Read Gilded Hearts (The Shadow Guild Series) Online

Authors: Christine D'Abo

Tags: #Fiction / Romance - Erotica, #Fiction / Romance - Fantasy, #Fiction / Romance - Science Fiction, #Fiction / Science Fiction - Steampunk

Gilded Hearts (The Shadow Guild Series) (7 page)

“Go. We have to go now.”

“Sam, you’re not making any sense.” She was still reeling from his appearance in her room. “Go where?”

“Run. We have to run.”

What?

She’d barely been aware of where he’d dragged her until a blast of cool evening air whipped at her thin nightdress. Outside. He’d brought her to one of the side passages meant as an emergency exit. Reaching out to grip the door with her hand, she held them back. They were only a few short steps from leaving the Archives. “Sam?”

“I have it figured out. Thought of it for years.” Samuel finally turned to face her. His eyes were wide, wild, and even in the dim light she could see he was white as a ghost. “We can hop an airship to Canada. Stow away until it’s too late for them to turn around.”

“But—”

“We can join the Hudson’s Bay Company. I could work on building new machines to help with the exploration of the new country and you can involve yourself with the day-to-day operations of the organization.”

“Are you mad?” Finally able to pull herself free from his hold, Piper tried to reach for his face, but he stepped back, out into the night.

“You won’t come?”

Looking up at the night sky, Piper felt the weight of everything pressing down on her. It was too big, too vast. “I can’t.”

“You can. I’ll look after you. It doesn’t matter that we’re orphans. We’ll find a new home and start over.”

Laughter from somewhere behind him reached them. There was a world out there she hadn’t been a part of for a long time. Unlike him, she’d seen the ugliness of the city. She did remember the tiny home she’d lived in with her mother, the lack of food, hot water. Here she had a home, safety.

A purpose—to become an archivist. To make her mum proud like she’d promised.

“I can’t.” This time her whispered words held more conviction.

The pain on his face told her everything else.

“Sam. Please, don’t go.”

“Pip… I…”

He turned and ran into the night.

To this day, Piper couldn’t find the words to tell him how sorry she was. He’d had no choice, but neither had she. She couldn’t leave the Archives. Not then. A boy could make his way in the world, but things were different for a girl, particularly a young and sheltered girl. She would have been a liability to him, a millstone that would have dragged them both down to their death. She’d cared for him too much to become his doom.

He’d always given her a sense of security in her life at the Archives. It had only been fair that she gave him his freedom to find that kind of safety for himself.

Piper gave his hand one final squeeze before the lift lurched to a halt and the doors groaned open. “Let’s get you out of here. There’s an exit close by.”

“Pip—”

She shot him a sharp look before striding out. He might have changed in the past five years, but so had she. She wasn’t the confused girl who’d stood by the door for hours after he’d left. She wasn’t the tiny apprentice Master Ryerson had brought under his wing to teach her what it meant to be an archivist.

She’d become her own woman, with her own beliefs and sense of duty. No matter the danger to herself, she wouldn’t leave Dennison and Jones to discover the identity of the killer alone.

No one stopped their retreat to the entryway leading to the small garden and out onto the side street. They wouldn’t have a lot of time, but Piper didn’t know when she’d have a chance like this again.

Turning to face him, Piper hesitated only long enough to caress the side of his face. He’d grown even more handsome over the years. Grown further out of her reach.

“I’m sorry this happened to you. I shouldn’t have said anything that would have tempted you to come back.”

“Yes, you should have.” Samuel stepped away, looking shaken. “You do realize it’s only a matter of time before this becomes public.”

“Sam, it can’t.” Her stomach soured at the mere thought. “Can you imagine the chaos it would create in the general populace if they thought there was a killer within the walls of the Archives? That one of the zombies had gone mad and was gleefully slashing the throats of prostitutes? We need to keep things quiet, conduct our investigation, and uncover who is involved, and only then bring them to justice publicly.”

