Accidental Heiress

Sixteen years after her father sent her away Margeaux Broussard is back…she’s not the wild child Henri Lejardin remembers, but he can’t resist her. Yet resist her he must, because her past could cost him his political future. Except suddenly Henri’s envisioning a different future – one with Margeaux by his side…
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Accidental Heiress


   That she might bump into him on the street gave her a breathless thrill the likes of which she hadn’t experienced since…since the last time she’d seen Henri Lejardin.

   Yes, there were lots of who, what, when, where and whys she wanted to ask him. All in good time.

   She was glad she’d have the opportunity to work through it before she found herself face-to-face with the man who broke her heart.

   Work it out now and get over it.

   “You dated him?” A.J. asked.

   Margeaux shrugged. “It was a long time ago. We were just kids. We grew up next door to each other.”

   “And you let him get away?” Pepper stared at her with big, astonished eyes. “Honey, are you out of your mind? If a fine man like that lived next door to me, I don’t think I’d bother to leave the grounds. Except for the occasions when I found myself next door borrowing a cup of sugar. And I’m afraid I’d need lots and lots of sugar.”

About the Author

   Award-winning author NANCY ROBARDS THOMPSON is a sister, wife and mother who has lived the majority of her life south of the Mason-Dixon line. As the oldest sibling, she reveled in her ability to make her brother laugh at inappropriate moments, and she soon learned she could get away with it by proclaiming “What? I wasn’t doing anything.” It’s no wonder that upon graduating from college with a degree in journalism, she discovered that reporting “just the facts” bored her silly. Since hanging up her press pass to write novels full-time, critics have deemed her books “funny, smart and observant.” She loves chocolate, champagne, cats and art (though not necessarily in that order). When she’s not writing, she enjoys spending time with her family, reading, hiking and doing yoga.

Accidental Heiress

   Nancy Robards Thompson

   

   This book is dedicated to Claire Borkert,

   you are a bright light and inspiration to our family.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

   Caroline Phipps, thank you from the bottom of my heart for your willingness to read at a moment’s notice and your spot-on editorial advice.

   Teresa Brown, thank you for always being there to help lead me out of the corners I’ve plotted myself into.

   Catherine Kean, thank you for all the years of critiquing.

   Boundless gratitude to Gail Chasan and Sarah McDaniel.

   I don’t know what I’d do without “all y’all!”

Chapter One

   “Margeaux, wasn’t this guy your boyfriend?”

   Boyfriend? Margeaux Broussard chewed a piece of cinnamon gum and leaned against the hotel balcony rail, peering through the viewfinder of her camera, focusing on St. Michel’s rocky shoreline. It had been years since she’d had a man in her life—significant or otherwise.

   She pressed the shutter release button and the camera snapped a series of rapid shots. The fleeting twilight gilding St. Michel with molten gold was too gorgeous to pass up for the man du jour her friend Caroline Coopersmith was talking about…on television…or somewhere in their hotel room. From Margeaux’s perch on the hotel balcony, she had a breathtaking panoramic view of the landscape. The light was perfect, and it would be gone in a moment. She wanted to get these shots.

   Clickclickclickclick.

   “If it is, he looks downright dangerous,” Caroline continued.

   Clickclickclickclick.

   Dangerous?

   Margeaux turned and glanced through the open balcony doors at her friend, who was sitting on the bed reading the complimentary issue of Folio de St. Michel magazine that had been on the coffee table in their hotel room when they’d checked in earlier that afternoon.

   “Let me see,” demanded Pepper Meriweather, as she and A. J. Sherwood-Antonelli crowded onto the bed on either side of Caroline and gaped at the picture.

   Margeaux turned back to the vista and snapped a few more shots, but the magical light was already fading. At least she’d claimed the best of it.

   A.J. let loose an unladylike catcall, which piqued Margeaux’s curiosity enough to make her smile, turn back toward her friends and squint at the bold captions on the magazine cover. The words jumped around on the page, and Margeaux had a hard time focusing her dyslexic gaze. She stepped back into the room, refocused on the words, and redoubled her effort to read the print on the magazine cover.

   Ahh, it was the magazine’s annual “A List” edition, a roll call of her home town’s most eligible movers and shakers. Since this was the first time in sixteen years that she’d been back to St. Michel, it would be interesting to see if she knew anyone on the list. She set her camera on the table and prepared to join the ogling party.

   “Oooh, dangerous and delicious,” Pepper purred, smacking her lips as if she tasted the mystery man in her Southern-laced words. “I’ll bet women fall all over themselves for a bite of those honey buns.”

   “Who is it?” Margeaux asked.

   A.J. thrust the periodical toward Margeaux. “Henri Lejardin. Do you know him?”

   The name made Margeaux’s breath hitch.

   “Henri?” Her stomach clenched. Then the bottom of her belly nearly fell out when, there, in living color with his dark, curly hair and penetrating chocolate eyes, her first love smiled at her from the glossy pages of Folio de St. Michel.

   “Is this him?” Caroline asked.

   Margeaux nodded. It was Henri, alright. All grown up and looking fine; different, but somehow still the same.

