“If she’s with me, then he can’t make a move.”
“Don’t do anything untoward,” Barrons warned. “Remember your cause—if you kill Colchester, you can wave good-bye to any assistance or goodwill from the prince consort. Including this reform of the laws that you are so anxious to establish.”
Will bared his teeth in an anticipatory smile. “Would you like to let Lena know about her new duties, or can I?”
“Hike in blood taxes!” the headlines screamed.
Lena dipped her spoon into the crater of her boiled egg, her gaze darting over the article. “Mrs. Wade, have you seen this?” she asked, gesturing with the spoon. Runny yolk dripped over the paper and she hastily put it down. “They’re raising the blood taxes! From two pints a year to three. Anyone who hasn’t donated in the last month must attend a mandatory bloodletting in the next two months.”
“A young lady doesn’t speak of such things. Especially over the breakfast table.” Meticulously carving her sausage, Mrs. Wade’s lips thinned. “Have you read the society pages? What did you think of the description of Miss Hambley’s gown?”
“A withered daffodil? Rather accurate, if I do say so,” she replied distantly. “It must be in response to the draining factories burning down. The Echelon must be dangerously short of blood supplies.”
Though they kept thralls for fresh blood, they also needed a supply of chilled blood on hand. It was dangerous to take too much from a thrall, and draining one to death was in utter poor taste. The only lords who could afford to keep and maintain enough thralls to survive off of were the great dukes who ruled the city. The rest of the Echelon were forced to buy blood from the government-owned draining factories or keep blood slaves.
“The working class won’t be very happy about this.” There’d already been three riots this year, twice about automaton factory workers taking jobs and then again when a young woman was found drained to death in an alley.
Mrs. Wade made a disapproving sound and stabbed a piece of sausage.
A knock sounded and Leo appeared in the doorway of the dining room, dressed in his usual strict black. “Ladies,” he greeted.
Mrs. Wade snatched her napkin to her lips. “Good morning, my lord. You are joining us for breakfast?”
“I’m afraid not.” He glanced toward her and Lena stilled. From the look in his eyes, Leo was up to something.
“Yes?” she asked, her heart starting to pound. Had he heard of what happened to Adele? Or Cavendish?
“I’ve a favor to ask,” he said, resting his hip against the edge of the dining table.
“Of course. What is it?”
Movement shifted at the edge of her vision. Will. Stepping into the room, his hands shoved into his pockets and satisfaction burning in his eyes.
Lena stared. His collar was open, revealing a healthy slice of tanned flesh, and he hadn’t bothered to shave. With his burning amber eyes and the stubble on his jaw, he looked eminently dangerous. A silver claw hung from the leather thong at his throat.
His mouth curved with a rusty smile, sending her pulse into a frenetic tempo. Oh Lord! She’d rarely seen him smile. And certainly not at her. The result was rather devastating.
Leo cleared his throat and Lena tore her gaze away. “Absolutely not,” she snapped.
“You haven’t heard the proposition yet.”
“I don’t need to.”
“Carver’s received a commission from the Crown,” Leo continued.
The words jerked her attention away from Will. “A commission?” What could the prince consort possibly want of him? For that was where the commission had to have come from. The queen might sit on the throne, but she was the prince consort’s puppet-on-a-string. She barely dared speak without his permission.
“There’s a delegation arriving from Scandinavia in a week.”
“There is?” she asked breathlessly.
“Just some political business for the Council and the prince consort,” Leo said. “Nothing interesting, I’m afraid. But you know how feelings run between our two countries. It was felt that Will’s presence might be some sort of soothing factor.”
Lena nodded slowly, her mind scalded with shock. Will was involved in this?
“He needs tidying up,” Leo continued. “Both in manners and appearance. And he also needs someone to guide him through the dangerous waters at court. Unfortunately, I don’t have the time…”
Oh, yes. She saw where this was going.
“You want me to escort him.” Her eyes narrowed on Will. “I wonder whose idea that was?”
He didn’t even have the grace to appear guilty. Leaning against the door, he smiled his cat-got-the-cream smile.
The one that did so much damage to her insides.
“Your skill in navigating the Echelon would serve your country in good stead,” Leo replied.
“My, it’s so terribly well thought out.” Inside she was boiling. How dare he? And yet this was precisely what Mr. Mandeville had warned her about when she first agreed to spy for the humanists. She couldn’t allow her feelings to disrupt such an opportunity.
Finding out about the Scandinavian treaty was more important than braining Will Carver with the soup tureen.
“You’ll help us then?” Leo asked.
“I could hardly refuse such a gracious offer. We’ll start tomorrow.” She ran her gaze over Will’s unkempt hair, the glorious honey-brown strands that tangled about his shoulders. “Though heaven knows where I’m going to begin.”
“He doesn’t need to be perfect,” Leo said. “Just polished. And taught what to say.”
“Or rather, what not to.” Her eyes narrowed. “He’ll have to look like a gentleman at least. A haircut, a shave…possibly delousing.” A smile blossomed. “A complete new wardrobe. Dancing lessons.”
Will arched a brow. “I ain’t dancin’.”
“You’ll dance if I tell you to dance. You’ll bow when I tell you, and you’ll keep a civil tongue.” A part of her almost couldn’t wait. “Otherwise I’ll wash my hands of this whole affair and you don’t want that, do you?”
Oh no, he wanted to be nice and close. To keep an eye on her.
His eyes narrowed, the message in them perfectly clear. This would be war. But he had no choice but to accept her terms.
