Beneath the Surface of Victorian Life Lies a Very Different World…
Hated and feared by the upper classes, the Illuminists guard their secrets with their lives. Janette Aston’s insatiable quest for answers brings her to their locked golden doors, where she encounters the most formidable man she’s ever met.
Darius Lawley’s job is to eliminate would–be infiltrators, but even he may be no match for Janette’s cunning and charm…
Steam Guardians, Tome 1 : A Lady Can Never Be Too Curious
Extrait offert par Mary Wine :
Great Britain, 1843
“You are going to be caught one of these times, Janette.”
“Don’t lecture, Sophia,” Janette begged. “I get too much of that from my father. Sometimes he turns red because he won’t stop long enough to draw breath.”
Sophia choked back a giggle. “Well, he isn’t the only one who thinks the Illuminists are uncivilized. Besides, we well-brought-up girls must be…mindful of appearances.”
Sophia lost the battle to remain prim-looking and dissolved into laughter.
“Their Solitary Chamber is anything but uncivilized. Look at those arches, just like the Romans built,” Janette remarked in a hushed tone to keep her words from drifting to where Sophia’s father was minding his shop in the front of the house. “Doesn’t it drive you simply mad to not know what goes on in there?”
Janette leaned on the windowsill, trying to gain a glimpse of what the large building kept so secret. On the outside, it was an imposing structure more suited to ancient Greece than England. Smooth columns held up the three-story roof, and all the doorways were constructed with arches. It was only the front of a four-block enclosure. No one outside the secret Order really knew what was inside, but there were plenty of rumors.
Wild sexual indulgence…
Strange science experiments…
But the members coming and going looked normal enough. Even if their vests were constructed with additional pockets and the females among them were often seen openly wearing the pantaloons style so scorned by upper society.
“I don’t find it as fascinating as you do. So where’s the science circular? You only come to see me when you want to buy one without your father knowing.”
“At least your father doesn’t mind your reading them.”
“So long as I do so in the back room,” Sophia remarked drily. “Society is unforgiving of ladies who try to expand their minds. Such drivel.”
Janette shrugged off her shawl. It was rolled lengthwise to contain the circular. Unrolling it, she began scanning the articles.
“Isn’t it fascinating, Sophia? Look at this one; it’s about currents of electricity being used. There’s a lecture next Tuesday in the Solitary Chamber. How I’d like to see that with my own eyes.”
Sophia scoffed. “It will cost you every friend you have to experience it.”
Janette looked up at her friend. “Including you? Would you shun me if I challenged the exam to become an Illuminist?” They were bold words, but a little jolt of excitement went down her body when she said them. Her father’s insistence that she remain meek and obedient was overly constrictive, but what annoyed her was the expectation that she refrain from education. Her mother had secreted tutors into the house to instruct her. The circular in her hand was nourishment to her ravenous mind. Yet she was forbidden to discuss the tantalizing data because it wasn’t considered ladylike. There were times she feared being crushed by the rules of her society.
“Well, perhaps not me,” Sophia muttered. “But my father would most likely insist on your using the back door if you started wearing one of those gold lapel pins of the Illuminist Order. Our esteemed clientele might find another designer if we had any Illuminists in the main salon. You wouldn’t want my father to have to resort to producing clothing like a factory worker, would you? He must maintain appearances or lose his clients.”
A Lady Can Never Be Too Curious
And there was the bitter truth-the definite boundary between the Illuminists and society. You were either one or the other. “There are no demonstrators today. Perhaps everyone is ready to begin accepting the Illuminists since the Queen has spoken well of them,” Janette offered hopefully.
“The Queen is young,” Sophia remarked. “Everyone will listen to her with smiles on their faces, but it will not stop the calls for the Illuminists to be run out of the city. People fear the unknown. The Constables are always here hassling the members on their way up those steps.”
“They keep their secrets; that much is true.” Janette went to join her friend, but she stopped before she made it to the summer porch.
“When did your father start making cycling pantaloons?”
One of the wardrobe cabinets was slightly open. Hung up in a neat row were several pairs of the controversial women’s wear.
“Father didn’t make them. I did,” Sophia informed her. “You aren’t the only one who likes Illuminist ways. They are quite comfortable.”
Janette looked at the makeshift dressing room formed with curtains near the back door. A full-length mirror stood next to it. “I want to try on a pair.”
“Your father would have a brain seizure.” But Sophia sounded excited.
“He would.” Janette held the pantaloons up in front of her and stared at her reflection in the mirror.
There was a swish of fabric as Sophia pulled out a coat with a peplum attached to it. “You will need this, or you’ll be shocking even to an Illuminist in naught but pantaloons and your corset.”
Janette took the pantaloons and coat into the dressing room and heard the curtain close behind her.
She was behaving wickedly.
No, that wasn’t true. She refused to believe a piece of clothing might be the cause of her moral corruption. She unbuttoned her dress and reached down to release the waistband on her petticoat so she could step out of it. She contemplated the pantaloons for a moment before shaking them out in front of her and lifting one foot. They slid easily up one leg and then the other.
She turned to the coat and slid it off the hanger. The pantaloons felt slightly strange, but the brush of air against her lower legs was pleasant.
