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STRANGERThe Blades of the Rose
By Zoë Archer
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 2010 Ami Silber
All right reserved.
Chapter OneShipboard Meetings
The steamship Antonia, two days from Liverpool, 1875.
Three guns pointed at Gemma Murphy.
She pointed her own derringer right back. Two shots only. Maybe she could get her hands on one of the revolvers aimed at her. Hopefully, it wouldn't come to that.
A sane person would have fled the cabin. But Gemma wasn't sane. She was a journalist.
So, instead of running, she confronted three faces ranging in expression from curious to outright hostile. And their guns.
The culmination of weeks of hard travel. On the trail of a story, she had journeyed all the way from a small trading post in the Canadian Rockies, across the United States, to New York, where she boarded the Antonia. Horseback, stagecoach, train. Clapboard boardinghouses with thin mattresses and thinner walls. Food boiled to inedibility. Groping hands, speculative leers. Rats and dogs.
She'd faced them all, pressing onward, always a day behind her quarry-but that was deliberate. She couldn't let them see her. To be seen was to risk being recognized. Maybe she flattered herself to think that any of the people she followed would remember her. After all, she had only seen them twice, and spoken with one member of their party once. Weeks, thousands of miles, had passed since then.
But there was a strong disadvantage to being a redhead. People with bright copper hair and freckles had a tendency to be remembered-like a flare's afterimage burned into the eye. Sometimes Gemma used her appearance and gender to her advantage. It always helped a reporter to have an advantage. Other times, her looks and sex were a damned pain in the behind.
As soon as she learned that her quarry had booked passage on the Antonia, bound for Liverpool, Gemma also reserved a cabin on that same ship. To follow at sea, even a day behind, meant the possibility of losing them. So, for the past week onboard the ship, she'd led a nocturnal existence. Staying in her cabin during the day, to avoid being spotted. In those close confines, she wrote articles until her hands cramped. She had little to go on but speculation. That did not stop her from piecing together events with her own prodigious imagination. Night saw her skulking about the ship, getting some much-needed fresh air. And, once the other passengers had retired for the evening, listening at doors.
Her quarry met in one another's cabins. Often, their conversations held no information. But tonight had been different.
"When did the Heirs activate the Primal Source?" The woman's voice. Her English accent was refined, but her words were tough and strong.
Gemma pulled from her pocket her notebook and began scribbling furiously in it.
"Some two and a half months ago." Another English voice. One of the two men. His voice, so impeccably British in its accents, was deep and sonorous. Even now, with a door between them, his voice played havoc with her normally reliable sensibilities. She remembered the impact his voice had on her at the trading post, and ruefully reflected that none of that impact had been lost in the intervening time and distance. "But they haven't the faintest idea what to do with it."
"That's why they came for me in Canada," said the woman.
"If the Heirs can't use the Primal Source," the second man noted, "then there shouldn't be any danger." The accents of western Canada marked this man's voice, yet he held a natural authority in his tone.
"It does not work that way," the woman answered. "The Primal Source has the power to grant and embody the possessor's most profound hopes and dreams."
"Even if said possessor does not actively attempt this?" asked the Canadian.
The woman replied, "All the Primal Source needs is to be in close proximity to the one who possesses it, and it can act on even the most buried desires."
Good gravy! What could this Primal Source be?
Just then, a sailor on watch walked through the passageway. He looked at Gemma, standing alone outside a cabin door, with a curious frown.
"Can I help you, miss?" he asked.
"Just looking for my key," she murmured, careful to keep her voice down. Her notebook was concealed in the folds of her skirt. "I'm such a ninny-I can never remember where I put it."
"The purser can get you another one."
"Oh, no," Gemma said. She made some wave of her hand, the universal sign of a woman who doesn't want to be a bother. "I'll find it. Please, carry on with whatever you were doing."
"Are you sure, miss?"
Blast these polite sailors. "Yes, quite sure." She smiled and, God help her, fluttered her lashes. Gemma never considered herself a beautiful woman-red hair and freckles weren't often considered the height of female loveliness-but she did know that batting her eyelashes generally worked as a distracting device.
Correct. The sailor, hardly more than a boy, flushed, stammered, and then ambled away. The moment he disappeared down the passageway, Gemma pressed her ear to the cabin door, notebook at the ready.
"And what are the Heirs' deepest desires?" This was asked by the Canadian. He was the newcomer in the trio, she deduced.
The reply came from the Englishman, an answer arising from long experience. "The supremacy of England. An empire that encompasses the entire world."
