Clockwork Kiss

The Blackwell Legacy

Nina S. Gooden

 

Prologue

Eliza’s throat was hoarse from crying and screaming. Her tiny frame was bruised and scraped but the waves of teeth-chattering pain had long since faded to numbness. Her body had stopped throbbing from her fall and she could even ignore the weird angle her leg was pointed in.

She’d fled the safety of the camp hours ago. Angry and hurt, she’d run off without paying attention to where she’d been going, and no one had found her yet. Her young mind had decided that no one had come for her because they didn’t want her anymore.

“I’m sorry I was bad, Llesenia.” The little girl tried to scream her apology, hoping that her adopted mother was hiding in the trees, but all that came out was a pitiable mewl.

When nothing happened, she dropped back against the leaves and swallowed the salt that welled up in the back of her throat. If she hadn’t yelled at her Rommom she wouldn’t be here now. Instead of looking up at the orange tinted noon sky from a dirty, moss infested forest floor she could be watching Llesenia mix and crush the velvety black powder she loved so much.

The elderly Gypsy woman would hug her with soot-covered hands and promise to teach her how to use the blasting powder when she was ready. But that wouldn’t happen now, Eliza had been too mean. The child frowned at the memory of her cruelty.

“Why can’t I just go and watch now?” Eliza had botched a simple one-handed cartwheel, whining when she hit the ground hard enough to bruise. “I just want to see the zeppelins drop off the morning postage.”

The familiar, patient voice of her Rommom—a term she had come up with all by herself to refer to the Romanian who had taken her in—had filled the clearing they had made between dozens of tents. “No slacking off, practice the tumbles Vetz taught you.” The older woman had waited for the younger one to attempt a back flip and land clumsily on her back, before sighing. “No, no. Spread your arms a little further. That way you’ll be able to stay up longer. I’m not seeing any improvement, young lady.”

“That’s because I don’t want to learn to tumble. I want to … go to the country. And raise horses!”

The woman sighed again. “You have to start with smaller goals to reach the ones you have in mind, my dear. Try again.”

“Then can I go see the zeppelins?”

“No.”

Eliza had inelegantly rolled into a standing position. “That’s not fair!”

The Gypsy reached up to tug on a thick lock of silver hair that was tucked behind her ear. It was an action the little girl had seen a thousand times while her Rommom was thinking. Usually, it ended with her getting what she wanted, so the girl smiled. That smile quickly died when the silver head began to shake.

“But why?” Eliza all but exploded.

“Because it’s outside the limits of the camp. Ah, ah, don’t think to argue with me. I know exactly where the postmaster is and what you’d have to cross to get there.”

Eliza bristled at the reminder. To anyone who knew anything, London was separated into Five Quarters, a geometrical impossibility that didn’t escape her young mind.

In the First and largest were the Blue Bloods. They kept all the wealth and land, looking down at everyone else. The Second Quarter was for their mules, the people they hired and commissioned for their expensive soft clothes and the other shiny things they supposedly needed. It was where they found “acceptable” house workers.

The Third Quarter was primarily made up of people who labored. Not crafters like those in the Second Quarter, these people grew things, fished, or moved heavy objects for a living, which was ironic since they never seemed to live long. They weren’t so much respectable, as considered a necessary evil by the Blooded. After all, it wasn’t as if they were going to muck out their own stalls.

The Fourth Quarter was filled with the unmentionables of society. Gamblers, prostitutes, murderers, drunks and thieves gathered in the dark alleys. Various bars, taverns and brothels littered the area like so much garbage and still, still they were considered better than the tiny and elusive Fifth Quarter.

Comprised of a small settlement of Romanians, they’d been abandoned by an airship pirate fifty years back. Their grasp of chemistry had given them a small allotment of land so they could trek to the Second Quarter to sell wares that would be otherwise missed. Untouchables, they were sometimes called, shunned and ignored beyond basic transactions.

