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Janine Coulter has just gotten her big chance to prove herself, managing a prestigious exhibit at the Palace of Versailles -- and Luc Tremont, the security specialist, is clearly trouble. He's making decisions without her, under-cutting her authority. He's also too smooth, too virile, too dangerously handsome, too...well...French! And Janine has the uneasy suspicion he's not all that he seems.
Luc resolutely ignores the powerful sizzle of attraction he feels when he meets Janine -- the quintessential California girl with her blond hair, blue eyes, and legs that seem to go on forever. But when thieves steal priceless treasures from the exhibit, and Luc and Janine give chase across the lush Burgundy countryside, their forced intimacy ignites the passion both have tried to ignore. Luc wonders what will happen when Janine learns his true identity -- but with dangerous men pursuing them, they may not live to find out....
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Holy hell. Her Plums were missing.
Janine Coulter blinked against the blinding May sunshine reflected off hundreds of Venetian mirrors. Even in the chaotic cavern of light, glass, and enough gilded fleur-de-lis to eliminate world hunger, she could feel that her precious Pompadour Plum vases were not in Versailles' famed Hall of Mirrors.
"Monsieur le Directeur, where are the Sèvres vases?"
Henri Duvoisier started to smile, but then must have remembered he was French. "How astute of you to notice, Dr. Coulter. We are not including them in this area of the exhibit." At her intake of breath, he lifted a bony shoulder. "We have been advised against doing so."
Janine closed her eyes, digging deep for every ounce of diplomacy and patience. This was a test. He resented her because, in his eyes, she was a novice, an American, a woman, and an intruder.
"Advised?" This would be a battle of wills, but her will was steel. Hadn't she proved that by her sheer determination to assume the position of exhibit curator? "By whom?"
He didn't respond.
She looked directly into Henri's limpid blue eyes. "The vases are the centerpiece of the exhibit, monsieur, and our plans call for them to be in the middle of the hall." She turned and crossed the polished parquet, the staccato tap of her high heels echoing off the marble walls and richly painted ceilings. "They were supposed to be right here."
She stood below the massive portrait of Madame de Pompadour. If little bourgeoisie Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson could march into the most splendid palace in France and convince the surly court that she deserved to be the king's mistress, certainly one unwelcome art history professor from UCLA could handle Versailles' embittered director.
"We have altered the design of the exhibit because of security issues, Dr. Coulter," Henri said.
Was there a French equivalent to "I don't give a shit"?
She squared her shoulders and matched the haughty expression captured in Boucher's famed image of la Pompadour. "I wasn't apprised of these security issues."
Henri cleared his throat and suddenly sent a beseeching glance over her shoulder. Someone else had entered the hall. She didn't hear footsteps, but she sensed a presence. She turned to follow Henri's gaze.
At first she couldn't see anything but a shadow against an arched window at the very end of the hall. Then the shadow became a silhouette of a man as he silently approached.
"That's because you were unavoidably detained." The English words, buried in a smoky baritone and rich French accent, echoed through the massive hall.
He strode toward her with all the assurance of the three Bourbon kings who'd played God in this very room. They had been tall enough to look down on their subjects, dark enough to be the focal point of every portrait, and handsome enough to have their legendary libidos constantly satisfied.
This man could be a direct descendant. And then some.
His eyes, nearly as black as his thick, straight hair, glinted as he gazed at her. A shadow of stubborn whiskers in his hollow cheeks balanced the dark slash of brow. Everything about him -- from the elegant thousand-dollar suit fitted to his wide shoulders, down to the rich Euro loafers -- screamed control, perfection, and superiority.
Not only did he have the drop-dead looks of French royalty, he had the 'tude to match.
Janine tilted her face up to him, something a five-foot-seven-inch woman in heels rarely had to do.
"Ah, Luc." Henri's voice startled her; she'd forgotten he was in the room. The museum director murmured something indecipherable while he shook the new arrival's hand.
