Christian Lefevre broke Trisha’s teenage heart, but twenty years later she must seek him out to identify a rare Egyptian artifact. The fire-filled pyramid holds the secret to the danger that caused Christian to send her away, the secret to his roots buried deep in the mythology of ancient Egypt. He wants to claim her in an ancient ritual, to love her and protect her. But Trisha won’t become any man’s property. She wants love on her own terms.
This is a novella of 14,500 words originally published in The Mammoth Book of Paranormal Romance 2.
Chateau Montgatine gleamed in the sun like a spun-sugar palace. Colorful flower borders laid out in the pattern of Egyptian symbols trimmed either side of the long gravel driveway. Trisha knew about the mystical floral design even though it was only visible from above. Twenty-two years ago, Christian Lefevre, the Comte de Montgatine, had taken her up in his private plane to show her.
The years telescoped, taking her back to the first time she'd set eyes on the chateau as a naive eighteen-year-old. She'd grown from a girl to a woman during her six weeks in France. She'd felt like a fairy-tale princess, dreamed of romance and happy endings. But by the end of her stay, she'd learned that happy endings were strictly for fairytales.
She pushed the button on the intercom by the gate.
"Bonjour." A man's voice gabbled a few incomprehensible sentences through the crackly speaker.
"Bonjour, monsieur. I have an appointment with the comte."
"Ah, oui, oui. Welcome back to Chateau Montgatine, mademoiselle Trisha."
Trisha's heart skipped as she recognized the voice of Christian's butler. "Monsieur Benoit, is that you?"
"Oui, oui. Still here, mademoiselle, still here. We talk in a moment."
The latch on the gate clicked open and the wrought-iron sections swung inward. Trisha jumped back in her rental car and started the engine. Her pulse sprinted as she drove toward the chateau. She might be forty now, a different person to the teenager who'd given her heart away, but the prospect of facing her first love still left her breathless with nerves. If only there had been someone other than him she could have turned to for advice.
The front door opened as Trisha grabbed her briefcase and climbed out of the car. Monsieur Benoit stood on the top step beaming a welcoming smile. "You have not changed at all, mademoiselle." She intended to tell him that he should call her madame, but before she could speak, he hugged her, pressing the customary three kisses to her cheeks.
"You're too kind, monsieur Benoit. You haven't changed either." He must have been forty when she'd stayed in a cottage near the chateau over two decades ago, but he certainly didn't look sixty now. He barely had a grey hair.
A strange little flutter of unease passed through her as she glanced around the chateau grounds. Two gardeners were busy weeding, lizards sunbathed on the limestone walls, and swallows swooped and circled over the garden, snatching insects from the fragrant air. If it hadn't been for the briefcase clutched tightly in her damp hand and the small Citroën rental car, she could almost believe she'd been transported back in time.
Trisha shook herself and followed monsieur Benoit into the cool interior of the chateau. Her sense of déjà vu continued. The intricate colored patterns on the walls and ceiling were unchanged, the furniture exactly as she remembered. Trisha laughed, mainly to relieve some of the tension clogging her throat. "You haven't redecorated I see."
"Oh no, no. The comte, he does not like change."
He'd been quick enough to change his feelings for her. Trisha pressed her lips together. Now was not the time to dredge up old hurts. She couldn't change the past. She could only make the most of the present, and her present involved her passion for her job at the Bristol Institute of Art. This meeting was business, not pleasure. She'd best remember that.
She smiled at the butler. "May I see the comte now?" The name Christian whispered in her mind, but she had no right to call him by his given name. Twenty-two years apart had made them strangers again.
"Oh, of course, of course. He waits for you in the library."
Trisha's breath eased out in relief. She and Christian had never spent time together in the library, so she would not be haunted by memories in there. Maybe that was why he'd chosen to meet with her in that room.
After following monsieur Benoit to the library door, she passed through with a smile when he opened it for her. She breathed slowly, evenly, stared at the rows of old leather-bound books. Calm and professional, she repeated in her head. The click of the door closing made her heart trip; then she heard a rustle of clothing.
"Madame Cole. Trisha."
The sound of her name spoken in the deep, achingly familiar voice from her memories drew her gaze inexorably to the man on the far side of the room.
She froze. Shock pounded in her chest, echoed in her temples, beat a drum of startled panic through her body. The briefcase dropped from her nerveless fingers to the floor.
Framed by the elegant marble fireplace, Christian stared back at her wearing his familiar linen suit, his hair neatly trimmed, his eyes green as emeralds, his skin supple, bronzed, smooth.
He hadn't aged at all.
Lines formed between his eyebrows. He moved toward her. "Are you all right, madame?"
Trisha's hand pressed over the frantic beat of her heart. "You're so… young," she breathed in a strangled voice.
Understanding flashed across his face, followed by pain. "No one has told you. I'm sorry. My father passed away ten years ago."
