It’s less than a month until The Earl and the Artificer is released in ebook and paperback. Between now and January 30th, I will be posting about The Earl and the Artificer as well as the process I’ve gone through while getting it ready for publication.
As promised, here is the first chapter of The Earl and the Artificer, coming January 30th:
The Ninth Earl
Elbow-deep in steamer engine innards and covered in grease was not how Hadley Sorrell expected her honeymoon to begin. The wedding and journey to Dorset had been surprisingly smooth, but their luck never lasted. She should have expected the steamer to pop and belch smoke in the middle of the road. Glancing over her shoulder, she watched her husband stare off, his grey eyes locked on the rolling waves as they lapped against the piebald coast in the distance.
“Hold my leg, so my dress doesn’t blow up,” she called. “Eilian!”
“Sorry!” He snapped to attention and held her billowing gown, his prosthetic hand resting behind her knee, as she looked into the hood. “Are you certain you don’t need help? I feel bad just watching.”
“It’s fine. I don’t think there is room in here for you, anyway.”
Leaning into the front of the cab, she brought her face close to the boiler as the heat of the kettle stung her cheeks. The metal coils of the heating element had melted into a blackened cake that smelled of burnt hair. Using the sides of the hood for leverage, she pivoted back until her satin boots met the road’s white gravel. Staring down at her cream dress, already streaked with soot and grease, she sighed and wiped her hands across it before smoothing a lock of henna hair behind her ear.
“I can’t fix it. It’s burned out.”
“We could take the bicycles into town. I don’t think it’s that far.”
“Let’s just wait for Patrick to come back. You know he won’t be long.”
As Hadley lingered in the road, reconnecting the pipes and organs from the disemboweled car, Eilian listened to the pastoral silence. Under the waves and the rustling trees, there was a faint noise he couldn’t identify and it was growing louder. Gravel hissed on the other side of the bend. By the time the steamer broke from the tree-line, it was barreling down the narrow lane. Eilian waved his arms to catch the driver’s attention, but he never slowed. Wrapping his arm around Hadley’s waist, he darted and turned, falling back onto the grass in time to watch the car hurtle past in a blur of steel and wood.
“Good Lord, he nearly ran you down!”
Hadley sat in her husband’s lap, arms and legs wrapped around him. As she tried to uncurl her legs from his lap, the muscles of her thighs locked and shook. Resting her head against his collar, she inhaled the sweet, earthy scent of sandalwood that lingered on his skin and let him hold her a little longer. If he had been slower— She shook away the thought.
“It’s no different from London. They would sooner run you over than look at you. Help me up, and I’ll finish before someone else comes.”
“No, let me do it. I’m already part metal. What’s one more limb?” he replied, kissing the top of her head and carefully disentangling himself from her skirts.
Watching Eilian from the grass, Hadley smiled to herself. The mechanized fingers of his right hand flexed at a thought, reattaching the engine’s cords and tubes with ease. It had been a year since they met, when she came knocking on his door with a tape measure and an idea for an electric prosthesis. They had shared a tent in the dusty lunar gorges of Palestine while she was disguised as a man, but there would be no more charades or mutterings from his mother about scandal or imagined impropriety. Now, they could finally be together. A thrill laced through her breast at the thought of such liberty.
“Incoming!” she called as a steamer chugged down the lane, slowing to a stop a few yards away.
Eilian stepped out of the way, his eyes trailing to the black-haired woman in the driver’s seat and beside her, his butler clamoring out the door. Patrick burst from the cab, sputtering apologies and half-formed phrases.
“Pat, slow down. I can’t understand a word you’re saying,” Eilian said as he joined him at the steamer’s hood.
Taking a deep breath, Patrick pushed his glasses up his nose and collected his thoughts. “Sorry, sir. She’s willing to take you and Lady Dorset up to Brasshurst Hall. I’ll stay behind and wait for the mechanic.”
The woman with the full features of a Caravaggian saint climbed out of her cab, her voluminous skirts rustling with each step. Her dark eyes ran between the young man with the wayward hair to the woman in the stained dress at his side. “Sorry to intrude, but your valet said you were headed for Folkesbury? I am headed that way now if you would care to join me.”
“That is very kind of you, Miss—?”
“Mrs. Rhodes,” she replied, walking back toward her steamer while the butler dithered between the trunks and bicycles tethered to the back of the hissing steamer.