Gemma pressed her hand to her mouth, horrified by the idea. It seemed the stuff of a despotic nightmare, to have one country in control of the whole globe, with one set of laws. One monarch. The American in Gemma rebelled at the idea. Nearly a hundred years ago, her country had been forged in blood, fighting to free itself from the tyranny of oversea rule. Thousands of lives lost to secure freedom for its citizens. And to lose it all again? Just as every other nation would lose its independence?
The woman added, in hard, bleak tones, "Somehow, the Primal Source will embody this. Which means destruction and devastation on a global scale."
"Unless the Blades stop the Heirs' dream from manifesting," said the Englishman.
"I pray to God we aren't too late." This, from the woman. A grim hope.
On that somber note, the voices within wished each other a good night. Gemma scurried away, into the shadows, to watch from a safe distance. Peering around the corner of the passageway, she saw the door to the cabin open, yellow lamplight falling into the corridor. A woman and man emerged, holding hands. The woman was fair in coloring, slight of build, but she radiated a steely strength matched by the bronze-skinned man beside her.
When they stepped into the passageway, the man tensed slightly. The change in his posture was so subtle, Gemma barely saw it, but the woman felt the change at once.
"What is it, Nathan?" she asked.
He peered around, much the way a wolf might search for prey. "Thought I sensed something ... familiar." He gazed up and down the passageway with sharp, dark eyes, and Gemma could have sworn he was actually smelling the air.
She flattened herself against the bulkhead, hiding, heart knocking against her ribs. She'd come too far to be found out now, so close to the story.
She heard the man take a step in her direction, then stop. "It's this damned sea air. Can't get a bead on anything."
"We'll get you on land again soon. Come to bed," murmured the woman, and Gemma knew from the throaty warmth of the woman's voice, bed was precisely the destination in mind. Gemma's own face flushed to hear the husky promise in the woman's words. Words one would speak to a lover. And it affected the man, most definitely. Gemma thought she heard him literally growl in response, before their footsteps hurriedly disappeared toward their stateroom.
Once they had gone, Gemma poked her head around the corner again. She saw the third man in the group standing outside the cabin, locking the door. He was a tall man, and had to bend a little to keep from knocking his head into the low ceiling. Gemma recognized his long, elegant form immediately, and would have lingered longer to observe him, but she did not want to risk being spotted. So she pushed back into the shadows, listening to him lock his door. It seemed to take rather a long time, but at last he straightened and began walking.
Straight in her direction. On feet well used to keeping silent, Gemma hurried away.
She waited in the stern for several minutes. Once she felt confident she wouldn't encounter any of her quarry, she jogged quickly back to the cabin. She pressed her ear to the door. No sound within. Bending low, she looked at the small gap between the door and the deck. Dark. The lamps inside were extinguished. He wasn't inside-unless he'd come back within minutes of leaving and immediately gone to sleep. Unlikely.
Now was her chance to do some investigating. Surely she'd find something of note in his cabin. A fast glance up and down the passageway ensured she was entirely alone.
Gemma opened the cabin door.
And found herself staring at a drawn gun.
Damn. He was in. Working silently at a table by the light of one small lamp. At her entrance, he was out of his chair and drawing a revolver in one smooth motion.
She drew her derringer.
They stared at each other.
In the small cabin, Catullus Graves's head nearly brushed the ceiling as he faced her. Her reporter's eye quickly took in the details of his appearance. Even though he was the only black passenger on the ship, more than just his skin color made him stand out. His scholar's face, carved by an artist's hand, drew one's gaze. Arresting in both its elegant beauty and keen perception. A neatly trimmed goatee framed his sensuous mouth. The long, lean lines of his body-the breadth of his shoulders, the length of his legs-revealed a man comfortable with action as well as thought. Though Gemma had not been aware how comfortable. Until she saw the revolver held easily, familiarly in his large hand. A revolver trained on her. She'd have to do something about that.
"Mr. Graves," she murmured, shutting the door behind her.
Behind his spectacles, Catullus Graves's dark eyes widened. "Miss Murphy?"
Despite the fact that she was in danger of being shot, it wasn't until Graves spoke to Gemma that her heart began to pound. And she was absurdly glad he did remember her, for she certainly hadn't forgotten him. They'd met but briefly. Spoke together only once. Yet the impression of him remained, and not merely because she had an excellent memory.
"I thought you were out," she said. As if that excused her behavior.
"Wanted to get a barometric reading." Catullus Graves frowned. "How did you get in?"
"I opened the door," she answered. Which was only a part of the truth. She wasn't certain he would believe her if she told him everything.
