Congratulations KJ, from ukgayromance. Much deserved!
Magic in the blood. Danger in the streets.
A Charm of Magpies, Book 2
Lord Crane has never had a lover quite as elusive as Stephen Day. True, Stephen’s job as justiciar requires secrecy, but the magician’s disappearing act bothers Crane more than it should. When a blackmailer threatens to expose their illicit relationship, Crane knows a smart man would hop the first ship bound for China. But something unexpectedly stops him. His heart.
Stephen has problems of his own. As he investigates a plague of giant rats sweeping London, his sudden increase in power, boosted by his blood-and-sex bond with Crane, is rousing suspicion that he’s turned warlock. With all eyes watching him, the threat of exposure grows. Stephen could lose his friends, his job and his liberty over his relationship with Crane. He’s not sure if he can take that risk much longer. And Crane isn’t sure if he can ask him to.
The rats are closing in, and something has to give…
On a hot summer’s night, in a small, bare clerk’s room in Limehouse, a few streets from the stench of the river and three doors down from an opium den, Lucien Vaudrey, the Earl Crane, was checking lading bills.
This was not his preferred way to spend an evening, but since his preferences hadn’t been consulted, and the work needed to be done, he was doing it.
His iron nib scratched down the paper. It was a functional, cheap pen, like the basic deal desk and the plain, sparse office. There was no evidence of wealth in the room at all, in fact, except for Crane’s suit, which had cost more than the house he was sitting in.
As Lucien Vaudrey, trader and occasional smuggler, he had made himself satisfactorily rich, and his unexpected elevation to the peerage had brought him a huge fortune along with the title. He was now one of England’s most eligible bachelors, to anyone who didn’t know or chose to disregard his reputation in China, and he was this very evening failing to attend three separate soirees at which he could have met perhaps thirty women who would be enthusiastically available for the position of the Countess Crane. On his bureau at home were several dozen more visiting cards, invitations, requests for money, requests for meetings: a thick sheaf of laissez-passer to the highest society.
He could have his pick of London’s beauties, socialise with the best people, assert his place in the top few hundred of the Upper Ten Thousand, claim the social status of which many people dreamed and for which some would sacrifice everything. He could have all that if he lifted a finger, and if someone held a gun to his head to make him do it.
Crane had spent his entire adult life in Shanghai, cheek by jowl with smugglers, prostitutes, gamblers, killers, traders, drinkers, shamans, painters, corrupt officials, slumming mandarins, poets, opium eaters and other such scum, and he loved that sweaty, vivid, intoxicated world. Polite soirees and elegant dinners with people whose achievement in life began and ended with birth held no appeal at all.
So he declined, or ignored, the invitations, because in comparison to high society, identifying where someone had shaved his shipment of Szechuan peppercorns was a much more rewarding pursuit.
Not as rewarding as the pursuit of a certain amber-eyed individual whose small, lithe, delightfully yielding body kept him awake at night, but that wasn’t an option right now because the little devil had once again vanished off to work.
Stephen’s elusiveness was a novelty for Crane, who had always found getting rid of lovers more of a challenge than picking them up, and who had never had a partner who worked harder than himself. His new level of idleness was the problem, really, since if his days were fuller he would spend less of them wondering what Stephen was up to, but to amend that by setting up a serious business would require a commitment to England that he couldn’t quite bring himself to make. Not when he had a perfectly good trading house in Shanghai, where life was easier, more comfortable, and so much more fun.
There would be no Stephen in Shanghai, of course, but then for all Crane knew to the contrary, he wasn’t in London either. He had disappeared two nights ago without a word, and would return as it suited him.
And that was quite reasonable. Stephen was a free man, and one with responsibilities that made Crane’s international business look like a casual pastime. They both had work to do, and since Crane had never tolerated lovers who expected him to put aside his business for their entertainment, he was hardly going to make those demands on Stephen’s time. It was merely irritating that the boot was so firmly on the other foot, for once; that it was Crane waiting for Stephen to turn up on his own unpredictable schedule, knowing that he would offer no more than a lopsided, provocative smile as explanation for his absence.
Thinking of his lover’s irresistible foxy grin led Crane to a moment’s consideration of more interesting uses his desk could be put to. He concluded that the damn thing would doubtless fall apart under the stresses he intended to apply as soon as he got his hands on the little so-and-so, and on that thought, at last spotted where the factor’s well-massaged figures didn’t quite work.
Not a bad effort, he reflected, and a nicely judged theft, enough to be worthwhile for the factor, and quite tolerable for Crane as part of a very competently handled bit of business. He nodded, pleased. The man would work out well.
As events unfold, Curtis realizes that Daniel has his own secret intentions. And there’s something else they share—a mounting sexual tension that leaves Curtis reeling.
As the house party’s elegant facade cracks to reveal treachery, blackmail and murder, Curtis finds himself needing clever, dark-eyed Daniel as he has never needed a man before…
The burglar moved forward in total silence, progress only indicated by the movement of the light. He was coming towards the storage-room door at the back of the library, where Curtis stood. A little closer, and he could spring on the fellow. He readied himself for action.
The light travelled up, over the desk, and stopped with a jerk on the dark lantern that Curtis had left there. He tensed, and the light swung round and beamed directly into his face.
