Copyright © 2020 by M.Z. Mauve
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•••• PROLOGUE ••••
3 years earlier
• Paris, France •
Complete, utter failure.
The word rang in his concussed head for days now, ridding him of much-needed sleep and peace of mind. He failed the assignment.
The subject escaped the raid. Seven long weeks of risky, exhaustive investigative work just spiraled down the drain in mere hours.
Unfortunate, but, his luck just ran out.
Naked and alone, Théo took a long drag on his second stick as he stared at his pale reflection, the grayish smoke fleetingly obscuring the aftermath of his latest mission.
The dark skin under his droopy eyes near matched the purplish bruise below his nasal bridge. "Just minor damage to the septal and lateral cartilage," the doctor had said. It should heal nicely soon. Minimal to no scarring.
Nothing makeup couldn't hide in seconds. But his face still hurt like someone bashed it in with a baseball bat. He touched the tip of his nose. "Merde." It still hurt like a bitch on steroids.
On the bright side, no more nosebleeds as of yesterday and he got home safe without blowing his cover. Hopefully the photographers and casting agents wouldn't mind the slight dent on his moneymaking face.
"Pute." Théo put out his cigarette and binned it. For a minute, he gargled the taste and smell of cigarettes out of his mouth with some peppermint mouthwash. Appreciating the total privacy he had today, he trudged out of the dim bathroom to get dressed, his concentration still hostage to his unpleasant thoughts.
For the first time since he signed up for the job, he felt the cold slap of reality reminding him of his weaknesses and "somewhat lacking foresight", as his new boss had tactfully coined it. Disappointing how it took a few years for him to finally acknowledge the truth...
On top of that botched mission, he picked up a new vice that was undoubtedly forming into a dangerous habit. An expensive one, too—a pastime he couldn't really afford with his current day job.
But that wasn't the worst part. His stupidity and the consequences of that assignment almost took his nephew's life. A kid. Just a clueless little child. Abducted in broad daylight just days after Théo got extracted from that international crime gang.
He wasn't a firm believer in coincidences. He gave it the benefit of the doubt once or twice. But after finding out more about his last subject's connections, he was almost 100% sure someone in that highly suspicious bunch of foreign crooks took revenge on him by harming his family.
The mere thought left him sleepless lately. He wasn't used to this much anxiety. He wasn't used to failure. Firstborn syndrome or whatever the shrinks called it.
His bosses from his secret side job said it was his only mission this year. Brief, direct objectives. Should be easy. Basic intel gathering. In and out.
"Stupide, arrogant, vieux sac à merde..." Théo murmured to himself as he put on a clean shirt and jogger pants. No need to look his best today. The next photo shoot was scheduled the following week. No runway stints this month, either.
Without bothering to fix his short hair, he stepped out of the loft in his old sneakers and gym-friendly getup. Maybe he'd lift a few to get his mind off his shitshow of a performance in Britain. Or go hiking with strangers who knew nothing about him.
Yeah. He just needed a good distraction—something to pick up the tiresome pace of his dismal weekend. He wasn't really in the mood for hard drugs today.
"Putain de merde." After he almost doubled over in pain, Théo backed away from the stupid glass door with his hand fully covering his nose. Thick, solid glass just hit his face. Like a dozen consecutive jabs right on his injury. The pain in his nose and cheeks only intensified when he winced.
Shit? That's all she had to say? He scowled and glanced down, suppressing the growing urge to swear louder as his eyes tried to focus on the pair of boots almost touching his shoes.
Was she blind? Or just plain careless? Stupid American...
"Oh m— Sorry. I'm really sorry." The girl took a step forward to get closer to him. "Desolée. Je suis navrée." Her dainty hand had been covering half of her pale face since she rushed out of the boutique.
Huh. She spoke like a local.
At the sound of the woman's somewhat raspy voice speaking his native tongue, Théo perked up and stopped avoiding her eyes, his palm still hiding his injured nose as best as it could.
He wasn't planning on being social today. At all. It was a busy city. Noisy. Heavy traffic. People all over the sidewalks just going about their day. He could get away with it if he just minded his own business all day. But now it was clear he had to talk to someone besides himself.
"Ça va?" The girl kept staring at him.
"I'm fine," he muttered to the young American standing inches away from him. His entire face still hurt, but nothing he couldn't handle. To make her feel worse, though, he had to look believably pained.
