Plate held in one hand, Charlize gripped the iron railing in the other and took each stone step with careful deliberation. When both feet landed on the gravel pathway she let out an unconscious sigh of relief. The smell of lavender filled her nostrils as she brushed past rows of bushes, limping towards the wrought iron table and chairs set beneath a gnarled olive tree. She pulled out a chair, sat down in the dappled shade and placed her food on the table.
Lifting her fork, she let it hover over the plate. What to eat first? All of the ingredients were bought at the local market this morning. There was fresh asparagus with a lightly poached egg and homemade hollandaise sauce, two slices of jambon cru, or prosciutto, half a baguette, some green olives marinated in garlic, and slices of melon. The heat of the day had finally left the garden and a light breeze wafted through the leaves of the fig tree stretched over her high stone wall.
A bumblebee buzzed, gathering the last bits of precious pollen before heading back to the hive for the night. Summer in Provence was much like the baked heat of her hometown in Western Australia. But in Provence there was a softness, a greenness, even in the height of summer that was at odds with the desperate parching dryness that surrounded Perth.
Charlize popped a piece of melon wrapped in prosciutto into her mouth. The resident brown mouse poked her nose out of a hole in the wall, its whiskers twitched once, bright eyes searching for any fallen crumbs. Charlize broke off a tiny piece of baguette and dropped it on the ground. The mouse would come and get it the moment her attention was elsewhere.
Charlize leaned back in her chair and savoured the taste of her meal. In her small enclosed garden ivy climbed the crumbling stones to her right, hiding the places where the mortar fell away. A row of pencil pines stood tall and straight to her left, protecting the side wall. Cicadas hummed and songbirds sang their goodnight to the setting sun. It was the closest thing to a refuge she’d found. Perhaps even a place where her healing could start.
The rusty corrugations of the iron table were cool beneath her fingertips. It was so calm here, but would she ever again be the woman she used to be? Could people see it in her face? The changes? Mottled shadows danced over her plate, her fork stalled half-way to her mouth. The damaged, missing parts inside of her might never return. She let her fork continue its journey.
Loud, raised voices broke her ruminations. Charlize went back to enjoying her meal and tried to ignore them. People often used the intersecting alleyways that ran behind her back wall as a shortcut through to the car park on the outskirts of town, or to the shopping mall in the next street. Tourists mainly, speaking English or German in their brash, penetrating tones. Charlize cut into the perfect globe of the poached egg and the bright yellow yolk ran freely over the green fronds. She took a mouthful, appreciating the crunch of the asparagus against the creaminess of the egg.
‘Mmm.’ Pure bliss.
The voices got louder, almost shouting now. Then pounding feet echoed down the alleyway. She cocked her head to the side.
Someone was running.
Nope, it was none of her business. She needed to quell that cop-instinct, which had her wanting to get up and poke her head over the wall to see what was going on. She’d relinquished her job on the force. Left it behind eighteen months ago back in Australia. For better or worse, she was a civilian now. And she needed to learn how to live like one.
Charlize picked up an olive and placed it in her mouth, carefully working her teeth around the pip, allowing the bitter saltiness to settle on her tongue, determined not to let the sound of the outside world break into her reverie.
But she couldn’t ignore the scrabble of feet just outside her garden, followed by a loud grunt. The bulky shape of a man wriggled over the top of her wall and dropped to the ground not three feet away from her.
For a second Charlize froze. Her mind whirled, as useless as a spinning top. Then half-remembered training kicked in, muscles moved and tightened of their own accord and she stood, balancing on the balls of her feet, unconsciously compensating for her crippled leg, facing the man. Ready to fight.
‘What the—’ The man raised a finger to his lips in a silent entreaty to be quiet. She stepped backwards, away from the stranger and his fierce hazel eyes. Hell no, she had a good set of lungs when she needed to use them. Opening her mouth, she got ready to scream.
‘Please,’ he whispered. ‘Don’t.’
