The Ruthless Billionaire’s Redemption
The Ruthless Billionaire’s Redemption
Don’t miss a second chance to enjoy this bestselling story from Sandra Marton!
Beauty who defied the beast!
An invitation to France is the fresh start Danielle needs. But throwing off the shackles of her old life and asserting her independence proves difficult in the presence of formidable tycoon Lee Bradford.
The injury that ended his racing career has left Lee dark and brooding. Danielle is a breath of fresh air, but her innocent spirit can only be tainted by his damaged soul. Should he fight their attraction—or will Danielle be the one to redeem this ruthless billionaire?
Originally published in 1990 as Garden of Eden.
The Ruthless Billionaire’s Redemption
DANIELLE wondered if the man was watching her. She had the feeling he had been, ever since he’d entered the first-class lounge. She’d been alone and, when the door had swung open, it had been natural to glance up from her book and look at the new arrival. Having company had seemed a welcome prospect.
But she hadn’t expected anyone like him. Tall, broad-shouldered, he had the kind of rugged good looks that Danielle had only before seen on the movie screen. He looked nothing like the weary, middle-aged businessmen travelling on expense accounts her friend Ginny had sworn were the only people who used the airlines’ private lounges between flights.
‘Look,’ Ginny had said patiently, ‘you have a two-hour layover between planes. Why should you sit in a noisy terminal all that time while some guy who sells widgets relaxes in style? I have a friend who’s a flight attendant. He can get you into the VIP lounge.’
Danielle had protested, saying that her discount ticket on Air France hardly entitled her to such perks. She would feel out of place, she’d told Ginny. But her friend had been determined.
‘Jack says it’s no problem. And you’ll probably be all by yourself anyway. After a while, you’ll be dying for company.’
Ginny had been right. The lounge had turned out to be big, handsomely furnished—and as impersonal as a dental surgery. Danielle drank more coffee than was good for her, read a glossy fashion magazine until her eyes felt glazed, and kept glancing at her watch, as if she could somehow will the time to move faster. But she never did resolve the feeling of being out of place.
That was why she felt so uncomfortable now.
Her first thought, when she’d seen the man, had been that he belonged here and she didn’t. And then something had happened, something she still couldn’t understand.
His eyes—so blue they were almost violet—had met hers. Suddenly, the room had seemed to shimmer with electricity. Danielle had heard the racing beat of her own heart, and then the man had smiled, a private little tilt of his finely sculpted mouth that had sent colour flooding into her face.
Danielle had wrenched her head away, forcing herself to stare blindly out of the window, and finally she’d heard the soft sound of footfalls as he’d crossed the room and then the soft shift of leather as he’d settled into a chair.
Silence had fallen around her again and the moments had dragged by while she’d tried to decide what to do next. Her impulse had been to bolt out of the door to the public lounge. But that was silly. There was no reason to run—it was just that, every few minutes, she felt the nape of her neck tingle with the awareness of his eyes, felt her blood surge wildly beneath her skin. And then her pulse would begin to quicken until it drummed so loudly she was certain he could hear it.
All of which was, of course, ridiculous. It was just her imagination—there was no reason to think he was looking at her. He was probably reading a newspaper or dozing or—
‘Excuse me.’ She looked up, startled. The man was standing beside her, holding a newspaper in his hand and smiling. ‘I was wondering—do you have the correct time? My watch seems to have stopped.’
‘It’s five past seven,’ Danielle said, looking pointedly from him to the large clock on the wall.
His eyes followed hers and his smile broadened. ‘Now, how could I have missed seeing that?’ She said nothing, and he put his hand on the chair beside hers. ‘May I?’
She caught her bottom lip between her teeth. ‘If you like.’
Their eyes met as he sat down and she looked away quickly, bending her head over the book in her lap, staring at it, willing herself to read it. But the print blurred before her eyes. She heard the rustle of paper. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see that he was absorbed in the news.
Danielle stared at the book again, trying to get the jumbled letters to make sense. What on earth was the matter with her? The man seated next to her was good-looking, yes. But she’d seen good-looking men before. And he was flirting—she was certain of it. Well, so what? Men had flirted with her before. Sometimes, it was even fun to flirt back. Just a little, of course: a smile, perhaps even a brief conversation, and then you both went on your way.
But there was something different about this man. He was nothing like the men she knew back home. He was more worldly, she could see that at a glance. And then there was the way he looked, that taut body and hard, handsome face and—
‘Are you taking the non-stop to Nice?’
She looked up. He was smiling politely, and his words were polite, too. But there was something else in those blue eyes, something that made her breath catch. Danielle touched her tongue to her lips which felt, suddenly, as dry as the desert.
‘Yes,’ she said.
He nodded. ‘Me, too. Are you on vacation?’
‘Yes.’ Was this one stilted word all she could manage?
‘Have you been to the Riviera before?’ She shook her head and he smiled. ‘You’ll love it. It’s crowded this time of year, but there are some out-of-the-way spots the tourists haven’t found yet.’ His eyes swept over her face. ‘Where are you staying? Perhaps we could—’
‘No,’ she said quickly. His eyebrows rose and, to her horror, she felt a blush spread across her cheeks. ‘I mean, I’m not really on vacation. I—I’ve promised to do some work while I’m away, and…’
Oh, God! He was laughing at her. Well, why wouldn’t he? She was making a fool of herself, dammit—or he was. Yes, that was it. He knew he was making her uneasy and it amused him.
Enough is enough, she thought, drawing herself up, and from some inner reserve she dredged up a cool smile. ‘Excuse me,’ she said politely, ‘but I’d like to finish my book.’
She looked down at the book as if she were about to do just that. She couldn’t read a word, of course, she was too frazzled. But at least she’d managed to silence him…
He laughed softly. ‘Can you really do that before our flight is called?’
Danielle blinked, then stared at the book in her lap. She had it open to the first chapter, but the book was easily three hundred pages long.
Heat rushed to her face again. OK, she thought, OK, that was it. There was another half hour to go before boarding, and she wasn’t going to sit here and provide sport for some jaded jet-setter.
She looked away from that smug twinkle in his eyes and slipped her shoulder bag over her arm. Carefully, she tucked her book into the pocket of her carry-on, then rose from her chair. All she had to do was walk across the lounge, and—
She jumped as his hand fell lightly on her shoulder. How had he moved so quickly? And so silently. But here he was, standing beside her. He was still smiling, but now it was slow and sexy and very, very knowing.
‘I didn’t mean to startle you. But I thought—’
‘You thought wrong,’ she said. Her voice was cold, despite the sudden race of her heart. ‘Now, if you’d step aside…’
His smile became a grin. ‘No problem,’ he said easily. ‘Except that you’ll have a tough time getting on the plane without this.’
Danielle stared at his outstretched hand. ‘What is…?’
‘I think it’s your boarding pass.’ He laughed at the look on her face. ‘Go on, look at it and see for yourself.’
She hesitated, then took the envelope from him and peered at it. He was right, it was her boarding pass. But how—?
He smiled. ‘You dropped it when you stood up,’ he said, as if he’d read her thoughts.
Danielle swallowed. ‘I didn’t…’ Their eyes met, and she swallowed again. ‘Thank you,’ she said stiffly.
‘Thank you? Is that all you can manage after what I’ve done?’
She stared at him. ‘What—what do you mean?’
He smiled again. ‘I won’t feel thanked until you have a drink with me.’
‘No,’ she said. ‘I—I can’t. My flight—’
‘Our flight won’t be boarding for another half hour. We’ve plenty of time.’
She shook her head. ‘Thanks for the offer, but—’
‘Coffee, then. Or tea.’
‘No. No, I—I don’t want anything, thank you. I just…’ This was ridiculous, she thought. He’d reduced her to sounding like an idiot. ‘Goodbye,’ she said, and before he could answer she hurried past him, pushed open the door, and stepped into the corridor.
