A sexy entrepreneur and a sassy interior designer clash over a beautiful Parisian chateau — until a lost memory threatens to destroy them all.
Chantal is in love… with a rundown chateau.
There’s just one snag.
The new owner, Alessandro Kirkwood, is planning to turn the once magnificent Chateau Vauquelin into a bland hotel for the rich and famous.
The only way for Chantal to save the chateau from further ruin is to win the interior design contract using her reputation as a successful designer with an obsession of bringing historic buildings back to their former glory.
However, persuading Alessandro that she’s the right person for the job isn’t easy. He thinks she’s just some poor little rich girl who will disappear when the going gets tough.
Fortunately for Chantal, he can’t resist her ideas.
After a disastrous engagement, Alessandro is sworn off women. Especially ones that work for him. Although something about the vulnerability he sees in the confrontational designer makes him want to break his self-imposed rule.
But a series of mysterious incidents at the chateau alters everything.
Now Chantal remembers more than she’ll admit about that fateful day her parents died.
And the memory makes her blood run cold.
Read the first chapter now…
IN THE DEAD of the night, Chateau Vauquelin stood cloaked in the shadows of the ancient forest that surrounded the country estate. The building’s beauty languished like an old gem amongst antique paste jewellery—forgotten, abandoned, and a little tired looking. Decades of neglect had dimmed its past glory.
Light coloured walls, stained from driving rain and dripping gutters, encased over eighty rooms. On the ground below, remnants of stonework, tiles and metal casements lay strewn across the terrace, a memorial to the roof turrets that once dominated the skyline.
Dense foliage grew freely in the formal gardens. A wrought iron arbour, which formed the entrance to the Italian sunken garden, was now broken and twisted, held together only by the thick stems of the wisteria it had supported for nearly a hundred years.
But on nights such as this, when the moonlight struck at a certain angle, the chateau lit up like a diamond. Darkness hid its flaws, and only the majestic elegance of the centuries gone by shone through. It was said, when the air was still, even the gentle ripple of the fountain could be heard.
An owl hooted and took flight. He left the protection of the tall cedar tree and swooped low over the roof of the chateau, the movement of his vast wing-span as silent as the night. Gliding smoothly through the cold winter’s air, he flew around the boarded up fountain and over the metal gates that barely hung onto their mountings, let alone the past.
Wings stretched forward, talons extended, he landed in a lilac tree beside a pair of tall glass doors on the west side of the chateau.
The nocturnal visitor blinked and stared at a narrow beam of light as it danced over the marble mantelpiece inside the chateau. A shadowy figure lifted a piece of paper, slightly torn and wrinkled, into the torchlight.
It showed a drawing of a fireplace, with handwritten annotations pointing to the location of a door catch hidden in the chimney breast above. Pushing the note into a pocket, the figure grasped the fireplace opening with one hand and reached up inside with the other.
Several moments passed before a panel in the wall less than a foot away cracked open. Driven by a greed greater than a fear of the unknown, the figure prised open the secret door and crept stealthily over the threshold. The glow from the flashlight revealed stone steps leading down to a dark oblivion just as the door swung shut behind them.
A TANTALISING GLIMMER of turquoise winked in the morning sun. Mentally cursing the thick coat and scarf that restricted her movements, Chantal stretched up as far as she could, not daring to let go of the ladder completely.
Almost there. The fine shards of paint rasped against the tips of her fingers. If only she could reach a little further to peel the layers of dull white paint away and find her first piece of concrete evidence as to what the room had once been like. Well, at least what it had been like sixty years ago. Going back five centuries would take a little more work.
“What the hell are you doing?”
The angry male voice startled her. She snatched her hand away and grasped the metal rung. The sudden movement caused the ladder to rock precariously. Her heart leapt into her throat. She touched the wall to steady the steps but only succeeded in tilting the ladder back the other way.
Putain. This was going to hurt. She pushed herself away from the metal rungs and hoped it wouldn’t fall on her. For a fraction of a second she felt as if she was floating down to the ground. At least if she died, it would be in splendour. She glimpsed a movement behind her, reflected in the large glass doors of the magnificent 16th-century chateau. Then the ground came up to meet her. Hard.
The parquet flooring forced the air out of her lungs so fast that the shock overrode the searing pain. She lay there for a moment, winded. Tentatively, Chantal moved her limbs and relaxed when she realised nothing was broken.
A man stood by her feet, a beanie hat pulled tight over his ears, reminding her she was no longer alone. Tension gripped her body again. From her position on the wooden floor, she saw only the guy’s face. His grey eyes perused her in the most insolent way. Finally, their gazes clashed.
