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The Viscount & The Virgin
By Valerie Parv
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2003 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneKirsten Bond took a deep breath, tried to ignore the complaints her feet were making about the new shoes she had foolishly chosen to wear, and smiled broadly at the group clustered around her. This was the last tour of the day. As soon as it ended, she would close the door of her office, kick off the shoes and reward herself with a cool drink, she promised herself. She sneaked a glance at her watch. Only fifteen minutes to go.
She resisted the urge to groan aloud. Served her right for being seduced by five-inch heels and teensy black ankle straps that the sales person had assured her made her legs look fabulous. At five foot three, she wanted all the help the heels could provide, and had bought the shoes on impulse. She should have had the sense to break them in at home before wearing them to her job at the castle, where she was on her feet for a good part of the day.
Nevertheless, she was managing, managing, that is, until a tall, good-looking man attached himself to the back of the group. Of itself, there was nothing wrong with him choosing to participate. Tours of Merrisand Castle were free and people often joined in after the start if they'd arrived late. Normally Kirsten nodded a welcome and kept on describing the castle and its wonderful art treasures. The collection belonged to the Carramer royal family, but Kirsten, as enthusiastic as the most ardent collector, looked on the beautiful objects almost as her own.
With the arrival of this particular newcomer, her normally fluent spiel faltered and she felt her mouth go dry. What was Romain Sevrin doing here? He never came to the castle, or she wouldn't have risked taking a job here. The last time she'd seen him on television, he was driving ridiculously fast cars around the racing circuits of Europe, collecting trophies at about the same rate as he collected supermodels.
The attraction wasn't hard to see. Romain, or Rowe as he was usually called, was a little over six feet tall with the dark coloring, brooding good looks and thick glossy hair shared by many male members of the royal family. The gaze he directed at her was a brilliant sea-green under lush dark lashes. When he turned his head slightly, he displayed an aristocratic profile that wouldn't have been out of place on a classical sculpture.
She, on the other hand, did not have the sort of supermodel beauty to deserve his steady scrutiny, a scrutiny that made her feel as if he was committing her features to memory. Apart from being only average height, she had shoulder-length red hair shot through with gold highlights so it looked like dancing flames. Left to itself, it curled in all directions, so she usually wore it caught by a clasp at her nape, although a few tendrils invariably escaped to make her features look even finer-boned than they were. Large, silver-gray eyes completed a picture she would willingly have exchanged for blond hair and blue eyes any day.
According to her friends, her temper was the equal of her fiery hair although she was sure this was an exaggeration. Well, maybe she was just a little quick-tempered, but she didn't have the hair-trigger temper usually thought to go with being a redhead. If she had, she would have demanded to know what Romain Sevrin wanted.
He rarely used his title, but as Viscount Aragon, he surely had no need to tag along, listening to her describe works of art he must have grown up around. And he certainly had no need to look at her with such blatant interest. He made her feel as if she, and not her commentary, was the focus of his attention.
She shifted from one foot to the other, eliciting a fresh wave of complaint from her poor feet. This time she barely noticed. She was too busy dealing with the primitive emotions his inspection stirred within her.
Suddenly she was aware of every throbbing beat of her pulse, and the air in the baronial hall, temperature-controlled to protect the valuable contents, felt stiflingly hot. She resisted the urge to mop her brow, sure that the perception was as much a fantasy as her interpretation of his gaze. What was he doing here?
One of the visitors claimed her attention. "Does the legend apply only to members of the royal family?"
With Rowe listening intently, Kirsten wished she had left out her usual mention of the Merrisand legend. Too late now. She cleared her throat. "The legend says that anyone who serves the Merrisand Trust will be rewarded by finding true love, so it doesn't only apply to royalty."
Rowe looked distinctly interested in the subject. She avoided his eyes, recognizing another man in the group. "How large is the Merrisand estate?" the man, an American, asked.
Hoping her relief at the change of subject wasn't too obvious, she turned her attention to the questioner, although awareness of the viscount hovered at the fringe of her consciousness. She could even smell traces of his aftershave lotion, something foresty and fresh, and utterly masculine.
She really was imagining things, she told herself as she gathered her thoughts. The room they were in had thirty-foot ceilings and walls a dozen yards apart. Any lingering scent should quickly dissipate in this space.
All the same, she could smell a woodsy fragrance that hadn't been present until Rowe arrived. When he'd opened the great double doors to let himself in, the aroma had probably drifted in on the breeze from the forest surrounding the castle. Or so she tried to convince herself. It didn't explain why her every sense felt magnified in his presence.
She cleared her throat. "When the castle was built in 1879, the original estate granted to Honoré de Marigny, the first Marquis of Merrisand, consisted of about two thousand acres of hill, forest and small tenant farms. Over the years the land has been expanded to about eight thousand acres, including a sanctuary planted with trees to provide breeding grounds for the native sun deer, the faunal emblem of Carramer."
Honoré would have been Romain's great-great-grandfather, her one-track mind insisted on supplying.
The questioner nodded thoughtfully, digesting the information. A teenage girl raised her hand. "How do you get a job working in the castle?"
It was a fairly common question. "Merrisand Castle is like a city on a small scale, with career opportunities in everything from land management and animal husbandry to historical research and media. It's best to qualify in your area of interest first, then ask the controller of staff to advise you if an opening arises in your field."
"Did you always want to be a tour guide?" a resonant voice asked.
Excerpted from The Viscount & The Virgin by Valerie Parv Copyright ©2003 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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