Prakenskii paced up and down the small cell. He knew exactly how many steps he
could take before he leapt to catch the bars and do pull-ups. A dozen more pull-ups
before pacing to the end of the cell and dropping down for push-ups. There was
no getting used to the smell of the prison, or the slime on the walls or the way
the showers didn't work and the constant vigilance to stay alive, but he didn't
mind any of that. He could endure anything, he had endured much worse.
a patient man, but once he had determined it was useless for him to remain in
the cell, that his mission was a complete bust, he wanted out. It was a waste
of time for him to stay, yet his handler hadn't agreed a month earlier to pull
him out. Every day was increasingly dangerous and irritating, his mind becoming
consumed with the only thing decent in the prison.
Swearing under his breath,
Stefan took the latest photograph from the wall of the woman his cell mate obsessed
over. She stood on a beach, the ocean waves rising behind her, a little turbulent
and obviously windy, but there were no landmarks Stefan had a chance of identifying.
She was undoubtedly beautiful with her long black hair blowing in the wind. Dressed
in jeans and tee she still managed to look elegant and sexy at the same time.
If he was a man who was interested in relationships, no doubt he would understand
his cellmate's fixation with her. And the idiot was totally obsessed with her.
There were hundreds of photographs taken over a period of years of just this one
woman pinned all over the walls.
It didn't seem to matter how intelligent
a man was, or what he did for a living, in the end, it seemed, a woman often brought
even the greatest of criminals tumbling down. And this particular woman was no
exception. Stefan planned to use her to take down Jean-Claude La Roux's international
empire if that was what it took.
He glanced down at the picture in his
hand. She looked pensive-no-sad. What had put that look on her face? Surely a
woman like her was not pining away for a man like Jean-Claude. A small band of
inviting skin peeked out between her tee and her jeans temptingly. His thumb slid
over that little strip as if he might feel just how warm and soft she truly was.
No doubt Jean-Claude was a man of untold wealth. Stefan supposed a woman
might find his good looks attractive, if you liked oozing charm. His charm covered
a multitude of sins, but then women might find that edge of danger exciting as
well. Women could be just as easily swayed by the wrong things as men could be
"What the hell are you doing with that?" Glaring at Stefan,
trying to intimidate someone impossible to intimidate, Jean-Claude La Roux snatched
the small photograph from the hands of his cell mate. "You have no idea who I
Deliberately Stefan showed his teeth and then spit on the floor of
the cell. "That refrain is getting old, Rolex." He infused total contempt into
his tone, calling the man the hated name he'd given him.
A man like Jean-Claude,
the head of a vast crime empire would detest a common criminal taunting him. It
was an affront the man couldn't accept. In the two months Stefan had been undercover,
trying to collect information, he'd had to defend his life on several occasions-a
tribute to La Roux's authority even there in the prison. La Roux hated him and
one word from him had sent several prisoners trying to curry favor by attempting
to get rid of Stefan, the thorn in his side.
There was no doubt that Jean-Claude
was every bit as powerful in prison as he was out of it. On the surface, sentencing
him for his international crimes in France seemed good. The French prison system
wasn't considered a place to coddle prisoners, but even with mold on the walls
and water-stained slime trailing from the ceiling, Jean-Claude managed to look
wealthy and powerful. Every other prisoner gave him a wide berth until Stefan
had come along. Stefan goaded him at every opportunity and not one of the men
paid to teach Stefan a lesson or kill him had succeeded.
There was no doubt
in Stefan's mind that given an hour with the Jean-Claude, if he was free to interrogate
him in his own way, he would have all the information they needed, but here, in
this French prison, with guards watching day and night and the government all
too aware of their prisoner, he didn't have a chance to extract what he needed
from the man. That only left one possibility. Jean-Claude La Roux had to escape.
He sighed. He'd told his handler that same thing many times over the last two
Stefan indicated the walls, covered with photographs of the same
woman. "You have a lot of pictures, Rolex, but you sure don't have any letters.
