Bec McMaster/

Kiss of Steel

Kiss of Steel

London Steampunk Series, Book 1
Sourcebooks • September 1, 2012
ISBN-13: 9781402270277 • ISBN-10: 1402270275

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He craves her like no other…

Honoria Todd has no choice. Only in the dreaded Whitechapel district can she escape the long reach of the Duke of Vickers. But seeking refuge there will put her straight into the hands of Blade, legendary master of the rookeries. No one would dare cross him, but what price would he demand to keep her safe?

Ever since Vickers infected him with the craving, Blade has been quicker, stronger, almost immortal—and terrified of losing control of the monster within. Honoria could be his perfect revenge against the duke…or the salvation he never dared to dream of.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

If only she’d been born a man… A man in Whitechapel had choices. He could take up a trade, or theft, or even join some of the rookery gangs. A woman had opportunities too, but they were far more limited and nothing that a gently bred young lady would ever aspire to.

A mere six months ago Honoria Todd had owned other options. They hadn’t included the grim tenement that she lived in near Whitechapel. Or the nearly overwhelming burden of seeing her brother and sister fed. Six months ago she’d been a respectable young woman with a promising job as her father’s research assistant, hovering on the edge of the biggest breakthrough since Darwin’s hypotheses. It had taken less than a week for everything she had to be torn away from her. Sometimes she thought the most painful loss had been her naïveté.

Scurrying along Church Street, Honoria tugged the edge of her cloak up to shield herself from the intermittent drizzle, but it did no good. Water gathered on the brim of her black top hat, and each step sent an icy droplet down the back of her neck. Gritting her teeth, she hurried on. She was late. Mr. Macy had kept her back an hour at work to discuss the progress of her latest pupil, Miss Austin. Scion of a merchant dynasty, Miss Austin was intended to be launched upon the Echelon, where she just might be fortunate enough to be taken in as a thrall. The girl was certainly pretty enough to catch the eye of one of the seven dukes who ruled the council, or perhaps one of the numerous lesser Houses. Her family would be gifted with exclusive trade agreements and possibly sponsorship, and Miss Austin would live out the terms of her contract in the extravagant style the Echelon was acclimatized to. The type of style Honoria had once lived on the edges of. Before her father was murdered.

Church Street opened into Butcher Square. On a kinder day the square would be packed with vendors and thronging with people. Today only the grim metal lions that guarded the entrance to the Museum of Bio-Mechanic History kept watch. The city wall loomed ahead, with the gaping maw of Ratcatcher Gate offering a glimpse of Whitechapel beyond. Fifty years ago the residents of Whitechapel had built the wall with whatever they could lay their hands on. It stood nearly twenty feet high, but its symbolism towered over the cold, misty square. Whitechapel had its own rules, its own rulers. The aristocratic Echelon could own London city, but they’d best steer clear of the rookeries.

If Mr. Macy found out Honoria’s address, he’d fire her on the spot. Her only source of a respectable livelihood would vanish, and she’d be facing those damned options again. She’d wasted a shilling tonight on a steam cab, just to keep the illusion of her circumstances intact. Mr. Macy had walked her out before locking up the studio where he taught young ladies to improve themselves. Usually he stayed behind and she could slip into the masses of foot traffic in Clerkenwell, turn a corner, and then double back for the long walk home. Tonight his chivalry had cost her a loaf of bread.

She’d disembarked two streets away, prompting the cab driver to shake his head and mutter something beneath his breath. She felt like shaking her head too. A shilling for the sleight-of-hand that kept her employed. It didn’t matter that that shilling would keep her with a roof over her head and food on the table for months to come. She still felt its loss keenly. Her stockings needed darning again and they hadn’t the thread for it; her younger sister, Lena, had put her fingers through her gloves; and fourteen year old Charlie… Her breath caught. Charlie needed more than the pair of them combined.

“’Ey!” a voice called. “’Ey, you!”

Honoria’s hand strayed to the pistol in her pocket and she glanced over her shoulder. A few months ago she might have jumped skittishly at the cry, but she’d spotted the ragged urchin out of the corner of her eye as soon as she started toward Ratcatcher Gate. The pistol was a heavy, welcoming weight in her grip. Her father’s pistol was one of the few things she had left of him and probably the most precious for its sheer practicality. She’d long ago given up on sentimentality.

