Now we’re back to offer our weekly free Thriller excerpt:
And here, for your reading pleasure, is our free excerpt:
Alex grieved as she looked toward the Louvre for possibly the last time. She wrapped her arms across her chest and tried to steady her breath. Overhearing Luc’s plan to celebrate their four-month anniversary by murdering her had set off her own plan of running as far away from him as possible—not an effective plan, considering the monster sat within six inches of her in a car on the way to her death.
What began as a fairy-tale romance had morphed into a traumatic descent into hell. A glamorous job, a handsome client, a little romance, a perfect life, until she uncovered his deception. Luc was a crook.
And I was the gullible appraiser used to dupe art collectors and even small countries out of their valuable assets. What an idiot I was to believe his lies.
While his main henchman, Pascal, drove them through Paris, Luc held her hand in the back of the Mercedes like they were still lovers. They appeared perfect for each other, a rich art collector and the young art appraiser who had fallen head over heels for him. Rugged good looks combined with an enormous amount of wealth made him an ideal catch for a woman who didn’t mind being beaten into submission.
Not me. I objected to every broken bone and every bruise on my body.
Luc, dressed in a thousand-dollar suit and wearing a sophisticated five-o’clock shadow across his chiseled features, seemed headed out for a night at the theater, not on the way to eliminate his girlfriend. Alex leaned away from him. She needed to get away. His free hand caressed her arm, rubbed her shoulder, and pulled her back toward him. Moving slowly, seductively, he wrapped his fingers around her neck and started to squeeze. He stared at her, observing her reaction.
“I promise I won’t tell anyone. I swear it.” She pleaded for her life, speaking French, the only language they’d ever used with each other. As his hand tightened, she gasped and struggled for breath.
Luc drew her face closer to his. His lips pinched together, causing the muscles in his neck to tense. “Liar.”
She struggled to pull away; his grip tightened. No longer able to inhale, her eyes watered and her vision faded. With nothing left to lose, she struck out at his face. He released her, but slapped her ear so hard, her head flew into the door. The pain ricocheted through her skull, leaving her numb for a moment.
She glanced out the window and saw salvation. As Pascal slowed for a turn, she opened the door and jumped. Her Chanel suit acted as her only protection when she hit the ground and bounced onto the road. Asphalt scraped her skin with each rotation until she slammed into the curb. Pain rebelled in ribs not yet healed from her fall down Luc’s marble stairway. Car brakes screeched nearby. In seconds, they would be on her. She hobbled to her feet, sucking in huge breaths. Bystanders pressed around her, trying to assist, but she twisted away, her hands poised to fight anything that touched her.
She merged into the manic crowd entering the Gare du Nord at rush hour. Men and women in suits, groups of schoolchildren, and what felt like hundreds of tourists slowed her escape. With her passports tucked in a travel belt under her skirt and several hundred euros in her possession, she boarded the high-speed train for London and prayed he wouldn’t follow her.
Two months later
Alex sat in her favorite booth in the back corner of the Yellow Dog Pub with a Coke and a cup of pumpkin-and-Gruyère soup and pulled out the book Matisse, Father & Son from her backpack. One of the students she’d met offered to check out books for her from the library, and she devoured every one she could lay her hands on. She’d created a comfortable yet temporary life in Oxford. She dressed as one of the students at the university, lived at a youth hostel, and earned money by helping a pub owner clean up after closing. Still, she felt far from safe.
“Gabe, how’s the soup?” Matt, the owner, asked.
She’d become used to being called Gabe West. Gabrielle, her mother’s name, had been the only name she could think of when she’d arrived in Oxford. West reminded her that her family was across the ocean in Boston. Since moving to Europe eight years ago, Alex had kept in sporadic contact with her family. Since meeting Luc, she’d had zero. They didn’t need to become mixed up in her problems. Luc was too dangerous.
She took a spoonful and savored the first taste of her main meal for the day. “You outdid yourself.”
“Glad to hear it.” He sat across from her, his wise blue eyes framed by laugh lines. “Listen, love, some bloke has been poking around the local pubs asking about an undocumented French art lover with a pert little nose and an air of desperation. Never did hear you speak anything but English, but thought I’d give you a heads-up.”
