“Slashers,” Rip finished, staring at Flash Jacky’s grisly remains. “The bleedin’ Slashers.”
“I would have to complete my findings but I believe this is the cause of death.” Creavey tugged at his apron strings. “I thought Blade done for the Slasher gangs six months back?”
“’e did,” Rip replied, though a vampire had actually taken care of that. Its haunt had been in Undertown, the dark world that had once been the ELU underground line before half the tunnels collapsed. Only the poor or the very desperate lived there – or the Slasher gangs that had once run rampant through this part of the East End. Initiation into one of the gangs required the sacrifice of a limb, preferably by a man’s own hand. Every single one of them had been enhanced with a metal hook or knife, the blade grafted into the forearm in rudimentary rookery style. Some even had wheels for feet or beady glass eyes that didn’t quite focus on the world properly.
Slashers stole people from their beds and dragged them down below, where they drained a body of its blood to sell to the Echelon’s draining factories. The type of scum Rip didn’t mind running afoul of – preferably with his own knife.
“It’s the way of the East End,” Rip explained gruffly. “Take out one of the groups in power and others spring up like mushrooms.” He thought of Liza Kent’s flat, with its very obvious symbol carved into the door. No Slasher could have missed it and being on the edges of Blade’s turf it was clear what this was. “Whoever they are, they’re challengin’ Blade. Takin’ one o’ ‘is.”
“Someone with no interest in continued existence,” Creavey muttered. “Aye.” Rip stepped back. This explained the disappearance of Liza Kent. Poor girl. No doubt her withered carcass would surface in the streets, drained of all its blood. “You ain’t seen a thing o’ this, you understand?”
Creavey wasn’t a foolish man. “I’ll bury the body myself. Make sure nobody but me sees it.
Rip glared at him. “Just you make sure you bury it. I don’t ‘old with none of this cuttin’ dead bodies up, you ‘ear me?”
“Getting hard to find bodies, Rip.”
Rip stared at him.
“How else is a man to know the secrets of death?” Creavey protested. “You don’t know how much good this could do.”
Rip took a step back, ready to leave the stench of death behind him. “One day someone’s goin’ to show you a first’and look at it, if you keep this up. Just you think on that.”
Esme tossed in her narrow bed as dawn silvered the sky, then finally gave a sigh and threw the covers back. No point lying here. All she’d do was start thinking about Rip and those sort of thoughts had kept her up half the night.
No sense crying over spilt milk, her mama’s voice whispered in her ear.
Easy to say. Not so easy to do.
Dragging on her heavy wool robe, Esme hopped across the chilly floors and sank her feet into her luxurious slippers. Her breath misting in the air, Esme hurried out into the hallway and down toward the kitchens. She needed to stoke the coals in the enormous hearth so there would be hot water to wash with and set the boilers to burning. They pumped hot water through the walls and floors to warm the Warren in these coldest months.
The routine was soothing. This was the time of day she liked best, when the world was hushed and quiet and she was completely alone. She didn’t have to think then. Eight years ago when her husband Tom had died, she’d thrown herself into work like this too, trying to avoid her own sense of grief. It worked. For a little while. And though this situation was entirely different, it didn’t make it hurt any less.
Face it Esme, you were a fool, she told herself as she hurried upstairs to the washroom and swiftly performed her morning ablutions. Thinking that something existed between her and Rip when it didn’t. Or hoping perhaps. He’d been so distant in the last six months, but before that… Things had changed in their friendship. She wouldn’t have said he was courting her precisely, but they’d spent most of their spare moments together. Laughing together. Sharing things about their lives that she didn’t think either of them had ever told another soul. Esme had begun baking teacake and biscuits because she knew he would always appear in her kitchen just after lunch and stay until she had to shoo him out or risk missing dinner.
Doubt assailed her. She could remember the day of the vampire attack as though it had happened yesterday. He’d been in the kitchen with her, leaning on the bench and watching as she rolled dough. Looking at her with an expression that she’d almost thought was hungry. And then he’d reached out, his gaze following his fingers as he stroked them over her cheek. Up her nose, a smile softening his mouth and warming his eyes. Esme hadn’t been able to breathe, her heart hammering in her chest as she stared helplessly up at him.
“Flour,” he’d murmured and dropped his hand. But his gaze lingered on her for another long moment as if he were waiting for something.
She’d never said a thing. Hadn’t been able to. And then the next she saw him, his throat was half torn open and Blade had been forced to infect him with the craving to save his life. That moment changed everything. Rip didn’t touch her anymore. His visits to the kitchen stopped and the laughter had vanished. She’d known he was fighting to control himself, to find some sense of peace with the craving within. She’d been determined to wait.
But maybe the vampire had taken more than just Rip’s humanity.
Esme pinched her cheeks to give them some semblance of color and returned below, her hair tucked up neatly and her midnight-blue skirts swishing around her ankles. Above her she could hear people starting to stir, the peace of the day threatening to shatter. Though she loved the odd little family Blade had collected over the years, right now she simply wished to be left alone.
Grabbing her shawl and basket, Esme pushed out into the cold winter’s morning and stopped, her breath catching at the glittering array in front of her. The whole world was white, the drift of snowflakes floating slowly through the air. Esme’s breath steamed and the biting cold caught in her lungs but even that was a thing of beauty. The air tasted so pure, so clean, as if the snow had dampened down even the thick pall of smog that clung to London’s steeples.
