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VENOMOUS SECRETS

Chapter One 

May 1885

 

Any minute now.

The steam orchestra played the opening bars of a Viennese waltz, turning all eyes away from the magnificence of the refreshments table.

All save his.

Jonathan “Jack” Tagert kept the ice sculpture of a phoenix rising from its ashes at the edge of his vision. An extravagant artistic display that presented an easily exploitable weakness. Odds were low that anyone would notice when hydrogen gas began to slowly drift upward from beneath the fragile icy feathers constituting its base.

“Isn’t Lady Mildred perfection?” Beside him, his mother’s lips curved into a smug smile as her oldest son led his bride-to-be and future viscountess onto the ballroom floor. “With her heart-shaped face and rosebud mouth, she could grace a postcard in a bookseller’s shop window.” Her chin lifted. “Their wedding will be the talk of the ton. It’s a shame your sister fell victim to temptations presented by the duchess. Angela would have done much better with one of Lady Mildred’s discarded admirers.”

He flattened his lips. On the first point, they agreed. His sister’s impulsive wedding was ill-conceived. Not that he could discuss Angela’s motivations. Or presumed whereabouts. As to Lady Mildred’s other suitors? Milk sops, all of them.

“An appealing visage,” he answered his mother. “But it’s her curves that won her a proposal. She appears fertile enough.”

Strip away her clothing, and a dank, dark hole of a shop on Holywell Street would sell you the same image at a considerably higher price point. A fact that explained a certain predatory gleam in his brother’s eyes.

Thwack. His mother snapped her fan down upon his wrist. Built with iron staves, it was rather more sturdy than it looked. When she was truly mad, hairline fractures of the wrist became a decided possibility. “We do not utter such words aloud!”

Unflinching, for he would not give her the satisfaction of a reaction, Jack stared out over the whirl of colorful ballgowns and black dress coats, irritated that the faulty peripheral vision of his left eye made tracking familiar faces more difficult. He closed his eyes for a moment, took a deep breath, and returned to needling his mother. “Is that not what precipitated his reform?” he asked. “The quest for an heir?”

His brother, Viscount Aubrey, was her favorite, absorbing all her love and devotion, no matter how often he tempted the grim reaper. He was the handsome one. The charming one. The amusing one.

Mother stiffened. “It is his duty.”

“One my brother has spent a lifetime avoiding. Why the sudden turnabout?”

Spoiled rotten, his mother’s beloved child had reached adulthood and embarked upon a life of self-absorption and debauchery. Until a few months past, his every action seemed aimed at accelerating his trajectory into a coffin.

Not even the death of their father a few years past—revealing the dismal state of the family finances—had slowed the pace of Aubrey’s revelry. He’d been content to let Jack wrestle with outstanding debts and mismanaged investments while their mother, dismissive of her spare’s efforts, worked to acquire a wealthy young American bride for her eldest. A well-established technique to buttress the deterioration of funds and smooth the cracking veneer of a family’s genteel façade.

When orders to depart for Austria arrived, an assignment that would occupy him for several months, Jack had dropped the account books on his brother’s lap, frustrated, irritated and expecting catastrophe.

“Perhaps it is because he is now free to choose his own bride,” Mother suggested on a huff.

“And how is that, exactly?” For Jack had returned to London to find the family coffers were once again full.

How else to explain this ball or his brother’s bride-to-be? English, possessed of an impeccable family tree and, to all appearances, raised in the countryside on milk and honey. Sweet. Young. Innocent. And in for a world of disappointment.

“It is none of your concern.” His mother’s gaze remained fixed upon the waltzing couple. “Suffice it to say Aubrey has come into his own.”

“Mmm.” Jack harbored serious doubts.

Outwardly, nothing seemed amiss. Aubrey behaved exactly as society expected of a lord. But taking a wife was merely a bit of novelty. A distraction. Once the shine wore off, tried and true patterns would reassert themselves. They always did.

Especially when his brother’s old school chums were about.

Dr. William Oakes might hold a medical degree and project maturity and dignity, but he was no stranger to the hedonistic. Though not ton, he moved among the self-important by virtue of the successful medical practice he’d built by catering to their every need and whim. Even now, he lurked about the edges of the room, ingratiating himself with mothers of unsuccessful debutants in hopes of plucking low-hanging fruit to secure himself a blue-blooded wife.

 At the other end of the spectrum was Stephen Carruthers, son of Lord Saltwell. Married. Father. A second child on the way. Yet Jack could not recall a single time when the man was fully sober. Even now, he kept his feet beneath him by propping himself against a column, his only ambition in life to ensure the flask tucked in his pocket never ran dry.

Together, the three of them rarely found their beds before dawn.

Jack let his gaze drift back to his brother’s waltzing form.

Maintaining an outward guise of respectability was too much of a struggle. Any day now, Aubrey would lose the fight, reach for a brandy tumbler, another man’s wife, a morphine-filled hypodermic syringe—possibly all three at once—and the façade would come crashing down.

Such self-indulgent behavior would not only estrange his new wife, but Aubrey would ignore whatever hare-brained financial scheme propped up his current lifestyle and the estate’s coffers would suffer a sudden and precipitous decline. One which Jack would, yet again, be called upon to repair. Venting his simmering frustration was pointless as it would only be met by denial.

Naturally, he’d attempted to investigate the estate’s current condition. Forewarned was forearmed. Yet he’d arrived at the study’s door to find a new lock. Not something a simple set of lock picks would open, but a new, shiny, firkin cincture bolt.

Insulting, really, that his brother believed such a contraption could stop him. The corner of his mouth kicked up.

Still, uncovering family secrets was not a project to undertake with steambot staff monitoring his every move, ready to sound the alarm.

Hence the need for a disaster.

Had he over-coated the sodium pellet? By now, it ought to have reacted with the ice melt. Did he need to engineer another distraction to allow him to slip, unnoticed, down the hallway and into the study?

The couple spun, and Lady Mildred glanced in their direction. Briefly, but long enough for Jack to note vacant eyes and a fragile smile, one that threatened to crack at any moment. Had she pried back the edge of Aubrey’s veneer and glimpsed the shallow emptiness of his existence beneath?

His mother’s lips pursed. “Tell me you did not attempt to dissuade Lady Mildred from this engagement.”

“What if I did?” An advantageous match made so early in the Season cast a pall of disappointment over mothers and debutants—one less title on the market. With Aubrey unavailable, the question became: who to pursue now? Already, a few speculative glances had been cast in his direction. If not the heir, what about the spare?

He hated that term, value measured in increments of perceived societal status.

“She’s in his arms, is she not?” For all the usual reasons, he presumed, for Lady Mildred had been incapable of speech in his presence.

He had tried. But how did one explain the profligate life his brother led to a lady with delicate sensibilities? Or convince her, when she clung to the idea of a title like paste to the wallpaper she dreamt of installing in the townhouse, that it wasn’t worth the price she would pay?

