The Silver Skull
The Silver Skull
An illegal border crossing.
A fake marriage.
A mad German count determined to create an army of unbreakable soldiers.
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Lady Olivia is not all she seems. Trained for marriage to an assigned political target, her skills lie in programming household steambots to serve tea, dress her hair… and sound the alarm while she picks locks and listens at doors. Humiliated by a failed assignment, she decides to redeem herself by tailing a suspected double agent.
Lord Rathsburn must flirt with treason. Struggles to cure a horrible disease have met with unexpected complications. The cells he engineered can make a man’s bones unbreakable, but the side effects are fatal. He believed the research terminated… until his sister was kidnapped by a German count. Her ransom? A cure.
Piloting a stolen dirigible, he uncovers an unlikely stowaway, Lady Olivia. Arriving together at a crumbling castle, an impossible task is set before them: cure the count’s guardsmen. Amidst their fake marriage, a very real growing attraction, dying guardsmen and escalating hostilities, Lady Olivia and Lord Rathsburn are thrust deep into the world of international medical espionage from which there may be no return.
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102K words | 492 pages | January 7, 2017
- She’s a Spy
- He’s a Doctor
- Pretend Marriage
- Victorian Nobility
- Captives in a Castle
- Evil Villains and Mad Science
Chapter One Look Inside
Chapter One Look Inside
London, January 1885
“Shall we marry, then?” In the back of his mind, Lord Ian Stanton, Earl of Rathsburn knew a better lead-in was expected, but he wasn’t one for coy games. Far too much effort for too little gain. Time was wasting.
He rolled his shoulders and tipped his head from side to side, trying to shake the tension that spending hours in the presence of empty-headed debutants brought on. He’d had enough. Despite approaching the task with a ruthless efficiency, it had taken him two winter balls, three ice festivals and eight afternoon fireside teas to suss out an acceptable woman. Why did courtship need to be so tortuous?
Sustaining an artifice of charm for such extended periods of time required an exhausting marathon of frozen smiles and inane chatter all borne under a crushing weight of pointlessness. Love was not for him. He was done. This woman would do. There were twenty-eight other things he could have accomplished today. Yes, he’d counted.
Well, there was a point, he supposed. Money. The eventual production of an heir. He glanced at her. Try as he might, couldn’t raise any enthusiasm for the attempt at the moment. For now, his immediate goal was to return to his laboratory, and to do that, he needed a wife who could infuse the family coffers.
The woman at his side fulfilled these most basic requirements and had willingly joined him on today’s excursion.
For a hefty sum, one could take a young lady aloft for ten minutes in a private hot air balloon tethered to Grosvenor Bridge. He’d been assured that this particular diversion was the current coveted activity for a proposal. A certain path to garnering a swift answer in the affirmative. All advice that threatened to end in miserable failure.
“Excuse me?” Lady Katherine replied with an air of distraction.
High above the Thames, the various ribbons and flaps of the hot air balloon snapped and cracked in the wind that whipped about them. Perhaps she couldn’t hear over the noise. He turned to face his future bride and raised his voice, enunciating each word. “Do. You. Want. To. Marry?” He paused at the confounded look on her face and clarified, “Me.”
Lady Katherine was beautiful. At least by society’s standards. Dark hair. Blue eyes. Slender. That was a slight disappointment. He’d always hoped for a well-endowed wife, but a well-endowed dowry would provide more lasting satisfaction. She—until this outing—had seemed content to snare a titled earl to form a superficial yet advantageous union for them both.
A tangled lock of hair blew across her face and stuck to the damp of her lips. Lips he supposed she’d expect him to kiss when—if—she agreed to his proposal. Lips that now pressed tightly together.
She turned her face away.
If it was sweet words and declarations of his undying love she wanted, he was bound to disappoint. Already he regretted attempting a romantic balloon ride. Clearly it hadn’t worked.
