So Dear Authors and Smart Bitches, Trashy Books are running their annual DABWAHA challenge and strike me blind, but Forged By Desire got in. (Cue excitement!) Up against the awesome Bitter Spirits by Jenn Bennett (go read it, it’s a cool book) in the first round, I offered a bribe if it got through to round two – the first two pages of the next book in the London Steampunk series. And, it actually got through, so, huh, thanks to those who voted. Because I am so thrilled, I’ve gone one better. I’m going to post the first scene in the next book.
Please note, this is completely unedited, and also the first, very first draft. This scene may be tightened, changed, or edited severely at some point. I’m not sure if the tone is right, sometimes I get in a funny mood, and put my tongue firmly in cheek, but hey, author’s are allowed to play with things like that. It may not even appear. I have a very good idea where this book is going, but I also like to play a little fast and loose with my outline, so you just never know, you guys…
But it will give you an idea where we’re going, a few hints, a few teasers, and an idea of main characters for the next series. Everyone’s favourite question gets answered: is Charlie going to get a book (:
So who’s the hero? Read on and find out.
Who is the heroine? Also revealed.
Working title: Blue bloods vs Wolves. Game on.
The invitation contained an address and two words: Come alone.
Caleb Byrnes had found it earlier this morning, in the middle of his bed in the Nighthawks Guild Headquarters, a place that he’d previously considered impenetrable. Not only were the Nighthawks comprised of rogue blue bloods – those afflicted with the craving virus, whose infection had not been sanctioned by the aristocrats who’d once ruled London – but they were also thief-takers and bounty hunters. An intruder should have been heard, or smelled, or spotted before they got within five yards of the place. And if they hadn’t been, then the Guild was protected with all manner of mechanical devices. It was a virtual labyrinth. To his knowledge, nobody had ever broken in successfully.
His curiosity was aroused.
Or perhaps that was just a side effect of the fact that the invitation smelled quite liberally of perfume.
Someone had just dared him.
Someone who knew enough about him to know what piqued his interest.
If there was one thing that Byrnes desired above all else, it was a mystery, or a chase. The hunt was everything to him, whether he was hunting miscreants over the rooftops of London, vampires causing mayhem, or women.
It was only once the chase was done that he grew bored, and considering that it had been a good year since he’d had a decent pursuit or case – that actress from the theatre, or the so-called Vampire of Drury Lane – and he figured he was due.
Hence why he was here, at the address.
Lifting the invitation to his face, Byrnes breathed in the scent, and stared up at the nondescript Georgian townhouse in front of him that threatened to blend into all of the others along the street. If he hadn’t owned preternatural senses, the perfume would have been subtle. Lilies floating in the wind past him. As it was, he could make out the tiny trace notes of oil, and chemical, of solvents and preservatives. A faint underlying rankness that he figured he could overlook, if the female deliverer proved worthy.
Lifting his hand to knock, he stepped forward, and paused as skirts swished behind him. Every hair along his body leapt to attention, and–
“Goodness, Byrnes, is that you?” Ava MacLaren asked, coming directly to a halt behind him.
Not his intended pursuit, though Ava certainly could have delivered the invitation, as she too was a Nighthawk, and therefore had the means to enter his room. The scent was wrong however. Ava was engine oil, blood and chemicals, masked by the faint trace of rose perfume she sometimes wore.
Byrnes spun around, gracing her with a smile. Three years ago, Ava had been the victim of a madman who performed clockwork experiments on women, a case that had left her with a thick, ragged scar between her breasts, a mechanical heart, and a case of the craving virus. Her parents had thought her dead, and there was no place in the world for a female blue blood such as herself, so she’d ended up staying at the Guild and taking a position there in the laboratories with Fitz. In three short years, she’d become quite adept at crime scene investigation, whereas Fitz still fainted at the sight of blood.
“Indeed it is.” Byrnes raked a glance over her and missed nothing – including the gold-engraved invitation trailing from her fingers. “What are you doing here?”
Had she received the same invitation? The thought irritated him a little, for he’d thought this to be his mystery. However, he saw Ava as a friend – one of the few he truly owned – so he pushed the thought away.
“Same reason, perhaps, as yours.” She lifted the invitation ruefully, juggling her parasol in her other hand. “I received this but an hour ago. It sounded urgent.”
