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.
Joan escapes but her rescuer is not the one she expected.
Author’s note: Arthur Conan Doyle’s Milverton is infamously known as “the worst man in London.” My Milverton is a bit of a sinister figure but I’ve given him some added background and depth. And I haven’t murdered him. Yet. 🙂
All Joan could think was that Sir August was not the savior she wanted or expected. Struck dumb by his appearance, she could only stare.
Nor was she the only one surprised. Moran was frozen, his face caught in a frown of displeasure.
“We’re leaving, Joan.” Milverton held out his hand.
She snatched her grandmother’s journal off the bed and rushed to him. Moran tried to block her. Inspector Davis, whom she had not noticed at first, shouldered Moran aside.
“Now, the orders are to let the lass go, Moran,” Davis said. “You don’t want to have to answer to the commissioner on this one.”
“You seem to be glad of these new orders, Davis.”
“I like them better than your last one, if that’s what yer asking.”
“You see a young, lovely girl and decide she is someone who needs a protector. She isn’t what you think. She’s dangerous.”
Yes, Joan thought, I am.
“You’ve made a nasty mistake,” Moran concluded.
“Beggin’ yer pardon, Moran, I’m not the one who made the mistake of locking up the fiancée of Sir August Milverton.”
Davis winked at her, and Joan blinked. Could Davis have something to do with her release from custody?
“You have no authority here, Milverton,” Moran growled, turning from the inspector to the noble.
“I have authority from the commissioner himself to retrieve my future wife, as Inspector Davis just stated.”
Joan clasped Sir August’s hand to show solidarity. Back to the frying pan from the fire? She almost laughed at the absurdity. Anything to leave this place, though she was getting sincerely tired of needing rescue. But Sir August’s vague menace was nothing compared to the vile darkness she felt from Moran.
Sir August put his arm around her shoulders. “I have heard of you, Moran, terrorizing those that you can because they do not have the authority to challenge you. You chose the wrong victim. I intend to see that that never happens again.”
“You’ve chosen the wrong wife,” Moran snarled. “She has ensorcelled her father and she will do the same to you. Perhaps she already has.”
Sir August smiled, all confidence and brittle manners. “Goodbye, Moran.”
“You have the same damned taste in women that your brother did. And your care for this woman will lead you to the same fate.”
“Villain.” Sir August ground out the word through clenched teeth. Joan did not want to marry him. She didn’t know him well or even like him much. But not until just this second had he struck her as so deathly dangerous.
If Sir August’s face was white with rage, Moran’s face was red with the same emotion.
“Leave the journal, girl,” Moran ordered.
She put it behind her back. “You have no right to it.” She straightened and stepped away from Sir August. “I see you are not so successful at bullying people when you are confronted by an equal.”
“Correction: he has been confronted by a better,” Sir August said. “Come, my dear, we are away from this place.”
With that, he ushered Joan out the door, down the silent, dull corridor and to a steam carriage. Larger than his sport carriage, this vehicle had a driver in the front seat—his butler, Hopkins. Once they were seated in the back with the door closed, Sir August doffed his coat and put it around her.
“That was well done, Joan! It’s not everyone who can confront Moran like that. Ah, what a team we shall make.” He rubbed his hands together.
“I thank you for the compliment, sir.” She slumped down in the seat, pulling the coat tighter around her. She did not want to impress him.
He interpreted her actions as fear.
“Everything will be all right as soon as we are wed, Joan. Trust me on that.”
“You have my gratitude. You’ve risked much for me.”
“I risked it for us. And only your gratitude? Not your affection?” He sighed. “I have not won you over yet.”
“I’m apparently very stubborn,” she whispered. She knew many women would be swooning over a man who had rescued them like this. Wrong man, she thought.
“We’re both stubborn. But we’ll suit in the end.”
“But what about Moran? Can he hurt you?” That Sir August would suffer on her behalf, given her ambivalence about him, seemed extremely unfair.
“On the contrary, Moran’s position with Scotland Yard is one of much controversy in the mage community and he well knows it. After all, he is not a lord, save on the wrong side of the blanket, and yet he is given wide authority by his position. In my opinion, his mage witch hunts must be stopped.”
“How many people like me has he arrested?” she asked in a quiet voice. She had been lucky. But she doubted everyone had been.
“Too many for my taste.”
“I appreciate your rescue, Sir August, but I have to say I’m somewhat surprised to find you such a champion of the lower classes.”
He laughed. “If you knew more about me, you would not be so surprised.” He put a gloved hand over her chin so she had to look him full in the face. “I will take good care of you, Joan.”
I do not wish for anyone to take care of me. I wish to take care of myself.
“I believe you would, sir. But I know you singled me out for my magic, not for me. I cannot complain about that, especially after what you have done, but that is the truth of the matter.”
