A Hart/McQueen Steampunk Adventure 1
Author: Jennifer Harlow
Genre: Steampunk Romance
Publisher: Devil on the Left Books
Number of pages: 293
Word Count: 96,000
Cover Artist: Jennifer Harlow
KEEP CALM AND STEAMPUNK ON
The whole of Victorian London knows there is something not quite right about the Lady Verity Hart. She may be the daughter of an MP and the sister of famed inventor Lord David Hart, but she is a spinster whose own father threatens to send her to the madhouse every fortnight. Because Society is correct-Verity Hart is no lady. If they suspected how quick with a quip she is, let alone the majority of her brother’s ingenious machines were her design, the sale of fainting couches would double.
Verity requires one herself when her beloved brother is kidnapped by vampyres in the dead of night. With the aid of an aggravating, rude American bounty hunter with a secret of his own, Verity takes to land, sea, and even air to rescue the only person who could ever love and truly accept her. Or is he?
Available at: Amazon
The Notorious Count Orrlock Has a Ball
Oh, heavens, did I leave my blowtorch on?
As I sit in our carriage, waiting behind one of those new motorcars I have been dying to tear apart, fear grips me like a vice. Burning the house down would certainly be the final straw with Father. He would surely lock me away as he has threatened countless instances these past eleven years. Did I leave it on? I was in such a rush to get ready for the ball, it is certainly possible. I swiftly run through my movements. I was welding the hinge on my latest invention, the Artemis, when David poked his head into my workshop to inform me Father was home. I set down the torch, removed my goggles, then quickly changed out of my leather work clothes into my lavender tea dress. Then I made sure the gunpowder and petrol were stowed properly, checked the hinge, then…I did shut it off. Oh, thank the Lord.
“Verity, did you hear a word I said?” Father asks harshly, bringing me out of my head.
I gaze across the carriage at my father. He’s dapper tonight in his tuxedo with white handkerchief, bowtie, and white rose in the lapel like David. At four-and-fifty my father is still handsome, even though at forty his hair turned pure silver in the blink of an eye. Strangely his eyebrows remained dark brown and are only now beginning to match. He’s known for his patience and grace under pressure, though one would not know this judging from his expression now. As always when his attention is directed at me his face is filled with an undercurrent of contempt with each passing moment. I believe I am the only person in all of Christendom who can crack the façade.
“Yes, I mean no, Father. I was daydreaming. I apologize.”
His lips purse. “I was saying, try to refrain from garishly flirting with that man tonight. You are to be on your best behavior. Several other Parliament members shall be in attendance, along with the head of the India bureau. Avoid that man as much as possible.”
“You mean our host?” I ask.
“I heard Isobel Derbyshire was seen departing his villa most late at night un-chaperoned not a month past,” Mama says, ever the gossip.
“My point precisely. Even a hint of impropriety, and people will talk.”
“Father, people do little else,” I counter. If possible his lips tighten further. I gaze down to the floor. “Sorry, Father.”
“If you will not behave for me, then do it for Margot. She has only three years until she is presented into society. Do not make your sister pay for your ill behavior.”
As always, my father cuts right to the quick. Worst, he is not wrong. “I shall be the paragon of ladylike virtue all evening, Father.”
“See that you are.”
Two weeks. Only two more weeks until my obligation is fulfilled for the year, and I may return to Somerset. Then, unless summoned, I do not have to see him until Christmas. May the good Lord give me strength to hold my tongue, keep my head high, and behave as the lady the whole of London believes me to be. Our coach pulls to a stop at the entrance of the hotel. You are Lady Verity Hart, daughter of the Eighth Earl of Carlisle tonight, nothing more. Bloody well act like it.
The automaton footman dressed in livery with powdered wigs opens the carriage door and holds out its metal hand to help us debark. I have never liked these machines. Created to resemble humans in both form and height with their smooth, blank brass faces, jerky movements, and the strength of three men. Unnatural. More human than human in some respects. I do appreciate their mechanical intricacies, the innovation as dozens of gears, pistons, cogs all firing and moving together as if God himself designed them. I do not spy a bulky engine with exhaust pipes shooting out hot steam on its back, so it must be a newer model powered either by battery or electrical oscillator. What a difference five years makes in terms of progress.
I am surprised that so many of the upper crust would deign to travel to Chelsea from Mayfair and Belgravia but here they are, the men in pressed suits and the majority of women in white, though I would wager there is not a black glove left in the whole of London. The Count always throws the party of the Season, which is the only reason Father deigns to be in the same room as him. And we, I mean I, had the added honor of being personally invited by the Count. It would be a slap in the face should we not attend, even with the theme of “Black and White” with mourning clothes encouraged. As always, tongues wagged about the request, with those not invited most vocal.
As white washes me out, I selected a black lace gown trimmed with white, and both my slippers and elbow length gloves are white as well, with a spare pair in my black reticule. I never leave the house without two pair in case of emergency. My hands resemble those of a laborer with calluses, scars, and burns difficult to explain away. I learnt from experience.
My brother David holds out his arm for me to take. With a smile, I lock my arm with his, and we trek toward the hotel door. We usually all but read each other’s minds, but my scowl says it all.
“Father is in rare form tonight,” David says. “Attempting to guilt you with destroying Margot’s reputation? Low swipe, even for him.”
“I know. One would think I was constantly throwing myself at the Count every chance I had.”
