Captain Grayson Hunter knows the battle to complete the first worldwide telegraphic network will be fierce, and he intends to win it by any means necessary. When he hears about a reclusive genius who has figured out how to slash the cost of telegraphic transmissions, he vows to do whatever it takes to get the man in his employ.
Except the reclusive genius is not a man, and she’s not looking for employment.
Amelia Smith was born in Shanghai, and taken in by English missionaries. She’s not interested in Captain Hunter’s promises or his ambitions. But the harder he tries to convince her, the more she realizes that there is something she wants from him: She wants everything. And she’ll have to crack the frozen shell he’s made of his heart to get it.
All my books get code names. This one is called: DINOSAUR EMOJI. Yes, you read that right. DINOSAUR EMOJI. RAWR.
Fuzhou, Fukien Province, China, Summer, 1870
It was midsummer in tea-trading season, yet Captain Grayson Hunter had not come to Fuzhou for tea. Tea was the treasure of traders with small aspirations—those who wished only to build fortunes through buying and selling. Grayson’s small aspirations had combusted in battle five years ago. Instead, he had come here to fuel his grander ambitions.
He had made his way halfway up the hill where the Westerners lived on the southern side of the Min River. From this height, he could see the signs of the old empire at play. His cousin’s ship, brought carefully up the Min, was docked in the harbors below. From here, the Lenity seemed like a toy, barely distinguishable from the other Western steamships that clamored for space, fighting—politely, always politely!—for trade goods that would bring them their little fortunes.
Crowding the northern docks were Chinese river junks, low and flat, that had come from the tea plantations that scattered the hills and mountains further inland.
Every single one of the people below thought that they traded in goods—tea, silk, grain—and every single one of them was wrong.
Grayson intended to be in control of what really mattered, and the next step was here in Fuzhou.
His journey had been directed here after a meeting in Hong Kong two weeks ago. He’d been talking to a man—a missionary, really—by the name of Leland Acheson. Grayson had been gathering the principle item that he traded in—information. He hadn’t mentioned his plans. Not in full; he wasn’t a chatterbox to spill his secrets. But he had mentioned other people’s plans, ones that touched on where he intended to go, and when Acheson heard what he had to say, he had laughed.
“Ridiculous,” he’d said. “That’s the most convoluted scheme I’ve ever heard. I’ve an acquaintance who came up with a superior implementation ten years past.”
It had not taken much—another glass of whiskey—for Acheson to provide more details. And now here Grayson was, looking for a man known as the Silver Fox. Brilliant, Acheson had said with a smile, before adding with a shake of his head: Criminally underutilized.
Grayson had never been one to mince words. Would the Silver Fox be willing to be employed by a Black man? he’d asked.
Acheson had looked at him again, and then at his whiskey. “I honestly cannot say,” he had said. “That exact topic has not come up. But I think that broad-minded is a fair description of my friend.”
So here Grayson was, with no name—only a direction, a code name, a letter of introduction that Acheson claimed would give him as good a shot as any at a fair hearing…and an intense, burning ambition.
The path curved up and up, past homes decorated with the Union Jack or the Stars and Stripes, proclaiming countries of origin from half a globe away. He could see the city and the other hills—terraced gardens filled with trees and grain waving overhead, with the occasional worker, visible only by their wide-brimmed hats at this distance. It wasn’t yet the height of summer; the air was still moving, and it was warm, but not yet hot and stiflingly humid.
A thin-leafed lychee tree, boughs bending with strings of red-skinned fruit, hung at a curve. He pulled one off as he went by, rolling the rough shell between his fingers. A little longer, and his plan would be moving forward once again.
Ahead of him, a woman had come into view. She was walking the same path as he, on the side of the cart ruts closer to the slope. She was dressed entirely in full Western garb—full skirts, bustle, long sleeves, bonnet and everything. Grayson found himself grimacing involuntarily.
It wasn’t yet hot, but it was warm. Grayson was going to see an Englishman, and so he’d brought a coat (currently slung over one arm) and a neck tie (currently stuffed in one pocket). The buttons on his shirt were undone to his chest. Even with that degree of undress, he was slightly uncomfortable walking up hill, with the wool of his trousers a little too warm and the linen of his shirt a little too close.
Luckily, Grayson didn’t care what foolishness Western women wore in China. He had one objective: hire the Silver Fox. Pay him what he needed so he could work his magic, so that Grayson’s telegraphic company would have the advantage over everyone else. Become the swiftest, least expensive mode of communication in the entire world. Profit wildly; own everything; show everyone.
