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Authors: Brenda Williamson

Under Her Brass Corset

BOOK: Under Her Brass Corset
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Under Her Brass Corset

By Brenda Williamson

Since the loss of her father, Abigail Thatch’s life has been in turmoil. Her social status is in shambles, her finances depleted, and she’s on the verge of losing her beloved home. But everything changes when she meets the dashing flying machine captain Jasper Blackthorn. Not only does he introduce her to a world she thought only existed in myth and legend, he awakens sensual feelings deep within her…

Jasper may be immortal, but he hasn’t truly lived in years. Having secretly watched over Abigail as a favor to her notorious grandfather, he can’t resist arranging a “chance” meeting with the beauty. But he has an ulterior motive: to retrieve the mystical Crystal Compass hidden in her house before it falls into the wrong hands. He never imagines he’ll be tempted to love again…

When Abigail learns the truth, she and Jasper embark on a journey that will change both of their lives—and possibly the world…

70,000 words

Dear reader,

It’s not that I love winter, but I love some of the things that come with winter. Here in the States, February brings some of the coldest temperatures of the winter, but it also brings the promise of spring right around the corner. So I don’t mind hunkering down in my living room next to the fire with a blanket, a kid or a dog on my feet, and a mug of hot chocolate or hot tea (or even a hot toddy) beside me. And, of course, my digital reading device of choice in hand.

There’s something permissive about cold weather that makes it easy to laze away hours at a time reading a great book without feeling guilty, which makes February one of my favorite months. I know I can always indulge in plenty of guilt-free reading time!

This month, Carina Press offers a new selection of releases across the genres to aid you in your own reading-time indulgence. Romantic suspense favorite Marie Force is back with a new installment in her Fatal series,
Fatal Flaw.
Newlyweds Sam and Nick discover that they won’t get the normalcy they were looking for post-wedding…because someone has other plans for them. Also look for author Dee J. Adams to follow up her adrenaline-packed romantic suspense debut with her sophomore book,
Danger Zone,
which delivers thrills and action.

Two steampunk titles will get your gears whirling in February. Look for
Prehistoric Clock
by Robert Appleton and
Under Her Brass Corset
by Brenda Williamson to take you back to a time altered by steam and clockwork. Also in the science fiction and fantasy realm, author Nico Rosso offers up
The Last Night,
a post-apocalyptic tale of romance, while Kim Knox takes us into the future with her futuristic science fiction romance,
Synthetic Dreams.

And for those of you with a yen for the paranormal, we have several authors joining us for their Carina Press debuts.
Blood of the Pride
by Sheryl Nantus and
Pack and Coven
by Jody Wallace hit the virtual shelves in mid-February.

Portia Da Costa will heat up your day with
Intimate Exposure,
a sexy and intense look into the world of BDSM.

Rounding out our amazing and genre-packed February lineup are books from Claire Robyns, Charlie Cochrane, Debra Kayn, Shelley Munro, Amie Denman, Crista McHugh and Susan Edwards, with everything from historical and contemporary romance to m/m romance to a fun romantic caper. February offers a little something for everyone’s reading pleasure.

We love to hear from readers, and you can email us your thoughts, comments and questions to [email protected] You can also interact with Carina Press staff and authors on our blog, Twitter stream and Facebook fan page.

Happy reading!

~Angela James

Executive Editor, Carina Press

www.carinapress.com

www.twitter.com/carinapress

www.facebook.com/carinapress

Chapter One

Abigail Thatch hurried down the dim alley connecting Baker Lane to her street. Behind her in the dark, the tap of light footsteps gave her reason to pause. She dismissed the ominous sound and continued on her path, although, deep inside, she remained wary of the follower. All her life, she had felt watched, and ever since her father’s brutal death two weeks prior, she sensed the eerie presence had grown more vigilant. She often fantasized of seeing the spirit of her mother, whom she missed more than anyone could know. Her father had always told her that the dead never go away. Nevertheless, she refused to believe a ghost wore shoes.

