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Asher’s Invention

By:Coleen Kwan

Chapter One

England, 1870s

Never in her worst imaginings had she thought it would come to this. Minerva tilted back the drooping feather of her hat and wiped a raindrop from her nose. All day the rain had been unrelenting. The draughty third-class train carriage had rattled and jolted all the way down from Manchester. She couldn’t afford a hansom cab from the station, so she had walked, and now she shivered on the porch of a fashionable Kensington villa, waiting for her door knock to be answered. Mizzle and murkiness surrounded her. A chill had settled deep in her bones. A chill that had started days ago. Raising her gloved hand to knock once more, she started back as the door silently swung open. A tall, cadaverous manservant peered out at her.

Minerva drew herself upright, conscious of her unprepossessing appearance. “Is Mr. Quigley at home?”

The servant assessed her in a blink of an eye, pausing only a fraction before granting her entry. “Who shall I say is calling?” he asked as he led her into the front parlor.

“Tell him it’s Miss Lambkin. Miss Minerva Lambkin.” She had debated the wisdom of giving her real name—more than likely Asher would refuse to see her at all—but she would not resort to pretense. Either he would see her or he would not. If he did not…

The man retreated and left her alone in the warm parlor. With a sigh, she set down her carpetbag, took off her sodden cloak and drew closer to the crackling fire. As she peeled off her damp gloves and rubbed her hands, she surveyed the graciously furnished room, her curiosity mingling with a feeling of suspense. She noted the walls hung with striped silk, the black walnut settees richly upholstered in rose damask, the fireplace carved from the finest Italian marble. Asher Quigley was no stranger to wealth these days.

The door swung open, accompanied by a whirring noise. Minerva straightened in surprise as a large mechanical dog entered the room. Its multi-jointed body was made of polished brass joined together by hundreds of minute rivets. It had ruby eyes, copper claws and a small, articulated tail. She’d seen automaton animals before, but never one so detailed. The dog lifted its head and approached her, then stopped. Its red eyes glowed as it crouched and bared steel fangs at her.

More intrigued than afraid, Minerva inched closer. A menacing growl rumbled out of the dog’s mouth.

“Cerberus! Sit.” A man she recognized all too clearly strode into the room.

Her nerves seized. She lurched upright, knocking her hat askew. Hotly aware of her bedraggled state, she pushed the damp feathers away from her face. This was not how she wished to meet Asher Quigley again. In fact, she’d wished never to meet him again. Only desperation had driven her to his doorstep.

He seemed equally displeased at making her reacquaintance. He stopped and held himself some distance away, his expression stiff and unwelcoming, as if she were a proselytizer about to press a pamphlet on him.

“Minerva.” He gave her the slightest incline of his head, the barest whiff of politeness. He failed to say it was a pleasure to see her, but then, Asher had never been one for dissembling, even for the sake of convention.

She cleared her throat, dry with anxiety. “Asher, thank you for seeing me.”

“I apologize for Cerberus.” At the click of his fingers, the mechanical dog moved to his side and sat on its haunches. “I have some adjustments to make. He’s not meant to be so aggressive.”

“I had no idea you were interested in this sort of automaton.” It was all she could do to keep her voice steady.

“It’s just a hobby of mine.”

An expensive hobby.

She swallowed. “I’ve been following your recent deeds in the paper. I must congratulate you on your fame and fortune.”

A year ago, news of Asher’s exploits had dominated the papers for weeks. By saving the Irish potato crop from the dreaded blight, he had singlehandedly averted another disastrous famine, and a nervous British government had been suitably grateful in a pecuniary fashion. It was far easier to reward the ingenious inventor than to cope with yet more starving migrants flooding the English cities. The Royal Society had feted him, Parliament had congratulated him. There had been talk of awarding Asher a knighthood, but shocked rumor had it he’d declined the honor. Such eccentricity had only excited the public’s imagination further.

He shrugged. “I don’t need the fame, but the fortune has its uses. I’m not beholden to anyone anymore.” His lips thinned, almost scornfully. “I cannot tell you how liberating that is.”

