(currently in upload as there was an initial problem with the pre-order)
THE BRIDE WAS resplendent, the groom was nervous, the drawing room decked out in enough flowers to make a florist envious, and someone had seen to it there was enough blud-wein to satisfy even the most ravenous blue blood.
Ava McLaren stood at the back of the room, as the man she once thought she loved, married the woman of his dreams.
And she wasn't quite certain how she felt about that.
Happy, of course. They were her dearest friends. But there was also a lonely little feeling in her chest—a feeling that wondered if she'd ever be the one standing there stating her vows with a man she loved.
“I now pronounce you man and wife,” the celebrant called, and Caleb Byrnes captured Ingrid's face in his hands as he leaned down to kiss her.
All of Ava's wistful feelings swept away. It was a beautiful moment shared between two people she loved, and if she took herself out of the equation, then she was genuinely happy to be here.
And then of course, he appeared.
The storm clouds to her sunshine. The Bah Humbug to her Christmas.
A warm presence brushed against her bare elbow. Deliberately, she was certain. Kincaid knew what sort of effect he had upon her. Ava clapped her gloved hands as the groom kissed his bride, all of her senses locked onto that one imposing figure behind her. The faint hint of mechanical oil contrasted sharply with his lemon verbena aftershave. He was an enormous man who towered over her, and it always felt like some interior furnace threw heat out from his body like some sort of aura. Or perhaps that was simply the fact he was human, when she was a blue blood, and therefore had a lower temperature.
“Well, there goes fifty quid,” Kincaid muttered in her ear. “Thought Byrnes would see sense in the end.”
Ava's spine stiffened.
“Then you're a fool,” she whispered, half craning her head toward him, even as her hands continued clapping. She caught a glimpse of a smooth jaw—at least he'd shaved for the occasion, even if his jaw would bear dark stubble by this afternoon. “Byrnes loves Ingrid. And he's a lucky man to have a woman like her by his side. Anyone who knew how much they've been through in the past couple of months would see this is the happiest day they've had in a long time.”
“Easy, kitten.” Kincaid breathed out an amused laugh, the faint lines at the corners of those dangerously blue eyes creasing. His fingertips rested against the small of her back. “With such fervency, you'll scare off the local bachelors.”
A swift retort died on the tip of her tongue. All she could feel were those warm fingers against her back.
Kincaid seemed to sense her hesitation. He looked down just as she looked up, and suddenly it felt as though all of the sound drained out of the room.
He rarely touched her.
Or at least he hadn't in recent weeks.
Ever since that night she'd gotten lost in the gardens of a pleasure house, and Kincaid found her. Ava had been suffering one of her hysteria fits, and somehow he'd calmed her down. By the time she'd realized they were alone and his coat was around her shoulders, the predator within her had roused.
At first she'd thought she wanted his blood. Her affliction with the craving virus had forced her to endure many moments like that over the years. But the second he touched her, something in her body had shifted, and suddenly she wasn't thinking about his blood at all.
And he'd known it.
“The only bachelors in this room are Charlie and yourself,” she said, finally finding her voice. “Charlie's barely a man grown, and you… well you're entirely unsuitable. If you feel the need to flee then please don't hesitate. The rest of us are here to celebrate a wedding.”
That hand splayed across her lower back, his palm caressing the muscles of her spine. Good heavens. Ava's mind went vacant for a moment.
She swiftly tugged the small flask of protein solution she'd been using to sustain the craving, out of her reticule. Ava unscrewed the cap, tipping it to her lips. It tasted vile and it barely assuaged her thirst, but it seemed her body was surviving on this last batch better than any of the others she'd concocted. It kept the crawling itch in her throat to a tolerable level, and stopped her vision from slipping into the sharp black-and-white tinted relief that heralded the rise of her blood lust.
“Tempting,” Kincaid murmured, “but Byrnes has promised me the finest bottle of brandy he could get his hands on. He owes me for the broken nose.”
A nose which had healed slightly wrong, giving Kincaid a somewhat rakish look. Ava's lips thinned as she glanced away from his face. “So there's no other reason you're here at this moment? Not a single reason?”
“I was still holding the carriage to Calais out front,” he jested.
Or at least, she hoped it was a jest. “Too late now. They're married and about to start the rest of their lives together.”
“It's never too late.”
“Why are you so cynical?” she demanded in a hoarse whisper, still trying to keep her voice low enough so none of the others would hear.
“Why are you such a dreamer?”
Touché. Ava glanced back at the bride and groom as guests greeted them. Ingrid glowed with happiness. “Because this world can be a horrible place,” she said softly, “and it's moments like this that remind me there can be joy and happiness sometimes too. This moment is a lovely one, and I shall cherish it for as long as I live. My friends are happy. They're married. They're about to step into a long, blessed future together. It's perfect.”