Her spoon dropped into the bowl, splashing some soup on the table. She clasped it again as though it was an accident and raised her eyebrows to appear interested in Matthew’s statement, but not too interested. Her body tensed, ready to run away from this sanctuary. Had they found her? She scanned the room. The crowd contained familiar faces, students and locals. Most of them had welcomed her without any questions.
“French?” She laughed. “I can barely understand your brand of English, never mind an entirely different language.”
Matt’s expression relaxed. “American English is just a weaker version of the real thing.” His smile faltered, though, and he clasped her hand. “I enjoy your company and your work ethic, Gabe, but I prefer you safe. If you need to leave, I’ve got your back.”
She nodded. Tired of living in constant fear, she craved a hug from anyone who would call her by her real name. Instead, she had to run. “Can you return this book to Fred? I don’t want him to get a late charge.”
They stood at the same time. She took two steps and froze.
Dressed in black with arm muscles the size of telephone poles, Pascal pushed through the entrance and glanced around the room. He hadn’t noticed her yet, so she ducked behind the bar, grabbed her pack, and crawled into the bathroom.
Please, God, just let him leave.
She climbed on top of the toilet and waited.
Glass shattered, as did her nerves. Angry words between Matt and Pascal escalated into a full-blown argument. Several other patrons joined in, and then a gunshot.
Horror clawed through her composure, and her legs nearly gave out. She couldn’t go back out there. He’d kill her for sure. After a quick prayer for Matt, she smashed the bathroom window with her boot to make her escape. The backpack fit out the window with room to spare. It wasn’t large, but big enough to shimmy through. She pulled herself up with relative ease, but her left hand slipped and rammed into the ragged edges of the glass sticking up from the frame. The glass sliced into her palm and her thumb and made several gashes in her wrist. She bit through the pain, climbed out to the alleyway and ran. Again.
Keeping an eye out to see if she’d been followed, Alex walked for an hour until she had no choice but to stop and tend to the blood dripping from her hand. A white sock from her bag soaked up most of the mess, but the blood continued to flow. Her vision clouded for a second, and she shook her head to stay alert.
A few blocks later and she was in one of the outer neighborhoods surrounding Oxford University. Professors’ houses lined the streets. Dressed in a faded black leather jacket with long pink hair, she blended into a group of students moving toward an elegant brick house.
She had to get off the street.
She climbed the front steps to an open red door. The two female students entering in front of her were dressed in cute dresses and high-heeled shoes. She hadn’t worn heels since leaving Luc. Combat boots and sneakers were more practical, and she could run fast in them.
Smirking faces and rolled eyes greeted her as she maneuvered through the crowd toward the main salon. The boys, sporting silk ties and arrogant grins, stood around pontificating on the plight of the less fortunate of the world as they drank Chianti from lead crystal glasses. The girls, no older than twenty-two, nodded with feigned interest at their dates while trying to keep an eye on their competition. A few artistic types, dressed like Alex, stayed together and mocked their better-dressed counterparts for mocking them. She could pass for one of them as long as she stayed in the periphery of the conversations. All she needed was five or ten minutes to find a bathroom to rinse off her wounds, and then she could figure out how to move on to a new location.
A quick stop in a small bathroom provided her with a few moments of privacy. Cleaning the bloody hand with soap, she dried it off with a very nice towel she hid in the back of the cabinet so no one would notice the bloodstains on it until after she’d departed. Hiding the towel was preferable to stealing it. She pulled out another somewhat clean sock to wrap her hand. Perhaps no one would notice if she kept the hand in her pocket as she walked around. After she finished, she tried to wash off the heavy black eyeliner and black lipstick she’d used to hide her features. The makeup smeared, but didn’t disappear. She almost took the safety pin out of her ear, but it wouldn’t draw any more attention than cotton-candy hair, so she left it.
When she returned to the crowded foyer, Alex noted the beautiful oak paneling in the hallway, carved by a master almost one hundred and fifty years ago. The three oil portraits by George Frederic Watts, two of distinguished men and one of a lady, also caught her attention. Art soothed her mind, but now wasn’t the time to appreciate Watts’s brilliance using color to capture detail.