She let out her breath as the door swung safely shut behind her. Her knees felt like jelly, and she sagged back against the wall. What a stellar performance that had been! She’d acted like a schoolgirl. No, not even that. The giggling teenage girls in her senior French class would have handled themselves better than she’d just done.
With a sigh, she gathered up her things and made her way through the terminal to the public lounge. She’d felt out of place in the VIP lounge, that was the trouble. The stranger had belonged there, not she. This wasn’t a good beginning, she thought glumly. If she felt out of place now, what was going to happen when she got to France? Here she was, off to spend the summer with a bunch of people she had about as much in common with as—as she had with that man.
God. It was going to be a disaster.
There was a vacant seat at the far end of the lounge, and she sank into it and put her carry-on at her feet. ‘Be sure and send me a postcard the minute you get to Nice,’ Ginny had said, but why wait that long? She could compose the card in her head this very minute.
Dear Ginny, I’d like to strangle you for talking me into this.
Danielle sighed wearily. Be honest, she told herself, it wasn’t Ginny’s doing any more than it was anyone else’s—except her own. Oh, she’d protested a lot. But the truth was that her fate had been sealed five days before, when Val had first telephoned. Her cousin’s offer had just been too hard to resist.
The phone had rung in the middle of the night, awakening Danielle from deep sleep. The test papers she’d marked and left on her night table had slid to the floor as she groped groggily for the instrument. When she’d finally found it and brought it to her ear, the tinny voice on the line was almost drowned out by the heavy crackle of static.
‘Hello?’ she said hoarsely. ‘Hello? Who is this?’
‘Danni? It’s me, Val. Can you hear me?’
Danielle sat up quickly, as wide awake as if she’d been doused with cold water. She switched on the lamp and stared at her bedside clock. Five a.m., she thought, and her stomach knotted with alarm.
‘What’s wrong, Val? Has Aunt Helen had another attack? Did Uncle John—?’
Impatience coloured her cousin’s voice. ‘For goodness’ sake, Danni, don’t be so melodramatic. Mom’s fine. Does something have to be wrong for me to call you?’
Danielle sank back against the pillows. ‘It’s five in the morning,’ she answered. ‘The last time I heard from you was—what? Four months ago? Six? You sent me a card from Majorca, I think it was.’ Her voice grew dry. ‘You can hardly blame me for being a little surprised.’
‘I just wanted to say hi, Danni. I guess I forgot about the time difference, though.’ Val’s voice grew silky. ‘I think of you a lot, even if sometimes I do forget to call. Aren’t you my favourite cousin?’
Danielle sighed. ‘Val…’
‘You are, aren’t you? My favourite cousin?’
It was impossible not to smile. ‘I’m not just your favourite cousin, I’m your only cousin,’ Danielle said, falling easily into the old childhood routine.
Both women laughed and suddenly the static faded, as if their shared laughter had cleared the air.
‘How have you been, Danni?’
‘Fine. How about you?’
‘Oh, I’m terrific. Busy, too. I’ve been everywhere the past few months, did Mom tell you?’
‘Mmm. I spoke with Aunt Helen a couple of weeks ago. She said you’d been to Rome and to London on modelling assignments.’ Danielle smiled as she pushed the tumble of light brown curls from her face. ‘Lucky you.’
‘Lucky me is right. Just wait until you hear where I am now.’
‘Yes, you said something about a time difference. Are you in Europe?’
Valerie laughed softly. ‘Mom says you’re still teaching French at Taft High. Is she right?’
‘What else would I be doing? But what does that have to do with—?’
‘Where’s the one place on earth you’d rather be than anywhere else, French teacher?’
Danielle’s eyes widened. ‘You mean—Val, are you really in France?’
‘That’s where I am, all right. I’m on the Côte d’Azur, in a little town just outside Nice. Are you green with envy?’
‘I will be if you tell me you’re there on vacation,’ Danielle said, sighing. ‘At least tell me you’re working hard—if that’s what you can call it when you model gorgeous clothes for a famous couturier.’
Her cousin laughed. ‘Didn’t Mom tell you? I’m not modelling any more. Somehow, they just got around to realising I’m only five feet eight.’ She paused. ‘I’m here with a film company.’
Danielle sat up and switched the phone to her other ear. ‘A film company? Don’t tell me you finally landed an acting role, Val! Oh, I’m so happy for you. I know how hard you—’
‘I’m not exactly in the film, Danni.’
Danielle frowned. ‘What kind of job do you have, then?’
‘Well, see, I heard about this film Barney Wexler was casting, and I thought I’d have a go at it. I’d met Barney a few years ago, when I was doing a charity fashion show in LA, and—’
‘I thought you just said you weren’t in the film.’
‘I’m not.’ Valerie’s voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper, just as it had when they were children. ‘But I’ve got my foot in the door. I wangled a job as Barney’s secretary.’
The thought of Valerie, who didn’t know a typewriter from a typesetter, working as secretary to a film producer made Danielle laugh aloud. ‘Come on, Val, don’t try to kid me. I know better.’
Valerie hesitated. ‘Well, actually, Barney didn’t hire me to do a whole lot of secretarial stuff. I’m more of an administrative assistant. You know, I set up his appointments, arrange his day…’ She hesitated. ‘And I guess you could say I’m his liaison to the French-speaking crew members.’
Danielle blinked. The only thing more outlandish than imagining her cousin as a secretary was imagining her as an interpreter. ‘His what?’ she said slowly.
‘His liaison. Well, only in day-to-day stuff on the set. I type up notices and post them, that kind of thing. Barney has a French guy for all the rest, to deal with the officials and the townspeople and…’
It was hard to know whether to laugh or cry. ‘But you don’t speak French,’ Danielle said gently.
‘I studied it, the same as you,’ Valerie said defensively. ‘Well, you were better at it than I was, sure, but…’
Danielle shook her head. Amazing, she thought. Val hadn’t changed a bit over the years. When they’d been teenagers, she’d managed to talk her way into and out of almost everything. It was how she’d got Danielle to do most of her homework and chores.
But this little escapade took the cake. Val, acting as liaison to French-speaking crew members on a film set? It was impossible. It was—
‘… as good as you ever were, Danielle. Right?’
Danielle cleared her throat. ‘I’m sorry, Val. Did you ask me something?’
‘I asked if you still spoke French as well as you always did. But you must, if you’re teaching it.’
‘I suppose. But what—?’
Her cousin let out her breath. ‘Do you know, we’ve been on location almost a week now,’ she said. ‘And I just keep thinking about you, and how much you’d love this place.’
Danielle sighed. ‘You’re right. I told you, I’m green with envy. What’s the name of the town you’re staying in?’
‘Ste Agathe. It’s in the mountains.’
Danielle closed her eyes, visualising the rocky escarpments rising behind the little villages that dotted the golden Mediterranean coast. ‘It must be lovely,’ she said softly. ‘I wish I could—’
‘You can,’ Val said quickly. ‘That’s why I called. I want you to come and spend your summer vacation with me.’
Danielle sat bolt upright. ‘What did you say?’
‘I said I’d like you to vacation here, in Ste Agathe. Won’t that be terrific?’
The offer stunned her. No word from Valerie for months, and now, suddenly…
‘Danielle? Do I have my timing right? School’s almost out, isn’t it?’
Danielle touched her tongue to her lips. ‘Yes. It ends Friday. But—’
‘Please, say you’ll do it.’ Valerie’s voice rose with excitement. ‘Just think—you can see the Côte d’Azur and the Riviera, you could even go to Paris for a couple of days, and it won’t cost you a penny.’ She laughed. ‘Well, not much more than a penny. You’d have to foot the side trips and your fare. But the rest would be free. You’d have an all-expenses-paid summer here.’
