by Tonia Brown
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Top hats and tails and waistcoats and feathers and flowing gowns.
These are the things that make a man such as I as nervous as a schoolgirl longing for her first kiss. I was foppish in comparison to the others, my own dress sloppy and slapdash as usual—though I will admit the bowtie did lend my aged suit an air of formality. As I pushed my spectacles up my thin nose and looked out among the gathering throngs of well-dressed partygoers, I had but one thought bursting from my aching brain.
What was I doing here?
The question was an honest one, not just because I felt much like a marine creature flopping about on the dry shore, gasping for a lifesaving breath, but because I had so much to do back at the workshop. Half-finished projects waited for me, their intricate clockworks gathering a fine layer of dust, while I was here, pulling at my bowtie and sweating like a swine. It seemed preposterous that I would take time from my busy schedule for such frivolity. Yet here I was. The very idea of it forced me to ask the same question aloud.
“What am I doing here?” I whispered, or at least I thought I whispered my words.
“You’re here, Professor, because your cousin asked you here,” Mr. Sapp reminded me in his brusque but honest way.
“Damn him for doing so. He knows I don’t like this sort of affair.”
“Yes, we all know. Least you can do is enjoy yourself. For once. Sir.”
“But … this isn’t enjoyable for me.”
“Then fake it. You might actually meet someone for a change if you’d just look like you know how to enjoy yourself.”
As my manservant for many years, and unbearably American in nature, good old Sapp could always be relied upon to just come right out and tell me the truth. No matter how much it pained me to hear it. If it weren’t for his incredible mechanical aptitude, I would have fired him years before. But good men are hard to come by, and in the service of the technical sciences, I find this doubly so!
“I don’t need to meet anyone,” I argued. “And, contrary to popular belief, I know how to enjoy myself.”
“If you did, Mr. Darcy,” he refuted, “then you wouldn’t be here alone.” With this pronouncement, a foul wisp of whiskey-scented breath curled from his insubordinate lips.
For the sake of not making a scene in front of my relatives, not to mention half of the locals, I clenched my teeth and forced myself to forgive his poor choice of words. “Thank you, Mr. Sapp. That will be all.”
Sapp shrugged his broad shoulders and made his way to the kitchen, no doubt to carouse with the rest of the half-drunken staff. Surely there was a wave of wait staff in the wings, waiting for his every word. And most of them of the feminine persuasion. His exotic nature in this foreign land—foreign to him, for I am native to these British soils—always lent him an air of unnecessary mystery when it came to the attention of the opposite sex. In coarser terms, the ladies practically fell over themselves just for the chance to talk to him. As well as a few men. ‘Tis true! It was an awesome sight to behold, and one of which Sapp never seemed to tire. But I did. Not because I begrudged the man his limelight. No.
I tired of it because I both lacked and desired that very quality.
It is not that I don’t desire attention from women, I just never seem to have the time required to devote to them. Nor do I understand them. Women aren’t as easy to comprehend as machines. Give me an auto-buggy with a wrecked mechanical stallion and a housing unit filled with broken cogs, and I can have it up and running before the night is done. But introduce me to a woman? I find my own gears run down, and I am as useless as a busted clock.
What I wouldn’t give to be as suave and charming as my cousins. I mused on this thought as I looked out again across the busy ballroom floor. The members of the Darcy family danced and made merry, all gaiety and sophistication. Every aspect of our proud lineage was a fine example of beauty and grace. Even our American cousin, the organizer of this little affair, was out there having the time of his life, and looked damned fine doing so. While I, Alabaster Darcy, remained ensconced in my usual nonthreatening role as nothing more than part of the surroundings.
I might as well have been a potted plant for the attention those present were paying me.
Pausing in my self-loathing long enough to gulp the remains of my cup, I dreaded the inevitable bob of my unsightly Adam’s apple as I swallowed hard. I dreaded every inch of myself when exposed to the public like this. From my bone-thin frame to my pale complexion to my need for spectacles. (I was perpetually lashed to lenses of a most amusing thickness, even though I had yet to see my twenty-first summer. And probably wouldn’t if I didn’t wear the damnable things.) Though I had been told upon occasion that I indeed held some of the same rugged handsomeness that seemed to reside in all Darcy men, I managed to overshadow this with my perpetual awkwardness.