“These must be heavenly in summer,” she murmured.
“Don’t become too enamored, Janette. You know your father detests anything to do with the Illuminists.”
Janette pushed her hands into the sleeves of the top and pulled it closed over her corset. “How could I forget? I have to hide my science circulars in my shawl. You’ve no idea what it takes to keep the upstairs maid from discovering them in my room, but I’m not giving them up. Privately, I shall keep my mind as sharp as I please.”
Sophia laughed, and Janette pushed the curtain open while working the last of the coat buttons closed. Excitement turned her cheeks pink as she hurried to see her reflection. The long mirror showed her more of her shape than she’d ever seen. She turned to look at the back view. The coat’s peplum fell to just above her knees, and the bagginess of the pants didn’t allow her knees to show at all. The cuffs of the pantaloons fit easily around her calves, allowing several inches of her stockings to be seen before her boots began. Both pieces were made of caramel wool.
“You might as well try on the hat while you’re at it, Janette.”
Sophia offered a top hat, only it wasn’t made of wool or beaver silk as Janette expected. Nor was it in a size a lady normally wore.
“Why is it so large?”
“Illuminists consider function more important than fashion. This hat was ordered by a woman who claimed the kid leather would fail to conduct something or other.”
“Electricity,” Janette supplied while sitting the hat on her head. It sat comfortably around her forehead, exactly like a man would wear his hat.
“I never thought cycling pantaloons would feel so free.”
Sophia failed to hide her amusement. “I warn you not to get accustomed to the feeling. Both our families will see us shipped to the Highlands before allowing either of us to set one foot outside without a dress on.”
Janette walked to the door of the summer porch and looked at the yard beyond as if she were inside a prison cell and what she saw was impossible to reach.
“I’m going outside,” she decided. The fear of discovery was beginning to bother her. Was she truly a coward?
“Janette, Scotland is cold, you know, and it rains all the time.”
“I’m just going to feel how the hat works in the sun.”
Sophia followed her but stopped in the doorway. “You are beyond hope.”
Janette stepped farther out into the sunlight, the brim of the leather hat shading her eyes.
“Come back in, Janette. My father might check on us.”
“Must I?” she teased.
Sophia surprised her by raising one eyebrow in a very daring way. There was a hint of a challenge in her eyes Janette couldn’t recall seeing before. “By all means, walk up to the Solitary Chamber doors and see if they allow you inside.”
Janette shot her friend a look full of mischief, encouraged by the bold nature of her suggestion. “That sounds like a challenge.”
“Maybe it is,” Sophia answered. “But like all challenges, it comes with a consequence. If my father catches us and informs your father of what we have been about, we shall find ourselves in the draftiest castle they can rent to lodge us and not just Scotland: they will likely send us to the Highlands.”
“In that case, you should change into a pair of pantaloons as well. You shouldn’t suffer in exile with me without having some of the fun.”
Sophia laughed, rolling her eyes. She reached inside for something and reappeared with a similar top hat on. This second one was made of kid leather dyed a deep red.
“The clothing is fun, I admit.” Sophia stepped into the sunlight while adjusting the hat to shade her eyes. “And so functional, unlike fashion with its ridiculous ideas about tight lacing and overly large petticoats. Not that I mind a pretty ball gown, but honestly, I would like to fit through the door of the carriage without having to bend my skirts.”
It might yet be more fun…
Janette turned to look at the Solitary Chamber building. She reached for the latch on the back iron gate before her common sense reared its head. She knew she was acting impulsively, but she felt there would never be another chance for her to attempt to satisfy her curiosity.
Never, which meant she’d have to live with the knowledge that she’d acted the coward when opportunity was upon her.
No…she would be bold. It felt absolutely necessary. The need raced through her veins as her heart accelerated. Maybe Sophia felt the same urgency, because as she made her way through the gate, her friend never called her back.
Within moments, Janette stood on the opposite side of the street. The columns looked taller now. She climbed the steps, tipping her head back to investigate the construction of the roof. The portico was covered in brilliant paintings-perfect images of the solar system and other things she’d never seen before. But were the paintings of fact or fiction? Fact. She knew she was in the place of facts. Satisfaction filled her and left goose bumps along her arms because it was so intense.
Someone cleared his throat.
Janette jerked her attention down to discover a doorman standing inside the building with the door open for her.
The doorman didn’t even blink but remained at his post. He looked straight ahead, never focusing on her. Excitement renewed its grip on her. Janette wasn’t sure if she forgot to draw breath or not, but she walked through the forbidden doorway.
The doorman shut the door behind her and walked to a small booth. He stood there, facing the wall, but when she peered closer, she could see he was watching through some sort of window. It wasn’t transparent, but she could clearly see outside.
“The experiments have already begun.”
She straightened abruptly as he spoke without looking at her.
“Yes, thank you.”
It was difficult to turn her back on the window set into solid stone. She wanted to look through it and discover its secrets, but the doorman’s words tempted her to see how much further she might go.
The hallway was lit, but instead of the green glow of gaslights, a muted white light glowed from behind frosted panes of glass. She reached out and touched one gently and found it cool. There was no smoke or soot either.
