Josephine Devereaux strode through the open front screen door into the kitchen. Creamy golden evening light spread quiet warmth across the aged hardwood floors. The old farmhouse had stood on this plot in the southern French countryside for centuries. She’d had the pleasure of owning it for two years.
Setting a clutch of fresh carrots pulled from the rain-damp garden into the sink, she spun at a tiny meow. Behind her, the two-and-a-half-year-old Devon Rex cat with soft, downy fur the color of faded charcoal batted at the hem of her long pink skirt.
“Do you want fish or chicken tonight, Chloe?”
She opened the refrigerator to find the only option was diced chicken, left over from last night’s supper. Her neighbor, Jean-Hugues, had butchered a rooster yesterday morning and brought her half.
The cat went at the feast she’d placed on a saucer with big elf ears wiggling appreciatively. Chloe had come with the farmhouse. The couple moving out hadn’t wanted to bring along a kitten on their overseas move to the United States. It had been love at first purr for Josephine.
She smiled at the quiet patter of rain. And then she frowned. “Mud,” she muttered. And she hated housecleaning. She had never developed a domestic bone in her body and didn’t expect to grow one.
She’d spend the evening inside, maybe finish up the thriller she’d found on Jean-Hugues’s bookshelf. He always encouraged her to take what she wanted—she was a voracious reader of all topics—and she gave him vegetables from her garden in return.
Not that she was a master gardener. Jean-Hugues tended the garden, along with the few rows of vines that produced enough grapes for one big
barrel of wine. Jean-Hughes was sixty, but he flirted with her in a non- confrontational, just-for-fun manner, which she appreciated probably more than a twenty-six-year-old woman should.
Living so far from Paris made it difficult to find dateable men, let alone a hook-up for a night of just-give-it-to-me-now-and-leave-before-the-sun- rises sex. But that’s what grocery trips to the nearest village were for. If the mood struck, she’d leave in the evening for eggs, bread, and a booty call, and find her way out of bed and back home by morning.
Sighing, Josephine forgot about the dirty carrots in the sink and padded barefoot to the lumpy jacquard sofa that stretched before the massive paned window at the front of the cottage. The window overlooked a cobblestone patio, which stretched before the house and also served as a driveway, though no cars used it. She didn’t own a car. And she never had visitors, save Jean-Hugues, and on occasion the neighbors who lived on the other side of him. They were newlyweds, Jean-Louis and Hollie, and they spent most of their time by themselves. And that was exactly how Josephine preferred it.
She picked up the book, and the creased spine flopped open to the last page she’d read.
An hour later, she had to squint to read because the sun had set. Splaying the book across her chest, she closed her eyes and breathed in the fragrance of rain on fieldstones. Chloe nestled near her foot, keeping her ankle warm. The screen door, still open, squeaked lightly with the breeze. Everything was….
Peaceful? Was that a word she was supposed to embrace? To somehow understand?
“I am embracing it. Life is good.”
Or rather, more different than she could have ever imagined it would be. She set the book down, but the sound she heard was not of a paperback book hitting the wood floor. Josephine closed her eyes to listen intently. The floor creaked carefully above her, where the bathroom was located.
It did not indicate the aches and pains of an aging house. This house had settled long ago.
Curling her hand beneath the sofa, she gripped the cool bone handle of the bowie knife she’d tucked up into the torn fabric amongst the springs and pulled it out. Pointing the blade down, she took a deep breath and stood up. Moving sinuously, she crept around the end of the sofa. Her free hand skimmed over Chloe’s body, comforting and promising she’d return. The cat purred but thankfully didn’t follow.
Upstairs, it was silent. Josephine wasn’t easily spooked by natural noises, but that had not been a natural noise. And she wasn’t unnerved now. Just…. annoyed.
This was her sanctuary. No one knew where she had disappeared two years ago. Very few had known her location before that. But since then, she’d completely erased herself from the grid. Therefore, whoever was stupid enough to break in was looking to rob a random person. And they had to know she was home, which meant the intruder did not fear an altercation.
Tough luck for that idiot.
