The perfectly sculpted, mushroom-shaped shrubbery at the garden’s edge provided just enough cover that Amalee Watts could scope out Fox Talbot’s property without alerting his mercenaries to her presence. Unlike the birds who’d been chirping since shortly after dawn broke, the power hungry despot’s staff seemed to be slow to rise, making this the perfect moment to slink across the property line and ruin Talbot’s plans for world domination. If she succeeded, October 18, 1888 would go down as a major success for The Resistance, perhaps the seminal victory against Talbot’s dark forces. If not – Amalee’s jaw tightened. She refused to consider any other outcome.
She untangled her goggles from her electric blue hair and lowered them to cover her eyes, then wound the clockwork gear near the clasp until the temperature gauge blinked. Holding her breath to avoid fogging up the lenses, she scanned the lush green hedgerow maze leading to the garden surrounding Talbot’s country estate. When she zeroed in on the courtyard, five red shadows appeared. One guard per shadow, her kind of odds – if the gauge wasn’t acting up. Again.
“Okay, this is as far as I can go.” Her partner, professor Henry Mogg, twitched, his red nose wrinkling. “You understand your instructions?”
Amalee drew her four-barrel pistol and checked the sights. “Cross the twenty feet of open space without being seen. Hurdle the security fence. Disable the private militia. Sneak into Talbot’s garden. Find the one-inch by one-inch Thurston gear hidden in the conservatory under some flowers and return it to you so you can fix the War Bird. Then, we fly out of here and bomb the train before all hell breaks loose. Easy-peasy.”
“Orchids, it’s under the orchids.”
Gaze locked on the gun, she flicked open the chamber and confirmed the twenty bullets were loaded properly and flicked it closed. “I’m going to kill you after this.”
“You say that during every mission.” Henry stood, brushing away the wet grass clinging to the two-wrench wide seat of his trousers. “We need that gear, the War Bird won’t fly without it. It’s our only hope.”
Twenty feet of knee-high grass, still wet from the morning dew, stood between Amalee and the Thurston gear. And that gear was all that stood between Fox Talbot and The Resistance ruining his plans to ground Victoria City into submission.
Her heart fluttered in her usual, but despised, spasm of pre-mission nerves. Already, she’d triple checked the multitude of gadgets fasted to her clothes – from the retractable rapier to the particle conveyor, everything in its place. She slid her clammy palm over the intricately carved, gold circle attached to her belt, rubbing the pad of her thumb across the family tailsman. Her father’s pocket watch had been the only thing she could identify mixed in with his mangled remains after that bastard Talbot had beat him to death.
“One blast from that blasted camera and Talbot sucks the soul out of everyone, leaving them mindless drones. Are you sure this will work?” She hated the thread of worry tightening her voice.
Henry grabbed her by the shoulders, his face so close to hers she could taste the brandy on his breath. “Get the gear. Fix the bird. Bomb the train. Destroy the soulinator. Finish your father’s mission, it’s what you’ve trained for.” He dropped his hands and drew back behind the weeping willows’ branches, his brown clothing blending into the shadows. “Go now.”
Amalee set the cloaking gauge on her wrists to obscure and wound the brass knob until it wouldn’t turn any more. The air vibrated around her as the gears whirred. When the hum, no louder than a hummingbird’s wings, reached her ears, she crouched into a a sprinter’s stance and raced toward danger.
Ethan Haste hunkered down behind the rose bush at the entrance to Talbot’s manicured maze, careful to avoid the sharp thorns, and watched the streak of bright blue speeding toward him. A dragonfly? His bounty-hunter instincts, honed on hundreds of successful captures, balked at the idea. He fished his lucky goggles out of the deep inner-pockets of his green overcoat and snapped them on, revealing the woman behind the cloaking effect. His lips curled into a one-sided smirk. The petite lassie dashing across the field, most assuredly was not a dragonfly.
“Good morning, love,” he murmured. “So good of you to come to me.”
After weeks of tracking Amalee Watts to places where no lady should be, here she came hurtling toward him. And not a bloody moment too soon. He couldn’t believe his luck. Another day and Talbot would have called in his marker and Ethan would have to offer either the girl trussed up like a Christmas goose or his own head on a platter. He’d grown rather fond of his head being connected to his body, so Ms. Watts it was, even if he compared every other woman’s eyes to her almond-shaped violet eyes. Many a dawn he’d awaken hard and aching after experiencing the warmth of her soft, tea-colored skin in his nighttime fantasy. He’d had half a dozen opportunities to clap her in irons and been unable to do so.
