Excerpt - Steampunk Darcy
Alright, Mr. Hoity-Toity. This had better be good. I’m risking skin and bone to get here.
The door opened and she strode into—.
Whatever it was, it wasn’t an office. It was an emporium, a museum and the Great Exhibition of 1851, complete with Victorian gents and ladies who had the glazed look of trophy animals. Except that the Victorians were standing around instead of hanging on the wall.
“Are these actual people? Did you have them stuffed and embalmed?” she asked, by way of greeting, “Or are they wax figures, like Madame Tussauds?”
In the gloomy gas lamp-lit interior, she couldn’t tell which one of them was William Darcy until he stepped forward and bowed.
“Welcome to Longbourn Laboratories, Miss Grant.”
The smirk fell off her face.
Raven black hair with a green swirl draped over his left eye. Silver eyes like the sheen of a dagger.
Gorgeous was not the right word for him. Gorgeous was a word invented for ordinary mortals. This particular specimen was splenderous. She didn’t know if it was a real word but it was the right one.
For just a second, she had a sense of vertigo.
Vertigo? A seasoned aviator like me? To bring herself back down to earth, she focused on the flaws in his appearance. The tailored green frockcoat that skimmed the top of his knees was shipshape, except for the fluffy bits (cotton? Did he manufacture cloth?). His silver cravat would have done the most demanding gentleman proud, but it looked crooked, as if he’d been tugging at it. The silver earpiece with jade stones matched perfectly with his outfit, but it was lopsided as if he’d put it on in a hurry. Everything about him suggested a need to keep moving.
Looking for his flaws hadn’t helped at all. If anything, it had given her a chance to ogle him more closely, which somehow had an undesirable effect on her knees – and other parts of her. Her knees especially.
Nobody turned Seraphene’s knees soggy. Not without her permission.
Her gaze drifted back to his face.
He was scrutinizing her with his right eyebrow slanted arrogantly upwards, a monocle in hand.
She was definitely averse to arrogant eyebrows and she absolutely did not like monocles, no matter how fashionable they might be.
That put some backbone into her knees. She snapped out of it. He could be as splenderous as he wanted. She was here to do a job, and unless he happened to be interested in dead-end scientific research, which was her legal work, then he wanted her for something illegal and she intended to make him pay through his teeth. That meant she couldn’t afford to even look in his splenderous direction or he might just manage to distract her.
She looked at the closest surface to her, which was a shelf, and there, casually cast there – too casually --was a print newspaper with a large headline announcing the opening of the Great Exhibition with a daguerreotype photograph of Queen Victoria.
She examined the newspaper. She could have sworn it was the genuine article. Yellowed pages, jagged edges and all. It would fetch a good price. She wondered if he would notice if she nicked it. Her hand twitched.
“It’s authentic,” said the deep, British-sounding voice. “You may have it if you like.”
It was a bribe. She knew it, and he knew it. He’d chosen that newspaper deliberately to entice her.
“No thanks,” she said, putting her hands behind her back and holding them tightly together. The newspaper was bait but she wasn’t going to play fish.
“Take it with you when you leave, then,” said Darcy, with bored indifference. He took down the newspaper, folded it, and tossed it – tossed it! – onto the neighboring chair. Seraphene cringed. It was like tossing a Spode china cup onto a side table.
She refused to be rattled by his pretentious disdain for valuable objects.
“You sent me an invitation, Mr. Darcy.” A flat statement of fact.
“Call me Darcy. Most people do. May I call you Seraphene? It makes negotiating much less cumbersome. I’m delighted you agreed to see me, Seraphene.”
There was definitely something smug about the way he said it. He was taking her for granted, assuming she’d agree to any terms he set.
He didn’t know her yet.
“I wouldn’t exactly call it agreeing.” Though technically, she supposed she had, just by showing up. “Perhaps I came out of curiosity.”
“Of course. I’d counted on that. It’s every scientist’s weakness.”
She was tempted to point out that it must be his as well, but she bit her tongue. Just because she didn’t like his arrogance didn’t mean she should start being petty. Besides, she was ready to bet he hadn’t invited her here because she was a scientist.
“Let’s get down to business, then,” she said. “If you have cargo to unload I might as well warn you that I charge a high price for anything that involves risk.”
His silver grey eyes glimmered in amusement.
Hades’ hounds! Those eyes could melt whatever was left of the icebergs. They certainly turned something inside her to slush. She struggled to pull her scrambled thoughts together.
At this rate, she’d be selling her soul to him within the next three seconds. Now she knew how he’d earned his reputation for never taking no for an answer. He turned his victims into jelly-legged squat-fish the moment they walked through the door.
He’s probably counting on having this effect on me.
The thought worked like a splash of cold water. It dampened her pheromone-controlled response long enough to unscramble her thoughts into something close to logic.
“I see you like to come straight to the point,” he said. “Good. I like that in my employees.”
