The Blushing Bounder

“The Blushing Bounder”

While the search for a killer puts Constable Newberry’s life in danger, he faces a danger of another kind: to his heart, by the woman forced to marry him. What will it take for this prudish bounder to convince his wife to stay?

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13,400 words/50 pages
December 2013

READ AN EXCERPT

1

The needles in Miss Lockstitch’s left hand could have sprung from Temperance’s fevered nightmares. Not even her hand, but an embroidering machine shaped like a hand, the steel contraption hadn’t disturbed Temperance at first glance. It had seemed more of a curiosity, and she’d been so desperate for conversation that when Miss Lockstitch had appeared at the door of their small flat, Temperance had actually thanked her horrid husband for arranging a companion to begin sitting with her every day.

She ought to have known. From the moment Edward Newberry had forced a kiss upon her, Temperance’s life—what little remained of it—had been one dreadful episode after another: deceived by Newberry’s seemingly honorable character, shunned by her family and employer, forced to marry the man who’d instigated her fall, moved across an ocean from Manhattan City to filthy London, and denied the gentle care of a sanatorium, where she might have spent her final years in privacy and comfort.

And now she had become the horrid one, staring rudely at another’s affliction. Sitting in the chair opposite Temperance’s sofa, Miss Lockstitch had laid her palm over a blue cloth stretched across a round wooden frame, and positioned the frame over her thigh. Temperance simply couldn’t look away from the score of needles rhythmically jabbing through the back of the woman’s steel hand, the twitching fingers that seemed to control the needles’ speed and the pattern of the colored threads. At Miss Lockstitch’s knee, a muffled clicking and slight up-and-down of her toes told Temperance that another apparatus had been grafted onto the woman’s leg—which now explained the pretty bow that had been tied over the knee of her trousers. Beneath the fall of cloth she embroidered, Miss Lockstitch must have quietly exposed the machine in her leg that was working in tandem with her hand. As she worked, Miss Lockstitch spoke of her upcoming marriage to Constable Thomas, as if it were perfectly normal to carry on a conversation with her contraptions half-exposed.

Perhaps it was. Perhaps, in London, it was. Temperance hadn’t yet met a person who hadn’t had a tool attached to their body in some fashion, or a prosthetic limb to replace it. Miss Lockstitch lived in a boarding house full of other seamstresses, all members of the lockstitch guild—and, Temperance assumed, all fitted with similar contraptions.

“Mrs. Newberry?”

Her gaze darted up, met Miss Lockstitch’s enquiring look. Beneath her curling blond fringe, the young woman’s brow had furrowed with concern. Heat climbed into Temperance’s face. Though the seamstress had turned her focus away from her cloth, the clicking of the machine hadn’t ceased; she didn’t know how long Miss Lockstitch had been watching her, waiting for a response.

Temperance scrambled for an excuse. In the first hour of her visit, Miss Lockstitch’s replies had been marked by shyness and uncertainty. She’d slowly become more comfortable, speaking more quickly, asking more questions. No matter Temperance’s feelings about the terrible machine, she couldn’t bear the thought that her rudeness would make the young woman feel unwelcome.

And she was young—only eighteen, by Temperance’s estimate. Perhaps that age could serve as the excuse she needed.

“Forgive me, Miss Lockstitch. I found myself wondering… I had heard that the Horde waited until the children raised in crèches were almost fully grown before altering them for labor. Yet you must have been only nine or ten years of age when the revolution drove the Horde from England. Did I misunderstand?”

“Not at all.” Miss Lockstitch glanced at her hand, and in her faint smile there seemed a combination of pride and loss. “I had a blacksmith create it for me two years past.”

She’d deliberately let someone remove her hand and attach that contraption to her body? Temperance struggled to contain her horror. “Why?”

“How was I to compete and to find employment if I did not?” A frown creased the young woman’s brow, as if she were uncertain how Temperance could have missed an obvious point. “I was apprenticed to the guild shortly after the revolution, but who would hire me when my stitches were so much slower? When they were sometimes uneven? I would hardly be useful in any of the shops, and a burden upon my guild house.”

The need to be useful, the fear of becoming a burden. Temperance understood both very well. “I see,” she said.

“I understand why this surprises you, but it was a necessary step, and all to my benefit. My machine is more advanced than the Horde embroidering devices are—and my fingers function as all fingers do, so the apparatus is still useful when I’m not working. There are many older ladies who only have the use of one hand.” Miss Lockstitch’s eyes narrowed, evincing a shrewdness that Temperance hadn’t seen within her before. “Without this, I could never have advanced within the guild. I could have been named seamstress, but my voice would never carry as much weight, and my purse would always be light.”

She spoke so blatantly of money? Such vulgarity. But perhaps this was the way of London, too—and hadn’t Temperance once done the same, confiding in Edward Newberry about her expectation of a small inheritance? Was not her openness the cause of his deception and her current situation? She could not condemn this woman for vulgarity without also condemning herself, and Temperance refused to take the blame for Edward Newberry’s actions.

Still, it was uncomfortable to hear such plain speaking.

With her face coloring again, Temperance nodded and shifted her legs on the sofa, rearranging the thin cotton blanket over them, hoping the activity would also serve as a break in the conversation. She no longer wanted to pursue this topic.

The clicking paused. “Are you in need of assistance?”

