Chapter 1Henry held Lily nestled beside him on the sitting room couch. Her head lay pillowed against his shoulder and her feet were tucked up as she’d scolded Sam for many a time. He stroked her soft blond hair, spinning out yet another tale of where her little sister would be at this very moment though Lily had fallen into a doze.“It’s been two days. She should have reached the village by now. Stuart would have sent my letter ahead. A representative from the safe haven will be waiting for them, waiting to bring her to a place where she will finally find the freedom you always wanted for her.”He told Lily nothing he had not said before, and she couldn’t hear him anyway, but Henry found as much comfort as his wife did in the knowledge that Sam had found a place of happiness at last.He missed her more than he would have thought possible, his parents’ estate a solemn place without Sam’s laughter and cheeky mischief to brighten it. The servants felt much the same, going about with mournful expressions as though someone had died.All except Kate.If that young woman hadn’t been a help and comfort to Lily from the moment Henry brought them here from London, he’d have sent the maid packing to her father’s house in the village just to rid himself of the sight of her smile.As though fate laughed at him, a quick knock at the open door revealed Kate just then.Henry shook his head, tipping it toward his sleeping wife.When the lady’s maid stepped to one side to reveal none other than Stuart, his man from Dover, Henry couldn’t hold back a curse.Lily stirred against his shoulder, her head lifting free a moment later as she blinked awake. “Henry?”This time he kept the curse behind his lips but felt it no less. Freed, he pushed to his feet, determined to take Stuart to the study where they could have a private conversation. Clearly, his man had not accompanied Sam as they’d expected. For him to have come all this way could only mean bad news. Lily didn’t need to hear it in a raw form.“I’ll return soon. Kate is here to look after you.”Henry could see the moment Lily’s gaze followed his to the doorway. Her thin limbs trembled, and one hand lifted toward him. She must have recognized the man’s dockside appearance though she’d never met Stuart himself. “If it’s about Sam, I want to hear it.”For all her frailty, there was no weakness in her tone. Lily had always been far too sharp for him to brush her concerns aside.Shoulders slumping, Henry waved Stuart to one of the chairs. “Tell us then.”The man moved awkwardly across the room to sit. He held his hat on his knees, both hands clutching the short brim.“I did everything you asked,” he said, the words strained. “But the girl didn’t come, nor you neither.” The burly man had never seemed so cowed in all the times Henry had met with him.“I checked where you usually lodge, and no one had seen you. I’d have been here sooner, but I stayed to investigate.” He stumbled on the last word, strength and loyalty his qualifications rather than education.“What did you find?” Henry could tell the man had more to say, but the delay offered no kindness as Lily’s breath started to catch in her throat, signs another coughing fit threatened.Stuart hung his head and stared at his hands for a long moment. “The news ain’t good. You would’ve sent word if you didn’t send the girl, what with paying for the tickets already and all, so I went out to find what might have become of her.”“And?”Finally, Stuart looked up to meet his gaze. “I found no word of a girl, but there were a steam carriage crashed something horrible heading for the docks. From the luggage, I’d say a lady of means were in it, but there weren’t nobody by the time I learned of it. The police took off the driver and the carriage stood empty. Asked the fellow watching it, and he said no deaths. I didn’t get a chance to talk to the coachman, and from all reports, he took a bruising. Wasn’t all that clear, if you know what I mean, when they wanted to learn the happenings.”Henry exchanged a tortured look with Lily before turning to Stuart, whose mangled hat would need some blocking before it could recover its former state.“You are not to blame, Stuart. You did well bringing us this news, and for seeking what had come about.” Henry forced his lips into a pained smile. “You must have rushed all the way here. A bed will be found in the servant quarters, and your horse is already comfortable in the stables, I’m sure. Kate here will take you down to the kitchen for some food.”Kate drew in a sharp breath, but said nothing when Henry leveled his gaze on her. Instead, the lady’s maid jerked her chin and set off, expecting Stuart to follow.Stuart rose, bobbed a rough bow, and half-jogged after the disappearing maid.Henry released a slow breath, trying to take in all they’d learned, as little as it had been.Stuart had been responsible for negotiating Henry’s shipping interests for years. Not the full arrangements or trading plans, but making sure when one of Henry’s interests came in, the workers were ready to unload and supplies for necessary restock were available.The man was thorough and efficient. Henry never had a moment’s doubt when asking him to accompany