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.
This chapter is a favorite, if only because the contract named in the title finally is uncovered and our villain is revealed, though not all of his machinations. And there’s the little matter of Gregor and Joan’s kiss.
Joan woke up in darkness. She reached a hand to her eyes and discovered that a damp cloth lay over her face. She wasn’t blind!
She removed the cloth and blinked. The world around her came into focus. She lay on a bed in a small, neat but unadorned room with curtains of the finest cloth. A blanket had been thrown over her but it was hardly needed. She was quite warm. Mage-coal heat, she knew. A glass of water stood on the bedside table. With fumbling hands, she grabbed the water and drank it all down. She felt the coolness as it went down her throat.
The blanket slid down to her waist. She was still in her clothes from yesterday. But…she hurriedly stuck a hand inside her petticoats to her bosom.
No scroll, only the familiar lotus case that held her pendant.
“Bloody hell,” she mumbled.
“No need for curses.”
She flinched. Gregor sat in a chair in the far corner. Damn him. He’d deliberately stayed out of her line of sight.
“Gregor Sherringford, get into the light now,” she ordered.
He stood and walked over to her. He wore something very like his tradesmen’s uniform, black trousers and shirt and heavy boots.
But her gaze was caught by what was in his hand. A rolled-up paper.
She looked down at her chest. “You took that from me?”
“It seemed best not to let it be rumpled. And I did not like the idea of something so foul next to your skin for any period of time.”
She glared. She wasn’t sure she liked the idea of him searching her unconscious body under her clothes. Or perhaps she liked the idea entirely too much. Gregor, what have you done?
“There was very little, um, fishing around for it.” He tilted his head toward her. “What you did was one of the most foolish acts I have ever witnessed.”
“I wanted to rely on my own wits. And it worked!”
“You can rely on me.”
“I did. And then you failed to show. Sir August had to rescue me from arrest. Sir August, of all people!”
He winced. “You should’ve had more patience.”
“I have had entirely too much patience my whole life. And I opened the safe, did I not?”
“The cost was nearly your life. And you’re lucky I was the one who found you in your father’s office and not Moran or someone else.”
“It worked.” She smiled.
He smiled back. “Yes. One of the bravest acts I’ve ever witnessed.”
Her shoulders relaxed at his smile, but she wasn’t sure how to take the sudden absence of his arrogance. “Um, I do not… Could you explain to me how it worked? How I opened the safe, I mean.”
“Brute force, my dear Joan. The protective spell was designed to draw heat from whoever tried to break in. You released all your stored mage energy at once. The lock overloaded as you blasted it into oblivion. A good thing you didn’t melt the door and destroy the scroll inside during your assault.”
“It needed to be done,” she snapped. “How did you come to find me? And where am I, Gregor?”
“This is a room in a house owned by my family. It’s not in season, so it’s closed up. But it’s more suitable a place for you to rest than my office, plus it’s fully warded and therefore safe.” He sat down at the end of the bed, studying her.
She sat up straighter.
“As to how you came to be here, I found you unconscious in your father’s office, the safe blasted open. I plucked you off the floor before anyone else arrived and transported you here.” He smiled again. “I believe my cabbie was equally concerned for your health and your virtue. You were quite pale.”
“Since you pulled the scroll from under my clothes, he may have had reason to fear for my virtue.” She crossed her arms, annoyed at his smug expression. “Where were you yesterday when I was being arrested? How did you come to be at Krieger & Sims?”
“I was already inside Krieger & Sims when you unceremoniously broke into your father’s office. You surprised me. I expected you to stay in one place while I did my searching. After I was done, I would have come to you.”
“And how was I to know that?”
“You said you would trust me.”
“Things changed quickly,” she said. “Moran almost had me. Sir August arrived just in time.”
He sighed. “Moran acted faster than I anticipated. You’re right. I made a grave mistake in judgment on the matter.”
“Oh, now I’m right? Well.” She frowned. “If you were already there at Krieger & Sims, why did you not open the safe before I did?”
