Her Ladyship's Curse
The chambermaid stood waiting in the front sitting room, a glass of water and a twist of paper on a small silver tray.
“Betsy, Miss Kittredge is leaving,” the lady told her. “Would you please show her the way out?”
Betsy looked relieved. “Yes, milady.”
After running a gauntlet of frowning maids and glowering footmen, I was shown out through the side entrance reserved for tradesmen and visiting servants.
“Thank you,” I said to the door Betsy closed firmly in my face before walking down the short stairs to the street. Wrecker was nowhere to be seen, and I couldn’t wait for him on the street without attracting attention from a nobber—one of the private security guards who patrolled the streets of the Hill to safeguard the residents from unwelcome intruders. Nobbers liked to crack heads first and ask questions later. I started making my way down the narrow walk.
Before I could reach the thoroughfare and hail a cab, a large, gleaming coach drawn by four magnificent grays cut me off. I would have gone around it but for the silver fist-and-pike crest on the door.
Of course it would be him.
Shadows shrouded the inside of the coach and the man who said, “Get in.”
The driver and the footman didn’t move from their positions; I wasn’t worth the trouble. So I unlatched the door and boosted myself up inside.
The interior was, like the coach and the horses and the servant’s livery, a dismal gray. I perched on the rear-facing bench, taking the time to arrange my skirts and satchel before I looked out the window. Watching the scenery couldn’t erase the delicious spicy scent teasing my nose or calm the nerves humming beneath every inch of my skin, but he didn’t have to know that.
“Trolling on the Hill now, are we?” I asked. “What’s the matter, didn’t your last spell for the governor provide the promised amount of dazzle?”
No answer came, not that I expected one from Dredmore.
No, Lucien Dredmore, the former Lord Travallian, mentalist, deathmage, and current acknowledged Grand Master of the Dark Arts in the whole of Toriana, simply popped a matchit with his thumbnail and lit a thin black cigar clamped between his strong white teeth. The flame briefly illuminated his craggy features but failed to find a reflection in his black eyes. Then he shook out the matchit and blew out a thin stream of smoke.
I might have loved the smell of him, but I hated his cigars. I coughed and banged my fist against the panel under the driver’s ass. “Getting out,” I called.
The coach didn’t even slow.
Lucien puffed a few more times before he examined the glowing tip of his smoke. “What were you doing at Walsh’s, Charmian?”
“Dusting the furniture. Haven’t you heard? All the maids on the Hill have gone on strike.” Inside I braced myself before I looked directly at his cruelly handsome face. “Why, is Walsh someone you haven’t yet fleeced?”
“Nolan Walsh is a member of a very powerful financial consortium,” he said. “He does the fleecing.”
“Oh, so he’s your friend.” I sat back. “I think it’s fabulous that you still have one.”
“Nolan wouldn’t hire the likes of you,” he said, as if I weren’t there. “It would have been the daughter. Or the new wife.”
“I don’t discuss my business with thieves and liars,” I told him sweetly. “But I’d happily tell them all about it before I’d confide in scum like you.”
Accustomed as he was to my insults, Dredmore didn’t even bat an eyelash. “There’s a dark, dire force moving through the city, Charmian. You’d be smart to stay clear of it.”
“A dark, dire force.” I laughed. “That’s good, Lucien, that’s very good. I will say one thing for you, your showmanship never disappoints.” I sensed I was running out of time and gave the panel another thump. “Stop this rubbish cart now, or I’ll scream murder.”
He regarded me through the cloud of smoke between us. “You’d rather tromp all the way back to that hovel of yours than accept my assistance? Why get in, then?”
“The last time I didn’t,” I reminded him. “You had one of your hooligans grab me and toss me in.” Lucien had gagged me that time and put his hands on me as well, something I still wanted to stab him in the heart for.
He leaned forward. “Come to supper tonight.”
“No.” Short, unadorned, straight to the point: that was the only way to refuse Dredmore. That and the visible brandishment of one or more sharp weapons. I knew I shouldn’t have left my daggers at home.
“I felt something today,” he told me. “A disturbance in the netherside. Old magic.”
The netherside, realm of all things mystical. Supposedly it was parked up against reality, just out of sight to ordinary folk, though mages claimed they could sense it.
“Likely a spot of indigestion.”
“Hardly.” He stared at my lips. “It tasted of you.”
