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THE GOLDEN SPIDER

Chapter One

THE HONOR OF WORKING for the Queen as a spy was overrated.

Crouched behind a burned-out steam carriage, Sebastian Talbot, the 5th Earl of Thornton, tapped on the acousticocept wrapped about his ear. The device should have worked up to a half-mile distance. He squinted through the gloom of the riverside fog. Hell, he could still see their agent. He just couldn’t hear him.

“No signal,” he hissed to the man beside him. Would they ever manage to make this damn device work in the field?

His partner, Mr. Black, frowned. “Same.”

“Repairs.” Thornton pointed across the field of rusting scrap metal before them to a derelict water boiler just large enough to conceal both men in the dark of night. “There.” After years of working side by side, the two men could almost read each other’s minds.

Black nodded and they ran forward, tracing a winding path through piles of discarded machinery in an attempt to melt into the odd shadows the metal cast. Their agent was no more than fifty feet away, but Thornton still couldn’t hear the conversation between Agent Smith and his informant. He threw Black a questioning look, but the man shook his head. Nothing.

Thornton bit back a curse. They couldn’t approach Smith without blowing his cover.

Black ripped the acousticocept from his ear and twisted its dials in vain trying to increase reception. The light continued to blink red. Either the agent’s artificial ear had failed or there was some fresh blunder with the receiver.

Thornton ran through the schematics in his mind. The aether chamber inside the agent’s ear was sealed. Tests had proven that in the laboratory this afternoon. The next logical weak point was the needles contacting the counter rotating disks in the acousticocepts. They had a tendency to dislodge.

He wanted to growl in frustration. Henri should have fixed that problem by now. The device should be beyond field trials. They should have been sitting in a steam coach listening to the informant’s tale in complete warmth and comfort, not running about a scrap yard straight from a debriefing at the opera and risking discovery in blindingly white shirts, snowy cravats, and well-tailored coats. Thornton kept a hand tightly wrapped over his silver-capped cane lest it reflect some stray ray of light and draw attention like a bioluminescent beacon.

And his leg was sending out pangs of warning. Damn sky pirate and his cutlass.

Thornton ignored the radiating pain. He pulled a cigarette case from his coat pocket as he stepped behind the metal tank. He raised his eyebrows at Black. Smith believed his informant finally had a solid lead. If Thornton didn’t attempt field repairs, he and Black would be reduced to simple observation. Too many carefully woven plans had unraveled of late, and he did not relish the thought of delivering yet another report of failure to his superior.

Black nodded and angled his torso to further block any view of Thornton’s activities. Flipping it open, he activated the small decilamp‌—‌its light a necessary risk‌—‌and selected micro-tweezers from among the various tools within. There was a chance he could reset the needles of the acousticocept before the agent moved to follow the informant’s lead.

His cold fingers fumbled. Gloves. He’d been about to return for them when he’d spotted a determined mother steering her debutant daughter into his opera box. Discomfort, no matter how biting, was preferable to becoming trapped in such a snare. Warmth had been abandoned in favor of freedom.

Black shifted closer as Thornton pulled his acousticocept free and placed it on a steam gauge protruding from the boiler. Thornton flipped a monocle over his eye and, with only the faint blue-green light to illuminate the needles, set to work.

As always, the world about him faded as he untangled an experimental conundrum.

Moments later, the light glowed a steady green. Success, but no satisfaction. He’d uncovered yet another internal defect. Tomorrow, he would sketch out modifications to solve this issue once and for all. He handed the device to Black and set about fixing the second one. Hooking the working acousticocept once again about his ear, Thornton was drawn into the distant exchange.

“…‌but how is the eye doctor making contact with the gypsies?” Smith asked.

The ragged informant shrugged. “I want nuthin’ more to do with this so-called doctor. Got me two young’uns, I do. Can’t be found floating down the Thames.” He turned away.

“Wait…‌”

But the informant had already disappeared into the night.

There was a crunch of shoes on gravel. A soft splash followed. Then Smith spoke as if to himself, though the information was directed to them. “I’m going to investigate.”

Thornton glanced at Black in question. The man shook his head. Because of the malfunctioning device, they’d missed a crucial piece of information.

Rising from behind the boiler, he caught sight of their agent‌—‌but not his informant. Smith had climbed into a boat and was rowing down the Thames. Risky, with the Thames’ kraken population on the rise. But as long as Smith hugged the shoreline and avoided storm pipes, he might reach his destination‌—‌whatever that was‌—‌before the smaller kraken swarmed and sank the boat.

