"I love it when a book throws me a curve ball and totally surprises me." Goodreads reviewer.
“‘Assassin’s Song’ is a well-written adrenaline-pumping, heart-pounding thriller that will leave you guessing until the end. This suspenseful romance will have you questioning your heart [as] you follow along with Elizabeth and Etienne on this fast-paced adventure that you won’t soon forget.” — Goodreads reviewer
“LOVED IT!! In this thriller/romance Elizabeth is pointed out as an accomplice to an attempted assassination and is taken into custody. When it is discovered she was wrongly accused the story goes on from there with a lot of twists and turns along the way.” — Goodreads reviewer
The taxi jerked to a halt.
I stowed my lipstick and looked outside while adjusting the ebony comb in my hair.
A line of cars blocked the road ahead as far as the eye could see.
I turned my attention to the back of the driver’s jet-black head. “Is this it? Are we here?” I asked in English, having forgotten all the irregularities of the verb être.
The driver glanced over his shoulder, directing a disdainful look my way. “Oui, mademoiselle.”
Oops. I stumbled over my faux pas. “Uh, merci, monsieur. Ou est-ce? Um, le Château de Burg?”
He offered a smile that turned devilish as brake lights from the car ahead flashed across his features. “The chateau is over there, mademoiselle.” He pointed at a yellow glow further up the hill. “Cars are stopped. We must wait.”
My gaze swooshed across the orange neon of the ticking meter. I was running low on euros. The chateau couldn’t be more than a hundred yards ahead.
“I’ll walk,” I said in passable French while rooting through my evening bag for the fare. A fold of euros unearthed, I counted bills and handed over the cash, then stepped into the needling cold of a late-January night.
“Merci bien,” I called, giving the taxi door a shove.
The driver’s grin flashed through the windshield as he pulled the cab into a near-impossible U-turn. The right front wheel met the snow-crusted curb, but he continued over the hump, shifted gears and sped down the cobbled street.
I shook my head and started up the avenue toward the Chateau de Burg.
A swirl of brown hair caught my eye as a woman stepped from a gray Renault ahead. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one to give up on the wait. As I passed, she cast me a glance.
Her dark coat and the dress beneath shifted as she turned back to speak to the driver, then she followed me, heeled shoes crunching over the grit-strewn pavement.
I reached the chateau gates and discovered the source of the jam. Car after car stood bumper-to-bumper unloading well-dressed passengers at the chateau’s front steps.
Moving to one edge of the sidewalk, I allowed the lady following to overtake me. Her coat was plain like mine, a clear contrast to the silver and gold ocean of opulence that glittered in the brilliance of the stone-arched entry.
Safety in numbers. I would be this woman’s shadow, hide in her wake.
A doorman opened one of a pair of magnificent brass doors. He bent his head stiffly as we walked into the foyer. When his cool gaze met mine, I lifted my chin. Arrogance didn’t come naturally.
Oh well, fake it till you make it, I guess.
Not that making it in this sense was a big draw. I was an introvert, a wallflower. I preferred to observe, and right now, the grandiosity of this place intimidated me. Or more accurately, the people.
But, I clung to my air of self-importance and hid my awe. I wasn’t here by invitation. I’d dropped a hundred euros for the honor.
A guide mentioned L’Exposition aux Galeries du Baron de Burg during a tour of the region.
The Chateau de Burg was a private residence, so we only got a drive-by, and the stalker in me couldn’t resist the opportunity to get an eyeful of one of these palatial homes.
I accepted a claim token and placed it, more carefully than my faux-wool coat warranted, into my purse. The woman I’d trailed inside had disappeared, while the one behind me, a well-coiffed lady with a creamy floor-length fur let her companion remove the charm of foxes from her shoulders.
Nope. Velvet was more my style. I’d wear anything made of my favorite fabric like the little red number I’d chosen for this event. Elegantly cut at the knee, the dress hugged me in all the right places. Its beauty was in its simplicity.
