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Friday, September 20, 2013

An Ill Advised Experiment

 By Sarah Raplee
Dr. Franklin Stein peered over the rim of his spectacles and squinted at the display on his latest invention, a Physio-Energetic Transposer, or PET, device. The numbers and needles on the dial were a blur, as if they were swimming in lard. Frustration expanded his chest as though it were a balloon on the brink of bursting. He slammed a fist on the laboratory bench and let loose a string of expletives not meant for delicate ears.
He could not work, and it was his own bloody fault! How could he have neglected to order new spectacles? How could he tell President Grant about the delay?
The President would not be pleased with the man his Cabinet members had nicknamed Pet Scientist in Chief. Franklin hated to disappoint the one man who had staunchly supported his wide-ranging research efforts over the past five years.
A soft rap on the door made his stomach clench. He’d believed his new bride, Prudence, to be outside in the garden when he had given into his frustration. Had his coarse language offended her? If only his unique intelligence allowed him to navigate the intricacies of human society with a modicum of grace. But he was the metaphorical bull in the China shop of Society.
Heaving a sigh, he crossed the laboratory in two long strides and flung open the door. The sight of Prue’s beatific smile eased the tension in his shoulders. She seemed unaware of his recent fit of temper. She wrapped her arms around his neck, rose onto her tiptoes and then kissed him with lips as soft as butterfly wings.
As always, she took his breath away.
When she pulled back and gazed up at him through her lashes, laughter danced in her lovely violet eyes. “May I be of help, husband?”
She pressed her lips together instead of smiling, which confused him. Sometimes he felt completely at a loss with her, as if they spoke different non-verbal languages.
Several tendrils of chestnut hair had escaped her chignon to curl alongside the white column of her neck. Franklin found himself imagining what it would feel like to lift them away and kiss her where they had caressed her soft skin. Then he would sweep her off her feet and carry her into the library—
Prue tipped up her chin and raised her brows. “What in the world are you thinking, sir?”
He grinned. “Scandalous thoughts, m’dear, scandalous thoughts.”
Color rose in her cheeks. She folded her arms across her breasts and gazed at him askance. “I only wanted to help, not to distract you.”
He pulled her close, inhaling the calming scent of her flowery perfume. Lord, what did I do to deserve such a woman? She was not a typical female, frail of sensibilities and faint of heart. She helped him when his faults were a hindrance. Otherwise, she overlooked them. No longer a girl like the silly chits who’d hoped to wed him, she had come to his bed with an eagerness and generosity that had astounded him. One taste of her and he was lost forever.
“Well?” Prue said.
Franklin sighed. “I cannot read the transposer dial. I should have ordered new spectacles before the wedding.”
She smiled. “Then I can be of help. I’ll read the instruments for you so your work will not be affected. You can order the spectacles this afternoon.”
He opened his mouth to protest the need to run the errand today, but Prue’s smile melted his thoughts the way sunlight melts butter. Besides, his bride was not afraid to reveal her iron backbone when his wellbeing was at stake. There was no point in arguing about the spectacles.
She looped her arm through his and they walked toward the PET. Prue stopped unexpectedly and cast a puzzled glance up at him. “What happened to your seawater desalinization project? President Grant expects the results in three days.”
Franklin smiled. He enjoyed having someone intelligent with whom to discuss his work. “Not to worry, my dear. I perfected the process two days ago. The President already has my report.”
Her expression cleared. “I must visit the laboratory more frequently. What is your latest project, then?” She bent down to peer at the dial and switches on the PET’s central unit. Bundles of insulated electrical cables protruded from either side of the box for more than a yard before ending in shiny silver helmets.
“I call my new invention a Physio-Energetic Transposer, or PET. The basic idea came to me while I studied at Yale, but my experiments failed repeatedly. I needed a chemical compound with the proper biological and energetic properties for test subject preparation in order to be successful. Unfortunately, I failed to find one at that time.”
“But you’ve discovered one?” Prue said, her eyes shining.
He nodded. “The recent measles outbreak in Baltimore induced me to investigate Native herbal remedies. While searching for a plant to strengthen a person’s resistance to illness, I stumbled onto an herb known as datura. Priests and priestesses of the Indian tribes who live at the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers use datura to allow their spirits to roam free of their bodies. I believe datura weakens what I call the physio-energetic bond. This may be what I need to transpose minds.”
