Read Combustion Online

Authors: Elia Winters

Tags: #Steampunk;erotic romance;sex toys;Sybian;World’s Fair;Victorian Era;19th Century;1800s;historical;alternate history

Combustion

For explosive chemistry, all you need is the right catalyst…

A war orphan, Astrid Bailey is content living her adult life alone, working as a contract machinist. Her real passion, though, is inventing felicitation devices that promote women's sexual empowerment and help them find pleasure independent of a man.

The upcoming World's Fair, with its substantial cash prize, is an opportunity to open the shop she's always imagined and hopefully solve her financial woes. Except the committee has denied her entry unless she obtains a “sponsor”. Astrid suspects they mean “male”.

Eli Rutledge, noted watchmaker, knows entering the fair will solidify his reputation as an innovator —but he's fresh out of ideas. Until Astrid approaches him with her outrageous product line. With no other options, though, he agrees to lend her his good name.

As construction heats up, so does their chemistry—and the complications. Astrid is unaccustomed to asking for help, much less sharing credit. And Eli fights an attraction that could spell professional disaster. As the Fair date approaches, Astrid and Eli must decide how far they'll go. For the business…and for each other.

Warning: Contains period-appropriate graphic language, highly inappropriate amounts of M/F and F/F sex, and copious amounts of *ahem* product testing. May *ahem again* “spark” an online shopping binge for *cough* toys. Of the adult variety.

Combustion

Elia Winters

Dedication

For Herman, my favorite product tester.

Chapter One

Astrid studied the bits of grease clinging to her fingernails and considered getting another tattoo. Maybe something on her forearm so she could look at it when she was working. She examined the soft skin there, imagining a series of interlocked gears tracing the tendon from her wrist to her elbow, blocking out the monotonous drone of the woman speaking from the armchair.

A poke in the side made her look over at Josian beside her. The other woman sat properly, her posture upright and ladylike, her eyes still on the speaker even as she hissed a warning at Astrid. “Pay attention.”

Astrid sat up straighter, still not sure why any of it mattered. She hadn't wanted to come to this meeting anyway. If it weren't for Josian's insistence, she'd probably be home finishing that ocular telescoping device she'd been developing rather than listen to Edwina Devery explain the business principles behind her incredibly boring bookbinding company.

With her skinny build and frizzy blonde hair, Edwina resembled a broom standing on end. Her blouse was buttoned up to the top of her neck, the fabric starched so stiffly that it would probably stand up in the corner when she took it off. She caught Astrid's eye and smiled thinly. Was that a genuine smile, or was Edwina barely tolerating Astrid's presence? Astrid shifted in her seat, smoothing the folds of her skirt down so they covered more of her knees. To distract herself, she poured her fourth cup of tea and looked around.

They'd gathered in the spacious sitting room upstairs at Edwina's bookbinding company. The walls were papered with pink-and-white stripes, the space lit in a soft gold light from the lamps. The general effect was overly feminine, the sort of space she usually avoided. It suited the gathered guests—although they were business owners blazing new paths through the male-dominated world of commerce, they dressed in the best fashions of the time. Each sat primly on her armchair or sofa, ankles crossed, politely attentive. If appearances were any indication, Astrid did not fit in with these women.

The sound of her name made her start and look up, pouring tea across her fingertips as she did so. She held back a curse and wiped her fingers on her skirt.

“Astrid?” Edwina repeated. “It's your turn, dear. Tell us about your business and why you're considering joining Tea and Talk.”

Astrid set her teacup down in the shallow pool of spilled tea on her saucer. She felt all eyes in the room on her, a dozen women of various ages gathered to support each other in their business ventures. The only familiar face belonged to Josian beside her, who gave an encouraging smile. She took a deep breath and let it out.

“All right. My name is Astrid Bailey. I'm here because Josian thought it might be helpful. Business is slow lately, and I know these networking groups can be useful for meeting new people and such.” She tucked a short strand of brown hair behind her ear. “So I said I'd come. I'm not sure how you all can help me, but I'm willing to be surprised.”