“Professor Chilton, I’d like to introduce my flatmate Jenny.” The formal introduction pulled her from her thoughts. A boy, no older than nineteen, was introducing his date.
The professor, a faint smile on his face, shook the girl’s hand and welcomed her to his home. He didn’t look like any professors she’d ever met. He seemed too young and handsome, and his expression carried more confidence than anyone she’d met since Luc, but in a different way. The man wore a brown tweed jacket and beige pants as the idealized English professor should, but his coloring indicated he spent a lot of time outside. Rugged, yet preppy and safe.
She remained standing in the hall staring at him, mesmerized by green eyes, framed by dark-rimmed glasses, and his brown and gold hair that had enough length to curve, but not curl. In the past, she would have fantasized about a man like that. Now she preferred to be left alone.
The girl, wearing a short red dress and high heels, gazed up at the professor, leaving her hand lingering in his a moment longer than necessary with her boyfriend standing at her side. Alex watched as the girl shifted her hips, plumped her lips, and batted her eyelashes. The professor didn’t seem to notice, he turned his attention to the boy, and Alex turned her attention to finding food. She wasn’t sure when she might get to eat again.
She roamed toward the study, admiring the exquisite art and furniture around her.
When she turned the corner into the room, her breath hitched at the reader’s paradise. Huge windows overlooked the lawn, two leather recliners faced a large fireplace, and on the wall between two oak bookcases full of novels, journals, and knowledge hung a seascape by Gustave Courbet from the 1860s.
“Are you lost?” The voice spoke with a condescending British accent.
Alex turned toward one of the junior aristocrats, wearing a striped bow tie in the blue and white colors of Harrow.
She slipped her bandaged hand behind her. “Looking for the bar.”
Her heart raced, but she wore her most confident grin as she steered herself toward the bar. She ordered a Coke and picked up a few nuts from a cream-colored Wedgwood bowl. When she turned to leave the room, the boy followed.
“Why don’t you join us?” He and three other guys in suits surrounded her before she could leave.
They all glanced at one another with big smirks.
“American? I don’t recall seeing you in our class. I’d have remembered you.” He brushed his hand through her pink hair, resting it against the bare skin of her neck.
The caress reminded her of the last man who thought touching her was his right. The memory sent chills through her veins.
“Who did you come here with?” another asked.
By the look on their faces, they knew she was an outsider, a party crasher.
They were blocking the exit, so she backed up toward the bookcases. Her legs barely held her up, and her heart raced into her throat, preventing her from speaking.
A trespassing charge against her would be disastrous. She’d end up in Luc’s custody before being processed.
“I bet you’re quite nice-looking under that makeup,” someone to the side of her said.
“Gentlemen.” The professor’s voice boomed across the room, genteel, yet firm. “I think the lady prefers to dine with people closer to her own class and caliber, so I must request that you boys head to dinner without her. We will discuss your behavior after the recess.”
Her tormentors’ faces fell from smirk to grimace, and they backed away. The easygoing manner she’d seen on him earlier had faded a bit, revealing a side of him intent on lifting each of the boys up by his neck and throwing him out the door.
“Sorry, Professor, we thought your guest would want to meet everybody,” one of the instigators called out.
“I’m sure the lady appreciates your hospitality. Now if you’ll excuse us.” The professor stood a few inches taller than them, and his solid physique made it clear that he could best each and every one of the little snots in a fight. Not that he would, especially over a trespasser.
Her mouth dropped open to say something as her body began to sink to the ground. The professor stepped forward and clasped her elbow. The knot that had twisted her insides all afternoon subsided a bit, and she was tempted to lean into his arms and absorb some of his strength. He never spoke, but his possession of her caused the boys to back away.
Without a word or apology to Alex, the boys strolled out of the room, leaving her standing in the corner with her empty glass, her heart pounding, and a champion.
The professor released her. His eyes softened. “Care to join me for dinner?”
How could she find trouble so quickly after leaving the pub? He’d throw her out when he realized she didn’t have an invite.
“In a minute.” Holding back tears of frustration and hiding her injury, she plastered on her brave face and smiled.
