Authors: Margaret Foxe
Tags: #Romance, #Paranormal, #Vampires, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Science Fiction, #Steampunk
PRINCE OF HEARTS
A Victorian Steampunk Romance
Book One of the Welders and Elders Series
By Margaret Foxe
The characters, places and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.
The author has taken liberties with the details of the historical events mentioned in this book. Interestingly, however, Ivan the Terrible
murder his heir with a scepter.
Copyright © 2013 by Margaret Foxe
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form by electronic or mechanical means – except for brief quotations – without written permission.
Cover art provided by dreamstime.com
Contact the author at [email protected]
To my BFF Laura.
The Bard, as usual, said it best: “A friend is one that knows you as you are, understands where you have been, accepts what you have become, and still, gently allows you to grow.”
Table of Contents
As they took the ski lift up the mountain in pursuit of the evil Lord Rumple, Miss Alison Wren made it a point to ignore her companion. She had turned thirty years of age yesterday, and she could not decide which upset her more: the fact that she had been thirty for several years already, or that Dr. Augustus had once again forgotten her birthday.
Not that she cared in the least. She had her beau, the dashing Captain Standish, to shower her with gifts once this business was through.
“Didn’t you turn thirty-three yesterday?” Augustus suddenly remarked.
Miss Wren replied with a superior sniff.
So he had remembered after all. Rather more than she would have liked. Exasperating man!
Captain Standish would have never been so thoughtless as to remember her
Chronicles of Miss Wren and Dr. Augustus
The London Post-Dispatch
Gare du Nord, Paris, 1896
"In my vest."
"Also in my vest, sir."
"In my walking case."
"Are you certain?"
"What?" Aline asked, pausing on the train platform, thrown by the question.
"Scopolamine," Professor Romanov insisted, not breaking his stride. "Motion sickness tablets. You know how your stomach was on the airship crossing the channel. Do tell me you purchased them as I suggested."
Suggested? More like ordered. But it was one order she’d forgotten in the chaos of the last week. She was surprised he remembered. She gritted her teeth and hurried to keep pace with Romanov's long, loping stride.
"They are also in my case," she lied.
He pinned her with his peculiar, wolf-like amber eyes over his shoulder.
, she thought.
He didn't believe her. The Professor had the uncanny ability to spot a lie from a mile away. She was rarely able to successfully dissemble around him. And even though his head was turned towards her, he avoided running into the throng of people crowding the platform. They parted like the Red Sea for him.
Not only was he an imposing figure in his long, dark, velvet lined cloak, but he was also preceded by his mute, Weldling valet, Fyodor, who controlled the leashes of Romanov's pair of Russian wolfhounds, Ilya and Ikaterina, who, with their unnerving mechanical eyes, were also more automaton than animal. No one in their right mind wanted to go near such a fearsome trio of beasts.
But as usual, by the time it was her turn to cut through, the crowd had settled in again, jostling her elbows, nearly knocking the heavy load of books and documents from her arms. She had to push up her slipping spectacles with the edge of her wireless tickertext and break into a trot to keep pace.
As usual, she felt like the tiny bird that was her namesake, fluttering to stay abreast of an eagle. Crowds parted for Romanov.
They didn't even see her.
When they finally reached their train car, she was winded, her spectacles were perched precariously at the end of her nose, and her arms were on fire from the strain of her burdens. A typical day, really, in the life of Professor Romanov's secretary. But usually she was in London enduring the constant demands of her employer.
They might as well have been in London, she thought wryly as she mounted the steps into the train carriage ahead of an impatient Romanov. They had been a week in Paris – Paris! – and she'd not seen anything but manuscripts, notes, and old, stodgy academics the entire time.
She’d hoped to see some of the city, as it was her first time on the Continent, but she should have known the Professor wouldn’t allow her any free time, no matter what he’d claimed back in London.
Now he was cutting the trip short and rushing them back to London without explanation. If she hadn’t witnessed the Professor receiving the mysterious tickertext for herself last night, she would half-suspect he was returning early just to vex her.
Well, he wouldn’t be doing
much longer. Little did he know she’d planned on using this trip as a farewell gesture, though she suspected “gestures” were lost on the Professor. She’d aimed several crude ones at the Professor’s back over her five years of employment, to little effect. She doubted he’d even care when she resigned. Why she was so nervous about telling him was quite beyond her powers of self-introspection.
She tripped on her hem – of course – and Romanov caught her under her arm and practically tossed her the rest of the way up the stairs. She held back a retort and kept moving forward. He remained on her heels, causing her to increase her already frantic pace, and continued to rattle off his list.
"When you get back to London, you must deliver the manuscript to my publisher," he said. "Do you have the new article?"
"Also in my case."
"Along with the scopolamine?" he asked archly.
"I have the article, sir," she said as evenly as she could through gritted teeth.
"Good. Proofread it first thing."
"But sir, it is in Russian."
"Your Russian is nearly flawless now. Written anyway. Can't speak it worth a damn, of course...”
She tossed him a look over her shoulder – a scowl – but it was less than successful, as she bumped into a door handle in front of her and pitched forward.
