A hardened exile
It had taken Lucien Rosier fifteen years at war to rebuild himself after he lost his family. To remake himself, he had left behind even his name. Now a captain in the Foreign Legion, the last thing he wanted was to face his past. Even for her…
A woman longing for a home
Lucien Rosier had been her hero once, when everyone else had turned away. Now it was Elena Lyon’s turn to rescue him. If she could teach him to believe in love and family again, she would pay back her debts. But after a lifetime of abandonment, she wasn’t about to make the mistake of believing in love herself. Not even for him… Could two broken hearts find in each other exactly what they needed to heal?
That lone soldier looked like he needed a home.
It might not be obvious to the average onlooker, but Elena was good at seeing through a tough, can-handle-anything exterior and knowing that really, deep down, all he wanted was a place to call his own.
And she knew just how to give him one.
It was a pity he made her so nervous. She always overplayed it when she was nervous.
The lean lethalness of her target’s body stood out among the other tourists on the lookout point. Hardened and supple, he usually moved like a well-oiled whip, made to cut through air and bullets and strike his goal. But right now he was at peace, his strength coiled and at ease as he watched the sea.
Surreptitiously, she dragged her palms over her butt, where at least the fabric would have time to dry before he was likely to see it. She tugged her blouse down to make sure her cleavage showed to advantage and touched her lionheart pendant to give herself courage. She ran her hands over her hair, making sure it fell smoothly. Butterflies stirred in her stomach. He’s not going to recognize you, she reminded herself. Thank God. She hated looking at photos of the thirteen-year-old who was the last her he had ever seen.
He stood at the stone wall, framed by a great expanse of sea and sunset, hard body angled sideways as he gazed at colorful villages built into cliffs above the sea, their lights glowing in the dusk. He paid only casual attention to the handful of other people on the little terrace.
Maybe it was the awkward hesitation in her footsteps that triggered his alertness, because he turned and looked at her as she descended the last step.
She held her breath. Literally—pulling her stomach muscles in tight, making sure her shoulders were ballet dancer proud and graceful, giving lift to her chest and chin.
He studied her. Cool, contained. A man who held himself together through trials she could barely start to imagine. Big and in control, like a man who had controlled far more difficult people than she was, his gaze quiet and assessing.
All those butterflies inside her shimmered their wings in a menace of colors. Don’t wake up. Don’t wake up. Don’t wake up, you stupid butterflies.
Damn it, he still made her feel like the pudgy, spotty, braces-and-glasses thirteen-year-old who’d thought he was some kind of god.
She forced herself not to show it, giving him a slight, ironic smile that she’d practiced so hard in the mirror as an eighteen-year-old trying to grow into someone different. Someone in control of her life and of the men around her. Her outfit was designed to give her control, too—a white cami and narrow skirt, ostensibly casual but definitely sexy. Wrap-him-around-her-finger sexy.
And also kind of…well, compassionate. Because he’d been in the damn Foreign Legion for fifteen years, and maybe he didn’t like being approached by strangers wearing bulky clothes that could hide weapons, so this let him see from far away that she was no threat to him. He’d been her damn hero. So she could still be nice to him.
It didn’t mean there was anything wrong with her, or that at heart she was still that same hopeless, vulnerable, desperate thirteen-year-old clinging to the thought of him.
She put a little swing into her hips as she strolled up to the wall. Leaning on it, she let the breeze stir her hair over her shoulders, not making the mistake of speaking first. Let him nibble until she hooked him, that was the plan. Keep it together, butterflies.
After this she was going to have to retire. Get a new hobby, she thought regretfully. She’d had fun at these jobs. But a psychologist would have a freaking field day over them, and she had scheduled her first meeting with a therapist for next month, so she might as well be pre-emptive. Fix herself before anyone else tried to do it for her.
Everyone else always screwed the job up.
At the corner of her vision, the big soldier leaned against the wall, too, his gaze flicking over her, head to toe. Stern lips relaxed infinitesimally.
