Shadow of the War Machine (The Secret Order) (3 page)

BOOK: Shadow of the War Machine (The Secret Order)
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We were in severe trouble.

“Out with it.” He wove his fingers together and awaited whatever explanation we were about to give.

“This was all my idea. Meg knew nothing about it before tonight, and she tried to warn me off the plan.” David’s words shocked me, and I looked at him as if he had suddenly sprouted a tail.

Oliver spared me a glance. “And yet I see she dressed appropriately for mischief.”

I took a step forward. “We went to the docks to investigate the two possible ships the man in the clockwork mask might have used to escape after he attacked last summer. We were fruitful in that we discovered the man aboard the
Méduse
, and we were not caught.”

David held his hand up. “I sent Samuel to fetch my men and have the fiend arrested tonight.”

“What?” Oliver and I said in unison.

Oliver pushed to his feet and then called loudly for his footman. The footman entered with his hands folded elegantly behind his back. “Fetch Hawkins. I don’t care about his state of dress. If he’s in his nightshirt, so be it.”

The footman exited with a bow.

Oliver then turned back to us. “If you were gallivanting around the docks at this late an hour without a chaperone, then what is this business about the shop?”

“While we were at the docks, the man in the clockwork
mask broke into the toy shop and ransacked it to look like a burglary. He had intended to kidnap me. He said as much when we spied on him at the docks. So you see, it was very fortunate I was not there,” I explained in an attempt to defuse the situation. Still my stomach twisted a bit with nerves. What if I had been home? Even with my alarms, there would have been little to stop him from abducting me, save the pistol I kept close at hand at all times while alone in the shop.

Dear God, this night was a mess.

Suddenly the door opened and Oliver’s valet, an older gentleman with close-set eyes and bushy eyebrows, entered in his dressing gown.

I looked down at the hem of my dress out of decency.

Oliver pulled out a small bit of paper and jotted down a note. “Hawkins, have this sent by swift bird to John Frank immediately. Then please rouse Mary and have her prepare the Rose Room for a guest. When it is ready, have her escort Miss Whitlock to her room. That is all.”

The valet nodded, stepped forward and took the paper, and then bowed and left the room.

“Now, as for the two of you.” Oliver planted his hands on his desk and leaned forward. “Meg, you are to stay here. So long as the man intent upon kidnapping you is in the city,
I want you under my roof. And you . . .” I’d never seen him look as serious as he did when he turned to David. “I’d like a word with you in private. Meg, would you please wait in the corridor for Mary to collect you.”

“Yes, Your Grace,” I said with a bow, knowing he hated it when I called him that. It was only a bit petulant, but he wasn’t being himself at all. On more than one occasion he had personally put me in far worse danger than David had done.

“Meg,” he said with a note of warning in his voice. He came around the desk and placed his hands on my shoulders. “Forgive me if I’m being overbearing, but I’m feeling protective lately. I know I am only a guardian in name, but I do feel responsible for your welfare, and I don’t wish to see you come to a bad end. I have too many plans for you. If you feel the need to head out on an excursion to a shady part of town, do inform me first?”

I nodded. “I’ll make an attempt.”

He turned me toward the door. “Go with Mary. Rest well. You’re safe here for the night.”

I exited the study, then shut the door. There was no one in the dark hall, so I pressed my ear up against the wood, determined to hear what was in store for David.

CHAPTER THREE


WHAT ARE YOU TRYING TO
do?” Oliver shouted. I heard him well enough through the door, though his voice was muffled. David’s answer was harder to discern, if he answered at all. “If I didn’t know any better, I’d think you were trying to compromise her on purpose.”

I felt as if all the air had suddenly left my lungs. I had considered the dangers of having my reputation ruined, but I never would have thought that David would attempt to trap me in such a way.

Oliver said something, but I couldn’t hear him, so I dropped down and pressed my cheek to the floor to better hear through the crack beneath the door.

“I’m being practical. Everyone can see how well matched we are. There is no other who can come close to being my equal. Our marriage was arranged from the time we were infants, so why shouldn’t I pursue her? If she married another, it would be a waste of her potential.” I couldn’t see anything of the room, but David’s words had me feeling both very hot and strangely chilled at the same time.