   If he was on the Folio list, that meant he was single. It shouldn’t matter after all these years, she reminded herself. But it did. Suddenly, she wanted to know everything about him—what he’d been doing all these years; who he was involved with—past and present. Where he was right this very minute. If she knew, she just might go to him and ask him all these questions and others that had plagued her all these years. The fact that she could—that for once, she could walk right out the door and go to him—that she might bump into him on the street—gave her a breathless thrill the likes of which she hadn’t experienced since…since the last time she saw Henri Lejardin.

   Yes, there were lots of who, what, when, where and whys she wanted to ask him. All in good time.

   She was bound to run into him, and she needed to prepare herself for the deluge of emotions she was certain to feel, because this simple photo in a magazine already had her hyperventilating. She was glad she’d have the opportunity to work through it before she found herself face-to-face with the man who’d broken her heart.

   Work it out now and get over it.

   “You dated him?” A.J. asked.

   Margeaux shrugged, unable to tear her gaze away from Henri’s photo. “It was a long time ago. We were just kids. We grew up next door to each other.”

   “And you let him get away?” Pepper stared at her with big, astonished eyes. “Honey, are you out of your mind? If a man like that lived next door to me, I don’t think I’d bother to leave the grounds. Except for the occasions when I found myself next door borrowing a cup of sugar. And I’m afraid I’d need lots and lots of sugar.”

   A.J. and Caroline murmured their agreement.

   Her history with Henri was complicated. There wasn’t an easy way to answer her friends’ questions without awakening a lot of sleeping memories, which, her heart warned her, were much better left alone.

   Margeaux had been friends with the three women since their junior year in high school at LeClaire Academy, one of the boarding schools to which her father had packed her off after her mother died. The four of them liked to joke that the reason Margeaux had raised such hell getting herself kicked out of the French boarding school she’d attended before LeClaire Academy was because she was simply making her way to Texas so that she could complete their quartet—be the fourth leg of their table.

   But now that they were in St. Michel, they were a long way from Texas—and light years away from their rambunctious high school days. The four of them were like family, but the one thing Pepper, A.J. and Caroline didn’t know about their friend was that she’d harbored a secret for as long as she’d known them. And that secret, which she’d relegated to the deep recesses of her mind and heart, was doing its very best to push its way out into the golden St. Michel sun.

   “I’m guessing if he’s in that magazine, it means he’s still local,” Pepper said. “Why don’t you call him and invite him to meet us down in the casino tonight?”

   Margeaux took one last wistful look at Henri’s broad smile before closing the magazine and turning the figurative lock on the emotions that threatened to overwhelm her. She didn’t need the sharp reminder of what happened when she allowed her heart to lead her past the point of no return. She was a grown woman now, and she had no intention of backtracking down that fateful path.

   “I can’t go to the casino tonight,” she said. “But you all go ahead without me. I have to go to the hospital to visit my father, and I don’t know how long I’ll be. If he’s well enough to talk, I have a feeling we’ll spend a lot of time catching up. If he’s not…I’ll need to sit with him.”

   Her father was the reason she found herself back in St. Michel after all this time. They’d been estranged for more years than she could count on both hands. But all it took was a call to tell her that her father was in the hospital—that he’d suffered a stroke—and she’d been on a plane to him. No more oceans between them. All the harsh words fired like weapons were forgotten. It was a new chapter. Margeaux was grateful it wasn’t too late. Sure, he’d been absent from her life all those years. But one of them had to be the first to extend the olive branch.

   She might as well be the one.

   “You can join us after you do that,” Pepper insisted.

   “Pepper, don’t,” A.J. reprimanded. “This isn’t a pleasure trip for Margeaux and the last thing she needs right now is you nagging her to shirk responsibility.”

   Despite how much she wanted to wave off what A.J. was saying, her friend was right. Margeaux hadn’t come here on vacation. Her father needed her to step up and do the right thing. It had been so long since she’d been the good daughter—actually, had she ever attempted that role? If she had, maybe he wouldn’t have sent her away all those years ago.

   Now that he was sick, all the rules were changing. She was the prodigal daughter returned home. Even though her friends had accompanied her this far, she had to make the next leg of the journey—the trip to the hospital—alone.

   Henri Lejardin glanced at the screen of his BlackBerry: one missed call.

   Earlier, when his phone rang, he’d been in the middle of a Musée du St. Michel staff meeting, firming up specifics for the Impressionist Retrospective’s exhibition, which would celebrate the museum’s centennial anniversary. It had been a long day overseeing the installation of the exhibit on loan from museums from all across Europe. The collection was set to open next week. Yet three key paintings were detained in customs, held back by a mountain of red tape Henri had yet to unravel. His career and reputation hinged on this show, and since it was coming down to the wire, he needed to focus on pulling it together.

   When his brother Luc’s number had appeared on the screen, Henri had sensed what the call was about, resisted the urge to answer and let it go to voice mail.

   Now that the meeting had adjourned, he remained at the conference room table and listened to his messages.

   “Henri, it’s Luc. Please call me as soon as possible. Margeaux Broussard is back in St. Michel.”

   Henri’s insides shifted like falling dominos and he tightened his grip on the phone, a visceral reaction to the news.

   It was exactly the message he’d both feared and anticipated since the moment Colbert Broussard had fallen ill.

   As he disconnected from voice mail and dialed Luc, Sydney James, the gallery curator, caught his eye as she lingered in the conference room doorway. A slow, seductive smile spread over her red-glossed lips as she arched a well-shaped brow.