Still, he could not begin to fathom the mindset that demanded women wear petticoats and corsets and whatever else it was that got shoved underneath their clothing in this weather. Grayson shook his head. It would be hotter still by noontime, but none of this was his problem.
By noon, hopefully, he’d have met the Silver Fox, ascertained what the man wanted, made an offer and negotiated counteroffers, perhaps already have shaken hands on an agreement to work together. He could be out of Fuzhou with the first high tide.
Even though the sun was high overhead, this walk felt almost like he was coming through the dawn—a transitional space between sleeping and waking, that moment lying in bed when it was not yet time to get up but the mind started running through all the things that needed to be done, slotting them into their proper place.
Envisioning every step of the way gave him a sense of certainty, solidifying the ambition that he would bring into reality. Each stride brought him closer to that future. Every breath built confidence.
He was coming up behind the woman. He was taller than her and unencumbered by skirts; it was hardly a surprise to pass her. A moment’s hesitation hit him—what language to greet her in?
Western women were often surprisingly touchy about being addressed in any Chinese dialect. French? English? Either would probably serve, but at this point, he was growing close to the direction he had been given. The Westerners here all knew each other anyway. She might know the Silver Fox, and if he could address her in whatever her native tongue was…
He was ten paces behind her when she turned and glanced over her shoulder at him. Or, he supposed, it was intended to be a glance. But when she looked in his direction, her eyes widened.
Leland Acheson had told him that the Silver Fox would be able to work fairly with a Black man; there was no guarantee with this woman.
Don’t, he thought. Don’t scream.
“Good day,” he said clearly in his American-accented English. He touched the tip of his hat, wide brimmed, lifting it enough so she could get a clear view of his face.
She tripped over her skirts, hands flailing, attempting to catch her balance.
He could see her falling a few yards ahead of him—a little too far for him to attempt to do anything gallant like catch her. Her hands stretched in front of her, bracing, and then she hit the ground. He heard a loud snapping sound, like a branch being broken.
She stayed there, on hands and knees, for a few long seconds.
Lovely. Just lovely. For a moment, he contemplated leaving her behind. But civility mattered to people like this.
False gallantry won out. “Ma’am?” Grayson tried. “Have you hurt yourself? Can I offer you some assistance?”
The woman pushed onto her knees. Her bonnet was askew, and her bustle looked oddly misshapen. The blue fabric of her gown had somehow split right over her buttocks—and how a fall that didn’t land on her behind managed that, Grayson had no idea. He caught a hint of white—and God, did he know better than to appear to be getting an eyeful of her.
He turned to face the river so that he could only see her in the periphery of his vision.
She wiped her hands and drew a deep breath. “Oh, f—” She cut off whatever word she had been intending to say. “Oh, fluff,” she said instead.
She was English then, by the sound of her speech.
“Well.” She dusted off the front of her gown, then slowly stood. “That’s two ideas that have gone completely wrong, and it’s not yet ten in the morning. Please don’t tell my mother.”
Grayson frowned at the harbor. “Do I look like the sort of person who would tell your mother?”
“Everyone looks like the sort of person who would tell my mother. If you haven’t met her, you wouldn’t understand.” There was a hint of wry humor in her voice.
From the corner of his vision he could see her turning to look over her shoulder, as if assessing the damage to her behind. “Oh, hel—” Again, she cut herself off. “Oh, heliotrope!” He heard the rustle of fabric, and saw her lift her skirts.
He hastily turned to face entirely away. “How are you?” he asked the river below him.
“I will never recover.” She sounded mournful. More fabric rustled; something clacked. “How am I supposed to explain this? And Mrs. Flappert is supposed to arrive today. It’s going to be nonstop criticism. ‘I told you so, Amelia. You should be satisfied with what you have, Amelia. Why are you still talking, Amelia?’” Her voice dropped lower on those last two sentences, as if she were imitating someone else. “I am doing ill, sir. Very ill.”
Grayson had no idea what any of that meant. “I was asking if you had been physically injured.”
“Oh.” A pause, as if she were assessing matters. “Physically. Well. That’s no problem. Are you any good at explaining things? I need a good explanation.”
“Is there a reason ‘I tripped, and it was an accident’ will not work?”
“‘I tripped’ won’t explain this!”
He turned back. It was the first time he looked at her straight on, and his mind came to a standstill, sticking on three things that seemed utterly irrelevant.