Hunh. She’d seen men’s expressions change a million times as they took her in, once she got past her awkward physical stage and long before she’d learned how to handle the body she’d grown into. But it still felt strange to see his expression change like that. Almost, a tiny bit, it felt like a betrayal. She’d never realized until right this moment that the fact that he was a hot, sexy nineteen and she was an awkward thirteen the last time she knew him had made him a safe crush for her to have. Back then, she never would have had to do anything about it, any more than she had to do something about her crush on the photos of Gilles Marini in her various bedrooms.
Now…it might be that he was no longer safe for her.
His eyes lifted to hers, speculative.
Yeah. He must get hit on all the time, and she was dressed like a tourist who might be interested in a vacation fling. And as his big body relaxed onto his elbow and he angled it toward her, the curve of the corners of his lips deepening just a little, she realized that he was receptive to that approach.
Heat flushed through her, and she hoped the dusk and gentle lights of the terrace hid it. When she had initially tracked him down, her first chance to see him had been when his company did one of their dramatic full-company combat jumps over Calvi. Along with all the other fascinated tourists and local Corsicans, she had been totally awed. Her heart had raced as paratrooper after paratrooper came out of that plane, as the chutes opened and filled the skies. But a man in the sky was still safe, for a woman to have a crush on.
Her next sighting of him had been as he was leading his men on parade through the town as part of the Camerone Day festivities, that slow, relentless marching pace with the deep, deep Legion marching chant that seemed to roll over everyone around them and vibrate deep in her bones.
But a man in a parade was still safe, to have a crush on.
The problem was, he was still vibrating deep in her bones.
But she had a job to do.
And he had a subtle curve to his lips as if it was long past working hours.
“Buon giorno,” he said in a deep, easy voice. His biceps strained the sleeves of his t-shirt, and the knit pulled across a broad chest. Damn, he’d filled out since nineteen.
Why was he speaking to her in Italian? Oh, right, they were in Italy, and he had no idea what country she came from. She’d been right that he wouldn’t recognize her, thank God. Her old self still made her squirm.
“Buon giorno.” Wait, was that right for this time of day? “Buona sera.”
Wow, beautiful eyes. She’d forgotten how beautiful they were. Or maybe they’d grown that much more beautiful from all he’d seen and handled these past fifteen years. Blue with a hint of gray, like a far horizon, with a little sexy warmth growing in them just for her. Lean, tanned face that showed its years of exposure to sand and wind and sun. Sun-streaked hair that might be brown in the depths of winter but now held far more gold. A steady, firm calm over all of him. A bone-deep physical confidence, a man who had never met a challenge he didn’t face head on and somehow figure out how to master.
His gaze drifted over her again, subtly, a little heat in it. There was something kind of nice about it, though—showing attraction, but gentle, not too aggressive. It reassured her panicked butterflies in an odd way. “Va bene?”
She wanted to say, Better now, soldier, in a Sophia Loren voice, something ironic and sexy that placed her in control of this situation, the control she had planned to have. But she had no idea how to say that in Italian.
So she just nodded. Her straight hair slid over her bare shoulders with the movement, silky and elusive against her own skin. He could close his hands over her bare shoulders and replace all that silk with firmness.
Damn it. Isn’t this supposed to be a professional encounter? It’s okay if he loses his head, but you can’t.
He rubbed the rock under his hand, falling silent. Limited Italian? One of the great advantages to vacation flings was that if neither person spoke the other’s language, you quickly had to rely on physical communication.
Not that you’re going to have a vacation fling here. Because you’re not on vacation. Open your mouth and say something.
“Parla francese?” he tried.
She nodded again. A flash of warmth in his eyes before his gaze returned to steady assessment. She knew he had volunteered for the Legion nearly fifteen years ago and that his climb from enlisted to captain indicated exceptional merit. She knew the hard, lethal men who served under him liked him, because she had seen the way they joked with him as he was leaving for Italy. She had an inkling of how hard and lethal he must be himself, and yet also fair and a good leader of men, to have that warmth from men he led into situations that could kill them.
