Mission… Impossible: The pixies’ mission—if Allegro and Glissando are to accept it—is to secure the future of a troubled England. To achieve this, the Earl of Falconwood, better known as the Black Falcon, must marry Nicola Moore. Never mind the woman is a hoyden who makes the most atrocious hats decorated with machine parts, which she then dyes with her famous Clockwork Blue.
And certainly forget the earl is atoning for his brother’s death by purposely hovering on the fringes of the ton. Add to the mix Glissando’s tendency to slip to the side of the Mrasek, the ones who work to free the evil Lord Sethos.
But Maestro depends on the pixies—for better or for worse. To release the magic trapped in the Clockwork Blue dye—a magic that will safeguard England’s future—Malcolm and Nicola must not only wed, but they must also fall in love.
Ramsey dropped the axe with a thud. The muscle in his jaw bunched. "I'll throw you out the window if I have to." Stalking forward, he made a sudden grab for her.
Nicola dodged under his arms and dove for the axe, grasping the smooth wood of the handle in her palm. Her reticule bumped against the hard surface. Two distinct musical yelps rang out. She cringed as she remembered the Callers.
"I'll just take this with me, then," she said. For emphasis, she held up the tool.
"Nicola, I'm warning you!"
A steam engine's pistons churned nearby. The sound of the motor idling came from the front of the workhouse. Nicola's heart raced and sweat broke out on her brow as she took in a jerky breath. She glared at her cousin. "Go on. Get out of here. Someone is coming. And do something with that confounded lantern."
In a stiff motion, her cousin clutched his lamp. "Thunder and turf, Nicola, you've ruined everything." The light shining from below his broad cheeks cast his eyes in shadow, his face contorting eerily before he extinguished it.
As her eyes adjusted to the darkness, she saw Ramsey's lithe shadow against the silvery-blue rays of the rising moon.
"Hurry, Nicola. Leave this death trap."
"Not until you're gone." Under no circumstance would she leave him behind. She could well envision him taking another swing at the loom before he left. The engine sputtered, and then went still.
Ramsey glanced toward her, then at the open window, clearly waffling. "All right, Nicola, you win. But, confound it, hurry." He glided toward the window and vaulted outside.
With axe in hand, Nicola sat on the sill, preparing to ease herself over it. Her skirt snagged again, trapping her. "Zooterkins," she muttered, remembering the splintered wood.
Ramsey motioned for her to hurry as she yanked frantically at her skirt. Shouts sounded nearby and he ducked.
"Go on," she whispered, waving him away even as her throat clogged with fear.
Her cousin ran both hands through his hair and looked toward the men as they began circling the building. One separated and moved in their direction. Nicola shooed at Ramsey again, then in desperation worked to loosen her dress as her cousin ran into the thick brush. Oh, if only she had worn breeches under her dress so she could leap through the window as easily.
Just as she freed herself, the door opened on the far side of the room. Sliding to the floor, Nicola ducked behind the nearest worktable. She gathered her skirts close, unmindful of the dirty floor, and hoped the sturdy table provided enough cover.
Drat Ramsey for getting her into this situation—though the instant the thought formed, she admonished herself. Her cousin was only doing what he thought best and, in rescuing him, she was only doing what she thought best.
Light flooded the stockingers' workroom, bright fingers groping for her condemning presence at the scene of the crime. A dark figure of a man held a lantern, which he set on a table.
She could squirm herself out of the most compromising situations. Ramsey had always commended her for her glib tongue. Palms slick, she wiped them on her dress, and vowed to make him repay her for this little episode.
She groped for a reasonable explanation for her presence in this factory in the middle of the night. I was riding by and thought I heard an intruder. No one would believe that she'd sought an intruder on her own. I wondered how a workroom would look, and when I peeked through the window, I fell inside?Anyone who accepted such an excuse would have to be as chuckle-headed as anyone who offered it.
From where she crouched in the corner, she peered into the halo of bright light at the large silhouette of the man. Although she couldn't see his features, his height and broad shoulders belonged to someone imposing. The dimly lit wall sconces barely touched him, but silver light from the moon shone through a window and she suddenly knew him.
The Black Falcon.
The silvery rays suited him, caused him to look mysterious and dangerous.
The caped greatcoat he wore flared as he pivoted. Snug breeches hugged the powerful lines of his muscled legs. Light limned his cheekbones, and briefly caught in the reflection of his eyes as he searched the room. Pure masculine strength poured from him and he seemed to command the rate of Nicola's heartbeat, the tingling sensations upon her skin, her very breath.