She felt that knowledge fill her from within, softening all the lonely little hollows that lay tucked in her heart. On the darkest night, in the worst moments of her nightmares, she could look back on this moment now and it would fill her with hope.
“It's a fairy-tale,” Kincaid murmured, and realized he too was watching the bride and groom, almost as if he saw something she didn't. “And how long does the fairy-tale last? Nobody ever thinks about what happens to Cinderella after she marries the prince. Maybe her life is not all hope and dreams, as she spends the rest of her days with a man who couldn't even recognize her. I'm not a cynic. I'm a realist.”
Ava punched him lightly in the arm.
He looked down in surprise.
“Stop ruining my moment. Take your scowling elsewhere. Cinderella lives happily-ever-after and I will not accept a different conclusion.”
“You like weddings,” he accused, his dark brows drawing together as if he'd only just realized this fact.
It wasn't as though she was ever going to have one herself, so she might as well enjoy others. “Yes, I like weddings.”
“You want to be married,” he said, and Ava's insides went cold.
“Blood and steel,” she hissed. “Who doesn't? Surely everyone dreams of a loving lifetime with—”
“Marriage doesn't mean one enjoys a happy life,” he snorted. “I've known plenty of unhappy marriages.”
“At least I tell the bloody truth,” he snapped back at her.
Ingrid gave the crowd her back, and moved her arm. Ava shot Kincaid a fierce glower. “Well, you're the only man who thinks—”
Something came at her. Fast.
Ava threw up her hands, catching whatever it was and found herself in possession of a bunch of flowers.
The room stopped dead. Heads turned, people moved, and suddenly Ava found herself in the center of attention.
Her and Kincaid.
Who finally jerked his hand off her back, the wretch.
“Best of luck, Ava,” Ingrid called, blowing her a kiss.
The room erupted. Clapping echoed and Ava froze. Then the rest of the guests were moving on to the wedding toast, finally letting her fade back into obscurity.
She could almost feel his eyes on her.
“Do. Not. Say a word,” she ground out, through gritted teeth.
“I mean it.” Slapping the bouquet against his chest, she pushed away from him. “The flowers are all yours.”
Then she left Kincaid with Ingrid's bouquet, gathered her skirts and slipped from the room.
“They're about to serve the wedding breakfast,” said a low feminine voice behind her. “Are you coming in?”
Perry. She was one of Ava's best friends. They'd worked together for years at the Nighthawks—a guild of thief catchers and hunters who stalked the London nights, keeping crime at a minimum—before Ava accepted a role with the Company of Rogues, and they shared a common history. Perry was also the only person who might see straight through her.
Ava took a deep breath, putting another smile in place as she turned away from the gardens. “Oh, are they? I just wanted some fresh air and it's been so long since we had a sunny day like this.” Being alone also made her feel as though she didn't have to keep the charade in place. It was oddly restful to let her smile fade.
Perry shot her an odd look, but leaned on the balustrade beside her as they looked out over the gardens. “You're upset.”
Damn it. Ava's shoulders slumped. “No. I'm happy for them, truly I am.”
“You cared for Byrnes.”
“I also care for Ingrid,” she replied. “She suits him. And… I guess seeing them together makes me realize what Byrnes and I never had.”
Perry's mouth pursed thoughtfully, but she didn't prod. It was one of the reasons Ava liked her so much.
“I had this idea of how my life was going to work out,” Ava continued. “After Doctor Hague kidnapped me and destroyed my life, it took me such a long time to find my place at the Nighthawks. The work in the laboratories fascinates me and I'm perfectly suited for it, but… I want more. I keep trying to find my footing, to find a place where I belong, and I thought Byrnes was it. I like him. He makes me feel safe and normal, and he never looks at me as though he can't wait to escape me when I prattle on about odd things like autopsies, or a new species of orchid, or… all of the things ladies shouldn't speak of in polite circumstances. He was a friend when I needed one very, very much, and I kept thinking he would probably be the only man who might marry me.” She looked down at her clasped hands. That dream was well and truly dashed, but she couldn't find it in herself to begrudge Ingrid her happiness. When Ingrid walked into Byrnes's life, all she'd ever done was open Ava's eyes to the truth—that Byrnes was one of her dearest friends.
And that was all.
“After Hague, it took me a long time to find my place in the world too,” Perry said softly, staring out over the gardens.
They both fell silent.
Nothing more needed to be said in regards to Hague. The scientist had been obsessed with creating the perfect bio-mechanic heart to implant in people. Unfortunately, he'd needed to experiment on real humans to perfect his transplant process, and he'd chosen young women whom he'd kidnapped right off the streets. Not all of them survived.
Perry was the one who got away years before Ava was ever taken, but they both shared the same nightmares. Ava had been one of his later victims, only one of two who survived the process. Six months of hell. She closed her eyes, taking a shallow breath.
