Read an Excerpt
A Riveting Affair
A Steampunk Anthology
By Candace Havens, Patricia Eimer, Lily Lang, Kerri-Leigh Grady, Guillian Helm
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2013 Lily Lang
All rights reserved.
Rose Verney stood on the doorstep of the massive Cavendish mansion on the corner of Fifth Avenue and thought, I should never have come here.
She turned, but the brown coupe she had hired at Grand Central Depot had already clattered off in a great puff of smoke.
She was stuck.
Her grip tightened on her borrowed valise, which contained the two dresses her best friend had lent her and her father's blueprints for his teleportation machine. Though her cloak provided precious little defense against the chill in the night air, she made no move to reach for the brass lion-head knocker that seemed to gaze down at her with contempt.
Her plan had seemed so reasonable when she had formulated it in her sister's New Haven home.
Now she wondered if she had lost her mind.
Cavendish House resembled a fifteenth century Florentine palazzo, built of some expensive-looking white stone in a graceful Renaissance style that her mother would have appreciated. The size and elegance of it both awed and appalled her.
In some dim, distant corner of her mind, she had always known that Sebastian Cavendish was the scion of an astonishingly wealthy railroad family, but she had always thought of him simply as yet another passionate and disheveled student, immured with her father in the laboratory for days on end.
Did he even still live here? If he did, was anyone home? The curtains of the house were all drawn, the windows dark and lifeless. Perhaps Sebastian was at one of the many Cavendish estates in Newport or upstate New York. Or he might have gone abroad to Europe.
She had no way of knowing. And even if he was at home and agreed to receive her, would he remember her? Would he help her?
It didn't matter. She couldn't back down now, not after she had run away from her own sister and the man who wanted to marry her. Not after she had forced her best friend to hide her and lie for her. Not after she had sold her mother's pearl brooch for the rail ticket from New Haven to New York. Not when she had gotten this far.
Taking a deep breath and refusing to think about what she was doing, Rose lifted the brass handle and knocked three times.
To her surprise, the door swung open immediately. The most ancient butler she had ever seen stared down at her. He was short and cadaverously thin, with liver spots darkening his wrinkled skin and the bald crown of his head.
He inclined his head toward her, but before he could speak something small and gray and furry streaked past Rose and into the house.
She gave a small shriek of surprise.
Had it been a small cat, or a very, very large rat? It had moved so rapidly that she hadn't been able to tell. She gazed up at the butler in consternation, but he merely gazed vaguely in the direction in which it had disappeared, then turned back to Rose.
"Mr. Cavendish is expecting you," he said, his voice so creaky it sounded as though it needed oiling.
"He ... he is?" asked Rose. She certainly hadn't written to inform Sebastian that she was coming, though perhaps he had inferred, from the escalating urgency of her tone in the last few letters she had sent him, that she would soon be making an appearance in person.
The butler bowed. "He is waiting for you upstairs. May I take your cloak?"
The foyer was only marginally warmer than the night air outside. Rose shook her head. "No, thank you. I'll keep it for now."
"Very good, miss. If you'll follow me."
The butler hobbled through the foyer, carrying no lamp or candle of any kind. Rose, her eyes unaccustomed to the pitch darkness after the brightness of the gas-list streets outside, could barely make out his thin, creaky figure. Trepidation made her heart beat faster as she followed him into the thick shadows.
After a few moments, however, her eyes adjusted, and she perceived that she was following the butler down a long, airy hall. Various rooms opened up on either side of her, the furniture within draped in dark cloth, as though for a funeral.
One of her father's colleagues had once stated that Cavendish House was one of the greatest showplaces in New York, with its twenty-foot mahogany doors, marble and gilt, rich wall-hangings, and carved ceilings, but the mansion's former grandeur had given way to dust, disorder, and other signs of neglect.
Though the air of such a place ought to be stale, the rich, sweet scent of roses filled her senses. A nearby garden or conservatory? Absurd. A man who neglected his house so badly would hardly devote time to cultivating flowers.
They reached a sweeping grand staircase of shallow steps. The butler made a slow and painful ascent, Rose following close behind. This portion of the house was at least somewhat illuminated by a brilliant stream of moonlight pouring in through a large two-story window.
Where was the butler taking her? Did Sebastian perhaps keep a private parlor upstairs? The rooms on the first floor certainly seemed uninhabited, and as a bachelor, Sebastian might prefer to keep only a small suite available for his use.
On the fourth floor, the butler started down a long, spacious hall. The dust was so thick that it gathered at the hem of Rose's dress. She was actually leaving footprints.
She shuddered and lifted her skirts.
At the end of the hall, they came at last to a pair of carved mahogany doors. The butler gestured toward it. "Mr. Cavendish is just inside."
Then, before she could react, he bowed and departed.
