A SNOWFLAKE AT MIDNIGHT
An Elemental Steampunk Tale
A rare manuscript. A midnight promise. A villain who would steal them both away.
Pressured by looming deadlines and an annoying patron, Evie Brown, academic librarian, struggles to find joy this Christmas holiday. Worse, her sick father is ready to abandon treatments and surrender to fate – a decision she refuses to accept. Delving into a medieval manuscript, she searches for answers in the distant past.
For the woman who has stolen his heart, only a perfect proposal will do. Ash Lockwood, botanist, has transformed the rooftop greenhouse into a tropical fairyland. But when Evie begs him to help her harvest mistletoe at midnight, they venture down a different garden path – unaware that danger circles close.
When their plans implode and a murderer threatens their lives, only invention and teamwork will save them.
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A SNOWFLAKE AT MIDNIGHT
December 24, 1884
“You look quite fetching, Miss Brown. Festive yet decorous.” Dr. Bracken leaned over the sturdy circulation desk that separated them and propped his chin on his hand. “I approve.” Bright eyes underscored by a curling mustache and an amused smile gazed up at her, waiting. But they’d long since lost their charm.
Irritation prickled. Most patrons were respectful of her position, but not all. She’d learned it was best not to respond to such personal observations, lest she find herself steered into a quagmire. Before her idled the greatest repeat offender. Her grip tightened upon the rubber stamp in her hand. Hurling it was, alas, not an option. “Is there something the library can provide for you, Dr. Bracken?”
An hour past, warm air had stopped rising from the heating grates. A gentle prodding to empty the halls of the Lister Institute. Though the building would be officially closed for the holidays, its scientists, who all but resided within its walls, required the reminder to set aside their pipettes and flasks, to shut down their aetheric microscopes, to spend time with their family members.
Alas, one particular chemist was in no hurry to leave.
She eyed the crisp knot of his cravat, a clear cry for attention. Unusual at this late hour in the day. Who kept a supply of such starched items in a research laboratory? A man with a need to impress. And, for the moment, one convinced of her appreciation.
“It always provides the most lovely view.” His words oozed, sticky and sweet. “But, of course, I’ve come to see what brilliant, new ideas you have for me today.”
Evie stamped another book as she bit back bitter remarks and swallowed, leaving them churning in her stomach. Her next words were clipped. “I’m a research librarian, not a scientist.”
Though she was also a trained medievalist, such was her current title. All personal scholarship took place after hours, tucked into tiny spaces between other obligations.
Of late, too much pulled her in too many directions. Work. Papa. A certain attractive young man from the botany department. A man who was—she snuck a glance at the clock—overdue. Mr. Lockwood was one particular diversion that she did not mind in the least, even if escalating flirtations left her in a continuous state of frustration. But it was their decision to speak with Mr. Davies, head librarian, about their joint project this evening that kept nervous dragonflies zipping about her stomach.
And made ridding herself of this exasperating man all that much more imperative.
Was it too much to hope that Dr. Bracken would take it upon himself to investigate the possibilities recorded inside the thousands of books that lined the walls? Apparently so. Throughout the vast space of the main floor and the balcony above, shelving formed semi-private nooks. Furnished with desks and chairs and bioluminescent reading lamps, students and scientists dove into the knowledge contained within the pages of books, alone or in collaboration. Five feet away stood a card catalog that would guide him. Many of the cards inside it were written and indexed by Evie herself. Not that he had ever slid a drawer open to hunt through its contents, to punch a call number into the panel of the steam attendant who would guide him on well-oiled wheels to the requested text.
Waiting for the inevitable words, she proceeded with the tedium of desk duty. Rubber stamp to ink, then to paper, making a notation of the book’s return before moving on to the next. Dr. Bracken dragged in a long breath, and she braced herself. Here it came. First the flattery, then the demand for assistance.
“You’re a fount of wisdom.”
“I am,” she agreed. No more effacing her talents, no more humbling herself so that he might preserve his own sense of self-importance. She might not be a scientist, but she was a trained professional and would be treated as such.
Stiffening, he rose from his casual slouch, and a faint scent reminiscent of apricots with the harsh undertones of unidentifiable laboratory chemicals wafted in her direction. Embedded in the man’s very skin, the aroma followed him everywhere and was fast becoming an irritant. The deadly oleander plant he studied was in bloom yet; wisely, he’d not arrived with any of its flowers in hand.
His mustache drooped as a frown carved itself into his face. “Already students clamor to work by my side. The moment I am appointed a professor, I wish to set them to a task. Multiple projects foster a productive laboratory. I need to be ready. You have to help.”
And so she did. Her job was to assist the scientists of Lister Laboratories in their academic endeavors. Turning Dr. Bracken away from her desk was not a possibility and, now that he’d attached himself to her, no other librarian could take her place. His devotion to her was distressingly constant.
This past fall, she’d stolen precious hours from her days to collaborate with Dr. Wilson, a chemist, laboring over the particulars of their all-but-finished joint monograph—A Survey of Metals in Medieval Remedies, Magic or Medicine?—a re-examination of an 1865 translation of medieval medical texts. In commentary, the translator had consigned the use of gold, silver, iron, copper and brass in formulating remedies to mere superstition, but she and Dr. Wilson argued that such metals might, by means of their impact upon catalytic enzymes—or lack thereof—be key components of the prescribed cures.
Her misfortune to have exited his office at the precise moment one Dr. Bracken ambled past.
A pretty face. A swish of skirt. A mystery he was compelled to solve. Or such had been his honeyed words. Taking it upon himself to inform Evie that he was a contender for the Hatton Chair of Chemistry, he’d followed her back to the library with a confidence so bright it had radiated throughout the reading room, turning numerous heads in their direction.