Voices drifted into the hallway from a large archway ahead. A few more steps and she could make sense of the conversation.
“So we know the conductive capabilities of Deep Earth Crystals…”
Janette entered under the arch and froze.
“We also know that Deep Earth Crystals respond to one another…It is this reaction that allows us to harness their energy…and produce steam for power…”
The lecturer was in the center of the room. A table stood behind him lit by huge panes of frosted glass that glowed brighter than a full moon. Each was held by a large copper stand with gears built into them so the light could be aimed in different directions. Like a lamp that might be moved to aim light in any direction.
But what was a Deep Earth Crystal? And how could it respond?
She took a step sideways into one of the rows of seats ringing the stage the lecturer stood on and sat down. Excitement gripped her as she leaned forward to hear the rest of the lecture. A sound rose from those watching as the man pulled a large crystal from a case.
“Impressive…yes…but remember…size does not dictate the potency of the conductive properties.”
He set the crystal down and plucked what looked like a folded leather apron off the table. Once he flipped it open and pushed his hand into it, it was clear it was a glove, made of leather reinforced with sturdy canvas. Janette leaned forward, eager to see why he needed such protection from rocks. He lifted a dome such as she might expect to see on a breakfast service tray, and beneath it lay a small crystal.
It was no thicker than a broom handle and only about six inches long, but he handled it with great care, reaching out his gloved hand to pick it up while holding his head back, as though the crystal were molten metal.
“Here we have an excellent example of the true power of-”
The moment the smaller crystal came closer to the large one, the room filled with a sharp whine. The lecturer stiffened, fighting to maintain his grip on the smaller crystal. His assistants lunged forward to help him, but the smaller crystal broke his grip and went sailing up into the seats.
The whine decreased as it arced through the air and left the other crystal behind. The Illuminists watching in front of her ducked, and the crystal landed neatly in her lap.
Janette picked it up before thinking, and the pulse of electricity began shooting through her body. It was deeper, almost harmonic. She swore she could hear the delicate sounds of music, and the crystal itself felt warm against her palm. It felt completely correct to hold it, and satisfying in an unexpected way, as though she’d never truly been complete until this moment.
Janette was startled out of the strange euphoria by the lecturer’s frantic voice. He’d rushed up the aisle but stood staring at her.
He suddenly smiled, and crinkles appeared near his eyes. “I wasn’t informed we had a new handler in our midst. When did you arrive?”
The rest of the audience all stared at her.
“Well…just now.” She stood, and those closest to her shifted back, their attention on the crystal she held. “Would you like me to place this somewhere for you?”
Four assistants were clustered around the lecturer. They wore leather overcoats and had leather hoods on their heads with a pair of goggles pushed up above their eyes. One of them leaned in and whispered in the lecturer’s ear, pointing at Janette. The lecturer’s eyebrows rose.
“You will need to come with me.” A deep voice issued the command from behind her.
Janette felt a tingle race down her spine. The newcomer had a voice edged with steel, the solid sort of authority that announced a man who was accustomed to being obeyed. She turned to discover the owner of the voice standing only a single pace from her. She had to look up because he was tall with broad shoulders.
He was attired in a double-breasted vest and overcoat-just as proper as any gentleman-but there was something in his dark eyes that was very uncivilized. For all that they were surrounded by others, she felt like she was alone with him.
And that knowledge excited her.
The sensation was unsettling, and for some odd reason, she sensed that he knew exactly how he affected her. It was in the narrowing of his eyes and the thinning of his lips-tiny little details she shouldn’t have noticed but did.
“My apologies, Professor, for having your lecture interrupted by a trespasser,” the newcomer said. “I will remove her.”
“Mr. Lawley, she is still holding the crystal…If you touch her…the current…ah…” The lecturer’s warning came too late. Janette barely felt the man close his grip around her upper arm when he growled and released her.
“I did warn you, Darius. That’s a level-four sample she’s holding. Because she’s a Pure Spirit, the current is going straight-”
“Enough. She’s heard too much already. She is not an Illuminist.”
Darius Lawley offered the professor a frown. When he turned his head, Janette was treated to the view of some sort of device covering his ear. Several copper and silver gears were visible, and the men behind him wore similar devices. These men didn’t look like the other Illuminists attending the lecture. They were burly, and their expressions, hard.
Darius jerked his head back toward her the moment she moved. There was sharpness in his eyes, but what she sensed most about him was the fact that he was dangerous. He was unlike any man she’d met. Her world had always been full of gentlemen whom she trusted to remain at a polite distance.
This man was nothing like that. He’d boldly touched her, and that brief connection felt somehow…intimate. Yet she wasn’t offended. The surge of excitement was only growing stronger as she contemplated leaving with him.
“If you please, miss, give the crystal to Professor Yulric.” His voice was deep and raspy, setting off a ripple of awareness that traveled down her length in spite of how perfectly polite his words were.
“Yes, quite right. Hand it here. It’s quite volatile, you understand.” The professor shuddered. He extended his hand with the protective glove still in place.
“I find the lecture quite amazing. I’d like to remain to learn more about the crystal.”
“Illuminists only,” Darius informed her. His expression tightened, his lips sealing into a hard line.
She sighed before turning her hand over so the crystal dropped into the professor’s waiting palm.
