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Poppy Lane is keeping secrets. Her powerful gift has earned her membership in the Society for the Suppression of Supernaturals, but she must keep both her ability and her alliance with the Society from her husband, Winston. Yet when Winston is brutally attacked by a werewolf, Poppy’s secrets are revealed, leaving Winston’s trust in her as broken as his body. Now Poppy will do anything to win back his affections . . .
Their relationship is now put to the ultimate test.
Winston Lane soon regains his physical strength but his face and heart still bear the scars of the vicious attack. Drawn into the darkest depths of London, Winston must fight an evil demon that wants to take away the last hope of reconciliation with his wife. As a former police inspector, Winston has intelligence and logic on his side. But it will take the strength of Poppy’s love for him to defeat the forces that threaten to tear them apart.
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And now dear little children, who may this story read,
To idle, silly flattering words, I pray you ne'er give heed:
Unto an evil counsellor, close heart and ear and eye,
And take a lesson from this tale, of the Spider and the Fly.
"The Spider and the Fly" Mary Howitt
London, 1869, Victoria Station—An Auspicious Beginning
Winston Lane could never recall the impetus that prompted him to leave the confines of his first class railway compartment and step back onto the platform. The whistle had sounded, long and high, indicating that they would soon be off. And yet, he'd felt compelled. Was it for a quick draw upon his pipe? The need for a bit of air? His memory was muddled at best. Perhaps it was because the whys did not matter. From the moment he'd stepped off that train, his life changed completely. And it had been because of a woman.
Now that he remembered with the vividness of a fine oil painting. Great billows of hot, white steam clouded the cold air upon the platform, obscuring the shapes of the few railway workers attending to last minute duties, giving their movements a ghostlike subtlety. Idly he watched them, interested as always in the activities of the common man, when through the mists she emerged. It might have been lyrical had she been gliding along in peaceful repose, but no, this woman strode. A mannish, commanding walk as if she owned the very air about her. And though Winston had been raised to appreciate ladies who exuded utter femininity and eschew those who did not, he'd snapped to instant attention.
She was tall, nearly as tall as he, this assertive miss, and dressed in some dull frock that blended into the fading light. The only spot of color was her mass of vivid, carnelian red hair coiled at the back of her head like a crown. So very red, and glinting like a beacon. One look and he knew he had to have her. Which was rather extraordinary, for he wasn't the sort prone to impulse or rash feeling. And certainly not about women. They were interesting in the abstract, but one was much like any other. At nineteen, he was already set in his ways: orderly, bookish, and logical. Save there was nothing logical about the hot, hard pang that caught him in the gut as she walked by, her dark eyes flashing beneath the red slashes of her brows.
The pipe fell from Winston's hand, clattering upon the ground as he stood frozen, surely gaping like some slack-jawed idiot. She did not appear to notice him, but kept walking, her long legs eating up the ground, taking her away from him. This, he could not allow. In an instant, he was after her.
He nearly broke into a run to catch her. It was worth it. The scent of book leather and lemons enveloped him, and his head went light. Books and clean woman. Had God ever divined a more perfect perfume? She was young. Perhaps younger than he was. Her pale skin was smooth, unlined, and unmarred, save for the tiny freckle just above her earlobe. He had the great urge to bite that little lobe.
She did not break her pace, but glanced at him sidelong as if to throw out a warning. He did not blame her; he was being unspeakably rude approaching this young lady without a proper introduction. Then again, they were the only ones on the platform, and he was not fool enough to let her out of his sight.
"Forgive me," he said, a bit breathless, for really this woman was fast on her feet, "I realize this is rather forward and usually I would never—"
"Never what?" she cut in, her voice crisp and smooth as fresh linen sheets. "Never proposition young ladies who have the temerity to walk unescorted in public areas?"
Well, now that he thought of it, she really ought to have a guardian with her. She did not appear to be from great wealth, so he wouldn't expect an abigail, but a sister or an aunt perhaps? Or a husband. A shudder went through him at the thought of her being married. He mentally shook himself, aware that he'd been staring at her, memorizing the sharp slope of her nose and the graceful curve of her jaw.
