Someone had made a very grave error in sending the young woman into the lion’s den, Bastien thought. She was far from the accomplished operative needed to work in such an intense situation. He’d known within seconds that she understood every language spoken in the room, and probably more besides, and she hadn’t been that good at hiding it. If it had taken him mere moments, it wouldn’t take some of the others much longer.
The question was, who had sent her, and why? The most dangerous possibility was that she’d come to ferret out his identity. As far as he knew no one suspected him, but one never took anything for granted. The part he was playing was a dedicated womanizer – sending a nubile young female into the mix was the perfect bait, like staking a young deer in the jungle to lure a hungry panther. If he went for her he’d be playing true to form.
She was dangerously inept. That veneer of sophistication was wafer thin – one look in her brown eyes and he’d been able to read everything. Nervousness, shyness even, and an unwanted spark of sexual attraction. She was in way over her head.
Then again, she might be much better than she appeared to be. The hesitant, slightly shy demeanor might be all part of the act, to put him off the scent.
Had she come for him, or someone else? Was the Committee checking up on his performance? It was always possible – he hadn’t bothered to hide the fact that he was weary beyond belief, no longer giving a damn. Life or death seemed minor distinctions to him, but once you went to work for the Committee they never let you go. He’d be killed, and probably sooner rather than later. Mademoiselle Underwood, with her shy eyes and soft mouth might be just the one to do it.
And there was only one question. Would he let her?
Probably not. He was jaded, burned-out, empty inside, but he wasn’t about to go quietly. Not yet.
On the surface his mission was simple. Auguste Remarque had been blown up by a car bomb last month, the work of the covert, anti-terrorist organization known, by a very few, as the Committee. In fact, the Committee had nothing to do with it. Auguste Remarque was a businessman, motivated by nothing more than profit, and the powers that be in the Committee could understand and adjust for that. All they’d had to do was keep an eye on Remarque and the cartel, keep abreast of who was shipping what, where, and make their own pragmatic choices as to when to interfere. A shipment of high-powered machine guns to certain underdeveloped countries in Africa might lead to civilian deaths, but the greater good had to be considered, and those poor countries had little of interest to the super-powers. Or so Harry Thomason had told him.
Of course, Bastien knew why. Those countries had no oil, and they were of no importance to the Committee and its powerful, private backers.
It had been Bastien’s job to keep tabs on the arms dealers, posing as one of them. But Remarque’s assassination had changed all that. Hakim, Remarque’s right hand man, had set up this meeting, and they were looking at re-dividing the territories and choosing a new head. Not that these were people who played well with others, but the leader of the cartel also took care of the tiresome business details, leaving the others to concentrate on the acquisition and shipment of the most dangerous weapons yet devised.
Hakim had been in charge of the petty details, but he’d gotten a little too ambitious. He wanted to take Remarque’s place, including taking his lucrative territories. And there lay the problems. Through decades of dealing, assassination and bribery, the late Auguste Remarque had controlled most weapons shipments for the middle east, in inexhaustible market.
Areas like Chile, Kosovo, Northern Ireland and the cults of Japan might ebb and flow in their desire for weapons, but the middle east never got enough. And since America had waded into the fray, time and time again, with bludgeoning attempts at control, things had only gotten worse.
The members of the cartel wanted a fair share of those lucrative profits. And Hakim was disposable.
Bastien was in no hurry to see things played out – he could spend a day or two watching and waiting. The members of the cartel had learned, one by one, that Hakim had been responsible for Remarque’s assassination, and it didn’t sit well. Someone would dispose of him in the next few days, and if they failed it would be up to Bastien.
It had been interesting to subtly spread the word about Hakim’s treachery. The various reactions of the main players had been interesting indeed because, in fact, Hakim hadn’t been behind Remarque’s death, even though he was entirely willing to benefit from it.
One of the other entrepreneurs had been behind the hit. And was probably delighted that someone else had been been fingered, but so far they’d been unable to discern who had actually done it. Conventional wisdom suggested Baron von Rutter. Beneath his jovial exterior he was a brusque, impatient man and he’d made his way more by bullying tactics than finesse. Not to mention his equal partner, his younger wife Monique.
The operative who occasionally posed as Bastien’s wife had put her money on Mr. Otomi the reserved, elderly Yakuza boss, and Ricetti was a good possibility with his mafia connections. And one could never discount Madame Lambert.
Any of them were capable and willing, and if any of them had ordered the hit then the Committee would not be alarmed.
Only the last of their little group would prove a real problem. Christos Christopolous was, on the surface, merely a minor player. The Greek connection had always been low-key, but Bastien was paid to be untrusting. And in the eleven months he’d lived as Bastien Toussaint he’d learned that Christos was the most dangerous of them all. He was the one who was most likely to have arranged for Remarque to be blown up in a car bomb, along with his wife, daughter, and three young grandchildren.
