Continuing our serial of GeekMom Corrina Lawson’s steampunk adventure/mystery novel, The Curse of the Brimstone Contract:
In a Victorian London where magic fuels steam technology…
Joan Krieger dreams of revolutionizing fashion for this new, modernized world but a hidden enemy stalks her family’s clothing business, turning her dream into a nightmare.
When Joan is a witness to a client being murdered by magic, she turns to the only man who can help: Gregor Sherringford, consulting detective. Together, they become a formidable team but their investigation pulls aside a curtain of sorrow and secrets that threaten everything in Joan’s life. Only by risking her very soul can she uncover the truth, a truth that Gregor fears she may not survive.
In this chapter, Gregor and Joan do a little breaking and entering which does not go as planned and Joan makes a choice that will change her life.
The low, resonant voice belonged to Gregor Sherringford. Joan took a deep breath and let it out. He was here, as promised. But she had not imagined his arrival like this.
“Mr. Sherringford, why are you in my chambers?” she whispered. If she hadn’t feared discovery, she would have shouted the question. “And why are you so late in coming?”
“You have excellent hearing, Miss Krieger.”
Just like him, she decided, not to answer her question. “How did you get in here?”
“My job requires certain skills.”
“Such as sneaking into a woman’s bedchamber?”
“That part is a bonus.”
She snorted because that quick answer sounded so unlike anything else he had said previously. The world was upside down. What had been familiar was now terrifying, and what would have been strange, such as Sherringford arriving in the middle of the night, was comforting. He had kept his word, after all. She was not forgotten.
“Where are you?” She sat up and the quilt slid to her waist. She pulled it back around her chest because she realized her robe lay over a chair on the other side of the room. How good was his night vision? “And why are you here at this hour?”
“I am here.” The voice was at her bedside. As her eyes adjusted to the darkness, she could see his silhouette only a few feet away, holding out something to her. “We need to do this while everyone is out of the way. Put this on, we don’t have much time. And bring whatever keys you have to your father’s office.”
She reached out and took what he held in his hand. It turned out to be her robe. She stood and quickly tied the sash around her. How much had he seen in the darkness? Best not to dwell on that question. It should scare her. It excited her instead. Again, best to not dwell on that. “What did you find out with my gloves? And why would you want my keys?”
“It is easier to break into an office when you have the keys. Quiet.” He closed his hand around her forearm, above her bruises. His touch was light through his leather gloves, almost a caress. “No more questions now, unless you want to wake someone and be discovered.”
If no questions now, then when?
But she grabbed the keys she kept in her nightstand and followed him. It was obviously not the time to make a scene. Sherringford made absolutely no sound as he opened her door and led her downstairs. The seasoned wood on the stairs always creaked but she heard no noise tonight. Even stranger, she could not hear the keys jingle in her robe pocket.
Perhaps, despite his demurrals, Sherringford possessed magic after all.
Whether it was magic or skill, they reached the main office of Krieger & Sims without encountering anyone. She grabbed Sherringford’s arm and pressed a key into his gloved hand.
He patted her on the shoulder. What was she, a good dog? She shook her head as he opened the door. Though the hinges always made an audible squeak, they were as silent tonight as the wood on the stairs had been.
They stepped into the office. He closed the door behind them.
“What can you possibly expect to find here?” she whispered.
“Clues to the real cause of your problem,” Sherringford said. “Before confronting our villain we need to know who and what they are.”
“What clues? What did the gloves tell you?”
“The gloves gave enough of a hint to set me on the scent.” Sherringford pulled a cylindrical device from inside his dark coat and tapped it. She heard gears whir into place, and, a second later, the device emitted a beam of light that cut through the dark of the office.
“That’s amazing.” She spoke in a whisper, but surprise pushed her voice louder than she’d intended.
Sherringford did not tell her to be quiet, as she would have expected. “Yes, well, I am quite proud of it. I call it an artificial torch. Not magic, but engineering, a filament glowing in a tube. Unfortunately, it has a short life span. Search the desk. I will try the file cabinets.”
“What am I looking for?”
