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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.” 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.”