The Undead Next Door (Love at Stake #4) by Kerrelyn Sparks
Heather Lynn Westfield was in hog heaven. Who would have believed that a famous fashion designer from Paris would open a fancy store smack dab in the middle of Texas Hill Country? Whatever Jean-Luc Echarpe had been drinking when he'd made that decision, it had to be strong enough to knock your socks off. In his case, two-hundred-dollar silk socks embroidered with his famous fleur-de-lis logo.
Heather wanted to buy some kind of souvenir to commemorate the grand opening of Le Chique Echarpe, but the socks were the cheapest thing she could find. Hmm, should she buy a pair of socks she didn't need or make next month's payment on her Chevy four by four? With a snort, she tossed the socks back onto the glass shelf.
A brilliant alternative popped into her head. She'd grab one of the free hors d'oeuvres, stuff it in a plastic bag, label it Echarpe's Grand Opening, and hoard it in the freezer for all eternity.
"Heather, why are you looking at men's socks?" Sasha's baffled look shifted into a sly grin. "Oh, I know. You're buying something for a new lover."
Heather laughed as she nabbed a crab cake from a passing waiter. "I wish." She'd never had a lover. Even her ex-husband didn't qualify for that. She wrapped the crab cake in a paper napkin, then slipped it into her small black purse.
Female customers strutted about, wearing gowns that cost enough to rebuild New Orleans, their stilettos clicking on the gray marble floor. Heather hoped they couldn't tell that her black cocktail dress was homemade.
Glass counters displayed purses and scarves, designed by Echarpe. An elegant staircase curved up to the second floor. A portion of the second floor was lined with reflective glass. One-way mirrors, Heather figured. As much as this merchandise cost, there was probably an army of security guards up there watching the customers like hawks.
The walls on the ground floor were painted a soft gray and boasted a series of black-and-white photos. She wandered over for a closer look. Wow, Princess Di wearing an Echarpe gown. Marilyn Monroe in an Echarpe dress. Cary Grant in an Echarpe tuxedo. This guy knew everybody.
"How old is Echarpe?" she asked Sasha. "In his seventies?"
"I don't know. I've never met him." Sasha pivoted like she was working the runway while she looked around to see who was watching her.
"You never met him? But you were in his show in Paris just a few weeks ago." Heather and her longtime friend Sasha had both dreamed of glorious careers in the world of high fashion from the moment they'd discovered their Barbie dolls had cooler clothes than anyone else in the small town of Schnitzelberg, Texas. Heather was now a schoolteacher, while Sasha had become a successful fashion model. Heather waffled between being enormously proud of her friend and being reluctantly envious.
Sasha snorted through her surgically shortened nose. "No one sees Echarpe anymore. It's like he disappeared off the planet. Some say he's suffered the cost of his own genius and lost his mind."
Heather winced. "How sad."
"He stopped coordinating his own shows. And he certainly wouldn't be bothered with a shop like this in the middle of nowhere. He has little people for that." Sasha pointed at a slim man across the room and whispered, "That's Alberto Alberghini, Echarpe's personal assistant, though I have to wonder just how personal he is."
Heather eyed the man's frilly lavender shirt. The lapels on his black tuxedo were encrusted with lavender beads and sequins. "I see what you mean."
Sasha leaned closer. "Do you see the two women by the old man with a cane?"
"Yes." Heather noted the two emaciated women with pale flawless skin and long hair.
"They're Simone and Inga, famous models from Paris. Some say Echarpe's involved with them. Both of them."
"I see." Maybe Echarpe was more like Hugh Hefner than Liberace. Heather eyed the two models. She probably weighed as much as their combined weight. Nonsense. Size twelve was normal. She turned to admire a daring red gown on a white mannequin.
"The media can't decide whether Echarpe is gay or into multiple partners," Sasha whispered.
The gown had to be size two. "I could never get into that."
"Threesomes? I didn't care for it much, either."
Heather blinked. "Excuse me?"
"Though I'd probably like it better if it was me and two guys. Better to be the central focus, don't you think?"
"But with my luck, the guys would be more interested in each other." Sasha lifted her hand and studied it. "I'm thinking about adding some collagen to my hand. My knuckles are so bony."
Heather took a moment to assimilate. Sheesh, she and Sasha didn't have a lot in common anymore. Their lives had certainly gone in different directions since high school. "Maybe instead of cosmetic surgery, you could try something really radical. Like eating food."
Sasha tittered with laughter. Men in the room turned to stare at her, and she rewarded them by flipping her long blond hair over her shoulders. "You're such a hoot, Heather. But I do eat food. I swear I have no control whatsoever. I've eaten two mushrooms tonight."
"You should be flogged."
"I know. Let me show you the new gown I'll be wearing soon." Sasha led her over to a gray mannequin posed on top of a glossy black cube. The mannequin wore a stunning white gown with no back and a front neckline that plummeted to the navel.
Heather's eyes widened. Never in a hundred years would she have the nerve to wear such a dress. Never in a hundred years would anyone want to see her in it, either. "Wow."
