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And now dear little children, who may this story read,
To idle, silly flattering words, I pray you ne’er give heed:
Unto an evil counsellor, close heart and ear and eye,
And take a lesson from this tale, of the Spider and the Fly.
“The Spider and the Fly” Mary Howitt
London, 1869, Victoria Station—An Auspicious Beginning
Winston Lane could never recall the impetus that prompted him to leave the confines of his first class railway compartment and step back onto the platform. The whistle had sounded, long and high, indicating that they would soon be off. And yet, he’d felt compelled. Was it for a quick draw upon his pipe? The need for a bit of air? His memory was muddled at best. Perhaps it was because the whys did not matter. From the moment he’d stepped off that train, his life changed completely. And it had been because of a woman.
Now that he remembered with the vividness of a fine oil painting. Great billows of hot, white steam clouded the cold air upon the platform, obscuring the shapes of the few railway workers attending to last minute duties, giving their movements a ghostlike subtlety. Idly he watched them, interested as always in the activities of the common man, when through the mists she emerged. It might have been lyrical had she been gliding along in peaceful repose, but no, this woman strode. A mannish, commanding walk as if she owned the very air about her. And though Winston had been raised to appreciate ladies who exuded utter femininity and eschew those who did not, he’d snapped to instant attention.
She was tall, nearly as tall as he, this assertive miss, and dressed in some dull frock that blended into the fading light. The only spot of color was her mass of vivid, carnelian red hair coiled at the back of her head like a crown. So very red, and glinting like a beacon. One look and he knew he had to have her. Which was rather extraordinary, for he wasn’t the sort prone to impulse or rash feeling. And certainly not about women. They were interesting in the abstract, but one was much like any other. At nineteen, he was already set in his ways: orderly, bookish, and logical. Save there was nothing logical about the hot, hard pang that caught him in the gut as she walked by, her dark eyes flashing beneath the red slashes of her brows.
The pipe fell from Winston’s hand, clattering upon the ground as he stood frozen, surely gaping like some slack-jawed idiot. She did not appear to notice him, but kept walking, her long legs eating up the ground, taking her away from him. This, he could not allow. In an instant, he was after her.
He nearly broke into a run to catch her. It was worth it. The scent of book leather and lemons enveloped him, and his head went light. Books and clean woman. Had God ever divined a more perfect perfume? She was young. Perhaps younger than he was. Her pale skin was smooth, unlined, and unmarred, save for the tiny freckle just above her earlobe. He had the great urge to bite that little lobe.
She did not break her pace, but glanced at him sidelong as if to throw out a warning. He did not blame her; he was being unspeakably rude approaching this young lady without a proper introduction. Then again, they were the only ones on the platform, and he was not fool enough to let her out of his sight.
“Forgive me,” he said, a bit breathless, for really this woman was fast on her feet, “I realize this is rather forward and usually I would never—”
“Never what?” she cut in, her voice crisp and smooth as fresh linen sheets. “Never proposition young ladies who have the temerity to walk unescorted in public areas?”
Well, now that he thought of it, she really ought to have a guardian with her. She did not appear to be from great wealth, so he wouldn’t expect an abigail, but a sister or an aunt perhaps? Or a husband. A shudder went through him at the thought of her being married. He mentally shook himself, aware that he’d been staring at her, memorizing the sharp slope of her nose and the graceful curve of her jaw.
“I would never presume to proposition you, miss. Indeed, should any such scoundrel approach you, it would be my pleasure to set him to rights.” And now he sounded like a prig, and a hypocrite.
She smirked. “Then let me guess. You are a member of the Society for the Protection of Young Ladies and Innocents and want to make certain I realize the perils of walking alone.” Cool brown eyes glinted as she glanced at him, and Winston’s already tight gut started to ache. “Or perhaps you merely seek a contribution?”
He could not help it; he grinned. “And if I were, would you listen to my testimony?”
Her soft, pink lips pursed. Whether in irritation or in amusement, he could not tell. Nor did he care. He wanted to run his tongue along them and ease them back to softness. The image made him twitch. He’d never had such importune thoughts. Yet speaking to her felt natural, as if he’d done so a thousand times before.
“I don’t know, is your testimony any good?”
Like that, he was hard as iron. His voice came out rough. “While I am certainly capable of extolling the virtues of my testimony, there is only one way for you to truly find out.”
When she blushed, it was a deep pink that clashed beautifully with her hair. “Well, you certainly talk a good talk,” she murmured, and his smile grew.
They neared the end of the platform. Behind them the train gave one last, loud whistle.
His cheeky miss quirked one of her straight brows. “You’ll miss your train, sir.”
“Some things are worth missing, and some are not.”
Coming to the stairway, she stopped and regarded him. When she spoke again, her voice was hard and uncompromising. “What do you want?”
You. “To know your name so that I might come to call upon you properly.” He made a leg, the extravagant sort he’d done at court recently. “Winston Lane at your service, madam.”
For the life of him, he did not know why he’d held back giving her his full name. The lie shamed him, and he moved to correct the blunder, but those pink lips twitched again and good intentions flew from his mind. What would it take to get her to truly smile? What would she look like flushed with passion? His skin went hot.
Her dark eyes looked over his shoulder. “Your train is leaving.”
The platform beneath his feet trembled as the train groaned out of the station. He didn’t even look. “I find,” he said, keeping his eyes upon her gloriously stern visage, “that I no longer wish to leave London.”
Unsurprisingly, she held his gaze without a blush or one of the coy looks the ladies in his sphere would have employed. “Do you always act the fool?”
Never. But he didn’t have to say it. She read him well, and her eyes suddenly gleamed with acceptance. Slowly, she held her hand out so that he might take it. “Miss Poppy Ann Ellis.”
Poppy. For her hair, he supposed. But to him, she was Boadicea, Athena, a goddess.
It was all he could do to keep himself from bridging the short distance between them and putting his mouth to hers. Instead, he took her hand with due formality. His gloved fingers curled around hers, and something within him settled. He shook only a little as he raised her hand to his lips. “Miss Ellis, I am your servant.” Always.
Yet even as he spoke, fate was conspiring to make a liar of him.
The West End, August 28, 1883
A telegram, as sent to the SOS Home Office:
Daughter of the Elements STOP All of us must reap what we sow STOP Now it is your turn STOP I’ll take not the heart of ice that resides in your sweet breast but the fragile one that beats in another and sail away with it on a ship of fire STOP When I tear it to shreds you will remember the agony of failing STOP Again STOP
The way to her parlor was along a winding stair, but down, not up. Down in the pit of the earth where sunlight and fresh air never reached. Yes, a proper English parlor with electric lights and air forced by means of an elaborate fan system—such strange modern devices that even the most jaded persons took a moment to stop and wonder.
Poppy had recently shown her sister Daisy the way in, a fact that she was beginning to regret as she settled back in her desk chair and surveyed the two women sitting in front of her. One of the women was Daisy, looking luminous as ever and trussed up in an extravagant frock which was no doubt highly fashionable, and equally uncomfortable. Having ferreted out Poppy’s secrets with surprising speed, Daisy had earned the right to be here.
The other woman was the problem. Miss Mary Chase. Oh, she sat demure and quiet as Daisy prattled on in that way of hers, but the girl’s glittering eyes took in every nook and cranny of Poppy’s office. Learning and secreting away bits of information as only a GIM could do.
GIMs, or Ghosts in the Machines, were the best spies in the underworld. Blessed by a demon to have an immortal body with the ability to leave it in spirit form, they could drift into any room, listen in on any conversation. And now this GIM knew the way to Poppy’s office. Bloody hell. Poppy had requested to speak with Daisy. She had not expected her sister to bring along a guest.