“Clear a path…Clear the way…” Professor Yulric hurried down the aisle, and the crystal began to whine as he neared the other one. “Remove the male, for heaven’s sake, or we’ll have another uncontrollable reaction.”
“The what? Did you say male? As in gender?” Janette asked, too curious to contain her question.
“Nothing,” Darius informed her quietly. “You do not belong here.”
He reached past her and grasped one of her shoulders and neatly turned her around so the sight of Professor Yulric was lost. It was done with such a light touch she stood slightly shocked.
“But I want to see-”
“I’ve no doubt you do, but you have snuck inside our chambers, which I cannot allow. Please come with me.”
She really couldn’t refuse; after all, he was correct. She followed him, and his men fell into step behind them.
Confusion needled her as they went right past the doorman. Her expectation that she would be tossed unceremoniously out onto the front steps vanished as Darius continued on, granting her the opportunity to see more of the forbidden building.
It should have alarmed her; instead, she felt another jolt of heat stab into her. She didn’t care at all if the situation was proper, it was exciting.
“Where are you taking me?”
“To my office.”
He lifted his hand to touch the device in his ear. Almost in the same instant there was a groan as a door ahead of them opened. Darius led her through it, and the door closed behind them with a solid sound.
The room they had entered was quite big for an office and had a large desk like one she would expect to find in a police station sitting in the middle of the floor. Darius walked around to sit behind it as his men took up positions behind her. There was no chair in front of the desk. The criminal stood, while the detective sat.
Darius considered her from head to boot toe with a razor-sharp gaze. “Ladies who practice deceptions often discover themselves far from their comfortable parlors, Miss…?”
“Miss Janette Aston.”
How wicked such a simple suggestion seemed coming from him. Her cheeks felt like they were blazing, yet fear hadn’t arrived to dampen her enjoyment of the moment.
Bold women come to no good end, her father was fond of telling her. But at the moment she felt more alive than she ever had. In fact, she wanted to match the man in front of her.
“You needn’t be so sour. I haven’t hurt anyone.” She swallowed to clear the huskiness from her tone. “You are not an officer of the law.”
“Here, I am.” His voice returned to its formal tone. “And before you demand to see my superior, I will tell you I am in command of the Guardian personnel in this Solitary Chamber. You shall deal with me, Miss Aston.”
There was a flicker of heat in his eyes, a hint of enjoyment that made his statement more personal. A twist of excitement went through her belly, shocking her with just how affected she was.
“I see.” Apprehension tried to rise inside her, but she shook it off. “Surely you can see the compliment in my desire to attend one of your lectures.”
He raised a dark eyebrow, appearing too rakish by far. There was a hint of something in his eyes that sent her eyelids fluttering. It was pure response. She failed completely to control it, and it undermined her determination to meet him with boldness. His gaze settled on the blush staining her cheeks.
“Tell me, does it concern you to be here unescorted?”
He waved a hand, and the two men behind her turned to leave. Amusement glittered in his dark eyes, rubbing her temper enough to help her recover her poise. The man was clearly toying with her.
And she was enjoying it…
But she shouldn’t. She folded her hands primly.
“Mr. Lawley, I simply cannot stand for this…well…this-”
“Lack of formality?” he supplied in a tone rich with suggestion. “You have willfully entered my world. Do not be so naïve as to think I will conform to your high-society ideas of what my behavior should be.”
Her mind was happy to offer several ideas of just what he might be suggesting too. She shook her head to dispel her wild imaginings. Boldness might be fine to toy with, so long as she wasn’t facing a man such as this one. She could not trust him or her reaction to him. The Solitary Chamber truly was another world, and she felt the change dramatically.
Yet there was something about him-something she felt more than had evidence to support-that made her believe he was only trying to play on her fears.
“I really am not a rabbit to be frightened off with any hint of impropriety. If that were so, I’d have stopped reading your science circulars years ago, or likely never begun, given my father’s disapproval of anything to do with your order. I find the circulars fascinating.”
His head cocked to one side as he studied her. “Brave words, easily spoken when you clearly believe your behavior will never be found out by anyone in your corner of the world. Perhaps I should keep you here and send a message to your father to come and collect you.”
“How unkind of you to threaten me like a child.” The man was trying to unnerve her. It should have bothered her; instead, she was beset by the need to stand firm in the face of his threats.
“If you want to be treated gently like a lady, you should remain in your dress and petticoat.”
Maybe she was tired of being treated like a lady…
Her thoughts shocked her, making her struggle to find the correct words to reply. There was too much expectation in his tone, and part of her truly wanted to surprise him. “I never thought the title Illuminist implied your kind were not honorable.”
“Really?” He stood, and she felt her breath quicken. His devil-may-care attitude fascinated her when it should have sickened or shocked her at the very least. She needed to find her discipline-and quickly.
“You are amusing yourself at my expense. Even if you persist in accusing me of wrongdoing, you shouldn’t try to frighten me like some dockside bully.” She nodded, satisfied with her reply. At least she sounded confident, even if it was pretense. Even an Illuminist couldn’t see into her thoughts.
