“This is bloody ridiculous,” Sean Carlyle muttered into his glass, glaring darkly across the crowded ballroom.
“Gently,” Professor Emerson, his mentor from the aeronautics department at the University of Oxford, advised as he joined the younger man at the edge of the crowd. “We wouldn’t want any displays of discontent with all our dear friends in the room, would we?”
“Friends!” Sean scoffed, managing to keep his voice soft despite the urge to yell. “France is a two-faced monster biding its time, and the rest are little more than satellites orbiting the sun of our empire.”
“So choleric tonight,” Professor Emerson said with a slight headshake. “Dare I ponder whether your opinion of the American has changed at all over the past few days?”
“That,” Sean said with a grimace as his gaze recaptured the figure that drew so much attention that evening, “is not an American. That is a caricature of an American.” Good God, could no one else see that the insolent newcomer was playing with them? His ridiculous long leather coat, the tall, broad-brimmed hat, those strange boots and the well-cut, tailored-to-look-rugged clothes beneath it all…the entire ensemble screamed “cowboy,” when any rational human being would have made an effort to fit into his surroundings, not stand out. Yet, there the man stood, drawing attention like honey drew flies and keeping it once people were close, with his smoothly good looks, his soft, strange American drawl, and a way of moving that captured you and refused to let go.
He was doing it again. Looking at Sean with that tiny smirk on his face, and Sean had been caught staring. Again. He jerked his gaze away, angry at himself for becoming enthralled by the abrasive foreigner. “Explain once more why I can’t have James as my pilot?”
“Because,” Professor Emerson said with exaggerated calm, “he cannot be spared from his duties at the Academy of Military Science, to which your Department of Technological Innovation is directly answerable. He’s the head flight instructor for our airship pilots, and with the way things are going now it looks like he and his students will be having more than enough to do before the year is out. So we had to look elsewhere, but of course hiring a Frenchman, who are the next most qualified group of individuals, was out of the question. So, the Board of Regents turned to America. ” He shrugged minutely. “Whether you care to acknowledge it or not, Sean, Mr. Winters has an excellent reputation as a pilot, and nothing we’ve seen so far has disabused me of his competency.”
“I could always take her up myself.”
“That,” the professor’s voice turned hard, “is possibly the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard you say, and I endured some very odd responses during your undergraduate years, Sean. You must have a pilot, someone to free you up to deal with any technical difficulties that may arise during the trial. It is the minimum safety requirement for the ridiculously dangerous endeavors that you manufacture for yourself, and may I say I would be much more comfortable if you went up with a three or four man crew.”
“Impossible, we can’t take the weight,” Sean replied instantly.
“So you’ve told me. Repeatedly. And I listened, my boy, and now I’m asking you to do the same.” He laid one hand on his former student’s shoulder. “You’re an excellent aeronautical engineer, and one of the finest inventors I’ve ever known. Your ideas are brilliant, but your motivation verges on obsession, Sean. You need balance in your work, or someday you’ll push an idea too far and wind up killing yourself, and where would that leave the rest of us? James has never reigned you in as much as I would like, and he’s no better at making a good impression in elevated social circles than you are.”
Sean opened his mouth to object, but Professor Emerson didn’t let him. “No, Sean. You need to give Nicholas Winters a try. Get a feel for his piloting skills, see whether you can work together, and keep in mind that having him around to charm our myriad of investors means that you don’t have to.”
“He seems to be able to do that, at least,” Sean grudgingly agreed, his gaze pulled back to the tall American against his conscious will.
“Give some thought to the source of this odd antipathy, my boy, and try to exorcise it,” his mentor advised. “Right now Mr. Winters is all we have, and the competition against France is in less than three months. It’s very important for the nation’s morale that we win.”
“I know.” Professor Emerson left him alone after that, but he was more distracted by his internal thoughts at this point than the charming, aggravating American on the ballroom floor. After a few more minutes and a few preoccupied interactions, Sean excused himself from the soiree and made his way back to his laboratory. That the American’s presence had given him the liberty to do so this early in the evening was the first thing he felt remotely grateful to the man for.
He loosened his tie and cravat as he walked, calculating the next step in the construction process of his new airship even as he cursed the circumstances that took James’ participation off the table. Yes, he was needed at the Academy. Yes, he hadn’t been able to tell Sean “boo,” much less reign in his sometimes disastrous creativity, but he was an excellent pilot, and that skill more than made up for the occasional error in judgment. At least, nothing fatal had happened so far.