Thing number one: her eyelashes. They were long and black, framing dark, wide eyes that were looking at him. Thing number two: her nose. It was wide and small. Thing number three: her skin. She was browner than the average Englishwoman even beneath that bonnet, possibly because she was not the average Englishwoman. She wasn’t any kind of Englishwoman at all.
Her hair was dark and glossy, what he could see of it. Her cheekbones were soft and tilted, the planes of her face smooth. She had a silver locket about her neck, with some ornate animal figure pressed on it. She sounded English. She dressed like the English. But if he’d encountered her in a Chinese robe, he would have thought her a native.
She was also, inexplicably, brandishing what looked like a rounded, broken cage of bamboo, which contained a tiny bamboo version of the wheel that he might have expected to find on a paddle steamer.
“You’re right.” He blinked at her. “‘I tripped’ won’t explain that. What is that?”
“My bustle,” she said mournfully. “Maybe? I had this idea, you see, because my real bustle is made of horsehair and it’s so dreadfully hot.”
“Hot.” He couldn’t take his eyes off her, now that he’d looked. That little locket nestled right above her cleavage, drawing his eyes away from her bamboo…bustle? There was something engraved on the silver jewelry. Maybe a dog? He couldn’t tell, and he was afraid to draw nearer.
“I thought I would make a bamboo cage instead of a big horsehair lump.”
He had no idea how he had come to be talking about a woman’s bustle. “That sounds reasonable.”
“And since it was a cage, I thought…well, what if I put a little paddle inside? That way when I walk, it will spin, and I’ll get a little air to cool me off. It would be like a fan.”
“No, not really.” She sighed. “I was just testing it. It doesn’t work; the paddle only spins if it has airflow, but with skirts over the top, it just sits in place, unmoving. I would have to propel it to make it spin.” Her eyes lit. “I could make a little wheel that ran on the ground! And then attach it, so that—” Her fists clenched; she brought her hands up by her side. He could almost see her plans dart across her face. She bit her lip, looked up as if tracing something—and then her shoulders slumped. “Because oh yes,” she said bitterly, “my mother would definitely not ask why I was making a rattling noise like wheels over cobblestones when I walked.”
“I…see,” Grayson said.
He didn’t see at all. He didn’t know who her mother was, to have such distinctly English strictures when this woman looked to be so clearly Chinese. He didn’t know her age, but she seemed well into her twenties—too old to be clinging to her mother’s opinions on such frivolous matters. And he didn’t know why this delightful woman who immediately thought of ways to make paddles turn inside of bustles had to hide the fact that she was putting paddles inside of bustles.
Her brow furrowed. “It would also make sitting down rather difficult. Which was admittedly a problem with this prototype as well. I was just testing it, you see. But the bamboo cracked when I tripped, and this bit jabbed up through my skirt and tore the fabric. I don’t know how I’m going to explain it. She’ll be upset.”
He shouldn’t ask. He shouldn’t entertain any curiosity at all about her. Grayson looked over at the harbor, reminding himself why he was here. And yet he asked anyway. “Why would she be upset?”
“I’m always trying to make things easier on myself,” she admitted. “It’s a personal failing. You know what they say about when the devil comes courting.”
“I don’t, actually.”
“‘When the devil comes courting,’” she quoted, dropping into that same imitated voice once again, “‘he offers you what you want.’ Primrose path, et cetera and so forth. And look—my skirt has split, so she was right.” She sighed. “Again. Maybe if I sneak in quietly and sew it carefully, she just won’t notice.”
Grayson took his coat from around his arm and handed it to her. “If you tie it about your waist, it should shield you from any prying eyes, for the time being.”
“Thank you.” She looked up at him, then smiled. “You’re very kind.”
He wasn’t. Kindness was an instrument, one that often got him what he wanted. She—he suspected—was just very naive.
Still, for a moment, he had a ridiculous thought. He had no idea how this woman had come to be on the south side of the river, living among the Westerners, and he frankly didn’t care. But the thought came unbidden—he could offer to take her away. She was pretty and clever and obviously unappreciated. Come with me, he imagined saying. You don’t need them. Come with me on my ship and make all the little paddles you want.
But he didn’t know her, and his ambition forcibly intruded. She was connected with the English people in this area. The mother that she spoke of—the one that Grayson was already mentally marking off in his mind—might very well know the Silver Fox. And she probably didn’t deserve to be seduced away from the home she knew, however unappreciative it might have been, by a man who wouldn’t be interested in her for much longer than a handful of months.