Ava offered him the piece of parchment.
To the Divine Miss McLaren… An offer awaits you, if you dare… Come immediately.
Ava’s cheeks had coloured. “I thought – perhaps – an admirer. I was just curious…”
“You should be more careful,” he said with a frown, turning it over to find the same details. “What if it hadn’t been? What if someone with nefarious intentions had sent this to you instead?”
“They still might have nefarious intentions,” she suggested.
“Yes, but my virtue is non-existent, and everyone knows it. So I doubt they’d have invited me.”
Ava rolled her pretty green eyes. She was used to his humour, though she often told him it was lacking. “I’m a blue blood, Byrnes. There’s not a lot that could kill me, and considering my heart is made of metal, perhaps not even that, hmm? And you’ve taught me how to protect myself. I deemed it an acceptable risk.”
Byrnes looked up at the building. “They still might have dangerous intentions. You should let me go first.”
“I should,” Ava said, swinging her parasol with a dangerous glint in her eyes, “but I’m not going to. For goodness sakes, Byrnes, I’m not a debutante. Besides, I have this–”
The parasol swung toward him and Byrnes tensed, ready for anything. “I’m not certain I’ve fully recovered from the last ingenious device. What does this do?”
Her eyes glittered, and she slid her hand toward some trigger on the handle. The tip of it was pressed directly against his chest.
“On second thoughts, I don’t want to know,” he replied, moving it swiftly away from him.
Ava laughed. “Trust me. Nobody wants to be on the receiving end of my electro-magnetic discombobulator.”
“After you, then,” he said, and knocked on the door.
The second his knock died down, the door swung inwards.
A butler appeared, impeccable in black. “Good morning, sir. Ma’am. My name is Herbert. Please come in. You’re expected.”
Byrnes hadn’t heard him so much as breathing. His eyes narrowed, one hand dropping to the knife sheathed at his side as he stepped past. The foyer was polished mahogany, and a chandelier gleamed above. No sign of anyone else, however.
“Oh, thank you,” Ava told the butler, handing over her parasol and warning him to be careful with it.
“The others are gathered in the library,” Herbert said, gesturing them toward the stairs.
“Others?” Byrnes glanced up. He could hear murmurs from above.
“The rest of the Company, sir.” Herbert returned a bland smile that told him nothing. “If you’ll join them, I’ll send for refreshments–”
“Do you know the purpose of this meeting? Who’s hosting it? Who’s–”
“All shall be revealed, sir. Perhaps some blud wein for the lady?”
An expensive brew. Byrnes hadn’t quite made up his mind about this place. It was immaculately clean, and the furnishings he could see in the parlour were expensive, but there was an eerie air about the place, as though nobody actually lived in it. His curiosity was rampant, but it was clear from glimpse of the butler’s face that Herbert was going to reveal nothing.
“Please,” Byrnes replied, then offered Ava his arm to escort her up the stairs.
“What do you think this is?” she whispered, her flyaway blonde curls brushing against his shoulder.
“I’m not certain,” he replied. “Who are the others? What could they want with a pair of Nighthawks? A case?” He shook his head. “No. They wouldn’t have requested your presence, and they would have applied for the commission through the Guild Master.”
“Besides, I cannot smell any blood,” Ava replied. “Only… lilies.”
Lilies. His gut clenched, and his gaze raked the foyer. That at least, boded well. There was something mingled with the scent now though, something almost musky. Byrnes frowned, as a slither of warning lit down his spine, but Ava tugged on his arm and drew him toward the library. He lost whatever train of thought instinct had served up.
“You’re seem distracted,” she noted.
“Something on my mind.” The curiosity was almost itching on his skin. “Here we are.”
Byrnes threw the doors open, drawing the attention of three sets of eyes from within the library. Two men eyed each other across the expanse of the room, one an enormous bruiser with black hair and evil blue eyes, and the other a young lad who bore evidence of the craving virus on his pale skin and the faint, gilded tones of his hair. The distance of almost five feet parted the two men, and the lad looked both cocky and amused, as if he’d been picking a fight with the brute.
The woman leaning against the curtains rolled her eyes. She was everything elegant, with loose black curls swept into a chignon, and a sweeping fall of violet skirts. Beautiful, but ultimately uninteresting, as Byrnes could detect an Oriental perfume about her, not the one he was hunting for.
