King had seen the beginning of the fight. He’d been standing too far away to keep it from starting but close enough to know how it would end. The three men who had slunk up the darkened alley had been arrogant mongrels, sure of their position as the superior predator. King knew their type—malice, avarice, or a combination of both snuffing any glimmer of intelligence. He wondered if, even for a second, the men had questioned how an ebony-haired angel, dressed in dark breeches and a midnight coat, had appeared in such a filthy place and yet remained untouched and unscathed. Her cold demeanor and her utter lack of alarm should have given them at least a moment’s pause, but it appeared as though uncommon beauty and uncommon opportunity had stirred the men’s blood and rendered them oblivious to their peril. By the time King reached the mouth of the alley, the largest of the three men was already staggering against the rough stone wall, doubled over. The two remaining assailants were circling her with small knives, blood blooming into the fabric along the edges of a half dozen cuts and punctures in their clothing. They were outmatched, King knew, even if they didn’t. And the best thing for them to do would be to flee—but this had become a matter of pride. One that they would never settle to their satisfaction, if they even survived. The angel’s rapier flashed in the twilight, like a flare of lightning, and King assessed the ease and the balance with which the woman handled the long-needled blade. Someone, at some point, had given this woman the sort of technical instruction reserved for aristocratic sons. Someone with the sort of wealth and security that allowed one to fight for mere sport and amusement. An indulgent father.
A conspiring brother, perhaps. Or maybe a smitten lover. Yet the black-clad angel also wielded a knife in her other hand, the blade long and curved and stained scarlet along the edge. There was nothing aristocratic about this weapon. It was nothing less than an unadorned instrument of death, and it sat as easily in her hand as the rapier. Someone else had tutored her. Someone who had learned to fight for survival, not entertainment. Her booted feet made no sound as she circled, keeping a careful eye on the remaining two attackers. “Whore,” the taller of the two snarled, thrusting his knife toward her. She danced back, her rapier deflecting a similar offensive by the second thug as he lunged at her from the side.
“When the occasion requires,” she murmured. King tightened his hand on the smooth silver knob of his walking stick. Her face was expressionless, a mask of concentration, and to intervene now would be dangerous. A distraction could prove her undoing. The thickset assailant groaned from where he still sagged against the wall and abruptly dropped to the ground. The woman tipped her head. “Your friend is bleeding. He requires your assistance. Take him and go.” “And you’ll pay for that, ye poxy bitch, afore we go anywhere.
” “I have no quarrel with you.” Her voice was devoid of inflection. “Ye need to be taught a lesson.” A ghost of a smile touched her lips, but it was chilling. “There is nothing you can teach me that I haven’t already learned, I can assure you.” It was the shorter man who moved first, another desperate lunge with a rusty blade that should have gutted her from the side. She twisted, her curved blade sweeping down on his wrist in a flash of quicksilver. The man’s knife clattered to the stone as he crumpled, and his pitiful scream was drowned out by the infuriated roar of the man who remained standing. He came at her in a blind charge, his blade raised high above his shoulder. Fool.
From where he stood, King heard the crunch of bone as the pommel of her knife snapped his head back, blood spurting like a geyser from his nose. She spun, her leg striking down on her attacker’s low and hard at his knee. The man collapsed in an ignoble pile next to his consorts, writhing and moaning. The woman, who looked like an angel but fought like Lucifer himself, stood silently for a moment before wiping her blades on the coat of the nearest fallen man. She sheathed both weapons and, in the pale gray light, caught in profile alone against the cold stone, looked more weary than triumphant. A strange feeling curled deep through King’s chest, peculiar tendrils of…empathy? Longing? He almost took a step forward before he caught himself, swallowing hard against his momentary weakness. A woman such as this did not need empathy. And he did not need to tarry at the mouth of this stinking cesspool of an alley. He was already late. He should return across the street and to his carriage, which awaited him.
In less than four hours he would have the cream of London society in his ballroom, every greedy, grasping peer vying with every other to attain the unattainable. His auctions were as exclusive as they were legendary, and he needed to ensure preparations at his estate had been completed. Yet he remained right where he was. The woman started up the alley toward him, her steps unhurried and graceful, with the same efficiency of movement she had demonstrated in combat. She was outwardly beautiful, yes, but that was not what intrigued him. A fair face was never a good measure of motives and convictions, or principles and provocations, and it was these attributes that interested King, man or woman. He did not fool himself into believing he knew all of London’s underbelly, but a woman such as this should have caught his attention or that of others long before now— “Enjoy the entertainment?” The woman had stopped just shy of him, not looking in his direction nor looking back at the carnage she had left behind. Instead her eyes were scanning the gloomy, sodden street. “I didn’t wish to interfere,” he replied. “There was nothing I could do that you hadn’t already done.
