Reading Time: 24 minutes
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.
Today, enter our consulting detective, Gregor Sherringford. Or, rather, Joan enters his domain. For those curious about my writing process, this was originally the first chapter that I wrote, as I started off with the idea of “the client comes to the detective with a problem.”
Joan marched down the alley, berating herself for being so foolish as to come here alone and without an appointment. But such was her need that she would pull at any thread, no matter how frayed.
That included barging in on this mysterious “consulting detective” who headquartered his business in an office off an alley in the worst part of London.
The bills for Krieger & Sims’s cancelled orders were due in thirty days. There was no time to observe all the niceties.
She stopped and studied a brick wall. Her eyes watered from the strong smell of the refuse pushed to the corners of the alley. Had the cook’s daughter not supplied directions on exactly how to locate the entrance to Gregor Sherringford’s office, Joan would have walked right past it.
The brick wall, she had been assured, was an illusion. True magic.
Bracing herself to touch something magical for the first time, Joan pushed at the outline of a bricked-up window.
At the touch of her gloved fingers, the brick wall shimmered and vanished, revealing a heavy wooden door with an iron knocker.
She blinked. How clever.
She pounded on the knocker, but, clumsy from nerves, she slammed her middle finger between the door and the knocker. She winced, less from the stab of pain and more at her carelessness and the smudge she had made on the expensive—and borrowed—leather gloves.
No one answered.
She knocked again, more insistent this time. Voices echoed down the alley from laborers gathered at the entrance. She caught the whispers. What was a well-dressed lady doing on this side of town beating on a brick wall?
I am on a fool’s errand, of course.
She adjusted her hairpiece out of nerves. One of the pins had come loose already. The tightness of the unfamiliar high collar tickled her throat. The laborers had mistaken her for a lady of class or, at least, an adventurer of some sort. Modeled after clothing she’d seen female explorers wearing in the newspapers, this was more breastplate armor than a proper lady’s dress. Joan could have worn her one good dress but if she was going to toss convention aside, why not do so fully?
Joan closed her hand around the heavy, heart-shaped silver pendant that hung around her neck, a gift from her late grandmother. At least the pendant, engraved with a Roman warrior woman’s face, went with the dress, even if gold would have matched the brown better. She must pass as someone of means. Sherringford had rescued a lady in his last case. Therefore, he took them seriously. She doubted he would take a Jewish seamstress as seriously, so this was her own version of an illusion. The pendant was her talisman of courage.
But ladies were also, apparently, a target. She glanced at the laborers again.
Joan pounded on the door. Answer, blast you!
The door swung open but there was no one there.
She stepped inside. The door slammed shut behind her with a whoosh of air. She started, turned and saw that the door had a hinge at the top that was rigged to a pulley. This was no magic. She had been let in by a machine.
That made sense, given the person on whom she was calling.
She walked down the short hallway to a room that threw a pocket of light onto the floor. Heat engulfed her, a certain sign this place was heated by mage coal. How did a detective living in this section of London afford such a luxury? Unsure and off-balance, she hesitated to step inside the room.
“For hell’s sake, you had better be the devil himself to interrupt my work!” a voice boomed.
“I am sorry,” Joan snapped as she walked into the room. “I seem to have quite forgotten to wear my horns.”
She bit her tongue. All her prepared speeches, all her rehearsed pleas for help, and this was how she’d begun? Truly, her nerves were at breakpoint. A man stared rudely at her, though she supposed he had cause. Still, she could not help but stare back. She had anticipated an eccentric. She had not expected him to be so pleasing to the eye. There were faint lines around his mouth, his brown hair was thick and full, and his skin was an olive-brown shade that set off his dark eyes nicely. His clean-shaven face revealed a jaw that hinted at a strong character. Gregor Sherringford seemed a champion, indeed.
He scowled at her. Would this paragon throw her out?
She glanced down at his clothes, which were more in keeping with what she’d been told to expect of him by the cook and her daughter. A scientist as well as a detective, they had said. He wore a stained leather apron, his sleeves were rolled up to the elbow and something yellow had discolored the tips of the fingers on one hand.