His excitement dimmed in the face of her shocked expression. He replayed their brief conversation in his head, but could recall nothing to explain her apparently negative reaction. His shoulders slumped. “What is it?”
Prue composed her features into a smile and laid her palms against his chest. Her warm brown eyes peered up into his. “I’m sorry; I thought you said you were going to transpose minds.” She laughed as if she had told a joke.
In response to Prue laying her hands on his chest, he slid his arms around her supple waist. This was a ritual they had developed to ease them through impending disagreements. The close physical contact helped him to remain calm when he felt confused.
In this case, her reaction to his invention was not at all what he had expected. What the devil did it mean? “That is exactly what I said. The president believes the ability to transpose minds between bodies may serve the country well. That is a direct quote.”
Prue blinked. She studied him for a moment and then shook her head. “Politicians are ambitious men, which sometimes makes them shortsighted.”
Franklin blinked. His fingers tightened on her waist. It had never occurred to him that the President of the United States of America might have faults like any other man. The implications were mind-boggling. His lungs compressed.
Prue cupped his jaw in her warm, soft hand. “Don’t look so horrified, Franklin. Only God is perfect.” She dropped her gaze to the rise and fall of his chest for a moment. “You must remain calm, my dear. Breathe slowly and deeply.”
He did as she instructed. His chest gradually opened up.
She grinned, and he knew she had thought of a way to help him understand her concerns about his project. He relaxed a little.
“Better?” she said, still smiling.
He hadn’t a clue as to what was coming next, but her smile was reassuring. He smiled back. “Much.”
“Help me to understand why you want to transpose minds, other than that the President is in favor of your research. What specific good do you foresee will come of it?”
Prue would wait patiently for his answer. She understood that these sorts of questions were difficult for him to answer. He thought back to the beginning of his quest, back to his time at Yale. He couldn’t remember ever giving the outcome of his work any thought. Why was that? “Predicting the effects of my work in society is impossible.”
She raised an eyebrow. “I disagree. You may find yourself ill-equipped to do so, but I believe I can safely predict little if any good will come of these experiments.”
Franklin didn’t know how to respond. He lifted his gaze to the blank wall and processed her words. Prue believed his work would cause only harm. It was logical to assume she wanted him to quit the PET experiments—forever. The thought alone made him break into a cold sweat. Once he began a project he was like a dog with a bone until he had his answers. He could not bring himself to give up the quest when he was so close to accomplishing his goals. Could he?
Franklin searched his wife’s loving eyes for an answer. Prue had never interfered in his work until today. Nor had she given him bad advice or claimed to have skills or knowledge she did not possess. She must feel strongly about this. She loved him, therefore she wanted what was best for him. “What do you suggest?”
“How far along are you in your research?” In a rare indication of nerves, she briefly worried her full lower lip.
He focused on her mouth while he considered her question. “I have determined the PET is safe to use on guinea pigs. They seem to suffer an hour of confusion before settling in to their usual patterns of behavior. But that doesn’t prove their minds were actually transposed. Guinea pigs are very similar in their general behaviors.”
The pink tip of her tongue darted out to lick her lips. He lost his train of thought.
“I suggest we purchase two dogs of differing breeds with very distinct behaviors, one well-trained to follow commands and one totally undisciplined. After we take time to become familiar with the dogs, you may attempt to transpose their minds. If you are successful, their behaviors will offer proof of success. And I have no doubt you will find my negative prediction has been verified”.
He frowned. “But you don’t approve of the PET experiments.”
“I want you to trust my judgment in these matters without reservation. Only hard experience will enable you to accept my advice. Besides, once you’ve begun a project, I am convinced you will fall ill from curiosity if not allowed find the answers you seek.” With an affectionate smile, Prue brushed a lock of his hair off his forehead. “I have only one request, Franklin.”
“Of course.”
“When you realize the wisdom of my prediction, will you destroy the PET device along with your notes, and then report that the experiment was an utter failure?”
He drew his brows together. “You want me to lie to the President?”
She shook her head. “If transposing minds causes nothing but problems, then the experiment is a failure for all practical purposes, don’t you see? Just because mankind can do something doesn’t mean we should.”
Prue’s explanation left Franklin breathless, as though he were on the brink of an epiphany but couldn’t see the next step. He was certain of only one thing. He could not stand for her to be unhappy.
“I will do as you ask. You have my word.”
Her eyes shone. “You are the dearest, sweetest man God ever put on this earth.” She pulled his head down for a kiss that burned away all logical thought.
