Clockwork Image

So far in Clockwork Image:

Tressa is working with the Constable to find the vandal threatening Westwood Orphanage.

Brox has also chosen to work with them. After spending time with him, Tressa finds herself growing more attached--though she worries he sees her as only a pal or a friend.

Tressa reached for the doorknob at Rayden’s. She twisted it and gave it a firm tug.

 

Icy water poured over the top of her head.

 

Hitting, chilling, splashing, it coursed over her cheeks and down her spine. Tressa froze, stunned. The cold trailed along her arms, her sleeves instantly sticking to her. She sucked in a deep breath, both from the surprise and the cold. Droplets pelted her boots and the ground around her.

Tressa clenched her jaw and looked up. Two large buckets hung suspended from the roof with a fat rope, rigged to spill when the door opened.

 

She glanced over at Brox. He, too, was dripping from head to toe.

 

“What in the blazes?” she said, shaking a hand. The gesture only made more water rain onto the ground.

 

The door flung open and the Constable almost barreled into them, but pulled up short at the last moment.

 

“Oh, huh.” He glanced first at Brox, then at Tressa, then at Brox again.

 

“Hello, Constable,” Brox said, his teeth chattering as he tried to shake off some of the water.

 

Behind them, Tressa could hear the snickering laughter of onlookers. She glanced over her shoulder and glared at them. The street wasn’t crowded, but there were enough people around to make her quite conscious of the fact that she had been made to look a fool. Devil take it, one of them even looked like that reporter from this morning.

 

Brox ran a hand down his face, scraping off the water there. “You’ll have to excuse us, sir. It seems we’ve been made the brunt of a joke.”

 

The Constable glanced up at the dangling, up-turned buckets. “Aye. It appears you both have.”

 

“What do you mean by that?” Tressa asked.

 

“Well,” the Constable shrugged innocently. “I passed through this door not ten minutes ago, and those buckets didn’t tip over on me.”

 

He had a point; apparently whoever did this had specifically targeted either herself, Brox, or them both. Moreover, whoever it was, had to have been present to make the buckets tip when they wanted. Tressa searched all around her but didn’t recognize any faces.

 

Just wait until she got her hands on whoever had done this. They were going to learn what humiliation really felt like.

 

“Was it Mr. Clark then?” Brox asked. “Is he the culprit?”

 

The Constable, still eying them up and down, let out a suspiciously light-hearted cough. “Him? No.” Another cough, though this one sounded more like a chuckle.

 

“Are you certain?” Tressa shivered. It was a warm day, but the water had been icy and her skin had goosepimples all over.

 

“Quite,” the Constable said. “He seemed far more embarrassed at being caught shopping at an establishment less than en vogue, than he was interested in meeting with anyone.”

 

“Blast,” Tressa said. A camera flash from behind lit up the store wall and the hanging buckets.

 

“If we get plastered on tomorrow’s paper looking like this, it won’t be good for Westwood,” Brox muttered. “We’re already being ignored by donors who used to support us.”

 

Stupid upper echelon. Still, she couldn’t deny that Brox was right. There were several individuals who only needed to see a board member humiliated in print and they would pull all funding.

 

Tressa took hold of Brox’s arm. “This way.” They pushed past the Constable and into the store.

 

The shop’s owner and a young man with scruff along his jaw looked up at their sudden entrance. The owner’s gaze dropped to the puddle that followed Tressa and Brox in.

 

“Just passing through,” Tressa called over her shoulder. She pushed farther into the store, pulling Brox behind her, and moved toward the back.

 

***

Twenty minutes later, Tressa and Brox walked quickly down a nearly deserted side street.

 

“I swear I’m going to strangle whoever did this,” Tressa said as she pulled on the collar of her shirtwaist. The fabric was sticking quite uncomfortably to her chest and refusing to let her warm back up, despite the summer sun shining down.

 

Brox only chuckled at her proclamation. “Just save some of the strangling for me.”

 

She shook her head. “You’ll have to wait in line.” A violent shiver ran down her spine and Tressa heard her own teeth clatter.

 

“Here.” Brox slipped off his brown jacket. “It’s as wet as we are, but it’s still thick enough to keep you warm. Hopefully it will help you stave off any cold that might come calling.”

 

“Oh, I never get sick,” Tressa said as he slipped the jacket over her shoulders. There was something intimate about the action and Tressa’s bad mood lightened.