“I’m Julien,” he said in French, and the name was like the small shock of a dog collar warning her she was getting out of line. He wasn’t going to give her his real name.
“Elena.” Definitely her name. She’d kept that, solid in her, her name, every single time the world around her changed.
“Elena.” He tasted the name, sending a little shiver over her skin.
His body was hard and gorgeous against the backdrop of darkening cliffs and sea and the jewel-villages of the coast. He stayed relaxed against the wall. Not straightening or moving in on her. If she wanted more of his strength, she was going to have to reach for it.
And she found herself taking a step forward.
Maybe…maybe she could put off broaching her real reasons for approaching him. It was kind of magic, this moment when he thought she was a stranger. As if everything about them could be brand new, and they could start that new together.
“Are you Italian?” he asked.
What if he wanted her to be Italian? What if that was part of the vacation fantasy he was entertaining? “French.”
“But you speak Italian?”
She held up her thumb and forefinger very close together. “Maybe twenty words.”
He smiled a little and put a hand on his chest. “Maybe five.”
He was based in Corsica, and he’d grown up near Nice. He’d probably picked up quite a bit more Italian than that. But he didn’t know she knew that. She ran her hand over her head, and his gaze fell to the way that made her hair swing against her bare arms. His thumb rubbed the rock of the wall again.
“Is this your first time in Italy, Elena?”
He repeated her name as if he was taking possession of it. Mastering the sound of it. Deciding that maybe he liked the taste of her, in his mouth.
“It’s my first time here.” Here. On this little terrace of Corniglia. Looking at you. “But no. I like to travel.”
“Me, too,” he said with a wry undertone. The Foreign Legion was known for drawing romantic teenagers with its promise of travel. A romantic, albeit inherently imperialist vision of seeing the world.
And of being the best.
The toughest, the most elite fighting force, the hardened, nameless men of legend.
But she bet romantic daydreams didn’t survive fifteen years in the Legion, and the world he had seen had probably been mostly Afghanistan and Mali and Syria, places like that. Rough, dangerous, kill or be killed. It had always hurt her, to imagine what might be happening to her hero, after he set out in pursuit of his fantasy of heroism.
“It’s a beautiful view.” He settled both elbows onto the stone wall again to watch it, but this time somehow his near arm was closer to her, the space she had left between them halved. Her shoulder almost brushed his arm, and the hair on her arms shivered upright, as if reaching for a touch.
If they were together—if she belonged with him—he could drape his arm around her easily from that position as they stood gazing at the view. She’d had that fantasy a few other times about him when she was an awkward thirteen. Never had she been so physically close to it coming true, though.
For a while neither said anything, watching the sunset fade, the illuminated pastels of the cliff villages against the night. Silence, more intimate and more vulnerable than speech.
The butterflies inside her stirred with every breath that moved through his big body. I’m supposed to tell him why I’m here, she reminded herself sternly. Shut up, butterflies. But she didn’t say anything. And those butterflies continued to shimmer in her middle, more and more ripply in her middle, more and more colors fluttering there.
When the last sunlight faded, they stayed quiet. She watched the dark, and he, his body angled, might have been gazing at the illuminated villages up the coast beyond her, or he might have been watching her. Every discreet, assessing glance traced heat over her skin.
“Could I interest you in a drink?” His deep voice burred over her.
Now might be a good time to tell him why you’re here, Elena. Pretty sure you’ve got his attention. Quit pretending you need more of it.
But her why seemed to have changed. Another why had pushed the first one off the cliff so it could claim priority.
Well. She could tell him over drinks, couldn’t she? She didn’t have to be so deeply rude as to rush straight to the business point of the conversation, did she?
“I’d like that,” she said.
His gaze stroked her—not too hard, not too aggressive, but definitely interested. “Of course, the best view in town is from the terrace of the apartment I’m renting.”