"That's not possible. I put an unbreakable lock on it. Nothing can open it without a special key that I made." He sounded genuinely baffled, convinced of the security of his invention. Gemma glanced around the cabin. Covering all available surfaces, including the table where he had been working moments earlier, were small brass tools of every sort and several mechanical objects in different states of assembly. Graves was an inventor, she realized. She knew her way around a workshop, but the complex devices Graves worked on left her mystified.
She also realized-the same time he did-that they were alone in his cabin. His small, intimate cabin. She tried, without much success, not to look at the bed, just as she tried and failed not to picture him stripping out of his clothes before getting into that bed for the night. She barely knew this man! Why in the name of the saints did her mind lead her exactly where she did not want it to go?
The awareness of intimacy came over them both like an exotic perfume. He glanced down and saw that he was in his shirtsleeves, and made a cough of startled chagrin. He reached for his coat draped over the back of a chair. One hand still training his gun on her, he used the other to don his coat.
"Strange to see such modesty on the other end of a Webley," Gemma said.
"I don't believe this situation is covered in many etiquette manuals," he answered. "What are you doing here?"
One hand gripping her derringer, Gemma reached into her pocket with the other. "Easy," she said, when he tensed. "I'm just getting this." She produced a small notebook, which she flipped open with a practiced one-handed gesture.
"Pardon-I'll have a look at that," Graves said. Polite, but wary. He stepped forward, one broad-palmed hand out.
A warring impulse flared within Gemma. She wanted to press herself back against the door, as if some part of herself needed protecting from him. Not from the gun in his other hand, but from him, his tall, lean presence that fairly radiated with intelligence and energy. Keep impartial, she reminded herself. That was her job. Report the facts. Don't let emotion, especially female emotion, cloud her judgment.
And yet that damned traitorous female part of her responded at once to Catullus Graves's nearness. Wanted to be closer, drawn in by the warmth of his eyes and body. An immaculately dressed body. As he crossed the cabin with only a few strides, Gemma undertook a quick perusal. Despite being pulled on hastily, his dark green coat perfectly fit the breadth of his shoulders. She knew that beneath the coat was a pristine white shirt. His tweed trousers outlined the length of his legs, tucked into gleaming brown boots. His burgundy silk cravat showed off the clean lines of his jaw. And his waistcoat. Good gravy. It was a minor work of art, superbly fitted, the color of claret, and worked all over with golden embroidery that, upon closer inspection, revealed itself to be an intricate lattice of vines and flowers. Golden silk-covered buttons ran down its front, and a gold watch chain hung between a pocket and one of the buttons. Hanging from the chain, a tiny fob in the shape of a knife glinted in the lamplight.
On any other man, such a waistcoat would be dandyish. Ridiculous, even. But not on Catullus Graves. On him, the garment was a masterpiece, and perfectly masculine, highlighting his natural grace and the shape of his well-formed torso. She knew about fashion, having been forced to write more articles than she wanted on the subject. And this man not only defined style, he surpassed it.
But she was through with writing about fashion. That was precisely why she was on this steamship in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
With this in mind, Gemma tore her gaze from this vision to find him watching her. A look of faint perplexity crossed his face. Almost bashfulness at her interest.
She let him take the notebook from her, and their fingertips accidentally brushed.
He almost dropped the notebook, and she felt heat shoot into her cheeks. She had the bright ginger hair and pale, freckled skin of her Irish father, which meant that, even in low lamplight, when Gemma blushed, only a blind imbecile could miss it.
Catullus Graves was not a blind imbecile. His reaction to her blush was to flush, himself, a deeper mahogany staining his coffee-colored face.
A knock on the door behind her had Gemma edging quickly away, breaking the spell. She backed up until she pressed against a bulkhead.
"Catullus?" asked a female voice on the other side of the door. The woman from earlier.
Graves and Gemma held each other's gaze, weapons still drawn and trained on each other.
"Yes?" he answered.
"Is everything all right?" the woman outside pressed. "Can we come in?"
Continuing to hold Gemma's stare, Graves reached over and opened the door.
Immediately, the fair-haired woman and her male companion entered.
"Thought it was nothing," the man said, grim. "But I know I've caught that scent before, and-" He stopped, tensing. He swung around to face Gemma, who was plastered against the bulkhead with her little pistol drawn.
Both he and the woman had their own revolvers out before one could blink.
Excerpted from STRANGER by Zoë Archer Copyright © 2010 by Ami Silber. Excerpted by permission.
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