by Lise MacTague
At the height of Britain’s Industrial Revolution, steam power and magic join forces to create wonders the world has never seen. But those wonders have a dark side—one that will soon force a reckoning few could have anticipated.
Half-demon Briar is content with her structured life as an archivist, a far cry from the chaos of her background and upbringing. Briar’s simple and predictable existence is rocked when she discovers something sinister powers one of the grand, new inventions of her era.
Isabella Castel, the only daughter of Viscount Sherard, is far from the brainless socialite she pretends to be. Isabella is everything Briar is not: passionate, creative and impulsive, but with secrets to rival even Briar’s own. Two more unlikely partners should not exist, yet if the women cannot find a way to work together, they will lose far more than their reputations.
Can a half-demon and a debutante work past their secrets before all hell breaks loose?
Lex’s Reviews - I’m a steampunk story fan and this just fit that bill perfectly. This was filled with great inventions, dirigibles and annoying women’s clothing. I also enjoyed how MacTague seamlessly joined the magic and paranormal aspects perfectly together. I know I’m being pretty vague here but I don’t want to give any spoilers away. I loved the two main characters. Both women have the side that society sees, than they have their big secrets. The characters had dimension which I really appreciated. I easily connected with them and cared about what was going to happen to them. Besides the great imagination MacTague has for the main storyline, I was impressed with the romance. A lot of times stories that involve saving the world, authors don’t spend as much time developing their characters feelings. These characters definitely had chemistry together. If you are a steampunk or paranormal fan definitely grab this one. I don’t think you will be disappointed.
“Here it is, Miss Riley. Have you ever seen anything so beautiful in all your life?” Charles Yorke, Eighth Earl of Hardwicke, gestured expansively at the horseless carriage that gleamed under the coach house’s electric lights.
From her vantage point by the door, Briar had to agree: it was certainly impressive. She cast her eyes over its curving lines. As with the other horseless carriages currently on the market, it differed very little in design from a conventional carriage. The driver’s seat was forward and up from the passenger compartment, which was larger than that in the earl’s other horseless carriage. The motor housing seemed much smaller than that of his older model, and there was no seat at the back for the fireman who had been needed to keep the boiler stoked on it. That was some progress. The lone horse still in residence in the coach house looked lazily over its shoulder, then blew out a long breath as if in disapproval before bending its head back to its evening basket of oats.
“It’s certainly shiny.”
“More than that,” Hardwicke said. “It improves upon many of the deficiencies of previous models. The engine isn’t steam fed, for example. Instead of stoking it with coal, the boiler takes a cylinder.” He nodded. “So much cleaner than coal, and it lasts much longer as well.”
Briar had no particular desire to know so much about the mechanics of this nor any other horseless carriage, but her employer was excited. It behooved her to at least pretend to be interested. She stepped into the coach house and stopped in her tracks.
The carriage crouched in the gloomy corner, drinking in the bright lights from above and seeping shadows across the floor. It looked as though it stared at her and awaited her approach. Its intentions were not good, and she knew it.
You’re mad, Briar said to herself. The smile with which she favored the earl was brittle. She tried to cover her unease by settling the edges of her skirts just so. It’s a horseless, the earl’s newest toy. It certainly doesn’t want to hurt you. How could it? It’s a carriage! When she put it in such terms, her trepidation sounded foolish. Taking strength in the absurdity of the situation, she took a couple of steps closer to the carriage. It won’t hurt you. It’s an inanimate object. The mantra helped, and eventually she stood next to one of the tall wheels at the back. She reached a hand out to touch it, simply to prove to herself that she could. With some consternation, she realized her hand was trembling. Whatever was amiss, it seemed to be getting worse.
“Are you well, Miss Riley?” The earl’s voice was solicitous, though somewhat anxious. He had plans for Briar that evening, hence her evening gown and reticule. Those plans required an entrance. He was eager to show off his latest technological acquisition to the others of his set, but since he couldn’t stomach yet another ball, she was going in his place.
“I am merely overcome by this…handsome contraption.” She wouldn’t say “damnable,” not in his company.
The earl was willing to accept her explanation and didn’t press her further on it. One simply didn’t press a lady. Fortunately, his gentlemanly sensibilities were too deeply ingrained to dig more deeply into her discomfort. By the same token, Briar was loath to reject his offer of the new carriage as conveyance to the ball. It was exceedingly generous, and her fear was irrational and uncalled for. She knew it. However that knowledge did not diminish it in any way.
The chauffeur stood next to the carriage’s open door. Resplendent in the earl’s household colors of black and green, he held his hand out toward her. One eyebrow crooked up a fraction of an inch, the only expression of concern he would allow himself.
Briar gave him a slow nod. A smile would not come, not this close to the hated contraption. It wanted her. The feeling crawled up her spine until she felt the hairs on the back of her neck lift and her scalp prickled with the need to be watchful. She breathed as deeply as she could with the corset binding her ribs.
