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.
Between the three of them, they settled her father, unconscious but breathing easily, on the couch. Joan couldn’t even cry. All her tears for her father had been used up. Mr. Roylott’s affirmation that her father had not been hallucinating about Milverton’s offer was no solace at all. It simply provided another problem.
Her father had been so good once, so caring and full of energy and intelligence.
And he had been good to her. Once. He had been her hero. No longer. She and her mother were left to tread the uncertain road ahead alone.
Joan excused herself to her room, her feet heavier with each step to the second floor. She shut the door behind her and threw the bolt. No more people, not now. Instead, she walked to her sewing machine in the corner and rested her hand on the rear wheel. Once, this machine had been a cherished birthday gift from her father. Now, it was a painful reminder of how loving and indulgent he’d once been.
The machine, at least, had thrived in the years since. Originally an unadorned black color, she had personalized it. Just last month, a childhood friend from Temple, a silversmith’s son, had added silver engravings on the top. A small steam line had been run up from the sewing room downstairs, just for her machine. From long use, the pedal was worn into a groove that fit her foot perfectly.
This was not simply a machine of metal and moving parts. It was an extension of herself. It was where she worked her own type of magic. Meager as it was, this was hers, where her hands gave form to the visions of her imagination.
Images of herself slaving over the machine last night, putting the finishing touches on Lady Grey’s driving attire, haunted her. If there had been magic in her work, it had gone foul. That damned scarf. Her mother might dismiss the scarf’s actions as a trick of the wind, and Joan’s suspicions that the cloth wrapped itself around the steam vehicle’s wheel as ridiculous, but who was to say what was for certain in a world where magic did really exist? She knew what she’d seen.
She must know how Lady Grey had really died. Yet she had no starting point. The Scotland Yard investigator would either laugh at her or, if he believed her, might somehow decide she or their business was responsible. After all, the scarf came from her hand. And if Scotland Yard dug deeper and discovered the truth of her father’s illness? No one trusted the insane.
Help was what she needed.
She took the letter she’d stuffed into the pocket of her dress. The head cook’s advice couldn’t help her but it had been given out of kindness and concern. It wouldn’t hurt.
She settled on her bed to read.
Gregor Sherringford. I want you to remember that name in your prayers because it is to him I owe my continued employment and to him that Lady Sarah owes her life and her happiness.
I could not tell you in my last letter but Lady Sarah disappeared a fortnight ago. Everyone in the family, especially her father, was beside themselves, thinking she might have run off. After a week without word from Lady Sarah, the earl became distraught and hired this Gregor Sherringford. He claimed to be a consulting detective. I am not certain what that means, but he certainly gained a foothold on the situation at once.
Within two nights, Lady Sarah was back under our roof. Oh, she was a sight! I spent over an hour helping her clean up. She had a horrible bruise on her shoulder. She wept silently in my arms.
I could offer her no real comfort, save the safety of her own bed, as she was correct. Her reputation was ruined. So unfair! After she fell asleep, I crept down the stairs to have a nip of sherry myself from the cook, as Lady Sarah’s distress was contagious.
I heard voices in the library and crept closer. Lady Sarah’s father was having a row with her rescuer! Sherringford insisted that while the lady had been hit, she had not been ruined, and anyone who suggested otherwise would answer to him. Well, that quieted milord. Sherringford suggested a quick match with a reliable young man to keep the scandal quiet and, do you know, he suggested young Mr. Gareth. Oh, that man is so perfect for Lady Sarah, but he had been turned away. Milord said the younger son of a knight was not good enough for his daughter.
Then the old lord asked if Mr. Gareth had been the one who’d imprisoned Lady Sarah. Sherringford said “never”, and that the man who had hurt milady had been severely punished.
“Dead?” the old lord asked.
“Severely punished,” Sherringford repeated.
And then I heard someone coming and ran to the kitchen for that sherry. I awoke this morning to hear milord tell Lady Sarah the news about her engagement to Mr. Gareth. She burst into tears. She was so happy. She has promised me that I will keep my place once she is married.
I have been at my wits’ end, Mother, for how this would turn out, but now all is well. I swear, those who are in difficulty should go to this Sherringford. The way he stood up for Lady Sarah, even lying about how she had been abused to protect her—for I fear she had been hurt in that manner—shows the kind of man he is.
Joan crumpled the letter in her hand. Gregor Sherringford. She’d never heard the name before. Yet this secondhand description was intriguing. If it was to be believed, he had found a missing lady, rescued her, punished her assailant, stood up for her virtue and ensured she would marry a man who cared about her.
Lucky Lady Sarah, to have such a champion. A champion for hire? She was not a lady and these were not the same circumstances, of course, but…well…she had nothing left to lose by trying to find Gregor Sherringford.
Joan hurriedly scraped out a note with her ink pen and called for one of Mr. Roylott’s assistants to deliver it to the late Lady Grey’s head cook. There. At least she had done something, even if it came to nothing.
She sat at her sewing desk and closed her eyes, her hands resting on the machine. Her whole world was collapsing. She would not go meekly to her fate without knowing why.