Breath of Iron
A Novel of the Clockwork Agents
Sworn to protect England from all enemies, the Wardens of the Realm are ever vigilant. But not all battles are fought on a battlefield…sometimes they are fought in the heart.
As chief surgeon for the Wardens, Evelyn Stone fears her own life is on the line when she is kidnapped by a band of pirates—only to discover that the airship captain is Gavin “Mac” MacRae—her former lover. The man whose life she once saved. The man she abandoned.
Since Evelyn left, Mac made his mark as both a pirate and a pilot. But his true allegiance isn’t known. So when he asks Evie for help with a wounded woman onboard, he tells Evie that the woman is his wife—even if his feelings for Evie have never waned…
As the days pass, however, the unease between Evie and Mac gives way to the old comfort they used to have. Yet, their newly ignited romance is complicated by conflicting loyalties and desires, and a betrayal that may cost them both their love and their lives.
Evelyn Stone literally held a man’s heart in her hands before tossing it into a bucket at her feet. She would examine it and its defects later. Right now she had a patient to fix.
The young surgeon assisting her watched in fascination as she took the mechanical heart he offered and introduced it into the gaping chest cavity. She had very little time to put the device in place and connect it to the circulatory system before the man would die.
It would not look good for her, or for the Wardens of the Realm, if the director of Germany’s Schatten Ritters (S.R.), or “Shadow Knights,” died in her care while under the protection of Austrian agents. She was supposed to be the best in her field.
She was also pretty much the only one in her field, except for some bloke in America. No one else in Europe that she knew of had made quite the same strides as she where organ replacement was concerned.
Quickly, Evelyn attached the man’s remaining tissue to the mechanical pump and checked the seals. She set aside the part that would fit over the front of his chest like a shield, not only protecting the artificial organ, but providing a convenient port for maintenance.
Once the heart was in place, she could relax a little. That was the hardest part. Still, she worked as fast and efficiently as she could, and when the man’s new heart began to beat in a steady rhythm, she breathed a sigh of relief. A person’s heart could be stopped for only so long before lack of circulation did irreparable damage to the brain and tissue.
Above her head she could hear the polite but enthusiastic applause of her audience. This was the first time she’d performed this sort of operation with spectators watching her every move, evaluating and assessing.
She set her patient’s chest back to rights and fitted the panel for his new heart in place. Later she showed the young surgeon, Dr. Franz Adler, how to properly care for the device, ensuring that it—and the man in possession of it—continued to function at optimum capacity for many years to come.
After the demonstration, Dr. Adler asked her to dinner, just as she expected he might.
He began talking about the surgery, the work they did within their respective agencies, and about himself, also as she thought he might, but after a couple of bottles of good German wine, he began to rhapsodize about her “exotic looks,” “considerable intellect” and finally the beauty of her eyes. That was when she knew it was time to take him home.
“I have never seen anything like that,” Adler told her much later as they lay in bed. “You are a genius. An artist. Your gift is squandered with the Wardens.”
Evelyn smiled. He was handsome and fit and had a delicious accent that she loved to listen to as he complimented her. Of course, he seemed rather enamored of the sound of his voice as well, but she was sated and such languidness of muscle and spirit gave her patience. Normally she avoided such encounters with peers, especially those also in service to their country, but she’d accomplished something extraordinary that day and she needed to celebrate.
If she weren’t enjoying Franz’s company, she would be alone, probably reliving every last detail of the first organ replacement she had performed. She’d no doubt be very deep in her cups as well, vomiting red wine into the toilet’s porcelain bowl. Sex was so much more relaxing and usually required less cleanup—and didn’t leave behind a taste that made her wonder whether something had died in her mouth.
“I cannot believe you are going to leave in a few days,” Franz lamented with a charming pout that emphasized his full lower lip. He was gorgeous, blond and blue-eyed, with a body that ought to be immortalized in marble. He was seven years her junior and had the stamina to go with his youth. She could have done much worse.
She had done worse.
“I have to return to London,” she explained. “Besides, you are going to be very busy now that you are taking over the S.R.’s medical department.”
Long, nimble fingers trailed over her bare arm. “You could always stay and we could run it together.”
Of course, with the understanding that he would be the one in charge. No, thank you. “The Wardens would be lost without me. I cannot turn my back on them.” That was only half bravado. The Wardens would miss her, but that wasn’t what made her go back. What made her go back was that she was good at her job—very good at it—and she wanted to perform it where she could do the most good. And, if she admitted it to no one but herself, she wanted to be where she could occasionally hear the latest account of Captain Mac’s daring adventures.
