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We drove north, away from the coast.
Through the outskirts of Béziers and deeper into the Languedoc. Vineyards heavy with fruit lined the road on both sides, ranks of low green vines marching off into the distance under a deep blue Mediterranean sky. Sean driving, his eyes hidden behind aviator shades, the kids in the back with hand luggage wedged between them, Lucy dozing while Daniel plays on his phone, me staring out the window as the scenery rolls by, the rental car’s AC just about keeping the sticky midafternoon heat at bay.
If I’d known what was coming, what we were driving toward, I would have made Sean stop the car and take us straight back to the airport. I would have grabbed the steering wheel myself, forced the car off the road, and made him do a U-turn right there.
But I didn’t know.
My instincts had been telling me for a couple of weeks, as we wound down toward the summer holidays, that something was up. Something was wrong. Sean had always been the one to look on the bright side, to make the kids laugh, to bring me a gin and tonic when I needed cheering up. In the unconscious allocation of roles in our marriage, I was the organizer, the rule-setter, the guardian of boundaries. Sean was the light to my shade—always open, funny, patient, the optimist of the family.
Now he was defensive, secretive, serious. Distracted, constantly staring at his phone. Perhaps work was getting on top of him—hassle from his new boss? He’d half suggested that maybe he should stay at home this week, because of work. Or perhaps it was his fear of reaching forty, which seemed to grow stronger as his birthday drew nearer. Some kind of midlife crisis? I’d asked him if he thought he might be depressed—if I knew what was wrong, we could tackle it together. But he had brushed my questions aside, insisting he was fine.
I flinched as he touched my thigh.
“Sorry,” I said, forcing a smile. “Miles away.”
“How long until we turn off this road?”
I checked my phone.
“About another ten minutes.”
He took his hand off my thigh and moved it back to the steering wheel. The warmth of his fingertips lingered for a moment and I tried to remember the last time I’d felt his touch, the last time he had reached out to me. Weeks? A month?
The fact that you’re even thinking it means something isn’t right. That’s what Rowan would have said. The holiday had been her idea, two years in the planning. Rowan, Jennifer, Izzy, and me—best friends marking our fortieth birthdays with a week together in the south of France, husbands and children included.
“Grand,” Sean said. “You OK?”
“Fine. Just want to get there, get unpacked.”
“Have you heard from Jennifer and Alistair?” He glanced up at the rearview mirror. “Since they lost us?”
“No, but I’m sure they’re not far behind.”
“I told them I’d lead the way and they could follow.”
I turned to look at my husband. It wasn’t like him to worry about Jennifer and her husband—he got along with them OK but had little in common with them, apart from me.
“You know what Alistair’s like,” I said. “He could get lost in his own back garden.”
“Sure, I suppose you’re right.”
I went back to staring out the window at the lush green vineyards rolling past, dark grapes ripening in the summer heat. Off in the distance, the conical black towers of an ancient château stood out against the skyline.
After ten miles or so, Google Maps directed us off the main road and up through one tiny hamlet after another. Puimisson, St. Geniès, Cabrerolles—sleepy villages of narrow streets and ancient stone, old men sitting impassively in the shade watching us pass by. We peeled off onto an even smaller road that climbed higher, winding back and forth up a hill where the vineyards gave way to dark pine trees, finally emerging onto the crest of a hill above the village of Autignac, a tall, whitewashed wall flanking the road. The wall ended in black metal gates tipped with faux spearpoints and my phone informed us that we had arrived at our destination.
Sean slowed the car to turn in and the black metal gates swung noiselessly open. Gravel crunched softly beneath the wheels as we turned onto the estate and headed for the villa, tall cypress trees, slim and straight and perfectly pruned, lining the long driveway like a guard of honor. On both sides were lush lawns of thick green grass, watered by sprinklers circling lazily in the midafternoon heat.
Sean pulled up next to Rowan’s Land Rover Discovery, already parked in front of the villa’s sweeping stone staircase.
I turned in my seat. Lucy was still asleep in the back, head tucked into her balled-up sweatshirt, long blond hair falling across her face. Since hitting her teens she seemed able to sleep anywhere, at any time of the day, if she sat down for more than ten minutes: she had slept on the way to the airport, and on the plane, and was fast asleep now. I had always loved watching her sleep, right from when she was a baby. She would always be my baby, even though she was sixteen now—and taller than me.
“Lucy, love,” I said, softly. “We’re here.”
She didn’t stir.
Her younger brother, Daniel, sat next to her, headphones on, absorbed in a game of something on his phone. He was her opposite in many respects—a little ball of energy who had never been keen on sleep, either as a newborn or now, an excitable nine-year-old. He uncovered one ear and took his first look out the window.
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