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, her potential husband offers Joan a glimpse of what her life might be as a wife to a powerful man. Joan is more interested, however, in one of the workman, who looks somewhat familiar…..
A story note: This book is 22 chapters. If I followed the three-act story structure properly, this is about where things will shift to the second act, which includes confrontation and rising action. And that will be the case from here on out, as secrets begin to be peeled away.
Joan chose her best dress, nearly as fine as a lady’s dress, set a hat on her head, put a matching shawl around her shoulders, and cursed herself for vanity but looked at her reflection in the mirror to ensure all was well anyway.
Sir August was waiting for her on the street outside, next to his vehicle. He snapped to attention as he saw her. “For you, my future bride.” He handed her a pair of goggles. “I realize these are a bit rough on the hair and the hatpins, but my vehicle moves rather fast and it is not enclosed. We’ve had some unfortunate accidents with insects getting into the eyes.”
Bride. Ack! She accepted the goggles, careful to avoid his hands. Even through their gloves, she did not want to touch him. The goggles were made of fine leather, the stitching was very crisp and clear, and they were nicely padded around the eyes. Lady Grey had wished for just such a pair.
Sir August waited patiently while she fitted them on her face. He took her hand to help her climb aboard the steam carriage. It was annoying that men could simply raise their knees high enough, yet women were encumbered by all these skirts. Not to mention the corset that restricted bending of the upper body, making driving such a chore. That was why Lady Grey had requested something “radical” to wear.
Clothes shouldn’t hold women back from doing anything men could do. But, as she knew too well, clothes were often used to imprison females.
Once she was seated, Sir August walked to the front of the carriage and turned the crank. The engine sputtered to life. He clapped his hands, hopped aboard and took his seat next to her.
She had to admit, the cushioned seat was pleasant on her bottom.
“This must be a very well-built machine,” she said. “I have seen many people crank their steam vehicles much longer to no effect.”
He smiled as he placed his hands on the stick that would steer the carriage. “This one is powered by mage coal. That burns much more cleanly and provides an even distribution of steam. It never fails to start.”
“Mage coal?” Of course, mage coal. He was quite rich. “Are you blessed with magic, sir?” She closed her hand around her pendant again, then caught herself and released it. She must stop drawing attention to it, especially if she was around people who might be mages.
He sighed. “No, alas. My father had the gift but I did not receive it, nor did any of my sisters. Only my younger brother did, and he’s no longer with us.” He waited for an opening in traffic and slid in.
She wanted to ask about his brother, but that seemed a sensitive subject. “I keep hearing rumors about a mage-coal-powered train that will travel at high speeds between London and Scotland. How much of that is true?”
“It is being worked on. I hope it becomes reality soon. Careful, now, as I show you what this carriage can do. Hold on!”
She tightened her fingers on the handrests as they picked up speed.
So fast! Much faster than the cabs she took routinely to make deliveries. Or perhaps it was going at the same speed as a cab, but it seemed faster because they were completely exposed to the wind. They zipped by a cab to her right. No, this was definitely faster.
After a minute of the world whizzing by, her enjoyment won out over her fear. She relaxed and smiled. She even let go of the handrest. Well, only with one hand. And she used that to check and make certain she had not lost all her hairpins.
Sir August glanced over at her, also smiling. It was the first genuine smile she had witnessed from him. He enjoyed this, without reservation or ulterior motive.
She looked away and back at the streets flashing by.
They turned from the merchants’ district and drove into a residential area. For a moment, buildings disappeared completely and were replaced by the large park that occupied Central London. She had heard one could buy a ride on a dirigible that was anchored on the tower in the middle of the park. She lacked the money to purchase such a ride. Wearing her adventurer dress was the closest she had come to such a thing.
Below the dirigible was a flat, grassless plain. Once, it had been verdant and lush like the rest of the park, and occupied by the tallest of trees. But it had been scorched beyond repair a decade ago when two mages from rival noble houses had dueled over a woman. Or so the stories went. What was certain was that a strange fire had somehow utterly consumed the area. Happily, it had not spread to the rest of the park. The tales said that the magical duelists had both been killed. Whatever the origin of the fire or the fate of those who had started it, their destruction lived on, even ten years later. Neither grass nor any other plants grew there.
