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The Iron Duke

Meljean Brook - Author

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ISBN 9780425236673 | 384 pages | 05 Oct 2010 | Berkley | 8.26 x 5.23in | 18 - AND UP
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View our feature on Meljean Brook’s The Iron Duke.


First in an all-new series where seductive danger and steampunk adventure abound in the gritty world of the Iron Seas.

After the Iron Duke freed England from Horde control, he instantly became a national hero. Now Rhys Trahaearn has built a merchant empire on the power-and fear-of his name. And when a dead body is dropped from an airship onto his doorstep, bringing Detective Inspector Mina Wentworth into his dangerous world, he intends to make her his next possession.

But when Mina uncovers the victim's identity, she stumbles upon a conspiracy that threatens the lives of everyone in England. To save them, Mina and Rhys must race across zombie-infested wastelands and treacherous oceans-and Mina discovers the danger is not only to her countrymen, as she finds herself tempted to give up everything to the Iron Duke.

London, England

Mina hadn’t predicted that sugar would wreck the marchioness of Hartington’s ball; she’d thought the dancing would. Their hostess’s good humor had weathered them through the discovery that fewer than forty of her guests knew the steps, however, and they’d survived the first awkward quadrilles. But as the room grew warmer, the laughter louder, and the gossiping more vigorous, the refreshment table set the First Annual Victory Ball on a course for disaster.

Which meant Mina was enjoying the event far more than she’d expected to.

Not that it wasn’t as grand as everyone had said it would be. Despite the slowly increasing tension, the great ballroom had not begun to rip at the silk-papered seams; the restoration of Devonshire House had cost Hartington, and it showed. Candle-studded chandeliers displayed everyone to their best advantage. Discreet gas lamps highlighted the enormous paintings gracing the room but had not yet smudged the walls. Musicians played at the opposite end of the ballroom, and the violins did sound sweeter than the mechanical instruments Mina was accustomed to—and much sweeter than the hacking coughs from forty of the guests, all of them bounders.

Two hundred years ago, when most of Europe was fleeing from the Horde’s war machines, some of the English had gone with them. But an ocean passage over the Atlantic hadn’t come cheaply, and although the families who’d abandoned England for the New World hadn’t all been aristocrats, they’d all been moneyed. After the Iron Duke had freed England from Horde control, many of them had returned to London, flaunting their titles and their gold. Now, nine years after Britain’s victory over the Horde, the aristocratic bounders had decided to hold a ball celebrating the country’s newfound freedom, though they had shed no blood to gain it. They’d charitably included all of the peers who had little to their names but their titles.

At first glance, Mina could detect little distinction between the guests. The bounders spoke with flatter accents, and their women’s dresses exposed less skin, but everyone’s togs were at the height of New World fashion. Mina suspected, however, that forty of the guests could not begin to guess how dear those new togs were to the rest of the company.

And they probably could not anticipate how stubborn the rest of the company could be, despite their thirst and hunger.

At the side of the room, Mina sat with her friend and waited for the entertainment to begin. Considering her condition, Felicity might be the one to provide it. Pale blue satin covered Felicity’s hugely rounded belly, which seemed to Mina to require an enormous amount of food, not just the drink Felicity had assured her husband was all she’d needed.

With such a belly, Mina could not see how Felicity wasn’t constantly ravenous, consuming everything in her path. If no sugarless cakes were available, she might start with the bounders.

“If it has taken Richmond this long, he hasn’t found anything.” Beneath intricately curled blond hair that had made Mina burst into laughter when she had first seen it that evening—and who, thanks to her mother’s insistence, wore a similar style in her own black hair—Felicity’s gaze searched the crowd for her husband. With a sigh, she turned to regard her friend. “Oh, Mina. You are too amused. I doubt anyone will break into fisticuffs.”

“They should.”

“You think it’s an insult to supply sweet and strong lemonade? To stack cakes like towers?” Felicity rubbed her belly and looked longingly toward the towers. Mina supposed they were to have been demolished by now, symbolic of England’s victory over the Horde, but they still stood tall. “Surely, they did not realize how strongly we felt about it.”

“Or they realized, but thought we must be shown like children that we can eat imported sugar without being enslaved.”

A little more than two centuries ago, the Horde had hidden their nanoagents in the tea and sugar like invisible bugs, and traded it on the cheap. The Horde had no navy, and even though Europe had fled before the Horde, Britain was protected by water and a strong fleet of ships. And so for years, they’d traded tea and sugar, and Britain had thought itself safe.

Until the Horde had activated the bugs.

Now, no one born in England trusted sugar unless it came from beets grown in British soil and refined in a British factory—and no one had enough money to pay for the luxury, anyway. The Horde hadn’t needed sugar from them, and had left few beet farmers and fewer refineries. Sugar was as precious as gold was to the French, and Horde technology was to the smugglers in the Indian Ocean.

“You judge them too harshly, Mina. This ball itself is goodwill. And it must have been a great expense.” Felicity’s voice softened at the end, and she looked around almost despairingly, as if it pained her to think of how much had been spent.

“Hartington can obviously afford it. Look how many candles.” Mina lifted her chin, gesturing at the chandelier.

“Even your mother uses candles.”

That wasn’t the same. Gas cost nothing; candles, especially wax tapers of good quality, rivaled sugar as a luxury. Her mother used candles during her League meetings, but only so the dim light would conceal the worst of the wear. Repeated scouring of the walls removed the smoke that penetrated every home in London, but had worn the paper down to the plaster. Rugs had been walked threadbare at the center. The sofa hadn’t been replaced since the Horde had invaded England. But at Devonshire House, there was no need for candles to forgive what brighter gas lamps revealed.

