Return to the enchanting Chateau Vauquelin in a tale filled with intrigue and passion, as a century-old mystery resurfaces in the bustling streets of modern-day Paris.
Gatecrashing a high-society wedding at Chateau Vauquelin isn’t Celeste Morel’s finest hour. But it’s her last chance to find the secret papers hidden within the chateau’s deep walls. Documents that might prove whether Madame Duval left Paris alive nearly ninety years ago, or if she was murdered by the previous owner. And the plan would have worked, if only the best man hadn’t confiscated them.
Nick Magnani is fighting his way through France’s famous bureaucracy. So, it’s something of an irony that he’s now withholding papers from the one woman in Paris who has the connections he needs to secure his latest venture. But, amid their heated exchanges, the chemistry that has been sizzling ever since Nick and Celeste met ignites, intensifying their tumultuous relationship.
Despite Nick’s reservations, Celeste delves deeper into the secrets of the past, only to discover the papers hold more than just Madame Duval’s fate. As Celeste and Nick unlock a Pandora’s box of revelations, they become entangled in a dangerous web of passion, betrayal, and corruption—that someone will do anything to keep quiet.
Read the first chapter now…
AS HER FOOT touched the first step, Celeste breathed a sigh of relief. She’d made it this far. Only a little bit further and she’d be inside.
She looked back to where she’d come from out of the forest. The snow was broken in places with grass stems poking through, but hopefully if someone noticed they’d think it was just a passing deer.
A shiver ran across her shoulders. It was unseasonably cold, even for late December, and her thin jacket was no match for the north wind, but if she was to blend into the society wedding unnoticed, she couldn’t arrive in her thick duffle coat.
It was today or never. This was probably the last time she’d have an opportunity to search the chateau before the hotel opened in a few days.
The terrace at the top of the steps had been cleared. She pitied the bride who had to stand out here for photos in the icy air. To the left of the paved area was an alcove flanked by large potted plants wrapped in winter fleece. The perfect cover for changing her shoes.
Balancing on one foot at a time, she slipped her feet out of her boots and into the high heels she carried in her tote. Stuffing the bag into one of the boots, she placed the pair of them out of sight behind a large stone pot. With luck, the shelter of the house would keep the insides dry until she returned. If not, it was going to be an even colder walk back through the forest.
Spying a door slightly ajar on the terrace, she made her way over, mindful that at any moment she might be seen. Her heart thumped in her chest. Nerves were getting the better of her, but she’d made it to the building without being discovered. It would be foolish to back out now, with the open door just a step or two away.
The strains of a band playing drifted out onto the terrace, and inside she could see people dancing. This was the perfect opportunity. She would look like a guest who had stepped outside for a moment. The warmth of the room beckoned her.
She took a deep breath and walked through the door.
La vie en rose. A wry smile came to her lips. Americans. They were suckers for corny tunes. And Parisians were happy to take their dollars and provide them. But the bride looked beautiful. And very, very happy. A twinge of envy tugged at her heart. Had she looked like that once?
“Madame?” A waiter paused beside her. She took a glass of champagne from his proffered silver tray.
“Merci,” she said before he disappeared into the throng of people just a short distance away.
Taking a sip, her gaze was drawn back to the bride swirling around, the handsome groom seemingly entranced with the vision in his arms. Merde, Celeste, get a grip. Now is not the time to get distracted by the past. Although ironically that was exactly why she was here.
She wove her way through the guests towards a pair of grand, ornate doors that she prayed led to the main foyer. In her pocket was a rough sketch of what she hoped would be the route to the room she was looking for.
Natalie had derided her when she came home with a stack of magazines promoting the rich and the famous’ newest luxury getaway just outside Paris. Especially when she realised that Celeste was using them to draw a detailed layout of how it was now, and how it might have been eighty years ago using books she’d found in the library.
But the homework would pay off today when she didn’t know how long she’d have before someone questioned exactly what she was doing. There was no time to waste. Even once she found the entrance to the tunnel, she’d probably still need an hour or so to locate the gap in the wall and retrieve the papers. If they were there, she reminded herself.
