Betty peeked outside the room, left and right. At the end of the corridor, Mrs. Mansfield opened the door to the stairwell. As soon as it closed behind her, Betty whispered: “The coast is clear.”
Eighty-three year-old, Maurice Delorme, donned his fedora, pushing it low on his forehead to shade his eyes.
Betty pushed his wheelchair out of the bedroom, down the corridor and into the hall. She winked at 92-year-old Annette who shrieked, clutching her chest, thus distracting the nurse away from the front desk. Betty and Maurice rushed past the reception area, out the front doors and around the building.
Betty stopped to catch her breath. Maurice laughed wheezily, slapping his thigh.
“We did it, ma chère.”
“Remind me to get that fudge Annette likes.”
“Did I ever tell you I once saw her perform at La Scalla de Milan in 1963?”
“Have you?” Betty replied though, of course, she had heard the story before. She didn’t mind, Maurice had had the most amazing life, and she enjoyed his reminiscence however embellished they might be.
The St. James, where she worked, was a small and exclusive care home for elderly millionaires. Certainly nothing like the conditions in which her mother had lived. For many years, Betty had taken care of her mother, who suffered from an early-onset form of dementia, in their small flat in Leeds. When her mother passed away, Betty not only had to grieve for her parent, but also for the many years during which she had put her own life on hold. The day after the funeral, she’d looked at herself in the mirror and realized she didn’t know who she was. On a whim, she had moved to London and promised herself to live life to the fullest.
Things had turned out significantly less glamorous than expected. She couldn’t afford a home in a desirable neighborhood. And, with no formal education or work experience to speak of, she had found employment doing the same chores she had done for her mother. At least, at the St. James, she was paid for it, had real days off, and suffered less verbal abuse. Most of all, moving away had not magically rid her of her shyness and anxieties. Wherever she went, they followed, but she was getting better at giving them the slip.
Part of living life to the fullest had involved letting Maurice convince her to sneak him out of the care home. His doctor advised against any taxing activities and public spaces where germs abounded. But he longed to visit a museum or a gallery.
“What is a life without art, but a body without a heart?” he’d complained dramatically.
And thus had begun their weekly escapades.
Just a few streets away from the care home was Kinwood Palace, an illustrious property with a world-class art collection open to the public. Betty loved the gorgeous gardens, but Maurice was here for the Rembrandts and Vermeers.
Betty pushed her accomplice over the gravel leading to the neoclassical villa. Despite being hot from the physical effort and warm summer air, Betty kept her cute coat on to hide her unflattering scrubs. She liked the coat’s sixties vibe with its big black buttons and bright colour, something she would never have worn before.
Tourists already filled the great blue and white entrance hall of Kinwood. Maurice flashed their English Heritage membership cards to the box office clerk. Betty scanned the crowd.
“Shall we pay a visit to Boticelli today?” Maurice asked. She nodded inattentively. “Or shall we visit Ringo Starr?”
“Whichever you prefer.”
“Betty, are you looking for him? The Frenchman.”
“Dunno what you’re on about.”
But her blushing cheeks betrayed her.
“You should invite him for— what is it youths call it?— ah, yes, for Netflix and chill.”
She burst out laughing. Her laughter echoed in the gallery, and she promptly slapped a hand over her mouth.
“If I were your age, I would invite him,” Maurice said.
“You were married when you were my age. And you loved Felicia.”
“Yes, yes. I could never love another woman after her. But I was always curious about sodomites… Do you think you could find me a rent boy, dear?”
She giggled and rolled her eyes.
“Well?” he insisted.
“It was good enough for Leonardo, after all,” he said as they stopped in front of framed sketches drawn by da Vinci himself.
Every room of Kinwood palace was breathtaking, Rococo frescos decorated the walls between Roman columns, and hanging from the coffered ceiling, massive chandeliers sparkled. And there were books, so many books, and vases of fresh flowers everywhere. As Maurice admired the masterpieces in gilded frames, Betty imagined herself living in a place like this, a century ago, or imagined being an actress in a period drama.
“He’s here,” Maurice whispered.
“Who?” he parroted; She wasn’t fooling him.
She glanced sideways and spotted the Frenchman, smoking just outside the garden doors, his jacket hooked on a finger over his shoulder. His hair was neatly pomaded, his trousers tailored, his shirt smooth and sharp: an old-fashioned sort of cool, straight out of her wet dreams.
Her heart skipped a beat, and she bit back a simper. She knew that from behind his sunglasses, he was studying her. One corner of his mouth rose in a languid, crooked smile.
