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"Who are you, and what are you doing in my house?"
Jolted out of her concentration, Megan O'Malley dropped the books she was holding, and they thumped to the gleaming wood floor. She twisted around to face the unexpected visitor whose voice she didn't recognize. Odd, she hadn't heard the doorbell. Mrs. Calhoun normally announced company.
The stranger standing in the parlor's wide entryway was definitely not a local. Even dressed in their Sunday best, the men of Gatlinburg couldn't come close to imitating this man's elegance. Glossy black Hessian boots encased his feet and calves. Muscular thighs stretched the dove-gray trousers he wore taut, and underneath his black frock coat, the silver-and-black paisley brocade vest hugged a firm chest. The snowy white, expertly arranged cravat at his throat resembled a work of art.
Nothing was out of place. No lint on his coat. Not a single speck of dust dared cling to the mirrorlike surface of his boots which was why his hair seemed to her untamed. It was glorious hair, really, thick and lustrous and wavy, the dark brown layers kissing his forehead in a manner that must irk him so.
His eyes, she noticed at last, were watching her with marked suspicion. He did not look pleased.
His black gaze raked her from head to toe and back up again, his frown deepening at the sight of the flower circlet adorning her loose curls. Megan experienced a spurt of self-consciousness. In preparation for the children's story time, she'd dressed the part of a princess, complete with a flowing white gown and fingerless lace gloves.
Unsettled, she clasped her hands behind her back and adopted what she hoped was a casual smile. "Hello, I'm Megan O'Malley. You must be new in town. Is there something I can help you with?"
He didn't deign to answer. Instead, he surveyed the airy room as he stalked towards her, circumventing the wingbacked chairs arranged in a semicircle about a plush Oriental rug. Fit and athletic, he exuded an air of command. Of authority. He struck her as a man accustomed to giving orders as opposed to taking them.
A wrinkle formed between his brows. Haughty brows, she thought. His was an arrogant beauty, with razor-sharp cheekbones and a harsh jawline. His nose was unremarkable, medium size and straight. The fullness of his mouth and the small dimple in his chin offset the harshness of his features.
When he stopped very near, his sharp-edged gaze cut into her, demanding answers. "Would you be so kind as to tell me what you're doing in my grandfather's house?"
A great trembling worked its way up her body. This was Charles's grandson? It couldn't be, could it?
"Lucian?" she whispered.
He sketched a bow, his gaze narrowing. "Oui. Lucian Beaumont, at your service. I take it you were well acquainted with my grandfather?"
"Charles was a dear friend of mine."
Sadness gripped her. How she missed the gentle, insightful older man, their lively conversations about life and love, music and books. Theirs had been an unlikely friendship brought about by a mutual love of literature. To Megan, he'd been a substitute grandfather.
"I see." And yet, it was perfectly clear that he didn't. Resentment came and went in his expression. "He passed away nearly three months ago. Why are you here?"
"I could ask the same of you." She met his gaze squarely, a rush of indignation stiffening her spine. "Why did you wait until now to come? In all these years, why didn't you visit Charles just once?"
The rift between Charles and his daughter, Lucian's mother, Lucinda, was common knowledge among the townspeople. He'd been dead-set against Lucinda's marriage to New Orleans native Gerard Beaumont, had rashly threatened to cut her out of his life if she went against his wishes. A threat he'd lived to regret. After their elopement, Lucinda and Gerard left Tennessee and settled in New Orleans, never to return.
A muscle in his jaw jumped. His already cool manner turned glacial. "That is none of your concern, Miss O'Malley. As to what I'm doing here, I happen to be the new owner of this house. And despite my repeated inquiries, you've yet to tell me what you're doing here." He gestured to the chairs and the books scattered behind her.
The story time! The hand-painted, gilt clock on the fireplace mantel showed ten minutes to five o'clock. She glanced out the window overlooking the front lawn. The children would start arriving soon.
Turning her back on him, she bent and hurriedly began to gather the books she'd dropped. "Every Friday afternoon, we have story time for the children. They'll be here any minute."