The corner of the man's mouth curled, and he turned to Janine, sweeping a glance over her and lingering a moment longer than necessary on her legs. Maybe the spunky skirt was a little too L.A. hip and not enough Paris couture?
His eyes narrowed a fraction. "Evidently you were unable to be involved in the last-minute decisions, Madame la Curator." His English was flawless, softened by a French accent. "I understand you had urgent personal business keeping you from joining us."
The musical cadence didn't mask the little dig. Whoever Luc was, he knew, like everyone else, that she'd been delayed because her wedding had been scheduled to take place the week before. And like everyone else, he would soon realize that she had no ring, no new last name, and no husband in tow.
For the millionth time, she cursed Sam Benjamin and the ground the cheating, lying bastard walked on.
She held out her hand. "I'm Dr. Janine Coulter."
With a slight bow of his head, he engulfed her hand with a large, strong grip. "Luc Tremont."
"Luc is our spécialist de la securité," Henri explained. "A consultant, as you would say, whom we have hired to control the security of the Pompadour exhibit. And yes, Luc, this is the newly appointed Madame la Curator, our distinguished guest from the Université de Californie, Janine Coulter."
A shower of resentment sparked at her nerve endings. She hadn't been told a thing about a security consultant.
"The pleasure is mine, madame." A decidedly un-French smile revealed perfect white teeth. His handshake relaxed as one of his fingers lightly moved over her skin. More resentment sparked. Something sparked. She withdrew her hand.
"From California," he said, in a tone so soft it could be considered seductive...or mocking. "But your beautiful name is so French. Janine."
Szha-neen. It sure never sounded like that before. She shook her head and tried to respond in his language to be polite and demonstrate her fluency, but every syllable she'd ever known eluded her. Damn. "No, not French. Just...American."
She crossed her arms self-consciously. This was probably part of their sabotage strategy. They sent this hunk to sidetrack her, make her stumble on the job, steal her attention from her responsibilities. Who said the French weren't effective warriors?
"We were so sorry to hear of the passing of Dr. Farrow," he said.
The familiar dull ache settled around her heart at the mention of the man whose death she'd yet to accept. "Thank you. His death was a tremendous loss for the art world and for the university."
But she didn't want to discuss her friend and mentor. Or the fact that she'd persuaded the French minister of culture to give her Albert Farrow's coveted assignment. She'd defended her position enough; she was the curator and she wanted the Plums.
"Monsieur Tremont, do you know where the Sèvres vases are?"
He extended an arm toward an artful arrangement of porcelain under a portrait of Louis XV. "Some are right there, madame, and there are still more in the Salon de la Guerre."
She'd already been through that area of the Hall of Mirrors, nearly a football field away. No vases. Not the ones she wanted. "Non, monsieur. The Pompadour Plum vases."
She heard Henri stifle a moan at the phrase. The American media had dubbed the three exquisite vases "the Pompadour Plums" after they had been found in the dusty basement of a French château a year ago. The purist French historians despised the catchy description of the matchless purple porcelain that had been the subject of such great debate in the art world.
Luc Tremont regarded her from under thick, dark lashes. "It's my strong recommendation that we limit the viewing of the Sèvres to one of the anterooms, guarded twenty-four hours a day. I'll allow entrance by invitation only."
He'll allow entrance?
"I don't think so," she responded. "The vases are the heart and soul of the exhibit."
"There are nearly a hundred other artifacts on display," he countered.
"None as precious as the Sèvres." And none as closely tied to Madame de Pompadour, the exhibit's namesake. "They are the whole reason people will come to this exhibit."
"Surely they will want to see all of the treasures of Louis XV's Versailles."
He was clueless, this big French security guard. "Monsieur Tremont, do you realize that in the history of all mankind, there has never been a piece of soft paste Sèvres porcelain produced in that color? Let alone three matching vases, all with Pompadour's image and name?" She purposely used the let-me-spell-this-out-for-you tone that she saved for freshmen. "All three bear Madame's actual signature written in gold. They are priceless."
