Shanna Draganesti was carrying their seventeen-month-old boy on her hip while she filled his stroller with clothes, shoes, and purses.
"She has good taste," Jean-Luc observed. "You should be proud."
"I'll be broke." Roman watched forlornly as the pile in the stroller grew steadily higher.
Jean-Luc surveyed the showroom. As much as he grumbled about his self-imposed exile, he was pleased with the prison he'd designed for himself. It was nestled among the hills of central Texas. The nearest town was Schnitzelberg, founded by German immigrants a hundred and fifty years earlier. It was a sleepy, forgotten place with Spanish oaks dripping moss and white Queen Anne homes with lace curtains.
All his stores in America boasted a similar design, but this one in Texas was different, for it included a large underground lair where Jean-Luc would hide during his exile. It was imperative to keep this lair a secret, so Jean-Luc's mortal assistant, Alberto, had reached an agreement with the contractor who'd built it. The contractor was on the local school board, so Jean-Luc agreed to make a hefty contribution to the school district through the upcoming charity fashion show. As long as Jean-Luc was generous with the town of Schnitzelberg, they would keep quiet about the bankrupt store that a foreigner owned on the outskirts of town.
And just to be safe, Robby had teleported into the contractor's office and removed all the blueprints and work orders related to this site. After the charity show, Robby and Jean-Luc would erase a few memories, and no one would remember there was a huge cellar beneath the abandoned store. Pierre, a mortal who worked for MacKay Security and Investigation, would guard the building during the day while Jean-Luc lay in his death-sleep.
He watched the party below. Simone and Inga were flirting with a white-haired old man, hunched over a cane. He had to be rich, or they wouldn't waste their time.
Jean-Luc's gaze wandered about the store. He'd always enjoyed people watching. The thought of this building being empty for the next twenty-five years was damned depressing. Ah well, he was accustomed to loneliness.
He spotted the new model Alberto had hired for his last show in Paris. Sasha Saladine. She was talking to someone standing behind a mannequin. Alberto approached, and Sasha introduced her companion. Alberto accepted a gracefully extended hand and kissed it. A female. And possessing an arm that wasn't pencil thin. She wasn't a model. A customer, then. Most likely mortal.
Alberto and Sasha wandered off together, leaving the showroom. What was that about? Jean-Luc forgot to speculate when his gaze drifted back to the customer and stuck. She was moving into view, and what a view. She had curves. And br**sts. A derriere a man could grab on to. And mounds of curly auburn hair that fluffed around her shoulders. She reminded him of lusty tavern wenches from medieval pubs who laughed heartily and made love with wild abandon. Mon Dieu, how he had adored those women.
She was like the old movie stars he had loved to design clothes for. Marilyn Monroe, Ava Gardner. His intellect might design clothes for a size zero, but the rest of him yearned for a lusty, full-figured woman. And here was a beautiful one right in front of him. Her black dress clung to a luscious hourglass figure. And yet the most important feature, her face, remained hidden. He moved to the left and peered closely through the glass.
He caught a glimpse of a pert nose, slightly tilted up at the tip. Not a classical nose like all his models possessed, but he liked it. It was natural and...cute. Cute? Not a word that could ever apply to his models. They all aspired to perfection, even by artificial means, but the end result was they all looked alike. And in their quest for perfection, they lost something. They lost a sense of personality and unique sparkle.
The woman in question pushed her thick, curly hair behind her ear. She had high, wide cheekbones and a sweet curve to her jaw. Her eyes were wide and intent as she focused on the white gown. What color were her eyes? he wondered. With her rich auburn hair, he hoped they were green. Her lips were wide, yet delicately shaped. No collagen there. She was a natural beauty. An angel.
She retrieved some items from her purse - a small writing pad and a pen. No, a pencil. She was writing something. No, sketching. His mouth dropped open. Zut! She was drawing his new gown, stealing his design.
His eyes narrowed. What nerve she had to blatantly copy his gown right in front of everyone. Who the hell was she? Had she come from New York with Sasha Saladine? She probably worked for one of the other major fashion houses. They would love to have copies of his latest designs.
"Merde." He grabbed his tuxedo jacket off the back of his desk chair.
"Where are ye going?" Robby asked, ever vigilant.
"Downstairs." Jean-Luc shrugged on his jacket.
"To the showroom?" Angus frowned. "Nay. Someone might recognize you. Ye shouldna risk it."
"They're local people," Jean-Luc explained. "They won't know who I am."
"Ye canna be certain of that." Robby moved toward the door. "If ye want something from the store, I'll bring it to you."
"It's not a thing. It's a person." Jean-Luc motioned to the window. "There's a spy down there, stealing my designs."
"You're kidding." Emma ran to the window to look. "Where is he?"
"She." Jean-Luc glanced out the window. "By the white - no. Zut, she's moved to the red gown."
"Let us deal with her." Angus joined Robby at the door.
"No." Jean-Luc strode toward the exit and stopped in front of the two Scotsmen blocking his way. "Move. I need to find out who's paying her to spy on me."
With a stubborn lift to his chin, Angus folded his arms and refused to budge.
Jean-Luc arched a brow at his old friend. "Your company works for me, Angus."
"Aye, we're paid to protect you, but we canna do it if ye behave foolishly."
"And I'm telling you these local people don't know who I am. Alberto always acted as my go-between. Let me pass before that damned spy leaves with my designs."
Angus sighed. "Verra well, but Robby will go with you." He whispered instructions to his great-great-grandson, "Doona let anyone take his photo. And watch his back. He has enemies."
Jean-Luc snorted as he left his office. With a few strides, he reached the back staircase. Did Angus think he was a weakling? He knew how to protect himself. Sure, he was on Casimir's hit list, but they all were. And Jean-Luc had other enemies as well. A man couldn't live more than five hundred years without making a few vampires angry. But now he'd acquired a new foe. A thief with the face of an angel.
He reached the bottom of the stairs and headed down the side hallway for the showroom. Robby's steps thundered down the stairs behind him.
As Jean-Luc entered the store, heads turned in his direction, then turned away. Good. No one recognized him. The scent of different blood types wafted past him, a sweetly appetizing human buffet. Socializing with mortals had presented a problem for his self-control until Roman had invented synthetic blood back in 1987. Now Jean-Luc and all his Vamp friends made sure they were full before venturing among mortals.
He noticed Robby edging around the perimeter of the room, looking for photographers. Or assassins. Jean-Luc stepped around the old man with a cane and proceeded to the female thief. He stopped a few inches behind her. She was tall, the top of her head reaching his chin. The scent of her blood was fresh and sweet. She was mortal.
"Begging your pardon, mademoiselle."
She turned. Her eyes were green. Zut. Her beautiful eyes widened as she looked at him.
There was nothing sadder than a fallen angel.
He frowned at her. "Give me one good reason why I should not have you arrested."
Heather blinked. "Excuse me?" The gorgeous man's French accent took some time to adjust to, but she could have sworn he'd threatened to arrest her. She smiled brightly and extended a hand. "How do you do? I'm Heather Lynn Westfield."
"Heather?" His odd pronunciation sent a tingle down her spine. It sounded like Eh-zair, soft and sweet like an endearment. He took her hand and encased it in both of his.
"Yes?" She continued to smile and prayed that none of the feta cheese spinach puff was lodged in her teeth. He studied her with his beautiful blue eyes. And his face - that chiseled jaw and mouth belonged on a Greek statue.
His grip tightened around her hand. "Tell me the truth. Who sent you here?"