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Full Steam Ahead [MultiFormat]
eBook by Nathalie Gray

eBook Category: Erotica/Erotic Science Fiction/Romance
eBook Description: This is a race against time. Against oneself. This is the Vendée Globe, the most grueling race around the world. Singlehanded. No stopovers. On board is Laurel Benson-Desmarais, a thirty-six-year-old racer from a family of sailors. Five foot and a quarter inch of pure adrenaline junkie. One hundred and forty-seven pounds of thrill-seeking, motor-mouth, caffeine-addict of a woman who redefines the word "stubborn determination". Laurel's venture starts admirably. Day one of the race sees her well in advance. Until the meteorological forecasts start messing with her patience. The mother of all storms is gathering speed. Heading straight for the race. For the first time in its history, the Vendée Globe is annulled due to bad weather. She's worked years for this but has to turn the boat around. She's not fast enough. The storm catches up with her, tosses the 60-foot sloop as if it were a bit of cork. Electricity crackles in the air. Spray hits her like rocks. Then as she pitches into a mountain-size wave, everything changes. The water, the very air. As if she crossed over to another world. Crazy. Phineas Hamilton, captain of the brigantine the Brass Baron, never thought he would one day run into a woman who physically looks like the enemy, with pale hair and eyes, but yet is not one of them. The exotic prisoner is also the most obstinate, argumentative, confrontational?and fascinating woman he has ever met. He does not really care where she hails from and what brought her to his ship--no one speaks to him that way. And certainly not on his own damn ship! A lesson in manners is most definitely in order. But for now, he must make sure his crew and ship survives the latest enemy attack. They all depend on him. Another link to the long chain he carries. To My Readers: Dashing pirates, odious villains and mouthy heroines fight for survival in this momentous steampunk story. I pulled out all the stops for this one. For those unfamiliar with this awesome genre, steampunk is a delightful mix of Victorian aesthetics and oh-so-shiny fantastical machines. If you enjoy a good historical romance mixed with an action ride that never stops, or a romance that will sweep you into a fantasy world of petticoats and steam pistols, armored dirigibles and floating fortresses, then FULL STEAM AHEAD is for you. Strap on your brass goggles, my lovelies, we're weighing the anchor and hoisting the mizzen. Ahoy!

eBook Publisher: Red Sage Publishing/Red Sage Presents, Published: 2010, 2010
Fictionwise Release Date: August 2010

13 Reader Ratings:
Great Good OK Poor

"I thoroughly enjoyed this story. Phineas is kind of a boiler-plate alpha hero, but Laurel's character more than makes up for it. She's a great heroine: feisty, smart, competent, and likable. There are a couple of rough spots mid-way through the story, particularly in the slightly stilted conversations, but nothing that detracts from the reading enjoyment. There are a whole crew's worth of secondary characters that are just excellent, and the villains are brutish and dastardly--everything you expect a Victorian-era villain to be. The world- and character-building is very well done. One can only hope that Nathalie Gray will revisit this world and these characters to give us further adventures with Laurel and Phine."-- Zita, Review My Book

Full Steam Ahead: Chapter 1

Clouds massed like god-fists low over the horizon, which only the peaks and dips of the restless ocean broke. Brown and gray slashed the purple sky. The temperature had dropped. High noon felt more like dusk. The sun had risen and then disappeared an hour later, going back to bed with the petulance of a moody teen, and Laurel had not seen it since. According to the met reports, she would not for several hours. Days, even.

She rubbed her hair back into her baseball cap and then screwed it on low. She was only a couple hours ahead of the other sailboats and couldn't afford to lose a precious minute or make a single less-than-optimum correction. The lone female among the twenty racers, she had more to prove than any of them. Plus, she had to prove something to herself. She'd sacrificed a lot for this, had fought and trained and worked hard for more than three years. But she was here now!

A sense of exhilaration took her. She grinned despite the spray hitting her in the face, despite her lips cracking from weeks of wind and sun exposure. Or perhaps because of it. An adrenaline junkie at heart, she did not mind the conditions, quite the contrary. She'd always been this way, the reckless "stuntwoman" diving down the basement stairs with her big brother's too-large hockey equipment taped on tight. Or a "pilot" at the command of her retrofitted pedal bike, complete with wings made of old umbrella parts. The bump on the bridge of her broken nose gave her a bragging right she still used at family gatherings.

