Home > The Undead Next Door (Love at Stake #4)(4)

The Undead Next Door (Love at Stake #4)(4)
Author: Kerrelyn Sparks

Jean-Luc shrugged. He hated deception. That was why he normally preferred the company of Vamps. Any relationship with a mortal required a number of lies, especially now that he had to go into hiding. He handed Heather the ripped sleeve. "I'm sorry it tore."

"That's okay." She stuffed it into her purse. "Like you said, the fabric is crap." She looked around the room and grinned. "I can't believe I'm sitting in a real design studio with a famous fashion designer."

He smiled as he rose to his feet. "Are you coming Monday to work?" He extended a hand to help her up.

"Oh, you bet. This is a dream come true for me." She placed her hand in his.

He pulled her up so quickly, she bumped against his chest. His arms instantly surrounded her. She glanced up with her lovely eyes. Such a dark, vivid green. He could hear her heartbeat speeding up now that she was in his arms. He liked that. "Do you know how beautiful you are?"

She shook her head.

Apparently he could also make her lose the ability to speak. Desire sizzled through his veins. She felt so warm and sweet, but he had to stop before his eyes glowed red. She was too great a temptation, and he was always careful to avoid real relationships.

He released her. "I'm afraid I can only hire you for two weeks." Once the store closed, the only mortal allowed inside would be his security guard, Pierre.

"I understand." She stepped back, her face sad. "I realize I have no experience. And I have to go back to teaching in September."

"Are you assuming I'll find fault with you?" Her responding blush indicated he'd touched a nerve. He suspected her feisty attitude was hiding a pit of self-doubt. It was a trick he recognized, having used it himself.

But why would Heather Westfield doubt herself? Had someone tried to strangle her spirit? If so, he felt a sudden compulsion to ram his fist into that person's face. "My concern is not that I'll be unhappy with you. Quite the opposite. I could be too happy with you." Too tempted to keep her here to ease the loneliness of his exile.

She gulped audibly.

"And I have a rule I always follow. I never involve myself with employees. No matter how attracted I am." He allowed his gaze to wander over her luscious body.

"Oh my gosh," she whispered. She took another step back. "I - I'm not looking for - I'm not ready - I mean I - "

"The idea of a relationship leaves you speechless?"

"More like horrified!" She winced. "Oh, I didn't mean with you. I just meant with anybody. I went through a nasty divorce a year ago and - "

He held up a hand to hush her. "I will behave myself." He smiled slowly. "Can you?"

"Of course. I'm always...good." She looked a bit forlorn about that.

Did she have a secret wish to be naughty? Desire flooded back, and he clenched his fists to keep from grabbing her. It had been so long since he'd...He shoved the thought aside. He had to leave mortal women alone. He'd learned that in the most painful way possible.

She strolled down the aisle, touching the clothes as she passed by. "These are cool." She stopped in front of an assortment of belts made of leather, brass, and silver.

"This is my first season to design belts." He moved closer. Only mortal models could wear the belts made of silver. Simone and Inga stayed far away from anything that would burn their delicate skin. "What do you think?"

"They're lovely. I especially like the big, chunky ones that rest on the hips."

Click. Jean-Luc's superior hearing picked up a sound. He held up a hand, and Heather hushed with a questioning look. A footstep, another click.

He'd never heard the door open or close. Only someone knowing the combination could open the door. A vampire teleporting in from outside the building would set off an alarm. So this person must have teleported from somewhere inside the building. His Vamp friends would have called out, so chances were the visitor was not a friend.

Jean-Luc raised a finger to his lips to warn Heather to remain quiet. He eased toward the end of the aisle and the center of the room. He peeked through the space between the clothes and long rod they were hanging from.

There he was. The old man with a cane. Click. He planted the cane on the hardwood floor, then shuffled his feet forward. He remained hunched over, his face hidden.

Jean-Luc sniffed. Heather's aroma was behind him, definitely mortal, but he sensed nothing from this man.

The old man halted with a final click of his cane. "I know you are here, Echarpe."

Jean-Luc stiffened. Mon Dieu, it was Lui. He hadn't seen his most dreaded enemy in more than a hundred years.

