Heart of Iron (London Steampunk #2)

Chapter 15

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A shadow fell over her. Lena’s stomach dropped.

When she looked up, Will wore a murderous scowl. “What the bloody hell were you thinkin’?”

“I—”

“You weren’t!” His arms exploded into the air. “You couldn’t have been! What idiot gets out of a carriage in the middle of a friggin’ mob? Did you not once think about how dangerous it was?”

“I was trying to avoid it. Mr. Mandeville’s is two streets over. If we’d—”

“That’s two streets too far! Do you have any idea what went through my head when I found the bloody carriage? Turned on its side and abandoned? With your bloody footmen sittin’ on a roof, smokin’ cheroots!”

Lena stood up, shaking out her skirts. “I didn’t think a riot would erupt so quickly. And obviously the carriage was no safer.”

“Didn’t think? Didn’t think?” The last came out as a roar that made both Mrs. Wade and Henry flinch.

Heat burned her cheeks. “I made a mistake. But I’ve been in these kinds of situations before. I wasn’t just—”

“What do you mean, been in these situations before?”

Lena took a steady breath. By the look on his face, she was one step away from being shaken like a rag doll. “When I was working at Mr. Mandeville’s. There wasn’t money enough to catch the tram home, so I had to walk. I got caught in the edges of a riot twice.” As his expression darkened, she hastened to assure him. “I climbed up on the roof the first time and hid in a man’s home the second. He was terribly nice about it.”

Will took a deep breath. Then another. His shoulders were still tense, his eyes wild. “If you ever go out into these streets unprotected again, I’ll throttle you.”

“I spent six months walking home through these streets when I was sixteen,” she snapped. “And I had Mrs. Wade and Henry with me this time. That’s a lot safer than when we were poor and in hiding from Vickers.”

A strangled noise came from his throat. Lena shut her mouth. Not the time to mention all of the horrid things that had happened to her during that awful time after her father’s death.

He turned and raked Henry with a gaze that made the lad swallow. “Never again, do you understand me?”

The lad nodded sharply.

“Come,” Will snapped. “I’ll get you back to the warren. Then we’ll see about gettin’ you home.”

“I have to see Mr. Mandeville first.”

He spun on his heel and Lena took a step back.

“He’s expecting me,” she said. “If I don’t arrive, I shouldn’t want him to come out into the streets looking for me.”

His lips thinned. As he turned back around, she thought he murmured something but she couldn’t quite make it out.

She could, however, see the blood rush out of Mrs. Wade’s face.

Nine

“Thank goodness you’re all right!”

Mr. Mandeville swept her up into his arms and breathed a sigh of relief.

Lena gave him a swift hug. “Did you see any of the trouble here?”

“Not this time. I could hear them shouting though, streets over.” His gaze flickered over her shoulder. Then froze.

“You know Mrs. Wade and Henry.” She gestured at the weary pair. Will turned from where he’d been staring out into the streets. The light from the window lit his burning amber irises. “And this is William Carver. A friend of my sister’s husband.”

The stiffness in Mr. Mandeville’s shoulders spoke volumes. He knew exactly what those eyes meant. “A pleasure to meet you,” he said, with a sharp jerk of his head.

Lena pasted a smile on her face to cover his rudeness. “Will helped us with some unpleasantness in the riot. He’s here to escort me home.”

“I see.” Mr. Mandeville’s gaze shot between her and Will. “Did you get my message?”

“I did. I wanted to discuss the commission further, if you will?”

“The back rooms?”

“I won’t be a moment.” Seeing Will’s glower, she hastened to add. “I promise.”

Taking Mr. Mandeville’s arm, she steered him toward the back room. As soon as the door closed, he turned on her, but she held up a warning hand and tapped her ear.

“So someone wished to purchase the transformational clockwork?” she asked, picking up one of his spring pens and writing on a piece of paper. Say nothing you don’t want overheard.

Mr. Mandeville stroked the end of his moustache. “I relayed word of it to a certain friend of mine.” Mercury, he wrote. “He’s interested in presenting it as a gift to the Scandinavian Ambassador once the treaty is signed. He was most impressed with the detail.”

For what purpose? The incident with the draining factories was still fresh in her mind, though she could think of no foul use for her transformational clockwork.

He wants to make his own agreements with the Scandinavians. Out loud Mr. Mandeville added, “He’s never seen anything like it.”

Then, taking a deep breath—and asking how much the commission was likely to pay—she hesitantly wrote. Do you know anything about the content of these letters? Or about the draining factories burning down?

Mr. Mandeville stroked his moustache. “I should imagine you could charge a handsome fee. He wants it complete within two weeks.”

“Two weeks?” she squealed.

“The Scandinavians arrive next week. I assume there shall be the usual rounds of talks and social entertainments.” Taking the pen he wrote, We’re not the only ones working against the Echelon. There is another small faction with rather more drastic notions of how to bring them down. The letters, as far as I know, contain dates and times for meetings.

He’d barely put the pen down before she snatched it up. But you don’t know that for certain?

A hesitation. No. I don’t. But I wouldn’t condone such outright acts of terror.

Good. She met his gaze pointedly. Because I want no part of that either.

I have another message that needs to be delivered. Will you do it?

Lena stared at the sheet of paper. Doubt was a small, restless tickle. An itch she couldn’t scratch. I want to meet Mercury.

Mr. Mandeville’s head shot up. “That’s not possible,” he said aloud.

With an angry shake of the head, she picked up the pen. Then I want nothing more to do with this. I won’t be privy to acts that might be killing innocent people. There were guards at those factories. Human guards. I want to talk to someone who knows what is in those letters.