Five times now they had visited Kinwood at the same time. Five times he had watched her from afar, with that penetrating gaze of his, then hesitated— no, not hesitated, evaluated or calculated— and finally approached her. Though he never stayed long in their company, he’d made a lasting impression on both her and Maurice.
He’d said he was a subcontractor for Kinwood, as an art dealer, she assumed because of the way he observed everything. Including Betty herself. Being seen, it unsettled her. Most days she felt indistinguishable from a potted plant. Perhaps a side effect of having lived with a mother who couldn’t recognize her anymore for years. Though Betty considered herself plain by contemporary standards, she liked to think that, on a good day, she had a hint of beauty from another era. Perhaps he could appreciate that.
He greeted Maurice warmly, in French, then turned to her, “I thought I’d recognized your laugh.” He pocketed his sunglasses, then took her hand and kissed her knuckles.
To anyone, she would have claimed he was laying it on a bit thick, but deep down she melted.
“Son nom est Betty et elle est célibataire,” Mr. Delorme said to the Frenchman.
Betty glared at him, though she didn’t know what he’d said beside her name.
“I’m Jean-François,” he said, mostly to her.
They walked together through the rooms, and soon forgot about the art. He had a way of mentioning things she had said in previous conversations: he’d read a book she liked, and he asked after the stray kittens she worried. Betty, too, remembered every word he had ever said to her, but was trying very hard to look like she didn’t. But here he was, being so openly infatuated, she’d convinced herself it was too good to be true. Yet every time they met, her misgivings vanished, and she let herself be thoroughly charmed.
They stopped in front of a small canvas, “The Enchanted Castle” by Claude Gellée, and this time Betty paid attention.
“It’s one of your favourites, isn’t it?” Jean-François remarked.
“I like landscapes the best. They’re like a window to another place, another time. I can almost… jump in. Escape.”
She covered her mouth, regretting that last word. But Jean-François brushed her hand away.
“Yes,” he said simply.
Emboldened by his touch, Betty said, “Would you— I mean, I’m working now, but later, maybe we could— if you’d like…”
“Yes,” he said again.
“Okay.” She laughed and bit her bottom lip.
“But first, I have a painting to steal.”
He slipped his jacket on and popped the collar. He said a few words in French to Mr. Delorme, then vanished out of the gallery.
Betty blinked, mouth agape. Well, that’s one way of getting dumped.
“Oh, no, I think I dropped my pills,” Mr. Delorme said, patting his breast pockets. “I swear I had them.”
“I’ll go look for them,” she said, thankful for an excuse to get away.
Fifteen minutes later, she found the bottle of medication in the antechamber thanks to a security guard. After that, Mr. Delorme asked to leave.
On the way back, Betty didn’t say a word. In her mind, she kept replaying the scene, trying to figure out what she’d done wrong. Her eyes teared up, but she blamed it on the dry wind. Humiliation, sadness and anger warred in her chest.
They weren’t careful going back inside the care home and were caught by the nurse at the front desk. Mrs. Manfield was a real stickler for rules and disliked Betty.
“We were only out in the garden,” Maurice retorted before Betty could gather her wits.
The nurse narrowed her eyes at them. “If I find out otherwise…” she warned.
Betty could lose her job over these little escapades, all for what? A rich old man and a weird Frenchman?
She took Mr. Delorme back to his room. With an unusually cold attitude, she helped him out of his outerwear and onto the armchair in front of the TV. Her behaviour shocked him, and he tried to soothe her with jokes and charm, but she ignored him.
“We won’t be going back to Kinwood palace,” she announced and left his apartments.
She went back to work, to menial tasks and being called by other carers’ names.
By the end of her shift at 5 pm, on top of the humiliation, sadness, anger and fear of losing her job, she was now feeling guilty about having been so cold with Mr. Delorme. She changed out of her dirty scrubs into her own clothes. Putting on the yellow sundress and cardigan cheered her up. She decided to pay Maurice a visit before leaving.
“I’m so sorry, Mr. Delorme. I panicked.”
“Don’t worry about it, ma chère.” He patted her hands. “You will feel better soon, I just know it.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“I just am.” He winked.
She chalked it up to his eccentric nature, but then there was a knock at the door.
“Told you,” he said.
Betty opened the door and gasped at finding Jean-François standing there.
“Good evening, Betty.”
“What— what are you doing here?”
“I have some unfinished business.”
