - Of Aunts and Cousins
I thought that Aunt Nikki Bardin was something of an enigma. On the surface she was pleasant enough but seemed to be playing a complex game of relationships, treating each of us to a slightly different facet of the her personality with the result that dinner at Maggie's on Tuesday evening was interesting if somewhat strained.
Nikki was an attractive woman of roughly 50, the younger sister of Maggie's first husband Robert de Vere. She was about 5'8" with the slim but rounded figure of a mature woman who spent a lot of time riding horses and walking. Her face was delicate, her eyes ice blue and her mousey shoulder length hair was streaked with highlights of natural grey, on her it was attractive rather than aging. Her make-up was expensive and her face cosmetically perfect, I recognised her perfume as top end; Chanel No. 5, I think. Her clothes were simple but expensive, good quality designer jeans with a white scoop neck top of fine linen with beaded embroidery at the neck and cuff, which I suspected was genuine pink coral and chip jade and a coral pink silk scarf knotted at her throat.
"You must call me Nikki," she said when we were introduced for the first time by Lucinda. "I simply hate it when attractive young men call me Madame or Tante, it makes me feel positively ancient..... " She smiled sweetly and held onto my fingers for a second too long when we shook hands. Even though she had been born and brought up in England she had a slight French accent on selected words. She had lived in France for over twenty years but I suspected that it was a deliberate affectation the rest of her English was just too perfect and unaccented.
To me she behaved graciously, paid attention when I spoke to her and laughed quietly at my jokes, lightly touching my arm from time to time with her finger tips, flirting lightly in the way that older women sometimes do with younger men. As I was the only man present, I guess I was bound to attract her attention. I think I did find her attractive but her behaviour made me feel uncomfortable with Maggie and Gwen in the room but nobody else seemed to notice.
To the twins she was the perfect affectionate aunt, her genuine fondness for the girls and they for her was obvious and she quickly drew Emma into her little family coterie, the four of them chattering about the coming holiday, horses and riding, with Nikki flattering Emma by complimenting her on her A-Level French. In fact, although a lot better than mine, Emma's French was not really all that good, especially when compared to the fluency that Luci and Lulu had developed during their time at Dijon, it was one of the key reasons for their long sojourn in France, both were going to be reading languages at university.
Gwen, she treated pleasantly if a bit distantly, an acquaintance rather than family. It was not until later that Gwen told me they had only met twice before, once at Robert and Maggie's wedding and then later at Robert's funeral.
I knew Maggie's moods so well that it was blatantly obvious to me that there was some sort of history between her and Nikki. Neither was overtly rude or aggressive to the other but their mutual dislike was almost palpable although well controlled by both especially in front of the girls. They chose not to sit together and neither would instigate a conversation with the other although both would socialize as part of the group.
Maggie had seated Nikki at the dinner table between myself and Emma and for most of the meal the conversation was light and cheerful but became somewhat strained whenever the subject of gardening or the garden centre was raised as it inevitably would be with three of us working daily at the family business and the other three being shareholders. By dessert a cloud of tension hung over the table and there was an atmosphere of stress developing. Even the twins and Emma seemed a bit on edge. I can't really remember anything that was said that was particularly spiteful but Nikki several times made oblique remarks which were obviously aimed at Maggie and things were finally brought to a head when one of us made an innocent comment about how well the garden centre was doing.
"My brother was a PROPER landscaper," Nikki retorted with a rather supercilious smile, the barb obviously aimed at Maggie, "he designed beautiful gardens... he wasn't a shop keeper!"
I was starting to get a bit annoyed and protective, nobody but nobody, had a pop at Maggie in my presence, Gwen caught my eye over the table and gave a little warning shake of her head urging me to back off. I think we all recognised the signs that Maggie herself was about to kick back but Gwen stepped in to defuse the situation.
"Then I think it is really a compliment to his memory that Maggie and Jamie have continued that tradition. Landscaping and design is a very large part of THEIR business," She said, with one of her sweet disarming smiles. "The company is still called 'de Veres' and so Robert's name and reputation lives on!"