And yet there was a flicker of something in his dark eyes that hinted that he knew just how unsteady she felt. But she maintained her composure, staring straight back at him, and he abandoned his playfulness.
“And what, pray tell, would you have to say if you had discovered me in your kitchen, Miss Aston? Would the excuse that I was curious as to the pattern of china you keep be sufficient to appease you?”
He was mocking her, his voice deep and rich. But she felt a prick of guilt.
“There is a difference between walking up to a door to see if it would be opened and discovering you in my home,” she muttered. “Your man opened the door for me. Go and deal with your doorman for allowing me in without one of your pins.”
“He only did so because you are a-never mind.”
“I am a what?” She looked at the gold pin on his lapel, noticing the crystal in it for the first time. “Is my ability to handle crystals the reason I was allowed in? What does that make me?”
His expression became stone-hard and impossible to read.
“You are being childish to assume we keep such strict membership requirements if there were nothing inside this building worth keeping secret.”
There was a note of truth in his words, but part of her was still insanely captivated by the rogue who’d been teasing her. He’d retreated behind a socially acceptable demeanor now, and she found it disappointing.
“I suppose you are finished now with teasing me about doing your worst. Do you truly believe I was impressed?” The words tumbled out before her better judgment intervened.
Surprise lit his eyes, and the corners of his mouth twitched up. The smile transformed his face, making him too pleasing by far once again.
“You are nowhere near ready to handle my worst, Miss Aston. But you are accurate in your assessment. If you weren’t so young, you’d recognize that as a warning and not a compliment.”
There was a dark promise in his voice. His gaze settled on her lips for a moment, one that lasted longer than was proper. She needed to escape from the room before she did something…impulsive. It was so odd to discover how volatile her nature might be when she was paired with a man who didn’t condemn her for her boldness. Part of her was sure he was encouraging it, pushing at her boundaries to see where her limits were.
Wicked…and dangerous, for a woman was worth little without her good name. “You have a good point, but I cannot claim I am truly sorry for trying your door personnel. I did not choose where I was born any more than you did,” she stated quietly. “Yet it is time I departed before my friend worries enough to summon the local constables.”
He shook his head, enjoyment glittering in his eyes. “You were not kidnapped, so I highly doubt your friend will be quick to report where you are.”
“A moment ago you were insisting that I do not belong here, and now you dangle the idea that no one shall miss me in front of my nose?”
He was like a cat with a mouse, so confident of his superiority. Her temper rose, burning through the haze that clouded her rational thinking.
“You shall press that ear device of yours immediately and open that door for me.” She slapped her hand down on the desk to ensure he understood how intent she was.
Darius jumped the moment her hand made contact, and he reached out to capture her wrists, but he only locked his fingers around one of her hands. Her other hand made contact with the smooth surface of the desk, and when it did, the entire thing lit. A soft whine filled the air, and she felt the current travel through her.
Darius released her with a muffled word that sounded very much like profanity.
“Remove your hand.” He sounded annoyed, which pleased her because it placed them back on even ground.
“Are there crystals inside this desk?” She lifted her hand when his expression tightened with determination to maintain his secrecy. “Why does it pain you to touch me when I’m in contact with those crystals?”
Science questions were wonderfully devoid of stimulation, at least the physical sort.
She directed her attention to the desk. Darius reached out and boldly cupped her chin, lifting it so their gazes fused. Her skin flushed uncomfortably hot, her poise deserting her in an instant. Sensation rippled across her skin. She was stunned by just how much she enjoyed his hand on her. So delightful, but wicked nonetheless.
“You’re being quite forward,” she said, but her tone lacked true conviction.
“You are hardly sputtering with indignant, puritan outrage,” he muttered. “In fact, you sound…breathless.”
Now his toying was much more personal and dangerous. Her belly twisted with something that felt like excitement, but her common sense warned her to avoid any further discoveries. He wouldn’t be condemned in his world, but she would be in hers.
“I’m agitated.” She stepped back to remove herself from his touch. “But you clearly don’t recognize civilized emotions.”
“Because I’m an Illuminist?” he offered too quickly.
“Because you are clearly no gentleman, as your behavior proves.” Her father would have approved of her words, but part of her cringed. She was acting the prude when her thoughts were anything but proper. “Why are you being so presumptuous? You judge me, sir, far more than I am guilty of having preconceived notions about your character.”
Darius came around the desk, his large body capturing her attention. An insane rush of heat washed down her body as he came closer. She became more conscious of the lack of skirt hiding her legs. He was the first man to see so much of her form, and she felt her cheeks burning as he loomed over her. The man never averted his eyes, like a gentleman would have, but surveyed her from head to toe without hesitation.
Did he like what he saw?
“Miss Aston, I am responsible for security here, and I don’t have time to teach curious girls lessons their nursemaids should have.”
He wasn’t attracted to her one bit, which made her a fool. “You are free with your judgments sir.”
“Perhaps, but I assure you I am very skilled at keeping this Solitary Chamber secure.”
Now he was formal, and she believed him. Duty was something he held very dear; she could see the devotion in his eyes. He reached up and tapped the device covering his ear. She witnessed it glow. Only in a tiny portion, but the light was unmistakable. The door opened with a soft sound behind her.