“He does flirt with you a considerable amount.”
“He flirts with everyone, I am nowhere near special in that regard. When I do seek him out, it is simply because I find him agreeable. And honest, which is most refreshing.” With a sigh, I shake my head. “I am eight-and-twenty years old, and our parents treat me as if I am a three-year-old who throws temper tantrums whenever there is company about. I just want to…scream. I should be able to speak and dance with my friend if I so choose.”
“You should. Without question. But tonight, please Very, be cautious.”
“Am I not always?” I ask with a rueful smile.
An actual human takes our invitations and informs us the location of the cloakroom. I have never been to this particular hall no one has as the Count just completed its construction for this ball, but it’s cheery with pale yellow walls. Most refreshing from the usual dark wallpaper or red walls found everywhere else. I especially adore the roses in the vases, most white but some literally painted black. David and I stop to admire them until Father and Mama reach us. “Shameless,” Father huffs.
The men break off to the hat room and Mama and I to the cloakroom. “You look quite pretty tonight, darling,” Mama says as we stroll past more shameless displays.
Despite my swift preparation for the night’s event, I do agree with her for once. My naturally thick, honey blonde hair is in a chignon held by diamond encrusted silver geared barrettes that match my interlaced silver clock gear necklace. My grass green eyes, the only indication I am my father’s daughter, are as always offset by my milky skin, as are my pink lips with Cupid’s bow.
Even my figure is impressive with the torturous corset doing its job, giving the impression my small breasts are fuller and my waist a near perfect seventeen and a half inches on my 5”4’ frame. Still, I cannot wait until I am back in my real clothes: leather trousers, billowy white shirt, all of me covered in oil or grease. I may not be worthy of note then, but at least I can breathe. Bloody corset.
“Thank you, as do you, Mama.”
I hand the maid my cloak and receive my programme and dance card as Martha Templeton and her eight-and-ten-year-old daughter Emiline begin commenting on the odd décor and apprize all who can hear of the latest gossip. I maintain a smile as I pretend to find it all fascinating until we return to the hallway where Father and David wait. The moment Emiline catches sight of my dapper brother she smoothes her pink hair, which is the newest colour in the D.V. Hart Hair Dye line. I’ve heard that many ladies use the product simply so they have a conversation starter around my brother. He never notices a one of them. Poor dears.
I understand his appeal. Beyond the fact my brother is rich as Crocus, a future Earl to a grand manor, and one of the greatest inventors of our time, but is also quite handsome. He has a lean body, rich brown eyes, thick brown hair that at thirty shows no signs of grey. If he weren’t my brother, I would probably be in love with him as well.
David and I trail behind our parents, who nod at the few people loitering in the hallway. Once again we have to wait in line at the arching entrance of the ballroom to be announced. A lady always enters a room with a smile, so I affix mine. You are Lady Verity Hart. Lady Hart…
“Lord Edmund Hart, Earl of Carlisle, accompanied by Countess Edith Hart with Lord David Hart, Viscount of Lovell, and the Lady Verity Hart.”
The majority of the guests gaze our way. David and I spend ten months a year at our manor house in Somerset, coming to town only for the end of the Season to avoid gossip, so when the magnificent, brilliant D.V. Hart deigns to venture into society, there is always a reaction. Quite a few ladies brighten up. I heard two hundred fifty invitations were sent out, and by the size of the crowd, I would say most are here. The doors and windows are already open to aid with the heat. Balls in mid-June are always rather uncomfortable, not to mention stench filled. Hand fans are already being put to use, mine included. A lady never sweats. Never.
I spot Aunt Esme gliding toward us with her daughter Cricket and Cricket’s husband Arthur following behind. The sisters kiss cheeks as I smile at my cousin. Though she’s two years younger than I, we used to be good friends at least until her marriage. Gone was the bright, exuberant girl who loved watching me weld. Four children, two who didn’t survive infancy, have taken their toll on her. Her blonde hair remains limp even though it is wrapped around various gear ornaments, and figure fragile underneath the ivory taffeta gown. Arthur’s a good man but dull as dishwater. He towers over his wife and is as gaunt as she. As Mama and Esme repeat all the conversations they’ve had since arriving, the men begin with politics. Even Cricket’s eyes glaze over. “Cricket, could you show me where the refreshment room is? I’m parched.”
“Of course,” she says.
Taking her arm, I lead her from the group. “I am sorry my dear, I have not been available to keep you company this week,” I begin. “I—”
A tall woman with flaming red hair and skin the colour of snow bumps into my frail Cricket. Instead of apologizing, and her equally pale escort scoff and continue on their way. Our mouths plop open. “How rude,” Cricket says. My jaw drops further as I watch them approach David, but Oliver Blaylock reaches him first. The rough couple exchanges an angry look but change course away from him. What odd people.
As we make our way to the refreshment room, I nod and smile at those I recognise as Cricket updates me on her children. We get our lemonade, even if I asked they would not serve me whiskey, and sink gracefully into chairs near an open window to people watch. A few ladies rebelled against the theme by wearing bright colours and dying their hair the same colour with greens, purples, blues all the colours of the rainbow both garishly adorned with clockwork gears similar to mine. David commissioned the clockwork gear necklace I wear tonight for my twenty-first birthday as an inside joke. I wore on a few occasions, blinked, and the whole of society were adorned in rivets and gears. The style was then translated into home décor, ours included. Brass gears and rivets now adorn most light fixtures, lampshades, even wall moldings like those in this very hall. Took some of the fun out of it.
