Bec McMaster/

Heart of Iron

Heart of Iron

London Steampunk Series, Book 2
Sourcebooks • May 2013
ISBN-13: 9781402270307 • ISBN-10: 1402270305

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In the mist-shrouded streets of London’s dreaded Whitechapel district, werewolves, vampires and a clockwork army are one
step away from battle…

NO ONE TO TRUST

Lena Todd is the perfect spy. Nobody suspects the flirtatious debutante could be a rebel against London’s vicious elite—not even the ruthless Will Carver, the one man she can’t twist around her little finger.

Will Carver, is more than man, he’s a verwolfen and he wants nothing to do with the dangerous beauty who drives him to the very edge of control. But when he finds Lena in possession of a coded letter, he realizes she’s in a world of trouble. To protect her, he’ll have to seduce the truth from her before it’s too late.

“Deftly blends elements of steampunk and vampire romance with brilliantly successful results…darkly atmospheric and delectably sexy.”Booklist, starred review for KISS OF STEEL

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Chapter One

London, 1879

Fog clung to the Thames like a lightskirt to a rich patron. Here and there, gaslight gleamed, flashing will-o’-the-wisp in the shrouding pea soup mist. It was the perfect night not to be seen.

Will Carver loped across rooftops and gables, leaping across an alley and coming to a halt behind a chimney near Brickbank.

A man landed lightly on the tiles beside him, breathing hard from the exertion. He wore black leather from head to toe, and the only weapons he carried were a pair of razors, tucked in his belt. “Bloody ’ell. You tryin’ to run me to death?” Blade muttered.

The words were quiet, but the sound carried in the still night. Will’s lip curled, and he glared at his master.

“They won’t be listenin’ for us, bucko.” Blade straightened, staring at the ruddy pillar of smoke ahead of them. “Not with that burnin’. And none of ’em ’as your hearin’.”

A column of red glowed against the night sky ahead, barely muted by the fog. Every time Will breathed he could taste the ash in the air. Ahead, a massive brick gate and wall blocked the way into the city. A company of metaljackets paced in front of the gate, gaslight gleaming off the shining steel plates of their armored chests. With the flamethrower appendages in place of their left arms they looked formidable enough to keep the general rabble at bay. They were, however, automatons and not human.

He’d long since learned they didn’t look up.

“Over?” he asked.

“I got me pardon now,” Blade said. “Could waltz right on through them gates and they’d not say a word.” The devilish light in his eyes said he wanted to try. There was nothing Blade liked better than thumbing his nose at the blue bloods who ruled the city.

“Yeah, well, we ain’t all that lucky,” Will reminded him. “I’ve still got a price on me head.”

Blade sighed, eyeing the massive edifice. “Over it is, then.”

“You’re gettin’ lazy.”

“I should be at ’ome, tucked up with me cheroot and a nice glass of mulled blud-wein.” What he didn’t add was the fact that he most likely wouldn’t have been doing either of those things. If the fire hadn’t called them out, Blade’d be in bed with his wife, Honoria.

Will took a few steps back. No point him being at home. The flat he rented these days was cold and uninviting. There was nothing for him to go back to.

A wide leap took him sailing across the street and onto a rooftop beside the gate. Taking a running start, he bounded up and over the wall before the guard on top had finished shaking out the flame on his match. Human eyes were sometimes just as bad as the automatons.

Bootsteps echoed him on the rooftops as he flitted lightly through the night. Fog parted around him, drifting in his wake, but he was moving too fast for anyone watching to see.

Here in the city the streets were a touch wider, the buildings not as jammed together as they were in the Whitechapel rookery he called home. Blood flushed through his veins as he leaped from rooftop to rooftop. He’d been cooped up for too long; he needed this.

Screams caught his ear along with the organized shouts of people trying to marshal water pumps. Little snowflakes of ash floated through the air, almost thick enough to choke a man. Will paused in the crook of a chimney.

Ahead, the world looked like it was on fire. Billowing gouts of orange flame licked at the skies, and a thick dark pall of smoke hung over the river. Lines of people manned water pumps, desperately trying to stop the flames from spreading.

