“Wait… He’s sending his own car and driver to pick you up from the train station? And take you to his castle? How deliciously Gothic! It’s probably set high up on some cliffs, overlooking an impossibly picturesque view of waves crashing onto the rocks.”
Veronica quirked her lips into a smile at Katrin’s words as they crackled through her cell phone, the reception seeming to go in and out as she rode along. Her best friend had a pronounced flair for the dramatic, which had only been enhanced by a number of drama classes in college.
“Well, when you put it that way…it does sound pretty glamorous,” she laughingly agreed. “If it looks anything like that, I’ll definitely text a picture of the view, complete with fog and sea spray.”
Her friend’s answering chuckle was amused. “How does Madame Montreaux know this guy again?”
Thinking back on it, Veronica wasn’t sure the woman who led her French conversation group had ever actually told her…not specifically, anyway. “Weird. I’m not really sure… She just pulled me aside after our group one day and mentioned she’d heard about a job she thought I might be perfect for, you know, since she knew I’d lost my job when Dumfries & Partners was acquired. I got the impression—maybe just from her voice or something?—that he’s some sort of family friend, but she was super skimpy on details.” She drummed her fingers on her armrest as she considered. “I had to sign a confidentiality agreement before they even sent me the job description.”
“Hmm-m.” The one short word seemed filled with both skepticism and suspicion. “How old are the kids?”
“Just one child. A boy. I think he’s four… Not in school yet, but he goes to preschool.”
Veronica watched as the increasingly rural and wooded landscape flew by outside the window. The day was gray and dreary, but the beauty of the wilds of Maine was still undeniable. The well-modulated, incongruously feminine automated voice of the announcer came over the loudspeakers.
“Next stop, Grant’s Cliff. Grant’s Cliff is a flagged stop. Please notify the conductor if you are getting off at this stop.”
Excitement and nerves combined into one powerful spark that set off a flurry of butterflies in Veronica’s stomach, even as she stood and started to gather up her things.
“Sorry, K… Gotta go. They just called my stop. Call you later, okay?”
“Yes! Call, text, everything… I’ll be waiting impatiently to hear that you haven’t been chained up in this guy’s basement—or dungeon. Whatever. Be careful! And good luck!”
Cradling the phone between her shoulder and cheek as she reached for her bag from the overhead storage, Veronica barked a laugh, and it was muffled. “Thank you?”
“Bye,” Veronica answered, letting her bag drop into the seat and clicking to end the call on her phone. And it seemed it wasn’t a moment too soon as she caught the conductor’s eye and the train began to slow. She’d told him earlier where she was getting off and she was glad she had, since it didn’t look like anyone else on the train was making a move to leave. Grant’s Cliff was apparently not a popular destination.
“Right this way, miss.” The conductor’s weathered face creased into a kindly smile as he motioned her with one work-hardened hand.
“Thanks.” She gave an answering grin and slipped the strap of her suitcase over her shoulder crosswise, sliding it to her back so she could hurry down the center aisle more easily. “Am I the only one getting off?”
“A-yup,” he said, his Maine accent plain. She thought that was all he’d say, but as she stepped out of the open door onto the small platform, she heard him add, “Not much out here nowadays, apart from the castle and the beast.”
Startled, she turned back, but the doors had already swished closed and the train began to pull away. Okay then.
She turned back and surveyed the deserted station. It was really more of a booth set next to a concrete slab platform with steps leading up to it. The metal sign for the station name was no bigger than a street sign and looked weathered. The dreary day had given way to fog, and now that the train had left, the only sound was the muffled rustling of the wind through thousands of trees. Where the heck is the driver? she wondered. Even as she looked around, half of her mind was still on the conductor’s strange words. What did he mean by the beast? Why hasn’t anyone else mentioned it? Is this, like, a hotspot for sasquatch hunters? Or the home of a rogue grizzly? Wait! Are there even grizzly bears in Maine? She thought maybe there were only black bears. But still, a rogue black bear could definitely be a beast.
When someone’s gentle hand touched her shoulder, pulling her from her thoughts, she screeched and jumped what felt like three feet off the ground.
“Mademoiselle Carson? Veronica Carson?” The middle-aged man’s accent was unmistakably French, and he pronounced her first name as Vehr-oh-nee-ka. She quickly raised her hand to her neck where her pulse was still racing.
“Yes,” she nodded, a little breathless. “So sorry. I didn’t hear anyone.”
The man, who she noticed now was wearing a dark suit and even a driver’s hat, smiled understandingly. “The fog. When it is thick like this, well…everything is hushed.”
“Of course, that makes sense.” She was relieved at such a simple explanation.
He held out his hand formally. “Claude Hormet, in service to Monsieur Reynard for many years.”
She held her hand to meet his, and it was immediately taken into a firm handshake. “Nice to meet you, Monsieur Hormet.”
His smile widened at her pronunciation of his name, and she thought she saw surprise flicker in his eyes. “It’s a pleasure to meet you as well, Mademoiselle. We were told you spoke French well, and I can already hear it, if you don’t mind my saying so.”
