It wasn’t the hardened man who eased his motorcycle to the curb that snagged Gwen Morningstar’s attention. Nor was it the wide spread of his shoulders or the way his black jeans hugged his muscled thighs like a pair of lover’s hands. For sure, it wasn’t the long scar on his right cheek or the small silver cross that dangled from his ear. No, it was his pristine-white angel wings that dragged on the pavement.
Odd that Parisians hurried past without so much as a second glance. As if seeing a mountain of a man riding a Harley with angel wings flowing down his back was as common as citizens carrying unwrapped crusty loaves of bread in their hands. No one gawked as their feet tattooed a staccato beat on the busy pavements of the City of Light. Few things fazed Parisians, it seemed.
“Mommy, look, it’s Jean-Luc.” Her daughter, Rhiannon, breathed in childhood hero worship before she exploded from her sidewalk café chair and rushed toward the man in angel wings.
“I’m not quite sure how I feel about her attraction to him.” Gwen watched over the rim of her demitasse, sipping the espresso’s strong brew and inhaling the richness of its aroma. Jean-Luc LeFevre scooped Rhiannon into his arms and slowly circled, laughing that deep rich laugh Gwen so enjoyed. God, the man was glorious decked out in perilous black and angelic feathers.
“Why? You’re certainly attracted.” Her sister, Alyson, shifted in her chair, her hand over her swollen abdomen. “You date him each time you come to Paris.”
“Yes, and we always end up rubbing each other the wrong way.” Gwen set her cup on the saucer. “Rhiannon wants a father more than anything for her sixth birthday next month.” She expelled a long sigh. “I’m afraid she’s fostering hopes. I don’t like the idea of her being disappointed.”
“Aren’t you fostering hopes?” Her sister laid her hand over Gwen’s and smiled her soft smile. “I see how you look at him.”
Jean-Luc removed his feathered wings, and evidenced by Rhiannon’s bubbling excitement, he was going to let her try them on. Gwen tugged her camera from her bulky shoulder bag at her feet to snap pictures of her daughter in angel wings—not that her daughter wasn’t already an angel with her halo of blonde curls and sweet personality.
“Hopes?” She adjusted the shutter speed on her old camera and shook her head. “No. I have no illusions where he’s concerned. This is my third trip to Paris to see you, and he gets more abrupt toward me with each visit.”
Alyson gazed at the man for a second. “He’s never been anything but polite toward me.”
“Yeah, well, not to me. Tell that husband of yours he needs friendlier agents working under him.” She pressed the Nikon to her eye and snapped a few shots of Rhiannon.
“Yet you keep flirting in that bodacious way you have. Maybe if you toned it down a notch, he’d relax around you more.”
“Can’t do it. I enjoy rattling his he-man cage too much. He gets that twitch in his eye. Makes him twice as appealing.” She winked at Alyson. “Personally, my sister-the-matchmaker, I think you’re the one harboring hopes. You want Daddy married to your widowed mother-in-law and me married to Jean-Luc. One heck of a stretch since the man hasn’t spoken to me since we went dancing a two nights ago. Besides our lives are back in the States. My job. Rhiannon’s school. Our home.”
“Mommy! Mommy, look, I’m an angel.” Gwen’s attention pivoted to her daughter.
“Indeed you are, sugar pie.” She centered her angelic child in the frame and adjusted the lens before she snapped more shots while her daughter preened and turned, glowing that effervescent radiance her Rhiannon possessed. How nice to take pictures of living beings and beautiful surroundings instead of the horrific scenes she recorded as a crime scene photographer.
If only that white van wasn’t parked there, she could get the unusual architecture of the Pompidou Museum in the background. Still, with her trained eye, she knew the pictures would be enchanting—an excited child, a pair of huge angel wings and a smiling government agent. If only he’d aim one of those smiles at me. Once, just once.
“You’re mumbling again.” Alyson shot her a gotcha look and laughed. Goodness, had she expressed her wish out loud?
After Jean-Luc reattached his wings and approached their table, he knelt in front of Alyson. “How are you feeling?” His large hands wrapped around her sister’s baby bump. “How’s my goddaughter today?”
Lord, just the sound of his deep voice and thick French accent made her stomach do twitchy things. Of course, he would pointedly ignore her—the jerk. He’d make over Rhiannon, Alyson and the baby, but not one word for her. She had a hunch as to why, too. She scared him. This was a man used to doing the chasing, not being chased. Not that she was determined in her pursuit, but she did enjoy his discomfort at her flirting.
