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Slightly windblown, and more than a little jet-lagged, Charlotte Hudson found herself in France. A phone call from her brother, Jack, yesterday had cut short her tour with their grandfather, Ambassador Edmond Cassettes. The diplomatic contingent had been in New Orleans, where Charlotte and the ambassador were being wined, dined and entertained by the governor, a couple of senators and every Louisiana mayor with aspirations of doing business with the wealthy Mediterranean nation of Monte Allegro.
Then Jack had called, and now she was in Provence, pulling up to the Montcalm family château with a favor to ask. Her college friend Raine would be surprised to see her, but Charlotte was couting on Raine's good nature to help her secure the favor. It was the first time her brother, or anyone on the Hudson side of the family, had included her in Hudson Pictures' filmmaking business. And she desperately wanted to impress.
Charlotte had been raised in Europe by her maternal grandparents, while Jack was raised an ocean away in Hollywood by the Hudsons. She mad met the filmmaking dynasty of a family on only a couple of occasions. They were perfectly polite to her, but it was clear they were close-knit, and she was very much the outsider.
But now, terminally ill matriarch Lillian Hudson was determined to honor her late husband's wishes by having Hudson Pictures bring their wartime romance to the big screen. The entire family had rallied around the project and decreed Château Montcalm was the perfect location.
Charlotte finally had a chance to participate in the Hudsons' world.
She drew a breath, giving her straight skirt and matching ivory blazer a final tug as she approachedthe main doors of the Montcalm's stately, three-story stone mansion. The doors were intimidating oversize planked walnut, inset with vintage beveled windows. The château was old-world and impressive. She knew it had been in the Montcalm family for a dozen generations, ever since some fiery warlord of a Montcalm ancestor had taken it in battle. Her friend Raine had quite the pedigree.
Charlotte took a breath and reached for the ornate doorbell, waiting only a moment until a formally dressed butler drew the door wide, his expression a study in formality and courtesy.
"Bonjour," Charlotte returned. "I'm looking for Raine Montcalm."
The man paused while he considered Charlotte's appearance. "Do you have an appointment?"
Charlotte shook her head. "I'm Charlotte Hudson. Raine and I are friends. We were together at Oxford."
"Mademoiselle Montcalm is unavailable."
"I do apologize."
"Could you at least tell her I'm here?" She hoped Raine would become available if she heard Charlotte's name.
"The mademoiselle is not currently in residence."
Charlotte struggled to decide if she was getting the brush-off. "She's really not here?"
He didn't answer, but his expression became crisper and even more formal, if that was possible.
"Because, if you could just let her know"
"A problem, Henri?" came a gravelly, masculine voice.
Oh no. Not Alec.
Charlotte reflexively drew back as a tall, aristocratically handsome man moved into the doorway, displacing the butler. Raine's brother was supposed to be in London. Charltte had seen his picture in the tabloids just yesterday, dancing at some posh nightclub on Whitehall.
"I'm afraid Raine's away on" He suddenly stopped speaking. A wolfish smile grew on his lips. "Charlotte Hudson."
She didn't answer.
"Thank you, Henri." Alec's dismissal was polite but clear, his gaze never leaving Charlotte.
As the butler drew back, Alec leaned indolently against the doorjamb. He wore a charcoal Caraceni suit, a classic white shirt and a dark silk tie that was scattered with bright red flecks. The flecks, it seemed, were miniatures of the Montcalm family crest, painstakingly embroidered into the fabric.
Her heart pounding with a mixture of awareness and trepidation, Charlotte decided to bluff. She held out her hand and gave him a breezy smile. "I don't believe we've been formally introduced."
At least that part wasn't a lie. There'd been nothing remotely formal about their one and only meeting. It had been humiliating, and her only defense was to pretend she'd forgotten all about it.
"Oh, we've been introduced, Ms. Hudson." His warm, callused hand closed over hers, sending a shiver along her spine.
She painstakingly schooled her features, raising her brow in question.
"Three years ago." He cocked his head to one side, clearly challenging her to acknowledge him.
She held her ground.
