Marley leaned forward and wrapped his hand over her slender fingers. “Given all that’s transpired this morning, don’t you think we’re well past such formalities? I think you should call me Marley.”
Her lush mouth widened into a smile. “I should like that. And you must call me Sephie.”
Sephie. He liked the sound of it. Rather like an exotic flower from Egypt or some other such faraway land. But darker thoughts intruded.
“How will we know that your father and the others are safe?”
“They will send word.”
“But they don’t even know where we are going.”
Sephie arched a delicate brow, an incredulous look on her face. “Marley, do you really think that Father would have asked you to take me to safety if he didn’t already know everything about you?”
Marley stiffened. He didn’t know if he liked the idea of any man prying into his personal affairs without his consent or knowledge. He tended to be more of a private man, steeped in his work. He didn’t socialize like Thadeus. Focus was critical if he was to complete his work.
“Do you actually have any interest in aeronautics or mechanics or were you merely sent over to capture my attention?”
Sephie broke her direct eye contact with him and sighed. Her gaze dropped to her lap and the little dog in her grasp, before she looked back up at him. “He didn’t say anything about helping you with your invention. That was purely my curiosity and your kindness.”
His shoulders relaxed a bit. “I meant what I said yesterday. You’re very good.”
She shook her head, making the riot of fiery ringlets about her face dance. “Father is dead set against me inventing anything. My first responsibility is to marry into the Legion and perform the duties of a Keeper.” The sad, hopeless sound of her voice reached into his chest and gave his heart a sharp twist.
“That’s why he’s made an arrangement with the lieutenant, isn’t it?”
She nodded, her eyes growing shiny with unshed tears. Marley chose his words carefully. “You aren’t . . . fond . . . of him, are you?”
She rubbed her fingers over the smooth metallic coat of the little spaniel. “He’s a formidable Hunter. One of the best of the new young ones in Her Majesty’s service. But being an excellent Hunter doesn’t necessarily make one good marriage material.”
“Have you told your father how you feel?”
Sephie sighed, thediv sighed glistening tears beginning to spill down her cheeks in such perfect little drops they looked to Marley like translucent pearls. Lady Persephone Hargrieve even cried prettily. She hastily swept the tears away with a brush of her hand. “You must think me a silly chit to cry over such things.”
Marley reached out again and covered her hand with his. “What a woman feels is never silly.”
She gave a hiccup and a sad little bubble of laughter. “I’ve never heard a man talk like that.”
He offered her a gentle, genuine smile. “Perhaps that’s because the men you’ve been around have been fighting the unthinkable instead of having an army of well-meaning aunts see to their instruction.” He reached up and brushed one of her perfect tears away from her cheek with the pad of his thumb.
Sephie gave a delicate sniff and a tremulous smile. “I rather like the difference.”
Lady Persephone Hargrieve was a conundrum. In the midst of bedlam, she’d been sharp and strong, focused and brave. But within her was a keen intellect as bright as any arc light, balanced with a sweet, feminine heart as fragile as glass.
His pulse thrummed hard in his chest, spreading out until it filled every cell. It was as if his whole world tilted off its axis for a moment, wobbling. He’d never met a woman who’d thrown him off balance like Sephie.
He leaned in closer. “Yes,” he whispered.
She blinked the damp fringe of her sparkling lashes, turning her eyes into a lake of blue. Marley felt himself fal
ling, drowning there. “Are you going to kiss me?”
For once, Marley found words perfectly unnecessary.
The rocking of the poorly sprung hackney cab and the steady clop of the horse’s hooves on the cobblestone streets faded into the edges of Marley’s awareness. All he could focus on, all that filled his senses, was Sephie.
Marley closed the space separating them in the seconds between one pounding heartbeat and the next. His hand slid around the indent of her waist. Beneath his questing fingertips he felt the crisp cloth and regular intervals of the boning in her corset. Hard when he wanted soft. He wondered if she was just as soft there beneath all the artificially constructed barriers as her cheek had been when he’d touched the satiny smoothness of it.
The heady fragrance of hyacinth and warm female wound about his brain, making his heartbeat extend to the very tips of all his extremities, mostly notable the one between his legs. In the back of his brain a warning claxon blared. He shouldn’t kiss her. It could ruin everything for them both. He’d never kissed a woman properly before, but her lips looked as lush and ripe as a strawberry picked fresh and sun-warmed from the field.
She was irresistible.
His lips touched hers, gliding and pressing against the inviting softness, seeking out her warmth. Sephie’s eyelids fluttered shut, and she made soft noises as she leaned into him, her fingers wrapping possessively around his neck and threading into his hair. Her eager response wound his need into an even tighter coil, a spring waiting for release.
For the first time he understood why Thadeus could be so smitten by females as to lose all his common sense. Deep down Marley wanted the moment to freeze, to never end, but continually replay over and over so it could always be liks e this. The warmth of her against him, the feel of her beneath his hands, the taste of her on his tongue, the fragrance of her skin filling his senses.
