Lethally sexy undercover agent Stefan Prakenskii knows a thousand ways to kill a man-and twice as many ways to pleasure a woman. So he's looking forward to his new mission: arrive in the coastal town of Sea Haven and insinuate himself in the life of Judith Henderson, an ethereal beauty with mysterious ties to his past...
Stefan Prakenskii paced up and down the small cell. He knew exactly how many steps he could take before he leapt to catch the bars and do pullupsa dozen more before pacing to the end of the cell and dropping down for pushups. There was no getting used to the smell of the prison, or the slime on the walls or the way the showers didn’t work and the constant vigilance to stay alive, but he didn’t mind any of that. He could tolerate anything; he had endured much worse.
He was a patient man, but once he had determined it was useless for him to remain in the cell, that his mission was a complete bust, he wanted out. It was a waste of time for him to stay, yet his handler hadn’t agreed a month earlier to pull him out. Every day was increasingly dangerous and irritating, his mind becoming consumed with the only thing decent in the prison.
Swearing under his breath, Stefan took the latest photograph of the woman his cell mate obsessed over from the wall. She stood on a beach, the ocean waves rising behind her, a little turbulent and obviously windy, but there were no landmarks Stefan had a chance of identifying. She was undoubtedly beautiful with her long black hair blowing in the wind. Dressed in jeans and a tee she still managed to look elegant and sexy at the same time. If he were a man who was interested in relationships, no doubt he would understand his cell mate’s fixation with her. And the idiot was totally obsessed with her. There were hundreds of photographs taken over a period of years of just this one woman pinned all over the walls.
It didn’t seem to matter how intelligent a man was, or what he did for a living, in the end it seemed a woman often brought even the greatest of criminals tumbling down. And this particular woman was no exception. Stefan planned to use her to take down JeanClaude La Roux’s international empire if that was what it took.
He glanced down at the picture in his hand. She looked pensiveno, sad. What had put that look on her face? Surely a woman like her was not pining away for a man like JeanClaude. A small band of inviting skin peeked out between her tee and her jeans temptingly. His thumb slid over that little strip as if he might feel just how warm and soft she truly was.
No doubt JeanClaude was a man of untold wealth. Stefan supposed a woman might find his good looks attractive, if you liked oozing charm. His charm covered a multitude of sins, but then women might find that edge of danger exciting as well. Women could be just as easily swayed by the wrong things as men could be by beauty.
“What the hell are you doing with that?” Glaring at Stefan, trying to intimidate someone impossible to intimidate, JeanClaude La Roux snatched the small photograph from the hands of his cell mate. “You have no idea who I am.”
Deliberately Stefan showed his teeth and then spit on the floor of the cell. “That refrain is getting old, Rolex.” He infused total contempt into his tone, calling the man the hated name he’d given him.
A man like JeanClaude, the head of a vast crime empire would detest a common criminal taunting him. It was an affront the man couldn’t accept. In the two months Stefan had been undercover, trying to collect information, he’d had to defend his life on several occasionsa tribute to La Roux’s authority even there in the prison. JeanClaude hated Stefan, and one word from him had sent several prisoners trying to curry favor by attempting to get rid of Stefan, the thorn in his side.
There was no doubt that La Roux was every bit as powerful in prison as he was out of it. On the surface, sentencing him for his international crimes in France seemed good. The French prison system wasn’t considered a place to coddle prisoners, but even with mold on the walls and waterstained slime trailing from the ceiling, JeanClaude managed to appear wealthy and powerful. Every other prisoner gave him a wide berth until Stefan had come along. He goaded La Roux at every opportunity, and not one of the men paid to teach Stefan a lesson, or kill him, had succeeded.
There was no doubt in Stefan’s mind that given an hour alone with JeanClaude, if he was free to interrogate him in his own way, he would have all the information the government needed, but here, in this French prison, with guards watching day and night and the government all too aware of their prisoner, he didn’t have a chance to extract what he needed from the man. That only left one possibility. JeanClaude La Roux had to escape. He sighed. He’d told his handler that same thing many times over the last two months.
