Promises can get you into Trouble

As a hush fell over the audience one of Hollywood’s most glamorous events of the year, the announcer opened the gold coloured envelope and read the enclosed card. A smiled broke out on her face as she said,

“And the award for Best Adapted Screenplay goes to…”

This was the most eagerly awaited award of the Evening. Not the normal ‘Best Picture’, ‘Best Director’ etc.

The hot tip and the name on everyone’s lips was Hélène Harris. The story that got turned in the smash hit film that in turn got her the nomination was also up for 10 other awards was a sure fire certainty for at least six awards that evening.

The reason why this one award was so eagerly awaited was that no one knew who Hélène Harris was. Sure everyone knew that she’d penned nearly 20 novels that were regarded as a cross between Miss Marple and Angelina Jollie in Tomb Raider with lots of women’s underwear and sex. A sort of Female James Bond.

Over the almost 10 years since the publication of her first novel, she’d only ever given one interview. That was to the Journalist who less than six months later became her agent and voice to the world.

The bookies had stopped taking odds on the winner of this award. Three ‘blockbusters’ that Hollywood itself had been banking on for both revenue and awards had flopped dismally when they went up against ‘The Berlin Maid” that had been made for a grand sum of $30 Million. That sort of money would hardly pay for an ‘A’ List Hollywood star. All the cast apart from a Venerable and exceedingly aged British Actor were unknowns as was the Director and Producer.

In fact the first Hollywood got to hear about it were the fantastic reviews in the British Press and more importantly in on-line blogs by those who had sometimes queued all day to see it that enabled the release to go from just one screen in Notting Hill to a nationwide release in a matter of weeks.

A distribution deal was eventually made and the previous summer the file had topped the charts making the ‘bankers’ that Hollywood was relying upon strictly second rate sequels, prequels, RomComs and the inevitable teen movie.

Along came the award season and sure enough the film was nominated in almost every category. You could almost hear the groans of the Hollywood Execs when the nominations were announced 3000 miles away on Wall St. Most Hollywood studios saw 10’s of millions of dollars wiped off their value overnight.

The only bright side was that in her one interview, Hélène Harris that had happened some 10 years previously, she had promised that if she won an award such as this, she would reveal who she was.

The audience both inside the theatre and worldwide had been reminded of this fact over and over again in the weeks leading up to the ceremony that the price of a 30second Advertising on US TV slot had literally quadrupled overnight and the slots immediately before this award were snapped up even at 10 times their normal price such was the interest in who Hélène Harris was.

[10 years earlier]

“It’s that man who claims to be your literary agent on the phone again,” said the University Professors Secretary.

The Professor who was in his late 20’s and regarded as a high flyer on the Oxbridge Academic world especially as his book titled, “The Application of Stochastic Control Techniques to enhancing Mass Production Quality” had been a best seller especially in Japan where it had literally overnight changed the way almost every major car maker build their cars, grumbled and picked up the phone.

“I told you never to call me here?” he whispered.

“So what if she keeps on from here to eternity, the answer is No.”

“Yes. No. I won’t meet her even off the record.”

“I don’t care if she’s French and as good looking as Charlese Théron. The answer is still no. Now please do not call me at work again.”

He put the phone down.

“Sorry for that Mrs Symonds,” He called through the open door of his office.

Twenty seconds later, Mrs Symonds, a plumpish middle-aged woman came into the professors office.

“Since when do you have a literary agent? I though the University Press was handling all that kind of thing? And just who is trying to interview you?”

Mrs Symonds was a very good secretary but she was a real gossip. The fact that we was single, very good looking and was a world leader in his field meant that there were many single unattached women of a certain age on the University staff who would almost give their right arm for a date with the Professor. So any update on his availability would be spread like wildfire around both Oxford and Cambridge in a matter of hours.

The Professor, one Peter Jones, looked up from the immensely dull and tedious PHD dissertation he was reviewing with a weary smile on his face.

“Because my last book dull and boring as it is has topped the worldwide best seller list for the past 6 months, apparently I need a literary Agent so that I will get the best deal for my next book. They also want me to give an interview to the press. Not I might add about the book but about the man behind the book. It is supposedly for some rag like ‘Hello’ or ‘Ok’ or something like that. I keep saying no I won’t do it. I certainly don’t want to be on anyone ‘celeb’ list which I am sure will happen if I give the interview.”

He looked at Mrs Symonds hopefully.

“Ok? Satisfied?”

Although it was plain from her body language as night is day that it was not ‘ok’ Mrs Symonds replied.

“Ok. That will have to do.”
That was followed by a ‘for now’ under her breath.

“Good. Now can I please have some peace? I need to finish my peer review of this dissertation before first thing tomorrow morning.”

Mrs Simmons left him alone to his work. She knew the professor well enough that he really needed peace and quiet to do this sort of review.

[That night]

Peter got back to his Lodgings in one of the most eminent Oxbridge Colleges just after 9:00pm. He eventually finished the dissertation review just after 5pm and spent most of the next three hours writing it up and sending it to the Awards Committee. He’d left his office and headed to ‘The Angel’, his normal watering hole for a quick pint of good ale before finally heading to his rooms for the night.

He’d hardly got inside the room when his mobile phone rang. He looked at the number. He didn’t recognise it so slightly reluctantly he answered it.

“Hello?”

“Yes this is he. Whom am I speaking to?”

“No I can’t confirm or deny that I am that person.”

“You have what? Now look here. Getting hold of that is very much illegal.”

“Then I have no choice but to confirm I am the person you say I am.”

“Look here. I thought my agent Alan Evans had made it perfectly clear that I won’t do an interview. How did you get this number? If you print anything about this or me I will deny everything. Do you understand?”

Having let rip, he calmed down and listened to the person on the other end of the phone.

When they’d finished, he replied.

“Look. If it gets out that I am writing using a female ‘nom-de-plume’ and I’m not saying that I am, I will lose my post here. Those stories would not sit happily alongside my research in Applied Mathematics and Statistical Process Control Systems. The University would not hesitate to sack me on the spot. I’m also probably in line for the next Laucasian Seat.”

“The Laucasian Seat?”

“It is only the most prestigious post in British Science and Mathematics. Former holders are Isaac Newton and Stephen Hawking. I will only give interviews relating to my academic work and those are done by arrangement through the University Press.”

“No Madame LeClerc.”

“Sorry Mademoiselle LeClerc. I still won’t meet you. I think this conversation is at an end. Goodnight.”

He paused for half a second and then added.

“Just to inform you that this number will be out of service from now on. I will be getting a new one tomorrow.”

He snapped the clamshell phone closed without waiting for a reply. Then he rapidly pulled the case apart and removed the Sim card.

He angrily threw the now redundant card into a waste bin on his way home.

[Three Days later]

His phone rang again.

“So Miss LeClerc it hasn’t taken you long to get my new number. Well, thank you. I know exactly whom I gave it to. I will be taking measures to protect my privacy. You have been warned. One more call and I will pass this to the police. This is harassment. So back off. OK?”

He closed the phone and sat in his rooms in despair. A tear almost formed in his eyes before he wiped it away with his handkerchief.

He switched off the mini tape recorder that had recorded in crystal clear digital quality the whole conversation. Upon advice of his Lawyer friend, a Professor Samuelsson, it was not going to leave his side until this was all over one way or the other.

He had more or less forgotten the episode until when a few days later and just as he was about to duck through the low door and into the bar of ‘The Angel’ out of the pouring rain when fate took a hand.

“Professor! If I may have a word?”

Thinking that is was some prospective student he said almost automatically.

“Make an appointment through my Secretary.”

Not to be put off, she carried on.

“Professor. My name is Isabelle LeClerc, Mademoiselle Isabelle LeClerc. Please?”

He looked at the bedraggled person holding out her had in greeting and instantly felt rather sorry for her. It was obvious that she had been waiting for him for some time and in this terrible weather.

“Very well but just for a few minutes. Let’s get in here out of this rain.”

He let her into the Bar and quickly followed shutting the door behind him.

“Please take that wet coat off and sit down. I’ll get us something to drink. What will you have?” he rattled off without really thinking that here was the enemy in person.

“Whatever you are having. It does not matter,” she said grumpily.

He turned to the bar as she began to take off her dripping wet coat.

“Two pints of the usual Dave when you have a moment.”

The barman who was talking to someone in the other much larger bar looked up and saw the Professor.

“Hard day eh Professor? Jim’s down in the Cellar changing the Barrel. I’ll bring the drinks over in a minute.”

“Stick them on my tab please.”

“As usual,” replied Dave with a smile.

It was normal for academics to have bar tabs in places like this. Many of them hardly knew what day of the week it was let alone remembering to carry some cash with them. Once you were on staff and living in ‘rooms’ establishments like ‘The Angel’ would happily give you a tab and sent the bills to the College Bursar at the end of the month who would pay them and dock the money from their salary. This kept everyone happy unless any of the bills got too big.

He was watching her take of her scarf and shook at least some of the water from her hair. She was much, much younger than her voice sounded on the phone. She was several years his junior and exceedingly beautiful that was in no doubt. Her long raven black hair seemed to reach almost down to her waist. She wore a while silk blouse that was definitely from Paris but on the other hand she wore a pair of cheap bottom end chain store jeans and trainers. The jeans certainly did her delightful figure now favours.

He found himself thinking, “Oh bugger not again”.

She sat down and looked at him.

“Get a good look then?”

He smiled and came and sat on the other side of the table to her.

“As you ask, I did.”

“Men! Zoot-Alors” she said under her breath.

“Hey, you asked. If you want my honest opinion of what I saw then I’ll happily give it.”

She looked at him and saw that he was serious.

She sighed and said stuffily.

“If you must.”

He smiled back wondering how he could extricate himself from this chasm he was about to fall headlong into.

“From top to bottom then. Firstly your hair is delightful. It must be years since you have had it cut for anything other than a few split ends.”

She almost choked.

“Split ends! I’ll have you know I don’t have split ends. Ever!”

“Ok. I stand corrected on that”.

She grinned back at him.

“You die your hair and by the looks of it have been doing so for years. Can you even remember what the real colour is?”

She was about to interrupt once more but thought better of it. Her reddening face told him that he was not far wrong.

“The combination of a single strand of white pearls and a white silk blouse which is if I am not mistaken from Paris and a very good store at that. It is classic French Chic. Very nice. Ne c’est pas?”

She smiled back apparently approving of that compliment.

“However from then on it goes down hill and to be honest quite rapidly.”

She glared at him.

He was about to start his next sentence with ‘my dear’ but thought better of it.

“Ms LeClerc, you have if you don’t mine me saying so a very nice figure. But wearing a very cheap pair of chain store jeans and trainers plus you have odd socks on, really does send the wrong sort of message”.

He gave a little pause.

“Especially for door-stepping a University Professor?”

She was about to explode when she heard the bit about the odd socks.
She looked down and pulled up the trousers to reveal that is was true.

Her anger died down considerably.

She thought to herself that she couldn’t be angry with someone who tells her with a completely straight face that she was wearing odd socks.

“So I am wearing odd socks. What of it?”

He chuckled.

“Ms LeClerc, you are impeccably dressed above the waist. But below it, I get the impression you don’t care. That coming from a young French Woman who by her accent is from Paris who has been in London for several years and who can afford such a blouse, leaves me with no other option but to come to that conclusion.”

He paused for a second.

“Or, there is another reason”

“What!” she replied trying not to be angry?

“You simply overslept this morning and halfway through getting dressed you saw the time, panicked a bit and pulled on the first thing that came to hand just so you weren’t late for some appointment or other?”

He smiled.

“Of the two options, I honestly think I prefer the second reason.”

Just then Dave brought over the beer.

“Here you are Professor. Two pints of your usual.”

He hovered for a second.

“Thanks Dave.”

Dave tactfully withdrew. This was the first time he’d seen the prof in his pub with someone who was not an academic. He did approve.

He picked up his pint.

“Cheers.”

Still seething, she managed to do the same.

“Cheers.”

They chinked glassed.

He downed a good quarter of his pint.

She took a sip of the drink.

She put the glass down on the table rapidly.

