Exposed: Misbehaving with the Magnate (5 page)

BOOK: Exposed: Misbehaving with the Magnate
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She wasn’t.

Rafe wouldn’t like it. He wouldn’t want that kind of connection to Simone. For her part, Gabrielle didn’t particularly want to do business with Luc. Her feelings for Luc were complicated enough. Tying the growth of one’s business to the goodwill of a man she’d just been contemplating having a passionate and potentially short-lived affair with didn’t seem like a particularly sensible idea.

‘You can talk to me about that,’ she said guardedly. ‘Better still, why don’t I talk to Rafe and get back to you? You might not need to know about production schedules and estimates of vintage sizes at all.’

‘You don’t think he’d go for the idea?’ asked Luc.

‘I don’t know what he’d think,’ said Gabrielle. ‘Rafe’s not one for accepting charity. Or for becoming indebted to people.’ She was back to choosing her words carefully. ‘It’s a generous offer, Lucien, and I thank you for it. But I just don’t know if we can accept it.’ She smiled a little wryly. ‘Your father would turn in his grave.’

‘My father, for all his good points—and, yes, he did have some—was an extremely short-sighted man. He should have backed Rafe when he had the chance.’

But he hadn’t. The words lay there in the silence, all the more potent for remaining unsaid.

‘I’ll phone Rafe and put the notion to him,’ said Luc. And at Gabrielle’s open-mouthed astonishment, ‘What?’

‘You don’t think a mediator might come in handy?’ said Gabrielle. ‘I mean, you haven’t spoken to him in seven years and now all of a sudden this?’

‘What makes you think I haven’t phoned him in seven years?’ asked Luc curiously.

‘I, ah…Have you?’

‘Many times,’ he said, and at Gabrielle’s continued shock, ‘Which bit surprises you most? That Rafe and I have kept in contact or that you didn’t know about it?’

‘Both,’ she admitted baldly. Rafael had been so disillusioned when he’d left for Australia. Gabrielle hadn’t thought he’d kept in contact with
anyone
from
Caverness. Not Lucien, not Josien, and certainly not Simone. ‘What do you talk about?’

This time it was Luc’s turn to look wary. ‘Everything but sisters.’

 

As far as exquisite food and fabulous surroundings were concerned, the meal was a resounding success. By mutual, unspoken agreement they’d stripped the conversation of anything remotely concerning the past once they’d settled down to eat, concentrating instead on the present and the future. Simone expanded on her plans for the garden. Luc spoke of the experimental champagne varieties he hoped to trial once he acquired more land. They spoke of the changes that had taken place in the village over the last few years. The new priest, the newly formed men’s choir. The opera diva who’d purchased a crumbling chateau for a song and had kept the local tradesmen in work for years in her effort to restore it to its former glory. Her pockets were deep, according to Lucien. Her youthful face was a testimony to the marvels of modern surgical techniques, according to Simone. She’d had widowed heads of dynastic champagne houses falling over their feet to court her.

She’d just silenced gossiping tongues completely by marrying a local widowed thatcher some ten years her junior, who came complete with thinning hair, three little ones in tow, not two euros to his name, and a heart—according to the villagers in the know—of pure gold.

‘But doesn’t that make her outcast amongst the upper echelons of society here?’ asked Gabrielle, fascinated.
‘And what do
his
friends think of
her
? Where do they fit?’

‘According to them, together,’ said Simone. ‘The village is slowly coming to terms with it.’

Gabrielle grinned. ‘Good for them.’

‘The villagers or the happy couple?’ asked Luc dryly.

‘Both.’

‘The village is changing,’ said Simone. ‘There’s new blood in it, a younger generation with fewer ties to the old ways. It’s not as class conscious.’

Gabrielle eyed Simone curiously. ‘I’m not saying you’re wrong,’ she said. ‘But, Simone, every door has always been open to you. How do you know it’s not as class conscious? People knew who I was the minute I stepped in the village. Knew I was Josien’s daughter and judged me accordingly. I didn’t think much had changed at all.’