"I am a patient man. I knew in time you would grow careless. And here you are, unarmed, without your precious bodyguards." The old man straightened slowly, unfurling his spine. "You were impossible to reach in Paris. Surrounded night and day by half a dozen guards." He lifted his chin.

Jean-Luc dragged in a deep breath when he saw the man's eyes. Lui had assumed many identities over the centuries, always managing to look different. Except for the eyes. They were always dark, cold, and filled with hate.

Jean-Luc eased back to Heather as Lui continued to boast.

"You have made your last mistake, Echarpe. I went to the openings of all your stores, but you remained hidden like the coward you are. Now, at last, you have made an appearance. Your final appearance."

Jean-Luc reached Heather and lifted a finger to his lips. She nodded with an anxious look.

He whispered in her ear, "Do not let him see you. Escape out the doors in the back. Run."

She opened her mouth to protest, but he stopped her with a finger pressed against her lips.

Go, he mouthed the word. He pushed her gently toward the opposite end of the aisle.

"Come out of hiding, you coward," Lui shouted. "I have decided to kill you once and for all. I will miss having you around to torture, but Casimir has offered me an enormous sum. I could not refuse."

Jean-Luc marched down the aisle toward the center of the room. "Zut alors, I thought you were dead. But no matter, you will be soon enough." He was a better swordsman than Lui, but unfortunately, he was unarmed at the moment. He sent out a psychic message.

"I can hear you," Lui sneered. "Whining to your friends to come and save you."

Jean-Luc stepped into the clearing. "I fight my own battles. Tell me, how long did it take for you to recover from our last encounter? If memory serves, your guts were hanging out."

With a growl, Lui twisted the knob on his cane and ripped the wooden sheath away from a slim, lethal foil. He tossed the wooden sheath aside, and it clattered on the floor. "Your friends will be too late." He charged.

Jean-Luc leaped to the side, grabbed a nearby mannequin, and swung it hard to deflect the first attack.

Lui's sword sliced through, decapitating the male mannequin. "Ah, that brings back sweet memories of the Reign of Terror." He swung again and shattered the mannequin's torso.

Jean-Luc was left defending himself with a mannequin leg. At least it had a metal bar through it. And Robby would be here any second with a real sword.

Jean-Luc ducked, feeling the whir above him as Lui's foil sliced the air. He ran to the right, planted the mannequin leg on the floor, and used it to pole vault onto a cutting table.

Lui swung at his legs, but Jean-Luc jumped and landed on the floor on the far side of the table. When Lui circled to the right to catch him, he moved to the right, too. He could keep Lui dancing around the table until Robby arrived with a sword.

Jean-Luc had completed one circle when he spotted movement behind Lui. He froze. Heather was sneaking up behind Lui with nothing but a handful of belts. What was she thinking? He didn't dare yell at her to stop. That would alert Lui to her presence, and he'd stab her with his sword. Merde! He made a face at her and motioned with his head for her to get the hell out of there.

She ignored him, her eyes focused on Lui.

The only thing Jean-Luc could do was draw Lui away from her. He ran to the center of the room and engaged in battle with the mannequin leg. Bits of plaster flew through the air as Lui hacked at Jean-Luc's inferior weapon.

"Stop it!" Heather swung her belts at Lui.

Lui stiffened as silver metal struck the back of his head. A coil of smoke curled up. He turned toward her, his face contorted with pain. "You vicious bitch." He raised his sword.

"Heather, run!" Jean-Luc leaped forward and clobbered Lui on the head with the mannequin leg.

The metal rod sent Lui stumbling to the side. His foil clattered to the floor. Jean-Luc ducked to retrieve the sword, then jumped out of the way when Heather took another swing at Lui.

"Take that, you creep!" Her eyes glittered with excitement.

Lui raised his hands to protect his head, and the silver hissed across his palms, sizzling the exposed flesh.

The front door burst open, and Angus and Robby ran inside, their claymores drawn. Robby tossed a foil across the room to Jean-Luc.

