Heart of Iron (London Steampunk #2)

Chapter 5

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He picked the clockwork back up and began to nestle it safely in its box, where it might never again see the light of day.

“The Duke of Malloryn said that the Echelon were considering a peace treaty with the Scandinavian clans,” she blurted.

Mr. Mandeville froze. Both his eyebrows slowly vanished into his hairline. “That’s unheard of. The Scandinavian verwulfen have been at odds with Britain since Culloden. There’s no chance they would agree to a treaty.”

“That’s all I know. Mrs. Wade discovered me and I was forced to go look at bonnets.”

“Goodness,” Mandeville whispered. “I shall have to pass this information on. At once.”

Lena glanced at Mrs. Wade, who was tapping her reticule impatiently. “Do you think I should meet with Mercury? To tell him what I know? Firsthand?”

For months Mercury had been only a dashing figment of her imagination. As the mysterious head of the secret humanist movement working right here in London, he was little more than cloaks and shadows. Rumor had it that the Council of Dukes had posted an extravagant reward with the infamous Nighthawks for his capture.

“No. No, I’ll pass the information on. It wouldn’t do at all to have you involved any further. The fewer people who know of Mercury’s identity the safer he is.”

“I would never tell a soul.”

“Oh, Lena, you’re so terribly innocent still.” He gave her a sad smile. “There are ways for a blue blood to make a young woman tell them everything they want to know. Especially those rotten bastards in the Ivory Tower.” He patted her hand. “I’ll pass the message on. Hopefully we can use this information. If this alliance between the Echelon and verwulfen clans goes ahead, there’ll be little chance for the humanists to defeat the Echelon. They’ll be too powerful.”

He slid a folded envelope toward her, beneath a sheaf of orders. “The usual spot, if you will?”

Lena palmed it, pretending to rifle through the orders. Her voice rose. “Of course. Thank you for the commissions. I shall select which ones I deem appropriate.”

“Let me know if you hear more.” A frown crossed his face. “I am most curious about why they’re talking of peace.”

“I will.”

Lena picked up the box with the snubbed clockwork inside and turned her back on him. Pasting a smile on her face, she ignored the curiosity that lit Mrs. Wade’s face and gestured toward the carriage. She was about to make her companion’s day much worse.

“Oh look, we’ve time to visit my brother and sister,” she said lightly, though in fact she’d planned on it.

Mrs. Wade paled. “Not the rookeries, Lena. If anyone sees—”

“We’ll be discreet. And they’re my family, after all—even if they are considered persona non grata to the Echelon.” She stepped through the shop door into the warm sunshine. “I’ve a mind to gift Charlie with this toy. Mr. Mandeville doesn’t want it.” And she couldn’t bear to let it go to waste. It was the finest thing she’d ever created, even if it bore striking familiarity to a certain hulking brute that she knew.

Not that she’d be seeing him this time of day. She’d lived at the warren long enough to know the times that Will came and went. Midday usually found him asleep after his nightly sojourn guarding the rookery.

Which suited her perfectly.

She wouldn’t care if she never saw him again.

If Honoria was surprised to see him so early, she gave little sign of it. Will growled a greeting and strode past. Sunlight spilled through the attic window, dust motes swirling through its beams. The stink of chemical took his breath, with the faint, underlying tang of blood and chamomile tea.

“Blade’s still in bed,” Honoria said, brushing a lock of dark hair behind her ear. “He’s recovering well, though not as quickly as I’d like—”

Nor as quickly as he once had. Will nodded brusquely. “I seen him.”

“Of course.”

It was the first place he would have gone.

Tugging off her magnifying glassicals, she began to remove her apron. The attic had been sectioned into two rooms, one for Honoria’s laboratory and the other for Blade’s boxing saloon. Will’d never been in here before. It was solely Honoria’s domain, and while he’d expected sterile benches and equipment, he was surprised by the pair of cozy, overstuffed armchairs by the hearth and the mounds of paperwork. Honoria struck him as someone who was obsessively organized.

“Can I help you with anything?” No doubt she was almost as surprised to see him here as he was.

Will dragged the letter from his pocket. He couldn’t make heads or tails of it, but Honoria’s inquisitive little mind took to codes like a duck to water. “Can you decipher this?”

She took it, scratching her thumbnail through the waxy substance that coated it. “Hmm. I can try. It might take a while. Is it important?”

“Could be.”

She shot him a look.

“Found it on the men as stabbed Blade.”

The color drained from her face and she glared down at the letter. “I’ll do my best then. When did you retrieve this?”

“This morning,” he muttered. “Tracked ’em into the sewers.”

“Are they still breathing?”

“Aye.”

Surprise widened her eyes—then they narrowed with an expression that was quite bloodthirsty. “May I ask why?”

“The Nighthawks were on me heels. They’ve got ’em in custody, no doubt.”

“That’s not like you, leaving an enemy behind.” Crossing to the bench, she tapped the letter against her lips.

His cue to leave.

As if sensing it, she glanced over her shoulder, eyelashes shuttering her luminous eyes. It felt like a punch to the gut, the gesture so reminiscent of Lena that he swallowed hard. Definitely time to get out of here.

But as he turned, he heard a set of footsteps on the stairs.

“May I ask a favor of you, Will?”

His hand hovered over the doorknob, nostrils flaring. The scent of leather and blud-wein assaulted his nose. Blade. Which meant Honoria had him neatly trapped. He couldn’t be rude and make his escape. “What?”

“Blade suggested I should take a sample of your blood.”

