This was the absolute last time she kissed anyone under the mistletoe.
Tessa Baxter had noticed the man—dark, close-cropped hair, fit and trim in a tux that looked custom tailored—jogging down the magnificent foyer stairway as she’d handed her wrap to the liveried servant. Had she known she was standing beneath the blasted ball of beribboned green leaves she would have moved. Maybe.
His eyes had lit on her, and before she could react, he’d covered the thirty feet that separated them in several long strides, holding her frozen in his gaze as if he were a panther and she a paralyzed bunny rabbit. That’s how he walked—silently with purpose. Focused. On her.
“May I—I mean, peux je vous aider?” She’d squeaked the words out while her heart scampered in her chest.
“Yes, you may help me.” His accent was pure American, his voice deep and melodious, making her think of a baritone’s aria sailing to the ceiling at The Met. His gaze shot upward for a beat or two before returning to her face.
“Oh! Mistletoe!” She laughed, sounding a bit manic to her own ears, and waved a dismissing hand. “Nobody really does that anymore.” Her brow knitted. “Do they?”
“Back home? Probably not, but here?” He lifted a shoulder in gesture that would have made any Frenchman proud. “Certainly you have no aversion to a tiny peck from a fellow American, especially so far from home, do you? We wouldn’t want to offend our hosts.”
Their hosts were the American ambassador to France and her handsome husband, and their daughter Sammi, Tessa’s oldest and best friend. No way she’d do anything to embarrass them. They’d made it possible for her to have the trip of a lifetime to Paris, the City of Light, at Christmastime. The invitation had come at a perfect time—eight months since her disastrous break-up with Tony the Creep, as Sammi had dubbed him months earlier when she’d caught him two-timing her with some bottle blonde in a bikini.
“Time for you to forget him. Time to move on and do something exciting, Tessa,” she’d declared. “You haven’t had a vacation in months. Spend Christmas with me in Paris. I love Paris, I love studying at the Sorbonne, but I’m lonely here without you.”
Between airfare and some new clothes, Tessa’s credit card had taken a hit, but it was worth every penny. She’d spent the last week touring, visiting every clichéd tourist stop, and had already filled up an entire SIM card with photos and videos. But how could she resist the golden lights twinkling along the Champs Elysees, or the glorious Christmas tree at the Notre Dame Cathedral. Plus, being out and among the people of France was a perfect way for her try out her rusty French...the language of love.
His perfect intonation drew her attention. “No, of course not. But how do you know I’m American? Maybe I’m French with an impeccable American English accent.”
He grinned, making her tummy flutter. “First of all, your French accent was way off. Second, why would a French woman want to perfectly emulate an American accent?”
She gave him her own version of that Gallic shrug. “Maybe she’s... un espion.”
“A spy.” His right eyebrow lifted. “Seriously?”
“Mais oui!” Why she continued to babble in her high-school French was beyond her. Even his snort didn’t put an end to her lunacy. “Maybe she’s undercover in Paris for some super-secret, previously undiscovered global terror network. Maybe she purposely threw you off with her accent.”
“Hmm.” His eyes narrowed and he gave her another top-to-bottom perusal. “Are you a spy? Because if you are, I might have to take you into custody. Now. Before you can do any damage.”
She jerked back. “Custody? Who are you anyway?”
“Matthew, for goodness’ sake, just kiss her already!”
The whirlwind that was her best friend appeared next to them, like Scotty had just beamed her to the spot, her arms folded, her foot tapping. “Come on, you two. Pucker up.”
“Not that I don’t appreciate your encouragement, Sammi,” mystery man said, “but I’d love to know the lady’s name before I collect my...prize.”
“Good grief.” Sammi lifted her palm toward the man. “Tessa, may I introduce you to Matthew Durand, legat assigned to the embassy here in Paris. At least through the end of the year.” She lifted her opposite hand toward Tessa. “Matthew, this is Tessa, short for Contessa if you can believe it, Baxter. My closest, oldest and best friend. She’s a math professor at NYU, spending a few days here during their holiday break.”
Sammi planted her fists on her hips and eyed them. “Introductions all done. Now get on with it. You’ve got a line behind you!”
