Clockwork Image

So far in Clockwork Image:

Tressa Wimple wants to bequeath a large sum of money to Westwood Orphanage. However, threats and accusations have delayed the process. In the last chapter, Tressa learned that it was her brother, Jasper, who doused her and Brox in water—simply to get a photograph. Outraged, she let him know in no uncertain terms that he was to never stand in her way again. 

Tressa ate breakfast alone.

 

Three days ago, after their argument, Jasper had slipped a note under her door while she was drying off and readying for bed. There wasn’t much to it, only that he was leaving. He didn’t say where he was going or how long he would be away. He only said he was leaving and that she could stay in the townhouse as long as she liked.

 

He hadn’t even promised he’d come back at all.

 

Tressa spooned another lump of unsweetened porridge into her mouth. She had considered frying up some of the bacon she’d found in the ice box, but she didn’t feel like eating anything fancy.

Unsweetened porridge had been enough for her as a girl; it was enough today.

 

Jasper’s accusations still swam through her mind. At first, she had been angry—how dare he accuse her of being as insincere as some fake, non-posed image? But, the more she thought about it, the more she could see the roots of his accusation.

 

Tressa Wimple, who had always prided herself on facing problems head on, was skirting the issue at hand.

 

She let her spoon drop into the empty bowl. It clanked loudly, echoing through the silent space. Gears above, she hoped Jasper would come home soon. They’d both suffered through much, but they’d always had each other.

 

Of course they had always fought and grumbled occasionally, less often as they’d grown up, but there was never any question as to whether or not they would have each other’s backs. Where had he gone? Jasper had done well lately; his art was becoming something of a rage in London. But she knew he didn’t have enough for a second house.

 

She needed to clear her head. Tressa stood abruptly and, after washing her dishes, pulled on a practical jacket and strode out the front door.

 

The streets were mostly empty—it was still too early for a fashionable stroll. Tressa wandered first down one street and then another until she turned a corner and stopped.

 

A large motorcar was parked near the curb. She recognized that motorcar; it was Brox’s. Which meant—she glanced at the building that loomed over the car—sure enough, she’d wound her way over to Westwood.

 

Gads, stupid unconscious mind, driving her toward the one place she really wanted to avoid.

Tressa stared up at the wide doors. Jasper had accused her of feigning love for this awful place. He didn’t fully understand, though. As terrible as life in Westwood had been, it was certainly better than life on the streets. Without Westwood, dozens of children would be left with nowhere to go. Jasper was a grown man; he ought to understand as much without her spelling it out for him.

 

She glanced over her shoulder at the stationary motorcar. A driver sat inside, his hat askew and a broadsheet spread over the steering wheel.

 

Hadn’t Brox’s motorcar hummed rather off key a few days ago? She’d ridden around with him for quite a while, as they gathered the right clothing items to blend in before heading over to Rayden’s. She was certain she’d noticed something off with the motor.

 

That’s what she needed today—a motor to work on. A machine in need of care. Pulling her jacket off and pushing her sleeves up, Tressa strode toward the motor car and opened the hood.

The driver jumped in his seat at the banging of metal and then stumbled out of the door.

 

“What are you doing? Step away—”

 

“Hello again,” she interrupted, giving the driver a smile. It probably looked more menacing than pleasing, but she wasn’t in the best mood and so it would have to be enough. “Brox asked me to take a look at his engine. I noticed something was off last time we rode together.”

 

A bit of a fib; Brox hadn’t actually asked her to look at his motorcar. But, had she told him about the sound, he probably would have.

 

Tressa ducked her head lower, closer to the motor, ending her conversation with the driver. The engine was clean, she’d give the driver that much. At least he wasn’t a complete pigeon-brain.

 

“Hey, Seawoman Wimple.”

 

Tressa glanced up at the cheerful greeting. Michael, the boy who’d helped her in the boiler room, waved back, a grin across his face. At least someone was having a good day. She had truly enjoyed showing the eager young man around the boiler room, teaching him the basics. His presence was just what she needed now.

 

“Hello, Michael,” she called back. Tressa pulled a small wrench from her pocket. There were benefits to always carrying at least a few tools around. “Care to help me?”

 

***

“Turn the engine over again,” Tressa called to the driver.

 

With an impatient sigh, the man dropped his broadsheet onto the seat beside him and stuck the key back in the ignition.

 

Michael took half a step back and rested his hands against his hips. Tressa avoided touching her own clothing. Michael would never be able to scrub out the black stain he’d just put on his breeches. Not that it mattered. One couldn’t become a mechanic and stay clean.

 

The engine hummed, then a whirling started.

 

“Hear that?” she asked.

 

Michael’s brow creased. “Yeah, sounds like it’s coming from over there.” He pointed toward the back of the engine and off to the left.

