“The Curse of the Brimstone Contract:” A Steampunk Adventure: THE END

Reading Time: 20 minutes
Curse of the Brimstone Contract
Image copyright Corrina Lawson

And we’ve reached the end of 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.

It’s the final chapter of the mystery, as Joan struggles with the truth and decides that her life must take a new an unfamiliar path.

A couple of behind the scenes facts on the story:

The dress Joan wears on the cover was not originally in the story. The cover came during my final edits and my editor and I took one look at it, loved it, and I found a way to weave the dress into this ending. The cover art is by the talented Kanaxa and you can find her gallery online.

Also, one review talked about the book being “light on romance” and what I think they mean was it was light on sex as this is what romance readers call a “sweet” story, meaning there is sexual tension and kissing but nothing else on-screen. They don’t mean the story is actually sweet and I certainly wouldn’t characterize this sometimes tragic mystery as sweet.

But that’s how I learned that non-romance readers have this idea that every romance novel features explicit sex on the page. (The review was very positive, that part just amused me.)

All previous chapters can be found here.

The entire book is available at Amazon and other digital bookstores.

And, of course, if you liked this, the sequel, A Hanging at Lotus Hall, is also available at Amazon. In this book, we learn all about Joan’s family. In the sequel, there are oh-so-many Sherringfords to meet.

Image copyright Corrina Lawson

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All Joan could hear was the sound of her own breathing.

“Joan! Sherringford!” Sir August’s shout cut through her shock.

“Here,” Gregor answered. He rested his hand on her shoulder.

She heard Sir August’s steps and the thud of his cane long before he appeared out of the dust cloud. “Thank God you’re alive.”

“I suspect God had little to do with any of this,” she said.

“Milverton, send for Inspector Davis,” Gregor said. “And the fire brigades, I should think. We must be wary of fire in all that mess.”

“Yes, of course.” Sir August stared at her. “Is she injured? She looks so fey.”

“Not in the way you mean,” she said. “And I can answer for myself.”

Gregor knelt down next to her so they were eye to eye.

“Joan.”

Never had her voice sounded so gentle on someone’s lips.

“Is there someone I can call? Somewhere I can take you?”

“I have nothing and no one now.” She rose. “You would not even let me try to save her!”

“I have not the gifts that would have saved your mother.” He stared at the ground. “I could shield only one person from Roylott’s wrath. I chose you.”

Joan wiped her tears away with the back of her hand. “I killed her. I beat Roylott and he killed her, and so I killed her too…” Emotion caught her throat and she started to cry. She doubled over, the sickness in her stomach threatening to spill out.

Gregor pulled her close and let her grief pour out until she had no tears, nay, no feelings left.

Police and other authorities arrived. Several men spoke to Gregor but she was so unraveled that their words made little sense to her.

“I must go clear up some matters. I must make sure the blowback from this goes in the right direction.” Gregor held her away from him. “I must leave you for a time.”

She nodded, numb. What was one more loss today?

It was Sir August who drove her to the home of her father’s younger sister. He explained to her surprised and shocked aunt that an explosion of unknown origin had destroyed Krieger & Sims.

Joan let him speak for her. She numbly looked around the home. It had been over a year since she had visited. Her father had not wanted to go out because of his fits. He could not risk making himself a public spectacle.

Hah, she thought. She must be more of a spectacle right now than he would have ever been.

The home smelled like fresh-cooked bread. Her aunt responded to the news with admirable restraint, or perhaps it was just shock. She led Joan to a small bedroom off the kitchen that was permeated with the smell of the bread and fresh stew.

Her aunt asked if she wanted something to eat or drink. But all Joan wanted was to be alone.

Joan curled up in a small ball on the bed, shutting her eyes, trying to deny the images of the past day. Her aunt came back and made her drink some liquid that she claimed would settle her nerves.

Joan did not so much fall asleep as pass out. When she woke, uncertain of how much later it was, a new set of clothes was draped over the chair on the side of the bed. This bedroom had the advantage of an attached washroom and so she cleaned up, scrubbing the dust out of her hair and skin.

But the sight of her mother’s ashes burned into the floor would never be scrubbed away.

The lotus case containing her grandmother’s pendant remained around her neck. She thought about removing it but ultimately left it alone. Its weight kept her grounded to the world. Considering the destruction of her home, it might be all the legacy she had from her family.

