I sat down under his shadow with great delight, and his fruit was sweet to my taste.
He brought me to the banqueting house, and his banner over me was love.
Stay me with flagons, comfort me with apples: for I am sick of love.
—Song of Solomon
Life was not a long, straight road, but a series of turns. Moments defined it. A hard choice, a chance meeting, a bit of bad luck, and everything changed; a new life began. Even now, at the ripe old age of twenty-one, Jack Talent had had almost as many lives as a cat. And today? Today, he felt a new change coming on. It rippled in his bones and set his teeth on edge as he faced the man before him. A man who lounged in an ornate mother-of-pearl armchair as if the whole world ought to court him. Jack suppressed a snort; over-puffed peacock was what he was.
“And why should I help Ian Ranulf?” asked Lucien Stone. Jack maintained his own casual position, leaning back in his seat as if he were perfectly comfortable in this den of iniquity. This was his first assignment, acting not as Ian’s valet but as someone he trusted to do the delicate work of social maneuvering. The problem was, however, that Jack was distracted. By a scent.
“Because he will pay you a king’s ransom for the service.” Jack let one of his brows rise, imitating his employer, as he knew the gesture was quite effective in conveying an air of detached boredom that would irritate Stone. “And we both know you’ll do anything for blunt.” Just as Jack knew that the way to play a man like Stone was not to appeal to his vanity, but to challenge it.
Stone’s lip curled as his ghostly green eyes began to glow. Odd creatures, the GIM. Their eyes could beguile you or haunt your soul. “Quite forward of you, Mr. Talent.” He ran a finger along his chair arm. “Ian is teaching you well.”
Which was neither here nor there. Jack had an assignment to complete, and he’d do Ian proud by not bungling it. Damn, but that elusive scent had him by the cods. It wasn’t Stone; he reeked of the lime cologne popular among London toffs at the moment. No, the scent was feminine, sugar and spice, like oven-fresh butter biscuits, the sticky toffee pudding he’d loved as a child, and woman, musky and… His mouth actually watered.
Stifling a curse, he swallowed hard and braced his forearms on his thighs, keeping his expression unmoved. “Lord and Lady Archer have already been invited to the Blackwoods’ ball. Ian saw to that. They are relatives of his. The problem being that we need a female to impersonate Lady Blackwood, as the chit has taken ill. We’d prefer it to be a GIM.”
Lucien smiled then, and it was cold. “Because Archer would scent a lycan in a moment, and the ‘jig would be up’? Or because GIM are the better spies?”
GIM, otherwise known as Ghosts in the Machine, were the best spies because they had the ability to leave their bodies and roam in spirit form. A human would never notice them. Not many supernaturals could either. As for Lord Archer, the man was a recluse and stubbornly attached to the human world. He only knew of lycans, and would never suspect a GIM watched over his bride.
“Both. Now, will you do it?” Jack pulled out an obscene wad of pound notes and laid them on the table, not missing the way Stone’s eyes gleamed once more. “It’s a costume ball, so the replacement needs to resemble Lady Blackwood. Archer has never met them, at any rate. Easy work, really.”
The money disappeared into Stone’s big hand, to be swiftly pocketed. “Ian’s a fool to try to part Archer from his bride.” The devilish grin returned. “Then again, I understand his fervor. You’re too young to know it, but the lady does bear a shocking resemblance to Una.”
“So I’ve heard,” Jack said in a bored tone. Personally he agreed with Stone. Ian was being foolish. The way his employer threw himself fully into the pursuit of love and happiness disgusted Jack, if only because he knew the two sentiments to be wholly divergent, despite what the poets claimed. However, he owed Ian his life, his place in the world, so he merely stared down Stone. Besides, he did not like Stone; the man was too pretty, and too easily bought.
Lucien made a noise of amusement as he rang a small bell at his side. Across from him Jack quashed the urge to fidget. That scent. It bloody permeated the room, making him hard, making him hungry. Little fangs dropped in his mouth, a sure sign of his baser nature begging for a shift. Into what, he had no idea, nor was it advisable, nothing like bursting into the form of a werewolf or jungle cat to break up a perfectly civil meeting. Damn. Likely the fragrance belonged to a GIM. There were plenty of them aboard this massive barge anchored on the Thames. He could hear the whirring and clicking of at least six clockwork hearts.
Lusting after a Ghost in the Machine did not sit well with Jack. The whole roaming-about-in-spirit business gave him the creeps. Even so, the light tap of feminine heels coming down the hall had his gut tightening in anticipation. Was it she of the delicious scent?
