The train ride seemed endless, and Serenity was tired. The argument the night before with Tony had not helped her disposition, plus the long flight from Washington to Paris, and now the arduous hours in the stuffy train had her gritting her teeth to hold back the groan. All in all, she decided miserably, she was a poor traveler.
The trip had been the excuse for the last, terminal battle between Serenity and Tony, their relationship having been strained and uneven for weeks. Her continued refusal to be pressured into marriage had provoked several minor tiffs, but Tony had wanted her, and his patience seemed inexhaustible. Not until her announcement of the intended trip had his forebearance cracked, and the war had begun.
“You can’t go rushing off this way to France to see some supposed grandmother you never knew existed until a couple of weeks ago.” Tony had paced, his agitation obvious by the way he allowed his hand to disturb his well-styled fair hair.
“Brittany,” Serenity had elaborated. “And it doesn’t matter when I found out she existed; I know now.”
“This old lady writes you a letter, tells you she’s your grandmother and wants to see you, and off you go, just like that.” He had been totally exasperated. She knew his logical mind was unable to comprehend her impulse, and she had hung on to the threads of her own temper and had attempted to speak calmly.
“She’s my mother’s mother, Tony, the only family I have left, and I intend to see her. You know I’ve been making plans to go since her letter arrived.”
“The old girl lets twenty-four years go by without a word, and now suddenly, this big summons.” He had continued to pace the large, high-ceilinged room before whirling back to her. “Why in heaven’s name did your parents never speak of her? Why did she wait until they were dead to contact you?”
Serenity had known he had not meant to be cruel; it was not in Tony’s nature to be cruel, merely logical, his lawyer’s mind dealing constantly in facts and figures. Even he could not know the slow, deadly ache that remained, lingering after two months, the time since her parents’ sudden, unexpected deaths. Knowing that his words had not been intended to hurt did not prevent her from lashing out, and the argument had grown in proportion until Tony had stomped out and left her alone, seething and resentful.
Now, as the train chugged its way across Brittany, Serenity was forced to admit that she, too, had doubts. Why had her grandmother, this unknown Comtesse Françoise de Kergallen, remained silent for nearly a quarter of a century? Why had her mother, her lovely, fragile, fascinatingly different mother, never mentioned a relative in far-off Brittany? Not even her father, as volatile, outspoken, and direct as he had been, had ever spoken of ties across the Atlantic.
They had been so close, Serenity mused with a sigh of memory. The three of them had done so much together. Even when she had been a child, her parents had included her when they visited senators, congressmen, and ambassadors.
Jonathan Smith had been a much-sought-after artist; a portrait created by his talented hand, a prized possession. Those in Washington society had clamored for his commissions for more than twenty years. He had been well liked and respected as a man as well as an artist, and the gentle charm and grace of Gaelle, his wife, had made the couple a highly esteemed addition to the capital set.
When Serenity had grown older, and her natural artistic abilities became apparent, her father’s pride had known no bounds. They had sketched and painted together, first as tutor and pupil, then as man and woman, and they drew even closer with the shared joy of art. The small family had shared an idyllic existence in the elegant rowhouse in Georgetown, a life full of love and laughter, until Serenity’s world had crashed in around her, along with the plane which had been carrying her parents to California. It had been impossible to believe they were dead, and she still lived on. The high-ceilinged rooms would no longer echo with her father’s booming voice or her mother’s gentle laughter. The house was empty but for memories that lay like shadows in each corner.
For the first two weeks, Serenity could not bear the sight of a canvas or brush, or the thought of entering the third-floor studio where she and her father had spent so many hours, where her mother would enter and remind them that even artists had to eat.
When she had finally gathered up the courage to climb the stairs and enter the sun-filled room, she found, rather than unbearable grief, a strange, healing peace. The skylight showered the room with the sun’s warmth, and the walls retained the love and laughter which had once existed there. She had begun to live again, paint again, and Tony had been kind and gentle, helping to fill the hollowness left by loss. Then, the letter had come.
