Asher's Dilemma

By: Coleen Kwan



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Alone in the parlor, Asher leaned one hand against the mantelpiece and pressed the other to his abdomen, feeling as though he’d been gored. Easier to have faced a charging bull than to remain composed in front of Minerva. God’s teeth, why had she turned up so unexpectedly? And why did she have to look so damned ravishing? Hadn’t she tortured him enough these past weeks since she’d flung his marriage proposal back in his face? He gritted his teeth against the ache. He would not make himself vulnerable to her again.

His thoughts were still in turmoil when Cheeves announced his second caller of the afternoon. With Minerva fresh in his mind, it came as an extra ordeal when his visitor lifted her veil to reveal her remarkable face.

“Mrs. Nemo.” He bowed over her gloved and perfumed hand.

“Good afternoon, Mr. Quigley.” Her voice was husky smoke, deeper than most women’s.

“Herr Schick could not come?”

“Unfortunately, no. You know how reclusive my associate is. He sent me in his stead.”

Asher nodded, hiding his disappointment.

Mrs. Nemo tilted her head, a small dimple appearing in her flawless cheek. “You’re disappointed to see only me? I can assure you I’m more than capable of satisfying you.”

He swallowed, the suggestive nature of her address clashing violently with his knowledge of who she really was. When he’d realized who she must be—her remarkable resemblance offered only one plausible explanation—his initial instinct had been to flee, but he needed her. Or, more precisely, he needed access to Klaus Schick’s analytical machine, the only one of its kind in all of England. And if Schick had deputed Mrs. Nemo, then Asher would have to deal with her. He suspected Mrs. Nemo was Schick’s mistress, though she was not like any mistress Asher had ever encountered. She lived openly with the German mathematician and appeared not the least bit embarrassed of the fact. With her bewitching looks and polished manners she could have attracted the protection of a wealthy aristocrat or prince, so it was a bit of a mystery to Asher why she’d chosen a brilliant but unprepossessing mathematician with a murky past.

“I only hope I’m up to the task of conveying my requirements,” Asher said as diplomatically as possible.

Mrs. Nemo eyed him boldly. “You look like a man up to any challenge.”

For a second he was too nonplussed to answer. This was the first time he’d met the enigmatic lady in private. On previous occasions he’d been aware of her interest in him, but he’d not expected her to be so forward. He was not unaccustomed to female attention, but this woman’s flattery grated and disconcerted him.

“I’m referring to the complexities of my algorithms,” he answered in a stiff enough manner to rebuff her.

“Have no fear.” Mrs. Nemo took out notebook and pencil, all business-like now. “I’m well versed in mathematics, and I operate the analytical machine myself.”

“You do?” He couldn’t stop his eyebrows from lifting.

She slid him another arch half-smile. “You think women are incapable of anything more complicated than needlework?”

“Not at all.” Immediately he thought of Minerva and her clever contraptions for replacing lost limbs. Minerva’s inventions were practical and useful, whereas his latest was the stuff of fantasy. “I merely assumed Herr Schick was particular about his analytical machine.”

“He is most particular about Hedwig. Apart from him, I’m the only one allowed near her.”

“Hedwig?”

“He christened the machine after his mother.” Mrs. Nemo lifted her delicate shoulders as if to express her incomprehension at such Teutonic whimsy. “Now. Shall we get down to business? What calculations do you wish Hedwig to perform for you?”

Asher sat his visitor down at a table and drew forward a wad of paper covered in mathematical algorithms. As he went through them with Mrs. Nemo, he found his enthusiasm quickening. The loss of his manual calculations in the workshop fire had been a serious blow to him, but Schick’s analytical machine promised a fast solution. After examining his equations for some time, Mrs. Nemo declared that Hedwig would take no more than a few days to compute the data.

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