“As that would raise a magical alarm, I was saving it for last.”
She frowned. “Was the alarm raised?”
“To whoever set the spell? Of course. You blasted it to pieces. I’m certain the culprit knows he has been found now. I only hope he doesn’t vanish before we find him.”
“Are you blaming me for this, Gregor? You were off doing God knows what while Sir August was calmly explaining his plan for us to make society pay for his brother’s death and his family’s disgrace. When he wasn’t talking about my being the mother of his children, that is.”
Gregor’s expression softened. “My attention was focused on the ultimate solution to your case, rather than your protection. That turned out to be the wrong focus in the short term. I failed you.” He cleared his throat and drew closer. “Did Milverton take advantage of you?”
He reached out and set his hand beside her hip. Joan realized he was terrified on her behalf. “It seems he took considerably less advantage of me than you did.” She put her hand to her bosom.
“Hah! I see my concern that your ordeal permanently rattled your senses is unfounded.”
She smiled, rested her arms on her knees and really looked at him. Ah, Gregor, I missed you. His compliments were backwards and rude, but she soaked them in all the same.
Yet he did not look well. Had he slept? There were circles under his eyes. “You look exhausted.”
“I watched over you, to make certain the mage trap in the safe door had no more ill effects.”
“All night?” He’d kept vigil for her?
“I was worried about a hidden spell.”
She looked down at her hands. They seemed fine.
“It seemed my fears were for naught. I believe you were simply depleted of energy. That was a powerful blast you unleashed.” He leaned toward her. “I’m truly sorry, Joan. I wasn’t there for you when Moran and his lackeys shut down Krieger & Sims and arrested you and your father. I exposed you to danger. This is all my fault.”
A beautiful apology and, she realized, unnecessary. “I hired you to find Lady Grey’s killer, not protect me. What did you find out about the case?”
“I was tracking the person I suspect is the one who has wrecked your life, and then I was researching the type of spells set on your scarf and the cravat used in the hanging, so the evidence to convict our quarry is clear.”
“Did my father do it, Gregor?” she whispered.
He stroked a strand of her hair. “No, he did not.”
She rested her head on her arms and closed her eyes. How lovely that his slightest touch could comfort her. “Thank God.” She opened her eyes again. “Then who did?”
Gregor brandished the scroll that had nearly cost her life. “The answer lies in this.”
“You just said you already had a suspect.”
“But I lack evidence. Which you have just provided at great cost.”
“Have you read it? What does it say?”
He rested a hand on the bedpost above her. She craned her head to look up at him and was caught by the raw emotion in his face. “I don’t know yet. I did not dare leave you alone to find someone who could translate the words.”
He reached a hand down to gently touch her face. She swallowed. He had barely touched her and yet it felt he had reached inside and hugged her heart. She enclosed her hands around his.
“What language is the document written in?” Her voice came out as a raspy whisper.
He sat down next to her and unrolled it. “I’ve never seen the like before.”
She frowned and focused on the writing. “This is ancient Hebrew.”
She sat up straighter. “I can read it.”
“Excellent. Let us get to work.”
She caught his gaze. “I’m supposed to be married today.”
He leaned closer. “Do you wish me to deliver you to Milverton?”
She leaned toward him, so their faces were only inches apart. “Not in the least.”
He kissed her, not the quick, passionate touch they had shared the first time, but rather a long, languid, deep kiss that seemed to go on forever and made her toes curl under the blanket. She clutched his shoulders tight, as if holding on to him meant holding on to life itself. He slipped a hand around the back of her neck, the touch of his hands against her bare skin nearly as sensual as the kiss.
When he broke the kiss, she was breathless.
“Ah.” He sighed. “The thought of Milverton getting his hands on you, even briefly, is not one to be contemplated.”
“I think he is a very sad man,” she said. “I pity him.”
“You have more compassion than I.” He rose. “Your honor will be suspect if I remain on the bed with you.”
