Wild, zany Aunt Tate dead?
Amelia flipped her cell phone shut. Then her grip tightened on her steering wheel as she rounded a curve of green mountain, and the tall hotels of Waikiki vanished in her rearview mirror. Why couldn't her mother ever just answer the phone?
Amy punched in her mother's number once more, and again it rang and rang.
After Aunt Tate's horrid French attorney had told her her aunt had died, Amy had stopped listening for a second or two. The next thing she'd caught was, "She left you everything."
Everything should have included only Château Serene and the vineyard in Provence where Amy had once shared sparkling summers with Aunt Tate and her haughty comte, but her aunt had not quite finished the process of donating her extremely valuable Matisse to a French museum before her death. She'd left a letter to Amy in her will stating her intentions regarding the painting, but technically the Matisse was hers, as well.
"I'm afraid the property is in a pitiable state of neglect. Luckily for you the young comte is ready to make you a generous offer. Naturally he would like to buy the painting back, as well. Surely it belongs on the wall in the home of the family who's owned it for nearly a century."
"The comte's family disliked my aunt. I'm not sure I want to sell to him!"
"But, mademoiselle, the château belonged to his family for nearly eight hundred years."
"Well, apparently everything belongs to me now. Goodbye!"
She'd immediately called Nan, her best friend, who'd been in a sulk because she hadn't gotten to go on a retreat on Molokai with her sister Liz and had asked her to cover for her at Vintage, her resale shop, during the sale today. Then she'd tried to call her mother to tell her about Tate and to ask her if she'd work at Vintage so that she could fly to France to check on the château and vineyard.
Imagining her customers lined up outside Vintage, Amy pressed the accelerator, speeding through the mountains and then along the rugged coastline where waves exploded against the rocks. The shop didn't matter. Nothing mattered. Life was short. She wanted Fletcher, her long-time boyfriend. She wanted his arms around her. That was why she was driving as fast as she could to his beach house on the North Shore.
Aunt Tate was gone. On a day like this there should be a rogue wave hurtling toward the Hawaiian Islands or an earthquake about to topple the hotels in Waikiki.
Despite the wind pounding the hood of her Toyota and streaming past her windows, the North Shore of Oahu with its lush, green mountains and wide, white beaches and ocean was beautiful.
Amy felt sad and restless and increasingly nostalgic about Aunt Tate as she kept redialing her mother. If only she could reach her.
I'll never watch Aunt Tate put on one of her crazy getups again. I'll never hear her throaty laugh as she bows extravagantly and jokes about being a countess.
The bright blue sky misted. Amy's eyes burned.
No! She wasn't crying!
She was driving too fast, and she never drove too fast. With a shaking hand she dialed her mother again, only this time she mashed her cell phone against her ear.
Sounding out of breath, her mother caught the phone on the eighth ring. "Hello!"
"Mom! Finally! The most awful thing has happened! I've been calling you and calling you. For hours." The last was an exaggeration, but her mother deserved it.
"Do you need more money? Me to sign another mortgage paper onVintage? Where are you, sweetie?You're breaking up. Isn't today your big day? How's the sale going?"
"Mom, I'm not at Vintage. I'm on the North Shore."
"Amelia, I thought we agreed you weren't going to chase Fletcher any more!"
Do moms ever step out of the mom role? The last thing she needed was for her mom to start in on how irresponsible and indifferent Fletcher was. Why had she called her mom, of all people?
Because Carol, favorite daughter, her sister, had married well—an English lord, no less. Carol lived on an estate an hour out of London, and it was in the middle of the night over there. Because her best girl buddy, Liz, was in Molokai sitting cross-legged at a retreat. Because Fletcher's phone was turned off as usual. Because Mom was Tate's sister. Because she was her mom, for heaven's sake. And if she had to go to France, who would take care of Vintage?
Shells crunched under Amy's tires as she braked in front of Fletcher's unpainted house. As always the house and neighborhood looked so shabby they creeped her out.
"Amelia! Tell me you didn't drive out to Fletcher's alone!" Amy gritted her teeth.
