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Authors: AJ Krafton,Ash Krafton

The Heartbeat Thief (21 page)

BOOK: The Heartbeat Thief
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If he’d meant to frighten her about the locals, he’d succeeded.

Having avoided large groups of people since her days in London, she neither liked crowds nor trusted them. However, ten minutes into service and all thoughts of gruesome horror had disappeared as quickly as the ale. The locals adored her.

They were a rough-hewn crowd, farmers and smiths and simple folk who took their meal with the company they shared. Some were hired laborers with no family of their own waiting with supper at home; others were young couples who gathered at the inn for repast. Provence in 1921 seemed a land apart from time, casual and relaxed in their country manners. Good natured and roaringly boisterous, they welcomed Senza.

Their lingering gazes and effluent friendliness was simply more of the same she’d endured all her life. She smiled and blushed and fluttered coquettish eyes. Her beauty was a charm. This was the reason she had chosen this half-life.

And a smile from a farmer was the same as a smile from a lord’s son, when it came down to it. What she didn’t notice, at first, however, were the tiny smiles from Gehring, whose eyes never forsook her. He sat on the shadowed steps and watched over her. She remained nonchalant, pretending not to notice.

Inside, a tiny glow of happiness. Gehring was charming and sweet and the way his eyes followed her felt nearly tangible.

It was a comfort, one she hadn’t known for many, many years.

By the next evening, news of the new barmaid had spread and the house was doubled as folk came out to see the new face. The innkeeper had to scramble in the kitchen, cutting vegetables to stretch the stew.

The third night drew so large a crowd that late-comers had to stand at the bar and settle for a small plate of gravy bread. Considering the woman behind the bar, those latecomers considered themselves the luckiest in the house.

Senza had a smile and a quip and a laugh for each of them. The innkeeper stood near the hearth, raising his glass to her at intervals with a curt nod. She was a beauty, a jewel that kept the tavern full. She was coveted and adored and if she lay her hands on a patron’s wrist or their shoulder, it elicited whistles and envious looks from the others while leaving the recipient looking slightly dazed.

“Star struck,” they would tease, aiming a good-natured elbow to the ribs. The affected man would recover and the evening would go on. The happy patrons left after midnight, tired, full of ale and hearth bread, and feeling as if they’d gazed at an angel all evening.

The innkeeper was ecstatic and he knew who to thank. After bolting the door and putting up the chairs, he brought out two bowls he’d kept in reserve and beckoned to Senza. “Sit, girl.”

Senza did as he bade, not even wishing to correct his impression of her age. The master himself looked a time-worn fifty, maybe sixty years young, and she doubted he’d believe her claim to be old enough to be his mother.

As if she’d tell him. A lady never revealed her age, especially if she would be held up for comparison.

Or, worse still, witchcraft. Superstition ran rampant in the simpler ruralities.

Wiping her hands on her apron, she tugged loose the strings and pulled it over her head. She folded it into a tidy square and left it on the bar before sitting demurely across from him.

“You might as well come, too, Gehring.” The innkeeper eyed the boy. “We need to discuss arrangements.”

“Sir.”

“Gehring here has worked in my stable since he was old enough to swing a rake. I don’t think you’ve ever seen this kind of business, have you, boy?”

He bore the term “boy” with a good-natured shake of his head. “No, sir.”

“Which makes me think that either a lifetime of toiling in the kitchen has yielded a culinary prodigy, or…” The master tipped a nod at Senza. “They come for the ambience.”

Innkeeper leaned over his plate and shoveled up a mouthful of potato. Chewing thoughtfully, he pulled a silly face and nodded. “It’s you,
cher
,” he said with a laugh. “Definitely you.”

“You are too kind.” She lowered her eyes and dipped her head. “My grandmother hosted large dinner parties when I was a girl. I just pretend to be her. People loved her.”

“And I think they love you, too,
cher
. Any way.” He shook a spoon at her bowl. “Good work today. Eat and go on up to bed. And don’t worry about the kitchen fire. I’ll start it tomorrow. You deserve a morning off. But I hope you won’t get used to it.”

He lowered his voice in mock warning. “I hope for just the opposite, for a long time to come.”

Senza’s face glowed from the sentiment, far from elegant yet all the more wonderful for the substance. He’d offered her a place here. For a long time to come.

For the first time in a long while, time didn’t feel like so great a nuisance.

 

The spring passed and the inn resumed a bit of the former glory of which the master spoke so often. They had regular tenants, now, merchants and travelers who stopped on their way from one city to another. The menu improved, as well, when the inn became able to support an actual cook. Mrs. Depeardeaux took the room next to Senza’s and served as kitchen matron as well as night guard, as more than one guest thought themselves superior enough to try their luck with the maid.

Senza would lie in bed, covering her mouth to hide her laughter while listening to Mrs. Depeardeaux’s stern rebuttals. The girl didn’t need a protector. She enjoyed listening to Madame’s creative threats all the same.

One night, a particularly amusing interception stirred Senza from her bed. Unable to lie still again, she perched at the window, admiring the night air and the play of moonlight upon the grass, the roof of the barn close by.

As her eyes adjusted to the inky darkness, the shadows thinned, allowing her to see details in the dark. The open window of the hayloft, the glint of moonlight on the tack and the hay forks and the shock of bright blonde hair. Gehring, asleep on his pallet in the loft. His sleeping form made her smile. So innocent, so kind.