Now I was going to be sick, hopefully all over his spotless trousers and gleaming boots. “There is no such thing as the netherside or magic.”
“Then why do you rabbit about disenchanting things?” he countered.
“I investigate real crimes, I expose the frauds dressing them up as magic, and I stop good, hardworking people from wasting what little they have on charlatans who do nothing.” I waited a beat. “Like you.”
“I will find out what you were doing at Walsh’s.” He sat back. “Then you and I will have a very long discussion about the consequences for young females who are too headstrong and foolish to stay in their proper place.”
I curled my upper lip. “Where’s that for me, then? In your bed?”
“Such a tedious lack of imagination.” He pitched his cigar out the window before he pulled down the shades. “I have you where I want you now.”
I laughed. “You can’t do anything in here but annoy me.”
“Can’t I?” Dredmore dragged me off the seat and onto his thighs, where he clamped me against his chest. “No, don’t struggle, Charmian. You made the challenge.” He wrapped the chain of my pendant around his fist until it became a noose around my neck. “I am only rising to the occasion.”
I felt a bulge of blunt hardness against my thigh and went still, ducking my head to hide my fear. “You’re pathetic.”
“What happened to annoying?” His lips glanced over my cheekbone. “Lift your chin.”
I stared at the vee of his waistcoat. “Go to the devil.”
He released the chain, took hold of my hair, and gave it a sharp tug, and I jerked up my chin. I made myself stone as he put his mouth over mine, and I kept my teeth clamped together to prevent his tongue any access.
Like all the others, this would not count as my first kiss, I thought as he worked his lips against mine. Another mauling, most definitely, but I wasn’t kissing him. I’d never kiss him. I would never, ever give in to such brute tactics—
And then I was kissing him, my mouth open to his, my tongue curling round the silky glide of his. Dimly I felt him let go of my hair and gather me closer, his fingers at my bodice and then my breast, cupping and squeezing. He ceased that only to reach down, and then I felt my skirts sliding up over my calves and then my knees—
“No.” I wrenched my face to one side, first to drag in breath and then to hold it. My body wanted to do terrible things, and my mind wanted worse, and I could not relent to either. Not here, and not with him.
“What did that feel like, Charmian?” He caught a tendril of hair hanging in my eyes and smoothed it back. “Annoyance, or something deeper? And would you like to feel it all night?”
I would have smashed my brow into his, but all it wanted to do was rest against his shoulder as my shaking hand pushed my skirts back down. “You have to stop doing this to me.”
I straightened and looked into his black, soulless eyes as I let how I felt show on my face.
“So we remain at impasse. Very well.” Carefully he lifted me and placed me back on the opposite seat. Before I could shift back into the corner, he reached out and clamped a black-gloved hand over my wrist. “You will come to me, Charmian. Perhaps not now, but soon. The portents are never wrong.”
He did have the deepest, most commanding voice of any man I’d known. Sometimes I woke up in the middle of the night, covered in sweat, hearing the last echo of it humming in my ears as I remembered other times he’d touched and kissed me. If anyone could ever bespell me, it would be Lucien Dredmore.
Over my dead body.
He dodged my fist and thrust me back, calling out, “Here, Connell.”
The coach came to a swift stop.
I glanced out and saw that I was back in town. “Thank you for the ride, Dredmore. Very decent of you.”
“Charmian.” He watched me climb out.
From there I walked a few blocks to the local fishncrisp to pick up two hot meals for me and Docket. The encounter with Dredmore had killed what appetite I had, so I ordered a pot of bisque and some crackers for myself and a big platter of fried coddles and shoelace-thin crispies for the mech. Since the owner still owed me a massive debt for dispelling all of his fish shops, I’d agreed to take meals in barter.
“Right you are, miss,” the counter boy said as he loaded the meal containers into two round packing cylinders marked with his shop’s brand. “Where to drop?”
I had to go home to freshen up, but I intended to spend a few hours at the office, so I gave him my building and drop numbers. He tagged them on the side of the cylinders in grease pencil, and I lingered long enough to watch him load the meal buckets into the tube.
The shops that sent hot food by bucket around the city were scrupulously honest—their business depended on it—but sometimes too many buckets in the tubes created a backup at the sorting stations, and if so I’d just stop for the meals later on my way to the office myself (and Docket would have his hand delivery.) This time, however, the cylinders shot off directly.