I think your woman is on that beach with another man laughing her ass off."
replaced the photograph, his hand smoothing over the glossy paper. Stefan noticed,
with some satisfaction, that the crime lord's fingers trembled when he touched
the woman's face. "You do not see a man in any of these photographs, do you?"
Jean-Claude looked him over with obvious contempt. Stefan knew he wasn't
much to look at. He was tall, with wide, ax-handle shoulders, a thick muscular
chest and large arms with bulging muscles. He didn't look suave or wealthy, or
charming. He looked a brute, not very smart, with longish hair and lots of scruff.
Scars webbed his skin and his knuckles were callused and shiny. He had a square
jaw and dark blue-green eyes that looked straight into other men's souls and found
them guilty. Stefan exuded raw power through sheer physical strength and men like
Jean-Claude automatically dismissed them as muscle and brawn-never looking beneath
that surface to see if there was any intelligence behind the mask of a brute.
In his mind he used his own name, Stefan Prakenskii, as often as
possible because, truthfully, he was so often using another name, he was afraid
of forgetting who he was. And maybe he had already, long ago, lost his identity.
What was he? Who was he? And who really gave a damn anyway? There wasn't a beautiful
woman standing on a beach looking sad and pining away for him-and there never
would be. He was successful at his job because he refused to let women like the
one Jean-Claude obsessed over, into his realm of consciousness.
again at the pictures covering the stained wall. There were hundreds of them.
Jean-Claude had the woman under surveillance for a long time. She had changed
little over the years the man had spent in prison, but he was right, there was
no man ever photographed with her. Stefan cursed under his breath and turned away
from the pictures.
The woman would get under anyone's skin if you stared
at her long enough and in a tiny prison cell, really, what else was there to do
but notice her lips and eyes and all that long glossy hair? Jean-Claude was feeding
his own addiction, growing it into a monster and Stefan had uncovered that weakness
immediately and used it against the man, making him ripe for an escape. He didn't
see other men with her in the photographs, but who could stand thinking about
another man touching all that soft skin?
"I will say this for you, Rolex,
she's beautiful. Where the hell did you ever meet a woman like that?" It was time
to change tactics.
For the first time Stefan allowed a little admiration
to creep into his voice. Just as he suspected Jean-Claude couldn't resist the
need to talk about his woman or respond to the first sign that a man such as Stefan
who only seemed to admire obvious strength, might respect the crime lord at least
for his ability to attract a beautiful woman.
"She was an art student,
studying in Paris," Jean-Claude said. "She stood outside the Louvre, all that
long hair flying around her face and she paused to scrape it back away from her
face and for just a moment..." He trailed off.
Stefan didn't need him to
say it. The crime lord had probably lost his breath just as Stefan had the first
time he'd looked at her photograph. She could easily have been a model on the
cover of magazine-yet more. There was something undefined, a quality he couldn't
put his finger on, something innocent and sensual at the same time. Something
mysterious, remote, just out of reach, something terribly elusive and yet made
a man want to reach out and grab her, to hold her for himself alone.
yeah, the woman definitely had an impact on a man, especially one locked in a
cell without a companion. Stefan had endless patience when he was on the job,
but seriously, this was a bust. Jean-Claude would make a bee-line for the woman
and for the microchip he'd stolen from the Russian government-a microchip worth
a fortune on the black market. That chip contained information that would set
their defense system back fifty years if it got out.
"She any good at painting?"
Jean-Claude nodded. "She's good at everything she does."
Stefan remained silent, waiting for more. He knew it would come. Jean-Claude
wouldn't have said anything at all if he didn't want to talk.
made a name for herself in the art world. Her kaleidoscopes have won international
awards. Her paintings are sold for a fortune and she's a conservator of old artwork
for private collectors. They fly the paintings to her under heavy guard."
sounded proud of her. Conservators were rare, responsible for restoring the health
of paintings hundreds of years old. It was difficult work and a somewhat small
community. He doubted if there were many award-winning kaleidoscope artists. The
information would be very helpful in uncovering her identity. Stefan had already
sent several pictures back to his people in order to start the investigation into
just who the mystery woman actually was.
