Heart of Iron (London Steampunk #2)

Chapter 8

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He’d never felt this way before. One glimpse of her and every primitive need rushed to claim him, threatening to overwhelm his careful defenses.

The mere thought of her in danger…

He stopped. Put his fork down. The vein in his temple throbbed as he sucked in a deep breath. Then another. Don’t think about it. Not until he had himself under control.

Whenever that might be. With a gruff laugh, he picked up the fork again and stabbed it into the pie. As he bit into the flavorsome meat, a sound caught his attention from the stairs outside.

Someone sneaking up to his door.

Someone preternaturally quiet.

Sliding the fork into a stronger grip, he held it low against his thigh and crossed silently to the door. Leather flavored the air, but no personal scent. A blue blood then. They lost their distinctive smell when they became infected with the craving.

Will ripped the door open and stepped forward, grabbing the intruder by the throat and slamming him up against the wall.

A hand caught his wrist, the thumb digging into the tendons just hard enough to ease his grip. “Truce,” Blade said hoarsely. “If I wanted you dead you wouldn’t a ’eard me comin’.”

Will let him go with a scowl of disgust. “Bloody hell. You should be in bed.” He stepped back. “Does Honoria know where you are?”

“Of course. Can’t you ’ear the argument ringin’ still?” Blade loosened his collar. “I’m not a feeble ole man. And I can’t afford to be trapped in bed for the next half week.”

“You’re puffin’ like a bellows.”

“I’ll catch me breath.” Blade peered past him. “You’re a mite skittish there, Will. Got somethin’ on your mind?”

He gestured Blade inside, then closed the door behind them. This whole thing with Lena had him on edge, expecting blue bloods in every shadow. “What’s the problem? You’re not one for social visits.”

Blade cocked his hip on the table and crossed his arms. “Ain’t I welcome?” The words were quiet, but the glint in Blade’s eyes spoke of a whole lot of other things.

Will slammed into his chair and picked at the pie. He’d lost his appetite. “Don’t be a fool,” he muttered. “You’re always welcome.”

A steady gaze, watching him. Then Blade sighed. “What do you make o’ this?” He withdrew a scroll from his pocket and tossed it toward Will.

Who snatched it out of the air. Unrolling it, he held the parchment up to the light. The letters were slanted and looping. And written in gold.

“‘The Council of Dukes requests your presence at Lord Harker’s ball tomorrow night at eight,’” he read slowly, fumbling with the words. “‘The house will be considered neu-neutral territory for the evenin’. Bring the Beast. He shall receive safe passage for the night.’”

Lowering it, he met Blade’s gaze. “A trap?”

Blade scratched at his jaw. “Don’t think so. But it’s a game play of some sort. Damned if I can work it out.” Their eyes met. “Or why they’re involving you.”

“Well.” Will crushed the parchment in his fist. “I don’t owe ’em nothin’. And neither do you.”

“Aye. But what do they want?” Blade scowled. “I ’ate these bloody games. Dare I ignore it? It could be anythin’.” With a sigh, he eased away from the table. “I ain’t expectin’ you to come. It’s dangerous for you, that world—”

A thought struck him. Lena was certain to be in attendance. This was precisely her sort of thing. And the last place she’d be expecting to see him.

Thought you could run, did you?

“It’s dangerous for both of us,” Will corrected slowly. “You go, I go.” He was Blade’s bodyguard in all matters. “And I’ve other business to see to there. Might as well take up their kindly offer of safe passage and see what the bastards want.”

“Wouldn’t ’appen to be business of the petticoat variety?”

Will shot him a dark look.

“You need a woman,” Blade added bluntly.

The words conjured an image: dark hair, dark eyes, a wicked little smile. His cock clenched. “The last thing I need’s a woman.”

“You need somethin’ then.” Blade’s gaze roamed his meager surroundings. “You ought to come ’ome, Will. It’s a cold, lonely place. You don’t belong ’ere.”

I don’t belong anywhere. Not really. He looked away, his shoulders stiffening. “We’ve had this discussion. The answer’s no.”

A long, drawn out sigh met his ears. “Aye. I’ll leave you to it then. Just you and the mice. Be ready then, tomorrow at six. Oh, and Will?”

“Aye?”

“Wouldn’t ’urt to ’ave a shave.”

Five

“I need some air,” Lena said, fanning her flushed face. The peacock feathers brushed against her lips, but she ignored them, her gaze following the handsome young Duke of Malloryn as he escorted the Duchess of Casavian out of the ballroom.

Both were heads of their Houses and members of the ruling Council of Dukes. And since the Duke of Goethe had retired barely five minutes ago, she could only presume that they were meeting to discuss something important.

Hopefully the Scandinavian matter.

Adele downed a glass of iced lemonade. “Is that wise?”

Green eyes met hers, the hard look in them turning wary for a moment. Lena squeezed her hand. “He’s not here. I checked.”

“Don’t blind yourself, Lena. Colchester’s not the only danger.”

Lena nodded. The room swept around her in a riot of color as the crowd danced. Around the walls loomed a dozen blue bloods, sipping at their blud-wein and watching the dance floor with predatory eyes. “You’ll be safe?”

“They’re not the only ones hunting.” Adele smiled, but it didn’t touch her eyes. “I told you I need a patron.”

“Be careful.” Lena squeezed her gloved hand. The duke and duchess had disappeared. Giving Adele one last smile, she hurried after them.