But where did that leave them? There was no way to flag down Smith without compromising him. He sagged against the boiler in frustration. At this dark and foggy hour the usual clamor of steam engines, sailors’ calls and horns was muted, and through the acousticocept, he could hear the sound of waves lapping at a boat’s hull.

So much for simple surveillance.

“There’s a dock not far.” Black glanced at Thornton’s leg. “Can you make it?”

He narrowed his eyes. Such concern was unnecessary. For now. “I can make it.”

“Or go down trying,” Black retorted.

Before Thornton could snarl an appropriate response, Black was off and running. Using his cane to counterbalance his awkward gait, he followed across the mud and rock of the riverbank, cursing as he stepped on a decaying kraken carcass and nearly lost his footing. The beasts were everywhere, the stench from their decaying bodies rising to fill his nostrils.

By the time he reached said dock, Black was already casting away the ropes. “Hurry up, old man.”

Thornton leapt into the boat, and a lightning bolt of pain shot through his leg.

As Black rowed in pursuit and shook free the occasional tentacle that hooked an oar, Thornton unscrewed the silver head of his cane and pulled a glass vial as well as a needle from within. With practiced movements, he fitted the vial with a small needle. Yanking a pant leg above his knee, he injected the contents.

Instant relief. He dragged in a deep breath and shoved the empty vial into his coat pocket.

“Better?” Black asked.

Thornton reassembled his cane and gave a terse nod. As the tension melted from his muscles, he scanned the water for their man. “There, by the warehouse.”

Black adjusted course.

The drug’s effectiveness wouldn’t last. Once, a single dose had dulled the pain for an entire month. Now he needed to administer the drug daily. It was time to curtail his field duties further. Perhaps eliminate them altogether. Before an agent fell victim to his injury.

A bitter pill to swallow for a man in his early thirties.

In the distance, Smith effortlessly dragged the boat ashore and ducked inside the brick building. His footsteps echoed in Thornton’s ear.

“There’s a light,” the agent whispered. “A faint tapping.”

There was a rustle, the sound of a coat being pushed aside and the scrape of a weapon drawn. The agent screamed. An agonizing sound that had both Thornton and Black gripping their ears. An altogether too brief scream that ended with a gurgle. There was a loud crunch followed by telling static.

Though he and Black wore the acousticocept listening devices coiled about their ears, the transmitting device, the acousticotransmitter, had been implanted deep inside Smith’s ear.

Pulling on the oars, Black beached the boat onto the muddy, trash-laden shore. They ran to the building. Not a single glimmer of light escaped its tall windows. Thornton yanked on the rusty door handle. “Locked.”

“Stand back,” Black ordered, then kicked the door open, entering with Thornton at his back. Both held their weapons at the ready.

Nothing but silence and their agent, sprawled on the ground‌—‌a faint trickle of blood oozing from his ear around a protruding stiletto blade‌—‌met their entry.

Thornton clenched his jaw and bent over. He avoided Smith’s vacant eyes as he pressed fingers to the agent’s throat in the unlikely event that he might find a faint pulse. Nothing. He looked upward, his gaze drawn to the other horror in the room.

Black had flicked on his bioluminescent torch. The cavernous riverside warehouse was filled with stacked wooden crates. In its center, over the delivery hatch in the dock that stretched out over the river, hung a block and tackle. Suspended from the iron hook by rope-bound hands was another man beyond rescue. Blood streaked down his face and neck, soaking the front of a saffron-colored shirt. Empty eye sockets stared down at them.

“Damn it,” Black swore. “Not again.”

 

 

Chapter Two

THE DAY BEGAN much like any other day.

Lady Amanda Ravensdale, daughter of the Duke of Avesbury, took a bite of buttered toast and a sip of cold tea before returning her attention to the femur resting before her on the polished mahogany dining table. A practical examination approached, and she had her heart set on achieving a perfect score. She scanned its surface, murmuring anatomical terms. Greater trochanter, medial epicondyle, linea aspera‌—‌

A grinding of gears and a gentle bump against her chair drew her attention. “Thank you, RT,” she said to the steambot, lifting a china cup filled with fresh, hot tea. The roving table reversed course and whirred its way back toward the kitchens.

