Regan Delaney, a gypsy elf and a secret agent for the Crown, plans to avenge the death of her best friend. Her primary suspect is her best friend’s husband, Bran Monroe, the Earl Kirkbride. Before she can question him, she discovers him surrounded by London’s most notorious criminals. She must engage in battle to save him before she can discover the truth. As Regan spends more time with Bran, and witnesses his kindness, she realizes his ingrained moral code does not match that of a cold-blooded killer. But truth is elusive.
Uncontrollable blackouts leave Bran with brief memories of violence–fights, blood, and death. He wakens with bloody clothing, scents of smoke and other evidence that points to a violent side to his nature of which he has no knowledge.
Even though Bran is convinced he murdered his wife during one of his mysterious blackouts, too many details don’t add up. Can Bran discover what is really going on, defeat the evil and accept the love that Regan offers?
Tonight Regan would catch Kirkbride meeting all five of his cutthroats. For the past two nights she had been unable to find the earl. He was as slippery as an oiled cog, she would give him that. However, she had an unexpected break when two of Milo’s boys had been the ones to deliver the messages from Kirkbride to his culprits, designating the time and place for their rendezvous. Milo himself was still missing. It had been three nights since the boy had stowed away in the boot of the hearse. Perhaps he had followed the kidnapped women to a more remote port, or place of holding. Stomach churning with anxiety, she could only pray he was all right.
She trailed fifty yards behind Kirkbride. The man seemed unusually adept at hearing the most minute sounds. She concentrated on buoying her weight so that her feet barely touched the surface. The buoy was an old elven trick she’d learned as a child from her gypsy family. Old lamp posts cast watery shadows on the filth-encrusted street. Black cloak swirling, he fit right in with the surrounding clime. He moved like the wisps of ghostly clouds that traveled over the round fullness of the moon. His tall, dark figure defied any light the moon might decide to share.
Distant thunder rumbled as the recent storm left London to fall on villages farther east. The damp streets magnified the scents of human waste and decay. All was silent, deep and penetrating, amplifying a drip of water when her boot made contact with a puddle. Kirkbride turned his head. Heart pounding, hoping he couldn’t hear it, she focused on blending in with the nearby brick edifice. Camouflage—another elven trait she’d honed as an adolescent. He barely broke stride, but instead continued the ground-eating gait that carried him toward Butcher Alley.
Gritting her teeth against the cold dampness that seeped through her stockings, she dogged her quarry.
When he entered the alley, she hesitated. Even though she couldn’t see them, her sharp elven senses she’d come to rely on told her the other villains were there. Malignant thoughts filled with evil intent writhed within the inky darkness of the passage. Sweat dampened the palm that held the hilt of her sword. Her other hand hovered over the throwing knives nestled in their leather sheaths sewn into her corset. Kirkbride reached the center of the alley, and stopped.
This was it. He was evidently waiting for his partners in crime. Soon she would hear of their new assassination plan.
Sure enough, five shadows separated from the gloom, a pair on either side. She sensed troll blood mixed with human, and perhaps werewolf? In the center was Jack by Jacked, obviously the leader of the pack. Involuntarily, she shuddered as she looked at the soulless degenerate. More monster than man, he enjoyed tormenting women in unspeakable ways before selling them, often as slaves to corsairs. She’d known that Jacked by Jack and the others would be there, but, for a moment, seeing them together nearly overwhelmed her. Despite her efforts, she trembled.
They were some of the worst criminals in England, and her dear friend’s husband was an associate of theirs.
Something about their aggressive stances and the manner in which they circled Kirkbride told her that their intent was not to talk. Jacked by Jack’s bulbous eyes bore into Kirkbride. “Ye’re a cocky bastard, Kirkbride, ta challenge us at once. Someone needs ta put ye in yer place.”
“This is the last time ye’ll ever mess wi’ my business,” Spider growled.
“ ’E wishes death, and ’e’ll get it,” Rat Chaser added with a sneer as he closed in with a slim rapier. A click broke the silence, and a row of silver teeth snapped into place along the blade.
What was going on here? Regan struggled to make sense of what she saw and heard.
The next instant, Jacked by Jack swung his sword. Kirkbride met the attack, stepping toward his adversary with an animal like grace, then sweeping down with his sword to parlay. When the swords clashed, a buzz energized the air.