Thomason had taken his word and set the assignment. Hakim was to die – the hit on Remarque couldn’t have been accomplished without his assistance.
And if Christos was chosen to lead the cartel, he too must die. The others were more manageable – the Greek wasn’t.
Maybe he wouldn’t get chosen, and Bastien could once more vanish into the obscurity of another name, another nationality, another mission on some other continent. Not that it mattered – they all seemed to be the same, the good guys and the bad buys interchangeable.
One thing was certain, he wasn’t going to be able to do a damned thing if the innocent little newcomer stuck a knife between his ribs.
He had no illusions that was on his own here, or had ever been. Signor Ricetti's young male lover was Jensen, a young British operative who told his wife he traveled a lot as a pharmaceutical sales representative.
Jensen could take him out if that was Thomason’s plan, but he’d have a harder job of it than the girl. If they really wanted to get rid of him they needed someone a little more knowledgeable to do it.
Someone a little more adept than sweet Mademoiselle Underwood.
She was either there for him or for one of the others. Maybe just to gather information, maybe to dispose of an unwanted player. He had only to say something to Hakim and she would be the one they disposed of. Even if Hakim himself had hired her, she would be wiped out neatly and efficiently.
He wasn’t quite ready to do that, even if it was the safest route. He hadn’t been drawn into this business with the lure of safety, and Mademoiselle Underwood might offer more value alive than dead. He would find out who sent her and why, and the sooner he found out the better. Careful planning was important, but hesitation was disastrous. He would find out what he needed to find out, then drop a word in Hakim’s ear. It would be a shame to have such a promising young life snuffed out, but she would have known the dangers when she signed up for this job. And he’d lost any trace of sentimentality long ago.
He just wished to Christ that he knew why she was there.
Chloe was feeling slightly giddy. She slept deeply for a couple of hours, curled up under a thin silk coverlet, she’d bathed in a deep warm bath perfumed with Chanel, she’d dressed in Sylvia’s clothes and put Sylvia’s makeup on her face. It was a few minutes before seven, and she’d have to slip her feet into the ridiculously high heels and glide downstairs like the soignée creature she was pretending to be.
The undergarments had begun the sensory overload. Chloe wore plain white cotton. Her taste ran to lace and satin and deep, bold colors, but her pocket book did not, and she’d spent her clothing euros on things that would be seen.
Sylvia spent a great deal of time in her underwear, seldom alone, and her wardrobe of corselets, panties, demi-bras and garter belts came in a rainbow of colors, all made to be enjoyed by both the wearer and her audience. Chloe wasn’t currently planning on an audience, not here, not now. Bastien Toussaint might be distracting, but Chloe had no interest in married men, womanizers, or really, anyone at all until she got back to Paris. This job was supposed to be a piece of cake, a leisurely few days in the country translating boring business details.
So why was she so damned edgy?
Probably just M. Bastien, with his bedroom eyes and his slow, sexy voice. Or maybe it was the combined suspicion of the guests – they must be dealing with something very powerful to be so paranoid. Though in Chloe’s experience most people thought their concerns to be a life-altering proportions. Perhaps they held the formula for a new type of fabric. The shoe designs for next season. The recipe for calorie-free butter.
It didn’t matter. She would remain in some unobtrusive corner, translating when called upon to do so, hoping no one else was going to say anything embarrassing in a language she wasn’t supposed to understand. Though it would help matters if she had her own wardrobe – Sylvia’s clothes were not made to be unobtrusive.
Maybe she could just plead a headache, crawl back into bed and deal with things tomorrow. As far as she knew she wasn’t on call twenty-four seven, and tonight was supposed to be more of a social occasion. They wouldn’t need her, and she didn’t need to be around people who were drinking enough to be even more indiscreet than they had this afternoon.
Then again, it probably wouldn’t be a bad idea to find out why they were so paranoid. If she didn’t like the answer she could simply announce that she had to return home. Monsieur Hakim had insisted that she wasn’t really needed, and she expected they would muddle through even without a common language. In the end, her peace of mind was more important than the generous daily stipend.
Then again, seven hundred euros could buy a little mental discomfort quite easily, and she was seldom a coward. She would go downstairs, smile charmingly, drink just a little wine, not enough to make her indiscreet, and keep her distance from Bastien Toussaint. He unnerved her, both with his dark, unreadable eyes and his supposed interest in her. For some reason she didn’t quite believe it. She was not an unattractive woman, but she was scarcely in his league – he was the type for supermodels and millionaires’ daughters.
It didn’t help that when she opened the door he was waiting for her.
He glanced at his thin watch. “A beautiful woman who shows up on time,” he said in French. “How delightful.”
