The Blades of the Rose:
Book 1
From Zebra Books
ISBN-10: 1420106791
ISBN-13: 978-1420106794

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To most people, the realm of magic is the stuff of nursery rhymes and dusty libraries. But for Capt. Gabriel Huntley, it’s become quite real and quite dangerous…

The vicious attack Capt. Gabriel Huntley witnesses in a dark alley sparks a chain of events that will take him to the ends of the Earth and beyond—where what is real and what is imagined become terribly confused. And frankly, Huntley couldn’t be more pleased. Intrigue, danger, and a beautiful woman in distress—just what he needs.

Raised thousands of miles from England, Thalia Burgess is no typical Victorian lady. A good thing, because a proper lady would have no hope of recovering the priceless magical artifact Thalia is after. Huntley’s assistance might come in handy, though she has to keep him in the dark. But this distractingly handsome soldier isn’t easy to deceive…

“Zoe weaves a delightful spell…cleverly blending history and magic in new, delightful ways…”
—Elizabeth Vaughan USA Today bestselling author

“An innovative and exciting romantic adventure with just the right touch of the paranormal…”
—Jennifer Ashley, USA Today bestselling author

She and her father managed to remember their manners enough to offer Captain Huntley a seat and some English tea.  She handed the captain a cup of the steaming beverage, which he took with large, work-rough hands.  Their fingers brushed against each other.  The sensation of his touch ran through her like wild horses.  He breathed in quickly as her skin went sensitive and alive, feeling everything at once, but mostly him.

They stared at each other, manners forgotten.  A blaze there, in his golden eyes, and an answering flare within her.  Hot and sudden, like wildfire on the steppe after a dry season.
He broke the contact first, pretending to study his cup as he took a sip of tea.  Thalia tried, but failed, not to watch the shape of his mouth on the painted rim of the cup.  How might those lips feel against her skin?  She knew better than this, she chided herself, and as soon as Captain Huntley had finished his tea, she would show him the door and never see the man again.

Though he seemed to have other ideas.

“I can’t pretend to know what any of those messages mean,” he said to her father.  He glanced down at her father’s braced and bandaged leg.  “But it’s clear that you need some help.  Let me give it.”

“I thank you, Captain,” Franklin answered, “but no.  We can manage on our own.”

Batu had found a small folding camp chair, and now the captain sat in it, but the chair did a poor job of containing him.  He kept stretching out his legs and trying to fit himself into the seat that had, in the past, comfortably held Thalia, and nearly every other man who had come into their ger, but it was like trying to put a waistcoat on a tiger.

He looked at her father, then at Thalia, sitting nearby.  She struggled to ignore the leap her stomach gave when she felt his golden scrutiny.

“I doubt that,” the captain said bluntly.  “You need me.”

Thalia ground her teeth together at his presumption.  How like a military man to step in where he knew nothing and didn’t belong, and start issuing orders.

“Rest assured,” her father replied, “that we do not.  You did your duty to Anthony Morris with honor, but now you have discharged that duty and can return home to England.”

That prospect did not seem to elate Captain Huntley.  He worked the clean square line of his jaw as he contemplated the fragile china in his hand.  “Sir—” he began.

“Thank you, Captain,” Thalia said, cutting him off, and he didn’t care for that one bit.  A flare of anger gleamed in his eyes as he looked at her.  “We do appreciate your offer of help, but this is personal business.”

“Personal enough to get a man killed?”

Thalia stood.  She didn’t care if she was being rude, violating every principle of Mongol and English hospitality, but she had to get rid of the tenacious, irritating captain immediately.  It had nothing to do with her reaction towards this man.  It was purely a matter of protection.  She walked to the door and held it open.

“Thank you,” she said again in a clipped, frosty voice.  “Everything you have done has been extraordinary, but you can go no further in your task.  My father and I are perfectly capable of managing the situation on our own.”

Her father kept his expression carefully neutral, providing neither assistance nor resistance.

