FIRST CHAPTER PREVIEW
Chapter One: The First Visit
When I first met ‘The Baron’ it was my thirteenth birthday and I was living in Paris. I remember the day almost perfectly. It was warm, and the air was filled with the sounds of a busy afternoon; people chatting, cars passing by, bicycle bells ringing as they navigated crowded streets, and the sound of dishes clinking from inside the café.
I was outside under a blue and yellow striped umbrella, drinking a cup of iced coffee and eating a large fruit tart decorated with blackberries, strawberries, and kiwis. I made sure to savor every bite.
A very good and old friend of the family, Gustavo, owned the café that made these delicious pastries. His big mustache was something I looked forward to seeing, always having a special effect on me when it came to making me smile.
That day, I wore a simple white laced trimmed dress and a pair of white shiny shoes with little bows on the straps; shoes my mom and dad had surprised me with in Germany a few months before. My hair was pulled back in a ponytail with a red ribbon that I’d bought at a flea market in Morocco when I was eight. And although my parents couldn’t make it to lunch for my birthday, it didn’t really bother me. It wasn’t that I was cold hearted or didn’t feel sad at the thought. I just understood that their jobs were important and consumed a lot of their time.
My upbringing was far from what most people would think as normal because of what my parents did. For most of my childhood I had been homeschooled in over a dozen different countries and taken care of by a handful of nannies. Respectively, I had become accustomed to being on my own, having a level of independence that not many young children were familiar with. I could never harness hatred or resentment toward them though. My parents devoted their lives to their careers so passionately that I had no right to make them feel guilty for it. But of course, in the beginning, I hadn’t fully grasped that concept yet.
As I got older, not only did I realize that throwing fits and crying for them to stay every time they had to leave was wrong, but I also realized those ill feelings were preventing me from getting closer to them. All I wanted was to be part of their world, a world that held so much possibility and discovery. I loved seeing them happy when they would come back from work smiling and talking about what new discoveries they found, or what they were researching. Even watching them work when they took me to the lab at times was a very comforting sight. For me, it had become home. And how could I resent them for that? In any case, whatever reason led to their absence, they always had a great way of making up for it.
As I sat there enjoying my piece of heavenly goodness, across the street—through all the delightful madness—my eyes suddenly came across and then froze on a mysterious and unworldly man. He caught my eye almost instantly as if his presence demanded the attention. The first thing that struck me odd about him was what he was wearing. He wore a black pea coat with a white shirt underneath, and grey bottoms with knee-high black boots. Strangely enough, it looked like he had been pulled out of a nineteenth-century European film.
Sitting there, watching him take a steady sip out of a small white cup, a strange feeling began to emerge from deep within the pit of my stomach. There’s no other possible way I could explain it, except to the feeling you get when you find yourself surrounded by a place that seems familiar but you’ve never been there before, or introduced to a person you’ve never met and yet—somehow—you already feel like you know them.
He was a young man, I suspected in his mid or late twenties. He seemed to be enjoying himself and moved with such grace as he placed the cup back down on the plate. I wasn’t far away from him, but not too close either, so any detail revealed to me besides the dark shade of his brown hair, the vague outline of his face, and the strange clothes he was wearing, I left to sheer insight.
Intruding on his privacy, his eyes unexpectedly encountered mine. I shuddered, feeling his gaze on me. But even though I’d been caught, I couldn’t look away. And for some odd reason my vision started to strain, zooming toward him at a phenomenal rate. He suddenly didn’t seem so far away anymore. I could see his face so clearly. Every detail that I had left to my imagination revealed itself to me. His eyes, the most stunning emerald green.
The sudden answer to my prayers had me in a state of shock. Not only was I caught in some type of supernatural connection with the stranger that allowed me to see him unbelievably close, but there also was a feeling churning within me where I could hardly bear its intensity. My heart was beating frantically as he stared at me without any shame or hesitancy.
I continued to lock my gaze upon his, our eyes searching into each other’s souls, burning deep with indescribable and questionable emotions. The busy world around us seemed to dissolve into nothingness, far away from sight and sound. It was just he and I. Alone.