Eilian held the passenger door open for Hadley to slide in. “I hope we aren’t inconveniencing you.”
“Not at all, I was heading back home. Brasshurst Hall is on the way.”
A pang of guilt rang in the pit of Eilian’s stomach as he watched Patrick grow smaller behind them.
“I was surprised to hear you were headed for Brasshurst. No one has been up there in ages. I almost didn’t believe Argus—my husband—when he told me the earl’s servants were coming up from London to clean the house. Are you his guests?”
Hadley’s lips twitched into a grin, and she shot her husband a knowing look. “He is the earl.”
“Oh.” Mrs. Rhodes’s eyes left the road long enough to search the nobleman’s face for any sign of offense while her own cheeks burned. “I beg your pardon, Lord and Lady Dorset. I— I was expecting someone… older.”
“No harm done, Mrs. Rhodes. You were probably thinking of my father. I have only been the earl for a few months, and I— Is that the house?”
Over the tops of the closely clumped elms and oaks, the spire of a tower rose. As they cut through the brush, Eilian’s eyes widened. Knowing his father, he had expected a conservative Georgian brick manor with a square roof and a smooth face, but the house was like none he had ever seen.
Brasshurst Hall was an asymmetrical monster. It had a Gothic portal and face on the front, a Palladian annex shooting off the side complete with columns and pediments. Straining his eyes, he could make out the latticed windows of a sultan’s harem floating above another layer of cathedral spires and pointed arches. The weathered grey-brown cloister stone was half-covered with ivy and wisteria. Following the gravel drive across an old stone bridge, the orangery appeared. The greenhouse’s glass and metal body bulged from the side of the manor like a verdurous boil. No wonder his father chose to move them to London.
When the steamer slid to a stop, Mrs. Rhodes swallowed hard, looking between her passengers. “I do hope you will call on us while you are in Folkesbury, Lady Dorset. My cousin is staying with us, and he has been eagerly awaiting your arrival. He lives in London, too, near Bloomsbury. You may have heard of him. Nadir Talbot, the novelist.”
“Yes, I think my brother read his last book, the one about Cleopatra. He enjoyed it very much.” When the woman’s eyes lit up, Hadley continued, “Thank you so much for giving us a lift, Mrs. Rhodes. I will most certainly pay you a visit once we are settled.”
Watching the steamer roll away, Hadley sighed as the grin fell from her cheeks. She would have to pay calls in a few days, drifting from house to house pretending she was the Countess of Dorset and not Hadley Fenice of Fenice Brothers Prosthetics. It was hard enough to pretend she was an aristocrat for a few hours at their wedding. How was she supposed to keep it up the entire time they were in Dorset? At least her etiquette books were packed in her trunk and Folkesbury seemed like a small town. Maybe no one would notice that she wasn’t a born aristocrat.
Eilian’s metal hand pressed against her palm. “So, what do you make of it?”
“It’s… different,” Hadley replied, her gaze running over the bright blue brace and ledge door set into the deep rings of the Gothic façade.
“I’m beginning to wonder if insanity runs in my family.” Eilian opened the door and turned to her with open arms. “Well, shall we?”
“You’re going to pick me up? Are you sure you can carry me?”
“I have before.”
Slipping his arms around her shoulders and behind her knees, he hoisted Hadley against his chest. She wrapped her arms around his neck and braced herself in case his prosthesis couldn’t bear her weight. Whenever he picked her up or held her close, part of her still wanted to look around to ensure no one was watching, yet she didn’t want him to stop.
“This is a silly tradition, Eilian. You don’t have to do this.”
“I want to; it’s good luck.” He kissed her cheek and pushed the door with his back. “The Romans believed carrying a bride over the threshold would protect her from evil spirits…”
Eilian froze in the doorway. The tunneled hall was dark, looming over them and pressing close to his head. While the floor had been swept and the old rug laid out, the ribbed arches were webbed with spider’s silk. As the dust motes danced and surged around them, he tightened his grip on her. Turning toward the sun’s rays, he reached to close the door but left it for fear of the shadows rushing in or what might lie beyond the threshold.
“I think we are a little late if we want to beat the evil spirits.” Hadley’s eyes roamed over the clots of long dead insects and debris spun into the grooves of the stone ceiling as he set her down. “I thought the maids were supposed to come and clean up.”