"Precisely my point." A glimmer lit his midnight gaze. "Professor."
A sudden, uncomfortable warmth spread through her, but she continued her argument. "They're the reason more than a million people around the world will file into museums like this one," she insisted. "It would be like exhibiting King Tut without the sarcophagus. We can't deny visitors the chance to see the Pompadour Plums."
"Madame." Henri cleared his throat. "We are not using that expression."
She ignored him, her focus unwavering on Tremont. "Why would you do something so counterproductive? This is rare. This is huge. It has to be shown to the world, not just a select few."
Tremont took a few steps closer to her, invading her breathing space in that totally French way. But somehow, with him, it was more...invasive. "There have been very specific threats to the exhibit, madame. I don't think you want to take the chance of losing the vases before they have traveled the world."
Of course not. If anything went wrong, her trial run would end as fast as she could say au revoir. But she wouldn't let this guy steamroll her. "Why don't you let me in on the security issues, Monsieur Tremont, and then we can come up with a plan that meets your needs and mine?"
"Madame la Curator." A hint of condescension was artfully buried in the musical accent. "There have been rumblings in the underground world of art trading."
So, word on the street said there would be a hit. "I don't have a problem with armed guards and increased museum security," she responded, "but I refuse to remove the Sèvres vases from the main exhibit."
"I'm afraid you have no authority to refuse anything."
"Sorry, but I do." She gave him a sweet smile. "Perhaps we can discuss this with the minister of culture, who gave me the authority to do what I want with my vases."
He winked at her. "They belong to France."
Damn. She could have bitten a hole in her lip. "I mean Madame's vases...the Sèvres vases."
With one strong, sure hand on her shoulder, Tremont guided her away from Henri, leaning close enough for Janine to feel a whisper of warm breath on her cheek.
The French -- personal space was irrelevant to them. "Madame. Doctor. What do you prefer that I call you?"
She couldn't resist. "Janine."
"Janine." Szha-neen. It was absolutely sinful the way he said it. "There is more than I am telling you."
A shiver skated down her spine, but that was due to his serious tone, not his sexy pronunciation.
He moved his hand down her back, leaving a trail of heat in its wake. "Surely you understand that there are those who will stop at nothing to own such a magnificent piece of history as Pompadour's vases."
"Of course there are thieves who would want them," she said impatiently. "But hiding them in another room? Offering a viewing by invitation only? Such extreme measures will only detract from the exhibit."
He shook his head. "Not when lives are at risk, Janine."
"Whose life is at risk?" she scoffed in disbelief.
Luc knew his trump card would get her attention. He could think of a number of other ways to do so, some more appealing than others. Like claiming her pretty little mouth in a world-class demonstration of a French kiss. That would also satisfy the annoying itch that started the moment he laid eyes on the California girl.
"My life is at risk?" As the blood faded from her face, her alabaster skin revealed the faintest dusting of freckles, noticeable only because of the reflected sunbeams bouncing around the Galerie des Glaces. Sunlight suited her. She belonged in the sun. On the beach, sparkling on the sand somewhere. She was so bright and fresh and...American.
Behind him, other staff members had entered the Hall. Although the palace was closed to visitors in preparation for the gala that would launch the exhibit, there were still many faces he didn't recognize. Or trust.
"Why don't we walk outside for a few moments?" he suggested. "We can talk privately."
Her sky blue eyes flashed, but she consented with a nod. Before Henri could attach himself to them again, Luc led Janine through a gallery that opened onto the Cour de Marbre.
He paused as they stepped onto the intricate pattern of gray and white marble. Beyond it rolled the emerald lawns of the gardens, dotted with multicolored flowers, gushing fountains, and priceless sculptures.
As always, the singular beauty of France simply left him homesick. But he held out his hand to share the scene. "C'est magnifique, n'est ce pas?"
