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She hopes to one day circumnavigate the world by dirigible.
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Here is a short sample from the book:
Gare du Nord, Paris, 1896
“In my vest.”
“Visas ? ”
“Also in my vest, sir.”
“In my walking case.”
“Are you certain?”
“Scopolamine ? ”
“What?” Aline asked, pausing on the train platform, thrown by the question.
“Scopolamine,” Professor Romanov insisted, not breaking his stride. “Motion sickness tablets. You know how your stomach was on the airship crossing the channel. Do tell me you purchased them as I suggested.”
Suggested? More like ordered. But it was one order she’d forgotten in the chaos of the last week. She was surprised he remembered. She gritted her teeth and hurried to keep pace with Romanov’s long, loping stride.
“They are also in my case,” she lied.
He pinned her with his peculiar, wolf-like amber eyes over his shoulder. Damn, she thought.
He didn’t believe her. The Professor had the uncanny ability to spot a lie from a mile away. She was rarely able to successfully dissemble around him. And even though his head was turned towards her, he avoided running into the throng of people crowding the platform. They parted like the Red Sea for him.
Not only was he an imposing figure in his long, dark, velvet lined cloak, but he was also preceded by his mute, Weldling valet, Fyodor, who controlled the leashes of Romanov’s pair of Russian wolfhounds, Ilya and Ikaterina, who, with their unnerving mechanical eyes, were also more automaton than animal. No one in their right mind wanted to go near such a fearsome trio of beasts.
But as usual, by the time it was her turn to cut through, the crowd had settled in again, jostling her elbows, nearly knocking the heavy load of books and documents from her arms. She had to push up her slipping spectacles with the edge of her wireless tickertext and break into a trot to keep pace.
As usual, she felt like the tiny bird that was her namesake, fluttering to stay abreast of an eagle. Crowds parted for Romanov.
They didn’t even see her.
When they finally reached their train car, she was winded, her spectacles were perched precariously at the end of her nose, and her arms were on fire from the strain of her burdens. A typical day, really, in the life of Professor Romanov’s secretary. But usually she was in London enduring the constant demands of her employer.
They might as well have been in London, she thought wryly as she mounted the steps into the train carriage ahead of an impatient Romanov. They had been a week in Paris – Paris! – and she’d not seen anything but manuscripts, notes, and old, stodgy academics the entire time.
She’d hoped to see some of the city, as it was her first time on the Continent, but she should have known the Professor wouldn’t allow her any free time, no matter what he’d claimed back in London.
Now he was cutting the trip short and rushing them back to London without explanation. If she hadn’t witnessed the Professor receiving the mysterious tickertext for herself last night, she would half- suspect he was returning early just to vex her.
Well, he wouldn’t be doing that much longer. Little did he know she’d planned on using this trip as a farewell gesture, though she suspected “gestures” were lost on the Professor. She’d aimed several crude ones at the Professor’s back over her five years of employment, to little effect. She doubted he’d even care when she resigned. Why she was so nervous about telling him was quite beyond her powers of self- introspection.
She tripped on her hem – of course – and Romanov caught her under her arm and practically tossed her the rest of the way up the stairs. She held back a retort and kept moving forward. He remained on her heels, causing her to increase her already frantic pace, and continued to rattle off his list.
“When you get back to London, you must deliver the manuscript to my publisher,” he said. “Do you have the new article?”
“Also in my case.”
“Along with the scopolamine?” he asked archly.
“I have the article, sir,” she said as evenly as she could through gritted teeth.
“Good. Proofread it first thing.”
“But sir, it is in Russian.”
“Your Russian is nearly flawless now. Written anyway. Can’t speak it worth a damn, of course…”
She tossed him a look over her shoulder – a scowl – but it was less than successful, as she bumped into a door handle in front of her and pitched forward.
This time Romanov caught her around the waist. She was aware of iron strength, warm male, the smell of that spicy, exotic scent unique to Romanov she’d yet to identify in the five years of her tenure as his private secretary.
She’d ceased to be ruffled by these sorts of physical contacts. She stumbled quite regularly trying to keep up with him. She wasn’t that short. But he was just so much taller than most people, male or female, and his legs were so much longer, that he tended to cover a distance equal to three of her strides.
Though she could detect no outward signs of Welding enhancement aside from his Iron Necklace – a breathing apparatus resembling a metal band, ubiquitous on nearly everyone over sixteen – she sometimes doubted he was wholly human. She had to practically run to keep up with him, and it didn’t help that she had two left feet. He was constantly catching her, pulling her along as if she were a clumsy child, never breaking stride or his train of thought.
