AN IMPERFECT DEATH
The first time her husband died, Diana was celebrating their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary in Paris. Champagne breakfasts, long sensual mornings in bed, and fine dining in hidden romantic nooks in old Mont-Martre; even her companion was a man most women could only fantasize about with his swarthy Euro looks, smooth body and that damn sexy accent. It was picture perfect, but not in a family portrait kind of way.
Her husband Mark was somewhere off the coast of Mexico at the time, presumably celebrating the occasion in his own fashion.
Money was a wonderful thing; perhaps it couldn’t buy true happiness, but it could certainly create a near perfect illusion of it. Especially when there was lots of it floating around. Mark Quenton was an investment banker in Baserville, and he was the closest thing to a guru that this well-heeled society had. He took their money and spun it into gold, and for this they loved him dearly. Over the years, their money and their love for him grew exponentially, like a carousel that turned faster and faster, the music growing more frenzied and loud, casting a spell of glamor that was hard to resist.
Until he died and it all fell apart.
As she stood below the east transept window of Notre Dame, she smiled as she relived the reaction to the announcement of her celebration plans. What a novel idea to choose Paris in the fall of the year, everyone agreed, trust Di to think of that.
‘The fall colors, my dears, nothing like it, and the weather is perfect, the foliage and light like a watercolor painting.’ Spring in Paris with its rain and cranky French people was rather over-rated, she had confided regretfully to the Baserville Women’s League members over which she reigned.
A shiver brought her back to the present, standing in the middle of this gloomy old cathedral freezing her ass off despite the cashmere cardigan drawn close around her generous figure. Really, Notre Dame was no different from any other medieval structure, so why the big deal? But she needed to get a selfie of herself here for FaceBook, to show her followers back home what a great time ‘they’ were having.
And it was a miserable place to spend a fall morning, she could almost see the mist rising from the cold stones while her breath froze in front of her. Yet even at this time of year there were still crowds milling around, couples and groups all chattering together as if this was the first cathedral they’d ever seen in their lives. God, they bored her.
Tourists with their sneakers and saggy sweatpants built for comfort, not caring a whit about how they looked. And the fanny-packs! Those were the worst. Fanny-packs symbolized all that was cheap and classless of these voyeuristic travellers, those herds of sheep all clustered around their guides, vying for the best spot and constantly baaing out the regurgitations of the guide-books as if each was a new and brilliant thought. The god-damned fanny-packs circled every large belly as if the paltry sums of money inside were worth protecting and the passports of interest to anyone. What self-respecting thief would want to steal their identities?
She flicked her shoulder length blond hair over her shoulder as she caught the lens of her phone’s camera in delighted surprise. It was a well-rehearsed manoeuvre and worked every time. Di inspected the result with a critical eye, and she was pleased. The blues and reds in the stained glass glowed through the morning sun, the perfect background for the expensively coiffed confection that was Diana Quenton.
This mission accomplished, she tossed the phone back into her Hermes bag and turned to barrel her way through the crowds toward the exit, but it suddenly came to life in the depths of her purse with the tones of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries erupting through the ancient church. Someone wanted her. She allowed it to play a moment longer so as not to seem too available.
The music of her cell phone had been carefully selected, as Di considered herself an equal to the Valkyries - tall, blond, well-built and a force to be reckoned with, the born leader of her social circle. And who better to command the ladies of their Connecticut home town? She was, after all, the richest of them.
She accepted the call with a smile in her voice, despite the glares from the tourists, the priests, and even the snooty cleaning lady who had no business being so rude. She raised her voice to compensate for the lousy cell reception within the ancient stone walls.
Keith’s strangled voice rose through the static. ‘Mark is dead,’ she thought she heard him squeak, then a string of incoherent words.
Mark dead? Nonsense. ‘Keith, you’re not making sense,’ her voice echoed forcefully off the high rafters. ‘What are you saying? Calm down.’
Presumed dead at any rate, Keith told her after taking a deep breath. His rented yacht had been found wrecked floating off the coast of Mexico. Pirates, he told her, the police suspected pirates, and didn’t hold out much hope on the culprits being brought to justice.
