Authors: Sheryl Nantus
Tags: #General, #Fantasy, #Fiction, #Romance, #Contemporary, #SteamPunk, #Western
Their love rides on a spring and a prayer…
During the recent Civil War, a soldier risked his life to save Jonathan Handleston—and lost. With the help of an advanced metal brace on his crippled hand, Jon now travels from one poker tournament to the next, determined to earn enough money to repay the man’s debt.
Prosperity Ridge is supposed to be the last stop on his quest, but his brace is broken and he needs an engineer to repair the delicate mechanisms. The only one available is Samantha Weatherly, a beautiful anomaly in a world ruled by men.
Sam is no fool. Jon is no different from any other gambler—except for his amazing prosthetic.
Despite a demanding project to win a critical contract to develop an iron horse, she succumbs to the lure of working on the delicate mechanisms. And working with the handsome Englishman.
Like a spring being coiled, Samantha and Jon are inexorably drawn together. Sam begins to realize honor wears many faces, and she becomes the light at the end of Jon’s journey to redemption. The only monkey wrench is Victor, a rival gambler who will stop at nothing to make sure Jon misses the tournament.
Even destroy Jon’s and Sam’s lives.
Warning: Contains crazed card games, gears and springs galore and a wild ride that’ll have you panting at the end of the book.
This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the writer’s imagination or have been used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, actual events, locale or organizations is entirely coincidental.
Samhain Publishing, Ltd.
577 Mulberry Street, Suite 1520
Macon GA 31201
Wild Cards and Iron Horses
Copyright © 2010 by Sheryl Nantus
Edited by Sasha Knight
Cover by Kanaxa
All Rights Are Reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
First Samhain Publishing, Ltd. electronic publication: August 2010
Wild Cards and Iron Horses
For my husband who never loses faith in me, SK for her incredible patience, and for the City of New Babbage in Second Life—who took in a li’l clockwork dragon and gave her a home. What could possibly go wrong?
The two pieces of the small copper spring sat in the palm of his hand. Something so small, yet so important.
Jonathan Handleston shook his head for the third time in two minutes. He wrapped the broken spring in a handkerchief and placed the cloth package in an inside pocket of his jacket, checking twice to make sure it was safe and secure.
He brushed the hard, cool steel barrel of the derringer, hidden in his waistcoat pocket, and winced inside. He didn’t like to carry a weapon, but his profession made it necessary. And a two-shot derringer was much less visible than those six-shooters it seemed everyone here in the West wore, flapping out there in the open with their fancy gun belts and holsters.
The competition began in two days. He’d have just enough time to settle into Prosperity Ridge, check out the other players and get some practice. It wouldn’t be possible to order another spring from overseas, even if he knew how to install it and had the tools at his disposal. No, he’d have to find some sort of local assistance, no matter how unlikely it seemed that a skilled engineer who could handle this sort of work would be in this small frontier town.
The train jerked forward then back with a grinding of gears and screaming of metal on metal that set his nerves on edge. He glanced out the window, frowning. During his inspection of the spring, the broad, open prairies and blue sky had disappeared, suddenly replaced by the stern and sharp angles of buildings looming up on all sides of the passenger car. The air was thick and dark, as if he was back in the depths of industrial London, fighting his way between factories. Through the haze he saw moving silhouettes and a horse or two. The building solidified into a train platform, with which he was very familiar.
“Prosperity Ridge! Prosperity Ridge!” The conductor stepped through the carriage, bellowing at the top of his lungs. The dark blue uniform barely held over his robust form, the buttons straining at the effort.
His cap was slightly askew, giving the look of a man harried and rushed all the time. “Ten minute stop! Ten minutes!”
He paused at Handleston’s side. “I believe you said this was your stop, sir.”
Jonathan got up, reaching for the traveling bag under the seat. He didn’t need much and he’d lost too many suitcases to trust anything to the baggage cars. “Very dark outside, isn’t it?”
The pudgy conductor grinned, his dark brown handlebar moustache quivering with laughter. “You’re new to these parts then, sir. This is a good day in Prosperity Ridge.” With a parting cough, he moved off down the aisle, roaring his announcement.
Jon shook his head, making his way towards the door. A few people waited in front of him, all holding handkerchiefs in front of their faces as they passed through the hatch, one by one being burped out onto the platform with as little street air coming back into the car as possible. The scent of sulfur and burning wood filled his lungs with a startling quickness. He had heard rumors that the West had embraced the new technology wholeheartedly, but…
It was his turn. Handleston stepped off the carriage into a sooty, dark world that might have come out of Dante’s
. Stumbling along the platform, he grabbed a railing for support before he could fall over, or worse, onto the tracks. He flung his right arm over his face, filtering out the worst of the offending air through the thick jacket.
“First time here, sir?” A gruff voice came out of the smog, and a hand gripped his left arm. “Here.”
The thick piece of cloth pressed into his hand was wet, dripping, in fact. “Wipe your face with this and then put it to your nose and mouth.” The stationmaster’s image resolved itself in front of him, a short man dressed in a black uniform with a Harlequin-type mask hiding his features. The bright brass buttons that usually signified a stationmaster were tarnished and dull, the engraved name of “Munson” on his tag almost invisible. “You’ll be used to it in a minute. Let’s get you inside the office.”