This race was just a normal continuation of the life she'd led so far. The Vendee Globe, the most grueling singlehanded yacht race around the world, had never been annulled for bad weather, even if the sixty-foot open sailboats took water in by the gallons. Below the whistling of the wind, the bilge pump's rumble whirred beneath the deck. It had held so far. She closed her eyes to savor the sounds--the various metallic clings and clanks as rings and cleats struck the aluminum mast. A soothing rhythm.

A slap of wind strained the mainsail. Laurel snapped out of her luxurious five minute break and leaned on the satellite dome, looking up. Dizzying, the tip of the mast swerved left and right against the darkening sky, forward and back with each wave while telltales and reef lines angrily flapped in the wind. The white and red hull--her main sponsor's colors--glistened with the waves' increasing intensity and force.

"Benson!" crackled the radio.

One gloved hand on the tiller, she stretched to reach the small handheld VHF radio strapped inside the instruments niche. Another couple inches to her five-foot-nothing frame would be nice sometimes. She dislodged the handheld from its Velcro straps and brought it up to her mouth.

"Benson here," she snarled with her lips against the radio. A wave forced her to make an adjustment, which slowed her down. She felt the boat sink deeper into the water, the mainsail sagging, beginning to luff. Every second counted. Shit.

"If yoo vaunt to go beck home," the man said. Swiss, maybe? Austrian? "No one voot say anyssing."

"You have a question or not?"

She heard the mocking laughter. Moron kept his finger on the transmitter so she could hear his laugh. "Only one? Oo is in your kutchen vhile yoo are out playing vith saw boys?"

Funny how anger dissipated the wet cold sneaking into her many layers of clothing. She reached for the whistle tied to her PFD, kept her thumb on the transmit button and blew a nice and loud tune into the moron's ear.

"Asshole," she snarled after she spit out the whistle.

Sexist jerks.

She checked her watch. Damn. Her last correction would cost her a couple hours. She felt winds shifting again. Her uncanny skill had earned her the nickname la sorciere from the favorable French crews. She was no witch. Just a regular racer who had a knack for wind shifts. She felt the minute changes on her face and in the way the mainsail strained from the bottom part up instead of the other way around. Laurel shifted on the narrow, molded fiberglass seat--more like a ledge--to face starboard instead of port.

As if she'd tuned it with a remote, the wind altered slightly by a few degrees. But she was waiting and she harvested each iota of energy by winching hard on the line and anchoring it into the clam cleat. The mainsail strained against its lines and moorings. With a sound like a giant water hose, the force of the wind pushed against the sails. The boat leaned portside. Laurel let out a whoop of thrill when the angle forced her to her feet. Above, the sky seemed to become a tableau from a mad painter. Slashes of gray and brown against purple. Temperatures dropped further. She shivered despite the nylon jacket, polar fleece sweater and Nomex undergarments. Because of her French Canadian father's work as merchant mariner, she'd lived in Montreal for several years yet had never, ever been so cold. To her shock, she noticed ice forming on the glistening bow. What the hell was going on? Ice meant added weight to her boat, which could cost her more than just hours.

"Benson," the radio sputtered.

"Oh, what now, you annoying prick!" She didn't get up. Screw them. Screw their sexist jokes.

"Benson...weather reports...." The radio spattered and fizzed, lost the channel, and then picked it up again. She recognized her shore crew manager's voice. He sounded worried. Himself a seasoned seafarer and father of five girls, nothing fazed Jacques Durand. "Benson...sat phone...."

She'd stuffed the satellite phone in the cabin earlier because she'd been in a hurry. She couldn't put the autopilot on right now, not with the kind of weather presently assaulting her boat. Plus, she was having a riot of a time. This was true freedom. Alone on the open sea. Standing, she strained against the wind, mouth stretched in a wide grin, eyes set on the prize. Always on the prize. She could do this. She'd done this before, if never in this particular race. The boat responded by cutting the waves like a knife would meringue. The raging sea tried its best to suck her boat into the water. The mast quivered and bowed. The sails shivered. More ice accumulated on the bits and pieces of aluminum moorings, on a section of exposed lines she hadn't touched in a while, on the bow. It even crystallized the water dripping off her cap.