She often found herself scribbling notes mid-stumble, certain he would right her before she hit the floor.
He didn’t break stride now. He practically carried her into their berth with the unfortunately placed door handle, Fyodor and the hellhounds on their heels. Once inside, she tried to shake him off and stand on her own two feet.
After giving him one last glare, she found her seat and pulled out her old-fashioned notepad and pen as Romanov sprawled out on the bench opposite her, rattling off a letter to a French colleague.
Ilya jumped on the seat next to her, plopped his large head in her lap, and began to drool on her skirts. Ignoring the kaleidoscopic machinery of Ilya’s enhanced eyes, which never failed to disconcert her, she balanced her notes against the dog’s ear and continued to scribble.
When her spectacles threatened to fall off her nose, Romanov reached over and pushed them up for her with one of his long, beautiful fingers, continuing to dictate the letter.
That, too, was a common practice between them, as her hands never seemed to be unoccupied around him. She sighed inwardly. They were way too comfortable in their dysfunction, which was another good reason she was jumping ship and marrying Charlie. Once they were back in London, she was giving Romanov her two weeks’ notice, just as she’d promised Charlie.
After the letter was done, Romanov began to rattle off other items of business he wanted her to take care of in London. Around the thirtieth command, her overtaxed brain began to put the pieces together at last, and her heart sank.
“You’re not returning with us,” she stated.
“I would think that obvious.”
She extracted her calendar from her case and thumbed to the schedule for the upcoming week.
“But you have a meeting with the publishers in a week, an interview at Pentonville Prison, an appointment with Inspector Drexler…”
“Cancel all of my engagements,” he said swiftly. “For the next fortnight.”
She guffawed, which caused Ilya to grumble and her spectacles to slope down her nose again. “But sir…”
He waved an elegantly gloved hand through the air. “Cancel them, Finch.”
She glanced at the silent, brooding Fyodor, who just shrugged and turned his attention back to his newspaper. As usual, Fyodor was no help. She’d never figured out what Fyodor did besides lurk about looking scary. A blond, Viking-sized veteran of the Crimean War, his left side was nearly entirely automated.
The Russian Abominable Soldiers had been among the first experiments in human Welding, but their particular technology, which had proven so deadly on the Crimean Front, had been forbidden after the war. His rough-hewn ironwork looked bulky and antiquated to modern sensibilities, but it did its job, enhancing his strength and his life span. The latter result was one not able to be duplicated by succeeding generations of Welders.
The Iron Necklace may have saved Europe from the deadly pollution of the Steam Revolution, but it didn’t seem to prolong people’s life spans significantly. Nor did the other Welding enhancements that had become so popular these days, despite what was advertised.
Fyodor had entered the Crimean War a young man of twenty. Forty-three years later, he didn’t look a day over forty. Not many of his kind had survived the war, nor were they entirely accepted by society, perhaps in large part because of their unnatural life spans. Being a Weldling was one thing, but being an Abominable Soldier was quite another.
And Fyodor was Russian, living in London. Needless to say, he was given a wide berth. Not that he was at all scary, once one got to know him. The first time she’d beaten him at poker, he’d smiled at her instead of ripping off her arms, as she’d initially feared.
He was, at heart, a soft touch.
And he had about the same fashion sense as Aline herself did. There was no way he was a valet to Romanov, whose sartorial elegance was legendary. When the Professor went out for the night, he usually made Aline tie his neck cloth.
If the Professor thought she was his best option on that front, she could only imagine the mess Fyodor made when he attempted a straight knot with that bulky mechanical hand of his.
She suspected Fyodor aided Romanov in the part of his life Aline was not supposed to know about. And she didn’t, not really. All she knew was that the two of them always took mysterious trips abroad, sometimes for months on end. And when they came back there was a new darkness in both of their eyes.
The Professor was more than a criminologist, of that she was certain.
They would never tell her what was going on now. She’d tried for five years to figure out the Professor’s secrets, as she could not help her natural curiosity. But her discreet snooping never yielded anything. Attempting to understand Professor Romanov was like trying to squeeze blood from a stone. He frustrated her like no other.
And she refused to care this time. The Professor, Fyodor, and the rest of Romanov’s peculiar entourage would soon cease to be her problem.
She was marrying Charlie, honeymooning in the Sahara, and living a normal, respectable life, free of murder investigations, late-night tickertexts, and hellhounds.
