Gustav, stooped with age, hunkered down on his stool in front of his workbench, oblivious to the sounds of death and destruction falling around him. The comforting sounds of a hundred tick-tocking clocks provided a blanket to muffle the bomb’s whistling screams and corresponding rocketing explosions.
His gnarled fingers quivered as a blast shook his shop and decimated another close by, but that was more from age than fright. He had lived a long life—much longer than he, or anyone else, had expected. He glanced out the window at the nearby flickering flames. The sudden rise in temperature caused beads of sweats to form on his brow. He removed his glasses, patted his forehead, and resumed his work.
A barking dog loped past his window. A woman clutching a basket followed. Footsteps padded down the steps that led to his shop and banging rattled his door.
“Gustav!” A young man’s voice called. “Come, we must go!” The door reverberated as the pounding grew more and more incessant.
With a sigh, Gustav, put down his tools and unfolded his long limbs, stiff from sitting in a prolonged position. He didn’t answer the door to save his own life, but out of concern for his neighbor, Wilbur—a young man with a wife and children who, thank God, had already left for the safe countryside. Wilbur had a reason to live, while Gustav did not. He didn’t feel the need to explain to Wilbur that running away was a young man’s game.
“I will stay here with my clocks,” Gustav told him. “They know when my time will come. But you must go. Do not worry about me.”
Wilbur tried to argue with him, but to prove his point, Gustav firmly closed his door and flipped the lock. Settling down at his workbench, he picked up the tiny gears of his current project, a clock that would be the wedding gift for his grandson. The rosewood case matched the color of his own Gretel’s hair, the ivory face the color of her porcelain skin. As he worked, he hummed the song played at his own wedding by his uncle’s fiddling band.
Each clock was a labor of love for Gustav, but this one was special, because, he suspected, it would be his last. This thought didn’t bring him fear, but rather warmed him with the knowledge that this clock would continue to tick-tock long after his own heart stopped beating. Clocks, he knew, are like love, they continue when everything else fails.
My grandfather's clock was too large for the shelf,
So it stood ninety years on the floor;
It was taller by half than the old man himself,
Though it weighed not a pennyweight more.
Los Angeles International Airport
Darby stood in the line snaking its way toward the crowded Starbuck’s counter. She shivered, but this had more to do with nerves and anticipation than the over-zealous air-conditioning or her lack of caffeine. She glanced at the board announcing the arriving flights and consulted her watch.
Benjamin’s plane had been delayed. Again. She tried to wrap her head around this. After all, it was August, not the dead of winter when one might expect turbulent weather. Of course, he was flying from London—and when she had flown from London to L.A., her flight path had gone over the North Pole, where rotten weather was sure to happen. She needed to be patient, but she was tired of being patient. Other than on FaceTime or social media, she hadn’t seen Benjamin in three whole months.[SH1]
Not that she had known him for much longer.
A sudden splash of burning hot wetness on her silk blouse pulled Darby’s thoughts away from Benjamin. “Ow!” she pulled her blouse away from her chest and stared at the brown stain spreading like a fungus.
“Oh! I’m sorry!” A man with large hands grabbed a handful of napkins from the dispenser on a nearby table and tried to pat her chest.
She flinched away from him and noticed his face for the first time his face. Aside from his embarrassed and apologetic expression, he was incredibly gorgeous, like a young Paul Newman—blond, blue-eyed, and rugged and weathered as if he spent a good deal of time outside. He was almost as good looking as Benjamin, but in a completely different way, as Benjamin. But of course, Benjamin was a model and an actor who made a living with his beauty. This man was a silky-blouse-staining moron.
“It’s okay,” Darby said, even though it obviously wasn’t because the coffee was burning hot, her blouse was probably going to be ruined, and, worst of all, she’d now have to welcome Benjamin to L.A. with a giant brown spot on her shirt. She moved away from his clumsy hands and wads of napkins.
“Oh no, I can tell you’re upset.” He shook the coffee off his own hands, making her realize he’d burned himself as well. “Let me pay for your dry -cleaning, at least.”
“No, don’t be silly,” she said, edging away from him, which wasn’t easy to do because of the crowd around them. Most people were ignoring them, but a few watched with open curiosity, waiting to see her response. Darby gulped back her frustration, mostly because she didn’t want to make a scene, but also because the man was cute and remorseful—a little like a puppy who knows his paws are too big.
“How about I buy you lunch?” he said.
Darby glanced at the board, noting that Benjamin’s flight was had been delayed another hour. “Okay,” she agreed, tempted by a free lunch…and the man’s handsome face.
