Fleeing the spotlight, burnt out rock star Layla—“Belle”—Dubois seeks refuge in the south of France. That old, half-forgotten heritage in a valley of roses seems like a good place to soothe a wounded heart. She certainly doesn’t expect the most dangerous threat to her heart to pounce on her as soon as she sets foot on the land.
Matt didn’t mean to growl at her quite that loudly. But—his roses! She can’t have his roses. Even if she does have all those curls and green eyes and, and, and…what was he growling about again?
When an enemy invades his valley and threatens his home, heart, and livelihood, Matthieu Rosier really knows only one way to defend himself.
It might involve kissing.
And that might be just the start.
Burlap slid against Matt’s shoulder, rough and clinging to the dampness of his skin as he dumped the sack onto the truck bed. The rose scent puffed up thickly, like a silk sheet thrown over his face. He took a step back from the truck, flexing, trying to clear his pounding head and sick stomach.
The sounds of the workers and of his cousins and grandfather rode against his skin, easing him. Raoul was back. That meant they were all here but Lucien, and Pépé was still stubborn and strong enough to insist on overseeing part of the harvest himself before he went to sit under a tree. Meaning Matt still had a few more years before he had to be the family patriarch all by himself, thank God. He’d copied every technique in his grandfather’s book, then layered on his own when those failed him, but that whole job of taking charge of his cousins and getting them to listen to him was still not working out for him.
But his grandfather was still here for now. His cousins were here, held by Pépé and this valley at their heart, and not scattered to the four winds as they might be one day soon, when Matt became the heart and that heart just couldn’t hold them.
All that loss was for later. Today was a good day. It could be. Matt had a hangover, and he had made an utter fool of himself the night before, but this could still be a good day. The rose harvest. The valley spreading around him.
J’y suis. J’y reste.
I am here and here I’ll stay.
He stretched, easing his body into the good of this day, and even though it wasn’t that hot yet, went ahead and reached for the hem of his shirt, so he could feel the scent of roses all over his skin.
“Show-off,” Allegra’s voice said, teasingly, and he grinned into the shirt as it passed his head, flexing his muscles a little more, because it would be pretty damn fun if Allegra was ogling him enough to piss Raoul off.
He turned so he could see the expression on Raoul’s face as he bundled the T-shirt, half-tempted to toss it to Allegra and see what Raoul did—
And looked straight into the leaf-green eyes of Bouclettes.
Oh, shit. He jerked the T-shirt back over his head, tangling himself in the bundle of it as the holes proved impossible to find, and then he stuck his arm through the neck hole and his head didn’t fit and he wrenched it around and tried to get himself straight and dressed somehow and—oh, fuck.
He stared at her, all the blood cells in his body rushing to his cheeks.
Damn you, stop, stop, stop, he tried to tell the blood cells, but as usual they ignored him. Thank God for dark Mediterranean skin. It had to help hide some of the color, right? Right? As he remembered carrying her around the party the night before, heat beat in his cheeks until he felt sunburned from the inside out.
Bouclettes was staring at him, mouth open as if he had punched her. Or as if he needed to kiss her again and—behave! She was probably thinking what a total jerk he was, first slobbering all over her drunk and now so full of himself he was stripping for her. And getting stuck in his own damn T-shirt.
Somewhere beyond her, between the rows of pink, Raoul had a fist stuffed into his mouth and was trying so hard not to laugh out loud that his body was bending into it, going into convulsions. Tristan was grinning, all right with his world. And Damien had his eyebrows up, making him look all controlled and princely, like someone who would never make a fool of himself in front of a woman.
Damn T-shirt. Matt yanked it off his head and threw it. But, of course, the air friction stopped it, so that instead of sailing gloriously across the field, it fell across the rose bush not too far from Bouclettes, a humiliated flag of surrender.
Could his introduction to this woman conceivably get any worse?
He glared at her, about ready to hit one of his damn cousins.
She stared back, her eyes enormous.
“Well, what?” he growled. “What do you want now? Why are you still here?” I was drunk. I’m sorry. Just shoot me now, all right?
She blinked and took a step back, frowning.
“Matt,” Allegra said reproachfully, but with a ripple disturbing his name, as if she was trying not to laugh. “She was curious about the rose harvest. And she needs directions.”
Directions. Hey, really? He was good with directions. He could get an ant across this valley and tell it the best route, too. He could crouch down with bunnies and have conversations about the best way to get their petits through the hills for a little day at the beach.
