Danger and desire collide amidst a storm of secrets in Sara Claridge’s romantic suspense set in a French chateau.
Tragedy shaped Jean-Luc Delacroix’s life long ago. It’s made the electronics magnate overprotective of the sister he raised and wary of outsiders. But when he rescues a beautiful woman stranded during a storm, he inexplicably finds himself offering her shelter for the night at his imposing chateau.
Love is an illusion—or so Madeleine Smythe believes. Although she can’t deny the smouldering desire the enigmatic Frenchman ignites within her. Yet, beneath the charm of the reclusive tycoon lies a web of secrecy that threatens to unravel their connection.
But when Jean-Luc discovers Madeleine is on the trail of a dangerous con artist who deceived her mother, he is compelled to act. In a race against time, he’ll stop at nothing to keep Madeleine safe, even if it means confronting his own demons and risking everything he holds dear.
Set in the beautiful French countryside, Gathering Storm is a standalone, suspenseful romance featuring a sinfully sexy hero, dark family secrets, and a heart-racing conclusion.
Read the first chapter now…
THE TORRENTIAL RAIN suited Jean-Luc’s black mood. Between his bank informing him that yet again his sister’s account was overdrawn and discovering that a shipment from China had been lost at sea, he’d had his work cut out that day.
He was nearly home when a warning triangle close to the curb made him reach for the hazard lights of his SUV. The heavy downpour had turned into a drizzle, and through the gloom a blue car with British plates appeared in the middle of the carriageway. Standing beside the vehicle and looking extremely wet was the silhouette of a curvaceous woman.
Jean-Luc sighed in irritation. He didn’t have time to rescue damsels in distress today. Not even ones with great legs.
When she raised a boot-clad foot and kicked the car’s tyre with force, almost falling over backwards in the process, Jean-Luc couldn’t help a reluctant smile. He’d wanted to hit something himself for most of the day and could sympathise with her frustration.
He pulled the car over behind hers and admired the view as she walked towards him. Hips swaying with each step, her T-shirt rose up to offer a tantalising glimpse of her midriff as she stuffed a phone into the pocket of her skirt. That explained some of her problem.
The signal would be patchy at best in the storm. Even his phone, boosted by the SUV’s electronics, was always weak along this stretch of road. With nothing but endless fields, chestnut plantations, and a wide expanse of sky, mobile masts weren’t a priority in this part of France.
As she approached his car, he slid the window down and raised his voice so she could hear him above the rain. “Bonjour, what appears to be the problem?”
She drew level with his door and leaned in. His breath caught as his gaze was captured by the most mesmerising green eyes he’d ever seen. Her grateful look almost made him feel guilty for his thoughts as his eyes followed the long strands of her wet hair downwards to where her rain-soaked top outlined her breasts to perfection.
Almost, but not quite.
“Thank you so much for stopping.”
He expected the clear-cut British accent, but there was a softness to it and a hint of uncertainty in her eyes that countered any harshness in the tone. As she spoke, the musky scent of sweet chestnut trees in full flower drifted through the open window, assailing his nostrils and doing nothing to clear his mind.
She gestured towards the car, drawing his attention away from his wayward thoughts. “I have no idea what happened. One moment I was cruising along cursing my mother, and the next all the warning lights came on, and then nothing.”
“Did she deserve it?”
A moment’s confusion crossed her face. Then the reserve that had previously shielded her eyes was replaced by a sparkle. “Absolutely.” Her tone brooked no argument, but a smile lit up her face and his groin tightened in response.
Another car approaching from the opposite direction reminded Jean-Luc of her predicament. The roads weren’t narrow here, but her car was too far away from the verge to be abandoned when visibility was so poor. He glanced at the clock on the dashboard. He needed to get on, but he could spare five minutes to help push her vehicle out of harm’s way.
“We should move your car over to the grass verge before someone hits it.” Without waiting for her to respond, Jean-Luc reached for the door handle, and she stepped aside.
His shoes hit the tarmac, and muddy water splashed up the trousers of his suit, soaking through. He shut his eyes tight and sent up a silent apology. The sound of his housekeeper tutting when she saw the state of them was already ringing in his ears. It was like being eight years old all over again.
Rolling up the sleeves of his silk shirt, he considered the best option. “If I push and steer the car over, can you give a shove from behind?”
“Yes, of course.” She walked round to the back of the vehicle.
Jean-Luc imperceptibly shook his head as he watched her wipe her hands on her skirt before placing them firmly on the rear of the car, testing its resistance, her expression deadly serious. Did she think she could make up in mental strength what she lacked physically to move a ton of metal? He couldn’t decide if it was cute or delusional.
