A thick lump formed in the back of Marley’s throat, making it difficult to swallow his own saliva. Chances were good that he’d already compromised his chances of getting into the Aeronautical Society of Great Britain by allowing this young woman to tinker with his work. From the state of his hands alone he knew he likely had dark grease smears on his face.
“What are those?” Her eyes glittered as she nodded toward the specially modified goggles atop his head. Just having her lean close again brought another assault of improper thoughts.
“Spectro-photometric oglifiers. I use them to detect leaks and as protection when welding or soldering on piping.”
“Are those your own design as well?”
Marley smiled as much as a schoolboy locked for the night in a sweet shop. “Of course.”
“Lady Persephone Hargrieve, please report to the rotunda.” The commanding boom rattled the glass panes of the Palace.
Several people stopped and gazed about as alzed abo if wondering where the enormous sound had come from. Lady Persephone sighed. “My father. His voice amplification device. He’s planning for the future of communication between airships.”
Marley nodded. He was loath to see her go, but at the same time very aware he had a job to do. He could not ask her to stay. “Very sensible of him.”
Lady Persephone picked up the edges of her ruffled skirts and turned to leave, but hesitated. “It was lovely to meet you, Sir Turlock.”
“You as well, my lady. I hope we meet again someday.”
She gave a small nod and an encouraging smile in acknowledgment, then turned, stepped over the rope, and blended into the growing crowds, the powder blue of her gown disappearing among the black and brown suits and occasional wide skirts.
A heaviness settled in Marley’s chest that he didn’t recognize. He was sad to see her go. It wasn’t often that he saw someone who showed the same preoccupation he did with invention. But it was more than that. He’d never believed all the balderdash about love at first sight spouted off by poets, but perhaps there was something to their fanciful thoughts after all. He’d certainly never been so affected by a woman in his life as Lady Persephone Hargrieve—and he craved more.
It wasn’t until later in the afternoon that a very well dressed older man, with perhaps the tallest black top hat Marley had ever seen, approached him. His great white mutton-chop sideburns and an equally large waxed mustache added to his impressive look. The crowds parted then flowed back in his wake as if a sea before the prow of a legendary ship. People whispered behind gloved hands and stared at the man’s back.
Marley suddenly had a reason to calculate what his association with Lady Persephone might cost him. His heartbeat picked up tempo, pounding hard at the base of his throat. She walked a step behind the gentleman, and they shared the same shape to their noses and chins. It had to be her father, or another close male relation. Either way a sense of foreboding swished in an oily slick sensation through his stomach. The man smelled of expensive tobacco and gunpowder, and looked deadly serious.
“Sir Marley Turlock?”
Marley tugged at the edge of his top hat in deference. “I am, sir. Whom do I have the pleasure of addressing?”
The gentleman extended his hand. “Lord Hargrieve. Pleased to make your acquaintance.”
“The honor is mine, my lord.” He took Lord Hargrieve’s hand and found his almost crushed by the older man during their brief handshake.
“My daughter has been telling me in some detail about your work.” He glanced at Lady Persephone. “I hope she wasn’t a bother with her questions earlier.”
Marley’s gaze flicked to her. What exactly should he say? Her white gloved hands were gripping one another tightly enough to pucker the fine white kidskin that covered them. She was as uneasy and agitated as he was.
“No bother at all, I assure you.”
Lord Hargrieve glanced back at his daughter and then locked gazes with Marley. An invisible electrical current to the air raised the hair on Marley’s arms and neck. Clearly her father thought there was more going on between the two of them than seemed proper. And while Marley might have considered such things in the privacy of his own thoughts, he’d certainly never voiced them aloud. Lord Hargrieve’s daughter was beautiful, but Marley had his own ambitions and no time for the distraction of female company, even if she was the most stunning combination of beauty ton of beand brains he’d ever seen.
“I understand you are currently one of Her Majesty’s favored inventors,” Hargrieve said.
Marley straightened his shoulders a bit more, pulling himself back to focus on Lord Hargrieve. “I aspire to become the head scientific advisor to Her Majesty.”
Beneath the wide white mustache, Hargrieve’s lips twitched. Marley hoped it was either amusement or approval, but he couldn’t tell for certain.
