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She was back.
Xavier's heart beat just that little bit faster as he put down the phone to his lawyer.
This was ridiculous. He was completely over Allegra Beauchamp. He'd been over her for years. So of course it wasn't nerves making his pulse race like this. It was angeranger that she was planning to walk in after all this time and interfere. He'd put his heart and soul into the vineyard for the last ten years, and he was damn sure he wasn't going to let her flounce in and ruin all his hard work.
He didn't trust her a single millimetre. Not any more. Quite apart from the way she'd broken his heart, dumping him when he'd needed her most, she hadn't come back to support her great-unclethe man who'd given her a home every summer while she was growing up when he'd been old and frail and needed her. She hadn't even made it back to France for Harry's funeral; but she'd come straight back to claim her inheritance of fifteen hectares of top-quality vines and a big stone mas.
Her actions spoke volumes.
But in some ways it also made things easier. If Allegra was only interested in the money, then she'd be happy to sell her half of the vineyard to him, despite what she'd claimed to his lawyer this afternoon. Right now, she might have some romantic idea of what it was like to run a vineyard, but Xavier knew that as soon as she had a taste of the real thing she'd run straight back to London. Just as she had ten years agoexcept this time she'd only be taking his money with her, not his heart. And this time he'd have no regrets.
He grabbed his car keys from his desk drawer, locked his office door and strode off towards his car. The sooner he faced her, the better.
Allegra sipped her coffee, but the dark, bitter liquid did nothing to clear her head.
She'd been a fool to come back after all this time. She should've just agreed with the lawyer's suggestion of selling Harry's half of the vineyard to his business partner, stopped off briefly at the tiny church in the village to lay some flowers on her great-uncle's grave and pay her respects, and then gone straight back to London.
Instead, something had made her come back to the old stone farmhouse where she'd spent so many summers as a child. Whether it was an impulse to do right by her great-uncle or something else, she wasn't sure. But now she was here in the Ardeche, she regretted the impulse. Seeing the house, smelling the sharp scent of the herbs growing in their terracotta troughs by the kitchen door, had made her feel physically sick with guilt. Guilt that she hadn't come back before. Guilt that she hadn't been there to take the call telling her that Harry had had a strokeand that he'd died in hospital before she'd even found out that he was ill. Guilt that, despite her best efforts, she hadn't made it here for the funeral.
Everyone in the village had already judged her and found her wanting. She'd been aware of the glances and mutters from people in the square as she'd put the flowers on the greening-over mound in the churchyard, next to the little wooden cross that would mark Harry's grave until the ground had settled enough for it to support a proper headstone. And the coldness with which Hortense Bouvier had received her, instead of the warm hug and good meal that the housekeeper had greeted her with all those years before, had left her in no doubt as to the older woman's disapproval.
Walking back into the kitchen had been like walking straight back into the past, ripping all of Allegra's scars wide open. All she needed now was Xav to walk into the kitchen and drop into the chair opposite her, with that heart-turning smile and the sparkle in his silver-green eyes as he reached over to take her hand, and
No, of course not. He'd made it quite clear, ten years before, that it was over between them. That what they'd shared had simply been a holiday romance, and he was off to start a high-flying career in Parisa new life without her. For all she knew, he could be married with children now; once she'd taken that first step to heal the breach between herself and Harry, they'd had an unspoken agreement never to talk about Xavier. Pride had stopped her asking, and awkwardness had stopped Harry telling.
Her hands tightened round the mug of coffee. After all these years, she really should be over it. But then again, how did you stop years and years of loving someone? She'd fallen for Xavier Lefevre the very first time she'd met him, when she was eight years old and he was eleven: he'd been the most beautiful boy she'd ever seen, like one of the Victorian angels in the stained-glass windows at school, but with dark hair and silver-green eyes. As a teen, she'd followed him round like an eager puppy, mooning over him and wondering what it would be like if he kissed her. She'd even practised kissing against the back of her hand so she'd be ready for the moment when he finally realised she was more than just the girl next door. For summer after summer, she'd wished and hoped; even though she must have driven him crazy, he'd been kind and treated her the same way that he treated everyone else, never teasing or rejecting her outright.
But, that very last summer, it had been a kind of awakening. Xav had finally seen her as a woman instead of an annoying little urchin trailing around behind him. They'd been inseparable. The best summer of her life. She'd honestly believed that he loved her as much as she loved him. That it didn't matter that she was going to do her degree in London while he was starting a new job in Parisshe'd spend the holidays with him, and he'd maybe come and spend weekends with her in London when he could get the time off work, and then when she graduated they'd be together for the rest of their lives.
Granted, he hadn't actually asked her to marry him, but she'd known he felt the same way she did. That he was as crazy about her as she was about him.
And then it had all disintegrated.
Bile filled her mouth and she swallowed hard. For pity's sake. She was an adult, now, not a dream-filled teenager. A realist. Harry's business partner was Jean-Paul LefevreXav's father, not Xav himself. Xav wouldn't be here; as far as she knew, he was still in Paris. She wouldn't have to see him again.
'Monsieur Lefevre called,' Hortense said coolly, walking into the kitchen. 'He's on his way back from the vines. He's calling in to see you.'
Allegra frowned. Their meeting wasn't until tomorrow. Then again, the French had impeccable manners. Jean-Paul was probably calling on her out of politeness, to welcome her to Les Trois Closes.
And then the kitchen door opened abruptly and Xavier sauntered in, as if he owned the place.
Allegra nearly dropped the mug she was holding. What the hell was he doing here? And why hadn't he knocked? What made him think that he could just walk into Harry's househer house, she corrected herself mentallywhenever he pleased?
