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If only she'd had her pickax handy, she would have made bloody good use of it.
She kicked the black door in frustration instead, then stifled a curse as pain shot through her foot.
I hate this bloody place.
The door groaned and retreated slightly, exposing a narrow view of the entrance hall beyond. She stared at it a moment, swiftly analyzing her options.
No doubt the proper thing to do would be to pull the door firmly closed. People in London probably didn't expect their doors to be kicked open in broad daylight, she reflected, especially by relatively respectable-looking young women. But what if Mr. Kent was actually at home, and had simply not heard her knocking? Perhaps he was engaged in some area of the house where it was difficult to hear someone pounding incessantly upon the door. Then again, she mused, a man of his social stature probably employed a butler. Well then, why had this servant not responded to her knocking?
Because he was old and deaf as a post, she promptly theorized. Or maybe he was a secret tippler and had collapsed on his bed, utterly foxed. Or suffered a dreadful attack of some sort and was lying helpless upon the floor, too weak to call for help. How tragic it would be if she just callously closed the door and left, abandoning the poor old, deaf butler to suffer alone and die.
"Hello," she called, flinging the door wide open. "Mr. Kent? Are you in?"
A banging sound thundered from somewhere within the house. It was eminently clear why no one had responded to her knocking. Someone had to be in the house to be making such a racket, although what activity he or she was involved in she could scarcely imagine.
"Mr. Kent?" She stepped into the entrance hall. "May I come in?"
The foyer was strangely void of furnishings, as if the owner had only just moved in. A battered, spindly-legged stool stood at the side of the hall, upon which a precarious tower of books and papers had been carelessly erected. More stacks of worn leather-bound volumes and notes were scattered in untidy hills across the floor and up the staircase, forcing her to step carefully as she navigated her way further into the hall.
"Mr. Kent," she called again, trying to be heard above the clamor, "are you all right?"
"That's it!" shouted someone, triumphant. "I knew it! I knew it!"
The voice was coming from the kitchen below, suggesting that it did not belong to Mr. Kent, but to one of his servants. That was better, really. A servant could tell her if Mr. Kent was in the house. If so, Camelia could then be issued into the drawing room to wait while the servant formally announced her. A formal presentation was much more desirable than having the renowned Mr. Simon Kent suddenly come upon a strange young woman standing uninvited in his home amidst the clutter of his personal books and papers.
Assuring herself that she was actually pursuing the more socially acceptable course of action, she closed the front door. Then she straightened her hat and brushed her gloved hands over the emerald-and-ivory-striped fabric of her skirt. There was no mirror handy for her to check the state of her hair, but the multitude of pins she had clumsily poked into place were already working their way loose, causing her inexpertly crafted chignon to droop against the nape of her neck. Zareb was probably right, she realized in frustration. If she was going to stay in London much longer, she would probably have to resort to the hiring of a lady's maid. The thought of such a frivolous expense irritated her. She jammed several hairpins back into place and marched through a door leading off the entrance hall, then descended the narrow flight of stairs leading to the kitchen.
"Yes, yes, that's it, that's better now!" shouted the deep voice, ecstatic. "Bloody hell, you've got it!"
A man of considerable height stood in the middle of the kitchen with his back to her. He was dressed in plain dark trousers and a simple white linen shirt, the sleeves of which were carelessly shoved up to his elbows, and the fabric of which was sodden and clinging to him. This was not surprising, given the extraordinary heat and moisture suffusing the kitchen. A fine, silvery mist wafted about, giving the chamber a faintly ethereal quality. It was a bit like being in the jungle after a heavy summer rain, Camelia thought, wishing she wasn't dressed in so many suffocating layers of rapidly wilting feminine attire.
A loud banging and gasping roared from an enormous apparatus beside the man. A steam engine, she realized, feeling a surge of excitement. It was turning a massive crank, which was facilitating the movement of a series of revolving wheels. These gears were part of an intricate structure that was connected to a large wooden tub, but Camelia could not make out exactly what the extraordinary piece of machinery was doing.
