A fanged monster.
A device that could save lives or shatter worlds.
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Cait McCullough, venom expert, is trouble personified. Bored with exploring the possibilities of her unique biology in a laboratory, she longs for excitement. And investigating a vicious fanged creature who stalks its victims by lamplight in darkest London offers the perfect opportunity. Working with a handsome, unmarried agent? A delightful bonus.
Jonathan “Jack” Tagert battles enemies shrouded in darkness. While chasing suspects was once second nature, impending blindness threatens his line of work. The timing couldn’t be worse. When a deadly attack upon a lord at his brother’s engagement ball connects to a string of odd murders, the hunt begins for a seductive predator.
Bound together by societal scandal, they must trace the creature’s past. Every clue spirals them deeper into peril as they struggle to separate fact from myth. As the venomous truth slithers near, the fight to survive draws Jack and Cait ever closer. With lives on the line, and time running out on Jack’s dimming vision, the pair must untangle a mystery to stop the body count from rising.
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99K words | 484 pages | June 10, 2021
- Heroine with Unusual Talents
- Hero's a Spy?
- Forced Marriage
- Disturbing Deaths
- Road Trip
Chapter One Look Inside
Chapter One Look Inside
London, May 1885
Any minute now.
The steam orchestra played the opening bars of a Viennese waltz, turning all eyes away from the magnificence of the refreshments table.
All save his.
Jonathan “Jack” Tagert kept the ice sculpture of a phoenix rising from its ashes at the edge of his vision. An extravagant artistic display that presented an easily exploitable weakness. Odds were low that anyone would notice when hydrogen gas began to slowly drift upward from beneath the fragile icy feathers constituting its base.
“Isn’t Lady Mildred perfection?” Beside him, his mother’s lips curved into a smug smile as her oldest son led his bride-to-be and future viscountess onto the ballroom floor. “With her heart-shaped face and rosebud mouth, she could grace a postcard in a bookseller’s shop window.” Her chin lifted. “Their wedding will be the talk of the ton. It’s a shame your sister fell victim to temptations presented by the duchess. Angela would have done much better with one of Lady Mildred’s discarded admirers.”
He flattened his lips. On the first point, they agreed. His sister’s impulsive wedding was ill-conceived. Not that he could discuss Angela’s motivations. Or presumed whereabouts. As to Lady Mildred’s other suitors? Milk sops, all of them.
“An appealing visage,” he answered his mother. “But it’s her curves that won her a proposal. She appears fertile enough.”
Strip away her clothing, and a dank, dark hole of a shop on Holywell Street would sell you the same image at a considerably higher price point. A fact that explained a certain predatory gleam in his brother’s eyes.
Thwack. His mother snapped her fan down upon his wrist. Built with iron staves, it was rather more sturdy than it looked. When she was truly mad, hairline fractures of the wrist became a decided possibility. “We do not utter such words aloud!”
Unflinching, for he would not give her the satisfaction of a reaction, Jack stared out over the whirl of colorful ballgowns and black dress coats, irritated that the faulty peripheral vision of his left eye made tracking familiar faces more difficult. He closed his eyes for a moment, took a deep breath, and returned to needling his mother. “Is that not what precipitated his reform?” he asked. “The quest for an heir?”
His brother, Viscount Aubrey, was her favorite, absorbing all her love and devotion, no matter how often he tempted the grim reaper. He was the handsome one. The charming one. The amusing one.
Mother stiffened. “It is his duty.”
“One my brother has spent a lifetime avoiding. Why the sudden turnabout?”
Spoiled rotten, his mother’s beloved child had reached adulthood and embarked upon a life of self-absorption and debauchery. Until a few months past, his every action seemed aimed at accelerating his trajectory into a coffin.
Not even the death of their father a few years past—revealing the dismal state of the family finances—had slowed the pace of Aubrey’s revelry. He’d been content to let Jack wrestle with outstanding debts and mismanaged investments while their mother, dismissive of her spare’s efforts, worked to acquire a wealthy young American bride for her eldest. A well-established technique to buttress the deterioration of funds and smooth the cracking veneer of a family’s genteel façade.
When orders to depart for Austria arrived, an assignment that would occupy him for several months, Jack had dropped the account books on his brother’s lap, frustrated, irritated and expecting catastrophe.