When she realized she still held the axe, a sliver of dread pierced her. Why hadn't she pitched the thing out the window? Now it burned a brand in her palm while the marred loom seemed to cry out like an injured lamb.
Falcon walked to the middle of the room, bringing him closer to the damaged property. His broad shoulders tapered into a narrow waist. All right, she admitted the man was impressive. Nicola had the distinct image of a huge bird of prey about to swoop down on her. The light refused to reveal his features, even though she squinted hard.
His hand rested on his hip in an almost insolent stance. From rumors she knew he was clever, perhaps too clever for her machinations. He turned slowly toward her. In fascinated horror, she watched. Strange how at ease he was, as if he were accustomed to prowling the night. His gaze seemed to peel back the inky layers that cloaked her.
"Do something," she whispered to the Callers.
"You're on your own," Allegro responded.
Falcon's steps echoed loudly as he approached the table behind which she crouched: slow, measured steps, as if he were taking a leisurely stroll rather than confronting an intruder. As he neared, his Roman nose and high cheekbones were illuminated, but his mood was difficult to read. Was he angry? Quite likely. Dangerous? Assuredly.
Nicola shrank into a tighter huddle, barely able to breathe. Perhaps he wouldn't see her in the shadows. His brows, as dark as the thick black hair that fell onto his forehead, swept downward. With no more than that, he tripled her heart rate and made her feel as if she were a small field mouse about to be snatched by a ravenous hawk.
"To whom are you talking?"
His voice was cool, level and destroyed her last hope of going undiscovered.
In an attempt to salvage some remnant of dignity, she rose from her crouching position, careful to hide the axe in the folds of her skirts. "No one, my lord."
With a scowl, he glanced behind her.
"Truly, 'tis only myself here." She fussed with smoothing her skirts, hoping Allegro would change his mind and intervene on her behalf. She didn't trust Glissando to do anything except actions that benefitted him. "I-I suppose my presence at your place of business at this hour seems a bit strange." Her reticule jerked against the axe and she quickly shifted the items behind her back, praying the earl hadn't seen.
"Just a bit. I'm almost afraid to discover your intentions, after viewing your behavior at Glasshouse Street."
She remembered the street brawl and grimaced. "You were there?"
"I had the dubious honor of witnessing your hoydenish manners."
Hoydenish? He thought her hoydenish? It wasn't her fault things had gotten out of hand. And as for her manners, they were perfectly adequate for all—well, most—situations. Lifting her chin, she looked straight into his dark eyes. "If you must know, we were merely distributing handbills, informing the public about the stockingers' plight. That hosier was going to throw a punch at Ramsey. He was much larger. I couldn't merely stand by and watch."
"Just as you couldn't stand by and watch your cousin destroy my newest loom." Quick as a hunting bird, he plucked the axe from her hand.
Horror scorched her throat. She wished, oh, how she wished she had thrown the incriminatory implement out the window. She gulped and rallied. "What made you come? Do you make a habit of patrolling your property?"
"I suppose I should, now that I comprehend your family's insane propensity toward destruction."
"Excuse me, but we are merely passionate in our beliefs, not hooligans as you assume." Frowning, she persisted in trying to change the subject. "Truly, what brought you here tonight?"
"A very reliable source warned me that your hotheaded cousin was coming. However, I didn't expect to find you." His gaze swept her. "I'm quite shocked, Miss Moore, at your scandalous behavior—not to mention your cousin's criminal tendencies, which will lead him straight to a ship's galleys filled with other prisoners, headed for New South Wales."
Nicola wasn't about to allow Ramsey to be hauled halfway across the world. "Now, now, let's not be hasty. It is I who tend to be rather rash, I'm afraid."
"I won't argue with you there."
The disapproval in his tone caused her to stiffen. "I hope to appeal to the goodness in your heart."
"You assume much if you think there is any."
She glanced at him and her stomach clenched. Although his expression was calm, his eyes gleamed with an intense coldness that was hard to miss. "Miracles do happen. Why, I heard just the other day that Widow Wilkinson grew new hair on her head after being bald for fifteen years."
"It's not my physical attributes that should worry you."
"No? You are quite large and intimidating."
"Then my size is what makes you quake."
