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  There. Fairly high up, too, which meant the tank was a little more than three-quarters full. He didn’t know exactly how much propane such mundane activities as using the stove actually consumed, but since they weren’t utilizing the hot water heaters at the moment, he guessed it should go a long way. Long enough, at any rate. It wasn’t as if the fuel needed to last through the winter.

  Because as much as he would have liked to linger here with Sarah for as long as proved necessary, Kamal knew he didn’t have forever. A few weeks earlier, not too long after the day that used to be Thanksgiving when there were still those alive to celebrate it, he’d been called to speak to Zahrias al-Harith, the leader of the djinn community in Taos.

  “I hope you don’t plan for this little experiment of yours to go on indefinitely,” Zahrias had said with a scowl. “Your games are not something the elders will smile upon.”

  “Oh, not indefinitely,” Kamal replied. “Just long enough for me to be sure.”

  “The other djinn here did not need anything close to that length of time in order to be ‘sure.’”

  Kamal could only lift his shoulders. What the other djinn did or did not do when it came to their Chosen was of little concern to him. If they wanted to be reckless with their futures, so be it. He did not intend to make that same mistake.

  “You have until the turn of the year, as the mortals reckoned it,” Zahrias told him. “No more. If you are not among us by then, I cannot swear to the safety of your Chosen, for you know it was never intended for you to live apart from the rest of us.”

  “I understand,” Kamal had said, and left Taos without feeling unduly burdened by the deadline Zahrias had imposed. Return to Taos with Sarah Wright by the turn of the year? That still gave him several weeks. Plenty of time.

  If it required even that long. He did not wish to have to hide his water use from Sarah forever. Perhaps he would need to come up with some kind of plausible explanation for why they suddenly had running water at the Lodge. It did not seem as though she was all that technically inclined, and so he could probably offer some sort of jury-rigged device to satisfy her curiosity without providing too many details.

  “We have a decent amount of propane,” he said, and while she didn’t exactly sag with relief, she did appear a little less tense. “More than three-quarters of the tank seems to be left, and since I have to think that these tanks probably lasted at least a week between refills, it should be enough for a good long while. It’s not as if the hotel is full of guests.”

  The half smile that had touched her full mouth faded abruptly. “No,” she said, “that it definitely isn’t. Anyway, let’s get inside. It’s freezing.”

  He wouldn’t argue with that. It wasn’t that he couldn’t tell how cold it was, only that the temperature had no real effect on him.

  They traipsed back across the grounds, into the welcome warmth of the lobby. Sarah shut the door, locking it behind them.

  After that was done, she looked back up at him. “Well, now that it’s safe to cook…how about some biscuits and eggs?”

  Cameron seemed to appreciate the breakfast she made for him — he ate every bit of the scrambled eggs, and had two biscuits, along with another cup of coffee. Thank God for the chickens, and the aplomb that allowed them to keep on laying serenely week after week, apocalypse or no. At first Sarah had thought of trying to move the chickens up to the hotel, maybe keeping them in the maintenance shed or one of the other outbuildings, but then she’d decided to let them stay where they were. They seemed content enough in their covered coops, although she still worried about what to do with them when the truly cold weather came.

  She didn’t have eggs all the time, mainly because she didn’t have a good way of storing them without refrigeration, but she’d gathered a half-dozen the day before as she made her rounds through the town. The best way she’d discovered to keep the eggs cool was to put them in a basket she hung from the eaves of the hotel; that way, she didn’t have to worry about any animals getting to them. She supposed a bear wouldn’t have any trouble reaching the basket, although maybe the bears were already hibernating. So far this winter had been unnaturally mild, but she didn’t know if the warmer-than-average temperatures would affect when the animals went into their winter sleep or not. Better to be safe.

  Anyway, she had to admit it felt good on a visceral level to watch Cam eat the food she’d prepared for him with a healthy appetite. And he didn’t complain about the lack of butter for his biscuits, or milk for his coffee. True, there was a decent supply of nondairy creamer in the pantry here, but she’d rather go without than put all those chemicals in her coffee. And although she’d put out a little basket of the nondairy containers, he didn’t seem inclined to use any of them, either.

  So there was something the two of them had in common. Such a little thing, and yet it made her feel slightly more relaxed about his presence here.

  “That was great,” he said, pushing his empty plate away from him. “Where do you keep the chickens? Somewhere on the hotel grounds?”

  “No,” she replied, then picked up both their dishes and set them on the counter next to the sink. Gone were the days when she could have simply turned on the tap to clean up, but later on she’d fill a bucket with water from the well and bring it in so she could wash their plates and forks and coffee mugs. “I didn’t really have a good place to put them, unless I wanted to do some serious remodeling. Besides, I was worried that moving the chickens might upset them, keep them from laying. So I just go around and gather what I need, then bring it back here.”

  “And the water?”

  “The hotel has its own well. But I have to pump it manually, which is why we’re on rations.”

  To her surprise, Cameron smiled at her comment. “I might be able to help with that. Do you have any solar panels around here?”