If he was a detective, truly, then perhaps he would be curious enough to let her speak her piece.
“So, you are not the devil, though you may be as much trouble,” Sherringford finally said.
As much trouble as you, she wanted to say, but this time held her tongue. “Good morning, Mr. Sherringford. I do apologize for my intrusion.” He must listen to her. “My name is Joan Krieger. I wish to contract for your services as an investigator.” She offered her hand like a man would do when conducting a business arrangement.
He hesitated a second and then clasped her hand and shook it. He had a firm grip but his intent stare discomfited her. She had the distinct impression he could see all the way through her. Yet, to her, he seemed to contain endless depths of mystery. She’d met many men through her work but none like this one, who stirred something so deep inside her.
“How did you hear of me and how did you find me?” He scowled again.
“A mutual acquaintance told me of you and your office.”
“That would be indiscreet to reveal, sir.” The cook’s daughter had told her how to find this place but Joan had no idea how Sherringford would react to that information.
“And is it discreet to interrupt a man in the middle of his work?” He stated the question in a whisper, almost as if he’d directed it at himself, so she did not answer.
“Your presence here raises many questions,” he added in a normal tone.
“Yes, I have many questions, sir. My hope is that you will provide the answers.” She tilted her chin up.
“I hardly qualify as ‘sir’, any more than you are a lady, Miss Krieger, despite your efforts to appear so.”
She flushed. “I wished only to appear as someone who needs your skills and has the means to pay for them.”
Sherringford snorted. Truly, that was a nice change from his scowling. She wondered what he’d look like when he smiled. Charming, she guessed, and wondered if anyone had been lucky enough to be charmed by him. Probably not, as his biting tongue likely drove them away.
“Very well. Stay if you can keep quiet while I finish the work you’ve interrupted. Refrain from any complaints. I well know this isn’t fit for a lady’s sight. But perhaps, not being a lady, you will not care about that.”
She felt her face grow even warmer. Now he sneered at her.
“Your room seems not only unfit for a lady but for anyone. The temperature is ungodly warm, Mr. Sherringford.”
Oh, dear Lord, another snap of her suddenly waspish tongue. She had antagonized him again.
“Ungodly? Some say that my work and I both fit that description.”
“I’d call you and your work fascinating.”
Unexpectedly, he smiled. She blinked. Oh yes, his smile definitely was charming.
“Now, be quiet while I finish,” he said.
Mortified, she vowed to not say another word. She took in Sherringford’s workshop. The rectangular room was filled with tables shoved against all four walls, with yet another table in the center. Metal pipes, wheels, gears and other objects she could not identify covered the tables. Beakers with tubes going in and out were set up in one corner, and unlit burners nestled underneath.
Next to the beaker contraption, a wooden box with a blinking light made whirring sounds. She had never seen anything like it. It was possible these contraptions were part of some magical ritual, but it seemed more likely they were merely machinery, like the door. The cook’s daughter had said that Sherringford was familiar with mages, not that he was one. The door illusion argued otherwise, but perhaps that was commissioned work. She had heard mages could be hired, if one had enough money and knew the right people.
Overhead, pipes ran along the ceiling. Some were connected to the equipment on the tables, though she thought perhaps their valves were closed. It was hard to tell from where she was standing.
The room smelled vaguely of rotten eggs and fog. At least it was well lit. A large circular apparatus hung from the ceiling. She hesitated to call it a chandelier, as it looked so strange with all those pipes and gears whirling, but it served the same function.
“You seem struck dumb, Miss Krieger,” Sherringford said. “Such an interesting change from when you arrived.”
“It was you who asked me to remain silent.” Perhaps her arrival had discomfited him too. It was nice to think so. She blinked. “This is a most unusual room. Wherever do you sleep, Mr. Sherringford?”
She regretted the question as soon as she asked. That was most impolite and hardly better than sniping at the man.
“As it happens, there is a small room in the basement that serves my needs.”
She nodded. At least he did not seem to have taken serious offense.
He waved his hand at her. “I must finish now.”
He bent to a device on the center table. On one side of the thing, a stylus was set over a handwritten note. A second stylus, twin to the first, perched over a blank piece of paper.