She was going to write more, have children, and perhaps plant a garden. In a seaside cottage, like the little one in the Outer Hebrides she’d lived in with her parents, where Romanov would never venture – and far away from the temptations of the East End gambling circuit, her personal forbidden fruit.
She was going to have to give her two weeks’ notice now, before they reached Calais. She was not going to wait until he returned from his trip. She sucked in a steadying breath and released it, preparing to deliver her news, though for some reason the words stuck in her throat.
She couldn’t fathom why, when she’d dreamed of this moment for five years.
“You may have your usual chambers at the Mayfair townhouse,” Romanov continued before she could work up enough momentum to speak.
She stifled a sigh of annoyance. When he and Fyodor went on his mysterious trips, he always required her to stay at his London residence whenever he left behind the hellhounds. He seemed to think she was the only one on his retainer who could halfway control them.
“You’re not taking the he – I mean, Ilya and Ikaterina, with you?”
“No. Fyodor is coming with me. The pups are staying.”
Pups. She always thought this the oddest word to be coming from Romanov’s elegant lips. An odd and inappropriate label for two of the most gigantic, ill-behaved mongrels she had ever encountered. But he never called those beasts of his anything else.
“Is that an inconvenience, Finch?” he asked in that teasing manner of his he employed when he sensed her rebellion.
She leaned back in her seat, pushing her spectacles back into place with the end of her pen, and glared at her employer. He lounged on the seat across from her, looking quite comfortable as always, stroking Ikaterina’s muzzle with one hand, his intent gaze settled in her direction.
And as always, he looked fantastic. Broad-shouldered and thin-waisted, built like an athlete, not a head doctor. And dressed like a Russian tsar. Beneath his cloak, he wore a stylish chocolate velvet jacket cut tight at the waist and belling out in a bizarre, un-English manner, buff-colored trousers that seemed to fit his over-long, well-muscled legs like a second skin, and tall, foreign-looking riding boots.
She, on the other hand, was quite uncomfortable, crammed against her case on the one side, and crushed by Ilya’s weight on the other, afraid to move lest the beast growl at her again. And she had a giant ink stain on the bodice of her mud-colored gown, which the Professor could plainly see.
She’d almost call the stain an improvement, since the gown, serviceable though it may be, was perhaps the ugliest gown ever to exist in the world. But the stain was directly over one of her … well, unmentionable parts. It was embarrassing to say the least. She would have tugged her jacket over the stain, but Ilya was sitting on it, and she didn’t want to risk the hellhound’s wrath.
The sides of the Professor’s devilish lips twisted up at the ends as he surveyed her, as if knowing precisely how uncomfortable she was and how inconvenient he was being.
You don’t have plans, do you, Finch? Some elaborate holiday planned in the next fortnight?”
She narrowed her eyes slightly. She was vexed, but determined not to show it. She didn’t care to be
reminded how little of a life she had outside his orbit. But that was all about to change.
As soon as she worked up the nerve to break her news to him.
“Why the sudden trip?” she inquired, ignoring his question, postponing her resignation.
His slight smile faded, and his yellow-amber eyes went dull. It was unusual for him to display even a glimmer of real emotion. Yet, ever since he’d received the mysterious tickertext late last night, which was the catalyst for their abrupt departure from Paris, he’d been acting quite peculiar.
She’d assumed it was from Scotland Yard, calling him home to consult on a new case, but that couldn’t be it, since he wasn’t returning with her.
“It’s personal business,” he answered.
She pursed her lips, but said nothing, fighting back her rising curiosity. When it came to Romanov’s “personal business”, he never revealed anything. And never took her with him.
Weary, annoyed, she took off her spectacles and pinched the bridge of her nose.
“Have I given you a headache, Finch?”
“Of course not,” she lied.
His lips quirked again. “Good. Because I need you in top form. No one else can manage the pups like you.”
She suppressed a snort. The “pups” managed her, not the other way around. How he’d gotten it into his head that the hellhounds obeyed her, much less liked her, was a mystery.
“Sir, I have something to tell you …”
“I want you to meet with the publishers as well, Finch,” he continued, ignoring her.
She looked up at him, startled. “Me, sir?”
“I trust you to argue my case, should it come to that. Unless you feel the meeting is beyond your range.”
Was he deliberately trying to provoke her? She’d been an independent woman since she was twelve years old. If she seemed like a wilting violet to him, it was only because she kept a firm leash on her tongue around him – most of the time, at least.
