Weatherby followed Helena as she ran down the stairs. Her cousin was close on her heels and seeing their blonde curls from behind, there was no doubt that they were related. Beads of sweat coated his back and he could barely catch his breath.
George appeared at his elbow. "Are you all right?"
"I hardly know. Why do you ask?"
"Because I have never seen you so pale."
"It is just that I am about to meet Lord Worthen. The Lord Worthen. I'm not sure if I'm more nervous that the man is Helena's father or that he is a brilliant automaton creator"
They turned the last round of stairs into the awful rose filled foyer. Helena’s foster mother, Mrs. Mohabir, directed the footmen and Mr. Mohabir, who were just carrying a wheeled chair up the stairs to the front door. Bundled in a blanket, sat an old and horribly burned man. Weatherby stopped, in shock. She had told him, but he had not realized the extent of the injuries. His face was like melted wax, one eye gone entirely, and the other a haze of white.
Mr. Mohabir took charge of the chair and wheeled it into the center of the chamber, just as Helena reached the foot of the stairs. At the chair, she dropped to her knees and embraced her father. His arms lifted out of the blanket and wrapped around her.
"Helena?" He bent and kissed her head. "I am grateful for the surprise, but you must tell me where we are."
"Home." Her voice was choked. "We're at home."
His head lifted sharply and turned as though he might see something. Weatherby clenched his fist on the banister at the naked wonder on the man's face.
"No." The younger Lord Worthen stepped forward as upright as the older man was bent. "But I am very curious to meet you."
The old man tilted his head to the side. "The pleasure is mine, but I am afraid I shall need some help with the introductions."
"I am Andrew Worthen."
Lord Worthen laughed with delight. "You sound like a young man now, which I suppose you must be. Do you still have the windup horse I gave you?"
The young man put his hand to his mouth and stepped forward. "I played with it until it broke, I'm afraid."
From the top of the stairs, Lady Worthen said, "This— this stranger is trying to swindle you out of your inheritance."
“But Mother, I will inherit the title regardless and as I am not yet of age, that seems no great thing. All that would alter is— ah.” He looked deeply saddened. “The only thing that would alter is that you would not have control of the finances.”
“Andrew! Do not be a fool. You do not know these people.”
"I am not a fool, mother." He lifted his chin to look up the stairs at his mother. "That is how I can tell that this is my uncle. And my cousin. We have done them a great wrong."
Helena collapsed to sit on the floor, sobbing.
Weatherby could stand it no more and raced down the stairs two at a time. He dropped to his knees at her side and pressed a handkerchief into her hand.
She took it and pressed it against her eyes. Her father reached out, trying to find her, but Helena was just beyond his grasp. Weatherby looked up and met Mr. Mohabir's gaze. Her foster father pushed Lord Worthen closer until his hand brushed her hair.
Weatherby wiped his mouth. This was not his moment. This was a time for Helena and her father and her foster parents. They had done what they came to do, even if not quite in the way they had planned, and he could talk to Lord Worthen later. He pressed his hand against Helena's shoulder in reassurance and stood.
"Wait--" She grasped his hand and Weatherby's knees went weak. "Papa? My I present Lord Blackledge? He has-- he has been very helpful."
What had she been about to say? Weatherby bowed to Lord Worthen. "A pleasure, sir."
The old man tilted his head up, a smile twisting his face. "Any one who is kind to my daughter is already a friend."
He wished very much to be more than a friend and had to bite his lip to keep himself from saying that aloud. "I have been an admirer of your work for some time."
Helena wilted a little. What-- what was he supposed to have said?
George appeared at his elbow with a sheet of paper. "Lord Blackledge. I think you dropped this."
"What?" He took a folded paper that George handed him and his mouth dropped open. Oh. That was what he was supposed to have said to Lord Worthen. "I... Ah. Yes. That is, thank you, Mr. Corke."
With a winning smile, George offered Helena a hand and pulled her to her feet. "He really can't be left to his own devices. Just so you know."
"What is it?"
Weatherby swallowed and stiffened his knees. "It is a Special License. Lord Worthen... what I should have said is that I admire your work, the chief of which is your daughter."
Lord Worthen gave a laugh that was rich and joyous. "That is the truest thing anyone has ever said."
Weatherby faced Helena, trying to pretend that they did not have an audience for this moment. Although two members of that audience were every bit as important as Lord Worthen. He looked to Mr and Mrs Mohabir, who both looked ready to cry. His words might be for Helena’s foster parents and Lord Worthen, but the question was truly for her. "May I ask for her hand in marriage?"
"Is that what you want, my dear?" Lord Worthen reached for Helena's hand.
She took it, tears staining her cheeks, and nodded, then spoke so he would know her answer. "Yes, Papa.
"Then you both have my blessing." He laughed again. "A special license for marriage, eh? No waiting to for the banns to be read. I did the same thing with my late wife. Do not let her get away, young man."
“I shall not let.” Weatherby smiled at Helena, who wore the breeches that had been her costume when they first met. He had never seen a more lovely sight. Well… perhaps he had, but that was not a safe thought with her father here. “Believe me, sir. I shall not."
Helena climbed into the carriage, nearly tripping on the hem of her gown. She was married. They were married. The carriage rocked, as Weatherby climbed in after her and settled at her side. He looked quite as dazed as she felt.
"Lady Blackledge!" Mama Agnes stood outside the carriage, with a small bundle in her hands. Behind her Helena’s cousin, Andrew Worthen, had offered Weatherby’s mother his arm. Her aunt had found it necessary to “retreat” to the continent, but her cousin had been delighted to see them restored.
Helena blinked at her foster mother for a moment before recalling that she was now Lady Blackledge. Good heavens. She was a duchess. "Yes, Mama Agnes?"
Her foster mother handed the parcel to her. "I thought you might want this."
It was wrapped in cloth and tied with a green ribbon. She reached for the bow to undo it.
"Wait-- Not until the carriage leaves." She glanced over her shoulder where Papa Fred pushed Helena's father down the path of the church. "I didn't want your fathers to see it."
Helena tilted her head. "How curious."
"Consider it my blessing on your marriage." Mama Agnes leaned forward to kiss her on the cheek. While she was close, she whispered. "I have never been so happy to be wrong in all my days."
"Thank you. For everything."
With a quick squeeze of Helena's hand, she stepped back and shut the carriage door. "Now! I'll take your fathers home and we shall have quite the cozy evening with young Mr. Worthen."
Helena waved out the window as the carriage pulled away from the church. "Good bye, Papa!"
Weatherby's hand rested on her back, a warm comforting presence. Helena leaned back from the window and settled into the comfort of his arm. "Shall we see what Mama Agnes has given us?"
"Given to you, I think more likely."
"Well, she did say it was a blessing for our marriage." Helena pulled the ribbon loose from the package and unwrapped the cloth. Inside were a pair of long leather straps that they used in the show. Helena stared at them for a moment and then began to laugh. "Oh... Oh, she must like you a good deal."
"I might need some explanation." Weatherby picked up one of the straps and rubbed it between his fingers.
"Well..." Helena reached for the window shades and drew them down. "We are acrobats."
"Yes. I know."
She reached for the shades on the other side and pulled them down as well. "Mama Agnes and Papa Fred had an act. A very particular act. One that I was never allowed to participate in."
He made a strangled noise and turned a delightful shade of red. Helena picked up one of the straps and wrapped it around her husband's wrist. "Now... Shall we reconsider your escapement?"
Helena scratched her nose with her big toe and waited for the footmen and the butler to depart. By comparison to the box she fit into for the circus, this was quite spacious, although somewhat awkwardly shaped. Weatherby had proposed removing all the mechanics, but she had been able to fit between them and the driving engine.
“Will we be able to watch, Mr. Abercrombie?”
“I should think not.” He sniffed. “The room will be quite crowded enough without the staff pestering her ladyship.”