Josian piped up. “Astrid is the most brilliant inventor and machinist. I've known her since even before she was apprenticed, and I can't bear to think of her being anything other than wildly successful.”

Edwina nodded, giving Josian the same thin smile she'd given Astrid earlier. “So tell us, dear, about your business.”

It would be interesting to see how these women handled the truth. Astrid took a sip and replaced the delicate china teacup in its damp saucer. “I make ends meet by tinkering and repairs, but my main business is inventing and selling felicitation devices.”

Across the room, two young women turned to each other and began giggling, and the one next to her smiled while demurely sipping her tea. The rest looked politely interested or confused.

“Felicitation devices?” Edwina was among those trying to look interested while clearly confused. “And what are those?”

Astrid folded her hands in her lap and smiled. “Felicitation devices increase a woman's sexual pleasure.”

To Edwina's credit, aside from blinking very rapidly, she kept her composure. “I see. And you…sell these?”

“And invent them. I have a whole range of designs.” It was hard not to enjoy this. She so seldom got to discuss her work with a group of other women. Even if she was likely scandalizing them, she loved the attention.

Across the room, another woman leaned forward, long black hair falling in thick curls. She had been the one who'd smiled at the mention of felicitation devices. Well-to-do, if her smart waistcoat and fashionable hat were any indication. “So do you have a shop? Who do you sell these to?”

“I sell them out of my flat.” Astrid looked down at her hands, the black lace fingerless gloves stretched over her palms, and traced the pattern there without thinking. “I'd like to have a shop someday, but it's not really an option right now. I get most of my clients from referrals, but that business has kind of dried up, in a manner of speaking. I'm looking to increase my market.” She looked up at the women around her. “And so I'm here.”

For a moment, the silence hung heavy in the air, everyone still watching her. Finally, Edwina broke it. “I see. I can't say this is a type of business we've ever had before at Tea and Talk. It's new to me, anyway.”

“Astrid's felicitation devices are perfect for Tea and Talk.” Josian hadn't been able to remain quiet for very long. “We're in the business of helping women with their businesses, right? Well, this is an ideal woman's business. By helping Astrid, we'll be helping all women. Everyone deserves a more satisfying sex life.”

Some sounds of agreement murmured through the group. Maybe these women weren't as stodgy as Astrid had originally feared. Edwina tilted her head in consideration for a moment, then shrugged in acquiescence, and Astrid knew she was in.

The rest of the meeting was spent in casual conversation. The woman with the long black hair joined her on the sofa and introduced herself as Becky Peregol.

Becky settled down beside Astrid, the layers on her skirt flipping up around her dimpled knees. “I'm a seamstress.” Well, that explained the beautiful outfit; perhaps she wasn't rich after all. Thick-waisted and curvy, Becky wore clothes that fit her so perfectly they would have to be hand-tailored. “I wasn't sure about Tea and Talk at first, but anything that helps the business is good for me. For a while, it was hard making ends meet, but now I'm doing much better.” She shrugged and tossed her hair over her shoulder. As she did so, Astrid caught a light whiff of scent, something floral and pleasant. “So tell me more about your business. I have someone I think I should send to you.”

The prospect of a client quickened Astrid's heart rate a bit. Rent was coming due soon. “What do you want to know?”

“Well, do you provide any services other than sales?”

Astrid raised her eyebrows. Becky could be asking about a lot of different services, and she didn't want to give the wrong impression. “What do you mean?”

Becky rested her elbow on the back of the sofa, brushing her hair back again, stirring up more flowery scent. “My friend Lilly doesn't exactly know her way around, if you know what I mean. She's getting married next month. I'd like to help her out.”

Astrid nodded, understanding Becky's intent. “Oh, I can teach her what she needs to know.” This was a common situation. If Lilly was half as lovely as her friend, it might even be a pleasure. She dug around in her handbag for a business card.

Becky took it with a smile. “Excellent. I'll drop you a line.”

Maybe Tea and Talk wasn't a waste of time after all.

