Prelude to Heaven
Many in London society envy Tess Ridgeway, Countess of Aubry, for having snared the handsomest, most charming man in England, but after two years of marriage to the volatile earl, Tess knows there’s nothing charming about her husband and nothing to envy about her hellish marriage. Desperate, afraid for her own life and that of her unborn child, Tess manages to escape, fleeing to the southern coast of France, where she collapses, ill and exhausted, in the garden of the reclusive artist, Alexandre Dumond.
Alexandre, who savagely guards his privacy, resents this fire-haired beauty that Fate has brought to his doorstep. But he can’t turn his back on her, and when she proposes that he hire her as his housekeeper, Alexandre reluctantly lets her into his solitary world. There, they find an unexpected haven in each other’s arms, but will it last forever? Or will the dark secrets harbored by both of them tear their love apart?
Prelude to Heaven
Tess opened her eyes to find herself in a strange room. She blinked rapidly as her eyes adjusted to the sunlight washing over her. Her head ached, and her body felt battered and weary. She moved one hand to her rounded stomach, reassuring herself that the baby was all right, as her gaze traveled around the room, taking in unfamiliar furnishings and whitewashed walls, coming finally to the window on her left.
A man stood there, looking out the window, his profile to her. He was drawing in a sketchbook that rested in the crook of his right arm. His shirt of white linen was torn and smeared with paint, and his dark trousers were tucked into black boots badly in need of polishing. His thick, ebony hair was unfashionably long and caught back in a queue.
Startled by the sight of him, she sat straight up in the bed, letting out a gasp at the sharp pain in her head.
The man turned at the sound, and Tess suddenly realized she was clad in only a man’s nightshirt. She couldn't remember changing her clothes, and she felt her face grow hot as she pulled the sheets up to her neck and wondered frantically what had happened to her clothes.
The man didn't seem to notice her discomfiture. He merely raised one black eyebrow at the sight of her awake and watching him. “Bonjour, mademoiselle.”
Tess didn't reply. She scooted back against the pillows in alarm, and it took a moment for his words to sink in. When they did, she glanced down at her ringless hand then back at him. Was he insulting her by calling her mademoiselle, when she was obviously pregnant? But there was no hint of mockery in his face or his voice. “Who are you?” she whispered in English.
“I am Alexandre Dumond,” he answered her in the same language. “And you?”
Dumond? The name was familiar. She glanced at the sketchbook in his hand and the paint all over his shirt. Could he be Dumond, the French painter? Dumond's works were well known, even in London. “The artist?”
He gave her a small bow. “Précisément.”
She stared at him, vague recollections of whispered London gossip coming to mind. Dumond had once received an invitation from the Prince Regent to submit his works to the Royal Academy and had actually refused. It was rumored that he lived alone, an eccentric recluse hiding from the world at his villa in France. She took another quick glance around. The rumors seemed to be true.
His deep voice interrupted Tess's thoughts. “How do you feel?”
She tightened her grip on the sheets and did not answer, suspicious and wary. She watched him drop the sketchbook and charcoal on the table beside him, then stride toward her. He was a tall man and powerfully built. She pressed her back to the carved headboard behind her, willing herself not to show the fear she felt at his approach.
But when he stopped beside the bed and reached out his hand, Tess could not prevent a jolt of panic. She slapped his hand away. “Don't touch me!”
Prelude to Heaven
A puzzled frown drew his dark brows together, and he sat down on the edge of the bed, ignoring her protests. He reached out again, catching her wrists before she could strike out at him again. Tess tried desperately to pull away, hating his superior strength, but all he did was hold her wrists with one hand as he gently pressed the other to her forehead.
“The fever has broken,” he said, letting his hand drop and releasing her wrists. “I'm relieved.”
Tess fell back, exhausted from her brief struggle. She licked her dry lips, wishing her head didn't ache and she could think clearly, wishing he would move away from her side. “Where am I? How did I get here?”
“I carried you, of course. You were in no condition to walk, mademoiselle. I found you in my garden.”
“I didn't mean to trespass. I didn't think anyone lived here.”
His lips tightened slightly. “That is understandable, I suppose.”
“How long have I been here?”
“Four?” Tess drew a deep breath. “I don't remember anything beyond being in the garden. I dreamed—” She stopped. She didn't want to remember her dreams.
“You have caused me a great deal of worry, mademoiselle. You have had a fever I feared was mortal. You were delirious.”
She stiffened. “What did I say?”
“Nothing that made sense.”
She watched him turn to the table beside the bed and ladle water from a pail into a cup. He held the cup out to her, but when she didn't move to take it from him, he pressed it to her lips. “Drink it,” he ordered.
Her whole body tensed, and she closed her eyes. The memory was there before she could stop it. Nigel, yanking her hair back and pressing a glass of hated port against her lips. “Drink it, Countess. Drink it. I know you love a glass of port.” She could still feel the sticky red liquid running down her chin, staining her dress.
