Excerpt: Hatshepsut's Collar

Excerpt: Hatshepsut's Collar

Book 2: Artifact Hunters

Mid-September, 1861.

For the first time in three weeks, the gossip columns remained silent on the subject of “Miss Cara Devon, frequent visitor to a nefarious Mayfair address.”

Her stroll through the smoking room of Red’s, sans skirts, sparked a furore across Europe and divided opinion. Gentlemen’s clubs scrambled to either erect specific “no women” signs, or took them down; secretly hoping another fine form would be game enough to do a Cara Devon.

Tossing the paper into the trash, Cara dug her toes into the expensive Persian carpet under her desk, using the lush pile to work her digits back and forth. A stretch ran over the sole of her foot and into her arch and she gave a sigh of relief. The one drawback to her nocturnal activities with Nate, he made her toes curl so hard that by morning she had to work the cramp out of her feet.

More than three months had passed since she came to London to finalise her father’s estate. She planned to stay a few days, a week at the most, and then resume her nomadic lifestyle. Then she tangled with Viscount Nathaniel Lyons and everything changed.

She took a deep drink from her fresh brewed coffee as the aethergram on the desk rattled into life. The machine spat out a steady stream of thin ticker tape, and it coiled into the wicker basket beneath. She cast a glance at the message, the cargo manifest for the incoming airship, returning to England after a long voyage in the Orient. She was coming to grips with her new role within the Lyons Airship company, where nothing was ever as simple as it appeared on the surface. The containers described as “Aunt Jemima’s ikebana supplies” were code for Japanese contraband, usually pornographic prints, sometimes beautiful katanas, and last week, an exquisite Geisha.

Cara was horrified, until she learned the girl was there of her own free will. She bought her freedom from a secluded life by selling herself to the highest English bidder for one year. Unhappy with the arrangement Cara interrogated the hapless gentleman until she was satisfied he would treat the gentle courtesan with respect for the duration of the engagement. He appeared genuinely delighted with his acquisition and Cara extracted a promise from the woman to stay in touch, so she could keep an eye on the situation. She would play no part in the trafficking of women and made her opinion clear.

Opening a drawer, she took out a clean sheet of paper and grabbed the end of the ticker tape to write up the incoming cargo to satisfy the Customs officials. The paperwork a mere courtesy; Nate’s influence so pervasive they very rarely examined the containers, and only the ones he pointed out they could open.

The door cracked open and Miguel, the youngest of Nate’s employees, poked his head around. “Any plans for this morning?” he asked with a smile. With his auburn hair and hazel eyes, he looked like her younger brother, if she had any siblings.

“Yes.” She looked up from her paperwork. “I need to take this manifest down to the hangar. Could you saddle a horse, please? A real one,” she added in case he decided to be mischievous and throw a saddle on a mechanical equine instead. Miguel was her constant shadow. She gave him the slip six weeks earlier and ended up strapped to a deranged serial killer’s table. The youth blamed himself, despite Cara pointing out she was the only one responsible for her actions.

His quiet spoken manner and unwavering loyalty to Nate piqued Cara’s curiosity, and they settled on an arrangement. She promised to allow him to accompany her for a month and he would tell her how he ended up in Nate’s debt and employ. With only a few days to go until he had to confess all, her curiosity started a countdown in her head.

Voices came and went in the entrance, the front door banging shut on some unknown visitor, as she finished her work. She grabbed her boots and laced the soft, brown leather over her shins. Scooping up the battered leather satchel, she shoved the paperwork inside and buckled up the flap. She slung the strap over her head and nestled it across her chest, pausing to pass her fingertips over the sensitive patch of skin next to her breast. Six weeks ago Weaver Clayton tried to cut her heart out. Within mere days, the wound had healed to a faint pink scar, thanks to the link she shared with Nate through the ancient artifact, Nefertiti’s Heart. Not that either of them understood the bond forged between them that day in the cellar, except she could draw on his strength to heal faster. He could also track her whereabouts using the echo of her heart beat through his body, which made running away pointless.

Her boot heels clicked on the grey marble of the floor and she glanced at the ornate clock hanging opposite the main door. Its face was two feet wide, delicate filigree hands and dials showed the date, time, temperature, and phases of the moon. A beautiful enamelled pair of peacocks sat on either side, tail feathers of rich blues and greens draping over the side of the clock. The masterpiece told her it was 10:30 a.m., a week away from the autumn equinox, and a mild 15 degrees Celsius outside.

The bodyguard manning the door pulled open the heavy panelled barrier to the outside world and in his other hand, held out a grey wool coat. She gave him a nod of thanks as she grabbed the garment and bounced down the wide stairs to the driveway. Miguel waited in the paved driveway of the Mayfair mansion, a pair of matched bay geldings standing patiently beside him.