Sherringford muttered to himself and pushed a lever. The pair of styluses burst into sudden movement. He smiled thinly, watching his contraption work.
The stylus over the blank paper fell out of the brace holding it upright.
Joan clearly heard Sherringford curse, which she ignored, as a polite person should. She tried to reconcile Lady Sarah’s protector, someone who had stood up to a lord, with this man puttering around his gadgets and gears. The two versions seemed like ill-cut pieces of clothing stitched together.
He seemed to be copying something with his contraption, or at least trying to do so. She had adapted something similar for the shop so the work of the seamstresses would be uniform. The question was why he needed to do this. Was it part of some other investigation?
Sherringford picked up a small circular clasp with a tiny gear at one end and slid it down the stylus.
This clasp was too big, and the stylus fell off again. He cursed once more. Well, it sounded like a curse, though it was in a language unfamiliar to her. Perhaps one of the Indian dialects? His skin tone was darker than that of most Londoners. Being Indian might explain why he lived in this section of London, even if he did perform services for the nobility.
But his ancestry was of no concern to her. All that mattered was whether he could help. And it seemed he could not help until he finished this, but she did not have time to wait all day. Someone would notice her absence.
His fingertips tapped the table, obviously looking for a smaller clasp to fit the stylus better. He would never find anything in that mess. She looked down. Small objects could easily fall off tables, and circular ones tended to roll. She knelt, no easy feat in her stiff dress. She saw a glint of brass almost hidden behind the table leg.
“There.” She pointed.
“There what?” he snapped. But he followed where she had pointed. He saw the gleam, knelt and carefully lifted the metal piece. It was a clasp, just as she had guessed. And it turned out to be the one he was looking for.
After he had placed the newfound piece securely around the stylus, Sherringford turned to her.
“Humphf,” he said, as if that meant something.
“Humphf,” she answered back.
He raised an eyebrow. “If you will turn around, you will see there is a door. It leads to a room where we can discuss your problem. Wait and I will be with you in a moment.”
She wanted to protest that she would rather watch him finish his fascinating project, but she had been forward enough already. She had obtained her first objective. He was going to hear her out.
She turned toward the corner of the room where he had pointed. What she had taken as part of the wall was actually a hidden door. Unlike the real illusion that concealed the outside door, this one was simply a clever design, with the doorknob recessed and hidden if one did not look carefully.
Was Sherringford a mage of some sort? She had never met a wielder of magic, at least not knowingly. She had no idea what one would be like. Of course, she had never met a consulting detective before either. In for a penny, in for a pound, as the saying went.
Joan pushed the door open.
This room was as different from the workshop as a lordly manor was to the debtor’s prison.
Bookshelves covered the walls, their dark color matched by the huge throw rug on the floor that was decorated with swirling Oriental-style designs against a black background. In the center sat a comfortable sitting couch with matching chairs on either side.
Gregor Sherringford was not as indifferent to his surroundings as he had first appeared. She could certainly picture him here, curled up with a book, his dark hair falling in front of his eyes. A pleasing image.
She heard the door close behind her. She turned, her face full of color. She had no reason to be embarrassed, but she was.
“Why did you not tell me to wait here at the beginning, sir?” she asked.
“It is interesting to see how people react to the workroom. If they are appalled or otherwise react badly, then they’re not people worthy of my time.” He hung his leather apron on a coatrack and rolled down his sleeves. “And I was in the middle of an experiment.”
“I do not much like trusting my future to someone who tests me like that.”
“And I don’t like being interrupted by someone ill-mannered enough to snap at me. If you wish to leave, you know where the door is located.”
She reluctantly shook her head and kept a firm grip on her tongue. If she could keep her temper with her father, she could keep it now. “What I wish is to have had no need to come to you, sir, but that is sadly not the case.”
“I’m clearly your choice of last resort. That would not be unusual among my clients.” He smiled thinly, as he had a moment ago in his workroom. “Please, stop glaring at me, Miss Krieger, and have a seat. We will both be more comfortable. Also, no more calling me sir. Mr. Sherringford will do.”