The cry caught in the back of her throat.
She should scream. Now. The other voices were getting closer, almost level with her back wall. Help would come if she wanted it. But something stilled her vocal cords. Was it the appeal in his eyes? Or the way he hunched over to the left, making him seem somehow less of a threat?
‘Please,’ he entreated again, mouthing the words. ‘I’ll leave as soon as those men go.’ He pointed a finger towards the wall. His English was perfect, but with the familiar French accent. A local? If he was she hadn’t spotted him in any of her daily treks around the small town. Just below his ribs on the left, a dark blotch stained his light blue t-shirt. Blood. It was definitely blood.
Charlize hesitated, fists raised, adrenaline fizzing through her veins. The man took a step away from her, palms out in a gesture of submission.
She drew in deep ragged breaths through her nose to calm her racing pulse. He was taller than her, which made him perhaps a couple of inches over six foot. Skin the colour of espresso coffee, dark, but not the deep ebony black of the African men she’d seen in the markets today. Close-cropped hair covered his head, a manicured dark goatee beard sheathed his chin. Broad shoulders stretched the t-shirt material across impressive pecs. A different kind of shiver twisted through her belly. Bloody hell. He was gorgeous. Concentrate, Charli. She blinked, once, twice, not allowing her fists to lower.
Giving a sharp nod of acquiescence, she let him know she wouldn’t call out. But she didn’t let go of her guard either, muscles tensed and tight as a drum, heart as jittery as a bat. His features relaxed visibly at her nod, and he dropped his hands down by his sides. Then one hand came back up to press against the wound, a grimace flittering across his face. Silence slid between them as they studied each other like wary cats. A slither of sweat ran down between her shoulder blades. What was she doing? Why would she allow a stranger—a wounded stranger—to stand in her garden, while men were hunting him outside? The whole scenario was surreal. The tremble in her gut increased, quickly moving down her legs. She braced her thighs together to stop the shaking. Never let an offender see your fear.
Hazel eyes gave her a hurried once over. She hadn’t bothered to put on a bra. Why should she, when she was supposed to be cocooned in her little Provencal garden? Her thin white t-shirt would hide nothing, and she had to resist the urge to cross her arms over her chest. His gaze slid quickly down her long legs, bare in short cut-offs, to the scars skulking over her left knee and down her shin. She ignored the impulse to move her leg out of his line of sight.
Voices sounded over the top of the high back wall and she flinched. It was two men, both speaking French in quick static sentences. Her French had improved in the past six months, but not enough for her to understand everything they said. One man ordered the other to do something like look around the corner. The man’s voice was cold, shrewd and something about his icy tone made Charlize want to shrink back from the venom in it. The tall visitor half-crouched and turned towards the wall as if expecting them to come over the top, his right hand reached around behind him.
That’s when she saw it. Tucked into the waistband of his jeans. It was a Sig Sauer with some kind of tactical attachment. She’d seen this type of gun before. This changed everything.
She took a careful step backwards. She needed to get away from this dangerous man. He hadn’t turned around yet, still focused on the voices on the other side of the wall. One man mentioned something about searching gardens, and Charlize was frightened they might try to scale her stone wall. Wary of the wounded stranger, she was perhaps more afraid of the men outside.
As she took another step backwards a sudden pain shot through her left knee. She had to stifle a cry as she half-stumbled, grabbing hold of a low branch on the olive tree just in time to save herself from falling. Bloody leg. Letting her down. Again. The man spun around and raked her with a calculated gaze.
She stared back at him, hoping like hell he didn’t see the terrible weakness that trembled in her. Give no quarter, pretend she was strong so he’d just go away and leave her alone. This man who stood bleeding in her courtyard with a gun in the back of his jeans. The men’s voices faded into the background as they went around the corner towards the car park. Handsome Stranger glanced towards the wall.