His smile transformed him. He was actually much better looking than she’d originally thought. Maybe even a close match to Benjamin. Not that looks mattered. She didn’t love Benjamin for his (stunning) appearance. Looks had nothing to do with their almost instant and incurable attraction.
“I’m waiting for my boyfriend’s delayed flight,” Darby told the blouse-destroying stranger, just so he would know he didn’t stand a chance with her because her heart was pledged elsewhere to another, much less, clumsy man. This was just a free lunch.
He looked at his watch, an intricate timepiece on a leather band. He had strong, thick wrists and covered with blond nearly transparent blond hair. Darby shivered again. She hated when men had dark gorilla fuzz, and she tried to recall Benjamin’s arms, but couldn’t. This bothered her.
“My sister’s flight is also late,” the man said as he guided her into a nearby restaurant, separated from the airport’s concourse by a water fountain running down a glass wall and spilling into a black marble ledge. The water garbled happily, it’s sound masking the airport’s bustle. The scent of barbequing steak wafted through the restaurant.
“Weird, right? I mean, it’s August and sunny and warm.” Darby glanced around at the linen-clad tables and glass and chrome decor. It was hard to believe that just a watery partition separated the restaurant from the noise and chaos of the rest of the airport.
“Not all delays are weather-related. I’m Chad George, by the way,” he said, sticking out his hand.
“Darby Elliot,” she replied, liking his strong grip.
A waitress name Kayla led them to a table overlooking the tarmac. They passed a window to the open kitchen where men and women in white coats and tall ballooned hats grilled a variety of meat over open flames. The smell made Darby’s mouth water. She hadn’t realized how hungry she was.
“What do you do, Darby Elliot, when you’re not waiting for boyfriends in the airport?” Chad asked once they were seated.
“I’m an accountant,” she said, unfolding the linen napkin and placing it on her lap.
He leaned back. “Really?”
“Why do you look so surprised?” Darby fussed with her napkin, slightly miffed because his response was typical. Most people had the same reaction when she said she was an accountant, and it bothered her that no one seemed to take her seriously. Being the youngest in a family of seven kids didn’t help. But she was used to her family’s dismissal and had grown to expect it. She didn’t like it from strangers.
“You just don’t look like an accountant.”
Darby sat a little straighter, trying to add inches to her five-foot-three frame. “And what do you think accountants should look like?”
“Well, for one thing, they don’t wear strappy red sandals and New Occult jeans.”
“Maybe not to work.”
“Although they might wear silk blouses. Just not with big brown stains on them.”
Darby didn’t mean to scowl, but she couldn’t help it. She picked up a menu to hide her expression. “I’m actually freaky good with numbers.”
He lifted a skeptical eyebrow. “Really?”
She lowered the menu. “Yeah. Go ahead, test me.”
“Okay, what’s three-thousand and forty-nine divided by sixty-three?”
He typed the math problem onto the calculator app on his phone. “You’re right. Amazing.”
She shrugged and went back to studying the menu. After a moment, she settled on a shrimp salad. “What do you do?”
“I’m a teacher at a small private school.”
This surprised and concerned her because teacher’s salaries usually didn’t stretch to cover fancy airport restaurants. “That’s noble,” she said. “It must be really rewarding.” Just not financially. She quickly changed her mind about the shrimp salad and selected a cup of soup.
“Sometimes,” he said with a smirk.
Kayla the waitress came to take their orders, and Chad surprised Darby by asking for the steak. Her gaze wandered to the chefs in the kitchen and she wondered if the steak would taste as good as it smelled.
“Are you sure you just want soup?” he asked.
She nodded, even though she wasn’t quite so sure anymore. After all, the sun glinting off the airplanes told her that it had to be warm outside away from the air conditioning. The thermometer had been pushing toward eighty when she’d been in her car and that was before it was even noon.
“I love tomato soup,” she said. “I practically lived on it when I was in London.” Where it was cold and dreary most of the year.
“You lived in London?”
She nodded. “That’s where I met Benjamin—my boyfriend, the one I’m waiting for.” Just saying Benjamin and boyfriend in the same sentence sent a happy tingle down her spine. She recalled his face to remind herself of how much she loved him and how perfect he was for her and how romantic their first meeting had been—much more romantic than some doofus spilling his coffee on her and ruining her favorite blouse. “You know, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to see if I can salvage my shirt.”
“Sure,” he said, looking disappointed, but not surprised.
