Poison or Protect – Gail Carriger

Gavin knew who she was the moment he saw her. He also knew there was a good chance he would have to kill her. Assuming, of course, she didn’t kill him first. Lady Preshea Villentia. The Mourning Star. Widowed too many times under suspicious circumstances, too smart to be caught, and too beautiful to be ostracized. She was like opiates – expensive, intoxicating, and deadly in large doses. He wasn’t sure exactly how he knew it was Lady Villentia. They’d never been introduced. They didn’t attend the same social functions (her circles being more rarefied than those of a mere army captain). Also, she was standing with her back to him. Yet he did know her. He’d read the papers and dismissed their breathless descriptions as romanticized nonsense. He’d seen the sketches and assumed a great deal of artistic license. To his chagrin, he realized now that neither had done her justice.

She moved into profile. The lady was a porcelain doll, perfect in every detail, delicate as fine china and no doubt more costly. Yet she directed the porters with the sure command of any field marshal. She must be attending the same house party. There was no other reason for a woman of such exalted skills to disembark at a country station. It was reasonable to assume her ultimate destination was the Snodgrove gathering. And equally reasonable to assume, Lady Villentia being an assassin, that she was there to kill the duke. Which meant Gavin was there to stop her. She turned into the light. It wasn’t that a chorus of angels opened up and sang.

Nor did pixies sprinkle fairy dust in his vision. For the day was all gloom and grey, and the engine of the train was as smelly and loud as may be. Gavin, however, was horrified to feel his world start to shift, right under his massive boots. Usually, he was brick-wall steady, and brick-wall solid. But now his entire body, like a magnet to iron, centered on Lady Villentia. Lust, is it? Isna that convenient? Hell’s waistcoat. Her figure was neat and slender under a green carriage dress of pure simplicity with gleaming jet buttons down the front. She wore a little velvet hat, as dark and glossy as her hair. She lifted one hand to test its presence, showing black leather gloves. “My, my, that one has stepped off the pages of a French fashion periodical.

” Jack followed Gavin’s gaze and was struck as well, although perhaps not quite so dumbstruck. “Nay. Too wee for that,” Gavin was moved to grumble. Jack laughed, a spark of joy that caught the lady’s attention. Fortunately, Jack then lowered his voice. “Yes, yes, you like more to grab hold of.” Gavin was known amongst his friends for his abhorrence of tiny females. But such a widely stated preference suddenly seemed absurd. Every part of Lady Villentia was covered but for her heart-shaped face – white and emotionless. A ceramic doll in truth and likely just as cold.

Except there… For one unguarded moment beneath all that beauty, her eyes flashed a depth of misery he’d seen only in the worst slums. She blinked and it was gone. Jack continued, “That one looks more wax than human. Were it not daylight, I’d think her vampire.” Gavin did not point out the idiocy of that statement. Even were it night, no female vampire traveled. Queens could not leave their hives. He had to presume Jack knew this, or his friend was thicker than treacle. Luggage accumulated, they all moved towards the exit. Yet they were a thousand miles apart for lack of introduction.

Lady Villentia even walked beautifully. Gavin found himself, preferences be damned, imagining what it might like to unbutton that dress. One jet bead at a time, from top to bottom, until he knelt at those tiny feet. Are ye daft? he reprimanded himself. Assassin? A private dirigible awaited them outside the station. The Duke of Snodgrove, a consummate host, had seen fit to provide the most modern conveyance. Gavin could have wished him to perdition. He detested floating, and had hoped for something faster after so long a train ride. Dirigibles were all well and good if one wanted to waft about the countryside, taking in views. Gavin wanted his tea.

And not to have to kill Lady Villentia. But tea first. The lady in question regarded the Snodgrove crest with her head cocked, showing a slender white neck. At their approach, she turned with a practiced smile. “I believe we may be traveling together, gentlemen. To Bickerstung Manor?” Gavin and Jack responded as expected, with bows of agreement. Gavin thought her smile slightly painful, both for her to give and for him to receive. The sorrow in it hurt the space between his eyes. Verra inconvenient. The jet buttons winked at him.