"I have to hand it to you, having
a woman like that willing to wait for you."
Jean-Claude didn't say anything,
but stared down at the quiet, pensive face. Stefan knew the words would eat him,
the idea that maybe she wasn't waiting for him. La Roux had a better cell than
most inmates. He wasn't like the majority, suicidal and depressed with the conditions
which told Stefan, guards were smuggling him items and doing their best to curry
his favor right along with the prisoners. It hadn't taken long for word to get
around that if a guard displeased Jean-Claude, one of his men retaliated against
the guard's family.
Stefan had been in this disgusting place long enough.
There was nothing more to be gotten from the crime lord. He had told his government
to break the man out of prison and either snatch him as he came out or let him
lead them to the microchip. Either way, it was better than rotting in the small
confines of the cell staring at a woman whose name he didn't even know. Obsessing
over her right along with Jean-Claude. He was leaving tonight before he lost his
mind staring at a woman who would never look at him twice.
"I hate saying
anything nice to you, Rolex, but she's got the face of an angel. I can't imagine
that any woman lives up to that." He needed to find a way to keep the man talking.
After two months, he still didn't even know her name, Jean-Claude was that tight-lipped.
Jean-Claude glanced at him and then at the picture. He smiled for the first
time since Stefan had been shoved into his cell. "I'm sure you can't. She speaks
seven languages. Seven." A snide lip curl told Stefan Jean-Claude was certain
he could never learn more than one language.
Stefan spoke French fluently,
with a perfect accent, and his undercover persona-John Bastille- certainly didn't
appear as if he was an educated man-other than in criminal pursuits. If truth
was told, Stefan could match dream woman language for language, which meant she
was educated and all the more alluring. He was a bit surprised that Jean-Claude
liked intelligent women.
"She's the type that would argue," Stefan pointed
out, staying in character. His type of muscle man wouldn't want a lowly woman
arguing with him. It said something that Jean-Claude wanted a smart woman.
definitely speaks her mind," Jean-Claude agreed, a small half-smile creeping into
his eyes as if remembering a moment he found particularly amusing. "You wouldn't
Stefan pushed down the hundred and one crude things his undercover
persona would have said, knowing it would end the conversation immediately. Jean-Claude
hadn't said more than three or four sentences in the two months they'd shared
a cell. Instead he looked down at the floor as if in sad reflection.
had a woman once. One worthwhile, not a prostitute. I should have been a little
nicer to her and maybe she would have stuck around." He flashed a quick, envious
grin at Jean-Claude. "She didn't look like that one. What's her name?"
once in all the months had Jean-Claude referred to the woman by her name, or said
where she was. He was very closed-mouth when it came to the angel on the wall.
It bothered Stefan that he secretly thought of her like that. Angel. Mysterious.
Elusive. So out of reach of the ordinary man. Out of reach of a man who lived
completely in the shadows. A man without a real identity.
voice was clipped and warned Stefan not to push any further on the woman's identity.
Triumph surged through Stefan. Jean-Claude was as bored as he was in the
cell. And he wanted to talk about his woman. He needed to talk about
her. Stefan wanted him to crave her, to take the opportunity to escape when it
was presented to him-not by Stefan of course, but by one of the guards. It wouldn't
be that difficult to arrange. Having Jean-Claude La Roux owe a favor would be
like hitting the lottery. At the same time, Jean-Claude didn't give anything away
for free. What was he after?
"Pretty name. She looks exotic, but that name
is American, isn't it?" Actually the name was of Hebrew origin, but Stefan doubted
very much if the crime lord was aware of that fact or even cared. It was a stab
in the dark, a calculated feeler.
Jean-Claude eyed him warily. "What the
hell difference does it make?"
Stefan allowed a surge of anger to show,
more triumphant than ever. He'd struck a nerve. The mystery woman could very well
be from the United States, not Japan as he'd first thought. "Not a bit. Just makin'
conversation. The hell with it." He turned his back on the crime lord-a calculated
risk. Showing indifference was the only way Jean-Claude might keep talking. If
he thought Stefan was too interested, the man wouldn't say a word. Stefan had
to hand it to him, he was intelligent enough to play his cards close to his chest.