For the most part, nobody cared. At least, none of the Gypsies cared. They were glad for the space and isolation. It allowed them to keep their secrets, for everyone knew that while the people of London had a firm grasp of all things steam and mecha, it was the Gypsies who understood the secrets of alchemy and chemistry.

“You’re too curious for your own good, my girl.”

Her mumbled response had gone ignored or unheard. “…one little peek couldn’t hurt.”

Eliza had turned her back to Llesenia as she reflected on the confusing world of social status. She didn’t understand much of it but she did understand that the Roms were a lot like the Blooded, though they thought they weren’t. They were a mysterious group of people and even though she had lived with them as family for years they still held her at a distance. The secrets they kept from outsiders were kept from her as well. They were nice, even loving, but she knew as well as they did that she didn’t really belong.

“The others travel through the Fourth all the time, so why not me?”

She heard the softening in her mother’s voice and it made her even sicker than the irony of being part of a Quarter that wasn’t a quarter. “You know why, Elizabeth. You’re special.”

“Special? Special?” In a rage she swung around, eyes wide. The messy veil of her hair, purposefully cut to hide her face, flew to the side as a curtain parting. Clear as day, the little girl saw the woman who claimed to love her, flinch. In those sad brown eyes, Eliza saw the reflection of her own, and hated herself for them. Startling neon-blue surrounded her pupils, intensified by her emotions. The blue glowed brilliantly as if there were some inner light behind them desperate to get out. “Don’t lie, Mom! You tell me every day that lying is bad. You just don’t want anyone to see me for what I am.”

Llesenia took a step back, and Eliza would have sworn she had heard her heart breaking in that instant. When the Gypsy spoke, her voice quavered, betraying her fear. “That isn’t it. The post is in the Second Quarter. It’s too close to the Blooded. If one of them were to see you they would know you’re not Rom. They might try to take you away.”

Blue flames leapt up Eliza’s arms as she stood before her mother, panting. The flames didn’t hurt, didn’t burn her, but she knew instantly that they weren’t of this world. They were something else entirely and if she didn’t get them under control something would happen. She knew this in the back of her mind, in the place where adult thoughts and reasoning were beginning to form.

But to her conscious self, all she saw was the fear and disgust coming from someone she loved. Someone she knew she’d deeply wronged who may be trying to punish her now by keeping her from something she wanted. She lashed out. “You’re just afraid that if they do, their ghosts will come to me!”

The sound of skin connecting with skin registered in her mind before the sting of her cheek. Eliza lifted a hand in shock, her eyes settling on the crumpled expression her mother wore. Then she’d taken off.

Sniffling, Eliza closed her mind to the memory. She knew what she’d said had been cruel. She would apologize to her Rommom and be forgiven later, but for now she had to find a way to get back home.

Think. That was what Llesenia had always said was her best weapon. If she could be resourceful and quick she would find a way to do anything.

Unfortunately she couldn’t think of anything. What she needed was help. Too bad she was all alone … the little girl closed her eyes and swallowed. Help, she whispered in her head. Please, someone. Come save me.

She must have nodded off because once she opened her eyes again the sky had gone from the polluted orange of noon to the deep red of dusk. Heavy clouds the color of vile smoke were pasted to the unhealthy sky, threatening to unleash drops of murky rain all over her battered body. Eliza felt tears threaten her eyes again moments before a familiar sound roared into hearing distance. The flapping of metallic wings was to her as a banquet would be to the belly of a starving man. It filled her up, made her bursting with hope that she’d long since lost.

Her voice, rested from her nap, wasn’t a hundred percent but it was functioning. “I’m here. I’m here, please help me.”

The flying machine, frequently called a Flapper, kicked up more debris and leaves, forcing the girl on the ground to turn her head.

The rider disembarked, and she expected to hear one of the Gypsies call out to her. The Flappers were a higher end product and they were frequently only readily available to the Blooded. Still, Eliza knew that sometimes the Rom worked on them so her rescue party may be using the mecha to look for her.