“What is this rubbish?”

He grinned.

“That Ms LeClerc, is my normal drink for this fine Establishment. It is called ‘Broadside’ brewed in Southwold on the Suffolk Coast. If you don’t know, a Broadside was the sort of thing that Admiral Nelson’s ships did to Napoleons at the battle of Trafalgar I seem to remember.

He was trying his hardest to get rid of her. He thought that if he didn’t…

She bit her lip. It would not do for her to lose her temper despite the obvious goading that was going on.

She pushed the pint away.

“That is awful. How can you drink it?”

“It is not that different from some Belgian beers. Can I get you a nice sweet white wine? A Liebfraumilch perhaps?”

“You are trying my patience professor. A glass of Bordeaux if such a place like this would even dare to have a sample of the best wine in the world.”

Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Dave grinning at the two of them.

He raised his hand.

“Dave will go in search of a suitable wine for you. Would Madame, sorry Mademoiselle prefer a St Emillion of are you more of a Medoc person?”

“You really get a kick out of getting at me don’t you?”

“Hey, I’m not the one being pestered for an interview now am I?”

“Touch锝

Dave brought over a bottle a wine for Isabelle to review.

“Perhaps this is a suitable Bordeaux for Madame?”

“Madamo…. “

Then she realised that Dave was rising to the bait
She looked at the bottle.

The Chateau markings on the label seemed to impress her.

“Not the best year but it will have to do given the circumstances…”

Dave smiled.

“On your tab Professor?”

“How much is this going to cost me?”

“You really don’t want to know Prof. Believe me you don’t.”

“If the price is an issue then I will gladly pay for it,” complained Isabelle.
But Dave had gone and she was speaking to thin air.

She got up to find him.

He stopped her.

“He was joking believe me.”

Isabelle calmed down a bit.

Dave soon appeared with the wine bottle uncorked and two glasses.
He placed them on the table and poured a little into the glass in front of the Professor.

Isabelle’s anger rose visibly as the Professor tasted the wine.

“That will do us nicely thanks Dave.”

Dave disappeared after he’d poured a large glass for Isabelle and then set the bottle down on the table.

Peter said,

“I thought it was good manners in France for the man to taste the wine? Ne c’est pas?”

“So smarty pants Professor you speak some French.”

“Un peu. Un peu” {A little}

Isabelle tasted the wine.

“It is not bad though.”

“Good,” said the Professor who sat back holding his now nearly empty pint glass in his hand.

There was a ‘pregnant’ silence. Both were waiting for the other to speak first.

After nearly a minute Isabelle spoke.

“Are you going to give me an interview after all that I have been through today?”

He laughed.

“So, your cheap jeans and trainers got a bit wet.”

“And my hair. It is going to take an age to dry out.”

“Can’t help you there I’m afraid. We are not allowed non related visitors of the opposite sex to our room unless they are students at the college.”

This infuriated Isabelle.

“So you can bed the students but you can’t offer me a towel to dry my hair?”

He laughed.

“That just about sums it up. Unless you can prove here and now that we are related then (looking at his watch) as the shops have all shut just a few minutes ago your hair will have to wait until you get home. That is a shame as your hair looks fantastic wet.”

The baiting continued.

The meeting broke up an hour later. The Bottle of wine was empty as were both pints of beer.

The professor being the gentleman that he was escorted Isabelle to the station and saw that she was safely put on a London train.

He went to his rooms hoping that he’d seen the back of her.

[Two days later]

Despite his best efforts of being on the lookout for her, she met him again on his way to the pub after finishing work for the day. He turned a corner and there she was waiting to pounce once more.

“Don’t even say it. I am not giving you an interview.”

He walked on totally ignoring her protests until he reached the gates to his college. There, the ‘doorman’ politely stopped her from following him inside.

“I won’t give up you know?”

He carried on walking but was groaning inwardly to himself.

That night in his rooms, he contemplated his next move.

Exams were just around the corner and one of his jobs in the next two weeks was to mark the papers and also receive applications from prospective PHD students for the following year.

He realised that if he could get through these next two weeks, he could escape until October.

This cheered him up no end.

Sadly, his joy was short-lived because the following day he was summoned to the Rectors Office.

In the office and over afternoon tea, the usual niceties were dispensed with in a little of 10 minutes.

The Rector began.

“Peter, we have received a formal request for a press interview. They want to interview you it seems.”

“What is the publication? I thought that all of the relevant ones have had their fill of me by now?”

“I thought so too,” came the reply.

He looked at his paper.

“Apparently it is a publication titled ‘Tomorrow’s Girl’. I can’t say I have heard of that one before.”

Peter almost choked over his tea at the sound of ‘her’ magazine.

“I hope you have not given permission Rector. That is a magazine for 16 to 30 year old women. They are more usually concerned with the what Victoria Beckham wore to go shopping last week than a fuddy-duddy Applied Mathematics Professor. Besides, its audience is hardly likely to even begin to know about applying Taylors Sequence to Polynomial 4th order Equations.”

He was getting desperate.

“It appears that the Governor’s appear to like the idea. As you are by far our youngest Professor, in that age group and according to the women in the college office just about the most eligible bachelor in the City, I am forced to agree with them.”

“But Rector?”

“No buts Peter. The decision has been made.”

“What about my end of year duties?”

“Oh those. Bunty Fraser is quite capable of filling in for you. The PHD Candidates seem to be a pretty poor lot this year.”

Bunty was an assistant Professor. They didn’t get on as Bunty reckoned that the Professorship was by right his but he’d be brought in from ‘outside the University’ due to the success of his work and subsequent book.

Peter sighed and looked forward to the end of his world as he knew it in just a few days time.

“Did they give a timescale for the Interview?”

The Rector looked at his notes.

“They apparently have a ‘slot’ in the July edition which according to this goes to press in three weeks time. Is that enough time for you?”

“I think so Rector,” agreed Peter very reluctantly.

The Rector smiled.

“Give us a good show Peter. God knows we could do with a few more women on Staff you know.”

“Rector, I don’t think the interview will be about my work here. They will want to concentrate on my personal life. It is that sort of magazine.”

“Rubbish. Just give it to em straight.”

The Rector stood up indicating that the meeting was over.

Peter left the office and returned to his own full of doom.

Jan, his secretary saw his depression.

“How did the meeting with the Rector go then?”

“I have to give that bloody rag an interview. I will be all about my personal life and nothing about my work or the college. He can’t see part the end of his nose. He didn’t even know what sort of rag she works for. All tittle-tattle and gossip.”

She smiled.

“She has certainly got you rattled then?”

“Yes she bloody well has.”

With that he slammed the door to his inner office shut behind him.
Jan was going to enjoy the next few weeks. The college gossip machine would be working overtime.

*

The next two days were full of depression and very little work.
He went for a walk along the river in the spring sunshine in an attempt to cheer himself up.

It didn’t.

He ended up in a small café in a part of town that was unfamiliar to him. He realised that he’d been gone for most of the afternoon and that his stomach was rumbling.

He ordered some lethal ‘fry-up’ concoction and sat down with a pot of tea to contemplate his next move.

As an adjoining table two students were arguing over a piece of work.

“Just put down what I have to say. Then I’ll re-write it in my own words. That way they will never know that it wasn’t me who wrote it,” said one of the two.

“I don’t like it. We could both get kicked out if we are discovered,” replied the other two.

“If I don’t hand this essay in tomorrow then old Thunder Guts will have no option but to kick me out.”

“That is your own silly fault thinking that a Rowing Blue would give you a pass and then a cosy position at your fathers brokerage in the City. Nowadays, you need an Upper Second just to get an interview.”

“Yea I know. Are you going to do it?”

The second student sighed.

“I don’t think I have any choice. After all I am going to marry your sister…”

“Thanks bro,” said the first one.

The Professor downed the food with a smile on his face. His luck might have turned after all. It all depended to what extent she would go along with it as well.

[Three days later]

His mobile phone rang. Somehow she’d gotten hold of his new number once more.

“Hello,” he said in a slightly resigned manner.

“Yes I know the college has given their permission. I think we should meet and get the interview over and done with.”

“To meet yes but no not for the interview proper. To set the ground rules.”

“Yes Ground Rules. Look do you want an interview or not?”

“Good. Why don’t I come down to London tomorrow? Say we meet for lunch at Tate Britain.”

“No not the one near St Pauls. That is Tate Modern. I’ll let you find your way there. 1pm ok?”

He hung up without waiting for a reply and cursing ‘bloody foreigners’ under his breath.

He booked a table at the Museum and after collecting his things from his rooms he travelled down to London that morning. After spending the afternoon attending a lecture on the Higgs Boson and the LHC at the Royal Society he spent the night at a comfortable hotel in Bloomsbury. There was no sense in arriving stressed for the meeting the following day, it was far too important for that.

*

Isabelle was waiting for him notepad and tape recorder at the ready when he arrived at the Restaurant five minutes early.

When they were seated and had ordered, he said.

“You can switch that thing off and put your notebook away. This is not the interview. I made that very clear on the phone. Today we are going to set the ground rules for what follows. Is this clear?”

Isabelle looked disappointed.

“Naturally, if that is not possible then I will bid you good day. Oh, and you will be picking up the bill. So what is it to be?”

Isabelle thought for several seconds. She looked intensely at him in the hope of getting an ‘out’.

As none was forthcoming, she switched the recorder off and then asked.

“Ok. Where do you want to start?”

“Not so fast. I need to know a few things first.”

“Such as?”

“How on earth you got onto me in the first place. I thought I’d been so careful.”

“Oh, you were. Your publisher gave the game away accidentally I might add. Then it was a matter of a bit of sleuthing really.”
She smiled.

“Much like your heroine Hélène.”

They both laughed.

“Ok.”

He swallowed.

“Ground rule No 1.”

She looked at him expectantly.

“Nothing you see or here from now on can be used as direct quotes in your finished article.”

She thought for a few seconds.
“Wow. Nothing like a big one to begin with is there?”

“There is more believe me.”

“Now why do I do not think you are kidding?”

She looked at him puzzled.

“Because if you agree to everything then you will get to meet Hélène”

That really shocked her.

That was one answer she did not even consider possible.

“She exists?”

“Oh very much so.”

“I do not see that one coming,” she admitted still in a state of shock.

“Do you understand why I need ground rules?”

“Yes, I am beginning to think I do.”

“Good.”

“What is next?”

So it went on over Lunch and then while they walked back towards Central London alone the Victoria Embankment.

By the time they had gotten to Waterloo Bridge a deal had been struck.

As it was after 4pm, Peter suggested.

“Then to celebrate, we shall have afternoon tea at the Savoy?”

Isabelle couldn’t refuse such a nice suggestion.

As the walked up towards the Strand, she found herself thinking the unthinkable, I rather like him. As that thought sank in, a shiver went down her spine. This was going to trouble her that night and most of the following day.

Over tea in Peter produced some sheets of paper.

“I think you will find everything pretty much as we agreed down there.”

“What do you want me to do with this?”

“Read it and if it is as we have agreed, sign it.”

“When do I get to meet Hélène?”

He sighed.

“Is there no word in the French Language for ‘patience’?”

She held up her hand in submission. She couldn’t rush this despite her editor breathing down her neck constantly.

She signed on the dotted line, twice.

He gave her one copy and carefully pocketed the other.

She smiled at him and said,

“You had this all worked out didn’t you?”

He grinned back,

“Well I am a Professor of Applied Statistics at a world renowned university who rumour has it is going to be nominated for a Nobel Prize next year.”

This last bit hit her hard. Until then she had no real inkling of his standing in the Academic world. She realised that doing a hatchet job on him would be really unkind even if that were what her editor was constantly demanding. It was the magazines normal modus operandi after all.

“So what happens next? Now that I have virtually signed away my story?”

He smiled. He was taking a shine to this lovely French Woman. There again, he did always have a soft spot for them.

“It is just after five on a Tuesday afternoon. Our next meeting my friend the frustrated Journalist, is that you meet me with an overnight bag and your passport at Terminal 5, Heathrow on Thursday at 14:00 sharp.”

“Where are we going?”