Turning away from La Roux, only had him staring at another wall of photos.
He was surrounded by the mysterious woman. She definitely looked of Japanese descent,
but not entirely-she appeared tall. It was possible she had an American parent.
The coastline where she appeared to live could be one in the United States rather
than Europe. He hadn't considered that possibility before.
One of the pictures
he loved the most was of Judith-he had her name now-walking barefoot in the sand.
The wind was blowing hard and her long silky looking hair streamed behind her.
He could see small footprints in the wet sand. For some strange reason, that photograph
got to him. She seemed so alone. So sad. Waiting for someone. Jean-Claude? His
stomach knotted at the thought.
"You married to her?" He didn't look at
Jean-Claude when he asked, preferring to listen to the tone of the voice, rather
than the answer.
"Engaged," Jean-Claude replied after a long pause.
know it?" He asked slyly. Stefan hadn't seen a ring on her finger in any of the
photographs, and he'd looked for one.
Jean-Claude shrugged. "It doesn't
much matter what she thinks. She's my fiancé and when the time comes, she'll be
with me one way or another." He picked up one of his many books and held it out
to Stefan. "You ever hear of this crap?"
Stefan pushed down the little
twinge of pleasure in knowing the woman wasn't quite as taken with Jean-Claude
as the man was with her. He took the book, one he'd looked at a couple of times,
shocked at the subject matter. He feigned ignorance. "Aura? What is that supposed
to be? I never heard of it."
"Can you believe this crap? Do you see colors
around people's bodies? New age bullshit, is what it is." There was such anger,
such bitterness in Jean-Claude, a suppressed rage that made Stefan worry a little
for the first time about Judith.
"Your woman believes this stuff?" Stefan
asked, keeping vague puzzlement in his voice.
"Damn right she does. Takes
it very seriously. I've read all about it, but I've never met a single person
who believes in it or can see colors surrounding people other than her."
she's a little bit crazy." Stefan flashed a lecherous grin. "Don't you think her
body sort of makes up for all that? Keep her mouth busy and you don't have a problem."
His stomach knotted tighter. His gut actually hurt.
Jean-Claude shot him
a furious look. He snatched the book out of Stefan's hand and threw it against
the wall of the cell. "I don't know why I would expect someone like you to understand."
Stefan didn't want to understand. He wanted out of this stinking cell,
away from the man whose soul was rotten. There was no mercy in his world. No soft
skin. No dark eyes a man could get lost in. He wasn't even real, no more than
a dark shadow sliding in and out of places others called home and leaving behind
death and chaos. He didn't know what a home was and he no longer cared. He had
lost his humanity long ago in places like this, surrounded by corrupt men who
traded in human flesh and wreaked havoc on the world for money.
in the business too long when he started to fixate on a woman just because she
was the only thing that remotely resembled innocence in a stinking prison cell.
"You know, Bastille," Jean-Claude began.
Stefan went on alert. For
the first time Jean-Claude sounded different. They were getting to the business
of why the crime lord had deigned to speak to him about his woman. Jean-Claude
had been steadfastly silent and it just wasn't in him to have a friendly conversation,
no matter how much he might want to talk to someone about Judith and the photographs.
He'd given to get something.
Stefan turned around, leaned one hip lazily
against the cot and raised an eyebrow.
"Why didn't you kill me? You knew
I ordered the beatings and the hits."
Stefan kept his expression carefully
blank. He shrugged. "No money in it. I want out of here. I came to do a job and
once it's done I'll get out."
Jean-Claude's eyebrow shot up. "A job?" he
"Relax, Rolex, you aren't the mark." Stefan allowed a small smile
to creep into his eyes. "I won't say it didn't cross my mind a time or two, but
there's no percentage in it."
"But you would kill me if someone paid you
to do it."
