Miss Henrietta Lafleur tipped her pink parasol back to peer up at the airship straining against its tethers under the hot May sun. Strong hemp ropes as big around as her wrist held the amazing flying ship captive to the St. Louis Air Dock. A light breeze ruffled the white lace bow at the front of Henri’s little straw hat. The ship’s lines creaked in protest.
Several people in line to board on the crowded wooden dock ducked and cried out when the huge shadow shifted a bit.
Henri shook her head in disgust. Anyone with half a brain could see that the tethers were more than adequate to control Eagle. The ship was only one hundred and fifty feet long. When railroad workers had announced their anticipated strike a month ago, a wealthy shipbuilder had been ready with plans to launch a fledgling regional air service. Relatively small airships like the Eagle would transport a dozen passengers as well as mail and small amounts of freight between cities in only hours—for an exorbitant fee, of course.
Her little dog wriggled in the heavy portmanteau she carried. Her stomach clenched.
“Scotty, quiet!” she said under her breath. She did not believe a small black dog, no matter how well-behaved, would be welcomed on board an airship.
The wriggling stopped.
A tall, gray-haired woman wearing an unfashionably-large hat peered down at her through a smudged pince-nez.
“Do you need to borrow a handkerchief to clean your lenses?” Henri asked without thinking. Gazing through smudged glass made her hair stand on end.
The woman had opened her mouth to speak, but she snapped her jaws shut with an audible click, stuck her big nose in the air and then turned her back on Henri. She is offended. Henri swallowed hard. She had meant the offer as a kindness. She feared she would never completely blend in, despite Miss Green’s best efforts to mold her into a lady.
Henri sighed. She would miss her kind governess. Leaving home was surprisingly heart-wrenching.
The ship’s looming presence drew her gaze upward once more. The shear mechanical genius of the thing made her heart skip a beat. Her face felt strangely stretched. She must be grinning from ear to ear—something she hadn’t done since Father had surprised her with a telescope last Christmas.
She stiffened, remembering what had followed. The next day her parents had explained all the logical reasons why her fascination with science was all well and good as a pass-time, but she must give up her ambition to be recognized as a real scientist. Instead, Father and Mama would provide a governess to teach her the finer points of etiquette and how to run a household. She must apply herself to learning these skills like any proper lady from a good family—in preparation for a suitable marriage, of course.
In that moment she had decided to wrest control of her destiny from the hands of her hopelessly old-fashioned parents. Henri agreed one-hundred per cent with the Rationalist movement that asserted the restrictions Society placed on women in 1860 were not only illogical, they were harmful. All that potential talent going to waste! Women like Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman and airship designer Marie Van Allen were making significant contributions to America and the rest of the world. Henri would do the same.
With her parents none the wiser, she had pretended meek submission to their plans for her. She’d studied the ways young ladies hid their true feelings behind masks of civility while manipulating others to get what they wanted. Using her newfound social skills to hide her plans, she’d managed to secure an in-person job interview at Chicago’s prestigious University of Science and Industry—which was what had brought her to the air dock today. She’d pawned her jewelry for funds to procure an airship ticket.
The conductor’s whistle blew from the top of the docking tower. “All aboard!”
Henri glanced up with a frown. She dreaded having to haul her heavy bag up the steps. A mustached man in a gray uniform frowned down at the elderly gentleman with a cane who was first in line. The poor man could only climb the thirty-foot stairway at a snail’s pace.
Relieved to have a moment’s rest, she set her bag down. Scotty should be all right until after their flight left. If only the day had not been unseasonably warm. As it was, she’d wet his fur to keep him cool. Even so, she feared he might grow ill from the heat in his stuffy bag. However she could not bear to leave Scotty behind. If she secured the position at the university she would not be returning home. Scotty must remain hidden until they were well underway.
Henri pulled her handkerchief out of her reticule and dabbed at her sweaty face in what she hoped was a dainty fashion. Her cheeks burned with the heat and her throat was parched. The effort of carrying the heavy bag and the abominable parasol had made her bodice cling unbearably to her warm skin above the accursed corset Society required her to wear. The damp dress felt like some unnatural second skin. She shuddered and bit her lip to take her mind off the urge to strip off her clothing as she would have done in her room at home.