It is easy to glean why the dye is David’s highest seller. Where the women try to distinguish themselves with said colours, the men could be interchangeable with the same tuxedo, clipped mustaches, and short hair parted down the middle. I spot the always delightful Lord Dickie Hopper, the last of my three potential husbands, holding court amid a dozen people, only one whom I do not recognise. The stranger’s black hair peppered with grey is longer than is fashionable as it reaches his shoulders, and his skin is dark from hours spent in the sun. Not from London then. He’s also most handsome in a rugged way not often appreciated in society. It must be tonight as everyone seems fascinated by him, and judging from the near scowl on his face, he does not enjoy said attention. Dickie collects people to show off, so the stranger could be an exiled crown prince or circus performer. His new friend just sips his tumbler of liquor between deep scowls.
“American,” a familiar voice purrs behind me, “among other interesting characteristics.”
With a smile I pivot around and find our host looming over me with his usual catlike grin. Another man of mystery. He simply arrived in town five years past, purchasing a large parcel of Chelsea and throwing the most elaborate parties I’ve ever attended. Fire eaters, swamis, tigers, even ballet dancers have been showcased at his events. Tonight men in black and white jester costumes with kabuki masks juggle or perform mime around the ballroom. I’ve heard he hails from Russia, but others insist it’s Romania or Hungary. It is difficult to gage as when he speaks, there is only a trace of Eastern Europe in his voice. I do know one or two people who affirm they met his father in Austria at balls decades ago. His name wasn’t Orrlock, but they swear based on the uncanny resemblance, the men have to be father and son. The mystery rages on, and my unconventional friend revels in every wagging tongue.
He looks to be in his mid-thirties with olive skin, dark brown hair the same colour as his eyes, athletic physique, and straight nose. I have only ever seen one man as beautiful as he, though Jolyon’s was restrained whereas Orrlock’s is wild like a gypsy, though a dandy gypsy. Though we flirt, there is no real romantic attachment towards one another, at least on my part. Ever since I rapped his hand with my fan and told him I would break his nose if he was ever forward enough to attempt to touch my neck again, we have been good friends.
“That fact alone makes him more interesting than the whole of the room put together,” I say.
The Count glides around, fixing his jewel encrusted gear cufflinks as Cricket rises. “I had best be getting back to Arthur,” she says, curtsying. “Pardon me.”
Orrlock furrows his brow as she scurries away. “Am I that repellant?” he asks as he sits.
“The family does not approve of you. I am sure she received the same speech I did about keeping away from you.”
“Well, thank you for not obeying. And for wearing black. It was most bold of you.”
“Bold nothing, it was purely for cosmetic reasons. White washes me out. People would think I was a member of the undead, haunting the hall otherwise.”
A large yet private smile crosses his face. “Now there is a thought, Lady Hart.”
I smirk back. “So, I have not seen Isobel Derbyshire here tonight. Will she be attending?”
“I very much doubt it, I am afraid. I am not her favourite person at present.”
“And you wonder why proper ladies flee in your presence.”
“Yet you never do. Are you not a proper lady?”
“Depends on whom you ask, Count Orrlock.” We both grin and grow silent before the sound of laughter draws our attention. Dickie imitates gunfire with his fingers as all but the American laugh at his antics. “Poor American,” I say. “He looks about ready to scream. Shall we attempt a rescue before the gunfire begins in earnest?”
Orrlock rises, holding out a hand for me. “I would be remiss in my duties as host if I did not.”
I take his perpetually chilly hand and accompany him to the jubilant group. Halfway to our destination, the American notices us approaching. Staring straight at Orrlock, his back straightens and shoulders fall back as if he’s threatened. Orrlock smirks. Are we that frightening? Dickie notices us a second later and lights up further, smiling enough to show teeth. Even that’s boyish.
“Our host and my favourite heartbreaker. I am honored.” The men bow except the American who just nods.
“Heartbreaker indeed,” I say as I curtsey. “You proposed to Hester not two weeks after you did me.”
To avoid going to debtor’s prison. I suppose I should be flattered he thought of my fortune first.
“And speaking of, where is your lovely wife this evening?”
“Home with one of her headaches per usual,” Dickie says. He smacks the American’s back.
“Thankfully, I met Jamie here two nights ago, and he agreed to keep me company tonight.” Everyone in the group exchanges a look as Dickie should have introduced us right away and failed to do so. He realizes it far too late to avoid impropriety. “Oh, forgive me! Your beauty made me forget my manners. Lady Verity Hart, Count Ivan Orrlock, may I present Mr. Jamie McQueen of the Oklahoma territory of America.”
“Pleasure to meet you, sir,” I say, but the man doesn’t remove his eyes from Orrlock, who still smirks.
“Yeah,” the American says.
“Jamie McQueen, an Irish name if ever I heard one,” Orrlock says. “You look remarkably like an Irish acquaintance I once had. James Roarke? Are you by chance related?”
“He’s my grandfather, but I never met the man,” the American says icily.
“A shame. He was a colourful man.”
“He’s dead?” the American asks.
“I heard of his death almost ten years past, though I do believe the rest of your clan is still on that island of theirs.” Orrlock’s smile grows. “You know it has been years since I ran into one of your kind.” He glances at the confused group of which I am a part. “An American that is.”