Another step toward the horseless sent dread rolling through her. She concentrated on Johnson, on his black eyes and high cheekbones, on the dark skin that contrasted so pleasingly with the white shirt cuffs sticking out of the sleeves of his jacket. He was an exceedingly handsome man. It was too bad there was such a taboo on relations with those of a lower social status. She wouldn’t dream of going against those strictures, but it wouldn’t have mattered had she been among her mother’s people. There wasn’t a taboo that side of the family wouldn’t gleefully break. That she was even contemplating the way Johnson’s shoulders filled out his coat while her brain screamed at her to run told her how much her mother’s daughter she was.
But she was also her father’s daughter. That side believed in rationality and decorum, and it would be damned if it didn’t get into that carriage and go to that ball.
She took another breath then accepted Johnson’s hand, grateful just this once for some help into the carriage. She twitched her skirts into the passenger compartment before something underneath could hook them and drag her… Where? Where is it going to drag you, Briar? Her inner voice was scornful. And frightened.
She settled on the seat, fussing with her skirts as she tried to focus on the evening’s plans. Her body knew she was in for a world of pain and was only willing to be overridden by logic for so long. Briar’s heartbeat vibrated behind her sternum, forcing her breath out in short gasps. There could be no doubt that the wrongness she’d sensed when she entered the coach house was centered on the horseless. She sat, poised on the edge of action against a power she could neither see nor hear. It didn’t exist, and yet she felt as though she stood scant inches from a roaring bonfire, one she had to traverse to get to her destination. Briar closed her eyes, and tried to center herself. She opened eyes screwed shut against the terrors she had no doubt awaited her. This isn’t the first time you’ve seen terrible things, she reminded herself.
With a start, she realized they were underway. The carriage’s wheels rattled over London’s cobbled streets. It made for quite the racket. Country roads with their hard-packed dirt were much quieter, though their sudden ruts threatened to throw one from the seat if the driver was not careful. For the most part, she preferred cobbles. This night, however, the noise along with her more metaphysical discomforts promised for an interminable ride.
The earl simply had to have the newest gadgets. Most of the time, it was a harmless amusement. Briar enjoyed seeing Hardwicke reduced to a little boy over his latest toy, but not when it put her in such an uncomfortable position. His delight made for an odd dichotomy when she considered his other interests. That was, after all, the reason she was stuck in the carriage on her way to an event that promised to be stultifying in its boredom. The earl collected old manuscripts, but only those of a most specific sort. Through the papers of magicians, users of infernal energy, he believed he could track the ebb and flow of human magic-users. He was active in the House of Lords, but that was merely a front, a convenient excuse. Most of his fellow politicians would have been shocked to discover that Charles Yorke, the Eighth Earl of Hardwicke, chaired the Committee on Demoniac Interference (Super Secret).
He hadn’t told her in the beginning, of course. One did not simply announce one’s membership in a secretive group within the upper echelons of Her Majesty’s government. Briar prided herself in being able to winkle out connections, whether it be between people and their possessions, people and other people, or between different objects. She was good at it, or the earl wouldn’t have hired her. For months, Briar had known all of it, except the official name of his organization. He hadn’t been surprised to find out she’d already sussed out the truth when he told her, though he’d been impressed by her discretion.
She released a pent-up sigh of irritation. All of it meant she had no other option than to suffer through the ride to yet another social gathering. There was nothing to do except prepare herself for the tiresome debutante ball to which she was headed while trying to ignore the constant dread gnawing at her bones.
The Baron Selborne was elderly and had a reputation as a gentleman scholar. The earl was practically salivating at the idea of getting his hands on Selborne’s papers and library. Fortunately for the earl, the baron had a granddaughter who was in her first season. Unfortunately for Briar, that meant she had to make an appearance at the ball and charm her way into an offer to see his library.
The carriage door opened and Briar blinked in surprise at the chauffeur.
“Are we here already, Johnson?” It seemed impossible; she hadn’t felt the carriage come to a stop.
“Yes, miss.” He smiled at her, one corner of his mouth lifting higher than the other and flashing a hint of white teeth at her. “Were you out for a nap?”
“Hardly.” Briar sniffed at the idea but couldn’t help the smile that crept onto her face. The chauffeur never missed an opportunity to needle her or flirt, as long as they were alone, of course. “I’m sure we have naught but your skill to credit for the smoothness of the ride.”
“Of course.” He stepped out of the way and offered his hand in assistance to alight. “This new carriage surely is a marvel.”
This time, Briar ignored the hand held out to her. “The earl does enjoy his toys.”
Johnson gave her a half bow and closed the door behind her. “I’ll be waitin’, miss.”
“Thank you, Johnson.”