"You could do so much better."
"Mother, I'm grown."
"Sometimes I wonder. Carol wouldn't have wasted her precious time—"
"Don't start on Carol, either!"
"This is all your father's fault. He was a loser, but you were his favorite. And you couldn't see through him. You feel comfortable with losers like him."
"You married him."
"Don't remind me."
"Not that I'm glad he left me or that's he's dead, God rest his soul."
From her car Amy nervously scanned the broken-down cars and trucks in Fletcher's front yard. Then she spotted Fletcher's yellow longboard in the bed of his old blue pickup and felt a surge of relief.
Her mother sighed.
Amy had never liked the house he'd bought and rented out to surfers or the communal lifestyle that went with it, but real-estate prices were high on Oahu. She was hardly in a position to criticize. Here, people of ordinary means had to compromise. Since the value of her mother's house had appreciated exponentially over the past two decades, Amy had had to move there to save on rent and to help her mom with the property taxes.
"Amelia, are you still there?"
Amy's fingers traced the smooth leather of the steering wheel. "Mom, listen. This lawyer from France with a snotty accent and way too much attitude called me."
"What did he want?"
"Aunt Tate died in her sleep last week."
"I—I can't believe this. I—I just talked to Tate. She said she'd been to all those parties in Paris."
"Mom, they already had a memorial service. She's been cremated and put in a niche or something at Château de Fournier."
"What? And nobody called her only sister? They stuck her in Château de Fournier? She hated that place!"
"Apparently they just found Tate's address book today." Her mother was silent, in shock, or more likely a sulk. Like a lot of sisters, she and Tate hadn't always been the best of pals. Tate had done what the women in their family were supposed to do. She'd married up, way, way up, landing a French count the third time around. And she'd never let her family forget it. She'd sent newsy Christmas cards every year to brag about parties at châteaux after her glamorous stepson's Formula One races, trips to Monaco and round-the-world cruises on friends' yachts. Her step-children were all celebrities in their own fields. But the main headline grabber had been Remy de Fournier, the handsome, womanizing Grand Prix driver. Not that Tate had boasted much about him lately. Apparently he'd retired from the circuit rather suddenly last year.
After one of Tate's bright cards or calls, her mother would sulk for days, blaming Amy's deceased father for never having amounted to anything.
"You're not going to believe this, Mom, but Aunt Tate left me everything. Château Serene, the vineyard, even the Matisse."
"What? That painting alone is worth a fortune."
"Aunt Tate intended to donate it to a museum."
"You can't afford to be so generous."
"Mother! Your baby's all grown-up. I'm afraid I need to go over there to settle Aunt Tate's affairs, pack her personal belongings and inspect the property. I hate to impose, but could you possibly watch Vintage?"
"I suppose. If it fails, who'll pay the mortgage? I'll need a day, maybe two. After that, I'd be glad to. To tell you the truth, I've been a little bored lately."
Which probably explained why her mother tried to run her life all the time.
"Mom, could you help Nan handle the sale today?" This question was met with silence. "Just for an hour or two? Please! Just to make sure Nan's not overwhelmed."
Her mother sighed.
Amy thanked her and hung up. Now all she needed was for Fletcher to hold her and make everything feel all right again.
* * *
When Amy opened her car door, the wind tore it from her grasp and whipped her long, brown hair back from her face. Her sandals sank deeply into the shell road, making each step so difficult she was almost happy to step into the high grass of Fletcher's yard. With less annoyance than usual, she picked her way through scratchy weeds, beer cans, fluttering fast-food wrappers and plastic sacks. Usually she hated the flotsam and jetsam of Fletcher's front lawn.
Lawn. If ever there was a euphemism.
Today she was too anxious to throw herself into his arms, inhale his salty male scent and cling to him forever, to obsess over her issues with his bachelor lifestyle.
He hadn't known Aunt Tate personally, but he'd scribbled Amy a postcard or two when she'd spent those months in France. One-liners, yes, but for Fletcher, that was a lot.
