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Authors: Hannah Tunnicliffe

A French Wedding

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About
A French Wedding

Max is turning forty. All he wants for his birthday is to invite his six oldest friends to stay at his country house in France … and to finally declare his secret, undying love for his best friend, Helen. What could possibly go wrong?

Juliette gave up her dream of owning an acclaimed Parisian restaurant to return to her tiny coastal village and nurse her ageing parents. But she finds her childhood home much changed – even the
boulangerie
where she first learned the joy of baking has fallen upon hard times. Now, as she tries to forget her past failures, Max's birthday weekend may just provide the new beginning Juliette is wishing for … but at what cost?

A French Wedding
is a charming, transporting story of love, lies, fights, friendship and feasts set over a single weekend in the French countryside. The perfect novel for fans of
The Big Chill
and
Chocolat
.

To my parents, Rob and Glen Tunnicliffe,

for all the love.

Gwell eo karantez leizh an dorn ewid madoù leizh ar forn

‘A handful of love is better than an oven full of bread'

(Breton saying)

Prologue

The spring sun finally splits through lacy clouds that have kept the morning veiled and shy. It casts a pale, white light on the small crowd. Several glance up from their conversations to notice. A gull rides the thermals closer to the ocean, like origami flung into the sky. It hovers and dips with ease, assessing the scene below. People gathered in soft-coloured dresses or pressed shirts and trousers. Drinks in hands, the welcome sunlight striking off the golds and ambers inside narrow glasses. An earnest-looking woman in a pink dress offers canapés on a silver tray. The guests move slowly to seats in rows, reticent to break off their chatter. They lean over to kiss cheeks and grasp hands, so pleased to see one another, so pleased to be here for this. In front a young man, with a violin, looks towards the young woman waiting at the end of the aisle, her blonde hair dyed blush at the ends, and clears his throat. She is his cue, which sends nerves through his stomach, fizzing like champagne.

The guests, sensing, settle and quiet. The garden gives a sigh of fragrance. A scent that is pink and purple and heady, from the lilacs and hyacinths and roses in full and marvellous bloom. White and pale green hydrangeas gently sway, like candy floss on stems, and daisies dot the grass which is pillowy and cool underfoot. Then the violinist starts to play, notes soaring up and around heads. The singer, in a long dress embroidered with flowers and a red rose tucked above her ear, joins him in song. Among the crowd a baby squeals a reply.

The bride is at the end of the aisle now. All eyes slide towards her. She wears a long, cream, silk dress that floats down to her toes. Most hold their breaths, some feel tears at their eyes and in their throats and others simply stare, mesmerised. She steps over the soft grass, a loose bunch of flowers in her right hand. The sun, grown confident, seems to shine out of her as well, as though she might just burst with joy into a thousand sparkling splinters. At the front of the aisle she pauses, passing her bouquet to a friend. When she takes the hands of her lover, those close enough notice how she grips them, till her knuckles pale, and hear when he says, ‘You are so beautiful,' in a fragile whisper.

They cling to one another, faces glowing, radiant. The two of them, together, like hazel and honeysuckle, exactly the way the legend was supposed to end.

Hope – no, proof! – that it can be done and it can be good.

One Year Earlier –
Un An Plus Tôt

Juliette

J
uliett
e wakes to the scent
of dying roses; pink when they were given to her,
now browned the colour of summer skin, petals peeling away
from the stems
. She is late. Later than she wanted to
be; on this day of all the days. She blinks
at the wall clock and leaps out of bed, swearing
Merde, merde, merde
. She brushes past the drooping blooms, scattering
more petals over the unmade bed and onto the floor
like wedding confetti.

In
the
shower
she
washes
quickly,
hair
knotted
into
a
loose
bun.
She
dries
fast
and
poorly,
the
towel
thin
and
needing
replacing.
Brushes
her
teeth.
Frowns
at
her
face
which
is
too
pale
and
too
lined
from
too
many
nights
in a kitchen.
Makeup
spread
with
a
fast,
light
hand,
too
much
and
it
will
settle
in
the
map
of
her
skin – rivers,
border
lines
and
battle
lines.
Mascara.
Blusher
to
fix
the
problem
of
looking
tired
and
wan.
She
brushes
out
her
hair;
it
has
grown
down
past
her
shoulders,
a
little
frazzled
at
the
ends,
like
her
nerves,
but
unnoticeable
once
twisted
up.