A giggle bubbled in the back of her throat, threatening to squeeze off what little breath the corset had not. Undressing in public would definitely draw attention to herself, something she could ill afford. Where in heaven’s name had she put her fan?
Bending over to unbutton the side pocket of her portmanteau, Henri nearly pitched forward onto her face as black spots appeared at the edges of her vision. A strong hand caught her elbow and easily righted her. She looked up into a smiling male face sporting a well-trimmed brown beard. Aunt Eliza’s voice echoed in Henri’s head. A fine physical specimen, that. Aunt Eliza had held great admiration for the male of the species. The proportions of this stranger’s features were certainly pleasing.
“Please forgive me, Miss,” the man said. “I fear the heat may have overcome you.”
He scooped up her bag with one long-fingered hand as if it were as light as a dandelion seed. In his other hand he carried a large traveling case that no doubt held his own belongings.
Eyes the color of aquamarines gazed into hers. “Are you feeling lightheaded, Miss?”
Henri shook her head in denial. The breeze had strengthened, cooling her cheeks.
His gaze raked her from top to toe and back in a perfunctory manner. “We Americans would do well to dress for the weather rather than for modesty. It is unfortunate that Society does not agree with me on this point.”
I agree with you, she thought, but she didn’t speak aloud. The less she conversed, the less chance she would say the wrong thing and draw more unwanted attention.
In her bag, Scotty growled a warning.
The man’s brows drew together above his blue-green eyes. He leaned in and whispered. “Do you realize there is an angry animal in your portmanteau?”
His warm, whisky-scented breath on her cheek made her shiver in spite of the heat.
How very strange.
As he straightened his eyes sparkled, however the corners of his mouth did not turn up. Was he alarmed? Angry? Joking?
Nonverbal communication was not her strong suit.
She decided the simple truth would have to suffice. “Scotty is my dog,” she whispered. What had Miss Green taught her to do to disarm a gentleman? She stepped closer to him and fluttered her lashes. “Please do not give us away. I can’t leave him behind.”
The man blinked. His eyes darkened. “I could never give you away,” he responded softly. “I’m not a fool. Besides, I’ve always fancied myself capable of smuggling. Now is my chance to test the idea in the company of a beautiful woman.”
Henri did not know what to say. Why would giving her away make him a fool? Why did he want to try a criminal activity with a beautiful woman? Why did his words make her feel hot and cold at the same time? She moistened her dry lips with the tip of her tongue, her mind uncharacteristically devoid of thought.
He indicated the base of the tower with his chin. “After you, Miss. The Eagle awaits.”
Scotty had settled into a resigned silence, apparently deciding the stranger was no threat. In her experience the dog was a good judge of character. A young woman in the company of a gentleman would not stand out among the passengers. She could turn the man’s attentions to her advantage. However, she must act the proper lady. It wouldn’t do to give him the wrong idea.
Henri inhaled deeply and lifted her chin. “We have not been properly introduced, Sir.”
The corners of his wide mouth turned up. “Under these unusual circumstances, I shall beg you to allow me to introduce myself. Dr. David Truth, at your service. I promise I won’t let the cat out of the bag.”
He waited patiently while she sorted out his meaning. He was joking, of course, because he had already promised not to let Scotty out of the bag. Henri considered pointing out that Scotty was not a cat She decided the species of her pet was irrelevant.
Miss Green had instructed her to express admiration when introduced to a gentleman. Truth was an unusual name. “Truth is a name to be proud of, for what is more desirable than Truth?”
His smile widened. “I like the way you think. But what of beauty? Kindness? Skill? Meaning?”
Henri tipped her head to the side, considering. “Are they not all a form of Truth?”
He nodded. “You are intelligent as well as beautiful, Miss—?” He paused and looked at Henri with expectation in his eyes.
“Lafleur,” she said, hoping she was not making a mistake. “Henriette Lafleur, of Lafayette, Louuisiana.” Would he expect more information?
“A lovely name for a lovely lady,” Dr. Truth said.
She dropped her gaze to the ticket in his pocket. Why did his statement make her cheeks burn and her breasts ache? Other men had said as much, but as soon as she had opened her mouth, they had come to realize she was ‘touched’ and the admiration had faded from their eyes. Yet she had spoken to this man for several moments and he continued to compliment her. She stole a glance at his face. His eyes shone with what she believed was intelligence and humor.