 

The jacket was already warm from him wearing it. Tressa pulled it tighter over her shoulders and fought the smile that tried to pull her lips upward. Well . . . at least the afternoon wasn’t turning out all bad.

 

“Truly? You’re never sick?” Brox asked.

 

She nodded. “I think the last time I was sick was—” she had to pause and think back more than one decade. “I was still in Westwood so before I turned sixteen.”

 

“Lud, that has to be nice.”

 

It was. When she was young, Tressa just assumed ‘being sick’ meant one was too lazy to push through and do the work. It wasn’t until she’d helped a crew through a horrid bout of scurvy that Tressa realized the people around her weren’t weak, she was just unusually resistant to sickness.

 

“So,” Tressa said, her tone sounding far less put out than it had a few minutes earlier. “Who hates you enough to dump water all over your head?”

 

“Me?” Brox placed a hand against his chest, feigning offense.

 

“Well it can’t be me. I’ve only been on land a few months. Not long enough for anyone to decide to hate me.”

 

“And I’m the more likely candidate for hating, am I?”

 

“I didn’t want to tell you, but . . .” She shrugged in mock innocence.

 

Brox laughed again. She could get used to that sound. She was already getting far too used to seeing his face and the feel of his hand against her elbow or back. If she wasn’t careful, one of these days he was going to tell her he’d found a beautiful woman he cared deeply for and ask, since she was such a grand friend, would she please help him know the best way to woo her. Then where would Tressa be? She may never have felt this way for a man before, but she still knew herself well enough to foresee the type of pain such a revelation would cause.

 

“You are a barrister,” Tressa said, her tone serious. “Surely there are people who would like to get back at you.”

 

“You mean people I’ve helped put in prison?” Brox’s smile stayed, but she could see his jaw tighten. “People like that tend to use more straightforward methods of showing their displeasure.”

 

Tressa’s steps slowed as a weight settled in her stomach. He sounded like a man speaking from experience, not from hearsay. Did Brox know how to keep himself safe? He was tall, and with his wet shirt sticking to him she could see the muscles along his arms.

 

“You feel certain it isn’t someone related to your work?” she asked. It was not common to meet a man her own age who had kept himself in good physical condition. It seemed the young bucks who were in their twenties kept themselves in good shape as often as not. But few continued the practice into their forties.

 

Brox shook his head, knocking a few more droplets of water from his hair. “I doubt it.”

 

“Who even knew we were going to be at Rayden’s?”

 

“I told Christina, but no one else.” Brox stuck his hands into his pockets, holding his arms close to his torso.

 

He looked cold. Should she offer to give him his jacket back? It felt divine around her own shoulders, and she was rather enjoying the view of his shirt, nearly see-through from the water, tight against his skin. No, she’d keep his jacket for now.

 

“You don’t suppose Christina had anything to do with this?”

 

Brox stared at her with wide eyes. “Christina? Are you kidding? She’s a perfect doll who gets frightened when a large horse looks at her sideways. And she doesn’t have a mind for mechanics. She never could have rigged something like that.”

 

Oh, so Christina was a doll. Tressa’s boots hit the pavement with a resounding clap. A perfect, blonde-haired, blue-eyed, English doll. A perfect lady who never spoke out of turn. A perfect woman with curls and a button nose. Tressa clenched her jaw. Christina was perfect. And the young woman had just been added to the list of people Tressa planned on strangling.

 

Tressa pulled Brox’s jacket off. Holding it between her two dark hands, she gave it a gentle snap, guaranteeing the fabric folded down the center with no creases. She’d hate to be responsible for a wrinkle in his bespoke jacket.

 

She pushed it back toward Brox. “Here. I’m plenty warm now, thank you.”

 

Brox took the jacket but his brow dropped and he eyed her closely. “Are you sure?”

 

Was she sure? Ha. Some women were made of far stronger stuff than lace and giggles. “Quite.” Tressa picked up the pace, the evening breeze urging her to get to Jasper’s place quickly.

 

Brox watched her for a second, then hurriedly caught up. “You seem upset. Did I say something wrong?”

 

Oh, he said lots of things. All of which reminded her that men only ever saw her as a ‘pal’, a ‘good ol friend’. “I just had water dumped all over me. I think that’s reason enough to be a mite upset.”

