He dreamed of red silk…
In his dream, Garrett Reed straightened the white bow tie he wore, glanced once at the crowd of elegantly dressed aristocrats, and then turned and opened the hackney door.
“About damned time.”
His gaze slid over the woman within, taking in the acres of tight red silk and the froth of lace framing high, creamy br**sts. Perry cursed under her breath as she tried to gather up her skirts and the brass-plated fan she used as a weapon. “You could offer me your hand.”
As he should have. Garrett was still trying to gather his wits. He’d never before equated Perry with dresses; indeed, he’d never have thought that she could actually pull off this subterfuge. The entire time he’d known her, she’d worn the tight black leathers of the Guild of the Nighthawks, hunting murderers and thieves across the rooftops of London with him. At first glance most people mistook her for a lad, and Garrett himself rarely thought of her as a woman. At least until tonight.
It was his own damned fault. He was the one who’d told her he didn’t think she could do it. A dare—fool the aristocratic Echelon into thinking she was one of their own.
Belatedly he offered her his arm. Perry stepped down, her gloved hand resting lightly on his forearm and her eyes raking the crowd for any signs of their targets. As he should have been doing. Garrett was still moving a step behind, unable to concentrate on more than one thing. And that one thing smelled like French vanilla perfume.
“Can you see Lynch? Or Rosalind?” Perry asked.
Garrett slid his hand over the small of her back. He couldn’t stop looking at her, as if a part of him still couldn’t believe that this elegant, beautiful woman beside him was the same partner he’d worked with for the last nine years.
As if sensing his gaze, she glanced up at him, a slow smile creeping over her lips. “I’ve never seen you struck dumb before.”
“I’m not without words,” he countered, guiding her toward the marble stairs that led to the opera house.
“You’ve barely managed a conversation since we embarked in the carriage. I do hope I haven’t stolen all your wits.”
Garrett leaned close enough to murmur in her ear. “If you keep going, you could steal something else as well.”
Those eyes were watchful, as if she wasn’t quite used to flirtation, especially not from him. “If I wanted your heart,” she whispered, “I’d cut it out of your chest with my knife.”
“I prefer something subtler.”
Perry’s painted red lips curved up in a genuine smile, though her eyes still searched the crowd. “Concentrate.”
“I am.” He glanced again at the faint swelling of her br**sts—breasts he’d never noticed before. A tight fist of need clenched in his gut.
“On the reason we’re here.”
Garrett plucked the opera tickets from the inner pocket of his coat as they approached the main doors. This was the true test. Neither of them was of the Echelon, the aristocratic blue bloods that ruled London. If they were turned away here, the Nighthawk Guild’s Master, Sir Jasper Lynch, and his secretary, Rosalind, would be alone inside.
With dozens of humanists who were plotting another terrorist attack on the Echelon. They wouldn’t discriminate between the blue blood lords they despised and a blue blood rogue like Lynch.
This wasn’t the first time the humanists had struck. But the attacks so far had been small, merely tests. Several lords had been driven into a blood frenzy by small mysterious devices the terrorists called Doeppler Orbs. If they set enough of these orbs into action in a theater full of blue bloods, it would be a bloodbath.
Perry’s hand tightened on his sleeve as he handed the tickets over to the liveried servant. The man scrutinized the pair of them through a monocle, then nodded and let them through.
Shadows flickered through Garrett’s vision, the darkness in him bubbling up. It was far too easy to summon these days, and much more difficult to dispel.
Garrett forced a smile to his lips and swept a pair of champagne glasses from the tray of a passing servant drone. The automaton rolled away through the crowd with a faint teakettle hiss, the sound itching along Garrett’s skin. He forced himself to continue, to ignore it. It hadn’t always been this way. His craving virus levels had been sitting at a reasonably healthy thirty-two percent for the past three years.
But a week ago, a blue blood lord in the grip of a blood frenzy had tried to rip Garrett’s heart out of his chest and very nearly succeeded. It was one of the few ways to truly kill a blue blood, and in the effort to heal itself, his body had relaxed the fight against the virus. Garrett’s virus level had more than doubled, leaving him struggling to fight a hunger he hadn’t had a chance to acclimatize to.