"Did I..." The woman in the plain white shirt and black leather shorts leaned closer till her cold hands touched his forearms. "Shit. Did I break your nose?" Genuine panic widened her hazel eyes. "I'm so sorry."
Definitely American. East Coast accent. He often worked runway and print jobs in New York. He could spot an American just by their distinct lilt. A smirk threatened to replace his scowl. Something in the guilt-ridden look on her freckled face amused him, distracting him from his ill thoughts all weekend. "No. I'll live," he mumbled in reply.
"Can I take a look? Please?" The girl took another step closer till her leather boots touched his sneakers and her bare knees brushed against his pants. Her perfume reminded him of jasmine and roses.
Mild but addictive. "I'm fine," he repeated in a calmer tone, appreciating the amount of concern in her almond-shaped eyes and slightly furrowed brows. They looked light brown, like her wavy hair that barely reached her chest.
College girl? Her legs and arms looked svelte like the rest of her physique. Her baggy shirt didn't hide her curves; her leather shorts looked uncomfortably tight around her hips. Aside from the faint lines on her jowls and the crow's feet beside her heavy-lidded eyes, the graceful, confident way she carried herself assured him she wasn't barely legal.
"But your nose is bruising," the woman muttered. Her bangs partly covered the frown that wrinkled her pinkish lips.
"No. Not your fault."
"Oh. Thank God." She breathed out a sigh but took another step forward.
"Basketball injury last week." Théo beefed up his lie with a grin. He couldn't touch his face anymore as her cold hands were now practically giving him a nasal examination in the middle of the sidewalk. A passerby glanced at them but walked on, ignoring their ongoing awkward exchange.
Now the woman was squinting while her soft fingers touched his jaw, tilting his head upward as if she was checking his septum. "Sorry. Just checking, and makin' sure I didn't make your nose bleed." She clicked her tongue and smiled. Cute dimples formed below her lips.
He simply stared back at her. Just now his brain recognized that he had a thing for women wearing V-neck shirts and leather shorts. The suede boots completed her whole look, matching the warmer than usual weather this afternoon. He cleared his throat.
The way her thighs pressed against his and the gentleness of her pale hands on his face just shot a rush of blood down his crotch. Her angelic scent was doing a number on him, too. Then she bit on her lip to stop herself from giggling—maybe at her clumsiness and his misfortune?
At the sound of her breathy giggle, his dick got hard almost instantly, tightening his briefs under his sweatpants as she stood too close to him. It could just be the sleeplessness, combined with the aftereffects of that male enhancement pill he'd been taking to satisfy his subject's insatiable appetite in bed. Just part of his tasks and strategy to get into Masha's head, the focus of his last mission's objectives.
Wait. He hadn't taken a pill since the day he flew out of Britain.
"Sorry. I was on my phone." American girl made a face again after pulling away from him.
"All good. I'm Théo,” he said before grabbing her palm for a handshake.
The woman looked surprised for a second before her beautiful smile narrowed her eyelids and showed her dimples again. "Via." She shook his hand firmly.
"Via. Is that short for something?"
"Ah. Nice to meet you, Via."
"Likewise." She backed away a few steps after her smile widened. "Again, I didn't mean to... Please put some ice on it when you get home."
He grinned back at her. His filthy mind was imagining pulling her closer to kiss her pretty mouth just to stop her from apologizing and worrying too much. For a moment, they just stood in the middle of the sidewalk while staring at each other.
Then a shrill noise cut through the awkward silence. Via excused herself to take a phone call. They stood right outside the boutique entrance, and she got busy on her phone for a while. She mentioned a dental appointment, then some medical terms and something about nose injuries.
Was she asking for medical advice?
"Okay. Yeah. Okay. Call you later. Bye, Mommy." Via hung up and turned to regard him. "Sorry."
"No problem," he mumbled in response while trying to calm his unwanted hard-on under his not so thick jogger pants.
She averted her gaze but kept up a pleasant smile.
"Here on vacation?" he asked without realizing how cheesy it sounded, until she chuckled and glanced away. He should get going since it was obvious she had somewhere to be, but his feet and legs wouldn't move for some asinine reason.
"Yeah. Just a quick one." A shy grin faintly curved her lips. "Tour break."
"I sing in a band."