“Take your time.” He gave her a slight bow before he departed, like an actual English lord and not a schoolboy who pretends to be a gentleman and then harasses women when he thinks he can get away with it.
Alex returned to the bar on trembling legs and asked for another soda. She’d make it through the night. She had to.
Henry pushed aside a pile of ungraded exams and three articles to be reviewed for the Journal of the Anthropological Society of Oxford to make room for his glass of scotch. The newest professor in the department, he’d been suckered into three introductory courses and two seminars for the current year. Most of the other professors were nearing retirement age, not thirty years old with a brand-new PhD. They’d earned their lighter workloads. Or so they claimed. Tonight, he didn’t want to think of the work burying him. He wanted a good book and his pillow.
At least the dinner with his students had been a success. Except for the pack of wolves circling the lady in his study. She may have dressed like a troublemaker, but her eyes had told a different story. She’d worn an expression seen in people who had nothing left to lose. A desperation born of hard times and bad choices. A look he’d observed in many of the people he’d helped over the years, yet something about this petite woman with pink hair tugged a bit differently at him. Maybe his thoughts stayed with her because she’d disappeared before dinner. Was she okay? Did she need help and hadn’t been able to ask? He couldn’t save everyone, regrettably. With luck, she’d made it home without any problems.
The clock chimed once, signaling Henry’s bedtime. He finished his drink and rose. Straightening his favorite beige cardigan and securing his glasses on his nose, he ambled down the hallway and paused outside his bedroom. Something wasn’t right. Perhaps it was the light from his bedside lamp, beaming through the open door. He always turned the lights out and preferred his bedroom door closed. More likely, however, it was the human-size lump in his bed.
He eased into the room in silence thanks to his bare feet, until the old wooden floor creaked.
The girl from the party, still sporting a worn leather jacket and black combat boots, jumped up, poised for a fight. Her hands clenched into fists, and she positioned her legs into a martial arts stance, one foot forward, the other slightly back.
She mumbled something in French about bathroom windows and bloody socks. The warrior image faded as her body swayed backward. Her face turned white where it wasn’t painted black, and her eyes opened wide and flashed him a vivid blue-green glare. Scanning the room for another exit, she crossed to the opposite door, but it only opened to his bath.
He needed to settle her down. “Easy does it, Sunshine. You’re liable to break something.”
Ignoring him, she opened a window, but she was too high up for an easy escape. Why was she panicking? He wasn’t going to harm her.
Henry remained in front of the doorway. “You’re safe here. Please calm yourself.”
He leaned against the doorjamb to assure her he meant no harm. Why would this young woman remain in his house after the party? She swayed and then leaned on the wall. Her eyes seemed disoriented. Did she even know where she was?
She’d been unable to stand straight when he’d spoken to her earlier in the evening as well. Perhaps she was drunk. It happened with free bars.
When he stepped toward her to help, she wobbled to a table containing a seventeenth-century Rouen vase, acquired by his grandfather. She paused, and Henry’s heart paused as well. Her hand reached over it and grabbed a tacky Venetian glass statue his cousin had sent him from Italy. The statue flew through the air toward his head. He ducked, and it smashed on the wall. Pieces scattered across the floor and his oldest Aubusson rug.
This was ridiculous. She’d end up smashing his room to bits.
“Her aim is almost as good as yours.” Simon approached from behind.
“Not quite. I never miss.” Henry kept his focus on the girl in case she decided to break something valuable.
“Your skills are rusty.” His half brother loved to mock Henry’s transition from Royal Navy sniper to boring academic. “Need backup?”
Henry shook his head. “Miss, please stop. You’ve already caused quite enough damage. I’ll have to call the police.”
That would be unpleasant. Young female university student in a professor’s house after hours. He’d be retiring before he had truly begun his new career.
She squeezed her eyes closed for a second and bit her lip. Henry remembered the torment she’d endured from a few of his students in the study. Poor kid. He lifted his hands in a show of forgiveness.
She hesitated, then took a step back and glanced at her hand, wrapped in a bloodstained cloth, before tucking it behind her.
“I’m sorry, please don’t call the police,” she said with a soft American accent.
A grungy brown backpack sat on the bed. The girl picked it up and retreated into a corner. Her eyes darted side to side and landed on Henry and the open door. She staggered into a lamp, but saved it before it fell over.