Nikki said nothing further and I breathed a sigh of relief, I could not think of a more dangerous situation than somebody launching an attack on either Maggie or Gwen when the other twin was present, I thought that Nikki was skating on very thin ice.
By the time we had finished the meal nobody really wanted to stay seated for coffees and we were all glad to get down from the table and moved awkwardly into the drawing room.
Oddly, it was Emma who came to the rescue, suggesting that she and Gwen would clear the dining table and start the washing-up and that Lucinda and Lauren should take their aunt up to their rooms to start picking out their outfits for the return to France. It was an obvious ploy to split the group up, but it worked.
Gwen sidled up to me and gently squeezed my hand. "Why don't you take Maggie and your coffees into the garden and have a cigarette..... it will you give you both a chance to cool down a bit."
I loaded a tray with the cafetiere, coffee glasses and a couple of balloons of cognac and took it out to the table by the swimming pool. Maggie was already waiting for me and had turned the pool light down low so that the area was bathed in a soft yellow glow, I guess that Gwen had banished her from the house as well.
We sat on the bench seat side by side our shoulders and hips lightly touching in a natural gesture of empathy and sipped our coffee and brandy silently for several minutes.
"So what is it with you and 'Nikki la louve'?" I asked eventually. "You don't have to tell me, but there is obviously something not right."
Her brow crinkled for a moment and then she laughed gently, "I think you mean 'salope'... bitch.... 'la louve' means she-wolf, although you could well have the right of it..."
"My French always was crap," I chuckled. I lit a couple of cigarettes and passed one to her.
"It would be unfair to say that Nikki is totally to blame... I guess I am equally guilty," she confessed, "the truth is that we have never liked each other, even when Robert was alive and our relationship badly deteriorated after he died."
I didn't prompt her but after another sip of coffee she went on.
"You know that she is Robert's younger sister .... His only living relative, which is why I am so keen that the girls have a good relationship with her... Nikki is the only family that they have on their father's side." She paused again and then obviously decided to continue confiding her story to me.
"Robert, dear Robert, was several years older than me when we met. He was 38 and I was a 20 year old, second year undergraduate at Writtle College. He was already a well known and much lauded architect and landscaper and we were introduced when I attended a lecture that he gave to the Royal Horticultural Society. It was a whirlwind romance, we were both totally besotted with each other and within a year we were married, the day after my graduation."
This was the first time that Maggie had really talked to me about her first husband, I only vaguely remembered him as a tall kindly man who wore horned rimmed spectacles and tweed jackets; and built bonfires at the bottom of the garden and roasted chestnuts for the twins, me and Emma in the autumn, and played beach cricket with us in the summer. I was only six when he died, it was so long ago I couldn't even remember being sad... he just wasn't there anymore. Feeling the way that I did about Maggie, I guess that I should have been jealous of their obvious love for each other... but I wasn't.
"Nikki had been working with Robert as his personal assistant, since she came down from Oxford," She went on, "She was totally and absolutely devoted to him, they spent nearly every day together, and shared a house in London which Robert had divided into two connecting apartments. They did have their own private lives.... Robert was dashing and handsome and dated women all the time and she had been loosely engaged to Andre Bardin for two or three years; I think she was content with that set-up....until I came on the scene."
She slipped her arm through mine and hugged it to her, the softness of her breast against my deltoid, sent a thrill from my arm down to my groin and the scent of her herbal shampoo caused me to let out an inaudible gasp as she turned her head and her little silky blonde pony tail brushed tantalisingly against my cheek.
"You don't really want to hear all this boring, stupid personal stuff...do you?" she said quietly smiling.
"It's not stupid.... And yes I do want to hear it.... Please go on." I prompted. How could I possibly be bored with anything to do with Maggie?