“Anything locked that you cannot access.”
That was vague. She wondered if Sherringford did not know exactly what he was looking for and was covering for it with overconfidence. She rather liked the idea of him being out of his depth and confused, until she realized that meant he would be less able to help her.
She would endure smug and mysterious if it solved her problem.
Her own smugness vanished as she realized that searching this office meant he suspected a family member—her father—or one of their trusted employees—Roylott or Emily—of being involved in the murder. Sir August must suspect the same, as he had been afraid she might become a suspect if her mage gift was known.
No, this was no adventure.
She started on the desk. She had read enough magazine mystery stories to guess she should look for hidden compartments. She opened each drawer and felt around the sides, bottom and top. She even resorted to polite taps. Nothing sounded hollow.
“Here,” Sherringford whispered, and she rushed to his side. He had his light shining on a blank spot on the side of the tall wooden file cabinet set in the back corner of the office.
“There?” she frowned. Nothing was there. “Nothing could be here. This is only our old receipts and orders.”
Sherringford placed his palm on the side of the cabinet. “This space is unaccounted for inside the filing cabinet. The drawer only goes back halfway. Something is hidden in this empty space.”
She tilted her head. That made sense. “How do we open it? Do we pull out the drawer?” That would be noisy.
“That would be the easy way, which is not open to us.” He sighed. “I can sense that it is sealed with a spell, the same way I could sense magic in your pendant. I can break it but I need your help.”
“Whatever you need.”
“Ah, be careful what you offer, Joan Krieger. You don’t know your value,” he whispered as he took her hand yet again. “I need to prick your finger and draw blood.”
They were so close that she felt his breath caress her cheek. He looked strange and fey, so unlike the detached scientist of earlier in the day or the earthy workman he had played.
As Sir August’s smile and touch made her recoil, Sherringford’s touch made her hum inside.
Simple biology, she scolded herself. He was young, attractive and intelligent. Two things, perhaps even three, that Sir August was not.
“Yes, blood,” he said. “This is a blood seal, and we’ll need blood to break it.”
“Why not yours?”
“This place is more yours than mine. Your blood has a better chance of working.”
“Oh.” She cleared her throat. “Is this magic?”
“There’s no time to explain,” he said. “Are you afraid to prick your finger, girl?”
And just like that, her temporary enchantment with him vanished. “I have pricked my fingers with needles many times, sir. That holds no terror for me.”
“Give me your palm.”
He encircled her wrist with his fingers. She swallowed, almost shivering. It was not his touch. Now that she was close to the cabinet, she sensed something wrong and dangerous in the room. Now, why had she not sensed that before? Was it because she usually was focused on placating her father while in his office? She tended to linger at the doorway, in case a quick escape was needed.
She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Sherringford tapped her finger with something sharp. She barely felt it. That finger had plenty of sewing calluses. Still keeping a light hold on her wrist, he eased her hand to the blank space on the cabinet. She let out a deep breath as he tapped the space with the bloody tip of her finger. He chanted something under his breath. Not English, not German, not Hebrew. It was in a language completely unfamiliar to her.
Something grabbed at her hand, as if icy claws fought to skewer it. Agony stabbed into her palm. She stiffened and bit back a scream.
“Courage, Joan. Trust me.”
The urge to run screaming into the night increased as her hand felt as if it were being turned to stone, finger by finger. Her head began pounding, and her throat grew thick, rendering her incapable of words. She could not scream. Words could not escape.
She closed her eyes and concentrated on the feel of Sherringford’s hands on her. The icy claws couldn’t be real. She was afraid…she had had many shocks this week…she was imagining a threat where there was none.
Or, this was magic, not illusion. But Sherringford was her protector and he would handle this. Yes. Focus. Think of the pendant and how it would keep her safe.
Sherringford chanted again.
The cold and the pain that seemed ready to slash her hand to ribbons vanished.
Sherringford cursed. “Damn. ‘Too eager, boy,’ as my mother would say. I have done you a horrible disservice, Miss Krieger.”
“Does that mean the cold grip on my hand was real? And that my ordeal was for nothing?”
