She jogged along the Seine as the early morning lights of Eiffel Tower and Paris danced across the river. She trotted past the Louvre, Notre Dame and the Catacombs until reaching Café du Rendez-Vous.
Joanna had taken the same route five years ago on her first visit to The City of Lights.A visit that began storybook perfect, but ended with a momentous decision that changed her life.
This day had to come. If only I hadn’t been so stupid?
She chose today, the anniversary, to reveal the secret that burdened her soul. A secret she has kept from her first love.
On her first visit, Joanna did what normal tourists did. She toured the Louvre, taking selfies with the Mona Lisa. She nearly maxed out her credit cards shopping on The Avenue des Champs-Élysées. She splurged on the scrumdiddlyumptious lunch inside the Eiffel Tower, which was the cherry on top of a lifetime dream.
I could get used to this, she told herself as the golden sun illuminated Paris from the top of The Eiffel Tower.
Notre Dame was next on her list, but Joanna wasn’t in the mood to go searching for Quasimodo. The Shakespeare and Company bookstore, right across the Seine from the cathedral, felt like a better place to explore, especially after she spied the cute guy wearing a white Chelsea F.C polo shirt, faded jeans, sneakers, and brown corduroy jacket saunter inside. The blue Chelsea F.C. baseball cap did little to hide his lusciously blond and curly hair.
She was in paradise the moment she entered the store. Books were everywhere. Joanna felt they had been planted as seeds, growing into a path that guided her into a heavenly world of mysteries, suspense, and hopefully, to that curly-haired professor.
The atmosphere inside the store was vibrant, crazy, and in some areas, annoyingly loud. Joanna had expected this given that the bookstore is a popular tourist location. She shrugged and headed toward the True Crime section.
Amongst the vast array of second-hand copies of classic tales like The Count of Monte Cristo, Samson and Delilah, and her favorite, Who is Vera Kelly?, she searched for a comfortable seat to read in peace and quiet.
It was in this iconic location where she fell head over heels for him, literally. She had been so engrossed in Agent Zigzag, she hadn’t noticed his legs sticking out from under the table. That was until both she and her book went soaring through the air. Luckily, she landed on one of those hippy beanbag chairs, scuttling across the room until a nearby bookshelf had the decency to intervene.
“Oh my gosh,” the young man yipped, jumping to his feet and rushing to her side. He helped her to her feet. “I’m so sorry. Are you okay?”
“Yes.” She used her hands to brush what little dust her pants had collected during her slide across the room.
The concern in his voice didn’t surprise her. But his American accent did, given his love for an English soccer team. The man standing in front of her was a gangly six-foot, four inches tall. His body looked as if it been stretched using one of those medieval torture racks. A few muscles showed through his tight green polo shirt, but no one would mistake him for a bodybuilder. The mass of blond corkscrew curls, previously hidden under that awful cap, enhanced a face with a smile sweeter than white chocolate.
She spotted his brown corduroy jacket hanging from the chair he bolted from to come to her aid. His Clark Kent-style spectacles completed the ensemble. He wouldn’t be voted People Magazine’s sexiest man, but his nerdy-handsomeness appealed to her.
However, it was his soft hazel eyes that left her momentarily breathless.
Joanna held her breath for ten seconds before she let it out — a calming technique her BFF Sheila taught her after Joanna suffered a panic attack during a chemistry lab final.
“Uhmm, oh —” she stammered. “Yea. No broken bones, or bumps on the head. Just slightly embarrassed.” She chuckled slightly, trying her hardest to get her heart to stop beating so fast.
“Oh thank goodness. You sure you’re okay, Miss —”
“Uhmm? Oh, Joanna. My name is Joanna.”
My god. What is happening to me? I can’t even remember my own name.
“I’m Arthur.” He gently shook her hand, but held it for a moment or two longer than social etiquette deemed polite. Joanna didn’t mind.
“Hello Arthur.” Joanna gazed into his hazel eyes. She couldn’t help it. Those eyes radiated like the sun, warming her heart with promises of protection, adoration, and love.
A loud crash of books jolted them back to the present.
“Yes, well. I must be going,” Arthur said. He walked back to his chair and grabbed his jacket and headed toward the exit. A moment later, Joanna quickly gathered her belongings and hurried toward the exit.
Go after him Joanna. Don’t let him get away.
