His eyes were crinkled slightly at the corners so I couldn’t tell if he was being serious or not, but since he’d told me that his brother was a programmer, I guessed that Luc was teasing.

“What’s your brother’s name?” I asked, acquiring details for the mental file I was assembling on Luc’s family.

“Fabien.”

“He’s two years older than you?”

“Yes. Two years and two months. Just how much have you talked to Denise?”

“A bit. She only has good things to say about you.”

Luc’s mouth lifted at the corners. “Yes, I pay her well to do that. What exactly would you like to know,” he asked, “about America?”

I liked the way he answered questions, so straightforward, nothing seeming out of bounds. And he was very skilled, I soon discovered, at describing things. We walked along the river for a while, along the gravel pathways of what looked to be the remnants of a formal garden, but instead of truly noticing the fountain and the fishpond I was seeing California in my mind: the rise of vineyards washed by sunlight underneath a sky as blue as Luc’s own eyes, and sunsets flaming on the far horizon over the Pacific Ocean where the great waves rolled and rose and broke along an endless beach of sand.

It sounded beautiful. I said as much.

“It is,” he said. “But every place has something that is beautiful about it, if you only look to find it.”

We climbed another flight of steps to street level, the river at our backs now, and Luc told me, “Come, I’ll show you something beautiful.”

He led me up a little lane, paved red with a cobblestone gutter that ran down its center, and houses to one side that had been half-carved from the pale limestone cliff of the hill. The most lovely of these had blue shutters, a blue-painted gate, and a half-rounded wall like an old castle turret with trees growing in a dark frieze at its top.

“Denise,” he told me, “has a special fondness for these houses. They’re called ‘troglodytes,’ and in the town where she grew up, in Chinon, there are many of them carved out of the cliffs. Some very ancient. But the part I want to show you is up here.”

He led me up the winding lane and round a corner where the hills and walls closed in upon us and we stepped into a dark and quiet passage that must once have been a house carved from the stone—the rotted skeletons of wooden joists and wall supports still showed in some few places—but had now become essentially a cave, with one small section of its roof left open to the sky. I stood there in the dark and felt the welcome safe embrace of walls and ceiling close around me in a hug so nearly physical it made me smile in happiness.

“You see?” Luc’s voice was close, and quiet. “Beautiful. I’m sure it was a good house in its time as well, but sometimes what is left behind when something has been lost is even better than the thing that came before, you know?”

I couldn’t disagree with him, not standing in that ruined place.

Luc told me, “Noah’s friend Michelle thinks this would be the perfect place to keep a dragon.”

“Denise says she’s quite a character.”

“Michelle? She is, but in a good way. Noah wants to introduce you.”

“I don’t think that’s such a good idea.”

Luc asked, “Why not?” and seemed puzzled so I tried to share my reasoning.

“Denise says Noah likes it when the people in his life know one another. Right? Well, I don’t think I ought to be in Noah’s life.”

The light where we were standing was enough to let me see his face and know that he was frowning slightly, but I couldn’t really see his eyes. “You’re there already.”

“But I shouldn’t be.”

“Why not?”

“Because,” I told him, “when I leave, he’ll be too sad.” He must have seen how deeply Noah got attached to things, I thought. I didn’t want to be responsible for making Noah sad, the way he’d been when he believed he’d lost Diablo.

Luc, still frowning in the dark, said, “When you leave…?”

“Yes, when my work is done and I go home to London.”

He stayed silent for a moment. Then he told me, “You don’t have to leave completely. There are trains, you know. And planes. And roads.”

“Luc.”

“I’m in London every other month on business as it is,” he added.

“Luc.” I felt a sudden weight within my chest, a pressing sadness as I realized he was wanting something more than I could give him; something more than just a simple holiday romance. “I don’t… I can’t…” He mattered more than any of the others had, and so it hurt me more to disappoint him, but that only made it more important he should hear the truth. “I can’t sustain a real relationship. I always mess things up.” I’d meant to state that calmly as a fact, but my voice wobbled on the final words and Luc’s own voice grew gentle in response.

“How do you mess things up?”

In every way conceivable, I could have told him. “I just do.”

“It might not happen this time.”

“Yes, it will. It always does. I’m just not capable—”

“Who told you that?” His words, still quiet, cut across my own with an insistence that I simply couldn’t bring myself to answer, so I briefly closed my eyes and closed my mind against the memories.

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