“Perhaps it is because he is now free to choose his own bride,” Mother suggested on a huff.
“And how is that, exactly?” For Jack had returned to London to find the family coffers were once again full.
How else to explain this ball or his brother’s bride-to-be? English, possessed of an impeccable family tree and, to all appearances, raised in the countryside on milk and honey. Sweet. Young. Innocent. And in for a world of disappointment.
“It is none of your concern.” His mother’s gaze remained fixed upon the waltzing couple. “Suffice it to say Aubrey has come into his own.”
“Mmm.” Jack harbored serious doubts.
Outwardly, nothing seemed amiss. Aubrey behaved exactly as society expected of a lord. But taking a wife was merely a bit of novelty. A distraction. Once the shine wore off, tried and true patterns would reassert themselves. They always did.
Especially when his brother’s old school chums were about.
Dr. William Oakes might hold a medical degree and project maturity and dignity, but he was no stranger to the hedonistic. Though not ton, he moved among the self-important by virtue of the successful medical practice he’d built by catering to their every need and whim. Even now, he lurked about the edges of the room, ingratiating himself with mothers of unsuccessful debutants in hopes of plucking low-hanging fruit to secure himself a blue-blooded wife.
At the other end of the spectrum was Stephen Carruthers, son of Lord Saltwell. Married. Father. A second child on the way. Yet Jack could not recall a single time when the man was fully sober. Even now, he kept his feet beneath him by propping himself against a column, his only ambition in life to ensure the flask tucked in his pocket never ran dry.
Together, the three of them rarely found their beds before dawn.
Jack let his gaze drift back to his brother’s waltzing form.
Maintaining an outward guise of respectability was too much of a struggle. Any day now, Aubrey would lose the fight, reach for a brandy tumbler, another man’s wife, a morphine-filled hypodermic syringe—possibly all three at once—and the façade would come crashing down.
Such self-indulgent behavior would not only estrange his new wife, but Aubrey would ignore whatever hare-brained financial scheme propped up his current lifestyle and the estate’s coffers would suffer a sudden and precipitous decline. One which Jack would, yet again, be called upon to repair. Venting his simmering frustration was pointless as it would only be met by denial.
Naturally, he’d attempted to investigate the estate’s current condition. Forewarned was forearmed. Yet he’d arrived at the study’s door to find a new lock. Not something a simple set of lock picks would open, but a new, shiny, firkin cincture bolt.
Insulting, really, that his brother believed such a contraption could stop him. The corner of his mouth kicked up.
Still, uncovering family secrets was not a project to undertake with steambot staff monitoring his every move, ready to sound the alarm.
Hence the need for a disaster.
Had he over-coated the sodium pellet? By now, it ought to have reacted with the ice melt. Did he need to engineer another distraction to allow him to slip, unnoticed, down the hallway and into the study?
The couple spun, and Lady Mildred glanced in their direction. Briefly, but long enough for Jack to note vacant eyes and a fragile smile, one that threatened to crack at any moment. Had she pried back the edge of Aubrey’s veneer and glimpsed the shallow emptiness of his existence beneath?
His mother’s lips pursed. “Tell me you did not attempt to dissuade Lady Mildred from this engagement.”
“What if I did?” An advantageous match made so early in the Season cast a pall of disappointment over mothers and debutants—one less title on the market. With Aubrey unavailable, the question became: who to pursue now? Already, a few speculative glances had been cast in his direction. If not the heir, what about the spare?
He hated that term, value measured in increments of perceived societal status.
“She’s in his arms, is she not?” For all the usual reasons, he presumed, for Lady Mildred had been incapable of speech in his presence.
He had tried. But how did one explain the profligate life his brother led to a lady with delicate sensibilities? Or convince her, when she clung to the idea of a title like paste to the wallpaper she dreamt of installing in the townhouse, that it wasn’t worth the price she would pay?
The engagement had been announced. A date set.
Aether help her, Lady Mildred would need the yards of pink ruffles and lace in which she was wrapped to weather the crushing blow of inevitable humiliation.
Beginning with tonight’s small disaster.
There was a soft pop.
A small, bright orange flame erupted at the base of the phoenix. A brief hiss accompanied each tiny spark of molten sodium that leapt away, all combining into a brief, hot flare that wrought irreversible damage to the ice sculpture.
