In the glittering world of the South of France, where secrets lie behind every corner and passion burns hotter than the Mediterranean sun, Evie Madison finds herself at a dangerous impasse when love, betrayal, and a stolen ruby pendant intertwine in a web of intrigue.
Life took a sharp turn for Evie Madison the night her grandmother’s precious ruby pendant was brutally stolen. Now, ten years later, the opportunity to reclaim it emerges, and Evie can’t resist the temptation of stealing it back.
But fate has a twisted sense of humour, and the first person she encounters after the theft is none other than Raphael Dauphin—the enigmatic French property magnate who shattered her heart when he vanished from her life that very same night a decade ago.
In a dangerous game of deception and desire, Raph seizes the chance to draw Evie into his world. Amidst the encroaching threat of security guards hot on her trail, he proposes a risky solution: become his fake fiancée in exchange for his protection. A charade, which Raph convinces himself, is only a means to an end, a way to secure a crucial property deal on the French Riviera.
But as their sizzling chemistry reignites, Evie’s dark past resurfaces, and she realizes that her life is threatened once again. With danger closing in, Evie and Raph must confront their tangled emotions and work together to survive, navigating a treacherous journey filled with betrayal, lies, and stolen moments of passion.
Will they be able to break free from the past and find true love amidst the chaos, or will the secrets they keep tear them apart forever?
“Sara Claridge weaves a tale that is equal parts adventure, drama, and romance. Her masterful storytelling will transport you to the sun-soaked shores of the Mediterranean, where the stakes are high, and true love hangs in the balance.”
Read the first chapter now…
RAPH WOULD RECOGNIZE those blue eyes anywhere. Shimmering like a field of flax on a summer’s day, her gaze held him captive as it scoured the crowded marketplace. Her face might have been partially concealed by the rack of clothes she crouched behind, but he would never forget the colour of those eyes.
What the hell was she doing here in this small Spanish town? He hadn’t seen her at the villa, so she wasn’t one of Etienne’s guests. Unless he’d kept her hidden in his room. The thought riled him, even after all this time.
He ran a finger round the inside of his collar, easing his shirt away from his neck. It was only half past ten, but already the stifling temperature made him long to be gone from here and travelling down the coast road back into France. A sea breeze was just what he needed to clear his mind.
But first he had a question to be answered.
Pushing through the throng of people bustling down the main aisle of the market, he walked over to the makeshift clothes stall. She was so preoccupied watching the crowds as they milled about that she didn’t notice him as he stood opposite her on the other side of the metal garment rail.
Her eyes widened in surprise, and a small gasp fell from her lips as she turned towards him. She recovered quickly, slipping on the sunglasses that dangled in her hand and schooling her face into a blank expression.
“Pardon Monsieur, vous me prend pour quelqu’un d’autre.”
He smiled to himself. Her French hadn’t improved much over the years, but her light, lyrical voice was still the same.
“Chérie—” He held his fist over his chest, feigning distress, and switched to English. “Don’t break my heart all over again by saying you’ve forgotten me?”
She didn’t acknowledge his words but turned her gaze back to the busy market square with the customary haughtiness he’d once seen as a challenge to break through and make her smile.
A trader called out from a nearby stand and drew his thoughts momentarily away from her. With hands heavily tanned from years in the sun, the vendor offered passers-by a taste of his melons, picked that morning. Their pink flesh looked cool and tempting on the tray.
Thirsty, he swallowed hard and stared back at Evie. In profile, she was more beautiful than ever. He used to spend hours tracing the outline of her face with his fingers. Over her brow, down her slim, straight nose, into her cupid’s bow and across those soft sensuous lips.
His voice was husky when he spoke again. “Surely you haven’t forgotten us.” That got her attention.
She pushed her sunglasses back on top of her head. Ice cold eyes met his. It should have been enough to chill him, even in this heat, but he’d hardened his heart against Evie a long time ago.
“Sorry, my mind’s a complete blank.” A polished smile accompanied her words.
“Would you like me to refresh it?” He kept his tone low, seductive, although it irked him that maybe he wasn’t as memorable as he thought. Had she really forgotten him?
“Go away,” she said in a loud whisper. A faint blush spread across her cheeks, and she lowered her head, causing the sunglasses to drop over her eyes. She started to flick furiously through the clothes in front of her.
He reached over and placed his hand on hers, stilling the sound of hangers scraping along the metal rail. “That’s no way to greet an old friend.”
She snatched her hand back. “We’re not friends!”
“D’accord, you’re right. Lovers, then. Do you spurn all those you cast aside?”
At Evie’s sharp intake of breath, his heart-rate sped up as he recognised the desire that his words had sparked inside of her.
“Raph, I don’t have time for this.”
His ego was appeased. “So you do remember my name?”