Sam to the Continent, nor had Stuart questioned the propriety of such arrangements as some would have. He accepted Henry would tell him everything he needed to know, nothing more and nothing less.It had all been prepared with sealed letters and reassurances. Stuart remained ignorant as to Sam’s true nature. There’d been no reason to stretch his devotion with such knowledge. Henry knew his staff here would keep silent about Sam as well, their loyalty without question even in the case of Kate.Still, Stuart’s ignorance meant he could not have known to ask the right questions, and the lack of information ate at Henry. Just where could Sam have gone? She’d never been to Dover before, had no one she could turn to beyond Stuart whom she had never met, and he’d seen the flash of fear in her eyes when Lily could not come with her.A soft groan escaped his lips at the thought of Sam wandering the docks in a town that, while not wealthy, would have its own supply of contraptions if for no other reason than sailors bringing home curiosities from distant lands. With the purse he’d given her as well, Sam could attract the wrong attention all too easily without Stuart to guide her.The sound from Henry broke through the ice surrounding Lily. She’d been trapped in the realization that all their plans had fallen apart. She had no one to blame but herself.“How can Samantha ever be safe now?”Lily hadn’t meant to say the words aloud but was too caught up in her own fears to keep them bottled inside. She could feel the tension coiling within Henry as her head once again found his shoulder.He kept his touch gentle, wrapping his arms around her and gathering Lily to him as if he could protect her from this truth the way he’d protected Lily and Sam both from the law all these years.“Sam’s a smart girl.” Henry’s voice rumbled against her ear. “She’s able to manage on her own. It hasn’t been so long since she kept quiet in the abandoned stables in London.”As much as she wanted to cling to his reassurance, and his warmth, Lily pushed free. “You don’t understand. She was safe in the stables, and though she had little to amuse her, she kept calm. Now, she’ll be tired and frightened. Maybe even injured in the crash. She won’t have me to prevent a bout, and she’ll know I won’t be coming any time soon either. You’ve never seen her scared before. Any control she’s managed strips away faster than you can blink. How could I have let her go alone?”Henry caught her hands, holding them tightly even when she tried to tug them free. She had no choice but to meet his earnest gaze and let him see the tears gathering in her eyes.He smiled, though where he found the strength, she could not fathom. “I know you’re worried. I am as well. But look at the truth before us. Listen to what Stuart uncovered.”Lily shook her head, not in denial but rather because confusion swept her. “I do not know your meaning,” she said, her words as faint as her strength had become with this discovery.Henry released her then only to rise and pace about the room, his arms waving to punctuate his words. “When he made inquiries, rumors of the carriage accident had spread through the docks. He learned of it even when he hadn’t been present to see the event himself.”She murmured an encouraging sound, clinging to his sense of hope when she had none of her own.“Don’t you see? If Sam had lost control then, the carriage would be the least of the news people would eagerly share. Stuart spoke with what must have been a police officer on site. The officer would have given warning if news of an out-of-control Natural had been making the rounds. Such a rumor would spread as quickly as the carriage tale if not more so, filled with exaggerated descriptions of every mechanical device she’d transformed into a metal defender.”Lily could see the truth in his statement at last, but her strain didn’t ease.Her sister was still out there among strangers, in a place she knew not at all and surrounded by those who would seek to gain from her more than to assist her, at least until they learned the truth of Sam’s nature. Then they’d be all too ready to help her right into an asylum.Henry knelt before Lily, catching her hands a second time. “She must be fine. She survived the crash, and if I know our Sam, she figured out some way to get to the Continent with or without our help. Surely she could devise a plan to make inquiries of her own as to the ship. Perhaps Stuart had left his post by the time she found the right vessel, but she’s wily enough to sneak aboard on her own. Just think of the trouble she’s been up to here at the estate. She’s no quiet lady no matter how much you’d like to see her so.”“What if she couldn’t find it? What if the ship had already sailed when she learned its berth? What if she’s wandering the streets of Dover, or already been taken by some ruffian?”Though his shake held little force, Lily’s teeth cracked together when she’d thought them already clenched as tight as teeth could be. It did succeed in breaking her of a growing panic as she settled her dazed vision on his determined expression.