Thanks for doing the steampunk writing month, Cyn and Gail. Steampunk is such a cool genre and loads of fun to write. I'll definitely be checking out your book once I've finished editing my latest ms as there just doesn't seem to be enough steampunk romance around to satisfy my hunger.
So here's my pages for this week's assignment. I hope it's not cheating to use my own book for this. This piece is taken from chapter 1 of The Adventures of Miss Upton and the Sky Pirate. I'm interested to know what you think.
For someone with Matilda Upton’s unique talent, finding England’s most infamous sky pirate had been easy. Catching him, however, was proving more of a challenge. Black Jack Knight darted like a cat through the deep shadows of the taverns and brothels crammed as close to London's old docks as possible. For a tall man he was surprisingly nimble. Tilda and her aunt struggled to maintain the same swift pace.
“Curses,” muttered Aunt Winifred between bosom-heaving breaths. She stamped the point of her closed parasol on the flagstones. “We lost him.”
Tilda could think of more appropriate words than “curses”, most of which she’d overheard earlier while waiting for Knight outside The Noose tavern, but she refrained from using them in her aunt’s presence. Instead, she rubbed the pocket chronometer clenched in her fist. The brass felt smooth against her thumb and the gears whirred to life where moments before they had been silent. The case grew steadily warmer until it branded her skin, but Tilda didn’t let it go. If she did, the connection linking object to owner would be severed and the best chance she had of finding the one man able to help her would be lost. Like a mist consumed by morning sunshine, the way to Knight suddenly cleared and she moved off down the damp, narrow lane, signaling her aunt to follow.
Tilda signed for silence and Winnie obeyed, although with much reluctance and a lot of tongue biting on her aunt’s part Tilda suspected.
Her senses, taut as a stretched rope, directed her to the pirate. Where a wolfhound used smell to seek out its prey, Tilda used something less tangible but just as accurate to locate Black Jack.
He had stopped around the corner. He waited.
She turned into the street and as she did so one of the dirigibles hovering overhead moved, plunging them into near darkness. The light was bad enough in a city choking to death on its own soot but the old docks area was a notoriously dingy place with the hulls of the airships always blocking what little sunshine managed to pierce through the gray miasma.
Even though she knew exactly where he stood, backed into a recessed doorway nearby, Tilda’s heart, already tripping over itself like a child learning to walk, lurched when he jumped out in front of them. Much less prepared, Aunt Winnie screeched.
Black Jack Knight, silent and quick, clamped his hand over the wide open mouth. Winifred’s wild eyes, round with fear, appealed to her niece.
Tilda swallowed and shifted her gaze to the man she had decided two weeks ago to seek. He towered above her and his broad shoulders stretched the stitching of his black leather coat. He possessed an imposing silhouette, but she had waited impatiently for his return to English airspace and wasn’t about to be frightened away now. They were, after all, in full public view. Although the public in the old docks area seemed as foul and slippery as the lane in which they found themselves. Adding credence to her thoughts, miserable faces turned away without offering assistance.
Squaring her shoulders, Tilda gave her full attention to the pirate. The first thing she noticed was that his name was inappropriate. Captain Black Jack Knight had hair the color of sand and eyes as blue as the sapphire set into the ring on his little finger. Unlike most people of that coloring, his skin was tanned a golden honey from the warmer regions where he reportedly committed most of his crimes. He was also distractingly handsome. His lips were wide and full but not thick, his nose was straight, his cheeks defined without being sharp and his brow untroubled with lines. But more than the sum of his features, he had a presence about him, an aura that pulled Tilda in so that she found it difficult not to stare at him.
“Well, well,” he said cheerfully. “It seems you have caught me.” His arm flexed as Aunt Winnie tried to speak beneath his hand. “Or have I caught you?”
“Let her go,” Tilda said. “Please,” she added as an afterthought.
“Please? Such manners.” His blue gaze took in her tight bodice, gold and pearl drop earrings and matching necklace. Tilda willed herself to be still under his bald scrutiny. “You are a long way from home, Little Chick. Or do London’s whores dress like ladies now?” A smile flicked the corners of his lips but vanished when Aunt Winnie bit him. “Ouch!”