Danielle laughed shakily. ‘Val, listen, I can’t just—’
‘The company’s put us all up—I have two rooms in a beautiful old auberge, it’s more than big enough for the both of us. And I can’t even put a dent in my per diem meal allowance. Come on, Danielle, say you’ll do it. We’ll have such fun together—it’ll be like old times.’
Like old times. Danielle’s cramped bedroom seemed to shimmer in the pre-dawn greyness. For a moment, the pine-panelled walls glowed with a pale pink light, the dark furniture turned gold and white, and the room was transformed into the one she’d shared with Valerie after Aunt Helen and Uncle John had taken her in following the deaths of both her parents in less than a year.
‘You girls are sisters now,’ Aunt Helen had said, clasping their hands together. ‘Won’t that be lovely?’
But they’d barely been friends. Not that Danielle hadn’t tried. Always a shy child, she had been devastated by the sudden loss of her parents, and she’d longed to get close to her beautiful cousin. But they had been worlds apart. At twelve, Val had been caught up with boys and clothes and make-up; Danielle had been too shy for boys and too plain to worry about make-up and clothes. In fact, the only thing they’d really had in common, aside from their shared bedroom, had been their classes and their chores, and eventually it had been Danielle who’d borne the responsibility for most of those.
‘Danielle? Danielle—for goodness’ sake, have we got a bad connection or something? I can’t hear you at all.’
Danielle blinked and swung her legs to the floor. ‘Thanks for asking me, Val,’ she said slowly. ‘But I really don’t think—’
‘Come on, say you’ll come.’ Val’s voice grew soft. ‘Aren’t you my favourite cousin?’
‘I’m not just your favourite cousin,’ Danielle answered automatically, ‘I’m your only—’
That’s right. You are. And it’s time we spent some time together, the way we used to.’
Danielle drew a breath. ‘Val?’ she said slowly. ‘Is there some kind of problem there? I mean, is something wrong?’
‘For heaven’s sake, nothing’s wrong. Haven’t I already said that? Mother is fine. Her latest tests were all negative. Daddy’s fine, too. I just called because you’re my favourite—’
‘Come on, Val. What is it?’
There was a brief silence, and then the whisper of Val’s transatlantic sigh. ‘There is a little favour you could do for me if you came for a visit. You see, somehow or other, Barney—Mr Wexler, my boss?—well, somehow he got the idea I speak French better than I really can. I mean, he deals with a lot of French people here.’
‘I thought you said all you had to do was post notices.’
‘Well, that’s what I thought. But other things keep cropping up, and Barney’s interpreter isn’t always here. Sometimes he’s in Nice on business, or—’
‘Did you tell this Mr Wexler you were fluent in the language?’
There was another silence. ‘No,’ Val said finally, ‘not exactly. I just told him the truth, that I’d done very well in my French classes.’
Despite herself, Danielle began to laugh. ‘Val,’ she said patiently, ‘I did very well, remember? You used to copy my homework. And I drilled you like crazy before each exam.’
‘And you could do that now,’ Val said eagerly. ‘Well, not drill me, but you could help me deal with some of the office work. And you could field some of the calls that come in—honestly, French people talk a hundred miles an hour. It’s so hard to understand a word they say.’ Her voice softened. ‘Mom thinks it’s a terrific idea.’
‘You already spoke to Aunt Helen about this? But—’
‘She says you could use a change of scene. She says the accident upset you a lot.’ There was a brief silence. ‘I really meant to call you, Danni. Was it very awful?’
Danielle closed her eyes. ‘Yes,’ she whispered finally. ‘It was terrible.’
‘What was his name? Teddy?’
‘Eddie. Eddie Chancellor. You knew him, Val. He was two years ahead of us in school.’
‘Was he on the football team or anything?’
Danielle smiled at the thought. ‘No. He was on the debating team.’
‘I wouldn’t remember him, then.’ For a moment, the offhand carelessness of the remark angered Danielle, but then Valerie sighed and her voice filled with concern. ‘I’m really sorry,’ she said. ‘When did it happen?’
‘Eight months. It’s been eight months since—’
‘Getting away would be good for you. And you’d save my life. Really.’
Danielle smiled again. ‘You always were too dramatic.’
‘Well, it’s true.’ Valerie’s voice grew soft. ‘I really need you here.’ There was a sudden crackle of static. ‘Listen, I have to get off the phone now. I’ll send you the directions to Ste Agathe, OK? You won’t have any trouble finding it. There’s this road that goes straight from Nice into the mountains—’
‘I haven’t said I’m coming,’ Danielle said quickly.
‘Of course you’re coming.’ Static crackled again, and then Danielle thought she heard the distant sound of a man’s deep voice, followed by husky laughter. She hunched over the phone, straining to hear.
‘Val? Are you still there?’
‘I’m here,’ Val said in a sort of breathless whisper, and then she laughed softly. ‘In a minute. Yes. Well, I’m asking her now.’
‘Who are you talking to?’
‘Danielle, listen, I really have to run. You just make your flight reservations. Do you have a passport? And you’ll need a visa. Oh, and I guess you’ll need a rental car to get here from the airport. And—’
‘What’s your number there? How can I reach you? Val?’
The phone went dead. Danielle hung up slowly, then leaned back against the pillows and tried to imagine Val as an administrative assistant on a film set. The locale sounded glamorous enough, but the job sounded stodgy—nothing like the things her cousin had tried so far: modelling, commercials, even summer theatre once. Val had always been beautiful, and she’d gone easily from high school graduation into a world where that beauty, rather than the ability to conjugate verbs or add a column of figures, had been all she needed to succeed. An administrative assistant, Danielle thought again. Well, that only proved how out of touch they were.
She yawned, got to her feet, then walked to the window and opened the curtains. The June morning was painting the sky with gold. The day was already warm, and the air smelled faintly of the cornfields that stretched away to the Missouri horizon.
Lazily, Danielle stretched her arms high over her head. She was tired, but there was no sense in trying to go back to sleep now. She’d shower, dress, have her breakfast—and think about Val’s invitation.
A whole summer in France, she thought as she pulled off her nightshirt and dropped it on the bed. What a vacation that would be! She’d never really done any travelling, except for last winter’s trip to visit Aunt Helen and Uncle John in their new retirement home in Arizona.
And Val was right—she really could do with a change. The winter had been long and harsh. And the accident had taken a terrible toll. She still had visions of Eddie lying in the road, his blood turning the rain-slicked tarmac red as his life had drained away.
Danielle shook her head and marched to the bathroom. No. She wouldn’t think about that awful day any more. Quickly, she stepped into the bath and turned on the shower. Brooding about Eddie wouldn’t bring him back. And, now that she thought about it, a trip to Europe wouldn’t do it, either. What it would do was exhaust her bank account—room and board might be free, but the fare wasn’t.
The more she thought, the more negatives there were. Val might be comfortable on a glitzy film set, but would she? And then there was Val herself—could they even get on together for a whole summer? They’d been dissimilar enough when they were teenagers; what did they have in common now?
Danielle lathered a facecloth and began scrubbing herself. She’d call Aunt Helen this evening and get Val’s phone number, and then she’d call her cousin and tell her thanks, but no thanks. And that would be the end of that.
But it hadn’t been. ‘Are you nuts?’ Ginny had demanded when she mentioned Val’s invitation in the faculty room at lunch. ‘A free trip to France, and you’re turning it down?’
It had been useless to keep repeating that the trip wasn’t free. It was almost free, her friend had insisted. And not even an explanation of why Val had really tendered the invitation was enough to dim her friend’s enthusiasm.
‘Maybe she’s changed. I mean, wouldn’t it be great if she really wanted the two of you to get close?’
Danielle’s eyes had clouded for a second, but then she’d shaken her head. ‘I’m too old to believe in miracles, Ginny.’