Samuel sucked in a sharp breath through his nose. Scrunching his eyes closed, he swayed on his feet. “Christ.”

“Sam?” Piper grabbed him by the forearm, holding him still. “What’s wrong?”

“I have to go. Now.”

“I know you don’t trust them, the doctors, but they can help. If you are in pain, I can get—”

Samuel shook her hand free and moved away from her toward the gate. “Unless I am being held against my will, I’m leaving you
now
.”

“I’ve never tried to stop you, Sam.” Piper wanted nothing more than to brush his brown fringe from his forehead, wishing she could feel the silky strands between her fingers. “I will let you know when I have more information. I’ll find a way.”

“Send a report to the Tower. Don’t mention specifics, and I’ll fill in the blanks.” Samuel turned, speaking as he strode to the gate. “I have no more desire to be a cog in the Archives’ works.”

“Of course, sergeant,” she whispered.

Samuel had only a vague memory of his actual return to the Tower. While every step took him farther away from the Archives, it brought him deeper into his confusion. He would lift his head and see what should not be. A woman dressed for pleasure, beckoning him close, only to vanish in the next blink. Men in long leather coats, congregating on corners with clubs and guns, seemingly unnoticed by passersby, vanishing into the throng around them. Children playing in the streets, only to have a steam car pass through them, proving them phantoms.

The sun was full up now and beginning its afternoon descent. The strength of its rays made his head pound. Samuel pressed his goggles to his eye sockets, ensuring not even a sliver of unfiltered light seeped beneath.

Bed, rest, quiet. Three things he wanted, needed, but was unlikely to receive.
Pip, what the hell has happened to me?

Timmons was waiting for him in his office and immediately frowned when he strode in.

“You didn’t go home. I’ve been waiting here for hours,” he scolded in that quiet, bullish way of his. “You look like shit.”

“Cheers. Why are you here?” Samuel fell into his chair, ripping the goggles from his head and tossing them to the desk. “If you knew I wasn’t coming, why did you stay?”

“Work to do. We received the report from the Archives not long ago. There are a few images here we can follow up on.” Timmons indicated a file on his desk. “I was going to send the boys out to investigate Whitechapel.”

“Why?” The pictures were sticky, not fully dried from whatever process they used to print them.

“It looks like the area. And there are what seem to be prostitutes in the images.”

Samuel carefully sorted through the images, each one increasing the pressure in his head. They were blurry and unformed, which he understood was not uncommon with memory extractions. When he got to the fourth, he froze.

The image of a man—tall, thin, pale skin, and silver eyes. Fear and love twisted together inside Samuel at the sight. He knew him somehow, knew him like he knew his own face in the mirror… but he was also certain he’d never seen this man before in his life. He blinked, and the image seemed to blur when he looked again, causing him to doubt his initial impression. Was it another phantom from the machine, or had his mind finally begun to crack against the strain of life?

On his walk back from the Archives, he’d even thought he was being followed again at one point. But the quiet street had only held a vagrant and a merchant, and neither of them followed him onto the irons.

Maybe he really was losing his grip on reality.

“Sir?” Timmons cleared his throat.

Samuel’s hand shook and he put the pictures down carefully. “Perhaps I should have rested.”

“Shall I send the men out? Talk with them ladies to see what we can discover?”

“Yes. Two teams, and tell them to keep the questions general. We don’t want to set off a panic.”

“Of course.”

“Timmons, I want you to take the lead on this. Report to me when you’ve done the first pass. We may need to move quickly, and I need someone I can trust in charge.”

The larger man hesitated for a moment before nodding. “Where will you be, sir?”

Dark walls illuminated with candles and edged with cracked plaster. A small bed to the side of the room, little used and offering no comfort. A child crying in the cold dead of night, while the Archives machine churned along. Samuel, alone.

Samuel shook his head and lifted his gaze to meet Timmons.