Proof enough for most people that the fire had been magical in nature and how destructive that magic could be.
It might have been a coincidence, but a month after the fire Queen Victoria’s royal decree had outlawed dueling of any sort. Oh, there were rumors. There were always rumors about the lordly mages, from mages dueling with swords to those armed with jewels, and one even said that two mages had dueled by sending their magical horses at each other.
Stories or truth? She had no idea. She knew no one who understood what being a mage meant, save Gregor Sherringford, and he had told her little, even about her own mage gift.
The homes grew more impressive as Sir August steered them past the park. They motored by a massive four-story home with surrounding gardens. Given the land it occupied and the tall, wrought-iron fence, she concluded it must belong to a royal duke, though it was not the Royal Palace. All those who shared royal blood also shared wealth as a result of the late Prince Albert’s prowess as a mage and his stature as the discoverer of magic.
Sir August turned onto the next side street. It was filled with ivy-covered brick homes several stories tall. The residences looked sturdy, solid, and spoke of old money. They had been here a long time, perhaps even before the Great Fire of King Charles II’s reign. Joan had been in this area a few times to fit ladies, but not recently and not on this particular street.
Sir August parked the car in front of the third house on the right. Her seat stopped vibrating. It took a moment for her vision to adjust. Belatedly, she realized the goggles had become smeared with dust and grime. Very useful, these goggles, if they kept that much dirt from her face. She loosened and carefully lifted them over her head and hat, wondering what her hair looked liked after such a journey.
She needed shorter hair.
“Well?” Sir August asked with raised eyebrows.
“That was delightful,” she said, and meant it.
He nodded, jumped out of his side and walked around to help her down. Again, she was struck how powerful and nimble he was, despite his age.
“Thank you,” she said as he helped her down.
“You are welcome, my love.”
My love. That was worse than my dear. All the exhilaration from the ride vanished. The awful fake smile was back on his face. And just when she was beginning to find him tolerable.
She allowed him to take her arm as they walked up the stone steps to his house. A man dressed as a servant had the door open for them at the entrance.
“Good afternoon, Sir August. Welcome to our home, miss.”
“This is my fiancée, Miss Joan Krieger.” Sir August removed his gloves. “Please, Hopkins, settle her in the sitting room and provide some refreshments. I have much to discuss with you and the rest of the staff. This house will see a celebration, and soon.”
“Very good, sir.” Hopkins had no other reaction to this news. Either Sir August had spoken of her already or Hopkins simply was that unflappable.
“I should like a tour of the whole house rather than refreshments, if that is possible,” she said.
“Ah, it’s good to have you eager to see your new home.” Sir August drew her hand to his mouth and kissed it. She felt nothing. Less than nothing. Certainly not what she had experienced as Sherringford had examined her hand.
“We are of the same mind, Joan. Wait until you see my surprise.”
She fought a shiver. He was being kind and thoughtful, and yet she still felt that wrongness surrounding him and wished she knew if it was due to how he saw her or something deeper.
Surely, it was not just that she did not lust for the man. She could not be that shallow.
“But eat first, then a tour. We have plenty of time and I do have things to arrange.”
Time was what Joan did not have, but she settled onto the couch in the sitting room as requested. Hopkins left but soon a maid arrived with tea and dainty finger sandwiches.
She ate without tasting and studied the room, hoping for insight into her possible husband. Sir August had shown some signs of personality during their ride over. A little arrogance and some love of fun or, at least, of speed.
None of that was apparent in the room’s decorations.
Instead, they confirmed her opinion of the man as rather dull. She thought the wallpaper a bit too lifeless, a sort of brown with silver designs that must be expensive but had no flair. The couch was comfortable and well made and the fireplace well kept, but none of it stood up and made her take notice. Decorating a room was like decorating a ball gown. One wished to make an impression.
If the curtains on the floor-length windows had been open, it would have added life to the place. However, Joan could not fault the temperature in the room. It was just right. There were none of the errant drafts that plagued some older homes. This was a bland place, but not an uncomfortable one. The mage coal, no doubt.
