Clockwork Image

So far in Clockwork Image:

Tressa is working with the local authorities to catch the vandal who is threatening Westwood Orphanage. However, after an embarrassing ordeal, during which she and Brox were doused with buckets of water, Tressa is ready to be done. While walking to her brother, Jasper's, place, Tressa and Brox spoke of who might the vandal be. The conversation stirred up some hard, childhood memories and Tressa was unable to hide her discomfort from Brox.

Tressa’s cheeks were burning; she was sure they would warm her hands if she cupped them over her face. But there were benefits to having a darker complexion; only those who knew her well could tell when she was blushing.

 

With head held high, Tressa walked up the stairs and through the door to her brother’s townhouse. The entryway was sparsely decorated with nothing more than an old landscape picture hanging above a small wooden table. Tressa suspected they’d been left by the previous owners when Jasper bought the place.

 

There was no butler or housekeeper to meet them at the door; Jasper preferred solitude and extra money to having servants around. 

 

Tressa pointed toward the small table. “You can put your jacket there if you like.” She had no gloves to pull off. Most women in society never left the house without them; Tressa never left the house having remembered them. Life on a submarine certainly didn’t include gloves, unless they were the leather kind meant for work.

 

“We should find Jasper. He probably has something dry you could change into.”

 

Brox laid his jacket down. “And hopefully someone to send a message that my motorcar be sent for me.”

 

Tressa paused halfway across the entryway. Brox lived in the opposite direction from Rayden’s as Jasper.

 

“You didn’t have to walk me home,” Tressa said. He’d accompanied her home without question and without complaint, even though now he had twice as far to go to get home himself. The realization warmed her a bit, but not enough to chase away the last haunting tendrils still echoing inside her chest at remembering Westwood.

 

“With the string of vampire attacks London has been facing lately, no one should be out in the evenings alone.”

 

He had a good point. Unfortunately, Tom had not been the only one attacked as of late. The broadsheets were full of the news.

 

Well, she’d best find Brox something dry to wear. Tressa hurried up the stairs, motioning for Brox to follow. Jasper would probably be in his art room; rarely was he not. Two flights of stairs later, they approached the glass French doors to what must have been a conservatory at one point, or perhaps an orangery. The room still housed a few pots of ferns and flowers Jasper had, for some reason, deemed worth keeping alive.

 

Without knocking, Tressa pushed into the room. Jasper was hunched over one of several long tables. The tables nearest Tressa held several pottery pieces and vases, another held wooden toys, yet another held multiple paintings and several clay busts; one even held a tall stack of fresco paintings. Only the heavens knew what Jasper saw in coating the images with so much lime plaster.

 

Tressa approached the table Jasper hunched over, his long dreadlocks held back by his customary strip of fabric. Spread across the table were over two dozen pictures. Most were fist sized, but some were big enough to hang in a gallery. Still others were so small, they might fit inside a locket.

 

Jasper looked up and instantly his eyes went wide. Grinning, he flipped the images he had been studying upside down. “Hello. Had a nice evening?”

 

Tressa’s gaze narrowed. Her brother seemed nervous, fidgety. He kept his hand atop the pile of pictures he had been looking at when she entered the room. Moreover, he didn’t seem at all surprised to see her and Brox together, both wet from head to toe. Granted, they weren’t dripping wet any more, but their clothes were still obviously soaked.

 

Not even bothering to ask what he was about, Tressa stalked over to Jasper, flicked his hand away, and flipped over one of the photographs. Her mouth dropped open.

 

It was a picture of her and Brox, standing in front of Rayden, water dripping off every inch of them.

“Jasper Wimple,” Tressa ground out. “You will explain yourself, now.”

 

Jasper took two large steps backward, hands going up. “You said I should take non-posed pictures.”

Tressa could have screamed. Instead of treating him to some of the more colorful phrases she’d learned from the world over, she clamped her jaw shut and reached for another photo.

 

This one was taken just after the buckets tipped. Water poured down, she and Brox barely visible behind the blue fall.

 

Her lips twisted into a tight knot. How dare he? Tressa charged at Jasper, grabbing his lapels before he had time to scamper away.

 

Jasper held his hands up in surrender. “On the bright side, I’ve perfected a method of taking pictures without necessitating a flash. I took nearly a dozen images and you two never knew I was there.”

 

“If you wanted to live,” Tressa spoke through clenched teeth, “you would have made sure I never found out you were there.”

 

“Oh, gracious.” A squeak from the other side of the room.

 

Tressa peered over Jasper’s shoulder. Sure enough, wide-eyed, beautiful Christina stood with a gloved hand at her mouth and . . . wait, were those tears forming in her eyes? Oh gears above, help. If Christina dissolved into a puddle of tears at the sight of Tressa holding Jasper roughly, then she wouldn’t survive seeing what Tressa planned to do to Jasper next.

 

“What are you doing here, Miss Brown?” Brox asked, his tone sounding surprised. It was better, then, that he had asked. Tressa knew her tone would have been far more taught.

 

“I . . . I . . .” Christina glanced at Jasper, at Brox, at Tressa, and at Jasper once more. “He asked . . .”

The girl couldn’t even string a sentence together—no surprise there.

 

Tressa released Jasper. “Brox, perhaps you should see that Miss Brown gets home safely. I’ll make sure Jasper understands what it is he’s just done.”

 

Brox gave her a nod. “Very well. I leave him in your capable hands.” His gaze slid over to Jasper and darkened.

 

Tressa thought she heard Jasper gulp. But perhaps that was just her own wishful thinking.

 

Christina didn’t utter anything coherent as Brox, still in his wet suit, led her from the room. Jasper stayed silent after Brox and Christina had left and the stillness settled around him and Tressa. Tressa eyed her brother, jaw working wordlessly. If he’d been any other man, she would have sunk her fist in his face.

