Read Gilded Hearts (The Shadow Guild Series) Online

Authors: Christine D'Abo

Tags: #Fiction / Romance - Erotica, #Fiction / Romance - Fantasy, #Fiction / Romance - Science Fiction, #Fiction / Science Fiction - Steampunk

Gilded Hearts (The Shadow Guild Series)

Gilded Hearts

 

Book 1 in the Shadow Guild Series

 

Christine D’Abo

 

New York Boston

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To Mark and my wonderful daughters.

Thank you for always having my back. I love you all.

Acknowledgments

 

I’ve been fortunate in my life to have had the opportunity to pursue my love of writing, and to share my stories with the public. Each step I’ve taken in this journey has brought me the opportunity to work with many wonderful, talented, and supportive people.

I’d like to thank my posse—Kristina, Paula, Kimber, and Amy—for everything you’ve ever done for me. We’re taking that next step arm in arm, girls! My amazing friend Delphine talked me through some head-banging moments and was my cheerleader when I needed it. Thank you so much, sweetie!

This book wouldn’t have come to be without the support and insights of my fantastic editor, Latoya Smith, whose sharp eyes helped me hone Sam and Piper’s story. And to my amazing agent, Courtney Miller-Callihan, who took a chance on me and my story, helping me find the right home for it.

Thank you everyone.

Chapter One

 

New London, September 1888

The cold bite of the late fall air against Samuel Hawkins’ cheek had long caused it to go numb. Frost covered the ground and crawled up the sides of the surrounding buildings, making New London’s Whitechapel district sparkle from the muted glow of the sulfur lamps lining the cobbled road. Samuel’s shadow stretched across the stones, reaching out like a dark sentry alone in the night. His men had wandered a short distance away to take shelter beside the vacant remains of a clockwerker’s factory, laughing quietly as they made plans to venture out to one of the local gambling hells afterward. He was the only holdout, standing guard over the corpse.

It had been hours since death had claimed the victim. The torn flesh and exposed organs, having crystallized, were now luminous upon inspection in the light. The body had bloated and twisted the gashed skin, making it impossible for Samuel to discern the identity of the victim. He’d given up trying to determine any distinguishing features almost immediately and instead took what comfort he could with his greatcoat fastened securely around him against the wind.

The damned archivists better hurry up before he joined this latest victim in death.

“Sergeant,” Constable Rory Timmons called out. “Care to join us?”

“Someone needs to follow protocol, seeing as you lazy bastards won’t.” The men laughed even as Samuel stamped his feet, willing some of the feeling to return. Truth was, he never liked being in a crowd, even one as small as this group. “As I’m doing your jobs for you, having something to fight off the chill wouldn’t go amiss right now.”

With his back turned to them, he focused on the lamp-lit road ahead. It was a breach of protocol to have alcohol on duty, but he wasn’t about to pass up the warming benefits of a drink.

A muted sloshing and clunk sounded behind him as a metal tin landed hard against the ground, quickly followed by the renewed chatter of the men. The flask was a pleasant weight in his hands as he fumbled with cold fingers to get it open. Shit, that was damned good. His body had reacted unfavorably the first few times he’d imbibed. Thankfully, he’d had five years of lonely nights to adjust to the alcohol’s effects.

Tucking the flask in his pocket, Samuel turned toward the road, where a distant mechanical thumping was getting louder. His wrist strap buzzed, confirming the identification of the approaching carriage. “About bloody time.”

The men rejoined him by the time the simple black carriage turned the street corner to begin its final leg of the journey. The glow of the horse’s red eyes cast two pools of light as it pulled alongside the walking path, increasing the demonic appearance of the automaton. No one spoke until the carriage came to rest opposite them. A burst of steam shot from the leg joints of the mechanical horse as it settled into a resting stance. Its massive black metal head turned, and for a moment it appeared to be staring directly at Samuel. Someone behind him gasped as several more shuffled their feet.

“Go to sleep now,” he whispered. The horse held his gaze a moment longer before another burst of steam blasted through its nose and it lowered its head.

His gift, the ability to manipulate machines with his will alone, was one few knew of. The Clockwerker Guild would have swallowed him whole had they known he could nudge and bend the metal to his desires. Still, being able to
speak
to the various automatons had been a comfort to him growing up, filling the void when he’d been alone.

