The Time For Love

The Time For Love

An original Cynster Next Generation Novel
Volume 11
Available in print and ebook formats
PRINT ISBN: 978-1-925559-54-5
E-BOOK ISBN: 978-1-925559-53-8
Release Date: August 18, 2022

#1 New York Times bestselling author Stephanie Laurens explores what happens when a gentleman intent on acquiring a business meets the unconventional lady-owner, only to discover that she is not the biggest or the most lethal hurdle they and the business face.

Martin Cynster arrives at Carmichael Steelworks set on acquiring the business as the jewel in his industrialist’s crown, only to discover that the lady owner is not at all what he expected.

Miss Sophia Carmichael learned about steelmaking at her father’s knee and, having inherited the major shareholding, sees no reason not to continue exactly as she is—running the steelworks and steadily becoming an expert in steel alloys. When Martin Cynster tracks her down, she has no option but to listen to his offer—until impending disaster on the steelworks floor interrupts.

Consequently, she tries to dismiss Martin, but he’s persistent, and as he has now saved her life, gratitude compels her to hear him out. And day by day, as his understanding of her and the works grows, what he offers grows increasingly tempting, until a merger, both business-wise and personal, is very much on their cards.

But a series of ever-escalating incidents makes it clear someone else has an eye on the steelworks. The quest to learn who and why leads Martin and Sophy into ever greater danger as, layer by layer, they uncover a diabolical scheme that, ultimately, will drain the lifeblood not just from the steelworks but from the city of Sheffield as well.

A classic historical romance, incorporating adventure and intrigue, set in Sheffield. A Cynster Next Generation novel. A full-length historical romance of 100,000 words.

"Sophy Carmichael is expertly managing the family steelworks in Sheffield when businessman Martin Cynster comes calling with an offer to buy. His visit coincides with an attack on the plant, and when his and Sophy’s lives are threatened, they join forces to find out who is plotting against Carmichael Steelworks. Fans of Regency romance with exceptionally strong female leads are sure to relish this tale." Angela M., Copy Editor, Red Adept Editing

"When Martin Cynster approaches Sophy Carmichael about buying Carmichael Steelworks, his life takes an unexpected turn. Fans of romance will enjoy this great story and its intriguing historical setting!" Kristina B., Proofreader, Red Adept Editing

"Martin Cynster is interested in buying Carmichael Steelworks, but quickly finds himself with more than just a business deal on his hands. He's intrigued by a series of suspicious accidents at the works and even more so by the company's majority shareholder, the astute, unconventional, and beautiful Sophia Carmichael. By the time the pair unmasks the culprit behind the sabotage, their entanglement has expanded beyond business to encompass some very personal pursuits indeed." Kim H., Proofreader, Red Adept Editing

Saturday, May 9, 1863

Sheffield, South Yorkshire

 

Impressive.

Perfect.

This is what I need to complete my dreams.

With one hand resting on the silver head of his cane, Martin Cynster stood on the pavement of Rockingham Street and allowed his gaze to roam the lines of the buildings that comprised Carmichael Steelworks.

He’d been hunting for just such a business for more than five years. Acquiring a medium-sized enterprise that specialized in producing high-quality steel in a variety of alloys had always been crucial to bringing to fruition his long-term vision for his investments in the burgeoning iron and steel industries. He already owned a foundry that would supply pig iron to the steelworks and manufactories that would take the steel produced and make it into various products; all he needed was the right steelworks to provide the critical lynchpin, and his vision would be complete.

Focused and diligent inquiries had led him to Carmichael Steelworks. His investigations suggested that the Carmichael works had the ability to produce the sorts of steel his other businesses required, now and into the future. That the works were located in Sheffield, within easy reach of the iron foundry he already owned in neighboring Rotherham, was an added attraction, as was the works’ established and stable workforce.

The steelworks occupied the entire block bounded by Rockingham Street on the west, Trippet Lane on the south, Bailey Lane to the east, and Boden Lane to the north. The Carmichael works were much smaller than the massive steelworks located to the northeast of the town, but significantly larger than the nearby foundries and furnaces that dotted this area west of the town center.