“I was not…” She cleared her throat. She had not been glaring. She had been studying him. In this setting, he belonged. The softer light burnished his hair and skin, as some silks glowed in certain candlelight. Now, she could well imagine him a gallant romantic hero as well as a champion. “I suppose I was glaring. My apologies. I have never done anything like this before. It has me off-balance.” She clutched her pendant tight as she sat down. “How much do you charge, sir?”
“That depends,” he said.
“On how much I can afford to pay?” she asked.
He drew his eyebrows together. She had angered him somehow. Again.
“It depends on your problem. I have valuable work, as you saw. I dislike interrupting it.”
“So it must be a problem that can be solved quickly?” Trying to sort what he meant was like trying to get a proper measurement off a squirming customer.
“On the contrary, only a complicated problem would be worth setting aside my other matters. As to the fee, if it presents a proper challenge, I will waive it.”
“Excuse me? Usually, more work means a higher fee, not a lower one.”
“So I have been told. But those are my terms.” He looked at her and opened his palm, clearly signaling the next move was hers. “You definitely seem like a person who might have a worthy case. Thus my interest in hearing you out.”
She had an unsettling feeling that he was as interested in her and why she had come to him for help as he was in the problem itself. To him, she might be like one of his experiments, something to be examined and studied. Did he have feelings underneath his cool demeanor?
“I am not certain if my problem is complicated. My mother believes I could be imagining it. Or even losing my mind. Yet there is still a woman dead, and I want to know how she died.”
He held up a hand. “Slowly, Miss Krieger. We’ll get to the dead woman in a moment. Let us go back to that harsh comment from your mother. What led to her saying that?”
“Because even sometimes I believe I am losing my mind. The events seem impossible.” Time to get the matter out on the table. “Have you heard of Lady Grey’s death?”
“Something about an accident with a steam carriage?” he asked.
“I saw her accident clearly, Mr. Sherringford. She was wearing a scarf I had designed and that scarf wrapped itself around the back wheel as if it had a life of its own. It seemed no accident to me.”
Sherringford abandoned his languid pose and sat up straight. “Is that so?”
“I will swear to what I witnessed. And other witnesses saw the same.”
“But not your mother?”
“The explanation could be as simple as a sudden rush of air from the steam carriage,” he said.
“Air that caused the scarf to wrap tight around a wheel? I think not.”
“And thus your mother calls your mental state into question.”
She nodded curtly.
He relaxed back in the chair. “Miss Krieger, this is about the prettiest problem someone has brought to me in an age. I must hear the full story. Pray elaborate.”
Joan cleared her throat. That sounded like a compliment. “Where do I start? What do you need to know?”
“Start with the beginning. Leave nothing out. Let me decide what’s important.” He closed his eyes, put his fingers in a steeple and sat back in his chair. Yes, she was right. He belonged in this room as much as in the laboratory.
“The beginning.” She took a deep breath. “My family runs a well-known tailor and seamstress shop in West London, as you must have guessed.”
“Krieger & Sims, yes. You are a unique shop. It is unusual to find ladies’ and gentlemen’s attire under the same roof.”
“Yes, it is.” He was familiar with the business. Good. But if he wanted the beginning, she would go back to that. Going over the familiar would give her time to gather her scattered wits. “My grandfather, Mr. Hans Sims, began the tailor shop, while my grandmother, Rebecca, ran the section for women’s clothing. When their daughter, my mother, married my father, she took over managing the seamstress shop, though my father is in charge of the overall business and has the final say in matters, of course. Unfortunately, for the past decade, my father’s mind has not worked as it should.”
“And this is part of why your own mother questions your sanity?”
“Yes,” she said through gritted teeth.
“Elaborate on your father’s condition,” Sherringford ordered.
“Is that necessary? I haven’t come for a solution to my father’s difficulties.”
“I need to know all I can about you and your surroundings. All information is important.”
She set her jaw. “My father’s wits often fail, and he becomes unaware of his surroundings. He also can fall into fits. These begin with verbal threats, can move to physical violence, and generally end in a trance state that can last anywhere from minutes to hours. Doctors have not been able to help us.” She stared down at the carpet, waiting for Sherringford’s response.
