Steam and Seduction, Book Two
Driven to win. Drawn to love.
Fresh from university, Eliza Hardison is determined to crusade for worker’s rights until her cousin Dexter, the Makesmith Baron, prevails on her to represent Hardison House in the American Dominion Sky and Steam Rally.
The competition is fierce, but only one opponent really matters to Eliza. Dexter’s protégé, Matthew Pence, was always like a big brother to her. But now she’s grown up, and Matthew has made a break from Hardison House with his own business venture—and his own entry in the rally.
Matthew intends to win while keeping Eliza safe on the perilous route from New York to San Francisco. But as the threats escalate through treacherous skies and uncharted American wilds, Eliza and Matthew must work together, discovering a bond deeper than either could have imagined… but is winning the rally more important than winning at love?
Excerpt from Scarlet Devices
Excerpt from Scarlet Devices, ©2014 Delphine Dryden; all rights reserved Berkley Publishing. Please do not reproduce in whole or in part without express permission from the author or publisher.
The latch on the boiler’s cover was stuck, and Eliza knew she was about to spoil a glove getting it open. She didn’t care, as long as she made it to her cousin’s party in time to wish him a happy birthday. That, at least, might end her day on a positive note. Nearly anything would be better than her experience at the lecture.
The India rubber gasket sucked at the lid, keeping it closed, resisting her tug. When it finally popped open, a spray of superheated droplets caught Eliza’s forearm above the kid glove, prompting a curse she would never have uttered if she hadn’t been alone.
Though she was standing in a relatively safe zone, Eliza still felt her hair and dress wilt in the steam. She waved the hand with the stained, crumpled glove to disperse the vapor and peered at the inner boiler casing and cooling tank gauge in dismay.
A gently cleared throat startled her and she jumped back from the velocimobile. A fresh puff of steam clouded the face of the intruder for a moment.
“Pardon. Can I be of any assistance?”
The voice was smooth, pleasant. The gloved hand that waved the steam away this time was elegant, the glove itself expensive and pristine. And the face . . .
“Oh! Eliza, I had no idea you were back from school. Welcome home.”
With a sigh, Eliza stepped back toward the velocimobile and faced the interloper over the hot boiler.
“Matthew, an unexpected pleasure. May I assume you’re also on your way to my cousin’s party?” She tucked the offending glove behind her back and hoped the rest of her appearance wasn’t too unkempt. She’d paid little thought to her appearance when she changed out of her lecture suit. The snug driving helmet kept her plaited hair in place, and her lightweight coat and split skirt were sorely wrinkled and coated with road dust. It would have to do, she supposed. It was only Matthew, after all; he was used to seeing her streaked with engine grease, although it had certainly been awhile since he’d seen her at all. Nearly four years, she realized with a start.
“Indeed I am. Are you having trouble with your boiler? I know a little about engines, as you know, I might be able to help—”
“No!” Eliza bit her tongue and smiled sweetly. “No thank you, you mustn’t trouble yourself. Please, proceed to the party. I have matters well in hand. I know more than a little about engines, as you may recall.”
Hubris, her hindbrain warned. That never ends well. Eliza ignored the warning. She could handle things quite well alone. After that morning’s set-down at the lecture hall, the last thing she wanted was the company of a man who assumed her less than competent merely because she was younger and female.
If Eliza had grown up with a big brother, Matthew would have given him a run for his money. He had never let her tag along when it came to working on the truly exciting projects. He found her interest in delicate clockwork devices charming and appropriate for a young lady, but not so her interest in things like locomotive engines and velocimobiles. And he always, always pointed out that she could lose a finger in the machinery, as if the mere prospect of such a hazard should be enough to dissuade any properly brought-up girl. As if he were not himself at the same risk. But if you didn’t take that risk, how could you find out what made the thing go?
The early afternoon sun shone through the dark bronze of Matthew Pence’s hair, lending him a halo that Eliza couldn’t help but view as ironic.
“I’ll put myself at your disposal,” he insisted. She didn’t remember him as being so obnoxiously chivalrous. “Consider me your minion. With two of us working, surely you’ll be able to repair your vehicle more quickly?”
“It’s just overheated,” she explained. “Or nearly so. It ranclose to dry but I caught it in time. There’s really nothing to do but wait for it to cool enough to add more water. My own fault, I’m afraid, I’ve been stopping frequently to take photographs and letting the engine idle too long. This one builds up steam quickly, which is convenient, but it needs close minding because it’s so small.”