"Ah. Cool." Théo took two steps closer to her to get a whiff of her perfume again. It just smelled great. Almost...seductive. Or maybe it was just his testosterone level making him hornier than usual.
So far, their interaction told him she was a bit of a goody-two-shoes in her mid-20s who still calls her mother "Mommy" and dresses like a hot college girl. Not exactly his type. But now he was itching to ask for her number.
Worse: he was thirstily imagining dating her just to ruin her innocence.
Shit. He was being a real creep now. Oh boy. He should back off and get going.
"The heck d'you think you're doing, Reynaud?"
The high-pitched complaint snapped him out of his dirty thoughts at once. He glanced to the tall, skinny and familiar blonde who just stepped out of the boutique. Her scowl made her blood-red lips pout.
Crap. It's Jamie.
"Are you seriously flirting with my best friend?" Jamie's evident incredulity arched her perfectly drawn brow with her keen blue eyes watching every second of his reaction.
"Out of all the girls in this city..." She scoffed. "What? Got her digits yet?" Jamie grabbed Via's arm to pull her away from him. Then Jamie stepped forward to pinch his cheek. "Nice shiner, blondie." She cackled. "Pissed someone off lately?"
He groaned in pain while she laughed beside Veronica who looked utterly speechless right now, glancing at him and Jamie with scrunched brows.
"You comin' to Laurin's party next week?" Jamie asked in a chipper tone when he didn't say anything. Her smile showed off her nice teeth that looked the same shade as her platinum blonde hair.
Veronica's her best friend? Weird. "What?" Théo held back a frown while waiting for the pain in his face to subside.
Looking busy putting together the puzzle pieces, Veronica stood still beside Jamie and gave him a tentative smile.
"Next Saturday. Be there." Jamie turned her back to him to mumble something to Veronica. Then Jamie held Veronica's wrist and glared at him for a second. "Text you then."
"Okay..." he mumbled, confused and caught off-guard. "Where you going?"
"We're running late for my dental. See ya."
"Bye, Théo. Just put some ice on it." Veronica smiled at him one last time before Jamie could drag her away from him. Jamie already pushed her into a cab before he could even react.
"Bye," he muttered to himself. He just stood and watched them leave him alone on the sidewalk. He scowled. "See you around."
• A new record, a flourishing music career, new tours, bigger paychecks, enough savings for rent, a new car, and maybe a new house...Basically the things she looked forward to when she signed with the band under a bigger label. Not depression. Or a mental breakdown. Oh, right. A rather outdated term. "Now we generally call it a major depressive episode," was what her mom said the other night. Apparently it was the more clinically accurate term describing her condition. Good thing no one else knew about it. Yet."Not atypical for a 25-year-old after a traumatic breakup, hon. Stop being so hard on yourself," her mom had reminded. Dr. Michel even encouraged her to see a shrink last week. Yikes. Talking to a complete stranger who knew jackshit about her and her problems for an hour straight? Must be the most awkward thing ever. Veronica scowled and stepped out of the shower. Only the third time she bothered to bathe this week, but who cares...Lately she loved being alone and holing u
• Ecstasy. Nothing but pure ecstasy. It's how he always felt whenever he had her all to himself. Whenever they were intimate in bed, especially. It always felt this great.Something about making love to her just overwhelmed him with pure bliss and a rush of emotions he never felt with anyone else. It almost controlled him. It numbed every bit of his common sense, and he loved how it consumed him and every part of him, albeit just for a fleeting moment. Far from the annoying loneliness and instant guilt trip post-nut clarity often gave him. Holding her in his arms, listening to her laugh, kissing her wherever he wanted, feeling the gentleness of her caresses—just a thousand times better.Being with her just felt right. Natural. Freeing. He would never trade the feeling for anything. Not in this lifetime. "You okay, love?" Théo stroked her chin as her gasps and moans settled down, his chest and muscles relaxing now.Her naked body underneath him shuddered again. Her face still looked
• Arcueil, Paris •"You good?""50 percent remaining." Enough for a 30-minute call. Théo stretched out on his daybed and sat up after checking his phone's battery bars. Growing impatient, he got on his feet and headed out the door.The rooftop would be ideal. Moonlit. Spacious. Private. He could talk to his girlfriend for as long as he wanted. His hand disheveled his clean-cut hair as he dashed across the hallway to get to the staircase. He glanced around the lonely apartment, then flipped the wall light on.The loft, unusually still since the all-nighters left, reeked of male musk and sweat. Théo grimaced. A tolerable noise of rock 'n roll music playing over a speaker in the next unit was the only thing keeping their apartment from being eerily quiet.Naturally, the place was a complete mess again. Dirty ashtrays, dirty shirts, and even filthier sneakers littered the living room. He would move out of this place in a heartbeat if only he had his own house and lot just waiting for his p