Night had come upon her too soon. The threatening rain clouds had dimmed the moonlight. She preferred a brighter sky where more than a few stars dotted the heavenly canvas.

Concerned by her reckless lack of timing, she lifted her father’s watch fob from the pocket of her waistcoat. She held the solid gold timepiece up and stared blindly at it. Unable to see the hour the black hands marked, she closed her hand over it.

“Not enough light,” she grumbled. Turning over the treasured watch, she rubbed her thumb over the worn engraving. As she wore gloves, she couldn’t feel the imprint, but she well remembered her mother’s testament of love. In her mind’s eye she clearly saw the wording—
My darling William, you will forever have my heart
.

While she hoped to find such a love one day, a nagging doubt lingered. Could there be anybody as gentle, kind and adoring as her father had been with her mother? Was there someone open-minded enough not to disapprove of her having her own thoughts? It seemed impossible, especially after her last failed relationship. No one could be that perfect—able to unconditionally accept her—and she vowed never to compromise again for the sake of not being alone.

A light scuffing, low and rhythmic, coming from behind made her turn. She peered into the clammy darkness. She sensed someone there, watching, waiting. Nothing moved. She considered marching back and confronting her stalker. Then a gust of steam spurted from a cellar windowwell. It rattled the nerve right out of her. She clutched her chest with the watch firmly gripped in her fist. The flash of a white cat scurrying across her path grabbed her attention. The animal darted into a low alcove in the opposite building’s wall, possibly another open cellar window.

Her pause to let out a startled breath gave her the chance to hear the click of something metal coming in contact with the cobblestones. Dropping the watch back into the pocket of her waistcoat, she moved forward.

How stupid
. She scolded herself again for leaving work late. She knew the night brought out strange, unsavory people. Some called the under-city dwellers trolls. She knew them for what they were, vagrants and thieves—criminals that preyed on the innocent. They were the sort she needed to avoid running into, she thought, recalling the night when the police came to her house and told her that her father was dead. They had the right term for the murderer—a soulless killer.

As Abigail neared the end of the cobblestone alley between the baker’s shop and the millinery, she prepared to leap the two steps up to the walkway. The last block home seemed the longest. Managing a hold with one hand on her reticule and the other on her umbrella, she gripped two fistfuls of her blue taffeta skirting. She hoisted the starched fabric above the top of her brown leather boots and quickened her gait. At just the precise spot, she stretched out her leg and leaped over the two steps, reaching the raised platform in a single bound. When her boot heel caught between a gap in the step and the plank walk, the unexpected detainment thwarted her efforts to make a mad dash for home.

Alarmed, she peered under the dim glow the gas streetlamp offered. One simple step had put her in peril. She stood directly across from the city’s oldest cathedral, and yet it appeared evil lurked everywhere, ready to grab her.

She listened for the footsteps in the alley. Not a sound echoed from the darkness. Had her stalker stopped, changed his mind, gone back the other way? She often put too much thought into the smallest details. Maybe her imagination had finally gotten the better of her. Although after the tragic death of her father, who could blame her for being suspicious of everything?

She put a hand on the wall of the brick building to steady herself as she pulled on her foot.

“Bloody hell,” she grumbled too loudly, and looked up at the movement in the sky. A colony of bats darted out from the highest turrets on the cathedral. They flew around the portentous outline of stone gargoyles gathered along the edges of the parapets. Then the winged creatures came spiraling down toward her. Instinctively she ducked, covering her head with her upraised arm until the droning swish of their flight faded.

Rattled and more determined to get free, she twisted around. She bent down and tried prying her foot loose with the metal tip of her umbrella. While jerking and yanking on her foot, she jabbed at the tight crack that surrounded her heel. Her reticule, which dangled by a strap around her wrist, swung in her way and she stopped to remove it from her arm. The sound of footsteps made her abandon the reticule and resume her struggle with the walkway.