  “There are some here at the hotel, and there are houses around town that have them if you don’t want to mess with what’s already in place. Why? Are you a solar panel engineer or something?”

  “No, but I’ve worked with them a bit. I could probably figure out a way to get some hooked up to the well’s pump so we’d have running water. We’d have to be sparing with it, but it would be better than having to haul it manually from the well. And since the propane supply looks good, that means you’d have hot water again.”

  The mere thought of a hot shower, after all these weeks of tepid baths, was enough to send a shiver of anticipation through Sarah. Maybe some people would have taken offense at the way Cameron had casually begun to take over, but right then she didn’t care. Having to go it alone these past two months had been hard. Right then, she was glad to have someone willing to shoulder some of the burden.

  “Right down the street are some fancy vacation houses with solar setups,” she said. “Do you want to take a look?”

  “Sounds like a plan.”

  This time, they both paused to pull on their jackets before heading outside. Sarah led Cameron to the maintenance shed, where the golf cart she used to get around was plugged in, ready to go. Its charge wouldn’t last as long when hauling Cam’s weight as well as hers, but they didn’t have all that far to travel.

  “This way, I wouldn’t waste any gas,” she explained as she piloted the cart out of the shed and down one of the little access trails on the property. “There are abandoned cars all over town, and a gas station, but this just seemed simpler for getting around.”

  “Makes sense.” He was quiet for a moment, watching the hotel’s grounds give way to the narrow residential streets that bordered the property. “It’s hard to pump gas without electricity. I know there’s some kind of manual override to bypass the electrical systems at gas stations, but I have no idea how that works.”

  Unlike propane tanks and solar panels, apparently. Sarah didn’t comment, though. She was just glad that he had a solution to their water problem.

  Unlike her. For a moment, she felt a stir of irritation with herself, then
realized she needed to let it go. She’d done okay these past few months. It wasn’t as though she could really expect herself to turn into some kind of technical genius just because the apocalypse had rolled around and made such skills more important than ever.

  They came to one of the houses she had in mind, and she eased the cart down the steep driveway, hoping the little vehicle would have enough juice to get back up once they were done. She’d already foraged in this house, but had done so on foot because it was close enough to the hotel that it wasn’t any real burden to take back a few bags of supplies. Solar panels, on the other hand, were a heck of a lot bulkier.

  “They have some panels mounted on the roof,” she explained as Cam got out of the cart and began looking around. “But there’s also an array on the hillside right below the house.”

  “Show me,” he said, with such a note of command in his voice that she couldn’t help raising an eyebrow. However, she told herself that he was probably just eager to see the solar panels, figure out if they would work.

  “This way,” she replied, and headed toward the north side of the property so they could skirt the house itself and come out in the steep “yard” — really, not much more than patchy bare dirt with a few seedling pines to break up the monotony — to the west.

  Cam strode past her once he caught sight of the solar panels, a modest array of about ten of them, all two feet by three feet. Luckily, they weren’t so big that they wouldn’t fit in the back of the golf cart.

  Without speaking, he started inspecting the undersides of the panels, the conduit that must connect them to the house’s electrical grid. After a long moment, he seemed to nod to himself, then flipped open a panel at the back and began disconnecting the wires he found there.

  “Do you think they’ll work?” she asked.

  A nod, but Cameron didn’t glance up from his task. “I think so. Like I said, they won’t give us a lot of power, but it’s not as if we’re going to be running the air conditioning units or something like that. The well doesn’t need to draw a lot of energy.”

  “What about the refrigerator?”

  “I don’t know. We’ll have to see.”

  She experienced a small stab of disappointment at his reply, but tried to tell herself that having running water was more important than refrigeration. Because it was so cold now, she could keep perishables outside if she was worried about their freshness. Even during the day, high temperatures were barely hitting forty. Besides, she’d already lost the really important stuff — the meat and cheese and dairy — in the days right after the power failed. She’d had to grimly load all of it into plastic garbage bags, drive it out into the forest, and dump everything. Now the only thing she really had to worry about refrigerating was the eggs.

  Cameron’s fingers moved on the mounts that held the solar panels to their housings. Sarah couldn’t tell exactly what he was doing, but a minute or so later, he had one of them free. “Can you take this?” he asked. “It’s not too heavy.”

  She wanted to tell him that she was perfectly capable of carrying heavy objects, but getting snarky would serve no purpose. Instead, she nodded and took the solar panel from him, then hauled it across the yard and back up to where the electric cart waited. The panel did fit in the back…barely. By the time she was done, Cameron had a second panel loose. Since they seemed to have agreed upon a system, she lifted it in silence and again took it to the cart as her companion kept working. When he had the third panel freed, however, he picked it up himself and met her as she was coming back from the cart.

  “This should be enough for now,” he said. “No point in ripping up the whole yard if I can’t get any of this to work.”

  “All right.” Actually, that sounded like a great idea. Although no one could ever have accused her of being out of shape, carrying the heavy panels uphill in rough terrain wasn’t exactly a picnic. Better to find out whether Cam’s plan was at all practical before she spent all morning wearing herself out.