“Drink the water, chérie,” a different voice murmured, snapping her back to the present. Her eyes opened, and she found herself staring into his. They were black eyes, not blue, reminding her that this was not Nigel. She swallowed as he tilted the water into her mouth.
“Are you hungry?” he asked as he set aside the half-empty cup and rose. “I'll bring you some soup.”
Tess did not relax until Alexandre Dumond had left the room, resting her aching head against the headboard and reminding herself that Nigel was dead. She’d killed him, the man she had once loved, and she supposed she should feel guilt over that act, but she didn't. She’d had three months to come to terms with that. All she felt now was fear, and the need to overcome it and survive.
Prelude to HeavenWhen Dumond brought the soup, he sat down on the edge of the bed and spooned the broth into her mouth. She felt suffocated by his closeness and she hated being so weak that she could not feed herself. She kept her gaze fixed on his hand as it moved toward her and away, prepared by the past few years to expect anything—be it a touch, a slap or a blow. But Dumond went about his task without touching her at all, and after a while, Tess relaxed a bit, weariness and hunger overcoming fear. When he had given her the last spoonful in the bowl, she dared to look directly into his face.
He was studying her, and when she met his thoughtful gaze, she studied him in return. His eyes were truly black, so black the pupils disappeared, and surrounded by thick, sooty lashes. His face was lean and brown, with tiny creases carved from the sun and time and something more. There were stories written on that face, hidden in those eyes. Tess found herself unable to look away.
Abruptly he stood up and the strange spell was broken. He retrieved his sketchbook from the table by the window and walked to the door. He paused in the doorway, glancing over his shoulder at her, and said in a quiet voice, “Sleep now, mon enfant.” Then he left the room, closing the door behind him.
She did sleep, deep and dreamless, waking only briefly to take more soup or water, then drifting off again. But when she woke to the sound of a cock crow two mornings later, she felt no sharp pain of headache and no rush of dizziness as she sat up in the bed.
She glanced down at the swell of her abdomen under the sheets and gently rubbed it with her hand, wishing the baby would turn or kick, but she felt no flutters of movement, and she could only hope her illness had done the child no harm.
To prevent herself from dwelling on that possibility, Tess reached for the ladle and poured herself a cup of water. Her mouth felt as if it were full of cotton. When she ran a hand through her hair, it felt sticky. She grimaced, knowing she must look as disheveled as she felt.
She wondered about her mysterious host. She had seen no one but him, and she wondered if anyone else even lived here. If he did indeed live alone, Tess thought, glancing down at the nightshirt she wore, then it must have been he who had—
The door opened and Dumond entered the room, carrying a bowl and spoon. “Bonjour, mademoiselle. You appear to be feeling better.”
Prelude to HeavenThis man must have seen her without her clothes. With that realization, Tess pulled the nightshirt together at her throat, and as he came toward her, she eyed him warily. When he sat down on the edge of the bed, she tightened her grip on the nightshirt, working not to show any hint of either embarrassment or alarm as she thought of how he must have stripped her out of her clothes.
“You were soaking wet, mademoiselle,” Dumond said as if reading her mind. “And very ill. Here,” he added, thrusting the bowl toward her. “Eat.”
When she took the bowl, he rose and departed without another word.
She had finished eating by the time he returned. He carried a washbasin in one hand, and a pair of women’s shoes in the other. Draped over his arm were towels, a dress and several undergarments. He set the basin on the table by the window, then laid the clothes and towels at the foot of the bed. As he left the room again, he paused in the doorway to look at her over his shoulder at her. “Your clothes are in tatters and not fit to wear,” he said, and a small smile touched the corners of his mouth. “These will perhaps fit you better, n'est-ce pas? But, should you wish for your old clothes when you continue your journey, I have washed them for you.”
Tess watched the door close behind him. Continue her journey? He sounded as if he wanted her to leave as quickly as possible. She should, of course, but crossing France on foot had been harrowing and exhausting. During her three months of traveling, she'd slept in clean inns, then in dirty inns, and finally, when she'd run out of money for lodgings, she’d slept in ditches. She'd accepted rides in wagons until one farmer discovered that she wasn't a man and tried to rape her. From then on, she had walked, walked until her feet blistered, and she couldn't take another step. She'd bought food when she could afford it, then stolen it when she couldn't. Now, she was at the southern coast of France with almost no money left. Continue her journey? Where could she go?
Tess very much feared the answer was nowhere. To avoid dwelling on that fact, she rose and examined the clothes he had brought her. They were fine, the clothes of a wealthy woman, but several years out of fashion. Though clean, they smelled musty, with a faint tinge of lemon verbena. She wondered who they belonged to.
She used the water in the basin, bathing as well as she could, then pulled on the linen chemise, petticoat, and silk stockings. The high-waisted dress of blue muslin accommodated her pregnancy easily but was much too long. Not for the first time, Tess wished she were taller, and she knew she would have to be careful not to trip.
Her bedchamber was large, but simply furnished, with walls of whitewashed stone, carved oak furnishings, and a few rugs of hand-knotted wool rugs. There were two doors leading out of the room. One, she discovered, led into a corridor, and the other opened into a much smaller room, a dressing room. It was empty, save for a few white shirts and black trousers hanging on hooks. This was apparently Monsieur Dumond's room.
