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. That made 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 then 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.”
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 fastened 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 snap of 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.
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.
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 and she imagined 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 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.
A spectral hand, no more solid than cosmic fairy dust, caressed her equally intangible hair. Haste. 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 and 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 rejoiced.
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, its 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.
Amalee looked straight down and her stomach plummeted. In place of her brown jacket, she wore a 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 saw Ethan Haste staring out from within her own violet eyes.
They’d switched bodies.
Come back tomorrow to read part two of Victory Garden by Avery Flynn.