She sighed. The sound escaping her lips triggered images he’d long since pushed to the back of his mind. He could almost smell the cut grass they’d lain on when they’d first made love.
He shut the memory down. She wasn’t the person she had pretended to be. Not the sweet siren who’d lured him in with a dark promise in her eyes, but a manipulative socialite ready to swap men as easily as she changed dresses.
“What are you doing here?” It was the last place he would ever have expected to see her. This Spanish town was a million miles from her parent’s country estate in Oxfordshire, itself just an hour from the party life she frequented in London.
“Minding my own business.”
Raph smiled. He’d always admired her dry wit. “Since when?”
“Ha ha, very funny.” She looked away, disinterested, and continued scanning the market. “I seem to recall it was you who constantly interfered in other people’s lives.”
He might have only known Evie for a few short weeks, but he could see she was dodging the question. What was it she didn’t want him to know? Despite Evie’s independent streak, there was one person she rarely refused. “Let me take a wild stab in the dark—Tristan has you running errands for him again?”
Her gaze flew up to meet his over the top of her sunglasses. Et voilà. Some things never change.
She sighed again. “Just go away, Raph. It’s complicated and I don’t need the distraction.”
The sound of footsteps approaching from the alleyway behind made her glance over her shoulder. She pulled the canvas bag she held closer, positioning it between herself and the rack of clothes. Her chest rose and fell rapidly as her breathing increased. The glimpse of fear in Evie’s eyes before she pushed her glasses back up her nose, made his own muscles tense in response.
As the footsteps drew nearer, Evie stepped further into the market stall. The edge of the tent obscured her from being seen by anyone coming in that direction. When a couple of tourists came around the corner, she let out a sigh of relief. He didn’t know why she was nervous, but he could guarantee who was behind it.
His anger grew as her body language relaxed. Raph gripped the rail and leant over. “Who forces someone to do something that clearly terrifies them?”
A defiant gaze met his blazing one. “You wouldn’t understand.”
“Try me.” He wasn’t sure he wanted to know what Tristan had her doing this time, but whatever it was, it scared her.
Raph never understood why she was always so eager to appease her brother. The guy deserved to have some sense knocked into him, not to have a hold over people.
“Evie, I’m waiting.”
“I don’t answer to you.”
He leant away. No, she never did. And he told himself that he didn’t care after the last time he’d seen her, wrapped around Etienne. He’d walked out of the party that night and headed straight back to France.
Seemingly recovered from her fright, she picked up a hanger off the rack and held the dress to her, covering the white blouse and black skirt she wore. She whipped off her sunglasses and glanced down briefly at the garment before sweeping her eyes upwards to the market square, surveying the crowds with intent.
He studied her face. Despite the stress lines that marred her forehead, the years had been kind to her. She looked closer to twenty-one than the nearly thirty he knew her to be. But something was different, if only he could lay his finger on it.
Her hair was scraped back tight into a ponytail, and she’d always worn it loose before, the honeyed strands floating down over her shoulders. The first time they’d met, he’d thought of her as an angel of mercy, standing above him asking if he was okay after she’d knocked him over.
“Do you speak Spanish?”
For a moment he didn’t register her question because he’d been so lost in the past. “A little.”
“Good.” She nodded over at the market stall holder. “Tell her I want to buy the dress.” Lifting the slip of cotton she held in her hands, she continued handing out orders. “And ask if there’s somewhere I can change into it.”
“Oui, madame.” He made a courtly bow. “Anything else?”
Evie unfastened her bag and pulled out her purse. Her demeanour changed from one of superiority to embarrassed resignation as she searched the numerous pockets within the leather wallet. She paused, as if deliberating with herself, and a faint blush stole over her cheeks.
“I don’t suppose you could pay for the dress, too?”
Raph raised an eyebrow in response and turned towards the vendor. It didn’t even occur to him that she would give him the cash. He’d taken enough women shopping to know that he was expected to provide the funds, which was fine by him, so long as he got a say in the choice of lingerie.
After some haggling, he handed over a twenty euro note and returned to where Evie stood. The aloofness of earlier was gone, and she seemed more like the Evie he’d first met in Hyde Park all those years ago.
“I’m so sorry. I could have sworn I had more in my purse than a few euros.” An apologetic smile crossed her lips.
He needed to steel himself against getting caught up with her again and remember that the soft, defenceless personality she did so well was all an act. “Ah, chérie, and I thought you got your kicks taking rich guys for a ride.”
She frowned at him. Perhaps the comment was harsh, but meeting Evie unexpectedly had knocked him sideways.
“Alors. It was twenty euros, Evie. Forget it.” He peered over the rail between them, taking in the shoddiness of her clothes. “What happened to your usual Chanel outfit?”
She glanced down and pulled a face. When she looked up again, her eyes held an air of indifference. “I’m travelling light.”