“Um, Miss Ana, how’s your birthday dessert?” The sudden interruption of French filled my ears, forcing my eyes off my subject. I felt a little dizzy bringing myself back from wherever I was.
“Oh, it’s great. Thank you Gustavo!” I spoke in somewhat good French, my thoughts still occupied with the mysterious man I had locked eyes with.
“I’m glad you like it, Miss.”
Stuck between setting my eyesight back to observe the stranger, and trying to remember what I wanted to ask Gustavo before he left, I found myself lost in translation. But before he was about to walk away, after picking up an empty dish, I remembered what I wanted to ask him before the mysterious stranger appeared. “Oh, can I get a glass of cold milk? This coffee is a little much.”
“Anything you wish. Coming right up.”
I thanked him with cheery eyes as he left.
Immediately my eyes turned to where I detected the stranger and to my astonishment, he had vanished! I stood up hoping to get one last glimpse of him, maybe a chance to run after him and find out his name if I was brave enough, but it was too late.
After my birthday lunch at Gustavo’s, and waiting for almost an hour to see if the stranger would reemerge, I decided to give up on my search and visit one of my favorite places in Paris, a small, quaint bookstore near the Notre Dame. It was a charming building covered in red brick and jasmine vines. Two iron gas lamps stood on either side of a black door outlined with faded gold, followed by vintage white-framed windows. The gas lamps were always on, even in the daytime. There was also a small sign that hung over the door by a black iron rod, slowly being consumed by the creeping vines. The sign read in black slanted writing: noir et blanc.
Most of the books were in French. And although I could speak moderately good French, reading it posed another challenge on its own. The bookstore was hidden away from the general public like it was my own little secret. Once I went inside, beautiful black-stained shelves with hundreds of colorful books on them, combined with dark stone walls and stone floors, left me in a state of awe. Every time I walked inside, I felt like I was stepping into another world.
After letting myself in, I immediately said hello to Fifi who I assumed was the owner. She was an old woman, probably in her late seventies who smelled of spiced rum. She always welcomed me with a modest smile that exposed her rotten teeth and would say “Good day and good night” in French. A few times I tried to have a conversation with her to practice my French but she would simply stare at me in an uninterested manner with her eyes expressionless and uninviting as if her vocabulary was restricted to only a few words. Because of that, I kept it simple by only saying hi and bye, that was the only transaction between us, that and me leaving money on the counter when I bought my books.
As I made my way to the back, the light that beamed through the only two windows in the store began to fade, and the warm light from the gas lamps inside began to take its place. Allowing my crazy superstitions to hatch themselves inside my head, I couldn’t help but get a feeling that someone was watching me as I made my way to the back of the store. Maybe the stranger? I thought. But I was quick to shake the feeling off, not allowing my imagination to wander any further.
Once I reached the very back of the store, to a small section that held the only books in English, I started to scan the titles. My eyes were forced to stop at a red spine that read: The Age of Innocence, Wharton, in black print. And in that instant, I made my decision. Unfortunately, the shelf it was on was higher than expected. I vigorously tried to take it down by tiptoeing and stretching my arms as far as I could, but I only succeeded in moving a small part of the spine out. It wasn’t until I felt a light touch on the lower part of my back where I shot out of my struggling position and lost my balance. I had anticipated a collision with the solid floor, but when I opened my eyes I was suspended inches from the ground with large arms wrapped around me. Someone had grabbed me and saved me from landing hard on the floor!
I took a moment to catch my breath as the stranger set me gently down on my feet. When I turned around to thank whoever saved me, I couldn’t believe it. My eyes had met the handsome stranger from the café! I instantly recognized him and felt too stunned to say anything. He simply captured me in a way that I thought only existed in books or films. It was an indescribable feeling as I stood there losing myself within his piercing green eyes.
“I’m sorry, did I startle you?” A slight smirk grew on his face.
“You-you-you,” I dumbly pointed my finger at him and took a few steps back, my eyebrows pinned together in astonishment. “You’re the man from the café!”
“Yes, that would be me. And you must be the girl from the other café?” he said almost mockingly.