"I would never presume to proposition you, miss. Indeed, should any such scoundrel approach you, it would be my pleasure to set him to rights." And now he sounded like a prig, and a hypocrite.
She smirked. "Then let me guess. You are a member of the Society for the Protection of Young Ladies and Innocents and want to make certain I realize the perils of walking alone." Cool brown eyes glinted as she glanced at him, and Winston's already tight gut started to ache. "Or perhaps you merely seek a contribution?"
He could not help it; he grinned. "And if I were, would you listen to my testimony?"
Her soft, pink lips pursed. Whether in irritation or in amusement, he could not tell. Nor did he care. He wanted to run his tongue along them and ease them back to softness. The image made him twitch. He'd never had such importune thoughts. Yet speaking to her felt natural, as if he'd done so a thousand times before.
"I don't know, is your testimony any good?"
Like that, he was hard as iron. His voice came out rough. "While I am certainly capable of extolling the virtues of my testimony, there is only one way for you to truly find out."
When she blushed, it was a deep pink that clashed beautifully with her hair. "Well, you certainly talk a good talk," she murmured, and his smile grew.
They neared the end of the platform. Behind them the train gave one last, loud whistle.
His cheeky miss quirked one of her straight brows. "You'll miss your train, sir."
"Some things are worth missing, and some are not."
Coming to the stairway, she stopped and regarded him. When she spoke again, her voice was hard and uncompromising. "What do you want?"
You. "To know your name so that I might come to call upon you properly." He made a leg, the extravagant sort he'd done at court recently. "Winston Lane at your service, madam."
For the life of him, he did not know why he'd held back giving her his full name. The lie shamed him, and he moved to correct the blunder, but those pink lips twitched again and good intentions flew from his mind. What would it take to get her to truly smile? What would she look like flushed with passion? His skin went hot.
Her dark eyes looked over his shoulder. "Your train is leaving."
The platform beneath his feet trembled as the train groaned out of the station. He didn't even look. "I find," he said, keeping his eyes upon her gloriously stern visage, "that I no longer wish to leave London."
Unsurprisingly, she held his gaze without a blush or one of the coy looks the ladies in his sphere would have employed. "Do you always act the fool?"
Never. But he didn't have to say it. She read him well, and her eyes suddenly gleamed with acceptance. Slowly, she held her hand out so that he might take it. "Miss Poppy Ann Ellis."
Poppy. For her hair, he supposed. But to him, she was Boadicea, Athena, a goddess.
It was all he could do to keep himself from bridging the short distance between them and putting his mouth to hers. Instead, he took her hand with due formality. His gloved fingers curled around hers, and something within him settled. He shook only a little as he raised her hand to his lips. "Miss Ellis, I am your servant." Always.
Yet even as he spoke, fate was conspiring to make a liar of him.
The West End, August 28, 1883
A telegram, as sent to the SOS Home Office:
Daughter of the Elements STOP All of us must reap what we sow STOP Now it is your turn STOP I'll take not the heart of ice that resides in your sweet breast but the fragile one that beats in another and sail away with it on a ship of fire STOP When I tear it to shreds you will remember the agony of failing STOP Again STOP
The way to her parlor was along a winding stair, but down, not up. Down in the pit of the earth where sunlight and fresh air never reached. Yes, a proper English parlor with electric lights and air forced by means of an elaborate fan system—such strange modern devices that even the most jaded persons took a moment to stop and wonder.
Poppy had recently shown her sister Daisy the way in, a fact that she was beginning to regret as she settled back in her desk chair and surveyed the two women sitting in front of her. One of the women was Daisy, looking luminous as ever and trussed up in an extravagant frock which was no doubt highly fashionable, and equally uncomfortable. Having ferreted out Poppy's secrets with surprising speed, Daisy had earned the right to be here.
