Copyright 2012 by Shelley Adina Bates
All rights reserved
Somewhere over the Atlantic, September 1889
The man’s eyes bulged out in his final moments and he glared with brutal accusation. “You—” he choked. “You did it … you’ll regret it …”
She faltered back, but her feet tangled in her apple-green skirts and she couldn’t run. Still he staggered toward her.
“You—” Those eyes, filling her vision. Hazel eyes under auburn hair. James’s eyes in another man’s face. And then they boiled over, sizzling like bacon on a griddle, and popped and she screamed—
—and woke herself up. The breath left her lungs and Lady Claire Trevelyan flopped back on the bunk with a gasp. Sweat trickled down her temple.
Breathe. You must breathe.
Lightning Luke had met his Maker several weeks ago at her hands, and while he might have found some measure of peace, she had not. Most of the time she was able to tamp down the guilt at having ended the life of another human being. It had been an accident. But in the midnight hours, there was his face again, contorted and boiling and accusing her until his last breath.
It was always so real, even if she had never actually seen his eyes. Her mind had put those of another in that face, one she had wronged, as if he—
Something rustled in the dark.
Claire sucked in a breath. It was not Lightning Luke. He was in a watery grave, to the best of her knowledge. It was not even Lord James Selwyn, who was in London. She was safe aboard the Lady Lucy, the luxury airship belonging to John, Earl Dunsmuir, and his wife Lady Davina, to whom she had restored Willie, their son, not a week past.
Her stateroom, while comfortably appointed with a velvet coverlet on a bed set into a kind of curved cupboard, and gleaming paneling that set off the visiting chairs, was not large. She could cross it in six steps, and by now, the third night of their voyage, she knew its topography by heart.
“Maggie?” she whispered. Perhaps one of the Mopsies had wakened in the night and needed her. “Lizzie?”
A thump, followed by scratching that somehow communicated agitation. This time, she could pinpoint its location: above, in the brass piping that ran along the floors and ceilings conveying heat, gas, and various other necessities in an airship this size.
She reached for a moonglobe. That was what the countess called them, being of a gentle and fanciful turn of mind. Claire had inquired of the chief steward what they were, and he had launched into such an enthusiastic explanation of the chemical properties (“One cannot have lamps and flames on an airship, my lady—only think of the gas fuselage above our heads!”) that even she had been astonished that so much clever chemistry could be cupped in her hand. She shook the globe and it lit from within as the chemicals combined, illuminating the entire room.
No one was there.
But something was. Something that scratched, and clinked, and—was that a flutter? Good heavens, did bats lodge in the high ceilings of the passenger deck?
She lifted the globe and peered upward, and an enormous winged shadow leaped down upon her head.
She choked down a second scream that wanted to rattle the pipes, and grabbed for the shadow. It fought back, a limbless fighting ball of claws and feathers that—
Claire pounced on the moonglobe she’d dropped and held it up.
The fighting claws and feathers landed on the nightstand and resolved themselves into a red hen who shook her plumage into order and glared at her with offended dignity.
“Rosie?” Claire’s knees gave out and she sat in the curved opening to her bunk rather suddenly. This couldn’t be Rosie, the alpha hen of the flock of rescued chickens at the cottage. The Dunsmuirs must have a small flock aboard for eggs, though with the powers of modern refrigeration, this seemed rather bucolic and unnecessary.
The hen stepped daintily off the nightstand and onto her knee, settling there as if she meant to spend the night.
She always did this. And it never worked.
“Rosie, for goodness sake. How on earth did you come to be on the Lady Lucy when I thought you were safe at home?” She petted the hen, speaking softly. “Lewis is going to be frantic, to say nothing of your flock. You will be supplanted by that rooster, my girl, and there will be no going back.”
The door cracked open and in the greenish-white light of the moonglobe, Claire could see a two-inch-wide sliver of white batiste nightie. “Come in, Maggie.”
“I ’eard a noise, Lady. All right?”
“Yes, quite all right. Come and see who has taken ship with us.”
If she had expected Maggie to fall on Rosie’s neck rejoicing, she was sadly disappointed. She looked almost … guilty. “Hullo, Rosie.” She stroked the gleaming feathers with gentle fingers, and Claire put two and two together.
“Maggie, did you know Rosie had stowed away?”
Maggie chewed on her lower lip. “She ent no trouble, Lady. She’s bunked wiv us before.”
“True on both counts. But that does not answer my question.”
The ten-year-old’s eyes filled with pleading. “She wanted to come, Lady. So I tucked ’er in my kit and she were quiet as the grave … ’til she found out she could roost up there.” When she lifted her eyes to the pipes, a tear escaped down her cheek. “She’s been up in the pipes a day and a half and I couldn’t get ’er down.”
“She’ll be hungry, then.”
“Aye. And thirsty.”
“Then we will nip along to the dining saloon. You know Mr. Skully keeps a cold collation on the sideboard in case the family wishes a snack in the night.”
“I know. Me and Lizzie, we found Willie an’ Tigg in there two nights in a row. Willie can’t keep out of the trifle. Nor can Lizzie, except when she’s underfoot in the guardsroom and the bridge.”
The little monkeys. “Is there anywhere on this ship you haven’t gone? Captain Hollys gave me a tour of the gondola, but I couldn’t tell you where the guardsroom is.”
“Below and aft,” Maggie said. “Just forward of the storage bay where the landaus are.”
“Goodness.” Claire slid a hand under Rosie’s feet and carried her out into the corridor, closing the door behind them. “You sound like a proper airman.”
