|Publisher:||Start Publishing LLC|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.70(d)|
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STEAMLUSTSTEAMPUNK EROTIC ROMANCE
CLEIS PRESSCopyright © 2011 Kristina Wright
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIRON HARD
You are attached to them."
Annabelle Waters took one last, lingering look at the mechanized lovebirds in their velvet-lined delivery box, then closed the lid. "I'm attached to all my creations."
"Let me rephrase," her brother said. "You are especially attached to these."
She met her twin's blue-eyed stare. "Have you any notion of how difficult it was to calibrate the resonance frequencies so that if one should fail the other will also?"
"They are your best work yet," Thomas agreed. "But that isn't why you favor them so, and we both know it."
Annie looked at the empty birdcage in the corner of her workroom, then shifted her attention to the clock on the mantle. With a sigh, she pulled the safety goggles off the top of her head and ruffled her short cap of dark curls. "I have to make myself presentable."
"Allow me to deliver this one."
"The baron asked that I personally demonstrate how they work. Considering the obscene sum we charged him, it is the least I can do."
"I promise to speak of you," she rushed on, knowing what he desired, "if the opportunity presents itself. But the subject must be delicately approached. His lordship's future patronage and endorsement could change our fortunes in profound ways."
"I know. But you've no notion of what it is like at his shipyard," he complained. "I have waited in that line for nearly a year and am no closer to gaining employment than I was when I began. Every man in England wishes to apprentice under his banner."
She knew that; it was impossible not to know. Baron de la Warren had returned from the war a hero, a sky captain lauded for his brilliant strategies and swashbuckling boldness. He was credited with the destruction of Boney's dirigible fleet and romanticized for his patched eye, which gave him the appearance of a pirate. Peacetime had done nothing to lessen his appeal. He was, in fact, more popular now. His import empire offered well-paying work and apprenticeship to many destitute yet able-bodied young men, like her brother. Annie had been startled when his lordship had commissioned the lovebirds, wondering at the private man who lived beneath the public personage. What manner of warrior thought of such a lover's gift? She was more than a little eager to see for herself.
The long case clock in the hall began to chime with the hour. Annie proceeded with her egress. "I will find an excuse to mention you. Perhaps I can convince his lordship to visit under the guise of viewing some of my other creations. He could find nothing untoward about meeting you here, and once he does, he'll certainly engage you. How could he not? You're just the sort of intelligent, ambitious young fellow he cultivates in his employ."
"It's not working," he grumbled after her. "Your flattery."
"Yes, it is." She slowed at the sound of creaking floorboards and heavy footsteps.
The soothing whirring of gears preceded the appearance of their butler as he rounded the balustrade in the visitors' foyer. He slowed his steady forward momentum when he saw her, his striated glass lenses turning to adjust his polarized vision.
"Please have the coach brought around, Alfred."
He acknowledged her request with an eminently regal dip of his head.
"Thank you," she said, unable to refrain from smiling.
The servant was one of her most prized creations, albeit one lacking the painful sentimentality of the lovebirds. As much as she longed to keep them, she also could not wait to be parted from them. They awakened memories she'd learned to suppress through an intense focus on her work.
It had been five years since Waterloo. Five years.
He wasn't coming back.
Annie secured her hat to her head with an ivory pin and collected the boxed birds with gloved hands. Alfred pulled the front door open, allowing the low-lying fog to roll in over the cracked marble floors with the sinuousness of a lover. She left the house, skipping over the shattered second step to reach the street, which was deserted aside from her steam coach.
What had once been a fashionable neighborhood for the wealthy was now home to a pile of rubble. When Prinny had urged the willing and able to stake claims on salvageable abandoned properties, she and Thomas had chosen a row house that stood as a lone sentinel on a ravaged street. It was quiet here. She was spared the distraction of belching delivery wagons and the repetitious tick tick tick of insectile vendor cart legs picking their way over pockmarked cobblestones.
Lifting her skirts, Annie climbed onto the box seat and settled herself. She pulled her driving goggles over her eyes, then gripped the wheel as she let the break, holding on tightly as the coach lurched forward.
In short order, she left the city behind. Baron de la Warren lived on the outskirts, away from the smoke and fog that shrouded London. When she arrived at the massive iron gates that kept the fawning world at bay, she rang the bell. The locking mechanism had been built as a work of art, with copper meshing gears and tin ornamentation. She watched admiringly as the chains slid smoothly over well-oiled sprockets, causing the gates to swing inward and grant her entrance.
Within the high brick perimeter walls, the baron's property was massive. A dirigible landing pad was situated on the left side of the brick manse and a large carriage house was visible in the distance on the right. Sleek hounds followed her progress up the lane, their iron plates flexing with the ease of snakeskin.
Once she reached the circular front drive, Annie reined in her delight and focused on the meeting ahead. Clearly his lordship held an appreciation for mechanization and she had no qualms in saying that she was the best engineer in London.