“And it is always a pleasure to meet one of yours,” he says with a sneer.
What an utterly rude man, and judging from the ladies pulling their escorts away, I am not alone in thinking this. Orrlock does not seem to mind. “Cats and dogs, ha ha,” Orrlock says gaily. He glances behind Dickie. “Oh my, it seems as if I must attempt another rescue. Mr. Stoker has been cornered by an aspiring actress hoping to join the Lyceum.”
“I heard you two were working on a book together,” I say. “Whatever is it about?”
“He’s simply interviewing me for research. It’s hush hush at the moment, I am afraid. Excuse me.” Orrlock steps away but instantly thinks better of it. “I almost forgot. Lady Hart, I demand the first dance and you cannot refuse me. I am the host after all.”
Blast. I shall never hear the end of this from Father, but I do have no choice. “I would never dream of refusing. ‘Til then.”
He bows and nods at the men. “Gentlemen, enjoy yourselves.” He walks away to help poor Bram from acquiring another mistress.
Dickie pouts. “Oh, foo. I was hoping for that honor, Lady Hart. You can make it up to me by giving me every dance after.”
I start penciling names on my dance card. “You may have the second, no more.” I glance at the American, who if he had one ounce of breeding would ask as well.
I take this opportunity to size him up. I would place him in his third decade. Up close he is far more handsome than I first thought with almost black eyes with wrinkles around, whiffs of grey in his black hair, and thick physique that even in ill-fitting evening wear looks rough. I suppose it could be the fact he’s sporting black cowboy boots. He’s quite imposing, easily over six feet tall. He feels our stares and lowers the tumbler. “I don’t dance. Ever. Sorry.”
“Perfectly alright, Mr. McQueen,” I say, ever the lady. “So, I am sure you have been asked this question many a time already, but how did you and Lord Hopper come to be acquaintances?”
Dickie throws his arm around Mr. McQueen’s shoulder. As I suspected he is already halfway toward inebriation. “Why, he saved my life, Lady Hart. I would be shot dead if not for him.”
I press my fan to my heart in mock shock that always appears genuine. Practice makes perfect. “Oh, my. How dreadful.”
“I was in this club, which one doesn’t matter,” he adds quickly, meaning it was an East End den of iniquity, “merely playing cards, when this brute accused me of cheating and drew a pistol. I pleaded, but the blackguard would not listen to reason. That’s when my savior rose from the chair next to my assailant, and with one deft punch, knocked him into oblivion. It was nothing short of amazing.”
“After that I insisted I show him the best of London.”
“And is this your first time in England, Mr. McQueen? Are you here on business?”
The American opens his mouth to answer, but Dickie interjects. “Oh, guess his occupation, Lady Hart. It’s too extraordinary.”
“Judging from your boots, I’d say cattle baron?”
“Bounty hunter!” Dickie exclaims.
“Oh. I thought they only existed in stories.”
“We’re real,” the American says dourly.
“He was a Pinkerton as well. Chased the Jesse James gang.”
“Impressive,” I say, meaning it.
He nods. “That you, ma’am.”
Dickie sips his gin. “He’s the one who brought Algernon Bishop back.”
“Algernon Bishop…” I prompt.
Dickie downs the rest of his drink. “He stole Countess Lacey’s jewels and fled to America a few months past. She put up a five hundred pound reward for his capture.” Dickie smacks McQueen’s back again. “McQueen here tracked him down and brought him back here to face justice.”
“Once again, most impressive,” I say.
Dickie takes the American’s glass. “We require refills. I shall return.”
I gaze around and realize I am now alone with the American as the rest of the group, who knew the story already, left. I have a million questions, but most shouldn’t even cross my mind let alone my lips. The standards will have to suffice. “So, how long are you staying in London, Mr. McQueen?”
“My ship leaves tomorrow afternoon.”
“And your crossing. Was it enjoyable?”
“I was stuck in a closet with a no account criminal for five days. It wasn’t great.”
I am a tad shocked by his response, but only my eyes show it. “I’m sorry, but hopefully your time here has been more agreeable. How do you find our fair London?”
“It’s crowded, smells worse than a slaughterhouse in August, and y’all keep looking at me like I was a damn zoo animal. I’m counting the minutes until I leave. No offense.”
Before I can retort, Dickie returns with a huge smile. “Ha ha, old chap, you are the topic du jour tonight. People are talking,” he says in sing-song.
McQueen takes his tumbler. “Yeah, well, people don’t do much else, do they?”
In spite of myself I quickly smile, which judging from his narrowed eyes, the American sees. I clear my throat. “Well Lord Hopper, Mr. McQueen, I have monopolized enough of your evening. Please excuse me.” With a curtsey, I take my leave.
I spot David across the room speaking to the couple who bumped into Cricket, but am waylaid by Agnes Townsend, her brother Robert, and two other gentlemen who help fill my dance card. By the time we are done discussing the ball and gushing over how attractive we all are tonight, a new group of men surrounds my brother, one of whom sports two canes and the Hart mechanical braces. I always swell with pride when I see them. The man’s thin legs are encased in metal struts acting as an outer skeleton with hydraulic joints and tubing spiraling around the struts, leading to a small steam engine attached to the back vertical brace like a knapsack. My, or rather D.V. Hart’s greatest triumph. Men, women, even children who could not walk now can because of me. All creating them cost me was the man I loved, and my Father’s infinite wrath. Still worth it.
