Heart of Iron (London Steampunk #2)

Chapter 7

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A piece of paper tumbled from her sleeve as she turned, fluttering to the floor like a dying moth.

“Ah, we’re back to that, are we?” he asked, putting the soup aside to cool. Stooping, he plucked up the piece of paper. “You dropped something.”

Lena froze in the doorway. Her hand went immediately to her sleeve, and then she spun around, her eyes widening. “Give it to me!”

Will stood, breaking the seal and unrolling the small furl of paper. He caught just a glimpse of thick black letters before Lena tried to tug it out of his grip.

“A love letter, I’ll bet.” He turned around and pretended to read it.

A whoosh of scent enveloped him, her skirts swishing against his legs. She clutched at his shoulder, trying to drag his arm lower, her breasts crushed against the broad expanse of his back. Any attempt at reading went straight out of his head.

“What would you know of love letters?” She climbed on the stool and reached for the piece of paper. The step put her on eye level with him. Dangerously intimate. “The type of woman as would have you isn’t the type to be writing poems.”

“Don’t be so sure,” he shot back. “You’d be surprised at the type of poems they whisper in me ear.”

“Urgh. You’re despicable.”

The stool teetered and their gazes clashed. Lena shrieked and clutched at him as she fell. Will found himself with an armful of soft velvet and warm flesh, and the sound of two racing hearts.

The world slowed down. Became nothing more than the feel of her in his arms. Will stared into her eyes, then his gaze dropped, unbidden, to her lips.

Lena’s eyes widened and she made a choking noise. “Put me down.”

He could barely breathe. The hunger inside him was suddenly choking him, desperate to get out and rule his body. He knew the burning amber of his gaze was intensifying; he could almost feel the molten heat of it run through his irises as the color changed.

“Will,” she whispered. “Your eyes.”

Her breath was warm on his lips. She’d been chewing something with apple and cinnamon in it. He could scent it on her breath and suddenly he wanted to taste it.

Don’t.

Shoving her away, he turned, the paper crumpling in his fist. He had to get out of here. Away from the scent of her. Away from the temptation to do something she’d never forgive him for.

Maybe Blade and Honoria were right. Maybe he couldn’t be trusted?

“Will,” she whispered. “You’re shaking.”

He looked down at his hands. The tremble started there, swept all the way through him. “You were right,” he said hoarsely. “Maybe I did exert meself.”

“Perhaps I’d best go?”

It seemed some sense of self-preservation had come over her.

He nodded, struggling to hold onto himself. What the hell was wrong with him? What did it matter if she’d found…someone? Instantly the anger was back, thick and choking, a red haze threatening his vision.

“You shouldn’t have come. This ain’t your world now.” The words were harsh and he’d meant them to be.

Silence. “I know. I thought you wouldn’t be here. You’re never here at midday.”

Which was why she only visited at those times.

“Then why don’t you go?”

“My letter?”

Soft footsteps shuffled behind him. Her skirts brushed against his legs and then her hand slid down his arm, closing over the letter in his grip. A letter she was so desperate to regain.

There was only one reason she wouldn’t want him to see it.

Suddenly he couldn’t stop himself. He had to know, even if the answer was one he wouldn’t particularly like. Lena cried out, fighting him for it.

It tore in half and both of them staggered apart, left with a piece each. Will unrolled it, his gaze darting over the piece of paper. Not letters. Not writing. His gaze sharpened. He’d seen this before. The same bloody cipher he’d found on the men who’d fired the draining factories.

His stomach dropped. “What the hell are you doin’ with this?” he whispered, his voice filled with a cold, inexplicable dread.

Lena gave a strangled cry and darted for the door. Will grabbed her skirts almost as an aside, shock running its icy fingers down his spine. “Don’t think you’re goin’ anywhere. Not until you tell me where the bloody hell you found this!”

“I picked it up,” she lied, the bitter smell of it all over her.

Will grabbed her by the shoulder and spun her toward the stool she’d almost toppled. “Sit,” he growled, shoving her into the seat. “And explain. And if I were you, I wouldn’t dare tell me another lie.”

Four

Will towered over her with a glower. All nearly seven feet of him.

“Explain,” he demanded.

His eyes glowed that eerie amber color that showed he wasn’t quite human. Lena fell back, holding onto the bench to keep herself upright. She didn’t dare move, even as the stool teetered beneath her.

But she didn’t dare tell him.

“Or?” she asked, tipping her chin up and meeting his furious gaze. Her heartbeat pounded in her ears. He wouldn’t hurt her. Yet her gaze dropped to the quiver in his hands. Maybe it was exertion. Maybe not. She’d never seen him like this before.

His nostrils flared and he turned and slammed both hands on the bench. Head bowed, he sucked in a deep breath. Then another.

“I—”

“Don’t speak.” A gravely rasp. “Give me a moment.”

Lena swallowed. What was wrong with him? She eased herself upright, setting all four legs of the stool on the ground. The clock on the wall ticked out the seconds. Each tick seemed to stretch out, time slowing as the tension settled in the room. She could hardly stand it.

As suddenly as he’d turned, Will lifted his head and pushed away from the bench. His golden-brown hair was long enough now to touch his collar, and he raked it out of his eyes with a sharp gesture.

“No lies,” he warned, pointing a finger at her. The piece of letter was still crushed in his other fist. “Where did you get this?”

“I can’t tell you.”

Will put both hands on the bench behind her and leaned closer. Trapping her. “Don’t make me tell Blade.”