Squaring her shoulders, Annie caught the brass ring held in the jaws of a massive lion's head doorknocker and rapped it sharply. She was initially surprised when a human butler opened the door, but that passed swiftly. The baron could afford the luxury of live servants and their wages. She, on the other hand, had created Alfred from scrap parts.
The butler took her hat, gloves and pelisse before showing her into a shadowed study.
As he bowed and moved to turn away, she said, "I will require more light, please."
The striking of a match preceded the flaring of illumination from one of the room's corners. Her head turned swiftly, her breath catching as a man stepped forward. She scarcely paid any mind to the door clicking shut behind the retreating servant.
"Will this do?" he asked in a low, rumbling voice. He turned up the flame in the gas lamp he carried and joined her at the desk where she'd deposited the birds.
She stared, riveted by the savage beauty of his face and the intensity with which he regarded her. His dark hair was long, hanging to his shoulders in a thick, glossy mane. A wide band of pure white strands embellished his left temple, framing a silver eye. Even as she watched, the metallic iris turned, the lens adjusting to accommodate the brighter light. A scar ran diagonally from his temple, across the eyelid and over his upper lip, explaining how he'd lost the eye he had been born with. The blemish did nothing to mitigate his comeliness. While it altered her perception of the symmetry of his features, it was in a manner she found highly appealing, as she did the air of danger surrounding him.
The provocation she felt was far from fear.
Breathing shallowly, her gaze raked over his face, admiring his dark winged brows, brilliant green iris and the impossibly sensual shape of his mouth. His jaw was square and bold, his cheekbones high and expertly sculpted. He was far too masculine to be pretty, but he was certainly magnificent, and younger than the strip of white hair and his world-weary gaze would suggest. The drawings of him in the gazettes had never done him justice.
"Miss Waters," he greeted her, extending his gloved hand. "I cannot tell you what a pleasure it is to receive you."
"My Lord. The pleasure is mine." She curtsied and placed her fingers within his palm, shivering as he clasped her. There was a sincerity in his commonplace greeting that startled her. Then something else unexpected—the unforgiving strength of metal curling around her fingers—stole her attention. "Your hand ...?"
"My arm," he corrected.
An entire arm. Mechanized. Excitement coursed through her.
He watched her with searing intensity. "Would you like to see it?"
Releasing her, he stepped back and shrugged out of his beautifully tailored velvet jacket. He tugged off his gloves; first the one on his mechanical hand, then its mate covering his physical one. She was amazed by the dexterity of his copper fingers as he freed the button at his cuff and rolled his sleeve up.
Her lungs seized at the wondrous sight. She took a step forward without her volition, her gaze riveted to the softly whirring copper and steel gears. They had been fashioned into the shape of an arm and so precisely meshed that she doubted even air could slip between the cogs. Encased in what appeared to be thin glass, it was worthy of museum exhibition.
"How extensive is the replacement?" she asked, fighting the urge to run her hands over it.
"To the shoulder."
Her tongue darted out to lick suddenly dry lips.
His green eye flashed with heat and his mouth—that wicked, wonderful mouth—curved in a rakish smile. "I would gladly show you the whole, but I'd have to undress further. Do you object?"
"No." She quivered with anticipation. "Please."
The baron loosened his cravat. She was so mesmerized by the expert craftsmanship of his artificial appendage, she scarcely registered that he was disrobing. Until the tight lacing of his abdomen was bared. Followed by the rippling expanse of his powerful chest.
"Oh, my ..." Her arousal spiked. Her blood was hot for him, her body softening to accommodate the hardness of his. Unseemly thoughts filled her mind. Naughty thoughts. Highly sexual.
He was scarred on his chest as well. As with his face, the puckered bullet hole and multiple knife slashes only made him more delicious. Annie's lips parted on lightly panting breaths, her breasts swelling within her bodice.
She flushed and tore her gaze away from the seductive expanse of flame-lit muscle and golden skin. It shocked her to realize how much effort was required to focus on his finely wrought arm instead. In truth, it had been far too long since flesh and blood had held more appeal than steel and grease. She found herself at a loss over which arm was more skillfully cast—the one afforded him by the grace of God or the one crafted by an earthly engineer.
"Exquisite." Annie referred to the entirety of him, not merely the manmade pieces.
Judging by his sudden low growl, the baron knew it.
Sharp tension spiked between them, a heightened awareness that swept across her skin in a prickling wave. An aching need built between her legs, a reminder that she had suppressed her desires for years. Or, more accurately, it had been that length of time since a man had proven capable of rousing them. After the loss of Gaspard, she'd wondered if grief had made her immune to masculine charms. But the baron was proving her wrong. Her gratitude for that was as potent as her attraction.
Turning away abruptly, she faced the desk and lifted the lid on the delivery box with unsteady hands. The lovebirds glimmered in the firelight, their tin feathers flexing as they moved closer to each other. "I hope these are satisfactory, my Lord."
