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Authors: Kaitlin R. Branch

Valeria (5 page)

BOOK: Valeria
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“Would you?” She squeaked and clasped his hands in hers, long fingers wrapping around his wrist and into his palm.

“Can’t promise anything gourmet,” he said.

“Oh, thank you,” she said, and leaned up to kiss his cheek. “Thank you for everything, Mache.”

“Valeria,” he murmured, and squeezed her hands. “I didn’t do much. You’re welcome.”

 

Chapter Two

 

Two weeks passed without much to do but Mache never managed to become bored. Needing little sleep, Valeria woke him for breakfast early in the morning. Mache sat and talked to her, often answering questions she stockpiled in the night, until she went to conduct her experiments and build her prototypes. Once, she came and dragged him away from trying to work out how to cook a carrot to show him something, holding his hand in her natural hand and explaining it to him in rapid fire words, bouncing up and down in excitement. He watched her more than he listened.

Her eye patch was flipped up, her hair streaked with oil and a smudge of some sort of bright red dust on her cheek, her breathing rapid and excited. “You explaining what the auto adjuster was gave me an idea to use a similar system of weights to power joints. It would be a cheap way to get rid of the steam engines I have to attach to the limbs I make for the public now. Look at this prototype!”

She picked up a tangle of wires in the rough shape of an arm.

“Why don’t you make your kind of limbs for the public?” he asked. “Like your hand? You mentioned they were expensive but for something like that surely it would be better to lower the price and get more sales?”

She beamed. “You mean like my hand? It’s a dangerous and long procedure. I didn’t have anything to lose. If you’re going to chop off a hand, you’d need to have a guarantee of the replacement being better, wouldn’t you? Some people will take the risk, but not many.”

He found himself slightly less queasy than usual at the thought, probably because of the smug excitement in her expression. “I see. This will make normal limbs better?”

“Leagues better,” she exclaimed. “Instead of lugging around the engine to work it, they shift the remainder of their limb in the framework, which sets off the weights and moves the arm as desired. Oh, I can’t wait.”

Mache chuckled, reaching out to rub the streak of red off of her cheek, smoothing her hair back in the meantime. “I’ll come get you for dinner, ok?”

“Yes, yes, of course,” she said, already bending over the prototype, head tilted to put her artificial eye close to her work, hand splitting open to attack the wires and weights.

* * * *

It was two in the morning when Valeria shook Mache awake. Her breathing was hard and she was kneeling over him. He blinked as her hair tickled his lips, murmuring, “Valeria?”

“Mache,” she whispered. “You have to get up.” She reached out, pulling at him to get up faster, cupping his cheeks. “Mache, the CEO.”

“What?” He snapped awake. His eyes widened, suddenly at full attention. She wasn’t even fully dressed, clearly in her underwear and the same shirt she always wore without the leather bustier. His eyes widened as he realized the lamp she’d put on the floor illuminated every last curve before her words sank in again. “What again?” he mumbled. “The CEO?”

“Yes! She called me only a few minutes ago.” She followed his gaze, gulping. “I–I–you need to get up.”

“I’m up.”

“I mean get dressed.”

Mache winced, turning his head. “Okay. Right. Should I make the bed?”

“Change the sheets. They’re in the drawer over there.” She pointed and got up, backing away. The lamp light continued to make her distracting and Mache stayed firmly under the sheets as she reached the door.

“Do you need help?” she asked.

“Nope,” Mache said. “Just…er…you’d better go get ready.”

“Okay,” she said, looking down at herself again and bolting out of the room. Mache tossed the blankets aside as soon as the door closed, ignoring his clamoring blood, and grabbed sheets off the bed as fast as he could. Replacing them took longer than he would have liked, being a bachelor, but it gave him time to cool down. He hoped she had enough sense to dress by the time he came out again or this was going to be difficult to say the least.

When he came out to the kitchen, though, her bustier was in place, her pants and socks pulled on and immaculate. She was packing a box with food and drink, and shoved it at him. “Here. Take this into the ballroom, where you landed.”