Sean pushed that tremor of doubt to the back of his mind. He didn’t need his own subconscious giving him distractions, not when he had so many other things to worry about. Concrete things, like whether or not his new pilot was worth a damn at anything other than posturing, and whether he had correctly calculated the tensile strength of the armatures for the balloon. He’d gone over the math time and again, and it was rather pointless now to worry about it since there wasn’t time to rebuild them if he’d gotten it wrong, but still…
The laboratory was empty except for himself and the ship. Sean walked to it, freshly captivated by her beauty even though he saw her every day. Polished brass fittings gleamed in the faint lamplight, dark wood and pulleys and wound metal cord working together like an orchestra to create the opus that lay before him. She was coming together, and she would be perfect. She had to be perfect.
Sean closed his eyes and ran a hand over the railing, delighting in the flawlessness of it even as he wondered if he should have made it slimmer. Light, but durable. Tough enough to withstand the elements but simple enough that a two-man crew could operate her. So many equations to balance in his mind, and that didn’t even begin to take into consideration the off-putting factor of a new pilot. A new American pilot, someone who wouldn’t feel the same burning drive to win that an Englishman would. Someone who might not be willing to make the sacrifices it would take to win. Someone who might be afraid of the risks…although from the little he knew of the man, the concept of risk wasn’t frightening to him.
What did he know of Nicholas Winters, anyway? Sean retrieved a spanner from one of his graduate student’s toolkits and began checking the tightness of the bolts. He liked to work as he thought through things, as it seemed to make them clearer somehow. For starters, the man was American…well-established, that fact. He was something of an arrogant bugger as well—although, to be fair, that was par for the course with pilots. The work was difficult, demanding, and exciting. A little arrogance was to be expected, but the easy self-assurance of this man made Sean grit his teeth. Winters had fought for the West during the United States’ few years of internal strife not long ago, and apparently had distinguished himself. He had flown an airship without pause across the whole of the country which, given the size of that country, was saying something. He had excellent recommendations from Oxford’s contacts in New York, which was also saying something if they could be persuaded to praise a Westerner. He was astonishingly attractive when he smiled, and he smiled quite often…
A sudden sound jerked Sean out of his increasingly uncomfortable reverie. He turned his eyes towards the door, but there was no one there. The place was empty but for him and his ship. He was hearing things. He sighed and turned back to where he had been inspecting the hull. Strange, he hadn’t even remembered kneeling down. He trailed his fingers over the dark, polished surface of the wood and smiled. Here was where her name would be carved, eventually. It was bad luck to name a ship before her launch, and while Sean wasn’t really superstitious he also didn’t feel like tempting fate. When she was ready, he would christen her with a name. Then they would fly and they would win, no matter what the French could conjure or how distracting her new pilot turned out to be. Even though, right now it seemed like he was going to be very distracting indeed.
Sunday, February 6, 2011
June 25th, 1982
“You smell wonderful,” Antoñio Polero informed her in his heavily-accented English.
Gabby Farris giggled as Antoñio nuzzled her neck. The tall, blond European was incredibly playful. She sighed as his lips caressed the skin of her neck, beyond warm to scorching and insistent. He pulled back for a moment.
“Oh, God. Don’t stop,” she groaned. His mouth felt incredible.
Antoñio wasn’t her usual type, and Gabby still wasn’t convinced that this date would last past a goodbye kiss at her car. In fact, she was fairly certain that it would end there. Playful or not, Antoñio’s eyes lacked some essential warmth that she preferred in men.
“As you wish.”
Antoñio ran his tongue over her throat in a little circle and started to drop his face to her again. Her blood heated at the attention.
“Back off,” a strange voice ordered.
Gabby retreated in shock, her eyes opening wide in the darkness. She tried to turn to the sound of the voice, but stopped in confusion as a warm splash plastered her shirt to her body. Antoñio backed away with his hand over what appeared to be a deep knife wound at his throat. Gabby jerked a step back with a squawk as a giant of a man brushed past her.
“Back off, Polero.”
Antoñio’s eyes widened in fear as a knife blade the length of a ruler flashed up in the moonlight. Gabby pulled her own knife from the sheath behind her back. It was a pitiful little piece of metal that her brother had given her years ago, the blade about the length of her palm, but Jeff believed a woman should never be unarmed.
Without thought of the size of his weapon, Gabby struck the stranger in the ribs, brushing past his heavy leather jacket. He recoiled, dragging her along in her surprise. Gabby gasped as he met her eyes. Fury burned there. For a moment, she was incapable of leaving that locked stare.
She forced her gaze to Antoñio, pleading for an explanation, anything that would help her find the ground beneath her feet. Her blood ran cold at the fangs clearly visible in Antoñio’s grimace, the red eyes glowing in the near-black night. She might have thought she was hallucinating were it not for the fact that one of the fangs was broken. That was too much detail to explain away.