She had no business wanting to hear about him. She had given up that right. She didn’t remain in London just for him; that would be pathetic. She had friends there, a home and a cat. She was important to the Wardens. She would not be so important to handsome Franz, and she refused to be mistress to a man’s career. She had tried that once and it had ended badly.
If she was honest, she would acknowledge that most men would come second to her own work. She really couldn’t fault Franz for a similar mind-set.
“Bah,” he said. “The Wardens have no idea how fortunate they are to have such an angel in their employ.”
Now he was being grandiose. Perhaps she should give his mouth a new occupation so he would stop talking. Or . . .
“I should go,” she said, throwing back the blankets and slipping out of the bed naked. She had no shame for her body, but neither was she overly proud. She had long, strong legs, a soft belly, good hips and full breasts that, while not gravity defying, still managed a good degree of pertness. Most men found her appealing because of her mixed heritage. She’d been born in Jamaica, several months after her wealthy Irish-Canadian father had begun courting the granddaughter of a woman who had been a slave and the man who had bought her freedom. He’d brought them back to England with him, where he then proceeded to do his duty and marry an English virgin.
“Where are you going?” Franz demanded, sliding out of bed. The French safe she made him use—despite having a small pregnancy-preventing device implanted in her cervix—dangled from his flaccid penis like a little handkerchief poised to wave in surrender. “It is still dark.”
“I’m returning to my hotel,” she told him, pulling on her trousers. “I want to check on your director in the morning and I’m having a breakfast meeting with an old school friend.” It was such a familiar lie that it rolled easily off her tongue. Although this time it was partially true. She was meeting an old friend, just not from school.
“Surely you can stay a little longer?” He graced her with a seductive smile, reaching out to stroke her bare breast.
Evie grimaced. That cajoling tone might work on some naive chit straight out of the nursery, but not with her. He should know the polite and honorable way to play this game. This was why she often went to the homes of her chosen partners rather than taking them back to her rooms. She had learned some time ago that it was easier to do the leaving than to try to show a stubborn lover the door.
She pulled on her shirt, knocking his hand away from her. “No, I can’t.” She tucked the tail into her trousers.
Franz blinked. “But I want you to stay.”
“And I told you I can’t.” She shrugged into her corseted waistcoat. “Thank you for a lovely evening.” She kissed his cheek as an added gesture.
The younger man raked a hand through his already disheveled hair. “Unbelievable. So we make love and now you leave like I am a whore.”
He was difficult to take seriously when he was naked and had a condom hanging from his limp cock. She sat down on a nearby trunk to pull on her boots. “I’m sorry, did I mislead you into thinking I wanted something else? Did you hope that tonight would be the beginning of a long and loving relationship? Do you want to marry me?”
“No, of course not.” Too late he realized his mistake, and his distaste quickly turned to panic. “I mean, I had hoped that we could enjoy each other’s company for a little while longer and see how things develop.”
She had two choices—roll her eyes or smile sympathetically. She chose the smile. “That’s very sweet, and please don’t think that I don’t appreciate the sentiment, but I really do have to go.” With that, she grabbed her coat and rose to her feet.
Franz chuckled humorlessly. “I’d heard you were a cold bitch, and now I believe it.”
Evie didn’t pause. She shoved her arm into one coat sleeve. “What’s the matter? Angry I’m leaving before you have the chance to kick me out? I’m assuming you wouldn’t want to risk your mother seeing me when she gets up in the morning.”
A dull flush suffused his cheeks beneath the golden stubble of his beard. “My landlady is a woman of discretion.”
She fastened a button. “Your landlady is your mother. Did you think I wouldn’t see the photographs and portraits of you as a child when we came in? Did you think I was so enamored of you I wouldn’t notice the note left on your dresser reminding you to give her your soiled laundry? She signed it ‘Love, Mother,’ for heaven’s sake.”
He stared at her with a mixture of horror and humiliation. “Get out.”
“It’s about damn time,” she retorted, and yanked open the bedroom door. “And take that condom off. You look ridiculous.”
“Give your mother my best.”