Martin had studied the municipal plans of the site. Now, he stood on the pavement opposite the southwest corner and took in the reality.

The steelworks’ shed, a huge edifice of redbrick walls and iron panels, covered much of the site, its pitched roof rising above the surrounding structures. Taking up the full width, east to west, of the site, the shed extended from the northern boundary on Boden Lane to thirty yards or so from the steelworks’ frontage on Trippet Lane. Consequently, most of the long Rockingham Street and Bailey Lane boundaries and the shorter Boden Lane boundary were marked by the shed’s redbrick wall.

The remainder of the site—the area between the front of the shed and Trippet Lane—played host to several single-story buildings, also in red brick, the majority of which lined Trippet Lane. Wrought-iron railings and gates secured the site’s perimeter, filling the gaps between the corners of the shed and the other buildings. The gates, one on Rockingham Street and the other on Bailey Lane, gave access to the cobbled yard that lay between the main shed and the row of buildings on Trippet Lane.

Martin scanned the Rockingham Street façade. The shed’s brick wall rose to several feet above a man’s head, and above that, vertical iron panels extended to a height of more than twenty feet, as high as a two-story building. A narrow strip of iron-framed windows ran above the panels, letting daylight into the shed. The roof, also iron, angled upward to a long, central spine, broken by a succession of large brick chimneys, most of which were puffing gray smoke into the equally gray sky.

The brick wall continued along Rockingham Street for ten yards past the front of the shed, forming one side of a smaller, single-story building, before the wall gave way to wrought-iron railings and a wide double gate with a single-man gatehouse just inside. The activity in the yard beyond the gate suggested that entrance was used by the heavy wagons bringing in pig iron, the raw material for the works, which Martin had learned was presently sourced from the massive Atlas Works on the other side of town. Once received, the pig iron was carted into the smaller building abutting the shed, no doubt to allow ready access to the iron for the workers to feed the furnaces inside.

South of the gates and filling the southwest corner of the site stood the receiving office. The plain door, bearing a discreet sign, fronted Rockingham Street, almost directly across from where Martin stood.

He’d been observing the steady trickle of people in and out of the office and the wagons trundling up to the gates. He’d learned to approach businesses from the rear, as it were. A neat and efficient-seeming front office could hide a plethora of ills, while activity around the rear gate often told the real tale.

Thus far, everything he’d seen of Carmichael Steelworks spoke of competence, efficiency, and sound upkeep, all attributes he appreciated.

I’ve seen enough. He looked up and down the street, then crossed and entered Trippet Lane. Cane swinging, he strolled along the steelworks’ southern boundary. The Trippet Lane frontage was comprised of adjoining redbrick buildings. Beyond the side of the receiving office, he passed what he suspected was the rear wall of a store for the works’ final products, steel bars or rolled plates of the various sizes and compositions currently used in an increasing number of industries, including wire and cable making, the forging of knives and all manner of implements, and more recently, button making; Martin already had an interest in those industries, and there were many more besides.

Steel was the future, and he was determined to secure a well-designed slice of it.

Ahead, the steelworks’ main office squatted on the southeast corner of the site, fronting Bailey Lane. Martin rounded the corner, and the main entrance—a pair of wrought-iron gates more ornate than at the rear—came into view; together with a stretch of railings, the gates filled the gap between the office and the southeast corner of the shed. As on Rockingham Street, the wall of the shed formed the rest of the Bailey Lane façade.

He halted outside the office door and, through the main gates—the ones that admitted customers with drays to take away the works’ products—looked across the yard to the massive double frontage of the main shed. It seemed that the shed was divided into two lengthwise, with each half sporting huge doors that rolled aside. Both doors were currently fully open, and an ear-assaulting cacophony of machinery pounding and furnaces roaring, punctuated by shouts and curses, rolled out. Even at that distance, Martin could feel the wash of hotter air carrying with it the unmistakable tang of molten metal and burning coal. Through both doors, he could see men and equipment moving, but the relative dimness inside the shed veiled all details.