Besides, she had publishers of her own that she managed quite well, thank you very much, though this was her own secret.
“I think I shall survive,” she said stiffly.
“Good. I wish you to manage as much of my affairs as you can in my absence.” He reached into his vest pocket and withdrew a handwritten letter. He handed it to her. She had to grit her teeth and pinch her wrist to keep from rolling her eyes when she saw the letter’s recipient.
Luciana Luclair. The mistress.
“Give this to her personally. As well as any trinket you think appropriate.” He waved his hand in a vague gesture, as if to say it was of no concern to him.
“Appropriate as in, a token of farewell,” she said flatly.
“Precisely.” He betrayed not a glimmer of regard or remorse for breaking with – or, more precisely, having her break with – his mistress. Not that The Luclair, as Aline secretly called her, deserved the courtesy, horrible harridan!
She was relieved, actually, that she would not be subject to any more of the opera singer’s theatrical outbursts at Romanov’s office. Somehow Romanov always managed to be “away” when The Luclair came hunting him.
At least he’d taken the time to hand-write a letter, even if he was making her do the dirty work. He had broken things off by tickertext with his last mistress. Low, even for him. The Professor seduced and discarded women with a cold-bloodedness that left Aline feeling chilled.
If not for witnessing first-hand his love for his so-called pups, and the closeness he shared with Fyodor, Aline could almost believe Professor Romanov had no heart.
She studied his wolf eyes and sensuous lips critically. She knew him too well to be taken in by his good looks, as other women were. Thank God she had more sense than to ever become Romanov’s mistress.
She snapped her attention back to her notes, feeling the blush steal over her cheeks.
As if that were even a possibility! As if she would even consider…! And as if he would ever…! She didn’t find him attractive in the least, no, not in the least! He was demanding, impatient, and interacted with lesser mortals – that is, everyone but himself – as if they were scientific specimens under his microscope.
Of course, he was without a doubt quite brilliant and could afford to behave however he wanted. She read his impenetrable work for a living. But he was also insufferable; she’d gleaned that within a few seconds of being in his company five years ago. Brilliant, insufferable, and…
Well, it would be foolish to try and deny it. He was truly, devilishly handsome. He had an unaffectedly aristocratic mien, an animal-like grace. He was like some prince – or villain – definitely a villain – out of a fairy tale, with austere features, aquiline nose, and those strange yellow eyes. There was a compelling, exotic slant at the corners of those eyes, and his skin was a rich, burnished, very un-English olive.
And his hair.
Thick, curling and black with just a dusting of gray at the temples. Even she had to concede he had magnificent hair, but she’d die before she admitted it. He was used to women swooning over his exotic good looks, but she would never give him the satisfaction. He was too insufferable, and she was too sensible to behave like some ninny simply because the Professor happened to be easy on the eyes.
And, besides, she was getting married to Charlie Netherfield, who was as dependable, steady and accommodating as the Professor was arrogant and demanding.
And if he wasn’t as handsome as Romanov, he was quite acceptably attractive.
“What are you thinking, Finch?” Romanov inquired, his bored eyes now lighting with interest as he observed her red face.
“You don’t want to know,” she murmured.
His eyes narrowed, as if he wasn’t sure about that.
She squirmed under his scrutiny and once again attempted to break her news about resigning and Charlie. She was grudgingly willing to give him these final two weeks of hellhounds and mistresses. After that, she was out the door.
“Professor, I’ve something to tell you, and it’s rather urgent …”
He held up his hand, cutting her off, and extracted his pocket watch from his waistcoat. At the same time, as if on cue, the steam train began to slow down. He gave Ikaterina one last caress, then stood up, pocketing his watch, and straightening his already immaculate clothes.
“Your news will have to wait, Finch. My transport has arrived.” He signaled to Fyodor, who also stood, grabbing up two cases and exiting the cabin.
Flummoxed, Aline glanced out the window. They were in the middle of the countryside, not a station in sight. A herd of cattle grazed in the distance, but something suddenly startled them, sending their bulky forms scattering away from the train.
She could see a few passengers hanging out the window staring up into the sky at something she could not see. But she could certainly hear its unique sonic hum, and see its shadow, a giant oblong shape cutting across the rolling green hills above the train.
She turned back to the Professor, dumbstruck.
“By transport, you mean the illegal dirigible hovering above us?” she asked as calmly as she could.