I was a Darcy, yet when around the others of my clan, I felt like a fool.
This brought me back to ponder the reason I had agreed to allow Sapp to R.S.V.P. to the invitation. Drawn back to my original question, I reflected on my useless social skills, or rather my utter lack of social skills, when I heard a polite cough. I turned, and to my surprise, as well as horror, behind me stood a woman.
Please understand that my terror rested not in her looks, for they were fine, to be sure. Finer than any woman I had seen for quite some time. In fact, she was extraordinary in her beauty. A petite woman in her late teens or perhaps early twenties—I was never very good at discerning age in others—with a broad and clean smile and large alluring eyes. Her body was a delight for the senses: an hourglass shape that was pleasing to the eye, a faint perfumed scent that drifted across the small space between us to tickle my nose, and a flowing mane of crimson hair that was assuredly as soft to the touch as my twitching fingers imagined.
My dismay was in her proximity, though it was a modest few feet, as it should have been. But even a few feet from such a gorgeous thing brought forth in me such anxiety that I thought I would swoon! Then she spoke. To me! She spoke to me!
“Professor Darcy?” she asked, knowing my name better than I did, for at that moment I had no idea who I was or what in the world I was doing.
“Am I?” I asked. Yes, true to my usual bumbling form, I actually questioned my own identity. What else could I do? She had flustered me more than any complicated blueprint or piece of machinery ever had.
A gentle smile crossed her crimson lips as she said, “I do wish so. I was hoping to get a chance to speak with Professor Darcy.”
“In that case, I assure you he is me.” I closed my eyes and cursed my nervous nature. I sounded like a baboon howling for its mate. Why couldn’t I just act normal for once?
“I’m Mary Westbury.”
There was an unnatural pause in her speech, and when I opened my eyes, I spied her sil- gloved hand extended in greeting. I took it into my trembling palm and almost jumped at her electric touch. “I’m pleased to meet you, Mrs. Westbury.”
“Miss,” she corrected me.
“Miss,” I echoed like a moron, then gave her hand a curt shake before releasing it. I then realized that perhaps a small kiss on her knuckles would have sent a better message. Or would it have? I’m never sure about these things.
“The pleasure is all mine. I have been a fan of your work for some time.”
“Fan?” The word had lost meaning when applied to me.
“I’ve followed all of your unveilings.”
“You have?” This was intriguing indeed. Usually women found my work tiresome and dull. To hear that this young lady—this beautiful young lady—had interest in my field was … somewhat arousing. To say the least. My heart sped up its already racing rhythm as my wretched bowtie all at once seemed two sizes too small.
Ms. Westbury nodded, and in the subtle bob of her head, I detected a certain shyness in the poor creature, perhaps a timidity matching my own. “In the papers, of course. My mother wouldn’t allow me to attend them in person.”
“Well, mothers can be demanding.”
“Yes, they can.” Pausing in thought, she fingered a brass pendant that hung at her pale throat.
I detected a note of sorrow at the mention of her mother’s temperament. I speak from experience when I say a matron’s régime can be most oppressive. My own mother, though I love her and may God rest her weary soul, was a witch of a woman when she didn’t get her way.
“I’m very glad you’re here,” Ms. Westbury continued. “I wanted to get a chance to talk to you about your Skyline project.”
I heaved a sigh, and in that single exasperated breath, I released my nervousness as well as disappointment. This woman wasn’t interested in my work at all. She was after my prospective fortune. Sapp had warned me against such money-minded ladies—or ‘gold diggers,’ as he called them. He said that with my growing reputation, I was destined to come across a few women interested in the financial promises my projected travel system would bring, and nothing more.
It would appear that he was correct, the old dog.
The concept of Skyline was as simple as it was brilliant, if I do say so myself. A company of dirigibles designed for public transport both nationally and internationally, on call, twenty-four hours a day. The relief of ground congestion in London alone would make the entire project a triumph of human endeavor. And of course, because the Ministry of Travel agreed to use airships based on my exclusive designs, there was a certain percentage of profit set aside to compensate me for my hard work and achievements. A percentage that seemed as alluring to young, unattached women as Sapp’s American charm.