Nonplussed, Rose placed her palms flat against the heavy door and pushed. It groaned and creaked on its hinges. When the gap was sufficiently wide for her to pass through, she hesitated. Was she supposed to announce herself?
Well, there was only one way to find out. Taking a deep breath and clutching Jenny's valise even tighter, she stepped inside.
Here, at least, the air was warm from a large fire, which cast a faint scarlet glow across the massive four-poster bed that filled the high- ceilinged room.
Rose blinked. Not a parlor, then.
She whirled around, seeking guidance or help, but there were only shadows and dust. Then movement on the other side of the room caught her eye.
In a wingback chair close to the fire, a man was sitting, holding a glass of some pale amber liquid in one large hand. His face was cast in deep shadows, but she could sense the intensity of his gaze. She took a hesitant step toward him.
"Mr. Cavendish?" she inquired, and her voice was far more timid than she had intended.
For a long moment the man made no response. He simply continued to study her without moving. When he finally spoke, his voice was a low, deep rasp.
Rose hesitated yet again. Her instincts were sending some inchoate warning screaming along her nerves. She wasn't safe here, but it wasn't just the lateness of the hour, the derelict condition of the house, the strangeness of meeting with a man in his bedchamber.
It was something else entirely, something that her feminine intuition recognized, though she could give it no name.
She took a step backward, prepared to flee even as her logical mind told her that she was being silly, a coward and a fool. She had known Sebastian Cavendish, though it had been many years ago. He had been her father's favorite student, a constant guest in their New Haven home, bringing books and flowers and candy for her, sitting down to supper at their table, helping her clean up afterward. She'd been very young then, of course, and it was likely that he wouldn't recognize her, but she had known this man.
She had nothing to fear from him.
"Mr. Cavendish," she said, and this time her voice was steadier, though her heart still beat very fast. "Your butler tells me that you were expecting me."
"Yes," he said.
He rose to his feet, still in shadow, but when he straightened the fire fell full upon him. For the first time in over ten years, Rose found herself looking into Sebastian Cavendish's face.
For a moment she could only stare. Years before, when she had known him, she had thought him the most beautiful boy she had ever met. With his piercing eyes and chiseled features, he had seemed like a statue of a young Roman god in one of her mother's books.
That beauty was now gone.
In the last year of the war, the bursar at the university had casually mentioned that Sebastian Cavendish had been injured on a reconnaissance mission.
Only now, however, did she realize the extent of his wounds. A long, curving scar that she could only presume had come from a raygun ran down the left side of his face, sparing his eyebrow and eye, but distorting his mouth and twisting the skin of his cheek.
Still, it was unmistakably Sebastian Cavendish who stood before her. She would have recognized those piercing gray eyes anywhere, even in that ruined face.
Before she could speak, however, he limped across the space that separated them. She had a brief moment to wonder if he had hurt his leg as well during the war. Then he reached for her and drew her to him, resting his large, callused hands on her shoulder. They were now standing so close that his body pressed hard against hers from shoulder to knee. The warm, clean, masculine scents of sandalwood and spice enveloped her, and even through the layers of their clothing, she felt the heat and hardness of him.
He wrapped one arm around her waist, resting his hand lightly on the flare of her hip. With the other, he lifted her chin.
"Mr. Cavendish!" she exclaimed, ensnared in his gaze, and her voice was reedy and thin with shock.
He made no answer. Instead, he lowered his head and kissed her.
For a moment Rose froze, uncertain of how she ought to react. Though she was twenty-six, she had only been kissed once before, when George Weathersby-Pooley, overcome by her sister's cherry cordial at tea one afternoon, had snatched her up in his arms and pressed his damp mouth against hers. The sensation had filled her with revulsion and disgust.
She hadn't needed to push George away, however. As soon as her sister Louisa's footsteps had sounded in the hall outside, he had become immediately contrite, backing away and apologizing profusely. Rose had wiped her mouth clean, and they had never spoken of the incident again.
But this kiss was nothing like poor George's had been. Sebastian's mouth was warm and soft and coaxing, gentle on hers, and she hadn't known that it was possible to feel so much physical pleasure simply from the pressure of another's lips on her own. Her brain seemed to shut down entirely as she clung to him. His fingers combed through her scalp, loosening the pins from her braids, and her hair tumbled free.
Then he reached for her cloak, drew it aside, and grasped her breast through the thick material of the traveling gown she had borrowed from Jenny. The touch shocked her.
She jerked away.
"Mr. Cavendish!" she managed to exclaim.
He was so much taller that she couldn't see his face until he drew back. He was breathing rather quickly, and in the firelight his eyes glittered, with anger or passion or something else, something that looked peculiarly like pain.
When he spoke, however, his voice was cold.
"Come now, madam," he said. "Do not be coy. We both know why you are here."
"I'm not being coy," she said, as crisply as she could manage. She struggled to gather up her hair, though she couldn't see where her pins had fallen, and she didn't think that it would be dignified to crawl about on the carpet searching for them.