Martin turned to the office door. The glass panel was etched with the name and logo of Carmichael Steelworks. He reached for the knob, opened the door, and walked in.

He seized the moment of shutting the door to scan the office. A polished wooden counter faced him, and the area behind it contained two desks. The rear wall boasted three doors; he suspected the central door—largest and most impressive—was the one he wanted. The door to his right was half glazed, and through the glass, he could see the yard inside the main gates.

A clerk—a solid-looking middle-aged man in a neat suit—rose from behind one of the desks. “Can I help you, sir?”

Seated at the second desk, a middle-aged woman, neatly garbed, with her graying hair secured in a severe bun, glanced up from the orders she was sorting. On seeing Martin, she blinked, then her gaze grew suspicious.

Martin summoned his most innocently charming smile, trained it on the woman, then switched his attention to the clerk. “I hope so. I’m here to see Miss Carmichael.” He waved westward. “I called at her house in Portobello Street and was told I would find her here, at the works.”

The clerk was eying him every bit as suspiciously as the woman. “Is Miss Carmichael expecting you?”

Martin kept his mask of relaxed confidence firmly in place. “Yes, I believe she is.” Given she’d ignored his letters, she certainly ought to be.

The clerk—possibly secretary—frowned and glanced at the woman. “She didn’t mention any meeting…”

The woman—who seemed to have revised her earlier judgment enough to accept Martin’s assertion—gestured dismissively. “You know how she is. She gets some idea and comes rushing in and goes straight up to the laboratory, forgetting anything and everything else.”

Is that so?

Martin hid his surprise. He hadn’t been able to learn much about Miss Sophia Carmichael, majority shareholder of Carmichael Steelworks. He’d asked, but apparently, she didn’t move in the social circles for which he had sound intelligence. Until he’d knocked on the door of her Portobello home and been told that she was at the works—in a manner that suggested he should have known that—he’d fully expected to find her filling her morning doing the usual things ladies of quality did.

“So she’s in the laboratory in the shed?” He hadn’t seen any other building that might reasonably house a laboratory, and many works had their laboratories close to the action. Smiling confidently, he moved to round the counter, making for the door to the yard.

“I’m not sure…?” The secretary—Martin had decided he was probably that—hurried to come out from behind his desk.

Martin waved the man back. “I can find my way. Given the subject of our discussion, we would have ended in the shed anyway.” One way or another, he would have ensured that.

He reached the side door, opened it, and stepped through. Leaving the harried secretary to close the door, Martin set off, striding across the yard. He didn’t glance back but heard no further remonstrations, and after a moment, the office door quietly shut.

Smiling to himself, he slowed his pace and looked about him, drinking in all he could see. His suspicion that the long building between the receiving office and the main office served as a store for the works’ products proved correct; large doors were currently wedged open, providing access to well-stocked bays within.

Several carts had come through the main gates and were loading up with steel sheets. Judging by the sheets’ thickness, the load was destined for one of the city’s numerous cutlery manufacturers. Meanwhile, trolleys laden with slim steel bars were being hauled out through the shed’s nearer door. Judging by the steady thump-whump and the clanging rattles emanating from that half of the shed, it housed the steam-powered hammers that beat the steel into the desired shapes, the rolling mills that produced the steel sheets, and no doubt other machinery to work and mold the still-malleable steel.

The farther side of the huge shed, with its noise, heat, and peculiar smell, drew him on. He walked up to and through the huge open door and stepped into a setting that some wag had recently dubbed an early circle of Hell.

Heat enveloped him. Nearby, a furnace roared, spewing red light across the shed. A head-high brick wall ran down the center of the shed, directly beneath the ridge of the roof, and various furnaces were built into that wall, their chimneys rising like massive brick pillars up to and through the roof far above.

