Home > Mission Improper (London Steampunk The Blue Blood Conspiracy #1)

Mission Improper (London Steampunk The Blue Blood Conspiracy #1)
Author: Bec McMaster


 

One

 

 

London, 1883

 

* * *

 

The invitation contained an address and two words: Come alone.

Caleb Byrnes had found it earlier that morning, in the middle of his bed in the Nighthawks Guild headquarters, a place that he'd previously considered impenetrable. Not only were the Nighthawks comprised of rogue blue bloods—those afflicted with the craving virus, whose infection had not been sanctioned by the aristocrats who'd once ruled London—but they were also thief-takers and bounty hunters. An intruder should have been heard, or smelled, or spotted before they got within five yards of the place. And if they hadn't been, then the guild was protected with all manner of mechanical devices. It was a virtual labyrinth. To his knowledge, nobody had ever broken in successfully.

His curiosity was aroused.

Or perhaps that was just a side effect of the fact that the invitation smelled quite liberally of perfume.

Someone had just dared him.

Someone who knew enough about him to know what piqued his interest.

Someone female.

If there was one thing that Byrnes desired above all else it was a mystery, or a chase. The hunt was everything to him, whether he was hunting miscreants over the rooftops of London, vampires causing mayhem, or women.

It was only once the chase was done that he grew bored, and considering that it had been a good year since he'd had a decent pursuit or case—that actress from the theatre, or the so-called Vampire of Drury Lane—he figured he was due.

Hence why he was here, at the address listed.

Lifting the invitation to his face, Byrnes breathed in the scent, and stared up at the nondescript Georgian townhouse in front of him that threatened to blend in to all of the others along the street. If he hadn't owned preternatural senses, the perfume would have been subtle, that of lilies floating in the wind past him. As it was he could make out the tiny trace notes of oils and chemicals, of solvents and preservatives, and something faintly musky that he couldn't quite identify.

Lifting his hand to knock, Byrnes paused as skirts swished behind him along the footpath.

"Goodness, Byrnes, is that you?" Ava McLaren asked, coming directly to a halt behind him.

Not his intended pursuit, though Ava certainly could have delivered the invitation, as she too was a Nighthawk, and therefore had the means to enter his room. The scent was wrong however. Ava was engine oil, blood, and chemicals, masked by the faint trace of rose perfume she sometimes wore.

"Indeed it is." Byrnes raked a glance over her, and missed nothing—including the gold-engraved invitation trailing from her fingers. His eyes narrowed. "What are you doing here?"

Three years ago, Ava had been the victim of a madman who performed clockwork experiments on women, a case that had left her with a thick, ragged scar down her chest, a mechanical heart, and a case of the craving virus. Her parents had thought her dead, and there was no place in the world for a female blue blood such as herself, so she'd ended up staying at the guild and taking a position there in the laboratories with Fitz. In three short years, she'd become quite adept at crime scene investigation, whereas Fitz still fainted at the sight of blood.

Had Ava received the same invitation? The thought irritated him a little, for he'd thought this to be his mystery. However, he saw Ava as a friend—one of the few he truly owned—so he pushed the thought away.

"Same reason, perhaps, as yours." Ava lifted the invitation ruefully, juggling her parasol in her other hand. "I received this but an hour ago. It sounded urgent."

"Urgent?"

Ava offered him the piece of parchment.

To the Divine Miss McLaren. An offer awaits you, if you dare. Come immediately.

Ava's cheeks colored. "I thought—perhaps—an admirer. I was just curious...."

"You should be more careful," Byrnes said with a frown, turning it over to find the same address listed. "What if it hadn't been? What if someone with nefarious intentions sent this to you instead?"

"They still might have nefarious intentions," she suggested.

"Yes, but my virtue is nonexistent, and everyone knows it. So I doubt they'd have invited me."

Ava rolled her pretty green eyes. She was used to his humor, though she often told him it was lacking. "I'm a blue blood, Byrnes. There's not a lot that could kill me, and considering my heart is made of metal, perhaps not even a stake through that, hmm? And you've taught me how to protect myself. I deemed it an acceptable risk."

True. Blue bloods were exceedingly difficult to kill, thanks to the craving virus, which could heal most injuries. That didn’t mean that killing one was impossible, and Ava had already suffered enough in life.

Byrnes looked up at the building. "They still might have dangerous intentions. You should let me go first."

"I should," Ava said, swinging her parasol with a dangerous glint in her eyes, "but I'm not going to. For goodness sakes, Byrnes, I'm not a debutante. Besides, I have this—"

The parasol swung toward him, and Byrnes tensed, ready for anything. "I'm not certain I've fully recovered from the last ingenious device. What does this one do?"

Her eyes glittered, and she slid her hand toward some trigger on the handle. The tip of it was pressed directly against his chest. “Want to find out?”

"On second thought, I don't want to know," he replied, moving it swiftly away from him.

Ava laughed. "Trust me. Nobody wants to be on the receiving end of my electromagnetic discombobulating device. Talk about sweeping men off their feet...."

"After you, then," he said, and knocked on the door again.

The second his knock died down, the door swung inwards.

A butler appeared, impeccable in black. "Good morning, Master Byrnes. Miss McLaren.”

Byrnes hadn't heard him so much as breathing. “I believe you have the advantage of us….” He didn’t like not being the one in the know.

“My name is Herbert. Please come in. You're expected."

Herbert's eyes were far too watchful for a mere servant, and the way he moved was... disturbingly graceful. Then there was the pale skin. Could just be a result of London's perpetual cloud coverage, but it might also be sign of a blue blood. Byrne's eyes narrowed, one hand dropping to the knife sheathed at his side as he stepped past. If he didn't know any better, he would have classified the butler as dangerous.

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