Stepping out of Westwood, Jasper scowled. “You’re a bloomin’ lunatic.” Usually cheerful and optimistic to a fault, he was anything but just now.
Tressa followed Jasper outside. The evening air felt thick. Couples out for a casual constitutional strolled by.
Jasper turned up the road and trudged toward his small townhome. Tressa followed, quickening her pace to keep up with him. The sun was setting but the day had yet to cool. She tugged off her thick leather jacket without breaking stride.
It made sense to her why Jasper was upset—neither of them had pleasant memories of Westwood. But he’d been too young when they’d been taken there to remember life just before.
When it had been only the two of them, hungry and on the street.
She could still recall the way he’d cried and cried all night more often than not. Many of the other occupants trying to sleep on the street had not taken too kindly to the disturbance. Tressa had never told Jasper, but his baby cries had almost gotten them both killed.
“Better inside than out,” Tressa muttered. It was the phrase she’d told him over and over again as he grew up. Even after she’d turned sixteen and had to leave him for a life at sea, she’d written him that phrase every chance she got.
Jasper only grunted.
“I’ve already spoken with Mr. Clark,” she said. “I am decided.”
Jasper shook his head, swearing softly. “Why would you support a place that . . .” He couldn’t finish the sentence.
Not once, since leaving, had either of them spoken of what really happened inside the orphanage. Or, what used to happen.
“It’s not like that anymore,” Tressa said. “They’ve closed it off.”
“I’ve heard the same, but who cares? It’s still the same place. Half the board members are the same, too. If it’s not one thing, it’s got to be another.”
“The Constable has absolved everyone still serving of any wrongdoing. Even Mr. Clark was proven clean.”
Jasper shook his head. “I only trust the new board members, like Brox and Cutler.”
The streetlamp above Tressa, recently lit in preparation for the night, flickered and threatened to go out. Judging by the frequency of the flicker and the amount the light dimmed each time, the gas intake valve was likely wearing thin.
“I’m going to help those children, Jasper,” Tressa said. “I don’t care if you’re inclined to like my idea or not.”
“Seawoman Wimple.” A deep timbre sounded from behind them.
Tressa looked over her shoulder. Mr. Broxholme hurried toward them. “Mr. Clark has just informed me that you mean to make a sizable contribution.”
Leave it to Mr. Clark to spill all. “The details haven’t been sorted out yet, but yes, that is my intention.”
“Well, it will be greatly appreciated.” He gave her a smile. It was small, but it lit up his eyes and made her heart race.
“Fools,” Jasper muttered and resumed his march toward home.
Broxholme’s brow creased. “What’s got his knickers in a twist?” His face instantly burned red. “I’m sorry, ma’am.” Broxholme stumbled over his words, as though he couldn’t get them out fast enough. “I oughtn't to have spoken so in front of a lady.”
Tressa had always found it charming to see a man put to the blush.
“Referencing another’s undergarments is fairly vulgar.” She laughed softly. “You may have scalded my ears.” Wait—was she flirting with him? It wasn’t something she had much experience with. When Tressa first left Westwood to take a position aboard a submarine, she’d been far too angry with the world and everyone in it to form any kind of understanding with a man. After that, she was focused on gaining promotion after promotion.
For nearly the last decade, she’d been the head engineer aboard the Gearhound and, as such, developing feelings for any of those working with her was strictly forbidden. One could not laugh comfortably and sneak a forbidden kiss with a man and then, the next day, expect him to follow strict orders as though none of it had happened.
Yet, now, she didn’t have anyone reporting to her. She wasn’t reporting to anyone, either. The realization that she was—for the first time in over a decade—free to pursue a relationship rushed over her like a crisp, autumn breeze.
“I sincerely apologize if I have.” His small smile was back and so were the flips her heart was making. “I guess I forgot you were a . . .”
Instantly the flutterings in her chest turned to lead and landed in her stomach with the weight of an anvil. It had always been like this. Most people she met tended to classify Tressa as ‘one of the men’. That also came with the head-of-engineering territory.
“That’s quite all right.” she said, her tone flatter than she intended. “I understand.” Tressa drew herself up. She did work on engines all day. And she was strong for a woman, who spoke rough, worked harder than anyone else she knew, and never got sick. But still, she certainly wasn’t shaped like a man. Nor did she consider her face particularly manly.
She squelched a sigh. She may be free to pursue a relationship, but that didn’t mean Brox would ever look at her with any measure of potential.
“I’d best see that my brother is all right,” she said. “Good evening, Mr. Broxholme.”
It rarely bothered her to be lumped into company with other men. But, just now, coming from a man she found interesting and attractive, precisely when it occurred to her that she maybe could. . .
Well, it wouldn’t do to stew. Tressa turned her gate toward her brother and began walking.
“Brox, if you please.” He promptly fell in line beside her. “Only business associates and my secretary call me Mr. Broxholme.”