Evelyn closed the door behind her and made her way down the stairs, not caring if she was seen or not. She didn’t care if by tomorrow afternoon Franz—and his mother—had told everyone in Germany what a whore she was. That would only make it easier to meet another man next time she traveled there on Warden business. Her reputation as a surgeon had nothing to do with her reputation as a woman. She would always be in demand because she was an expert at what she did, and she would always find a lover because she was an attractive, confident woman. Those three traits drew some people to her and repelled others at the same rate. Life was too short to worry about the ones who turned up their noses and looked down on her.
Mac had taught her that. The bastard.
She stepped outside into the waning hours of a beautiful September night. Perfect for a walk, even though there were plenty of steam hacks in the vicinity. This neighborhood wasn’t far from the airfield where the dirigibles arrived and departed. Consequently, Evelyn’s hotel was within close distance.
She paused on the walk, feeling eyes on her back. She glanced up and saw Franz in a window. She waved. He made a rude gesture that made her laugh. She truly was a bitch. She hadn’t meant to hurt his pride, but if she was truthful, she’d really only been thinking of herself and her own wants and needs.
Regardless, she wouldn’t see Franz again for a long time, if ever. His ambition meant he wouldn’t be content to stay with the Ritters for long. She would enjoy telling this story to Claire and Arden when she returned to London. Perhaps it wouldn’t be a good idea to share it with their husbands, though. Men were oddly sensitive about such things, the babies.
Her boot heels clicked on the walk, echoing softly among the sounds of passing carriages and noise from the nearby airfield. Evelyn kept a cautious gaze on her surroundings. She could still feel eyes on her. Surely Franz had left his window by now?
Footsteps behind her. Light, but purposeful. She sped up, fingers slipping inside her coat for the weapon concealed there. It might be just another pedestrian, but years at W.O.R. had taught her that paranoia was a virtue.
Do not panic. What would Claire do in such a situation? Or Arden? Dhanya? They were smart, capable women, each of whom would keep her wits and be prepared just in case. She would do the same.
The footsteps behind her quickened, matching her own. No question now whether she was being followed or not. She clasped her blade, pulling it free of the sheath as fingers wrapped around her arm.
She whirled around, using her attacker’s momentum to drive herself forward so that the edge of her knife came to settle at the base of a long, smooth throat.
Hands came up. One of them was metal—etched brass. “Jesus on the cross, Evie! Are you trying to kill me?”
Evelyn froze. “Nell?” She hadn’t seen the woman in years, but there was no denying her braided gray hair and bright blue eyes, fanned by pale squint lines in her otherwise tanned face. She grinned, revealing unexpectedly straight white teeth.
“I knew you wouldn’t forget me!” The tall, handsome woman came in to hug her, and Evelyn flipped her blade, moving it out of the way so Nell didn’t slit her own throat. She hugged her back. The feel of those metal fingers—so much like bones—against her back was both familiar and unsettling.
“Nell, what are you doing in Vienna?” She looked over the woman’s shoulder, expecting to see another familiar face—one wearing a smirk—but there was no one there. That shouldn’t be as disappointing as it was, damn it.
“Picking up,” her old friend replied, releasing her. “You?”
“The usual.” She wasn’t at liberty to discuss her assignment with non-Wardens. Not even former ones.
“Understood.” Nell adjusted the handkerchief that covered the top of her head and was anchored by her braids. “You all done or still working?”
That was something of an odd question, but Evelyn supposed her old friend asked because she had catching up on her mind. It was late—very late—but she wasn’t tired, and it was good to see Nell.
And Nell could tell her all about Mac and rip those old wounds open again. Maybe throw a little salt in for good measure.
“I’m pretty much done. Just a lecture planned for tomorrow and then back to England. You?”
“We’re to set sail before dawn.” Nell began to walk, so Evelyn fell into step beside her. “I’ll walk you back to your lodgings. Where are you staying?”
Evelyn told her. Her German was atrocious, but she attempted it regardless. “Der Lowe und Der Lamm.” The Lion and the Lamb. It wasn’t a W.O.R. hotel, or even one sanctioned by the Schatten Ritters. It was the hotel she and Mac once stayed in. The same room as well. She told herself she had requested it because of the view.
It truly was an astonishing view.
“Is that place still standing?” Nell chuckled. “No accounting for people’s tastes, I suppose.”
Evie didn’t respond. The hotel was a beautiful old stone thing and she loved it, but she wasn’t about to say so in case her companion decided to share that information with her captain. Just the fact that she was staying there revealed more than she’d ever want him to know.
