Authors: Kristen Callihan
Tags: #Fiction, #Historical, #Victorian, #Paranormal, #Urban, #Science Fiction, #Steampunk, #Romance, #Fantasy
For my family, who loves and supports me,
even when I’m tucked away in my office for
hours on end. You are my reward
at the end of a long day.
For my readers, always.
So kiss me sweet with your warm wet mouth,
Still fragrant with ruby wine,
And say with a fervor born of the South
That your body and soul are mine.
— Ella Wheeler Wilcox
he had always been attracted to death. Sought it out for reasons inexplicable to even herself. But it wasn’t supposed to end this way. And now she was dead. Of that she was certain. She felt the stinging tug of the knife as it pulled through her flesh. Her life’s blood, hot against her skin, cool as it spread in a crimson pool about her still body.
Just before she died, the grizzled, grinning faces of the thugs around her began to fade, the world turning a muddy brown. Eliza’s last breath left with a soft, soundless puff.
And now she was dead. She had fought so hard and so long to live. Done ugly things to remain alive, to
She’d come to London to find her distant family. They might help, offer her solace. And she hadn’t even had the chance to look, set upon by bad men barely an hour after she’d disembarked and stepped upon English soil.
Rage surged up within her. She refused to be cut down like this, by these… mindless thugs. Her body was still, a heavy, foreign thing now. No longer hers to command.
Again came the rage, but the black pall of death was stronger. Before she could think, she was simply gone.
Eliza blinked, light wavering around her. And then she was back, standing in the alleyway. Alive. Before her, two women fought the men who had murdered her. She
been murdered. Hadn’t she? Yet here she stood, idly watching as these lovely, properly dressed women, one wielding a sword, the other a baton, fought like masters. Eliza nearly laughed. She was going mad. That was it. Madness had at last claimed her.
And then all was still. The men fled, limping and bloodied. And she was left with her saviors. Eliza didn’t know what to say. She felt… odd. No, she corrected, she didn’t feel at all. There was, in fact, a decided lack of any feeling. She wanted to think further on it, but the pretty blonde woman was kneeling next to a body, crimson blood soaking into her fine, butter-yellow skirts.
Eliza stared at the sight, at the body of another blonde woman, her plain brown skirts in disarray, her throat cut, her brown eyes wide and sightless in death.
She looks like me
The dead woman looks exactly like me
“No pulse,” the young lady murmured, pressing her fingers against the woman’s pale throat. “They gutted her. Poor dear.”
“No!” The shout tore from Eliza. Fear, so violent she wanted to scream, rose up within her. She knew that body was hers. And yet… “I cannot be dead. I refuse to go. Not like this. Not from the likes of them.” Again came a flash of ire and need. The need to live.
The pretty blonde glanced at the woman with dark hair and hesitation rose high in her blue eyes. But her voice was calm as she addressed Eliza. “I’m afraid you are dead. I am very sorry we did not arrive sooner.”
The hell I am
. Eliza wanted to stomp her foot. In fact, she tried. The action made not a sound. “If I am dead, then how is it that you both see me?” She peered at the women, struck by a strange new fact. “And why do you both glow?”
“You are seeing our spirits,” the dark-haired woman said. “Just as we see yours.” Around them, the breeze began to stir, and it carried the sound of moaning.
Oh, but Eliza did not like that sound. Despair and urgency lived in that sound. Nor did she like the way the shadows in the corners of the alley seemed to stir, as if impatient.
Stay away from those shadows.
Eliza refused to cower. But she wanted to.
The brunette sighed, the sound full of pity and heavy sorrow. “There is still a chance to move on. You must feel it. I suggest you take it, lest you be stuck here just as they are.”
She didn’t need to explain who “they” were; Eliza could feel them. When she couldn’t even feel her own feet. These beings, whatever they were, exuded cold. Such cold. Eliza glared at the shadows, daring them to come closer. She’d make them sorry. Gads, but they gave her a chill. She tried to rub her arms for warmth and felt nothing of her body, only their desire to take her. “I feel it,” she admitted to the strange ladies. “Like someone is plucking on my sleeve.” She shuddered. “I… I can’t! I don’t want to die.”
“Well, who does?” the blonde mused.
Eliza decided she did not like her very much.