The other woman was the problem. Miss Mary Chase. Oh, she sat demure and quiet as Daisy prattled on in that way of hers, but the girl's glittering eyes took in every nook and cranny of Poppy's office. Learning and secreting away bits of information as only a GIM could do.
GIMs, or Ghosts in the Machines, were the best spies in the underworld. Blessed by a demon to have an immortal body with the ability to leave it in spirit form, they could drift into any room, listen in on any conversation. And now this GIM knew the way to Poppy's office. Bloody hell. Poppy had requested to speak with Daisy. She had not expected her sister to bring along a guest.
"Well?" Daisy prompted, breaking into Poppy's thoughts.
Poppy took a short breath and pulled herself together. Something that was getting harder and harder to do. Inside she was frozen and fairly certain that, one day, her outer skin would simply freeze over as well.
"You want me to bring this girl to Mother," Poppy repeated, her lips feeling numb. Mother was the head of The Society for the Suppression of Supernaturals, or SOS, an organization whose sole focus was to keep the world from learning the truth: that the monsters in their fairytales were real. Mother, whom no one, no one, ever met. Really, the nerve of Daisy sometimes. Poppy tapped her fingers to relieve the urge to wrap them about her sister's lovely neck.
Daisy too was a GIM. A decision she'd made in the face of a gruesome, prolonged death. She'd saved herself by making a devil's bargain. And now she would never die. Daisy would be here long after Poppy was dust in the ground. It made Poppy unaccountably sad, though she really couldn't say precisely why.
Daisy glanced at Poppy's thrumming fingers. Poppy instantly stopped. Daisy too tapped her fingers when she was agitated. A stupid slip to do in front of her sister. Damn it all.
When Daisy replied, it was with exaggerated patience. "Not precisely. I am here to make an introduction to Mother."
Poppy froze. Daisy could not possibly be implying what she thought she was. "Why did you not bring your request to Lena?" Poppy hedged.
Daisy's eyes gleamed bright for one sharp moment. "I had assumed my sister would be a little more accommodating. Perhaps I was wrong."
Poppy looked away first. It had been petty to bait Daisy. While Lena was Mother's official go-between and requests for Mother always went through her, she had also been Ian Ranulf's lover years ago. As Ian was now Daisy's husband, the women did not particularly find each other's presence comfortable.
"Look," Daisy leaned forward, her tone forgiving when Poppy knew she'd normally drag out her displeasure, "Mary is the best GIM we have."
"Then why do you want to lose her?"
Mary Chase stirred. "If I may speak for myself?" There was a bit of fire in her eyes, something Poppy had to admire, and so she nodded. Miss Chase settled her slim hands on her lap as she faced Poppy without blinking. "My term of service with the GIMs is over." Her hands clenched for a moment. "Mrs. Lane, I want to be a Regulator. I have wanted this for some time."
Poppy managed not to wince upon hearing her name. Mrs. Lane. A farce, for her husband had left her. The pain that lived in her chest spread out to her arms and then down to her fingers. She didn't allow it to show but let her gaze wander over Miss Chase. The young woman appeared to be all of nineteen, but from Poppy's reports, she was closer to Poppy's own age, having lost her first life in 1873.
"I gather you know this," Poppy answered. "However, I feel compelled to remind you that being a Regulator is no easy task. They live a hard life, and it is often quite short." Regulators were the SOS's agents, men and women on the front lines of the supernatural world. They came face to face with things that gave monsters nightmares. Poppy leaned in a touch. "And believe me, many an immortal's head has rolled while on the job. Just because you cannot die, doesn't mean you cannot be killed, child."
Mary Chase's wide, brown eyes narrowed. "I am not a child. And I'm not afraid of death."
Poppy rose from her desk, no longer willing to sit still. "Everyone says that." She grabbed her thick cloak. "And then they discover that, in their heart, they have lied. I don't believe GIMs get a second chance should they lose their head, do they?"
"No," Mary said after a moment.