Juliette puts her thumb through the first pair of tights. She swears again and inspects the nail, which is short and ragged. She is more careful with the second pair, taking her time, though it makes her heart bump and jostle in her chest, impatient. Dress on and boots and then out the door with handbag slung across her body and swinging like a pendulum, her phone in hand. She sends Louis a text message, apologising, as she rushes down the stairwell.

Her boots sound out
Clip! Clip! Clip
! on the stairs. As though they too are scolding her.

Madame Deschamps opens her door as Juliette hurries past it. She gathers her robe around her and steps backwards. Juliette has no time to stop and exchange pleasantries, her boots marching her down the staircase, that ancient curling spine, and out the front door on to the street.

Outside the morning light is grey and flat and the world smells of concrete and dog piss and baking from half a block away, which Juliette cannot help but lift her nose to. She knows Henri is in the
boulangerie
, covered in sweat and flour, knows that he has propped open the back door to let in some air, no matter the scent of it, to feel its cool caress on his pink, prickling skin. Juliette knows he will be having an espresso, dark and sugarless, relishing it like it is a kiss and telling any staff that come near him
‘Foutre le camp!
' until he is finished, until he is revived. Juliette is welcomed, of course, they talk of flour and yeast and life without cigarettes and Henri's dog that is his world and has a bad leg. If she wasn't running late she could join him now, pull up a plastic crate and sit with him to mourn the cigarettes and praise the dog. But not today.

Juliette moves past stallholders setting up
for the market, some calling out to her, some simply
nodding their heads. Boxes are being opened and vans idle
with loads of fish and crab, early spring berries, bunches
of sweet, lemony sorrel, chocolates, cheeses, oils and vinegars in slender
, green bottles, flowers with sweet-smelling heads the colours of
confectionery. Juliette sidesteps a groggy tourist with a camera, on
a strap, around his neck.

It is only a short walk
to the Place Monge Metro station; a block and a
half. Juliette retrieves her ticket well before she reaches the
entrance marked by the curved metalwork sign, the letters curled
like tendrils, like vines, the stairs below it sprayed with
spiked black curses and insults. Juliette presses her bag closer
to her side out of instinct. This is the fifth
arrondissement. This is Paris. A person can never be too
sure. Juliette is the only one on the platform when
the train rushes in with a sickly, warm wind. She
boards and sits, feeling now the pinch of her new
boots. She
had wanted something pretty, something fresh, for
today. New boots to make her feel new. New and
special and worth writing about. Even if her hair was
not perfect, or her nails, or the lines on her
face which declared that she was past forty and
so very tired.

A man on the seat opposite lifts his head from his paper and smiles at her.

‘Juliette!'

His hair is thick and silver, his lips full and twitching.

‘Leon …' Juliette replies, trying to sound cheerful.

He rises from his seat and slips across the aisle to settle in to the seat next to her. A woman in a bright-coloured headscarf watches them, her face blank. Her dress is covered in flowers and leaves – orange, brown, black and yellow. Juliette wishes she were sitting next to her instead.

‘I knew it was you,' Leon says, tipping his head. ‘You look nice.
Très jolie
.'

‘
Merci,
Leon. Thank you,' Juliette replies.

Leon folds up his newspaper and places it in his bag. ‘Early start?'

Juliette nods.

‘You work too hard.'

Juliette knows this is strategic discouragement rather than concern. Leon is not Juliette's fraternity, he is her competition.

‘Ah! Today is a big day, no?' Leon remarks.

‘How …?'

Leon taps his forehead. ‘I know. I hear these things. Interview with …?' He grins, knowing.

‘
Gault et Millau
,' Juliette mutters. She had been avoiding saying the name of the famous restaurant guide aloud, as though it might bring bad luck. Leon's smile is broad and satisfied.

‘Dusollier?'

‘
Oui
, Dusollier.'

‘Hmmm,' Leon says. ‘She's a tough nut to crack.'

‘Yes, I heard,' Juliette replies. Suddenly feeling less than
jolie
, pretty, as Leon described. She wished she'd made it to the hairdresser appointment last week. Juliette missed a lot of appointments lately. Dates with friends and doctors' visits; she hadn't been to a dentist in two years and knew she needed a tooth filled.

‘You've met her?' Juliette asks, as though she doesn't want to know a lot more.

Leon nods. ‘Of course.'

They stop at a station, the train filling, passengers swarming to seats. A pregnant woman is left standing and those who are now sitting avoid her gaze. The space between Juliette and the woman in the flower-covered dress is occupied by another woman peering into a handheld compact and applying lipstick, a dark-coloured purse tucked under her arm, and a young man with a skateboard. He glares at Juliette.