She chided herself. Sir August was male and there was no mistress of this house. Why did she expect his home to be perfectly decorated? That was not considered a man’s task but a woman’s. If she were his wife, she could decorate it herself. A pale-blue color would make the curtains come to life and…
She shook her head to break her thoughts. She didn’t want to think about this house. When her father had sprung the engagement on her, it had seemed unreal. Now, the possible future life that Sir August offered her took form, much as she tried to quash the thought.
Her children with Sir August would have their future set. Most, if not all, of English society would be open to them. They would have every luxury and the best schooling. They would grow up to be people of influence. Even more so if they inherited the mage gift that Gregor Sherringford claimed she possessed. And since they would be noble, her children could be legally trained. They would have the world at their disposal if their gifts were strong.
The cost of all this was herself. Little enough, she supposed, but it was all she had.
She closed her fingers around the pendant and said a silent prayer. When she finished, she realized her future children would lose something too: her family heritage.
She consumed more of the sandwiches, aware now that she had not eaten all day. More time passed. She was just about to explore the bookshelves when Sir August entered the room.
“Let me show you the upstairs rooms that will be yours, my dear.” He cleared his throat. “Though, for now, my private suite will be off-limits. That will have to wait until we are married.”
She was in his home, surrounded by people employed by him. He could take advantage of her now, bed her, then call in a clergyman to make it legal. He was not doing any of those things. He was being gallant, or at least what he thought was gallant. She could unbend enough to be polite. Investigate, she reminded herself.
She took his offered arm as they walked up the wide staircase of burnished wood. She set her jaw, determined not to be unpleasant, wondering how she could ever extricate herself from this. Sherringford was unaware she was under a time limit, and she didn’t know how to contact him again to tell him of the change in her circumstances.
Sir August walked her into a suite of rooms on the second floor. Save for the unfinished armoire against the far wall and the bed in the adjoining room, the place was barren. The walls had been left white and the floor was bare wood.
“I thought of having someone prepare these rooms for you, but you strike me as someone who would want to create her own home, as you should as mistress of the house,” he said. “This is your canvas on which to paint what you will.”
“For me?” The words squeaked out of her mouth before she could stop them. She cleared her throat. “This is most generous, sir.”
Never had she truly expected to be the mistress of such a great space. It was tempting to picture her sewing machine near the window seat, with warm light streaming through in the winter.
“I want my wife to be happy here.” Without warning, he brushed his lips against her cheek. It felt slobbery, and, again, she caught a flash of wrongness from within him. She swallowed and forced herself to not react.
“I appreciate your intentions, Sir August.”
“I want you to have the best of everything.”
Which included him, she guessed. Whether it was the long wait in his sitting room or frustration with the situation, she was already tired of their polite dance. She had never been good at pretense. It was time to cut the thread, she thought, and try honesty.
“Sir August, you confuse me. Why did you ever set your sights so completely on me? You obviously have so much to offer a woman and I am not…” that desirable. She cleared her throat. “Tell me why you are so insistent on our match. I’m not of your station or your religion. To put it bluntly, I am not what anyone would consider a suitable wife for you, sir.”
He tilted his head at her. “Is that what has led to this reluctance? You feel inferior? Oh, dear girl.” He frowned and seemed to seriously consider her question. “I have met many women of my station and I have found most of them tedious. They are lacking in the intelligence that will be essential in keeping and adding to my fortune when I am gone. I need the mother of my children to pass sense to my heirs, Joan. You, despite your obvious disadvantages in class, are clearly intelligent and capable. That’s what I require of the mother of my sons.”
This was not a declaration of love, but his logic was sound. However, he hadn’t mentioned her mage gift. Was he aware of it? If so, how? And then there was his curious statement of her very life being dependent on marrying him. “But surely there are intelligent and capable women among your own class?”
“But none have your presence. That is valuable to me.”
“My presence? Could you elaborate, sir?”
His voice lowered. He reached out and tapped her pendant. “You do not know what you are, Joan, but others can sense it. It is most attractive and, again, something that I hope is passed on to our children.”