The dress and coat she’d borrowed from the Duchess of Bennington were utterly ruined. Gregor would have to make good on that with his sister-in-law. It was fitting her one day of being a lady had ended in dust and destruction. Her borrowed clothes from her aunt suited her far better.

She stumbled out of the room to find that her cousins were already sitting shiva for her mother. Why not? There would be a memorial service but a funeral had already taken place. Her mother was already ashes, permanently a part of Krieger & Sims.

She spoke to no one, so out of respect for tradition, no one spoke to her. Her uncle steered her to the food and drink set out in the dining room.

She drank tea and nibbled at bread. She stared into the space in front of her. At one point, she held up her hand and looked at her fingers, to make certain she and this world were real. The bandage covering her wound from the sewing duel was clean and fresh. She peeked under it, to make certain the puncture was real. That would be proof.

There it was, a small, deep wound that had scabbed over. Bruises surrounded it. It all was true. She had not imagined the events.

Useless duel. She had won nothing and gained only her mother’s death.

She stared down at the floor, breathing in, breathing out. People came and went. Her aunt, uncle and cousins offered condolences and she gave them the appropriate responses.

The undercurrent of the chatter was that she was in shock and not up for talking. They were concerned she had temporarily lost her wits.

Quite true.

But she did hear what they said and processed it. The story being passed around was that the boiler at the business had exploded, killing her mother and Roylott, and nearly destroying her. No mention was made of magic. More lies, she thought, but let these stand. Her cousins would not believe the truth.

After some hours, she removed herself and went back to the bedroom. She heard a commotion from the outer room but had no energy to investigate. Who knew, perhaps Gregor had come back and caused a stir by arriving in full noble dress and manner. He certainly owed her explanations. He had guessed Roylott was a golem, else he would not have prepared the means to destroy it.

She snapped to her feet as the voice became clearer, and it was not the voice she had expected. She rushed out of the room, her skirts swishing about her waist, and stopped in her tracks, thinking she was hallucinating.

“Father?” she asked.

Alexander Krieger smiled, approached and hugged her. She dug her fingers into his shoulders to prove that he was not a specter or figment of her imagination. As they broke the hug, she saw that his eyes were clear.

“Yes, I’m cured,” he whispered to her. He turned to the family and asked for time alone with her. They cleared out of the room, and she sat on the couch.

She blinked. Her father seemed vital, younger and clearheaded. Yet his smile hadn’t lasted very long. Neither had hers. She had too many questions. And too much anger.

“You can’t blame yourself,” he said. “Promise me you won’t do that. All of this started with me.”

“There is blame enough for everyone. If I had followed your orders and married Sir August, my mother would be alive.” She closed her eyes and put her head in her hands. Roylott’s taunting of her mother echoed in her memory. Mistress, he’d said. Joan’s mother had created the golem. How, Joan didn’t know. And then what? Had she set Roylott to the task of corrupting her husband with promises of wealth?

“If Mother had not created the golem… If you had not signed the contract…” Yes, there was blame enough for all.

Her father would not meet her eyes, and they sat there for what seemed like a very long time, not looking at each other. Perhaps it was only minutes. It felt like a lifetime.

“It started with my greed, Joan.” He still did not look at her. “I was so eager to merge Sims with my family’s business that I convinced my father and your mother’s father what a good merger it would be. I forgot to convince your mother of the same.”

He hung his head, leaning forward, his elbows resting on his thighs. “She resented me from the start, much as you resented Milverton, and for the same reason. I wanted what she could bring me. I didn’t see her. After I realized my mistake, I thought I’d win her over, especially when I made certain she could still run her shop.”

“She didn’t want your permission to run it; she wanted to be free to run it herself,” Joan guessed. Oh yes, her mother had never liked answering to her father.

“We both wanted to be in charge. I felt it was my due. I also foolishly thought she’d let me take a stronger hand after you were born. After all, motherhood should take priority over any work.”

Her mother loved the business as much as her child. That, Joan understood well. And from his words, she doubted her father understood even now.

“The first real sign of her hatred of me was her unwillingness to have more children.” He sighed. “Are you certain you want to know all this?”

“I’ve lost my mother, my home and my work. I deserve to know why.”

“Yes.” Her father’s face flushed. “The business was going well but I was ambitious. When Roylott showed up with his offer, I turned him down at first. Then we lost several clients. I saw my life’s work disappearing. I wanted to leave a legacy. I said it was for you, but I was lying to myself.”

“And so you signed the contract.”