“Well?” Daisy prompted, breaking into Poppy’s thoughts.
Poppy took a short breath and pulled herself together. Something that was getting harder and harder to do. Inside she was frozen and fairly certain that, one day, her outer skin would simply freeze over as well.
“You want me to bring this girl to Mother,” Poppy repeated, her lips feeling numb. Mother was the head of The Society for the Suppression of Supernaturals, or SOS, an organization whose sole focus was to keep the world from learning the truth: that the monsters in their fairytales were real. Mother, whom no one, no one, ever met. Really, the nerve of Daisy sometimes. Poppy tapped her fingers to relieve the urge to wrap them about her sister’s lovely neck.
Daisy too was a GIM. A decision she’d made in the face of a gruesome, prolonged death. She’d saved herself by making a devil’s bargain. And now she would never die. Daisy would be here long after Poppy was dust in the ground. It made Poppy unaccountably sad, though she really couldn’t say precisely why.
Daisy glanced at Poppy’s thrumming fingers. Poppy instantly stopped. Daisy too tapped her fingers when she was agitated. A stupid slip to do in front of her sister. Damn it all.
When Daisy replied, it was with exaggerated patience. “Not precisely. I am here to make an introduction to Mother.”
Poppy froze. Daisy could not possibly be implying what she thought she was. “Why did you not bring your request to Lena?” Poppy hedged.
Daisy’s eyes gleamed bright for one sharp moment. “I had assumed my sister would be a little more accommodating. Perhaps I was wrong.”
Poppy looked away first. It had been petty to bait Daisy. While Lena was Mother’s official go-between and requests for Mother always went through her, she had also been Ian Ranulf’s lover years ago. As Ian was now Daisy’s husband, the women did not particularly find each other’s presence comfortable.
“Look,” Daisy leaned forward, her tone forgiving when Poppy knew she’d normally drag out her displeasure, “Mary is the best GIM we have.”
“Then why do you want to lose her?”
Mary Chase stirred. “If I may speak for myself?” There was a bit of fire in her eyes, something Poppy had to admire, and so she nodded. Miss Chase settled her slim hands on her lap as she faced Poppy without blinking. “My term of service with the GIMs is over.” Her hands clenched for a moment. “Mrs. Lane, I want to be a Regulator. I have wanted this for some time.”
Poppy managed not to wince upon hearing her name. Mrs. Lane. A farce, for her husband had left her. The pain that lived in her chest spread out to her arms and then down to her fingers. She didn’t allow it to show but let her gaze wander over Miss Chase. The young woman appeared to be all of nineteen, but from Poppy’s reports, she was closer to Poppy’s own age, having lost her first life in 1873.
“I gather you know this,” Poppy answered. “However, I feel compelled to remind you that being a Regulator is no easy task. They live a hard life, and it is often quite short.” Regulators were the SOS’s agents, men and women on the front lines of the supernatural world. They came face to face with things that gave monsters nightmares. Poppy leaned in a touch. “And believe me, many an immortal’s head has rolled while on the job. Just because you cannot die, doesn’t mean you cannot be killed, child.”
Mary Chase’s wide, brown eyes narrowed. “I am not a child. And I’m not afraid of death.”
Poppy rose from her desk, no longer willing to sit still. “Everyone says that.” She grabbed her thick cloak. “And then they discover that, in their heart, they have lied. I don’t believe GIMs get a second chance should they lose their head, do they?”
“No,” Mary said after a moment.
The two women rose and followed her to the door. Poppy walked through it, not waiting to see if they kept up. Outside of the office, Mr. Smythe sat at his desk, his pasty skin blending with his grey hair. He faced a vast and dark corridor, and oftentimes Poppy wondered how he could stand looking into that abyss on a daily—sometimes nightly—basis. Mr. Smythe, however, never complained. He gave her a deferential nod as she passed. She had worked alongside Smythe for fourteen years, and yet he did not know about Winston or that she had a fondness for meat pies sold by street vendors. Not one person within the SOS truly knew her. People tended to stay away from Poppy as though they felt she was something alien and not like them. Which said quite a lot, given that most of her colleagues possessed gifts that were the epitome of unearthly. She did not precisely mind the isolation. She had Winston…. Poppy’s step nearly halted. She did not have Win. He was gone. And she was alone.
“I had a good reason for this, you know,” Daisy murmured just behind her as they slipped into the stone-lined corridor. Here and there electric torches glowed, turning Daisy’s blond curls a harsh yellow. Mary Chase followed at an inconspicuous distance, her eyes lowered and subservient. Ha. Men might be fooled by the display but not Poppy.
“You better have,” Poppy said, just as low. “You’ve come quite close to breaking my trust today, Dandelion.”
Daisy made a noise of annoyance at the nickname, but she quickened her stride to catch up and then grabbed Poppy’s elbow, forcing her to slow down. “Pop. Listen for a moment, will you?”
Every muscle in Poppy’s body went heavy and cold. She knew that tone in Daisy’s voice, as well as the soft, despicable pity that dimmed her eyes. “Well,” Poppy said through her teeth, “out with it. And then explain what it has to do with Miss Chase here.”
Daisy took a stabilizing breath. “She knows.” Her voice dipped a bit. “Who you are.”
The struggle not to break something, or someone, held Poppy in place, frozen with shock and outrage. Daisy took a half step back, her mouth opening and closing like a puppet’s, her hand lifting as if in defense. Smart woman. Poppy couldn’t fathom why her sister would break her trust in such a manner.
Poppy advanced. “Have you lost your nut? What on God’s green earth gave you the right?”
Daisy’s pointed silence gave her a moment’s qualm, which Daisy pounced on. “I agree that it is bloody irritating to be managed by one’s sister.” Poppy scowled, and Daisy ignored it. “However, as you’ve been known to point out, I have only the best intentions.” Daisy touched her arm. “You need a companion, Pop.”
A harsh laugh burst from Poppy. “You think I’m that infirm, do you? I bid you to remember that I am thirty-two. Hardly ancient, despite what your society friends might think.”
“I do not think that you are ancient, Pop,” said Daisy quietly. “I think that you are in pain.”
“Do not.” Poppy took a sharp breath. “Do not ever pity me, Daisy.”
Bad enough that her sisters knew Win had left her. It had been humiliating. But that was nothing compared to the emptiness and the dull, unwavering ache that his absence wrought upon her.
In the gloom, Daisy’s eyes gleamed like star sapphires, the effect of her new GIM nature when emotions were roused within her. “Pity and empathy are not the same thing.”
“You have brought a GIM to keep me company,” Poppy snapped, “as if you fear I might do something drastic.”
What nonsense. Poppy did not do drastic things. She simply died a little more inside each day and wished the world to go away. That had not worked particularly well; the world was still here.
Daisy’s gaze searched hers. “Mary is loyal and discreet. And she is entirely trustworthy. On my life, I swear that.”
“Good thing to swear, as your life might very well be what I take.” It was entirely too temping at the moment.
“I am shaking,” Daisy said with an unladylike snort before becoming serious once more. “You need someone to keep you focused. And lord knows that bitch Lena will not do that for you. She’s just as likely to stick her fangs into your neck when your back is turned.”
“You really ought to get over your dislike of Lena.”
“Pish,” Daisy said with a wave of her hand, “that woman means nothing to me. And you know full well that I speak the truth in regard to her character.”
Unfortunately, Daisy was right. Lena wasn’t the helpful sort. She despised weakness even more than Poppy did.
Poppy sighed, then looked at Mary Chase who hovered just beyond the circle of light where Daisy and Poppy stood. The young GIM had drifted back, having correctly read Poppy’s request for a modicum of privacy. Poppy turned back to Daisy. “I asked you here because I seek information, not a nanny.”