She was shocked to discover she was shaking, causing the torn stocking to quiver where they fell around her ankles, which irritated her to no end. How dare this arrogant aristocrat rattle her so? "Perhaps you would be less intimidating if I cut your hair, as Delilah did to Samson."
His lips curved into a mocking smile. "No, Miss Moore. You would do best to carve out my heart."
"I am called the Black Falcon, you know."
"I rarely listen to such rubbish." She drew a deep breath and dove off an imaginary bluff, hoping her cloak would catch enough wind to slow her downward flight—she was about to take a monstrous chance. "Don't blame my cousin. It was I who came here with plans to destroy your property," she prevaricated, almost certain he wouldn't prosecute her though she knew he would condemn Ramsey.
Falcon raised his brows. "A hoyden who destroys other people's property, including my newest loom and my own invention?" He glanced at the splintered bar on the nearby machine.
Regret burned like acid in Nicola's stomach. "I know, I behaved poorly and I feel absolutely wretched about it, believe me. But my reasons were good. Stockingers' families are starving because the hosiers pay such low wages these days."
"So you damage the hosiers' looms?"
"I hope I didn't ruin the equipment. After the first swing, I realized my actions were wrong."
He examined the cracked oak. "For such a slender woman, you were able to cause considerable damage." His gaze returned to hers and her stomach dropped into her feet.
"I hit the frame several times."
He ran long broad fingers over the marred surface. Then his gaze bore into her soul. "No, I feel only one gash. The damage was done by someone much brawnier than you."
"You underestimate me. I'm quite strong."
"Not strong enough. The culprit was your cousin."
She took refuge in high dudgeon. "How dare you, sir? Ramsey would never do such a common thing as destroy property."
"But you would? Do such a common thing, that is."
He thought her a ninny, a fool. She jutted out her chin to show she meant business. "Yes, I would. And did." She frowned as he continued to stare at her. "But Ramsey wouldn't act so rashly. He is a scholar, after all."
"Being a student exempts him as a suspect? Interesting."
His mocking tone was enough to make her grit her teeth. "He's studying law, milord," she responded proudly. "He knows the value of property and the penalties for such destruction."
"Then he isn't very smart to take such risks."
"I keep telling you, I'm the one who took the gamble, not him."
"If he didn't do it, then why was he slipping out the window, hmm?"
"I saw him."
"Of-of course you did. He wanted to stop me from my foolishness," she replied, stubborn determination and fear for Ramsey stiffening her spine.
"So hehad to run after his hooligan of a cousin—is that what you claim?"
"Yes. It's what I claim and it's the truth. But I assure you, I will never act in so rash a manner again."
Falcon considered, and her spirits ebbed. There was a hard, somber quality to him that spoke of too much experience and too much knowledge. "Ramsey Diderot is the instigator and nobody will contradict me."
"They would if Ramsey isn't here."
"My riders and I spotted him. They set chase. With any luck, they have captured him by now."
"They are wasting time. You already have your culprit." Outside, the sound of motorized cycles rumbled through the night and sent ripples of alarm through her.
"Get your hands off me, you big ape!" The voice was muffled, but there was no mistaking who shouted. Ramsey.
A smile curved Falcon's lips. "You might as well relent, Miss Moore. Your cousin is caught red-handed."
She refused to give up. "This night's catastrophe had nothing to do with Ramsey, I tell you."
"He has a reputation as a hothead who acts first and thinks later. The earlier incident with the merchant proves that. Only a few moments ago, we saw him making his escape—and in doing so, leaving you behind to take the blame for his actions. No one will dispute the fact that he's the guilty party."
No one would dispute him,he meant, and she feared he was right.
Falconwood was a powerful man. People might gossip behind his back, but none would dispute his version of events—particularly when it was accurate.
Someone cleared his throat, startling Nicola. She turned to see a man in the doorway who was constructed like the side of the Pavilion in London. His dark-skinned face glistened in the yellow lamplight. An assurance emanated from him, and she feared the worst was in store for Ramsey.
"My lord, we have captured the rascal." His speech held a foreign accent.
"Of course, Gaspar, I knew you would."
Outside, Ramsey let out a yell. The sound resonated through the walls of the workroom. "Long live the Luddites!"
Lightning seemed to lance through the rafters and strike Nicola where she stood.
The gleam of triumph in Falcon's eyes caused her insides to flop like fish in a net. His lips curled with satisfaction as he returned his attention to his servant. "I assume you have him strapped to the special loom in my office?"