"Benson!" the radio clamored.

"Argh, goddammit, all right!" She reached for the radio. Just as her fingers touched it, a blue arc of electricity linked her to the radio, which fizzed and went silent. She brought it up, mashed the button. "Benson here!"

Nothing. Not even the deep-fryer sound. Laurel gave it a good shake, her usual way of fixing things. Still dead.

Ahead, waves reached proportions she'd never encountered. The radio slipped from her hand.

"Holy cow."

The size of that thing.

Ragged scuds and vortices lined one of the biggest shelf clouds she'd ever seen. The large wedge-shaped cloud, low over the horizon, looked ominous enough for Laurel to zip her jacket all the way up. A sure sign of trouble. She was headed straight for a massive storm. No wonder Jacques had sounded worried. Her shore crew must have been going nuts trying to contact her. And the sat phone nice and warm in the cabin.

The Swiss team's sexist jokes had suddenly become the least of her worries. She had work to do and needed all her neurons. She'd call the team as soon as possible. For now, she was about to enter the ring with the deadliest of all fighters--the sea.

"Here we go!"

She released the line from the cleat, let it out a bit as she nudged the tiller, just a tad, enough to angle her boat at the massive series of waves coming dead center. The first, she crested diagonally, rode it up like a Russian Mountain and could almost hear the clack-clack-clack of the initial lift hill. High. Higher still. The boat crested the giant wave. A split second of quasi-zero g. Exhilaration. The thrill of anticipation. Laurel spread her feet wide and wedged her butt into the seat's corner. Then descent.

She yelled the whole way down.

Shitloads of joules of potential energy transferred into the kinetic kind, propelling her downward at rates she'd be hard-pressed to gauge. Crazy Fast, if she were pushed to name it.

The second wave, she didn't take so well. Still winching in lines and keeping the tiller put with her knee for a hard tack, Laurel didn't have time to adjust before the monstrous wall of water rose in front of her bow. A Hoover Dam made of liquid emerald. The sea was such a beautiful, beautiful bitch. The veritable mountain of water hit her boat slightly tighter than forty-five degrees to portside. The hull moaned, as did the mast. One of the instruments niche tethers snapped, which released the fire extinguisher to roll all the way back and stop between her feet. She couldn't anchor it back into its place. It was all she could do to keep her boat from pulling a cartwheel. She crested just in time to see the third wave.


She was so toast.

But instead of slamming into the liquid version of Mount Fuji, her boat decided to do its own thing and swerved right. Before she could pull back from this demented course, the bow had already engaged three-feet deep into water, only to emerge and start to cut the base of the wave. Like surfing. On a sixty-foot open sailboat. Jesus!

What the hell's wrong with this ship!

A sort of tunnel of water opened up in front of her. Water changed colors. Even the sky at the other end looked different. But it was better than taking a nosedive into unfathomable depths. Cursing and winching as hard as she could, Laurel aimed for the sky at the end of the tunnel. The mainsail strained. The very tip of the mast raked the ceiling of water. Spray hit her like hail. She could barely see. Salty water stung her cracked lips.

But she made it! She all but exploded out of the dip between the two waves like the proverbial bat out of hell.

Now that she had a second to breathe, Laurel couldn't explain it, but she felt as though she'd just passed through something. The same feeling when entering a large room seconds after a crowd had left it. The resonance of past events, of people gone by. She shook the bizarre notion away. Jesus, Benson, focus. The sky changed. Even the water didn't look the same. Deeper, darker. There was a smell, too. Like ammonia but subtler.

Wind turned again, tried to push against her. Grunting with the effort of keeping the mainsail from taking all the line available, Laurel slipped and was dragged the short distance to the base of the mast. She lost her footing, slammed hard against the aluminum construct. That had never happened. She might be short but she had the grip of a pit bull, or so had declared a former boyfriend who'd tried to wrestle her into bed. Too bad he hadn't been able to keep her there. She loved sex Greco-Roman style!

Wind swelled and howled. Deafening, almost loud enough to make someone mad. Cringing with her eyes squeezed shut, Laurel hung on to the line with both hands. The boat was tossed back and forth like a bit of cork. Smaller than the three monsters she'd just left behind but drastically more violent, the waves crashed against the hull like slaps of thunder.

