Prelude to Heaven - Laura Lee Guhrke My review contains spoilers and they're mostly my thoughts as I went with the book...

After reading and loving LLG’s [b:Breathless|1274304|Breathless |Laura Lee Guhrke|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1182432836s/1274304.jpg|1263266] and [b:Conor's Way|1286459|Conor's Way|Laura Lee Guhrke|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1289939958s/1286459.jpg|1275530], I was itching to read her other older books. I’m so glad I picked [b:Prelude to Heaven|455609|Prelude to Heaven |Laura Lee Guhrke|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1226251297s/455609.jpg|444159] because this was a pure comfort read for me. The story was hurt-tugging and so beautiful. Our emotional and intense hero Alexandre was every girl’s dream. I liked Tess a lot too. There were tears, laughter, heartache and love. There were enjoyable banters and scenes between Alexandre and Tess that kept me entertained for the most part of the story.

Renowned French artist Alexandre lost his wife a few years ago on an accident that also killed his unborn child. Since then, he’s been living the life of a recluse. We’re not told about this ‘accident’ for a long time in the story, hinting at something rather bad had occurred and marked Alexandre as a monster of sort in the surrounding village. He lives in the big and crumbling Dumond Mansion, all alone. He cooks, takes care of his livestock or whatever chores need to be done... all by himself. Other times, he paints and draws like a possessed man, trying to put whatever inspirations churning inside him out in the canvas. In France, England and some other countries, his artwork is revered yet Alexandre doesn’t go out and refuses invitations for shows and such. He is living just to get by. He’s even ceased to take care of his winery, which was once a thriving business. It’s not that he lacks money, but Alexandre doesn’t want to ‘live’ anymore. He deems himself guilty of his wife’s death. His marriage was a young and tumultuous relationship. A love match, he knew Anne-Marie almost all his life. Alexandre’s parents were executed for treason when he was very young, and their wine master took him. Anne-Marie was this wine master’s daughter.

The story starts beautifully, showing an engrossed Alexandre trying to catch the fury of the storm clouds on his canvas even though the rain was coming.. and it does, ruining his artwork in the process. He loses his obsessive inspiration almost suddenly, as he does when one of his paintings is done, or ruined. Alexandre is left empty inside. On his way home, he was about to pick some vegetables from his overgrown garden when he suddenly hears the moans. A woman’s moan. He is scared, thinking it must be his nightmares of Anne-Marie returned to haunt him even in the daylight. When Alexandre is debating his sanity, he suddenly discovers a pale and thin woman, unconscious and at an advanced stage of pregnancy. She’s so thin and small, and wet from the rain, Alexandre panics anew; what if she dies! Before his minds start to work again, Alexandre carries the woman inside to his unmade room. Soon she’s very sick, something might prove to be fatal. Alexandre frantically tries to take care of her. Leaving her here alone isn’t an option so he can’t go out for aid. Not that anyone would come to his aid and the nearest village is quite far away.

Alexandre’s vigilance and care finally pay off when the fever begins to break a few days later. He still doesn’t recognize her so he guesses that this young miss has been betrayed by a lover. Obviously the lover left her pregnant and the family kicked her out. Alexandre is just relieved that she’s doing well, and the baby seems fine too. He’ll take care of her as long as she needs it and then, send her off her way when she’s strong enough to do so.