"It's very clingy fabric," Sasha explained, "so I can't wear a stitch underneath. I'll be incredibly sexy."
"I might wear it at the charity show in two weeks."
"I heard about that." The proceeds were going to the local school district, Heather's employer. "It was very nice of Echarpe to do that."
Sasha waved her bony hand in the air. "Oh, he doesn't have anything to do with it. Alberto's arranging it. Anyway, I'm thrilled to be in the show."
"Congratulations. I hope I get to see it."
"I'm only on the runway once." Sasha stuck out her collagen-enhanced lower lip. "It's not fair. Simone and Inga get two walks down the runway."
"Oh, I'm sorry."
"I've been trying not to worry about it 'cause it would just give me lines. But I swear, who do you have to sleep with around here to get some respect?"
Heather winced. "Why don't you just talk to Alberto?"
"Oh. That's a good idea." She waved at the young man.
"Sasha, darling, you look fabulous." Alberto rushed over and kissed her on both cheeks.
"This is my dear friend from high school, Heather Lynn Westfield." Sasha motioned to her.
"How do you do?" Heather smiled and extended a hand.
Alberto leaned over to kiss her hand. "Charmed." His eyes widened when he noticed her dress.
Shoot, she felt like a hillbilly. Heather opened her mouth to speak, but Sasha beat her to it.
"Alberto, darling, could we go somewhere private?" Sasha curled her hands around his arm and gave him a smoky look from under her false eyelashes. "I'd like to...talk."
Alberto's gaze was riveted on Sasha's low neckline. "I have an office nearby. We could...talk there."
"That would be lovely." Sasha leaned closer so her breasts were pressed against his arm. "I'm feeling very...talkative."
Heather watched, fascinated. It was like being in a live soap opera. Was Sasha offended that Alberto was conversing with her breasts? Were her breasts real? Would she slap him into next week or go to his office with him? And what about Alberto? Was he gay or metrosexual? Would they actually talk?
Alberto escorted Sasha across the store. Heather sighed. The show was over. She was always the observer, never the action figure.
Sasha glanced back and mouthed the word bingo.
Heather nodded with a sudden feeling of déjà vu. It was high school all over again. Sexy Sasha was making out in the classroom while Helpful Heather waited by the lockers and served as lookout. Would it always be this way? Why couldn't she be the daring one for once? Why couldn't she wear one of these sexy, revealing gowns?
Well, she couldn't afford it, for one thing. And she was too overweight. She circled the gown Sasha had talked about. So what if she couldn't wear it or buy it? She could make something similar to it. And she could probably do it for about fifty bucks.
White had never been a good color for her. She was too fair and freckly. No, she would do it in midnight-blue. Instead of cutting the neckline to the navel, she'd back it up to the top of her breasts. And she'd put a back on the dress. And sleeves. The ideas were coming faster than she could think them through. She opened her purse and found a pencil and pad of paper that the folks at Schnitzelberg Hardware had given her at their last gardening sale.
Jean-Luc Echarpe could take his multithousand-dollar price tags and toss them off the Eiffel Tower. She might be one of Les Miserables, but she didn't have to look like it.
"To Jean-Luc and the opening of his fifth store in America." Roman Draganesti lifted a champagne flute filled with Bubbly Blood.
"To Jean-Luc," the others toasted, and clinked their glasses together.
Jean-Luc took a sip, then set his glass aside. The mixture of synthetic blood and champagne did little to boost his spirits. "Thank you for coming, mes amis. It makes this exile easier to bear."
"Don't think of it that way, bro." Gregori patted him on the back. "This is a great business opportunity."
Jean-Luc gave Roman's vice president of marketing an annoyed look. "This is an exile."
"No, no, it's called expanding your market. There are a lot of people here in Texas, and we can safely assume they all wear clothes. Or most of them. I heard about this lake near Austin where - "
"Why Texas?" Roman interrupted. "Shanna and I were hoping you would stay in New York, close to us."
Jean-Luc sighed. Paris was the center of the universe, as far as he was concerned, and any place would be dreary in comparison. But New York City would have been his second choice. "I wish I could, mon ami, but the media in New York knows me too well. The same in Los Angeles."
"Aye," Angus MacKay agreed. "Neither of those places would work. Jean-Luc has to - "
"I swear, Angus," Jean-Luc interrupted him. "If you say I told you so, I'll ram one of your claymores down your throat."
Angus simply arched an eyebrow that dared him to try it. "I did warn ye to leave ten years ago. And again five years ago."
"I was busy building my business," Jean-Luc protested. He'd started off in 1922, designing evening wear just for vampires, but in 1933, he'd expanded his business to include the Hollywood elite. After realizing how much mortals liked his designs, he made his big move in 1975. He started creating all sorts of clothes and marketing them to the general public. Soon, he had become a celebrity in the mortal world. The last thirty years had sped by in a whirlwind of success. When you were a vampire more than five hundred years old, the years passed by in the blink of an eye.
Angus MacKay had warned him. Angus had started his investigation and security business in 1927 and was now posing as the grandson of the original founder.