Three huge, black Bessemer converters sat along the central wall, each backed into its own brick alcove with a chimney flue opening like a maw above the converter’s mouth. The nearest converter was being loaded with pig iron in preparation for a blow—the process during which hot air was bubbled through the molten iron to remove impurities and convert the iron to steel. The middle converter was being tapped, molten steel being drawn off to one side and slag pushed in the other direction, while the third converter was in the middle of its blow, with crushed additive ores—necessary to form whichever alloy was desired—starting to be fed into the converter to mix with the molten iron in the rounded belly of the beast.

Martin halted and took in the scene with one slow, sweeping glance. The staccato sounds from the forging area on the other side of the shed punctuated the sullen roar of the furnaces and the constant hiss of steam.

One comprehensive look was all it took to verify that Carmichael Steelworks had been constructed and organized to maximize efficiency. Quite aside from the steel it produced, this was definitely the steelworks he ought to acquire to complete his portfolio.

Several workmen, leaning on their long-handled implements and waiting for their moment, saw him and stared curiously, then one handed his tool to his mate and approached.

By then, Martin had spotted the set of metal stairs running up the outer wall to a long, narrow room of many windows, set at mezzanine level. The sturdy glass-and-metal-walled and wood-floored room was supported by massive iron pillars bolted to the concrete floor.

As the workman neared, Martin, his expression easy and unconcerned, pointed to the stairs. “I’ve been told Miss Carmichael is in the laboratory. I take it it’s up there?”

The man’s features eased, and he nodded. “Aye, sir. Through the door at the top of the stairs.”

Martin saluted and, cane swinging, headed for the stairs. He went up quickly, paused on the narrow landing at the top, opened the half-glazed door, and stepped through.

The laboratory stretched the entire length of the narrow room, with a long bench against the outer wall hosting numerous apparatuses while a raised table with papers and rocks littering its surface ran down the room’s center. Cupboards and cabinets lined the inner wall, sitting beneath and between the wide windows that provided an unobstructed view of the furnaces and converters below.

The area closest to the door was, relatively speaking, less crowded, as the bench and table didn’t reach that far. Three people were in the room, all with their noses, metaphorically speaking, pressed to the glass. Their gazes were trained on the third Bessemer converter, the one where the additive mixture was being combined with the purified molten iron.

Two men in gray laboratory coats stood farther down the room. Both wore wire-rimmed spectacles and were somewhere in their thirties, one brown haired, the other ginger haired. Neither glanced Martin’s way.

Equally oblivious was the slender lady with pale-blond hair, twisted into a knot and anchored at the back of her head, who was standing at the window nearest the door. She was dressed in a plain gown of charcoal twill. Noting the absence of any other female, Martin assumed she was his quarry.

Her attention remained unwaveringly fixed on the scene below. “What is it?”

Martin closed the door.

The noise level in the room abruptly fell, and the lady glanced his way.

Her eyes flew wide.

That’s better, Martin thought, then her startled gaze rose, and she met his eyes.

The punch of visceral awareness was disorienting.

Turquoise. Her eyes were a most unusual turquoise blue.

Beyond that…his brain was swamped by the impression of a lithe figure, slim, svelte, subtly yet alluringly curved. Her complexion was alabaster pale, and finely arched brown brows and long, thick lashes framed those large and distracting eyes. Her face was heart-shaped, but the set of her lips and chin bore witness to willfulness and determination even while her lush rose-tinted lips, slightly parted in surprise, evoked thoughts he’d never before entertained in the pursuit of business.

Business, some part of his brain insisted. This is supposed to be about business.

Sadly, the majority of his mind was already otherwise engaged.

Sophy stared at the man—the gentleman—standing just inside her laboratory as her wits reeled disconcertingly and her senses all but swooned.

The latter shocked her to her toes.

She was not a susceptible female—she never had been—yet her eyes simply would not look away, and her attention remained riveted on him while she drank in each and every visual detail.

He was tall—somewhere over six feet of long, rangy, well-built male. He was wearing a black top hat; as she watched, he tipped his head and removed the hat. His hair was dark with the faintest of waves and long enough to brush the collar at his nape. He was carrying an ebony cane with a finely wrought silver head, and his black wool overcoat hung from his broad shoulders in a way that only the most expensive garments did. Every item of clothing she could see—black suit, ivory shirt, gray-patterned waistcoat, neatly arranged stock of a paler gray, and well-polished boots—fitted the image of a wealthy gentleman, and the diamond that flashed in the gold ring on the little finger of his right hand completed the picture.