“Why’ve they got to come in here?” the other footman asked.
“Because it is where the 5th Baron of Worthen, rest his soul, stored his automaton and her ladyship has never moved them.” He sniffed again as they reached the doorway. “Though I confess surprise that she has not simply sold them.”
“Why is—” The door cut off his final question and left the room in complete darkness.
Helena counted to twenty and then pulled on the latch that Weatherby had installed inside the case since it had not originally been designed to have anyone inside it. The side of the mechanics housing fell open and she stretched her arm out into the room. By careful measures, she worked her way out of the case, unwinding her legs from the gears until she was able to wriggle out of the opening onto the cold, bare floor. She felt back inside the case for the lantern and matches that Weatherby had secured for her.
The match flared, illuminating the space around her, but Helena did not look up until she had the lantern safely lit. Shelves lined the walls behind them and on some, smaller of her father’s creations waited to be wound. But her attention was caught by the cluster of cloth draped pedestals that marched in two rows down the center of the vault.
She went to the nearest and set her hand on the cloth. How different would they be from her childhood memories? Helena slid the cloth off and then let it drop to the ground. “Oh… Papa.”
Beneath the cloth, a stag made of silver, with golden horns stood with his head raised, ears pointed forward. At his feet a stream of glass rods waited to trickle with the turn of a key. Flowers rendered with wire and hammered sheets of copper stood by the stream. The silver had tarnished to nearly black but the golden horns remained as vibrant as her memories.
The automatons used to stand in the gallery overlooking the courtyard. She and Papa would come into the gallery and try to wind them all. It was a race from one end of the long hall to the other, winding mechanisms as each wound down.
Helena wiped the back of her hand across her eyes. No time for that. She had a mission. Pulling out her supplies from the case, she tried to keep her mind on business. She carried the lantern down the rows of silent figures, unveiling The Skating Couple, The Mathematician, The Playful Pup, until she came to the Painting Lady.
Someone had taken care of the figures, at least as far as dusting them. The porcelain figure’s skin was warmed by the lantern and her silver ink pot gleamed in the light. Helena tipped the cover back and poured the ink she had brought with her. From the small satchel she pulled out a sheet of paper and placed it on the Painting Lady’s easel. Kneeling, she set the lantern on the ground next to her and opened the base of the mechanism. Inside the door, were five slots for punched tin discs. The sixth was inside, ready to guide the Painting Lady’s quill. She pulled it out and held it close to the lantern. Swans, swimming.
Nodding, she pulled out the other discs one by one, setting aside The Tower of London and Toby until she found Mother and Child. Biting the inside of her lip, she placed the disc in its place, shut the door, and stood. Please let the mechanism work. She wound the crank in the side of the case, turning until she felt the mainspring tighten. Please. She released the [term] and gears within the Painting Lady began to turn.
Helena knit her hands together and watched as her childhood sprang to life. The Painting Lady turned her head to look at the ink pot and leaned forward to dip her quill. She wiped it on the edge of the pot, and with smooth precision laid a line down on the paper. Her gears were louder than Helena had recalled, but that was hardly surprising considering how long she had been sitting. Or had her aunt brought guests in to look at the oddities?
Toby had been Helena’s favorite as a child. It had been a drawing of a puppy playing with a ball and she had asked her father to have the Painting Lady draw it over and over. This, though… This was the key to her inheritance. She hoped.
The door to the vault opened.
Helena dropped to her knees, spinning to hide behind the pillar of the Painting Lady. She snatched the lantern, snuffing it as she pulled it behind the pillar.
Weatherby’s voice outside did nothing to obscure the sound of the Painting Lady at work.“I must insist on doing my preparations without observation.”
“But we are so curious.” Her aunt’s voice sent chattering teeth up and down Helena’s spine. “My dear late husband’s brother was such an eccent— What is that sound?”
“It is likely the mechanism on— Oh my God. The Silver Stag. I’ve— I’ve seen illustrations and read about it but…my God it is beautiful.”
From the sounds, other people had followed Weatherby besides her aunt. The murmurs of delight unwrapped a memory of a party when she was very small. She had shown her cousin The Playful Pup and he had spent the entire night watching it.
“Why are all the cloths on the floor? Abercrombie! What is the meaning of this?”
“My lady… I am not certain.”
“Mama! Look. One of them is moving.” A young man laughed with delight, his footsteps coming closer. Helena felt the pedestal, looking for a way into the mechanism. They were going to find her. If she knew more than a child’s worth of glamour, perhaps Helena could have hidden herself, but as it was she had only a shadow to hide in.
“Lord Worthen.” Weatherby jogged after him. “Be careful. Sometimes these old clockworks can start up when jarred.”
And suddenly, Weatherby was standing by the pedestal, his legs and tailcoat offering slightly more shielding for her. He had worn breeches with stockings that revealed beautifully shaped calves.
“Mama! Come see. I remember this. It used to draw the cleverest dog but… I say. Who are this?”
Helena drew breath to speak, but Weatherby put his hand on her head and pushed down. “Is it a self portrait?”
“I think… I think so. The figure looks remarkably like my aunt Miriam.”
Sharp footsteps sounded and then Helena’s aunt said, “This figure was to be left alone” She stepped around Weatherby, reaching for the cloth on the floor and saw Helena . “You.”
She had hoped for more time for the Painting Lady to finish, but the figure was still going through its motions. She needed to buy time for it to finish. Helena rose to her feet. “Hello, Aunt Paulina.”
“Abercrombie! Remove this thief, at once.”
“Yes, my lady.” He reached for her, but his hand closed on empty air as Helena bent backwards.
Helena continued the backwards bend into a walkover. When she straightened, the butler was staring at her with a rather stupid expression. The vault had become quite crowded. In addition to Weatherby, Aunt Paulina and cousin Andrew, other guests had followed them. This was not what she and Weatherby had planned, but there was no stopping now.
She faced the assembled crowd. “I am Helena Worthen, daughter of James, Lord Worthen who made these automaton.”
Aunt Paulina sniffed and snapped her fingers at her butler. “She is a shyster. My niece died tragically in a fire.”
“I am quite alive.”
“Take this opportunist out of here.”
The butler closed on her, but Weatherby stepped between them. “I cannot help but note that Miss Worthen has more than a passing resemblance to the Painting Lady.”
“An interesting coincidence, to be certain, but blonde curls do not make one a Worthen.”
“No one would argue that. There’s a circus performer with blonde curls, but no one would mistake her for Miss Worthen.” Weatherby’s friend, Mr. Corke — that clever man — stood beside the painting lady, with his head bent in a frown. “However looking like a portrait is decidedly more compelling.”
On the easel, the Painting Lady had continued to draw a mother and child. Even rendered in black and white, the abundance of curls seemed to glow. Helena’s mother had worn her hair like a halo.
“That could be anyone.”
The Painting Lady dipped her pen once more and then beneath the drawing wrote, “Helena and Miriam.”
Mr. Corke cocked his head and looked from the drawing to Helena and back again. “You are… Miriam?”
“Helena. Miriam was my mother.”
“You are the spitting image of her.”
Her aunt snatched the cloth off the ground. “This is a travesty. Clearly she has altered the thing in order to make a claim on my household.”
“No.” Weatherby’s voice was cold and his hands flexed at his side. “I assure you, that is not possible.”
Cousin Andrew shook his head. “Come now, if you were my cousin Helena — and I’ll grant that there is a resemblance — then why wait so long to come forward?”
“I came when I was ten and asked for help. I had a drawing from the painting lady and she burned it as I was watching. She sent me to a poor house.” Helena turned to her cousin and spread her hands out in entreaty. “I know I promised not to tell but… Do you still have the Wind-up Dog’s bone?”
His jaw dropped. “I… Yes. In fact.” He ran his hand through his hair and turned to his mother. “I had wondered why there were no portraits of my uncle’s family anywhere in the house, though I remember them from when I was a child.”