“How—did you follow me?”
The handsome stranger was silent for a moment, staring at me deeply. To the point where it made me feel uncomfortable. I couldn’t help but clear my throat as I awaited his response, my eyes shifting in nervousness.
“Oh, you have no idea how long I’ve been following you…” His tone changed dramatically, deeper and serious, while another sly smirk emerged on his face.
“Wha-what do you mean by that?” I asked.
His words confused me but I wanted to know what he meant. I wanted to know more about the mysterious stranger in front of me. And being naïve and somewhat of a foolish age didn’t help. “Would you dare have a cup of tea with me?” he asked. I swallowed hard unsure of what to say. I didn’t know if I should go with him because he was handsome and mysterious, or hit him in the groin, take off running and never look back. He was a well-built, tall man. He could have easily grabbed me and whisked me away without anyone knowing. I remembered thinking, What if he kills me or does the unspeakable? But I felt like I already knew him and he knew me. Somehow I knew he would never hurt me.
“What are you going to do to me?” I asked, mostly to confirm my already made assumptions.
The stranger chuckled.
“It’s only tea. It’s quite an imagination you have there, little girl.” He brought one of his fingers to my forehead and gave me a delicate tap.
“I’m not a little girl!” I brushed his taunting finger out of my face. “So, you’re not going to kill me?”
“Now, why on earth would I kill such a beautiful and defenseless creature such as yourself?”
“You’d be amazed what people are capable of, sir.” I said as my eyes glared at him in a threatening way.
“Beautiful and wise. Well, I don’t think it’s right for me to remind you, but you are your own person, so you make whatever decision you feel is right.”
I looked at the stranger who spoke such perfect English, confounded by his character. Something about him pulled me to him like the energy of two magnets inevitably drawn together. I decided to go with him, wherever he was planning to take me. I had to. I couldn’t begin to explain why.
“Okay.” The word blurted out of my mouth. “I’ll go.”
“Excellent. This way.” The stranger put out one of his arms for me to grab. Once I latched on, he headed toward the painted black door several feet away from us, quietly placed at the back of the store.
“Wait, where are you going? The exit is that way.” I gestured behind us. “That’s just the back door to the alley.”
The stranger leaned in close, too close for comfort. But I was too tantalized by his movements to pull away from him.
“Don’t always assume that something is only one thing. Anything can be whatever you want it to be. All you need to do is believe.” His words struck a chord with me. And I thought:
Who is this stranger? What does he want from me? Why has he been following me? Is he crazy?
He moved my hand into his, entwining tight with his strong gripping fingers. His other hand began twisting the golden doorknob. Before he could completely turn it, his attention came back to me. “Close your eyes,” he said.
At first I was hesitant, but I decided to trust him, closing my eyes with anticipation.
“Are you ready?” he asked, his voice rough yet soothing.
“I’m ready.” I replied with a rush of excitement coursing through my veins.
As soon as I heard him open the door, I felt the rays of sun collide with my skin, dissolving the darkness under my eyelids. A gush of wind filled with the scent of jasmine and lavender blew into my nostrils, bringing all my senses to life. I carefully followed his movements as we took a few steps forward.
“Now, open your eyes.”
When I opened my eyes, I couldn’t believe what I saw. The hills were covered with all kinds of wild flowers that seemed to stretch out for miles. Two small winding creeks prettied the landscape like slithering snakes courting each other. The sound of birds chirping, the sight of fresh water running along its wheeling path, and the perfectly tinted blue sky filled with huge white puffy clouds, as if stolen from a painting, all intoxicated my senses—something along the lines of an enchanted world, a world where fairies and other magical creatures could live.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” He asked.
“Yes, very.” I replied, still under the spell of my surroundings.
Then, like a sudden change in the weather, a realization struck me.
“Wait, how did you do this? This place can’t be here, behind a book store?” I turned to look behind me, staring through the door we had walked through just moments before. The inside of the bookstore was still there, right behind us. I could hardly wrap my mind around it.
“That’s where you’re wrong. This place is here, it exists now, just not in your world. It lives in another.”