   It was a look that suggested so much more than Henri could deal with right now. In an attempt to own his composure, he shook his head and looked away. As the phone rang, he pushed away from the table in the rolling leather chair, leaned back and stretched his legs out in front of him. A posture that suggested he was perfectly at ease. Even though he wasn’t.

   Fake it until you make it had always been his motto, and it had served him well, considering he was St. Michel’s youngest Minister of Arts, Culture and Education. His next goal was to become the youngest member of the Crown Council—St. Michel’s version of Parliament. All in due time. First, he had to get his brother on the phone and find out the particulars of Margeaux Broussard’s visit.

   “Henri?” Luc’s anxious voice sounded through the BlackBerry. “I’ve been trying to reach you.”

   “I know. I’m sorry; I’ve been in meetings all day. I got your message. So, she’s here?”

   To steady himself, Henri doodled on the legal pad in the cordovan leather folio that lay open on the table.

   “Yes, she is. She and three friends arrived today around eleven and they checked into a suite at the Hotel de St. Michel.”

   As Henri wrote the words Margeaux—Hotel de St. Michel, he sensed someone reading over his shoulder. He looked up and there was Sydney staring down at his notes.

   “Hold on a moment, Luc.” Henri closed the folio and took the phone away from his ear. “I’ll catch up with you as soon as I’m finished.”

   She regarded him for a moment. Her predatory gaze meandered the length of his body. She bit her bottom lip.

   “I’ll wait for you in the Ferdinand Gallery.”

   Her proper British accent was a strange juxtaposition to the seductive glint in her wide-set green eyes, which stirred an uncomfortable, not-at-work reaction in Henri that made him want to retreat.

   But he didn’t. He simply frowned and shook his head—trying to remind her that he was the boss. Games like this were not okay. They’d had that discussion more than once in the month since he’d allowed the lines of propriety to blur.

   True to form, Sydney winked and turned away, her snug black pencil skirt—wasn’t that what they called those body-hugging contraptions that accentuated all the right curves in all the right places?—an animated reminder of why he’d made an exception to his no-fraternizing rule for Sydney James.

   She was a beautiful woman and a force to be reckoned with. There was no doubt about that. Normally, he went to great lengths to keep his personal and professional lives separate—especially when it came to getting involved with subordinates. But Sydney had a way of pushing the envelope and crossing lines—if she wasn’t so damn good at her job Henri might consider having her relocated to a department not under his watch.

   That would make matters so much simpler.

   But the truth was he needed her. In more than one way. Certain members of the Crown Council had been breathing down his neck, suggesting it was time for him to settle down, to tidy up his personal life so that the other, more traditional, council members—namely Colbert Broussard—would take him seriously as a future Crown Council candidate.

   Sydney was professional enough to bolster his reputation, sexy enough to hold his attention and smart enough to know when to turn up the heat or tone it down.

   Henri resumed his phone call.

   As Sydney turned the corner at the end of the long corridor that led away from the boardroom, she glanced back over her shoulder and gave Henri that look. He might not be in love with her. But he sure did appreciate her…assets. What was even better was his lust was tempered by a healthy dose of respect for her. The woman had style, an Oxford education, and a way of gracefully walking that fine line between vaah-vaah-vaah-voom and put-you-in-your-place business smarts.

   What more could he want?

   “Margeaux Broussard.”

   Yes, Margeaux. Wait— “What?”

   “We were talking about Margeaux,” said Luc.

   Henri cleared his throat and raked a hand through his hair.

   “Yes, we were.”

   It had been a long time since that heady August sixteen years ago when Margeaux had left. She’d taken his heart and never looked back. They’d been teenagers. Their heads had been full of idealistic notions and their hearts had been ruled by hormones.

   It had been a long time ago, and just because she was back—well, now they were twice the age they’d been when they’d last seen each other. Surely, they were different people who’d grown in different directions.

   “Will you see her?” Luc asked.

   Henri drew a three-dimensional box around the words he’d written on the yellow legal pad. Then he retraced the letters M-A-R-G-E-A-U-X.

   She was back in St. Michel. And sooner than he’d expected, considering he’d had his doubts about whether she’d show up at all. Honestly, the last thing he needed was Margeaux Broussard dropping their weighty baggage in the middle of his already chaotic life.

   “Henri, are you there?” His brother Luc asked.

   “Yes, I’m here. Of course I’ll try to contact her. But that doesn’t mean she wants to see me.”

   Henri didn’t mean to sound so testy. After all, his brother had done him a favor by directing the chief of the Bureau of Customs to alert him when Margeaux arrived.

   “But I’m going to try,” Henri added, purposely shaving the edge off his tone.

   Luc had been in charge of St. Michel’s national security before he married Sophie Baldwin, the woman who was the newly crowned queen of St. Michel. Despite stepping into a head-of-state position, Luc still had his fingers on the pulse of the country’s security, and had happily helped out his brother when he’d been asked.

   “I’m sure Colbert will be happy Margeaux’s home,” Luc said. “It sounds like he’s going to need some help once he gets out of the hospital.”

   Henri blew out a breath.

   A lot had changed, but a lot remained the same—such as the way his heart beat a faster cadence at the mention of her name.

   Even so he reminded himself that Margeaux hadn’t come home for him.

