Would you rather?

Would you rather:

a) Live in a world that mimics the most popular show on TV from the previous nights?

b) Live in a world where people constantly broke out in song and dance?

c) Live in a world that mimics the most popular movie of the previous weeks?

I’d pick the musical:D What about you?

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Coming Soon: Hadean 3: Completely Forked

SmashwordsChapter One

Andrew Whiteangel tugged his neatly folded hoodie off the cane back rocker in the corner of his bedroom. Drew fingered the neat stitches closing the tears in the hoodie’s sleeve before pulling it over his head. Ellen’s strawberry-scented shampoo tickled his nose. He preferred to inhale it directly off her skin in the quiet hours before he headed out for guard duty.

Ellen Duncan planned to keep Drew in her life.

The world may have lost its lunch basket on the way to the picnic, but Drew’s life had never been better. His boots whispered on the ancient pine planks; his steps automatically avoided the creaky parts of the floor. Baseball bats, hockey sticks, and a couple of golf clubs hung on pegs over the yellowed family pictures lining the hall.

Enough weapons for everyone in the house, including the children.

Over the clang of a pot lid and the rhythmic thump of a chopping knife, feminine voices swirled in the kitchen.

He paused on the threshold of the living room. Shoulders tensed. Wait for it. Wait.

Ellen laughed.

She was safe. He stepped into the living room. The aroma of oregano, garlic, and tomatoes drifted out of the opening to the kitchen. Spaghetti night. Silhouettes drifted over the chipped linoleum floor. Three cooks tonight. No one was ever left alone for too long.

Isolation caused the crazy.

Or one theory about it anyway.

And speaking of completely nuts, but in a good way. He winked at the elderly woman by the window.

Granny Hauf winked back, holding court over four children at the card table. Autumnal light painted her white hair with purples and reds as the sun deserted them for another night. A rifle leaned against the wall within her reach, and a rectangular box of cartridges pressed against her apron pocket.  Extra skin on her arms flapped when she shook the red cup in her gnarled hands. “Heading out to the meeting, whippersnapper?”

Ellen’s chocolate lab, Boo, surveyed him with brown eyes before resuming his snooze on the couch.

Whippersnapper. Granny Hauf always had a new name for him. She said she was looking for just the right one to describe him.

He hoped she had quite a few years left until she found it. The old bat had kinda grown on him. Like a fungus.

“Yeah. A meeting.” Drew’s skin itched. Normal meetings usually occurred when he relieved a watcher from his or her post. Tonight was different. All the guards were meeting. His balls drew up. Nothing good ever happened when a routine changed.

“I expect a full report over dinner.” A moment later, Granny emptied the cup, spilling dice across the card table.

The four children around the table leaned over them.

Six-year-old Erin grinned, peeled away from the group and zoomed over to him. “Mister Drew. Mister Drew.”

Two feet away, Erin launched herself at Drew.

It was a routine they’d perfected over the last four months.

“Miss Erin. Miss Erin.” Drew caught her, then spun her about, careful to make sure her bare feet avoided the coat rack and pictures on the wall. He hadn’t broken either of the children yet, but wasn’t taking any chances. He liked them. They were honest, and he always knew where he stood. Coming to a stop, he settled the child on his hip.

Erin flattened her small hand against his cheek. Although her eyes were brown, she had the same oval face, wide cheeks, and bow-shaped mouth as her mother, Ellen. “I got a Yahtzee.”

He scanned her from brown pigtails to painted pink toes. The word tugged at his memories but didn’t connect. He didn’t know what a Yahtzee was, but didn’t see anything different about her. “You did? Where are you hiding it?”

He checked behind her right ear, then her left, before blowing a raspberry on her neck.

She giggled and squirmed out of his hold, landing on her bare feet. “It’s not a thing, silly. I gots all five threes on the dice.”

“I see.” Kinda. Mostly. It was coming back to Drew, but he had never taken the time to play games. There hadn’t been any money in it. Although, he might have figured out a way to cheat the system.

“It’s your turn, Erin.” Her brother, Rafael, snorted from his seat on Granny Hauf’s left. “Yahtzee isn’t a big deal. It took her three tries to get it.”

Pigtails slapping her back, Erin skipped back to her seat. “You haven’t gotten one.”

She stuck her tongue out at her brother.

The twin eight-year-old girls at the end of the table caught their giggles in cupped hands.

Rafe straightened. “I will. You’ll see.”

Drew veered back to Ellen’s son. He recognized the need to have what he didn’t possess. Yet. For Rafe, it was Yahtzee; for Drew, it had been food, clothing, and shelter. He set his hand on the boy’s shoulder—small and sturdy. “I’m sure you’ll get a Yahtzee this game. And when everyone’s had one, I’ll give each of you a special prize. Just tell Granny Hauf, and I’ll give it to her to distribute.”

The twin’s mouths rounded in awe. Erin bounced in her seat.