“Miss Lafleur, I assure you I am quite harmless,” he said. “I’m a physicist on my way to Chicago to interview for a position at the University of Science and Industry. You are quite safe in my company.”
Henri’s felt as if someone had just cinched her corset. This stranger must be the other applicant for the position with Dr. Krieger. They were on their way to apply for the same opening. He was her competition.
The conductor’s whistle shrilled three times in quick succession. Glancing around, she found the line had moved past them and up the tower to the boarding gangway without her noticing. Dr. Truth dropped his bag, grabbed his hat and waved it overhead. “Hold!”
The red-bearded conductor returned his wave. Dr. Truth retrieved his big travel case. “We must hurry. Miss Lafleur, or we will not make our flight.”
They hurried. Henri worked at digesting this new revelation. Having knowledge her competition didn’t might give her an edge. She must keep her true reason for traveling hidden.
Five minutes later a winded Dr. Truth stood beside her with his back to the Eagle’s railing. About half the passengers remained on deck to experience the airship’s launch, They had spread out to give one another privacy. The remainder preferred to sit inside the main cabin with a cool drink and watch through glass windows.
Henri’s portmanteau sat on the deck between her and Dr. Truth. She unfastened one end to let Scotty breathe some fresh air. His black button nose poked through the opening. Straightening, Henri leaned her arms on the chest-high railing and scanned the crowd behind the safety barriers for familiar faces. Many had come to the air dock to see a fabled airship. When a thin, well-dressed mulatto man appeared, Henri feared for a moment Uncle Claude had come to fetch her home. Then he lit up a pipe. She was mistaken. Smoke of any kind gave Uncle Claude coughing fits. Her knees sagged with relief.
A strong hand on her elbow should have steadied Henri Instead the doctor’s kind support further weakened her knees. Her hands tightened on the polished brass rail. What was the matter with her?
“Perhaps we should sit down,” Dr. Truth said. His gentle touch guided her to a wooden bench attached to the outside of the ship’s main cabin. Strange new sensations coursed through her body like the effects of a spirituous drink.
She took her seat and opened her parasol. At least the ugly pink monstrosity blocked some of the heat of the sun. And the eject-able knife she’d built into the tip might come in handy if she encountered ruffians on her journey. She had only to press a small button in the handle and the knife would appear.
Dr. Truth stowed their bags under the bench and sat down.
She sighed. “If only it weren’t so pink.” Miss Green insisted men preferred a woman with a pale complexion. Henri’s skin darkened with the slightest kiss of the sun, so she must be extra careful to be consistent with the use of her parasol.
“What?” Dr. Truth said, fingering his aquiline nose. “Am I sunburned?”
She must cease talking to herself in front of others, as Miss Green had told her a thousand times. People became confused. “No. My parasol is so ugly. I hate the color pink.”
“I see,” he said, lips twitching below his thin moustache. “Does it help if I say that I am color blind? To me, your parasol appears the same color as a field of lush spring grass. I cannot tell the difference between reds and greens, other than the intensity of the shade.”
“I only wish it appeared that way to me.” Color blindness. She’d heard of the condition without giving any thought to what it would mean to someone afflicted.
A bell like a train bell rang at the bow of the airship. Dr. Truth started To Henri’s surprise he proceeded to reach underneath the bench and unbuckle his travel case.
“How very odd the world must seem to you now,” Henri said.
Peering between his legs, he lifted the lid of the case an inch as if verifying the contents, then shut his bag and sat up without fastening the locks. “I have never seen it any other way, so the world is as beautiful to me as to you.”
She tipped her head, considering. “Perhaps more so. Bright pink hurts my eyes. I cannot enjoy that color as others do.”
“Nor can I,” he pointed out.
“Is this a debate?”
“Why do you ask?”
“Because each time I present a theory, you counter it. I point out our differences; you insist they are similarities.”
“We are flirting, Miss Lafleur. It is a common courtship ritual.”
She frowned. “Forgive me. I did not intend to flirt.”
