My lover is coming.
Perched on the stool atop the oriental rug, Anysia Willot froze, her fingers tight on the key of the clockwork toy. The pressed metal couple twirled one last time before the waltz ended on a tinny ping. Holding her breath, she waited a second. Two. In the clock tower two stories above, the gears, cams, and going trains of the tower clock rattled like a persistent heartbeat. She bit her lip.
Had she imagined that zing of electricity? That sparkle of freshness?
Her attention flew around the tiny workroom off her bedroom, taking in the paint chipped off the horses of the wind-up carousel on the warped wooden workbench under the window. Sunlight fractured on the frost snowflaking across the wavy poured-glass panes and sent rainbows onto the rusting bodies of Pierrot and Pierrette. The wheel of one faded Tin Lizzy lay against a strip of wallpaper peeling in a corkscrew curl.
She sighed and wilted atop the wobbly seat.
The same decay. The same emptiness. The same every day. And there had been so many days since she’d left the nothingness to be in the real world again.
Carefully setting the waltzing couple on the workbench, she leaned forward to grasp the crown key of the clockwork Ferris wheel. The handle popped off, causing the white pressed-tin framework to wobble. The tricolored flag of France plinked onto the warped surface.
The air glittered with magic. As time reversed, the flag rose from the bench and returned to the top of the Ferris wheel. The dented lattice straightened. The wallpaper rolled back up onto the wall and brightened to stark white instead of the dingy yellow of a moment ago.
A smile pressed so hard into Nysia’s cheeks her face ached. But it was a good ache, a delightful ache. Her lover was coming. To see her.
The clockwork toys brightened to new, their parts reassembling as time scrolled backward. She pinched her cheeks to add color and slid off the stool.
She dug her toes into the bright-green, cream, and red geometric patterns of the carpet through her woolen stockings and finger-combed her hair. Her ebony curls bounced back and brushed her cheeks. Zut alors! Why must her hair always be a bother? She glanced at the oil-stained handkerchief then dismissed the idea of covering the unruly mass. Eliot had said he liked her short curls.
But that had been so long ago.
How many winters had she watched frost ice the landscape? How many harvests had she watched from her window under the clock tower? How many had she missed trapped in the nothingness. Clouds fogged her memory, and an ache pulsed between her temples.
“Nysia, ma chérie.”
The deep baritone rumbled through the workroom. Her heart fluttered in her breast. Happiness carried her weight as smoothing her black velvet dress, she scampered into her bedroom. White lace curtains filtered the wintry sunshine. Ivory enamel gleamed on the iron bedstead. Wrenches and a hammer lay on her mahogany nightstand. Where was he? Where…? Her breath lodged in her throat.
Eliot Bontemps propped a hip against the gleaming wardrobe. Not a speck of dust marred his horizon-blue French Army uniform. He held his Adrian helmet in his hands, and golden curls caressed his oval head. Broad shoulders filled out his trench coat, and puttees emphasized his muscular calves. He breathed on the crossed cannons insignia of the artillery unit on his helmet then polished the brass with his sleeve.
He was so handsome. And he was hers! Forever.
“Eliot,” she breathed. Instead of embracing him, she clasped her hands to her chest, half afraid he’d disappear into the ether.
He spun on the heel of his polished boot.
“But, of course, Nysia. How many other gentlemen do you entertain in your bedroom?”
Heat sprinkled her cheeks, and her attention slid to the bed. They had spent one wondrous hour together before he’d left for the front. Her body tingled as the memories poured through her.
“I had imagined a different reunion for us.” Tossing his hat onto the nightstand, Eliot opened his arms wide.
A wrench clattered to the hardwood floor. She didn’t care. Her job no longer mattered. Eliot was here. Finally.
She dashed in front of the bedstead on tiptoes. A hot tear streaked her cheek. She fell against his strong chest, and his arms banded her torso. She turned her face to his, mouth open for his kiss.
His lips slanted against her mouth, cool, yet firm. His tongue danced with hers.
Gone were the heat and tang of black coffee. Even the tingles racing across her skin seemed muted. Yet, she always expected…different. Silly, of course. He was dead, while she remained trapped in boundless time, between life and death.