“Nothing we could do together seems dishonorable.” What did she have to protect any longer, in any case? “Besides, my honor is hopelessly lost by spending a night in your home, whether something happens between us or not.”
“No, it would take far more than that to erase your honor, milady.”
Sir August had also called her “milady”, but there was something musical and right with the way Gregor said it.
He cleared his throat. “There is a bathroom with running water to your left.” He gestured to a wardrobe next to the room’s only window. “My elder brother’s wife has some clothing in there that should fit you. When you are ready, we will translate the scroll and solve this mystery.”
She slipped off the bed, pleased to find her legs steady. “I had to find what was in that safe, no matter what happened. I had to.”
He bowed to her. “I know, Joan. I swear, you will not face something like that alone again. Ever.”
He swept out of the room, leaving her with her mouth hanging open.
Oh, dash it, she thought. Right now, she was not going to try and make sense of Gregor Sherringford, equal parts passion, arrogance, and compliments. She would take a proper bath, clear her head and just be happy that she was alive.
And not going to her wedding.
The clothing in the wardrobe included a dreaded corset, as well as numerous petticoats. Gregor’s sister-in-law no doubt would have had a lady’s maid to help her dress. Joan had no such option. She contemplated what she could put on by herself, not an easy choice when all the clothing seemed to require corsets. Eventually, she settled for what seemed to be a day dress that already had a nice shape, a petticoat over that and, as the top layer, an overdress made of an expensive silk/cotton blend.
The overdress was light blue and clearly designed for daytime wear, though it was far finer than any of her own evening clothes. The bustle took a bit longer than she wanted but, with the help of a mirror, she finally she managed to get it to stay in place. She barely recognized her own reflection as it seemed some titled lady stared back at her.
Well, there would be no hiding anything between her breasts with this corset. It was cut fashionably low. She flushed, thinking of how Gregor had likely run his fingers down her naked skin to get the scroll.
Ah God, it wasn’t wrong to wish she had been awake as he had done so. How could something so exhilarating be called a sin?
She left the room and went down a long hallway. She stood at the top of the steps, staring down at a foyer much like the one in Lady Grey’s home, though about twice as large.
Gregor had said this was a small home that his family kept in the city. Small? This was a manor house.
But the furniture was covered and dust had gathered on the railings, so he had been telling the truth about the house being closed for the season. She set off down the steps, clutching the rail as she went. The skirt was a bit too long for her, and she did not want to go tumbling, head over teakettle, to the floor below, especially with her ankle sore from last night’s efforts. How embarrassing, not to mention painful. A terrible irony if she should die tumbling down steps after surviving last night.
Gregor stuck his head out of the doorway of a first-floor room.
“There you are. Good, Victoria’s clothes fit you just fine.”
“I have everything set up here. Come.”
Here turned out to be a library that Gregor had turned into a laboratory, though not quite as elaborate as the one in his workspace. A collection of beakers containing tubes sat on one table. The scroll she had nearly died to obtain had been rolled flat on an ornate desk. The ends of the paper were being held down by bookends in the shape of dragons.
She sighed. She should not feel guilty. But she did.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
“Sir August went to the commissioner of Scotland Yard to rescue me. He risked much. I owe him some explanation.”
“And all he wanted in return was you bound to him in servitude for the rest of your life.”
Her eyes narrowed. “I know that better than you, Gregor. But to his own eyes, he was honorable and noble, and he took a risk for me. I owe him knowledge of where I am, at least.”
Gregor clipped a small corner of the scroll off with a pair of scissors. “Oh that. I sent a messenger ’round to Milverton with word that I had found you at Krieger & Sims, the victim of a magical attack, and had brought you somewhere safe to recover, but that you were obviously too exhausted for any sort of wedding.”
“And he did not demand my immediate return?”
“I believe the message led him to the impression that you were being watched over by my family. My brother and his wife have an excellent reputation. Milverton will not dare to start demanding I produce you until tomorrow, at which point this will all be resolved, I hope.”