The engagement had been announced. A date set.

Aether help her, Lady Mildred would need the yards of pink ruffles and lace in which she was wrapped to weather the crushing blow of inevitable humiliation.

Beginning with tonight’s small disaster.

There was a soft pop.

Finally.

A small, bright orange flame erupted at the base of the phoenix. A brief hiss accompanied each tiny spark of molten sodium that leapt away, all combining into a brief, hot flare that wrought irreversible damage to the ice sculpture.

Though the initial incendiary event went unremarked, there was a loud, audible crack as the ice sculpture broke free. For a moment, the bird teetered upon its pedestal, then dove—beak first—into the champagne fountain. Crystal shattered. Ladies screamed. And a torrent of golden liquid gushed over snowy white linen, flooding sugary delicacies before cascading to the gleaming marble floor beneath.

His mother threw him a brief, narrow-eyed glance before springing into action, clapping her hands and issuing orders. Damage control was her forte. With children like hers, how could it not be?

As steam footmen abandoned their posts to rush to the scene of the disaster, Jack backed away, sliding down a now unguarded and shadowy hallway off limits to guests.

Captain Jack’s Tension Torque popped the lock in a matter of minutes and a moment later, he’d located the ledgers. He shook a Lucifer lamp to life, noted the time on his pocket watch, then bent his head over the columns of numbers, not caring at all for what he found.

Expenditures were up, alarmingly so. Most of them upon luxuries. Not unexpected, but what income covered their costs?

There.

An impressive sum deposited on a monthly basis for—he flipped backward through the pages—the past three… four… five months.

At the sixth month mark, Jack swore under his breath. No income. Instead, expenditure. Upon the construction of a building. A retreat for the wealthy. In Yorkshire.

 Had Aubrey lost his mind? He must have, to invest such a prodigious amount on the Grand Menwith Hotel and Spa. A Turkish bath? Massage therapy? Recouping the outlay alone would take ages.

Spa.

Jack growled. He would bet long odds that Dr. Oakes’ influence lay at the center of this madness. Who else could convince his brother to bankroll a luxurious hotel where he might offer—in addition to mineral waters—a variety of dubious medical treatments of the snake oil variety?

A glance at his pocket watch told him that the few minutes he’d allocated to his investigation had elapsed. Time to return to the festivities before his absence was noted. He slammed the ledgers closed and exited the room, re-engaging the lock.

Fuming, he stalked down the still-deserted hallway. Paused. He wasn’t the only one to have taken advantage of the phoenix’s plunge. The library’s door was ajar. Enough so that a faint moan emerged.

Rolling his eyes, he turned away. If one dragged a paramour into a deserted room for clandestine activities, the least one could do was close—

Gaahhh. A strange, strangled cry.

Jack hesitated. Not a sound he would associate with an enjoyable moment.

Bang. Crash. The sound of furniture toppling. Of a lamp shattering.

Thud. Thud. Thud. Heels drumming on the floor.

Such were the sounds of an assault.

Jack flung the door open.

A dark-haired woman in a white gown crouched upon Lord Saltwell, pinning his bucking and thrashing form to the floor. Long white fingers grasped his head, tilting the gentleman’s pale and shocked face away, her mouth latched upon his neck.

His breath froze in his lungs. Ice ran down his spine. Impossible. And yet, the evidence lay before him. The London Vampire in a scene straight from the gossip rags.

Had eyes finally betrayed him? He blinked.

No.

Sense returned.

“Stop!” he cried, rushing forward, ready to pry the woman from the lord’s throat.

But she sprang away, hissing, her face all but hidden.

He dropped to the floor beside her victim, not at all reassured by the man’s shallow breaths and twitching limbs.

“I didn’t know. I swear it.” Lord Saltwell’s words were the faintest of whispers. “She is evil. Her blood polluted.”

“Hang in there.” Jack pulled back the man’s collar. Two puncture wounds. Red and raw was to be expected from a so-called vampire. But the tissue surrounding the bite was rapidly swelling. That suggested poison. He shifted to keep the woman within his sights. “Help!” he yelled. “We need some help here!” He dropped his voice and spoke to the woman. “If he dies, you’ll hang.”

As he straightened, shifting his weight in the attacker’s direction, she leapt into an open window overlooking the garden. Moonlight cast her body’s curves into dark shadow against the thin, white material of her gown as a gentle breeze fluttered the ruffled lace about her wrists. A thin trickle of blood ran downward over her chin. Were those fangs?

Fine hairs upon the nape of his neck lifted involuntarily, and his heart pounded. Anyone with superstitious inclinations would think her a vampire fresh from the grave.

“It’s an end he deserves,” she hissed. Crouched upon the sill, her hands gripped its frame. With gold-rimmed gray eyes, she cast a long, seductive glance over her shoulder.

“Why?” He took a step toward her, hands upturned—a gesture offering an innocent, but false, chance at reasonable discourse. “What has he done?”

Footsteps thundered in the hall.

He lunged, grasping. But the silky hem of her dress slipped through his fingertips as she jumped.

The door slammed open. His brother barely glanced at the body upon the floor before hurling an accusation. “Jack! What have you done?”

Did his brother never tire of casting him in a bad light? “Not a damn thing and you well know it.” He made a decision in the space of a heartbeat. “Call Dr. Oakes. Lord Saltwell needs attention. I’ve a—” What exactly? “His attacker to catch.”

Turning, he jumped through the window, landing hard upon the ground. Less than fifty yards away, his quarry climbed the garden wall with surprising agility given her billowing skirts. He took off at a run, drawing his TTX pistol from its holster. He fired, but missed. Branches caught at his coat along the winding garden path, but he was gaining on her.

Until his traitorous vision concealed the uneven pavers beneath his feet. Cursing, he stumbled, just managing to stay upright.

Heart pounding, he flung himself at the stone wall and scrambled over its summit. A flash of white caught his eye as she turned a corner, dashing down a covered arcade.

Ha! There would be no escape from such a venue at this late hour. He would catch her. If not, the Beadle would. The uniformed patrolmen of the Burlington Arcade were forever present ensuring standards of propriety were met even when the stores were closed.

He rounded the corner, plunging into the arcade.

Arches overhead supported dark panes of glass that would flood the space with sunlight during the day. At night, globes of white-blue Lucifer lamps counteracted the London gloom, all reflected in the curved glass bent about the various store fronts to display the wares within.

Yet nowhere was there a fleeing female garbed in white.

Impossible. He spun, searching above and behind him. He pinched the bridge of his nose, cursing his vision. Slowly, carefully, he paced the length of the arcade, inspecting each doorway, every possible nook and cranny. Nothing.

Then he drew up short. A ventilation grille mounted between the pavement and a shop window was askew. Dammit. She’d dropped into the basement, a space where rooms led to a tunnel that shop boys might deliver parcels as no high-ranking customer was permitted to carry their own packages in this venue.