What have I done?
Gabby squawked again as Antoñio disappeared into thin air. He didn’t run or hide. One second, he was there; the next, there was nothing as far as she could see. Gabby jumped back, feeling her knife slide free from the giant’s body.
Her rescuer screamed that time. It was less in pain than in pure frustration.
Her knife clattered to the ground, and the smell of the blood on her shirt struck her, making her retch. Gabby backpedaled, shaking while the man cleaned his knife on the grass and sheathed it. She wasn’t sure exactly what she just did, but it had been the wrong choice.
He turned to her, ran his hand over her throat slowly, and nodded. “I’m sorry for frightening you,” he told her in a gentle voice.
Gabby stared at the growing stain of his blood on his jeans. “Oh...God.” She dragged the denim scarf from her hair and tried to staunch the flow from the wound she’d caused. “What did I do?” She couldn’t keep the tears from falling.
His hand covered hers, the other patting her back in comfort. “It’s okay. You need to calm down and come with me.”
“Yes. We have to get you to a hospital. Right now.” She hadn’t realized how severe the bleeding was.
“I have a doctor waiting for me.” That sounded sincere.
“You do? But—”
He didn’t let her finish. “Do you have a car nearby?”
She nodded. “In the lot.”
“Okay.” He reached down, retrieved her knife, wiped the blood on his jeans, and settled it into her sheath for her. Then he took her by the elbow and guided her back to the lot, while she tried to keep pressure on his wound. He walked quickly, as if he hardly noticed the fact that he was bleeding everywhere.
Gabby steered him toward her car with every intention of taking him to a hospital, but he shook his head.
“You have to go. Go home and wash your clothes immediately. Get a shower. If you don’t wash it off right away, it will burn your skin like harsh chemicals.”
“No need to worry about me. I’ll be fine.”
He ran his fingertips over her tear-stained cheek and smiled at her, a carnal smile that made her heart flutter. “It’s okay,” he assured her. “This is what I do, Gabrielle.”
Gabby felt the air leave her lungs and fought to find the strength to answer. “How do you know my name?”
He shrugged with a sheepish grin and handed her wallet back. His dark eyes glittered in amusement and a black curl fell over his eyes in a boyish look. “How else was I supposed to find you later?” he asked.
She managed a weak smile. “Planning on getting even?” she joked.
He laughed softly. “With a strong, beautiful woman like you? Never. I just wanted to let you know that there was no permanent injury, at a later date.”
Gabby blushed, her eyes scanning down his body to the slight bulge in his jeans. “If you show up with news like that, I may be tempted to make you prove it. After all, a big, strong man like you—”
What am I doing? I was just attacked by some creature. I’m nursing my personal knight in shining armor, who I just stabbed, and all I can think about is getting him into bed.
The man rose to her challenge in more ways than one. “Promise me that, and I will be on your doorstep in one week to collect on it.” He checked his watch as if marking the time for that date.
Gabby licked her lips slowly. “Next week, I will be eagerly waiting for you. But, I warn you, I intend to make sure every inch of you is in full working order.”
“I wouldn’t stand for less.”
His perusal of her made her knees week. “So, do you want me to call you ‘he’ forever, or is there something else I should call you?”
“Until next week, Stephen.” She slid into the seat, and he held the door for her. A gentleman to the end.
Stephen closed the door behind her and motioned her away. He stood and watched her leave, not moving from the spot he occupied until she was almost out of view.
Gabby groaned, not at the offer she’d made him but at the fact that she’d stabbed him in the first place.
* * * *
Stephen Hunter pressed his left hand to the stab wound in his ribs while he drove with his right. His black Firebird hummed under him, and he was glad that he went for an automatic. He’d bleed out if he had to shift. His mind was split: one part on ghosting so the beasts wouldn’t converge on him in his weakened state, one part on reaching the manor house, and one part assessing his wound.
The knife had been tiny compared to a sacred weapon, maybe four inches of blade but wickedly sharp, a woman’s blade. He laughed harshly that the damned beast Polero hadn’t laid a claw on him, but a woman had nailed him well. It was an impressive bleeder. He would have left the blade in place to minimize bleeding, but Gabrielle had been so startled when that baby-stealing beast dematerialized that she pulled it out before he could stop her. She shouldn’t have nailed him, but he’d been so intent on getting a deathblow on Polero, he had let his concentration on anything else falter. Worse, the time she’d cost him had allowed Polero to escape again.