He closed the door behind him and walked to Mr. Delorme’s wheelchair. He knelt beside it and fiddled with the underside, finally pulling out a slim leather case.
“Let’s see it,” Mr. Delorme said, rubbing his hands excitedly.
In a smooth move, Jean-François set the case on the table, flipped the locks and revealed its content: a painting. A painting from the Kinwood collection. One of her favorites: a moonlit forest by Joseph Wright of Derby.
“Tell me it’s a very good fake,” she whispered.
“There is a very good fake,” he said, “whether it’s in that case or at the gallery, well…” he smirked.
He closed back the case and checked his watch.
“Perfect.” Jean-François offered her his arm. “Are you ready for our date?”
Betty rubbed her brow and laughed incredulously. She cast a glance at Mr. Delorme who was nothing but encouraging.
“Where would we go?”
“First, I am going to hang this in my home, then we can grab a bite to eat. Is that all right with you?”
Mr. Delorme whispered, “Netflix and chill.”
Betty felt rooted on the spot. Her first instinct was to refuse. Going to a stranger’s house on the first date, a stranger who might be a thief? That was a bad idea. A fantastically terrible idea. A terribly alluring idea.
She looped her arm through his. Striding out of her place of work on his arm, she felt like a million bucks. Which is to say, less than what that masterpiece was worth.
Outside the doors, a gleaming vintage Jaguar awaited them, chauffeur standing straight beside it. They slipped in the backseat. When the door closed, butterflies erupted in Betty’s stomach.
The chauffeur smoothly navigated the traffic and drove them just outside London, to a private aerodrome. Jean-François opened the car door for her just as two men in coveralls rolled a ladder up to a small aircraft.
In a daze, Betty held Jean-François’s hand and followed him inside the cockpit. He buckled her seat harness and gave her some instructions she barely registered. He flicked switches and talked to Ground Control.
“Ready?” he asked her.
Betty should have been scared, but she couldn’t muster any fear, only excitement. Perhaps that’s what should have scared her.
She took a deep breath. “Ready.”
He taxied the plane into position and down the runway, faster and faster. Betty’s heart rate accelerated. Jean-François pulled back the controls, and as they rose in the air, a flush of adrenaline tingled through her body. Soon, they were flying over twilit London.
“Where are we going?”
“Like I said, to my home, first.”
She laughed as the blue-grey waters of the Channel appeared on the horizon. France straight ahead.
Her cheeks ached from smiling, and her heart never slowed.
They landed on a small strip in the middle of a wooded area. Betty’s legs wobbled when she stood up. Jean-François offered his hand to help her deplane. He was so frustratingly cool and composed for someone who’d just flown a stolen masterpiece across the border.
The country air was pure and warm. They weren’t in Paris, but in southern France. They walked along a trail then a grand villa came into view. Whitewashed stone, terracotta roof and blue shutters among ambitious vines and towering cypresses. Dogs ran in the tall grass, and wildflowers decorated the lawn. Solar panels hinted at an off-the-grid lifestyle.
“So?” he asked with a sweeping gesture.
She rolled her eyes with a grin. “Showoff.”
“When else can I show off if not on the first date?”
“All I’m saying is you’re setting the bar pretty high for the second date.”
She thought, even if this turns out to be all a ruse to get her in bed, even if he sends her back to London tomorrow without a goodbye, she didn’t care. It would be worth it. She deserved an incredible fling.
A middle-aged housekeeper came out to greet him and narrowed her eyes at his guest.
“You brought someone with you, monsieur?”
“Don’t worry, Marie.”
He stepped forward, still holding Betty’s hand, but she tugged him back.
“Hey, if I’m not back for my shift tomorrow morning, Mr. Delorme knows I’m with you and what you did.”
“Understood.” He bowed slightly. A curl fell to his forehead. “Smart girl.”
Although the house was old, the interior was modern. Selected antiques blended harmoniously with the warm, minimalist style. Crown molding and tapestries hid a high-end security system. She caught a glimpse of a library and of a workshop filled with art supplies. Portraits hung on the walls, going back generations. A photo of a younger Jean-François with a woman stood out: a wedding portrait. At the sight of it, Betty stopped dead in her tracks. Her nails bit into her palms. She didn’t trust her voice to ask a question evenly.
“Ah.” He scratched the back of his head. “She… she passed away five years ago.”
“I’m sorry. I thought— well, I’m sorry.”
He hesitated by the photo. For the first time, he looked almost destabilized.