“Only ’cos Willie laughed at me when I called the bow the front.” She kept pace with Claire without effort. Regular meals, exercise, and hope were causing her to grow. Soon she would be past Claire’s elbow and asking to have her skirts let down. “He’s got nuffink to be proud of—a month ago he couldn’t’ve said nor bow nor front.”
“Wouldn’t, Maggie. You know why.”
“I know. Still. He oughtn’t to’ve laughed and called me a silly gumpus.”
They passed into the dining saloon and closed the door behind them. Ship’s rule—doors left open tended to swing to and fro and smash walls and people when wind gusts affected their trim. At the sideboard were two little nightgown-clad figures, and a taller one with his nightshirt tucked into his pants. Willie turned at the sound of the door and a smile broke out that was brighter even than the moonglobe on the rail above the dishes of food.
“Lady! I saved you some trifle.”
“You did not.” Lizzie tolerated fibs in others about as often as she told them herself. “You’d ’ave eaten that quick enough if she ’adn’t come in.”
“You’re too kind, Lord Wilberforce.” As the son of an earl, Willie outranked her, even if he was only five. “But I must see to Rosie here first.”
“You found ’er.” Lizzie smiled at her twin. “I was that worried we wouldn’t.”
“She found her way to my cabin like the lady of resources she is,” Claire said fondly, crumbling a blueberry scone into a Spode saucer and sprinkling a palmful of tiny red grapes on it. Rosie fell upon the food like a lion on an antelope, and Claire filled a second saucer with water from a cut crystal carafe. “Now that I know she is traveling with us, I shall mention it to Mr. Skully. He will see that the crew knows she is one of our party and not a future meal.”
Willie gasped. “No one will eat Rothie, will they? Papa will throw them overboard if they do.”
His charming lisp was fading, only cropping up now in moments of stress. “It shall not come to that, my lord.”
“My lord,” Lizzie mimicked in her best private-school voice, and nudged Willie so hard in the ribs that the whipped cream wobbled on top of his trifle and the blackberry he’d so carefully placed at the summit rolled off onto the floor.
Rosie dispatched it with the speed of a striking cobra.
His face crumpled and Claire replaced the blackberry with another, and a second for Rosie, before the storm broke. “Rosie says thank you for the berry, your lordship,” she said. “And for being a gentleman who always puts a lady before himself.”
The skies cleared and Claire did not point out that he had already eaten half the trifle he had offered her. She cut a slice of apple pie instead, and poured cream over it.
Even now, she could not quite believe that the food would not disappear as magically as it came. As the daughter of a marquis, she had grown up eating mounds of food in multiple courses—so much that it regularly went back to the kitchen uneaten, to be made into something else or distributed to the poor. But in those dark days between being forced out of her home in Wilton Crescent and taking up residence in the river cottage in Vauxhall, she had gone hungry for days at a time. She had been reduced to foraging for the scraps that had once been thrown away, and she never forgot it.
She would never take food, shelter, and companionship for granted again.
The closing of the door signaled the arrival of yet another midnight marauder. Jake joined them and began piling cold meat and cheese on a thick slice of bread.
“Couldn’t you sleep, Jake?” Claire took a slice of beef and tore it into beak-sized bits, then put them in Rosie’s saucer.
His gaze followed. “Found ’er, did she?”
He must mean Maggie. Clearly she was the only one who had not been permitted knowledge of the stowaway. “No, I did. She came along the piping to my room.”
He nodded, mouth full. “Told ’em she’d come down when she got hungry. Bird’s not stupid.”
“She didn’t feel safe,” Maggie informed him. “I think she’s clever for finding the Lady all her own self.”
“Not feelin’ so safe either,” Jake mumbled around the beef. “How much longer we goin’ to be floatin’ around under this big gasbag?”
“Why, Jake,” Claire said in some surprise. “I thought you were enjoying your duties in the gondola with Captain Hollys.”
“I’d enjoy ’em more if I couldn’t see out.” He began to build another sandwich. “Gondola’s mostly glass held together with strips of brass an’ curly bits of wood. Makes a fellow woozy.”
“Bit hard to steer if you can’t see out,” Tigg observed.
Jake cuffed him on the shoulder, but since the sandwich was in that hand, it wasn’t much of a blow. “I’d like to see you up there wi’ the navigation charts an’ nowt but stars and waves to go by.”
“Not me,” Tigg said, apparently unmoved. “I’m ’appy in t’aft gondola, wi’ little windows and big engines. Mr. Yau—he’s the first engineer—he says I’m a dab hand wiv ’em.”
“Hard to be a dab hand at anyfink after only three days.” Jake wiped the crumbs off his face with his sleeve and eyed the pie.
“Jake, that weren’t kind,” Maggie said. “Who was it told me the captain let him take the rudder wheel for ten minutes? You got no call to talk to Tigg so, when from accounts he’s as good as you.”
“Three days is enough to show you everyfink you don’t know.” Jake cut the pie with the knife he kept at his belt, and wolfed it down without benefit of a plate.
“I don’t know anything, that’s wot I know,” Tigg said bravely. “But I’m workin’ on it, not complainin’ about it.”
When Jake stabbed the pie again, Claire opened her mouth to remonstrate about both greed and unkindness. But when he offered the second slice to Tigg, and the latter took it, she turned her attention to Rosie, whose appetite was finally satisfied. An apology had been given and accepted, and it was a foolish woman who would intrude on affairs of honor between gentlemen.
She hoped they would become gentlemen, in any event.