A month later, Franklin waited in the laboratory for Sparky and Bruno, the dogs he and Prue had purchased three weeks before, to awaken from anesthesia. Each dog slept on his own pillow on the laboratory floor. Each wore a collar and chain attached to a ring set in the stone wall. They would be able to see each other, but not reach each other.
After completing the transposition, he had removed the silver helmets and tried to make the dogs comfortable. His Physio-Electric Transponder readings had indicated the datura loosened the mind-body connection in both dogs enough for the transposition to be successful. Things seemed to have gone smoothly. Only time would tell.
A soft rap on the door announced Prue’s arrival. Franklin opened the door.
His lovely wife swept into the room bearing a silver tray holding two cups of fragrant tea and a small plate of cookies. She set the tray on a workbench and then handed him a steaming cup. ““I’m so excited I can hardly breathe. Perhaps the tea will calm my nerves.”
Prue chattered when she was nervous.She had told him so.
“What about you, Franklin?” she said, smiling at him over the rim of her teacup. “Are you excited to find out if the transposition worked?”
He considered the question. His stomach was queasy. His muscles felt wound up as tightly as clock springs. His gaze dropped to Sparky’s small, inert form. His heart skipped a beat. What would the incorrigible terrier be like when he awakened?
He had never before owned a dog. The animals' companionship had been enjoyable. He and Prue played fetch with them every morning after breakfast. Bruno was the calmer of the two, obedient and prone to napping. Franklin found stroking the mastiff’s smooth coat quite soothing. Sparky’s antics made him laugh, and the little rascal had turned out to be a champion ratter. Their groom was delighted to have the terrier visit the stables.
Soft fingers grazed his cheek. He started, then offered his wife a sheepish smile. He had become lost in thought and forgotten to answer her question. “I don’t think I’m excited. I feel—twisted up inside.”
Prue sighed. “You’re worried, Franklin,” she said. “You’ve grown attached to the dogs.”
Before he could formulate a response, Bruno’s paws began to twitch.
Twenty minutes later both dogs were awake and pulling at the ends of their chains. Bruno, no longer obedient, would not stop barking and jumping around. Franklin wished he had used a larger gauge chain to secure the big dog. This one might not hold much longer..
Little Sparky had staggered around for a few minutes, stopping periodically to blink at Franklin with what felt like reproach. Then he flopped on his side on his pillow and closed his eyes.
Prue laid a hand on Franklin’s arm. She had to shout to be heard over Bruno’s barking. “I believe we have enough behavioral evidence to prove the PET device worked. The noise in here is giving me a headache. Let’s go sit in the garden.”
Franklin let her lead him outside. They sat on a warm stone bench. The air was infused with the scent of roses. Bruno’s muffled barks were clearly audible, but at least he could think again. He removed his spectacles and scrubbed his face with one hand.
Prue’s prediction had been accurate. He would never again doubt her advice. Switching the dogs between bodies was possible, but inadvisable. Dog’s emotions were relatively straightforward and thus easy for him to read. The animals were obviously unhappy. Knowing that made his heart ache. They were also ill-suited for their new bodies. Sparky-the-terrier was an incorrigible mite, while Sparky-the-mastiff was a danger to himself and others. He shuddered to think what might happen if the mastiff got loose.
Transposing people was no doubt possible, but the end result would at best break their spirits. At worst it would drive them insane. He no longer felt driven to continue with these experiments. He did not want to hurt anyone.
He donned his spectacles and then turned to his wife. The love that shone in her eyes made him feel that everything would come out alright. “I would appreciate your assistance in choosing future projects,” he said gravely.
Prue grinned. She began to unpin her hair. To his surprise, he knew exactly what she was thinking. As her hair came down, his blood heated. When the last pin came out, she rose and offered him her hand. “Transposing Sparky and Bruno back into their own bodies can wait until tomorrow. I suspect they need some rest before undergoing a second procedure. Let’s have a lie-down before dinner.”
He kissed the back of her hand, pretending he had misunderstood her intent. “You never take naps.”
She arched her brows at him and slowly unbuttoned the high collar of her white blouse, then the next button, and the next. Franklin swallowed. He could see the shadow of her d├ęcolletage and hear his blood rush in his ears.
“I do not plan to sleep,” she said.
He surged to his feet. “Neither do I.”
