Marley waited in Lord Hargrieve’s study. Since it was midsummer there was no fire in the grate, but the odor of cigar tobacco clung to the room along with the mellow scent of the old leather binding the hundreds of books in the room.
Every wall of Lord Hargrieve’s study was covered in built-in shelving. Much of the shelving contained books, and other shelves were covered in far more curious items. Marley stared at the rows of glass bell jars on the shelves. Some held displays of unusual dried flora and fauna; others were filled with preserving liquid in which strange creatures floated in limbo. Marley was surprised to think of Lord Hargrieve as a naturalist. Certainly it was a hobby many appreciated, but Lord Hargrieve seemed more a man of industry.
“May I get you anything, sir?”
Marley started and glanced back at the butler, unaware that he’d slowly walked to the near middle of the room. “No. No, I’m fine. Thank you.”
“Very good, sir.” Wattly closed the door, leaving Marley alone with the bizarre collection. One jar in particular caught his attention. It was a smaller jar, inside which were what looked like they could have been a set of human teeth; but upon closer inspection, Marley decided they had to be animal in nature. The canines were far longer, more suited to a large predator like a wolf or big dog. He bent closer to look.
“I see you’ve found my collection.”
Lord Hargrieve’s voice startled Marley. He jerked up. “I—yes. Most unusual. You have quite an extensive set of specimens.”
Persephone’s father settled himself in the large, upright chair behind the massive mahogany desk. He leaned forward and pulled over a humidor, flipping it open and pulling a fat brown cigar from it. “Would you care for a cigar?”
Marley shook his head, unable to keep his eyes from straying to the odd mandibles in the jar. “No, thank you, my lord.”
“Please take a seat.”
Marley dutifully sat down in one of the two overstuffed chairs facing Lord Hargrieve.
The man took several puffs on his cigar, held his lips closed for a second, then blew out a stream of fragrant smoke. “Sir Turlock, I assume you know of my interest in your work. But what you may not know is why I have an interest.”
“I assumed it had to do with your involvement in the Aeronautical Society, my lord.”
“Quite. But there are other, more pressing reasons for my interest and that of my colleague Lieutenant Frobisher. We are part of a special group of the military that answers only to Her Majesty. We deal with things of a questionable nature and are always looking for new ways to defeat our enemies.”
“And what, may I ask, has that to do with my aeronautical display at the exhibition, my lord?”
“We think you might be a very useful part of our cause.”
Marley’s skin prickled with apprehension. Somewhere deep in his gut something told him this was no normal interview.
Whatever Lord Hargrieve was involved with, along with that Frobisher chap, was serious business.
Thoughts of secret societies and strange rituals swirled in Marley’s head. What exactly was Lord Hargrieve into? He swallowed past the thick lump swelling in his throat to address the older man seated behind the enormous mahogany desk.
“What is your cause, if I may be so bold as to inquire, my lord?” Marley tried to minimize the tightness in his voice.
Lord Hargrieve tapped the gray ash from the end of his cigar into a small brass tray on his desk. “We are called Her Majesty’s Hunter Service.”
“And what, do you, um, hunt, my lord?”
Hargrieve chuckled and wedged his cigar back between his lips, giving it a few great puffs. “What we hunt isn’t mentioned in polite society, Sir Turlock. It isn’t fit to grace the hunting lodge walls. And if people knew, they might panic.”
“You mean big game from Africa, my lord?”
An odd twinkle sparked in Hargrieve’s eyes. “No. Something far deeper and darker than anything that continent could provide. The creatures we hunt are Darkin. Werewolves, vampires, ghosts, demons, and such. But that’s not the point. The point is, are you up to the challenge of assisting us in weapons development, to annihilate these creatures?”
Marley could tell from the look in the other man’s eyes that this was no jest. No alarmist musings. “Such things actually exist?” Marley asked, mouth dry as his fingers gripped the smooth wood of the chair arms.
Lord Hargrieve leaned toward him, his dark blue eyes intense and serious. “I saw you eyeing my set of vampire fangs earlier.”
Marley shifted uncomfortably in his chair. A shiver shot down his spine. Vampires. Werewolves. Demons. Ghosts. Fae. If all the dark things he’d thought were only the vestiges of unscientific mythology and lore were actually real, what did that mean for their society? What did it mean for science? How did one possibly fight against things one couldn’t comprehend?
“We have training, Sir Turlock, knowledge that isir kept within the society on how to effectively attack and resist the Darkin. We will share that with you, but we need weapons. We need your scientific mind to help us break the stalemate between our forces and the Darkin. Will you do it?”
“I suppose it would depend on what kinds of weapons you wanted, my lord.” He hadn’t the faintest clue what one would use to defeat any of the Darkin Lord Hargrieve had just mentioned.
