Home > Winterblaze (Darkest London #3)

Winterblaze (Darkest London #3)
Author: Kristen Callihan

Acknowledgments


As always, many thanks to my dedicated and wonderful agent Kristin Nelson. My hardworking and astute editor, Alex Logan. The awesome Grand Central/Forever team, Amy Pierpont, Lauren Plude, Jennifer Reese, Megha Parekh, and countless others—every day, I thank my lucky stars to be working with you.

To my family for their never-ending love and support, especially my husband and children who treat this job as though it was a team effort—and I suppose they’re right!

Thank you, Amy Noble, for bidding on and winning the Darkest London package for the Brenda Novak Online Auction for Diabetes Research. I hope you enjoy your namesake.

Many thanks to Jenny Harlett and mixologist Krishna Ramsundar for the highly educational, if not slightly intoxicating lesson on absinthe. Any mistakes I made regarding the Green Fairy are solely my own.

And to the reviewers, bloggers, and readers who have spread the word about my books, given me support, and absolutely made my job worth it. I cannot say enough how much it means to me. You are my inspiration.

 

 

Prologue

 

 

And now dear little children, who may this story read,

To idle, silly flattering words, I pray you ne’er give heed:

Unto an evil counsellor, close heart and ear and eye,

And take a lesson from this tale, of the Spider and the Fly.

“The Spider and the Fly” Mary Howitt

 

London, 1869, Victoria Station—An Auspicious Beginning

Winston Lane could never recall the impetus that prompted him to leave the confines of his first class railway compartment and step back onto the platform. The whistle had sounded, long and high, indicating that they would soon be off. And yet, he’d felt compelled. Was it for a quick draw upon his pipe? The need for a bit of air? His memory was muddled at best. Perhaps it was because the whys did not matter. From the moment he’d stepped off that train, his life changed completely. And it had been because of a woman.

Now that he remembered with the vividness of a fine oil painting. Great billows of hot, white steam clouded the cold air upon the platform, obscuring the shapes of the few railway workers attending to last minute duties, giving their movements a ghostlike subtlety. Idly he watched them, interested as always in the activities of the common man, when through the mists she emerged. It might have been lyrical had she been gliding along in peaceful repose, but no, this woman strode. A mannish, commanding walk as if she owned the very air about her. And though Winston had been raised to appreciate ladies who exuded utter femininity and eschew those who did not, he’d snapped to instant attention.

She was tall, nearly as tall as he, this assertive miss, and dressed in some dull frock that blended into the fading light. The only spot of color was her mass of vivid, carnelian red hair coiled at the back of her head like a crown. So very red, and glinting like a beacon. One look and he knew he had to have her. Which was rather extraordinary, for he wasn’t the sort prone to impulse or rash feeling. And certainly not about women. They were interesting in the abstract, but one was much like any other. At nineteen, he was already set in his ways: orderly, bookish, and logical. Save there was nothing logical about the hot, hard pang that caught him in the gut as she walked by, her dark eyes flashing beneath the red slashes of her brows.

The pipe fell from Winston’s hand, clattering upon the ground as he stood frozen, surely gaping like some slack-jawed idiot. She did not appear to notice him, but kept walking, her long legs eating up the ground, taking her away from him. This, he could not allow. In an instant, he was after her.

He nearly broke into a run to catch her. It was worth it. The scent of book leather and lemons enveloped him, and his head went light. Books and clean woman. Had God ever divined a more perfect perfume? She was young. Perhaps younger than he was. Her pale skin was smooth, unlined, and unmarred, save for the tiny freckle just above her earlobe. He had the great urge to bite that little lobe.

She did not break her pace, but glanced at him sidelong as if to throw out a warning. He did not blame her; he was being unspeakably rude approaching this young lady without a proper introduction. Then again, they were the only ones on the platform, and he was not fool enough to let her out of his sight.

“Forgive me,” he said, a bit breathless, for really this woman was fast on her feet, “I realize this is rather forward and usually I would never—”

“Never what?” she cut in, her voice crisp and smooth as fresh linen sheets. “Never proposition young ladies who have the temerity to walk unescorted in public areas?”

Well, now that he thought of it, she really ought to have a guardian with her. She did not appear to be from great wealth, so he wouldn’t expect an abigail, but a sister or an aunt perhaps? Or a husband. A shudder went through him at the thought of her being married. He mentally shook himself, aware that he’d been staring at her, memorizing the sharp slope of her nose and the graceful curve of her jaw.

“I would never presume to proposition you, miss. Indeed, should any such scoundrel approach you, it would be my pleasure to set him to rights.” And now he sounded like a prig, and a hypocrite.

She smirked. “Then let me guess. You are a member of the Society for the Protection of Young Ladies and Innocents and want to make certain I realize the perils of walking alone.” Cool brown eyes glinted as she glanced at him, and Winston’s already tight gut started to ache. “Or perhaps you merely seek a contribution?”

He could not help it; he grinned. “And if I were, would you listen to my testimony?”

Her soft, pink lips pursed. Whether in irritation or in amusement, he could not tell. Nor did he care. He wanted to run his tongue along them and ease them back to softness. The image made him twitch. He’d never had such importune thoughts. Yet speaking to her felt natural, as if he’d done so a thousand times before.

“I don’t know, is your testimony any good?”

Like that, he was hard as iron. His voice came out rough. “While I am certainly capable of extolling the virtues of my testimony, there is only one way for you to truly find out.”

When she blushed, it was a deep pink that clashed beautifully with her hair. “Well, you certainly talk a good talk,” she murmured, and his smile grew.

They neared the end of the platform. Behind them the train gave one last, loud whistle.

His cheeky miss quirked one of her straight brows. “You’ll miss your train, sir.”

“Some things are worth missing, and some are not.”

Coming to the stairway, she stopped and regarded him. When she spoke again, her voice was hard and uncompromising. “What do you want?”

You. “To know your name so that I might come to call upon you properly.” He made a leg, the extravagant sort he’d done at court recently. “Winston Lane at your service, madam.”

For the life of him, he did not know why he’d held back giving her his full name. The lie shamed him, and he moved to correct the blunder, but those pink lips twitched again and good intentions flew from his mind. What would it take to get her to truly smile? What would she look like flushed with passion? His skin went hot.

Her dark eyes looked over his shoulder. “Your train is leaving.”

The platform beneath his feet trembled as the train groaned out of the station. He didn’t even look. “I find,” he said, keeping his eyes upon her gloriously stern visage, “that I no longer wish to leave London.”

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