‘How did they judge you?’ asked Luc, his eyes sharp.

‘When I asked for a room I was offered the smallest and cheapest. Servant class all the way,’ she said with a tight smile. ‘I was too tired to argue.’

Luc’s lips tightened. ‘Stay here, then.’

Gabrielle shook her head. ‘I was not too tired to argue today. I’ve moved into a bigger suite with its own bathroom facilities. Madame very curtly implied that this was doubtless a luxury I wasn’t used to and asked for the entire three weeks’ payment in advance. In cash.’

‘Old bat,’ said Simone. ‘I never did like that woman. What did you do?’

‘I gave her a week’s worth and told her I’d keep an eye out for something more spacious.’

‘Caverness is spacious,’ said Luc darkly. ‘Very spacious.’

‘To buy,’ said Gabrielle.

‘Wish I’d been there to see the look on her face when you said you were looking to buy,’ said Simone.

‘You wish to
buy
property hereabouts?’ barked Luc.

‘It’s your lucky day,’ murmured Gabrielle to Simone. ‘You get to witness the look on Luc’s face instead. It’s equally incredulous.’

‘It’s not incredulous,’ snapped Luc, shutting his astonishment down fast. ‘You took me by surprise, that’s all. Given your conflicted feelings about returning to these parts I’d have thought acquiring property here a reckless move.’

Rafe thought the same. Not that Gabrielle felt inclined to mention it. ‘I guess we’ll all just have to wait and see,’ she said.

‘Have you looked at the old Hammerschmidt place yet, like I told you to?’ asked Simone.

‘Not yet.’

‘This isn’t incredulity on my face,’ said Luc tightly. ‘No, wait. Yes, it is. But it’s not for you or your possible ability to afford such a purchase,’ he told Gabrielle before turning to glare at his sister. ‘It’s for
her
.’

‘Don’t you look all snarly at me,’ said Simone. ‘You want the land but don’t know what to do with the rest of it. Gabrielle needs storage and distribution facilities and somewhere to live. Hmm, let me think.’ Simone put her fingers to her temples and closed her eyes. ‘I’m sensing a mutually beneficial solution here.’

‘No,’ said Luc.

‘No,’ echoed Gabrielle. ‘Not going to happen, Simone. Luc’s not looking for a partnership arrangement and neither am I.’

‘Just a suggestion,’ murmured Simone.

‘Yes, well, it’s not one of your better ones,’ said Gabrielle with dark amusement. ‘You could always telephone Rafael and suggest
you
buy the vineyard in partnership with
him
,’ she suggested sweetly. ‘You’ve doubtless kept in regular contact with him all these years as well.’

‘Wrong,’ said Simone. ‘I’m as much of a stranger to the let’s-part-as-friends concept as you are. Can we change the subject now?’

‘With pleasure,’ said Luc and reached for his wine.

CHAPTER FIVE

G
ABRIELLE
did not linger over after-dinner coffee. She drank the brew down hot and black, helped Simone and Luc sort the kitchen, gathered her scattered belongings together on the kitchen bench and excused herself to make use of the powder room before she left for the village.

Gabrielle did not need to be told where the nearest bathroom was. It was along the great hallway, turn right, past the stairs, first door on the right. She didn’t notice Josien standing at the bottom of the stairs until she drew level with her. So still, thought Gabrielle with more than a flicker of apprehension. So still and silent, like a statue—a cold and beautiful marble statue. ‘
Maman
.’ Had Josien been waiting for her? Hans had informed them earlier that Josien had retired to her suite. According to Simone, that was Josien’s usual practice and in no way connected to Gabrielle’s presence at the dinner table. Forget her, Simone had directed, and Gabrielle had for the most part succeeded in doing just that. ‘I—Hi.’ She tried a tentative smile. ‘Did you wish to see me?’

‘I suppose you think you’re one of them now,’ said Josien bleakly. ‘Socialising with them, inviting yourself to dine with them.’

