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The Prisoner of Castillac (Molly Sutton Mysteries 3): large print

The Prisoner of Castillac (Molly Sutton Mysteries 3): large print

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cozy mystery

Immerse yourself in French village life

Read a description of the series

Boston girl Molly Sutton moves to a village in France to heal after a divorce--but then a girl goes missing. Follow the intrepid expat as she uncovers secrets and chases down murderers in charming Castillac, eating a few pastries along the way.

Read Chapter 1

2006

His girls were anxious in the morning, nosing up to the fence, mooing. 

“You think I’d forget about you?” Achille Labiche said to the one with a black patch over her right eye. He reached over to scratch behind her ear. “I’m here every morning like clockwork. You know I’d never abandon you, no matter what.” 

He had thirty-two cows in his herd, all Holsteins. It was not large, as herds go, but it was enough for Achille and all he could handle by himself. Any more and he’d need to hire help, which was out of the question.

He whistled to Bourbon and the dog scampered around behind the cows and pushed them through the gate. They clopped up onto the concrete floor, into the barn. The smell of manure was deep and sweet, mixing with the scent of spring mud and all the plants in the pastures and woods coming back to life. Before going inside to do the milking, Achille tipped his head back and inhaled, and a smile broke over his face. He was the kind of man who most of the time had a rather affectless expression—not angry, not upset, but implacable—and the smile looked awkward on him, as though his facial muscles were confused.

Bourbon knew what to do and the girls did too. They jostled along, each cow wanting to get to the stations first, and Achille went down the row with the milking claws and hooked their teats into the teat cups. He had taken out a monstrous loan to pay for the machine and the barn that housed it, but that’s what farming was like nowadays, and he felt he had to do his best to stay up with the latest dairy technologies, even if in his heart he wished he still milked all his girls by hand and plowed the fields by driving a plough-horse.

Achille lived alone in the small farmhouse he had grown up in. His parents had died almost ten years ago, when he was in his early twenties. Both of them gone the same year, both buried under an oak in the middle of the back hayfield. After their deaths, the central problem of Achille’s life, as he saw it, was a terrible, aching loneliness. And yet he would not venture into the village of Castillac, which was nearest to his farm, and seek the company of others. He was far too timid. He imagined that strangers were talking about him unkindly, or making faces behind his back. He was certain he would never be able to think of anything to say if he dared go to the market on Saturday mornings and someone greeted him or even simply asked which artichokes he would prefer.

No, Achille guarded his privacy above all else. And he loved his cows and his dog and they gave him a great deal of solace. Just walking through the herd and bumping up against their big bodies and smelling their earthy cow smell—that went a long way towards assuaging his loneliness.

But it was not enough. Wouldn’t anyone say the same?

* * *

May was looking far better than winter, with bookings for Molly Sutton’s gîte business at her place, La Baraque, finally starting to pick up. During the slow winter months, her fear of being carted off to a French poorhouse had been vivid even though she was pretty sure poorhouses no longer existed. At the moment she had an Australian couple and their baby staying in the cottage for ten days, and a single older man coming on the day the Australians were leaving. Her bank account was lean but not empty, and before long the rebuilt pigeonnier would be ready to rent as well.

True, there was more to running a gîte business than she had anticipated—more paperwork, mostly, and the necessity for nerves of steel when the cottage sat empty for months on end during the cold winter—but on the whole, it was turning out to be almost ridiculously fun. She loved meeting her guests and figuring out what she could do to make their vacations perfect. She adored not going to an office every day for eight hours or longer. She didn’t even mind doing repairs, although it would be nice if things didn’t break down quite so frequently.

And here it was, glorious springtime, and at long last Molly could throw herself into the making of the garden she had dreamed about ever since first seeing the photographs of La Baraque online over a year ago.

She was having a third cup of coffee while checking her email and corresponding with potential guests when she heard someone banging on the door.

“Bonjour Constance! I thought it must be you,” she said, smiling and opening the door. 

Constance fell into Molly’s arms sobbing.

“What’s wrong?” said Molly, putting her arms around her.

Constance lifted her head and started to speak, and then dropped it heavily on Molly’s shoulder and kept crying. Molly stood and held her, thinking it was probably boyfriend trouble. She was not wrong.

“I thought he was different!” Constance got out between sobs. “Didn’t you, Molly? Didn’t Thomas seem….” and then she was off again, bawling so hard her whole body shook.

Constance was Molly’s occasional house-cleaner, a young woman not terribly talented at her job but of whom Molly was very fond. Molly led her over to the sofa and sat her down. “Tell me what happened,” she said.

“Well, you know Simone Guyanet? We’ve never liked each other, she’s like my arch-nemesis, you know? Even back in first grade. She’s the type who’s always got to win at everything, you know what I mean?”

Molly nodded.

“And I swear she snatched Thomas away just to beat me again! I’ve got the same sick feeling in my stomach I used to get on the playground when I was nine years old!” A gust of crying hit her and Molly squeezed her arm and got up to find some tissues.

“Here,” she said, giving one to Constance. “Now come on, settle down a moment. Tell me the story.”

“Well, a few weeks ago, Thomas started acting kinda funny. You know, not answering my texts and not saying a whole lot when we were together. And I’ll tell ya, one of the things that makes Thomas and me get along so well is that he’s a talker. I can’t stand that silent type, you know? And Thomas isn’t like that. He’ll talk about anything too, it’s practically like having a girlfriend. But with benefits,” she added, and then burst into tears again.

Eventually, after a cup of tea and sandwiches and quite a few more outbursts, Molly got the story out of her. An old story, to be sure: her boyfriend Thomas had begun to be less attentive and less available, and eventually Constance found out that he had been seeing Simone Guyanet on the side.

“But why didn’t he just break up with you and then go out with Simone?” asked Molly.

“Guys hardly ever do that, do they. Not the guys I end up with. Instead of just coming out with it, they start acting like jerks so I’ll break up with them.”

“Chicken-hearted weasel-pigs,” said Molly in English.

“Huh?” said Constance, who had taken English in school but knew only about six words.

“Not sure what the translation would be,” said Molly, continuing in French. “This situation, Constance—that’s how my marriage ended, more or less. I don’t know why it’s such a shock, finding out people are not who you thought they were. I mean, it happens all the time, yet we’re never prepared for it. At least I’m not.”

“That’s exactly it, Molls,” said Constance, her voice dejected. “Thomas is not who I thought he was. It’s like he was wearing a nice-guy  mask, and now the mask has slipped and he’s nothing but a jerk underneath.”

“That’s verging on profound.”

“That’s me, Molly, your philosopher-housecleaner. I do it all. Just not windows, if you please!” She was trying to joke but her shoulders were so slumped they no longer looked like shoulders, and her usually open and smiling face was mournful. 

“I wish there was something I could say to make you feel better, but I know from experience there isn’t really anything. But—I do have a bag of almond croissants, fresh this morning from Pâtisserie Bujold….”

“Hand ’em over,” said Constance. “All of them.”

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What if Valerie is still alive?

Virtually no one in the village of Castillac holds out any hope. It has been seven years, after all. Seven years since the popular, mischievous Valerie Boutillier disappeared without a trace. The exertions of the gendarmes, led by Chief Dufort, yielded almost no clues, and his failure to solve the case had been one of the main reasons he quit the force.

But then a shred of evidence appears. It might be nothing. But Molly Sutton isn’t afraid to grab hold of it and take it as far as she can.

Will a shred be enough? And if Valerie is still alive, how will Molly and Ben ever find her in time?

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