Dismay spiraled through Minerva. Who was this hard, distant stranger? Less than five years had passed since they had parted, but he had greatly changed. Physically he was still the most beautiful man she had ever seen. His thick windswept hair, his mesmerizing green eyes, and his classically sculptured face, were enough to make an angel weep. In the intervening years his chest had filled out, his shoulders broadened. Dressed in his velvet-trimmed coat, brocade vest and silk cravat, he cut a dashingly handsome figure, though he was no slave to fashion, as evidenced by his unfashionably long hair and lack of sideburns. But all lingering youthfulness had been stripped from him, and he seemed more cynical and aloof than his nine-and-twenty years warranted.

Had she done this? She and her father? Were they responsible for the tautness of his lips, the adamantine glint in his eyes?

She hid her unsteady hands in the folds of her traveling dress. “Your rewards are most deserved.”

The corner of his mouth twisted. “If only one received what one deserved.”

The none-too-subtle innuendo caused her heart to knot.

“Please, be seated.” Very belatedly, he waved toward the crimson settees. “And tell me why you’ve sought me out after all these years.”

Still shivering, she perched on a seat close to the fire, while Asher lowered himself into a winged armchair, his body still rigid, a watchful expression on his face.

She cleared her throat. “It’s about my father—”

“That was my first guess! And how is Silas, the old scoundrel?”

Discomfort throbbed in her cheeks. “Believe me, I need no reminder of his shortcomings, but he’s in dreadful trouble.”

“That comes as no surprise. An unprincipled miscreant like Silas Lambkin will always be in trouble of one sort or another. What is it this time? Has he stolen an invention from yet another unsuspecting protégé? And has that protégé decided to rise up and exact his revenge? If so, I applaud him. He’s done what I was too lily-livered to do.”

Her toes curled up in their soggy boots as his words excoriated her. Along with money, Asher had acquired a rapier tongue.

“You’re understandably still upset by what happened—”

“Oh, no.” He leaned back and crossed his long legs. “Why should I still be upset? Your father passed off my invention as his own, and you distracted me by seducing me while he sold off all my hard work. But it was my own fault. I was young, naive and pitifully idealistic, but not anymore. No, I’m not upset. You and Silas taught me a salutary lesson. One I will never forget.”

This time she couldn’t fight the pain of his words. She leaped to her feet, breathing hard. “You’ve always refused to believe my innocence, so I’ll not plead with you again, except to say once more, I knew nothing of what my father was up to. Nothing.” Her chest ached with the vehemence of her feeling.

He stared at her before rising to his feet too. “So you would still have me believe you were completely unaware of his plans?”

“Yes.” Despite her vow, she couldn’t prevent the supplication in her voice. “You and I were engaged. Do you think I would betray my own fiancé?”

“Oh, yes. Our engagement.” He flicked at an invisible piece of lint on his sleeve and examined his fingernails. “I’d almost forgotten that little piece of folderol.”

The fire blazed merrily away, but the chill inside her intensified. She wanted nothing more than to run from this man and never return, but she couldn’t. She had no choice but to remain and bear his bitterness.

“I’m glad you’ve put that misfortune behind you,” she said with all the composure she could muster. “Perhaps it will enable you to hear what I have to ask of you with a more temperate head.”

His eyes narrowed. She’d always thought he had the most brilliant, wonderful eyes, but now their keenness was too cutting. For several moments she bore his inimical scrutiny. Finally he answered, “Very well. What does Silas wish you to ask of me?”

“He’s not asked me to do anything, because he is not here. He has disappeared without a trace. I’ve not seen him since breakfast four days ago. I made inquiries, but no one has caught a glimpse of him, and then yesterday I received this letter. I…I’m afraid my father has been k-kidnapped.” She couldn’t suppress the stammer and hated herself for it. From the outset, she had determined to face Asher as a calm, rational woman, to bear herself with dignity no matter what. Now she couldn’t stop her hand from shaking as she drew a crumpled letter from her reticule. “This is the letter.”

Frowning, Asher read the single sheet of cheap paper in a matter of seconds. The contents were already seared into her memory.

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