“I finally found you,” gasped a tiny, cultured voice. “I finally found you, Elizabeth.”

Before she could adjust to the shock of hearing her voice on strange lips, Eliza found herself surrounded by a soft golden light. The warmth settled onto her skin and sank down into her bones. Slowly, slowly, the unnatural numbness vanished, taking the pain with it. Disbelief warred with the unmistakable mobility of results. Eliza stood on shaky legs and stretched. “My leg. It’s all better.”

“Yes.” Her rescuer stood up slowly, tossing back rivers of golden hair. Familiar blue eyes blinked back at her from a different face. “My name is Olyve and I am your sister.”

Chapter One

She was standing over a body. The icy chill of death hung in the air and sank into her pores like thick, sticky smoke.

I loved him and he used me.

Wide, sightless eyes turned to find her without tracking, the useless balls sloshing around in rotting sockets. Used me. The uncultured, harsh voice poured from the lifeless form and wrapped around the petite brunette. The corpse didn’t move for several moments, didn’t flinch, but those eyes continued to rove, desperately trying to make contact. Why? Why couldn’t he just love me?

The broken figure stretched out before her with a jerk, a pitiable marionette searching for its strings. Find him!

Eliza took a step backward, shaking her head roughly to clear the vision. Slowly, the misty apparition vanished, leaving her alone once again with the cobblestone walkways, looming dark alleys, and smog-painted gray night sky that was London at midnight.

It was damp and the air was as filthy and stifling as it always was, but for a moment she felt a breeze as frigid and salty as the sea. Tears of the dead.

Shuddering, Eliza adjusted the frames of her rose-tinted goggles. They were heavy, unsightly, and the most expensive thing she would buy in her entire lifetime, but they were also imperative. They protected her from being seen as what she really was. “Stay away,” she whispered into the wind, pleased to find her voice steady and clear. “I will never accept you, so stop appearing to me. All of you, leave me be!”

Dismissing the ghost with a wave of her hand, she let out her frustration in a rough sigh. No one was around, and for that she was grateful. It seemed like even with the leaps and bounds technology had taken, people were still just as small-minded and suspicious as ever. Particularly when it came to the Blackwells.

Maybe she was being paranoid but Eliza wasn’t taking any chances. She couldn’t be associated with the powerful family in any way. Even if it was just a softly muttered, “That girl is as crazy as a Blackwell.”

All the money and titles in London couldn’t stop the talk of witchcraft and magic that surrounded the Blackwell family. It made them at once famous and infamous, like caged lions that the good nobles feared but couldn’t stop staring at.

Not that the talk was unfounded.

Adjusting the leather straps that crossed over her chest, Eliza double checked to make sure the hidden pockets on her black gear were still filled with the various powders she kept on her body.

Perfect. She’d have to remember to thank Vetz later. Though he hadn’t stood up for her or anything after Llesenia died, and she’d been “relocated” out of the camp, he’d still been kind enough to provide her with a few tricks for her new trade. He’d even given her a few sources to use in order to gather information on her marks.

“Which reminds me,” she whispered, bending over to press and hold the three buttons hidden by the buckles of her black leather shoes. Almost immediately, her face was warmed by the rush of steam that unleashed, revealing the compartment in her heel.

Unfolding a few sheets of parchment she found there, she quickly scanned the details of her newest mission.

Client: Olyve Blackwell.

Mark: Cyril Reeves.

Objective: Retrieve a small box from within the study of the mark from Grey Keep without being detected.

Why Olyve wanted the box, Eliza didn’t know. She didn’t even know if Olyve’s husband, James Reeves, knew she was planning to steal from his little brother. What she did know was that ten years ago her sister had saved her life and then promised to keep her existence a secret from the rest of the Blackwells. Eliza didn’t want anything to do with the family or her powers, and the blonde bit of sass who had proven to be a good friend, respected that. Eliza would do anything to return the favor.