   That was a thought that was oddly more disappointing than helpful.

   After finishing the call with Luc, Henri made his way to the Ferdinand Gallery where Sydney had said she’d be waiting for him. He glanced around, but she wasn’t there.

   He contemplated telling her to behave herself—to quit flirting. However, knowing Sydney, that would only encourage her. Instead, he decided to leave well enough alone and focus on more pressing matters such as how to expedite the rest of the paintings through French customs. They’d been on loan to a museum in Brussels and the orders to have them shipped straight to St. Michel should’ve been clear, but the paintings had mistakenly been returned to Paris. Henri was beginning to think that it might have been faster to pick them up at the Musée d’Orsay and bring them to St. Michel himself rather than wait for a bunch of bureaucrats to unravel the unnecessary red tape binding the priceless works of art.

   He walked over and straightened one of the Monets already in place—a landscape of a house and overgrown garden that reminded him of the Broussards’ home with the sprawling terrace and thick, wild orchard where he’d spent so much of his youth. His thoughts flew to Margeaux, and her father’s situation.

   Colbert could’ve hired home healthcare, and he had friends and staff who would’ve ensured that he was cared for. The man wouldn’t have been left high and dry. Still, Henri was one-quarter surprised Margeaux had come home and three-quarters relieved. It was nice to know that she’d come when her father needed her.

   Because he wasn’t so sure the woman he’d read about in the tabloids over the past sixteen years would have made the trip. That tabloid heiress, who’d been estranged from her family and friends for more than a decade and a half, hardly resembled the girl who’d once been his best friend and first lover.

   “You’re a million miles away from that Monet, love,” whispered a soft feminine voice. It made him jump. When he turned to face Sydney, she flashed that broad, sexy smile that usually coaxed a return grin from him. Today, however, her charms weren’t working.

   “I was just taking a mental inventory of all that we have left to do before the exhibit opens.”

   Her gaze locked with his and her mouth turned down into a slight frown. Arching a brow that seemed to convey that she didn’t believe him, she said. “Oh, you mean all those things we discussed in the meeting? I took excellent notes. I’ll send you a copy, so you don’t have to worry.”

   He’d always found her attractive, and most of the time he found her no-holds-barred approach appealing. But for some reason, today, it was off-putting, too much for the workplace. The closer she got, the more claustrophobic he felt. It was as if she were backing him into a corner. He fought the urge to step back, to put some space between them. Instead, he turned back to the painting and studied it.

   “What do you think?” he asked. “Do we want to keep it here or should we move it across the way?”

   He pointed toward the shorter wall on the other side of the room.

   “So, you’re not going to tell me,” she said.

   “Tell you what?” Henri asked.

   “Who this person is who has shanghaied your thoughts?”

   Henri crossed his arms.

   “It’s a family matter. I don’t want to discuss it at work.”

   Sydney’s green eyes darkened a shade, and she shrugged.

   “I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean to pry. I was simply concerned about you.”

   She reached up to touch his hand, but he uncrossed his arms and shoved his fists into his trouser pockets, dodging the contact.

   Sydney flinched. “Henri?”

   He lowered his voice. “That’s not what we should do here.”

   She blinked once. Twice.

   “What I mean is we agreed to keep matters strictly platonic at work.”

   “Yes, of course we did.” Suddenly all business, she was the one who took a step backward. Henri sensed the transformation immediately. “I’ll be in my office reviewing the PDF of the show catalogue.” With that, she turned and walked away. He was amazed at how fast her demeanor could change. One minute the flirt, the next the serious businesswoman.

   Henri felt that old familiar inner riptide of uncertainty, which should’ve been reason enough to let her keep walking. Even if Sydney had been pushing the bounds of what was appropriate in the workplace, at least she knew when to rein it in.

   Unlike Margeaux, who had created a reputation for herself as a socialite run amok. She seemed to take pleasure in embarrassing her father with her headline-grabbing antics. Even if she had been lying low for the past couple of years, her reputation preceded her. Fille sauvage, her father had called her for as far back as Henri could remember. As if living up to the label her father had slapped on her, Margeaux Broussard had, indeed, proven herself every bit the wild child.

   Not the type of woman he needed to get involved with if the Crown Council was ever going to take him seriously.

   “Sydney, wait.”

   She stopped underneath the archway that led into the main gallery, but she didn’t turn around.

   Henri knew he’d hurt her feelings. He hadn’t meant to. He was simply skittish about public displays of affection at work, even if it was simply the brush of a hand or an I-want-you pucker of lips. He expected no less of his other employees. He had to lead by example.

   “Please let me know when you hear about the missing pieces for the catalogue,” she said, without looking back at him. “If we don’t get this to the printer by Wednesday, we won’t have the catalogue in time for the opening.”

   He glanced around. They were the only ones in the gallery.

   “If you’re free tonight, perhaps we could have some dinner and proof them…together. Two sets of eyes are always better than one.”

   This time she turned around and faced him, that devilishly sexy left brow of hers rising, a question mark. She crossed her arms over her chest, creating a barrier between them.

   “A business meeting?” she asked. “After hours?”

   She wasn’t going to make this easy.

   Still, he nodded.

   “I suppose that might work,” she said. “But I have one stipulation. I want to go out—to Le Coeur Bleu in the Hotel de St. Michel.”