The door opened, and in walked a woman. Beautiful creature, with black hair and gleaming blue eyes. Frighteningly, she bore a shocking resemblance to Lady Blackwood. But Jack sagged with disappointment. She smelled of roses and cherries. Perfectly lovely, but not what made him want to bite down on soft, smooth skin, or sink into hot, tight… Clearing his throat, Jack eyed Stone as another, far more important thought hit him. “You knew I’d be coming here.”
Lucien’s teeth flashed in the lamplight as the woman perched next to him on the chair. “A bit of advice, Mr. Talent, on the GIM. It is useless to try to hide from us.” Stone’s arm wrapped about the woman, and she gave him an indulgent smile, which he returned as he spoke to Jack. “We’ll always find out your secrets.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Jack murmured, not amused.
Despite Jack’s disquiet, the rest of their meeting went quickly, with Jack giving the woman Annabelle instructions as to how Ian wanted Lady Archer watched at the ball. And then he was alone in Stone’s decadent dining room with its saffron-silk-lined walls, ornate Moroccan lamps, and a table laden with rich food that no one had touched. Stone had excused himself for a moment to discuss details with Annabelle. Jack ought to have gone then, but had found himself accepting Lucien’s offer of a drink. He couldn’t explain the action, only that the bone-deep feeling of anticipation lingered. Why did his instincts clamor for him to stay? And what of that maddening, gorgeous, damned distracting scent? Why did it seem vaguely familiar?
The door opened again and a warm, musical voice danced through the air.
“Lucien, do you know where—” A young lady halted as she spied Jack. Eyes the color of honey in sunlight widened as a small, shy smile lifted the corners of a pink mouth that ought to be named a deadly sin. “Oh, hello. I did not see you there.”
Jack sat rooted to his chair, dumbstruck. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, and saints preserve us. It wasn’t merely her scent swirling around him in a dizzying rush and lighting his flesh with the fires of lust. She was the most beautiful, utterly delectable female he’d ever laid eyes on. Claws sprang from his fingertips and sank into the hard wood of the chair arms with a series of sharp cracks.
The young woman frowned at the sound, a small knitting of delicate golden-brown brows. “I’m sorry to intrude. You’re here to see Lucien, yes?”
She took a step closer, and his nostrils flared, his body growing harder than oak. God. Speak, you bloody idiot.
“Yes.” He cleared his throat. “No.” Charming, Talent. Is it any wonder Ian calls you a social clod? He unclenched his hands and stood. “Rather, we’ve concluded our business. He ought to be back any moment, if you are looking for him.”
She gave a small shake of her head, sending the curling tendrils about her heart-shaped face trembling. “It can wait.” Her topaz eyes went to the drink by his hand. “I see he’s extended his hospitality. A bit of warning”—her cheeks plumped—“do not try the wine. It is drugged.”
“Ought you to be giving away trade secrets?” he asked with a laugh. The gleam in her eyes was infectious, for he was suddenly lighthearted, which wasn’t at all common. He felt, well, right for lack of a better word. This woman, she was familiar to him in a way that made him breathe easily and yet tighten with a strange sort of dread. Who was she?
She came closer, leaning a hip against the table. Burnished satin lovingly encased her slim form. His hands itched to run along that fabric, feel where she was soft and where she was fragile. But there was nothing fragile about the look she gave him. It was a fleeting thing, a quick assessment that licked along his body as surely as if she’d stroked him, and was gone as she lowered her lashes and sank her teeth into her bottom lip. He wanted to be the one biting her.
“You seem a nice sort,” she said softly, and wholly ignorant of the fact that she’d rendered him breathless. “I hate to think of you waking in some alleyway with your trousers around your ankles.”
A choked sound left him. “He’d do that?”
Her grin was wide. “Lucien does enjoy his jokes.”
“So no drinks then,” he muttered, pushing away his brandy glass for good measure.
She laughed. The sound was low, husky, entirely incongruous with her feminine sweetness, and it made him harder than he’d any right to be. “Oh, but the rest of it is all right.” She ran a slim finger along the edge of the table, inspecting the bounty of rolls, roasts, potatoes, and cakes. Her fine nose wrinkled at the bridge. “Though nothing that tempts me. Lucien likes his savories. He believes such treats to be more provocative.” She sighed. “What I wouldn’t give for a sweet pear or a crisp apple.”
“ ‘Comfort me with apples, for I am sick of love.’ ” Jack’s face heated the moment the words were out. But again she smiled, her face flushed with pleasure, and that made his heart sing.
“Yes, precisely,” she said.
“I’m Talent, by the way.” He made a leg. “Mr. Jack Talent, at your service, miss.”