“What do you mean by that? How—” He gave me a slight tug, redirecting my attention back to the welcoming nature in front of us, causing me to refrain from asking any more questions.
“Come this way, please.”
The handsome stranger steered me down a small dirt path where, at a close distance, an iron black table and two iron black chairs were placed. As we got closer to what I assumed was our destination, I noticed tiny green vines with purple and blue flowers interlaced within the table and chairs, creating the illusion of beautifully designed cushions.
After helping me to my seat, he poured hot water into my cup, asking me to take a look inside. A beautiful flower had bloomed. “Jasmine,” he said. I looked up at him with a soft smile. I was familiar with the jasmine blooming tea. “Help yourself to anything you wish to add.” He gave a light hand gesture to all the condiments that were placed on the table. Two porcelain cups were on either side of us, a teapot in the middle, a bowl of sugar cubes, a cup filled with milk, a jug of honey, and sandwiches on a porcelain plate. Everything seemed so perfect. The generous stranger sat down and poured tea for himself as he began to speak.
“I know you have many questions. But for time’s sake, I need you to choose wisely, whatever you feel you most need answered.”
I looked at him with a puzzled expression, my eyebrows pushing together.
“I didn’t know we were on a time limit.” My words carried a hint of disappointment.
“Sometimes we have to take it for what it is.”
“So, you’re going to leave me?” I asked, with an ache of sadness striking the center of my heart. I had just met him and he was already talking about leaving.
“Unfortunately, there are other obligations that I’m indebted to.”
“Where do you have to go?”
“Do you really wish to spend our time together on matters that I don’t have time to explain? It’s your choice.”
I was disappointed that our time was limited, but I was dying to ask him some questions before it was too late.
“You said you’ve been following me for a long time. How long?” A subtle smirk on his face grew, his lips pressed down…perhaps to hide his excitement? I wasn’t sure.
“Although the details are hard to explain, I’ve been watching you for quite some time…thousands of years, in fact.” His eyes held a steady gaze, watching carefully for my reaction.
“Is-is that possible?”
“Well, it is. But it’d be hard to explain any further, for now.”
“But how? I’m confused.” He let out a deep sigh and turned his attention to the stunning scenery that wrapped itself around us. From watching the side of his face, I noticed his expression mold into a more contemplative one.
“You see, when I first came across your soul, your light was nothing like I’d ever witnessed. I was drawn to you, and followed you throughout the many distinctive lives you lived.”
I sat there looking at him feeling even more confused. I didn’t understand what he was talking about, and I didn’t know what to say back. For the first time, I felt lost and uncertain of the world, and of my own existence.
“I know to you this may not make any sense, especially because of how young you are. All of this may seem like a lot to take in.” He paused for a second, staring back at me with vulnerable eyes, then he continued. “I don’t mean to bring you into more confusion than you’re currently in, and I don’t expect you to fully understand. But I speak the truth. I tried to stay away from you. Oh, believe me, I’ve tried…but sometimes I can’t stand the distance. I can’t stand the fact that you don’t know I exist. That you forget me every time.”
“Every time? Then, have we’ve met before, in other lifetimes?” I looked at him as if I didn’t know the answer, yet deep down something was telling me that I did.
“Yes, twenty-four times to be exact. Every one of those times was caused by my own selfish nature. It wasn’t enough to just watch you.” Looking bothered, he glided his hand through his hair and stared off into the distance once more. When he turned back to face me, his countenance seemed to transform into one of guilt.
“And what happens?” I glared unknowingly into his eyes.
He observed me with such a loving look. I didn’t feel like thirteen in that moment strangely enough. I felt much older. There was a real connection between us, and it scared me because I discovered that there were forces in the universe far beyond my control; forces that are too much to understand in one lifetime, yet alone hundreds. And I didn’t know if it was because of his very presence, the sincerity in his eyes, the place we were at, or the fact we had met several times before, but I couldn’t help feel overcome by the emotions that began to release themselves from my eyes.
“Have I said too much?” he asked. He seemed concerned as a few tears trickled down my cheeks.
I didn’t answer immediately, waiting to catch my train of thought.