Ethan bounced on the balls of his boot-clad feet, ready to leap out at the last possible moment. He tracked her with sound as she thrashed through the deep grass, no doubt on her way to Talbot’s garden. An assassination attempt? From everything he’d learned about Ms. Watts, it was entirely possible. However, as much as he’d relish watching Talbot die, the decrepit bastard’s personal guards would slice her to bits before she ever got the chance. Then Ethan would be out a bargaining chip to pay his debt.
A twig snapped not two feet to the left.
They crashed to the ground and rolled. Although he didn’t cover Amalee’s mouth, she made no sound, instead concentrating her considerable efforts on filleting him with a dirk. The sharp blade snipped off a button from his coat. He knocked the knife from her hand with a back-handed chop. Panting with exertion, he covered her body with his hoping to suffocate her resistance.
The soft silk of her blue hair flicked against his cheek as they grappled, distracting him momentarily and filling his senses with the scent of jasmine and fresh cut grass.
She must have sensed it because a second later she slammed her knee upward nearly connecting with the family jewels. He grasped her small wrists in one of his hands and yanked her arms above her head. In the same motion, he trapped her strong thighs beneath his.
Lungs heaving, he flattened her underneath him, his free hand stuck between their bodies. He flexed his fingers. Soft. Round. Full. Pointed nipple. Bloody hell.
The crack of a bullet pierced his befuddled thoughts. Three inches from his face, dirt spit upward.
He rolled back into the maze, taking Amalee with him, curling his body around her cursing form like a human shield.
Squashed into a tight ball, her angry breath fogging her goggles, Amalee grunted with effort as she tried to explode out of the man’s grip. Not that it did any good. His gentle iron hold kept her wrapped up tight with her knees digging into her breasts.
“Get off of me, you brute.”
Another bullet whizzed overhead.
“I’m afraid that’s not an option.”
Shouts cracked in the air, followed by the thunder of Talbot’s guards.
“Who are you?” Amalee stretched her fingers toward her ankle brace and the salvation it offered.
He stiffened around her, his abdominal muscles hardening against her back. “Let’s get out of here with our lives and take care of introductions later.”
The metal scratched her fingertips. She followed the downward path of the cold brass until a small knob ended her progress. The particle conveyor would transport her 200 feet. Of course, it came with a few of Henry’s quirks, little things such as having limited control over where you ended up and that it would take along any human being you were touching at the time, but it had worked. Once. And that was according to Henry, who had every reason to lie about his latest in a long line of questionable inventions.
The ground reverberated and a mechanical screech sounded in the not to far distance.
Just brilliant, they must be sending out the thrasher. A shiver went down her spine at the thought of the kind of damage it could do with one swipe of its ten-feet-long, remote-controlled scythes. Talbot had a real flair for converting the mundane into deadly security weapons. One widely circulated report told of the thrasher tearing man and animal in half with one vicious swish.
Severed rose petals bounced across the ground. Second guessing Henry had just become a luxury she couldn’t afford. “Have it your way, but hold on.”
“What–“ A burst of gunfire from a one-hundred-round repeater pistol halted his question. “Haste, Ethan Haste is the name.”
“Hold on Haste.”
She grasped the knob between her pointer finger and thumb and twisted it clockwise.
Amalee closed her eyes and prayed they wouldn’t land right in the middle of Talbot’s mercenaries.
The air swirled around them, reality wriggling like cold marmalade.
One moment her body existed, then it dematerialized.
Swept upward and floating like a ghost, she took to the sky, her flight affording her a bird’s eye view of the field below. The trasher bore down on the rose bush that had sheltered them. Talbot’s men marched behind it in a V formation, battle hard and armed to the eyebrows.
An spectral hand, no more solid than cosmic fairy dust, caressed her equally intangible hair. The man. An overwhelming sense of serenity flowed into her as he breeched her emotional defenses before she even had a chance to raise them. Their vaporous bodies flowed into one another, becoming a bright nebulous mass.
Worry, determination and a tinge of regret seeped from his particles into hers. Ethan’s memories became hers. Begging on the street to buy scraps of food for his sick mother. Hiding from the swift justice meted out by his father on a bender. The slick feel of a new deck of cards as he shuffled them, sneaking away the king of diamonds under his cuff. The fruit and bread he dropped off at the orphanage after a long night of carousing. Drawn to the light hidden within his darkness, she exhulted.
