Sara Ramirez is a young, talented inventor working in the small town of Los Santos. But when her latest prototype is stolen, she travels to the City and enlists her ex-lover's help to get it back. Together, they must stop dangerous enemies from using Sara's invention to change the balance of power in their world—before it's too late.
... for a second chance at love.
Jordan Steele's inflexibility had once driven away the woman he loved. But now Sara is back, and she won't escape him so easily a second time.
Published:August 1, 2019 Publisher:Firelight Small Press Genres:
Sara Ramirez stood in front of the black iron gate that guarded the gothic manor house. Frowning, she glanced at the two-month-old letter in her hands. The street number on the return address matched the unobtrusive brass numerals nailed to the grey stonework to her left. Her fingers tightened, crumpling the edges of the paper as she studied the building through the space between the spires.
The midnight purple towers of the house stood silent under the overcast morning sky. Sara stared in awe at the gingerbread detail, the round windows, and the imposing height of the four-story manor. The manicured shrubs and freshly mown lawn surrounding the imposing structure repelled her with their perfect aesthetic. Jordan Steele had never displayed this degree of wealth during his visits to Los Santos, the rural town where she lived. This couldn't be the home of the same fun-loving and passionate entrepreneur who had drawn her from her laboratory for quiet walks and picnics in the park.
Uncertain of her welcome, Sara pulled the hanging cord with one gloved hand. She straightened her shoulders as she heard gears begin to grind, and warily eyed a telescope above the main door that focused on her face. She clenched her jaw and stared straight ahead, awaiting the verdict. Long moments passed. Perhaps Jordan would refuse to see her or perhaps he wasn’t even there. She should have anticipated this.
The gates swung open, inching forward in silence. Sara lifted her carpetbag from the ground and made her way to the front steps of the manor. Her trembling hands belied her serene expression, and all she could hear was her pulse pounding in her ears as she lifted the ornate knocker.
Sara’s eyes widened at the automaton that answered the door. No one had man-sized automatons in Los Santos. Her own laboratory focused on small ones.
“Good morning, madam. My name is Nigel. May I take your coat?” The metallic monotone mixed with the muffled sounds of whirring gears as the butler reached out. She noticed the tiny wind-up key underneath his left arm. Bemused, Sara allowed the automaton to help remove her tweed overcoat.
“Gracias,” she murmured automatically. Did one need to thank an automaton?
“Follow me, madam.” Nigel lifted Sara’s carpetbag and proceeded down the hall. Plush area rugs with intricate designs covered the oak floors. She marvelled at the airy atmosphere of the house. A spiral wooden staircase led to the upper levels. The understated elegance of the carved details in the crown molding and the base of the columns and banisters made her smile. Jordan had always displayed an appreciation for beauty in all its forms, from machinery to nature. The decor was spare, with not a speck of dust anywhere, and yet, it was not as intimidating as the front facade.
At the end of the hall, floor-to-ceiling oak French doors stood open. Nigel paused before the doorway and ushered her into the library.
This is where he lives, Sara thought. Piles of books and papers lay on the desk and on several side tables that stood next to wing chairs. Daylight streamed in from the tall windows along the front of the room onto a large walnut desk. On the mantle, an ornate clock ticked away the seconds. She could picture Jordan lounging in one of the pair of armchairs that faced the unlit fireplace, with his feet resting on the low footstool. It reminded her of the easy evenings the two of them had spent this way in her home in Los Santos.
A movement caught Sara’s eye. Jordan Steele stood with his back to the window, still as a panther eyeing its prey. Sara felt his gaze rake over her from her black felt top hat to the bottom of her heeled leather boots, pausing for a long moment on her clenched hands—the thin black lace outlined her delicate fingers—before his raised his eyes to hers, his expression hard and unfathomable.
Sara's spine tingled as she looked at her former lover. He was in his casual, at-home attire. Tall and lean, his dark, cropped hair accentuated the sharp blue eyes. His white shirtsleeves were rolled up to the elbow, revealing muscled forearms that belied the scholarly, pampered look that he presented. Jordan’s square jaw was enhanced by the overnight growth of his beard, and Sara's eyes gleamed in appreciation as she inconveniently remembered how his beard had felt against her sensitive flesh.
The searing attraction that had characterized their brief affair had returned the instant she stepped into the room. It was unfortunate—she had hoped his allure would have dissipated in the time since they had last seen each other.
Suddenly unsure, Sara said, “You have a lovely home. Much larger than I imagined.”
“I was beginning to doubt that you would ever see it. You have come a long way. Further than you have ever wanted to venture before, if I remember correctly.”
“Yes, well. I need your help.” It galled her to admit it, but of everyone she knew, Jordan was the most likely to know how to deal with her problem.
“Myhelp. What can the brilliant and esteemed Ms. Ramirez possibly want from a 'backward and arrogant businessman' like me?”
Sara blushed as she recalled the angry words that she had hurled at him during their last hurtful encounter. Apparently, Jordan remembered them, too. Irritated by her reaction, Sara shot back, “If I had my choice, nothing.”
“Ah, so you’re here to beg a favour,” he drawled, undeterred.
Now, he was just being irritating. Sara tossed her silky brown curls over her shoulder and narrowed her eyes. “I never beg.”
A grim smile marred his features. “Do you not? I seem to recall...” He waved a hand towards an armchair. “But I digress. Please, have a seat and tell me about your request.”