“Must you!” Olivia shrieked from behind her. “The horrors I endure each day as a member of this family. I will never forgive you for caving to such a base desire to mingle with the middle class in an anatomical theater. My sister in medical school. It’s a social nightmare.”

Amanda smirked at her sister’s tantrum and twisted in her chair. “And I will never forgive you for the hours I’ve lost enduring soliloquy after soliloquy about the difficulties of obtaining an ice sculpture come June.”

“I’ll have you know planning a proper society wedding is quite an undertaking.” Olivia pointed her nose in the air, and golden ringlets bounced about her face. “Carlton will one day be Viscount Bromwich.”

“Children,” Father warned from the end of the table. He lifted the morning paper higher. On the front page, headlines proclaimed the latest indignity: A German Imperial Fleet zeppelin had attacked what was, the British Navy insisted, a mere merchant’s vessel.

“At least a wedding is a suitable pursuit for a lady,” Olivia persisted as she stomped over to the buffet. “Carlton says women have no business pursuing a career.”

Amanda rolled her eyes. She was thoroughly sick of hearing her future brother-in-law quoted, so she stuck in the proverbial scalpel and gave it a sharp twist. “Carlton simply wants nothing to distract you from your duty as brood mare.”

Her sister’s jaw unhinged, and she all but dropped her plate of dry toast on the table. “You are so crass. It’s to society’s benefit that you’ve set course to become a dried up old maid.”

“If that’s what it takes to be permitted to use my talents.” It wasn’t that she opposed marriage. Or children. It was the limitations a husband imposed upon a married female member of the peerage. Not a single man had yet met her standards. “Though Mr. Sommersby shows promise,” she added aloud. He was the only male classmate who didn’t sneer at her presence in the lecture hall. Quite the opposite. Not that she had feelings for him, but she’d promised Father she would husband hunt.

“The second son of a baron. A mere commoner,” Olivia sniffed, but when she turned toward Father, her expression grew concerned. “Speaking of marriage and rotten siblings, any news of Emily?”

Another manifestation of Olivia’s obsession with marrying a title. Scandal might break at any moment. The ton believed Lady Emily visited relatives in Italy, but if society learned the truth‌—‌that their sister had run off with gypsies to study ancient herbal lore‌—‌well, Carlton wouldn’t want anything to do with Olivia.

Worse, Emily had also married Luca, a gypsy she’d known since childhood‌—‌a fact she and Father had kept from the rest of the family. No need to send Mother and Olivia into a blind panic. Though Amanda herself was proud of her sister for taking her future into her own hands, Father’s response was more tempered. He respected Emily’s decision, but had three as-yet unwed children to manage and a wife who valued her social connections among the ton above all else. As such, all communication with her sister had been severed.

Father’s narrowed eyes appeared over the top of the paper. “Not a word.” He carefully folded the paper, placed it on the table and pointed to an article. “Though I worry for her every day.”

Amanda leaned forward, reading over her sister’s shoulder. There in all its gruesome detail buried at the bottom of page eight:

South London. Another gypsy slain, eyes torn from sockets. One must wonder to what he bore witness.