A distant sound caught her ear. It came from all around her. Voices?

The radio crackled again. It was back on? Someone was calling for help. She would've gone to see if she could do something but could barely hang on to her own life as it was. After a long male howl of fright, the radio was silent again. Shit, that was no dignified way to go.

Shadows flashed across the bow of her boat. She blinked the rain back as she floundered up to her knees. There it was again. Something flew across her bow! What the hell was that?

Her gaze caught it before her ears registered the sound. Dropping out of the sky, an articulated thing landed on her bow and crashed through the carbon-Nomex compound as if it'd been a tent. The sound was lost in the wind. Laurel held on to the mast with both arms as she craned her neck to see what the hell had just punched a hole in her boat. The thing glimmered wet and black.

A grappling hook! One the size of an umbrella.


There was no one to talk to. Pure adrenaline. She crawled on her belly. Sparing a hand, she grabbed the flare gun and pocketed it, retrieved the emergency axe from the niche, unclipped it, and then kept on crawling until she'd reached the bow.

Rain slashed across the sky in thick ropes. Speaking of which, whoever had sent that grappling hook was starting to reel it back. A line attached to the thing twanged taut. Not nylon either. Old-fashioned hemp rope the thickness of her wrist. Carbon and Nomex splintered when the hook pulled partly out of her hull. But it was stuck. Laurel yelped when the boat started to rise at the nose. Higher. Waves tossed the aft end back and forth while the front hovered a couple of feet above water.

Working fast now, Laurel clambered over to the hole and started to hack away at the rope. If that thing pulled any higher, it'd force her boat straight up. Any loose bits--herself included--would slide back into the raging ocean. In these temperatures and unchained sea, she wouldn't last an hour.

Whatever system was winching the line let go for a few feet then tried again. Like someone dunking a teabag in a mug, dipping a couple of times. Then it hit her.

The rope. It was coming straight from above.

Laurel raised her face to the elements but couldn't see a thing for the thick cover of clouds that looked about fifty feet above her head. She'd never seen clouds so low. The sky basically sat directly on top of her mast. The rope vibrated with the strain of yanking the hook back out. Whoever pulled at the other end must have been having a cow about it. She sure was! The line slackened once more, tightened. But still the hook remained stuck in the opening.

Kneeling up, she hacked with renewed energy at the hemp rope. Barely managed to make a few dents. It'd been well oiled, like in the old days. She'd been trying to save her ship as much as possible but gave up and just went at it with a vengeance. To hell with her gleaming, brand new finish! Her sponsors were probably already looking to finance a new racer.

A noise stopped her. Axe poised above her head, she froze to listen. A voice? There it was again. The rope began to quake. Laurel backpedaled furiously. Someone was coming down.

Through the roiling clouds above her head, she spotted a pair of brown boots crossed over the rope. They belonged to a man, judging by the size. Laurel crouched low and held on with her free hand to one of the horn cleats. Waves hit her boat so hard the man was sometimes dangling from the rope more than climbing down. But he finally reached her boat and landed nimbly.

Had someone told her the boom had hit her over the head and that she was presently hallucinating, she wouldn't even have argued. A feat in itself because she tended to argue and do it loudly whenever she thought she was right.

The smallish man who stood on her bow, yanking on the grappling hook to work it out of the demolished bow, wore the strangest clothes--a burgundy buttoned coat cinched with a wide belt holding various metallic things that could've been weapons or tools. He crouched with his back to her, obviously as pissed as she was about the turn of events. Well, he was about to get even more pissed.

Laurel charged.

Somehow, he must have heard her because he whirled around and only good fortune saved him from having his skull cleaved right open by the axe. He floundered to his feet, reached to his belt. Laurel didn't wait to see if those were weapons. She attacked again, but she might as well have been trying to whack at a pinata while hanging on to a merry-go-round. The axe thudded harmlessly against the hull. But she had the man's undivided attention.

"Get off my boat!" She cocked her arm back for another swing. Waves forced her to make her stand kneeling. She still had an axe and was going to use it!

He gripped the rope above his head. "Bring me up!" he roared.

Someone up there had a damn good ear because the rope tightened once more. But it didn't stop when the hook remained stuck in her hull. It kept hoisting.