A single sparkle of regret flickered between them. Using her mind as a hand, she pulled the thought toward her as if it were on a delicate string. The closer it got, the heavier the knowledge became until Amalee feared it would fall from between her phantom hands before she understood its meaning.
He grabbed the memory from her and tossed it into the cosmos.
“I won’t do it. I don’t think I ever could have.” His deep voice filled her and even though she couldn’t see him with her eyes, she could with her mind.
The flashes of him she’d seen as they wrestled earlier, came together. Piercing blue eyes, the color of a tropical bay, stared at her from beneath a furrowed brow. Long, shoulder-length ginger hair highlighted the clear, porcelain white of his skin. Wide shoulders and lean, sinewy muscles filled out his moss-colored overcoat.
Ethan leaned forward, his ethereal lips capturing hers, forcing the serenity to take flight and white hot desire to take its place. She was nothing and everything at once, the delicious dichotomy intensifying her craving for him.
Lost in the pleasure, she barely noticed when the air heated and what once was vapor became solid, warm flesh. A cool wind blasted around them and they dropped to the ground in a tangle of arms and legs.
The scent of roses nearly choked her with its sweet scent. Cracking her eyes open, she found herself inches away from an elaborately pruned rosebush, it’s thorns punctuated with blood red blooms. At least they hadn’t landed another foot to the left.
She stood and the world seemed different with the angle of her sight lines out of whack. What did she expect? The particle conveyor had been an exceedingly strange experience.
She looked straight down and her stomach plummeted. In place of her brown jacket, she wore a deep green overcoat. His overcoat.
Afraid to look up but knowing she had to, she closed her eyes and braced for the worst. When she opened them, she Ethan Haste staring out from within her own violet eyes.
They’d switched bodies.
“Bloody hell.” Ethan choked down his confusion.
“We don’t have time to figure it out now. Come on.” She dragged him through the shoulder-high maze in Talbot’s garden.
Ethan’s stride was much shorter than in his own body, he stumbled into the prickly greenery. Strands of his – her – long blue hair became tangled in the bushes. Afraid of losing her in the maze, Ethan yanked the hair free, pocketing the bright tufts into the inside pocket of her jacket. Left. Right. Left again. Finally they arrived at the green house at its center.
The humid air inside made the cotton of his shirt stick to his breasts. Fucking hell, her breasts. Hers!
She paused inside the glass door. “Stay here.”
Glancing around, his gaze took in the riotous colors of blooms mixed in with the deep green of ferns. “You took on Talbot’s guard for a flower?”
“Don’t be an idiot.”
Ethan grabbed her arm inside his overcoat and pulled her to him, the strangeness of how his now much shorter body – her petite frame – fit against her – his – greater height discombobulating his thoughts further. “If we work together, we’ll find whatever it is you’re looking for faster.”
A frisson of electricity jumped between them and she stopped, still as one of the marble statues in the garden outside. “How do I know I can trust you?”
“Because I’ve been following you for weeks with the sole purpose of delivering you to Talbot.” Shame burned his skin.
She pulled away from him as if he’d struck her. “And that’s suppose to make me trust you?”
“I could have grabbed you at any time, but I didn’t. Couldn’t.” It wasn’t until he’d said the words aloud that he realized how true they were. Stuck inside her tiny body, he saw the world from her perspective and realized he liked the view.
“How gallant of you to spare me.” She squatted low, adjusting to the change in bodies much quicker than he, and scurried through the greenhouse.
He caught up to her as she contemplated a profusion of orchids. “Chances are slim he’ll let either of us live after this.”
“So do you trust me?” Her answer meant far more to him than he cared to admit, even to himself.
“Not in the least.” She plucked up a tall, potted orchid with delicate white blooms and snatched a small gear from beneath it. “But I’ll suffer your presence until Henry figures out how to fix this body switching mess.”
She whirled around and wrapped her arms around him. “Turn the knob on your ankle and find out for yourself.”
Vaporized by the particle conveyor, Amalee tried to resist the pull of Ethan as he invaded her being and teased her senses, pulling at that sensual side of herself she’d locked away long ago. They were separate and entwined as they flew through the air like ghosts through the atmosphere. The calm of the earlier trip disappeared in favor of a desperate need, body and soul, to be with him.