He was dead now.
Perry had killed him, finally setting herself free from the nightmares that haunted her. But Ava sometimes felt as though he would always exist in her own life, a dark cloud hovering on her every horizon. “I just… I don't know where my life is heading. I enjoy my work with the Company of Rogues. It's challenging and I have value here. But I feel like I want more, and it's difficult to watch others who've found that more. And it's so horribly selfish of me to begrudge—”
“It's not selfish,” Perry corrected, patting Ava's hand. “It's human. And it's honest. Why shouldn't you want more? And I know you don't wish Ingrid and Byrnes ill, you're simply focusing on what you don't have when you look at them. You'll find someone, Ava. I promise you.”
“You make it sound easy.”
“It is easy in the end. I never dared admit what Garrett meant to me,” Perry continued. “I never dared hope for marriage, or children, or even love, because I knew until Hague was dead, I would never get that chance. Don't stop believing, Ava. There's someone out there for you. Someone who will love you exactly the way you are, autopsies, rare plant obsession, and all.”
“Well, I wish he would make himself known sometime soon,” she said, with a sigh. “I'm see thirty looming on the horizon, and the closest I've come to a kiss is my ex fiancé, which was more of a swift peck against the cheek. I shall, however, draw the line if I'm nearly forty and still in the same dire straits.”
Sunlight gleamed in Perry's golden hair as the other woman laughed. She'd stopped dying it black after Hague died and her true identity was revealed. Marriage and babies had softened her in other ways, and though she was the daughter of an earl, she'd decided to stay on at the nighthawks. She was no longer the quiet, insulated hunter she'd once been, but nor had she returned to the Echelon. Instead it seemed as though Perry had found some sort of middle ground, and flourished there. Ava longed for that kind of self-acceptance.
“I just feel lost, Perry, and it's more than merely wanting a happy future for myself. Every day just seems the same.”
“Then maybe you need to change something in your life? It seems from what you've said, that marriage is a goal. Not specifically marriage to Byrnes.”
Ava paused. “I guess I cannot see anyone else wanting to marry me.”
Paul's face flashed into mind. He'd been her childhood friend growing up, and had promised many things when he'd proposed to her. Three days later, Hague kidnapped her out of her carriage on her way to Paul's house for a dinner.
Nightmares aside, by the time she escaped from Hague, all she'd wanted to do was return to her normal, small little life.
Except it wasn't the same.
Paul had been downright shocked to see her again. Especially since he was betrothed to someone else. Ava had never felt smaller than she did in that moment, and she'd wished them well, and meant it, but… he could have waited just a little longer. It hadn't even been a year.
“Mmm.” She curled a frond of the nearest fern around her finger, letting the feathery tip caress her skin. “I think I am going to bury my desire for marriage. I just don't think it's ever going to happen.”
After all, if Byrnes didn't want her, then who would?
“Don't lock yourself away,” Perry warned.
“I won't.” This time her smile at the other woman was genuine. “I have too many good friends who won't allow me to do so.”
“I'm sure there's someone out there who is looking for a woman, one just like you.”
“You have to say that. You're my friend. But the only gentlemen I know are those I work with.” She screwed up her nose. “Yes, none of the nighthawks are squeamish, but none of them interest me even vaguely.”
“What about that big fellow inside? He kept looking at you today—at least often enough I noticed it.”
A frown drew her brows down. Big fellow? The ceremony had been small, the guests a carefully picked handful of nighthawks Byrnes knew, the Company of Rogues of course, and Ingrid's adopted family. Who else could look at her like—? “Kincaid,” she suddenly blurted.
“Tall, savage looking mech?”
“Have you had too many wedding toasts?”
“He's handsome,” Perry pointed out. “Clearly knows his way around women, and he couldn't take his eyes off you.”
“I'm probably the only woman in there who's not married. He is the worst sort of rake! And he doesn't like me. We work together. We—”
“A physically fine specimen, however.”
Heat filled Ava's cheeks. “While I cannot deny that, there is one crucial flaw with your thinking. Kincaid despises blue bloods.” She gestured to herself. “I am a blue blood. He also has a distinct dislike for virgins and no interest in marriage. Indeed, a significant aversion to such a state. This morning he told Byrnes if the groom wanted to flee across the Channel, there was still time and he'd stall the wedding party.”
Perry crossed her arms over her bosom. “You don't have to marry him.”
“What?” She wasn't certain she'd heard Perry correctly.
“And if he is opposed to your state of virginity, then he could rectify that quite swiftly.”
Please, garden, swallow me whole…
“If you cannot find someone who fits your ideal as a husband, and you feel like you're missing out, then why not explore your options?” Perry continued. “Consider it an experiment. Do you really want a husband? Are you simply lonely? Curious? Or is it something else?”
