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Sanur, Bali—June 2
Through the shower of a light rain Alex Martin heard his name being called from clear down the street. He paused in the front doorway with his suitcases. The houseboy whose now-deceased mother had been hired by the Forsten Project years earlier to help clean the employees' houses, had attached himself to Alex. Without fail, he always called him by his last name, giving it a French pronunciation.
"Hey, Sapto—I didn't think I was going to see you again." He'd been waiting for the taxi that would drive him to the Sanur airport in Bali.
Before the accident that had killed William Martin, Alex's Australian-born father, William would turn on Sapto. "Our last name is Martin! Mar-TIN!"
Sapto had stubbornly refused to comply. In recent months he'd lost his mother in a flood and knew Alex had lost his French mother to an aggressive infection several years back. He felt they had a bond. Alex had been rather touched by the boy's sensitivity and never tried to correct him.
"Take me home with you." His dark eyes begged him. "I've never been to France."
Home? That was a strange thing for Sapto to say. Though Alex held dual citizenship and was bilingual, he'd never been to France, either. As for Sapto, he guessed the fifteen-year-old hadn't ventured farther than twenty miles from Sanur in the whole of his life.
Alex's family had moved wherever his father's work as a mechanical engineer had taken him, first in Australia, then Africa and eventually Indonesia. With his parents gone, he didn't consider anywhere home. After flying to Australia to bury his father next to his mother, he was aware of an emptiness that prevented him from feeling an emotional tie to any given spot.
"I wish I could, Sapto, but I don't know what my future's going to be from here on out."
"But you said your French grandfather left you a house when he died! I could live there and clean it for you."
Alex grimaced. "He didn't leave it to me, Sapto." The letter meant for his mother had come two years too late. It had finally caught up to Alex through the Forsten company where he worked.
The attorney who'd written it stated there was going to be a probate hearing for the Fleury property on June 5 in Angers, France. This was the last notice. If Genevieve Fleury, the only living member of the Fleury family didn't appear for it, the property located in the Loire Valley would be turned over to the French government.
After making a phone call to the attorney and identifying himself, Alex was told the estate had been neglected for forty odd years and had dwindled into an old relic beyond salvaging. The back taxes owing were prohibitive.
Be that as it may, Alex had the impression the attorney was downplaying its value for a reason. A piece of ground was always worth something. In fact, the other man hadn't been able to cover his shock when he'd learned it was Genevieve's son on the phone.
Something wasn't right.
At this point the one thing driving Alex was the need to visit the land of his mother's roots and get to the bottom of this mystery before moving on. With no family ties, he was free to set up his own company in the States.
By now the taxi had arrived. Sapto put his bags in the trunk for him. "You will write me, yes?" His eyes glistened with tears.
"I promise to send you a postcard." He slipped a cash bonus into the teen's hand. "Thank you for all your help. I won't forget. Take care."
"Goodbye," Sapto called back, running after the taxi until it rounded the corner.
Hollywood, California—August 2
"Lunch break! Meet back here at one o'clock. No excuses!"
With the strongly accented edict that had been awaited for over an hour, the actors and cameramen left the set in a stampede.
When Jan Lofgren's thick brows met together, Dana knew her genius father was in one of his moods. Most of the time the Swedish-born director was so caught up in the story he wanted to bring to life, he lived in another realm and lost patience with human weaknesses and imperfections of any kind, especially hers.
As his only offspring, she'd been a big disappointment. He'd wanted a brilliant son. Instead he got a mediocre daughter, whose average brain and looks would never make her fortune. When she was a little girl her mother had cautioned her, "Your father loves you, honey, but don't expect him to be like anyone else. With that ego of his, he's a difficult man to love. You have to take him the way he is, or suffer."
The truth was as hard to take today as it was then. Dana had been through a lot of grief since her mother's death five years ago, but had learned to keep it to herself. Especially lately while he was having problems with his present girlfriend, Saskia Brusse, a Dutch model turned aspiring actress who had a bit part in this film. She wasn't much older than Dana's twenty-six years, the antithesis of Dana's mother in every conceivable way.
