Authors: Sara Craven
False pretenses. It was an auspicious and fateful beginning-tossed into the
arms of Jerome Moncourt by a violent storm that opened the flood gates to
Meg's own raging torment of desire and deception. For Meg's visit to the
glorious south of France was an exercise in duplicity--she was undertaking a
charade for which she felt wretchedly guilty. And her plans hadn't included
awakening to her own passionate needs with a chance-met stranger who had
a well-practiced line of seduction. Especially since Jerome made it clear he
wanted all of her secrets...body and soul. And that he wasn't about to
disclose any of his own!
'It's the perfect solution. You can go in my place.'
Margot Trant's airy remark was followed by a silence that could have been
cut by a knife.
Meg Langtry cleared her throat. 'Let me get this straight,' she said slowly.
'You want me to go to the south of France next month and stay at your
godmother's chateau, pretending to be you.' She paused, giving her stepsister
a long, steady look. Those are the basic elements of the scenario?'
'Well, what's wrong with that?' Margot demanded. The old bag wants
someone to keep her company for four weeks while her regular slave has a
well-deserved break. As long as someone turns up claiming to be Margot
Trant, what problem can there possibly be?'
'Oh, none of course,' Meg returned with terrible irony. 'The fact that we don't
even look alike is quite immaterial.'
Margot shrugged. 'I'm blonde—you're brunette.' She gave Meg's simply
styled fall of brown hair a disparaging look. That can be easily fixed. As for
the rest—Tante's practically blind—that's why she needs a companion.
You'll just be a blur.'
'Always my ultimate ambition,' Meg murmured.
Margot leaned forward. 'Oh, come on, Meg.' Her voice sharpened. 'You
could do it easily. You'll have no job to worry about once that grotty
second-hand bookshop you work for closes at the end of the week. And I
can't possibly get away. You must see that.'
'Why not?' Meg countered. 'I thought Parliament "rose" in the summer.
Surely Steven would give you leave.'
'Probably, if I asked him.' Margot's pretty face was suddenly intense, 'But
he's just on the point of asking Corinne for a divorce. I simply can't afford to
be away at this juncture.'
'I see,' Meg murmured drily. However distasteful she might personally find
it, this was what her stepsister had been working towards, ever since she'd
got the job as secretary to Steven Curtess MP, the young back-bencher who
was being tipped for junior ministerial rank in the next government.
'And Godmother has no right to summon me like this—right out of the blue,'
Margot went on petulantly. 'Good God, I haven't seen her since I was nine.'
'I wondered why I'd never heard of her.'
Margot hunched a shoulder. 'She's my great-aunt, actually—Dad was her
favourite nephew, and I was named for her. So we're all three of us called
Margaret,' she added triumphantly. 'Isn't that convenient?'
'Amazing.' Meg shook her head. 'But irrelevant. Wouldn't it be simpler just
to write and tell her that you can't get away?'
'No, it would be extremely stupid,' Margot snapped. 'She has no children,
and no other living relative as far as I know. And a chateau in the Languedoc
isn't to be sneezed at as an inheritance. It's imperative I keep on the right side
of her.' She gave Meg a suddenly limpid smile. 'Or that you do, on my
'No way.' Meg bit her lip. 'Ethical considerations aside, we'd never get away
'Of course we would. Margot Trant is sent for. Margot Trant, presumably,
turns up on the appointed day. And you're far better suited to running round
after some dreary old lady than I'd ever be. Keep her sweet for me, and I'll be
'That's just the incentive I need, of course,' Meg said levelly. She pushed
back her chair. 'You're the total limit, Margot. Do your own dirty work.'
'Oh, are you going?' Margot inspected a fleck on her fingernail. 'I thought
the bookshop closed on Wednesdays.'
'It does. I'm spending the day with Nanny Turner, as I usually do.'
'Of course, in that sweet little cottage of hers— or should I say ours?'
There was a pause. Meg's eyes narrowed. 'Brydons Cottage is Nanny's for
life,' she said. 'My father made that clear before he died.'
'Yes, but not in writing, sweetie. There's nothing legally binding. Oddly
enough, Mummy was looking into it all the other day. Some friends of hers,
the Nestors, are looking for a weekend place, and Brydons would be ideal.'
Meg stared at her. 'You're not serious? Nanny adores that cottage.'
'I bet she does,' Margot said acidly. 'It's a very desirable property.'
'But she'd have nowhere else to go.'
Margot's face was a mask of malice. 'There's always Sandstead House.
Mummy has friends on the Social Services Committee. I'm sure they could
pull a few strings.'
Meg drew a shaken breath. 'It would kill her to be in a heme. She's
terrific—firing on all cylinders. She can look after herself.'
'Then the choice is yours.' Margot spoke with cool finality. 'Go to the
Languedoc in my place, and I'll persuade Mummy that it would be a betrayal
of your father's memory to turn Nanny out.'
'That would make a difference?' Meg asked wrily.
'Oh, yes, she was awfully fond of him, even if she didn't go a bundle on
Nanny and her bossy ways,' Margot said with insouciance. 'Besides, I'm the
blue-eyed girl at the moment, and I know I can talk her round if I want.
Mummy's dying to have a son-in-law in the government.'