Celeste stopped near the main doors, placing her back against the wall. She let her gaze roam around the room. Had anyone noticed her? No. She didn’t think so.
“I don’t know what Nicky’s going to do now Alex is married.”
The woman’s voice drifted up from one of the tables nearby. Celeste’s gaze flicked automatically to the happy couple on the dance floor. Perhaps there was nothing to be envious about after all. A little sadness entered her heart. Sorrow for the bride.
“Those boys have been as thick as thieves for so long now it’s hard to imagine them growing up and having families of their own.”
Ah. That would teach her to listen to other people’s conversations. A bad habit she’d picked up as the middle child. From the balcony of her parents’ apartment, she could hear everything from her brothers’ rooms on either side. And she hadn’t been above using the information to her advantage when they were younger.
“Nicky’s thinking about babies? I didn’t even know he had a girlfriend.”
“Oh, I’ve given up on that boy. He’s always done everything in his own sweet time. Stubborn as a mule and just as temperamental.” She laughed, taking the sting out of her words. “No. My big hope for grandchildren is Suzy. She keeps on telling me she’s putting her career first for a while, but I’m always reminding her she’s not getting any younger.”
Celeste choked on her champagne mid-sip and the woman twisted around in her chair and smiled. “Not dancing?”
Mon Dieu. She needed to get a move on before anyone else noticed her. The woman was obviously close to the groom, who according to the magazines was also the CEO of the hotel group.
She cleared her throat. “I’m waiting for my friend. I’ll just go and see where he’s got to.”
Turning, she rushed out of the room and into the foyer before the heat rising in her cheeks gave her away as the liar she was.
An expanse of marble flooring lay in front of her, while a grand staircase that parted on a mezzanine floor above and swept down either side of the central hall completed the feeling of opulence. A reception desk to one side was the only concession to the area’s modern purpose, but other than that Celeste could imagine that little had changed from how it might have looked nearly a century ago.
Fortunately for her, many of the guests were mingling out here, where it was quieter and easier to talk. She walked between the two staircases and found a bench tucked away behind the stairs, providing her all the privacy she needed to pull out her sketch and decide which path to take next.
To her right was a lounge area with a bar, and further down she could see the door that led to the library. In the photos of the magazines it had a billiards table in it, too, and the hollow sound of a cue hitting a ball confirmed her sketch to be correct. Which meant the restaurant and then the kitchens were on the opposite side next to the ballroom.
She studied the double doors at the end of the corridor, and her heart beat a little faster as adrenalin started to course through her veins. The room she was searching for, the salon, was beyond those doors. Was the room in use today or would it be locked?
Celeste breathed in deeply. There was only one way to find out.
Her heart hammered in her chest with anticipation. There was no one in the corridor, but that could change at any time and she might lose her moment to discover what lay beneath these walls.
Forcing herself to take a step forward, Celeste jumped as loud laughter came from the billiard room. Someone glanced up as she passed the doorway, but his attention was quickly drawn back to the game in front of him.
Marble flooring had given way to plush carpet that was soft underfoot and thankfully quiet. She reached the double doors and stood before them for a moment, trying to find the courage to go in. One step closer to her journey’s end. Except what if someone was using the room? She could hardly go in and start searching for the entrance to the secret passageway.
Although it had been mentioned in one of the articles she’d read, so maybe guests would expect the whole tour. Stop stalling and get on with it. She reached out and twisted the golden doorknob. The door opened easily to reveal the room just as it had looked in the glossy pages of the celebrity magazine. And best of all, no one else was there.
Her shoulders relaxed with relief while her stomach muscles tightened with a twinge of excitement. This was it. The lever should be right under the fireplace canopy according to a newspaper clipping she’d read.
Carefully closing the door behind her, Celeste walked across the room straight towards the fireplace. A fresh flower arrangement filled the area where the log fire should have been. That was one problem she hadn’t considered. Would she have been able to reach the lever if the fire had been lit?
Celeste groaned at her stupidity. She didn’t even know yet if she could reach the lever, fire or no fire.