“Yes?” she asked. The square was abandoned, but she knew there’d be eyes watching them from the heavily boarded windows that lined it.

The urchin peered at her from flat, muddy-brown eyes. It could have been any age or sex with the amount of dirt it wore. She decided the square jaw was strong enough to name it a boy. Not even the constant rain could wash away the dirt on his face, as though it were as deeply ingrained in the child’s pores as it was in the cobblestones beneath their feet.

“Spare a shillin’, m’um?” he asked, glancing around as though prepared to flee.

Honoria’s eyes narrowed and she gave the urchin another steady look. If she wasn’t mistaken, that was a rather fine herringbone stitch riddled with grime at the edge of the child’s coat. The clothing fit altogether too well for it to have been stolen, and it was draped in such a manner that it made the child look rather more malnourished than she suspected he was.

She took her time drawing her slim change purse out and opening it. A handful of grimy shillings bounced pitifully in the bottom of it. Plucking one out with reluctance, she offered it to the little street rogue.

The urchin reached for the coin and Honoria grabbed his hand. A quick twist revealed the inside of the child’s wrist—and the crossed daggers tattooed there.

His wary mud-brown eyes widened and he tried to yank his hand away. “Leggo!”

Honoria snatched her shilling back and released him. The boy staggered, landing with a splash in a puddle. He swore under his breath and rolled to his feet.

“I’ve more need of it than you,” she told him, then swept her cloak to the side to reveal the butt of the pistol in her skirt pockets. “Run back to your master and tell him to give you a coin.”

The boy’s lip curled and he glanced over his shoulder. “Worf a try. Already bin paid for this.” He flipped a shilling out of nowhere and then pocketed it just as swiftly. A stealthy smile flashed over his face, gone just as quickly as the coin. “’Imself wants a word with you.”

“Himself?” For a moment she was blank. Then her gaze shot to the child’s wrist and that damning tattoo of ownership. She tucked her change purse away and tugged her cloak about her chin. “I’m afraid I’m not at liberty this evening.” Somehow she forced the words out, cool and clipped. Her fingers started to shake. She thrust them into fists. “My brother is not well. And I’m late. I must see to him.”

She took a step, then shied away as a hand caught at her cloak. “Don’t. Touch. Me.”

The boy shrugged. “I’m jus’ the messenger, luv. And trust me, you ain’t wantin’ ’im to send one o’ the others.”

Her mouth went dry. In the ensuing silence, she felt as though her heartbeat had suddenly erupted into a tribal rhythm. Six months scratching a living on the edges of the rookery, trying to stay beneath the notice of the master. All for nothing. He’d been aware of her, probably all along.

She had to see what he wanted. She’d caught a glimpse of the others who were part of his gang. Everybody in the streets gave them a large berth, like rats fleeing from a pack of prowling toms. Either she could go of her own volition, or she could be dragged there.

“Let me tell my sister where I’m going,” she finally said. “She’ll be worried.”

“Your neck,” the urchin said with a shrug. “Not mine.”

Honoria stared at him for a moment, then turned toward Ratcatcher Gate. Its heavy stone arch cast a shadow of cold over her that seemed to run down her spine. Himself. Blade. The man who ruled the rookeries. Or creature, she thought with a nervous shiver. There was nothing human about him.

* * * * *

By the time Honoria found Crowe Lane, she was drenched and her cotton skirts clung to her. The rain had finally let up, but the hour’s walk had done its damage. Though little more than a fine mist, the rain had managed to seep through to her skin, leaving her flesh pebbled with cold and her corset tight and constrictive about her ribs. Or perhaps it was the thought of what was ahead that was causing her shortness of breath.

Before heading out, she’d made herself snatch a mouthful of the fried cod that Lena had burned again. It sat in her stomach like a greasy weight, but she hadn’t eaten for a good eight hours and her knees needed the strength. At barely seventeen, Lena had no innate skill at cookery, but she was often home earlier than Honoria, her shift at the clockmaker’s finished well before dusk started to settle. They’d had their usual strained argument over nothing at all—and everything—before Charlie’s cough had broken the tension. Lena had hurried in to take him his supper and try to get him to eat something, an ordeal Honoria didn’t envy her. But, then, her sister wouldn’t envy Honoria’s task either if she’d known about it. Honoria had slipped out of the door before Lena could ask, not even bothering to change her clothes.