The truth was he probably didn’t need her help, but he didn’t want to tell her now. She looked like she’d be as prickly as his sister if she thought he was making allowances for her because she was female.
He checked that the gear stick was in neutral before leaning against the jamb, pushing the car toward the verge, steering with his left hand. As it started to roll forward, he felt the assistance coming from behind. Perhaps he’d underestimated her strength.
Jean-Luc turned to give a smile of thanks, and a wave of lust ran riot through his body at the sight of her gaping neckline. Muttering a curse as he almost lost his footing in the wet grass, he focused his attention back into steering.
With the car safely off the road, Jean-Luc shut the door and remembered his manners as he swung around to face her.
“Sorry, I forgot to introduce myself. Jean-Luc Delacroix.” He held out his hand.
“Madeleine Smythe.” Despite the cool, clipped response, as her warm, slender fingers curled around his palm, his heart rate sped up. He hadn’t imagined it. Those emerald eyes dazzled him.
“Enchanté, Madeleine,” he said, appreciating the way her name slid off his tongue like melted butter.
“Thank you for your help. I didn’t know what to do next.” Her grateful tone possessed a hint of desperation. “I’ve been here almost twenty minutes and not one car has passed by.” She reached into her pocket and held up her mobile. “And typically, just when you need this, it’s totally useless—no signal. I debated whether I should start walking, but the rain…” She drifted off, holding out her hand, watching it for a moment as a lone raindrop bounced off her palm.
“It’s not a great day for travelling. Maybe you should have stayed at home.”
Madeleine raised an eyebrow at him. Okay, perhaps it wasn’t any of his business.
“Maybe I didn’t have a choice. What’s your excuse?”
He smiled. “Touché. But I grew up in this part of France and know the roads well, certainly better than a tourist.”
Besides, he needed to get home tonight in case Chantal returned from her latest excursion. He worried when his sister was away from home, particularly after Danielle had said she’d been upset when she’d left for Paris. Not that either he or his housekeeper had heard from her since, except for a text.
A streak of lightning blazed down in the road ahead, followed by a loud crack of thunder that reverberated menacingly. Madeleine jumped towards him, visibly startled by what was probably a precursor to another downpour.
She was about five-six, a good deal shorter than his six-one, and completely soaked to her skin. Now that she stood closer, he could see the rivulets of water slide down her pale neck and beyond. Was it chivalry or desire that made him want to reach out and protect her from the rain?
“You don’t have a waterproof coat?” Surely a raincoat was the one thing an Englishwoman would own.
A ghost of a smile crossed her lips. “I’m packed for the Caribbean.”
Now it wasn’t just his libido aroused, but his curiosity, too. “You were expecting a little more sunshine and little less rain.”
“Yes.” She laughed shakily as another flash lit up the grey sky. “But I didn’t expect so much rain here, either.”
He shrugged. “It’s a relief after the last two weeks. It’s the hottest June on record. Are you staying locally?”
“I’m on my way to visit my mother in Bergerac, but I think I might have a taken a wrong turn.”
Bergerac was still a couple of hours away even in good weather. Perhaps fate had done her a favour. In today’s storm she’d be lucky if she arrived in one piece. Maybe for once fate had indulged him, too.
“You’re on the right route, but it’s still some distance.”
She sighed and scanned up and down the road, before turning her gaze back to him with hope in her eyes. It made him want to protect her and kiss her senseless at the same time.
When her tongue slipped out to remove a drop of water from her lips, he nearly groaned out loud. An icy raindrop landing on the back of his neck stopped him. Another one, heavier this time, landed on the back of his shirt and soaked through. The next storm was only minutes away, and whilst a cold shower might do him some good, they really needed to take shelter.
“I don’t suppose there’s a garage nearby that might be able to help me get the car started again?” Green eyes regarded him wistfully, and his resolve not to get involved melted away. Merde. She wouldn’t like his reply.
“Not on a Saturday afternoon. This is a rural area. Everywhere around here closes at midday.”
“I thought you might say that.” She spoke quietly, the hopeful expression on her face replaced with resignation. He reached out and gave her shoulder a brief squeeze of sympathy.
Before he gave it a second thought and allowed time for reason to take hold, he offered yet more assistance.
“You are welcome to come home with me. You can dry yourself and telephone your mother, let her know that you will be delayed.”
