"It will make you a laughingstock in the fashion world. None of the Hollywood stars will wear your gowns if they're being worn by the common folk."
"You and I both come from common folk."
"Yes, but we rose above that." Alberto gestured at the dress form. "She's making fat lady clothes!"
A small gasp at the door heralded Heather's arrival. Jean-Luc groaned inwardly, knowing she'd heard Alberto's rude remark. He stepped close to his protégé and narrowed his eyes. "You are mistaken, and you will apologize."
Alberto's face flushed. He glanced over his shoulder at Heather. "I am sorry, signora."
"Is it true?" Heather walked toward them, her expression worried. "Will my designs damage your reputation?"
She must have heard more than Alberto's insult. Jean-Luc shrugged. "The media is fickle. I never know how they will react. They might laugh at this, or they might call us heroes and visionaries."
She tilted her head, considering. "Does it really matter what they think? I mean, if sales are good, how could it be called a failure?"
Alberto huffed with exasperation. "It is not about money. High fashion is an art."
"I think it's about making people feel good," Heather declared. "And if they're spending their money on something, then that means it's making them happy."
Jean-Luc smiled. Heather's confidence in herself was growing. "We're going to do it, Alberto. Thanks to Heather, fashion will be available to women of all shapes and sizes."
Alberto sputtered while Heather grinned. Jean-Luc wanted to pull her into his arms, but was broadsided with a sudden idea.
"We can use the charity show to gauge how people will react," he suggested. "Heather, can you have a few designs ready by the end of next week?"
"I think so." She nodded. "Sure."
Jean-Luc didn't want to bring in more professional models, since he didn't want the media to hear about the show or about his presence in Texas. "Do you know some local women who could model your clothes?
Alberto snorted. "The town is full of fat women."
Heather glared at him, then turned to Jean-Luc. "I have some friends who would love to model. And they're not fat." She shot another angry glance at Alberto.
"You can showcase some of your designs, too," Jean-Luc told Alberto. "Simone, Inga, and Sasha will model for you."
"Can we make it a competition?" Alberto asked, his eyes lighting up. "And invite celebrities to judge?"
"No." Jean-Luc gave him a warning look. "No celebrities, no media. You know why."
Heather looked curious. "Why - "
"It'll be a small function just for the local people," Jean-Luc interrupted. "Because the proceeds are only for the local area." He hoped that would make enough sense to keep her from asking more questions.
She smiled. "I think it's wonderful that you're raising money for the school district. Thank you."
He shrugged. "Alberto's handling the matter." It was embarrassing to be considered charitable when he was actually bribing the builder and mayor to keep quiet about his store.
He was beginning to dread the show, for afterward his official exile would begin. The store would close for good. Alberto and the models would return to Paris. People would assume he'd left, too, but he would be hiding in the abandoned building with his two guards for twenty-five long years. How could he live next door to Heather and not be tempted to see her?
"Do you want any of your designs in the show?" Alberto asked.
Jean-Luc shrugged. "It doesn't matter." Nothing seemed to matter when faced with a twenty-five-year-long prison term without hope of seeing Heather. But how could he ask her and her family to share a prison with him? They didn't have the possibility that he had of living for centuries into the future. This was their life now, their only life. They needed to live it. Without him.
"Fine," Alberto continued. "Then Heather and I will each show our designs to the local...riffraff, and then we'll see which ones they prefer." He gave her a challenging look, then strode from the room.
She stepped closer to Jean-Luc. "Are you all right?"
She studied him, frowning. "You look like you've lost your best friend."
He was going to, he realized. He was in a no-win situation. In the worst-case scenario, he could lose Heather to Lui's murderous revenge. But he wouldn't let that happen. He'd kill Lui first. Unfortunately, then he would lose Heather because it was the only honorable thing to do. He couldn't ask her to give up twenty-five years of her short life to share his exile.
He would have to send her away. He'd hire her to do her designs in New York or Paris. Then she could have her dream life. And he'd make sure that she and her daughter never wanted for anything. A strong wave of emotion washed over him, and he realized he wasn't planning this simply out of duty or a sense of honor.
He was doing it for love. Somehow, somewhere during the last few days, he'd begun to fall in love.
"I'm all right," he assured her. "I'm just concerned that we haven't found Lui yet."
"I wanted to talk to you about that." She dug a piece of paper from her jeans pocket and handed it to him. "Fidelia had a dream about an oil painting, and it's located at this museum on the outskirts of town. The curator is keeping it open for us."
"Then we should go." He escorted her toward the door as he glanced at the paper. "Chicken Ranch?"
"Yep. The most famous one in Texas, so they made it into a museum."
He led her down the hall. "They made a museum about chickens?"
She laughed. "It was a house of prostitution."
"Ah. I should have realized."
"Yeah." Heather winced. "I'm just wondering how come Fidelia knows so much about it."
The second they entered the showroom, Jean-Luc noticed Robby installing a camera near the two-story-high ceiling. Unfortunately, he wasn't using a ladder.
He grabbed Heather and turned her away from the levitating Robby. "How...was your day?"
"Fine." She smiled slowly. "It started off with a wonderful massage."
He smiled back, then glanced up at Robby. The Scotsman had heard them and was descending to the floor. "I liked your sketches."
Heather's smile widened. "Thank you."
Robby was now on the floor.
"Grab the keys, Robby. And bring our swords. We're going hunting."
"I'm coming, too." Heather dashed toward the kitchen, calling back. "I'll borrow a gun from Fidelia. Don't leave without me!"
Robby frowned, shaking his head. "No' a good idea."
"She's coming," Jean-Luc announced, then went out the front door before Robby could argue.
The front door was bracketed by two outdoor lights that dimly lit the porch. Jean-Luc let his gaze wander over the land that separated his lair from the highway. He saw no hint of movement. Cedar trees and clumps of palmetto dotted the area enclosed by the long circular driveway. His BMW and Heather's truck were parked nearby. He'd had a gardener plant oak trees along the drive, but they were small now. By the time his exile of twenty-five years was up, they would be large and impressive.
"There you are!" Heather rushed out onto the porch. "I was afraid you'd leave without me."
"I really should, but I've discovered a recent problem where you're concerned."
"What's that?" She hitched her purse onto her shoulder.
"I'm unable to tell you no."
She laughed. "That's not a problem."
"It is if it puts you in danger."
"I can take care of myself. I'm at war with fear, remember?"
"I am impressed by your willingness to confront the villain." He placed a hand on the small of her back and ushered her toward the darker end of the porch. "How do you feel about confronting this attraction between us?"
Her eyes widened. "I...suppose we can admit it's there."
"And it's growing stronger. At least for me."
She leaned against a column and gazed toward the highway. "It's happening very fast."
"Do you doubt it's real?"
She glanced at him. "No. It's real. Real enough that I could get hurt."
"I would never hurt you. Not intentionally."