Oliver didn’t respond at once. When he did, his voice sounded softer but held no less warning. “David, you are my brother by law, and believe it or not, I’m looking out for your best interest. You cannot trap her and expect to make her yours. If you wish to be a man, do what is right, not foolish.”

“Excuse me, miss. Did you drop something?”

I scrambled up, hitting the back of my head on the door handle. Wincing, I rubbed it as I turned to the maid. “I lost a button. It slid under the door.”

“I can fetch it for you,” she said, reaching for the handle.

My arms felt shaky as I smoothed my skirt. “No need. Mary, is it? I’m quite tired. It’s very late.” I folded my hands in front of me and hoped the girl hadn’t noticed we were wearing the exact same dress.

“Yes, miss. Follow me.” She turned on her heel and then walked down the hall. I followed because I had little choice,
but if I had had my druthers, I would have continued to listen to Oliver and David at the door. If that made me a horrible person, I’d have to live with my faults.

Mary turned up the lamps in the rose bedroom. The light seemed to bleed into the dusky pink silk adorning the walls and the rosewood furniture. The scent of dried rose petals was as overpowering as the luxury, and this was one of the more humble guest rooms.

I didn’t belong here.

“Is there anything you might need, miss?” Mary asked.

“No. Thank you.”

The maid left, and I perched on the corner of the bed. The feather mattress sank beneath me, but I couldn’t let myself fall into it.

I had too much to think about.

What was I to do about David? I hated bearing the burden of having to discourage him. Unfortunately, it simply wasn’t in his nature to give up the hunt. The trouble was, I admired David. I even enjoyed his company and his wit, but in his world I became a shadow or a prop for lovely dresses, someone who happened to be capable of hosting tea.

All my property, what little I had, would transfer to him. If I were a married woman, my husband would be in
control of my life, my body—everything. I would have no recourse, and if I wished to pursue any of my own interests, it would have to be on his mercy until the day he died and I became a widow, and even then it would be my sons who could control my affairs. David would not allow me to continue running my shop, that much I knew for certain. It would be beneath my station as a countess.

Whomever I married, I had to trust that he would willingly give me my freedom when I asked, because by law and custom he would not be obligated to do so. I didn’t believe I could trust David in that way. That was the problem.

I wasn’t ready to marry. Not anyone, and if I weren’t careful, that choice could be taken from me. I had to protect it.

I watched soft flakes of snow land against the cold glass of the window, where they hesitated before melting and dripping down the pane like tears. My heart was back in my lovely shop. I couldn’t get the image of it wrecked from my mind. What was worse were the moments when the images of the shattered toys mixed with the memories I still carried of burned wood and shattered glass from the fire that had taken everything from me.

I hated living in the shadow of destruction.

It was exhausting.

But not exhausting enough to allow me to sleep.

The chill in the deep winter night seeped into my bones as I sat on the bed and waited for dawn to break.

•  •  •

It was only in the light of the new morning that I settled enough to finally sleep. I ended up dozing off in a large armchair fully dressed. The maids must have been under orders not to disturb me. When I finally did wake in the late afternoon, my lavish surroundings baffled me for several moments as I struggled to remember where I was.

Then Lady Briony, David’s younger sister, burst through the door. “Meg! I heard you were here, but oh it is late, and you should be dressed. The other Amusementists are already gathering.”

I stared blankly at the young girl with slightly garish ginger hair and the unfortunate freckles that covered every inch of her face and arms even in the dead of winter. She was dressed in a pale gray ball gown with her hair curled and done up in lavender ribbons. She hadn’t been given the beauty of her sister, Lucinda, or the stature of her brother, David, but I liked her immensely. She reminded me of myself in a more innocent time.

Blinking, I rose from the chair, but I was stiff, and feared my foot had fallen asleep. “What is all this?”

“His Grace is demonstrating his latest Amusement tonight, and you’re going to miss it.” Lady Briony waved a rather intimidating platoon of maids into the room. “Lucinda sent me to make sure you were ready in time.”

Lady Briony clapped her hands, and the maids set to work. I had learned very quickly that when Lucinda wanted something done, there was no fighting it. Now that she was a duchess, it had only gotten worse.

