Lord Jared’s house was well-appointed, with just the right balance of oil portraiture and clockwork sculpture on display. A maid took Lady Joceline’s coat at the door, pointed her towards the study, and then disappeared into the shadows. As she made her way down the corridor, there wasn’t a single servant to be seen. Like all the best houses, the workings of Jared’s were discreet.
Jared was waiting in the study. When Joceline appeared, he pressed a button on the wall and a hatch slid open. A trolley laden with high tea rolled put into the room.
“Cucumber sandwich?” Jared offered her the plate.
“So kind.” Joceline settled into a seat and reached for the teapot. “Let’s get to business.”
“Of course. The Brotherhood of Ludd.”
Joceline nodded. There was a faint hissing sound somewhere in the distance, but she pushed it from her mind – they had more urgent matters.
“This is the third time that we’ve had to restart production on the riot carriage,” she said. “Every time, the Luddites have found the location of the factory and smashed the machines. How are they doing it?”
Jared’s handsome brow crumpled as he frowned.
“Dashed if I know,” he growled. “Nothing our infiltrators hear accounts for it. It’s as if they aren’t even in the real meetings.”
Joceline sighed deeply.
“We have a lot riding on this,” she said. “We simply must make this machine pay, or the company will go bankrupt and both of us with it.”
“You’re right, of course.” Jared leaned forward and laid a hand on her knee. “But we have time to consider that. My wife is visiting with her sister, so perhaps we might-”
“Later,” Jocelin said, though she didn’t remove his hand. “Business first, pleasure after.”
There was that hissing again, such a familiar sound. A leaky steam pipe, perhaps, but where? She couldn’t see steam emerging from any of the room’s devices.
“I have an idea.” Jared walked over to the bureau and unlocked a drawer. He drew out a single sheet of paper. “The names of suspected ringleaders in the Brotherhood, obtained by our constabulary friends. In the hands of the right operatives – ones with a gift for both violence and discretion – these names might reveal more than they ever have to the judiciary.”
Jocelin’s pulse rose and she allowed herself a smile as she went to stand close behind him, peering over his shoulder at the list.
“Well done, Jared.” She slid a hand down his back and then around, felt him stiffen against her. “Maybe there is time to enjoy ourselves after all.”
Jared turned, leaned in, and kissed her on the neck. With a well-practised hand, he began unfastening her corset.
But there was the hissing again, just loud enough to distract, a pinprick deflating her ardour.
“Where is that coming from?” she murmured.
“From the fire that burns inside me,” Jared said, pulling her close. “From the passion that stirs whenever we-”
“Not that,” Jocelin snapped. “The noise. The hissing.”
“Oh, just a leaky pipe in the wall, I expect. I’ll get a servant down the passages later to fix it. And speaking of passages-”
“Wait wait wait.” Jocelin pushed him away as a terrible realisation dawned. “Jared, how do you keep your servants so unobtrusive? It’s not just training, is it?”
“Well, no, I’ve never had a knack for household management. But this place is huge, so I put passages in the walls for the servants to get around.”
“And from those passages, can they hear you in here?”
“Oh yes, how else would they know I want my tea sent up?”
Jocelin groaned and clutched the sides of her head. “Could you really be this much of an oaf?”
“What did I do this time?”
Rather than answer, she walked over to the wall, looked for a crack where wood panels joined, and pressed at the gap. Sure enough, a whole panel slid aside, revealing a startled maid with a notebook in her hand. Beside her, a poorly joined pipe was leaking a steady jet of steam.
“Got you,” Jocelin said, grabbing the girl’s wrist. “You have been spying for the Brotherhood of Ludd, haven’t you? Listening in on our company’s secrets. I’ll have you arrested, beaten, tried as a terrorist. I’ll see you swing from the gallows before I-”
“Think what else I’ve heard,” the maid said, grinning as she glanced down at Jocelin’s unlaced corset. “And now think if you want me talking to anyone you know.”
Jocelin gaped at the temerity of the girl. Didn’t she understand the seriousness of her situation?
The maid shook off Jocelin’s hand and stepped out of the wall.
“My lord,” she said, nodding to a slack-jawed Jared. “Best to consider this my resignation, eh?”
She picked up a cucumber sandwich as she strolled out, as if she had no care in the world.
It was all too much for Jocelin – every possible permutation of what followed, every disastrous outcome that could come from today.
She stood staring at the leaky pipe, its steam escaping into the air.
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