“…and nobody has seen him since,” Lord Stone says as I approach the group. “It has been close to three months now and no trace.”
“He simply vanished?” Lord Hepburn asks.
As I step beside David, the men bow and I curtsey. David turns to me. “Dr. Rathbone is still missing. Scotland Yard has run out of leads.”
Dr. Charles Rathbone is the closest thing D.V. Hart has to a rival. A year after the braces became available, Rathbone unveiled his first automaton. A year later, he had usurped David’s title of “Inventor of the Age.” We’ve had him over to dinner a few times. A lovely man. His disappearance was most shocking.
“We really needed those plans for his defensive automaton,” Lord Stone says. “He was on his way to deliver them when he vanished from his train. Lord Hart, I don’t suppose you would reconsider—”
David holds up his hand. “Lord Stone I have stated my position on automatons for years now. I design to improve lives, not create machines that will takes jobs from flesh and blood people in dire need of them,” he says, giving my reason.
“So, what have you been working on lately?” Hepburn asks.
David glances at me, and I smile. As always, my dear brother reads my mind. “Gentlemen, please observe my ring.” David holds up his pinky with a brass clockwork adorned ring on it. When he rotates the small gear, a tiny needle springs forth, startling the men. “I call it The Stinger. There is a powerful sedative I developed inside injected on contact. It is one of the many covert weapons I have created for covert self-defense purposes. Flamethrowers that resemble bracelet cuffs, a fob watch and cigarette case both with syringes much like this, just to name a few. I plan to test some tomorrow in Hyde Park.”
“A bracelet? You intend to make these available to ladies?” Hepburn asks, eyeing me. “Is that wise?”
“Lord Hepburn, I told him exactly the same thing. They are quite impractical, but he was so enjoying his lethal phase he would not listen. I cannot see my peers desiring to set anything ablaze. Besides their husbands, that is,” I say with a titter. The men do not smile back. I drop mine. “The Ministry might have use though.”
“Perhaps,” Hepburn says. “What about the project I proposed last month? To improve air quality around the factories?”
“I’m afraid my mind has been elsewhere,” David says.
“Lord Stone,” I say before anyone else can make demands, “how is Constance enjoying India? Have she and her husband settled in?”
I know this is a sore spot for him as Constance eloped with a soldier and fled to India. “She’s fine. Excuse me.” Using his canes he walks away, hydraulics whirring, with his toady Hepburn in toe.
“Thank you,” David says with a sigh as he turns the gear to hide the syringe.
“You’re almost as popular as Dickie’s bounty hunter friend over there. Who was that infernally rude couple you were speaking to before?”
I glance around the room and find them in a heated discussion with Orrlock. “The ones arguing with our host.” The woman all but hisses at Orrlock before her companion takes her arm and drags her toward the exit. Our host glares at them until they are out of sight, then shakes his head to regain his composure. I have never seen Orrlock angered before. They must really be wretched people.
“Frank and Megan Smith. Irish. They have a commission for D.V. Hart. Something about custom braces for their child who is paralyzed from the neck down.”
“I told them I would meet them tomorrow night at nine.” And I will be eavesdropping in the next room as always. “And, as you heard, the crown desperately wants those air filters, and Sir Lucas wants to commission a self-flushing privy, and—”
“Please stop. No more demands tonight. I am trying to enjoy myself.”
“And are you succeeding, sister dear? Is your dance card at maximum capacity yet?” He glances at it. “Not even half full,” he tuts. “This will not stand, not one whit. Come. This must be remedied at once.”
We spend the preceding ten minutes moving from small group to small group, making polite conversation with members of his club who, being the proper gentlemen they are, request dances. Bless them. If I’m truthful, I never care who I’m dancing with as long as I can perform the act. It’s the one activity I look forward to during the Season. It grows harder to find partners year after year as most of my male peers have married, and the younger men use these functions to find potential wives, and an eight-and-twenty-year-old spinster is not considered a good prospect. After I flirt an offer from Hugh Wilmore, we notice Antony Graves, one of David’s old Oxford friends and my second former potential husband, waving at us. Lovely fellow. He took a post in Australia five years ago after his marriage, so we rarely see him. I know David still misses their relationship to this day. We excuse ourselves and walk over to his group. Halfway on our short journey, the tall gentleman Antony speaks to pivots around, and my stomach drops.
Oh, Lord no. Not him. Anyone but him.
Even after ten years, he is still the most beautiful man I have ever laid eyes on. Over six feet tall, soft dark brown hair, hazel eyes, pale skin even women covet, clipped moustache that gives him a roguish air, and that cleft chin I adored kissing every chance I received. Now whenever I set eyes upon him, which are mercifully few and far between as he resides in Paris, I just want to strike that spot. At least he has the decency to appear frightened, mouth dropping open, when he notices me. David stops mid-stride but I continue on, pulling my brother along with me. I will not give Jolyon the satisfaction of seeing me weak. A Hart never backs down. Never. It is quite a good thing I chose not wear The Artemis as intended or former prospective husband number one might have found himself riddled with tiny spikes. Death by a thousand tiny pinpricks. Why should his fate be different from the one he prescribed for me?