A thick yellow fog was beginning to settle over the rookery. There were no gas lamps here, and she had no flare stick to light the way. At a sovereign apiece, she couldn’t afford one.

Footsteps scuttled in the shadows, but the fog carried every sound, and they might have been next to her or fifty feet away. She wasn’t concerned. This close to the master’s lair, nobody would dare attack her without his leave. For a moment she felt strangely fearless, her booted heels striking the cobbles with a ringing sound. She’d been afraid for so long: afraid of starving to death, afraid the Echelon would find them and drag her brother and sister away, afraid of being attacked in the streets by one of the Slasher gangs—those who drained a person of their blood to sell to the factories down by the wharves. Ithad worn her out with its familiarity, worn her down. She’d thought she had little fear left.

And yet that familiar hollow feeling pooled in her stomach as she paused in front of the derelict building. The fog eddied away from the roughened brick walls as though something kept it out. A pair of crossed daggers was carved into the wooden sign that hung over the door, the sign that all the Reapers gang wore, proclaiming which gang they ran with.

The Roman denarius that hung around her neck suddenly felt heavy. She knew the words inscribed on it as if they were engraved on her soul: fortes fortuna juvat. The motto her father had taken for himself when his experiments caught the eye of the duke of Caine, catapulting them into the gleaming world of the great Houses and earning them untold patronage.

“Fortune favors the bold,” she whispered under her breath. Then she raised her fist and rapped sharply on the door. They would have seen her coming and sent word, no doubt.

The door swung open. A man filled it and Honoria took a half step back. He loomed over her by a good foot, a short black beard trimmed neatly over his jaw, and his head shaven. It wasn’t the evil look in his green eyes that scared her, or the scars that dissected his face. It was the heavy bio-mechanic arm that had been fitted to his right shoulder, and the pair of glittering knives at his belt. His entire appearance spoke of violence.

Breathe, she reminded herself, still staring up at him. Just breathe.

As though her stare unnerved him, he gave a low grunt and jerked his head. “Inside. ’E’s waitin’.”

Honoria couldn’t resist a closer look at the arm as she stepped past. The metal spars were bare, the hydraulics clearly defined by the hoses that provided the pressure needed to move it. It was crude work. She’d seen better, a thousand times over, when her father worked for Lord Vickers. There wasn’t even a scrap of synthetic flesh to cover it, though perhaps in this trade it would be more costly to constantly patch it against assault. And it was hardly likely that he could have gone to the Echelon’s blacksmiths or metalworkers. This was a job created in the rookeries.

“Up the stairs,” he muttered. The door closed behind her with a sharp slam. Then the lock snicked.

That nervous little fluttering started again, deep in her stomach. The hall stretched ahead endlessly, the timbers rotted and dusty. Hardly the place she’d have expected to find the master of the rookeries.

To stall, Honoria reached up and started unpinning her hat, with its wilted black feathers and bedraggled scraps of lace. She could have sold it, and the dress she wore too, for both were far finer than her circumstances, but that would only lead Mr. Macy to ask questions. Smoke and mirrors, she thought. Her entire life was an illusion.

“Ain’t got all night,” the doorman said.

The hat finally came free, and she turned and shoved it at him. “I wouldn’t want to disturb his breakfast.”

When he took the hat, as though surprised to do so, she started tugging on the stained leather of her kid gloves. Her fingers were cold and the leather fought her.

The big man gestured up a flight of stairs. “After you.”

Honoria stalked past in a swish of skirts.

The stairs were narrow and dusty. They creaked alarmingly, and she gripped the rail, half afraid they were going to collapse beneath her. There was a landing at the top, and she glanced around, wondering which door to take. Light glowed beneath one of the doors, a welcome sight.

The doorman held it open, yellow light spilling out into the hall, and despite herself, she started toward it hungrily. It had the warm glow of a good fire, and she almost thought she could smell the scent of lemon wax in the air. Which was ridiculous.

“Come in, Miz Pryor,” a man called in an atrocious accent, using the name she’d assumed months ago. Garbled cockney from the sound of it, mixed with a healthy dose of…the upper classes?