On the other hand, she had only herself to blame for leaving the ladder up against the north wall after knocking down a wasp nest this morning. Approaching the stairway, which was worn in the center of the stone risers from decades of use, Josephine tugged up her maxi skirt and tucked in one side at the waist to keep from tangling her legs in the long, floaty fabric. The stairs were fashioned from limestone; no creaks would give away her position. Barefoot, she padded up six steps to a landing. Ahead,
around a sharp right turn, rose another five steps to the second floor.
Hearing the creak of a leather sole, she realized the intruder had stepped onto the stairs. But where was he? Waiting for her to spin around the corner? He probably thought she was still downstairs relaxing on the couch.
Which gave her the advantage.
With her right arm thrust out, knife blade cutting the air, she rushed forward. As she turned the corner on the stairway, the intruder grabbed her wrist, forcing it upward to deflect the blade from stabbing his face.
Josephine yanked her arm back, causing the intruder to lose his balance. His weight crushed her against the plaster wall, and they struggled on the landing. Although it was dark in the stairway, she could see that he wasn’t an average intruder—most tended to not wear three-piece suits. He was about her height and lean. She did not doubt she could take him out.
He managed a weak knee to her gut, but she didn’t even wince. She rammed her head against his shoulder. He twisted his waist, knocking her off-balance. They spilled backward. Her hip landed his thigh as they slid down the stone stairs.
They landed on the kitchen floor, Josephine on her stomach, with the intruder on top of her. The knife flew out of her hand and skittered across the floor, landing before Chloe’s toes. The cat bent to sniff the weapon.
“Chloe, no!” she shouted. The cat scampered under the sofa.
The intruder grabbed Josephine by the hair at her neck and lifted her head. Just when he would have smashed her face against the floor, she kicked him right between the legs. His fingers instantly released the pinching hold on her neck. He swore and dropped beside her.
Scrambling across the floor, she grabbed the knife and stood, flicking on the light switch on the wall, and moving to stand over the attacker.
“What the hell?” she gasped. “You?”
A man she knew well, and had trusted enough to let down her guard and actually date, offered her an imperious smile. He swore and rubbed his crotch. “Your aim has always been spot on, Jo-Jo. Ah fuck.”
His head dropped. His eyes closed. Passed out from the pain? Josephine inched closer and leaned over him. With the tip of the knife,
she prodded him at the temple.
The man’s hand whipped up and grabbed her long hair, jerking her off balance and swinging her to the floor. He slammed her knife hand on the floor so hard, she let go. Grabbing the knife, he pressed it against her left breast, right over her heart.
“I have a proposition for you, Jo-Jo.”
No one had called her that in over two years. And hearing it now conjured up dread and regret. But along with those feelings, there was the sudden rush of adrenaline that always came with the game. She’d walked away from the game, and this man’s world of larceny and lies. And she didn’t intend to walk back into it—or be forced.
“Funny, your last proposition had me running for the hills.” Away from the engagement ring he had offered like a tempting sweet. She wasn’t that kind of girl. The domestic, let-a-man-own-you type. Her mother’s horrible choice in men had taught her a few lessons. “Never thought I’d see you again.”
He winced. “Your refusal wounded me, Jo-Jo. But I’m able to put past mistakes aside. I need you for a job.”
A mistake? More so on her part than his. But with his narcissism, he’d never care that she did have feelings, and she could be hurt. Hell, it had taken her two years living alone in the French countryside to realize that herself.
She splayed out her arms and closed her eyes in surrender. “Just kill me, Lincoln. That’s the only way this will ever happen.”
“I assumed as much. You like living the hard way? Out here in the sticks? I’ll give you that. But you owe me, Jo-Jo. For saying no.”
“Seriously?” Since when did a woman owe a man because she’d refused his marriage proposal?
She closed her eyes, inhaling the cool, ocean scent of his skin as the knife’s cool metal disappeared from her body. “What the hell could you possibly want from me?”
“There’s a pretty bit of sparkle I need you to pick up for me. This Saturday. In Paris.”
Lincoln was interested in the sparkly stuff? Since when? The man was into money laundering and securities fraud.
Did it matter? “Not interested.”