“Excellent, sir. Most excellent. I should like an opportunity to talk to you further about your ideas for electricity. Would you be available on Monday?”
Marley bent his head slightly, forcing his gaze to remain fixed on Lord Hargrieve rather than stray toward his daughter. “Of course, my lord.”
Lord Hargrieve reached into the double-breasted fold of his dark suit jacket and pulled out a gold card case with an enameled top featuring a scene of hunting hounds. He pulled a cream-colored card from the case and handed it to Marley. “Give this to my butler when you come by.”
Lord Hargrieve and his daughter turned nearly in unison and disappeared into the crowd. There was a sudden rush of eager and chatty onlookers at Marley’s exhibit, firing questions off like rapid gunfire about his machine.
He answered as best he could, while still seeking out glimpses of Lord Hargrieve and his daughter. The chatter was silenced moments later by an even more impressive presence than the Hargrieves. He could hear her approach before he even saw the Queen as whispers of “Your Majesty” rippled through the crowd. Bows and curtsies ebbed and flowed about the Queen and her scarlet-coated guards as they passed.
Marley whipped his black top hat from his head and went down on one knee as the Queen approached. “Rise, Sir Turlock. Is this the mechanical wonder of which you wrote to us?”
He stood, and his gaze lowered so he could connect with hers. It was hard to imagine that a woman so tiny was the ruler of half the known world. She was a conundrum. A widow who still ruled society. A powerhouse whose empire spanned the globe, and yet a good foot shorter than himself. “It is, Your Majesty.”
She paused for a moment, her keen gaze roving over the machine. “It looks very impressive. Have you tested it as yet?”
“Not this version, Your Majesty. There have been modifications made only recently that I think will even better serve Your Majesty’s requests. I was hoping to do so in conjunction with the test of my latest invention that is designed to create an airborne power source to fuel engines, factories, and even towns.”
“Quite so. Please see to it you inform us of your test plans. We are very interested in your work, Sir Turlock. Very interested.”
A giddy wash of delight sparked through him, like the shock off of an electrical wire. The Queen liked his work. He still had a chance! “Of course, Your Majesty. I am ever your servant.” He bowed again.
The crowd parted before her as she swept away to another exhibit in the hall.
Now the crowd clamored even more. Before the end of the day Marley had several orders for other inventions of his as well as design requests for a few things he’d never considered. Thadeus was going to be elated when he heard. Their fledgling operation was certain to get support now, giving both of them a reason to be free of their mothers’ worrisome diatribes on trying something more suited to a gentleman.
Today might have started out horribly wrong, but it was dh="b
ut it efinitely looking up.
The next day, Marley and his cousin Thadeus should have been working, but instead Marley was toiling and Thadeus was peppering him with questions. They were in their somewhat damp laboratory in the basement of Bostwick House, which belonged to Thadeus’s father.
Thankfully they weren’t dependent on the weak sunlight that struggled through the ivy crawling up the high windows as it took over the outside of the house. Brilliant light from an arc lamp powered by an electromagnetic dynamo generator lit their space as brightly as the midday sun, even at midnight. Their workbenches were surrounded by neatly ordered coils of wire, bright metal sheeting, and canisters of oil, grease, and flux needed to weld pieces of metal tubing together. Shelves and cabinets held their large glass jars of gears, screws, and other small bits needed for their mechanical experimentation.
The pleasant scent of toast, coddled eggs, and kippers still filled the air even though they’d eaten every morsel, and their empty plates were stacked on a small table near the dumbwaiter awaiting a trip to the kitchen.
Marley had just about had his fill of his cousin’s questions. Thadeus, who was three years his junior, was a complete and utter moron when it came to pretty females. He lost all common sense, daydreamed about them, and spent far too much of his time thinking about how to gain their attention rather than working on the project at hand. He leaned his chin on his fist and asked, “Is she quite beautiful?”
“Yes. I suppose.” Marley readjusted his glasses, his irritation at the question evident in his tone. For some inexplicable reason Thad’s keen interest was more disconcerting than usual.
Marley glared at him. The family resemblance was evident. Boring brown eyes and dark brown hair, only he wore wire-rimmed glasses and Thadeus didn’t. Their similarities extended only to their features, though. Thadeus was hopelessly messy, whereas Marley found he liked things in neat, organized order, as evidenced by their worktables, which faced one another, Thadeus’s detritus of materials spilling into his own neat workspace.