“May I point out, Mr. Darcy, that I haven’t agreed to anything, let alone being your employee.”
Darcy was only too well aware of that fact. He didn’t reply, preferring to use his time more effectively by examining her instead. There were too many unknowns about Seraphene, and far too much depended on him getting things right. He couldn’t afford to take any chances.
So far she was living up to expectations. He liked the grit he saw in her face. As for that jutting jaw, it confirmed what he’d originally suspected. He wouldn’t be able to acquire her easily.
Her clothing was another matter entirely. Most of the projections pictured her in a cardinal laboratory coat with a shiny silver collar – trademark of Copperfield Laboratories – that concealed her feminine curves. Today she looked different. An aviator and not a scientist at all. He hadn’t quite expected the tight orange tailcoat with the leather fastenings emphasizing rounded breasts, nor had he anticipated the impact her orange-and-black checkered bloomers had on him, with their frilled black border and ribbons trailing over curvaceous calves as she walked.
Not many women of his class revealed their calves. These particular calves were—alluring.
He curbed his reaction firmly. This wasn’t the time for distractions. What she looked like was irrelevant. He would take her on even if she’d happened to be a squat-fish. She was the right person for the job, which was the only thing that counted.
“Shall we be seated, Seraphene?” he said, in as soothing a manner as he could. He needed her to let her guard down.
As if reading his thoughts, she advanced towards the most uncomfortable seat; a genuine Victorian chair with an elaborate foliage motif. He found it impossible to lean back in that chair without scraping his back. He never sat on it himself. Its purpose was strictly decorative.
So much for getting her to let her guard down.
She sat down, bolt upright, completely alert and most definitely watchful. She really wasn’t going to concede anything, was she?
Darcy realized he was still standing, which wasn’t a good idea at all. It wouldn’t do to loom over her and look intimidating. He sat down in the sofa opposite her and leaned back, bringing his hands behind his head, trying to put her at ease.
He also needed to put himself at ease. If he somehow misjudged, made a mistake…
There would be no mistake.
“It so happens I didn’t bring you here to unload cargo, as you call it,” he said. “I’m not at all interested in you as an aviator.”
He noted the stiffening of her body, the way her eyes grew even more wary.
“What I’m looking for is a scientist with a particular type of training. I picked you out from a list of thirty potential candidates – who were themselves whittled down by my assistants from over four hundred possibilities – because you have several unique traits that make you ideal for the work I have in mind. I should perhaps point out that, brilliant as you are as a researcher, there is a long list of other outstanding qualities that prompted me to choose you.”
He was probably laying it on a bit too thick, though every word was true. He needed her on his side and he was going to use anything that might smooth his way.
“You don’t have to list my qualities, thanks. I’m not susceptible to flattery.”
He grinned because she’d confirmed his suspicions. She was going to fight him all the way. He felt better, now that he could predict her reactions.
“Everyone’s susceptible to flattery, my dear girl. Part of the human condition. It’s just a matter of discovering the chink in the armor. But now that you’ve seen through me, I won’t stoop to such measures with you. From this point onwards, let’s agree that flattery will get me nowhere.”
He unlocked his hands and leaned towards her.
“Do you want to know what the job involves?”
He paused for a long moment, making her wait, arousing her curiosity.
Suspicion rather than curiosity lurked in her eyes. A thundercloud loomed around her, ready to spark lightening.
Faced with her open suspicion, he felt a tiny niggle of guilt. She was right to be suspicious. He intended to hire her under false pretenses. Not that he had any choice in the matter. He wanted her on board and there simply wasn’t any other way. He would bring her round, by hook or by crook. He hoped, for her sake, that the hook would be enough but he suspected it would be more of the latter.
He hated being in this situation, but what was a gentleman to do?
“The job involves researching my ancestors,” he said.
Which said nothing at all, of course. He needed to keep things as vague as possible at this stage.
She bit her lip and shifted in her chair. Her gaze flicked over to the door. He was losing her. He had to reel her in quickly or she would slip through his fingers.
“Give me a chance to explain. As you know, Pemberley was my ancestral home before it was destroyed, first during the Blitz, then by the slime rain before the Uprising. What I require – in a nutshell -- is a detailed record of Pemberley as it was at its height, during the Regency period. I want to know everything about it, from the paintings on the wall to what the servants ate for breakfast. I would also like a detailed rendition of Fitzwilliam Darcy and his wife Lizzy at the beginning of their marriage. I want to know their manners, their personal peculiarities, their interactions with each other, their food preferences, their taste in music -- just about everything there is to know.”
She leaned forward. Aha. She was taking the bait.
“We know very little about them beyond what their biographer recorded,” she said.
“I know you’re already familiar with Jane Austen’s account.” He allowed a heavy pause to fill the air between them. “But there are other records.”
He took out his monocle from his waistcoat and trained it on her as he watched her digest this. He loved a sense of drama.
“Well?” she prompted.
Impressive. She was keeping her options open.