When Amy reached the rickety wooden stairs that climbed the fifteen feet to his deck, she noticed four triangular bits of red cloth flapping from the railing. She picked them up, fingering the damp strings and then the triangles of what appeared to be the tops of two miniscule bikinis. When she heard music, she frowned. Was Fletcher having a party without her?
A singer cried, "Yeah, yeah, yeah." Then the sound of a steel-string guitar accompanied by the heavy thudding of drums.
Her throat tightened, and she flung the bits of fabric savagely into the grass. Avoiding the front door, which stood ajar, Amy put her hands on her hips and marched around to the back of the house by way of the deck. Rounding a corner too fast, she almost stumbled over a bloated male body. His beer gut moved up and down, so he had to be alive. But his shaggy hair was filthy, and his sunburned arms sported several tattoos. She didn't recognize the spider tattoos, so maybe he wasn't one of Fletcher's regular roommates.
A boom of deep male laughter accompanied by wild squeals in the Jacuzzi made her heart speed up.
She turned slowly. Sunlight glinted in his tousled curls as he squirmed on the edge of the tub while balancing two, topless blondes on his lap.
Amy dug her fingers into the railing so hard a splinter bit into her thumb.
When she cried his name, Fletcher bolted to his feet. He wasn't wearing a suit. To his credit his handsome face turned red. "Aw, Baby, you should've called."
The girls toppled into the Jacuzzi with a splash. Squealing, they grabbed at Fletcher's bronzed legs.
Horrified, Amy began to back toward the front of his house.
"Baby!" Fletcher yanked a wet towel off the floor of the deck. Whipping it around his waist, he stomped toward her, leaving big, drippy footprints on the deck.
She ran, leaping over unconscious surfer bodies, plates of half-eaten pie and overturned beer bottles, her feet flying down the steps into the chaos of cars in his front yard. But he was faster. Springing down the stairs with the agility of an orangutan, he grabbed her arm.
"Baby, I know you think you've got a right to be mad, and you do, you do, but I can explain."
His voice was slurred, and he reeked of beer. A smear of lipstick marred his prominent cheekbone.
She jerked free and stomped past the cars to her Toyota.
"Look, I know I should have invited you to the party," he yelled. "But you hate my parties. You refused to move in with me. You never want to do anything fun anymore. Ever since you got the store, you act as old and boring as those old clothes you buy and sell. And when it comes to sex… forget it! You never want to try anything new."
"Maybe because I'm tired from working all day."
"Which you throw up to me constantly."
"Maybe because I want you to grow up."
"Maybe I'm as grown up as I'll ever be. I have money. I bought this house. I run it. So what if I don't have a real job?"
She looked at him, at the plastic sacks fluttering like ghosts in the overlong grass, at his unpainted house and then down at the beautiful beach. "Is this all you ever want?"
"What's wrong with this? My old man worked himself into an early grave. Luckily he left me enough so I can get by. I wake up to paradise every day."
The blondes, wrapped in towels now, were standing on the deck watching Fletcher.
Would Fletcher's girlfriends get younger every year?
Amy fumbled in her purse for her keys. When had everything changed? Grabbing her keys, she punched a button and got her door open. Then she slammed it. As she started her engine, she rolled down her window. He ambled over and smiled at her.
Oh, God, his eyes were so startlingly blue, so warm and friendly and sexy even now, but, damn it, her mother was right. She couldn't live with him.
But could she live without him?
"You know what, Fletcher. I'm tired of having to feel lucky to be dating the good-looking, popular guy that all the other girls want. I want to be wanted."
"You're not the only one who needs to grow up." She hit the accelerator so hard her tires slung bits of shell against his bare shins.
"Sorry!" she whispered when he let out a yelp. And she was. She was sorry for so many things. Sorry she'd disappointed her mother. Sorry about her dad…. Sorry about all sorts of dreams that hadn't panned out.
A mile down the road, she began to shake so hard she didn't feel she should drive without endangering innocent strangers, so she pulled over.
She had always loved Fletcher. To her, he was still as gorgeous as he'd been in high school. But this wasn't high school.
