"Of course he didn't," Heather jumped in. "He was with us at the fair."
"He could have paid someone to do it," Billy muttered. "He's got a hidden agenda, I can tell."
"I got my hidden agenda right here," Fidelia growled, clutching her purse to her chest.
"How much damage to your house?" Jean-Luc handed the little green bear to Fidelia for safekeeping.
"We were lucky." Heather set her daughter down on the street. "We only lost the kitchen in the back. My dad enlarged it when I was little, so there was an extension jutting off the back of the house. It's mostly gone, but the main part of the house is okay."
"You're lucky to have such a nosy neighbor." Billy pointed to the house on the right. "Thelma saw a strange man lurking around the back of Heather's house. She was already calling 911 when the fire started."
Jean-Luc had no doubt the strange man was Lui. "Did she describe the man?"
"Why do you care, Mr. Sharp?" Billy glowered at him. "Is he someone you know?"
Jean-Luc gritted his teeth. "I would never cause harm to Heather or her family."
"Well, someone has," Billy snarled. "You got any enemies, Heather? Any other boyfriends?"
"Piss off any students?"
Billy rocked back on his heels. "I guess it could be your ex. Cody's been acting real weird lately."
Heather pulled her daughter close and glared at Billy. "This is not the time to discuss that."
"For now, the house is off limits. No one goes in."
Heather looked stunned. "But our clothes - "
"Not going in," Billy repeated. "Can't have you mucking up the crime scene."
"That's ridiculous," Heather countered. "The crime happened in the kitchen. We could go through the front door and straight up to our bedrooms."
"I want my toys," Bethany whimpered, hugging her giant yellow bear.
Billy pointed a finger at Heather. "You're not going in. That's final."
Heather's cheeks flushed with anger.
"Don't worry," Jean-Luc assured her. "I'll make sure you have everything you need."
She gave him an exasperated look. "I can't let you bear that expense." She turned to glare at Billy. "How soon can we get back in?"
He shrugged. "Could be a few weeks. Or months. I'll post a deputy on the street to make sure no one goes inside to take your stuff. Do you have a place to stay?"
She sighed. "I'll figure out something."
"They will stay with me," Jean-Luc announced. "I have a guest room they can use."
Billy's eyes narrowed. "Don't you own that fancy new store on the edge of town?"
"Yes. Le Chique Echarpe."
"Whatever," Billy muttered. "So the store is your residence, too?"
"For the time being, yes."
"Excuse us one minute." Billy grabbed Heather's arm and pulled her a few yards away.
Jean-Luc rested a hand on Bethany's shoulder to keep her from running after her mom. He turned to look at the house, but he could still hear Billy's whispered words.
"I don't know why, but the guy's after you, Heather. He could have set the fire to force you to live with him."
"He wouldn't do that," Heather muttered.
"How do you know? How long have you known this guy?"
Heather sighed. "Since Friday."
"And you're going to live with him? I didn't think you were that stupid."
Jean-Luc clenched the brass handle on his cane. He'd had enough. He marched toward them.
"Do you actually trust him?" Billy asked.
Jean-Luc halted, holding his breath while he waited for Heather's answer.
"Yes," she whispered. "I do."
It was exactly what he'd hoped to hear, but it still sizzled through him like a small shockwave. She turned and met his gaze. A hesitant smile tugged at the corners of her mouth, but her eyes retained some wariness. She might say she trusted him, but he had the distinct impression she was not entirely comfortable with it. He would have to proceed carefully. If she found out the truth about him too soon, he might lose her completely.
There was something unique about Heather. He wasn't sure what it was exactly, perhaps a combination of things. She had a beautiful face and hair, but in his line of work, he saw that often. She had a body that made his mouth water. He wanted to nibble every inch of her.
Even so, his feelings went beyond simple lust. He liked the way she talked, the way her mind worked, her sense of humor and compassion. He simply liked her. It was so simple, yet felt so profound.
"Will you come home with me?" he asked.
She studied his eyes, and her expression softened. "Yes. Just give me a minute."
Billy made a grab for Heather's arm and scowled when she pulled away. "I'll stop by tomorrow to make sure you're all right." He shot Jean-Luc a warning look.
"She'll be safe with me." He touched her shoulder. Thankfully, she didn't step away.
Billy turned and strode across Heather's front yard. He yelled at a deputy to bring the crime scene tape.
"I can't believe this is happening," Heather whispered as they began running the yellow tape across her front porch. "We have no clothes."
"You're in luck. I make clothes."
She gave him a dubious look. "Do you have designer wear that'll fit me or Bethany? Or Fidelia?"
He glanced at the older woman. She was almost as wide as she was tall. "I have some designer sheets."
Heather rolled her eyes. "The toga look could get old in a few days. I'll just drop by the discount store and pick up a few things. Luckily it's open 24/7."
He winced. "I would prefer you have something nice."
"It's all I can afford right now."
"You will not pay for it." He motioned toward her house. "I am responsible for this."
"You didn't start the fire."
"I know who did."
Her eyes widened. "Are you sure it was him?"
"Yes. This is Lui's sick way of announcing he knows your identity."
A fleeting look of panic crossed her face before she regained control. "I was afraid of that."
"Then you fully realize the danger you are in. Lui will try something worse next time."
"That's why I'm desperate enough to move in with you."
"I thought you trusted me."
She gave him an exasperated look. "Do I have any choice now?"
That hurt. "You can trust me, Heather. I promise I will keep you and your daughter safe."
She searched his eyes. "I do want to trust you. I think I do trust you, but everything is happening so fast. The bear you won for my daughter - that was really very sweet, about the sweetest thing I've ever seen from a man."
"Thank you." He moved closer. "The kiss wasn't bad, either."
Her cheeks blossomed a rosy pink, and she looked away. "I don't usually...I don't know what - "
He hooked a finger under her chin to force her eyes to meet his. Her gaze rose to his chin, then stopped. "I need you to promise me something."
Her gaze lifted and locked with his. "What?"
"You must never leave the studio without a guard. That goes for Fidelia and Bethany, too. You must be protected at all times."
"We can do that."
"And you must follow my orders without hesitation."
She pulled back. "I won't let anyone control me."
"I have no wish to control you. I want to keep you alive."
She bit her bottom lip. "Well, I wouldn't argue with that."
"Good. When Lui attacks, there won't be any time for arguments. You must do as I say."
Her mouth thinned. "You plan to kill him, don't you?"
"I have no choice. It's either him or us."
She shuddered. "For once I'm glad Fidelia has all those guns."
"I'll take you shopping now. My car's over there." He motioned to his BMW.
She frowned. "We'll just get a few things. Some clothes and a few coloring books to keep Bethany occupied. She may go crazy without her toys."
"Have you ever seen a four-year-old with nothing to do? It's not a pretty sight."
"Oh." He glanced at the house, now completely cordoned off with yellow tape. A deputy stood guard at the front steps. "Don't worry. I'll take care of it."