“Real. A magical trap.” He pried her hand off the file cabinet.
She flexed her fingers, assuring herself she was whole and uninjured.
“The hidden door is carefully warded,” he said.
“If by warded, you mean it tries to injure or kill anyone trying to get in, I would agree, sir. What now?”
“You go back to your bed. I have more research to do, obviously, before trying this again.”
“You aren’t leaving without further explanation, Mr. Sherringford.”
Sherringford grabbed her elbow. “Down!” He pulled her underneath the desk with him.
They squashed together under the desk. She heard the footsteps coming down the hall. She clutched Sherringford tighter. This was a ridiculous hiding place. Surely, whoever had been clever enough to put a hidden magical compartment in the file cabinet would see them cowering under the desk. Not to mention the fact that it had been a mage who had booby-trapped it. And now a desk was somehow protection against a mage?
But Sherringford seemed unconcerned. His breathing was deep and even. His arms were tight around her and his mouth was right next to her ear, close enough that she heard him whisper something in the same strange language as when he had tried to open the invisible door.
Again, his odd words had the sound of a chant or prayer.
Inky darkness began to surround them.
Her eyes had adjusted to the dim light in the room but now there was nothing to be seen at all. It was pitch-black. It was almost as if they were the only ones who existed in this void. No desk, no floor, just…nothing.
She controlled a gasp but could not stop her heartbeat’s sudden increase. She wanted to scream. The world was gone…it was gone…how could it be gone?
Sherringford put a finger over her mouth. The contact pulled her back from the edge. He was here. She was not alone. If Sherringford could stand this, so could she.
Stand this? She realized then he must be the cause of it. He had used the same sort of magic to keep all the sounds quiet as they crept down the stairs.
And now she was trapped in a void, caught in the act of trying to rob her own offices, with the arms of the man she’d just met today holding her tight.
She set her jaw and gave a slight nod to show she understood him. His fingers lingered on her lips. Did he not trust her to remain silent?
He caressed her cheek for a second, then tapped her palm with his fingers. She nearly gasped as the small touch fired her blood. Silly girl. It was more reassurance, she guessed, nothing more, nothing less. He touched her to prove to her they were still alive.
She closed her eyes and began to silently pray, internally reciting prayers from her studies as a child. She curled her hand tight around the pendant and focused her prayers on it.
Sherringford’s arms drew her into a deeper embrace. How long had they been in this place together? There was no method in which to track time, save the growing stiffness in her knees and back.
That contrasted with the most pleasant feeling of his body against hers, especially since his fingers still lingered on her palm.
Keys jangled, the lock turned and the office door opened.
She frowned. The person behind all this had a key. It was someone she knew very well.
The footsteps stopped in front of the desk. Her panic rose. Surely, the intruder would see them now. Just like Lady Grey, they could die.
Sherringford hugged her tight against him. He clasped her hand. His breath tickled her neck. She felt the stubble of his chin against her cheek.
The footsteps came closer still, perhaps inches from their hiding place. She steeled herself for discovery, but the intruder walked right past the desk and to the file cabinet with the hidden door.
There was a slap, and Joan guessed that the prowler had put his hand flat on the cabinet. She listened intently and heard the click of a lock and the rustle of papers.
A muffled oath and another, sharper, slap against the cabinet followed. The oath did not sound like her father, nor did it sound like anyone she knew. Perhaps someone had stolen the keys.
The intruder stomped around the room. It was a wonder the noise did not wake up the entire household, but no one else came to investigate.
Time seemed to slow to a mere drip. It seemed that she crouched there forever against Sherringford while their enemy unwittingly kept them trapped.
They were in their own world of utter darkness. Her only contacts with reality were the hands holding hers, the soft lips that brushed against her neck and the solid chest she felt against her back.
She had never been so close to another person. No, this was more than close. It was intimate, especially with her in her nightclothes. She let her head relax against his shoulder. He rested his chin on her hair. The side of his upper arm brushed against her breast.
His heart pounded with the same rhythm as her own.