He climbed onto the front of the carriage and maneuvered it away from the front of the palatial house that rose before them. Theirs was not the only new horseless carriage. Indeed it seemed a full quarter of the carriages now disgorging their occupants and parked along the wide avenue were of the new type; the other horselesses were of an older manufacture. A few horse-drawn carriages counted among the vehicles, though those were far in the minority. Likely, those were the carriages of minor rural nobles who couldn’t afford the newest conveyances. Briar paid them little heed. None of them were likely to have materials of interest to her employer.
For a moment longer she stood, eying the carriages as they came and went. The older models worked well enough, though they shuddered occasionally as their steam boilers needed to be vented. Those carriages required both a driver and a fireman to stoke the coals and keep them running. The new carriages required only the driver, the ramifications of which Briar hadn’t considered until that moment. Supposedly the new engines were also steam-powered, but if that were the case, did those cylinders both feed the engine and vent it so it didn’t explode? She would have to ask Johnson later. A small shudder, more the memory of her disquiet than a true reaction, shook her. Soon. She would find out soon.
“Miss?” A footman stood discreetly at her elbow.
“Oh. Yes.” Knowing her response was rather inane, Briar swept past the servant toward the front of the house. Light glowed from every window, it seemed, turning the darkness of night into artificial dusk confined to the front lawn. She joined the back of a group of giggling young women who were being chaperoned by a much older woman. She looked tired. Briar sympathized. Keeping up with the flitting lovelies would be a monumental task for the night, especially given the glances they were sharing with a group of young men loitering just inside the entryway. The girls’ interest was clearly reciprocated. No looks were spared for her, of course. At her apparent age in her mid-twenties, she was quite on the shelf. Beyond that, her breeding was unknown, which made her an even less attractive prospect for marriage. She didn’t mind. The boys who came to these affairs were pretty enough to look at on occasion, but by and large, she preferred to watch the women.
Despite her best efforts, a few brave souls did manage to get their names on Briar’s dance card. They whirled her around the dance floor before escorting her back to her spot along the wall. At least none of them stepped upon her toes. She was a good enough dancer, her reflexes saw to that, though her heart was rarely in it. She found it difficult to move in sync with a man. Their insistence on being the ones to direct the dance was tiresome, but convention dictated it must be so and she wasn’t there to draw attention to herself.
Deciding that enough time had passed, Briar made her way from the dance floor and to the other end of the hall. Tables were set up there and young men and women refreshed themselves after the exertion of dancing. Older men and women dotted the tables as well, chaperones to the younger set or there upon their own recognizance. Many of the older set talked among themselves, those there to keep an eye on younger female relatives glancing over occasionally to make sure their young charges hadn’t disappeared into a corner on the arm of some young man. Within sight of the dance floor sat the Baron and Baroness Selborne, who were alone at a table with a couple of empty seats. They chatted amiably with each other.
A glint of glass peeking out from under the edge of the long tablecloth caught Briar’s attention. She wrinkled her nose at the whiff of brimstone that followed along soon after. The scent of burning rock was not one she’d anticipated smelling in a place like this. Curious, she picked up the object. A fine crystalline lens winked at her, reflecting hundreds of points of light from the room’s glittering chandelier. Etched into the bronze ring holding it in place were runes of infernal power and the source of the smell. She turned the curious device of crystal and brass over in her hand and traced her fingertip over the characters. A broken hinge was attached to one side. It had clearly come off something else, but what?
The lens held in her left hand, Briar continued on toward the baron and his wife. She plastered a gracious smile upon her face.
“May I join you?” she asked.
“Of course.” The baron stood hurriedly, his generous paunch barely clearing the table. The baroness smiled back at Briar with equal graciousness. He pulled the nearest chair out for her and Briar perched gracefully upon the edge, the bustle of her dress allowing her to do no more.
“Thank you, my lord,” Briar said. “Are you enjoying the evening?” Small talk was as tiresome as the rest of the evening, but a necessary evil. She paid less than half a mind to the inane platitudes she spouted. No, her attention was on the odd lens she’d found on the floor. What was a thing like that doing here? It would have been strange enough on its own, but add in the scrawlings of infernal magic and it was an enigma. Briar had no patience for unknowns. She worked her left glove off her hand while exchanging comments with the baroness about the weather and drew her fingertip along the top of the brass lens holder.
Briar looked down as the door swung open slowly, propelled by a black-gloved hand. She blinked or tried to. Lenses didn’t blink, so neither could she. Whatever she’d been expecting when she tried to read the lens, this was not it. Objects carried with them a strange point of view, one she was quite used to. Their utter lack of curiosity over their circumstances was refreshing. They experienced no emotions at all, unlike the people she had to deal with every day whose every feeling intruded on her unless she was meticulously careful. This was unusual, however. It was rare for her to be pulled completely into the experiences of an object. She wondered what this one had in store for her.