“No.” Temperance smiled and leaned back against her pillows again. “I was only adjusting my blanket.”

Miss Lockstitch hesitated. Her teeth pressed against her bottom lip before she admitted, “I ought to have told your husband when he asked me to sit with you, but I am not… I am not entirely familiar with illness. If ever you need something, please ask it of me. I might not know to do it, otherwise.”

And here was the simplest way to be rid of her, Temperance realized. She only had to say that the woman would be of little help when her consumption worsened again, and Newberry would have to find someone else. Perhaps someone without an unpleasant contraption fixed to her hand and leg.

But Miss Lockstitch herself wasn’t unpleasant, and Temperance’s horrid husband would probably find someone awful to visit with her, simply as punishment.

“There’s not much to be done now, anyway,” Temperance said. “If the coughing begins to take me again, there are compresses and poultices that can ease the strain. But we will speak of these at a later date.”

Miss Lockstitch’s smile was soft and grateful. “Is it very difficult, this illness?”

Difficult? It was killing her. She could not cross a room without feeling winded, without her heart fluttering like a weak bird—she could not, though her sisters had once nicknamed her Temperance the Tireless. Her hands, once so steady and strong, could not hold a sketching pencil for more than ten minutes without shaking. Her fingers had thinned to twigs, and she could not bear to look in the mirror, to see the hollows in her cheeks, her sunken eyes, her pale skin. At night, she awoke shivering in her own sweat, out of dreams where she watched herself slowly waste away to nothing.

But she only smiled faintly—did she appear ghastly yet when she smiled?—and said, “It is tiring, sometimes.”

Relief softened the other woman’s features. “I am glad to see that it is nothing like bug fever. My guild mate Jenny came down with that after a steamcoach crushed her leg, and she was like a furnace to touch, with boils all over her face, and they had to put her in ice just to keep her alive. The physician said her bugs were working so hard to heal her that they all but killed her.”

Bugs. Temperance didn’t know how she spoke so casually of the tiny machines living within her body, especially as they were called bugs. How could she not spend her day scratching at her skin, trying to get them out?

Even worse, knowing that those bugs had been used by the Horde to control everyone in England until the revolution—and after they were dead, turned them into monsters.

How could Miss Lockstitch bear it? Though Temperance supposed that never becoming sick would be one small benefit. “So you’ve never taken ill?”

“No.” Miss Lockstitch shook her head. At her knee, the embroidery machine began clicking again. “I don’t know anyone who has been, aside from yourself.”

“But there are physicians?” Temperance should probably contact one, before too long—though she didn’t know what a London physician could do for her. What would he know of consumption?

There was little to be done anyway. Her husband had pressed the idea upon her that she might let herself be treated with the bugs, but she could not—she would not—become the monstrous thing that the infected became after they were dead. She would not allow her body to transform into a ravenous walking corpse, like those that had devastated all of Europe.

The nightmares of becoming a zombie came as often as the nightmares in which she wasted away to nothing—and in them, she hardly looked any different.

“There are physicians,” Miss Lockstitch confirmed. “Problems arise now and again when a girl in the house delivers a babe.”

From Miss Lockstitch’s easy tone, Temperance gathered she was speaking of problems other than it being an unmarried girl delivering the babe.

Yet another difference between London and Manhattan City—perhaps the biggest difference of all. After one forced kiss, Temperance had been shackled to a lying lecher, yet no one here thought anything of an unmarried woman bearing a child.

“And then, of course, the babe will need to be infected with bugs,” Miss Lockstitch continued. “It’s always best for a blacksmith or physician to make the blood transfusion. In fact, the physician who infected Molly’s last babe is father to the jade whore paired with your husband.”

Shock slapped Temperance, made her mouth drop open. “Father to the what?”

Two pink spots appeared high in Miss Lockstitch’s cheeks. “Perhaps that isn’t kindly said. I’m speaking of the inspector, Mrs. Newberry—the woman your husband has just been assigned to assist during her investigations.”

“Detective Inspector Wentworth?” Temperance hadn’t realized the inspector was a woman.

This wasn’t jealousy catching at her throat. Her husband was welcome to a wh… a woman like that. Perhaps it explained why he’d never pressed his attentions upon her—Temperance ought to be thankful he’d found someone else to force his giant body upon, even if he likely used her inheritance to pay the woman. And it wasn’t the pain of disappointment, either. She couldn’t possibly be more disillusioned in Newberry’s character than she already was.

It was only a cough that formed this ache in her chest, a cough waiting to start up again and wrack her body apart.

“Yes, that’s her name,” Miss Lockstitch said. “My Thomas tells me that the superintendent considers it a personal favor that your husband agreed to assist the inspector, and that Newberry will himself advance to inspector sooner because of it.”

Temperance didn’t care what he did. “Will he?”

“My Thomas says so. There was a time, we considered waiting to be married until my Thomas made inspector, too, but he couldn’t tolerate the thought of escorting that woman.” She shook her head, as if to express her intended’s stupidity. “He ought to have done it, no matter what she is. But he wouldn’t, and so instead of waiting to marry an inspector, I’ll be marrying a constable. I told him I won’t wait for the other. Did you wait long before you married?”

How long had Temperance waited after her father declared that she had a choice between living the remainder of her life working on her back, or marrying Edward Newberry?

“Just one day,” she said—and that only three weeks ago.