A shudder rippled through her, and she pulled away. Why must she always ruin their precious time together?
“I’ve missed you.”
He suckled her exposed neck, and his tongue flicked over her pulse. His fingers stroked her back, trailing down to the edge of her corset. Backing her toward the bed, he teased the strap of her chemise through her dress.
“Tell me how you imagined our reunion would unfold.”
Heat shimmered through her. Not the inferno of before, more like a banked fire on a wintery night. Still, so necessary for her existence.
“I imagined you…” She hooked her fingers through his equipment belt and tugged him toward the bed. “And me…” She worked the buckle free. His trousers dropped low on his hips. “…warming my bed.”
The feather tick mattress scratched the back of her legs. Rising on her toes, she kissed his jaw. The skin was pliable yet cold. She would warm him up. And he…
He would make her feel alive again.
Eliot cupped her shoulder blades.
“And did you imagine a stranger next door?” His words were vapor in her ear. “Hearing your every moan of pleasure?”
Fear cooled her passion. Her numb fingers released the lapels of his greatcoat, and her hips evaded the grind of his.
”Oh, la vache, c’est vrai?”
“Oui, ma chérie. It’s true.” He clucked her under her chin. A soft smile played with his lips.
They had so little time together as it was. She stomped her foot before gripping his greatcoat again.
“I don’t care.”
One yank, and he stumbled against her. He tugged playfully on her curls.
“Don’t you? I’ve heard you cry because the villagers whisper about the bad ghost in the clock tower. I see how you cringe when the older boys rush inside and shout insults at you on a dare.”
Of late, more girls had braved her home. Their taunts stung deeper than the boys’. They always had. Tears prickled her nose, and she rested her head against Eliot’s chest. She heard no reassuring heartbeat.
“They were not nice to me when I walked among them. Why would I expect them to be nice to me now?”
And why do I always respond to their taunts?
Eliot pressed a kiss into her forehead.
“Ah, mon petit chou, I know what softness lies under your brave façade.”
Nysia slid out of his arms and plopped onto her bed. The soft feather tick sighed around her bottom as the cast iron bedstead squeaked from her weight. Digging her fingers into the blue-and-yellow coverlet, she glanced at her lover.
“Shall I chase the boy away?”
Inside, she cringed at the thought of revealing herself. Few had seen her since she’d passed into the nothingness. She preferred it that way.
“Ah, but this is not a boy.” Eliot turned toward the door of her grandfather’s old bedroom.
Pépère had died before she had crossed. What right did someone have to use his bed? Her fingernails dug into her palms. Jerky strides carried her toward the room. She would chase away the interloper.
The glass knob was icy against her palm. She twisted it and yanked open the door. A floorboard creaked, but the door hinges remained mute.
A quilt in reds, greens, and white covered the heap in Pépère’s bed. Chubby Santa Clauses adorned midnight-blue socks hanging over the footboard. Nysia slowed her brisk strides. He was a big man. A very big man. Would he be frightened of ghosts?
With a snort, the interloper rolled onto his back. Long black hair fanned over the blue cotton pillowcase. His hand rested palm-up near the edge of the pillow. Muscle played under the white sleeve of his longjohns. Calluses dotted the pads of his fingers, and a pink line from a cut bisected his palm.
A workingman’s hands. Workingmen weren’t that easily duped. Her heart raced inside her chest, and her breath came in short bursts. A workingman definitely wouldn’t fear a ghost who bumped into walls.
And she would. She’d always been clumsy, except when it came to the clock and her toys. The jig would be up when she yelped in pain.
Because Eliot’s return made her as substantial as every living soul beyond the clocktower and its yard.
Hugging her waist, she backed away from the interloper. A wall of soft muscle prevented her retreat. Eliot set his hands on her back and pushed her toward the stranger.
She shook her head.
“Let me leave.”
“You must face this. Face him.”
Despite her squirming, Nysia couldn’t break Eliot’s hold. Her shoulders sagged in defeat and she stopped resisting.
“Why? Why must I face him?”
A water stain spread across the ceiling. Paint appeared on the wood paneling then slowly blistered and flaked off. The washstand dissolved in the slow burn of decay. Her lover was leaving her again.