But, that won’t do for Tess. She has nowhere else to go. No family to run to or to take shelter with. Tess doesn’t change Alexandre’s misunderstanding of her situation because she thought she’d be safer this way. Tess is running from her abusive, cruel jerk of a husband, forcing her to sail from England. She was the daughter of a vicar, yet beautiful enough to catch Nigel’s eyes, rumored to be the handsomest man of England and the most sought after bachelor. He’s also an Earl; so when, after a whirlwind love affair they married, Tess became the envy of every woman or matchmaking debutantes there. Nigel seemed to love her at first but on her honeymoon is when her daydreams are brutally shattered. Since then, in the last two years of their marriage, Tess’s girlish dreams have been shattering. By now, she has no dreams left to ponder upon. Nigel was basically a sick, overgrown kid who would throw tantrums when things aren’t going his way. He’d humiliate Tess at every turn, telling her that she’s no one and how he has done her a favor by marrying her. He dictated her life entirely. He had a manipulative nature and a volatile temper and beat Tess up into bloody pulp on the slightest of trouble. He even took care not to touch her beautiful face. OMG, as I was left reeling from some of the examples telling me how he used his fist on Tess to ‘discipline’ her. She was his and he’d ‘discipline’ her however he sees fit! Poor Tess had no help since her parents were already dead. Her MIL or the servants were always cowering from one of Nigel’s temper tantrums; especially the MIL who also suffered a similar kind of fate by Nigel’s father’s hands. And no help could come from the outside world since whatever a man does to his wife is his business, right? Not that anyone knew because to the world, they were the perfect couple. That fateful day when Nigel’s beating became brutal Tess’s only worry was to save herself from a miscarriage. He didn’t know about her conception, but that wouldn’t have made any difference. So Tess did what she felt she needed to do: shoot Nigel and run for her life, save her baby.

As Tess begins to heal, her first thought was where would she go if this broody, reclusive man asks her to leave? Alexandre keeps his distance from her, and he has made it clear that she has to go. Tess is desperate to stay here for... at least till her baby is born. The château is big enough and there is no one else. This place certainly needs a female hand. She feels she’s safe from the authorities, because Tess is sure they’re looking for her. Her journey has been troublesome, quite treacherous, even with the disguise. After 3 months, her pregnancy is showing prominently and that male disguise won’t help her anymore. In desperation, Tess comes up with a plan to apply for the unavailable post of Alexandre’s housekeeper. Now, she only needs to convince her would-be employer, which turns out to be not so easy. Alexandre wants to be left alone. He thinks he loves living this way so at first, he vehemently denies. Tess’s desperate pleas and promises of cleaning, cooking or working in his overgrown garden don’t convince Alexandre. They both know soon she’d be unable to do anything. Also, her housekeeping skill is much debatable since she’d never really worked or trained for it.

Alexandre is so tempted to keep her! He realizes he craves for a human voice more than anything. He was kind, a fact that has been proven over and over again. He gives in, letting Tess stay, making her think she’s earning her keep. He just felt Tess needed it and he needed a human distraction from this daunting loneliness. Even though her first attempt at cooking is a big failure, Alexandre doesn’t mind teaching Tess cooking. He’s a super chef himself BTW! I loved this part of the story, just how they learn to live together on a day to day basis. Tess would cook, or clean, even work in the gardens. She looked after his little band of animals, some of which found a home because of Tess. Alexandre only had a goat for milk but soon he finds himself saddled with a stray kitten (and he hates cats) and a half-dead donkey. The kitten even starts following him (and not Tess), totally undermining his dislike and making a place for itself despite that dislike. It was amusing to see its activities throughout the story. He also finds himself paying off the owner of the donkey, who sorely abused the poor animal, just because he wanted to see happiness in Tess’s sad eyes. Sometimes Alexandre would paint and draw, his bread earner to be sure and spend a lot of time in his tower room, now converted into his studio. Tess would bring meal, they’d share and talk. In every way, it seemed like a happy, dreamy existence. Even among all these, they never talk about Anne-Marie or whatever had happened to her. Tess already guessed that she might’ve died while having his child and that hidden portrait of a beautiful girl might be hers, but it’s a total no-go area for Alexandre, and she complies with his wish.

Alexandre once takes Tess to this special place, a meadow closer to his estate because he wanted to capture Tess in his painting. They have picnics while Tess sat for the painting. He was opening up to her, showing his different side which is sunnier than his usual disposition; a carefree man with whom Tess soon finds herself falling in love with. But she can’t confide in her own troubles to him and she doesn’t even know what to do about this whole situation. Alexandre doesn’t ask her anymore, respecting her privacy.

On the other hand, in London, Nigel is alive and seething. He survived the bullet wound and has been looking for his erstwhile wife with a determination that might look like ‘love’ on surface when it’s anything but. He has found her twice before when she ran, he’d find her again. He has the money, and the manpower... and when she’s found, he’ll make her realize that no one undermines him, humiliates him. Not even his pretty, dainty and vacuous little wife (yep, that’s how he sees her, the jerk!). You can easily guess what kind of retribution Nigel would resort to once Tess is found. It gave me the chills and yet I was so mad at this SOB, I had the urge to beat him up myself and give him a dose of his own medicine!!