Trisha blinked, his words skating around her brain. She grabbed at a chair. He hurried over to support her elbow, help her into the chair. Then he pulled another seat up and sat facing her.
Tears pricked the backs of her eyes. Although Christian had sent her away, knowing he was living out his life in the same world as she had given her some kind of comfort. Too late, she realized that deep inside she had still dreamed that one day he might want her back.
But now… "Dead?" she whispered, daring to look this doppelganger in the face. He was the spitting image of his father. His eyes were the exact same shade of green; his hair the same light brown with sun-kissed streaks. Could a son resemble his father to such an extent? Even identical twins had some differences, didn't they?
"I'm so sorry, Trisha. Remy must have forgotten to tell you."
"How old are you?" she whispered. Even as the words passed her lips, she realized it was rude to ask such a direct question. Especially of a comte she'd only just met. But every cell in her body was shocked into confusion. Instinct told her she knew this man. Everything about him was familiar.
"I believe I was born the same year you visited France."
A shaft of pain caught her breath. So there had been another woman in Christian's life even as he romanced Trisha. A woman carrying his child. He must have married the other woman, or her son would not have inherited the title.
"How do you know which year I visited?" she asked, hoping he had made a mistake, hoping the man who'd stolen her heart hadn't moved on to another woman so quickly it made a mockery of all she had felt for him.
The comte rose and fetched something from a desk under the window. He held out a small wooden frame containing a photograph of her sitting on the edge of the fountain in the secret garden, smiling at the camera. An exquisite butterfly hair clip decorated with diamonds and rubies glinted against her dark hair. She'd almost forgotten the romantic afternoon when Christian had taken her along the maze of tiny paths overhung with roses and given her the gift. She'd treasured that precious butterfly for the grand total of three days. When he sent her away, she'd thrown it back in his face.
The comte pointed to the date written in the corner. "My father kept this photograph on his desk."
Why would he keep a photo of her? Christian had been the one to end their relationship, claiming she was too young for him. Even though he had only been in his early twenties.
Although at times he'd seemed much older than his years, just as the young man before her did. Christian's son could only be twenty-one, yet his assured manner belonged to a man twice his age.
The comte rose and filled a tumbler with amber liquid from a decanter. He returned and held out the glass. "You've had a shock. Cognac will steady your nerves."
Trisha gave a disbelieving laugh. "Christian gave me cognac when I was stung by a bee once and…" Her words choked off with emotion as the memory rose from the deep recesses of her mind. After a long moment staring at his lean fingers holding the cut crystal, she accepted the glass. The smooth liquid burned a path down her throat.
"A predilection for Cognac is in the Lefevre genes," he said wryly.
By the time she'd downed the contents of the glass, a warm fuzzy sense of unreality filled her head. "You look so much like your father. I'm finding it difficult to…" She rubbed her temples. "Maybe if you tell me your name it'll help."
He rose, placed her glass on a silver tray, then stared out the window for a few seconds, his shoulders tense. "It's Christian, I'm afraid… after my father."
Trisha's sense of unease flared again as this young Christian who could have stepped out of her dreams turned to look at her. For long moments, his emerald gaze perused her face, her body, as if he wanted to memorize her. "Still so beautiful," he said softly.
Her breath escaped on a tiny gasp. "What?"
He curved an elegant hand toward the photo. "Compared to your picture, madame, you've aged well, like a fine wine."
Her heart tripped, flickers of awareness racing through her in response to his appreciative gaze. She stared at her hands gripped tightly in her lap. Being attracted to this man was wrong. He was little more than a teenager; the son of the man she'd loved.
He picked up her briefcase and placed it beside her chair, then sat before her again, suddenly all business. "If you're recovered from your shock, perhaps you'd like to tell me why you came all this way to see me."
"I came to see your father."
His shoulders lifted in a small shrug. "I might be able to help you."
He must have inherited his father's possessions. Perhaps he would recognize the objet d'art about which she wanted information.
A sense of purpose infused Trisha as she unfastened her briefcase. She took out the photograph of the strange transparent pyramid that had arrived at the Institute. "We can't find anyone who knows what this is." She handed the photo to Christian. "The base of the object is twenty-four inches square and the thing's very heavy. There appears to be flames inside it, but it must be a clever special effect. I'm hoping you'll be able to tell me what it is because I saw something similar here years ago."
"When?" The young comte's gaze snapped up from the image and pinned her in place. His eyes flickered like green fire. For the first time in years, Trisha's cheeks grew hot at the memory of how desperate she'd been to keep Christian's love. She had sneaked into the chateau uninvited, and waited, naked in his bed, hoping to persuade him she was old enough to give him everything a woman could. But he had never appeared. In the end she had crept away feeling foolish. She had not seen the man she loved, that day, but the memory of the mysterious pyramid full of green fire that she'd found in his bedroom was seared into her mind.