"We're not exactly friends." This time amusement reached his
"I underestimated you," Jean-Claude admitted.
with satisfaction that the crime lord realized just how close he had been to death.
All those nights with Stefan lurking like a lethal viper just feet from him. "Everyone
does." Again, Stefan showed no malice.
Jean-Claude studied the scarred
face. "I could use a man like you."
"I'm not sticking around. I'll be out
of here by tomorrow." Stefan spoke with supreme confidence.
shrugged again and stayed mysteriously silent.
"You have a way to escape?"
Oh yeah, there was interest in the crime lord's voice. He wanted out. Once
out, he'd have the money to buy a new identity and face. Stefan did it all the
Stefan turned away from the man and sank down onto his cot, silently
declaring the conversation was over. When they went to dinner, a man would be
found dead in his cell. As the prison locked down, John Bastille would be absent
and Jean-Claude La Roux would know there was a way out. When he was approached
by a guard to help him escape in a couple of weeks, he would jump at the chance.
The prisoner, already dead in his cell, was a Russian traitor, one in for arm's
dealing, but he was guilty of so much more than that. He worked for Jean-Claude
and was responsible for giving the crime lord the location of one of their top
engineers, Theodotus Solovyov, who had designed their current defense system.
The attack on Solovyov had left Stefan's brother, Gavriil, with a permanent injury,
placing his life in danger.
Gavriil, undoubtedly one of the government's
top agents had been appointed bodyguard to Solovyov. He had managed, in spite
of superior forces and being outgunned, in spite of being stabbed seven times,
to keep Solovyov from being kidnapped and to drive off the kidnappers, but the
microchip Solovyov had sewn into his coat had been taken. Only Solovyov and his
wife had known the microchip had been placed there. Solovyov had been sold out
by his own wife, and Gavriil's mission had been considered a failure.
man like Gavriil Prakenskii was not forgiven failures, nor was he retired gracefully.
He was simply retired. Gavriil managed to escape from the hospital and had disappeared.
He would never be safe again, not bearing the Prakenskii name. The only Prakenskii
truly safe was their youngest brother Ilya, who had been groomed to be an Interpol
agent. He had worked for the secret assassination squad for a short time, and
his services had been required on and off, but he hadn't been given the life of
living in the shadows the way his older brothers had.
Stefan had helped
Gavriil escape, carrying him through the darkened streets to a waiting car where
he smuggled him out of Russia. It had been a very narrow escape, and without a
doctor, Gavriil would have died, but he was gone now, using another identity,
and Stefan doubted if he'd be lucky enough to ever see his brother again. Once
he'd learned from Gavriil that only Theodotus Solovyov and his wife Elena, had
known about the microchip sewn into the coat, they both had known Elena had to
been the one to sell out their country.
As soon as Gavriil was out of danger,
Stefan followed the money trail, found not only Elena's guilt, but the tie back
to Jean-Claude La Roux. Elena died after providing the name of her lover. Her
lover had given up the rest of the hit squad before he had died. One by one Stefan
had hunted every participant who had destroyed his brother's career and put his
life in jeopardy, killing them all except for the one in the French prison. That
last detail had been attended to earlier in the evening.
Stefan lay down
on his cot, ignoring Jean-Claude's puzzled look. The man wanted more information
and was probably regretting that he'd set the tone for their rocky relationship.
There was immense satisfaction in knowing Jean-Claude was going to regret a lot
of things-ending Gavriil's career not the least of those regrets.
Four days later, Stefan took his time in the hot
shower, grateful for a decent room, clean bathroom and comfortable bed. He wrapped
a towel around his hips and stepped out onto the cool tiles. Setting his gun down
on the sink, he dried his hair, staring at the fogged image in the mirror. John
Bastille was no more and Stefan Prakenskii was back. He wasn't any better looking
than Bastille had been, even cleaned up. His body was in shape, every muscle loose
and ready, his waist tapered, hips narrow and his core strength absolutely solid.
