With the countdown on for the release day of The Mech Who Loved Me—five days!—I thought it time to share the second chapter.
Sorry, no pre-order available for iBooks, as there was an issue with the setup.
Print copies currently unavailable—in formatting as we speak.
Read the first chapter here.
THE DUKE RETURNED with a placating smile for the party.
Kincaid watched Malloryn swim through the crowd, murmuring platitudes. Malloryn reminded him of a shark. All white teeth, smooth glide, and hunting eyes. And something was up. With the way Ava had suddenly reappeared and commandeered Malloryn's attention, he knew it had something to do with the work Kincaid undertook for the Company of Rogues.
It was about bloody time something happened.
The Sons of Gilead, a terrorist group they'd been hunting six weeks ago, had vanished off the face of the earth, and there'd been not a single sighting of the dhampir who'd been working with them either. The Company of Rogues had become restless, none more so than Kincaid.
He'd worked damned hard during the revolution to overthrow the corrupt prince consort and his bloodthirsty pack of blue blood aristocrats. The last thing he intended was seeing the blue bloods that had lost their rank at the top of the food chain ever regain it.
Speaking of blue bloods, the Duke of Malloryn crooked a finger at him. “Meet me in the study in five minutes.”
Then he moved on.
Kincaid glanced around the room, handing his empty glass of champagne to a passing footman. Finally. Some action. He slipped away from the room, leaving Byrnes and Ingrid behind with the guests in the parlor of Malloryn's ducal manor.
What had roused Malloryn's ire? The icy duke kept all emotion off his face, but Kincaid had begun to learn his tells—the faint flicker of a muscle in the man's jaw, the thinning of his lips…. Something had the duke's drawers in a right knot, and as much as he would usually enjoy watching Malloryn squirm, it also meant danger might be afoot.
He asked for directions from the footman, then made his way upstairs.
Kincaid pushed through the doors to the study, startling someone who was sitting at Malloryn's desk.
Ava gave a small squeak, standing in a sudden flounce of lacy skirts. “What are you doing in here?”
“Waiting for Malloryn, as requested,” he replied, easing the door shut behind him. “I do work for him, remember?”
“How can one forget?” Ava smoothed her skirts, studiously avoiding his gaze. The duck-egg blue of her overjacket washed out her pale skin, but drew his attention to the gilded highlights in her dark blonde curls. Every inch of her from the throat down was hidden, from her gloved hands to the tips of her pointed ankle boots. There were so many ruffles on her skirts he could barely make out her figure beneath it.
She was beautiful in her own way, though firmly on his do-not-touch list. Even if he'd wanted to flout his own set of rules and poach a virgin, Byrnes had threatened him with dismemberment if Kincaid even looked at her. He wasn't scared of Byrnes, but Byrnes had a rather large advantage in any fight: he was now married to a verwulfen woman with a fiery temper, who happened to quite like Ava. Byrnes probably wouldn't even have to lift a finger. Nobody in their right mind crossed verwulfen. Their berserker rages were legendary, and even a blue blood would have a hard time taking one down.
Hell, Kincaid had seen Ingrid dismantle a vampire piece by piece, and that was possibly the only thing scarier than her.
Still… nothing was quite as tempting as a woman you couldn't have. Kincaid crossed his arms over his chest. Ava hadn't asked what he'd done with the blasted flowers. Indeed, she'd barely looked at him as he entered, though her cheeks bore a trace of color. “What's going on?”
“I don't know. A messenger arrived with something urgent for His Grace.”
“You didn't listen in?” She had superior hearing after all, thanks to her cursed blue blood nature.
“Of course not. It was private.”
“And at least one of you knows what that word means,” Malloryn said, entering the study as silently as a ghost, with Isabella Rouchard, his right-hand woman—and mistress, Kincaid suspected—on his heels.
Gemma Townsend and Charlie Todd entered behind them. Together with Byrnes, Ingrid, Ava, and himself, they made up the Company of Rogues, Malloryn's hand-picked team. Gemma, both seductress and assassin, looked ravishing in red silk, and Charlie was a man just over the threshold of adulthood. Both were blue bloods.
In fact, he was currently surrounded by them, which always made him a little uneasy.
The duke locked the door. There was a file under Malloryn's arm, and Kincaid's gaze went directly to it. He'd been out of action for over a month while his broken nose healed, and he needed to get back to work.
“You put together a company of spies,” he pointed out. “Don't be so surprised if we want to know everything that goes on 'round here.”
Malloryn shot him a chilling smile. “Keeping you in the dark, Kincaid, gives me no small amount of enjoyment.”
Bastard. His temper roused, but he fought to restrain it to just the muscle jumping in his cheek. Malloryn knew Kincaid didn't like him, and seemed to take perverse pleasure in pushing that fact in his face. If the prick didn't have access to something he desperately wanted, then he'd have pushed on from this whole scenario weeks ago.
There was the small matter of the Sons of Gilead and their intention to destroy the newfound peace in London; a peace Kincaid had worked hard for, three years ago, during the revolution. There was also the fact he needed the coin—and there was nowhere else he could earn this kind of living, doing violent reckless things, which was precisely his forte.
Destruction is your gift, after all. Kincaid rubbed his knuckles, trying to force his brother's words deep into the dark recesses of his memory. “Please tell me you've got something interesting for me.”
“Something for all of you,” Malloryn replied, slapping the file down.
That… was not quite what he'd planned. Kincaid glanced at Ava beneath his lashes. “I wasn't aware Miss McLaren was to be working in the field.”
“Not usually, no,” Isabella broke in. If Gemma was a seductress, then Isabella was a cool goddess, warming only when Malloryn looked at her. “But Miss McLaren's specialty is crime scene investigation and… other things of which this case has particular need.”
“We have a crime scene?” Ava blurted.