Shocked, blinded but unhesitating, Curtis launched himself forward, left fist leading into—nothing, because the intruder wasn’t there. He heard the faintest whisper of movement, and a hand was clapped over his mouth, warm fingers pressing against his lips.
“Dear me, Mr. Curtis,” murmured a voice in his ear. “We really must stop meeting like this.”
Curtis froze, then as the smooth hand moved from his mouth, he hissed, “What the devil are you playing at?”
“I might ask you the same.” Da Silva was right behind him, body pressed close, and his free hand slid, shockingly intimate, over Curtis’s hip.
He shoved a vicious elbow back, getting a satisfying grunt from da Silva as he made contact, although not as hard as he’d have liked, but when he turned and grabbed where his opponent should have been, he found only empty space. He glared into the dark, frustrated.
“Well, well.” Da Silva’s low voice came from a few steps away. The little light flicked on again. Curtis moved towards it, intending violent retribution, and stopped short as he saw what it was illuminating. His skeleton keys, in da Silva’s hand.
“You picked my bloody pocket!”
“Quiet.” The beam of light flickered off the keys, around the room and over the desk. “Don’t shout, and please don’t start a fight. Neither of us wants to be caught.”
Enragingly, that was true. “What are you doing in here?” demanded Curtis, trying to keep his voice as low as da Silva’s murmur.
“I was going to break into Sir Hubert’s storage room. And, given the skeleton keys and dark lantern, I think you had the same idea.”
Curtis opened and shut his mouth in the darkness. He managed, “Are you a thief?”
“No more than you. I suspect we may have shared interests, unlikely as that may seem.”
“It seems damned unlikely to me!”
“And this is likely?” Da Silva beamed his light at the dark lantern. “Archibald Curtis, late of His Majesty’s service, a Boy’s Own Paper reader if ever I saw one—a burglar? I don’t think so. I certainly hope not. You’re dreadful at it.”
Curtis seethed. “Whereas you’re a natural, I suppose.”
“Keep your voice down.” Da Silva’s voice was only just audible, entirely controlled.
“Give me one reason I shouldn’t raise the house,” Curtis said through his teeth.
“If you were going to, you’d have done it already. Two choices, Mr. Curtis. Do the decent thing, shout for help, and watch me spoil your plans while you spoil mine. Or…”
He could hear the purr in da Silva’s voice. “Or I could open that door.”
Curtis didn’t reply, because he could think of nothing to say. Da Silva went on. “If we have common interests, we’ll find out when we’re in there. If we don’t, well, I shan’t stand in your way and I trust you won’t stand in mine. If neither of us finds what we seek, we’ll apologise to our host in thought, and pretend this never happened. But all of that depends on getting through that door. What do you say?”
It was outrageous. He ought to tell him to go to the devil. It was unthinkable that he should ally himself to this bounder.
What he said was, “Can you open it?”
“Probably. May I?” Da Silva moved to the dark lantern and flicked the slide to shed light on the door lock. He handed the flashlight to Curtis as though they were regular partners. “Take this and listen out.”
Da Silva dropped to his knees by the door, silhouetted in the light from the dark lantern. Curtis bent closer and saw he was manipulating long, slender pieces of metal.
“Are you picking that lock?” he demanded.
“Is that worse than using skeleton keys?”
“You are a thief!”
“On the contrary.” Da Silva sounded unruffled. “My father’s a locksmith. I learned his trade in my cradle. Some day I shall give you his views on the uselessness of skeleton keys. I trust you didn’t pay too much for them.”
Curtis bit back an angry response, knowing it would be bluster. Da Silva’s slim fingers moved, steady, skilful and unhurried.
The house was silent, only his own breathing audible. Feeling useless, Curtis flicked on the flashlight, admiring the strength of its beam. The newfangled things tended to be weak and unreliable, but this was an impressive piece of kit; he should like to examine it when he had a chance. He played the light over the door, checking for other locks or bolts in lieu of anything better to do, and his eyes widened as the light caught something that he hadn’t noticed before.
“Da Silva,” he hissed.
“Da Silva.” Curtis grabbed his shoulder, digging his fingers in. The dark head swung round, black eyes unfriendly.
“That.” Curtis circled the light on his discovery.
Da Silva was still on the floor, holding his picks in the lock, looking up at the unobtrusive metal plate on the door with no sign of understanding. Curtis knelt to bring their heads level, and felt a stab of pain and weakness in his kneecap as his leg bent. He grabbed for da Silva’s shoulder to steady himself, leaning on the kneeling man, and heard him give a very slight grunt of effort as he took Curtis’s weight.
Curtis lowered himself to the floor, hand still gripping the slender shoulder that seemed stiff with effort or tension, and whispered into da Silva’s ear, feeling the warmth of his own breath bounce off the skin so close to his mouth. “Wire running to the door. Metal plate on the frame and the door. It’s an electrical contact. If you open the door, you’ll break the circuit.”
“I think it might be an alarm.”
Da Silva’s body went rigid under Curtis’s hand. “Well,” he breathed. “How thrillingly modern. Doesn’t want us to get in there, does he?”
Curtis would have voiced a strong objection to “us”, but that was drowned in the rush of sensation along his nerves. If Sir Hubert was really hiding something… If Lafayette had been right…
If that was the case, no matter that the man was his host, and elderly. He would break his damned neck.