Leaving her alone.
With a stranger.
She grasped for Eliot’s hand but found only her own shoulder. Her heart constricted.
“He is here to fix the clock.”
Eliot’s words were an arctic blast. Her ear needled from the cold. The grind of the gears in the clock tower nearly shattered her skin.
“Fix the clock?”
Her teeth chattered. Her job had been to keep the clock ticking. The Willots had always kept the clock ticking for Chronos, the god of time, and made certain the past, present, and future remained separate. She’d inherited the duty from her grandfather, and his father, and his father before him. Others like this black-haired man had come and gone since she moved into the nothingness. She’d resented each and every one.
Had rejoiced at their leaving.
Since the last clock man had departed a while ago, she’d been determined to let the clock wind down. To stop time. Just for a second. So she could die and spend eternity with Eliot.
But Chronos had prevented her. After the last sabotage attempt, she’d been banned from touching the clockworks. With winter’s breath fogging the window, December 31st had to be close.
Straightening, she glared at the interloper in the bed. He kept her from her lover.
“What do you want me to do?”
Pain spiked her heart. Eliot would ask her to be with another? Her knees shook. What about his vows of eternal fidelity? He’d sworn to be faithful to her, as he expected her to be to him.
Plaster dusted the floorboards as a crack traveled from the foundation and reached the ceiling. Eliot disappeared, leaving only a chilly imprint.
“You must, ma chérie. It is the only way for us to be together.”
His voice faded just as he did.
But she remained in the world. Trapped.
Nysia pressed her fist against her chest. Her gaze pinned to the man on the bed, she backed out of the room. She must seduce him. But how? She’d never seduced anyone in her life. Eliot had taken the lead in their courtship—she’d been too interested in gears, cams, and drive trains.
She shut the door and locked it.
Still, seduction couldn’t be too hard. She’d observed enough of the village girls flirt with the soldiers passing through.
And she was French down to her sabots. Too bad termites had devoured her wooden shoes ages ago.
Jay Dugan winced at the hammering inside his head. By Kringle, he hadn’t had that much eggnog last night, had he?
He cast his memory back to the night before. Two glasses with dessert, but the eggnog hadn’t been spiked then. His four brothers had waited until their children were put to bed before adding the brandy.
And then he’d had three—no, four cups. Tiny cups, but they made his mother’s gingerbread men taste so much better. Sugar cookies, but he had a hangover!
He folded the feather pillow around his head like a skull tortilla. The pounding intensified.
Jay gritted his teeth. Nice job, dipped cookie. Showing up sick on the first day of the new job is bound to make an impression. All of it bad.
He growled then massaged a hand down his face. He’d best start sobering up now. He still had a bit of packing to do before he found the magic portal to take him to Saint Sylvestre, France.
Shoving aside his brand new Christmas quilt, he swung his legs over the side. So far so good. His stomach wasn’t trying to turn itself inside out. Maybe his hangover wouldn’t be so bad. Cold leached the heat from the soles of his feet despite his Santa Claus socks. Great. He’d apparently forgotten to set the timer for the pellet stove. He’d give up eggnog for a year, if his day would start improving now.
A yawn threatened to unhinge his jaw. Eyes watering, he peeked at his surroundings. Light stabbed the back of his skull. He squeezed his eyes closed. Seeing was highly overrated. Besides, this was his apartment. He knew the space above his parents’ garage by heart.
Two steps across the wooden floor, his little toe slammed into something hard. Pain zipped up his leg and pingponged his eyes in his skull. What in the world? He never left anything on his bedroom floor. Must be his doofus older brothers. Hopping on one foot, Jay blinked the offending article into focus.
His tool box sat in the middle of a rug that was more dust than carpet. Water stained the ceiling in rings of brown and rust. Blobs of plaster dotted the floor like unmelting snowballs. The scent of mildew made his nose twitch. The mattress sagged, the head and footboard caving in as if to meet in the middle.
This was not his bedroom.
Not his apartment.