She cast a quick glance at the view and barely inhaled enough to enjoy the fragrance of orange blossoms that floated on the breeze. Tucking her handbag under her elbow, she crossed her arms and locked an insistent gaze on him. "I'm not here to take a tour, monsieur. I'd appreciate an explanation of what you just said."
The color had returned to her fine-boned face. She had no way of knowing he wasn't just another anti-American Frenchman who resented her arrival, so he forgave her the little jutting chin. He knew enough about her situation to understand.
"Not a tour, I promise. But I find that hall a bit suffocating, non? In May in France, there's never a reason to be indoors."
She gave the grounds another cursory glance and then trained her blue eyes on him again. "Can you tell me exactly what you meant in there?"
"Oui." Three uniformed tour guides stood smoking a few yards away. Versailles had ears, and eyes. That was his biggest problem. "While we walk, s'il vous plait." He headed toward the matching pools that anchored the entrance to the gardens.
Although his gut instinct -- backed up by a thorough background check -- cleared Dr. Coulter from any suspicion, he still had no intention of telling her the truth. Raw ambition may have been her motive for muscling in on the curator's job when the old man killed himself, or she might have been sent as a plant. Or simply a distraction.
He took another surreptitious glance at her long, lean calves. His weakness for a magnificent pair of legs was known to only a few, but those few included at least one man who'd like to see him dead.
He opted for the obvious explanation. "There's a great deal of anti-American sentiment in France, as you undoubtedly are aware. There are those who'd prefer that the curator of the Pompadour exhibit be a French citizen."
"I'm qualified for the job, and the minister of culture agreed." Her cool tone left no room for discussion. "Certainly your anti-American sentiment doesn't include killing visitors to your country?"
"Not usually." He smiled at her as a breeze lifted a strand of her platinum blond hair from the loose knot at the nape of her neck, and she hastily tucked it back. "Although we've been known to insult them into leaving."
She responded with a soft, musical laugh that reminded him of a wind chime. "I can handle that."
"I've no doubt you can."
He remembered the grainy photo he'd seen on the UCLA faculty web site. He'd been searching for potential cracks in security when he discovered that the curator-to-be was more than a hotshot art history PhD who'd worked closely with the famed Albert Farrow. She was also a knockout.
And she remained unmarried, despite a delay for her wedding. He'd have to find out why.
"You've assumed a very high-profile position in an important and controversial exhibit for Versailles, indeed, for all of France." He tilted his head toward her and lowered his voice. "And, of course, there are those who firmly believe the Plums are nothing but a hoax."
She groaned and looked at the sky. "Lord, save me from the anti-Pompadour crowd. They were the bane of Albert's existence -- and mine. They are idiot conservatives who would keep Louis's mistress out of the history books completely if they could."
He laughed softly. "Mais oui. A Monica Lewinsky of her time."
Her eyes sparked in response. "That is so wrong -- she changed the course of history. She was as powerful as a queen and just as influential as the king she loved."
"But as you say, she rarely merits more than a paragraph in French history books."
"This exhibit could change that," she insisted.
"Then you understand why you are the focus of so much attention, Janine."
She shrugged it off. "I didn't want the attention. I'm here because the Pompadour Plums are one of the most significant finds of the twentieth-century art world. I worked side by side with Albert Farrow to prove their existence. To great personal and professional expense, I have convinced Claude Marchionette, the minister of culture, that I'm the best person to keep those vases front and center in this exhibit."
Precisely where he didn't want them to be. "And you are to be congratulated on that coup. I'm sure it will elevate your stature considerably in the art and academic world."
Her eyes darkened to match the water in the ornate fountain behind her. "Who hired you anyway? Henri Duvoisier?"
He nearly laughed. "Non."
"But he's the top of the food chain at Versailles."
"I was retained from outside the museum hierarchy." She wasn't stupid; in a minute she'd run up the "food chain" and figure it out.