In no time at all I stood before a mirror, cleaned and dressed in a frosty pale blue dress with a soft matching wool cloak. Lady Briony took my hand and led me out of the rose bedroom and down the halls of the Chadwick townhome.

A crowd had gathered outside the doors of the conservatory. It was there that I caught sight of my very best friend.

Her Grace, the Duchess of Chadwick, should have looked resplendent in a snow-white gown with a matching cape. Instead Lucinda seemed faintly ill. With bright red-gold hair the color of dark honey, and vivid blue-green eyes, she was a breathtaking beauty. But at the moment, she seemed as if she hadn’t slept in a month. Worry creased her brow.

As I drew closer, I noticed her eyes were rimmed with red, and she had a tight expression as if fighting to keep from
becoming ill. I didn’t like it one bit. “Are you well?” I asked in hushed tones.

“Oliver told me what happened at the shop. I’m terribly upset,” she admitted. By all rights the shop was hers. She had inherited it from her first husband, Simon Pricket. I managed the shop in her stead. While Simon Pricket may not have been a duke, she had loved him deeply, and I knew she still mourned him even though she had found happiness with Oliver.

“I’m so sorry. I feel like I failed in my duty to you.” I took her hand in mine.

“I was worried for
you
. I am so very glad you are unharmed.” She drew me in to touch her cheek to mine the way a sister would.

“I might not be able to open the shop for Christmas,” I confessed. “Our patrons will be terribly disappointed.”

She sighed. “We will set it right once things return to the way they should be.”

“Will they ever?” I asked, feeling the weight of the question on my shoulders as I thought about the man in the clockwork mask and his intent to hunt me down until he finally claimed his prize.

Lucinda pinched her lips together, but then brightened. “Darling! You’re looking quite handsome this evening.”

“And you are lovely, as always.” I turned to see Oliver striding toward us dressed in his finest, though his hair could not be tamed. His wild brown locks defied constraint but suited the handsome young duke.

“You look quite fetching as well, Miss Whitlock.” He leaned in toward my ear. “Might I have a word with you in private?” he whispered.

“Of course.” A thread of fear wove through my heart. David had had quite a dressing down, and now it seemed it was my turn.

Oliver took Lucinda’s hand and kissed her on the cheek. “I’ll only be gone a moment. As soon as Victor opens the doors, sit close to the fires.”

“Really, I’m well.” She smiled sweetly at him. “Go. You have much to discuss.”

“Follow me.” Oliver’s voice took on a stern tone as we slipped back down the hallway, unnoticed by the crowd near the doors to the conservatory.

Once again Oliver led me to his imposing study. Only, this time several papers had been scattered over his desk. On the corner of a table by the window, a small mechanical pigeon preened near a stuffed fox. The unfortunate canine wore a patch covering one eye like a pirate.

Oliver crossed his arms and leaned his hip on the desk. “You know what I’m going to say, don’t you?”

“That I should guard my reputation more closely.” I bowed my head, not in submission but because I felt the weight of my own thoughts.

“Do you wish to marry David? Is that why you were so reckless?” Oliver asked, reaching out and tipping up my chin. “I thought you wished to finish with the Academy.”

“I do!” I took a step back but looked Oliver in the eye. “I thought my reputation would be safe with my friends.”

“Your reputation is never safe with a man. Should something happen, it will always be your fault,” he warned.

“It’s not fair.” I could never really be free. No woman could ever truly be free in such a world.

“No, it is not.” Oliver placed a hand on my shoulder. “But until the world changes, it’s the lot you’ve been given. I’ll do what I can to protect you.”

I looked down at my hands, not feeling very mollified. The world couldn’t change quickly enough. “Thank you, Oliver.”

He gave my shoulder a hearty pat. “When your grandfather returns, I hope to say I did my best for you.”

Which brought us to the other pressing issue. “Did you
find the man in the clockwork mask?” I asked. “Please tell me he has been captured.”

“Unfortunately, he managed to evade us once again.” Oliver’s expression turned grim. “However, I have made some inquiries around the docks. He has been making regular passages between London and the port at Le Havre, and even traveling up the river as far as Rouen. I had my men inquire in Rouen, but the French were much more tight-lipped, or less greedy for the sum I had offered to pay for information.”

BOOK: Shadow of the War Machine (The Secret Order)
3.46Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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