“Thorns?” Etta’s brows knitted together. Not Ironwoods?
She didn’t recognize the sounds at first, the odd rumbles and creaks, but the vibrations under her hand—those, she understood. The whole structure of scaffolding was being shoved to the left by the wind, leaning, until she heard a snap and felt something clip her bad shoulder as it fell behind her.
Then she was falling, too.
IT HAPPENED TOO FAST FOR ETTA TO EVEN SCREAM. One moment she was falling; the next, her arm was caught and yanked in its socket as two hands closed around her wrist and dragged her toward the pale exterior of the house. Her cheek slammed against the rough stone, and she squeezed her eyes shut as the scaffolding began to shudder, folding in on itself and collapsing down onto the old-fashioned cars parked on the street below.
“Reach up, will you?” the young man said, the words strained. Etta shook her head. Her wounded shoulder was too stiff, and the whole length of it, from neck to fingertip, felt like it was filled with scorching, sunbaked sand.
Instead, he released her wrist with one hand and reached down to grab her nightgown. There was a loud grunt overhead as he heaved her up. Etta’s feet scrabbled against the wall. She didn’t breathe again until her elbows were braced on the windowsill. Then she was spilling through it, onto the young man and the carpet below.
She rolled off him and onto her back as soon as she landed. Her whole body sang with pain and adrenaline, and it was several long moments before her heart steadied enough for Etta to hear anything over its frantic rhythm.
“Well, that was exciting. I’ve always wanted to rescue a damsel in distress, and you’ve given me twice the fun on that front.”
Etta cracked open an eye, turning her head toward the voice. Next to her, propped up on his elbow, the young man was making an appraising, appreciative study of her. She pushed herself upright and scooted back against the desk to put some much-needed distance between them.
He was young—her age, or a few years older, with short, chestnut-colored dark hair brightened by streaks of red. It was mussed to the point of standing on end, and Etta had the horrifying realization that she really had gripped it for leverage when she’d tumbled back into the house. His shirt was open at the collar and inside out, as if he’d picked it up and thrown it on without a second look. He scratched at the shadow of scruff along his jaw, studying her with piercing light blue eyes that warmed with some unspoken joke.
His voice…those eyes.
Etta pulled herself to her feet, but her path was blocked by the desk. He’d claimed they were with the Thorns, which could only be true if he’d defected from Cyrus Ironwood’s ranks and joined theirs. Or if he was a prisoner, same as her.
Or it would make him a liar. But if this was the truth, then…Etta was exactly where she needed to be.
With the people who had stolen the astrolabe from her.
“I suppose you gave me a bit of a fright, I can be man enough to admit that—”
“Where am I?” she asked, interrupting him.
He seemed startled by her ability to speak, but he stood and retrieved a glass of some amber liquid from a corner table for her. “You sound as terrible as you look, kiddo. Have a sip.”
She stared at it.
“Oh, you’re no fun,” he said with a little pout. “I suppose you’ll want water instead. Wait here and be quiet—can’t raise the alarm just yet, can we?”
Etta wasn’t sure what that meant, but she complied all the same, watching as the young man walked to the door and stuck his head out into the hall.
“You, there—yes, you—bring me a glass of water. And don’t bloody well spit in it this time—you honestly think I’m not well versed enough in that fine art to notice?”
The response was immediate and irritated. “I’m not your damned servant.”
So there are guards after all. The only question was whether they were protecting him, or protecting themselves from him.
“I do believe the official decree from your master and commander was, ‘Give the dear boy what he wants.’ This dear boy wants water. And make it snappy. Pep in your step and all that. Thanks, old chum.”
Etta’s lip curled back. Definitely an Ironwood. And, by the sound of it, definitely working with the Thorns.
“I’m not your—” The young man shut the door on the response and leaned back against it with a pleased little smirk.
“They’re such a serious bunch that it’s all too easy to rile them up,” he whispered to her with a wink. “You and I will have the best fun together now that you’re here.”
She glared back. Unlikely.
After a moment the door popped open and a hand thrust itself in with a glass of cloudy-looking water. The instant the young man took it, the door slammed shut. This time, Etta heard the lock click from the outside.
“You use your old bathwater?” the young man shouted through the wood.
“You’d be so lucky!” came the reply.
He was still muttering as he crossed the room again and handed it to her. It was tinged a putrid brown, with a few suspicious particles floating in it.
Seeing her face, he said, “Sorry, the water situation is none too good after the earthquake, as you can imagine. No one’s gotten sick from it.” And then, after she’d already taken a sip, he added, “Yet.”
The water did have an odd taste—a little metallic, maybe, a little dirty too—but she downed it in two quick gulps. Her hands and arms were still trembling as they tried to recover from the strain.
“Where am I?” she demanded. “When?”
“San Francisco,” he said. “October 12, 1906. You’ve been out a number of days….”
Etta’s heels seemed to sink further into the rug as the weight of his words slammed into her. Thirteen days. She’d lost thirteen days. Nicholas could be anywhere. Sophia could be anywhere. And the astrolabe…
“We were briefly acquainted in the middle of the Texas desert, just after you were spat out by a passage. You might remember?”
“Are you looking for a thank-you?” Etta asked.
“Don’t I deserve one? You are damn lucky we were orphaned through the same passage. I saved you from both the nearby guardian and the coyotes circling nearby, waiting for you to croak. In fact, I’d like to think that if it weren’t for me, the boss man would be lowering your tattered remains into the ground.”