Kiss of Steel Page 9

“Of course, Mr. Macy. I was just reviewing my notes on Miss Lovett. They say she’s caught the eye of Mr. George Fitzwilliam of the House of Lannister. A minor offshoot but a coup for the academy, sir.”

Mr. Macy allowed himself a small smile. “Indeed.” Then it faded. He stepped into the parlor she’d been allocated for her lessons, shutting the doors behind him with meticulous care.

Honoria felt the air deflate out of her and put the spring pen down, smoothing out her skirts. This was going to be a difficult talk, possibly disastrous. She could tell.

Still, she kept the smile on her lips. “Would you care for some tea, sir?”

“No, thank you.” Mr. Macy took his seat, sinking into the stuffed armchair. The drone hovered with the tea caddy, little puffs of steam erupting from the release valve on its head. “I’m afraid, Miss Pryor, that we need to have a serious discussion.”

“I’m sorry, sir. I know yesterday was inexcusable. It won’t happen again, I promise. Charlie’s illness caught me by surprise. I didn’t—”

“I’m not here to discuss your brother’s illness,” Mr. Macy said. His watery blue eyes met hers from behind his steel-rimmed glasses. “I had a rather alarming visit this morning from a dear friend of mine, Mr. Bromley. He said that he saw you passing through Aldgate three days ago after work, on your way out of the city.”

Her stomach plummeted. Somehow she kept the smile in place.

“I’m afraid it’s led me to question certain inconsistencies in your story, Miss Pryor.” He pulled a note from his pocket. “I sent a telegram to your reference in Oxford, Mrs. Grimthorpe. The response came back this afternoon.” His gaze met hers. “Do you have anything to say for yourself?”

Oh, dear. “I’ve never given you any reason to doubt me, Mr. Macy. I’ve only ever had three days off, tending to Charlie, since I began working for you, and I’ve had remarkable success with my ladies.”

He pulled an envelope from his pocket and slid it across the table between them. “I’m very sorry to do this, Miss Pryor. You have been an exceptional employee. But I cannot risk someone with a dubious past at the academy. As you say, Miss Lovett is discussing thrall contracts with the House of Lannister. It could make Macy’s Academy of the Finer Arts, but it would also pull undue scrutiny from the Echelon. It is clear that you are hiding something. It would be rude of me to insist upon an answer, but the mere fact that you used a reference from a woman who doesn’t exist, as well as the lack of Oxford-born speech to your tongue—and yes, I have an ear for accents too—tells me that it would be unwise to further our association.”

“Mr. Macy, please…” There was something hot on her cheeks. Goodness, was she crying? She touched her gloved finger to it and stared at the wet lace. “Please, do not do this. I have a younger brother. A sister. They depend upon me.”

Mr. Macy looked uncomfortable. “I’ve included a reference for you. An excellent one. And a bank check to see you through the next two weeks.”

Honoria knew when the battle was lost. The decision had been made before he even entered the room. She eyed the envelope. Two weeks. And then they would have nothing but Lena’s meager wage. It wasn’t enough, and yet it was more than he ought to have given her after she’d lied to him.

A pity she couldn’t use it, for she didn’t dare show the bank her identity card. And Miss Pryor had none.

“I’m very sorry.” Her head bowed in defeat. “I’ll gather my things. Thank you for…for the reference.”

He stood, evidently eager to have this over with. “Would you like me to call a steam cab for you?”

Honoria laughed under her breath. Five shillings for the cab. “No. No, thank you, sir.” She stood, sweeping her skirts out behind her. What a strange relief she felt. No more snide comments from Lena about the fine dresses she wore to fool Mr. Macy. No more sneaking around, pretending to ride the tram to the address she’d given him in the West End.

She knew the shock would soon wear off and fear would settle in, gnawing at her belly. Those ever-present questions would begin circling her mind like vultures. Where to work? How to feed them? How to pay the rent? How to find warm clothes for the winter that was looming around the corner?

But she couldn’t think about it now. She could only digest—slowly—this latest hand that fate had dealt her.

