Authors: Anne Mallory
Tags: #Historical Romance, #Fiction
To the usual suspects—
May Chen, Mom, Matt, Dad, and S.
e had expected revenge. Had anticipated it keenly enough to move all of the papers that incriminated them. Still, the loss of Building Twelve at the docks was irritating.
And while they had been dealing with the fires, other events had been in play around the fog-shrouded East End of London.
The aftermath would be spectacular, especially without his brother around to deal with the chaos. All in all, it had been an absolute
of a night. One that could simply not grow worse.
“Mr. Merrick, we will get the man responsible. I won’t fail you again.”
Andreas looked coldly at the underling standing on the other side of the desk—he hadn’t bothered to learn the man’s name, that was Roman’s concern, knowing the names of those around them. But names were meaningless and easily exchanged. Or thoroughly discarded like the anchor they were. He knew that better than anyone.
No, Andreas knew all he needed by the way men held themselves before him. Whether they could be trusted or needed to be
The human bulldog curled his fingers into a fist but held steady otherwise. Andreas pinned his gaze on the man for an excruciating half minute more. Two fidgets ensued.
Andreas drummed three heavy beats onto the desk with his forefinger, his blackened cuff brushing farther up on his wrist than it had earlier in the night when it had been pristine. The man stiffened in front of him, understanding the threat. He was better than many, if unimpressive still. “Do it.” Andreas picked up the envelope in front of him, not bothering to look up again as the man retreated.
He didn’t need to. He knew exactly where the man stepped and when and how he turned. Could feel and hear it in the sounds and curl of the displaced air, the bend of the boards. It was death not to pay attention to anyone within fifty paces. A hundred paces out in the open. Though difficult, the shot could be made.
The old wound twinged, but he didn’t scratch it, even alone as he was now. His lip curled derisively. His bastard of a
would be pleased.
He stabbed his opener into the half-exposed throat above the wax seal and ripped.
Charlotte and I arrived in Italy to a bloody fantastic . . .
Blah, blah, some festival drivel, blah, blah, happiness, blah. Andreas skimmed the barely legible note—a full page of sentiment. Roman was going completely soft—that woman making him lively and blissful.
Emotion wound through him—something that vacillated between satisfaction and disquiet. He carefully placed the note on his desk to read more fully later.
He picked up another note, eyes narrowing on the name Pace, before slitting it open.
Another politely worded refusal for a face-to-face meeting. Another note laced with words far too empathic. Another quick-witted and clever response underlying it all.
Needless to say, the serial correspondence he had engaged in with James Pace for the last six months had made him . . . interested in the family.
White dresses and warm smiles.
He banished the unwanted images to the depths of his personal hell and refocused his thoughts.
Andreas avoided meeting with people, but he kept offering a face-to-face meeting with James Pace. He didn’t know why. The dark laughter of the eternally damned slithered through him.
He might see Pace’s daughter.
Something about the man’s damn sunny outlook annoyed him, and he wanted to reconcile it with the shrewd businessman Pace had once been.
Sparkling eyes full of interest, head tipped perennially in curiosity.
He tapped the edge of the thick paper harder against his desk. Dammit.
Pace continued to decline tactfully. In a manner that would tie anyone with a modicum of restraint into knots. And no one declined a meeting with Andreas.
He could have issued a pointed threat to Pace after the first refusal and unleashed hell after the second; but something had made him hesitate. The dark laughter echoed internally.
The hesitation was easily explained—he needed Pace & Co. of London under his thumb in order to further his own plans.
White cloth under his thumb, writhing and moaning.
He felt as if he’d contracted some sort of weakening sickness. Infected by a single glance.
He should never have sent those men to make inquiries even though he always gathered complete information on everyone with whom he did business. It was standard procedure to find out who could be bought in a household. Who had access to information. What secrets were already willing to be sold.
Not one servant had been receptive. And the Pace craftsmen, who had been willing to gossip about each other, their business partners, and rivals in the carriage company, had turned frosty when discussion of the Pace family was broached.
It had been a singular moment when he had received those reports. And reason enough to see the family for himself. Anyone who inspired that type of loyalty—or fear—was worth a personal look.
The problem was that James Pace was a recluse. Only occasionally attending the theater with his family before retreating to his inner sanctum.
Andreas had found himself hidden in the shadows of the Claremont Theatre in order to divine his answers. But James Pace hadn’t been there. Andreas normally would have left the instant he realized that. He hated theater.
He had stayed the entire performance. He had stayed for the revels afterward. The audience had started to
and he’d still been there, stuck, frozen in his shadowed seat.
It had been immediate. How the hell that could be, he didn’t know. But her eyes had connected with his, somehow, as she’d entered the box on the opposite side of the theater—connected with his even through the dark shadows he surrounded himself with. And her mouth had bestowed a warm smile on a random stranger in the crowd.
Barbed warmth sinking under his skin, biting and clawing.
Her body had been cloaked in the color of innocence, but her lips were passion-stained. The warmth of the lamps seemed to converge on her at all times, no matter where she moved, or with whom she spoke—a bright spot pushing back the shadows.
A bright look on her face mixed with something she had been trying to conceal. Bone tired, but pushing past that exhaustion and engaging the people around her during intermissions. He had nearly recoiled when she’d sent another soft smile his way, head tilted in question.