•"You serious?" Her glare should tell him her confusion just clouded her thoughts now. Veronica locked stares with him.Kyle kept quiet while she waited for another answer—something that sounded more believable and sensible. But she got zilch.She breathed out a sigh and did another mental count before she could say something sarcastic.He didn't even blink or move one bit."You think I'm gonna say yes, just like that?" she blurted out, incredulity loud and clear in her voice. She even cracked a joke, only to end up snickering at her dull attempt to sass her way out of the conversation.Perhaps to make her feel like crap, Kyle kept his mouth shut as if he hadn't heard anything."What, you think I'll leave?" she questioned. Why did he spark off an argument? Was he that worried she would just leave the band and forfeit their musical career j
•Her sweaty palms went cold on her bare thighs as Veronica sat on the bed. Her back and legs felt like limp lettuce. She'd already stripped down to her nightdress, and the orange numbers her nightstand clock flashed told her it was going to be a long night. She waited for the sound of her faucet going off.The bathroom lights—because her boyfriend left the door ajar—kept her bedroom from being pitch-black. Veronica eyed his carry-on sports duffel near the windows. His hefty baggage then reminded her how he'd spent his entire day hopping on planes.Théo had just walked in a list of fashion shows in New York, Paris, and Milan consecutively. After fixing up a week-long vacation so he could spend time with her, he'd flown back to the US. Théo arrived an hour ago. She couldn't drive to pick him up at the airport at that point because Kyle was throwing another hissy fit back in the studio—something that
•Groggy and relaxed, Théo got up when he felt a light tap on the leg. It was his girlfriend. She just interrupted his siesta. He stifled a yawn, grabbed his cargo shorts, and zipped his fly. Veronica smiled and thanked the uniformed masseuses as they left the two-bed hotel room.Théo watched and muffled a loud yawn. With her phone in her hand, Veronica walked back to the other bed, barefoot and with her thighs partly covered by denim shorts. Her pale, dainty hands gathered her long brown hair. His girlfriend grinned when she caught him ogling.Even sleepy and with his energy way below normal level, he couldn't help getting winded up by the mere sight of her. Her sporty bra showed off her beautiful shoulders. Her long-lashed eyes focused on her phone. She kept texting, prolonging the comfortable silence in the room.The fact that she chose a single room pleased him of course. But he knew she just didn't want to double the bill. The fact that it was a two-bed room dismayed hi
• "This bed's too cold." Veronica chuckled, not expecting his complaint. While Théo pretended to look annoyed, she switched off the lights, then snuggled to him under the covers. "Better?" she teased. "Perfect," Théo sighed. His arm circled her waist while he pretended to focus on the television screen. An impish grin put small slits beside his eyes. Veronica kept a side comment to herself. She was bra-less with nothing more than a thin sheath of sleeping gown over a small pair of scanties. He wore nothing but his boxers. No doubt he wanted to do something else later. They killed time watching TV, but she also kept her mind busy pondering things, committing to memory how addictively good it felt to be this intimate with him...to have him right next to her while he hugged her close. It had always been like this. Time apart always told her what they had was more than physical. He'd made clear of that himself from the beginning. "This isn't just a test run for me. Alright?" T
•// Recording studio //"The 28th? Okay. Got it. Thanks."After confirming their tour dates, Kyle put his phone away. He strolled back into the booth with his electric guitar clinging to his torso. Jay (the band's manager) had told him Veronica was informed of the schedule changes, so he didn't bother to check up on her today.They were supposed to be busy in the studio, but she'd called in sick again. With her Frenchman back in the city for a short break, Kyle knew she'd been spending all week with the guy. Her voice had been a little iffy the last time they got to work on a song, but it could've been worse.She must be in a pricey hotel right now with Mr. Supermodel eager to make the most of his "me" time. Maybe the lovebirds would be heading to the beach later, if Kyle knew any better.He understood. She hadn't spent time with the guy in months, which was always t