Dani Coltrane gathered her white ermine wrap tighter about her bare shoulders. She had learned long ago that late summer evenings in France could be quite cool, and she had anticipated the chill, just as she had expected that her escort Perrine Ribaudt, would draw her outside to the seclusion of the terrace behind the Paris Opera.
It was intermission, and she stood waiting for him to return with champagne.
Rainbow streams of light spilled through the stained-glass panes of the building's arched windows. Combined with the silver bath of the full moon above, Dani stood in a rainbow hue. The billowing skirt of her delicate pink gown of watered silk seemed to come alive and breathe, rippling with thousands of glittering sheens and shimmers. Her chestnut hair, caught and held high in cascades of curls by tiny circlets of diamonds and pearls, shimmered like melted gold.
She was the personification of beauty. She had inherited her mother's delicate loveliness, her father's charm and wit. But as she stood bathed in the magical radiance, she was the mirror of intense, smoldering agitation.
Each time Perrine maneuvered her into a situation where he could once again attempt to persuade her to accept his proposal of marriage, she became angry with herself for allowing such a predicament. Kind and handsome though he might be, she had no intentions of marrying him or any of the other would-be suitors who called at the mansion where she lived with her father and stepmother. Love, and marriage, she felt, meant manipulation, subservience, relinquishment of her own will to another human being, and, by God, she had learned her lesson. Never again would she allow herself to be controlled or directed by anyone.
She walked to the edge of the terrace and gazed thoughtfully toward the Etoile, at the western end of the Champs-Elysees, with its twelve avenues of light radiating out from what appeared to be the center of a giant star. In the center of that star stood the colossal Arc de Triomphe, one hundred and sixty-four feet high, more than twice the size of the Arch of Constantine in Rome. It had been planned by Napoleon to honor his victorious army.
Turning, she could see the glow of the Place de la Concorde, but nothing to suggest it was once the notorious Place de la Guillotine, splashed with the blood of Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, Lavoisier, and other victims of the Revolution.
Lost in a realm of historical scenes before her, Dani allowed herself to be carried back in time to reflect once more upon those painful, miserable years of her earlier life when she had allowed herself to be entirely manipulated by her Aunt Alaina.
She recalled the story of how her father, Travis Coltrane, renowned Union cavalry officer and hero of the War between the States, had married, at war's end, the beautiful and spirited Kitty Wright, who had borne him a son. They had settled on her inherited farmland in North Carolina. Then, several years later, she had been abducted by an old enemy. Travis had traveled across the country to the deserts of the West in search, only to be told she was dead. Attempting to escape his deep, gnawing grief, he had accepted a job as a Federal Marshal and an assignment in Kentucky to quell the violence of the newly formed Ku Klux Klan.
Dani knew there was much she had not been told and realized that what Aunt Alaina had told her had been her personal interpretation of events back then.
She also knew that her aunt had been romantically involved with her father for a time, but it was her mother, Marilee Barbeau, whom he'd eventually married. Alaina had never forgiven him, had probably hated him with the last breath she drew.
Dani sighed, shook her head with pity. Such hatred had to eat upon the heart like a gnawing cancer. How else could her aunt have been so cruel as to create the breach between father and daughter?
When her mother died giving birth to her, her father had already discovered his beloved Kitty was not dead but suffering from amnesia. They were subsequently reunited, and then Alaina had set out to destroy the relationship between Dani and her father and Kitty.
She had succeeded.
Alaina persuaded Dani to come and live with her permanently. Her father had resisted such a move, but the situation in the household, due to Alaina's constant interference, and Dani's subsequent intolerable behavior, became unbearable to everyone.
At first, Dani had lived at the Barbeau estate in Kentucky. When Alaina married Count Claude deBonnett, they had moved to Monaco, in the South of France, to live in the deBonnett chateau. Dani had no memories of a happy marriage between the two, for it was no secret Alaina had married the Count only for his money.
