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The soft sighing of the sea as it kissed the shore should have soothed Jeanne-Marie Rousseau, but it did not. She stared at the expanse of the Mediterranean sparkling in front of her. The sun was high overhead in a cloudless sky. The sweep of beach at her doorstep was pristine white, dotted here and there with sun worshippers on colorful towels. To a stranger, it appeared a perfect relaxing retreat. Off the beaten track, St. Bartholomeus was an ideal spot for those seeking respite from the hectic frenetic pace of modern life. To live here year-round would be the dream of many.
To Jeanne-Marie, it was home. Sometimes joyful, but today it held a lingering hint of sadness.
Today was the third anniversary of her husband's death. She still missed him with an ache that never seemed to ease. Intermingled with that was anger, however, at the careless way he'd treated liferisking his safety every time he went climbing. Now, not even thirty, she was a widow, a single mother and the owner of an inn in a locale that was thousands of miles from her family. She shook her head, trying to dispel her melancholy thoughts. She had much to be grateful for and her choice of residence was hers to make. She shouldn't second-guess her decision over and over. But sometimes she just plain missed American food, family discussions and longtime friends she saw too infrequently.
Yet this small strip of land reminded her so much of Phillipe, she couldn't bear to leave it. They'd spent several holidays together, enjoying the sea and exploring the small village. Or just sitting together on the wide veranda and watching the sunset, content to be together, never suspecting it wouldn't last forever.
And for him there had been the added attraction of Les Calanques, the cliffs that offered daily climbing challenges to men and women from all over Europe.
Her son, Alexandre, was napping. She was alone with her memories and homesickness. She took a moment to sit on the veranda, remembering happier days. The worst of her grief had long passed. Now she could think about their life together, mourn his death and get on with the practicalities of living.
She would have returned to America after Phillipe's death, but she wanted her son to know his grandparents. Alexandre was all Phillipe's parents had of their only child, except for the photographs taken through the years. Her own parents came to visit annually. They spent lots of time via computers between their trips. And they had six other grandchildren. The Rousseaus only had Alexandre.
And it wasn't as if she didn't love France. It had been her lifelong desire when younger to attend school here and maybe even work for a while. She'd not planned on falling in love with a dashing Frenchman. But love had won out and she'd been living in France for more than a decade now. Those first years of marriage had been so marvelous.
What prompted a man to risk limb and life time and again just for thrills? she asked herself for the millionth time. Challenging himself, he'd so often called it. Scaling mountains with flimsy ropes and gadgets to minimize damage to the rock. As if a mountain would care.
Living with a loving family was enough for her. She'd never understood Phillipe's passion, though he'd tried often enough to enlist her in it. Idly she remembered the trips around Europe, always with a mountain to climb as the destination. The few times she'd tried it, scared and inept, but wanting so much to be with him, she'd only caused him to become impatient and demanding. It had ended up being better for him to go on his own and leave her to her own devices.
She swung her gaze to the rightLes Calanques, the limestone cliffs that afforded daily challenges to those who liked free climbing. The spectacular scenery of the sea and coast viewed from the cliffs added to their attraction. Of all the places for her to end upwhere rock climbers from around the world came. Or at least those who didn't want to stay in Marseilles for the nightlife. It was quiet as a tomb in St. Bart most nights.
Phillipe had been a dedicated climber, not for him the wild parties that could impair performance the next day. Many shared his philosophy.
She was grateful for that, she thought, idly studying the play of light and shadows on the nearby cliff. Not every single mother had the means to earn a living and remain with her son full-time. And realistically she knew not everyone who went climbing fell to his death. It still remained a mystery to her why people dared life and limb to scale a cliff.
Well, there were other things in life she didn't understand. Her moment of introspection was over. Now it was time to get ready for the influx of guests arriving in the next few hours. Seven new reservations would fill her small inn. Business boomed in the summer months, with rarely a single room vacant more than one night. She was frugal and thrifty and managed her money well. While not wealthy by any means, she and her son were definitely comfortable.
