My Lady Quicksilver

Page 37

For so long he’d been afraid to let another woman close after Annabelle’s betrayal. It had hurt so badly, though the ache of it was like an old scar now. He’d never wanted to feel that way again.

Somehow Rosa had gotten beneath his skin. He hadn’t even realized what was happening until it was too late. And now he was falling for a woman who was afraid to love him back.

Oh, yes, he recognized the deliberate distance she kept between them. The only time she’d ever come close to revealing herself—that secret core she kept hidden—she’d been in his arms and his bed, and neither of them had been focused on speaking.

He knew she had secrets. He simply didn’t care.

The taste of her fear rode over his tongue, despite the weak smile she flashed him. If she wanted to pretend that nothing had happened, then he would let her—he had to. Anything else would only prolong the pain of his death if he couldn’t figure out a way to give the Echelon what they wanted without betraying Mercury.

So he didn’t push her to face this fear. He didn’t ask what it was that she was keeping from him. Instead, he took the half mask in dubious fingers and examined it. “What is it?”

A small round disk centered over the mouthpiece, bound with mesh that roughened the pad of his thumb as he scraped it over it.

“It’s a filtration mask. It helps those suffering from the black lung, or other lung diseases, to breathe without the choke of London air.”

“You think it will stop the bloodlust from effecting me?”

“I don’t know. It might. It’s supposed to filter out all noxious gases and pollutants.”

She knew. Knew the fear that lurked in his own heart. The vulnerability should have concerned him—he hated having anyone know his weaknesses—but Rosa was different. He trusted her implicitly, despite the secrets that lurked between them. This meant more to him than any gift. “Thank you.”

“I have three more.” The look in her eyes told him she knew exactly what he was thinking. “One each for Perry and Garrett and one left over for whoever you feel needs it.”

“Byrnes,” he said instantly. “He’ll be leading the outside contingent.”

Footsteps intruded. “I heard my name,” Garrett announced, striding out of the shadows and into the light, his attention focused on his cuff links. He straightened them and looked up, light gleaming off his chestnut hair and the stark white shirt beneath his black coat.

One would think a member of the Echelon had arrived; from the pristine folds of the white scarf dangling around his neck to the crisp white gloves Garrett tugged into place, he looked like any other dashing young rake.

His body was focused however, stillness radiating through sleek muscle. A weapon at Lynch’s side and one he had to trust enough to use. Garrett would survive, he had to believe that. Lynch couldn’t protect them all, especially not when this time he was the one who needed help.

“Where’s Perry?” Garrett asked. “Still trying to figure out which end of the dress goes where?”

“Oh, I managed,” Perry drawled, from the top of the stairs.

Even Lynch’s eyebrows shot up when he saw her. Languidly waving a fan, Perry slid her blood-red skirts into her other hand and started down the stairs. Her natural predatory grace made it seem as though she were stalking them, a small triumphant smile on her painted lips as her blue eyes locked on Garrett.

“Do you think I’ll do?” she asked in a surprisingly girlish voice as she reached the foot of the stairs. Glancing at Garrett beneath her lashes, she gave a little twirl that flared the skirts around her trim ankles.

At his side, Rosa pressed her gloved hand to her lips and coughed. Lynch looked down sharply. That had sounded suspiciously like a laugh. When he saw the smile she couldn’t quite hide, he raised a questioning brow.

She tilted her head toward Garrett, who was frozen in the act of straightening his coat.

“Well?” Perry repeated, coming to a halt, with her red skirts wrapping around the bottom of her legs and an excited, breathless flush in her cheeks.

Garrett cleared his throat. “Good God. Mrs. Marberry you work wonders.”

“I had nothing to do with it,” Rosa replied. “Perhaps you’re not giving Perry her dues. It seems she’s been hiding more than a knife or two under that body armor all along.”

The color drained out of his second’s face. A dawning suspicion began to grow on him and Lynch glanced between the pair of them. Rosa’s face came into view as she straightened his coat and she winked up at him as if she knew precisely what he was thinking.

“Don’t ruin it,” she mouthed silently.

“Quite,” Garrett said in a crisp, distant tone that sounded not at all himself. His eyes were wild. “Shall we?”


Light gleamed over the heavy Grecian columns that supported the opera portico. Dozens of brightly dressed ladies littered the marble stairs that led to the doors, fans fluttering like ghostly wings in the night.

Lynch stepped out of the plain black steam carriage, raking the crowd with a ruthless gaze. Blue bloods thronged all around him, some of them casting curious glances at the carriage as if wondering what he was doing there. He’d earned a knighthood over twenty years ago for finding the kidnapped cousin of the queen, but he rarely moved amongst them. They might call him “sir” to his face, but they still considered him little better than a rogue. Indeed some of the younger members of the Echelon didn’t even bother with the “sir,” too young to remember a time when he’d walked amongst them with the same rights and dues as they owned.

He offered his hand to Rosa. Her glove rested on his, then she slid down from the carriage with effortless grace, fanning herself. The bored expression on her face perfectly matched every other lady there, as though they didn’t dare reveal too much emotion for fear of appearing gauche.

Her eyes however raked the crowd with the same attention to detail as his—almost as if she were looking for someone. Lynch slid his hand into the curve of her back and urged her toward the opera house, bending low to murmur, “Don’t be nervous. I won’t allow anything to happen to you.”

“I know.”

Her spine was steel, reluctance tight in each muscle beneath his fingertips. “Do you expect your father to be here?”

Rosa stopped in her tracks. “How did you—” Then she stopped and he had no difficulty deciphering her thoughts.