A small frisson of worry skittered down her spine. Luca’s family often settled in South London during the coming winter months, and gypsies traveled in tightly knit family groups. She could only hope that this year his family had chosen another city.

~~~

Amanda stepped through the French windows of the library into the crisp, cool autumn air and strolled through the gardens toward the chicken coop. “A good morning to you, Penny,” Amanda greeted a fat, white hen.

Penny clucked her usual cheerful response.

Eight years ago, the Town and City Food Act of 1876 had legislated that all homeowners, peers not excepted, contribute to the problem of city-wide food shortages. As duchess, Mother had decreed they would produce eggs rather than put her precious gardens to plow.

Amanda had appropriated the use of the coop’s storage room as her laboratory and enlisted the orange-striped cat, Rufus, who now twined about her ankles, as her laboratory assistant. His duties included providing her with mice suffering from spinal injuries, patients obtained during their ill-fated night-time raids on the chicken feed. The cat followed as she moved to a door in the back wall where a lock was mounted. She dialed in a ten-digit security code. Tumblers fell into place and the door swung open.

Potentially useful items cluttered the room. Shelves of glassware, bottles and rubber tubing. Boxes of clockwork components. Stacks of papers and stubs of pencils.

Yet none of the contents mattered save one. On the wide workbench before her, a single cage rested. Inside, a tiny mouse tucked into cotton batting was curled on his side as if in deep sleep. For a brief moment, she held her breath and let herself hope. Perhaps that’s all it was, sleep.

She crossed to the bench and bent to examine her patient, watching for the gentle rise and fall of the mouse’s ribcage but saw no movement. Still, Amanda clung to hope. Perhaps he breathed shallowly due to the pain of the surgery. That she could ease.

Except there was a smear of blood on the cotton, a clear indication the surgery had failed. Again. Her heart sank.

Rufus leapt beside her and sniffed the mouse through the wire mesh of its cage, performing his own examination. He looked up at her with mournful golden eyes and let out a gut-wrenching yowl.

Dead.

Breakfast congealed into a hard lump in her stomach. She’d had such high expectations last night. Swallowing her disappointment and frustration, Amanda fell back on protocol. She opened the cage, scooping the small, cold mouse from his bedding and slid him into the aetheroscope’s observation chamber to seal him from the outside atmosphere. She cranked the handle of the machine, sending concentrated aether though its pipes and valves while activating the vacuum chamber. The device, a birthday present from her brother Ned, replaced oxygen with aether, allowing her to resolve far smaller objects than her other microscope ever had, no matter its powerful objectives.

Perching on a stool, Amanda peered through the eyepiece and twisted the dials into focus. Rotating first one knob and then another, she brought the neuromuscular junction of the muscle into view and sighed. The connection had indeed failed.

Five years ago, after Ned’s tragic accident stole the use of his legs, her life-long interest in medicine had found a clear focus. She’d concentrated her efforts on the neuromuscular system, conceptualizing and then building a neurachnid, a programmable, clockwork spider the size of a bronze halfpence, one that could spin a replacement for a damaged motor neuron following spinal injury.

It sat in a place of honor on a wooden shelf above her workbench. Eight long, hinged legs arched out from a finely mechanized clockwork thorax that controlled the weaving mechanism. Lodged in the abdomen were two other key features. A tiny slot for a miniature Babbage card to direct the neurachnid’s activities and a small glass vial, a reservoir for a potent nerve agent administered as the spider worked. The patient’s nerve fibers needed to be quieted, but not fully anesthetized, in order for the spider to trace the pathway of the damaged neuron and, using thin gold fibers, reconnect spinal cord to muscle and restore movement.

Last night, the neurachnid had successfully replaced a spinal motor neuron in this mouse. The patient had been able to extend his lower leg. He’d walked for an entire hour. She’d returned her patient to his cage, confident she would find him walking about the cage this morning.

He hadn’t. It was still the same problem. The neuromuscular junction always failed to hold. And when a mouse discovered itself unable to walk, often it reacted by chewing at the fine gold wires, growing increasingly stressed until blood loss and panic simply overwhelmed the tiny creature.

Amanda sat back, punching a button to release the gasses. The microscope hissed and spat, echoing her frustration. She wanted to scream, to fling the spider against the wall and weep for all the hours lost in her futile efforts in this smelly, dim room barely worthy of the term laboratory. She took a deep breath and pushed away the urge.

If only she had a properly equipped laboratory and trained colleagues.

Instead, she picked up the small neurachnid from its shelf and racked her brain looking over the myriad gears and pins, clicks and rivets. If she only could deduce what the problem was, she could devise a solution. But it looked as it always had. She needed fresh eyes. She needed help, competent help that could provide a leap of insight.

She’d tried communicating by post, seeking help from notable neurophysiologists. Most ignored her missives outright, but the handful that responded suggested she abandon her project, citing its impossibility.

But it couldn’t be impossible. And she wouldn’t quit.

Ned had to walk again.

 

 

Chapter Three

THORNTON STOOD AT the front of the lecture theater frowning as students filed into the room. The men jostled and shoved, laughing and joking as they crashed about, eventually managing to land in seats. He supposed he’d been much the same as them. Once.

Lister University School of Medicine, founded by the Queen as a co-educational institution to seek out the brightest young medical minds, had not yet managed to find an equal number of women who were capable of passing the rigorous academic exams required for admission. Only three women, all dressed in dark hues, filed into the back row of seats, perching there stiff and solemn, staring down at him intently, like a murder of crows. He distinctly recalled being told there were four women in this class. One of their number was missing.

What had the dean been thinking forcing him to take on this task? Thornton belonged in his laboratory, pressing the boundaries of neuroscience, consulting with the Queen’s agents to stop a murderer who sought to turn Britain’s own technology against them. Not stuffing anatomical facts into impenetrable brains.

Ordered by the Queen to the Orkney Islands to investigate a sudden spike in reported sightings of selkies off the coast, Corwin, professor of anatomy, had headed north late last night. The suspicion was that Iceland was dispatching altered Inuit for reasons yet to be determined. Thornton didn’t envy the man the dark and cold October nights he would spend perched on the rocky coast. Nevertheless, it meant Professor Corwin required a replacement for the term, and Thornton’s physical injuries were no longer considered sufficient excuse for him to avoid teaching obligations.

But lectures were just the start of it all. There would be students in his office asking all manner of questions. Most of them would be ridiculous. Both the questions and the students. So many of them couldn’t think their way out of a paper bag. Even worse, there would be exams. Exams he would have to grade. Thornton sighed thinking of the sheer quantity of red ink he would require in the near future. Waste of his time, all of it.

He walked to the podium where the limelight lantern rested, glass projection slides of the human nervous system at the ready. He twisted the gas lines providing both oxygen and hydrogen into “on” positions, picked up the striker and lit the cylinder of quicklime.

There was a lull in the conversation. Thornton cleared his throat and looked up at his audience, expecting all eyes to have focused attentively upon him. Instead, he saw the backs of fifty odd heads and only one face.

A very beautiful face. One with deep pink lips, high cheekbones and a dainty nose between wide eyes that had just a hint of an exotic tilt. Smooth skin, all surrounded by elaborately coiffed hair the color of midnight. Unlike the crows in the back who rolled their eyes in disgust, this woman was garbed in the latest of fashions, a tightly corseted and bustled teal gown with a low cut neckline that had all the men leering.

All but him, of course.

Striking blue eyes met his gaze.

He lifted his eyebrows and drew out his pocket watch to consult the hour. It was five past. She was late.

Her lips curved upward at his obvious reprimand, but she made no effort to hasten her steps. A gentleman in the front row stood, gesturing to a vacant seat he clearly intended for her to occupy. She nodded in greeting, then with the twist of a knob at her waist to collapse her bustle, she removed her feathered hat and settled into the chair beside the smug-looking gentleman.

Instinct told Thornton she would be a problem. A woman with such obvious physical charms expected attention. Best to not provide it. He waved his hand at his assistant and the room plunged into darkness. Sliding home the first glass plate, an illuminated image appeared on the large screen hanging at the front of the hall.

Tomorrow, he would not wait. If she could not manage to arrive promptly, she could damn well stumble her way down the stairs or sit in the back.

“Neurons and glial cells,” he intoned. “Later in the laboratory you will closely study the features of both.”