“No forgiveness necessary—”
The deck lurched beneath them. All the color drained from his face. Henri braced her boots against the boards and grabbed a handle nailed into the wall beside the bench. She watched the doctor do the same while her stomach seemed to drop, then rise. The deck slanted upward toward the bow.
Henri had never felt so daring. The changing forces of lift and acceleration were the only thing keeping her from running to look over the side.
“We’ve taken off!” she said to Dr. Truth.
The man’s face seemed to be turning green. The expression on his face reminded her of Father when he’d had too many whiskies.
Then her dog made repeated hacking noises.
“Oh dear! I have heard of this, Dr. Truth. You and Scotty have the air sickness.”
Sweat shone on his skin as he shook his head in denial. A muscle jumped in his jaw. “The dog, yes. My problem is not the same.”
“Perhaps drinking and flying do not mix,” she ventured.
“I believed a few shots of whisky and a parachute would keep the terror at bay,” he ground out. “I have an illogical fear of flying. Of not flying, actually. Of c-crashing.”
The bench pressed against Henri’s bottom, the deck against the soles of her boots. The Boatswain’s Mate relayed orders to the crew and the crewmen called them back to him.Tthe great ship seemed to crest a wave and the pressure fell away until Henri thought she would float off the bench. The ship leveled and the world seemed to right itself.
Dr. Truth gasped air as though he’d been holding his breath through the maneuvers. “I apologize…for my cowardice.”
Henri’s father had a similar horror of birds. So odd that such an unreasonable fear could bring a strong man to his knees. Birds were mostly small and harmless creatures. Whereas on occasion, airships did crash. Not often, though.
“No apology necessary,” she said. The poor man was trapped in a nightmare.
Once, determined to overcome his fear, Father had bought Henri a pretty yellow canary in a gilt cage. At the tender age of five years she had been unable to understand his distress. She’d simply accepted that, no matter how hard he tried, he could not bear to be in the same room with the little creature that sang pretty songs. She’d accompanied her mother give away her pet as a gift to a distant cousin. Her father had been gone for a week after they’d returned home.
A small object impacted the hull with a solid thunk. Eyes closed, Dr. Truth flinched.
“Probably an unfortunate bird,” Henri said.
There was no response.
Unlike her father, the doctor could not escape the situation until this evening when they landed in Chicago. Perhaps she could distract him?
“The odds against the airship crashing are a hundred to one,” she said, smiling. She laid her hand on his rigid one that gripped the seat between them. “Personally, I am more concerned with a fire. The hydrogen gas that gives the ship lift is extremely flammable. That is why no firearms are allowed onboard.”
Dr. Truth’s gazed at Henri through slit lids. “Are you trying to make me feel better?”
“No. Do you? Feel better, I mean?”
He gave his head a little shake.
“I have lavender drops in my reticule. They calm me when my nerves act up. Would you like one?”
His gaze had fastened on her mouth as if it were a lifeline. His nod was nearly imperceptible. She located the small drawstring purse tied to her waist and removed a smaller bag of the medicinal sweets. When he merely stared, white-knuckled, at the drop she offered, she reached over and poked it between his lips with her index finger. The moist heat of his mouth penetrated her
thin lace glove. His eyes darkened and her stomach fluttered.
thin lace glove. His eyes darkened and her stomach fluttered.
Multiple hacking noises from her portmanteau pulled her out of the moment. She jerked back her hand and studiously avoided looking at the man beside her. Her face heated as though she faced a roaring fire. Pulling out a second lavender drop, she placed the medicine into her portmanteau in front of Scotty. The little dog eagerly crunched and swallowed the sweet.
She had just tucked the drops back into her purse when the doctor spoke. “Thank you.”
Finding it difficult to look him in the eye, she nodded. Unmarried young ladies did not touch a gentleman’s mouth, not even with a gloved hand. It just wasn’t done, according to Miss Green. What must he think of her?
“If you were trying to distract me, you succeeded,” he went on.
Whereupon Scotty hacked up the lavender drop on his blanket in her portmanteau.
Henri peered inside. “I must find some water to clean this up.” She carried her bag to the cabin door and went inside without looking back.
The dark-skinned porter provided Henri with a glass bottle of water and directed her to the Ladies Resting Room, a sort of outhouse attached to the rear of the cabin. Inside, Henri set her bag on the floor, removed a bedraggled Scotty, and gave them both a drink of cool water. She rolled up the dog’s soiled blanket, lifted the lid, and dropped the mess into the privy.