He was going to be very, very polite to her. He was going to find the Silver Fox. And he was going to leave this delightful woman precisely the same way he found her. He wasn’t going to touch her. He was just going to imagine it.
He touched his pocket in reminder—the letter of introduction was still there, all sealed up, with no notation on the front but two words—Silver Fox, in English—and two Chinese characters. He had been told by two separate people that these said the same thing, rather than something like kill this man on sight.
“I’m Captain Grayson Hunter.” He held out his hand.
“Oh!” She glanced at his hand, and then colored. “My manners! Where have they been? Mrs. Amelia Smith.”
Mrs. Ah. She was married. The seduction plan might not have worked in any event.
“It’s very good to meet you, Mrs. Smith. I’m heading up to the Acheson household on some business. Maybe you can assist me in finding the person I’m looking for.”
“The Acheson household.” Her cheeks colored with a hint of pink. “Are you—you’re not, you’re not Mr. Flappert, by any chance? No, of course not. You just told me your name.” Her eyes narrowed. “I’m sorry. I’ve already forgotten it.”
“Captain Hunter. If I can assist you, I will, but as you may already have surmised, I have no memory for names. Who are you looking for?”
“If you don’t know him, perhaps your mother or your husband will.” There. He’d said it. Her husband.
“Oh. I’m not—that is, I’m a widow. Now who is it that you were looking for?”
She hardly looked old enough to be a widow. Grayson ignored the pulse of interest that went through him. It didn’t matter; none of his transient feelings mattered. Silver Fox, he reminded himself. Telegraphic empire. Ambition. Those were the things he cared about. “Yes. Well. As to that—the who of it—this is going to sound odd. I don’t have a name for the person I’m looking for.”
“You don’t have a name.” She frowned.
“I heard of him from a Mr. Leland Acheson—”
Her eyes widened, and she made a startled noise.
“You know him, then.”
“Leland! But that’s my brother!” Her eyes lit. “You’ve come from Hong Kong, then? Did he give you a letter for me? Is that part of your business?”
Her brother. He’d met Acheson. The man had been white as white could be—orange hair, sideburns, and everything. “I—no. I’m sorry.”
He watched her face fall. Damn it. He didn't care if he disappointed her. He didn’t care about her. He really didn’t. It was just that her face was so expressive that he couldn’t help but feel her emotions tugging at him.
“He sent me here looking for someone who he said had invented a telegraphic method for transmitting Chinese characters. The person involved is extremely clever, not doing much at the moment—criminally underutilized, he said—and might agree to work for me.”
Her eyes rounded.
“If Leland is your brother, you might know who I’m looking for,” Grayson said. “A man who goes by—” He stopped himself before the words came out of his mouth.
His eyes fell to the silver locket around her neck. The silver figurine of an animal was worked on that round locket, and it rose and fell against her breast. Not a dog. Of course it wasn’t a dog. That was a fox in brambles worked in silver, lifting with every one of her breaths.
Extremely clever. Criminally underutilized. Of course.
What a buffoon he had been. No wonder Acheson had been so cagey about the matter, refusing to give him a name. Come to think of it, had he ever referred to the Silver Fox as he?
Grayson looked down into Mrs. Smith’s eyes and thought about his plan. Hire the Silver Fox. Build an empire. Swim in profits.
So the Silver Fox was a woman. Did it matter? Yes, in the sense that Grayson had met her and wanted her.
But in the grander scheme of things? It mattered not one whit that he wanted her, because now that he knew what she could be, he could never allow himself to have her. Not that way. Plans changed.
The calculation didn’t take long. If he walked up to her mother—whoever that woman was, with her ridiculous aphorisms about devils and courting and her constant scolding of her daughter—he would be tossed out on his ear. He would need a moment to figure out how to proceed, but proceed he would. If Mrs. Amelia Smith, criminally underutilized, was the one who had developed a telegraphic method for transmitting Chinese characters, then Grayson would hire her, give her all the money she demanded, and leave her very thoroughly alone.
He had a moment of regret in the Fuzhou sun—a single moment, which he immediately relinquished.
“Mrs. Amelia Smith,” he said, with a nod of his head. “I believe I was incorrect. I do have correspondence for you from your brother.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out the letter of introduction Acheson had given him, holding it so that the Chinese characters faced toward her. “I believe this is yours.”
content notes arriving on release day.