It was for her to continue. “Might we dispense with the formalities? Otherwise, it will make for an awkward float. I believe our host is under the mistaken impression that we are already acquainted.” She spoke with such precision. Her pert lips slaughtered each word as it left her mouth. Gavin recovered his voice. “Oh, aye? And why is that, lass?” “I believe he thinks everyone knows me.” At which juncture Jack, the nincompoop, blurted, “Good God, you’re the Mourning Star, aren’t you?” * * * Preshea refused to hope that her target was the larger gentleman. He looked like some minor Greek god, all rock-hewn inertia. Admittedly, since it was drizzling, a damp god.

Yet she had hoped. When he spoke and his accent proved to be nested firmly in the Highlands, a part of her was crushed with disappointment. This was not her target. This was the target’s inconvenient Scottish friend. Which meant she must focus on the other man, the lanky one with the foolish smile. Pity – she gave a small sigh – I’d have enjoyed climbing Mount Olympus. Olympus winced when his friend titled her with that ridiculous moniker. Sensitive mountain. She issued a tinkling laugh, not too brittle, just enough to subtly hint that she was hurt but not angered – playing upon sympathies. “Jack, dinna be an idiot,” barked the Scotsman.

Preshea assessed him from under her lashes. He held himself like a soldier, with the confidence of a man who has nothing to gain or lose in any given social situation. He was, without doubt, a danger to her schemes. “Pray do not concern yourselves. I’m aware of the regretful stylings of the popular press.” In point of fact, Preshea was proud of Mourning Star. It had taken two dead husbands before they called her anything special at all, and when it stuck through the next two, she knew herself to be infamous. It could have been worse; some of her American counterparts got monikers like Black Widow. Absolutely ghastly. The Scotsman gave his companion another quelling look and then doffed his hat.

“Captain Ruthven, at your service, Lady Villentia.” His hair was brown. However, dry and in the sunlight, it might be flecked with gold. He gestured with one massive hand. “This feckless blighter is Mr Jackson.” Preshea bowed her head graciously. “Captain Ruthven, Mr Jackson, delighted. Shall we get on? If we make good time, we may arrive before tea. Captain, if you wouldn’t mind, my bags?” The Scotsman gave her a measured look. She widened her eyes, keeping them soft and limpid, knowing that even the best of men were prone to sink into them.

He did not succumb, did not even look dazed, only inclined his head and went to supervise the loading of the luggage. This, as Preshea intended, ensured that Mr Jackson must assist her into the dirigible and see her settled. “Traveling without your maid, Lady Villentia?” “Afraid for your reputation, Mr Jackson? Or mine? How thoughtful. I’m afraid the deed is done. That very reputation ensures I’m rarely impinged upon.” Reminding him of her history might be going a step too far, but the young man laughed as if she had made a rollicking joke. “I’m not afraid of you.” She smiled then and watched his eyes dilate. Too easy. Why is it always so easy? “I should hope not, Mr Jackson.

A gentleman like yourself would never be influenced by the base opinions of scandalmongers.” “Exactly so, my lady.” He puffed with pride. “So, shall we be friends?” Mr Jackson was delighted by this premature offer. “At once!” The Scotsman joined them. His large frame shook the dirigible, tilting it towards the ground as he hauled himself inside. “I canna believe this contraption will float with Jack and me weighing it down. Helmsman?” “No fear, milord.” The helmsman was visible out the back window, directing the aircraft. He drew up the mooring rope.

They bobbed easily into the air. Captain Ruthven took great care with his movements. Here was a man accustomed to his size and circumspect about applying it. He would be deadly in a fight when he finally let those coiled muscles free. Let us hope it never comes to that. But oh, it would be glorious to see. He settled, with ill-disguised discomfort, onto the reverse bench next to his friend. Both men were big, although the captain had a good deal more mass than Mr Jackson. The dirigible bench did not easily accommodate the pair. “Well, then, gentlemen, how do you know our host?” This pleasant opening set Mr Jackson chattering – first about the Blingchesters, who would also be in attendance (the Scotsman rolled his eyes and called them “England’s foremost cadgers”) and then about the reason for his invitation.