Their spectral selves wrapped around each other. She reached out to touch the auburn wisps of his hair and the pale white of his skin appeared solid in her mind if not in reality. Unable to deny herself any longer, she floated into him and excitement hung heavy around them like the tense moment before a thunderstorm’s first crackle. The light inside him brightened, its hue so intense it sent waves of pleasure coursing through her. Bliss consumed her.
Then, with a thump, she landed on the ground. Three facts hit her at once.
One: She was back in her body.
Two: The willow tree where Henry hid with the War Bird lay ten yards ahead.
Three: Talbot’s guards raced toward them, mouths foaming.
Ethan yanked her up from the ground and pulled her toward the trees. “Come on, love. We can’t let the bastards catch us.”
She didn’t just hear his words, they vibrated along an invisible line strung between them. A whirlwind of want swept up from the soles of her feet and flared out of the roots of her hair. The intensity of her reaction, didn’t make sense unless – the particle conveyor. If it switched their bodies, could part of their souls have become entangled like vines twisting around a tree trunk?
“We have to move.” Ethan’s strong fingers clasped her hand, strengthening their metaphysical bond, and they ran together as one. The wet grass slapped at her legs as they sprinted toward freedom, toward a tomorrow without Talbot’s oppression.
Henry jumped out from behind the willow tree’s long branches. “Do you have it?”
Amalee tossed him the Thurston gear, a gleam of gold sailing through the blue.
He grabbed it out of the air and disappeared behind the white-gray leaves.
In tandem, she and Ethan spun around and drew their pistols. Like mirror images of each other, they dropped to their knees and fired at the mercenaries bearing down on them. Their gunshots sounded simultaneously in a synchronized burst of violence.
The bullets slammed into the guards, jerking their bodies back as blood blossomed from their injuries. Those hit, withered to dust before they hit the ground. The remaining guards yelped in surprise and dropped back to regroup behind a large yew bush.
“What are you firing?” Ethan’s blue eyes were round with shock.
Amalee swallowed hard. “Copper bullets, you?”
“The same, but I’ve never seen them turn anyone to ash before. What in the hell are these guys?”
She scooted closer to him until not even a skinny ray of light could make its way through. “Damned if I know.”
A whoosh of wind blasted her hair forward and she whipped her head around.
The long, drooping branches of the willow tree stretched straight out, pushed to their limit by the gust of warm air exploding from the clockwork engine of Henry’s War Bird that had been camouflaged within the tree. Its silver metal wings unfolded and clanked up and down.
“What–“ The rattle and rumble of the War Bird flapping its wings drown out the rest of Ethan’s question.
Explanations would have to wait. Grabbing his hand, she crouched low and they scrambled to the giant metal flying contraption.
From her perch inside the silver War Bird, Amalee scanned the countryside between Talbot’s garden and Victoria City until she spotted the tell-tale gray puffs below. “There!”
Henry spun the iron steering wheel and the War Bird swept left on course for the train. “Ready the eggs.”
“Really, can’t you just call them cannon balls?” Amalee asked.
He shot her a side-eye glare while manipulating the levers that controlled the War Bird’s wings. “When you’re the inventor, you can name them something as mundane as cannon balls. Ready the eggs.”
She and Ethan hurried across the narrow planks to the tail end. She unstrapped the targeting mechanism, locked it into place and pointed to the controlling pulley. “Open the bay.”
Ethan grabbed the pulley and yanked it downward, setting the clockworks in motion. The gears clicked as they turned and the bay doors parted near their feet.
“One hundred yards,” Henry hollered from the head.
Sweat beaded on her forehead as she watched Ethan’s biceps bulge with effort. This was their chance. If they missed this shot, they’d lose their only opportunity to stop the soulinator camera from arriving in Victoria City.
The doors inched open until nearly a foot of sky shone through the open space. Amalee shoved the repeat-action cannon to the center of that patch of sky and connected it to the targeting mechanism. Everything was in place. As soon as the doors cleared the space, the cannon would fire automatically at the train below.
The gears screeched to a halt and the bay doors shuttered still.
Ethan’s muscles strained as he jerked. “It’s stuck.”
“Slow down, Henry, the gears are locked.”
“No can do.” Henry’s words dissolved into a high-pitched cackle. “Ready the eggs!”