A derisive laugh escaped his mouth. He could argue with her, but what was the point? Instead he nodded towards the inside of the stall. “She said if you go to the rear there is a small curtained area. You can change in there.”
Evie squeezed around the rack of clothes, clutching her bag tight against her body. Just what, or who, was she hiding from?
“Should I wait for you?” he called after her.
She kept walking, but her words floated back to him. “Suit yourself.”
He watched as she sashayed away from him. It didn’t matter that the skirt she wore was ugly. He was too mesmerised by the gentle sway of her hips to care.
Putain. Unfaithful or not, he still wanted her. Merde, he was in trouble.
EVIE TUGGED THE curtain across and quickly undressed. She wrinkled her nose in distaste at the dress she’d just bought. Correction. At the dress Raph had bought.
The devil had nothing on Raphael Dauphin. She’d fallen hard for those sinful good looks once before and vowed to never again. She may have been a naive nineteen-year-old when they last met, but she wasn’t the same foolish girl dreaming of a knight in shining armour.
She sighed. And yet here she was accepting his help once again. Even if it was only money for a cotton sundress. Her fingers shook as she buttoned up the front. A mixture of adrenaline and shock made it hard to process the last couple of hours.
From the moment she’d stepped out of Etienne’s bedroom, she’d been watching her back, convinced that any second he would corner her to demand what she was up to. But he hadn’t appeared, and making her escape into the town had been easy. If only she’d thought more about how she would get to the mainline train station at Perpignan.
She stepped to one side and studied her appearance in the mirror. The dress was fine, but she needed to do something about her hair. Reaching up, she pulled at the elastic band securing it. The blond mop fell across her face, and she mussed the heavy strands into place with her fingers.
Evie tilted her head. Did she look different enough? Well, it would have to do. There was no time to lose.
Placing the top and skirt she’d been wearing into the canvas bag, Evie dragged back the curtain and made her way to the front of the stall. Raph still stood there, his back to her. The pale-coloured shirt he wore stretched tightly across his broad shoulders as he crossed his arms in front.
He turned as she approached, and a warmth grew inside of her at his lazy perusal as it travelled slowly up her legs, over the figure hugging dress, until he fixed his gaze on hers. She tried to meet his cool appraisal with one of her own, but the heat suffusing her cheeks ruined the effect. Damn the man.
“You’re still here?”
“It seems I am.”
She wasn’t going to brush him off easily. The Raph of old always did as he pleased. He was unmovable if he’d made up his mind to do something. At nineteen she’d found it manful and enthralling, but at twenty-nine it was insufferable.
“What will it take to get rid of you?”
“For you to tell me why you’re here.”
“I’ve told you it’s none of your business.”
“I’m making it mine.”
She raised her eyes skyward. Arguing with him wouldn’t get her anywhere. “Really?”
He uncrossed his arms and took her hand in his, pulling her to him. She’d forgotten how delicate he made her feel, despite being five foot ten.
His lips tilted up. A flash of white teeth and the glint in his eyes reminded Evie she was dealing with a man who had no scruples. If she wasn’t going to get caught, she’d better keep her wits about her.
“Let’s just say I’m curious and don’t believe in coincidences.”
He rubbed a thumb across the top of her fingers, and her skin tingled at his touch.
“Coincidences?” The word came out more of a squeak than the casual tone she’d intended to inject.
“We don’t see each other for years, and suddenly you are in the market a short distance from the villa Etienne has rented out for a private party.”
Evie’s heart hammered in her chest. She willed it to slow down before Raph realised the effect his questioning was having on her. He wasn’t the only one who didn’t believe in coincidences.
“But you’re not shopping in the market. You are worried, and scared someone will find you.”
Her gaze flew back to his. She’d been staring out at the market again, checking that no one she recognised was there. His sardonic expression challenged her to deny it. Her heart stopped thumping. It stopped beating altogether as her breath caught in her throat.
“What wicked things have you been up to in that villa, little girl?” His voice was barely a whisper, almost as if it was a question to himself.
Evie willed herself to breathe. No way could he know what she’d done, but the icy fingers of fear were clawing at her heart. She’d waited ten long years for this opportunity. Was it possible that it would slip through her fingers in less than a second?
“Fortunately for you, I’m not inclined to let Etienne have everything his way.”
She released the breath she’d been holding.
“Come.” He pulled her out of the clothes stall. “Let’s find somewhere for a coffee. You and I are going to have a chat.”
Raph in an unrelenting mood was a dangerous beast. Even in her flat sandals, she found it hard to keep up with his long, determined strides.
As they neared the end of the market, two men appeared out of an alleyway further down. Evie froze. Their dark suits in the blazing sun gave them away; they were part of Etienne’s security team. Their heads turned as they scoured the stalls, and she knew exactly who they were looking for.