She found the restroom near the bar and once inside, she peeled off her shirt, doused with water and squeezed some hand soap onto it. While she scrubbed, her thoughts bounced between Chad and Benjamin. She found herself comparing them, and even though this made her uncomfortable, she couldn’t stop herself. Chad, a teacher, according to her parents, had the noblest of vocations. Benjamin, an actor and model, again, according to her parents, probably had the least admirable vocation. It also bothered her that she continually measured things and people with her parents’ yardstick, but that was normal, wasn’t it? She hadn’t intentionally patterned herself after her parents, but even at twenty-nine, she still sought their approval.
Except when it came to Benjamin. She loved him in spite of her family’s warnings.
After a final rinse and a couple of blasts from the hand-dryer, Darby put her shirt back on. The damp fabric clung to her skin and bra and she wondered if she’d just made the situation worse. She left the restroom with her feelings toward Chad almost as chilly as the wet blouse. It didn’t help that he smirked when he took one look at her blouse.
She sat across from him and launched into her How-Darby-and-Benjamin-Met story. “Benjamin literally fell into my life!”
Chad leaned back as Kayla returned with their food, placed a thick slice of steak with a side of a baked potato oozing with butter and a serving of steamed vegetables in front of Chad and a cup of steaming hot tomato and basil soup in front of Darby.
Darby opened a bag of crackers and crumbled them into her soup. “We met the day before I left London. Sad, right?”
Chad looked as if he didn’t know how to respond. After a moment, he came up with, “What were you doing in London?”
“I’m a CPA for Hopper and Rhode Accounting, and one of our clients was having issues. I thought at first it was a huge honor for them to send me, but then I realized no one else wanted to go.”
Darby frowned. She really wasn’t supposed to talk about her clients, especially if she didn’t have anything good to say. “Let’s just say that my client likes to smoke cigars.” She lifted a spoonful of soup to her lips. Yep, it was hot. After a moment, she added. “She had other vices, as well.”
He lifted an eyebrow. “She?”
“Yep.” She paused her spoon. “Are you telling me you’re one of those sexist people who think women can’t enjoy cigars?”
“Can anyone really enjoy cigars?”
After another sip of soup, she put down her spoon and smiled. “Nope. I don’t know why anyone smokes them, unless, of course, they’re just intentionally trying to be annoying. Although, in general, it’s really a bad idea to try and annoy your accountant. After all, a good accountant is trying to save you money and often—as in this woman’s case—her business.”
“What was her business?” he asked with a smile he probably considered charming.
“I can’t talk about my clients. Sorry.”
Chad pulled out his phone and tapped out something. Darby tried not to be curious. After a second, he leaned back in his chair, gave her a pleased grin and showed her his phone’s screen. “Your client, Amanda Ward, an American living in London, president of Finders, Sneakers, a U.S. based company—”
“I know who she is,” Darby said. “How did you do that?”
“It was pretty easy, really.” He pocketed his phone. “I knew she had to be the head of a U.S. company—otherwise, why hire a U.S. accountant? But she was living in London…although, I think the cigar smoking pretty much nailed her.”
“It probably will nail her—into her coffin.” Darby’s hand flew to her mouth. “I should not have said that. You won’t tell my boss, will you?”
Chad smiled and cut into his steak. It let out a waft of heavenly scent. “So, since you can’t talk about your mysterious cigar smoking-client, tell me about the boyfriend that fell on you.”
Darby set down her spoon. “He was at a party right above my hotel room and there was a fire. Of course, I didn’t know that since I was asleep in my bed. Anyway, to escape the fire, he jumped down onto my balcony saw me sleeping in my bed and woke me.”
“No fire alarm?”
“Huh, I guess not.” The memory of the first time she’d seen Benjamin’s gorgeous and concerned face flashed in her mind. “He picked me up and carried me outside.” She didn’t add that they had spent the rest of the night making out on the hotel lawn and that she’d only been wearing a silk teddy. Remembering the cold wet grass pressing against her naked legs, Darby took another spoonful of soup. “It was very romantic.”
“But then you left London?”
“So, you really don’t know him all that well.”
Darby bristled because this was exactly what her mom, sisters, brothers, and friends had been saying. “We’ve Skyped every day. In some ways, this is a better way to get to know each other because we couldn’t get carried away with snogging. That’s the British word for—”
“I know all about snogging,” he said with a smile.
Yes, from the looks of him, he probably did.
“I know it’s absolutely none of my business,” Chad said as he buttered his potato, “but when you only know each other via social media, it’s really easy to just show your good bits.”
Wow. He really did sound like her mom. “You’re right.” She swallowed another spoonful of soup. “It’s none of your business. But sometimes, when you meet the right person, you know.”
“You just know, huh?”