He let go and she bustled to Tilda’s side. Belatedly remembering that she was the chaperone and her niece the virginal lady of only twenty-four tender years, Winnie pushed Tilda behind her broad skirts and tossed her head. “We are not whores!”
Inspecting his bitten hand as if checking a bucket for holes, he said, “In your case, Madam, there was never any doubt. But to the young lady, I humbly apologize for the mistake.”
Winnie frowned. Before she could realize he hadn’t paid her a compliment, Tilda moved out from behind her aunt. “And I apologize for following you, Black Ja...Lord...ahem...Captain. But if you had stopped when you first heard our approach, this cat and mouse game would not have been necessary.”
“Ah, but it was fun.” He flashed a brilliant grin that Tilda didn’t trust. “Now, who are you and what do you want?” The sudden change in his voice, one moment playful, the next as cold and sharp as the hidden dagger strapped to her forearm, sent a chill through her despite the oppressive thickness of the laneway’s air.
“My name is Matilda Upton and I have a proposition for you.”
“Really? How intriguing.” He gave a shallow bow. “I am propositioned by beautiful ladies every day but none of them are quite so...determined as you.”
She blushed then silently cursed the pale complexion that made it obvious. “Oh. When I said proposition, I meant...my aunt and I would like to employ you, Captain, in a venture rather risky in nature.”
“My favorite kind. But my services are not for sale.”
“You haven’t heard my offer yet!”
“I don’t need to. I have enough copper.” He strode off and did not look back.
“I’m not offering copper,” she said quickly. “I’m offering redemption.”
He stopped and for one long moment, didn’t move. Then slowly he walked back to her. “Redemption?”
Tilda’s skin tingled with excitement. She had him. When she’d first made her enquiries about this man, she’d guessed he couldn’t be lured by copper or material objects so she’d looked for other means. It seemed her instincts had been correct. “A chance to clear your name. Of your original crime,” she added, in case he assumed she meant all his subsequent pirating. She was no miracle worker.
Knight said nothing. The light summer breeze carried the sounds of the new docks both above and at ground level—the hammering of iron nails, the clank of chains as cargoes were loaded and unloaded, the whistle of the steam engines as ships jostled for space above. In the lane where they stood motionless, a baby mewled and a door banged. Dirty faces in the shadows pretended not to watch the strangers. Tilda pretended not to notice them. Thankfully they were out of earshot. No one must overhear their conversation.
Eventually Knight spoke. “For a guilty man, that kind of redemption is impossible.” His blue gaze challenged hers.
“You don’t believe you’re guilty.”
“I know I’m not,” he said, too mildly for a man who would be locked up in Newgate if the constables discovered him and hung if convicted by a jury. “But do you?”
Beside Tilda, Aunt Winnie drew a sharp breath. “That,” said Tilda, “is irrelevant for my purpose.”
“And what is your purpose, Chick?”
“Her name is Miss Upton,” said Aunt Winnie from behind the lacy handkerchief she held to her nose. “A gentleman would call her such.”
He laughed. “I’m no gentleman, Madam.”
“You were,” said Tilda. “Once.”
“I repeat,” he said as if he hadn’t heard her, “what is your purpose with me?”
“I want you to find a ship,” she said, “and capture its treasure.”
“Which ship? What treasure?”
“The Adrienne. It carries an object I wish to obtain. That’s all you need to know.”
“No, it isn’t. What object? Gold? Jewels? Information?”
Perhaps it was only fair that he knew the reason he would be risking his life. Although not the entire reason. Not yet. Not until he had agreed. “A man. He’s traveling from the Orient to the king of France. The airship is equipped with cannon and a brigade of gendarmes. He won’t be easy to capture.”
“What is so special about this man that requires the French king to send some of his own personal bodyguard to protect him?” He stepped closer and his hard blue eyes swept over her, their iciness pinning her to the spot. She shivered but met his gaze when it finally returned to her face. “And why, Miss Upton,” he continued, “do you want him badly enough to risk your reputation and your neck to follow the likes of me through the bowels of London?”