The touch of his finger to the pendant felt like a cold slap inside her head. She stepped back, shaken and truly scared. The pendant offered protection if Sherringford was to be believed, and it was reacting to Sir August.
She put a hand on her chest and tried to appear flustered by Sir August’s compliment. Well, she was flustered. “You mean that you know I have a mage gift, sir.”
His face went white. “Don’t say that out loud!” He stepped closer to her. “It’s dangerous for people to know.” He shook his head. “That pendant makes it obvious. You are safe here but put it away otherwise. It gives away too much of your nature.”
Shaken, she slipped the pendant under her collar. He’d contradicted what Sherringford had told her about the heirloom. “What is dangerous about my having a mage gift? And why does my life depend on marrying you?”
“Possessing an untrained mage gift is not a crime in and of itself,” Sir August said, color returning to his countenance, “but you live in a household where unauthorized magic might have been used to murder Lady Grey. If it was known that you were gifted with magical ability, then you would be suspected of murder, especially given you witnessed her death.”
“Murder?” she hissed. “No one in my household murdered Lady Grey. They would not, they—”
But they had. She knew something had been wrong with the scarf. Sherringford confirmed that and, now, so had Sir August. But surely the gift that warned her against Sir August and told her Sherringford was trustworthy would have warned her that a killer lurked at Krieger & Sims.
“Do you know of a man named Moran?” he asked.
“Yes, he was at the scene of Lady Grey’s murder. He and Inspector Davis seemed most familiar with each other.”
“Moran is who the Yard calls when there is a chance magic was used in a crime.” Sir August put his hands on her shoulders. “If Lady Grey’s death was murder, it looks as if someone at Krieger & Sims is responsible. If the authorities discover you have a mage gift, you’ll be suspected, perhaps even arrested. Even if someone in your household did not put a spell on the scarf to control it and kill Lady Grey, you make a very good scapegoat, Joan.”
“Oh.” She cleared her throat. That was more than Sherringford had told her. But he must have guessed it also. He had told her that the answers might not be to her liking.
“What did Moran say to you that morning?” Sir August asked.
“Nothing. He did not question me at all. He spoke only to Inspector Davis and then dismissed me and my mother.”
“He doesn’t suspect. Very good.”
He let go of her shoulders. His touch this time hadn’t scared or repulsed her. He sounded like he truly cared for her. “I could be arrested for murder? That’s why you said my life depended on marrying you?”
He nodded. “I had hoped you would never know about it, but since you have guessed, it makes no sense to hide this from you. When you are my wife, I can protect you from any investigation. I have that much influence.”
“And you would do that for me?” The words came out in a rush.
“For you and for our children. The Milvertons need your mage gift, Joan. And you need my protection. It’s mutually beneficial.”
He smiled that oily smile again. And he’d been doing so well too. She might never see him in a romantic light but, for a bit, she had liked the man.
“You’re sincere,” she said.
“I am so glad to hear you say that. I expect it is going to be very pleasant to be married to you.”
“And you aren’t worried that I could be the killer, Sir August? You don’t suspect me of murder?” She frowned.
He shook his head. “Of course not. You’re an innocent and, until today, any sense of your mage gift was diluted and untrained. There is no way you could have done this thing. ” He pointed to her chest. “Where did you get that deuced pendant? It focuses the gift, you know. Some might think you were trained because of it.”
“This belonged to my grandmother. The family legend claims it offers protection.”
“Yes, that, but it also could lead to discovery, which we cannot afford.” He took her hand. “You are off-balance, I know, but I am glad you’re putting aside your reluctance about the marriage. Rest assured, I will protect you.”
She felt trapped, a mouse being pounced on by a large cat. “Sir—”
“Sir.” Hopkins appeared at the doorway, saving her from speaking further.
Sir August released her hand and almost snarled. “What is it?”
“The contractor you hired is here to examine the rooms for the future mistress of the house,” Hopkins said, unfazed by his master’s show of temper.
Sir August nodded. “Ah. Show him in. I can explain the proposed improvements to the aforementioned future inhabitant of these rooms.” He grinned at Joan. She nodded back.
“Very good, sir.” Hopkins bowed and left.
“I don’t understand,” Joan said. “I thought you meant for me to decorate this space?”