He quirked his brow. “Slightly illegal, Finch. A wonderful way to travel. I was tempted to take you with me on this particular excursion, since you had made it this far, but I know how sensitive your stomach is, even on the airship across the channel. A dirigible is not so tame a conveyance.”
Her stomach churned just at the thought. She’d felt as if she might die when she’d crossed the channel a week ago, losing, it seemed, every breakfast, lunch and dinner she’d ever eaten over the edge of the airship while the Professor held back her hair.
It was not something she looked forward to repeating.
A dirigible, a smaller, swifter, and less stable derivative of the airship, with its giant propellers and wings – and tendency to crash – would doubtless be a thousand times worse. Besides, most governments had outlawed dirigibles since the end of the Crimean War.
Doing a bit of light gambling in illegal venues of a Friday night was one thing, but traveling by what amounted to a pirate ship was quite another.
She was not surprised Romanov was meeting the dirigible in the middle of nowhere, as they were entirely unwelcome in cities. What did surprise her was how he’d maneuvered the train into stopping here. It must have cost a fortune in bribes, at the very least.
Then again, Romanov was mysteriously, obnoxiously, wealthy. “But Professor!”
“No time, Finch. My flight awaits,” he said on his way out the door.
Aline gave the hellhounds a warning look to stay and followed Romanov out the door, shutting it behind her. She scurried after her employer as he made his way to the end of the car. He shoved open the outer door and began to ascend the small, wrought iron spiral staircase that led to the roof.
Aline swallowed hard as she glanced up into the belly of the beast hovering precariously above them. What looked to be an actual pirate, complete with a red kerchief and Welding leg, stood on the deck of the ship, unfurling a retractable ladder, but that was all she could discern in the chaos. The wind from the dirigible’s propellers was so fierce her hair threatened to come loose from its pins, and she had to hold her spectacles in place lest they blow off her face.
This is ridiculous, she thought to herself, her temper finally snapping completely.
Determined to have her say at last, she started to follow the Professor up the staircase, calling after him. He stopped at the top, and with his black cloak and hair swirling about in the wind, turned to look down at her, a smile on his face and a spark in his wolf-like eyes.
He looked slightly demonic and entirely too handsome, and her heart stuttered a little at his elemental beauty and … well, her secret jealousy. Despite whatever serious business was awaiting him, he was embarking on an adventure.
Without her. As always. The insufferable man.
“Are you sure you will be able to handle the crossing on your own, Finch?” he bellowed at her over the hum of the dirigible’s engines.
Aline highly doubted it, considering her weak stomach and the fact she would have no company but two troublesome hellhounds, but she refused to show her panic. She’d die before she admitted a weakness to this too-perfect male.
“No, but I must tell you something…”
She choked on her words as the propellers blew a hunk of her hair directly into her mouth. She attempted to swipe it away, but in the process, her spectacles went flying. She barely managed to catch them before they fell onto the tracks.
He cupped his ear. “What was that, Finch?”
“I’m giving you two weeks!” She shouted up at him.
He nodded. “Yes, I’ll be back in two weeks!” he yelled back, obviously not understanding. He gave her an insolent little wave and turned his back. Aline stomped her foot in frustration.
She was tempted to follow him up the staircase and strangle him, but she’d never make it in time. Fyodor was already halfway up the dirigible’s ladder, two suitcases in one hand, his automaton side quickly scaling upwards.
Romanov started climbing up behind his so-called valet, and as he climbed, Aline stood, glued to her spot on the platform, staring upwards in mingled shock and frustration.
She was not mechanically inclined at all, despite her late uncle’s best efforts. Owing to her rare blood condition, she didn’t even have an Iron Necklace. She could operate a wireless tickertext and a steam kettle, but that was about it. As her rare blood disorder, her sea- and air-sickness – not to mention her poverty – had nipped in the bud any thought of Welding for herself, she had little incentive for studying the subject.
But even without being an expert, she didn’t think it was logical that the entirely human Professor could scale the dirigible ladder faster than Fyodor, suitcases notwithstanding.
Her hair whipped into her face again, distracting her from her study, her frustration with the situation quickly outstripping her shock.
“I quit, Professor! That’s my news! I’m getting married, you infuriating clod, to someone who lets me finish my sentences!” She had no hope he’d heard her, but she felt somewhat better to have yelled at him. Then, for good measure, she made a rude gesture she’d learned from her years in St. Giles at the Professor’s retreating back.
With that, she stumbled towards the door to the car before the dirigible blew her to the tracks.