“She… This is…” Aunt Paulina sputtered and then put her hand to her head and fainted. Or, rather pretended to faint. She slumped down toward the butler, but he stepped back and let her hit the floor. She moaned.
Helena turned her back on her aunt so she didn’t walk over and kick the woman.
Weatherby cleared his throat. “George?”
His friend started. “Oh! Yes. Yes, he’s downstairs in my carriage.”
“Who?” Cousin Andrew raised his brows rather comically. “Someone else back from the grave?”
“In fact…” Weatherby gave a little smile. “Your uncle, Lord Worthen.”
As the footmen at the Worthen estate lowered his case from the carriage, Weatherby winced, though not as much, he suspected as Helena was. “Careful. That is a very delicate mechanism and I’ve only just restored it.”
“Very good, my lord.” The butler for the estate gestured the footmen inside with a meaningful glance.
“I will see it settled, if you don’t mind.” Weatherby followed the footmen, not caring a whit how eccentric it made him appear. And rude, for that matter, to not trust the servants of a noble house.
The butler paused just long enough to show his opinion but not long enough for it to be something that he could be called out on. “Very good, my lord.”
Weatherby followed the footmen inside, clenching his walking stick so that he would not try to take one end of the case from them. The grand entry rose two floors above them and was covered with a ornate glamural of climbing vines. The constant movement of the leaves and petals seemed more appropriate for eels than anything else.
Out of one of the rooms to the right, came an older woman attired in a purple gown of some sort and a young man with hair as blonde and full of curls as Helena’s. The woman said, “My lord Blackledge, what a great honor.”
“Lady Worthen, I presume.” He stopped from necessity, watching the case as the footmen carried it upstairs.
“May I present my son, Lord Worthen?”
“How do you do?” The case got farther away as he was forced into the niceties of polite society. He could observe the forms without much thought, which was fortunate in this case as the young man’s blond curls were so strikingly like Helena’s that he did not see how anyone could view the two of them and not see the relation. To be sure, the young Baron got his eyes from his mother, and his nose, but his brows and the general shape of his face were strikingly like his cousin’s. Weatherby glanced up the stairs, hoping she was all right. “Thank you for allowing me to examine your collection.”
“But of course.” Lady Worthen spoke for her son. “My late brother-in-law was devoted to the craft.
“They are monstrously clever.” Young Lord Worthen shifted his weight. “I wish we could keep them out.”
“But they are so fragile, John. We should have no idea how to repair one, not like glamour.” She gestured around the vines with a smile.
“Your own work?” The case was halfway up the stairs, but if he had any hope of pretending that this was a regular visit then he had to play the part of the nobleman. God, he wished that George were here. He was ever so much better at this sort of thing.
“Indeed.” She preened and lifted her chin. “I think it would be difficult with automaton.”
“I should not make the attempt, no.” He glanced up the stairs once more. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I should like to make certain the case is settled before—”
“Oh, my men will see to it. Come—” She came forward and captured his arm. “The other guests have arrived and my niece has been dying to see you again.”
Her niece? Weatherby's thoughts tripped over themselves and he could not arrange his words in any sort of order for his tongue. Her niece was currently upstairs in the mechanism case of an automaton. Unless Helena were not her niece, in which case he was a fool and helping a robber. Or no-- wait. He was being over-hasty as it was entirely possible for someone to have more than one niece. But then, too... She wished to see him "again" and he had not the faintest notion of who she was.
In a befuddlement, Weatherby let himself be led into the drawing room. A small collection of gentlemen and ladies glittered in the candlelit room.
George stood next to the fireplace, talking with a young lady. He touched her arm and nodded toward the door, smiling. She glanced over her shoulder and flushed. Weatherby had met her before be could not for the life of himself recall where.
His efforts to recall, or to settle his mind in any way, were interrupted by Lady Worthen, who nudged her son with an elbow. He stepped forward, clearing his throat though his voice still cracked upon the first word. "Friends, our guest of honour has arrived, the Duke of Blackledge."
As they arose, Weatherby shot a desperate glance to George. His friend was merely smirking behind his glass, which was hardly surprising as he had been trying to convince Weatherby to do some sort of exhibition for years. Still, if not for that, Weatherby would not have had the idea to try to arrange something at Lady Worthen's. And if not for George, he would have had no means of making the arrangements. For all that the Duke of Blackledge outranked the Honorable Mr. George Corke, the latter had more social capital than the former.
He managed to mumble something about being charmed to meet them all. He thought. It might have been more along the lines of wishing for a drink. He found himself still standing beside Lady Worthen and a cup of punch had somehow materialized in his hand.
Clearing his throat, Weatherby lifted his glass. "Thank you for hosting this evening. If we are not to disappoint your guests, I should really prepare the automaton."
"Of course, but first you must meet my niece." Again, she took him by the arm and steered him across the room toward (Thank God) George.
The young lady he was speaking with wore a green dress and had overlarge eyes -- no, she was merely staring at him. Where had he seen her before? She sank into a curtsy and his memory finally coughed up the where if not the who.
"You wore blue before," he blurted and then winced. "At my birthday. And chided me for having no balls."
George choked on his drink.
Miss Blu-- Miss Green Dress patted him on his back, as he coughed and sputtered. "Oh dear! Oh, dear, dear!"
Wiping is streaming eyes, George shook his head. "Quite all right. I was just surprised because I'm also always complaining that Lord Blackledge has no balls."
"There! See. We have ever so much in common." Miss Green Dress quit ministering to George and gave Weatherby another curtsy. "I told Aunt Sylvia that you wouldn't remember me at all, but I was ever so wrong. And to think! The Duke of Blackledge even remembers what I was wearing! From now on, I shall call it Lord Blackledge's Blue Ball gown."
Poor George had just taken another sip of his punch and now sprayed it out his nose.
"I'll fetch some... something." Weatherby set his cup on the mantel and bolted for the door. Was it cruel to use George as a distraction? Undoubtedly, yes, but if he left Helena alone upstairs any longer he would lose his mind.
In the entry hall, he spied a footman and approached him. “Can you take me to the vault? I should like to be certain my automaton has suffered no mishap.”
“Of course, my lord. If you will give me but a moment to fetch Mr. Abercrombie.”
“Ah.” Weatherby pinched the bridge of his nose. Of course. Only he and Lady Worthen had the key to the vault, which is why they needed to go to such lengths to get Helena inside. And if she were out of the case, as she surely must be by now, then taking anyone with him would only expose her before she had an opportunity to find the papers she needed. “I should not like to disturb him when he must be occupied with all the company. I shall go up closer to the time.”
Straightening his cravat, Weatherby faced the drawing room again. He could survive a half hour of conversation.
When the door to their apartment opened, Helena lowered the wash rag and spun from the partially cleaned window. Mama Agnes came through the door, eyed the bucket and snorted. “She’s cleaning.”
“So you terrified her.” Papa Fred came through the door, pulling his hat from his head. “That seems fair.”
“I am so sorry.” She twisted the damp rag and dropped it into the bucket at her feet. In an effort to seem more responsible, Helena had changed out of her burgling outfit into a simple blue round gown with a linen apron over it. “I can explain.”
“Oh yes. Yes, you can try to explain. I look forward to that attempt.” Mama Agnes pulled her bonnet off and hung it on the peg by the door. “You can start with where the hell you went last night.”
“I went to Mr. Corke’s house.”
Papa Fred narrowed his gaze at her. “Do you take me for a bleeding idiot?”
“N-no.” Helena wiped her palms on her apron. “But I did go there.”
“Now, see ‘ere’s the funny thing.” Papa Fred crossed his arms over his broad chest. “Because I saw Mr. Corke, quite by accident, and ‘e recognized me from the circus like. Knew who you were, too. Apparently, you danced with the Duke of Blackledge at the [name] ball. ‘E says the Duke’s besotted with you. That he’d hoped you would have come to the party since you were invited. So what I want to know is what else you lied to us about.”