Stefan gestured toward the photographcovered walls. “You have a lot of pictures, Rolex, but you sure don’t have any letters. I think your woman is on that beach with another man laughing her ass off.”
JeanClaude replaced the photograph, his hand smoothing over the glossy paper. Stefan noticed, with some satisfaction, that the crime lord’s fingers trembled when he touched the woman’s face.
“You do not see a man in any of these photographs, do you?” JeanClaude looked him over with obvious contempt.
Stefan knew he wasn’t much to look at. He was tall, with wide, axhandle shoulders, a thick muscular chest and large arms with bulging muscles. He didn’t look suave or wealthy, or charming. He looked a brute, not very smart, with longish hair and lots of scruff. Scars webbed his skin and his knuckles were callused and shiny. He had a square jaw and dark bluegreen eyes that looked straight into other men’s souls and found them guilty. Stefan exuded raw power through sheer physical strength, and men like JeanClaude automatically dismissed them as muscle and brawnnever looking beneath that surface to see if there was any intelligence behind the mask of a brute.
In his mind he used his real name, Stefan Prakenskii, as often as possible because, truthfully, he used aliases so often, he was afraid of forgetting who he was. And maybe he had already, long ago, lost his identity. What was he? Who was he? And who really gave a damn anyway? There wasn’t a beautiful woman standing on a beach looking sad, pining away for himand there never would be. He was successful at his job because he refused to let women, like the one JeanClaude obsessed over, into his realm of consciousness.
He glanced again at the pictures covering the stained wall. There were hundreds of them. JeanClaude had the woman under surveillance for a long time. She had changed little over the years the man had spent in prison, but he was right, there was no man ever photographed with her. Stefan cursed under his breath and turned away from the pictures.
The woman would get under anyone’s skin if you stared at her long enough. Really, what else was there to do in a tiny prison cell but notice her lips and eyes and all that long glossy hair? JeanClaude was feeding his own addiction, growing it into a monster, and Stefan had uncovered that weakness immediately and used it against the man, making him ripe for an escape. He didn’t see other men with her in the photographs, but who could stand thinking about another man touching all that soft skin?
“I will say this for you, Rolex, she’s beautiful. Where the hell did you ever meet a woman like that?” It was time to change tactics.
For the first time, Stefan allowed a little admiration to creep into his voice. Just as he suspected JeanClaude couldn’t resist the need to talk about his woman or respond to the first sign that a man such as Stefan who only seemed to admire obvious strength, might respect the crime lord at least for his ability to attract a beautiful woman.
“She was an art student, studying in Paris,” JeanClaude said. “She stood outside the Louvreall that long hair flying around her faceand she paused to scrape it back away from her face and for just a moment . . .” He trailed off.
Stefan didn’t need him to say it. The crime lord had probably lost his breath just as Stefan had the first time he’d looked at her photograph. She could easily have been a model on the cover of a magazineyet more. There was something undefined, a quality he couldn’t put his finger on, something innocent and sensual at the same timemysterious, remote, just out of reach. Something terribly elusive and yet made a man want to reach out and grab her, to hold her for himself alone.
Oh, yeah, the woman definitely had an impact on a man, especially one locked in a cell without a companion. Stefan had endless patience when he was on the job, but seriously, this was a bust. JeanClaude would make a beeline for the woman and for the microchip he’d stolen from the Russian governmenta microchip worth a fortune on the black market. That chip contained information that would set their defense system back fifty years if it got out.
“She any good at painting?” Stefan asked.
JeanClaude nodded. “She’s good at everything she does.”
Stefan remained silent, waiting for more. He knew it would come. JeanClaude wouldn’t have said anything at all if he didn’t want to talk.