She knew how she must look, sprawled across the floor, her coat burst open. It was then that she remembered her choice of jumper that morning and did a mental eye-roll. ‘Interior decorators do it all over the house’ was proudly emblazoned over her chest. A humorous gift from a friend. Not what she’d normally wear, but its thermal properties made the top the most practical garment for the job in today’s freezing temperatures.
He grinned. He actually grinned. Unbelievable.
“Were you planning on showing me more?”
Already annoyed at falling off the ladder, her irritation upped a notch. She held out her hand. “The least you could do is help me up.”
His warm, strong grasp spiked a tingle of awareness up her arm. She pulled her hand back. “On second thoughts, I’ll get myself up.”
She stood carefully and adjusted her clothing. His stare sent a prickly heat down the back of her neck, but he could just wait while she sorted herself out. When she glanced up, the grin had gone. His mouth held a firm straight line, and his eyes glinted with a steely determination.
Battles with bossy men didn’t scare her. She’d been doing it all life with her older brother.
“So, sweetheart. What’re you doing here?”
Did she detect an East Coast accent? Not that she’d met a lot of Americans.
“I’m nobody’s sweetheart.”
“You don’t say.” A glimmer of amusement came back into his eyes. He pushed his hands into the front pockets of his jeans and rocked back on his heels, waiting for her to answer.
She loosened her scarf, trying to keep her cool under his intense gaze. She had every right to be here, but somehow he made her feel guilty. “Research. And you?” She ran her fingers through her hair, shaking out the dust she’d collected from the floor.
“Research for what?”
An impatient sigh escaped her. What did it matter to him? “Colour.”
Perhaps he was security? Though she hadn’t been warned about any. She glanced at his clothing, vintage wash Hudson jeans, Belstaff jacket, and Caterpillar work boots. Not likely to be security. Probably a contractor. On a job as big as this, there were bound to be a few advisers that, like her, wanted to scout around before the demolition crew moved in.
“How’d you get in?”
Did he know how to have a normal conversation? A bonjour, and to ask if she was okay, wouldn’t have gone amiss. She fumbled in her right coat pocket and pulled out the heavy, elaborate piece of metal. “Key. And you?”
A slight feeling of unease came over her. Work hadn’t started on the chateau yet, and it hadn’t occurred to her to bring company. What if he wasn’t part of the renovation team?
“I didn’t need one. The door was open.” His voice was silky smooth, his accent softer, more cultured than before.
A cold sensation travelled down her spine. Had she remembered to tell Henrique where she was going when she left Paris this morning? She put her hand in the other pocket. Maybe she’d left her retractable knife in there. Her fingers felt nothing but lint.
He looked up at the wall to the patch of paint she’d been trying to reach. “What’d you find?”
“Quoi?” Her mind had been on saving herself from some deranged madman. His change in topic confused her.
“Colour. You said you were looking for colour. Since you were hanging off the top of a ladder risking your life, I presume you found something worth killing yourself for?”
Sarcasm aside, he sounded interested, which was weird. Most people thought her obsessive drive to understand a building’s interior and how it had transformed over the years pure folly, but in her experience it was the only way to bring a room back to life. Perhaps he was a regular mec after all.
“I don’t know. It was the first piece I’d found that appeared to go deep enough under the layers to be worth looking at when someone surprised me.” She bent down to pick up the ladder and repositioned it back against the wall.
“It’s just as well I came along. If you’d broken something, who knows how long you’d have lain there?”
Was he serious? “I wouldn’t have fallen off the ladder if you weren’t here.”
He cocked his head, as if to consider her statement. “If you still need to get up there, next time I suggest scaffolding.”
“It doesn’t matter. The decor is probably too modern for what I’m looking for. I need to take some cross sections back with me to go through the centuries.”
He scanned the room. It was devoid of anything except the ladder and her bag. “You don’t seem set up for heavy demolition work.”
“The cross sections are small samples from the wall. You don’t need lots of equipment. I just need to identify which walls are likely to be part of the original structure.” Even if she didn’t get the job, the opportunity to come inside Chateau Vauquelin and legitimately take samples for her collection was too much to resist. No way was he going to stop her.
A ringtone reverberated loudly, bouncing off the high ceiling. He pulled a phone out of the back pocket of his jeans and glanced at the screen before turning his back on her and answering the call.
“Hey.” The harder accent was back. “Yeah. I’m here now…”
His head tilted upwards. Chantal couldn’t tell if he was studying the ceiling or trying to concentrate on the caller. She pushed back the sleeve of her coat. Her wrist was starting to hurt. She hoped it was only bruised and not beginning to swell.
“…I don’t know, there’s an intruder.”
Chantal’s spine stiffened, and her head shot up. His voice sounded more intrigued than concerned.
“Nah. It’s nothing I can’t handle, just some babe with a thing for paint. I’ll see you later.” He hung up and turned around.