Escape eluded her. She hated being vulnerable.

“Damn.” She righted herself and slapped her hand against the wall in frustration.

She jiggled her reticule, feeling the weight of her father’s small handgun inside. Since his death, she had taken to carrying it for safety. She had fired it on several occasions for practice. But were she faced with shooting someone, she wasn’t sure she could. She tried a new approach to her dilemma—unlacing the boot. She bent to try sliding her foot out. Then she’d run before being overtaken.

“May I be of assistance?” A man’s raspy voice sent a chill straight through her.

Startled, she dropped her umbrella and hurried to retrieve the gun. In her panic, she wobbled off balance and fell backward.

The stranger caught her. His hands landed on her hips and became a steadying support.

Still reeling with fears of abduction, assault and murder, she thrashed to get out of his firm grip.

“Let go,” she demanded.

He did, but it still left her fighting the pavement’s restraint on her foot.

“Hold still and I’ll get your boot loose.” His ragged voice cleared to a deep and soothing tone that halted her efforts to shake him away.

He stood close. Heat radiating from his body enveloped her.

She inhaled, taking in the warm, musky scent of him. The alluring bouquet hinted of sea salt and cologne. She liked the fragrance, and the tranquilizing effect lulled her into a false sense of security.

“If you’d lift your skirts I can get a better view,” he informed her.

An odd familiarity in his voice left a pleasant impression on her. So much so, it elicited an instant attraction. The sensation tightened the air in her lungs and spiraled into the pit of her stomach with alarming speed.

“Of what, my knees?” she snapped, upset by her out of place feelings of desire.

“Your foot, for starters.” He chuckled.

She debated his request. His soft laughter lacked a hint of anything sinister. And since she wanted to be free from the plank walk, logic dictated she cooperate.

She pulled her hand away from the building and noticed the lace palm of her fingerless glove had torn from the rough surface. Sadness paralyzed her as she stared at the memento she had salvaged from her mother’s belongings. She had cut off the worn fingertips and hemmed the finger holes to have a little bit of her mother with her every time she left the house. Now one glove was ruined.

The pressure of the stranger’s strong grip encircling her ankle brought her thoughts back to the moment. Accepting his help, she raised her hem. His hand moved almost like a caress up the back of her calf. He hesitated there. Heat flushed her face as he swept his thumb over the top edge of her boot and brushed her skin behind her knee.

Unappreciative of his lingering touch and worried he’d find the ivory-handled knife she carried tucked inside her boot, she prodded him to finish the task. “Well?”

Instantly his stroke glided down to her heel.

“Twist,” he instructed, guiding her foot to the right.

She stepped away, finally free, and whirled around to face him—her knight in shining armor. The quicker she moved on, the better she’d be. She tilted her head back to look the tall man in the eye and thank him. Except the discovery that he had only one eye, while a black patch of leather covered the other, kept her mute.

Abigail moved on to inventorying the better features of his face. His straight nose, chiseled jaw and perfect mouth presented a favorable attractiveness. She imagined the pliability of his full lips pressed against hers. Were they firm and commanding, or hard and unyielding? She thought of the texture, the softness of them sweeping from side to side over her face. Yes, she very well could envision them very kissable.

“Thank you for your assistance,” she finally said, realizing she waited far too long to offer her gratitude.

“Captain Jasper Blackthorn at your service, miss.” With a grand flourish of his arm, he swept his hat off his head and bowed before her.

His thick, dark brown hair fell forward, framing his handsome face. Her palms itched to glide over the top of his head and rake her fingers into the wavy locks. She never thought of a man’s hair as being soft and lush. But then she had never met a man that captivated her attention the way Captain Blackthorn had from the second she saw him.

Self-conscious about her appearance, she put her hand up to adjust her hat straining against hatpins. Although she shoved it up into what felt like the right position, she had to look a mess. Just the few loose strands of hair tickling her cheek let her know everything wasn’t in place.

