Heart of Iron (London Steampunk #2)

Chapter 10

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The prince consort’s fingers stopped tapping. “Do you know what they do to blue bloods in Scandinavia?” A tight little smile eased over his mouth. “As I am willing to overlook certain things for the greater good, so are they. This threat from the Continent is of far greater concern than a few individuals.”

Will shot a look of pure hatred toward the man. “Then I ain’t inclined to be obligin’. You’ll have to use someone else.”

Turning on his heel, the heat of fury burning in his cheeks, he jerked his head toward Blade. As far as he was concerned, this audience was over.

“Not even for ten thousand pounds?” The prince consort barely raised his voice, but Will heard it.

He laughed darkly. The Echelon. Thinking they could buy a man for his weight in gold.

He had one hand on the door handle when Barrons spoke up. “What if the terms were ones that interested you?”

“You can’t buy me. Not even you, Barrons.”

“What if the price was a change in the law?”

Will froze, hand on the doorknob.

As if encouraged, Barrons stepped closer, his boots sinking into the plush carpets. “If you help us sign this treaty with Scandinavia, then we would be willing to make certain changes to the law. No more cages or headhunters, Will. We would outlaw pit-fighting if you wished it.”

His breath caught in his chest, and he turned on his heel. The five blue bloods stared at him without expression. The sight gave him the impression that this had been the trap all along. “Why do you need me so much? Sounds like you’ve almost got it signed.”

“There are opposing factions in each camp,” Barrons replied with a grimace. “The Norwegian clans are furiously adamant that they don’t need us, and there are one or two Council members of our own who oppose this.”

Will took another look around. Not only councilors who’d voted for Blade to live then, but the ones who wanted this treaty to succeed. “And I’m to woo the Norwegian clans?”

“They’re old-fashioned,” the prince consort replied. “And crude. But they’re also a loud voice in the Riksdag. We would like to show that our two species can live amicably.” His smile widened. “And you are a perfect representative. You would appeal to them immensely.”

“I think ’e just called you crude,” Blade muttered.

Will ignored him. “If I can win the Norwegian clans over and see the treaty signed, then you’ll revoke the law that outlaws verwulfen?”

The prince consort nodded.

“I’ll want that in writin’,” Will said. “And witnessed.”

A slight narrowing of the prince consort’s eyes. “Agreed.”

“That ain’t all. I want the pits outlawed. All verwulfen that are caged or slaved are to be set free and given equal rights as humans…or blue bloods.”

Another nod.

“And the price on me head is lifted, you understand? I come and go as I please.” No more skulking about the city, running the rooftops at night. Free to go where he wanted. Free to walk the city streets without people trying to kill him—or cage him.

The prince consort waved a negligent hand. “Would you like that in writing too?”

Will bared his teeth. “Absolutely.”

“That were well done,” Blade said, hauling himself up into the steam carriage with a grunt.

Will nodded past him to Rip, who wore a coachman’s livery and heavy cloak. Beneath that cloak lurked an armory of weapons, as well as the heavy, mech arm that would damn him in this company. At the back of the carriage hovered Tin Man, another of Blade’s men. Light gleamed off the metal cap that was meshed to his scalp. He couldn’t speak, but he was damn good with a blade.

“Take ’im home,” Will said, clapping Tin Man on the shoulder. “Make sure he gets there.”

Blade poked his head through the window. “Where’re you goin’?”

“Takin’ care of a promise I made.”

“Alone?”

“I’ve got safe passage,” he retorted. “Might as well use it for the night.”

A long pause. “Be careful.”

“Always.” He turned on his heel and strode back toward the ball. Despite the overwhelming presence of blue bloods, a small smile played about his lips.

This time Lena was his.

Six

No sign of the duke or duchess anywhere.

Lena growled under her breath and retreated down the hallway. It wouldn’t do to be caught here alone. As much as she wanted to discover more about the Scandinavian treaty, she wasn’t foolish enough to start searching rooms by herself at a ball full of predators.

Noise washed over her as she returned to the entry. Keeping an eye open for a certain verwulfen she wished to avoid, she ducked into the ballroom.

Time to leave. She just had to find Adele and her mother—who was chaperoning her tonight—and plead a case of nerves. Pasting a wan smile on her face, she slipped around the edges of the ballroom, searching for them.

A full circuit took her back to the main doors. Adele was wearing white, as befitted a woman actively searching for a protector, but none of the white-gowned debutantes were her. A little tick of fear started in Lena’s chest. She wouldn’t have left the ballroom, would she? Adele knew the consequences of that as well as she did. Here, they both had an illusion of safety.

Unless…she’d left with someone on purpose. Perhaps she’d found someone willing to take her as thrall?

Lena scurried along the windows, peering out into the shadowed gardens. Adele—cunning, smart Adele—would never place such a risk to her reputation again. Not without an ironclad thrall contract in hand.

Smiling at Adele’s mother, who stood gossiping with another matron, Lena pushed through the crowd and staggered into the entry. The grandfather clock ticked slowly in the middle of the staircase, but the room was empty.

The powder room. Maybe she was there?

Pushing open the small room, she ran into the Duchess of Casavian.

The woman caught her with strong, pale hands. Years ago, her father had infected her with the craving so that when he died, his House would not fade into obscurity. Aramina should have been considered a rogue, but her House was one of the Great Houses. After numerous assassination attempts she’d somehow survived, some said she’d blackmailed her way to power, forcing the Echelon to accept her.

