As she walked by, Clara nodded to passengers following two Ottos to their cabins, but didn’t stop until she reached the passenger storage area, where her aerocycle was stowed. The sleek machine was tied down and secured, in case of turbulence, but still accessible. This made the Bismarck
such a perfect target location for her mission. She could do what she must and escape without anyone being the wiser.
Clara Riesenbeck didn’t exist, and that trail would go cold once she stepped off the Bismarck
She stroked her hand across the aerocycle’s soft leather seat and remembered the last flight, the cool air in her face. It had been a few months since she’d had the opportunity to enjoy a ride on her baby. Fortunately, aerocycle technology was still so new that the majority of the people who observed her assumed it was a regular velocycle. Having unexpected flight capabilities gave her the perfect secret weapon.
The attached saddlebags and their compression mechanisms were in place. The whole bigger-on-the-inside technology was even younger than aerocycle capability and at this time firmly restricted to military and law enforcement use.
On her way from the passenger storage area to the passenger lounge, she confirmed her worst fears. The Bismarck
’s blueprints had led her to believe exploring on her own without detection would be impossible. She had hoped that reality was different, but it was not.
Without hesitation Clara adjusted her approach. She changed directions and turned back toward the entrance. Jens—the young steward—and an Otto were still busy checking in passengers. Jens finished with his traveler and caught sight of her. Once again his cheeks pinked, but he managed a smile before greeting the next arrival.
A slight twinge of guilt rolled through her for using the young man. Unfortunately, the stakes were far too high to allow emotions of any kind to interfere. All she wanted from him was a tour of the cargo bay. She didn’t plan to hurt him.
With a small wave she turned away and searched for the passenger lounge. It was time for tea, which gave her an opportunity to study her fellow travelers.
The oak double door to the lounge hung open, inviting patrons to enter. The first thing that caught her eye was a mural covering the entire back wall. She stepped closer, drawn by the colors and the level of artistry. It was a world map depicting the routes and ships of the explorers Marco Polo, Ferdinand Magellan, Captain Cook, Vasco da Gama, and Christopher Columbus. The detail was incredible, and for a moment she found herself sinking into the history laid out before her.
“Rather impressive bunch, what?”
She turned her head at the sound of the deep voice and found herself face to face with an older gentleman. He smacked his heels together and bowed. “Oberst
Karlheinz Winkler, at your service.”
Clara curtsied. “Miss Riesenbeck. A pleasure.” Retired military, she assessed. His bearing was unmistakable, but she didn’t think he’d seen active service for some time. He was portly and his mustache was a work of art. It probably could do second duty as a duster.
Winkler waved over a matronly woman wearing a flouncy dress and a moustache nearly as impressive as Oberst Winkler’s. He introduced her as his wife, and the three of them spent a few minutes chatting about the map. Mrs. Winkler’s every word, every gesture, every expression mirrored that of her husband. Clara had to bite her lip to keep a giggle from escaping. She had a feeling nothing happened in the Winkler house without being planned and possibly written down. In triplicate.
Despite their somewhat terse Prussian mannerisms, the couple was rather sweet and utterly perfect for each other. While they’d chatted, the lounge filled with other passengers. Eight gentlemen and three ladies, two of which were obviously married to the gentlemen accompanying them and the third, a young lady still in school. She stood with one of the women, the excitement on her face making Clara guess this to be the girl’s first dirigible flight. The gentlemen were pretty much interchangeable, all looking like merchants or businessmen traveling for work. Oberst Winkler was the only exception.
Jens and the accompanying Otto served tea and offered biscuits and cake as well as small sandwiches. Clara was about to excuse herself to gather her own refreshment when Oberst Winkler arrived with two cups of tea, one for her and one for his wife. She thanked him, and they continued their conversation.
Out of the corner of her eye, she caught the arrival of a stocky, uniformed man. He was just a touch taller than her, had short graying blond hair and pale-brown eyes. Jens immediately came to attention. That alone would have been enough to inform Clara of his position, but the bars on the shoulders of his uniform plus the cloud of command that surrounded him confirmed it.
Captain Derek Nolan had arrived. He strode up to the first group of passengers sitting around a small table and introduced himself.
This was one of the most difficult parts of her role as an undercover agent for His Excellency the Prime Minister. Part of her, a dark and ruthless part she had to keep under tight control, just wanted to kill Nolan for being the traitor that he was. He was about to endanger hundreds if not thousands of innocent people.
But there was no guarantee that his death would be the end of it.
She followed him with her eyes as he worked his way around the room, being all captain-y and in charge.
He was also a smuggler, and this time his cargo included bombs. Bombs small, sophisticated, and powerful—and threatening the empire. As much as she wanted to eliminate Captain Nolan, removing the incendiary devices was her first and foremost goal. Not only was the general threat-level too high, but there was concern it could be a direct hit against the prime minister.
Clara clenched her hand into a tight fist behind her purse, held it and mentally counted to twenty, all the time listening to Oberst Winkler belaboring one point or another. Once she’d reached twenty, she released her hand and with it her need to retrieve the derringer tucked into a disguised holster at the small of her back.
She shoved her anger and disgust into a small corner of her mind and smiled at the Oberst. “I agree completely. You’ve made your point brilliantly.”
He straightened his shoulders and stood even taller, all the while giving his wife a glance that clearly indicated she should agree with Clara. Mrs. Winkler rolled her eyes, but nodded. Before she could speak, Captain Nolan joined their little group.
“Good afternoon. Captain Nolan, at your service.” He gave them a very correct bow.
They introduced themselves and chatted. Clara kept her contributions to a minimum and only made one or two deliberately naive comments, ensuring that Nolan regarded her with condescension.