“Then ask away,” Daisy retorted. “Mary won’t tell a soul, and as she is currently my right hand, I’d tell her anyway. So you can drop that repressive glare, Pop.”
Just once, Poppy would love to wring her sister’s neck. Hell, Daisy would easily recover so it wouldn’t be outright murder. She studied the unflinching Mary Chase for a long moment. Sensible woman, crafty, discreet. It could all be a lie. Poppy’s life depended on her choices. Which meant she had to use more than logic, but instinct as well, to survive.
“All right then, Miss Chase,” she said to the woman. “You have your chance.”
Miss Chase curtsied prettily. “Thank you, Mrs. Lane.”
“Don’t thank me just yet. A demon has escaped his prison,” she said to them. “I received the report from Lena an hour ago. The only information we have of his current whereabouts is from a telegram, which may or may not have been sent by him. It makes mention of a ship of fire.” Her hand rested upon the cold, stone wall. “It is imperative that the SOS locate him. Immediately.”
Needing to move, Poppy turned away and strode up the cast-iron staircase that spiraled upward. Heels clanked upon the metal, then Poppy reached the top and turned the handle, which released several heavy bolts. The heavy door pushed open without a sound, and the familiar, comforting scent of books and wood polish greeted her as she stepped into her bookshop.
Daisy and Mary followed, and then she pushed the door shut and heard the sound of the bolts slipping back into place.
Daisy’s pretty face was pale. She knew something. Damn. Instinct had Poppy’s hackles rising before Daisy even spoke. “Winston is on holiday in Paris.”
“Paris? Win hates Paris.” Poppy had tried to get him to take her there on holiday years ago, and he’d outright refused, calling it a heathenish, boorish city, filled with wastrels and gadabouts. Poppy told him he’d overstated his case, but Win had made it up to her by keeping her in bed for their holiday, giving her an interesting demonstration of his own rather heathenish proclivities.
Thankfully, Daisy responded before Poppy could dwell any further on that time. “All I know is that he went there after…” Daisy nibbled on her bottom lip.
“After what?” Poppy could not cull the worry from her voice. Win had left her, and still she was fretting over him like a bloody mother hen.
Daisy’s nose wrinkled. “He beat a suspect to a pulp two weeks ago. The CID let him go, Poppy.”
Poppy sagged against the counter. She could not fathom Win losing control of his temper. And the CID was his life. Winston Lane was an inspector, first and always.
What would he do now? How must he feel? Lost, she realized. Win had given up everything to become an inspector, including being cut off from his very powerful family. Daisy’s voice broke through her musings.
“He is set to return aboard Archer’s boat—”
“Ship. One does not call an ocean liner a boat.”
“Ship,” Daisy corrected with an eye roll. “At any rate, the ship is called The Ignitus.” Daisy made a halfhearted attempt to smile. “Archer named it for Miranda.”
Poppy’s heart stopped. Ignitus, Latin for “set on fire.”
Daisy’s breath came out in visible puffs as the air about them chilled and ice began to crackle over the counter. Poppy couldn’t rein in the reaction. Dear God, how had Isley known? She’d been so careful to keep this life separate from Win.
“When is the ship set to sail?” Poppy’s body hummed with the urge to move, to run.
“I believe it’s due to depart this Friday. That is two days from now.” Daisy’s smooth brow furrowed. “Poppy, you can’t mean to meet it. The bloody thing is in Calais! We are in London,” she added with unnecessary emphasis.
Rage pushed its way along Poppy’s veins, making her see more clearly than she had in months. “Watch me.”
Port of Calais, August 30, 1883
A man cannot run away from his life, no matter how far he goes. It was an uncomfortable truth Winston Lane had learned these past weeks when he’d forced himself to go on holiday. A bit of rest and relaxation, Inspector, and you’ll be right as rails. Winston hadn’t possessed the heart or the energy to correct Sheridan. It was “right as rain” and, no, he’d never be right again. Regardless, he’d taken himself far out of cold, dank London and straight to Paris, where he wouldn’t be reminded of all he’d lost. But the holiday had been a dismal failure.
So he was going home. To London. And Poppy. Longing hit him so hard that he ached, the dissatisfied feeling within ebbing in favor of sharp, bright pain. He missed her. Missed her so much he could scarcely breathe. He didn’t want to picture her but she came despite his will. Poppy, his Boadicea. She’d always been a warrior in his mind. Her flashing eyes and determined brows were enough to cow most men. As for Winston, her sharpness and strength inflamed him and made him want to slip beneath that hard outer shell she wore, find her softer bits, and do wicked things…
No, he would not think about her. She was an illusion. A liar. For the fourteen years of their marriage, she’d posed as a simple bookseller, while knowing all along about this other world, this supernatural London, filled with mythical beasts such as werewolves. And she’d kept it from him. Up until the day one such beast had ripped him to shreds.
But he’d avoided her for too long. It had been a cowardly and small act. He wanted an explanation, and he wanted to say his piece. And he’d have to face her as he was—a shell of a man.
“Now that’s a bloody big boat,” said Jack Talent at his side.
Stirred from his self-flagellation, Winston grunted. “Ship. One does not call an ocean liner a ‘boat’.”
Despite being thoroughly annoyed with his unwelcome and unexpected travel partner, Winston couldn’t help but agree with the young man’s assessment. However, “big” did not even begin to convey the magnitude of this hulking beast that would take them from the French port of Calais to Southampton, and eventually go on to New York. It was a giant, rising five stories above them, so high that they needed to crane their necks to see the topmast.
Taller than most London buildings, the craft was easily as long as two city blocks. It blotted out the sun. Standing by it, one felt as infinitesimal as a bug. And yet Winston could not help but be moved by this true feat of modern engineering. As was the six-story paddle wheel that gleamed in the morning light. One of two, the paddle wheels at full spin would take this leviathan and its four hundred passengers up to a speed of 15 knots.
“Leave it to Archer to purchase a ship such as this,” he said.
Talent’s mouth twitched. “Perhaps he felt the need to compensate for something.”
Winston turned to Talent. “Perhaps you ought to tell him that yourself. It would save me the trouble of dispensing with you.” He’d been trying to rid himself of the young man ever since he had entered Winston’s railway car on the trip to Paris two weeks earlier.
“What are you doing here?” he’d asked as Talent plopped his carcass on the seat bench opposite him.
The young man who served as Ian Ranulf’s valet looked back at him, unabashed even though Winston was certainly glaring a hole through his skull. “Ian sent me. I’m here to guard you.”
As if the boy were a bloody nanny. Winston had wanted to be outraged. Except, after the attack, Ian and his other nosey brother-in-law Archer had given Winston the one thing he’d desperately needed, a sense of control after he’d been ripped apart and pieced back together. Not quite good as new. But alive.
Since the day he could move without biting pain, Ian and Archer had cajoled, hassled, and finally harassed him into coming to Ranulf House to train his body. They’d taught him how to fight, both with hand and sword, thrown medicine balls at him, and made him lift sacks of grain until his scarred and battered body screamed in protest. It had been a systematic torture of the flesh that had put nearly twenty pounds of muscle on his weakened frame and had made him capable of taking down a man twice his size with one punch. Unfortunately, that didn’t help when the nightmares that haunted Winston were not of men, but of monsters.
So, having been unable to get rid of the pest, Winston was stuck with a pseudo-valet on a holiday that had made him more out of sorts than before. At the moment, Talent looked no less thrilled. His eyes scanned the sky, and a frown grew. “Something is off. Have you not noticed the sky?”
