There was a most villainous killer on the loose. For weeks the nobility of Great Britain had been terrified—particularly the gentlemen. More than usual had fled to the country to their family homes, and those who hadn’t family seats had gone with those who had to hunt and have lavish parties. They thought they were safe away from London, but they weren’t. There’d been three murders outside of the city over the past month—two in Derbyshire, and one in Leicestershire. All three had happened at house parties where the guest lists contained almost exactly the same names. Two more deaths had happened in London, also at parties.
The victims were all men and they had all been burned to death. From the inside. That fact made the murders odd enough that Her Majesty Queen Victoria had requested that Griffin King, Duke of Greythorne, investigate. The only clue Griffin had to go on were two loose pearls found at the scene of one of the Derbyshire murders. Based on that scant evidence, the press had decided the killer was a woman, and dubbed her “Lady Ash” because ash was exactly that to which her victims were reduced.
Griffin had a particular dislike for the press but unfortunately they seemed to be correct. It seemed the killer was indeed a woman, but who? And why?
“I’ve never seen people madder than the aristocracy,” Finley Jayne remarked as she lounged on the sofa in the library of King House, nibbling on shortbread. An audio cylinder of Beethoven played softly in the background. “Excluding you, of course.”
He smiled at her. “Of course.” Griffin treasured these quiet moments when it was just the two of them doing mundane things. True, they were trying to catch a criminal, but tea and biscuits made it seem normal. Any moment now he expected someone to come barging in, but for the time being he was content—a feeling he rarely experienced anymore.
He wasn’t an idiot. He knew that he had to confide in Finley that The Machinist, Leonardo Garibaldi, was haunting him. Everyone had expected something of that nature to occur after the villain had died. Even from beyond the grave, Garibaldi was hell-bent on destroying Griffin and everything he held dear. The Machinist gave him no rest. He’d appear at any time of day, during any sort of function. Sometimes Griffin could send him back to the Aether, or ignore him, but other times...
Garibaldi was getting stronger. Very strong. Being dead had only made it easier for him to harness Aetheric energy and use it for his own dark purposes. Soon, the ghost would make his move, but with any luck not until they found and apprehended Lady Ash.
What would happen when Garibaldi came for him was anyone’s guess. Griffin worked on strengthening his own abilities, but it felt more draining than empowering. He was tired all the time, and all he wanted was to commit Finley’s smile to memory—just in case. He wasn’t being maudlin, just prepared. Death didn’t frighten him, but imagining all the things Garibaldi might have in store for him before and after...well, that was disconcerting. Still, he wasn’t about to go without a fight, and even if Garibaldi did his worst, Griffin would find a way out—and defeat his nemesis.
He reached out from where he sat on the sofa beside Finley and stroked a lock of black that ran through her honey-blond hair. It had appeared shortly after they’d amalgamated the two sides of her Aetheric self. She’d rather been like that Jekyll and Hyde character before, though much prettier.
She glanced at him, amber eyes troubled. “What?”
He shook his head. “Nothing. Just wanted to touch you.”
She snuggled closer. “You can touch me whenever you like.”
“That’s an interesting invitation,” he murmured, trailing his fingers down her neck. She was wearing a violet frock with long sleeves under a black leather corset. Even though he’d helped lace the corset that very morning, there was something tantalizing about possibly getting her out of it.... He pressed his lips to her throat.
The door to the library burst open.
Finley swore. Griffin chuckled. Of course the others would choose this moment to show up. Their timing was, as always, terrible.
They filed in one after the other—Emily in front, followed by Sam, Wildcat and Jasper. A motley bunch if ever there was one. Emily carried a stack of papers, and had that expression on her freckled face that said she believed she’d solved a puzzle. Griffin loved to see that look.
“What did you find?” he asked as Finley sat up, putting a little distance between them. He wanted to pull her back, but she wasn’t much for flaunting their relationship in front of other people, even their friends.