“Wh–”

“Go,” she said, “I have to make sure everything’s in order. I’ll come help you. Just take that down and wait without touching anything.”

Mache followed her orders, trotting down to the big room and sitting on the grating where he had cut his face two weeks before. He touched his cheek, pleased with its healing progress. He looked out of the windows, admiring the way the city was still lit even at night, yellow fire and green phosphorous mixing eerily.

It was fifteen minutes before Valeria came down to him, pushing another box into his hands, panting as she hugged him. “Mache, I’m so sorry.”

He blinked. “For what?” She was crying. He pulled her closer, smoothing her hair. “Valeria, what’s wrong?”

“The CEO! When she sent her communication, I was prepared to tell her about you. I thought she would understand, let you stay.” Mache gulped as she muffled a sob with her natural hand. “She also sent a report of a factory that was infiltrated and…” She hiccupped. “…And they hanged the people who helped them!”

Mache shivered. That sounded much more up Elthgo’s alley. “You didn’t say anything?” he asked.

She shook her head. “If I had…if I’d reported you…” She wrapped her arms around his neck, clinging to him. “Mache, they plucked the intruders’ eyes from their heads, beat them, and set them wandering the streets as beggars! How could they?”

He stroked her hair but could think of nothing to say. Elthgo certainly knew how to market a fate worse than death–blind and delirious with pain, wandering the streets? He wondered if he should stay any longer, provided he could even survive this visit. “It’s okay, Valeria. You didn’t know. I understand.”

“I might have killed you,” she whispered. “I might have killed you.”

Mache pushed her back enough to look into her face. “You didn’t. Now, where am I going to hide?”

She swallowed and pointed up. “There’s a crawlspace in the ceiling. You can access it from the stairs.” She chewed her lip. “It’s cool, I think, and loud since it’s connected to the engine room, but the air is clean and you should be able to hide out.” She took his hand, bringing him to the stairway and pointing. “If you can get up there I’ll hand the boxes to you.”

He nodded, bringing the boxes over and reached up, grasping the corner where the ceiling lay closest to the stairs, flicking a lever. The crawlspace door popped open. With a bit of maneuvering he managed to get himself in feet first. It was a space four feet by four feet. Not the most comfortable. Still, better than the alternative. Valeria handed him a box wordlessly.

“Mache,” she murmured. “I don’t know if you’ll be able to hear.” She reached into the belt-pack at her waist, extracting a long, slim stick. “When I come down, watch me. My hair will be up until she leaves. Once I’m sure she’s gone, I’ll come here and let down my hair.”

Mache reached down to her. “Until you let down your hair then,” he said. “Don’t worry, I’ll be fine for a week with all this food.”

“Please be okay,” she whispered, and reached to him, putting her hands in his. “I can’t lose you, Mache.”

He squeezed her hands and then grinned, sliding his fingers lower, past her wrists, and lifted her up. Valeria squeaked but didn’t thrash as he lifted her off the stairs, bent his head and kissed her.

His arm muscles wouldn’t let him keep the kiss any longer than a blink, and he lowered her carefully back to the stairs, not allowing her time to dither. “I’ll be fine. You go show her how brilliant you are.” He pushed back, closing the vent behind him and feeling rather triumphant. That would be enough to last him the rest of week.

* * * *

Waiting was boring and wait Mache did. Occasionally he heard a voice, but Valeria was right. The vent was loud and well insulated. Whether he could even hear his own voice depended on the work of the engine and the wind’s direction. Thankfully he could see. There were several fist-sized holes in the vent, allowing him to see into various parts of the ballroom, mostly the corners and out the windows.