Now she had left Georgetown and Tony behind in a quest for the part of her that belonged to Brittany and an unknown grandmother. The strange, formal letter which had brought her from the familiarity of Washington’s crowded streets to the unaccustomed Breton countryside lay safely tucked in the smooth leather bag at her side. There had been no affection in the missive, merely facts and an invitation, more like a royal command, Serenity mused, half-annoyed, half-amused. But if her pride would have scoffed at the command, her curiosity, her desire to know more of her mother’s family, had accepted. With her innate impulsiveness and organization, she had arranged her trip, closed up the beloved house in Georgetown, and burned her bridges with Tony.
The train groaned and screeched in protest as it dragged into the station at Lannion. Tingling excitement warred with jet lag as Serenity gathered her hand luggage and stepped onto the platform, taking her first attentive look at her mother’s native country. She stared around her with an artist’s eyes, lost for a moment in the simple beauty and soft, melding colors that were Brittany.
The man watched her concentration, the small smile playing on her parted lips, and his dark brow rose slightly in surprise. He took his time surveying her, a tall, willow-slim figure in a powder-blue traveling suit, the soft skirt floating around long, shapely legs. The soft breeze ran easy fingers through her sunlit hair, feathering it back to frame the delicate-boned, oval face. The eyes, he noted, were large and wide, the color of brandy, surrounded by thick lashes shades darker than her pale hair. Her skin looked incredibly soft, smooth like alabaster, and the combination lent an ethereal appearance: a delicate, fragile orchid. He would all too soon discover that appearances are often deceptive.
He approached her slowly, almost reluctantly. “You are Mademoiselle Serenity Smith?” he inquired in lightly accented English.
Serenity started at the sound of his voice, so absorbed in the countryside she had not noted his nearness. Brushing back a lock of hair, she turned her head and found herself looking up, much higher than was her habit, into dark, heavy-lidded brown eyes.
“Yes,” she answered, wondering why those eyes made her feel so strange. “Are you from the Château Kergallen?”
The slow lifting of one dark brow was the only change in his expression. “Oui, I am Christophe de Kergallen. I have come to take you to the countess.”
“De Kergallen?” she repeated with some surprise. “Not another mysterious relative?”
The brow remained lifted, and full, sensuous lips curved so slightly as to be imperceptible. “One could say, Mademoiselle, that we are, in an obscure manner, cousins.”
“Cousins,” she murmured as they studied each other, rather like two prize fighters sizing each other up before a bout.
Rich black hair fell thick and straight to his collar, and the dark eyes which continued to remain steady seemed nearly as black against his deep bronze skin. His features were sharp, hawklike, somewhat piratical, and he exuded a basic masculine aura which both attracted and repelled her. She immediately wished for her sketch pad, wondering if she could possibly capture his aristocratic virility with pencil and paper.
Her lengthy scrutiny left him unperturbed, and he held her gaze, his eyes cool and aloof. “Your trunks will be delivered to the château.” He bent down, picking up the bags she had set on the platform. “If you will come with me, the countess is anxious to see you.”
He led her to a gleaming black sedan, assisted her into the passenger’s side, and stowed her bags in the back, his manner so cold and impersonal that Serenity felt both annoyed and curious. He began to drive in silence, and she turned in her seat and examined him with open boldness.
“And how,” she demanded, “are we cousins?” What do I call him? she wondered. Monsieur? Christophe? Hey, you?
“The countess’s husband, your mother’s father, died when your mother was a child.” He began his explanation in polite, faintly bored tones, and she was tempted to tell him not to strain himself. “Several years later, the countess married my grandfather, the Comte de Kergallen, whose wife had died and left him with a
son, my father.” He turned his head and spared her a brief glance. “Your mother and my father were raised as brother and sister in the château. My grandfather died, my father married, lived long enough to see me born, and then promptly killed himself in a hunting accident. My mother pined for him for three years, then joined him in the family crypt.”
