'Breathe in, breathe out,' muttered Gabrielle Alexander as she stood and stared at the daunting wooden door that led to the servants' quarters of Chateau des Caverness. She knew this door, knew the feel of it beneath her palm and the haughty hollow sound the brass knocker made when it connected with the wood. Gabrielle had been sixteen when she'd last walked through this door; sixteen and shattered at the thought of leaving everything she knew and loved behind. Such turbulent times, thought Gabrielle with a wry smile for the girl she'd once been. How she'd pleaded with her mother to be allowed to stay; Lord, how she'd begged and argued and finally wept. But the people she'd loved had not loved her. Josien Alexander had shipped her daughter off to Australia with a heart as hard and as cold as an arctic iceberg.
All because of a kiss.
'It wasn't even a good kiss,' muttered Gabrielle as she stared at the door and dug deep for the courage to put her hand to the knocker and make it do its thing. Seven years had passed; Gabrielle knew a lot more about kissing these days. She knew the feel of hot sweet kisses on her lips. Ragged greedy kisses on her skin. 'It was a very ordinary kiss.'
Liar, said a little inner voice that would not remain silent.
'A practice kiss. A practically meaningless kiss.'
Big fat liar.
'So shoot me,' she murmured to that little voice inside her. 'You remember it your way and I'll remember it mine.' She grasped the knocker and lifted it. 'Better still, let's not remember it at all.'
But that was harder done than said. Not here in this place, with the scent of summer grapes all around her and the warmth of the sun beating down on her shoulders. Not with her heart swollen and heavy with the knowledge that this place, this chateau, this fragrant idyllic corner of France's Champagne district was the only place that had ever felt like home and that for seven long years she'd stayed away from it.
All because of a kiss.
Taking hold of the brass ring, Gabrielle lifted it and brought it down hard against the wooden door. Boom. Nothing quite like a dreaded sound from her childhood to get her blood pumping and the hairs on her arms standing to attention. Boom. Once more with feeling. Boom boom and boom.
But the door did not open. No footsteps echoed along the dark and narrow hallway Gabrielle knew was behind that door. She turned from her mother's quarters to stare across the courtyard at the chateau proper. She really didn't want to go knocking on any of those doors.
Josien had pneumonia; that was what Simone Duvalier, childhood playmate and current mistress of Caverness, had said in her phone message. What if Josien was too ill to get out of bed? What if she tried to answer the door and collapsed on the way?
Muttering a prayer to a God she barely believed in, Gabrielle dug in her handbag until her fingers closed around the key she sought. Smooth and cold, it both beckoned and repelled. She had no right to unlock this door—this wasn't her home any more. Caution pleaded with her not to slide the key in the lock but caution never had been Gabrielle's strong point.
Wilful, her mother had called her on more than one occasion.
The key turned easily, smoothly, and with a click and a slight nudge on her part the door swung open. 'Maman?' Gabrielle stepped tentatively inside the darkened hallway. 'Maman?'A flash of red caught her eye—red where there'd never been red before. A blinking row of little red lights and a no-nonsense square panel, the kind that signalled state-of-the-art alarm systems that summoned large men with flat top buzz cuts and firearms to the door. 'Maman?'
And then the cacophony began. No discreet beeping for this alarm system, it was air-raid-klaxon loud and could doubtless be heard for miles. Uh oh. Gabrielle ran towards the blinking lights and wrenched the casing open, staring in dismay at a keyboard containing both letters and numbers. She punched in her birth date. The ear splitting noise continued. She keyed in Rafael's name and date of birth next, but Josien was clearly not the sentimental type. She tried entering the year that Chateau des Caverness had been built, the name and year of its most successful champagne vintage, the number of ancient Linden trees lining the sides of the lane leading up to the chateau, but the alarm just kept on screaming. She started pressing buttons at random. 'Shiste. Merde. Bugger!'
'Nice to hear you're still multilingual,' said a midnight-smooth voice from close behind her and Gabrielle closed her eyes and tried to stop her already racing heart from doubling its tempo yet again. She knew that voice, the deep delicious timbre of it. A Champagne voice, a voice of Rheims, it was there in the lilt and the texture of the words. A voice that conjured up forbidden thoughts and heated yearnings. She'd heard it in her dreams for years.
