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The moment she saw the elegant two-storey guest house nestled in the heart of one of Australia's premier winegrowing regions, Simone Duvalier approved of it. Granted, it was no seventeenth-century French chateau, but if one had to attend a wedding halfway around the world then this picturesque venue gave at least some consolation. Someone here had an eye for detail, reflected in the immaculately kept gardens and gleaming house. Someone here had a penchant for whimsy. The strutting metal flamingos cobbled together from nuts and bolts and what looked like spare engine parts telegraphed that.
As for the scenery…The big sky and the eucalypt-clad hills on the horizon. The tidy rows of grapevines flanking the drive…She'd been expecting a hint of wildness about the Australian landscape and it did not disappoint her, but there was order here too and that surprised her. Simone liked surprises. Surprise was an emotion that could almost compete with the nervousness that clawed through her whenever she thought about seeing Rafael Alexander again.
Rafael, her childhood playmate. Rafael, the housekeeper's son.
Rafe the ambitious, the driven, the brilliant.
Rafael, the man she'd spurned.
Would he hold a grudge? Still? After almost nine years?
Would her soon-to-be brother-in-law be in any way pleased to see her? Probably not, but the one thing she'd made sure he could not do was throw her out. The land surrounding the guest house might have belonged to Rafael, but the guest house itself did not. And as adamant as Gabrielle had been about the wedding taking place in Australia rather than France, she'd also chosen to hold both the ceremony and the reception here at the guest house rather than at Rafe's vineyard.
Neutral ground, and a concession for which Simone was supremely grateful.
Smiling grimly, Simone negotiated the narrow driveway and parked her hired Audi in the car park behind the guest house before finally cutting the engine. At least she had a day to compose herself before meeting him again. Time enough to recover from her flight and the harrowing drive to the valley. Time enough for her to put on her happy face and work her way in to the moment.
'One step at a time,' she murmured. That was how she'd made it this far. By forcing one foot in front of the other, painting a smile on her face and making herself move towards the moment she dreaded.
Courage, mon ami, Gabrielle had whispered when she'd told Simone that the wedding would be held in Australia and that Rafael had agreed to stand as Luc's best man.
Courage, when every instinct screamed at Simone to forgo her bridesmaid duties and run.
But Gabrielle had been adamant. It's time you faced him again. It's time he faced you.
So here she was. Finally setting foot in Australia. Finally about to confront the ghosts of her past, for better or for worse. But not quite yet. Tomorrow would be plenty soon enough. For now, all she needed was her overnight bag, her car keys, Gabrielle's gown and a room. Lord, let there be room at the inn. Simone had deliberately neglected to notify anyone of her early arrival and that included the guest-house staff.
The entrance foyer to the guest house was decorated in the French provincial style, albeit with some strikingly Australian floral arrangements. The young receptionist behind the desk smiled cheerfully, her eyes widening as she took in the garment bag draped over Simone's arm. 'Uh oh,' she muttered as she hurried around the counter to take, not the garment bag, but Simone's overnight case and car keys. 'You're Simone Duvalier. We weren't expecting you until tomorrow.'
'I know. But there was a slight change of flight plans. I come in heartfelt hope that you might have a room available for me tonight.'
'You've just flown in from Paris and driven here?' asked the girl, and at her nod, 'No wonder you look exhausted! But you're in luck. I prepped your room earlier this morning, though I haven't cut your flowers yet.' She motioned for Simone to follow her along a hallway leading off from the foyer. 'I'll get you some later this afternoon, once the sun's gone off them.'
'You cut flowers from the garden outside?' asked Simone, intrigued, as she followed the young woman along the wide hallway with its polished wooden floors and pressed metal ceilings.
As often as we can, yes. Want to come with me later? A lot of our guests enjoy picking out the flowers they'd like.'
'I'm sure they do,' said Simone, charmed. 'How do you stop guests from choosing blooms that you don't want cut?'
'Easy,' said the girl and glanced back at Simone with a dimpled smile. 'I say "No, not that one." Works a treat.'
'I'm sure it does.' Simone smiled her bemusement. She'd heard these Australians were a sunny people, given to irreverence and informality. She just hadn't realised quite how unselfconsciously they served it up.