The story had been recited in remote, unemotional tones, and the sympathy Serenity would have normally felt for the child left orphaned never materialized. She watched his hawk-like profile for another moment. “So, that makes you the present Comte de Kergallen and my cousin through marriage.”
Again, a brief, negligent glance. “Oui.”
“I can’t tell you how both facts thrill me,” she stated, a definite edge of sarcasm in her tone. His brow rose once more as he turned to her, and she thought for an instant that she had detected laughter lighting the cool, dark eyes. She decided against it, positive that the man sitting next to her never laughed. “Did you know my mother?” she inquired when the silence grew.
“Oui. I was eight when she left the château.” “Why did she leave?” Serenity demanded, turning to him with direct amber eyes. He twisted his head and met them with equal directness, and she was assaulted by their power before he turned his attention back to the road.
“The countess will tell you what she wishes you to know.”
“What she wishes?” Serenity sputtered, angered by the deliberate rebuff. “Let’s understand each other, Cousin. I fully intend to find out exactly why my mother left Brittany, and why I’ve spent my life ignorant of my grandmother.”
With slow, casual movements, Christophe lit a cheroot, expelling smoke lazily. “There is nothing I can tell you.”
“You mean,” she corrected, narrowing her eyes, “there is nothing you will tell me.”
His broad shoulders moved in a purely Gallic shrug, and Serenity turned to stare out the front window, copying his movement with the American version, missing the slight smile which played on his mouth at her gesture.
They continued to drive in sporadic silence, with Serenity occasionally inquiring about the scenery, Christophe answering in polite monosyllables, making no effort to expand the conversation. Golden sun and pure sky might have been sufficient to soothe the disposition ruffled by the journey, but his continued coolness outbalanced nature’s gift.
“For a count from Brittany,” she observed with deceptive sweetness after being spared another two syllables, “you speak remarkably fine English.”
Sarcasm rolled off him like a summer’s breeze, and his response was lightly patronizing. “The countess also speaks English quite well, Mademoiselle. The servants, however, speak only French or Breton. If you find yourself in difficulty, you have only to ask the countess or myself for assistance.”
Serenity tilted her chin and turned her rich golden eyes on him with haughty disdain. “Ce n’est pas nécessaire, Monsieur le Comte. Je parle bien le français.”
One dark brow lifted in harmony with his lips. “Bon,” he replied in the same language. “That will make your visit less complicated.”
“Is it much farther to the château?” she inquired, continuing to speak in French. She felt hot, crumpled, and tired. Due to the long trip and the time change, it seemed as if she had been in some kind of vehicle for days, and she longed for a stationary tub filled with hot, soapy water.
“We have been on Kergallen land for some time, Mademoiselle,” he replied, his eyes remaining on the winding road. “The château is not much farther.”
The car had been climbing slowly to a higher elevation. Serenity closed her eyes on the headache which had begun to throb in her left temple, and wished fervently that her mysterious grandmother lived in a less complicated place, like Idaho or New Jersey. When she opened her eyes again, all aches, fatigue, and complaints vanished like a mist in the hot sun.
“Stop!” she cried, reverting to English, unconsciously laying a hand on Christophe’s arm.
The château stood high, proud, and solitary: an immense stone edifice from another century with drum towers and crenellated walls and a tiled conical roof glowing warm and gray against a cerulean-blue sky. The windows were many, high and narrow, reflecting the diminishing sunlight with a myriad of colors. It was ancient, arrogant, confident, and Serenity fell immediately in love.
Christophe watched the surprise and pleasure register on her unguarded face, her hand still warm and light on his arm. A stray curl had fallen loose onto her forehead, and he reached out to brush it back, catching himself before he reached her and staring at his own hand in annoyance.
Serenity was too absorbed with the château to notice his movement, already planning what angles she would use for sketches, imagining the moat that might have encircled the château at one time in the past. “It’s fabulous,” she said at last, turning to her companion. Hastily, she removed her hand from his arm, wondering how it could have gotten there. “It’s like something out of a fairy tale. I can almost hear the sound of trumpets, see the knights in armor, and ladies in full, floating dresses and high, pointed hats. Is there a neighborhood dragon?” She smiled at him, her face illuminated and incredibly lovely.