He pried the meshwork free and quickly followed, ignoring the irate Beadle’s shrieking whistle blasts and calls to “stop!”

Musty underground smells assaulted his nose as he tripped and careened around worktables, knocking shadowy contents to the floor as he raced into the tunnel. Alas, there were no fluttering white skirts to point his way. He ran its length, bursting onto the street. Gentlemen and their ladies stared, jaws agape.

“A woman,” he demanded, ignoring the insistent pounding of his head. “In white. Has anyone seen her?”

A question met by denial and apprehensive looks. No one had seen anything unusual. If the woman was loose upon the streets, she was long beyond his reach.

He punched the wall, cursing. Those few pointed words exchanged with his brother might have cost him the time needed to catch Lord Saltwell’s assailant. Grinding his teeth, he turned back into the tunnel. There was nothing else to do but rattle door handles in the hope she’d hidden somewhere within the basement rooms.

Alas, an hour later, he admitted defeat. Grim, he ducked out onto the street and pointed his scuffed shoes back toward his childhood home. Questions he couldn’t answer would await him. Rumors and gossip would fill the void. He would do what he could to mitigate the disaster for, if Lord Saltwell had met his end at his brother’s engagement ball, there would be hell to pay.

With all due haste, the Duke of Avesbury must be informed of tonight’s incident. And of his agent’s failure to secure the murderess.

 

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Chapter Two

 

The crank hack clattered to a stop.

Holywell Street.

Two long rows of crooked, timber-framed houses stood shoulder to shoulder, hunching over the narrow street. Secretive, furtive. Casting storefronts and pavement into half-shadow beneath the anemic light of a gray sky.

And enticing a small crowd despite the early hour and a persistent morning drizzle.

A knot of men gathered beneath black umbrellas upon the street. Didn’t most men pursue their vices under the cloak of full dark? What illicit amusement pried them from their warm beds? The promise of a new, risqué postcard? Did she dare sidle close enough to find out?

Cait mentally slapped at such ill-bred curiosity.

“No one must recognize you,” Janet had warned. Repeatedly and at length. A steam maid would fuss less. Neither, however, would a mechanical servant provide critical tips and hints as to the many shadowy secrets London hid in plain sight. “That’s no place for a lady of quality to be spotted. Indecent images propped up in the windows of those so-called bookstores. All those gaping men offering uncouth opinions about women’s unmentionables.” Janet’s voice dropped to a whisper. “And there’s worse, I hear tell, inside. Photographs of a pornographic nature.”

A detail that failed to deter Cait the slightest bit.

“I’m not a lady, and I won’t linger,” she’d promised Janet. Though if postcards were scattered across a nearby surface, she’d certainly satisfy her curiosity with a quick glance. Growing up with brothers who dabbled in the medical sciences and no supervision over her selection of reading materials, she doubted anything of an anatomical nature could shock her—much as she’d enjoy learning otherwise. “A few minutes to chill the snake, then back to the carriage, safe and sound.”

For Logan would kill her if he ever found out she’d ventured here, unaccompanied no less. Not because he believed her of naïve and virtuous character, but because such a street presented a physical threat, especially for a young woman with exotic features.

How she hated that term.

With such in mind, she’d chosen a dress of dull gray. There were ruffles and lace aplenty, but the cut was more severe than most of her gowns, displaying little more than her hands and face. Any remaining modest displays of flesh were addressed with gloves and a wide-brimmed hat complete with a veil. Like low-hanging fog, she planned to drift down the street, a sober, unremarkable matron.

Was there still risk? Certainly. But Cait’s actions were entirely justified. The study of bacterial exotoxins was all well and good. An excellent professional pursuit. But ever since Mother’s tipsy revelation a few months past, a corner of Cait’s mind would not stop turning over her unguarded words and the possibilities such a revelation suggested.

“You wish to know of your true father?”

“I do.” She’d pressed for years, only to be met with denial after denial.

Mustering resolve, her mother had splashed a generous amount of whiskey into her teacup, a vast deviation from the norm, for Mother frowned upon ladies who imbibed. But Cait’s announcement had ripped a ragged hole in her mother’s over-inflated plans to secure her daughter a respectable husband within Glaswegian society. Perhaps the indulgence could be understood.

“Very well, you are of age. I’ll tell you.” 

And she had.

So much clarity from the briefest sentence. It explained much, especially her affinity for snakes.

But the final proof, the final test?

Cait had yet to manage that.

First she needed to procure a live cobra. Not the easiest of tasks. Not even in a city such as London.

The zoological gardens would possess one, certainly, but staring at a reptile through glass was not her aim, no matter how fascinating. And as her bother refused to accompany her to the reptile house, let alone put in a word for her with the London Zoo’s research committee, she was on her own.

It hadn’t taken her long to locate a pub housing a suitable snake, but the owner was disinclined to part with his serpent. “Keeps me in business, it does. Nothing better than a live feeding on payday to keep the ale flowing. But if it’s a private viewing you’re after,” the man had leaned closer—his hot, fetid breath threatening to gag her, “I’ll arrange for an innocent white rabbit to be delivered.”

“No thank you.” She’d backed away. “I’ll find another.”

Her inquiries had finally borne fruit. A photographer thinking to boost sales with a racy depiction of Eve—an image involving a half-eaten apple and a snake twined about her neck—had found himself in possession of a venomous creature instead of the harmless grass snake he’d been promised. Understandably, his model had balked. For a price that smacked of extortion, he’d agreed to sell the serpent to Cait. She was to collect the cobra today.

Excitement skittered along her each and every nerve.

The crank hack’s door swung open and the driver held out a palm. She accepted the assistance, careful to keep a tight hold of her refrigerated carry case and its precious contents. This expedition would drain the last of her funds, but it would also accelerate her personal research program by leaps and bounds. That or land her in a coffin, six feet under.

Risks to which she was accustomed.

But first things first.

Cait hurried down the street under her own umbrella, hunting for the correct address. There. Number thirty-seven, a secondhand bookshop, lay just past an alley that reeked of urine and beneath the figure of a golden crescent moon with a long, sullen face.

Keeping her face turned away from the crowd that gathered next door, she ducked inside.

Dark and musty, the interior was mercifully devoid of occupants, save the lone shopkeeper who eyed her and her case with decided suspicion.

“I’m here about Mr. Dryer’s snake,” she stated. Direct and businesslike, yet the man sniggered.

“Whatever you say, miss. Stairs are in the back.”

Though she lacked the nerve to inquire about any titles secreted behind the counter, she slowed her steps as she passed a prominent bookshelf, scanning the titles. The Lustful Turk. Colonel Spanker’s Amatory Exploits. An Erotic Philosopher’s Lectures.

Goodness. Perhaps she could be shocked. If she dared lay as much as a finger upon a book’s spine. But not now, not here.

In and out.