Tessa steadied her breathing and lifted her eyes to meet the man’s, a liquidy brown shade that reminded her of deep, rich cocoa. As she stared, that eyebrow lifted and his lips curved into a half smile as if to dare her. She licked her lips. “Oui...uh...nous allons baiser...uh...maintenant.”
Confusion flashed across his eyes. Then his jaw dropped, and he chuckled. “Certainement, mademoiselle.” Seeming to have recovered, but lips still twitching, he stepped closer, and the scent of an earthy musk wafted around her. He slid one hand to her waist and moved the other to the back of her head, both firm and steady. A warmth spread across her back and her neck, down her shoulders. How long had it been since a man had touched with such...intent?
Shivering, she lifted her face.
Their lips met, and sparks zinged down her shoulders and back, to the ends of her fingertips and toes. He made a soft purring noise and angled his head—
“All right, you two. That’s enough. You’re making a scene! And there really is a line now. People have their phones out. They’re taking video.”
As Sammi’s voice broke the spell, Tessa’s eyes snapped open, and she jerked her hands from around the man’s neck.
“Pardon me!” She scrambled backward, into something solid and warm. “Oomph!”
She pivoted, stared into another impossibly handsome, be-tuxed man. Golden hair, deep blue eyes, also focused on her.
“My turn?” His accent was thickly French. He moved in a step.
“Sorry, Monsieur, she’s had enough.” Sammi grabbed her arm and dragged her down the hall into what appeared to be a coatroom, manned by more costumed staff. “For crying out loud, Tessa, what the heck? This is the embassy’s holiday party.”
“Why? What’d I do?” Tessa stumbled after Sammi, swinging her head from side to side in search of the first guy, Matthew what’s-his-name. They turned into another room—a big one—where a full orchestra played from a raised dais at the far end, and couples in evening wear waltzed to some instrumental piece with weeping strings. They landed in an alcove off the main ballroom, probably designed for lovers’ liaisons once upon a time.
Sammi stopped and faced her. “Your French is more than a bit rusty, honey. I can send you some links to good instruction programs.”
Tessa stilled, dread filling her chest. “I said, ‘Yes, we can kiss now.’ ... Didn’t I?”
Sammi gave a soft laugh. “No, honey. You got the noun and verb mixed up. The verb to kiss is embrasser. You used baiser, which is a noun for kiss, but as a verb means something altogether different. You invited him to...to...” A laughing snort exploded from Sammi’s mouth, and she bent over and howled, laughing while holding her stomach.
“What?! What did I say, Sammi? You’re scaring me!”
“Oh, Tessa, you asked him to do the dirty with you!”
Heat swam up Tessa’s neck to her face, and a moan slipped from her mouth. “I did not ask him to have sex! You’re bull—you’re teasing me!”
Sammi straightened from her laughing fit, wiped her fingers beneath her eyes and shook her head, chuckles still rolling up her throat. “I wish I were. Oh God, check my mascara, would you? I haven’t laughed that hard in years. I’ve missed you, Tessa.”
Heart pounding, stomach churning, Tessa asked, “And who exactly is it that I, I...?”
“Propositioned?” The word set off a new round of hysteria, and Tessa had to shake her friend’s shoulder to get her attention.
Calming once more, Sammi dropped into the chaise lounge at the back of the alcove and patted the cushion next to her. “It’s okay, truly. Matthew is one of the good guys. He’s with the Bureau—“
“The Bureau? As in Federal Bureau of Investigation?”
Sammi nodded. “He’s the embassy’s Legat, Legal Attaché.”
“So he wasn’t really kidding when he said he could take me into his custody.” A tingle worked its way down her spine, and she had to squelch the chorus of Salt ‘N’ Pepa’s Whatta Man warming up in her chest.
“He could, although his job is more to facilitate official working relationships with the local law enforcement on international issues.” She eyed Tessa. “Last I knew, you weren’t an international criminal, although you could be accused of butchering the French language.”
Tessa groaned and dropped her face into her hands.
“Don’t worry, honey, he might look all James Bondishly, roguishly handsome, but he’s a gentleman. He’s probably already forgotten about you.”
Thanks so much for reading part 1 of my story. I hope you're enjoying the pickle Tessa has gotten herself into. Please stop by tomorrow for the next chapter.