” “Mmm.” She looked at him then, studying his face in the waning light. Up close, she was even more extraordinary than he had thought. Skin the color of dark honey, cool silver eyes, and hair like spun midnight woven in a simple plait down her back. “You have my gratitude for that.” “Your gratitude?” “For not interfering.” Her voice was husky, and traces of an indiscernible accent floated around each syllable. “I did not require your help.” “No,” he agreed as he considered her. “You expected a fight.
” “Residential hazard.” King glanced at the half-rotting sign swinging from its bracket over the door of the building edging the alley. Four crudely carved cockerels strutted across the graying boards, and King knew the gin to be abysmal inside, the lodgings worse yet. “An odd choice of accommodations for someone new to London,” he said. “New to London?” she repeated. “A bold assumption.” “Not an assumption,” he lied. She lifted a shoulder almost imperceptibly. “The Four Cocks is convenient for my purposes.” “May I ask the nature of those purposes?” He was aware she hadn’t confirmed anything yet.
“You may ask. You’re a man used to doing as he likes anyway.” She was scanning the street beyond them again, her gloved hand resting lightly on the hilt of her rapier. “But I am not required to answer.” King’s own fingers drummed on the silver handle of his walking stick as he considered her words. He glanced back down the alley to where her attackers still lay in whimpering piles of agony. “You know who I am?” he asked idly. The dark angel returned her attention to his face, her gaze impenetrable. “Does it matter?” His fingers stopped. “That depends.
” She smiled at him then, in what looked like genuine amusement. An answering flutter of pleasure stirred within him even as disquiet slid through his veins. He shoved both emotions back down with ruthless efficiency. Emotion had no place anywhere in his world. If one could not detach sentiment and passion from strategy and control, one generally ended up like the three mongrels bleeding in the alley behind them. Instead King forced himself to consider the utter insouciance she had displayed since he had first set eyes on her. It wasn’t fearlessness that she wielded with an icy calm, because he’d always equated fearlessness with stupidity, and only a fool would think this woman stupid. Those who professed themselves fearless had nothing to lose and, thus, nothing of value worth preserving. No true ambition or purpose. Those individuals had their uses, of course, but they were generally dull-witted and predictable.
Nothing like the woman who stood before him. Perhaps it was ambition, then, that this angel wielded with such expertise. Which made her dangerous as well as intriguing. “Depends on what?” she asked. “On what it is you came to London for. On what you might require.” The need to know who this woman was and why she was here was starting to prick like a sliver that couldn’t easily be removed. Insignificant in the larger picture but quickly becoming all-consuming. “What would ever give you the idea that I require something?” She moved her hand from the rapier’s hilt and smoothed her palm over the unadorned lapel of her coat. King had never appreciated men’s garments on women, yet these layers that clung to smooth curves seemed to suit her.
“Everyone needs something.” “They do, don’t they?” she murmured. “Yet need is a weakness that can be exploited. In the wrong hands, need, more often than not, ultimately leads to downfall.” Her smile hadn’t slipped, her face still a mask of amused serenity. King inhaled sharply. He might not know who this woman was, but he knew what she was—one who understood what lurked in the dark corners of the soul. Like recognized like, after all. “May I have the pleasure of your name?” he asked abruptly. “Is this something you need?” He almost smiled.
Perhaps her name was something he did need. Given that he still lingered in an alley, asking questions that he would never get real answers to, maybe he was betraying a weakness. Not one that would ever lead to his downfall, of course, but a weakness nonetheless. “Possibly,” he replied. The dark angel tilted her head, her long, ebony braid sliding over her shoulder. She considered him for so long that King didn’t think she was going to answer. “Adrestia,” she said finally. An ancient name steeped in legends of goddesses and divine retribution. It suited her here, in this moment, armed and dressed as she was. But it was not her real name.
King would have bet everything he owned on that. Because again, like recognized like. “Thank you.” “I hope it was worth it.” She smiled at him again, and before he could say anything further, she simply slipped from the shadows of the alley out into the darkening street. King did not watch her go but turned on his heel and stalked across the uneven, mucky stones to where his carriage still sat, careful not to look behind him. Litchfield Street was oddly empty at this time, caught between day and night and devoid of the creatures who inhabited both. Two of his men, who had been watching from their posts, met him as he approached the carriage. They were quick and clever, two of his best. “Do the bodies need disposing of?” The tallest gestured past him in the direction of the alley.
“No,” King said. “They are not dead. Merely stupid. But the woman—she left just before me. Do you see her now? Men’s trousers and coat, knife and rapier at her waist.” His men nodded, two sets of hard eyes tracking over King’s shoulder. “Yes.” “Follow her. Tell me where she goes. What she does, whom she speaks to.
” “Of course.” “Do not let her see you. I can’t guarantee she won’t gut you where you stand if she catches you.” “Yessir.” His men melted into the deepening shadows of Litchfield, and King pulled open his carriage door. “To Helmsdale?” his driver asked from up top. King paused, checking his pocket watch. “No,” he said. “To Covent Square first.”