“She’s already made a name for herself in the art world. Her kaleidoscopes have won international awards. Her paintings are sold for a fortune, and she’s a conservator of old artwork for private collectors. They fly the paintings to her under heavy guard.”
JeanClaude sounded proud of her. Conservators were rare, responsible for restoring the health of paintings hundreds of years old. It was difficult work and a somewhat small community. He doubted if there were many awardwinning kaleidoscope artists. The information would be very helpful in uncovering her identity. Stefan had already sent several pictures back to his people in order to start the investigation into just who the mystery woman actually was.
“I have to hand it to you, having a woman like that willing to wait for you.”
JeanClaude didn’t say anything, but stared down at the quiet, pensive face. Stefan knew the words would eat him, the idea that maybe she wasn’t waiting for him. La Roux had a better cell than most inmates. He wasn’t like the majority, suicidal and depressed with the conditions, which told Stefan guards were smuggling him items and doing their best to curry his favor right along with the prisoners. It hadn’t taken long for word to get around that if a guard displeased JeanClaude, one of his men retaliated against the guard’s family.
Stefan had been in this disgusting place long enough. There was nothing more to be gotten from the crime lord. He had told his government to break the man out of prison and either snatch him as he came out or let him lead them to the microchip. Either way, it was better than rotting in the small confines of the cell staring at a woman whose name he didn’t even know. Obsessing over her right along with JeanClaude. He was leaving tonight before he lost his mind staring at a woman who would never look at him twice.
“I hate saying anything nice to you, Rolex, but she’s got the face of an angel. I can’t imagine that any woman lives up to that.” He needed to find a way to keep the man talking. After two months, he still didn’t even know her name; JeanClaude was that tightlipped.
JeanClaude glanced at him, and then at the picture. He smiled for the first time since Stefan had been shoved into his cell. “I’m sure you can’t. She speaks seven languages. Seven.” A snide lip curl told Stefan JeanClaude was certain he could never learn more than one language.
Stefan spoke French fluently, with a perfect accent, and his undercover personaJohn Bastillecertainly didn’t appear as if he were an educated man, other than in criminal pursuits. If truth was told, Stefan could match dream woman language for language, which meant she was educated and all the more alluring. He was a bit surprised that JeanClaude liked intelligent women.
“She’s the type that would argue,” Stefan pointed out, staying in character. His type of muscle man wouldn’t want a lowly woman arguing with him. It said something that JeanClaude wanted a smart woman.
“She definitely speaks her mind,” JeanClaude agreed, a small half smile creeping into his eyes as if remembering a moment he found particularly amusing. “You wouldn’t understand.”
Stefan pushed down the 101 crude things his undercover persona would have said, knowing it would end the conversation immediately. JeanClaude hadn’t said more than three or four sentences in the two months they’d shared a cell. Instead he looked down at the floor as if in sad reflection.
“I had a woman once. One worthwhilenot a prostitute. I should have been a little nicer to her, then maybe she would have stuck around.” He flashed a quick, envious grin at JeanClaude. “She didn’t look like that one. What’s her name?”
Never once in all the months had JeanClaude referred to the woman by her name, or said where she was. He was very closemouthed when it came to the angel on the wall. It bothered Stefan that he secretly thought of her like that. Angel. Mysterious. Elusive. So out of reach of the ordinary man. Out of reach of a man who lived completely in the shadows. A man without a real identity.
“Judith.” JeanClaude’s voice was clipped and warned Stefan not to push any further on the woman’s identity.
Triumph surged through Stefan. JeanClaude was bored in the cell. And he wanted to talk about his woman. He needed to talk about her. Stefan wanted him to crave her, to take the opportunity to escape when it was presented to himnot by Stefan, of course, but by one of the guards. It wouldn’t be that difficult to arrange. Having JeanClaude La Roux owe a favor would be like hitting the lottery. At the same time, JeanClaude didn’t give anything away for free. What was he after?