Indeed, for days now, the sky had been a boiling red sea shot through with streaks of black and vermilion. An ominous tapestry that sent a queer feeling through Winston’s gut. “The color is a result of Krakatoa.”
News reports had already come in that the far-away Pacific island volcano had erupted with cataclysmic devastation; half the island was gone in an instant. So great was the fallout that, even in Europe, volcanic ash filled the skies.
“See, now there is your first mistake, being a human and all.” Talent’s expression turned grim. “A volcano eruption is always cause for worry. For something always gets out.”
Winston pushed the brim of his hat farther down on his forehead as a wind flew over the docks and sent bits of rubbish airborne. Around them, fellow travelers clutched their own hats and hurried toward the grand gangplank that led them up into the Ignitus. “Gets out?”
“As in gets out of hell. A volcano blows, and all sorts of nasty beings use that crack in the earth’s crust to get to freedom.”
Yet one more thing Winston would rather not know. He pulled in a lungful of briny air and then grabbed his valise. “Not to worry, Talent. Should a messenger from hell come calling, I will do my best to protect you.”
Talent snorted. “And they say you don’t have a sense of humor, Inspector.”
Like all the other passengers, Winston and Talent stood on upper decks to see the Ignitus get underway. The ship’s horn blew, long, low, and resonating with such strength that his flesh vibrated. As if awoken by the horn, the ship shuddered to life like a great beast coming out of hibernation. Far below, blue-green water began to froth and foam as the heavy paddle on their side of the boat started to spin. Most travelers were on the port side of the ship, wanting to see Calais fade away. Not Winston. He faced the sea, and where it would take him. Home.
He almost missed the subtle change in the air. At first, he thought the cold wind a sudden sea breeze, but the air had gone oddly still. The strangeness had him pausing. He glanced at Talent. The man’s eyes narrowed as he peered out over the sea. He felt it too, then. In the next moment, distinct cold surrounded Winston. Colder and colder, until his breath came out in a puff.
Talent backed up a step. “What the bloody hell?”
Winston opened his mouth to answer when a faint crackling sounded. Before their rather shocked eyes, a lacy ribbon of frost began to race over the rail. Winston snatched his hand back as white fingers of ice spread out in rapid fire, covering everything in its path. Around them came the sound of confused murmurs.
The crackling sound grew as the temperature dropped to frigid. And then the great ship groaned and shuddered. Winston and Talent both leaned over the rail and looked on with fascinated horror as the water about the ship turned to thick, unimaginable ice, and the bloody ship began to rise, trapped as it was within the ice’s clutches.
Talent’s mouth fell open. “Bugger me.”
Winston was inclined to agree. “Come.” He plucked Talent’s sleeve to get the man’s attention. “To the port side.” Something was coming. He could feel it.
Stumbling and treading with care along the slick, icy deck, they made their way to the port side, shouldering past gawking passengers, most of whom milled about in a frightened and confused state. Crewmembers called for order, stumbling along much like Winston and Talent, as they tried to figure out what was happening.
“Look,” said a young girl. “Someone is boarding the ship.”
Several people shot to the rail and craned their necks to see.
Winston and Talent followed suit. The gangplank, which had been in the process of being removed, had been frozen in place. A woman strolled, pretty as you please, up it. Winston’s heart flipped over in his chest. He drank her in, the steady clip of her legs beneath a fetching gown of black and white stripes, the determined set of her shoulders. A matching parasol obscured her face, but he’d know that walk anywhere. Christ. His body hardened painfully.
As if she felt his eyes upon her, the parasol tilted back, and she lifted her head. Even though he had to be a mere dot among the throng from her vantage point, she found him immediately. Those severe red brows, that dark, knowing gaze. A bolt of pure heat and lust shot through him, strong enough to make him suck in a draught of air. Bloody. Buggering. Hell.
An old gent beside him scowled beneath white, shaggy brows. “Who the deuce is that?” he asked no one in particular.
“Trouble,” muttered Talent, his glare fixed on the young lady walking at Poppy’s side. Winston recalled her as Mary Chase, assistant to Daisy Ranulf.
Winston did not know how Poppy had found him, or what the devil she was doing here. The only thing that he knew with absolute certainty at that moment was that Talent had been correct. Here came trouble.
Getting onboard had been a bit of a… spectacle. It could not be helped. Poppy wasn’t about to watch the blasted ship sail away. Upon meeting a very harried looking first mate, who wanted to know what the devil was going on, she handed him Archer’s card and letter of introduction, which simply told the captain that Poppy was to have carte blanche while aboard, bless her brother-in-law.
“Bring this to your captain and have someone see to my trunks. They are to be placed in Mr. Winston Lane’s cabin directly.”
Her little show had taken almost all of her energy. And she would need so much more of it before the day was out. The first mate’s befuddled gaze went from her to the ice surrounding the boat and back. With an inward sigh, she addressed him once more. “Yes, it is rather strange weather we’re having. Now,” she nudged him with the tip of her parasol, “you’re dawdling, sir. I suspect your captain will want an update.”
Twitching as if coming out of a trance, the man finally glanced at the card. As it belonged to the owner of the ship, he started before giving her a curt nod. “Yes, madam. Of course. Welcome aboard.”
He promptly left. As soon as he did, Poppy pulled in a long, deep breath and closed her eyes. The air about her warmed, and with a final pull of power, the ice that held the ship captive dissipated, causing the air to mist. The ship shuddered and swayed a bit, and a good many of the passengers shouted. Gods, but it hurt more to rein in her power than to set it free.
Miss Chase caught her elbow as she wavered. “Very well done, Mum.”
“Child’s play.” Poppy straightened her spine. “Now to the real task. My husband.”
Poppy found Winston as the ship left the harbor and the throngs of people dispersed, happy now to have gained something to speculate over for hours. He was by the rail of the first class deck where she’d initially spotted him. Waiting for her. The sight of him in the flesh was too much. He was the sun on a cloudless day, burning bright, making her vision blur. Would he speak to her? What would he say? Three months. Three months of not seeing him, not hearing his voice.
He stood, not in his usual straight-backed manner, but slouched against the railing in indolent repose. Watching. Like a leopard lazing in his perch.
The man she knew as Winston Lane had been lithe of form, his wheat blond hair swept back and neat, his mustache always trimmed and a point of pride. She remembered the day he started to grow one. It had been the same day he’d joined the CID. Most Yardmen wore mustaches, and thus, he announced, so would he. And while she’d missed the smooth feel of his upper lip, it had looked quite distinguished so she did not complain. But that elegant man was gone.
The man who faced her now had much broader shoulders and arms swelling with muscles evident even beneath his loose-fitting sack coat. His once short and orderly hair was a shaggy mess, hanging about his face, which she surmised had been in an attempt to hide his maiming. It hurt her to look at those four parallel scars that ran down the left side of his face. Archer had done a neat job of stitching, but the scars were still vivid red and taking up the whole of his cheek, the cruelest one tugging the corner of his upper lip into a permanent sneer. His beloved mustache was gone, the scar obviously making wearing one difficult now. Poppy wondered if he mourned the loss.
The wind shifted, and she caught his scent, a mix of clean wool, fragrant smoke, and him. For a moment, she was dizzy with it. His scent hadn’t changed. She hadn’t realized how very much she had missed it.
Their gazes clashed, and it was like a physical blow. She knew this man. She knew the texture of his skin, where it was silky smooth just above his collarbone and where it was rough along the length of his thighs. She knew the cadence of his breath, deep and even in sleep, and how it rasped in passion. She knew that a little furrow would form between his brows and he would bite his bottom lip just before he came. And he knew her. For a moment, the ghost of his voice was in her ear, whispering words designed to take her to the brink, “Spread your legs wider, sweeting. Show me how much you can take. Come for me.”