Cara shrugged on the jacket, over the top of her satchel, and pulled the collar up on the coat, when the deep frown in Miguel’s face arrested her attention.

“What’s wrong?”

He shoved a piece of paper into her hand. “These were just delivered to most of the men in the house.”

Cara took the note and read over the few lines contained; it was a conscription notice. The named individual, ordered to report to a newly established training ground on the outskirts of London. If he failed to appear within five days, he faced either prison or the firing squad.

“Oh hell.” If the notices were rolling out across London it meant only one thing―Victoria was raising an army from the youth of England. A shiver ran down Cara’s spine as she wondered what fuelled the sudden recruitment drive. She reached out to squeeze Miguel’s arm. “She’ll not have you. I’ll talk to Nate and see if he has somewhere we can move you with the other young men, until we see what is happening.”

The open smile returned to his young face, such was his belief in his master’s ability to sort the matter.

Cara placed one foot in the stirrup, swung into the saddle, and flicked the tails of her coat over the flank of the horse. Miguel passed up the reins before jumping on his horse. They headed toward the road at a slow walk on a loose rein. The sounds of voices and traffic wafted past the protective oak trees and down the drive, becoming louder as they rounded the corner and headed out the wrought iron gate into Wood Mews.

A woman in an understated lilac walking gown, with a matching tasselled parasol over her shoulder, raised a hand at the sight of Cara, waving her closer. She gave a sigh and nudged the gelding near the pavement and greeted Nate’s neighbour, Sara Collins. “Lady Collins.”

“Miss Devon. I am still waiting for you to retrieve my item.” She stood close to the horse’s neck so they wouldn’t be overheard. The gelding sniffed at the parasol and snorted when a tassel tickled his nose.

Cara had become the go-to person for noble women with seedy problems they didn’t want exposed to all of society. Only now did she remember her promise to Sara Collins, who had lost her engagement ring as a forfeit to a character called the Trickster. “Forgive me, no, the matter completely slipped my mind. I didn’t want to be reminded of Weaver Clayton trying to carve my heart out, so shoved that day to the back of my thoughts.” She tapped a finger to her breast.

The other woman raised a dark eyebrow while her face remained impassive, an action reminisce of something Nate would do. “You appear fully recovered, and the matter is becoming most urgent. Questions are being asked of me and I can no longer avoid them.”

Curiosity gnawed its way to the forefront of Cara’s attention. “You know the person who holds the item and you’ve been to his domain before, why haven’t you retrieved it for yourself?”

A chill wave flowed off the noble woman; Cara had over stepped a mark. “I was foolish once, I’ll not make the same mistake twice. I may be seen or recognised if I venture there again. You will be handsomely rewarded. Please have the task accomplished by the end of the week.”

Cara stiffened in the saddle. Being an impoverished noble she needed to find an income. She hated being reliant on Nate, even if she earned her keep untangling his paperwork. “Very well, I’ll have it done in the next few days.”

Lady Collins nodded, spun on her heel and with parasol over her shoulder, continued down the street.

Cara let out a breath of held air. She raised a hand and tugged her forelock in a subservient manner.

Miguel let out a snort of laughter at the gesture.

“Why am I helping her?” she asked.

He laughed, his eyes shining with mischief. “Because you are itching to go to Su-Terré and she gives you the perfect reason.”

Cara shot him a smile. She was longing to visit the club and hoped the illicit playground lived up to its reputation as an escape for the wealthy and lost. “Ah, yes. That was it.”

They trotted along Oxford Street and High Holborn, slowing as they approached the congested roads closer to the docks. As they rode toward the airship dockyards by the Thames, the slight echo through her body diminished, indicating she drew closer to Nate. The Lyons hangar was the largest structure, dominating thousands of square feet perched next to the Thames. Grey painted walls soared high above her head, the interior large enough to accommodate two airships in need of repairs.

Cara jumped from the saddle, and gave the gelding a quick scratch behind the ear before Miguel walked him away to the small stables at the rear of the main building. She turned her attention to the slip running from warehouse entrance, down to the murky Thames.

Nate and three of his men stared at the rail that hauled the carts from the airships up into the cargo hangar. A panel halfway down the slip stood open. Another man, only visible from the waist up, stood next to the workings. With his sleeves rolled up and grease on his hands, Cara thought Nate didn’t look like any other noble she had encountered.

He looked up and said something to the workers before walking in her direction. He used a rag to wipe oil and grease from his hands as he approached.

Cara shook her head in amazement. “I’ve never seen a noble get his hands dirty before.”

“You know I don’t shy from dirty work.” As a peer, Nathaniel was a lord above ground, but he also ruled the underworld with an extensive network of illegal activities. He earned a fortune through piracy and privateering that saved his near bankrupt titles and estates. He tucked the rag into the back pocket of his breeches, looking like a workman rather than a viscount.

