Only a week to go before the release of my little steampunk sugarplum, Devices Brightly Shining! Thanks so much to all of you who have preordered it! Now, rather as one would nibble the marzipan off the Christmas fruitcake, here is an excerpt from Chapter 1.
Devices Brightly Shining
Copyright 2015 by Shelley Adina
The third day of Christmas, 1895
Hollys Park, Somerset
The invitation did not come by pneumatic tube, the usual means of delivery employed by the Royal Mail, but by a personal courier dressed in the Dunsmuir livery, who was piloting a two-piston steam landau of a respectable vintage. He presented the envelope to Alice Chalmers with a flourish, and then puttered away down the long drive of Hollys Park, frightening several quail and three of Ian’s imported French hens out of the drive and under the hedge into the pear orchard.
Alice closed the front door and went into the morning room to open it. The creamy paper was as heavy as satin, the words engraved at no small expense.
Earl and Countess Dunsmuir
request the honor of your presence
at a reception celebrating the recent marriage of
Mr. and Mrs. Andrew Malvern
Hatley House, London
on Twelfth Night at eight o’clock
Captain Ian Hollys called from the hall, “Alice? Are you in here?”
“In the morning room,” she said, and a moment later he joined her.
“I saw a landau as I was crossing the park. Did the invitation come?”
She handed it to him by way of reply, and he scanned the curling, elegant lines. “It doesn’t say whether His Royal Highness the Prince Consort is to attend.”
“We know he is—he told Claire he wanted a wedding dance with her.” The thought of being in the same room with Queen Victoria’s husband was both awe-inspiring and terrifying. He was one of the foremost engineers of the age, and the patron of the Royal Society of Engineers, of which Andrew Malvern was an honored member. So was Claire a member, for that matter, having been inducted the summer just past. In some ways Alice was as comfortable in their company as a foot is in a familiar shoe. But in other, more personal ways, she was not.
The stepdaughters of air pirates simply didn’t converse with princes, though Claire had told her for true that His Highness wished a word with the future Lady Hollys and the co-inventor of the Zeppelin Automaton Intelligence System.
In other words, herself. Somehow that was the strangest thing of all.
Alice’s mind veered away from the contemplation of it, and turned to more familiar, congenial things. “Are you coming out to Swan this morning?” she asked the man she had promised to marry.
Ian was wearing his estate clothes, consisting of a clean but uncollared shirt, tweed pants, and sturdy walking boots. On the lapel of his ancient tweed jacket he had pinned a sprig of holly with a few bright red berries, as a nod to the season. He looked the very picture of a contented country squire—minus the girth and plus the gray-eyed good looks that even now made her pulse speed up.
How was it possible that she was to be his wife? She, mechanic Alice Chalmers, formerly of the Texican Territory, daughter of a desert flower and a spy, to be Lady Hollys at some hazy future date that she had managed so far not to name?
“No,” he said. “If we are to go to London for the reception, I must see my steward and give instructions to have the farming equipment seen to. With this hard frost, the boilers may crack, and that will mean no end of trouble in the spring.”
“So we are going, then,” she said, half hoping he would change his mind and say no. “Even though we just returned from their wedding.”
“Of course we are going.” He left off fussing with his jacket and gazed at her in some surprise. “Claire is your closest friend, is she not? Why would we not go?”
“No reason at all,” Alice said.
Lady Claire Malvern, nee Trevelyan, was the closest thing to a sister Alice had ever known. And she had married the one man on earth whom Alice felt could possibly be worthy of her. They were well matched in intelligence, spirit, and compassion, and Alice had long ago gotten over her brief tendre for that same gentleman in the realization that for him, there was no other woman alive but Claire.
Just as, for some inexplicable reason, there now seemed to be no other woman alive for Ian but herself. Which made her deliriously happy on most days, and utterly frightened on others.
“Then I shall send a note to my sister in Mayfair,” he said briskly, “and tell her to expect us on the third of January.”
Alice’s fingers lost their ability to function and the invitation fluttered to the Aubusson carpet. “I thought we would stay at Carrick House. I always have. Other than Swan, it’s the closest thing I have to a home.”
He smiled and took her shoulders in both hands, pulling her close. “We have been tucked away in the country for long enough, my dear. With the demise of the Venetian assassin, there is no longer any danger to your life. It is time for you to meet my family and take your place in society as my intended. I suspect that in Lady Dunsmuir’s mind, this reception for Claire and Andrew is to function rather as your coming-out in that regard. I must remember to hunt up Mother’s jewelry for you.”
“What if I don’t want to come out?” Alice said a little desperately. “What if I want to stay right here until we’re married?”
“Once that happens, you’ll still need to be presented,” he pointed out. “Meeting the prince at a less formal occasion will be good practice.”
“You make it sound like a dance lesson.”
“It is, rather. Buck up, darling. If Claire can do it, so can you.”
“Claire was born to it,” Alice said stubbornly. “I, as you know, wasn’t.”
“And for that I thank heaven,” Ian told her with tenderness. “Any other woman would not have been able to save my life. You must cease looking at yourself as somehow less than the women of our acquaintance, Alice. Claire herself has told me often enough that if she had the choice of facing certain death with me or with you at her side, she would choose you without hesitation.”
Alice couldn’t help but smile at that. “I hope you aren’t offended.”
“How could I be, when I share her opinion? Come now. The prince is no monster, and my sister and her daughters no dragons. I do not much care for Joan’s choice of husband, but since he outranks me I cannot complain about it—in his hearing, at least.”