The two women rose and followed her to the door. Poppy walked through it, not waiting to see if they kept up. Outside of the office, Mr. Smythe sat at his desk, his pasty skin blending with his grey hair. He faced a vast and dark corridor, and oftentimes Poppy wondered how he could stand looking into that abyss on a daily—sometimes nightly—basis. Mr. Smythe, however, never complained. He gave her a deferential nod as she passed. She had worked alongside Smythe for fourteen years, and yet he did not know about Winston or that she had a fondness for meat pies sold by street vendors. Not one person within the SOS truly knew her. People tended to stay away from Poppy as though they felt she was something alien and not like them. Which said quite a lot, given that most of her colleagues possessed gifts that were the epitome of unearthly. She did not precisely mind the isolation. She had Winston…. Poppy's step nearly halted. She did not have Win. He was gone. And she was alone.
"I had a good reason for this, you know," Daisy murmured just behind her as they slipped into the stone-lined corridor. Here and there electric torches glowed, turning Daisy's blond curls a harsh yellow. Mary Chase followed at an inconspicuous distance, her eyes lowered and subservient. Ha. Men might be fooled by the display but not Poppy.
"You better have," Poppy said, just as low. "You've come quite close to breaking my trust today, Dandelion."
Daisy made a noise of annoyance at the nickname, but she quickened her stride to catch up and then grabbed Poppy's elbow, forcing her to slow down. "Pop. Listen for a moment, will you?"
Every muscle in Poppy's body went heavy and cold. She knew that tone in Daisy's voice, as well as the soft, despicable pity that dimmed her eyes. "Well," Poppy said through her teeth, "out with it. And then explain what it has to do with Miss Chase here."
Daisy took a stabilizing breath. "She knows." Her voice dipped a bit. "Who you are."
The struggle not to break something, or someone, held Poppy in place, frozen with shock and outrage. Daisy took a half step back, her mouth opening and closing like a puppet's, her hand lifting as if in defense. Smart woman. Poppy couldn't fathom why her sister would break her trust in such a manner.
Poppy advanced. "Have you lost your nut? What on God's green earth gave you the right?"
Daisy's pointed silence gave her a moment's qualm, which Daisy pounced on. "I agree that it is bloody irritating to be managed by one's sister." Poppy scowled, and Daisy ignored it. "However, as you've been known to point out, I have only the best intentions." Daisy touched her arm. "You need a companion, Pop."
A harsh laugh burst from Poppy. "You think I'm that infirm, do you? I bid you to remember that I am thirty-two. Hardly ancient, despite what your society friends might think."
"I do not think that you are ancient, Pop," said Daisy quietly. "I think that you are in pain."
"Do not." Poppy took a sharp breath. "Do not ever pity me, Daisy."
Bad enough that her sisters knew Win had left her. It had been humiliating. But that was nothing compared to the emptiness and the dull, unwavering ache that his absence wrought upon her.
In the gloom, Daisy's eyes gleamed like star sapphires, the effect of her new GIM nature when emotions were roused within her. "Pity and empathy are not the same thing."
"You have brought a GIM to keep me company," Poppy snapped, "as if you fear I might do something drastic."
What nonsense. Poppy did not do drastic things. She simply died a little more inside each day and wished the world to go away. That had not worked particularly well; the world was still here.
Daisy's gaze searched hers. "Mary is loyal and discreet. And she is entirely trustworthy. On my life, I swear that."
"Good thing to swear, as your life might very well be what I take." It was entirely too temping at the moment.
"I am shaking," Daisy said with an unladylike snort before becoming serious once more. "You need someone to keep you focused. And lord knows that bitch Lena will not do that for you. She's just as likely to stick her fangs into your neck when your back is turned."
"You really ought to get over your dislike of Lena."
"Pish," Daisy said with a wave of her hand, "that woman means nothing to me. And you know full well that I speak the truth in regard to her character."
Unfortunately, Daisy was right. Lena wasn't the helpful sort. She despised weakness even more than Poppy did.
Poppy sighed, then looked at Mary Chase who hovered just beyond the circle of light where Daisy and Poppy stood. The young GIM had drifted back, having correctly read Poppy's request for a modicum of privacy. Poppy turned back to Daisy. "I asked you here because I seek information, not a nanny."