Jean-Luc picked up a copy of Le Monde from his desk. "Have you seen the latest?"
"Let me see." Robby MacKay grabbed the Parisian newspaper and scanned the article. A descendant of Angus, Robby worked for Angus's security company. For the last ten years, Robby had been in charge of security for Jean-Luc.
"What does it say?" Gregori peeked over Robby's shoulder.
Robby frowned as he translated. "Everyone in Paris is wondering why Jean-Luc hasna aged in over thirty years. Some say he's had cosmetic surgery half a dozen times, and others say he's found the fountain of youth. He's run away, but no one knows where. Some believe he's hiding in a mental institution, recovering from a nervous breakdown, while others say he's undergoing yet another facelift."
Jean-Luc groaned as he collapsed in the chair behind his desk.
"I warned ye this would happen." Angus dodged to the right when Jean-Luc threw a ruler at him.
Roman chuckled. "Don't worry about it, Jean-Luc. Mortals have very short attention spans. If you stay hidden for a while, they'll forget about you."
"And forget to buy my merchandise," Jean-Luc grumbled. "I am ruined."
"Ye're no' ruined," Angus argued. "Ye now have five stores in America."
"Stores selling clothes from a designer who has disappeared," Jean-Luc growled. "It's easy for you, Angus. Your company exists in secrecy. But when I vanish, all interest in my clothing line may vanish along with me."
"We could make a statement to the press that ye did have cosmetic surgery," Robby offered. "It might put an end to the speculation."
"Non." Jean-Luc glared at him.
Gregori grinned. "Or we could tell them you're locked up in a psycho ward, completely loony. Everyone would believe that."
Jean-Luc arched a brow at him. "Or I could tell them I'm in prison for murdering an obnoxious marketing vice president."
"I vote for that one," Angus said.
"Hey." Gregori adjusted his tie. "I was just joking."
"I wasn't," Jean-Luc muttered.
Angus laughed. "Whatever ye do, Jean-Luc, doona let anyone take a photo of you. Ye must remain hidden for at least twenty-five years. Then ye can return to Paris, posing as yer son."
Jean-Luc lounged back in his chair, staring mournfully at the ceiling. "Exiled to a land of barbarians for twenty-five years. Just kill me now."
Roman chuckled. "Texas is not a land of barbarians."
Jean-Luc shook his head. "I've seen the movies. Gun-fights, Indians, someplace they keep fighting for called the Alamo."
Gregori snorted. "Dude, you are so behind the times."
"You think so? Have you seen the people down there?" Jean-Luc rose to his feet and strode to his office window that overlooked the store on the ground floor. "The men are wearing strings around their necks."
"Those are ties." Gregori gazed through the one-way window. "Sheesh, you're definitely in Texas. There's a guy wearing a tuxedo jacket with blue jeans. And boots."
"They must be barbarians. They're wearing their hats indoors." Jean-Luc frowned. "They remind me of the bicorne Napoleon used to wear, but they're wearing them sideways."
"Those are cowboy hats, bro. But what do you care? Look, they're spending money. Lots of money."
Jean-Luc leaned his forehead against the cool glass. After the charity show in two weeks, Simone, Inga, and Alberto would return to Paris. Then Jean-Luc would close the store under the pretense that it had failed miserably. His other Le Chique Echarpe stores in Paris, New York, South Beach, Chicago, and Hollywood would hopefully flourish, but this building in Texas would be empty and forgotten. From here, he would continue to design clothes and oversee the business, but he could never show his face in public for twenty-five long years. "Just kill me now."
"Nay," Angus said. "Ye're the best swordsman we have, and Casimir is still in hiding while he grows his evil army."
"Right." Jean-Luc gave his old friend a wry look. "Such a waste for me to die here when I could do it so well in battle."
Angus' mouth twitched. "Aye, exactly."
The buzzer on the office door sounded.
"'Tis yer wife, Angus," Robby announced as he opened the door.
Angus turned to greet his wife with a smile.
Zut. Jean-Luc looked away. First Roman, and now Angus. Both married and madly in love. It was embarrassing. Two of the most powerful coven masters in the vampire world reduced to doting husbands. Jean-Luc wanted to pity them, but the sad truth was, he was jealous. Damned jealous. That sort of happiness could never happen to him.
"Hi, guys!" Emma MacKay strode into the room and straight into her husband's arms. "Guess what? I bought the cutest little handbag. Alberto's wrapping it up for me."
"Another handbag?" Angus asked. "Ye doona have a dozen already?"
Jean-Luc peered through the window and noted which purse Alberto was wrapping. "Good news, Angus. It's one of my lower-priced handbags."
"Och, good." Angus hugged his wife.
Jean-Luc smiled. "Oui, it's only eight hundred dollars."
Angus stepped back, his eyes wide with shock. "Forget the bloody army. I'll skewer ye now."
Roman laughed. "You can afford it, Angus."
"So can you." Jean-Luc smirked at his old friend. "Have you seen what your wife is buying?"
Roman hurried to the window and looked for his wife in the store below. "God's blood," he whispered.
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 breasts. 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."