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) (9 page)

He stopped. A man bumped into him from behind, but quickly went the other way when he noticed Samuel’s uniform and Piper’s eyes. People passed around them while he stood and stared at her. They shouldn’t discuss this in the middle of a crowd. They should be alone, and yet he knew it would be disastrous if they were.

Piper reached up and cupped his cheek, ignoring the looks of the passersby. “Sam?”

“I hate them.” Piper flinched, but she didn’t pull back. Swallowing hard, Samuel knew the rage building inside him would only continue to grow, fester like an infection until his soul was blackened. “I hate what they did to me. What they are still doing to you.”

“They’re not—”

Grabbing her by the arm, he pulled her into a bystreet, away from the storefronts and the growing crowds. Pressing her against the wall, he turned his back to the street and let his rage show.

“Those bastards think they are doing something amazing for society. That they’re storing all this knowledge for future generations to access. But do you know what they do with it? I found out quickly why the regular folk hate the zombies so much.”

“I don’t think that—”

“It’s nothing more than bloody politics. They manipulate parliament into setting policies that would never normally pass. They direct the king to move his forces this way and that. Tell him who to attack and when to back away. They claim this knowledge comes from the memories of the dead. And there is no one to contradict them. They take little children from their families and put them into the guild, making them a cog in the machine of society.”

“That’s dangerously close to treason.” She dug her fingers into his arm. “And as much as I believe every word you say, you can’t prove it.”

As quickly as the rage crested, it fell away. “No one can. So they are allowed to continue, committing who knows what horrors in the name of safeguarding the empire.”

“We can’t change the fundamentals of our society.”

“Maybe not, but that doesn’t mean we have to lie down and accept it either. I have no doubt that the Archives were started with the best of intentions, but they have grown into something else. I have no memory of my family, if I have any siblings. As far as I know I’m alone in the world. They did that to me. To you.”

She stood with her back pressed to the wall, her palms flat against the stone. Chin lifted, she stared right into his eyes. “The Archives and the Guild Masters aren’t perfect. Yes, they took me from my mum so long ago that sometimes I wonder if the dreams I have of her are real or simply my own fantasies. I wonder constantly of the life I would have now if I’d stayed there with her. Grown up under her watchful eye until a time when I was to be married off. They took that life from me, but they gave me something else. A place in society that I could never have obtained on my own.”

“I didn’t mean—”

“Yes you did.” Her chuckle was as sad as anything he could ever remember hearing. “Don’t worry. I’ve known since we were children how you felt. I wouldn’t expect years of living on the outside to change that perspective. Reinforce it, more likely.”

Christ.
There shouldn’t be this gap between them. Yes, it had been five years, but they hadn’t changed that much since they’d last been together. If anything, they’d become
more
of what they’d always been. They’d grown into themselves, but still
felt
much the same as they had back then. About the Archives, and about one another.

Dangerous indeed.

Keeping his gaze locked onto hers, Samuel tried once more to close the distance between them. He took a small step, watching for any sign that Piper didn’t want him. She didn’t move.

“I’m glad you were taken by the Archives, Pip.”

Her eyes widened as she pulled her shoulders back against the wall. The blast of annoyance he felt from her was only visible by the tightening around her mouth. Samuel chanced another step closer.

“If it meant that you were pulled from society, that another man wouldn’t be able to touch you, then I will be forever grateful. Because you see,” he cupped her cheek, “even though we’ve never so much as kissed, you belong to me.”

“Sam…” Her lips parted and her warm breath heated his skin. So beautiful, so ripe for him to reach out and feast upon.

“Shhh, I need to fix something.”

“What?”

“Do you trust me?” His voice sounded rough, seductive in a way he hadn’t intended. He was pleased when her gaze didn’t waver and she didn’t pull away.

“Yes.” Piper’s breath caught in her throat as she slowly nodded. “Yes, I do.”

There was no way he could stop now. He didn’t care that they were in public, in front of God and every creature of New London. Samuel had wanted to kiss Piper since she was sixteen and he’d caught her staring at his mouth. In that moment there were no Guild Masters, no Archives to pass judgment.

Only Sam and Pip.

“I’m going to kiss you now.”

She licked her lips and nodded.

His eyes closed a second before his lips touched hers, so he didn’t see the man who barreled into him, sending him flying to the ground. “What the hell!”

The man wore an overcoat, much too heavy for the warm fall morning, and a set of goggles that covered most of his face. Long blond hair so light it could almost be white stuck out like bleached straw from around the strap. Looking over his shoulder, he paused only long enough to grin. “Sorry, mate.”

Instinctively, Samuel opened himself up, waiting for the rush of wary contempt or the tumble of embarrassment he would normally expect to feel. Instead of the warm brush of emotions, Samuel was consumed by a cold nothingness that penetrated through to his soul.