Though the initial incendiary event went unremarked, there was a loud, audible crack as the ice sculpture broke free. For a moment, the bird teetered upon its pedestal, then dove—beak first—into the champagne fountain. Crystal shattered. Ladies screamed. And a torrent of golden liquid gushed over snowy white linen, flooding sugary delicacies before cascading to the gleaming marble floor beneath.
His mother threw him a brief, narrow-eyed glance before springing into action, clapping her hands and issuing orders. Damage control was her forte. With children like hers, how could it not be?
As steam footmen abandoned their posts to rush to the scene of the disaster, Jack backed away, sliding down a now unguarded and shadowy hallway off limits to guests.
Captain Jack’s Tension Torque popped the lock in a matter of minutes and a moment later, he’d located the ledgers. He shook a Lucifer lamp to life, noted the time on his pocket watch, then bent his head over the columns of numbers, not caring at all for what he found.
Expenditures were up, alarmingly so. Most of them upon luxuries. Not unexpected, but what income covered their costs?
An impressive sum deposited on a monthly basis for—he flipped backward through the pages—the past three… four… five months.
At the sixth month mark, Jack swore under his breath. No income. Instead, expenditure. Upon the construction of a building. A retreat for the wealthy. In Yorkshire.
Had Aubrey lost his mind? He must have, to invest such a prodigious amount on the Grand Menwith Hotel and Spa. A Turkish bath? Massage therapy? Recouping the outlay alone would take ages.
Jack growled. He would bet long odds that Dr. Oakes’ influence lay at the center of this madness. Who else could convince his brother to bankroll a luxurious hotel where he might offer—in addition to mineral waters—a variety of dubious medical treatments of the snake oil variety?
A glance at his pocket watch told him that the few minutes he’d allocated to his investigation had elapsed. Time to return to the festivities before his absence was noted. He slammed the ledgers closed and exited the room, re-engaging the lock.
Fuming, he stalked down the still-deserted hallway. Paused. He wasn’t the only one to have taken advantage of the phoenix’s plunge. The library’s door was ajar. Enough so that a faint moan emerged.
Rolling his eyes, he turned away. If one dragged a paramour into a deserted room for clandestine activities, the least one could do was close—
Gaahhh. A strange, strangled cry.
Jack hesitated. Not a sound he would associate with an enjoyable moment.
Bang. Crash. The sound of furniture toppling. Of a lamp shattering.
Thud. Thud. Thud. Heels drumming on the floor.
Such were the sounds of an assault.
Jack flung the door open.
A dark-haired woman in a white gown crouched upon Lord Saltwell, pinning his bucking and thrashing form to the floor. Long white fingers grasped his head, tilting the gentleman’s pale and shocked face away, her mouth latched upon his neck.
His breath froze in his lungs. Ice ran down his spine. Impossible. And yet, the evidence lay before him. The London Vampire in a scene straight from the gossip rags.
Had eyes finally betrayed him? He blinked.
“Stop!” he cried, rushing forward, ready to pry the woman from the lord’s throat.
But she sprang away, hissing, her face all but hidden.
He dropped to the floor beside her victim, not at all reassured by the man’s shallow breaths and twitching limbs.
“I didn’t know. I swear it.” Lord Saltwell’s words were the faintest of whispers. “She is evil. Her blood polluted.”
“Hang in there.” Jack pulled back the man’s collar. Two puncture wounds. Red and raw was to be expected from a so-called vampire. But the tissue surrounding the bite was rapidly swelling. That suggested poison. He shifted to keep the woman within his sights. “Help!” he yelled. “We need some help here!” He dropped his voice and spoke to the woman. “If he dies, you’ll hang.”
As he straightened, shifting his weight in the attacker’s direction, she leapt into an open window overlooking the garden. Moonlight cast her body’s curves into dark shadow against the thin, white material of her gown as a gentle breeze fluttered the ruffled lace about her wrists. A thin trickle of blood ran downward over her chin. Were those fangs?
Fine hairs upon the nape of his neck lifted involuntarily, and his heart pounded. Anyone with superstitious inclinations would think her a vampire fresh from the grave.
“It’s an end he deserves,” she hissed. Crouched upon the sill, her hands gripped its frame. With gold-rimmed gray eyes, she cast a long, seductive glance over her shoulder.