Was this some kind of prank? His brothers had threatened the night before to do something, one last hazing for the youngest Dugan sibling. Relocating him to some Grinch pit would do it. Jay ran his tongue over his fuzzy teeth. Maybe he didn’t have a hangover but was suffering the aftereffects of being drugged. He cracked his knuckles. There should be time to teach his brothers some manners before he left for his new job.
Shaking off his fatigue, he glanced around the room. Wind whistled through a crack in the windowpane over the bed. The wall sconce over by the door dangled by bare wires. His two bags stood near a decomposing washstand beside his boots. That settled it. He must be in Pumpkin. Only in a town dedicated to Halloween would someone make a place look this bad. Which meant he had a long walk home ahead of him. In the cold, snow, and uphill.
His brothers better not have unpacked his clothes. No man wanted his jingle bells frosted.
Rolling his shoulders, he crossed the room. The wooden boards creaked underfoot. Please don’t let me go through. Please. He held his breath, making himself as light as possible.
Reaching his luggage, he dropped to the floor and unzipped his bags. His neatly stacked clothes lay nestled inside. He selected a Doctor Who T-shirt, a gray flannel shirt, and tan cargo pants. Quickly dressing, he laced his boots then gathered his belongings. His coat and gloves had better be near the door, or he’d find the nearest phone and have his dough-head brothers come fetch him.
No way was he risking his tools to the damp and cold. Those things worked magic.
Setting his luggage near the door, he reached for the glass handle. It turned before his fingers touched it.
The skin at his neck prickled. By Kringle, if they’d stashed him in a haunted house, he’d wring his brothers’ necks. He hated ghosts. And Pumpkin was full of dead things. Jay stepped back. He raised his fist then swore. Punching a ghost wasn’t an option.
The hinges groaned, and wood ripped as the door swung open. A stooped old man shambled inside, a scythe-shaped cane thumping the floor every other step. He consulted a gold watch before tucking it back into his trouser pocket. Clear blue eyes looked up, pinning Jay.
“Leaving us so soon? You just arrived.”
Jay’s heart plummeted near his knees. This couldn’t be…
“Mister Chronos? Sir?”
How did one address the god of time—his new boss?
“Just Chronos.” Gnarled fingers smoothed the fringe of white hair around his pink scalp. “Not sir or mister.”
“Yes, sir, er, Chronos.” Jay’s tongue wrapped around the name. He was already in Saint Sylvestre. He eyed the waterstained wall. Maybe the place decayed as the year progressed and renewed at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Day.
The old man grunted. “Scared you off, did she?”
Jay blinked, bringing his attention back into the conversation.
Chronos’s eyes twinkled with the light of galaxies.
“No. No, you haven’t met her in the past or present. Yet.”
After a quick inspection of the dresser, Jay lowered his toolbox to the floor.
“I don’t know who ‘she’ is, but I thought I…” He swallowed the words. Not all holiday towns liked being compared to others. “I didn’t know where I was.”
“Ahhh.” Chronos stroked his white beard and twirled the end around his finger. “Got a muzzy head, a fuzzy tongue, and a buzzing in the ears?”
“Yes, yes, and no,” Jay answered the questions in order. “I hear a thumpity-thump of…” His heart pounded. Since he was in Saint Sylvestre, then… “That’s the clock.”
The clock. The one that kept time for the universe. He eyed the cracked and stained ceiling. This was better than the TARDIS because it was real.
“Yes, yes. The one you were hired to look after, but first there are things we must discuss.”
A muffled sob penetrated the door Jay had assumed lead to the bathroom.
“Is someone else here?”
Chronos’s blue eyes narrowed and turned black. Bits of glitter were the stars in his eyes.
“I see how things lie.”
“Hmm?” The old man jerked his attention to Jay. “Well, some things are inevitable, I suppose.” He shambled across the wood floor. With every thump of his cane, plaster returned to the walls, water stains faded on the ceiling, and the cracks zipped closed. Only the furnishings remained shabby. “Come, I will buy you breakfast while we discuss…things.”
More sobbing echoed in the restored room. The clockworks clanged.
Jay’s hair stood on end. If he didn’t know better, he’d say the place was haunted.
Tugging on the neck of his T-shirt, he scuttled after the old man. He could put up with anything, as long as it wasn’t a ghost.