Closing the door, she rested her hand on her rounded stomach and returned her attention to her problem, for it had to be faced. What was she going to do next? She was five months into her pregnancy, and for the baby's sake, she doubted she could go much farther. She could only hope she had run far enough to hide from the authorities.
Prelude to HeavenShe thought again of Alexandre Dumond. Would he her stay here until her baby came? He seemed kind enough, for he had taken her in and cared for her, but now that she was well again, he probably wanted her gone, especially if he were the recluse he was rumored to be. And even if he let her stay here, would he expect some kind of payment in exchange? Or worse, was he a man like Nigel? She shuddered, remembering how she had once thought Nigel to be kind.
Suddenly, without warning, the baby moved. It was only a tiny flutter, but it was enough to remind her that it didn't matter if Monsieur Dumond were kind. As long as he didn't beat her, she knew her best option was to remain here, if he would allow it. “I won't let anything happen to you, my baby,” she promised, cradling her belly protectively with her hand. “I swear it.”
She grasped a fold of muslin in her hand and wondered what woman had worn this dress. She thought of Monsieur Dumond's unkept garden, crumbling castle, and torn clothes. She wondered why he seemed to have no servants. She thought of the rumors surrounding him and wondered what secrets hid behind those enigmatic dark eyes.
Suddenly, she had an idea.
Alexandre leaned his back against the stone wall of the courtyard and stared at the weeds flourishing between the paving stones. In his mind's eye was a picture of violet eyes and a blue muslin dress and lavender in bloom. He closed his eyes and fought back, struggling until the image disappeared.
It was the dress. He should have given all her clothes away. But he had not been able to give away any of Anne-Marie's things. Her dresses still hung in the armoire of her bedchamber, her undergarments still lay in her chest of drawers, her jewel case still sat on the bedside table covered with dust. It had been three years since Alexandre had been in her bedchamber, three years since she had died there. After the funeral, he had stepped out of that room and locked the door, never opening it again. Until today.
Alexandre opened his eyes. There was the dress again, on the wrong woman. He straightened away from the wall, coming out of his reverie with difficulty, trying not to look at her. “You should be resting, mademoiselle,” he said, fixing his eyes on the lavender blooming in the courtyard.
“Pardon?” He looked at her then. The dress hung on her thin frame, except around the gentle swell of her abdomen, and the hem swept the ground. There was a bit of color in her cheeks, though, and her eyes, dark green and huge, were clear as they met his.
Prelude to Heaven“My name is Tess.” She gave him no last name. Instead, she turned away and looked about her. “Your gardener should be dismissed.”
Over her shoulder, she cast him an inquiring glance, probing for information that he had no intention of providing. “I will make a note of it.”
She straightened her shoulders and turned toward him. “Monsieur, thank you for your help. I am grateful. Truly, I don't know what I would have done if you had not found me.”
He shrugged, but he did not answer.
“I realize you know nothing about me, but as you can see, I am…” She paused as if searching for the right words. “I am in trouble.”
If she hoped for chivalry, she’d be disappointed.
“I'm concerned about my child,” she went on in the wake of his silence. “I don't know what to do.”
“I would think the solution to your problem would be obvious, mademoiselle. Go home.”
Her face went pale, and he caught a fleeting glimpse of the fear that had been so evident during her illness. She shook her head. “I can't do that.”
“I have no home,” she answered in a low voice, turning her face away as if to hide her expression.
So that was the way of it? He had guessed as much. A harsh father who had thrown her out of the house, a dishonorable lover who had refused to marry her, and a family scandal. “What will you do, then?”
She met his gaze and took a deep breath. Instead of answering, she asked, “You live alone here, monsieur? No family? No servants?”
He stiffened and his eyes narrowed. He said nothing.
Tess continued, “I would be very grateful if you would allow me to stay. I could keep house and—”
“No.” The word was flat, unemotional, and final.
“I know how to run a household, monsieur.”
“Perhaps,” he acknowledged with a slight nod, “but I need no one to run my household.” The last word was said with deliberate mockery as he gestured to the overgrown courtyard. “I prefer it as it is.”
“I could cook for you.”
“I cook for myself.”
“Perhaps I could tend your garden?”
He glanced down pointedly at her swollen abdomen. “Not for long.”
Heat stained her cheeks, but she still didn't give up. “Well, I could mend your clothes, then.” She gestured toward his torn shirt. “That's something you obviously can't do for yourself. And I can clean and keep house for you. I beg your pardon if this sounds rude, but you seem to need a housekeeper. And I need a place to stay.”
He folded his arms across his chest and met her eyes. “You do not seem to understand, mademoiselle. I don't want you here.”
“I won't cause you any trouble. Please, monsieur, please let me stay.”
He stared at her long and hard, giving nothing away. When he spoke, his voice was harsh even to his own ears. “Why should I?”
“Because,” she said simply, “I have nowhere else to go.”