“Go on,” he said in a quiet voice.
She stayed focused on the carpet. “My mother and our business manager, Samuel Roylott, handle our assistant tailors, our customers and the bookkeeping. Mr. Roylott, of course, deals directly with the male customers. I hire the seamstresses, watch over their work and contribute to designs.”
“Your arrangement clearly works,” he said. “You make very sturdy overcoats. I had one. It took much longer to rip in the seams than my previous coat.”
“It should not have ripped in the seams at all!”
“Well, it might have had something to do with my using it to dangle off a roof.”
She leaned forward in her chair. “When did you dangle from a rooftop?”
“Not important.” He waved away the digression. “But this unfortunate circumstance with your father has been an ongoing problem, and you have handled it until now. But somehow Lady Grey’s death has made it worse?”
“Lady Grey’s death was just the latest and most severe blow. We began to have customer issues about three months ago,” she said. “They led to financial difficulties, which led to—”
“Stop,” he said. “Tell me about the customer issues.”
“They have no relevance to Lady Grey’s death.”
“Miss Krieger, you have gone to considerable effort to come to me.” He tapped the edge of his armchair. “I decide what is relevant and what is not.”
She inclined her head, a tacit admission that he was correct. “It was bad luck. One of our most important customers, the Earl of Southwick’s heir, hanged himself with a cravat that we had made as part of his eveningwear.” She sighed and wished those seams had ripped like Sherringford’s coat. “The earl cut off his business with us because of the association with his son’s death. We had already ordered and paid for materials for a number of items for his household. Then his friends canceled orders as well. We took a considerable loss.”
“I expect so. And you thought Lady Grey’s patronage could make up for this loss?”
“Yes,” Joan answered. “During a regular fitting, she saw one of my personal sketches. I have some, um, unusual ideas about what women should wear. Some call them indecent. I call them practical. Lady Grey liked them and asked me to make her driving clothes.”
He arched an eyebrow. “Something like what you are wearing?”
“No, this design was inspired by those who travel by dirigibles. Lady Grey’s driving attire was very different and was made to move, not protect.”
“Describe it,” he ordered.
She did, in detail, down to Lady Grey’s bloomers. He had said not to leave out anything.
“Those are radical designs indeed, Miss Krieger. And Lady Grey was wearing them when she died. Unfortunate.”
“And if she had lived, she would have told all her rich and open-minded friends about the designs, thus solving your financial difficulties.”
“And now that is out of the question.”
“May I point out that if I prove Lady Grey’s death was murder, not an accident, and murder via a scarf that you made, Miss Krieger, that’s not going to improve your financial situation. It would possibly make it worse.”
“I want the truth, Mr. Sherringford. And I want justice for Lady Grey. It will not bring her back, but she deserves that, at least. If our business cannot be saved, well, that must be faced. But I will not sit around and wonder why. I must know.”
“And there is nothing else causing you difficulty?”
She thought of Milverton’s offer of marriage. “Nothing that pertains to Lady Grey. My other problem is a private matter.”
“Nothing is private now that you have come to me.” He held out his hand and opened his palm. “If you want answers, there can be no secrets here.”
“Will those secrets leave this room?”
“Not without your consent.”
This was the third time he had prodded her to provide more personal information. She supposed trusting him was as irrational as the instant dislike she had had for Colonel Moran in that short encounter after Lady Grey’s death. But trust Sherringford, she did.
“My father has arranged a marriage for me with Sir August Milverton.”
“You are just full of the most interesting revelations, Miss Krieger,” he said blandly. “How did that come about?”
Sarcasm or compliment? Joan decided that Sherringford’s remarks were both. “Sir August Milverton has been a customer for many years and has occasionally invested money so that we can expand the business. My father trusts him, as does Mr. Roylott. And this is a way to ensure my future.”
“Your father, who has insane fits, trusts Sir August Milverton. I cannot imagine why that would give you pause,” Sherringford said, definitely being sarcastic now. “He’s above your station, not of your faith and at least two decades older.”
“Just what I said.” A nice summary of her own misgivings, though Sherringford’s “above your station” rankled. “You know the man?”