“I’m sorry,” Lena said. “I was looking for my friend.”

Aramina’s eyes narrowed. “You’re Barrons’s ward, aren’t you?”

And too late, Lena remembered the blood feud between her half brother and this woman. “Yes.”

“A girl like you shouldn’t be out here alone. It’s dangerous.”

“I know. I couldn’t find my friend… And I won’t go back without her.”

Consideration lit those brandy-brown eyes. Then the duchess’s ruby-tinted lips thinned. “I’ll look for her. What’s her name?”

“Adele Hamilton,” Lena said, collapsing against the wall in relief. “She’s wearing white.”

The duchess paused with her hand on the door handle. “The name is not unknown to me. Wasn’t she the girl caught with Lord Fenwick last year?”

“Not by choice,” Lena admitted, wondering whether the duchess would care.

They all knew about it, after all.

After a long stare, the duchess slipped through the door. “I’ll find her. Stay here; it should be safe.”

Lena fanned herself furiously. Of all the things to happen, she would never have imagined that the Duchess of Casavian would help her. She was notorious for her cool demeanor and frigid temper.

And her hatred of all things of the House of Caine, Leo included.

Why help the ward of her enemy?

Unless she wasn’t really going to search for Adele… Lena’s black lace fan slowed. The duchess had told her to stay here, not return to the ball, where she might be safe. It was highly unlikely a blue blood lord would stumble into the powder room, but it was also the perfect place for an ambush. Dark, secluded… Far enough away that nobody would hear her screaming over the music.

All the duchess had to do was find one of the more dangerous young bucks and whisper in his ear. Then Lena would be ruined—just another pawn lost in the game between the duchess and Leo.

She couldn’t stay here.

Bolting for the door, she slipped out into the darkened corridor. Was it her imagination, or had the gaslights been turned down? Heart thumping in her chest, she hurried toward the ballroom.

Too late, she saw shadows shifting in the corner of her eye. Someone moved from behind the statue of an angel and a large bronzed hand clapped over her mouth. No! Lena’s eyes shot wide as she was dragged back into a man’s solid chest. Then, feet kicking uselessly, he dragged her into the darkness of one of the many rooms.

Lena screamed against the flesh of his hand, her slippered feet kicking at his shins. Will’s predatory smile slipped. He’d meant to startle her, but the terror emanating off her roused all his dangerous instincts.

“Hush,” he whispered against her ear and she shivered. “Lena, it’s me. It’s Will.”

The tension drained out of her so absolutely he had to catch her up against him. With a sob, she turned toward him, tucking her face against his chest. Each small gasp strained her corset, and her fingers fisted in his shirt, dangerously close to the area over his heart. Will froze, his hand hovering over her hair.

What had frightened her so badly? Somehow he didn’t think it was his own actions; from the way she’d relaxed into his grip, she’d been expecting someone else. The thought raced through his mind, bringing with it a wave of red. The hair along the back of his neck rose, a growl consuming his vocal cords.

“Lena?”

“I’m fine,” she snapped. Balling her other fist, she punched him in the arm. “Were you trying to frighten ten years off my life?”

He barely felt the blow. “What’s got you so scared? Who’s huntin’ you?”

Lena froze. Her other fist unclenched from his shirt and she took a step back, her skirts rustling loudly. “Nobody’s hunting me.”

Lie.

“Nobody except you.” Her eyes narrowed. “What are you doing here? Are you insane? They’ll tear you apart!”

“I’ve safe passage for the night.”

“Why?” A look of concern crossed her face and she took his arm, her gloved fingers resting on his sleeve. “Don’t trust them. Don’t let them mix you up in their schemes. If there’s a way around whatever they’ve promised, they’ll find it.”

Curious words from a woman who had dreamed of living amongst the Echelon for years.

He looked at the small hand resting on his arm. And realized that they were alone, in a darkened room together.

Will’s gaze slid to the low scoop of her neckline and the full curve of her breasts. Moonlight glimmered through the curtains, casting a silvery sheen across her flesh. She was beautiful. A goddess of the night, limned by silvery light. Each curve of shadow beckoned him mysteriously, dared him to put his hands on her, to trace the dips and curves that filled out her gown. Christ. His cock hardened, straining against the fabric of his breeches. He could almost taste the warm perfume of her skin.

Taking a step back, he shook her hand off. “You owe me some answers.”

“I don’t have time. Not at the moment.”

He grabbed her wrist, stroked his thumb across the sensitive skin. “Then make it.”

She staggered into him, her other hand resting lightly against his chest. Something must have shown on his face, for she sucked in a deep breath. “Please, Will. Not now. There’s something I must take care of.”

“Course there is.”

“You don’t understand. I have to find my friend. I think she might be in trouble.”

Her scent changed. Something bitter and sharp. Fear. Will let her go, staring down into that heart-shaped face. “What kind of trouble?”

“There’s a…a game the blue blood’s play. If they get a girl alone.” She rubbed at her wrist unconsciously.

“Go on.”

“Adele would never have left willingly. She knows the consequences. Please, I have to find her. Before it’s too late.”

“You’re not goin’ alone.”

“If anyone sees me with you—”

She’d be ruined. He was half tempted for a moment. She’d never be able to return to this world with the stigma of being caught alone with a verwulfen.

But she’d made her choices. This was the world she wanted. There was nothing for her in Whitechapel; she’d said so herself.

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