She leant in, placing a hand for balance on the fireplace surround, and reached up with her other hand.
“I think you’ll find the lever you’re looking for is a little more to the left.”
Celeste jumped at the unexpected voice.
The deep voice with a hint of an American accent sent a shiver down her spine. She straightened but didn’t turn around, giving herself time to think.
She could bluff this. She just needed to stick to her plan. She was a guest of the bride looking for a little excitement. Perhaps she didn’t speak any English? Maybe that would get rid of him.
NICK LEANT AGAINST the jamb of the door and enjoyed the view. He’d been following her curvaceous behind ever since she’d stepped into the ballroom. Right now, stuck out to one side as she reached under the fireplace canopy, was the best view so far.
Just when he was starting to think she hadn’t heard him, she whirled around. “Pardon monsieur. Je ne comprends pas.”
She gave a cute shrug at the end as if to emphasise her point. Had they been anywhere else, and with this much drink inside of him, he probably wouldn’t have bothered to argue with her. But this was his best friend’s wedding, in a hotel they’d both fought hard to protect from unwanted press coverage. Someone snooping raised a big red flag.
“Nice try, but since you’ve been talking to guests I know for a fact don’t speak French, try again.” He stepped inside the door and closed it behind him. “You can start by telling me who you are.”
She paled a little, but held her ground as he walked towards her.
She held out her hand, but he ignored it.
“What are you doing here?”
Her hand fell to her side, and she raised her chin defiantly. She might have hoped to brazen her way through this, but she was about to be disappointed.
“The same as everyone else. My date is a friend of the bride.” She glanced over his shoulder towards the door. “I really should rejoin the celebrations. He’ll be wondering where I am.”
She moved to go around him, but Nick reached out and placed his hand on her forearm, effectively pausing her mid-step. Gently, but firmly, he pulled her back in front of him.
“We both know there’s no date. No connection to the bride. No invite.”
She opened her mouth to deny the accusation but pressed her lips inwards as he continued.
“Security has been keeping a track of you ever since you stepped out of the forest. Any other time you’d have been stopped long before you made it through the terrace doors.”
“Why let me get this far?” Brown eyes challenged him.
“Let’s just say you piqued my interest.”
He caught the momentary flare of her irises. Yep. She definitely piqued something. The truth was he thought it would be more discreet. He could just picture the look Chantal would give him as security guards swarmed all over the venue if their interloper decided to make a run for it. It was easier to catch her away from the guests. After all, how much trouble could one woman cause?
He looked around the room. “Where’s your bag?”
Her brow creased in a frown. “I don’t have one.”
“You were definitely carrying something across the ground.”
She huffed and pulled her arm away from his grasp. “Just my tote with my shoes inside. I left it outside.”
“So what have you done with your camera?”
“Why gatecrash a wedding if it’s not to get pictures?”
She placed her hand on her chest and let out a dramatic sigh. “I couldn’t bear that the groom was marrying someone else, and I thought if he saw me on the big day he’d realise the mistake he was making.”
Nick’s lips twitched in amusement. “I think you watch too many movies.”
She laughed. “Probably.” Raising her chin, she met his gaze dead on. “Seriously, I don’t have a camera. Your high society wedding secrets are safe with me.”
“Really. Listen, I know I’m in the wrong. I’m sorry, but this was my last chance. I meant no harm. I just wanted to take a look, you see.”
“At the chateau?”
“No. The tunnel.” She gestured behind her.
“Book a room. I’m sure it will be on a tour.”
Her lips rose in a faint, mocking smile. “I don’t have that kind of money.” She shook her head a little as if the situation frustrated her. “And even if I did, it might be too late.”
Nick frowned. “Okay—back up a bit. I think you’ve missed some key information. Why would it be too late? How do you know it’s not too late now?” He tilted his head. “And exactly what do you hope to find?”
“Just some papers.”
She shrugged as if they were of little consequence, her gaze wide and innocent. If it wasn’t for the fact that he could see in the mirror above the fireplace that she’d crossed her fingers behind her, he might have fallen for it.
“And what are the papers going to reveal?”