“To see Hélène. To (he was counting off the items on his fingers), well for me to write the guts of your article, then for you to rewrite it in your own words naturally?”

And to himself, well who knows eh?

He flatly refused to answer any more questions and soon they went their separate ways.

Isabelle went back to her office and spoke to the editor, one Caroline Blackstone.
“Hi Caroline.”

“Hello Bella. Got that story yet?”

Isabelle hated being called that.

“Close. I’m very close. I’m going to meet Hélène this weekend,” she said with a big grin on her face.

“Where? I’ll make sure one of our snappers is there?” came the reply as she went to pink up the phone.

She held up her hand.

“I have no idea. It is probably abroad as I am to meet him at Heathrow Terminal 5 on Thursday afternoon.”

“You mean to say that you really have no idea where you are going?”

“Not in the slightest. Believe me, I tried and tried hard to get an inkling.”

Actually she had an idea that their destination was France but she wasn’t telling her editor that bit of information. She wanted to see how this played out before letting loose the press bloodhounds on him and the mysterious Hélène.

His knowledge of all things French and his accent was just too much of a coincidence for the answer to be anything else. Another reason she wasn’t saying much was she didn’t want to be usurped by one of the senior hacks on the Mag. From her limited experience at the Rag, this was a pretty commonplace event.

“Well keep me informed. I want daily updates. That’s what you have a phone for.”

“I’ll try.”

“No don’t just try, you must do it. You know we want a real exposé here. Real dirt. Those academics in their ivory towers won’t know what is about to hit them,” replied the editor with far too much glee for their own good.

At that moment, Isabelle wondered if she could ever write such a hatchet job.

*

At the appointed time, the pair met at Heathrow Terminal 5.

Isabelle was much better dressed than for their first meeting. Her skin-tight jeans showed off every desirable curve of her legs. A suitable amount of cleavage was also on show. A fine silk scarf added just the right touch. She looked very French, very chic.

Peter smiled at her when she appeared on the concourse.

“Let’s go through to airside, I have your boarding card already.”

He directed her through security and passport control.

When they were airside she asked once again.

“Where are we going?”

He smiled back.

“First, your phone please.”

She sighed.

It was one of the conditions she’d agreed to.

“It won’t work where we are going but just in case.”

She handed it over.

“Ok. So where are we going?”

“Toulouse. If we run we won’t miss the flight.”

This had been about the fifth ranked possibility for their destination that day. It was not a city or an area of France that she was familiar with.

They were the last two passengers to board after checking their weekend bags at the gate. There was no time for her to call the Magazine even if she had wanted.
As she settled back into her seat, she felt as if she was part of one of the stories that she was supposed to expose their author. It didn’t seem right really.

*

Peter refused to answer any more questions during the flight south to France’s 3rd City. He spent the flight working on a sheet of Mathematical Hieroglyphics.

Isabelle didn’t know that this was a deliberate ploy on his behalf to show that he was a serious person.

“There are far too many people in earshot. Walls have ears and all that,” was his curt reply when asked.

The WW2 saying meant nothing to her at all.

She sat back and read once again the latest copy of the French edition of Vogue.

Getting through Immigration and Customer when they landed at Toulouse was very easy so it was only some 20 minutes after landing before they were on the shuttle bus to the long-term car park.

With assurance, Peter located their vehicle, a well-used Land Rover Discovery. Right Hand Drive as well but sporting and a 09’ Department number plate.

“I can’t remember where 09 is?” remarked Isabelle.

“Shame on you. Don’t you get tested on Department names and Numbers at School?”

She laughed.

“You think the British Education Systeme is bad. The French one is far worse.”
She smiled at her use of the French ‘Systeme’.

“It is the Ariege. Which you should know is due south of here towards Andorra. Ever been down here before?”

She shook her head.

“Our Vaccances were to Les Alpes or La Cote d’Azure,” she replied deliberately mixing French and English.

He laughed.

“How typically Parisienne.”

“Yes and that is why I left at 15 and came to school in England, Cheltenham to be precise.”

“I know. I did some research on you as well,” he replied smiling.

She thought, was this man real or was this some dream?

Peter reached under the offside rear wheel arch and retrieved a key.

After unlocking the doors, he invited her to get in.

“Coming? Do you want to meet Hélène or not?”

She climbed in and they were off.

“In case you were wondering, my friend Jean-Claude delivered the ‘Rover yesterday. You will meet him this weekend. He is quite a character.”

Soon they were on the Autoroute heading south. The shadows of the Pyrenees were getting ever larger as they headed towards them.

A little over an hour later they’d reached Aix Les Thermes as darkness was falling.

“Be a dear and get a few ‘baguettes’ for dinner and breakfast tomorrow,” asked Peter as they pulled up outside a Pattiserie on the main road.

She soon returned clutching four fresh ‘baguettes’, she got in the car, without further word, he drove off once more.

“Where are we going?” asked Isabelle as she struggled to secure her seat belt.

He smiled an in the gathering gloom, he pointed up.

“Up there.”

“Up where?”

“To the East and a kilometre higher in altitude.”

The journey turned out to be much longer than she’d thought. The mysterious Hélène was certainly hard to find.

It was after 8:00pm local time when the Land Rover turned off the metalled road and onto a dirt track.

About 100m along it, they came to a building.

“We are here.”

“At last. I’m bursting for La Toilette.”

“Inside, second door on the right. The front door isn’t locked,” he replied with almost a chuckle in his voice.

While she was otherwise engaged, he unloaded the ‘Rover’ and got everything inside.

Together, they stood at the bottom of the stairs.

“You room is upstairs, third door on the left at the top. Why don’t you go and freshen up, get changed and I’ll get some dinner on the go. Madam Jean-Claude should have left us something that only needs heating up.”

Isabelle was almost about to argue but then she remembered the deal she’d agreed to in London.

A Little over twenty minutes later Isabelle came downstairs duly freshened up and decidedly hungry.

“That smells good. What is it?” She enquired upon entering the Kitchen.

“Just home-grown veggie soup with some Lardons.”

“Well, if it tasted as goods at it smells it will be delicious.”

He tossed her a corkscrew.

“Select a decent wine. The cellar door is behind you.”

This pleased her. Being involved meant a lot to her. Coming from a rich family that could afford Servants, she’d never been able to do the ‘little’ things that in her eyes made up a more rounded character.

She opened the door and after finding the light switch, she descended into the Cellar.

To say that she was shocked but she estimated that there must have been close upon a thousand bottles of wine down there.

She picked up one and hurriedly put it down. A 1951 Chateau Margaux Premier Cru. This was one time her upbringing was useful. She knew it was worth thousands of Euros at auction. She quickly counted more than 50 bottles of the same vintage.

She eventually found a more suitable wine for ‘Vin d’Table’ but even that she estimated would cost  £20+ at a supermarket in London even if would be doubtful that their speciality section would carry such a fine wine.

Once she was back in the kitchen, she opened the Bottle. She smelt the cork. It was ok.

“That is some collection of wine down there. It is worth a small fortune.”

Peter smiled.

“Nothing to do with me I’m afraid. Hélène’s parents are to blame for it all.”

The use of the word ‘blame’ confused her. Who on earth could be blamed for creating a collection like that?

She poured two glasses of wine and they sat down to eat a delightfully simple meal of the delicious soup with the fresh Baguettes and a lovely Burgundy.

At the end of the meal, Peter made some coffee.

“So when do I get to meet Hélène?” she asked probably putting a dampener on a lovely evening.

He laughed.

“You have walked past her at least twice already.”

Peter stood up.

He took her hand. With some uncertainty, she let herself be led out of the kitchen and up the stairs.

Halfway up the stopped.

Above them was a portrait. Now that she looked at it, it was an obvious family group. Peter was standing at the back. In front was a beautiful young woman holding a child aged about one year old.

“Meet Hélène. Also meet my daughter Jacqueline.”

She looked at Hélène . Then she recalled the bits of description that the five books so far published had contained. Put them all together and there was Hélène.

This was a totally unexpected turn of events.

“Where are they now?”

Peter looked very sad as he lovingly looked at the picture.

“They both were killed waiting for a bus in Paris. It was a drunken driver. They are buried outside in her family plot along with ‘Harris’ the family dog. This is as you may have guessed her family’s home, or rather it was. Now it is mine.”

More and more parts of her editors vision of an expose’ were falling apart with almost every sentence.

“I am so sorry. When did this happen?”

Then she got the connection. Helene and Harris, Helene Harris the author.

“Nigh on five years ago. I’d just graduated and got a research post at the Sorbonne. We were looking for an apartment in the 14 Arrondisment when it happened. As a result, I never took up the post. Instead I came down here, drunk a lot of wine and with the help of some very nice people, I eventually pulled myself together and continued writing.”

“The Hélène’ stories? You say continued?
Peter laughed.

“Sort of. I wrote most of my fourth book that summer. But I started having these ideas about a super female sleuth. But Helene was alive when the first three had been written and submitted to publishers and subsequently rejected,” he chuckled.

“However, by the fourth book, Helene had developed quite a bit. As the Times put it, a cross between Miss Marple and James Bond. I re-wrote a lot of the first books once I’d had one accepted for publication.”

“Is the fictional Hélène like the real one?”

“Oh yes. I lots of ways.”

He held up his hand.

“Don’t get me to identify them. A feature of her that I remember comes to mind and I put it in the story without even knowing I’ve done it until later.”

Isabelle looked at him.

“There is a lot more to it than that isn’t there?”

He smiled.

“Yes. Yes there is. Tomorrow you will see some more. Please don’t rush me. This is rather hard. Apart from the people who live in this Hamlet and the nearby Village, you are the first person to even know the real secret of Hélène’.”

He took her coffee cup and she headed to bed.

Sleep was hard to come by that night. In the brief time she been in this house, her whole idea about him had been turned on its head. Well, more than that, kicked into outer space. There was no way she was going to write an expose of him. She decided that if pushed, she’d quit the job rather than ruin his life for the sake of a few copies of a rag that would be forgotten by the next edition.

As she was drifting off, to sleep she wondered if the fine wine was clouding her judgement. So she made herself a promise to see how things would turn out the following day before deciding upon her journalistic fate.

*

Isabelle was woken by a combination of the morning sun streaming through the bedroom window and the smell of fresh Coffee wafting it’s way up from downstairs.

Somewhat reluctantly she got out bed and looked out of the window. This was her first glimpse of the landscape. It was magnificent. Lush Meadows with cows grazing contentedly. The sound of the neck bells was clearly audible through the still air.

Then there was this fantastic backdrop of the Pyrenees. There and then she decided that this was one of the most beautiful places on Earth and it was in her own country! C’est Fantastique. C’est Incredoyable!

A few more things fell into place.

Getting dressed was another problem altogether. She’d thought long and hard about what to bring. The problem was that as she didn’t know where they were going trying to pack for the destination was just impossible.

In the end, she’d packed a total mishmash of items but a lot of her hopes were based upon a simple sweater dress that she could accessorize in dozens of ways. She hoped that this would be suitably “French Chic’ for him. His comments although true had hurt her more that she’d realised.

This weekend, she was determined to set that straight.

She teamed the dark grey, verging on black dress with a single row of white pearls. She put her hair into a loose braid that fell over her left shoulder. She tied it off with a length of red ribbon.

Then she set to with her makeup.

After his criticism of her messy dress style, she had taken a good look at herself and decided to smarten things up. This included her makeup. Now she was taking a lot more care with it. This was especially true with the eyeliner. She’d treated herself to some semi permanent lashes that just cried out for oodles of black mascara.

She gave the same amount of care to her lips.

As she was about to leave her bedroom, she saw her reflection in the mirror.
Then a thought crossed her mind.

“Was she trying too hard to please him? Was this right for a Friday morning with no idea what was in store for them that day?”

She dithered. Twice she started towards the door. Twice she went back.
Finally she went back to her case and quickly pulled out a scarf which she would round her neck and then put on a black beret at a jaunty angle.

It was well after 10:00am before she made an appearance.

“Good Morning,” she said cheerfully.

Peter was reading a local paper.

“Good Morning. I trust you slept well?”

“I did. Why didn’t say you say anything about the view? It is fantastic.”