It was as if the two of them had become one in a way that was closer than she ever dreamed two people could be.
The slamming of the door brought her out of her trancelike state. Sherringford began his quiet chanting again. The inky barrier around them vanished. She blinked, as if her eyes had been exposed to bright sunlight.
“I cannot get out until you move,” Sherringford whispered in her ear.
Oh. Of course. She crawled out of the small space. Instead of getting up, she sat and pulled her knees to her chest. She did not trust her body enough to stand up. Tingling gripped her legs as the circulation returned to her numbed feet.
Sherringford unfolded himself and stood, showing no signs of similar discomfort. He offered a hand to help her stand. She took it and felt her face heat from the skin-to-skin contact. And that was not the only part of her body that was responding to his touch.
She staggered to her feet. For a moment, his arms encircled her waist as he braced her against a fall.
“I thought you had little magic, sir,” she whispered. “But hiding us was the work of a mage, as was our silence earlier.”
He released her completely. She swallowed hard, wishing for his arm around her waist again.
“I have magic enough for sleight of hand and misdirection, but not nearly enough power to counter your enemy. Hence our hiding under the desk instead of a confrontation. I might risk myself, but not you as well.”
His whisper held an edge. He sounded almost bitter.
“Now what?” she whispered.
“Back to your room.”
“But whoever it is knows someone is investigating. Couldn’t you see them?”
“No, it took all my concentration to keep the darkness hiding us. No more questions. We must leave.”
As they sneaked out of the office, he locked up behind them silently. He took her arm and led her up the stairs, his glance darting in all directions, perhaps worried their prowler would come back. This time, there was nothing sensual about his grip. It was all business.
His magic hid their sounds on the way back up the stairs. It was not until they were in the safety of her room that Joan drew a proper breath.
Sherringford let go of her elbow. She collapsed in her chair and stretched out her legs. Her feet still tingled from being cramped.
“Well done, Miss Krieger,” he said in a quiet voice. “I’m in your debt.”
“Well done? I did little. You hid us.”
“Do you know how many women would’ve been too frightened to open the safe? Or would have been so afraid at the darkness I summoned that they would’ve screamed?”
“It sounds like you have been spending time with the wrong sort of women,” Joan snapped. For some reason, his compliment had annoyed her. “And your actions were for my benefit, as was the danger. So you can hardly be in my debt.”
He made a humphf noise, as he had in his laboratory.
“I heard papers rustling in the intruder’s hands. Were those papers from the safe?”
“Yes. When we tried to open the safe, we triggered a magical alarm. Once our quarry realized the safe contents were in danger of discovery, he checked on them. As for your other questions, I have guesses, not facts.”
“Then give me guesses,” she demanded.
She rose out of her chair and grabbed his forearm, much as he had held her earlier. “You may not have full answers yet, Gregor Sherringford, but this is my life, my business and, indeed, my fate at stake. You’ll explain and you’ll explain now.”
“To give you a full accounting here would risk discovery by your enemy.”
“Are you telling me you’re too afraid, sir?” She jutted out her chin. The time to panic had been when those icy claws protecting the safe had grabbed her, or when their enemy entered the office. “Because I am done with fear.”
Darkness seemed to surround him again. She kept tight hold of his arm, guessing that he could not disappear as long as she was touching him. She only hoped he didn’t physically push her away. He was taller and stronger and could free himself, if he wished.
“If you come with me, Joan Krieger, you will close a door behind you. It’s not a deed that can be undone.”
“That door was opened the moment Lady Grey was murdered before my eyes. I chose to step over the threshold when I first came to you. And I have just seen some of the dangers. Quit trying to scare me, Gregor Sherringford.”
He glanced over at her sewing machine. They were close enough that he could place his hand on the spinning wheel. He let his fingertips brush over the machine, a strangely intimate gesture, as if he were caressing part of her.
She breathed, in and out, awaiting his answer. If he refused, she would have to find another way. Somehow.
Finally, he smiled, backed up a step and bowed to her.
She was so surprised by the show of respect that she let go of his arm.
“So it is done. Come with me, Joan Cohen.”