“I know he’s of the Echelon. And I know he hurt you. One of these days, you will tell me what he did—” At the sudden jerk of her head, he lifted a soothing hand. “But not now. Just rest assured that you will come to no harm. If you wish to wait in the carriage, you may.”

“If I see my father, then I know I shall not come to any harm.” Her expression tightened. “I cannot say the same for him.”

Cold foreboding traveled down his spine. “Do you have your pistol?”

“Of course. It’s strapped to my thigh.” She pasted an impressively convincing smile on her face. “Fear not, my lord, for I don’t intend to hunt him down.” She reached up and trailed the edge of her fan over his lips. “I also have no intention of waiting in the carriage.” This time her smile softened with genuineness.

“It was worth a try.”

She laughed under her breath, low and husky, the sound stirring over his skin like soft fingers.

“Can you see Garrett or Perry?” he asked, looking around. “I wish I could wear the aural communicator.”

“Garrett is probably still gaping like a breeched cod,” Rosa murmured, catching a handful of her skirts as she smoothly took the first stair at his side. “They’ll have to leave the hackney out of sight and walk on foot. I shouldn’t expect them very soon, not with this crush.”

More people turned to glance at them as they reached the top of the stairs, whispers sprouting.

At the door, a pair of Coldrush Guards gave him an uneasy glance. The prince consort and queen must be in attendance then. Lynch’s gut clenched. As if tonight wouldn’t be difficult enough.

Handing over his tickets at the door, he and Rosa slipped inside the marble foyer. A black-and-white checkerboard of tiles extended all the way to a gilded pair of spiral stairs.

“Where to?” Rosa whispered, looking up at him. She was almost breathless with excitement, her eyes sparkling in the candlelight.

“Upstairs,” he murmured, shielding her from the buffeting crowd with his body. Dozens of gold-plated servant drones wheeled through the crowd and he snatched a pair of glasses off the flat tray on one of their heads. Offering her the champagne, he sipped at his own blud-wein. The crowd was starting to move, and across the foyer he saw Garrett protectively ushering Perry inside.

If the mechs were here, they’d know him on sight. They wouldn’t, however, recognize the pair of Nighthawks unless he did something to draw attention to them. Lynch glanced away, focusing on the liveried servants that mingled with the crowd. None of them looked as though they’d led a hard life and he could see no sign of a distinctive mech limb anywhere.

“Not the servants,” she murmured. “These men are from the enclaves. There’s no way they could blend in enough for the Echelon to mistake them.”

She was right. They’d be somewhere deep within the bowels of the building, perhaps posing as workmen behind the scenes or maintenance workers.

A blue blood minced past with a pale young woman on a leash, her gaze downcast and a thin, gauzy white robe revealing inches of decadent skin. Rosa’s eyes hardened and Lynch steered her away with a hand to the small of her back. One glance told him she knew exactly what he was doing; that diamond-sharp gaze scored him and for a moment he felt a flush of shame, as though by his very complicity, he himself had put the golden shackle around the young blood slave’s throat.

“There’s nothing I can do about it,” he told her. “Nor you.”

“So we simply ignore it?”

Swallowing her champagne, she slammed the glass flute down on the tray of a passing servant drone and jerked away from his touch.

“We keep our minds on the business at hand.” He grabbed her elbow in a hard grip and Rosa stilled, her back rigid with barely suppressed fury. Lynch sighed under his breath and stepped closer, lowering his face close to her ear. “I have no influence here. I’m as much an outsider as you are, Rosa.”

One look at Rosa’s face, at those implacable black eyes told him she wasn’t swayed. “If you could, would you help her?”

Something about the stillness of her figure told him the answer was deadly important to her. She looked right through him, as though seeking to bare his soul, to find something inside him that she desperately needed to find.

“Do you have to ask?” His hand gentled on her arm. Hell, he couldn’t believe what he was thinking, his mind branded with shock. She’d admitted her brother was a humanist, but her own thoughts on the matter were dangerously revealing. “Rosa, you need to keep such thoughts close, especially here. If anyone overhears…”

Rosa sucked in a sharp breath, her entire body quivering beneath his touch. “They would think I had humanist tendencies. Perhaps I should say something. Perhaps this eternal damned silence—this hold-your-tongue-or-die attitude is what keeps women like that in shackles. This lack of a voice—it’s the very reason we are here. The reason there is a war going on, played out in secret beneath the Echelon’s very noses.”

She was shaking so violently he could barely contain her. Darting a look over his shoulder, he pressed her against the wall, using his body to screen hers. For once, he was relieved at the oppressive laughter and gossip nearby, for it kept Rosa’s damning words from common ears.

Their eyes met. She was angry and he didn’t quite understand.

“If I said something—”

“Then you would die, and I with you,” he said curtly.

Rosa’s lips parted, her eyes widening. He watched thoughts racing in rapid emotion across her face, like the shadow of cloud cover over the ground.

“They would have to go through me first,” he explained. “But I would die, and you too, and perhaps there would be some to cry ‘martyr,’ but in the end it wouldn’t matter. Nothing would change. That girl will go home with her collar and leash, and her master will take as much blood from her as he desires.” The back of his gloved fingers trailed over her jaw. She looked so lost, so crushed. “That is why I must stop these humanists, these mechs. They will bring war and death down upon the Echelon, but they will trample the innocent in their path just as much as the enemy. If we don’t find them, theirs will be a hollow victory, earning them nothing but hate and fear. And when the Echelon fear something, they destroy it.”

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