Despite my deliciously murderous thoughts, I smile at the men and curtsey as they bow. Jolyon peers away toward the dance floor, but Antony takes my hand, kissing the top. “Lady Hart, you are tonight as always a vision.”
“Thank you, Lord Graves. It appears Australia agrees with you as well.”
“Hot and wild always has,” he says, eyeing a blushing David.
Jolyon’s jaw tightens as he sips his brandy. “And does your wife enjoy it?” he asks.
David and I momentarily scowl, but Antony smiles. “You may ask her, Mr. de Luce. She’s around here somewhere,” he says, searching for her. “We came to visit Father. His health is failing.”
“We heard. I am so sorry,” David says.
Antony merely shrugs. No love lost there since his father vowed to disown his own son if he failed to marry. I was his first query since he knew of my situation and I his. I actually gave the proposal serious consideration. It was mutually beneficial to us both after all. I would not be under my father’s thumb or reliant on David for protection. And there would have been no nocturnal wifely duties to worry about. But in the end I could not bring myself to say yes. It would have meant leaving David, who had fallen out with Antony months before. They have since made up. Every chance they receive. Lucky for Antony, Margaret Huxtable was in the same predicament and with the same proclivities as her future husband. It is wild in Australia indeed.“Father wants us to move back and take over his seat in the House, but we so love it there.”
“You two will have to come for dinner before you depart,” I say.
This would be the time when I ask Jolyon and his wretched wife over as well, but I’d rather shove needles in my eyes than break bread with them. Unless it was poisoned. Jolyon takes another sip of his drink as we fall into uncomfortable silence. My breeding will not allow this for too long. “And how is Ariadne, Mr. de Luce?” Hopefully she’s grown fat and warty so her outside matches the ugly inside.
“Well. She’s eagerly anticipating our third child,” he says apologetically.
Another boulder plummets in my stomach, though I refuse to show my response. “Really? Congratulations.” And that is enough of that. Social contract terms officially met. I spot Cricket and Arthur across the room. “Oh, excuse me, I believe my cousin requires me.” I do a quick curtsey and flee. I managed an entire minute that time. Certainly progress.
“Is that who I think it is?” Cricket asks when I reach her.
“Who is it?” Arthur asks.
“Is he watching?” I ask Cricket.
“He’s glanced twice.”
Arthur stares over my shoulder at Jolyon. “Who is he?”
“Arthur, stop staring,” Cricket whispers. “That’s Jolyon de Luce. He and Verity were attached.”
“He’s the one who broke your engagement?” Arthur asks me.
“Yes, and then not even a month later, he became attached to Ariadne Lester. He’s looking again,” Cricket tells me.
“I need some air. Pardon me, please.”
Head still high, I walk toward the nearest veranda but find it full of people. Fine. I move to the double doors which open onto a brick patio amid a large English garden where men smoke. It will have to do. I locate a quiet spot near the far back corner near the seven foot hedge blooms with white roses, but the cigar smell is still overpowering. I can already hear Mama’s complaints on the ride home. No matter. I—oh, blast. No sooner that I sit and take a long, controlled breath, Jolyon steps out. Peace. One moment’s peace tonight. Is that too much to ask? He examines the area, spots me, and strides over with purpose. I used to admire that quality in him, his self-assurance. No more. Every centimeter of me wants to flee, but instead I straighten my back and stare him square in the eyes. “Leave. Now.”
“I must speak with you,” he says.
“We have absolutely nothing to say to one another,” I whisper, which is a useless gesture.
My gaze juts to the men on the patio who watch and even whisper about the scene before them. We are breaking a golden rule, no private conversations in public. He shouldn’t even be approaching me like this. My father will blow a gasket when he hears about this. Of course Jolyon cares not a farthing for my reputation. He proved that ten years ago and continues the pattern tonight, sitting beside me on the bench. I make a show of moving as far as I can from him, not that this act will make it into the gossip tomorrow.
“We need to rectify this animosity between us.” His jaw sets. “Especially since Ariadne and I are returning to London in a month.”
As if my night could not get worse. “You are returning to England?” Which means I shall be seeing the joyous couple every time I am required in London. Oh, joyous day.
“Yes. I’ll be overseeing our London office, and Ariadne misses her family.”
“Of course she does, they’re as wretched as she is.”
His face contorts into the exact expression I never wanted to see from him. Pity. Once more I resist the urge to strike his face. It does prove far more difficult this time. “I never thought you could grow so bitter. It was over ten years ago, Verity. I want us to be civil, friends even. We all were once.”
I literally balk at his gall. “Friends? Your wife made my formative years a nightmare, spreading vile rumors regarding me and my brother and our…relationship. She turned multiple friends of mine against me with lies when I did absolutely nothing to her save for existing. And what you did to me was far more reprehensible. You all but ruined my life. My reputation remains tarnished to this day. We shall never be friends. I will be civil to you both in public because I am a lady, and that is what is expected of me, but I will not seek you out, and I would greatly appreciate if you hear I shall be attending a party, that you both refrain from attending as well. That is the very least you can do for me. The very least.”
His handsome face falls even further, gripped by sadness this time. “You shall never forgive me, will you?”
“For which offence? Making me fall in love with you, and believing you felt the same? Breaking our engagement when you found out I was not the perfect lady you imagined me to be? That I failed to live up to your ridiculous expectations? Or perhaps for making me the laughingstock of society when a month later you became engaged to my rival? My father almost disowned me. He still constantly threatens to lock me away and all but has. If David hadn’t threatened to cut his money off, Lord knows what would have happened to me. So, which sin shall I forgive first?”