‘Well, then, let her think she’s getting some mileage out of you, the same as when you were kids.’ Ginny had grinned impishly. ‘You’ll be getting yours, too. A summer abroad—on a film set, no less!’
But the final straw had fallen that afternoon. The phone had been ringing as Danielle came in the door. It had been Aunt Helen, calling from Arizona. Her aunt hadn’t let her get a word in before she’d started saying how happy she was that her two girls were going to spend the summer together, and then Uncle John had got on the phone, saying how pleased he was that his girls were still pals, that he hadn’t seen Helen look so bright and chipper since her heart attack.
‘You have to go now,’ Ginny had said innocently. ‘I mean, how can you let your aunt down?’
‘I can’t, I guess,’ Danielle had said.
But she could have, she thought now, shifting in the hard plastic chair at New York’s Kennedy Airport. The simple truth was that she’d hidden behind Ginny’s urgings and Aunt Helen’s delight—she’d wanted to accept Val’s offer all along, she just hadn’t wanted to admit it to herself. Teachers were as underpaid in Missouri as they were everywhere else. This might be the only chance she’d have to spend eight weeks in France, at least in the foreseeable future.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, good day. We are now ready to begin boarding Air France’s Flight 010 direct to Nice. Will first-class passengers kindly…’
Danielle’s heartbeat quickened in anticipation. She rose, clutching her shoulder bag in one hand and her carry-on in the other. Her ticket was for a seat well in the rear of the plane, but it didn’t hurt to begin moving towards the gate. The flight would be crowded, she could see that. There were hordes of vacationers jostling each other, lots of squalling babies and—
She stumbled to a sudden halt, her gaze inexorably drawn to the first-class passengers as they moved towards the gate. There was only a handful of them, but the man who’d shared the lounge with her earlier stood out clearly.
Perhaps it was the way he held himself, with a reckless kind of arrogance, or the angle of his shoulders, squared as if he were ready to take on the world. Or was it something far less obvious, some subconscious awareness that drew her to him as it had from the start, some message carried in the darkness of her blood?
Danielle’s breath caught as he came to a sudden stop. The crowd parted and surged past him as he stood still, his head cocked as if listening. He turned slowly, his eyes scanning the huge room, and an electric tingle danced along her spine.
She knew, without question, why his eyes searched every face. He was looking for her, waiting for her.
She took a step back, blending quickly into the crowd. Her heart raced as she watched him.
‘Mesdames et monsieurs…’
The crowd surged past her, blocking him from view. When she looked again, he was gone.
THE plane was as crowded as Danielle had expected. Passengers jammed the tourist-class aisles, some peering at seat numbers, others elbowing each other aside as they tried to get at the overhead storage hatches.
Her seat was in the rear of the plane, the centre seat in a group of three, and the other two were already occupied.
‘Excuse me,’ she said to the heavyset woman on the aisle side. The woman glanced up, then nodded. Her face was shiny with sweat.
‘Are we going to take off soon, do you think?’ she whispered as Danielle struggled past her.
Danielle smiled politely. ‘I hope so.’
The man in the window seat grumbled something. ‘We’d damned well better,’ he said. ‘I’ve got a connection to make at Nice.’
But their take-off was delayed for almost an hour. Technical problems, the captain announced over the loudspeaker. The phrase sent the heavyset woman into little gasps of anguish and the irritated man into even louder grumbles. By the time the plane was finally airborne, he was fairly twitching. But as soon as the ‘fasten seat belt’ signs blinked off, he put back his seat, closed his eyes, and fell soundly asleep.
To Danielle’s surprise, her white-knuckled companion on the aisle side did the same. The woman’s head lolled back and, within minutes, she was snoring delicately.
Danielle sighed with relief. She’d been afraid the woman’s nervousness would make her want to chatter, and the last thing she felt like doing was making small talk. There was a dull pain in her temple that threatened to work itself into a full-blown headache. And she was as tense as a coiled spring. She couldn’t stop thinking about what had happened at the boarding gate. The scene kept playing in her mind like a loop of film that would run over and over until it wore out.
There had to be a way to make sense out of it. She knew what seemed to have happened: the man she’d met in the lounge had expected to see her at the boarding gate. When she hadn’t appeared, he’d looked for her.
End of story.
But she knew that it hadn’t been that simple. She’d felt the intensity of his gaze across the room. And then there had been her own reaction, that thrumming pulse of her blood—
The low-pitched masculine voice startled her. Her pulse leaped as she looked up. But it was only the man from the window seat, apologising as he made his way past her to the aisle. Danielle sighed and laid her head back. Who else would it have been? The stranger wasn’t going to come looking for her. He was hidden behind the curtains that separated first-class from the rest of the plane. And anyway, why would he want to find her? He’d probably forgotten the whole thing by now.
Which was precisely what she would do, she told herself firmly as she dredged the Frommer’s guidebook that Ginny had given her from the depths of her shoulder bag. She’d be in France soon, and seeing all the lovely old places she’d read about would be a dream come true.
She was deep in a description of Versailles when the woman beside her yawned loudly.
‘My goodness,’ she said with a little laugh, ‘did I fall asleep? I didn’t think I’d—’ Her breath caught. ‘Excuse me,’ she whispered as she leaned heavily across Danielle and stared out of the window, ‘do you see that wing? Is it supposed to look like that?’
Danielle followed the woman’s trembling finger and then she smiled. ‘It looks fine to me,’ she said gently.
Her neighbour touched her tongue to her lips. ‘Are you sure? I—I know it sounds silly, but I thought it looked loose. Just at the end there, you see? Where the metal is so thin.’
Danielle smiled again. ‘I’m sure it’s fine.’
‘Well, if you think so…’ The woman touched her tongue to her lips again. ‘I won’t bother you any more. I’m sure you’d rather read your book.’
Danielle sighed. ‘You didn’t bother me at all,’ she said, closing the Frommer.
‘Are you sure? Well, that’s nice to hear. I’m Alice Davis. Have you been abroad before? I have. One time. Two, really, if you count the trip I took to Bermuda. But that’s not going abroad, is it? Not like Europe, I mean. I always say…’
* * *
Hours later, when the plane finally touched down at the Nice-Côte d’Azur Airport, Danielle almost groaned with relief. Somehow she managed to smile at Alice, who’d talked, almost non-stop, across the entire Atlantic.
‘Aren’t you getting off?’ Alice asked as she eased her bulky self into the aisle.
Danielle looked at the passengers already crowding the narrow space and shook her head.
‘I’ll wait,’ she said. ‘It doesn’t look as if anyone’s going anywhere for a while anyway.’
Alice laughed. ‘You’re probably smart to avoid the crowd. But I can hardly wait to get my feet on solid ground again. And my niece is waiting—I haven’t seen her in a year. You understand.’
Danielle smiled and waved her hand as Alice moved into the queue, and then she settled back into her seat. The man in the window seat had already trampled her toes in his rush to disembark, muttering that he’d never make his connecting flight, thanks to the delay back in New York.
Everyone was in a rush to go somewhere, she thought with a sigh, everyone except her. She had no plane to catch, no one waiting for her at the gate.
‘I won’t be able to meet you, Danni,’ Val had said when Danielle had phoned to confirm her arrival. ‘It’s a working day. But you won’t mind, will you?’
Danielle had said she wouldn’t. But the truth was that there was something awfully lonely about stepping off a plane in a strange country with no one to greet you…
Unless he was waiting, unless he was, even now, watching eagerly for her, scanning each face with those dark blue eyes.
Quickly, Danielle rose and picked up her carry-on and shoulder bag. Alice had been right, she thought as she pushed into the aisle, there was really no sense in sitting here. She might as well get going.
The Nice-Côte d’Azur terminal was disappointing. It was foolish, she knew, but she’d expected something more exotic than this crowded, noisy place that reminded her of airport terminals everywhere. People were jabbering at each other as they lined up around the baggage carousel, but the jabbering was all in English. Well, this was the height of the tourist season, that was what it said in her Frommer—the little she’d managed to read of it, anyway. And the Côte d’Azur was Mecca to both the British and the Americans.