Jon followed where the figure pulled him in the grey smog, shuffling along the wooden planks.
Finally he came up against a door with a brass handle shining in the darkness like an angel’s halo. The stationmaster gripped the handle with dark, tobacco-stained fingers and tugged. The pair stumbled inside the stationmaster’s office, the door slamming shut behind them. Tears running down his face, Jon coughed repeatedly, bent over with the effort. The sandwich and weak tea he had eaten on the train threatened to return in force and bring what little else he had in his stomach with them.
The uniformed man strode to a small water tank set against the wall and twisted the faucet with a squeal of rusted metal. He pointed at a wooden chair sitting in front of the desk.
“Sit down and take a few breaths. You’ll be fine.” The stationmaster passed over a cup of water. He walked around the desk and then sat with a loud sigh in his own chair, the cushion springs squeaking their annoyance.
He pulled off his mask, showing an older and more tired man than Jon had expected. His face was leathery and dark, eyes a steely blue with the whites almost outnumbered by the bloodshot veins. “I keep telling the train conductors to warn the passengers to get a mask on, get a handkerchief prepared, do something to get ready. Most newcomers don’t prepare for Prosperity Ridge and then I have to deal with ’em.” He nodded to Jon. “No offense intended, sir.”
“What…what is this place?” Jonathan rinsed his mouth out, spitting into the nearby brass cuspidor.
“One of the levels of Hell?”
“It is to some, I wager.” The toothy grin showed decayed teeth. “The train station’s the worst of it, really. You’ll be fine once you head for the outer rings.” The elderly man shook his head. “It’s not the train’s fault, you know. It’s all those other danged machines messing up the air, and those airships docking at the tower dump all their fumes down on us. And now that we’ve got those dratted metal horses on the coaches, it’ll be even worse.”
“What?” Lifting his right hand, Jonathan tugged on the black glove, making sure the delicate machinery was protected as much as possible. He didn’t need the extra attention right now, not before having a chance to settle himself. “Metal horses? You mean the trains?”
“No, sir. The horses themselves.” The man took back the now-soiled cloth from Jonathan. Turning to his left, he dropped it into a trash bin. A puff of hot air signaled the departure of the rag for parts unknown, probably to a central incinerator unit. “They’ve been replacing the real beasts with the mechanical ones for the stagecoaches, making it easier to reach those areas without trails, the new stations out in the wild.
Supposed to be the wave of the future, they is. Except when they break down and make a mess,” he grumbled, taking the empty cup from Jonathan and putting it back on the desktop. “You’re here for the competition, ain’t you?”
“How could you tell?” Jon bent over, coughing again.
“Well, you’re not a local fellow with that accent.” The stationmaster’s eyes narrowed. “Definitely not a local fellow.”
Jonathan stood up, gasping for air. His lungs were already beginning to compensate, the pain retreating into a dull rumble in his chest. “I’m from England, originally. And before you ask, no, I didn’t participate in your recent conflict.”
Technically speaking, that was. There was no use in trying to explain the entire story. He wasn’t here to debate the merits of the North versus the South yet again. “I thought the new frontier was a friendly place for people to start fresh lives. Start anew and leave the past in the past.”
“That it is, sir.” The elderly man touched the brim of his cap with two fingers. He held the iron mask in his other hand. “But old memories die hard, and people die fast out here, sir. You’d best remember that, if you’ll allow me to give you a piece of advice.” His tone changed. “If I may be asking, where are you staying for the competition? I can point you to a fine place…” The last word tilted upwards, hopeful.
Obviously the man made a little money on the side directing newcomers to a specific inn or hotel, probably a relative’s. Whether you were in New York City or on the frontier, some things never changed.
“I already have reservations with Mrs. McGuire, I do believe. But thank you for the recommendation.” Jon nodded, slipping two coins into the man’s hand. “If you could direct me towards her establishment, I’d be grateful.”
The stationmaster looked down at the two silver coins in his hand. He smiled and pocketed the money. The iron mask slipped back onto his face easily. Lifting his hand, he jerked a thumb at the unseen world outside the office door. “Third street, two blocks down and to your left is Mary McGuire’s Bed & Breakfast. Woman makes a fine cherry pie. Welcome to Prosperity Ridge.” He grabbed a folded piece of paper from a stack on the desk and handed it to the man. “Here’s a map. Note the wheel-spoke system. It’s the newest thing. When they laid out the town they figured they’d give it a shot. You’ll get lost plenty of times before you figure it out, but once you do you’ll be just fine.” He glanced at the large clock mounted just over the doorway. “I’ve got an eastbound train to meet. Let yourself out when you feel up to it. Good day.” The man walked out the door, back into the smog, before Jonathan could reply.
Jon opened the small brochure. It seemed that all roads began and ended in Prosperity Ridge at the train station and airship tower. Given that he was at the station, he had nowhere to go but outwards in his search for his room.
Striding over to the opposite door, he drew a deep breath of relatively fresh air. Jon grabbed hold of the handle with his left hand and pulled the door open. He stepped out onto the street.