“Remember how delighted she was with the idea of going, Lily? She wouldn’t let something simple like missing the ship stand in her way. She’s been dreaming about this as far back as she can remember. Sam used to tell me of it when we first came here. I took her tapering off as a sign she’d found happiness, but it’s clear she only gave up her dream for yours and mine. We were selfish in holding her with us this long.”He’d meant to reassure from how he started, but even Lily heard the bitter twist in his final sentence. She put a hand to his cheek and held it there until he turned into the caress and laid a kiss on her palm, a small thank you for her sympathy.The right answer came to her then, and her hand dropped. “Go there yourself. Go to Dover. Find word of Sam. Stay as long as it takes.”When he began to shake his head, she caught it between both hands. “I’ll be fine here on my own, and better knowing you’ll learn just what happened to my little sister. I cannot stand not knowing, nor do I think you’ll rest any easier. She might be as smart as you say, but Sam has never been on her own. Even if she managed the ship, would she know to send word? She could be resting safely within the haven and we’d never learn of it.”Henry looked as though he would argue, but Lily only firmed her gaze. “You know I’m right.”The breath went out of him on a deep sigh, and he pushed to his feet. “You are, as is usually true. I just don’t want to leave you now when you are suffering under such strain.”Lily managed a smile that held against any wavers. “I have Kate and Cook and the whole of your household to watch over me. Neither am I such an invalid as of yet to need a nursemaid.”A cough spoiled her determined statement, but though his eyes narrowed, he gave a stiff nod.“I’ll go if for no other reason than to bring back something to ease your mind. If she’s there, I will find her. If she’s not, there must be some evidence of her whereabouts. I have business to conduct in Dover regardless. I’ll stay as long as it takes to complete my work so none will question my presence there, then I’ll return with whatever news I’ve been able to obtain.”He’d caught the fever of her possibility now, and Lily knew nothing would keep him from it, a knowledge supported as he strode half out of the room before turning back.“I’ll send Kate in to attend you while I prepare for the journey. I leave at first light with Stuart as my companion. Highwaymen will be less likely to take on two able-bodied men, and we’ll get there faster astride than by carriage. If there is anything to be found, I will find it.”Lily watched him swallow the distance to the servant quarters with the full measure of his long legs, a pang burning in her heart. She hoped he would find word of Sam to bring her and so comfort them both. If her sister had done as he supposed, though, they couldn’t expect to learn anything. The only time news would come of a stowaway would be if she’d been captured. In that instance, Lily doubted the label attached would hold any connection to how Sam snuck aboard.She clung to the promise Henry had given in that rumors of a Natural would fly from tongue to tongue faster than any other even when no truth existed to support the claim.Those with the talent to transform mechanical devices as if by magic might be fugitives in the eyes of the law, but fascination with their knack drew others to the vicinity as much as fear kept them wary. A single slip, and Sam would become the focus of everyone’s attention, with none holding her needs at the fore. Chapter 2Henry left with Stuart before Lily had risen the next morning. If there were any chance of finding Sam in Dover before the authorities did, Henry had to move quickly. Lily might have found his words reassuring, but two days would have passed by the time they arrived. Two days in which Sam’s fear could only have grown.He cursed the decision to let Sam go by herself, the pace offering little to distract from his thoughts.He’d been so caught up in how weak Lily appeared the day Sam left, he’d failed to realize the comfort his wife would have gained by knowing that her sister had reached the ship and Stuart’s charge as expected. Or rather, he had not considered the likelihood of disaster.Henry had only agreed to Lily’s safe haven plan because he thought giving up responsibility for Sam would strengthen Lily. Yet, she seemed weaker now. The strain of caring for her fugitive sister couldn’t compare to that of not knowing what had happened to Sam.Hope kept Lily fighting, and she had little enough to hope for now.The pattern had been thus for longer than he dared to contemplate, visible each time he brought Lily to see a doctor. Despite the effort required to make the trip, she’d grown stronger with hope. Only once they’d returned home and the truth of her condition—or rather, the absence of a cure—sank in, did she weaken again.He could not accomplish what the doctors had failed to and offer a cure, but neither could he watch the love of his life fade away while he did nothing. If she needed hope, he would go find her some, and when he found Sam, he’d convince her to stay at her sister’s side. Her presence offered more strength than it stripped away, something only revealed once Sam left.Henry