'Oh, hello, Luc' If he could do deadpan, so could she. Gabrielle turned slowly and there he stood, looking every inch the head of a Champagne dynasty in his tailored grey trousers and crisp white business shirt. Gabrielle could have spent a lot longer staring at Luc Duvalier and cataloguing the changes time had wrought in him but circumstances and a healthy respect for her eardrums dictated moving right along. 'Long time no see. I don't suppose you could help me turn this thing off?'
He brushed past her, long, strong fingers moving swiftly over the panel. 'Cinq six six deux quatre cinq un.'
The alarm cut out abruptly and silence cut in. A loud, ringing kind of silence.
'Merci,' she said finally.
'You're welcome.' Lucien Duvalier's perfectly sculpted lips tightened. 'What are you doing here, Gabrielle?'
'I lived here once, remember?'
'Not for the past seven years, you haven't.'
'True.' Now that quiet had been restored, Gabrielle could look her fill. She studied the tall, dark-haired, dark-eyed man standing before her, trying for detachment and failing miserably. Luc had been twenty-two when she'd last seen him and even then the promise of tightly leashed power and outrageous sexuality had hovered about him like a velvet cloak. Night, the household staff had called him. And Rafael, Luc's childhood partner in crime, with his fair hair and his teasing blue eyes, had been Day.
'Sorry about setting the alarm off,' she said with an awkward shrug. 'I should have known better than to use the key.'
Luc said nothing. He never had been one for small talk. But it was all she could manage. Taking a deep and steadying breath, Gabrielle tried again. 'You're looking well, Lucien.'
When he still made no reply Gabrielle looked past him, across the courtyard towards the chateau tucked snugly into the terraced hillside. 'Caverness is looking well too. Cared for. Prosperous. I heard about your father's death a few years back.' She didn't feel inclined to say any more on the subject. Had she wanted to lie through her teeth she could have added something about being sorry to hear of old man Duvalier's demise. 'Guess that makes you king of the castle now,' she added recklessly. She met his dark burning gaze without flinching. 'Should I kneel?'
'You've changed,' he said abruptly.
She certainly hoped so.
'My thanks again.' Gabrielle held back a sigh. If Luc wanted to categorise the changes in her, she might as well show him the big ones. She wasn't a gangly sixteen-year-old on the cusp of womanhood any more. And Luc wasn't the centre of her life. 'Look at us,' she chided lightly. 'Childhood playmates and here I've greeted you with less warmth than one would greet a stranger. Three kisses, isn't it? One for each cheek and then a spare?' She moved closer and brushed his left cheek with her lips, breathing in the subtle pine scent that clung to his skin and trying very hard not to let it wrap around her and squeeze. 'One.' She pulled back and made for his other cheek, never mind that he stood as if turned to stone. 'Two,' she whispered and let her lips linger a fraction longer this time.
'Back off, angel.' Luc's voice was nothing more than a dark and dangerous rumble as his fingers came up to caress her jaw before sliding around to the base of her neck. 'For your own sake if not for mine.'
A warning. One she would do well to heed. Not that she did. A frisson of awareness slid down her spine and she closed her eyes the better to diffuse it. So he could still make her body ache for his touch. Nothing to worry about. She was older now. Wiser. She knew better than to lose her heart to the head of the House of Duvalier. Not that a few more iron clad reasons to ensure she kept her distance from this man wouldn't come in handy. 'Are you married these days, Luc?'
'Are you sure?' She brushed his ear lobe with her lips. 'You seem a little… uptight. It's just an innocent greeting.'
The fingers at the base of her neck tightened. 'You're not innocent.'
'You noticed.' She pulled back smoothly, dislodging his hand with a shrug as she stepped away and shot him a careless smile for good measure. 'You always were observant. Perhaps two kisses are greeting enough for you, after all. Shall we take a rain check on the third?'
'Why are you here, Gabrielle?'
Here in this place where no one wanted her. Luc couldn't have made the implication clearer if he'd painted it on a sign and hung it on the door. 'Simone phoned and left a message. She said my mother had been ill. She said…' Gabrielle hesitated, unwilling to reveal any more weakness to this man. 'She said that Josien had been calling for her angels.' Whether Josien had been calling for her children, who'd been named after two of the winged entities, was anyone's guess. Rafe thought not. Rafael thought Gabrielle's decision to travel halfway across the world on the strength of a fevered plea a colossal mistake but even so… Even if Josien refused to see her…
Some mistakes were unavoidable.
