Holly turned and walked out of the office but came to a standstill halfway down the corridor. Her heart raced. What on earth had she just done? Was she insane to give up her steady position?
No. As much as you enjoy your work, this is not what you want to do for the rest of your life
. She took a deep breath and exhaled, trying to calm herself and formulate a plan. Holly needed a new direction, and her somewhat impulsive decision to resign had brought the necessary change upon her.
She would adjust, she always did. More important was the radical thought that had made her agree to work tomorrow night. All sorts of opportunities had now opened up. Opportunities to follow through on the heat burning inside her, the heat reflected in Smith’s eyes. He was too much of a gentleman to take it any further, so it fell to her to show him what she desired.
She flipped a curl of her undisciplined hair behind her ear. This could go either very, very right or horribly wrong. She started to walk again. But if it went wrong, she’d only have to suffer in his company for a few hours, and then they’d never cross paths again.
Holly pushed her hands inside her jacket pockets. Paper crinkled in one. Bother. She’d forgotten to give Mr. Tannenbaum the message from his wife. Holly turned around and strode back to Tannenbaum’s office, her rubber-soled boots thumping on the wooden floor. She knocked briskly and stepped inside. “Mr. Tannenbaum, I forgot I had a message from your wife.”
His bushy brows shot up. “What is it?”
“She asked me to tell you to come home early tonight so you’re prepared for tomorrow evening.”
A loving smile spread across his lips. “Ah, the missus worries too much. But it’s sweet of her to call.” He lifted the Aetherphon receiver on his desk. “I’d better call her back and reassure her.”
“You have big plans for Christmas Eve?” She couldn’t resist asking.
The loving smile turned wicked. “Not really. As I said, she worries too much. She should be aware that after all these years I know what I’m doing. Thank you, Mrs. Acklin.”
That tells me nothing
. But Holly had no choice but to nod and turn around. Tannenbaum was a master at saying plenty of words without actually saying anything. She grumbled a little on her way to the tower, but Smith and their shift together tomorrow evening dominated her mind.
Luckily, once she got to her Long Range Visualization Terminal, or LRVT, in the tower, the Aether was busy enough to keep her thoughts focused and occupied. It always amazed her how many goods were delivered this close to Christmas. As someone who started to plan her Christmas list in September, it made no sense to her, but obviously there were enough people who waited to the last minute.
It had snowed steadily for the last two days and continued to do so. Snow interfered with the Aether connections and made the links between the controllers and vessels unreliable. She was uncertain how much more the station would be able to cope with.
She pushed her worries aside, and if the image of Mr. Jack Smith flitted through her mind with alarming regularity, she ignored it. Mostly.
Just because she wanted a night of pleasure didn’t mean she was emotionally involved.
* * * *
The next day Holly rushed into the London Royal Port Authority, struggling not to grin like an idiot. She had to stomp the snow off her boots and shake it off her hat, but even the atrocious weather couldn’t dampen her mood. She had no idea what the night would bring, but she would enjoy her last shift as an Aether traffic controller.
Come what may.
She walked into the staff room and bumped into her friend Penelope, who’d just finished work. Penny was a petite blonde with pale skin and a smattering of freckles across her nose. Her hazel eyes usually sparkled with mischief, and she always had a funny tale to share.
She was also a genius with the Babbage AetherComp. Penny worked in accounting and shipping, keeping track of the thousands of crates of cargo that went through the London Royal Port Authority on a regular basis.
And there was no machine in the Empire she couldn’t operate.
“Holly, oh no. You’re missing the dance again? I had so hoped this year we could share some punch and admire the clockwork-creatures exhibition together.”
Holly shrugged and smiled. “For the last time.” She unbuttoned her coat, shook off the last little bit of wet snow, and hung it in the narrow wooden closet. “Tonight is my final shift.”
Penny sank onto the bench between their lockers. “Your last shift? What happened?”
Holly straightened the cuffs of her blouse and the lapels of her deep-blue jacket, which matched her skirts, only now realizing they complemented Jack’s eyes. She swallowed and pulled herself back to the here and now.
The tower could be chilly, especially with this weather, so she kept the jacket on and sat beside Penny. “I realized, after storming into Mr. Tannenbaum’s office— screeching like a faulty pressure valve, I might add—that as much as I love my work here, I am ready for more.”
Penny took her hand. “I never had the pleasure of meeting David, but it was obvious when you first started how deeply you missed him.”
Holly tightened her grip around her friend’s hand. “I did. I still do sometimes, but I can’t let that keep me frozen in place. I love London, but I miss seeing the world.” She laughed. “Even if it was limited to the greenery in exotic locations.”
Penny nodded and with her usual no-nonsense approach cut through Holly’s explanation. “You miss the adventure, the relying on your wits to get you through situations, and engaging with people less conservative than your circle here in London.”
Holly gaped at her friend. “How did you know?”
Penny smiled. “Sweetie, you’ve been restless for some time now. And you have started to tell more tales from your exploits with David. I believe you mentioned the story of how it was only your clever instincts and quick thinking that saved you from some unsavory people in that village in the Amazon three times in the last two weeks. So what will you do?”
Holly sighed. “That’s the problem. I don’t know. I have an acquaintance who might need an extra dirigible pilot in Brazil, but I don’t really trust him, and I had hoped to stay a little closer to London.” She shrugged. “The universe will look after me. I plan to take Faith
for a spin across the country, starting with Bath. Something will cross my path, I’m certain.”
Just the idea of taking Faith
, her beloved dirigible, for a trip and leaving the rut of her everyday life behind made Holly’s heart beat faster. The Faith
was her safe haven, the one place she didn’t share with anyone.
It would be good to get away.