“You thought what?” he asked after such a long pause she didn’t understand his question right away. “That I was a playboy?”
“Maybe. Are you?”
“Is that why you came with me?”
He studied her for a moment then brushed a knuckle along her jaw. Without another word, he resumed guiding her through the house.
He led her to the living room. There was another painting in here: a large canvas of hazy water lilies.
“Another very good fake?” she asked.
He carefully removed the Wright of Derby painting from the leather case.
“What do you think?” he asked.
She had many thoughts, mostly about all the people who wouldn’t get to see it now.
“Dunno,” she said. “Will you sell it?”
“No. I will deliver it to Maurice’s granddaughter in Vienna. But until then...”
He placed the canvas upon a wooden picture ledge above the fireplace. The moonlit landscape shone against the plain wall.
“Hold on. What? Mr. Delorme?”
“The painting belonged to his wife’s family, but it was stolen by Nazis in ‘38.”
“Are you telling me you’re some sort of Robin Hood?”
“Oh, no. My fees are exorbitant.”
She snorted a laugh.
“Couldn’t they get it back legally?”
“They tried. In the 1960s, I believe. But they’d lost proof of ownership during the war, and the family at Kinwood denied any transaction with former Nazi officers, as one does.”
Betty puzzled over this new information. In less than twelve hours, her idea of him had shifted so many times she could hardly keep track. But one thing hadn’t changed: her attraction.
“You know, you nearly derailed my plans,” he said.
“A year of meticulous planning and then, out of nowhere, comes this lovely woman I cannot stop thinking about. I shouldn’t have let myself be seen talking to Maurice so often.”
“You’re having me on.”
“I brought you here, didn’t I?”
“Yeah, but I gave in too easily. Where’s the challenge in that for you?”
“Where’s the challenge in letting someone get close to me?” A rhetorical question veiling a confession.
She tilted her head to the side and considered him. He let her.
“Was anyone hurt by your plan?”
“Not a soul, I swear.”
Marie brought in a bottle of red wine with two glasses and a plate of cheese, bread and thin slices of roasted duck.
Jean-François pressed a button on the wall. Curtains swayed aside, revealing tall sliding glass doors that framed a landscape not unlike the one in the painting. One of the doors was open, warm air swirled in, balmy with dew and night blossoms.
He opened the wine bottle and sampled its bouquet. Satisfied, he filled their glasses which they rose in a silent toast to whatever delights the night might bring. Drinking, she stared at the landscape outside. Beyond a small terrace, the ground sloped to a valley where centennial trees grew around a lake, mist skated upon its silvery surface. Away from the city lights, myriad stars shone in the night sky.
The glass pane hazily reflected Jean-François as he came to stand behind her. She felt his warmth radiate over her skin though he wasn’t touching her yet. Drawn in, she leaned back, just a little, an invitation, an ouverture.
He trailed a single finger from her earlobe, down her neck, to her shoulder. And she shivered with longing. He gently swiped her hair away, and his lips replaced his finger, careful, precise kisses, inching towards the strap of her dress and sliding it aside.
“What does it feel like, striding into a gallery and taking whatever you want from the walls?”
“Calming. At that moment, I am utterly focused and in control. Then when I slip away with my prize, my blood begins to sizzle.”
“Is it still sizzling now?”
He met her reflected gaze on the glass pane.
“Mine too,” she said.
She turned around in his arms, and he watched patiently as she put their glasses on a side table. Placing her hands upon his chest, she felt his sharp intake of breath, his rapid heartbeat. She slid her palms up to his neck, and his eyelids fluttered when her fingers delved into the locks at the back of his head. With a gentle push, she guided his lips to hers. He let her take the lead, modest and timid at first, then slowly yielding to instinct and hunger. When she opened her mouth to his, he cupped her cheek and leaned into her until her back pressed to the window. He kissed her with dedication, with utter focus, tasting and caressing her lips, intent on making her tingle all over. Heat flared through her, and she arched into the curve of his body bent over her.
Eyes still closed, she broke the kiss for air and licked his taste on her lips.
“That was some grade-A kissing,” she whispered.
Jean-François laughed and pecked her forehead. “I like you.”
“Yeah? ‘cause I stroke your ego?”
“Because you’re honest.”
“Well, if I’m being honest I'd very much like you to sweep me off my feet again.”
“As you wish.”
In one smooth move, he grabbed her thighs and hiked her up on his hips. Betty squeaked and held onto him. He kissed her against the glass door, exploring her neck and cleavage, all lips and teeth and tongue. She wound her legs tighter around him, seeking friction to soothe the throbbing he’d triggered. He sucked in a breath and bucked his hips.