Still, Stephen couldn’t blame Gabrielle for her reaction. He had unghosted and landed his bleeder on Polero as he saw the beast go for her throat, but she hadn’t seen his fangs. Gabrielle had believed the man was about to lay a playful kiss on her throat. It was a ploy the turned had learned from Veriel, courting a woman before using her.
Had she waited an instant longer to strike her blow, she might have realized that the blood covering her was the foul, black blood of a beast. She hadn’t, but Stephen was sure that she wished she had.
He replayed the shattered look in her pale blue eyes, the swollen, tear-stained cheeks. She was lovely and strong, and that heartbroken expression had convinced him to show her she had done no real harm.
His body remained in a fierce arousal at her offer. He wasn’t sure if he’d take the young woman up on it. Not that he’d complain about a night of sex with the spirited lass, but it smacked of deceit in getting her to bed. Was it honorable to accept an offer given under such duress? He’d have to consider that carefully.
Stephen pulled up to the gate at the manor house and reached his left hand out to the access panel. He had to reset the machine once when he hit a five instead of a two with his shaking, blood-slicked fingers. Bleary-eyed, he made it through the gate and into the underground garage.
He’d stumbled from the car and was halfway to the stairwell when Corwyn burst out. Stephen had only a moment to consider when he had let his ghosting slip before he lost his balance and landed in a heap on the concrete, cursing under his breath.
Corwyn flipped him to his back and pulled his jacket away to check his wound. His brother swore fluently, then ordered Colin to call Michael, one of their doctors. Stephen cried out as Corwyn applied pressure to the wound.
“It’s all right,” Corwyn assured him. “We’ve seen worse. Why didn’t you let us track you?”
“Had to protect her.”
Corwyn nodded in understanding, but his eyes burned in Blutjagd. “What beast did this to you?” he demanded.
Stephen barked in laughter, then grimaced as it jarred the wound. “No beast. A woman,” he panted out. He smiled at the memory of the petite blonde with the flashing blue eyes and the spray of freckles over her nose and cheeks.
“A woman?” Corwyn asked in disbelief.
Stephen’s smile spread. “What a woman,” he quipped as he slipped into the darkness.
* * * *
June 26th, 1982
Corwyn smiled as Stephen opened his eyes. He could tell immediately that his brother was lucid again. “Good evening. It’s nice to see you looking better.”
Stephen winced as he shifted on the bed. He scowled at the IV line in his arm. “Get this damned thing out of me. You know I hate them.”
“You didn’t give us much choice.” Corwyn started peeling the tape from the shunt, removing the apparatus and leaving Stephen with a gauze pad on his arm while he ditched the IV in the bathroom. He sliced the bag of fluid into the sink before dumping the empty shell into the trash can.
“How long have I been out?”
“About twenty hours. Next time, let us track you. We actually had to transfuse you.”
“I couldn’t,” he decided miserably. “I needed to protect her. By the time I knew she was safe, I was in no shape to take on a beast. I had to keep ghosting until I got home.”
Stephen looked at him in shock. “Yeah. Gabrielle.”
“You talk in your sleep.”
“She made a real impression on you.”
“Yes, I suppose she did.” He ran his hand over the injured spot on his ribs. “All four steel inches of it.”
“I wasn’t referring to her blade. I was referring to the petite pixie you’ve been talking to for the last day.” Corwyn raised an eyebrow suggestively. “I never realized you were so—inventive with women.”
Stephen smiled weakly. “She has a body made for adventure,” he admitted.
Corwyn nodded. “Would you prefer to eat here or in the kitchen?”
Stephen scowled as he rolled stiffly to his feet. “You know the answer to that.”
“I’ll see you in the kitchen.” Corwyn didn’t wait for Stephen’s nod before heading down the hall. He took the stairs two at a time, considering Stephen’s wild ramblings.
His youngest brother was only twenty-four, far younger than modern-day Warriors typically chose a mate. Still, Hunter needed heirs. With Anna lost to them, it was up to his brothers to provide those heirs as soon as possible.
Corwyn sighed. There would be no heirs from Colin. Had Colin not had his own disastrous brush with printing, he might someday submit. Short of Stephen dying without heirs, there was no chance of that happening. If he did submit, Colin would approach mating as a loathsome duty to be fulfilled. Corwyn shuddered at the thought.
No, the heirs would come from Stephen. If his mad ramblings were the beginnings of printing and Ms. Farris would have him, Corwyn would facilitate the match in any way he could. Gods forbid, if Stephen’s printing turned as sour as Colin’s had, Corwyn would let Stephen have his healing time. Eventually, one of his brothers had to print and produce children, else Hunter would die.