Gabrielle felt her smile falter.

‘You never did know your place.’

‘On the contrary,
Maman
, you never let me forget it.’ Gabrielle drew herself upright, determined not to be Josien’s whipping girl—not this time. Not ever again. ‘But you are right in one respect. I’m no longer bound by your version of where I belong. This time
I
decide where I fit into the fabric of society here, not you. And if I want to have a meal with my childhood friends, I will.’

‘He’ll never marry you, you know.’ Her mother’s beautiful face was so at odds with the ugliness of her words. ‘You’re not in his league.’

Gabrielle could think of only one man her mother could be talking about. ‘Maybe I don’t want to marry him,
Maman
. Have you ever considered that possibility?’

‘Then why did you come back? Flaunting your precious vineyard and your fancy clothes. Do you really think a little bit of wealth will make the slightest difference to a man like Lucien? You’re still the housekeeper’s daughter, Gabrielle.’

‘You underestimate me,
Maman
. You always have. And just for the record, I didn’t come back for Lucien, I came back for you. That was a mistake. I see that now.’

‘Where did Rafael get the money to buy the vineyard?’ asked Josien, her abrupt change of topic causing
Gabrielle to blink in her effort to keep up with the conversation, if you could call it that. ‘Who staked him?’

‘Harrison,’ said Gabrielle. The father she’d only ever exchanged birthday and Christmas cards with until she’d joined Rafe in exile. The one who lived in Australia. The man whose name both Gabrielle and Rafael bore. ‘Harrison Alexander. Remember him? The man you married? The man whose children you had? Rafe looked him up. You were wrong about him not wanting us,
Maman
. He did want us.’

‘Harrison staked him?’ Josien’s voice trembled slightly. ‘But why?’

‘Maybe that’s what fathers
do
,’ said Gabrielle wearily. She really didn’t want to talk with Josien any more. Not about this. Not about anything. ‘Why can’t you just accept that Rafael finally found someone who believed in him,
Maman
? Why must you taint everything with sourness and disbelief?’

Josien stayed silent.

‘I’m going to the washroom,’ Gabrielle told her mother. ‘And then I’m heading back to the village. Don’t feel you have to wait around for me to leave. I know my own way out.’

Josien turned, her chin high and that exquisite face thrown into perfect relief. Gabrielle knew that face. Loved it. Despaired of it.

‘He always was soft, Harrison.’ Josien’s words came to her as a whisper; Gabrielle wasn’t even sure her mother had meant for her to hear them. ‘Too soft for the likes of me. I should never have married him but I was desperate, you see. Desperate to escape this place, desperate to be someone I wasn’t, and Harrison was in love
with me, in love with my face. He didn’t see what was underneath until it was too late. I never let him see.’ Josien turned to stare at Gabrielle and the desolation in her eyes almost swallowed Gabrielle whole. ‘Harrison Alexander may be your father, Gabrielle, but he’s not Rafael’s.’ She turned and began her ascent up the stairs, leaning heavily on the handrail for support. ‘And he knows it.’

‘No,’ whispered Gabrielle. Caring and supportive, Harrison had always been there for her and Rafael these past seven years. They would never have achieved what they’d achieved without his unwavering support and encouragement. ‘I don’t believe you.’ And when her mother continued wordlessly, regally, up the stairs, leaving Gabrielle staring up at her from below with white-knuckled fists and hot and prickling eyes, ‘You’re lying!’

 

Luc Duvalier was a success story by anyone’s standards. He had it all. Wealth. Health. Family. And youth. He was twenty-nine. He ran a Champagne dynasty that was the envy of his peers, brokered multimillion-euro deals with monotonous regularity, and had a reputation for being relaxed and in control no matter what the situation.

He’d never worked harder at being relaxed and in control than he’d worked tonight. He’d succeeded though. Gabrielle had eventually settled down and he’d almost managed to forget the kiss they’d shared earlier, aided somewhat by Simone’s expertise as a hostess and the delivery of his favourite food. All he had to do now was see Gabrielle to her car without forfeiting the
tentative trust he’d built with her over the past few hours and the evening would be, by anyone’s standards, a resounding success. Civilised even, though he was loath to bandy the word about too soon.