Sparks flew. Kirkbride jerked as if on fire. Regan realized Jacked wore a small pack on his back. A wire connected the pack to the sword’s hilt. The square-shaped pack was a generator.
Clocks. The weapon had been enhanced with electricity.
A split second later, Rat Chaser stabbed at Kirkbride’s back. The earl seemed to anticipate the move, for he danced away from the rapier’s lethal teeth. Then Deadwood Dials and Spider lunged at the same time, from different sides of Kirkbride, the swiftness of the attack stealing Regan’s breath.
Kirkbride threw himself away from the foray, causing his enemies to clash swords with each other. Before he could regain his balance, Rat Chaser scurried behind him and jabbed again, which Kirkbride must have sensed for he dodged and parried. Although he managed to deflect most of the thrust, Regan could see dark stain on the tip of Rat Chaser’s blade, at least one inch long.
Kirkbride’s grimace of pain should have appeased Regan. This confrontation was a falling-out among murderers—or at least that was what she would have thought a few moments ago. But what had Jacked by Jack meant about a challenge, and what had Spider meant about messing with his business? Was it because he had double-crossed them and had been found out? Did they want more of the money? Had they disliked the plan that Kirkbride had devised?
Whatever the cause for the attack, the reprobate deserved it. Play with fire and you'll get burned. It was a just ending to the man who had deceived, and then murdered, Selena.
But this rendezvous hadn’t played out as Regan had anticipated. She’d expected to overhear plans of criminal intent, not witness a murder. For with such over whelming odds it was murder. As she observed how the others circled, waiting to give the lethal stab, she had the sinking sensation that she was going to have to do something about the assault if she wanted answers.
But that didn’t mean she couldn’t make him suffer a little before she got her answers. Heart pounding, already regretting her decision to interfere, she eased into the shadows under a partially fallen archway and looked for an opening to help Kirkbride.
Bran watched the five degenerates as they surrounded him, their eyes slits of evil. With a harsh laugh, he challenged Grim Reaper to try to take him even as he met an attack from Spider with a ferocious clash of metal. If he was to die this night, he intended on taking down as many of the criminals as he could.
He darted to the left to greet once more the toothy rapier’s sly bite on his vulnerable skin. Pain pierced him as liquid warmth flowed down his side, close to the other wound. Bran snarled at the Rat and snapped back at him, jabbing below his collarbone. Rat Catcher squeaked and fell away.
Before Spider had time to regroup for another swing, Bran whirled, not even having to look at his adversary but instinctively knowing where to slash. The stab to Spider’s gut reminded him that what goes around comes around. For all the helpless souls Spider had tortured, a gut wound would make him suffer as he had forced others to suffer. Spider staggered and fell dead.
Deadwood Dials, Jacked by Jack and Torch stood carelessly to one side, watching the exchange. Deadwood Dials’s thin nostrils flared, and, in Bran’s mind, he saw a wolf’s snout flare. “I smell Monroe’s blood.”
Jacked by Jack grinned, showing his rotten teeth. “Aye, and I love it.”
The wounds to Bran’s side became a dull ache. He forced the pain to the back of his mind.
“We’re goin’ ta see you burn,” Torch added, his red hair gleaming almost as bright as the fires he enjoyed setting. Then he swung his war hammer. The piston glowed a coppery red on the end of a long shaft. Torch missed, hitting a lamp post that no longer worked. A loud bang rang in Kirkbride’s ears as explosives ignited at the end of the piston upon contact, the flash blinding. Kirkbride gritted his teeth.
They moved as one, closing in for the kill.
A rush of anticipation hit Bran as he welcomed the yawning darkness of the Underworld.
Suddenly a swirl of shapely legs encased in black fishnet stockings materialized from a recessed threshold with a violent battle cry and flashing steel. Stunned, Bran froze as he watched the woman whip her sword under and up, halting Deadwood Dials’s thrust and forcing him to step backward. He realized her sword was curved more like a scimitar, with strange symbols etched along the length.
“Guard my back!” she cried as she stabbed Deadwood Dials, then swiveled to clash swords with Torch just as Jacked by Jack jabbed below her waistline. That voice seemed familiar but her face was covered with dark netting attached to her equally dark hat.