Hargrieve rolled the cigar to the corner of his mouth, his lips spreading into an approving smile that calmed Marley’s nerves slightly. For a moment he had been certain Lord Hargrieve was going to tell him they hunted humans or some such strangeness.
“Excellent, Sir Turlock. Now we’d like to begin by having you test your electrostatic transmission ray in a demonstration for us in North Umbria.”
“My device? But how—”
Hargrieve raised a hand to stop his question. “Suffice it to say Her Majesty is well aware of your experiments, Sir Marley. We’re particularly interested in the transmission ray. We believe it could have use as an electrical cannon of sorts.”
Marley shifted uncomfortably in his chair. “Yes, my lord. But it isn’t yet fully operational.”
Hargrieve pulled the cigar out of his mouth and set it to rest on the edge of the brass tray. “That may be, but Her Majesty and I have full faith in your skills. We’d like a demonstration of it by next month. Will that be sufficient time to ready the device?”
A cold, prickly sweat broke out on Marley’s brow and upper lip. It would be possible for him to get it done, but he’d have to work night and day to make it happen. But Marley knew an opportunity when it was presented. He didn’t dare pass it up. “Certainly, my lord.”
“Excellent. Then I’ll inform Her Majesty. And as compensation, following a successful demonstration of your device, shall we say five hundred pounds and admission into the Aeronautical Society?”
Marley practically sprang out of his chair. That was far more than he’d anticipated. “Very generous, my lord.”
Hargrieve extended his hand to shake Marley’s on the deal, then rose from his chair, signaling their interview was at an end. “I’ll have the papers outlining our expectations sent round, and I look forward to your demonstration,” he said.
Marley stood and gave a slight bow of his head. It had been the strangest half hour of his life. “Thank you for the opportunity, my lord.” Marley hesitated one moment, his heart practically climbing out of his chest and into his throat. It was now or never. “Lord Hargrieve, if I may be so bold, would you allow me the honor of courting your daughter?”
Lord Hargrieve stared long and hard at him, and the moment seemed to stretch on into what felt like infinity. “You know she has a suitor already, don’t you?”
“Yes, my lord, but if she is willing to entertain my suit as well, I shall give her every reason to be happy for it.”
Hargrieve nodded his head and rubbed the white whiskers on his right cheek. “Very well, then. If you know the risks and are still up to the challenge, you have my permission.”
“Thank you, my lord!” Marley gave a quick bow of his head. He left Lord Hargrieve’s study feeling utterly elated, but he made it only a few steps before a hissing sound stopped him. Marley, his nerves now on edge, knowing there were dark things lurking about, nearly jumped out of his skin.
He turned and peered into the dark recesses of the hall to find Lady Persephone ensconced in an alcove between her father’s study and the turn to the entrance hall. She waved with her hand, motioning him to her.
Marley glanced at the hallway to make sure they wouldn’t be seen conversing unchaperoned. “Yes, my lady?” he said, his voice barely above a whisper. “Was there something you wanted?” He wondered for a moment if she was aware of the oddity of her father’s profession and that of the lieutenant.
Lady Persephone nodded and nibbled at her bottom lip as she stepped out of the alcove. “I want to thank you for the little dog. I’m horribly allergic to real dogs. I’ve wanted one for so very long. It was the most thoughtful of gifts. Thank you.”
And before Marley had a clue what was happening, Lady Persephone reached up on tiptoe and pressed a warm, velvet kiss to his cheek. Heat spread through his system from the point of contact, making him tingle all over. Her unique scent—a mix of heady hyacinth and sweet female—overwhelmed his senses, indelibly imprinting her on his brain.
She glanced up at him, her blue eyes huge and sparkling, then turned away without another word, which was fine by Marley because he was too tongue-tied to say anything. Other than his scores of female relatives, no woman had ever kissed him before.
But the moment was spoiled almost instantly. A thunderous crash and the sound of shattering glass came from Lord Hargrieve’s study. Marley whipped around and shoved Persephone behind him as a precaution.
There was a great yell and a sharp report of gunfire. Marley only made it two steps toward the ruckus when Lord Hargrieve burst into the hall with a deadly looking blade in one hand and a gun in the other. His white hair was askew, his face florid.
“Demon! Turlock, get her out of here! I haven’t time to load another salt shot, and there’ll be more!”
For a second, panic overtook Marley. What the devil did one do to defeat a demon? His feet seemed rooted to the polished floorboards.
Hargrieve spared him only a glance as he hastily tried to reload his gun with shot and gunpowder and what looked like rock salt. “Move, Turlock! That’s an order!”
Self-preservation and common sense took over. Marley turned, grabbed Lady Persephone’s hand in a firm grip, and ran for the front door.