Yet it wasn’t his figure that captivated her and held her speechless, breathless, and close to mindless.

His face was that of a fallen angel, with broad brow, black slanted eyebrows, and deep yet well-set eyes of a shade that reminded her of rich burnt caramel. Those eyes were framed by black lashes that had no business being so thick and lush, and his heavy lids, combined with his lean cheeks, patrician nose, thin, mobile lips, and sculpted chin, contributed to an expression of lazy, good-natured, faintly amused, confidently relaxed benevolence.

She was perfectly certain that whoever he was, he was not benign, much less benevolent.

His gaze held hers—effortlessly, commandingly.

Everything about him screamed danger, yet all she wanted was to move closer and learn more.

Like a moth to a flame.

The thought jarred her. Her wits jerked back into the ascendancy, and she registered the oddity of him being there.

She managed a frown and, with suitably imperious crispness, demanded, “Who the devil are you?”

His eyes didn’t leave her face. “Cynster. Martin Cynster.”

She blinked and remembered… “Oh. Yes. You wrote.”

“Four times.”

She remembered his letters quite well. She’d read all of them. Several times each. She forced herself to nod. “I apologize for not replying. Yet.”

She should have known better than to let such a persistently eloquent—and curiosity-engaging—offer to buy the steelworks slide, yet while she’d told herself to respond with her standard rejection, she simply hadn’t.

Yet.

She met his eyes and tipped up her chin. “I fear I’ve been distracted.”

From the corner of her eye, she caught a flicker—a subtle change in the color of the flame shooting upward from the mouth of the third converter, the one she’d been monitoring. She turned her head and squinted, senses and wits redirected. “I’m not interested in selling the steelworks…”

Something’s wrong.

“Damn!” She dove for the speaking-trumpet attached to the wall beneath the window. She seized the instrument, raised it, and yelled, “Hinckley! Shut Betsy down! Stop the feed and throttle the blow!”

She waited only to see her foreman racing toward the controls, then rehung the trumpet and ran for the door.

The gentleman—Cynster—had the sense to smoothly step out of her way. “You name your converters?”

As she rushed past, despite them not touching, a frisson of awareness swept over her, simply because she’d got too close to his flame. Setting her jaw, she pushed through the door and, over her shoulder, flung him an arrogant look. “Of course.”

Then she hurried down the steep metal stairs, disturbingly aware that he followed close behind. She didn’t have time to bother with him. On reaching the floor, she strode rapidly to where Hinckley and his men were turning the heavy valve to close down the stream of heated air that had been feeding the fire in Betsy’s belly.

Hinckley glanced at her. “Off entirely or…?”

“Hold it to a simmer.” She continued past Betsy, making for the other side of the massive converter. “I’m hoping I’ve caught it in time to be salvageable.”

Hinckley gave his men their orders and followed. “I saw the flame didn’t look quite right.”

“There’s something wrong with the additives.” She yanked her work gloves from her pocket and pulled them on, then climbed the short ladder so she could look into the bucket containing the mix of additive ores. She peered inside.

Hinckley climbed up on the conveyor belt’s other side.

Sophy raised her head and looked at the ore lying on the conveyor belt, then reached out, picked up a handful, and examined it closely before letting the rough mixture slide back through her fingers. “Something is missing—namely, the spiegeleisen.”

Hinckley frowned. “But how can that be? I watched it being loaded into the feed bucket.”

Quickly, Sophy descended the ladder and hurried past the three smaller conveyor belts that fed the crushed ores into the mixer bucket, her goal the ladders that led to the three feed buckets fixed on the wall.

She hurried up the ladder beside the first bucket, the one reserved for spiegeleisen given it was an essential ingredient for all the steel Carmichael’s produced. She looked into the bucket. “Huh! It’s still full.”