A whoosh of all those butterfly wings inside her, swarming around something sweet. Now don’t be stupid, Elena. You’re not about to forget you’re here on business and let this guy hook up with you, are you? Like most hot soldiers on leave, he clearly found hooking up an effortless thing to do.
That quiet thing he had going, combined with such strength and ability…oh, boy. She had grown up and grown into herself so much as to be unrecognizable to him, after fifteen years, if he would even have remembered her at all. She hadn’t properly grasped, even after seeing him parachute out of a plane, even after seeing him marching, how much he would have grown into himself, too.
Hell, he’d been larger than life to her before. Now there was so damn much size inside him, she was surprised it didn’t split his skin. And his muscles did press at the edge of his T-shirt sleeve as if they wanted to split that cotton right off them and let her sink her fingers into—
“Hey.” A big hand came into her view and tugged at a lock of her hair, then followed that lock down its length, letting it slide through his fingers before his hand fell away. Heat ran through her. “It’s not that big a decision,” he said gently. “I think I’ve got a bottle of red or limoncello. Or tap water. So it’s not like the options are unlimited.”
Right. She of all people knew he wouldn’t force her or hurt her, if she changed her mind. That was exactly the opposite of who he had been. If he’d changed that much…it didn’t bear thinking of. She thought it would break her one last remaining illusion about humanity.
And they were in Italy, in this romantic little village, and…he probably thought he was about to get lucky, but who would really be the lucky one here?
Me! her whole body thought, in a leap of greedy butterflies. Me!
They were in Italy. The country had practically been invented for vacation flings. How bad could it hurt? I could finish up this job and retire from this hobby tomorrow, right? I don’t have to retire tonight.
She met his eyes uncertainly.
“Those options,” he said. “If you’re thinking farther ahead than that, you haven’t limited any other options at all. Like the one to say, ‘Thanks for the drink, but I think I need to go now.’”
His eyes had been darkened by the fall of dusk, into shades of midnight. So much steady strength and control in them. And that gentle touch on her hair.
A hook-up…wouldn’t be so bad, would it?
Just a little nibble of him? Just this once? Maybe she didn’t even have to tell him who she actually was. Maybe…maybe…she could figure out some other way to do her job.
Tomorrow. She’d have to figure it out tomorrow, because right now she couldn’t think of a single damn way that didn’t involve shattering this magic hot moment to hell.
He drew the callused edge of his thumb from her bare shoulder down her arm to her elbow, a shiver down her skin. “It’s got a great view.” Deep, alluring voice. “I lucked out on the rental. But why don’t we go to a restaurant, if you’d like that better?”
Because she wouldn’t like that better.
But she liked that he was willing to do it. As if she wasn’t just a booty call but was worth some time and care.
“I would like to talk to you,” she said, and he smiled a little, a man who was willing to let her pretend she only wanted talking.
“In private,” she said, because it would be absolutely lousy to have this conversation with him in a restaurant, wouldn’t it?
“It’s up to you.” He watched her calmly. Entirely up to you. Your choice. Every step you choose to take down this path.
Which she knew about him.
Plus, let’s be honest. It’s not like it’s that much of a hardship for him if you’re not interested.
He could pick up another woman in five minutes, if he realized this particular woman wasn’t going to put out. Hell, he and his cousins had been able to get all the girls before he ran away and became a badass packed with so much confidence he probably couldn’t even let out a breath without toppling several weaker confidences in the wind.
She’d seen these paratroopers operate when she sat at cafés in Calvi. Seen how long it took women to say yes. They’d hit on her, too—woman sitting alone in military country—so she’d actually felt for herself how hard it was to say no to that much sexy confidence combined with a hard-built body. If she sat alone for an hour in a café in Calvi, she’d get hit on with utter confidence at least twenty times. Sometimes three or four guys at once, entirely willing to compete to see who came out on top. Of her.
She liked the quiet of him, in contrast to some of those guys. All that same confidence, perfectly controlled.
“Just drinks?” she said.
His mouth curved, subtle and wicked. He held her eyes. “Just whatever you want.”
© Laura Florand, 2017