‘You'll be fine,' Leon offers, patting Juliette's knee, his hand lingering a moment too long. He leans towards her and murmurs.

‘Dusollier's bark is worse than her bite. They're all like that, aren't they? The critics? They just want to feel important.'

Juliette nods.

‘You know what the trick is?' Leon whispers. Juliette doesn't reply. His face is too close to hers and he smells too strongly of aftershave. Bumping into Leon like this is far from ideal. Juliette avoids Leon at every opportunity – industry events, openings, when he comes to her restaurant,
Delphine,
with some investor he is trying to woo. It isn't just that he is a competitor; it is much more than that. Around Leon, Juliette feels secrets, like snakes, in her stomach. Feels them squirming in that slippery, sideways way that snakes move.

‘You've just got to make them feel special. See?'

Leon places his hand on top of Juliette's. She glances at it, at the gold band and then him sharply. His hand is gone by the time she meets his eyes, but it is enough. The train jolts and passengers stagger. The woman with the flower dress looks through the gap at her. It is comforting to Juliette that she is there. Watching.

‘I see.
Merci
,' Juliette replies, tersely.

‘You'll be fine,' Leon says, again, smooth as melted chocolate spread out to be tempered on a counter.

Juliette straightens, emboldened by the woman in the flowers, by the heat of Leon's unwelcome touch she can still feel on the top of her hand.

‘How is Celine?' she asks, the name slick and silver. ‘Your wife? And the girls?'

Leon's smile is tight. ‘Oh, good, yes. They are well.'

‘You must say hello to them all from me.'

‘Yes,' Leon replies carefully.

Juliette looks to the window, the train slowing and her station coming into view.

‘This is my stop,' she explains, gesturing, with insincere apology.

Juliette blinks twice at the woman across the aisle as though she can read Juliette's mind. As though she can understand her unuttered gratitude, though for exactly what Juliette is not sure. She stands as the train brakes too fast and swings towards the lady with the purse, lipstick now applied.

‘
Bonne chance
,
' Leon says, sleekly. ‘With the interview.'

‘I'm sure I'll be fine,' Juliette replies quickly, nodding and exiting.

The fork-tongued snakes inside of her hissing and spitting venom.

*

Amelie Dusollier contacted
Delphine
one month ago. Louis answered the phone. He was sprightly, Louis, thin, with dark circles under his eyes and a long, straight nose.
‘
Gault et Millau
!
' he had mouthed, his body fidgeting, before Juliette had taken the phone.

That morning Juliette's mind had been awash with new words and ideas, ingredients to be pieced together like a jigsaw. She could never be completely sure what would marry together and what would not; it was not exact science. Of course Jean-Paul, the man who first took her into a bed, who first kissed her pressed up against a counter and took her hands and showed her how to cook and make love both, the two activities now firmly intertwined in Juliette's psyche, would not have made such a fuss of it. He would have said, ‘What grows together goes together.' But Jean-Paul was not a chef, he did not have a restaurant to run, the likes of Leon to compete against or a point to prove. Jean-Paul had simply caught fish and women, his two occupations.

Wakame. Kombucha. Umami.

Those were the words peppering Juliette's thoughts the morning Amelie Dusollier called. She had been experimenting with Asian flavours. Sweet and sour and pickled and crispy-fried. Ingredients Jean-Paul would never have heard of.

‘Dusollier,' she had said, on the other end of the phone; her first name superfluous to explanations. Juliette swallowed her anxieties.

‘
Bonjour
,' she answered sweetly. ‘Juliette of
Delphine
.'

‘
Oui
,' Amelie Dusollier replied plainly. Leon was right. Critics and reviewers did like to feel important. They made nothing tangible of their own, other than words, they poured no money into ventures that could thrive or shrivel to nothing. They took no risks. Yet they were responsible for the knighting or banishment of a restaurateur or chef. And they knew it. Amelie Dusollier's deadlines and schedule were set well in advance. She booked the interview, the tasting and the photographer with Juliette a month ago which had seemed then like a long time in which to get prepared; to get the new menu set and tested, to buy new boots, to get a haircut. But
Delphine
still had to be run and time flew. Like Juliette, up the stairs of Le Metro, into the brightening Paris morning.

Juliette pauses briefly to check her phone and there is a message from Louis.

‘Sans problème.'

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