“I will return once I’ve questioned the doorman,” he said. “By all means, continue to think of me as no gentleman. I find the blush on your cheeks…charming.”
Outrage banished the shame flooding her. “Why, you…rogue.”
The door closed behind Darius, but not before she witnessed the satisfied smirk on his lips.
Ill-mannered, gutter hound!
Insufferable man. She wasn’t going to waste her time on thinking about what he thought of her.
But you’re still disappointed he is quite out of reach.
Oh stop already.
She couldn’t possibly be interested in seeing him again. No. She would deny such feelings, because otherwise she would be doomed to weeping in her bed.
Illuminists and ladies did not mix. Ever.
* * *
“You seem to be failing to impress our guest, Darius.”
Darius made it to the observation room adjacent to his office to discover Lykos Claxton watching Janette.
“She lacks a sense of self-preservation. I was attempting to motivate her to stay at her friend’s tea table. I’m sure her father would want it that way.” He wished he agreed more with his better judgment, but his tone betrayed just how little passion he had for doing the correct thing when it came to Janette Aston. She tempted him, and that was dangerous ground.
Lykos peered at Janette through the wall screen. “You managed to bring a blush to her cheeks and spirit to her voice. No simpering at all. Interesting.”
Darius didn’t care for the tone of his comment. His comrade was an outstanding guardian, but his second love in life was the art of seduction-a skill he had polished to a high shine with the help of his handsome face. Fair hair and blue eyes added to his appeal with the gentle sex.
“Why are you here, anyway? I can handle a single trespasser by myself. If you don’t have enough to keep you busy at your posting, I’m sure the council would be happy to assign you someplace that can keep you from wandering away from your post looking for afternoon diversion.”
“For a look at a Pure Spirit, I’d sit through tea at Buckingham Palace, boring conversation and all. But that little bit of womanhood isn’t hard on the eyes, even if blondes aren’t my favorite.”
Darius frowned, recognizing the tone of his friend’s voice. Lykos knew how to seduce women far too well. “She’s a Pure Spirit, for all the good it will do us. Her family is upper-crust, not an Illuminist-accepting bone in their bodies.”
“Why so skeptical? Those cycling pantaloons give me hope.” Lykos nodded. “She won’t be so hard to entice into the order. If she found the courage to step out in those, she’s not the model lady her family wishes.” He flashed a grin at Darius. “Maybe I’m being too rash about those golden locks.”
“What’s this?” Professor Yulric came around the corner, his thoughts spilling from his lips in the same moment his mind formed them. “Have you convinced the girl to train for the exam already? Excellent.” He beamed at them, rubbing his hands together excitedly.
“No, I haven’t even broached the subject, and you both know she must ask. It’s a rare young woman who is willing to take such a drastic step in changing her life.”
The professor’s hands stopped, and he stared at Darius like a child being denied a favorite toy. “But we simply cannot allow such a unique discovery to slip away. Need I remind you that the number of Pure Spirits has been greatly reduced due to the nefarious habits of the Helikeians? If she is discovered and refuses to participate in their evil, she will be killed.”
“I am well aware of the Helikeians’ thirst for Pure Spirits, Professor. That does not in any way grant us the right to act as they do and keep Miss Aston simply because we are aware of her secret origins.”
“But can we allow her to return to the outside world when her secret is undeniably exposed now?” Lykos asked. “All it will take is one undetected spy among those at the lecture, and the Helikeians will take her the moment we allow her to leave. You admitted as much this morning.”
Darius didn’t care for the hard truth in Lykos’s words. In fact, there was very little about the day he did like. Miss Aston was in more trouble than she might ever suspect. But there was something about the way she had stood up to him that made him want to resist dismissing the situation as something beyond his control.
That was the true reason he needed her to leave his world. His emotions were boiling dangerously, and his duty required complete control.
“Yes, I agree with Mr. Claxton,” the professor said. “It is simply too great a risk to allow the girl to return to her father’s home.” The professor began rubbing his hands again. “I cannot wait to begin instructing her.”
“You mean to say…you eagerly anticipate being able to use her abilities for your work,” Darius said.
Yulric’s eyes widened. “Well, yes.”
“That makes you no better than a Helikeian.”
The professor frowned. “Now, see here-”
“Professor, the girl has a family, and unless you would like the duty of strong-arming her into a room for the night, legally I have no grounds to keep her here, nor do I have a personal desire to imprison her. She has not asked to challenge the exam, and she is not the offspring of an Illuminist, even a disgraced one, so you both know none of us can put the question to her.”
“Damned law,” Lykos replied. “I don’t suppose the lot of you would care to look the other way while I break that legal noose Parliament insisted on passing to keep us from growing in numbers?”
“The one you need to worry about is her,” Darius answered while studying Janette. “It would be unwise for us to assume she’s willing to walk away from her family and shield us from reprimand. That little dove will no doubt sing loud and clear if we break the law, landing us all in prison.”
“Unless she is motivated by the need to keep her afternoon adventures secret from her family,” Lykos countered.
Darius shifted his attention to his friend. “However passionate we both are, neglecting honor has never been a failing either of us have been guilty of. We’ve both sworn to uphold the law. We break our Oaths of Allegiance if we put the question to her.”
