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When The Clock Strikes Loves

Painted Hearts Publishing

Heat Rating: STEAMY
Word Count: 39,754
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Charleston might be a top romantic destination, but lovers don’t always arrive via plane, train, or automobile. Some travel across centuries, riding first-class courtesy of greed, hate, and a few well-crafted hexes.

It is 2015, and magazine writer Mallory Bonneau is thrilled to snag a ticket to a dinner where her secret crush, celebrity chef Radcliffe Richbourg, is a special guest. But moments after he welcomes her at the door of historic Avril House, she is dispatched far into the past, the victim of her stepmother's centuries-old curse. She learns Radcliffe is her betrothed from that long ago time, the pair cruelly separated by the striking of a clock. But this is no fairy tale. Can Mallory and Radcliffe hold their ground long enough in 1785 to discover the reversal spell and escape forever to the safety of 2015?

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“I’m so pleased you could come, Miss Bonneau,” he said, his flashing green eyes riveted to her brown ones in a manner that would have seemed obscene—if he were any other man. “I’ve been waiting for you.”

For several seconds, every sound fell away as if Mallory no longer had ears. A Palmetto bug crawled, unnoticed, across the toe of her satin pumps. When she finally found her voice, it was unfamiliar and raspy, her words rising from a desert that refused to freely give them up.

“You have?” she asked, feeling enormously nervous. “I’ve, ahem, I’ve been waiting to meet you, too, Chef.”

When he held out his hand, she considered the exquisite shape of his long, slender fingers—the same fingers she had watched countless times on TV as they pared a vegetable or delicately deboned a chicken. They were also the same fingers she dreamed about exploring the most intimate caverns of her body. She hesitated a moment—as if she’d never seen fingers before—before offering her own.

“Is that for me?” he smiled slyly, indicating the Palmetto Rose in her hand.

Before she could answer, he took the woven bloom and slipped it into his lapel.

“May it bring me good luck!”

He took her hand and looked into her eyes.

“Of course, it already has.”

His grasp was firm, just this side of a hard squeeze, and assured enough to quiet the quivering of her hand.

He’s flirting with me! she realized with a start. Despite her wild fantasies, she was deterred by the fact she had very little experience with men. Why, her first romance was barely a year behind her, broken off by the guy when Mallory refused to move in with him. He was nice enough—a photographer for the Post and Courier—but she realized she just didn’t love him. In fact, she knew deep inside she was in love with someone else, someone she’d never even met before.

And that someone had her by the arm right now. Though it did not seem possible for their meeting to become more surreal, it did just that.

“Won’t you come in and help me receive my guests, Mallory? I may call you ‘Mallory,’ I hope. I’m afraid our hostess has taken ill and won’t be joining us tonight.”

“Me?” she feebly offered, trying to hide her confusion. “I suppose I…” Her voice trailed off. “Of course you can,” he said and, for some reason, she believed him. With a nod and a smile, Radcliffe took her gently by the elbow and led her through the door, which opened into a garden and courtyard. He tightened his grip somewhat as they walked through a second door, the actual entrance to the house.

They stepped over the threshold, and as they did, a great vibration rocked the air. There was a blinding snap of light. Mallory lost her balance just as Radcliffe caught her in his arms. Then, just as quickly as it started, all was still and quiet again. She steadied herself and looked around. She and Radcliffe were standing in a great room filled with tables set for dinner. Everywhere were people in period costumes—and all eyes were on her. It seemed that everyone had stopped in mid-drink or mid-sentence to focus on her arrival. She was reminded of her elementary school playground, where the children were required to “freeze” when the bell signaled the end of recess. But this was no playground, and Mallory’s instincts told her it was not the end of the night’s strange happenings, either.

With precision and purpose, the party-goers formed a line, but it wasn’t to fill plates from a buffet. Mallory felt embarrassment; she obviously had overlooked this was a costume party. The women were in vintage gowns and many of the men were wearing powdered wigs. She looked down at her outfit; it was her turn to freeze. Her knee-length party dress had morphed into a floor-length, bell-like skirt overlaid with cream lace at the hips. A floral bodice was attached, with tight sleeves that blossomed into silky flounces at the wrist. She wiggled her feet and, while she dared not lift her hem, she knew she was no longer wearing the dainty heels she had walked to Church Street in.

Radcliffe spoke. “Look, friends. Your hostess for tonight’s gathering is here to receive you.”

With Radcliffe at her side, Mallory worked her way down the line though, in reality, she felt like the one being received. The women nodded sweetly and the men pressed her hand to their lips.

“So happy you are here.”

“It’s nice to see Radcliffe smiling.”

“Lovely to see you again. Just lovely.”

Again? She tried to place those who spoke with familiarity, but there was not one person with whom she was acquainted. She looked questioningly up at Radcliffe, but did not speak. He was gazing down at her with something close to pride, his hair waving like a dark, stormy sea around his sharply boned face. For the first time, she noticed that he, too, was outfitted in a period costume. He lifted the hand he still held, pressed it to his lips and kept it there, his eyes locking with hers. Strange music swam in her head, real or imagined—she did not know nor care. If this was a dream, it was the pinnacle of dreaming. She did not want to awaken.

By the time everyone had been greeted, Mallory had nearly forgotten she had walked to this house as a guest. She turned to Radcliffe and smiled. Beaming his approval, he gently guided her toward the doorway of the room as the guests seated themselves. Then, he cupped her chin and whispered the most beautiful words Mallory had ever heard or would likely ever hear again: “What you are and what I am has never been imagined, Mon Coeur. The veins that run through you, run through me, vines twining—an exquisite lace. You have always loved me, and I, you.”

Then he touched the bow of his lips to hers lightly. Mallory was breathless, but she no longer felt a need to breathe.

The sound of lone applause broke the lovers apart as a collective gasp rose from the room of onlookers. Radcliffe stiffened.

“Oh, that was glorious, Rad—bravo!” said a woman, standing in the shadows at the foot of the staircase behind them. She moved into the light and directed her icy gaze at Mallory.

“Welcome to my home, Avril Dumont,” she said. “But, of course, you’ve been here before…”

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