"Then ask away," Daisy retorted. "Mary won't tell a soul, and as she is currently my right hand, I'd tell her anyway. So you can drop that repressive glare, Pop."
Just once, Poppy would love to wring her sister's neck. Hell, Daisy would easily recover so it wouldn't be outright murder. She studied the unflinching Mary Chase for a long moment. Sensible woman, crafty, discreet. It could all be a lie. Poppy's life depended on her choices. Which meant she had to use more than logic, but instinct as well, to survive.
"All right then, Miss Chase," she said to the woman. "You have your chance."
Miss Chase curtsied prettily. "Thank you, Mrs. Lane."
"Don't thank me just yet. A demon has escaped his prison," she said to them. "I received the report from Lena an hour ago. The only information we have of his current whereabouts is from a telegram, which may or may not have been sent by him. It makes mention of a ship of fire." Her hand rested upon the cold, stone wall. "It is imperative that the SOS locate him. Immediately."
Needing to move, Poppy turned away and strode up the cast-iron staircase that spiraled upward. Heels clanked upon the metal, then Poppy reached the top and turned the handle, which released several heavy bolts. The heavy door pushed open without a sound, and the familiar, comforting scent of books and wood polish greeted her as she stepped into her bookshop.
Daisy and Mary followed, and then she pushed the door shut and heard the sound of the bolts slipping back into place.
Daisy's pretty face was pale. She knew something. Damn. Instinct had Poppy's hackles rising before Daisy even spoke. "Winston is on holiday in Paris."
"Paris? Win hates Paris." Poppy had tried to get him to take her there on holiday years ago, and he'd outright refused, calling it a heathenish, boorish city, filled with wastrels and gadabouts. Poppy told him he'd overstated his case, but Win had made it up to her by keeping her in bed for their holiday, giving her an interesting demonstration of his own rather heathenish proclivities.
Thankfully, Daisy responded before Poppy could dwell any further on that time. "All I know is that he went there after…" Daisy nibbled on her bottom lip.
"After what?" Poppy could not cull the worry from her voice. Win had left her, and still she was fretting over him like a bloody mother hen.
Daisy's nose wrinkled. "He beat a suspect to a pulp two weeks ago. The CID let him go, Poppy."
Poppy sagged against the counter. She could not fathom Win losing control of his temper. And the CID was his life. Winston Lane was an inspector, first and always.
What would he do now? How must he feel? Lost, she realized. Win had given up everything to become an inspector, including being cut off from his very powerful family. Daisy's voice broke through her musings.
"He is set to return aboard Archer's boat—"
"Ship. One does not call an ocean liner a boat."
"Ship," Daisy corrected with an eye roll. "At any rate, the ship is called The Ignitus." Daisy made a halfhearted attempt to smile. "Archer named it for Miranda."
Poppy's heart stopped. Ignitus, Latin for "set on fire."
Daisy's breath came out in visible puffs as the air about them chilled and ice began to crackle over the counter. Poppy couldn't rein in the reaction. Dear God, how had Isley known? She'd been so careful to keep this life separate from Win.
"When is the ship set to sail?" Poppy's body hummed with the urge to move, to run.
"I believe it's due to depart this Friday. That is two days from now." Daisy's smooth brow furrowed. "Poppy, you can't mean to meet it. The bloody thing is in Calais! We are in London," she added with unnecessary emphasis.
Rage pushed its way along Poppy's veins, making her see more clearly than she had in months. "Watch me."
Port of Calais, August 30, 1883
A man cannot run away from his life, no matter how far he goes. It was an uncomfortable truth Winston Lane had learned these past weeks when he'd forced himself to go on holiday. A bit of rest and relaxation, Inspector, and you'll be right as rails. Winston hadn't possessed the heart or the energy to correct Sheridan. It was "right as rain" and, no, he'd never be right again. Regardless, he'd taken himself far out of cold, dank London and straight to Paris, where he wouldn't be reminded of all he'd lost. But the holiday had been a dismal failure.