If Will talked to Blade, he would talk to Honoria and then Honoria…well, she would probably scream at Lena about how stupid she’d been, getting involved in such a thing.

“You’d run along and tattle on me?” She ignored the angry flare of molten-gold in his eyes. Will would never understand what she was trying to do, and she was very well aware of the dangers of involving other people.

Will caught her chin in his fingers. His lip curled back off his teeth. “This ain’t a game. I’d tell Blade because it’s clear you’re in over your ’ead. I seen somewhat like this before. On a man who burned the drainin’ factories down. Lena, they’re government owned! The Echelon will destroy whoever did this.” He waved the letter at her. “If it kept you from gettin’ your head cut off, then I’ll take a bloody full page out in the Times!”

“That almost sounds as if you gave a damn.”

Thought flickered through his hooded gaze. Indecipherable. She found she was holding her breath, which was ridiculous.

“I don’t want to see you hurt,” he said finally. “And your sister’d skin me alive if anythin’ happened to you and I’d known about it.”

Foolish, to think that he might have cared, even a little. Her shoulders slumped. “I promised a friend I’d deliver it for him. I had no idea what was inside it. I still don’t. That could be a laundry list, for all you know.”

“Let’s pretend I can’t smell it every time you lie to me.”

“That is the truth!” This was the hardest part of her cause—lying to her friends and family. But if she involved them now, who knew what might happen? Will was right. The Echelon would kill anyone they even suspected of being involved in this. She glanced uneasily at the letter. Mandeville had told her she was only dropping off meeting points and times to one of the other spies who worked within the Echelon.

She sent the letters by crow to some mysterious conspirator and received them for Mr. Mandeville. What if one of those letters had been instructions to burn the factories? She desperately needed to be alone, to think.

Suddenly, the world had become a far more dangerous place.

“Lena.” The growl that came out of his throat was almost primordial. The kind of sound you expected to hear in a snowy forest, late at night, alone. The kind of growl that sent shivers down her spine because she knew it meant she was the prey.

Run, a little voice whispered.

“I—I—”

No longer content to play games, he gripped her chin and stared at her, his amber eyes burning right through her. Lena stopped breathing. She had nothing to fear—this was Will—but something in her, some unconscious part of her body, recognized danger when she saw it. The little hairs along her arms rose, her stomach turning to lead.

“I’m not—”

Laughter sounded on the stairs. Lena looked toward the door in relief as Blade’s housekeeper Esme and her husband Rip came through it.

Instantly Will straightened, his fingers slipping from her chin. He glanced away in order to hide his eyes from the newcomers and give himself a chance to leash the beast inside him. It rode close to the surface of his skin today, a predator beneath all those sleek muscles and powerful brawn.

“Lena!” Esme greeted, her black hair knotted back into a simple chignon. She took Lena’s hands and kissed her on the cheek. “I didn’t know you were visiting today.”

“It was a momentary decision,” Lena replied quickly. “You look well. Married life suits you.”

Esme smiled over her shoulder at Rip. The menacing giant had frightened Lena in the beginning, with his heavy mechanical arm and dark expression. In the first few months she’d lived at the warren with her sister and Blade, Rip had been suffering through the initial stirrings of the craving virus. She could remember his screams and the way he tore through his room in a rage. Not even Blade had been able to manage him and only Esme could calm him.

“And Will,” Esme said, with a faint note of scold in her voice. “I see you’ve been at my soup.”

“Honoria’s suggestion, I’m afraid,” Lena replied. She smiled sweetly as Will turned around. “He had an episode involving a fit of the vapors.”

If looks could kill…

But she was safe now, with witnesses in the room. When he got her alone—and he would, she knew—he might do anything to her.

Rip barked a laugh. “You fainted, boy-o?”

“I had to use my smelling salts,” she replied, sneaking her hat and gloves off the bench. Will’s eyes watched the movement, though his body and face never moved.

“Lena,” he said gruffly. “You’ll take a walk with me?”

Not a chance. She shot him a charming smile. “I’m afraid I have to go. I have an appointment at the milliners. It was nice to visit, though. I’ll have to come more often.” Another blatant lie. She wouldn’t be coming back here unless absolutely certain Will wasn’t there.

He took a step toward her, but Esme was in the way. Will pulled up short, frustration flickering across his face. But he didn’t dare push past. Not with Rip standing guard over his wife and still overly protective.

“Until next time,” she said, staring him baldly in the face.

He was a long time replying. And when he did, she almost stepped back at the menace in his tone.

“It’ll be sooner than you think.”

Will slammed the door, his gaze raking the small apartment. It was where he lived, but it wasn’t home. It lacked the warmth and laughter of the warren. He tossed his coat aside and lit a candle, his breath steaming in the evening air. Despite a full afternoon dealing with Blade’s business in the rookery, the scent of honeysuckle still clung to his clothes.

He scowled and found a piece of leftover pie in the icebox. He didn’t want to be thinking of that. Lena thought she’d gotten away from him today, but she had forgotten one thing.

Will always got his prey. In the end.

What the hell was the fool girl up to? Carrying around such a potentially devastating document? If anyone in the Echelon found her with that on her person, there’d be questions. If they knew what it meant, then she’d be executed.

Cold punched through him at the thought. Her laughter and teasing, forever cut short. Though her presence made him uneasy, he never wanted to see her harmed. In fact, the very thought made his hackles rise and the berserker rage threaten to spill out over him.

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