Reaching the entrance to the grand ballroom, I paused to soak it all in, until the flow of guests forced me onward. I drifted beneath sparkling chandeliers and marveled at the larger-than-life marble statues, while a violin playing Eine kleine Nachtmusik and the perfume of masses of lilies seduced me.
A whack to the shoulder knocked me back to reality, the impact almost sending me flying.
An ample woman in loud silver taffeta rushed past, leaving me mumbling, “Pardonnez-moi,” in her wake.
The woman’s focus seemed entirely on her target as she torpedoed through the glittery crowd for the refreshment tables.
I rolled my eyes and pulled myself back together.
An unsmiling waiter stopped in front of me and tilted his head toward the glasses on his tray.
I accepted a champagne flute. “Merci.”
The man remained mute, but his gaze lingered until I turned away, feigning interest in an ancient wall hanging of a battle scene.
Did he think me a gatecrasher?
I cringed and returned my attention to the ballroom while sipping my champagne.
Curiosity drove me toward the hors d’oeuvres table. I spotted caviar and foie gras on sliced baguette, and enough brie and chèvre to add ten pounds to my hips just by looking. But my desire to sample the exotic fruits and giant olives was tempered by awkwardness. I felt out of place here on my own, but I was determined to spread my wings and not spend every evening hiding out in my hotel room.
Moving on, I caught the glances of a man with a boyish face. The instant our eyes met, his jumped away as fast as fingers from a hot stove.
Did that make me sizzling?
I bit back a laugh and realized he wasn’t the only one looking.
Awkwardness washed over me, again.
This was France. Men were known to be blatant in their assessments.
Or did I look that out of place?
With a sigh, I searched for a convenient location to fade into the scenery until I noticed a disjointed line of chatting guests forming by an entry. The line into the exhibit hall, perhaps.
An arch and two huge columns separated the alabaster and gold of the ballroom from the ebony marble and chestnut paneling of the room beyond.
Setting down my half-empty glass, I joined the queue and accepted a glossy program from an attendant as I entered the exhibit.
According to the booklet, Baron de Burg was known for his activism and had received acclaim for spearheading a movement to better protect France’s wealth of art.
As the baron had amassed an extensive collection, this was not surprising. Apparently, he possessed one of the most valuable private art collections in the world.
I smirked at the thought of so much wealth. Not only was it incomprehensible, I wasn’t sure I’d want the attention that kind of money brought. I had a successful career working in high-tech. Not a job I was passionate about, but it provided a comfortable income.
Though recently, I’d found myself torn between my sensible career and the desire to venture toward something more creative.
My main reason for coming to France was to get far enough away from home that I could view my options through a fresh lens.
I shook my head and meandered into an antechamber off the main gallery. The art impressed me, but I couldn’t appreciate its nuances the way Kathryn would. My best friend was an arts scholar.
Too bad she hadn’t come with me, and not just because she was missing this. I could’ve used her company.
Being alone in a foreign country with rudimentary language skills and middle-class clothing was bad enough. In this place, I was a minnow among rainbow fish.
I stared into a glass cabinet with a single statue: a handsome knight atop a virile steed as dark as coal. The knight slew a dragon with emerald eyes and glowing ruby nostrils.
A voice spoke behind me. “Il est magnifique, n’est-ce pas?”
The man couldn’t be talking to me, so I ignored him until the question was repeated closer to my ear, his breath tickling the loose curls on my neck.
I whirled around and met a pair of deep velvet eyes.
My throat went dry as I stared, taking him in as a complete unit. Handsome as all get out, but with a sinister air that made him positively alluring. And that suit had to be the joint effort of a dozen top fashion designers who’d found a way to pour the man into it. Or maybe they’d stitched the outfit directly onto his body.
A slow smile drifted across his face as I rewound to his observation of the statue and recovered my voice. “Oh, yes. Uh, I…I mean, Oui…Oui, monsieur.”
Please, god, kill me now.
A dark eyebrow lifted as he bent his head. “Enchanté.”