“Why?” He took a step toward her, hands upturned—a gesture offering an innocent, but false, chance at reasonable discourse. “What has he done?”
Footsteps thundered in the hall.
He lunged, grasping. But the silky hem of her dress slipped through his fingertips as she jumped.
The door slammed open. His brother barely glanced at the body upon the floor before hurling an accusation. “Jack! What have you done?”
Did his brother never tire of casting him in a bad light? “Not a damn thing and you well know it.” He made a decision in the space of a heartbeat. “Call Dr. Oakes. Lord Saltwell needs attention. I’ve a—” What exactly? “His attacker to catch.”
Turning, he jumped through the window, landing hard upon the ground. Less than fifty yards away, his quarry climbed the garden wall with surprising agility given her billowing skirts. He took off at a run, drawing his TTX pistol from its holster. He fired, but missed. Branches caught at his coat along the winding garden path, but he was gaining on her.
Until his traitorous vision concealed the uneven pavers beneath his feet. Cursing, he stumbled, just managing to stay upright.
Heart pounding, he flung himself at the stone wall and scrambled over its summit. A flash of white caught his eye as she turned a corner, dashing down a covered arcade.
Ha! There would be no escape from such a venue at this late hour. He would catch her. If not, the Beadle would. The uniformed patrolmen of the Burlington Arcade were forever present ensuring standards of propriety were met even when the stores were closed.
He rounded the corner, plunging into the arcade.
Arches overhead supported dark panes of glass that would flood the space with sunlight during the day. At night, globes of white-blue Lucifer lamps counteracted the London gloom, all reflected in the curved glass bent about the various store fronts to display the wares within.
Yet nowhere was there a fleeing female garbed in white.
Impossible. He spun, searching above and behind him. He pinched the bridge of his nose, cursing his vision. Slowly, carefully, he paced the length of the arcade, inspecting each doorway, every possible nook and cranny. Nothing.
Then he drew up short. A ventilation grille mounted between the pavement and a shop window was askew. Dammit. She’d dropped into the basement, a space where rooms led to a tunnel that shop boys might deliver parcels as no high-ranking customer was permitted to carry their own packages in this venue.
He pried the meshwork free and quickly followed, ignoring the irate Beadle’s shrieking whistle blasts and calls to “stop!”
Musty underground smells assaulted his nose as he tripped and careened around worktables, knocking shadowy contents to the floor as he raced into the tunnel. Alas, there were no fluttering white skirts to point his way. He ran its length, bursting onto the street. Gentlemen and their ladies stared, jaws agape.
“A woman,” he demanded, ignoring the insistent pounding of his head. “In white. Has anyone seen her?”
A question met by denial and apprehensive looks. No one had seen anything unusual. If the woman was loose upon the streets, she was long beyond his reach.
He punched the wall, cursing. Those few pointed words exchanged with his brother might have cost him the time needed to catch Lord Saltwell’s assailant. Grinding his teeth, he turned back into the tunnel. There was nothing else to do but rattle door handles in the hope she’d hidden somewhere within the basement rooms.
Alas, an hour later, he admitted defeat. Grim, he ducked out onto the street and pointed his scuffed shoes back toward his childhood home. Questions he couldn’t answer would await him. Rumors and gossip would fill the void. He would do what he could to mitigate the disaster for, if Lord Saltwell had met his end at his brother’s engagement ball, there would be hell to pay.
With all due haste, the Duke of Avesbury must be informed of tonight’s incident. And of his agent’s failure to secure the murderess.
Wow, this is seriously great stuff! I mean every single book that Anne writes is better than the last one. I’ve been a fan for a long time but this is absolutely her best story yet.
It’s got everything:
- a tall, dark, handsome yet clever hero with a sense of humour
- a feisty, wickedly smart and beautiful heroine who likes a challenge but carries the secret of a unique condition
- A hot romance with some super steamy scenes
- a true partnership of minds... and bodies
Side note: I love that Cait’s clothing looks oh-so-feminine but has secret pockets for vials and a kit for collecting blood and venom samples. Lol.
All the usual superlatives apply to this story like any Anne Renwick tale: fully developed and engaging characters, interesting plot with a twist, lots of cool steampunk technology, all wrapped with an enticing dash of humour and romance! And even better there is an HEA and the promise of further adventures.