While I stood there, forcing myself to remain composed, I saw the scruffy bruiser appear once more. He came from a dark alleyway and stood on the boat park about a dozen yards from the end of the pontoon, picking at his nose and watching me suspiciously through those dark-ringed eyes. He rubbed one hand across a cheek that looked strangely hollow for such a big guy. I got the feeling it would be very easy to ram a clenched fist down his gullet. Enjoyable, even.
But I decided to leave that pleasure for another day.
Viola and I went off to our cabins early that night. I was glad, feeling strangely tired. Nevertheless, I lay in my bunk for a couple of hours just allowing my mind to wander. Simone would now be back in England, using her trim and prim visual charm to calm and reassure her party as they began the next stage of their European vacation.
Already I was forming fanciful daydreams inside my head: dreams in which Simone was an important part of my future life. I missed her. But I had to be sure that my feelings were for real and not just the residue of a physical longing. A common or garden form of physical longing could be conjured up by other women; like Viola Bracewell. Real love was far more than that.
Or did I mean real sex?
That as well, I supposed.
Some while later I woke up with a start. I must have been dreaming about Penny. Or was it Simone? Slowly, as full consciousness began to creep into my brain, I felt around for a lamp switch over the bunk and then grabbed my watch. It was a little after two o’clock. I lay back in the bunk and listened, wondering what had woken me. I could hear the gentle lapping of the water on the hull, rhythmic and soothing. Metal masts were being slapped by wire ropes on a hundred or more yachts out in the harbour, but that wasn’t what woke me. It had been something on board the cruiser, I was sure of that now. But I didn’t know what.
After some minutes I climbed out of the bunk and eased open the cabin door. Everything seemed normal so I grabbed a bathrobe and my torch, slipped out into the corridor and stepped quietly along to the saloon. I painted my torch beam round about, splashing it across the floor and the bulkheads, even across the ceiling. But I saw nothing untoward, at least not at first. I was about to go back to my cabin when the light flickered across something on the floor, forward near the main hatch.
When I stepped nearer I saw that it was a cigar butt, the fall-out from someone’s dirty smoking habit. It certainly hadn’t been there the night before and that meant someone had been aboard the cruiser while we slept. Without thinking, I dropped it in a waste bin and went out on deck. There was hardly a soul to be seen in the dim glow of the shore-side lights. Puzzled, I went back to my bunk. It took me some time to get back to sleep.
The next morning I woke up slowly, consciousness easing into a dull brain.
Minutes passed before I realized that the boat was moving to the accompaniment of the steady throb of its diesel engines. I sat up and peered out of the cabin window. The marina basin at le port des Bas Sablon had gone, replaced by the banks of the River Rance. Overhanging trees and a footpath acted as the foreground to a view of long, flat fields and distant villages. Occasional houses sat close to the shore while moored boats lay at anchor in the wide river. I grabbed at my watch and frowned with disbelief. It was ten minutes to six. Viola had said she would be leaving early, but I hadn’t realized she meant this early. I hastily pulled on my clothes before I went out to the saloon.
The sky was clear, promising another sizzling hot day. Sunlight shafted in at all the windows. From the saloon I could see out to the main deck and the steering position. Viola sat at the wheel, once again with just a pair of minuscule panties between her and total nudity. She was staring at the far bank of the river, quite oblivious to me.
I took a moment to study her before I went outside. It was all on show. Slender body curving in an out the right amount in the right places. Silky hair and silky skin. The word ‘sensual’ just didn’t do her full justice.
When the moment was right, I coughed to attract her attention and then I walked out up the deck. I was facing the rear of the boat and saw the Rance Barrage half a mile behind us. Viola had taken the Breton Belle through without any help while I slept. I felt momentarily guilty.
“Hello there.” I turned towards the girl and saw that she had been crying. Worse, she had been in another bust-up. Her eyes were bloodshot and there was further heavy bruising on her face. It was spread right across her cheek, much deeper than the bruising she’d sported the previous day. I felt a cold shiver run down my spine as I recalled that cigar butt. Someone had been aboard during the night.
“What on earth happened to you?” I asked.
She bent her head away again. “Nothing. Just an accident.”
“It looks more like you’ve been two rounds with Mike Tyson. What really happened?”
“An accident, I said! It’s nothing.” She turned her head away.
