Charlotte winced as an inebriated party-goer stepped on her foot, but she kept moving determinedly toward the doors that led to the balcony. The Duncans would be delighted with their party; it was clearly the event of the season, and their daughter had been successfully launched into society.
Unfortunately, the noise, the heat and the crowd combined with Charlotte’s pounding headache to make her want to escape for a breath of fresh air. Reaching the balcony doors, she opened them to find two people engaged in a passionate kiss.
“I’m sorry.” The words escaped her mouth before she realized it would have been better to make an exit without being noticed. The couple jumped apart.
Charlotte felt the blood drain from her face as she stared at her fiancé.
“John! I thought you were dead!”
The stormy blue eyes gazing back at her flashed with surprise for just an instant before growing so cold, she flinched.
“How did you recognize me, Charlotte?”
She pushed through the shock and confusion clouding her thoughts, trying to make sense of this astonishing turn of events. “False mustache or no, I would know my own betrothed, John. I’m not a fool. But I don’t understand why you would let me believe you perished in the fire…” She trailed off as the truth hit her like a slap. “You never wanted me. This was about the purviewers from the very start.”
It wasn’t a question. She was as sure of it as she was of Faraday’s law of induction. Maybe she’d always known, somewhere deep in her bones, that John’s interest in her had been false, but pride had kept her from admitting how thoroughly she’d been duped.
Though she understood why he’d gone to such lengths to procure the purviewers. The brass goggles were certainly a temptation for the greedy. They allowed the wearer to see exactly five minutes into the future. She and her partner, Alistair, had created them almost by accident during an attempt at unlocking the mysteries of time travel.
They’d been set to unveil them before the Alchemists Tribunal when a terrible fire had broken out in their laboratory. The blaze had consumed her home, her work—and her fiancé. The purviewers were replaceable, but John’s death had left her paralyzed with guilt for the past six months. The Duncans’ Ball was the first social event she’d attended since the “tragedy.”
Only now, with the proof of his duplicity literally staring her in the face, did she realize the truth—John had staged the fire so he could get his hands on the purviewers. Her hands trembled with repressed fury as she thought of what he’d put her through.
John gave her a chilly smile and inclined his head. “I wondered if I’d have to spell it out for you. I should have known better.” He regarded her for a long moment before turning his attention to the pretty blonde on his arm. “Emily, why don’t you go and rejoin the party. I’ll see you later this evening.”
The young woman nodded, scowling at Charlotte as she passed. Charlotte moved to follow her, but John stepped smoothly in front of the French doors and closed them with a snap, trapping her with him on the balcony. He was near enough for her to smell the liquor on his breath, and she drew back instinctively.
She squashed the sudden blast of fear that rose within her and instead focused on her ire. “You’re drunk. I won’t speak with you under these conditions. Besides, you got what you wanted—the purviewers. I cannot imagine why you would return to London or what you would want with me now. Let me pass, John. This instant.”
As his handsome face screwed up in fury, she braced herself.
“Always wanting to be in control, bossy wench. Not this time.” The stranger who would have been her husband by now pulled a gun from his waist and aimed it directly at her heart. His mouth twisted into a sneer. “Your contraptions have stopped working. Now you’re going to fix them.”
“Why would I help you?”
“Because I have your precious Alistair. He’s chained to a chair in Emily’s house as we speak. I’ve set up a lab for you there so the two of you can repair the purviewers. I’ll even be generous and give you forty-eight hours to complete the task.”
The riot of emotions scrambling Charlotte’s brain instantly gave way to calm determination at his words. He had Alistair and beyond that, nothing else mattered. There was no alternative. She would go with John and figure out a way to save both the only man she’d ever loved and her invention, or she would die trying. The whys or hows didn’t matter.
“I’ll need more time than that. I don’t have my notes, they were burned—”
“In the fire? No, darling. I have them.”
She barely restrained a snarl. “And if we still cannot manage it?”
He shrugged nonchalantly. “Then I will kill you both.”
Well that was certainly clear enough.
“Then we’d better move along,” she said, bustling over to the doors and eyeing him expectantly.
Confusion furrowed his brow. “That’s all you would say to me? Aren’t you ashamed I deceived you—the brilliant Charlotte Phillips—so easily?”
It was a real kick in the bloomers, to be certain, but she’d never admit it to him. John’s signet ring and some charred bits of bone had been the only indications that he’d been in the lab during the fire. She hadn’t even considered why the brass goggles had succumbed to the flames so completely when his gold ring had remained fully intact. The inspector had ruled that she must have left a burner on, accidentally causing the inferno and John’s death. She’d been so overcome with guilt that she hadn’t thought it through. Or noted the fact that in fifteen years of experimenting, she’d never once left a burner on. Now the ruse seemed as plain as day.
She poked around for some heartache over her fiancé’s betrayal, but all she found was anger. In any case, it wasn’t as if she’d ever loved him or expected his love in return. She wanted a family, more than anything, and that meant marriage. He had the title, she had the money, and they got on well. Alistair hadn’t wanted her, so what did it matter who she married?
John slipped the weapon into his pocket and tried to move her toward the door, jostling her with the cloth-covered revolver. She made a silent vow to work on her instincts.
She looked down her nose at him. “I would appreciate if you would not do that again.”
“You and that haughty stare. As if you’re so much smarter than the rest of us,” he spat.
“Not the rest, John. Just you.”
He was quick as a viper, rapping the butt of the pistol smartly against the side of her already pounding head. Pain exploded at her temple and she gasped.
“I’ve always wanted to do that, silence that sharp tongue for a change. I should have married you and killed you off after the wedding. That was my mistake. Emily didn’t like the idea of blood on my hands. Last time I listen to a woman, mark me.”
Angering the lunatic with a pistol was not one of her better ideas and she vowed to bite her tongue moving forward. So long as they kept their heads, surely she and Alistair could outwit John Rotham before the two days were up. They had no choice.