“Jaysus,” Blade cursed as he knelt at Will’s side.

“The draining factories,” Will said. “Someone’s fired the draining factories.”

It was unthinkable. The line of factories down by the river were owned by the ruling Echelon to filter and store the blood gathered in the blood taxes. This would be a huge blow to them.

Blade’s eyes narrowed. “You and I ought to get out of ’ere, quick-smart.” His nostrils flared. “The place’ll be swarmin’ in metaljackets before we know it.”

Will backed up a step. He knew what Blade wasn’t saying. Two more perfect scapegoats couldn’t be found. Most of the aristocratic Echelon had been furious with the queen’s pardon and knighthood of Blade three years ago. And Will was just a slave-without-a-collar to their eyes.

A clink of metal caught his ears. Iron-booted feet on distant cobbles. A legion of metaljackets by the sound of it. “Go,” he snapped, shoving Blade in the back.

Blade needed no urging. He scrambled up the tiles on the roof, a break in the clouds bathing him in moonlight. Once, a few years ago, his hair would have lit up like a beacon. Now it had dulled to a light brown, and his skin was no longer as pale as marble.

Will followed at his heels in an easy lope, his ears alert to the slightest sound behind them. They’d seen what they came to see. No doubt word of it’d be all over the streets by morning.

Movement ahead caught his eye. A swirl of a black cloak stirring the fog. Will leaped forward and shoved Blade flat, covering him with his body.

“Ooof,” Blade wheezed. He lifted his head. “Thanks, but I’ve already got a wife—”

“Shut up.” Will pressed his hand between the other man’s shoulder blades, coming to a crouch. His gaze raked the fog. There. A metallic chink. Voices in the shadows.

From Blade’s stillness, he’d heard them too.

“Stay here,” Will breathed, close to his ear. “Keep your bloody head down and I’ll check it out.”

“Do I look like I need a friggin’ nursemaid?”

Will shot him a look. Three years ago, no. Blade’d been the most dangerous thing to stalk the night. But his hair and skin color weren’t the only changes in him since he’d started drinking Honoria’s blood.

“You go left,” he finally murmured. Short of tying Blade to the chimney with his belt, there wasn’t much chance of leaving him here.

Both of them faded into the fog. The voices ahead were getting further away. Will moved like a wraith through the night, the movement rippling his dark wool coat around his hips. Beneath it he wore a heavy leather waistcoat that had been modified with steel inserts, as well as steel caps over his knees. You couldn’t be too careful in a world where a man’s main weapon might be a shiv or a heavy wrench. His loupe virus could heal almost anything, but being knifed still hurt.

Metal clanged and a pair of curses littered the air. Then silence, as though both people froze to see if they’d been heard. Will slowed, creeping across the tiles with one foot placed carefully in front of the other. He knelt low, easing on hands and feet around the edge of a chimney. There was no sign of Blade, but then Blade was even better at this sort of thing than he was.

“You drop that again and Mercury’ll have your head,” someone snapped.

Two figures. Both dressed in black and moving with a footpad’s efficiency. The shorter one picked up something heavy. A hollow metal tube, like the flamethrowers that the Spitfires used.

“Mercury ain’t here, is he?” asked the shorter man, hefting the flamethrower over his shoulder. “And when he hears how well we done, then he’ll be burying us in ale and whores.”

“That’s if the Echelon don’t rip your guts out first,” Blade said pleasantly, materializing out of nowhere.

Shit.

Will leaped forward, even as the two men turned on his master. Despite their bickering, they moved with military efficiency. The shorter one snapped the flamethrower up, just as the other drew his blade. The tube coughed and then bright orange flame spewed through the fog, highlighting the roof and everyone on it.

Blade spun low, sweeping the knife-wielder’s feet out from under him. Will grabbed the barrel of the flamethrower and elbowed the man in the face. There was a satisfying crunch, then his mind registered just how hot the tube was. He dropped it and it rolled toward the edge of the roof, catching in the gutter.

“Just the two of you boys?” Blade taunted, not even bothering to draw a knife. He bent backward, avoiding the swipe of the knife with a gravity-defying movement, before snapping upright.

