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Arden St. Clare saw the shop at the corner of Lafitte's Alley and Royal Street for the first time on Friday. She was positive the storefront had been as vacant on Thursday as it had been for several months before. She might have been slightly euphoric when she'd walked home after the momentous luncheon with Uncle Fred yesterday, but she would have noticed a new shop.
Not that this place looked new. Anyone not familiar with the French Quarter would have thought it had been there forever. The name on the artfully faded wooden sign swinging over the sidewalk was Any Time, Any Place. A travel agency? Moving closer, Arden looked at the posters in the shop windows, recognizing the Roman Coliseum and the Acropolis.
Something about the posters wasn't right. Tilting her head, Arden stared at the art work until she identified the problem. The ruins weren't pictured as they looked today, but as they must have looked when new. "How odd," she murmured. "A new shop that looks old, and old monuments that look new."
Arden peered in the window, trying to see past the posters. No one was in view. Any Time, Any Place was not open for business yet. She felt a stab of disappointment as a familiar restlessness began stirring through her. Now would be a perfect time to leave town. Carnival season was in full swing, and grant applications to the Freret Foundation had fallen off in direct proportion to the number of parades and balls distracting both locals and tourists. She didn't have a thing to do at work.
Nevertheless, Uncle Fred would not like it if she signed up for a tour or a cruise. Travel on business was one thing, but a pleasure trip? She could see him pursing hislips in disapproval. A St. Clare never did anything solely for pleasure, he would remind her. Except make money. The accumulation and preservation of wealth could be extremely pleasurable, according to St. Clare family philosophy.
Frivolity, on the other hand, was frowned upon, unless it contributed to the bottom line. That same bottom line explained why even the stuffy St. Clares would unbend enough to participate in New Orleans's famous festivities. Mardi Gras was good for business.
Moderation meant a St. Clare would never wear a feathered mask and ride on a papier-mâché float throwing cheap plastic beads to the crowds lining St. Charles Avenue. Rubbing elbows with movie stars and musicians might appeal to some, but the St. Clares would never consider attending a post-parade party for the unwashed masses--meaning anyone who could afford a ticket--in the Super Dome. That would not be proper.
Uncle Fred, the CEO of St. Clare Spices and Arden's financial guardian, was a stickler for propriety. His wife, Arden's Aunt Marie, was even more obsessed with decency and decorum, possibly because she was only a St. Clare by marriage and not by blood. Therefore, she had to work harder at upholding the family honor. Aunt Marie piously agreed that balls and parades, masking and carousing, were much too pagan for the St. Clares.
They could not completely ignore Fat Tuesday, however. Each carnival season, Uncle Fred and the other family members on the Board of Directors made judicial appearances at the more sedate balls--those sponsored by the old-line krewes--and Arden was allowed to go along. Mardi Gras was a tradition, after all, and the St. Clares were certainly traditionalists. There hadn't been a rebel in the family for years.
Not since 1980.
Arden sighed. The family still blamed her parents' tragic deaths that year on Arden's mother's careless daring. If Jeanne Freret St. Clare, the last of the foolhardy Frerets, hadn't urged her husband to race a freight train to a crossing, they might be alive today. Given her notoriously frivolous Freret blood, it was no wonder that the surviving St. Clares still harbored fears that Arden had inherited her mother's appetite for fun and adventure. It was bad enough that Jeanne had left the Freret fortune to a philanthropic foundation instead of to her daughter, who would, Uncle Fred had no doubt, have invested her mother's bequest in St. Clare Spices.
Therefore, Uncle Fred and the Board of Directors kept her on a very short leash.
They meant well. Her relatives might be stuffy and overprotective, but they were not cruel. They only wanted to make sure she grew up to be a true St. Clare, serious, sedate and nothing at all like her mother, the giddy, fun-loving woman who'd captured the heart of Stephen St. Clare, Arden's father. On the surface, they had succeeded. Arden St. Clare looked and acted every inch the perfect lady, refined and well-mannered.
Arden knew better than to tell her relatives that on occasion she dreamed silly dreams or that, every now and then, she had an almost uncontrollable urge to do something shocking. She was fond of her stodgy guardians and would never intentionally upset them.
With a last wistful look at the travel posters, Arden decided to come back next week, after Mardi Gras. The shop would surely be open then. Before she turned away, a movement inside the window caught her eye. Shading her eyes with her hands, Arden peered inside the shop. Someone was behind the counter now. Pushing open the door, she walked inside. She could pick up a few brochures, make tentative reservations.
If she felt especially daring, she might even purchase tickets.