"Wait now, bide a bit, steady, steady--not too fast, now, you've got to keep it steady!" coaxed the man, speaking to the contraption as if it were a child learning a new skill.
He braced his lean, muscled arms against the rim of the wooden tub and stared inside, intently focused upon whatever was taking place within. "A little more, a little more--that's it--yes--that's it--brilliant!"
Intrigued, Camelia moved closer, making her way through a maze of long tables which were crowded with strange mechanical devices. Stacks of books were piled everywhere, and the tables, floor, and walls of the kitchen were covered with intricately drawn sketches and notes.
"A little faster," urged the man, excited. "No, no, no," he scolded, raking his hand through the damp waves of his coppery hair. He began to swiftly adjust a series of levers and valves on the steam engine. "A little more--a little more--come on now, we're almost there--that's it--"
A deafening blast of hot vapor belched from the apparatus. The crank began to turn faster, which in turn caused the gears to rotate with rapidly increasing speed.
"That's it!" he shouted, elated. "Perfect! Brilliant! Marvelous!"
The wooden barrel started to shiver and shake. Water sloshed over its sides and onto the floor.
"Too fast." Shaking his head, he frantically worked to readjust the changes he had made to the steam engine. "Hold now, slow it down--slow down I say, do you hear me?"
Camelia watched with mounting concern as the enormous barrel shivered and shook and sent waves of soapy water spraying through the air. Whatever the contraption's purpose might have been, it was clearly not meant to completely drench the person operating it, as it was now doing.
"Stop now, hold, cease, do you hear?" the man commanded, blinking water from his eyes as he scrambled to readjust the settings on the machine.
The crank and wheels were spinning at an alarming rate now, and the great barrel was quivering and quaking as if it might break apart.
"Hold, I say!" the man shouted, banging upon the recalcitrant contraption with his wrench. "Stop this nonsense before I take a bloody ax to you!"
Suddenly, sopping wet garments exploded from the barrel in every direction. A sodden pair of drawers smacked hard against Camelia's face and she stumbled backward, momentarily blinded. The table behind her gave way, toppling the one behind it. A dreadful crashing filled the room as she landed hard upon her backside.
"Stop, you worthless piece of junk!" roared the man, who was still frantically trying to get his contraption under control. "That is enough!"
Camelia pulled the wet drawers from her face just in time to see the machine give a final, defiant huff. The man stood before it, dripping wet, his legs apart, wielding his wrench like a menacing sword. His shirt was unfastened nearly to his waist, exposing the taut contours of his chest and belly, and the considerable breadth of his shoulders was clearly defined beneath the virtually transparent mantle of linen. Camelia thought he looked like a mighty warrior poised for battle--except for the limp stocking dangling from the top of his head.
He waited a long moment, breathing heavily, watching to see if the machine was going to give him any more trouble. Evidently satisfied that it was not, he slowly lowered his wrench and turned, shaking his head in disgust. He glowered at the sight of the overturned tables, the smashed jumble of inventions, and the litter of notes and books strewn across the sopping wet floor.
Finally his dark gaze fell upon Camelia.
"What the devil do you think you're doing?" he demanded, incredulous.
"I'm trying to get up," she returned, hastily pulling her wet skirts over her legs. Her bruised dignity marginally restored, she held out her hand and regarded him expectantly.
"I mean what on earth do you think you're doing here?" he clarified, ignoring her outstretched hand. "Are you in the habit of just marching into people's homes uninvited?"
She struggled to maintain an air of polite formality, which was enormously difficult, given the fact that she was sprawled on the floor and the man was glaring at her as if she were a common thief. "I knocked," she began primly, "but no one came to the door--"
"And so you decided to just force your way in?"
"I most certainly did not force my way in." Since it was clear he lacked the basic manners of even the most inexperienced butler, she decided her interrogator had to be one of Mr. Kent's apprentices. While she could appreciate that it was probably difficult to find reliable assistants who were sufficiently skilled in mathematics and science, that did not excuse his utter discourtesy. "The door was already open."