Brox did suit him better. “Call me Tressa.”
He may see her as yet another man—she wouldn’t be surprised if he invited her to a game of cards at Whites, it wouldn’t be the first time—but at the very least, he could call her by a woman’s name.
They walked in silence for a bit. They were several strides behind Jasper, but he was still easy to see. He walked with shoulders hunched, dragging his feet. For a grown man, he very much reminded her of the young boy she’d cared for day and night, so many years ago.
“He’s upset that I’m giving so much money to Westwood,” Tressa blurted out. Anything was better than dwelling on how quick this man had jumped to considering her a man as well, and how much she didn’t like it.
Oh, gears above. Please say he wasn’t an idealist. The crawling itch making its way down her back told Tressa she was getting to the end of her patience for the day. After dealing with the pompous Mr. Clark, having to justify herself to Jasper, and now being slighted by Brox—well, she may have more endurance than the average woman, but she made up for it by having less patience.
“You wouldn’t understand.” Her words snapped. He wouldn’t be surprised by her tone; after all, men snapped all the time. She lengthened her stride and hurried forward. The sooner she and Jasper arrived home, the better.
“Have I offended you in some way?”
He sounded genuinely concerned. He should—it was largely his fault she was suddenly in such a bad mood. But that didn’t mean she was about to start blabbering emotionally.
“I am quite all right.” She struggled to keep her tone even and her word choice above reproach. Swearing at him would only prove she was more man than woman. “Only it is getting late, and Jasper and I have a bit of a walk.”
A horseman, astride a grand steed, turned the corner. The horse neighed and tossed its head as its owner kept it at a quick canter. It seemed everyone was returning home. The last rays of the sun were all that was left as it tucked itself further below the earth.
“Allow me to drive the two of you, then,” Brox said. “My motorcar is only up the street a bit.” He pointed back the direction they’d just come from.
Tressa kept her gaze on her brother and strictly avoided looking at Brox. Jasper glanced down the narrow alley between two buildings as he passed by. Then he paused mid-stride and looked harder.
Blast. What had struck his fancy this time?
“No, thank you. I am quite capable of a long walk.”
“I am sure you are.”
What did he mean by that? Did she appear to him more like a mule than a woman?
The horse rider continued down the street, drawing very near Jasper. The horse slowed, then reared back, its front hooves dangling over Jasper’s head.
Terror shot across Tressa’s chest. Her brother suddenly seemed so far away, too far for her to get to him in time.
Jasper didn’t move, but continued to stare down the alley, unaware of the crazed horse only a couple of strides behind him. His head tilted forward as though he was studying something closely.
“Jasper!” Tressa called.
He ignored her, or didn’t hear. She broke into a run. Only her brother—easily captured by the most mundane—would fail to hear a wild horse stomping only feet away. Tressa caught up to Jasper, grabbing him by the shoulders, and pushed him back away from the horse.
The horse bucked frantically, its rider struggling to get the beast back under control. The horse’s eyes rolled to the back of its head, then it turned and bolted back the way it had come.
Tressa shook Jasper. “Pay attention,” she all but shouted. “You were nearly trampled.”
She turned Jasper around so that he faced her.
The blood had left his face, and his eyes were wide. He raised a single finger and pointed down the alley. Brox came up behind her and asked Jasper if he was all right.
Tressa stepped past them both and peered into the darkness. What could have affected her brother so? Not only had he failed to hear the screeching steed behind him, but now he looked close to fainting.
A dark form hunched near the brick wall of one of the buildings. Covered in a black fabric, the form heaved as though human. Tressa inched forward. The toe of her boot met with something hard, a discarded crate, and the thud of impact echoed down the alley.
The form looked up. It was a woman, her face ghostly white and delicate as a china doll. Something dark dribbled down from the corner of her lips.
On the ground, mostly hidden by the lady’s black cloak, was the unmoving figure of a boy. He had blond curls and two black spots on his neck.
The ghostly lady laughed, showing two fangs.
Icy cold trickled from Tressa’s neck to her fingertips. The panicked steed suddenly made sense—nothing could sense a vampire as well as a horse.
Tressa dropped her leather jacket, reached for the discarded crate, and hurled it down the alley. In all her travels, she’d never once come this close to such a monster. The vampire moved with grace, easily avoiding the flying object. Floating a few inches above the ground, the vampire glided toward Tressa.
She needed a weapon. Underneath where the first crate had been, lay the skeletal remains of another crate, far more decayed. Tressa reached for a long, splintering board of wood.
With a tug, it pulled free from what was left of the crate. Three long, rusted nails stuck out of one end. Tressa held the end out, as though it were her sword. Tressa had seen China more than once—the land where vampires first were spawned—but she had never visited the training grounds where young women and men trained to combat the unearthly creatures. That, now, seemed like a vastly unwise oversight.
Brox moved up beside her, pulling out a gentleman’s pistol.