He was barely managing to rein himself in these days. He couldn’t let anyone see how close to the edge he was. Especially not Perry.
The noise swelled to a dull roar. Brightly colored silk filled the room, and feathered headdresses bobbed like a menagerie of birds. Garrett grimaced as he directed Perry to a small, out-of-the-way place beside a marble column. He usually liked these events, but since the attack, the presence of too many people only seemed to crowd in on him.
“There’s Rosa.” Perry tilted her head toward the stairs as she sipped her champagne.
Indeed, when he looked, he saw the coppery curls of Rosalind’s coif beneath the candelabra’s light. A dark shadow almost obliterated her as a man swept her out of the way of the crowd. Lynch.
Garrett turned his back on them. Lynch was a recognizable figure. If any of the humanists saw him here, they’d know what he was about. However, Garrett and Perry were unknowns and needed to keep it that way.
“Keep an eye on them,” he instructed quietly, pressing close enough to Perry that her skirts brushed against his polished shoes. “But don’t stare. And act like you’ve seen all of this a thousand times before. You’re my thrall, remember?” The thought sent a flash of darkness through his vision. The idea of Perry as his personal blood slave was heady.
For a moment he almost envied the blue blood lords parading their thralls—young ladies who exchanged their blood rights in exchange for protection, gifts, and an honorable thrall contract—through the room. Garrett’s gaze drifted to Perry’s throat and the fierce, flickering beat of her pulse.
Idly fanning herself, Perry glanced around the room with a slightly bored expression. “I do know what I’m doing.”
“So do I.”
“Yes, but playing a cad is already within your repertoire.” The fan stirred cool air over his lips as he reached out and leaned his hand against the column behind her. Perry’s expression lashed pure heat through him. “That was never in any doubt.”
“If I doubt you, it’s only because you’ve never played the lady before.”
“Perhaps you simply never noticed.”
He looked down. There was a slightly challenging note beneath the words.
“You do play the role well.” His eyes narrowed. It was an unspoken rule that when a blue blood showed up on the guild’s doorstep, nobody ever asked about their past.
Most blue bloods were created during the blood rites, a rite of passage offered to certain privileged sons among the aristocracy and strictly controlled. Accidents occurred, however, when the merest scratch could transmit to others the virus that made the blue bloods what they were. Those accidents were declared rogues, forced to join either the Nighthawks or the Coldrush Guards that guarded the Echelon. Kept alive only for their usefulness.
He’d never asked about Perry’s past, though he’d often wondered. Women were strictly forbidden the blood rites for fear their gentle natures would succumb to hysteria at the fierce hunger of the craving. He wasn’t certain if any of the men who’d decreed such a law had actually met Perry, or the only other female blue blood, the Duchess of Casavian.
“Indeed, you play the part almost too well,” he continued, to see how Perry would react.
The fan fluttered, stirring the black curls of her wig and the lace trim of her dress. It drew his attention to the faint pulse in her bare throat, to the fine tracery of blue veins beneath her creamy skin. Hunger burned within him. Again his vision flickered to black-and-white tones. The world became a little distant, as if something was drawing him away from it.
“I wasn’t born in breeches, Garrett.”
She’d said something. He yanked his gaze up, trying to focus. “I hope not. I’d have thought you’d have been naked.” It was what he would have said a month ago. An idle flirtation that didn’t require much thinking to mouth. Reaching out, he caught the top of the fan, feeling the razor-sharp edge against the pads of his fingers. It was irritating him, making the hairs on the back of his neck rise.
She rapped his knuckles with it. “Behave.”
“Just playing a role, my love.”
“So am I. La femme fatale.” She sliced the fan in the air just in front of his nose, forcing him to take a step back. With a slow, wicked smile, Perry strolled out from under his arm, catching up her skirts with one hand as she deposited the empty champagne glass on a drone’s tray. He followed her lead as she stalked away.