“Is it toffees?” Rafe tilted his head back, staring at Drew through a curtain of shaggy brown hair. “I haven’t had a toffee in ages.”

“Neither have I, young man.” The old woman’s blue eyes crackled with an amused light. “And if Mister Drew is holding out on us, I say we tackle the scalawag and tickle him until he gives up his stash.”

Erin’s eyes narrowed. Raising her hands, she wiggled her fingers in a tickling motion. “I want candy.”

The white-blond twins mimicked her actions. “We want candy.”

Good Lord, he’d created Frankenstein’s monsters. Sweat beading his forehead, Drew flashed empty palms as he backpedaled. He hadn’t been around children long enough to know whether this was normal or a new kind of sugar-craving crazy. “I promise I’m not holding back any candies. Now put those fingers away.”

“Oh.” The three girls donned identical frowns.

Rafe thrust his pointed jaw out and crossed his arms over his chest. “Then what do we get?”

“It’s a surprise. One you all will get, once everyone scores a Yahtzee.” Drew reached above the door and removed a bolt-action rifle, then retrieved the box of cartridges from the side table, where mail used to rest. The weight was familiar, comfortable, after nearly four months.

Just showEd how upside-down life had become.

He opened the door, leaning against the screen door to push it open. The corrugated metal rattled where it had been screwed to the wooden frame. “You want me to shutter the windows?”

Granny looked up from watching Rafe record his sister’s score on the paper. “No, whippersnapper, I do not. I have to do something to prove my worth around here.”

“Cause sharp shooting, laundry, cooking, cleaning, and watching over the kids ain’t enough?” Drew closed the door before she could open her mouth. Compared to the octogenarian, he was a slacker. He knew next to nothing about farming and less about ranching. Lifting the screen door in place, he double-checked to make sure it was latched.

Maybe he should check the back entrance by the kitchen.

He strode across the porch.

A shadow shifted in the shade of the pine at the corner.

Drew’s stomach leapt to his throat even as the rifle butt settled against his shoulder. Damn, he’d forgotten to load the thing before leaving the house. He reached for the bolt with a slow, smooth action.

White teeth flashed as a big, black man stepped into the fading light. Knots of hair bristled from his formerly bald skull. White striped the baby dreadlocks at Dogooder’s temples. Drew’s brother shook his head and stared down the six feet to the ground. “You came outta the house with an empty gun? You’re gonna get your Casper donkey plugged.”

Donkey. Ass. His brother-in-law thought he was so clever replacing one word with the other so Granny Hauf didn’t yell at him.

Slipping a cartridge from the holder on the butt of his rifle, Drew used the tip of the bullet to slide the round into the follower. Five rounds entered smooth as butter before he closed up the weapon and joined his brother. “I don’t need a loaded gun to beat some sense into your meat head, jack wagon.”

Dogooder snorted and adjusted the strap of his assault rifle on his shoulder. A machete thumped his thigh as they walked toward the barn north of the house. “You and what army, D-bag?”

Drew bumped his brother’s shoulder. Contact was another thing that kept the crazy at bay. Not that he was going all touchy-feely at the end of the world, but damn, it was good to have his brother watching his back. “Don’t need an army. Just a couple Girl Scouts selling cookies to distract your fat ass.”

Granny rapped on the window, then shook her finger at Drew. “Language, whippersnapper. There are little pitchers around.”

Drew’s ears burned. Dang, the old bat had good hearing. He thought folks were supposed to go deaf as they aged. Someone forgot to tell Granny.

Dogooder threw back his head. Laughter bubbled up his throat. “She still hasn’t settled on a name for you?”

“Yeah, well, you were easy.” Drew nudged his brother, enough to send him stumbling into a rut in the dirt road. “Phoenix Dick with a shiny badge. She didn’t even give much thought to calling you Dogooder.”

“You are such a donkey donut.” Dogooder’s boot splashed in the puddle. Bubbles swirled in the murky water when he pulled out his foot. A quick shake and mud splattered Drew’s pant leg.

“Hey!” Drew stomped his sneakers, sinking deep into the mud. “I have laundry duty this week.”

“That’s right.” Dogooder bent and scooped up a handful of mud. “Thanks for reminding me.”

Drew’s grip tightened on the rifle. “Throw that and I’ll play whack-a-mole with your meathead.”

“You think getting blood out is easier than mud?” Grinning, Dogooder squished the mud through his thick fingers. “You need laundry duty more often.”

He had it every other Thursday, rain, shine, or apocalypse. At least the washing machine still worked. Granny Hauf mentioned pounding clothes against the rocks in the East Verde River when the modern marvel failed. Then the world truly would have ended, and not in a good way. Cradling his rifle, Drew peered around the ranch. “Any idea what’s so important that we’re pulling everyone off watch?”

Two people sat on the pitched roof of the barn ahead of them. The red glowing eyes of cigarettes danced among the rows of apple and peach trees. Shaggy wikieups formed rows of man-sized tombstones between the rectangular bunkhouse and the garden. A few horses grazed in the freshly harvested acre of hay. Chickens and peacocks waddled after a couple heading toward the barn.

