Laura Haley-McNeil

Get your free copy of Guarding Her Heart #MFRWBookHooks

Guarding Her Heart, Book 1 of the Crystal Creek Series is a free download at Book Funnel. Read the book that brought the Whitlochs and Crystal Creek to life. Below is the complete Chapter One of this book. Who is following Victoria? And why is Garrett, who walked out of her life ten years ago, the man assigned to protect her? Read more to find out. The download link is at the end of this chapter.

 

Chapter One

 

Victoria Whitloch glanced over the top of her sketchpad at the Seine River. She forced her mind to focus on her drawing.

See the languid waters.

See the cruise ship.

See the intertwined couple kissing, touching, caressing.

But the feeling wouldn’t leave her. That feeling that someone in the shadows watched her.

No one watched her.

She had walked the area several times. The people in the area had their own interests, none of which included her.

A chill skittered across her neck and down her spine. She rolled her shoulders trying to free herself from the imagined stare.

No one watched her.

With bold strokes of her charcoal pencil, she sketched the cruise ship sailing down the middle of the river. She placed the couple on a bench in front of the church.

With a swirl of her pencil, she arched the man’s body so that his love for the woman showed in the way he held her, looked at her.

Victoria’s chest ached. A heartache. Her pencil froze above the sketch. How many years had it been since someone had looked at her that way?

The sun sank behind the Notre Dame Cathedral and painted the sky orange, gold, purple, red. She had little time left to finish her sketch. On the pad, Victoria marked the areas of the sunset that she would later fill in with vibrant colors.

The streetlights turned on, low at first, announcing the evening. Victoria’s time to wander the streets of Paris.

Cold burrowed itself into her stomach. She glanced over her shoulder. Walking after dark wasn’t her favorite pastime anymore.

She threw her sketchpad and charcoal pencils into her portfolio and tied the ribbons dangling from the edges into bows. She lifted the strap over her shoulder. At five feet two inches, she barely kept the portfolio from dragging along the ground.

Her chest tightened as if bracing against a hard squeeze. Her mouth dried. Her palms were slippery with sweat. She had to be back at the hotel before dark. It only happened once before, that feeling that someone lurked nearby, but she didn’t want to experience that feeling again–that feeling that crawled across her skin, exposed her nerve endings, made her tremble.

Her long skirt whipped about her ankles. Her footsteps tapped loudly along the sidewalk. How could they be so loud? She was wearing soft-soled flats. Still, her footsteps echoed along the street. Louder than the traffic. Louder than the woman from the fourth floor apartment screaming at her husband. Louder than the teenage boys playing hacky-sack in the middle of the street.

It was only an echo. . .

That was not an echo.

The sound came sometimes before her step, sometimes after her step. She stopped. Whipped around. Stared.

No one looked back. Not the woman screaming at her husband. Not the drivers whipping past her. Not the children playing in the street.

Her lungs locked up and refused to release the air trapped inside.

There was no one behind her. No one followed her.

Yet she felt the touch. The cold touch. Like before.

She tucked her portfolio under her arm and walked, step-step-step, to the hotel. She jerked open the door and knocked her portfolio into an older couple who were exiting as she entered.

“Je suis désolé. Je suis désolé.” She reached out to help the woman who leaned against the door.

“Non, non.” The woman held up her hand and smiled. “Ma faute. J’étais dans trop de précipitation.”

“We are quite all right.” The man took his wife’s elbow, and murmuring soothing words, helped her through the door.

Victoria leaned her head against the pillar at the foyer entrance. She had to watch where she was going. No one followed her. She imagined the stalker. She almost ran over a couple. And for no good reason.

She had to be imagining the stalker.

She didn’t imagine the emails she’d been receiving since she’d arrived in Paris.

She pushed the elevator button and tucked her portfolio next to herself so that passersby would not bump against its corners.

The doors slid open. She took a step back to allow those on the elevator to exit.

“Mademoiselle!” A curvy hotel clerk with sleek, brown hair raced toward her. “I have for you a message.” She held out a scrap of paper.

“For me?” Victoria’s heart gave a small jump. “Why would anyone leave a message for me? My friends text. They don’t leave messages.”

The clerk opened her mouth, then promptly shut it. Her head tipped to her shoulder as if trying to think of an answer for Victoria. Abruptly, she straightened. “Je ne sais pas.”

“Neither do I.” Victoria slipped the paper from the clerk’s fingers. “Thank you.”

“Do you want me to respond?” The clerk clasped her hands prayer like. Her lips spread into her do-whatever-pleases-the-customer smile.

“That’s quite all right.” Victoria hoped her smile didn’t look dry and stretched, because that was how it felt. “I need to place a call. Afterwards, I’ll take care of the response.”

“Of course.” The clerk gave a slight curtsy and returned to her post behind the desk.

