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Christmas Eve Paris, France
Her footsteps echoing like hollow heartbeats in the biting cold, Josie Navarre raced up the four flights of stone stairs that led to her Parisian apartment on the Rue du Cardinal Lemoine.
She was in a hurry to get home. Maybe to eat the food she'd just bought. Or maybe because she didn't want anybody to guess she was all alone on Christmas Eve. As if anybody in the city really knew her or cared, now that dear, sweet Lucas had gone back to Texas for the holidays.
Josie pulled out her key and refused to think about all the houses in the city overflowing with children, families, gifts, music and food because it was Christmas Eve. She refused to think about her mother and her half brothers, who wouldn't let her come home to New Orleans.
"Not even for a few days at Christmas?" she'd pleaded. Not that she was really ready to face them.
"Not even." Armand, her older brother, was maddeningly bossy. "Besides, what about Brianna's gallery?"
As luck would have it, Brianna, her dearest and oldest friend, had needed someone to look after her apartment and gallery in Paris while she was away honeymooning, and at the exact same time when Josie had gotten into trouble and had needed to get out of New Orleans fast.
"Brianna told me I should close up for the holidays," Josie had informed her brother.
"Stay there! Paint! And stay out of trouble."
"What's so special about Christmas?" Josie now said aloud to the dull, gray walls that Madame Picard, her landlady, refused to let her repaint. "Count your blessings.You have the night off. And the next two weeks. Armand's right. Paint!"
She paused outside her doorway for a moment. As always she'd avoided the claustrophobic Métro at rush hour and the equally terrifying, cagelike elevator in her building that made the kind of weird, groaning sounds one associates with dying appliances. As a result, she was breathless from the long snowy walk from the gallery and the four-story hike to her apartment. Her scarf came loose, and clouds of steamy air burst from her lips as she jiggled the key in Brianna's lock.
When Brianna's heavy door stuck, Josie kicked it with so much force the thick slab of wood crashed against the wall and sent her tumbling across the threshold. She landed on her knees, her paper sack containing her dinner flying out of her hands.
Slamming the door, she marched to the tall window that faced the courtyard. It was dark and quiet. Madame Picard, who had a fondness for wine, garlic, her grandchildren and gossip, had told her that all her tenants were going somewhere special for the holidays.
"All except you, mademoiselle. I do have one new arrival. As soon as he checks in, I'm off to Rouen to see Remi, my grandson."
Remi was five and full of mischief. According to the doting Madame Picard, the boy had her eyes.
Since no lights were on in the other apartments that faced the courtyard, Josie didn't worry about Madame Picard's new arrival or lower her shade.
Paris had short, gray days and long, black nights in the winter. Not that the light, especially the misty, hazy morning light, wasn't wonderful. Every morning as soon as the sun rose, Josie ran to her windows and opened her shades so that she could admire the stark, leafless trees that seemed so naked and honest against the slate-gray skies.
Picking up her sack, she tugged the chain on her lamp and then switched on the little red Christmas lights she'd strung over a tiny potted ivy. When she glanced at the single envelope containing a Christmas card, note and check from her mother her only gift beneath her diminutive, makeshift Christmas treea rush of guilt and homesickness swept over her.
"Our tastes are so different I never know what to get you, dear. Money is the perfect gift," her mother had written.
For people who don't really know each other. Or care. Josie set her now damp sack that contained her café noir, warm brioche, yogurt and blackberries next to her laptop. On a plate beside the sofa.
She was peeking inside the sack to see how much the coffee and yogurt had leaked when the message light on her answering machine blinked madly. At the sound of Lucas Ryder's deep drawl, she jabbed the appropriate button.
"Merry Christmas! I miss you so much." Lucas's voice was pure Texas. "I told everybody about you," he said. "I showed them snapshots of your paintings. They love your wonderful gargoyles. They're all very happy for me."
His tenderness both warmed her and alarmed her. They'd met at an art opening. They hadn't known each other long but Lucas had fallen fast and hard.
"Except for my older brother." Lucas's voice sounded tense.
"He doesn't get contemporary art. Or your gargoyles. He says they look like large rats."
Rats? Self-doubt, that constant demon that lurked in the depths of her artistic soul, ate a little piece out of her.
"Call me, why don't you?" Lucas left a number.
Smiling, she ripped the paper sack open and began eating her blueberries.
One by one, she slipped the berries in between her teeth and bit down on them, nibbling until they burst, sweet and tart, at the back of her throat. Licking her lips, she went to her tiny fridge and splashed Merlot into a long-stemmed glass.
She wasn't lonely or homesick! That wasn't why she replayed Lucas's message.
Again Lucas sounded as adorably Texan as he had three days ago when she'd seen him off at the Métro stop on his way to the airport. As always he'd worn boots, overly long, creased jeans and a cowboy hat.
"I'm going to tell my family all about you."
"Not that there's anything to tell."
"Yet." He'd removed a tan leather glove, emblazoned with a big black, swirling R, the family brand he'd told her about with more than a little pride. He'd pulled her wool scarf down and touched the rosy tip of her frozen nose with a warm fingertip. "Some day soon I'll have a lot to tell them. I'll wait. Until you're ready."
When would that be? Would she ever get over Barnardo's awful betrayal?
"It's just that after Barnardo and his awful video show " She stopped, saying only, "II promised my family I wouldn't date for a while."
"Your family would love me. I'm a Ryder."
"You say your name as if you think you're royalty."
"In Texas, we are. Why do you think I can afford to live in Paris on the same block where Hem lived and wrote like he did?"
