Home > The Undead Next Door (Love at Stake #4)(9)

The Undead Next Door (Love at Stake #4)(9)
Author: Kerrelyn Sparks

"You are an unusual woman," he said quietly.

She sure had an unusual imagination. "I'm fairly normal, I think."

"No. I sense that you're...irritated with me for invading your home, but you don't seem angry that I've put you in danger. Most women would be furious about that."

"But you're not doing it. Louie is."

"Most women would still blame me." Jean-Luc rubbed his brow. "And they would make me feel even more guilty than I already do. But you, you take it in stride, and you remain so positive. And courageous."

His lovely compliments warmed her heart, although it was hard to completely accept them. Cody had done a good job of making her feel inferior. "Actually, I've been a coward most of my life."

"I saw you tonight, attacking Lui. You were very brave."

"I've been trying to improve. After my mother's death, I realized how much I had let fear control my life. It stole my dream. It killed my parents. So I've declared war on fear."

His eyes gleamed with what she could only interpret as admiration. "You're a fighter. I like that."

She grinned. She could really get accustomed to this. Cody had always put her down to make himself feel better. But Jean-Luc was different. There was a quiet, self-assured strength that emanated from him, and it was so attractive. Of course he was attractive, she realized wryly. He made her feel good about herself.

"You said fear killed your parents. How can that be?"

Her grin faded. "It's a long story." And a painful one. But if she confided in Jean-Luc, maybe he would tell her about himself. Or maybe it would put him to sleep.

"I would like to hear it." He lounged back and waited.

She had to admit she was curious how he would react. So she took a deep breath and dove in. "My father was the town sheriff. He was very good at his job, but my mother lived in terror that he'd be killed. She nagged him for years to quit."

"Did he?" Jean-Luc asked, apparently interested.

"No. He wanted to make a difference. And he did." Heather smiled, remembering. "When I was about six, there was a boy who went missing. Everyone was trying to find him. There was no ransom note, so my dad believed the boy had wandered into the woods and was lost."

"Did they find him?"

"My dad organized people into search parties, but no luck. Then he sought the help of a psychic in a nearby town. He took some flak over that. There were a few old ladies in town who thought Fidelia was some kind of Satan worshipper, but she did help my dad find the boy."

"Fidelia was the psychic?"

"Yep. My dad never needed Fidelia's help again, but my mother was thrilled to find someone who could give her the reassurance she needed." Heather leaned back to regard the ceiling as she recalled all the times her mother had dragged her to Fidelia's old, crumbling house. "Every week we went to see her, and Fidelia would announce that my dad was going to be safe for another week."

"For a price," Jean-Luc added.

Heather laughed. "Yep. I didn't realize till my mom passed away that we were Fidelia's main source of income. She was broke, and I needed a babysitter, so we teamed up."

Jean-Luc nodded. "I can tell she cares for you and your daughter."

"Well, yeah, if I can just keep her from shooting someone to prove it."

Jean-Luc smiled. "It is a good sign of your character that you inspire such loyalty."

Heather sucked in a deep breath. That had to be the most awesome compliment she'd ever received. She could really get addicted to Jean-Luc. "Thank you."

He shrugged as if it wasn't a miracle for a man to say wonderful things. "You were telling me about your father?"

"Oh, right. When I was sixteen, I went with my mom to Fidelia's. I was studying for a test in the kitchen. Then I heard all this shouting from the living room."

"An argument?" Jean-Luc asked.

"A bad reading. Fidelia tried to calm my mother down, but after ten years of readings, my mom knew what all the cards meant. She was totally freaked out. By the time we got home, my mom was hysterical. She called Dad and insisted he come home right away. He knew she was upset, so he stopped by a grocery store to buy her some flowers."

Heather rubbed her forehead, suddenly reluctant to go on with the story. "Two guys in ski masks barged in, waving pistols. My dad tried to stop them, and he was...shot."

"I'm so sorry."