She smiled down at the stack of parchment, shifting through the information her sister and various other sources had gathered. A quick sketch had been drawn to help her find the correct item. In addition, there was a little information about her mark. She paused, frowning at his name again.

Cyril Reeves. The Cyril Reeves. He was a famous inventor; someone admired far and wide. He was also a bit of a recluse.

There was speculation that a scandal regarding his father being taken in by the magistrates had broken his mind, leaving him damaged. As a boy, he hadn’t been very popular. Some even considered him weird—a mortal sin amongst the echelons of high society. The fact that his father had only been asked to answer a few questions about the last time he’d seen a missing young lady had been overlooked entirely in this little hypothesis.

A huff of disgust slid past her lips, the ton and its vicious rumors.

The intel also mentioned that he’d been married some years ago but did not elaborate. Eliza shrugged it off as unimportant and straightened, satisfied that she had memorized all she needed.

She folded the parchment with a casual glance around to make sure no one was about before pressing it into the hollowed pocket watch case on her hip. One push of the dial and the soft hiss of scalding steam filled the air, evaporating the paper contents easily.

The click of her boots was muffled by the grit in the air as she moved toward Grey Keep with sure speed. The Keep was one of the oldest and largest in all of London. It was apart from the other buildings, set in front of a backdrop of rare woods and fields. Taking up as much room as three of the other manors, it was the great expanse of fountains and gardens surrounding the charm of gray stone that lent the building its name. A black cast iron fence wrapped around the perimeter was no challenge to Eliza.

As always, Eliza took a moment before the first step into unsafe territory. She removed her boots and hid them carefully. This was supposed to be her first real contract but she couldn’t quite forget the fact that it had been commissioned by her sister. Her sister who was constantly giving her the same warning. It was a warning that even now echoed in her ears.

“I know how you feel about it, though for the life of me I still don’t understand why… You are one of us, Eliza. If anything happens, I may not have the authority to help you but father does. So does Hugh. Please. Call for help. I know you can feel the connection, I know you know how. You must open yourself up.”

Standing there in the dark, Eliza felt the invisible tug. It was always there, always calling to her in a way that ran even deeper than the call of the spirit world. She felt that draw all the way to her soul and leaned into it unconsciously, knowing that if she did she would be revealed to every member of her true family.

He didn’t want you. He will never want you. The familiar, chilling voice snapped her out of it. Shaking her head, she offered a wan smile to the dark sky, hoping her sister could feel it. She called out into the open air, “Don’t worry, Lyv. I won’t need any help.”

Just as she was about to set her bare foot over the threshold, a spitefully cold gust of wind swept through the air. It kicked up grime and the heavy scent of spent steam, knocking her off balance and forcing her to take a step back from her goal.

For one chilling second, Eliza could have sworn she heard low, mocking laughter. The sound was gone in an instant, but it left her with a sliver of fear sitting low in her stomach. Fear she couldn’t afford. “There’s no going back now.” This time she whispered the words to herself. “Smaller goals come first.”

She pushed down the fear and surged forward into the darkness, crouching low.

Moving across the grounds, she met opposition only once, despite how many times she’d tripped in the slick grass. A large, open window had been in her path as she moved toward the back of the Keep. Within the colorful view of that window had been a maid of some sort with auburn hair. She’d been talking to herself in a fast string of words, seeming to search for something.

Eliza smiled from where she’d hidden in the dark and withdrew a pinch of her precious powder from several different pockets, mixing them in her hand. She knew that with the right mixture she could blow a hole in a mountain, but for now, she didn’t need that kind of power.

Tossing the contents of her palm toward the opening, she’d waited for the chemicals to react before smiling. A nice smokescreen built up, allowing her to slip by. She whispered thanks to the smog and various mecha scattering the building. A little cloud of smoke would pass, if not unnoticed, then without concern.