Or, as in this case, it was alluring to the mother of a young, unattached woman.
“Thank you for your interest,” I said in a flat tone. “I invite you to continue following the venture in the press, as I am sure it will be a subject of much journalistic endeavor for many moons to come. Good evening.”
I turned on my heel with every intention of leaving her standing there on her own. Into the drawing room I marched, away from the party and the ongoing happiness that continued to elude me. Much to my dismay, the petite tap of her shoes echoed across the hardwood floor behind me. I stopped at my cousin’s writing desk, slumping as I prepared to deal with this … this … gold digger!
“I think there has been some misunderstanding,” she said.
“Yes,” I agreed, over my shoulder. “There has. But I’m afraid I can’t discuss any of the fiscal peculiarities of it until the contracts are out of negotiation. Again, I bid you good night.”
“Fiscal?” she asked, as if dumbfounded by the word.
I rubbed my temples and whispered. “Good Lord. Do they teach these girls nothing?” Spinning about, I said louder, “Yes. Fiscal. As in financial.”
Ms. Westbury pursed her lips for a moment, then announced, “I know what fiscal means, Mr. Darcy.”
“Well then perhaps, Ms. Westbury, you also understand what I’m driving at.”
“No. I’m afraid I don’t.” Her shyness flared into a sudden anger, as her whole body visibly tensed, suggesting she was on the defense.
I smiled as I rested against the desk, cocksure and proud of my cleverness in spotting my first ‘would-be Mrs. Darcy’ before she could help herself to my fortune. Taking great pleasure in deflating her marital hopes, I crossed my arms and said, “I don’t know what your mother told you about me, but I can assure you that I am not looking for a wife to share my potential earnings with. I am content to live the life of a bachelor, carefree and unaccountable and not bothered by the whims of a woman.”
For a moment, she said nothing. Not a witty rejoinder. Not a sharp retort. There was no sound between us, save for the occasional drifting note from the ballroom, and our mutual heavy breathing from the exertion of the argument. She stared at me, damp-eyed and unquestionably offended, but I cared not. Sapp was right, I needed … no, I wanted a wife, but not one who would take more interest in my finances than in my feelings.
“I don’t care about your money,” she finally said.
Looking to the ceiling, I snorted.
“I … I …” she jawed the air a moment, at sea for a response. Then she did something I never, in all of my born days as a proper and upright gentleman, ever supposed I would witness a young woman doing.
She placed her hand down the front of her corset!
Right there before me, she slipped her hand down the low-necked front of her beaded gown, and rifled about, as if fishing for an apple in a barrel. And no doubt, the apples were readily in hand, for her bosom was most pleasing to behold. Plump and luscious and young and firm. It took everything I had to keep my desire in check. I turned away, in shock, in awe, in lust. I didn’t know what to say, much less what to do.
“Here,” she said, and I felt her join me at the desk.
Again, her proximity overwhelmed my senses. I almost forgot her intentions as I stood beside her, drawing in her intoxicating aroma, lungful for lungful. She smelled like summer rain, dewy and sweet and ripe with promise.
“Here,” she said again.
I looked down to spy her holding out a parchment. She waggled the thing at me, encouraging me to relieve her of it. When I did so, I was struck by two things at once. The paper was warm to the touch, as if heated by some unknown source. But no sooner had I unfolded the page than did her very smell waft from the confines and fill my nostrils once more. It was then that I realized that she had retrieved the parchment from her bust line. She had smuggled it into the party by means of her very own corset.
As I unfolded the page, all became clear.
“What is this?” I asked, though I knew the designs of one of my own airships as I knew my own soul. Even this poorly sketched version.
“It’s an airship,” she answered, and seemed so proud to be in possession of the thing.
“I can see that. Why do you have a sketch of my design?”
She furrowed her brow at me. “Your design?”
“Yes.” I waved the parchment at her. “These documents are under lock and key at the Bank of England. How did you get your hands on them?” Answers tumbled into place the moment I asked the questions, leaving me in a sort of one-sided interrogation, asking and responding before she could even blink. “You’ve stolen them. Why? You intend to blackmail me! Where did you get this? You got someone to copy my work!”