He shot twice. The first bullet missed, striking the brick wall behind the vampire and showering her victim in dust. The second lodged in her shoulder and sent her stumbling back a bit.
Tressa didn’t wait for him to fire a third. She rushed forward, swinging the board high over her head. The vampire moved yet farther down the alley to avoid her blow.
“Jasper,” Tressa called over her shoulder. “Get the boy and get him to Brox’s motorcar.”
Hurried footsteps echoed behind her. Hopefully Jasper had broken out of his trance. Hopefully he was obeying her; it would be a first.
She raised the board again. The vampire scowled and rushed toward her, unimpeded by the bullet wound, and caught hold of the wooden board in a long-fingered grip.
Face to face, Tressa could smell the metallic tang of the vampire’s breath. She smiled at Tressa. Her delicate nose and large eyes almost made her look childish.
Then the vampire grabbed Tressa’s arm with one hand and twisted it. Pain ripped across her shoulder. Tressa cried out and fell to one knee.
The vampire, hovering above, tore the board from Tressa’s hand and let it drop to the ground. The gun exploded and the vampire rocked back. Two dark dots appeared on her chest, but only the smallest trickle of blood oozed out.
Tressa hugged her injured arm tight to her chest and lunged for the board, keeping low to the ground and out of Brox’s line of fire.
Tressa grabbed the board with her good hand, but it was blunt on either end, not sharp enough to drive into a vampire’s chest. She crawled toward the brick wall. Brox fired two more rounds. He would be almost out of bullets by now. The vampire staggered back at each blow, but the shots didn’t seem to do much more damage than delay her advances.
Tressa pounded the wall with the board. As hoped, a piece shattered off, leaving the end pointed. Now she had a real vampire weapon.
Rounding on the ghostly figure, Tressa kept the board behind her.
The vampire dodged Brox’s last bullet and then rushed forward, wrapping her hand around his throat.
“Leave him alone,” Tressa cried. She’d never considered herself an actress, but she needed the vampire closer before she could strike. Tressa leaned back against the wall and then stumbled to the side. With any luck, the vampire would see her as the easier victim.
“I do so love watching grown men squirm,” the vampire said, her voice gentle and calm. “And there’s no better way”—she turned toward Tressa and smiled—“than by killing the woman first.”
At least someone recognized she was a woman. Tressa kept the sarcastic thought from showing in her expression as the vampire dropped Brox and flew toward her.
The vampire reached long fingers toward Tressa’s throat. The air around Tressa felt too thick to breathe. Brox yelled something, she wasn’t exactly sure what. Fear, instinctual and primitive, clawed at Tressa’s chest, screaming at her to run.
Tressa stood her ground. The vampire’s fingers wrapped around her throat. They were cold and Tressa suddenly became fully aware of how soft her own throat was, how easily it might be crushed.
“Any last words?” the vampire asked, her voice lilting as though she were the belle of a ball.
Tressa shook her head infinitesimally. Words weren’t really her thing. Action was.
She brought the board out and thrust the point into the vampire’s chest.
The vampire screamed. The shrill wail pierced Tressa’s ears and seemed close to cracking the brick wall behind her. Staggering back, the vampire wrenched the wooden board out and collapsed to the ground.
Rubber wheels squealed against pavement and a horn blew. Tressa glanced back toward the street. Jasper sat behind the wheel of an open-top motorcar.
“Get in!” he shouted.
Tressa bolted. Brox caught up to her, his hand taking hold of her arm and they ran together toward the motorcar. She could hear the vampire moaning. Tressa jumped over the side of the motorcar and landed atop the seat directly next to Jasper.
Brox leapt into the back seat just as Jasper threw the motorcar back into gear. Wind whistled by as they flew down the street and further away.
“Did you kill her?” Brox asked as he repositioned the unconscious boy on the bench seat beside him.
“I don’t think the stake went deep enough.” Tressa looked down at the tiny victim. It was the young boy who’d been in the boiler room with her that morning while she and Michael worked. Poor thing. With any luck, they could get him to the hospital in time. Bringing one back from a vampire bite was tricky. Her jaw clamped in anger that such a small boy would be hurt so.
“We’re not going back to find out,” Jasper called over the roar of wind and engine.
Brox’s expression dropped and he felt inside his pocket, then pulled out a set of keys. “Exactly how did you get my motorcar running, Jasper?”
“I’m not a dunce. I know how to force-start a motorcar.” Jasper took the next turn fast enough, the vehicle threatened to tip over. “If you’re upset, talk to Tressa. She taught me.”
“It was one of the few times you actually listened to me.” Tressa felt the terror of the past few minutes beginning to ease and she reached over the seat, brushing some of the young boy’s curly hair away from his closed eyes. “Besides, a sister has to know her brother can care for himself.”
Brox caught her hand and held it. The touch sent calming warmth up her arm and into her chest. “Well, thank the gears above that you did.”