He had attended the Theatre Royal later that week to see James Pace. There was no excuse for going to Covent Garden to see
or to watch Grimaldi as a country bumpkin, nor going to the Haymarket Theatre or to the Olympic, without result. He wasn’t a lackey. And he hated theater with all of its trumped-up dramatics. But there he had been, absorbing
delighted reaction to Madame Vestris performing in breeches as Cherubino in
The Marriage of Figaro.
was probably one of those women who swooned for the incompetent lover spewing useless words beneath her window. Or the man who emasculated himself in the end for
He sneered at the page in his hand, looking at the curve of the letters. The sincerity and empathy ever present in the words. Earnest. Like father, like daughter perhaps. He balled the paper in his fist.
Familiar footsteps strode down the hall, and a firm rap followed. “Merrick?” a low voice said on the other side.
Andreas stared hard at the door, but Milton Fox, their head casino manager, wouldn’t interrupt him for a mere chat. If there was something wrong with one of the hells tonight too, someone else was going to die. Slowly.
“What?” he barked, paper still crushed between his fingers.
Red hair and a stocky frame emerged from behind the portal. “I know Fred was just here to report on the leader, but we picked up a trail on a few of the others. About three hours from now, I expect.”
“Good.” Andreas smiled. Irritation bleeding to anticipation.
Milton kept his face blank, nodding, but Andreas knew he was as unnerved as every other person was, bar Roman, when Andreas’s lips moved in that direction. Milton was just better at hiding it.
Milton’s eyes drifted to Andreas’s wrist, and for a moment Andreas thought he might stupidly say something about it, or inquire if he wanted
but the other man displayed his keen intelligence when he simply cleared his throat. “I’ll give them a nudge before you get there, shall I?”
“Yes, do that. And put Fred, was it, on assignment somewhere else for a month.” He narrowed his eyes at his manager. “Or get
“Yes, sir, of course. And only the men on gaming duty will be here for the next hour, sir.”
went unsaid between them. Milton had been with them long enough to know a dismissal without being given one, and he ducked back through the portal.
The knotted anticipation corded. It wouldn’t be long now, especially with the end of their conversation purposely echoing into the hall. Good. He could have the building locked down at any time so that no one could get in, but not tonight. Tonight it would remain unlocked. Dealing with a good assassination attempt always relieved his tension. Hopefully, they wouldn’t send amateurs this time.
Besides, it would keep eyes from other places in the city. From white dresses and warm smiles.
Andreas tightened his fingers around the balled parchment and ignored the dull ache of the burns as the skin pulled. He looked to the side—at his brother’s letter. Roman would want to know what was happening, and there would never be anyone he’d rather have at his back; but if Roman knew the circumstances, he would return from his honeymoon. And the constant need within Andreas to assure his brother’s happiness overruled all else. Andreas had lied and told Roman that his plans would be set in motion
he returned to London. To keep him safe.
Stupid emotional connections.
Easier to rule alone and with fear. Simple and true. Elemental. He had always claimed fear as a willing servant, but had long ago realized that, together, he and Roman could do anything. And they had done so both in London’s underworld and above for the twenty years since they had incongruously met. A relationship stronger than any of true blood.
But now that Roman’s life was tied around another’s, his brother’s happiness could be assured. Their own tie could be loosened.
He tossed the crumpled paper.
Change. It was all around him. Poking, retreating, laughing maliciously. Change was fate, Roman always said. Well, Andreas loathed Fate, that bitch.
A faint noise in the hall raised the hair on his neck. Footsteps that were faint enough to belong to one of the young boys that Roman always took in, but the steps were far too hesitant, slowing as they progressed down the hall. It was possible Milton or one of the others had sent up a new recruit to give him an additional message—it had been a busy night—but they usually knew better. The last sapling hadn’t emerged from his room belowstairs for three days afterward.
Faint steps. Specially crafted shoes.
Andreas calmly reached into the drawer to his right, his burned wrist brushing the lip of the wood, and withdrew the expensive pistol there, checked it, then put it in the specially made holster on the back side of the desk. Easy to pull at a moment’s notice. The desk itself, brilliantly crafted with its special . . . features . . . made other methods of self-preservation obsolete, and he had inspected the panels and mechanisms earlier as he did each night. Perfectly oiled and powder-filled.
But only a stupid—and dead—man relied on a single plan.
The footsteps stopped outside the door. The comforting steel of two knives strapped to his upper arms and one long blade pressed against his left forearm easily pulled him to center. The hidden pocket in his right sleeve which had housed the lower blade’s twin had been damaged earlier in the evening along with the skin underneath. He should have changed his shirt. He waited, perfectly still, irritation simmering below his awareness, as the person worked up the nerve either to knock or crash through in an attempt to kill him.
Though crashing through
take him by surprise. He’d place his stake some sort of
stood on the other side of the door. A woman with soft slippers, just like the ones he’d heard every morning outside his rooms for the first decade of his life. He kept his fingers loose and ready. Only a fool underestimated the female half of the population.
A second set of footsteps shuffled hesitantly down the hall, stopping outside the door as well. One more? That was all? Last week they had sent four and had barely given him a sweat.