Sold into Marriage

By: Ann Major

One



Christmas Eve

Paris, FranceH er footsteps echoing like hollow heartbeats in the biting cold, Josie Navarre raced up the four flights of stone stairs that led to her Parisian apartment on the Rue du Cardinal Lemoine.

She was in a hurry to get home. Maybe to eat the food she’d just bought. Or maybe because she didn’t want anybody to guess she was all alone on Christmas Eve. As if anybody in the city really knew her or cared, now that dear, sweet Lucas had gone back to Texas for the holidays.

Josie pulled out her key and refused to think about all the houses in the city overflowing with children, families, gifts, music and food because it was Christmas Eve. She refused to think about her mother and her half brothers, who wouldn’t let her come home to New Orleans.

“Not even for a few days at Christmas?” she’d pleaded. Not that she was really ready to face them.

“Not even.” Armand, her older brother, was maddeningly bossy. “Besides, what about Brianna’s gallery?”

As luck would have it, Brianna, her dearest and oldest friend, had needed someone to look after her apartment and gallery in Paris while she was away honeymooning, and at the exact same time when Josie had gotten into trouble and had needed to get out of New Orleans fast.

“Brianna told me I should close up for the holidays,” Josie had informed her brother.

“Stay there! Paint! And stay out of trouble.”

“What’s so special about Christmas?” Josie now said aloud to the dull, gray walls that Madame Picard, her landlady, refused to let her repaint. “Count your blessings. You have the night off. And the next two weeks. Armand’s right. Paint!”

She paused outside her doorway for a moment. As always she’d avoided the claustrophobic Métro at rush hour and the equally terrifying, cagelike elevator in her building that made the kind of weird, groaning sounds one associates with dying appliances. As a result, she was breathless from the long snowy walk from the gallery and the four-story hike to her apartment. Her scarf came loose, and clouds of steamy air burst from her lips as she jiggled the key in Brianna’s lock.

When Brianna’s heavy door stuck, Josie kicked it with so much force the thick slab of wood crashed against the wall and sent her tumbling across the threshold. She landed on her knees, her paper sack containing her dinner flying out of her hands.

Slamming the door, she marched to the tall window that faced the courtyard. It was dark and quiet. Madame Picard, who had a fondness for wine, garlic, her grandchildren and gossip, had told her that all her tenants were going somewhere special for the holidays.

“All except you, mademoiselle. I do have one new arrival. As soon as he checks in, I’m off to Rouen to see Remi, my grandson.”

Remi was five and full of mischief. According to the doting Madame Picard, the boy had her eyes.

Since no lights were on in the other apartments that faced the courtyard, Josie didn’t worry about Madame Picard’s new arrival or lower her shade.

Paris had short, gray days and long, black nights in the winter. Not that the light, especially the misty, hazy morning light, wasn’t wonderful. Every morning as soon as the sun rose, Josie ran to her windows and opened her shades so that she could admire the stark, leafless trees that seemed so naked and honest against the slate-gray skies.

Picking up her sack, she tugged the chain on her lamp and then switched on the little red Christmas lights she’d strung over a tiny potted ivy. When she glanced at the single envelope containing a Christmas card, note and check from her mother—her only gift beneath her diminutive, makeshift Christmas tree—a rush of guilt and homesickness swept over her.

“Our tastes are so different I never know what to get you, dear. Money is the perfect gift,” her mother had written.

For people who don’t really know each other. Or care.

Josie set her now damp sack that contained her café noir, warm brioche, yogurt and blackberries next to her laptop. On a plate beside the sofa.

She was peeking inside the sack to see how much the coffee and yogurt had leaked when the message light on her answering machine blinked madly. At the sound of Lucas Ryder’s deep drawl, she jabbed the appropriate button.

“Merry Christmas! I miss you so much.” Lucas’s voice was pure Texas. “I told everybody about you,” he said. “I showed them snapshots of your paintings. They love your wonderful gargoyles. They’re all very happy for me.”

His tenderness both warmed her and alarmed her. They’d met at an art opening. They hadn’t known each other long but Lucas had fallen fast and hard.

“Except for my older brother.” Lucas’s voice sounded tense. “He doesn’t get contemporary art. Or your gargoyles. He says they look like large rats.”

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