Frowning, she followed the trail the ore should have taken and saw... “Aha!” Lips setting grimly, she reached into the narrow chute through which the crumbled rock needed to pass and gripped and wiggled and finally pulled out—

Spiegeleisen rattled down the chute and onto the smaller conveyor belt as she held up the lump she’d pulled free. “A piece of coal. It was blocking the chute.”

Hinckley frowned.

Before he could say it, she did. “It couldn’t have got there on its own.”

While there was plenty of coal around the shed—it fueled the boilers that produced the steam used throughout the works—the lump simply could not have got wedged in the chute without the help of human agency. Holding the lump in her fingers, grimly furious, she glared at it.

“So what do you want to do now?”

Hinckley’s question jerked her back to the issue at hand. She thought, then ordered, “Open up the valve again and let the blow run, but keep the feed going until all the spiegeleisen is in and fired. Essentially, extend the blow until everything that should have gone in is in and has been incorporated. As long as everything that should go in does go in, the resulting steel will be the same.” Still clutching the lump of coal, she descended the ladder as Hinckley called instructions to his crew.

On reaching the works’ floor, Sophy backed away from the converter, then halted. With her head tipped, she watched the blow fire up and studied the flame that, once again, shot up from the converter’s mouth. Eventually satisfied that all was as it should be, she handed Hinckley the lump of coal, then dusted off her gloves, pulled them off, and stuffed them into her pocket.

After one last look at the flame, she caught Hinckley’s eye. “You were about ten minutes into the additive run when I called a halt, so it’ll be about another ten minutes or so of extra time that will be needed.”

Like all the men in sight, Hinckley had taken note of the looming presence beside her, the one she was doing her damnedest to ignore, and was understandably curious. Nevertheless, her foreman merely nodded respectfully. “I’ll keep an eye on it.”

Correctly interpreting her consequent nod as a dismissal, Hinckley lumbered back to his crew, who were standing to one side of the now-firing converter.

She folded her arms and, as soon as Hinckley was out of earshot, without deigning to glance Cynster’s way, inquired, “Why are you still here?”

Despite not looking, she heard the amusement lacing his voice as he replied, “Because I’m persistent.”

Martin paused, then in a lower tone, added, “Especially when pursuing something I want.” As of a few moments ago, that something included her. He resettled his hat on his head and shot her a glance. “Am I to take it that you’re the resident metallurgist?”

She was frowning at the converter flame and answered absentmindedly, “Yes. I was always interested in the process, so Colonel Tom taught me.”

“Vickers?” He couldn’t keep the surprise from his voice. Although still young, Colonel Tom Vickers was well on his way to becoming a legend in steelmaking.

“Hmm. We more or less grew up together. He’s like a big brother to me.”

The converter was once more in full blow, yet with a faint frown knotting her fine eyebrows, she continued to study the flame.

Martin shifted his gaze to the converter as well.

After a moment, without glancing at her, he quietly asked, “Am I right in thinking that, had you not noticed the anomaly in the flame and the batch of steel had progressed through forging and on to product, then when your customer subsequently used that steel, it might well have failed?”

She remained silent and unmoving for nearly a minute, then replied, “I’m not sure it would have passed through forging, but if it had…yes.”

He glanced at her; although she continued to stare at the converter, her lips—those exceedingly luscious and distracting lips—had thinned. “I imagine,” he murmured, “that such an outcome would have adversely impacted Carmichael Steelworks’ reputation.”

Her gaze shifted to him in a narrow-eyed glare, then she lowered her arms and faced him. “And I have to wonder whether there’s any connection between a piece of coal wedged into the spiegeleisen chute and you turning up to press your offer to buy the works.”

The accusation took him by surprise, and before he could mask his reaction, he’d narrowed his eyes back. “If you’d actually read my letters, you would know that I want to buy the steelworks as a going concern to act as the central cog in my portfolio of steel industries, which rather obviously means with its reputation intact. Damaging Carmichael Steelworks’ reputation is the very last thing I would do.”

She held his gaze, but her own grew uncertain. Then huffily, she stated, “I did read your letters. That’s why I haven’t yet replied.”