She’d just reached the main exit when Arthur suddenly returned. Joanna thought her heart would fly right out of her chest.
“Joanna, I feel bad about tripping you. And mama taught me if you do someone wrong, you should try to make it right. So please allow me to take you to dinner tonight to make things right?”
She hadn’t realized she had been holding her breath, until she saw Arthur’s expression change from hope to despair at her hesitation.
“Oh, that would be lovely, but—”
“No, I’m sorry,” he cut in. “I understand. It’s totally unsafe for a beautiful woman to go out at night with a man she just met. My apologies.”
“Actually,” her smile restored his hope, “I was set to leave for London tonight. But I’ll get the early morning train tomorrow because I would love to spend the rest of the day with you.”
The beaming smile he gifted her lit up her soul. “After you, milady?”
They talked about everything as they explored the city. Nothing was off-limits. She learned he’d lived most of his life in Europe, mostly Paris, thanks to his mom’s job as a hotel manager. Joanna told him about being orphaned at 13, growing up in various foster homes, and not the nice ones like on television.
“I’d daydream I was in law enforcement, and I’d arrest my foster parents for being Russian spies.”
“Yep. Pretending to be tough was the only way to hide how frightened I was about everything.” Joanna bit her lip hard, a painful habit of hers whenever she talked about her childhood. She continued, explaining how the research firm she worked for sent her to Paris as a bonus for landing a huge account.
“Enough about my miserable self. Tell me, how did you end up teaching at École Polytechnique? Did I say that right?”
He stopped dead in his tracks and dropped her hand as if she was a leper. Those beautiful hazel eyes that captivated her heart now glared at her, making her uncomfortable as a Victorian debutante trapped in a tight corset. The surprise written on his face wasn’t because of her pitch-perfect pronunciation of École Polytechnique.
It was a small slip, but Joanna knew she’d screwed up.
“How did you know I was a professor at École Polytechnique?”
She chuckled, hoping to ease the tension. “Well your jacket for one thing. It screams nerdy professor. And then there’s this —” flicking the lapel pin on his jacket, “Pour la Patrie, les Sciences et la Gloire, ‘For the Homeland, Science and Glory,’ which, if I’m not mistaken, is the school’s motto.”
She held a breath, praying he’d believe her.
“Wow, impressive observation skills, Inspectrice Clouseau.”
He laughed and walked toward a Crêpe food stand. Joanna let out a soft sigh of relief and followed.
That was close. Watch yourself, Joanna.
Over a quick snack of ham and cheese crêpes, she learned his impressive computer hacking skills got him recruited by one of the top five technology conglomerates before he’d even graduated high school.
“I hacked into their database so many times, I guess they figured it better to pay me to not hack their systems,” Arthur chuckled.
“Or they were taking the ‘keep your friends close, but your enemies closer’ approach,” she countered.
“Good way to look at it, I suppose.” He kissed her hand as she gently wiped a speck of cheese from his cheek.
“After college, I landed an executive-level job with a software development company. I had everything – salary, stock options, use of the company jet, everything. But I wasn’t happy, and I didn’t know why?”
“No adrenaline rush,” Joanna answered. “The risk of being caught is more exhilarating than sex, or so the experts say.”
Those hazel eyes flared, not with anger, but with desire. Her breath caught in her throat as passion burned inside her hotter than Satan’s house-cat. But a second later her overprotective brain screamed ‘remember why you’re here.’ Her brain was yelling that she needed to leave now before —
Arthur kissed her. A kiss of primal desire mixed with sweet tenderness and love. His kiss was steeped in a passion that ignited her soul.
Oh boy, I’m in trouble now.
His kiss left her feeling drenched in ecstasy.
Wait a minute. She was actually drenched in water.
In those few glorious moments, the heavens had opened up, and a heavy downpour dumped buckets of water onto the city.
Arthur laughed as she tried to cover herself with his jacket.
“C’mon. My flat is just around the corner. You can wait out the storm there. They don’t normally last too long.”
They arrived three minutes later, soaked to the bone. Arthur headed to his bathroom, returning with two large fluffy towels.
“Well that was unexpected,” Joanna chuckled, flapping her arms up and down to shake out the excess water.
“The rain,” tenderly using the towel to dry her face, “or the kiss?”