Dogooder rolled his eyes. “My crystal ball says old man Robelski is tired of you giving cooties to his favorite eldest daughter, and he’s gonna force you to marry Ellen. That’s why everyone’s sporting weapons.”

“Ass hole.” Drew nearly swallowed his tongue. For a moment, he could picture it. Him and Ellen married. It was a nice picture. One he didn’t deserve. Not that he suffered from enough stupid to tell her that.

The line to the barn grew. Ten. Fifteen people. A third of the people on the farm. Nearly all the adults.

He didn’t like it. Not one bit.

“The words you’re looking for are donkey donut. Otherwise, I tell Granny about your potty mouth and give her that lovely bar of lye soap Ellen uncovered from last century.” Dogooder grinned. “That taste you won’t wash out with all that tequila you’re fermenting in the back forty.”

“Bite me.” Drew growled. “The old man likes me.”

Dogooder shook his head. “If I bit you, I’d need all the tequila to wash out the foul taste.”

The rotund figure of Ellen’s father appeared backlit by the strings of electric lights in the barn. The last of the sunlight sparked off the solar panel array by the corral then faded away.

Drew tightened his grip on the rifle as his brother’s words haunted him. Ellen was tight with her family. If one didn’t like him, would she let him go? “Did old man Robelski say something about me?”

Dogooder bumped Drew’s shoulder. “You know this is pretty fertile ground. Might wanna plant and grow a sense of humor.”

Drew’s shoulders relaxed. His brother would tell him if there were rumors. “That’s big words from someone growing dog turds on his head.”

“They’re dreadlocks, D-bag.” Dogooder drilled his finger into Drew’s shoulder as he emphasized each syllable. “Dread-locks.”

“Looks like dog turds.” Drew inhaled deeply. The crisp hint of autumn hung on the air over the fecund scent of the barn and its animals. “Smells like dog turds. Gotta be dog turds.”

“You’re gonna need a doctor to remove my boot from your ass.” Dogooder raised his leg as if to kick.

Drew danced out of range. “Um, you swore. Granny is gonna visit you with her bar of Nineteenth Century soap.”

Dogooder flipped him the flightless bird and filed in behind a couple who’d been hiking the Arizona Trail when the crazy broke out. The granola-eating tree-huggers had quickly picked up a weapon after their first encounter with the crazies on Doll Baby Ranch Road.

Life and death situations had a way of clarifying priorities.

Drew always had his priorities straight. Straw crunched under his boots. Avoiding a chicken, he sidled to the back of the barn along the empty horse stalls.

The others shifted, gathering in a semi-circle around the man who’d opened his family ranch to everyone—Paul Robelski. Sweat glistened on the old man’s bald head. He smoothed a fringe of gray hair forming a horseshoe around his scalp. A scab marred the first of his three chins where he’d nicked it shaving. Although he’d grown up on the ranch, he’d spent most of his adult life defending criminals in Phoenix.

But city life hadn’t made Robelski soft. Round maybe, but not soft. He’d slaughtered a cow and butchered it without blinking.

The guy may look like Santa Claus, but he had a backbone of steel and a rigid moral code, he expected everyone to abide by it.

Drew respected the man. He could count on four fingers the number of people he’d said that about. Although with this lot, that number was growing. He nodded to a few of them now.

A nut-brown woman tugged hay out of her white hair and yawned behind her hand. Beside her, a grizzled man about the age of rocks combed straw from his bushy whiskers. The barn was their domain and no one entered when the doors were closed.

Boots rasped against the metal roof overhead before two thirty-something males peeked over the loft and scuttled down the wooden ladder. They joined the cluster of other single men on Robelski’s right.

The old man looked each in the eye as he scanned the room. Conversations stopped mid-sentence. Men and women straightened.

Drew could see how the old man won so many court cases.

Robelski’s attention paused at Drew.

Drew held his breath. Maybe the old man did have a problem with him. Dogooder shifted closer.

Robelski’s gaze bounced to Drew’s brother-in-law before moving along.

Drew’s skin prickled. What the hell was that about? He glanced over his shoulder.

Dogooder shrugged.

After a moment of silence, Robelski cleared his throat. “Thank you all for coming, and for everything you do to keep our loved ones safe.”

Nice. A touch of humility always helped bad news go down. Drew had used it when he’d been an up and comer on Wall Street.

Dogooder sieved air through his teeth. As a detective in Phoenix, his brother had to be used to the trick.

Robelski squared his shoulders, not an ounce of weakness in his posture or a wobble in his voice. “I’ll get right to the point. I’m sure some of you are aching for your beds, for dinner, or to get on watch.”

Heads nodded.

Drew’s stomach grumbled.

Dogooder jabbed him in the side.

“We don’t have enough food for the winter. Not for all of us.” Robelski’s teeth clicked around the words.

There was a collective gasp. People blinked as if to process the thought before it escaped their thick skulls.