The knife blade glinted from the light over the kitchen table. “One job and I’ll never bother you again.”
“Since when are you into jewel theft?”
“It’s related to an offensive situation that could cast a black mark against my name. I’d like to remedy that. But since you know where my expertise is focused, you should also understand I have to bring in an expert for this particular heist.”
The asshole could skim a million from a major stock as easily as gliding a knife over butter. It was that talent that had initially attracted her. He was Robin Hood, taking from the rich—but he’d never given to the poor. And that had been a sticking point for her, a woman who had always tried to give away some of her spoils to those in need.
An offensive situation? She couldn’t imagine. And she didn’t want to know. “How’d you find me?” she asked.
“I’ve kept tabs on you since you went under. Did you actually think you could elude me, Jo-Jo?”
“Don’t call me that.”
“It’s your name, Josephine.” He straddled her hips, and his grip at her shoulder loosened. He let out a long, deep breath. It reminded too much of soft summer mornings spent lazing under the sheets against his warm skin. “You never did like this position,” he said. “Me on top.”
“You have a thing about being the one in control.” “And you don’t?”
She was in no mood to discuss her preference in sexual positions, or even to converse with this man. But she remained still beneath him. The knife blade pointed away from her; he’d let down his guard. She had only to bide her time.
“You know I’m not in the trade anymore, Lincoln. If you need some sparklers, there are other options.”
“Yes, but I require discretion and quality work. You’re the only thief I know who can do this job. I’ll even pay you.”
She scoffed. “I know better. You are not a generous man. Leave.”
He slapped her face. The smack rung in her ears, and Josephine’s gasp burned in her throat. But she used the distraction to her advantage, jabbing her knee into the femoral artery in his thigh. Always a painful spot. The knife clanked on the stone floor. She twisted her body, slamming him onto the floor, and landed both knees onto his torso. Grabbing the knife, she lifted it above her head with both hands, aiming for his chest.
Lincoln chuckled. His dark eyes twinkled in the cool evening shadows. Yeah, that was a devastating twinkle, and he knew how to wield it. As he spread his arms out, and she felt his chest relax beneath her knees, he said, “If I know one thing about you, Jo-Jo, it’s that you are not a killer.” She tilted her head and nodded. “Nope, I’m not so keen on taking life.
But I don’t mind causing a little pain now and then.”
She slammed her hands down. The knife pierced Lincoln’s Givenchy suit and nicked bone as it entered his shoulder. He growled as she stood up over him.
“Get the hell out of my home.” She stepped back and glanced around the room. Chloe was still under the sofa. “Now!”
Gripping his shoulder but leaving the blade in, Lincoln stood up, staggered, yet managed a cool recovery. He swept a hand over his coal-black hair, slicked with pomade. “You will do this job for me. I will be back.”
He turned and stalked out, leaving the screen door swinging out over the courtyard. Spots of blood dribbled on the floor and cobblestones in his wake. As Josephine let out a long breath, she heard a car roll across the gravel drive. Lincoln must have had a driver park at the end of the half-mile drive. He had walked up and insinuated himself in her house as if he was a specter.
It didn’t matter how he’d gained access. He’d crept back into her life. Not cool.
Josephine’s instincts kicked into survival mode.
She ran up the stairs and pulled a duffel bag out from the bedroom closet. Stuffing it with shirts, pants, bras, and a Glock 42—a .380 automatic—she scrambled down the stairs, calling for Chloe. The cat scampered out from under the sofa.
“I’m sorry, sweetie, but my past just stopped by for a visit.”
And she wasn’t stupid enough to sit around and wait for that return visit he had promised. Because it would happen.
Ten minutes later, she’d pulled the rusty ten-speed bicycle she used for grocery trips out of the garage and pedaled up to Jean-Hugues’s cottage. She handed him Chloe and bent to kiss the cat’s downy-soft head. “I need you to watch her for a few days. I’m heading to Paris. I have some things to take care of.”
Like finding a new place to live. The little apartment she owned in Paris’s 8th arrondissement served as a safe house. It would provide cover until Dmitri, her go-to man, could relocate her.