She didn’t respond verbally but raised her eyebrows in a disdainful way that said she wasn’t born yesterday. Jean-Luc was undeterred. Persuading people to bow to his command was one of his talents, at least some of the time. Although, after the way he’d been admiring her, perhaps she had a point.
He gave a soft laugh, acknowledging her unspoken candour. “Don’t worry. We won’t be alone. My housekeeper is there, and I promise to be on my best behaviour.” Jean-Luc regarded the darkening sky and then looked back at her with what he hoped was an air of reassurance. “The next storm is about to hit us, and when it does there will be no hope of either of us getting a mobile signal. From the house I can make some calls to see if someone is willing to come out and try to fix your car.”
“I thought all the garages were closed?” The distrust was clear in her voice, and as she tilted her head to examine him more carefully, her eyes narrowed with suspicion.
She was wise to doubt him. After all, how would he feel if Chantal went off with a stranger? He went cold at the thought.
“They are, but in small communities everybody knows each other. Just because their business is closed, it doesn’t mean I can’t ring them at home to ask for a favour.” He could sense a chink in her armour on the use of the word favour. It was as if she recognised he was putting himself out to help her. “Also I think you need somewhere to change out of those clothes, before you are the one needing a warning triangle.”
Her cheeks went bright pink as she glanced down at her top that no longer covered as much of her wet as it did dry.
Very smooth, Jean-Luc. Now she’s definitely going to think you’re only interested in one thing.
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to say it as I did.” He held her embarrassed gaze, regretting his stupidity. “I meant it when I said you will be safe with me, and I promise not alone.”
What else he could say to persuade her? A tentative smile crept up on Madeleine’s face, surprising him.
“If you’re sure it wouldn’t be too much trouble?”
Too much trouble? It was turning out to be the highlight of his day.
The thought had no sooner crossed his mind when the heavens opened and they made a dash for his car.
HOPING A PSYCHOPATH wasn’t likely to be driving a car that must have cost at least three times what she earned a year, Madeleine sank into the luxury of Jean-Luc’s SUV.
In reality, it wasn’t him Madeleine didn’t trust. Instinct told her he’d keep to his word. It was her own reactions that concerned her. From the moment she’d leaned into the car window to speak to him, her skin had tingled with attraction. She couldn’t make up her mind if it was the sexy French accent or his dark Gallic elegance that played havoc with her normally easy resistance to men. Dinner and a movie with a couple of the girls from work held more appeal than a night out spent trying to appease a male ego.
But for someone who could make the hair stand up on the back of her neck with a heated glance, well, perhaps she’d reconsider, given the opportunity.
“So are you going to your mother’s for a holiday?” Jean-Luc’s deep voice broke into her thoughts.
“Something like that, though it’s not normally relaxing enough to call a holiday.” She grimaced inwardly. No, definitely not a holiday. Going to the Caribbean to stay with her friend Kathy was a vacation, but all hope of that vanished the instant she’d foolishly answered the phone two days ago. One day she’d take some time off that didn’t involve some trauma with her mother, but it wasn’t going to be this year.
She reached down to adjust her skirt. A dark stain spread across the leather seat as water poured off her and soaked into the upholstery.
“I should have fetched a towel out of my bag.” Appalled at the damage she’d caused, Madeleine searched through her handbag looking for something suitable to mop up the remaining water before she ruined the interior, but even her packet of tissues were limp from the rain.
Jean-Luc gave her a puzzled stare.
“By the time I get out, it’s going to look like you’ve driven through a river.” She groaned. “And that can only mean I resemble a drowned rat.”
He smiled at her, his dark eyes glinting with amusement and her heart fluttered.
“I think we’ve already covered that a drowned rat isn’t the image that springs to mind.” His gaze swept over her, and she grew warm. “La naïade would be more appropriate.”
Berating herself that she was as bad as her mother if she fell at the feet of the first handsome guy who came to her rescue, Madeleine grasped at the opportunity to change the conversation.
“I suppose you would call it a water nymph or sprite. My mother had a fascination for Melusine, a naïade who married a mortal man. When we were children, she would always tell us about the various legends surrounding Melusine throughout Europe.”
For a moment Madeleine could imagine the small boy, listening intently, his tousled black hair, tanned skin, and eyes so dark they would melt the heart of the sternest mother.
“Was the sprite French?”
“No, I think she originated from Eastern Europe, but the story in France is she married a man on the condition he couldn’t see her one night a week.”
“When presumably she turned into a mermaid.”
“Actually she had the tail of a serpent, not a fish.”
He glanced at her again, the smile replaced by mocking curiosity. “You do not think they lived happily ever after?”