“My mother will also make certain that each of her guests is comfortable.” Physically, comfortable, at any rate. She supposed her mother could not help the discomforting effect that both she and Mina had on visitors. “Goodwill should not stab at scars, Felicity. Goodwill would have been desserts made with beet sugar or honey.”

“Perhaps,” Felicity said, obviously unwilling to think so little of the bounders, but acknowledging that they could have been done better. “You look to find the worst in everyone, Mina.”

“I would not be very good at my job if I didn’t.” The worst in everyone was what led them to murder.

“You like to look for the worst in bounders. But they cannot be blamed for their ancestors abandoning us, just as we cannot be blamed for buying the Horde’s sugar and teas. It seems to me, the fault can be laid on both sides of the ocean...and laid to rest.”

No, the bounders hadn’t abandoned England—and if that were the only grievance Mina had against them, she could have laid her resentment to rest. But neither could she explain her resentment; Felicity thought too well of them, and she was too fascinated by the New World.

The bounders were part of that fascination—and they were part of the New World, no matter that they referred to themselves as Englishmen, and were called Brits by everyone except those born on the British isle.

Damn them all, they probably didn’t even realize there was a difference between English and British.

No matter what the bounders thought they were, they weren’t like Mina’s family or Felicity’s—or like those who’d been altered and enslaved for labor. Bounders hadn’t been born under Horde rule. And Mina resented that when they’d returned, they’d carried with them the assumption that they better knew how to live than the buggers did. This ball, for all that it celebrated victory over the Horde, was a reflection of what bounders thought society should be: They’d had their Season in Manhattan City and thought the tradition should continue here. It did not seem to matter that most of the peers born here couldn’t dream of holding their own ball. And although the ball provided a pleasant diversion, buggers had more important things to occupy their minds and their time—such as whether they could afford their next meal.

The bounders had no such worries. They’d returned, their heads filled only with grand ideas and good intentions, and they meant to force them onto the rest of Britain.

But their intentions did not mean they’d returned for the benefit of their former countrymen. Not at all. A good situation within Manhattan City was impossible to find, they’d run out of room on the long Prince George Island, and the Dutch would not relinquish any territory in the mainland. So the aristocrats returned to claim their estates and their Parliament seats, the merchants to buy what the aristocrats didn’t own, and all of them to look down their noses at the poor buggers who’d been raised beneath the thumb of the Horde.

Or to be horrified by them. Mina’s gaze sought her mother. Even in a crowd, she was easy to locate—a small woman with white-blond hair, wearing crimson satin. Spectacles with smoked lenses dominated her narrow face. Wide brass bracelets shaped like kraken circled her gloved arms. Currently, she was demonstrating the clockwork release mechanism to three other ladies—all bounders. Her mother twisted the kraken’s bulbous head, releasing the tentacles wrapped around her wrist. The ladies clapped, obviously delighted, and though Mina couldn’t hear what they said, she guessed they were asking her mother where she’d purchased the unique bracelets. Such clockwork devices were prized as both novelties and jewelry—and expensive. Mina doubted her mother told them the bracelets were of her own design and had been made in her mother’s freezing attic workshop.

In any case, the novelty of the bracelets didn’t divert the ladies from their real interest. Even as they spoke, they cast surreptitious glances at her mother’s eyes. One leaned forward, as if to gain a better angle to see the bracelet—and gained a better angle to see behind her mother’s spectacles. Her mouth fell open before she recovered.

Rarely did anyone hide their surprise when they glimpsed the shiny orbs concealed by the lenses. Some stared openly, as if the prosthetic eyes were blind, rather than as keen as a telescope and a microscope combined. This particular lady was no different. She continued to look, her expression a mixture of fascination and revulsion. She’d probably expected modification on a coal miner. Not the countess of Rockingham.

But if mirrored eyes still horrified her, chances were she’d never actually seen a miner. Or perhaps she’d heard the story behind her mother’s eyes. If so, the lady’s gaze would soon be seeking Mina.

Felicity must have caught the direction of her attention. “What is her goal tonight?” she asked “A husband for you, or new recruits for her Ladies Reformation League?”

Mina’s friend underestimated her mother’s efficiency. “Both.”

As efficient as her mother was, however, finding new recruits for her League had greater possibility for success. A suitable husband was about as likely as King Edward writing his own name legibly. Mina was approaching thirty years of age—nine of them free from the Horde’s control—without once attracting the attention of a worthy man. Only bounders searching for a taste of the exotic and forbidden, or Englishmen seeking revenge for the horrors of the Mongol occupation—and Mina resembled the people they wanted to exact their vengeance on.

A loud, hacking cough from beside Mina turned her head. A bounder, red in the face, lowered his handkerchief from his mouth. His gaze touched Mina, then darted away.

She turned back to Felicity with arched brows, inviting comment.

Felicity watched the man walk away. “I suppose it does not matter, anyway. They will all soon hie off to the countryside or back to the New World.”

Yes. Without the bugs, the insides of their lungs would become as black as a chimney.

They’d been made too confident by their success in America. They’d built a new life out of a wild land, taming it to suit their needs. Now, they thought they could return and reshape London—but London reshaped them, instead. The only way to stay alive in the city was to become a bugger, infecting themselves with the tiny machines that their ancestors had run from two hundred years before.