She flipped her visor down and studied herself in its mirror much too critically. Normally when she wasn't comparing herself to naked teenagers with Barbie-doll hair and pole dancer bodies, she didn't feel that old.
Today she'd been too busy because of her sale to bother with makeup and her hair. The wind and humidity hadn't helped. Her brown hair hung in strings. Grief hadn't helped either. Her hazel eyes were red, and her mascara was running.
Images from the past swept her. She'd gotten a crush on Fletcher in kindergarten. By the sixth grade, maybe because he'd failed a grade, he'd been almost as tall and cute and golden as he was now. Back then he'd been reckless and daring and the most popular boy in school, while she, Nan and Liz had been bookworms. Only one day he'd run up to them at recess and had painted a mock tattoo of a heart on Amy's left arm. Then he'd kissed her cheek and stolen her book.
Amy had felt like Cinderella at the ball with her prince. Her cheek had burned for three hours afterwards until he'd returned her book and had kissed her again. He'd teased her like that for a few more years. Then they'd become serious in high school. Or, at least, she had. She'd told herself she could wait.
She was still waiting.
Not any more!
Three days later
Promise me you won't sleep with her
When a man is thirty-five, famous, make that infamous, especially with women, he is likely to resent such a command, especially from his mother—even if she is a countess.
Without warning the slim, young woman his mother wanted him to keep in his sights—for business reasons only--sprinted across the street.
Not wanting to alarm her, Remy waited a few seconds before loping after her.
He frowned. His mother had nothing to worry about. The wholesome Miss Weatherbee wasn't his type.
Brown hair, thickly braided. Hazel eyes. Not ugly. But not beautiful. Non-descript really, except for…. His gaze drifted to her swaying hips again. Then he remembered all the sexy lingerie he'd watched her buy and wished she weren't forbidden because that made her infinitely more fascinating.
From birth, Remy de Fournier, or rather the Comte de Fournier, had had a taste for the forbidden. His mother and his older, brilliant sisters had only had to tell him not to do a thing, and he'd had to do it. As an adult he'd liked his cars fast and his women even faster—until the accident a year ago at the Circuit de Nevers at Magny-Cours had turned his life into a living nightmare. Ever since he'd been living in self-imposed exile in London.
Yesterday the highest courts in France had decided not to charge him with Manslaughter. As soon as he could make the arrangements he would be going home, which was why the reason his mother had given for calling him. She wanted to set up a celebratory lunch in Paris with him and with his first, serious girlfriend, Celine, whom he hadn't seen in years.
He should have felt relieved that he'd been exonerated, that his mother would even speak to him. Instead, last night he'd dreamed of the crash and of his steering wheel jamming. Again he'd felt that horrible rush of adrenalin as he'd fought the curve and the car and lost, hurtling into that wall at 160 mph before ricocheting into Andre's car and then into Pierre-Louis's.
With the memory of Andre's terrified black eyes burning a hole in his soul, Remy had dressed and bolted out of his flat at four a.m. to buy coffee, returning to work on the family's portfolio on his computer. Hours later he'd still been in a cold mood when his mother had called to discuss Celine and her lunch plans and to put him onto Mademoiselle Weatherbee, who was even now sashaying, her cute butt wiggling, glossy red shopping bags swinging against her thighs, toward her sister's flat on Duke Street in St. James.
Why was it that the longer he trailed that ample bottom, the more appealing it seemed to become?
Usually he chose leggy blond models or busty blond socialites and princesses, sophisticated women, who knew how to dress. Celine was his type. Mademoiselle Weatherbee with her trusting, wide doe eyes and thick brown braid that danced against her shoulders wasn't. Deliver him from naïve Americans with no sense of style.
Still, it was growing easier and easier to look at her. The worn fabric of her vintage cotton sundress that was spotted with faded blue stripes made her look innocent even as it showed off her slim shoulders, narrow waist, and, okay, hell, emphasized that pert ass of hers and its moves.
Nice moves. Very nice
What the hell would she feel like naked, under him? Would she writhe? Or just lie there? Damn, if she were his, he'd make her writhe.