“So who the fuck are you?” The black-haired giant snarled, staring up at them from an armchair, with his boot hooked up on his other knee.
“This would be Master Byrnes, of the Nighthawks,” said the woman by the window, crossing her arms with amused disdain, “and Miss Ava McLaren, I presume?”
Both Byrnes and Ava exchanged glances. Ava looked a little discomforted by the strange man’s animosity, but tipped her chin up. “I believe you have the advantage of us–”
The lady strode forward, her skirts swishing about her legs as she took Ava’s hand and squeezed it gently. “My apologies. You may call me Hollis Tremaine. Information is… an interest of mine. And female blue bloods are so rare, that I’ve made a note of them. I believe you to be the third located in London proper? The Duchess of Casavian, the Lady Peregrine of the Nighthawks – and yourself?”
“There’s one more,” the lad muttered, “but she… she ain’t likely to be known.”
Byrnes eyed him. “Charlie Todd?” He recognised the boy as one of the rookery lads who ran with Blade, the Devil of Whitechapel.
The young man grinned, and shook his hand. “The one and only.”
He’d grown even taller in the three years since they’d met, though Byrnes only knew him passingly. The Nighthawks occasionally had dealings in the rookeries, and ever since the prince consort had been overthrown, Blade had become a common sight around town. The Hero of the Realm, the commoners called him, though the man was more like the devil, Byrnes thought privately.
“More fucken blue bloods,” the dark haired man said, under his breath. “Like we don’t already have enough in here.”
Ava stiffened, and Byrnes strolled toward the window, hands clasped behind him. “By the scent of oil, and the whir of clockwork, I presume you’re a mech.”
The word had once been an insult, before the Uprising, when the blue bloods of the Echelon – and more particularly, the prince consort – had decreed that humans were but cattle, and mechs – those with mechanical limbs or organs – even less so. Once there had been a line in the sand; blue bloods versus humans and mechs. Or even blue bloods of the Echelon, those who had been infected by right of law, against rogue blue bloods like himself. But the line was hard to distinguish these days.
Ava herself was part-mech, part blue blood. What the Echelon would have thought of her, Byrnes didn’t like to consider. But that was almost three years in the past. Times had changed, or at least, they were changing. Some of the slower or more archaic blue bloods had taken a year or two to learn that they couldn’t simply stone a mech to death anymore, or keep humans as slaves, but it had taken a few heads rolling before they caught on.
The human Queen still sat on her throne, but this time she had power, and she was quite intent on using it. Blue bloods still prowled the aristocracy, but now the blood rites that infected their sons with the craving virus at the age of fifteen were no longer an elitist privilege. A man couldn’t be executed for falling prey to a virus that was spread by blood contact anymore, or forced into the Nighthawks to serve. He’d still stayed however, as there was nowhere else for him to go, but at least the option for a different life was there, if he chose to take it.
Old hatreds, however, still lingered.
Kincaid found his feet, and Byrnes stared up at him. He had an inch on the bastard, but Kincaid more than made up for that in breadth. Muscle rippled beneath his coat, and bulged as the brute flexed his forearms. Byrnes simply clasped his hands behind him and stared back.
“Aye, I’m a mech. What of it?” Kincaid asked, in a low, threatening tone.
Byrnes smiled faintly. Ava would tell him later that he was causing trouble, but sometimes he simply couldn’t help himself. “Nothing really. It explains a great deal.” Then he turned away and ran his fingertips over the shelves, as though dismissing the man.
Kincaid sucked in a sharp breath, “Aye, well–”
“Mr Kincaid,” Hollis mocked. “Pray don’t tell me that blue bloods make you uneasy.”
Kincaid’s voice flattened. “Not really. They tend to bleed just as well as any other, only takes a bit more sticking to finish the job.”
“Gentlemen,” Ava said firmly. When he looked at her, she arched a brow behind her steel-rimmed spectacles. “Byrnes.” This was said somewhat more warmly, with just a touch of exasperation.
He held his arms out, as if to say, ‘What?’
“Well, don’t you all wonder why we’re here?” Ava asked, including them all in her look. “I don’t think picking fights with each other is conducive to anyone’s cause.”
