“This,” Blade called, lifting his glass of blood and mimicking the precise tones of the Echelon, “is to our very first Christmas.”
Everybody raised their glasses.
“An entirely heathen practice,” Blade continued, in mockingly perfect English, “but one I could quite continue.” He glanced down with a warm smile as he lost the accent. “You’ll ‘ave to thank ‘onoria, for ‘twas ‘er father’s practice to celebrate with their family. And I thought, considerin’ our family’s recently grown larger, that we ought to start our own traditions. So without further ado--”
“Of course there’ll be further ado,” Honoria interrupted, “for we know you too well.”
Blade grinned at her. “’ere’s to the family.”
“Hear, hear,” the group around the table echoed.
Glasses clinked, plates were handed around and everyone set to eating.
“’ow is it?” Rip asked, easing one arm along the back of Esme’s chair.
“Delicious,” she replied with a sidelong glance as she tasted the goose. “Almost… succulent.”
His gaze heated as he nursed his wine glass in his hand, blood staining the clear glass. “That’s because I made sure you got the breast.”
“That used to be your favourite part,” she replied innocently, taking another bite of the goose. “A shame you no longer partake.”
“It still is me favourite part,” he murmured, his fingers stretching out and brushing the back of her neck. “And I do intend to partake. Most thoroughly.”
Leaning forward, he brought her fork to his lips and bit into a steaming piece of meat. “You’re right. It’s delicious.”
Esme pushed him away with a laugh, noting the sharp glance Blade threw her, his curiosity rampant. Honoria smuggled a smile at his side.
The afternoon passed by in a happy blur. The children cleared the plates and Rip made sure her glass was always full. Too full sometimes. She couldn’t stop smiling, especially as the presents were handed round. Rip’s gift proved to be a copy of a Gothic romance, and he smiled as he handed it to her, no doubt thinking of the necklace he’d given her.
Blade’s gifts were extravagant and drew gasps, though Lena’s gifts drew the most attention. She’d once apprenticed with a clockmaker and her skill with cogs and gears had created amazing clockwork toys for the children. Even Meggie came down to play with them, summoning the occasional smile as a little metal mouse dashed around the floor in circles. Esme drew the child into her lap and rested her chin against her hair, breathing in the sweet little-girl smell.
Blade eased next to her on the sofa, stretching out to tug at Meggie’s curls. The little girl clapped a hand to her head and looked up.
“Look what I found in your ‘air,” he said, holding out a paper-wrapped bonbon with feigned innocence.
Meggie took it with a smile and Blade directed her to a bowl of sweets on the table.
The second interrogation had arrived.
Esme lounged back on the sofa, watching him languidly.
“You look… ‘appy.”
“I am,” she replied. “This was a smashing idea, Blade.”
“Aye.” His gaze roved the room, watching everyone he ruled over with a certain proudness. “Thought we all deserved some cheer after the year we’ve ‘ad.” His gaze darkened. “The vampire cuttin’ Rip up… And ‘onoria, losin’ her father like that.”
Esme followed his gaze to where his wife curled sleepily in a chair. “She looks content.”
Blade’s smile softened – words enough. Then he turned and cut her a direct glance. “Considerin’ you ain’t stripped skin off me ‘ide for the other night, I take it the two o’ you’ve reconciled?”
Her gaze lowered to her wineglass. “Perhaps I’m merely plotting my revenge on you.”
“Do you remember,” he asked lightly, “when you stole ‘onor’s diaries? I believe the term I used then was meddlin’.”
“I would much prefer it if you didn’t,” she told him firmly.
Blade smiled, knowing he’d been forgiven. “Are you goin’ to tell me what’s goin’ on?”
“Rip and I have reached a compromise,” she replied, standing up. “And that is all I’m going to say.”
“You’re a devil, Esme.”
She shot him a smile as she crossed the room.
Hours later, the children began to drift upstairs to bed.
“I’m goin’ up too.” Rip stretched nonchalantly, his eyes meeting hers for just a second before he glanced away. That second was enough to scorch all the way through her.
Esme looked down into her cup of tea as he stood. She could feel Blade’s eyes on them both. She’d take her time in the kitchen, let Rip retire long before she snuck up the stairs herself. Putting aside her teacup, she nodded to him. “Have a good night’s sleep.”
His eyes twinkled. “I will.”
Sweeping into the kitchen, Esme listened to the sound of chatter behind her as she surveyed the mess. The tea had helped to clear her head, but she didn’t quite feel up to cleaning up.
Who cared if Blade saw her? Time to relax, to go to bed and perhaps see how far she could push her lover…
Still, old habits died hard and Esme took the pair of old milk bottles out to place by the arch in the brickwork that led out into the lane behind the Warren. They would be collected in the morning and the task wouldn’t wait.
Bending down, she nestled the milk bottles in the old crate left there to be collected. Noise whispered behind her and Esme jerked her head up, staring into the dark.
“Hello?” she called. “Is there anybody there?”
Only the gentle hush of drifting snowflakes answered her. Still, she couldn’t quite escape the sensation that she wasn’t alone.
Her heartbeat ratcheted up and Esme dragged her shawl close around her shoulders. Taking one nervous step back, she kept looking around.
Movement shifted behind her, a hand clapping over her mouth and wrenching her head back. She was jerked hard against a man’s lanky body, something sharp pressing into her throat and stilling the scream that boiled there.
“That’s right, dove,” a man whispered in guttural cockney slang. He stank of rot, as if he’d crawled straight from the graveyard himself. Or perhaps he worked with some form of death? “Make a sound and I’ll cut yer throat, you understan’?”