By the time I met Jolyon just before my coming out, D.V. Hart was a sensation. Not only were David’s roll-on odorizer and hair cream just released, but so were my home alarm and crank washing machine. I had been tinkering with machines ever since David gave me his discarded erector set when I was two-and-ten. By three-and-ten I developed my first invention, a walking wind-up doll. My parents had tried to sway me from my hobby early on, downright forbidding me on several occasions from working, but it was of no use. Around age ten-and-five they finally gave up when my patents paid off the mortgage on Foxfire manor. The only condition was that no one could discover my secret. It would not only ruin my reputation but the family’s as well. Thus D.V. Hart was born. All the money, all the acclaim, it all belongs to David. Not a soul doubted us. I could continue my projects, and my reputation would remain intact. It was rarely a problem until Jolyon.
I considered revealing my secret before the engagement but something stopped me every time, though I convinced myself the man I loved could not help but be proud and amazed at my accomplishments.
Deep down I knew the truth. The fact men do not want an ambitious, intelligent wife had been drilled into me for years, only hope and denial made me believe Jolyon was different. He wasn’t. When I finally showed him my workshop, he was shocked which quickly became anger at my betrayal. Admonishments that I was not the woman he thought I was, that I’d lied to him sprang forth like bullets, killing my soul with each word. I was so in love I swore I would stop, and for over a month as I planned my wedding, I kept my promise. Until tragedy struck.
When Brutus, our two-year-old bulldog was hit by an Omnibus, paralyzing his hind legs. At first I built him a whicker buggy he could wheel around in, but he would whine when we left him on the ground floor. One such time, as he stared up at me with pitiful brown eyes, I received an epiphany straight from God. Then it came to me. My wind-up doll. The same principals could be applied. I drew up the plans in two days and began building. Jolyon’s reaction barely crossed my mind. Soon, during the process, I realized the braces could be fitted for humans as well and worked twice as hard. When Jolyon found out, from my own mother no less, he was livid. Utterly livid. During his tirade, the truth of the matter finally walloped me out of denial. It would never work. We would never work. He had fallen in love with the mask, Lady Hart—beautiful, sweet, demure, all I pretended to be. Verity Hart was none of that and never could be. She could never be content sitting by, simply running a household while her husband was out conquering the world. Thinking only of him, of his accomplishments and ambitions. Turning into nothing but a pretty doll, an accessory like my mother. I could not think of a worse fate.
When I told him that I wouldn’t, no I couldn’t stop, even for him, he ended the engagement. I was so devastated so mortified I fled to Foxfire, burying myself in work around the clock until the braces were complete. I had to read in the paper about his engagement. Just like that, I was replaced. Forgotten. Work and David helped me through the melancholia, and a year later when people walked up to David on the street with tears of gratitude in their eyes and tales of their first ever steps due to my braces, I knew I had made the right choice. I still know it. My heart was never the same though. No woman should have to reconcile herself to spinsterhood at ten-and-seven. At any age I suppose.
“I never told anyone your secret, not even Ariadne,” Jolyon says.
“And I am supposed to thank you for that? For not further besmirching my name?”
He lets out an angry, frustrated sigh. “There is no talking to you. Never was.”
“Well I am, what did you call me, abnormal? Manish? Stubborn? Not a proper lady, and I never would be? I would hate to disappoint you again.”
Shaking his head, my old rises. “I had hoped the years had changed you, softened you. I am disappointed it is not so. Have a pleasant evening, Lady Hart.” He bows and finally leaves me in peace.
My hands ache from ringing my fan with all my might, so I stretch my fingers to help ease the pain.
Better it than his neck. Just when I think I’ve accepted the past and moved on… It’s not so much him—I knew it wasn’t his fault he was raised to believe a certain thing—but the whole of my situation. They are all the same. Why is it so threatening for a woman to be educated? To want something more than only supporting her husband and children? It’s so bloody unfair some days I want to sc—
The sound of gravel crackling behind the hedge startles me out of my mental tirade. I cannot see who’s there behind the tall hedge. “Who is there?” I ask as I leap up. “Show yourself!”
“Just me,” a familiar American voice says as he steps into view.
“How long have you been standing there?” I ask, horrified.
Dear Lord, please don’t say, “Since before you sat down.”
I attempt to gulp down the large lump in my throat. “How much did you—”
He cocks an eyebrow. “Really want to know?”
Oh, please let the world end right now. “You should have let your presence be known, sir,” I hiss.
“And how dare you eavesdrop on a private conversation!”
“Sugar, I was here first. I wanted to finish my cigar in peace then you showed up. This close it was pretty damn hard not to hear you row that man up Salt River this close. Sounded like he deserved it, though.”
“Thank you?” I ask. I do not understand half of what this man says.
“Welcome.” We stand staring for quite a few moments, neither of us sure what to make of the other.
He does not appear apologetic, in fact he seems amused, mouth curled into a faint smirk. I look away first. “So, exactly how many of the men here have you been engaged to?”
I raise an eyebrow. “I beg your pardon?”
“Hopper told me you two were engaged, then the guy out here. I—”
“I was never engaged to Lord Hopper. He asked, and I declined.”
“It have something to do with your secret? Or why you smell like metal and grease?”