Sephie thought she might come out of her skin, or at the very least out of her dress and corset. Every inch of her skin felt alive with flame. Unlike Frobisher’s hard, punishing kisses that left her feeling like she were bruised and drowning, eager to get away, Marley’s kisses were smooth and seductive, luring her deeper into his arms until she was practically atop his lap, her skirts bunched up about her hips.
His hands, warm and firm on her waist, had skimmed up higher, the edge of his thumb tracing along the soft, sensitive underside of her breast, making the tip pebble and ache for his touch.
She wanted to taste him. Sephie tentatively touched the tip of her tongue against his lips. He immediately responded, opening up to her, his kiss deepening in an erotic slide that reduced her insides to a quivering mass of aspic. A persistent throb at her core grew into an unbearable ache. Sephie brushed herself against the broad expanse of his thigh to assuage it. Marley growled deeply in response.
The hackney came to a jolting halt, causing them to nearly slide to the floor. Sephie realized how close she’d come to compromising herself in a way that could never be recovered. Something about Marley made her forget herself far too easily. She pulled back from his touch.
A look of hurt flickered through his eyes for a moment, but then he too seemed to come out of the sensual fog that had shrouded them both in the half an hour it had taken to get to Bostwick House.
Marley opened the door, and she moved to climb out, but his hand wrapped in a no-nonsense fashion about her wrist. “You’d best wait in here until I can determine if it’s safe,” he said.
Sephie nearly laughed at the absurdity of his comment.
been the one raised as the child of a Hunter, and she knew precisely what they were up against and had come prepared, unlike Marley. But she held her urge to laugh in check, realizing from the frown on his face that Marley was deadly serious.
“If you must. Just be careful,” she said, humoring him. He gave her a curt nod and shut the door.
Her finger tapped out an impatient tattoo on the leather seat while she waited. It was ridiculous. Of the two of them she’d been more closely associated with the Legion of Hunters far longer. She knew what could stop a demon in its tracks and how to outsmart a vampire. Marley had only learned of the existence of the Darkin a mere hour ago, if not less. Still, it spoke well of him that he considered her safety above his own.
“How long can a look around possibly take?” she muttered under her breath to no one in particular. She knew they hadn’t been followed. The emergency exit through the cellar had warding spells and seals upon it, not letting any through but those alive and breathing, so she knew no Darkin had followed them across town. But in the event that they had been followed, the small sachet of wolfsbane in the pocket of her skirt would ward off curious vampires who could become paralyzed by the stuff. For demons and werewolves, she had a vial of holy water, and if a ghost came too close, she could swing the nearest iron implement and take care of it temporarily.
Marley poked his head back in the hackney and a rush of relief filled her. She’d begun to worry about him.
“It looks safe enough.” He held out his hand to assist her. Sephie was only too glad to have another excuse to slip her hand into his. Thent.nto his smooth, dry whisper of his skin against hers sent a fresh thrill shooting through her, making her tingle in places she’d never considered all that interesting before.
The waning light of evening cast the entrance to Bostwick House in shadow, making the residence seem far more foreboding than it had when she and her father had driven past to inspect the place during his investigations of Marley a month before.
Overall her father was a cautious man. He didn’t choose associates indiscriminately. Her Majesty’s Royal Hunter Service wasn’t considered Europe’s top branch of the Legion for nothing, and her father intended to keep hold of that legacy as long as possible.
“Do you think anyone is home?” she asked as the hackney clattered off into the gathering gloom of the street. The lamplighters were making their way along the streets with their long-poled lighters as people returned home to dress for various elegant events. The Earl of Sedgwick’s ball was tonight, she remembered. Not that she’d wanted to go. She’d rather be here with Marley than swirling about a ballroom with anyone else. Lieutenant William Wallace Frobisher in particular.
The ivy crawling up the great brick walls of Bostwick House shivered slightly in the warm evening breeze. The muddy scent of the Thames contrasted with the floral freshness of summer roses and lilies in bloom on the grounds. Against the twilight, lights blazed in a few of the windows; the human presence making the house seem welcoming enough at a second glance. “With six aunts and four uncles, there’s always someone home at Bostwick House,” he grumbled.
“You have a large family, don’t you?”
“Too large. And far too nosy.”
“I always thought a large family would be a comforting thing.”
“Not when you are trying to maintain secrecy.”
Rather than walking her up the front steps, Marley steered her toward the side of the house and indicated the bright glow of light coming from the basement windows. “This way.” He led her around the side of the house. “For the sake of propriety, it’s best if we use the outside entrance to the basement. It’ll cause fewer questions later, I assure you.”
“You don’t like your family knowing what you’re up to, do you?”
Marley offered her a good-natured, lopsided smile. “If you lived with them, you’d understand; it’s less complicated this way.”