“And so I did. Roylott said he would only take small bits and pieces, that it would be as if I had a wasting sickness. I didn’t truly believe in what would happen, especially when there were no ill effects for some time.”

“And then there were,” Joan said flatly.

“And then there were.”

“When did you guess the truth about what my mother had done?”

“Not until recently. I found some of your mother’s hidden journals. She’d saved books from her mother’s family, books that detailed magic and spells, and some other documents that I didn’t recognize but seemed to be about mage ability.” He put his head in his hands. “All those years, she hid those from me. In one of my periods of lucidity, I confronted her. She admitted she’d created Roylott out of hate for me and had ordered him to offer the contract for my soul. And then Roylott ripped away a larger piece of my soul.”

“That’s when you went to Milverton to get me out of the house,” she guessed.

“Yes. And in response, Roylott started killing our clients.”

“Did mother order him to do that?”

“No, I don’t believe she’d have done anything to hurt Krieger & Sims. He began murdering clients because I tried to refuse giving him more of my soul. He still took pieces, of course, but he said if I was going to fight the contract, so would he. He wanted to ruin Krieger & Sims to spite me.”

They sat in silence for a moment. “You should have told me the truth, not shunted me off to Milverton. I needed the truth. I deserved the truth.”

And Mother might have listened to me. They could have stopped the golem together. Joan wanted to believe that.

“How is it that you’re recovered now, Father?”

“When the golem died, the contract he signed with you forced him to return my soul to me. It came as a great shock to my system, but once I regained my mind, I found myself in custody without knowing why. I owe your Lord Sherringford for my release. I came straight here, to you. I was so worried.”

“Your concern is far too late.” She shook her head. His nightmare was over. Hers…she had no idea. “Your greed destroyed everything.”

“Even you?” He turned to her. “Even you?” he asked again.

Her hands trembled. She pushed up the sleeves to show the bruises on her wrists, which had not completely faded. “If not destroyed, I’m surely scarred.” She closed her eyes. “I heard her screams as she died.” She looked away. “I hear them still.”

“Nothing I can say, no apology, will make this better,” he said.

“No.”

She looked at him. When he first walked in, he’d seemed younger and more vital. Now she saw age and fatigue etched in the wrinkles around his eyes and mouth, and felt guilt stab her in the gut.

“I wanted to save you even after I knew what you’d done.”

“You risked all to save me, knowing what I am. Yes, your Lord Sherringford told me. His words were even more scathing than yours on the matter. I didn’t deserve such devotion then and I don’t deserve forgiveness now.”

“I didn’t want you to die. I still don’t.”

“That is something, then.”

“Perhaps it is atonement you should seek,” she said. “Because saving you cost Mother her life.”

“I know. Yom Kippur will surely mean much to me this year.”

Her aunt, perhaps too curious to stay away, finally came into the room, later followed by her grown cousins. Joan found that she could eat again and that her mind felt clearer once she had a full meal in her stomach.

Her father kept her in sight the entire time but he made no more moves to converse with her. She was glad he was alive. The destruction of her business, her home and her mother had at least one small silver lining.

But her life was not the same.

Gregor had offered her truth. She’d craved it. It tasted like ashes.

When the day was finally over, she went back to the guest room. She went over the duel in her mind again, looking at her injured hand.

Gregor had known, she realized. Gregor had known Roylott was a golem. He’d had the paper containing the spell that created Roylott available to shove into the golem’s mouth. Joan knew it had to be the spell that had created him, for legend said nothing less would affect a golem. The burning spell had caused the Hebrew letters for truth, EMET, to show on the golem’s forehead, allowing Gregor to carve the E from Roylott’s forehead to change truth to MET. Death.

She’d wanted truth and gotten death.

More, if Gregor knew about the golem, he must have known that her mother had created the monster. He’d not told her that.

He had deceived her, just like everyone else.

She sat shiva with her cousins for the required seven days. Many extended relations and friends from Temple came to share happy stories of her mother, thinking they would comfort her.

At first, she didn’t want to hear any good about the woman who had betrayed her husband and trafficked in dark magic. But then she began to realize that these stories were the truth of her mother as much as the darker truths.

Evil and good, all mixed. As Sir August hadn’t been the brute she’d once feared, only a determined man who saw a way to get what he’d long wanted. He had, she guessed, intended to make her a full partner. What if she’d stayed that night at his home and married him the next day? Would her mother be alive?