With that, he swept her into his arms. Her smile swelled his heart to bursting with love. As he carried her to the French doors that led to the library, he kissed her nose, her eyelids, her chin. After opening the doors, he carried her inside and deposited her on the brocade-covered settee. The air was heavy with the odors of leather and old books. He closed the doors and the heavy drapes for privacy.
“Why Dr. Stein,” Prue said from the shadows. “I do believe you have compromised me.”
“Not yet,”he said, “but I am about to, Mrs. Stein.”

Friday, September 6, 2013

The Timepiece Protector

Chapter One
"It's a lovely piece."
The saleswoman's sugary sweet voice irritated him. The crunch of cheap tin crumpling pulled his gaze from the woman browsing the front counter. He ground his teeth as he realized he'd just crushed the small tin solider toy. He'd have to spend extra money to buy the stupid piece. He needed the watch. He glanced up through his lashes. The exact one the blasted saleswoman was trying to pitch to the somewhat familiar woman. He slipped the tin solider into his pocket and sidled his way to her other side pretending to look at a set of cufflinks.
Wasn't much to anything in the shop. Except for the intricately engraved pocket watch glinting gold in the gas lamp light.
"How much?"
"Ninety pounds."
Steep. He might still have a chance. Perhaps his hands wouldn't get dirty on this one. Then again... He felt the grin slide across his lips. No! Stay in character. Killing will come later. Much later. He needed that watch. Now. His fingers twitched.
"As lovely as it is, that is much too steep for me." She began to hand it back.
The saleswoman looked around. More than likely looking for her husband, who owned the establishment. She leaned in lowering her voice.
"You're the milliner that designs those fabulous hats for the royal family for the Ascot races, aren't you?"
"Uh...I suppose, though I do more than the Royal family. I've designed for the ambassadors and other ladies. Though I do prefer to keep names to myself. You know how it is with the higher ranks."
The saleswoman blushed. "Of course. Would you consider a trade?"
The customer pulled back frowning. "What sort of trade?"
"The pocket watch for one of your lovely creations? It's been my dream for five years to own one of
your hats." The saleswoman sighed.
He clenched his hands holding his breath. He wanted to swing in between the two women and snatch the timepiece from the woman. He took a deep breath, held it for a moment, then let it out. Just because she gets the watch doesn't mean he can't retrieve it within the next couple days. Damn! Just three days to the full moon and the secret initiation of the Hellfire Club. He had to have that piece!
"I suppose that would work. If you're not wanting this on your hat."
"No...no...no. That would just be inviting thieves to attack. No. Just one of your lovely summer hats."
He ground his teeth as the women shook hands. Bile pushed up the back of his throat. He quickly paid the woman for the broken tin solider before racing out of the small shop after the milliner. Ah! There she was, strolling down the cobblestone street. Probably heading back to her own shop. She paused craning her neck to look behind her. He dashed into an alley peeking around the corner of a building. She shrugged and moved on. This one would be tricky. But he would have that pocket watch and his revenge on the Royal family. Even if it killed him.
*   *   *  
Ali huddled deeper into her caped black wool jacket. The misty fall morning left a chill similar to snow melting down the back of her neck. She shivered and hunched further in. Her hands would be stiff with the weather by the time she got to her shop seven blocks from her flat.
"S'cuse me, miss?"
Ali froze. Despite the temperature sweat beaded across her forehead. She glanced to the entry way of the alley she was crossing. A young boy of about ten sat huddled against the brick building.
"Got any food?"
Her stomach dropped. He held out his filthy hands turning red with the bite in the air. She shook her head but pulled out a coin.
"I don't have food, but here. There's a lovely bakery on the other side of this alley. Tell her Alistronia sent you and she'll see that you fill your belly." Ali held out the copper coin.
His eyes went large as he jumped to his feet. His fingers barely touched hers as he snatched the coin from her fingers. She blinked and he was already a quarter of the alley from her. Shaking her head she turned away from the street urchin.
If she hadn't taken on the care of her God-daughter Gods knew what would have happened to her with no other family to care for her. She smiled at the thought of her young charge. Though she wasn't so young anymore. Bronwen would be turning seventeen in a couple months. Just before Christmas. She was a good girl. Bright in her studies, very helpful in the shop but eager to go off on her own. Well, eager to have the season her father   had promised in his will. Bronwen had saved every little penny she earned to help pay for her coming out ball.