Ava stared at her. The very idea… was not as outlandish as it first seemed.
“Ah, I thought I heard your voice out here.” With that, Perry's husband Garrett appeared. He slid a hand over the small of her back, and the two of them looked into each other's eyes. “Were you looking for me? I heard you mention a ‘physically fine specimen'.”
Perry rolled her eyes. “This is none of your business. Go back inside.”
“Who do I have to kill?” he asked promptly.
“No one. I was referring to a gentleman for Ava. Not one I had my eye upon.”
Garrett's blue eyes twinkled teasingly as he glanced at Ava. “Good. It's bad taste to shed blood at a wedding. Who are we hunting?”
Oh, God. Ava groaned. “No one. We are not hunting anyone. I am not hunting anyone. Perry has this mad scheme.”
“You always have the best schemes,” he told his wife. “What's the scheme?”
Perry fiddled with the buttons on his coat, setting him to rights again. “You're not going to like it.”
“You don't know that,” he protested.
“I told Ava she didn't need a husband. What she needs is… to experience passion.”
Garrett looked blank. Then his cheeks reddened. “No. That's enough.” He held his hands in the air. “I positively don't need to know anything more about this scheme.” He frowned, and pointed a finger at Ava. “Do not listen to Perry. You're a young, unmarried woman—”
“A state that doesn't seem to have any prospect of changing any time soon,” Ava argued. “And I'm six-and-twenty, Garrett. Hardly a debutante.”
“You also didn't seem to have those compunctions when you were chasing me.” Perry crossed her arms over her chest.
“That was different.”
“Oh?” One perfect blonde brow arched.
“It was different because it was me, and I knew what my intentions toward you were,” he countered. “What you're encouraging is—”
“An experiment,” Ava said, warming up to the idea. Not a husband, but a lover.
“Possible future heartbreak.” Garrett hesitated, before patting her shoulder. “I don't want to see you hurt, Ava. You know…”
What you've been through, remained unsaid.
It flavored every encounter she had with the nighthawks. They all knew. They'd all been there, and seen her slow recovery. Physically she'd been fine, but emotionally… That was a different story.
It was one of the reasons she'd accepted the Duke of Malloryn's offer to become the Company of Rogues crime scene investigator. She'd desperately needed to get out of the nighthawks guild, even for a little while.
Ava's shoulder wilted under his touch. Garrett was like an older brother; the one she'd never had. But sometimes his presence seemed stifling.
“And what you're suggesting,” Perry added quietly, watching Ava with startling perception, “is that Ava never gets a chance to spread her wings. Sometimes concern can seem like a cage, Garrett. I've been there. It's a horrible thing to feel lonely, even when you have a dozen people watching over you. Especially then.”
Garrett opened his mouth to say something, and then shut it. “A wise man realizes when the odds are against him.”
“I haven't said I'm going to do such a thing.” Ava hurried to fill the sudden awkwardness. “I'm just… contemplating options. At this moment I cannot see marriage in my future, and as Perry says, it's a lonely feeling.”
Garrett slung his arm around her and squeezed her shoulders. “Fine,” he growled. “It's your choice, Ava. It always is. Just be careful. I should hate to have to murder someone because they broke your heart. It's not very becoming for the master of London's law enforcement to have blood all over his hands.”
“I'll be fine.” A sudden kerfuffle drew her attention inside, to the appearance of a liveried footman wearing dark red and silver. Whose House colors were those? She wasn't familiar with the aristocratic Echelon who'd once ruled the city, beyond a peripheral awareness.
But Perry stiffened.
As the Earl of Langford's daughter, she would have been raised within the Echelon, and trained to recognize such things. “Sir Gabriel Stone's footman, by the look of it.” A faint frown drew her pale brows together. “But why would he be interrupting the wedding of two people he barely knows?”
Sir Gabriel was an official representative of the Council of Dukes who ruled the city, and it was rumored he had the Queen's ear. A powerful man.
“Here,” Garrett called, gesturing the fellow through the glass doors onto the patio. “You look lost. Can we help?”
The footman seemed breathless. “Is the duke inside?”
“More specifics, man,” Garrett said. “At last count we had two of them.”
Lynch, the Duke of Bleight, and—
“Malloryn,” the footman replied.
The Duke of Malloryn was the head of the Company of Rogues. “I'll fetch him. Why not sit and rest? You look like you've been running.”
“It's rather urgent.”
Perry and Garrett exchanged a look. “We'll keep the bridal party distracted,” Perry said, slipping her hand over the crook of her husband's elbow.
“And I'll find the duke,” Ava promised, though she had no intentions of leaving it at that.
What with thoughts of Perry's mad scheme plaguing her, she didn't plan on remaining for the rest of the wedding breakfast. Especially not with Kincaid in the room.
How on earth was she going to ever look him in the eye again?