   The Hotel de St. Michel. Where Margeaux was staying. No doubt she’d read his notes about the Hotel St. Michel. It was too much of a coincidence otherwise.

   It was a bad idea to bring Sydney there, even though the chance they’d run into Margeaux and her friends was remote. He should go there alone. He should contact Margeaux and arrange a private meeting….

   Even so, as he opened his mouth to suggest a different restaurant, he heard himself agreeing, “Le Coeur Bleu it is.”

Chapter Two

   Margeaux paused in the hospital hallway, a death grip on the bouquet of colorful flowers. The door to room 436 was ajar, and classical music drifted through the scant opening. She drew in a steadying breath of antiseptic-smelling hospital air and summoned her strength. On the other side of the door was the man she hadn’t seen in more than sixteen years.

   Her father.

   She was an accomplished photographer. She’d put herself through college and had taken herself all over the world.

   But standing there, about to see her father for the first time after all the years and bad blood that had passed between them, she was suddenly desperate for her father’s approval.

   Sadly, she wasn’t entirely sure he’d be glad to see her.

   She was so nervous she couldn’t get a good breath, and for a heartbeat, she was paralyzed—right there in the hallway as the nurses and orderlies passed by with purpose. One of Margeaux’s hands held the flowers like a torch; the other was frozen in mid-knock as a deluge of emotions and questions rained down on her.

   Run!

   Turn and run!

   But this is your father. He’s sick. He needs you.

   Right, he’s never needed you. What if he doesn’t want to see you? What if he sends you away again?

   Suddenly, she felt sixteen again, awkward and unsure of where she fit into the life of her only living relative. A girl out of control, starving for the acceptance of a self-involved father who was too busy to deal with her antics.

   But she wasn’t a child anymore, and it had been at least three years since the press had skewered her with scandal.

   Knock.

   Her hand did just that. As if on its own, her knuckles sounded a quick tap-tap-tap on the door.

   “Qui?” What? barked a gruff voice from inside. Her breath caught, icy in her chest, and a rush of adrenaline urged her away. Run! Go! Leave now!

   “Papa, it’s me.” The voice sounded as if it came from outside herself, but it was her own. Then for the span of several heartbeats all she could hear was the blood rushing in her ears. Until the gruff voice softened and asked almost tentatively, “Margeaux? Is it you?”

   Her fingertips grazed the door’s cool wood surface as she pushed the door open a hair and looked in.

   “Why are you lurking out there in the hallway?” The voice was gruff again. “Come in here.”

   Before her feet could carry her in the opposite direction, she pushed the door open the rest of the way, and found herself face-to-face with her father. Unsure of what to do—whether to sit or stand, whether to hug him or hang back—she simply stood there and drank him in.

   His once dark, full head of hair was thinner and silvery white. His cheeks were hollow and his previously strong, proud shoulders appeared rounded. Hooked up to IV bags, pulse monitors and a host of other machines, he looked wizened and frail, but the fire in his dark brown eyes burned strong, belying time’s havoc.

   She tried to see past the lines time had etched on her father’s face. She tried to ignore the creases around his eyes and the wisps of silver hair. She tried to see past the lost years and the pain of rejection to the possibility of new beginnings. He needed her. She was here. Wasn’t that enough?

   Please let that be enough.

   “Come in and shut the door,” he insisted. “No use allowing the entire ward to gawk at us.”

   As if paying penance for the obedient child she’d never been, Margeaux found herself submissively closing the door and turning back to him, still unsure of what to do with herself.

   “Come over here so I can see you.” The commanding tone of his voice was just as strong as the fire of self possession that blazed in his gaze. As she approached his bed, her father’s gaze took her in, but his expression did not betray an ounce of approval. In fact, he watched her so stoically she wondered if he even saw her, or if, as had usually been the case, he was looking right through her, toward his own affairs. Immersed in a world that had always taken him away from her.

   Finally, his eyes locked onto hers—a steel trap closing around her heart, and they stared at each other for a long moment. Margeaux didn’t know what to do with her hands, so she wrapped her arms around her middle as if to keep herself from falling apart. She stood there searching his face for something, anything. A sign to tell her how to proceed.

   Breaking the ice was the hardest part, she reassured herself. She’d been giving herself a pep talk from the moment she’d decided to come home: Everything will be fine as soon as we make it past…this.

   Margeaux tried to ignore the voice inside that asked, would it be fine? Why would it be fine now when it had never been fine before?

   “Sit down.” Colbert pointed to a chair adjacent to the bed. That’s when she noticed his hand was shaking. Maybe this wasn’t easy for him, either. Or maybe it was the effects of the stroke.

   Either way, it was unsettling.

   Margeaux settled herself in the chair and smoothed her cotton turquoise skirt.

   “Tell me, what are you doing these days?” her father demanded.

   “I’m a photographer.”

   He pursed his lips as if a bad taste had assaulted his mouth.

   “So you’ve turned the tables, eh? Now, you’re the one taking the photographs rather than serving as the paparazzi’s favorite subject.”

   Then something miraculous happened: he smiled.

   And Margeaux could breathe again.

   “Oh, Papa, how are you?” She ignored the sting of tears. She wouldn’t cry. She couldn’t allow herself that luxury because her father would see that as a weakness. And things were going so well.

