The Girl in the Steel Corset Page 2

“Sam?” he questioned, favoring his left leg as he moved closer to the pair. “Is she all right?”

“Got a pulse.” His friend’s low, laconic voice came from beneath the dripping brim of his hat as Griff crouched beside him. “It’s steady, but she’s bleeding. So are you.”

Pulling his smudged goggles down so they hung around his neck, Griff glanced down. His blood, coming through the shredded left knee of his trousers, glistened bright red in the light. “I’ll be fine. I’m more concerned about her.”

“Did you see her face?” Sam demanded, taking a handkerchief from his jacket pocket. “She looked almost wild.”

Griff had seen her face—just before he hit her. There had been something untamed in her features. Something fierce and beautiful, as well.

“What was she running from?” Sam asked, as he pressed the linen against the wound on her forehead. It was bleeding heavily. “Or who?”

Griff glanced at the girl whose head was cradled in his friend’s large hand and saw the red mark on her rain-soaked cheek, the blood at her mouth. Injuries from the accident? Or something intentional?

Regardless, until he was certain she was unharmed, she was his responsibility.

“We’ll take her with us,” he decided, lifting the limp body into his arms. A glint of steel peeked through where the leather of her corset had torn.

“You reckon that’s wise?” Sam, Griff knew, wasn’t being cold, he was being practical. They already had enough to worry about with the recent robbery at the British Museum and tension within their own little group. Adding this girl and her troubles into the mix could only make things worse. Strangers were always an issue in his house. Always the fear of someone uncovering too much.

“We can’t leave her.” It was as simple as that. Although, they could take her to a hospital, but Griff’s honor wouldn’t allow that. Besides, something told him not to let this girl out of his sight, and he’d learned to trust his instincts. The times he hadn’t always ended badly.

Sam swung one leg over the seat of his cycle and took the girl from Griff’s embrace into his own. “Do you want me to send word ahead?”

Griff shook his head, rain running down his face, seeping below his jacket collar to dampen his shirt and skin. “I’ll do that. Just get her to the house—don’t leave her unattended.” As he spoke, he slipped a battered leather case from his pocket. Inside was a flat machine smaller than a deck of playing cards. It was a personal telegraph machine—all the rage now for fast communication. His machine and the ones belonging to his friends were a little “faster” than those available to the general public as not only were they based on Mr. Tesla’s “wireless” design, they’d been augmented to transmit through the Aether by the amazingly brilliant Emily, whom Griffin had hired over her less-capable brothers a year ago.

Griffin flipped the case open at the same time as Sam started up his velocycle. He punched a few of the keys and hit the transmit button. A few seconds later, as Sam drove away, the heavily treaded wheels of his cycle kicking up dirt, a reply appeared on the grainy screen. He squinted to read it in the dark and rain. He needn’t have bothered. He knew Emily would do as he asked and make preparations for their guest, and that was exactly what her response said.

He limped harder now, his leg already beginning to stiffen. He clenched his jaw against the discomfort and set about righting his own cycle. The heavy metal frame looked relatively unscathed, but he’d give it a thorough going-over in the morning. It started up immediately and Griff slipped his goggles back over his eyes before following in the direction Sam had gone.

He’d deal with the museum robbery in the morning. Nothing terribly valuable seemed to have been stolen, and that was what puzzled him. Special Branch would want answers, but they would have to wait. Right now, the girl was his first priority. An aura of danger clung to her like an oil slick. Unfortunately, he couldn’t tell if she was in danger, or if she was danger.

That was what he intended to find out.

Chapter 2

Greythorne House was a sprawling neoclassical mansion situated in London’s Mayfair district—where the important people lived. Important, of course, meaning that you were from an old family and rich. That said, you didn’t have to be incredibly rich, you just had to give the appearance of it.