“The truth of the matter is quite complicated.” He kissed her cheek. Cold lips, she decided. His hand felt heavy on her knee. “Your defiance is a thing of strength. I need it and our sons will need it. The next generation will face even worse dangers than we do.” He tapped his fingers at the edges of the necklace that peeked out under her collar. “What is this? It’s new.”
She drew out the lotus case. “I found it in my great-grandmother’s things. Her notes said to put the pendant inside to hide the magic.”
“I see no traces of your mage gift, so it must work well. Thank God Moran couldn’t sense the pendant.”
“Aye to that.”
“And yet, despite you showing no signs of the mage gift, he still took you in. Swine.” He released the chain, putting a little physical distance between them, for which she was grateful.
“I know this is overstepping our relationship but, Sir August, can you help my father?”
He looked out the window of the carriage. “By all accounts, he is unconscious, so there is nothing to be done for him right now. I’m not sure anyone can help him, save to remove the spell he is under. I’m not a mage, and you may have the gift but you did not cast the spell. So we are at a dead end there.”
“Surely you know other mages who might help?”
“Other mages are no longer my allies.”
Some of the anger that had gripped Sir August during her rescue peeked through in his words. Something terrible had happened, she thought, something connected to the wrongness that clouded him. She wondered if she would like him very much if he did not carry that sorrow and anger so tightly that it was a living thing.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t wish to offend you.”
“You didn’t. The situation itself is offensive.”
A subtle request to let it go. Dare she ask about her mother? She was afraid of the answer. “Do you know anything about my mother? Is she well?”
“She was well enough to send word to me of your arrest.”
Her mother had sent Sir August to rescue her? Joan didn’t know if she was more surprised or thankful.
“And what of Krieger & Sims?”
He stroked her knee, which she guessed was supposed to be soothing. Or maybe he thought it seductive. “I have some ability to protect your mother, as she is not accused, but your business is beyond my power. Two murders were plotted from there.”
He leaned over and kissed her lips. His hand tightened on her knee. His lips felt cold and clammy. She didn’t want to pay her debt to him this way.
“Do not fear. You won’t need the business any longer. You will have far more important concerns.”
He must have noticed her stiffness because he leaned away from her. “Ah, you are tired, my lady.”
“I’m not a lady,” she snapped.
“And I’m not physically tired. I don’t want to sleep.”
“A nightcap when we get home should take care of that. Unless you wish me to call a physician for something stronger?”
“No, sir. I suspect for the time being, I’d rather sleep with one eye open.”
“Moran has that effect on people. A nightcap, then. And perhaps a bedtime story.”
She didn’t like what that implied. “Are you not bringing me home?”
“We are going to your new home, which is my home, which should suit both of us just fine. I doubt you will ever live at Krieger & Sims again, Joan.”
He said it quietly, almost with sympathy.
“No, you do not, not quite yet. But since you possess hidden depths, perhaps it is time you know the game we will be playing once we are officially a couple.”
“I cannot argue with that.” She needed someone to tell her the game before she went mad like her father. She sank farther into Sir August’s coat, which unfortunately smelled of pipe tobacco.
The steam carriage slowed, then halted. Her soon-to-be husband and Hopkins helped her down from the carriage and then up the steps of his home. They were ushered inside by the housekeeper.
“The mistress’s room is almost ready, Sir August,” the housekeeper said. “We are just putting in the clothing you ordered.”
The mistress. The housekeeper meant her.
At least if she was being provided with her own room, it meant Sir August did not expect them to spend the night together. But, then, he was playing a long game.
She did not want to oppose Sir August. She did not want to be his wife, either. She wished there were some middle ground.
Sir August nodded to his housekeeper. “Good. We’ll be in the drawing room, having a nightcap. Let me know when you are finished.”
“A nightcap, sir?” Hopkins arched an eyebrow in disapproval. “Do you need me to bring different refreshment for your lady?”
Joan shook her head. “No, please do not bother.”
“It is no bother. It is my job,” Hopkins said in a tone that made Joan believe she had made a grave error in turning him down.
“My lady is fine with what is on hand, Hopkins,” Sir August said. “I suspect she might prefer water, in any case.”
“Very good, sir.” Hopkins turned on his heel and left them alone.
Sir August took her arm and led her to the drawing room. This was the place where she had been taken and plied with sandwiches on her first visit. Grateful for something even a tiny bit familiar, she took off the coat and sank onto the couch. Sir August poured two glasses of a dark, reddish liquid from a decanter, sat down next to her and offered her one.
“It is against my beliefs to drink.” She rubbed her knee, remembering how he had been fondling it. Alcohol would dull her ability to defend herself. “I should like to have that water you mentioned instead.”
“It is also against custom to offer a woman a man’s drink, Joan. Come, our unusual situation demands a slight bending of the rules. It’s not every lord who rescues his lady from the clutches of Scotland Yard. We should drink to an interesting start to our alliance.”