Amalee rushed to Ethan’s side, adding her strength to his. The wool of his coat scratched against her cheek as she pressed into his back, her fingers curled around his on the wooden handle. As soon as they touched, the air heated around them and her stomach fluttered as if the War Bird was flapping its great wings inside of her. That spirit part of her, freed by the particle conveyor, pushed against her skin patiently desperate to find a way out and touch Ethan again. Fighting to tap down her body’s reaction, she focused her mind on the pulley, urging it to move, but the damned thing wouldn’t budge.
“Bloody hell,” Ethan panted and gave another tug.
The gears shifted a millimeter then locked again.
To be so close and fail anyway. Frustrated tears sprung to her eyes and she unwrapped herself from Ethan. She wouldn’t give in to the despair twisting her gut. There had to be a solution.
“What are we missing?” Her gaze searched the gear panel until she found the problem. One of the smaller cogwheels had popped out. “Ethan, stop.”
His hands dropped to his sides.
“The cog, we need to push it back into alignment.” She tried with her hands, leaning all of her weight into it.
Ethan grabbed a large wrench from the tool box nestled under a shelf. “Amalee, out of the way.” He wielded the wrench like a bat and whacked at it.
A thunderous thunking echoed through the metal interior as Ethan battled the stubborn gear, beating it back into position.
Ethan raised the wrench to his shoulder and roared as he pounded away. His guttural cry bounced off the metal bird’s interior, growing louder with each reverberation. He slammed the wrench against the errant cog and it clicked back into place and rotated forward.
“Lay the eggs,” Henry screamed.
Amalee raced to the pulley and yanked it, her heart hammering in her ears and her arms and shoulders aching from the exertion. The bay doors dropped into position. One-by-one, a stream of cannon balls dropped from the back of the bird, iron eggs of destruction plummeting through the sky.
A whump sounded when the first egg crushed the locomotive’s smokestack. The train cars careened off the tracks, landing like a line of fallen dominoes knocked over by an unseen hand. A chain-reaction of explosions rocketed the train below and flames shot upward so high they nearly singed the War Bird’s open bay doors.
“Brilliant. And to imagine anyone ever doubted you, my beautiful bird.” Henry continued to coo praise as he steered the bird in a wide U-turn and they crossed back into the airspace above Talbot’s garden.
The swirling mist inside her arose from its temporary slumber, floating upward it pushed and probed for an escape. It searched for him, for Ethan. Her skin fizzled like champagne bubbles popping when he approached and stood silently behind her. Her vapor whirled around in an excited tornado of joy.
Ethan brushed her hair away from one side of her neck and lowered his lips to the pulse point pounding at a breakneck pace. Her knees buckled and she sagged against his hard chest. Home. Peace. Happiness. A red-orange, sunset aura pulsed around her, bathing everything in its light and warming her.
He pulled a millimeter away from her. “Amalee.”
Her name vibrated against her sensitive skin and an excited flush burned her cheeks. The red shades deepened, turned the color of an overripe strawberry and she turned in his arms. He stood at least six inches taller and her head fit neatly under his chin. “What’s happening to us?”
“I can feel you without touching you.” He combed his fingers through the length of her hair, coming to rest on the small of her back. “It’s like you’re a part of me.”
“The particle conveyor.” She pushed away from him, hoping physical distance would lessen the need drumming out logical thought.
“I don’t care why. You’re what I’ve been searching for, every bounty I tracked down, every obstacle in my path – everything happened to make me strong enough for this moment. For you.” He dragged her against the length of his hard body. “I knew it even before the particle conveyor. I knew it the first time I smelled the jasmine of your perfume in the Cargill Saloon in Victoria City. Sitting on the other side of you at the bar, all I had to do was clap you in irons and bring you to Talbot and I’d be free of him and his threats. I couldn’t do it. Whatever happened in the particle conveyor only intensified what was already there.”
Unable to answer with words, Amalee grasped his smooth cheeks between her hands and kissed him.
Her mist danced at the physical connection and she rubbed against his muscular frame lengthening herself against him like a cat stretching hungrily under a stroking hand. “Come with me,” she whispered against his soft lips.
She searched his blue eyes for hesitation and saw none. Her vapor’s red aura shivered with happiness, but she had to make him understand what he sacrificed. “If you do, you’ll never be able to come home to Victoria City again without risking death.”
“A life without you would be far worse than that.” He lowered his lips to hers and silenced any lingering doubt.
As the War Bird glided away from Talbot’s garden toward The Resistance’s secret base, Amalee released her hold on the mist and it mixed with Ethan’s indigo vapor, enfolding them in a cocoon of promise.