Kiss of Steel Page 20

There were two other options besides the main gate: over or under. Under meant holding her breath and swimming through the blackened waters that fed the Institute and squeezing through the iron bars at the bottom. Over meant climbing a tree, leaping the four feet between the branches and the wall, and then hoping that the western corner still had that tangle of wires that was just large enough for her to slip beneath.

It was a good thing she’d hardly been eating. She was slimmer now than she had been when she ran away—though putting on weight almost daily with the food that Blade’s money had brought them—but not as slender as she had been at sixteen, when she was still young enough to race the other apprentices around the walled yards, or accepting the dares that most young people leveled at each other. Honoria had won them all. Most of the youths drew the line at crawling beneath a wire charged with artificial lightning, but she’d been determined even then. Carefree. A lot like Lena, actually.

She was twenty-four now, not so daring nor so foolish. And she was cold. Which meant she was going over the wall, not under.

She paused underneath the tree and knotted her skirts. The hairs on the back of her neck stood up. She felt almost as if someone were watching her, but a swift glance showed her nothing but empty streets.

Shimmying up the tree, Honoria paused for breath in the crook of the trunk. The last time she’d been here had been the night her father sent them away. With Lena and Charlie waiting in the steam cab a few blocks away, she’d broken into the Institute in the dead of night. Because her father wasn’t the only one who had taken notes.

His diary was only as important as the information contained within it. Her own little notebook that she kept locked in her desk drawer in the Institute was at least half as dangerous as his. With it, Vickers could have re-created her father’s discoveries.

All had been going smashingly well until the night watchman made his rounds with his guard dog. Honoria had been making her way to the exit with both diaries stashed in a small bag at her hip when the dog let up a rousing cry. She’d been forced to hide them and flee.

And sometimes the safest place to hide something was right under the very person’s nose.

Crawling along the branch, she paused at the point where it began to dip beneath her weight and eyed the wall. Four feet away. And a fifteen-foot drop onto the grass.

Sweat dripped off her nose and she reorganized her grip, slowly gathering her feet underneath her. This had been much easier when she was a child and had no fear of such things. Holding on to the branch over her head, she eyed the wall again. Then she pushed off.

Honoria hadn’t counted on her physical weakness, the result of months of starving herself. She hit the wall short of where she’d intended, her hands scrabbling for purchase. Ignoring the sharp pain as her nails tore, she hauled herself up. It took all of her strength, and she rested for a moment, panting sharply.

Dusk was falling, washing away the harsh signs of neglect and softening the heavy pall of soot that clung to everything. Honoria slithered along the wall. The wires were still tangled, leaving just enough space to crawl beneath.

Honoria started inching her way underneath them like a caterpillar. All was going well until she had crawled through as far as her hips. The knot of her skirt was going to scrape the wires.

“Come on,” she whispered, reaching back awkwardly to shift it.

“Hey, now!” someone called.

Honoria froze.

A guard came around the corner in the gardens below, waving to someone in the distance. Thankfully he had no dog with him.

Don’t move. Don’t breathe. Maybe he won’t notice you.

It was a long, tense moment. The guard called out something about his tea break, laughing at the reply. Then he disappeared around the corner of the west wing.

Letting out a shaky breath, Honoria started inching forward again.

She lowered herself over the inside of the wall and found rough footholds in the stone. The heavy undergrowth of the gardens hid her from the bleak arrow-slitted windows of the main building. Ivy clung to the forbidding bluestone walls, and the main doors were barred with a heavy portcullis, like grinning teeth.

The human guards would be taking their tea in the western guard tower. Honoria bent low and scurried toward the graveyard at the back of the main building. If the guards’ routine had remained at all the same, she had fifteen minutes at most before they would begin their final rounds.

A low wall dissected the gardens from the graveyard. To reach the iron-barred gate, she would have to break from cover. Glancing at the building, she swept her gaze over the windows. There was no sign of occupancy, but, then, the inmates’ cells would be along this side. The only ones watching would be the test subjects, most in deteriorating stages of the craving.

