One Lucky Vampire(Argeneau Series)(3)

By: Lynsay Sands
Three

“There you are! We were starting to worry you’d got lost.”

Nicole looked around at Marguerite’s light words and saw Jake entering the kitchen. She smiled at him a little nervously, and then turned back to the cupboard and pulled out a third cup as Marguerite said, “We finished a few minutes ago and Nicole put coffee on. It should be ready soon.”

“Oh.”

Nicole turned uncertainly at that one word. It sounded a little taken aback and she frowned and asked, “Don’t you like coffee? I can make something else for you. Tea, or . . . cocoa? Or maybe you’d rather have something cold to drink?”

“No, coffee’s fine,” he said slowly, then moved toward her, holding out his closed hand. When he reached her, he opened his hand, revealing three keys.

Nicole took them, her forehead furrowing. “What are these?”

“Keys.”

“Well, I know that,” she said on a half laugh. “To what?”

“To the house,” Jake said, and then explained. “There was something wrong with the front lock. We locked it when we came in, but it was unlocked again when I went to search the house. So I called a friend of mine and he replaced the front door lock and then rekeyed all the others so that one key is all you need to unlock all of them.”

“Oh,” she said with surprise. “I didn’t even realize anyone was here. I didn’t hear the doorbell.”

“He knocked, and I believe you were screeching in pain at the time,” Jake said gently.

“Oh,” Nicole repeated, flushing this time. She was not good with pain. She tried to be stoic, but stoic just didn’t seem doable for her and she’d screamed like a baby at one point when Marguerite had had to dig out a piece of glass that broke off under the skin when she took out the larger end.

“I had him make six copies,” Jake continued. “There is a key in each door now so that if you need to get out in a hurry, you don’t have to search for your keys. These three are so that you have one yourself, I get another, or any cook/housekeeper after me gets it, and the third is for you to give to guests when they stay as you did with Marguerite.”

“Oh,” Nicole said again, unsure what else to say. She was glad to hear the lock was faulty. It was better than thinking her memory was faulty or someone else had a key to the house. But she wasn’t sure how she felt about Jake just having someone come in and change her locks without at least asking her about it.

“I told you he was a marvelous cook/housekeeper,” Marguerite said beaming. “Just like Maria, he’ll take care of what needs taking care of, relieving you of the burden. Your life is going to be so much simpler with him here.”

Nicole felt herself relax under those words. She’d never had a cook/housekeeper before and had no idea what all they were expected to do, but if Marguerite thought this was normal . . . well, great. She guessed.

The coffeepot beeped then, announcing it was ready, and Nicole slid the keys into her pocket and quickly moved over to pour three cups. Jake was immediately there to take two of them and carry them to the island where Marguerite had settled on one of the four bar chairs that wrapped around the end and up one side. Nicole followed with the third cup, and climbed awkwardly onto the seat beside Marguerite, a little kerfluffled by his gentlemanly behavior when Jake pulled out the chair.

“Well, this is nice,” Marguerite decided as they sipped their coffee.

Nicole nodded, but she was searching her mind for how she should proceed here. Jake had already taken on the responsibility of the door as if his working here was a certainty, and Marguerite was acting the same, but she really felt like she should ask at least a couple questions of the man who would be given a key to her home. In fact, that was why the keys presently rested in her pocket. The coffee being ready had given her an excuse for putting off the distribution of the keys, but the truth was, she was leery of doing so with a complete stranger.

“I know I mentioned to you both about a two-week trial run with Jake working here,” Marguerite said suddenly, and then turned her gaze on Nicole and added, “But I’m sure you’d like to know more about Jake, dear, since the man will be living in your house.”