'Xavier! Alors, sit down, sit down.' Hortense greeted him with all the warmth she'd refused to bestow on Allegra, kissing him on the cheeks. She settled him opposite Allegra with a mug of coffee. 'I'll leave you to talk with Mademoiselle Beauchamp, cheri! And with that she swept out of the kitchen.
Allegra was too stunned to say a word. At twenty-one, Xavier Lefevre had been a good-looking boy. At thirty-one, he was all man. A little taller, unless her memory deceived her, and his frame was broaderthough his T-shirt showed that it was muscle rather than fat. His olive skin made his grey-green eyes seem even more piercing, and he had the beginnings of lines round his eyes, as if he smiled a lot or spent most of his time in the sun. His tousled dark hair was overlong; the style, she thought, was more in keeping with a rock star than a financial whiz-kid. And the fact that he hadn't shaved made him look as if he'd just got out of bed, leaving his lover asleep and totally satiated.
Just the sight of him made Allegra feel as if the temperature in the room had soared by ten degreesand she could still remember just how it had felt to fall asleep in Xav's arms, warm and satiated in the sunshine after making love all afternoon.
Oh, hell. How was she supposed to think straight when the first thing that came into her mind where Xavier Lefevre was concerned was sexand the second thing was how much she still wanted him?
She needed her libido strapped into a straightjacket. Right now. Before it started wrestling with her common sense.
'Bonjour, Mademoiselle Beauchamp.' Xavier gave her an enigmatic smile. 'I thought I'd better come and say hello to my new business partner.'
She stared at him, shocked. 'Fou were Harry's business partner?'
His look told her just how stupid that question was.
'But ' Xavier was supposed to be a financier in a sharp suit, not a vigneron in faded denims and an ancient T-shirt. 'I thought you were in Paris.'
'Monsieur Robert said Harry's partner was Monsieur Lefevre.'
'Indeed.' Still seated, he pantomimed a half-bow. 'Allow me to introduce myself. Xavier Lefevreat your service, mademoiselle!
'I know who you are.' For pity's sake. Of course she knew who he was. The man to whom she'd given her virginityand her heart, only to have it thrown back in her face. 'I thought he meant your father.'
'You're five years too late for that, I'm afraid.'
'Your father's ?' She sucked in a shocked breath. 'I'm sorry. I had no idea. Harry didn't tell me, or I would've'
'Don't tell me you would've come to my father's funeral,' Xavier cut in. 'You didn't even turn up to Harry's.'
And he thought he had the right to call her on it? She lifted her chin. 'I had my reasons.'
He said nothing. Waiting for her to fill the silence? Well, she didn't have to explain herself to him. 'So, whatyou thought that as you're his business partner Harry should have left the vineyard to you? Is that it?'
'No, of course not. There's no question of that. You inherit his possessions because you're his closest family.' He paused. 'Not that anyone would have guessed, these last few years.'
'That's a cheap shot.' And it had landed dead on target. Smack in the middle of her guilt, like a hard blow on an already spreading bruise.
'Just stating the facts, cherie. When was the last time you came back to see him?'
'I spoke to him every week on the phone.'
'Which isn't the same thing at all.'
She blew out a breath. 'You probably know Harry and I fell out pretty badly after I went to London.' Over Xaviernot that she was going to tell him that. 'We made it up eventually, but I admit I was wrong not to come back and see him.' Especially as half the reason had been the fear that she might have to see Xavier again. Not that she had any intention of admitting that to him, either. She didn't want him to have a clue that she still had a weak spot where he was concerned. That seeing him again had knocked her for six and the old, old longing hadn't died at allit had just been sleeping, and now it was awake again and desperately hungry for him. 'If I'd had any idea that he was so frail, I would've come back. He didn't give me the faintest clue.'
'Of course not. He was a proud man. But if you'd bothered visiting,' Xavier said coolly, 'you would've seen it for yourself.'
There was no answer to that.
'You didn't come back when he was ill,' Xavier continued.
'Because I didn't get the message that he'd had a stroke until after it was too late.'
'You didn't even turn up for his funeral.'
And he seriously thought she wasn't bothered about that? 'I intended to be here. But I was on business in New York.'
'Not good enough.'
She knew that. And she didn't need him to tell her. She lifted her chin. 'We've established that I'm firmly in the wrong. And it's not possible to change the past, so there's no point in rehashing it.'
He simply shrugged.
'What do you want, Xavier?'
The realisation shocked him to the core. After the way Allegra had let him down, he shouldn't want anything to do with her. And she was no longer the petite rose Anglaise she'd been at eighteen, sweet and shy and a little unsure of herself and then blossoming under his love. Right now she was impeccably groomed and as hard as diamonds beneath that smart business suit. Her mouth was in a tight line, not soft and promising and reminding him of the first roses of summer.
This was crazy. For pity's sake, he was supposed to be working out how to get the woman to sell her half of the business to him, not looking at her mouth and remembering how it had felt to kiss her. How it had felt to lose himself inside her. How it had felt to see her expression soften and her eyes sparkle with love when she looked up from the book she was reading and caught him watching her, on those drowsy summer afternoons.
Oh, Dieu. He really had to get a grip.
'I just happened to be on my way back from the fields. I called Hortense to see if you were in, because I was going to be neighbourly and polite and welcome you back to France.' That was truethough it wasn't the whole truth. He'd also wanted to see if he could gauge her reactions. To work out a plan for persuading her to sell the vineyard to him. 'But, seeing as you raised the subject, let me give you something to think about. You haven't been to France in years and I can't see you being interested in the vineyard now. I'm more than happy to buy you out. Consult whatever qualified oenologist you like to get a price and I'll abide by his or her decision I'll even pay the survey fee.'
She wanted more than a fair price? Well, if it would keep his vineyard safe, it was worth paying over the odds. 'How much do you want?'
'I'm not selling the vineyard to you.'