From directly beside Mina came the quiet sound of a throat clearing. She turned. A ginger-haired maid in a black uniform bobbed a curtsy. Though Mina had noted that the servants from the New World usually lowered their gazes, this girl couldn’t seem to help herself. The maid studied Mina’s face, fascinated and wary. Perhaps she’d never seen a Mongol before—or, as in Mina’s case, a mongrel. Only a few of the Horde were left in England, and even fewer lived in the New World. The Horde trade routes didn’t cross the Atlantic.

Mina raised her brows.

The maid blushed and bowed her head. “A gentleman asks to see you, my lady.”

“Oh, she is not a lady,” Felicity said airily. “She is a detective inspector.”

The mock gravity weighing down the last word seemed to confound the maid. She colored and fidgeted. Perhaps she worried that ‘inspector’ was a bugger’s insult?

Mina said, “What gentleman?”

“A Constable Newberry, my lady. He’s brought with him a message to you.”

Mina frowned and stood, but was brought around by Felicity’s exasperated, “Mina, you didn’t.”

She could determine motives of opium-addled criminals, but what she couldn’t do was follow every jump of Felicity’s mind. “I didn’t what?”

“Send a gram to your assistant so that you could escape.”

Oh, she should have. It would be a simple thing; all of the bounders’ restored houses had wiregram lines installed.

“You mistrustful cow! Of course I didn’t.” She lowered her voice and added, “I will at the next ball, however, now that you’ve given me the idea.” As Felicity smothered a laugh into her hand again, Mina continued, “Will you inform my father and mother that I’ve gone?”

“Gone? It is only a message.”

Newberry wouldn’t have come in person if it was only a message. “No.”

“Oh.” Realization swept over her friend’s expression, brushing away her amusement. “Do not keep the poor bastard waiting, then.”

The maid’s eyes widened before she turned to lead Mina out of the ballroom. She could imagine what the girl thought, but Newberry was not the poor bastard.

Whoever had been murdered was.

#

They’d put Newberry in a study in the east wing—probably so the guests weren’t made nervous by his size or his constable’s coat. Though he must have been alone in the room several minutes, he stood in the middle of the study, his bowler hat in his large-knuckled hands. Mina had to admire his fortitude. Small automata lined the study’s bookshelves. If given more than a few seconds to wait, she could not have stopped herself from winding them and seeing how they performed. She recognized a few of her mother’s more mundane creations—a dog that would wag his tail and flip; a singing mechanical nightingale—and felt more charitable toward her host. They might not have provided dessert, but they unknowingly had put food on her table.

Newberry’s eyes widened briefly when he saw her attire. She’d never worn a skirt in his presence, let alone a yellow satin gown that exposed her collarbones and the few inches of skin between her cap sleeves and her long white gloves. His gaze flicked back up so fast she might have missed his surprise if she hadn’t taken that moment to look him over.

Her coat, weapons, and armor draped over his left forearm. She could have no doubt they were leaving now, and he’d come in such a hurry he hadn’t taken time to shave. Evening stubble flanked the red mustache that drooped over the corners of his mouth and swept up the sides of his jaw to meet his sideburns. It offered the impression of a large, protective dog—an accurate impression. Newberry resembled a wolfhound: friendly and loyal, until someone threatened. Then he was all teeth.

Not every bounder who returned had a title and a bulging purse. Newberry had come so that his wife, suffering a consumptive lung condition, could be infected by the bugs and live.

“Report, Newberry.” She accepted the sleeveless, close-fitting black tunic whose wire mesh protected her from throat to hips. Usually she wore the armor beneath her clothing, but she did not have that option now. She pulled it on and began fastening the buckles lining the front.

“We’re to go to the Isle of Dogs, sir. Superintendent Hale assigned you specifically.”

“Oh?” The dockyards east of London weren’t as rough as they’d once been, but she still visited often enough. Perhaps it touched another murder she had investigated. “Who is it this time?”

“The Duke of Anglesey, sir.”

Dear God. Her gaze skidded from a buckle up to Newberry’s serious face. “The Iron Duke’s been killed?”

She had never met the man or seen him in person, and yet her heart kicked painfully against her ribs. Rhys Trahaearn, former pirate captain, recently titled Duke of Anglesey—and, after he’d destroyed the Horde’s tower, England’s most celebrated hero.

“No.” Newberry glanced around, as if making certain that no servants were around to faint—or to spread false gossip before he could correct them. “It isn’t his grace. He only reported the murder.”

Newberry sounded apologetic. Perhaps he hadn’t expected her to feel the same reverence for the Iron Duke that most of England did. Mina didn’t, though her racing pulse suggested that she’d taken at least some of the stories about him to heart. The newssheets painted him as a dashing figure, romanticizing his past, but Mina suspected he was simply an opportunist who’d been in the right place at the right moment.

“So he’s killed someone, then?” It wouldn’t be the first time.

“I do not know, sir. Only that a body has been found on his estate.”

Mina frowned. Given the size of his estate, that could mean anything.

When she finished fastening the tight armor, the gown’s lacings pressed uncomfortably against her spine. She slung her gun belt around her hips; one of the weapons had been loaded with bullets, the other with opium darts, which had greater effect on a rampaging bugger. She paused after Newberry passed her the knife sheath. Mina typically wore trousers, and strapped the weapon around her thigh. If she bound the knife beneath her skirts in the same location, it’d be impossible to draw when she needed it. Driving through east London at night without as many weapons as possible would be foolish, however. Her calf would have to do.

She sank down on one knee and hoisted her skirts. Newberry spun around—his cheeks on fire, no doubt. Good man, her Newberry. Always proper. Sometimes, Mina felt sorry for him; he’d been assigned to her almost as soon as he’d stepped off the airship from Manhattan City.