Fortunately for Griff, he was very rich. His family was very old. And until a few years ago, when his parents died, his family had been very secretive. It wasn’t until almost a year after their murder that he discovered the extent of the secret rooms and laboratories below this house and the main estate in Devon. And just as long since he realized just how much Great Britain owed his family for keeping it safe. He reminded himself of that debt on the few occasions when Her Majesty Victoria suggested that it was Griff who owed something to the Crown instead.

Almost twenty years ago, his parents had taken it upon themselves to continue the work started by his grandfather, the fourteenth Duke of Greythorne, and journeyed to the center of the earth. There they discovered the Cradle of Life—the place where creation began. What they’d found there had been astounding, but would never see the light of day, at least not in the foreseeable future. The world wasn’t ready for it. Helena and Edward King had dedicated their lives to Crown and country, and they’d been killed because of it.

In return, Queen V sent a lovely arrangement of roses to the funeral.

So when Griff dedicated himself to the protection of his homeland, it wasn’t for any monarch or out of a sense of duty. He did it to honor his parents, and one day he would find the person responsible for their deaths, and he would have justice.

Right now, that justice was far in the back of his mind, though it never really left entirely. He stood at the foot of a large four-poster bed in one of the many bedrooms available in his home and watched with his arms folded across his chest as Emily O’Brien, one of the most intelligent people he knew, tended to their unconscious guest, whom the maids had relieved of her soaked clothing and put to bed.

“She doesn’t look scary,” Emily commented in her soft Irish brogue as she applied the tip of what had once been a perfume atomizer but was now a pretty glass bottle with a brass syringe tip attached, to the wound on the unconscious girl’s brow. As she squeezed the bulb, a fine mist from the glass reservoir sprayed through the syringe onto the broken skin. The mist was made up of the life-giving material Griff’s parents had found at the earth’s core—tiny little creatures that could mimic the body’s own cellular behavior. The Organites—or “beasties” as Emily called them—attached themselves to the human tissue and copied its composition, so that when applied to the wound, they worked to rebuild the flesh and heal the injury. By morning, the girl would be completely healed, without even the tiniest scar. A similar brew had been used on Griff’s torn knee and he could already feel an improvement.

This existence of these Organites was one secret Griff kept to himself. The queen hadn’t wanted to know about it when his parents first discovered it. She liked the ore that his grandfather had mined—a wondrous substance made by the Organites that emitted energy that could be used to power anything from one machine to an entire household—but the rest of it came too close to proving Mr. Darwin’s radical theories of evolution correct. Victoria thought the church might take offense to such a discovery, or worse, that man might be corrupted by it and start playing God. In fact, she’d ordered the Organites destroyed, or at least returned to the earth’s core.

Griff thought she was just a scared old woman, but no one asked his opinion.

Thankfully, Griff’s parents hadn’t obeyed their sovereign and kept a small batch of the primordial goo on hand. The Organites thrived in a small grottolike vault far beneath the mansion, replicating and producing the fantastic blue-green substance that Griffin used as his personal supply. While the rest of the world benefitted from a diluted version of the ore, Griff had the purest samples at his disposal for Emily to use in her inventions—such as the velocycles, which moved faster than those available to even the wealthiest consumer.

They were their own “Special Branch.”

“There’s something not right about her,” Griff said finally, frowning as he studied the sleeping girl.

“She’s come to the right place then,” the redhead replied with a touch of a smile as she pushed her ropey hair out of her face. “There’s not one ‘right’ amongst the lot of us.” And then, “She must have jumped out of your way and struck her head on the ground. If you had hit her, she’d be more seriously injured.”

Griff kept frowning. “I did hit her. That’s part of what’s not right.” The girl had practically leaped onto his cycle, hadn’t she? He shook his head, uncertain whether his memories were real or imaginings.

Other than remaining unconscious and the gash on her head, there was nothing wrong with the girl. Nothing at all—except for the bruising on her face, which he could now see bore the imprint of a signet ring.

“Someone beat her,” Emily remarked. “You probably saved her.”