So he was going home. To London. And Poppy. Longing hit him so hard that he ached, the dissatisfied feeling within ebbing in favor of sharp, bright pain. He missed her. Missed her so much he could scarcely breathe. He didn't want to picture her but she came despite his will. Poppy, his Boadicea. She'd always been a warrior in his mind. Her flashing eyes and determined brows were enough to cow most men. As for Winston, her sharpness and strength inflamed him and made him want to slip beneath that hard outer shell she wore, find her softer bits, and do wicked things…
No, he would not think about her. She was an illusion. A liar. For the fourteen years of their marriage, she'd posed as a simple bookseller, while knowing all along about this other world, this supernatural London, filled with mythical beasts such as werewolves. And she'd kept it from him. Up until the day one such beast had ripped him to shreds.
But he'd avoided her for too long. It had been a cowardly and small act. He wanted an explanation, and he wanted to say his piece. And he'd have to face her as he was—a shell of a man.
"Now that's a bloody big boat," said Jack Talent at his side.
Stirred from his self-flagellation, Winston grunted. "Ship. One does not call an ocean liner a 'boat'."
Despite being thoroughly annoyed with his unwelcome and unexpected travel partner, Winston couldn't help but agree with the young man's assessment. However, "big" did not even begin to convey the magnitude of this hulking beast that would take them from the French port of Calais to Southampton, and eventually go on to New York. It was a giant, rising five stories above them, so high that they needed to crane their necks to see the topmast.
Taller than most London buildings, the craft was easily as long as two city blocks. It blotted out the sun. Standing by it, one felt as infinitesimal as a bug. And yet Winston could not help but be moved by this true feat of modern engineering. As was the six-story paddle wheel that gleamed in the morning light. One of two, the paddle wheels at full spin would take this leviathan and its four hundred passengers up to a speed of 15 knots.
"Leave it to Archer to purchase a ship such as this," he said.
Talent's mouth twitched. "Perhaps he felt the need to compensate for something."
Winston turned to Talent. "Perhaps you ought to tell him that yourself. It would save me the trouble of dispensing with you." He'd been trying to rid himself of the young man ever since he had entered Winston's railway car on the trip to Paris two weeks earlier.
"What are you doing here?" he'd asked as Talent plopped his carcass on the seat bench opposite him.
The young man who served as Ian Ranulf's valet looked back at him, unabashed even though Winston was certainly glaring a hole through his skull. "Ian sent me. I'm here to guard you."
As if the boy were a bloody nanny. Winston had wanted to be outraged. Except, after the attack, Ian and his other nosey brother-in-law Archer had given Winston the one thing he'd desperately needed, a sense of control after he'd been ripped apart and pieced back together. Not quite good as new. But alive.
Since the day he could move without biting pain, Ian and Archer had cajoled, hassled, and finally harassed him into coming to Ranulf House to train his body. They'd taught him how to fight, both with hand and sword, thrown medicine balls at him, and made him lift sacks of grain until his scarred and battered body screamed in protest. It had been a systematic torture of the flesh that had put nearly twenty pounds of muscle on his weakened frame and had made him capable of taking down a man twice his size with one punch. Unfortunately, that didn't help when the nightmares that haunted Winston were not of men, but of monsters.
So, having been unable to get rid of the pest, Winston was stuck with a pseudo-valet on a holiday that had made him more out of sorts than before. At the moment, Talent looked no less thrilled. His eyes scanned the sky, and a frown grew. "Something is off. Have you not noticed the sky?"
Indeed, for days now, the sky had been a boiling red sea shot through with streaks of black and vermilion. An ominous tapestry that sent a queer feeling through Winston's gut. "The color is a result of Krakatoa."
News reports had already come in that the far-away Pacific island volcano had erupted with cataclysmic devastation; half the island was gone in an instant. So great was the fallout that, even in Europe, volcanic ash filled the skies.
- On Sale
- Feb 26, 2013
- Page Count
- 400 pages