The Valfort and Holden families are sworn enemies. But when Laura Holden Tate's grandmother dies, just before Christmas, it's French billionaire Nic Valfort who delivers the news.
Returning to France to oversee the inheritance, Laura has no choice but to stay at Nic's chateau. He's the enemy, but at the most romantic time of the year Laura's resolve is tested. And when it transpires that their family feud is not what it seems, it looks as if this Christmas could transform their lives forever!
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The Financial District of San Francisco was known as the Wall Street of the West. Nic got out of the limo into sunny, fifty-eight-degree weather and entered the high-rise that housed the headquarters of Holden Hotels on Montgomery.
There might be no snow in this city by the bay, but Americans were big on Christmas trees. The tall one in the foyer decorated with pink bows, pink angels and pink lights was dazzling. The hotel chain started by Richard Holden had become one of California's finest.
Nic had checked in to one near the airport upon his arrival at 3:00 p.m., a half hour ago. A smaller tree decorated the same way with a giant Santa Claus in the corner had illuminated its foyer. He was impressed by its unmatched American ambience that would enchant children of all ages and nationalities. Once it might have enchanted him, but no longer. These days Christmas was a painful holiday he had to get through.
A security guard at reception in the lounge of the foyer looked up at him. "May I help you, sir?"
"I hope so. I'm here to see Ms. Laura Holden Tate. I understand she's manager of the marketing department."
"Do you have an appointment?"
"No. I'm here on urgent business and must speak to her as soon as possible."
"Monsieur Valfort. She'll recognize the name."
"One moment, please, and I'll ring her secretary."
Nic had to wait a few minutes for an answer. The man gave him a speculative glance before he said, "If you'll take a seat, she'll be down shortly."
So she was in that was good. Saved him from having to hunt her down.
The name Valfort had probably given Ms. Tate a heart attack. He'd purposely left off his first name to keep her guessing. But Nic wasn't surprised she was willing to drop everything in order to investigate this undesirable intrusion away from the eyes and ears of her staff. He had to admit he'd been curious about a woman who'd shown no interest or love, let alone curiosity, over her grandmother's welfare all these years. It demonstrated a coldness he couldn't comprehend.
"Please help yourself to coffee while you wait."
"Thank you." Except that Nic didn't want coffee and didn't feel like sitting. He'd done enough of both on the flight from Nice, France, which, being on the Cote d'Azur, showed no signs of snow and coincidentally had been fifty-eight degrees and sunny when he'd left.
The errand his grandfather Maurice had sent him on was one he wanted over. He wasn't looking forward to this meeting, let alone the other business his grandfather had asked him to carry out.
There would be fireworks, but with so many people coming in and out of the building, he planned to convince Ms. Tate to talk to him away from everyone. If this woman was as bitter and unforgiving as her mother, then he had his work cut out.
He looked in the direction of the bank of elevators, braced for a confrontation. Every time he heard the ding, he watched another group of well-dressed people step out. Though he didn't have a picture of Ms. Tate, he knew she was a midlevel executive, twenty-seven years old and had been born with blond hair. Not a great deal to go on. At this point all he could do was wait until she approached him.
When he decided something must have detained her, he suddenly noticed an ash-blond woman with silky hair to the shoulders of her chic navy suit walking in his direction from the stairway door on long, shapely legs.
Out of nowhere Nic felt an unbidden rush of physical attraction. Not in years had that kind of powerful reaction to a woman happened to him.
This was the woman he'd flown all these miles to talk to?
Maybe he was wrong and she was meeting someone else, but no one else was standing by him. On closer inspection he noticed that her coloring and five-foot-seven-inch height could have been the way her grandmother Irene Holden would have looked at the same age. Irene had been an exceptionally beautiful woman.
Nic stood there stunned by the strong family resemblance. That had to explain why he'd been so taken with the woman's looks. She had a certain elegance, like her grandmother, and wore white pearls around her neck as he'd seen Irene do many times. Their sheen was reflected in her hair.
The similarity of the two women's classic features was uncanny, though the granddaughter's mouth was a little fuller. Her mouth and her eyes They were a lighter blue than her grandmother's.