She frowned. A peculiar combination, but her ear had never been wrong before. That was why Mr. Macy kept her on. She had a talent for speech and could teach a parrot to sound like a duchess.

The parlor could have belonged in any merchant’s home. Honoria stopped in her tracks, surprised by the polished timber floors and the fine gilt-lined furnishings. In front of the glowing fireplace was a stuffed armchair, shadowing the man who sat within. She caught a glimpse of pale blond hair and the sheen of firelight sparking off his eyes. With the fire at his back, his features were indeterminate and even his build was difficult to define. Nothing but shadows and hints of movement.

Despite her prejudice, she found herself peering at him curiously. The only blue bloods she’d known were of the Echelon, those born to the Great Houses and offered infected blood during the blood rites when they were fifteen. Only the extremely well born or influential were allowed the rites, but accidents occurred, of course, when the virus could be spread by the merest scratch or droplet of blood. Blade himself was considered a rogue blue blood, unsanctioned, his very existence an insult. If the Echelon could have killed him, they would have.

She’d never met a rogue before. The only others who survived became Nighthawks, a guild of hunters and thief takers, or if they could claim some minor aristocratic connections or blood, they might be offered a place in the elite Coldrush Guards who stood watch over the Ivory Tower. Neither were the type of people she’d come into contact with when she served on the very edges of the Echelon. She hadn’t been considered well bred enough to attend the Ivory Tower functions, nor was she lowborn enough to come across one of the Nighthawks.

“Good evening…” She paused. What did one call a man who went by only one name? “You sent for me?”

“Warm yourself by the fire,” he said in that atrocious accent.

Honoria took a hesitant step forward. The hulking giant followed her in, shutting the door behind him. But at least he didn’t leave her here alone with the master of the ’Chapel.

She slid a sidelong glance at the man in the chair, concentrating superficially on tucking her gloves away. A step to the right gave her a better view—a chiseled profile with a strong nose and heavy brows. Firelight gleamed on his hair, gilding it, and she realized he was looking down, his eyelashes stained almost silver by the light, stroking something that rested in his lap.

A cheroot dangled between the bare fingers of his left hand. The other was gloved and curled over the back of an enormous tomcat that regarded her with an evil expression. She sensed a glint of green watching her and realized that Blade was examining her as carefully as she was him.

“What’s wrong, luv? Cat got your tongue?” His fingers stroked the cat’s black throat. The tom arched its neck, its yellow eyes shutting with pleasure. A scar slashed across the tom’s face, distorting its features, and the left ear was a ragged mess. The deep rumble of the cat’s purr filled the air.

Honoria gave a start. “Is that a threat? Or simply an uncouth method of welcoming a person?” Her voice didn’t betray her. Years of schooling kept her tone crisp and bereft of inflection. Almost bored, even.

Living among the Echelon for ten years had taught her the benefit of managing her emotions. One hint of fear and they would turn their pale eyes on her like sharks smelling blood. This man might rule the rookeries with an iron fist, but she had faced down the prince consort himself, with his colorless, red-rimmed eyes and too-pink lips. Blade was dangerous, but she couldn’t afford to let him see how much he frightened her. That wasn’t how the game was played. And the cursed blue bloods liked their games so very much…

Honoria took a deep, steadying breath and crossed to the fireplace, holding out her pale hands to warm them. She could feel his gaze between her shoulder blades. It lingered, almost like the sensation of a pair of lips brushing against her neck. Every hair down her spine rose and her nipples tightened painfully.

The silence stretched out. She let it, knowing he was testing her mettle. The fire crackled in the grate, a wall of warmth against her front. The wet cotton of her dress began to steam.

He broke first. “It weren’t a threat. If it were”—his voice dropped to a murmur—“you’d know it. You wouldn’t need to ask.”

Honoria closed her eyes and let the warmth wash over her. This was a waste of time. She should be home, using these last few precious hours to help Lena with the mending she took in for extra coin.

“What do you want?” She was tired and wet and hungry, and if he was trying to frighten her, then he had best get on with it.

“I want you to turn and look at me.”