   He shrugged. “Other than being irritated and inconvenienced by being here, I’m fine. In fact, they say I’ll probably be released tomorrow.”

   “That’s great news!” He must not be as sick as he looked.

   He waved away her joy. “Lord knows, I don’t have time to spend one more day in this place. I told them if they kept me here I’d probably end up killing myself. So, they’re smart and are doing the right thing by releasing me.”

   Margeaux frowned. He’d had a stroke and was darn lucky the episode hadn’t set him back any more than this. His body might be showing the wear of time and toil, but his will was stronger than ever. Impatient as ever. Obviously, that hadn’t changed. Maybe that’s why he was in here. In fact, given the lethal combination of high-stress politics, mixed with his explosive temper, she was surprised he hadn’t found himself in the hospital before. This was a warning he needed to heed. He’d only been in the hospital less than a week, and it seemed awfully fast for him to be going home after suffering a stroke.

   “Dad, don’t be stubborn. When it comes to your health, you shouldn’t push it. Business will wait. The Crown Council won’t make any important decisions without you. The only thing that matters is that you rest and allow your body time to heal.”

   Again, he waved her off. But this time he seemed too tired to argue the point. He simply turned his head and gazed out the window.

   Pink and violet hues of twilight painted the sky, which was crowded with cumulus clouds gilded molten by the setting sun. The window framed the melancholy scene, provoking an air of sadness in Margeaux.

   There was something about twilight—that limbo between day and night—that had always unsettled Margeaux. She wasn’t sure if the pull of sadness tugging at her was because of that or her father’s aloofness.

   He’d always been aloof. Now, the two were virtual strangers since they’d been estranged for so many years. Margeaux knew her antics certainly hadn’t helped them bond, though until he’d made the quip about her being the tabloids’ favorite subject she hadn’t been certain he’d ever seen any of the sensationalized stories, since his responses to the press were usually, “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” or a steely “No comment.”

   Now they were face-to-face, trying to reach each other over a rickety bridge of years suspended precariously over oceans of differences. But when she’d decided to come back to St. Michel she’d resigned herself to the fact that it wouldn’t be easy.

   He was sick and this wasn’t about her or the past. All that mattered was what happened from this moment forward.

   “I’m sure you’ll understand that I need to talk to your doctor as soon as possible. If for no other reason than to make sure I understand your care plan?”

   He didn’t answer her, and a food-service attendant broke the silence when she entered with a tray.

   “Good evening, Monsieur Broussard,” she said. “I certainly hope you’re hungry. Tonight’s meal is a treat—chicken scaloppini. You’re going to love it.”

   She offered him a broad grin as she set the tray on the bed table and rolled it in front of him. “And who is this lovely lady?”

   Her father stiffened ever so slightly. It was so subtle that it would’ve gone unnoticed by most, but Margeaux saw the reflex. She wasn’t sure if he was reacting to the woman’s acting so familiar or if he was embarrassed by Margeaux.

   “Hi, I’m his daughter, Margeaux Broussard.”

   “My name is Nadine. So nice to meet you. For some reason, I was under the impression that the Monsieur did not have family…or at least none close by.”

   “Well, I’m all he has. I live in Texas right now, but I came as fast as I could when I learned my father had taken ill.”

   “So good of you to come and care for him.”

   Colbert cleared his throat, “Excuse me, my dinner is not getting any warmer. Would you please allow me to enjoy it before it becomes any more unpalatable?”

   Nadine gave a quick nod and excused herself, and Margeaux settled back into her seat, waiting for him to uncover the tray and take the first bite.

   Instead, he cleared his throat again.

   “You should go, too.”

   His dismissal was formal and impatient.

   “Why? I want to stay with you while you eat.”

   He shook his head. “You watching me eat would be awkward. Please go. You may come back tomorrow and take me home.”

   Margeaux stood, not wanting to leave. He was sending her away so that he could eat dinner alone. She wondered if she should push or comply. He’d always been blunt. In fact, the thing about Colbert Broussard was he always said what he meant—for better or worse. Her mother, Alice, had always been the buffer between father and daughter, smoothing the rough edges of his candid comments. After she died, things fell apart.

   In hindsight, Margeaux knew both she and her father had been devastated by her death. But at the time, she’d felt lost and alone. A motherless sixteen-year-old and a despondent widower—not a good recipe for a functional family.

   She wondered if Henri, who had once been like the son her father never had, had looked in on him. But the last she knew, her father had banished Henri, too.

   Now was not the time to open that box.

   Later.

   They’d have plenty of time to sort that out in the coming months.

   Colbert picked up his knife and fork and carved a small bit of chicken, but he set down his fork rather than taking a bite.

   “There’s nothing you can do tonight. The doctor won’t make his rounds until tomorrow, and it will be too uncomfortable for me if you sit there and watch me eat. So go. Come back tomorrow, when you’ll have a purpose for being here. Tomorrow, you’ll take me home.”

   Having been relieved of her hospital duty, Margeaux got back to the hotel earlier than she’d expected. She’d left her father only because he’d insisted. She left because she didn’t want to fight with him.

   Surrender. That was the name of the game right now. All in the name of keeping the peace. She hadn’t come here to fight. She’d come to make things right.

   Tomorrow morning, she and the girls would wind their way up the serpentine road to Margeaux’s childhood home and get the place ready for her father’s homecoming later that afternoon.