If her father hadn’t let greed drive him. If her mother hadn’t let hatred and resentment drive her. If she hadn’t been so curious about Lady Grey’s murder.

If. If. If.

None of it mattered. Only reality did. She decided that Shiva was traditionally seven days to allow a new reality to settle in around them. By the last day, she appreciated it.

On that day, Sir August Milverton came to pay his respects. That sent her cousins into a quiet uproar as he’d not come inside when he dropped her off. Joan smiled at the whispers. A gentile, here, and one that was obviously rich and still a bit handsome, despite his age. Sir August was gracious with them, explaining he’d been one of her father’s long-term customers and wanted to pay his respects.

When he approached her, she greeted him without resentment. He was much subdued and his concern for her seemed sincere.

“I sensed your innate magic,” Sir August said. “I should have known it had come from someone in your family. I swear, I thought it came from your father. I knew nothing of your mother and the golem.” He shook his head. “But know, Joan, that I intended to give you a good life.”

“I know you did. And I’m sorry that breaking off our engagement will cause you harm.”

“I’ve spoken to the brother of our mutual friend, Sherringford. It may be my family’s situation can be improved this way. So you’ve done me some good in the end.”

“I’m glad,” she said.

She accepted his apology, as she’d not accepted her father’s. Sir August wasn’t the villain of this tale. He’d risked death to capture Roylott. He wanted to change.

As did her father, but that wound was too deep and too raw.

Milverton slipped her a note from their “mutual friend”. She opened it while alone in the guest bedroom.

I believe this is yours. And come as soon as you are able.

That is, if you wish to do so.

Gregor.

With the note was a sliver of mage coal. Perhaps he’d salvaged it from her home.

She tucked the note inside the pocket of her dress. Then she went out and sold the mage coal and bought materials to make a new dress. She knew where she had come from. Now, she must plan for the future. She needed a new dress, one that reflected her new reality.

She divided the rest of the money between her aunt, to thank her for the hospitality, and her father, whom she ordered to use it to pay severance wages to Emily and the other seamstresses now out of work.

Sewing her new clothes took a good two days but Joan was more than satisfied when she was finished.

Her original adventurer’s dress paled in comparison to this one. The bustier was solid, shaped brown leather, decorated with some of the symbols on the lotus flower from the case. She made the neck high, to protect her throat, and added ornate wrists cuffs of the same leather. Happily, she found boots to match.

When she checked her look in the mirror, she almost didn’t recognize herself. I look formidable, she thought.

Good.

Before losing her nerve, she called a cab and set off for Gregor’s office. He always seemed to anticipate her, so why would she send word? She marched down the alley as she had done only two short weeks ago. There were no workmen present this time, but otherwise all seemed unchanged.

She put a hand through the illusion of his door.

This time, it opened without her even knocking. She stepped inside.

Gregor was waiting in the hallway.

“You were expecting me,” she said.

“At every moment.”

Could he be as nervous as she was?

“You wear a formidable dress.”

“I know.”

“How is your hand?”

“My hand will be fine,” she said. “It will heal. Other things might not.”

He winced.

“Can you answer a question?” she asked.

“Only one?”

“One above all. Who are you? Are you the dispassionate detective of our first meeting? The workman? The noble lord? Or the man who saved my life? Where does the true Gregor reside?”

His sharp features softened. For once, he seemed baffled. “I do not know.” He emphasized each word, as if each was a separate sentence.

“I expected the worst from Sir August. I expected the best from you. Truth, for certain. Yet…” her voice faltered, “…you’re like everyone else.”

He bowed to her. “A hallway is no place for this. Come, sit with me, Joan. At least let me be a good host.”

He seated her in his library again. This time, he offered only water.

“So, did Roylott speak the truth when he accused me of winning the duel by cheating?”

“No. That was his vanity talking. You won the duel. That terrified him, for to give your father’s soul back meant his destruction.”

“He was always going to make everyone suffer if he lost,” Joan guessed.

“Yes, as strictly speaking, the brimstone contract included no clauses requiring him to spare your mother, me, Sir August or even you. He was only bound to leave your soul alone and to return your father’s soul. You should have read the contract more closely before signing.”

“So my duel was for nothing?”

“On the contrary, your victory released your father’s soul. And it kept Roylott busy until I could act. A frontal assault would never have worked, and he was on guard against my usual deception.”

“I thought there would be justice or honor at the end of all this. But I can find none.”