He suppressed a sigh. Perhaps he’d been too blunt? It was evident he’d made a mistake. Marrying was a mistake, an irritating obligation he had no choice but to shoulder. With his father dead a full year, he’d run out of excuses. He’d tried to mourn—he had—but theirs had been a bitter relationship.
Dismissive of Ian’s medical expertise, his father had welcomed a series of snake oil salesmen into their home, subjecting his sister to one ineffective—and often painful—treatment after another in desperate and misguided hopes of a cure. When the family coffers held nothing but cobwebs and dust, it had not distressed him in the least. At last, Father could no longer hire any more charlatans, and Ian could focus on devising a legitimate cure.
Tapping the edge of the balloon’s basket with a finger, he watched the dark shadow of a pteryform glide above the Thames while waiting for Lady Katherine’s response. It was rare to see one ousted from its nest before nightfall. His gaze fell lower to the choppy, gray river water rushing beneath Grosvenor Bridge and, while he attempted patience, he counted the tentacled arms that gripped the central pier. Six. Another rubbery appendage lifted from the murky water. Seven. If he could see kraken from here, London river traffic had a serious problem brewing.
He pinched the bridge of his nose. With the cure for his sister within reach, he ought to be in his laboratory. Even if all he could do was observe while a visiting engineer from the Rankine Institute constructed the apparatus necessary to begin human trials.
But a memorandum from the Duke of Avesbury had landed upon his desk two months ago, instructing him that he was to use this lull to find a bride. The Queen, Ian was informed, viewed his earldom as his primary responsibility, not his research, and she was displeased with both his crumbling estate and his failure to produce an heir upon which to bestow his title. Her Majesty did not look fondly upon the other—distant—branch of his family. Employees of Lister Laboratories ignored the Queen and her minion, the Duke of Avesbury, only if they wished to lose their hard won position. That couldn’t be allowed to happen.
Which brought him to, “Lady Katherine?” His patience was at an end. If she refused him, he wished to move with all due haste to the next woman on his list. He glanced at his pocket watch. Lady Adeline had hinted he would be welcome at today’s calling hours.
“Marriage.” She cleared her throat. “Yes, of course.”
Was that an acceptance? Ignoring a faint sense of disappointment in her lack of enthusiasm—but to be fair, a passionless marriage was what he’d wanted—Ian reached for her, intending to perform the requisite embrace, but she stopped him with a palm to his chest and a quick shake of her head.
“Unfortunately, we must discuss this later,” she said. “I foresee a slight problem.”
“A problem?” Ian had been under the distinct impression that most young ladies—and their fathers—were desperate to snag the first titled gentleman who proposed.
“Yes. Flying directly at us.” She pointed over his shoulder.
Ian spun about. Emerging from the low clouds that hung over the dirigible-studded London skyline was a man. His arms were strapped to an articulated wooden gliding apparatus covered in silver cloth, providing an impressive wing span with which to catch the upwelling air currents. His feet were hooked into a tail rudder, steering him on a course toward their balloon.
Extreme gliding sports in an urban environment drew those who sought the rush of adrenaline. Not only from placing their unequivocal trust in custom-built gliding equipment, but also from deliberately placing themselves in peril by dodging zeppelin balloons, tall buildings, bridge spans… normally nocturnal pteryformes. Or, for the truly insane, skimming above the kraken-infested Thames to land on the very edge of the river’s bank.
“He’ll realize his error momentarily,” Ian predicted. That or they were about to witness tomorrow’s newspaper headline. “But perhaps it’s best we descend.” He tugged on the balloon’s tether, letting the man below know they wished to be reeled in.
The basket jerked downward—and the gliding man twitched his right wing, adjusting his trajectory accordingly.
It appeared they did have a problem.
Lady Katherine flapped a hand in distress, and Ian caught it, patting it to offer comfort as the passing pteryform dove, changing course to investigate this strange, winged human that dared make a bid to share its sky. At the last moment, the gliding man banked sharply to the left, narrowly avoiding a head-on collision with the flying creature.