“I designed it!” she shouted over my mad ranting.
At this news a titter came upon me, which exploded into a full-blown laugh. After several seconds of wild guffawing, I pointed to her and asked, “You?” I continued, after pointing to the poor sketch of my work, “Designed this?”
“Yes.” Her answer was so serious, so blank, it stopped me dead cold.
I looked down at the sketch, then back to her. “But I created this.”
A smirk claimed her plump lips. “You might have fashioned something similar, Mr. Darcy, but I assure you, that one is mine.”
As I looked back to the drawing again, a cold and embarrassing sensation crept over me. The more I explored the design, the more I realized the truth. The differences were subtle—a removed cog here and an extra prop there—but, as I said, I would know my own design as I know my own soul.
This wasn’t my design.
This was a different airship.
I thought myself a genius with my plans, an original artist in a lone discipline, but here was proof that someone had imagined a ship almost like mine. And what was perhaps even worse than that, her design was better. No. Not just better. It was superior to mine. In every possible way.
The author of this wonderful device was more than just a kindred soul. This person was the very genius I always envisioned myself to be. Here was someone with whom I could spend countless hours, on an intellectual level that few could share. I had spent my whole life yearning for just such a companion, and my heart leapt into my throat at the possibility that that very prayer was answered. My shyness in front of this fair maid fought against my admiration for the author of the work I held in my trembling hands. And for a brief moment, I was unsure if they were the one and the same. Could a woman be responsible for such a thing? In my experience with the fairer sex, it seemed unlikely. I lifted my eyes to her again, and chanced to glance upon her pendant.
The sight of it removed all doubt.
She wore a symbol of my trade: a single brass cog suspended from a silver chain. No cultured woman upon this earth would allow this drab accoutrement to grace her precious skin, much less wear it to such an important social gathering. She must have worn it to communicate her sincerity to me. Either that or she was as much of a gear-head as I was.
“That’s a lovely necklace,” I said.
“Thank you,” she said, fingering the cog again. “My father left it to me. This and his books. I learned everything I know from him. He’s gone now.”
I didn’t know what to say to that.
“Why are you showing me this?” I asked.
“I wanted to get your opinion,” Ms. Westbury said in a soft voice.
“My opinion? Good Lord, woman, what can I say?”
“You don’t like it?”
“Like it! It’s brilliant!”
“Yes. I … I … I’ve never seen something so,” I swallowed hard as I locked onto her eyes and finished with, “beautiful.”
Her cheeks shone a rosy hue with the shame of her sudden pride. “I wanted to bring it to your offices in London. But mother wouldn’t allow it. She said that young ladies don’t design airships.”
Ah, the dreaded matronly grip. A quashing of the spirit was the last thing this self-trained genius needed. What she did need was coaching. Teaching. She needed a mentor. And perhaps, with some gracious luck from Eros himself, she wanted even more.
Drawing a deep breath, I admitted, “Your mother was right.”
Ms. Westbury opened her mouth to refute me, but I didn’t allow her the chance.
“Young ladies don’t design airships, but beautiful young women do.” I smiled, hoping that my stress of her adulthood helped set her at ease.
The hint met its mark, bringing a bright smile to her, and lighting the desire in my soul once more. We both fell quiet again at that. There was so much to say, but neither of us could seem to find the words. Over our mutual silence came the strains of a familiar tune from the ongoing ball.
Clearing my throat, I asked, “Ms. Westbury?”
“Yes, Mr. Darcy?” she asked.
I extended my arm to her, inviting her to take my elbow. “Would you care to dance?”
She gave another shy nod. “I would like that very much.”
Taking her arm in arm, we made our way to the ballroom floor, and danced and danced and danced. When there was no music left to sustain our buoyant feet, we continued to dance to the sweet harmony that played between our hearts, beating together in perfect mechanical rhythm.
Tick-Tock, Mr. Darcy by Tonia Brown
Darcy post created for Pemberley Ball by Tonia Brown
© 2010. All rights reserved.
by Tonia Brown
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by Regina Riley aka Tonia Brown
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