“Honor?” Gregor snapped to his feet and began pacing. “Honor is a fantasy, a tale told to children to deceive them into believing the world has rules and that there is fairness and order. Honor is a creation by those in power to keep control. Honor.” He stopped in front of her and scowled. “There is no honor in this case. It is all foul, save for you.”

She let his unexpected anger roll over her. When he was finished, he stared at her, challenging.

“That is a very pretty rant, sir. Are you admitting you yourself have no honor?”

“What do you mean?”

She stood to face him. “You knew about the golem and my mother, and you kept it from me.”

“I guessed. I didn’t have proof until I found you collapsed that night near the open safe.”

“You found something else in the safe. What was it?”

He walked away from her.

“Answer me, damn you!”

“I found another scroll, this time in German, in the safe. On it was written the spell that brought Roylott to life.”

“That’s the burning paper you shoved in Roylott’s mouth.”

“Yes. That needed to be done to break the golem spell.”

She sat back down, a realization dawning. “That wasn’t Roylott’s safe. That was my mother’s safe.”

“Indeed.” He turned. “I wanted to keep her involvement from you because I didn’t…I wanted…I thought to protect you.” He sat in his favorite chair. It looked the same as before she’d burned it.

“I replaced my chair with a duplicate,” he explained, answering an unspoken question again.

She nodded. “You thought if I knew my mother was behind it all, I wouldn’t be able to handle it.”

“No,” he snapped. “I knew you could face it with courage. I only wished to spare you pain.”

“It didn’t work out that way.”

“No,” he agreed.

She took a deep breath. “It is to your credit that you will hear all my grievances.”

“Have I answered all your questions?”

She snorted. “All my questions? I believe that would take months.”

“For you, Joan, I would spend years.”

She sucked in a deep breath, as if he’d struck her midsection and robbed her of air. “I don’t understand you, or any of this. I was a seamstress and a designer of clothes. Now I don’t know what I am.”

“You’re a woman who wants to control her own life, a mage sprung from a lineage that my father’s class doesn’t recognize and a woman who proved more a partner to me than client.”

Another direct hit. “I’m not sure I like your compliments, Gregor.”

“Simple truth.”

“Is that what we are to each other now? Partners?”

“My mother would say the Fates haven’t revealed that as yet.” He smiled. “She would like you.”

“She would like me? I find that difficult to believe.”

He put his hands into a steeple. “You were a seamstress from a merchant’s home. My mother was a girl on the streets in India. My father took her off those streets, cleaned her up and trained her mage gift.” He shook his head. “Had he stopped there or had he made her his mistress, the powers that be would not have batted an eye. Instead, he married her.”

“Did she want to marry him?”

Gregor cocked an eyebrow. “Do you know, I have never asked. It’s never good to ask questions when one fears the answer. But, you see, the Dowager Duchess of Bennington knows well what it feels like to be an outsider, especially when her son turned out to be such a disappointment.”

Why would he be… Oh. “Because you’re not a powerful mage.”

“The supposed saving grace of my parents’ marriage was bringing a powerful mage gift to the family. Instead, they received me. To call me a disappointment is putting it mildly.”

“That’s why you work here.”

“That’s why I have my own life’s work. What I do is break down mage gifts and spells, and try to make some sense of them. I knew brimstone was a chemical that could seal magical contracts, but now I know why, in that it’s a substance that responds well to magic.”

“Like clay.” She looked down, thinking of the golem.

“Certain types of clay, yes.” He leaned forward in his chair. “I took samples from Roylott’s, ah, form. It was clay but not from London. It’s from Eastern Europe, though I cannot narrow it down more than that. I suspect substances unique to that type of clay can hold the spell that animates a golem.”

“My mother just happened to have this clay around?”

“As I said, I can only tell you where it was from, not how it was brought here.”

“My father said my mother studied her mother and her grandmother’s journals, looking for spells, but that she also had more recent documents.”

“She’d been talking to another mage, most likely.”

“Someone else who’d trained their gift without the knowledge of your noble classes.”

“That is the logical answer.”

“Do you know who?”

“I wish I did. I intend to keep investigating to find out.”

Out there, somewhere, was someone who’d helped her mother steal her father’s soul. She closed her eyes. “Am I still in trouble with Moran or Scotland Yard?”

“Scotland Yard, no. In fact, you won Inspector Davis’s sympathy. He knows exactly what happened, though he’s been sworn to secrecy. Moran…is playing a long game and is backed by people who are as yet in the shadows. He’s our enemy.”