“True,” Lykos admitted. “Frustratingly so.”
Darius discovered himself staring at Janette again, his jaw aching as he ground his teeth. He was tempted, but honor was not optional. If it were possible to will another person into doing something, Janette would have turned toward them and voiced the demand to challenge the exam. Instead, she continued to investigate his desk, blissfully ignorant of the law that bound his hands. Parliament wanted the knowledge the Illuminist community had, but they also wanted their high British society untainted. Recruiting was strictly prohibited, and even now, when Janette had walked through the doors of her own will, he couldn’t ask her if she wanted to join.
Part of him was happy about it-pleased that he wouldn’t be faced with dealing with her. She had too much raw magnetism, and she was also in possession of an uncanny sense of perception. In short, she could see past his hardened exterior too well. That was something he couldn’t tolerate.
The professor’s shoulders slumped. “That is terribly disappointing. Very tragic…and such a loss…”
The man walked away, still babbling. Lykos suddenly started chuckling. Darius turned to see his comrade watching their subject again. Janette had returned to his desk and placed her hands firmly on the surface.
“She’s a curious one.” Lykos cut him a sidelong glance. “About a lot of things.” His words were coated with suggestion. “If she were my sister, I’d have to hit you for how much of a knave you were with her.”
“So hit me,” Darius remarked. “I enjoyed it, so did she,” he added with a wolfish grin.
Lykos smothered a bark of laughter. “It’s about time a member of the fairer sex made a hole in your rough exterior.”
“Don’t start, Lykos,” Darius said. “She’s a lady, and the last thing I need is another lady anywhere near me. One look at my true nature and she’ll have nightmares.”
“Or heated fantasies.” His friend became serious. “Let Miss Aston go if you must, but don’t fail to admit to yourself that you’re interested-besides, maybe you should court her. That’s the only other way around the law.”
“Neither of us would make it past the butler, much less into the parlor.”
It irritated him to discover he admired her tenacity enough to toy with her. To what end? She would return to her father’s house, where an Illuminist like himself wasn’t welcome. No matter how bright the blush staining her cheeks, she’d turn her nose up when her family pressed her to choose him or her standing in society.
He was an Illuminist, and he’d never leave the order. The last thing he needed was another lady of society looking down her nose at him. Better to be done with it quickly, no matter the fact that she was a Pure Spirit. At least she’d be blissfully ignorant of her loss. He wouldn’t be so fortunate.
He’d know what she could have been, and for the first time in a very long time, he was going to lament not being able to get to know a lady better.
She couldn’t see the crystals, but she could hear them.
Janette moved around the desk and bent over to look beneath it. The top was a good inch thick, like a baking pan, with room beneath the frosted glass. Once she stood in front of it, symbols appeared on the top. They were vaguely familiar, and she leaned closer to study them.
“Did you open the drawers of your friend’s wardrobe to discover that ensemble you’re wearing while she was fetching the tea service?”
The door had opened, and she’d been too absorbed to notice. Janette quickly removed her hands from the desktop, the hair on the back of her neck rising with apprehension. Just the sound of his voice and her thoughts shifted back to her fascination with Darius Lawley. She forced herself to draw a deep breath before facing him, but it didn’t steady her as much as she’d hoped.
“No, I did not. Sophia knows very well that I am wearing her creations.” At least her voice came out steady. “When are you going to stop insinuating that I’m some sort of criminal?”
Darius closed the space between them. Beneath her corset, her nipples contracted in response. Her mouth went dry, the pure wickedness of the response stunning her.
“What would that leave for us to discuss except improper topics?” His voice was low and suggestive, but his eyes were guarded again, almost as though he didn’t consider her worthy of his attentions.
“Somehow, I’d always thought of an Illuminist as someone more interested in spending their time on facts instead of useless gossip.”
He drew in a stiff breath, all hints of playfulness gone. “Your friend will no doubt be looking for you, Miss Aston. However, it is my duty to warn you not to be so foolish as to believe no one else shares your curiosity about what is inside this chamber.” He walked toward her. “Has it occurred to you that someone might be willing to harm you to learn what you now know about Deep Earth Crystals?”
He half turned and extended his arm toward the door. At the same time he touched the device covering his ear, and the door opened.
“My doorman will not make the same mistake twice, Miss Aston. Do the wise thing and stay where you belong. Only members are allowed inside our walls.”
“But…would it be possible…to attend a lecture…”
He tapped the gold lapel pin on his vest. “We share our knowledge only with those willing to announce their loyalty to us.”
But there was a flicker of something in his eyes; it looked like hope. The man appeared to be waiting for her to jump at his offer. He tapped his lapel pin several more times, and she ended up staring at it.
Did she dare?
“It is not your intelligence I question, Janette, but your ability to sever emotional ties. Something society will require of you if you join our order. Think about that before you take any action.” His tone was harder than any he’d used before, setting off a desire to understand him.
“Do you regret becoming an Illuminist?” She was being intrusive but couldn’t seem to feel ashamed. Something flickered in his eyes that betrayed a deep pain, and she discovered herself battling the urge to console him.
“Not enough to regret my choice. I am proud to be an Illuminist and a guardian of our order.”