Honoria half glanced over her shoulder. It was foolishness to give him her back. One last act of defiance. She’d learned how to take such punitive steps and still make her obeisances. It had amused her father’s patron, Lord Vickers. Her small rebellions were the only reason he hadn’t simply taken her. It made him wait, made him drag out the hunt.

Honoria held the pose just long enough to imply that she turned only of her own accord. Then she met Blade’s gaze again, the warmth curling up her back.

“And then?” she asked, tipping her chin up.

He put the cheroot to his lips, his features disappearing in a wreath of smoke. The embers on the end glowed red and then faded, and he breathed out, dispersing the sweet-smelling smoke across the room.

“You’ve been six months in me turf and not paid a visit,” he said. “That ain’t polite, dove. It ain’t wise for a woman to be without protection. You been lucky so far. People been wonderin’ if you and I ’ad struck a deal. Now they’re wonderin’ if I would care if you went missin’.” He flicked the cheroot over a small tray and the ashes crumbled. “Consider this a polite warnin’ and an offer. You won’t be unmolested for long.”

The pistol was a heavy, reassuring weight in her skirt pockets. “Then they shall receive a little surprise if they do. Only a fool walks these streets without protection.”

“That little barker in your pocket and the pig-sticker in your boot?” He laughed, low and husky. “Won’t do you much good when your throat is slit.”

That little barker was highly modified. Her lips thinned. If he made a move toward her, she would show him just how clever—and distrustful—her father had been. One shot could rip a hole through a man’s chest the size of her head and explode on impact. Not even a blue blood could survive such a shot at close range, and it had been designed for precisely that. Her father had known Lord Vickers would turn on him someday.

“It’s served me well so far,” she replied.

“Aye. That knuckler on Vertigo Street and the pair o’ bludgers in Butcher Square,” he said, proving how closely he’d been having her watched. “A child and a pair o’ idiots. I ain’t impressed.”

“How about now?” she asked, drawing the pistol smoothly and pointing it at him.

He smiled.

There was a blur of movement and something grabbed her from behind. Honoria gasped, the knife a sharp warning against her throat as Blade drew her back against his hard body. Her chin tipped up and she swallowed hard, the edge of the knife hovering directly over her carotid artery. His arm was a steel band about her waist, hugging her close.
His lips brushed her ear. “Still not impressed,” he whispered.

The fire spat. Her wide eyes took in the room: the cheroot sitting in the ashtray and still smoking, the abandoned cat giving them a disgruntled look from the floor as it turned and sauntered away, and the long stretch of shadow that showed them locked together in a parody of an embrace.

“Put it down, luv,” he said. “And don’t ever draw on me again unless you intend to use it.”

Honoria lowered the pistol. “I was proving a point. I didn’t bother to cock it.”

“Just as I were provin’ my point,” he replied in that husky whisper. His cool breath stirred the curls at her throat, pebbling her damp skin. “Who do you think won?”

“I may have been…somewhat precipitous,” she admitted.

His hand slid along hers, closing over her fingers. “Give it to me.”

No. Honoria shut her eyes and took a deep breath. She forced her fingers to relax. To let him take the smooth weight of the pistol.

He thumbed open the barrel and examined the shot inside with a soft grunt. “What the bleedin’ devil are you usin’ for rounds?”

“Firebolts,” she replied. “My father designed them.” And then she shut her mouth. He didn’t need to know anything about her father. It was safer that way. Vickers still had a price on her head, and who knew what this man would do for that much money?

Blade snapped the pistol barrel back into place, then tucked it away somewhere on his person. The razor-edged knife against her throat kept her locked in place. The pressure was perfect. She couldn’t move an inch, but it hadn’t broken the skin either.

Then suddenly it eased. Honoria took a deeper breath, her head spinning with the sudden rush of oxygen into starved lungs. With the knife gone, other impressions started leeching into her. The hard body imprinted against hers, separated only by the thickness of her bedraggled bustle. The press of his belt buckle, tugging at the fabric of her skirts. And the sound of his breathing, quickening just slightly.

His arm slid around her waist again. “And now you’re disarmed. And at me mercy. Now what do you do, Miz Pryor?”