Ali paused on the corner where her shop stood proudly smashed between a seamstress and a tailor. She sighed letting the tension of the rough night flow off her. Bronwen hadn't come home last night, though that wasn't unusual when she was working on a new hat. The creativity tended to take over and she lost track of how much time has gone by. Ali pulled the key to the front door as she crossed the cobblestone street. Bronwen had to be there. She hadn't met any boys she was interested in. At least not that she had ever mentioned to her.
Ali stopped just in front of the door. The breath froze in her chest. The door stood slightly ajar, not in a welcoming way. Her heart sped up causing her to start to tremble. Bronwen knew to keep the doors locked at all times until she was there. On shaking legs Ali pushed the door open further with her index finger. She gasped clapping her hands over her mouth as the front of the shop came into view.
"Bronwen!" She screamed running into the destroyed room. Only silence met her cry of terror.
"Bronwen! Please answer me!" She pushed through the overturned countertop not caring that all of their hard work lay shredded and torn apart on the floor. Still only her movements filled the eerily silent building.
Her throat closed as she entered the sacred back room. The back room was their creative space normally organized with trims, frippery, and hat forms. Now it was shambles of a trash heap. Every drawer had been pulled out and dumped onto the floor. Books had been opened and papers torn out. Cushions Bronwen had designed and sewn were shredded the goose feathers all over.
"Bronwen?" She hiccuped. "Please. Please answer me."
She raced up the spiral wrote iron stairs to the small second story. Bronwen was nowhere to be seen. She slid on papers strewn across the floor as she stepped further into the room. Perhaps Bronwen had gone to market or somewhere else and left a note on her desk. She glanced to the large roll top her father had left her as a child. Even the cubbies had been empty and thrown across the room. As her gaze slid across the room and the helplessness start to slink in she spotted a piece of paper stuck against the single window. Hope flared as she slid and tottled her way to the only piece that looked like it had been purposefully placed there.
Her stomach dropped. It wasn't a note from Bronwen. The writing was a man's elaborate scrawl. A ransom note.
*   *   *
"What do you mean the police won't help you? Isn't it their job to retrieve kidnap victims?"
Ali shook her head hiccuping into her handkerchief.
"They say they have too much on their hands to worry about a runaway who staged her escape. They won't listen to me. They wouldn't send anyone out to look at the destruction done at the shop."
"How awful! That's just... just..."
Tristan hugged her close. It was just like her sister to offer comfort when Ali needed advice not love. Hugging wouldn't help her get her god-daughter back.
"Let me see that note again. Perhaps I can figure something out."
"I don't see how, but here." Ali pulled it out of her simple black reticule.
"Tremayne will be home shortly. He might know someone on the force that will help."
Ali sniffled pulling the blasted pocket watch from the same pouch. She'd spent the morning looking over the piece wondering what was so important about it that someone would kidnap a young woman in order to get it back. She'd even stopped by the general store who'd traded it, but no one had been there. The shop stood in silent darkness. Had she known the trouble it was worth and traded it to be rid of it? Was Bronwen alright? Had the kidnapper hurt her or Gods forbid done something irreparable to her?
The front door slammed. She wanted to take her eyes off the clock face peaking through the intricately carved gold filigree of the outer case, but it seemed to hold a mesmerizing effect on her. Tristan's silk skirts rustled as she left the sitting room to meet who Ali could only assume was her husband, Tremayne.  Men voices mixed with Tristan's softer words. The door of the sitting room opened finally drawing her gaze away from the clock.
Embarrassed to be caught still staring at the prized ransom item, she quickly stuffed it into her reticule. Tristan glided in. Sometimes Ali felt a pang of jealousy watching her sister. As far back as she could remember she moved with a grace Ali had never found. Not to mention Tristan had actually found a man who loved her as much as she loved him. Unlike the man her stubborn heart had chosen all those years ago. She sighed.
"It'll be alright, Ali. Tremayne said he might know someone who would be willing to help."
"Really? I don't have very long. When can I meet him?"
Tristan looked back over her shoulder. "Sooner than you think."
"Miss Parker. Even though this is such a horrible time for you I am glad to see you. It has been awhile since you visited our home." Tremayne sauntered into the sitting room holding his hands out to her.
Ali stood up accepting his warm hands. He pulled her into a large hug encouraging her to sink into him. The comfort of his hold had never felt wrong. He had always made her feel like the treasured little sister he'd never had. A throat cleared behind them. Tremayne smiled setting her a little away and stepping to the side still holding her right hand.
