Skies of Steel

The Ether Chronicles:
Book 3
Available Now
From Avon Impulse
ISBN: 978-0062109156

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In the world of The Ether Chronicles, the Mechanical War rages on, and appearances are almost always deceiving . . .

The prim professor

Daphne Carlisle may be a scholar, but she’s far more comfortable out in the field than lost in a stack of books. Still, when her parents are kidnapped by a notorious warlord, she knows she’ll need more than quick thinking if she is to reach them in time. Daphne’s only hope for getting across enemy territory is an airship powered and navigated by Mikhail Denisov, a rogue Man O’ War who is as seductive as he is untrustworthy.

The jaded mercenary

Mikhail will do anything for the right price, and he’s certain he has this mission—and Daphne—figured out: a simple job and a beautiful but sheltered Englishwoman. But as they traverse the skies above the Mediterranean and Arabia, Mikhail learns the fight ahead is anything but simple, and his lovely passenger is not entirely what she seems. The only thing Mikhail is certain of is their shared desire—both unexpected and dangerous.

Daphne Carlisle ducked as a mechanical arm soared past. It narrowly missed her head and smashed on the wall behind her. Pieces of rusted metal flew everywhere, landing in her hair and scattering on the floor. Someone gave a coarse laugh. Angry shouts ensued, followed by the sounds of fisticuffs and wooden furniture shattering.

Assuredly, this isn’t the Accademia.

Straightening, Daphne picked the bits of metal and gearworks from her hair. She tugged on her short, fitted jacket and smoothed out her skirts. This tavern might be the gathering spot for thieves, miscreants, and scoundrels, but she needn’t look as though she was one of their number. Her mission necessitated appearing as respectable and honest as possible. She couldn’t fail. The stakes were far too high.

She scanned the smoke-filled room. The fight had subsided, or at least the participants had grown bored of their brawl. Men—and some women—of every nation huddled around tables, their hands possessively wrapped around mugs and greasy wine glasses. One group gambled using a clockwork game of chance, others used old-fashioned playing cards. An automaton with a concertina honked out what might be music, but it had to have been years since the mechanized musician had been serviced. It missed every fifth note.

“Looking for someone, bella?” someone slurred at her in Italian.

She raised an eyebrow at the poorly groomed man staggering toward her. Stains covered his clothing, and his hair hung in greasy strands over his collar. Wine dribbled from [r1] the rim of his cup and onto his worn shoes.

“You’ve found him,” the man added with a leer. He stood far too close. Fumes of many varieties wafted off of him.

“If I’m in need of a lesson in bad hygiene,” she answered, also in Italian, “I know precisely who to call upon.”

The man blinked at her, then slowly realized he’d been insulted. “Hey, now, I’m only being friendly.” He reached for her.

She knocked his hand back. “I’ve got more than enough friends.”

He fumbled for her again. “I—”

Moving as quickly as her skirts would allow, Daphne hooked her foot behind his ankle, then tugged. He stumbled backward, landing with a thud in a nearby chair. An expression of bafflement crossed his face, as though he couldn’t quite understand how he’d wound up sitting.

“Truly, signore,” she said, shaking out her skirts once more, “there are plenty of women here who will find your … charms … alluring. I’m not one of them.”

Before he could form a rejoinder, Daphne moved on. She hadn’t time to waste with drunkards and fools.

Pressing further into the tavern, she saw that it stretched out in a labyrinth of rooms.

Now I know how Theseus felt.

Except the creature she sought wasn’t a bull-headed monster, but another kind of hybrid. One that the Ancients would most definitely have found equally fantastic. She had no ball of string to help find her way out of this place, and it struck her again how very alone she was in this endeavor.

She dodged more groping hands and impertinent questions, all the while conscious of how out of place she had to look. Palermo, and this tavern in particular, served as the gathering place for the seafaring criminals of the western Mediterranean. Part of the Mechanized War was being fought in the sky using airships, but seafaring battles were still common, and the war had destabilized the seas, leaving them ripe for infestation by pirates and smugglers. Not since the days of the wild Spanish Main had the oceans been so perilous.

Which was precisely why Daphne needed to travel in the sky, and why she’d come to this place.

But the man she sought was nowhere to be found. She cursed under her breath.

He had to be here. His airship, Bielyi Voron, had been spotted nearby. Through the judicious use of bribery, she had learned that he frequented this tavern. If he wasn’t here, she would have to come up with a whole new plan, but that would take costly time. Every hour, every day that passed meant the danger only increased.

She walked past another room, then halted abruptly when she heard a deep voice inside the chamber speaking in Russian. Cautiously, she peered around the doorway. A man sat in a booth against the far wall. The man she sought. Of that she had no doubt.

Captain Mikhail Mikhailovich Denisov. Rogue Man O’ War.