Of course he did. She’d spent the last three years sticking holes in her husband. No doubt Blade thought it high time she turned that obsessive little mind toward someone else. A chill ran down his spine. Needles. Frigging needles.

Seeing the look on his face, she hurried on. “To see if there’s any chance of finding a cure. Or vaccination.” With a sigh, she added, “My work here has stalled. Charlie’s not responding to the vaccinated blood the same way as Blade did. And Blade’s results have reached a plateau for the moment. His CV levels are sitting as low as forty-eight and have been for six months, thank goodness.”

The door opened. Honoria’s gaze shot straight past Will. For once, he was grateful not to be the recipient of that diamond stare. “What the devil do you think you’re doing out of bed?”

Blade kicked the door shut with his heel. White as parchment and moving stiffer than an eighty-year-old man, he struggled to catch his breath. “Good to see you too, luv.”

“I gave strict instructions that you were to remain bedridden for the next three days. Then we would renegotiate.”

“Which means she’ll decide if I can or can’t get up.” Blade winked at Will. “I couldn’t stand to be without you another moment, luv. Me ’eart were breakin’.”

Honoria pointed. “Chair. Now.”

Handing Will his bottle of blud-wein, he settled into one of the armchairs by the fireplace whilst Honoria clucked and scolded him. Blade bore it with goodwill, but his eyes sparkled whenever her back was turned.

Will shifted on his feet, but Honoria saw the movement and looked up from where she was tucking a footstool under her husband’s feet. One delicate eyebrow arched in question.

“What’s up, luv?” Blade asked, catching the look.

“I asked Will if he’d consent to having some of his blood examined.”

“You don’t ’ave to,” Blade hastened to assure him.

That was the thing he hated the most now. The hesitant way they spoke around him, as if fearing he’d walk out the door and never come back.

Folding his arms over his chest, he glared at Blade. As if he’d ever abandon him. Without Blade he’d probably still be trapped in a cage, reduced to little more than an animal.

A hot little coal flared to life inside him. If only he hadn’t bloody been there that night. If only he hadn’t heard Honoria ask if he was dangerous, if he could be trusted around Lena…

And then the hesitation.

He’d never doubted himself before. Never doubted his control. Years in the cage had taught him to leash the anger, the beast within. He choked it down, trapped it in solid iron bars—a manifestation of the cage he’d spent ten years in. Nobody could reach in there.

Until Lena came along.

She’d driven him near insane. It was nothing but a game to her, a flirtation, a tease. A way to test her burgeoning womanhood on someone she thought was safe. But he wasn’t safe. And he didn’t play games. After two years of living with it, the edges of the cage had started to grow ragged. If Blade had noticed the restless prowl of the beast within him, if Honoria had… Then how close had he been to losing control?

How long had they watched him? Not trusted him?

“Will?” Honoria asked.

“Do it,” he snapped, somewhat harsher than he’d intended. “But hurry up. I’ve got things to do today.”

Three

“Be brave, Will,” Blade called. “Ain’t naught to it. Just a little prick, much like your own. You don’t ’ear the lasses down on Petticoat Lane complainin’, do you?”

Will swore at him and stared ferociously at the wall as Honoria slid the needle in. The silver began burning immediately. Cold iron healed in seconds, but silver kept the wound open long enough for her to take her sample. Sweat dripped into his eyes, and a chill ran down his face. Bile churned in his stomach.

“There we go. Nearly done,” Honoria crooned, patting his shoulder. “It’s a nice red sample, Will. I’d grown used to Blade’s blue blood.”

The sound of light footsteps in the hall caught his ear. His head swam as he turned his face that way, cold spiraling through him. A warm, floral scent curled through his nose. Honeysuckle. Oh no. Not her. Not now… Somewhere in the distance he thought he heard Blade asking if he was all right. As the room buzzed, he glanced toward the needle and the vial thick with his blood.

A mistake.

The next thing he knew, he was lying flat on his back on the floor and shoving at the vile smelling salts someone waved under his nose. His fingers grazed a lady’s breast, and his eyes shot open as Lena tumbled backward, the smelling salts spilling everywhere.

Months since he’d seen her. Months where the image of her had faded until the memory was almost a blur. Now here she was, as vibrant and beautiful as ever, her dashing red skirts spilled across the floor like a pool of blood. The hunger in him, the raging warmth, bubbled up, flooding through his vision until he knew his eyes were wolf-gold. Vision sharpened, picking out every single strand of hair that tumbled over her shoulders, the dew on her lips, the light reflecting off the bleached tips of her lashes.

Mine, something inside him snarled. For a moment the world blurred and when he wrenched back his control, his hand was half lifted toward her.

“What the hell are you doin’ here?” he snapped, still disorientated. Cold sweat ringed his neckline.

Blade caught his hand. “Easy there.” The words were light, but Will knew them for the warning they were.

Control it. Rein it in.

The effort left him breathless. As his vision faded back to normal, he realized they were all staring at him in various states of wariness.

“I’m fine,” he muttered.

Blade knelt back on his heels. “Good. Don’t think I could take you on just yet.”

Lena sat up, her face pale. The coffee-dark color of her hair was the same precise shade of her sister’s, but her brown eyes were warmer, more almond shaped. Smiling eyes, meant to tempt and tease.

They weren’t smiling now.

Lena’s lips curved, but it didn’t light up her face the way it could. “Goodness,” she said in a falsely bright tone. “How much blood did you take, Honor?”

“I had no idea you had a fear of needles,” Honoria said, glancing at the tiny vial.

“Thought I could handle it.” It had been a long time since he’d fainted.

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