Emily flopped down in a nearby chair, spreading the papers out on the tea table. “Lady Ash, I think.”
Sam snatched a shortbread from the plate and shoved the entire biscuit in his mouth. “She’s a genius.”
It always amazed Griffin to watch Sam eat. His friend loved food so much that somehow he managed to talk without spraying crumbs—as though his mouth knew better than to waste them by spitting them out.
“That goes without saying,” Griffin agreed.
“Just let her speak, will you?” Finley was peevish—and it was obvious. Griffin patted her thigh. He’d make certain they had some time alone later.
Emily arched an eyebrow at the other girl’s tone and Wildcat and Jasper shared a glance. Maybe Griffin should speak to the cowboy and ask him how he managed to find time to sneak away with Cat. They never seemed to have a problem spending time together. In fact, there had been times when they’d been impossible to find. People always seemed to find him.
“I used the Aether engine to compile a list of possible suspects,” Emily informed them in her Irish lilt. “I compared the guest list to all the gatherings with the Scotland Yard accounts of recently reported burglaries.”
Finley frowned. “But Lady Ash hasn’t stolen anything. Has she?”
Emily grinned, seemingly unaware of just how foul the other girl’s mood was. “No, but I reckoned she might be intelligent enough to realize someone would look into her ruined pearls. Two aristocratic women reported having pearls stolen as of late, but only one was invited to—and attended—each of the parties.”
They all stared at her—waiting. She sat there, smiling at them as tension built.
“Emily,” Finley growled. “Just tell us who the bloody hell she is.”
“She’s in an ugly mood, Em,” Sam added. “Best not to poke too much.”
The little Irish girl sighed. “I stayed up all night compiling this data—the least you all can do is allow me to bask in my success.”
“Bask later.” Finley sounded as though her jaw was glued shut. Griffin hid a smile. It was cruel of him—childish even, but how could he not love knowing that she was so sour because they’d been interrupted?
“Just tell us, Em,” he urged. “And then we can praise your hard work and genius.”
That seemed to appease her. She lit up like Guy Fawkes Night. “Lady Grantfarthen.”
Grantfarthen. It wasn’t a title Griffin knew well, but then, he wasn’t exactly a social butterfly. As a young noble, especially a duke, he was a person that many sought to know, curry favor from or shove their daughters at. He had more important things to do than dance and drink champagne. Although, perhaps if he’d done a little more of that, his life wouldn’t always seem to be in peril.
“Her husband was a viscount,” Emily went on. “They spent most of their time at their country estate in Lincolnshire until Lord Grantfarthen shot himself over gaming debts, and the new heir tossed Lady Grantfarthen out.”
The new lord must be quite the peach indeed. “Let me guess. The victims have all been people to whom the late viscount owed money?” It wasn’t a brilliant deduction, so Griffin didn’t pat his own back over it.
Emily nodded. “Two of them had called in their markers, as well. When Grantfarthen couldn’t pay, they threatened to ruin him publicly.”
It was enough to make Griffin ashamed of the society into which he’d been born. If the thought of ridicule was enough to make you eat a bullet, what sort of world did you live in? Not a very pleasant one. “So the widow uses her abilities for a little revenge and claims her necklace was stolen to cover her tracks.”
“She’s not stupid,” Wildcat commented. “Would have been smarter not to wear the pearls at all, though.”
“Appearances,” Griffin said, absently. “One must keep up appearances. Not wearing the pearls might make people speculate that she’d taken to selling off her jewelry. Did you look into the lady’s finances?”
Emily puffed up like a little bird. “On a whim, I did. Turns out she had her own fortune as her father’s only child, but her da had put a stipulation on her dowry that Lord Grantfarthen couldn’t have access to it without written permission from his wife and his father-in-law. The old man’s in trade apparently, and rich as Midas. He refused to sign over any money, but he did offer his son-in-law a loan.”