“Uh . . .” Nicole grimaced. She hadn’t realized that he would be living here, but supposed that was often the case with housekeepers. Aunt Maria and her husband lived in a guesthouse on Marguerite’s property, but Nicole didn’t have a guesthouse. She supposed he’d have to take the room downstairs. It would at least give him a little privacy . . . and herself. Geez, she hadn’t thought this out at all. She’d simply mentioned that she needed a cook/housekeeper to tend things while she worked and the next thing she knew—her gaze slid to Jake—she had one, thanks to her fairy godmother, Marguerite.

“Yes, I suppose I would like to know more about Jake,” she admitted finally.

“Right.” Marguerite smiled, unperturbed. “Well, first off, Ste—” She paused and grimaced, shook her head, and tried again. “First off, Jake is family.”

“Is he?” Nicole asked with surprise.

Marguerite nodded. “His mother is married to my Julius’s brother-in-law, Roberto. So he’s my step-nephew, although I just think of him as a nephew.”

“Oh.” Nicole watched as Jake calmly sipped his coffee, seeming to ignore the recitation.

“He used to be vice president of V.A. Inc., a large corporation with its home base in California.”

“Vice president?” Nicole asked with a start. Jake didn’t look more than twenty-five, which seemed kind of young for such a responsible position to her, but Marguerite nodded again.

“I know he looks young, but he’s very responsible,” Marguerite assured her. “And he was very good at his job, but a health scare seven years ago made him decide to pursue a more relaxing career, and he’s always loved to cook, so . . .” She shrugged. “Here he is.”

Nicole stared from Marguerite to Jake. That was it? He was related, used to be V.P. of some big business, had a health scare, and now was happy to be her cook/housekeeper for a pittance of what he must have made as a V.P.? She noted the way Marguerite was scowling at Jake and wondered what that was about. She didn’t have long to wonder. Marguerite suddenly blew out her breath with exasperation.

“Look at her expression, Jake. I told you it would sound dubious, but you insisted on the truth,” the woman complained, as if to say “and look where that has got us. She doesn’t believe a word of it.”

“The truth is always the best way to go,” Jake responded with a shrug of unconcern, and that was when Nicole decided she knew enough. It wasn’t that she didn’t still have a lot of questions, but after all the lies Rodolfo had told her, the one most important thing to her now was honesty and Jake was apparently an honest man. There were few enough of those in the world. But Nicole wanted an honest person, man or woman, for the position. She was trusting him in her home, her sanctuary. Honesty was the most important thing to her. Later she could find out all the other things she was curious about like what the man had done these last three years. Had he been a cook/housekeeper that whole time? Did he really enjoy puttering around the house, cooking, and cleaning for others? Did he not miss the power and excitement inherent in a position like vice president? And why had he moved here to Ottawa when he’d left the job in California?

There were loads of questions Nicole could ask. However, she would learn those answers later if necessary. Right now, she knew enough about the man to go forward with the two-week trial. If he worked out, Nicole could ask her questions. If not . . . then she supposed the answers to those questions didn’t really matter.

“Okay, here’s your key,” she said, digging out two of the three keys she’d shoved in her pocket. She handed Jake one and then turned to Marguerite.

“No need to give me one again,” Marguerite said, waving away the key Nicole offered her. “I don’t need it. I won’t be leaving again until I head home tomorrow and you guys will see me out then.”

“Are you sure?” Nicole asked, and when the woman nodded, she slid it back into her pocket with a shrug.

“Well, this was lovely, but I find I’m a little weary tonight. I think I’ll take my coffee with me and go read in bed for a bit before I sleep,” Marguerite announced, slipping off her seat before smiling at Nicole and adding, “That way I won’t have to feel guilty for keeping you from your work.”

Nicole had started to get anxious at Marguerite’s first words, but the last comment made her relax. She wasn’t being abandoned to entertain Jake alone. He was an employee. She could go to work and leave him to settle in and enjoy a free night before he started work in the morning.

“Yes, I suppose I should get back to work,” Nicole said with relief, standing herself. “What time is your flight tomorrow, Marguerite?”

“Two thirty. I’ll be leaving here at noon to be sure I get through security with plenty of time, so give me a hug now, my dear, in case you’re still sleeping when I go.”