Other times, she thought it must be good for him. God alone knew what had happened to the Brits who’d fled to the New World. In two centuries, their society had devolved into prudes. Probably because the Separatist pilgrims had arrived first, and they hadn’t had the Horde scrub away all but the vestiges of religion. A few curses remained. Not much else did.

She tightened the knife sheath below her knee and grimaced at the sight of her slippers. Newberry hadn’t brought her boots—or her hat, but it was probably for the best. She wasn’t certain she could shove it down over the knot of hair the maid had teased into black curls. She took her heavy coat from him as she turned for the door, stifling a groan as her every step kicked her yellow skirts forward.

A detective inspector turned inside-out on top, and a lady below. She hoped Felicity did not see her this way. Never would she hear the end of it.

Newberry’s two-seater waited at the bottom of the front steps, rattling and hissing steam from the boot, and drawing appalled glances from the attending servants. Judging by the other vehicles in the drive, the attendants were accustomed to larger, shinier coaches, with brass appointments and velvet seats. The police cart had four wheels and an engine that hadn’t exploded, and that was the best that could be said for it.

As it wasn’t raining, the canvas top had been folded back, leaving the cab open. The coal bin sat on the passenger’s side of the bench, as if Newberry had dumped in the fuel on the run.

Newberry colored and mumbled, heaving the bin to the floorboards. Mina battled her skirts past the cart’s tin frame as he rounded the front. She resorted to hiking them up to her knees, and his cheeks were aflame again as he swung into his seat. The cart tilted and the bench protested under his weight. His stomach, though solid, almost touched the steering shaft.

Newberry closed the steam vent. The hissing stopped and the cart slowly pulled forward. Mina sighed. Though the sounds of the city were never ending, courtesy usually dictated that one didn’t blast the occupants of a private house with engine noise. Always polite, Newberry intended to wait before he fully engaged the engine until after they’d passed out of the drive.

“We are in a hurry, Constable,” she reminded him.

“Yes, sir.”

The engine roared. Mina’s teeth rattled as the cart jerked forward. Smoke erupted from the boot in a thick black cloud, obscuring everything behind them. Too bad, that. She’d wanted to see the attendants’ expressions when the engine belched in their faces, but she and Newberry were through the gate before the air cleared.

“Have you met His Grace?”

Mina glanced over as Newberry shouted the question. He often looked for impressions of character before arriving at a scene, but Mina had no solid ones to give. “No.’

She’d eaten noodles at Trahaearn’s feet, however. Near the Whitehall police station, an iron statue of the duke had been erected at the center of Anglesey square. At twenty feet tall, that statue did not offer a good angle to judge his features. Mina knew from the caricatures in the newssheets that he had square jaw, a hawkish nose, and heavy brows that darkened his piercing stare into a glower. The effect was altogether strong and handsome, but Mina suspected that the artists were trying to dress up England’s Savior like her mother lighting candles in the parlor.

Perhaps all of him had been dressed up. The newssheets speculated that his ancestors had been Welsh gentry and that he’d been taken from them as a baby, but nothing was truly known of his family. Quite possibly, his father had pulverizing hammers for legs, his mother fitted with drills instead of arms, and he’d been born in a coal mine nine months after a Frenzy, squatted out in a dusty bin before his mother returned to work.

Twenty years ago, however, his name had first been recorded in Captain Braxton’s log on HMS Indomitable. Trahaearn, aged sixteen, had been aboard a slaver ship bound for the Americas, and was pressed with the crew into the British navy. Within two years he’d transferred from Indomitable to another British ship, Unity, a fifth-rate frigate patrolling the trade routes in the South Seas. Before they’d reached Australia, Trahaearn had led a mutiny, taken over the ship as its captain, renamed the frigate Marco’s Terror, and embarked on an eight year run of piracy. No trade route, no nation, no merchant had been safe from him. Even in London, where the Horde suppressed any news that suggested a weakness in their defenses, word of Trahaearn’s piracy had seeped into conversations. Several times, the newssheets claimed the Horde had him close to capture. He’d been declared dead twice.

Perhaps that was why the Horde hadn’t anticipated him sailing Marco’s Terror up the Thames and blowing up their tower.

“Is he enhanced?”

Mina almost smiled. Even shouting, Newberry didn’t unbend enough to use ‘bugger.’ Enhanced had become the polite term for living with millions of microscopic machines in each of their bodies. Bugger had been an insult once—and still was in parts of the New World. Only the bounders seemed to care about that, however. After two hundred years, not a single bugger that Mina knew took offense at the name.

Of course, if Newberry called her by the name the Horde had used for them—zum bi, the soulless—she’d knock his enhanced teeth out.

“He is,” she confirmed.

“How did he do it?” When Mina frowned, certain she’d missed part of the question, Newberry clarified in a shout, “The tower!”

He wasn’t the first to ask. The Horde had created a short-range signal around their tower, preventing buggers from approaching it. Trahaearn had been infected, but he hadn’t been paralyzed when he’d entered the broadcast area. Mina’s father theorized that the frequency had changed from the time that Trahaearn had lived in Britain as a child, and so he hadn’t been affected on his return. She’d heard the same theory echoed by other buggers, but bounders preferred to think he hadn’t been infected with nanoagents at the time—despite the Iron Duke himself confirming that he’d carried the bugs since he was a boy.

Her father’s theory seemed to Mina as sound as any. “Frequencies!”

Newberry looked doubtful, but nodded.