And it needed a thorough tune-up, something she hadn’t been able to accomplish often enough while attending college. Poughkeepsie hadn’t been much of a town for motoring, though had she needed to render a whale for blubber she would have been in the perfect place.
The young man leaned his weight onto one foot, settling into a pose common among fashionable toffs of the day. It irritated Eliza, who knew it was just an affectation he adopted out in public, for polite society. A pretense that he was still a son of privilege rather than a machinery-loving apostate. He had always been good at blending in, though, becoming part of the prevalent social scenery. In some ways she envied him that skill. “Photographs? Flora or fauna?”
“Workers who claim their lost loved ones have ‘gone west’, never to return again,” she told him, daring him with her eyes to take her up on this topic. “I photograph them holding portraits of the missing. I was also conducting interviews and gathering anecdotal data. I’ve noticed some interesting correlations.”
Matthew raised an eyebrow but didn’t take the bait as he once might have. Back in the days when she had run into him frequently at Dexter Hardison’s factory, Pence would have been the first to chide Eliza for taking such a risk, haring off on her own and talking to strangers.
Now it seemed he had lost some of that interest in her welfare, or perhaps simply developed more circumspection about stating it. In fact, Eliza thought, he seemed a bit distracted in general. Perhaps it was the problem of the engine. It was clear he still itched to get his fingers on it.
He wore a metal flower on his chest, a sleek, stylized closed lily bud in some silver brushed metal. It was far more understated than her heckler’s had been, but it reminded her of the man all the same. She wondered if Pence knew him.
“Hardison House is only twenty or so miles from here,” Matthew pointed out. “I’d be more than happy to give you a lift, so you can make the party sooner. It wouldn’t do to cross Charlotte by being late. She’s inclined to be touchy these days.”
“I suspect she has good reason.” Eliza thought she’d be touchy too if she were as tiny as Charlotte, Lady Hardison, but carrying the undoubtedly huge child of a man the size of her cousin Dexter. Because she was nearly as small as Charlotte, the very idea daunted Eliza. She had recently vowed only to look at slight, slender men as spousal prospects should she ever decide to marry. Preferably men with smallish heads and narrow shoulders.
Pence’s shoulders were rather broad, like most makesmiths’, despite his fashionable slimness. It made her even more irked at him, though she knew she was being unreasonable because of the incident at the lecture. She couldn’t help it; she resented those effortlessly capable-looking shoulders.
“I’ll be fine,” Eliza said firmly. “I don’t require help, but I thank you for the offer.” She procured a large bottle of water from under the seat of the vehicle, then used a funnel to add a slow trickle of liquid to the cooling unit. “In fact, you should start off again now or I’ll beat you to the party.”
In Pence’s smug chuckle, Eliza heard the first hint of the younger version she remembered. “Not likely. You never could have before.”
“Really? A dare? Would you care to wager on that? I’m more than old enough to gamble now, lest you be concerned for my morals.” She was already tightening the fittings, closing up the boiler and securing the latch. A bet would make the last few miles to Dexter’s party fly by.
Sadly, Pence declined to make it as interesting as he 6N could have. “Certainly, Miss Hardison. If I win—and I don’t mind saying I intend to—I’ll claim the first waltz of the evening from you once the dancing starts.”
“I . . . oh, fine then. Fair enough.” Eliza was not inclined to waltz with anyone, least of all with Matthew Pence. But she didn’t plan to lose, so it seemed a safe enough stake. No need to tell her competition about the Leyden jar battery cleverly concealed beneath the velocimobile’s seat, and the boost its charge would give to her starting speed until the boiler reached full steam. “If I win, I’ll claim fifty pounds and when my book is published you’ll put an endorsement in the Times. Quarter-page at least.”
The terms took him aback, it was clear, but he covered nicely. “All right. May I ask what this book is about? A novel, perhaps? I didn’t know you had writing aspirations, those must be new.”
With a final yank to the boiler cover’s handle, Eliza cranked the engine until it kicked into life, then stalked back to the velocimobile’s seat where she stowed the half-empty water jug and funnel before she strapped herself in. “It’s a monograph on worker-landowner negotiation inequities and the impact of subliminal psychological manipulation by authority figures on common laborers.”
Grinning at Pence’s look of dismayed astonishment, she released the handbrake and engaged the gears simultaneously, triggering the start capacitor.
“Ready, steady, go, Matthew!” she called back to him, as he belatedly ran for his steam car.