A quick trip through a hedged fence brought her into a hidden garden that had seen better days. Overgrown weeds and thick algae crept up a stone wall near the center where fountains should have been. Curiosity begged for a peek behind the heavy door that blocked it, but Eliza shook it off. She was here for one thing and one thing only.

A pair of carelessly open double doors made her entry easy. Eliza shivered as she stepped over the threshold, a sudden chill hanging in the air. There was definitely something off about the Keep.

Creeping toward the drawing room, she noticed a faint light coming from the study. She paused and listened to the footsteps that paced the room, deciding it was a lone male.

“Cyril Reeves,” she breathed with awe. There was the soft clink of gears grinding together and she wondered if he was working on some kind of project.

The man was a genius.

Not that she would ever get the chance to meet him. Former Gypsy girls turned would-be thieves did not get to brush shoulders with brilliant inventors.

Swallowing a regretful groan, she refocused her attention. “Come on, Eliza,” she chided herself softly. “You’re here for a reason.”

The door to the drawing room whined a low, mournful note when she pushed it open. She sucked in a breath, kicking herself mentally for forgetting that. It was a simple rule to hold the hinges whenever you are attempting to open a door silently. That’s what happened when you didn’t focus. She slid her bare feet into the crack of the doorway until she was inside, letting her eyes adjust to the darkness that enveloped her.

The beauty of the room sucked the air out of her lungs as it usually did in wealthy homes. It should have been a crime that the man kept no company, for the room was an immaculate show of glamour and style. She marveled at how well kept the paintings that surrounded the medium-sized room were.

There were dozens of them, each of different hues and tones, some with people and some of landscaping and animals, though she couldn’t make out the details. Even from where she stood, she could recognize that they were lovely. She would even have to say that they were breathtakingly so. She remembered vaguely that his father had been a talented artist. Maybe they were his.

She stood for a moment trying to evolve into some sort of panther creature so that she could better appreciate the darkness, of course to no avail. In addition to the paintings, there were large mirrors that hung from the corners of the clean walls. She was certain the treasures must have cost more than she could ever make in a year, perhaps even over the length of her entire life.

She couldn’t help but migrate towards one. “One little peek couldn’t hurt…”

The dark-haired creature that stared back at her looked an absolute fright. Her hair was pulled back into a ponytail that made wide eyes slant at the sides a bit. At least the color of those eyes was totally obliterated by the rose lenses perched on her nose.

She squinted at her reflection, noting the flush of her cheeks. That would never do. She looked like a thief in the night.

Guilt flashed across her face, chased by realization when she recognized it, then followed quickly by annoyance. She immediately pulled a bit of her hair out of her ponytail and used the newly form bangs to hide her expression. She smiled, comforted by the habit she no longer needed, thanks to the goggles. Still, if anyone were actually to discover her, her facial expressions would be at the very bottom of the list of problems she would have to deal with. She quickly looked away and got back to business.

The box was exactly where Olyve said it would be.

Moving closer, she inspected the little package. Lightweight and simply decorated, it was probably filled with folded pieces of parchment.

She smiled triumphantly, tucking the small treasure into the waist of her pants, securing it with the help of the tinker’s belt, and exited the room the same way she entered, holding the handle down to avoid the noise this time.

Her heartbeat was like thunder trapped within in her rib cage, roaring through her chest like a storm threatening to escape through her ears. Her feet felt as if they had lead pipes pushed through her big toes. She clinked through the corridors until she reached the door she knew the master was behind.

Maybe just a little peek. Leaning down, she began to pick the lock. The bar had just rolled into place when she heard the thud of his body hitting the floor. She silently hoped she wasn’t as perceptive as she thought she was. That didn’t sound good.

* * * *

Cyril Reeves turned the would-be automaton towards the wall and threw a cover over it. Unfinished. He frowned at the silhouette of the incomplete work. It was ugly as well. He hadn’t created something beautiful in years and the failure disgusted him.