“Not in my experience.”
Dark eyebrows raised slightly, and in that one sexy expression, Madeleine forgot all about the boy and fully appreciated the man beside her. A shiver went down her spine. He adjusted the car’s heating. She didn’t tell him that her reaction had nothing to do with the cold.
“He did what no one should ever do. He listened to gossip.” Jean-Luc spoke almost to himself. For a fraction of a second, Madeleine had the impression he spoke from experience, but one glance at his impassive face and she decided she’d imagined it.
“Her husband was jealous, convinced she was having an affair. Instead of leaving her alone as she had asked, one night he hid and watched her bathe. It was the last time he saw her. Rumour has it she still haunts the tower at Lusignan, though I think the original castle has long since been destroyed.”
“Who cursed her in the first place?”
“Figures. I often think my mother’s done the same to me.”
He laughed, his deep tone reverberating inside the car. His smile was infectious, and Madeleine smiled back, pushing worries about where they were headed to the back of her mind.
“She cannot be that bad. You are going to stay with her, after all?”
“Don’t you believe it. I said I was on my way there, not the reason why.” The upturn of her mouth softened the sharpness of her tone. “My mother always manages to turn my holidays into rescue missions from whichever desolate country she’s living in.”
“Not quite how they describe France in the tourist brochures.” His sardonic tone nagged at her conscience, and words of contrition rushed to her lips. “Perhaps you don’t appreciate how much your mother misses you.”
She almost choked with indignation on her apology. Drop dead gorgeous or not, he’d just slid right down to lukewarm on the hot scale.
“Enough about mine. Does your mother still tell the story?”
“Not anymore.” The inflection in his voice made Madeleine turn towards Jean-Luc, his jaw was tight and his gaze firmly on the road ahead. In a split second he had become distant. “She died ten years ago.”
Guilt flooded Madeleine. He didn’t know what a nightmare her mother was. Perhaps not having one anymore was reason enough to defend someone else’s.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to pry.” Goosebumps spread out over her arms as the distance between them stretched further than the physical separation of the two front seats.
Jean-Luc changed the subject back to more neutral ground. “Don’t worry about the car. It’s had worse. It’s one of the reasons I use it in bad weather. Anyway, the seats are leather, and they dry quickly.”
Had he felt the loss of connection, too? “I thought the rain was exceptional—are you saying this is normal?”
“It can be, particularly at this time of year, but do not despair. The weather is supposed to clear this evening, and there will be blue skies for your holiday.”
Ancient rooftops and turrets broke into the view of the valley beyond, a tall church spire at the centre. Before they reached the village nestled below the road, the car slowed, and Jean-Luc turned right. Awe filled Madeleine as they drove under an archway and past an enormous pair of gates, their intricate iron work weaving an abstract pattern that seemed to neither stop nor start at any particular point.
A long drive stretched ahead, flanked on either side by lime trees, their leaves swaying from heavily pollarded branches in the wake of the SUV. At the end of the private road stood a chateau, its round towers rising majestically into the stormy sky.
Jean-Luc pulled to halt in front of the building. Austere, flat grey stone loomed over them, eerily lit by flashes of lightning. Despite the bad weather, or maybe because of it, the effect was like its inhabitant. Imposing, yet immensely entrancing.
“Wow!” Madeleine leaned forward and peered upwards through the windscreen. “Not what I expected. Have you lived here all your life?”
“Yes.” At the proud note in Jean-Luc’s voice, Madeleine turned her head towards him, only to find he was much closer than she thought. The scent of his aftershave mixed with the smell of summer rain had her senses running into overdrive.
“I forget sometimes how splendid it is when you see it for the first time.” He spoke softly, his eyes darkening as his gaze captured hers, and suddenly Madeleine wasn’t sure if he was talking about the chateau or her.
A wave of unexpected desire hit her. She could feel the warmth of his body as it radiated across from the driver’s seat. The car’s spacious interior became as cramped as her Peugeot. Her mouth went dry. Then heat surged into her cheeks. He’d seen her reaction.
Madeleine’s breath caught in her throat. She broke eye contact and reached awkwardly for the door handle. “It’s amazing. I can’t wait to see it close up.” Madeleine kept her gaze on the car door interior, knowing if she turned around she would see an amused tilt to Jean-Luc’s mouth. She was running. He knew it. She knew it.
The sound of his mobile phone vibrating stopped her from making more of fool of herself than she had already.
“Saved by the bell?” The slight challenge in his voice was all Madeleine needed to make a hasty escape.