Her boots crunched in the soft powder as she wrapped her shawl around her, tucking it tight. It had been years since they’d had a downfall like this. A clump slid off a nearby roof and Esme jerked her head up. The silence suddenly took on an ominous sensation, all the little hairs on the back of her neck lifting.
Nothing moved. Still… the sensation of being watched heightened. Tugging her gloves on slowly, she stared out into the street. This was ridiculous. Everybody in the ‘Chapel knew she belonged to Blade. Nobody would dare lay a finger on her.
Gathering her breath, she strode out into the narrow lane… and directly into a warm, hard surface.
Hands locked around her upper arms as she tripped, the scent of heated male curling through her nostrils. Panic flared as she instantly recognized whom it was. She’d washed his shirts for years; she’d recognise that distinct, slightly spicy scent of his cologne anywhere.
Of all the people she didn’t wish to see this morning…
“Rip,” she blurted, tipping her head back to stare up at him. “What are you doing out?”
“Ain’t been in,” Rip muttered, staring down at her with an unreadable expression in his green eyes. Faint lines feathered the corners as his eyes narrowed. “So it still ain’t ‘John’?”
It wouldn’t be John again. It couldn’t. Not until she’d managed to heal the gaping wound inside her – or distance herself from it at least. “You’ll be looking for your bed then,” she said, sidestepping him and tucking her basket against her abdomen. “If you’ll excuse me? I have errands to run.”
The soft shuffle of his heavier footsteps echoed hers and a hot wash of tears threatened to spill down her cheeks. Why wouldn’t he leave her alone?
“The boiler’s running hot water. You’ll be wanting a wash, I believe,” she threw back over her shoulder.
Two long steps and he caught up to her, his hands shoved deep into his pockets and his collar pulled high against the drift of snowflakes. Canny green eyes raked her. Rip had never been a fool, though most people dismissed him as merely muscle.
“Know when a woman’s tryin’ to give me the ‘eave-‘o, Esme.” He stared straight ahead. “I’d ask why, but I think it’s got ought to do with what ‘appened yesterday.”
Silence was a sudden, awkward wall between them.
“I was trying to be considerate,” she replied stiffly. “You’ll be tired.”
“Stop tellin’ me what I feel and what I ought to be wantin’,” he snapped. “You know you can tell me anythin’, don’t you?”
When she said nothing else, his lips thinned. The soft dawn light softened the harsh slant of his brow and the jagged break in his nose, but he would never be considered handsome. Still… For a moment, her heart twisted in her chest as she stared at his familiar profile. So strong. So stubborn. She’d stared at that face for years, wondering what thoughts he entertained behind those beautiful green eyes.
Jerking her gaze away, she focused on the street. Theirs were the only footsteps marring the pristine white. It made her feel terribly alone with him, her body prickling with dangerous awareness. And that only made her furious with herself.
“You’re still angry with me,” he said gruffly.
“I shouldn’t think why.” Esme strode ahead, desperately wanting to avoid this conversation.
A steely hand caught her upper arm and when she spun, he was staring down at her with those far-too-clever eyes. “We can dance in circles all day, Esme, but the ‘onest truth is I ain’t got a bloody clue why you’re so upset.” He rubbed his forehead, fingertips leaving white marks in his swarthy skin. Frustration edged his voice. “I spent ‘alf the night thinkin’ ‘bout it.”
“Let me go,” she said quietly.
“Damn you, J—Rip!” She threw all of her weight against his grip and felt his hand slip on the fabric of her sleeves.
He held them up in surrender and she fell back a few steps. The thin rigid spars of his right hand reflected the morning light. As if sensing where her gaze was drawn he jerked it low, shoving it in his pocket, a flush of heat turning his cheeks ruddy. “So I’m thinkin’ right, ‘bout what you said yesterday, and I’m thinkin’ this ‘as got nothin’ to do with me so-called lie.”
Esme swallowed. “I see.”
Those wicked eyes narrowed at her non-committal answer. “You’re angry with me,” he said slowly. “Because I were drinkin’ me blood from someone else? Because you thought you’d be me thrall? I should ‘ave told you I wouldn’t ‘old you accountable to that. You don’t need to be me thrall – you don’t need to be anyone’s thrall.”
Esme shook her head, trying to step around him. How to tell him she’d wanted to be his so desperately? Especially when he’d made it clear he didn’t think of her in that way. “It doesn’t matter--”
He grabbed her again. “Damn it, Esme. I’m tryin’ to work this out.” Hard fingers – metal and flesh – dug into her upper arms as he stared down at her. “I’m tryin’. Please. Tell me what’s wrong?”
“What’s wrong?” Suddenly she couldn’t hold it in any longer. It was either this or burst into tears. She shoved past. “I—I have my pride, John Doolan. I do! I won’t beg you, damn it. You don’t want me and I won’t--”
He danced in front of her and Esme staggered into him, hands pushing at his broad chest.
“I don’t want you?” he demanded. “I don’t want your blood?” A dark glint came into his eyes. “That’s it, ain’t it? That’s what this is ‘bout? Because I don’t want your bloody blood?”
Something hot slid down her cheek and she dashed the tear away, hoping he wouldn’t see it. “Leave me alone,” she said hoarsely.
The wall of his chest stiffened. “Esme?” he asked. “Are you cryin’?”
Suddenly his hand cupped her jaw, the cool steel of his right one slick against her skin. Esme shut her eyes as he tilted her face up to his, one last tear sliding silently down her cheek. She didn’t want him to see it but the firm grip gave her no choice.