Esme nodded carefully. What could she do? As her eyes rolled, she caught a glimpse of the warm light glowing in the windows of her kitchen. So close to safety…
And yet so far.
Hot breath stirred over her ear and her attacker’s hand relaxed, though didn’t quite leave her lips. “Name’s Bill ‘iggins and I been meanin’ to ‘ave a little word with you.” He laughed roughly. “Your menfolk think they’re so smart, don’t they? Aye, well they ought to watch their backs a little closer.” A hand slid over her breasts, making her jerk. He laughed again, the sound rough as gravel. “And ‘ere’s me, stealin’ their little ladybird right out from under their noses. Ain’t so clever now, are they?”
Hot wet tears slid down her cheeks as he kissed her throat. The hook dug into the tender flesh there and something warm slid down into her collarbone. Higgins licked at it, suckling the skin tenderly and making her cringe. Under her skirts, she scraped a H into the snow with her toe, moving slowly and carefully. Then the E and the L.
“Now, you come wit’ me and keep quiet,” he whispered. “Let’s get a little better acquainted, shall we?”
She never got the chance to trace the letter P.
Rip relaxed back in bed, cupping his head in his hand. His mech arm lay cold and motionless on the bed beside him. Staring at the ceiling, he listened to each creak as people sought their beds, his breath catching at each sound then releasing when he realised it wasn’t Esme.
The house fell still.
Nothing but silence, his ears almost ringing as he tried to listen to her. His rooms were directly above the kitchen, and though he could usually hear her moving about down there – indeed, he’d spent many a night listening to her – there was no sound now.
She wouldn’t have gone to her own bed, would she?
Rip frowned. That look he’d given her had spoken volumes and the little smile she’d tried to hide was as much a reply as anything she could have uttered.
He swung his legs out of bed and reached for his shirt. Dressing swiftly, he eased open the door to his room and went searching for her.
Not in her room. Nor the lower section of the house. The kitchen hearth glowed in the shadows, Esme’s apron lying forlornly on the bench. Rip picked it up, but the material was cold. An uneasy prickling ran over the back of his neck.
The back door rattled under his touch. Locked. She couldn’t be out there. Turning, he raked his gaze over the kitchen as if it would tell him where she was.
What did she do usually? Her pans were all put away, some still resting in the sink for tomorrow. Yanking open the door that led to the basement and the ice-room where Blade kept their blood chilled, he tried to scent her. Nothing.
Perhaps she’d fallen? He hurried down the stairs but there was no sign of her. The drumbeat of his heart started to kick a little harder.
“Esme?” he whispered, but nobody answered him.
Raking a hand over the stubble on his scalp he climbed back up to the kitchen. Footsteps creaked on the main stairs that led upwards and he let out a relieved breath. Finally.
Shoving through into the living room, he stopped in his tracks as Blade slowed, eyeing him curiously from the stairs.
“What are you doin’ up?” Blade asked.
“You ain’t seen Esme?” he asked, his chest tightening. “She ain’t been with you?” It wasn’t expected now that Blade took his blood from Honoria, but it was worth the question.
Blade shook his head. “No. Ain’t seen ‘er.” His voice hardened. “Why?”
“She were s’posed to stay with me tonight,” Rip blurted. “I can’t find ‘er.”
Blade’s knuckles tightened on the stair rails as they stared at each other. “She were in the kitchen,” he said finally. “Puttin’ stuff away last I saw ‘er. You keep searchin’. I’ll rouse the lads, see if anyone knows.”
His tone remained even but Rip saw the look in his master’s eyes and it chilled him to the core.
Blade thundered up the stairs and Rip turned back to the kitchen. Maybe she’d been locked out? Blade or one of the lads often performed a last check on all the doors before they went to bed. He yanked it open and stared out into the yard.
Snow gleamed in the moonlight. Enough for him to see the faint swishing trail of someone’s skirts.
Rip strode outside, his nerves itching along his skin. From the faintness of the impression, she’d been outside long enough for the snow to begin filling it.
The milk bottles were all stacked neatly in their crate. He knelt down in the shadow of the arch, fingertips pressing into a strange line. Almost… a letter. Thank God Esme had taught him to read somewhat. He traced the H with a frown. H. E. And something else that had been almost obliterated by her skirts. I? L?
H. E. L…
His blood ran cold. Help. With a surge of his thighs he straightened and stepped out into the back lane. There was no one in sight, but the trail of her skirts dragged toward the street. Rip took three steps before he smelt it.
A little droplet of blood in the snow.
“Blade!” He was running before he knew it, his lungs seizing in his chest. No, no, no. This was his worst nightmare. He knew immediately what had happened and how. Higgins. This was just what the vindictive prick would do now that Rip and Blade had killed several of his men.
The thought made him feel sick. Not Esme. Anyone but Esme. Why the hell hadn’t she screamed? The only reason she wouldn’t have, would be if she couldn’t.
Panting, he staggered into the street. Wheel ruts and footsteps turned the snow into slush, Esme’s trail vanishing in with the echo of a thousand others. Rip spun on his heel, though he knew what he’d find. He’d been in bed for almost half an hour. More than enough time to vanish with her if someone knew how.
Fuck. He scraped his hands over his head. Not a soul lingered in the streets and the curtains were closed on most of the windows. He’d waste his time – and breath – in questioning people. Whitechapel was the sort of place where nobody ever saw anything.
“Rip?” Blade slowed down at the end of the lane, Will hard on his heels. “You seen ‘er?”