The sun-tanned older couple clasped each other’s hands. They locked gazes for a moment before she spoke. “Where we supposed to go? The folks at the Bar Margarita left. It may be six miles outta town, but the crazies found them. Killed them most of ’em. Including the four children.”

Robelski nodded.

“The Rockin’ M is between them.” One of the thirty somethings shifted to the front. “That family was massacred in their beds, along with the folks they’d taken in. Those two ranches are between us and Payson.”

Drew rolled his shoulders. Had they really thought the crazy wouldn’t eventually find them here? He checked their faces. Damn, they actually had believed they were safe smack dab in the center of the Mazatal Wilderness area.

Dogooder nudged him and shook his head once.

Right. Drew had no intentions of busting anyone’s paradigms. He wasn’t a hero.

Robelski flashed his palms at everyone. “We need food. Seeds for next year. And we need ammunition.”

A forty-year old ranchhand with bowed legs and a tear-drop tattoo on his right eye shuffled forward. “We have over ten thousand rounds. How many more do we need?”

Dogooder shifted forward. “Payson has a population of fifteen thousand. The Valley has more than five million. And we’re between them.”

“Surrounded by desert.” The ranchhand snorted. “Most folks will die of dehydration and heat before they reach us.”

Drew clapped his hand on his brother’s back. They always tag-teamed it. “Winter is coming. If we’re running out of food after growing our own all summer, what do you think is happening in the cities?”

The ranchhand scuttled backward and propped up the stall door. His wife, a sturdy woman with mouse brown hair, leaned against him. They’d left their twin daughters with Granny while they’d gone on watch.

Mrs. Nut Brown cleared her throat. “So we draw straws to see who has to leave?”

Leaving here meant death. Everyone knew it.

The single men shifted. Jaws thrust forward. Muscles tensed.

Things could get ugly real fast. Drew shifted his finger closer to the trigger of his rifle.

Dogooder shrugged swinging his assault rifle to the front.

“No drawing straws. No one’s leaving. At least, not permanently.” Robelski kept his arms open, a subliminal maneuver to build trust and transmit honesty. “But we need volunteers to check the ranches closest for supplies, then head farther into town and gather whatever they can to help us through the winter.”

Drew inhaled deeply. Damn. He didn’t know anyone here had a cape to go with the superpowers that mission would require.

“It’s suicide.” Mrs. Nut Brown exhaled.

The single men nodded.

Tear-drop tattoo hugged his wife close. “You might as well just shoot them now and save them the pain of being beat to death.”

Drew would definitely vote for a bullet over a beating.

“Have a little faith.” Robelski strolled in front of the group. “We’ll send a team of our best people to help ferry supplies from the trailhead to the ranch. So no one is going alone. Plus, my middle daughter will tell us where the crazies are. And lastly, the volunteer I had in mind is skilled in urban warfare and survival against the odds.”

The old man stopped in front of Drew.

Drew frowned. No. Oh, hell no. He knew that look. Nothing good ever came of it.

“I have faith in you, son.” Robelski set his hand on Drew’s shoulder. “I know you can get in, get out, without being killed by the crazies. Rest tonight. You’ll leave at first light.”

Drew swayed on his feet. That bastard Dogooder had been right. Robelski wanted Drew out of his daughter’s life and had found the perfect way to achieve it. Sacrifice Drew to the crazies.

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Let’s Be Honest Here

I watch almost exclusively Netflix. I don’t have cable/satellite and except for shows on PBS, I don’t  watch much regular TV. In fact, the only show on Network television that I do watch anymore is Big Bang Theory.

Supernatural, Doctor Who, NCIS, and Agents of Shield are all watched on Netflix when I can binge watch an entire season.

But I live in hope that a new show will arrive to tempt me. So I dutifully scope out the pickings. And for the fall, I’ve found:

MacGyver

Designated Survivor

Emerald City

Making History

Time after Time

Honestly, except for MacGyver I’ll probably only watch one episode before deciding- nah.

Anyone have a show to add that they’re waiting for?

 

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It Sounded Like a Good Idea at the Time

Once upon a time, we watched our grand-dog. The spry young pup was a handful but he managed to keep our older dog active.

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When our daughter moved, she acquired a new pup from Petsmart charities and now her dogs stay at home.

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Our poor doggie went into mourning for his lost friend and was just rebounding when our daughter decided to go out of town and we got to watch both pups. This was when we realized that having another dog in the house just wasn’t going to work. Our poor dog was so tired and sore that he started limping and flopping down to catch his breath.

So he’s the only dog unless the other two come to visit.

Oh, and for whoever made this kind of harness. Kudos to you for making the buckles out of metal but I want to hurt you for making the dang thing so tight, it’s impossible to put it on a wiggling squirming dog anxious for their walk.

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Shave a millimeter off, won’t you?

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So, I Lied

I had thought to have Hadean 3: Completely Forked out this week. Yeah. That’s not going to  happen.