Of course, all his cousins could, too. He got ready to leap in first before his cousins grabbed the moment from him, like they were always trying to do. “Where do you need to go?” His voice came out rougher than the damn burlap. He struggled to smooth it without audibly clearing his throat. God, he felt naked. Would it look too stupid if he sidled up to that T-shirt and tried getting it over his head again?
“It’s this house I inherited here,” Bouclettes said. She had the cutest little accent. It made him want to squoosh all her curls in his big fists again and kiss that accent straight on her mouth, as if it was his, when he had so ruined that chance. “113, rue des Rosiers.”
The valley did one great beat, a giant heart that had just faltered in its rhythm, and every Rosier in earshot focused on her. His grandfather barely moved, but then he’d probably barely moved back in the war when he’d spotted a swastika up in the maquis either. Just gently squeezed the trigger.
That finger-on-the-trigger alertness ran through every one of his cousins now.
Matt was the one who felt clumsy.
“Rue des Rosiers?” he said dumbly. Another beat, harder this time, adrenaline surging. “113, rue des Rosiers?” He looked up at a stone house, on the fourth terrace rising into the hills, where it got too steep to be practical to grow roses for harvest at their current market value. “Wait, inherited?”
Bouclettes looked at him warily.
“How could you inherit it?”
“I don’t know exactly,” she said slowly. “I had a letter from Antoine Vallier.”
Tante Colette’s lawyer. Oh, hell. An ominous feeling grew in the pit of Matt’s stomach.
“On behalf of a Colette Delatour. He said he was tracking down the descendants of Élise Dubois.”
What? Matt twisted toward his grandfather. Pépé stood very still, with this strange, tense blazing look of a fighter who’d just been struck on the face and couldn’t strike back without drawing retaliation down on his entire village.
Matt turned back to the curly-haired enemy invader who had sprung up out of the blue. Looking so damn cute and innocent like that, too. He’dkissed her. “You can’t—Tante Colette gave that house to you?”
Bouclettes took a step back.
Had he roared that last word? His voice echoed back at him, as if the valley held it, would squeeze it in a tight fist and never let it free. The air constricted, merciless bands around his sick head and stomach.
“After all that?” He’d just spent the last five months working on that house. Five months. Oh, could you fix the plumbing, Matthieu? Matthieu, that garden wall needs mending. Matthieu, I think the septic tank might need to be replaced. Because she was ninety-six and putting her life in order, and she was planning to pass it on to him, right? Because she understood that it was part of his valley and meant to leave this valley whole. Wasn’t that the tacit promise there, when she asked him to take care of it? “You? Colette gave it to you?”
Bouclettes stared at him, a flash of hurt across her face, and then her arms tightened, and her chin went up. “Look, I don’t know much more than you. My grandfather didn’t stick around for my father’s childhood, apparently. All we knew was that he came from France. We never knew we had any heritage here.”
Could Tante Colette have had a child they didn’t even know about? He twisted to look at his grandfather again, the one man still alive today who would surely have noticed a burgeoning belly on his stepsister. Pépé was frowning, not saying a word.
So—“To you?” Tante Colette knew it was his valley. You didn’t just rip a chunk out of a man’s heart and give it to, to…to whom exactly?
“To you?” Definitely he had roared that, he could hear his own voice booming back at him, see the way she braced herself. But—who the hell was she? And what the hell was he supposed to do about this? Fight a girl half his size? Strangle his ninety-six-year-old aunt? How did he crush his enemies and defend this valley? His enemy was…she was so cute. He didn’t want her for an enemy, he wanted to figure out how to overcome last night’s handicap and get her to think he was cute, too. Damn it, he hadn’t even found out yet what those curls felt like against his palms.
And it was his valley.
Bouclettes’ chin angled high, her arms tight. “You seemed to like me last night.”
Oh, God. Embarrassment, a hangover, and being knifed in the back by his own aunt made for a perfectly horrible combination. “I was drunk.”
Her mouth set, this stubborn, defiant rosebud. “I never thought I’d say this to a man, but I think I actually liked you better drunk.” Turning on her heel, she stalked back to her car.
Matt stared after her, trying desperately not to be sick in the nearest rose bush. Family patriarchs didn’t get to do that in front of the members of their family.