He smiled back.

“Isn’t it nicer to discover things like that for yourself?”

She kicked herself. He was right once again. This was becoming a bit of a habit.

“What are your plans for the day?”

He smiled back.

“That rather depends on you?”

“Why me?”

“Well, I am sure that you have a zillion questions for me.”

“I do but I am sure we will have time for them later.”

“Probably.”

She took a sip of her Coffee.

“I clean forgot to ask when we are going back to London?”

“You are booked on a flight on Monday Afternoon.”

“Pourquoi?”

“I’m not sure if I am going back. That’s all.”

“But your, Professorship, the College, the University and your research?”

“I can do the research from here perfectly well. As for the professorship, well I may have other things on the agenda that mean that in order to achieve them, I will have to resign from the University.”

This frankness seemed to be typical of him. This was actually appealing to her.

“I hope I am not the cause of this possible resignation?”

He thought for a while before answering.

“Yes and No.”

He held up his hands when he saw that she was about to ask a question.

“I know that seems like a cop-out but I hope before the weekend is out it will be clear.”

“I really hope so,” She replied quietly.

After Breakfast, he showed her the grave of his wife and daughter. There were some fresh wild flowers on the grave. There was also a third even smaller grave next to the daughters’ one. It simple said “Harris”.

“Jean-Claude, her brother tends the grave when I am not here,” he explained.

“Does he blame you for her death? That sometimes happens in a close knit family.”

“No. Well, at least I hope he does not. He always says that the few short years we had together were the happiest of her life. Her inspiration lives on in the work I produce.”

“Who is Harris? I’m guessing that it has some association with your Nom-de-plume?”

Peter smiled.

“Harris was our or rather Jacqueline’s dog. He went everywhere with her. He was badly injured in the accident and despite his injuries, he was trying to lick my daughter back into life.”

Peter started to cry as the memories came flooding back.

Without thinking, she held him tight until he had regained his composure.

As they stood there she realised that there was absolutely no way this man despite her initial opinions of him had angered her deserved a ‘hatchet job’ being done on him. She knew that he was a very private man who was literally bearing all to her. Now she started to understand why there had been a need for the non-disclosure agreement.

Then he realised that Isabelle was holding him, he broke off their semi-embrace.

“I’m sorry for that. I don’t know what came over me,” he said apologetic.

“No Peter. It was me who held you. There are obviously some painful memories that caused you to cry like that. You must have loved them dearly. That is plain to see.”

He gave her a little smile.

“Are you starting to understand why I laid down those rules?”

“Yes. Yes I am. I’m not sure what my Editor is going to say though.”

He gave her a stifled laugh and said under his breath,

“You ain’t seen nothing yet.”

Then to her surprise, he took her hand and led away from the grave and down a track. She was glad that she’d chosen to wear only 2in heeled ankle boots that morning.

Soon they were climbing up quite a steep hill. They turned to look back at the small cluster of buildings and to get their breath.

He pointed out the area below.

“That is the family farm. Jean-Claude lives with his family on the other house,” he said pointing out the smaller hose below.”

Peter carried on with his description.

“He raises mostly Cattle and a few sheep. It is about 150 Hectares in total. Luckily for him, I have no interest in the farm. Hélène was the younger child so it would have gone to him when their parents died. However, I came along and whisked her away leaving the Farm in the more than capable hands of Jean-Claude.”

“Will I get to meet him?”

“Oh yes, and his family. He’s away in Foix this morning. He sells some Cheese and some delicious Lamb Sausage at the Market. He attends the markets in Moirpoix and Foix Markets on a Thursday and Friday.”

“Is he married?”

“Yes to Natalie. She’s the schoolteacher in the next Village. Totally down to earth, a very remarkable woman. Not at all like you.”

Isabelle felt a little hurt by this.

“Excuse Moi? Would you care to explain yourself?”

He laughed.

“Once you meet her there will be no need for an explanation.”

Yet another mystery for her to solve before this weekend was over. She added it her ever-growing list of items to be resolved before she could write her article, if she ever did.

He led her further on up the track into the forest. The place was full of life.

Birdsong was everywhere. Spring flowers were abundant and the differing scents were almost overwhelming.

She thought that this was literally a million miles from Paris.

He stopped.

“Listen.”

She listened.

“What am I supposed to be listening for?”

He laughed.

“That is just it. There is nothing apart from the sounds of Mother Nature. No planes. No cars nothing. Are you getting to see why I like this place and giving up the University despite all its advantages especially money, would not be that much of a struggle.”

“I think so. Yes. I think so.”

They carried on walking for another kilometre or so where the track ended. Through the trees there was the most fantastic panorama.

It clearly took her breath away.

“This is fantastic,” she said looking north.
Peter pointed down into the gorge.

“We are more than a kilometre above that road down there.”

“That high?”

“You can walk down it you want. Or you can drive. It is only twenty or so Km by road. The gorge is a favourite spot for hikers. You can get into the gorge from this end from the nearest Village. We should go there for Lunch on Sunday. They do the most magnificent Lamb Sweetbreads.”

Isabelle was not sure what Lamb Sweetbreads were or even if she’d like them but seeing some of the locals was going to be interesting.

After some fifteen minutes standing there she asked.

“What did Hélène do? You know for a living, that took her away from here?”

“She was an aspiring actress, a very determined woman.”

Then he said something that surprised her.

“A lot like you in many ways.”

He continued.

“When she was 16, she’d moved up to Paris and stayed with a relative of Natalie’s. She’d even managed to get some small bit parts in a couple of films. Then she got a place at Drama school in Paris. That is where we met. I was attending a seminar in Paris. I bumped into her at the restaurant.”

Then he paused and his eyes started to well up as he continued, “our eyes met and that was it. Love at first sight. Well almost. My bumbling French almost ruined it right from the start. But she saw what I meant and then we got on fine.”

“So it does happen then? Love at first sight?

“Well, I thought so. I think it took a little longer for her though.”

“How long was it before you proposed?”

“Three days. After that first day, I knew I had to do it before the Seminar ended or we’d never meet again.”

“She said yes?”

“Yes. Then she said, ‘why did it take you so long.’”

Isabelle burst out laughing.

“I can see that she was as direct as you then.”

“Yes. That was one of the things that convinced me that she was the one for me.”

“What about her career, the Drama School?”

“That was during her second Semester. At the end of it, her tutor took her aside and told her that she’d never make the grade as an actress but instead he offered her a place on his staff teaching people.”

“I don’t follow. If she was no good as an actress the why would she made a good teacher?”

“It is not that she was no good as an actress. She was very good but the French Theatre and TV really don’t like what the Americans call Method Actors. Unfortunately, she was one of those. She would get totally into the role.”

“So. What is wrong with that?”

“Most French Directors hate it with a vengeance. American Imperialism etc.”

They both laughed.

“L’Academie Francaise ne c’est pas?”

“Exactament,” she replied agreeing with him there.

“So what happened then?”

“Hélène didn’t believe her tutor. Like you she thought how could she be such a great teacher unless she had success as an actor. She was also rather depressed that she was not going to be the next Katherine Denueve.”

“She came back here and sulked for a month or so. It was summer so I came too.”

He giggled as he remembered his wife.

“When she was in that sort of mood it was… well, her method acting. I’m sure you can guess the rest.”

He smiled back and left him continue.

“With the help of Jean-Claude and Natalie, and with an awful lot of pressing and certainly more than two bottles of wine we came up with a plan. She would take on a seemingly impossible project to convince her that she would make it as a teacher.”

“What was the project?”

“That was the hard part. We searched high and low for something for her. Idea after idea was examined and tossed aside. Then one weekend we were here having dinner with Jean-Claude when Natalie suggested something.”

She sighed. This was like getting blood out of a stone.

“And?”

“After lots of laughter and a thousand reasons why it wouldn’t work, Hélène agreed to sleep on it.”

“Did she?”

“Like hell she did.”

“We both tossed and turned all night. We argued and that was something we’d never done before all the next day. Eventually, on the plane to London, it was settled. Initially, it was out of frustration on my part but yes it was settled.”

“So what was the project? I don’t quite get where you fit in?”

He looked at his watch.

“Lets head back. It is nearly lunch time”

“Hey, not so fast. You can’t quit now, just s you were about to deliver the punch line?”

He laughed.

“Will you accept seeing the results of her project for yourself? Will that be ok?”

He was clearly nervous.

She looked him straight in the eye. He was not lying.

“It looks like I will have to settle for it then.”

“Good. I expect you are hungry. Isabelle, how good a cook are you?”

He turned and started back down the hill.

“Hey wait for me. Not so many questions?”

She caught up with him.

“Of course I can cook. Why?”
“Because you are chef for lunch today.”

“What will you be doing?”

He put his index finger to her lips.

“Shhhh. No more questions on this until we sit down to lunch.”

She knew she was being manipulated but quite how she was unsure. She’d been the one asking the questions.

“Hmmpphhhh.”

“Exactly. Now watch that pair of Black Woodpeckers up there.”

He was pointing to two black birds with red crests tapping rapidly on a dead tree trunk.

“The female is the one with the smaller red crest. She only gets it during the breeding season.”

She thought, ‘Oh how I hate it when he does that but…’.

*

When they got back to the farmhouse, he directed her towards the kitchen.

“Prepare what ever you want but not to much as we are dining at Jean-Claude’s tonight and… well there will be a lot of food on the table.”

“Yes my Lord and Master,” she replied grumpily but in good humour.

He looked at the kitchen clock.

“Shall we say Lunch at 1:30 then?”

That was more than an hour and a half away.

“Fair enough,” she replied. It would give her some time to make some notes on the mornings events. They would make interesting reading when it came to writing her article.

Then she stopped. She remembered that she had agreed to let him write the article.

She decided that she needed to make some notes. She did she let him take her hand like that. There were a million questions buzzing around in her head.
She wondered if getting them down on paper would help.

*

Just before 1:30, she went to the bottom of the stairs and called out.

“Lunch is served wherever you are?”

“Ok, go and sit down. I’ll be down in a moment,” came the reply from upstairs.

She was almost tempted to go upstairs and find out for herself what this mystery was but she bit her tongue and resisted the temptation.

She poured two glasses of some local Cider and sat at the table.

Two minutes later she heard some footsteps coming down the stairs. They sounded very different to the ones she’d heard going up. These were much lighter.

She turned to look towards the doorway into the hall.

When she saw the owner of the footsteps come round the corner she knocked over her glass of Cider. It smashed on the floor.

She couldn’t take her eyes off the person standing before her.

“Hello. Peter told me you would be waiting for me. My name is Sophia.”

The mysterious woman came into the kitchen. She was wearing a black sleeveless turtle neck sweater, a ‘mini’ kilt, opaque black tights, some very high -heels and had strawberry blonde hair. Her make-up was faultless.

Sophia came to the table and extended a hand to Isabelle.
Still open-mouthed, she shook Sophia’s hand.

“What?”

For the second time in as many fours, a finger was placed delicately on her lips.

“Please sit down before you fall down.”

Still unable to take her eyes off Sophia she did as she was told.

“How?”

Sophia fetched a new glass and filled it with some more Cider and placed it in front of her.

“Meet Sophia, the Heroine of my stories and a total work of fiction designed and created by Hélène.”

“But your voice? Your face? Your… everything?”

Sophia sat down next to her.

“I was Hélène’s project. It took almost 18 months before Sophia as you see her now was perfected and unveiled to the world.”

Sophia smiled.

“Do you approve? Do you like what you see?”

Isabelle sat there shaking her head.

“I know you have told me but I still can’t believe it is you. You, a University Professor?”

Sophia smiled.

“Yes. I’m sure that you would have to agree that Hélène was very good at her job. She would have made a top class teacher had she lived”, replied Sophia with a heavy tone to her voice.

“Lets eat. Mind you I can’t eat much in this outfit.”

“Why?”

Sophia sighed. It was him underneath that all right.

“Didn’t you listen to what I said? Haven’t you read my stories? What is Sophia’s trademark?”

“Her… Her multifunction corset?”

Sophia smiled.

“Exactly.”