Heather's eyes filled with tears. "If Mother hadn't called him so upset, he wouldn't have been in that store. It was her fear that grew and grew until it came true."

Jean-Luc stood and paced across the room. He seemed deep in thought.

Heather took a big breath to regain control. She'd come too far in life to turn into a blubbering weakling.

"Did your mother blame herself?" he asked quietly.

"No, that never occurred to her. In fact, she felt justified, for her fear had been proven right."

Jean-Luc shook his head as he continued to pace.

Heather wished she knew what he was thinking. "My mother's obsession with fear increased, but with a new focus. Me."

He halted and stared at her.

Heather lowered her gaze to the pillow in her lap and tugged at the fringe. "My dream of leaving Schnitzelberg and becoming a fashion designer was deemed too dangerous. I needed to stay home and have a safe career. The boy I was dating in high school was too dangerous, too, 'cause he wanted to go into law enforcement."

She dug her fingers into the pillow as a surge of anger rushed through her. "I let Mom order me around. She was so miserable after Dad died, and I wanted her to be happy. But she was never happy. The more I gave, the more she demanded. She even picked out my husband for me."

"Cody?"

"Yes. He was so dependable. So predictable. And even more controlling than my mother. I felt so smothered, like every creative need inside me was slowly being strangled to death."

Jean-Luc sat beside her on the couch. "At least you have a beautiful child."

Heather smiled. Boy, this man knew how to say the right thing. "Bethany makes everything good. She's the most perfect creation."

"What happened to your mother?"

"Fidelia called her one morning. She'd had a bad dream about a car accident. My mom was supposed to go see her that day for a reading, but Fidelia begged her to stay home. Well, my mom refused to drive anywhere then. She was calling me every day to run errands for her, and I had my own house and a two-year-old to keep up with. It was so annoying, but I did what I could."

"You have the patience of a saint."

"You mean doormat. My mom went outside one day to get the mail." Heather motioned toward the front yard. "The mailbox is out by the curb. A neighbor's cat ran into the street just as a car was coming by. The car swerved to miss the cat - "

"And hit your mother?"

"No, they managed to brake in time." Heather turned on the couch to face Jean-Luc. "My mother was so afraid, so certain of her own death that she had a heart attack. It was fear that killed her."

"How terrible."

"It was. I was devastated. But at the same time, I had this sudden revelation." She leaned toward him. "I had let fear control my life. Fear triggered my parents' deaths. Fear caused me to make all the wrong decisions. I wasn't living. I was cowering in a self-made prison!"

His eyes narrowed. "I understand. Too well."

"And that's when I declared war on fear. I filed for divorce the next day. Everyone thought I was behaving strangely out of grief, but it took something as bad as grief to make me open my eyes and reclaim my life."

Jean-Luc rested his hand on top of hers. "You realize what you must do?"

"Hmm?" It was hard to think with his slender fingers wrapping around hers.

"You must pursue your dream. Take the job I offered you."

"I don't want you to feel beholden to me because of this Louie thing."

He clasped her hand in both of his. "I offered you the job before Lui came. You have talent, Heather. It is not too late for your dreams to come true."

"How do you always know the perfect thing to say? I'm not used to men being that...smart."

His mouth quirked. "I suppose that's a compliment. Whatever wisdom I have, it's from watching people over the years. They live and die, their lives so short and precarious. I know your life is too short to be wasted."

Once again she wondered how old he was. "You're...very kind." She retrieved her hand from his grasp. "Not at all like my ex. I swear that man is like a...vampire."

Jean-Luc stiffened. "Non. He is not."

"I mean he's like an emotional vampire. He completely drained me. All my dreams, my self-esteem, my beliefs, my energy - it was all sucked out till all that was left of me was a lifeless doormat."

Jean-Luc regarded her, a look of dismay on his face. "That is how you envision a vampire?"

"An emotional one, yes. Thank God the real, creepy, monster ones don't exist."