The man continued down the street as if the hounds of hell were chasing him.

“Sam, are you hurt?” Piper dropped to her knees to help, but Samuel’s attention was all on the fast-departing man and the bottomless pit where his emotions should have been.

That shouldn’t be possible. In all his years, Samuel had never once experienced a void. It wasn’t natural. It was wrong.

Ignoring Piper’s aid, Samuel stumbled to his feet and started to follow. “Hey!”

Now almost half a block away, the man stopped dead and turned on his toes in one smooth movement. Samuel opened his mouth to speak again, but the words died when the man gave him a deep formal bow and a grin.

Nothing, where everything in Sam’s being screamed that there should be, must be
something
.

“Sam?”

The man gave him a sharp salute, before continuing on his way.

“Sam, who was that?”

“I’m not certain.” Not exactly the truth. There had been something about him, something familiar in a dark, strange way. Samuel stepped forward, like a metal cog being tugged at by a magnet.

“I should leave.” Piper gave his hand a squeeze before moving in the opposite direction from the man. “I’ll return to the Archives.”

“No. Pip!”
Shit, you idiot.
“I’m sorry. Please, come with me. We’ll sort out my head, and figure out who the hell killed the prostitute.”

As fast as she’d marched away, Piper stopped to glare at him. “I don’t have time to play games, Sam. Either you’re with me in this or I need to sever our ties now. This is what I came to tell you. While I understand you are committed to concluding this murder investigation, the only thing I can concern myself with is the Archives. If he is one of us, I need to know. We need to stop him before he kills again.”

Samuel held his hands up in surrender. She was beautiful when angry. “I promise as a sergeant in the King’s Sentry that the Archives and all her members will have my utmost attention. And I will keep that promise, Pip. If the killer turns out to be one of you, I’ll come to you first. For the greater good of all New London.”

“You’d better.”

Piper’s lips were wet and swollen from where she’d bitten down. If he were to kiss her now, the chances of things going the way he would like were minuscule. Instead, he held out his arm and smiled.

“Miss Smith, may I escort you to the Tower? We can review my case files and discuss our next steps.”

There it was—the slight twitch of her lips and the slow melting of her ire. The warmth of her forgiveness flowed through him. With deliberate moves, Piper slipped her hand through the crook of his elbow and held his upper arm gently. “Fine. But I’m still mad at you. Ass.”

“I am well aware. I promise to behave.” Lifting her hand, Samuel pressed a kiss to the back. “We’ll figure things out. No matter how I feel, I won’t let someone destroy the Archives.”

He meant it. The safety of the Archives was directly linked to Piper’s well-being. No matter how he felt about what the Guild Masters were doing, he’d be dammed if he’d let anything happen to her.

As they walked, passing the place where the blond man had disappeared, Samuel turned to look down the alley.

Empty.

And yet, he could feel the weight of someone’s gaze on him.

Dammit, they were being watched.

Chapter Eight
 

Exhaustion gripped Piper like a hand around her throat. Her head throbbed and even her skin felt tight, stretched across her frame to the point of tearing. She knew they’d pushed things too hard, poring through the fragmented reports to try to find some semblance of a clue in the prostitute Mary’s death.

“This is getting us nowhere.” Samuel got to his feet and scratched his fingers through his hair. “There’s nothing here we haven’t already seen.”

“The Archives haven’t turned up much information either. Master June found a note, clearly written by someone living within the Archives. It wasn’t addressed to anyone specific, and we can only assume the recipient dropped it. The person was threatening to kill… but it was mostly madness.”

“None of the people Timmons and the boys spoke to remembered seeing her. Well, at least they were unwilling to disclose it to the Sentry.”

Piper couldn’t look away when he pressed his hands to the stone wall, arms outstretched, and lowered his head. He’d taken off his jacket, opened the buttons of his waistcoat, and rolled up his sleeves. The sight of his lean body stretched out sent a tingle through her. His state of undress bordered on the obscene.

Hot breath caressed the back of her neck, though Samuel kept his body several inches from hers. Piper wanted nothing more than to lean back against him, sink into the warmth of his chest and relish the feeling of his arms wrapped around her.

“The gear has slipped from the bracket. You need to carefully slide it back.”

The urge to giggle nearly escaped her. Instead, she narrowed her gaze and leaned closer to the magnification glass. “I won’t get this done if you keep pestering me.”

“You’re the one who came to me for help.”

Her breasts tingled as he spoke, making it difficult for her to keep her hand from shaking. “So I did.” A request she was beginning to regret. “And I get the feeling you’re not going to let me forget either.”

“Of course not. You owe me a favor now.”

“Ass.” Not that she minded owing Samuel anything. She’d give him the world.

Desire, hot and immediate, a foreign delicacy tempting her to taste.

Samuel moaned softly. Dammit, he was picking up on her emotions again.