His ladylove. The woman Preshea had been hired to prevent his marrying. “And what is her name?” Preshea deployed politeness. A long pause. Captain Ruthven grinned. “Dinna say you’ve forgotten?” Mr Jackson whacked his friend with a rolled-up newspaper. “I was marshaling my thoughts, the better to do her justice.” “Weel, now you’re in for it, Lady Villentia.” “Oh, dear, what have I wrought?” Mr Jackson found his voice. “Lady Violet is Duke Snodgrove’s eldest daughter.

She’s absolutely topping. A divine mango from heaven. Or do I mean banana from heaven? Well, she’s both. An elegant bastion of womanhood.” The flowery turn to his phrasing indicated a worrying degree of affection for the lady. Was it possible that this fortune hunter actually believed himself in love with the chit? That would be a complication. Preshea probed gently. “I myself have never met the lady. She sounds pleasant indeed.” “Prepare to be delighted,” promised the lovesick swain.

“Well, if she is so fortunate as to secure your attention, I cannot help but be so.” Mr Jackson chuckled. “I’m known as an expert judge of character.” Captain Ruthven made a pained face. Preshea was moved to be coy. “The good captain disagrees with this assessment?” “Jack is pally with everyone.” “Thus making himself agreeable through lack of discretion. You object to this approach?” “Nay. ’Tis one of his charms. I myself am na one to jump in so.

” Jack turned. “And thus you limit your enjoyment.” “You two are unlikely companions.” Preshea steered them onto a topic she knew would prove pleasurable and no doubt endear her to both. “How did you meet?” Mr Jackson jumped on the opening. “We share a club. This may shock you, but I’m as likely as not to get myself in a pickle. I was deep in the soup over a cheese bun. Ruthven rescued me and has continued to do so ever since. Stalwart chap.

” “Oh, indeed?” Preshea cast a friendly look at the big Scotsman. Was the captain like this with Mr Jackson alone, or with all his friends? A white knight could sometimes be manipulated to see her as worthy of saving. Although victim was not a role she enjoyed playing. “It began out o’ goodness and has become dire habit,” admitted Captain Ruthven. Preshea wondered if he was attending this house party in order to assist with his friend’s suit or to persuade him against it. She also wondered if he were prone to airsickness; he was looking peaky. Mr Jackson nudged the captain in a jolly way, bumping the Scotsman against the side of the cabin. The two gentlemen were quite squeezed. It was a ridiculous nicety that Preshea should sit alone, when she was half the size of either and not prone to a feeble stomach. Even as she told herself she was not concerned by the captain’s pallor, she found herself making an offer.

“Mr Jackson, why not sit next to me? It seems preposterous to insist on etiquette when the two of you are so much more than that bench allows.” “What a kind thought! But poor old Ruthven here is a bad floater – he should sit facing.” Captain Ruthven looked properly horrified. “I couldna possibly.” “Don’t be silly. You’re positively green, old chap. You know facing will help.” After further protestations, the big Scotsman shifted to sit next to Preshea. Mr Jackson slid over until he was across from her. This allowed both men to stretch their long legs.

Preshea was not opposed – it put her face to face with her target. Unfortunately, it also put that mountain of warm muscles intimately close to her. She held herself aloof, noting that the Scotsman attempted to do the same. He smells like Christmas – fresh pine boughs and spices. What right has a man to smell so good? Mr Jackson remained endearingly concerned for his friend. “If the lady doesn’t mind, I’ll pop open the window.” Preshea did not mind. The weather was unpleasant, but she welcomed fresh air. Not for the sake of the dirigible’s motion, for she was an excellent floater, having attended a finishing school in the skies. No, she wished to blow away Captain Ruthven’s intoxicating scent.

Preshea Buss! she yelled in her own head, using her maiden name, the one that hurt the most. No living man has ever brought you anything good. They are to be used, not enjoyed. Focus on the target. Captain Ruthven recovered a little of his color. “Beg pardon, Lady Villentia. I’m a sorry traveler. I’d sooner ride, but Jack tells me it isna the done thing.” “Gentlemen ride once they are in the country, Ruthven, old hat. They do not ride to the country.