She located the stairs and climbed upward. Beneath her feet the treads creaked and shifted in a manner that did not inspire confidence in the building’s timber-frame construction.

“Mr. Dryer?” Cait called, pulling back the annoyance of her veil as she stepped into a narrow hallway. Its walls were papered from floor to ceiling with photographs and drawings, including a number of charcoal sketches of a nude woman wearing a cobra about her neck. She traced a circle in the sand at her feet while a cauldron bubbled over a fire.

She squinted. Was that snake the one she intended to purchase? Could be.

“Up front!”

In a small room, two people stood with their noses pressed to the rain-streaked glass panes that overlooked Holywell Street. “It can’t be Molly,” argued a woman wearing little besides stockings, boots and a thin satin wrapper. “I spoke to her this morning at the tea shop.”

“Lucy, perhaps?” the man answered. This, presumably, was Mr. Dryer.

Long drapes hung from overhead rods, cascading into a pool upon the floor. A low sofa was positioned among their folds. A camera stood upon its tripod, waiting for its subject, for its photographer. Leaning against the walls and stacked upon simple shelving were numerous props. Feather boas. Silk flowers. Leather riding crops.

And one spectacled cobra, Naja naja, in a small, barren and miserable cage upon a wobbly table. A risky setup. Cait reached out and tapped a finger upon the glass. The snake spread its hood and lunged. No surprise to find the poor thing stressed by its current environment, what with no source of warmth and not so much as a branch upon which it might coil.

“I’m so sorry,” Cait whispered, leaning close. “You’ll not enjoy the trip home, but I’ll take far, far better care of you. Fat mice can be found around every corner in the Lister Institute.” Feeding the snake would be the easy task, not so preventing Mother from evicting such a creature from their rented townhome.

She set down her case and unfastened its latches. Sliding metal tongs from an inside groove, she grabbed a lump of dry ice and dropped it inside the snake’s cage. Once a mild torpor was induced, she would transfer the cobra into the carry case. Cold, the venomous snake would be safe to transport through the streets of London.

“Goodness, did you see how the bobbies all stand straight and tall now that new man’s here?” the woman exclaimed.

Time to announce her presence.

“Excuse me.” Cait cleared her throat. She opened the purse hooked to her belt, withdrew a pouch heavy with coin and held it out. “I’m here for the cobra.”

The man turned. “Well, now.” His eyes raked over her from hat to hem. “A young, slim beauty. You’ve gloomy taste in clothing, but if we peel it all away…” He ignored the bag of coins she held. “Exactly how handy are you with such a snake?”

“Very,” Cait answered, confused as to why her answer sparked a speculative light to flare in his eyes. “Else I wouldn’t take the risk.”

“You promised.” The woman stuck out her lower lip. “Only me today.”

“Hush, Louisa.” Mr. Dryer flapped a hand at her without breaking his intense appraisal of Cait’s form. “Keep an eye on events below. See what you can make out. We wouldn’t want to end up like the others, would we?”

“No,” Louisa pouted. “But…”

“Opportunity like this rarely presents itself. With those dark eyes and lashes…” Slowly, the photographer paced about Cait. Ought she be offended? It was difficult, given his open admiration. As a rule, people who looked closely ended up commenting upon her complexion, one that whispered of the Indian subcontinent, in a rather negative and suggestive manner. “One photograph. Nothing but you and the snake twined about your neck.” He tipped his head toward the waiting sofa. “What do you say? Will you pay for the snake with your image?”

Heat rushed across her skin. Her? He wanted to photograph her naked? Holding the cobra? Pass her likeness into the hands of men who would gawk, objectify and…

No need to explore that thought further. One did not grow up with three brothers without being peripherally aware of what lustful men did behind closed doors.

“Absolutely not.” Private romantic liaisons were one thing, but indecent exposure? Not a scandal in which she wished to feature. Easier to accomplish her goals by remaining out of the public eye. She set the coin pouch upon the low sofa. “But thank you for your generous offer.”

“Pity,” Mr. Dryer said.

Ignoring his disappointed sigh, Cait again tapped the glass cage. This time, the cobra barely blinked. Sufficiently cooled, the snake would be easier to manipulate. Less of a threat.

“If you’ll both remain quiet and calm,” she requested, “I’ll transfer the snake and be on my way.”

She positioned her case upon the ground, withdrew a collapsible snake hook and extended its telescoping handle, all oft-practiced wrist movements with her pet adder, Willy, had honed her skills. A bite would not be as much a threat as a disappointment. After all, one only encountered a new venom once. This time, she wished to document her every reaction in the laboratory where she could easily collect a multitude of samples.

She drew on thick, padded leather gloves and—slowly, calmly—set aside the top of the cage. With the hook, she gently lifted the cobra and guided its head to the gathered neck of the linen sack. Without protest, the snake slithered inside.

“Most impressive,” Mr. Dryer breathed.

She sealed the opening and slipped the bag into the cooled carry case.

Done.

“A steam wagon!” the woman exclaimed, turning away from the window. A hand flew to her mouth. “Oh. Sorry. Did I—?”

“I’m done,” Cait said simply, choosing to ignore the woman’s idiocy. She latched the case, collapsed her hook, and stood. Time to leave. In and out, just as she’d promised.

“Reggie?” Louisa beckoned the photographer toward the window. “They’re lifting out a stretcher. It is Lucy! The London Vampire’s killed one of our own! What if he comes back?”

A victim of the vampire? Here? The men Louisa watched upon the street were clustered about a dead woman? A frisson of fear mixed with excitement ran down her spine. Her brothers were forever getting mixed up in strange situations. Ones exactly like this.

She resisted the urge to join them at the window where the photographer and his model once again had their noses pressed to glass.

“Goodbye!” Cait called as she stepped into the hallway, picked her way down creaky stairs and strode past musty shelves. Even the shopkeeper now stared out his window, barely glancing in her direction as she exited.

She ought to lower her veil, open her umbrella and walk away. Hail a crank hack and direct the driver straight home.

Except.

Cait found her feet glued to the stoop, unable to turn away, adding her face to those others that gaped at the tragedy.

A litter had been slid beneath the dead woman, and they were lifting the body. Wet, muddy skirts clung to striped stockings and buttoned boots. Frayed cuffs wrapped about the wrists of pale, limp hands. A blood-stained cloth covered the victim’s head and shoulders.

Hiding what?

Stretching her neck, she leaned forward, trying to see more of the vampire’s latest victim.

“What are you doing here?” her brother Logan barked from beside her, nearly shocking her from her skin.

Cait turned, swearing. Heart in her throat, she glared into his eyes as she set her jaw. “I’m about Lister business, if you must know.” An equivocal answer tinged with the hint of a lie, but she’d learned the technique from the best.

Logan’s gaze dropped to her carry case. “Aether, Cait. You had to find one here?” Suspicion twisted his lips. “Did Dr. Whitby actually grant you permission?”

