Luc led Niki to the puppet theatre set up in the far corner of the square. Some of the vendors had already packed up and left for the evening, and a couple had been moved aside to make space for the theatre booth. A plywood box, painted with whimsical curlicues, and draped with velvet curtains in the deepest shade of blue, sat at an angle to the steps leading down to the central square, creating a small amphitheater. Behind it was deep shadow, allowing the puppeteers to move around invisibly.
As they sauntered through the crowded square, she felt his eyes on her, her skin tingling with awareness. On the way, she watched as several people nodded and smiled at him as he passed through. Many greeted him by name. “Hey Luc,” and “Bonsoir, Luc.”
“How does a guy from Vancouver know everyone here?”
“I’ve spent every summer here since I was eleven.” He shrugged and she raised her brows, wondering what it would have been like to grow up with so much freedom and adventure. All of her summers had been completely consumed with keeping Sam both safe and entertained while her parents worked.
Niki scanned the front of the puppet stage, where a crowd of people already filled the stone pavement. Children sat closest, cross-legged on the ground. Behind them, some adults also sat on the limestone pavers. Further back, many people sat on the steps. The closest they could get to the stage was behind these. She found a narrow gap on a low planter wall that encircled a Plane Maple tree just wide enough for one, and squeezed in, waiting for the show to begin.
She lifted her chin and blinked innocently at him, as if to say, so sorry. There’s no room for you. His sexy lips curled up on one side and she squirmed, unsure what he found so amusing. After another thousand heartbeats of staring at the closed velvet curtain, and pretending to scan the crowd of children, she stole another glance.
Still, he stared at her. This time, when she widened her eyes and lifted her chin in challenge at his nerve, his soft mouth split into a flashing white grin, his chest shaking with laughter. Taking her eye contact as an invitation, he stepped toward her.
“Mind if I squeeze in beside you?”
No! That’s not what she wanted. Was it? Yet she made room for him as he thanked the person on his other side and wiggle his tight butt into a few inches of available space on her wall. I am not thinking about his ass. She kept her face averted, feigning disinterest while painfully conscious of the feel of his broad shoulder and hard hip and thigh as he slid in beside her. Their bodies pressed together from shoulder to knee, creating heat and sending awareness of him zinging through her bloodstream.
“Why was Didier was so reluctant to join us?”
Luc made a vague face. “Doubtless he’s seen the same performance a trillion times before.”
A commotion from the stage drew their attention. Someone dressed in black stood to the side with a mic, and began to introduce the show, but they spoke so rapidly Niki's French failed her. Something about a maiden?
“Did you catch that?” she said, turning to Luc. “Your French seems pretty good.”
“Not bad,” he said, his handsome mouth quirking up at one corner. “The play’s about a young seamstress who lived in this village years ago, who was the object of much admiration from the local gentlemen.”
“Oh.” Niki's attention was caught by the furling curtains. With a fanfare of music, the show began.
Niki and Didier carried their food and wine to an empty spot at a long, paper-covered table under the market roof. Didier smiled and shyly greeted a number of people on the way. He poured wine into plastic cups, and they sat down. When seated, it was easy enough to forget that he was so tall. He was large in every way, but well proportioned and good-looking, with unruly ginger-blond hair, a strong chin with a bit of a cleft, and bright blue eyes that seemed to miss nothing. He held his plastic cup of wine in oversized, grime-stained fingertips and closed his eyes as he took his first sip.
“Tell me about yourself,” she said. "Why are your fingernails stained?"
He shrugged, lifting a sandy brow at her bluntness.
Niki again had to temper her own biases when he ate what she deemed a normal amount of food for an extra large man, but nothing out of the ordinary. Given her own athletic activity level, she knew she ate much more than most women her size.
“Your family. Have you lived around here long?”
“Yes. My family have been here or hereabouts for generations. I’m a fourth generation blacksmith,” he added, with a wiggle of his black-creased fingers, to answer her earlier question.
“So you were born with dirty fingernails?" They shared a laugh. "Not much demand for that these days, I guess?”
“More than you’d think. But mostly now I’m an artisan, as you see. My father could not quite make a living, but I’m doing better because of the modern romance with the past. This festival, for example. If I were to expand my market, I would do even better.”
“You learned the ropes from your father, I guess?”
She groaned. “Your… craft.”
“Ah.” He made a face at her. “Is it that your French is so bad, or that you are willful?”
Meeting the teasing twinkle in his light blue eyes, she deigned not to respond, or perhaps not knowing the answer, she asked instead, “How would you expand your market, then?”