Sephie nodded. Anything would be good as long as they got indoors quickly. The prickling of the small hairs on the back of her neck told her Darkin were close. “Whatever you wish. You certainly understand them better than I do. But let’s hurry.”
Marley grabbed her hand and gave it a squeeze. “Trust me, if I were to walk in with you in tow, they’d immediately begin peppering us with questions about when we were going to announce our engagement. And it would be doubly hard to explain why I’m alone with another man’s intended without spilling an awful lot of your father’s secrets and upsetting a family blissfully unaware of Darkin in the process.”
Eyes narrowing, Sephie glanced around as if suddenly aware that they were alone in the semi-darkness. Marley tightened his fingers around hers to reassure her. She was safe with him. She’d always be safe with him. But he now had enemies he didn’t know or understand. These Darkin, whatever they were, were dangerous. He’d seen Hargrieve’s reaction to them. But how could he possibly hope to build a weapon against something he didn’t know how to fight? He glanced at Sephie as they opened the gate in the wsteate in rought iron fence. He might not know about the Darkin, but she certainly did. And as brilliant and gifted as she was, she could help him formulate not just weapons, but a plan for altering his electrostatic power generator into the electric shot cannon Lord Hargrieve had requested.
“We’d best get inside now,” she said softly. “It isn’t safe to linger out here in the open too long.”
He should have let go of her hand, but he didn’t. But in his defense, she didn’t seem eager to let go of him, either. “This way,” he said, leading her back around the gravel path through the lush, half-overgrown garden, filled with the fragrance of lilies and roses and freshly cut grass. Crickets chirped in the warm evening air. A perfect summer night, if they hadn’t been running from Darkin.
They came to what looked like a potting shed overgrown with climbing red roses. Their heavy sweetness infused the air and disguised the odors of ozone and chemicals that came from the lab below. He and Thadeus had planned it that way to ensure no little cousins inadvertently found the secret back entrance to their laboratory. They figured if it looked like it might involve hard work with rakes, hoes, and clippers, the little ones were likely to stay away. So far they’d been right.
He pulled his key from his pocket and opened the lock on the door. The familiar scents of potting moss, earth, and lye filled the air. The potting shed was dark, but there in the floor one could see the outline of a large square indicating the trapdoor. Marley pulled her inside. There was hardly enough room with the two of them in the confines of the little shed to open the trapdoor. “I’m sorry, but you’ll have to stand closer to me if we’re to open the door.”
She gave him a saucy smile, her pretty teeth white in the gloom. “You say that as if you think I’ll mind.”
Marley swallowed hard. He’d enjoyed kissing her, but it muddled his thinking, and now was not the time for being wobbly about the brainbox. It was best if he didn’t lead her on—or give in to further temptation himself.
She moved until she was right next to him. The warmth of her, noticeable even in the heat of a summer evening, made him positive he had too many clothes on for comfort.
Focus, man. Focus.
He crouched, fingers brushing the floor, feeling for the recessed metal latch in the wood. He found it and gave a great pull, lifting the trapdoor and letting the light of the tunnel connecting the shed to the laboratory in the basement fill the shed.
“Careful. The steps can be slippery if they’re damp.” He held her hand tightly as he helped her navigate the steep descent of the stone steps into the tunnel.
As soon as they were clear, he pulled the door shut over them.
“This is extraordinary,” she murmured, her voice echoing as she ran her fingertips over the stone walls and walked beside him down the hallway, wide and tall enough to accommodate a horse-drawn carriage. The temperature was slightly cooler than above, and the hall was lit by the ambient glow coming from the arc lamp in the laboratory just up ahead.
He walked side by side with her, enjoying the moment of being able to hold her hand in his. Mixed with the familiar must of the damp stone was the sharp tang of ozone, a by-product from some of his experimentation. She turned and glanced at him. “Did you and your cousin build all this?”
Marley shook his head. “We added and modified, but some of these tunnels have been here for ages. The Turlocks tend to be a creative lot. My cousin Thae ty cousideus and I used to get lost for hours mapping out the hidden rooms and passages in the house when we were children.”
“And your mother didn’t mind?”
“She always encouraged our curious nature.”
She gave a great sigh as they reached the bend that turned the tunnel toward the house. “I wish I could say the same. My father has kept me practically under his boot heel since I could toddle.”
“Probably with good reason. It looks as though what he fights is very dangerous.”
She stopped and locked gazes with him. “But that’s just it. I know the dangers better than most, so why not let me fight against them with my mechanical creations rather than just relegating me to record Kee—”
A great grinding
cut off what she was saying. The sound was followed by a whirring then another
“What is it?”
“Thad must have left Binky on guard.”
Just then a gigantic mechanical construct, its shoulders wide enough to stretch from one side of the tunnel to the other, its head nearly grazing the roof, with hands the size of wheelbarrows, came lumbering into the space before them, its red glowing eyes fixed firmly on the two of them.