Hyde Park, London, 1872
The first time Leo Barrons saw her, she’d just run a man through with her sword.
Peter Duvall gave a little gasp. Bluish blood dripped down his chest—the color that gave the blue bloods of the Echelon their name.
The young woman stepped back, jerking the tip of her rapier from Duvall’s chest. It had gone straight through the heart, one of the few ways to kill a blue blood. The duel had been serious then, or else they’d have used pistols, which were far less lethal in these circumstances. A blue blood could only be killed by decapitation or severe damage to the heart, so a shot had to be true.
Leo Barrons clapped a little as Duvall fell, echoing the rest of the crowd of young bucks, though he could barely take his eyes off her. He’d arrived late at the Field of Blood in Hyde Park, near Constitution Hill, with evening caressing the skyline of London. Just in time to catch the end of the matter.
Who was she?
Tall and slender, the woman had the proud bearing of a queen, but that wasn’t what stirred the blood in his veins. The steel manica protecting her sword arm, the long leather leggings, and the head-to-toe black of her tight velvet coat only highlighted the shining garnet red of her hair. It was captured in a chignon at the nape of her neck, although wisps of it clung to her serious face. The setting sun caught her hair on fire. Thick, dark lashes shuttered her eyes as she plucked a handkerchief from her second—a young lad, more boy than man—and with considerable aplomb wiped the blood from her blade.
She might have been standing alone in that clearing, deftly ignoring the excited chatter of the assorted young men congratulating her. There was a sense of aloofness about her, as if she existed outside this world and could never be touched.
And she’d just managed to defeat a blue blood in a duel, which was a talent in itself. Blue bloods were faster and stronger than humans, the craving virus that afflicted them giving them exceptional capabilities. How the devil had she managed it? Duvall was…had been no slouch with a blade, though he was hardly a master.
One look. That was all it took. Leo wanted her.
“Who is she?” Leo murmured to the Duke of Malloryn’s heir, Auvry Cavill, without taking his eyes off her.
The faintest of smiles touched Auvry’s mouth. They’d been friends since Eton. “Why don’t you ask her? I wouldn’t want to ruin the surprise.”
A dare. “So I shall.”
He strode through the crowd, ignoring the young bucks of the aristocratic Echelon as much as she did. They were unimportant. She was all that mattered, all that he could see.
Some sense of wariness must have alerted her to him, because she looked up, brandy-brown eyes locking on him and piercing him straight through the chest. Or lower.
Handing her second the bloodied rag, she dismissed Leo with a glance and vanished into the grove of trees behind the field of grass.
If she thought that was the end of it, she was wrong. His steps accelerated, and he knew she heard autumn leaves crackling beneath his heels as he followed her. A glance over her shoulder and she stilled, as if realizing he had no intention of giving up.
“You’ve come to congratulate me?” A mocking tilt of one perfectly defined brow. She wore disdain almost as well as she did aloofness. No doubt she was quite used to men’s flattery. With that face and figure, she’d have to be.
“Congratulate you?” he asked. “Perhaps. You were lucky to win that with your form.”
Those eyes flashed fire, and shock pierced her expression. Just for a moment. “Lucky?”
He smiled on the inside. If he wanted to capture her attention, he had to be different from all the others who no doubt fawned at her feet. “You drop your shoulder too low on the lunge,” he said, gesturing to the offending body part, his gloved fingers brushing the puffed velvet sleeve of her coat. “It creates an opening, if your opponent is aware of it.”
She stared at him, then looked down to where his fingers stirred against her sleeve. “Fair warning. I shall take it into consideration if you’re ever my opponent.”
“I doubt we’ll be opponents.”
“Do you?” A slight challenge in the soft words.
This was not going the way he’d planned. “Perhaps I should introduce myself. Leo Barrons, the Duke of Caine’s heir.”
“I know who you are.” Cool, expressionless eyes. “Your arrogance precedes you. If you’ll excuse me?”
The moment she brushed past him, he turned. “Have I done something to insult you?”
That slim figure froze, her spine stiffening. She glanced over her shoulder at him, one hand resting lightly on the sword at her hip. “You have no idea who I am, do you?”
Evidently. Leo frowned. He rarely paid attention to the young women who formed society. He’d been gifted with two thralls for his eighteenth birthday, and as a man of nineteen, he didn’t need any others. Their blood sustained him and he could not afford to keep more. And then, of course: “I’ve only recently returned from my Grand Tour of the Continent, and I doubt I would have forgotten you.”
“I shall take mercy on you this once, my lord,” she said, stepping closer and staring him in the eye with a defiance that stirred his blood. “Your father killed mine. You are the last man alive I would ever wish to converse with, let alone…whatever puts that gleam in your eye.”
“My father’s killed a lot of men.” Caine was utterly ruthless when he wished to be. Especially to his wife’s bastard son, though few people knew the truth of Leo’s birth. “You’ll have to be more specific.”
The woman leaned forward on her toes, her breath whispering against his skin. “Perhaps this will help?” The irises of her eyes bled to black, heated anger gleaming in their depths.
She was a blue blood. “That’s impossible.”
Only the sons of certain blue bloods were allowed the blood rites when they turned fifteen. The Council of Dukes would never allow a female to be considered, which made her a rogue blue blood, infected by chance.
“I assure you it’s not.” She leaned away from him again, smiling. There was no warmth in that smile. “My name is Aramina Duvall.”
Another blow; a fist to the abdomen this time. Auvry had known exactly who she was, the bastard.
“I see you know the name,” she murmured.
The Duke of Casavian’s only daughter. The man had died but a month ago, leaving his affairs in disarray. Leo’s gaze shot through the slender trunks of the beech trees to Peter Duvall’s bloodied form. No doubt this had been a duel to settle, once and for all, who was heir to the duchy.