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She was, Valentine decided, breathtaking. All graceful lines and bountiful curves, she practically begged him to get inside her, to bend her to his will and show her things no other man would dare. There was only one problem with her, and that was the woman in white sitting forlornly at the end of the gangway.

Jewel of The Skies, the most sensual, visually striking airship ever built, floated at her landing, open and ready for the plundering. Christopher Valentine, the most sensual, striking pirate to ever make a lady swoon (though he admitted to making that title up for himself), had planned his “inheritance” of the ship down to the last detail. All day, he’d watched the four-man crew load her up then he’d followed those four men down from the air docks to the tavern, where he’d loaded them up on free rum. As their speech had slurred, so had their wits, and they’d gladly answered all of his very keen inquiries as to who captained their ship and exactly how many canisters she was carrying for her two-burner system.

He’d also learned that the Jewel was meant to transport its owner, Cecil Butler-Llewellyn, away on honeymoon with his new bride. They were scheduled for a departure at four on the dot, but it was two o’clock and what appeared to be a bride already waited beside the ship. That complicated things mightily.

The cold January wind tugged at the long tails of his burgundy coat. High above London, the weather was always windy, heated only by the occasional burst from a gas spout raising a craft into the soot-choked air, or a bit of sun, if the air patrol’s cloud buster ships were running on schedule.

The bride looked up, her white dress more gray from the flakes of ash that fell like snow over her. Her brown ringlets, pushed back from her face like the mane of a very posh lion, had gone gray with a dusting of ash, as well. She looked like a French lady in a painting, powdered wig and all, and she shivered in her dress that looked more fitting for an opera than a dirigible trip. She peered up through her emerald glass goggles at Valentine’s slow approach, berry-red lips parted in sudden anticipation. It took her only a moment to see that he was not the man she’d hoped for, and when she did, it was apparent by the way she seemed to curl in on herself, disappearing further into the ridiculous nest of taffeta that was her dress.

If there was one thing Valentine had learned about women, it was that he was terribly good at charming them with what was his considerable lack of charm. He adjusted the fit of his goggles and tipped his hat to her. “Forget your coat, love?”

“Did Cecil send you?” She scoffed, the haughty illusion broken by the trembling hitch in her next breath. “He needn’t have bothered. I won’t be cast off so neatly. I will speak to him, face to face, and he can explain it all then.”

“He’s…very sorry.” Valentine could only assume the man was sorry; he wasn’t entirely certain what they spoke of, but it never boded well when one was being spoken of tearfully by a woman in a soot-covered wedding gown.

“Sorry? He has humiliated and ruined me!” The bride buried her face in her gloved hands, the elegant ivory satin coming away dirtied with black streaks. “Oh, what would you care? You’re probably on his side.”

“I take no side, I assure you.” A flicker of inspiration came to him, and he hefted his heavy pack from one shoulder to the other, the tools of his nefarious trade clanking inside. “I’m only here to service the dirigible. To make sure it’s in top shape for the wedding trip.”

“There isn’t going to be a wedding trip, you fool!” she snapped, her hands clenching to fists in her voluminous gown. “Do I appear dressed to travel? Do you think these are tears of happiness? He’s jilted me. I don’t care a sparrow’s teat for this stupid barge. In fact, I’d rather like to go on board right now and smash anything that’s smashable!”

“You’re furious, that’s understandable.” He kept calm, to mask the terror he felt when he imagined what a woman scorned might be capable of doing to the fine polished surfaces and delicate chinoiserie embellishments inside the ship. “But I do have a vested interest in making sure the vessel runs smoothly. Perhaps you wouldn’t mind if I went ahead and took a look?”

She made a noise of pure disgust and dragged her long skirt out of his way. It did seem a bit cheap to leave her sitting there, tears streaming down her dirty face, doomed to freeze to death as a result of her own stubbornness. But he was so close to his prize, the famed, pristine Jewel. He could fly her to the colonies with the load of gas on board. He could fly her to the islands! Just the thought of the hot sun and glittering waves warmed him. He might never return to London. Wouldn’t need to; with a ship like this, he’d be content to die in her.

The bride was none of his concern. He whistled as he strolled up the gangway, not bothering to look down. The soot and smoke from the older, coal-fired dirigibles obscured any hope of seeing the river below. Jewel of The Skies was state-of-the-art, as gas leverage ships went, but Valentine was reasonably sure his tools would adapt. The door opened by way of a huge wheel, brass spokes radiating out from the center and topped with padded leather grips. He spun it once, caught another handhold, and gave it another hard spin. The rubber seal around the door hissed as it released, then swung outward, and Valentine stepped aboard the most luxurious airship he’d ever laid eyes upon.

The entrance was narrow, the floor grippy, to prevent a gentleman or lady from slipping as they exited. A simple tumble at the height of the gangway could be catastrophic. But beyond the plain foyer, sumptuous carpets and burnished wood awaited his tread. The walls of the narrow hall leading to the pilot’s chambers were richly upholstered in a masculine shade of green silk. The pilot’s chambers themselves were up a delicately wrought spiral stair. Valentine had the damndest time hauling his tools up the narrow steps, but once he followed them through the round hatch, he was terribly glad he’d made the effort.

The pilot of the Jewel was very well provided for, indeed. The whole of the cabin was surrounded in glass, allowing ample scope of vision from the helm. The pilot’s bunk was made up with thin-as-paper linens and a thick down duvet. He jumped onto it, backward, relishing the guilty pleasure of a stolen moment in the middle of what would be, unquestionably, his most difficult triumph.

 

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