The man he was facing stiffened. “Frigging bleeders!” He reached into his pocket to press something and then agony screamed through Will’s head.

The sound was like an ice pick to the brain, wiping out all sense of time and place and even connection to his body. He hit the tiles, scrabbling blindly for purchase as he started to slide.

Something hit him hard under the chin, snapping his head back with resounding force. Words sounded, distorting the high-pitched scream, but he couldn’t make any of them out. Then movement blurred at the edge of his vision. Another smashing blow against his cheekbone. Blood splashed over his face, wet and hot.

Will clapped his hands over his ears, collapsing back on the tiles. That sound! Like razors in his head.

In…his pocket. Something in the man’s pocket. A device of sorts, making the noise.

Grinding his teeth together, he saw the shorter man lifting the flamethrower high. No time to think. He kicked out, aiming for the man’s knee.

A heavy weight landed on him and they both grunted. The throbbing squeal of noise pounded in time to his heartbeat. Will clawed to his feet and staggered forward, searching for Blade.

There. On the roof. The other man knelt over him and Will realized he had a knife buried deep in Blade’s chest. Trying to cut out his heart.

“No!” he roared, seeing red.

Anger rushed over him, swallowing him whole and burning him in its wake. He grabbed the man by the collar and flung him away. Blade gasped, clapping a hand to the knife hilt, but his reactions were still slow, disorientated.

The noise.

Will slammed the man down and yanked at his pocket. A small, vibrating device came free. He crushed it in his fist and the world fell silent.

Will staggered, throwing aside the crushed pieces. His ears were still ringing, but at least he could think. Breathe. Move.

The scent of hot, coppery blood washed over him.

“Blade,” he growled, leaping over the gasping man on the roof and sliding to his knees beside his master.

Blade lifted his head, then collapsed back down. “Bloody… Get it out…’s silver.” He lifted his fingers and flinched as they brushed against the knife hilt.

“Hold still,” Will snapped. A cold ring of sweat beaded on his forehead. The knife was buried to the hilt. He had no idea of the damage it had done, or what would happen if he removed it.

Behind him, the two men helped each other to their feet. Will spared them a glance, but they were trying to get away, now that the advantage had shifted once more to him and Blade.

“Gutted by a human.” Blade laughed incredulously. “Always thought…it’d be one of the Echelon. In the end.”

“Stop your whinin’.” Will wrenched his shirt off, a frisson of icy cold trailing down his spine. Blue bloods were notoriously difficult to kill. That was one reason the French revolution had guillotined their aristocrats. The only other way to stop them was to cut out their heart or cause severe damage to it. He swallowed hard and shoved his shirt around the wound to stop the bleeding. “Nothin’ more’n a scratch. We’ll have you hale in no time.”

Blade met his gaze. His fingers were surprisingly strong when they closed around Will’s. “Swear you’ll look after ’er,” he snarled. “If…if I don’t…”

Will dropped his gaze. “Aye. You know I’ll do it.” He owed Blade his life, no matter what he personally thought of Honoria. “Hold still. You need blood.”

Darkness slithered through Blade’s pale eyes. His head rolled to the side. “Feels…numb…” he murmured.

Panic speared through Will’s gut. “Don’t you dare!” Ripping at the heavy hunting knife he carried, he cradled his friend’s head in his hands. “Here. Have me blood. It’ll help.”

It was short work to slash the vein in his wrist open. He cupped the back of his head and held Blade’s mouth to his wrist.

A moment of hesitation that never used to be there. He knew what Blade was thinking. He’d stopped taking directly from any of his thrall’s veins when Honoria came into his life. Now he drank his blood either from her or cold, out of the icebox.

“Don’t be a fool. She won’t mind,” Will snarled.

That hint of darkness swept through Blade’s irises again. Will’s chest caught. Not in fear. Gods, not that. Anticipation swept through his veins, lighting them on fire. It’d been a long time since he’d been one of Blade’s thralls. He’d not realized how much he missed it.

As Blade’s mouth closed over his wrist, his tongue sliding over the ragged wound, Will collapsed forward onto his hands. A gasp tore from his lips. Feeling flooded through him that he hadn’t felt in years. It had confused him when Blade first took him as a thrall, but it was nothing more than his body’s reaction to the chemicals in his master’s saliva.