“Only by reputation, which is quite mixed. So he wants you as his long-awaited wife? Well, that is fascinating.”
“I thought so,” she said, echoing his bland voice.
Sherringford smiled thinly. “And what does Sir August Milverton say about the reasons for his offer?”
“According to my father, he says he cares deeply for me.” She blushed.
“And you think he’s not infatuated with you? That’s not so outside the realm of possibility, Miss Krieger. You are an arresting creature, you know.”
What did he mean by that? She cleared her throat. “I know my limits, Mr. Sherringford. I’m not displeasing to the eye, but neither am I beautiful enough to make Sir August behave so rashly. I am no Helen of Troy, no prize. I’m not worth the difficulties inherent in marrying so far out of his class.”
“I would not be so sure. Your assets may be hidden among coal but there is a diamond there.”
“What does that mean?”
Sherringford made another noise at the back of his throat and waved his hand at her again. “Let’s just say you certainly are not without quantifiable assets, Miss Joan Krieger. Still, your point is that you feel Milverton has hidden motives?”
“He must.” She closed her hand around the pendant again. “When I expressed my fears to my mother, she said while she preferred me to marry a man of our faith, she believed this could be a good situation. I would always have a home, and my children would have rank and education. She implied I was simply concerned about the expectations of the marriage bed.” Joan stared at the floor. “She said that was a natural worry, especially given Milverton’s age, but it would be fine.”
“Was your mother correct? Is that your main objection?”
Not if it were you I was marrying. The thought blurted into her head unbidden. Thank God she had not said it out loud. She felt her whole face grow warm. No doubt she was blushing furiously now. “With Sir August, yes, I am most worried about it.”
“Be precise in why you believe that. That you are afraid of him, I can deduce. But a woman who marched into my workshop and demanded help would not be afraid to face a marriage bed under any normal circumstances.”
For the first time, Joan was convinced Sherringford was not only listening but truly interested in her answer. Perhaps that was why she felt such a sudden attraction to him. He paid attention.
“My contact with Sir August has been minimal over the years. Men aren’t allowed into the women’s side of the business. We have spoken briefly a few times. In those moments, he quite literally made my skin crawl, Mr. Sherringford. He looks at me and I feel like an object. He speaks to me not as you are doing, but merely as a master to his pet.” She shook her head. “There’s something vile about his motives. I feel it. I know it.”
“You are saying you sense some underlying menace in him?” Sherringford asked.
She nodded stiffly, preparing to be mocked. “That’s not exactly the way I would have said it but, yes, that is accurate.”
“Just as you are convinced the scarf decided to murder Lady Grey.”
“I cannot speak for the scarf’s motives,” she snapped.
He snorted. “True enough. But the two feelings are related. You wouldn’t be the first person with a touch of the mage gift that allows them to sense danger. In your case, either in the form of a scarf that contains some sort of spell or a suitor with potentially dangerous motives.”
Mage gift? A spell? “Magic, sir? You say I have magic? You’ve lost me.” She slumped back in the chair and felt all the blood drain from her face. A mage gift? Never had she considered that.
“It’s not so impossible.” He smiled, not his thin smile but a true one.
Oh dear, she thought. He was not just charming when he chose to be, he was downright arresting.
“No, I didn’t read your mind. Your thoughts are plain on your face. Miss Krieger, the great lords like to think they are the only possessors of magical power.”
She found her tongue again. “And that is incorrect?”
“Say ‘incomplete’ and you would be more accurate. Often feelings like the one you cited about Milverton are due to unconscious talent. In other words, trust your instincts. You were right to come to me about all this.”
“Thank you. You cannot know how much that means to me.”
“Then I will endeavor to be worthy of your trust instead.”
She cleared her throat. “Mr. Sherringford, my head whirls. I must hear more about this ‘unconscious’ talent of mine.”
“Later.” Sherringford flicked his fingers. “We must stick to the problem at hand. One task at a time.”
If she could have gathered her scattered thoughts, she would have objected. But her brain did not seem to be fully functioning yet.
“First, I need a full picture of your household’s feelings on the marriage. Your father pushed for it, your mother will accept it. What does your business manager believe?”