She shrugged one shoulder. What she did after hours in the laboratory was her own business.

“A woman at loose ends often finds herself forced to take certain steps…” She let that settle into his mind. A warning. After all, he had flat out refused to aid her when she announced an intention to hunt for poisonous snakes. And where had that led? To the simmering start of an argument on an infamous street before a dead body. Best to redirect his grousing. “Perhaps if you’d taken my request more seriously…”

“Cait.” His voice held a note of warning.

“I don’t know why you fight it. I’ve every intention of securing a meeting with the Duke of Avesbury.” She eyed the weapon holstered beneath his jacket. “Eventually, one of my letters will reach him. Or my work will draw his attention.” Covert poison experts couldn’t be thick upon the ground.

Logan closed his eyes and tipped his head back, inhaling deeply. “I’ve explained the requirements for a female agent time and again.”

“I must be married,” she said. “Either to another agent or to a man of the duchess’ choice.” As she’d no intention of playing the perfect wife to snag a man under suspicion of disloyalty, she would avoid the Duchess of Avesbury and her machinations at all costs. Quite simply, she needed to find herself an unmarried Queen’s agent. A task which, given that her brother refused to provide her with a convenient list of unwed agents, was proving difficult.

As if that would stop her.

Cait did her best not to smirk as Logan attempted to calculate how he might tuck her back into a laboratory where she could play safely with her various poisons.

Dismay, then resignation crossed his face.

She’d won. He only needed a moment to come to terms, to accept the inevitable.

“You’re determined to join the family business?”

She nodded.

“Then there’s no reason not to start your training now.” He waved a hand, an invitation to view the corpse before them.

“Don’t tease.” An offer to contact the Duke of Avesbury on her behalf would have sufficed. Unless… “Vampires aren’t venomous.”

Logan let out a long, beleaguered sigh. “And yet there’s something you might be able to explain.” He raised his voice. “Hold!”

What? She hurried after him. What about the murders had yet to reach reporters’ ears? Curiosity spiked her pulse.

Men parted, clearing a path without so much as a word from Logan, though their frowns carved deep lines into their faces as he led a woman to stand beside the chuffing and hissing steam wagon that would carry the dead body away.

“Are you certain you’re up to this?” Logan asked.

“Of course.” Never would she admit that her stomach gave a twist at the metallic scent of blood curling into the damp air, that she was glad her breakfast had consisted of only tea and toast.

“You’ll speak to no one of this without permission, or you’ll never work for the Queen’s agents. Understand?” At her nod, Logan peeled back the ragged cloth.

Cait found herself staring into the sightless eyes of a pretty young woman. Thin streams of blood trickled from her nose, marring the soft curves of her cheek.

Her brother directed the beam of his decilamp at the woman’s throat.

She gasped. Two puncture wounds were sunk deep into musculature and surrounded by inflamed and necrotic tissue, consistent with a venomous bite. Were the marks not approximately one and a half inches apart, she would have wondered what serpent had taken to the streets of London to find its prey. “It’s not the mark of a vampire,” she informed her brother. No such thing existed. “But what?”

Logan’s lips twisted. “A question I was hoping you might help answer.”

 

A REFLECTION OF SHADOWS

An Elemental Steampunk Tale

A thief with golden eyes. The spy who loves her.

A mad scientist who will break hearts to expose her secrets.

Shunned for her odd eyes and an unnerving habit of slipping into shadows, Lady Colleen Stewart refuses to be caged—should she decide to marry, it’ll be for love and to a man of her choice. After all, she’d rather be racing over rooftops than waltzing across ballroom floors. So when the only man to ever tempt her heart invites her on a covert mission, she leaps into danger.

Nicholas Torrington, Queen’s agent, is running out of time. While work has him chasing his tail, his sister grows increasingly ill, and Colleen, the woman he would make his bride, has acquired another, determined suitor. To coax his favorite thief back into his arms, he’ll break every rule and lead her through the underbelly of London on a hunt for a mad scientist and a cure for his sister.

But the discovery of a burned-out laboratory provides more questions than answers, and they find themselves caught in a deadly game where they have become the prey. Surviving the ambitions of their pursuers will bring everything into sharp focus as they risk their very lives.

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Chapter Three

 

“Apologies for the intrusion in the wake of your loss.” Jack stood, declining the offer to sit. He’d not cultivate an illusion of amity with his brother’s friends. “I’ll be brief.”

Stephen Carruthers, the new Lord Saltwell, slumped in a wingback chair before a cold hearth. An empty decanter rested upon the floor at his feet. His eyes were distant and devoid of expression as he stared into a cut-glass tumbler, swirling a final half inch of brandy.

Yesterday, Carruthers could barely stand. Today, sitting was a challenge. Tomorrow, a fainting couch?

The censure written on his face caused the new Lady Saltwell to leap to her husband’s defense. “We all have our own ways of mourning.”

She stood behind her husband, already garbed in flat black, her hands spread over the gentle swell of her stomach, the reason for her absence from the ball. Despite her words, a deeply ingrained sense of propriety, stock and trade of the ton, drew her lips into a frown at the brightly embroidered blue and red stripes of her husband’s smoking jacket.

“Won’t miss the old bastard,” Carruthers muttered. “Nothing I did was ever right.”

A complaint often lodged by many sons.

“Nonetheless,” Jack said, “his death will be investigated. A task which I will handle personally.” As of this morning, it was agreed. The London Vampire would be hunted by the Queen’s agents of the Lister Institute.

A late-night flurry of insistent messages between Lord Thornton, Mr. Black and the Duke of Avesbury himself had won Jack the right to take the position of head agent. Not only had a man died in his family’s townhome, but his background was well-suited to such a case.

Local authorities had no leads and bodies were piling up. Lord Saltwell’s death brought the total to five. All known victims were male. That was, until early this morning, a final skeet pigeon tapping on his apartment window had brought news of the creature’s first female victim.

At dawn, the body of one Lucy Cooper had been found in a Holywell Street gutter. Another mysterious death, this time involving a woman involved in the pornography trade. Facts that thrilled and inspired reporters as they composed their titillating headlines, intent upon causing the London elite to sputter over their morning tea.

Cold calculation or sloppy mistake, the London Vampire had broken pattern, a misstep that Jack hoped would ultimately lead to her capture.

He needed to conduct this interview quickly and adjourn to the morgue.

“You work for the Crown?” Contempt flashed in Carruthers’ eyes. “Ought to have guessed. Always prowling about the edges of the room.”

Jack ignored the dig. “Did your father exhibit any unusual behaviors recently?”

“Aside from dying?” Carruthers snorted. “We did our best to avoid each other.” He tossed back the last of his brandy, frowned at the empty glass. “Though perhaps you’d find it unusual that he often visited his grandson in the nursery? Easier to avoid me, his heir, to focus on a more distant and promising future for our family.” The corner of his mouth kicked up. “Wasn’t too happy when he left.”