Helena’s throat constricted more with each of Papa Fred’s statements. “I didn’t— I haven’t—” But she had. She’d told them that she hadn’t been able to get into the room at [name] house because the window was locked. “I didn’t want you to worry.”
“Well, see, now I am worried.” Of her foster parents, he had always been the gentle one. She had never seen his face tight with anger before. Papa Fred pointed to the hard chair by the table. “Sit.”
She swallowed and sat down, clenching her hands in her lap. What could she tell them that would reassure them and not make them angrier. “He— The Duke of Blackledge. He’s offered to help.”
“Help. Just like that.” Papa Fred leaned toward her. “And how is it that he had the opportunity and reason to make that offer?”
“At the ball. I didn’t rob the place because he was there and he recognized me.” She twisted the corner of her apron and tried not to think about what happened in the shrubbery. “I didn’t tell you because I knew you would worry.”
“You’re damn right I’m worried. What do you think you’re about gallavanting around after that? We should have left town.”
“See! This is exactly why I didn’t tell you.” Helena looked at the ceiling. “Nothing bad happened. And he’s going to build an arm for me. That’s where I was last night. After Mr. Corke’s we both went to his workshop.”
Mama Agnes narrowed her eyes and held her hand up to stop them both from speaking. “Fred. Step out a minute.”
He turned his head, but he must have seen the set of her jaw as clearly as Helena did, because his shoulders drooped and he turned toward the door. Mama Agnes waited until he was out of the room.
She stared at the floor between her and Helena and shook her head. “I’m going to ask this once, and so help me, if you tell me anything other than the truth I’ll turn you over my knee and never mind that you’re a grown woman.” She looked up. “Were you safe when you slept with him?”
Helena’s cheeks warmed and the fact that she was blushing made her think of Weatherby and the room heated. “Why do you think I—?” Mama Agnes leaned forward in her chair with her eyes narrowed, so Helena wet her lips and braced herself for a tongue-lashing. “Yes.”
With a sigh, Mama Agnes leaned forward and rested her forehead on her hands. “And that’s why he’s going to help.”
“N-no. That was before, I— we… He’s very kind.”
“Child…” Mama Agnes lifted her head and her eyes were wet. “Don’t. He’s not going to marry you. This isn’t a fairy tale. If you have to lead him by the balls to convince him, fine. Your body is a tool and use it as you need to, but for God’s sake— Don’t believe that a nobleman will love you.”
“But I’m—” Helena stopped and bit her lips. She was a noblewoman. Or rather, she had been born to nobility and for all that her name should be Lady Helena, she was a circus performer now. Somehow in the last day she had lost sight of the goal, which was to restore her father. And the simple fact was that, even after their fortunes were restored, Weatherby’s position would require him to marry a young woman of good reputation. Helena had abandoned all hope of maintaining that years ago. “Of course. I know that. But I still need that arm, so I’ll have to see him again.”
Mama Agnes drew in a heavy breath and shook her head. “Oh child…”
“I thought you said I was a grown woman.”
With a shrug, Mama Agnes waved her to the door. “Let Fred back inside. We have some planning to do.”
Helena paused, half out of her chair. “Planning?”
“If he’s really going to help, and we’re really going to go forward with the robbery, then we’re going to do it right.” She shook her head.
"And Lord have mercy on us all.”
When Helena dropped through the skylight, Weatherby was crouching in front of an elaborate box. His hair was in disarray and his shirt undone at the collar. He stood, turning with a smile of welcome that made her heart clench in her chest. If only Mama Agnes had seen that unguarded moment, she would know that Weatherby was not toying with Helena’s affections. She glanced up to the skylight, hoping that Mama Agnes had come into view but she was staying back, as promised.
Weatherby wiped his hands on the banyan robe he wore over his clothing and left a streak of grease down the side. “I’m so glad you’re here. It won’t work.”
“The mechanical hand. Or rather, it works perfectly, but it won’t do what you want it to do.”
She hopped off the table. “I am a little confused. It works perfectly and it won’t work, all at the same time.”
“I can make it extend and bend at the correct angle, but you won’t be able to see what you are picking up.” Weatherby rubbed the bridge of his nose. “You would have to feel for the keys, only the mechanical arm doesn’t have sensation. You’re likely to knock them off and— anyway. I’ve got another idea.”
This was not the visit she had planned, but here she was and there was no getting around it. Helena cleared her throat. "Before we continue... May I introduce you to my foster parents?"
Weatherby stared at her, brows drawn together as if she had spoken a language other than English. He blinked. "Yes? I mean... when should you like to bring them round?"
Shifting her weight, Helena looked up to the skylight. "They... they came with me."
"I see." He, too, looked at the skylight as though he could see into the darkness of the London night. "So this is not actually a request, is it."
"I can take them away." Helena wiped the sweat off her hands and onto her trousers. She had not wanted to bring them, but it had been the only way that they would agree to letting her meet Weatherby. "If it is not convenient."
"By all me-- Wait." Weatherby looked down at his shirt and reached for the collar to fasten it. "Give me a moment to make myself somewhat more presentable."
"Of course." It was a shame to see him hide away his beautiful collarbones, and the firm muscles of his forearms. "I am sorry I was unable to give you warning."
"What.... ah... what prompted this visit?"
He flushed red to the tips of his ears. When he spoke, his voice cracked. "Everything?"
"They are circus people and less easily shocked than society might be."
"Still." He picked up his cravat and wrapped it around his throat in an efficient and inelegant knot. "Still... that is not a conversation that I could have had with my mother."
"She did not want to." Mama Agnes voice made him flinch and look sharply upward.
Helena turned her head more slowly. The skylight framed Mama Agnes and Papa Fred as beautifully as a painting. At least they had let her prepare Weatherby for their arrival. With the smooth motion of long practice, the two moved as one and grabbed the edge of the skylight to flip down onto the table. They bent their knees on landing and sprang off the table to land on either side of Helena.
Helena swallowed, but did not turn to see how he was reacting to having two circus performers in his study. "My Lord Blackledge, may I present Mr. and Mrs. Mohabir?"
"How do you do?" For a man who flustered so easily, Weatherby sounded remarkably calm.
Helena turned as her foster parents bowed and curtsied. The flush on Weatherby's face gave his discomfiture away, but otherwise he seemed to be making an effort to appear at his ease.
That might have had something to do with the unmistakable suspicion with which Mama Agnes was glaring at him. Papa Fred's distrust was somewhat more circumspect and appeared nothing more than a chilly reserve.
Mama Agnes took a step forward. "Why?"
"Well... I tried a series of mirrors to view around the corner," Weatherby gestured toward a contraption on his workbench that bore more resemblance to a beetle than a mechanical arm. "But then there is the trouble of light and--"
"I meant why are you interested in helping Helena?"
"Mama Agnes-- We agreed not to talk about--"
"No. You asked me not to interrogate him as to his intentions, which I have not. I have assumptions, but I am not asking him--"
"I want to marry her." Weatherby turned bright red and swallowed as though he had not expected to say that. He took a step back, then steadied himself and faced Helena who suddenly had difficulty breathing. "You. I want to marry you."
"That-- I am..." Helena reached behind herself for the table and took comfort in its sturdy wood. "But--"
"But I'm awkward and unsociable and a mess and--"
"You're a Duke." Helena put her free hand on her bosom. "I'm a circus performer. And a thief. And not a virgin."
"Well, neither am I." Weatherby clapped his hand over his mouth and his eyes grew comically large as he looked from Papa Fred to Mama Agnes. "That is to say... I mean. I think we are well matched."
"We'd be a scandal. I would... do you know what people would say if you married me? I perform at Astley's circus and-- and--" She turned to Papa Fred not wanting to watch Weatherby and let hope grow in her breast. "Tell him."