As Tess’s time comes near, both start the preparation for the birthing. Tess requests Alexandre to talk to the midwife since she can’t go out and reveal herself. But he can’t face the old woman anymore as the old memories return to haunt him. So he thinks of one thing that can help them both: summoning his brother Henri and his wife Jeanette. Although Jeanette is Anne-Marie’s older sister, she doesn’t blame Alexandre for her death. She knew her sister had a volatile temperament. What she and Henri both want for him is to return to the living and mingle with people, at least visit them once in a while in Marseilles. She and Henri is happily married with 4 kids, and want no less for Alexandre, who is like a brother to her. I was a bit confused about Henri since I thought Alexandre was the only child. Seems like Henri and he both knew the girls and then married one each. Also how is Alexandre the Comte, when Henri was told to be the eldest? Not sure, really. Henri used to be Alexandre’s wine master before Anne-Marie’s death. Now he’s settled in Marseilles with his family but he can’t help coming to his brother’s aid when he asks for it in his letter.

Tess didn’t know about them at all, so their arrival is a total surprise to her. She was also worried that Jeanette would think that Alexandre is the father of her child. But Alexandre himself explains the whole matter to them. Jeanette has knowledge about midwifery. When Tess hears that Jeanette is Anne-Marie’s sister, she’s a bit apprehensive. Things do work out well in the end because Jeanette seems to understand. They also summon a pair of servants, husband and wife, from their household to move in here with Tess and Alexandre. Obviously any help is welcome and these servants prove dedicated to their new duties. Once, Alexandre didn’t want anything or anyone to disrupt his peace, but now it’s anything but peaceful. Yet he doesn’t mind. What he wants is for Tess to survive this birthing. He’s scared as hell of losing her. He knows that this might even be love. Among all the kindness he showed her, what tugged at me most (and Tess’s) was Alexandre finally opening up Anne-Marie’s room to fetch the cradle that has never been used, and clean it for Tess’s baby. It was just so... emotional, showing me that he has definitely changed and Tess means more to him than he lets on.

On the day when Tess finally goes into labor, Alexandre feels helpless. He’s so high-strung that after a while he runs inside the room, deciding he’s going to stay with her through it all. After the arduous labor, Tess delivers a beautiful baby girl. Both decide on the name Suzanne. Right now, Alexandre is thinking of life again and Suzanne makes it a lot easier for him. He’s dreaming of a family with Tess and the baby girl. He has already talked to Henri about reopening the winery, which made his brother extremely happy. He starts taking stalk of things and looking for people who would be interested in working with him. He even talks about Anne-Marie to Tess, trying to tell her about his feelings, and we learn of how she was killed, something was largely an accident. Overall, Alexandre was such a sweet hero! He could be amazingly bullheaded about things, as he kept thwarting Tess by being hard at times. But when he fell, he fell completely and remains so devoted to the love of his life, that you can’t but fall in love with him too. Even before Suzanne’s birth, Tess tried to show him her real feelings. Jeanette told him how Tess feels because it’s all there on her face, in her eyes. But he thought he didn’t need it, her or the meaning she brings to his dark and self-imposed loneliness. But not anymore. He’s tired of hiding and he’ll do what’s good for them, for him… for them all.

After a month into Suzanne’s birth is when they finally come together with their hearts on their sleeves. Alexandre and Tess finally end up making love one day, not knowing trouble has already reached into their idyllic little world. He proposes to her, and begins to plan a marriage. Tess decides she’d confide about Nigel (whom she still thought dead) to Alexandre soon because without that out, she can’t very well marry him. But things take a bad turn for them as the very next day, when she returns to a shop to pick up her ordered dresses, she finds Nigel waiting for her. The seamstress recognized Tess from the miniature and was bribed to sent for Nigel as soon as Tess set foot inside the establishment, which the b!tch does without any remorse whatsoever. Then again, Nigel can be very cajoling if he sets his mind to it, and he makes it sound like a lovers’ quarrel that set Tess running from him.