The only source of light in the large room beyond was the smoldering coals in the banked fireplace. There wasn’t much to make out; shadows cloaked this room as deeply as they had the hall from which they’d entered. The lack of light didn’t seem to be a problem. Whoever carried the lens crossed the room with perfect confidence. If Briar hadn’t known better, she would have said the owner of the lens lived here, but then why the skullduggery? Books filled shelves from floor to ceiling. The gloved hands caressed the thick leather spines, lingering here and there as they traced gilt lettering. The hand stopped on a particularly weighty volume and grasped the top, then pulled back.
The book didn’t come off the shelf, rather it tilted backward before the hand returned the leather-bound volume to its resting place on the shelf. It was some sort of latch. Briar had heard of such things, but she had never witnessed one herself. The earl thought they were pointless fripperies, more useful for those who wished to claim the cachet of having a hidden compartment. Inevitably, those with such compartments couldn’t resist showing them off, at which point they lost their singular advantage. A stout safe with the most advanced locking mechanisms was what Hardwicke relied upon. Of course, that also included some nasty traps of a magical variety. There seemed to be none of those here.
Without missing a beat, the hands busily plucked books off the shelf beside the trick volume. They stacked the books in neat piles on the floor. Instead of the plaster wall behind the built-in bookshelves, a dark hole was revealed. The shelf was far deeper than it should have been.
The owner of the hands knew as much. He pulled out long boxes, emptying them somewhere before replacing them. Briar watched as he pulled a larger box. The lock upon it was assaulted by the hands, wielding delicate tools, and the box swiftly revealed its secrets. Gold sovereigns winked sullenly, reflecting the scant light from the coals in the fireplace.
The coins disappeared also, swept out of sight by those questing hands before he reached for more boxes, pouches, and bags. Nimble hands opened the nearest bag and extricated a string of brilliantly glowing diamonds. The jewels gleamed with an internal fire that practically licked the edge of each gem. Their glitter wasn’t natural. Even the finest diamonds didn’t gleam so on their own. One box held a selection of bejeweled rings. Some rings lacked the glow of the others, and those were ignored. They went back into the safe with the now much emptier box. The hands continued their deft sorting. Any jewels that didn’t glow, he left behind. A thick stack of banknotes disappeared into the same place as the glowing jewels.
The whole process of looting the safe took less than five minutes. When there were no more bags or boxes to interest the owner of the lens, he replaced the row of books quickly and precisely. The books were replaced on the shelf in the reverse order from which they’d been taken. He fussed over them for a moment, tweaking one a little further out, pushing another one back into place. It was quick work, and before long the shelf looked exactly as it had when they’d entered. What had happened here wasn’t obvious at all. Depending on how frequently the owner of the safe checked his valuables, the theft might pass unremarked for quite some time.
Briar expected they would leave the way they had come. Instead, she was carried over to the drapes. A hand reached out and parted the heavy curtains. Large windows went up almost eight feet. The dim London night beckoned beyond the leaded glass panes. The owner of the lens glanced back across the room. Briar suffered a moment of vertigo as shelves with their books flashed past her. They focused on the door for a second, then turned back. The hands had lost their smooth deliberation. Instead, they flew with decisive haste. With a quick twist, they unlatched the nearest window and pulled open the window barely far enough for a human body to slip through. A moment later he was up on the sill, turning back to face into the room. His hand twitched the drapes back into place behind them.
The hands slipped a hooked length of wire over the latch and pulled the window shut. With a small twist, the wire pulled the latch into place, then was pulled through slight gap between the window and the one next to it. That was neat; there would be no more sign that someone had left that way than perhaps a small scratch.
They dropped away from the window, the side of the building flashing past them, then they slowed until they seemed to be floating a few feet off the ground. The last few feet came up suddenly, then they bounced up, some ten feet in the air before falling in an arc, London’s dark streets whizzing by.
“Are you all right, my dear?” The words emanated from the dark around them. That wasn’t right.
“Miss Riley, are you quite well?”
Briar blinked, her eyes taking a moment to adjust to the brightly lit ballroom. Vivid colors swirled out on the dance floor, resolving into gaily dressed women who danced by on the arms of soberly dressed men. Even there, flashes of color peeked out from beneath dark jackets or in the breast pockets of their coats.
She turned and smiled stiffly at the elderly man and woman at the table with her. They wore twin expressions of dismay, perhaps not accustomed to a young woman suddenly dropping into a trance. Briar hoped she hadn’t been drooling. That would be most undignified. She covered her discomfiture by pulling her glove back on.
“I am fine, my lord and lady.” What were their names again? She’d been sent there specifically to engage them in conversation and to determine what in their collections her employer might find of interest. Instead, she’d found something altogether more fascinating. “I require a breath of fresh air, I think.”
The elderly baron nodded gravely. “You do look a trifle pale, Miss Riley.”
His wife nodded with more energy, looking for all the world like a small bird bobbing for seeds. “You do, at that.” She stood, alighting from her chair in one motion. “Come, let us go onto the terrace.”