Nicole moved to give her a hug, but said, “I’ll make sure to set my alarm so I’m up to have coffee with you before you go. But thank you for everything, Marguerite. It’s always a pleasure to see you.”

“It’s always a pleasure for me too,” Marguerite assured her, hugging her tightly. “And you’re more than welcome.”

Nicole smiled and stepped back when she released her, then watched her leave the room before turning to Jake. “I guess you don’t need a tour?”

“No.” He smiled faintly. “I pretty much know my way around after the two searches of the house. I’ll just get my bag from the car and settle myself in. I’ll probably read for a bit myself tonight.”

Nicole nodded, and moved to pour herself another coffee to take down to the studio with her. She had a coffeepot there, as well as a cappuccino machine, a small refrigerator with cold beverages, and a microwave, but the coffee was already made here so she might as well drink it.

“You can take the room down—” Nicole paused as she turned to see that Jake had already left the room. Nicole gave a little shrug and headed for her studio, her mind already on the portrait she was working on and the colors she wanted to use to add contrast to the painting that was furthest along.

While Nicole almost always finished her portraits by having the customer pose for her, that was just to get the final details down. The majority of the picture was done from photos of the subject and she almost always put in her own background in the portraits unless the customer specified a certain one. Sometimes she made the backgrounds whimsical settings, sometimes more dramatic. It depended on the subjects themselves. The main painting she was presently working on was for an actress of some fame, who was also a wife and mother . . . and from what she’d seen, a very loving wife and mother. Nicole wanted to show the contrasts in the woman’s life by making the background a whirl of contrasts, soft and hard, light and dark, earth mother and diva. So far it was working well.

Jake made sure to lock the front door as he came back in, double-checked it, and then carried his duffel bag upstairs to the guest room next to the master bedroom. He needed to be close to his client to keep her safe, and right next door was as close as he could get unless he wanted to sleep with her . . . which he actually wouldn’t mind. Nicole was a luscious lovely he wouldn’t mind tasting, but he suspected Nicole wouldn’t feel the same way about him. She thought he was her cook/housekeeper after all, and she was just coming out of a bad relationship, and on the tail end of a nasty divorce. He doubted she was ready to welcome anyone into her bed.

“Nicole’s going to be surprised that you’re in here.”

Jake set his bag on the bed before reacting to Marguerite’s comment. He took in the way she leaned casually against the doorjamb and then asked, “Why is that?”

“Because I put my stuff in here when I first arrived, and only moved it downstairs when I left to meet you. I knew you’d need to be close to her.”

Jake nodded, not surprised Marguerite had worked that out. She was a smart woman.

“There was nothing wrong with the front door lock,” Marguerite commented, pushing away from the door and walking over to sit on the side of the bed as he unzipped his bag.

“There could have been, but I doubt it,” Jake said with a shrug, turning to open the top drawer of the dresser against the wall beside the bed. He nodded with satisfaction when he found it empty, and said, “The locksmith didn’t find anything wrong with the lock.”

“So Rodolfo was in the house when we got here?” Marguerite asked grimly.

“Someone probably was,” Jake said carefully, unwilling to jump to conclusions. Rodolfo had been his first thought too, but he had no proof.

“I can’t believe she didn’t even think to have her locks changed,” Marguerite said on a sigh. “Especially after all that business with the furnace and the grill.”

“As you said, she’s in denial,” Jake said mildly as he began transferring his clothes from the bag to the drawer.

“Yes, but still . . .”

“She loved him, Marguerite,” he said quietly. “You can see it in the photos hanging all over this house. The way she looked at him, it’s obvious she loved him. She probably still loves him or she’d have taken down the photos.” His mouth tightened as he said that. It bothered him that Nicole still seemed to love the man after all he’d done, but it was none of his business and he continued, “You yourself said it would be hard to admit that the man you married was only interested in your money. Well, as you said, it would be harder still to admit that the man you love thought so little of you he wants you dead for profit.”