It was through one of these holes Mache first spotted the CEO of Elthgo, Inc. She was a beautifully severe woman, clothed in khaki and black. She wore her flying goggles pushed into her smooth dark hair, glasses low on her nose. It took several hours to realize the CEO was
tall.
She towered over Valeria by at least a foot, a height that dwarfed Mache and most men he knew. Her shoulders were broad and strong, heavy with muscle but not hard of line, her corset revealing a fine bosom and two-tailed coat giving whisper to fine curves. She was striking and beautiful in an Amazonian way, despite her fine dress. No wonder she was the CEO! Few men would be able to compete against a woman with the smarts
and
the ability to look down on her employees and competitors. From the way she conversed with Valeria, she was clearly intelligent.

Mache couldn’t hear the words they were speaking. The CEO smoothed the coat ruffles around her wrist and patted Valeria’s head like a proud mother. Valeria smiled, but Mache could sense unease in her stance. He grimaced in silence. If their plan failed, this was who would be dealing him punishment. He wasn’t certain he could win in a straight fight. She looked like she could wield a gun, sip tea with a queen, or slog into a bar fight.

They finished some sort of deal and left the room. Mache was resigned to napping and watching out the windows again, waiting for dusk. He tried to do some sort of exercise to pass the time but found himself obsessing over whether they could hear the creaks of push ups. He counted the airfoils flying close to them, spent a bit of time worrying whether his boss would be able to track him down, wondering if they’d held a funeral or just written it off with the life insurance.

It occurred to him that starting life over in a dirigible with a beautiful inventor was certainly romantic but it wasn’t the best of plans. Especially given who owned the dirigible. It was done now and there wasn’t much he could do about it other than stew, now that he was wedged into the air vent waiting for Valeria to come and let down her hair.

She came down several times. For two and a half days he watched her come to the great ball room and sit beneath the chandelier, eye patch flipped up and magnifying glasses on the bridge of her nose, working.

It was soothing to see. He watched her in the night, taking a chair to work on a project, and longed to call out and make sure she was fine. Was the CEO treating her well where he could not see? Was she was still happy here? The CEO came down, speaking to Valeria. He was grateful he had not called out as he had wished.

Late in the afternoon on the third day, Mache watched as Valeria came down, her hair still in a knot at the base of her skull. He watched silently, antsy and exhausted of being cooped up, pleading without sound,
Valeria. Valeria. Let down your hair.

She watched out of the window for a long time, raising a hand to the glass, and finally sighed. She rubbed her neck for a moment before reaching up her long fingers to tug the stick, letting her tresses untwine and tumble down her back.

Mache breathed a sigh of relief and scrambled out, kicking the vent door open and sliding out as fast as he could. He cleared the six-foot drop with a grunt as his legs slammed into the grating. They immediately started to tingle in protest. The pain didn’t matter when Valeria swept into his arms, crying out.

“Mache! I’m so relieved.”

“Val–” He lost balance and fell back, taking the blond woman with him. His knees buckled in self protection and he pulled her forward. He landed with a faint groan, quickly silenced as Valeria shifted her weight up and kissed him.

Mache blinked, covered in golden hair. It clouded his vision and tickled his nose. She slid more firmly into his lap, wrapping slim arms around him, pressing her chest to his and kissing him for all she was worth. Reward for waiting in the vent all this time? Retribution for surprising her before he went in? Relief?

Hell, who cared? He returned the kiss, cupping her cheek and sliding fingers into her hair, his free hand pressing her closer, stroking over the stays of her corset. He’d learned the trick from a noble woman. “Taking off a woman’s corset is akin to laying with her in terms of pleasure and relief,” she’d said, “so give such an act proper respect and twice as much foreplay.”

As kisses went, it started off pretty good, but lost momentum quickly. Valeria gasped and pulled back, her face bright red. “I…I only…” She gulped.

Fully perplexed with this new development, as most every girl he’d managed to kiss had known exactly what kisses devolved to, Mache blinked and didn’t speak.

“I’ve been waiting,” she blurted, and stood. “I mean, since you–” She cut off. Tried again. “I wanted…”

He still wasn’t sure where she was going with this and stayed still, praying she didn’t press her hand anywhere he’d have to explain matters.

BOOK: Valeria
12.5Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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