Read an Excerpt
'C'est tout, mademoiselle?'
Anna cast a last look at her childhood, jumbled into the back of the auctioneer's van, and swallowed hard.
'Yes. That's all.'
The man slid up the tailgate and dusted off his big hands. 'Bien, mademoiselle. There are just a few boxes left in the attic now; nothing that can go in a Paris saleroom, I'm afraid. Perhaps a local firm, a brocante?
Anna nodded, absent-mindedly scuffing the dusty gravel with the toe of her little green ballet pump, then stopping abruptly. She'd spent too long in tatty espadrilles hanging around with the GreenPlanet gangshe'd almost forgotten how to behave in proper clothes.
She straightened up and smiled apologetically at the removal man. His face softened. He'd worked for Paris's top auction house for a good many years now, so by rights nothing should surprise him any more. Aristocrats were an eccentric lot, and English aristocrats were the oddest of all, but Lady Roseanna Delafield was like no one he had ever come across before. With her silky black hair shot through with pink streaks and her quick, graceful ballerina's movements, she was like a pedigree kitten who had got lost and gone feral. Today her hair was caught back in a discreet knot at the nape of her neck, she was wearing a little black linen shift dress that made her skin glow like sun-kissed apricots and she looked for all the world like any other smart young lady of breeding, but nothing could quite disguise the vulnerability in those big dark eyes.
'Bon chance, ma petite,' he said kindly, climbing into the driver's seat of his lorry. 'Is sad to say goodbye to somewhere where we 'ave been appy, no?'
Anna shruggedsadly. 'Yes. But maybe it's not goodbye just yet. You never know '
Leaning out of the window the man laughed. 'Miracles do 'appen, chérie. I 'ope you find one.' He started the engine and winked at her. 'You deserve it. Au revoir.'
Anna watched the van disappear round the bend in the drive, through the pine trees, then she turned and walked slowly back into the château. Inside the hot, late summer air was heavy with the smell of decay and her eyes travelled desolately around the once-splendid entrance hall. The duck-egg-blue silk that lined the walls was rotting and torn; pale squares were left where the men had taken down the paintings and darker patches showed the ravages of damp.
Her little low-heeled shoes echoed on the leaf-strewn floor as she walked slowly up the stairs. Above her, miraculously the stained glass dome was still intact and at that moment a shaft of afternoon sunlight sent shimmering pools of light on to the stairs. She smiled, remembering how she used to love trying to catch those rippling rainbows as a child, and how they used to fall in vivid splashes on the white bride's dress she'd got for her birthday that summer when she'd played the wedding game.
That last summer before her mother had died.
She jumped as her mobile phone rang, and slid it out of her bag.
'Fliss, I'm on my way. The auctioneer people just left, so I'm just going to lock up and leave.'
'OK, honey, I'll order you a very strong Martini.' Fliss's voice was warm with compassion and understanding. 'Are you getting the bus?'
'No. One of the guys in the GreenPlanet camp has a bike I can borrow. It's only a few miles.'
From the other end of the phone Fliss gave a snort of laughter. 'You're joking, right? Anna, no one has ever arrived at the Hotel Paradis by bike. Are you going to get it valet parked?'
Stamping up a narrower flight of stairs to the attic, Anna scowled. 'Don't be silly. I don't see why I should pump carbon monoxide into the atmosphere just to keep the parking valets at the Paradis in tips.'
'OK, OK, spare me the environmental lecture.' The laughter died in Fliss's voice, leaving her sounding suddenly subdued. 'Talking of which, how's life in the GreenPlanet camp? Have you finished saving the world for the rest of us yet?'
Anna wandered over to the forlorn stack of boxes and old trunks the men had left piled in the middle of the dusty attic. 'We're still working on it,' she said stiffly, lifting the lid of a metal-banded trunk at her feet and finding herself looking down at a jumble of old clothes. 'Saving Château Belle-Eden from this this vile property developer would be a good start, though.'
'Well, if word in our office is correct and the “vile property developer” in question is Angelo Emiliani you don't stand a cat in hell's chance of saving it,' Fliss retorted, then, hearing Anna's soft gasp, said, 'Anna? What's the matter?'