"No! Stop!" Laurel put one foot against the base of the mast. With the angle, she could've stepped on it. "Stop! Dammit!"

But the man had started to climb back up the rope. Her hull wouldn't be able to take the full weight of the boat. It hadn't been designed to hang by the nose! Axe in one hand, Laurel clambered and floundered and managed to get her hand around the rope as well. Above her head, the man's boots were pushing hard. She swung and caught him on the heel. He yelped and climbed faster. He was good.

Now that she had a few feet of vantage point, Laurel noticed her hull didn't seem as smooth as it usually did. In fact, it looked pitted. As if some corrosive chemical was slowly eating away at it. As the rope and hook continued to lift her boat out of the water--it was now almost completely upright--she saw that the keel and both daggerboards had all but been eaten away. What was in the water? A chemical spill? Something biologic? There'd be nothing left soon. Renewed adrenaline and survival instincts fired her muscles, and Laurel began to climb the rope as well. Her foot on the ring holding the hook to the rope, she swung her axe as high as she could and caught nothing but rope. Still, the man must have felt the tremor because he looked down over his shoulder. No triumph on his features. Nothing but fear. And horror.

A long groan forced Laurel to look down below her feet. Something was going on. With a moan like a dying beast, the mast bowed under the weight of the water-logged sail and the angle. The mainsail shredded around the low cabin, tangled with the spreader and forestay while every single line holding it secure snapped like sewing thread. A sudden clack made her stand with both feet on the wide iron ring. A violent wave tossed the aft end of her boat far to the right. Splitting like celery stalks lined one after the other, her hull finally gave and released the grappling hook. Its many barbed branches still held scraps of her boat as it snapped back into the water. The force was enough to break the hull in two. Laurel could only watch as her sixty-foot open sailboat--and her lifesavings--rolled onto its broken side and sank in the murky water.

"No," she breathed. No, no, no.

A whiff of ammonia tore a groan from her. She turned away, faced upward. Now that it was free of the dead weight her boat had represented, whatever had been trying to winch the hook back up could finally do it. She heard the man above calling for help. He spoke English with an accent she'd never heard. A bit British, a bit continental Europe, a bit strange.

Clouds engulfed her. She could barely breathe for the moisture hanging in the air. She squeezed the axe between her knees and held on to the rope with both hands. Clouds thinned from dark gray to spotted white fluff like cotton balls. She would've expected to see such clouds at much higher altitudes.

"Hurry!" the man above her yelled. "There's one right behind me!" The panic was palpable.

There was one what behind him? Laurel frantically looked down below. Saw nothing. What did he mean?

When she looked back up, she spotted vague shapes through the thinning clouds. They were high now, with wind slapping her around at the end of the rope. The hook underfoot felt slippery. She made sure not to lose her precious weapon because, as it stood now, she had nothing else but the flare gun in her jacket pocket and the short emergency axe tucked between her knees. Her boat was gone. Her sanity, too. She'd probably been hit by the boom and fallen overboard to sink to a cold and dark death. Jacques would have a cow. She should've called, should've kept the sat phone closer, if only she'd known. Should haves. Could haves. Ifs. The French had an expression that maintained one could put Paris in a bottle with a bunch of ifs.

A large shadow stretched from left to right. Laurel spotted the underside of a huge wooden hull shaped like a banana, completely dry and held together with copper rivets. The rope kept climbing, higher, breaking through the last shreds of clouds and surfacing in a sky that was blue enough to blind her and a sun that was all wrong for some reason she couldn't explain.

She hung level with a ship's portside main deck. And what a ship it was. Laurel had her proof then. She was dead. Or in a mental institution somewhere painting the walls with poop from her diaper. Because what spanned a good two hundred feet to her left couldn't exist. It just couldn't.

There were no part-wood, part-metal airships floating in midair, with propellers on the end of long things that looked like flying buttresses on Gothic churches. There couldn't be airships with giant articulated sails deployed like Chinese fans on either side of a monstrous superstructure hanging over the inflatable part and which made it look as if a dirigible had been encased in a sort of catamaran of wood and metal. It looked part dirigible, part pirate ship, part Gothic citadel of metal. This thing couldn't exist. It'd never fly. Let alone hover. The props' roar was deafening. Sun reflected off its many metal parts. Implausible. Impossible.