Gabrielle attempted a nonchalant shrug. 'So here I am.'
'Does Josien know of your expected arrival?' asked Luc quietly.
'I—' Nervously, Gabrielle fiddled with the cuff of her stylish cream jacket. 'No.'
Luc's gaze grew hooded and Gabrielle thought she saw a flash of something that looked a lot like sympathy in their depths. 'You always were too impetuous for your own good,' he murmured. 'I gather your brother declined to accompany you?'
'Rafe's busy,' she said guardedly. 'As I'm sure you must be. Luc, if you could just tell me where to find my mother…'
'Come,' he said, turning abruptly and heading for the door. 'Josien is staying in one of the suites in the west wing until she recovers more fully. A nurse attends her. Doctor's orders. It was that or the hospital.'
Pulling the door closed behind them, and pocketing her keys, Gabrielle hurried to match Luc's long loping stride. 'How bad is she?'
'Frail. Twice, we thought we'd lost her.'
'Do you think she'll want to see me?'
Luc's features hardened. 'That, I have no idea. You should have called ahead, Gabrielle. You really should have.'
Gabrielle's apprehension grew claws as they entered the chateau through the western door. Josien Alexander had always been a mystery to her children. Never loving, constantly critical. Gabrielle had spent most of her childhood trying to please a mother who could not be pleased. Gabrielle's overriding instinct was still to please her, even after seven years of barely any contact with her mother at all. What if Josien didn't want to see her? What if she hadn't been calling for her children at all? What then?
The nurse who met them in the sitting room of the suite was a grizzle-faced man in his mid fifties whom Luc introduced as Hans. Hans had a firm handshake, a steady gaze, and a warm smile for Gabrielle.
'Stubbornest patient I've ever had,' he said. 'She's just taken her medication so you've about five minutes before she begins to get drowsy. Not that she won't fight the sleep. She always does.' Hans gestured towards yet another closed door. 'She's in there.'
'Thank you.' Gabrielle's nerves were at breaking point and her body felt weary beyond belief, courtesy of the twenty-three-hour flight from Sydney, but this was the path she'd chosen to follow and follow it she would, no matter what Rafe thought, or Luc thought, or anyone thought. Gabrielle had come to see her mother.
Some mistakes were unavoidable.
'Would you like me to accompany you?' asked Luc quietly.
'No.' Luc's offer of support scraped at her, shamed her. Some humiliations were best kept private. Then again, maybe this meeting would go more smoothly with a third party present. With Luc present, Gabrielle amended with brutal honesty, so that Josien could see that, as far as Luc was concerned, the mistakes of the past had been paid for. And they had been paid for, hadn't they? Surely they'd been paid for? 'Yes.'
Luc's lips curved ever so slightly. 'Which is it?'
Gabrielle's gaze met his and skittered away. 'Yes.'
'Four minutes,' said Hans dryly.
'Thanks.' Steeling herself, Gabrielle reached for the handle to yet another closed door and headed inside. It was warmer in here. Darker too, for the afternoon light had to pry its way through two layers of gauze curtain material before finding entry. A large four poster bed dominated the space so that the figure tucked beneath the fluffy white bedcovers looked tiny in comparison. Seven years ago, Josien Alexander's hair had been as black as a raven's wing and had fallen almost to her waist. Now it was streaked with silver and cut to sit just beneath her chin but she was still the most beautiful woman Gabrielle had ever seen. Josien's eyes—those startling violet blue eyes that had always watched and judged but never smiled—were closed, and Gabrielle was grateful for the reprieve. She needed that moment to bind her emotions tight.
'Josien,' said Luc gently. 'Pardonnez-moi for the lateness of the hour but you have a visitor.'
Josien turned her head and slowly, slowly, she opened her eyes, focussing first on Luc, and then on Gabrielle standing awkwardly beside him. With a swiftly indrawn breath, Josien closed her eyes and turned away.
Gabrielle felt the sting of bitter tears welling in her own eyes but she blinked them away, and made herself speak even though her words would come out ragged and choked. 'Hello, Maman.'
'You shouldn't have come.' Josien kept her face averted.
'So people keep telling me.' Luc's face, when Gabrielle glanced his way, was as hard and unyielding as the stones from which the chateau had been built. 'I hear you've been unwell.'