But the moment of closeness…

This was all he’d ever have of that.

He ground his teeth and tried to deny the pull. Twice as harsh after three years of abstinence. And just as confusing.

He didn’t feel this way with females.

Or he never had. Until Lena walked into his life.

And I’m not thinkin’ of her. Will bit his lip, trying to ignore the flush of pleasure that thought brought. Dark hair, dark eyes, that flirtatious little smile that drove him insane… His groin tightened and he growled, head bowed as the sensation against his wrist increased.

It was over all too quickly. Will collapsed onto his backside, clutching his wrist against his chest. The skin throbbed, still feeling the imprint of Blade’s mouth. Heat flushed through the ragged edges of the knife cut—his loupe virus, rapidly healing the wound. It would be gone by the end of the hour, barely a pink pucker against his swarthy skin.

Blade gasped, drawing his feet up. His eyes blazed with black fire, and he grabbed the handle of the hilt and ground his teeth together. Crying out, he drew it out of his chest and collapsed back on the roof, panting for breath.

The wound was still bleeding, but sluggishly now. With his blood flushing through Blade’s system, there was a strong chance he’d pull through. Verwulfen blood was thrice as potent as a human’s.

“Honoria’ll…kill me…” Blade gasped.

That’s if he survived. Will took one look at the ashen color of his face and looked away swiftly. Damage to the heart was always dangerous. He had to get him back to the warren, where Honoria, with her medical background, might be able to help.

Rigging up a makeshift bandage, he held his coat in place to suppress the bleeding and then tied the ends of his shirt off. “There. That’ll hold until we get you home.” Sliding his arm under Blade’s shoulder, he helped him to sit.

Blade gasped, clutching at his chest. The sight tore another shaft of ice through Will’s gut. Followed by a hot stab of anger. Three years ago Blade would’ve laughed this off. He was no longer standing on the edge of the Fade—when the craving virus finally overtook a blue blood and he turned into something else, something worse—but for a moment, Will didn’t know if that was any better.

“Can you stand?”

Blade struggled to his feet, his eyes glassy with pain.

“You have to hold on,” Will warned, bending and easing the other man over his shoulder. “I’m goin’ to get you home. To Honoria. She’ll know what to do. Just you hold on.”

* * * * *

Honoria eased the blankets higher and then turned the knob on the gaslamp lower. Light muted, casting a variety of shadows across the room as Blade slept. Will paced in front of the fire, his wrist tingling as the skin healed.

Honoria washed her hands, moving away from the bed. Her face was composed, but deep shadows lingered in the hollows beneath her reddened eyes. As she turned, the light caught her profile and for a moment Will stopped breathing, seeing another’s face in the shadows. Then she looked up, arching a brow at him and the image was gone. She shared the same dark eyes and rich mahogany hair as her sister, but Lena’s face was prettier and she was a good inch or two shorter than Honoria.

Just the ghost of her image lingered, haunting him.

A quick jerk of the head meant Honoria wanted to talk to him. Outside.

Shooting Blade one last look, he strode to the door. An old shirt of Blade’s hung loosely over his chest. He couldn’t quite button it, and the sleeves stretched taut over his arms. Foolishness. But he wasn’t knocking on Rip’s door—Blade’s other lieutenant—and asking for a shirt that might have a better chance at fitting him.

Honoria eased the door closed. “I think he’ll be fine. The bleeding’s stopped and I’ll get some more blood into him. Thank you for bringing him home to me.”

Will nodded. He never had much to say to her. They’d tried, after she first married Blade, to find some common ground between them. But he knew what she thought of him—had overheard it in quite explicit detail the night before he moved out of the warren.

Dangerous.

Unpredictable.

A threat to her sister.

Sometimes he wasn’t sure if she hadn’t been half right.

Her gaze dropped to his wrist. “Do you need tending—?”

“It’ll heal.”

“Something to eat then? There’s stew…in the kitchen. I’ll just—”

“Ain’t hungry.” He nodded his leave of her, then turned on his heel. The back of his neck was itching.