Their social skills were as different as could be as well. Thadeus reveled in talking to people, while Marley found himself more suited to solitarily creating machines and avoiding interaction as much as possible.
“Well, it wasn’t as if I were cataloging her characteristics. We were working together on the STAR.”
Thadeus looked both aghast and curious at the same time. “She was working with you on your machine?”
Marley smiled. “Yes.” He did recall her vivid blue eyes and quick lithe fingers as she tinkered with the gears and wiring. Watching her work on the machine had been the highlight of his experience at the exhibition. “She’d make an excellent lab assistant.”
His cousin stared at him, his mouth opening and closing soundlessly like a beached fish gasping for water. “Lab assistant! Lab assistant? Marley, have you gone off your rocker? Do you even know who Lady Persephone Hargrieve is?”
Marley frowned. “I suppose she’s a fan of aeronautics and science.”
Thadeus rubbed his hands over his face. If he’d already rolled up his sleeves to work, he would’ve left his visage streaked with great grease marks. As it was he just looked disgruntled. “She’s the only child of Lord Harrington onHargrieve, who married Catherine Percy and is next in line for the title of Duke of Northumberland once his father-in-law passes.”
Marley just stared at Thadeus dumbfounded. He wasn’t exactly certain what Thadeus was nattering on about. Social rank was not one of the things that occupied his mind any more than gear ratios or the potential for focused light beams interested his lordship. “Oh.”
“Well, it’s just, she has rather a sharp mind and a mechanical talent, hardly the hallmarks aspired to by a lady of quality. I wouldn’t have suspected she was the daughter of a soon to be duke.”
Thadeus scurried around the worktables and grabbed Marley by the upper arms, giving him a shake. “Marley, you great dunderheaded trout! Don’t you see what this means? If Lady Persephone Hargrieve is interested in your work, her father might become the sponsor you need to launch you into the Aeronautical Society. The Queen’s interest is lovely, but she cannot sponsor you. Only a current member of the society can. Lady Persephone could be our golden ticket.”
Marley’s frown deepened. “That’s so very crass of you, thinking of a bright young woman as merely a ticket to something else.”
Thadeus just shook his head and muttered something under his breath about social normalities, marriage, and idiot buffoons. Marley was inclined to ignore him, in particular because his work on the autorotation cuff for the resonating device was just about finished, and he dearly wanted to have it complete before he met with Lord Hargrieve.
“It’s not as if I’ll be discussing the matter of their support over tea this afternoon.”
A heavy wrench fell to the flagstone floor with a great clank that echoed in the laboratory. “Lady Persephone invited you to tea?”
“Well, it really was more Lord Hargrieve who issued the invitation to come and speak to him. Lady Persephone kind of just stood there.”
Thadeus stared at him.
“I say, are you sure you aren’t coming down with something? You seem rather peaked today,” Marley said by way of observation.
“Please tell me, cousin, that you’ve at least thought of a gift to take her.”
“A gift? Whatever for?”
Thadeus groaned, tilting his head back and peering at the huge exposed wooden beams overhead. He closed his eyes for a second, then shook his head, his gaze landing squarely on Marley. “You know, for as brilliant as you are, you have absolutely no bloomin’ clue when it comes to women, do you?”
“Well, I suppose if I studied the matter—”
“Studied the matter? One does not study women. One hopes to appease their hysterical natures and not arouse their wrath.”
Marley didn’t try to suppress his grin. “Are you certain you’re talking about women other than Aunt Lydia?”
Thadeus laughed. “Out of the two of us, my good fellow, I have far more experience with the fairer sex, I assure you. Trust me. You’ll want to bring her a gift. It would be the proper thing to do after the help she gave you with the machine.”
But Marley wanted to do far more than just offer up a gift. What he really wanted was to discuss the possibility of courting her. Perhaps if her father were impressed enough with his work, he’d consider the match, even though she was in a far different strata of society. Marley had never courted a woman before—never had the desire to. But there was an indefinablein indefi quality about Lady Persephone that lured him, like an inventor to the spark and flash of a shiny new idea.
“What does one get as a gift for a lady of quality? Gloves?”