If this house hadn’t already been proof enough that Sherringford was noble, this comment confirmed it. “That is certainly convenient.”
“Yes, families are helpful every now and then.” He lifted the slice of paper that he had snipped from the scroll with tongs. “Now, I have an experiment to run.” He pointed at the beakers. “You, sit, translate what you can of that.”
Gregor was back to business. What a difference in attitude, as if he were two people. She felt honored to have a glimpse of what he kept hidden. And, oh my, that kiss. The memory set her toes curling again. And the touch of his hands on her neck. She’d wanted his fingers to go lower…
Yet…she still had no true idea of where they stood in relation to each other. He had stood watch over her last night, abandoning any investigation to make certain she would recover. It seemed he cared. How much, she knew not.
She settled in the chair, adjusting her bustle so it would not dig into her back or come loose, and bent to the words spelled out in a language that her father had often called “older than dirt”.
She hesitated before touching the paper. It had felt so wrong last night it had burned when she touched it. That sensation was gone.
“Gregor, what did you do to make the scroll less, um, dangerous?”
“I canceled out the spell on it,” he said without looking up.
She went to work. Her boast that she could translate was called into question quickly as it became clear her memory of Ancient Hebrew was not as sharp as it had been when she was studying it every day. One could only go so far in studying the language without referring to the Talmud, and women were not to study the Talmud. That was a holy task for men.
The frustration of being unable to continue with her studies had led her to devote more time to design work for Krieger & Sims. In retrospect, she had the prohibition against female scholars to thank for leading her down a different path.
Gregor had laid pencil and paper on the desk within easy reach. She wrote down each word that she could translate, leaving spaces for those whose meaning remained uncertain until context or further translation would fill them in. It was like creating the first sketch of a garment that would need fleshing out in depth before she could see the entire picture.
The scroll that had nearly cost her her life was not only written in Ancient Hebrew but contained archaic words that could have several meanings, and, unfortunately, those seemed to be the least likely words to deduce from the context.
She put the uncertain words on a separate sheet of paper, along with the various translations, a task that made the work slow as mud.
After a while it became clear this was a contract of some sort. Two parties had agreed to an exchange of something. One of the parties was her father. She thought Warrior must mean her father, as Krieger was the German word for warrior. She remembered her father telling a story about that once, as he said the family considered Anglicizing the last name to Wat, an Old English word for warrior or army commander, or, more appropriately, Watson, as her father had wanted to honor his family. In the end, he had decided keeping the German surname was a better way to honor his father.
But there was one word in the contract that did not have an exact translation, and it was the heart of the contract. The closest she could get was that it concerned a “most cherished possession” or “precious possession”, and it was connected to brightness and wholeness.
Family did not fit. And life might be close, but that was not it either, as one could not possess it, not in the way the contract seemed to indicate.
A Hebrew scholar would be able to read this right away. But even if she found one, he might decide that she, as a woman, had no right to the translation at all. She snorted. She gritted her teeth and went back to the first sentence, where the parties to the contract were detailed. Son of Earth was as close as she could come for the second name. She closed her eyes in concentration, going through the Hebrew meanings of common names.
“Aha!” She pounded the desk in triumph and she wrote down Samuel.
Her eyes widened. She stood and the pencil fell from her numb fingers.
Samuel. Samuel Roylott. Their business manager. A family friend. Close as family.
“Roylott,” she whispered.
Gregor looked up from his work and caught her gaze. “Indeed.”
She turned on him. “You knew!”
“I suspected. That is not the same.” Gregor bent back over his machine, a rectangular-shaped thing of gears and wheels. As the gears turned, they spun the wheels, which then caused a clear, enclosed sphere to spin furiously. Tumbling inside the sphere was a tiny piece of paper taken from the corner of the contract.
An arrow on the device clicked to a new location and chimed.
“What does that mean?” she asked.
“It means brimstone permeates this paper,” Gregor said. “Your father made a deal with the devil, Joan, and it has very likely cost him his life and his soul.”