"Is it the scar?" asked Sebastian. "Did Mrs. Morrison not warn you that I'm grotesquely disfigured? I assure you, I will compensate you amply for your time. Don't let the state of the house deceive you. My funds are certainly sufficient for your services."
"It has nothing to do with your face!" exclaimed Rose in utter bewilderment. "And I have no idea who Mrs. Morrison is."
There was a long moment of silence, during which Rose tried to set herself to rights.
"I beg your pardon," Sebastian said at last. "Who the devil did you say you are?" Rose made a concerted effort to gather her dignity around her. It was very difficult, with her hair falling about her shoulders and her body still warm where Sebastian had held her against him, but she straightened her spine and lifted her chin.
"I thought you knew who I am, sir," Rose said. "Your butler said that you were expecting me."
For a long, silent moment, he appraised her, raking her from head to foot with that cool gray gaze. At last he said, "I was expecting — a lady."
For a moment Rose didn't comprehend. A lady? At this hour? Surely that wasn't considered proper even here in the city?
Then the truth dawned on her. The lateness of the hour, the bedchamber, his state of dishabille; Sebastian had been waiting for a — a lady of ill repute.
And he had mistaken her, Rose Verney, for the lady.
The thought made her warm with embarrassment, and something else. Something which made her stomach lurch a little. She was afraid that the sensation wasn't outrage or anger, as it ought to be, but excitement. No man, besides poor George, had ever looked at her with anything resembling desire or passion before.
She had always been so relentlessly respectable; Professor Verney's quiet, polite daughter, with her apron starched and her hair pinned up, her sensible dresses and sturdy shoes. Though hundreds of her father's younger students and unmarried colleagues had sat in her parlor, none of them, besides poor George, had ever tried to kiss her.
But Sebastian Cavendish had kissed her tonight. Sebastian Cavendish had desired her.
As soon as the thought occurred to her, she banished it. She most certainly ought not consider the idea enticing, because that would be unladylike and improper.
She tried to think of what Louisa would do in a similar situation but had to abandon the attempt. Her imagination failed at the thought of her uptight, sour-faced sister in such a predicament. Louisa would never be so foolish — or lacking in propriety — as to call upon a gentleman at midnight.
"I'm sorry," Rose said at last. To her horror, her voice quavered. "I hadn't intended to — disturb or interrupt you. I know the hour is very late."
"Indeed," Sebastian said.
He said nothing else, watching her. The impassiveness of his scarred face was distinctly discouraging, and she groped about for a way to frame her request.
"You will no doubt consider my coming here the height of impertinence," she said at last. "Only you never answered any of my letters and I didn't know how else to speak with you."
"I never received any of your letters," he said.
Her eyes widened in surprise. She had sent at least a dozen letters. Surely not all of them could have been lost in the post or misplaced?
"You never received my letters?"
"No," Sebastian said.
Rose glanced around the unkempt room, and thought of the darkness and dust downstairs. "Perhaps you, ah, misplaced them?"
Sebastian shrugged, looking supremely indifferent. "Greaves has express orders to burn all personal letters and invitations that come here," he said.
"I see," Rose said. "That would explain it."
Before she could think of what to say next, however, the clatter of horse hooves and carriage wheels sounded on the cobblestoned streets outside, and Sebastian rose to his feet and went to the window.
"Ah yes," he said. "This is Mrs. Morrison's girl."
She followed his gaze out the window. A dark, stylish carriage drew up in front of the house, and then a fashionable woman emerged.
"I don't suppose I can have her wait until we have concluded our business and you're on your way?" Sebastian asked, glancing back at her.
Rose's mouth fell open with shock at the idea, even as her stomach contracted unpleasantly at the thought of Sebastian having — having Biblical relations with the woman outside.
She wasn't sure why the thought disturbed her so much.
"No, I suppose not," Sebastian said regretfully. "That would be rude. Ah, well. I had better have Greaves pay her and send her on her way."
He rang for the butler and gave the old man instructions to dismiss the woman with a sum that made Rose stare. Did all ladies of ill-repute make so much money?
When the butler had gone, Sebastian returned to his seat by the fire and regarded her once again with that cool, unreadable gaze.
Rose forced herself not to squirm with discomfort, though his regard warmed her skin.
"Forgive me, madam," he said. "I have no idea what this is about. Perhaps you had best begin with your identity."
"Yes, of course." She licked her dry lips. "That seems very sensible. I suppose that you don't remember me, but I'm Rose Verney. My father was Richard Verney. He taught you when you were at Yale. We have" — her voice faltered briefly — "we have met before."
Excerpted from A Riveting Affair by Candace Havens, Patricia Eimer, Lily Lang, Kerri-Leigh Grady, Guillian Helm. Copyright © 2013 Lily Lang. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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