shifted in the saddle, his thighs sore even through the thick canvas trousers he’d chosen to wear so he could fit in with those who might have the answers he needed. It had been some time since he’d spent this length on horseback, and any calluses had softened long ago. They’d made a brief stop for food and a stretch around midday, but otherwise, they’d kept to a steady pace so as not to harm their steeds. Though he wanted to dig his heels in and approach the port city at a dead run, Henry doubted the stamina of the horse Stuart rode, coming as it did from a hire stable.Sam had been as much child as sister to Lily, more so even when the babe who’d taken root in Lily’s womb lacked the strength to survive. If Lily ever thought she might have conceived a second time, she’d kept her counsel from him just as she’d spoken not a word of the first to her sister. Her womb stood barren no matter how much they both longed to fill his old manor house with the sound of running feet and laughter.Only then she’d had Sam.He knew it pained Lily to think the Stapleton line would end in this generation. Though the world little resembled his grandfather’s time, Lily knew better than most the need for those willing to work for the betterment of others. It used to be bloodline to separate the classes, yet wealth had taken that role as much as any claims to nobility, both elevating some and dropping others from the ranks of those with the power to act.Henry had once thought to use his own position to change how Naturals were treated much as he’d protected the lower classes when an officer of the law.Instead, he’d been distracted by making house and home for Lily and Sam, a distraction he’d welcomed then and would have for the rest of his life. He could not question Sam’s eagerness for a place where she could be free, nor could he fault her for it. He had no right to keep her from such a haven. No right at all. But for Lily’s sake, he’d beg Sam to return.“Lord Stapleton, will you be staying at your standard quarters?”Stuart’s question startled Henry when the other man had kept silent for so long he’d almost forgotten he had company, but a quick glance at their surroundings revealed the reason. They’d come upon Dover unnoticed while he’d been lost in thought.“Not this time,” Henry said, considering his purpose in coming. “I need a place down by the docks where people might be a little more free with their stories and eager for a new ear to bend.”His man gave a quick nod. “You’d best be asking after your daughter there. The gentlemen of means would only question your capabilities as though nothing ever went wrong on their watch.”Though Henry hadn’t considered that aspect, Stuart had a fine understanding of the wealthy, whether they came from a long pedigree or newly joined the ranks on the back of some grand invention. He chose to contradict the man’s belief in Henry’s meaning no more than he’d revealed Sam’s true connection to him. She might as well be his daughter as much as Henry cared for her, and it did not speak well for his keeping that she’d been lost.“I know just the place. Not as rough as some, but kept busy by sailors with coin to spend. And they’ve a good room or two set aside for when harsh weather delays boarding. If the better establishments are full up, those of means are happy to pay for a clean bed to lay their heads.”“Sounds like just what I need.” Henry might have missed the outskirts, but now he worked to keep his horse level with Stuart as the road suddenly filled with people. Most came from nearby labors, but the streets also swarmed with merchants came to hawk their wares in the evening hours just as they flooded the streets in the wee ones before the workers were off to fields or businesses down on the wharf.The horses won free near the shipyard where sounds of heavy industry continued despite the late hour.Henry shuddered at the thought of Sam finding herself in such a space. What had once been mostly wood now contained as many workers outfitting the grand steam engines or producing parts that engineers could use to perform repairs while out at sea. There were many strong machines to trigger Sam’s nature no matter how she struggled against the demand.He’d toured the facility once as part of his investigation into this new steam transportation when he had interests in several sailing vessels and owned one outright. As much as he would have loved to share the experience with Sam, surely any such choice would have ended in disaster. If not for the sake of Sam’s freedom, he would never have considered bringing Lily’s sister anywhere nearby. The cost to the shipyard, and all those dependent on it for their livelihoods or safety on the open waters, would be high if a Natural lost control within its walls.His seat in the House of Lords might have come from his title, but he kept it not through bloodline alone. His business acumen won him the standing while others holding only hollow titles slowly lost their hereditary rights to someone of more industry. Last he’d heard, a seat no longer required even the indulgence of an honorary title, The Queen having recognized the benefits of keeping such gentlemen out of the