I wasn’t ready to end the conversation there. I spoke with an insistent edge. “Was it that big hoodlum again? The brain-dead gorilla? Or was it the older man?”
“Please, Henry. Keep out of this!” She was getting rattled now. “It’s none of your business.”
“Okay.” I mentally backed off. Maybe I was wrong in sticking my nose into her business, but I found it difficult to hold my tongue. The closer I came to her, the uglier became the blue-red mark across her cheek. I looked about for some way to ease the tension between us.
“Have you eaten?” I asked and immediately realized it was a damned silly question. Of course she hadn’t eaten. Lamely, I added, “I’m really okay as a cook, if you don’t mind living on ham and eggs.”
A calmer tone crept into her voice. “Thanks, but I’m not hungry.” The soft, husky sound of her voice unnerved me. It was almost sensual. “But if you’d like to take the wheel, I’ll rustle up something for you.”
I weighed up the options. Let her cook or let her steer? Let her cook, I decided. It was a better chore to occupy her attention. Steering the boat was easy; it left the mind free to wander.
She went down into the saloon without looking back. Ten minutes later she returned carrying a tray neatly set out with a full English breakfast. It wasn’t what I had grown used to in France—continental breakfasts left me cold inside and out—but this smelt good. Not as good as an all-American breakfast, but a step in the right direction. I handed back the wheel so that I could do full justice to her cooking.
“You must let me do my share in the galley,” I offered between mouthfuls of crisp bacon and egg fried sunny-side-up. Change the bacon for proper ham and it would remind me of my mother’s cooking at home on the desert hills above LA.
“I can manage. It’s a woman’s job.”
“Thank God I didn’t say that. I’m not a chauvinist, you know.”
“I believe you,” she replied, but I could see her attention was already wandering away from me. Her eyes were not focused on anything in particular as we continued slowly on down the river. Fortunately there wasn’t much other water traffic to worry about.
“Do you smoke, Viola?” I asked as casually as I could manage. It was ridiculous to think she would smoke cigars, but the question could lead me towards someone who would.
“No.” She turned up her nose. Pert and perfectly shaped like the rest of her. “Smoking is a psychological weakness. I have no need of it.”
“Strong-willed enough without it, eh?”
“I read somewhere that most women only smoke to increase their sexual gratification. The cigarette is a sort of penis substitute.”
I gave her a look of astonishment. “And men?”
“Then it becomes a nipple substitute. That’s why some men roll their cigarettes between their thumb and forefinger. Did you know that?” She said it without any hint of embarrassment. And this girl claimed to be an innocent virgin!
“No. But I’ll bear it in mind. Do you have any friends who smoke?”
“Lots.” She stared into the far distance and didn’t elaborate.
I shut up after that.
We cruised at a steady pace along the river. Viola told me we would be travelling slower after we passed Dinan where we would enter the canal d’Ille et Rance. The canal was much narrower than the River Rance and there were forty seven locks between Dinan and Rennes. She hoped to reach Rennes the following evening and moor somewhere before the canal joined the River Vilaine.
“I like Rennes,” she said. “I’ve moored there before. Several times. There’s a farm nearby where we can get milk and eggs. The family who run the farm, they know… they know the boat and… they… well, they just know.”
“You mean they know your one-time fiancé?”
She made no immediate reply but her head sank. After a full minute she said, “They know me.”
I still couldn’t figure her out. Silence ensued for some time as I struggled to put the enigma into its place. With no luck.
“How did you get your name?” I asked eventually.
She gave me a glance, which reeked of suspicion. “Bracewell was my father’s name.”
“I guessed that. I meant the first name, Viola. It’s English, but rather like Victorian English. Shakespeare’s English, even. A bit dated anyway.”
“My mother was called Viola. And her mother. And her mother before that. They say it went back at least six generations. Maybe more. My mother didn’t want to break the chain. She insisted I was called Viola.”
“I like it,” I told her and she gave me her first genuine smile that morning.
The day grew hotter as the sun arched into a clear blue sky and Viola’s near nakedness became increasingly appropriate, if somewhat distracting. In deference to the heat, I donned a pair of respectable shorts and sat beside her at the steering position. We chatted idly as we cruised, but I was careful to avoid mention of Hassim. Kept trying to tell myself it was none of my business.
“Do you always dress like that?” I asked her at one point.