 

“I agree,” Tressa shouted over the noise. “All right. Shut her off.”

 

The driver twisted the key and the engine died. Without waiting for further instruction, he pulled the broadsheet back up, muttering something about a waste of time.

 

“I’m guessing a bolt has gotten a bit loose,” Tressa explained to Michael. Together they leaned over the warm engine.

 

“Hello, Michael,” a light voice came from behind them.

 

Michael startled. Tressa was close enough to the young man to feel him clench up and then instantly relax. She loved that he was so enthralled with the engine to have forgotten the world going on around them.

 

Michael pulled back and stood up straight. “Hello, Suzie.”

 

Tressa stood as well. She could have tightened the bolt first—it was not as though it was a difficult job—but she’d rather wait and let Michael do it.

 

Suzie looked to be about Michael’s age, with brown hair and big brown eyes. Judging by the way she peered up at Michael, she had quite a thing for him.

 

“You missed lessons this morning.” There was no reprimand in the girl’s tone, only honest concern. “Mr. Broxholme didn’t know where you were and I was worried you had taken ill or something.”

 

Michael’s grease-covered hand flew to his forehead. “Lessons! Ah, blast.” He glanced over at Tressa. “I guess I got kind of wrapped up in things here.”

 

“Don’t worry,” Tressa said. “I’ll speak with Mr. Broxholme for you. He can’t be too angry since you fixed his motorcar.”

 

“You fixed it?” Suzie asked, her tone full of awe.

 

Michael turned red and his hand dropped away from his face, revealing the new, dark smear he’d just left on his forehead.

 

“That’s wonderful,” Suzie praised.

 

Michael didn’t say anything, but buried his hands deep in his pockets, his shoulders raising nearly up to his ears at the compliment.

 

Tressa turned back to the engine as Suzie continued on with her extolment. Michael was a smart young man and he’d make a competent mechanic someday. He only needed to learn not to get grease over everything between now and then. That being said, it didn’t seem as though Suzie minded.

 

Tressa placed her hands along the rim of the engine and leaned forward a bit. Oh, to be a young man, to have the grease on your hands only serve as proof of ability rather than evidence that you’ll never fit society’s mold.

 

Footfalls sounded from Westwood’s front steps. “Michael, we missed you in class today.”

 

“Sorry, Mr. Broxholme, sir,” Michael sputtered.

 

“He was taking a different kind of lesson,” Tressa said, still under the hood.

 

Brox rounded the motorcar and smiled at her. “I’m glad to hear his time wasn’t wasted.”

Michael didn’t seem to believe he would be let off so easily. “I’ll work hard and catch up, sir. See if I don’t. And your motorcar sounds much better now. If ever you need help with the engine again, I’m your man.”

 

Brox turned his smile to the young man. “Thank you. I’m sure Suzie can fill you in on today’s lesson.”

 

“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.” Michael backtracked.

 

Tressa watched the two youngsters disappear back inside Westwood. Though Michael had clearly been concerned about missing his lesson, he wasn’t scared. Not like someone who was frequently beaten or whipped, like someone who knew what it felt like to have food withheld. Westwood was improving. It filled Tressa’s heart to see the evidence.

 

If only Jasper could see the same thing—there was nothing wrong with donating her money to the orphanage.

 

The driver pulled himself out of the motorcar and approached her and Brox. “Sir,” he said in a tight tone. “She insisted, despite the fact that the motor was running quite smoothly before she ever stuck her head inside.”

 

“It’s all right, Rupert,” Brox said. “I trust her.”

 

Rupert let out an unapologetic harrumph.

 

Tressa coughed to prevent herself from laughing out loud. Brox may trust her, but Rupert certainly did not.

 

“Tell you what,” Brox said to the driver. “You’ve been here all morning, and you are no doubt hungry. Head inside and tell Cook I’ve said you can help yourself to a couple of her biscuits.”

 

Rupert rolled his eyes and, with hands clasped behind his back, stomped up the stairs.

 

“He’s a real charmer, that one,” Tressa said once the door to Westwood was closed again.

 

Brox chuckled. “I’m afraid he was one of the unlucky members of the upper echelon who fell on hard times and had to resort to working. Rupert forgot to leave his bored-with-life pretense behind when he was hired as a driver.”

 

The thought of pretenses only brought Jasper to mind and Tressa let out a sigh. She hoped he was all right, wherever he’d decided to go.

 

Brox reached an arm along the frame of the motorcar so that it wound between her and the engine. “What did I say wrong this time?”

 

Tressa shook her head. “Just worried about Jasper.” She took a half-step away from the motorcar and reached for a cloth to wipe her hands on.