Chapter Two

Astrid was so absorbed in her work that she didn't hear the canister arrive. Bent over her cluttered workspace, gas lamp casting golden light across piles of gears, springs and hand tools, she touched the switch with a hesitant nudge and watched the tiny motor whir to life. It wasn't until she set her spanner aside that she even noticed the canister resting at the bottom of the glass delivery tube, gleaming in the lamplight. How long had it been sitting there?

The note inside was written on crisp parchment with neatly scalloped edges, the stationery of a woman who valued artfulness. Becky Peregol's handwriting was as lavish as her beautifully tailored outfit had been at the Tea and Talk meeting. Astrid skimmed the pleasantries, knowing the purpose of the letter after their exchange of messages back and forth all the previous week. Becky's friend would be at her flat shortly after four. A quick check of her pocket watch revealed she had very little time left to make herself and her flat presentable.

How could she make such a mess in such a small space? The front sitting room was fairly neat, the maroon velvet armchairs and sofa fortunately free of debris, but she almost couldn't see the tea table between them beneath its layer of gears, springs and tools. After clearing off that space, she turned her attention to the display case on the opposite wall, now coated with a thin layer of dust. It had been too long since she'd had a customer. She wiped it down with a rag stained with only a bit of engine grease, revealing the shelves of toys within. The dining room table was invisible beneath stacks of bills, blueprints and diagrams.

Finally, the front of the flat was presentable. As for the rest… She wrinkled her nose at the mess in the back. A combination of kitchen and work space, the back half of her flat was nearly indistinguishable from a garage. Racks of tools, gears, sprockets, springs and half-finished products covered all available surfaces, including the kitchen counters. It required more cleanup than she was willing to do, but that's why she had bought those rice paper screens in a Eurasian shop. A few minutes later, the messy part of the flat was hidden from view.

Astrid had barely enough time to fix herself up before Lilly arrived, to tame her short, wild hair, wash the grease from her face and hands and change out of her grubby workman's wear into clothing more befitting a lady. She had just put a teakettle on to boil when the doorbell chimed.

The timid-looking young woman standing in the dimly lit corridor could only be Lilly. Becky had described her, but Astrid was unprepared for how young she looked. Her long blonde curls were tied back with a ribbon at the nape of her neck, and her light blue dress only added to her innocent appearance. She blinked at Astrid with an uncertain expression.

“Is this the right flat?” The paper in her white-gloved hand bore scalloped edges and Becky's distinctive handwriting.

Astrid took the young woman's hand, which was trembling. “I'm Astrid Bailey. Do come in.” The young woman hesitated before stepping over the threshold with a weak, timorous smile.

“Becky said you would be expecting me. I'm Lilly Chaffinch.” She looked around at the flat. “I hope I'm not interrupting anything. I've never done anything like this before.”

“Don't worry. It's all right to be nervous.” Astrid gestured to the sofa. “Make yourself comfortable. I just put some water on for tea.”

Lilly's eyes never stopped moving over the contents of the flat, and Astrid knew what she must be thinking. Even though the Revolution had given women the right to live alone, own property and start businesses, it was rare to find one doing so. Even with her flat clean, it was easy to identify Astrid's profession—the walls were decorated with drawings of machinery, the intricate interplay of cogs and pistons diagrammed and hung on almost all available spaces, except for the large display case hanging above the dining room table. Astrid could see Lilly's gaze linger on the contents therein, unspoken questions on her lips, before she finally sat on the worn velvet sofa. She rested her hands on her knees as she continued to look around, her prim white gloves worrying the light cotton fabric of her dress as Astrid went to retrieve the whistling kettle.

“So how do you know Becky?” Astrid returned from behind the rice paper screen and set the laden tea tray down on the table.

“We were apprenticed to the same seamstress. I started there right when I turned sixteen, and she had already been there for a while. We stayed friends even after our apprenticeships finished.” Lilly had removed her gloves by this point, and the hand that took her teacup was delicate and carefully manicured. These were hands that had likely never built anything from scratch. Astrid looked down at her own. Well, at least they were clean.