The room the receptionist took her to was feminine and airy, with a secluded courtyard and a separate dining area. The receptionist set Simone's overnight case on the luggage rack, peeled back curtains and crossed to a large set of white louvre doors, opening them wide to reveal a walk-in wardrobe. Lemon-scented white linen sheets had been laid over gleaming wooden floorboards and a dressmaker's dummy stood in the centre of the sheets, naked and waiting.
'Gaby mentioned that you'd be bringing her wedding dress with you. Will this do for somewhere to put it?'
'Perfect,' said Simone. 'The couturiers at Yves St Laurent would most definitely approve.'
'Yves St Laurent?' The girl eyed the garment bag in Simone's arms with unabashed curiosity. 'Gaby didn't mention that. She's wearing an Yves St Laurent wedding dress?'
'Oui. And as soon as I shower and change into clean clothes I will call for you and we shall set the gown in place on the dressmaker's bodice. Then we shall call the bride-to-be over to see what she thinks of it, yes?'
'Yes,' said the girl with another dimpled smile as Simone carefully laid the gown on the bed for now.
'Ask for Sarah. Sarah who loves her job.' With one last glance towards the garment bag, the girl collected herself and dangled Simone's rental car keys from her fingers. 'I'll bring the rest of your luggage in.'
'Thank you. Oh, and there are half a dozen cases of champagne in the rear of the car.' She'd hauled them all the way from Caverness—thank heaven for porters—and the sooner she was free of them, the better. 'Could you see that they come in as well?'
'No problem. Where do you want them?'
'I don't suppose you have a dedicated drinks cool room operating at four degrees Celsius on hand?'
'You're in the heart of vineyard country. Of course we do.'
Of course they did. Simone was well on her way to falling in love with this fine establishment.
Sarah, who loved her job, jiggled the car keys and headed for the door. 'I'll send one of the cellar staff over with a receipt for your champagne. The receipt tells you exactly where we've stored it. When you want the champagne back just hand someone the receipt.'
'It's for Gabrielle's wedding toasts. I believe the reception is to be held at the restaurant here on Sunday?'
'Then perhaps you could notify the maître d' of the champagne's arrival and location as well?'
'Will do.' Sarah left.
Simone waited until Sarah had closed the door behind her before crossing to her overnight case, retrieving her toiletries and heading for the bathroom, a white-on-grey marble affair with plush towels and stage-mirror lighting. 'Oh, yes,' she murmured. This place was just full of surprises. 'I could get very fond of you.'
She'd been born into wealth, lots of it, and the family fortune had only risen over the years, but that didn't mean Simone took her wealth or the benefits that came with it for granted. It was her duty to appreciate the finer things in life, and appreciate them she did.
Long minutes later, Simone emerged from the steamy shower cubicle and reached for a fluffy white towel. She'd barely finished drying her hair before a hammering noise started up at the door to her suite.
Cellar staff, Sarah had said. Impatient cellar staff.
'Wait,' she muttered, tucking the towel around her body and heading for the door, making sure she stood well behind it before opening it a fraction and peering out.
Not cellar staff, though he looked the part in his battered boots and well-worn work trousers. His grey T-shirt had seen better days too and could have been shapeless if not for the aid of the superbly muscled chest beneath it. His face was one she saw in her dreams, a strong and impossibly handsome face. Beloved once. Beautiful still. In her dreams those vivid blue eyes were always laughing, inviting her to share the joke and the moment with him. They weren't laughing now.
'Your receipt,' he said quietly, and held it up between long strong fingers. 'I was delivering the red wine for the wedding when the champagne came in.'
She opened the door a fraction wider and took the slip of paper from him. Their fingers did not touch. Rafael's eyes did not warm. Not a dream then, but awkward, uncomfortable reality. 'Merci.'
'You're early,' he said next.
'Yes.' What could she say? That she'd arrived a day early so as to avoid having Gabrielle—or him—meet her at the airport? That she'd taken that extra time deliberately in order to armour herself against seeing him again? 'Yes. A little early.'
Rafe's eyes narrowed as he searched her face. 'May I come in?'
'No!' Too breathless. Far too hasty. 'No,' she said again, trying for more composure. 'Now's not a good time.'
His eyed hardened. 'I'm sorry. I didn't realise you had company.'
