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"Yes, Monsieur Armentier? How can I help?"
Jean-Jacques had only recently been installed as CEO of the Giraud Cosmetics Corporation, and since then his private secretary had shown him the greatest deference, but this business about calling him Monsieur, though well intentioned, was irritating the hell out of him. "Couldn't you call me Jean-Jacques like you used to?"
"Are you sure?" She pretended to be scandalized, but he knew otherwise.
Her chuckle sounded loud and clear over the speaker. "I'm very happy to see that you're just the same."
"When all is said and done, I'm still a mere chemist and the son of a flower farmer."
"You're a lot more than that now!"
"Don't remind me. I've been told you're the one who normally walks around the complex on the last day giving out the Christmas bonuses."
"That's right. Would you prefer that someone else did it?"
"Perhaps this one time you would allow me the privilege? I need an excuse to meet with everyone personally before they go home for the holiday. If I'm handing out money, they might just return after New Year's."
Giselle's chuckle turned into full-bodied laughter. "The checks are in the safe, all ready for your signature."
"Wonderful. I've been thinking it might be nice if they were to receive their bonuses today instead of Wednesday."
"You must have read my mind," she quipped. Then on a more serious note, "If you want to know the truth, everyone is happy you've been put in charge."
Jean-Jacques cleared his throat. "That's good to hear, but I'm still not sure this isn't a dream. Any minute now I expect to wake up flat on my back in a lavender field just waiting to be harvested."
"Now you have to worry about the entire company instead of one flower farm. I'll be right in with the checks."
By the end of the day he'd delivered envelopes to everyone in the building except Vivige Honfleur, a woman he hadn't yet met. She ran the day care center, which was a recent innovation. Five years ago, before Jean-Jacques had left Vence to get his degree and work for the Giraud perfumery in Paris, the center hadn't existed. As far as he was concerned, it was a terrific and much needed addition to the workplace.
Hopefully the working parents with children had already picked up their offspring, and he'd be able to talk to Madame Honfleur without distraction. He walked out the front doors to the modern facility adjacent to the parking lot, recalling how pleased the workers had been to receive their Christmas bonuses early. Many of them had taken the time to renew their acquaintance with him ? and he was glad he had recognized so many of them.
Several mothers he'd spoken with earlier in the day were leaving with their toddlers. They chatted for a minute before he moved inside in the day care.
Voices carried from one of the rooms set up like a class with tables, chairs, and toys. Jean-Jacques walked through the doorway where he saw a curly-headed toddler talking to his teacher while she helped him on with his coat.
A man swept past him to collect his child, but Jean-Jacques's attention was suddenly riveted to the stunning woman who stood up to greet the boy's father, smoothing the skirt which had ridden up one gorgeous, shapely leg where the child had been clutching her.
Mon Dieu. It was Nicole.
Like the flowers that made up his world, Nicole Giraud, heiress to the Giraud perfume fortune, had always been an integral part of it. From their youth, her sweet nature, not just her beauty, had worked its way into his blood. Nicole and Provence. The two were inseparably connected.
If he hadn't known she was getting married right away and going to live in England, he would never have considered returning to Vence as CEO. It had been five years since he'd seen her. Yet looking at her now made it seem like yesterday.
* * *
Nicole said goodbye to little Luc, then turned to the other waiting parent. "May I help —"
She didn't finish what she was going to say because it wasn't another father who'd come into the room, looking taller and leaner than she'd remembered. Though she tried to quell it, a soft gasp escaped her throat. "Jean-Jacques —"
She'd known this moment had to come sometime, but she still wasn't prepared for it. His black eyes that used to pierce through to her very soul before kissing her into oblivion had developed a brooding quality. As they traveled over her features, she could find no trace of warmth in their assessing regard. There wasn't even a hint of the gentle, teasing side of his nature, which used to melt her bones.
"It's been a long time, cherie," he finally responded with enviable calm and a certain emotional detachment that made her heart drop to the floor like a stone.
The intervening years — the years he'd left her and been in Paris — had wrought changes. His olive skin wasn't as bronzed as it used to be. Of course that was only natural since he hadn't worked in the fields for years now. He'd become a man with a man's aloofness.
Physically he was more attractive to her than ever. He still wore his dark hair a little longer than was currently fashionable, tempting her to run her fingers through it. But there were new lines of experience around his nose and mouth giving him a harder edge. His very remoteness challenged her to break through the veneer to find the man she'd lost her heart to years before.
Standing this close to him again, she realized that nothing had changed for her. If anything she was even more in love with him.
"You haven't changed, Nicole. You're still the beautiful girl who used to drop by my father's plant to give me a thrill when you didn't have something else more important to do with your time."
Nicole snapped her head back, dislodging the rich brown hair from her shoulders. Until he'd said that, she'd never known he had a problem with their different backgrounds. How strange to think he'd even considered there was a class barrier between them. She had been too caught up in her feelings for him to even consider their differences.
"If you recall, your father's plant was the first place I came every day after school for years because I knew you'd be there. It was the only place I wanted to be," she confessed in a quiet voice.
Jean-Jacques lifted his shoulders in that elegant yet careless shrug so typical of him, before straightening. In an instant his features had taken on a chiseled cast. "That was a long time ago."
"A very long time ago." It was impossible to keep the tremor out of her voice.
"I must admit I'm surprised to find you here at the day care center of all places."
She took a deep breath. "It was built the year you left Vence. Every December since then I've worked with the children to enact the nativity scene for the Christmas Eve program."
The news stunned him. He shifted his weight. "Isn't that a fairly ambitious project when you're planning to get married so soon?"
Nicole's lambent brown eyes searched his with a frankness that gave his heart another dangerous workout. "You mean to Colin?"
Jean-Jacques rubbed the back of his neck. "If you're referring to the Englishman I saw you with in the papers, then I suppose yes. It said something about an impending holiday wedding. I didn't really take note of the rest."
A stillness emanated from her. "No, we're not getting married."
Jean-Jacques froze. He couldn't have heard correctly. If Nicole wasn't getting married, what would it mean for them…?