His bossy mother's pre-dawn call had annoyed the hell out of him, much more than usual.
"I'm too excited to sleep. It's all over the Internet. You're a free man. And…! Mademoiselle Weatherbee stayed at her sister's flat on Duke Street in St. James last night! And will stay there tonight as well! Since you live so close, I thought maybe you could… check on her."
"I have back-to-back commitments before I can leave London."
"So far, she's refused all our offers on Chateau Serene, and she seems to want to follow her aunt's wishes about donating the Matisse."
"Isn't she on her way to France?"
"Well, then negotiate when she gets there.
"She's in London to do a little shopping for her store. I thought maybe you could meet her and work a little of your magic. But don't take it too far. She probably doesn't follow Grand Prix headlines, and with any luck, she won't check the Internet and the London papers will ignore you."
"I met her once, you know."
"Years ago. If she doesn't recognize you, and you'll know, don't tell her who you are. No telling what Tate told her about us. Or you."
"This town's enormous. If I can't call her or knock on her door and introduce myself, how the hell can I meet her without scaring her away?"
"Improvise. I'm going to fax you a recent photograph of her and her sister's address."
"You want me to stalk her, hit on her and entice her into some pub?"
"But be careful. The last thing we need is more nasty headlines."
When she hung up, Remy crushed his paper coffee cup and pitched it in the trash. No sooner did it hit the can than he heard the fax in his bedroom. Amelia Weatherbee was not someone he'd ever wanted to see again.
Even her photograph brought painful memories. Holding it to the light he noted the same youthful wistfulness shining in her eyes. Only now, there was a bit of a lost look in her eyes, a sadness, a resignation.
He'd met her only that once. What was it—seventeen years ago? He'd been eighteen, she around thirteen. She'd eavesdropped on a private conversation, and he'd vowed to hate her forever for it even though she'd been kind, especially because she'd been kind. Who was she to pity him? Or be kind?
Funny, how that same vulnerability in her eyes and sweet smile seemed enchanting and made him feel protective now.
He'd forced himself to dress and walk over to her flat where he'd waited outside, reading The Times. When the varnished doors trimmed in polished brass had finally swung open, and she'd stepped out into the sunshine, he'd shrunk behind his paper. Armed against the gray sky with a yellow umbrella, she'd looked bright and fresh in her faded cotton dress and scuffed sandals.
He'd been trotting all over the city after Mademoiselle Weatherbee's yellow umbrella and cute butt ever since. She'd shopped at Camden Market, Covent Garden and then Harvey Nicks and last of all at Harrods' Food Hall. But had she eaten? Hell no! So he hadn't eaten either. Because of her, he was starving.
Americans. What sort of barbarian instinct made her skip lunch, a sacred institution to any man with even a drop of French blood?
During the lunch hour she'd gone into a nail shop where she'd had a pedicure and had gotten tips put on her ragged nails. A decided improvement. Still, she'd skipped lunch.
At the Camden Market, he'd felt like a damn pervert when she'd fingered dozens of bright, silky bras and panties, holding them up to herself as she tried to decide. In the end, she'd surprised him by choosing his favorites--the skimpiest and sheerest of the batch.
Why couldn't she be the practical schoolteacher sort who wore sensible cotton panties and bras?
When she'd paid the cashier, she'd suddenly looked up, straight into his eyes. He'd been visualizing her in the red, see-through thong, and her embarrassed glance had set off a frisson of heat inside him. Not good. Fortunately, she'd quickly thrown the tangle of lingerie into a sack and slapped her credit card on top of the mess. After that, he'd kept out of sight.
But she was nearly back to her flat. He had to do something and fast. He'd wasted way too much time already.
She was on Jermyn Street, a mere half block from her building, and he was running out of options when a black cab rounded the corner. He held up his hand and sprinted toward it.
Yelling for a taxi, he deliberately bumped Amelia so hard she stumbled. Her bags tumbled onto the sidewalk, spilling lacy bras and thongs.
He dove for the woman, not the silky stuff. Catching her, his long limbs locking around hers at an impossibly intimate angle.