 

Perhaps she still should. After all, he had humiliated her. If the pictures he’d taken ever made their way into the broadsheets, there would be very real consequences for Westwood.

 

Then again, he was her brother.

 

But brothers needed to be raised with a firm hand.

 

Only, Jasper was already grown. She wasn’t looking at a ten-year-old lad. Her brother was more than thirty, which made the stunt all the more ludicrous and unacceptable.

 

“Well, say something,” Jasper muttered.

 

“I’m trying to decide if I should yell at you, or just punch you.”

 

He gave a one-shoulder shrug. “You yelled at me a lot growing up. Guess it didn’t stick.”

 

“So I should punch you?”

 

“Who knows? Maybe it would work better?” His voice tipped upward, as though he was either asking a question or cringing in anticipation of her fist.

 

Tressa picked up one of the pictures and waved it in his face. “Did you set this up? The meeting, the buckets, everything?”

 

Jasper pushed the image away. “Only the buckets. I happened across Miss Brown this afternoon while you were out with Brox. All I knew was that you two had something going on. Miss Brown filled in the rest.”

 

What had he been thinking? “That meeting with the perpetrator was important. You don’t even like Christina.”

 

“She’s not half bad.” Jasper glanced to the side as though re-thinking his statement. “Well, not in small doses, anyway.”

 

Tressa let out a long, loud growl. “How could you, Jasper? You scared away our one chance of speaking with the perpetrator. Do you have any idea how embarrassed I was? We both were?”

Jasper’s gaze dropped to his feet.

 

“There were reporters there. Reporters. If they print something about this in the broadsheets it could damage Westwood’s reputation. They’re already hurting for supporters.”

 

Jasper’s brows hardened into a single line across his forehead. “I don’t care about Westwood. The devil can burn the whole blasted building for all I care.”

 

“How can you say that? If it hadn’t been for Westwood, you and I would have died on the streets.”

 

“Well, maybe we would have been better off.”

 

Tressa stared at her brother. Did he really feel that way? Had life been so horrid that he wished it had ended decades ago? “Jasper?”

 

He ran first one hand, then the other through his hair. It was rather long. And, now that she studied him harder, he had circles under his eyes.

 

Tressa rested a hand against his arm. “Are you in trouble?”

 

He chuckled, but it was mirthless. “No. I have more money, more friends, more everything than ever before.” He turned and rested both hands against the top of the long table. Dropping his head low, he gave it a shake. “And you blame me for taking fake, non-posed images.”

 

“Pardon me?” What did fake images have to do with dumping buckets of water over people and spoiling their chance at capturing the perpetrator?

 

Jasper snatched up one of his photos. It was of a young woman with her nose buried in a bouquet of flowers, eyes closed. “This. This is posed, Tressa. But, no, that’s not good enough for you. You like your facts hard.”

 

Dropping that image, he picked up another, this one of her and Brox dripping wet. “So, what about this one, huh? This wasn’t posed. This was real. But that’s still not good enough, is it?”

He threw it down so hard, the image hit the table at an angle and bounced away.

 

Tressa’s voice matched his. “What you did was childish and irresponsible.”

 

“What I did was capture a real moment. What I did was face the issue head on.”

 

“What?”

 

“I wanted a shot of surprise. So I got one. It’s more than you’re willing to do.”

 

Tressa felt her own brow harden. “I always face things head on.”

 

He stuck his chin out. “Like Westwood?”

 

“Yes, like Westwood. They need help and I am helping them.”

 

“Have you told Brox about the hallway, then?” Jasper unbuttoned the cuff of his sleeve and pushed it up his arm, well past the elbow. Criss-crossing, pale scars stood out against his black skin, up near his shoulder. “Have you told him about our experiences with Westwood?”

 

Tressa’s tone hardened. “What would be the point?” She hadn’t spoken of her more painful childhood memories, not ever. Now, after two decades away from Westwood, she didn’t see any reason to start speaking of them now.

 

Jasper pulled his sleeve back down, his voice lowering, but still firm. “He doesn’t know, you realize. None of the new members have any idea why half the board was let go.”

That was ridiculous. “How could they not know?”

 

“Someone paid the others to keep it all hush-hush. The broadsheets reported the lay-offs as a result of financial mismanagement.”

 

“Oh, there was mismanagement happening all right,” Tressa muttered.

 

“True. But it wasn’t the money they were mismanaging.” Jasper picked up the picture of the woman and the bouquet and held it out to Tressa once more. “You got angry that I would pose a picture and then present it in such a way that it appeared to be an authentic moment. A snapshot of real life.”

 

Tressa took the picture and looked at it harder. He was right. She had gotten pretty mad at him the other day for faking his images and trying to convince people life was so posh and clean. “Young women smell bouquets every day. I don’t understand why you couldn’t take an actual impromptu picture.”

 

“People want to imagine their lives as more glamorous than that.” He pointed at the picture. “There were several half-dead flowers in the bouquet. But people don’t want to see that, so I removed them. The sun was bright and kept casting harsh spots across the woman’s neck and emphasizing her large nose, so I had to put up a sheet to soften the light.”

 

“You shouldn’t fix the image like that. People need to see reality for what it is.”

 

“You need to make them see reality for what it is.” Jasper rested a hip against the table. “You’re presenting money to the board as if you love Westwood. As though there are no dark shadows looming just out of sight. As if everything were as lovely and simple as a woman with a bouquet.”

 

Tressa shoved the image back at him. “If you ever get between me and helping those children again, I swear, brother or no, you’ll regret it.” Spinning on her heel, Tressa stomped out of the room, away from Jasper, and far from thoughts of their past.

Option B Won! Thanks for your vote!