“I suppose,” Marguerite agreed quietly. She was silent for a moment, watching him unpack and then suddenly asked, “Have you tried to read her yet?”

He paused, his head lifting with surprise. “No. Should I have?”

“Have you learned to control or read the minds of mortals?” she asked instead of answering.

Jake returned to his unpacking with a grimace. He had sworn he wouldn’t do things like that when he became an immortal. But the skill seemed to come naturally to him, and when lives were on the line, it was a handy skill to have. It was how he’d known the guy in the baseball cap was there to shoot the dictator earlier that day, and that he was about to pull a gun. It was why Jake had burst forward to stop him, and had he not managed to reach him in time, he would have controlled and stopped him from aiming and pulling the trigger. But all he said was, “Yes, I’ve learned.”

“Good. You may need to use it on Nicole.”

“Why?” he asked with surprise.

“Well with her being in denial, she may do something dangerous or risky, and you’ll need to stop her,” Marguerite pointed out. “Besides, there are some things you should know about her that you can only learn from reading her.”

“Like what?” Jake asked with a frown.

Marguerite shook her head and stood up. “It’s not my place to say. Besides, I find I really am tired. I think I’ll go to my room. Good night, Jake.” She walked over to kiss him on the cheek, and then turned and left the room, leaving him frowning and wondering what the devil he should know about Nicole that Marguerite wouldn’t explain.

Jake had thought Marguerite had told him everything about the woman earlier at the restaurant. She’d certainly seemed to, telling him things like Nicole was good in school, but more interested in art than her other courses. That she’d been shy and more reserved through high school and university, preferring to stay home and paint to partying much. That she’d hung out with the artsy crowd, rather than date around, but that Pierina had always been her best friend. That Rodolfo was the wildest, riskiest thing that had happened in her life so she would no doubt be reluctant to take a chance like that again.

The woman had given him some pretty personal details, and she’d known a surprising bit about Nicole for a girl who he understood had merely popped up in her home several times a year.

Shaking his head, Jake returned to his unpacking, but his mind was now firmly on Nicole and what secrets she kept. So much so that he almost stopped packing to go down to her studio and read her. However, he didn’t want to disturb her. Another fact that Marguerite had passed along was that Nicole was trying to keep to a ridiculous schedule at the moment and working herself to the point of exhaustion. Tomorrow was soon enough to learn her secrets, he supposed, as he finished putting his things away.

Jake closed the drawer, stowed his bag in the closet and then headed back out to the kitchen. It was after midnight now, but he worked nights as a rule and slept days, so this was still early to him. That coffee hadn’t helped. Immortals were sensitive to caffeine, some more than others, and he usually avoided it because of that. Now he was feeling a little jittery and thirsty. He supposed the thirst was the nanos working to remove the caffeine from his system. Water would help, but blood would be better.

However, that thought brought a problem to the forefront of his mind. He needed a way to keep blood close at hand and cold. The best solution was to go out and pick up a small bar fridge and put it in his room somewhere. But he wasn’t happy at the prospect of leaving Marguerite and Nicole alone after the business with the unlocked door earlier. Jake had checked the furnace and looked around the house, not finding anything amiss, but that didn’t mean that something hadn’t been done. It just meant he hadn’t found it. He’d rather stick close tonight just in case he’d missed something.

So . . . the blood and refrigerator would have to wait. He could always call Bastien and ask him to send both out to him if he couldn’t find a way to manage the task himself. A refrigerator wasn’t usually an item Argeneau Enterprises supplied, at least he didn’t think it was, but he suspected Bastien would make an exception. Especially when he found out Jake was here at his mother’s behest. Besides, he’d be happy to pay for the extra service.