“Since Sir August has pledged to help the business financially once we are married, I expected Mr. Roylott to have no qualms about it. My marriage would save his position. But he objects to the match.”
“Why? Is Mr. Roylott protective of you? A surrogate father of sorts?”
She nodded. “He’s protective of our family and has been very careful to hide my father’s illness, lest scandal erupt. Mr. Roylott works so hard and diligently. He has been nothing but concerned for our situation all this time.”
“Is he Jewish?”
“His mother was, and she married outside our faith and regretted it. He has told me that a few times. I believe that is why he objects to Sir August as my suitor.” Joan frowned.
“I see.” Sherringford nodded and went silent.
She took a deep breath, waiting for his verdict. She was almost afraid to ask more about her mage talent. If it was unconscious and she didn’t have deliberate access to it, what good was it?
She would take good old-fashioned common sense over some unseen and unusable force. She was no mage. That was laughable. What would she do if someone challenged her to provide a demonstration of her power? Offer to sew magic?
Nervous while Sherringford contemplated God knew what in silence, she scratched her hand where the edges of the gloves met her skin. It was strange that the gloves would irritate her wrists. It could not be the material. It was a soft cotton-and-wool blend.
Sherringford bolted out of his chair and grabbed her hand, peeling off her glove before she could object.
More than anything he had done so far, that shocked her. So much so that she was silent at the intrusion.
He traced the bruises around her wrist, careful not to press on them. “Your father did this?”
She clenched her jaw and did not answer. That, she had never intended to reveal about her father’s fits. It was a private family matter.
“Do not concern yourself with the bruises. They matter little to me.”
“They matter a great deal to me.”
Sherringford knelt next to her chair. He peered at her face. He might be viewing her with pity. He could be simply studying her. She could not discern which it was. It was most unnerving and yet somehow enticing. He also kept hold of her hand, equally unnerving.
His touch sent soft tingles up her arm.
Sherringford straightened and released her hand. He kept her glove clutched in his fist.
Oh, come back. She drew her hand close to her chest, covering the bruises on her wrist. “Why did you take my glove?”
“This is a very deep problem. It has many angles, some of which I suspect you are not aware of as yet.”
“That’s why I came to you. And you didn’t answer my question.”
“Coming to me was quite the most intelligent thing you could have done. That may have staved off disaster, not only for you but for many others.” He paced the room in silence, holding her glove tight in his fist. Lost in his own world, she thought, as if he’d momentarily forgotten her existence.
“What’s going on, sir?” she asked.
He stopped pacing. “This is a knot that is nearly Gordian in nature. I cannot see clear to the solution yet, save that you and your family are in serious danger.”
“I knew that already,” she snapped.
“So you did and so you came to me. But now you have someone who agrees with you and will work to save you from the danger.”
Sherringford knelt and grasped her hand again.
“Sir?” She cleared her throat. Did he want her to submit to something indecent as part of his fee? “You caught me off-balance previously, but what you are doing now is a liberty that I have not granted.” Yet.
But if he requested, she just might. This was the most stimulating conversation she had had in ages and certainly the most stirred she had ever felt by anyone’s touch.
“Give me just one moment. This is necessary.” He brought her hands closer to his face. His warm breath tickled over her skin. His touch was light but firm. He slipped her other glove off, barely brushing her skin with his fingertips. She could not help but notice his long and delicate fingers.
“You work with your hands.” He lightly tapped her calluses. “You hardly ever wear gloves.”
Her tongue felt heavy in her mouth. “Of course I work,” she finally said, though her voice trembled.
He fingered the seams of her gloves. “Where did you get these? They are most…interesting.”
He had only touched her hands to examine the gloves? How disappointing. “I made the dress but hadn’t had time to sew matching gloves. These are a pair I made for a client.”
“But the gloves were in the possession of your business for some time?” he asked.
“Not in my personal possession but at the shop, yes, for about a week.”
“I must keep these gloves,” he said.
“No, you cannot, I—”
“It is of the utmost importance. Lives are at stake, not just yours. Think of the late Lady Grey and how she deserves justice.”
