Kiss of Steel Page 28

Blade liked the fact that the man was straight to the point. None of them were friends, only wary allies. There was no need for formalities and polite backstabbing.

“It ain’t aboveground in the rookery,” Blade answered. “Me and me men ’ave covered every square inch. I think it’s either in Undertown or ’idin’ down in the factories by Brickbank.”

Lynch nodded. “Where’s the nearest entrance to Undertown from here?”

Blade crossed the floor toward the picture projector and lit the candle behind the pictograph. A grainy map of Whitechapel and its surrounding environs sprang up on the grimy wall.

“’Ere,” he said, pointing toward the south end of the rookery. “There’s an old broken drain someone covered o’er with mesh. Leads down into the sewers. One o’ the Undertowner’s cut a tunnel into it from the old, collapsed Eastern Link.” The only way into the rookery without crossing the wall.

“I’ll get the squadron ready.” Lynch nodded curtly, then turned and strode for the door.

Blade scratched at his jaw. “Interestin’ fellow. Abrupt.”

“He believes only in getting the task done,” Barrons replied absently, staring at the map.

“Blud-wein?” Blade asked, pouring himself a glass of it.

“Please.”

The candle behind the projector guttered. He caught the slight hint of floral-scented soap and heard the whisk of skirts, soft-paced behind the door. Honoria. Sneaking out the back entrance with Will.

Barrons took his blud-wein and sipped. His eyes widened. “An excellent vintage.”

“You were expectin’ poison?”

“Rotgut, maybe.”

They shared an uneasy smile, full of edges and raised hackles.

“I ain’t the sort for poison,” he said. “If I come at you, it’ll be ’ead-on.”

“That’s a refreshing novelty,” Barrons drawled. “They say you’re nothing but a jumped-up alley rat. A mushroom. I could almost like you.”

“Almost?”

Barrons drained his glass then put it down with a clank. “Interesting eau de toilette you’re wearing.”

Blade had come straight from the bedchamber, deliberately flaunting Honoria’s scent. Some part of him wanted her mark on his skin, to show the world—or perhaps just Barrons—who she belonged to. “You got a problem with it?”

Barrons clasped his hands behind his back and studied him. “She hasn’t told you about me.”

That made his teeth grind together. Honoria’s secretive nature was beginning to put him on edge. He didn’t give a damn if she’d taken a lover in the past; he just wanted to know why she refused him. Unless she still had feelings for this man…The thought ran like ice water down his spine. Not that. God above, he didn’t think he could be selfless enough to let her go to another man. “I’m curious. ’Er father worked for yours for many years?”

“Indeed.”

“You were friends?”

Barrons’s lips twitched. “No. Not friends. More than that. And less.” He cocked his head to the side, as though considering Blade. “I have no claim on her, if that’s what puts that look in your eye.”

Blade stopped in his tracks. He was pacing the room like a caged tiger. Exhibiting a weakness. If Barrons wanted to bring him down, he would know just how to do it. Blade gave a loose shrug. “The girl’s amusin’. But skittish.” He gestured toward the door. “You ready to get those boots dirty?”

Barrons gave him a long, slow look, then nodded. “I have no claim on her, but I warn you. Be kind to her.” He grabbed his hat from the hat stand by the door and fitted it with ridiculous care. They locked gazes. “Or I’ll have to kill you.”

Blade stared at his back as the man turned for the door. Not the kind of thing a man with no claim on a woman would say. “Son of a bitch,” he muttered and followed.

***

Honoria rubbed at her eyes, trying to ease the tired strain. She knew her father’s code, but deciphering it was still slow, tedious work. It didn’t help that Lena had taken over the other side of the table with yards of yellow cotton and was blabbering excitedly as she stitched the seam.

Will had shoved a package into Honoria’s hands with a grunt as he left her at her door. She’d been tempted to call after him and inform him to return it immediately. Then she’d read the note, carefully copied in an elegant hand—possibly Esme’s—but obviously dictated by Blade: For your sister. And your brother.