She swung on her heel and stalked off down the shed.

For a second, he watched her walk away, taking in the distracting sway of her hips, then, lips compressing, went after her. “What do you mean?”

He had a sister and many female cousins; he knew better than to imagine he, a mere male, could unravel the workings of a female mind. Lengthening his stride, he caught up with her. “Why did reading my letters stop you from replying?”

She was glancing around, nodding to men as they looked up, smiled, and touched their caps to her. Given the overwhelming noise of the furnaces and the continuing thump-whump from the forge, although she and he had to shout, they could converse with little real chance of being overheard. “I found the ideas you outlined interesting. Not your offer. As I said, I have no interest in selling the steelworks. My father founded the business and bequeathed it to me. Keeping the works running is in my blood, and I have no interest whatsoever in giving up my legacy.”

“But you were interested?”

“In the concept. In your approach to future expansion.” Briefly, she met his eyes. “Thank you for giving me some new notions to ponder, but I’m not going to sell Carmichael Steelworks. Not to you or to anyone else.”

“I see.” He rather thought he did, and somewhat to his surprise, what he saw wasn’t disheartening. Not in the least.

Apparently alerted by something in his tone, she threw him a suspicious look, then presumably reverting to ignoring him, she marched on, progressing farther down the shed while running her eyes over the activity occurring all around.

The men clearly knew what they were doing. Some were subforemen, in charge of one area or another. Most of the workers looked up with a brief smile or nod; many took note of Martin, but he detected curiosity rather than hostility in their gazes.

The molten steel tapped from the second converter was being ferried down the shed, and she and he fell in behind four men transferring two of the huge cauldrons of molten metal to the casting area, which lay across the rear of the shed. The central dividing wall ended some thirty yards from the rear wall, and the casting troughs were neatly arranged across the ends of both halves of the massive shed.

Several of the subforemen came up to speak with his hostess. Martin shamelessly eavesdropped as the men asked what the steel from the latest pour—the one from the second converter, which, at that very moment, was being tipped into molds—was destined to make, and she explained the particular properties of the alloy the steelworks had been commissioned to produce. “The plate will form part of the Atlas Works’ supply to the government for the latest batch of naval vessels. We—none of us—have been told which type of ship the plate is destined for.”

Martin pricked up his ears at that.

From the casting area, he strolled beside her into the other half of the shed. Steam hammers thudded and pounded, and the resultant sheets were fed into rolling mills to be pressed to the required thickness. Again, she stopped to speak with various workers.

Again, Martin listened and, again, was impressed. Not only by the detailed and experienced knowledge she demonstrated of every aspect of the steelmaking process but even more by the transparent respect she commanded from each and every man. Most notable of all, not one iota of resistance did they evince to a woman being in charge.

The observations left him rethinking his offer on several counts.

When she continued on, he fell in alongside her.

“In case you haven’t noticed,” she muttered, “I’m ignoring you. So why are you still here?”

He felt her gaze fleetingly touch his face, but kept his eyes directed forward. “I told you. I don’t give up, and frankly”—he glanced around—“Carmichael Steelworks is proving to be everything I’d hoped it would be.” With a tip of his head, he added, “Indeed, it’s proving to be a great deal more.”

Sophy told herself she wasn’t any green girl to be bamboozled by a smooth tongue, yet she heard the sincerity in his voice—both over not giving up and also about his appreciation of the works.

She truly didn’t want to be curious—or at least not let her curiosity show—yet she heard herself ask, “What had you hoped for?”

“For a steelworks that has the potential to operate as the critical link between my other steel-based businesses.” His gaze flicked her way, and he slowed his stroll, and she matched his pace; she wanted to hear what more he might say.

“I have a foundry to produce pig iron, and I’ve set it on course to ramp up output, which needs to be made into steel. On the other side of the equation, I have a knife factory outside London and a part share in another here in Sheffield, and I own a wire and cable factory in Nottingham, all of which require steel. More, I want to acquire a steelworks with an interest in producing different grades of steel. Steel with specific properties or rather to better match the properties of steel to the use to which it will be put. Stiffer cable or more malleable cable. That sort of thing. I believe there are lots of uses for steel that have yet to be properly developed. And there are other types of steel-based manufacturing I would like to explore.”