'Nothing. I've just found my old dressing-up box. All my ballet stuff is in heremy first pointe shoes.' Reverently she wound the trailing ribbons around the tattered slippers, then slowly pulled out a crushed tumble of heavy cream satin from the depths of the trunk. 'The wedding dress!'
Anna held the dress out at arm's length, gazing wonderingly at it. She'd thought it was so perfect, but now she could see how home-made it looked, how obvious that it had been inexpertly cut down from one of Grandmère's gowns and trimmed with
mismatched bits salvaged from other garments. The fabric had yellowed with age and was spotted with mildew in places. Wedging the phone against her shoulder, she held the dress up against her and twirled slowly around.
'To think I truly believed this made me look like a real bride,' she said vaguely. 'A fairy princess I must have been spectacularly naïve '
That was an understatement.
Abruptly she tore the dress away from her body and dropped it back into the box. 'Anyway,' she continued briskly, 'like I said, there's nothing left for me to do here. I'm on my way.'
'Great. I'll be in the terrace bar, provided we can get a table. Don't forget it's Saskia Middleton's twenty-first tonight too, so wear something suitable. You are wearing something suitable, aren't you?' Fliss added, sounding worried. 'Only I haven't quite got over the puffball-skirt-and-biker-boots combo from Lucinda's party at Christmas. Her poor mother didn't know what to say.'
Anna glanced down at the subdued black dress. 'Don't panic, I'm looking deeply respectable,' she said ruefully. 'And it's entirely in your honour, as I have absolutely no intention of going to Saskia Middleton's party. I'd rather spend an evening with Lucretia Borgia and Hannibal Lecter. But go and grab a table on the terrace and get those Martinis ordered. I'll be there in fifteen minutes.'
Hanging up before Fliss could argue about the party, Anna turned back to the wedding dress, stroking her hand over the slippery satin.
How much had changed since that long ago summer, when she had thought that life was simple.
Nothing was simple. Nothing was what she'd thought it was.
The château was just about all that was left of that old life. And that, she thought fiercely, standing up and walking quickly
across the room and down the stairs, was why she had no intention of letting it go without a fight. It was nothing whatsoever to do with any lingering fantasies about white dresses and wedding bells, but her mother was dead, her dreams were broken, her own sense of who she was shaken to the core. That was why she had to hang on to the last shreds of the person she used to think she was.
A door slammed below.
Crossing the landing, Anna stopped dead. A little gust of air seemed to shiver through the building, then everything sank back into stillness. But the atmosphere had changed. There was a charge in the air, like electricity before a storm, and with a pulse of horrified certainty Anna knew she was no longer alone in the house.
She froze and then, with agonizing caution, tiptoed to the top of the stairs.
For a long moment there was no sound at all.
Then, with a mounting sense of panic, she heard footsteps moving across the hall. Instinctively she recognized them as male: slow, measured and sounding like the footsteps of the axe-murderer in every horror film she'd ever seen.
The footsteps stopped.
Forcing herself to lean forward, she tentatively peered over the banisters, then drew back with a sharp intake of breath.
She was right.
He was male. Very male. And very blond. Perhaps it was just because she was looking down on him from directly above that he seemed to have the broadest shoulders she'd ever seen.
His voice was deep and faintly accented. He didn't sound like a murderer. He sounded gorgeous. Anna swallowed. The ability to speak had inexplicably deserted her, but the pounding of her heart seemed to echo through the whole building, declaring her presence with every beat.
She opened her mouth but the only sound that came out was a dry croak.
There was a muttered curse from below. 'All right then, I'll come up.'
Oh, God. She was being utterly ridiculous and in a moment hewhoever he waswas going to come up and see her cowering on the landing like some frightened animal. Drawing herself up to her full five foot three inches, she smoothed down the slightly creased linen of her dress. 'Don't bother,' she called, clenching her fists into balls of determination and desperately trying to assume an air of insouciance. She moved to the top of the stairs and began to descend.
Halfway down she steeled herself to glance down at him and had to grip the banister to stop herself from falling. There was a roaring of blood in her ears and a dizzying surge of adrenalin flooded her body.
The man who stood at the foot of the stairs was her fantasy made flesh. For a moment time seemed to stand still and the years melt away, until she could have easily believed that she was ten years old again, a ragged bouquet of forget-me-nots and roses clasped in her hands, sweeping down the stairs to meet her hero. He was there, just as she had imagined him so many times.
