“You’re not here to fall in love, are you?”
Descending, Jay tripped on the last step and stumbled into the newel post. His fingers dug into the grime and dirt coating the golden walnut wood.
“Love? No. No. Definitely not.”
He shuddered at the idea.
Chronos thumped his scythe-shaped cane on the floor of the living room. The cracked black and white marble tiles of the floor knit back together. The trompe-l’œil landscape above the fireplace in the center of the wall opposite the staircase brightened. Lacy spiderwebs hung from the beamed ceiling like ghostly bunting.
“You don’t believe in love?”
Grabbing his wool coat off the bannister, Jay stuffed his arms down the throat of the sleeves. Why was the god nattering on and on about love when his power was time? Sweet, uncomplicated time.
“I believe in love.”
He just wanted to find it himself, not be hunted for it.
“Ah, yes, the Dugan family curse.” A green velvet cloak materialized on the old man’s stooped shoulders. A rusty chuckle stirred the strands of beard on Chronos’s chest. “Destined to find your soulmate then watch as Fate tries to take her away three times.”
Just the idea iced the marrow in Jay’s bones. He was not ready to face the prospect of finding someone, knowing his love imperiled her. No. No way. He’d watched the desperate women stalking his brothers stage their own near-fatal encounters. They’d scared the cranberries right outta him. To imagine it happening for real to someone he cared about? Maybe he could stomach it at thirty-five, but thirty-two was too young.
“I’m not ready to find her yet.”
“Love finds you in its time, not yours.” Chronos shuffled toward the double entryway doors on the right. Gray sunshine pressed against the etched glass panels embedded in the carved wood.
“My family has an in with Cupid.” Not that it meant anything to a god.
Jay jerked his gloves from his pockets and molded them onto his fingers. His breath fogged the air. He eyed the empty hearth. A nice fire would go a ways toward warming the place up.
A smile played with Chronos’s lips. His eyes twinkled with starlight seconds before a fire ignited behind the iron screen.
“I forget mortals require certain comforts. You now have running water, clean flues, updated appliances, and a functioning oil boiler.” He waved a gnarled hand at the broken furniture and flaccid cushions. “The rest is yours to clean and make livable.”
Flames gnawed at the log on the grate and were reflected in the dusty crystals of the chandelier overhead. The heat would take a while longer to fill the room.
Tucking his ears under his crimson cap, Jay turned up the collar on his jacket.
“I’m to stay here, then?”
“Yes. My wife’s idea.” Chronos opened the front door to the outside. “The place has been deserted since the war. Ananke thinks you living here will change things. I have learned to never argue with the woman. She inevitably wins.”
“Isn’t she associated with inevitability?” Jay crossed to the heavy, carved wood front door with its panels of etched glass. His palms itched. He loved to restore old things to new. He loved the history in old places and things. This place had both.
He stepped out onto a cobblestoned portico. Three pointed arches faced the town square. Christmas lights swayed across the open space beyond and converged on a pole in the center of a rock garden.
A door slammed overhead.
Someone was here. And they’d been crying. Jay leaned back toward the open door.
Chronos shut it in his face. Tumblers clicked in the locks.
“I see you’ve done your research on my family.”
“Gods have a history of meddling in human affairs.”
Of toying with them for their own amusement. Stuffing his hands in his pockets, Jay followed the old man along the edge of the square. The frigid wind scrubbed his cheeks.
“I already have women chasing me because of the family curse. I don’t need immortals mucking things up in my life.”
Insulting the gods, he reminded himself, might not be the best way to avoid that.
Turning right at the corner, Chronos lead him away from the square.
“Your mate was chosen at birth. I will not interfere.”
“Thank you.” Jay bit his tongue before he asked the obvious question. Of course the god knew his soulmate’s name. Chronos linked the past, present, and the future. Her identity was Jay’s to discover. What was she like? Was she blonde? He’d always liked blondes. He hoped she wanted adventure, believed in magic, and craved travel.
Frost dulled the shine of the BMWs and Land Rovers parked along the curb. Skiing equipment remained clamped to their roofs. He was happy to know the magical village of Saint Sylvestre had opened itself to the world. So many other magical places lay concealed from human eyes.