Alaina had also taken young Gavin Mason with her to France, the son of the only other man she had ever loved--Stewart Mason. Stewart, Dani was to learn, was another reason her aunt so vehemently hated her father. Stewart had been a leader in the Klan and, in a gun battle, her father had shot and killed him. Alaina adopted his son, and, through the years, Gavin and Alaina succeeded in making Dani quite miserable.
Seeking love, Dani turned to the church. She felt all alone in the world. There was no way of knowing then that letters she wrote through the years to her father, and those he wrote to her seeking a reconciliation, were intercepted by Alaina and destroyed.
When the Count was killed in a duel, massive gambling debts left Alaina in dire financial straits. Gavin had proposed marriage to Dani, wanting, she knew, to claim whatever she might one day inherit from her father.
She had turned her back on Gavin's proposals and her aunt's pleas and joined a strict cloister isolated in the Maritime Alps. Placing her earthly past soundly behind her, Dani looked to a future of absolute servitude to the church.
Then, a sudden, unexpected, and forbidden visit from her half-brother, Colt, awakened her to reality. She learned that her father was living in Paris and had divided up his fortune between her and Colt. Not knowing about the money, Dani also had no way of knowing that Gavin Mason had blackmailed a servant girl to pose as Dani and go to America to claim her share.
The terrible tale had unfolded as Colt miserably recounted how Briana, the servant girl posing as Dani, had made him believe he had seduced her. Overwhelmed by guilt to think he had bedded his own sister, he had signed over everything he had to her and gone away in shame. It was only later, when he returned, that he learned the family ranch had been sold.
Colt followed Briana and Gavin to France where Briana told him of the entire scheme. She had never wanted to be involved, had been blackmailed because of her sick brother, whom she had to support.
Eventually Colt, aided by his father, had tracked Mason to the Greek island of Santorini where they recovered the swindled money...and found Mason murdered by one of his own men.
Alaina, it was discovered, had died after plunging from a window of the deBonnett chateau to the jutting rocks below while attempting to murder Gavin Mason's mistress in a jealous rage.
After much contemplation, Dani realized she did not truly wish to be a nun. She left the convent and moved to Paris to get to know the family she had been denied--all because she had allowed herself to be manipulated.
Dani felt a warm glow now to think of the happy times shared with her father and stepmother during the past year. Travis Coltrane was every bit as wonderful as she'd hoped he might be, and Kitty was more like a sister than a stepmother. In fact, it had been Kitty who had helped her come to understand how so many people had been hurt by her inability to make her own decisions, by allowing someone else to interfere in her life.
Kitty, Dani had admiringly come to realize, was an independent spirit, yet she was able to love a man while maintaining her own identity.
Dani wanted to be just like her.
It was also Kitty who had helped her to see that she owed it to herself to live her life to the fullest. There was a fortune already bequeathed to her by her father, and she had the money to do anything she wanted.
And the one thing she wanted above all else was independence...to make up for all those lost years.
The sound of Perrine's voice calling her name sharply snatched her from the grasping cobwebs of the past. She turned to face him.
Perrine Ribaudt was not only handsome, with dark, curling hair and laughing brown eyes, he was also intelligent. Educated at Oxford in England, he spoke flawless English with only a touch of a French accent. However, if he had not, there would have been no language barrier, for Dani spoke perfect French.
They had met at a reception at the embassy. Perrine was being groomed for an ambassador's post and came from a wealthy, influential family. Dani found him to be enjoyable company and had accepted his invitations to attend various social functions. All she had wanted was a friendship, but then, after they had been keeping company only a few months, he had proposed. She had refused, but he was undaunted and continued his attempts to persuade her to say yes.
He held out a glass of sparkling champagne and smiled fondly, dark eyes glowing with his love for her. "I'm sorry to have kept you waiting, my dear, but the hall was crowded."
She took the champagne, wishing to hear the silvery tinkle of the bells signaling the beginning of the last half of the performance. If she stayed in Perrine's company, unchaperoned, for very long, she knew what would happen.
She did not have long to wait for the inevitable.