It was true that being completely sober had gained her nothing. Joan took the glass and swallowed much of it in one gulp. She coughed as it burned on the way down, doubling over. This seemed to amuse Sir August. “I see you are not completely competent in everything.”
“What was in the drink, sir?” she gasped out.
“Brandy. It clears the mind, does it not? Still, it is not usually drunk that fast. Perhaps we will stick to women’s drink for you in the future.” He took a swallow from his own glass.
“Perhaps so.” Her sinuses had never seemed so clear. “Sir August, you said you were going to explain the game we will be playing. What did you mean?”
“Having the full facts may keep you safer than ignorance will, as I cannot be with you every moment, and it strikes me finally that you deserve to know why there is so much danger. Perhaps you’ll trust me once you know more.”
That was more insightful than she expected from him. “I would appreciate whatever you can tell me.”
He nodded. “As I said, my father was a mage. I’m not, and neither are any of my sisters. This puts me in a precarious position among the rest of the nobility.” He slammed the brandy glass on the table and scowled.
“I see.” Her vision was blurry. Her head was too heavy for her neck. This brandy worked fast.
“My younger brother had a powerful mage gift, like my father. It’s to him that I owe both my fortune and my downfall. But, by God, I will see our family restored.”
“Your downfall? But look at all you possess!”
“A pittance to what it could have been.” He tossed back the rest of the brandy. “You have seen the barren portions of land in the park we passed the other day?”
She nodded again. “Everyone has. It is said mages fought a mighty duel there. No one seems to know why.”
“It was a mighty duel. My brother and the Queen’s grandson fought each other there. Both died.”
“Oh.” She sat up straighter, his words cutting through the haze of the brandy. “I had heard only rumors or legends about what happened and not one of the stories included a grandson of the Queen!”
He smiled. “I see the brandy loosens your tongue a bit and relaxes you. Something I will keep in mind.”
Urk. “You were telling me about the duel? I’m so sorry about your brother.”
“So am I. This story is not well known. The legends have been deliberately encouraged by certain people to obscure the truth.” He rose and filled his glass again. His face seemed etched in a permanent scowl.
She was finally seeing the real Sir August, the one she’d sensed these past weeks, the one who had appeared to Moran. A driven man.
A dangerous man, capable of violence if pushed, and one full of dark thoughts. Everything she’d sensed about him was correct.
He stared past her to the fireplace. “Like you, my brother’s talent lay in his craft. He created things, Joan, as you create clothing that seems otherworldly. His specialty was guns. Somehow, when he designed and built them, his magic soaked into the metal. His pistols never missed, not once. They were much in demand, especially among the military but, naturally, quite rare because he had to create the pistols himself.”
Joan thought of how exhausted she’d been after finishing Lady Grey’s new clothing. “I understand.”
“I rather thought you might. The work also brought him to the highest levels of society, where we Milvertons had never trod before. My father was a merchant, like yours, before he was awarded a knighthood for service rendered to the crown. His mage gift was deemed valuable enough to elevate him. My brother’s was deemed even more so. In one generation, the world was laid out before us.” He scowled. “Then there was a girl. My brother became foolish over her. The girl was promised to a young man of royal birth, you see.”
“I see,” she said carefully. “Even if the girl wanted your brother, a match was out of the question. She was trapped in the arranged marriage.”
“You have it right. But instead of understanding this and backing off, my brother demanded a duel. The Queen’s grandson, incensed by the challenge from some upstart and confident in his skill, agreed. My brother naturally brought one of his pistols to use. The royal scion brought no weapons but told my brother, Charles, to shoot anyway. This unnerved Charles as he had no wish to commit murder. Instead, he froze. That made him twice the idiot!” Milverton tossed his glass into the fire. The glass tinkled and cracked as it hit the bricks.
Joan clenched her jaw. “You were there, Sir August?”
“I was there. I saw. Charles refused to fire first. He yearned for the girl but he balked at shooting an unarmed man destined to be king. His opponent had no such scruples and attacked with a magical force more powerful than any gun.” He collapsed next to her on the couch.
For the first time, pangs of sympathy touched her heart. She tentatively padded his back. “That is how the park grass was destroyed?”
“It was a magical firestorm. My brother had no chance. Yet in his dying throes, he found the energy to fire his weapon. His magic served him, even as he died. The bullet found its target in his enemy’s heart. They both died that day.”
“I am so sorry.”
Sir August nodded. “I believe you are, Joan. You understand the importance of family. That’s one thing I admire about your people.” He put his hand on her knee again, squeezing almost enough to cause her pain. “There are days when I curse Charles and applaud his courage all in the same breath. Perhaps if only he had died, the scandal would not have been as bad, though I would have always felt the loss of my brother. But the Queen was bereft at the death of her favorite grandson and the son of her heir, though it was hushed up as an illness. So we Milvertons were effectively shunned.”