"Alistronia Parker, I'd like to introduce you to my best friend recently of New York America, Dermot Harken. Dermot, Alistronia Parker, my sister-in-law."
Ali couldn't help staring at the man standing before her. He was tall, taller then Tremayne by a few inches, and Tremayne had been the tallest man she knew. The simple black riding jacket fit his body to perfection making her realize he didn't need the disguise of padding to look healthy. His dark hair hung loose against his collar bringing her gaze to the creases in his face. He looked like he had spent endless hours in the sun.
"It's a pleasure to meet you ma'am." He held out his hand.
Without conscious thought Ali slipped hers in his hold. His hands were rough with callouses and strong. Very strong, yet so gentle. Her pulse thumped against her skin as she drew back quickly.
"Likewise I'm sure." Ali turned back to Tremayne. "Do you really think you can help? Bronwen is -"
"Important, I know." Tremayne settled a hand on her shoulder and squeezed lightly.
Ali nodded and fought the urge to crumble into a new sobbing fit. She squeezed her handkerchief in her left hand.
"Why don't we sit down and go over the details."
Tremayne escorted her to the settee she'd been crying on minutes earlier. Tristan sat down next to her while Dermot sat across from Ali. Ali glanced down at her hands hiding the frown marring her forehead. How could she call him by his first name? She'd never felt comfortable with men, yet this man had her relaxing into the cushions.
*   *   *
Alistronia. Such an unusual name. She fit exactly as Tremayne had described her. Except for the red puffy eyes and the tearful blue trying to avoid his gaze. Having known Tremayne since they were toddlers he hadn't been surprised at how much he cared for his sister-in-law, but seeing her personally, Dermot could see the fragility in her. As Tremayne poured them all drinks she worried the delicate lace edge handkerchief. Her gaze darted from him to the letter now sitting on the side table to her reticule attached to her pale wrist.
He breathed in silently. He shouldn't be feeling anything for anyone. He had been sent to England for recruitment and to investigate a location for the Pinkerton Detective Agency. Mr. Pinkerton was hoping to spread his agents all over the world, and London was the premiere spot. He'd just happened to believe he could kill two birds with one stone. He'd immediately pulled up Tremayne's address and made contact.
"Now, my dear sister. Tell us what has happened."
She sighed her shoulders turning inwards.
"I don't know what happened. Honestly-"
Dermot took her right hand between his. Once a client is comfortable with you they will tell everything. He'd always been good with the women clients. It was one of the aspects of his personality that Mr. Pinkerton had loved about him.
"Why don't you start from the beginning?"
She frowned shaking her head. "I don't know where-"
"When did you receive this note?"
"This morning. I went to my shop like I do every morning..."
"My millinery. Bronwen hadn't come home last night. Sometimes she looses track of the time and will work all night. When I got there... the door was open...the shop destroyed..."
Alistronia began to tremble. He rubbed her hand trying to pour some of his body heat into her.
"So you're assistant was missing and your shop destroyed?"
"She's not my assistant. She's my God-daughter. Gods, if anything happens to her..."
"If she's anything like her God-mother I'm sure she'll be fine." Tristan spoke sliding an arm around
her shoulders.
"That's not the point, Tristan. I gave my word-"
"To a dead man." Tristan sighed. "I know. I know. What I don't understand is why someone would take Bronwen. It's not like she's from a wealthy family."
"What does the kidnapper want in exchange of her safe return?"
Alistronia hesitated for a minute before finally digging into her reticule. He found himself fascinated as she pulled a gold object from the black silk bag. She held her hand out. Her fingers unfurled. In the center of her palm lay an intricate gold filigree pocket watch about the size of the American Half-dollar. Chills chased up his spine leaving in it's wake chill bumps. His mouth dried as he stared at something he thought he'd never see again. With shaking hands he reached forward. Her skin was smooth against his rough fingertips. She in hailed.
He dragged his gaze from the pocket watch up to her blue gaze. She frowned as if her reaction had confused her. Her fingers closed over the pocket watch trapping his fingers in her fist.
"I would prefer not to let this go. It's my only bargaining chip."
"I can understand that. Where did you get it? When did you purchase the watch?"
"I received it in trade. Yesterday evening."
Dermot moved so that he sat on Alistronia's right side. His leg pressed into hers as he pulled her hand towards him. If she wasn't going to let the watch out of her hand he'd look at it in her hand. If it was the one his father had put together, he'd be damned if he let her give it up to some monster who more than likely would kill her as return her God-daughter.