“Decorate, yes, but structural improvements must be made as well!” He slapped his hands together, almost gleeful. “For one, you must not be cold, and this obsolete fireplace will never do to keep you warm. The first floor has just been renovated to provide a better source of heat. We must do that here as well.”
“You intend steam heat, then?” she asked, thinking of how warm it was in the seamstresses’ room next to the boiler. “Is that a problem?”
“The boiler will be in the basement, and heating these rooms requires the latest in mage coal technology. We will convey the heat up here through pipes and then we can regulate the temperature to the exact degree. However, I don’t want the pipes detracting from the look of the rooms. Hence, an expert.”
Joan could only nod. A home, decorated all on her own and heated by mage coal. This room was larger than Lady Grey’s sitting room, and the stairs to the upper floor were much like the ones in her late customer’s home. Sir August was offering exactly what she had dreamed about the other morning before the day had come crashing down. Except that morning, she had hoped to obtain it by her own efforts.
There was an old proverb her grandmother used to quote about being careful what one wished for, in case one actually received it. Joan now understood.
Hopkins returned in short order with two men in tow. The first was dressed as a merchant with a suit that her father might have worn. His hard leather boots were the only thing that betrayed his trade as a contractor.
The second man was younger and stared at the floor. She could not get a good look at his face. His clothing had once been of good quality, but she could see the seams had been mended several times. He wore brown leather gloves that clearly had seen some significant use.
Sir August went over to the contractor and began chatting. She edged closer to follow their conversation but found it went quickly over her head. She understood about pipes and disguising them as part of the wall décor. She didn’t understand the talk of load-bearing struts and boiler capacity. She realized what they meant, however. Making the changes to these rooms would put a strain on the system that already served the rest of the house. It would be more expensive and require more mage coal. She wondered where Sir August’s fortune came from.
Joan finally interrupted when the contractor spoke of doing away with a window.
“Oh, I should like some light in here.”
Sir August turned to her with a smile. “Then you shall have it, my love. The window stays and we will endeavor to make certain not much heat is lost through the glass.”
My love? Oh, no. She nodded, only just realizing her mistake. By asking for a change to the plans, she had just claimed ownership of the rooms. No wonder her prospective husband had smiled.
Shaking her head, she wandered over to the window in question and looked out over the street. She could see the central park in the distance and the dirigible crane that rose above it. The scorched earth was blocked by trees near the dirigible.
The view offered far more scope than the one from her bedroom window at Krieger & Sims.
“’Scuse me, miss.” The workman moved beside her and tapped the window. “I just need to take a few measurements.”
She nodded and took a step back, though she kept the view in sight.
This whole life offered her more scope, yet the price was too high. She did not want to be a mother of mages. Or, simply a mother of mages. She wanted to be a mage herself. And marrying Sir August might solve Krieger & Sims’s financial problems, but it would not solve the problem of a murderer in their midst. She wouldn’t leave that task undone, no matter what Sir August used to tempt her.
The workman took what looked like marked rope out of the large pockets of his coat and measured the width and length of the window casement.
He then grabbed a small notebook and pencil from his pocket. “Could you write these down for me, miss? My boss says my handwritin’ is none too good.”
“Of course.” She took the offered notebook and carefully wrote down the measurements as he dictated them.
“Thank ye kindly, miss.” As he took the notebook, he slipped something else into her hands. “I believe these belong to you, Miss Krieger,” he whispered.
It took all her control not to flinch at the change in his voice. Gregor Sherringford! She looked down at her hands. He’d placed the leather gloves in her palms.
She glanced over at Sir August. He was still deep in conversation with the contractor. Sherringford had carefully positioned himself to block off view of the gloves from the others. She hastily slipped them inside her sleeve.
“Glad to be of help,” she said in a normal voice.
The disguised detective stuffed his notebook back inside his coat. “Things are coming to a head,” he whispered to her. “It is why Milverton is in such a rush. Look for me tonight.”
Before she could gather her wits to ask more questions, the contractor called Sherringford over, they both spoke to Sir August for a moment and then left the room.
What an infuriating man.
What a fascinating man.