Lilly sipped her tea and set the cup carefully down in its saucer. “This is lovely, thank you.” Her hands weren't trembling anymore, and she actually made eye contact with Astrid. “Becky described you, but I must admit I didn't know what to expect. She's much wiser in these areas than I am.” Blushing, she looked back down at the teacup and saucer cradled in her lap. “I thought you would be so much older. I'm glad you're not.”

“I'm twenty-four.” It seemed so old when she said it that way. “How old are you, Lilly?”

“I'm nineteen. Just this past March.”

“Why did Becky say you should come here?” Astrid thought she knew, but it was better to hear it straight from Lilly. The girl's shyness was endearing, but it was possible she had no idea what to expect.

“I'm getting married next month.”

“Congratulations.”

Lilly looked up at Astrid again, her eyes wide. “I know my husband is going to expect things of me, and I'm prepared for that. But Becky said…” Lilly dropped her gaze again. “Becky said that I should enjoy those things too. She said that in these modern times, a woman should be… How did she put it? Oh, ‘an equal partner in pleasure'.” She flushed pink again and sipped from her tea. “Becky said that you could teach me, and that I could purchase something from you to help me.”

Astrid nodded. “Becky's right. I'm an inventor. I have an entire line of products for just such a purpose.”

“What kind of products?” Lilly asked, shoulders tensing, her eyes going automatically to the display case across the room.

“I'll show you after we finish our tea.” She would need to put the girl at ease. “Tell me about your fiancé.”

Lilly immediately relaxed, beaming. “Harold is wonderful. He works in my father's bank. We've been engaged for almost a year now, and the wedding is coming up so quickly. He stood to come into some inheritance, you see, and wanted to wait until the paperwork cleared. Now that's all taken care of, and we'll be wed on the twelfth of May.” She sipped her tea, a note of anxiety returning to her voice. “I do hope I'll be a good wife.”

“I'm sure you'll be wonderful.” Astrid had already assessed Lilly, who seemed to be the sort of quiet, dutiful, mousy girl to whom marriage was well-suited. There was a certain endearing charm about her, an innocence that Astrid would have envied, if it weren't for her unfortunate sexual naïveté. It was a good thing Becky had recommended her. Even dutiful, mousy girls deserved pleasure.

After tea, when Lilly's lingering gaze fell once more on the display case across the room, their conversation lagging, Astrid finally got to her feet.

“All right. Let's take a look.”

Lilly let out a little gasp when Astrid pushed the button on the case, which opened up like a tray, the shelves sliding out and down, one after another, revealing a tiered display of her finest inventions. The display case mechanism was simple enough compared to Astrid's usual creations, but it always impressed clients.

Lilly stared at the wooden and brass devices, clearly confused and yet intrigued. She reached out to touch one, then drew back. “What do they do?”

“They do different things. I'm going to select one for you and show you how to find your own pleasure.”

“How will you do that?” Lilly looked to Astrid with wide blue eyes.

This part was usually a bit uncertain. Sometimes they reacted poorly, rushed from the flat in embarrassment or confusion, but usually she could convince them to stay. It was an essential part of the process, after all.

“I'd like you to trust me. I promise you'll enjoy this.” Astrid traced Lilly's cheek with her fingertips. “Will you trust me?”

If Lilly's blush had been deep before, she was positively scarlet now, understanding beginning to blossom. Her pupils dilated a bit, and she licked her lips. Astrid knew immediately that she wouldn't run. “All right.”

The first kiss was always sweet. Lilly's mouth trembled beneath hers, and she breathed in suddenly when Astrid traced her tongue across the other woman's bottom lip. Her lips parted, and Lilly whimpered. Maybe this would be easier than she thought.

Astrid drew back after only a moment, gauging Lilly's reaction, which was obvious from her quick, shallow breaths and wide eyes. “There, that wasn't so bad, was it?”

Lilly shook her head.

“Lie down on the sofa.” Astrid selected a device from the shelves, a small brass cylinder about as long and wide as a finger, the most basic model of her collection. This would be a perfect starter for Lilly. The young woman was lying down with her hands folded primly across her stomach, biting her bottom lip. Astrid sat on the edge of the sofa beside her and rested the toy on her lap. “I'm going to keep touching you. Is that all right?”