“I’m not an intruder. I’m the one with the key, remember?” She pulled her sleeve back down, irritation growing by the second at the babe remark.
“Doesn’t mean you’re not trespassing. So, who are you?” He folded his arms, emphasising his broad shoulders, and waited.
She shrugged. “I’m working on a speculative commission. A friend of mine is on the project and recommended me for the job. I want to get some hard evidence of how the chateau once looked before some corporation comes in and destroys a perfect piece of history by replacing it with some modern spa experience.”
“You got something against the spa experience?”
“I have a problem with someone taking something that could be magnificent and turning it into a bland, white plasterboard monstrosity. It doesn’t just lose its aesthetics, it loses its soul.”
“You’re the interior designer?”
She placed her hands on her hips, opening up her coat. He needn’t sound so incredulous. Why did everyone take one glance at her and presume that her petite stature affected her ability not just to do a job, but to do it well? The only person who never gave it a second thought was her boss. But then Henrique had known her all her life.
“The way you regarded me earlier, I thought you would have seen the shirt, or can’t you read? Oui. C’est moi.” She inclined her head. “And you are?”
“Alex Kirkwood.” He held out his hand.
Merde. He wasn’t a contractor. He was the owner.
A FLASH OF recognition crossed her hazel eyes, and Alessandro smiled to himself. He’d been at a disadvantage ever since he’d accidentally made her fall off the ladder. Perhaps if she’d been a bit less high-handed, he might have given her more sympathy.
To her credit she rallied quickly, taking his hand in her delicate one.
“Chantal Chevalier. Sorry, I didn’t realise.”
Was that a hint of contrition? He glanced at her face. Perhaps.
“There’s no reason you should recognise me. It’s my father who’s the face of the business.” But now that she knew his name, it was time for some real answers, not the oblique ones she’d dished out earlier. “Who gave you the key?”
“Pierre Bouchon, your architect.”
“I know who he is.” Judging by her expression, she was silently cursing him at his sardonic tone. Let her. He wasn’t going to put someone’s girlfriend on the project just because his architect wanted to keep his love life sweet.
“Pierre said he’d recommended us, and I wanted to come and explore the chateau to get some ideas together.”
“And the key?”
“He gave it to me last night on the understanding that I return it immediately.” She stared coolly at him.
Irritation crept in from nowhere at the thought of her having some tête-à-tête with the philandering Frenchman. Bouchon’s firm might be one of the best in Paris, but no way would Alessandro let the architect near his sisters.
“How do you know Pierre?” Annoyance made his tone harsher than he intended.
“He’s a friend of my boss, and I’ve worked on a couple of smaller commissions with him.”
Alessandro prowled around the room, considering his options before turning to her again. “Ever done anything as big as this?” He saw the hesitation in her eyes. Would she lie?
“I’ve been responsible for entire buildings, but nothing on this scale.”
Her honesty was refreshing.
“But I have a lot of experience with rooms in historic buildings that I think will be of benefit to this project.”
He raked his fingers through his hair. Given her resourcefulness at coming in before the wrecking crew, he didn’t doubt that her ideas would be better than Kirkwood’s in-house team. However, he had too much riding on this venture to take risks.
“At least give me a chance to show you my ideas before you dismiss them.”
She must have seen his hesitation.
“What do think you can offer that others can’t?” He gestured around the room. “What might you do in here, for instance?” It was totally unfair of him to ask her on the spot, when he hadn’t even given her the brief, but he was curious as to her response.
“I grew up in a chateau.”
He looked back sharply at her. Not the answer he expected.
“Oh, not as grand as this, but a chateau nevertheless. I appreciate their inner beauty and understand their faults.”
He felt sorry for her. She thought her revelation ticked a check box on suitability, but little did she know he’d just relegated her of the bottom of the pile. He’d met far too many rich girls floating their way through life doing a little work here and there. Louisa had taken him in once before. It wasn’t about to happen again.
Besides, he’d not only sunk a whole lot of cash to get this project off the ground, his pride was at stake, too. No way would he give his dad the opportunity to say I told you so.
Shit. She was still talking. “Sorry, what?”
She stared at him, not bothering to hide her disbelief at his ignorance. “I said, if you consider a lot of the hotels, even the more exclusive ones, they’re filled with the standard fare. Toile wallpaper, gilded mouldings, and crystal chandeliers. Every one like a set from Dangerous Liaisons.”
“I thought you’d be in favour of that.”
Her forehead creased in puzzlement.
“Not a piece of white plasterboard in sight.”
Her lips lifted into a slight smile, but it didn’t reach her eyes. She was only humouring him.
“I think it shows a lack of imagination. So much happened to this building during its history that it would be good to reflect some of the chateau’s character in the decor.”
“And how would you do that?”