“I’ll be here. Right here.”

Chapter Six
 

Piper stepped into the ballroom of the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall’s New London residence, and immediately wanted to leave. It was not uncommon for the archivists to be invited to some of the more prestigious events of the ton while the season was under way. It was, however, rare for any of them to accept those invitations, and Piper hated the stares their appearance drew.

It made her feel more of an oddity than she was. From the moment she’d been brought to the Archives, she knew non-archivists saw her as different. Coming face to face with the prejudices, the sneers, and turned backs made her ill. How did Samuel live like this, out in the world with the stigma of
zombie
attached to him?

No, Piper knew exactly how he managed. He’d grown a thick skin from his time living with Master Ryerson. Nothing people on the outside could do or say to him would compare to what Sam had endured. There was no need for her to channel his strength, as she had a core of Welsh stubbornness to sustain her. To hell with all of them.

Air licked at her exposed flesh. She fought the urge to tug up the low-cut bodice, hiding her too-exposed breasts. She’d tried to keep her thoughts from Samuel as she’d dressed in preparation. Her dress was sapphire, a color Sam had once said made her look beautiful.

“I forgot your birthday.”

Samuel had been waiting for her when she’d arrived for her lessons on mechanics. Piper hadn’t seen him for two days after their run-in on her birthday. Now she knew why. The bruise on his chin had started to yellow.

Lessons forgotten, she dropped her tools to the table and crossed to him. “What happened?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“Sam.” She hated when he got like this.

“Fine.” He leaned back against the wall, crossing his arms. “I was exploring and got stuck somewhere I shouldn’t have. I have a bump on the back of my head the size of Canada.”

“Exploring?” Reaching up she easily found the offending wound. “Did you have someone look at this?”

“I heard it again. The noises.”

Piper froze. “No. Where?”

“In my room. I thought it was coming from the ventilation shaft so I decided to follow it, see where it led.”

Ever since he’d told her about the strange sounds coming from his room, Piper tried to support his growing need to discover the source. She tried, but she couldn’t stand to see him hurt. Not even in pursuit of the truth.

“Did you discover the source?”

He shook his head, wincing as he did. “No. I found an old room with a derelict machine interface. I stayed for a while to see if I could pick up any other sounds, but there was nothing. Well, nothing except for this.”

Stepping forward, he pulled a small scrap of fabric from his pocket. Faded and worn, the material still held its color.

“Master June said that this color is called sapphire.” Sam lifted it to her face, caressing her cheek with it. “I knew as soon as I found it that it would look beautiful on you.”

She couldn’t look away. “What are you doing?”

“Happy birthday, Pip.” And he pressed a kiss to her forehead.

It seemed he was correct in his assessment. Even Jones and Dennison hadn’t been immune to her appearance, though the extra attention had been amusing. Jones had turned red and did his best to look anywhere but her bosom. Dennison had winked as he’d held out his arm to escort her to the steam carriage. “M’lady.”

“Oh please. You think you can fool me into believing you’re sweet on me, Dennison?” It was a shame Samuel couldn’t have seen her like this. “Let’s get this finished so I can change.”

They were here for a specific man, Doctor Benedict Constantine, the doctor who assisted the Archives with their more troubling cases. A man who had, over the years, gained a certain degree of freedom within the walls of the Archives. A man who’d refused a summons from Guild Master June to come in for questioning.

Dennison and Jones had agreed with her that Master June was the ideal person to bring their suspicions to, not only because she was one of the few female Guild Masters, and therefore more likely to be sympathetic to both Piper and the victim, but also for her instincts. She’d made the decision to keep matters internal, limiting those who had knowledge of the case.

“If the killer is one of us, then we’ll need to insulate our knowledge so as to not make them aware of our suspicions. Seeing as you three are already aware, I’m appointing you investigators.”