But instead of the hint of wistfulness that was Irene's trademark, he saw guarded hostility as her granddaughter's gaze swept over him with patent disdain.
"I'm Laura Tate. Which of the Valfort men are you?"
Nothing like coming straight to the point with such an acerbic question, but he was prepared.
"Nicholas. My grandfather Maurice married your grandmother Irene."
He heard her take a quick extra breath. Much to his chagrin, it drew his attention to the voluptuous figure no expensive, classy business suit could hide. She was Irene's granddaughter, all right.
"Paul told me your business was urgent. It must be a life-and-death situation for you to make the long flight into the enemy camp."
Nic changed his mind. This woman wasn't anything like her delightful grandmother, which made him more irritated with himself than ever over his unexpected physical reaction to her.
"I'd rather talk to you outside in the limo, where we won't have an audience." He sensed her hesitation. "I'm not here to abduct you," he asserted. "That isn't the Valfort way, despite the rumors in your family."
He noticed how her jaw hardened, but ignored the grimace and got down to the business of why he'd come. "I'm here to inform you that your grandmother passed away day before yesterday, at St. Luc's Hospital in Nice."
The second the news left his lips, Laura's facade crumbled for a moment. In that instant her whole demeanor changed, like a flower that had lost its moisture. He knew he'd delivered a message that had rocked her world. For no reason he could understand, he felt a trace of compassion for her. Tears sprang to those crystalline eyes, bringing out his protective instincts despite his initial resentment of her lack of feeling for her own grandmother.
"My grandfather wanted you and your mother to hear the news in person. Since he knew he wouldn't be welcome here, he asked me to come in his place. If you'll walk out to the limothe most convenient meeting place I could deviseI'll tell you everything."
Irene Holden had been his grandfather's raison d' tre. Nic was still trying to deal with the recent loss himself. He'd loved Irene, who'd been a big part of his life. Her death had left a huge void, one this unfeeling granddaughter couldn't possibly comprehend.
Was it true? The grandmother she'd hardly known was dead?
If Laura were the type, she would have fainted. This tall, striking Frenchman dressed in an expensive charcoal-colored silk suit and tie had just delivered unexpected news that shook her to the very foundation.
He had to be in his early thirties and wore a wedding ring. She'd noticed something else Nicholas Valfort spoke excellent English with a seductive French accent, no doubt just like the rogue grandfather who'd beguiled her grandmother. A man like this had no right to be so appealing.
Is that what had happened to Ireneshe'd felt an overwhelming attraction to Maurice the moment she'd met him? Like granddaughter, like grandmother?
The surreal moment made it difficult for Laura to function, let alone breathe, but she had to.
Without further urging on Nicholas's part, she followed him to the front of the building. Once he'd helped her into the back of the limousine, he sat across from her.
She had an impression of vibrant black hair and hard-boned features, but all she could focus on were the moody gray eyes beneath black brows, studying her as if she were an unpleasant riddle he couldn't solve and frankly didn't want to.
"I brought these pictures of her with me. Please feel free to keep them. They were taken in the last year before she became so ill with pneumonia."
Laura groaned. Pneumonia?
He opened an envelope on the seat and handed her half a dozen five-by-seven color photos. Five of them showed her grandmother alone in different outdoor settings. The last one had caught her standing in a garden with a man who had to be her second husband, Maurice.
The same Valfort characteristics of height and musculature in the photo had been bequeathed to the arresting male seated across from Laura. But unlike him, the man's hair in the picture had turned silver.
She studied the photos for a long time. Her grandmother had still been beautiful at eighty. Pain caused her throat to constrict.
"I brought her body on the Valfort corporate jet. Maurice called the Sunset Mortuary here in San Francisco to meet the plane. Here's their business card." She took it from him, cognizant of their fingers touching. Something was wrong with her to be this aware of him when she was in so much turmoil.
"They're awaiting your family's instructions. When your mother broke all ties with Irene, she told her that neither she nor my grandfather would ever be welcome at her home in this life."
Searing pain shot through Laura. Her mother had said those exact words to Laura's grandmother? Laura didn't believe it. This man was biased and had colored the situation with his own judgmental version of the scandal. Still, it was so horrifying, the tragedy of it all overwhelmed her.