“Thank you.” Briar smiled, trying to mask her irritation. “You’re too kind.” She was too kind. Briar didn’t think she’d ever acclimate to the human assumption that women were too weak or indelicate to be out on their own. It certainly wasn’t the case where she was from. But then, the entirety of polite society would disintegrate into chaos if even half the things she’d endured growing up came to pass here.
Still, the terrace was a good idea. It was warm in the ballroom. The heat of the gas lamps and the dancing throng combined to a stifling degree. That, coupled with her return from reading the lens, made fresh air a necessity if she was going to regain her concentration and accomplish the evening’s task.
She managed not to wobble as she stood up. The corset wrapped around her ribcage made drawing a full breath an impossibility but added some much needed support. The ball was still going strong and it was much too early to make her excuses and leave. After a few moments she’d be right as rain and would finish what she’d been sent there to do and could be on her way home.
At her side, the baroness chattered gaily about something. Briar listened with half an ear, not overly interested in the latest fashions. Her employer always saw to it that she was dressed in the latest of high couture before sending her off to one of these soirees. Though she appreciated the dignity and decorum the locals’ clothing brought with it, sometimes the combined layers were quite stultifying when compared to what she’d worn in her younger days. She didn’t yearn for the near-nudity of her upbringing, but dressing then had been much simpler and something she could accomplish on her own. However, appearing in a state of extreme undress would have closed the doors of high society to her. And heavens forbid they should see her true form. That would not have done at all, for their sake and hers.
Cool air washed over her as they emerged onto a long terrace. Clumps of young women conversed quietly in the lamp light that poured through the open doors. They made every attempt to embody the reserve befitting a young lady, but their excitement was nonetheless palpable, a shared feeling of energy that helped bring Briar back to herself. The dimly lit lamps smoking on the walls did little to dispel the gloom of a London evening. Tall trees and thick bushes ringed the terrace on all sides, seeming to soak up what little light made it that far. Muffled whispers and other noises from the underbrush reached Briar’s sensitive ears. At least a couple somebodies were involved in some unchaperoned amusement.
“Is that better, my dear?” the baroness asked, her voice brimming over with solicitousness.
“Much. Thank you, Baroness.” Briar turned the lens over in her hand. It had been the glint of reflected light that had first drawn her eye to it where it peeked out from under a long tablecloth, but the unmistakable feel of infernal energy had compelled her to pick it up. How did such an object come to be in a place like this? The question had prompted her to surrender to her own curiosity and give the item what she’d thought would be a cursory reading. She hadn’t counted on being pulled into the lens’s point of view. Usually, she received the barest impression from an object. She might be able to determine who it belonged to or how old it was. Rarely, she could experience what the object had been through, but that generally required a strong emotional attachment, either from her or from the item’s owner. That such an innocuous thing could hold that kind of emotional resonance was unusual, to say the least.
“Are you overcome by such episodes frequently?” The question was delicately phrased, but the baroness’s eyes glittered in the light. It seemed the woman loved to gossip.
“Not at all.” Briar’s smile was practiced. “It was quite warm in there, but I’m feeling much recovered already.” She turned the lens absently between gloved fingers.
“What is that?”
“I’m not sure. I found it on the floor. I thought it was pretty.”
“Indeed?” The baroness seemed unconvinced. The lens itself was unprepossessing, a simple piece of crystal. It was the bronze mounting that interested Briar, etched around as it was by the intricate design still glowing faintly with energy. It was doubtful the baroness could make out the glow; she likely didn’t have the ancestry to do so. Briar did, much to her constant dismay.
“I have particular tastes, I suppose.” Briar placed the lens on the stone terrace railing in front of her. “Much like the baron. I’ve heard his collection of manuscripts is quite extensive.”
“He seems to think so.” The baroness tutted and shook her head. “He spends most of his time poring over them, and it’s been even worse since his latest acquisition.”
“Is that so?” Briar tried to suppress her excitement. This was what she was here to find out. She reached out to stroke the edge of the lens again. “Where did he acquire them?”
“Somewhere on the Continent.” With an airy wave, the baroness dismissed the line of questioning. “But enough of dusty tomes. How is the earl?”
And there it was. Not long after the inquiry after the earl’s health would come the probing into why she attended so many events in his stead. She turned her smile back on. “He is well, though busy with the workings of Parliament.” It was a true enough statement and one that deflected many of the following questions.
“Excuse me.” A young woman joined them at the railing. Briar looked down her nose at the pretty young thing in her pale green gown that made a pleasant contrast with bright red hair. Isabella Castel, only daughter of the Viscount of Sherard, was one of her least favorite people. The girl fancied herself a wit and spent much of her time playing to a group of hangers-on who laughed at every one of her jokes and clever put-downs. The Sherard girl had a nickname for everyone or so it seemed. Briar knew what hers was, and she didn’t appreciate it. She didn’t wonder how she’d been saddled with “The Stick.” Many of the young women found her too rigid, even for their tightly held code of morality, simply because Briar strove for decorum in all things.