Brox let out an unconvinced grunt but walked on silently. He didn’t put the jacket back on, but left it draped over his arm.

 

Tressa wasn’t about to stew over a blonde all the way to Jasper’s home. If that was the kind of woman Brox preferred, then he would get what he deserved. Though, there was a small part of her brain that wondered, if a simpering smile and perfect curls was what Brox preferred, why hadn’t he settled down by now? England had women like that in droves.

 

It didn’t matter. “You don’t suppose,” she said, not slowing her fast pace, “that the person who drenched us could also be the one who wrote that message on the platter?”

 

“I don’t know. That message was purposely disturbing. This”—he shrugged—“this feels like a silly prank.”

 

“I was thinking the same thing. However, the person who wrote that message and wanted to meet with the Constable—they might have guessed he wouldn’t come alone and so rigged the buckets in case he didn’t?”

 

Brox’s head moved side to side. “It’s possible. But why ask for the meeting at all? What did the letter mean by ‘Westwood’s secret’?”

 

A familiar tightness took hold of Tressa’s throat. Speaking of her past—of Westwood’s past—shouldn’t be that big of a deal. It shouldn’t be so impossibly hard.

 

“I’ve worked on the board for many years,” Brox continued in Tressa’s silence. “While there are things I wish we could improve, I can’t think of anything I feel the Constable needs to know about. Unless the Constable takes umbrage at children being fed porridge every morning without sugar lumps.”

 

If only unsweetened porridge was the worst of what she’d experienced as a child.

 

The darkness of her past crept up Tressa’s shoulders. She was back in Westwood once more. Being marched through the door. Standing, shoulder to shoulder with several other orphans while the door shut and they were left in almost complete darkness. Pulling chalk from her pocket and scribbling ghostly images on the walls. The chalk filled the air around her, making her mouth horridly dry and her throat close off.

 

She couldn’t call out, couldn’t scream her defiance.

 

What was it about that chalk that had made it seem to glow in the darkness? Was that just her imagination or her memory warping that part of her experience? Waiting there, in the hall, coloring pictures on the wall. It was the one act of rebellion the children were ever permitted. But it wasn’t much, only a silent, unspoken resistance. Inevitably the door at the other end of the hall would open . . .

 

Tressa clenched her hands into fists. Staying mute regarding the door and her experiences behind it had been beaten, sometimes even whipped, into her.

 

“Tressa?”

 

She blinked and saw the two-story townhomes around her, felt the breeze on her icy skin. The sun was almost set and the air was far colder now.

 

She stood motionless on the sidewalk; Brox was in front of her, his hand enfolding hers, his thumb drawing circles across the back of her hand.

 

“Are you all right?” he asked.

 

Tressa didn’t bother trying to speak. She only nodded.

 

“You seemed quite far away.” Though it was a statement, he probably meant it more as a question.

 

“I,” her voice croaked and she tried to clear her throat. “I’m afraid I’ve had a lot on my mind as of late.”

 

Gads, that was a lame excuse if she’d ever heard one. Brox kept a close eye on her, probably not believing her. Tressa tried to give him an unconcerned smile and stepped forward.

 

Brox didn’t move and, still holding her hand, kept her from going far. “Uh, Tressa?” he said.

She stopped and turned toward him. She liked that he still had hold of her hand, leaving their arms stretched out between the two of them. Perhaps there was some, albeit small, part of his brainbox that recognized her as a woman after all.

 

Perhaps she could tell him about her experiences as a child. He’d understood all she’d shared with him thus far: stories of traveling the world, watching as those coming aboard the submarine for the first time seemed younger and younger, learning to let go of the hate and anger that used to rule her life.

 

Perhaps she could tell him this, too. But her throat still felt closed off, blocked by the chalk she’d once inhaled and the terror she’d once, and still, struggled to break through.

 

Brox pointed to something directly behind her. “We’re here.”

 

What did he mean they were . . . Tressa turned around.

 

Gads, they were standing directly in front of Jasper’s small townhome. When had they arrived? Gears above, she had been lost in thought.

 

“Oh,” was all she could say. Which, no doubt, inspired him with awe and wonder at her unquestionable powers of articulation.

 

Still, Brox gave her a half smile and then, letting go of her hand, hurried up the steps and pulled open the door for her.

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