He pulled a face, and again the look of resignation settled over him. He twitched a little, though. His docility and mien of fatalism looked painfully familiar to her.
“You’re not happy. What do you want that you’re not getting?”
After a rather long moment, he replied. “It’s my own fault, I suppose. There are people I’d like to meet in Carcassonne, Avignon, where the Medieval tourist trade is strong, but I… delay going there.” He shrugged, his jaw jutting.
Her chest tightened. He’d never ventured even half way across his own country. “Have you travelled much?”
His mouth twisted. She knew he understood the question, and the answer was obviously no.
“Why, dude?” She flung out an arm. “Because of that A-hole with the flute?”
Didier’s face hardened, and she dropped the subject, digging into her meal.
“This is the best paella I’ve ever eaten,” she said, instead.
“Have you never been to Spain?”
“Oh, yeah. I was in Pamplona last month.”
“To see the bull run?”
She grinned. “To run with the bulls.” She relished the long silence that followed as he processed that fact, his blue eyes closely assessing her.
“You are insane, Niki. Have you a désir de mort?” A death wish.
She laughed, and said, “That seems to be what my co-workers think. That’s why I’m here.”
At his quizzical expression, she told him about her job and enforced holiday.
Chief Brian’s words still haunted her. I know you’re good at the job, Niki. I trained you myself. Niki recalled how uncomfortable he’d been delivering the news. Look, no-one here is questioning your skill or commitment. I love you like a daughter. Everyone on the team loves you.
I’ve got an excellent track record–
And yet, too many close calls. People who are tired make mistakes, Niki. And so her six week sabbatical had begun. But that was boring, and so she focussed on telling Didier about all her European adventures and the entertainments she’d been engaging in all month.
“You really are an extraordinary woman.” Didier glanced over her shoulder and inclined his head. “Bonsoir, Luc.”
“Bonsoir, Didier” said a man behind her chair, and the hairs on the back of her neck stood up. Niki turned toward the familiar voice to see the cyclist from earlier approaching as he carried two bottles of wine above the heads of the seated diners. He was clean and well-groomed. He’d changed into jeans and a linen jacket over a white dress-shirt, and though his lycra was gone, she admired the way they clung to his lean, muscled form, and the way he moved toward her like a cat.
There was no mistaking the man standing at their table now. One of the lights strung from cords above them flared in the dark, momentarily casting a soft blue glow on his chest. She looked away, then a moment later, glanced back at him. He was unabashedly staring at her. Rather than cower, she turned to face him and met his eyes straight on in challenge.
His eyes, unwavering, were intensely blue, and hooded, suggestive, and she squirmed and looked away again, her pulse hammering. No-one deserved to be that handsome!
Instead of looking away embarrassed at being caught, he stepped towards her, tilted his head and quirked his perfect features into a smile that melted her knickers.
“Mind if I join you?” He set down the wine bottles. “Courtesy of Victor.”
“Suit yourself,” she replied, letting her gaze scan the wine labels he’d brought, as though she were only half as interested as she really was.
“These are from a local winery, just on the wrong side of the border to the official Bordeaux region, as good as the expensive stuff.”
Didier said, “Bienvenue, Luc. Merci. How are you, mon ami?”
Niki’s gaze darted back and forth between the two men. They were friends?
“Superb, merci. Introduce me to your friend?”
“Oui, oui,” said Didier. “This is Niki.”
“We’ve met, actually,” Niki said.
“Yes, but I didn’t know your name, nor you mine.”
His voice, a warm tenor, mocked her. He sounded like anybody from home. Any guy she’d gone to school with, or worked with, or the barista at her local Starbucks. Except he slid into smooth French like a native and had the most amazing, sexy voice she’d ever heard. It filled her with tingles and the urge to climb onto him, lick him all over, and follow him home like a hungry puppy.
His hand appeared in front of her. “I’m Luc. Luc Ehrenskjold.”
She ignored the hand, looked up at him, and instantly knew he felt the chemical surge of attraction too. They were like two lions circling each other in the wild. The pheromones were a-jumping between them. She took a shaky breath. “You don’t sound Scandinavian.”
This prompted a gust of warm laughter from both Luc and Didier.
He sat down beside her and she swallowed, unsure why he made her so nervous.
“My grandparents were Danish.”
“Luc is Canadien, like you,” said Didier.
She scowled at him. “I knew that.”
“When did you meet?” Didier asked.
Without glancing at the new guy, she murmured, “Just in passing.”
“How did you enjoy the paella?”
She frowned. “How do you know what I ate for dinner?”
He smiled, his eyes sparkling with humour, and pointed at her chest, where two bright orange grains of rice clung tenaciously to her t-shirt.