SmashwordsYou see, I thought the book would be about 70K words and 30ish chapters. Well apparently, I forgot to tell God, the Universe, and my story fairy because it came in at 46 chapters.

So the good news, it’s written. Now I’ve got to rewrite it and send it to my editors. So, fingers crossed—2 weeks.

In other news, the final Syn-En book: Home World will be out in October. Alas, I’ve had to cut back on my writing due to an overwhelming work schedule and the hubbinator switching shifts.

Soon, I’ll find my footing and get back on a new schedule, because there’s that Atlantis story that I want to write.

Until next time…

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Free Today on Amazon

Betrayed. Deceived. Dare they trust again?

Hans LubAGiftfromStNickeck lost the woman he loved and the family farm to his brother. Ten years later, he’s on the cusp of fulfilling his new dream—captaining his own ship. And another woman could jeopardize everything.

Jilted at the altar, schoolteacher Lenore Kerrigan devotes her time to her pupils and good works. She has no use for a man or the damage he could do to her reputation. Especially when a man from her past arrives and wants to court her.

But this holiday season, fate and an island of matchmakers have other plans. Will Hans and Lenore accept the gift of a lifetime, or will the past steal away their chance at happiness?

amazon

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A Time for Us, Paranormal Romance, Chapter 3

ATimeForUsChapter 3

Why am I always waiting on a man?

Nysia’s breath fogged the windowpane. Leaning forward, she rested her forehead against the glass and looked down at the village hanging on the mountain slopes. On her left, white veiled the gray, craggy Rhone Alps and frosted the evergreens. Around the squares of rock gardens in the yards below, bare trees grasped at the frigid air with skeletal hands.

A family exited the hotel facing the town square. The children’s excitement and glee brought smiles to the adults’ faces. The man checked the shiny red skis secured on the top of a vehicle before leaning to kiss the woman’s cheek.

Inhaling at the jab of jealousy, Nysia jerked away from the window. The lace curtains disintegrated in her hands; pieces swayed like cobwebs from the rusting rod above the mullioned window. Biting her lip, she swallowed a sob then scrubbed her cheeks. She was done with crying. What had she ever gained from it, anyway?

Chronos hadn’t visited since she’d tried to stop the clock.

Eliot could barely muster the energy to cross to the physical world. And she was stuck in the village, waiting for this…this interloper so she could seduce him, convince him to do her bidding.

As if a man had ever danced attendance on her.

Wiping her hands on her skirt, she paced the room. The warped floorboard in the center had smoothed out, but her feather mattress had melted into a dollop of gray in the middle of her bedstead. Dust bunnies twirled across the floor before rolling to a stop against the peeling paint of the baseboard. This was not how she remembered things.

Just how much time had passed since she’d last inhabited the material world?

Turning on her heel, she marched toward the crumbling armoire. The doors had rotted from the hinges and lay drunkenly propped against the missing drawer slot at the base. The blue-and-white pitcher lay in pieces on the marble-topped washstand. Her towel was a pile of threads underneath.

Cold prickled her skin through her thin sleeves, and she rubbed her arms. Living hurt so much. Why hadn’t Chronos returned her house to the way it had been? Why had Eliot left her behind?

But she knew. It was up to her to reunite them. Only she could stop the clock for an instant so she could slip into the afterworld with her lover. For that, she needed the interloper’s help. Chronos would never allow her to touch the clockworks again.

The interloper must be seduced. But how?

She patrolled the border of her room, pausing only to shut the door to her workshop. With his raven’s-wing hair, strong jaw, and large frame, he was almost certain to have his pick of lovers. She plucked at her shirtwaist. She had never attracted any attention until Eliot noticed her.

Unless the girls in the village were making fun of her clothing.

She shook off the memories. Most of them had been old women in the sixties while she was still young and…

And cold. Her breath formed clouds on the air. She should stoke the boiler. Working always helped clarify her thoughts. Just like building one of her clockwork toys, she would create a plan as she shoveled coal.

A seduction plan.

She could do this.

Striding to the door, she yanked it open. The scents of pine, cinnamon, and an exotic spice teased her nose. Among the decomposing bed, nightstand, and dresser, the interloper’s bags and possessions stood out like shiny beacons. She stopped by the bed and ran her fingers over the quilt. The tiny stitches created valleys and hills on the colorful fabric.

It was a masterpiece of love. Made by a woman.

Her heart tripped over a beat. Had he a wife or fiancée? Would there be two people invading her home, ruining her one chance at happiness?

Shoving the quilt away, she stomped from the room. He had arrived alone; he had better remain alone. This was her house. There would be no other mistress. Not while she was alive.

Even if she was here only temporarily.

Her heels clacked on the mahogany stairs as she descended. The clatter echoed around the living room. Embers glowed in the bed of gray ash in the fireplace. Looking for wood and kindling, she paused on her way to the door to her grandfather’s workshop and the boiler in the walk-out basement to check the woodbox.

Nothing.