His body was a machine, trained for any possibility. He knew a thousand ways to
kill someone. He could seduce any woman out of her clothes, her sensibilities
and her secrets-and had done so more times than he could count. He could hit a
target a mile away in a high wind without a problem. He could deliver a needle
as he brushed past his target without them feeling anything more than an annoying
insect bite. He had no idea how to be anything else.
Picking up his gun,
he went into the small room, his home for the night. He had the door primed-he
wasn't a trusting man and never would be. The windows looked out over the river,
his last resort should he be attacked and there was no other way out. He had set
an escape route over the roof and one through the hotel as well. He had four exit
strategies, and an arsenal in his room. Still, he never felt safe.
was a restless feeling in him that hadn't been there before. Maybe it was time
to get out. He'd lost too much humanity. His senses were going numb, or maybe
they had been gone all along and he hadn't noticed-or cared.
In spite of
his determination not to look, he found himself standing in front of the dresser
where the photograph he'd lifted from the wall, his favorite of Judith on the
beach, lay right where he'd put it. He'd tossed it there, trying to tell himself
he would turn it over to his handler in order to better help with finding her
identity. A little mistake like that could blow everything. Blow the entire two
months of living in a dirty cell with a monster. What was he thinking? He didn't
He picked up the photograph and stared down at that pensive
face. His thumb slid over the band of soft skin revealed between her jeans and
tee. What was it about her that got to him? She was a mistake, and yet, knowing
it, he'd taken the photograph anyway. It wasn't her striking looks-and he did
think she was beautiful-he was inexplicably drawn to something inside her that
shown through in this picture.
He forced himself to toss the photograph
back onto the dresser. He would never see her-never know what happened to her,
but if he was making mistakes, regretting who he was, then it was time to employ
his exit strategy. Every man in his business had one because in the end, they
all knew too much about the secret project that had developed them in the first
He dressed carefully, slipping into his weapons as easily as the
suit that had a casual elegance when his wide shoulders filled it out. His face
was subtly different, his eye color a striking blue, a few of the scars gone.
He'd trimmed his dark blonde hair into a much neater style and shaved all facial
hair. His watch was in place, an equally elegant piece without being too showy.
He looked like a wealthy businessman, but the kind who had fought his way to the
top. He stood there for a long moment, his fingers running over the woman's face.
Cursing his own stupidity he tapped the photograph once in a kind of frustration.
"You're going to get yourself killed over a woman," he said aloud.
if on cue his pager buzzed. Puzzled, he opened his computer and signed in. At
once text spread across the screen. The woman had been identified with the clues
he'd given them. Judith Henderson-an artist on the rise. She'd made quite a name
for herself as an expert conservator restoring damaged paintings. Private collectors
sought her out and entrusted paintings worth millions to her care. In addition
to her restoration work, she was an acclaimed artist in her own right, both as
the creator of international-award-winning kaleidoscopes and as a painter whose
original works commanded hefty sums. She lived in a small village on the Northern
California coast called Sea Haven.
Everything in him stilled. Sea Haven.
How often would that little village touch his family? His youngest brother Ilya,
had settled there. Another younger brother, Lev, had disappeared there, declared
dead, going down with a yacht in the ocean. He didn't believe Lev could be killed
so easily. Was this a trap of some kind-a trap for him? Or maybe for Lev? Was
it possible he was being used to try to find his brother? A man like Lev, with
all his abilities, didn't die easily. He didn't panic, not in the worst of circumstances.
Petr Ivanov, a man with no human feelings what-so-ever, had been sent to
find and eliminate Lev should he still be alive. He had reported back that Lev
had indeed died in the yacht accident. The body had never been found, but the
investigation had been thorough. If Ivanov hadn't really been convinced of Lev's
death, he wouldn't have risked his reputation on his report. Everyone had supposedly
stopped looking for his brother. Did that mean they really believed Lev was dead?
Or were they setting up Stefan to lead them to his brother?
He didn't react
to the news scrolling across his screen. Like Lev, he was not a man given to panic.
He waited in silence. In stillness. A new message appeared on the computer screen,
and his heart jumped before it settled.