At the juncture of the hall she dug in her feet, nearly yanking his arm from its socket. “No! Not out the front! They’ll be expecting us out the front!” A swirl of what looked like dark smoke began to leak from beneath the front door, growing denser, into what Marley thought were feet. The watered silk on the walls began to shred and ooze blood, and the crystal vase full of flowers on the front table exploded, sending glass shards like bullets to stick into the opposing wall.
Marley held up his arm to ward off the explosion and swore. What the devil was going on?
“Come on!” She pulled him toward the back of the house at a run, her skirts swishing around her booted feet. They burst into the kitchen. “All of you! Stations! Demons!” she shouted.
The cook’s face screwed up, and she set down her wooden spoon. “Lizzie, get the salt and holy water!” The scullery maid rushed to the larder and pulled out a canister of salt, which the cook began pouring out onto the floor in the doorway.
Marley could pause for only a second at their odd behavior before Persephone pulled on his hand. “Come on! They know what to do. This way!” With quick fooy tth quictsteps she led him down into the cellar.
A dark cellar was not his idea of a good escape route. In fact, he was rather concerned that there might be more to worry about being trapped in such a place. “Your father said I should get you out of here.”
“I know. This way.” She pulled him, as if by memory, through the dark, through the rows of shelving. The musty odor of dank earth, wood, and fresh onions and garlic lingered in the air. Over their heads feet scuffled across the floorboards, and there were unearthly screams and the crashing of crockery and glass. The floor seemed to be sloping upward, and Marley nearly tripped over his feet in the dark.
He tugged on her hand, stopping her headlong race across the stone floor. “Lady Persephone, I must protest. This is most dangerous. We need to go back upstairs and help!”
“My father wants me out of here for a reason. He told you to help protect me.”
Marley muttered a curse beneath his breath. “If we’re going to get out of here before those things come after us, we need a light.” Persephone let go of his hand. Before he could protest, he blinked at a sudden burst of brilliant sunlight. She’d opened a door at the back of the house that seemed to be hidden behind a screen of tall shrubbery. From the smell of hay, horse, and fresh manure, Marley guessed they were close to the stables.
“That enough light for you?”
Marley blinked. Smart girl. She’d found them an exit. The moment he let go of the door, it swung shut, as if on springs. Marley couldn’t see more than the crease outlining the door. There were no handle or hinges to be found, no way to open it from the outside. They pushed through the foliage, the grass beneath their feet hushing their footsteps.
Inhuman screams and more crashing could be heard from inside the house, and Marley hesitated. “Run! I’ll go back and assist. They need help.”
Persephone put her warm, damp palm against his cheek and turned him to face her, locking her serious gaze with his. “We do as my father said. We leave. Now. We need to find someplace safe. I have to make sure this isn’t taken.” She pulled on the golden chain around her neck and withdrew a small, iron key.
He had no idea what lock the key fit into, or how he’d gotten caught up in this insane twist of reality, but all he could do now was carry on. Marley pressed his mouth into a firm line and nodded. “We’ll go to my laboratory.”
They raced through the stableyard, through the alley and into the street and grabbed the first coach for hire they could find. Marley glanced back at Lord Hargrieve’s house as they drove away. Other than the broken front window, it looked utterly placid. From the street in front nothing seemed amiss, and one couldn’t hear the screams. Lady Persephone sat across from him but stared out the window.
“Are you certain they’ll be all right?”
Persephone nodded. Her gaze flicked briefly to him. “Father has plenty of devil’s traps molded into the plaster designs in the ceilings. Chances are they’ll all get caught in one; then Father, cook, and the others of the Legion can dispatch them.”
For a second Marley simply stared at her. She knew all about her father’s occupation and didn’t seem ruffled about it in the slightest. How was that possible?
Deep in his own chest his heart beat at a manic pace, suiting a man who had just been scared out of his wits and run for his very life. He glanced down at her hands. Her fingers caressed the small mechanical dog, which had gone still, unt tne stilwinding in their daring escape. She’d kept hold of the dog during absolute bedlam. Amazing.
Marley struggled to collect his scattered thoughts enough to form rational words. “How long have you known about all of this?”
Her piercing blue gaze, so like her father’s for an instant that it unnerved him further, locked with his. “My father has always been in Her Majesty’s service. Few are called, Sir Turlock, but it is a proud tradition handed down from father to son.”
“And what of you? Is it handed down to daughters as well?”
Her teeth nibbled at the edge of her lip. Marley had the insanely curious urge to kiss her then and there, but he resisted. “We are not Hunters, as the boys are.” Her fingers twisted in the chain about her neck, making the key catch the light. “We are Keepers. We tend to the histories, the knowledge of the Legion. I’m not sure how much of this I can share with you, Sir Turlock.”