Like most people, Daphne had heard of the Man O’ Wars, but she’d never seen one in person. Not until this moment. Newspaper reports and even cinemagraphs could not fully do justice to this amalgam of man and machine. The telumium implants that all Man O’ Wars possessed gave them incredible might and speed, and heightened senses. Those same implants also created a symbiotic relationship between Man O’ Wars and their airships. They both captained and powered these airborne vessels. The implants fed off of and engendered the Man O’ Wars’ natural strength of will and courage.

Even standing at the far end of the room, Daphne felt Denisov’s energy—invisible, silent waves of power that resonated in her very bones. As a scholar, she found the phenomenon fascinating. As a woman, she was … troubled.

Hard angles comprised his face: a boldly square jaw, high cheekbones, a decidedly Slavic nose. The slightly almond shape of his eyes revealed distant Tartar blood, while [r4] his curved, full mouth was all voluptuary, framed by a trimmed, dark goatee. An arresting face that spoke of a life fully lived. She would have looked twice at him under any circumstances, but it was his hair that truly made her gape.

He’d shaved most of his head to dark stubble, but down the center of his head he’d let his hair grow longer, and it stood up in a dramatic crest, the tip colored crimson. Dimly, she remembered reading about the American Indians called Mohawks, who wore their hair in just such a fashion. Never before had she seen it on a non-Indian.

By rights, the style ought to look outlandish, or even ludicrous. Yet on Denisov, it was precisely right—dangerous, unexpected, and surprisingly alluring. Rings of graduated sizes ran along the edge of one ear, and a dagger-shaped pendant hung from the lobe of his other ear.

Though Denisov sat in a corner booth, his size was evident. His arms stretched out along the back of the booth, and he sprawled in a seemingly casual pose, his long legs sticking out from beneath the table. A small child could fit inside each of his tall, buckled boots. He wore what must have been his Russian Imperial Aerial Navy long coat, but he’d torn off the sleeves, and the once-somber gray wool now sported a motley assortment of chains, medals, ribbons, and bits of clockwork. A deliberate show of defiance. His coat proclaimed: I’m no longer under any government’s control.

If he wore a shirt beneath his coat, she couldn’t tell. His arms were bare, save for a thick leather gauntlet adorned with more buckles on one wrist.

Despite her years of fieldwork in the world’s faraway places, Daphne could confidently say Denisov was by far the most extraordinary-looking individual she’d ever seen. She barely noticed the two men sitting with him, all three of them laughing boisterously over something Denisov said.

His laugh stopped abruptly. He trained his quartz blue gaze right at her.

As if filled with ether, her heart immediately soared into her throat. She felt as though she’d been targeted by a predator. Nowhere to turn, nowhere to run.

I’m not here to run.

When he crooked his finger, motioning for her to come toward him, she fought her impulse to flee. Instead, she put one foot in front of the other, approaching his booth until she stood before him. Even with the table separating them, she didn’t feel protected. One sweep of his thickly muscled arm could toss the heavy oak aside as if it were paper.

“Your search has ended, zaika.” His voice was heavily accented, deep as a cavern. “Here I am.”

She wondered how he knew to speak to her in English rather than Italian, but, glancing down at her painfully tidy traveling costume, she realized she may as well have worn a sash bearing the Union Jack.

“How do you know it’s you I seek?” she returned.

With one broad finger, he tapped his ear. The pendant hanging from his lobe swung slightly with the movement. “These tell me everyone’s secrets.”

Of course. Man O’ Wars had hearing and eyesight far  superior to a normal man’s. He’d heard her fumbling her way toward him.

“What are your secrets, zaika?” Without straightening from his sprawl, he looked her up and down in bold perusal.

Heat flooded her cheeks and spread throughout her body. One would think, having lived in Italy for as long as she had, she’d be no stranger to a man’s impudent stare. Something about the way Denisov stared at her, though, sent a new, hot awareness through her.

“I have no secrets,” she lied.

A corner of his mouth turned up. “Everyone does. The fun is trying to discover what they are.”

“I wonder at your definition of fun,” she said, raising an eyebrow.

“No need to simply wonder.” His smile turned blatantly carnal. “You can find out for yourself.”

Good God. Blushing virgin, she most certainly wasn’t. So why did she feel like one in his presence, and with every word from his mouth? And why did she get the feeling that most women took him up on his offer?

She straightened. “Mikhail Mikhailovich Denisov?”

“Captain Mikhail Mikhailovich Denisov,” he answered. “I may have been drummed out of the Tsar’s navy, but I still captain my ship.”

“Precisely why I sought you out.” Records on rogue Man O’ Wars were scarce, since most governments didn’t like to make such knowledge public. But Denisov had been one of the Russian Imperial Aerial Navy’s finest. Even in Britain, his desertion had been trumpeted in the newspapers. One thing all articles had left out was the reason why he’d gone rogue. Rogue Man O’ Wars were notorious for keeping silent about their rationales for turning their backs on their countries, as if there was some kind of tacit agreement between them. Which only added to their aura of danger and mystery.

Since Denisov had broken from the Russian Navy, he’d become infamous  as a mercenary willing to do almost anything for the right price. Which is exactly why she needed him. He was her only hope.