There was a long, slow-moving queue at Customs. Danielle gave the inspector a hesitant smile, but he barely glanced up. He seemed bored, even disinterested, as he held out his hand for her papers.
‘How long will you be in France?’ he asked. ‘Are you here on business or pleasure?’
His English was heavily accented. Without thinking, Danielle responded in French, and suddenly his face was wreathed in smiles.
‘Ah, mademoiselle,’ he said, and he burst into the swift, musical language she had studied and loved for so many years.
French, she thought, he’s speaking real French, and suddenly her heart raced with excitement. She was really here! She was in Europe and the summer lay ahead, the long weeks beckoning like unwrapped gifts lying beneath a Christmas tree.
Danielle dragged her suitcase to the car-rental counter. Her breath hissed from her lungs as she eased it down and flexed her hand wearily. She would be in Ste Agathe soon, with Val. What she’d told Ginny was true—she didn’t believe in miracles and she didn’t expect one—but it was going to be nice to see Val again.
There was so much to catch up on—Val probably had dozens of fantastic stories to tell. While Danielle had been drumming French into unwilling adolescent heads, her glamorous cousin had been burning a swath through New York and Hollywood. She’d been everywhere and done everything—she’d even broken two engagements and who knew how many hearts. Danielle smiled to herself. Listening to Val would be like reading a glossy magazine.
As for the things she’d tell Val, well, there wasn’t all that much to talk about. Danielle liked teaching, but Val would probably think it dull. Her smile dimmed a little. She could tell her about Eddie, of course, how kind he had been, how good.
Eddie. It was the first time she’d thought of him in hours. But that was understandable. Today had been such a rush. First Ginny’s old car had had to be coaxed into starting. She’d had to race to make the plane at St Louis. And then there’d been all that foolishness at the Air France lounge.
But that was all behind her now. Besides, just because she hadn’t thought about Eddie, it didn’t mean she’d forgotten him.
She never would, she thought as she moved slowly forward in the queue. Eddie had been the gentlest man she’d ever known. And he’d loved her very much. She’d loved him too, although not quite the way he’d wanted. But he’d made her feel needed, and perhaps knowing someone needed you was enough. Heaven knew she’d tried to feel what he felt, but it just hadn’t happened. Not even his kisses had made her heart race the way it had when she’d seen the stranger searching for her at the boarding gate.
God! What was she thinking? She couldn’t compare her feelings for Eddie to anything else. She’d loved Eddie, she’d—
‘Mademoiselle?’ Danielle looked up. The clerk at the car-rental counter gave her a polite smile. ‘How may I help you?’
Danielle fumbled in her shoulder bag for her rental agreement. ‘You have a car reserved for me,’ she said. ‘A compact. My name is Danielle Nichols, and I made arrangements in—’
She broke off and stared at the clerk, who was looking down at the rental contract and shaking her head.
‘Alors, I am afraid I have not.’
‘Have not what?’ Danielle asked slowly, her eyes locked on the woman’s face.
‘A car, mademoiselle.’ The clerk looked up and smiled sadly. ‘We have none for you.’
‘But—but of course you have.’ Danielle tapped her finger against the rental agreement. ‘Don’t you see what this says? I have a car reserved for this day. Here’s my name and flight number, the time of my arrival…’
‘Oui. That is exactly so. And you have arrived more than one and one half hours late.’ The woman smiled. ‘You had a car at a discounted price until twenty minutes ago.’
‘You mean I’m too late?’ Danielle sighed. ‘Well, then, I’ll pay the regular price. Not that I think that’s right, you understand. But—’
‘There are no cars, Mademoiselle Nichols. Not at any price.’
Danielle shook her head. ‘That can’t be. I must have a car. I have to drive to Ste Agathe. I don’t know any other way to reach it.’
‘I am terribly sorry, mademoiselle. Perhaps you can take a taxi. There is a stand, just outside. And then, tomorrow…’
A long argument later, Danielle snatched up her suitcase and marched towards the exit doors. Tomorrow, she thought furiously. What good was that? She had to reach Ste Agathe today. Well, she’d just have to take a taxi, although who knew what it would cost? Val had sent her a cramped, hand-drawn map and, for all she knew, Ste Agathe was miles from here. The trip would probably cost a fortune.
Her footsteps slowed, then stopped. She should have asked the clerk what the fare would be. How many francs were there to a dollar, anyway? Five? Six? For that matter, how many francs did she have in her wallet? Not a lot; the guidebook had said it was better to change your money at a bank at your destination.
‘For God’s sake, are you just going to stand there?’
The man’s voice was deep, a little husky, and touched with impatience. Danielle’s mouth went dry as his hand closed around her arm. No, she thought, no, it couldn’t be.
But she knew it was he even before she turned towards him. It was the man she’d run from on another continent. ‘What are you doing here?’ she said.
It was a stupid thing to say. But she couldn’t think of anything else. Besides, what was he doing here? He should have left the terminal a long time ago.
He laughed. ‘Saving your tail,’ he said, ‘that’s what I’m doing here. It’s getting to be a habit.’
His eyes met hers, but there was no electric charge in them this time. There was, instead, a look of faint amusement, and she realised suddenly that that was what she’d heard in his voice, too.
He wasn’t impatient with her, he was laughing at her, and not for the first time. The realisation was infuriating.
‘What a gracious way to put it,’ she said coldly. ‘But I’m happy to say I don’t need your help.’
‘Really? And just how in hell are you going to get to Ste Agathe?’
Danielle twisted free of his grasp. ‘I’ll manage,’ she said, and then she frowned. ‘How did you know—?’
‘I overheard your conversation at the car-rental counter.’
Her chin lifted. ‘Are you in the habit of spying on women?’
He laughed softly. ‘Such ego, Miss Nichols. Have you got secrets to hide?’
Danielle felt her cheeks grow pink. Easy, she told herself. Don’t let him shake you. Thanks to him, you’ve already played the fool once.
‘No,’ she said calmly. ‘I just find it strange that we would bump into each other again, especially since I saw you looking for me at Kennedy. You were—’
She broke off in confusion. His eyes darkened and a little smile tilted at the corners of his mouth.
‘Was I?’ he said softly. ‘How could you tell?’
So much for playing it cool. What was she going to say now? She couldn’t think of anything that wouldn’t make things worse—which was ridiculous. There was no reason to be so damned tongue-tied. If he just—if he just wouldn’t look at her that way, if he’d just back off so she could catch her breath…
Stop it, she told herself firmly, and she tilted her head back and gave him a dazzling smile. ‘It’s been lovely,’ she said, ‘being charmed by you twice in one day. But you’ll have to forgive me—I’m in a rush. So if you’d just step aside…’
He grinned. ‘At least you’re doing better now than you were a few hours ago.’
Danielle stared at him. ‘What’s that supposed to mean?’
‘It means,’ he said, ‘that you seem to have decided I’m not the big bad wolf in disguise.’ He sighed and reached for her suitcase. ‘The trouble is, it’s too late for me to appreciate it. I’m tired as hell—I spent damned near the last twenty-four hours in the air, and I just made a call and found out it was all for nothing.’
‘Will you please put down my suitcase?’
‘Don’t give me a hard time, lady. I told you, I’m wiped out.’
Danielle’s eyebrows rose. ‘That’s hardly my problem. Just because you—’
‘Your problem,’ he said, ‘is reaching Ste Agathe, which happens to be exactly where I’m headed.’
His answer stopped her dead. ‘Ste Agathe?’ She looked at him. His expression was unreadable, and after a moment, she shook her head. ‘I don’t believe you.’
He muttered something sharp and succinct under his breath, and then he dropped her suitcase to the floor.