It took a supreme act of will not to blush beet red.
Winston settled more comfortably against the railing as she came close.
“Poppy.” His voice was a shadow of itself, smoky and faint. Her eyes went to the thick scar at his throat, just visible above his collar. Archer hadn’t mentioned the possibility of permanent damage there, but the wound clearly affected him.
The corners of his eyes tightened. She’d used her private nickname for him. A name that had never failed to soften him in the past. She clutched the handle of her parasol harder. Ye gods but this was awkward. The well-thought-out explanations she’d planned flew from her head, and she blurted out the first inane thing that came to mind. “You’re here.”
The corner of his mouth twitched, and she might have thought him amused were it not for the hardness of his expression and the bunching of his shoulders. “Astute as always, my dear.”
Heat washed over her cheeks, and the air about her turned a shade colder. The bloody obnoxious… At his side, Jack Talent made a coughing sound and wisely looked down at his feet.
Poppy decided to take the high road as it were. “May I introduce my assistant, Miss Mary Chase.”
At that, Talent’s head lifted, and his mouth flattened. Winston, however, sketched a graceful bow. “We’ve met before at Ranulf House. Miss Chase, a pleasure as always.”
Poppy had expected him to say more, but her errant husband was uncharacteristically abrupt. Pressing her lips together, she gave a nod to Talent. “Good to see you, Mr. Talent. I trust you are well.”
“As well as can be expected, madam.” His dark green eyes cut to Winston. “Given my pleasant travel companion.” He ignored Winston’s raised brow and smiled unexpectedly. The action transformed his usually dour face and lit him from within. “You make a welcome addition, Mrs. Lane. Unfortunately, you must excuse me as I have trunks to unpack.” The smile died. “Miss Chase.”
“Mr. Talent.” Mary all but gave the man the cut direct as she abruptly turned and touched Poppy’s elbow. “Madam, I shall go see us settled as well.”
Poppy waited until Mr. Talent was gone then leaned in close to Mary’s ear. “I suspect you might want to take a promenade first or run the risk of meeting Mr. Talent once more.” For they were sure to meet in the suite Poppy had taken over. Wisely, Mary nodded then drifted off, catching nearly every male eye in the vicinity as she went.
One pair of male eyes, however, remained fixed upon Poppy. She forced herself not to fume under Winston’s stare. After he was attacked and realized that she was one of the SOS, he hadn’t even waited for an explanation. That more than anything made her livid. To simply turn his back on fourteen years without a word. But on the heels of fury came a deep, writhing guilt. She’d lied to him all those years. Lying to a man who despised falsehoods and trusted her above all others was a recipe for disaster. Now they were worse than strangers, and she had no idea how to begin the conversation.
“You look well,” he said, surprising her. His cold gaze traveled over her dress, and she felt the urge to fidget. “Different. Did you always dress as such?” His jaw tightened. “When you weren’t with me, that is?”
The accusation made her spine stiffen. “Of course not. I detest fancy gowns, as you well know. It is Miranda’s gown. She and Daisy tossed a pile of her things together for my use. I am to appear a refined lady on holiday.” “Refined” was so far from Poppy’s true self that even she could not say the words without wincing. “Try to accept the farce.”
“I’ve come to accept many farces where you are concerned. One more will do no further harm.”
“You are determined to make this difficult.”
“I am determined to speak the truth. If the truth proves difficult for you, that is no fault of mine.”
A ribbon of ice crackled along the railing. Win glanced at it, and speculation crept over his features but, when he turned back to her, his expression was once again implacable and righteous.
With effort, she reeled in the need to freeze over the entire deck. “It shall be no difficulty. Indeed, I relish the opportunity to face the truth, not turn from it and hide away.”
Oh, but that got him. His chin lifted so that the light fell directly on the ruined side of his face. Had she thought he was hiding behind his over-long hair? She’d been wrong on that count. His blue-grey eyes, so like deep ice on a winter lake, held hers. He was waiting. Waiting for her to remark upon his scars. And so she studied them ruthlessly.
He did not flinch, nor look away, but a slight tightening of his mouth betrayed his unease. Poppy ignored that mouth. She had to or she would want to touch it with her own. She had always admired Win’s lips, the neat line of them and how they could be at one moment so very hard and unyielding, and in the next, utterly soft and beguiling. Instead, she looked at the scars.
The middle scar was slightly puffy, puckering his cheek, while the innermost one bisected his left eyebrow and the corner of his lip before ending at his chin. How it must have hurt. Her heart turned over at the memory of him ripped open and bloody. She had feared she would lose him then, never realizing that she already had.
The moment stretched. When his eyes narrowed in irritation, she shook herself out of maudlin thoughts and spoke. “You’ve healed well.”
The scars pulled as his brow knotted. “Yes.”
“Are you pained?” She didn’t know what else to say.
Again came the slight twitch in his jaw and the tensing around the corners of his eyes as if he were perplexed. “At times. It is more discomfort than anything.”
“I would expect as much.” Gathering her parasol—ridiculous accessory as it was neither sunny nor raining—she moved to go.
“That is all?” His scowl was growing.
Poppy stopped. “What were you expecting? Pity? Scorn? Tears?”
He made a sound. “I never expect tears from you.”
How wrong you are on that count.
“Nor do I want your pity.”
“Good. Because you don’t have it,” she said.
The scars on his face whitened, and though she loathed admitting it to herself, this new Win, slightly wild and angry, stirred her blood. Her voice was not as steady as she would have liked when she spoke again. “Your face is ruined. And what of it? Those who judge you for it are fools. You are alive, which is more than most of the others who met your attacker can say. Why then should I have cause to pity?”
His expression closed down, giving her nothing of what he might be feeling. “Right, then,” he said. “Enough about me. Have you come to do the pretty?”
“Do the pretty?” she repeated, aghast.
Win ignored the warning in her tone and smiled at her blandly. “Apologize? Grovel?” His smile grew, but it did not reach his eyes. No, they were full of anger. “Whatever you want to call it makes no difference to me. As long as you do what needs to be done.”
That bloody, smug… Her blood began to boil as she glared at him. “If, for one moment, you believe that I am going to grovel, then you—”
“Belong in Bedlam?” he offered with a sharp bite in his voice.
Damn it, but the man always had a knack for finishing her sentences, and it was bloody annoying.
Cold humor was reflected in his expression, as if he knew he’d irritated her. “Believe me, sweeting, there are days when I wish it were that simple. But madness would be the easy way out, would it not?”
When she simply glared, he launched off the railing and stood before her. “And what is it that you wish for, Poppy? Deep down in that hidden heart of yours?”
He tapped the space between her breasts with one long finger. The gesture was so easily done, borne of years of constant physical contact, that she knew it had been an unplanned act. And yet she felt the touch with the whole of her body. Like a match strike, a flame flared to life within her, and she held her breath. Win felt it too, for he stilled, his gaze catching hers. She could see the shock there, that he hadn’t meant to touch her, that he too felt that spark between them, as strong as it had always been. The moment pulled taut before anger filled his blue eyes once more. “Well? What do you wish, Poppy?”
What did she wish? The concept of thinking solely of herself was so utterly foreign that she couldn’t begin to formulate a reply.
When Win spoke again, his voice was soft, almost benign, but his anger rang bone-deep. “Do you know what I suspect?”
“I am certain you will tell me, Inspector.” Her mouth was too dry, the imprint of his fingertip still burning its way deeper into her flesh.
An ugly smile rose in the wake of her snappish retort. He bent forward, crowding her with his body and his words. “I think you wish I’d simply come home like a good lad and ignore the fact that my entire marriage was based on deception.”