He was to go to Sea Haven and establish
a relationship with Judith Henderson with her. Files would follow detailing the
mission. He felt himself go very still. Originally, he was to interrogate Jean-Claude
when they broke him out of prison. He would easily acquire the needed information
from La Roux and his handlers knew he would. Travelling to Sea Haven, as much
as he wanted to go find out about his brother, would be stepping into a mine field.
He waited another heartbeat and sent back his reply. I do not understand.
I am to interrogate Jean-Claude.
The anonymous orders continued
to scroll across the screen. The plan had been changed. If anything went wrong
when La Roux escaped from prison, they wanted to make certain they could acquire
him should he go to Sea Haven. Stefan needed to get there well ahead of him and
establish his cover with Judith Henderson. If necessary, should the crime lord
show up, he would interrogate both Jean-Claude and the woman once he had both
of them in his custody.
Stefan's gut reacted, lurching sickeningly. He
actually tasted bile in his mouth. Extracting information from La Roux was one
thing, but the woman too? He opened his eyes to look at the text a second time,
willing the orders to magically change. He must be damn tired to have such a physical
reaction to the order.
He closed his eyes briefly, shaking his head. This
mission was definitely something other than what he was being told. It made no
sense to think agents would break Jean-Claude from prison and then lose him. He
was being sent to Sea Haven, not because they thought they'd lose the crime lord,
but because he was bait to lure his brother, Lev, out into the open. They hadn't
accepted Petr Ivanov's report on his brother's death after all. The orders served
a two-fold purpose. Revealing Lev's whereabouts, and if by some miracle La Roux
slipped away from the other agents, he would be in place to extract the information
they needed and then kill him.
Swallowing his absolute repugnance of the
orders, he typed in his agreement. Moments later, he received a downloaded file
containing everything they had on Judith Henderson. He signed off and poured himself
a cup of coffee, sank down into a chair, rubbing his temples. He'd been getting
blinding headaches lately, another sign he was crashing. This assignment had just
gone south fast. He couldn't afford to be crashing, not if they were sending him
to Sea Haven.
A part of him wanted to go, and that sent a frisson of concern
through him. He didn't want to lead Petr Ivanov to Lev and if Lev was in Sea Haven,
he would find Stefan, no matter how solid the cover was. He swore in three languages
and took a sip of his coffee. Judith. Damn the woman. She'd gotten under his skin
in that prison cell. He hadn't known it was possible for anyone to do that, let
alone a woman he'd never met.
He opened the file, reading about her life.
Japanese mother. American father. Both deceased in a car accident. She got her
height from her father. Those long, beautiful legs. He forced his mind back to
data, committing her life to memory. She had one brother, older, who had raised
her after the death of her parents.
Paul Henderson, now deceased, executed,
with a single gunshot to the forehead, but not before he'd been tortured. He had
gone to Paris and left with his sister. They both disappeared and Paul resurfaced
in Greece. He was killed there. Judith turned up after Jean-Claude
was imprisoned and took her brother's body home to the States. What did that mean?
Had Jean-Claude been looking for Judith? He turned the thought over and
over in his mind. It fit. It was possible she'd run from the man with her brother's
help. She was intelligent, and men like La Roux couldn't afford intelligent women.
They figured things out. Once she realized La Roux was dirty, Judith may have
not been able to live with it. On the other hand, she may have taken something
valuable from him.
The thought didn't sit well with Stefan, but either
scenario could explain both the death of her brother and Jean-Claude's continued
interest in her. As did the fact that she'd dropped out of sight until Jean-Claude
had been imprisoned. Because she had surfaced suggested she truly didn't know
just how dangerous La Roux really was, or just how far and expertly he could wield
his considerable power from his prison cell.
Stefan continued to scroll
through the downloaded dossier. The file included several images of Judith's paintings,
both the ones she'd painted before she left Paris, and the ones she'd painted
after. The moment his gaze touched the first painting he felt a hard one-two punch
to his gut. Her drive and passion literally robbed his lungs of air. He couldn't
take his eyes from the series, studying each painting carefully. They were intriguing
and beautiful, deep, three dimensional colors, amazing lines, all passion and
fire. Her drive and passion.
