The last thing she planned to steal was his heart.
The Company. Military institution, protector of Praeton and the nation of Grand Isle. Dirty rotten thief.
When Pandora Bramble steps aboard the Company's premiere airship Daedalus it's not for the exclusive VIP tour. It's to secure proof that the Company stole the regulator valve her father designed--even if it means tearing the engine apart. Foiled by the unexpected appearance of a handsome crew member, she despairs of ever getting another chance--until he kisses her.
Captain Theolonius Hatch, sentenced to engine room duty for refusing to take part in the Company's fleet week activities, never dreamed a woman like Pandora existed. Her brains match her beauty, a combination that adds up to more trouble than he ever expected.
As Pandora allows Theolonius to sweep her into a whirlwind courtship, her wildest dreams come true. As do her greatest fears, leaving her to decide what matters most. Loyalty...or love.
The clock is ticking.
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October 18, 2010
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Excerpt from Miss Bramble and the Leviathan by Kristen Painter
Pandora glanced around. Not another soul occupied the room with her. Recalling the schematics, she counted off passageways until she came to the fifth on the left-hand side.
With purpose in her stride, she crossed the deck and entered. She kept going, following the path in her head. The passage narrowed as it branched. At last she came to a stairwell, the treads allowing enough space for two to pass, but just barely. Taking a deep, bolstering breath, she descended.
She didn't exhale until she reached the bottom undiscovered.
The stairs ended in an antechamber from which doors led to the left and right. Only one bore a wheeled handle. The engine room. In case of fire, it could be sealed off.
Rallying her nerve, she grabbed the wheel with both hands and spun it, opening the door. The room beyond glowed with the soft light of the overhead gas lamps, the low hum of the idled steam engines like a mother's lullaby. With the ship at rest, the engines were too, their power turned down to a mere trickle. When the ship once again rose skyward, this room would no doubt buzz with shipmen and noise and the ebullient vibration of mechanical joy.
She shut the door behind her as she might close a casket lid or slip into a church pew. All her life she'd wondered what it would be like to stand in the engine room of a Leviathan. It was more than she'd imagined. The engines were bigger, shinier, more awesome than she'd pictured from the blue line drawings her father and Baron Cherchetski so often bent over.
The gaslights overhead highlighted the undulating rows of boiler cylinders comprising the Daedalus's heart. She walked between them, coasting her fingers over the insulated hulls, soaking in the warmth of the sleeping giant. In a little bit, she'd go to work shutting one down and opening it up, but for now, she would take a moment to admire the gorgeousness of it all. Above her, an arterial network of pipes channeled steam into the various parts of the ship, the bulk of them funneling into the chambered balloon that kept the vessel aloft.
"Amazing," she whispered, reaching for her tool kit.
"Yes, it is."
She jumped, her hand flying away from her side to flatten over her thumping heart. "Who's there?"
"I should ask you that." A large man stepped out from the shadows farther down the aisle. His firm jaw and full mouth implied a masculine beauty, but the engineer's cap pulled low cast the rest of his face in darkness. He wiped his hands on a rag, then tucked it into the pocket of his work-worn coveralls. Of course there would be at least one engineman left behind to monitor things. How foolish of her to assume otherwise. "This isn't part of the tour."
She swallowed the bitter disappointment clogging her throat and tried to muster an innocent and befuddled smile. The kind Simka did so well. The best Pandora could manage was flustered. His overwhelming presence made anything else impossible. "No, I...I don't suppose it is. I must have gotten turned around." She pointed lamely toward the way she'd come in.
"Yes, you must." He walked closer, his pace easy, but the lines of his body taut, like the Sumatran tiger in the Praeton Zoological Gardens. She refused to back up. She would not show fear. She would, however, slip her hand into the pocket of her dress and through the lining to grasp the leather-handled dagger she'd tucked into her tool kit.
Her mother might have been a fool, but Pandora was not.