Piper pulled at Dennison’s arm until his hazel gaze turned her way. He really was handsome, fair haired and as light in complexion as she was, but in no way feminine. Dennison wasn’t some poor waif at the mercy of the Archives. The muscles of his arm flexed beneath her hand as he lowered his head to hers. “Yes?”

Cursing herself for her foolishness, Piper cleared her throat. “Do you see him?”

Jones turned, surveying the scene. “No. He may not have arrived.”

“We’ve come late enough to ensure his presence.” Dennison frowned. He paused to search the room, keeping his face impassive, and yet Piper could see his frustration. “Jones, check the cardroom. Miss Smith and I will take a turn around the ballroom to see if we can locate the good doctor. I don’t like us being exposed like this.”

Dennison held out his arm, a smirk playing on his lips. “Stick by my side please, Miss Smith. Master Ryerson will have my head if I let anything happen to his prized pupil.”

“I’m still a little in awe you convinced him to let me attend.” They began to walk around the perimeter of the room. Dancers twirled, bowed, and dipped on the floor as the musicians played a country reel.

“I can’t take all the credit. Master June worked her magic.” The twinkle in his eyes did strange things to Piper’s insides. “If I didn’t know better I’d say Ryerson has a bit of a crush on her.”

Piper looked away, searching the throngs for their prey. She could feel the blush heat her face and prayed it would dissipate quickly. Dennison knew his impact on the fairer sex and took great joy flaunting his qualities. “I cannot believe Constantine would attend such a function when he knows there are rumors concerning his loyalty to the crown. Surely the duke would not allow his good name to be tainted by entertaining a possible traitor?”

“He’s a duke. He does what he will. If he felt having Constantine here served a purpose, then the good doctor would receive an invitation and no one would question it. Let’s check the refreshment area.”

The music drew to an end, and the dancers filtered from the floor to join the onlookers. For a few glorious moments Piper imagined herself a normal woman of one and twenty years, being escorted by a gentleman at a ball. She would dance and spin, sip lemonade, and snack on fairy cakes and finger sandwiches. No, even if she wasn’t with the Archives she wouldn’t have lived in this world. There would have been dances, far less formal. Samuel would have defied convention and danced with her more than the acceptable number of times.

She would have allowed his caress to slip past the boundaries of propriety.

The refreshment tables were surrounded on all sides by young bucks and their lady loves. The mamas kept careful watch from the sidelines, ensuring nothing untoward happened while the two genders mingled, physically and verbally dancing around each other in a complex courting ritual. Young and old in their carefully assigned spots, but no Doctor Constantine.

“Dammit,” Dennison muttered.

“We’ll find him.” Piper gave his arm a squeeze. It was then Jones stepped to the door, catching Piper’s gaze and nodding. “I think we might be in luck.”

The good doctor was holed up in the cardroom, engaged in a rather serious game of poker, which was all the rage since its recent import from America. No one spoke, and the pipe smoke was so thick Piper felt as if she would drown. There was only a small crowd, with no other women beside herself in attendance. Not that any of the men noticed, so transfixed by the game they were.

Constantine was a reedy man, tall-framed with a rather intelligent air. His black hair was thinning on the top and graying on the sides, slicked back against his head. The glint in his brown eyes shone out from beneath a fine pair of spectacles. Piper had heard the rumors that the good doctor had flawless eyesight and the spectacles were, in fact, not designed to improve his vision at all. The speculation around what they
did
do was as wide and varied as the origins of the memory extractor. The most disturbing was the rumor that the glasses gave the doctor the ability to see a person’s aura, to determine if they were telling the truth.

A foolish notion. Still, Piper found him unsettling.

Dennison moved them inside the door, while Jones took the other side. The occupants didn’t notice their arrival at first, focused on the round as cards were laid upon the table. A young man Piper was unfamiliar with tossed in a handful of chips, smirking.

“Raise.”

“Bloody hell,” the Earl of Luff muttered. “You have the worst poker face, Mr. Austin. Fold.”