” “Which seems daft.” The captain looked to Preshea for support. “Isna the purpose of country life riding?” Mr Jackson issued a gormless grin. “Yes, but one gets there by dirigible. What do you take us for? Barbarians?” Captain Ruthven’s eyes were intent. “Thus I send my lovely Rusticate into Berkshire separately with my batman, and you find me here, crowding lasses in dirigibles. I canna apologize enough.” “My dear sir, you are hardly responsible for your size.” Mr Jackson said, “Ruthven forgets that since he resigned his commission, Mawkins is his valet, not his batman.” Preshea had noticed the gaffe.

The Scotsman winced, which could be from the mistake in etiquette, or something more sinister. Was he still in military employ, perhaps in some secret capacity? Or is my training making me unreasonably suspicious? She probed. “You were in the cavalry, then?” “Nay. Coldsteam Guards. But I’m an admirer of horseflesh.” An Irregular, was he? That meant he would be exceptionally comfortable with the supernatural. “And you, lass? Do you ride?” “I can, but not well, I’m ashamed to admit.” Preshea was vaguely aware she ought to object to being called lass. After all, she had worked hard to become a proper lady. But she rather liked it, especially when delivered in that rumbling burr of his.

The voice equivalent of mulled wine, warm and heavily spiced. She moved quickly on from that thought. “My skill set is in quite the opposite direction. It is unladylike to brag, but I could steer this dirigible, if needed.” Both men looked more admiring than shocked. Good, I have judged them correctly. These were that unusual breed of male that admired a capable female. Preshea found herself in an unexpected predicament. Enjoying the float, fighting an inclination for the wrong man, and having a genuine affection for both. They seemed so very decent.

This is ridiculous. I don’t like people. I certainly don’t like men! It was highly inconvenient. However, she would ignore it as she had ignored all such inconveniences over the years. * * * Gavin watched as the footman handed Lady Villentia down from the dirigible. Jack jumped down after. Gavin followed. He heard the poor footman whisper under his breath, “Crikey,” and gave a tiny nod of sympathy. I ken how you feel, lad. The Duke and Duchess of Snodgrove stood waiting to receive them.

“Welcome. You are the last to arrive.” The duke was one of those remarkable politicians who looked exactly like his caricature – tall, stooped, and lined. “With tea near to serving.” His lady wife had an eye to the practicalities. “You are timely.” The Duchess of Snodgrove was the opposite of her husband. Her features were delicate and her form well padded. She looked like the human representation of a comfortable settee. Lady Villentia gave an elegant curtsey of the exact correct depth for a duke and his duchess.

Gavin was impressed. He might act and sound provincial (it worked in his favor, to be constantly underestimated), but he’d attended Eton and knew all the forms. Her delivery was perfection itself. “It is your dirigible that has seen us safely here. Thank you for the kind attention, Your Grace.” She slid as smoothly into the role of guest as she had into that of fellow traveler. Overly perfect. “Not at all.” Their host turned to his wife. “My dear, you know Lady Villentia?” “I know of her, of course.

” The duchess’s tone was frosty. Interesting. The addition of the widow to our party must be the husband’s idea. Gavin was seized with a crushing thought: Is Lady Villentia Snodgrove’s mistress? He shook it off. The Duke of Snodgrove was known for his devout leanings. How is Lady Villentia acquainted with such a man? And is she really here to kill him by his own invitation? Perhaps she has a dif erent target? Gavin dared not allow himself to hope, but he must entertain the possibility. If danger to the duke were coming from another source, he could not focus solely on the known assassin. Much as her buttons might wink and her eyes hide a well of sorrow. “I see you have already met your fellow guests. Captain Ruthven, Mr Jackson.

” This time, the duke’s voice was cold. So, Jack may be the son of a family friend, but his suit is na welcome. And I’m guilty by association, or by birth. There were always some who simply did not like Scotsmen. Gavin watched closely as the duke gave the widow the tiniest of nods. Is the duke her employer? Is it possible he knows of his own danger and has hired her as protection? Nay. Such a man wouldna take a lass to bodyguard. There must be somewhat else between them. Lady Villentia (a consummate professional) did not acknowledge Snodgrove’s nod. Naught for it, thought Gavin, I’ll have to find out the truth myself.

No hardship to throw myself on such a sword – she cuts with a bonnie sting. But before he could intercede, Jack offered Lady Villentia his arm, to the duke’s obvious delight. Interesting. Gavin followed them all into the house. Let the game begin.

.

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