Snow collected like dirty linen between the cobblestones. Crowding the narrow street, gray stone buildings leaned against each other as they climbed three stories into the air. Shutters in greens, creams, and terra cotta concealed the mullioned windows of the upper levels; and brown vines splintered the stone edifices, waiting for spring to fill in the empty spaces with green leaves and flowers.
The skin at his nape itched, and Jay glanced over his shoulder. Lace curtains fluttered on the second floor of his new home. He glimpsed a mass of ebony hair framing a pale face before both disappeared.
“Ah, yes.” Chronos skirted a cypress hedge and disappeared through a stone arch.
Stone steps curved down the hill, and the view opened for a moment. Dormant trees and fallow fields marked the farmland below. Here and there, evergreens dotted color among the blue slate rooftops. A turn around a circular tower ended the panoramic view.
“I suppose you want to know a little about your housemate.”
“Yes.” Jay hunched into his jacket. He wasn’t spying on the woman, exactly. Just being curious. “She seems sad.”
Maybe she didn’t like the condition of the house. Not everyone liked old things.
“She is…confused.” The old man jabbed his cane onto the cobbles. A daffodil sprouted in the crack, bloomed, and crumbled in the span of a heartbeat.
Jay swallowed. He should probably refrain from souring the god’s eggnog. Still, he wanted to know about the woman he would be sharing a house with. He hated mysteries. His mother always fretted because he dismantled his toys to see how they worked. Most of the time he managed to get them back together and functioning.
“Does she have a name?”
At the landing, Chronos left the stairway down the mountain and picked his way through the streets. The air thickened with the scent of fresh-brewed coffee and baking bread.
“Nysia’s family used to tend the clock in Saint Sylvestre. You are staying in her family home.”
So, the condition of the place was probably what made her cry. How long had it been since she’d last visited? Years, for that much decay to set in. Then again, time might move differently in the village.
Stomach rumbling, Jay shoved aside the thoughts for later. He might be an American, but he had manners. Manners that would prevent him from restoring the house without her permission.
“Do you think she’ll be offended if I offer to help around the place?”
“It’s expected as part of your job.” Chronos’s white eyebrows wiggled like shaggy caterpillars over his blue eyes. “She’s been living among the ruins for too long. It’s time she realizes there’s more to life than the past.”
Jay swallowed a snort. Did the old man even know when he cracked a joke?
A red Peugeot rolled to a stop in front of a trio of stores twenty yards ahead. A bank of windows displayed fancy stilettos on the right, a mannequin in a flowing white dress holding a bouquet of roses in the middle. The left one used gold stenciling to identify the shop as a boulangerie et patisserie.
A couple helped two little girls no more than seven and eight years old from the back seat of the Peugeot. Blond braids slapped their ski jackets; they used their pink mittens to shield their eyes as they pressed their faces to the glass. Their parents brushed shoulders and kissed. A quick touch of the lips. Laughing, they called to their children, and with a tinkle of a bell, they entered the bakery.
Jay’s insides clenched. He’d have that. Eventually.
Chronos headed for the bakery, too.
“Nysia’s lover doesn’t appreciate her, just her potential, although he does nothing to foster it.”
The old man yanked open the door. The brass bell clanked against the glass insert before settling down for a proper ringing.
So, his hostess had a lover. A bad one, apparently. Yet, the old man obviously didn’t want anyone interfering with them and had warned him off with that comment about love. Jay could handle that.
“I’ll fix up her house, maintain the clock, and be a big brother to her if she needs it.”
He followed Chronos inside the bakery. His nostrils twitched at the yeasty scent of bread, the sweetness of honey, and the tang of vanilla. Pastries lined the bottom shelf of the display in the window, staring back at him with eyes of lemon, raspberry, and blueberry. Éclairs, tarts, turnovers, Napoleons, and pies crowded the other three shelves.
Jay’s mouth watered. He didn’t know what everything was, but he wanted one of each. His contract was for a year and a week. He had time to eat his way through the case. Still, ten different delicacies would be a good start.
Unbuttoning his coat, he patted his flat stomach. He was a growing boy.
“My usual American breakfast, Melisande.” Waving at a brunette in a white chef’s coat behind the marble counter, Chronos picked a path through the intimate tables and selected a seat in the back of the room. Rows of bread filled the wooden racks behind the counter. Their tan, golden, and pumpernickel-brown colors complemented the cream walls.