Pressure built behind her breastbone like a tide pushing against a dam. It was her turn to poke him, rather like provoking a sleeping bear, by the rumble building in his chest. She did so anyway. “What gives you the temerity to assume that I’d want you after the way you have treated me?”
Of all the looks Win had given her over the years, the one he employed now was something she’d never seen, as if he hated her just then. “You’re not sorry you lied, are you? You’re only sorry you were caught in the lie.”
“Of course I am!” Like most deep truths, it was painful to say. But in the cruel hours she’d sat next to him while Archer put him back together, Poppy had vowed never to keep anything from Win again. No matter what the cost.
He was a fool. An arrogant one at that. Temerity indeed. Winston almost laughed. Of course Poppy hadn’t come to beg for his return. Why do that onboard a ship headed to London? It was absurd, but he hadn’t been thinking past the anger. Humiliation rode high on the list now, and he had to wonder, had he been waiting for her to find him this whole time? How disappointing to realize that she’d no intention of apologizing for anything. He looked away, squinting into the hazy sky. Any view was preferable to the sight of his wife just then.
They stood in awkward silence. He wanted to leave but was damned if he would do so now, like a dog with his tail between his legs.
A small tinge of hesitation softened Poppy’s tone when she spoke. “You do not want to ask me why I am here?”
Apparently, I was not even close to getting that right, sweeting. He dragged in a breath, past the pained weight of disappointment. “Well now, let me guess.” Lightly, he kicked the rail post, and the iron clanged as he muddled through the possibilities. “Ian has set Jack Talent on my tail. And now my dear wife, who works for the very organization designed to protect us weak humans from supernatural threats, has shown up on my ship.” His teeth met with an audible click as he forced himself not to shout. “Which leads me to deduce that you too feel the need to protect my sorry hide.” He tilted his head. “Tell me, am I far off?”
“No. I would say you covered the most pertinent points.”
He took a hard step in her direction as blood rushed through his veins. “I don’t know what is worse,” he ground out through clenched teeth. “The fact that you all think I’m so weak that I need several nannies—including my wife—or the possibility that I am, in fact, so very weak.”
“You are.” Her lips flattened at his snarl but she continued on. “No human could properly defend himself against what’s coming for you.”
“And what in God’s name would that be?” If the woman said a werewolf, he’d laugh. Let the bastard come; he was tired of running, tired of being afraid.
She hesitated, just the slightest hitch of breath. “It is a demon.”
“A demon.” Preposterous. “As in spawns of the devil and all that?” A bark of laughter left him, and he dragged a hand across the back of his aching neck. “It just keeps getting better and better, doesn’t it?” When she didn’t answer, he rounded on her. “And what next? A bloody vampire? Ghouls? A wee banshee?” He glared out over the sea. He did not want to know. “Enough already, Pop. Leave me be and let me fend for myself.”
“I can’t.” She cleared her throat, and her voice returned with its usual strength. “He is a Primus of indeterminate power and is quite capable of dispatching you.”
“Primus?” Winston really ought to stop asking questions altogether but curiosity was his downfall.
She made a soft sigh, the sort a beleaguered professor might use on a slow student. “When it comes to demons, there are the Primus and the Onus. Humans are born of mothers, but the Primus are the ancients, born of the collective thoughts, fears, and hopes of humanity when it was young. Religions told us there was a type of demon and, through our belief, we created them into existence.” She smiled wanly. “You would be surprised what the power of mass thought can render.”
“At the moment, I am surprised at a great number of things,” Winston muttered.
Poppy nodded as if in sympathy. “Primus demons can have offspring. These are the lesser demons, humandemon hybrids, and shifters. They are called the Onus, as in a burden and responsibility the Primus do not want.”
“And these demons live among us?”
“Many do, but it is always a struggle for them, for despite all of our apparent weakness and their superior strength, demons ultimately owe their existence to us. It chafes at their pride to know this, and some will take out that resentment by attacking humans.”
Stifling another curse, Winston rubbed along the stiff line of scarring at his temple. It throbbed there, and he yearned just then for a strong drink. “Bugger all.” His hand fell away, and he regarded his wife in the ensuing silence, wondering where to begin.
She was almost a stranger now, and yet the person who knew him better than anyone else. Hell, he needed to move. Like him, Poppy was a creature who could not stand being idle. Always moving, always in action, his Poppy. “Come and walk with me,” he said.
Winston was taking the object of his affection for a stroll in Hyde Park. Having never courted a woman, Winston did not know much about the business, but he knew that there ought to be a chaperone involved. However, Poppy Ellis had been the one to greet him in the parlor after he’d given his card to the footman. Indeed, she appeared to be the one responsible for her two younger sisters—a little one, no older than ten with golden-red hair and a curious stare, and a young lady nearing her fifteenth year with curling blond hair and an altogether too-knowing smile. That one had given him a saucy look beneath the fan of her golden lashes, as if she knew exactly what he was about and was glad of it. They’d been introduced as Miranda and Daisy before Poppy shooed them off with orders for Daisy to watch after “Panda.”
The girls complied but not before he heard Miranda whisper, quite loudly, “What does the man want with Poppy?”
Daisy answered sotto voce, “I suspect he wants to play with her.”
“Like capture the pirate and such?”
Daisy had given him one last sidelong glance as he felt his face heat. “Something like that, dearest.”
He needn’t have looked at Poppy to know she was just as red-faced as he, and Winston ushered her out of the town home with haste.
Walking alongside her now, Winston did not feel discomfort so much as a stirring anticipation to know her better. He glanced at her strong, clean profile, and his heart beat faster. As if feeling his gaze, a small smile curved her soft lips, but she kept her eyes on the path before them.
“Daisy takes any chance she can to needle me.”
“That is the way of siblings, I fear,” he said.
“When my mother died a few years ago,” she said, “the role of mothering went to me. Daisy had a hard time adjusting.”
“I’m sorry for your loss.”
She inclined her head. “It is hard. My father isn’t the most attentive parent. But life goes on.”
“I lost my mother five years ago. Influenza. I suspect it is not the same, as she treated me more as a…” He trailed off, his insides twisting.
“As?” Poppy prompted.
“As her pet, truth be told.” He grimaced. What man wanted to admit being treated as a precious thing by his mother? “She doted on me, but whenever I opened my mouth to express an opinion, she closed her ears. The idea of me was far preferable to her than the actual man.”
He’d never told a soul about his mother, but it hadn’t occurred to him to keep it from Poppy. He knew her on some fundamental level that put him at ease and yet filled him with a gripping sense of anticipation.
They were silent for a few steps, and then she did something that had him nearly faltering. She laid her hand upon his arm. The gesture was what any young lady might do when being escorted, but he felt it as though she’d stroked her fingers along the whole of him. Pleasure rippled through him like a shockwave.
Aside from the brusque care of his nanny and occasional pats on the back from his brother, he’d never been touched. Not deliberately, not from someone seeking any meaningful connection. His mother might have bussed his cheek now and then, but she’d never laid a finger on him. As for his father? The very idea of a tender touch from him was laughable. Oddly, he hadn’t realized this lack of touch until he’d received Poppy’s. Now he wanted to purr, demand she touch his chest, anywhere and everywhere.
Poppy appeared oblivious to his struggle. “From the moment I was born, my mother had expectations of who I should be and how I should act.”
Winston cleared his throat and focused on their conversation. “Did you object to those expectations?”
Her thin shoulders lifted. “How should I know? I’ve only now begun to live my own life. Nor were they necessarily bad expectations. They were simply…” She shrugged again. “Hers.”
He needed to tell her everything. Damn. Damn. Damn.