She wanted fresh flowers in each of the rooms when her guests arrived. And she'd replenish the flowers in the rooms of those who had already checked in a couple of days ago. All the rooms had already been cleaned and made up with fresh linens. Last-minute touches remained. She'd deal with bittersweet memories another time. She had guests to prepare for.
Two hours later Jeanne-Marie perched on the high stool behind the mahogany counter at the side of the lounge and looked across the open room. Comfortable sofas and chairs were grouped for conversations. Her son played happily in the sunny spot near one of the open French doors. His two small cars and toy truck gave him endless hours of entertainment. Later, after the last guest had checked in, she'd take him for a swim. The sun was lower in the sky now, flooding the front of the inn, making it just a bit too warm, but she had not yet lowered the outdoor curtains that shaded the wide veranda. She wanted the guests' first impression of the inn to be the best and it looked beautiful when lit by the sun. Every speck of wood glowed with polish. The marble floor gleamed without a trace of the sand that was the bane of her existence. The comfy furnishings begged for travelers to sit and rest. The lounge chairs on the wide veranda in front beckoned with the view of the sea.
She heard a car and looked expectantly to the front. Only her solo male guest remained to check in. Once that was taken care of, she'd be fairly free for the rest of the day.
Glancing out of one of the floor-to-ceiling French doors that lined the front of the inn, she waited. Several were open for the afternoon breeze. She could hear the car door shut, the crush of footsteps on the gravel.
He stepped into view, but instead of coming directly into the inn, he turned on the veranda to survey the sea, then the cliffs that rose to the right.
The counter was set to one side, unobtrusive, not easily seen from the verandabut offering her a perfect view of the man. He carried himself with an arrogant assurance that usually rubbed her the wrong way. Frenchmen thought highly of themselves. Though this man had reason to. He was a bit over six feet, with broad shoulders, long legs. His dark hair shone in the afternoon sunshine; cut short, it still couldn't disguise the hint of curl. She'd bet he'd been adorable as a childand all the fawning over him had probably gone straight to his head.
She checked her reservation information. No wife or child with him. Was he married? Or too busy being the superlative male to settle for any one woman? From her vantage point, she could admire as long as she wished. He wouldn't see her.
The soft-sided suitcase he carried wasn't large. He had booked the room for a week. As she watched him turn to study the cliffs along the sea's edge, she knew with certainty he'd come to scale them. She could picture him on the cliffshis fit and trim body easily meeting the demands of muscles and sinews as fingers lifted his body, toes found infinitesimal crevices to wedge in until he stretched out for another handhold.
She straightened the sign-in card, placing the pen across it, and waited. Despite her best intentions, she couldn't look away. His shoulders were wide, his arms looked well defined. Upper body strength was a must for those who challenged the face of unforgiving stone. When he turned to step into the inn, she caught a glimpse of his firm lips and strong jaw. His dark eyes scanned the area and rested for a split second on her son. With a hint of a frown, he looked around and found her.
The assertive way he strode across the lounge held her attention. Confident, assured, here was a man used to dealing with life and coming out on top. His cleanshaven jaw was firm, hinting at stubborn determination. His dark eyes flashed appreciation when he saw her and she felt more conscious of being a woman than at any time in the past several years. She wished she had taken time to brush her hair and freshen her lipstick.
Foolishness, she chided herself as she watched him approach. A small skip of her heart surprised her. He was just a guest. No one special. Just amazingly handsome. Curiosity rose. She wondered what he did for a livinghe could have been a film actor or male modelexcept he looked too unaware of his looks to trade on them.
"Bonjour," he said.
"Monsieur Sommer?" she asked, refusing to let herself be captivated by the rugged masculinity, the deep voice or the slight air of distance that enveloped him. When he met her gaze, his dark eyes hid secrets, hinted at pain. That surprised her. Who was he? She wanted to know more.