‘Presumed dead is not the same as proven dead,’ she proclaimed, focusing on the word presumed and ignoring the bit about the boat wreck. She didn’t believe the news for a minute, but she was touched by the grief she thought she heard in his voice. Keith, just like Chicken Little, forever claiming the sky was falling and they were doomed. Totally useless in an emergency. She could almost hear him flapping his arms in distress, and pictured his comb-over flapping in sympathy, thick glasses askew. He was the business’s lawyer, but he would have made a much better accountant. He was lucky he had Mark to prop him up. ‘Not to worry, I’m sure he’ll surface. Mark’s a great swimmer, you know.’
Keith paused before continuing in his reedy, irritating voice. ‘True, they haven’t found his body, but...’
‘Don’t you worry about a thing,’ Di cut in calmly. He couldn’t see the rolling of her eyes. Why was she the one doing the comforting? Mark was her husband for God’s sake, she might be a widow. But then again, people like Diana were just born leaders. ‘You’ll see,’ she continued in her most soothing voice. ‘All will be well.’
‘It’s just... There’s something going on with the accounts...’ The panic was rising in his voice and he was starting to flap again.
‘This is hardly the moment to be concerning yourself with business matters. Mark will have everything in hand. We need to get organized. I’ll start back ASAP.’ Diana would get to the bottom of this. She didn’t have the money-brains that Mark did, but she was a pretty smart cookie herself and would hold the fort till Mark surfaced. ’And Keith – whatever’s going on here, I don’t want a word of this getting out. Do you hear? Not one whisper.’
Diana didn’t believe for a moment that Mark was dead. The one thing they had in common, besides the twins, the large mansion, the cottage on the lake, extreme libidos and their absolute control over the social life of Baserville, was that they were both omnipotent in their self-belief. This, along with the sex of course, had sparked the attraction all those years ago and despite the difficulties in the years since then, it was the pillar of their enduring marriage. Together they’d hauled themselves out of non-descript backgrounds, from poverty misplaced and out of line with their ambitions. Despite how much they had grown to hate each other, they had always made a formidable team.
She was as good as her word, and set back to her hotel with a pause only to browse through the boutiques on Rue Fauberg. A black silk pantsuit found in the House of Dior was perfect for the travelling widow, for she might as well act the part, just in case.
Diana strode into her suite, placing the classy paper bag on the table under the mirror, where she automatically paused for assessment. Forty-five years old, and she looked great. Money helped, although that personal trainer wasn’t doing his job for he couldn’t shake the last few pounds or twenty off her middle. But hell, the men in her life would never complain about her generous curves.
‘Jean-Luc, wake up!’
There was no reply.
In the bedroom, she stripped the duvet off the king size bed to expose the well-bronzed body of her lover.
’Tabernacle, Diana,’ he groaned, rubbing his hand over his bristly face. ‘Let me sleep.’
‘I have to leave Paris, pronto. You need to go home.’
Finally some movement. His hurt brown eyes gazed up at her. ’Cherie? What is wrong? Why do you send me away?’
‘It’s not all about you,’ she said as she removed the suitcase from the closet and placed it onto the table provided for that purpose. She stripped off the sweater and jeans she was wearing and stuffed it all into the luggage along with the contents of the drawers. ‘Something’s happened to Mark, I have to go back to straighten it out.’
Now he sat up, petulance still on his face. ‘What is it? Is he in jail?’
‘Don’t be silly! He’s gone missing somewhere off the coast of Mexico.’ She turned to her jewellery box and tossed it on top of the clothes. It wasn’t till after the suitcase was squished in and zipped up that she spotted the diamond necklace still sitting on the bureau, Mark’s anniversary present to her which she’d chosen, and which had so delighted Jean-Luc last night in their after-dinner games. Diana tucked it into the hidden side pocket of the carry-on.
Jean-Luc was by her side in a moment, cradling her from behind with his bed-warm arms. He stared over her head at the mirror, admiring what he saw. So did she; he looked damn good on her, she liked her lovers buff and tall. The Frenchman was an underwear model, they’d met in Monaco three years ago. It was an on again/ off again relationship, whenever she could get away from Baserville. Jean-Luc always made room in his schedule for her.
