'Twas a shame, Indigo de Vargas thought. The courier was a lad with a pretty face and a brief sexual interlude with him was tempting. He insisted on setting off on the return trip in his small dirigible after partaking of a quick refreshment, despite the howling winds and driving snow. His gaze darted nervously around the salon and even a suggestive fingertip brushed along his lips did not persuade him to stay for more than a cup of mulled wine. She almost offered him a hot milk possett instead, in deference to his youth and nervous disposition. However, thoughts of a sexual diversion quickly disappeared as Indigo broke the seal and read the document.
"Absolutely impossible," Indigo said emphatically as she read the document before her.
She rapped her blood-red nails impatiently on the parchment. Striding across the sitting room to the fire she continued reading in disbelief. The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations in London was still three months away and now Henry Cole, representative of Prince Albert, asked ... nay, demanded, that the exhibition prototype be finalized within the next month. Reading aloud, Indigo refused to believe that Henry Cole gave credence to Duke Lorca's trivial complaints. She remained certain her dastardly neighbor had sent erroneous information to London.
"I am of the advice that your product will not be manufactured in the timeframe required for display at the Crystal Palace. I urge you, madam, to respond to my letter forthwith and provide evidence that your prototype will be forthcoming within the period of one month. Duke Leopold Lorca is willing and able to exhibit a selection of steamed farming machinery in the space, and will be allotted the aforementioned space if a timely and satisfactory response is not forthcoming from yourself. Yours sincerely, Sir Henry Cole, Representative of Prince Albert, Patron of Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce."
With a scream of pure rage, Indigo threw the parchment to the floor. "Over my dead body! That sniveling coward Lorca will not get his little manipulative hands on my exhibition space."
The wind whistled through the door as the housekeeper locked the cogs behind the departing courier but Indigo paid little notice. Bending to retrieve the parchment from the floor, she tore it to shreds and threw it on the flames, muttering as it curled and disappeared up the chimney.
"Round one to Lord Lorca, but not for long," she muttered.
There had been enough bad news for the day. The latest shipment of blooms from South America should have arrived, and Indigo had passed much of the day in her sanctum, alternately pacing the floor and peering through the large telescope mounted on the viewing platform, awaiting the arrival of the Artemis.
"A pox on you, Lorca," she spat.
Sitting at the bay window, the weather matching her mood, she fumed over the missive. The large trees facing the sea bore the brunt of the wind gusting fiercely off the Atlantic Ocean. An old oak tree bent with the weight of the fallen snow, creaking ominously as the huge boughs pushed against the walls of the manor house. She plucked at the velvet tassels of the scarlet cover on the window seat as her temper increased.
A loud knocking on the heavy front door interrupted her brooding. She waited impatiently for Mrs. Grimoult to announce the unexpected visitor. The knocking continued unanswered until Indigo rose, sweeping through the foyer, heels clicking on the wooden floor.
"I don't know why I bother keeping staff," she muttered, unlocking the series of cogs that secured the main entry. She held the door firmly against the wind. Snow flurries swept through the opening.
"Gothewhar daa." A mellifluous voice came from the silken folds of a hooded cloak, concealing the face of the speaker. Indigo leaned forward, intrigued to hear the Cornish dialect. The stranger with the deep voice remained hidden in the deep shadows of the porch, the candles flickering in the wind gusting from the ocean.
"Good evening, sir. May I ask what brings you out on this miserable night?"
"I need an audience with Madam de Vargas as a matter of urgency. Is she in residence?"
"Who shall I say is calling, sir?" Indigo wanted to know the business of the tall, broad-shouldered man with the deep voice before revealing her identity.
"I prefer to introduce myself to Madam de Vargas, if I may," he replied.
She stood back, carefully scrutinizing the dark stranger before replying. Well-spoken and expensively dressed, there was little chance of him being a robber. "I am Madam de Vargas. Come in from this foul night and state your business with me." She ushered him in as the heavy door pushed against her hands.
The stranger stepped through the wide doorway and dipped into a sweeping bow. "I am here to offer my services as captain of your vessel. I believe you have urgent need for a captain to master your next expedition, madam?" The silk-edged cloak of black wool slipped from his shoulders as the stranger stepped forward; it pooled sinuously upon the wet floor. Indigo choked back a startled gasp before it could pass her lips. She looked up slowly, her gaze locking with eyes the color of midnight.
The removal of his cloak revealed a muscled forearm dusted with a sprinkling of dark hair. At the edge of his wrist, the tattooed petals of a blue passionflower contrasted with tanned skin, and her eyes narrowed as she saw the intricate green tendrils snaking their way to his elbow. It was identical to a tattoo that extended from her shoulder to waist.
"Who are you?" Indigo demanded, regaining her equilibrium.