This volume can be read independently of A Fury in New York: Screw Christmas!–although it is advisable to follow the chronology for better immersion in the universe.
For a smoother read (spoiler-free), here’s a quick reminder.
The story takes place just after the last Council, a meeting of all Immortals held every four years. This was the thousandth edition, and the Greek Pantheon, as organizers, wanted to mark the occasion with special festivities. This, of course, didn’t go at all as planned. A whole host of events ensued, leading to a fragile understanding between different groups–something that hadn’t happened for centuries. Thus, the Angels of the Order of God’s Wings agreed to a truce with the Dragons and became more or less allies of the Greek, Egyptian, and Punic Pantheons.
Year 1098 CE–Antioch (Byzantine lands).
Hugh, Count of Vermandois, son of King Henry I and younger brother of King Philip I, experiences boundless joy as he enters the gates of the city, finally defeated. He’s responsible for the Crusaders’ victory and has earned the nickname “the Great” on the battlefield.
Let the rest of those called continue on to Jerusalem, for he has found his kingdom! Fervently, he gets down on one knee in the central market square in the heart of the city and begins to pray to the Guardian Angel who has been following him for years.
To establish his new fiefdom, he needs to consolidate his local political bases. For although Pope Urban II would be delighted to hear of the success of this first crusade, he would certainly not agree to recognize a new union with the daughter of the Byzantine sultan. Not while he is still married to Adelaide, who remained at the French court, in any case. The only solution is for him to become a widower very quickly.
So, Hugh prays with all his might!
And the expected miracle happens; a missive brings him “the sad news” a few months later. In the meantime, the search he had ordered has found the Sacred Spear in the bowels of the city. Such a trophy offered to the pope can only guarantee his unwavering support. Immediately organizing his new alliance with great pomp, he’s betrayed a year later by his second wife, who becomes queen of the city under her father’s orders.
Moribund, he calls out to his Angel in desperation, but is not saved. He has just enough time to confess his sins on his deathbed, but not before re-establishing the truth: his last-born is necessarily a bastard he was obliged to recognize to safeguard his honor in the eyes of the world, but he knows perfectly well that he is not the progenitor, since he has not honored his wife for a long time. He therefore implores his Angel to concern himself only with his eldest son, who is his true and only legitimate heir.
His royal family is protected by the pope’s blessing, and he doesn’t want a usurper to take advantage of it.
Year 1100 CE–Garden of Eden.
Today, the Angels are celebrating the appointment of Archangel Gabriel, who has finally been rewarded for all his efforts in accompanying human beings. It has to be said that the Judeo-Christian Pantheon is experiencing a meteoric rise, incredible in terms of adepts, to the point of making the other gods tremble and wobble, whose power bases are only declining with the spectacular fall in the number of their followers. The majority of mankind is converting en masse to this new religion.
And this is a fact that the new Archangel will not fail to point out at the next Council of Immortals where, every four years, negotiations take place to divide human worship between the various pantheons.
But a new era is about to dawn, and there will only be room for one spiritual frame of reference: the Order of God’s Wings.
Present day–New York.
Like every morning, I head to my favorite café to start my day, but this time I’m taking my time. I only have to be at the airport in three hours, so I have plenty of time to enjoy a gourmet croissant that reminds me nostalgically of my years in Paris.
“Et voilà, Comtesse,” Bertrand, the owner of this French bakery in the Soho District, greets me as he brings me my order. “I’ve added some slivered almonds on the side, which I roasted myself.”
I’d only been back in New York for two years when, as the sole heir to her trust fund, I had to settle my maternal grandmother’s estate. Even though she’d died four years earlier, I couldn’t access it until I was twenty-five. I had to start my life all over again in this immense city, which is not big enough for me to completely escape the weight of my family. In addition to the fact that my father is its mayor, my mother’s branch comes from a prestigious line of French aristocrats who took up the challenge of the “American dream” in the last century.
Hence the nickname “Countess,” which has stuck with me since boarding school. At first, I hated it, but over time I’ve made it my strength and my trademark. Americans love French culture, and it serves my business well. Even if it was to bolster my image, I’m also in love with Paris, and the first thing I did when I arrived here was to look for an establishment that would allow me to have a little piece of it on a daily basis. I could have set up my agency in the French Quarter, but I preferred Soho for its mix … and Bertrand’s boulangerie. La French Baguette has a delightfully art deco decor; the colored glass mosaic panels depicting flowers and other motifs remind me of the restaurant La Coupole where I worked as a waitress for a while.
