The tour guide had touted the Chateaux as one of the most haunted places in western Europe. Samantha Lancaster felt a delightful shiver skate down her spine as she studied the ancient chateaux. Her mother would've loved it.
A wave of loss washed over her at the thought. Swallowing against the emotion that clogged her throat, she resolutely dismissed the threatening tide of grief. The two of them had planned the trip together. She was determined she was going to enjoy it to the fullest for both of them. She knew in her heart that her mother would've wanted it that way. Her mother had spent most of her adult life yearning to visit Europe, to track down family roots, if possible, but more importantly, to visit every reputedly haunted site on the continent.
The Chateaux du Beauchamp had topped her list.
A sense of excitement replaced her melancholy as she studied the stone building in the fading light almost with a sense of awe. It never failed to amaze her that people had managed to build such masterpieces of architecture centuries ago with the most primitive of tools.
The closing of a door drew her attention from her study of the gargoyles that guarded the chateaux's roof top. She turned to look toward the front door of the chateaux. A young man, dressed in what looked to be authentic late medieval clothing, was striding rapidly toward her. He stopped beside the car and Samantha rolled her window down, looking up at him questioningly as he said something to her and gestured toward the side of the building. She hadn't a clue of what he'd said, but the language and accent sent a thrill of pleasure through her. She hadn't been in France a full day and she still wasn't used to finding herself in a world where no one spoke her language. She'd found she didn't particularly care, though. She loved the French tongue. They could say shit and it still sounded beautiful.
"I'm sorry," she said apologetically. "I don't speak French." She'd studied French in high school, but that had been almost ten years ago. She hadn't used it since she graduated and she didn't remember enough to do her much good.
He pointed to the narrow driveway that wound around toward the back of the chateaux. "You must leave the automobile in back. I will take your luggage, if you like."
Samantha smiled at him gratefully and got out so that he could reach the luggage she'd piled in the back seat. He grunted as he unloaded it, straining much as she had when she'd loaded the suitcases in.
Packing light wasn't her forte'. She hadn't been tempted to change her ways when she was traveling all the way to Europe. Nothing, she thought, could be worse than arriving at one's destination and discovering one had forgotten something really important.
Finally, he had all of the bags out and stacked. "I see you brought everything," he commented, keeping his voice carefully neutral.
She supposed she should have been insulted, but she couldn't help but laugh. "Believe it or not, I probably missed a few things."
Climbing back into the rental car, she started it up again and pulled around to the back of the chateaux. A gravel parking area had been added just beyond the cobblestone courtyard that stretched from the back of the chateaux to what must have once been the stables. She pulled the tiny car into a space between a sports car and another compact like the one she was driving and got out.
The chateaux was almost as beautiful from the back as it was from the front, she decided appreciatively. Glancing around at the outbuildings, she saw with a twinge of disappointment that it was going to be too late by the time she registered and settled in her room to do any exploring until the following day.
Heaving a sigh, she crossed the cobblestone courtyard and climbed a set of stone steps that led up onto a verandah. Several French doors let out onto the verandah where tables were scattered here and there for outdoor dining. The glass-paned doors undoubtedly led into the dining room, she decided, and turned toward the only wooden paneled door, more than half expecting to find it locked. It opened easily, however, onto a dim hallway lit only by a couple of wall sconces.
She ran smack into the man just inside the dim interior, a gentle collision that nevertheless plastered her full length against a hard, muscular body. Embarrassed, she took a step back. "Excuse me," she muttered, barely glancing at the man as she rushed past him.
To her relief, she found that the corridor led to the front desk.
The man at the desk looked at her in surprise as she appeared out of the darkened corridor. "Sorry. I guess I was supposed to go around to the front?"
His brows rose. "Are you checking in, madame?"
Samantha blushed again, this time with a pique of annoyance. She wasn't married, wasn't wearing a ring, and she wasn't even twenty eight yet. Surely she deserved a 'mademoiselle'?
On the other hand, she'd had a mature look about her her entire life. She supposed it was her narrow face and the high cheek bones. If she'd had rounded cheeks, people might've thought she was younger.
She forced a smile. "Yes ... uh ... Oui. I'm Samantha Lancaster. I was supposed to be here earlier today, but the flight was delayed and then I had trouble getting the rental car...."
She allowed her voice to drift off, looking around at the room she found herself in as he nodded and began thumbing through a file on the desk. Undoubtedly, the area had originally been part of the great room that seemed typical of most castles. Now, it was a guest lounge and office.
The walls were wainscotted in a dark, rich looking wood. Above the panels, the walls had been covered in what looked like silk, but was probably just wallpaper made to look like silk. She wondered if it was anything like the original or if they'd opted for the pale blue watered silk to lighten the area.
She jumped when she saw the man staring at her from across the room. Dressed in clothing somewhat similar to the 'bellhop' who'd first greeted her and taken her luggage, she assumed he must be staff, but if he was, he was brazen.