She raised her demitasse again and motioned to him with it. “So, why the wings, handsome? Doing your impersonation of a Hell’s Angel?”
Jean-Luc blinked twice as he regarded her with cold grey eyes. The thin scar that ran from his cheek to his jaw only added to the fierceness of this austere man. Red slowly crept up his thick neck. His eye twitched, which pleased her.
“When one is undercover, one makes himself a part of his surroundings.” He gave that arrogant French shrug Parisian men used as if it were a part of their DNA. “Here in the land of the avant-garde, anything shocking works.” Then, as if to indicate he was through with her, he looked at Alyson once more. “Where’s Niko?”
“He went for tickets to the museum so I wouldn’t have to stand in line. Oh, here he comes now.”
Jean-Luc stood and turned. Somehow the angel wings running the length of his back to his calves made him look two degrees more lethal, which perplexed Gwen. What a strange paradox he was. Muscles and macho attitude blended with a fondness for children.
Alyson was right; she was definitely attracted. Wasted dreams where he was concerned. Another week and their trip would be over. She, Rhiannon and her father would return to the States.
Rhiannon sidled up to Jean-Luc and leaned against him. His arm wrapped around her narrow shoulders; a natural move on his part, but another endearing one for Rhiannon who glanced up at him with worshipful eyes. Maybe she needed to squelch her desires for this man and focus on keeping an emotionally safe distance between her daughter and him.
“Rhiannon, come sit by Mommy and eat the rest of your pastry.” The girl reluctantly obeyed.
“Problems?” Niko, Jean-Luc’s immediate supervisor at the French counterterrorism unit, asked before he bent to kiss his wife’s upturned face.
“Yeah, we need to talk. I learned some things from the man I met at that café off Place Pigalle.”
Niko nodded. “You’ve got five minutes, and then I’m taking my ladies to the museum.” The two men walked toward a quieter area down the street.
Gwen’s gaze followed them, their conversation obviously intense by their body posture. They certainly made the testosterone level in this artsy neighborhood rise, especially Jean-Luc’s very masculine bearing. Even those wings couldn’t detract from the man’s sexual aura.
“You’re drooling.” Alyson reached across the table and dabbed at Gwen’s chin.
“Oh, I am not.” She batted at Alyson’s hand, and both of them laughed. “Oh, honey, I miss you so much. Why did you have to fall in love with a Frenchman and move here?”
“Fifi! Fifi, come back! Little girl, grab his leash, please.” A frantic dog owner ran toward them, pointing to her runaway poodle.
Rhiannon scampered toward the dog, making clicking noises with her tongue to attract the dog’s attention just before snatching its leash.
Gwen tensed. Something was off. How did this woman know her daughter spoke English and not French? True, many Europeans spoke English, but she had this ominous feeling. Mother’s intuition.
“Rhiannon, stop. Come back.” She stood, her heartbeat pounding in her ears.
“Oh, merci beaucoup!” The dog’s owner stopped beside the van, one hand on it to steady herself and her other pressed to her chest, as if catching her breath. “You are a dear child. Could you bring her to me, please? I’m so out of breath.”
She didn’t sound out of breath.
A chill sprinted down her spine and Gwen started to run, intent on reaching her daughter. “Rhiannon, stop!” In her haste, her foot got tangled in the strap of her bag and she tripped. Air whooshed out of her when she hit the sidewalk. She scraped her chin and bit her tongue. Her eyes watered in response.
To her horror, the side door of the white van flew open. Outstretched hands like tentacles from the vehicle’s dark interior grasped her daughter and yanked her inside.
“Mommy!” Her child’s wail of fear tore at her soul.
Bile rose in Gwen’s throat. My God, this can’t be happening. “No! Stop!” Panic, searing hot, yet bitter cold, tornadoed through her system. Rhiannon!
Alyson screamed for Niko.
Gwen scrambled to untangle her foot from her bag. “No! Not my daughter! Stop them! They’ve taken my child!” She flung the offending bag aside and dashed for the van as it sped away. The vehicle took aim at Jean-Luc’s motorcycle and crushed its back wheel in the process, then careened into the street.
Heavy footsteps pounded behind her. A blur of white feathers sprinted by. The vehicle, trying to weave through traffic on the two-lane street, slowed. Jean-Luc’s long legs ate up the distance. He leapt onto the back bumper and scrambled for the top. The van spun around the corner with an avenging angel clinging to its roof.