‘Look,’ he said, putting his hands on his hips, ‘I’m flattered. Really. I like playing cat and mouse. Hell, any other time I’d be delighted to go on for hours.’ His eyes narrowed. ‘But not now. I told you, I’m tired. And I’m irritable. All I want to do is get to my rooms and take a shower.’
Danielle stared at him. ‘Cat and mouse? I haven’t the slightest idea what you’re—’
‘Come on, don’t give me that. I make a move and you parry with a cold shoulder. It’s a sexy little game—hell, I didn’t think you knew it, at first. But you do—and you’re damned good at it.’ He moved closer to her, and the slow smile she remembered all too well angled across his mouth. ‘Of course,’ he said in a husky whisper, ‘we could kill two birds with one stone. You must be as tired as I am. Why don’t we go someplace quiet and climb into a shower together?’
Colour flared in Danielle’s cheeks and she reached for her suitcase, snatching it up despite its weight. ‘Not if you were the last man on earth.’
Laughter lit his eyes again. ‘Your choice, sweetheart. Too bad. You would have been great company.’
‘The taxi driver who’s going to take me to Ste Agathe is the only company I want.’
The man grinned. ‘No problem,’ he said, jamming a pair of dark glasses on his nose. ‘Enjoy your ride. Do yourself a favour and tell the driver to take the road to Mont Abat. That should cut off a few kilometres. And tell him you know the law, that you don’t have to pay his gas or share the ride with anyone else. Of course, you’ll have to pay his fare both ways.’
Danielle swallowed. ‘Both ways? But—’
‘It’s a long trip, Miss Nichols. You don’t think these guys work for nothing, do you?’
She hesitated. ‘I—I don’t suppose you know what the fare will be?’
‘Not to the centime, no. But eight hundred francs ought to do it.’
‘Eight hundred…’ She turned pale. ‘But that’s more than a hundred and thirty dollars.’
‘Unless he refuses to go via Mont Abat, in which case you’ll add on another fifty or sixty francs. Oh, and you’ll have to add on a tip, of course.’
‘Of course,’ she said weakly. Slowly, she set her suitcase down beside her. Eight hundred francs. That was almost as much as the cost of renting a car for two weeks. It was an enormous amount of money; it would put a dent in her careful budget, and this was only her first day.
She drew a breath and looked up at the man again. She had the feeling he was watching her closely but it was impossible to be sure, now that his eyes were hidden behind the dark glasses.
‘Are you—are you really going to Ste Agathe?’ she asked.
His lips drew back from his teeth. ‘That’s what I said.’
‘But—but I don’t know you. I mean…’
‘Would a formal introduction make you feel better, Miss Nichols?’
‘I know this must seem very funny to you,’ Danielle said coldly, ‘but I’m not in the habit of going off with strangers.’
‘We’re not strangers, though. We’ve had two absolutely delightful conversations, we shared a plane ride…’ He held up his hands in surrender when he saw the look on Danielle’s face. ‘You’re quite right,’ he said solemnly. ‘Two people who are about to set off on a journey together should at least know each other’s names. Anyway, I already know yours. I suppose you’re entitled to the same courtesy.’ He made a sweeping bow. ‘Lee Bradford, at your service, mam’selle.’
Something in the way he offered his name gave her pause. ‘Should I—am I supposed to know your name, or something?’
‘Or something,’ he said with a quick smile.
Was he an actor? Was that why he was going to Ste Agathe? He was certainly handsome enough.
She drew in her breath. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said, ‘but I’m afraid—’
‘I’m a racer.’
Danielle looked blank. ‘You can’t be. Jockeys are short, aren’t they?’
He reached up slowly and pulled off his glasses. There was laughter in his eyes again. ‘Cars,’ he said softly. ‘Race cars. I’m a driver, Miss Nichols.’
Race cars, she thought. Of course. It was easy to imagine him behind the wheel of a powerful car, the wind whipping into his face and the engine growling.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said, ‘I’m not very…’
The look of amusement left his face. It was, she thought, like glimpsing the real features behind a mask, but before she could quite grasp what it was she’d thought she’d seen, the arrogant expression was back.
‘No,’ he said, picking up her suitcase, ‘you’re not.’ He started towards the doors as Danielle stared after him, and then he turned and looked at her. ‘Well? Are you coming or not?’
She caught her bottom lip between her teeth. ‘I—I don’t know. Maybe I can get a car at another counter. Maybe I should telephone…’
Lee Bradford sighed and dropped her luggage to the floor. ‘All right,’ he said, walking towards her, ‘let’s get it over with.’
Danielle stared at him. ‘I don’t understand.’
He smiled as his hands clasped her shoulders. ‘Yes, you do,’ he said softly. ‘You’ve been wondering about this from the minute I walked into that lounge in New York.’ His eyes swept over her face and settled on her mouth. ‘Maybe if we get the suspense out of the way, we can get to Ste Agathe before next week.’
She knew what he was going to do a second before it happened, but it was still too late. Her hands came up and pressed against his chest as he bent his head towards hers.
‘No,’ she said frantically, ‘you can’t do that.’
If only she hadn’t protested, she thought later, if only she hadn’t said anything or done anything, it might have ended there. His kiss was only meant to tease her, she knew that even as she fought against it.
His mouth only brushed hers lightly, but when her lips parted to vent her protest, everything changed. Lee’s mouth closed over hers and then his arms tightened around her.
Danielle whimpered softly as he drew her to him. She felt the quick race of his heart beneath her hands and the answering race of her own, and then his lips moved against hers. Suddenly time and reality dropped away.
She had no idea how long it was before his hands cupped her shoulders again and he thrust her from him. They stood staring at each other, locked in a silence so thick it seemed almost palpable. Then, before Danielle could speak, Lee let out his breath and turned away.
‘OK,’ he said evenly, ‘that’s out of the way. Can you manage your carry-on yourself, or shall I take it?’
Danielle shook her head. ‘I—I…’
Her words faded and Lee swung towards her. ‘Last chance, little girl,’ he said. His voice sounded angry, almost fierce. ‘Maybe you ought to forget about Ste Agathe and get on the next plane back to the States.’
It was, she thought with sudden, terrible clarity, probably the best advice anyone had ever given her.
But instead of taking it, Danielle swung the strap of her carry-on over her shoulder. ‘Where’s your car, Mr Bradford?’ she asked with determined coolness, and without another word she followed him out into the hot Mediterranean sun.
LEE BRADFORD’S car was a low-slung, gleaming black machine that looked as if it were moving even when it was standing still. He tossed Danielle’s suitcase and carry-on into the boot, then unlocked the passenger door and gave her a casual salute.
‘Your taxi, Miss Nichols.’
Danielle looked from him to the car. The interior looked barely large enough for two. The leather bucket seats were close to the ground, which meant her legs, bare beneath her light summer dress, would probably be stuck out almost straight under the dashboard.
She turned and glanced towards the taxi stand and the long queue of travellers waiting there. Eight hundred francs, she thought. It was a lot of money, and who knew how long it would take until it was her turn? But perhaps it was worth it. Perhaps—
‘Having second thoughts, little girl?’
Laughter danced in Bradford’s voice. Danielle met his derisive glance. God, the man was insufferable! First he’d expected her to be an easy pickup; when she hadn’t been, he’d decided she was a naïve little thing—probably because his ego wouldn’t let him think otherwise.
Probably, she suddenly thought, because that was how she’d acted.
Her head came up and she forced herself to meet his smile with an aloof one of her own. ‘Not at all,’ she said calmly. ‘I was just wondering why anyone would drive a thing like this. It doesn’t look very comfortable.’
He laughed as he went around to the driver’s side and slipped behind the wheel. ‘Comfort hasn’t a thing to do with it.’