By this time, Scotty had perked up and was wagging his tail in anticipation of leaving the confines of the small, warm room. When she shoved him back into the bag, he whined. “You will only have to stay in the bag for a little while longer. Please be patient.”
Henri moved slowly across the cabin toward the door she had come in. For some reason she couldn’t define, Henri felt responsible for Dr. Truth. Perhaps it was because he had assisted her and had smuggled Scotty on board. She felt she owed the man a favor. What would she do if he used her forward behavior against her in the competition for the University position?
In fairness, he had been nothing but kind to her. A true gentleman. Logic told her she had nothing to worry about as far as he was concerned. However she was not a good judge of people.
Scotty interrupted her thoughts by erupting from her bag in a flurry of damp fur and barking. He turned tail and dashed back in the direction of the Resting Rooms. The Pince-nez lady screamed and swooned into her companion’s arms. Men shouted and ran after the little black animal. Henri followed, shouting. “Don’t hurt him! He’s harmless!”
The Men’s Room door opened and a crewman in uniform stepped out. Scotty darted inside as the red-bearded man shut the door. His eyes widened at the rush of men toward him. Henri thought she might have been the only one to observe the Negro porter catch the man’s gaze and give his head a slight shake. Most people ignored porters unless they needed a service from them. The porter turned to face the crowd and raised his hands. “Ladies and Gentlemen, please return to your seats! The animal is only a passenger’s pet, and it has been caught.”
Behind him, the crewman pulled his cap down and walked away.
The Pince-nez Lady had recovered from her faint. She glared at the porter through her smudged lenses. “I was told pets are not allowed on board.”
The porter’s gaze met Henri’s. She did not understand the expression in his eyes. Was it fear? Pleading?
After a moment he spoke, his gaze still locked with hers. “We have made an exception as an experiment. Unfortunately air travel seems to be quite upsetting, even for such a well-behaved little dog. My apologies on behalf of Thibadeaux Air Service. I am sure the current policy will remain in place for the foreseeable future.”
Henri decided the porter did not want her to contradict him. For some reason he was trying to protect Scotty from harm rather than condemning Henri for smuggling him on board.
The click of a latch followed by a change in the pitch of the wind’s hiss across the hull indicated an outer door had opened behind her. She glanced over her shoulder. To her amazement, there stood Dr. Truth—pale and erect, his eyes scanning the room until they settled on her like a caress. Her breath quickened.
“I heard a commotion, Miss Lafleur,” he said. Others crowded in behind him, having no doubt also heard the uproar. “Are you in need of assistance?”
How had he managed to overcome his fear enough to leave his perch on the bench? Why had he made that Herculean effort?
“Everything is under control, Sir,” the porter said.
As if to correct him, Scotty barked inside the Men’s Room.
Dr. Truth glanced at the man, one brow raised. “There is a dog in the Men’s Resting Room. If I’m not mistaken, he is small and black and rather wilted-looking. May I take a look?”
The man’s face lost all expression. “Yes, Sir.”
Dr. Truth crossed the small distance in two strides. Sweat beaded the skin of his face and signaled his distress to Henri. The doctor acted as if nothing was amiss. He cracked the door open, blocking Scotty’s escape with his booted foot, and peered inside the dim space. “There’s the little rascal, up on the seat.”
He stepped inside and the door swung inward. Scotty barked repeatedly. The doctor spoke to him in a calm, firm tone. Henri heard the sound of claws scrabbling on wood. A thud was followed by a muttered oath. There was a pause in the activity, followed by another thirty seconds of struggle. The door opened and Dr. Truth emerged with Scotty clutched to his chest. His haggard countenance told Henri his nerves were as taut as overstretched piano wire.
“The conquering hero!” the old man with the cane said. The crowd burst into applause. The good doctor blinked, then attempted a smile.
Henri stepped forward with her open valise. Dr. Truth popped the little dog inside. Afterward he relieved her of the bag.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” the porter said, “please be seated in the cabin while tea is served.”
Dr. Truth’s grip was firm on her elbow. “Let us take some air, Miss Lafleur. Fresh air calms the nerves.”