Penny changed her shoes so she had better protection against the snowy mush outside and then rose. “I will miss you, Holly, immensely, but I hope you find what you seek.” She put her hands on her hips. “And don’t you dare forget to Aethergram me from every location. Heck, even a flockwork message will do. But stay in contact. You’re not getting away so easily.” She hugged Holly. “Merry Christmas.”
Holly smiled and ignored her blurry vision. She had to leave if she ever wanted to find the intangible something missing from her life. She returned the hug. “Merry Christmas, Penelope. Have no doubt I will let you know how things are progressing.”
She would miss her bubbly friend. No matter what, Holly would find a way to look Penny up on a regular basis.
Penny sniffed a little and then stood straighter. “All the best.” She left, rubbing her eyes.
Holly slipped out of her winter boots and into her rubber-soled work boots. No one in the tower or anywhere on the premises was allowed leather-soled shoes of any kind for fear of sparks. Even all the automatons had rubber coatings.
She checked her narrow wristwatch and realized she still had a couple of minutes. Holly rubbed her slightly moist palms on her skirts, straightened the cuffs of her white blouse again, and lifted her chin.
You will seduce Jack Smith tonight
. She would step out of the protective bubble she’d only recently realized she’d surrounded herself with after David’s death. Today would be the first day of a new Holly. Or rather the return of the old Holly who’d disappeared after finding her husband’s dead body in their tent during a botanist expedition to the Amazon.
She didn’t want to hide any longer.
She wanted to live again.
And one passionate night of sex would set her on her new path.
Holly exhaled and closed her locker with a slam. The lock snicked
shut. She took her bag holding her supper and flask of tea.
Tonight’s the night.
The silly smile quirked her lips again, but now she let it as she strode through the corridors and up the four flights of stairs to the tower’s round observation deck with a 360-degree view of the city. The heavy snow outside the window concerned her.
But there wasn’t a lot she could do about the weather. Not quite ready to notice Smith, she focused on her surroundings.
Mrs. Tannenbaum loved Christmas and decorated every room in the tower. The observation deck warranted a small Christmas tree, and Holly enjoyed the scent of pine filling the room. She took a deep breath. The cinnamon sticks and spiced biscuits hanging on the tree and the pomanders dotted along the windowsills filled the room with Christmas cheer.
Holly exhaled and finally met the gaze of the other person in the room.
Smith stood at his station, a steaming cup of coffee sitting on his desk in reach of his hand. He smiled.
Her smile wobbled a little. Her heart raced and her hands trembled. Jack Smith wasn’t handsome. He was too husky and carried too dark an edge. But he captured her attention. He wore a simple but well-made black suit. A suit that followed his lines and drew attention to his massive body, broad shoulders, narrow hips, and strong legs. And every inch in between.
His hands were double the size of hers, but moved with a delicacy and elegance she would have thought impossible.
Smith followed the newer fashions and wore his raven-black hair short and his face clean shaven. Her late husband, David, had favored a heavy beard. Smith’s rugged face had high cheekbones and a strong chin that were clearly visible, inviting her hands to explore the rough contours.
But it was his eyes above all else that seized her imagination. A deep azure blue—the color of the water in a hidden cove she had found during one of their expeditions—and surrounded by fine lines that showed he laughed and enjoyed the outdoors. Every time he looked at her Holly found herself captivated. Never before had she responded so strongly to a man’s eyes, but something in Jack Smith’s drew her in, made her want to find out his thoughts and feelings.
And the reason why, despite the burning heat in his captivating eyes, Smith had never taken a step over the line of “just colleagues.”
“Mrs. Acklin, a pleasure as always.” He bowed to her, and she nodded.
“Mr. Smith.” Holly set down her bag. She pulled out her Dewar tea flask and a sturdy clay mug and poured herself a cup. The light scent of bergamot stroked across her senses, calming her. When she raised her head, Smith leaned back in his chair and studied her with a small smile on his lips.
“So it’s the two of us looking after the Royal Port Authority tonight. From what I understand, you have worked this shift before?” he inquired.
Holly barely contained the unladylike snort that threatened. “I have indeed. It is one of the reasons tonight will be my last shift.”
He jumped up, nearly spilling hot coffee all over himself. “Your last shift? Surely you jest. You love your work here.”
She shrugged and sank into her chair, secretly pleased by his response. “It is time for a change. I’m headed for Bath in a few days.” Holly turned her back on him and powered up the Long Range Visualization Terminal before her. “What has the traffic been like?”
Smith sat again slowly and accepted her change of subject, but with a frown. “From what I have seen so far, the sky is bedlam. And the bad weather isn’t helping.”
Holly nodded as she waited for her LRVT to clear. Soon dozens and dozens of blinking dots appeared. “The weather observation station has predicted heavy snowfall. They are trying to get their goods in before conditions get too bad and while we still have staff. Every dirigible landing after shift’s end won’t be unloaded until Boxing Day.”
Holly shrugged out of her jacket. Jack Smith’s presence was enough to raise her body temperature. She picked up the eartubes and put them on, before lifting the speaking tube and calling up the Talbot Three
, the dirigible at the front of the queue. As much as she wanted to bathe in Jack’s presence, until they’d worked through the dirigibles waiting to land, they wouldn’t have a moment to themselves. “Talbot Three
, please come in. Talbot Three
, please come in. This is Tower One.”
“Tower One, thi…s Talbot…here
The message crackled in her eartubes. As she’d feared, the snow affected the Aether. This would make things more difficult. Smith also contacted one of the dirigibles in orbit. A shiver ran down her spine when he talked to whatever vessel he’d connected to. She had to drag her attention back to the Talbot Three
, otherwise she would have drowned in his smooth baritone.
If he was ever on the other end of the speaking tube when she landed the Faith
, she’d be in big trouble.