She shivered. “I don’t know what to do about that. Or with the rest of my life. I have no means of income. I thought about doing some hired sewing work, if I can borrow a sewing machine, but that is subsistence work.”

“You have plenty of means, Joan.” He walked to her and offered his hand. “Come, I will show you. And know I would have come to you in another day, if you’d not come here. I just wanted to give you a surprise.”

She offered her hand slowly, worried about her injury. His grip was strong but not crushing. As she rose, she felt his thumb caress her palm. Such a small action, and yet it had such a large effect on her.

He led her across the hallway to his laboratory. It was still overly warm, but today all the machines and gadgets were quiet. All the overhead lights were shining brightly.

He brought her to a far corner and pulled a heavy cloth from a tall lump.

The action revealed a tower of mage coal that came to her shoulders. She put her hand to her mouth and gasped. “Where did you get this?”

“The base is the mage coal from your breaking of the safe. The rest was created when you threw your wild energy at Roylott. I salvaged it in secret from the wreckage for you.”

“This must be worth a fortune.”

“Yes. You could keep a small amount for yourself and that would keep you warm for several years. The rest you could sell to buy a home and support yourself.” He replaced the cloth. “This is your future, Joan. The fortune and choices are yours.”

“I could even leave England,” she said. “Perhaps go to America where everyone is not so conscious of class.”

“You could even leave England,” he repeated. “Though America is not perfect.”

“Money buys choices.”

Gregor nodded.

“And if I stay in England?” She turned to him. “Are you part of that choice?”

“Do you want me to be?”

“Don’t. Do not play games with me, Gregor Sherringford. I’m tired of games and lies and half-truths. Speak now, else I’ll leave this place and be gone for good.”

She bit her tongue, appalled, not even sure what she was asking. She’d no right to expect any promises from him.

“The truth? You are now the fulcrum in a war, Joan.” He took her hand again. “I told you that as the idea that anyone can be a mage filters down—and it’s beginning to do so—the noble class will fight harder to keep its power. And the ones being left out will fight harder to gain power. Where Moran fits in, I’m not certain, but he’s been busy identifying mages operating ‘illegally’ for a long time. Scotland Yard thinks he’s doing it on their behalf, as does the Queen and the ruling party. But I have my doubts.”

“Anyone who knows who all the illegal mages are could make use of them,” she said.

“Just so.” He smiled. “You do make an excellent partner.”

“Is that what you’re offering? A partnership in your consulting detective business?”

He brought her hand to his lips and kissed it. “I would offer more.” His voice was low and deep. “But do you trust me enough for that?”

“Will you train my gift?”

“I will and may the gods pray that I’m up to that task.” He put her hand to his chest. “Marry me, Joan.”

“Oh, Gregor.” She curled her hand around his forearm. “Having seen what marriage did to my mother, I’m not eager for it.”

His eyes widened. She’d surprised him. Well, she’d surprised herself with that answer.

“Are you refusing my suit?”

She traced his jaw with her finger. So arrogant. So much reason for him to be so. But also so much hidden kindness. “Marriage is ownership, at least in the current form. I’m tired of being owned.”

Growing bolder, she stepped closer, putting their faces only inches apart. “On the other hand, I rather liked the sound of partner. I’ve never been a partner. I think I would enjoy that.”

He tilted his head. “Partner or wife, our lives would be entwined.”

“I’d like that very much. But only if you promise that you won’t keep things from me in the future, not even to spare me pain.”

He nodded. “Then there is one last thing you should know.”

“Oh no, Gregor, please don’t say you’re hiding something else.”

“Shush.” He put two fingers over her lips. “I’m trying to tell you, in my own poor way, wife or not, I love you.”

She pushed up on her feet and their lips met.

She moaned. Her fingers dug into his shoulders and she pressed her body into his. Even through the layers of clothing, she could feel his long, lean form.

He slid his hands around her waist. She sighed, the kiss deepened and when he broke their embrace, she was breathless.

“I can protect you better, my love, if we’re married,” he said.

“I’ve had damned enough of being bloody protected.” She pulled the pins from her hair. “I want to do this together, on my own terms.” She took his hands and entwined their fingers. “I love you too.”

He pulled her into his arms. “Perhaps we can come to a meeting of the minds on those terms of yours?”

She laughed. “That’s exactly what I’d hoped.”

Curse of the Brimstone Contract
Image copyright Corrina Lawson
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