“Is everything okay?” Jean-Hugues asked as he cuddled Chloe against his neck. He bent his head to allow the cat to nuzzle against his five-o’clock shadow. “You are not in trouble, Josephine?”
Her name always sounded whispery and sexy when he said it. Of course she’d let him flirt with her. She’d considered kissing him once—a deep and lingering taste from a wise and seasoned male—but had never gone beyond the thankful kiss to his forehead or cheek.
“No, not in trouble. Never.”
She’d not told him why a young, single woman had suddenly moved out to the country to do nothing more than read and bike, and spend her evenings cooking meals straight from the garden alongside a sexy old Frenchman. He’d always accepted that she had some secrets, as did everyone.
“I’m going to pedal into town and catch a cab to Paris. I’ll be back in a few days to pick up Chloe. Okay?”
“Of course, mon petite chat is always welcome. We will have chicken and eggs for breakfast, oui, Chloe?”
Josephine stroked the cat’s head, then she leaned in to kiss Jean-Hugues’s cheek. “Merci. I will not be long.”
* * * *
Two days later, Josephine took a cab back to Jean-Hugues’s place. She’d set up in the Paris safe house and had contacted Dmitri. It would take a week to relocate her to Berlin. She didn’t look forward to that—she didn’t speak German and the city was dismal—but it wasn’t permanent. A quick layover that would provide much-needed misdirection. All that mattered was getting out of France and going under.
How Lincoln had managed to keep tabs on her was incredible. She’d been careful. Since moving to France with her mother when she was eight, she’d never been issued a driver’s license or ID card. No internet presence, not even a credit card. The only phones she used were pre-paid burners. Of course, she should have expected Lincoln would not let her leave so easily. He’d been infatuated with her. So quickly. It had freaked the hell out of her. She’d refused his marriage proposal after dating only four weeks. She wasn’t the marrying type. Domesticity gave her the hives. Sharing her life with a man sounded so evasive. Since giving up thievery, she liked to keep her head down and her ass out of trouble. And Lincoln wanting her to step back onto the scene now was not keeping her head down.
She directed the cabbie to turn off the headlights so they didn’t shine through her neighbor’s bedroom window, then told him she’d be right out. She headed up the walkway, then stopped.
The front door was open. Instinctively, Josephine’s hand went to the gun she’d tucked in the back of her leather pants. While she didn’t like guns, sometimes they were necessary. She pulled out the small pistol she favored and held it pointed down near her thigh. She stepped over the cracked stone threshold.
A groan sounded from the living room. She hurried in to find the old man sitting on the wood floor before the smoldering fireplace. Blood dribbled from his forehead and had stained his upper lip. He smiled up at her, but then winced.
“Jean-Hugues, what happened? When did this happen?” It must have been Lincoln. Had to be. Had she passed him on the road coming here?
“They were here not too long ago. I am so sorry, Josephine.
They took Chloe.”
Heart dropping, she bent before Jean-Hugues and touched his forehead. He’d been punched, and probably cut with a ring. Not a deep cut, but it must hurt terribly.
“A man with dark hair asked for you. I told him I didn’t know where you were. He had two thugs with him. Why did they take the cat?” he asked, spreading his hands. “I don’t understand.”
It was a means to force her to do the job. Lincoln was a ruthless bastard.
Hurting an old man to get to her was beyond cruel.
“I’m sorry, Jean-Hugues. Let me get that first-aid kit out of your bathroom and we’ll take care of you.”
“No, I am fine. Just a cut and maybe a few bruised ribs.”
“They beat you?” She stood and pressed the gun grip against her temple. “That bastard.”
“Why do you have a gun, Josephine? Who were those men?” Josephine clenched her jaw. “My past.”
Award-winning author Michele Hauf has published over 80 novels in historical, paranormal, and contemporary romance, as well as writing action/adventure as Alex Archer and erotica as Michele Renae. The launch author for numerous series at Harlequin, she likes writing in a variety of genres and instead of ‘writing what she knows’ prefers to write ‘what she would love to know and do’ (and yes, that includes being a jewel thief and/or a brain surgeon).