“Pretty name. She looks exotic, but that name is American, isn’t it?” Actually the name was of Hebrew origin, but Stefan doubted very much if the crime lord was aware of that fact or even cared. It was a stab in the dark, a calculated feeler.
JeanClaude eyed him warily. “What the hell difference does it make?”
Stefan allowed a surge of anger to show, more triumphant than ever. He’d struck a nerve. The mystery woman could very well be from the United States, not Japan as he’d first thought. “Not a bit. Just makin’ conversation. The hell with it.” He turned his back on the crime lorda calculated risk. Showing indifference was the only way JeanClaude might keep talking. If he thought Stefan was too interested, the man wouldn’t say a word.
Turning away from La Roux only had him staring at another wall of photos. He was surrounded by the mysterious woman. She definitely looked of Japanese descent, but not entirelyshe appeared tall and her skin tone lighter. It was possible she had an American parent. The coastline in the picture could be in the United States rather than Europe. He hadn’t considered that possibility before.
One of the pictures he loved the most was of Judithhe had her name nowwalking barefoot in the sand. The wind was blowing hard and her long silkylooking hair streamed behind her. He could see small footprints in the wet sand. For some strange reason, that photograph got to him. She seemed so alone. So sad. Waiting for someone. JeanClaude? His stomach knotted at the thought.
“You married to her?” He didn’t look at JeanClaude when he asked, preferring to listen to the tone of the voice, rather than the answer.
“Engaged,” JeanClaude replied after a long pause.
“She know it?” he asked slyly. Stefan hadn’t seen a ring on her finger in any of the photographs, and he’d looked for one.
JeanClaude shrugged. “It doesn’t much matter what she thinks. She’s my fiancée and when the time comes, she’ll be with me one way or another.” He picked up one of his many books and held it out to Stefan. “You ever hear of this crap?”
Stefan pushed down the little twinge of pleasure in knowing the woman wasn’t quite as taken with JeanClaude as the man was with her. He took the book, one he’d looked at a couple of times, shocked at the subject matter. He feigned ignorance. “Aura? What is that supposed to be? I never heard of it.”
“Can you believe this crap? Do you see colors around people’s bodies? New Age bullshit, is what it is.” There was such anger, such bitterness in JeanClaude, a suppressed rage that made Stefan worry a little for the first time about Judith.
“Your woman believes this stuff?” Stefan asked, keeping vague puzzlement in his voice.
“Damn right she does. Takes it very seriously. I’ve read all about it, but I’ve never met a single person who believes in it or can see colors surrounding people other than her.”
“So she’s a little bit crazy.” Stefan flashed a lecherous grin. “Don’t you think her body sort of makes up for all that? Keep her mouth busy and you don’t have a problem.” His stomach knotted tighter. His gut actually hurt.
JeanClaude shot him a furious look. He snatched the book out of Stefan’s hand and threw it against the wall of the cell. “I don’t know why I would expect someone like you to understand.”
Stefan didn’t want to understand. He wanted out of this stinking cell, away from the man whose soul was rotten. There was no mercy in his world. No soft skin. No dark eyes a man could get lost in. He wasn’t even real, no more than a dark shadow sliding in and out of places others called home and leaving behind death and chaos. He didn’t know what a home was and he no longer cared. He had lost his humanity long ago in places like this, surrounded by corrupt men who traded in human flesh and wreaked havoc on the world for money.
He’d been in the business too long when he started to fixate on a woman just because she was the only thing that remotely resembled innocence in a stinking prison cell.
“You know, Bastille,” JeanClaude began.
Stefan went on alert. For the first time JeanClaude sounded different. They were getting to the business of why the crime lord had deigned to speak to him about his woman. JeanClaude had been steadfastly silent and it just wasn’t in him to have a friendly conversation, no matter how much he might want to talk to someone about Judith and the photographs. He’d given to get something.