“A fresh one,” the duke replied, sliding the file toward her, which she grabbed with eager hands.
“Dhampir?” It had been over a month since the mysterious group of evolved blue bloods had revealed themselves as their opponents. Kincaid still couldn't quite come to terms with it. Blue bloods were bad enough, what with most of the aristocracy infected with the craving virus that made them what they were. Then there were vampires, who were a nightmare out of any old story, but they were bloodthirsty monsters, devolving to an entirely predatory existence. Terrifying and extremely difficult to kill, but driven purely by the thirst for blood.
Dhampir… were something else.
Kincaid crossed his arms subconsciously, his nose aching in remembrance. A blue blood's one fatal flaw was the fact that as the craving virus colonized them over time, they began to devolve into a vampire. However, two months ago the Rogues had discovered there was one other option available for those devolving blue bloods if they used an elixir vitae to control their transformation. Instead of dying during the last stages of the Fade and being reborn as a vampire, those blue bloods transformed into the dhampir. They bore the same strengths of a vampire—faster, stronger, almost impossible to kill—but they retained the rational instincts of a blue blood.
It scared the shit out of him.
“I don't know. There's been no sign of the Sons of Gilead, or this mysterious group of dhampir that are working against us.” Malloryn handed over a photograph. “Until now. We know there was a power struggle within the Sons of Gilead and Lord Ulbricht won. He now leads the SOG, and their mission is to return the blue bloods and the Echelon to power. Ulbricht was spotted in Brighton two days ago, an agent of mine informs me. Whatever he's planning, I want to know about it. Gemma, fancy a little trip?”
The vivacious young woman snatched up the photograph, smiling down at the sneering face of Lord Ulbricht. “It would be a pleasure. Do you want him dead or alive?”
“Alive, preferably. I want to know everything he knows,” the duke replied. “Take a dirigible to Brighton, and—” His gaze slid over them, making Kincaid stiffen, before the duke's eyes narrowed on Charlie Todd. “Take Charlie with you.”
“To protect her?” Charlie asked.
Both Gemma and Malloryn snorted. Even Isabella succumbed to a faint smile.
“He's such a sweet boy,” Gemma said, patting Charlie's cheek. “There are at least twelve ways I could kill you, Charlie, despite the fact you're a blue blood. For a human, there's at least a hundred. No, Malloryn wants to send you as a distraction for Ulbricht.”
“I could do it,” Kincaid said.
Isabella rolled her eyes. “Unfortunately, Kincaid, you're not quite the right sort of distraction.”
He shot an incredulous look at Charlie, who'd crossed his arms over his chest. The lad was dangerous—all blue bloods were—but he was barely in his early twenties. “I—”
“You would terrify Ulbricht,” Gemma hastened to add, as she slid an arm around Charlie's neck. “Charlie is young, handsome, intelligent, and—”
“Exactly Ulbricht's type,” Malloryn concluded.
Both Kincaid and Charlie shot him a sharp look.
“I thought Ulbricht had a mistress,” Charlie blurted, flushing bright red.
“He did,” Malloryn said. “Zero, a young, beautiful blonde dhampir who was very dangerous. Ulbricht likes fair-haired youths of either gender. He also likes his bed play a little dangerous. Gemma will brief you on the flight.”
“I am not seducing Lord Ulbricht!” Charlie looked horrified.
Kincaid scratched at his jaw. “There's no need, I'm sure. I doubt even Malloryn would send you off to be some blue blood lord's catamite. A little flirtation, and if you're lucky, you can lure him somewhere isolated where Gemma can truss him up and return him to face the duke's tender mercies. Am I correct?”
“I don't know that I would use the words ‘tender' or ‘mercy,' but something like that, yes.” Malloryn's smile died. “Ulbricht knows I want his head. He's bound to be well guarded by his fellow members of the SOG. Be careful.”
“I could do this in my sleep, Your Grace,” Gemma replied.
“And me?” Kincaid demanded. Surely there had to be something for him to do? Malloryn wouldn't have called him or Ava up here just to listen.
Malloryn shot him a look. “A crime scene just came in. It has nothing to do with our work, but the Nighthawks have requested Ava's assistance, as she used to work for them. It's the fifth death in a fortnight…. I think Master Reed said they were referring to it as the Black Vein.”
“Black Vein?” Ava murmured.
All of them turned to look at her, as though startled to find she'd spoken. Kincaid examined them from beneath sleepy eyelids. Sometimes she faded into the wallpaper—or perhaps that was purposeful—but he seemed to be the only one who always saw her.
Malloryn waved a dismissive hand. “Some sort of disease afflicting blue bloods, and now a human by the look of it. Kincaid can make sure you're safe.”
Bodyguard work. He slid his hands into his pockets… and didn't say a damned thing.
“But blue bloods cannot succumb to illness,” Ava protested. “That's impossible. The craving virus is a jealous mistress—it will tolerate no other diseases in its host while it sets about colonizing them. It heals all wounds, and there's been no way to even cure it.”
“Well something is killing blue bloods,” Malloryn said, “and considering your interest in the craving virus, it was thought you would be the perfect candidate to proceed with the investigation. Just be quick about it. The second Gemma and Charlie have Ulbricht in hand, I plan on setting things in motion very swiftly. I want to crush the SOG before they can cause further chaos to England, and then we still have those dhampir to find. Whatever is killing blue bloods is important, but it pales in comparison to the real threat to the empire.” He gained his feet. “Report to Isabella in my absence. She'll keep me apprised of any of the goings-on. And make sure you keep your actions quiet. The last thing London needs is mention of a disease running rampant.”
“Will do,” Kincaid muttered.
Ava blinked, and Kincaid willed her to look at him.
Seemed they were going to be spending more time together than anticipated.
He could hardly wait.