“So close,” she said, tugging her hand free. Her intense gaze followed the pteryform as its leathery wings carried its dark form off into the sulfurous haze that hung over London, and Ian was struck with the somewhat unsettling thought that his future wife had hoped the pteryform might knock the gliding man from the sky.
A grim thought, but perhaps she had reason, for the man banked again, stretching his arms backward and accelerated, dart-like, in their direction. Ian swore. Had the gliding man merely wished to chat, he could have sought an audience with him at any number of more traditional locations. Though Ian had been out of the field for nearly a year, someone must hold a deep-seated grudge against him. Why else approach when he was in such a vulnerable position?
Ian narrowed his eyes. The man’s features were obscured by a leather flying cap and wide goggles. His body, however, was large and hulking. None of the resultant outcomes he could calculate ended well. He glanced down. At this rate, there was no hope they’d reach the relative safety of the bridge in time.
The pteryform reappeared, circling about, intent upon a closer look.
“It’s no use,” Lady Katherine said, throwing her hand up in the air, then slicing it sideways. “Better to take evasive measures while the pteryform distracts him.”
“Agreed.” Ian bent over and slid a dagger from his boot. “A hot air balloon ascends faster than a glider.”
“I’ll fire the burner.”
He leaned out over the basket and sliced through the tether. But the balloon didn’t rise, and he didn’t hear the roar of flames. Ian turned to find Lady Katherine flipping the switch.
“It’s useless! The flame has gone out!” she yelled as the pteryform swooped down toward their balloon, angling sharply in an attempt to grab the gliding man with its talons. It missed. There was the sound of cloth tearing, and Ian swore. A sharp claw on the tip of the creature’s wing had caught the thin cloth and slashed a gaping hole in the balloon.
The rapid ascent he’d planned was now a rapid descent.
“Hang on!” he yelled, catching hold of the wicker edge moments before the gliding man slammed into the side of their basket, throwing them sideways.
Lady Katherine let out a piercing shriek as the basket tipped on its side, tumbling her perilously close to the edge. Instinct had him reaching for the most voluminous part of her. Her bustle made an ominous ripping sound, but the undergarment must have been tightly secured, for it held. Yet the cost of keeping her from pitching into the river below came at a price. His dagger was now in the hands—or tentacles—of the kraken.
And today he carried no extra weapons.
Ian dragged Lady Katherine to his side as the basket continued to lurch and careen wildly in the wind. The balloon sank toward the river with undue speed, as if three men had landed on the basket, not one.
A hand gloved in articulated iron—sporting curved grappling hooks that protruded from each finger—appeared on the edge of the basket. Then another. With a mighty yank, the gliding man vaulted into their basket with such heft that one foot punched through the thick wooden flooring.
Lady Katherine cowered behind him.
“What do you want?” Ian demanded.
With the ease of movement that spoke of long practice, the gliding man unclasped a series of leather bands across his chest and shrugged the articulated wings from his shoulders, sending them plunging downward into the choppy waves of the Thames. He yanked off his goggles and fixed Ian with a piercing stare. One pale blue eye bulged as if something shoved it from the socket. A large, square jaw was covered with strange, knobby lumps that strained outward against the skin, threatening to break free.
Ian stared back with the certain knowledge that his greatest fear had come to pass.
In a low growl, the monster spoke. Whether he challenged him to a duel—or demanded a cure, Ian couldn’t say. He hadn’t spent much time studying German.
“Nicht sprechen Deutsch,” Ian said. Or, rather, mangled.
The man snorted in derision. “You stupid English.” He reached out. Metal hooks ripped through Ian’s waistcoat and shirt, slicing through the skin of his chest as they curved into a tight grip. He dragged him close. “Hören sie mir zu. Listen.”
Ian ignored the pain. “I’m listening. You’d best speak quickly. We’re about to land in the Thames.”
