Rust and Steam
Rust and Steam
A speeding train.
A determined villain.
A reconciliation of broken hearts.
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Lady Alice Hemsworth wasn’t supposed to fall in love. It was her duty not to. Alas, she’d failed miserably. Mr. Benjamin Leighton—despite being turned away by her steam butler—can’t stop thinking about her. Alone, both are miserable—until a deadly encounter throws them together on the night train to London.
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Chapter One Look Inside
Chapter One Look Inside
The Great Northern Railway
Scotland, August 1884
“You proposed to Lady Delphinia?” His sister Clara gaped at him across a table covered with finely woven linen. Her fingers twitched and, for a moment, he thought she’d pitch her dinner roll at his forehead, but the bone china, glittering crystal and gleaming silver—all of it cast in a brilliant blue-white light from the Lucifer lamps affixed to the wood-paneled walls of the restaurant car—made her mind hard-won manners. Not to mention the upper-class passengers who shared the restaurant car as the steam train rattled and clacked its way at impressive speeds toward London while steambots rolled to and fro attending the gastronomical whims of the wealthy. “Why?”
Technically, he’d only spoken with the lady’s father, who was even now giving Mr. Benjamin Leighton’s offer “all due consideration.” Which meant the man was conflicted. Did he follow the traditions of generations? Or succumb to the temptations of allowing his daughter to marry a wealthy, upstart entrepreneur? Ben rather suspected Lady Delphinia’s modest dowry would tip the decision in his favor.
“For the usual reasons.” He refused to admit that the idea of binding himself to a woman with no chin bothered him. She was sweet and kind and the daughter of a gentleman. Certainly, there were other women interested in his wealth but, of late, Ben had lost all interest in the pursuit. The ton was correct. Better not to engage one’s heart in the matter of marriage. “I require a wife.”
“Of good breeding and societal standing.” Clara’s lips twisted as she parroted back words he’d spoken at the beginning of the London Season. “But Lady Delphinia is so very… very…”
Ben narrowed his eyes, warning her he’d not condone any disparaging comments.
“Meek,” Clara settled on with a resigned sigh. “You truly mean to go through with this? You’ve no need of the haut ton and all their nonsense. Or a wife for that matter.”
He lifted an eyebrow. His sister knew as well as he did that the fastest way into society’s inner circles was through marriage. If he wanted to grow his business—
“We have enough. At least choose someone with a personality.” Leaning on her elbows—with a glint in her eyes that told him her unrefined behavior was quite deliberate—Clara lowered her voice. “Whatever happened? You spent the entire Season panting after Lady Alice Hemsworth and now the two of you occupy the same train carriage, frostily pretending that the other is not present.”
Her words were a blast furnace. Heat shot through him, threatening imminent spontaneous combustion and welding every joint in place. He couldn’t move. “She’s here?” His voice—a scalded strangle—betrayed him.
“You didn’t realize?” With a snort of laughter, his sister began to rise. “I’ll just go—”
He slammed his foot down upon the hem of her skirts and growled, “Don’t you dare.”
Only Clara would dare to tweak his nose so. They’d grown up side by side, motherless and beneath the thumb of a man who couldn’t be counted upon to bring home weekly wages. Food and coal were never a given. Tired of numb fingers and rumbling stomachs, they’d set out to provide for themselves. Clara had swept floors in a milliner’s, quietly absorbing tricks of the trade, while Ben ran with the gypsy children on Clockwork Corridor, hunting for stray scraps of metal that their parents fashioned into mechanical art.
But those days were well behind them now. Lady Alice was one of the few who knew any details of his past. During a stroll in Hyde park, she’d confessed to an interest in clockwork mechanisms and asked how he’d built the Leighton Carriage Company—cornering the market on luxury steam carriages in London—and he’d cracked open his soul, confiding a few carefully concealed facts about his upbringing. As he’d spoken, she’d wrapped her arm about his and drawn him close.
He’d counted himself a lucky man to have found such a woman. Until she’d coldly cut him from her life.
“But—” Clara pressed.
“Don’t.” He spoke through gritted teeth.
Still, he found it impossible not to look. Shifting in his chair as a steam attendant ladled chilled cucumber soup into his bowl, he turned his head just enough to catch a glimpse of the woman who sat behind him on the other side of the restaurant car, alone. With her nose in a book.
His traitorous heart gave a great whomp behind his rib cage, then set a rapid pace, demanding more oxygen than his lungs could supply. As always, Alice took his breath away. Dressed in a pink confection of a gown, her blonde hair was crimped and twisted and tucked into inexpert loops by means of flower-studded hair pins. Several strands had already made their escape, trailing across her cheeks to tease the curves of her bare shoulders.
He snapped his head back—gaze forward—to glare at his sister. His conniving sister. Of all the trains… “How much effort was it, Clara, to arrange this coincidence?”
Laughter bubbled in her eyes. “Insignificant compared to the effort that will be necessary if I find myself a relation of Lady Delphinia.” She lifted a finger when he started to object. “Don’t try to convince me you’ve lost all interest in Lady Alice; even the roots of your hair have flushed.” Her next words came on a whisper. “And both of you were conspicuously absent from the Lady Westmorland’s ballroom for a full hour, only to return disheveled and gooey-eyed.”
Denial stuck in his throat, and he nearly choked on the lie. “Nothing happened.”
Everything had happened. The entire Season they’d courted. Flirted. Stolen kisses behind trees at garden parties. Held each other too close during waltzes. Whispered words of longing in alcoves of the theater. All of their ardor culminating the night of that ball when Alice had led him down a hallway and into a shadowy room, deftly turning the key in its lock.