“Yes?” The cool word hung in the air between the three of them, but Miss Castel seemed not to notice.
“Where did you get that?” Miss Castel reached toward Briar’s hand.
“This?” Surely she doesn’t mean the lens? If this girl had anything to do with the object, Briar would eat her reticule. She twitched it out of the Sherard girl’s reach. “I found it on the floor. Surely it isn’t yours.”
“Of course not.” The reply was sharp and color bloomed in the Sherard girl’s cheeks, washing away her freckles. Her pale complexion did her no favors when it came to hiding her emotions. “It belongs to my brother. I use it as a…good luck charm. I’d like it back.” She stretched out her hand, hazel eyes fairly snapping in anger.
Her brother was the second-storey man then. Briar wondered if he knew his sister had the lens or not. There was no point in holding on to it. If the Sherard girl claimed it, it was undoubtedly hers. She dropped it into Miss Castel’s waiting palm. The girl whirled on the heel of her dainty slipper and stormed off. Who knew she had so much fire to her? In her anger, the Sherard girl was a far cry from the insipid little thing Briar saw dancing across the floor or in a tittering knot with her friends. Briar watched after her for a moment before turning back to Baroness Selborne. The baroness shook her head at Miss Castel’s retreating form.
“Such rudeness,” she said. “Still, it is no surprise given who her mother is.”
This kind of gossip was of no use to Briar. It would tell her nothing of Selborne’s holdings and beside that, she had little interest in the Sherard family and especially not with Miss Castel.
“I am quite recovered. Shall we return?” She followed the baroness back to the table where the baron was deep in conversation with another gentleman. Both men stood upon their return. To her disappointment, they turned their conversation away from what they’d been discussing. It was something about the new engines, but that was all she’d been able to hear.
“My lord,” Briar said to Baron Selborne. “Your wife tells me you’ve made an exciting acquisition. May I inquire as to its origin?”
“Quite so!” Baron Selborne puffed himself up with excitement. “It is a fascinating treatise on…” he leaned forward and lowered his voice conspiratorially, “…demoniac workings during the early Ottoman Empire.”
“That does sound fascinating. I’m sure the Earl of Hardwicke would be very interested in viewing such a unique work. May I have him contact you?”
A complicated expression passed over Selborne’s face. He seemed to be at war with himself. On the one hand, Briar could tell he was pleased that the earl might be interested in his manuscript, but on the other he seemed to have other concerns. If Briar had to guess, she would say he wasn’t keen to admit such an ungentlemanlike interest. Well-bred men did not deal with magic. It was one thing to admit such a propensity to her, but quite another to do so to a peer, especially one so connected to Parliament.
“I can assure you, he will exercise the utmost discretion,” Briar said in what she hoped was a soothing tone.
“For heaven’s sake, James,” Baroness Selborne patted her husband on the hand. “Earl Hardwicke won’t take your collection.”
“Of course not.” Briar was shocked at the idea. While the earl might be interested in acquiring Selborne’s manuscript, he would never stoop to confiscating it.
“Very well.” Selborne still seemed a tad anxious, but he nodded to his wife. “You may have him send ’round a card.”
“Thank you, my lord.” Briar inclined her head graciously. “How is your granddaughter enjoying her season?”
The rest of the evening passed more quickly than she’d anticipated. Time and again, her eyes were drawn to the Sherard girl, often without realizing it. There was no sign of that other Miss Castel full of spirited fire; instead the vapid girl full of giggles and ill-conceived jokes was on full display. The Sherard girl caught her glance once, but Briar shifted her gaze quickly, not wanting to be caught staring. It wasn’t until after the Sherard girl had left for the night that Briar sent a footman for Johnson.
The ride home was uneventful, though she was filled with the same malaise as she had been on the way to the party. The back of the carriage was spacious, to be sure, but there was no room to pace, no matter how much she wanted to. The trip took much too long, and yet Johnson was at the door, his hand out to help her down, in no time. As soon as she was out of the vehicle, her claustrophobia dissipated, pricked into nothingness like a soap bubble.
“One moment, Johnson,” Briar said as he made to get back into the driver’s seat. “I left something inside.” Sure enough, when she clambered back in, the impatience and dread returned. That was fascinating. She would have to take a look at what made this machine run. Her mechanical skills were next to nonexistent—her talents tended in the opposite direction—but something was afoot. “Thank you, Johnson.” He nodded and winked before pulling away. She stared thoughtfully at the retreating carriage.