Henry stepped toward her and onto several jagged pieces of his cousin’s gift. Shards of glass dug into his heel.
“Bugger.” He’d be ripped to shreds by the time he made it to her. “We need to get her out of my bedroom and into a safe location.”
“That won’t be necessary.” Simon stepped through the glass in his shoes and pointed toward the corner.
Their feisty visitor had collapsed.
Although Henry had left his uninvited guest at the hospital with the utmost trust in the facility, a gut feeling had wrapped itself around him and prodded his conscience throughout the night. His instincts rarely lied. Up at 7:00 a.m., he headed to the hospital, more than a little apprehensive.
The voice of an American woman echoed down the long blue hallways. Henry trotted toward the sound. He balanced more on the ball of his left foot to avoid reopening the minor cuts on his heel from the night before. A slight commotion came from the corner room. A constable stood in the doorway, holding the familiar backpack while facing off with a petite woman attired in a patient gown. Several nurses and a woman in a plum suit gathered nearby as well.
“Unless you’re here to arrest me, you must release my pack.” Her face, makeup free and more inviting than the night before, pointed up at the tall officer, who was holding her bag behind him. She never touched him, but she appeared quite threatening despite being dressed in nothing but a loosely tied hospital robe.
“We’d like to ask you a few questions before you leave.” The officer spoke in a composed, reassuring voice.
The woman, clearly agitated, eyed the pack. “I answered every question I was asked by the doctors and the nurses and the very pushy woman bringing me a tray of gruel and tea.” For a woman terrified of something or someone the night before, she had a surprising amount of grit in the face of the authorities.
The officer’s voice continued to remain unruffled despite the woman’s open hostility. “We understand. It’s scary to press charges against the person who abused you, but in most cases, it’s the right thing to do. If you won’t do it for yourself, then perhaps you’ll help the next woman crossing that individual’s path.”
Abused? She did act scared when she’d first awoken. She’d been desperate enough to throw one of his possessions at his head. Her story just became a whole lot more interesting to Henry.
She shook her head and stepped back again. “I’m not pressing charges, because I wasn’t abused. I fell down the stairs, smashed my ribs, and broke a window when I tried to catch myself. Is clumsiness a crime?”
Her painted hair and grunge clothes contrasted with her articulate speech. The woman was a complete mystery. Those types of injuries, combined with a defensive female, more often than not indicated someone had beaten the hell out of her. He sucked in his breath long enough to simmer his rage. Abuse would never become commonplace and mundane to him. His father had broken the spirit of his mother, and Henry vowed long ago to protect any woman he could from living the same miserable existence.
The woman in the suit, possibly the social aid worker, reached out and held her uninjured hand. “Please, we want to help you.” Her voice lowered, perhaps in an attempt to keep the conversation private. It was too late. The entire wing of the building had been privy to their discussion.
The girl’s mouth lifted into a slight smile, transforming her pretty face into something indefinable, yet incredibly appealing. “I appreciate your assistance, but it’s unnecessary. I’ll be fine. What I really need is a bathroom and my bag for supplies. Monthly girl issues.” She held out her hand, expecting to receive the backpack.
Although the officer didn’t look too keen on giving it back, he handed it to her. She thanked him, backed into her bathroom, and shut the door.
When the door lock clicked, the crowd dispersed, except for one nurse, the police officer, and the woman in the suit. They stood together whispering back and forth. Henry couldn’t make out the details of their discussion.
He approached the group cautiously. “Excuse me. I’m Henry Chilton, the professor who brought the young woman in last night.”
The woman in the suit glared at Henry. Did she suspect he’d beaten her? Terrific. The cop just waved and turned back to talk to the others. Obviously to him, Henry wasn’t a suspect.
A pretty young nurse led Henry away from the group. “I’m Clara Dawes, Ms. West’s nurse. I’m afraid we can’t explain her medical condition, privacy and all that.”
“No problem. I was just checking up on her. From her appearance, she looks angry, but otherwise, quite vigorous in health.”
“Is she a student of yours?”
He had no idea. Probably not, as he’d never seen her in any of his classes. He would have remembered the hair, at least. “She was a guest at a dinner party I held last night at my house.”