He was right, of course. It hadn’t, and Danielle knew it. The car was made for speed. But speed was impossible along the heavily trafficked roads leading from the airport. She could feel Lee’s barely contained impatience: the fingers of his left hand tapped a restive tattoo on the steering wheel while his right clenched and unclenched on the gear shifter. He changed position in his seat, easing his long legs under the dashboard, then leaned forward and pressed a button on the instrument panel. A motor whined softly, and part of the roof overhead slid back.
A luxuriant floral scent filled the car. Danielle drew a deep breath. ‘What’s that lovely smell?’ she said softly.
Bradford glanced at her, then at the road. ‘Flowers. All kinds of flowers. And herbs—rosemary, thyme, sage—Provence is like an enormous garden. Why don’t you sit back and enjoy it?’
He smiled. ‘No, you’re not. You’re too busy trying to keep your skirt over your knees. I assure you, Miss Nichols, I’ve seen women with more than their legs bare.’ His teeth flashed in a quick grin. ‘You might as well relax.’
She stared at him, then looked quickly back at the road. If only she could think of some clever reply, if only she could turn his teasing jibes back on him. But she’d tried that, and it had only backfired. The best thing to do was just to keep still.
Traffic was still heavy, but Lee took advantage of every opening in the clotted flow, surging in and out of the stream of cars with quick bursts of speed. The car seemed as impatient as its driver. The engine growled like a mean thing trapped in a cage, occasionally: rising to what seemed to her ears an angry scream. Danielle glanced at Lee’s profile. He looked tense; his mouth was hard, his jaw was set with concentration.
Finally, they shot past the last automobile. His foot came down harder on the accelerator and the car leaped eagerly ahead. They were speeding along a road so narrow and winding that she could only hope they would meet no car coming in the other direction. Carefully, Danielle glanced at Lee Bradford. All his attention was on the road, but there was nothing tense about him now. He was sitting back almost lazily, his left hand lying loosely on the steering wheel, his right on the gear shifter. He looked relaxed, but she knew he was totally in command of the swift-moving car which responded to his touch, purring beneath his hand like a satisfied cat.
Or like a contented woman.
The thought came swiftly and unexpectedly. At first, she was afraid she’d spoken aloud. But another look at him assured her she hadn’t. His eyes were still on the road, and there was a look on his face that told her he was as much caught up in the pleasure of the swift-moving car as she was in thinking about him.
Danielle felt a sudden sweep of irrational anger. ‘Must you drive so fast?’ she said sharply.
He glanced at her. ‘We’re not going fast at all, Miss Nichols.’ His eyes went to the speedometer, as did hers. ‘We’ve barely hit ninety.’
Ninety! How could they have reached such speed without her even noticing? Had she left her senses behind in the States? she thought, and her irritation grew.
‘I’d appreciate it if you’d slow down, Mr Bradford.’
Lee laughed. ‘What’s the matter, little girl? Are you scared?’
‘No.’ Her voice was cool, which amazed her, because his assessment was right on target. ‘You don’t scare me, you amaze me. Why should a grown man want to risk his neck playing such foolish games?’
A muscle knotted in his jaw. ‘High-stakes games are the only ones worth playing,’ he said softly, but even as he spoke his foot eased on the pedal and the car slowed to a more respectable seventy-five. ‘But you’re right, Miss Nichols. All you signed on for was a ride to Ste Agathe, not the Grand Prix.’ They rode in silence, and then he looked at her. ‘I take it you’ve never been to the Côte d’Azur before.’
Was he going to try and make pleasant conversation? If he was, he’d end up talking to himself.
‘No,’ Danielle said, staring straight ahead.
‘Are you on vacation, then?’
He sighed. ‘And you’re going to Ste Agathe as your first stop.’
The road lifted ahead, uncoiling like a grey ribbon as it entered the mountains. Bradford down-shifted and the engine hummed softly in accord.
‘Do you have a dog?’
Despite herself, Danielle turned and stared at him. ‘What?’
‘A dog,’ he said patiently. ‘Do you have one?’
Her brows drew together. ‘No.’
Bradford shrugged. ‘A pity,’ he said softly. ‘I was going to ask if you still beat him.’
Her eyes fastened on his impassive profile. ‘If I had a dog, I’d never beat him. Besides, that’s a stupid question to ask someone. You can’t give a “yes” or a “no” answer to something like that, you have to…’ Her voice faded as he began to chuckle. Danielle glared at him for a few seconds, and then a smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. ‘Touché, Mr Bradford.’
‘Lee.’ He glanced at her and smiled. ‘You might as well call me that. Ste Agathe has a population that would fit into a sardine tin. Calling me Mr Bradford is going to mark you as an outsider.’
Danielle shifted towards him. ‘Is it really small?’
Lee nodded. ‘It is—or it was, until the film crew arrived.’
‘You know about the film they’re shooting there?’
He grinned. ‘Oh, yes, Miss Nichols. I do, indeed.’
‘Danielle,’ she said without thinking.
His eyes met hers. ‘What’s that?’
‘Danielle. It’s my name. If I’m going to call you by your first name, you—’ She broke off and a light blush rose in her cheeks. ‘You knew that was my name.’
The slow smile she already knew well curved across Lee’s mouth. ‘Yes,’ he said softly, ‘I did. But I wanted to hear you ask me to say it.’
Their eyes met. Danielle’s breath caught; her name had become a caress when he used it. And the way he was looking at her made her feel—made her feel…
She turned away quickly and stared straight ahead. They were climbing higher and higher into the mountains—she could see the rocky drop to the valley. It was a sight she’d always longed to see, but now it was all a blur. The only thing she could see clearly was the man seated beside her.
She lay her head back and inhaled deeply. What was the matter with her? Exhaustion, probably. One way or another, she’d spent most of the past day in the air. And she was wary about seeing Val again. Yes. Exhaustion, that was it. That was why she felt so—so confused, so vulnerable. It had nothing to do with Lee Bradford. Nothing…
Danielle moistened her lips with her tongue. ‘Sorry,’ she said brightly. ‘I was thinking about—about Ste Agathe. Did you ask me something?’
He smiled. ‘Yes. I asked if you were a history buff.’
She shook her head. ‘No,’ she said slowly, ‘not especially. Why do you ask?’
Lee shrugged his shoulders. ‘Ste Agathe doesn’t get many tourists. The ones who come are usually interested in the walls.’ He glanced at her. ‘The Roman walls,’ he said, ‘the ones left standing around the western portion of the town.’
‘I didn’t know there were any.’
‘It’s about all the town has going for it. Well, that and its antiquity. It’s a handsome little place—if you’re into fifteenth-century houses and quiet lanes.’
Danielle smiled. ‘I gather you’re not.’
Lee shrugged again. ‘They’re all right, I suppose.’ His hand flexed on the steering wheel, and she noticed how lightly it seemed to lie there, how little effort it took for him to control the powerful automobile. ‘But I’m used to a different kind of life. Racing circuits tend to be where the lights are brightest. Monte Carlo, Le Mans, Mexico City—that’s what I’m used to.’ He grinned at her. ‘Wexler says Ste Agathe’s peaceful. But I keep telling him that a tomb is peaceful, too.’
Danielle smiled in return. Yes, she thought, looking at him, a man like this would be unhappy tucked away in a quiet village. She knew little about Lee Bradford, but what she sensed told her that he craved excitement, that he needed it as some men needed food or drink. There’d be no bright lights in a place like Ste Agathe, no fast cars, no beautiful women to drape themselves around him as she knew they must in the real world.
She blinked. Wexler? Did he mean Barney Wexler? It had to be. How many Wexlers would you find in a place the size of Ste Agathe?
‘Lee?’ He glanced at her and she touched her tongue to her lips. ‘Are you with the film crew?’
He sighed and looked back at the road. ‘Unfortunately, the answer’s yes.’
Danielle frowned. ‘But you said you’re a racing driver.’