Papa Fred laughed and shook his head. "Oh no. No, no... If I had a set of those arguments that worked, then Aggie and I would not be married. But she's a convincing woman."
Helena's brow contracted and she spun to Mama Agnes. "You asked him? To marry you?"
"Well, he wasn't going to get around to it" She shrugged. "But at the moment, we're leaving your young man hanging."
She had performed for hundreds of people, including the Prince of Wales, and nothing had made her heart race as much as the ardent fear in Weatherby's eyes. Why was he afraid? That she might turn him down? Helena took a breath, trying to catch some measure of calm. "I would be pleased to accept your offer, if I can prove that I am who I say that I am."
"But I already believe you." Weatherby came a little closer but stopped before he was close enough to touch. "So we don't need to rob your aunt's house in order for you to help your father. You can both-- all four of you can come live here."
Helena shook her head. "That is your other plan? That I just give up? My aunt stole my life from me, and my fathers. If I come live with you, even married, as I am then the scandal will ostracize all of us. I cannot expose my father to that. But if my circumstances are known -- if my aunt's machinations are clear then the story that goes with the scandal becomes entirely different. "
For a moment, Weatherby seemed poised as if he had another argument, but he rocked back on his heels and nodded. "Well... As it happens, I do have another idea." He beckoned them to follow him over to the elaborate case he had been working on when Helena arrived. "The question is... how small a box can you fit inside?"
“Oh, thank God.” Mama Agnes stood up from the chair, hand pressed against her bosom. “Where the devil have you been!”
“I was…” Helena took a step back. “You knew I’d gone to the Corke party.”
“Last night! It’s going on eight in the morning and we had no idea where you were.”
“I’m sorry.” Helena swallowed and turned toward the bed. It was empty and they never rose much before noon. “I thought you would be asleep.”
Mama Agnes threw her hands out. “When have we ever gone to bed before you came home?”
Helena rubbed the back of her neck. “I’m sorry. I didn’t think.” She bit her lower lip. “Where’s Papa Fred?”
“Where do you think? We thought you had been caught.” Mama Agnes spun away and grabbed her bonnet from the peg by the door.
“He went to the constabulary?” Helena sank into a chair. Papa Fred was respected in the circus world, but beyond that his skin stood as a barrier to civil reception. She undid the laces on her shoes, yanking them off.
Mama Agnes scowled over her shoulder. “As if they would answer him. He went to the servants door at the Corke house to pick up gossip. Once we knew what had happened to you… Then we would figure things out.”
“Give me a moment to change and I’ll come with you.”
“No!” Mama Agnes spun and advanced across the room, seeming to grow in stature with every step. “You are staying here, young lady, and you are not going anywhere except the circus until I say otherwise. Am I clear?”
“What? Why?” She had an appointment to keep with Weatherby that afternoon. “I haven’t done anything wrong.”
“You terrified us! Do you understand.” Mama Agnes leaned over the chair and put her hands on Helena’s shoulders. Her eyes were red, and had clearly been so for some time. “We were so worried. I need you to stay here, exactly here, so that I know where you are. And then I need to bring Fred back and then, and only then, can we talk about what happened. Do not go anywhere. Not anywhere.”
Helena opened her mouth to protest again and the resolve in Mama Agnes’s eyes stopped her. She settled back against her chair. “All right. I’ll wait here.”
“Good.” Mama Anges finished tying her bonnet and stalked toward the door. “And when I come back, I want to know who kept you out all night.”
If he used a mechanical linkage such as the one he had been attempting in the stork’s neck, then Helena should be able to have sufficient range of motion to pick up the keys. The question now was one of visibility. Weatherby stood with his hand pressed over his mouth, and his head cocked to the side, staring at the rough mock-up he had cobbled together. It was all very well to be able to grasp the keys, but how would she see where they were?
Bartlett’s distinctive double rap sounded at his study door. Weatherby backed away from his work bench, still staring at the mechanical arm. Perhaps a series of lenses… He shook his head and turned toward the door. He would talk to Helena about it this afternoon when they visited her father. Meanwhile, it would not do to keep Bartlett waiting, since he had probably brought up a tray.
Weatherby opened the door and raised his eyebrows in surprise. Behind Bartlett, who did indeed have a tray, George lounged in the hall.
“Pardon, old boy, for popping round so early, but I had the most curious thing happen.”
Weatherby accepted the tray from Bartlett and stepped back to allow George to enter. “I am surprised you are up this early, given your late night.”
“Haven’t been to sleep yet, have I—” George stopped inside the door, his mouth hanging open. He inhaled, with nostrils flaring. “I say…”
“You say what?”
George shut the door behind him, leaving Bartlett in the hall. “You dog. You sly dog. Who is she?”
“I— What?” Weatherby nearly dropped the tray in his haste to turn. Had he left an undergarment? Had Helena? The only thing that seemed out of place was the blanket on the floor. Surely that was not enough to alert George— Weatherby glanced down. No. His fly was done up. He cleared his throat and carried the tray over to the table.
The table, where he had two glasses for port. George followed him and picked up a glass. “You’ve lost me a bet.”
Weatherby’s mouth dropped open. “You were betting on—”
“The probable end date of your virginity.” George passed the glass under his nose and grinned.
The room became intolerably hot, which meant that his cheeks must be bright red. Weatherby squeezed his eyes shut and breathed through his nose. “This should not surprise me.”
“So who is she?”
Weatherby brought his hands up to rub his face before opening his eyes. “I do not think it would be seemly to share her name.”
“Oh come… you must tell me something.” George reached out to punch Weatherby lightly on the shoulder. “I am delighted for you, truly. Not even a bit put out about losing the bet — though you might have given me some warning.”
“It was unexpected.”
“Is that why you lit out so quickly tonight?”
“I— Yes.” Weatherby picked up the teapot to pour. “But you came on an errand, what brings you?”
“Well that’s the curious thing… I thought it was related to our mysterious burglar, but I am now thinking it has something more to do with your assignation.”
Tea splashed onto Weatherby’s hand. “Damn it.” He shook the hot liquid off and set the teapot down with a thump.
“Are you all right?”
“Just embarrassed.” He picked up a serviette and wiped the tea off the tray. “Could we please talk of something other than my… activities last night?”
“Just tell me if she is blonde. And an acrobat. And named Helena Troyes.”
George could not possibly know any of those things. Weatherby swallowed, even though his shock must have been clear enough. “Why would you think that?”
“Because when I met Miss Troyes at the ball, I knew she looked familiar but couldn’t think of where we had met.” George folded his arms across his chest and leaned against the table. “But when a man of Indian descent called at the kitchen door — while I was wheedling a bite from Cook — I recalled where I had seen her. Both of them really. At Astley’s Circus.”
“What did… what did this man want?” Weatherby could barely breathe. He had known she was a performer, but not where. The fact that George knew — George had seen her perform — only drove home how very little Weatherby actually knew about her.
“Begging, he said.” He shrugged. “But given that I had seen him at the circus, and the tricks they could do, I thought it rather more likely that he was examining my home in preparation for a burglary.”
“He was— he was probably looking for Miss Troyes.” Weatherby ran his hand through his hair and bowed his head. “You had invited her to the card party, if you recall.”
“To which she did not come.” George prodded Weatherby with his finger. “Oh… and what she must be capable of, given her profession. To which I return to my original assessment: You dog. You sly dog.”
Weatherby’s skin heated. It would be so much easier to deny George’s assertions if he did not have the memory of Helena kneeling with him inside her, and then arching backwards to run her tongue up the inside of his thighs and— He walked to his workbench, aware of the sudden snugness of his breeches. “Could we not?”
“But I am happy for you.”
Behind him George laughed, clapping his hands together. “You mean ‘nothing’ happened several times.”
“This is a string of conjecture that—”
“Think about to whom you are speaking. You reek of sex, and it is an aroma with which I am well familiar.”