I smiled, feeling stupid and inadequate. How was I going to maintain a conversation with this man? I could barely talk my way out of a taxi.
“Etienne Stepiro,” he said. “It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
My lips parted, no doubt making my face fit my minnow analogy surprisingly well. This man took bilingual to the extreme. Not an ounce of French accent. He sounded like a Londoner, while my lone tongue was an ugly hybrid of British and American.
I wanted to cover my flaming cheeks with my palms. “Oh, thank you. Um, for speaking in English. I’m afraid my, ah, French is…terrible.” I offered a pathetic smile. “I’m Elizabeth Waring.”
Damn it, why did I tell him my last name? He might be a serial killer.
I forced a smile. “It’s nice to meet you.”
He glanced around. “You’re here alone?”
A trick question I fell into headfirst. “Uh, yes.”
“Wonderful,” he said.
I smiled back, not feeling so sure.
He turned to study the statue of the knight. “Do you have a particular interest in this piece?”
My eyes widened. “Not really…I mean, it’s exquisite. The detail, and…I’m sorry. I’m no expert.” Just an ignorant tourist who should not be here.
His smile shone. “Then perhaps I can be of service.”
Yikes. Figures I’d be approached by an aficionado.
“You’re very kind,” I said. A personal guide for the next hour was an offer I shouldn’t let pass.
I attempted an equally glowing expression of pleasure as I sized him up.
Aside from being hotter than Vulcan’s forge, Etienne Stepiro had a sparkle in his eyes that suggested intelligence. His jaw was angular and chin square with the barest hint of a dimple. Black hair framed his Apollonian features with the barest hint of gray in his sideburns.
I guessed he was mid-thirties, not so many years older than me at twenty-eight.
He gestured toward an ornate jewelry box mounted on a wide pedestal. “This piece is exquisite and over a thousand years old…”
An expert in fine arts, he was, but I found my thoughts drifting from his words. He became his own distraction. There was a stiffness to his shoulders and a wariness to his saunter.
“Don’t you agree?” he said after a pause.
I blinked. “Sorry?”
A frowned dipped between his eyes. “My apologies. Am I boring you?”
“Oh, no. Not at all.” My cheeks flooded with heat. “I’m sorry. Your discussion is fascinating, but…it’s easy to get distracted in a place like this.”
He accepted my weak apology with an offhanded shrug.
Relief set in when we completed the circuit and arrived back at the gallery entrance.
Etienne Stepiro gestured me ahead down the steps and into the ballroom. “May I get you something to drink, Miss Waring?”
Half dying from thirst and the heat of the crowd, I accepted his offer. He intercepted a waiter and handed me a glass of champagne.
I sipped the drink, though I would’ve preferred water.
Drinking nothing himself, Stepiro talked about art history in an opinionated manner that encouraged debate, but who was I to argue on a topic I knew next to nothing about?
God, Kathryn, where are you when I need you?
His words flowed around me while the champagne went to my head, making it hard to focus on his details about the Napoleonic era.
I hoped the muddling of my brain wasn’t too obvious.
“Do you dance, Miss Waring?”
His left-field question caught me by surprise. “Well, yes. I do.” An honest answer I immediately regretted.
“Then allow me.” He lifted the empty glass from my fingers and set it on a convenient surface.
He was an accomplished dancer, and as we whirled under the twinkling chandeliers, my rustiness polished away. But my concern about his obsessive interest didn’t fade, nor did the strength of his mesmerizing gaze. The man was like a drug.
I drew in a breath and studied the other dancers, the musicians across the room, the paintings on the walls, anything to lessen his potency. I was not in the market for a hookup. If anything, the idea of sex with a stranger repulsed me.
The peal of alarm bells inside my head grew stronger, their dissonance breaking through my bemusement. I needed to escape this man.
The music ended. Time for a getaway before this guy got the idea I was a pushover.
As we moved to the edge of the dance floor, I brushed my dress, trying to conjure an excuse when I noticed a loose thread under my fingertips.