Taking a deep breath to calm her nerves, she ran for the stone arch that shielded the gate. Pressing her back against the wall, she peered around the corner. Nothing moved. The gate squealed as she eased it open, sending her nerves into a jumbling, panicking mess. There was no outcry. Slipping through the narrow gap she’d opened, she couldn’t resist one last look behind her. That feeling of being watched intensified.

Or maybe it was the creeping cold of finding herself in the graveyard where the Institute interred the bodies of those craving victims who had succumbed to the virus’s side effects. Some of them had been cut open and examined in the underground labs before being discarded. Others had been burned, with the body’s cinders being ingested by voluntary test subjects—the poor—in order to discover if the virus lingered in the remains after fire. Horrific measures that she and her father had discovered in the last few weeks and had been powerless to stop.

The graves were simple granite headstones as a sop to human sensibilities. But set just a little farther back from them was a magnificent crypt with a marble angel soaring over it. The serene face tilted toward the sky. Inscribed on the brass plate was Emily Anne Rathinger. Died 1821. Rest in peace, my love. It was where she had hidden the diaries.

The gate wasn’t locked, but the hinges were almost rusted shut. Honoria tugged gently at the bars, the grit of rust crumbling beneath her fingers.

It gave just enough to slip inside. The tomb was dark and cold. She didn’t dare light the flare stick she’d bought on the way, for the phosphorescence would illuminate the crypt like Guy Fawkes Night. Easing the gate shut behind her, she felt her way down the stairs.

One. Two. Three bricks to the right. There. Her fingers found the loose brick she had discovered years ago. The mortar crumbled as she tugged it free.

The little bag with the diaries was tucked right in the back. Honoria grabbed it and knotted it to her belt, then hastily replaced the brick. The silence was growing on her. She didn’t know why she felt so uneasy. The crypt had never bothered her before.

Time to get out. Before the guards came. And before this sudden dread overtook her nerves. She scurried for the entry, reached for the gate—

And froze.

A figure was crossing the unkempt grass and heading for the crypt. A crushed-velvet coat of Bleu de France framed his broad shoulders, with a gold breastplate gleaming over his chest. Armed with an ebony cane, he stalked across the grass, a distracted expression on his pale face.

Her very worst nightmare. The duke of Vickers was coming toward her.

Chapter 13

The hunger snarled and Blade took a half step forward from his place of concealment before forcing himself to stop. Vickers. In the flesh. He’d not had a chance like this in over fifty years.

Think, you idiot, he told himself. Vickers was within calling distance of a squadron of guards. And he was never vulnerable. He wore that damned breastplate everywhere. The only way to kill him would be to decapitate him, and with the narrow sword Vickers concealed in his ebony cane, getting close enough to do that was suicide.

And Honoria was in there. Damn the woman, what the bloody hell was she doing here? A sudden, horrific thought stole his breath. What if this was not coincidence? No. He refused to believe it.

Blade slipped from shadow to shadow, stalking the pair of them. Vickers paused by the tomb and jabbed his cane into the soft grass. It stayed upright and he started tugging on his gloves, draping them over the gold handle.

What was he doing? Blade crouched low in the cover of an exuberant rose bush. Vickers bowed his powdered head, clasped his hands behind him and…simply stood there. As though paying homage to someone.

Grief? Or guilt? Blade’s eyebrow shot up. He would have never suspected either emotion to inflict the deadly duke.

I ’ope it keeps you up nights.

At least it had become apparent that Honoria was not in league with him. There was no sign of movement within. If Vickers didn’t drown himself in perfume, he might have smelled her.

So tempting. What if you never get this chance again? the devil on his shoulder whispered.

He swallowed. Hard. Fifty years for a shot like this. Days and days where he woke screaming, reliving the agony of coming out of the hunger and finding his sister lifeless and drained on the floor. Smelling her blood all over him. Feeling it slick and wet between his fingers. Tasting it in his mouth and—God damn him—wanting more of it.

And Vickers, standing there in shock, her blood splashed on his white brocaded coat, saying, You killed her.