Weatherby leaned his hands on his workbench, his breath coming too quickly. Amid the streaks of grease and scuffs on the wood, a pale stain lay in testament to his earlier activities. A throbbing in his groin insisted on recalling the perfect height of the workbench.
He slid a piece of brass out of the cupboard to cover the stain. “I have work to do.”
“Work? My dear fellow, I’m wounded. You have finally joined the rest of us in sampling the delights of—”
Weatherby slammed his fist on the brass and spun. “Damn it, George.”
His friend stared, mouth open. With an inhalation, he shut his mouth and gave a little shrug. “Well.” He pushed away from the table and straightened his cuffs. “Well. I’ll leave you to it then.”
“George— Wait.” He was an ass. Weatherby rested his hands on his hips and studied the seams in the marble floor. George had stood by him and shielded him from public scrutiny on every conceivable occasion. He was being no more intrusive than their history should have allowed. “Thank you for being happy for me. I am surprised by my own reaction and am treating you poorly, but the truth is that I am not yet ready to talk about it.”
“No— The fault is mine.” George took a step closer to Weatherby. “I know how private you are and I should not have pushed. I only… you looked happy. It is good to see you look happy.”
Weatherby raised his head, frowning. “What— Is it that unusual?”
“Since your father died? Yes.” George spread his hands and gestured around the workshop. “Getting you out…”
“I go to the club.”
“When I come to collect you, yes. When was the last time you left on your own?”
Weatherby tugged his banyon robe tighter around himself. He had not become so reclusive as all that, surely. “The Treberry ball. I went to that on my own.”
The corner of George’s mouth twisted up into a half smile, but all the lines of his body expressed fatigue. “I invited you.”
“But I asked you to.”
“Because I got you intrigued in a mystery.”
Weatherby opened his mouth to retort that the mystery had interested him because it gave him a chance to see Helena, and then shut his mouth. He could not say that without admitting that she was the thief. Better to let George think that she was nothing more than a circus performer. “Then I owe you thanks.”
“I’m not— I’m not keeping score, Weatherby. I worry about you.” George tapped his toe on the marble, with one hand on his hip. “Here’s the last thing I’ll say on the subject of Miss Troyes. She makes you happy. Good. But you are inexperienced with women and I want to be certain that you remain happy. Please… please talk to me when you are ready. I will not make mock.”
Weatherby laughed. “That, that I don’t believe.”
“I will not mock you.” George winked. “Much.”
Weatherby paced in his laboratory from the workbench, to the library table, to a chair and then back to the table. He had troubled Bartlett for an evening tray of cheeses and fruit. A decanter of port gleamed in the light next to a pair of glasses. He titled his head back to look at the skylight, which he had opened all the way. How long would it take her to reach his home?
She might not come. But she had come to George's. Surely that meant something.
It meant that she needed his mechanical arm. He turned from the skylight and walked back to the workbench. His father had always told him that there were but two circumstances in which a nobleman would have intercourse before marriage and neither of them were good. In one instance, it was a matter of forcing one's will upon someone who could not refuse. Dishonorable, though by no means uncommon.
In the other instance, it was because the young woman wanted something, be that money or power. Or a mechanical arm.
But given her story, he could not begrudge her need for it. If her story were true. If she were not merely playing upon his affections. There was a simple way to find out, at least some portion of truth.
A soft knock sounded on the glass overhead.
Weatherby spun and his heart seemed to go on spinning. Helena crouched at the opening to the skylight in her black shirt, with her golden hair pulled back in a knot.
She smiled down at him. "Mind if I drop in?"
"Please-- Please, be my guest."
She put her hands on the edge of the sill and leaned forward. Like the most marvelous machine, she flipped in the air and landed neatly upon the table, taking up the excess momentum with her bent knees, and then transferred it into another jump, again spinning in the air as she dropped to stand upon the ground. The elegance of the movement tightened his throat.
"Thank you for the invitation."
He started toward the table. "Would you care for some port?"
"My dear Lord Blackledge... Are you trying to take advantage of me?" She leaned against the table and her smile turned coy.
"More accurately, I am trying to take advantage of myself." He picked up the decanter and it slipped in his sweating palms. Weatherby tightened his grip and poured two glasses. "The brandy is wearing off."
"Ah." She accepted the glass, her fingers just brushing his. "Thank you. Though I am not certain if I should be flattered that you wish to be taken advantage of, or dismayed that it takes being deep in your cups."
Weatherby looked into the dark liquid. "May I meet your father?"
At the edge of his vision, Helena put her glass down on the table. "I beg your pardon?"
"I studied his work with automatons." He twirled the glass for something to do with his hands. In truth, he wanted to know if the man existed. "I should like to meet him."
She sighed. “Are you not concerned that I will simply produce a badly burned man and say that he is Lord Worthen.”
“If he cannot discuss horology, then he is not.” Weatherby took a sip of the port. “Sorry.”
“Well… thank you for at least being honest.” Helena picked up her glass and saluted him with it. “And intelligent.”
“You are not troubled that I want to be certain?”
“Considering that I have attempted to rob you and several of your friends? No. I would be a fool to be insulted.” She gave a shrug. “Besides, I have become rather used to being thought a liar.”
Weatherby winced. “I did not mean—”
She stopped him with a hand on his arm. “My bitterness is not at you.”
Her touch and the simplicity of the statement — the fact that she did not argue with him, nor try to sway him to believe her, altered Weatherby’s sentiment. The brandy had worn off. And he believed her. He set the glass down on the table and turned to face her fully. “Tell me what you need the arm to do.”
She did not fling herself at him, or press a kiss upon him, but the smile she gave him was payment enough. Though he would not have minded a kiss, the glimmer of tears in her eyes nearly broke his heart. “Thank you.” She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. “The key to my aunt’s vault is in the butler’s care. He keeps all the keys on his person, except when he sleeps. Then they are in a cabinet on his mantle.”
“You sound very certain.”
“I took a job as a kitchen maid, trying to get to them. I was dismissed when they caught me in the hall trying to pick the lock. Or rather, they thought I was sneaking into the kitchen for food.” Helena rubbed her forehead and grimaced. “I can almost fit through the flue in his fireplace. If I had your mechanical arm, it would extend my reach and I could take the key.”
The arm extended, yes, but it was designed to pick things off the floor. Frowning, Weatherby walked to his drawing table. “Show me where the cabinet is in relation to the fireplace?”
She followed him to the table and took the pencil he offered. Her nails were blunt and clean, but her fingertips were rough with calluses. Weatherby stood at her side and kept his hands behind his back. As she drew, she bent her head and tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. She wore Grecian sandals with black ribbons tied up her calves and stood on one foot, the other resting upon its toes just behind her. How was it possible that she could make breeches look elegant?
Weatherby’s throat was hot and dry, but port would not be a good choice if he needed to work. “Should I ring for some tea?”
“Won’t it cause scandal to find you with a strange woman in your laboratory?” She lifted her head and slid the page to him. “Best I can do, I’m afraid.”
Her hand was unpractised, but the drawing of the small fireplace and low mantle was serviceable. It also showed what he had feared. The fireplace was deep enough that it’s relationship to the mantel would require the arm to bend at the wrist. “How far can you reach on your own?”
She marked a spot just outside the firebox. “I’ve thought about cutting my hair—”
Helena raised her brows and looked at him. “It would grow back.”
Weatherby cleared his throat. “I mean, if you want to, of course. But I do not think it would make enough of a difference for you to slip through.”
“I know… that is why I have not.” She took a step closer, so her shirt almost touched his. “Understand, that if that was what it took to help my father, then I would have.”
“I do not doubt it.” He wet his lips. When she was intent, her eyes narrowed just a little in concentration and a pair of thin lines appeared between her brows. Weatherby dragged his gaze back to the page. “The problem we have is that my mechanical arm will not work for this.”
“I can get my entire arm through up to the shoulder, with room to spare.”