Stefan turned around, leaned one hip lazily against the cot and raised an eyebrow.
“Why didn’t you kill me? You knew I ordered the beatings and the hits.”
Stefan kept his expression carefully blank. He shrugged. “No money in it. I want out of here. I came to do a job, and once it’s done I’ll get out.”
JeanClaude’s eyebrow shot up. “A job?” he echoed.
“Relax, Rolex, you aren’t the mark.” Stefan allowed a small smile to creep into his eyes. “I won’t say it didn’t cross my mind a time or two, but there’s no percentage in it.”
“But you would kill me if someone paid you to do it.”
“We’re not exactly friends.” This time amusement reached his voice.
“I underestimated you,” JeanClaude admitted.
Stefan noted with satisfaction that the crime lord realized just how close he had been to death. All those nights with Stefan lurking like a lethal viper just feet from him. “Everyone does.” Again, Stefan showed no malice.
JeanClaude studied the scarred face. “I could use a man like you.”
“I’m not sticking around. I’ll be out of here by tomorrow.” Stefan spoke with supreme confidence.
Stefan shrugged again and stayed mysteriously silent.
“You have a way to escape?”
Oh yeah, there was interest in La Roux’s voice. He wanted out. Once out, he’d have the money to buy a new identity and face. Stefan did it all the time.
Stefan turned away from the man and sank down onto his cot, silently declaring the conversation was over. When they went to dinner, a man would be found dead in his cell. As the prison locked down, John Bastille would be absent and JeanClaude La Roux would know there was a way out. When he was approached by a guard to help him escape in a couple of weeks, he would jump at the chance.
The prisoner, already dead in his cell, was a Russian traitor, one in for arms’ dealing, but he was guilty of so much more than that. He worked for JeanClaude and was responsible for giving the crime lord the location of one of their top engineers, Theodotus Solovyov, who had designed their current defense system. The attack on Solovyov had left Stefan’s brother, Gavriil, with a permanent injury, placing his life in danger.
Gavriil, undoubtedly one of the government’s top agents had been appointed bodyguard to Solovyov. He had managed, in spite of superior forces and being outgunned, in spite of being stabbed seven times, to keep Solovyov from being kidnapped and to drive off the kidnappers, but the microchip Solovyov had sewn into his coat had been taken. Only Solovyov and his wife had known the microchip had been placed there. Solovyov had been sold out by his own wife, and Gavriil’s mission had been considered a failure.
A man like Gavriil Prakenskii was not forgiven failures, nor was he retired gracefully. He was simply retired. Gavriil managed to escape from the hospital and had disappeared. He would never be safe again, not bearing the Prakenskii name. The only Prakenskii truly safe was their youngest brother Ilya, who had been groomed to be an Interpol agent. He had worked for the secret assassination squad for a short time, and his services had been required on and off, but he hadn’t been given the life of living in the shadows the way his older brothers had.
Stefan had helped Gavriil escape, carrying him through the darkened streets to a waiting car where he smuggled him out of Russia. It had been a very narrow escape, and without a doctor, Gavriil would have died, but he was gone now, using another identity, and Stefan doubted if he’d be lucky enough to ever see his brother again. Once he’d learned from Gavriil that only Theodotus Solovyov and his wife, Elena, had known about the microchip sewn into the coat, they both had known Elena had to been the one to sell out their country.
As soon as Gavriil was out of danger, Stefan followed the money trail, found not only Elena’s guilt, but the tie back to JeanClaude La Roux. Elena died after providing the name of her lover. Her lover had given up the rest of the hit squad before he had died. One by one Stefan had hunted every participant who had destroyed his brother’s career and put his life in jeopardy, killing them all except for the one in the French prison. That last detail had been attended to earlier in the evening.
Stefan lay down on his cot, ignoring JeanClaude’s puzzled look. The man wanted more information and was probably regretting that he’d set the tone for their rocky relationship. There was immense satisfaction in knowing JeanClaude was going to regret a lot of thingsending Gavriil’s career not the least of those regrets.