“Or saved whoever was after her,” Sam commented from the doorway.

Griff flashed a quick glance in his friend’s direction. He practically filled the door frame with his broad shoulders and height. His longish black hair was damp, but he’d changed into dry clothing. His dark gaze was intense as it fell on Emily. Angry but admiring.

Griffin shook his head. “You should have seen her, Em, like something out of one of those gothic novels you’re always reading.”

Finished with her patient, Emily tucked a chunk of bright red hair behind her ear, revealing a line of golden hoops that stemmed from lobe to high on the cartilage, and rose to her feet, atomizer in her hand. “Are you implying she’s a monster, then, Griffin King?”

He arched a brow at her challenging tone. “No, but she could have escaped from someone’s attic. I’m told these things happen more often than you might think.”

She actually smiled at that. Emily’s love of gothic novels was no secret, and she took a lot of teasing for it, being the only girl in the house. The only girl until now. There was Aunt Cordelia, but she was away more than she was home. He looked again at the sleeping young woman—who couldn’t be any older than Emily’s own sixteen years—before motioning them both out of the room. When the door closed behind them, Emily asked, “What happened at the museum?”

Sam caught Griff’s eye with a questioning look. Griff shrugged, indicating that he didn’t care what information he shared. Sam seemed to have this old-fashioned notion that women needed to be protected. Some of the most devious people Griff had ever encountered had been female. He didn’t share the sentiment.

Sam’s lips tightened. “Griff found a small glob of oil.”

“Oil?” Emily shot him a frown. “What kind of oil?”

Sam shook his head. Griffin said what he could not. “We took a sample. It’s in your lab. Em…” He ran a hand through his hair. “It looks like the kind of oil used to lubricate exposed automaton joints.”

The implication of that froze Emily on the spot. “An automaton robbed the museum?” Her crystalline blue eyes were wide as they turned to Griff. “Was it The Machinist?”

“It looks that way,” he replied, seeing Sam continue on without them. Recently there had been a few crimes around town seemingly perpetrated by automatons acting against their programming engines, none of them particularly dangerous. Except for one. That one had been enough. It had almost cost them one of their own. The authorities suspected a criminal calling himself The Machinist was behind the incidents.

The thought called to mind a vision of blood and smoke. Of a broken body close to death, held in the clutches of a metal man. Griff remembered leaping onto the machine’s back, tearing open its panel to reach the controls inside. He knew Sam must be reliving a few memories of his own. After all, he had been the one the thing almost killed.

They’d been chasing similar, though less violent, incidents for almost a year. Griffin figured they were looking for a man with superior mechanical knowledge, particularly that of automatons. Thus far, Emily had found nothing in the programming of the two specimens they had to even suggest they’d been tampered with.

The automatons’ power sources were the same as all standard androids—the same compound that powered most of London. Griff was a bit of an expert in this, since the compound was derived from the ore discovered by his grandfather. He owned the patent on it, owned the rights, too. So Griff knew that the small nugget inside each machine was just as it should be.

So how did the villain make the automatons act against their programming?

“We should assume that any mech involved was accompanied by a human master until we know otherwise.” He fought the fear coiling around his heart. Machines that could think for themselves. Surely it was impossible?

Emily was paler than usual, and Griff knew she was thinking of what had happened to Sam, as well. He should comfort her, but he didn’t know how. Give him a problem to solve and he would jump in with both feet, but he didn’t know how to give comfort, and he hated it.

Sam was waiting for them as they entered the library, where they took all their group meetings. As his gaze fell upon his friend, whom he had known for almost the entirety of his life, Griff couldn’t help but feel surprised that anything had ever managed to hurt him. Sam was so strong. He was a little taller than Griff and certainly more powerfully built. His rugged features only added to his intimidating demeanor. He hadn’t always looked so fierce. Less than a year ago, he’d been quick with a grin or a naughty joke.

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