“It isn’t the width.” He laid his finger on the edge of the fireplace. “The angle is wrong. The arm extends your reach from the elbow down so you would wind up with the hand grasping in the middle of the air.”
“Oh.” She rested her hand next to his on the paper and her shoulders sagged. “Yes, I see.”
Weatherby pulled another piece of paper toward him. He hooked his stool with his foot and drew it closer. “So. We’ll just have to build something that will do that job.”
It would need to be compact so she could take it down the chimney. Fortunately, it would not need to bear a great deal of weight if all she had to do was pick up a set of keys. Dexterity though… that would be an issue. Weatherby drummed his pencil on the edge of the paper. This was going to be fun.
She was a fool, and more than a fool. But there he was, sitting, and waiting for her. Helena watched the Duke of Blackledge from the shadows behind one of the bed curtains. Mama Agnes would be furious if she knew the risk that Helena was taking.
And yet… he had come himself and not raised an alarm. He was sweet and naive and, at the end of the day, he had something that she very much needed. If she had any hope of getting into the vault at the Worthen estate, she needed the extra reach of the mechanical arm. They had tried other means and nothing else would do.
Helena clenched her jaw and stepped out of the shadows. “We mustn’t make a habit of meeting like this, Lord Blackledge.”
At her voice, he jumped to his feet and he— he smiled. The expression cleared quickly to be replaced by a studied calm. “I was hoping that you would come.”
“Truly?” She walked to the foot of the bed and leaned against the pillar that served as bedpost. “You were hoping that I would rob your friend?”
“Ah…no.” He raised a hand and rubbed the back of his neck. “Foolishly, I thought you might come play cards.”
“I considered it.”
Truly the concern was more that Mr. Corke had found her familiar at the ball. If he been given more time in her company it seemed too likely that he would have eventually recalled seeing her perform at Astley’s Circus. Instead of saying that, she affected a girlish giggle and rolled her eyes. “I had nothing to wear.”
Lord Blackledge gave a little snort. “Well… I am glad that I thought to look for you here.”
“I am as well.” Her voice came out softer than she had intended. She lifted her chin and focused on the matter at hand. “I should like to commission you for a project.”
His mouth dropped open. “I— That is to say… This is unexpected. Or no… no, it is not, is it? That is why you were interested in my mechanical arm, is it not?”
“Does it matter?”
“It does, I am afraid.” He knit his brow and bent his head to study the floor.
She rubbed her hands together, feeling the calluses catch on each other. Helena gestured to the chaise lounge. “Will you sit?”
“If you will join me.” Even in the dim light, she could see his cheeks darken with a blush as if this were a daring proposition.
Helena crossed the room and sat on the lounge next to him. Now that she was here, at this point, the information between them sat like a box that she needed to push through. She rested her hands on the knees of her buckskin trousers and took a breath. She swallowed and took another. “Lord Blackledge—”
“My name is Weatherby.”
She tilted her head, wishing she could see him a little more clearly.
He cleared his throat. “I have been intimate enough with you that my title seems rather foolish. And… And I suspect that you are about to tell me something that is difficult for you.”
Helena’s eyes stung at his unexpected kindness. She bent her head, swallowing the grief. She had to convince him to help her. “If I told you that I needed it to prove my birthright?”
“I should still need particulars.” He reached out his hand and stopped just short of touching her. “Miss Troyes—”
“Helena.” Her name sprang from her mouth without any volition from her.
He tilted his head. “Helena. Helena…Troyes? May I take it that your parents are classical scholars?”
“No. It is a stage name. I mean…” She rubbed her forehead. Though she could almost see Mama Agnes standing in the shadows, with her hands on her hips, Helena plowed ahead. He could find her more easily with her stage name than with her real one anyway. “My name is Helena Worthen, daughter of James, Baron Worthen.”
“Lord Worthen? Who built the Painting Lady?”
It had been so long since her father had been anything other than an invalid that it took her a moment to realize that he was speaking of one of her father’s automatons. The recognition broke from her in a laugh. “I’m sorry. It’s been… I should have known that you would recognize his name.”
Weatherby sat back against the lounge. “And… I suppose that might explain why you know about clockwork.”
Might. She sighed and picked at one of the rough spots on her hands. “If I could easily prove to you who I was, then I would not need your assistance.”
“So. What would you charge to rent or sell your mechanical arm?”
“May I assume that you would pay me with stolen funds?”
Helena’s cheeks burned. The answer was yes. Of course it was yes. “You have not seemed to object to my activities thus far.”
“Oh… but I have.” Weatherby opened his palms and turned them up. “For reasons that I cannot explain to myself, I have not reported you. But I have stopped you. Thrice now.”
This was not the direction she wanted his thoughts to turn. She had to make him understand why she had made the choices she had. “When I was eight, we were on holiday in Wales. There was a fire at the coaching inn where we had stopped for the night. My mother died. My father— he was badly burnt. News was sent back to England that we had all died. My uncle inherited and then passed away a short time after and the title passed to his son. My aunt… I have— I have been trying for the last ten years to prove that my father is still alive.”
“May I take it that his appearance is sufficiently altered that it is easy for her to deny him?”
“But were there no servants—”
“Everyone had gone ahead to prepare the house. We had only our coachman, and my mother’s maid. Neither of them survived. It is a miracle that my father did.”
“And you? How did you…?”
“My father— I remember him waking me and it was smoky. There were flames in the hall. He told me to go to a stone gatehouse that we had passed, and that he would find Mama and meet me there. Then he threw me out the window. So I ran and waited there while the inn burned.” She took a breath, feeling anew the burning scratch of the smoke. “And I waited. Because Papa had said he would come. I had gotten lost wandering off earlier in the trip, and so I was determined to prove myself by waiting exactly where he said.”
“Good lord.” A moment later, Weatherby held out a pocket handkerchief.
Helena took it and swiped at her face. “In her vault, there are documents that will prove that we are who we say we are.”
“And you need my mechanical arm to get in.”
“Are you always so clever?”
“Only in certain very limited areas. Speaking of clever, my compliments on the handling of my buttons. I mean— the removal. That is…” He cleared his throat. “Shall I demonstrate the other areas in which I am appallingly stupid?”
Helena laughed and leaned against him. He was rather adorable when flustered. “You only want a little tutoring.”
“Is that an off— Ah. Allow me to not make that joke.” He wiped his hands on his trousers and looked out the window, revealing his strong silhouette. “Why didn’t you try again? I mean at my laboratory, to take the arm?”
“You are rather notorious for being always at home, and always in the laboratory.”
“But… If you thought I would be here tonight, it would be empty.”
“I also thought it would be locked.”
“That would have been intelligent.” Weatherby turned back to her and shrugged. “But, since your visit, it has been open every night.”
The street lights behind him lit the red of his hair, leaving little visible of his face. Helena swallowed, suddenly aware that those same lights left her exposed. “Why?”
“I was… I was hoping you would come back to talk about escapements and… and watch— watchcocks.”
“Oh really?” She smiled slowly at him and let one hand rest on his thigh. “Well… Shall we discuss how an escapement sustains the pulse of the regulating…organ.”
“It is… It drives a regular to-and-fro motion.” He raised a hand and set it so lightly on her thigh that only the warmth told her that he was touching her.
Helena took his hand in her free one and lifted it to her mouth. “And coupled with a pendulum…” She brushed her lips over the back of his fingers. “That can drive many an action.”
Weatherby made an inarticulate sound and his thigh trembled under her other hand. Smiling, she drew her tongue around the pad of his thumb and tasted acrid mineral oil mixed with brandy. His hand flexed, brushing her cheek. Helena lifted her head and leaned toward him.
She whispered in his ear, “How is your regulator?”
