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Authors: Anne Stuart

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Black Ice

BOOK: Black Ice
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All that wine had gone to her head—in another moment she’d start imagining she was in some kind of danger. What could possibly be dangerous about a group of high-level grocers? Too much wine, too much imagination. Chloe backed out of the room, only to come up against a solid human form. She bit back a scream as a heavy hand clamped on her arm, spinning her around.

It was M. Hakim. Her relief was palpable—she actually started babbling. “Thank heavens!” she said. “I’ve gotten all turned around and I was afraid I’d never find my room.”

“This section of the château is off-limits to visitors, Mademoiselle Underwood. It has yet to be renovated, as you can see. If you were to get in trouble no one would hear you scream.”

Chloe was suddenly entirely sober. She swallowed, looking into Hakim’s dark, calm face. She forced herself to laugh, breaking the tension. “I think I need a map to find my way around this place,” she said.

He hadn’t let go of her arm. He had thick, ugly hands, with dark hair across the backs of his sausagelike fingers. For one brief, crazy moment she thought he was going to shove her back into the deserted wing. And then sanity returned and he dropped her arm.

“You should be more careful, Mademoiselle Underwood,” he admonished. “Other people might be more dangerous than I am, and I would not like to see anything…
unfortunate
befall you.”

It was his overformal 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 real mistake in taking this job.

Also by ANNE STUART

HIDDEN HONOR

INTO THE FIRE

STILL LAKE

SHADOWS AT SUNSET

THE WIDOW

Watch for a brand-new historical romance from

ANNE STUART

B
LACK
I
CE
A
NNE
S
TUART

This was a gift book for me, one the universe
delivered when I was riding in a taxi in Paris,
and it comes with a sound track. Listen to
Japanese Rock and Roll, French rock (Marc Lavoine,
Florent Pagny) and maybe some Pretenders. Enjoy!

1

P
eople might go on and on about springtime in Paris, Chloe Underwood thought as she walked down the street huddled in her coat, but there was really nothing to compare to winter in the City of Lights. By early December the leaves were gone, the air was crisp and cool and enough of the tourists had left to make life bearable. In August she always wondered why on earth she’d chosen to pull up stakes and move three thousand miles away from her family. But then winter came, and she remembered all too well.

It might have helped if she could have abandoned the city to the tourists every August, as all the French did, but she’d yet to find a job that included such luxuries as vacations, health care or a living wage. She was lucky she’d managed to find work at all. As it was, her presence in France was quasi-legal, and most days she decided just being there was blessing enough, even if she shared a tiny walk-up flat with a fellow expatriate who
seemed to have very little sense of responsibility. Sylvia barely remembered to pay her half of the rent, she’d never swept a floor in her life and she considered any piece of furniture or flat surface a place to leave her astonishingly large wardrobe. On the other hand, she wore the same size eight that Chloe did, and she was not averse to sharing. She was also single-mindedly determined to marry a wealthy Frenchman, and in pursuit of that goal she spent most nights away from their cramped quarters, leaving Chloe with a little more breathing room.

In fact, it was Sylvia who’d found Chloe her current job translating children’s books. Sylvia had worked at Les Frères Laurent for two years, and she’d slept with all three of the middle-aged
frères,
ensuring job tenure and a decent salary for translating spy novels and thrillers for the small publisher. Children’s books were less of a moneymaker, and Chloe was paid accordingly, but at least she didn’t have to ask her family for money or touch the trust fund her grandparents had left her. Not that her parents would encourage her. That money was earmarked for her education, and working a menial job in Paris hardly constituted advanced learning.

If she weren’t hamstrung by job requirements she could have found something a bit more challenging. While her French was excellent, she was also fluent in Italian, Spanish and German, with a healthy smattering of Swedish and Russian, and even a few bits of Arabic
and Japanese. She loved words, almost as much as she loved cooking, but she seemed to have a greater talent out of the kitchen. At least, that’s what she’d been told when she was dismissed from the famous Cordon Bleu halfway into the program. Too much imagination for a beginner, they’d said. Not enough respect for tradition.

Chloe had never been particularly respectful of tradition, including her family tradition of medicine. She’d left all five of the Underwoods back in the mountains of North Carolina. Her parents were internists, her two older brothers were surgeons, and her older sister was an anesthesiologist. And they still couldn’t believe Chloe wasn’t dying to enter medical school, ignoring the fact that there was no one in this world more squeamish at the sight of blood than the youngest member of the Underwood family.

No, Chloe wasn’t going to get to touch that nice little chunk of money until she gave in and went to medical school. And it was going to be a cold day in hell before she did.