The telephone interrupts my recollection. I can’t help but wince when I see my correspondent’s name displayed. Sighing inwardly, I resolve to answer, promising myself to be done with the conversation as quickly as possible.
“Hello, Father, I don’t have much time before I have to leave for the airport–”
“Forget it, Chloe, and get in the car that’s waiting for you,” he replies curtly. “You’ve got twenty minutes to get to Central Park, and traffic’s heavy. In the future, please don’t ever put me in a situation like this again. Do you understand me?”
I don’t have time to say anything before he’s already hung up. Furious, I can only observe that a private driver is indeed waiting patiently in front of the store.
What exactly is going on? Central Park, he said?
Michael Angelus must have put some pressure on my father. And for him to be so successful, it must be some city “oil” of which I have no knowledge. But real power, as I’ve learned from family tradition, doesn’t always reside where it can be seen. Quite the opposite, in fact. So, I made an error of judgment in refusing to bow to the untimely demands of this gentleman who pulled this unpleasant rabbit out of his hat. Do I have time to savor my deliciously fragrant croissant? Of course not.
Having admitted defeat on this first round, I’m determined to win the bet. This customer wants to play? He’ll be served. And so, wound up like a cuckoo clock, I rush into the luxurious sedan … only to come face to face with a man whose physique would make any other member of the male sex pale with jealousy. How could anyone be so advantaged by nature? Tall, slender, with an impeccable, mid-length haircut framing a face that could be the illustration of the famous golden ratio… With, what’s more, eyes the color of the Caribbean Sea that are only enhanced by the golden hue of his skin and hair. In short, it’s always the most unattainable who have the dreamiest physiques, pfff.
“Hello, Miss Parker,” he greets me in a melodious voice. “I’m glad you could make it.”
That’s it, I love polite sarcasm…
“Let’s cut the comedy,” I retort in my sweetest voice. “We know perfectly well that you’ve abused your power to impose yourself. At the moment, as I explained to you yesterday and the day before by email and telephone, I’m on leave for two weeks. I may be able to look into your request when I get back, but there’s no guarantee that I’ll be able to do so, as my calendar is already full. However, I can recommend a colleague who would be delighted to take on your case.”
“I don’t want an obscure colleague for this project, which is very close to my heart,” he retorts in a quiet tone. “I want the top, and I’ve been told it’s you, so–”
“Do you always get what you want?”
His smile and silence speak louder than any answer.
But there’s more to this arrogant character than meets the eye. Despite my traditional upbringing, and much to my parents’ chagrin, I have a temper of steel. I must have, if I want to exist on my own in the ruthless world of the New York upper middle class. Beneath the social veneer of circumstances, I’ve always made up my own mind about my life. I chose, a long time ago, to live as I saw fit. And I’m not going to be swayed by the deviousness of a handsome man.
“There’s so much expression in your eyes,” the man murmurs, staring intently at me. “I could be wrong, but I’d say you’re not at all in the right frame of mind to talk to a customer?”
“I have to admit that I don’t react well to summonses, even less when I’m backed into a corner. So, if you could ask your driver to turn around, mine won’t be long now.”
“But why are you acting like the devil is after you? What are you running from?” he asks, intrigued.
His sagacity surprises me more than I thought it would. He’s the first person in all this time to have understood the real motivation behind my annual vacation. Under the guise of a “winter sun cure,” I’m actually running away from the end-of-year festivities with a vengeance. Because when you’ve lived through Christmas Eve in my family, you can’t help but want to escape! Far from being a warm family gathering, this period is merely a pretext for the political play that governs all our lives.
Every guest is handpicked, every sentence carefully scrutinized and analyzed, every interaction designed to achieve a goal. As a child, I had no choice but to endure this hypocritical atmosphere, where my parents would address me only to display the spotless image of a united family. But as soon as the curtain fell on these grotesque performances, I no longer existed in their eyes. So much so, in fact, that I preferred to spend my vacations at the boarding school where I’d been sent from an early age. Except when I was summoned and sent away from school at the drop of a hat by my father to attend a charity gala, inaugurate an art gallery, or act as a date for a campaign supporter.
In short, my family has exploited me for their own ends for as long as I can remember–until I said “stop” to all their shenanigans and ended up fleeing the country. Thanks to my grandmother, who had finally decided to help me organize my departure for France in the greatest secrecy … the day before the official announcement of my engagement. That was the last straw. It was out of the question that, at twenty-one, I should be chained to a man who was only interested in me for my pedigree.