“Tsk.” She rolled her eyes, brushing them off. Observant. She liked that. And that he respected her personal space, and didn’t use that as an excuse to touch her like some jerk at a bar. “It was the best.”
“Hey Luc, listen to this. Niki ran with the bulls last month.”
His brows lifted. His smile was warm and broad, and his teeth were white and straight. A ripple of heat emerged in her throat and set off a chain reaction, warming her chest, her belly, her lady parts. No one so unassuming ought to be this hot, with features so ideal. He could have been a catalogue model. Too perfect. Even his skin was perfectly smooth and tanned on his brow and above his neatly groomed beard.
He smelled good, too. Like pine and fresh air and fruit, like the mountains back home. She felt a powerful urge to touch him, and couldn’t stop her eyes from roaming across his chest, the dress-shirt stretched smoothly across his toned pecs, down to the faded denim that curved over his lean thigh. She swallowed and tore her eyes away.
“I won’t bite.” His voice held the tenor of amusement.
She knew he’d seen her stunt earlier. Seemed to know Didier well. She hummed her skepticism.
“Nice to meet you, Niki.” He lingered over her name, like he was tasting it, trying it on for size.
“Are you meeting Patrice and Charles for dinner?” Didier asked, and the two men exchanged an amused glance that puzzled Niki.
Luc nodded slowly. “In a little while, yes.”
Didier hummed, then looked up suddenly, his jaw jutting forward.
Something ruffled the crowd seated at the tables near them. She and Luc both turned to look. The trio of musicians, led by Didier’s nemesis, swaggered toward them with expressions that spelled trouble.
“It’s that time again, my friends,” bellowed Rosaire, who Luc knew played the oboe with a local trio during the festival, with an exaggerated bow. “I humbly interrupt your dinners and conversations to command your presence at the spectacular and modest puppet show. You will gasp! You will laugh! You will cry! It begins in fifteen minutes! Get your seats now.”
What an idiot.
Niki laughed, but the sound was tight. “They reminded me of the three stooges,” she said in an aside to Luc, who smiled at the image.
Or Shakespearean buffoons, with their pointed caps and pantaloons, he added silently. They always got laughs though. Luc peered at Didier. Only they didn’t make Didier laugh because he always seemed to be the butt of their stupid jokes. Didier kept his gaze cast down, his face tight. Luc frowned. An undercurrent of ill will rippled between him and his tormentor.
Rosaire and his cronies paused in front of them. “Are you coming, Girafeau?”
Didier sighed, and seemed to collapse into himself. “Perhaps not, Rosaire.”
“And you, petit Polisson?”
Piss off, already.
Niki glanced at Luc for help. “Polisson?”
“He calls you ah… scamp… a little monkey,” Didier answered in English.
The monkey and the giraffe. How apt. Luc smirked at her and earned a scowl in response. She pulled a face and eyed the little man warily. “Yeah, thanks Rosaire. I’ll think about it.”
Luc rose to his feet, subtly levelling a warning glare at Rosaire to back off and after a theatric bow, Rosaire and his friends moved along, weaving between tables, urging others to come to the performance.
“Puppets!” she said. “That sounds like fun. Right? Let’s take our wine and go.”
Didier demurred. “I must pack up my booth and load the truck.”
“Aw, c’mon, Didier. It’ll be fun.”
Luc met Didier’s stony eye. Yeah, tons of fun. “I’ll go with you if you want company. You’ll need a translator,” Luc said, and received a narrow-eyed glare from Niki.
She hummed and turned back to Didier. “Will you be here afterwards? How long will it last?”
“Long enough,” murmured Didier. His large shoulders slumped and Luc felt his fists clench, and the back of his neck tighten. Rosaire’s antics frustrated him, but so did Didier’s complacency. He could put the runt in his place in a moment, and yet he never retaliated. Never defended himself. Despite wishing to help, Luc was of the opinion that he needed fight his own battles.
“I’d like to say good night before you leave. I want to see you again.”
He lifted one shoulder. “Where do you stay?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t found a room yet.”
“What?” Luc and Didier said together, both gawking at her. “You won’t find a room now. The village is complete,” Didier added.
She made a face. “I haven’t tried yet. I’m sure I’ll find something. I’m not fussy.”
Luc and Didier shared a frown of concern. Perhaps Luc could speak to Charles about offering her the couch.
Niki remained oblivious and focused on Didier. “Thank you for dinner. Maybe I’ll see you tomorrow?”
“Hm. We'll see.”
Luc led her away then, and they strolled away in the wake of Rosaire and his sidekicks, in search of the puppet show.
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