The Hotel Riviera

Elizabeth Adler

St. Martin's Press

(Chapter 1)

Lola

It was late September when I first met Jack Farrar, on one of those balmy, soft-breezed south-of-France evenings that hinted summer was finally over. And though I didn’t yet know it, it was a meeting that would effect great changes in my life.

My name is Lola Laforêt—and yes, I know you’re thinking I must be a stripper. Everybody thinks that. Actually, what I am is chef and patronne of the Hotel Riviera, and I used to be the much more normal Lola March from California before I married “the Frenchman.” But that’s a long story.

It’s been six years since I welcomed my first guests to the Hotel Riviera, though “hotel” is far too grand a title for this old villa. It’s a casual sand-between-the-toes, cool-tile-floors kind of place. There are just eight rooms, each with tall French windows opening onto a terrace spilling over with bougainvillea and night-scented jasmine. You’ll find it on a spit of pine-covered land off the Ramatuelle road near Saint-Tropez, down a long sandy lane shaded with umbrella pines and alive with the chirruping of cigales. We have our own little private beach here with sand as pale as platinum and soft as sugar, and in summer it’s dotted with marine-blue umbrellas and sunny-yellow loungers, and the golden-tan bodies of our guests. Small children run in and out of the lacy wavelets while grown-ups sip iced drinks in the shade. And in the heat of the afternoon they retreat to their shuttered rooms to nap, or to make love on a cool white bed.

Imagine a sunny sea-lapped cove, gift-wrapped in blue and tied with a bow like a Tiffany box, and you’ll get the feel of my little hotel. It’s a place made for Romance with a capital R. Except for me, its creator.

Somewhere in the process my own Romance withered on the vine. Somehow it was never my “Frenchman,” Patrick, and I dining alone on the candlelit terrace with the moon throwing a silver path across the dark water, and champagne fizzing in tall glasses. It was never Patrick holding my hand across the table and gazing into my eyes. Oh no. I was always in the kitchen cooking delicious feasts for lovers who had the romance in their lives I so badly wanted, while my own “lover” took in the delights of summer in Saint-Tropez night-life.

When I met and married Patrick six years ago, I thought I had found “true love.” Now, I don’t believe that such a thing exists. Yes, I admit I’m wounded, and I know I have always had a penchant for rogues, and that those straight-and-true guys, strong-jawed, steady, the good providers, are definitely not drawn to me. I seemed to attract riffraff like summer flies to a glass of wine.

Which brings me back to Jack Farrar again.

So, there I was, alone on the terrace, taking a breather before the first dinner guests arrived. It was my favorite time of the year, the end of the long hot summer season when the crowds are gone and life drifts back into a more leisurely pace. The sky was still a flawless blue and the breeze soft against my bare arms, as I sipped a glass of chilled rosé, gazing blankly out over the pretty bay, brooding over my problems.

I’m a woman in limbo. And here’s the reason why. Six months ago my husband, Patrick, climbed into his silver Porsche, en route, he said, to buy me a birthday gift. As usual, he’d forgotten my birthday, but I guess someone must have reminded him. He was wearing dark glasses and I couldn’t read the expression in his eyes as he lifted his hand in a careless goodbye. He wasn’t smiling, though, I do remember that.

I haven’t heard a word from him since. Nobody has. And nobody seems to care, though I went crazy trying to find him. Of course, the police tried to trace him, his picture as a “missing person” was posted everywhere, and they followed clues leading as far as Marseilles and Las Vegas, without any luck. Now the case is on the back burner and Patrick is just another missing person. “Missing husband” is what they mean. It’s not unknown around here, when the summer beaches are crowded with gorgeous girls and the yachts filled with rich women, for a husband to go missing.

You might have thought Patrick’s friends would know, but they swore they didn’t, and anyhow they were always Patrick’s friends, not mine. In fact, I hardly knew the guys he hung out with, or the women. I was far too busy working at making our little hotel perfect. And Patrick had no family; he’d told me he was the last of the Laforêts who had lived and worked their fishing boats in Marseilles for decades.

Speaking of boats, I’m back to Jack Farrar again.

A small black sloop had drifted across my line of vision. Now I don’t like my cove to be disturbed by vacationers partying all night, with disco music pounding across the water and shrieks and screams as they push each other into the water. I took a long hard look at the sloop. At least this wasn’t one of those megayachts; in fact, I didn’t believe they would allow such small fry into the Saint-Tropez marina, even if its owner could have afforded it, which, from the look of his shabby boat, I doubted. And which was probably why he’d chosen to anchor in my protected little cove with a free view of my pretty little hotel instead.

The black sloop cut across the horizon, sails slackening in the tiny breeze, then tacked into the cove where, as I had guessed, it dropped anchor.

I grabbed the telescope at the end of the terrace and got the boat in focus; the name Bad Dog was inscribed in brass letters on her bow. I moved over an inch and got a man in my sights. Muscular, broad in the shoulders, powerful chest tapering to narrow hips…And oh my God, he was totally naked!

I knew I shouldn’t but okay, I admit it, I took a peek—actually a long look. What woman wouldn’t? After all, he was just standing there, poised for a dive, almost flaunting his nakedness. And I want to tell you the view was good. I’m talking about his face of course, which was attractive in an odd sort of way. Actually, I thought he looked like his boat: tough, workmanlike, rather battered.

I watched the Naked Man make his dive, then cut cleanly out to sea in a powerful crawl until all I could make out was a faint froth in his wake. From the corner of my eye, I caught a movement on the sloop; a young woman, all long legs and long blond hair and wearing only a bright red thong, was stretched out on a towel in the stern, catching the final rays. Not that she needed them; like him she was perfectly toasted. Spread her with butter and jam, I thought enviously, and she’d be perfect for his breakfast.

The Naked Man was swimming back to the sloop and I got him in my sights again. And that, you might say, was my big mistake.

He climbed back onto the boat, shook himself like a wet dog in a cloud of rainbow-colored droplets, then flung out his arms and lifted his head to the sun. He stood for a moment, beautiful, hard-bodied, golden from the sun and the sea winds, a man at one with the elements. There was something so free about the gesture, it took my breath away.

I followed as he padded aft, saw him reach for something. A pair of binoculars. And then he had me in his sights, caught in the act of peeking at him.

For a long moment our eyes met, linked by powerful lenses. His were blue, darker than the sea, and I could swear there was laughter in them.

I jumped back, hot all over with embarrassment. His mocking laughter drifted across the water, then he gave me a jaunty wave and, still laughing, stepped into a pair of shorts and began unhurriedly to clean his deck.

So. That was my first meeting with Jack Farrar. The next one would prove even more interesting.

THE HOTEL RIVIERA Copyright © 2003 by Elizabeth Adler