Privately his love life pained and embarrassed Dana, but she would never have dared articulate her disapproval. The same couldn't be said of her father who'd been outspoken about her disastrous relationship with Neal Robeson, a young actor looking for an in with the famous director, rather than with her. She'd thought she'd found love. Her mistake. It was a lesson in humiliation she would never forget.
Granted she'd made a gross error in getting involved with anyone in the film industry, but for her father to explode over that when he never seemed to notice anything else she did for him had caused a serious rift between them. It would never heal if left up to him, not when his anger was over the top. Once again she found herself making overtures to breach the gap.
"I brought you some coffee and sandwiches."
Deep in thought he took the thermos from her and began drinking the hot liquid. After another long swallow he said, "I've decided to shoot the rest of this film on location. Then it will ripen into something worthy."
Her father needed atmosphere, that ethereal ingredient the studio set couldn't provide. He flicked her a speculative glance. "Everything's in place except for the most important segment of the film in France. I'm not happy with any of our old options and want something different."
Dana already knew that and was ready for him. Since her mother's funeral, finding the right locations had become Dana's main job besides being chief cook and general dogsbody to her irascible father. She had to concede he paid her well, but the sense that she was invisible to him inflicted a deep wound.
If he wasn't directing one of his award-winning films, he had his nose in a biography. She was a voracious reader, too, and had inherited his love of firsthand accounts of World War II in the European theatre. Over the years they'd traipsed from the coast of England to the continent, pinpointing the exact locales to bring his creations to life.
"I've come across something on the Internet that sounds promising, but I'll need to check it out first. Give me a couple of days." If she could solve this problem for him, maybe he'd remember he had a daughter who yearned for a little attention from him. When she was his own flesh and blood, it hurt to be a mere cipher.
"That's too long."
"I can only get to Paris in so many hours, but once I'm there, I'll make up for lost time. Expect to hear from me tomorrow evening."
"What's your final destination?"
"I'd rather not say." She could hope that if she found what he was looking for, it would ease some of the tension between them, but she doubted it because her mother had been the only one who knew how to soothe him. Now that she was gone, no one seemed to exist for him, especially not his only child.
Around the next bend of the Layon river, Dana crossed a stone bridge where she saw the sign for Rablay-sur-Layon. So much greenery made her feel as if she'd driven into a Monet painting done at Giverny and had become a part of it. The string of Anjou region villages nestled against this tributary of the Loire gave off an aura of timeless enchantment.
How shocking it must have been for the French people to see soldiers and tanks silhouetted against gentle slopes of sunflowers as they gouged their way through this peaceful, fertile river valley. Dana cringed to imagine the desecration of a landscape dotted with renaissance chateaux and vineyards of incomparable beauty.
A loud hunger pain resounded in the rental car. Between her empty stomach and the long shadows cast by a setting sun, it occurred to her she ought to have eaten dinner at the last village she'd passed and waited till morning to reach her destination. However, she wasn't her father's daughter for nothing and tended to ignore sensible restrictions in order to gratify certain impulses for which she often paid a price.
No matter. She wanted to see how the light played against the Château de Belles Fleurs as it faded into darkness. One look and she'd be able to tell if this place had that unique ambience her father demanded.
Following the map she'd printed off, Dana made a right at the second turn from the bridge and passed through an open grill work gate. From there she proceeded to the bifurcation where she took the right fork. Suddenly she came upon the estate, but unlike the carefully groomed grounds of any number of chateaux she'd glimpsed en route, this was so overgrown she was put in mind of a bois sauvage. Without directions she would never have known of its existence, let alone stumbled on to it by accident.
A little farther now and a tour of the chateau's bastion with its pointed cone appeared as if it were playing hide-and-seek behind the heavy foliage. Clumps of plum-colored wild roses had run rampant throughout, merging with a tall hedge that had long since grown wild and lost its shape.