Mr. Mandeville stared at her, his lips thinned. “I’ll pass word along regarding the commission. It shall be up to his discretion to meet with you.” Pursing his lips, he held the letter up. “Will you take it?” he mouthed.

Lena stared at it. So innocuous. Just a single piece of parchment. Slowly she reached out and accepted it, tucking it in her bodice. Nobody would find it there. This once, she wrote. “Thank you. I’ll begin work on the transformational.” Leaning down, she wrote, I want to meet with Mercury.

Mr. Mandeville nodded shortly. “I’ll see what I can arrange.” He let her get almost to the door before he added, “It was good to meet the source of your inspiration, Lena. But I would urge caution. The blue bloods aren’t the only danger to a young woman these days.”

Her cheeks heated. “I know what I’m doing, thank you, Mr. Mandeville.”

“Aye. I suppose you think you do.”

Will strode into the warren with his hands shoved into his pockets. If he had them free he thought he just might throttle her. Two seconds more and she would have fallen, crushed beneath the iron hooves of the Trojan cavalry. Cold caught in his chest. A horrible breathless feeling he didn’t recognize. Best not to think of it.

Behind him the footman helped the fat old lady as she huffed and complained up the stairs. Lena suggested quietly that Henry take Mrs. Wade to the kitchen for a good, stiffening drink. From the sounds of the gibberish she’d been uttering for the last half hour, Will suspected she might need most of the bottle.

“Well,” Lena sighed, standing beside him at the top of the stairs and watching her companion being led away. “At least she waited until after the mayhem to succumb to hysteria.”

The delicious scent of her soap rose off her warm skin. If only she’d use something else for once. He’d come to associate that smell with Lena and even a hint of it in the air made his cock rouse.

Her skirts brushed his shins as she peered down the hallway. “Where would you like to begin the lesson? Blade’s parlor?”

The ground floor of the warren was a mess of dust and cobwebs, with creaking floorboards and peeling wallpaper. There was nothing to see down here. Nothing of any value. A deterrent to thieves and anyone who might be reporting back to the Echelon. Upstairs, however, was an entirely different abode. Luxurious carpets and fine paintings, the scent of beeswax in the air and most of the rooms warmed with ornate fireplaces. Very few people were trusted enough to see the upstairs section.

Will nodded gruffly. “It’ll do.”

“I’ll fetch some tea and cakes.” She gave him a look. “Are you hungry?”

He was always hungry. The anger and fear in him only burned through more of his body’s fuel. “Aye.”

“I’ll bring something of more substance then.”

As she sashayed toward the kitchen, he opened the parlor door. Cool air brushed against his face. The fires hadn’t been lit for some time. Blade preferred to sit in Honoria’s laboratory upstairs these days.

The cold barely affected him, but Lena liked to sit in front of a good, toasty fire. In various ways she was rather catlike. He’d watched her curl up on the rug many a time, tinkering with the pieces of a broken clock. The inner workings of such gadgets were beyond him, but Lena managed to fit them together as if they were naught more than a child’s puzzle.

By the time he had a healthy blaze crackling in the hearth she’d returned. He heard the swish of skirts from down the hall, and the scent of hot roast beef filled the air. Saliva flooded his mouth and he intercepted her at the door, his gaze intent on the heavy tray in her hands.

“Here,” he muttered, taking it from her.

Lena’s gaze strayed to the fire. She crossed to it, holding out her pale hands. “Mrs. Wade is recovering. She claims she’ll be along in a moment.” A wry twist of the lips. “I don’t think she trusts you alone with my maidenly sensibilities.”

Warmth crinkled the edges of her eyes. Will slowly put the tray on a small reading table. A smarter woman than he’d given her credit for, Mrs. Wade.

“Are you hungry?” he asked. The scent of beef drew him to the tray. Will lifted the lid and examined the plate. Esme’s roasted beef with gallons of gravy and thick bread and drippings.

“Not particularly.”

He balanced the plate on his lap and ate with relish. Far better fare than he was used to these days.

Lena took her seat opposite him, sweeping her skirts to the side. She poured them both tea then fetched a plate of spice cake for herself. Though her soft hum mingled with the comforting chink of silverware, a hint of tension rode the air, heavy as silence. Lena’s lashes fluttered against her cheeks as she stole a glance at him, then looked swiftly away.

It had been like this for a year. Ever since that day she’d crawled onto his lap, fluttered her lashes at him, and then pressed her lips against his.

Right there, on that bloody sofa beside them.

He glared at the embroidered cushions. His first kiss and it had been a bloody fiasco from start to finish. Once the shock of it had pierced his brain, he hadn’t been able to get away fast enough. Her lips, like silk against his, wet and lush. Then the dart of her tongue as she licked at him, daring him to kiss her back. Somehow his fist had clenched in her skirts. The other hand was half-lifted, about to capture the back of her neck and tug her closer before he even realized what was happening.

Then he was on his feet, Lena tumbling back onto the cushions, her eyes wide and startled and her green skirts spilling around her. A glimpse of her ankles, the stockinged calves tempting him to explore further. Little hammer-strikes of vision flashing at him. Moments of movement where he wasn’t even aware of having done it.

Dangerous. He’d only ever lost control—lost time—once. That she could do it to him so easily frightened him more than an entire army of metaljackets.

If he lost control, if he hurt her, if he infected her…he’d never forgive himself.

“First lesson,” she said, her soft voice intruding into his thoughts, “is that a gentleman doesn’t stare at a lady quite so…so boldly.”

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