Read an Excerpt
She could always blame Paris.
Glorious, graceful, flagrant and flamboyant, tantalising, Paris
City of lovers, whose very air was romantic intoxication to breathea potent brew that ravished the senses and excited the blood. Just to be in Paris was a heady invitation to recklessness.
And Paris on Bastille Day was even more of an enticement to shed the shackles of convention and be bold, free-thinking and daring. Celebrating the spirit of rebellion, the entire city had been in a euphoric mood, the sweltering summer heatwave adding a sultry edge to the holiday atmosphere, tourists and residents alike thronging the streets and partying far into the steamy night. Behaving with reckless abandon and getting swept away in the passion of the moment had seemed to be an essential part of the whole experience.
Oh, yes, Paris was definitely to blame. After all, what defence did a lone, inexperienced Kiwi traveller have against the sophisticated wiles of the most seductive city in the world?
Veronica Bell slowly eased open the French doors that screened off the bedroom from the rest of the small apartment and tiptoed across the polished oak floorboards, clutching her strappy sandals and gossamer-fine crocheted wrap against her chest. At a shade under six foot, and of queenly proportions, she was acutely aware that she wasn't built for stealth. She could feel her heart skittering nervously beneath the thin silk of her camisole top as she paused to orientate herself and received her second major shock of the morning: her purse was no longer where she had left it.
Or, rather, where she thought she had put it down.
Veronica had to admit that her exactrecollection of events was somewhat scrambled by the mind-blowing climax to her last night in the French capital. She raked sleep-tangled mahogany locks away from her damp forehead, forcing down a fresh surge of panic at the thought of the outrageous risks she had taken.
Right now she needed to focus on the most urgent problem which was getting out of here with her dignity intact.
It was barely dawn, faint streaks of pale light only just beginning to creep in around the edges of the heavy, cream-coloured drapes drawn across the row of double-glazed windows facing out over the street. She was starting to think that she might have to risk turning on a light when she suddenly caught a sight of a tell-tale glint in the thick pile of the shaggy floor rug. She crouched and fished out the slender, black-sequinned shoulder bag, which had fallen from the side arm of the low-slung couch and was half hidden behind the chunky square leg.
Her anxious fingertips traced the reassuring shape of her passport and folded money-belt through the pliant exoskele-ton of overlapping sequins.
Thank God! She banished the mortifying vision of trying to explain how she had come to lose all her travel documents and money to a cynical gendarme, or some smirking official at the New Zealand Embassy.
Rising to her feet, she added the bag to the top of the bundle in her arms and began tiptoeing the last few metres to the apartment door.
A whispery rustle behind her, accompanied by a low, throaty sound, like the warning purr of a dangerous predator, made her freeze to the spot.
She looked back with a thrill of apprehension.
A gap in the curtains had thrown a long, pale yellow finger of light across the floor, pointing to the source of the sound. Through the square glass panes of the French doors she had left slightly ajar, Veronica had a slanting view of the king-sized bed and the big, rangy, suntanned male body sprawled face-up in a tangle of white cotton sheets.
The throaty rumble sounded again and she watched with guilty fascination as lean, muscled limbs thrashed free of the entwining sheets, flashing rippling shoulders, bulging biceps and hard flanks, glistening with perspiration. No wonder he was hotwith no air-conditioning the apartment was sti-flingly warmbut temperature wasn't the only reason the word came to mind.
Stripped, he really was incredibly gorgeous, she marvelled with a renewed sense of awe. Even more attractive than he had been in his stylishly scruffy jeans and white designer tee shirt.
It was hard to believe that she had succeeded in snaring such a prime specimen for a starring role in her rosy, romantic fantasy of a love affair in Paris. Only it had been lust rather than love, she reminded herself sternly, which had directed the script. Her frothy romantic comedy had unexpectedly turned into an adrenalin-spiked action-adventure and the hero had more than lived up to his billing!