She had been the one to push his coat from his shoulders, to unfasten the buttons of his waistcoat and shirtsleeves, to slip her deft fingers beneath his waistband and wrap them firmly about his erection. Half-dressed and mad with lust, they’d landed upon the chaise longue in a tangle. His face heated at the memory. She’d worn silk stockings. Garters. But no knickers. Urging him onward, Alice had buried her face in his neck and cried out his name. Aether, the mere memory of her unpracticed but determined seduction had him half-hard.
“Nothing,” he repeated, staring down into the depths of his soup as if only there could he discover what had gone so very, very wrong. Some might say a young lady had lost her innocence, but he rather believed it was his that had been stolen. Along with his heart.
“Ha!” Like a pteryform with a sheep, Clara refused to drop the topic. “Which is why you left the house the next morning—top hat in hand—to speak with her father?”
And arrived at her family’s townhome to find the steam butler waiting with a note on a silver salver.
I’m sorry. I cannot marry you. Please do not try to contact me.
The world had dropped out from beneath his feet. Even now, a month later, he had yet to find his footing. “Point taken. Now hush.”
“Hush?” If anything, her voice grew louder. She kicked him in the shin and yanked her hem free from his foot. “You’ve been moping about for the past month. Fix it, Benny, before I’m forced to take further actions.”
He knew that look. Clara had plans. “Lady Alice herself declined my suit, not her father.” His words came through a clenched jaw. Though humiliation burned in his gut, only blunt honesty would nip any additional schemes in the bud.
“Declined?” Confusion clouded her face, then she frowned. “I’d thought better of her.”
Yes, well, so had he. Hell, he’d gone and fallen in love. Instead, the knowing smirks of other gentleman informed him that he’d been nothing but a passing amusement. Her curiosity for the lower classes now satisfied, he was easily dismissed.
Save she’d never, not once, made him feel inferior. Could there be another reason she refused to see him? Had he been too hasty in turning his—lukewarm—attentions to another lady? No. She’d made her wishes quite clear.
He picked up the silver spoon and applied himself to the tasteless soup, trying to push all thought of Alice from his head. In two hours’ time, the meal would conclude and the train would stop in Newcastle, allowing him to return to his compartment, the better to pass another sleepless night. By morning, he would be in London where he would finalize negotiations with Lady Delphinia’s father.
Around them swirled the refined conversation of the well-born, punctuated by the clinking of silver against fine china and the occasional guffaws of a portly gentleman who was much amused at his companion’s animated recount of an event upon a recent airship voyage where passengers had been accosted by airship pirates. His friend vowed never to fly again.
Meanwhile, the back of his neck burned. Did Alice notice him sitting here, not ten feet away? Was she truly reading The Chemistry of the Secondary Batteries of Planté and Faure? Or merely staring at a blur of words, hoping that Ben would not cause a scene? Or had she already wiped him from her memory?
He drew his eyebrows together. So mired in his own misery, he’d not even thought to ask: why on earth was she—a young, eligible lady—on this train and dining alone, unchaperoned? Why was she in Edinburgh in the first place? Young ladies were to spend the summer months husband-hunting in London.
Not that the answer to either question was any of his business.
At the far end of the restaurant car, a door opened—letting in the rattle and clack and a rush of air—before slamming shut. All heads snapped up to see who would be fool enough to risk crossing through the gangway into the restaurant car while the train was at full speed. In a race to compete with the luxuries of airships, the Great Northern Railway had added first class sleeper compartments and restaurant cars, but passengers were strongly encouraged to move between carriages only when the train was fully stopped.
But Newcastle was over two hours away, and the man who stalked into the room—elbowing past a steam attendant and nearly upsetting a platter of grilled sole—was an impatient sort. Intent on his victim, Hugh Krause failed to notice Ben’s presence or hear his soft curses.
As Ben’s hand curled into a fist, his gaze locked with Clara’s. She’d swatted away too many unwelcome advances of her own.
“Why, yes,” she said, her face tight. “He has joined Lady Alice, and she looks none too pleased.” The corner of her mouth hitched upward. “Tell me again how you have no feelings for her?”
But Krause wasn’t known for harassing women; he had a reputation for stealing proprietary information of a technological nature. Alice must have something he wanted—which meant he’d grossly underestimated her interest in his work. That gave him pause.
Ben spun in his seat in time to watch the weasel yank the book from Alice’s hands and snap it shut. Eyes narrowed and lips pursed, she leaned forward and hissed something that shoved an iron rod through Krause’s spine. Not to be outdone, his reply—no doubt vile—drained every last drop of blood from her face.
Outraged, Alice leapt to her feet and—clutching an oversized reticule—marched past, retracing Krause’s path, chin held high, ignoring all the gaping passengers. Pausing to snatch an open bottle of champagne from a bewildered steam attendant, she threw Ben a puzzled stare, then yanked open the gangway door and disappeared.
Krause leaned back in his seat, a smug smile plastered across his face and snapped his fingers to gain the steam attendant’s attention.
Why had the German been allowed back on British soil? He’d been caught—red-handed—stealing trade secrets, repeatedly. Once in Ben’s own factory, posing as an assembly line worker. His true employee and been found drugged and locked in a closet. Hause was a nasty piece of work and growing more ruthless as time went on.
Ben stood, but there was no damsel in distress to rescue. Krause made no effort to follow her. And Alice had made it clear she wished to have nothing more to do with Ben.
“Oh, for aether’s sake,” Clara said, holding out her dinner roll, still wrapped in its napkin. “An entire bottle of champagne on two spoonfuls of cucumber soup? Hurry,” her voice mocked him, “save her from herself.”
With a snort, he snatched the bread from her hands and followed Alice. Heartsick, he could only hope she wouldn’t slam her door in his face.