“It all seems so unreal, so unbelievable.”
“The truth.” he said with a moment’s pause. “The truth is what everyone easily desires, but not so easily accepted.”
“Do—do you think we like to live in a bubble?” I asked. My eyes glazed over with newfound insight.
“No, not at all. I believe that no matter what life form you are, you always want something more. But it’s always hard to live in a world where so many ideas and ways of living clash together, and in that chaotic mess you have to find yourself. But what we truly are, what each and every life form truly is, is something far beyond us. Some things, aren’t meant to be known...”
“Is it possible that…do you think you might…love me?” I gave him a sincere look, disbelief still evident on my face. “Is that why you’ve been following me for so long?”
As soon as I said love, I noticed the color in his eyes change. Surprise? Shock? Fear? I didn’t understand why he had suddenly fallen into a disheartened state. Abruptly, he rushed to his feet, looking straight up into the sky with a hand shielding his eyes from direct sunlight.
“Did I say something wrong?” I asked.
The once sunny and beautiful warm dream quickly turned into a cold and dark nightmare. Water drops began to fall from the changing skies. Stirring dark clouds in the distance roared with impatience.
“Not now,” he muttered. But I wasn’t sure if what he said was meant for me. He seemed distracted by something else. “We have to go!” He directed his attention back to me.
“Wait. No, I’m not leaving! I want to stay with you, I—I don’t want go back now!”
“You must, Ana!”
He knows my name?
“I apologize, but we must go.” The rain was becoming heavier, the dark grey clouds revolving, moving closer to us.
“No, please!” I jumped out of my seat rushing to his side, clenching my hands tight into his coat as I fell to my knees, like a little girl begging her father to stay.
“Please, please, I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to ask you that! I’ll never ask you a stupid question like that again!” I nestled my face into his coat with my hands wrapped around him tight, crying, as the light rain began to fall on us. I barely knew him and yet, to describe the pain I felt when he said he was going to leave me was heart wrenching.
“Ana, look at me.”
“No!” I nestled my face harder into him, grabbing on for dear life. I didn’t want to let go. Not after what he had shown me. Not after discovering his existence.
“Please, look at me.”
I moved my head, looking straight up at him with flickering eyes, the soft rain blurring my vision. He gazed down at me with a warm gentle smile and brought his hand to my cheek, gently sliding over a few moist strains of hair on my face.
“I have loved you. Still love you. More than you’ll ever know.”
I looked at him, stirred by his words. If only he knew what he did to me in that moment, what he gave to me. There is nothing I could compare it to that would begin to describe it.
“But, you have to go back before they come.” His voice grew dark. “I promise I’ll see you again, just be patient. Will you wait for me?”
I stared at him helplessly and then nodded in agreement.
He bent down, my hold on him releasing, to place a soft kiss on my dripping forehead. And then, with a single controlled motion, pulled me up to my feet. The rain was starting to pour even harder.
“Now grab my hand.” When he opened his hand, I was surprised to find a small blue diamond shaped stone glowing, embedded within the skin of his palm, as if it were part of him. I knew it wasn’t the best time to ask more questions, so I held back any urge to do so.
I reached out my hand, slowly clasping it with his. We gave each other one last look as our hands met. And in that split second, all that was around us had been washed away, vanished instantly, thrown into space and time. Everything disappeared, and the handsome stranger was gone.
When I woke up, I found myself in my bedroom. Quickly, I looked under the blankets, surprised to see I had the same clothes on and they weren’t wet. Popping my head back out, my eyes eager to locate the stranger, I took a few frantic looks around. When detecting no signs of him, I flung the sheets off of me, threw myself out of the bed, and ran to the window. When I realized the world didn’t seem like it was ending, or no fierce storm was erupting from revolving gray skies above, or that I wasn’t holding tight onto a mysterious stranger’s hand, I couldn’t help but feel a pang of sadness seep into my hopeful heart.
Did I dream all of it? Was it just part of my imagination?
Stuck in my internal conquest to try and understand if it was just a dream, my mom came rushing into my room with a high-pitched voice that threw off my concentration.
