Bec McMaster/

Tarnished Knight

TarnishedKnight_highres2

London Steampunk Series 1.5, connected
Smashwords • April 1, 2013

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In the steam-fuelled world of Victorian London, vampires, werewolves and slasher gangs stalk the night and a man made partly of metal is about to discover just how far he’ll go to protect the woman he loves…

After a vicious vampire attack left him struggling to leash the dark urges of the craving virus, John ‘Rip’ Doolan, thinks he’s finally starting to master the darkness within. The only thing that threatens to shatter his hard-won control is Esme, his closest friend and the only woman he’s ever wanted. If the stubborn beauty ever realised precisely what was going through his mind, their friendship would be ruined…

For six months Esme has waited for Rip to recover and take her as his thrall, not daring to hope for more. Too afraid to put her heart on the line, she’s devastated when Rip reveals that he never had any intentions of making her his.

But when a savage gang of Slashers start causing havoc in Whitechapel, Rip and Esme have no choice. They must face up to the depth of the passion that burns between them and forge a new relationship… or risk losing each other forever.

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER ONE

“Right this way, guv.”

The boy hurried ahead of Rip, his roughened boots churning the snow and mud to sludge. He kept darting a glance over his shoulder, fully aware of exactly what stalked behind him.

John ‘Rip’ Doolan strode through the cold streets behind the lad with his hands thrust into the pockets of his heavy coat. The fingers on his left hand kept twitching, trying to stir some semblance of heat into the limb. Of the right, all he could feel was the heavy pull of the hydraulics in his forearm as the mech hand flexed. Rough work. Rookery work. But it served its purpose. Though the aristocratic Echelon that ruled London city considered him less of a man because of it – less than human – he couldn’t run this line of work without two feasible limbs.

Jem Saddler paused at the intersection ahead, blowing into his cupped palms. The work-chafed fingers struck through the end of his gloves. The boy’d lost one the year previous, when the biting cold came in. Not uncommon in Whitechapel, where flats and tenements slumped against each other like slatterns on a winter’s night, seeking warmth against the bitter chill. Few here had coin enough to keep the fires burning all night and from the neat little slash that gaped in the fabric beneath the boy’s arm, the coat had once belonged to someone else. Clothing was hard to come by too, except for the more enterprising.

Rip’s eyes narrowed as he surveyed Petticoat Lane and the alleys off it. The ever-present ropes that slung between the upper stories of the alleys were bare of the ghostly flap of laundry. Fire burned in a barrel on the corner and a pair of dollymop’s huddled around it, warming their hands. One of them eyed him warily, a frozen little smile etching itself onto her lips. Coin was coin, but he knew what he looked like. Wouldn’t be the first time a trollop hoped he walked away.

“You’ve done your bit,” Rip said, turning to Jem and pretending he didn’t notice the whore’s sigh of relief. “Ought to wait ‘ere though, case I need you to run a message for me.”

Jem held his palm out, his narrow chin tipping up with a faint tremble as he stared Rip down. He could have left once his message had been delivered but the lad’s palm hadn’t been greased yet.

The action was presumptuous but Rip tugged a pair of shillings from his pocket and flipped them toward the lad. He knew what it was like to be starving at that age. It were the sort of thing a man never forgot.

Jem’s eyes widened as he saw how generous Rip had been and he gave a grin, the shillings disappearing like magic. “Aye, guv. I’ll stay.” He glanced at the narrow laneway that ran between buildings. Liza Kent’s place. There’d been no sign of her in three days and Jem had done the right thing in tracking him down about it. “Thought ‘er old man might ‘ave given ‘er the touch-up, but no sniff o’ ‘im either.”

“Liza’s flash gent touch ‘er up much?”

It weren’t none of his business but the hair on the back of Rip’s neck rose as the darkness within him stirred. Memory reared its ugly head; his mother staggering back into the stove as her pimp laid into her with his fists. Rip had been small then, powerless. He wasn’t powerless anymore, and there was nothing he despised more than a man who raised his hand to a woman.

Jem must have sensed the slither of darkness inside him for he swallowed. “No more’n usual, guv.”

Easy. Rip squeezed his eyes shut and forced the yearning hunger in him to subside. After six months of living with the hot, gut-twisting clench of it, he was starting to recognize what set it off and how to avoid that.