Outside light from the alley and the setting sun illuminated Victoria’s hotel room. She still held her portfolio when she turned the lock and inserted the chain door lock. She took a step back and stared at the door.

Secured.

No one could enter, unless she opened the door for them.

She looked over her shoulder at the room, faced it. The wine bottle, the glass, her iPad sat on the desk. Clothes spilled out of her suitcase and tumbled to the floor. A trail of shoes wandered from the closet to the bed, to the desk. Her open artist case was a jumble of oil tubes and pastels.

Everything looked the same as when she had left that morning.

She was safe. But she had always been safe. Her heart gave a slow thud, thud, thud.

With a loud exhale, she pulled the scrunchy from her hair. It fell in thick waves to her shoulder. She tossed the scrunchy and her portfolio onto the bed. She kicked off her flats.

Sitting on the desk chair, she stretched her legs in front of herself and wiggled her toes. Now she felt safe.

She filled the wine glass. Humming softly, she dragged her finger across the iPad screen.

She scanned the subject lines of the emails from her mother, her sister, her editor, her best friend Kendra Fulton.

Nothing from her brother Max who had promised to meet with her during his business trip.

Her eyes locked on to an email in the middle of the screen. An email from The Crush.

Her fingers turned icy. She almost dropped the wineglass. She set it hard on the desktop, the red liquid splashing against its sides.

Tingling spread across her scalp, like a beetle picking its way through grass blades. She rubbed her arms, scooted her chair backwards. She could not open that email. It would say he saw her today, watched her put pencil to sketchpad, describe what she was wearing in exact detail.

A breeze drifted through the open windows of her hotel room. The sheer curtains wafted like friends waving to one another. The breeze should have felt cool after a day of sitting in heat and humidity. Instead, it sent shivers down her arms.

She reached for the window crank. The breeze carried a scent that smelled like a man who had worked outside during the heat of the day. Her lungs shrunk to the size of an egg. She coughed. She had smelled that heated flesh odor before

A flash of red streaked in front of her.

“Hello?” Her hand was on the window crank to reel it shut. But she had to know. Was someone on her balcony?

No answer.

“If you’re on my balcony, show yourself.” She wanted to sound brave.

Her voice cracked. She squeezed her eyes shut tight. She didn’t sound brave. She sounded like she felt–afraid.

She looked about the room. She needed a weapon. She grabbed the desk lamp. Holding it above her head, she crept to the French doors.

No one.

She tiptoed onto the balcony and glanced over the rail.

A shoe slid over the rail of the balcony beneath her.

She straightened, leaned back, her eyes stretched so wide she felt they would pop out of her head. She rushed into her hotel suite, slammed and locked both doors, cranked the windows shut.

Fear rolled up her throat and into her mouth. She loosened the heavy sash holding the drapes to the sides of each window. Her heart beat faster, faster. Her fingers worked the sashes faster, faster, faster. Pulling pulling. Covering covering.

She stood in the middle of the room. Except for the illumination of the alarm clock, she stood in darkness. She felt her way to the door. One of her toes caught on one of her discarded sandals. She tripped and stumbled the rest of the way to the door. She flipped on the light.

Taking deep breaths, she forced her heart to a slower pace. She picked up the phone sitting on the end table.

“Hotel LeClair. Puis-je vous aider?” came the operator’s friendly voice.

“Yes.” Her voice was calm, almost like a song. “There was someone on my balcony. Would you please send security to my room to check this?”

She had barely hung up the phone before there was a knock at her door.

“Mademoiselle, did you call for security?” a man’s voice asked.

She froze. How did he come so quickly?

She crept to the door, as if the sound of her steps would give away her place in the room. She peered through the peephole.

The guard was short with a hat so tall it doubled his height. He stood away from the door, his hands clasped behind his back. His head swiveled slowly left, right.

Relief washed over her. She unlocked the door.

“Oui, Mademoiselle, you heard someone on the balcony?” The guard stepped into the room.

“I saw someone. I saw a red jacket on the balcony. And then I saw his shoe when he climbed to the balcony below mine.”

The guard sucked his lip beneath his bushy mustache. “I will look for you. Do you mind if I open the doors to the balcony?”

Victoria crossed her arms. She flipped her wrist at him. “No.”

The guard stepped onto the balcony and leaned over the front rail, then moved to the side. His steps were methodical, purposeful. Back and forth. Back and forth. He returned to the room.

“I see no one.” He tilted his head sideways. He cocked a brow as if he were looking at an insane woman.

Anger climbed from the pit of her stomach. “I want to be moved to another room.” Her voice was clipped and fast.

The guard’s eyebrows rose to his hat brim. He gave a dry cough that sounded like an eggshell cracking. “As you wish, Mademoiselle. I will tell the front desk to make arrangements at once.”

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