“Often. I told you that when we first met.” She drew in a deep breath as if there was more to be said so I made no attempt to interrupt. “It’s not out of place in France, you know. Of course daddy would be furious if I dressed like this at home, but Ali doesn’t mind. He says I look fresh and pure when I’m naked. He says I’m like some precious gift that’s just been unwrapped. Don’t you think that’s a lovely thing to say? When I was at his chateau I used to sunbathe completely naked.”
“But he never made any attempt to have sex with you?” When she frowned, I added, “That’s what you told me.”
“Well… maybe he wanted to, but I told him I intended to be a virgin when I get married.”
“A very refreshing policy.”
“Are you teasing me again?”
“I think Ali understood. He never made any demands.” But she averted her gaze as she said it. Then she added, “Not too many demands.”
I began to wonder what sort of guy this Hassim was. Something sure as hell wasn’t right with him. A beautiful young girl like Viola Bracewell sunbathing naked in his castle and he didn’t succeed in pre-empting the nuptial proceedings. Maybe he was blind?
Around mid-day we pulled into the bank near Dinan for lunch. The river was behind us and the canal ahead. The sun was right above us with no sign of cloud on any horizon and perspiration was rolling down Viola’s well-tanned breasts in steady dribbles.
“We need to rest for an hour,” she decided. “It’s what the French do and it’s a good idea in this heat.”
“I could prepare us a salad lunch,” I offered. “And afterwards we could have a siesta.”
“You feel like making us a meal?”
“It’s only fair that I should do my share. Why don’t you take a break while I get to work?”
In fact she didn’t rest immediately. While I was in the galley I heard her go onto the foredeck and then came the distinctive sound of her diving into the water. Ten minutes later she came back into the saloon, still wet from her swim. Water dribbled down her body and splattered across the floor.
“I enjoy a swim in this heat,” she said as she bent to pull off her wet panties. Palpitations began to hammer out from my chest. Good God, doesn’t she realize what she’s doing! Probably not. A sensible Goldilocks would never have gone into the woods in the first place.
She squeezed the water from the panties and hung them to dry on the back of a seat before wandering off to her cabin. She came back dressed in that same expensive, but over-sized man’s shirt.
I picked up two plates and gestured towards the table. “Take a seat and tell me what you think about this,” I said. “I used only what I found in the ice box. Nothing elaborate, but tasty I hope.”
“I don’t usually eat much in the middle of the day.” She squeezed into a built-in seat at the far side of the table.
“Try it, for my sake.”
She leaned her elbows on the table and stared at me, conjuring up a thoughtful expression. “Why are you here in France, Henry? You’re not here just for a holiday, are you? There’s something else.”
“I needed a vacation, that’s all. Honest.” I took my seat directly opposite her and set to with knife and fork.
“But you’re here for another reason. You’re trying to run away from something, aren’t you?”
Run away? Hell, maybe that’s exactly what I was doing. Her perceptive comments were too close to home and I felt a shiver run through me. “You think so?” I said, eyeing her carefully.
“I’m jolly well sure of it. What’s the real story?” She sounded so sure of herself.
But I wasn’t so keen to talk about my life. “I have my secrets, Viola, just as you have yours.”
“But you need to talk about your secrets. You do, don’t you? I can see it in your eyes.”
I thought about it for a full minute while paying with the food. Maybe she was right, and maybe it would help her to loosen up a bit. So I gave in and told her the truth. I told her all about Penny and the baby and the overwhelming sense of grief that I just hadn’t been able to shake off. But I said nothing about Simone de Valieur. That was a secret too fresh to be unwrapped just yet.
Viola sat at the table in silence while I talked, her elbows still spread out on the table, her food uneaten. When I had finished, she said, “That’s very sad. I feel sorry for you.”
I shook my head firmly. “I don’t need anyone feeling sort for me. But I think I’m now entitled to ask about you.”
“You already did.” She stood up instantly and cleared up her plate. She still had eaten nothing. “Remember?”
“You didn’t tell,” I reminded her.
“No, I didn’t, did I?”
She scooped the food into the waste bin and dropped the plate in the sink and then she was gone, pattering her way along the corridor to her cabin. I just sat there for a few minutes and then I went outside and took a walk along the towpath to clear my mind.
I needed it.
When we set off again, I insisted on taking the wheel. It was only fair to share the driving, I told her. Viola put up no objection to that and she spent the next few hours sunbathing on the front cabin roof.
It seemed like she had found a pair of dry panties.