“They were. Maybe I didn’t send them early enough. There are only three of them, and I had no idea the house would be this large… or filthy.”
Taking Eilian’s hand, Hadley stepped into the great hall. The house groaned and yawned somewhere deep within. Hadley raised her eyes to the high Gothic windows and skylights she had seen on the drive up, but they were so choked with ivy they barely emitted enough light for her to make out the family coat of arms carved into the hearth on the other side of the room. A pile of furniture covered with once white sheets stood in the corner, blocking off the entrance to the dining room. The wood-paneled walls were caked in grime while the pointed arches in the upper arcade were cloaked in curtains of cobwebs as opaque as silk screens.
Rubbing her arms, Hadley stared into the mouth of the massive hearth. A granite lion’s head snarled back at her, a spider skittering from his drawn lips to his meager mane. She pulled a handkerchief from her purse and stood on tiptoe to wipe the crest above his head. An otter and a fox stood on either side of a shield surrounded by acorns and leaves. In the fox’s paw was a key while the otter clutched a scallop. Between them an oak sprouted, and a banner stretched across its roots. With her finger wrapped in the linen square, she scrubbed at the stone until the thin letters peaked through. It all had significance. If only she knew what.
“Eilian, what does it say?”
The earl squinted, tracing the letters with his fingertip as he pronounced the familiar phrase. “Salus in Arduis. A refuge in difficulties. Maybe in better days. Come on, let’s see if we can find the library or the orangery.”
Walking into the windowless hall, Eilian felt along the wall for the gas lamps’ switch but found only the dusty edge of a picture frame. He reached behind it, but when something in the shadows brushed against his hand, he lurched back, bumping into his wife. Raising his eyes, he met the face of a man in a powdered wig as the lamps lit with a gurgling sigh. The third earl stared down at him from the wall, the grey irises beneath the cocked brows and the signet ring on his finger were all that tied them together, and he still hadn’t been able to wear his father’s ring yet. He swallowed hard. So these were his ancestors. These were the men he had to live up to.
Eilian took a step forward but stopped, moving back with his eyes locked on the painting.
“What are you doing?”
“His eyes follow you.” He shuddered and tried it with the fourth earl’s portrait further down the hall. “Do we really have to stay here? Can’t we just go to Greece instead?”
Hadley rolled her eyes, avoiding the women hanging in a row on the opposite wall. Why look at them when she knew what she would see? They were a line of noblewomen, born and bred to be the wives of aristocrats, all perfected in oil and exuding a hauteur she couldn’t hope to emulate. She dreaded the day when she and Eilian would sit for their portraits, when their faces would be placed beside his ancestors and everyone would see the glaring deficiencies in the ninth Earl and Countess of Dorset. Reaching the end of the hall, she tugged at the pocket door. With each inch it slid, the thrumming hum of an engine grew louder, but on the other side stood the library. Eilian drifted in behind her, his eyes wide as they followed the bookcases up the wall where they melded with the coffered ceiling.
All of the houses prior eccentricities and sins were forgiven at the sight of the library, which rivaled his back in Greenwich. He ran his hand over the edge of the cabinet before turning the key and pulling it open. Books by Pliny, Archimedes, Al Jazari, and the Banū Mūsā brothers stared back at him. Carefully pulling the last tome from the shelf, Eilian cradled it against his chest with his prosthetic arm and turned the fragile vellum pages with the tips of his fingers. His gaze darted over the tight lines of Arabic and intricate schematics as he settled in at the divan under the window. He wondered who else had cared about ancient engineers.
Hadley’s cream gown floated at the edge of his vision until she knelt on the chair beside him and wiped at the window. She swatted at his shoulder, but his attention never wavered from the page.
He had never been able to find a pristine copy in Arabic, even in Cairo and Constantinople. His friends at the Oriental Club would be envious if they knew of his find.
Hadley gripped his shoulder and squeezed. “Eilian, look!”
Glancing up, he met her wide blue eyes, the freckles across her nose stark against her sudden pallor. She motioned for him to peer through the hole in the dust. Between the trees and dense foliage of the greenhouse, a figure sat in a wingback chair beside the algal pool.
“Someone’s in there.”
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Stay tuned for more previews in the coming weeks!