Frequencies or not—it didn’t matter to Mina, or to any other bugger. Thanks to the Iron Duke, the nanoagents no longer controlled them, but assisted them. The Horde no longer constantly suppressed their emotions—violence, lust, ambition—or, when the darga wanted them to breed, whip them into a frenzy.

After nine years, many who’d been raised under Horde rule were still learning to control strong emotions, to fight violent impulses. Not everyone succeeded, and that was when Mina often stepped in.

With luck, this murder would be the same: an unchecked impulse, easily traceable—and the murderer easy to hold accountable.

And with more luck, the murderer wouldn’t be the Iron Duke. No one would be held accountable then. He was too beloved—beloved enough that all of Britain ignored his history of raping, thieving, and murdering. Beloved enough that they tried to rewrite that history. And even if the evidence pointed to Trahaearn, he wouldn’t be ruined.

But as the investigating officer, Mina would be.

######

By the time she and Newberry reached the Isle of Dogs, the nip of the evening air had become a bite. Not a true island, the isle was surrounded on three sides by a bend in the river. On the London side, multiple trading companies had built up small docks—mostly abandoned. The southern and eastern sides held the Iron Duke’s docks, which serviced his company’s ships, and those who paid for the space. In nine years, he’d been paid enough to buy up the center of the isle and build his fortress.

The high, wrought-iron fence that surrounded his gardens had earned him the nickname The Iron Duke—the iron kept the rest of London out, and whatever riches he hid inside, in. The spikes at the top of the fence guaranteed that no one in the surrounding slums would scale it, and no one was invited in. At least, no one in Mina’s circle, or her mother’s.

She was never certain if their circle was too high, or too low.

Newberry stopped in front of the gate. When a face appeared at the small gatehouse window, he shouted, “Detective Inspector Wentworth, on Crown business! Open her up!”

The gatekeeper appeared, a grizzled man with a long gray beard and the heavy step that marked a metal leg. A former pirate, Mina guessed. Though the Crown insisted that Trahaearn and his men had all been privateers, acting with the permission of the king, only a few children who didn’t know any better believed the story. The rest of them knew he’d been a pirate all along, and the story was just designed to bolster faith in the king and his ministers after the revolution. That story and bestowing a title on Trahaearn had been two of King Edward’s last cogent acts. The crew had been given naval ranks, and Marco’s Terror pressed into the service of the Navy...where she’d supposedly been all along.

The Iron Duke had traded the Terror and the seas for a title and a fortress in the middle of a slum. She wondered if he felt that exchange had been worth it.

The gatekeeper glanced at her. “And the jade?”

At Mina’s side, Newberry bristled. “She is the detective inspector, Lady Wilhelmina Wentworth.”

Oh, Newberry. In Manhattan City, titles still meant more than escaping the modification that the British lower classes had suffered under the Horde. And when the gatekeeper looked at her again, she knew what he saw—and it wasn’t a lady. Nor was it the epaulettes declaring her rank, or the red band sewed into her sleeve, boasting that she’d spilled Horde blood in the revolution.

No, he saw her face, calculated her age, and understood that she’d been conceived during a Frenzy. And that, because of her family’s status, her mother and father had been allowed to keep her rather than being taken by the Horde to be raised in a crèche.

The gatekeeper looked at her assistant. “And you?”

“Constable Newberry.”

Scratching his beard, the old man shuffled back toward the gatehouse. “All right. I’ll be sending a gram up to the captain, then.”

He still called the Iron Duke ‘captain?’ Mina could not decide if that said more about Trahaearn or the gatekeeper. At least one of them did not put much stock in titles, but she could not determine if it was the gatekeeper alone.

The gatekeeper didn’t return—and former pirate or not, he must be literate if he could write a gram and read the answer from the main house. That answer came quickly. She and Newberry hadn’t waited more than a minute before the gates opened on well-oiled hinges.

The park was enormous, with green lawns stretching out into the dark. Dogs sniffed along the fence, their handlers bundled up against the cold. If someone had invaded the property, he wouldn’t find many places to hide outside the buildings. All of the shrubs and trees were still young, planted after Trahaearn had purchased the estate.

The house rivaled Chesterfield before that great building had fallen into disrepair and demolished. Of yellow stone, two rectangular wings jutted forward to form a large courtyard. Unadorned casements decorated the many windows, and the blocky stone front was relieved only by the window glass, and the balustrade along the top of the roof. A fountain tinkled at the center of the courtyard. Behind it, the main steps created semicircles leading to the entrance.

On the center of the steps, a white sheet concealed a body-shaped lump. No blood soaked through the sheet. A man waited on the top step, his slight form in a poker-straight posture that Mina couldn’t place for a moment. Then it struck her: Navy. Probably another pirate, though this one had been a sailor—or an officer—first.

A house of this size would require a small army of staff, and she and Newberry would have to question each one. Soon, she’d know how many of Trahaearn’s pirates had come to dry land with him.

As they reached the fountain, she turned to Newberry. “Stop here. Set up your camera by the body. I want photographs of everything before we move it.”

Newberry parked and climbed out. Mina didn’t wait for him to gather his equipment from the bonnet. She strode toward the house. The man descended the steps to greet her, and she was forced to revise her opinion. His posture wasn’t rigid discipline, but a cover for wiry, contained energy. His dark hair slicked back from a narrow face. Unlike the man at the gate, he was neat, and almost bursting with the need to help.

“Inspector Wentworth.” With ink-stained fingers, he gestured to the body, inviting her to look.

She was not in a rush, however. The body would not be going anywhere. “Mr—?”