Above her, the man nimbly climbed off the rope as soon as he could reach the handrail. But she wasn't so lucky. By the time it was her turn to reach the handrail, the crew had gathered behind it, some of them with weapons leveled at her. Combination of crossbows and guns, slingshots and pistols, knives and scifi machetes.

She was going completely insane.

The person at the winch decided she was close enough and stopped. The jolt tore a curse from her. Cold and fear deadened her. But she rallied her wits. One hand on the rope, she reached between her knees to get at the axe. If they wanted her alive, they'd have to earn every bruise.

"We have no time for this! Just kill it, would you!" a man shouted from the superstructure. The voice cut the wind like a dorsal fin. A trace of irritability made the command sound as though he were asking someone to please turn off the annoying radio.

"You can't do that!" she yelled. To her undying frustration, the hook rotated on itself with the wind. She was forced to twist her neck this way and that to keep facing the dangerous crowd. And a strange one, too, with colorful garments fit for Victorian times yet equipped with tools and weapons that clearly didn't come from any era she knew. Jesus, she really was in a hospital somewhere. These hallucinations had to be the drugs' effects.

The crew, both men and women dressed in strange period clothes same as the one who'd climbed down the rope, approached the handrail to get a better look. She felt like a fish on a hook. "Get me off that thing! You can't do this! There are laws, dammit!"

Amongst the group stood a short-haired older woman who embodied the classic British Headmistress from Hell. She wore a green jacket and gold buttons, aviator leather hat and goggles, and cocked her head as if she couldn't understand. "What did you say?"

"I said I'm going to sue you! You destroyed my boat, ruined my race!" What did these cretins wait for?

"Your boat?"

"It was on the water," said the smallish man who'd come to her boat. A collection of shocked faces turned to him. He seemed to shrink from the attention. "It's true!"

"What do you mean, on the water?" the older woman demanded. Clearly, she was in charge. Of something, anyway.

"Could we argue about this when I'm not hanging there like fish bait?" Laurel swung the axe for good measure, managed to make a complete rotation so that she faced away from the ship. Her PFD got in the way when she tried to twist around. Jesus.

"Get the captain," she heard the older woman say.

By the time Laurel had twisted around to face the ship once more, the crew had parted to let a man approach the handrail. Dressed in a tailored blood-red, double-breasted greatcoat crisscrossed with bits of leather armor and belts, he wore his long dark hair loose around his face and shoulders. A cowlick split his bangs on one side. The captain--or so she surmised--hovered close to the six-feet mark and carried himself as though he could break someone's head with his stare alone. He didn't need the wicked assortment of weapons strapped to his slim frame to intimidate her. And unlike the others, he didn't seem impressed or even interested in their catch. In fact, he looked at her as one would a somewhat intriguing but utterly useless garden gazing ball.

When he leaned an elbow on the gleaming wood, she noticed he wore only one glove, a supple-looking, black leather affair that disappeared into his sleeve. He gave her a long look. "Who sent you? Thorne?"

A slap of wind hit her and forced her to hold on to the rope with a death grip. Her cap was ripped from her head. Like live snakes, her overgrown bob whipped in thick strands around her head. She shook it out of her face. "Who?"

"Clearly, she's one of them," he declared. She recognized the voice that had earlier cleaved the air like a knife. His upper lip curled in disgust. "We caught a live one, it would seem. And female. Rare."

"One of what?" she countered. Fear crept up her spine. "I'm not one of nothing! But you, you're in deep trouble!"

A dark eyebrow arched.

"She's one of them," declared Climber. He nodded solemnly. "Look at her hair."

Her hair? Laurel noticed only then everyone except her had dark hair and eyes. She was the only blue-eyed blonde she could see.

"Impossible. She is much too small," countered the older woman. She gave Laurel a penetrating look. "And too shrill."


Laurel pretended to throw the axe. "Hey!"

"See? She is one of them. She attacked me! All I wanted was to get our hook back!" Climber and a couple others nodded and crossed their arms. She'd get no help from them.

Someone shouted that they thought they saw something in the clouds. Everyone began to talk at once. The captain raised his hand and triggered instant silence before calling for a man named Virgil to confirm the sighting. A negative created a general sigh of relief.

