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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
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