The nurse leaned toward him and spoke softly enough to keep her words from traveling. “On the surface, she’s very healthy. Her main injuries are the cuts on her hand, but she has enough scars and old bruises to make us concerned. If only she’d tell us who did this to her, we could help.” She stood so close to him, the floral scent of roses displaced the antiseptic scent of the hospital. “I’ll tell her you stopped by. Would you like me to call you if we learn anything new?”
“No, thank you. I’ll come back later to check up on her.” He left.
If he returned in an hour or so, she might be more relaxed, and he could determine if she needed his assistance. He hopped into his car and started for home, but slowed at the sight of the brown backpack displayed like a homing beacon on her back. No hospital discharged patients in under ten minutes. She must have escaped through the window.
She trotted down the road wearing jeans and a black T-shirt with her leather jacket tied to her pack. Without the jacket over her shoulders, she’d shrunk two sizes. Without the layers of black makeup, she appeared softer, less hostile toward the world.
He pulled alongside her. “Need a ride?”
“No, thanks.” She moved to the other side of the sidewalk, and her hand tightened on her bag.
“I’m Henry. Henry Chilton. I brought you to the hospital.”
She stopped moving, but remained at a safe distance from the car. “Was I in your house last night?”
Henry smiled. “Yes. I’m a professor of anthropology. The dinner was for my students.”
The pack slid down her arms. She positioned it next to her leg. Her hand remained at her side, hidden in white gauze bandages. “I’m sorry for breaking the statue. I wasn’t myself last night.”
“Perfectly understandable. I’m just glad you didn’t throw the Rouen vase. It’s been in my family for generations.”
“I would never harm such a beautiful piece.” She shut her eyes and then shuddered. “Thanks again, for your help.”
She started down the road again. He followed in his car. If she wouldn’t allow the police or hospital to assist her, maybe she’d allow him to help.
“Are you a student here?” he yelled out his window, trying not to sound like a stalker.
“No.” She increased her pace.
Thank God she wasn’t a student. But had she passed the age of majority? He could protect her if he could remove her from Oxford.
“Can I inquire your age?”
“Looking to get lucky? Because you won’t with me.”
“Actually, I wish to help you. Where are you staying?”
“I’m not sure yet. It depends how far out of town I get.”
Perfect, but would she trust him?
Pulling up a little ahead of her, he stopped. He reached into his pocket and produced a card for the Ripon Women’s Group. He paused before handing it to her. She’d either believe he was in her life as a lucky coincidence, or she’d think he was a con artist taking advantage of her situation. Coincidence or not, she needed him. “This is a place for women who need a safe haven.”
A few seconds passed before she reached through the window and took the card. A small acorn tattoo marked the inside of her wrist. Her rebel appearance didn’t match her personality. Instead of fighting with the boys at the party or the hospital staff, she tried to remove herself from the situation. She acted cautious and intelligent. And here she was running away from something again.
“I help run a battered women’s group in my hometown. We protect families who need a temporary place to stay. No cost, just a promise to give back someday when you find someone else in need.”
She hesitated, as any woman in her situation should do, and glanced behind her. A police officer exited the hospital, the same one who had taken her backpack. Her body shrank down behind Henry’s car, and then she opened the door.
“I could use a place to sleep for a day or two. I’m Gabe.” She tossed the bag to the floor of the front seat, jumping in after it. Her avoidance of the police marked her as a fugitive from something.
“Nice to meet you, Gabe. How’s your hand?”
She glanced at the clean white bandage and shrugged. “I’ll survive. Thanks for taking me to the hospital.”
“It seemed the prudent thing to do after you passed out.”
“Not everyone is prudent or kind.”
He drove away, and Gabe shifted in her seat as though she’d need to duck out of sight any second. “By the way, I’m twenty-four,” she whispered to him. Her calm expression and stable demeanor, despite being chased by demons, told him she spoke the truth.