If it had been anything else, she couldn’t have accepted it and he knew it. Tugging open the brown paper, tears had welled in her eyes as she saw the carefully folded yellow cotton, threads, and a small sewing kit. There was a clockwork tumbler ball too, for Charlie.

He had outplayed her. She couldn’t not accept the gifts, and the very thought that he had considered Charlie and Lena made her heart beat hard.

There was an awful knot of something in her chest. Honoria had stood in the street and cried with the two gifts clenched in her hands. It had been a long time before she could take them inside.

The letters in the diary were swimming before her eyes. She put her dip pen down and pushed away from the table. Weak afternoon sunlight streamed in through the window. Twitching aside the curtain showed the grimy cobblestones outside and the ragamuffin band of boys playing tumbler in the alley. One day maybe Charlie would be out there chasing the clockwork ball with the same ferocious energy.

A smile tugged at her lips then died. She was trying to be hopeful, but there was a lot of work for her to do before that scenario became reality. Her father had been on the verge of discovering a cure. It was all he spoke about in those final days, obsessing over the inoculations. But just because he was close to a cure didn’t mean she could re-create his work. She understood it, but she had never owned the kind of genius Artemus Todd had. To make mad guesswork and leaps of logic before scrambling wildly for pen and parchment. What if she couldn’t work it out?

Leaning her forehead against the chilled glass pane, she watched the boys rioting madly, upsetting the flow of traffic and nearly knocking a young woman over. Charlie deserved to have a life like that. Instead of confined to his bed, his arms marked with the track of numerous injections. Better that than the alternative…Or was it?

The craving was a slow death sentence. Worse. It turned men into blood-starved monsters who existed only for the thrill of the kill. But Blade was a blue blood. And although she might not be able to sort the jumble of her emotions regarding him, she could no longer despise him for his illness. Indeed, she could only admire the man. So close to the edge, and yet still he fought for control.

He’d be in Undertown now, hunting a vampire among the Slasher gangs and the humans who lived down there. Determined to do his duty to the people who relied on him, and to the little adopted family he’d gathered around himself. He was illegitimate, illiterate, and a self-professed scoundrel. And he had more honor in his little finger than half the so-called lords of the Echelon.

Honoria traced a pattern on the window with her finger. With Will recovering from the vampire attack, Blade had only O’Shay and Rip at his side. Humans. With a pack of blue bloods at his back and a squadron of metaljackets. All it would take would be one bullet and he’d cease to be a thorn in the side of the Echelon.

“What are you looking for?” Lena asked.

Honoria jerked her finger away from the window. “Nothing.”

“You’ve been staring out the window all day,” Lena noted, the needle and thread dipping between her fingers. “As though you’re looking for something.”

“My eyes are strained,” Honoria replied, rubbing at her temples. “I just need to rest them every now and then.”

Lena looked down, her fingers pausing on the fabric. “They’re hunting something, aren’t they? When I went to fetch water this morning, Lettie Hancott told me that a squadron of metaljackets was at the warren. Is it the murderer?”

What to tell her? Nobody could afford to have word of the vampire getting loose in the community, and Lena was the first to admit that she couldn’t be trusted with vital information. “Yes,” Honoria said after a moment’s hesitation. “They think he’s in Undertown.”

“You’re worried about him,” Lena said, putting her sewing down.

“The murderer? Hardly.”

Lena rolled her eyes. “I wasn’t referring to the murderer and you know it.” Her astute brown eyes seemed to see straight through Honoria. “At first I thought this was a business transaction between you. But it’s not, is it?”

“If Blade dies, then we’re back on the streets, without any way of fending for ourselves,” Honoria retorted, her skirts swishing around her feet as she paced. “There’s no money for food, for Charlie, for—”

“Honor.”