‘Is he dead?’ His breath was hot on her neck. God, he knew what she liked. She leaned against him, just for a moment, luxuriating in the feel of his bare skin against hers. The waxed chest smoothed slowly against her back, a light sheen of sweat already forming as she felt the movement down below.
‘No such luck,’ she murmured, then forced herself away. ‘None of that right now, I don’t have time.’
Jean-Luc did not let her go and squeezed his arms closer, enveloping her in his warmth. ’Non, cherie, there is always time for love.’
Even his cheesiness was sexy when accompanied by that hard body pressed up against her. She tried to turn away but he had a firm hold on her and was caressing her neck with his lips. The smell of last night’s sex hovered all around him, threatening to draw her back to his lazy, sleepy bed.
‘No, Jean-Luc, no.’ She ignored the tingle starting deep within as she attempted to twist away. ‘I’m serious. I need to pack.’
He swivelled his hips against her, firm and persuasive in his movements.
‘You don’t say no to me.’ He ran his hands over her front and gave a slight, subtle twist on her breasts, the almost pain of which travelled right down her body. ‘Hmmm? My Didi cannot refuse me.’
‘No, I need... there’s a flight this afternoon...’ She groaned and leaned back into him. He was right, she could rarely refuse him. Adrenalin still coursed through her body from Keith’s call, for it wasn’t just Jean-Luc who was excited by the idea of Mark’s disappearance. She shouldn’t get her hopes up but... in that moment of time, she’d caught a glimpse of the life she could have without her husband on the scene, and she sure wouldn’t be stuck in Baserville anymore. She would be free to be whoever, whatever, she wanted to be. She could be a big fish in a bigger pond. Maybe a lake. Maybe the Mediterranean.
One more for the road wouldn’t hurt, and it might be a long time before Jean-Luc had the pleasure of her company again. She glanced at the clock on the television out of the corner of her eye even as she relaxed against her lover’s warmth. Yes, there could be time.
Sometime later, Diana rolled off him, sweat drying on her now and laughter bubbled up as she lay on her back.
He turned on his side with his head in his hand to look at her, a petulant expression growing on his face again. ‘Why do you never let me be on top? I am the man,’ he pointed out in his charming French accent. ‘You should be more... more feminine.’
‘It’s never bothered you before,’ she pointed out as she struggled to bring her underwear back over her hips. ‘You saying this is not womanly?’ She held her arms over her head so her breasts pushed against the bra, and indicated her fleshy curves.
‘You are my goddess,’ he said in all seriousness. ‘But...’ He turned his back on her with a humph.
‘You are leaving me,’ he said into the duvet.
‘I have to go,’ she reminded him. ‘And fix up whatever it is that Mark has done.’ She slapped him lightly on the butt.
He complained into the 400-count Egyptian cotton duvet cover.
‘What? Don’t mumble, I can’t hear you.’ Her mind was already planning her flight home as she re-pinned her hair, loving the added height it gave to her figure. And she was needed at home. Though she might never admit it, it had been a long time since anyone had needed her, and she was impatient to get started.
‘My birthday,’ Jean-Luc said, lifting his head a little. ‘You are leaving without giving me my present.’
‘Ohhh, is that it?’ she teased. ‘Look in the drawer of the bedside table, I think you might find a little something there.’
He scrabbled over the huge bed and yanked open the drawer. There lay a rectangular box, wrapped in plain white paper with a thin red ribbon.
’Oh ma cherie, you remembered,’ he said, ripping off the paper. He sighed with pleasure and held the Cartier watch to the window to see the light gleam off the gold. She left him crooning to the trinket while she took a quick shower and got ready for the flight.
‘Alright then,’ she said. ‘Kiss, kiss.’ She held her lips out expectantly. He jumped up and embraced her, lingering as if reluctant to let her go. Just as she was beginning to lose patience and about to shake him off, he spoke.
‘So Mark,’ he said. All play had left his voice. ‘If he’s dead, what then?’
‘If he’s really dead, then I get all the money.’ A small smile formed on her face as she thought about it again. ‘Then I sell the business and get more money.’
‘What about you, Jean-Luc?’
’You will marry me, and we will live happily ever after. Okay, ma cherie?’
‘We’ll talk,’ she said, breaking the embrace. ‘I’ll be in touch.’