He was propped against a wooden column that doubled as a newel post for the stairs that wound upwards from the great room to the balcony above. His expression was a mixture of boredom and annoyance.
Dark and brooding, her mind supplied descriptively.
Despite his unwelcoming demeanor, the man had a 'pant' factor of ten on a scale of one to ten. His hair was black and undoubtedly long, swept back from his face and tied behind his head. His complexion was swarthy, his features almost classically refined, but there was something about him that made her think of gypsies. Maybe the devil-may-care attitude?
He was tall, lean, and well shaped. She had a feeling he was tautly muscular, lean rather than merely slender, but she wasn't certain why ... until it dawned on her that it was the same man she'd run into as she was coming inside. She hadn't caught more a glimpse of his face, but she'd registered it just the same--small wonder when it was such a memorable face!
Smiling at him a little uncertainly, she returned her attention to the concierge as he called her name for the second time, blushing when she realized that neither man could be in any doubt that she'd gone into Zen meditation when she caught sight of the hunk lounging against the wall and burning holes in her with his gaze.
"I have found you," the concierge announced, smiling faintly. "We were not certain that you would come when you did not arrive this morning, but we are slow now. We still have your room."
An uncomfortable jolt of panic and irritation went through Samantha at that calm pronouncement. It hadn't occurred to her, before, that she might've lost her reservation, but there didn't seem much point in dwelling on the fact that, if they'd given her room to someone else, she might've had to drive miles and miles to find somewhere to stay--it wasn't like the chateaux was close to a major city. She supposed it didn't matter now, but it was unpleasant to think she'd had such a close call through no fault of her own. "I did say that I might be delayed," she pointed out.
"No harm." He struck the bell on his desk. "I will have Antoine take your bags up for you and show you to your room."
Antoine, it transpired, was the young man who'd greeted her upon her arrival. He didn't look terribly enthusiastic about lugging her bags up, but hefted two of the three and started toward the stairs. Samantha did her best to ignore the dark man--whom she saw was still giving her that enigmatic examination--as they approached him where he stood by the stairs. Despite her determination, she found she simply couldn't resist glancing up at him as she came abreast of him.
He was taller than she'd realized. Something about his build had suggested that he was probably no more than medium in height. She saw now, though, that he must be at least six one or two. She was short and she was used to looking up at people, but even so, she noticed when she was around anyone taller than average.
She couldn't have failed to notice the man in any case, even if he hadn't shown so much interest in her. There was something about him that went beyond his physical appearance that was purely magnetic.
He was, she discovered, looking directly at her when she glanced up. Their eyes met for what might've been a half a dozen heartbeats if Samantha's hadn't paused painfully in her chest, forcing the air from her lungs as if some unseen arm was squeezing her chest. His eyes were an eerie, pale blue that sent a jolt through her like an electric current.
With an effort, she looked away, stumbling slightly as she misjudged the height of the first stair. Fortunately, she'd gripped the banister and caught herself. Ignoring both men now, her heart beating unpleasantly fast, Samantha concentrated on each step as she carefully made her way up to the second floor. She paused at the top, waiting for Antoine to take the lead and show her the way to her room.
The room he led her to made up for the disconcerting beginning she'd had. As she moved to the middle of the room and stared up at the ceiling, a sense of wonder filled her. The painting--a depiction of some mythological tale--had deteriorated over the years, but it was still beautiful. Plaster moldings of intricate design framed the ceiling painting. The upper portion of the walls were covered in the same blue, watered silk as the great room below. The paneling below that and the molding had all been painted a creamy white, giving the room the intricate charm of a fancy gift box.
The stone mantel piece that surrounded the fireplace, supported by a pair of snarling griffins, was the crowning touch.
The room's furnishings, lavishly carved and made of some gleaming, well polished, dark wood, were almost certainly reproductions. Though they looked to be antiques from several different periods, she could hardly credit it.
On the other hand, antiques in Europe, because of their long history, weren't quite the same as American antiques. To them, the room might be furnished with nothing more than second hand castoffs.
The clatter of her suitcases hitting the floor drew her attention away from her study at last and Samantha looked around in surprise to discover that she'd been so enthralled Antoine had already made the trip downstairs and back with the rest of her luggage. Digging in her purse, she produced a tip and thanked him.
Obviously pleased with the offering, he glanced around the room. "The Chateaux was occupied during the war, first by the Germans and later by the Allied forces. It survived the war with only minor damage. It was restored in the early 1900's and some modernization was added, but it remains today much as it did during the life time of the Compte du Beauchamp, who was reputed to be a very powerful witch."
Antoine's brows rose, but he nodded.
"He died before the revolution, didn't he?"
"Oui et non. The count was defeated in a duel between himself and another powerful witch. He was cursed, madam, and never seen again. The portrait in the corridor is believed to be a likeness of him.