Eventually, she crouched down low and rested her head on the armrest of the door. Henry kept his hands on the steering wheel. What he really wanted to do was to brush her hair back to see more of her face. Her features intrigued him. A perfect little nose, high cheekbones, and the most kissable lips. He refocused his attention on the road. She needs your help, bloody idiot. She needed him hitting on her like she needed another punch in the ribs. He’d take her home and keep her protected until he could get her up to Ripon. She’d be safer there, away from her abuser and Henry’s traitorous thoughts.
A few blocks later, she lifted her head a few centimeters and peered over the dashboard.
“Are you hiding from the police or someone else?” he asked.
“I just need a place to crash for a night.” Her voice harbored hesitation. She didn’t trust him yet, but she would.
“I understand. I won’t give your location away to anyone.”
The contorted way she tilted her neck to remain hidden appeared painful.
“If you truly want to hide, get down on the floor. Or lean on me, I’ll try to cover up that hair of yours.” Henry opened his arm.
After a slight hesitation and a glance at the floor of his car, she slid closer to him. He brushed her hair back from her face, covering as much of the exposed pink strands with his hand as he could. A jolt of electricity went through him the moment he touched her hair. Her sea-siren eyes widened and met his. Her muscles tensed, and then she relaxed into his arms. They both looked away at the same time.
Probably the incoming rain.
Alex’s constant feeling of detachment and isolation lifted off her shoulders when Henry wrapped his arm around her. Hidden under his conservative button-down shirt and navy wool sweater was a strength she hadn’t expected.
She didn’t need a man’s protection, but for one small moment it was nice to feel like she wasn’t alone. Most of the men in her life failed miserably in their protector roles. She needed to be her own superhero to survive. If she ever allowed another man into her life, he’d have to be the sidekick.
Arriving back at his house, Henry led Alex inside from the garage. His gait favored his right side. She hadn’t noticed it at the dinner party.
He continued to walk into the kitchen. “I stepped on some glass last night. My fault. I should have been wearing slippers.”
No. My fault.
She’d thrown the statue. Smashed it on the wall. And now he was injured. She paused. Could he be lying about helping her? Her track record for placing her faith in the wrong people was fairly perfect, although Matt had helped her for nothing more than a few swept floors. She’d been very lucky he’d assisted her when she first arrived in England. She’d have to send him word that she’d found a temporary place to stay. The memory of the arguing and the gunshot made her uneasy. Was he okay? Pascal could be cruel without a splinter of remorse for anyone or anything.
Henry turned around and reached his hand out to lure her in. Or maybe he was just being nice. “I recommend you stay inside for your own safety. You’ll have your own room here with a lock on the door until we leave for Ripon tomorrow. I won’t have to return to Oxford until after spring recess.”
His kitchen had a large island in the middle with an assortment of copper-bottom and stainless pots and pans hanging from hooks in the ceiling. A huge gas range with an ornate copper hood embossed with a grapevine pattern stood majestically as the focal point of the room.
“Do you remember Simon, my assistant, from last night? Simon, this is Gabe.”
Simon took a sip from a large coffee mug and looked at her. She didn’t remember ever seeing him before, and he was definitely the kind of man a person didn’t forget. Where Henry could turn from adorable to intimidating in a heartbeat, Simon, a beefy pinup with a hard-edged face, seemed stuck in intimidation mode even while wearing a killer smile and a blue apron that read “Chefs do it in the kitchen. I’ll do it anywhere.”
Simon said hello and then turned away to drop bread in the toaster, fry eggs, and, if her nose was accurate, make cinnamon rolls. Hard to be intimidated by a guy who made baked goods. Even a guy the size of Pascal. The memory of him arriving at the pub fizzled some of her optimism until Simon walked to the table. When he poured her a cup of coffee and handed it to her, she thanked God she’d jumped into Henry’s car. Black coffee fueled her in ways water, juice, or wine never would.
She rested the mug against her chin so she could take in the aroma before her first sip. “Sorry about ruining your evening.”
Simon smiled again as though he found the entire incident amusing. “Henry never invited such spirited ladies into his bed in the past. A nice change for him.”
“You’re overstepping your position.” Henry raised his eyebrows toward Simon, but he couldn’t suppress his own smile.
“Sorry, sir.” Simon winked at Alex and then headed toward the refrigerator.