She nodded. She might even dare to walk Scotty on his lead.
When they stepped out onto the deserted deck, she noted Dr. Truth’s grim expression. His lips were pressed together and he walked stiffly. He must feel more anxiety outside the cabin. Why had he told her fresh air would calm the nerves?
Hurrying back to the bench, she took her seat. His complexion when he joined her could only be described as bilious. It stunned her that, despite being indisposed, he had come to her and Scotty’s rescue. He was no doubt paying a steep price for his nobility.
“I cannot tell you how much gratitude I feel for your efforts on my behalf,” she said. “It amazes me the strength of will you’ve demonstrated to accomplish Scotty’s rescue. I can never repay your great kindness.”
He stared at the deck boards throughout her long thank you. When she had finished, he offered a smile that did not reach his eyes. “My pleasure. I only hope I have the strength to deal with what is to come. There’s an evil game afoot, Miss Lafleur.”
“Evil? What evil?”
“Your little dog uncovered a murder in the Men’s Room
Henri’s jaw dropped. She could not have been more surprised if he had told her Scotty could speak English.
Had the strain of coming to her rescue unhinged his mind? Was he teasing her? Carefully, she examined his face. No sign of humor lightened his expression. He continued to stare at the deck.
“I assure you, I am perfectly sane. While trying to apprehend Scotty in the Men’s Room, I hit my head hard against a coat hook I couldn’t see in the dim light from the ventilation grate. Naturally, I used my battery-powered torch to search for other obstacles before continuing the chase.”
“May I see it?” Herni said. “I’ve never heard of a battery-powered torch.”
Dr. Truth’s mouth dropped open for a moment. He shook his head from side to side the way Mama did when she was at a loss for words, all the while digging in his pocket with one hand. He pulled out a metal cylinder as long as Henri’s hand and as big around as a cigar. When he twisted a ring around one end of the cylinder light shone through a glass pane set in the tip. He offered the torch to Henri.
She examined it with delight, twisting the ring in one direction and then the other to turn the light off and on again. Reluctantly, she handed the device back to him. “Thank you. You were telling me about the murder?”
“The murder?” he said. He pocketed the torch. “Right. Scotty continued to bark and growl at the—at the—I was worried he might fall into the holding chamber, if you will—The rascal’s head was hanging over the edge. When I grabbed him by the scruff of the neck my torchlight revealed a nude man’s body stuffed inside the chamber. Distinctive wounds around his neck led me to believe he’d been garroted.”
She had not expected this revelation. As usual her mind followed a logical path. “Did you recognize his face?”
Dr. Truth’s Adam’s apple bobbed up and down as he swallowed. “It was the Conductor, Mr. Rouge.” He finally met Henri’s gaze. “I do believe the Eagle has been taken over by air pirates, Miss Lafleur.”
That would explain why the porter had not wanted to make an issue of Scotty’s behavior, and the strange signals between the porter and the man in the conductor’s uniform who exited the Men’s Room as Scotty slipped inside. Not to mention the little dog’s uncharacteristic behavior. His canine senses must have detected the body. He had dutifully attempted to alert her to possible danger.
Henri shivered. Slowly, she nodded. “I agree with your logic, Sir.” She told him about the silent exchange between the porter and the man who must have been the murderer.
“This was carefully planned out,” the doctor said. “I have a talent for remembering facial details. Most people would not have noticed the small differences in the two men’s appearances. For some reason the villains do not wish to alarm the passengers.”
“Most of them are wealthy,” Henri said. “Perhaps they plan to hold them for ransom and simply don’t want to deal with a panic aboard ship.”
“Perhaps…” Dr. Truth did not sound convinced. “It is true that the ship’s crew number less than the passengers. The captain pilots the ship, the engineer regulates the hydrogen gas in the bag, the ballastiere controls the ballast and two deckhands handle the tethers. The conductor and porter see to the needs of the passengers.”
“That’s seven pirates holding twelve passengers prisoner,” Henri said. “Assuming the entire crew is involved. That may not be the case. In a pinch, only the pilot, engineer, ballestiere and a deckhand are needed to operate the airship. It would be relatively easy to dispose of bodies other than those of the two men working in the main cabin by simply throwing them overboard. No one would be the wiser.”