"Many believe the Chateaux itself was enchanted, for it has survived much turmoil since his time and remained virtually unscathed, even by time. It has been vandalized and looted many times, but somehow the original furnishings always seem to find their way back to the chateaux."
Samantha thanked him again for the brief history lesson and smiled dismissively. Shrugging, he pointed out the room's amenities and left, closing the door behind him.
She'd read most of what he'd told her in the guide book, which was why her and her mother had chosen the Chateaux to begin with, but she was curious to know how much of it was 'invented' history, and how much was actually true. Dismissing it finally with the reflection that it wasn't something she was likely to discover, she lugged a suitcase onto the bed, extracted her toiletries and a change of clothes and went into the tiny 'modern' bath that had been added ... she supposed when the chateaux had been renovated into a bed and breakfast landmark.
Or maybe not.
Either they'd gone out of their way to find antique fixtures for the bath to make it as unobtrusive as possible, or the bath had been added at least a hundred years earlier.
It worked reasonably well, though, and that was all that really mattered. She'd rented the room for the atmosphere, and the thin hope she might actually encounter the ghost. If opulent accommodations had been the object, she could've stayed at one of the modern luxury hotels.
When she'd freshened up, she left the room, locking the door behind her. Instead of heading down to the dining room immediately, though, she went in search of the portrait Antoine had mentioned. She found it about halfway down the corridor. There was no missing it, for it was very nearly big enough to be a life sized portrait, and framed in an ornate picture frame that looked as if it must weigh every bit of a hundred pounds.
The corridor was dim and the portrait dark, but she noticed at once that the clothing the man wore was very similar to that adopted by the staff. He was seated in a chair of the Louis XV variety, as ornately carved and gilded as the picture frame, his posture casual rather than formal, one knee bent, the other leg sprawled casually. His arms were resting on the arms of the chair, but in one hand he held a cane topped by a large crystal.
The lights in the room below brightened as she peered at the painting, illuminating the portrait, and she stepped back so that her shadow was no longer blocking her view.
Her heart skipped a beat as she raised her eyes at last to study the face.
He looked uncannily like the man she'd seen downstairs when she checked in.
Samantha frowned, wondering if it was merely her imagination running wild, or if it was no more than a trick of the light--or perhaps a strong strain of genetics? People had never really moved around a lot, historically speaking, and after generations of people in a particular area having intermarried, family traits had a tendency to show up.
Of course, he'd been an aristocrat and they never married beneath them, but from what she knew that had never stopped them from sleeping with the lower classes and breeding with them. Maybe the man she'd seen below was the great, great grandson or something like that?--from the other side of the blanket, most likely. The French had pretty well disposed of their aristocrats during the revolution--all of them that hadn't had the good sense to run, and most of them had apparently been too arrogant to flee in time to save their necks from the guillotine.
Despite her preoccupation, Samantha sensed that someone had come up as she stood examining the portrait. When several moments passed and the newcomer neither turned away nor passed by her, she glanced absently toward him.
A jolt went through her. It was the same man she'd seen earlier. This time, however, he spoke when she looked at him. His voice, deep and resonant, washed over her like a caress. Goosebumps rose on her flesh. It made her feel light headed and giddy just being so close to him. She gaped at him uncomprehendingly when he stopped speaking. "Uh ... I don't speak French."
One dark brow arched, the other descended as if he wasn't at all pleased with the fact that she was a foreigner. "You are English?"
Samantha bit her lip, but couldn't help but chuckle. "American by birth, southern by the grace of God. You're probably the only person in Europe who'd mistake my accent for English. I can't even understand the English accent half the time ... or vice versa."
She gestured toward the portrait. "It looks like it could be you."
A gleam of amusement entered his eyes as he followed her gesture. "I, myself, think it is a poor likeness."
Samantha shrugged. "I suspect it didn't do him justice. I think a lot of the artists way back then were more into developing a particular style than actually capturing the person's likeness. I mean--either half of Europe was related and looked like it--or they just painted everybody to look that way. Except for the clothes, they all had bug eyes and thin lips." She frowned, thinking it over. "Except this one. It really is uncanny--the resemblance."
Samantha glanced at him in surprise and finally shrugged. "I've never been much for history, except where it has to do with reputed hauntings, that is, but even so I have a hard time with dates. The count lived way back before the revolution--at least three centuries ago, I think-more or less. You probably know a lot more about it than I do. You work here?"
"Non. I live here--in a manner of speaking."
Samantha looked at him in surprise.
"You don't work here, but you live here?" she persisted, frowning.
A thin smile curled the corners of his mouth. "I am Gerard, Compte du Beauchamp. This is my chateaux, petite."
Samantha felt her jaw go slack with surprise, but that was as nothing compared to the jolt that went through her when he abruptly vanished.