“Thank you, sir,” she said again, and swept out into the hallway to fetch her hat and reticule.

***

It took less time than she’d anticipated for the shock to wear off. The cold, bleak wind went right through her as she stepped outside clutching her letter of reference in her hand. It threatened to tear her hat from her head and dried the tears on her cheeks. She couldn’t afford to cry, and there was no point really. Crying accomplished nothing.

It was only in the heart of night that she couldn’t help herself.

Smoke hung over the chimneys of London. Somewhere behind the clouds the sun battled valiantly. The street stretched seemingly forever, a uniform parade of gray row houses lining its edges. It was still early afternoon. Pedicabs and steam carts lined the way, with a couple of pedestrians staring up at her curiously as she hovered on the doorstep.

Honoria took a step down. Then another. Macy’s door had shielded her from the worst of the wind, but now it swept around her, traveling right through her threadbare stockings and the lightweight mauve cape that she wore. She hovered on the footpath, uncertain what to do. Go home? Charlie would be waiting. At least she could look after him now, without constantly worrying about leaving him home alone. Or should she start looking for a job?

She looked down at the envelope.

Whatever job she lied her way into, it would never be enough. Macy’s hadn’t been enough. Charlie needed good food, medications to slow down the rate of the craving virus, and a doctor who wouldn’t ask questions or inform the Echelon about his condition. She’d been running herself into the ground, trying to pretend that she could provide him with what he needed when she knew she couldn’t. Mr. Macy had only forced her eyes open.

She needed money. A lot of it. And there were only two things left to sell that had any value.

The mercenary little part of her brain that had seen Blade flipping gold sovereigns and shillings around with equal abandon knew exactly where she could get money from. She cringed away from the thought. Once she started down that path, there was no turning back. And a small part of her, the part that was still a young, naïve girl daydreaming about a white knight come to take her away didn’t want to do that. Blade had been kind to her, and even though she knew he had ulterior motives in courting her as he had, she still couldn’t stop herself from wishing.

Honoria took a step, then another. Toward the city. Her body knew where it was going, even as her mind resisted. There was one last option left to try. A dangerous, terrifying option that could see her in the depths of the Echelon’s notorious dungeons before the end of day, but she had to try.

If she failed…Well, then she could bury her soul and take what was left of her pride to Blade and beg him to take her in as his kept woman.

***

The enormous metal eagle glared back at her, its wings outspread atop the hollow glass sphere that guarded the gates. A small electric orb pulsed in the heart of the globe, with the occasional spark of blue lightning shooting out, licking at the interior of the glass.

Honoria eyed the spark, her palms sweating inside her threadbare lace gloves. Pushing her identity card into the slot by the gate, she waited with bated breath as the metal teeth crunched down through the slots in the card. The stored lightning flickered but didn’t lash out. Letting out her breath, she slipped inside the garden.

Before Vickers, her father had been sponsored by the duke of Caine. She’d grown up in this house and knew it almost as well as Caine did.

The servants’ quarters were around the back. Honoria eased her way through the lush, overgrown gardens, keeping an ear out for the servant drones and any wandering thralls. The gardens were eerily familiar but not quite as large as she remembered. When she was a child they’d seemed endless, full of paths where she and Lena could chase each other along and thick with foliage in which to hide. She found the back door into the kitchen and eased it open. The room was empty, of course. Nobody to feed except the thralls, and the last time she’d heard, Leo kept only three.

Caine House had barely changed. That was one of the problems with being so long-lived. The blue bloods tended to stagnate after so many years, both at home and in their running of the country. It had been forty years since the prince consort took control, and since he’d first imposed his stifling rules, very little differed. The city walls kept the Echelon in and the poor out. Everybody had their place, and that was to serve.

Of course, such rule hadn’t worked so well in France. With the majority of the French aristocracy infected with the virus, they’d thought themselves invulnerable. It wasn’t until most of them were guillotined in the revolution that the English blue bloods sat up and took note. Humans were little more than thralls, but they could still be dangerous.