How like Chronos to supply enough for one fire but not any to keep the blaze going. She would have to retrieve some from the pile in the back yard. A shiver rattled up her spine. She’d always been safe in the back yard; no reason to think the rules had changed. As a bonus, the walls were high enough no one could see her. Or mock her.

Rounding the corner leading into the kitchen, she opened the door to the basement, which opened onto the terraced back yard. Sunshine created a gray patchwork on the stone floor below. The scents of oil and mildew wafted up. Closing her eyes, she inhaled deeply. Her lungs seized at the absence of her grandfather’s gingerbread-scented tobacco. It had been here the last time.

But time had moved on. Without her.

Shaking her head, she padded down the curving stone steps. The precaution was unnecessary—Pépère had long since stopped working in his shop. But old habits muffled her footfalls, and a hand on the wall helped keep her balance.

Mice scampered in all directions when she reached the workshop. They darted through barrel slats scattered like fallen petals, skirted bits of broken jars, and disappeared into the cracks in the walls. Beyond the French doors on her left, dead grass sprouted through the cracks on the terrace; apples in the sloping yard rotted on beds of ice; and brown dirt formed pyramids beneath cracked urns.

Shaking out her skirts, she stamped her feet to discourage the vermin from coming closer and continued into the boiler room. The stained remnants of the workbenches disintegrated into sawdust. Gears, cams, and other bits of metal rusted on the stone, while broken pottery marked the once-organized space.

“Oh, Pépère! How it must pain you to see this.”

Debris crunched underfoot as she made her way to the darkest corner of the basement. Nearing the wall, she reached for the bubble switch at the side and pressed the button in the center. The bare bulb dangling from the ceiling fizzled then burst in a burst of light and glass.

Flinching, she set her hand over her pounding heart. Oh, how she hated electricity! It was so unreliable.

Returning to the remains of the worktable, she used her shoe to search through the debris. There, against one rotting table leg, she spied the stub of a candle. Bending, she picked it up.

Now, where are those matches? And would they still work?

A door slammed overhead. The interloper! He must have returned. Her nails bit into the hard wax of the taper. Had Chronos and the townspeople filled his ears with bad reports of her? Not that she cared.

Zut! She had to care. If her plan was to work, she had to make him care.

Not that she had a plan, exactly.

Still, she needed to do something, make some progress, in case Eliot managed to visit her again.

Tucking the candle in her pocket, she retraced her steps. Across the basement. Up the staircase. This would be easy. She was French. The other girls in the village could do it, and she was smarter than they. She would be pleasant, charming. She’d toss her hair and bat her eyelashes. She’d smile and laugh at his jokes.

Whistling echoed in the salon. A jaunty tune. One she didn’t recognize. Her steps mimicked the beat. Then she was in the salon. With him.

The interloper was tall, nearly six feet. Black hair brushed his wide shoulders, and snow dusted his coat. He drew back at the sight of her emerging from the dark stairwell. His tune ended in an ear-splitting shriek.

But it was his eyes that caught and held her attention. They were the green of spring leaves.

And filled with fear.

Of her.

The pain of rejection punched her in the chest. She was five again, newly arrived in Saint Sylvestre after her parents’ death and forgotten at the train station. She was seven again, shunned by the other girls for her patched trousers and baggy shirts, and forced to eat the noon meal alone. She was twenty-three again, standing on one side of her grandfather’s grave while the townspeople fanned out on the other.

“What did they say about me?” Her voice cracked on the last word, and she blinked rapidly to clear her tears. She shouldn’t care. She didn’t know the villagers. And they never took the time to know her. Not even when she had been alive.

He exhaled slowly.

“That you like pain au chocolat.

Raising his hands, he offered her a pink box tied with a string. Fear left his eyes, to be replaced by pity.

That was the worst of all. She stared at her scuffed shoes. Why had Eliot locked her in this world? She liked being able to leave when she wanted.

The interloper shook the pastry box.

“I have it on good authority that chocolate makes almost everything all better.”

Chocolate. Saliva pooled in her mouth. It had been forever since she’d sampled the delicacy. Since before the war, since before Eliot…

She shut down the thought, but her stomach growled, refusing to be silenced. As if possessed, her hand reached for the box. Her fingers brushed his and tingled from the contact with such warmth. How could she have forgotten how hot life was?

“Oh, hey. You’re cold.”

He made quick work of his coat buttons then shrugged out of his jacket. Fabric snapped. Warm wool draped her shoulders. Her nose twitched with the scents of pine, cinnamon, and that exotic spice. Embarrassment flamed in her cheeks.

“Thank you.”

“Gloves are in the pocket.” Shifting closer, he fasten the top button so the coat stayed on. “Let’s sit before the fire and eat. That should be warmer.”

He gestured for her to precede him.

“The fire is out.” Her fingers curled around the string, and she hugged the pastry box to her stomach. Her skin prickled as feeling returned. Life always hurt, but this wasn’t so…unpleasant. “I planned to start the boiler but couldn’t find any matches.”