She nodded. “That’s how it was for me and Benjamin. He fell into my life at the right time. It was meant to be.”
“Hmm…I wonder if the hotel owners felt the same way.”
“What? Why would they care?”
“It was their hotel on fire, right? I just wonder if they had such a fatalistic attitude.” He grinned and took a bite of his steak.
“Do you believe in fate or Kismet?”
“There are people who believe there’s no such thing as coincidences. I’m not sure if I’m one of those people.”
“What sort of people are you?” Darby asked.
“I believe that relationships take work and commitment. Just because someone fell into your life doesn’t mean they’re bound to stay there. They have to want to stay there, and you need to make it an enjoyable place to be.”
Darby thought about her parents and their noisy and chaotic home. “In my house, sometimes it seems as if love is more about taking out the trash, mucking out the garbage disposal, or being the one to change the poopy diaper. But I don’t think it has to be that way. There should be room for romance, too.”
“Are you from a large family?”
“Yes, I’m the youngest of seven.”
Chad whistled. “But if you’re the youngest, your parents can’t still be changing diapers. At least, I hope not. Sorry if that’s too personal a question.”
“I’m not wearing Depends, if that’s what you’re asking. My sister and her three children live with us.”
“You live at home?”
“Your parents must have a full house.”
“You have no idea.” She didn’t feel the need to tell him she shared that house with her parents, her brother Tom, her sister, Meg, her two nephews Tristan and Luke and niece Jolene, her other sister, Henley, her Grandma Betty, and the dog, Wheezer.
“So, there’s not a lot of romance…”
“There’s a lot of love, but sometimes…” Darby grappled for the right words. How could she explain her family to this stranger? “It can be chaotic, too. Not a lot of bathrooms and too many people—and creatures—in too tight a space. Romance gets lost in the piles of laundry or the overflowing toilet.”
“I’d like to meet your family.”
Darby put down her spoon. “No, you wouldn’t.”
“I’d pick love over romance any day.”
“I don’t think it has to be an either-or choice.”
“And you think Brit-boy can deliver both?”
Darby nodded. “I know he can.”
“I hope you’re right, for your sake. But I’m pretty sure real-life steps in eventually on everyone’s romance.”
“That’s very jaded.”
“Not at all. Being in love is something that happens to us, it’s a way of being. It’s a choice, or rather a series of choices. It’s choosing to put someone else’s needs over own over and over again.”
“Which brings us back to the clogged garbage disposal and the poopy diapers.”
Chad pointed his fork at her and smiled. “Exactly.”
“Life doesn’t have to be so real,” Darby argued. “There’s nothing wrong with wanting more romance, flowers, and wine and less chaos and noise.”
“No, but I bet the chaos and noise keep things interesting.”
“Interesting is a good word for my family.”
“I’d like to meet your family,” he said again.
“You don’t know what you’re saying.” Darby didn’t want to be annoyed by this handsome stranger, but it rankled that his words echoed pretty much everything her family had been saying about Benjamin, romance, and real life.
“I’m waiting for my sister,” Chad said after a moment to fill the awkward silence. “She’s coming into town to help celebrate my grandfather’s eightieth birthday.”
While Chad went on and on about his family, barely noticing her prolonged silence, Darby ate her soup as quickly as she could without slurping and occupied her thoughts with memories and fantasies about Benjamin.
Where he would stay had been a trick since she couldn’t very well bring him home. Not only was she from a long line of staunch Catholics, she was also from a large family…who happened to live in a not so large house.
Benjamin, of course, had understood and made arrangements with some friends who lived in L.A. Still, it made snogging difficult.
“Are your grandparents still alive?” Chad interrupted her thoughts.
“Yes,” she said, though she did not want to talk about Grandma Betty. Darby shoveled in the last drop of soup and put down her spoon. “It’s been really nice meeting you and thanks for the lunch, but I have to go.” She gathered up her purse, said goodbye, and left.
Chad watched Darby walk away. Guilt about ruining her blouse pricked him. He finished his meal, and while he waited for the check, he looked up the cost of shirts online and debated whether he should send her one. He didn’t know her address, but he did know where she worked. Would that be too stalkerish? How would her boss feel about her receiving personal packages at work? What size did she wear? All these questions kept him company as he wandered back to the baggage claim area where he’d arranged to meet Cecelia.
He spotted Darby. She had her back to him, but he recognized her high ponytail and dark curls—a very non-accountant sort of hairstyle. She sat on a chair, her legs crossed. A book dangled from her hand.
He wondered what she was reading and considered going over to ask, but changed his mind when he heard, “Chadwick!”