Once inside the tiny shop, Arden looked around. Any Time, Any Place was definitely a travel agency. A shiny new computer was sitting on an antique mahogany counter, next to a red plastic telephone. Colorful brochures were piled on a scarred but authentic Sheraton table in front of the window, and the walls were decorated with more posters. There were scenes of a Victorian Christmas, a Civil War battle, and a Viking ship. At the bottom of the posters, instead of the names of airlines or cruise ships, there were dates--1884, 1862, 1309.
Again she noticed that the posters had an immediacy not usual in pictures of historic scenes. The paintings were very realistic. If she didn't know better, she'd swear they were photographs.
The man whose movement had caught her eye stood behind the counter smiling encouragingly. He looked like a Dickens character come to life. Short and pudgy, he had a face a cherub would envy. He sported a glorious ginger mustache which curled under his ruddy cheeks and over his smiling mouth.
"Tobias Thistlewaite, at your service," he said, bowing from the waist.
"Mr. Thistlewaite," Arden murmured, extending her hand. He took her fingertips and brushed his mustache across them. It tickled, making her grin. "I'm Arden St. Clare. I'm thinking about taking a trip."
"Any time, any place. Our name, and our motto. What time did you have in mind? For our purposes, time is of the essence." He beamed at her.
"Soon. This week, if possible. I want to go somewhere far away. Somewhere romantic. Maybe even a little dangerous." She eyed the Viking ship poster. "A cruise, perhaps."
Mr. Thistlewaite followed her gaze, then shook his head regretfully. "That would meet one of your criteria--it would be dangerous. However, we really don't recommend that particular voyage for a young woman traveling alone. Those lusty fellows can't be trusted not to ravish our clients. Rape and pillage was their forte, after all."
Rape and pillage? Startled, Arden began edging toward the door. "I believe I should give this more thought, Mr. Thistlewaite. I'll come back another time."
"No time like the present. And we won't be here for long. A week at the most--depending on whether the solar winds stay calm. Extraordinary solar activity wreaks havoc with the space-time continuum, you know. Now, let's choose the proper trip. But I cannot in good conscience recommend the Viking cruise." He glanced at the poster in the window. "A trip to ancient Rome is a bit risky, too. Especially if one is a Christian. If I might suggest a gentler era?"
Arden moved back to the counter. "Oh, I understand. You arrange historical trips. I've heard of those. People with an interest in a particular time go on tours with historians familiar with the period."
Uncle Fred certainly couldn't object to a trip like that. Educational and boring--just the thing for a staid and stuffy St. Clare. A devilish idea began to tickle the back of her mind. Once away from New Orleans, she could leave a tour and strike out on her own. She could have fun!
Arden's heartbeat speeded up. She could have an adventure. A romantic adventure, if she met the right sort of man. Or even the wrong sort. Either way, no one but she would ever know.
"What do you recommend?" she asked, smiling at her daring thoughts. Excitement began to thrum through her veins.
Mr. Thistlewaite pointed to a poster in the corner that she hadn't noticed before. It showed beautiful women dressed in high-waisted gowns being twirled around a candlelit ballroom by handsome men.
"They are waltzing, aren't they?" She frowned. How could the waltz look daring? The St. Clares waltzed.
"Are you interested in the Regency period? It would be a perfect time for an attractive young lady like you, an heiress."
Arden started. "How did you know I was an heiress?"
"I read about it in the society column. Yesterday, you and your financial guardian were observed lunching at Galatoire's. It is assumed he used the occasion of your twenty-fifth birthday to hand over control of the trust fund left you by your parents. A fund whose assets are valued in excess of twenty million dollars."
Arden hadn't read the paper that morning, but she was sure that her lunch with Uncle Fred hadn't been mentioned in the society pages. St. Clares never made the society columns. They paid money--lots of it--not to. Society columns were for the vulgar new rich, not for a family that had been successful and wealthy since the Battle of New Orleans. "The story must be in the business section."
Mr. Thistlewaite took a copy of the Times-Picayune from under the counter. "You're right. My mistake. Nevertheless, you are an heiress and a perfect candidate for our Regency tour."
"The Regency? When was that?" Arden frowned, searching her memory. "Oh, I know--the early nineteenth century. Jane Austen. Lord Byron."
"Yes, indeed. Eighteen-eleven to eighteen-twenty. The age of romantics and rebels."
Before Arden could deny she was either of those things, Tobias began rummaging through the brochures on the counter. "Would you prefer to go before or after the Battle of Waterloo?"
"I beg your pardon?" She was having trouble keeping up with Mr. Thistlewaite's odd way of selling his tours. "I'm not sure about an historical tour. Don't you have something more exciting?"
Tobias Thistlewaite's hands stilled. He looked her in the eye. "What could be more exciting than a trip through time?"
Arden's only response was a blank stare.
With a chuckle, Tobias added, "I thought you knew, my dear. Any Time, Any Place is a time-travel agency."
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