He carried her outside, to a nearby wooden chaise lounge and laid her on the striped cushion.
She expected him to flip up her skirt and pound, but he knelt beside the chair. He rubbed her ankles, then slid his hand up her leg to her knee. Betty’s breath quickened. She parted her legs. The ascension continued, his hand slipped underneath the hem of her skirt and up inside her thigh. He stopped inches from her underwear, and kissed her again. It was agony to have his hand so close to where she needed it. His mouth traveled to her breasts, he pulled down the bodice of her dress, just enough to access a nipple. Betty squirmed and keened, and finally his fingers slipped inside her knickers.
She looked like a Renaissance muse, lounging, with her arms over her head, one breast bare, and layers of fabric bunched about her waist. And he studied her as he sought the spots that made her sigh and cry. Her lewd noises accompanied the cicadas’ song. And she should’ve been ashamed to make such a wanton display, but the heat in his eyes was worth it.
This man could take anything he wanted, and he had chosen her.
She came embarrassingly fast.
He licked his fingers and grinned.
“Showoff,” she said again.
She grabbed his tie and pulled him over her. He laughed against her lips, and it hurt with how good it felt to share this joke, this joy.
She blindly unknotted his tie as he fumbled with his buttons. Unable to wait any longer, she cupped the tantalizing bulge in his trousers. He groaned and that filled her with pride.
He stood up to take off his trousers, and she made him recline on the chaise. With half-lidded eyes, he observed her straddling his legs. She admired him, as he had her. His hair was completely disheveled now. His open shirt revealed a lean, firm chest and taut stomach down which she dragged her fingernails. His cock twitched as she neared it. She teased the surrounding skin until he growled her name. She stroked him to full hardness, enjoying the way he hardened in her hand. Because of her.
And now, for the pièce de résistance. She rose to her knees, and Jean-François’s jaw went slack. She had barely had time to enjoy his fingers, but she planned on savouring this. Slowly and with a long, luxuriating moan, she slid down every inch of him, wetting him to the root.
He gripped her hips, urging her to move. His chest heaved with panting breaths. She gorged herself on his lust and desperation. With every bounce, her dress slid lower down her torso.
She held onto the top of the seat for leverage, but she must have been too vigorous for the adjustable back suddenly collapsed. Betty yelped and Jean-François caught her.
“Crikey!” she said, pressing a hand to her heart.
“Are you hurt?”
“Scared me half to death, but I’m okay. You?”
They looked at each other, then broke into a loud guffaw. Mirth and embarrassment heated her cheeks. She truly couldn’t stop laughing. Jean-François even teared up.
“You’re so beautiful when you laugh,” he said. It came out so naturally, it was almost reckless by his standards.
Her heart swelled, and she kissed him. He rolled on top of her, spurred on by this small shot of adrenaline.
Betty shivered; it was getting cold outside.
“Shall we go back inside?” he asked.
“If you don’t mind.”
They picked up their clothes and closed the patio door. With a remote control, he turned on the fireplace.
He picked up his glass of wine from where she’d left them. He drank while watching her undress and lie down on the plush carpet, in the orange glow of the flames. With a beckoning smile, she extended a hand toward him. He removed the last of his clothes and crawled over her.
Skin to skin, bodies entwined, they moved together. And suddenly it was so tender and so very real. A leisurely give-and-take of pleasure. Delight and satisfaction mirrored in each other’s face. They gasped and moaned and laughed, then fell silent, foreheads together, fingers entwined, staring in each other’s eyes, toeing the edge of bliss.
Even after climaxing, they didn’t part. Jean-François buried his face in her neck and held her even closer.
Betty looked up at the stolen painting, and, for once, didn’t feel the pull to lose herself in its landscape. She closed her eyes and stroked his hair and thought nothing would ever be this perfect.
Eventually, hunger and thirst caught up with them. They put their underwear back on, and Betty borrowed Jean-François’s shirt.
They ate, sitting on the carpet, their legs still entwined. The wine, the cheeses, the meat, everything was unbelievably tasteful. She licked her fingers clean and refilled their glasses. Jean-François slouched down, head against the couch, unwound like she had never seen him before.
“Betty, do you still want to go back to London in time for your morning shift?”
“Good. I know an excellent restaurant in Vienna. It’s inside a tropical greenhouse, you’ll love it.”
“How is that for a second date?”