She hesitated, uncertain what to say. On the one hand, the faint trace of irony in his voice was unmistakable, and Chloe knew that while she was attractive enough, beautiful was a bit too generous, even with the benefit of Sylvia’s wardrobe. But arguing with him would seem coy, and besides, she didn’t want to spend any unnecessary time in the cavernous, shadowy hall with him.
He was leaning against the window opposite her doorway, and the formal gardens stretched out beyond, surprisingly well-lit for that hour of the night. He’d been smoking a cigarette, waiting for her, but he pushed away from the window and came towards her.
She thought she’d gotten used to how graceful some French men could be. For a moment she was distracted by his body, then mentally slapped herself. “Were you waiting for me?” she said brightly, closing the door behind her when she actually wanted nothing more than to dive back into her room and lock it.
“Of course. I’m just down the hall from you, on the left. We’re the only ones in this wing of the house, and I know how turned around one can get. I wanted to make sure you didn’t stumble into any place you shouldn’t be.”
Again, that faint hint of something wrong. Maybe she was the one who was paranoid, not Hakim’s guests. “I have a fairly good sense of direction.” A flat out lie – even with a detailed map she inevitably took wrong turns, but he didn’t know that.
“You’ve lived in France long enough to know that French men like to think of themselves as charming and gallant. It’s hard-wired into me – you’ll find me shadowing you when you least expect it, offering to bring you coffee or a cigarette.”
“I don’t smoke.” The conversation was making her more and more uneasy. Complicated by the fact that looking at him, the dark, opaque eyes, the lean, graceful body was leaving her far from unmoved. Why did she have to be attracted to someone so … wrong? “And how do you know I’ve lived in France a long time?”
“Your accent. No one speaks that well if they haven’t lived here for at least a year.”
It was just the faintest of smiles. “You see? I have an instinct for such things.”
“I don’t need anyone to be charming and gallant,” she said, still uneasy. Not only did he look good, but the damned man smelled good too. Something subtle, luscious, beneath the lingering scent of tobacco. “I’m here to do a job.”
“So you are,” he murmured. “That doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy yourself while you do it.”
He was making her very nervous. By now they were walking down the hallway, in and out of the shadows. She was used to the continental art of flirtation which was usually nothing more than an extravagant show. And she knew this man to be a womanizer – he’d said so himself in a language she wasn’t supposed to understand. It was expected that he do just this.
Unfortunately she didn’t want to play the game, not with him. He wasn’t someone to flirt with and then dance away, despite the practiced charm. She couldn’t rid herself of the notion that he was something else entirely.
“Bastien,” he said. “And I will call you Chloe. I’ve never known a woman named Chloe before. I find it quite charming.” His voice slid over her like a silken caress.
“Bastien,” she capitulated. “I really don’t think this is a good idea.”
“You are already involved with someone? That doesn’t need to make any difference. What happens here stays here, and there’s no reason why we can’t enjoy ourselves,” he said smoothly.
She wasn’t sure how she’d react if he were someone else. She knew how to extricate herself from unwanted situations, though they didn’t crop up as much as she might have hope. The unfortunate fact was, she was both attracted and afraid of him. He was lying to her, and she had no idea why.
She halted. They had managed to reach the more populated part of the renovated chateau, and she could hear the voices, an amalgam of French and English, from beyond the double doors. She opened her mouth, not sure what she was going to say, what kind of argument she could come up with, when he spoke.
“I’m very attracted to you, you know,” he said. “I don’t remember when I’ve been quite so charmed.” And before she realized what he intended he’d put his hands on her, moving her back against the wall, and proceeded to kiss her.
He was very good, she thought dazedly, trying not to react. His hands were touching her, his mouth the merest whisper against her lips, and without thinking she closed her eyes, feeling his kiss brush against her cheekbones, her eyelids, then down to her mouth again, clinging slightly, then moving on, down the side of her neck.
She didn’t know what to do with her hands. She ought to reach up and push him away, but she didn’t really want to. The soft, feathering kisses simply made her want more, and since this was definitely going to be the only time she let him kiss her then she ought to experience the entire experience.
So when he moved his hands from her waist to cup her face, and when he pressed his mouth against hers, harder this time, she opened for him, telling herself that one little taste of forbidden fruit was all right. After all, it was France. Vive l’amour.
But just as she was about to let herself sink into the pleasure of it, nasty little warning bells stopped her. He was oh, so adept. He knew how to kiss, how to use his lips, his tongue, his hands, and if she were just a little bit stupider she’d be awash with desire.
But something wasn’t right. It was a performance that even she could see through. He was making all the right moves, saying all the right things, but some part of him was standing back, coolly watching her response.
Her hands, which were just about to clutch his shoulders, instead pushed him away. She used more strength than she needed to – he made no effort to force her, he simply fell back, that faint amusement on his face.