“God, I hate this,” one of the men muttered. “Fucking zombies and their creepy faces.”

There was a time when the slur would have cut deep and Samuel would have grabbed the man by the throat in retribution. Thankfully, that time had long passed. The archivists weren’t his family anymore, not his concern. He’d begun to replace them over the years, swapping the shadows for the light.

“Shut it, man. They have their job to do, same as us.” Timmons’ sharp bark was enough to silence further comment. He was a bear of a man who stood a full head taller than Samuel and generally terrified the newer recruits to the King’s Sentry with his size, demeanor, and iron hand. “Sorry, sergeant.”

A rush of frustrated embarrassment rolled off Timmons and through Samuel. Timmons had become quite protective of him over the years since Samuel had joined the King’s Sentry. He’d been surprised by the steadfast relationship, but had few enough friends to question Timmons’ motives and welcomed the brotherhood. “It’s fine.”

He had to consciously stop himself from holding his breath when the carriage door hissed open. This wasn’t anything new; it shouldn’t still bother him. But every time he came face to face with the archivists, he once again became a scared nineteen-year-old wandering the streets of New London, driven forward by the need to rise from the ashes of his old life, instead of the twenty-four-year-old man who’d fought the odds to earn a post with the King’s Sentry.

And every time that carriage door opened, he was still looking for
her
.

Clenching his jaw, Samuel took his hands out of his pockets and straightened.

An old man emerged first, white head bobbing as he stepped down onto the stones. He was clad in typical archivist attire—black pants, waistcoat, and overcoat that highlighted a stark white dress shirt. The man was without a top hat, despite the chill in the air. His gaze roamed over the scene, pausing on Samuel.

Master Ryerson.

Blast it boy, again. Again! Until you get it correct you won’t leave this room.

Of course it would be him.

Ryerson’s gaze was as cold as the night air and cut as deep as the bitter wind. The old man’s lips turned up in a sneer even as his gaze roamed over Samuel, no doubt cataloguing his appearance for future reference. Another set of data gathered and stored in that cold, clockwerk mind. Hate coursed through Samuel, though for once he didn’t know if the emotion came from Ryerson or himself.

Empathic
, that had been the term Ryerson spat at him when Samuel was barely old enough to understand the meaning. A curse Samuel was constantly punished for possessing, despite not being able to prevent it from happening. It took him years of practice, of shutting everyone out, before he’d been able to function in the Archives as a member. Not that Ryerson ever gave him credit for his accomplishments, instead radiating disgust as he beat Samuel for his faults.

Since joining the King’s Sentry four years ago, Samuel had managed to avoid seeing the Guild Master. The halls of the Tower were a safe haven for him, one where he could burrow deep, far away from the prying eyes of the Archives and the Masters who ran it. Of course now that he had risen to the rank of sergeant and was the lead investigator on many cases, a meeting had become inevitable.

You’ll never make apprentice if you don’t listen. Now stop crying, boy. Do it again. Properly this time.

Ryerson deserved no reaction from him. Samuel wasn’t a child to be bullied any longer.

He should have suspected that fate was working against him when Ryerson’s sneer turned into a smirk. With his gaze still fixed on Samuel, he stepped to the side and held out his hand. Samuel’s heart rate increased as Piper Smith slipped her fingers into Ryerson’s waiting grasp and gracefully stepped from the carriage. Looking up, Piper observed the scene, her gaze landing immediately on the corpse.

She’d grown even more beautiful than the last time he’d seen her. And this time she wasn’t crying.

Those tears were one of the few things he could clearly remember from that night five years ago. Her thick brown hair unbound and blowing around her, and tears that streaked her cheeks. Blinding panic had muted him of his words, robbed him of his reason and eventually sealed his memories away behind a silent chant of
run, run, run.

“Pip.” He shouldn’t have spoken, it went against protocol, but he needed her to see him.

Sam, don’t leave me.

Her body stiffened and her lips parted as her gaze snapped up to his. Her surprise was easy for him to feel, the warmth of her shock and pleasure stretched out to fire every fiber within him. He’d missed that, the brush of her emotions against his mind. She’d been one of the few who’d always been able to soothe him, her kindness a balm against his battered soul.

His Piper.

But the forgotten warmth brought with it a pressure against the numb spot of his memories. The dark place he’d long given up trying to penetrate. The monster in the shadows, locked away in the box within his mind.
Run, run, run!