“But hardly unexpected,” Hollis declared, with a faint snort of amusement. “After all, what happens when you put three blue bloods, a mech and human in a room together?”
“That sounds like the beginning of a good joke,” Charlie Todd declared.
“I just hope it’s not on us.” Ava sounded nervous.
“Only thing is, we’re missing one particular species, if we want it to have a truly decent punch line,” Hollis replied.
“A verwulfen?” Charlie said with a grin.
The only one who didn’t find that thought amusing was himself. Byrnes’s gut dropped through his boots at the word. No.
“Let us hope not,” Hollis said. “We already have one hothead.”
It continued, but Byrnes’ attention had been caught by something else. He could hear footsteps padding behind the closed doors at the far corner of the room, and a slither of shadow darkened the door briefly, softening the air with scent.
And something else… Something that was becoming clearer as the day continued, as if the overpowering scent of perfume was wearing away, leaving a musky hint of something else. Something… all woman.
No. Hell, no.
Every nerve in his body grew tight. Byrnes stalked toward the door on silent feet, pressing his fingertips against the panelling.
“–fuck me–” Kincaid muttered.
From Ava, “Well, it stands to reason. Verwulfen were cleared by the treaty too, you know–”
“And what do we need one of them for? It’s not like this is a frigging alliance of any sort–”
Every one of Byrne’s hunting senses was alight. His mystery was beginning to clear up, and it was drawing a conclusion that he didn’t particularly like. Not at all.
A light, husky laugh mocked him through the door, and then movement danced in the room beyond. Going. His prey was going.
Byrnes slipped through the doors before he could think about it.
There was no one there. Only another door, swinging shut slowly. And her scent, becoming obnoxiously clear the closer he got to her. He knew that scent hiding beneath the perfume. It had driven him crazy a year ago, when someone – the Guild Master – had this smashing idea about pairing him with an outside bounty hunter on a case nobody could seem to solve. His fucking case. The case he couldn’t solve.
“Just work with her, Byrnes. She’s good at what she does, and she’s an even better tracker than you are–” Garrett’s voice echoed in his memory.
Byrnes grit his teeth. Garrett had known he worked better alone. He always had, and it got on every one of his last nerves to know that not only could he not find the answer in this particular case, but that they expected that she would.
They lasted an entire day working together.
And then it became a competition.
“Bet I catch the killer first,” that husky voice whispered in his mind.
“I bet you I do,” he’d shot back, and stepped toward her, into her space. “And when I do, you’re going to get down on your knees, and–”
“And?” She’d drawled, straightening a little, her eyes lighting with a challenging fire.
It changed what he’d meant to say. ‘…And kiss my boots…’ had been his intention. That was not what had come out. The instant he’d stated his intentions she’d taken a step toward him, closing that last inch between them, and reached up to whisper in his ear.
“Be careful what you wish for, Byrnes.” A mocking finger traced over his shirt so lightly he barely felt it, yet the not-quite-touch sent a shiver through him, and their eyes had met then, and something more than words had been exchanged. “I don’t think you’ll want my teeth anywhere near your balls.” A smile that gripped his cock like a vice. “Not that that will ever happen. But it does add a certain little incentive toward the case. When I bring this bastard in, I have my own terms, and you’ll meet them.”
“Name them.” The shock of his sudden interest had flared through him, and he’d caught her wrist, stopping her hand just above the waistband of his leather breeches.
“If I solve the case, then I get to tie you to my bed, and do anything I desire to you. Anything at all.”
A mistake. He should have made her be more fucking specific, but just at that moment she’d flexed her wrist in his grasp and raked her fingernail over the leather protecting his cock.
“Done,” he’d said. After all, he’d never lost before.
If there was one person who could get into his room at the Guild and leave that taunting note, knowing, just knowing how much it would get his itch going, it was her.
The Devil in Disguise.
Pushing open the doors to the next room, he came to a halt. It too was empty.
And then someone spoke. Someone he knew all too well.
“Looking for something? Or is it someone?” Said an amused voice from the side.
Byrnes met a pair of eyes that were lit from within with a bronze glow. She hadn’t changed one inch from that debacle last year, where he’d been left tied to his bed, naked, with a lovely little message written across his chest in ink, which all of his fellow Nighthawks had found absolutely hilarious.
“Ingrid,” he said flatly.
“Did you miss me?”