To her surprise, Lucian crouched beside her, his tanned hands deftly assisting her. "Children? Here?" They reached for the last one at the same time, his fingers closing over hers. A frisson of awareness shot through her, and she was suddenly conscious of his knee brushing hers, his bold, sweet-smelling cologne awakening her senses. Megan had the absurd notion to lean closer and sniff his clothes. Instead, she snatched her hand back. His eyes as black as midnight, he held the book out to her, waiting.
Flustered, she took it from him and pointed to the cover. "The Princess and the Goblin is our story for today. In case you haven't noticed, I'm the princess." She touched a finger to her crown of daisies.
"I noticed." He held her gaze a moment longer. Then, with a fleeting touch on her arm, he assisted her to her feet. "How long has this been going on?"
"About a year," she said, hugging the books to her chest. "Your grandfather wholeheartedly approved."
"So this was your idea?"
His open assessment put her on guard. He didn't know her, yet he regarded her with a healthy dose of distrust.
"Here are the refreshments, Miss Megan." Mrs. Calhoun entered the room with an oval tray piled high with strawberry tarts, stopping short when she spotted Lucian. Her mouth fell open. "Oh my!" Her gray brows shot to her hairline. "You look so much like Charles did when he was younger that I was momentarily taken back in time. Mr. Lucian, I presume?"
Setting the books aside, Megan took the tray from the older woman's hands and placed it on the credenza beside a crystal pitcher of lemonade. Turning, she caught Lucian's arrested expression before he smoothed all emotion from his face.
He regally dipped his head. "I'm afraid you have me at a disadvantage, madame. I"
"Of course you wouldn't know me." She chuckled as she mopped her brow with a handkerchief. "I'm Madge Calhoun. My husband, Fred, and I came to work for your grandparents when your mother was just a baby. We live in the little house on the back side of the property. I do the cooking and cleaning, and Fred maintains the grounds."
Her expression clouded, the lines about her eyes becoming more pronounced. "I sure was sorry to hear of Lucinda's passing. And now Charles I keep expecting to hear him coming down the stairs asking me what's for dinner. Hard to believe he's gone."
At his low hiss, Megan's gaze darted to Lucian. A flash of regret on his face, of deep-seated pain, mirrored what was in her own heart. Was his grief entirely for his mother? Or did hetoo lateunderstand what he'd given up by refusing to mend things with his grandfather?
The doorbell chimed. "Oh, our first visitor." Mrs. Calhoun stuffed the handkerchief back into her apron pocket. "It's probably Ollie Stevenson. He comes early in hopes I'll relent and give him a treat before all the others get here. Of course, I never do, but he's a persistent little fellow."
As soon as she'd gone, Lucian turned to Megan, his voice low and urgent. "How many children are coming?"
"On a good night, we have about twenty."
"Twenty." He visibly swallowed. "And how long will they stay?"
"About an hour. Why do I get the feeling you don't like children, Mr. Beaumont?"
"In my world, children do not normally mingle with adults. I've little experience with them."
"And yet" she smiled sweetly "you were once one yourself."
His lips didn't so much as twitch. "Miss O'Malley, I will absent myself for the duration of your story time. It's obviously too late to cancel. However, I'd like a word with you immediately afterward. There are matters we need to discuss."
He pivoted on his heel and strode out of the parlor before she could respond. Cancel? Matters to discuss? Somehow, Megan sensed she wasn't going to like what he had to say.
The children's excited chatter, punctuated by Megan O'Malley's lilting voice, ultimately drove Lucian out the back door and into the flower gardens. He strode along the winding stone path, past gurgling fountains and whimsical marble statues and wildflowers in every imaginable shape and hue, unmindful of his destination. His chest felt too tight. He needed air. Distance. In that house, unwanted emotions crowded in without his consent, nipping like rabid dogs at his tenuous hold on his composure.
He abruptly swung about to glare at the two-story, gabled Victorian, the late-afternoon sun bathing its yellow exterior in soft, buttery light. The stained-glass windows glowed like fine jewels. White wicker chairs situated along the porch invited a person to sit back and relax, to enjoy the view of the blue-toned mountains rising above the valley.
Had his mother sat and rocked on that very porch? Explored these gardens?
Reaching out, he fingered the velvet bloom of a purple hyacinth. Of course she had. Lucinda had been born in one of the upstairs rooms, had spent the first eighteen years of her life here. Until his father had happened into town and turned her life upside down. He frowned. No good would come of revisiting his mother's unhappiness and regrets. Releasing the petals, he turned and continued walking in the opposite direction of the house, purposefully moderating his steps.
