Stranger


The Blades of the Rose:
Book 4
From Zebra Books
ISBN-10: 1420106821
ISBN-13: 978-1420106824

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He protects the world’s magic—with his science.  But even the best scientists can fall prey to the right chemistry…

LOOKING FOR TROUBLE
Gemma Murphy has a nose for a story—even if the boys in Chicago’s newsrooms would rather focus on her chest.  So when she runs into a handsome man of mystery discussing how to save the world from fancy-pants Brit conspirators, she’s sensing a scoop.  Especially when he mentions there’s magic involved.  Of course, getting him on the record would be easier if he hadn’t caught her eavesdropping…

LIGHTING HIS FUSE
Catullus Graves knows what it’s like to be shut out: his ancestors were slaves.  And he’s a genius inventor with appropriately eccentric habits, so even people who love him find him a little odd.  But after meeting a certain red-headed scribbler, he’s thinking of other types of science.  Inconvenient, given that he needs to focus on preventing the end of the world as we know it.  But with Gemma’s insatiable curiosity sparking Catullus’s inventive impulses, they might set off something explosive anyway….


“The fight between good and evil has never been so smart or so sexy.”–Meljean Brook, author of The Iron Duke

“This series is different from anything I have read before.  Fun stories with likable characters you want to see succeed.  Stranger finishes this particular story arc wonderfully.”–Yummy Men and Kick Ass Chicks

Gemma Murphy blinked in astonishment when Catullus strode over to her.  Clearly, she hadn’t anticipated him approaching.  He said nothing as he pulled off his plush, warm coat and then draped it over her shoulders.  The overcoat was far too big for her, naturally, its hem now grazing the deck.

She also did not speak, but stared up at him.  Her slim pale hands held the lapels close.  Catullus cursed himself again when he saw that she was shivering slightly.

“Don’t you have a decent coat to wear?” he demanded, gruff.

“It got lost somewhere between Winnipeg and New York.”  Her voice, even out here in the hard wind, resounded low and warm, like American bourbon.

“Then get another.”

Again, that little smile.  “Lately, I haven’t had the funds or time to see a dressmaker.”

He had the funds, thanks to the Graves family’s profitable side-work providing manufacturers with the latest in production technology.  And, even though time was in short supply, Catullus had managed to squeeze in an hour with one of Manhattan’s best tailors, where he’d purchased this Ulster and three waistcoats.  He usually avoided ready-made garments, but an exception had been made in these unusual circumstances, and the coat had been modified to his specifications.  Catullus didn’t patronize bigots, either, but if the color of his skin had bothered the tailor, the color of Catullus’ money won out.

“Then perhaps you oughtn’t stand out on the coldest part of the ship,” he suggested dryly.

Looking up at him with her bright azure eyes, she said, “But I like the view.”

Did she mean the sea or him?  Damn it, he never could tell when a woman was saying something flirtatious or innocuous.  Catullus didn’t have his friend Bennett Day’s skill with women—nobody did, except Bennett, and now Bennett was happily married and miles away.  So all Catullus could do was blush and clear his throat, wondering how to answer.

Flirting was a skill he never mastered, so he plowed onward.  “Why do you keep following me?” he asked.

“That’s cocky,” she answered.  “Maybe you keep following me.  This isn’t such a large ship.”

“I’ve been followed enough know when it happens.”  And had just as many bids on his life.
Though he doubted Miss Murphy would try and stick a knife into his throat, which happened far too regularly.

Her eyes did gleam, though.  “Have you been followed before?  How many times?  By whom?  How did you elude them?”

“No one ever forgets you’re a reporter, do they?”

Her laugh was even more low and seductive than her voice.  “I never do.  Why should anyone else?”

True enough.  “As I said before,” he pressed, “you will get no more from me, nor from Astrid or Lesperance.  There is no story.”

“There most definitely is a story, Mr. Graves,” she corrected smartly.  “And either you tell it to me, or I’ll conduct the investigation on my own.  But I will get everything.  I’m quite tenacious.”

“So I’ve observed.”  In truth, tenacity was a quality he long prized in others and tried to cultivate in himself.  Most inventions took persistence to perfect.  Almost nothing came together with merely a whim.  If a mechanism wasn’t working precisely right, he kept at it, refining, reassessing, until he created exactly what he intended.

In the case of stubborn American reporters, he could do with a little less tenacity.

This American reporter suddenly sank her hands into the front pockets of the overcoat and sighed with appreciation.  “What a lovely coat!  I’ve never felt anything so soft.  What’s it made of?”

“Persian cashmere.”

“Bless me, how wonderful.”  She rubbed one creamy cheek against the velvet collar.  “And so many pockets.”  She examined the inside of the coat and found that, indeed, it was lined with a multitude of pockets, and all of them holding something.

“I requested them added when I purchased the coat,” Catullus said, watching her slim fingers trail over the pockets in a quick cataloguing.

“It’s so nice and warm—though,” she added with a sparkle in her eyes, followed by a lowering of reddish gold lashes, “you did me a favor by warming it for me.”

With the heat of his body.  Now sinking into hers.  The idea dried his mouth as a bolt of desire ran straight into his groin.

Catullus clenched his jaw in consternation.  Either the woman was an extremely accomplished flirt and manipulator of men, or she simply had a knack for saying things that roused his normally restrained libido.  Neither of the possibilities pleased him.

“Keep the coat,” he muttered.  “Have it sent to my cabin later.”  He started to stalk off.