The servant stared at his master for a split second longer than Nicola would have deemed wise for the foreigner, with a look that seemed almost—admonishing? "Yes, milord."
"Do not begin his beating until I have given the word."
"Beating?" Nicola's heart froze in her chest. Gaspar's hefty arms oozed strength, and Ramsey... she loved him dearly, but he was no match for the foreigner. There was no way he could endure a beating from the giant. "No, please," she cried. "That's barbaric! You can't—Ramsey did nothing wrong!"
Falcon's face was carved from granite. "You may go, Gaspar."
With a stiff bow, the servant left.
Nicola clasped her palms together in panicked supplication. "I beg you, do not pummel him, milord."
"If he continues with that infernal yelling, no amount of feminine wiles can stop me."
Feminine wiles? She didn't know whether to be amused or insulted by his words. At least he'd noticed she was a woman—more than she could say of many men of her acquaintance. But did he actually think her capable of exercising feminine wiles, or was he making jest of her plainness?
She wished she could stop the tremble in her voice as easily as the one in her hands. "Wh-what are you going to-to do?"
"After his beating?" He shrugged. "Deport him."
A lump lodged in her throat. What could she do to prevent such devastating punishment? Not only would Ramsey be ruined, she feared her father would die of sorrow. She ran her hand desperately over her indispensable, trying to feel the little Callers, but could detect nothing tangible. "What now?" she whispered to them. "I need you."
Silence rolled over her like a heavy mist.
"You need me?"
She wasn't sure whether that was amazement or amusement coloring his voice, but she had no doubt embarrassment was coloring her cheeks. "Ah... mmm... that is, I need you to release Ramsey and forget this whole episode."
He continued to look at her, rubbing his chin as if she were a strange puzzle he was trying to solve. "Tell me, do you always talk to yourself?"
"Not until tonight," she muttered, and then threw him a look of appeal. "Please, don't be harsh on Ramsey. He's a young man with noble ideals to save the stockingers, as misdirected as his deeds may be. Surely you were young and reckless at one time."
"We are not discussing my deeds, but your cousin's. He is a born criminal."
"No, he isn't. You are too austere in your judgment."
He held up the axe and ran a finger along the blade's sharp edge. "I should have your cousin deported."
"But surely you can see that is too extreme." She stepped toward him and grasped the edge of his greatcoat. "Can't you think of something less severe? Perhaps he could do chores without wages, such as bookkeeping."
"After his attempt to destroy my property?" Falconwood's dark brows beetled with his scowl. "That machinery took years to develop."
"I'm pleading with you, don't be too harsh. He's from a good family. I think your apprehension and keeping him overnight in your offices will be enough to cure him of his wayward actions."
"I do not agree." He glanced at her fingers, and she realized she still clutched his greatcoat.
Self-consciously, she released him and rubbed her damp palms along her skirt. "Then perhaps have him do something loathsome. Why, he could muck out your stables for as long as you believe is appropriate. That would have a lasting effect on any young man who has not experienced such dreadful duty."
"I'm not convinced."
"He could... labor in one of your mills. A young man accustomed to leisure would repent doing work like that."
"I would rather see him deported."
A load of bricks seemed to land on her. She extended one hand in a last supplicating gesture. "I'm certain we can come to a more appealing agreement, one that would satisfy your need for justice without such catastrophic consequences."
Falconwood leaned against the table, crossing one ankle over the other, and regarded her with his slate-colored gaze. "As a matter of fact," he said in a languid drawl, "there is something I find more appealing. Or, more precisely, someone."
His gaze sent shivers of dread skittering down Nicola's spine. There was no need for panic, she assured herself. He couldn't possibly mean—He could never want—She was simply overreacting. After all, he was the Earl of Falconwood, and she—she was plain Nicola Moore, an upstart who used to be a stockinger's daughter who now claimed to be middle class. Now at twenty-three, she was a tomboy with an uncouth manner and a propensity of getting her hands dirty. No, he couldn't conceivably want anything from her.
She drew a deep breath, and then forced a casual note into her voice. "And who would that be?"
That deep breath disappeared, leaving her lungs tight. "I-I beg your pardon?"
"You heard me. I want you. If you refuse, I will see that your cousin is deported to the far reaches of New South Wales."
"You mean, as in you and me? Together? I mean, you want me to-to..." she asked, her voice squeaking so badly she couldn't finish the sentence.
He pinned her with his gaze. "Allow me to be more precise, Miss Moore. I want you to be my wife."