And to hell with Corinne Curtess and the children, presumably, Meg thought
'I'll even get her to put something in writing about Nanny's tenure if you get
through the month with Godmother none the wiser,' Margot wheedled. 'I
need your help, Meg. I've got to stay here and keep the pressure on Steven.'
'If I do this,' Meg said icily, 'it will be for Nanny's sake—not to further your
affair with a married man.'
'Oh, don't be so bloody pompous.' Margot stretched- luxuriously. 'You'll be
getting a whole month abroad in France, all expenses paid, at the height of
the season. What more could you want?'
She sent Meg a complacent smile. 'I'll even lend you my car to drive over to
Nanny's. You'll need to practise your driving for France.'
Meg set her teeth. 'I haven't said I'm going yet.'
Margot's smile became almost cat-like. 'But you will,' she said. 'Or poor old
Nanny becomes homeless. It's up to you.'
A fortnight later, Meg, much against her better judgement, was on her way.
She'd intended to stick to her guns, but seeing Nanny Turner bustling round
her cosy home, happily oblivious to the threat posed by Iris Langtry's
friends, had made her rethink her position.
Iris herself was not too pleased with the bargain that had been struck, but
accepted it grudgingly.
'Margot deserves a chance of happiness,' she sighed. 'And Steven is such a
fine man. His wife's one of these very
women, I understand. He
needs someone to work alongside him, and boost his political career.'
If that was how he saw Margot, it was little wonder the country was in such
a hell of a state, Meg thought uncharitably, as she made her unwilling
preparations for the trip. Certainly no one could ever have described her
stepsister as 'domestic'. She could barely boil water.
One unexpected bonus was the acquisition of some new clothes, which Iris
insisted on paying for.
'You're supposed to be my daughter,' she cut short Meg's protests. 'You can't
go looking as if you've dressed at War on Want.'
The new hair colour, too, had been an unexpected success. Meg's own
natural shade had been softened to a dark blonde, and subtly highlighted.
She was almost too busy to mourn properly over the closure of the bookshop
where she'd worked for the past eighteen months, following the proprietor's
retirement, or to worry about where she'd work once her French escapade
was safely behind her. For the moment, she had enough problems to contend
To her surprise, her employer, Mr Otway, had nodded approvingly over her
trip. 'Ah, the Languedoc. Land of the troubadours. And of the Cathars,' he
'Cathars?' Meg questioned.
'Religious sect in medieval times. Believed all life was basically evil, and a
constant search for the light. Condemned, naturally, as heretics by the
established church who launched the Albigensian Crusade against them.'
Mr Otway sniffed. 'Not just a holy war, of course. The whole of the
Languedoc was made up of rich states, independent of the King of France.
He hated Raymond of Toulouse, the greatest of the southern lords, envied
him his wealth, and the beauty and culture of southern life. Decided to use
the Cathars as an excuse to move against him, and grab his possessions, all
in the name of religion.
'But you'll love the Languedoc,' he went on more cheerfully. 'It's a
passionate land—a place of extreme contrasts. Warm laughter, and bitter
tears. Faithful love and implacable hatred.' He paused. 'Fierce sun and
violent storms. The full force of nature unleashed.' He grinned maliciously
at the look of apprehension on Meg's face. 'It will do you good,' he said with
severity. 'Shake you out of a rut you're far too young to occupy.'
'But I've been happy,' Meg protested.
'No, you've been content—a very different thing. But I guarantee, child, you
won't be the same person when you return from the Languedoc.' He gave a
dry chuckle. 'No, not the same person at all.' He patted her on the shoulder. 'I
predict you'll never settle for mere contentment again. And drink "a beaker
full of the warm south" for me,' he added.
'Warm south' was putting it mildly, Meg thought, as she sat in a traffic jam
outside Toulouse airport, feeling the perspiration trickling down between
The car she'd hired was like an oven already, and she was only at the start of
her journey to Haut Arignac. She'd arrived in France two days earlier than
she was actually expected, with the intention of doing some sightseeing
before joining the De Brissot household as Madame's
dame de compagnie.
It would also give her a chance to practise her French. She'd been the star
pupil at school, and gone on to improve her fluency at evening classes. But
there'd be no opportunity to try out her skill at the Chateau Haut Arignac, as
Margaret de Brissot had been told during the preliminary correspondence
that 'Margot' spoke no French.
'Quite useful really,' her stepsister had commented offhandedly when Meg
protested at the arbitrary decision. 'If anyone asks awkward questions, you
can just play dumb.'
'I don't want to play anything,' Meg said bitterly.
She felt wretchedly guilty about the charade she was undertaking. She was
setting out to deceive an elderly, nearly blind woman, and for what? To
further her stepsister's ruthless determination to break up her lover's
marriage. And to hurt some unknown and presumably unsuspecting woman
and her children along the way.
Even the knowledge that Nanny's occupancy of Brydons Cottage would be
secure couldn't alleviate her profound misgivings about the whole affair, and
her unwilling role in it. Damn Margot and her sordid affair, she thought,
drumming her fingers on the steering-wheel.
Then, as if a drain had been unblocked somewhere, the traffic moved off,
and Meg realised she was on her way. She proceeded with a certain amount
of care, at first, accustoming herself to the unfamiliar road conditions, as
well as the novelty of having a vehicle totally at her own disposal. But it
didn't take her long to realise she was on good roads, with far less volume of