She pulled to a stop and got out of the car, compelled to explore this ungovernable wood filled with wild daisies hidden in clumps of brush. Once she'd penetrated deeper on foot, she peeked through the tree leaves, but was unable to glimpse more.
A lonely feeling stole through her. No one had lived here for years. The estate had an untouched quality. Secrets. She knew in her bones these intangible elements would appeal to her father. If she'd combed the entire Loire valley, she couldn't have found a more perfect spot. He demanded perfection.
"Puis-je vous aider, madame?" came the sound of a deep male voice.
Startled out of her wits, Dana spun around. "Oh—" she cried at the sight of the bronzed, dark-haired man who looked to be in his midthirties. "I didn't know anyone was here." Her tourist French was of no help in this situation, but judging by his next remark, she needn't have worried.
"Nor did I." His English sounded as authentic as his French, but she couldn't place the pronunciation. His tone came off borderline aggressive.
His hands were thrust in the back pockets of well-worn, thigh-molding jeans. With those long, powerful legs and cut physique visible beneath a soil-stained white T-shirt, she estimated he was six-three and spent most of his time in the sun.
"The place looks deserted. Are you the caretaker here?"
He flashed her a faintly mocking smile. "In a manner of speaking. Are you lost?" She had the impression he was impatient to get on with what he'd been doing before she'd trespassed unannounced. Twilight was deepening into night, obscuring the details of his striking features.
"No. I planned to come here in the morning, but my curiosity wouldn't let me wait that long to get a sneak preview."
His dark-fringed eyes studied her with toe-curling intensity. For once she wished she were a tall, lovely brunette like her mom instead of your average Swedish blonde with generic blue eyes, her legacy from the Lofgren gene pool.
"If you're a Realtor for an American client, I'm afraid the property isn't for sale."
She frowned. "I'm here for a different reason. This is the Château de Belles Fleurs, isn't it?"
He gave an almost imperceptible nod, drawing her attention to his head of overly long dark hair with just enough curl she wagered her balding father would kill for.
"I'm anxious to meet the present owner, Monsieur Alexandre Fleury Martin."
After an odd silence he said, "You're speaking to him."
"Oh—I'm sorry. I didn't realize."
He folded his strong arms, making her acutely aware of his stunning male aura. "How do you know my name?"
"I came across a French link to your advertisement on the Internet."
At her explanation his hard-muscled body seemed to tauten. "Unfortunately too many tourists have seen it and decided to include a drop-in visit on their 'see-France-in-seven-days' itinerary."
Uh-oh— Her uninvited presence had touched a nerve. She lifted her oval chin a trifle. "Perhaps you should get a guard dog, or lock the outer gate with a sign that says, No Trespassing."
"Believe me, I'm considering both."
She bit her lip. "Look—this has started off all wrong and it's my fault." When he didn't respond she said, "My name is Dana Lofgren. If you're a movie buff, you may have seen The Belgian Connection, one of the films my father directed."
He rubbed his chest without seeming to be conscious of it. "I didn't know Jan Lofgren had a daughter."
Most people didn't except for those in the industry who worked with her father. Of course if Dana had been born with a face and body to die for…
She smiled, long since resigned to being forgettable. "Why would you? I help my father behind the scenes. The moment I saw your ad, I flew from Los Angeles to check out your estate. He's working on the film right now, but isn't happy with the French locations available."
Dana heard him take a deep breath. "You should have e-mailed me you were coming so I could have met you in Angers. It's too late to see anything tonight."
"I didn't expect to meet you until tomorrow," she said, aware she'd angered him without meaning to. "Forgive me for scouting around without your permission. I wanted to get a feel for the place in the fading light."
"And did you?" he fired. It was no idle question.
The silly tremor in her voice must have conveyed her emotion over the find because he said, "We'll talk about it over dinner. I haven't had mine yet. Where are you staying tonight?"
Considering her major faux pas for intruding on his privacy, she was surprised there was going to be one. "I made a reservation at the Hermitage in Chanzeaux."