Forcing her body to relax and clamping down on her unwanted longings, she turned her attention back to the letter sent to Samuel by the man calling himself Jack the Ripper. “Did they ask about seeing anyone else? This Jack perhaps?”

The blood had long dried on the cheap, coarse paper, but the stench of death clung tight. The thought of a man dipping a pen into a jar filled with Mary’s blood was enough to chill her to the bone. No one deserved to be treated that way in death.

“Several remembered a man in a hat, but no one approached him.” Turning to press his back to the wall, Samuel kept his gaze off her. “Apparently most of the prostitutes didn’t like the feel of him.”

“Smart girls.”

“You get a sense for people when you’re out on the streets.”

“Sergeant!”

A giant bear of a man stepped through the door. His metal fingers gripped the doorjamb so tightly the wood beneath buckled and popped. Piper had heard of people with prosthetics before, but no one within the Archives had them. She shouldn’t stare, and yet…

“What’s wrong?” Samuel grabbed his greatcoat and went for his gun without hesitation.

“A body. Another prostitute. Reports say she’s been slashed the same way as the first victim.”

“Shit.” Samuel pinched the bridge of his nose. “It’s not one of the women you interviewed, is it?”

The man looked at her as if seeing her for the first time. “Why the hell is an archivist in your office?”

“She’s a friend, so behave. Timmons, Miss Smith. Pip, this is Constable Rory Timmons. He’s my second, and generally makes sure I don’t get myself killed.”

“Bloody awful posting, too. A pleasure, Miss Smith. I need to take our boy from you though. Work to do.”

“What?” Too tired to be in complete control, she wasn’t able to hold back her surprise. The banter, comfort, the sense that everything would be all right because Sam was there melded with new desires and wants.

She couldn’t lose him again. Not so soon.

Samuel took her by the hand and gave her a squeeze. “We’ll see each other again, Pip.”

Sometimes she really hated his ability to know what she was feeling. “No, we won’t. The moment I return to the Archives Master Ryerson will put me through my paces once more. I’ll be lucky to see daylight in the next month.”

The Archives would hear of the murder soon enough, dispatching someone to conduct the extraction. She’d already been out on active duty, the hole in her mind a stark reminder that every extraction she did from this point forward would mean additional damage.

Samuel took her by the hand, linking their fingers. It was something he’d always done, the only gesture of affection they’d risked over the years. “They can’t keep you from me forever. We’ll find a way.”

“Master Ryerson will be furious when he learns that I came here. He’ll make sure I don’t have another opportunity.”

Timmons cleared his throat. “Sorry to break this up, but we really need to be going, sergeant.”

Of course, the solution was simple. Samuel stiffened and his eyes widened even as the idea crossed her mind, the overwhelming feeling of right. “Pip, no.”

“I need to do the extraction myself.” It would take work convincing the others, given that it had only been a few days since her first trial, but she could do it. “Timmons, I take it this murder is much the same as the first victim?”

“Yes, ma’am. Slashed up the middle, inside bits on the outside. God-awful mess.”

“No bloody way.” Samuel’s grip on her hand became viselike. “You’re not going through that again.”

“Another archivist won’t be looking for the connections between the two cases. They certainly won’t share those details with you before their memory is scrubbed. It needs to be me.”

“What about Dennison, or Jones. Why can’t one of them do it?”

She knew he was only worried about her, but his lack of faith chafed. “Jones hasn’t completed his training yet. Dennison hasn’t done an extraction since his initiation. I’m our only option.”

“Sam, we need to go.” Timmons released his hold on the door and straightened. “The lads are holding the public back, but she’s out in the open.”

With a growl, Samuel released her hand. “Pip—”

“Trust me. I’ll get myself assigned to the case. I’ll make sure Dennison is involved as well. We’ll figure out who this person is and if they are in fact a part of the guild.”

Samuel stared long and hard at her eyes, and she knew he was looking at the rings. With every extraction they would grow just a bit wider, deeper, making her look more like the zombies the public accused them of being. But if it meant she could learn who was killing defenseless women, then she’d do it.

He cupped her cheek with his hand. He was warm, his fingers strong, and for once Piper gave in to temptation. Covering his hand with hers, she leaned into his touch. “This is my life, Sam. At least let me help you.”

“I hate it.”

“I know. But it was my choice.”

Samuel pulled away with a startled jerk. Piper missed the heat and she could feel their fledgling connection wink out once more. Yes, she’d picked the Archives over him, and now she’d done her best to rub his face in it.

Wonderful.

Samuel stepped back and shoved his hands into his pockets. He met and held her gaze, sharp, joyless eyes staring back at her. “I’ll prolong things to give you as much time as I’m able.”

Without another word, she fled the Tower.

The steam carriage hit another rut, sending its passengers swaying violently in the cab. Piper held herself as straight as she could, needing to keep her distance from her mentor. Master Ryerson had been beyond furious upon her return to the Archives and volcanic at her request to perform the extraction of the second prostitute.

