Charlotte crept into the shadows snaking along the edge of the carriageway and under the cover of darkness stealthily made her way to the far end of the building.
A conventional wife I am not, she thought, pausing to make a swift assessment of the surroundings. A fact that on occasion drove her husband to distraction.
Her lips twitched. So be it. Wrexford might not always agree with her passions, but she knew that he admired them, heart and soul. Which was why, despite the outward differences—reason versus intuition—they made a perfect pair.
For an instant, Charlotte wished that Wrexford was here by her side. If Sheffield—
A shuddering crack pulled her thoughts back down to earth.
She moved closer to the smashed doors. Framed by the splintered moldings and creaking hinges, the opening seemed to glower with menace through the ghostly flutters of smoke. It was black as Hades....
Charlotte thought she saw a tiny flicker of light, but it was gone in an instant.
Hell's bells. Sheffield was family—perhaps not in a traditional sense, but in every way that mattered. Be damned with the dangers—she couldn't simply walk away.
She was about to start forward when the light winked again, then grew stronger. As the wind gusted, setting off a chorus of moans through the buckling roof slates, she squinted through the clouds of choking vapor and whirling ash. A jumble of dark-on-dark shapes materialized into a group of men, tripping and stumbling as they wrestled with a load of crates.
Craning her neck, Charlotte spotted a gleam of golden hair. "Thank God," she whispered.
Harried shouts broke out to her right. Tongues of red-gold fire suddenly licked up from a gap in the outer wall.
"Make way, Make way!" A bucket brigade trundled closer, and a wave of water doused the threat.
She retreated to the alleyways just as Sheffield and his companions stumbled free of the building and started across the carriageway with their loads.
"More water!" cried the man next to Sheffield, waving desperately at the fire wagons. "If we work fast, I think we can keep the blaze from spreading to this part of the building."
Charlotte recognized him despite the whirling light and shadows—it was Henry Maudslay, the brilliant inventor whose engineering wizardry had made him famous throughout Britain's scientific community.
And these days, his name was becoming more familiar to the public— thanks to her series of drawings on Progress.
Maudslay set down the crate he was carrying and rushed off to help the bucket brigade. The others followed his lead.
Save for Sheffield, who hesitated and glanced around the yard. Keeping well back in the shadows, Charlotte let out a low whistle.
He walked across the cobbles to her side of the yard and turned, as if intent on assessing the scope of the damage. "There's no reason for you to linger. All that's left to do is get the remaining flames under control," he said, just loud enough for her to hear. "Go home. I'll join you there as soon as possible and explain what I know about what's happened here."
"Oiy," acknowledged Charlotte, then added, "Be careful," before slipping off into the gloom. Sheffield was right. She had seen what she needed to see for any potential artwork. There was nothing left for her to do....
Save to wonder whether it was merely an unfortunate accident that Henry Maudslay's new research laboratory was going up in smoke.
* * *
"Here I go out for a quiet evening of scholarly discussion over port and brandy, and..." Expelling a martyred sigh, the Earl of Wrexford cast a baleful look at Charlotte, who despite having changed into more conventional attire still had a streak of soot on her face and ashes in her hair.
"And all hell breaks loose," he finished as Sheffield entered the earl's workroom.
Tactfully ignoring her husband's grumbling, Charlotte hurried to help their friend out of his sodden overcoat. She gave it a shake, sending up an acrid fug of burnt wool and stale smoke, then draped it over one of the work stools. "Shall I pour you a whisky or a brandy?" she asked, offering Sheffield a wet cloth soaked in lavender-scented hot water.
He took it and gave her a grateful look before wiping the filth from his face. "I'm happy to quaff anything as long as it's liquid," he mumbled through cracked lips. The bright lamplight showed that his face was raw and red from the heat of the fire.
As their friend brushed a tangle of hair off his brow, Wrexford saw it was singed in several spots.
"Sit down, Kit," said the earl, reaching out to steady Sheffield's stumble. After settling him in one of the armchairs by the hearth, he added, "You look like bloody hell."
This excerpt is from the hardcover edition.
Monday we begin the book The Beautiful Risk by Lynn Hightower.