His dark head jerked on the pillow, and Veronica's pulse kicked into overdrive. Heat pumped through her veins, her body tightening with defensive tension, her mouth going dry as she tried to think of something to say that was in character with the woman she had pretended to be, something witty and insouciant, and appropriate to the occasion
Unfortunately, all her former boldness had deserted her the moment she opened her eyes and reality sank in. She hadn't intended to fall asleep. Her private fantasising had always stopped short of the uncomfortable practicalities of the morning after.
Her brief flare of panic faded as she realised his restless movements were only a prelude to him turning over in a long, shuddering, stretch and roll of the impressive body, which left her staring at his naked back, his sleepy grumble muffled into silence as he laced his arm under the empty pillow beside himstill bearing the blurred imprint of her headand drew it to his chest, burying his face in its billowing softness. His thick mane of silky-straight jet-black hair fanned out across the top of his hunched shoulders, his powerful musculature rippling under tawny skin as he melted back into stillness like a lazy, well-satiated lion, totally secure in his innate supremacy.
The animal comparison brought a flush of memory to Veronica's cheeks, an invisible souvenir to sigh over when she was old and grey, or even a month hence, when she was back in wintry-wet Auckland, struggling to make a success of her ideas, and in need of proof that she had the courage and audacity to make her dreams come true.
She scurried to the deadlocked door, grimacing at the metallic clunk made by the weighty bolt as she finally wrenched it open.
She couldn't resist a final, fleeting peek over her shoulder, however, and carried off a vivid image of bare, male buttocks erotically framed in a twisted skein of sheet, the superbly toned muscles pulled taut by his drawn-up knees, revealing a sexy hint of dark fluff on the underside of the smoothly sculpted globes where they curved into the tops of his strong, hair-roughened thighs.
Distracted, she let the heavy door go too soon, and it shut with a bang that reverberated up and down the empty stairwell.
The sound was magnified by her twanging nerves into a sonic boom and she plunged down the stairs, her bare feet slapping against the wooden treads. Reaching the second-floor landing, she dug blindly into her bundled-up purse and, miraculously, the small metal key with its numbered tag fell straight into her hand, but her fingers were shaking so much that she had difficulty trying to slot it into the door of her rented apartment. She cursed under her breath, her ears alert for prowling footsteps from above.
She didn't want to risk him finding out where she was staying. He had no idea that the holiday rental she had referred to with deliberate vagueness at the start of the evening as being 'in the Marais' was literally right under his very nose.
She had bubbled with secret amusement when he had swept her back to his lair in the early hours of the morning, but thankfully a tiny, remaining spark of common sense had kept her from blurting out her startled recognition as he had paused to punch in the keycode at the entrance to a graceful old building in the historic rue de Birague.
Still on a champagne-fuelled high, and abuzz with excitement after their thrilling escape from the near-riot a few blocks away in the Place de la Bastille, she had embraced the fantastic coincidence as kismet a serendipitous sign that they were fated to fulfil a passionate destiny.
Of course, in the sober light of day, the coincidence seemed a great deal less karmic given the fact that they had first encountered each other in the tiny Latin American bar just across the street from the apartmentsthe kind of place that was more of a hang-out for local residents and workers than a magnet for the passing tourist trade.
Once inside the apartment, her knees turned to water, and she slumped limply back against the door, biting back a giggle of semi-hysterical relief, her hand instinctively going to the small pendant of New Zealand jade, carved in the shape of a stylised Maori fishhook, that she always wore around her neck. To her dismay the reassuring touch of home was no longer there. Her fingers spread over her bare breastbone as she realised with a sharp pang that it must still be somewhere in Luc's apartment, lost to her for ever, for there was no way she was going back for it.
She was certainly racking up a lot of memorable firsts in the first week of her trip: first time on a plane, first visit to London, first experience of being sick and alone in a country where she didn't speak the language
First time she had woken up with a sexy stranger.
She quickly pushed the alarming notion aside. 'No regrets' was what she had decided in the heat of passion, and she intended to stick to her bargain.
Besides, he wasn't a complete stranger, she corrected herself, instantly breaching her self-imposed ban. In spite of the language barrier they had worked out a way to communicate.
The intimate shortening of his name made her shiver. She remembered laughing it when he had first kissed her in the jam-packed Champs-de-Mars from where they had watched the elaborate fireworks display at the Trocadéro, and sighing it during their scorching embrace behind a pillar in the Place des Vosges.