A sharp heel to the instep. Her father’s voice echoed in her head. Then a brutal knee to the unmentionables. But that was how to bring a human man down. Not a blue blood. Nothing short of decapitation could bring one of them down. Unless…

Honoria slid a hand over his, feeling the coolness of his skin. The steel ring she wore on her right forefinger brushed against his knuckle. It resembled a band of thorns, the sharp barbs curling around a delicate steel rosebud. One flick of her finger and the sharp thorn needle contained within the rosebud would pop out, smothered in a particular toxin that could incapacitate a blue blood.

Ten minutes before it would wear off. Not long, but perhaps long enough to escape. The concentrated toxin was one of many weapons her father had discovered for Vickers. And she had only enough toxin for one use.

Honoria took a slow breath. Then drew her hand away and bowed her head. It was her own foolish sense of pride that had seen her into this situation. She should never have drawn the pistol.

“I’m sorry.” The words burned on her tongue, but she said them. “I mishandled the situation. I meant only to prove that I was not wholly without defense. You may unhand me, if you will.”

“And what will you do…” he asked, “if I do not will it?”

Honoria turned her head. Met his gaze. This close, she could see the intense green depths that flickered with firelight. His pupils darkened, expanding as though to swallow the irises. Her breath caught. Memory flashed of another man holding her, his fist tight in her hair and his cold lips brushing against the vein in her throat. Whispering what he was going to do to her…

Suddenly the arm about her waist felt like a cage. She pushed at it, heat burning through her cheeks. “Let me go. Please.” His hand tightened and she felt a scream bubbling up in her throat. “Let me go!”

Blade released her and Honoria staggered forward. Her hands fell on the back of one of the armchairs in the room, her fingers digging into the stuffed embroidery. She felt as though she’d been running up a flight of stairs, her pulse throbbing through the artery of her throat and thundering in her ears. She couldn’t breathe. The damned corset…

Blade moved in front of her, his feet crossing over like a swordsman carefully circling an opponent. For the first time she got a good look at him.

His hair was close-cropped and guinea-gold. Some of the panic went out of her at the sight. He was close to the Fade—when the color leeched out of a blue blood just before he displayed symptoms of turning—but not standing on the edge. Still in control of his inner demon, thank goodness.

Firelight gilded the muscle in his arms, delineating the veins that ran up the inside of his wrist and curled over his bicep. A white shirt opened at the throat, a black scrap of silk knotted and looped twice around his neck. A hint of a tattoo peeked out from the rolled-up sleeves of his shirt.

And her pistol was tucked behind his belt.

Honoria eyed it hungrily, shivering a little as she caught her breath. There was no more pretense left in her. She just wanted to be gone.

“What do you want?” she asked. “I won’t be your blood whore.” She was not that desperate. Yet.

His hands hovered in the air as though to reassure her. Those penetrating eyes locked on her face. “I can’t offer you protection for nothin’. It don’t work that way, luv.” His eyelids narrowed lazily, his voice dropping to a silky whisper. “And I think we’ve proved that you need protection.”

“Only from you,” she retorted.

His lips thinned. “Per’aps…Per’aps I mis’andled the situation too.”

Honoria stared at him. Was this a trick? All blue bloods lied. She licked her dry lips, racking her brain. “Do you want payment? I could find money…” Somewhere. There was little left to sell. Her clothes, the ones she wore to fool Mr. Macy. They were made of fine wool and printed cottons. Charlie’s clockwork soldiers. Or even her father’s diaries…
She shied away from that thought. Those diaries had cost her father his life. He’d made her swear to keep them safe. Too many lives depended on it. She couldn’t sell them, not even to protect her innocence.

The clothing it would have to be. And perhaps her job with it.

A swell of anger rose in her throat, threatening to choke her. Every time she thought she found her feet, something swept them out from under her. Struggling, always struggling, to keep out of the mire of debt and starvation. If she lost her job, then she would find herself facing this same dilemma, but a month from now.

She wanted to scream again in frustration. It wasn’t fair. Tears burned in the backs of her eyes. There were only two things she had that were worth anything to him: her virginity and her blood. And she wasn’t prepared to sacrifice either. Not just yet.

“Find money?” His eyes narrowed. “Where? The Drainers?”

Honoria shook her head. She’d seen too many people forced by starvation to sell their blood to the Drainers. Every man and woman over the age of eighteen had to donate two pints of blood a year for the blood taxes, but there were those who took advantage of the poor to find a cheap way to find more.