Leo looked between them. “Is there anything that I should be aware of?”
“No,” both she and Will retorted.
“Nothing at all,” she added, glaring at him to make sure he didn’t mention anything to Leo.
“I suppose you think this is amusing,” Lena said, pulling on her gloves with a sharp jerk.
Will leaned against the wall, lazily watching her. Her cheeks were pale but her eyes spat fire. He wanted to kiss her, wanted to press her back against the Chinese wallpaper and lick his way down her throat.
He could control this urge, this desire. He had to.
Flexing his fingers, he glanced down the hallway. The chaperone was hovering like a service drone, her eyes flaring wide every time she saw him looking, as though she half suspected he’d pounce on her. Will was tempted to snarl at her. See if she had an attack of the vapors.
“Would it bother you if I admitted I were enjoyin’ every minute of this?”
Lena paused, her top hat resting rakishly on her head. Her fingers tangled in the purple ribbons and their eyes met in the mirror.
“I warned you,” he whispered, leaning closer so that his image came into the polished glass too. With his dark coat, he looked like an enormous shadow behind her slender purple figure. The big, bad wolf, ready to devour her.
Her scent enveloped him, tempting him to do just that. He wanted to press his face into her neck and breathe her in, let his hands run down over the corseted curve of her hips…
Lena looked up at him helplessly. Some hint of his hunger must have shown on his face for her lips parted with a soft exhalation.
“I will find out what you’re up to,” he warned.
She broke the spell, tugging sharply at her ribbons as she tied them. “Enjoy the moment, Will. It shall be the last time you get the better of me.” With a sweet little smile, she added, “And consider this my warning.”
“What d’you mean?”
She turned in a froth of skirts. “This is my world now and you’ve got no idea what the rules are. You’re not going to learn a thing and I…I am going to take great pleasure in this.”
She tried to step past him and he refused to back away and give her room. Lena’s breathing hastened, but there was no sign of it on her face as she squeezed past, her hips brushing against his thigh.
“What do you—?”
“Tomorrow. At noon,” she said, fetching her parasol, some lacy bit of fabric that would do naught to stave off the weather. “It wouldn’t do to have you come here too often. People might start to wonder. So I’ll come to you. At the warren. I can claim to be visiting my sister or helping her with some project.” She ran one last glance over him. “Do try to be clean and appropriately dressed. Tidying you up for society is going to be a rather monumental task as it is.”
Will paced the edge of the roof, staring out over the wall that encircled Whitechapel. Chanting and shouts echoed from the north, near the exit of Bishopsgate. It sounded like the low rumble of thunder, and every hour built the intensity of the storm until even Charlie and Lark could hear it.
“What’s going on?” Charlie asked, sitting on a chimney and kicking his heels against the brickwork.
At his feet, Lark sat cross-legged at the base of the chimney, chewing on a strand of her long brown hair. Ever since Honoria had moved into the warren with Lena and their younger brother Charlie, the pair had been inseparable.
“It’s a riot. Or the starts of one,” Will replied.
Charlie’s eyes rounded and he grinned. At seventeen, he was still young enough not to understand what was about to happen. “A riot? How smashing! Can we go see?”
“Don’t be a nodcock,” Lark snapped. Raised in the rookeries, she understood the connotations far better than Charlie ever would. “Nothin’ but blood’ll come of this.”
“All the better.” Charlie grinned, a hint of dark shadows swimming through his gaze.
Lark punched him in the thigh and he winced. “You ain’t seen a riot dealt with before, you fool. It won’t be a sight to see. Nothin’ but crushed bodies and broken bones. Men, women, and children.” She shook her head. “The Echelon won’t stand for it long. They’ll unleash the Trojan cavalry to mow ’em down and then there’ll be blood in the streets.” She shivered. “Not ’ere though. Not near us.”
Will stared over the rooftops, his nostrils flaring. “Near Langbourn.”
“Oh.” Charlie’s shoulders slumped. “I was only foolin’. I didn’t mean it.”
“You didn’t think,” Lark corrected. Charlie might be a blue blood and three times as strong as her, but the balance of power between them was still weighted in her direction. She had street smarts and a quick cunning—and several older adopted “uncles” to back her up if anyone gave her any lip.
Will ignored their bickering, pacing along the edge of the roof. A quick glance showed him the sun in the sky, battling valiantly behind several fluffy gray clouds. “Charlie, what time is it?”
Charlie tugged out his pocket watch. “Quarter to twelve, sir.”
A restless edge ran through him. She’d said she’d come here for the lesson. His mind ran through a mental map of the city. If Lena came through Aldgate, she’d most likely avoid the trouble. But if she came out through Bishopsgate, then…
A growl rumbled in his throat.
“Ah… Is everything all right?” Charlie asked. Even he knew to tread carefully around Will’s temper.
“Mebbe.” He turned and speared them both with a gaze. “Stay here. Keep watch. And don’t, under any circumstances, leave the rookery. If trouble spills, then you get back to the warren and cry hue.”
“Yes, sir!” Charlie snapped to attention. “Where are you going?”
Will strode toward the edge of the wall. “To fetch your fool sister. She said she were comin’ here today. Wouldn’t surprise me if she gets caught up in that.”
The letter from Mr. Mandeville arrived early that morning.
Lena looked up from her workbench, a variety of cogs and strips of sheet iron strewn across the tabletop. Pushing her magnifying glassicals up on top of her head, she retrieved the letter and slid a screwdriver underneath the envelope to slit it open.READ MORE >>