Sophia took her hand and put it on her stomach. Sure enough there was a corset underneath that jumper.

“Is it.. you know like the one in your stories?”

Sophia laughed.

“Yes but more about that later. Lets eat and we have all afternoon to talk things over.”

*

They spent all afternoon talking. Never once did he slip out of character even though Isabelle tried her dammed hardest to make her do so. Somehow the subject of the corset never came up.

Time was getting on when Isabelle asked.

“Don’t you have to go and get changed? Aren’t we going for dinner at Jean-Claude’s?’

“We are and no I don’t, well not in the way you think. After all they have seen Sophia many times before. Remember, I was Natalie’s idea in the beginning.”

Isabelle sat there shaking her head.

Then Sophia said.

“Perhaps you would like to go and get changed. I’m going to wear a LBD tonight. I hope you don’t think me too forward, I have laid out something I’d like you to wear on your bed.”

It was all getting a bit much for her. Then it was made a million times worse.

Sophia leaned over and gently kissed Isabelle. She met with no resistance. In fact it was a good 10 minutes before they came up for air.

“God what have I done?” she exclaimed.

“Kissed someone who really fancies you and has been wanting to do that to you ever since that wet afternoon in the pub.”

Isabelle sat there in shock but with a nice warm feeling that was troubling her.
“But?” she uttered.

For the third time that day, a finger was placed over her lips. She shut up. If fact, she was starting to like being bossed around by this chameleon of a person sitting next to her.

“You remember you asked how long I took to ask Hélène to marry me?”

“Yes why?”

Sophia reached into one of the small pocked in the kilt and pulled out a ring.

“This time, I am little going to be just a little bit faster.”

Sophia picked up her left hand and slid the ring onto her ring finger.

“Will you marry me?”

“Who am I marrying? Is it Peter or Sophia?”

“Who is asking?”

“Sophia?”

“Then Sophia it is then,” replied Sophia grinning.

“But… I’m not…”

“Not a lesbian.”

Sophia laughed.

“To those who don’t know maybe but to us never.”

Isabelle looked down at the ring on her finger.

For some reason it sort of felt right. She had never imagined a proposal like this one and after such a short time. She asked herself, ‘did she want to take the ring off or not?’. To her amazement, the answer was no and an emphatic one at that.

“This was all planned wasn’t it?”

“Sort of. I did a bit of leading in the right general direction but you asked the right questions at about the right time so yes it was. Just like with Hélène, I knew from that very first meeting in the pub with all that wet hair that I wanted to marry you. You were out to ‘get me’ with all guns blazing so my problem was how to win you round. I talked things over with Jean-Claude who suggested that if I was that serious, I should bring you down here to meet Hélène and have the opportunity if the need arose to meet Sophia.”

“He is in on this as well?”

“Oh yes. Jean-Claude is a remarkable man. He is a very quiet and serious Frenchman. I am sure you will like him.”

She sat there playing with this lovely diamond ring.

“I don’t know what I’m going to tell my editor?” she joked.

She looked at Sophia through somewhat watery eyes and said almost in a whisper.

“Yes I will marry you. I don’t know why but for some reason I can’t say no. I can’t find a reason to say no and I don’t want to….”

This time a pair of perfectly luscious lips shut her ramblings up.

*

A long time later, they both went upstairs to get ready for dinner. To her pleasant surprise, the LBD that Sophia had selected was perfect for her. Well, it wasn’t an LBD but a LWD. It was pure white silk with a thin black belt with the familiar interlocking ‘C’s’. She sat down on the bed holding this precious garment.
Through watery eyes, she looked at this dress. It, along with the events downstairs had made her come over all funny. She was most certainly not in control of her emotions any longer. Why this dress, all €2,000 worth of it would turn her to jelly was just so far beyond her comprehension, all she could think of was that yes, she was in love. The feelings running through her body were so intense she almost had a spontaneous orgasm there and then.

She lay back on the bed careful not to crease the delicate silk of the dress and just stared at the ceiling. He left hand wandered up her dress and down he knickers. She was so wet. Wetter then she’d ever been before.

It took her only a few seconds before she climaxed. The feelings were far beyond any one she’d had before. “Wow” she muttered to herself.

Eventually, she roused herself and took a very quick shower. Once she was dry, she then turned her attention to her makeup and hair. She put her hair up on a semi ‘bun’ but left about 30cm hanging down to her neck.

Her makeup took almost all the time remaining before dinner.

She’d hardly zipped up the dress and attached the belt before there was a light knocks at the door.

“Coming,” she replied as she preened herself in the mirror.

She slipped her highest heeled shoes on her feet being extra careful not to ladder the sheer black stockings that had been laid out alongside the dress. Thankfully, Sophia had also laid out a suspender belt.

Then she noticed it.

“Oh Merde!”
It was more than a case of VPL but black panties and bra under an almost see-through white dress was in her eyes, a major ‘No-No’. She unzipped the dress and quickly removed her bra and panties and put the dress on again.

Her now erect nipples and huge nearly dark brown aureoles were very visible through the thin fabric of the dress.

Somehow it didn’t matter that she was naked under this flimsiest of dresses.

She did the dress up and checked herself in the mirror once more.

She mentally thanked herself for giving herself a complete shave ‘down below’ only two days previously. At least that bit of hair would not be an embarrassment.

A strange thought crossed her mind. She remembered his statement about her real hair colour. He was right. She’d been dying it jet black ever since she’d moved to London and stopped cutting her hair.

She did know the real colour of her hair after all as she remembered the fiddling with the razor in the bath only a few days before.

She smiled inwardly to herself and slipped into her shoes.

She whispered to herself, ‘I’m Ready’.

She opened the door to find Sophia standing there waiting for her.

For the first time she realised, she was seeing Sophia properly. For a man she looked a very attractive woman. God she thought. I’m more than likely going to get into bed with her tonight.

She clasped her legs together to stop any further thoughts that might mean a spoilt dress and as a young supposedly ‘chic’ French Woman, that would never do.

Sophia held out a hand.

“You look delightful. I hope the dress fits well?”

“Yes. I know you didn’t bring it with you on the plane. But how?”

Sophia smiled.

“I bought it for Hélène but she never had the chance to wear it. I think it actually suits you more than her. She always preferred LBD’s. She picked this one for me.

Sophia did a twirl.

She too was wearing stockings. Seamed ones this time and very high heels. The dress was beautiful. Lots of lace and fitted over her corset perfectly.

Hand in hand they walked down the stairs.

Isabelle noticed that Sophia was certainly no amateur when it came to walking in heels. Isabelle on the other-hand hardly wore anything higher than 3in with flats being her more normal choice of footwear when she was in London at least.

As the bottom of the stairs were two pairs or Rubber boots.

“Unless you want to risk breaking one of those quite delightful high heels on the way over to Jean-Claudes or even worse, tread in something that the cows leave behind, I suggest you put these on.

Talk about a dampener on the proceedings but as ever, Sophia was making sense.
So hand in hand and carrying their ‘glam’ shoes in the other, they made their way the 100m or so to Jean-Claude’s house.

As they walked up to the front door it opened.

Isabelle was surprised to see a face she recognised in front of her. After a second, the surprise turned into pure shock. The woman standing front of them was former Super-Model, Natalie Dechamps.

“Hello. You must be Isabelle. Please come in and welcome to our home,” she said smiling.

“Jean-Claude is just back from milking the cows and is saying goodnight to the Children. He’ll be down shortly. Please come on into our home.”

“But,” gasped Isabelle, totally surprised at her host and who she’d once been.
Natalie smiled.

“Yes. You are right in your guess. I was once Natalie Dechamps. Now I am Natalie Theroux, primary school teacher and mother of 2 year old twin girls.”

“Pl… Pleased to meet you.”

“Me too” she replied. I have heard so much about you from Sophia.”

“Eh?’

Natalie giggled.

“Sophia phoned me on my way home from School and gave me a status update.”

Yes again more things seemed to be falling into place. No wonder Sophia had said that she would understand when they met Jean-Claude’s wife.

The surprises were still not over for the day.

Jean-Claude made an appearance.

Not for the first time that day, Isabelle just stared in surprise.

Jean-Claude was smoking a large curved pipe, had a Mexican style moustache but the thing that surprised her the most was the huge, and she meant huge beret he was wearing. It must have been a full 60cm in diameter.

“So, Sophia you have popped the question Yes?” were his first words.
She was to find out that night that Jean-Claude was a man of few words.

Sophia held up Isabelle’s hand showing of the ring.

“C’est Magnifique Oui?”

She grinned broadly. These two important people had apparently accepted her without question.

Jean-Claude removed his Beret much to the amusement of Isabelle.

He saw her snigger.

“Mademoiselle, if you think this Beret is like American Cowboys and their Big Hats. It is to keep the sun out of your eyes and ze flies out of ones hair. Oui?”
Natalie apologised for her Husband.

“He is only joking. This is the traditional Beret that is or, rather used to be worn on the Plateau. Only a few people including Jean-Claude carry on the tradition.”
Jean-Claude added.

“As well as getting a few tourist sales in the Markets Mon Cheri.”

Isabelle saw the look of love that passed between their hosts. She was puzzled how and why this unlikely pair would ever get together. She remembered the news headlines when Natalie announced her immediate retirement. It stunned the fashion world. How she ended up in this neck of the world would have to wait for another day.

One thing was certain, her editor must not know about Natalie or Jean-Claude for that matter under any circumstances. It would be the scoop of the year but could totally destroy their lives. She was enough of a Journalist to know of the impact that this could have on two people who were in all likelihood going to be part of her life from now on.

The evening was a perfect end to a monumental day for her and Sophia.

They repeated the wearing of boots on the way back to their house.

Isabelle suddenly stopped. She was already thinking of Sophia’s home as her own.

“What’s up?” asked Sophia.

“No… nothing. Well, yes there is…”

Sophia held her hands and looked her in the Eye. The brilliant Moonlit night shone down on the couple. It was very romantic.

Isabelle was just about to say something when a gust of wind blew their dresses up.

They fell into each other’s arms laughing and giggling.

“What were you going to say?” whispered Sophia.

“I can’t have imagined a day like today. I’m afraid I’ll wake up tomorrow and find out that it was a bad dream.”

Sophia held her tight.

“Then I will have to be lying beside you to persuade otherwise, won’t I?”

Without waiting for an answer, Sophia took off dragging Isabelle with her.

*

When she woke up the following morning and sure enough there was a very bedraggled Sophia lying beside her. On her finger was the ring just where it had been placed the previous afternoon.

It hadn’t been a dream after all.

*

Over breakfast, Sophia said

“Remember the agreement you signed. Now can you understand why I asked you to sign it?”

“Yes I can now. I couldn’t believe who it was who answered the door. I’m sorry my darling for not accepting that you had reasons for wanting it.”

“No, I should be the one to say sorry. Yes, Natalie was one of the reasons for wanting you to sign that document. But, I was being very selfish. I should have explained some of the reasons in more detail.”

Isabelle took Sophia’s hand.

“It does not matter now. I understand. This must have been difficult for you in more ways than one.”

Then she asked something that had been troubling her all night.

“How on earth did Jean-Claude and Natalie get together?”

Sophia giggled.
“Purely by chance. Call it fate if you must.”

Then she became serious.

“It is common knowledge that many in the High Fashion business are well into various illegal substances. Natalie was one of those. In the end, it got so bad that she had to go into Rehab.”

Isabelle understood this. Her magazine had a photographer almost continuously stationed outside the place most celebs went to dry out.

Sophia continued.

“She spent three months in Rehab. When she was released, she was told to get away from Paris, as far as possible. To somewhere where she was an unknown. That place turned out to be here. She rented a cottage about a mile away. This was in the March. There was a late and very heavy snowfall a day or so after she moved in. Jean-Claude knew that someone was in the Cottage. All Power was out so he went over there on his quad bike and rescued her.”

“So boy meets girl and…”

Sophia laughed.
“Hardly. Quite the opposite really.”

She continued.

“She stayed with Jean-Claude for more than a week. Then she disappeared back to Paris and her modelling career. Jean-Claude remained here with Hélène and the rest of the family. They all missed the lovely and funny woman who’d been in their lives all too briefly.”