“Well,” he said, tucking the monocle back where it belonged. “You can expect generous compensation.”
Normally people looked eager when they heard the words “generous” and “compensation,” in the same sentence. Seraphene frowned instead. She twitched her fingers as if to drum them against the armchair then stopped herself. He followed the gesture, stored it in his memory. She’d reached the limit of her patience.
“You’re going to be studying daguerreotypes of Pemberley – exact images. The real thing. Retro-vectrographs.”
He realized as soon as he said it that he shouldn’t have used that particular word. It implied too much knowledge of the scientific investigations going on at Copperfield.
A long silence followed, interrupted only by a grandfather clock that sounded the half-hour. Ding. Dong. Ding. Dong. Like the drums just before an acrobat performed her most daring act.
Seraphene struggled to control her expression. She felt as though someone had just thrown her back into the river after pulling her out and saving her. She didn’t want Darcy to know the depths of her dismay, if only because she didn’t want to look entirely naïve and stupid.
Meanwhile, he sat there, waiting expectantly, as if he’d made a perfectly acceptable suggestion.
She’d come to meet Darcy in good faith. Granted, she’d had her doubts. And granted, curiosity had been her main motive. But some part of her had wondered what he’d come up with, hoping it was something that wouldn’t burden her conscience, because she really could do with a halfway legal job that would earn her decent tin. She’d been trying to go straight for seven whole years now and it hadn’t netted her much. With two other mouths to feed, some seriously extra credits would be more than welcome.
She’d hoped he wouldn’t ask her to do something impossible.
She’d hoped he was a gentleman.
He wasn’t much better than a common crook. This, then, was how he’d built his empire on the Charles; not through his own ideas, not through his own designs, but by paying to steal ideas from other people.
“Mr. Darcy,” she said coldly. “You’ve made a serious mistake here. Even if I weren’t committed to a Guild – which I am – I have a strong sense of loyalty towards Copperfield. You’ve clearly failed in your background search if you think I’d quite simply hand over years of scientific investigation to you for what you call so very politely compensation. We’re not living in the pre-Uprising era, when greed and material gain were commonly accepted traits and people were willing to sell anything given the right price. You must know, surely, that I played an active part in the Restoration Movement and that my work comes from a real desire to recapture the positive values of the past.”
“Now listen, old girl—”
She didn’t know which part of the phrase she objected to most. She was definitely not a girl, and she certainly didn’t like being called old.
“No, you listen, old boy,” she replied. “As of this instant, we have nothing further to discuss. I’m off.”
If Seraphene expected him to look the slightest bit upset by her announcement, she was doomed to disappointment.
“You can’t leave,” said Darcy, in a most matter of fact tone.
Was he actually smirking? It was difficult to tell. Anyway, he could smirk all he wanted. It wouldn’t change the outcome.
“Of course I can leave. You’re not planning to keep me here by force, I hope?”
Was he capable of it? Surely not? Fear blew through her like a winter wind. She’d gone and put herself completely at his mercy. Hardly anyone knew she was here.
“Tut, tut,” said Darcy. “I can see we have a misunderstanding. You’ve omitted to read the fine print on your invitation.”
“What fine print?”
“My point exactly.”
Highly apprehensive now, her heart sinking like a mercury thermometer, she took out his calling card. Yes, there was some minuscule print at the bottom, but it was so microscopic, so infinitesimally tiny, it was impossible to read with the naked eye. It didn’t even look like letters. It looked like a line with irregular parts to it.
He opened a drawer obligingly and produced a magnifying glass. “You’ll find this helpful.”
She snatched the glass from his hand and balanced it above the dots. The dots resolved themselves into engorged letters.
Accepting this invitation to visit constitutes a legally binding commitment to become an employee of William Darcy.
She should have known better. She should have checked for small print, of course. The fact that it was miniscule didn’t excuse her.
She examined the words carefully, looking for the tiniest hint of a loophole. For a heart-chilling moment, she thought he had the better of her.
When she raised her gaze to him, she had difficulty holding back her sense of triumph.
“Was your father called William Darcy?”
“And your father before him?”
“Then in that case, this contract is null and void.” She tore the invitation up into pieces and tossed it to the floor. “My commitment was to your grandfather, and since he’s no longer alive to honor it, the contract no longer holds.”
He was silent for so long she allowed the triumph to spread through her, hugging it to herself.
“Several shrewd businesspersons have fallen for that one,” said Darcy, finally. “I’m impressed that you saw through it so quickly. Unfortunately.”
She shrugged and grinned. “You lose some, you gain some. No hard feelings.”
“No hard feelings,” he replied. He reached out for a bell-pull. “Now that we’ve settled things, perhaps we can break for a cup of tea? I’ll ring for a tea tray.”
She had the feeling of being maneuvered into something, but her mouth was dry and she could do with some tea. It would bolster her up for the next round.
Because she had the strongest feeling there was going to be one.