Looking up from carrying a round loaf of bread, Melisande grinned at Chronos. Her gaze slid to Jay, and interest flared in her brown eyes.
“Your order is waiting for you, Mayor.”
Jay stumbled on the stone floor. She spoke English? Now that he thought of it, so had Chronos. But Chronos was a god. The woman wearing the coat and sporting crumbs on her cheek looked mortal.
“Make it two, Melisande, and I’ll introduce you to our new guest when you have a moment.” Sitting at the square table for two, Chronos pointed to the wooden chair opposite him. “Don’t look so astonished. The enchantment around Time allows everyone to communicate freely. Most don’t notice it, but then, you grew up in a magic village.”
“Yes. Holly is devoted to Christmas.”
Hooking the chair with his ankle, Jay dropped into the seat. He hadn’t known about the language trick, but he now realized he hadn’t noticed that anyone spoke other than English at home.
Holding his daughters’ hands, the young father from the Peugeot allowed them to order their own breakfasts. Chronos cleared his throat.
“Nysia may resent your presence in the hotel de ville, but you must stick it out.”
“She lives in a hotel?” Dragging his attention from the family, Jay faced his boss. This was a business meeting, after all. And he needed to impress Father Time. No pressure.
“Hotel de ville is what you’d call city hall.”
So, some words translated, and others didn’t. Jay should have expected it. Magic played by its own rules, and recalling the inscription on the window, apparently it didn’t do writing.
Melisande the baker disappeared into the back. Through the doorway, Jay spied stainless steel racks, bowls, and cookware. Despite the town’s medieval feel, everything was quite modern. Except the city hall.
“Why has the city hall been allowed to deteriorate?”
“Nysia can be quite formidable when she wants something.” Chronos tossed the tip of his beard over his shoulder. “And she wanted to be left alone. Which we did. For far longer than was prudent, I think. You’re going to prod that girl into living again.”
Jay’s skin prickled. The old man couldn’t possibly mean Nysia was dead. She had to be alive, didn’t she? Maybe she’d been living alone in another village and had just recently returned. Maybe a lot of things. He’d ask the woman herself once they spoke.
Fabric swished. The baker hustled toward them, balancing an assortment of plates on her arm. A round loaf of bread filled one. Three wedges of brie lay like flower petals on another. Two slices of country ham and smaller rounds of salami decorated the other plate.
Breathless, Melisande arranged the plates on the small table. Her gaze flicked from the serving plates and jam carousel to Jay then back again. Color accented her wide cheekbones, and her lips were glossy red as thought her lipstick had been recently refreshed.
Stomach clenching, Jay slouched in his seat. Nothing. Nada. Zip. That spark his brothers and father claimed let them know they’d found their mate was missing. He forced a smile as he accepted a plate and silverware.
“Mel, this is Jay Dugan from the Christmas village in Arizona.” Chronos picked up his knife and stabbed it in Jay’s direction. “Jay, this is Melisande Beaumarchais. She is quite the famous baker. People come from all of Europe for her to design a wedding cake for them.”
Ducking, Mel frowned. After a little shake of her head, she wiped her slim hand on her coat before offering it to Jay.
“It is a pleasure.”
“If your baked goods taste half as good as they look, I imagine you’re the gatekeeper to tastebud heaven.” Jay slipped his palm across hers. Her hand was warm and soft but did nothing to his insides. Not that he was looking for love.
She blushed and delicately broke off their handshake.
“What is it you do, Mr. Dugan?”
“It’s Jay.” The stiffness melted from his smile. No need to worry about being hunted by the baker. The non-attraction was mutual. “And I’m a self-proclaimed tinker. I can fix pretty much anything mechanical. But I specialize in creating customized parts, like gears, cams, and drive shafts. I’ve even cast a bell or two.”
“And ovens?” Mel removed a folded napkin from a nearby table and swiped at the crumbs on the tablecloth. “Can you repair them?”
Leaning back in his chair, he glanced toward the kitchen. Not an oven in sight.
“Depends on the model. The fancier ones with computers are more my brother’s forte than mine.” Setting his napkin on the table, Jay half-rose from his chair. “I can take a look if you’d like.”
Mel’s eyes twinkled. “I think there’s a clog in the gas line.”
“I like a woman who has a mechanical bent.” Jay’s chair legs scratched stone when he stood.