He concentrated on his breathing. Blanking his mind, the heavy feeling in his chest slowly began to recede. The air here was fresh and clean. Pleasant, even. A far cry from the humid, salty tang of New Orleans, the rush of the mighty Mississippi and steamboat blasts and lusty cries of the dock workers. His home.
Over the course of the past year, Lucian had learned to avoid his darker emotions, to push aside grief and loss instead of dealing with it. A coward's way, he admitted. But it meant survival. And right now, that was his only goal. To keep his head above the waters of disappointment and disillusionment that was his life.
This house and all it represented threatened to suck him under. He could notwould notallow that to happen. He would sell it to the first reasonable bidder, no matter if it was at a loss. Money was not the issue here. Ridding himself of this burden was. The sooner the better.
Quiet footfalls against the stones registered behind him. Megan O'Malley.
Wearing that filmy, bridal-like gown, with flowers intertwined in the white-blond curls hanging nearly to her waist, she seemed to him a sort of woodland fairy, as insubstantial as a dream or a figment of his imagination. He blinked, wishing her far from here. But she kept coming, her movements graceful and fluid. She was beautiful, radiant even, with dewy-fresh skin that invited a man's touch. Inquisitive eyebrows arched above large, expressive eyes the color of the sea. Straight, flawless nose. Lips full and sweet like a ripe peach.
In New Orleans high society, Megan O'Malley would be a much sought-after prize. Thankfully, he'd learned his lesson where innocent-seeming beauties were concerned. He was immune.
The determined jut of her chin gave him pause. Made him wonder if she was going to prove an obstacle to his plans.
Boots planted wide, he clasped his hands behind his back. "Story time over already?"
"I cut it short today. I saw the last child out myself, so there's no need to worry you might bump into one later." Amusement hovered about her mouth, but her eyes were watchful. "So, what do you wish to speak to me about?"
He gestured to the metal bench to his right. "Would you like to have a seat?"
"No, thank you. I'd rather stand."
"As you wish. Miss O'Malley, I'm not sure exactly what sort of arrangement you had with my grandfather, but I'm afraid it must come to an end. You see, I'm here to oversee the sale of this property, and in order to do that, the house must be kept in excellent condition for potential buyers. I can't have strangers, especially children, traipsing in and out doing who knows what sort of damage. I'm sure you understand my predicament."
"Actually, I don't." Her pale brows collided. "Charles assured me that the children, and indeed the townspeople, would always have access to his home. In addition to the weekly story times, we host once-monthly performances open to the community."
"He meant while he was alive"
"No." She shook her head, curls quivering. "He meant always. In those last months when he was growing weaker, he spoke of how he wanted our endeavors to continue after his d-death." Her blue eyes grew dark and stormy, her distress a palpable thing.
Lucian couldn't help but be suspicious. What had been her true motivation for befriending the old man? Had she assumed that, because of the rift in their family, neither he nor his father would come to claim the house? That after Charles's death, she would have unlimited access to it?
"Must you sell?" She stepped closer, tilted her head back to gaze imploringly up at him. "Charles wouldn't have wanted it to go to strangers."
"What he wanted is no longer relevant," he retorted, years of animosity born of rejection rising up within him. His only grandfather hadn't wanted anything to do with him, so why should he care about the man's wishes? "I am the owner now, and I will do as I see fit."
Sidestepping her, he stalked back towards the house to order his valet to unpack enough clothing for the next week. Hopefully, that was all the time it would take to find a buyer.
"What kind of unfeeling man are you?" Megan called out after him, voice shimmering with indignation.
Lucian stopped dead in his tracks. Pivoted on his heel. Smiled a cold smile. "Unfeeling? How I wish that were the case! For without feelings, one could avoid a plague of problems, wouldn't you agree? Good evening, Miss O'Malley."
He left her there in the garden to see herself out, lips parted and eyes full of reproach. If he felt a pinprick of remorse for his less-than-stellar manners, he shoved it aside. This wasn't about her. This was about unloading emotional entanglements. He couldn't allow her or anyone else to distract him from his goal.