“Both,” Joanna beamed. His touch set of electric tingles inside, telling her heart to let desire take control. Her hormones shut down her overprotective brain, and activated her animal instincts. Arthur wrapped his arms around her. His right hand dropped to Joanna’s thigh, pulling down the wet skirt. She tugged at his jeans, pushing them down just enough to free his manhood.
They tumbled over to the couch, his eyes searching Joanna’s. She smiled and kissed him hard, giving him permission to love her. Joanna moaned as Arthur tenderly thrust himself into her secret area. Joanna smiled, wrapped her arms tightly around him and kissed him with all the passion she could muster.
There, as light from the Eiffel Tower cast a soft glow over them, Joanna gave herself to the man of her dreams — heart, body and soul.
Joanna, you have to do this.
As she watched him sleep, her heart swelled with a love she’d never thought possible. Tears slowly fell from her eyes. She inhaled deeply and held her breath, but her calming technique wasn’t working.
She retrieved her cell phone from her pocket, and sent the text message.
The familiar tone of TobyMac’s Forgiveness on her cell phone brought Joanna back to present-day Paris. She smiled as read the text message.
“Excuse mademoiselle, may I take your order?” the waiter asked.
“Sorry. Yes. I’ll have a chocolate croissant and a cappuccino please.”
Joanna stared out the window and watched as the City of Lights slowly shook off the darkness of night. The savory aroma of freshly baked bread and pastries filled the air.
Aah, that aroma is why she’d chosen Café du Rendez-Vous to meet him. It was also the only place that opened before eight o’clock. Only she and the waiter were in the café. Most of France didn’t wake up until nine.
The waiter served her order and disappeared in the kitchen. She glanced at her watch. Seven-forty. Her appointment with Arthur was at eight o’clock.
She held the coffee mug, hoping its warmth would spread to her heart.
He walked in at seven-fifty-three. Joanna’s breath caught in her throat at the sight of him. He wore the same brown corduroy jacket and Clark Kent glasses. He smiled when he spotted Joanna. She smiled and waved him over.
Joanna forgot what she was going to say the very moment he sat down. Even after five years, those hazel eyes still held the eternal promise of heaven. A heaven she longed for, but knew she’d never see.
“Hello beautiful.” His loving tone surprised Joanna. There was no hint of anger in his voice.
“Hi,” she stammered. “Would you like something to drink? My treat.” She signaled for the waiter. She ordered an Espresso for Arthur, and water with no ice for herself.
“I got your email.”
“Yes. Thank you for agreeing to meet me, especially after what I did all those years ago.”
He shrugged. “I get it. I just thought we connected.”
“We did, and that’s why I left.”
His confused expression pained her.
The waiter appeared with their order. Joanna took a huge gulp of water, her suddenly dry throat crying for relief. Arthur waited patiently for her to answer. She knew he deserved the truth.
“Arthur, the truth is,” she hesitated.
The sound of glass breaking ripped through the air. Arthur jerked around to see what happened. The waiter had dropped a few wine glasses, nothing more, so he returned his attention to Joanna. He downed his now lukewarm Espresso in one gulp.
“Do we share a kid? Am I a daddy?” His voice filled with hope.
“That would’ve been easier to explain. No, remember how I said I wanted to be in law enforcement since I was a kid?”
She took a deep breath. “Here goes. Truth is, I’m a hitwoman. You were to be my first hit. Well, a test really. Nothing special, just a random guy chosen by my bosses as my final assessment.”
Arthur said nothing. His silence forced her to fill the dead air.
“I failed the moment I fell in love with you.”
For a moment, Arthur just stared at her. Then he laughed.
“That’s rich. A hitwoman? Really? That’s the funniest reason I’ve ever heard for dumping a guy.”
Arthur laughed so hard he began gasping for air. His laughter soon turned to panic when he realized he couldn’t breathe. Panic filled his hazel eyes, followed by shock, then horror.
Arthur stared into her eyes. Five years ago, they’d been filled with love. Today, coldness greeted him. A steely coldness determined to kill him. Tears spilled from his eyes as he took his last breath.
Joanna pulled out her cell and pressed one on the speed dial.
“It’s done. Am I back on the team now?”
Five years ago, she made a colossal mistake walking away from the life — a life of excitement, passion and fulfillment.
Today, she remedied that mistake.