Marley worried the end of his wrench, his finger tracing the curve of it. “Flowers?”
Marley chucked the wrench down on his workbench, making it clatter. “Then what the devil do you suggest?”
Thadeus glanced around their basement work area. There was a cabinet filled with small mechanical toys he and Marley had been crafting for their little cousins’ stockings at Christmas. He strode over to the cabinet and opened the glass door, then ran his finger along the lineup of toys, past automated mice, little mechanical birds, a metallic ferret, and mechanical dogs. “This one should do.” He snatched up a little toy King Charles Spaniel, no bigger than a teacup, with green glass eyes, its wavy coat a combination of silver and brass.
“It’s a toy, Thadeus. She’s quite beyond the nursery and certainly not interested in toys.”
“No woman can resist a cute little dog.”
Thadeus brought him the little mechanical dog and wound up the key on its back. Inside, the clockwork gears clicked and hummed. The eyes lit from within, glowing green as it sprang to life. The ears lifted, and the small, articulated brass tail began to wag as the little toy’s head tilted to one side. Marley smiled. Perhaps Thadeus was right. It was a brilliant piece of mechanical ingenuity. She might indeed appreciate it—if she didn’t take it all apart first to see how it worked.
Sephie couldn’t wait for the day to be over with, and it had only just begun. She had lost her appetite the moment she’d entered the dining room for breakfast and found Lieutenant Frobisher at the table.
He was dressed in his military scarlet, the coat specially tailored to his broad shoulders. Most women swooned at his feet because they found his chiseled jaw, wavy dark hair, and commanding presence alluring. All of it only underscored the reason she disliked him.
He rose from his seat when she entered, but all the politeness, good manners, and breeding in the world didn’t make up for his misplaced ambition. She refused to be a mere pawn in the machinations of the Legion.
“Good morning, Lady Persephone.”
“Is it?” she returned. Prickly of her, she knew, but then he annoyed her to no end. She’d rejected his advances, endured his smothering kiss a time or two, and still he persisted in trying to act as though there were some chance that she’d actually marry him, even though they both knew it wasn’t her he was interested in as much as the chance to become the next leader of the Legion.
“Sephie, manners,” her father warned from behind the folds of the morning paper.
She resisted the urge to roll her eyes and instead glanced at the silver chafing dishes and decided none of it looked appetizing and opted instead for a cup of hot Earl Grey tea. Ever since their Northumberland neighbors at Howick Hall, the Earl and Countess of Grey, had given a small tin of it to her as a gift, it had become her favorite. She settled in her seat at the table and let the hot brew with its heady citrus fragrance warm her. With Frobisher here this early in the morning, she knew that cup of tea could very well be her only comfort of the day.
“Your father tells me you made contact with the invened th the tor at the Aeronautical Exhibition.”
“And what did you think of his work?”
Clearly she was not going to get to enjoy her tea. She settled her fine bone china cup into the saucer with a slight clatter. Just thinking about Sir Turlock made her head spin and her stomach do an odd little flip-flop. “He’s brilliant. Whatever it is you and Father want him to create, I’m sure he’s capable.”
“It’s good to know your awkward interest in machines has a use,” Frobisher murmured as he stuffed a helping of eggs and toast into his mouth.
Sephie pressed her lips together to prevent the unladylike retorts running through her head from spilling out.
“I’ve asked him to come for an interview this afternoon,” Lord Hargrieve said, still not looking at either of them from behind the shield of newsprint. It had become his habit, as a way to endure these unfortunate breakfasts when his protégé was at the table with his daughter.
Frobisher wiped his mouth with his napkin and set it aside. “Are you certain he’s ready to learn about the Darkin, my lord?”
Her father bent one corner of his paper and locked gazes with Frobisher. “William, he’s got to know what he’s being asked to destroy; otherwise how can he create weapons to do so?”
Frobisher gave a slight bow of his head. “Of course, my lord.”
The corner of the paper flipped back into place, and Sephie covered up a snort of laughter with her napkin by pretending it was a sneeze. Frobisher glared at her. His ego was almost enough to fill out the seating at the twelve-person dining table.
One thing was abundantly clear to Sephie: she needed to find a way to escape Frobisher’s
intention to marry her, no matter what it required.