Picking up his gun, he went into the small room, his home for the night. He had the door primedhe wasn’t a trusting man and never would be. The windows looked out over the river, his last resort should he be attacked and there was no other way out. He had set an escape route over the roof and one through the hotel as well. He had four exit strategies and his room was an arsenal. Still, he never felt safe.
There was a restless feeling in him that hadn’t been there before. Maybe it was time to get out. He’d lost too much humanity. His senses were going numb, or maybe they had been gone all along and he hadn’t noticedor cared.
In spite of his determination not to look, he found himself standing in front of the dresser where the photograph he’d lifted from the wall, his favorite of Judith on the beach, lay right where he’d put it. He’d tossed it there, trying to tell himself he would turn it over to his handler in order to better help with finding her identity. A little mistake like that could blow everything. Blow the entire two months of living in a dirty cell with a monster. What was he thinking? He didn’t make mistakes.
He picked up the photograph and stared down at that pensive face. His thumb slid over the band of soft skin revealed between her jeans and tee, as he had done in the cell. What was it about her that got to him? She was a mistake, and yet, knowing it, he’d taken the photograph anyway. It wasn’t her striking looksand he did think she was beautiful; he was inexplicably drawn to something inside her that shown through in this picture.
He forced himself to toss the photograph back onto the dresser. He would never see her, never know what happened to her, but if he was making mistakes, regretting who he was, then it was time to employ his exit strategy. Every man in his business had one because in the end, they all knew too much about the secret project that had developed them in the first place.
He dressed carefully, slipping into his weapons as easily as the suit that had a casual elegance when his wide shoulders filled it out. His face was subtly different, his eye color a striking blue, a few of the scars gone. He’d trimmed his dark blond hair into a much neater style and shaved all facial hair. His watch was in place, an equally elegant piece without being too showy. He looked like a wealthy businessman, but the kind who had fought his way to the top. He stood there for a long moment, his fingers running over the woman’s face. Cursing his own stupidity, he tapped the photograph once in a kind of frustration.
“You’re going to get yourself killed over a woman,” he said aloud.
As if on cue, his pager buzzed. Puzzled, he opened his computer and signed in. At once text spread across the screen. The woman had been identified with the clues he’d given them. Judith Hendersonan artist on the rise. She’d made quite a name for herself as an expert conservator restoring damaged paintings. Private collectors sought her out and entrusted paintings worth millions to her care. In addition to her restoration work, she was an acclaimed artist in her own right, both as the creator of international awardwinning kaleidoscopes and as a painter whose original works commanded hefty sums. She lived in a small village on the Northern California coast called Sea Haven.
Everything in him stilled. Sea Haven. How often would that little village touch his family? His youngest brother, Ilya, had settled there. Another younger brother, Lev, had disappeared there, declared dead, going down with a yacht in the ocean. He didn’t believe Lev could be killed so easily. Was this a trap of some kinda trap for him? Or maybe for Lev? Was it possible he was being used to try to find his brother? A man like Lev, with all his abilities, didn’t die easily. He didn’t panic, not in the worst of circumstances.
Petr Ivanov, a man with no human feelings whatsoever, had been sent to find and eliminate Lev, should he still be alive. He had reported back that Lev had indeed died in the yacht accident. The body had never been found, but the investigation had been thorough. If Ivanov hadn’t really been convinced of Lev’s death, he wouldn’t have risked his reputation on his report. Everyone had supposedly stopped looking for his brother. Did that mean they really believed Lev was dead? Or were they setting up Stefan to lead them to his brother?
He didn’t react to the news scrolling across his screen. Like Lev, he was not a man to give in to panic. He waited in silence. In stillness. A new message appeared on the computer screen, and his heart jumped before it settled.