Barry Sotto, a young Wall Street wolf, was a rising star in the Republican Party to whom my father had “sold” me in exchange for supporting his candidacy. He was convinced that we would be the future presidential couple within two decades if we played our respective roles well. Suffice it to say that my revolt crushed his dreams of the White House, and he retaliated by cutting me off as much as he could. But that wasn’t counting my grandmother, who took pity on me and helped me settle in Paris, where I was finally able to follow my personal aspirations. Working as a waitress didn’t put me off, so happy was I to be able to take courses at the Sorbonne and the Ecole Boulle. My dream was architecture and interior design.
I succeeded in moving toward my goal when the owner of a real estate agency in the Marais gave me a chance. I worked as his assistant for three years while setting up my own agency. And I managed to pull off a few brilliant coups by rehabilitating old apartments for wealthy Americans, which forged my reputation. It has to be said that the French really don’t master foreign languages very well, so Monsieur Martin was more than happy to have a bilingual assistant. Over time, we became friends, and it was he who pushed me to use my heredity as a marketing asset. He was right, because it gave me the confidence and credibility that my young age often robbed me of in the eyes of his customers. Suddenly, being a descendant of the Count of Vermandois established me as a high priestess of Parisian architecture.
When I had to move back to the United States, Mr. Martin retired, and I bought his agency from him in order to keep my Paris base by leasing it out. It paid off, as I now work–like a madwoman–on both sides of the Atlantic.
Except for two weeks a year.
It’s not that hard to understand, is it?
“Your price is my price,” the strapping man in front of me says.
I can’t stand this arrogance that thinks it can buy everything. This mentality has a way of making my hair stand on end.
“My annual vacation isn’t for sale,” I retort scornfully. “All the money in the world can’t give you what you think you deserve. I hate to break it to you, but there are some things you just can’t afford. Now, let’s stop this charade, tell my father you’ve had your appointment, and leave me alone. Because I’ve decided I’m not going to work for you, with all due respect…”
“That’s too bad to hear,” he replies in a low voice. “Because I’m not satisfied with that answer. So, we’ll have to negotiate until we reach an acceptable agreement. If you’re really in a hurry, don’t you think we’d better get started right away?”
He’s really got some nerve, this one! He calmly announces that he’s going to harass me until I give in? Who does he think he is?
“As long as we’ve reached our destination,” he continues as the car pulls up, “we might as well go and see the project, eh? I’ve checked you out, and with your reputation, I’m sure you won’t be able to resist the challenge…”
Where are we? Totally focused on this lout, I didn’t pay much attention during the journey. Looking through the window, I see a huge stone building that I’ve always dreamed of renovating. It’s a titanic undertaking that I’ve thought about a thousand times when I’m alone in bed before going to sleep at night.
I’ve got tons of ideas, each crazier than the last, and I would like to think that one day I’ll be able to buy these buildings and renovate them. For the time being, they’re not being properly exploited or promoted. Given their golden location in the center of the city and proximity to a part of Central Park that can be privatized, this project could bring in millions!
In spite of myself, enthusiasm wins out and I find myself at the foot of the main entrance without even thinking twice about it. If I’d known it was this plot I was after, I wouldn’t have postponed my vacation, but I might have responded a little more favorably to this man’s request.
Instead, his peremptory tone of someone used to being obeyed at the drop of a hat had me hanging up on him when he started to so strongly insist.
“What do you say?” he asks with the smug look of someone who believes he’s won the game. “You couldn’t possibly pass up this opportunity, could you?”
What’s more, he’s right, and it pains me to admit it; I would have to be crazy to turn down such an exceptional project.
But it’s impossible to give up so openly! If he thinks he can win easily, he will be hell to deal with for the whole mission. And that’s out of the question. Even if my father is high up, he would still have a hard time covering up a murder… Which is the only thing keeping me from smacking that gorgeous face with the victorious smile. Taking a deep breath, I take it upon myself to calm down from both irritation and excitement.
“Let’s take it from the beginning,” I force myself to say calmly. “We’ve probably gotten off on the wrong foot. What exactly do you want? What’s your hurry? And who recommended me to you for you to be so insistent?”
Because if this is another underhanded maneuver by my family for whatever purpose, I will drop the project, opportunity of the century or not. But his answer reassures me: Molly. One of the few people I consider a friend. And I don’t doubt her intentions; there’s no one more honest than her.
However, my relief lasts only for a moment because this insufferable man wants me to make him a complete restoration proposal in … three days’ time! To be presented at a Christmas celebration with his friends. He offers me my dream, only to make a totally aberrant request to make me realize that I can never have it…
But he’s completely lost his mind, I swear!