“Young Prince Eddy? That’s who died, is it not?” The Duke of Clarence, eldest son of the Prince of Wales, had been said to have died of a sudden illness.
Small wonder Sir August cursed his luck. The young prince’s death had meant the same to Milverton as Lady Grey’s death had meant to her. The end of dreams. Or, at least, their delay. Worse than her loss, as he had lost his brother.
“You were ostracized, sir?”
“From the highest levels, yes. From the lower? No. Money, and by this time we had rather a lot of it, will buy entry into many places. In his last years, my father still had influence and friends. Like your father, however, mine was a broken man at the end. I took over the family holdings long before my father passed.” He caressed her cheek with his cold, hard fingers. “You see, we have something in common. I can never compete with the great houses, and I can never raise the family further, unless we possess magic. All that’s built could be lost in the next generation unless my heir is powerful and influential. I still have enemies. Memories remain long. I cannot marry into nobility, not after the duel. So I must ensure my heir has the mage gift.”
“And I will give you that.”
“You will give me that gift. Magic buys security and power. I need you, Joan.” He took her hands. “Do you know how rare you are? Such a wonderful find.” He slid his arm around her waist.
“How did you find me, sir?” she whispered.
“Those who do not fully possess the mage gift sometimes have other talents. I can see mage potential. It is well that few have this gift, else you would have been discovered by someone else. I saw you first. We were meant to be.”
His eyes widened and his voice cracked. Obsession, she thought, not with her but with what she represented. The solution to all his problems.
He is in pain, she thought. But looking into his eyes, seeing the depths of his anger, she did not want to fuel his obsession. “I understand.”
“A careful answer. You are always careful, even drunk. Or perhaps the brandy is wearing off.” He smiled thinly and released her. “The girl my brother Charles adored should have been more like you and much would have been averted. You would’ve been careful to avoid Charles and would not have taken stupid risks. Instead, his girl encouraged him.”
“She is still alive?”
“Oh yes. Do you not remember? The Prince’s brother married her. That’s how these things are done among those circles. She’ll be our queen one day.” Sir August offered her his hand. She took it to rise. “We will do it differently, will we not? We will show all the fools what can be done. We will have power they will respect. They will learn to fear what they have shunned.”
You will have power, she thought. She would be an instrument.
“You mean to make them all pay.”
“We will make them all pay.”
Maybe she could get used to cold hands and clammy lips. But not to such focus on vengeance.
Hopkins appeared in the room. Or perhaps he had been lurking quietly during his master’s story and thought this an opportune moment to intervene. “All is ready for the mistress of the house,” he announced.
Sir August put his arm around her. “Splendid!”
Hopkins raised an eyebrow. Sir August removed his arm from her shoulders. He cared about what his servants thought about him? Interesting.
“Joan, in the guest room you will find sleeping clothes, everyday clothing and, naturally, the wedding dress. When your mother told me of your arrest, I asked her to send it back here, as we must marry right away now. Tomorrow. Under the circumstances, there will be only a small number of witnesses. You’ll like my sisters. Unfortunately, given the scandal with your family, I’m afraid your mother must stay away. But in the coming days, when the scandal fades, perhaps she can visit. In the meantime, you can exchange letters, but be careful of what they contain. Others may intercept them.”
“As you noted, Sir August, I am careful by nature.” She took a deep breath. She had to try. “Tomorrow is so soon, after all that has happened.”
He put his fingers under her chin. “Tomorrow is not soon enough, after all that has happened. The sooner we are wed and you share my bed, the safer you will be. And the sooner you will be pregnant, which I think you will be happy about in time. Moran will come at you again. But he will have no power once you bear my name. I will crush him.”
And the sooner they were wed, the sooner his family fortunes would rise and he would have his revenge. She was a tool, though one he seemed determined to treat gently. Save for marrying her against her wishes.
Where was Gregor?
Joan followed the housekeeper to a guest room on the first floor. Sisters, he had mentioned. How many female Milvertons existed?
A nightgown was laid over one chair, and several dresses and the petticoat layers belonging under them were hanging in a wardrobe.
The bed was soft and covered with an exquisite quilt in the Milverton coat of arms, a naked black sword against a blue sky.
She sat on the bed, alone once more in a strange place. This one was comfortable and not so bleak as her prison cell, but she was confined nonetheless.
Sir August was not evil. Only human, obsessed and wrong for her.
Sir August bound her by obligation, Moran by force.
It was all done, over, preordained. Destiny, as her intended claimed.
She curled into a small ball on the soft bed and rocked back and forth, silent tears running down her face. Tears for her father, for her mother, for Lady Grey, for the seamstresses like Darcy, now out of work.
And for herself.