After a moment, a wry smile curved in the corner of Captain Huntley’s mouth and he set his teacup down on the table with a sharp clack.  He unfolded himself from the chair with surprising grace, then picked up his pack and shouldered it.  With a slight clicking of his heels, he bowed to her father with a murmured, “Sir.”  Her father, not much inclined to ceremony, took the captain’s hand and shook it.

“You stood up for Tony, which I wish I could have done,” Franklin said.  “And your honor does you credit.  Godspeed to you, Captain, and good luck.”

The captain offered no similar reply, but shook Franklin’s hand gravely.  He then strode to the door, stopping in front of Thalia.  She kept her gaze trained on the space just over his shoulder, trying to avoid that sharp jolt of sensation that came from looking into his eyes.  “I’ve sailed half way ‘round the world,” he said quietly, his voice like whiskey, rough and warm, “including chugging through the Bay of Bengal on the leakiest, rustiest and least seaworthy freighter that ever insulted the ocean, which, after the luxuries of the first steamship, did little for my constitution.  I’ve taken the most damnable journey through China, and most of my coin is now lining the pockets of every single government agent between here and Peking.”

“I am sorry about that,” Thalia said, and meant it.  “We haven’t much money, ourselves, but surely we can spare some for your return.”

He looked coldly at her.  “I don’t want sympathy and I don’t want your coin.”

“What do you want, then?”

“Tell me what Morris’s message means.”

She shook her head.  “That is one thing I cannot give you, Captain.  It would imperil not only you, but many others, as well.”

Though it clearly didn’t satisfy him, he pressed for no more.  He gave Thalia a small bow, but there was an intangible something that was deeply ironic about the gesture.  He stared at the ground for a moment, and Thalia followed his gaze to the tops of her muddy, heavy boots, which stuck out from the hem of the dress.  Yes, she was a genuine elegant English rose.  Thalia drew herself up to her full height and resisted the urge to twitch the gown’s fabric over the boots.  Their gazes met and held.  Dangerous, she thought.  He might not be a Blade, but he was a man, and not any man, but one who could inflict serious damage on her, if she let him.  She could see that plainly.  Oh, God, she was glad he was leaving.  She would have had to be on her guard constantly, had he stayed.

“Miss Burgess,” he rumbled.

“Captain,” she said coolly.

With a nod, he placed his hat upon his head and walked out into the dusk.  He never hesitated, instead moving straight and steady through the still-crowded lanes.  Without any urging on his part, the throngs parted to let him pass.  Rather than watch him disappear into the mass, which she felt possessed to do, Thalia shut the door, then turned and looked at her father.  The confines of the tent, or, more accurately, the confines of her own body, still vibrated with Captain Huntley’s presence.  He lingered there, the sun’s afterimage burned into her.

“You may be a Blade,” she said to her father, “but you also have a broken leg.  Both of mine are whole and hale.  The responsibility now falls to me.”

“Only you, my dear?”  Her father found the crutches next to his chair and pulled himself up, waving away the solicitous Batu.  He limped towards her, his expression concerned and dark.  “This will be a dangerous task.  I cannot send my only child, my only daughter, into such peril.”

“There’s no choice, father,” she answered levelly.  “I must go.”

“But you aren’t a Blade, Thalia,” he countered.  “I am.”
Thalia knew he was trying to protect her, but his words still stung.  “You cannot ride, not as fast as you need to go.  I can ride fast, I can shoot straight, and I will make sure that whatever needs protection will be kept safe.”

After a few moments, her father sighed and shook his head.  She knew then that, though he did not like it, he understood that she spoke the truth and was giving her leave to carry out the work of the Blades.  As she had longed to do ever since she was ten years old and had first learned of their existence.

She tried to make herself smile, but her heart was pounding with mingled fear and anticipation.  Nearly everything she knew about the world of the Blades had been related to her by her father or other members of the group.  Their activities were shrouded in danger and mystery.  Some Blades never returned from their missions.  She might soon be added to that number.  But there was no room for failure.  There was much more than her own life at stake.

“I set out at first light,” she announced.