Becoming a blue blood with their unnatural thirst for blood wouldn’t have been his choice, if there’d been one. Six months ago though, a vampire had torn his throat open and half disembowelled him. He could remember the hot-wet splash of his own blood as pain washed through him like brandy-soaked flames. Lying on the roof, his heels drumming on the tiles as he coughed wetly into the night. And then his master, Blade, leaning over him with a desperate whisper. “We’re gonna give you me blood. The virus might keep you ‘live long enough to ‘eal your wounds.”

He knew what it meant. Blade had asked before if he wanted to become a blue blood. In their dark little world, the threat of death or crippling injury was a constant and the craving virus could heal anything short of decapitation. Still, he’d always said no before.

Until Blade whispered the one little thing that might have changed his mind. “If you don’t want it, blink. If you do, squeeze me fingers. But know that this’ll devastate Esme.”

Esme. Blade’s housekeeper. Christ. In that moment he’d seen a flash of her serious face, with the slashing dark wings of her brows, and Rip couldn’t have said no despite himself. He’d always kept his distance from her but the sudden hot flare of yearning – the urge to see her just once more – was too strong for him. And so he’d squeezed Blade’s hand.

The next he knew he was flat on his back in his own bed, with Esme straddling his hips, her firm, no-nonsense fingers going to the buttons at her throat. The other half of the equation began to sink in. Blood. And as soon as he realized what she was there for, a fierce aching need had burned through him like white-hot fire, draining away the colour from his vision until all he could smell was the violet water on her skin and see the heady tick of her pulse in her throat. Hands on her, yanking her close. And Blade holding him back. “Easy now, lad. You don’t want to frighten ‘er, do you?”

The craving virus had healed him all right. But he’d never thought about the other edge of the coin. The fierce hunger he could barely control. Especially around her.

“You don’t need me to come with you?” Jem asked somewhat nervously and Rip realized he’d been staring.

He gave a rough shake of his head. “I’ll check on it.”

The lad tossed him a tremulous smile, then scurried into a nearby doorway and hunkered down to watch.

Hands in his pockets and his shoulders hunched, Rip began to cross the street, sliding in the wet slush. The scent of roasting chestnuts drifted past and raucous laughter sounded nearby. Someone had hung a bedraggled strand of holly in their window. Christmas, he remembered, was nearly upon them.

Not the sort of thing the blue bloods of the Echelon celebrated, since the Church had excommunicated them, but it lingered in the human remnants of the population. A defiant gesture. The ruling Echelon might have burned the churches in England and arrested any caught praying or on consecrated ground, but they couldn’t police everything.

Nor could they arrest half of London.

The chestnut seller’s laughter wasn’t quite enough to hush the almost silent footstep that followed him. Rip glanced down beneath his lashes, a shiv sliding into his hand. He kept it tucked against the heavy cup of his palm, hiding it low against his thigh. As he turned the corner, stepping into the shadowed alcove of the alley, he pressed his back against the wall and waited.

The shadow behind him lengthened and Rip stepped forward, slashing out with the blade. He caught a hint of musk in his nose and pulled the blow, snarling under his breath. “Bloody ‘ell.”

A hand caught his wrist. Rip glared up into the unnatural golden eyes of a tall young man, tempted for one moment to push back. But that was the hunger in him, the fury. And if he pushed too far, he knew who would end this fight the victor.

Not even a blue blood could take on a verwulfen without consequences. In the strange berserker furies that overtook them they were practically invincible.

Will shoved away from him. “What are you doin’ here?”

“I ought ask you the same question.” Rip sheathed the knife, anger a slow-burn in his blood. He knew the answer of course. Blade must have sent Will to watch him. Make sure he didn’t lose control in the middle of the rookery and spill blood on the dirty gleam of the icy slush. A shiver ran down his spine, his mouth watering. Tempting. Just to give in, just once

“Thought you might need a hand,” Will muttered, heat burnishing his cheeks. He hadn’t expected to get caught.

“Aye,” Rip said, flexing the steel grip of his fingers. “You’re about ten years too late.”

A faint smile curled over the young man’s mouth. Then Will stepped past, nostrils flaring as he surveyed the alley. “What you up to?”

“Jem Saddler said Liza Kent ain’t been sighted near on three days. No sign o’ ‘er old man neither,” Rip replied, falling into place beside him.

Will stopped outside a wooden door, eyeing the painted symbol of a pair of crossed daggers above the lintel. The matching tattoo was branded on the inside of both Rip and Will’s wrists. A sign of ownership, of protection. Blade’s mark. Will’s nostrils flared again.