He did not look like a traitor or a smuggler, but then no one ever did. Beneath his benevolent manner was a cunning that raised the hairs on the back of her neck. Captain Nolan was far savvier than he appeared during his conversations with the passengers. He had to be in order to survive in his business for any length of time.
She continued to observe and downplay her intellect.
Nolan stayed with them for a few more minutes, before moving on to the next group of passengers. Finally, he finished making his rounds and departed.
Clara excused herself from the Winklers and made her way around the room. The mixture of languages echoing through the lounge surprised her. Mostly German, but she caught snippets of Russian and French, as well as English.
Jens pulled his shoulders back, puffing out his chest when she got closer.
She wanted to pat his cheek and tell him that in a couple of years he’d be a wonderful young man and ready to take on the world, but he wasn’t quite there yet.
“Miss Riesenbeck.” He bowed. “Have you settled in well?”
“I have. Thank you very much, Jens.” She set down the empty teacup and then rubbed her hands together, feigning a chill.
He stepped closer, as if his presence alone could provide warmth.
She lifted her right hand and stroked her shoulder, her fingers lingering until she reached the lapels of her jacket and then the edge of her dress. His gaze followed her hand. She picked up the small emerald dangling from her necklace and played with it, directing his gaze to her bosom.
“Well, don’t hesitate— I mean don’t hesitate to come to me if there…if there is anything I can help you with.” He cleared his throat. “It would be my pleasure to please you.”
Clara barely managed to keep her expression inquiring. “That is so very kind.” She bit her lower lip. “Well, there is this one thing…”
“Yes?” Jens leaned forward.
“I’m just not sure if you can help.”
His eyes glowed and his attention focused on her like a beam. “Of course I can.”
She smiled. “I’ve heard so many stories about the size of the Bismarck
. I would love to see more of the ship, but I think it would be much, much more informative if I had a guide.”
His eyes widened.
“I’m sure there are many, many hidden nooks and crannies, none of which I would find by myself.” Now she moved closer and lowered her voice. “The balloon is enormous. You must be pumping tons and tons of hydrogen into it to make it so swollen.”
Jens promptly flushed. He swallowed.
“And the pièce de résistance would be the cargo hold. It must be vast. I’d love to see how much stuff you can fit in it.”
“Stuff in what?” a dark voice said from behind her.
Clara cursed. She’d been aware of the newcomer’s entrance. His presence had pinged her senses as soon as he crossed the doorway, but having Jens nearly where she needed him meant she couldn’t turn around.
Now she had no choice.
And it was even worse than she had expected. Where Jens was a puppy, this one was the tiger who ruled the jungle.
GARRETT DEWHURST STUDIED the vision before him. She was tall and willowy, her streamlined figure on display in a sleek dress and short jacket that framed her breasts like a present. For a moment her gray eyes flashed with fierce intelligence. Then she schooled them into something more neutral.
His instincts tingled.
Their eyes locked.
He crossed his arms over his chest. “Stuff in what?” he repeated.
“Miss Riesenbeck—” Jens cleared his throat. “Miss Riesenbeck inquired if I could give her a tour of the Bismarck
. She wondered about our cargo hold in particular and its impressive s-size.”
Garrett narrowed his gaze and studied Miss Riesenbeck before bowing. “First Mate Garrett Dewhurst, at your service.”
“Miss Clara Riesenbeck.” She curtsied.
She played with her necklace, drawing his gaze to her décolletage. “The Bismarck
is the biggest dirigible I’ve ever traveled on. I’d love to explore it in more detail, especially all the places the general public doesn’t see. And I’m curious to see how you store your cargo, what kind of system you use. I’m always seeking ideas to share with my father who works in the import-export business. Your hold must be crammed to the roof.” She batted her eyelashes at Jens. “I’d just wish to know if it is as big as I’ve imagined.”
Garrett remained silent and continued to study her.
It was fascinating to watch her. She’s downplayed her intelligence when talking to Jens, but when she looked at him, her true self came right to the forefront. Jens shuffled his feet, his gaze jumping between Garrett and Miss Riesenbeck, but Garrett didn’t allow himself to get distracted.
Her lips, until now curved in a slight smile, firmed and straightened.
He raised his right eyebrow.
She didn’t respond. Instead she studied him from the tips of his boots to the top of his head and every inch in between. Heat spread through his body, unexpected and not completely welcome.
Then she mirrored his stance right down to the raised eyebrow.
Unable to help himself, he smiled.
It had been a very, very long time since a woman had intrigued him after exchanging just a few sentences. She took his breath away and made him want to laugh. Judging by her frown, this was not the response she’d expected.
Garrett turned to Jens. “I believe you have other passengers to look after. I’ll take care of Miss Riesenbeck and anything she may require.”
Jens nodded. He bowed to both of them and practically ran away.
“I don’t know if I should be insulted at the speed of his departure or pat his cheek.”
Garrett chuckled. “Neither. I just think you are too much woman for him. He wouldn’t know how to handle you.”
She widened her eyes. “And you do?”
He curved his lips and knew his smile carried an edge. “Would you like me to prove it?”
She scrutinized him, leaving him hanging on the lip of the abyss, waiting for her response.
“Give me the tour Jens had promised to escort me on, and I will let you know at the end.”
Challenge curled through him. He bowed lightly but continued to hold her gaze captive. “Please step into my cargo hold.”
Her smile lit up her face. Her beauty was not conventional, but in that moment, it grabbed him by the throat. “Said the spider to the fly.”
“Will you step into my web?”
She turned around and threw a glance over her shoulder. “That has yet to be determined.” She strode to the door, and Garrett fell into step behind her.