   Tonight, she was free to enjoy herself.

   Though it felt a little wrong to be planning a night in the casino while her father was laid up in the hospital, that’s exactly what she intended to do. The alternative was to spend the evening holed up in her room. That wouldn’t do anyone any good.

   Her friends had come with her to act as backup support. Though they understood the situation—on all levels—she wanted to show them how much she appreciated them circling the wagons. They’d met by chance but had remained friends by choice. They were the sisters she’d chosen. Tonight was the perfect opportunity to show them a good time St. Michel–style.

   Margeaux had called them on her way back to the hotel. They graciously waited as she raced to clean up and put on one of the many dresses that Pepper had carted over.

   “So, now you’re happy I overpacked.” Pepper clapped like a child who’d just found the prize at the bottom of the Cracker Jack box. She addressed her comments to no one in particular, everyone in general. “If I’d been the practical traveler that y’all had tried to convert me into, just imagine the fix we’d be in right now.”

   “Oh, horrors, we might’ve had to go shopping so that Margeaux could look presentable.” Caroline sipped champagne from a crystal flute. “Imagine that.”

   The number of bags Pepper Meriweather had brought might suggest that she intended to stay for the summer, rather than the planned two weeks.

   Right now, the fifteen evening dresses and twenty-five pairs of shoes and sandals Pepper couldn’t leave home without were proving to be a lifesaver.

   Margeaux chose a slinky little black dress and a pair of sexy, strappy sandals to complement it. As they made their way down to the casino, she caught a glimpse of her reflection in the mirrored hallway leading to the grand lobby of the Hotel de St. Michel. It had been a while since she’d dressed for a night out. Pepper had styled Margeaux’s long, blond hair into a chignon that looked as if she’d gone to the salon.

   The sexy black dress made Margeaux’s skin look a little paler than she would’ve liked, but she’d been working so much lately that she hadn’t had time to build the deep bronze glow that had been her trademark.

   Even so, seeing her reflection made her check her posture and hold her head a little higher. She was still pushing against the inner struggle of whether going down to the casino was the right thing to do with her father in the hospital. It smacked of fodder for tabloid headlines: Margeaux Broussard Parties while Father Lies in Hospital Bed. Tonight, the only thing better than being anonymous would be rendering herself invisible. But her father was fine. She’d done her duty by him tonight and would follow his wishes to come back and get him tomorrow.

   Besides, this dress was far too fabulous for invisible.

   Bottom line: Margeaux Broussard had never shied away from life, and she didn’t intend to start now. Tonight would simply be a nice night out with friends.

   Nothing scandalous about that.

   “We all look like Bond girls,” said A.J. “I wonder if we’ll meet any spies in the casino tonight?”

   The girls laughed and as they forged ahead toward the casino, Margeaux hung back in the lobby, reacquainting herself with the hotel’s ornate beauty. The chandeliers hung from frescoed ceilings, dripping honeyed light, warming the gold-and-marble atrium. She took in the sculptures, the caryatids and the bas-relief motifs etched into the walls.

   Throughout her youth, she’d seen this place dozens of times. The memory had her gaze shifting until she’d located a certain long, dark hallway that led to one of the seven elevator banks.

   Once on a dare, she’d dragged Henri here; they were only thirteen years old and he was her best friend. They’d hid in the hallway with a bag containing a big, black rattle snake, which he’d trapped in the overgrown orchard that grew between her homes. She’d dared him to let it loose in the lobby during the high-season rush.

   He didn’t want to, but she’d taunted him until he’d buckled.

   “Okay, I will on one condition,” he’d said, and Margeaux had been too full of mischief to even ask about the condition. How bad could it be if he was too chicken to do something like this? All she wanted was for Henri Lejardin, son of the Minister of Security and Protocol, to break out of his shell and do something fun for a change.

   She didn’t care if they got caught. The worst that would happen was that it would rile up her father. Sure, it would embarrass him if it came to light that his daughter had a hand in the prank.

   But shouldn’t a man who had no time for his family feel a little embarrassment? At least he’d have to make time for her—even if it was to reprimand her.

   But Margeaux’s father wasn’t the only one who’d gotten a surprise that day. After Henri had set the snake free in the lobby and Margeaux had sufficiently delighted in the way people had screamed and scattered like handfuls of tossed marbles, Henri had run back to the dark hallway, backed her against the wall and kissed her senseless. She’d never seen it coming. She’d certainly never thought a boy who played by all the rules would ever do something so bold and out of character.

   The unexpected feel of his mouth on hers had sent her reeling. She could remember it as vividly as if it had happened yesterday. Henri had kissed her boldly, ravenously, and she’d kissed him back, in awe at his hunger. It was as if they’d both done it before, though neither of them had.

   Somehow, following instinct, they just knew what to do.

   Over the next three years, instinct would lead them to new, uncharted territory. They’d explored together and discovered just how well they’d fit.

   Their hands.

   Their mouths.

   Their bodies.

   Henri was no longer the shy, hesitant one.

   Margeaux had liked these new paths down which he coaxed her and she’d followed willingly.

   Until finally, they’d reached a dead end.