“You smell anythin’?” Rip asked. His own senses had improved since he’d become a blue blood, but Will could smell days worth of scent.

“Strange.” Will frowned, his enormous shoulders bunching beneath the oiled canvas of his coat as he stepped forward. He scrubbed at his nose. “Chemical. But nothin’ else. Smells like Honoria’s laboratory.”

Blade’s new wife. Rip breathed in deeply, finding a faint trace of the vinegary tang that reminded him of the laboratory, except for the slight watering of his eyes. The scent was strong enough to linger in his nostrils, wiping out the odours that clung to the streets. Pushing open the door, he frowned when it gave way easily. Unlocked.

Not even the most desperate thief would cross a threshold with Blade’s mark on it. Still… This was Whitechapel.

“Hullo?” Rip called, his voice echoing through the room. He knew the place was empty before he’d even taken a step. The cold was biting here, the chill emptiness of a place that hadn’t been occupied in some days. His hard gaze raked the room.  A frying pain in the wash basin, a pile of darning in the corner… Someone had dragged a thin curtain over the doorway separating the bedroom beyond and suddenly Rip could smell something else.

Blood.

No matter what he breathed, he’d always be able to smell that distinctive, coppery scent. Rip yanked the curtain open. A man lay spread-eagled on the thin mattress, his torso slit from chest to groin and intestines spilling out like raw sausages. The blood was long since dried, the scent still strangely diluted. Rip swallowed hard as his vision dipped, painting the world in shadows of gray and white. He almost had it under control when Will brushed against his shoulder and suddenly he could smell something else; blood, hot and fresh, pumping beneath the other man’s skin.

Rip shoved past, staggering out into the alley. He’d fed the day before, but obviously not enough. The world spun around him, the chestnut vendor’s laughter grating against his skin. His head turned that way, the predator in him tracking the man by sound alone. Jem Saddler looked up at the sight of him then paled. Rip scowled and jerked his head, watching as the boy bolted. Looked like prey and his vision narrowed again.

Hell. Rip shook his head hard, his fumbling fingers dragging a cheroot from his pocket and a packet of matches. He lit the match hastily, knowing from the listening sound of the silence behind him that Will was watching.

“You all right?”

“Fine,” he snapped, raking his metal hand over the back of his neck. It was better out here. Not so close. The sounds from the street nearby made it harder to pick out the rushing throb of blood through Will’s veins.

Will stepped off the porch, his boots sloshing through the snowmelt. “Did a right number on him. We ought to tell Blade.”

Rip’s fingers tightened on the cheroot. “No. Let ‘im be.” This was the Warren’s first Christmas and Blade was determined to make it a special one for Honoria. He had enough to manage. “I’ll deal with it.”

Even if only to prove to himself that he could. Rip’d been nigh on useless the last six months. Too stricken by the hunger to be of much good to anyone. He had to prove that he could control it and this was his best chance. Tossing the cheroot on the cobbles, Rip ground it into the wet sludge and started for the street.

“Don’t think I ought to leave just yet,” Will muttered.

Keeping an eye on him.

Rip shoved his hands into his pockets and caught the eye of the whore near the fire barrel. “Do what you want.” His mouth watered as he jerked his chin at her. Time to take care of the pounding thirst for blood. So he could start thinking on who’d killed Liza Kent’s old man, and where the hell she’d gone.

 

***

 

The first cold kiss against Esme’s cheek made her look up. Soft flakes of snow tumbled from the stormy sky, tangling in her hair. Her hands tightened around the basket in her hands. She’d always loved snow. When she’d first come to the ‘Chapel after her husband Tom died, she’d despised the grim tenements and filthy hovels. For nearly a year she’d managed to scrape enough coin together to feed herself, until a too-friendly neighbour had made it clear that he could find other work for her…if she was willing to lie on her back. She’d hated the world then, hated the rookery. When she first went to Blade and begged for protection in exchange for her blood, he’d frightened her as much as the rest of the world had. And no wonder. Who wouldn’t fear a man who was called the Devil of Whitechapel?

Only when the snows came, washing away the grimness and painting the world in a feathery white, had she come to see any sign of joy or laughter in this dark world. Blade had been patient with her, offering her a position as his housekeeper when it became clear she was so frightened of the blood-letting that she could barely stand it at first. Even the grim men who worked for him had begun to terrify her less as she grew to know them. Tin Man with the thin metal sheeting over his scalp and his inability to speak; Will, the feral verwulfen boy who Blade had rescued from life in a cage and Rip, whom she’d almost fainted in front of when she first saw the broad-shouldered giant.