Suddenly, wind hit her so hard she almost lost her footing. Her hand was numb from cold and lack of circulation. She'd have to either tuck the axe between her knees again or risk falling into the raging sea below. And somehow, the sight of a hull eaten away didn't bode well for a human body. There was something going on with the water.

"Come on!" she called. "You destroyed my boat, the least you can do is let me come aboard! Radio for help! Something!"

The captain cocked his head the way the older woman had. "Why? So you little traitor can snoop around and tell your masters all that you saw?"

"Traitor? Masters? What are you talking about?" Her hand began to slip. Teeth gritted, she tucked the axe between her knees then held on to the rope with both hands. Her forearms and shoulders burned. "Please, take me on board," she snarled. "I'm not going to last long!"

The older woman rocked back on her heels, clearly stunned. Even the captain seemed taken aback. Eyes narrowed, he studied her from wind-blown hair, canary-yellow nylon jacket to dripping Gore-Tex boots.

"What did she say?" someone asked from behind the first row of onlookers. "Did she say please?"

"She cannot be one of them," an unseen woman offered gently. "They never plead."

"You didn't hear right," replied another.

Dissenting murmurs rose until, after a nod to the older woman, the captain straightened. "We shall see. Reel her in."

"About time," Laurel muttered.

And "reel her in" is exactly what they did. Instead of letting her clamber onboard as Climber had done, they kept her well away from the deck and the opening in the handrail into which the man had slipped. With a pole that looked a lot like a harpoon to her, a man hooked the rope and pulled until the mechanism at the end of the boom clicked. With a yelp of fright she quickly subdued, Laurel slid along the rail and thudded against the hull. There, several pairs of hands gripped her by the PFD and jacket and hoisted her onboard. Someone hurriedly yanked the small axe from between her knees while another pulled the flare gun from her pocket. Under the pitiless sun, the metal things leveled at her that looked like pistols gleamed menacingly. She didn't care. She could've kissed that deck, beautiful, polished thing that is was.

Laurel climbed to her feet under the watchful eyes of a dozen men and women. From this angle, the dirigible part looked as if it carried a sort of pirate ship underneath its belly, with a superstructure stuck to the top of the balloon. It was so implausible that she rubbed her eyes to make sure she wasn't seeing things. Still there.

Around her were all sorts of fantastical machines that ranged from boilers to stuff that looked like giant radiators and long narrow water tanks. Steam was omnipresent. It jetted up and billowed, rose in thin spires and whistled out of brass tubes, curled like pigtails and twisted in long ribbons, hissed and wailed and rumbled. Nothing like this existed. Did it? It couldn't.

Her heart beat so fast it hurt. What the hell was going on? Where was she?

The older woman came to stand directly in front of Laurel, who, for once, wasn't the smallest person in attendance. Except for the captain and one or two other men, the rest were pretty short. "Name yourself," the woman demanded.

"I don't have to do--"

The woman shrugged. "Toss her back overboard."

"Wait!" Laurel spread her feet and hung on to the portion of handrail closest to her, which made one of the men holding the pistol click something back. She may not know these particular weapons, but she could tell the thing had just been armed. They meant business.

"My name is Laurel Benson-Desmarais. My boat just sank and I need a phone to let my shore crew in Les Sables know where I am because they'll send a rescue party after me, you can be sure of that, so I wouldn't try anything if I were you." She'd never been known for her economy with words.

After a few seconds of stunned silence, someone in the crowd muttered, "What did she say"?

A young woman dressed entirely in red, from split long skirt to cropped jacket and frilly shirt, smiled. "Definitely not a Varangian." Laurel recognized the gentle voice of earlier.

"A what? I'm not a what?" Her hand shook when she raked her disheveled bob back from her face. Nerves were rapidly taking over the rest. Unusual for her. She wasn't used to going into full panic mode, but it was close. Pretty damn close. Did that mean she needed a paper bag? How did one deal with this? Should she put her head between her legs? Unless that was for nosebleeds? Man, she wanted a drink. Anything strong that'd dull her senses. Maybe even put her out for a month. Her head hurt like damn.

Then it came to her. "Of course." She smiled in relief.

A movie set. She'd fallen on some elaborate movie production. Or maybe some enthusiastic reenactment troupe. It had to be a movie set. The morons had almost killed her.