“Nothing. Only they’ve come up in part of my research and I thought it might be fun to retrieve them if they were still there.”
Nick narrowed his gaze on her. “Fun? To masquerade as someone else. To walk around a stranger’s property uninvited. Not to mention gatecrashing a wedding.”
“Hmm.” Her nose wrinkled just a fraction. “Technically I’m not masquerading, because I was always here as me.”
He shook his head in disbelief and tried again. “What are the papers about? Exactly.”
“Well, I don’t really know. But does it matter? Can’t I take a look and see?”
“No. How do I know that it’s not a long-lost will and you’re about to make a claim that you were wronged out of your inheritance?”
“Me!” Her eyebrows stretched upwards in surprise. “No, not me. It’s not anything like that. French inheritance laws don’t work the same as in America. You’re safe. It’s not a will. It concerns a woman who used to live here many years ago.”
“And how do you know about the papers?”
She sank down into the armchair behind her. “I’m not making much sense, am I?”
He was glad she’d suggested it. He was starting to think he really had drunk more alcohol than he’d realised.
“Okay, let me start again. I’m not a reporter or whatever it is you think I am. I write people’s memoirs. Not famous or notable people, but for ordinary, everyday people. I was given a box of correspondence, and after going through it I think there may be letters or papers hidden in the tunnel.”
“No, they were friends. Trusted friends.”
Nick ran a hand through his hair. If this was her idea of a better explanation, then heaven help them. He sat down in the chair adjacent to her. “So some ordinary person has letters hidden in a secret tunnel in a chateau? Doesn’t sound so ordinary to me.”
Her mouth twisted into half a smile. “Well, maybe not ordinary. The company I work for charges them a small fortune.”
He took in her attire. He was no expert, but he’d lay money she didn’t get to see much of the fee.
“So does your firm encourage illegal behaviour?”
“I shouldn’t think so. But they don’t know. No one knows.”
Nick stared at her. Finally, he could see it dawn on her what she’d just told him.
“Well, except Natalie, the woman I share my apartment with,” she blustered. “So if I don’t return, she’ll raise the alarm.”
“I’d like to be at the end of that conversation with the police.”
“Oh, not the police. My brothers. But she’s under strict instructions only to call them as a last resort.”
“Bail you out often, do they?”
There was that tight-lipped expression again. He was starting to recognise it every time he asked a question she didn’t want to answer. He scraped a palm over his face. This wasn’t his problem. He should just have security escort her off the premises and forget all about her. He had enough on his plate to get everything in order to handover to his replacement. This was the first night he’d had off in ages, and clearly working too hard was affecting his judgement.
Nick glanced across at her. Head bowed, hands clasped in her lap. It was the quietest she’d been since he’d walked into the room. Hell. The booze was making him sentimental.
“Older or younger.”
“One of each.”
He went warm as her gaze roved over him, sizing him up.
“But you could definitely take them on.”
He wasn’t fooled by that innocent expression for one moment. The woman was positively dangerous. He loosened his collar. Damn monkey suit was starting to get on his nerves.
He leant forward, placing his elbows on his knees. “Have you any idea how long the tunnel is? What were you going to do, stay in there for the next week searching?”
“Don’t be silly. There’s a marker on the stone.”
“And in the decades in between, you don’t think anyone else has discovered it? Let alone our own workmen.”
Her shoulders slumped a little and he felt bad for deflating her confidence, but seriously the woman was crazy. He couldn’t believe she’d gatecrashed a wedding just to look for a bunch of letters.
She threw up her arms in a gesture of helplessness. “Well, I had to try to see if they were there. Otherwise, it would be the big what-if question mark over the rest of my life.”
Nick gave her dramatic outburst the hard stare it deserved. Yep, certifiably crazy. His gaze dropped to the floor. And maybe so was he.
“Okay. Let’s take a look.”
The look of joy on her face was so bright it could put the sun to shame.
She reached across and clasped one of his hands in both of hers. “Oh, thank you. You won’t regret it.”
So why did he have the feeling those words were going to come back and haunt him?
Out 19 October 2021—Pre-order your copy today!