“Not unless one counts Marie, the cook,” he answered, lowering the cool, polite wall for a moment and allowing her a quick glimpse of the wide, disarming smile which made him seem younger and approachable.
So, he’s human, after all, she concluded. But as her pulse leaped in response to the sudden smile, she realized that when human, he was infinitely more dangerous. As their eyes met and held, she had the strange sensation of being totally alone with him, the rest of the world only a backdrop as they sat alone in private, enchanted solitude, and Georgetown seemed a lifetime away.
The stiffly polite stranger soon replaced the charming escort, and Christophe resumed the drive in silence, all the more thick and cold after the brief friendly interlude.
Watch it, Serenity, she cautioned herself. Your imagination’s running rampant again. This man is most definitely not for you. For some unknown reason, he doesn’t even like you, and one quick smile doesn’t change him from a cold, condescending aristocrat.
Christophe pulled the car to a halt in a large, circular drive bordered by a flagstone courtyard, its low stone walls spilling over with phlox. He alighted from the car with swift, agile grace, and Serenity copied him before he had rounded the hood to assist her, so enchanted by the storybook atmosphere that she failed to note the frown which creased his brow at her action.
Taking her arm, he led her up stone steps to a massive oaken door, and, pulling a gleaming brass handle, inclined his head in a slight bow and motioned her to enter.
The entrance hall was huge. The floors were buffed to a mirrorlike shine and scattered with exquisite handhooked rugs. The walls were paneled, hung with tapestries, wide and colorful and incredibly old. A large hall rack and hunt table, both oak and glowing with the patina of age, oaken chairs with hand-worked seats, and the scent of fresh flowers graced the room, which seemed oddly familiar to her. It was as if she had known what to expect when she had crossed the threshold into the château, and the room seemed to recognize her, and welcome her.
“Something is wrong?” Christophe asked, noting her expression of confusion. She shook her head with a slight shiver. “Déjà vu,” she murmured, and turned to him. “It’s very strange; I feel as though I’ve stood right here before.” She caught herself with a jolt of shock before she added, “with you.” Letting out a deep breath, she made a restless movement with her shoulders. “It’s very odd.”
“So, you have brought her, Christophe.”
Serenity turned away from suddenly intense brown eyes to watch her grandmother approach.
La Comtesse de Kergallen was tall and nearly as slender as Serenity. Her hair was a pure, brilliant white, lying like clouds around a sharp, angular face that defied the network of wrinkles age had bestowed on it. The eyes were clear, a piercing blue under well-arched brows, and she carried herself regally, as one who knows that more than six decades had not dimmed her beauty.
No Mother Hubbard, this, Serenity thought quickly. This lady is a countess right down to her fingertips.
The eyes surveyed Serenity slowly, completely, and she observed a flicker of emotion cross the angular face before it once again became impassive and guarded. The countess extended a well-shaped, ringed hand.
“Welcome to the Château Kergallen, Serenity Smith. I am Madame la Comtesse Françoise de Kergallen.”
Serenity accepted the offered hand in her own, wondering whimsically if she should kiss it and curtsy. The clasp was brief and formal—no affectionate embrace, no smile of welcome. She swallowed disappointment and spoke with equal formality.
“Thank you, Madame. I am pleased to be here.”
“You must be tired after your journey,” the countess stated. “I will show you to your room myself. You will wish to rest before you change for dinner.”
She moved to a large, curving staircase, and Serenity followed. Pausing on the landing, she glanced back to find Christophe watching her, his face creased in a brooding frown. He made no effort to smooth it away or remove his eyes from hers, and Serenity found herself turning swiftly and hurrying after the countess’s
They walked down a long, narrow corridor with brass lights set at intervals into the walls, replacing, she imagined, what would have once been torches. When the countess stopped at a door, she turned once more to Serenity, and after giving her another quick study, she opened the door and motioned her to enter.