Commons. Or perhaps she’d bowed to the pressure of wealth as other kings and queens had to the demands of nobility in earlier days.He could not speak to the difference, having stayed away from London almost entirely in the past five years since Lily sickened. Henry knew only of his secured status by matter of messages urging him to take a stand for the old ways or strengthen the voice of those members with shared business interests, both sides determined to use him to their advantage.His lips curved at the memory, aware—as most were not—how little his family held the old ways in awe. A title still had its benefits even with each quiet change reducing its value. But never had those of nobility proved to be without the same failings found in any class of people. The older the ways, the fewer he’d found untainted by the corruption of power. When one could determine the course of a life simply by saying the words, remembering the value of each and every one of those lives appeared more difficult for the successive generations.The faint smile twisted into a frown as Henry longed for the days when he could serve the people on a beat and his brother would be the one to lay judgment as to their continued happiness. Though had he stayed, he could never have kept Sam at his side. He would have had to give in to Lily’s request so long ago to send her and Sam off to the Continent alone, much as he’d given in to Lily this time.He’d no more wanted to lose Lily to a safe haven then than he wanted her to succumb to illness now. This time, though, he’d found himself powerless in the face of her weakening with no options to offer, none other than that which Lily herself proposed and Sam eagerly adopted.A choice he now had cause to regret.“Here you go,” Stuart said, swinging down from his horse before a building Henry would have dismissed as a tavern alone if not for Stuart’s knowledge. “I’ll bring your horse off to the stables where I hire from. They’ll take good care of ‘im and be ready when you are to return home. Just ask for Peg and give my name inside. They’ll do as well for you.”Henry raised both eyebrows at that even as he dismounted.“Now don’t you be givin’ me that look. She’s my dear wife’s sister that she is. Peg’ll do right by you, and you can trust her not to let on to your standing, if you get my meaning. Folks round here might not be as rough as some, but could be they’re not comfortable telling tales among more refined ears.”Henry clapped Stuart on the back and handed over the reins. “I get your meaning and give you my thanks. Your assistance is valuable as always. If I’m to succeed, it’ll be half on your head.”He didn’t think to the implication until Stuart dropped his gaze to stare fixedly at the ground.“I am sorry I lost her,” he mumbled.Henry waved a hand low enough for the other man to see despite his tipped features. “It was no more your fault than if a storm had cast the ship onto strange shores once she’d joined you on it. You’ve done more than most would to help even so, and I appreciate it. Now get you home to your dear wife who’s sure to be wondering what you’re about.”That brought Stuart’s face up once again, this time with a grin. “Don’t you know it. But she’d want me to do right by your girl as I would with any of my daughters.”Henry choked down a flash of jealousy as he turned to enter the establishment. It seemed cruel that any man could have such a wealth of children, four daughters and two sons, when Henry had none, but if any deserved such a bounty, Stuart numbered among them.The impression of a tavern space continued when Henry pulled open the heavy oak door and stepped inside. An older sort of establishment, this tavern must have served sailors for generations past. He lacked a builder’s eye, but he’d wager the horse Stuart led off that the beams, and perhaps even the wood making up the benches and tables, came from masts split in ocean storms.“Whatcha be having?”The man behind the worn bar bore little resemblance to the aforementioned Peg, but Henry approached anyway.“I am just up from the country with some business to attend to. I’m seeking lodgings and meals more than a simple drink.”The man looked him up and down in a fashion Henry felt sure could catalog every aspect of his clothing and bearing to determine whether he’d be warming a seat at the table or standing beside it. Henry had dressed to ease suspicions, but suspected the man would see through the disguise of rougher clothing.Before the barman could announce his conclusions, Henry held up a hand. “I’m to ask for Peg. Stuart sent me. Said you kept a decent establishment with rooms to let.”That brought a smile to the man’s face. “Stuart brung ya? He’s even more particular than that wife of mine, so you must be worth the trade. Peggy!”The bellow set Henry rocking on his heels, but sure enough, a red-cheeked woman bundled out of the back, a mock scowl on her face.“Now what you be bawling about, my husband? I have enough to deal with of a moment. Supper’s coming faster than the sun can find its rest.”