As expected, the departures board indicated a direct flight to New York City to leave within three hours and even though it was such short notice, Di had no doubt she would be on that plane
She sailed past the snaking throng for economy and on to the first class desk where she tapped her long nails on the counter for what seemed an inordinate amount of time until she received attention of the reluctant clerk. That was the French for you, she thought. Customer service was not a priority here.
‘I need to fly today,’ she informed the woman, efficiently thrusting the print out and her passport across the counter.
The petite French woman at the desk glanced at the paper, looking down her nose despite her disadvantaged height. ‘You are not registered for today’s flight.’
’Which is why I need to change my flight,’ Di said, her voice sharpening, ready to nip any attitude in the bud. The resentment of the French lower classes knew no bounds – their revolution had failed and they needed to get over it. The wealthy were here to stay. ‘It is imperative that I change my date.’ She thumped her finger on the printout between them.
‘There are no seats available on this flight,’ the French clerk said, looking past her to see if there was anyone else in line. ‘I am so sorry.’
‘Nonsense,’ Di said, shifting her body into the woman’s line of sight. ‘I am a Platinum member, there’s always room for me. That’s why we pay these exorbitant prices.’ She trilled a light, self-deprecating laugh.
An abrupt shake of the head was the reply. ‘Not today. Tomorrow, we may fit you in. Or there is the midnight flight...’
Being nice was getting nowhere with this clerk, Diana could see, and wondered yet again why the less fortunate hated the rich and beautiful. It was time to switch tactics and play the grief-stricken newly-widowed. ‘My husband just died,’ Diana raised her voice, placing her hand on her forehead. ‘I have to get back to the States immediately. The children need me...’ She glanced around between her fingers – good, that had people’s attention. She heard murmurs coming from the other line, full of nice fellow Americans. Di gave a loud hiccup of grief for effect.
The woman stared at her with icy respect, acknowledging this would be a losing battle and perhaps not worth her effort for a Saturday. She sniffed and looked back at her screen. ‘Ah. Perhaps there is one seat.’ She looked up at Diana triumphantly, for there was always more than one way to win the passive-aggressive war. ‘It is in Economy,’ she spit as she leaned over the counter, daring her to accept.
Their eyes locked as Diana’s mind raced. She hated to give points to this upstart but damn, the woman was good. She could always upgrade once she got on board, she knew there would be some sucker to shame into changing seats if necessary, but to publicly acknowledge this unknown woman’s win... Still, if it must be done, it must be done with grace and the pretence she was unaware of the game, and done quickly before she was requested to go back and stand in the Economy lineup.
‘Thank you, so much,’ she said with an almost grateful smile pasted on her face. It only hurt a little. ’You have been so helpful. I will let your superiors know how much your kindness has meant to me in my time of need.’
The boarding card was flicked across the counter with another sniff. Diana smiled triumphantly as she heaved the suitcases and hatbox up on the weigh scale. ‘Just put the extra charges on the credit card,’ she said generously, leaving the clerk to lug and sort the items.
It was the little victories which sometimes made life worthwhile. And funnily enough, there was a seat available in first class, she pointed out to the stewardess as she explained her situation. Di settled in for the long flight in her private pod with a complimentary glass of champagne for her troubles, admiring yet again the design of these seats. With the high walls surrounding her on three sides, it was like no-one else on the plane existed. This arrangement suited Diana Quenton very well.
She closed her eyes, thinking about Jean-Luc. He was a gigolo, but a very good one, as well as being very selective with his clientele. As long as she paid the bills, he was hers when she needed him; it didn’t bother her one bit to pay a man to be her on-call lover. This was the twenty-first century, and besides, men did it all the time, having floozies and prostitutes and harems. Look at Mark and the string of mistresses he’d had over the years. So what did that make Jean-Luc? Her mister? Certainly not her master. She never allowed any man on top.
Although, she was uncomfortably aware that her husband hadn’t been playing the field so much lately, and seemed to be spending most of his time with Amaryllis, his personal assistant. What a pretentious name.
’A-ma-ril-liss,’ Diana hissed aloud. A willowy, smelly big flower that bloomed quickly, and aged even faster, just like the woman herself. No worries, Mark would never dare to divorce Diana, she told herself, before remembering that he might be dead.