"Right." Jean-Luc loosened his collar.

"But you, you're completely the opposite."

He eyed her warily. "How's that?"

"You listened to me. You accepted my story and my conclusions. You recognized my dream as something precious and worthwhile, and you're willing to help. You don't tear down others in order to build yourself up." She touched his arm. "You're a sweet man, Jean-Luc. Thank you."

He placed his hand on top of hers. "You believe I am good?"

"Yes." She smiled. "And I'm not just saying that because you're my new boss."

He smiled back. "Then you're coming to work Monday?"

"Yep." Her grin widened. She was going after her dream.

"I am glad." He squeezed her hand.

Her heart felt light enough to float to the ceiling. The friendly gleam in his eyes looked so genuine. Good Lord, had she finally found the perfect man? A man who understood her dreams and wanted her to succeed.

His gaze lowered to her mouth and became more heated. Her throat went dry. The light, airy feeling grew more dense, more electric. More heavy with desire.

With a jolt, she realized he meant to kiss her. A flood of emotions swept through her as her heart raced. She was flattered. Excited. Tempted. Terrified.

She jumped to her feet. "Time for bed. I mean - " Her cheeks blazed with heat. "Time for me to say good night." She eased past him and the coffee table.

He stood. "As you wish."

"Good night, Jean-Luc."

"Jean."

Whatever. She hurried into the foyer. She much preferred the name Jean-Luc. It made him sound like a starship captain, but young. And with hair. "If you need anything from the kitchen, just help yourself."

"I'll be fine." He followed her. "Emma and I will be leaving shortly before dawn. I'm afraid you'll be on your own during the day until Angus can send a bodyguard."

"We'll be fine." She headed up the stairs.

"I'll return tomorrow evening right after sunset."

Her heart skipped. Saturday night with a gorgeous man. "Okay."

"Heather, a moment please."

She paused with her hand on the banister. "Yes?"

"You mentioned how Fidelia found that missing boy. If she could help us locate Lui, that would be a tremendous help."

"Oh. That's a good idea. It would be easier if she could handle something that belongs to Louie."

Jean-Luc's eyes lit up. "We have his sword and the cane he used as a sheath. I'll bring them tomorrow night."

"Okay." She paused, not knowing what to say. "Good night." She ran up the stairs.

"Sleep well, Heather." His whispered words followed her up, reaching her like a soft caress.

She slipped into her room, her heart still pounding. Emma had asked her to leave the door ajar, but she closed it firmly. She needed a barrier between her and Jean-Luc. He was too attractive, too appealing, and too damned mysterious. She knew next to nothing about him, except that he seemed too good to be true. He'd learned a whole lot about her tonight. And still, he had wanted to kiss her.

She should have let him, an inner voice scolded. She shouldn't have chickened out. Wasn't she at war with fear? But she had to be careful. Where men were concerned, she'd made some bad mistakes. But hadn't she learned from them?

Tomorrow night he'd come again. She'd have another chance to get to know him. And maybe, just maybe, tomorrow night she'd let him kiss her.

Chapter 7

The next night, Jean-Luc sped toward the town of Schnitzelberg with an ice chest filled with bottled synthetic blood strapped into the passenger seat of his black BMW. The sun had set ten minutes ago. He gulped blood from a bottle of Type AB positive, still cold since he'd been in too big of a hurry to warm it up.

The problem was, if he was awake, so was Lui. And if Lui had discovered who Heather was and where she lived, he could already be there. Jean-Luc had wanted to teleport to her house immediately after awakening, but Emma had convinced him he needed to arrive like a normal mortal.

Heather should be all right, he reassured himself as he turned off the highway and entered the town. Emma had teleported to her backyard five minutes ago. She would have alerted him telepathically if something was wrong.

Still, he hated not being there. He hated that Heather and her daughter had been dragged into his feud with Lui. If anything happened to them...how could he endure the guilt of more innocent mortals dying?

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