A delicately cleared throat got her attention and she made her way through the door being held open for her by a bleary-eyed but patient footman. The night had been much more interesting than she’d anticipated. That should have been a good thing; nothing was worse than boredom. And yet…
* * *
The workshop was completely empty. It was late, so the echoing emptiness of the cavernous set of underground rooms wasn’t unusual. Her father must have come to a stopping point on his latest project, something that dealt with the storage of demoniac energy. His current obsession wasn’t one she shared; Isabella preferred tinkering with projects of a more mechanical nature.
The existence of the series of underground rooms would be a surprise to many, not least of all their neighbors. The Sackvilles especially would be astounded to discover the rooms dug beneath the basement of their townhouse. Astounded and righteously offended most likely. The Sackvilles were new enough to their riches and position that they took decorum very seriously. To find out the viscount next door and his daughter were tinkering with mechanical devices under their very feet would offend them greatly, of that Isabella was certain.
They’d be even more offended to discover what else the viscount’s daughter was up to and what she was wearing while doing so.
Isabella dropped into a deep knee bend, bouncing on the balls of her feet and feeling the stretch of her hamstrings. Dancing was a decent warm-up, but it did little to limber her up, not when she had to wear that blasted corset the entire time. Of course well-born ladies acted with dignity and decorum; they couldn’t breathe deeply enough to get up to anything else. She’d long since changed out of the flowing gown and binding corset she’d been forced to don for that night’s ball.
The ball… Isabella twisted her torso, willing the bones in her spine to pop. They finally did and she sighed with relief.
The ball had not gone as planned. How could she have been stupid enough to drop the lens? And to have snooty Brionie Riley, of all people, pick it up? The woman had been much too interested in it. Why did she even bother to show up at the various balls and other glittering events that made up the season? She danced very little and spent most of her time socializing with the older set. Those people were deadly dull, but The Stick seemed to flourish with them.
Energy still flowed through Isabella. She needed to do something about it before the end of the night or she would spend too much time staring at the ceiling of her darkened room rather than sleeping. But there was work to be done before she could indulge in her exercises.
Isabella made her way over to a long workbench and placed the lens upon it. The broken hinge needed replacing before she lost the lens altogether. This one was quite important to her. It allowed her to tell which gems were real and which were glass or paste. Without it, she would have to pay someone to appraise each piece and that was money they simply didn’t have. Better by far that she fix it now, rather than leave it for later and lose it because she forgot.
She pulled out a pair of spectacles on a ribbon. Neither of her parents required such help to see, and in truth she didn’t either. The spectacles were a handy excuse to peer at the jewelry of her peers with that lens. Isabella was proud of the lenses it carried. They were a modification of her own design. The hinges could be twisted off and a lens could be moved from these spectacles to her goggles. The versatility more than made up for the slight weakness in the hinges.
Isabella peered at the hinge through a magnifying glass mounted on a movable arm to the edge of the workbench. As she suspected, there was a crack in the housing where a tiny screw held together the complicated hinge. It allowed the housing to flex the tiniest bit, which had allowed the arm holding the lens to slide free. She would have to replace the entire hinge. Fortunately, the arm wasn’t damaged, as it was part of the same piece as the metal rim around the lens itself.
As she worked, Isabella hummed to herself. Her father was likely in bed at this hour, so she didn’t have to worry about disturbing him. The evening’s final waltz played itself over in her head, looping around and around. She and Millie, her best friend, had taken a turn on the floor at the same time. Millie had been ebullient from a night of dancing, and they’d paid scant attention to the gentlemen who danced with them. Instead, they’d been quite rude and had spoken with each other over their partners’ shoulders. The men hadn’t minded, both of them having been friends to her and Millie for a long time. She supposed she should have felt some guilt for not paying more attention to poor Simon, but that would only have encouraged his rather misplaced affections.
She continued to hum as she tinkered, paying close attention to the pieces of hinge she reassembled. This wasn’t the first time she’d broken a hinge, and it likely wouldn’t be the last. There had to be a way to strengthen the attachment. Isabella’s mind wandered along those lines as she put the finishing touches on her repair and examined it with utmost care to make sure there were no other areas of weakness. To her relief, the new hinge was as sturdy as she could make it. She clipped it on to her spectacles, then popped it back off again. The action was smooth, but once on, it held fast. A warm glow of accomplishment filled her. It was one of the things she loved about working with her hands. When she made something, she used her own skills and it was hers alone. Beyond the knowledge she’d gained from her father and tutors, there was nothing she owed to anyone. It was too bad she had to keep her skills to herself. Her set simply wouldn’t understand her affinity for an activity that was so unladylike.
She could feel her eyebrows drawing down. Isabella smoothed her brow with careful consideration. There was no point in fighting this battle. It was one she couldn’t win. As the only daughter of Viscount Sherard, she had responsibilities to the family.
The last thought echoed inside her head in her mother’s voice. Isabella rolled her eyes and stood up. It was time to indulge in something where her mother’s lectures couldn’t intrude. She tidied the workspace, putting her tools away but leaving the spectacles on the bench.