“This here is Peg,” the man said with a nod. “She’ll see you set up with a room and a meal right quick. He’s a friend of Stuart’s.”Had her husband not added the last, Henry felt certain they would have both been on the wrong end of a tongue-lashing, but his man’s word held weight not just with the barman.“That the way of it? I’ll have one of the girls prepare a room. You give him a mug of the better ale. Sit you down wherever there’s space and supper will be out as soon as it’s ready. When you’re done, just ask George here for the key and directions.”Almost before he could thank her, Peg turned and strode into the kitchen, already calling instructions.He exchanged a laughing glance with the barman as he accepted the ale.“She’s a good woman, and I’m a mite bit lucky to have her, but she was born with a set of lungs on that one.”Contemplating Peg’s robust nature only brought back the circumstances of his own wife and the urgent need to bring her some comfort. Henry turned to sweep the room with his gaze, seeking just the right company. The barman and Peg might have expected him to choose one of the small tables to the side, but he marked the length of the main table and the prospects already seated. They seemed the type to share a tale or two.“I’ll be over there when the meal is served,” he said, leaving the bar without a second glance.His supposition proved grounded as he heard the one word he’d hoped to find none of when he took his seat.“What’s that you said?”The sailor turned to face him, eyebrows raised, but didn’t complain at the interruption. Rather, he shifted further back on the bench so as to bring Henry into the tale.“I was telling old Bill here about how some fancy bloke all in a stiff suit caused a ruckus up on the docks a few days ago. He said some poor street urchin was a Natural out to change his boy’s train when she only snatched it up after it went missing. From what I’ve heard, she gave it over right fine when the boy saw her about it. The man, though, would have none of it. He set all the able-bodied men after her. Ways I heard it, he didn’t even join them, not and scuff the shine off his shoes.”Henry stared at the sailor, his worst fears come true. “What happened then?”The sailor laughed so hard at the sight of Henry’s expression he threatened to tip backwards off the bench. “You needn’t worry of a wild Natural in these parts,” he gasped out at last. “That scrap of a girl disappeared into the gutters where she must have been hiding from the grasp of the workhouses, and they lost her. No contraptions rose to defend her, nor did any of the wagons become music boxes like they say can happen. Iffn you ask me, I’d guess the fancy bloke took one look at the crowds and decided to thin them out a bit. He sure dragged his boy kicking and screaming up the gangplank quick enough. That girl was no more a monster than I’m a right gent.”Laughing with the others, Henry kept his true feelings hidden this time. He’d expected to work hard before discovering what had happened to Sam, but who else could it have been? How they’d mistaken her fine dress for scraps, he didn’t know, but she had a way of attracting every smudge to be found, and after the carriage crash, there were sure to be many about her.Peg arrived then to pass around bowls of aromatic stew made with a good helping of strong ale from what he could smell. He’d been hoping for a cottage pie, but this, and the loaves of coarse bread served with it, would fill him up and offer an excuse to linger in hopes of hearing more.The sailor might have dismissed the man’s claims, but Henry knew better than most that Naturals did not have to be monsters, nor would every simple contraption call out to one. He should have been relieved, but this only proved she’d be unlikely to have slipped aboard her ship undetected. Between the sailors on alert for a Natural as they’d be even if they doubted the man’s claims, and her being chased off, the chances of Sam getting back to the ship in time seemed weak at best.That didn’t mean she couldn’t have found another vessel to take her. He hadn’t lied when he’d told Lily Sam often proved resourceful, and with this story in the wind, people would be much more suspicious whether they sought a wild Natural or just a girl with skill enough to survive on the streets. A girl didn’t last long out here without taking on some kind of a master, and they tended to know just who worked their territory.The stew, though delicious, soured in his stomach at that thought. Sam would do poorly whether picked up for her looks or her quick fingers, those eking out a living on the streets more interested in what a good tidbit could buy them than any form of solidarity from what he’d seen in London. Those who ran the youngsters were worse. They forced the pretty and frail to do the hard labors, knowing police were more likely to go easy on them while the master grew fat on what his ratlings could pickpocket.Henry scraped the last bite onto his spoon, unwilling to waste energy he’d be sure to need in the coming days if he were to discover the truth. Whether she’d left the port long before or even now lay cowering from a beating, he would not rest until he knew just what became of Sam. Or at least that none of the worst had.
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