In the meantime, she could do amazing things with pasta and fresh vegetables, and all the walking she did kept the carbohydrates from gathering in force, though they seemed to have developed a fondness for her rear. At twenty-three she couldn’t still be built like a coltish teenager, and she was never going to look like a Frenchwoman. She just lacked the style even her roommate Sylvia, an Englishwoman, had in abundance. She could
wear Sylvia’s clothes, but she never could master that faintly arrogant, slightly amused mien that she longed for. She might as well have a big butt, too.

Les Frères Laurent was on the third floor of an older building near Montmartre. Chloe was the first one in, as always, and she put on a pot of the strong coffee that she loved, cradling a cup in her chilled hands as she looked out into the busy street below. The brothers kept the heat off at night, and as a junior employee she wasn’t allowed to touch the thermostat, so she’d learned to keep an extra sweater in the tiny cubicle she’d been allotted. She wasn’t in the mood for working—it was a gorgeous day, with the sky a bright azure above the old buildings that surrounded them, and for some reason the adventures of Flora the plucky little ferret didn’t call to her. Not enough sex and violence, she thought wistfully. Just moral lessons in a heavy-handed lecture, given by a skinny rodent in a pink tutu and the smug values of an American Republican. Just once she wished Flora would yank off her tutu and jump the rascally weasel who’d been giving her the eye. But Flora would never stoop so low.

Chloe took a sip of her coffee. Strong as faith, sweet as love, black as sin. She wouldn’t be a real Parisian until she started smoking, but even to annoy her parents she couldn’t go that far. Besides, the farther away her parents were, the less annoying they became.

It was another hour before anyone else would arrive
at the office, and she told herself that no one would know or care if she wasted a few precious minutes before turning to the boring Flora. It was no wonder she was so irritated with the fictional character. What she needed was a little more sex and violence in her own life.

Be careful what you wish for, a little voice murmured in her head, but Chloe shook it off, draining her coffee. Sex had been notable by its total absence for the past ten months, and her last affair was so lackluster that she hadn’t been energized enough to look for a replacement. It wasn’t that Claude had been a bad lover. He prided himself on his skills, and expected the gauche
Américain
to be suitably dazzled. She wasn’t.

And she could probably do without violence, which was usually accompanied by blood, which tended to make her puke. Not that she’d encountered much real violence in her life. Her family had kept her sheltered, and she had a healthy respect for her own safety. She didn’t go wandering into dangerous parts of the city at night, she locked her doors and windows and looked both ways and prayed diligently before she crossed the homicidal Parisian traffic.

No, she could look forward to another peaceful winter in the underheated apartment, eating pasta, translating
Flora the Plucky Ferret
and
Bruce the Tangerine,
though how a tangerine could have a life of its own had
so far escaped her. Maybe that was why she was stalling on Flora, knowing her next task was citrus.

She’d find another lover, sooner or later. Maybe Sylvia would finally hit the mother lode, move out, and Chloe would find some nice, gentle Frenchman with wire-rimmed glasses and a skinny body and a taste for experimental cooking.

In the meantime, the doughty little ferret awaited her, as did the daunting task of coming up with the French equivalent of “doughty.”

She heard Sylvia before she arrived—there was no mistaking the noisy clatter of her expensive shoes on the two flights of stairs, the muttered cursing from her perfectly rouged mouth. The only question was, why was Sylvia showing up at work three hours before she usually dragged herself in?

The door slammed open with a bang and Sylvia stood there, panting, not a hair out of place, not a speck of her makeup smudged. “There you are!” she cried.

“Here I am,” Chloe said. “Want some coffee?”

“We don’t have time for coffee, dammit! Chloe, sweetie, you have to help me. It’s a matter of life and death.”

Chloe blinked. Fortunately she was used to Sylvia’s dramatics. “What now?”

Sylvia stopped cold, momentarily affronted. “I’m serious, Chloe! If you don’t help me out I…I don’t know what I’ll do.”

She’d dragged a huge suitcase all the way up the flights of stairs—no wonder she’d been making such a racket. “Where do you want to go and what do you need me to do to cover for you?” she asked, resigned. The huge suitcase that would suit most people on a two-week trip would keep Sylvia decently clothed for three or four days. Three or four days with the flat to herself and no one to pick up after. She could open the windows and let the air blow in and no one would complain about the cold. She was prepared to be helpful.

“I’m not going anywhere. You are.”

Chloe blinked again. “The suitcase?”

“I packed for you. Your clothes are awful and you know it—I put in everything I thought looked good on you. Except my fur coat, but you can’t expect me to part with that,” she added, momentarily practical.