Company? Company? As if she would attend this particular wedding with a lover in tow. Cursing herself for a fool, she moved out from behind the door and swung it wide open so that he could see for himself the kind of company she kept. Rafe's hard gaze swept the room before returning to clash with hers.
Day, the household staff had named him back when they were children and Rafe had called Caverness home. Day, because of the sunshine in his nature and the brightness of his smile, never mind that he'd been the housekeeper's unloved and unwanted son. And Lucien—her brother and Rafe's partner in crime—Lucien with his watchful ways and inky-black hair had been Night. Somehow, it seemed as if their roles had been reversed.
'I'm a little underdressed at the moment.' Meeting him bereft of make-up and clad only in a towel had not been part of her master plan. 'So if you would be so good as to leave…'
'Being good isn't something I excel at,' he murmured silkily and leaned against the doorway, all raw and powerful male. His eyes made a leisurely study of her person. 'Nice towel.'
He was fabulous when he was bad. She hadn't forgotten. 'Still out to defy the world, I see? How…predictable.'
'No, I've given up defying the world. The reasoning was flawed.' He sent her a devil's smile. 'Now I just want to rule it.'
'Mmm.' She sent him as cool a stare as she could manage for a woman dressed in a towel. 'Wouldn't a psychiatrist have fun with you.'
'Well, she could,' he murmured. 'But only if she were naked and willing to be a very bad girl.'
Simone's breath hitched in her throat and she could have sworn a flush started in the vicinity of her toes and shot straight to her scalp.
'She could analyse herself afterwards,' he continued in that dark, delicious rumble. 'Give her something to do with her time because there certainly wouldn't be any challenge in analysing me. I'm a simple soul, really.'
Not from where she was standing. Simone could feel herself being drawn towards him, moth to flame and perfectly willing to burn for just one more taste of all that barely contained heat.
Her luggage and car keys stood just inside the door. Simone reached for the suitcase handle, determined to stay calm. 'I only arrived a few minutes ago. It'll be ten more before I'm ready to see you,' she murmured, and wished that her voice sounded steadier. She headed for the bathroom fast, grateful that the suitcase she towed behind her had wheels. 'Close the door behind you if you decide not to wait,' she added over her shoulder.
'I'm not your servant, princess.' There was no ignoring the bite in his words. 'And you've never been ready for me.'
Finally, she thought with grim satisfaction. Finally, an honest reaction from him. 'Yes, well…' She reached down deep and called for calm in the face of his simmering, seething resentment. 'I'll be ten minutes.'
She shut herself in the bathroom, sinking back against the wall as reaction set in. She held her hands out in front of her, palms down to the floor. Shaking hands and a heavy heart at what he could still make her feel, even after all these years. She closed her eyes and breathed deeply, willing strength to her limbs and resolve to her trembling heart.
Time to get dressed. Time to find clothes in her suitcase that lent confidence and poise. Clothes that armed a woman against a man such as Rafael.
Beige trousers and her favourite sleeveless shirt in rich plum colours. Add a pair of vertiginous strappy leather sandals, a Cartier watch and a gauzy rainforest-green silk scarf; run a brush through her hair, emphasise her lips and eyes with a touch of make-up and maybe, just maybe, this time she'd be ready for him.
Not that she ever had been before.
Rafael brooded in silence as he made his way from the guest room into the tiny private courtyard attached to it. Simone Duvalier wasn't meant to be here. Not today. Not ever, if Rafael had any say in the matter. Not that he seemed to have much say in anything of late. His sister's upcoming wedding to Luc Duvalier had seen to that. Why they weren't getting married in France where there was a perfectly serviceable seventeenth-century chateau at their disposal was anyone's guess, but no, Gabrielle had insisted on holding the ceremony in Australia. Which meant that the wedding party entourage—which, granted, consisted only of Luc and Simone—were coming here.
He didn't want them here.
Not Luc, for all that they had retained some semblance of friendship over the years.
Not Simone, looking flustered and fetching and far too vulnerable for his liking.
Rafe scowled at the jasmine climbing its way up the stone courtyard wall. Hadn't he taught her never to appear weak in the face of one's enemies? Hadn't she remembered any of the lessons growing up at Caverness had taught them?
Never show fear, especially when your hands were slick with it.
Never let on how much something means to you lest someone take it away.