The duchess had been wearing a deep aubergine gown that set off the color of her coppery hair. Lena exited the ballroom. Peering over the balustrade of the second floor, she raked her gaze across the white tiled entry below. An enormous staircase took up most of the foyer. Over a dozen men and women lined the stairs and the entry, gowned in a variety of brilliant colors. From the warmth of their skin and the dark, raven locks on a pair of them, they were most likely human, none of them high enough in rank to receive the gift of infected blood. Only those of good bloodlines and standing went through the blood rites at the age of fifteen. It was a sign of status, of prestige.

It took more than being a blue blood to be considered part of the Echelon. Any other unfortunate who was accidentally infected was considered little more than a rogue. Such blue bloods were either drafted into the Nighthawks, offered a place in the Coldrush Guards that protected the Ivory Tower and the Council, or were killed.

Humans could navigate the shadowy edges of the Echelon—like her—but they were never truly a part of it. They had their place, either as thralls or potential consorts, if their bloodlines were good.

Avoiding the soaring marble statue of an angel, she peered down the hallway. Two dozen of Lord Harker’s distinguished relatives glared down at her from the walls. Lena swept across the top of the stairs, her peacock green skirts rustling. There was another hallway on the other side.

She was just passing the enormous grandfather clock that held pride of place at the top of the stairs when a hush fell over the foyer.

Two footmen held each of the main doors open, their faces impassive. Blade strolled in, swinging an ebony-tipped cane. He tossed his top hat to a waiting footman and saluted the gaping group on the stairs. Another footman swept past with a tray of blud-wein, and Blade stole one, examining the foyer with interest.

Will stalked in at his heels, his shoulders straining the black coat he’d obviously borrowed. He wore a gray waistcoat, carefully brushed, and his boots had been scrubbed. Candlelight gleamed off the coppery highlights in his hair, and he towered over the hovering servants. Despite their training, two of them bolted out of his path like frightened rabbits. Will’s hungry gaze followed them as if he were considering giving chase.

Lena’s breath caught, the heat draining from her face. “Will,” she whispered. What the devil was he doing here?

Will stopped in his tracks, his head lifting like a lion scenting gazelle, the brilliant, burning amber of his gaze locking on hers. His lips curled in a threatening smile, and Lena took a step back.

“Later,” he mouthed.

She tore her gaze away, her heart pounding madly in her chest. For a moment she’d thought he was here for her, but that was foolishness. Not with the price on his head. What was he doing in the heart of Echelon territory? They considered his kind fit only to be caged or chained. If he’d gotten himself in trouble…

“Sir…Blade,” the butler recovered himself well. “Master Will. This way, if you care. Lord Barrons is waiting for you.”

Leo. Her half brother had something to do with this. Lena’s hands unclenched from her skirts. Why would Leo invite them here, when he could just as easily have visited Whitechapel? He was one of the few members of the Echelon Blade trusted enough to grant passage to Whitechapel.

The butler led them across the foyer and into one of the lower hallways. Just before he disappeared, Will looked up, shooting her one more blazing look. It scorched all the way through her, igniting a mixture of fear and nervous anticipation that she couldn’t quite name.

Heavens. She let out the breath she’d been holding and backed toward the second hallway. She had to get out of here before he found her.

But first, she had a little reconnaissance to finish. Find out what was going on between the Council members, if she could.

Then she was going to plead an attack of the vapors, which, considering how rapidly her heart was beating, shouldn’t be that difficult at all.

“Be ready for anythin’,” Blade murmured as they strode through the halls of Lord Harker’s mansion.

Will rolled his shoulders, his eyes darting through the shadows. Blade had no need to warn him. He’d been on edge ever since they got out of the cursed carriage. Coming here, into the very heart of society, was dangerous. He had to be ready for anything; no more surprises.

He’d already had his first surprise for the evening. Lena. Though he’d been expecting her, even relishing the opportunity, the sight of her temporarily struck him dumb. She’d always been well-dressed but wreathed in shadows, the gaslight picking out the soft curves and mysterious depths of her body… She’d been breath-catching.

Her hair tumbled over her shoulder in an elaborate cascade of curls, an elegant comb holding it up. Emeralds dripped into the deep vee of her green dress, drawing his gaze lower. He couldn’t wait to get her alone. Anticipation thrummed through his veins, alerting all of his senses.

He just didn’t know yet whether he wanted to throttle her—or kiss her.

A door opened and a swathe of golden light cut through the shadows. Will reined in his thoughts swiftly. No time for distraction. Best way to get his throat slit.

A man appeared, wearing crisp black from head to toe. He moved with the dangerous grace of a swordsman, his body lean and hard and his dark eyes cautious as he surveyed the darkened hallway. A diamond stud winked in his ear, and though he wore no weapons, an aura of dark violence hung over him.

Leo Barrons. Lena’s guardian and possibly the only blue blood Will could tolerate besides Blade.

“Blade.” Barrons offered his hand. His gaze examined the scene swiftly but Will knew he’d noted everything around them, from the pattern in the red carpets, to the fall of their coats. “Excellent timing. The prince consort should be arriving any moment.”

“The consort?” Blade arched a brow. “My, my, they must want somethin’ from me badly, if they’re bringin’ out ’is Royal Pastiness.”

Barrons’s lips quirked slyly, but he shook his head in warning. “The others are inside.” A cue for Blade to shut his mouth. Barrons stepped forward with a hand offered. “Will. You look like a mountain, as always.”

“Near eats me out of ’earth and ’ome,” Blade muttered.

Will eyed him coolly. “Got me own set of rooms now.”

“Aye, and yet you’re still in me bloody kitchens every time I turn ’round.” A wary smile; Blade was playing it up for Barrons’s sake—and the others inside—but he hadn’t forgotten where they were.

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