“St. John.” He said it like a bounder, rather than the two abbreviated syllables of someone born in England. “Steward to his grace’s estate.”

“This estate or his property in Wales?” Which, as far as Mina was aware, Trahaearn didn’t often visit.

“Anglesey, inspector.”

Newberry passed them, easily carrying the heavy photographic equipment. St. John half turned, as if to offer his assistance, then glanced back as Mina asked,

“When did you arrive here from Wales, Mr. St. John?”

“Yesterday.”

“Did you witness what happened here?”

He shook his head. “I was in the study when I heard the footman—Chesley—inform the housekeeper that someone had fallen. Mrs. Lavery then told his grace.”

Mina frowned. She hadn’t been called out here because someone had been a clumsy oaf, had they? “Someone tripped on the stairs?”

“No, inspector. Fallen.” His hand made a sharp dive from his shoulder to his hip.

Mina glanced at the body again, then at the balustrade lining the roof. “Do you know who it was?”

“No.”

She was not surprised. If he managed the Welsh estate, he wouldn’t likely know the London well. “Who covered him with the sheet?”

“I did, after his grace sent the staff back into the house.”

So they’d all come out to gawk. “Did anyone identify him while they were outside?”

“No.”

Or maybe they just hadn’t spoken up. “Where is the staff now?”

“They are gathered in the main parlor.”

Where they would all pass the story around until they were each convinced they’d witnessed it personally. Blast. Mina firmed her lips.

As if understanding her frustration, St. John added, “The footman is alone in the study, however. His grace told him to stay there. He hasn’t spoken with anyone else since Mrs. Lavery told his grace.”

The footman had been taken into the study and asked nothing? “But he has talked to the duke?”

The answer came from behind her, from a voice that could carry his commands across a ship, without shouting. “He has, inspector.”

She turned to find a man as big as his voice. Oh, damn the newsheets. They hadn’t been kind to him—they’d been kind to their readers, protecting them the effect of this man. He was just as hard and as handsome as they’d portrayed. Altogether dark and forbidding, his gaze was as pointed and as guarded as the fence that was his namesake. The Iron Duke wasn’t as tall as his statue, but still taller than any man had a right to be—and as broad through the shoulders as Newberry, but without the spare flesh.

The newssheets had shown all of that, but they hadn’t conveyed his power. But it was not just size, Mina immediately recognized. Not just his looks. She’d seen handsome before. She’d seen rich and influential. Yet this man had a presence beyond looks and money. For the first time, she could see why men might follow him through kraken-infested waters or into Horde territory, then follow him back onto shore and remain with him.

He was terrifying.

Disturbed by her reaction, Mina glanced at the man standing beside him: tall, brown-haired, his expression bored. Mina did not recognize him. Perhaps a bounder and, if so, probably an aristocrat—and he likely expected to be treated as one.

Bully for him.

She looked to the duke again. Like his companion, he wore a long black overcoat, breeches, and boots. A waistcoat buckled like armor over a white shirt with a simple collar reminiscent of the Horde’s tunic collar. Fashionable clothes, but almost invisible—as if overpowered by the man wearing them.

Something, Mina suspected, that he did not just to his clothes, but the people around him. She could not afford to be one of them.

She’d never been introduced to someone of his standing before, but she’d seen Superintendent Hale meet the prime minister without a single gesture to acknowledge that he ranked above her. Mina followed that example and offered the short nod of an equal. “Your Grace. I understand that you did not witness this man die.”

“No.”

She looked beyond him. “And your companion...?”

“Also saw nothing,” the other man answered.

She’d been right; his accent marked him as a bounder. Yet she had to revise her opinion of him. He wasn’t bored by the death—just too familiar with it to be excited by yet another. She couldn’t understand that. The more death she saw, the more the injustice of each one touched her. “Your name, sir?”

His smile seemed just at the edge of a laugh. “Mr. Smith.”

A joker. How fun.

She thought a flicker of irritation crossed the duke’s expression. But when he didn’t offer his companion’s true name, she let it go. One of the staff would know.

“Mr. St. John has told me that no one has identified the body, and only your footman saw his fall.”

“Yes.”

“Did your footman relate anything else to you?”

“Only that his landing sounded just like a man falling from the topsail yard to the deck below. Except this one didn’t scream.”

No scream? Either the man had been drunk, asleep, or already dead. She would soon find out which it was.

“If you’ll pardon me, Your Grace.”

With a nod, she turned toward the steps, where Newberry tested the camera’s flashing light. She heard the Iron Duke and his companion follow her. As long as they did not touch the body or try to help her examine it, she did not care.

Mina looked down at her hands. She would touch the body, and Newberry had not thought to bring her serviceable wool gloves to exchange for her white evening gloves. They were only satin—neither her mother’s tinkering nor her own salary could afford kid—but they were still too dear to ruin.

She tugged at the tips of her fingers, but the fastenings at her wrist prevented them from sliding off. Futilely, she tried to push the small buttons through equally small satin loops. The seams at the tips of her fingers made them too bulky, and the fabric was too slippery. It could not be done without a maid, or a mother.

She looked round for Newberry, and saw that the black powder from the ferrotype camera already dusted his hands. Blast it. She lifted her wrist to her mouth, pushed the cuff of her sleeve out of the way with her chin, and began to work at the tiny loops with her teeth. She would bite them through, if she had to. Even the despised task of sewing the buttons back on would be easier than—

“Give your hand over, inspector.”

Mina froze, her hackles rising at the command. She looked through her fingers at Trahaearn’s face.

She heard a noise from his companion, a snorted half-laugh—as if Trahaearn had failed an easy test.