“Will. Please.”

He stopped moving and glanced back over his shoulder.

“You know you can come home now. It breaks his heart that you’re living on your own. And you know…she’s not here anymore either.”

Honoria would never understand. He shook his head. “She weren’t the reason I left,” he growled. Not the only one anyway.

Then he turned and stalked out into the darkness, feeling her eyes on his back the entire way.

* * * * *

No point going home.

Will stared at the fire in the distance, still raging out of control. Something bothered him about the attack. The mysterious device. The flamethrower. The silver knife. Those men had been prepared to face a blue blood and incapacitate them.

He breathed deeply through his nose. It was hard to pick up a scent trail with the overwhelming cling of ash in the air but not impossible. Moving east, he loped across the rooftops, his unease growing as the men circled back toward the north. Toward Whitechapel.

Just before the wall that circled the rookery, they dropped off the rooftops and disappeared into an alley. Will knew the area well. It was a dead end.

He followed them in and stared at the brick wall at the back of it. The ripe scents of the rookery spilled over into the surrounding streets. He wrinkled up his nose and looked around. There was a grate in the cobbles, but surely they wouldn’t have gone down. That led to the sewers and from there into the notorious sprawl of Undertown. Weren’t nothing living there now, only ghosts and whispers. People had tried to move back in once the vampire that had slaughtered its residents was killed, but something drove them back out.

If they came back at all.

All that space, the caverns and homes carved into the old underground tunnel scheme. Empty. Or was it?

Will hauled the grate out of the cobbles and dropped down into the dark, landing lightly on the pads of his feet. His nose told him there was nothing there. Nothing but refuse and the odd rat skittering away.

Without the ash or a breeze, it was easier to follow the trail. The men weren’t moving fast, probably thinking they were safe from the Echelon and their metal army down here. Will shook his head. Dead men walking. The Echelon didn’t just rely on the metaljackets. Give them an hour and the tunnels would be full of Nighthawks, the infamous guild of trackers that did most of the thief-taking in the city. Rogue blue bloods who could smell almost as well as he could and track a shadow over stone, or so it was said.

Not long to get his hands on them first.

He waded into the sluggish stream, his nose almost shutting down. He’d smelled worse things—the vampire sprang to mind—but right now they were only a distant memory. It was the curse of heightened senses. He could smell everything, from a woman’s natural musk to the slight hint of poison in a cup; he could see for miles and if he listened, he could hear things people didn’t want him to hear.

Like stealthy footsteps, a few hundred yards in front of him.

Will made no sound as he stalked them. Whispers echoed and then a light appeared. A shuttered smuggler’s lantern by the look of it.

“Got him,” the short, fat one crowed. “Right in the chest. Won’t be so high-and-mighty now, will he?”

Will’s eyes narrowed.

“Shut up,” the taller shadow snarled. The acrid scent of fear-sweat washed off him. “Didn’t you see his bloody face?”

A shrug. The short man sloshed through the water carelessly. “All looks the same to me. Pasty-faced vultures.”

“It was him,” the other man replied with a shudder. “The devil himself!”

“The Devil of Whitechapel?” The shorter man’s face stretched in a delighted grin. “Cor, Freddie! All them years and the Echelon themselves ain’t been able to get near him! And you done him in! You’re famous now!”

“I’m bloody dead, is what I am,” Freddie snapped back. “If that were the devil, then you know who the other one was!”

Will took another step forward, drawing the blade at his side. He smiled. That’s right, you son of a bitch. You’re in trouble now.

“Who?”

“The Beast,” Will hissed, his voice echoing out of the darkness.

Freddie screamed and swung the lantern.

Will smashed it aside and it hit the water and hissed out. Darkness fell like a theatre curtain, but he was already moving, driving his fist up under the whistling swing of an arm and connecting with a pair of ribs. Bone snapped and then Freddie was down with a gurgling cry, splashing under the water.

Will stilled, listening to the frantic sound of breathing.

“Freddie?” the fat man whispered. He fumbled for the sides of the sewer, his breath high-pitched and panting.

Will took a slow step forward, water sloshing around his knees.