Leaving the small breezeway off the kitchen, she glanced behind her then turned into the salon. The last of the embers danced like red fireflies up the chimney when she entered.

“Right.” He clapped his hands together then rubbed them. His skin was already turning pink from the chill. “First, we need a place to eat and a fire going. If you get my quilt from upstairs, I’ll get the firewood.” He spun in a slow circle before scratching the dark stubble on his chin. “Which would be where, exactly?”

“We used to set it near the terrace.” Her lips twitched. Was there a man alive who could find things without a woman’s help?

“Terrace.” His green eyes narrowed, and he slanted a peek at the breezeway. “You have a terrace?”

“You access it through the basement.” She pointed toward the kitchen. “The first door on the left will take you down.”

“Ahh. Right, you live on the side of a hill.” He spun about then stopped. “Is the boiler in the basement, too?”

“Yes.” What was he up to now?

“Then, with your permission, I’ll get that going while I’m down there.”

Snuggling deeper into his coat, she smiled. She’d like to see him try. The old boiler was a temperamental beast. Even Pépère hadn’t been able to coax her into breathing fire, and he was a master at fixing things.

“But of course.”

She’d give him five minutes then rescue him.

“Righty-o.”

Touching two fingers to his forehead, he marched away. She cleaned a spot on the marble mantel with her sleeve then set the pastry box on it. Her stomach growled again. There was no reason not to eat and work.

Tugging on the string, she undid the knot then lifted the lid. Butter and chocolate—Heaven must smell like that. Selecting the chocolate-filled croissant on the left, she skipped from the room.

Since he was already interested in making her happy, she might not have to work too hard at seducing him.

She bit into the sweet when she reached the bottom of the staircase. Her eyelids fluttered with pleasure, and her knees nearly buckled. Mon Dieu! Sugar, chocolate, and vanilla waltzed across her tongue. She’d forgotten the taste.

How could she have forgotten?

Pastry flakes trailed behind her. One bite a step, until her cheeks bulged like a squirrel’s. She would savor the next one. And the one after that. Chewing quickly, she crossed the landing and entered the stranger’s bedroom.

A red metal toolbox was pushed against the wall. A gray one stood two feet tall beside it. Her fingers itched. What did he have in them? She eyed the door. One little peek wouldn’t hurt, would it? Pépère’d always had the nicest tools, and he’d kindly gave her the old when he’d acquired a new one. Of course, she wasn’t allowed to touch the new ones. Would the stranger’s be shiny or covered with rust? You could tell a lot about a man from his tools. She tiptoed closer.

A door slammed downstairs.

Footsteps pounded on the stairs.

“Nysia? Nysia!”

She veered toward the bedstead and yanked the quilt off. Feathers escaped the disintegrated mattress ticking and fluttered around her. Holding the blanket to her chest, she scuttled onto the landing. She hadn’t touched his tools. She hadn’t.

“Y–yes.”

Snowflakes glittered in his black hair as they melted, and cold rouged his cheeks. Holding an armful of wood, he smiled up at her.

“That part of the cellar is darker than burnt cookies. Can you get my flashlight for me? I think it’s in the gray toolbox, top drawer.”

She blinked. Was this a test? Pépère had never let her assist him beyond watching him work.

“You want me to bring you a flashlight from your toolbox?”

“Yes.” Juggling an armload of wood, he smiled up at her, and the corners of his eyes crinkled. “If you wouldn’t mind?”

He crossed the living room to the fireplace and knelt before it. Muscles played under the fabric of his gray flannel shirt as he rebuilt the fire.

Draping the quilt over the bannister, she traipsed into the bedroom on feet that had wings. Her insides bubbled. She would see his tools. Maybe even touch a few.

This was a test. It had to be.

Dropping to her knees, she stroked the cold metal. Her fingers stopped at a rectangular placard. Jay Dugan. She traced the fancy script. Jay. What an unusual name. But was it, in this time?

Her hand shook as she lifted the latch. What treasures lay inside? She would know soon enough. With the heel of her palm, she lifted the lid.

Broken screwdrivers filled little sections of metal—handles on the left, heads on the right, and lengths of steel in the center. Wing nuts and screws filled two compartments. Her heart sank. He didn’t take good care of his tools.

Would he be equally remiss with the clock? She wanted it to stop for a second, not forever.

Sucking on her bottom lip, she shut the lid and eased open the first drawer below. A long black torch lay on a gray spongy surface. Lengths of stretchy bands held several smaller eyeball-shaped lights. Wrapping her hand around the metal cylinder of the torch, she tugged it out and slid the drawer closed. Her fingers dropped to the next drawer. Should she?

The bottom riser on the steps creaked.

So, he was coming to check on her. Jerking her hand away, she slapped the latch in place and sprang to her feet. Six quick strides carried her out of the room.

Jay Dugan smiled at her from the middle of the stairs.

“Did you find it all right?”

She waggled the barrel at him.

“This is it, isn’t it?”