The duke’s voice softened. His expression did not. “May I assist you?”

No, she thought. Do not touch me, do not come close. But the body on the steps would not allow her that reply.

“Yes. Thank you, Your Grace.”

She held out her hand, and watched as he removed his own gloves. Kid, lined with sable. Just imagining that luxurious softness warmed her.

She would not have been surprised if his presence had, as well. With his great size, he seemed to surround her with heat just by standing so near. His hands were large, his fingers long and nails square. As he took her wrist in his left palm, calluses audibly scraped the satin. His face darkened. She could not tell if it was in anger or embarrassment.

However rough his skin was, his fingers were nimble. He deftly unfastened the first button, and the next. “This was not the evening you had planned.”

“No.”

She did not say this was preferable to the Victory Ball, but perhaps he read it in her voice. His teeth flashed in a smile. Her breath quickened, and she focused on her wrist. Only two buttons left, and then she could work.

She should be working now. “Were the dogs patrolling the grounds before the body was discovered?”

“No. They search for the point of entry now.”

Mina pictured the iron fence. Perhaps a child could slip through the bars; a man could not. But if someone had let him through...? “Have you spoken with your man at the front gate?”

“Wills?”

She had not asked the gatekeeper his name. “If Wills has a prosthetic left leg, and often saves a portion of his supper in his beard for his breakfast, then we are speaking of the same man.”

“That is Wills.” He studied her with unreadable eyes. “He would not let anyone through.”

Without my leave, Mina finished for him. And perhaps he was right, though of course she would verify it with the gatekeeper, and ask the steward about deliveries. Someone might have hidden themselves in one.

His gaze fell to her glove again. “There we are,” Trahaearn said softly. “Now to—"

She pulled her hand away at the same time Trahaearn gripped the satin fingertips. He tugged. Satin slid in a warm caress over her elbow, her forearm.

Flames lit her cheeks. “Your Grace—”

His expression changed as he continued to pull. First registering surprise, as if he had not realized that the glove extended past her wrist. Then an emotion hard and sharp as the long glove slowly gave way. Its white length finally dangled from his fingers, and to Mina seemed as intimate as if he held her stocking.

Her sleeve still covered her arm, but she felt exposed. Stripped. With as much dignity as she could, Mina claimed the glove.

“Thank you, Your Grace. I can manage the other.” She stuffed the glove into her pocket. With her bare fingers, she made quick work of the buttons at her left wrist.

She looked up to find him staring at her. His cheekbones blazed with color, his gaze hot.

She’d seen lust before. This marked the first time that she hadn’t seen any disgust or hatred beneath it.

“Thank you,” she said again, amazed by the evenness of her voice when everything inside her trembled.

“Inspector.” He inclined his head, then looked beyond her to the stairs.

And as she turned, the trembling stopped. Her legs were steady as she walked to the steps, her gaze unflinching, her mind focused.

“You were to assist her, not undress her.” She heard his companion say. Trahaearn didn’t reply, and Mina didn’t look back at him.

Even the pull of the Iron Duke was not stronger than Death.

######

Mina had come to recognize patterns to death—when calculation or passion drove violence, when it was accidental or deliberate. But as she bent over the body on the stairs of Trahaearn’s mansion, she could make no sense of this pattern.

Naked, the dark-haired male lay facedown, his left arm trapped beneath him, his legs splayed. No markings or wounds marred his flesh.

But this was not a freshly dead body. The skin had blackened. The tissues hadn’t swollen, but the impact against the stairs might have deflated the gases like a burst balloon. Only a small amount of blood, thick and congealed, had splattered the stairs.

Mina turned the head. The face was completely smashed. Identification would be a problem.

She glanced over her shoulder at Newberry. “Have you finished with the pictures? I need to turn him.”

When he nodded, she slid her hands beneath the shoulder and hip and rolled him. Her stomach turned with it. Rigor mortis had passed, but the body held none of the rigidity of a normal human corpse. The bones inside had been pulverized; only the skin held its shape. The leg flopped over like an uncooked pudding stuffed into a sausage casing.

From behind Mina came the sound of retching from Newberry, though he held it in. St. John didn’t. The Iron Duke’s companion muttered something before turning away.

Mina had to swallow hard, but she continued her examination. No visible open wounds aside from the smashing. Perhaps he’d been beaten around the face and the evidence had been erased by the fall.

When she lifted his left arm, it held its shape. Interesting. The bones had not broken though he’d landed on it. She scratched lightly at the skin. Though the discoloration made it impossible to be certain, she thought the arm might be an organic prosthetic.

If so, someone would be looking for this man. Mechanical flesh didn’t come cheaply.

But she would have to finish her examination at the station. She pulled the cloth back over the body as the main door opened.

A stout, curly-haired woman came out, keys jangling at her ample waist. “Begging your pardon, Your Grace, but a gram from Mr. Wills has just arrived. A police wagon has come for the body.”

The housekeeper sounded uncertain enough that Mina wondered if she expected the duke to deny the wagon entrance to the estate. And Trahaearn did appear as if he resented the idea of them taking away the body—his lips had thinned, as if he struggled against an automatic response.

Trahaearn met her eyes. Another moment passed before he said, “Let them through.”

Behind him, his companion shook his head, looking a little green around the gills. He started up the stairs. “And I intend to find something to drink.”

Mina stood before the duke could join him. “With Your Grace’s permission, I would like to see the roof.”

St. John stepped forward. “Certainly, inspector. I will—”

“Remain with the constable while I show her the roof,” Trahaearn said.