“Oh, Ana! We’re so sorry!” She came up to me and hugged me tight.
“For what?” I asked a little disoriented by her presence. She released me from her tight embrace to further explain.
“Your father and I didn’t come home last night, and I know we were supposed to go out to dinner for your birthday since we weren’t able to meet you for lunch, but we just got caught up in this new project and lost track of time. I’m so sorry!”
Birthday dinner? I thought.
She gave me another hug and then let me go again, excitedly holding onto my arms. I was still trying to adjust myself. My sense of reality was not yet there. “But I promise we’ll make it up to you, today! We have the whole day off and we’ll do whatever you want. How do pancakes for breakfast sound?”
Was I really gone for almost a whole day and night? Was the handsome stranger real? Did I not make him up?
My mom shot me a quizzical look.
“Are you upset honey?”
“No mom, I understand. That sounds good.” I forced a toothy grin.
“Really?” She looked uncertain by my insincere response.
Her eyes squinted. I noticed a little humor in her stare, her eyes somewhat tired from the all-nighter her and my dad apparently had. But she still looked amazing. She was used to staying up late, sometimes for days with small naps in between, caught in the enjoyment of what she did.
My mouth formed a more convincing smile.
“Really, really.” I answered.
“Great! I knew my grown-up girl would understand. Well, your dad is finishing up at the lab and he’ll be here within the hour. I’ll go make the pan—” My mom suddenly stopped herself and gave me a curious stare. “Wow—you’re already dressed. Are those the shoes we gave you?”
“Yes, they are.”
My eyes stayed focused on my mom, because for some reason I was nervous to look down at my feet. As if she would discover where I’ve been, if I’d been anywhere at all.
“They look perfect on you.” She brought her hands to her mouth slowly grazing her fingers with her upper teeth. She tended to do that when she was observing or trying to wrap her mind around something.
“Okay mom, I will. Thanks!” I tried to cut her off from her intense stare before she asked me any more questions that I wasn’t sure how I would begin to answer.
Shaking her head, she brought her hand away from her face, the focusing stare gone, and leaned in to kiss me on the center of my forehead, which, for a faint moment brought me back to when the handsome stranger kissed me in almost the exact same spot. The noise of the door closing shut woke me up from my fleeting state, and I looked around my room feeling different—distant—than I had ever felt before.
Not feeling in a celebrating mood, I walked toward my bed to get my brush when I noticed a small, pale yellow box with a white envelope beside it on my nightstand that said ANA in well-written handwriting. I could literally feel my heart jump out from my chest, and I eagerly rushed to open the letter, which read:
To my dear Ana,
I know you have many more questions and for that I am truly indebted to you.
I promise I will see you again soon and hopefully explain everything in more detail. In the meantime, continue to live with your fearless spirit.
PS. I have also given you a belated present. A gift from the heart…
The letter had temporarily calmed me from preeminent thoughts of magic doors, handsome strangers, and the romantic notion of timeless love. Although, when I woke up and wanted my time with the stranger to be real, whose name was apparently “The Baron,” I couldn’t believe it was actually real—all of it! And in knowing a truth I had never known before, I found myself in a state of transfixed contemplation. A new growing sense of reality had quickly taken a hold of me, and while I was furious that he had left me, I found it only right to forgive him since he introduced me to a whole new world that I never would have known existed without him.
When I opened the box I found a silver necklace that held a small gleaming blue stone. It was beautiful, similar to the one I saw in The Baron’s hand before we transported.
When I placed my fingers gently on the stone a sudden pulse of light had temporarily blinded me, followed by a wave of energy that shot straight through my body. The box had fallen out of my hand. I rushed to pat my arms, chest, and face to make sure I was okay. My eyes then gazed down at the necklace, which now laid on the floor. It was an artifact from another world. Evidence that my time with the stranger was real. A gift? I thought. I slowly made my way to the necklace and bent down to grab it.
Holding it up, frightened to touch the stone again, I continued to stare at it. And despite everything that had happened, one important question still remained:
When would the mysterious stranger return?
I held the chain firmly as the stone swayed back and forth, like a pendulum clock counting down the time.
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