Listening to him reminded her of why she hadn’t written to refuse his offer—because the picture he conjured was fascinating and rather intriguing, at least to her. She focused on another aspect of his approach that had tweaked her curiosity. “You knew I was female, yet you wrote asking for a meeting to discuss your offer.”

The look he threw her was faintly wary. “Yes… And here I am.”

“Indeed.” And refusing to be dismissed.

Hearing his ideas in person had rendered his proposal even more attractive, yet she couldn’t help but wonder if she was being influenced by considerations that had nothing to do with business.

She frowned. She was actually considering discussing matters further with him, yet she needed to remember that the odd accidents that had plagued the works started just after she’d received his third letter, and now he’d turned up right on the heels of yet another odd happening, another potential “accident.”

An odd whistling caught her attention.

“Look out!”

She got no chance to look anywhere. A steely arm wrapped about her waist, cinching her against a rock-hard body, and she—they—dove to the ground before landing on the concrete floor in the space between two rolling mills.

Not that she landed on the floor; he’d flung them sideways in such a way that she landed mostly on him.

The jolt of their landing knocked the air from her lungs, and the sensation of her body slamming into his all along her length shot through her, scrambling and scattering her wits.

She lay in his arms and struggled to breathe. For the first time in her life, her mind was so awash with tactile stimulation, she couldn’t think.

Disconcertingly, she felt utterly safe.

Her head rested on his upper chest, cushioned by firm, warm muscle, and the steely strength of him, of his arms wrapped around her, for some mystical reason left her prey to a burgeoning impulse to press herself even more deeply against him, to sink further into his embrace.

Her heart was pounding in rapid time, and a flush was spreading beneath her skin.

With a massive effort, she hauled in a breath and felt him tense beneath her.

Then he shifted. His hands gently gripped her shoulders, and he lifted her enough to peer into her face. “Are you all right?”

No. You’ve broken my brain.

She cleared her throat and croaked, “Yes.” She tried to scramble off him, and he winced, then helped her up. Only once she was upright and he was, too, did she meet his eyes.

The awareness that swam in the burnt-caramel depths left her in no doubt that he’d sensed the impact the unanticipated embrace had had on her… She blinked as it dawned on her that he’d been affected, too.

She didn’t get even a second to dwell on that revelation. As if a bubble popped, sound—which until that second had been distant and muted—erupted and rushed in, and pandemonium enveloped them.

Men rushed up from all sides, while others, she saw, were leaping and grappling with the huge hook swinging from one of the gantry cranes.

That’s what made the whistling noise.

The massive iron hook was one of several attached to the overhead cranes used to hoist cauldrons and buckets and even move converters. The overhead cranes, mounted on gantries high above, were a necessary part of any steelworks. But the hooks—big enough and heavy enough to brain anyone they struck—were normally hoisted on their chains high above and secured.

The hooks were never left with enough loose chain to allow them to swing almost to ground level, as that one had.

Even less frequently were hooks positioned directly over the aisle, not when they weren’t in use.

Oh, God. If it had struck us…

She felt the blood drain from her face.

Instantly, hands—hard, long-fingered, their touch almost familiar—locked about her waist and steadied her.

She glanced over her shoulder, met Martin Cynster’s eyes, and read in them the same realization. If he hadn’t reacted as he had, they would both be dead.

She looked about at the continuing chaos. It wouldn’t have been just them, either. Four workers had been in the aisle, two ahead of her and him and two behind. All would have been collected by the swinging hook.

He’d heard the odd sound, turned, seen, and had yelled to warn everyone, not just her. Thanks to his excellent reflexes, catastrophe had been averted.

Hinckley, white-faced and frantic, rushed up, as did several of the older crew.

She looked again at Martin Cynster. Death had come so very close to claiming her, him, and four others, too.


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