   Now Margeaux felt anxious. Her nerve endings were like live wires, burning under her skin. She put her fingers to her lips, remembering the feel of that first kiss. More than once when she’d kissed another man, she’d found herself fantasizing that the man was Henri, only to suffer the letdown when she’d opened her eyes to discover the familiar stranger in her arms.

   The memory of that first kiss took her back. Tonight it was as if she were seeing everything for the first time, and it had an unforgettable emotional impact.

   Henri was somewhere on this island, and she had a sudden urge to find him and rediscover some of those paths.

   But the newly discovered rational side of her reminded her that it had been a long time since they’d talked, much less kissed or…He certainly had a life by now. Probably a wife. Maybe even a family.

   She hadn’t kept up with him because it hurt too much. Too much history, too much…too much. She’d been lying low for the past couple of years trying to play the “out of sight, out of mind” game with the press. It had worked. The paparazzi had finally moved on to the newest celebutante train wreck.

   Rehabilitating one’s self was not “sexy news.” Nobody cared that Margeaux Broussard had finally grown up and was making her own way. That she wasn’t stupid—it was dyslexia that had held her back. After that heaven-sent discovery she’d made with Pepper’s help, everything had changed. It was as if the world that had always been blurry and nonsensical had finally snapped into focus.

   She wasn’t stupid. She was sober and productive and some had even deemed her talented. Through photography, she’d finally found her voice and her vision.

   That was what had given her the strength to come home. Finally, she could prove to her disapproving father that she wasn’t the fille sauvage—the wild girl—as he’d written her off. It would take a while, but she was prepared to go the distance.

   “Margeaux, come on!” called Caroline. “Hurry up.”

   The girls waited for her at the entrance to the casino.

   She took one last wistful look at the hallway and glanced around the lobby. She’d come back here and photograph the hotel lobby, she decided as she walked toward her friends. This would be the first of many places and people she intended to get reacquainted with.

   Knowing that Margeaux Broussard was back in town made everything about St. Michel feel different to Henri Lejardin.

   As he and Sydney entered the lobby of the Hotel du St. Michel, he was glad to have hands full of the materials they’d need to do a final edit of the copy for the show catalogue during their working date.

   He’d made a final call to the curator of the Musée d’Orsay, pressuring him about the missing paintings. When the curator couldn’t assure their arrival by Wednesday, Henri decided to cut the pieces from the show.

   It may have been a rash decision, but he’d been impatient all day and wanted closure on this project, so that they could move forward with plans for the opening.

   Knowing that Margeaux was back had only added to his anxiousness. He’d kept thinking he was catching glimpses of her out of the corner of his eye. A mane of long, straight, blond hair here, a flash of long, strong, tanned leg there. But they all proved to be specters.

   Maybe his rush to tie up loose ends with this show was so he could finally call her and get the inevitable out of the way. When it came to Margeaux, he’d always been reckless and impulsive. Obviously, nothing had changed.

   He hadn’t seen her in years, but her presence permeated his being like a spirit.

   He glanced at Sydney, feeling a little guilty for bringing her here tonight, even if it had been her suggestion and she hadn’t budged when he’d recommended other options. If he was fully honest with himself, he hadn’t vetoed her choice of meeting location because he hoped he’d run into Margeaux.

   Tonight.

   The sooner the better.

   So, it almost came as no surprise when he heard a lovely brunette call from the entrance to the casino, “Margeaux, come on! Hurry up.”

   He turned his head, and there she was. Looking like a grownup version of the girl he’d once loved so deeply. A vision in a black evening dress, her blond hair smoothed back into a sophisticated up-do that accentuated her crystal blue eyes.

   She took a few steps toward her friend, and then her gaze snapped to the right as if he’d called her name.

   He hadn’t. Not out loud.

   It had always been like that between them.

   Just as he’d somehow known if he came here tonight, he’d see her.

   After a split second of pure joy, his heart sank. What the hell was she doing at the casino her first night in town when her father was in the hospital?

   Worse yet, why had he known in his heart he’d find her here?

   “Henri? Is that you?” For a moment, Margeaux was frozen in her tracks, but then she found her footing and her legs carried her to him.

   He didn’t even have to say anything. He simply flashed that smile.

   Yes! It is.

   And before either could say a word, they were in each other’s arms.

   The contact was brief but intense and it stole her breath. Even though a lifetime had passed since they’d last seen each other—sixteen years since they’d last seen each other, at age sixteen—it felt as if there’d never been any space between them.

   They pulled apart and stared at each other.

   He was so gorgeous it made her heart hurt. So did the dawning realization that the beautiful woman standing next to him was the woman pictured with him in the Folio de St. Michel photo.

   “I can’t believe it’s you,” Margeaux said. “What are you doing here?”

   She smiled at him and then at the woman, her heart aching at the prospect of not knowing who she was or what they meant to each other. A quick glance at the woman’s hand revealed she didn’t wear rings—engagement or wedding.

   “Margeaux, I’d heard you were back,” he said. “Oh, excuse me. This is my associate, Sydney James. She is the curator for one of the state art museums under my jurisdiction.”

   The woman flinched at the introduction before artfully covering the slight with a bright smile and the offer of a handshake.

   Not only was she beautiful, but she had an impeccable British accent that gave her the air of someone proper and well educated.

   So, Henri had gotten himself a beauty with brains. That rankled Margeaux even more than the way that Henri had tried to downplay his relationship with his coworker.

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