“I told my father he should never let my stepsister have some of this valley,” his grandfather said tightly. “I told him she couldn’t be trusted with it. It takes proper family to understand how important it is to keep it intact. Colette never respected that.”
His cousins glanced at his grandfather and away, out over the valley, their faces gone neutral. They all knew this about the valley: It couldn’t be broken up. It was their patrimoine, a world heritage really, in their hearts they knew it even if the world didn’t, and so, no matter how much they, too, loved it, they could never really have any of it. It had to be kept intact. It had to go to Matt.
The others could have the company. They could have one hell of a lot more money, when it came down to liquid assets, they could have the right to run off to Africa and have adventures. But the valley was his.
He knew the way their jaws set. He knew the way his cousins looked without comment over the valley, full of roses they had come to help harvest because all their lives they had harvested these roses, grown up playing among them and working for them, in the service of them. He knew the way they didn’t look at him again.
So he didn’t look at them again, either. It was his valley, damn it. He’d tried last year to spend some time at their Paris office, to change who he was, to test out just one of all those many other dreams he had had as a kid, dreams his role as heir had never allowed him to pursue. His glamorous Paris girlfriend hadn’t been able to stand the way the valley still held him, even in Paris. How fast he would catch a train back if something happened that he had to take care of. And in the end, he hadn’t been able to stand how appalled she would get at the state of his hands when he came back, dramatically calling her manicurist and shoving him in that direction. Because he’d always liked his hands before then—they were strong and they were capable, and wasn’t that a good thing for hands to be? A little dirt ground in sometimes—didn’t that just prove their worth?
In the end, that one effort to be someone else had made his identity the clearest: The valley was who he was.
He stared after Bouclettes, as she slammed her car door and then pressed her forehead into her steering wheel.
“Who the hell is Élise Dubois?” Damien asked finally, a slice of a question. Damien did not like to be taken by surprise. “Why should Tante Colette be seeking out her heirs over her own?”
Matt looked again at Pépé, but Pépé’s mouth was a thin line, and he wasn’t talking.
Matt’s head throbbed in great hard pulses. How could Tante Colette do this?
Without even warning him. Without giving him one single chance to argue her out of it or at least go strangle Antoine Vallier before that idiot even thought about sending that letter. Matt should have known something was up when she’d hired such an inexperienced, fresh-out-of-school lawyer. She wanted someone stupid enough to piss off the Rosiers.
Except—unlike his grandfather—he’d always trusted Tante Colette. She was the one who stitched up his wounds, fed him tea and soups, let him come take refuge in her gardens when all the pressures of his family got to be too much.
She’d loved him, he thought. Enough not to give a chunk of his valley to a stranger.
“It’s that house,” Raoul told Allegra, pointing to it, there a little up the hillside, only a couple of hundred yards from Matt’s own house. If Matt knew Raoul, his cousin was probably already seeing a window—a way he could end up owning a part of this valley. If Raoul could negotiate with rebel warlords with a bullet hole in him, he could probably negotiate a curly-haired stranger into selling an unexpected inheritance.
Especially with Allegra on his side to make friends with her. While Matt alienated her irreparably.
Allegra ran after Bouclettes and knocked on her window, then bent down to speak to her when Bouclettes rolled it down. They were too far away for Matt to hear what they said. “Pépé.” Matt struggled to speak. The valley thumped in his chest in one giant, echoing beat. It hurt his head, it was so big. It banged against the inside of his skull.
Possibly the presence of the valley inside him was being exacerbated by a hangover. Damn it. He pressed the heels of his palms into his pounding skull. What the hell had just happened?
Pépé just stood there, lips still pressed tight, a bleak, intense look on his face.
Allegra straightened from the car, and Bouclettes pulled away, heading up the dirt road that cut through the field of roses toward the house that Tante Colette had just torn out of Matt’s valley and handed to a stranger.
Allegra came back and planted herself in front of him, fists on her hips. “Way to charm the girls, Matt,” she said very dryly.
“F—” He caught himself, horrified. He could not possibly tell a woman to fuck off, no matter how bad his hangover and the shock of the moment. Plus, the last thing his skull needed right now was a jolt from Raoul’s fist. So he just made a low, growling sound.
“She thinks you’re hot, you know,” Allegra said, in that friendly conversational tone torturers used in movies as they did something horrible to the hero.
