Asher's Dilemma

By: Coleen Kwan

The wealthy lady was the most important client of Minerva’s fledgling business. Minerva was a designer and builder of artificial limbs. Her intricately detailed parts, each one unique and custom-built, gave new life and utility to her clients. At first she’d only helped those too poor to compensate her with anything more than gratitude, but at Asher’s own urging she’d begun to seek out paying customers. She needed the money to support herself and her infirm father, and when Mrs. Pettigrew had written to her of her proposal, she’d instantly accepted the chance to both earn a tidy sum and travel to London. To Minerva it seemed that Fate was determined she should see Asher again. Only, Fate, she was now learning, could also be a mischievous mistress.

“A week? You’re here for an entire week?” Asher wiped his sleeve across his brow, muttering something beneath his breath.

“I cannot help but notice your lack of enthusiasm.” Her throat stung, her chin started to wobble, and she cursed herself for her weakness. But she couldn’t help it. She’d come here with such high hopes, bursting with love for Asher, and then to be greeted thus! It was intolerable. “I must confess your behavior has me mystified, Asher,” she burst out, unable to contain her feelings. “After the way we parted a fortnight ago, I thought…”

He stared at her, his brow furrowed. He looked almost dumbfounded. “Precisely. After the way we parted a fortnight ago, the last thing I expected was to find you here in my parlor.”

“But…” She shook her head in bewilderment. What was the matter with him? “But we kissed, and—and all those letters you wrote me…”

He blinked. “What letters?”

“Your letters, a letter every day. Calling me ‘darling heart’ and ‘precious one’ and—and comparing me to a Botticelli angel.”

His countenance hardened to frost. “That hardly sounds like something I would do. Are you sure you’ve not confused me with another beau?”

She gasped. “Another beau? How could you possibly think that?”

He shrugged, all icy disdain. “That’s the only possibility I can think of, because I am quite sure I have not written you any letters.”

Her knees weakened. She had to sit before she keeled over. Seeking the refuge of the nearest settee, she forced herself to look up at Asher. “I do not have another beau, and the letters could only have come from you.”

“Are you convinced of that?”

“Yes! You must believe me.” Her fingers dug into the settee, crushing the brocade upholstery. “I don’t understand you at all. You seem completely changed from the last time we parted. Are you sickening for something?”

“Only for a little respite,” he retorted. “Minerva, if you knew what I’ve been through these past two weeks you would realize I scarcely have enough time to eat let alone pen sentimental letters every day!” He exhaled a deep breath laden with pent-up frustration.

It was then that she noticed the shadows beneath his intense green eyes, the lines of tension bracketing his mouth, the myriad cuts and bumps on his hands. He’d been working feverishly on his beloved millennium machine—that much she knew. The last time they’d met, he had even hinted to her that he had finally managed to get it to work—the perpetual motion machine was no longer a myth. He’d never taken her fully into his confidence because he’d realized how dangerous his invention was. The promise of endless free energy would lure out the rapacious and the unscrupulous, so it was better his invention remain a secret for the time being. But the pressure of keeping it secret was obviously taking its toll on him.

“You’ve encountered some trouble with your work?” she asked.

“Hmpf,” he grunted. “Recently I’ve had nothing but trouble. My workshop was set alight one night. Deliberately.”

“Oh no!” Her breath caught. “Were you…?”

“At the time I was asleep in my bedroom. Luckily I woke up before the fire took hold, and Cheeves and I managed to put out the blaze. Some of the millennium machine’s circuits were damaged. I’m able to repair those, but all my mathematical workings went up in smoke.” He rubbed his jaw, disgust shadowing his face. “Those calculations have consumed weeks of my time, and they’re still nowhere finished.”

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