One Lucky Vampire Page 9

“I’ll take care of that,” he assured her politely. “Is this it?”

“Just that and me,” Marguerite said brightly as she stepped away from Jake to move up next to Nicole.

“Very good.” The driver smiled at Marguerite and then turned to lead her to the car. He opened the back door and handed her in and then closed it before carrying the case around to set it in the trunk. Nicole was barefoot, so stayed in the doorway and waved when Marguerite finished buckling her seat belt and looked her way. She was aware when Jake stepped up behind her and thought he was probably waving too.

They watched silently as the driver got in and closed the door, but once the vehicle began to head up the driveway, Nicole asked, “How old is Marguerite?”

She was pretty sure Jake stilled behind her. He probably peered down at the top of her head too, but she didn’t look around to see. Finally, he said, “What do you mean?”

The question brought a small breathless laugh to her lips and she offered him a crooked smile over her shoulder. “It’s kind of a simple question. How old is she?” She tilted her head and added, “She can’t be more than thirty or so, though she doesn’t look that old even, but I’ve known her for ten years. She was married to Jean Claude back when I first went with Aunt Maria to help with spring cleaning, so she must have been at least twenty then, which means she has to be in her early thirties now . . . But I swear the woman acts like she’s at least twice that in age. She mothers both Pierina and me.” Nicole gave an embarrassed laugh and admitted, “I swear, she makes me feel about ten years old every time I’m around her . . . So . . . is she older than she looks? Or just mothering by nature or something?”

“Mothering by nature,” he answered, happy to avoid the original question. “She mothers everyone and was probably doing so even as a little girl.”

“Yeah, I can just picture her as a five-year-old, fussing over every child and adult in the vicinity,” Nicole admitted wryly, and then asked again, “So how old is she?”

When he didn’t answer right away, she raised her eyebrows in question, and he murmured, “Let’s close the door.”

Nicole nodded and moved out of the way as he began to do just that. She watched him lock it, and then turned to lead the way back upstairs to where her coffee waited.

Jake stayed silent as he followed Nicole back upstairs, but his mind was working in overdrive as he tried to figure out what to say in answer to her question . . . and then it came to him.

“She isn’t in her thirties,” Jake announced as they reached the kitchen.

“What?” Nicole asked with amazement as he moved to pour himself another coffee. “She has to be. She—”

“She was thirteen when she married Jean Claude.” Both statements were true. He just didn’t mention that the marriage took place back in the thirteenth century, and that she was actually seven hundred and something rather than the thirtysomething Nicole had supposed.

“Thirteen?” She sounded as horrified as he would expect as she asked, “Is that even legal?”

Jake shrugged and carried his coffee to the table as he offered, “The Europeans don’t have the same laws we do.”

“Yeah, but—holy crap, Jean Claude was worse than I thought,” she muttered with disgust as she followed him.

“What do you mean?” he asked curiously.

“Well, you know, he was such a jerk to her,” she said on a sigh. “I mean I only saw him maybe a half dozen times over the years before he died, but I remember he would come in and be perfectly awful to her, snapping and growling and ordering her around like she was a dog or something. Even as a teenager I thought, man, she’s too pretty and nice to put up with that from anyone.”

Jake turned back to his coffee, doctoring it with cream and sugar as he considered what she’d said. He hadn’t known that Jean Claude was unkind to Marguerite. The truth was Jake didn’t know Marguerite that well, and he hadn’t known her when she was married to Jean Claude. He’d heard stories, of course. His boss, Vincent, had been an Argeneau, after all, and was her nephew, which meant there had been talk about his family. But Jake hadn’t really got to know Marguerite until the attempt on his life that had resulted in his being turned.

Marguerite had talked to him several times after he’d woken from the turn. That was before he’d run away. And Nicole was right, she was a very nice woman, one who shouldn’t have to put up with the kind of behavior Nicole was describing. But then Nicole shouldn’t have had to put up with the abuse Rodolfo had dished out either, so all he said was, “I’ve found in life that the nicest people somehow seem to end up with the most unkind partners. I’ve never understood that myself. You’d think like would attract like, but it definitely seems like opposites attract when it comes to a lot of couples.”

“Yeah,” Nicole murmured, her mouth twisting. “I’d agree with that.”

“What was your husband like?” Jake asked, taking her empty cup and walking over to pour her a fresh one.

“A jerk,” she said, and then smiled wryly as she added, “But then I’m somewhat biased. I’m sure a lot of people think he’s great. Certainly, he’s the sort who’d give the shirt off his back to friends and acquaintances.”

“Just not his wife?” he suggested, pouring coffee into her cup and then carrying it back to the table.

“Me, he wouldn’t even have given the time of day,” she assured him dryly and doctored her coffee with sugar and cream, before adding, “I suspect he married the artist, and was disappointed when he found himself shackled to the woman.”

Jake raised his eyebrows. “Aren’t they one and the same person?”

“You’d think so, wouldn’t you?” she asked with amusement. Nicole sipped her coffee, swallowed, and then said quietly, “It turns out Rodolfo was all about the surface and appearances. At first he liked going around bragging about marrying a world-renowned artist. That was cool. Unfortunately, actually living with me was less so.” She peered into her coffee and said, “I think he had poor self-esteem, that maybe he thought marrying me would boost it . . . and was terribly disappointed when it didn’t.” Sighing, she met his gaze and added, “And I suspect he thought that being married to me would mean a life that was one long round of cocktail parties and glad-handing with celebrity clients. Instead, it was day-to-day drudgery, a lot of time spent with him twiddling his thumbs and bored while I worked hard, or his standing by listening to my side of phone calls with those celebrities he longed to connect with, or his having to listen to me being complimented and praised by people who thought of him as ‘the husband’ who didn’t work rather than the charming, dashing fellow who bagged the artist.” She breathed out wearily, and shook her head. “But he wouldn’t talk about it, so I’m just guessing and with that and ten cents, you still have ten cents.”