Jake quickly tidied the kitchen. There wasn’t much to do there. Marguerite had returned her coffee cup and he put that and his own in the dishwasher, along with the couple of spoons they’d used. He then put the milk and sugar away, wiped up the counter and he was done. He was crazy restless though, and after a hesitation, he went downstairs, donned his coat and boots, and unlocked the front door to go outside.

It was snowing out, the front steps already covered with a thin layer of new-fallen snow. Jake supposed he’d have to take care of that before Marguerite left tomorrow. But he’d leave it till morning, or at least until the snow stopped, he decided, as he turned to lock the front door with his key. As he started walking along the front of the house, he added arranging for the installation of a security system for the house to his list of things to do the next day. With any luck, he could get someone out right away and have it done first thing in the morning while Nicole slept. Then he just had to tell her after the fact as if it were a typical chore he was expected to do . . . and he would in his capacity as bodyguard. Jake suspected few cook/housekeepers were ever called upon to manage the task though.

Smiling at the thought, he walked around the house. It was a full moon tonight, the snow showing up in gray relief with moonshadows cast by the many trees in the yard. Jake automatically scanned the area as he walked, looking for footprints in the snow or moonshadows that might be someone who shouldn’t be there. He didn’t see anything.

Jake’s eye was drawn to a large puddle of light splashing across the snow-covered yard when he turned the corner to the back of the house. He knew the light was coming from Nicole’s studio windows, but he was surprised they were uncurtained at night. He was also surprised to find himself drawn forward like a moth to a flame.

Pausing on the edge of the light where he wouldn’t be visible, Jake peered into the studio, amusement tugging at his lips when he saw Nicole with headphones on, dancing around as she dabbed at a stretch of canvas with a paintbrush. There were three canvases set up, each at a different stage of completion. One looked to be barely started, a pencil sketch of what appeared to be a couple. It was too faint and he was too far away to be able to see the features, but Jake suspected it was Marguerite’s son, Christian, and his fiancée, Carolyn. She’d mentioned that she’d come with photos for Nicole to use for the portrait. He guessed that Nicole must have set to work that evening on the initial sketch for the portrait. The next canvas held a half-done portrait of a rather stern-looking older man against a dark and dramatic background. The last was a rather lovely woman who looked vaguely familiar. That one looked nearly done.

Nicole did a little whirl in front of the woman’s portrait, and then suddenly shifted to the half-finished stern-faced man, and Jake watched with fascination as she began to dab at the background there with the same brush. It seemed she was working on the three canvases at once, he thought with surprise, his gaze dropping to her behind as she paused in her painting to do a little bump and grind to whatever music she was listening to.

It took about two minutes for it to occur to Jake that his behavior was kind of creepy. He was sort of acting like a peeping Tom. Or, really, he supposed he was being a peeping Tom, standing there staring in at an unsuspecting Nicole.

Grimacing at his own behavior, Jake forced himself to continue walking. He made his way around the outside of the splash of light on the lawn, determinedly not looking in the window again. He then continued around the side of the building and back to the front of the house again.

There were no footprints but his own in the new-fallen snow, Jake noted as he walked to the front door and unlocked it. But he hadn’t expected any. Whoever had unlocked the door twice that day now knew Nicole had company. They’d wait until she was alone to try again, he was sure . . . unless they’d already done something none of them yet knew of. The thought was a troubling one. There were so many options in every house. Poison could have been put in anything from food and drink to perfume or lotion. The electrical could have been messed with, a stair rail could have been loosened, or the chandelier that hung in the curve of the stairwell . . .

Jake grimaced as he walked under the large ten-foot chandelier hanging from the cathedral ceiling some twenty feet up. Having that suddenly crash on to a mortal would definitely kill them. On the other hand, that wasn’t even a possibility. The culprit would have needed something to get him up to the cathedral ceiling to mess with it. But there were tons of other possibilities, and Jake simply couldn’t check them all. He could check a lot of them though, he decided in the next moment. It wasn’t like he had anything better to do, and he wasn’t going to be sleeping tonight.

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