Handsome, well-dressed and rising through the ranks, she’d been flattered. At first. Before long he’d placed his self-obsession on full display and become a drain on her energy with his unwelcome advances and constant requests.
She stamped the book before her “returned” and set it aside. Resigned to the inevitable, she asked, “You wish to stay in botanicals?”
“Of course.” A flicker of annoyance crossed his face. In his mind, her most important task was to remember every detail of everything he’d ever uttered. “Work proceeds apace, and I have high hopes of synthesizing oleandrin, the bioactive component of the oleander shrub, in my laboratory. Imagine the impact of such an accomplishment upon cardiac complaints. No longer will digoxin be the sole option. The future lies in broadening our undertakings to study other related bioactive compounds.”
So he’d explained before. Ad nauseam.
Her ears registered naught but drivel and rubbish. If only the circulation desk was equipped with a convenient lever, that she might open a trap door, dropping him down a chute and into a waste bin.
While he waxed poetic about catalytic organic synthesis pathways, Evie glanced over his shoulder at the clock hanging upon the wall. Where was Mr. Lockwood? Not only did they need to catch Mr. Davies this holiday eve, when the dour head librarian might be moved to squash his inner Scrooge and approve their project, but she wanted to tell him about a donation carted into the library just this morning.
A patron disposing of his wealthy uncle’s medical manuscript collection had placed in the library’s care five large crates filled with several rare and unusual manuscripts. And the accompanying paperwork indicated that a number of the books were medicinal plant references!
Though there were other tasks that must come first, her fingers itched to lift a crowbar. What novel discoveries awaited them? Her stomach quivered with excitement. Might one contain mention of amatiflora, a newly discovered medicinal plant growing on the banks of the Thames? The task of combing the scientific literature for any reference to its medicinal properties had landed on Mr. Lockwood’s shoulders… and brought him to her library. A most serendipitous event.
Each time they met to work, he presented her with various botanical treats plucked from the rooftop greenhouse. A bundle of lavender. A sweet lemon. A fig. When December arrived, a twist of ivy was followed by a holly branch with bright, red berries.
Alas, no mistletoe or kisses. Not yet.
It was time to take things into her own hands. Her heart gave a tiny leap and fluttered at the thought of his lips brushing across hers. With the library more than half empty, could she orchestrate such an opportunity today?
“Absolutely fascinating,” she murmured, only half-listening. Little of what Dr. Bracken said made any sense, save that he considered himself a genius at designing multistep organic synthesis processes. It was a lofty and a tenuous position to believe oneself incapable of error. The moment he encountered the slightest of impediments, she predicted a swift plummet into bitterness, an event in which she wanted no part.
Dr. Bracken reached across the desk and tugged the rubber stamp from her fingers, hanging it back upon its stand, all while letting his gaze drop to her lips. He stopped short of waggling his eyebrows, but only just. “Take me in the stacks, Miss Brown.”
Evie’s mind cringed at the double-entendre. There was no chance of that. She’d sooner kiss a kraken. Not that he hadn’t tried to force one upon her. She was tired of side-stepping his wandering hands, but any complaint to her superiors would only be dismissed as evidence of “delicate sensibilities” and lead them to question the wisdom of hiring women. Which was why she did her best to keep a desk between them. She could handle Dr. Bracken. Papa and his airship crew had seen to that.
Next time she’d bloody his nose.
For the moment, she wished only to hustle him on his way.
“How lucky you are today.” Certain he’d not yet read the medieval text that had been the focus of her scholarship for the better part of a year, she lifted a finger. Perhaps a hint of preferential treatment would mollify him. If only it would also encourage him to read. Alone. “If you’ll permit me a moment, there’s a book that’s not on the shelf I think you’d find most enlightening.”
Interest brightened his countenance. “Of course.”
Evie escaped to the library office, where a volume of the Lister Library’s copy lay upon her desk—one she kept handy as a reference for whenever she could sneak a few moments to work upon her monograph. With no hesitation, she defaced library property, peeling away the acquisition label inside the cover and tossing it aside. She’d glue it back in place later.
Returning, she placed the leather-bound tome upon the desk.
“What is this treasure?” Dr. Bracken beamed, pleased with the special treatment.
“Leechdoms, Wortcunning and Starcraft of Early England by Oswald Cockayne. This volume is a modern translation of the Lacnunga, an eleventh century Anglo-Saxon medical text.”
She raised a finger. “Yes, I realize it smacks of superstition, but there are researchers who are finding nuggets of truth within its pages.” A supposition that was possibly a lie, but who would know until its cures were analyzed using a modern approach? Such was her thesis. “Perhaps it will provide you with inspiration.” She slid it across the wooden surface. “For example, there is a most fascinating recipe for a wen-salve, a topical cure for tumors or swellings, involving ginger and cinnamon.” It hadn’t worked for her father’s condition, but what if its components were isolated and concentrated? It might be selfish of her, but it was not an invalid suggestion.
Hesitantly, he flipped a few pages. “Ah, but digging out those nuggets, Miss Brown.”
Bells and blazes. Must she place every thought in his head? “Might I propose you investigate the different efficacies of fresh ginger constituents, the gingerols, as compared to the shogaols more readily found in its dried form?”
His eyebrows flew upward. “How can you know so much?”
“I read extensively.” Honestly, did he know nothing about her qualifications? Well, she wouldn’t be informing him of her academic pursuits. It would be a waste of breath for this was a man who struggled with the concept of an independent woman. “Would you like me to delve into the supporting literature and have all relevant materials sent to your office?”
“What an excellent plan. You’re my savior.” Dr. Bracken pressed a hand to his chest. “Marry me and I promise to set you up as my very own personal assistant.”