"I think that Nikki just couldn't take not being the only permanent female in Robert's life. We had both taken an instant dislike to each other the first time we met but from the moment she realised that I was not going be just another fleeting romance, it almost became open warfare." She gave a small chuckle, took another sip of brandy. "Robert used to joke and say that it was like putting two cats in a room, it was a forgone conclusion that fur would fly. About a year after we married, I became pregnant with the girls, and Nikki turned really nasty..... she and Robert had a terrific row and she stormed off to France and almost immediately married Andre."
"So that is still the issue between you?"
"Oh no... there is more... much more..." She dragged my cigarette packet over and lit one for each of us. "I didn't know it at the time... I was too happy and absorbed with my life with Robert, carrying the babies and rebuilding this house...and forging my own career, but it turned out that Andre Bardin was broke. He is a really nice guy and a good farmer and horse breeder but a totally inept businessman; it is Nikki who has turned the farm into a profitable business. Neither Nikki, nor I knew that Robert had secretly bought them the farm at Dijon and that effectively Andre was just his tenant and they were living there rent free."
I had not known any of what she was telling me...but then I guess there was no reason why I should.
"We always invited them over for Christmas and Easter every year and Nikki always sent presents to Robert and the girls but refused to come back to England not even to see her brother...... and then six years after the twins were born my poor Robert was killed in that stupid accident.... I had begged him over and over to stop riding that stupid motorbike, especially in the winter... but..."
She trembled slightly against me and I thought that she had perhaps started to weep, but her eyes were dry. She smiled at me sadly and I slid my arm around her comfortingly... she didn't move away but in fact snuggled closer and rested her head on my shoulder.
"Nikki was devastated that she never saw him again before he died and naturally blamed me for keeping them apart. She and Andre did come to the funeral but afterwards the shit really hit the fan. When the will was read...Robert had left his entire estate to me and the twins... even the Bardin farm in France."
"Wow! I can imagine how she took that." I commented, "Do you still......?"
"Oh no, I immediately deeded it over to Nikki and Andre.... Robert had left us very well provided for and I thought that it was terribly cruel and out of character for him not to have left Nikki the farm in his will. He never did tell what was said when they argued that last time but I guess it must have been pretty awful." She gave a deep sigh and tossed down the rest of her brandy in a single gulp. "So there you have it..... the de Vere secret family feud.... Stupid isn't it."
"I don't understand.... It you really don't get on why do you go over and stay with her each summer?"
"Simple, for my girls... they really enjoy their holidays there and Nikki really isn't that awful when she is at home, Andre seems to have a calming influence on her and I can spend my time riding with Lucinda and Lauren and we usually take a trip to Paris for a couple of days.... And Nikki is their only living link with their father so I feel that I need to keep trying to build bridges for their sakes."
"Is there anything that I can do to relieve things whilst she is here?" I asked. It was a genuine offer but I crossed my fingers behind my back and hoped that she would not ask me to spend time alone with Nikki keeping her entertained.
She hugged my arm tightly, "Thank you, Jamie darling.... But she is going up to London tomorrow morning and won't be back until Friday so it should not be a problem."
Tomorrow was Emma's 18th Birthday and I guessed that Nikki was probably discreetly trying to make sure that nothing put a damper on the occasion.
It had suddenly got dark and we had just agreed to go back into the house when, Emma, Luci and Lauren came bouncing around the corner of the house.
"Aunt Nikki is tired and has gone to bed, and Auntie Gwen is reading in the drawing room," Luci announced, "We are going to change and have a swim before you guys have to go home..... you'll come in as well won't you Jimbo?
"Yes, OK... why not." Nothing embarrassing was likely to happen in the pool with all four of us just splashing about.
I couldn't resist paying Maggie back a little for all the teasing and pool jokes during the past couple of weeks since the evening of our sexy skinny dip.
"Are you coming in as well, Maggie?" I called loudly over my shoulder as I strolled towards the white stucco changing room. "Come on, don't be a wimp.... You don't have to wear a bathing suit if you don't want to...."