He was to go to Sea Haven and establish a relationship with Judith Henderson. Files would follow detailing the mission. He felt himself go very still. Originally, he was to interrogate JeanClaude when they broke him out of prison. He would easily acquire the needed information from La Roux and his handlers knew he would. Traveling to Sea Haven, as much as he wanted to go find out about his brother, would be stepping into a mine field.
He waited another heartbeat and sent back his reply. I do not understand. I am to interrogate JeanClaude.
The anonymous orders continued to scroll across the screen. The plan had been changed. If anything went wrong when La Roux escaped from prison, they wanted to make certain they could acquire him should he go to Sea Haven. Stefan needed to get there well ahead of him and establish his cover with Judith Henderson. If necessary, should the crime lord show up, he would interrogate both JeanClaude and the woman once he had both of them in his custody.
Stefan’s gut reacted, lurching sickeningly. He actually tasted bile in his mouth. Extracting information from La Roux was one thing, but the woman too? He opened his eyes to look at the text a second time, willing the orders to magically change. He must be damn tired to have such a physical reaction to the order.
He closed his eyes briefly, shaking his head. This mission was definitely something other than what he was being told. It made no sense to think agents would break JeanClaude from prison and then lose him. He was being sent to Sea Haven, not because they thought they’d lose the crime lord, but because he was bait to lure his brother, Lev, out into the open. They hadn’t accepted Petr Ivanov’s report on his brother’s death after all. The orders served a twofold purpose. Revealing Lev’s whereabouts, and if by some miracle La Roux slipped away from the other agents, he would be in place to extract the information they needed and then kill him.
Swallowing his absolute repugnance of the orders, he typed in his agreement. Moments later, he received a downloaded file containing everything they had on Judith Henderson. He signed off and poured himself a cup of coffee, sank down into a chair, rubbing his temples. He’d been getting blinding headaches lately, another sign he was crashing. This assignment had gone south fast. He couldn’t afford to be crashing, not if they were sending him to Sea Haven.
A part of him wanted to go, and that sent a frisson of concern through him. He didn’t want to lead Petr Ivanov to Lev, and if Lev was in Sea Haven, he would find Stefan, no matter how solid the cover was. He swore in three languages and took a sip of his coffee. Judith. Damn the woman. She’d gotten under his skin in that prison cell. He hadn’t known it was possible for anyone to do that, let alone a woman he’d never met.
He opened the file, reading about her life. Japanese mother. American father. Both deceased in a car accident. She got her height from her father. Those long, beautiful legs. He forced his mind back to data, committing her life to memory. She had one brother, older, who had raised her after the death of her parents.
Paul Henderson, now deceased, executed, with a single gunshot to the forehead, but not before he’d been tortured. He had gone to Paris and left with his sister. They both disappeared and Paul resurfaced in Greece. He was killed there. Judith turned up after JeanClaude was imprisoned and took her brother’s body home to the States. What did that mean?
Had JeanClaude been looking for Judith? He turned the thought over and over in his mind. It fit. It was possible she’d run from the man with her brother’s help. She was intelligent, and men like La Roux couldn’t afford intelligent women. They figured things out. Once she realized La Roux was dirty, Judith may have not been able to live with it. On the other hand, she may have taken something valuable from him.
The thought didn’t sit well with Stefan, but either scenario could explain both the death of her brother and JeanClaude’s continued interest in her. As did the fact that she’d dropped out of sight until JeanClaude had been imprisoned. Judith’s resurfacing suggested she truly didn’t know just how dangerous La Roux really was, or just how far and expertly he could wield his considerable power from his prison cell.
Stefan continued to scroll through the downloaded dossier. The file included several images of Judith’s paintings, both the ones she’d painted before she left Paris, and the ones she’d painted after. The moment his gaze touched the first painting he felt a hard onetwo punch to his gut. Her drive and passion literally robbed his lungs of air. He couldn’t take his eyes from the series, studying each painting carefully. They were intriguing and beautiful, deep, threedimensional colors, amazing lines, all passion and fire. Her drive and passion.