"Who's in charge here?" Laurel demanded. "Who's the director? I want to talk to that person."

The older woman curled her lip and opened her mouth but snapped it closed again when the captain approached. The crowd parted and held a respectful distance so that a sort of bubble was created around him. For a reason she couldn't understand, Laurel thought he looked forlorn. Alone in a crowd. The one who'd taken her flare gun gave it to the captain, who slid it into his belt without even a look.

He rested a long hand, the one without glove, on the pommel of a glistening silver pistol-looking thing. The blood-red of his greatcoat created a sharp contrast to his pale skin and loose dark hair. Come to think of it, he was hot as hell. If a bit on the taciturn, brooding side.

"So, Laura--"

"Laurel," she cut in.

The lady in red hid a smile behind her hand.

A look of vexation flashed in the captain's dark eyes. He sucked on his teeth, eyebrow arched. "Laurel. What were you doing to my ship?"

"I wasn't doing anything to your ship. You're the one who dropped a grappling hook right in the middle of mine." She hooked her thumb at Climber, who narrowed his eyes at her. "Then he came down the rope and boarded my boat. What was I supposed to do?"

"Your boat that floats on water, yes," added the older woman, clearly unconvinced. Sniggers rose from the crowd.

They're completely nuts. All of them.

Planting her fists on her hips didn't seem to sit well with the ones holding the pistols, so she let them drop and took a deep sigh. "Look, whatever you're doing, movie or fair or whatever, it's none of my business, so just please get me to a radio, or a phone so I can call them and have--"

"See," Climber cut in. Triumph tightened his narrow mouth. "She wants to contact them. I'm telling you, she's one of--"

The Headmistress raised her hand. "Nonsense. Look at her. She is no more Varangian than I am. But she is not one of us either. So, the question is..." She turned her penetrating gaze to Laurel. "What are you?"

The last time Laurel had cried in public was when she'd broken her nose on her eighth birthday. Her brothers had tormented her with the momentary weakness for years afterward. So when her eyes started to sting and her chin to tremble, Laurel frantically tried to control herself. If she let them see her blind spot, they'd go for it. She'd learned young not to let anyone see her weaknesses. She had them, she was human. But she didn't want people taking advantage.

"Get me a radio, okay." She cleared her throat. "Please. Let me warn my crew."

Approaching despite calls to be careful, the lady in red pulled a neatly folded pink handkerchief from her skirt pocket and passed it to Laurel. It felt crisp in her hand. That thing was so girly. "This is all very silly," the girl commented in her gentle voice. "She is cold and alone and we destroyed her boat. We should send a bird back to--"

"You know what traitors do and have done to us," the captain cut in. "Tie her to the mainmast until I figure out what to do with her."

"What?" By pure instincts, Laurel smacked the closest hands down even if she knew it probably wasn't a very smart thing to do. "Don't you touch me."

The captain and the Headmistress left, the first unperturbed while the second spoke animatedly in his ear. Laurel could defend herself but had no chance against half a dozen armed people. Despite her punches and kicks and general thrashing, she was dragged across the deck and, with a thin silvery cord, they tied her by the ankle to the base of the mainmast. Her attackers quickly backpedalled when she lunged at them.

"You just bought yourselves a suit," she yelled at their retreating backs. "You wait. Whoever you are. I don't care if you work for Universal Studios." Her voice broke.

She yanked on the cord but it wouldn't give. She'd never seen anything like it. The thing resembled a silver silk cord but felt cold like metal. With one last threat, she dropped to her butt, leaned back against the thick mast and cradled her drawn-up knees, fuming and about to hit the panic button. She'd wake any moment now. This just couldn't be real. It was too.... Just too...outlandish. Crazy. Ridiculous.

This can't be a movie set or a fair. I'm going insane.

No one paid her any heed. Only the lady in red stayed, looking apologetic, before she turned and climbed the short ladder to the quarterdeck. Laurel turned to watch the captain, the older woman and the lady in red engaged in a conversation. Clearly, both women disapproved of his decision. He turned a hard gaze to her, shook his head. Because it was all she had left, Laurel flipped him the bird and looked away. Asshole.

Then she did what she hadn't done in public since her eighth birthday. She started crying.

* * * *

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