Author: Amanda Gray
Publication date: September 10, 2013
Publisher: Month9Books, LLC.
IN A RACE AGAINST TIME, HOW DO YOU KEEP THOSE YOU LOVE SAFE?
Like a past life.
Using the instructions in the music box, Ben and Jenny share a dream that transports them to Romanov Russia and leads them to believe they have been there together before. But they weren’t alone. Nikolai, the mysterious young man Jenny has been seeing in her own dreams was there, too. When Nikolai appears next door, Jenny is forced to acknowledge that he has traveled through time and space to find her. Doing so means he has defied the laws of time, and the Order, an ominous organization tasked with keeping people in the correct time, is determined to send him back. While Ben, Jenny and Nikolai race against the clock -- and the Order -- the trio discovers a link that joins them in life -- and beyond death.
After a fitful night’s sleep, the last thing Jenny wanted to do was go back to the Daultons’. It was her dad and that pleading, hopeful look in his eyes that did it. He’d never admit it, but he was lonely. It was obvious that he wanted her to come.
And the Daulton house had inspired her. Maybe if she saw it again, took a few more pictures of the outside, she could paint it. Plus, there was always the chance that it would take her mind off of the man who’d appeared at the gallery and all the crazy possibilities his appearance forced her to consider.
They stopped at the diner in town for breakfast on their way. After inhaling stacks of blueberry pancakes loaded with warm syrup tapped from local trees, Jenny and her dad continued on to the Daulton house. Clare must have heard them making their way up the drive, because when they got there, she was standing barefoot on the porch, shielding her eyes from the sun.
“Don’t tell me,” she called out to them. “You’ve decided the project is hopeless and have come to give me the bad news.”
Jenny’s dad grinned, opening the car door. “Not on your life. I like a challenge.” He grabbed the disc that contained plans for the renovation and headed toward the porch. “I’ve already worked up some costs and suggestions. Is this a good time to go over them?”
“Absolutely! Come inside. I’ll pour you some iced tea.” Clare turned her attention on Jenny. “Want me to call Ben down? I’m sure he’d be more interesting company for you!”
“It’s okay.” The last thing she needed was another run-in with Ben. “I just wanted to take some pictures of the outside of the house. You know, if it’s okay with you.”
Clare waved her off with a smile. “Make yourself at home. Just let me know if there’s anything you need.”
“Thanks,” Jenny said. “And Mrs. Daulton?”
She laughed. “You’ll have to call me Clare if you want to take pictures of my house.”
“Okay,” Jenny agreed, suddenly wondering if she’d been presumptuous to tell Samuel that Ben’s mom needed a job. Maybe it was personal.
“What is it, Jenny?” her dad prodded.
“It’s just ... ” She turned her attention to Clare. “Well, my dad mentioned that you were looking for a job, and I wanted to tell you that there might be a temporary one at Books and More, the store in town? I work there and Samuel, the owner, said if you’re interested you should call him. I hope it’s okay that I mentioned it. Someone had a family emergency and we’re short, so I thought of you.”
Clare smiled, a hint of surprise in her eyes. “Thank you, Jenny. I’ll call him this afternoon.”
Her dad glanced over at her on the way up the porch steps. She could tell he was happy by his smile. It went all the way to his eyes.
She waited for the screen door to slam shut before she circled with the Nikon. The house really was gorgeous. Simple and clean lined, it was built for function, whereas her own home, a Georgian built in 1802 by a prominent townsman, was meant to impress.
This house was different. It was like she could feel all the history in it. All the kids who had run across its grass and climbed the big oak in the front yard, all the Sunday dinners and afternoons on the porch swing.
The house would have been nothing but a big square if not for several pitches in the roof and a couple of extras that Jenny could already tell were add-ons. It wasn’t surprising. She’d learned from her dad that people used to build something small to start, adding as they went if the need arose. The strategy usually produced some weird additions, but this one was really nice.
She pointed the camera upward, getting some shots of the roof. It was missing a few shingles, and she wondered if it leaked when it rained. Circling the house, she took the shots that intrigued her even if they wouldn’t be of any help to her dad. There was a massive tree branch hanging low and heavy over one portion of the roof, a bird’s nest in the eaves near one of the second-floor bedrooms, and an arched window, slightly out of place in what appeared to be the attic. She was taking aim at it, pausing to steady her hand, when she saw a shadow on the other side of the glass.
She froze. Was it Ben? In the attic? Her pulse sped up, probably because the guy was such a jerk and she was already anticipating a confrontation where he’d accuse her of bothering him just by breathing. She took the shot anyway, lowering the camera and shielding her eyes against the sun as she looked again. The shadow was gone.
She stood there a minute, wondering if she’d just imagined it. Then she continued around the house, taking pictures as she went. She had over forty by the time she returned to the front and let herself into the house. Following the sound of voices, she found her dad and Clare in the kitchen.