Winston took a breath and pressed his arm closer to his side, trapping her hand there. Not very gentlemanly, but he didn’t release her. “The other night, when we met, I did not give you my full name. I don’t know why…” Her eyes were on him now, boring into him in that direct way of hers, and he forged on. “That isn’t correct. I do know.” Damn. “My father is the Duke of Marchland.”
She walked on for a beat before speaking. “As in Marchland, cousin to the queen and one of the oldest titles in England?”
“Yes.” His collar felt too tight. “I am his second son. Winston Hamon Belenus Lane, to be exact.”
The hand at his arm gripped harder for one moment before slipping away. He felt the loss acutely.
“Mmm.” She kept walking, not altering her pace, but not looking at him either. She glanced at the distant waters of the Serpentine where small canoes were out in droves as people took in the pleasant spring weather. Light danced off the water, and she squinted. “My father was born in the East End. Bethnal Green, to be exact.” He winced at the way she mimicked his speech and the meaning behind it. “My mother was the seventh daughter of the Earl of Lister. But he disowned her when she chose to marry my father.”
“Did she regret the decision?” A sinking feeling labored his steps.
“Yes.” Again her eyes scanned the park, looking everywhere but at him. “Eventually, she realized that their worlds were too far apart.”
“Perhaps it was not their worlds but their temperaments that were at odds.” He was grasping at straws but he did not like the expression on her face nor the hard set of her shoulders.
Finally, she turned to him. “My lord—”
“Lord Winston. What is it you hope to accomplish by walking with me?”
Unable to take the cold way in which she spoke, he caught hold of her hand and tugged her beneath the canopy of a willow tree. Quiet surrounded them, and her bright hair turned bronze in the shadows. She glanced pointedly at his hand clutching hers, but he did not let go. “I want to get to know you.”
Beneath her straight red brows, her brown eyes studied his face. “What is the point of getting to know someone whom you could never…” She sucked in a sharp breath, and her jaw went tight. “With whom you could never have a relationship?”
Her brows snapped together. “Do not be obtuse. A duke’s son and a merchant’s daughter live in separate spheres. They do not commingle.”
“To my knowledge, there is no law against it.”
Her gaze was direct and snapped with impatience and intelligence. It made him hot and breathless. She glared. “There is a social law, and you well know it.”
A gust of wind rushed over the grass and whipped about them, and a long strand of her vibrant hair broke free from her practical bun to tickle his nose. Gently, he tucked it back behind her ear, not quite touching her, but wanting to. “Social laws are broken all the time.”
“To ill effect.”
He smiled then. “It’s always going to be like this, isn’t it?”
She scowled. “What is?”
“You picking away at my logic, and me finding new ways to prove you wrong.” And he could not wait.
She blushed beautifully. “You talk as if we’re to have a future.”
“Because we will.”
She frowned. “It won’t… I’m…”
She huffed out a breath. Most unladylike. Most refreshing. “My life is complicated. I have responsibilities.”
He moved just a bit closer. “I would not ask you to forgo them. I simply want…” So many things. He touched her cheek, a fleeting caress. “When I’m with you, I have no name,” he whispered. “No title. It’s just me. Just you. I want to keep that feeling, to keep you with me.”
There. He’d said it. And her nose wrinkled. “I don’t…” She paused, appearing utterly confounded by him. Confusion, he gathered, was a new thing for Poppy Ellis. And though the flush in her cheeks grew redder still, she spoke plainly. “Men don’t usually fancy me.”
He knew what it cost her to say it, and instinctively, he knew she was trying to scare him away by her admission. London society maintained a pack mentality; the undesirables were culled. What she did not know was that her brutal honesty made him admire her all the more.
He held her gaze with his. “This man does.”
Jack Talent was going to be a problem. Mary had known this as soon as she’d seen him sneering at her from the deck above when she had embarked with Mrs. Lane. He always looked at her as if he knew something about her that others did not. As if he saw inside of her soul and found her lacking. It rankled. Who was he to pass judgment upon her without so much as a by-your-leave? Or scowl at her when she knew he was guilty of his own crimes? Worse still, he was now at Inspector Lane’s side. No doubt he would soon be whispering vitriol in his ear, much as he’d done with Ian Ranulf.
She would not let him. Not with so much at stake. Thus when she spied the arrogant tilt of Talent’s dark head weaving through the crowd, she followed. It was an easy task; the man held little regard for those around him and simply cut through the slower-moving people like a scythe through dead grass. Mary moved just as quickly, but delicately, having long ago learned to slip and twist through a crowd without gaining any more notice than one would give a gentle breeze.
Talent turned a corner, headed, if she could believe it, toward the shuffleboard deck. Laughter and the sandy scratch of disks over wood lifted and faded in the wind. Talent touched the brim of his hat and nodded to a pretty young lady who looked quite fetching in a white polonaise with sea blue ribbons. The golden-haired girl smiled coyly back, and Mary almost rolled her eyes. Yes, dear girl, engage with the devil. See how that works out for you.
Coattails fluttering in the breeze, Talent moved on, circling a massive smokestack and heading to the windward side of the ship. On cautious feet, she followed, her senses alert—
He slammed into her without warning, taking her back against the wooden hull of a lifeboat. The craft creaked in protest, but then he was against her, stilling it. His big hand covered her mouth. As though she would scream. The fool.
His accusing eyes narrowed. “Following me, Miss Chase? Might want to be a little less obvious about it.” He cocked his head. “Your scent is all over the wind.” He leaned in for a sniff. “Cinnamon and spices. And here I thought you were supposed to be a proficient spy.”
She merely stared back.
A smarmy snort left his lips. “What? Nothing to say?”
Oh, was she to talk with his brutish hand over her mouth?
Something in her expression must have conveyed this, for he let her go, stepping back two wide paces. She knew better than to believe the action was out of respect or even fear. No, he was simply giving himself enough space to fight should she attack. Mary almost laughed.
“Why are you here?” She wouldn’t bother with indignation; it would only please him.
Talent crossed his arms over his chest. “Now that’s my question, merrily.”
“Do not call me that.”
He laughed, if one could call the ugly sound a laugh. “What? Do you not flit through London, making certain everyone sees you as a merry bit of fluff?”
She hated him. Truly. Her spirit stretched along the walls of her flesh, yearning to escape and show this man how “frivolous” she could be. But she’d worked too hard to fail now.
“What I am is a Regulator in training.” Satisfaction rose at the flash of shock that went through Talent’s eyes. Mary moved closer to him. “While you are nothing more than The Ranulf’s valet. A common lickspittle who never leaves his master’s side. Until now. Which makes me wonder—”
He moved in a flash, crashing her back against the lifeboats with his body. His eyes shone a brilliant, violent green. “Do not…” He sucked in a breath through his bared teeth. “You will keep your sticky GIM fingers out of my business, Chase, or learn to regret it.”
She could have him begging in an instant. And the funny thing was, he had no idea. None of the others knew what a GIM could truly do. Calmed by the thought, she held his gaze. “What are you doing here, bounder?” When he didn’t move, she craned forward until their noses almost touched. “Whatever it is, think long and hard about getting in my way.” She was not going back to her old life. No matter what she had to do.
Poppy did not take Winston’s arm as they traversed the ship. In truth, he hadn’t offered, but kept a steady, yet silent, clip down the first class deck, which was surprisingly wide and fitted with reclining chairs that were nestled against the ship walls. Varnished teak boards shone golden in the noon light. Archer had given Winston use of the owner’s suite and all the trappings that went with it. It was a refined world that they had never been a part of as a couple. Poppy had lived it for a brief time and knew that Winston had too. But his family had cut him off because he’d insisted on being a detective. She wondered if he missed this life.