Jake eyed Nicole silently. She had definitely analyzed her husband and the situation thoroughly. He also suspected she was being kind in her assessment of Rodolfo. The guy had more problems than low self-esteem if he was now trying to kill her for her money. “How long were you married?”

“Two years. I met him at twenty-one, married him at twenty-three, left him at twenty-five and now, a year later . . .” She shrugged.

“The divorce is nearly final,” he finished for her.

Nicole nodded and leaned back against the counter with her coffee. “My career was just taking off when we met. I’d just graduated and had my first art show, which was a rousing success . . . thanks to Marguerite.”

His eyebrows rose. “Marguerite?”

Nicole smiled. “Yeah. My cousin, Pierina, and I used to help out Aunt Maria at Marguerite’s several times a year. I was really into art and during breaks, would usually end up sketching while Pierina and I chatted. Marguerite saw and is the first one who encouraged me to pursue art. Well, the first one to encourage me who wasn’t family,” she added with a small smile. “But family have to encourage and support you so her compliments carried a little more weight,” she explained.

When he nodded in understanding, she continued, “Anyway, Marguerite encouraged me and then kept tabs on me. I did a painting of Julius my last year of high school and gave it to her as a sort of thank-you.”

“Her husband, Julius Notte?” Jake asked with surprise. Julius and Marguerite had only reunited and married a few years ago. As far as he knew, Julius hadn’t been around when Nicole was a teenager.

“No, her dog, Julius,” Nicole said with a laugh. “Weird, huh? That she had a dog named Julius before she ever met her husband Julius?”

Jake didn’t comment. Marguerite had caught him up on a lot on their drive here and he knew that while Julius, the man, had only reappeared on the scene recently, he’d been in Marguerite’s life long before she’d named her first dog Julius. However, he didn’t say that.

“Anyway,” Nicole continued, “After I gave her the painting, she asked me to paint a portrait of her daughter, Lissianna, and then one of herself and then her sons: Etienne, Bastien, and Lucern. And when I had my first art show she insisted on making all the arrangements and invited some pretty big names in the art world as well as a lot of people with heavy pockets. The next thing I knew I had commissions coming out of my ears.” She smiled faintly in memory and then her smile faded. “That’s when I met Rodolfo.”

Jake imagined it must have seemed to Nicole like the universe was smiling on her at that point. Her career was taking off and then she met and fell in love with an exotic, foreign man who appeared to love her back. The world had been her oyster, or would have seemed to be. And if she’d met Rodolfo just as her career was taking off, she wouldn’t have had the money she had now. There would have been no reason to think he’d someday try to rob her blind in a divorce . . . and when that failed, try to kill her.

“Speaking of commissions, I guess I should get to work,” Nicole said suddenly, looking uncomfortable, and he suspected she was embarrassed by how much she’d revealed.

“And I should get to work as well,” he said calmly, but when she then headed for the door, he said, “Marguerite mentioned that you were interested in getting a security system for the house. I happen to have a friend who’s the best in the business. I can give him a call to come out for a look-see.”

Jake wasn’t surprised when Nicole grimaced. He knew Marguerite had suggested she needed security and Nicole had most likely reluctantly agreed just to stop the lecturing. But after heaving a sigh, she nodded. “Okay. Thanks.”

“No problem,” Jake murmured and watched her leave the kitchen, his gaze dropping to her behind and staying there until she was out of sight. Then he realized what he’d done and gave his head a shake. Jake had dated a lot of women both as a mortal and as an immortal, but he never mixed business with pleasure. It was dangerous to get distracted in his line of work, and Nicole would definitely be a distraction. Hell, she was already a distraction. He’d meant to read her after Marguerite left but had forgotten that intention as soon as she’d begun to talk. No, it was better to keep his mind on business and avoid the temptation of Ms. Nicole Phillips’s physical attributes . . . but damn, she had a nice round rump and there was nothing he liked better than that.

Grimacing at his own stray thoughts, Jake reached for his cell phone as it began to ring. His eyebrows rose when he saw the call was from Cody, the security guy he’d mentioned. His friend really was the best in the business, and as such, was always busy. He’d talked to his secretary rather than the man himself that morning. She’d said he’d be in at noon and Jake had said he’d call back then. It looked like Cody had decided not to wait. He was expecting the man to tell him he was so busy he couldn’t come out for at least a week, but Jake planned to use bribery and calling in favors to get him out earlier than that.

Nicole eyed the covered paintings at the end of her studio, briefly debating whether she really wanted the rest of her coffee and to work, or whether she shouldn’t dump the rest of it and go back to bed to sleep for another couple of hours. Nicole was tired and she was never at her best when she was tired. It made her work slow and uninspired, and she often just ended up painting over it again later after she’d rested, which was rather a waste of time. Sleeping for another hour or two or four and then waking up refreshed and excited to paint seemed more sensible. But she didn’t want to go to bed. Jake might think she was a slugabed like her ex had always claimed.

The thought of her new cook/housekeeper made Nicole recall the list of Jake’s duties that Marguerite had said she’d left on the dresser in her room. Turning away from the paintings, she headed back out through the office and up the hall, intent on fetching the list. She could hear the murmur of Jake’s voice as she stepped out into the lower living room and supposed he was making that call to his security buddy. The thought made her sigh, and then she wrinkled her nose at herself.

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