The hunger—the demon inside—roared within Blade, desperate to unleash itself. It hated both itself and Vickers. The world muted to a harsh gray landscape. The color leeched out of the roses, and Vickers became a pale blot on the chiaroscuro landscape.

Fifty years.

Emily.

I love her, you know? Vickers had said in one of his rarer, melancholic moments, when he’d been younger. But she will never be wholly mine. Because of you. What I did to you…it was a gift. She doesn’t understand.

Distantly Blade felt his fingers clench into hard fists. Love didn’t lock a girl in with her blood-starved brother. Vickers had never loved anyone except himself.

He shifted forward for the lunge—

“Your Grace!”

The animalistic hunger in him sent him for cover, searching for the new voice, the intruder into his killing fields. He smothered the vicious instinct that had him ready to tear the human servant apart as he came puffing through the gate.

Vickers spun around and snatched up his gloves. Anger flashed through his pale eyes, then he smoothed it over. “Abagnale. I told you I didn’t wish to be interrupted.”

“It’s the girl! The girl Daisy!” Abagnale wheezed. “She’s started showing remarkable signs of improvement. Her CV levels have dropped by three percent since last month.”

Vickers went to attention like a hound. “Three percent?” he snapped. “You’re sure of this? How?”

“I don’t know yet, Your Grace.”

“I want to see her.” Vickers grabbed his cane.

Blade’s chance—such as it had been—was lost. The demon inside him howled in frustration. Rage burned hotly in his stomach. Some part of him was saying, No, you ain’t an animal, but it was a tiny part, locked away in the recess of his mind.

All of the dark thoughts he owned surfaced with a vengeance. He wanted to kill, to drown the world in blood. His nails bit into his palms, and he realized they were clenched so hard they were shaking.

Emily. Oh God, Emily.

A whisper of movement came from within the crypt. The swish of skirts. Blade’s head shot up like a hound on scent. A slow smile crept over his mouth.

Want, he thought to himself.

Then take, the demon inside him whispered.

***

Silence.

Oh, my goodness.

Honoria let out a shaky breath, dragging her hand away from her mouth. It felt like she’d been holding her breath for hours, waiting for Vickers to leave. Peering through the gate, she found no sign of him. She had to get out of here before he came back.

Sudden terror sent her scrambling for the gate. She slipped through it, darting around the corner and directly into a firm, hard chest. A scream tore its way up her throat, then a hand clapped over her mouth and an arm dragged her around, hauling her against a body as hard as steel.

“Here, now. What have we here?” Blade whispered. She nearly had an apoplectic seizure, her knees giving way beneath her. He caught her, dragging her back into his steel embrace.

Her eyes closed in relief. Thank heavens. She was safe. Or as safe as one could be in a blue blood’s arms.

“A little kitten, all of my own,” he purred. “Far from home.”

Her eyes opened. That wasn’t the voice she knew. His words dripped with haughty blue blood mockery. His voice had changed. It was rougher, smoother, like velvet over sand.

She pried at his fingers and he chuckled, an eerie sound that made every hair on her body stand on end.

“If I let you go, will you scream?” he said.

She shook her head.

“Pity.”

The hand clamped across her mouth suddenly disappeared. But the arm holding her did not. Blade brushed his lips against her neck, sending a quiver through her stomach.

“Easy now, love. Easy.” His whisper was almost hypnotic.

Strange how such a cold-blooded man could heat her so. Honoria flinched as the tip of his tongue darted out, tasting the sweat of her neck. She could feel the pulse thundering through her carotid artery and wondered if he felt it too.

“Blade,” she whispered, glancing over her shoulder at him. His beautiful emerald eyes were dark chips of obsidian. Nothing human looked back at her.

His gaze dropped to her mouth. Something dark and hungry flickered through those depths. The demon inside. The hunger. It was ruling him and she would have to be very careful. One wrong step could send him tearing for her throat or thrusting her skirts up and taking her here, regardless of the consequences. What had sent him into such a state?

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