"My grandfather is still honoring her wishes, thus the reason I'm here in his place."
That was another lie. His grandfather was a coward or he would have come himself!
"Maurice realizes your grandmother should be buried next to her first husband, Richard, and surrounded by her family."
So in death Richard was finally remembered? The heat of anger and pain washed over her. "How thoughtful of him." She hadn't been able to hide the sarcasm.
Calmly he said, "If you have questions and need to talk to me, I'll be staying at the airport Holden Hotel. You can reach me there until tomorrow morning, when I'll be flying back to Nice at seven a.m.
"One more thing. Your grandmother had a will drawn up several years ago and left something specific in it for you. Unfortunately it means you will have to fly to Nice and meet with the attorney within the next seven days. After that, he'll be out of the country for two months. It was her hope that your mother's feelings wouldn't prevent you from claiming it. She never gave up hope of a reconciliation."
At the revelation, Laura couldn't stifle a quiet sob.
"Should you decide to come, phone me and I'll arrange for the Valfort jet to return to San Francisco and fly you to Nice. My grandfather insists on doing this for you to honor Irene's final wishes. I'll meet you at the Nice airport and drive you directly to the attorney's office. This is my business card." He handed it to her. "You can reach me at Valfort Technologies any time."
He didn't work for the fabulously wealthy Valfort family? They'd been hoteliers since the early 1900s. That much she did know about them. Why on earth would he stay in a Holden hotel after what his grandfather had done to their family? Or did he have a sick desire to see how the Holdens were doing business without the founder?
"Do you have any questions, Ms. Tate?"
At this point her emotions were in chaos. "Only two right now." She fought to keep the tremor out of her voice, but to her alarm, she had difficulty keeping her eyes off him. "Did you know her well?"
"Very" came the grating sound of his voice.
Laura sensed a wealth of meaning and possible rebuke behind that one word, stabbing her until she could feel herself bleeding out. But this man knew nothing about the private history of the Holden family and the horrendous gulf caused by his grandfather. She bristled at his unspoken censure of her.
Narrowing her eyes on him she said, "Am I to assume she was happy with your grandfather?"
"With him, absolutely."
What exactly was that supposed to mean? "That's your interpretation, of course."
She got no response from him. His sangfroid crept under her skin. So did his lack of explanation that spoke volumes about the underlying issues of a marriage that had brought so much grief to her mother and to Laura personally.
Laura averted her eyes, needing to exit the limo and be strictly alone while she absorbed the gut-wrenching news about her grandmother's death.
All these years without contact. Laura hadn't seen Irene since she was six. Year after year she'd secretly yearned to visit her and get to know her. But loyalty to her mother, Jessica, had prevented her from getting in touch with her. Now the lovely older woman in the photos was gone Death was irrevocable.
Another small sob escaped her throat. She traced her grandmother's features with her index finger. These few pictures were all Laura would ever have of the woman who'd brought her mother into the world and raised her. The pain of loss over an opportunity never seized was excruciating. How empty and pointless that loyalty seemed now.
Without lashing out at her, Laura would have to search her soul to find the right words to tell her unforgiving mother that Irene was dead. She lifted her head, looking at Nicholas through dull eyes. Tears trickled down her throat, yet it was hard to swallow.
"It's evident this was a task you would have done anything to avoid. Your loyalty to your grandfather deserves a medal. I suppose the least I can do is thank you for tearing yourself away from business to come all this way with her body."
His cool reply had her floundering. Clearly this man found his errand repugnant. But as much as she knew anything, she realized he was a true gentleman, a quality she valued highly in a man. Otherwise he would have flung all this in her face with the greatest of pleasure. His restraint taught her a lot about his character, adding to the potent charisma no man of her acquaintance possessed.
He got out of the back to help her. As her body brushed against his by accident, an unlooked-for awareness of his male presence leaped to life, threatening her in ways she'd never experienced before. The knowledge that he was married only made her reaction to him that much more shocking. She clutched the photos and cards before running toward the building without looking back.
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A must read, i couldnt put it down.