St. John flushed. Mina glanced at Newberry, and he nodded. No, she didn’t need to give him an instruction out loud. Newberry knew to stay with the body until they loaded it onto the wagon.

She followed the duke into the house. Though the foyer was huge and gas lamps lighted the entrance, dark paneling on the walls gave the impression of a cave. She had little opportunity to look farther. Trahaearn turned into the first shadowed parlor and strode toward the far wall, where a metal grating formed a door. He slid the grating aside, revealing a small lift, and stepped into the cage.

As soon as she crowded in next to him, he threw the lever. With a sharp rattle, the lift began to rise. Mina pushed her back to the side of the car. The Iron Duke stared down at her, his face unreadable. Only inches separated them, and her imagination—so useful when determining a murderer’s motive—was not so helpful when she shared a confined space with a pirate. The newssheets might spread rumors that he’d never raped or enslaved anyone, but they’d also called him a privateer.

Her heart began to race. She tamped down her nervousness by focusing on the job. Trahaearn accessed the roof via this lift. How would someone else have gotten up there?

“Does anyone else use this lift, Your Grace?”

“No.”

“Is there stair access?”

“Yes.”

She would need to ask the staff if anyone had used the stairs, or had seen anyone else who might have used them. She suspected, however, that the man hadn’t fallen from the roof, but from something higher.

To her relief, the lift rattled to a stop a moment later. Even before he opened the grating, she could see that the roof had been designed with defense in mind. Cannons lined the balustrade like a ship’s hull. The great lawns provided no cover for anyone attempting to cross the grounds. Mina could see all the way to the docks and the warehouses crowding the shore, and beyond them, the lanterns of the ships sailing the Thames.

With no traffic and no nearby residences, the night was quiet. Almost shockingly so.

She almost said as much, until she glanced at the Iron Duke and found him watching her.

Unsettled by that unwavering gaze, she looked up. Airships weren’t allowed over the city, unless they’d been granted special permission. Cloud cover and haze could conceal one, however.

“Were you outside when the incident took place, Your Grace?”

“No. I was at dinner.”

If he’d been interrupted, a peek into the dining rooms would confirm that or not. “Do you recall any unusual noises while you were dining?”

“No.”

“And after the body was discovered?”

She saw the speculation in his gaze before he said, “No.”

“Have you received any threats, Your Grace?” That question would be of the utmost importance to Superintendent Hale, and everyone else Mina answered to. The Iron Duke must be kept safe.

“Yes.” A brief smile accompanied his answer.

Of course he had. “Threats from anyone who would dare act on them?”

“No.”

And if someone had, Mina suspected that she’d never have been called. A law unto himself, he’d have concealed the evidence. Indeed, she was surprised he had not hidden this—or handled it on his own. Which begged the question, “Why did you contact the police station, Your Grace?”

When he didn’t answer, she realized, “You didn’t. Who did?”

His gaze sharpened, as if she’d surprised him in return. Still, he offered her nothing else. Protecting his people? She could not decide.

“Tell me, Your Grace—how long has Mr. St. John been a member of your staff?”

This time, he said, “Three days.”

So the new steward hadn’t known better, and contacted the police rather than letting Trahaearn handle the man’s death. “And if, in three more days’ time, I have questions to ask of him, will I find him still in your employ?”

“If you return to question him because you discover that he knew the man under the sheet, inspector, then you will not find him.”

Had he just promised to kill St. John if the steward was connected to the dead man? Anger began its slow burn.

“And if he doesn’t know him?”

“Then St. John will be here.”

But less eager to talk to her, Mina suspected. So it would have to be now. “I believe I’ve finished here. If you will arrange for my use of a room, I would like to speak with your staff.”

His gaze ran over her before he nodded. “I will see you down.”

Crowded into that tiny cage of a lift again. She ignored the uneasiness gnawing at her nerves. “Thank you, Your Grace.”

Dear Reader,

I'm so thrilled that the first novel in my new steampunk romance series, The Iron Duke, is finally available! Steampunk has been earning quite a bit of buzz recently, but if you aren't familiar with the term, trust me–it's not as alien as it sounds. Simply imagine a movie like Sherlock Holmes combined with steamy romance, or Pirates of the Caribbean with airships, clockwork gadgets, and bizarre monsters. It's historical…with a steampunk twist.

The steampunk world of The Iron Duke abounds with danger and adventure, just waiting for bold characters to explore it…and to fall in love. The heart of steampunk romance will always be the story of a passionate and emotional relationship–and I have one heck of a story to tell you.

It begins when a man's naked body is dropped from an airship onto the Iron Duke's front steps, bringing Detective Inspector Mina Wentworth into Rhys Trahaearn's dangerous world. Mina only wants to discover who murdered the poor man–and she definitely doesn't want to attract Rhys's notice. For although the Iron Duke became a hero to all of England when he freed their country from Horde control, his possessive interest could spell the ruin of her career and her family.

But when Mina uncovers the identity of the murdered man and stumbles onto a conspiracy that threatens all of England, the Iron Duke may be her only hope of saving everyone that she loves. With Rhys at her side, Mina must race across oceans and zombie-infested continents, and try to stop herself from falling in love with the one man she can never have. But the Iron Duke has no intention of letting Mina get away…and nothing will stop him from having her.

The Iron Duke is everything a steampunk romance should be: a thrilling adventure, featuring bold, sexy characters exploring an exciting new world…but above all, it's full of heart, wonder, and romance. I hope you have as fantastic a time reading The Iron Duke as I did writing it.

My very best,

Meljean Brook


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