No time for questions. He deflected a stab at her spine, jumping between her and her third adversary. He worried about her fighting skills, wondering how any woman could have acquired such talent. She had come to his rescue—and he would be forced to defend her. Was she a help or a detriment? Why would she risk herself for him in the first place? Why would she interfere? Who in all clocks was she?
A whiff of something exotic swept over him—jasmine—and he knew she had been his stalker. Then his attention snapped back to Jacked by Jack and Rat Catcher, who swung at him simultaneously.
He kicked a steel-tipped boot against Rat Catcher’s thigh to unbalance him, and arced his sword downward to thwart Jacked by Jack at the same time, aiming for the wire that connected the sword to the generator. The sword sparked then turned black. Bran turned to counter another attack from Rat Catcher. On the edge of his vision, he saw Jack raise his sword, preparing to stab him between his shoulders. Locked in combat with Rat Catcher, he couldn’t free his sword in time. A flicker of silver caught a ray of moonlight and Jack screamed. Rat Catcher whimpered as he jumped away from Bran to look in horror at Jack. Bran followed his gaze. The hilt of a knife stuck out from Jack’s right shoulder. Bran watched him scuttle into the darkness.
Bran turned to find the woman, who was busy with the other two criminals. Was she the one who threw the knife? Or was somebody else nearby? His uninvited accomplice jabbed Deadwood Dials in the chest, and then pivoted with uncanny speed to disarm Torch. With a yelp, Torch dropped his war hammer. Realizing he now faced her without a weapon, the villain disappeared into the night. Without a word, she twisted to come shoulder to shoulder with Bran as they both confronted Rat Catcher.
Without his cohorts, his nose twitched and his eyes widened in fear before he tucked tail and ran. For a brief moment Bran considered chasing the good-for-nothing, then decided he would wait for another day to finish him off.
As the silence of the night descended upon them, he turned to stare at his unlikely rescuer. He noticed her row of throwing knives sewn to her corset. One of the sheaths was missing a hilt. So. She had thrown the knife at Jacked by Jack. He couldn’t see her face through the dark netting, but as she stood in the alley, her eyes almost level with his, he could see she was magnificent. He knew she had long, strong legs by the way she’d moved with her parries. Her arms had a graceful strength, like a young tree. He could see her as a Valkyrie with a battle ax in one hand, a sword in the other, wearing a golden breastplate. “Who is this angel that had dropped from the night sky to fight my battles?”
For a moment she stood where she was. He could barely glimpse her dark eyes and the curve of one cheek beneath her netting. A frisson of extreme awareness passed between them, something similar to the lightning sword. Had the storm returned?
She must have been aware of the strange magnetism because she couldn’t seem to find her voice for several long moments. Then she backed away. “Me? Fight your battles? Ha. The clash was a little one-sided. I couldn’t stand by and watch you get massacred.”
Massacred? The fight hadn’t been that one-sided. He could have killed them all if she hadn’t interfered, or at least most of them.
She twirled the sword in her gloved hand. “Nice company you keep, Kirkbride. As I always said, ‘birds of a feather flock together.’ ”
“You know me?”
“As did Selena, to her misfortune,” she replied. She raised her sword, her right foot leading as she assumed her ready stance. “En garde. ”
Familiarity washed over him again. Was it the tilt of her head, the manner in which she thrust out her chin, the defiance in her voice? Or the way she stood with one hip slightly cocked? He tried to peer through her widow’s weeds to see her features. “Who are you?”
“You could say I’m an angel...an avenging angel. I couldn’t let them have you when I wanted you for myself.” With that, she slashed her sword toward his midsection.
He defended himself purely by instinct. But who in bloody cogs was she?
Avenging angel. Her reference struck him and he knew.
She was Regan Delaney, the Baroness Whitley, and Selena’s closest friend. Although he’d known his wife had seen the baroness several times since their marriage, he’d met her only twice—once at the wedding and later at the wedding breakfast. The woman was an obscurity—all Selena had told him was that they had grown up together at the abbey and were like sisters. Lady Delaney traveled extensively and was considered a woman of the world, having had several liaisons since her elderly husband’s death two years ago. He’d always thought Selena’s friendship with the woman was unusual since they seemed such opposites—Lady Delaney as dark and mysterious as midnight and Selena as bright and open as sunshine. But Selena had been accepting of everyone—her kind heart would never allow her to see any faults in someone she’d befriended.