“So how?”

“Patience. I’m coming to that part.”

She swallowed.

“Once back in Paris, Natalie realised that nothing had changed. It seemed that almost every other person was offering her some Cocaine or Heroine. She’d seen a different life down here. She had a choice, go back to her old life and get hooked again or quit to avoid the temptation. Fortunately, reason won over and she walked out right in the middle of her first big shoot after her return.”

“I remember that. Everyone said that she’d gone back into Rehab.”

Sophia smiled.

“Sort of. She came back here and asked Jean-Claude for a job, any job on the farm.”

“Why? She had enough money to retire and do nothing.”

“Yes but she knew that she needed to be doing something. She’d trained as a teacher before being discovered as a Model but having someone called Natalie Dechamps applying for a job would certainly bring the paparazzi down from Paris.”

Sophia smiled.

“Then Jean-Claude apparently said, ‘you can have a job. Be my wife. Get pregnant and live here. Get a job but not as Natalie Dechamps but Natalie Theroux.”

“She said yes? Just like that?”

“Well not straight away. It took her some time to realise that Jean-Claude was being perfectly serious. Naturally, she had many proposals before but there was something about this one that made her think.”

“So she said yes?”

Sophia put that finger to her lips once more.

She shut up.

“Not straight away. She told Jean-Claude that she’d give him an answer before the end of the Holidays.”

“Eh? Why then?”

“The beginning of September is the end of the French Holiday season. You know when everyone goes back to work”

“Yes I know that,” replied Isabelle remembering the crowded Auto-Routes up through the Rhone Valley.

“Well, the end of September is the start of the Fashion Season. You know, Milan, Paris, London and New York. This period is by far a super-models busiest time. If she was going to go back to her former life than that was when she’d have to leave.”

“Ok I get that.”

“Well Natalie came every day and worked on the farm. She did everything from milking the cows to cleaning out the pigs to helping with the harvest. She saw what farm life would be like if she stayed.”

“So she said yes?”

“She did. Yes she said to Jean-Claude in the middle of august that she would stay and perhaps they’d get married but she had to go back to Paris to formally announce her retirement. On the 1st of September, she took the train to Toulouse and thence to Paris where a few days later she formally announced her retirement. She sold her apartment, her car and everything. At the end of September, turned up on the train with only two suitcases in hand.”

“But didn’t anyone recognise her? You know on the train?”

Sophia laughed.

“She, like many of her former colleagues had disguises they would wear to go out in public. Natalie was no exception. Jean-Claude didn’t recognise her. She saw his Beret and went straight up and kissed him for the first time.”

“But… were they in love. I saw them yesterday and they are devoted to each other.”

“Yes they are now but then? Only they can tell that. She obviously saw something in him. Perhaps it was his directness or the fact that he treated her like a normal person not as some super celebrity? I don’t know but even though he was much younger than her, they got married in early April the following year.”

“That explains why she just disappeared off the radar after quitting.”

“Yes it was. Total. Complete and Final.”

“They are obviously happy here.”

“Yes they are, as I was with Helene and I hope we can be as well?”

Isabelle gave Sophia her answer buy taking her back to bed where, for the first time, she made love to her. She refused to have intercourse until they were married. Sophia was enjoying the attention her penis was receiving far too much to argue with that.

They stayed in bed until hunger pains forced them to get up in late afternoon.

The pair spent the rest of the weekend discussing their hopes and aspirations for the future. They went out on the Sunday to a local Brasserie for Lunch. Isabelle was slightly nervous as she was going out with Sophia for the first time. Her worries were ill founded. Sophia was welcomed like a long lost friend by one and all.

By the time Isabelle and Peter put Sophia away for the time being and flew home on the Monday afternoon, they were both clear about the way ahead.

Isabelle had read Peter’s version of her story with amusement. Factually, it was very correct. Yes they had travelled about 4 hours from London. Yes she’d met Hélène. Yes there was a family who would be ruined if there were any press exposure.

On the plane home, she re-wrote it using her own words and hoped that her editor would accept it. She also penned her letter of resignation from the magazine.

They parted at Paddington Station after a weekend that no one could have even dreamed of at the outset.

The following morning Isabelle went into the Magazine. She’d just left the Tube station when her phone rang. It was Peter.

“Hello Darling”

“Yes I’m just going into the office now.”

“Oh!”

She looked at her left hand. She was still wearing her ring.

“Yes I am,” she said smiling.

“No it wouldn’t look right to be away the weekend with you and to come back engaged. Don’t worry my darling. I’ll take it off.”

“Bye. Love you.”

She hung up the phone with a huge grin on her face.

With the ring safely put away in her purse, she went into the work and straight into the Editors office.

“Liz?” she asked as she put her head around the office door.

Liz waved her into the office and to sit down.

Liz finished the phone call she was on.

“Well, Bella, come on spill the beans? Did you get the interview? Did you get something that will rock our readers”?

“I did. I got the interview.”

She handed it over.

Liz rapidly scanned the pages.

“I don’t get it? I thought you were supposed to ‘fix’ her? Expose this fake Helene Harris to the world.”

Isabelle didn’t answer. Instead she handed her a letter.

“What’s this?”

“My resignation. I’m going back to France. I guess this assignment has told me that I’m not cut out to be a ‘fixer’ as you so eloquently call it.”

Liz didn’t even look at the letter. She literally threw it back at Isabelle

She looked disgusted at her

“Just answer me one question before I have security throw you out. Did you sleep with him then?”

Isabelle smiled.

“Apart from the fact that it states clearly that he is a family man and dedicated to them, I am shocked to think that you would even in your wildest dreams ‘put myself about’ to get a sleazy story you have another thing coming.”

This didn’t calm Liz down.

“I will answer your question. If you meant to ask, ‘did I have sex with him and if so did that alter my reporting’? The answer is No and No.”

Then she added.

“I am not ze little French Tart you think I am. Don’t bother with security. I’ll clear my desk and be gone in less than 10 minutes.”

A very angry Liz did call security to make sure the ‘traitor’ was gone from her empire as quickly as possible.

The very embarrassed guard hovered over Isabelle while she cleared her desk. She sent one last email although the security man was not too sure about letting her do that, but when she showed them who it was addressed to, they relented.

It said,
“Liz, I know you will do a hatchet job on my story. If your version tells any lies then I will encourage him to take legal action against your publication. Oh, and by the way, our little meeting was recorded. I’ve sent a copy of my article to your legal team and the NUJ. Don’t try anything silly or you will regret it. The one thing that came out of my weekend with Peter Jones was that he might be a University Professor but he is certainly no fool and if very street wise. If you take him on then you will lose. He has connections that you can only dream about including being a related by marriage to a former Super model.”

She looked at the last sentence and hurriedly deleted the last part and sent it.
She also set a copy script in motion that would forward every email in her account to a Hotmail account. There was no sense in taking chances with lot of sleazy hacks.

Isabelle piled her things into a plastic bag. Then she handed it the Security Man who examined everything. He returned the items satisfied that she was not stealing the company ‘crown jewels’.

“Your Phone Miss,” he asked politely.
“Certainly.”

She handed it over and then walked head high out of the office.

Once on the street, she breathed a huge sigh of relief. She pulled out her personal phone and called him.

“Hello Darling. I’ve done it.”

“Yes. I was almost frogmarched out of the building. How about you?”

“You are? Well good luck.”

“Yes. Bye. I love you.”

She hung up and looked at the crowded London Street. She thought back to where she was less than 24 hours earlier. She immediately knew which place she preferred and it wasn’t London.

Isabelle headed for the tube and her last trip out of the City and back to her Docklands Apartment.

She was just about to go into the station when Jules, the Assistant Editor came rushing up to her.

“Isabelle I’ve just heard what happened. I’m devastated. Won’t you reconsider resigning?”

“Sorry Jules. I have decided to return to ‘La Belle France’. Besides, Liz made it evident that she didn’t like my morality.”

“Isabelle, please come back. While you were away, we got taken over. Word has it that Liz is for the Chop and like pronto. Apparently the new management don’t like her sleazy journalistic approach. God knows Sales have fallen enough since she took over and took the magazine into the gutter. Something has to be done”
Isabelle smiled.

“Are you in line for her job then?”

“Me? No way. The new owners have some morality. I’m far too gay for their liking to be anything more than assistant Editor. I read your article and loved it. I am sure it will make the front cover of our new revamped magazine.”

This revelation shocked Isabelle.

She thought carefully.

“Jules…”
She took his hand in hers.

“If this were any other time, I’d jump at the chance to work in a new direction. But, please don’t think I’m chickening out but no I won’t come back. I’m seeing someone. It is very serious indeed.”

Jules looked sad for a moment but his ears pricked up at her last sentence.
“You are a dark horse Isabelle. Well, who is he and … you know everything…”

Isabelle grinned back.

“Her name is Sophia.”

“Isabelle You… Oh my god.”

He stared her right in the eye.
“You are not kidding are you?”

She shook her head.

“How serious is very serious?”

With a perfectly straight face Isabelle, opened her handbag and pulled out he ring.

She slipped it onto her finger and shoed it to Jules.

“Oh my god. This is serious. Well, I am shocked. I would have never taken you as a lesbian and a very closeted one at that.”

“I’m out now aren’t I? I am sure the Jules messaging system will have it all over the company before I get home.”

“Moi? This is one secret I am going to keep. Besides, no one will believe me. You are regarded as a straight as they come in the office. I know deary, as several people have asked me if you, you know swung towards women. I told them to get lost. You were a man person but this? Well, I am shocked but happily so.”

Jules hugged Isabelle.

“I’m not going to tell a soul about this. Honestly. I think you should go to France and be happy. You have made my day.”

She was just about to disappear into the Tube when Jules pulled her back.

“Sophia. Isn’t that the name of the Heroine of his stories?”

Her reddening face gave the game away.

“Oh my God Isabelle. What have you done?” said a beaming Jules.

Then Isabelle looked serious.

“You will keep this a secret won’t you?”
“Yes my dear I will. No one would believe me now would they? Just remember to send me a wedding invitation. I can’t wait to meet this ‘Female James Bond’.”

“Thank you Jules. I won’t forget this.”

They kissed each other on the cheeks. It was a quite tearful Jules who watched her disappear into the Underground.

On the Journey to her apartment in Surrey Keys, Isabelle wondered if she had done the right thing in telling him about her and Sophia. She hoped that he would keep his promise. Her one crumb of comfort was that if Jules was right about the changes to come then hopefully her article would get published without too much mangling. If it were then it would be quite a nice journalistic swansong.

At the University, Peter was meeting with the Rector.

“Ah Peter. How did the interview go?”

“Ok I think. I saw a draft of the piece and it is ok. It won’t bring the University into disrepute. In fact there are a lot of good words about it.”

“Good, but why the rush to see me? What couldn’t have waited until High Dinner tomorrow?”

“I’ve come to give you this.”

He handed over his letter of resignation.

“I’m resigning my chair as of now.”

“Why?” said an obviously shocked Rector.

“Things were going so well?”

“Ha-ha. Really? I don’t think so, I’ve hardly done anything useful since I got here. No, Rector, I’m going back to France and hope to get some decent research done in the peace and quiet of the mountains.”

The rector looked at him earnestly.

“Has it anything to do with this Journalist? I know we pressured you into giving the interview despite your objections.”

“Yes. Well indirectly. I’d been thinking about going back to France for some time.”

“I know there are a lot of memories there for you.”

Peter smiled.
“I do have one request to make of you before I leave the University.”

“Please. If I can grant it then it is yours,” replied the Master.

“I’d like to get married again in the College Chapel.”

The Master beamed.

“If my dear boy, that is all you want then your request is granted. I’m guessing that you will want this to happen fairly quickly?”

“Yes I do Master. There is one further stipulation about the ceremony.”

“Go on?”

“My future wife and I want it to be conducted in Latin. In fact, we want the French Catholic Latin Ceremony. If my research in the Library is correct, the last time this ceremony was performed in the Chapel was in 1491 or thereabout. I know a Church of England Priest who is prepared to perform the ceremony.”