He caught the foil, then turned to face Lui. The bastard had retreated, hiding among the racks of clothing. From the corner of his eye, Jean-Luc spotted Angus slipping between two racks. No doubt the Scotsman intended to catch the bastard from behind.

Jean-Luc handed Lui's foil to Heather. "If he comes after you, do not hesitate to use it."

She nodded, her eyes meeting his. His heart stuttered. Mon Dieu, what had he gotten her into?

"I will return for you, Echarpe," Lui announced. "But first I will kill your woman. Just like old times, non?"

"She is not my woman! Leave her out of this."

"Ah, but I can see that you care for her. I wonder if she will be as accommodating as your last mistress?"

"Damn you." Jean-Luc strode toward the racks. "Watch her," he yelled at Robby; then he ran down an aisle. He spotted Angus coming from the opposite direction.

Jean-Luc shoved clothes aside, hunting for Lui.

"Bugger," Angus muttered. "He must have teleported away. I'll keep searching." He dashed away at vampire speed.

"Did you get him?" Heather called.

"No. He...escaped." Jean-Luc stalked back to the center of the workroom. Seething with frustration, he whipped his foil through the air. Heather's eyes widened.

Robby paced around her, his claymore clenched in a tight fist. "I need to search the grounds. Now."

Jean-Luc nodded. "Go."

Robby sprinted toward the French doors along the back wall and let himself out.

Jean-Luc took a deep breath. "Are you all right?"

"I guess." Heather dropped the belts and Lui's foil onto a cutting table. "But I don't understand what's going on. What's the deal with all these swords? And why would anyone want to kill a fashion designer?"

"It's a long story." And a painful one. "I wish you had run like I told you to do."

"I meant to, but when I saw him attacking you with that sword, and all you had was a mannequin - I don't know. I should have been afraid, but I've been afraid all my life, and I'm sick and tired of it. Then all this anger came pouring out. Anger at myself for being a wimp. Anger at my ex for being an a**hole. I just had to take action. And - and I was good!"

Jean-Luc took her hand in his. He suspected it was her ex-husband who had left her immersed in self-doubt. But she was fighting back, and his heart swelled with pride for her. "You were very brave. You may have saved my life."

Her cheeks turned pink. "I don't know if I helped that much. You were doing really well. Who was that guy?"

"I have never known his real name. I call him Lui."

"Louie?"

"Non, Lui."

She frowned. "That's what I said."

Jean-Luc sighed. "Lui means 'him' en fran?ais. He is an assassin of many names. Jacques Clément, Damiens, Ravaillac. He incites murder and delights in death."

Her hand trembled. "Why does he want to kill you?"

"Because I have tried to stop him over the cen - years. I succeeded once, and he has wanted me to suffer ever since." Jean-Luc squeezed her hand. "Heather, I regret to tell you this, but you are in terrible danger."

Her face paled. "I was afraid of that. He thinks I'm..."

"He believes you are my lover."

She pulled her hand from his grasp. "I'd better stay away then. I guess I can't work here after all."

"Au contraire, you should work here. I have security guards who can protect you. In fact, you should live here until we can...take care of Lui."

She scoffed. "I can't live here. I have a house in Schnitzelberg."

"You must live here. Lui has killed two women in my past."

Heather gulped. "He kills your girlfriends?"

"Yes. I am sorry this happened to you. I did warn you not to let him see you."

She winced. "I should have done what you said."

"If you had, I might be dead. Let me protect you, Heather. I owe you that much."

"I can't stay here. My daughter - "

"Non." Jean-Luc felt as if he'd been pummeled in the stomach. "You have a daughter?"

"Yes. Oh my God. Are you saying she's in danger, too?"

Jean-Luc swallowed hard. A vision of mutilated bodies flashed through his mind. Yvonne in 1757. Claudine in 1832. He couldn't bear this pain and guilt again. "Do not be afraid. I will protect you both."

Chapter 4

She should have known he wasn't perfect. Anyone as gorgeous as Jean-Luc Echarpe had to possess a few serious flaws. Flaw number one: stubborn as a mule. After Heather had recovered from the initial shock, she had refused Echarpe's offer of protection. He'd looked stunned, but then he'd announced his intent again as if he'd automatically passed a law.

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