Thursday, 12 August 2010

Excerpt Day - Wild Cards and Iron Horses © Sheryl Nantus


Jon stepped inside the building, his eyes slow to adjust to the different lighting of the workshop. The thick wooden door swung shut behind him with a resounding thud. His imagination brought up the image of a gladiator walking into the Roman arena about to meet his doom.

Squinting as his eyes watered yet again, he could just make out the man standing by a table. He waved Jon over with his left hand. As Jon got closer he saw the empty right sleeve pinned down on the heavy leather coat. A cold chill ran down his arm at the sight, the wartime memory of a hundred men crippled in the same way rising and falling in his mind’s eye. Forcing his thoughts back to the present, Jon looked around the workshop, using the exercise to anchor himself.

The large room seemed to be a mixture of a blacksmith’s shop and a mechanic’s storeroom with gears of various sizes and shapes spread across some of the many worktables set against the walls. A heavy black anvil stood by a well-fed fire, the hammer and tongs ready to be used. The large air scrubber sat against the far wall, wired into what had to be the local electrical grid. It chugged away, adding the whir of the fan to the rumbling noise of the fire. The man waved him over again more frantically, as if he wanted Jon out of the way of any possible explosion.

“Don’t be afraid. We don’t bite.” He laughed at his own joke.

Another person worked nearby, upper half hidden while he bent over and into a huge piece of machinery, devoured by the metal monster. Handleston gazed at the large mechanical horse.

It was a disfigured stallion, the metal head and neck remaining the same as its natural ancestor, the rest of the body deformed and reshaped to a cylinder. The hooves had been replaced by four huge wheels. Each metal wheel had small spikes imbedded around the rim and in the tire itself, enabling it to travel across rough terrain. Where the saddle would be, a hatch stood open with the worker’s top half tucked inside the darkness. Up on the neck sat a series of gauges and dials, the small metal hands twitching and moving back and forth.

The body itself coughed and belched dark smoke both out of the horse’s mouth and the rear area, the latter discreetly covered by a limp tail made of horsehair. As Jon watched, the eyes of the creature turned a brilliant orange and then dimmed.

“Darned thing doesn’t want to go into first gear.” A mumbled curse echoed around the insides of the metal equine, the hollow voice rumbling through any open port. “We’re going to need to take it apart again and check the gears by hand. Damned…” A blonde head popped out of the intestines, past the pipes and gears, and stared at Jon.

“Oh. My.” Dropping whatever tool she had in her hand into the innards of the horse, the woman straightened up. Her free hand wiped the beads of sweat from her forehead and cheek. Jon’s mouth went dry as he studied the woman—no, the engineer—who he hoped would be able to save him.

She stood all of five feet tall, her blonde hair braided and tucked into the front of her off-white shirt. The leather coat buttoned up around her neck hung loosely on her small frame, letting the shirt collar hang out at the top. Her hands were hidden inside a pair of thick leather gloves, the oversized gauntlets almost up to her elbows. Her blue eyes were rimmed with soot and dirt, making her look more like a raccoon than a young woman and much more like an engineer and inventor than any woman he had ever met, on either side of the pond. The fair-skinned cheeks went scarlet as she stared at him, her face damp with sweat.

Jon bowed. He had no other idea what to do. “Madam.” He glanced at the one-armed man. The resemblance between father and daughter was impossible to miss, which partially explained the abrupt reception at the front door. “As I was just telling your father, I need some delicate work done. Repairs, as it were. On a piece of equipment I own. Which is broken. And needs repairs.” In a flash of embarrassment, he realized he was babbling like a fool.

“All right. Let’s take a look.” She looked back at the iron horse with longing.

After stripping the gloves off, she tossed them onto a nearby workbench. The woman strode over to stand in front of him, hands on hips. The jeans poking out from the bottom of the leather coat were well worn and almost white with wear, the work boots on the verge of surrendering any protection they could have offered in the past. “Let me guess, a broken pocket watch.”

Handleston stood his ground, staring back at her. “If only I could stop time as easily as that, Miss Weatherly.”
The old man laughed, a rolling cough pulling free at the end. “He’s got you there, Sam.” Extending his only hand, he smiled. “Jake Weatherly. And you’ve already heard of and met my daughter Samantha.”

Jon winced at the strength of the handshake, his left hand aching by the time he retrieved it from the elder Weatherly’s grasp. The man wore similar garb to his daughter’s, but much better fitting and with more wear and tear, along with a few mysterious stains that could have been oil or blood.

“Pleased to make your acquaintance, sir. Jonathan Handleston, at your service.” Instinctively he bowed. The older man bent slightly in response. “As I said, I require the assistance of your daughter to repair an item.”

He turned towards the woman. She waited impatiently for him to begin, twirling a wrench between her fingers.
“Miss Weatherly, I need a piece of equipment repaired as soon as possible. And before you ask, it’s not for sale.” He paused. “I would appreciate it if you would keep this information between us three. What I am about to show you is not found in the local general store nor is likely to ever be.” He looked down at his right hand. “However, I would be lying if I didn’t say that I wished I had no need of such a device.”

After pulling off the glove, he held up the warped, twisted hand for them to see. The flesh itself still held the resemblance of a hand, the four fingers extending from the palm and the thumb jutting out from the side. But the skin was mottled and pale, the scarred and burnt ridges rolling outward from the palm as if a pebble had been dropped into the hand and the ripples frozen in time.

The metal exoskeleton around it caught the dim electrical lights in the workshop, illuminating the brass and steel workings. Extending up each finger with slim bars and bands of metal, it embraced the useless hand and cradled it in a prosthetic grip.

“What…?” The wrench clattered to the ground with a loud clang, bouncing out of sight. The young woman advanced on him, her blue eyes fixated on the hand. He flinched as she reached out with her slender fingers towards him, but didn’t retreat. She started stroking the delicate mechanism running around his fingers, continuing her inspection down across his wrist and up into the recesses of his shirt.

Jon shivered, forcing himself to stay still under her scrutiny. There had been plenty of examinations in the past, plenty of doctors and scientists and engineers poking and probing at his injured hand and the prosthetic. Many of them had been women, white-haired old birds who muttered as they prodded his hand and nattered on about formulas and spring tension and whatnot. But he’d never had such gentle touching and never felt the tingling along his scarred, mutilated skin as he did right now.

“Shirt. Off.” Her nimble fingers pulled the tie free of his stiff collar. It arced into the air, landing on the stone floor within inches of a pool of oil. She continued to pry the buttons open on his waistcoat and then set out to work on the shirt underneath. Her short and ragged nails scraped against his skin, sending another rush of sensations through his body as he fumbled for some sort of sane reaction to this insane behavior.

“Miss Weatherly.” Jonathan leapt back, his good hand flying up to pull the fabric out of those slender prying digits that threatened to destroy what inner willpower he had left. “Please.”

© Sheryl Nantus

Wild Cards and Iron Horses 

Author: Sheryl Nantus

Publisher: Samhain Publishing

Genre:  western, Fantasy romance

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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.

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