“I don’t have time for this…for him. I have too much to worry about—you, Charlie, the money to feed ourselves with.”

“What are you afraid of?”

“I’m not afraid of anything.”

“Yes, you are. You’re hiding behind me and Charlie. Using us as a shield to protect yourself from him.” Lena sighed. “I can’t say I was thrilled when you first took up with him, but he’s proven a man of his word. And he makes you smile. I haven’t seen you smile for such a long time.” Her voice trailed off into a wistful end.

Lena. Always searching for the fairy tale in every corner. Sometimes Honoria wished she could be as naïve.

“Its not as though he’s bought you over completely with that cotton, is it?” Honoria sighed. “He’s a good man. And he amuses me. Occasionally.”

“Well,” Lena said. “I suppose it could be worse. At least he seems to have money. Even if he is a bastard-born, rogue blue blood.”

A little curl of anger warmed Honoria. “Blade is honest. And loyal. Far better traits to have than being born on the right side of the sheets.”

“Perhaps. But if you were going to marry, I thought that at least it would be someone with some kind of pedigree. Or someone who could at least read.”

“He doesn’t need book smarts to be intelligent,” she retorted. Then she realized what else Lena had said. “And I’m his thrall, not his fiancée.”

Lena took a sip of her tea, mocking her over the top of it with an arched brow. “I’ve seen the way he looks at you. And you at him. If you have no intentions of marrying him, then I’m not certain I quite approve of the relationship.”

Honoria gaped. For a moment Lena had sounded exactly like…like her. And then the realization struck. Her eyes narrowed. “You little sneak.”

“You like him. You do. You were all ready to jump down my throat.” Lena grinned. “You’re worried about him.”

“Of course I’m worried about him,” Honoria snapped. “He’s hunting through Undertown, with the Echelon at his back. Any one of them could take the opportunity to dispose of him. Not to mention the vam—” She bit her lip. “The killer.”

Lena got up and danced toward her. “You’re so unromantic, Honor. And so stubborn!” Lena took her sister’s hands and swung her around in a jig. “Have you kissed him yet?”

“That’s none of your business,” Honoria replied, tugging loose. Heat burned up her throat. They’d done infinitely more than that.

“You have! You flirt!”

“You don’t have to sound so delighted.”

“Was it good?” Lena’s grin broadened. “It was. You liked it. How many times have you kissed him?”

Far too many times. It was becoming addictive. “This conversation is over.”

“Don’t be a spoilsport. Lord knows we have little else to find enjoyment in at the moment. One of us might as well have a little romance in her life.”

It was all too heady a reminder. “I don’t have time—”

“If it weren’t for our circumstances, what would you do?” Lena gave her a serious look. “Take away me. And Charlie. And everything else. What would you do?”

Honoria hesitated. Then shook her head. “It’s a purely hypothetical question, because you do exist. I can’t pretend otherwise, and there’s no point wondering ‘what if.’”

“Honor.”

She bit her lip. “I don’t know. I haven’t thought about it.”

“Liar.”

A little swell of heat burned behind Honoria’s eyes, taking her by surprise. She turned away, stacking dishes in the sink. Anything to busy her hands. “I haven’t.”

“Honor.” Lena caught her hand and stopped her.

Something wet trailed down her cheek. She dabbed awkwardly at it, turning her face away from her sister, but Lena knew. Her arms came up around Honoria’s shoulder, and she tucked her chin against her sister’s neck.

“I know you don’t like to be impulsive,” Lena said. “You think too much, you always have. But you should take this chance. You should go to him tonight. Don’t think. Just follow what your heart is telling you.”

“I don’t know what my heart is telling me,” Honoria replied, wiping her eyes with her sleeve. The damn tears kept coming. There was a sudden heavy weight rising through her chest, into her throat. “He’s a blue blood. And a rogue. And he’s got over a dozen thralls. He’s nearly half a century older than me!”

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