Only his silver-blue eyes weren't filled with adoration.
They were icy cold.
'Gesù, who the hell are you?'
Angelo Emiliani was aware of the hostility in his tone and didn't bother to try and disguise it.
Arundel-Ducasse may be one of the longest established estate agents in the business, with offices in all the major European cities, but in his dealings with them over the past couple of weeks they had hardly stunned him with their efficiency. Now it seemed they'd not only got the time of his appointment wrong, so thwarting his plan to look around the château on his own first, but they'd also sent some juvenile delinquent office girl.
And, unfortunately for her, patience was not his strong point.
She stopped on the third step from the bottom, where her eyes were just about level with his, looking both nervous and defiant. In spite of his irritation, Angelo felt a vague, instinctive stirring inside him.
'Maybe I should ask you the same question,' she snapped.
'Oh, dear.' His tone was languid and mocking as he turned and walked into the centre of the hallway, his eyes travelling speculatively around the room. 'Am I to assume that the entire Nice office of Arundel-Ducasse have been struck down with the Black Death or something equally debilitating? I cannot imagine any other circumstances in which it would be necessary to send the girl who does the photocopying on amajor viewing such as this.'
Behind him she gave a little gasp.
Something in her voice jolted him out of his preoccupied irritation and he glanced sharply at her, noticing her properly for the first time.
At first he had assumed that the rainbow streaks in her hair were caused by the light from the stained-glass dome above them, but now he could see that there were indeed jagged blazes of shocking pink beneath the dark silk that was drawn back from her delicate heart-shaped face. His gaze travelled over her slowly, taking in the smoky kohl-rimmed eyes and the short black dress, the oddly defiant set of her small chin. Realization slotted into his brain like a well-oiled bolt sliding home. Of course. He'd spotted the protesters' camp through the trees as he'd approached the château. He gave a slow smile.
'Correct, signorina. And your name is ?'
Her hesitation was almost unnoticeable, then, with a little jangle of silver bracelets, she thrust out a slender hand and spoke in confident cut-glass tones.
'Forgive me, Signor Emiliani, you caught me off guard. I'm Felicity from the London office of Arundel-Ducasse. I've been liaising with the Marquess of Ifford over the sale of the château. I'm on holiday in Cannes, so I thought I'd come and see it for myself.'
That was pretty quick thinking. He had to hand it to hershe was a vast improvement on the usual spotty, dreadlocked eco-warriors that picketed his development sites and protested outside his offices in Rome and London.
'I see.' He looked down at the grimy limestone floor and tried to suppress a smile. Protester-baiting was one of his favourite sports and this time there was an added piquancy thanks to the unprecedented lusciousness of the quarry. The urge to play along with her little charade was irresistible. 'Well, I'm very glad that you did, Felicity.' He took a step towards her and watched with satisfaction as a shadow passed across her extraordinary wide-set eyes. 'Very glad indeed. As you'll have gathered, your colleague from the far less efficient Nice office hasn't appeared and due to unwelcome developments I'm very keen to get this deal sorted out today.'
He sighed. 'Our little group of campers in the woods. I saw them as I came up the drive and the sooner my name is on the deeds for this property, the sooner I can send them on their way to spend their time doing something worthwhile. I hate to see idealistic young people wasting their time on a lost cause.'
Anna clenched her fists so that the fingernails dug painfully into her palms. Until this moment she wouldn't honestly have been able to list 'self-control' as being one of her personal strong points, but it seemed she certainly had more of it than she thought. How else was she managing to restrain herself from throwing herself at Angelo hot-shot Emiliani and raking her nails down his arrogant, self-satisfied, obscenely handsome face?
He took a step towards her, his eyes fixed on hers. 'So it's your lucky day, Felicity. As you'll be the one to show me the property, you'll be the one who gets the commission on the sale.'
Anna felt the blood drain from her face. She felt like Judas taking his thirty pieces of silver. The thought of walking through each familiar room of her beloved château in the company of the man who intended to take it from her made her feel dizzy with horror.
He was still looking at her, his narrow blue eyes glittering with ice.
'That won't be a problem, will it, signorina? You are an employee of the estate agency that is supposed to be selling this property, are you not?'