~~~

Amanda leaned forward in her chair, entranced by the deep, booming voice of this new professor. The light cast by the limelight lantern threw his angular face into sharp relief. What captivating facial bone structure. Prominent zygomatic arches and a long square jaw made the planes of his face appear wide and harsh. Between his dark eyebrows, nasal bones stretched into a long, straight and distinctive nose. Damp hair severely slicked back from his forehead betrayed the man by daring to curl at its tips. Full lips formed words in a tone that made the features of a neuron sound utterly entrancing.

She rather thought she could be content to spend the entire morning listening to him read the index of her anatomy text. Clearly brilliant, he was also the best physical specimen she’d laid eyes on in a long time. Too bad about that clause in the school’s charter forbidding professors from entering into relationships with their students.

A flush rose upward across her face. Such thoughts. She forced her gaze to the projection on the screen. Focus, Amanda.

He was proceeding at such a rapid clip that she would soon be left behind if she could not pull her head out of the aether.

Though she put pen to paper, she could not stop herself from asking. “What happened to Professor Corwin?” she whispered to Simon, or Mr. Sommersby as she addressed him in public.

Simon shifted to lean his shoulder lightly against her own. Male instinct, she supposed, to mark her as his own. Behavior she’d encouraged. “No idea. But it seems Lord Thornton is to finish the lecture series.”

Her indrawn breath was audible.

Lord Sebastian Talbot, Earl of Thornton and renowned neurophysiologist teaching a course! She’d known he was on staff, but it was rumored that he never lectured. Whatever forced him to the podium, she did not care. Fortune had finally smiled upon her. He might have ignored her attempts to open a scientific correspondence about the possibility of using gold filaments to conduct neurological impulses, but he could not ignore her physical presence in his office as his student.