He’d caught her as she swayed, wrenching her against his hard body and sucking in a sharp breath. All she could remember were those piercing green eyes staring down at her in surprise, and the heavy feel of the muscle in his left forearm as she gripped it.

In his own quiet way, Rip had won her trust the most, soothing her with his deep voice and helping her with her chores. Reaching for things that were set too high for her and accompanying her at a respectable distance whenever she had to go out. A quiet, solid presence that shadowed her. Never saying much. Rarely touching her. And dangerously brutal whenever some man called out a lewd remark to her.

They stopped doing that within a month of her arrival at the Warren.

Rip had never asked for anything in return for his help and she’d gradually realised he never would. That more than anything had made her start trusting men again.

Though he worked as one of Blade’s enforcers Rip was gentle with her, as if even he feared his strength. And he had a sense of humour so dry that it often took her a moment to realise he’d made a joke. Then that slow smile would spread over his face, catching her breath in her chest and warming parts of her that missed a man. He was her friend, and only that, though Esme was the first to admit that she longed for more.

She’d slowly become accustomed to the world she lived in over the years. Accepting her role as Blade’s housekeeper and even as his blood thrall. Before his wife Honoria had arrived, of course. Blade drank his blood cold now, out of respect for his wife and Esme…Well, she was waiting for Rip to ask her to be his.

A man stepped out of the shadows ahead, watching her. Esme’s lips curved in a genuine smile as she saw Will. He noticed her of course, his amber eyes roving the streets with a predatory interest. Men gave him a wide berth as he stood and smiled at her, ignoring them. He’d been bigger than everyone else ever since he’d arrived in the rookery as a boy. Most people saw that as dangerous but Esme knew he would never hurt her. Will was verwulfen – of course he was dangerous – but he was also fiercely protective and that protection had always extended to her.

“Will!” She held out her gloved hand and he offered her his arm. The move was awkward but well-intentioned. Even through the thick oilskin of his coat she could feel the unnatural heat of his skin and the hint of tension in the thick muscles of his forearm.

Esme looked up. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothin’.”

“William Carver,” she scolded. “I may not have your hearing or your sense of smell, but I know when you’re lying to me.”

A flush of red darkened his high cheekbones. “Come. I’ll walk you home.” A faint, almost Scottish burr corrupted the words, a sure sign that he was nervous or upset. He rarely showed any sign of his birth country now.

Esme planted her feet as he tried to steer her down the street. Away from the nearby alley. He was hiding something.

Tugging free – though in effect he let her go – Esme strode to the mouth of the alley and peered down it curiously.

There was a couple pressed against the pitted brick wall. The whore’s skirt was tucked up as a sign of availability; her profession’s calling card. Tangled blonde hair tumbled down her back as she threw her head back with a gasp, the long smooth column of her throat gleaming pale in the cold afternoon light. Her arms curled up around the man’s back, her nails biting into the thick muscle of his shoulders. Unconsciously, the woman pressed against him, her hips grinding against his as if it felt good, so good – and the part of Esme that had once been Blade’s thrall knew exactly how that felt. Blood fired through her body, a hot flush of need. Then she saw the metal gleaming as rough steel fingers slid up the woman’s nape, clenching in her hair as he held her still. The familiar harshly-cut features that had earned him a fierce reputation. Features she’d often stared at when she thought he wasn’t aware of it. Dreamed of running her lips over…

Rip.

His mouth trailed over the woman’s throat, lips still glistening with blood. Heat rushed out of Esme’s face and down her neck, as if her heart was constricting in her chest and drawing all of the blood in her body into a small, clenched fist beneath her lungs. She took a step back and stumbled on something. Catching her balance, she saw Rip’s head jerk up sharply, the all-consuming blackness of his pupils drowning out the colour of his irises. As if coming out of a daze his eyes locked on her. A harsh breath tore through his throat, his body rocking on the balls of his feet as if for one moment he made to move toward her.

“Rip,” the whore whispered, sliding a possessive hand up his throat and turning his face back to hers. She shivered and gave a breathy little laugh. “That feels amazin’.  Never thought I’d say it, but you want more?” She licked his throat. “’Cos I’ll tup you fer free.”

A fist of nausea crawled up Esme’s throat. Staggering backward, she dropped her basket and clapped a gloved hand to her lips. She had to get away. Before she could hear what his answer would be.