“No?” he said. “Perhaps I misread the situation. I’m very attracted to you, and I thought the feeling was mutual.”
“Monsieur Toussaint, you are a very attractive man. But you’re playing some kind of game with me, and I don’t like it.”
“I don’t know what’s going on, but I don’t believe you’ve developed a sudden, uncontrollable passion for me.” Sylvia was always chiding her for being so outspoken, but she didn’t care. Anything to upset the smooth, beguiling lies of the man who was still standing too close to her.
“Then I’ll have to work harder to convince you,” he said, reaching for her again.
And fool that she was, she might have let him, but the door to the drawing room opened and Monsieur Hakim appeared, glowering.
Bastien stepped back, in no particular hurry, and Hakim’s expression darkened further. “We wondered where you were, Mademoiselle Underwood. It’s half past seven already.”
“I had trouble finding my way here. M. Toussaint was kind enough to guide me.”
“I’m certain he was,” Hakim grumbled. “The Baron is waiting for you, Bastien. And behave yourself – we have work to do.”
“Bien sur,” he said, flashing an ironic smile in her direction as he moved past Hakim.
Chloe started to follow, but Hakim put a strong hand on her arm, halting her. “You need to be warned about Bastien,” he said.
“I don’t need to be warned. I know his type very well.” Not true, she thought. He was trying to convince her he was a certain kind of man – sophisticated, charming, flirtatious and totally without morals. And he was that kind of man – she had no doubt of that. There was just something more, something darker inside, and she couldn’t figure out quite what it was.
Hakim nodded, though he was clearly unconvinced. “You are very young, Mademoiselle Underwood. I feel I am in a fatherly position, and I would not like to see anything unfortunate befall you.”
It was his over-formal English that made it sound threatening, of course. Not any real danger. But that uneasy little shiver slid down her backbone, and she wondered if she’d made a very really mistake in taking Sylvia’s place. Adventure, luxury and money were all very nice things, but not at too high a price. And remembering the feel of Bastien Toussaint’s practiced mouth against her, she was afraid she’d already gotten herself into too much trouble.
Because she wanted to see what it would be like if he really kissed her. Not a performance, meant to dazzle her. But something he wanted as much as she did.
And she was out of her mind, she thought, moving past Hakim into the library, in time to see Bastien in close conversation with one of the women she’d seen earlier. The Baron’s wife, who seemed far too friendly with someone who wasn’t her husband, with her beautifully manicured hand on his Armani-clad arm, her perfectly made-up face tilted toward his. Chloe took a glass of sherry from the waiter and moved to a seat by the open doors, looking out over the brightly-lit gardens, away from Bastien and his more amenable partner. The jumble of languages was at first indecipherable, and she didn’t want to listen. It was like eavesdropping, and she was already uncomfortable with what she’d overheard earlier.
But then she realized they were politely speaking only French and English, and anything she heard was far from secret, and she relaxed back against the wing chair.
Only to see Bastien and the woman slip outside, into the shadows. Which would have been difficult enough, if he hadn’t paused at the last minute to look directly into her eyes, and he gave her a faint, rueful shrug.
“Miss Underwood.” The elderly Baron sank down beside her, wheezing slightly. “It looks like we’ve been abandoned. Now why did such a pretty young thing like yourself want to spend days locked away with such tiresome old capitalists like ourselves? Surely you must have had better things to do in Paris? Some young man waiting for you?”
She smiled at him, willfully forgetting the couple that had just disappeared. “No young man, monsieur. I live a very quiet life.”
“I don’t believe it!” he said. “A young girl as pretty as you are? What has happened to young men nowadays, that someone like you should be unattached. If I were forty years younger I’d go after you myself.”
She roused herself to play the game. “Surely not forty!” she said lightly.
“I’m thirty years older than my wife, and even that is a bit of a strain. Which is why I give her a lot of room to entertain herself.”
Chloe blinked. “That’s very generous of you.”
“Besides, what can she and Bastien do out on the terrace with so many people wandering around. An indiscreet caress, a kiss or two? In the end it only sharpens the appetite.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“I saw you watching them. Bastien is fine for someone like my wife, who knows how the game is played and expects nothing but immediate gratification. He’s not for an innocent like you.”
He was the second man to warn her away in the last ten minutes. Little did they know that she hadn’t needed the warning – her own defenses had popped up just in time. “I am here to translate, Monsieur,” she said brightly. “Not to indulge in dangerous flirtations.”
“I hope you don’t count me as one of those dangerous flirtations,” he said. “Or perhaps I do. No one considers me very dangerous any more.” He sounded mournful.
“I’m certain you’re a very dangerous man indeed,” she said in an encouraging voice.
His smile was almost beatific. “Bless you, my child. You may actually be right.”