No. That was the past.
She
was his past. Samuel hadn’t left everything he’d ever known, created a new life, begun to explore the potential to start a family, only to step back so willingly into the darkness.

Piper’s mouth had fallen open as she took a step forward, despite the way Ryerson held her back. A flash crossed her face, echoed by her emotions. Excitement bubbled inside her; the urge to leap appeared as a bright warmth in her mind.

Ryerson stepped past Piper and strode forward with a long, even gait. “Who is the sergeant in charge?”

“That would be me.” Samuel gave the customary bow stiffly, knowing his men would be watching the exchange with interest. “Sergeant Hawkins.” Adding his name was only a formality.

Ryerson stopped on the far side of the body across from Samuel. His eyes were pale, the irises nearly white with only an edge of blue rimming the outside. His skin stretched tight across his face, marred by only the occasional wrinkle.

“But, sir, see it’s better. The machine spoke to me and I listened.”

“You little fool. They aren’t alive.”

Samuel held up the tiny motor, allowing the cables to drape across his arms. “This one is. Look, I made its heart beat. And I can hear it talking to me when I plug it in. It’s lonely.”

The motor shattered as it landed on the floor, his cheek stinging from the slap he’d sustained.

Ryerson cleared his throat. Samuel had been staring too long.
Shit.
“The victim is female, but given the state of her body we cannot determine an age. Based on her attire I’d guess she is a prostitute. My men will ask our normal contacts to confirm this. We have collected what evidence we could and have taken a few photographs, though given the lack of light, I’m not sure we will get much detail from them. Obvious signs of a struggle. Her body was cut open and her face slashed. There is a distinct lack of blood on the scene, indicating that the body may have been moved.”

Ryerson nodded. “We will make a note in the Archives once we have processed the information.”

Piper stepped up beside the old man, but she wouldn’t meet Samuel’s gaze. He was hyperaware of every ripple of her emotions—hurt, excitement, relief. The scent clinging to her skin. How the warmth from her body seemed to beckon him closer. She’d managed to clamp down her impulsive urges to speak to him, to chat, and instead had slipped into a calmer space. Of course they would have drilled the one thing about her he’d always loved before they would have allowed her to become an archivist.

Dammit, this wasn’t how things were supposed to have gone for them.

She’d brought light to his life with her arrival at the Archives all those years earlier. He’d been relegated to the shadows, pushed aside and ground down until he was nothing. Piper saw him, forced friendship on him with her bubble and charm, and refused to let him fade further. She arrived as a child of five, but she’d somehow known how to save him.

Tonight her hair was pulled back into a simple bun. Errant strands curled across her cheeks, kissing the skin. Like Ryerson’s, her attire was standard issue for their guild, plain and serviceable with no ornament—full skirts, blouse, jacket, simple black boots. The lamp cast a glow across the fabric of her bodice, making it impossible to tell if it was green or blue.

“Sam. Please, don’t go.”

“Pip… I…”

Piper carried a large black box around her neck—the extractor. The shadows box. A thick leather strap was bolted to each side of the thing to support its bulk. Her muscles and skin pulled with the weight of the machine, and she fought to stay upright. Samuel had never held the contraption, but he knew it weighed more than thirty pounds. The Hudson’s Bay Company had designed the extractor to be rugged, capable of withstanding any climate or landscape from the damp of New London springs to bitter Canadian winters. It was far too heavy a burden for such a slip of a woman to carry.

Piper let out a soft huff. “I’m ready, sir.”

Christ, he’d missed that beautiful Welsh lilt. “You’re running the machine tonight, Miss Smith?”

Piper’s gaze finally returned to his. The dark brown of her eyes hadn’t yet faded. In fact, they hardly looked touched. Samuel swallowed his sorrow that one day her eyes would become a shallow reflection of their current state. White, lifeless in their gaze.

“I am.” A wave of regret flowed from her, a palpable press of emotion against Sam’s oversensitive mind. They both knew he didn’t want to watch what was about to happen. “Sergeant, am I clear to begin?” Piper’s face went blank and the flow of her emotions stemmed. She was the only one who could do that for him. The only one who’d ever cared enough to try.

Don’t do this to yourself, Pip. You deserve more.
But he’d run and she’d stayed, and this was where they were now. “Yes, Miss Smith. Gentlemen, step back and give the lady room to work.”

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