“Sit. Sit.” Chronos tapped his cane twice. “There. Your ovens are back to as good as new, Mel.” He switched his attention to Jay. “Now, you—eat. You have a lot of work to do on the hotel de ville.”
Jay sat. He hoped to live a long, long life, and the god before him had the power to snip off a few years at the end. Scooting his chair closer to the table, he selected the heel of the bread, cut a pat of butter from the metal serving dish, and scooped out apricot preserves from the pot in the carousel.
Mel splayed her fingers across her chest; her cheeks turned the color of flour.
“The old city hall? But…but, surely…”
“He’s staying with Nysia. She can use the company.” Chronos speared a slab of country ham and shifted it to his plate. Slices of brie quickly followed, dotting the pink meat. He pursed his lips and scanned the table. “No tomatoes?”
Gripping the hem of her coat, Mel twisted it clockwise then counterclockwise.
“I–I’ll get them.”
She spun on her heel and dashed for the kitchen.
Jay’s teeth sank into the bread. The crust flaked off, giving his plate a gold-colored shower. The sweet, just-ripe flavor of apricots rolled over his tongue. Closing his eyes, he fell into the summer day captured in the bite of fruit.
“Good, isn’t it?”
“Amazing.” He licked crumbs from his lips and stared at his boss. He was a foodie, and foodie heaven was France.
He snatched another slice of bread, feeling no shame. Instead of the other jellies, he smeared the soft cheese on this one, then added a few rounds of salami.
“You should take some pain au chocolat to Nysia.” Working clockwise, Chronos cut his ham into sections. “I have never known a woman who could resist chocolate.”
Taking a bite of his bread and cheese, Jay nodded. The delicacy was a croissant filled with chocolate. It was one of his favorites.
“I’ll ask her when—“
Mel bumped his arm before dropping something on the table. A platter of sliced tomatoes glistened with olive oil. Sprigs of fresh basil broke up the blades of red.
“Your favorite, Mayor.”
Using his fingers to tear apart the bread and cheese, Jay waited for his turn to speak. Something had scorched the woman’s burners. She was jumpier than a cat in the rain.
“Melisande, may I have a dozen pain au chocolat to take with me?”
“But, yes.” Mel gripped his elbow and yanked him to his feet. “Come with me to pick the ones you want.”
Jay shifted to avoid being unmanned by the edge of the table. Obviously, the woman wanted to talk to him. He could handle it. Just maybe not in the kitchen where there were knives. Leaving his food behind, he stumbled behind the baker.
Sitting with his family near the door, the young father grinned at him over his coffee cup. Jay flashed his eyeteeth then dodged the serving counter and a wooden cooling rack before staggering into the kitchen. A brick oven sat between two gleaming chrome ones.
Releasing him, Mel fumbled in her chef’s coat pockets before pulling out a folded square of paper. She thrust it at him with a shaking hand.
“What is it?” Without thinking, Jay plucked it from her fingers. The warm paper crinkled in his grip. Smooth move, Blitzen. What if it’s some secret that’ll cost you a decade?
“It’s the telephone number of Father Petain, the pastor at the new church.” Biting her lip, Mel leaned to the right and peered past him into the dining area.
“O-kay.” So, not something worth lopping years off his life for.
Mel inhaled a deep breath and launched into action. Deft fingers assembled a pink box. Using tongs, she layered the pain au chocolat inside.
“Call him. After you meet Nysia.” Her attention darted to the dining room again, and she lowered her voice. “Father Petain can perform an exorcism or…” She swallowed hard. “Or a funeral service.”
“A what!” Jay grabbed the edge of the marble worktable. He hadn’t come all this way to be threatened by a woman with crumbs on her cheek.
“Shh!” Mel pressed a finger to her red lips. “Everyone who has tended that clock has died or was driven mad within four months of taking the job. And they lived in my cousin’s bed-and-breakfast. But you…” She snapped the tongs at him. “…are living in her house. I give you a week until she drives you mad enough to commit suicide.”
Oh, no. Not going to happen. He hadn’t signed up for this. Jay stomped out of the kitchen, then drew up short.
Chronos was gone.
The food was gone.
Everything had been erased. Poof. Just like it had never been.
Jay hoped the god of Time didn’t intend to do the same thing to him.