The woman tilted her head and eyed Eliza in a calculating manner. “Would you really rather stay? Even if it meant you never died?”
Something inside of Eliza leapt with warmth and tight urgency. Hope. “Is this a true question?”
“She has spirit,” the blonde said to the brunette, who frowned and looked Eliza over.
“She’s a strange one,” the brunette murmured.
Rather the pot calling the kettle. “Says the woman who rushed in like a crazed banshee and beat down three full-grown men,” Eliza retorted.
“She’s in shock,” the blonde said with a smile.
The brunette’s lips twitched. “Likely you’re right.”
What a pair, these two. “I agree.” Wouldn’t anyone be in shock knowing they’d died? No, she would not think of that. Or of the increasingly loud moans coming from the shadows. “Can we move on please?” Hadn’t they said something about her staying here? Hope took on a sharp edge and made her want to reach out and shake one of these odd women.
The brunette ignored her entirely but focused on her friend. “We could…”
“We could,” the pretty blonde agreed.
Saint’s preserve her, Eliza had had enough. Perhaps if she simply tried to get back into her body… The brunette’s words halted her. “You’d be a slave. For however long He deems.”
A new chill went through Eliza. As if she’d had this conversation before. As if she were on the cusp of… something. “Who is ‘He’?”
“The man who can give you back your life,” the blonde said without preamble.
Well… She supposed… That strange, almost anticipatory discomfort within her soul grew. “Will it involve…” She couldn’t finish, but being women, they understood readily.
“No,” said the brunette emphatically. “You merely have to find other willing spirits for him.”
Other spirits? “For what reason?”
“Well, there is the rub,” said the blonde a bit sadly. “Only he knows. Some, he allows to return to their bodies and live life out as we are now. Others, he takes with him. Though he promises no harm will come to them, no one here knows what happens to those souls.” Her blue eyes grew solemn. “You will not know until it is your turn.”
Eliza’s body lay before her, its once-pink skin now bone white and going an ugly grey at the edges. Her life’s blood had begun to congeal and blacken. She looked pitiful, lying there in the muck. Abused and abandoned. She glanced back at the two women staring at her with quiet expectation. They did not appear to be evil. Had they not just tried to save her?
But perhaps they were witches who laid in wait for such opportunity. After all, if Eliza were not mistaken, these properly dressed and uncommonly pretty women appeared to be some sort of soul harvesters. A gruesome job. Eliza would be a fool to trust them. But she’d come all this way, risked death to escape. The only thing left for her was to remain dead or take fate by the hand and see what it would bring her.
Oddly, she wasn’t afraid, but excited. Eliza took a deep breath, uncomfortably aware that she didn’t actually breathe anymore. “Fine. I accept.”
She wasn’t certain what she expected to happen but the two women dickered about for a moment, discussing how to accomplish this supposed miracle. “Ought we not hurry?” she asked them, if only to expedite the process. The moans from the shadows were growing impatient.
“Your body is safe for now,” the blonde assured, even though her gaze stayed resolutely away from it. With a sigh, she then pressed her hand against her heart and murmured words too low for Eliza to hear. But the effect was instantaneous. The cold alleyway grew hot and thick with the smoky scent of myrrh and something dark and delicious. She’d never smelled the like and yet it felt right, this scent, a comfort. Lord but she could draw the fragrance into her lungs all day and never tire of it.
The women seemed less enamored of the scent, for they frowned and fidgeted as though agitated. Eliza might have made a further study but her eye was drawn to the spot just next to the women. There, a shadow formed, completely black, with a density that gave it a tangible depth. Its hazy edges grew sharp and distinct, taking on the shape of a large doorway.
Foreboding raced through Eliza as her attention stayed riveted on that spot. “What is it?”
Someone was coming; she was sure of it. Footsteps echoed, the sound hollow and far off. The fragrance in the alley grew thicker, richer, until Eliza thought her mouth might water. If she had a mouth, that was. Then he appeared, larger than life and handsome as dark sin.
Good gravy, it figured she would have to die in order to rest eyes upon a man so stunning. Tall, with the lithe grace of a warrior, he walked towards them without care. His coal-black hair fell over his brow as if he’d just risen from bed. On a boyish face, this might look slovenly, but this man… His features were carved by a master, a big and bold aquiline nose, strong, slanting cheekbones, and a stubborn chin, shadowed with an evening beard. He was the most overwhelmingly masculine male she’d ever seen.