They were sitting around a built-in breakfast nook, her dad’s computer open between them. Clare murmured something that made her dad laugh, and Jenny did a double take. Her dad? Laughing? Clare’s dark hair fell forward as she leaned toward the monitor, looking at something her dad was pointing out. Her dad seemed at ease, comfortable in a way she hadn’t seen him with anyone other than Morgan.
Huh. She looked more closely. Were they flirting? It was hard to tell. They were smiling a lot and sitting kind of close, but that didn’t necessarily mean anything. Jenny gave up trying to figure it out and headed for the stairs, wondering if she could find the attic room with the pretty window. She was so not ready to think about her dad dating. Her mom might have died a long time ago, but as far as Jenny knew, her dad had never even had coffee with someone since then. She just needed to get her head around the possibility, that’s all.
She climbed the stairs at the front of the house, listening for the strains of Ben on his piano. Nothing. The house was quiet except for the occasional hum of conversation from the kitchen below.
Reaching the landing, Jenny saw a set of stairs pulled down and hanging from the ceiling at the end of the hall. Clare and Ben had probably been cleaning. No one wanted to buy a house with a creepy, junk-filled attic, and it sounded like they needed to sell fast.
Jenny crept past the half-open door to Ben’s room, stopping in front of the stairs. Hesitating, she peered into the blackness above her head, listening. It was as quiet as the rest of the house.
She put one foot gently on the lowest tread of the stairs, testing them for both strength and sound. Then she headed up into the darkness.
The stairs felt solid enough. And so far, so good on the squeaks, too. She continued, stepping carefully since there weren’t any handrails and she was holding her dad’s six-hundred-dollar camera.
The light from the hallway receded as she made her way up the stairs, slowly enveloped in the murky darkness of the attic. When she got to the top, she stepped gingerly onto the floorboards, hoping they were as well maintained as the stairs. She peered into the gray light, watching the dust motes dance in the sun fighting its way in through the small, arched window she’d seen from the ground.
Her eyes adjusted, and she scanned the room, fascinated by the strange shapes created by stacked boxes and trunks, the ghostly forms of sheet-covered furniture. Lifting the camera, she changed the settings and turned on the flash. She wanted to get a shot of the old hat box near the wall, a half-crushed top hat spilling from inside. Except there was something else there, too. Something … bigger. She refocused, zooming in even closer.
Ben’s eyes, appraising and not at all pleased, stared back at her through the viewfinder.
“Don’t tell me you have to measure the attic, too.” Sarcasm dripped from his voice.
She lowered the camera, letting her breath out in one loud gasp. “God! You scared the hell out of me.”
“I’d say I’m sorry,” he sneered. “Except this is my house. You’re the one who shouldn’t be here.”
She figured she should probably keep her cool. Then she decided against it.
Crossing the attic, she stopped in front of him, glaring. “Are you always such a jerk?”
“Are you always so nosy?” he muttered, his blondish hair flopping forward into his eyes as he rifled through some papers on his lap.
She thought about possible answers to the question, finally deciding on honesty. “Not always.”
He looked up, and for a split second she saw interest in his blue eyes. Then, he lowered them back to the papers in his hand.
“What have you got there?” she asked.
“I have no idea,” he mumbled. “It’s in some kind of foreign language.”
“Can I see?”
She had no idea why she was trying to be friendly after the way he’d acted, except that he seemed kind of lonely. And she understood lonely. She even understood the way it sometimes made you push people away when it was the last thing you really needed or wanted.
He shrugged, passing the papers to her.
He was right. Not only was it in another language, but the words on the paper were handwritten in script that probably wouldn’t have been legible even if it had been in English. The paper, yellowing and curling at the edges, felt dry and fragile, like it might turn to ash if she held it too hard. She tipped it carefully toward the arched window.
“It looks like … Russian?” She looked up, meeting Ben’s eyes. “Or maybe Polish?”
“What? You’re a linguist?” he said sarcastically.
“No.” She tried to keep the annoyance out of her voice. “I’m just saying. The characters are different from ours. It’s not a regular alphabet, you know?” She handed the papers back to him.
He looked at her gloved hands. “Do you always wear those? It’s, like, a million degrees up here.”
She shrugged, turning her attention to the stuff strewn across the floor around him. “What is all this?”
He sighed. “Junk, mostly.”
“Your junk or someone else’s junk?”
He set the papers onto a pile to his right, reaching into a box for something else. “Someone else’s. We don’t usually stay in one place long enough to have junk.”
She caught something in his voice. It was bitter and full of loss, but when she looked into his eyes, she saw regret there, too. He already wished he hadn’t said anything.
“You guys move around a lot?” Jenny prodded.
“You could say that.”