The male servant was with Tess but he couldn’t help her. Tess decides it’s for the best to keep Suzanne’s existence a secret because she knew her daughter would be treated the same way. Nigel would’ve approved of a son, but not a daughter. So she leaves, leaving her month old baby behind, with the monster of a husband she ran from in the first place. When news reaches Alexandre, he’s frantic to find her. You’ll have to read to understand his desperation. Then he hears the rumors of Tess being the mistress of a wealthy English noble, a rumor he believes the moment he sets foot in Marseilles and finds her with a blonde, handsome and typical English dandy. She seemed happy to be there, and Alexandre’s heart is broken. He leaves without notifying her, hating her for abandoning him and her little daughter this way.

This part of the story was plain heartbreaking for me. I couldn’t take this misunderstanding. When Nigel ‘welcomes’ Tess home with a hard slap on her face... gosh, I was SO mad! I felt like weeping for Alexandre’s broken heart. He couldn’t believe he was such a fool to have fallen for Tess. But he didn’t know what Tess was suffering at the hands of that SOB. No idea at all as she never confided. On part, I could say it was Tess’s fault, then again I sympathized with her ordeal and understood why she wanted to escape what she thought was her ‘past’. Her heart was breaking too, even as she continued to cope with Nigel’s fists and kicks, hoping that Alexandre would forget her and find someone who’d make him happy. She was at peace with the fact that Suzanne would be well taken care of, and would have a father she deserves. Alexandre would do everything in his power to assure her happiness.

Which Alexandre did. He simply doted on Suzanne. She was being nursed by the female servant, who had an infant of her own. When Alexandre decides to come to London for a show and meeting other people, he brings Suzanne with her, knowing he might come across Tess. In a few days, that happens too. Tess is elated and then pure horrified seeing Alexandre at a ball. He cuts her off totally, not acknowledging anything. He’s mad to find that dandy by her side, more so when he hears that she’s married to that dandy, an Earl no less! The dandy seems very possessive of her. Does he love her that much? So what did he (Alexandre) mean to her? Anything at all, or was he just a distraction for a while? Moreover, who is Suzanne’s father, did she have another lover? So many unanswered questions eat at Alexandre, some he can’t even think about. Soon he begins to notice some things, one was definitely the fact that Nigel is an arrogant a$$, insufferably snobbish and prone to preening at compliments of anything that he deems his.

Tess is invited to Alexandre’s home, along with Nigel, ‘to view’ his collection; an invitation that is accepted by Nigel on her behalf. Of course what Tess wants doesn’t matter. When they go there, Tess becomes overwhelmed with the memories of those long ago days (almost a year has passed by). Most of these paintings, all are of the château Drummond’s, the meadow, grounds of the château… memories she holds dearest till this day. But, while viewing she becomes anxious, what if Nigel somehow detects something? On the process, she defies him on a decision making, knowing what’ll follow as a result. She’s beaten again and is bedridden, yet again. When Alexandre couldn’t leave it be anymore and decides to seek some answers, he finds her unavailable. Then he hears the rumors that the Countess is often unavailable due to her ‘delicate health’. What the hell? Alexandre never saw Tess having ‘delicate health’ when she was with him! Question after questions pile up and Alexandre is determined to do some investigation. As planned, he coaxes out an invitation from Nigel to ‘paint his beautiful grounds, along with the beautiful countess’. Nigel, the f*cking idiot, falls for it instantly. Alexandre is even invited to stay at Nigel’s estate.

This part of the story was genuine page-turner for me! After a few sittings, Alexandre knew things aren’t well with her, and there had to be a reason. Scenes unfold as he begins to see glimpses of Nigel’s dictatorial behavior. Alexandre now has to find out the truth and Tess’s MIL creates that opportunity for him. At last, Tess’s tears and heartaches pay off. After their reunion, he finds out what Tess has been hiding all along; her abuse at the hands of Nigel. It enrages Alexandre to no end, understanding now the length to which she went to save her daughter, maybe him as well. Now, what they needed was a way out of this. But how?

The only thing I regretted in the whole story was the hasty ending. Maybe because I was hoping for a few more chapters, not wanting the story to end when they finally got back together after so much turmoil. I especially wanted to see Tess having Alexandre’s baby. The epilogue felt incomplete without it. Even then, I’m gladly rating this book 4.5 stars. Highly recommended!