The Master looked relieved.

“If you have a priest who can perform that then I can’t really object.”

“We will be bringing a Priest over from France. Naturally, the Padre will have a part to play as well, to make it all nice and legal. He shouldn’t object though. You know how he loves to say Latin Grace at High Table.”

The Master laughed.

“He does that the old fool. Well, you have my permission but I expect you have a lot of other things to arrange?”

The Master looked at Peter.

“Peter, isn’t this all a bit fast. Who is this person you are so obviously in love with. The last time I heard anything about your love life so to speak was you bringing that French Professor from Christ’s to the Christmas Party what, two years ago.”

“Three years ago actually. But yes you are right.”

Peter smiled.

“Actually Master, I have you to thank for all this.”

“Me? How on earth did I manage to be responsible for something as serious as a couple getting married?”
Peter laughed. The Master was known for not accepting responsibility for anything.

“You forced me to give an interview to a reporter for a magazine that wouldn’t dared be seen in the staff common room.”

“Oh. Yes. How did it go?”

Peter sighed.

“It is her I’m getting married to.”

“Oh, I see know. My dear boy, isn’t this a bit rash and all that?”

“No Master. She’s French and we are going to live in France.”

“Very well Peter, you are obviously set on this course. Far be it from me to try to divert you.”

He decided to change the subject.

“About your Chair. Now who would you recommend for it then?”

“Dr Janice Nicholson from Kings. No question. She is the best man for the job. Don’t whatever you do give it to Bunty. He would lead the research here back into the 18th Century.”

The Master smiled and nodded his head.

“You know you just piped her at the post when you got the chair?”

“Yes sir I did. I happen to know that she is still interested. Besides another woman at high table would fit in nicely with your aims of equality at College. Add to that her last paper on Genome Probability Sequencing was very well received.”

“It would indeed and yes it was. I tried to read it but I got lost about the third paragraph,” agreed the Master who’s subject area was Classics.

“I’d have to advertise the post though.”
He added wearily.

“And I’d have to sit through another interview with that man again.”

Peter grinned.

“Rather you than me Master?”

“I can’t persuade you to chair the selection panel by any chance?”

“Not on your life Master. I think I have had about enough of Bunty to last a lifetime.”

“I thought as much.”

The two men shook hands.

“Thank you for everything you have done here. I hope you will stick around for the end of term dinner. There will be something there for you. In fact we might as well hold it in your Honour.”

“Yes Master. That would be nice to leave that way. I have a paper that I should finish before then as well. If that is ok with you I’d like to publish it under the University’s name.”

The Master smiled in agreement.

“The dinner is in the week before I plan to get married so everything should fit in well.”

“Excellent. See you there then.”

*

Peter went back to his rooms and began the task of packing his belongings. It was going to take some time. He’d have to hand off a lot of work to a few key members of staff but they rise to the challenge. What concerned him was the amount of stuff he’d acquired in the few short years he’d been at College. A good vanload of things was a lot when compared to the two and a half suitcases he’d arrived with at the start of his Professorship.

Isabelle called later that day.

“Hi”, she announced curtly.

He groaned inside.

“What’s up my darling?”

“Why what’s wrong?”

He guessed as much.

“I’ll get the next train into London. Where can we meet?”

She gave him her address.

Less than five minutes later he was on his way out of the door with just a toothbrush and a clean pair of underwear in his pocket.

*

Some Two hours later, he arrived at her flat in Surrey Keys. It was almost at the end of the Old East London Line and the train seemed to take an age getting from Whitechapel.

Nervously, he knocked on her door.

After what seemed an age, Isabelle answered the door.

There was no smile. No loving words of greeting. She just let him in and into her tiny yet beautifully furnished flat. It was as if a slice of Paris had been moved to London.

“Please take a seat. I have something to say.”

Mystified and more than a little concerned, Peter sat down

Isabelle didn’t sit. She stood in the middle of the room and then she began.

“I’ve been having second thoughts about you and well everything.”

Peter went to say something but it was her turn to shush him.

“The weekend was just so far away from what I expected that… well, I was on high. You know like someone who has snorted a whole lot of coke or something. Not that I have ever done that sort of thing you understand” she said rambling somewhat due to her nervousness.

“Well, I’ve come down from that high and not long after I resigned from the magazine, I started having second, third and even fourth thoughts about us and everything. We hardly know each other. Besides Peter, what are our real plans for the future.”

She smiled weakly.

“Ok. I know that we have talked about me becoming your agent and you appearing to be my assistant. But what else is there? What about a family? I know from seeing you at your daughter’s grave that you want at least one more child. What about me? What about my aspirations in life?”

She sat down next to him and put her face in her hands.

Then she mumbled.

“Every way I turn, I see you, Sophia and France and us living together.”

Peter didn’t know whether to hold her, leap up and jump for joy or just do something.
“If this feeling I had at the farm and still have now, this stomach turning feeling is love then who am I to say no to all this and turn it down?”

Peter held her tightly. She didn’t resist.

“Is it Sophia that you are having problem with?”

“Yes. Every time I try to think of you, Peter this serious Mathematician and University Professor, I see her, and that radiant smile and her beauty. It is as if you are two totally different people. That is what worries me. Will that tear you apart? I just don’t know and I don’t know if I can handle it if it does?”

She looked at him.

“I’m sorry. I am rambling. I hope you understood enough of what I said?”

Peter smiled.
“Of course I do. These feelings are to be expected. It would unnatural for you to not to experience them. I fully expected you would.”

“You did? Why didn’t you say so?” she demanded.

“Because my sweetness, it would have influenced your decision. You needed to make up your own mind. You are your own woman and that is something I’d never want to change.”

*

Six weeks later Peter and Isabelle were married in the College Chapel. Her parents were eventually persuaded to come to the Ceremony. Her former colleague Jules was Peter’s ‘best man’. Almost all the guests were Peter’s former colleagues.

Jean-Claude and Natalie in a partial disguise were also there. Her presence caused Jules to go all wobbly at the knees.

“Do you know who that is?” He said when he realised who she was.

“Do you know how much the newspapers would pay for a picture of her?” whispered Jules as they greeted those attending the ceremony.

“Jules, I do and no, you are not going to tell anyone. Just enjoy the day. Besides you have a job to do don’t you?”

“Peter, Isabelle is my friend. I hope that you will be mine after this”.

This was the first honest thing he’d heard Jules say.

“I will Jules. I will be your friend.”

“Then you can bring your friend for a little holiday in a month or so”

Jules’s friend was a young Blonde German Man named ‘Hans’.

“Where?”

“Patience Jules. As long as Liz is in charge I’m not saying anything.”

Isabelle had instructed him on what to say.

“Besides, don’t you want to meet Sophia?”

Jules laughed.

“You know I do.”

“Then shut the fuck up. Ok?”

“Oui Monsieur.”

The ceremony was very moving. The High Latin Mass was spoken for the first time in the chapel since before the time of the Reformation.

Most of the audience were Peter’s former Academic Colleagues and were more than a bit sorry to see him leave the College but had to admit that Isabelle was certainly worth leaving any place for.

The happy couple disappeared off into the sunset. Well, a late afternoon train to Stanstead Airport where they caught a flight to Barcelona. After a night in that magnificent city, they travelled to Aix-les-Thermes by train. Jean-Claude was waiting for them at the station. You could see him easily in the crowd due to that Beret of his.

“Bonjour ma famille,” he said upon greeting.

Isabelle kissed him.

He was very embarrassed and blushed.

Natalie had a late Lunch waiting for them.

Thus began their married life.

Peter became Sophia on a full time basis. After two weeks, he surfaced once more and the pair travelled back to London where he legally changed his name to Sophia and after adopting the Sophia persona once more, obtained a totally legal passport in her name.

With the old now cancelled passport in hand, they went to a remote part of Hyde Park on a lovely sunny afternoon where Isabelle set fire to the old passport.

Finally, before leaving London, they donated what was left of Peter’s male clothing to charity.

That summer was just a dream for Isabelle. She was living with someone who loved her and treated her with respect in a truly beautiful part of the world with people who had accepted her without question into their Family.

Every other day, Sophia would place fresh flowers on both Hélène’s and Jacqueline’s grave. This was one thing that Isabelle knew to let her lover do alone. Part of her second thoughts was accepting that Hélène and all that was going to be part of Peter/Sophia’s life forever. She had to accept that there was always going to be another woman in her partner’s life.

Isabelle began to accompany Sophia to the grave. She would put a small bunch of flowers on the dog’s grave.

At first Sophia was a bit unhappy at her presence but then came to accept Isabelle’s reasoning that without Hélène’s good work they would not be standing there together.

When she did begin to accept that she could never out Hélène from Sophia’s life she became happy with hers. She accepted that yes there was another woman in Sophia’s life. Well, two actually but she knew that she’d never come home to find her lover in bed with them. Then she knew that Sophia would be totally faithful to her. Isabelle began to trust Sophia implicitly.

After all, how can you distrust the woman who you lace up into a corset every day? Being in control of the laces was power enough.

Being faithful didn’t stop the two of them having a bit of fun from time to time and flirting with men they met on their travels.

That Christmas, Sophia gave Isabelle her first corset. From January until nearly May and their first anniversary, she complained bitterly about it but began to accept wearing it everyday and everywhere they went. Her complaints were loudest when they went horseback riding.

Sophia underwent some minor facial surgery and also gained a pair of breasts eleven months after their marriage. This was just a few short months after Peter made his last ever appearance as a man. This was a trip to Stockholm to formally accept the Nobel Prize. Isabelle was there in the audience supporting him. There had been a lot of anguish about whether or not to accept the award and then if Peter was to accept the award in person. In the end it was Isabelle’s insistence that paid off and the two found themselves in Stockholm for the award ceremony.

Late that summer and to everyone’s surprise, Isabelle became Pregnant.

She gave birth to a beautiful baby girl with Sophia at her side throughout.

Isabelle insisted that she be named Jacqueline Hélène.

She found that she was a natural mother and a little over 18 months later she gave birth to a second child also a girl. This was named Natalie after its beautiful Aunt.

‘Hélène Harris’ continued to publish between 1 and 2 books a year. Her readership all over the world was steadily growing in numbers.

Six years after their marriage and after several aborted attempts, an unknown British production company picked up the rights to Helen’s Fifth ‘Sophia’ book and made the film that eventually led to the award nomination. Sophia insisted in writing the Screenplay. After some argument, the film company accepted this.

It was the fantastic screenplay that led to the film being such a hit and subsequently to the Oscar nomination.

[back to the present day. Some hours before the award ceremony]

Natalie had flown in from France a few days previously leaving Jean-Claude back in France after the Children.

Natalie had contacted a well-known French Actor to act as her escort for the evening. He’d agreed immediately. He was hoping to make a comeback in Hollywood and being on the arm of someone like Natalie would do that aim no harm at all.

Natalie was surprisingly quite nervous about appearing ‘in public’ once again. In her previous life, she’d revelled in events like this. Now with a family she’d needed a lot of persuading to come to the USA for the event. It was only to support Isabelle and Sophia on this momentous evening.

Not only was Natalie in Los Angeles but also many of the young men from the village were here as well to help the happy couple ‘evade’ the press after the event. Naturally, they were there in the background. They all knew about Peter and Sophia but regarded her as a friend and neighbour and not as some ‘deviant’.

Ever since the nomination had been announced the only interview ever given by ‘Helen Harris’ some 10 years earlier had been re-published and almost endlessly quoted by TV reporters.

The idea of a secret being revealed at such an award ceremony was just too much for the press to ignore. It was tending to overshadow the whole ceremony. Even the unofficial bookies were taking bets on ‘Would She/Wouldn’t she’ question. The official betting in Las Vegas had the odds at 70/30 for a No.

Isabelle tried and tried to get Sophia not to go to Los Angeles for the ceremony but without result.

Sophia kept saying, “I made a promise. Besides, I’m fed up living in denial of who I am.”

Isabelle countered with the argument,
“But Sophia, you are a product of Helen’s imagination. You are something that was dreamt up.”