“I do?” I sniff my arm but find only my perfume, honeysuckle and vanilla. When I glance up, his smirk has grown. “First you listen to a private conversation, then you lie about my odor. I know Americans are meant to be rude, but you trump them all, sir. Excuse me.”
I advance to depart but the American sidesteps me, turning his back to the door. “Hey, look shug, I’m sorry, alright? I am sorry. I don’t mean to pile on the agony. I’m just not good at this social malarkey. It’s been a tough night. I didn’t mean to take it out on you.”
I meet his eyes, finding them sincere if not a tad weary. They are quite nice eyes, dark like a gypsy’s, with tiny lines around that only add to their untamed charm. I pull mine away before I give away my thoughts. “We are a trying group, that is certain. Especially to outsiders.”
“I do feel like I should be performing circus tricks or wrestling a bear while they throw pennies at me.”
“I know exactly what you mean, sir,” I say with a half smile.
His eyes narrow as he studies me for a moment. “I get the feeling you just might, shug.” My new acquatience’s grin grows as if he knows what I look like without my chemise. I should be outraged, perhaps give him a good telling to, but instead I’m…exhilarated. Flattered. Beautiful even. I had forgotten how marvelous a male’s attention can be. These stirrings must show on my face because his eyes brim with merriment. Something passes between us for a long, glorious moment, a heat that awakens the butterflies in my stomach that have been dormant these eleven years. Oh, how I have missed their playful fluttering. They—
Suddenly, the mood breaks as the American’s grin drops, and his head cocks to the side as if he hears something. “Oh, hell,” the American says before disappearing behind the hedge again. “I’m not here.”
What… Not a second later, Dickie steps onto the patio, surveying the area. How on earth did he know—?
“Lady Hart,” Dickie says as he approaches, “have you seen Mr. McQueen? The American? I seem to have misplaced him.”
I receive sweet revenge for his eavesdropping, but instead find myself saying, “I am afraid not. Apologies.”
“Oh, I do hope he has not left yet. I wished to introduce him to Antony. He refuses to believe I am acquainted with a real cowboy bounty hunter.”
“Dickie, Mr. McQueen is a human being, not a show pony. He most likely has no desire to be put on display like one all night.”
“He doesn’t mind,” Dickie says, waving his hand.
“Well, if I locate him, I shall tell your American you are searching for him.”
“Thank you,” Dickie says before venturing off once more.
“He’s gone,” I say a second later.
The America emerges from his hiding spot. “Thanks. That guy is working my last nerve.”
“Then why associate with him?”
“Nothing better to do until my ship sails, and your friend pays for everything.” He pulls out a cigar case. “Not to mention he’s got great taste in cigars.”
“My friend does not have a farthing to his name. He gambled through his own trust and now has debts all about town that the modest allowance his father-in-law provides does not cover, I recommend you maintain a close eye on your billfold, Mr. McQueen.”
He lights the cigar, giving me a cheeky grin in the process. “Always do, shug.”
The way he says that last word sends the butterflies into a frenzy. A few more minutes with this man and I shall be in peril of forgetting myself. “Lady Hart,” I correct. “Terms of endearment are meant only for those one is…intimate with.”
All the mirth drains from his face. Blast. “Excuse me, lady.” He shakes his head. “Lord, y’all have so many rules I can’t keep half of them straight. No wonder y’all are such sticks in the mud.”
I open my mouth to take umbrage, but seeing as I agree with him on both points, the words will flow. “Rules create order. Without them there would be chaos.”
He cocks an eyebrow, adding to his roguishness. “Damn, we wouldn’t want that, would we? We might actually end up having some fun. You ever have real, pure, exhilarating fun before, Lady Hart? The kind where you can’t catch your breath? Where every second is more…delicious than the last? Where your skin tingles like someone’s blowing on every inch of it?”
Without a doubt this man could hold a salon about that topic. Oh, how I would love to attend. “I…I…”
“Don’t know what you’re missing, shug,” he says, licking his chops at me.
Oh, merciful heavens, thank you. The trumpet sounds in the ballroom, signaling the first dance. He smirks. “And we’re off to the races.”
“I-I had best get in there. Count Orrlock will be looking for me.”
“Don’t want to break anymore hearts, right?” he says with a glint in his eye.
“I do have a reputation to protect. Enjoy the rest of your tenure in England, Mr. McQueen.” I curtsey with flourish and begin walking away. “Try not to eavesdrop on anymore conversations.”
“No promises, shug.”
Oh, I do enjoy how that word rolls off his tongue. The Count meets me at the patio door, glancing back at the American. “Making friends with the wildlife I see. Be careful Lady Hart, he looks like he bites.”
“Whatever do you mean, sir?” I ask with a smirk to rival Mr. McQueen’s.
The master of ceremonies saves me from yet another inappropriate conversation. “It is time for the first dance,” the M.C. says inside. “Please join me on the dance floor with your partner.”
Orrlock crooks his arm for me to take. “Shall we make the tongues wag?”
I glance back at the American as he takes another puff of his cigar. He winks at me, and I turn back around, blushing. I take my friend’s arm and stroll inside, past Jolyon and my glaring father. I give them both the patented Lady Hart smile. Sweet, gracious, and pliable. Just as they want me.
Well, not tonight. Tonight may chaos reign. “Nothing would give me greater pleasure.”
Time to burn this house down.