“I’m afraid our son is teething,” Lady Saltwell explained. “Bouts of crying have unsettled his stomach, the contents of which he emptied onto his grandfather’s trousers.”

“Otherwise, my father spent his days at the club, his nights chasing pretty things wearing skirts into shadowed corners. Hardly unusual.” Carruthers lifted a finger. “Save the final part where he was bitten.”

“You mentioned the attacker was a woman.” Lady Saltwell tilted her head. “You’re certain?”

“Absolutely. I found her bent over him, mouth at his throat. Before I could catch her, she leapt from a window and escaped via the garden.”

Lady Saltwell frowned. “While wearing a gown?”

Pride stuck in his throat, but facts were facts, regardless of the damning implications. “Yes.”

“Sounds like your investigation is off to a running start.” Carruthers snorted. “But you’ll pardon me if I question your interpretation of my father’s death. Aubrey saw no such figure fleeing the scene and is convinced you chased after some imagined specter. There must be a more logical explanation. Perhaps my father suffered an apoplexy?”

Jack’s eyebrows rose. “Involving puncture wounds to the neck?”

A pained look crossed Lady Saltwell’s face, but she held her tongue. It was clear that Carruthers cared neither who—or what—might have perpetrated the crime.

“Yes, well, for all we know the marks were made earlier during overenthusiastic role play on the part of his mistress. My father was both a lusty and wealthy man, Tagert. His mistresses were keen to retain his favor. If that’s all,” Carruthers waggled his empty glass, “I’ve other matters to attend to.”

Jack ignored the dismissal. “As relates to your father’s death, I will keep you informed. However,” he held up a finger. It was wrong of him to let personal matters intrude, but the three school chums often shared a single brain. He’d not waste this chance. “Unofficially, I would appreciate any information you can provide about the Grand Menwith Hotel and Spa.”

“I’ll wager you would.” Carruthers squinted. “Predictable. Digging into Aubrey’s finances, unable to accept his success. Envious, are you?”

Lady Saltwell laid a hand upon her husband’s shoulder. “Perhaps—”

“No. Absolutely not. The answer is a firm no. We are not interested in another investor.” He snapped his fingers at the steam butler. “No worries, Tagert, if you fail to catch this vampire. My father sucked the life from me and many others, so it’s a fitting end. He won’t be missed.”