"The Ottobrate Ballo in Rome," he continued, eyes mocking. "I asked you to dance."
He'd done a lot more than ask. He'd nearly derailed her career in under five minutes.
Rome had been one of her first official assignments as her grandfather's executive assistant. Becoming his official E.A. had been a big step for her, and she'd been nervous all night, anxious to do well.
Alec's smile widened as he watched her expression. "It's etched very firmly in my mind," he told her.
"Sure you do," he countered softly, and they both knew he was right. "And you liked it."
"But then Ambassador Cassettes stepped in."
Thank goodness for her grandfather.
"Charlotte?" Alec prompted.
She pretended she'd only just remembered. "You tried to give me your room key," she accused with a stern frown.
"And you took it."
"I didn't know what it was." She'd been twenty-two years old, a neophyte on the diplomatic circuit, and he'd been right there, poised to take advantage of her.
He chuckled his disbelief, and she glared at him.
Then he sobered. "You were beautiful that night." His gaze went soft as he gave her figure a slow onceover.
She couldn't keep the outrage from her tone. "I was twenty-two that night."
His shoulders went up in a careless shrug. "You didn't have to take the key."
"I was confused." It truly had taken her a moment to realize the card he'd handed her was a hotel room key.
"I think you were tempted."
Her brain warned her mouth to shut up. But her emotions overrode the instruction. "I'd known you for two minutes." Other women might be tempted by a dashing, urbane aristocrat with money to burn, but Charlotte wasn't interested in a fling.
"I'd been watching you for a lot longer than two minutes."
His words caused her thoughts to stumble. He'd been watching her? In a complimentary way, or in a creepy, stalker sort of way?
He moved subtly closer. "You were attractive. You seemed interesting and intelligent, and by the way you were making all those other men laugh, I knew you had a sense of humor."
"Giving me your room key was supposed to be funny?"
His brown eyes turned to molten chocolate. "Not at all. The ball was ending. I wanted to get to know you better."
Charlotte couldn't believe his gall. Aside from being young and naive, she'd been on official business that night, and she'd never dishonor her grandfather nor the ambassador's office by leaving the party with a strange man, particularly a man with Alec Mont-calm's reputation. He was still one of France's most notorious bachelors. His dates were lucky to stay out of the tabloids.
"It didn't occur to you to ask me for coffee?" she asked tartly.
"I'm not apatient man." He paused, and she checked an impulse to gaze into his dark eyes, or to contemplate that rakish slash of a mouth, or the tilt of his square chin. Which left her his nosestraight, aristocratic, slightly flared, as if he was drinking in her scent.
He continued speaking. "The direct approach is sometimes the most effective."
"You're telling me that room-key thing works?" She couldn't really be surprised. There had to be plenty of women who'd give their eye teeth to hop into Alec Montcalm's bed. Charlotte simply wasn't one of them. And she never would be.
His quirk of a smile confirmed her suspicions. But then he seemed to tire of the game. He straightened, his expression turning more businesslike. "In my sister's absence, is there anything I can do for you, Ms. Hudson?"
Charlotte instantly remembered her mission. She also realized she'd made a colossal error by arguing with him. She forced herself to calm down, to step back from the web of emotions he seemed to evoke, and to focus on the reason she'd come.
"When is Raine expected back?" she tried.
"Tuesday morning. She was called to a photo shoot on Malta for Intérêt."
Charlotte knew Intérêt was the Montcalm Corporation's fashion magazine, and Raine was editor-in-chief. Tuesday morning wasn't going to do it. Jack needed to know this weekend if he could send the film's location manager to Château Montcalm. Principal photography was set to start at the end of the summer, and they were already behind schedule.
Charlotte supposed she could fly to Malta and talk to Raine there. But she knew the magazine wouldn't call out the editor-in-chief unless there was a problem. The last thing she wanted to do was catch Raine at a stressful time. It wouldn't help her cause, and it wouldn't be fair to Raine.
That left Alec. She had so hoped to avoid asking him directly. But she wasn't in a position to be choosy.