During the day, she’d often catch him looking. He’d busy himself with some odd fidgeting. But the fidgeting only lasted so long. He always took another look.

And she always looked back.

Asleep now, he’d never notice her taking her own long looks. It was her turn.

And she took her time.

She counted his breaths. She noted his arm curled under his head, an uncomfortable pillow. He shifted and rolled, as if his sleep was far from restful. When he sat up, looking around, the moonlight illuminated him from behind, an eerie outline of lunar glow.

And he looked back at her.

She barely could make out his features; she couldn’t see his expression. But they gazed at each other for several minutes, unabashedly. It was their stolen moment. It wouldn’t be tarnished or interrupted or evaluated. They simply looked at each other and Senza knew that it was a moment to be treasured.

After a while, he ducked his head and raised a hand as if to bid her goodnight. Lying down once more, he rolled away, hooking his arm beneath his head once more. Senza took a last look and withdrew from the window, creeping back into her bed.

Sleep would not come. Senza didn’t mind. That moment in itself was dream enough for a night.

 

Gehring was different after that.

Wonderfully different.

Mrs. Depeardeaux must have noticed the change as well, and seemed eager to nudge it along in the right direction. “I’ve too much to do in this kitchen today,
mademoiselle
Senza. Here’s the list. Find the boy and have him ready the cart. Go on, now.”

Carefully, she stilled the expression from her face. “Yes,
madame
.”

Taking the supply order, she went out into the yard, shielding the sun from her eyes, searching for Gehring. The barn. He must be there. Approaching the open doors, she heard the sounds of scraping and thumping from within.

Senza peered in. “Hello? Gehring, are you here—”

Footsteps overhead. She turned, watching the ceiling, trying to locate the sound? Without warning, the lanky boy dropped from the overhead rafter, dangling by his hands.

Senza jumped back, startled and delighted.

He let go of the rafter, landing easily as a cat. He shook his head, sending hay and dust scattering. His hair tumbled into his eyes, as light as a toddler’s, white blonde in the morning sunlight. And those eyes—

Here, outside in the golden light, she saw him as she never had before. His eyes were an impossible shade of blue. It was like he held the sky, the endless blue of a cloudless September afternoon, carried on a clear breeze that stole her breath.

“Are you all right,
cher
?” He reached out to steady her.

She glanced down at his outstretched hand and could see the pulse in his wrist. Tempting, calling, awakening the primal urges within her.

Quickly, she regained her feet and backed out of reach, safely out of reach. His simple beauty had weakened her, his vitality too strong a call to ignore. And that ceaseless pounding, the hypnotic rhythm… “Um,
madame
said…she said…”

He tilted his head and paced toward her. “
Oui
, she said…?”

Senza backed up another step. “You and I are to go to market. Together.”

“Did she say that?” He tilted his head, his hair sliding over his blue, blue eyes.

She swallowed hard and wagged her fingers in the general direction of the stable yard. “And you should get the cart ready.”

“Oh, that’s too bad. The cart…it is broken.”

“Broken?” She couldn’t help but sound deflated. “Really?”


Oui
. So, come.”

“But, I don’t understand. If the cart is broken…”


Oui
, the cart is broken.” He disappeared into a stall.

She trailed behind him.

In the stall, he stood next to the master’s quarter horse, throwing heavy blankets over its back. “The horse, however, is not.”

He knickered and led the horse from the barn, sprinting easily onto its back before holding out his hand to Senza.

Eyeing his wrist, the thumping pulse, she carefully wrapped her hand and forearm in her shawl before reaching up to him. Closing her eyes and holding her breath, she poured all her resolve into ignoring the beat of his heart.

Suddenly, he pulled her up, spun her around, and settled her in the space of an eye blink. It loosened a laugh from her throat and she gazed up at him.

The smile on his face made her think he was trying to count the beats of her own heart.

They rode together, she sitting sidesaddle in front of him, his arms loosely around her. Along the way, the villagers nodded at them knowingly, waving and greeting them as they passed.

It would be the first of many a perfect day.

Senza enjoyed these day trips, when they talked and strolled through the market. The farmers were not immune to her charms and her shopping list always was accomplished quickly. Under budget, too, as the merchants hoped to curry favor with her. Gehring remained aloof enough so as not to interfere; a serving boy would not interrupt their bargaining where a lover would. He’d murmur obediently and accept her parcels before moving to the next stall, ready to begin the dance again.

They always stopped for a quick meal near a bright brook along the road. Sprawled in the grass amongst the wild flowers, they shared bread and cheese and small flasks of watered wine. When Gehring laughed, he would tip back his head, throat bobbing in the most delightful way.

When he wasn’t laughing, he was holding her with his gaze, a careful cradle of gentleness. Senza basked in his regard, and little by little she forgot why she had tried so hard to shun the company of others, and very nearly forgot her past.

It was easy to believe in
now
, the simple perfection of a single moment, here with him.

So comfortable was she in his presence that the constant guard she maintained began to thin. It was nice, being to talk freely and not worry about propriety or secrets. She had no past here in Provence—only that which she invented for herself, and this one had no lost parents, no Whitechapel…and no Knell.

BOOK: The Heartbeat Thief
13.4Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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