 

~~~

 

Jack took a deep breath and climbed the broad, stone stairs that lead to the entryway of the Lister Institute. He crossed black-and-white checkered tiles beneath a bright, new Lucifer lamp that replaced the one shattered by the Christmas Eve explosion. Though months had passed, a respectful silence endured in the space where a fellow agent had lost his life to the machinations of a jealous colleague.

No trace remained of the scorched pits that had marred the walls, ceiling and floor save those upon a single floor tile—formerly of smooth, white marble. There, the blemishes served as a memorial. A silent reminder that sometimes betrayal came from within.

Much like the tumor that threatened his vision. His own cells conspired to grow into a small but stubborn mass within his skull, pressing upon the optic nerve. Not life threatening, but career ending. First Jack would lose vision in his left eye, then possibly his right. Worse symptoms would follow if the pituitary adenoma continued to grow unchecked.

But to remove it? To date, physicians had only speculated about how such a surgery might be accomplished, none yet willing to attempt a feat with a high likelihood of mortality.

All save Thornton—neuroscientist, surgeon, fellow agent and friend—and even he had reservations. “Blindness and headaches aren’t life ending,” he’d objected.

“If it leads to sexual dysfunction as well,” Jack replied, all grim determination, “it might as well be.”

“I’ll need to consider the approach—transcranial or transsphenoidal—there are risks to both.” Thornton had rubbed the back of his neck. “If I agree to carry out the surgery, you’ll need to have your affairs in order.”

“Done. In the event of my demise all I possess is willed to my sister.”

Thornton had sighed at his eagerness. “There’s no rush. For now, we’ll track the progression of your symptoms, but Mr. Black needs to be informed.”

“No.” Jack had snatched away his medical chart. “I’m fine.”

“For now.” Thornton frowned. “When your symptoms worsen—”

“I’ll let you know.” He wouldn’t. Lest Black use the information to relegate Jack to a desk job. “Please. You said yourself it would be months before my vision worsens.”

“One month, Tagert,” Thornton had grumbled. “If there’s any change, I will place it on record and inform command.”

A fortnight remained. He hoped it was enough time to hunt down a murderess.

To that end, he strode down the hall with a newfound sense of purpose, winding his way through a maze of corridors. Summoning the ascension chamber. Standing inside the metal cage as it lowered him into the bowels of the building. The door slid open and he turned a corner to face the autopsy suite.

Would this be his own endpoint?

It might well be, unless Thornton pulled off a miracle.

Since the diagnosis a certain detached numbness had clouded his mind, leaving him adrift with nothing to dwell on save his brother’s suspicious good fortune. But now excitement curled through his veins and fired his pulse. A small explosion, a moonlight chase and murders headlining newspapers to investigate.

Chance might have brought him eye to eye with the murderess, but the next time they met, it would be no accident.

This was why he’d become a Queen’s agent, why he’d first abandoned medicine, then research. Nothing compared to the thrill of fieldwork. He’d damn well enjoy it while it lasted.

He pushed open the door and stepped into the morgue. Lord Saltwell lay upon a metal gurney, reduced to a rotund, cloth-covered lump, yet not alone in death. Upon the central table beneath harsh, bright lamps lay the slight form of a young woman.

Thornton himself was bent over the body. Black was also in the room—an unnecessary, supervising evil. Jack supposed it was inevitable. But as there was a third individual present, an unfamiliar woman, he clenched his teeth preventing the obscenities that burned in the back of his throat from escaping.

Instead, he let the metal door slam closed behind him.

“There’s a neurological component?” he asked Thornton, abandoning any pretense of greetings and focusing on the business at hand. There was only one reason the man would be roped into this investigation.

“So there is,” Thornton rumbled.

Black’s head snapped up to meet Jack’s gaze. “It’s about time you arrived. Lingering over your eggs and bacon when you have such a new and interesting victim?”

“Not at all how I’d have you introduce me, Logan,” the woman chided with casual familiarity as she turned, pushing a cart toward the female victim’s side.

A jolt crackled down his spine and heated the air in his lungs, halting any words he might have formed in response. She was stunning, her beauty unmuted by the dull gray gown she wore or the refrigerated storage chambers that served as a backdrop.

“You must be the infamous Jack Tagert, Jack of all trades.” Unless he was much mistaken, he detected a hint of a Scottish accent.

“Master of none.” He grinned. An epithet he’d earned by refusing to sit the medical boards in favor of working in the Department of Cryptobiology, before abandoning medicine and research altogether. It was rare for an agent’s reputation to be known to a lady. “So I am.”

She glanced from Mr. Black back to Jack, both expectant and assessing. “Does the chill in the room always extend to such proceedings, or do the two of you have something you’d like to get off your chests?”

Her dark eyes flashed, and her wide mouth hinted at a suppressed desire to laugh. At both of them. An unusual reaction.

Cautious deference had always colored the manner in which women approached him, be they Lister employees in awe of a Queen’s agent, or calculating debutants who simpered and giggled, trying—and failing—to entertain a man who, with a sudden stroke of mortal luck, might become a viscount.

He couldn’t recall the last time a woman addressed him with such brazen overfamiliarity.

Was Black growling? His gaze flicked sideways. Indeed, a dark cloud had descended upon the man’s face.

“Oh, for aether’s sake.” The woman exhaled, stepping around the body to extend her hand. “Allow me to introduce myself. Miss McCullough, venom expert and sister to the mute Mr. Black who rather grudgingly permits my involvement.”

Sister? Black had family? His eyebrows shot up. Jack would have been less surprised to learn that the man was raised by a pack of wild wolves.

“A pleasure to make your acquaintance.” Jack bent over her bare fingers, lips twitching at this opportunity to vex Black with situationally inappropriate ballroom behavior. He did, however, wish to live. And so, the kiss dropped harmlessly into the air above her hand.

When he straightened, Miss McCullough’s gaze momentarily alighted upon his lips. Was that disappointment in her eyes?

It was.

He imagined Black’s sister was as much trouble as his own—a thought that had him fighting a smile.

Ah, how the tables had turned.

“A venom expert?” he repeated, ignoring Black and forcing his mind back to the task at hand. “To examine the bite of a vampire?”

Miss McCullough all but snorted. “A rumor we can now dismiss.” She peeled back the cloth cover, revealing two puncture marks in the dead woman’s swollen throat. “The bite to Miss Cooper’s neck pierced the external jugular vein, a poor choice for a vampire, who would presumably target the carotid artery, harnessing the victim’s own blood pressure for feeding purposes.”

Black sighed. “Is such speculation necessary?”

She smiled. “Not strictly so, but given the tabloid headlines—”

“Venom?” Jack prompted in an attempt to refocus their squabbling, much as the idea of watching Black engage in a sibling spat appealed.

“The tissue damage surrounding the wounds is consistent with illustrations drawn by experts who have studied the venomous bites of elapid snakes, such as the cobra or krait.” Lifting a cotton-tipped stick from the cart, she carefully swabbed the region around the bite marks, dropping it in a glass test tube. “However, caliper measurements of the distance between the puncture marks of both victims are twenty-four millimeters, consistent with the maxillary intercanine distance of humans.”

Black sighed. Heavily.

Thornton’s lips twitched, but he withheld any comment.

“Such are facts, Logan,” she said. “You’ve either a venomous human prowling dark streets or an extremely large reptile, one that could not possibly function with vigor during our cold nights. A snake that size would hail from the tropics.” A faraway look entered her eyes. “Though with a knowledgeable handler…”

Black snapped his fingers. “Stop daydreaming.”

She shot her brother a narrow glance. “Fine. To summarize, the swollen tissue surrounding the wounds is consistent with illustrations drawn by experts who have studied the venomous bites of elapid snakes, such as the cobra or krait.”

“Illustrations?” He looked at Black. “You said your sister was an expert—”

“She’s plenty of experience,” her brother grumped, “with all manner of toxins and poisons.”

Miss McCullough gave her brother a worrisome grin. “If not with serpents, a deficiency I intend to correct as soon as the London Zoo agrees to allow me to—”

“Not now,” Black interrupted, giving his sister a pointed look.

“Fine.” She lifted a syringe and expertly drew blood from the corpse. “I’ll run a few immunological tests, pass samples through the Ichor Machine to see what might turn up, but between protein degradation rates and the length of time her body is presumed to have been in the rain, there’s little hope of positive results. I have to admit to a certain disappointment that you,” she glanced at Jack, “failed to collect fresh samples from Lord Saltwell.”

The truth of her words burned. “An inexcusable oversight on my part not to carry laboratory paraphernalia with me at all times.”

“No need to snipe,” she said, repeating the same procedures upon the second corpse. “I understand this man died in your brother’s library during his engagement ball. Likely you were overwrought. You have my sympathies.”

Disappointment.

Overwrought.

Sympathies.

Pandemonium clanged inside his head. Was Miss McCullough deliberately needling him?

He began to understand the pained look on Black’s face. He’d been in Miss McCullough’s presence for all of ten minutes, and Jack wasn’t sure if he wanted to strangle her or kiss her.

Kiss her?

Where had that come from?

No. No, no, no.

Not Black’s sister.