’Merci, Mademoiselle,’ he said, voice silken with French intonation. ’Au revoir.’ With that he scaled her back wall, strong fingers finding the cracks in the mortar, and was over the top and gone. Leaving her open-mouthed and staring.
She had a sudden need to sit down. The after-effect of the adrenaline—which had kept her standing, defying him—now left her shaken and numb.
Then the tears started to fall.
Pain screamed through his side as he landed—a little more heavily than he’d intended—on the paved pathway of the alley. Jean-Luc Munulo crouched down and did his best to ignore the agony while he surveyed the crisscrossing alleyways for movement. Nothing. It was quiet, the cicadas already resuming their loud hum after their momentary lapse.
Merde. He should never have let them get that close. Stupid. It was time to get a move on. He stood up straight and took the left-hand pathway—the one that went in the opposite direction to the car park. He needed to get away from here. The quicker he disappeared the better.
Why that woman hadn’t given him away was a mystery, but she could change her mind at any second and scream her bloody lungs out. It wouldn’t take long for Vincent’s thugs to hear her if she did, and return, guns blazing.
Long strides soon had him around the corner of the alley and into a short pedestrian tunnel leading to the main street. Once there, he could blend in with the crowds of tourists who strolled through the myriad shops and cafes. They’d never catch him then, and even if they did, they wouldn’t dare shoot with so many people about. Would they? Merde. He bloody well hoped not.
As he neared the end of the tunnel he put a hand over the stain on his t-shirt, to try and cover as much of the bloody evidence as possible. At the same time, he defied the urge to put pressure on the wound to ease the pain. It wouldn’t do to have some tourist—or worse one of the gendarme wandering the streets—to notice he was bleeding. It was a stupid rookie mistake to let one of those thugs close enough to get a look at him, but even more stupid to get shot. At least it wasn’t bad, the bullet had just grazed his side as he’d dodged and weaved away from the two gunmen. But it’d still need stitches. Where in hell he was going to find someone to do that was a question he’d answer later.
As he entered the street, Jean-Luc slowed his pace to match the rest of the crowd. No one took a second look at him. Nothing seemed out of place. The street was full of sleepy tourists who wandered down the sidewalks, eating gelato, stopping to admire a row of pretty postcards or a glass-front shop full of silver jewellery. A few locals dodged in between the tourists, some with bags of food bought at the market, intent on their errands. No one was running. No one was shouting. There were no men dressed in dark clothing skulking in shop doorways. It was all perfectly normal.
A little way down the street was a store that sold all kinds of handbags, along with other brightly coloured souvenirs. Jean-Luc ducked in behind a large man in a t-shirt emblazoned with the American flag, who was bent over a basket filled with bags of lavender and managed to grab a leather satchel from the stand next to him. With the satchel swung over his shoulder, he positioned it to hide the stain on his t-shirt and kept walking.
Now all he needed was get to his motorbike and he was out of there.
His mind flickered back to the woman in the garden, and for the second time that day he wondered why she hadn’t screamed. He could tell she wanted to. She was definitely afraid. But there’d been something else as well. A courage. A determination to stand her ground. He knew he could’ve taken her down if he’d needed to, but the way she held herself, fists up, weight forward, balanced on her toes, told him she knew something about self-defence. She wouldn’t have gone down without a fight. Even with those terrible scars running down her leg, she’d stood up against him. Defiant. Nearly as tall as him, with short blonde hair curling around her face. And those intense green eyes, taking his measure in mere seconds, had him intrigued. Light green, the colour of the water on a duck pond ruffled by a small breeze. Like nothing he’d encountered before.
And she wasn’t wearing a bra beneath that little white t-shirt. When he’d caught sight of those pert breasts, nipples peeking through the fabric he’d almost forgotten where he was, and who was chasing him.
Pah. He shook his head to rid it of the images of clear green eyes and long, lithe legs and focused on the cobbled street beneath his feet. Away from this little town and Vincent’s gun-happy hoodlums, that’s where he needed to be.