“The gloves are for one of our richest customers. There will be difficulties if they are lost. We cannot afford to lose this order. Our creditors will be at our door soon as it is.”
“What you cannot afford is to throw away my help.” He straightened. He made no move to return the gloves and kept them clutched in his hand. “I must work.” He stared at her, intent again. “You have trusted me with all this, Miss Krieger, and you were right to do so.”
“I hope so,” she muttered.
The man was unnerving, intelligent, arrogant and intense. And attractive. Very attractive.
“I’m touched at your faith in me.” He smiled, this time turning the full force of his personality on her. For the first time, his remote exterior completely disappeared, leaving her with a handsome champion. She suspected if he asked her anything short of murder, she might agree.
“I have never turned away a Jewish seamstress, especially one who could see through my doorway illusion.” He grinned, brought the gloves up to his nose and sniffed. “Will you continue to trust me?”
“Do I have a choice?” She smiled back.
He snorted. “No.”
“Well then.” She shrugged. She’d replace the gloves. Somehow.
“Outstanding.” He held up a finger. “One last thing, it is important that no one knows you have come to see me.”
“I told no one I was coming here.”
“Keep it that way. Discretion may keep you from harm.”
She nodded and stood. He raised her bare hand to his mouth and kissed the top of it. Her breath fluttered and, she suspected, so did her heart. “There’s one last thing I would have from you, Mr. Sherringford.”
“Which is?” He raised an eyebrow.
“You said I had magical talent. That begs explanation.” She looked him in the eye, having finally found her nerve.
He reached out and lifted her heart-shaped pendant from where it was hanging over her breast. She swallowed hard and found it difficult to breathe.
“This pendant was a gift from a family member?”
“My grandmother.” He certainly liked to touch the things she was wearing.
He let go of the pendant and stepped back. “It’s a magical focus, Miss Krieger. It’s designed to protect the wearer and focus their magical energy to keep them safe. If it is a family heirloom, you aren’t the first in your family to have this ability. The more magical energy an owner possesses, the better it works.”
Oh. “And how much do I possess?”
“Quite a lot. No doubt that is why the ruffians in my neighborhood left you alone. The pendant made their idea of your assault most unpleasant.”
Quite a lot? “Magic kept me safe? How?”
“The focus does exactly what it was designed to do: protect the wearer even if the mage talent isn’t wielded deliberately. Unless you have training, it’s impossible to do more than that with it. Alas, it is illegal to train those not of the noble classes. It is said the working men cannot be trusted with power.”
There was an edge to that statement. “You don’t agree with that.”
“I have seen too many noblemen misuse their power to believe that wrongdoing is solely limited to the rest of us.”
“Will you train me?”
Unexpectedly, he threw back his head and laughed. “I do believe it would be incredibly stimulating to train you, Miss Krieger, as well as exceedingly dangerous. But today is not the day. I must start to work on your problem, you must get back before being missed, and, in any case, training can take years.”
“Training must start sometime.” Yes, she had to get back. She no longer cared about that. I have a mage gift.
“As I said, training is dangerous, and even a very basic lesson would take more time than you have today. Keep wearing that pendant, however. All signs point to a mage being involved, given how Lady Grey was killed. The pendant is your first line of defense.”
“Mr. Sherringford, I arrived on your door for help to solve a problem and, instead, all I have is more questions.”
“I am told I have that effect,” he said. “Off you go.” He waved a hand at her dismissively. “Let me work.”
“Just because I asked for help does not mean I will be content to sit back and do nothing but await your report. I’m not made for idleness.”
He tilted his head and stared at her. She met his gaze, unflinching. It was quite, well, fun to challenge him.
“All right,” he finally said. “Spend some time with Sir August Milverton. See if you can discern anything more about him other than his desire to marry you. His part in this could be larger.”
“What should I look for in him?”
“Sniff around for his motivations in all this. Gather as much information as you can. Your instincts are good. Follow them.”
She set her jaw and nodded. Spending time with Sir August was the last thing she wanted. But if it solved the mystery, she would.
“You’re a brave woman, Joan Krieger,” he said. “Just pray that the knowledge to solve this conundrum does not cause more trouble than you already have at your door.”
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