Sophia held Isabelle and told her,

“I’m sorry my darling but I had been dressing as a woman since I was a teenager. It was beyond my wildest dreams that Natalie came up with this idea and Hélène went along with it.”

Isabelle looked at Sophia with not for the first time in their relationship, a tear in her eyes.

“I know. Well, I guessed. You are just far too good for it to be anything else.”

She looked at Sophia.

“Do you remember the day after we went back to England from our first trip to ‘La demoiselle’ (The damsel). When you proposed to me?”

“Yes. Why?”

“Do you remember that I had second thoughts and all that?”

Sophia smiled.

“Peter came to your apartment in Surrey Keys”

“I came to realise that Sophia was really you. Your real personality.”

Then she added.

“I fully expect that you will tell me that Hélène knew about your other side before the challenge to create Sophia was even thought of?”

Sophia held up her hand smiling.
“Guilty as charged M’Lord.”

They kissed for a long time.

Just before they left for the ceremony, Isabelle asked.

“Still going to go through with it?”

“What do you think my beautiful wife?”

Isabelle smiled back.

“Why on earth did I let you make that promise all those years ago?”

Sophia laughed.

“Because neither of us ever thought that this would ever happen in a million years.”

Isabelle smiled.

“And I was an amateur reporter.”

They both laughed.

Just then Jean-Claude interrupted.

“It is time to go mes amis.”

*

Their rented Limo took them to the Ceremony along with it seemed half of Los Angeles.

The flashguns went off when Isabelle and Sophia arrived at the theatre.
They did the ‘red carpet’ walk into the theatre together.

Some five minutes later, the ‘Actor’ and Natalie arrived.

The TV commentators didn’t know who she was at first. After all, it had been some years since Natalie had been in the news. When she was identified, the TV directors temporarily forgot about Sophia and Isabelle.

If the award did not get presented to Isabelle or Sophia then the Newspaper headlines for the following day were already being written.

“Natalie is Back!”

Even though she had no intention of coming back.

[Back at the ceremony]

“And the award for the best adapted screenplay goes to….”

Queue the inevitable slight pause.

“Hélène Harris.”

There was huge applause and the cameras all zoomed in on the Table where Isabelle, Natalie, Jean-Claude and Sophia were all sitting. Every camera focussed on Isabelle.

Sophia gave a small nod to the others and rose from her seat.

The TV director got totally confused and cut to the aged British Actor who had played a cameo role in the film before cutting back to Sophia who was by now approaching the stage.

The commentators were saying, “Who is this coming up to received the award?”
They were desperately looking at the seating plans for a name. One or two managed to tell the audience Sophia’s name.

But most had still not worked out who this elegant woman in her late 30’s was by the time Sophia had reached the stage and been handed the award.

The audience clapping died down as Sophia approached the Microphone.

She proudly held the statuette in front of her.
“Thank you.”

She paused.

“I expect most of you are wondering who I am? I’m Sophia.”

“Well, I hope the TV director will forgive me but as many of you know some 10 or so years ago, my partner in crime, Isabelle received a promise. I’m sure you all know about that promise”.

There was a lot of laughter from the attentive audience.

“I am standing here now before you because you, the members of the Academy have deemed fit to give me this award means that I have to keep that promise.”

She swallowed.

“My Nom-de-plume is Hélène Harris and I am sure that most of you recognise that name.”

There was lots of applause and even some cheering.

Sophia held up her arms to quieten them down.

“Once upon a time, I was a struggling writer. I am sure that many of you were once in a similar position.”

There was quite a response from the audience.

“Like many of you who were struggling to be published, I did have a day job that paid moderately well but I did have a family to support. I’d already penned the first three novels in this series with the fantastic help of my family before finally I found a publisher and the rest they say is history.”

She swallowed again and looked at Isabelle.

“However, this is not the first world famous award I have received in my life.”

There was a noticeable stirring in the Audience.

More than one TV commentator was saying, “Who was this ‘upstart’ of a writer to put another award on the same level as that given by the Academy?”.

Sophia continued.

“My day job was as strange as it may seem to everyone gathered here and watching around the world, none other than a University Professor in England. I was a Professor of Applied Mathematics. In fact I still do a little research from time to time as a break from writing fiction.”

Some gasps went round the audience.

“I’d even had a book published.”

There were some laughs from one or two members of the audience.

One wag called out ‘How to add one and one and get three”.

This got some laughs but far more requests to shut the hell up.

Sophia carried on. She was getting into her stride by now.

“I produced a theory which revolutionised the way quality is measured in mass production. My book has since become a worldwide best seller if you were into that sort of thing. I don’t expect any of you will have it on your bookshelves though.”

There was a lot of laughter.

“I got an award for that research. So thanks to the Academy, I will now have two statues on my mantelpiece. This lovely thing will go very nicely alongside my Nobel Prize for Mathematics. The same award that was once given to Einstein.”

That caused some gasps from the more widely read in the audience.

“So, I’ll take up no more of your valuable time and say thank you to the Academy and my Family for allowing this happen and giving me such a lovely evening.”

To a standing ovation, Sophia walked off the stage. Isabelle had meanwhile slipped away from their table.

They met backstage where they kissed very passionately. Several Photographers got their ‘shots of a lifetime’ before the happy couple headed for the exits. One TV crew caught their embrace. It was broadcast worldwide for almost 10 seconds before the local Director pulled the plug on transmission and cut to the Audience.

The scene in the Auditorium was utter chaos. The shots of them kissing had been broadcast to the world as well as to the guests. There was a loud cheer from the ‘celebs’ when they saw the passion in the embrace. The TV directors were frantically searching the Internet for details who this mysterious and fascination woman was. Even the most hard nosed and battle scarred TV director was having problems getting to grips with what had been told to the world.

The TV Chat and Talk Radio shows were already going into overdrive and asking the question, ‘how could this lovely person on the stage be a man and one that had received the Nobel Prize as well’.

The pair headed for the exit and after hitching up their skirts, climbed onto the back of a pair of motorcycles and disappeared into the warm spring LA night.

The bikes were being ridden by Motocross enthusiasts from the ‘their’ Valley in France.

Several TV crews tried to follow but were soon left behind. TV Stations in Los Angeles sent word went out to all the airports with a 100 mile Radius of Hollywood to be on the lookout for the couple at the centre of the hottest news story of the year if not the decade. Fantastic sums of money were being offered for their whereabouts.

Inside the Auditorium the show tried to carry on but the hundreds of guests left without finding out who got the premier awards and the event descended into total farce and was eventually abandoned because by now the story was breaking worldwide just who it was and the fact that it was a man shocked everyone to the core.

The happy couple were by now fleeing literally for their lives. Radio Shows were inundated with death threats and moral indignation.

They got off the off bikes less than 10 minutes after fleeing the ceremony in an underground car-park. They quickly transferred to a waiting car with blacked out windows.
Their driver, also from their part of France headed east out of LA and by dawn they were fast approaching Las Vegas. During the journey, they’d changed out of their ‘glad rags’ in the back of the car and Sophia donned a blonde wig and big sunglasses. Isabelle had let her hair down so that it hung loose over her shoulders.

Their driver dropped them off just before dawn at McCarron Airport.

As they got out of the car, Isabelle spoke in French to their driver, “Merci Pierre. Have a good trip home.”

Sophia and Isabelle entered the Terminal through separate and checked in for their flights home. Sophia took a flight to Miami with a connection to Madrid. Isabelle flew to New York and thence to Frankfurt and Toulouse.

There was a bit of time before their flights so they visited the newsstands as if they’d never met before let alone were a married couple. There was only one story on the front and most inside pages. Theirs.

One paper was calling for Sophia’s award to be rescinded. Another had an amazingly accurate bio of Sophia and Isabelle that included the death of Hélène.

They alluded that they were probably living somewhere in the south of France and that they had dispatched reporters to the cities of Nice and Marseilles.

Isabelle smiled to herself. She thought that as long as they remained there then they were safe from press intrusion.

Sophia connected her Laptop to the Internet just long enough to send her story to a British Sunday paper. There were already more than 500 emails in her inbox. Quite how the email address had been leaked so quickly was something that puzzled her.

She browsed a few of them. Some contained physical threats against her and Isabelle. Finally, she forwarded them all to their US Attorneys.

Still, there were a remarkable number of messages supporting her and what she was going for gay liberation. Again they amused her but for different reasons.

A few were from now fellow members of the Academy praising her bravery for doing what she’d done the night before. This made her happy.

Regretfully, before she could answer any of them, her flight was called.

During the flight to Miami, the woman in the seat next to hers went on and on about the Awards show and that how disgusting it was that a man should be allowed to dress up as a woman and get away with it. Sophia tried to ignore her. In the end she said.

“Lady, would you please shut the fuck up. I spent all night at the poker table and lost a bundle. Now I’d like to get some sleep” in her best American accent.

When the flight arrived at Miami Sophia was relieved that no one on the plane had discovered her sitting at the back of ‘coach’.

She was in a far more confident mood as she checked into her flight to Madrid.

This was the danger point of her journey.

She had to present her passport not just some fake ID with her photo on it, as she’d had to do in Las Vegas.

The Check-in Assistant saw the name and did a double take. Then she smiled and after removing the US Visa form that had been stapled to it on her arrival, she handed it back to Sophia.

She said quietly, “Your name seems familiar but I can’t quite place where from…”
Then she gave Sophia a wink.

“Have a nice flight.”

Isabelle and Sophia had argued long and hard about the statuette should they win the award. Should they take it home or rely upon a distant relative of Jean-Claude’s who had been one of the motorcycle riders the night before, to bring the statue back to France.

In the end, Sophia won out and they decided to let Jean-Claude’s relative take it to their Attorneys who would ship it to France in a few days once the ‘heat’ had died down.

As the flight to Madrid was overnight she didn’t have to suffer the same sort of one-sided conversation as she’d had to on the flight from Las Vegas. Still, she was the topic of a lot of speculation amongst many of her fellow passengers. The Miami Evening News carried alleged sightings of her in Canada, Denver and even Chicago. Of Isabelle there was no trace.

Just before boarding, she received a text message from Isabelle. She was just getting on her flight from New York. Sophia texted back that she was doing the same. With a smile of satisfaction on her face, she dropped the phone into a trash basket and headed for the plane.

When the plane was just over halfway across the Atlantic, Sophia breathed a huge sigh of relief and opened the small Bottle of Champagne that had come with her meal. As she drunk it, she gave a small silent toast, “To Peter. May he rest in peace wherever he may be.”

Two days later a very relieved Jean-Claude picked them up at Aix-Les-Thermes station.

Isabelle had come via Toulouse whilst Sophia had travelled via Barcelona and La-Tour de Carol, a small station close to Andorra.

The couple embraced on the platform when they met. Their pictures were all over the French papers even nearly three days since the ceremony in Los Angeles.

That night they lay in bed reflecting on the events of the past few days.

“Any regrets?” asked Isabelle

“Yes and No.”

She continued.

“Yes because the Sunday Papers will bring it all up again. No because I have two books to finish. The latest Hélène Harris thriller and then my next book on Statistical Methods in Flight Testing. I am a little worried that we have underestimated the reaction to my revelations. The scenes of that book burning in Texas was rather shocking.”

Isabelle cuddled up to Sophia. Let’s forget it and get on with our life. Then they made love as passionately as they ever had.

There had been a bad reaction in quite a few countries where Religion was very strong. Most Muslim Countries had banned all of Sophia’s books including her Mathematical Texts. Several Southern US stated had declared her a persona-non-grata and removed all her books from public libraries and cinemas were told to stop showing her film.

Yet in other more liberal parts of the world the support for Sophia and very importantly Isabelle was astounding. Sales of the books had soared and the publishers were frantically reprinting every one.

The publication the following Sunday of Sophia’s full story rekindled the whole thing.

Most commentators had by now had a chance to reflect on the whole topic of gender equality and many editorials started praising Sophia for her bravery. The Academy when threatened by a mass resignation of many members resisted efforts by some parts of the media to ‘take back’ her award.

Isabelle was adamant that they’d done the right thing.

A little less than nine months later Isabelle gave birth to twin Boys, who were appropriately named Jean and Claude.

[The End]



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