He stopped a few feet away and glanced at the intricate ceiling of pipes, revealing a face as handsome as she'd suspected. "Did you know if you laid all that tubing end to end, you could go from Praeton to Calais?" He dropped his gaze back to her and shook his head dismissively. "They serve tea and biscuits in the great hall at the end of the tour. I'm sure you can still make it."
She studied him for a long second, not liking his perception of her. She briefly entertained the idea of conking him on the head and proceeding as planned, but that way led to more trouble than she was willing to consider. If she played this right, she might still be able to catch a glimpse of the valve stolen from her father. If she had the proof of seeing it with her own eyes, she would find a way to get back here and disconnect one. "Actually, you can go beyond Calais."
His right brow disappeared under the brim of his cap. "You can indeed." He hesitated, then gestured back down the way he'd come. "Would you care to see more?"
"Without a chaperone? That would be highly improper."
"So would breaking away from the tour and entering unauthorized areas." A mischievous sparkle glinted in his startling blue eyes.
She straightened to her full height. He wouldn't do anything untoward. She was a special guest and he just a boiler man. "I suppose an exception could be made in a case like this. Isn't every day the fleet comes to town."
"No, it isn't." He tipped his head, clasped his hands behind his back and spun on his heel. Without waiting for her, he started down the corridor. "The steam cylinders that make up the Daedalus's engines are glass-lined and use the water-tube system..."
She ran to catch up but stayed a few feet behind him for propriety's sake. Not that it really mattered--she wasn't exactly the catch of the season--but there was no reason to tempt fate. Her father didn't need more drama in his life. A ruined daughter would help nothing. She nodded as the man extolled the virtues of the ship's heart. Very little of his information was new to her, but she played her part of the interested female and uttered the occasional "My my" and "You don't say" to keep the ruse going while she searched for an open cylinder. Her father's valve would be somewhere inside, at the coupling of the boiler and the main tube.
She was still looking when they came to the end of the row. Every cylinder was sealed. Her mission had failed. She tapped the closest one, unwilling to give up just yet. "These are all in constant use? Don't they have to be cleaned or flushed out?" She knew they did. She'd hoped to find them that way.
He paused as if considering her words. Had she said too much? Would a typical woman even think to ask such a thing? "No, not constant use. Each cylinder is flushed on a regular basis." He pointed at about waist level in front of the one she'd touched. A metal pocket held a logbook. "And each flushing is recorded." He narrowed his eyes as though measuring her and took a step in her direction. "You should get back to your group."
The temperature in the engine room ascended a few degrees. She opened her mouth to breathe better. "Yes, I..." His gaze peered into her with such intensity that all thought left her head. A person could drown in eyes that blue.
He nodded. "I'm sure someone's missing you."
She shook her head, a response slipping out before she could stop it. "Not likely."
"Good. Then no one will mind if I do this." He closed the small gap between them with a single step and pressed his mouth to hers in a kiss so hot and hard, steam whistles screamed in her ears. His mouth was a furnace, the heat from his lips stoking the blood in her veins to a dangerous, untried level.
After a brief forever of sinful pleasure, she broke away. Her breath came in unladylike pants which only served to fill her lungs with the rosemary and lime scent of him. She pointed behind her, shut her mouth and swallowed. "Go," she whispered, hoping he understood she meant herself and not him because the word was all she could manage with her whole body aflame. No one had ever kissed her, let alone kissed her with such urgent hunger. That had to be wrong. Or right. At the moment, there was no telling.
He nodded, his gaze smoldering. His lips parted. "I'm not sorry."
She exhaled and took a few steps backward. "Oh, well, no, of course not." She was blathering now, but helpless to stop herself. "Thank you for your time." Thank you? "It was ever so interesting." That was an understatement.
Her mission had been a failure, but that seemed massively unimportant compared to what had just happened. She needed to regroup, find solid ground and a stable center before she imploded with emotion.
With a thousand thoughts churning in her brain, she turned and ran toward the exit.