Several more followed suit, their grumbled curses coloring the air. The round came at last to Constantine. Piper watched, trying to take in the doctor’s expression, learn his signs of discomfort. The man’s face was granite, not a twitch as he picked up his own stack of chips and set them down in a neat pile before the other man’s. His hand did not shake, nor did he tense any part of his body.

“Well, now you have me curious.” There was a note of amusement in Constantine’s voice, but Piper couldn’t be sure if it had to do with his awareness of Mr. Austin’s hand, or simply because he didn’t care and genuinely was interested.

Austin shifted in his seat, his gaze flicking between Constantine and his hand. “I didn’t think you had it in you, doctor. You don’t strike me as a bloke who could afford to toss about that kind of blunt.”

“Don’t I?” Constantine lifted an eyebrow.

Dennison snorted. It was soft, but enough to garner the attention of the players. Several of the men stiffened when they saw who had invaded their domain. It was fascinating to see grown men pale and shrink where they’d only moments before been laughing and carrying on. Like Death had followed them into the room and stood waiting for one of them to expire.

“Please don’t stop on our account.” Dennison stepped forward and laced his hands behind his back. While he wasn’t as tall as Samuel, he could be every bit as intimidating. Firm muscles encased in quality cloth, speaking of his privileged background. He cocked his head to the side and narrowed his gaze, targeting the young man at the center of the attention. “I believe the doctor just called. Your turn, Mr. Austin.”

The young man sat back in his seat to the point of making the wood creak from the strain. Austin picked up a single card, thumbing the corner as he focused his attention back on Constantine. Tossing it into the discard pile, he nodded at the doctor. “Maybe it will be lucky to have such prestigious company in the room.” Austin shot a glace toward Piper. “Perhaps you would be interested in some refreshments after I win this hand, Miss? I can’t say I’ve ever been in the company of a lady archivist at a ball before.”

It wasn’t flirtatious. There was no promise of gentle caresses or stolen kisses in his tone. Piper didn’t feel the same warmth spread through her body as she had when Samuel had looked at her in the Archives. Austin was using words as a deflection, a means to throw off his opponent and show his lack of concern. Piper didn’t need to look at Constantine to know it wasn’t working.

The doctor didn’t even glance at his hand. “I call.” His hands were as steady as before, when he neatly set the piles in the middle of the table. “Your hand, sir.”

Austin flipped the cards, his lips quirking into something that resembled a smirk, but had a far crueler edge. “I have a straight. Jack to seven. Thank you very much for your patronage, sir.”

Austin and several other men around the table clearly believed he had the better hand, though he made no move yet to collect his winnings. The doctor nodded, looked down at his hand and laid them out one by one. “Flush. I do believe I win.”

Shocked gasps quickly morphed into a smattering of applause. The men around the table barked out laughter and cheers, congratulating Constantine while offering condolences to a stunned Austin. The doctor collected the markers, smiling softly and still not looking the archivists’ way.

“If I could be so bold as to use the room for a moment, our friends here have been patient long enough.”

The Earl of Luff hauled Austin to his feet. “Come on, boy. You look like you could use a drink.”

Dennison placed his hand to the small of Piper’s back, but didn’t press her forward until the room had cleared. She took the chair opposite Constantine and was immediately struck by the directness of his gaze. His brown eyes seemed to catch every twitch of her body as she forced herself to be comfortable. Austin’s accomplishment in remaining calm under such scrutiny was impressive.

“To what do I owe the pleasure of the company of the archivists?” Constantine leaned back against his chair, draping his arm along the back and fixing his gaze on Piper. “No injuries you would like me to attend to?”

“Doctor, I’m afraid we are here on official business. Master June sent us to find you.” Dennison stood directly behind Piper, his hand placed on her shoulder. Strangely, the contact did little to soothe her. “Did you hear about the murder of a prostitute two evenings ago?”

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