The workshop’s far wall was festooned with rings, pipes, and bars at various places along its twenty-foot height. Isabella eyed the top bar. That was tonight’s goal. She needed to push herself a bit.
She sprinted across the floor on light feet and leaped, grabbing a thick vertical bar. It was a reasonable approximation of a drainpipe, though attached more securely than those she’d encountered in her various excursions. She’d have to retool that and make it more in line with what she was likely to come up against.
It was the work of a less than a second to brace her feet on the wall and scamper up the pseudo-drainpipe. From there, she reached over to a horizontal bar that jutted out of the wall a mere three inches. She swung her way onto its lip, toes crammed against the wall, giving her a little more grip as she reached for the bar barely within reach of her outstretched fingertips.
What had been with the questions from Brionie Riley about where she’d gotten the lens? It looked enough like a monocle that no one should have known differently. Plenty of people wore them. Certainly, the lens had some demoniac enhancements to it, but most people would be none the wiser. The only reason Isabella knew the runes were there was because she’d asked her father’s partner to add them. She herself couldn’t see the runes; that wasn’t one of her talents. She could break down a steam engine in less than an hour and scale a twenty-foot wall in seconds, but she had no affinity for demoniac manipulation.
Her hands slapped down on the bar that had been her goal and Isabella hung there for a moment, the weight of her body a pleasant pull on her shoulders. Had The Stick bought the excuse that the lens belonged to her brother? The stiff woman had eyed her quite queerly when she’d said that but had dropped the questioning. Not that continuing would have been easy as Isabella had quite rudely left the conversation. Still, she wouldn’t have put it past the inquisitive Miss Riley to follow her to ask more questions. She was constantly inquiring as to this or that, or so it seemed whenever Isabella overheard one of her deadly dull conversations.
Something would have to be done about Brionie Riley. She could not be allowed to interfere in Isabella’s activities. She needed some…distraction.
Isabella pushed off the wall, arching her back and tucking into a backward flip. She made one complete turn before she straightened up out of the roll and struck the floor. Somehow, she’d come out of the flip somewhat cockeyed. One foot hit before the other. Rather than trying to stick the landing outright, Isabella tucked again into a somersault, then popped up.
“That was sloppier than normal,” a woman’s voice remarked behind her. “Perhaps you need more practice?”
“Mama!” Isabella turned smartly, her cheeks warm. “I thought you’d be abed.”
“I was.” Althea Castel walked slowly toward her. Even with hard-bottomed shoes and cane, her movements were almost soundless. Tall and beautiful, even in her middle years, Althea moved like a woman many years her senior. Isabella could still see the beautiful girl her father had first met in her face and hands, but it was hard to see her move so cautiously.
“Was it your leg?”
Her mother grimaced. “The older I get, the more it stiffens up. Make sure you never get shot, daughter of mine. It is mightily inconvenient long beyond the original injury.”
“Thank you, Mother.” Isabella nodded gravely. “I shall make it my life’s work not to get shot.”
“I expect nothing less.” Althea grinned at Isabella’s serious retort. “Speaking of work, how was it tonight?”
Now was not the time to bring up her slip-up with the lens. “It went well. I have two possible targets. After I case the houses, I’ll know which one to move on next.”
“Very good.” Althea paused for a moment, then sighed and continued. “The money from your last foray is almost gone and I must pay the servants. I want you to be as careful as possible, but we are in dire need of more funds.”
“Very well.” Isabella would have to move more quickly then. If she was very careful, perhaps she could do each job in successive nights. “Millie Ornelas has an exquisite new ruby necklace given to her by her fiancé. He should be my next target.”
“I shall invite them to tea. Millie will certainly reciprocate with an invitation for you.”
“Mother, I don’t wish to steal from her. She’s my friend.”
Althea shook her head in disappointed reproof. “When we are solvent once again, you’ll be able to make such distinctions. Until then, we shall do what we must to survive.”
“But, Mother—” Althea’s hand cut off the rest of her protest.
“I know this is difficult for you, Isabella. It’s hard for all of us, but we must make do. In a few years your brother will be back, and all will return to normal.” She withdrew an envelope from where she’d tucked it in her cleavage. “He’s sent another letter.” Althea laid it down on a nearby bench. “I’ll leave you to your exercises. From the look of that last dismount, you need the practice.”
Althea made her way out through the gloom-shrouded workshop. Isabella watched her go, then looked down at the letter. She willed it to burst into flames. This was all Wellington’s fault. Without him, they wouldn’t be practically destitute, reduced to stealing from their friends. I’m not reading it. Of course she would; she wouldn’t be able to help herself. It had better not be like the last one, where he’d written to request money without any thought as to what it would mean for the family to provide it, not after what he’d done.
No, not again. Isabella transferred her glare to the bar at the top of the wall. This time her dismount would be perfect.