Her dreaming dove-grey eyes suddenly caught sight of the digital glow of the clock on the microwave in the kitchen alcove and she gave a squawk as she confirmed the time with a horrified glance at the watch on her winter-pale wrist.
She scrambled around the one-bedroomed apartment, flinging her scattered possessions into the open suitcase on the floor. She wasn't even going to have time for a lightning shower, she realised, swapping her skirt and top for khaki cargo shorts and a yellow ribbed singlet and scooping up her toiletries from the bathroom. She ducked to look in the rectangular mirror, positioned annoyingly low on the wall, and gasped at the sight of her haystack hair, the powdery black smudges of mascara under her eyes and sprinkle of freckles shining through the patchy foundation on her forehead and shiny nose.
Another reason to be thankful that Lucien was a heavy sleeper! she thought, using a tissue to scrape off a hasty application of cleanser and following it up with a quick swipe of SPF moisturiser and lipstick.
She brushed her hair with a ruthless speed that brought tears to her eyes, gathering the subtly layered strands into a simple pony-tail high on the back of her head, the ends skimming the bare skin at the top of her spine.
Just over an hour later she was pelting down one of the long, outside platforms at the Gare de Lyon to join the rapidly vanishing queue for the first high-speed train of the day to Avignon with only a few minutes to spare, her wheeled suitcase jouncing along behind her, the strap from her heavy cabin bag biting into her shoulder as she held out her ticket to be checked.
Predictably for the way her morning was going, her carriage turned out to be almost at the front of the extra-long train, and her leg muscles began to pull as she increased the pace of her fast trot.
The train was already packed, the annual summer exodus of Parisians out of the city having obviously begun, and Veronica had trouble finding a space in the baggage racks when she hauled her suitcase up the narrow stairs to the upper compartment and finally sank gratefully into her seat. Travelling alone could be extremely stressful, she was discovering, even when you were fiercely determined to enjoy every moment of it. Unfortunately she had no one with whom to share the highs and lows of travel, the awe and excitement of being out in the big, wide world after years of merely dreaming about it.
She looked at the unoccupied window-seat beside her, and shifted into it. If Karen had been with her, as planned, they would have been laughing about being late for the train, instead of worrying about it.
Part of her was still furious with her younger sister for wrecking their holiday plans.
When she had flown into Heathrow a week ago from Auckland, Veronica had been confidently expecting twenty-year-old Karen to be at the airport to greet her with a hug, full of plans for a fun weekend in London before they boarded the Eurostar to Paris for the start of their French holiday together.
Instead, she had hung around for forty minutes in the arrivals hall before getting anxious. Used to Karen's chronic lateness, she had suddenly remembered to switch on her cell phone, but when the prepaid global roaming had finally chosen to glom onto a compatible network, there were no messages showing, so she had texted off a hopeful 'where r u?' in case they were simply missing each other in the ebb and flow of the airport.
The reply, when it came, had turned her eager anticipation to weary disappointment.
'Sorry. Can u get taxi? Wil explain when u get here.'
It had better be a good explanation, Veronica had brooded. After twenty-six hours of so-called 'direct' economy-class flight, which included two drawn-out stopovers in featureless transit lounges, and a few more free glasses of wine on the plane than she ought, she had been feeling extremely washed out. However, she had boosted her flagging energies with the cheering knowledge of good times ahead, and had geared herself up to make her own way to the serviced flat in Kensington where Karen's employer, who had departed on holiday the previous day, had left her assistant to enjoy the last weekend of the expiring lease.
Typically for Karenwho consistently spent more than she earnedshe hadn't factored cost into her blithe suggestion of a taxi. It probably hadn't even occurred to her that her sister might be on a strict budget, Veronica had thought, her accountant's soul cringing as she mentally translated the quoted fare into New Zealand dollars. In spite of her creeping jet lag, she had decided to take the cheaper option of the underground, emerging battered but triumphant from the thick of the morning rush hour, within walking distance of the address marked on her pocket map.