His deep, dark voice poured over them like hot milk. “My delicious daughters.” Daughters? “My most lovely creations. How may I be of service?” He smiled at the two women, bringing Eliza’s attention to his mouth. A bitable mouth.
A flush of unwanted heat went through her.
The blonde, now blushing spoke. “My Lord, we have one who desires to join.”
And then he looked at Eliza. Beneath thick, dark brows that slashed over eyes of stunning gold, he hit her with the force of his gaze, and Eliza’s world turned on its end. Him. It was him. She blinked, not understanding why he felt so very familiar, so very right. It didn’t matter, for his expression grew covetous and calculating, and she feared she’d need all her wits with this one. Fate, it seemed, had just played a very nasty trick on her.
Aodh, son of Niall, former knight and one-time terror of Ireland and Great Britain, now known as Adam, king and creator of the GIM, took one look at the little spirit wavering before him, and his entire existence ground to a halt. Had he not lived centuries devoid of a single, pleasurable feeling, he would not have been able to hide his surprise. As it was, he barely remained standing. A rush of pure, exquisite emotion punched through him, battering him about like a cork on a monster wave.
Holy God. It almost hurt, this feeling. He allowed himself a small breath. He was
. After all these years. Heat and throbbing below his waist had him biting back a laugh. His cock was rising. He’d actually forgotten that particular sensation.
The female spirit was eyeing him as if he might soon bite. She was right to worry. He wanted to bite. But the glow that surrounded her form distracted him. He stared at it, disbelief, hope, and emotion writhing within him until he feared he might double over. That glow, soft gold mixed with sharp silver. The light of her soul. He did not have to glance down at his body to see the exact match of her soul’s light to his.
. After all of these years. The endless searching. He’d found her. Why, then, did a strange, desperate rage fill him now?
“Your name?” he asked of her. Tension rode his frame hard.
The spirit narrowed her eyes, her gaze sliding up and down Adam’s form as though inspecting something distasteful. Perfect. Wonderful. They were off to a grand start.
Her voice, when she spoke, was clipped, with the flat tones of a Yank. “Eliza May.”
“Mmm.” It came out as a dubious rumble. Adam flicked his attention to Mary. “I’ll have a word with you, sweet Mary Chase —”
“And you are?” Eliza May cut in, her translucent hands upon her hips. Like a little fishwife.
His little fishwife.
Again the anger, the helplessness. He didn’t want to need her. Didn’t like the urge that rode him hard and demanded he fall at her knees and weep with relief. He found himself snapping. “Not to be interrupted, treats.”
The lass’s pert chin lifted. “I’ve a right to know your full name, sir.”
Oh, but she would be interesting. Of that, he was certain. Adam put on a smile meant to chill and sauntered over to the hovering spirit. The temptation to touch her was too great. He traced the line of her cheek, and a shiver licked over his skin. She was warm, solid, to him at least. For at this moment, she lived in his realm. She didn’t even realize she’d passed into it and that what the lovely Miss Chase and Mrs. Ranulf saw of her was merely a spirit, barely clinging to their world. “My Lord and Master, My Irresistible Liege,” he murmured, while his cock throbbed against his trousers. “Pick whichever one you want. Then shut up. I am speaking, and not to you.”
He was being a bastard, unworthy of the knight he once was. And yet he couldn’t seem to stop himself where she was concerned. She’d turned him into a truculent, possessive child. In truth, if he didn’t have her spirit bound to his soon, he was likely to break down and cling to her skirts.
Unhinged, Adam turned his attention to Mary – he had things he needed to discuss with the lass – but he stopped as he spied Eliza’s body laying bloodied and battered upon the cobbles, her skirts still rucked up, a pool of blackening blood widening about her head like a macabre halo.
Had she been violated? A new sort of rage lit through him. So strong that the dark alleyway was illuminated with golden light, and he knew his eyes were glowing.
Eliza, seeing the direction of Adam’s gaze, swished to hover over her body as though she might hide it. “Don’t look at me, it.” Her teeth bared in a snarl. “At my body.”
Her pride was a feral and beautiful thing.
My sweet dove, if I could, I’d tear those who hurt you into pieces.