The monster didn’t seem worried. “Your sister is at Burg Kerzen. You will come to Germany.”
“My sister? In Germany?” No. He’d received a letter from her just last week. She was in warm, sunny Italy, safely tucked away in a nunnery, free from the rigors of daily life, safe from anything that might exacerbate her condition.
The monster nodded. “Yes. You come. Alone. To fix those like me. To make more who will not get sick. Or she will die.”
“Brace.” The monster said, and thrust him away to grip the side of the basket with his hooks.
Ian gathered Lady Katherine close. They were lucky. Rather than open water, the banks of the Thames rushed up at them. They hit ground with a hard, bone-jarring crash, and the basket toppled onto its side, dumping him and Lady Katherine unceremoniously onto tidal mud strewn with rocks, rubbish and decaying kraken corpses.
As the balloon overhead deflated around them, Ian jumped to his feet and dragged Lady Katherine from the wreckage. Carrying her a safe distance from the water, he deposited her near a gawking crowd of onlookers and ran back.
There, still in the balloon’s basket, lay the German monster, unconscious. Ian hooked his hands under the man’s arms and pulled. And managed to move him not a single inch. He pulled harder. Nothing. It was as if the man was made from metal.
Which, in a way, Ian feared he was.
“Lord Rathsburn, please step aside,” a familiar voice spoke. “We’ll take care of this.”
Glancing up, he found a number of official-looking men behind him. Queen’s agents. The man who spoke was none other than Mr. Black, former mentor and colleague. Spy. Black rarely appeared publically in broad daylight, preferring to hug the shadows, hovering just out of reach.
Ian moved out of the way. A solitary man stood no chance of shifting the German. In the end it took six men to lift and carry the unconscious man onto a sleek, dark boat that waited at the river’s edge. Braced on its bow and ostensibly targeting kraken, stood a man holding a sniper rifle. His presence also served to discourage curiosity.
“Your convenient proximity raises more questions than it answers,” Ian said, tugging a handkerchief from his pocket and pressing it to the—thankfully shallow—gash upon his chest. The blood had already slowed, and the pain was tolerable. “Why have so many men watching me?”
“I don’t suppose you’ll believe it was purely for the spectacle of watching you tie yourself to a woman?” A corner of Black’s mouth twitched. “Quite unusual, your courtship techniques, Rathsburn. The large German man landing upon your hot air balloon and the attacking pteryform were quite riveting.”
“Glad to be of entertainment value,” Ian snarled. “And, no, I don’t believe you.”
“Perhaps you should ask the duke directly,” Black suggested. His gaze flicked to Ian’s chest. “After you see to your ruined shirt.”
“He’ll not answer the questions I wish to ask,” he growled.
“Take up a TTX pistol once more and he might.”
Ian swore. “He let Warrick walk away. This is his fault.”
Black gave him a dark glance. “You walked away as well.” Ian opened his mouth to object, but the agent looked past him and lifted his chin. “I believe your lady is getting away.”
Lady Katherine, her dress ruined and her hat askew, climbed into a crank hack. She spared him little more than a disgusted glance before the vehicle jerked away.
“It would appear the wedding is off,” Ian muttered. If it had ever been on. Given a decent marriage required a certain amount of loyalty, it seemed he’d dodged a bullet. But before he could even exhale in relief, dread wrapped cold fingers about his throat.
Caught in a tangle of conflicting thoughts and emotions, he looked back toward the Thames where the boat, its men and its cargo moved swiftly away, leaving him behind in what seemed to be his natural state: alone.
Even in a crowd.
A complicated and ingenious plot that is filled with espionage and adventure that takes us to Germany and lands us in a crumbling castle - perfect for that gothic atmosphere. The villains are pure evil and place our hero and heroine in a tight spot that forces them to work together… and eventually fall in love. What else? There are dirigibles, kraken, a mad scientist and one creepy surgical contraption. There’s tension, treachery, humor and a fun romance. I can’t wait to read the next one!