“I don’t expect you to part with anything. And I can’t go anywhere. What would the Laurents say?”

“Leave them to me. I’ll cover for you,” Sylvia said, looking her over. “At least you’re decently dressed for a change, though I’d lose the scarf if I were you. You’ll manage to fit in just fine.”

A deep foreboding filled Chloe. “Fit in where? Just take a deep breath and tell me what you need and I’ll see whether I can help you.”

“You have to,” Sylvia said flatly. “I told you, it’s a…”

“Matter of life and death,” Chloe filled in. “What do you want me to do?”

Some of Sylvia’s anxiety vanished. “Nothing so onerous. Spend a few days at a beautiful estate in the country, translating for a group of importers, making scads of money and being waited on by an army of servants. Wonderful food, wonderful surroundings and the only drawback is having to deal with boring businessmen. You get to dress for dinner and make tons of money and flirt with anyone who takes your fancy. You should be thanking me for giving you such a golden opportunity.”

Typical of Sylvia to turn things around in her own mind. “And exactly why are you giving me a golden opportunity?”

“Because I promised Henry I’d spend the weekend with him at the Raphael.”

“Henry?”

“Henry Blythe Merriman. One of the heirs to Merrimans Extract. He’s rich, he’s handsome, he’s charming, he’s good in bed and he adores me.”

“How old is he?”

“Sixty-seven,” Sylvia said, not the slightest bit sheepish.

“And is he married?”

“Of course not! I have some standards.”

“As long as they’re rich, single and breathing,” Chloe said. “And just when would I be going?”

“A car’s on its way to pick you up. Actually, they think they’ll be picking me up, but I’ve called and ex
plained the situation and said you’d be taking my place. All they need is French to English and back again, which is a piece of cake for you.”

“But, Sylvia—”

“Please, Chloe! I beg of you! If I leave them in the lurch I’ll never get another translating job, and I can’t quite count on Henry yet. I need to do these little weekend jobs to supplement my income. You know how badly the Frères pay.”

“About twice as much as they pay me.”

“Then you need the money even more,” Sylvia said, unabashed. “Come on, Chloe, go for it! Be wild and dangerous for a change! A few days spent in the country is just what you need.”

“Wild and dangerous with a bunch of businessmen? Somehow I can’t quite see it happening.”

“Think of the food.”

“Bitch,” Chloe said cheerfully.

“And they probably have an exercise room as well. Most of these big old houses turned conference centers do. You don’t need to worry about your butt.”

“Double bitch,” Chloe said, regretting she’d ever expressed concern over her curves.

“Come on, Chloe,” Sylvia said, wheedling. “You know you want to. You’ll have a marvelous time. It won’t be as boring as you think, and maybe we’ll be able to celebrate my engagement when you get back.”

Chloe doubted it. “When am I supposed to leave?”

Sylvia let out a little crow of triumph. Not that she’d ever seriously expected not to get her way. “That’s the best part. The limo’s probably downstairs by now. You’ll be reporting to Mr. Hakim and he’ll tell you what to do.”

“Hakim? My Arabic is lousy.”

“I told you, it’s all French to English and back. Groups of importers are bound to be multinational, but all of them speak either English or French. Piece of cake, Chloe. In more ways than one.”

“Triple bitch,” Chloe said. “Do I have time…?”

“No. It’s eight-thirty-three and the limo was supposed to arrive at eight-thirty. These people tend to be very precise. Just put on a little makeup and we’ll go down.”

“I’m already wearing makeup.”

Sylvia let out an exasperated sigh. “Not enough. Come with me and I’ll fix you up.” She grabbed her hand and started tugging her toward the bathroom.

“I don’t need fixing up,” Chloe protested, yanking her hand free.

“They’re paying seven hundred euros a day, and all you have to do is talk.”

Chloe put her hand back in Sylvia’s. “Fix me up,” she said, resigned, and followed Sylvia into the cramped little bathroom at the far end of the room.

 

Bastien Toussaint, also known as Sebastian Toussaint, Jean-Marc Marceau, Jeffrey Pillbeam, Carlos
Santeria, Vladimir the Butcher, Wilhelm Minor and a good half dozen other names and identities, lit a cigarette, inhaling with mild pleasure. The last three jobs he’d been a nonsmoker, and he’d adapted with his usual cool acceptance. He didn’t tend to let weakness get to him—he was relatively impervious to addictions, pain, torture or tenderness. He could, occasionally, be merciful if the situation called for it. If it didn’t, he dispensed justice without blinking. He did what he had to do.

BOOK: Black Ice
7.44Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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