‘Yeah.’ He shifted uncomfortably. ‘That’s what I keep telling myself.’
‘I don’t understand. If you’re a driver…’
He laughed softly. ‘Forgive my immodesty, love, but I’m not a driver, I’m the driver. Well, last year’s, anyway, although I’m trying my damnedest to come out on top two years in a row. I had more championship points than anyone else, I won more races…’ He looked at Danielle’s blank face and laughed again. ‘You’re bad for my ego, do you know that? You keep looking at me as if I were talking Martian.’
‘I’m sorry. But I told you, I don’t know anything about…’
Lee sighed. ‘Neither does Wexler, which is why he asked me to serve as technical adviser on his film. Somebody introduced us at a party in New York, I guess it was. And then we bumped into each other again at a bash in Zurich.’
‘Zurich,’ Danielle repeated. She watched him, remembering what he’d said about speaking Martian. He’d meant it as a jest, but it was true enough. They might as well have come from different worlds, she thought, and a strange sadness tightened her throat.
He grinned. ‘I think it was Zurich. Hell, maybe it was Barcelona. I’m not really sure. Not that it matters—I just wish I’d been sober when Wexler tendered the invitation.’ Danielle’s eyebrows rose and his grin became a rueful smile. ‘That’s what I tell myself, anyway. It makes me feel better to think I was drunk when I agreed to sign on as his technical adviser.’
Danielle shook her head. ‘I really don’t understand at all. If you didn’t want to accept, why did you?’
‘Who the hell knows? Equal parts stupidity and boredom, maybe.’ His mouth turned down. ‘My business manager thought it might be time I tried something else. Besides, my principal sponsor’s money is in this film, and I have damned near a month and a half before my next race.’ He laughed softly. ‘Believe me, I’m looking forward to it.’
She smiled. ‘You make it sound like—like—’
‘Like heaven and hell combined,’ he said. ‘When I’m on the tour, I want to be somewhere else. And when I’m somewhere else, I want to be on the tour.’
‘You lead a strange life,’ she said with a smile.
He shrugged. ‘It’s been interesting, anyway.’
‘And the film? Have you enjoyed working on it?’
Lee shrugged. ‘It’s different, I have to say that.’
She smiled. ‘Yes, I’m sure it is. Working on a movie sounds pretty exciting.’
‘Believe me, it isn’t.’ He lifted his right hand and ran his fingers through his dark hair. ‘But things will pick up by the end of the month. We’ll be changing locations.’
Danielle looked at him in surprise. ‘Changing locations?’
‘Yeah. Wexler wants to shoot some racing footage in Monaco. I can hardly wait—it’ll be good to get behind the wheel of—’
‘Monaco? But I thought…’ Danielle drew a deep breath. ‘There must be a mistake. Val told me she’d be here all summer. She said—’
Lee stared at her. ‘Val?’
‘Yes. Valerie Cummings, do you know her? She’s—’
He laughed softly. ‘Oh, yes, I know her, all right. You might say we’re old acquaintances.’
Something in his voice made Danielle look up sharply. The sun was shining directly overhead, and it seemed to beat down on Lee Bradford’s face. But his eyes were on the road ahead, and she could see only his profile. Suddenly, he turned towards her.
‘Of course,’ he said, ‘I should have guessed. You’re Val’s cousin.’
Danielle nodded. ‘That’s right. But how did you—?’
Lee’s mouth narrowed. ‘She said you’d show up, but I didn’t believe her.’
‘I’m sorry, but I don’t…’
His eyes fixed on her face. ‘She said all she had to do was tell you she needed you and you’d come running.’ He paused. ‘And it looks as if she was right.’
‘Did she, really?’ Her voice was cold.
‘The little Mississippi cousin,’ Lee said. ‘Well, well, well.’
‘Missouri,’ she said, even more coldly, ‘I’m from Missouri, not Mississippi.’
‘Does it really matter?’ For some reason, he sounded angry. ‘Val’s little farm girl…’
‘I am none of those,’ Danielle said curtly. ‘I’m not Val’s, I’m not from a farm, and I’m not a little girl. And I’ll thank you to keep all three in mind. I—’ She broke off as a white shape stepped delicately into the road. ‘Lee!’ Her voice rose in horror. ‘Look out—there’s a goat!’
Lee stepped down hard on the brakes. The acrid stench of burning rubber and the squeal of the tyres grabbing for purchase on the road surface filled the air. The car skidded across the narrow road, coming to rest on the dirt shoulder.
Danielle stared out of the window and her stomach rose into her throat as a stone, dislodged by the tyres, clattered down the steep hillside behind them. Picking up speed, it rolled towards the edge of the cliff and plunged over the side on its way to the valley floor, hundreds of feet below.
Silence filled the car, and then Lee was beside her, his fingers brushing lightly against her breasts as he unbuckled her seat belt.
‘Danielle.’ His arm closed around her and he drew her towards him. ‘Danielle. Are you OK?’
She nodded. ‘Yes,’ she whispered, ‘I’m fine. I just—I just…’
He put his finger under her chin and tilted her face up to his. ‘Are you sure? No bumps? No bruises?’
She shook her head as his hand skimmed lightly over her cheeks and her temples, then moved into her hair.
‘No. Honestly, I didn’t bang against anything. I…’ She swallowed. His arm was still around her, holding her close to him. The silence seemed to grow louder. The scent of wild flowers filled the narrow space, making her dizzy. There was another scent mixing with the flowers—Lee’s scent, a heady combination of sun and sweat and maleness.
He whispered her name. The sound of it made a slow pulse begin to beat deep within her.
‘Please,’ she said. His arm tightened around her; his dark head bent towards hers. ‘Lee…’ She swallowed. ‘The goat—is he all right? Did we hit him?’
He looked at her for a long moment, and then he began to smile. ‘You see?’ he said softly, his blue eyes sweeping over her face. ‘I was right. You are a farm girl; you’re more worried about the goat than you are about me.’
‘What do you mean? I…’
His eyes fell to her mouth. ‘You’ve yet to ask me if I’m all right.’
‘Haven’t I? I’m sorry. But I thought—I mean, you seem fine.’
Why did he have to keep looking at her mouth that way? It was—it was like a kiss; she could almost feel his lips moving against hers, she could almost taste his honeyed sweetness, the nectar of the flowers.
Lee smiled. ‘I am fine,’ he said, touching his finger to her lips, lightly tracing their outline. ‘And so’s the goat. He’s probably around that curve, telling all his friends in Ste Agathe about his close brush with death.’
It seemed hard to breathe, harder still to concentrate on anything but the feel of his hand.
‘Is—is Ste Agathe nearby?’
‘Then we—we can get out and walk. We can…’
Lee cupped her face in his hand. ‘Is that what you want to do?’ he said softly.
Danielle’s head was spinning. What did she want? she thought desperately. An hour or two ago, she’d have said she wanted to reach St Agathe and never have to lay eyes on Lee Bradford again. And that was how she’d felt again, just before the accident.
Now, as he held her in his arms, she wasn’t quite so certain.
Lee murmured her name again and she raised her eyes to his. In the close confines of the car, they might have been the only people in the universe. He was going to kiss her. She knew he was, just as she knew she could stop him. He’d told her as much; all she had to do was tell him she wanted to get out of the car. But she couldn’t. She couldn’t. She—
With bone-jarring suddenness, the door was wrenched open. Danielle blinked as if awakening from a dream and looked past Lee’s shoulder.
Her breath caught. Valerie was staring into the car, her face twisted with an emotion so ugly that it turned Danielle’s blood cold.
‘Val?’ she said softly. Her cousin stared at her in silence. Danielle lifted her hands and put them against Lee’s chest. ‘Val,’ she said again.
Lee let go of her slowly and turned towards the open door. Danielle watched as Valerie stared at him, and then the terrible expression fell away from her face and she reached towards him.
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