Turning, he rapped his knuckles against his bookcase and watched the secret panel slide free, clearing the space for him to walk forward. He was the only one who knew the passageways through his Keep. This one wound throughout the East Wing all the way to his study on the south side. He’d chosen the south side especially because it had been her refuge.

A deep, crushing sorrow hit him like a wave crashing over his head at sea. He gasped as the temperature dropped again and leaned against the dark wall when he stumbled. Tears filled his eyes and he grunted in disgust. “Pull it together, man. She’s gone. You were married four months; she’s been gone for seven years.”

By the time he freed the panel that opened to his study, the grief that seemed to sink into his bones without warning had ebbed. Taking a deep breath, Cyril lit enough light globes to see what he was doing. The balls of glass that wrapped around coils of illumination slowly built up enough energy to cast a brighter version of candlelight.

Fogged mirrors stared back at him from every angle. He hadn’t missed that aspect of the south side of the Keep. Majorie had spared no expense when it came to decorating each inch of the wing he had dubbed her own. Her ornaments of choice were the bits of glass that never belied her beauty.

Right now a ruffian with wild eyes and a two-day-old beard stared back at him with cold, uncaring eyes. He stared back, shivers sent through his body by the aloof unfeeling depths of that gaze.

“One would think that with what’s going on inside your head, you would care.” His voice was rough with emotion and disuse as he snarled at his reflection. “But no, you don’t, do you? You don’t feel a damned thing. You are pure and simple, the shell, the snail left behind. You are nothing of the man you were before.”

Cyril flinched and his reflection continued to stare at him, unmoving. No emotion was mirrored back at him and the man in the mirror didn’t move to mimic or answer his words. Moments ticked by endlessly and he walked away, pacing in front of the fireplace watching the embers glow lazily. All around him his reflection seemed to stare down at him, though he knew such a thing was impossible. He was losing his mind, maybe even drowning in sorrow.

These could be his last moments on Earth and they wouldn’t even be sane ones. He considered the flask that he always kept on his hip. One sip and maybe the madness would stop.

Dragging his hands through his hair, he sighed and turned his back on the mirrors, facing the mantle completely. There, under a light globe holder was a green pouch that held a handful of powder. Plying himself with alcohol wasn’t the answer, but this might be.

Loosening the drawstring, he watched the precious silvery grains spill into his palm, marveling at his own desperation. Purchased from a gypsy in some seedy makeshift abode, these little grains of white sand were his last chance.

The Rom had told them they would either “lead him to his salvation” … or kill him. He was rather hoping for the first but at this point, he was willing to risk the second. He wasn’t going to be able to continue on like this.

As the second son of a late earl, Cyril had had to make his own way into the ton. He’d worked hard, handling steam and gears as a master painter did canvas and brush.

Though lacking the natural charm and wit his brother seemed to exude, he’d made sure that every one of his investments paid off. He handled every aspect of the selling of his products, not to mention being smart enough to learn his own bookings. He would never be one of those men who got swindled blind because he allowed another to take advantage of him.

At any rate, Cyril was fairly sure he’d gotten a title or two when he’d married Majorie but that hadn’t had any bearing when he’d begun courting her. No, in all truth, he had just wanted her. It seemed to be right and natural, like balls and overeager mothers trying to push their daughters on him. For him it was more than a business arrangement, and after a time she had begun to feel great affection for him, or at least he liked to think.

But she was gone now, vanished on vacation to the country home. It seemed like ages ago. Cyril had been rightly grieving for the first year after her death. He had done so genuinely, not just in the fashion of the ton. He’d mourned all the lost potential, all the time they could have spent together.

But now … now he felt insane. There were times when he felt healthy and energetic. Times he was sure he had moved on but moments later it was as if his emotions refused to pay heed to his mind.

As if on cue his body flared up with heat and anger exploded in his chest.