Simone had disappeared, to put the garbage out, even though Luc had offered to do it.

‘This is the part where you show Gabrielle that you can be trusted alone with her at the end of an evening,’ Simone had told him in a deceptively gentle voice. ‘I have faith in you,’ she’d added, only this time her voice had held an underlying hint of steel that he’d recognised of old. He wasn’t the only Duvalier around here who liked things neat and tidy and right.

And then Gabrielle walked back into the kitchen white-faced, and eyes bright with what looked a lot like unshed tears. She tried on a smile but it was a dismal effort and one she soon abandoned. ‘Time to go,’ she murmured and collected her belongings from the table with trembling hands. ‘Where’s Simone?’

‘Outside. She’ll be back soon.’

Gabrielle moved jerkily towards the kitchen door. ‘I’ll catch her on my way out. Thank you, Lucien, for the pleasant evening.’ She hesitated, before reluctantly holding out her hand as if expecting him to shake it. He didn’t touch her, he didn’t dare.

‘What’s wrong?’ he said curtly.

‘Nothing.’ She withdrew her hand, clutching at her handbag as if it held crown jewels.

‘I won’t touch you, if that’s what’s bothering you,’ he said. ‘I can be civil around you, Gabrielle. I have been.’

‘I know.’ She looked stricken. Correction, even more
stricken, if that was possible. ‘I’ve enjoyed your company, Lucien. I really have. As for our kiss, well…I enjoyed that too,’ she said baldly. ‘Possibly a little too much. I’m all for ignoring it and hoping the impulse to kiss you some more will go away.’

‘It’s been seven years, Gabrielle,’ he said grimly. ‘And it hasn’t gone away.’

‘Or we could stay away from one another. Cut and run,’ she said with another smile that didn’t reach her eyes. ‘I’m all in favour of that particular approach. It’s tried and true. Proven.’

‘We could explore it,’ he said. Another option, and one he wanted on the table. ‘You and me. And this. You’re not sixteen any more, Gabrielle. And I’m not honour-bound to stay away from you. There’s nothing stopping us from exploring the attraction between us.’

‘No.’ Her eyes darkened. Pain flashed through them again. What the hell was wrong with her? ‘No, I suppose not.’

‘So I’ll call you,’ he said. ‘About setting up that wine tasting.’

‘Yes.’

‘Or you call me. Tomorrow some time. About meeting for dinner again soon.’

‘Yes.’

Unease settled over him. She was telling him what he wanted to hear. Telling him whatever he wanted to hear in order to get away from him, unless he missed his guess. While her eyes telegraphed panic and no small measure of pain. ‘Gabrielle, what’s wrong? What happened between here and the powder room?’

‘Nothing. Really, Luc. It’s nothing. You’ve been a
gentleman all evening.’ She found a brilliant smile from somewhere and pasted it on her lips. ‘A rakish and charming gentleman and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed you. I’m just not ready to risk a goodnight kiss with you without a garden hose handy, that’s all.’

He let her walk to the door on that remark, let her turn the handle and turn her head and glance at him through eyes that told him that there was something else going on here. Something he didn’t understand. But he let her go, let her take refuge in humour. If she wouldn’t confide in him there was nothing else he could do.

‘Goodnight, Gabrielle,’ he murmured wryly. ‘Sweet dreams, and just for the record…I’m not ready to risk kissing you goodnight at all.’

 

Luc waited until he heard Simone’s voice and Gabrielle’s answering murmur before heading for the main hall and the powder room, scanning the tops of the sideboards and flower stands along the way for something, anything, that would have caused Gabrielle to become upset. He stood at the bottom of the grand staircase, and looked around again, puzzled. There was nothing here, nothing he could see that would have caused such a reaction from Gabrielle. Household trinkets. Vases. A painting of an ancestor or ten. That was all. He looked towards the top of the staircase thoughtfully. Had she gone upstairs?