“I…she…what?” The valley packed inside him fled in confusion before the man who wanted to take its place, surging up. Matt flushed dark again, even as his entire will scrambled after that flush, trying to get the color to die down.
“She said so.” Allegra’s sweet torturer’s tone. “One of the first things she asked me after she got up this morning: ‘Who’s the hot one?’”
Damn blood cells, stay away from my cheeks. The boss did not flush. Pépé never flushed. You held your own in this crowd by being the roughest and the toughest. A man who blushed might as well paint a target on his chest and hand his cousins bows and arrows to practice their aim. “No, she did not.”
“Probably talking about me.” Amusement curled under Tristan’s voice as he made himself the conversation’s red herring. Was his youngest cousin taking pity on him? How had Tristan turned out so nice like that? After they made him use the purple paint when they used to pretend to be aliens, too.
“And she said you had a great body.” Allegra drove another needle in, watching Matt squirm. He couldn’t even stand himself now. His body felt too big for him. As if all his muscles were trying to get his attention, figure out if they were actually great.
“And she was definitely talking about Matt, Tristan,” Allegra added. “You guys are impossible.”
“I’m sorry, but I can hardly assume the phrase ‘the hot one’ means Matt,” Tristan said cheerfully. “Be my last choice, really. I mean, there’s me. Then there’s—well, me, again, I really don’t see how she would look at any of the other choices.” He widened his teasing to Damien and Raoul, spreading the joking and provocation around to dissipate the focus on Matt.
“I was there, Tristan. She was talking about Matt,” said Allegra, who either didn’t get it, about letting the focus shift off Matt, or wasn’t nearly as sweet as Raoul thought she was. “She thinks you’re hot,” she repeated to Matt, while his flush climbed back up into his cheeks and beat there.
Not in front of my cousins, Allegra! Oh, wow, really? Does she really?
Because his valley invader had hair like a wild bramble brush, and an absurdly princess-like face, all piquant chin and rosebud mouth and wary green eyes, and it made him want to surge through all those brambles and wake up the princess. And he so could not admit that he had thoughts like those in front of his cousins and his grandfather.
He was thirty years old, for God’s sake. He worked in dirt and rose petals, in burlap and machinery and rough men he had to control. He wasn’t supposed to fantasize about being a prince, as if he were still twelve.
Hadn’t he made the determination, when he came back from Paris, to stay grounded from now on, real? Not to get lost in some ridiculous fantasy about a woman, a fantasy that had no relationship to reality?
“Or she did,” Allegra said, ripping the last fingernail off. “Before you yelled at her because of something that is hardly her fault.”
See, that was why a man needed to keep his feet on the ground. You’d think, as close a relationship as he had with the earth, he would know by now how much it hurt when he crashed into it. Yeah, did. Past tense.
But she’d stolen his land from him. How was he supposed to have taken that calmly? He stared up at the house, at the small figure in the distance climbing out of her car.
Pépé came to stand beside him, eyeing the little house up on the terraces as if it was a German supply depot he was about to take out. “I want that land back in the family,” he said, in that crisp, firm way that meant, explosives it is and tough luck for anyone who might be caught in them. “This land is yours to defend for this family, Matthieu. What are you going to do about this threat?”
Overflowing with wise humor, family dynamics, and vivid descriptions, this story is as sexy and flirtatious as it is poignant and caring. Roses, music, and Provence—it doesn’t get much better than that…
— Library Journal STARRED REVIEW
A sexy, sexy romance and a really fun book to read…I highly recommend it.
Florand's prose can move me to tears, affect me with emotion of the acutest kind, and render me hopelessly in love…it can make me grin like a lovesick fool, giggle like a young schoolgirl, and squeal at the absolute adorable-ness on the page…I am still unable to adequately express just how deeply I feel for this novel; it's soft, sweet, and oh-so-very hug-able.
You know that question where you have to name what books you would take with you if you were stuck on an island? Now I think I have my answer. Anything and everything by Laura Florand.
A lovely, sexy book with two adorable protagonists.
If you love romance, Alpha heroes with a growly exterior and shy side then we have a swoony, smexy treat for you! Laura Florand's new La Vie en Rose series is off to a 5 STAR start with ONCE UPON A ROSE and we can't wait to see what's next for this series!
A pure delight! I was laughing one minute, and pulled under by a wave of lust the next, but the overall tone was happy, and I just couldn’t keep from smiling the entire time I read. I LOVED Matt and Layla’s romance!