She took a bracing breath. "There's something I'd like to discuss with you."
Alec's eyes instantly twinkled, and an anticipatory smile transformed his slash of a mouth.
Charlotte battled a spontaneous sexual reaction.
There was a reason women from Milan and Prague accepted his room key on the dance floor. The man was sexy as sin.
"Entrer," he offered, gesturing with his arm and making a small space between his body and the door for her to enter the foyer.
She hesitated, then took the invitation, brushing past him, a tingle invading her shoulder where it contacted his chest.
"Dinner is casual tonight," he told her. "La pissal-adière. And I'll bring up a bottle of 1996 Montcalm Maison Inou'i from the cellar."
"It's not that kind of a discussion," she warned, turning back to face him. Bringing out the big guns from his family's winery wasn't going to make her fall into his bed.
"You're in Provence," he countered smoothly, closing the door. "Everything is that kind of a discussion."
She blinked to adjust her eyes to the interior light. "This is business."
"I understand." But his expression didn't change.
She didn't believe him for a second. But she had no choice but to stay for dinner. Jack needed the location. She needed the credibility with the Hudson family. And she wasn't about to blow this chance.
Alec had been handed a second chance.
Three long years later, the sexy woman he'd admired across the dance floor was in his kitchen, looking sexier than ever. If he'd known Raine's friend Charlotte and his Ottobrate Ballo Charlotte were one and the same, he'd have made this happen a whole lot sooner. But patience was good. Anticipation was good.
And now, gazing at her crystal-clear blue eyes, her dark lashes, her full lips and porcelain-smooth skin, he was glad he'd waited. Her neck was long and graceful, decorated with a delicate, moon-shaped diamond and gold pendant that telegraphed taste rather than extravagance. The suit's skirt fit her like a glove, emphasizing the curve of her waist, the flare of her hips and her long, sleek, toned legs that ended in a pair of sexy heels.
On the butcher-block island in the terra-cotta tiled kitchen, he popped the cork on the Maison Inouï. It was his family's signature label, their finest vintage, bottles he saved for very special occasions.
He reached up to the hanging rack, sliding off a pair of crystal red-wine goblets.
Having initially gazed around with interest, Charlotte was now standing uncertainly at the center of the large room.
He nodded to one of the low-backed bar stools on the opposite side of the island. "Hop up."
She hesitated for a split second, but then slipped gracefully into the leather-upholstered seat, setting her small clutch bag on the lip of the counter.
"Thank you," she said primly as he placed one of the glasses of wine in front of her.
Alec remembered that intriguing expression, the shield of formality, covering what he was certain was a fiery rebel, chafing beneath the bounds of propriety. He'd tried to test the theory in Rome, but her grandfather, the watchful ambassador, had stopped him cold.
Back then, he'd shrugged the disappointment off philosophically. Women came; women went. Sometimes it worked out. Sometimes it didn't.
He lifted his wineglass, swirling the small measure of wine, taking an experimental sip and letting the deep, sweet, woodsy flavor of the wine glide over his tongue.
Sometimes a man got another chance.
The wine was perfect, so he filled their glasses.
Charlotte tasted hers, and her eyes went wide with the experience. "Nice," she admitted with respect.
"From our vineyard in Bordeaux."
He smiled in satisfaction at her reaction.
"Not that impressed," she drawled.
"That was pride of craftsmanship," he told her.
"My mistake." But her sea-foam eyes told him she knew it was lust.
Of course it was. But not a problem. He'd back off and let her relax.
"La pissaladière," he decreed, retrieving a steel mixing bowl from beneath the countertop. He then assembled flour, yeast, sugar and olive oil.
She watched wordlessly for a few moments. "You can cook?"
"Oui. Of course." He sprinkled sugar into the bottom of the bowl, adding the yeast and a measure of water. French children learned to bake almost before they learned to walk.
"You do your own cooking?" she pressed in obvious surprise.
"Sometimes." He nodded to her wineglass. "Enjoy. Relax. Tell me what you wanted to talk about."
The invitation seemed to sober her, and she took a slow sip of the wine.