"There you are," he whispered, "I see you."
She poured herself into the painting, holding nothing back, breathing life
into her work so that every seascape, every tree, cloud or bush had movement and
sang or sobbed. Color was a musical instrument in her hand, wielded by an expert,
her courage astounding. She understood colors and their meaning. She drew her
strokes like caresses, both bold and shy, sensual and innocent. She was a seductress
with her colors, a dream within reach, yet unattainable.
Stefan ran both
hands through his hair. She was out there for the entire world to see. She had
bared her soul in these paintings. God, she was breath-taking. He felt his body
stir, a shock beyond imagining. He was always in command of himself, physically
and mentally. He'd been trained since he was a child. His body came to life at
his command and performed when and where he needed it to. What the hell was this
woman doing to him with her paintings and her photographs?
There was more
of the real woman in the paintings than in the mysterious photograph he'd stolen
from the crime lord. She'd hidden herself, drawn inward, held herself aloof from
the world, but here, in every bold stroke he could see her fire and passion.
Stefan forced himself to move on. Her time with Jean-Claude was well documented.
The rumors about La Roux had begun to surface and there were a few pictures of
a young Judith smiling up at Jean-Claude, wearing happiness like a second skin
in all the surveillance photos. His reaction to seeing the crime lord with her
was primeval, visceral, even animalistic. He wanted to kill the man with his bare
hands. He flexed his fingers and slowed his breathing, pushing all emotion from
Stefan studied Jean-Claude's expression. The arm around Judith's
narrow waist was possessive, as was his expression, but there was something more.
If a man like La Roux was capable of love, it was there. Whatever it was, obsession-and
Stefan was beginning to understand the word-the look on Jean-Claude's face as
he stared down at the laughing Judith, said it all. He would pay any price to
keep her. For certain, if the man eluded the other agents, he would be going to
Sea Haven to collect whatever he thought of as his-and that included Judith.
read the file carefully, committing it to memory before examining the few photographs
of Judith's work after her escape from La Roux. Each painting was good, no doubt
about it, but her later work was far different from her originals. She was very
restrained, showing the absolute beauty of the piece she worked on. Flawless color
schemes, bold, courageous strokes, but for him, the painting themselves were flat.
They were still beautiful, but she-Judith, the essence of the woman- wasn't there
anymore. All her passion and fire was restrained, gone, replaced by a mask that
was good, brilliant even, but not real.
"Too late to cover up now. I see
you," he whispered again. "I'm coming for you."
He pressed his fingers
hard just over his eyes where a headache was beginning. Damn it all. He didn't
want another life. He didn't dream about another life. He played the cards dealt
to him like the automaton he'd taught himself to become. He didn't feel. He didn't
even want to feel. He no longer thought about his parents and how in the darkness
of his homeland guns had been put to his mother and father's heads and the triggers
pulled. There was no safety inside four walls. There would be no safety for him
anywhere-ever. And anyone with him would be at risk. Anyone he loved would be
taken from him. Better not to ever take the chance, so never feel.
the mantra softly aloud. His steps whispered on the carpet before he even knew
his own intention. He crossed to the dresser and picked up the photograph of Judith
Henderson again, drawn by some force greater than he could resist. A woman who
spoke seven languages. Intelligent. Beautiful. An artist. He didn't even know
what that would be like, to have the freedom to paint, to pour your heart and
soul onto a canvas.
He knew languages. He was intelligent. And he knew
paintings. Everything about them. It was all necessary to his business of shedding
one skin and acquiring another. His temples throbbed and he sank back into his
chair, the photograph in his hand. What was it about her? That lost, lonely look?
The wind in her hair? The sun shining on the water. His imagination, so long repressed,
leapt forward in spite of his desire to suppress. She was waiting for someone
to come and unlock that passion and fire. She was waiting for the right man to
give it to.
What the hell was he thinking?