“There you are,” he whispered. “I see you.”
She poured herself into the painting, holding nothing back, breathing life into her work so that every seascape, every tree, cloud or bush had movement and sang or sobbed. Color was a musical instrument in her hand, wielded by an expert, her courage astounding. She understood colors and their meaning. She drew her strokes like caresses, both bold and shy, sensual and innocent. She was a seductress with her colors, a dream within reach, yet unattainable.
Stefan ran both hands through his hair. She was out there for the entire world to see. She had bared her soul in these paintings. God, she was breathtaking. He felt his body stir, a shock beyond imagining. He was always in command of himself, physically and mentally. He’d been trained since he was a child. His body came to life at his command and performed when and where he needed it to. What the hell was this woman doing to him with her paintings and her photographs?
There was more of the real woman in the paintings than in the mysterious photograph he’d stolen from the crime lord. She’d hidden herself, drawn inward, held herself aloof from the world, but here, in every bold stroke he could see her fire and passion.
Stefan forced himself to move on. Her time with JeanClaude was well documented. The rumors about La Roux had begun to surface and there were a few pictures of a younger Judith smiling up at JeanClaude, wearing happiness like a second skin in all the surveillance photos. His reaction to seeing the crime lord with her was primeval, visceral, even animalistic. He wanted to kill the man with his bare hands. He flexed his fingers and slowed his breathing, pushing all emotion from his mind.
Stefan studied JeanClaude’s expression. The arm around Judith’s narrow waist was possessive, as was his expression, but there was something more. If a man like La Roux was capable of love, it was there. Whatever it was, maybe obsessionand Stefan was beginning to understand the wordthe look on JeanClaude’s face as he stared down at the laughing Judith, said it all. He would pay any price to keep her. For certain, if the man eluded the other agents, he would be going to Sea Haven to collect whatever he thought of as hisand that included Judith.
Stefan read the file carefully, committing it to memory before examining the few photographs of Judith’s work after her escape from La Roux. Each painting was good, no doubt about it, but her later work was far different from her originals. She was very restrained, showing the absolute beauty of the piece she worked on. Flawless color schemes, bold, courageous strokes, but for him, the painting themselves were flat. They were still beautiful, but sheJudith, the essence of the womanwasn’t there anymore. All her passion and fire was restrained, gone, replaced by a mask that was good, brilliant even, but not real.
“Too late to cover up now. I see you,” he whispered again. “I’m coming for you.”
He pressed his fingers hard just over his eyes where a headache was beginning. Damn it all. He didn’t want another life. He didn’t dream about another life. He played the cards dealt to him like the automaton he’d taught himself to become. He didn’t feel. He didn’t even want to feel. He no longer thought about his parents and how, in the darkness of his homeland, guns had been put to his mother and father’s heads and the triggers pulled. There was no safety inside four walls. There would be no safety for him anywhereever. And anyone with him would be at risk. Anyone he loved would be taken from him. Better not to ever take the chance, so never feel.
He repeated the mantra softly aloud. His steps whispered on the carpet before he even knew his own intention. He crossed to the dresser and picked up the photograph of Judith Henderson again, drawn by some force greater than he could resist. A woman who spoke seven languages. Intelligent. Beautiful. An artist. He didn’t even know what that would be like, to have the freedom to paint, to pour your heart and soul onto a canvas.
He knew languages. He was intelligent. And he knew paintings. Everything about them. It was all necessary to his business of shedding one skin and acquiring another. His temples throbbed and he sank back into his chair, the photograph in his hand. What was it about her? That lost, lonely look? The wind in her hair? The sun shining on the water? His imagination, so long repressed, leapt forward in spite of his desire to suppress it. She was waiting for someone to come and unlock that passion and fire. She was waiting for the right man to give it to.
What the hell was he thinking?
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