He turned toward her and Helena kissed him. The notes of brandy repeated here, giving his mouth a sweet warmth. She brought her hand up his thigh and found the gap at the edge of his fall front breeches. Weatherby responded, matching her movements as if they were rehearsing a new routine. One of his hands tangled in her hair. The other gripped her waist with a strength beyond most noblemen.
Without losing contact, Helena drew one leg up onto the chaise lounge so she could straddle him. She put both hands on his strong chest and pushed so he leaned against the back of the lounge. His hands drew shivering lines up her side but avoided her more intimate areas.
Helena caught his right hand and brought it to her bosom. She pulled back just far enough to watch his face and she pressed his hand against the swell of flesh above her stays. His eyes widened, darting from her face to the surface his hand rested upon. With brows drawn together, Weatherby traced the arc of her bosom. The callouses on his fingertips sent a shivering warmth into Helena’s centre.
She ducked her head to kiss the tender skin at the base of his jaw. His hand tightened upon her bosom and she caught her breath. Rising onto her knees, she reached for the buttons of his breeches.
“Wait— wait.” Weatherby drew his hands back.
“I won’t steal your buttons this time.” She nipped his jaw.
“No, it’s not—” He sat up a little. “It’s… I’m intoxicated.”
“That was rather my goal.”
He caught her by the shoulders and pushed her back. “I mean, my judgement is not sound and I do not want to take advantage of you.”
Helena stared at him, tilting her head to one side. “Weatherby… I am sitting on you and undoing your breeches.”
“So, I think I am more in danger of taking advantage of you.”
“You may have a point. It is only…” He ran his hands over her shoulders. “I have not been with a woman.”
His hesitancy had made that abundantly clear, but saying such would only embarrass him further. While it was charming to watch him blush, Helena had no wish to make him feel inadequate. She leaned forward, resting her hands on his thighs, and kissed him on the cheek. “So we have established that you are not taking advantage of me…” Helena brushed her lips with his. “Do you mind if I take advantage of you?”
“Yes.” His breath was warm against her cheeks. “I mean, no. I mean… I should very much like—”
Footsteps sounded in the hall outside and they both stiffened. As the steps stopped on the other side of the door, Helena glanced over her shoulder and saw a shadow under it. “Damn.”
She pushed herself off Weatherby into a forward tumble which gave her momentum to roll out of sight under the bed. The door opened behind her. Helena tucked her legs in and held her breath.
“Weatherby? What the devil are you doing in my room?”
A rustle of cloth and her duke cleared his throat. “I had rather more of your brandy than I should have.”
“By Jove. You’re drunk.” Laughter from what must be Mr. Corke. “Come, use one of the guest rooms and stay the night.”
“Thank you. But if you will call a carriage for me, I should go home.” Footsteps retreated toward the door and it sounded as though both men were leaving. As the door shut, Weatherby said, “I believe I left a window open in my laboratory.”
In the small backstage space of Astley’s Circus, Helena leaned against the wall with her right foot raised above her head. She pointed her toes and bent forward to touch her head against the wall as she warmed up for the evening performance. “Am I correct in remembering that we are not in the show on Thursday?”
Papa Fred paused in his preparations and looked at her in the mirror, with a kohl pencil in his hand. “Yes. Why?”
“At the Treberry ball I overheard that there would be a card party at the Corke residence.” She left her leg elevated and bent backwards to rest her hands on the ground. “I thought there might be an opportunity there.”
At that, Mama Agnes turned, with a tortoiseshell pin in her hand. “Have we any reason to think there is something worthwhile there?”
“Well, his home is on Belgrave Square. It seems likely, does it not?”
“Likely is not the same as a sure thing.” Mama Agnes pinned another curl into place.
“True.” And the Duke of Blackledge would be there, which was reason enough to avoid the place. Although it had been terribly fun to make him blush. Helena pushed off the floor to stand upright again and lowered her leg. “It was just a thought.”
“Mm… We do need to consider another ‘patron’ to visit, since the window at the Treberry’s was locked. Pity that. I thought it didn’t have a lock.”
“Maybe it was only jammed.” Helena rested her palms against the wall and raised her left foot above her head. She was not entirely easy with lying to Mama Agnes, but neither did to explain the real reason she had not made the attempt. It would worry Mama Agnes and Papa Fred no end if they knew that the Duke of Blackledge had not only recognized her but followed her. “I could try again.”
“I suppose it would not hurt to make some inquiries about the Corke establishment.”
Weatherby stared out the window of George’s drawing room, while the reflections of the revellers swayed in the glass. He rubbed his forehead and the growing ache at the laughter. He should have stayed home.
In the glass, George’s reflection grew larger and then the man himself was by Weatherby’s side. He held out a snifter of brandy. “How did you meet her?”
“Who?” He took the brandy and swallowed without tasting it.
George snorted and nudged Weatherby with his elbow. “Please. Do me the courtesy of not pretending to be an idiot. You have come to a party. Voluntarily.”
“Well, you are my friend.” He sipped the brandy again, tempted to swallow the whole thing down.
“Yes.” George rested a hand on his shoulder. “Which is why I never push you to come, because I know how you dislike crowds. Now. If I were to need advice about a broken clock, I should be a fool to attempt to repair it on my own rather than coming to you.”
Weatherby stared down into the glass. Oh, the hell with it. He finished the brandy with a gulp. “My heart is not broken.”
“But we met by chance and… and it would not be a good match.”
“That.” George produced a decanter from somewhere and refilled Weatherby’s glass. “That, sounds like your mother.”
“Truly, I think mother would not object to anyone I chose to marry so long as I did.” He took another drink of the brandy, feeling his cheeks redden. “She…She rather thinks I have no interest in women. At all.”
George coughed, and then busied himself with his own glass. “So if your mother would not object to the match—”
“Leave it, George.” Weatherby downed the contents of his glass and handed it back. “Thank you for the evening.”
“Weathe—” He trailed off with a sigh as Weatherby walked away from him.
He threaded his way through the card tables and made it to the blissfully quiet foyer. It was not fair to George to take his disappointment out on him. What had he expected? That the lovely thief would actually come to play cards tonight? With his luck, she was taking advantage of his absence to burglar his own home. And why— That was the part he did not understand. Going after money or jewels, that made sense. But why would she want his mechanical arm?
His head was spinning from the brandy. As the footman went to fetch his coat, Weatherby rested his hand on the newel post of the stairs. George would probably have bedded her right then. No telling how many maidens he had taken upstairs and… Weatherby stopped and turned to look into the drawing room. Upstairs. The entire household was currently downstairs.
That was why she always chose a night with a party.
Weatherby charged up the stairs two at a time, only slowing when he reached the last few steps. George had a wall safe in his bedroom. Weatherby had never seen it, but George had mentioned something about needing a discreet glamourist when he had his bedroom redone. Apparently it was themed like a Roman palace, or rather, like one of the pleasure houses found in Pompeii.
This was foolish. He had drunk too much brandy and was besotted with a young woman who was a thief.
He had to try several doors, sweating with each that he opened, before he found George’s room. Only the moon and the gas lamps outside the home gave it any illumination. The walls had been done to look like elaborate mosaics set amid fluted columns. The fireplace had a broad mantel and the columns repeated there. Even the furniture had been carefully chosen to match the theme, with low backless chairs, a chaise lounge, and rich swathes of fabric draping the bed.
A bank of double-hung windows looked out over the street. One of them had been pushed open from the top. Weatherby closed the door behind him and stepped farther into the room. She might already be gone. He frowned at the window. No… if the reports were correct, she always closed her entry after departing.
His only answers were the distant sound of a carriage and the cries of merriment from the revellers downstairs. If she were here, if she were hiding, then he could look for her or wait for her to reveal herself. She must have considered the possibility that he would be here tonight. Weatherby laughed under his breath, suddenly convinced that this was a test. Or he was drunk.
Whichever it was, rather than searching for her, Weatherby crossed the room to the chaise lounge and sat down. He rested his hands upon his knees and proceeded to wait.