“Which he refused,” Griffin concluded with a grimace. For many men—especially titled ones—pride was a terrible thing. Having a man “beneath” him deny him what he saw as rightfully his must have driven the viscount to distraction. “Do we know where the father is now?”
Emily consulted her papers. “I have an address for Mr. Peabody in Cheapside. He’s been out of the country, though.”
“When’s he due back?”
She looked again. “This morning. What are you thinking, lad?”
Griffin smiled without humor. “I’m thinking that our fiery lady might decide to pay a visit to her papa. She might decide she’s had enough of him controlling her money—and she might want his, as well.”
Some of the color left Emily’s cheeks. She was already very pale. “You don’t think she’d kill her own father?”
“I think she’s insane, very powerful and drunk on the fact that she’s gotten away with it for this long. I also think we’d better make haste to Cheapside if we’re to save Mr. Peabody from a grisly death.” He rose to his feet and offered Finley his hand. “Let’s go.”
Her fingers entwined with his as she rose to her feet. She wasn’t happy, he could tell—and he didn’t blame her. Since they’d met, their lives had been one adventure after another. Some of it had been fun, but most of it had been dangerous. They could use a little quiet time together. He wanted to give her that, but not at the expense of a life—especially not when it was a life they could save.
“We’ll go away after,” he told her in a low voice. “Spend some time alone.”
She shot him a doubtful glance. “All right.” But there was no conviction in her tone. She pulled her hand free of his and walked toward the door.
“I don’t blame her,” whispered a voice near his ear.
Garibaldi. Griffin didn’t turn his head. Didn’t even acknowledge that he’d heard. No one else seemed to have either.
“She knows you don’t mean it, Your Grace. More importantly, you know you don’t mean it.”
Griffin’s jaw tightened, but he remained silent. Clenching his hands into fists, he followed his friends.
The Machinist chuckled—the sound echoing in his head.
“I’m coming for you, Griffin King.”
* * *
“Why do I need to learn to dance?”
Jack Dandy smiled as he guided Mila through a turn. She was a good dancer, despite her whining. “Because it’s something every well-bred young lady knows how to do, and because it’s enjoyable.”
“I’m not well-bred. I was built. I suppose I could be well built.”
She was at that, he thought with a touch of irony-laced guilt. She was very fit, and her tailored trousers and waistcoat showed that off to brilliant advantage. Add her mane of wild red hair and wide amber eyes and she was a girl a fellow didn’t easily forget.
“You don’t like to dance?” he asked, turning her again.
“You could have just given me a book on it. As soon as I read the instructions I’d know how to do it.”
His lips quirked. “So, you don’t like dancing with me, is that it?”
Her cheeks flushed at his teasing. “No. I’m sure you know you dance very well—otherwise you wouldn’t do it. I just think this is a waste of your time.”
“It’s not.” And that was as much conversation as he intended to have on the subject. He wouldn’t admit—not even to himself—just how much he enjoyed dancing with her. She felt comfortable in his arms—as if she was made to fit him.
Which was ridiculous. She’d been made—engineered—to house the brain of a madman, only those plans had gotten all mucked up by Griffin King. Because of an injection of some sort of goo that apparently gave a kick in the bollocks to the evolutionary process, Mila the automaton had become Mila the girl, complete with a sharp brain and all the blood and organs that went along with being human.
She learned at an incredible rate, which was good, because, though she looked like a woman, if she were human, she wouldn’t even be old enough to crawl yet. She’d learned so much already—more than he’d ever thought possible, but there was still so much she didn’t know.
“Are you enjoying Romeo and Juliet?” Shakespeare was practically required reading in England.
Her winged ginger brows knit into a frown as she moved. Her dancing had dramatically improved in the past five minutes. Remarkable. “No. It’s foolish and contrived.”
Both of Jack’s brows shot up. He misstepped and almost trod upon her toes. “Apologies,” he muttered.