Had someone else come down?

The only other two people staying in the chateau were Hans and Josien and they’d both retired for the evening long ago. Hadn’t they?

He stood there, listening for the sound of Gabrielle’s car engine starting, listening to the crunch of car tyres on loose courtyard gravel as she manoeuvred the vehicle carefully through the archway and accelerated down the drive. The kitchen door thudded shut and the sound of rapid footsteps on floorboards met his ears as he stood there in the hallway, in the half-light of a nearby lamp. That would be Simone.

No footsteps sounded overhead. No sound came from upstairs at all…except…He heard it then, a creak, slow and careful, and following on from it the soft metal click that went with the closing of a door.

 

Gabrielle fretted her way through the following day. The memory of Luc’s most recent kiss tugged at her senses and the thought of his offer of dinner, not to mention his offer to let her use the caves of Caverness for a wine tasting for the Angels Landing reds, echoed through her brain. She needed to pay attention to such things. It was important to know where she was heading with regards to Luc for he was a force no sensible woman ignored, but Luc wasn’t the only man on her mind today. Rafe had been on her mind too. Rafe, and everything else that went with Josien’s declaration that Harrison wasn’t his father. For the first time in her life, Gabrielle dreaded the thought of phoning her brother. Her stomach churned whenever she passed by the phone, eating away at her, making her feel ill. She hadn’t asked for this secret. She wished to hell she didn’t have to keep it. Rafe was her rock, the one constant in her life, and she hated to think that by keeping this information from him, she was betraying him.

But she hated the thought of damaging the relationship Rafe had with Harrison more.

Gabrielle cursed and slammed the door hard on thoughts of fathers who weren’t fathers and the things she now knew that Rafael did not.

Poisonous words designed to destroy a relationship between father and son.

Weight-ridden words designed to build a chasm between sister and brother.

Cruel, loveless words from a mother who did not deserve the title.

Words she was not inclined to share with anyone. Not with Luc when he’d asked her what was wrong, and definitely not with Rafael. No, better to forget she’d ever heard those particular words and speak to Rafe of other matters altogether. Matters that would bring their own ghosts of the past along for the ride, and for once in her life she did not dread their reappearance. There were worse ghosts to fear and always had been.

She just hadn’t known of them.

Who? Who could be Rafe’s father? Not Phillipe Duvalier. Heaven help all of them and especially Rafe and Simone, but, please God, not him. There had been a slight partiality for Rafe on Phillipe’s part. He’d encouraged Rafe’s friendship with Luc. He’d made a creditable attempt at training Rafe in the business of winemaking once Rafe had shown an interest. He’d shown Rafe kindness, at times, but the kindness of a father? No.

Rafe didn’t resemble the Duvaliers in looks. There was nothing of Josien’s looks about him either, except
perhaps in the perfection of facial features, albeit a more strongly hewn version. Rafe had Harrison’s colouring. Fair hair and blue eyes. Bluer than Harrison’s. Bluer and deeper.

Who if not Phillipe Duvalier?

Who if not Harrison?

‘Doesn’t matter,’ Gabrielle told herself fiercely. ‘Don’t care.’ And following swiftly on the heels of that declaration, ‘
How I hate her

Such an unbridled, uncivilised emotion, hate, but this time,
this
time, she refused to push it away. With another heartfelt curse, she reached for the phone.

Rafe had a habit of barking out his name into the phone and following up with a brusque hello. This time was no exception.

‘Is now a good time to call?’ she asked him.

‘Gabrielle?’ Warmth crept into his voice like sunshine seeping through clouds on a stormy day. ‘It’s about time you called. I’ve just been speaking to Luc.’

Ah. ‘So you know about his offer?’

‘Yes.’

‘And?’

‘You know my feelings on getting involved with the Duvaliers, Gabrielle. On any level—no matter how small.’

BOOK: Exposed: Misbehaving with the Magnate
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