Dennison currently sat opposite her, his gaze averted. Between his impassioned speech and Master June’s recommendation, it didn’t take much to convince the Guild Masters that Piper was the best choice for the extraction.

Being the third son of the Duke of Bedford, the depth of his natural talent, and connections to the nobility, the Guild Masters often gave him greater opportunities and further leeway than most. He’d told Piper once that he was intended to serve the king himself when his skills reached the appropriate level, a duty she’d never accept herself for all the coin in the kingdom.

Of course, he took advantage of his status wherever and whenever he could. Bastard.

Ryerson turned his head and scowled at her once more. “I do not approve of this, Miss Smith.”

“You have no say in the matter,” Dennison spoke softly, but there was an edge to his voice. “The Guild Masters gave their blessing. Piper is the best archivist for this case. The deaths are clearly connected. You yourself have noted in the past that female archivists are better able to relate to other women and children. If the condition of this woman is even half as bad as what was suggested, we might require the extra assistance Miss Smith can provide.”

“She’s only had her first extraction three days ago. Her mind cannot handle so many so quickly.”

“The doctors reassured me that there is no great risk. If anything, I’m anxious to see if there are connections to the previous case.” She despised being spoken about while she was present. She wasn’t a ghost. “I’ll be fine, sir.”

“You won’t be when they give you the drug once more.” He shifted in his seat, his back straightening so much Piper feared he would snap. “You need to give the wound time to heal. If you pick away, making it bigger too quickly, the drug may do irreparable damage.”

His impassioned plea might have worked on a younger person, one with less experience, but not her. While she respected her mentor’s knowledge, she wasn’t fool enough to believe that he didn’t do anything without reason.

And she had reasons of her own.

“Sir, there was already a wound. From the moment I began this life my mind was set to be worn away.” She did give him a smile and hoped it was enough to keep her mentor distracted enough until it was too late to stop her. “This is our life. I’m no different than anyone else.”

“Regardless, the objections are irrelevant.” Dennison finally turned and faced Ryerson, his forearms braced on his knees. “This has nothing to do with you, old man. You are only here as a courtesy.”

The two men stared each other down. Piper looked between them, her stomach churning, and an unexpected nervous tremor ran through her. Dennison was right, of course, because they simply had no choice but to let Piper do the extraction.

Perhaps Master Ryerson really was concerned for her well-being. He’d been one of the constants in her life, a father to replace the one she’d never known. A rather cold, demanding, distant father, but better than none at all. She was used to meeting his demands, not denying them.

The steam carriage lurched to a stop, sending them all swaying violently. She hadn’t been told where the body was located. There’d been no time to get the pertinent details before racing back to the Archives. Dennison swung the door open, and a cold rush of air blasted into the cab. Slipping his top hat on, Dennison shot her one final glance before stepping out onto the street.

Piper let out a tiny huff, grabbed her gloves and shifted toward the door. She nearly stepped out when Ryerson stopped her with a hand to her arm.

“Sir?”

“I don’t know what game he’s playing at.” The old man nodded toward Dennison. “But don’t trust him blindly, child. Dennison is far too ambitious for his own good and the good of those around him. Be careful. I would hate to see you harmed for his gain.”

“Sir, I know you still see me as a child, but please trust that I know what I am doing.”

“I somehow doubt that you do.”

The brisk afternoon air took her breath away as she stepped onto the road. The sun’s rays were too bright for her eyes to handle. She pulled the radiation goggles from her pocket and slipped them carefully over her hair and into place on her face. The relief was instant as the lenses did their job to cut the brightness. She’d rarely needed the goggles in the past, but her sensitivity to the sun had increased since Mary’s extraction.

There was a small group already assembled at the site. Several policemen and members of the King’s Sentry were busy keeping the growing number of onlookers back from the body. The gaunt faces of New London’s poor had gathered around, perhaps hoping to be entertained by the Archivist’s extraction, perhaps from simple morbid curiosity. Piper couldn’t be sure. The possibilities seemed equally macabre.

She immediately sought out Samuel’s presence in the throng, but couldn’t spot him. Frowning, she walked briskly to join Dennison and Master Ryerson, who had already taken up position.

The portly coroner was on his hands and knees beside the body of the woman. He held his face several inches above her gaped open mouth, sniffing the air. Blood had pooled in the crease of her lips and her eyes were wide, staring blankly into the bright blue sky. Her mouse-brown hair was matted and tangled in a distorted bun atop her head. The pattern matched the images Piper had seen through the still, lifeless plates of those images she’d viewed after the memory wipe. This woman had been slashed across the throat with a knife, her chest and stomach sliced open. Piper watched as the coroner shifted and lifted one of her hands as to inspect her fingers.

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