Cyril wondered if his brother was aware of the fact that he knew he’d hired a private investigator to look into her disappearance. He must. After all, it’d been weeks since the investigator had mistakenly brought Cyril the information James had purchased.

Pain sliced through Cyril’s body, quick and unsuspected. He balled his fist around the powder, closing his eyes. “James,” he gritted out around clenched teeth. The guttural noise vibrated through the small room, and for a moment Cyril thought he heard a strange squeak outside of his sanctuary. Impossible, he’d made certain he was the only one awake at this particular moment.

He went back to his thoughts, speaking out loud. “Don’t you think I looked for her? I have more money than the monarch does; don’t you think I would have used every bit of it to seek her out? How dare you find clues to what happened to her when I couldn’t!”

He’d failed. The only thing he’d found at all was a letter from his father. It had been covered in Majorie’s special blend of perfume but the words had had little meaning, just random strokes of ink. A dead end. He’d always wondered why she’d had it in her bureau, but had never gotten to ask.

For a few moments he felt like his previous self, filled with anger and indignation. He felt like the old, persistent Cyril. He was seriously considering tossing the godforsaken powder into the grate, then snatching up his coat, marching down to Arbor Crest, finding his brother and putting his fist through his face. He turned toward the dull fire, his own flare kicked up. He focused on his brother, fueling his rage.

Damn his brother. Ever since they were little Cyril had been following in his footsteps. It was only because their parents had been so excited when James created his first little amateur locks and keys that Cyril had looked into mechanics at all. As a young boy, he had quickly surpassed his older sibling’s ability to create and program but it hadn’t changed a damn thing.

James was first born. Nothing Cyril did ever matched the success and tranquility that his brother seemed to exhibit.

He jerked out of his subconscious entanglement, self-disgust written in the reflection of the mirrors. “What the hell is wrong with you, Cy?” he spat, shortening his name as his wife usually did, even though he told her constantly that he hated it.

Something within him lashed out violently, ripping his head back with such force he tasted the color green, as impossible as that was. His eyes watered as misery washed over him again until the liquid that had rushed into his tear ducts as a representation of physical pain became a badge of internal turmoil.

Enough!

He tilted his head forward, funneling the powder down his throat. Moving quickly he tossed the remaining pouch into the grate. He swallowed thickly, feeling immediately dizzy. He supposed he should have written a note or something of the sort, just in case this didn’t go well.

“And said what?” he asked no one in particular. At least that’s what he thought he said. The words sounded muffled, though he wasn’t sure if it was because of the ringing in his ears or the cotton in his throat. He could hear his voice, though. And he even heard the thud as he hit the floor … as well as the screaming and the footsteps.

Sickness swam from his gut and traveled throughout his body, leaving bursts of pain in its wake. If he had the use of his tongue, he would have cursed himself a fool twice over for failing to ask any questions about the strange chemical. It spoke volumes of the sorry state he’d been in that it hadn’t even occurred to him until now. Too late.

Cyril wondered silently if his brother would even care that he was gone.

“Hold on, hold on!”

He turned his head in what felt like slow motion and squinted at the images that danced before his eyes. Who were these triplets and why were they moving so fast? At any rate, someone should tell them that they needed to address him properly. He had a title, though he wasn’t sure what it was at the moment and they were absolute strangers.

He tried to push her away, tried to tell her to let him die in peace but he couldn’t seem to get his arms to move the way he wanted them to. He felt like a frantic fish flopping all about on a fishermen’s hull trying desperately to get back to the sea. And if that were so, she was a useless mermaid, lost herself and doing nothing at all to help him.

She spat out a few curses that would have had him chuckling if he could, while she tried to lift him. “Help! Somebody, help!”

It seemed like forever before he heard the cavalry arrive. He opened his mouth to command that Brandon, his steward and only true friend, take this woman as far away from him as possible, but to his horror, he found the only thing that came from his mouth was his supper. Moments after, brightly-colored spots took over his vision and he lost what little dignity he had left by fainting.

 

 

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