Lucas had told her that before Ernest Hemingway became famous, he had lived on the Rue du Cardinal Lemoine with a young wife and child. Like Hemingway, Lucas was optimistically determined to live abroad and write great American novels that defined male machismo.
She smiled indulgently. Lucas felt as sure of himself as both her big brothers did. What would it be like to grow up feeling secure and safe?
She sipped her wine and fought not to think about a listing barge in a lost bayou and the ramshackle, shotgun house on top of it. Or the illiterate girl who'd lived there until she was thirteen.
She held her wineglass up and made a silent toast to Lucas and to the sweet love he'd professed. How different he was than Barnardo. Frowning, she forced herself to make a second toast to her own family. Someday, somehow, she would find a way to make them proud of her.
Lucas. She closed her eyes, thinking of what it might be like if they were together. She pictured his hands, his lips, and tried Aching with hot, shameful feelings that had gotten her into trouble with Barnardo in New Orleans, she stalked over to her window and glanced out at the dark courtyard again. Standing there, wondering if anybody was there, she took another long sip.
Imagining a new, dangerous, dream lover in one of the windows, her skin warmed and her heart pounded.
Then, shocked at herself, she shook her head to clear her thoughts. She had to get to work. Turning away, she peeled off her gray jacket and slung it onto the newspapers she'd scattered under her easel. She gave no thought to how provocative her form-fitting sweater and her black miniskirt might appear without the jacket. After all, she was alone.
She moved about, her necklaces, bracelets and earrings catching the light and jingling. Josie kicked off her black leather mules and pranced around her huge canvas. Strutting about in her stockings on slippery newspapers, she drained the last of her wine and then set her glass beside her laptop. She placed her hands on her hips and leaned over the canvas, accentuating the twin curves of her bottom, which was thrust toward her window. Focused on the livid, purple beak of a painted gargoyle, she leaned over and put a lot of shapely leg on display, too.
She had a headache from her long day working at Brianna's gallery, so she rubbed her temples. A red, curling tendril came loose and fell against her cheek.
Even though Josie had almost no experience running a gallery, and her Cajun French left a great deal to be desired, Brianna had sworn Josie could cover for her while she and Jacques honeymooned. "The gallery, plus my painting trying to speak French I don't think so, Brianna. You know how driven you are, compared to me."
Her skin the color of light brown sugar, Brianna was as tall and thin as a supermodel. She had huge dark eyes and straight black hair. Not that Bree had ever relied on her looks to get her where she wantedexcept maybe when it came to snagging Jacques, a super-rich art broker she'd met at an art fair in London.
Josie had turned Bree down cold.
But that had been before Barnardo's exhibit had opened in a prominent New Orleans museum, starring Josie in the nude.
Suddenly the air in the little cubicle of Brianna's apartment felt bleak and stale and too heavy with the scent of her oils and Josie's own dying dreams.
Focus on today. On tonight. Not past or present failures. She whirled on her canvas. Bits of stone bird and gigantic teeth seemed to be scattered all over the place. The brilliant colors that had fit so right last night confused her suddenly.
Thinking that fresh air and a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower might inspire her, Josie left the painting and went to the tall living-room window.
Without looking down at the snow-slicked cobblestones or across at the dark courtyard windows, she slid her window up. Then she leaned out, arching her long, slender neck, searching for the tower through the bare branches of the one-hundred-year-old trees.
Determined, she plopped down on the windowsill and eased her bottom farther out onto the icy ledge. Digging her heels under the radiator and gripping the wall with a hand, she leaned out some more.
Snowflakes landed on her cheeks and melted. Teeth chattering, butt freezing, snow dribbling down her face like teardrops, she smiled up at the iron lady glimmering above the roofline.
"Just like a gigantic Christmas ornament in a snow globe." Forgetting the chill and her exhaustion and her suicidal, gravity-defying perch, she was in the process of leaning out even farther when a man whistled at her.
"Oh, my God! You're real!" Josie screamed.
Whirling wildly, she lost her grip on the wall. For a dizzying instant a man's darkly handsome angular face spun crazily. Then she was falling toward bricks and cobblestones.
Grabbing for the wall, she latched on to the copper drain-pipe that snaked up the building instead, and clung.
Her heart thundered. Instead of scooting back inside, she stayed in the window, never considering how the glow of the lamp behind her might silhouette her breasts, her narrow waist and her derriere.
Searching the windows for him, her temples began to pound. She felt a hairpin stabbing her scalp. Reaching up, she unpinned her hair. Then she shook her head, so that her red curls spilled in a shimmering mass over her shoulders.
Looking up, her gaze sought the long, black window opposite hers again.
The shade was up. For a second she was almost sure she saw a tall man moving about in the shadows.
A rush of heat coursed through her veins. "Hello?" Holding her breath, she leaned out farther. "Is anybody there?"
Just the thought of him and the skin on her throat and shoulders prickled hotly. Her nipples grew tight and hard.
Was a stranger really watching?
Her blood beat faster. Blushing, she backed inside the window. The strange feeling that a man really was watching her persisted. Waves of heat sizzled through her.
She should move away from the window. Instead her heartbeat sped up as she gazed across the courtyard. Hugging herself, imagining a dream lover, she forgot not to smile.
As she envisioned a man in the window, who had height and strength, who was somehow essential, a man who was enjoying this as much as she, her mind began to weave a fantasy.
Was he there? Her skin began to glow until soon she felt as hot as molten flame. Her heart raced.
A fierce, wild hunger swept her, for what, she did not know.