“Wait, please!”

He turned at her words, knowing he was scowling and being altogether ungentlemanly, but finding it hard to stop himself.  Being played with like a puppet on a string did little to coax him into good humor.

The flirtatious cast of Miss Murphy’s face evaporated, leaving behind an expression he suspected was more true to the woman.  Instead of deliberate charm, her eyes were alight with intelligence and determination.  She gazed at him steadily, not a coquette but a woman with intent.

“I’ve been doing some thinking,” she said, “since the other night in your c-cabin.”  She stumbled a bit over that last word, as if remembering the few moments they had been alone together.  More playacting?

“I often think,” he replied.  “And find it to be a highly underutilized pastime.”

A brief, real smile flashed across her face, and Catullus saw to his dismay a miniscule dimple appear in the right corner of her mouth.  Precisely where a man might place the tip of his tongue before moving on to her lips.

“We’re in agreement on that.”  She stepped nearer.  “But what I’ve been thinking about, and can’t seem to get out of my head, is the Heirs of Albion’s goal.”

The mention of his old foes brought Catullus’ mind fully back into the present, and future.  “A British empire that encompasses the globe.”

“You’re British, aren’t you?  Wouldn’t such a goal work to your benefit?”

“I don’t believe any nation should have that much power.  And I don’t believe one government should dictate how the rest of the world conducts its business.”  Warming to his topic, he forgot to be angry with Gemma Murphy, and instead spoke with unguarded feeling.  “Further, capturing the world’s magic to ensure that kind of despotism is abominable.”

“And your friends, Mrs. Bramfield and Mr. Lesperance, they and others share your feelings.  Mr. Lesperance called them…”  She thought back for a moment.  “The Blades of the Rose.  Are you one of these Blades?”

At her question, he felt a subtle pressure, a force working upon him, coaxing him.  Tell her.  She’s trustworthy.  Just open your mouth and speak the answer.  But he shoved that force away.  An odd impulse, one he was glad he didn’t give in to.

“This conversation is over, Miss Murphy.”  Before he could take a step, she reached out and took hold of his arm with a surprisingly strong grip.

“I’m sorry,” she said quickly.  “I won’t ask more about them.  Only—don’t go.”

He rather liked hearing her say that.  Somewhat too much.  Yet, despite his brain telling him to do just that—leave and never speak with her again—he stayed.

“I also think that what the Heirs are doing is horrible,” she continued.  “Not just because they might steal or use my magic.  My Irish family in America fought against the British in the War of Independence.  Some lost their homes.  Others died.”  Her voice strengthened, grew proud.  There was no artifice here.  “It’s always been a source of honor for the Murphys, myself included.  We stood up and fought for freedom, regardless of the price.”

“A justifiable sense of pride.”

She accepted this with a nod.  “I can’t be a soldier—I don’t want to be one.  But I can do something to help, something to stop the Heirs.”

“Miss Murphy, your help is not wanted.”

She did not flinch from his hard words, even as he regretted having to say them.  She pressed, “Tell me everything.  About the exploitation of magic.  About the barbarity of the Heirs. Let me write about them.”

With a sharp movement, Catullus turned to go.  Yet she dogged him, putting herself in his path.

“You say no one will believe what I write,” she said insistently, “but I don’t think that’s true.  The public will believe, Mr. Graves.  And they won’t stand for such wickedness.  They will rise up and—”  She stopped, because he was laughing.

Not an amused laugh, but a harsh and bitter one.  “Newspapers mean nothing to these men.  They would care less if you published their home addresses and bank accounts, plus a detailed description of every crime they had ever committed.  A fly’s buzzing, nothing more.”  He stepped closer, and, judging from the slightly alarmed look on her face, he must have cut a menacing figure.  Good.  She needed to be afraid.

“And do you know what they do with flies?”  He pounded one fist into his own palm.  “Crush them.  Destroy them utterly.”

“But the public,” she foundered, “the government—”

“Can do nothing.  Not the President of your United States, and not even the Queen.  The Heirs serve her Empire, but neither she nor the Prime Minister nor all the damned members of Parliament can touch them.  They answer to no one but themselves and their greed.  And they will take a tender morsel such as yourself and make you wish all the Murphys had died in the Revolution so that you might never have been born.”

The pink in her cheeks was gone entirely.  Her freckles stood out like drops of blood upon her chalky face.  Catullus realized he had been shouting.  He never shouted.

He collected himself, barely.  A tug on his jacket, a straightening of his tie.  “I do not like yelling at ladies,” he said after a moment.  “I don’t like yelling at you.  But the moment the Heirs of Albion become aware of your presence is the day you become one of the walking dead.”

“Like you?”  Her voice did not tremble.

“Pardon?”

“Are the Heirs aware of your presence?”

“Yes.”  More than aware.  They hated him and his entire family.  Considering that the Graves clan had been supplying the Blades of the Rose with inventions and mechanical assistance for generations, the Heirs would prefer if every single member of the Graves family were cold in their tombs.

“Yet you’re still alive.”

“Because, in this war of magic, I am a professional soldier.  And you are a civilian.”

“Civilians can fight.  They did in the War of Independence.”

“This isn’t flintlock muskets and single-shot pistols, Miss Murphy.  It’s magic that can literally wipe a city off the face of the map.  And I am telling you now for the last time,” he jabbed out with a forefinger, “you are not to get involved.”

He spun on his heel and stormed away.  This time, she did not try and stop him.