With a covert tug, I undid a good six inches of my dress hem. “Oh, dear.” I looked up from the gaping fabric, eyes wide.
He stiffened. “What is it?”
My staged innocence was mediocre at best. “I’m sorry.” I glanced down at my skirt, then met that dangerous gaze again. “There’s something I must attend to. Excuse me.” I tore my eyes from his and dashed away.
Finding the restroom like a magnet finds north, I stepped through the swinging door with an enormous sigh. An attendant stood in one corner of the echoey marble room. She stepped forward, eyes inquiring.
I showed her the loose hem, and she directed me to le salon with a stream of words I couldn’t follow and a finger pointed toward the floor above.
No problem. I’d find my own way. Anywhere that took me further from my unwanted admirer.
After killing some time with my hair and lipstick, I set off in search of the salon, unsure what I’d find when I got there.
Stepping from the ladies’ room, I glanced around, half expecting Etienne Stepiro to be waiting.
Not a sign.
With a breath of relief, I considered leaving, but my stomach chose that moment to growl. I’d fix my dress, sneak some food and take off before that man spotted me again.
With any luck, Monsieur Stepiro had found a new lady friend for the evening and had already forgotten me.
The attendant had gestured upstairs. There was a narrow staircase within view, so I followed it.
Pausing at the top, I glanced back and caught a glimpse of something black and white, but it disappeared behind the turn in the staircase.
Imagination? Anyone’s guess, given that champagne still bubbled through my veins.
Alcoved windows, half-hidden behind thick curtains, lined one side of the wood-paneled corridor. The other side contained doors, all of them closed, and not a single person around to ask for directions. I tried a door at random, but it was locked. I must’ve picked the wrong staircase.
I heard a rustle, but when I turned, the hallway was deserted. I pressed a hand against my grumbling stomach and headed back down the passage.
Side-glancing at a painting, I paused. The portrait showed a falconer with a hooded bird balanced on his wrist. Dark hair and eyes, angular features, he could’ve been that man I just…
Something brushed my arm. I swung to face whatever had touched me and found nothing more dangerous than a curtain.
Until it trembled.
A hand thrust out and grabbed my wrist.
I shrieked as it dragged me into the curtain’s folds.
A hand slammed over my mouth, cutting off a cry as my fingernails squealed across the windowpane. In the darkness, a powerful hand shoved me against the alcove wall.
I fought. The curtain swayed. A shaft of light fell across a face.
I wrenched against his grip, but he jammed me harder into the wall, the length of his body pinning me.
“Make one sound,” he growled, “and I’ll break your neck.”
My blood ran cold. I knew this guy was dangerous. Why didn’t I run while I had the chance?
His hand lifted from my mouth, palm skimming across my jaw. Fingers closed around my neck, and a thumb pressed against my throat. I gripped his wrists, struggled but couldn’t break his hold.
He lowered his head, lips brushing my ear as my body shook.
“Did you think we’d be stupid enough to let him stay here? That I’d give you the chance?”
“Whhhat?” I squeaked like a helpless field mouse trapped in the talons of a raptor. “Are you crazy?”
His fingers tightened. “Enough to kill you. Just give me an excuse.”
I sucked in a breath, terrified it would be my last. His proximity suffocated me while the curtains closed around us like a shroud.
His chuckle sent a chill across my neck. “Where’s your charm now? It worked on Mikhail. Why not try it on me? See where it gets you.” The venom in his voice paralyzed my heart.
“Please… You’ve made a mistake. I-I’ve never met anyone called Mikhail. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I don’t make mistakes. I’ve been waiting for this moment. You’re mine now,” he murmured. “Mine.”
I wrestled him, twisted and thrust out a knee, aiming for his crotch, but caught his inner thigh. He hissed, lifted an elbow and drove his forearm into my face. I turned my head and bit his flesh.
He swore and pulled away. Then the back of his hand flew at my face. The impact snapped my head back with a crack into the wall behind me, and everything went black.