He came up behind her, his greater height enabling him to look over her shoulder. He stood so close she could smell him: warm, virile male with the faintest touch of clove and bergamot.
"My god," he said gruffly, reaching around her to slide his hand beneath a bird and lift it out. "I have never seen the like."
Annie's stomach quivered with delight at his praise. The way the baron hefted the small creature—curling his palm around it and testing its weight—incited scorching thoughts of his hand on her breasts, cupping them from his position behind her, admiring her form with equal warmth.
"Do not remove them too far from one another," she warned. Her voice softened with the memory of another pair of birds, a gift from a man she'd once thought to spend her life with. "They cannot be parted, if you don't wish them broken."
"Broken." His warm breath blew across the shell of her ear. "Is that not true of us all? Once we find the other half of ourselves, we are never again whole without them."
"Yes." Her gaze remained riveted on his hand, the warm live flesh carefully holding her delicate creation. "Will they be a gift? For your other half, perhaps?"
"They are for you, Annabelle," he said softly. "To replace the ones you lost."
"My lord?" Her chest lifted and fell in an elevated rhythm. She wondered if he knew how the soft hum of his turning gears affected her. The low sound coursed over her senses in a constant tingling stream.
"Gaspard Vangess served under me. He spoke of you. As beautifully as you create things with your hands, he created you in words." There was the veriest hint of his lips against her ear. "Before I saw you in truth, I dreamed of you. Wanted you."
With shaking hands, she took the bird from him and set it carefully back in the box. Its partner cooed and shifted closer.
"Have I frightened you?" he asked hoarsely. "I meant to woo you carefully. That remains my intent. I apologize that I wasn't prepared for your effect on me. The moment you entered the room, I was ensnared. But I won't press you beyond your allowance."
"I'm not frightened." She exhaled in a rush. "He is gone, then?"
"I knew it. Felt it." But she also felt a quiet, painful relief to know her first love's fate for a certainty. Not knowing had become the most painful aspect of all.
"His last words were of you. He secured my promise to replace the birds he'd once given you, the ones you lost during the London invasion. He went to war to make the world a safe place for you to have precious and fragile things, and he wanted to see that goal met and come full circle. I chose to present you with a gift that won't die. I cannot replace Vangess, but I can give you something of him that will never leave you."
A tear slipped free, along with an aching weight she hadn't realized she was carrying. "My poor, sweet Gaspard."
The baron stood at military rest behind her, a stoic yet soothing presence. "My heart aches for your loss."
"Thank you." Annie watched the small parrots nuzzle against each other. She was powerfully aware of her desire to do the same with the man behind her. A man with whom she felt an undeniable affinity and appreciation. "I am no longer the girl he told you about."
"No. That girl was his. Annie, he called you. But I think Bella better suits the lush and courageous woman you've become."
And the woman she'd become was suddenly unencumbered. And so very lonely. She watched the lovebirds and envied their bond. "For a time, I was broken."
He touched the top button of her jacket where it lay against her nape. "And now?"
"Now ... I am whole but empty." And mantled by a man who stirred her blood while desiring her in return. An unexpected yet welcome miracle.
"What you would have of me? You have only to ask."
Her head fell forward, her eyes drifting closed. "I want you to touch me, my Lord. I want to be the Bella you see when you look at me. I want to be filled again."
He nuzzled against her upswept hair. The first of her coat's buttons was urged free of its hole. The rest swiftly followed, coaxed into surrender—as she was herself—by the baron's agile and dexterous mechanical hand. When he pushed the garment forward, over her shoulders and down her arms, she reveled in the rush of air that cooled her fevered skin.
"I must tell you," she whispered. "My brother, Thomas, aspires to work for you."
"I will train him myself."
The largesse of his quick offer and the joy it would bring to Thomas softened her heart. "That isn't why I want you."
"I wouldn't care if it was."
Annie glanced over her shoulder, her heartbeat faltering at his beauty. "Why not?"
Excerpted from STEAMLUST Copyright © 2011 by Kristina Wright. Excerpted by permission of CLEIS PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsForeword Meljean Brook....................xii
Introduction: A Passion for Steampunk....................1
Iron Hard Sylvia Day....................19
Heart of the Daedalus Saskia Walker....................33
Fog, Flight and Moonlight Sacchi Green....................49
The Undeciphered Heart Christine d'Abo....................66
Mr. Hartley's Infernal Device Charlotte Stein....................80
A Demonstration of Affection Elizabeth Coldwell....................95
Undergrounded: Hannah Hawthorne and the Stranded Time Ship Vida Bailey....................112
Sparks Anna Meadows....................124
Green Cheese Lisabet Sarai....................142
Lost Souls Andrea Dale....................158
Golden Moment Lynn Townsend....................171
Liberated Mary Borsellino....................183
Make Your Own Miracles Nikki Magennis....................201
Rescue My Heart Anya Richards....................219
About the Authors....................222