Raph’s hand tugged her forward, but she dug her feet in, refusing to move. He turned towards her, his eyebrows raised in a silent question as to what was going on. He opened his mouth to speak, but then swung his head around to follow the direction of her gaze.
She had no doubt he would know who the men were. She pulled at his hand, trying to release hers so she could run in the opposite direction, but he wouldn’t yield.
“Let me go.” She hissed at the back of his head, not daring to raise her voice for fear of bringing attention to herself. “Raph! Let go of my hand.”
He didn’t let go, but turned and pulled her to him instead. His large frame blocked her from the bodyguards’ view. She stared at the tanned vee of his neck, absorbing the heat that radiated from his body, and swallowed hard.
The deep timbre of his voice made the hair at her nape stand to attention. He looked down at her, and she lifted her head slightly to meet his gaze. She reeled at the annoyance she saw there.
His brow creased at the small gasp that slipped past her lips. Dark eyes that had once warmed her with their desire bored into hers, and her stomach flipped over at the hint of disappointment she glimpsed in them.
She hated that he looked at her that way. She’d done nothing wrong. Well, nothing really wrong.
He ran his finger across her cheek. “Are you running from Etienne?”
For a fraction of a moment, she’d felt safe, protected by Raph, but it was all a ruse. He might have come to her rescue here in the market, but only because he had other plans. There wasn’t much of a choice between him or Etienne. She should have followed her first instinct and run.
Her mouth went dry. “Sort of.”
A sinful smile crossed his lips, and a dangerous glint shone in his eyes. “Perfect.”
His voice was calm, but like the sea in these parts, the undercurrent was strong enough to drown a weaker person. A shudder went through her. She opened her mouth to take a deep breath, fully expecting to feel salty sea water rush in and fill her lungs. Instead, firm lips crushed against hers, and she was washed away on a tide of memories.
Her fingers gripped his shirt. The warmth from his skin seeping through the material reminded her of how she loved to trace her nails over the taut muscles of his stomach. Her lips tingled from the unrelenting pressure, and she gave in to his coaxing tongue, opening her mouth to let him deepen the kiss. She ignored the voice of sanity shouting for her to stop and leant in, desperate to absorb the heat of his body next to hers.
His left hand came up and cupped the back of her head, holding her steady as someone pushed past them. She cracked open her eyes a fraction and saw two dark suits heading off behind her. The moan of desire rising up within her turned into a squeak that caught in her throat. If it hadn’t been for Raph deliberately blocking her face, they’d have seen her.
He pulled away a fraction. “I’d like to think it was my kiss made you moan. Too bad it’s the act of the séductrice I know you to be.”
The husky whisper took the sting out of his words, silencing her. At least he hadn’t realised how much his kiss had affected her.
His hands pulled her close again. “They’re coming back. I think they’ve seen me.”
Fright forced her to pull against him. He held her tight. “I said me, not you.” She tucked her face away from the main thoroughfare and into the crook of his shoulder.
“Señor Dauphin, buscamos a esta mujer. Have you seen her?” The Spaniard switched to English, and Evie pictured the photo he probably held. The rather unflattering one she’d had taken at the photo booth in the hope that no one would recognise her face when her security pass for the villa was processed.
“No sorry, I’ve not seen her.” The vibration of Raph’s voice in his chest tickled against her cheek.
She prayed the guard wouldn’t question Raph’s authoritative tone and ask about the woman shielded in his embrace. It must have occurred to Raph, too, because he continued the charade, deflecting attention back to the photo.
“Has she done something wrong?”
Evie tensed. What would the bodyguard say? Would Raph still protect her once he knew?
“Nothing to worry about, Señor Dauphin. It’s a personal matter with Señor Castel. I am sorry to disturb you.”
A shout from the other side of the market drew the guard away, and Evie exhaled a sigh of relief. Raph pulled her closer for a second.
Embarrassment overcame anxiety, and she tried to force herself out of his embrace. “Raphael Dauphin, put me down before I…”
“Before you what, chérie?”
He lifted her chin, and her heart-rate sped up. Her breathing became fast and shallow under the heat of his steady gaze. Damn the man. She hadn’t seen him in almost a decade, and here she was acting like a naive teenager again. She opened her mouth to speak, but he silenced her with a finger to her lips.
“Would you like me to call them back?”
He wouldn’t dare, would he? She couldn’t take the risk. “What do you suggest?”
“My car is around the corner. We can be back in France in less than an hour.”
Talk about caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. She looked up at the hillside that towered over the picturesque port. She could just make out Etienne’s villa that commanded spectacular views of the Mediterranean. Despite the heat of the day, a shiver ran across her shoulders. She was fooling no one, least of all herself, if she thought she had choices.
“Okay. Let’s go.”