“Ignore him, Gabe. He doesn’t appreciate all I do for him.” Henry escorted her past the island to a breakfast nook with a small table covered by a blue-and-white-checkered tablecloth. She looked out the window to the backyard. The view of the small garden she’d seen from the study was even nicer in the daylight.
Simon poured three glasses of orange juice and filled a carafe with coffee. He set the drinks on the table, followed by three huge plates of food.
The eggs, fried in real butter, tasted wonderful on her empty stomach, but the warm cinnamon rolls transformed her entire attitude. If she could manage to lift herself from a dirty youth hostel to a beautiful house filled with handsome men, decadent pastries, and fine art, she could find a way to protect herself from Luc.
Henry sat down and allowed Simon to wait on him as though he was lord of the manor. His mannerisms, however, didn’t display the arrogance or self-importance that had characterized the usual men in her life.
“Have you been traveling a long time?” Simon poured her more coffee.
They wanted to help her, but still, she had no idea who they were and if they had connections to Luc’s world. “Just a few weeks.”
Simon took a bite of eggs, paused for a moment, and then continued his questions. “Get into London at all?”
“You sound like you’re from the States?” Simon didn’t stare, but he watched her reactions. He also drank his coffee with the benign expression of a man trying to look like her answers didn’t matter. They mattered. Every scrap of information she handed out could be used against her someday.
“I’m from a small town in Indiana. Most days I spent reading books in the corner of our barn, staring at the sky and dreaming of better places.” Her eyes purposefully wandered to the window. Could she miss a place she’d never been? Probably not. But she could yearn for the rhythmic sound of the ocean waves rippling across the long stretches of sand near her family’s summer home in Martha’s Vineyard. Her heart thumped at the thought of all she’d lost. A magnificent life exchanged for no life at all.
Sighing, she pulled her gaze to the breakfast table. Her reverie caught the attention of Henry and Simon. Both stared at her, as if looking for a clue or a hint about who she really was.
Sorry guys, not today.
Henry leaned back in his chair. “Oxford must be a nice change from a small town. Ripon isn’t a big city, more like a middle-size village that wants to be a small city. I hope it won’t bore you.”
“I appreciate a lot more in my life than I ever did. Trust me. Ripon will be perfect.” She turned toward Simon. “I can’t thank you enough for breakfast.”
He waved her off. “It’s no bother. I have to cook for Lord Henry anyway.”
“Don’t you have places to go?” Henry motioned Simon to leave.
“As soon as I finish my chores.” Simon stood and picked up a few dishes. “Don’t get up, fair lady. You had a rough evening.” He waved his arm in front of him as though a courtly knight, forcing Alex’s smile to break free.
Henry stood and assisted him. “Can you pick up some beer when you’re out? The students drank us dry.”
“As you wish, my lord.”
Their continued banter lightened her mood. The men moved around the kitchen as though they’d lived together forever. They towered over six feet tall, but Simon had Henry by at least two inches. Simon seemed military, with his cropped hair and GI Joe muscles. Henry, on the other hand, appeared athletic, yet sophisticated. His house fit his personality. The old carved wood, the darker, more somber colors. After years of living in a black-and-white modern apartment in Paris, she appreciated this warm, elegant environment.
When Simon departed, Henry escorted her to the main stairway.
“Come. I’ll show you to your room.” He didn’t attempt to carry her bag, probably sensing how important it was to her.
She followed him, slowing down in front of several paintings. “Are these pieces yours?”
“Every one. If you like art, I can show you my collection after lunch.” He continued up the stairs, whistling.
She not only liked art, she loved it more than she liked eating a piece of crispy bacon.
Maybe Simon the brawny chef would make some the next morning. She licked her lips in anticipation and glanced up at Henry. He seemed just as nice-looking from behind as he did from the front. Very nice-looking.
Hot breakfasts, delicious men, and quality art. This place appeared too perfect to be real.
“I’d love to see your collection,” she called after him. She’d enjoy looking over his collection, but she’d never again share the depth of her knowledge with a stranger. At least she’d try to keep her opinions to herself. Her typical enthusiasm when looking at masterpieces bubbled out of her without a filter. Had she kept her opinion to herself about the provenance of the art in Luc’s gallery, she wouldn’t have a death threat hanging over her.
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