“That way,” Perry said, pointing along the corridor with her fan. “Rosa and Lynch are heading for the stairs. Which means we need to disappear until the crowd has thinned.”
Then it was their task to search the foyer and backstage for either the humanists or the Doeppler Orbs.
“I am your humble servant,” he replied, following in the wake of her swishing bustle.
“Servant, perhaps,” she murmured under her breath. “Humble? Never.”
The bell rang, signaling that the patrons ought to be seated. Suddenly Garrett and Perry were fighting against the tide of the crowd. A young lord’s shoulder hit Garrett’s, throwing him off balance, and he bared his teeth in a silent snarl. He could smell blood in the air, his gut clenching. It was probably in the champagne.
Bloody hell. He needed to get this over with and get out of here.
“Perhaps you’d care to use the powder room?” His hand slid to the small of Perry’s back, helping her keep her balance against skirts that had to be somewhat unfamiliar. Fingers flexing against the supple muscle along her spine, he let out the breath he’d been holding. Touching her felt like holding on to an anchor. In the darkness that was slowly becoming his world, Perry was a reliable, solid light that slowly drew him back to safer shores.
“We’re alone.” Garrett pushed ahead of her and pressed his fingertips to the door to the powder room, listening for a moment. Nothing.
He shoved the door open and stalked inside, shrugging out of his evening coat. A white silk waistcoat strained over his chest, gleaming back at him from the floor-length mirrors. A pair of white leather holsters rode over his shoulders, with two small pistols that would each fit in the palm of his hand. There was a knife in his boot, but the main weapon was his body.
Behind him, Perry locked the door. She lifted her heel onto a champagne-colored divan, then slowly dragged a fistful of her skirts up, revealing her flesh-colored stockings. He caught a glimpse of her gray eyes, watching him in the reflection. Watching his reaction.
She might not have owned an abundance of curves, but she had legs as long and lean as a dancer’s. “Perry,” Garrett warned. This was no longer fun. She was pushing him toward the edge, and he was far too close to it as it was.
Her gloved hands slowed, dragging her skirt a fraction higher until her garter ribbons were revealed. This time Perry watched him openly, her gaze locking on his in the reflection as she slowly dragged her pistol from the holster strapped to her thigh.
Garrett tugged at the gleaming white silk of his bow tie. “Bloody hell. That’s enough, Perry. You win. You look entirely fetching in a gown. And partially out of it.”
“I’m nowhere near finished, Garrett.”
This was a side to Perry that he’d never seen, never even dreamed existed. As a Nighthawk, she’d been forced to expel the myth that her gender made her vulnerable in any way. She generally preferred her own company and rarely jested, let alone flirted. It was as if putting on the dress had relaxed her inhibitions, and his dare had only served to throw down the gauntlet between them.
The predator inside him noted that they were all alone, locked inside by her own devices. It stirred restlessly.
She snapped open the barrel of the pistol and checked the ammunition. When she looked up, the heeled slippers brought her face almost to his. His c**k hardened, each muscle in his abdomen tightening as if for a blow. Don’t.
Their eyes met. “Do you remember when you laughed at me and said I wouldn’t know one end of a dress from the other?”
“So this is revenge?” His lashes lowered. “Don’t play games you can’t afford to lose. I’ll only offer my surrender this once.” He gave in. Let his eyes bleed to black for her. To show her just how close the line was for him.
Perry sucked in a sharp breath but she didn’t back away. And that was the mistake they both made.
His hand slid up her cheek, the silk of his gloves cupping her face in his. He knew what her blood tasted like. She’d cut her wrist for him when he lay gasping on the floor a week ago, with his heart ripped half out of his chest. Perry’s blood had healed him, but the desire for it had never quite gone away.
And this time he wasn’t injured.
Perry caught her breath and wrenched away from him. Her eyes glittered darkly in the mirror as they met his. “You’re right. I accept your surrender.”
Garrett stepped closer, sliding his hands over her shoulders. “I’m no longer offering it,” he murmured and pressed his lips against the smooth silk of her neck.