A familyin time for the holidays?
When Alice McMillan arrives at a French chateau, searching for long-lost family, she doesn't expect to be confronted by deliciously brooding Julien Duboisor the bombshell that the tiny baby nestled in his arms is her orphaned half brother!
New guardian and celebrity chef Julien is completely out of his depth. Alice's help is like an answer to his prayers. With snow falling all around, it's a cozy Christmas and the start of something wonderful their own fledgling family!
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Something was going very wrong for Alice McMillan.
She was not supposed to be enjoying herself right now. 'I'm sorry '
Silent, one-sided communication had become a habit even though the feeling of connection had faded over the months of this year. Now it only served to increase the prickle of guilt.
'But it is gorgeous You must have loved it, too.'
All those years ago. Twenty-nine, to be exact. A period of time that had included Alice's conception.
Having stepped off the bus from Nice in the heart of the small town of Villefranche-sur-Mer, Alice crossed the road to start walking downhill, skirting around a man on a ladder who was part of the team installing a huge pattern of tinsel that would hang over the centre of the main street like a giant tiara. She'd printed off a map before leaving Edinburgh and the route looked easy enough. All she had to do was find the beach and follow it. At the other end was the start of the peninsula that was St Jean Cap Ferrat and the address she was heading for looked like it was within easy walking distance.
There was a small market happening on a grassed area opposite the bus stop. Stalls were selling things like cheese and preserves, handmade soaps and Christmas decorations. There was music coming from somewhere and the smell of hot food made her mouth water. When had she last eaten? That bag of cheese and onion crisps and a bottle of water on the last leg of her long train journey didn't really count.
She had to edge her way through a group of people who seemed to be there to socialise rather than shop but they made way for her politely and the smile of the man at the stall was welcoming.
'Bonjour, mademoiselle. Qu'est-ce qu'il vous fait aujourd'hui?'
This might be her first day ever in France but Alice had been surrounded by the sound of this language since her arrival in Paris early this morning. She'd already learned that the best response was a smile and an apology that she didn't speak French.
The apology was genuine. Most people learned at the very least to say 'please' or 'thank you' in the language of a country they chose to visit and Alice could do that in Spanish or Italian. Even Greek. But not French.
'One of those, please.' Alice pointed to a baguette that had been split and filled with a thick slice of ham and some cheese.
'Of course.' The man switched languages effortlessly. 'You are English?'
'Ah Welcome to Villefranche.' The sandwich was being wrapped in paper. 'You are here on holiday?'
A holiday? A place you chose to go to relax and enjoy yourself? No. This journey was definitely no holiday.
But Alice smiled and nodded as she handed over some money because the truth was far too personal to tell a stranger and too complex to explain anyway. She wasn't even sure she understood herself why she had made the impetuous decision to come here and now that she was here she felt like she was on an emotional roller-coaster.
It was a relief to get away from all the people. The buzz of conversation and laughter faded and the group of people she passed near the tourist attraction of the old citadel were clearly English tourists.
There was a marina below the citadel and Alice found a bench where she could sit and eat her sandwich in the afternoon sunshine. There was a man working on a boat nearby. Joggers went past and people walking their dogs or pushing prams but nobody seemed to notice Alice and she gave herself a few minutes to bask in the sunshine, enjoy the delicious fresh bread with its perfect filling and get her bearings.
She could see the curve of the beach not far awaypast a line of restaurants and cafés and she could see the tongue of land that had to be St Jean Cap Ferrat. She knew the main village was out of sight, on the other side of the peninsula, but there were lots of houses on this side and one of them was the address she was heading for. Right on the coastline, in fact. If she knew where to look, she would probably be able to see it from here.
But what, exactly, did she think was going to happen when she knocked on the door? That she would only have to come face to face with this famous racing-car driver called André Laurent and he would somehow recognise her as his daughter? Or that she would show him the faded photograph she'd found hidden in her mother's most private belongings to remind him of their relationship and then disbelief would morph into amazement and finally joy?
That she would, again, have at least one person that she could think of as family?
Nerves kicked in. This had been a stupid idea. She wouldn't be welcome. It was quite likely she would have to turn around immediately and retrace her footsteps and then what would she do? With the knowledge that the big city of Nice was so close and there was bound to be plenty of hotels, she hadn't even tried to book a room for the night or find out what time the buses stopped running.
Maybe she should just turn around now.
Alice closed her eyes and waited and, yes there it was. That feeling that this was the right thing to do. That flicker of hope that it might even be the best thing she had ever decided to do. Okay, it was a huge gamble and it was quite possible that it would turn out to be her worst decision ever but there was only one way to find out.
And there was something important here.
She could feel it. A sense of belonging?
Well, that wasn't so crazy, was it? She was half-French. She might have been brought up to dismiss this heritage as something to be ashamed of but there could be no denying that the lilt of the language around her and the feel of these streets and houses was touching a part of her she didn't recognise. A part that held whispers of contentment. Of being home
Hence the silent apology to her mother.
Jeanette McMillan would have been so horrified by her making this journey it was no wonder that the very idea would have been unthinkable while she was alive. Even now, Alice could hear an echo of the words that had stopped any queries about her genetic history.
'Your father was French ' The biggest insult ever. 'And he tried to get rid of you '
Curiosity about even the country had to be firmly squashed because she'd loved her mother and any intermittent yearning to find out who her father might be had been something that had needed to be kept even more private, especially in recent years when her mother had already been coping with more than anyone should have to bear.
How sad was it that she would never know if her mother had loved this place as much as Alice knew she might be capable of loving it herself?
