RUST AND STEAM
An Elemental Web Short Story
A speeding train. A determined villain. A reconciliation of broken hearts.
Lady Alice Hemsworth wasn’t supposed to fall in love. It was her duty not to. Alas, she’d failed miserably. Mr. Benjamin Leighton—despite being turned away by her steam butler—can’t stop thinking about her. Alone, both are miserable—until a deadly encounter throws them together on the night train to London.
“YOU PROPOSED TO Lady Delphinia?” His sister Clara gaped at him across a table covered with finely woven linen. Her fingers twitched and, for a moment, he thought she’d pitch her dinner roll at his forehead, but the bone china, glittering crystal and gleaming silver—all of it cast in a brilliant blue-white light from the Lucifer lamps affixed to the wood-paneled walls of the restaurant car—made her mind hard-won manners. Not to mention the upper-class passengers who shared the restaurant car as the steam train rattled and clacked its way at impressive speeds toward London while steambots rolled to and fro attending the gastronomical whims of the wealthy. “Why?”
Technically, he’d only spoken with the lady’s father, who was even now giving Mr. Benjamin Leighton’s offer “all due consideration.” Which meant the man was conflicted. Did he follow the traditions of generations? Or succumb to the temptations of allowing his daughter to marry a wealthy, upstart entrepreneur? Ben rather suspected Lady Delphinia’s modest dowry would tip the decision in his favor.
“For the usual reasons.” He refused to admit that the idea of binding himself to a woman with no chin bothered him. She was sweet and kind and the daughter of a gentleman. Certainly, there were other women interested in his wealth but, of late, Ben had lost all interest in the pursuit. The ton was correct. Better not to engage one’s heart in the matter of marriage. “I require a wife.”
“Of good breeding and societal standing.” Clara’s lips twisted as she parroted back words he’d spoken at the beginning of the London Season. “But Lady Delphinia is so very… very…”
Ben narrowed his eyes, warning her he’d not condone any disparaging comments.
“Meek,” Clara settled on with a resigned sigh. “You truly mean to go through with this? You’ve no need of the haut ton and all their nonsense. Or a wife for that matter.”
He lifted an eyebrow. His sister knew as well as he did that the fastest way into society’s inner circles was through marriage. If he wanted to grow his business—
“We have enough. At least choose someone with a personality.” Leaning on her elbows—with a glint in her eyes that told him her unrefined behavior was quite deliberate—Clara lowered her voice. “Whatever happened? You spent the entire Season panting after Lady Alice Hemsworth and now the two of you occupy the same train carriage, frostily pretending that the other is not present.”
Her words were a blast furnace. Heat shot through him, threatening imminent spontaneous combustion and welding every joint in place. He couldn’t move. “She’s here?” His voice—a scalded strangle—betrayed him.
“You didn’t realize?” With a snort of laughter, his sister began to rise. “I’ll just go—”
He slammed his foot down upon the hem of her skirts and growled, “Don’t you dare.”