Absolutely not. Though it was rare to find beauty and accomplishment in one forthright and confident bundle, Miss McCullough was not for him. No matter how much satisfaction he would derive from annoying both his mother and Black by marrying a venom expert.

Marrying?

What was wrong with him?

They’d never make it to the altar. From the glare Black had shot him earlier, Jack would find himself strung up in a noose if he so much as laid a single finger on Black’s sister.

 He had no business making any woman his wife.

“Not overwrought, Miss McCullough.” Why did he feel the need to defend himself in her presence? “I interrupted the attacker and was forced to give chase.”

“Interrupted?” Miss McCullough’s face lit with curiosity. “You saw him?”

“Her,” he corrected. “I lost the murderess when she slipped into a ventilation shaft.”

Miss McCullough’s eyes widened, then grew distant as she contemplated the implications. “A venomous female…”

Black cleared his throat. “Not information to be shared, Cait.” His words were stern and full of censure. “With anyone.”

“Please,” she huffed. “Spare me the lecture. I know the family business well enough.”

Black fixed Jack with a glare as he delivered yet another warning. “She’s a venom expert, Tagert, not an agent. I’ve read your report and we’ll discuss it later.” His expression promised Jack a world of pain should he dare utter another word about his encounter with the woman in white in the presence of his sister.

Not that there was much more to discuss. He brushed his thumb across the torn skin of his knuckles and redirected his attention to the dead woman. “The blood escaping Miss Cooper’s nose?”

“Extensive trauma to the nasal septum and deeper still,” Thornton said, bending over this newest victim. “See these small punctures at the edge of her hairline?”

Jack nodded. “How many?”

“Six,” Thornton answered. “We might speculate that something gripped her face while the damage was done. Hand me the crystal visilux scope, and we’ll have a closer look.”

 Jack slid back into the role of medical student, aiding those he had shadowed. Together, they snaked the long, thin jointed device into a ragged, bloody hole that had been a nose.

“Interesting.” Thornton waved Jack forward to peer into the oculus.

“All soft tissue damage appears to terminate at the sphenoid, where a circular orifice has been drilled into the bone.” Jack straightened, his mind whirling as he contemplated the implications.

Thornton fixed him with a piercing stare. “And the significance of this bone, Talbot?”

Black glanced between them, forever suspicious of unspoken words.

“Well?” Miss McCullough prompted, eyebrows raised.

The sphenoid was a bone that formed part of the skull base, lodged between the two cerebral hemispheres. Rumor maintained that a hard, sharp blow of the elbow between a man’s eyes could thrust the bone into the brain, an instant kill.

Not, however, the significance Thornton referenced.

“The sphenoid bone houses the pituitary,” he answered. Of late he’d devoted an excessive amount of attention to studying its various hypothesized functions. “A complicated gland thought to regulate water and mineral metabolism, along with growth and reproductive functions.”

A gland which appeared to be missing.

Not that a definitive diagnosis could be made from this angle.

Thornton cleared his throat. “It appears our murderess may have collected a rather odd souvenir. To be certain, we’ll need to remove her brain.”

Most would have paled at such an announcement. Instead, Miss McCullough brightened. “An autopsy?”

“A partial one, yes.” Thornton, already garbed in a canvas apron, lifted a scalpel, and raised an eyebrow. “If anyone cares to make an exit, now is the time.”

Black reached for his sister’s elbow, but she side-stepped his grasp with practiced ease.

“Not a chance,” she snapped at her overbearing brother. “I’m not leaving until I know what happened.”

Black sighed and dropped his hand.

Jack blinked. Not only had Avesbury’s top agent been defied, he’d accepted it without resistance. So many questions ran through his mind. Were he to catch Miss McCullough alone, would he dare ask them?

Thornton made an incision, peeling back Miss Cooper’s scalp to reveal the skull beneath. Jack pulled on a thick, canvas apron, then passed around safety goggles before handing Thornton a vibration knife.

With the flip of a switch, a loud mechanical buzz filled the air and Thornton set to the task of cutting through bone, but not brain. A few minutes later, he set aside the knife and removed the skull cap. Lifting the brain free, he placed it in the ceramic bowl Jack held out.

Together, they stared at the inside of Miss Lucy Cooper’s skull, at the inferior surface of her brain.

“As suspected,” Thornton pronounced. “No pituitary gland.”

“But most expertly removed.” Jack studied the smooth tunnel drilled into the sphenoid bone, one that ended at the sella turcica, the depression in the sphenoid bone that housed the pituitary gland. The dura mater, a tough membrane surrounding the brain and spinal cord, had been sliced and the delicate stalk connecting the pituitary to the brain severed. “One can only hope the venomous bite rendered her unconscious before an as-yet-unknown device penetrated her nasal cavity to remove a portion of her brain.”

“How awful.” Miss McCullough shuddered, lifting a hand to her mouth as she contemplated the horror of this woman’s death. “But how, exactly? And why would anyone wish to harvest such an organ?”

Thornton caught Jack’s gaze. Held it a fraction too long.

Black’s eyes narrowed.

“Excellent questions, Miss McCullough,” Thornton replied, crossing to the sink. “Prior to this moment, I would have told you no such surgical device existed. Not even within the halls of the Lister Institute. However, answering such questions is a task now set before Agent Tagert.”

She looked to Jack. “Have any of the other attacks involved organ theft?”

Such was the very next thing he intended to discover. Until this morning, the London Vampire attacks had been under the purview of the Metropolitan Police. But given the deadly glare Black directed at him, he dared make no comment.

“I know that look,” Miss McCullough declared, hands on hips, the faintest curve of a smile at the corners of her mouth. “You don’t know. Any of you.”

Black glowered. “The Queen’s agents don’t, as a matter of form, investigate London homicides—”

“Unless they directly threaten national security or involve preternatural elements,” she finished. “I see. Rumors of a roaming vampire wasn’t of particular concern given they don’t exist.” She rolled her eyes. “But now that there’s a dead lord and a venomous woman involved, we’re taking over the investigation.”

Jack suppressed a snort.

Thornton didn’t. “Direct and to the point.”

“There is no we.” Black planted both hands on the metal table, leaning across the corpse, his gaze humorless. “Listen carefully. You are not a Queen’s agent, simply an expert consultant for this case. Analyze your samples and report back. Agent Tagert will handle the investigation.”

She crossed her arms and lifted her chin, looking as if she’d like to add her brother to the body count. “I wish to speak with the Duke of Avesbury.”

“No. I’m serious, Cait,” Black warned. “Stay out of this.”

He could swear Thornton’s lips were twitching. Jack struggled to suppress his own amusement.

With a huff that did not at all concede defeat, Miss McCullough swept up her samples. “I’ll be in the laboratory. I did, after all, put other projects on ice in order to assist you.” She stormed from the autopsy suite.

Black muttered under his breath. A long string of unfamiliar words, but their essence was plain. His sister possessed talents he wished to tap. But at the same time, he hoped to keep her safe.

A situation quite familiar to Jack, and the top agent knew it.

Black pointed a finger at him. “Under no circumstances are you to permit her further involvement.”

 VENOMOUS SECRETS

An Elemental Steampunk Chronicle

 

Deadly secrets. A fanged monster.

A device that could save lives or shatter worlds.

Cait McCullough, venom expert, is trouble personified. 

Bored with exploring the possibilities of her unique biology in a laboratory, she longs for excitement. And investigating a vicious fanged creature who stalks its victims by lamplight in darkest London offers the perfect opportunity. Working with a handsome, unmarried agent? A delightful bonus.

Jonathan “Jack” Tagert battles enemies shrouded in darkness. 

While chasing suspects was once second nature, impending blindness threatens his line of work. The timing couldn’t be worse. When a deadly attack upon a lord at his brother’s engagement ball connects to a string of odd murders, the hunt begins for a seductive predator.

Bound by societal scandal, they must trace the creature’s past. 

Every clue spirals them deeper into peril as they struggle to separate fact from myth. As the venomous truth slithers near, the fight to survive draws Jack and Cait ever closer. With lives on the line, and time running out on Jack’s dimming vision, the pair must untangle a mystery to stop the body count from rising.  

PREORDER NOW – JUNE 10, 2021 RELEASE

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About Anne

Though USA TODAY bestselling author Anne Renwick holds a Ph.D. in biology and greatly enjoyed tormenting the overburdened undergraduates who were her students, fiction has always been her first love. Today, she writes steampunk romance, placing a new kind of biotech in the hands of mad scientists, proper young ladies and determined villains.

Anne brings an unusual perspective to steampunk. A number of years spent locked inside the bowels of a biological research facility left her permanently altered. In her steampunk world, the Victorian fascination with all things anatomical led to a number of alarming biotechnological advances. Ones that the enemies of Britain would dearly love to possess.

To chat with Anne, stop by on Facebook or join the Department of Cryptobiology Facebook group. You can also join her newsletter list to have cover reveals, sneak peaks, sales and giveaways delivered straight to your inbox.

The Golden Spider  
The Silver Skull
The Iron Fin
A Trace of Copper
In Pursuit of Dragons
A Reflection of Shadows

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