“Yes.” He jogged up the remaining steps. “My brothers think it’s funny to mess with my tools and rearrange things. So, I never know for sure where anything is.”

Her cheeks felt like they would crack from the weight of her smile. Pépère hadn’t tolerated anyone touching his tools.

“I understand.”

Jay held out his hand. Calluses dotted the fleshy part of his palm.

“I cleaned a spot on the floor for the blanket, if you want to spread it out and warm yourself up while I see to the boiler.”

She laid the torch in his hand, then turned to the blanket and bundled it in her arms.

“I can do that.”

She waited for him to march past her and into the bedroom. Pépère always made certain she obeyed his rules. Jay winked, about-faced and trotted down the stairs two at a time.

“Save a chocolate croissant for me.”

Propping a hip against the banister, she watched him head for the basement. What game was this? Her boots clacked on the wooden risers. Would he really not check? What if he did? She hadn’t actually touched any of his tools.

Reaching the family room, she shoved her black curls out of her eyes. With a jerk, she snapped the quilt flat. Dust bunnies twirled away to hug the baseboards. Lines of dirt outlined the spot on the floor. The place looked like he’d used his boot to sweep. Now his quilt would get dirty, and she would have to wash it. Still, that was more than Pépère had ever done.

Smoothing the creases in the quilt, she positioned the pastry box in the center then took a seat next to it. Her ankles stuck out of the hem of her dress. She covered them then yanked the skirt back. This was all about seduction. Embarrassment heated her cheeks. Many women showed their ankles in 1917. A scandalous few even showed a bit of calf. Not that she was a loose woman. She adjusted the lace hem right above her ankles. Just right.

Flames devoured the wood in the fireplace; the twigs glowed red before they melted around the split wood. She flipped open the box lid then shut it. She could wait. She could…

Oh, bother! If she didn’t help him light the beast’s pilot light, the fire would be dead before he returned.

Sighing, she pushed off the floor and headed for the basement. She hoped Jay didn’t find it distasteful that she knew how to work the old boiler. Men could be funny when their pride was engaged. Most men. Eliot had found her abilities fascinating. She loved him for that.

Cold swirled around her ankles as she turned into the open doorway. Grime coated her fingers as she used the wall to guide her down. A ball of light bounced across the patchwork created by the French doors opening onto the terrace.

“My, you are a thing of beauty.” Jay’s words whispered over the debris littering the stone floor.

A lover’s words.

Her heels dug into the stone. He’d better not have a woman here. Nysia’s fists shook at her sides. She stomped toward the boiler room.

“And you purr like a cat with a bowl of cream,” he murmured. “Don’t worry, baby, I’ll take good care of you while I’m here.”

She rounded the corner and drew up short. Only he and the boiler stood in the space. A shiny green boiler. One she had never seen before. What had happened to the beast?

A dormant memory stirred in the recesses of her mind. Something about scrap for another war.

Jay stared at her, a flush staining his cheeks. He shook his red hand.

“Sorry. I tend to get enamored of equipment. And your boiler is enchanting.” He almost patted the green body but stopped just short. “I tried to get the mayor to install the Weil Mclain boiler in city hall, but he didn’t. With cast iron sections, rope seals, and short draw rods, she’s a thing of beauty.”

Nysia’s shoulders relaxed. He hadn’t been talking to a woman but a piece of machinery. She could understand. She often sang to the beast. She’d miss the old boiler, but this…

Walking closer, she admired the clean lines and the lack of coal dust on the floor.

“It is very nice.”

“Top of the line.” He blew on his reddened palm.

“You’ve burned yourself.” She reached for his hand.

He shifted it behind his back.

“I didn’t realize how fast it would heat up.”

Shifting her weight to the right, she blocked his exit. Why did men have to be such infants?

“Let me see your hand.”

“It’s nothing. Really.”

She tapped the toe of her boot. The sound complimented the ticking of the boiler as the metal heated.

“Then it will not hurt to let me see it.”

Closing the distance between them, he thrust his hand at her.

“See. Nothing.”

She clasped his fingers, angling his hand to the light. Nothing but red. At least there weren’t any blisters.

“We’ll soak your hand in cold water, then gather snow and use that to absorb the rest of the heat.”

His long, tapered fingers felt strong beneath her touch. The callused pads rasped her skin. Like Eliot’s hands had been from reinforcing the trenches. They’d felt like fine leather on her bare skin. She shivered and glanced up, expecting to see brown eyes. Instead, she stared into the color of spring, of life returning to the land.

Her heart thumped against her breasts. Her lungs labored to work. A pleasant tingle raced up her spine. She’d always loved spring.

Jay’s lips parted. His attention dropped to her mouth.

“We should…”

“We should.” Nysia rose on tiptoes. Her head angled to the left. If he just stooped a little they could kiss.

A kiss would be good.

“We should go upstairs.” He shook himself and backpedalled. “Breakfast then cleaning. We should have breakfast, then clean the house, see what we can salvage before nightfall.”

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