“Thank you. That’s very kind of you. I’m happy to switch over if you’d like, so you can really hear me.”
Monsieur Hormet smiled again. “I would enjoy that, but later. For now, I will escort you to the château.”
He took her bag from her and led her to a shiny, black Lincoln sedan that looked pristine in spite of the fact that it must have been at least thirty years old. He opened the back door, and once she’d slid onto the back seat, he gave a little bow before closing the door behind her. She didn’t even hear the trunk close after he’d put her suitcase in, and when they began to move, the ride was so smooth that it felt like they were floating.
Monsieur Hormet didn’t speak again, and sensing that it would possibly be considered too informal for her to initiate conversation, Veronica maintained silence as well. Instead, she took out her folder with a copy of her resume and list of references. She reviewed her notes again, but they were sparse. From the barebones details that had accompanied the job description, she really didn’t know a lot about the open position and still didn’t know anything more about her prospective employer than his last name, so she rehearsed again in her head what she could say about her experience.
She was so deep in thought, comfortable on the sumptuous leather of the seats, that she didn’t really look up until the car began to slow. Then…wow. The mansion that loomed before her was truly a castle, made of stone with towers and turrets. If it had had a moat and not located in Maine, she would not have been surprised if someone had told her it was from the Middle Ages.
She must have made some sort of sound because Monsieur Hormet caught her gaze in the rearview mirror.
“Ah, the château is beautiful, no?”
Looking back at the lines of the massive structure, Veronica noticed that they were surprisingly delicate as well. Large it might be, but this was also a masterpiece of artistry, balanced and elegant. Still trying to look at every part of the castle at the same time, she answered with enthusiasm, “Oh yes, absolutely gorgeous!”
They pulled up right to the front steps, and Monsieur Hormet came around to help her out of the car. The air that buffeted her face was cooler than at the train station, damp and heavy, carrying the unmistakable salty tang of the ocean. She curved her lips into a small smile when she heard the distant crash of waves on something. Katrin was going to be overjoyed that her guess had to be at least partly correct.
“If you’ll follow me, Mademoiselle, I’ll show you to the large salon.” Monsieur Hormet glanced at the front windows and nodded slightly at some small movement inside. “Eveline will let Monsieur Reynard know you’ve arrived.”
Still craning her neck as discreetly as possible to see everything at once, Veronica followed him up a large number of stone steps and into the château. She had only a glimpse of the enormous entry hall before they went down a spacious hallway into a room that looked like some sort of formal parlor. There were several seating areas around the room, and he motioned for her to sit in a straight-backed armchair in the cluster nearest to the windows. Even with the fog, she could still tell that the windows here overlooked the ocean. A gray-green expanse of icy-cold Atlantic water, the view looked imposing rather than inviting. She loved it.
Fighting the urge to press her nose to the glass of the windowpanes, she sat down on the chair instead in what she hoped was a professional, dignified manner. She took out the folder once again and waited. An ornate gilded clock, which looked like an antique that would have been at home in the art museum in Boston, ticked, and the sound was loud in the otherwise-silent room. At the snick of the door handle turning, she leaped to her feet and turned to greet her interviewer. The figure that entered was considerably shorter and faster than she’d expected, though.
As he barreled toward her at full tilt, Veronica saw that the little boy had a mass of golden-blond hair, bright blue eyes and cheeks that glowed pink with good health. His happy face was dominated by a huge grin. She braced for possible impact, but he stopped abruptly right in front of her and eyed her curiously.
“You’re pretty,” he said in French, “but I don’t like your coat. I’m not supposed to say ‘hate’ or ‘ugly’.” He looked up at her expectantly.
Veronica stifled a laugh as she darted a glance down at her suit coat. It was something she’d bought for interviews, and she internally agreed that it wasn’t the most attractive thing she owned—more about practicality than fashion. But still…
“It sounds like you’re doing a good job listening, then,” she answered in French, skirting around the question. She set her folder, which she’d still been clutching, on the seat of the chair and crouched down so she was eye-level with the boy. “What’s your name? Mine is Veronica.”
“Jean-Philippe. Yvette says you’re here to take care of me, but only if Papa likes you. I don’t have a maman. She died. Our dog died too. Sometimes I get sad and cry and Papa says that’s okay.” Veronica’s heart clenched at the childish words, but she fought another laugh at what he said next. “Did you bring a present? Papa always brings a present and hides it in one of his pockets. Oncle Marius too. Is that why you’re wearing that coat, to hide presents?” He eyed her outfit with more enthusiasm.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Jean-Philippe,” she answered, then shook her head regretfully. “I didn’t know, so no presents today, but I promise that if I stay, I’ll bring you something next time I go into town. How’s that?”
He bobbed his little head as he nodded, making his fine blond hair glint, even in the dim sunlight from the gloomy day. “That sounds good,” he agreed. “I hope you go to town soon.”
