Winterblaze Page 1

Prologue

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.

Chapter One

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.

“Come.”

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.

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