“I hadn’t thought of that,” Dr. Truth said. “My first step will be to ascertain how many pirates are aboard ship. Secondly, I must determine their motives. First I insist that you avail yourself of my parachute. You can notify the authorities once you are safely on the ground.”
Henri’s pulse raced with the realization that he was willing to sacrifice his own chance to escape in order to ensure her safety. Perhaps he already cared for her as a woman. On the other hand, perhaps he couldn’t bring himself to jump from the moving airship and didn’t want to waste the parachute. If she accepted his offer she would most definitely achieve her goal of securing the position at the University since he would miss his interview. But she could not bear to think of any harm befalling this man with the iron will who valued her unique qualities and never made her feel small. Besides she could not live with herself if she obtained the position by an act of trickery. She was better than that. All she wanted was an equal chance. She would be proud to lose the position to a man like Dr. Truth.
“Thank you, but no,” she said firmly. “I will be watched less stringently than you because I am a woman. They will see me as less of a threat. Besides, your fear of flying may hinder your efforts.” She hated to point that out, however it had to be said. “We have a better chance of defeating these villains if we work together. I am not going anywhere, Dr. Truth.”
He smacked his palm with his fist. “Damn it all, you are right! For all we know this could be part of a larger plot. Since the Dred Scott Decision, many have come to believe the nation is on the brink of a civil war. The Republican Party has just nominated Abe Lincoln for President. Today he’s giving his acceptance speech in Springfield, Illinois. His abolitionist views make him a target for extremists. An airship is a mighty weapon in the wrong hands.”
His gaze slid over her from top to toe and back again. This time there was nothing perfunctory about the way he looked at her as there had been earlier on the air dock. Her blood hummed in response to his obvious admiration.
“Forgive me,” he said. “I have committed every detail of your person to memory. If one of these pirates so much as sullies your shoes, he shall answer to me for it.”
Henri’s heart skipped a beat at the heat in his words.
And please call me David. Under the circumstances I believe first names are in order.
Henri nodded. “I overheard Father discussing rumors of a secret group of Southern assassins being trained in Canada, the Knights of the Golden Circle. They are said to work for those preparing for the South to secede from the Union. If the rumors are true, they would be able to implement such a plan.”
He reached out and touched her cheek. Lightning seemed to spread from his fingers to set every cell in her body a-tingle. “So you are a beautiful Southern Unionist?”
It occurred to Henri that she might like him to kiss her. Preferably soon. She licked her lips as Miss Green had taught her to do. She’d never tried to seduce a man into kissing her before. “I named my dog after the brave Negro slave, Dred Scott. What do you think?”
For the first time since they had taken flight, David laughed aloud. “You are the perfect woman. Promise me when we have our feet planted on terra firma you’ll allow me to court you.”
She eyed him with suspicion. “Are you serious, David?”
“I’ve never been more serious in my life.”
Her heart seemed to have grown wings. “Then you may call me Henri. It’s short for Henriette.”
“I like the way it sounds coming from you.”
“A unique name for a unique woman.”
She bit her lower lip to keep from blurting out something ridiculous like kiss me for luck! She was a scientist. She did not believe in luck. But they could both die today, and she so wanted to experience a kiss—his kiss.
“What is it, Henri?”
She could not meet his gaze. The sting of unshed tears threatened to give her away.
David lifted her chin and leaned toward her until she could feel his breath brush her skin.
“Your color has returned to normal,” she observed breathlessly.
The corners of his mouth turned up. “I’m feeling quite well at the moment.”
His lips were soft and gentle. They carried a hint of whisky from his earlier attempts to fortify himself. He lingered over the kiss until her nipples tightened unbearably. She threw her arms around his neck and pressed them against his chest to ease the ache. He groaned and deepened the kiss, probing her mouth with his tongue until her toes curled.
Finally he set her back. “I hope you don’t mind a brief courtship.”
Henri swallowed. “Because we will most likely die?”
He pulled her back against him with a groan. “Because I want you in my bed.”
She smiled up at him through her lashes. “Come along then, David. First, we have some air pirates to dispatch. I do believe I have just the thing for the job.”
She reached for her ugly pink parasol.
© 2014 Sarah Raplee All rights reserved
Thank you for reading my story.