Kiss The Flame

By: Christopher Rice
A Desire Exchange Novella







Acknowledgments




I feel like I’ve found a new family at 1,001 Dark Nights. I can’t thank my fellow series authors enough for all they’ve done to welcome me into the world of romance. After years of publishing dark thrillers, it was time to try something different, something new. Something with a happier ending, and Liz Berry, M.J. Rose, and Jillian Stein not only made that possible, but rewarding.

Kimberly and “Shy Pam”, you ladies are the best. Kasi, you’re a great copyeditor and Asha, you’re one of the best cover designers at work today. Period.

A big thank you to K.P. Simmons and Inkslinger P.R. as well.

Thanks also to my crew at The Dinner Party Show, in particular my best friend and co-host Eric Shaw Quinn, for making it possible to meet my writing deadlines while also producing a weekly live Internet radio broadcast. Ben Scuglia provided additional copyediting for which I’m very grateful.

A big thank you to everyone at The Montelone Hotel in New Orleans for making it such a special place to stay every time I visit. I hope you’re happy with how you’re portrayed in these pages. And I hope Lilliane figures out a way to conceal her identity so she can keep reserving a room there for many books to come. In fact, let me get to work on that one right now.





THE CANDLEMAKER




We see ghosts every day; we just don’t realize it.

The woman a few feet behind you on the street corner, for instance, the one who doesn’t quite belong. Maybe she gazes at you with too much interest and seems unaffected by the commotion surrounding you both. When you turn to look at her a second time, she vanishes, leaving you to wonder if she was a trick of your imagination or if she merged so quickly with the crowd of pedestrians surging through the intersection you just lost track of her.

This is how we see ghosts—often and without our knowledge.

They don’t appear to us in states of dismemberment or disarray, leering at us like horror movie ghouls. They are not tricksters, not demons. Rather, they have been chosen by forces beyond our comprehension to remain among the living. But to qualify for this privilege, they must possess an undeniable respect, an undeniable love, for human beings. Only then will the spirit world see fit to grant them a particular purpose that justifies their continued visits to our mortal plane.





For years now people in the French Quarter have caught glimpses of a handsome, elegantly dressed man who takes long walks in the rain, his silk vests and perfectly pressed slacks bone-dry underneath the purple bloom of his umbrella. But glimpses are all they get. If someone’s curious look turns into a lingering stare, if their expression becomes suspicious, this man employs the favored trick of all ghosts; he halts the clock of human experience and quickens his steps until he’s found a comfortable distance between himself and his suspicious observer. Then he releases his grip on what we ordinary mortals call seconds and minutes.

The same can be said for those who walk past his tiny shop in the middle of the day, its plate glass windows filled with shelves holding rows of fat candles in burnt umber glass containers. At first glance, they assume the place is closed because the items inside are so expensive, potential customers must make an appointment to gain admittance. But this ludicrous proposition— how expensive can a candle be, really?—doesn’t hold them for more than a few steps. When they turn to get a second look, the store and its contents have vanished without a trace, leaving them convinced their passing glimpse of purple wax was just a trick of the mind.

But the shop’s tiny front door does open for a select few. To these people, a wood plank, hand-painted sign appears over the entrance, bearing the outline of a small gold flame, and the shop’s name, Feu du Coeur. They are drawn through the shop’s entrance by a smell so overpowering it brings tears of gratitude to their eyes or a lustful quickening to their pulse. For them, the light within looks inviting and warm, and the man waiting for them inside, the same man who takes long walks in the rain under his purple umbrella, offers them not only his name, Bastian Drake, but a chance to change their lives forever.





1




LANEY





Before college, Laney didn’t believe men like Michael Brouchard existed, men who look brawny enough to play for the NFL but spend their days leading passionate discussions of paintings like The Kiss by Gustav Klimt. Men who don’t trip over the pronunciation of words like mélange and rococo, who combine their fierce intelligence with artfully tousled dark hair and thick-framed glasses that make them look like Clark Kent. Men with strong, veiny, muscular forearms dusted with light tufts of hair. Forearms they keep exposed by rolling the sleeves of their plaid shirts up just far enough to offer teasing glimpses to their admiring students, glimpses that leave those students, students like Laney Foley, wondering what it would feel like to have those powerful hands slide up their thighs, grasping, kneading, before their owner leans in all professor-like and asks if he can—

“Miss Foley?”

“Sure,” Laney grunts.

“Sure?”