All right, being a best friend gave her the right to challenge him. “Baroness, give me your best, then.”
“Don’t worry. I will, because you deserve to die.” She thrust her sword over and down.
Making a pretense of meeting her parry, he allowed her sword to break through his defense and slash his arm. The sting was barely noticeable. He knew he de served more pain than this for what he’d done.
She scowled. “You can do better than that. Don’t forget, I saw you fighting for your life just moments ago. What, are you being gentle with me because I’m a woman? Don’t, or else your demise will be that much faster.”
Hearing the fierce determination in her voice, he knew she meant what she said, and applauded her. “Yes, you’re better than most men I’ve met.”
She moved uncannily quick, and he realized he had to concentrate with extra efforts to anticipate her moves. When she performed a fancy molinello close to his heart, he decided to counter the circular movement with a hanging guard.
Her chest rose and fell with exertion. She circled him, her sword quivering for a chance at an opening. “What I want to know is why you were careless with your secrets? Surely you knew that if Selena overheard, you would be forced to kill her.”
Her comment unbalanced him. “Secrets?”
She parlayed again, heedless of his question. Caught off-guard, he barely managed to divert her sword from his gut. She continued to whirl and strike. “I thought you had some affection for her. Why discuss the assassination in the house where Selena could hear, thereby endangering her?”
Startled, he froze. “What assassination?” he asked, distracted. Again, he brought up his sword in a tick’s time to deflect another lunge.
Apparently his surprise at her words didn’t deter her. She continued her diatribe. “You over-oiled piece of clockwork, if you knew anything at all about her, you would have known that she was a loyal British citizen and could never keep still once she overheard your dastardly plans.” With more skill than any of the cutthroats he’d harassed, she forcefully struck with a cut and plunge.
He scarcely had a chance to block the attack. “What are you talking about?” he demanded. An assassination? Of whom? And what was Selena's part in it? His Selena? He wanted answers!
Suddenly he was fighting for his life instead of looking for the most worthy way to die. Lady Delaney raised questions about situations of which he knew nothing. “What would Selena know about an assassination? Whose assassination?”
“Don’t play innocent with me, you piece of scrap metal.”
“Me? Why do you think I know anything?”
“Because of the company you keep. Nice friends,” she snarled before aiming for his neck.
Chopping her assault aside, he considered her statement. Clocks on a wall, he had no answer for that. How could he explain the black spells, and his reason for the associations had been to kill and be killed? As he deflected her blow once more, he grimly understood how she could arrive at such conclusions.
She continued to attack him. “You’re a womanizer, a charmer. Selena never knew the depths of your treachery—otherwise she would never have come within ten feet of you.” She kept up her assault as she spoke. Suddenly she swung under and up to cut his trousers from knee to hip. A line of blood welled.
He’d always been faithful to Selena. But he didn’t think the baroness would listen to his protestations of innocence. Did it even matter? The woman thought him an assassin. His jaw hurt, and he realized he gritted his teeth. “Baroness, cease...your attacks.”
“Had enough...have you? Well, I beg to differ.”
In a closed stance, she slashed backward and down, her movements nearly too fast for him to counter. It was only because he intuitively knew she would employ the move. It was strange—like he could read her mind. Then she performed an elegant terza, which was a forty-five-degree angled move in which she held the blade close to her hip before striking. He struggled to maintain his balance, moving down with her drive, determined not to give her the edge. By now both were breathing hard.
“Regan, I must...talk to you.”
“Murderer,” she panted. “Traitor.”
“Turncoat. Wife-killer.” She pounced again.
In skill she was better than him. Determination swept through him—he must stay alive if only to discover what she knew about Selena. But he didn’t want to hurt the baroness. Finally, after anticipating another terza, he managed to duck and step inside her swing to grab the hilt. With a jerk, he pulled her weapon from her gloved fingers, letting it fall with a clatter against the cobbled-stone alley, and then yanked her against his chest. Her hat fell off, and she gasped.
“Now,” he said, breathing hard as he held her against him, “you’re going to stop trying to slice me to ribbons. You’re going to listen to me. You’re going to tell me what I want to know. What is this about an assassination and what was Selena’s part in it?” Then he looked at her face without the netting.
And was lost.