He set a brisk pace, knowing somehow it was what she craved. For a moment, she reveled in the simple feeling of walking with him. Often, when he had been on a particularly vexing case, they would take long walks through the city and talk his theories through. She’d loved those walks, loved being his sounding board. They were in the same business, after all, even if he never knew it. She too strove to weed out the dregs of society. And she felt the same stress and worry when she failed to hunt down the criminals of her world.
He had called her life a lie. And Poppy supposed it was true. To get through the day, she’d allowed herself to think of it more as a product of her trade than actual lying. In the darkest hours of the night, however, all those lies grew almost too heavy to bear.
When they reached a small space, unoccupied by others, Winston leaned back against the rail, crossing one long leg in front of the other, and the ends of his hair caught in the sea breeze. Dark gold strands whipped about his face, dancing along his mouth before he canted his head and the mass of it blew back. “Right then, vague warnings of my needing protection do me little good.”
Out here, where he had the whistle of the wind to contend with, his voice was rougher, a gravelly rumble that made her skin shiver. She hid it by leaning back on the opposite wall, out of the wind, and tucking her hands into the wide pockets of her travel gown. “When I last knew this demon, he went under the false identity of Lord Isley, which I believe he subsumed from an earl he murdered. However that is just one of many names and identities he employs. His name doesn’t matter, in any regard.”
“Go on.” Not taking his eyes from her, he reached into his coat and withdrew a battered pack of cigarettes.
Poppy frowned at it. Win enjoyed his pipe but she’d never seen him smoke a cigarette. “Archer believes those to bode ill for a person’s health.”
The corner of his mouth kicked up. God, that crooked smile of his. How many times had he used it right before he seduced the knickers off of her? She braced her shoulder blades against cold steel as he pulled out a pack of matches and lit one from the protected cup of his palm. The tiny, yellow flame reflected in his eyes before he bent his head to light his cigarette. The black tip flared red, and then a puff of smoke left his lips. “So I’ve heard. Never mind the fact that every other physician in London believes smoke helps clear the lungs.”
The noxious cloud drifted over to tickle her nose. “I’d put my money on Archer.”
He grunted, and she waved away a fresh cloud of smoke. “Not to mention that your pipe emits a much nicer scent.”
Win’s mouth quirked again. “The pipe pulls at my scars.” His eyes grew heavily lidded. “You were telling me about the demon.” He drew on his blasted cigarette again.
Poppy tried to relax her shoulders but she was too keyed up. “He can change appearance to suit his needs. Thus you cannot trust anyone. Anyone.”
Win grunted and, taking one last draw on his cigarette, tossed it down and crushed it with his boot. “Even you?”
She did not so much as flinch. “Even me. Should I suddenly feel hotter to the touch or avoid prolonged eye contact, then you may suspect me. His eyes will give him away eventually, for he cannot fully control the way they flash with inhuman light. No demon can.”
“This demon,” Win said, “do you know why he is after me?”
“He sent me a message saying…” Her jaw locked and then released. “Saying that he’d take my heart and destroy it.”
She felt, rather than saw, Win tense. He grasped her elbow and guided her deeper into the shadows of the deck.
“Go on,” he said.
With great reluctance, she repeated the words of the telegram verbatim, aware that her cheeks were warm, despite the cool wind. His grip upon her elbow grew stronger as they walked for several lengths without talking. Then he stopped and turned to face her, his body blocking out the wind. “Why you, Poppy?”
She could not avoid his eyes, those canny eyes that always saw a bit too clearly for comfort. “Because I am SOS.” She had to tell him the whole story, only years of keeping it inside made the words slow in coming. Frustration, anger, regret, and yes, self-pity pressed against her breastbone. It ought to be easier.
And then he touched her. The first deliberately intimate touch he’d given her in months. The rough pads of his fingertips caressed her cheek, lighting a slow path of sensation along her skin. She closed her eyes, letting herself sink into the feeling. Down he went, to her neck, where she was so sensitive that his touch made her shudder. He stood close. His warm breath blew over her lips as his fingers traced the tendons along her neck, and the shiver within her grew. It was almost painful the way she wanted to lean on him and feel his arms wrap about her. But she didn’t know how to ask anymore. He’d left her. And she wasn’t supposed to be weak.
A small puff of air left her lips as his fingers delved beneath her high collar. A dark whisper heated her ear. “Why you?” he repeated, more emphatic now.
She couldn’t think when he stroked her neck, and the bastard knew it. Thus she didn’t note the way his fingertip hooked over the thin gold chain she wore until it was too late. With a brisk flick of his hand, he pulled the hidden necklace out into the light. The little golden Isis pendant fluttered in the breeze as he held it aloft, hooked over his forefingers. His blue-grey eyes bore into her. “Is it because you are Mother?”
She couldn’t speak. Outrage flooded her veins, bitter and hot, followed directly by admiration that he’d sussed her secret out.
Gently, he let the pendant drop, and it dangled awkwardly over her collar. She tucked it away, years of discipline demanding she do nothing less. “How?” She had planned to tell him. Of course she had. Hiding was no longer feasible.
Win angled his head, considering her, and still his eyes did not yield their careful study of her, as though she were a particularly confounding specimen under his scope. “That thing that saved me in the alley—”
“Augustus,” Poppy supplied, suppressing a smile at the thought of how Augustus would react to hearing himself being referred to as a “thing.” “He… well, he is a demon too. The very best sort.” When Win raised a brow in speculation, she added, “Demons are not inherently evil. Every living being has a choice as to how it will live its life.”
Winston’s mouth flattened. “In any event, this Augustus said that he wouldn’t want to lose Mother over me.” Calculating eyes snapped back to her. “Later, when Ian told me about the SOS, he said it was led by an unknown woman named Mother.” A small shrug. “I cannot fathom why this Mother would care if I died, unless she were you.”
It had been a miracle that Win hadn’t figured her out earlier. She studied the knot in his cravat. “Yes, well, you are correct. I am Mother.” Even saying it aloud sent a skein of foreboding down her skin, and she caught his wrist. “Win, whatever you think of me…” She licked her lips. “Blast it…. Only a handful of people know. If it were to get out—”
“Do you honestly believe,” he cut in, speaking through his teeth, “that I would endanger you out of a petty need for revenge?”
Beneath her fingertips, his pulse beat a hard tattoo as he glared down at her. “No,” she said at last. “No. Save years of training are hard to deny.”
He eased a bit, the tension in his jaw leaving, though his eyes were still distant and cold. He glanced down at her hand, clutching his wrist, and she let it drop. “My being Mother is not entirely the whole of the issue.”
His lip curled. “What is the whole issue?”
Oh, but his attitude scathed, and she fought back her own irritation.
“I put him in his prison.”
Poppy put a hand to her brow and was not surprised to find it clammy. She was tired. So very tired. And hungry. Her stomach growled with unseemly volume. Poppy spoke over it. “He killed my mother, Win.”
Win lurched forward. “What?”
Poppy stared at the ocean. From the grand height of the deck, the water had the look of a stretched hide of dark blue leather. “Miranda and Daisy think she died shortly after giving birth to my brother. It was yet another lie. Designed to protect them. The truth is that Isley killed her.” She clutched the rail hard. “He never would have bested her if she hadn’t been mourning the death of my brother.” Poppy had to believe that, for that loss had affected them all. Her brother had been so small, so innocent. And Mother had been devastated. Her grip tightened. “It took me two years to track Isley down and cage him.”
“He cannot be destroyed.” The very thought made her teeth gnash. “He is too powerful. He can only be sent back to the place we would call hell.”
“How can you be sure?”
“Because I’ve bloody beheaded him twice!”
Win leaned back with a shocked huff. Awkward silence filled the space between them for a long minute until he spoke again. “When did you capture him?”
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