“Not quite what I meant,” Cara whispered as he hooked a clean finger under the satchel strap, running over her chest, and used it to draw her close. His mouth claimed hers in a languid kiss. His tongue licked the seam of her lips before sliding deeper to taste her. He sent fire racing through her limbs before he released her.

“The mechanism is getting worn. We’ve been increasingly busy. The men will need to use the exoskeletons for a day or two while it’s replaced.”

“You were gone early this morning,” she murmured, waiting for her pounding heartbeat to return to normal.

“We had an early shipment.” He wrapped an arm around her waist as they walked back toward the hangar, his warmth against her doing more to ward off the chill autumn air than the wool overcoat she wore.

She frowned. “No manifesto came through last night.”

“Customs doesn’t need to know about this one.”

She sighed. His comment meant the entire shipment was illegal; probably one of his pirate airships, sneaking in with whatever it looted during its time aloft.

Startled whinnies came from the horses down the lane as a dragon-sized shadow swooped over them, accompanied by a low thrum. Cara stopped and raised a hand to shield her eyes, watching the blue and red painted airship glide overhead. Four spherical pods dangled underneath, looking like forgotten Christmas decorations. Each pod contained a soldier on lookout. She watched them spin their weapons toward the Lyons hangar as the airship did a lazy flyover. “There are more military airships around lately.”

Nate’s gaze flicked upward, tracking the military airship. “There’s more of them circling. Victoria has her sights set on more jewels for her imperial crown.” Her Majesty’s Aeronautical Service expanded the Empire ever outward at an alarming pace, and their queen now styled herself as Empress.

“The lads at the house were served conscription notices this morning.”

Nate nodded. “They came here last week. I’ve been shifting the younger lads to airship duties to keep them out of Victoria’s reach.”

Something else ate at Cara, not just the increased military presence, but the particular scrutiny over all Lyons holdings. “You would think she was expecting you to raise an objection, given the way they watch you. Or have you been up to something I really don’t want to know about?” Cara searched Nate’s face for any hint, but he remained inscrutable.

He raised a dark eyebrow. “Do you really want me to answer that?”

“No. Just keep Miguel and the other men safe.” There were some secrets Cara wasn’t ready to scratch open, like the enormous metal door padlocked shut, far under the ground in a hidden room. Instead she opened the satchel and extracted the paperwork. “I’ve done the Customs documents for this afternoon’s ship. She’s less than an hour away.”

They entered the dim interior and paused, waiting for their eyes to adjust to the lower light. Cara loved the smell of the cargo hangar. The exotic aromas reminiscent of her travels around the world and made her wish for an adventure far away from the London smog. The numerous crates, boxes, and different shaped containers intrigued her and her hands itched to pull everything open to see what lay inside. They taunted her like mysterious gifts waiting under a Christmas tree.

They walked to the back of the hangar, where the office was located. Thin wooden shutters allowed the occupant to control the amount of light that could escape and also what the workers outside could see happening within.

Cara tossed the manifesto on to the desk and perched on the edge as Nate sunk into the black leather chair. “If you don’t have any further work for me here, I’m going to visit Helene.”

He ran a quick eye over the manifesto. “You two have become strange friends.”

Cara shrugged. Helene, Countess de Sal was dying; having lost her mind, social standing, and her nose, to syphilis. Once the paramour of Nate’s uncle, she supplied Cara with the rare books necessary for her research into old and mystic artifacts. “I feel normal around her, by comparison. Besides, she doesn’t have much longer. I think it’s important someone cares about what happens to her.”

Nate tossed the paperwork to the desk. “This is the only ship arriving today, so there’s nothing else that needs immediate attention.”

“One other thing, do you have any plans for this evening?” she asked.

His eyes raked over her form perched on his desk. His desire burned in his gaze and along their common bond. “You mean apart from stripping you naked and licking honey from every inch of your body?”

“Apart from that,” she murmured, her mind already drifting to the scene conjured by his words.

“Then, no. Unless you have something in mind you want to try?”

She had to blink to clear her mind from thinking of all the ways Nate drove her to oblivion with his strong hands and practiced tongue. “I need to go to Su-Terré. I told Sara Collins I would try and get her engagement ring back from the Trickster.”

“Sara Collins?” A dark eyebrow shot up, exhibiting a life of its own. “She’s a cold one. How did you get ensnared in her web?”

“I appear to have become the solution for noble women with indelicate problems.” Cara straddled two worlds. She was noble born, but her association with Nate gave her access to the underworld. “I’m surprised you haven’t snagged Sara. She’s controlled, like you. Her family is well connected and wealthy. You’d make the perfect couple.”

He ran his hands up Cara’s buckskin clad thighs, his palms blazing against her body as his steel gaze held hers. “She’s not my type. I wouldn’t put anything near her I didn’t want frozen off. I prefer something much warmer, and spirited, in my bed.”