He spun around and opened his arms to Cecelia. Lean, with shimmery dark blond hair and a smattering of freckles across her cheeks, she still looked like his baby sister, only taller. She launched herself at him, and he caught her. “Hey!” He smiled down into her beaming eyes. “I’m so glad to see you!” Looking into her green eyes was almost like looking into his own.
“How are you?” she asked.
“I’m good,” he said, “but school starts soon, so that will change.”
She slugged his arm. “You know you love it.”
“I do,” he admitted. Although being a P.E. teacher hadn’t been his first choice, in the last few years it had become his only choice.
“How are the parentals? Are they still giving Grandpa a hard time?”
He nodded slightly. “It’ll be good to have you here to take off some of the heat.”
A small frown touched Cecelia’s lips.
“Just kidding,” Chad said as guilt swamped him. He wanted his sister home and not for the reason he just gave. He had missed her while she’d been in Paris.
He took in the tired lines around her eyes and the rumpled hair. Like him, she shared their mother’s coloring and height. He also noticed her blouse. It looked a lot like the one Darby had been wearing—minus the coffee stain, of course. “Huh, Cecelia, strange request.”
She lifted her eyebrows, waiting.
“Can I buy that blouse off you?”
Confusion flitted across her face. “What? Seriously?”
He nodded. “I spilled coffee on this woman, and I want to make it up to her.”
Cecelia elbowed him. “Do you like her?”
“You know I’m with Jessica.”
“Ah. Yes, Jessica.” Cecelia blew out a quiet, but non-informative, raspberry.
“What?” Chad asked. “You like Jessica. Right?”
“Of course, I do.” She looped her arm around his. “But if we both like Jessica so much, why are we giving this stranger my blouse?”
“I just…I probably not only spilled coffee on her, but I also probably offended her.”
“Oh! Tell me!”
Beside them, the luggage carousel began to whirr, announcing the arrival of the bags.
Chad repeated Darby and Benjamin’s story while they waited for Cecelia’s luggage to arrive. “I shouldn’t have said anything. I mean, I barely know her. Why should I care if she’s being scammed by this guy?”
“What makes you think she’s being scammed? If you like her enough to give her my blouse, he probably likes her, too.”
He thought about this. Darby hadn’t actually said she had bought Benjamin’s ticket to L.A., so what had made him think she had? In his mind, he raked through their brief conversation trying to put his finger on what had raised his hackles…Raised his hackles—that was something Grandpa Bern would say. Still, his hackles were quivering and maybe if he gave Darby a blouse he’d feel better. And maybe he could forget her as she obviously wanted him to.
“Let’s not give her this blouse, because, you know, I’ve been wearing it for the last ten hours,” Cecelia said. “If you really like her, you can pick a clean one from my suitcase.”
Chad brightened, and he cast Darby another glance. She stood on the opposite side of the baggage claim area in a shaft of sunlight pouring through a sky-light. She seemed illuminated—a bright spot in an otherwise Fluorescent-lit monochromatic world.
Cecelia followed his gaze. “Is that her?”
“She’s smaller than me,” Cecelia said.
“That’s okay, right?” Chad asked, wondering why he cared so much. “It’s better for the shirt to be too big rather than too small.”
Cecelia nodded at the luggage carousel. “There’s my bag. It’s got a red bandana on the handle.”
Chad hurried to the carousel to retrieve the bag. Cecelia followed him to an unoccupied row of chairs. He placed the suitcase on the chairs and she unlocked it.
Clothes in all shapes, sizes, and colors…he didn’t know how to do this.
Cecelia took pity on him. She pulled out a silky floral top with a ruffle for a sleeve. “How’s this?”
He nodded. “Good choice. How much?”
Cecelia’s eyes glinted as she waved the blouse in front of him like a flirty flag. “Fifty dollars.”
Chad faked a smile and wondered what made Cecelia and their dad, for that matter—so greedy. Chad reached into his pocket, pulled out some bills and handed them to his sister.
Cecelia reached for the money, but he yanked it away. “You’ve got to give it to her.”
“You have to be the one to give her the blouse.”
“No way! You’re the one who spilled the coffee!”
“Yeah, but I don’t want her to get the wrong idea.”
Cecelia narrowed her eyes. “And what idea is that?”
“I’m never going to see her again, so—”
“Exactly, you’re never going to see her again.”
He blew out a breath, reached into his pocket, pulled out his wallet, and drew out another twenty.
Cecelia held out her hand, wrapped her fingers around the bills, and stuffed the money into her pocket as if afraid Chad would change his mind.