Sara sat, her hands in her lap. Jordan’s hooded gaze made her uncomfortably aware of their history, but she was determined to ignore it. Besides, she had nowhere else to turn.
“Do you recall the project I was working on three months ago?”
“The miniature automaton for clearing agricultural land? I believe you were looking to delay the reaction in your device.” Jordan's voice warmed as he sat down.
Sara blinked in surprise. She had shown Jordan her laboratory once, but at the time, he had seemed more interested in exploring her body than exploring scientific principles. A pleased smile curved her lips.
“That is correct. I was able to change the design so the automaton has more time to dig through a tree stump, burrowing like a corkscrew. But my real breakthrough came when I designed a special valve that only opens at the end of a countdown using miniature wind-up gears. When it opens, the friction causes the chemical coating to detonate.”
“Congratulations, you must be pleased.”
“Yes, I was. But, two months ago, my prototype—the automaton-builder—was stolen. So, I want to find it before someone else patents it. Or uses it for less-than-noble purposes.”
“What do you mean?”
“My friend, Ana, perfected the explosive inner membrane. It is amazingly powerful. Our tiny automaton burrowed a hole three feet deep into a tree stump, and the explosion it created, not only did it destroy the stump, it also cleared a ten-meter radius around it. We nearly singed our eyebrows with that experiment.” Sara smiled at the memory.
“That was damned foolish—playing with unknown chemicals. You could have died!” Jordan’s harsh exclamation startled Sara with its intensity. His hands gripped the smooth mahogany arms of the captain’s chair. “You need a keeper.”
“That is not your concern anymore, now is it?”
Jordan’s voice became deceptively mild. “Do not test me, Sara. Not when it comes to your safety.”
Sara deemed it safer to ignore his comments. “So, I need your help to find my prototype.”
“Have you reported the theft to the police?”
“It is rather… complicated.” Sara rose and crossed to the window. Glancing at Jordan, she sighed. “Hector… might… have borrowed it.”
Jordan laughed mirthlessly. “Of course, he did. Let me guess: that half-brother of yours dropped by, full of remorse for months of silence, asked for money, and then stole your invention.”
It was uncomfortably close to the truth. “Not at all.” But honesty, and her sense of the ridiculous, prompted her to say, “He had a business proposition this time.” For as long as Sara could remember, Hector Ramirez would breeze in and out of her family’s life, usually leaving chaos in his wake. He was charming and thoughtless, but he was family. And since the death of her parents two years before, he was her only family.
Jordan muttered incomprehensibly behind her. She whirled around. “Please credit me with some intelligence. I refused him.” She returned to her seat. “In the end, my prototype disappeared, Hector along with it.”
“What did you do?”
“There was not muchto do. The machine was gone, but I had removed the key that allows it to run. Without the key, it is only a collection of gears and cogs… However, to be honest—”
“Which you always are,” Jordan muttered.
“—which I tend to be, it would not take too much time for any inventor worth his or her salt, to reverse-engineer my prototype and figure out what it does.”
“Why do you need my help?”
“The machine is in the City. I believe that Hector could not make it work and has put it in storage. Five days ago, I received a package by train mail. It was a small key. The writing on the label is Hector’s.”
“May I?” Jordan held out his hand.
* * *
Jordan noticed Sara’s brief hesitation before she reached down her crimson and black corset, pulled out a small key, and sat back with a sigh. He hid a smile as he examined the skeleton key with an octopus symbol on it. Sara might be a brilliant scientist, an independent woman who suffered no fools in her work, but he knew that she craved being taken care of. Jordan grew hard at the memory of how much pleasure it had given him to take care of her needs.
He had waited so long for her to return to him. He had been so certain that she would relent after their break-up. After his letter. But the stubborn woman had never replied. And he had hardened his heart and moved on. Now she was here, asking for help. He would not let this opportunity pass.
Jordan laid down the key on the side table and studied Sara over steepled fingers. After a long moment, he spoke.
“I will help you, Sara. For a price.”
She eyed him warily. “What price?”
“I find myself missing your honesty. So, my price is the truth.” Jordan’s lips curved in a dangerous smile. “I will ask a question, and you will tell me the truth—the whole truth, with no evasions.”
“How many questions must I answer? It hardly seems fair that you pepper me with questions without making any real progress.” This was the Sara he remembered—precision and thoroughness in her thinking.
“I would not dream of it. I will ask one question every time that I can demonstrate some concrete assistance. Does that meet your requirements?”
“And if I refuse to answer?”
Jordan smiled wolfishly. “Then, the only alternative will be for you to give me, freely, part of your attire—something that is touching your skin.”
Sara narrowed her eyes. She should be outraged, but Jordan knew that if he challenged her, it would motivate her to win this game they were playing.
“The choice of clothing…?”
“Ladies’ choice, naturally.” Holding her gaze, he continued. “I trust your sense of fairness. Do we have a deal?” He held out his hand.
Sara remained still under Jordan’s scrutiny. He could see that she viewed his price as child’s play. During their liaison, they had chatted about easy subjects, such as her work or their mutual interests, and preferring to spend their time on the more pleasant, physical aspects of their relationship.
“Yes, we have a deal.” She took his hand in a brusque handshake. “When do we start?”
With a smile, Jordan stood, picked up the octopus key, and tossed it to Sara. “Immediately. Let’s go.”