The prince consort was clever enough to know this. Officially his lovely young wife, Queen Alexandra, was in command, but everyone knew who pulled her strings. The people loved their queen, so the prince consort paraded her through the streets and held court from the balcony of the palace. He doted on her in public and played the handsome blue blood lover. If the queen’s eyes wore a glassy look and her skin was a trifle too pale, then most of the commoners thought it was purely the height of fashion.

And then, of course, there was the metaljacket legion, in case things turned nasty.

Honoria found her way through the lower floors, fingers trailing over the fine white Chinese wallpaper that decorated the walls. The floors were ivory marble with a Turkish-red runner down the center. Several times she heard the low, distinct hum of a drone and ducked into one of the spare rooms to hide. The automated servants might not be programmed to deal with intruders, but they would certainly alert someone who could.

Honoria slipped into the servants’ hidden warren of corridors and found her way to the third floor. There were voices in the library. Avoiding all of the creaking floorboards, she made her way to the main bedroom.

The massive four-posted bed dominated the room with heavy red velvet curtains tied to the posts. Late afternoon sunlight cast shining squares across the red carpets.

The pistol was heavy in her reticule as she dug it out. No need to take chances. Her father had said that if she ever needed help, she could come here, but the Leo Barrons she knew—the young boy who had put frogs down her dress and tricked her into touching one of the globes of stored lightning—wasn’t the same as a man. He was one of them now.

The door opened.

“What the hell are you doing here?” Leo hissed. He slammed the door and took a menacing half step toward her.

Honoria held up the pistol and clicked the hammer back. “Stay where you are.”

Leo froze. An inscrutable expression came over his face. She took the chance to examine him. He’d always been fair as a boy, but his silky moonbeam hair had darkened to an antique gold. He wore a crisp black velvet jacket with puffed sleeves, a loose white shirt, and a pair of tight leather trousers. Rings glittered on his fingers, and there was a flash of gold at his ear with a ruby dangling from the loop.

“You’ve changed,” she said. His skin looked paler, almost…silvery?

He eyed the pistol then gave a fluid shrug. “It happens.” Crossing the floor with catlike grace, he circled toward the liquor cabinet on the tallboy. “Care for a drink?” A sidelong look through silky lashes. He waved the bottle at her, the ruby-colored blood swirling around inside.

“Thank you, no.”

Leo splashed a dash of blood into the glass. Though it shared the same color as claret, it was denser, lacking the gleam of liquor. No doubt it was bought directly from the draining factories down near Whitechapel. She eyed it with distaste. Did he know how many people sold their lives for what he drank so carelessly? Would he even care?

“Half of London’s hunting for you.” His eyes locked on her, black as night.

“I was careful.”

“Are you going to shoot me?” He arched a brow. “No? Then put it away.”

Honoria stared through the sight. The gun muzzle came into sharp focus, with Leo muting into a blur of black behind it. He moved and she looked up just as he clamped a hand over the pistol.

“Put it down, Honoria. Before somebody gets hurt.” This time there was none of his boyish nonchalance.

Her jaw tightened.

“If I wanted to hurt you, I wouldn’t have bothered coming all the way upstairs.” He held both hands in the air. “I’d have simply sent Vickers up.”

“Vickers?” She lowered the pistol in shock. “Vickers is here?”

“In the library.” Leo’s mouth twisted. “You’re damned lucky he didn’t realize it was you, with all that scent he wears. What were you thinking, coming here? Surely you realize that the house is watched.”

“I was desperate. And nobody saw my face. I kept my head down and my hat—”

“Damn it, your scent, Honoria. Those watching the house aren’t simply using their eyes.”

A kernel of suspicion burned in her. “Why is Vickers here?”

He did smile then, that familiar, mocking curl of the lips that she remembered. “Politics. Vickers is trying to play me. Your escape cost him a great deal of face.”

Despite herself, she felt an odd twinge of discomfort. She shouldn’t care, truly. Leo was nothing to her. But… “Are you going to be all right?”

Prev Next