“Oh, God.” The fat man tried to run. “Oh, God, no! I didn’t have naught to do with it! It were Freddie! Leave me alone!”

Will grabbed his cloak and hauled him back. He landed with a splash, his legs kicking in the sewer water as he squealed like a downed pig. Fisting the cloak, Will wrapped it around the fat man’s throat and then hauled him up in a choking grip.

“Who are you? Who do you work for?”

The fat man kicked, making strangled sounds. Will held him long enough for the kicking to falter, then dropped him in the water.

Movement behind him. He lashed out, catching the heavy metal tube as Freddie swung it and followed through with a punch. Blood sprayed as his fist connected with Freddie’s nose. The coppery tang of it flavored the air, and Freddie screamed and fell back into the water.

“Jaysus.” The fat man sobbed, his throat hoarse.

Will caught him up by the coat and slammed him back against the slimy walls. He slid his hand into the man’s coat, rifling his pockets. A switchblade the idiot was too dumb to draw, a piece of waxed paper, and an odd, finger-shaped device. Another one of those noisemakers. He pocketed both it and the piece of paper.

“Consider yourself lucky he ain’t dead.” The thought set off the red-hot flare of rage in his head, and he slammed the fat man against the wall. Then again.

“Please, please don’t kill me!”

Careful, a little voice warned. Don’t lose control.

Will growled, the sound echoing inhumanly through his throat. They already thought him a beast. Why the hell shouldn’t he rip them apart? They’d put a knife in Blade. Nobody touched his adopted family and lived to tell of it.

Shouts echoed through the tunnels. Will’s head shot up and he clenched his fist. Nighthawks. On the trail already, damn it.

He leaned closer and sniffed the air beside the man’s ear. “Got your scent now,” he whispered. “You ever come near Whitechapel again and I’ll come for you. I’ll rip you apart, one piece at a time…and feed it to you. You don’t want that, do you?”

The stench of urine filled the air and the man sobbed his agreement. Will dropped him with a splash then turned on his heel.

The Nighthawks would smell him, but they wouldn’t catch him. This was Will’s turf here, and they wouldn’t dare cross the wall circling Whitechapel to hunt him. Time to get the hell out of here. He gave Freddie and his fat friend one last hungry look, then turned and fled into the darkness.

They’d remember his threat. That was all that mattered.

* * * * *

Will tossed the shirt away with a wet slap and then started on the buttons of his breeches. Both stunk from the tunnels, but he felt a damned sight better. The tension between his shoulders eased with every blow he’d dealt.

He’d wanted blood. Wanted to kill. But sometimes it was best to leave them alive. Witnesses. Men who’d spread the stories in hushed tones in local alehouses, warning others not to risk the wrath of Whitechapel’s Beast. It was all part of the legend he was carefully cultivating. A lesson he’d learned from Blade.

Fear was often the best defense.

The air was chilly as he kicked off the rest of his clothes and strode for the washbasin. He usually didn’t notice the cold, but he’d been wet for hours and his stomach was empty. Scrubbing the stink off himself, he draped a blanket around his hips and then turned toward the kitchen. There was bread and cheese left over, and a jug of clean water.

Resting his backside against the table, he bit into his meal and stared at his shirt. There was something sticking out of it. A piece of paper. The note the fat man had carried.

He padded across the room and knelt, chewing slowly. The paper was thick with wax. Whoever had written it had wanted it to stay dry, which meant he thought the recipient of it would get wet at some stage. Will frowned. Just where had those two been heading—in the sewers? The water this time of year was barely knee high.

There were whispers that it was deeper down below, though. In some parts of Undertown.

Fishing it open, he tilted it toward the single lamp. Lines of symbols crisscrossed the parchment—letter, numbers, and odd slashing marks. An incomprehensible mess.

What the hell had he stumbled upon? Will took another bite of his bread and cheese and stood, crossing closer to the lamp. The better light made no sense of the symbols, not that he’d expected them to.

Will flipped the paper over, but there was nothing on the back. No scent but the odd waxy substance. He frowned. Burning down the draining factories, coded letters, strange devices that had obviously been made to incapacitate blue bloods… Somebody was looking to start a war.

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