When body parts brushed, she blushed and fought a quivery smile. He felt a heady buzz of his own.
"I'm sorry," he said, letting go of her instantly.
Those soft hazel eyes with spiky black lashes stared straight into his, and she turned as red as she had when he'd caught her buying the transparent underwear. All of a sudden she seemed almost beautiful.
"I saw you before…."
A shock went through him.
Then she said, "At Camden…."
He acted surprised. "Yes, how very strange. Do you live around here, too?"
"No. I'm visiting my sister. She has a flat just…." As if remembering he was a stranger, she stopped and knelt to pick up her bags and the bright bits of sheer lace and silk.
Quickly he knelt and gathered up bras and panties too, tossing them into her bags but holding onto the bags.
She backed a way from him a little.
He kept his distance. "If you'd like to have a drink, there's a pub across the street, or there's a tea shop around the corner."
A man gave Remy and the black bra dripping from his right hand, a sharp look as he quickly passed by.
"I'm really awfully tired," she said.
"All right." He dropped the lacy underwear into the appropriate bag and then handed her her things.
Her face burned that adorable shade of scarlet when she looked up at him from beneath those inky lashes that were as sexy as her butt.
"In that case, I guess it's goodbye," he said.
"And alone. Big city. I prefer Paris."
"Of course. I… love Paris, too. I've been there many times. With my…."
She looked wistful. Was she thinking of Tate? Her quick, sad smile struck a chord inside him. She'd probably loved Tate very much, he thought. His father damn sure had. He himself knew what it was to chase ghosts.
"Are you here on business?"
"Of a sort," he replied.
"I like your accent. It's elegant and yet not snotty. You know sometimes French people are so …."
"I like yours, too," he said before she could insult the French, who were his people after all, which might cause him to defend them. "You're American?"
She nodded. "How did you know?"
"I'm on my way to France on rather a sad errand."
The light left her beautiful hazel eyes again. "A favorite aunt died. I-I used to spend every summer at her chateau."
Her chateau? Like hell. Still, Tate must have been wonderful fun for a young niece, who had no reasons to be jealous of her just because thecomte had adored her. For all her faults, his outrageous, American step-mother had made his father happy. As his own pretentious mother had not.
As he damn sure had not.
Remy's teeth clenched, but when Amelia continued to stare at him, a stillness descended over him. Her nondescript face with those spiky lashes and naïve gaze wasn't beautiful. It wasn't.
Why couldn't he stop looking at her then? Why did he feel so… so….
Aroused was the word he was trying to pluck from the ether.
Abruptly he looked away.
She sucked in a breath. "So, you're French and I'm going to France," she said lightly. "How that's for a coincidence?"
"We meet in the market. And now here again. Why?"
No way could he admit he'd stalked the hell out of her. "I can't imagine."
"Maybe it's fate of something."
Fate. Horrible concept. He could tell her a thing or two about fate. Fate had made him the despised bastard of the father he'd adored. Fate had hurled him into Andre at one hundred and sixty miles an hour and then into Pierre-Louis.
She was still rattling on as Remy remembered the long months of Pierre-Louis's hospitalization after the amputation. But at least he'd….
"I mean London is so huge," she was saying. "What is the chance of that?" When her shining eyes locked with his again, she must have sensed his darkening mood. Spiky lashes batted. "Is something wrong?"
Her soft voice and sympathetic gaze caused a powerful current to pass through his body.
He shook his head.
"Good." Amelia smiled at him beguilingly. "Then maybe… maybe… I mean if your offer's still open, I think I will have that cup of tea after all… even if we just met."
A cup to tea? As he stared into her hazel eyes he found himself imagining her naked on cream satin sheets. Why was that—since she wasn't his type. He felt off-balance and that wasn't good.
He should run from this girl and leave the negotiating with her to his agent. He'd had the same cold feeling of premonition right before the crash.
"This is it," he'd thought when his steering had jammed and his tires had begun to skid on pavement that had been slicker than glass.
Every time he looked at Amelia pure adrenaline charged through him.
This is it. And there's no way out.