He yanked the wet stocking from his head and threw it aside. "And so you decided that meant you were welcome to sneak in and spy on me?"
As it was obvious he was not going to assist her in getting up, she pushed herself to her feet with as much dignity as she could muster, given the challenge of managing her bustle, petticoats, reticule, and awkwardly tilting hat. Once she was upright she met his gaze with cool disdain.
"I can assure you, sir, that I did not sneak in, but rather walked in after knocking upon the door for several long minutes, and then calling out loudly to announce my presence. The door was open, as I have already mentioned--a careless oversight of which I'm sure your master would not approve, were he to hear of it from me."
The man's blue eyes widened.
Good, thought Camelia with satisfaction. I can see I have your attention.
"As it happens, I have an appointment this afternoon with Mr. Kent," she continued crisply, affecting an air of supreme importance.
She was only embellishing the truth a little, she assured herself. In fact she had written to Mr. Kent asking for an appointment exactly five times. Unfortunately, he had not responded to any of her letters. But she had been advised by certain members of London society that the esteemed inventor was a bit odd, and could sometimes go for weeks without either being seen or responding to any of his mail. And so instead of waiting for Mr. Kent to write back, she had taken matters into her own hands, penning a note in which she informed him that she would be calling upon him on that particular day, at that exact hour.
"You have an appointment with Mr. Kent?" The man arched a skeptical brow, which only served to further irritate her.
"Indeed I do," Camelia assured him firmly. Obviously Mr. Kent wasn't at home or he would have come rushing in by now, to find out what had made such a tremendous racket in his laboratory. "Regarding a matter of great import."
"Really?" He folded his arms across his chest, unimpressed. "What?"
"Forgive me, sir, but that is not your concern. If you will just advise me as to when you expect Mr. Kent to be in tomorrow, I shall call upon him then."
She had decided that she should not wait for the inventor to appear. Although there was no mirror in the kitchen, she was certain the effect of being hit in the face with a wet pair of men's drawers was not estimable. She could feel her enormous hat listing dangerously to one side, and her hair was falling in a tangled damp nest beneath it. As for her carefully selected outfit, which she and Zareb had labored so hard to iron into a state of neat perfection, it was now a soggy, wrinkled disaster. If Mr. Kent were to take her proposition seriously, she could hardly appear before him looking like a waif who had just blown in from a gale.
"I'm Simon Kent," the man informed her brusquely.
Camelia stared at him in disbelief. "You're not."
"Am I not quite what you expected?"
"To begin with, you're too young."
His brow creased. "I'm not sure whether I should be flattered or insulted. Too young for what?"
The barest flicker of amusement lit his gaze, making it clear to her that he was simply making sport with her. Well, she was not that gullible.
"Too young to have earned several degrees in mathematics and science from the University of St. Andrews and St. John's College in Cambridge," Camelia pointed out. "And to have lectured extensively on the subjects of Mechanisms and Applied Mechanics, and to have written two dozen or more papers published by the National Academy of Science, and to have registered patents for some two hundred and seventy inventions. And obviously, too young to be responsible for all of this," she finished, gesturing to the room full of scientific activity around her.
His expression was contained, but she could see that she had surprised him with her knowledge of his employer's accomplishments. Good, she thought, perversely satisfied that she had managed to put him in his place.
"Given the disastrous results of the experiment you just witnessed, I fear I have forever damaged your too kind opinion of me. However, since you just barged into my laboratory uninvited and unannounced, I'm afraid I cannot be held responsible for that. I don't customarily permit anyone to see what I am working on until I am relatively confident it is not going to explode and start shooting undergarments about."
Camelia stared at him, speechless. He was not so young after all, she realized, suddenly noticing the furrows in his forehead and between his brows, which suggested countless long hours spent in study and deliberation. He was certainly thirty-five, or perhaps even a year or two more. While that was relatively young for a man to have accomplished all that she had just described, it was not impossible. Not if the man was exceptionally brilliant, disciplined, and driven. A terrible sinking feeling enveloped her as she realized she had just insulted the very man she had so desperately hoped to impress with her visit.
From the Paperback edition.