Excitement must have shown in her face as she contemplated this unexpected windfall, for Lord Thornton’s eyes flickered toward her. Did she detect surprise in the slight drawing together of his eyebrows? Hard to be certain, for his words never slowed. She had to convince him of the merit of her work. Convince him to allow her to demonstrate the function of her neurachnid, for his insight would be profound.

He’d already taken notice of her. Twice.

She winced. Not the best first impression. She had been late, and he’d sent quite the scowl in her direction.

If not for the overturned horse cart in the street‌—‌horses and steam coaches did not mix well‌—‌she would have been punctual. Amanda hated arriving late, enduring the disapproving stares of the other women, the speculative leers of the men. She’d fully intended to politely perch in the back. But when this new professor had met her gaze, seeming to challenge her right to enter, neither fire nor brimstone would have kept her from her usual center seat in the front row.

It was a matter of principle. She’d set a precedent she intended to uphold. Amanda was polite and collegial, stubbornly refusing to be relegated to the dark edges and corners of the room where most male classmates seemed to think she and the other three women belonged.

If only they’d join her.

Betsy, Joan and Sarah clung desperately to the notion that the best manner in which to succeed in medicine as a woman was to efface their sex with severely tailored dresses. Dark colors, long sleeves and high necklines revealing only the oval of their faces. They worked diligently at making themselves unpleasant and uncomfortable. Amanda saw no need to dress the dowd. She took pride in her appearance, and if her ladylike and professional behavior set her apart from others, so be it.

Lord Thornton paced back and forth across the dim lecture hall, a slight hitch to his step, while expounding upon the wonders of the neurological system, changing glass slides with astonishing speed.

Like her classmates, Amanda wrote furiously, her hand cramping. But instead of directing her eyes to the projected images, she stole glances at the man.

With an emphatic wave of his arm, a lock of his hair began to free itself. Another followed. Curls began to assert themselves, twisting tighter and sending waves along each strand. Lord Thornton’s hair took on a life of its own, falling across his brow in playful waves.

Though they’d never met, he was ton and rumors reached her ears at the various society events she’d been forced to attend. He’d been involved in a terrible dirigible accident, no doubt responsible for the slight limp she detected, but most of the gossip had centered upon his new-found eligibility. For unknown reasons, his long-time fiancée had jilted him mere months before their wedding. Not that any hopeful brides cared why. He was titled and therefore a matrimonial target.

Another slide change. More words rumbled from his throat. His voice was pure intellectual delight. She wrote faster. Really, she must start focusing on the images and not the man. But pressing concerns about the neurachnid’s design rose to mind. Here was opportunity. What questions might she put to the great neurophysiologist before her? What flash of brilliant design might she reveal? What was the best path toward winning his regard?

Suddenly, the opportunity was upon her.

The screen went dark, and the room brightened. “If there are no questions,” Lord Thornton began. “Tomorrow I will discuss…‌”

He would send them on their way with no opportunity to engage? She added arrogance to the list of his defining traits. “Professor, with regard to the ganglion, would you consider it possible to transform neurility into electricity via a rare earth metal?”

As intense, blue eyes turned to stare at her, Amanda fancied she’d caught the slightest slackening of his firm, square jaw before it tightened so much his lips thinned. She waited for his answer in breathless anticipation.

“My dear Miss…‌?” His eyebrows rose in both question and challenge.

“Ravensdale,” she supplied. Something in his eyes crystallized, not into ice, but into something much harder and denser, something with razor sharp edges, and she met that piercing gaze with the uneasy sensation in her stomach that things were about to go badly awry.

“Miss Ravensdale. From your…‌ fantastical question, I can only conclude that you have spent far too much time reading texts beyond your comprehension without adequate guidance. Despite their high electrical conductivity, insertion of such elements into the human body would be ethically reprehensible.”

Amanda inhaled sharply at the implied reprimand. There were several smothered snickers behind her. Her eyes narrowed as they caught Lord Thornton’s gaze. No. She was right and he knew it. With great deliberation, he’d chosen to belittle her hypothesis before her classmates. All hope of a demonstration of her neurachnid followed by his assistance evaporated like a drop of water falling on a hot coal. She pursed her lips, and his eyes flashed with victory.

The arrogant bastard.

Beside her, Simon drew an indignant breath. Amanda pressed her gloved palm to his arm, stifling his impulse to rush to her defense.

Then without further acknowledgement of his audience, Lord Thornton strode from the room.

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