“Pierre said that the hotel is to be a private affair. It will offer something a little different to wealthy clientele. Rather than turn the chateau into an eighty bedroom hotel, the number of rooms would be closer to ten.”
“That’s the general plan.”
“Then you can make each one individual, reflect the different periods of time. Fulfil people’s desires to experience something new, while providing a familiar environment that will keep them coming back.”
“At least until they try all ten rooms.” He couldn’t resist adding the gibe, even though her ideas had merit.
“Perhaps they’ll come back with different people. An hour out from Paris, it’s the perfect getaway for some.”
How very French to be so pragmatic. All along he’d thought about enticing America’s rich and famous, and yet she immediately saw an appeal to a market much closer to home.
He wondered what her perfect getaway might be. Despite the heavy clothing, there was definitely a moment as she lay on floor earlier when his body had reacted to the shape and vulnerability of hers. Too bad she wouldn’t be a contractor. This project consumed so much of his life that it would be easier to fit in a little pleasure at work, but then again he was supposed to be avoiding mixing the two for the foreseeable future.
“Why do you want this job?”
A wistful expression came over her face. “The same reason as you, I expect, Monsieur Kirkwood.”
“Alex, please.” It was always Alex. The carefree Alessandro had been left behind when he was appointed to the board of Kirkwood’s vast holdings. Not even Louisa had called him by his real name. Although he realised now that was because she only wanted to be associated with the public face of Alex Kirkwood.
“Alex. The reason’s simple—Chateau Vauquelin. I’ve always admired the architecture and the history behind the walls.”
Pulled from his thoughts, Alessandro focused on her words. He was so busy picturing her as a spoilt socialite playing at interior design, he hadn’t considered there might actually be chateau envy amongst the French elite.
“It’s a pet project of mine. I’m trying to collate data relating to French interior decor throughout the centuries. It’s also the reason Pierre let me come here to take some samples.”
He should have known, nothing so simple as envy for this lady.
“A room like this would be perfect to recreate in the Rococo style. Intimate paintings inside curved gold mouldings and delicate visions high up on the ceilings, starting in the corners and spreading out from there.”
“What about its more modern history? Which time periods would you choose for the east wing, for example?”
She didn’t hesitate. “The Twenties, not long after the war, when Monsieur Béringer bought it and started repairing the chateau. The east wing was relatively new. I’ve already taken some samples there this morning. It was a time of hope, of new beginnings, and from an interior design point of view extremely exciting. The momentum behind the Art Deco movement was underway, and it’s still a style that appeals to a vast following of people today.”
Her face glowed with enthusiasm, and he couldn’t help but push past his jaded side to be caught up in her excitement.
He chuckled. “I would think the disappearance and presumed murder of Madame Duval in 1936 would be more of a talking point.”
A haunted expression crossed her face. The gold flecks in her hazel eyes disappeared as her pupils dilated wide. What had he awoken with that innocent remark?
She turned away from him. “If that’s what you think would interest people more.” Her tone was stilted, as if she was trying to control her breathing.
He ran a hand though his hair. The woman’s moods changed so quickly it made him dizzy. But he couldn’t stop himself from laying a hand on her shoulder in concern.
She jumped violently, and he snatched his hand back.
“Excusez-moi.” She turned around, her eyes shimmering with unshed tears. “Sorry. I’m a little tired, and you surprised me.”
He didn’t buy it, but as the middle child with four sisters, he knew better than to push her flimsy excuse.
“So do we get an opportunity to pitch?”
That hopeful look returned to her eyes, and he felt like a bastard just for thinking no.
“With our ideas, you’ll breathe life back into the building and recreate an experience that will guarantee you are fully booked every night.”
“And not a piece of plasterboard in sight.”
A pink hue came over her cheeks. He couldn’t remember the last time a French woman had blushed in front of him. Nor an American one, for that matter. “Okay. Here’s my card. Make an appointment with my PA, and you can show me your ideas. I’m not making any promises, but I’ll give you a chance to see if you’re as good as you say.”
It went against his conscience to leave her there, but he needed to return to the city, and if taking the samples would impact positively on the project, then the businessman in him conceded defeat. She’d have been here alone anyway if he hadn’t arrived, so what difference did it make?
Walking back around the outside of the chateau, he glanced in through the french windows of the room he’d recently left. Chantal talked animatedly on her mobile. Excitement lit up her face and drew a smile to his lips. She was crazy, but passionate about the chateau and its history.
The image of her standing there bundled up in the most preposterous clothes, long blond hair in disarray, her cheeks flushed and a glint in her eyes, reappeared to him several times over the next few days. Maybe her passion for Chateau Vauquelin was reason enough to put her on the team. It would make a nice change from everyone just shaking their heads at his vision.
It would also allow him to find out what lurked behind the shadows in her eyes.