She frowned. "The Réunion des Musées Nationals is the only authority over the museums, as far as I know." She stared at him, the stray hair escaping again. "Claude Marchionette?"
"Precisement." He resisted the urge to touch that silky strand, watching it dance in the breeze.
Her jaw dropped. "You were hired by the minister of culture, too?"
"He has given me carte blanche to protect the exhibit. Even if that means altering it."
"Then he's given two people carte blanche," she said, with a wry lift of her brow. "And surely you know that security doesn't drive the design of an exhibit, it's the other way around."
He nodded. "I am sensitive to that. I'm a specialist, brought in for very specific situations such as this major exhibit. I'm well-trained to protect priceless treasures."
"What kind of training?"
He recited his résumé casually, glossing over dates and years as if modest, not purposefully vague. He managed to sound as if he had experience in museums all over the world and enough education to be considered "intelligent" by the elite French standards.
"Do you require references, madame?" he asked, unfastening the single button of his suit jacket and slipping his hands into his pockets.
"I'll talk to the minister."
"You do that." Because a conversation with Claude Marchionette wouldn't change a thing.
As they reached the stone barrier around an enormous fountain, she stopped and studied the sculpture at its center.
"It's the Greek goddess Latona," he commented.
"Yes, I know." A hint of a smile crossed her face as she gazed at the spray that burst from the open mouths of dozens of gilded frogs.
"Do you find her amusing?" he asked.
"Not her, all the frogs."
He chuckled. "Never let it be said that the French can't laugh at themselves."
She turned and unexpectedly put a hand on his arm. "Listen, I'm not on a mission to change French history or the way it's recorded." Color rose in her cheeks and her eyes sparkled. "I'm just partial to porcelain, especially the Plums. And I'm the last person who would compromise their security. Couldn't you please consider moving them back to the main exhibit?"
Keeping the Plums separate from the rest of the exhibit was critical to Luc's success on this job. It was the only way the whole event could be choreographed and completed without endangering lives. "I'm sorry," he responded. "We can't make it easy for a thief."
And yet, that was precisely what he was doing.
She held his gaze for a long moment, all plantinum blond and blue-eyed determination. He could stare at her all day. If she'd been sent to distract him, then his nemesis knew him far too well.
She stepped away, and he followed her around the base of the fountain in silence, admiring the way her trim little suit fit from behind.
"Are you supposed to baby-sit me, as well as the vases?" she finally asked.
"To some extent. Although it appears the Pompadour Plums will be less of a challenge than the curator."
"You've got that right." She tossed a glance over her shoulder, her lips lifted in a hint of a smile. "You can't lock me up in a viewing room and allow visitors by invitation."
"That's not a bad idea," he shot back. "Just you, me, and your vases."
Her expression melted into embarrassment. "Sorry about that. I really didn't mean to call them mine."
This time he didn't fight the urge. He lifted the shiny lock of hair and tucked it behind her ear with a teasing smile. "I'll keep your secret, Madame la Curator."
A tiny crease formed on her brow as she opened her mouth to speak. Then she pressed her lips together.
"What is it?" he urged.
"Nothing. You just...you just don't seem very French."
His gut tightened. "Pardon?" He let his gaze drop over her face and down her torso in proof that he could caress the opposite sex with a smoldering gaze as well as the next Frenchman. To confirm that he was as French as croissants and champagne. "Why would you say that?"
"For one thing, you smile."
"Just trying to make you feel at home." He dipped his head close enough to catch her sweet, floral scent. "Janine."
She flushed again when he said her name. "And you have no qualms about making eye contact."
"How could I look away from such a lovely woman?"
She rolled her eyes. "Yeah, you're French."
"But of course." He would have to be very careful with this all-American beauty. Very careful indeed. If her real mission was to distract him, she'd already succeeded.
Copyright © 2004 by Roxanne St. Claire