This time Romanov caught her around the waist. She was aware of iron strength, warm male, the smell of that spicy, exotic scent unique to Romanov she’d yet to identify in the five years of her tenure as his private secretary.
She’d ceased to be ruffled by these sorts of physical contacts. She stumbled quite regularly trying to keep up with him. She wasn't
short. But he was just so much taller than most people, male or female, and his legs were so much longer, that he tended to cover a distance equal to three of her strides.
Though she could detect no outward signs of Welding enhancement aside from his Iron Necklace – a breathing apparatus resembling a metal band, ubiquitous on nearly everyone over sixteen – she sometimes doubted he was wholly human. She had to practically run to keep up with him, and it didn't help that she had two left feet. He was constantly catching her, pulling her along as if she were a clumsy child, never breaking stride or his train of thought.
She often found herself scribbling notes mid-stumble, certain he would right her before she hit the floor.
He didn't break stride now. He practically carried her into their berth with the unfortunately placed door handle, Fyodor and the hellhounds on their heels. Once inside, she tried to shake him off and stand on her own two feet.
After giving him one last glare, she found her seat and pulled out her old-fashioned notepad and pen as Romanov sprawled out on the bench opposite her, rattling off a letter to a French colleague.
Ilya jumped on the seat next to her, plopped his large head in her lap, and began to drool on her skirts. Ignoring the kaleidoscopic machinery of Ilya’s enhanced eyes, which never failed to disconcert her, she balanced her notes against the dog's ear and continued to scribble.
When her spectacles threatened to fall off her nose, Romanov reached over and pushed them up for her with one of his long, beautiful fingers, continuing to dictate the letter.
That, too, was a common practice between them, as her hands never seemed to be unoccupied around him. She sighed inwardly. They were way too comfortable in their dysfunction, which was another good reason she was jumping ship and marrying Charlie. Once they were back in London, she was giving Romanov her two weeks’ notice, just as she’d promised Charlie.
After the letter was done, Romanov began to rattle off other items of business he wanted her to take care of in London. Around the thirtieth command, her overtaxed brain began to put the pieces together at last, and her heart sank.
"You're not returning with us," she stated.
"I would think that obvious."
She extracted her calendar from her case and thumbed to the schedule for the upcoming week.
"But you have a meeting with the publishers in a week, an interview at Pentonville Prison, an appointment with Inspector Drexler...”
"Cancel all of my engagements," he said swiftly. "For the next fortnight."
She guffawed, which caused Ilya to grumble and her spectacles to slope down her nose again. "But sir...”
He waved an elegantly gloved hand through the air. "Cancel them, Finch."
She glanced at the silent, brooding Fyodor, who just shrugged and turned his attention back to his newspaper. As usual, Fyodor was no help. She’d never figured out what Fyodor did besides lurk about looking scary. A blond, Viking-sized veteran of the Crimean War, his left side was nearly entirely automated.
The Russian Abominable Soldiers had been among the first experiments in human Welding, but their particular technology, which had proven so deadly on the Crimean Front, had been forbidden after the war. His rough-hewn ironwork looked bulky and antiquated to modern sensibilities, but it did its job, enhancing his strength and his life span. The latter result was one not able to be duplicated by succeeding generations of Welders.
The Iron Necklace may have saved Europe from the deadly pollution of the Steam Revolution, but it didn’t seem to prolong people’s life spans significantly. Nor did the other Welding enhancements that had become so popular these days, despite what was advertised.
Fyodor had entered the Crimean War a young man of twenty. Forty-three years later, he didn’t look a day over forty. Not many of his kind had survived the war, nor were they entirely accepted by society, perhaps in large part because of their unnatural life spans. Being a Weldling was one thing, but being an Abominable Soldier was quite another.
And Fyodor was Russian, living in London. Needless to say, he was given a wide berth. Not that he was at all scary, once one got to know him. The first time she’d beaten him at poker, he’d smiled at her instead of ripping off her arms, as she’d initially feared.
He was, at heart, a soft touch.
And he had about the same fashion sense as Aline herself did. There was no way he was a valet to Romanov, whose sartorial elegance was legendary. When the Professor went out for the night, he usually made Aline tie his neck cloth.
If the Professor thought
was his best option on that front, she could only imagine the mess Fyodor made when he attempted a straight knot with that bulky mechanical hand of his.
She suspected Fyodor aided Romanov in the part of his life Aline was not supposed to know about. And she didn’t, not really. All she knew was that the two of them always took mysterious trips abroad, sometimes for months on end. And when they came back there was a new darkness in both of their eyes.
The Professor was more than a criminologist, of that she was certain.
They would never tell her what was going on now. She’d tried for five years to figure out the Professor’s secrets, as she could not help her natural curiosity. But her discreet snooping never yielded anything. Attempting to understand Professor Romanov was like trying to squeeze blood from a stone. He frustrated her like no other.
And she refused to care this time. The Professor, Fyodor, and the rest of Romanov’s peculiar entourage would soon cease to be her problem.