More Than Words
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The lilting strains of “La Vie en Rose” drifted from the lounge, luring me forward, the buzzing in my veins suddenly increasing and the surge of adrenaline causing me to stumble on the stone floor. Despite the instability of my borrowed shoes, I had the brief, intense urge to run, as if I were late for something and time was of the essence. “Get a grip, Jessica,” I whispered to myself. I needed to settle down, and quiet my excitement at being in this grand place, or I’d never be able to focus on the work I was here to do.
I took a deep breath, the music and lyrics of the famous French ballad calming me as I entered the lounge, standing in the doorway for a moment. The room was magnificent, decorated in shades of royal blue, light blue, and gold, with a striking, ornate bar on the back wall. I felt suddenly uncertain as I watched groups of people laugh and chatter, the crystals from the chandeliers overhead causing the light to shift and shimmer. I bit my lip and moved farther into the room, that electric feeling settling into a warm hum that relaxed my muscles and made me want to sink into one of the comfortable-looking upholstered chairs in any one of the small groupings of furniture. Stay, it whispered.
I stepped up to the bar, and the bartender turned my way. “Madame?”
“Un verre de vin blanc s’il vous plaît.” The bartender handed me a carte des vins, and I chose a sauvignon blanc that came from a winery in the Loire Valley. I turned and glanced around the bar as the bartender was pouring my wine. There was a group of women gathered around a man with dark hair, and he was laughing and saying something that they evidently all found completely delightful, as they were laughing giddily and flipping their hair in unison. I felt an inexplicable jolt of annoyance and turned back around just as the bartender slid the glass of wine and my tab onto the bar. I signed the slip, taking my wine with a smile and a muttered, “Merci,” as I began walking away.
“Excusez-moi, Jessica Creswell. Eh, Madame Creswell?”
It took a moment for my name to register, and I turned back around in confusion to see the bartender holding my evening bag toward me. I’d left it on the bar. I let out a short breath, reaching for the bag and smiling in embarrassment. “Que je suis bête.” Silly me.
I wandered away from the bar, toward the doors to what must be a balcony, glancing outside. The balcony looked out over the gardens I’d walked through earlier that day, and I considered taking my wine outside but decided against it when I noticed a couple standing at the railing, their heads bent together intimately. They were obviously enjoying the privacy. Feeling a strange sort of heat on the back of my neck, I tensed, a shiver running through me as I slowly turned around.
I sucked in a startled breath as my gaze clashed with that of Callen Hayes.
My hand trembled, and I brought my other hand up just in time to stop myself from dropping the wineglass I was holding. Oh dear Lord. It felt like all the blood in my body had drained to my feet.
How in the world? How in the wide, wide world was this happening to me again? It couldn’t be. It couldn’t. He was moving toward me, eyes wide, his expression stunned, as if he’d just seen a ghost, and all I could do was stare back. Frozen.
I felt caught in his gaze, paralyzed with this feeling of unreality, as he stepped between two women and moved closer … closer. Some part of me wanted to run away, and another, stronger part, wanted to move toward him so we’d come together sooner. This was … This was impossible. Only somehow it was not. Somehow, I felt this odd inevitability, as if a part of me had been waiting for this to happen. I couldn’t explain it, not even to myself.
I sucked in a breath of air, watching him approach. He was gorgeous. I remembered the first time I’d seen him sitting in the back of that abandoned boxcar, bruised and alone. He’d been only a boy, but beautiful even then, and I’d been mesmerized. Just as I’d been in Lounge La Vue. Just as I was now. How was he here?
“Jessica Creswell? Jessie?” he asked, his voice slightly hoarse.
My heart was beating a mile a minute, and I let out a whoosh of breath, gripping my wineglass so tightly I was surprised it hadn’t shattered. Callen Hayes was here … somehow, and he’d obviously heard the bartender say my name. I swallowed, my eyes darting around the lounge, looking for what? A distraction? An escape? “Hi, Callen.”
He shook his head very slowly. “Jessie Creswell? You’re … my God. You’re … Paris … You’re Jessie and you’re here. How?”
“Yes … I …” What did he ask? How am I here? “Uh … well, I—I’m here for a job. I’m working here.” I shook my head. “Not for the château, but at the château … and I’m staying here, temporarily.”
His eyes moved over my face incredulously. He still looked slightly shattered, as if he was having trouble putting the pieces together. I could relate. “What—what are you doing here?”
He ran a hand through his hair, blinking as if he couldn’t quite remember. “Ah, I’m here on vacation for a couple of weeks. My God, this is … unbelievable. Jessie Creswell. And I’ve run into you twice now.” He paused, looking me over once again. I felt the heat of his gaze as it moved down my body, and I took a sip of wine, willing my heart rate to slow. “That night at the bar in Paris, you knew who I was. You tried to tell me.”
The warmth of the wine slid down my throat, and I felt better, my hands more steady on the glass. “Yes.” I nodded. “It’s okay, though. I wouldn’t expect you to remember me.” I’d only hoped …
“Of course I remember you. Just now … when I heard your name, I knew it immediately. I just …” His voice was so deep and smooth, and his eyes held something, some emotion I didn’t know how to read. “I haven’t thought about Santa Lucinda in so long, and … you’ve changed. You were always pretty, but you’re beautiful now.” A flush of happiness flowed through me at his words, and I looked down for a moment. When I met his eyes again, he was still staring at me. “You’re … all grown up.” He sounded almost shocked, as if he’d kept me in his mind as a little girl and he was having trouble connecting me with that child. I could understand. Perhaps I’d feel the same way if I hadn’t had time to process and accept the grown-up version of Callen Hayes.
I offered a small smile. “I guess we both are. Grown-up I mean.”
“Yeah, I guess so.” Something moved between us, a charge in the air that made my stomach tighten. Like cresting the peak of a roller coaster and anticipating the drop. Fear. And delight.
He frowned. “I owe you an apology for that night. I’m sorry—”
“There’s nothing to be sorry for. Really. It was fine. It was just … Paris.” I shrugged one shoulder and gave him a smile.
“Paris,” he murmured. “There is something about Paris …”
“La Ville des Amoureux,” I said before I’d considered the words. City of Lovers. Only, we weren’t lovers, and we never had been. He’d had a different lover that night, in fact. One of his vast array of women. My face felt warm, and I hoped he couldn’t tell I was blushing.
We stared at each other, and the moment suddenly felt weighty … awkward—as if there was something we should be saying and neither knew what that was. I shifted on my feet. “I’m, ah, so happy for all the success you’ve had.” I smiled. “I’ve followed your career … a little bit.” A lot.
“Thanks. I … You know it was because of you I discovered music.”
“Really?” I shook my head. “No. I’m sure you would have discovered music with or without me. It’s obviously your passion. Your gift.”
He sucked his full bottom lip into his mouth, and my stomach muscles clenched, along with places lower and deep inside. Places I didn’t necessarily want to consider. “Maybe. I don’t know. I still have that keyboard you gave me.”
I laughed in surprise. “Do you really?”
He smiled, and for one moment he didn’t look like Callen Hayes the famous composer, the playboy of classical music—he looked like Callen, the prince and hero of my girlish heart. I felt possessive of that smile, as if it belonged to me and no one else. Stupid, Jessica. So stupid. I looked away. I didn’t want to be having these feelings for Callen. They were useless and slightly painful. Still, this moment felt like a dream, and I couldn’t quite convince myself to embrace what I knew was reality.