"Don't you dare listen to him, Mummy!" Lucinda called from across the pool, but Maggie was already walking back towards the house trying to conceal her broad grin behind her hand.
"Touché," she silently mouthed to me as she moved out of the circle of the light and disappeared from view.
Later, at home, after Emma had turned in Gwen and I stood in the darkened kitchen and shared a deep, long sensual good-night kiss.
"So did Mags tell you the story about her and Nikki?" She asked.
"Yes, I can't help but feel supportive towards Maggie, but I do feel sorry for Nikki as well," I said, "I quite like her most of the time, and she was very nice to me."
"I noticed that," Gwen hissed with a low chuckle, "I think you had better stay away from her from now on.... our relationship may be flexible but it doesn't have any room for French Whores...." She hadn't said it in a spiteful way but I wondered what she knew about Aunt Nikki that I didn't. She gave me a parting kiss and went through to the hall, "Bonne nuit, ma Cheri," she called over her shoulder.
I guess everybody's French was better than mine.
Wednesday 10th of May was Emma's 18th birthday. She and Gwen had both taken the day off from work, and they were having a 'girly' day in Salisbury with the twins, getting their hair done, manicures and the like and then going shopping before we all went out for an evening meal as Emma had requested.
Maggie had offered to open the garden centre that morning so that I did not need to hurry in to work and could spend some time at home with Emma when she got up. I guessed that she probably also wanted to avoid having to see Nikki that early in the morning.
By the time Gwen, Emma and I had eaten breakfast and Emma had opened her birthday gifts from us and all her birthday cards, it was nearly nine-thirty when I got to the garden centre. Maggie was sitting in the restaurant having coffee and croissants; I gave her a friendly kiss on the top of her head and pulled up a chair. Unprompted, one of the waitresses immediately brought me a mug of steaming black coffee... I guess that I was pretty predictable.
With all the extra new contracts and projects kicking off Maggie and I had often found it difficult to meet for lunch each day as we always had in the past and so some days we had our daily planning meeting over breakfast in the garden centre restaurant. I genuinely missed our little lunches together in the office, even if they were usually only a mug of cup-a-soup and sandwiches. We spent a half hour or so discussing work matters and then Maggie placed her hand lightly over mine.
"Jamie... I have a favour to ask of you..."
"OK, name it and it is yours." There was no point in being coy, there wasn't anything that I wouldn't do for Maggie, excluding murder.... and I couldn't really be positive about that!
"You may wish you hadn't been to hasty," she chuckled. "Do you remember asking if there was anything you could do to help with the 'French Bitch' problem....?"
I rolled my eyes dramatically and made a comic gesture of crossing my fingers as if to ward off a vampire. "I'm sorry Maggie.... I love you dearly," I laughed, "but I am NOT going to seduce your sister-in-law just to keep her out of your hair for a few days."
"Not even for me?" she giggled, "I could be VERY grateful...." I knew that she was only being playful, not even really flirting with me, it was the way that we teased each other all the time... but.... her choice of words sent a tingle surging through my groin, Luci and Lulu had used those exact words and then shown me that they could be 'Very Grateful'; both of them... separately and together!
"How grateful?" I played along.
"Not THAT grateful, you randy sod," she laughed slapping at me playfully, "I only want you to drive her to the station this morning to catch the train to London.... I reckon that that is worth a pub lunch at most.... I have an appointment with a sales rep and the twins have already left to meet your mother and Emma."
"OK, no problem....what time?"
She glanced at her watch. "It had probably better be fairly soon if she is to get a morning train.... You can take the Range Rover.... Colin is out in the Land Rover all morning.... and I don't think that Nikki would appreciate being picked up in the van. Keep the car all day and evening and bring it back tomorrow after Emma's birthday outing."
"Fine, I will go and collect her now, before I change into my working gear, can you telephone and ask her to be ready, in the drive?" I said getting up to leave. I really did not believe that I would have a problem with Nikki although Gwen had planted a seed of concern in my mind and I wasn't going to take the risk of being in the empty house alone with her.