Lilly nodded, a bit more quickly this time. Astrid ran her fingertips down Lilly's neck and shoulders, then cupped her breasts through the fabric of her dress. Lilly inhaled sharply and then sighed as Astrid began rubbing her thumbs across the other woman's nipples. She envied Lilly at that moment for the unexpected pleasure she was feeling for the first time. “Relax. I'm not going to hurt you. I want to help you find pleasure. I'll stop if you want me to stop.”

When Astrid began rolling her nipples between her fingers, Lilly let out a soft moan, her eyes closing. “No, d-don't stop.” There, that was the response she was hoping for. With one hand, Astrid began inching the material of Lilly's dress upward, her other hand continuing to move from one nipple to the other over the soft cotton of her dress.

Lilly was panting when Astrid at last slipped her hand down below her skirts and touched her at the juncture of her thighs, her fingers gliding through the tight curls. This was the other moment where they sometimes tensed up, sat up, stopped her, but Lilly's legs fell out to each side, her hips arching as Astrid found the tiny nub between her legs. Wet already. This one was easy.

Astrid turned on the small brass device, pressing the button on the bottom that made it whir quietly into life, vibrating all along its cold metal length, which she tried to warm by hand. Lilly's eyes flew opened at the first touch of the cold brass to her cleft.

“Wha—” she gasped, arching involuntarily, grasping the fabric of her own skirt.

Astrid brushed Lilly's hair back from her forehead. “It's all right. Just breathe.”

Lilly settled back, still wild-eyed, and Astrid began moving the vibrator in small circles on her clit.

“What…? What…?” The woman tried to speak, her chest heaving, but the words didn't seem to come. Astrid didn't answer, knowing words would do no good, and instead slipped the vibrator lower, pressing it up and into her, tension immediately giving way as the cylinder slid inside.

Lilly gasped as Astrid began sliding the device in and out a bit faster. She loved this process, loved watching her clients come undone with gentle ministrations and a little mechanical help. She pressed the vibrator to Lilly's clit once more, backing off every time the woman seemed to get close, wanting her to experience the entire gamut of sensation.

“I don't… I don't…” Lilly balled her hands tightly in the fabric of her skirt, her hips moving of their own accord.

“Are you all right? I promise, it keeps getting better.” Astrid paused, moving the vibrator away.

Lilly just nodded and arched her hips up, seeking the contact again, so Astrid obliged. Lilly's blonde hair had come undone from its ribbon and spread loose and wild over the pillow. With her tossing head and flushed skin, she looked quite different than when she'd first walked through the door that evening. Astrid watched her body tense, recognizing the signs even if the woman had no idea what was happening. Lilly stiffened, her eyes flying open, her expression equal parts panic and arousal.

Head thrown back, she arched up off the sofa, crying out as she came. Astrid kept moving the device in small circles, letting her ride out the aftershocks, before at last switching it off and setting it aside.

Lilly relaxed at last, her lips parted, her forehead bathed in sweat. She smiled sheepishly at Astrid, but didn't seem to know what to say.

Astrid patted her on the hand. “Go freshen up. I'll wait here.”

When Lilly returned from the water closet, Astrid handed her the cleaned vibrator. “That was an orgasm. You should have many of them. They're good for your health.” The young woman studied the brass cylinder in wonder, flipping it over in her palm, then turned it on. When it whirred to life, she gave a start and switched it back off again. While she played with it, Astrid continued her instruction. “You don't have to use the vibrator, but it will make things easier for you and your husband. This way, you can share in his pleasure.”

“I'm supposed to give this to him?” Lilly's fingers closed around the cylinder. “I don't know that Harold will know what to do.”

“You need to show him, once you've practiced enough on your own. Trust me, he'll love watching you come.” Astrid smiled. Men did always enjoy when women shared their pleasure. Too bad they seldom seemed to know how to get a girl there themselves.

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