The room was large and open, yet somehow retained an air of delicate grace. The furniture was glossy cherry, and a large four-poster canopied bed dominated the room, its silk coverlet embroidered with time-consuming stitches. A stone fireplace was set in the wall opposite the foot of the bed, its mantle carved and ornate, a collection of Dresden figures reflecting in the large framed mirror over it. One end of the room was curved and glassed, an upholstered windowseat inviting one to sit and ponder the breathtaking view.
Serenity felt the uncontrollable pull of the room, an aura of love and happiness, the gentle elegance well remembered. “This was my mother’s room.” Again, the quick play of emotion flickered, like a candle caught in a draft. “Oui. Gaelle decorated it herself when she was sixteen.”
“Thank you for giving it to me, Madame.” Even the cool reply could not dispel the warmth the room brought her, and she smiled. “I shall feel very close to her during my stay.”
The countess merely nodded and pressed a small button next to the bed. “Bridget will draw your bath. Your trunks will arrive shortly, and she will see to your unpacking. We dine at eight, unless you would care for some refreshment now.”
“No, thank you, Countess,” Serenity replied, beginning to feel like a boarder in a very well-run hotel.
“Eight will be fine.”
The countess moved to the doorway. “Bridget will show you to the drawing room after you have rested. We have cocktails at seven-thirty. If there is anything you require, you have only to ring.”
The door closed behind her, and Serenity took a deep breath and sat heavily on the bed.
Why did I come? she asked herself, closing her eyes on a sudden surge of loneliness. I should have stayed in Georgetown, stayed with Tony, stayed with what I could understand. What am I searching for here? Taking a long breath, she fought the encompassing depression and surveyed her room again. My mother’s room, she reminded herself and felt the soothing hands of comfort. This is something I can understand.
Moving to the window, Serenity watched day soften into twilight, the sun flashing with final, brilliant fire before surrendering to slumber. A breeze stirred the air, and the few scattered clouds moved with it, rolling lazily across the darkening sky.
A château on a hill in Brittany. Shaking her head at the thought, she knelt on the windowseat and watched evening’s nativity. Where does Serenity Smith fit into this? Somewhere. She frowned at the knowledge which sprang from her heart. Somehow I belong here, or a part of me does. I felt it the moment I saw those incredible stone walls, and again when I walked into the hall. Pushing the feeling to the depths of her brain, she concentrated on her grandmother.
She certainly wasn’t overwhelmed by the reunion, Serenity decided with a rueful smile. Or perhaps it was just the European formality that made her seem so cold and distant. It hardly seems reasonable that she would ask me to come if she hadn’t wanted to see me. I suppose I expected more because I wanted more. Lifting her shoulders, she allowed them to fall slowly. Patience has never been one of my virtues, but I suppose I’d better develop it. Perhaps if my greeting at the station had been a bit more welcoming… Her frown appeared again as she replayed Christophe’s attitude.
I could swear he would have liked to bundle me back on the train the minute he set eyes on me. Then, that infuriating conversation in the car. Frown deepened into scowl, and she ceased to focus on the quiet dimness of dusk. That is a very frustrating man, and she added, her scowl softening into thoughtfulness, the very epitome of a Breton count. Perhaps that’s why he affected me so strongly. Resting her chin on her palm, she recalled the awareness which had shimmered between them as they had sat alone in the lengthening shadow of the château. He’s unlike any man I’ve ever known: elegant and vital at the same time. There’s a potency there, a virility wrapped inside the sophistication. Power. The word flashed into her brain, drawing her brows close. Yes, she admitted with a reluctance she could not quite understand, there’s power there, and an essence of self-assurance.
From an artist’s standpoint, he’s a remarkable study. He attracts me as an artist, she told herself, certainly not as a woman. A woman would have to be mad to get tangled up with a man like that. Absolutely mad, she repeated to herself firmly.