She opened her eyes again and scanned the buildings she could see more closely. Maybe the bar where her mother had been working when she'd only been eighteen was nearby. Had it had a view of this sparkling blue bay of the Mediterranean dotted with yachts or had it been tucked away amongst the ancient stone buildings on the steep, cobbled streets of the old town?
That flicker of hope ignited into tendrils of excitement. Had her mother felt this sense of freedom as she'd embarked on her first adult adventure? Alice had left it far too long to stretch her wings but how could things have been any different with first her grandmother and then her mother having to suffer through such unbearably slow and debilitating terminal illnesses?
But she was here now and everything felt new and wonderful. This hadn't been a stupid idea at all. This was magicas if she was taking the first steps into a real-life fairy-tale. It was a shame she didn't have time to explore this historic part of the small town right now but time was marching on and it was winter. Daylight wouldn't last past about five p.m., and she didn't want to be trying to find her destination in the dark.
Her breath came out in an incredulous huff at the reminder of the season. This bright warmth was another wave of the magic wandlike the feeling of the scenery and the sound of the language was proving to be. Had it only been two days ago that Alice had been wrapped up against the bone-chilling temperatures of a Scottish winter? She'd shed her coat hours ago but still felt overdressed in her long-sleeved jumper and skinny jeans that were tucked into short boots.
The coat felt heavy over her arm as she followed the signposted walkway to the beach. It was a good thing that the few items she'd deemed necessary for a trip that might only last a day or two had fitted into a small backpack so she didn't have anything else to carry in her hands.
The beach was almost deserted, wavelets lapping at the golden sand. Even now, the sea looked inviting and Alice knew that the water temperature would probably be warmer than any beach in Scotland in midsummer. No doubt it got horribly crowded here in the high season, though, given that it was such a popular playground for the rich and famous. Didn't people like Madonna come here for holidays?
And Monaco was only a short drive down the coast. The place where her father had apparently become so famous and another Mecca for the kind of people that had always seemed like an alien race to Alice McMillan. She wasn't just visiting another country right nowit felt like she was heading for a different planet.
The path seemed to end in a car park, which was momentarily confusing, but then Alice spotted the stairs tucked against the steep bank. There was a path that followed a railway line at the top of the stairs and moments later she saw a street with a sign that gave her a name she recognised. Pulling a now crumpled map from her back pocket, Alice kept walking and it was less than ten minutes later that she came to another road that clearly led down towards the coastline again. The view back over the bay to Villefranche was spectacular but there seemed to be a downside to living on this street. There was certainly no room for anyone to park. There were vans and trucks parked nose to tail, and further down the hill she could see a large group of people milling about.
As she got closer, she could see that a lot of them were holding cameras.
Paparazzi? Was Madonna taking a winter break, perhaps? In the same street her father lived in? It wouldn't surprise her. When she'd found the street on the internet, it had looked like every house could be an exclusive resortthe dwellings massive, with huge gardens and swimming pools of Olympic size. The gates advertised just how prestigious this real estate was. Ornate black iron with gold gilding that were at least twice Alice's height, decorated with security features like cameras and intercoms. There were even security guards standing in front of the most ornate she'd seen so far. This property was also the one attracting the attention of the media. There was more than one television crew set up amongst a bank of cameras.
Disconcertingly, as Alice skirted the back of the small crowd she discovered that this was the end of the road. There were no more houses. With her heart thumping, she checked the map again. Okay, she'd known her father was famous. But this famous.?
The voice so close to her ear made her jump. She crumpled the map in her hand but it was too late. The man had seen the red circle and her notes and he was asking her something in a tone that was unmistakeably extremely interested.
Alice didn't bother to apologise this time. She shook her head and stepped back.
'I don't understand. I don't speak any French. Not even a single word of it.'
The man only spoke louder. And faster. He even took hold of Alice's arm and started pushing her towards the crowd.
Alice tried to pull her arm free. She had no idea what was going on but she knew she'd made a mistake now and the sooner she got away from here the better. The fairy-tale was taking an ominous twist and she needed to think about this. About taking a different approach to reach her goal, maybe.
This was frightening. Her unwelcome companion was now talking to someone else. About her. Her hand tightened around the ball of the map. This was nobody else's business.
How awful would it be if the media discovered that André Laurent had an illegitimate child before he did?
'It's okay,' the second man said. 'You're not in trouble. My friend is just wanting to know why you look for the house of Monsieur Laurent?'
'I I need to talk to him, that's all. About something important.'
'Talk to him?' The reporter, if that's what he was, couldn't have looked more astonished. 'Mon Dieu Don't you know?'
But the two men were talking to each other again. In low voices, as if they didn't want to be overheard. They were still attracting attention, though.
'Come with me.'
'No I think it might be better if I come back another time.'
But Alice was being firmly ushered forward. Towards the gate and the uniformed guard. Another rapid conversation followed, with the second reporter providing translation.
'He wants to know who you are.'
'My name is Alice McMillan. I'm ' Suddenly, this was terrifying. She was in a strange country and couldn't understand a word of what was being said around her. Something was going on and there was a grim note in the atmosphere. How was it that she hadn't noticed the presence of the police on the outskirts of this group? What if she found herself in trouble simply by having arrived in the wrong place at precisely the wrong time?
She seemed to have unwittingly walked into a nightmare situation and maybe the only way through it was to be honest.
She swallowed hard. And then she stood on tiptoe and spoke quietly enough that only the security guard could hear what she said.
'André Laurent is my father.'
The phone would not stop ringing.