She couldn’t have hidden her smile this time if she’d tried, so she didn’t bother. Another noise made her look up again, toward the door, where a young woman stood, looking a bit harried. Her chest rose and fell rapidly, as if she’d been running. She wore some sort of uniform dress, not black-and-white but something about it made Veronica think she might be a maid or housekeeper. Her look at Jean-Philippe was a mix of exasperation and affection.
The man who entered on her heels, though, made Veronica shoot to her feet and straighten her back. He was tall, probably close to six-and-a-half feet, and his shoulders and chest were broad and muscular. He wore a suit that must have been custom-tailored to fit his large frame so perfectly, and he exuded an air of pure power. Confidence. She would have had to be blind or utterly oblivious not to feel an awareness of such a man.
Where his frame and his very presence seemed to fill the room, it was his face that really captivated her. Dark, wavy hair framed the most attractive face she thought she’d ever seen. He wasn’t what she would call handsome—his Roman nose was just a little too prominent—but his features were masculine, strong and absolutely stunning. His eyes, which she could tell even from this distance were a deep brown like melted dark chocolate and framed with thick dark lashes, seemed to see all the way into her from across the room. She felt goosebumps rise on her arms and up her neck, and she couldn’t seem to tear her own gaze away.
When he started to move, whatever spell that was keeping her silent was broken. To her surprise, she noticed that he walked with a cane in steps that looked like they carefully concealed pain.
“Oh, Monsieur, I’m so sorry. He got away from me when he was supposed to be following me,” the young woman apologized to the man who she guessed must be Monsieur Reynard.
He inclined his head slightly, and although his face remained impassive, Veronica somehow got the impression of tolerance.
“I understand, Yvette. You may return to your regular duties.” His voice was deep and rumbling, full of gravel. It rolled through the quiet room, filling every corner, though he spoke quietly.
The young woman gave a little bow and hurried from the room gratefully, leaving only Veronica, Jean-Philippe and Monsieur Reynard.
“Papa!” the little boy exclaimed, confirming Veronica’s guess at the identity of the man. She saw him grimace almost imperceptibly as his little boy crashed into his leg in a show of preschool affection.
“I see you’ve met Miss Carson, my son,” he said, looking at Veronica as he tousled the baby-fine mop of hair.
“Oh yes! Do you like her? Is she staying?”
The question fell heavily in the quiet room, and Veronica turned to pick up the folder again.
“I brought a copy of my resume and a list of references—”
“No need.” Monsieur Reynard interrupted her, gesturing with his hand as if to wave her words away. “I’ve seen enough. The job is yours.”
Veronica’s mouth fell open. “I, uh… We just met.”
He raised his dark eyebrows. “So we did.”
She shook her head. Why was he making her so unsettled? Good Heavens, she was usually more articulate than this! “I mean, you haven’t interviewed me. Don’t you want to know…more?”
He shrugged and inclined his head to one side. “Mademoiselle, I’m known for being a good judge of character, with very few exceptions. It’s part of what has made me so successful. Jean-Philippe needs someone who is good with children, experienced and speaks French. From what I heard, you are all of these things.”
Veronica felt a warm flush rising up her neck, straight to her cheeks then right on up to her hairline. For some reason, the idea of not being aware of this man, with his outsize presence, made her beyond flustered. “You were listening?” she asked in a voice that was, she congratulated herself, almost normal.
He shrugged in a wonderfully Mediterranean way. “Not on purpose, but the door was cracked open and sound carries down the hallway.”
Mentally replaying her conversation with Jean-Philippe, Veronica couldn’t figure out what she could possibly have said to warrant this instant acceptance. “And I said enough to give you such confidence?”
She thought she had gotten over her initial shock of awareness at how very handsome he was, like someone jumping into cold water who starts acclimating. She was wrong. When he turned the full force of his dark, soulful eyes on her and turned up the corners of his mouth in what might have been the beginnings of a smile, she nearly had to catch her breath. She felt the goosebumps rise again all over her arms.
“You did pass the background check with flying colors, and you must know your accent is beautiful. But mostly, you didn’t miss a beat when my son insulted your er…ensemble.” He motioned tactfully to her suit and she opened her mouth in indignation, only to snap it shut at his next words. “I truly believe you to be a young woman of good sense, patience and kindness. Those are qualities I value beyond all others.”
His praise warmed her and was so close to describing the kind of person she hoped she was that she felt like another piece clicked into the odd connection she might be starting to feel with him.
“Thank you. In that case, I accept the position.” He didn’t return her smile, but she thought maybe his eyes crinkled the slightest bit at the corners.
“I’ll have Monsieur Hormet bring in the paperwork. Come along, Jean-Phillipe,” he said, turning and making his slow, deliberate way to the door with a gait she suspected concealed very-well-hidden pain. Jean-Philippe overtook him to sprint out of the door before his father.
All in all, Veronica was feeling pretty darn satisfied and relieved at avoiding the stress of a real interview when she heard Monsieur Reynard’s last words before he left the room.
“Such a relief to meet a young woman who doesn’t trouble herself too much over her clothes.”