"You have my reservation," he said. His voice was melodious, deep and rich.
Looking down she couldn't help imagining that voice in her ear at night, telling secrets or talking of love.
"Of course." She slid the card forward for him to sign as every sense went on alert. She was not a woman to have fantasies. Where were those images coming from? She caught a whiff of his aftershave and it caused an involuntary reaction of longing. Too long alone, that's all. Squelching her reactions, she kept her gaze on his hands as he boldly scrawled his name. They were strong, scarred here and there, which only made him more interesting. His attire suggested a businessman, his manner a wild and freely roaming adventurer. Curiosity rose another notch despite her best intention. She usually had little curiosity about her guests. But this man had her intrigued in spite of herself.
"Can you recommend a good place for dinner?" he asked, laying down the pen.
"Le Chat Noir," Alexandre said, coming to stand near the man. "Hi, I'm Alexandre. I live here."
Next to him, her son looked so small. He was already five and growing like crazy, but had a long way to go if he would ever be as tall as Matthieu Sommer.
He looked down at Alexandre, staring for a long moment before saying, "And is that a very good place?"
Her son smiled and nodded emphatically. "Whenever we go out for a treat we eat at Le Chat Noir. It's Mama's favorite."
"Then it must be good. The women, they always know the best places," Monsieur Sommer said gravely.
Alexandre beamed at his response.
Jeanne-Marie was pleased that the man had made the effort to take her son seriously. Alexandre was definitely in need of a male role model. She wished her brother Tom lived nearby. Or her father. Or her cousins. He had his grandfather, of course, but he was so much older and beginning to find a small boy taxing to be around for long.
Matthieu looked back at her. "So, your favorite?" he asked.
"Oui. It is excellent and affordable. You might wish to try Les Trois Filles en Pierre. It has a magnificent view of the three stone formations they call the maidens. I assume you're here to climb." She tried to keep her tone neutral, but knew a hint of curiosity crept in.
"I am. I hear the cliffs are challenging and the views incomparable." He studied her for a moment, his head tilted slightly. "Any recommendations?"
She shrugged. "Don't kill yourself."
"My dad fell off a mountain." Alexandre obviously wanted to chime in. Jeanne-Marie wished she hadn't spoken. "He would have taught me to climb mountains. Do you know how?"
"It was a long time ago, Alexandre. I'm sure Monsieur Sommer will be extra careful. We don't tell our guests our family situation," she said gently.
Matthieu Sommer inclined his head once, his gaze moving from her to her son and back again. She wondered what was going through his mind.
"I've given you room six. It's a corner room with a view of Les Calanques." She handed him a key and gestured to the wide stairs along the wall. "To the top and left," she said.
"Merci." He lifted his bag with no effort and soon was lost from sight.
Jeanne-Marie sighed a breath of relief. Meeting her disturbing new guest had caused dozens of emotions to clamor forth. She preferred families with small children to sexy single men who believed they could conquer the world. Especially when just looking at them affected her equilibrium. Too long alone, that's all.
What caused the pain that lurked in his eyes? Why had he come to quiet St. Bart when she'd expect a man like him to choose a luxury place in Marseilles?
She studied the registration card for a long moment, as if his name and address could give her any insights. Sighing in defeat, she filed the card and tried to put her latest guest out of her mind.
Rene, the student who worked evenings, would arrive soon. She'd give him an update on their guests and then be free to take Alexandre for that swim. As she waited for Rene to arrive, her thoughts returned to Matthieu Sommer. He looked to be about thirty-five. Too old not to be married. Maybe his wife didn't share his climbing enthusiasm. That Jeanne-Marie could understand. But when Phillipe had gone climbing, she usually went along and stayed in the village or town nearest the mountain to enjoy the local amenities and be near him when he wasn't climbing. So, was the delectable Frenchman single or just vacationing solo?