Wow, cryptic much? Jenny thought. He obviously didn’t want to talk, so she reached into the box, feeling around until her fingers grazed something smooth and scratchy. Grabbing ahold of it, she pulled her hand from the box, surprised to see an old wool fedora in her fingers.
“Hey! Look at this!” She shook it against one palm, trying to shake the dust free. She put it on her head, pulling it down mysteriously over one eye and bracing herself for criticism as Ben surveyed her silently.
But all he said was, “It’s not too bad.” He plucked it off her head and put it on his own. “But it probably looks better on me.”
“What?” Jenny laughed, wondering if that was really a smile fighting for life on Ben’s lips. “Okay. I see how it is. You do have rights to this junk, after all. But I totally have dibs on the next one.”
“Only if you can find it first,” Ben said, already lunging for a trunk near the wall.
He wasn’t exactly nice. He didn’t cross the line into friendly or anything. But he did let her work next to him, pulling stuff from the boxes and trunks and putting them in one of four piles: Keep, Give Away, Throw Away, and I Have No Idea. Sometimes they talked, though he was careful not to talk about himself.
Jenny didn’t mind. She wasn’t anxious to spill all her dirty secrets, either.
The silence stretched between them with nothing but an occasional burst of laughter from the kitchen or a bird fluttering in the eaves outside the window. It wasn’t as uncomfortable as it should have been, considering that they didn’t really know each other.
Jenny studied him when she thought she could get away with it, taking in the strong jaw and broad shoulders, the eyes that flashed as blue as the sea even in the half-light of the attic. He totally wasn’t her type. But that didn’t mean he wasn’t cute.
It was easy to get lost in the old stuff they were finding, and from the look of concentration on Ben’s face, she could see that he liked it, too. There was a lot of paper with writing in the strange language they’d seen in the first stack, and even some old photos of serious-looking people dressed so formally that it made Jenny itch just looking at them. There was also a lot of vintage clothing, and by the time they’d reached the last box, Jenny was draped in an old boa, wearing a vintage bed jacket with the crushed top hat, and gripping a cigarette holder—carefully wiped down with the end of her shirt between her teeth.
“I think we’re almost done.” Ben reached into the box, his arm swallowed past his elbow.
“Is there anything left?” Jenny wasn’t ready to leave their fairy-tale world of relics, not to mention this kinder, gentler Ben.
“I think there’s one … more … ” He moved his arm around, trying to get ahold of something. When he pulled his arm out of the box, he was holding a big wad of fabric in his hand. “ … thing.”
“What is it?” Jenny asked.
“I don’t know.” Ben let his hand bounce a little with the weight of it. “But it feels heavy.”
Jenny scooted a little closer. “Open it!”
“Okay, okay.” Ben lifted his long fingers to the fabric, peeling it back a layer at a time. Jenny had no idea what was inside, but it took forever for Ben to reach the last layer. When he finally pulled back the last of the cloth, it was to reveal a finely crafted wooden box with violet colored insets edged with silver.
“What the … ” Ben started, turning the thing over in his hand. He pulled at the top, lifting it on hinges set into one side of the object. “There’s a keyhole here. I think it’s a music box.”
Jenny leaned in, peering at the box. Inside it was empty and lined with worn, indigo velvet.
“No key,” she said.
“No. But I think that’s what it must be. It looks really old.” Ben turned it over, peering at the bottom. He tapped the underside once and then twice more.
The bottom swung open. A small key fell out, along with a piece of paper that fluttered to the floor. Jenny picked it up, holding it to the light to study it.
She shook her head. “It looks like the same language as all those other papers.”
“Wait!” Ben almost shouted as she lowered the paper. “Hold it up again.”
“What? What do you mean?”
“Just … ” He waved his hands around. “Hold the paper up to the light again. Like you did before.”
She sighed. “Okay, but I’m telling you, we’re not going to be able to read it.”
She lifted the paper, holding it to the light as her eyes skimmed the oddly shaped characters.
“Do you mind telling me what I’m looking for?” she asked from behind the paper.
“You aren’t looking for anything,” Ben said. She heard the excitement in his voice as he reached up, plucking the paper from her hands and turning it so she could see the other side. “I am.”
“What?” She peered at the paper. The ink was faded, the light dwindling fast in the attic as nightfall approached.
But she saw it, and she felt Ben’s excitement build inside her as the letters began to coalesce into actual words.
She met his eyes. “This side’s in English.”
He nodded. “Read what the top part says.”
She lowered her eyes back to the paper, reading aloud. “Instructions for Mesmerization must be followed exactly.” She shook her head, meeting his eyes. “Mesmerization? But that’s … isn’t that like … hypnosis?”
About the Author
Amanda Gray believes in magic and fantasy and possibilities. She is a team of two bestselling authors who live only miles apart but have never met in person. They talk on the phone and are the best of friends and between them have written more than a dozen novels and novellas and have had their work appear on television.
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