“Abigail Thatch,” she replied.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Miss Thatch.” He flipped his hat back on to his head, covering the rich mane as quickly as he had revealed it.

It left her to take in the rest of him. The elegant black top hat matched his charcoal wool cape, yet neither fit his garments beneath. His tight leather pants were cinched with dozens of buckles and his bell-cuffed black boots sheathed his legs up to his knees. As she liked to dress in risqué clothing herself at times, she approved of the captain’s less than conventional attire. He made a dashing image against the backdrop of the dreary city streets. She felt a kindred connection to his uniqueness.

At the crux of her main concern, however, was his sudden presence. “Were you following me in the alley?” she asked point-blank. Most people when asked directly were not capable of formulating a plausible lie.

“Well, I’m not sure. The alley is dark.” He gestured toward it with his sliver-tipped black walking cane. “I did hear someone walking ahead of me. Now that I’ve reached this point—” he tapped the walk “—I know it was you. Thus, it
is
a good conclusion I was following you and not the other way around. After all, you did arrive to this spot first.”

His forthright comment and infectious grin teased a responding smile out of her, and she stared into his one twinkling blue eye. For that untarnished moment, she felt an all-consuming happiness. It seemed wrong in light of her father’s recent death. But there it was, a feeling of calmness that she barely recognized.

When she realized she was staring, she looked over her shoulder toward home. “Thank you for your help, Captain Blackthorn. Usually I’m more sure-footed. However, tonight I was distracted by my concern that someone unscrupulous was following me. I’m afraid it made me careless. It was truly very good of you to offer your assistance.”

“Please, it was all my pleasure, Miss Thatch, and I’m sorry to have worried you like that. It’s unforgivable to think I had such a lovely young woman troubled about being robbed.”

She loved the sound of his voice. The blend of old British mixed with new had a touch of something else that suggested he visited many places in his travels. As a sea captain, he had the world at his disposal. She envied him. Her journeys never went beyond her walk to and from work at the museum. She had dreamed of adventures, only to have them quashed by lack of funds.

“It’s more than that.” She sighed. “My father was brutally killed a couple weeks ago in a similar circumstance.”

“I’m dreadfully sorry.” He stepped toward her, almost as if he wanted to hold her comfortingly. Tapping his cane on the ground, it telescoped up into a short wand. He leaned over and slid it into a long pocket that seemed made for it on his stiff trouser leg.

She wanted to ask where he acquired the fascinating walking stick, but his bold grasp of her hand erased that idea completely from her thoughts.

“If you’ll allow me, Miss Thatch, I shall escort you safely to your destination.”

His brisk rub of her knuckles stirred a tingling heat through the thin glove. Her cool fingers nestled in his hot palms made her shiver. It felt as if flames licked at her neck and face. She took a slow, deep breath at the notice of the burning sensation spreading over her breasts.

“Thank you, but no.” She tried tugging her fingers from his firm hold. “My house is just a block from here. I can manage on my own quite nicely.”

Even though he hadn’t moved an inch, she felt pulled toward him. Heartbroken from her father’s untimely death, she hadn’t let herself cry. Nor had she felt the embrace of anyone’s arms easing away her loneliness.

Afraid of losing control, Abigail tried jerking her fingers out of his. It wasn’t as if he was shaking her hand in greeting, and she wanted to dissuade him from making presumptuous liberties. They had just met. Only he continued to grip her fingers as if he had meant to detain her. That nervousness she’d had in the alley returned.

“I have to go.” She snapped her hand quickly, freeing it from his, and then she started walking, praying he didn’t follow.

“Maybe another time,” he called.

As nervous as Captain Blackthorn had made her, he still had a captivating hold on her curiosity. He hadn’t really looked threatening, even with his eye patch. When he didn’t follow like a deranged stalker, she mutely admonished herself for jumping to conclusions. She missed the security of having someone looking out for her.

BOOK: Under Her Brass Corset
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