  They got in the cart and went back to the hotel, the little vehicle puttering along, clearly not happy about the extra burdens of the solar panels, not to mention a well-muscled six-foot-two man. Or maybe six foot three, Sarah mused as she drove around to the back of the hotel, getting them as close as the paths would allow to the site of the well. Cameron might not be a full foot taller than she, but since she was only five foot four, she thought he was pretty damn close to that.

  He picked up all the panels at once without showing any real sign of strain. So…strong, too. Tall, dark, and handsome.

  Oh, boy.

  Without speaking, she followed him to the well. It really didn’t look like all that much — a round metal manhole, a few oddly shaped metal pipes sticking out of the ground a few feet away.

  “I’ll just lay the panels flat for now,” Cameron said, kneeling on the cold, hard-packed earth as he pried up the well cover. “That won’t work in the long run — they need to be up off the ground. But again, there’s no point in building a frame for them if I can’t get them to play nice with the wiring in the well’s pump.” He set the heavy metal lid off to one side, then stuck his head inside the opening.

  “Do you see anything?” Sarah asked. She’d never actually lifted the well’s lid, worrying that if she started mucking around inside, she might really screw up something, or possibly contaminate the water. The manual pump was located some distance away, over by the maintenance shed, and so didn’t require her to work with the well itself. Anyway, with no electricity, there hadn’t been much point in messing with the well.

  “I see the pump. And I see the wiring harness.” He pulled his head out of the dark hole in the ground, pushing back his overlong hair. It wasn’t quite long enough to tie back into a ponytail, so Sarah could see why it might get in the way.

  For some reason, though, all she really wanted was to run her hands through that hair. Trying to blink that image out of her mind, she said, “And that means…?”

  “It means I need some tools.” He got to his feet and brushed at the dirty knees of his jeans.

  “There are tools in the maintenance shed. I can go get them — ”

  “No, it’s better if I can just go get what I need. This might take a while, so there’s no point in you standing around out here in the cold.”

  “I don’t mind.”

  “But I do.” He flashed her a quick grin, the kind of smile that could melt kneecaps at fifty paces. “Don’t worry — I’ll yell if I need you.”

  “All right,” she said reluctantly. “If you need anything — ”

  “I’ll call.”

  “Okay.” She offered him a smile of her own, although she doubted hers was quite as brilliant as the grin he’d given her just a moment earlier. As she turned to go back into the hotel, she saw him head off toward the maintenance shed, his head high, confident.

  Sarah supposed she’d see soon enough whether that confidence was at all misplaced.

  Chapter Five

  Of course he wasn’t really going to hook up the solar panels to the wiring harness. Kamal just had to make it look as if he had. It was his djinn powers that would actually set the water flowing again on the property.

  Since he’d made sure that Sarah wouldn’t look at his work too closely, he pulled some wires up to the solar panels, then wrapped them with black electrical tape. Nothing that would fool an expert, or even a halfway knowledgeable hobbyist, but good enough. As he worked, the skies overhead began to lower, growing darker, heavier. Because his element was water, he could sense the moisture in those clouds, the gathering storm. The season might have been mild so far, but he was certain that snow was on its way.

  Well, let it snow. He and Sarah had done their exploring for the day, and could retreat inside where it was warm and safe. That suited him well enough, because then he could spend more time in close proximity to her. He was pleased by the way she’d worked with him this morning, carrying the heavy loads of those solar panels with not one word of
complaint. Then again, after the past few months, she’d probably gotten used to doing what she needed to in order to survive.

  He returned the tools to the maintenance shed, then began to walk back toward the hotel. As he went, the first fat flakes of snow began to fall, so light and insubstantial it hardly seemed they could be formed of water, must instead be drifting down from some celestial feather bed. They’d barely dusted his hair and shoulders before he was safely inside in the relative warmth of the Lodge’s kitchen. A faint trace of heat remained from the breakfast Sarah had prepared earlier, although he knew the lobby must be more comfortable. He could smell the wood smoke from here.

  Sarah was standing by the fireplace, a heavy log in one hand. At his approach, she set it down and gave him an expectant glance. “How did it go?”

  “Come see for yourself.”

  Her head tilted slightly to one side, but she didn’t argue. In silence, she followed him into the kitchen. Her expression was skeptical — one eyebrow at a slight tilt, mouth not quite pursed.

  Very well. He knew she had every reason to doubt him, but he also knew something she didn’t.

  He reached over to the faucet and turned the tap. Water began to pour out, filling the pitcher he’d set there in preparation for this moment.

  Sarah’s eyes widened, startlingly blue. “Oh, my God! You did it!” Clearly not skeptical now, she hurried over to the sink and put a finger under the tap, as though she still had to feel the water for herself to believe that it really was flowing, wasn’t just a product of her imagination.

  “Well, I don’t know how much of a charge the panels are going to get this morning. It’s started to snow. So it’s probably better to play it safe.” He shut off the tap before turning to face her.

 
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