In the last six months she’d seen a man slowly bleed away his life week by week to feed his family, before he finally died. Honoria had spared what she could of their own food supplies, but within two weeks the man’s wife was dead too and the children vanished. The only ones who made any profit out of the venture were the Drainers.

“No,” she replied quietly. She would be his blood whore before she went anywhere near the Drainers. They were the lowest of scum. At least Blade would have some interest in keeping her alive. Tradition stated that a thrall—a blood whore—was to be protected and looked after.

“Then we’re at an impasse.” He sank back down into the armchair and ground out the smoldering cheroot. “I can’t afford to be lenient. And you ain’t prepared to offer me anythin’ o’ worth.”

She winced at his butchered words. And then her eyes went wide. “I could teach you to speak,” she blurted, then clapped a hand over her mouth.

His gaze flickered up, his fingers pausing on the cheroot stub. A scowl drew his eyebrows down. “Ain’t nothin’ wrong with ’ow I speak, luv.”

“I never meant… It’s what I do. I correct the sounds of people’s speech and teach them genteel mannerisms. I’m a finishing tutor for young ladies. And the occasional gentleman.”

He ground the stub down to nothing. She eyed it nervously.

“And what would I do with fancy talk?” He deliberately placed harsh accent on the words. A sneer curled his lip. “Join the Ech’lon?”

“Whatever you wished to do with it. It’s the only thing I have that I can give you.”

His gaze made a slow perusal of her figure.

Will give you,” she corrected, a flare of heat burning in her cheeks.

“Am I to visit your place o’ employment, then?”

Honoria blanched. “No. No. That would be inconvenient for you and uncomfortable for Mr. Macy.” Not to mention what Mr. Macy would say about her continued employment prospects. She barely suppressed a shudder. An image sprang to mind—of this dangerous ruffian stalking among the fluttering young ladies whom she taught. A wolf set among innocent young chicks, practically licking its lips.

Blade sat back, making a steeple of his fingers. “Then you will come ’ere. Three nights a week.”

“Three?”

“Three,” he confirmed.

It would leave her exhausted. She barely had the strength to get through the days as it was. And yet she would have this dangerous man’s protection. She could walk through the roughest alleys of the slums without even a pistol on her. Lena wouldn’t have to walk an extra mile each day merely to arrive at the clockmakers safely, and they could leave Charlie alone at the house without worrying about thieves.

Suddenly what had seemed a hopeless situation became the best stroke of luck she’d had all year.

“Three nights a week,” she heard herself say. “Two hours a night. I can’t sacrifice any more. Night might be your day, but I’ve work to do when the sun is up. I’ll need some sleep.”

A hint of satisfaction glinted in his eyes. Honoria stilled again. Then the look was gone and his face remained admirably blank.

“You do realize what people’ll think,” he said.

Honoria folded her hands in front of her. She knew precisely what he meant. Visiting him three nights a week would have everyone assuming she’d paid for his protection with her body. It stung. She’d thought six months of poverty had desensitized her to the worst, but there was still a tiny, deeply buried part of her that remembered what it had been like to be respectable. Her voice was soft when she said, “That is the least of my concerns.”

“Done then.” Blade’s smile curled over his mouth. “My protection, for your lessons.”

It hit her. She had survived. She had won. Coming here tonight, she didn’t think she’d have left without losing something important to her. Instead she had gained the power of Blade’s name without losing anything. Teaching him to speak and behave properly would cost her nothing but a few hours’ sleep a week.

Dizziness washed over her. Relief or hunger, she wasn’t quite sure. She suddenly felt the urge to sit down hard. But she didn’t dare show any sign of weakness in front of this man.

He might have consented to an agreement that was advantageous for her, but he certainly wasn’t any less dangerous. She’d seen the hunger burning in his eyes. That was all a blue blood was. Sooner or later it showed in all of them, no matter how carefully they hid it.

She couldn’t let down her guard, not even for a moment.

“When shall we begin?” she asked, forcing her knees to straighten. If she clutched at the armchair a little too firmly, his gaze never turned toward it. It was locked on her face, as though memorizing her features.

“Tomorrow,” he said. “At ten.”

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