Now that she was looking closer at the pin, she could see a pair of crossed swords on the top and a crystal set into it.
“Guardian…So you are a constable?”
“Closer to a Knight of the Garter. My duty doesn’t end at shift change. To become a guardian is a lifelong commitment.”
She could see there was dedication in him and even something she might describe as nobility. For certain, she had heard the word honor used by the men of her father’s acquaintance, but Darius was the first man she’d met who seemed to embody the quality.
“As a guardian, it is my duty to escort you off our property.”
He reached out and secured her upper arm in his firm grip while pressing on the ear device. They passed through the door and into the hallway.
“You had to leave someone behind who you cared about, didn’t you? It was a lady. That’s why you were taking such delight in needling me.”
Surprise registered on his face, shining through the stern expression of duty, but it vanished almost as soon as it appeared.
“Don’t meddle in my personal affairs, Janette. Unless you plan to become an Illuminist, we will remain strangers.” He was warning her now, but it was a personal one-and yet the man was dangling a temptation in front of her nose too. It felt like he was daring her to try living as an Illuminist.
To try living near him…
“Perhaps I will,” she countered. “But I must say, you handle me far too much for someone who continues to insist we shall never cross paths again.”
He froze, his dark eyes glittering. The grip on her arm tightened, just a fraction, betraying a reaction from him.
“My world is more concerned with facts. We do not spend our time worrying about propriety, since it changes so often.”
Just for a moment, his expression transformed into something she might honestly label roguish. The hard, judgmental security man had been vanquished, and in his place was a man who sent heat surging up into her cheeks once more. She looked away, without really thinking. It was pure response, an instinctive need to shield her innermost thoughts from him. The reason was simple; he was far more capable than any young swain she’d tried flirting with.
“Yet apparently you lack the courage to see your course through,” he accused softly. “You appear quite maidenly with your eyes cast down.”
She snapped her head back around. “I did not lack the confidence to walk past your doorman.”
“Yet you lack the nerve to witness what your barbed words kindle.”
His face hadn’t returned to the cold expression, but there was definitely judgment reflecting from his eyes. “I believe I understand you very well, Janette. You long for something you know comes with consequences. Reaching for it will cost you the security of the position you currently occupy.” He retreated behind a carefully controlled expression once more. “A facet of reality we all encounter at some point in our lives. The difference between us is how we both meet the moment of decision.”
“I stand before you, proving I am not some timid mouse, sir.” Boldness sent her chin up in defiance. “I am not afraid to seek out what I desire.”
One dark eyebrow rose, and the challenge returned to his eyes. “But do you have any idea what it is you desire, Miss Aston?”
“Yes, I believe I do-”
He tugged on her arm, and she ended up against the man. For one moment, their bodies were firmly pressed together. She was sure her heart stopped for several beats.
“As you already noticed, I am not a gentleman.” His hand smoothed down her back in a long stroke that sent enjoyment through her. “Tease me, and I will be happy to respond. Pretense is not practiced here, and I’m interesting in doing more than kissing the back of your gloved hand.”
She hoped so…
She shocked herself with how quickly such an impulse took control of her. It just erupted inside her mind, destroying all other principles instantly. She needed to regain her composure immediately.
“I was not teasing you. I was making my point.” She pressed her hands against his chest, but the man was immovable.
He chuckled. Amusement sparkled in his eyes, but so did passion. She stared at the raw emotion, fascinated by the thing that had been only whispered rumors until that moment. Understanding dawned with a ripple of awareness that threatened to buckle her knees. Instinctively, she knew exactly what she was looking at, and her body responded with need so sharp she gasped.
“You were testing me, Janette?”
She had been. The knowledge stung, but it also tore away the veil of innocence blinding her. She’d risen to his bait because she wanted to be closer to him. She’d wanted him to reach for her. The knowledge was scalding, and yet she enjoyed the sting. Sensation was rippling across her skin, awaking nerve endings she hadn’t noticed before. It was dark and inviting-like his eyes.
“I didn’t realize…” she murmured.
His gaze focused on her mouth, and the delicate skin of her lips tingled. She wanted to know what his kiss felt like, tasted like. Wanted it so bad she began rising up onto her toes…
“But I do now.” She forced the words out and moved back, startled by the level of sensation coursing down her body. It was wild and intoxicating, making her both dizzy and keenly aware of every tiny detail. Part of her wanted to move back into his embrace, and that had her moving toward the door because the urge was so contrary to everything she had ever been taught.
Ladies did not seek the kisses of gentlemen.
Darius was no gentleman…
The fact that he offered no words of apology for their embrace confirmed it. A gentleman always took responsibility for improper situations-at least in her world. He was trying to frighten her, she was sure of it, but the knowledge only made her want to rise to meet his challenge.
If she tasted his kiss, she would never forget it. Somehow, she was sure of that fact, and it sent her back a few more paces. Hunger glittered in his eyes, and she allowed herself only a moment longer to study it.
“Good-bye, Mr. Lawley. I have enjoyed the afternoon.”
Surprise appeared in his eyes, pleasing her. She took one last look at him before stepping out into the sunlight. Impulses should always be tempered with reason. Even when thinking was the last thing she was interested in doing-along with behaving like a lady.
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