 

Oh, blast. Her hand paused just above her breeches pocket. She hadn’t brought anything with her. When she’d left the town house that morning, she hadn’t exactly planned on working on an engine. Yes, she’d brought a few tools out of habit, but apparently her Jasper-worried brainbox hadn’t extended efforts far enough to realize she would have been wise to bring a cloth as well.

 

Brox pulled a white handkerchief from his vest pocket and held it out to her.

 

She glanced at it, one eyebrow raised. “If I touch that, it will never be the same again.”

 

Brox only held it out further. “It’s the least I can do. You’ve been working on my motorcar after all.”

 

Tressa took the handkerchief and began wiping her hands. Sure enough, large black streaks came off, staining the fabric.

 

Brox leaned back against his motorcar, both hands resting to either side of him. “You did well with Michael.”

 

Tressa pushed the cloth hard against the skin between her fingers. Grease could hide in the most unsuspecting places. “He’s got a good ear and mind for mechanics. I hope he gets more opportunities to develop that skill.”

 

Brox tilted his head to the side. “Jasper once mentioned that you were unsure how long you would be staying here and where you would go next.”

 

“Are you trying to get rid of me?” Tressa teased.

 

Brox’s tone was far more sincere. “The opposite, actually. I’m hoping you’ll stay.”

 

The energetic way she wiped her hands slowed.

 

His deep eyes stayed on her. “We have a couple of teachers here, but no one who teaches mechanics. Michael isn’t the only one who would benefit from what you could provide.”

 

“You want me to stay? To teach the children?”

 

The corner of Brox’s lips tipped upward. He grabbed hold of a belt loop on her breeches and tugged her close to him. “Well, not just to teach the children.”

 

Pressed up close to him, Tressa could barely breathe. Thoughts and emotions and desires collided inside of her. Thus far, she’d understood their relationship, had been able to make sense of how much she enjoyed his company. But this—this was something far more intense than anything she’d ever anticipated. This rush of heat and passion. Is this what she’d been missing all these years?

His hand against her hip. His lips so close to hers.

 

Gads, and she was so dirty. Tressa tucked her still filthy hands behind her back; his suit was brown with light tan pinstripe and must have been very expensive.

 

“You are a beautiful woman, Tressa,” Brox said.

 

Is that what he thought of her? Lud, she suddenly felt far less like a pal.

 

Brox’s gaze dropped to her lips and then came back up. “May I kiss you?”

 

The moment just kept getting better and better. Maybe she’d been wrong to assume he’d seen her only as a friend. Tressa drew in a deep breath—

 

The darkness of her past cascaded over her, silencing the passion in her chest; Brox smelled of Westwood.

 

Like dusty furniture and stale bread. Like fabric rubbed thin and unwashed hair. It was the smell of hidden fear and wordless pain.

 

Tressa closed her eyes—it wasn’t as though Brox could possibly be involved in hurting any child. It was only logical he’d smell thusly; he’d spent the better part of the day inside the orphanage teaching. After Tressa had returned home from working on the boiler, she’d noticed the same smell on her own person.

 

Brox was waiting silently.

 

She tried to calm the sudden rush of panic that had quelled all other emotions. She wasn’t a little girl anymore. Her past was decades behind her. Images of her caretakers beating her flashed across her mind. Images of other children’s bleeding hands as they sat beside her followed. Tressa ground her teeth together and tried to ignore them. No one was going to hurt her now. And yet, that smell, so closely linked in her mind to the suffering she’d had to endure, refused to be ignored.

 

Brox pulled back, moving to the side and putting a bit of space between them. “I apologize.”

 

Tressa tried to say something, but her throat was closed off. She grappled with her memories, willing them to leave her be. They refused to be scrubbed away. Like the grease on her hands, her memories seemed to lurk in unsuspecting corners, ready and waiting to jump out and stain any moment they touched.

 

Brox gave her a very formal bow, his face tugged low from hurt. “I best see if Rupert is ready to leave.” He spun on his heel and headed inside Westwood.

 

Devil take it. Tressa dropped her head into both hands, not caring now if they were dirty or not. She had just ruined everything. No, she hadn’t ruined the moment, Westwood had. The blasted orphanage had reached out from her past and taken the one thing she had hoped for above all else.

 

Tressa grabbed her wrench and tightened the bolt she’d been saving for Michael, swearing loudly the whole time.

Thanks for your vote!

The survey is now closed. Below are the options which were available. 

In Chapter 10,  Tressa returns to Westwood in the hopes of finding Jasper. She knows while there she will most likely see Brox. After all that has happened between them, does she . . .

Option A) Dress like always: mechanical jacket and practical, brown breeches?

Option B) Dress to impress: her best (and only) dress and feminine outer corset?