Her breath hitched as he unfolded her fingers. Sending her a glance from under his lashes he couldn't help but notice her pupils had dilated. She ran her tongue over her bottom lip before biting it between perfect white teeth. He in hailed. Pulling his gaze away from her tempting mouth he cursed the timing. He couldn't afford a fling at the moment.
"What do you suppose the kidnapper wants with a watch? As pretty as it is, surely it can't be worth a life?"
"I suppose it depends on the importance of this piece to the kidnapper. I'd move heaven and hell itself to keep you with me, my love." Tremayne spoke to Tristan sliding fingers across the back of her neck. She smiled up at him.
"Everyone has their price." Dermot told Tristan without taking his gaze from Alistronia.
*   *   *
Ali pulled her gaze away from Dermot's intense bronze one. He was clearly warning her about something, but at the moment she couldn't make heads or tails what it was. He pushed the knob on the top and the filigree front popped open. The elegant roman numerals glowed black against the mother-of-pearl face.
"It's very beautiful." She found herself whispering.
He looked up for a second with a soft smile.
"It's very well crafted. I'd say by a master clockmaker."
"So why is it important? Why hold someone for ransom?"
"How did it come into your possession again?"
"I traded for it. The shopkeeper wanted something I provide."
"A trade?"
"Alistronia is very sought after. She is one of the best milliners in London. She's serviced the Royal family." Tristan spoke with pride.
"Tristan. I've created hats for many others besides the Royal family. Besides, the Royal family is very large and complex."
"So you traded one of your creations for this?" Dermot asked. Expecting skepticism Ali was thrown off that he sounded more intrigued. She nodded. "Do you know where the shopkeeper got the watch?"
"No. She never said, but she did seem in a hurry. She offered to sell it to me, but I wasn't willing to pay ninety pounds for it. That's when we struck the trade."
Tremayne whistled. "Ninety pounds? Pretty high cost."
Dermot flipped it over. "Though not as much as it should of been. This quality of work would cost several thousand if I know anything about clockmaking."
"Oh yes. Your father."
"My father. Have you dealt with this shopkeeper before?"
"Oh several times. She runs a general store with her husband just a couple blocks from my own."
"Are you willing to introduce us?"
"I don't understand."
"Dermot works with the Pinkerton Detective Agency is America. He's very skilled in this sort of
thing, Ali." Tremayne set his glass down on the mantle. "We grew up together, fought together and saved each other's lives on more than one occasion. You can trust him to bring Bronwen home."
"Why can't I just meet him where he wants and hand over the watch?"
"Do you really think that will work?" Tristan stood up. "You know these types of men just as well as
I do, my dear. You know Bronwen won't come home. And neither will you. Please let, Mr. Harken to help."
"I have plenty of experience and can give you my word I will bring your God-daughter home safe."
Ali sat nearly in his lap trying to figure out what his goal was. He had a hard time letting go of the watch even when she tugged it away. He seemed connected to the watch in some way. She frowned. Was it too much to ponder if he was the kidnapper? She swept a glance at Tremayne. No, he couldn't. Tremayne would never be friends with someone like that. But his willingness to "help" and his clinginess to the watch told a different story.
"I insist, Alistronia. As the head of the family, I'm hiring Dermot to bring Bronwen home safe."
Dermot wrinkled his nose. "I don't need to be hired. Besides, I'm here on an assignment."
Tremayne grabbed Dermot by the arm and dragged him out of the sitting room.
"You know once Tremayne gets something in his head he won't let it go."
Ali sighed. "I know. I suppose I'm stuck, aren't I?"
"What a way to be stuck? He's very handsome. Tremayne says he's very kind and generous. You couldn't do worse."
"I suppose not. At least he's willing to listen unlike the bobbies."
Tristan turned towards the door smiling. Ali's stomach jumped. She knew exactly what her sister was planning. It wasn't the first time she'd tried to set her up with a man. And probably wouldn't be the last. Despite her continued arguments that she's happy as she is, Tristan didn't believe her.
"Will you truly give up that watch to the kidnapper?"
"If it means getting Bronwen home, yes. I'll do anything to keep her safe."
Tristan spun around. "Even kill?"
Ali looked up locking gazes with her older sister. "Anything.”

Next Chapter will be posted October 4, 2013
Copyright Mae Pen 2013
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