Instead she asked, “How is everyone? Did Barker get those new teeth he wanted?” The memory brought a smile to her lips.
Nell snorted and nodded. “He did. Can’t get him to stop smiling now. McNamara’s become a grandfather, and Esther and Dirty Joe finally jumped the anvil.”
This was news indeed! “I thought he said he’d never marry her.”
“He did. Then she decided that maybe she wouldn’t marry him. That changed up his mind right quick.”
“Yes, I imagine it would,” Evie replied with a grin of her own.
“I suppose you wouldn’t have heard that we lost Good Jock.”
The grin slid from her face. Jock’s real name had been Jacques le Bon, hence the foolish but suitable nickname. During their brief acquaintance he had taught her many of his grandmother’s natural cures and remedies, some of which she often used. One had led to the discovery of the accelerated healing liquid she kept in the medical facility at Warden headquarters.
“No,” she murmured. “I hadn’t heard. How did it happen?”
“Garroted by one of those Bear Bastards.” “Bears” was what most agents in Europe called their Russian counterparts.
“I’m so sorry. I know how much Ma . . . you all loved him.”
Nell nodded, obviously ignoring her near slip. Mac would hear about that, too, no doubt.
God, she couldn’t seem to stop thinking about him—even before Nell found her. Maybe it was this city, where they’d made such bittersweet memories, or maybe it was the fact that every time she slept with a different man she was all the more aware that he was not the man she wanted. Nell’s appearance was definitely a stick poking an infected wound.
Shouldn’t it have healed by now? It had been years. She should be over him rather than pining for him as her mother had pined for her English lover.
Nell continued to talk about other crew members, but not the one Evelyn really wanted to hear about. She listened raptly, laughing and tearing up in tandem as she heard about their triumphs and sorrows.
She looked up and saw her hotel in the near distance. Soon this meeting would be at an end. It would have to be. If Nell came into the building with her, there was a good chance the older woman would be recognized and more than likely delivered into Warden custody. The Wardens didn’t much care for pirates, and after Evie left Mac, that was exactly what he and his crew had become, turning their backs on Crown and country.
“You’ll tell Mac how sorry I am about Jock, won’t you?” Evelyn asked, finally allowing herself to say his name.
Nell stopped walking, so she stopped as well. “You can tell him yourself.”
Surely she hadn’t heard that correctly. Her heart was beating so loud it was hard to tell. “What did you say?”
The other woman’s expression turned sympathetic. “I’m sorry, Evie. I need you to know I was against this from the start.”
Cold settled in Evelyn’s chest. Claire would have had a weapon in hand by now; so would’ve Arden. She just stood there, stupid. “Against what, Nell?”
Out of the dark alley just behind Nell emerged two more familiar faces—Barker and Wells. Barker with his leathery face and kind brown eyes. Wells with her hair so red it looked to be on fire and eyes bluer than the waters around Jamaica. They didn’t look happy.
Two more came up from behind her. She couldn’t tell if she knew them or not. So someone had been watching her. It just hadn’t been Franz.
Sloppy, Evie, she told herself.
“If it’s ransom you want, you know the Wardens won’t pay it.”
“We don’t want money, my girl.”
Then what? Evelyn pulled her blade free once more. She couldn’t take them all, but she could wound a couple of them badly enough that they’d feel it for the rest of their sorry lives. She’d start with Nell, her betrayer.
Evelyn lunged with her dagger but barely made it two steps before she felt a sharp sting in her side, followed by a jolt that dropped her to her knees on the cobblestones. They’d shocked her. She couldn’t speak, couldn’t really think. Couldn’t do anything but twitch. At least she hadn’t soiled herself.
Nell’s face loomed over hers. “I’m really sorry, darlin’. I mean it.” She pressed a white cloth over Evelyn’s face.
Chloroform. Bloody brilliant. She’d have someone’s head for this. Maybe his heart, too. Or his spleen. She’d remove them while he was still conscious. She’d—
She woke up with a mouth that felt as though it were lined with cotton wool and muscles that pinged as though they’d been denied blood. At least she was on a bed and her limbs weren’t bound.
Evelyn moved her head on the soft pillow. It smelled delicious—vanilla and sandalwood. Some of her favorite memories involved a man with that exact scent. Often he’d join her in bed, his skin tanned yet smooth, hair damp from the bath, and she’d bury her face in the hollow between his neck and shoulder and take a deep, intoxicating breath.
She was in the middle of just such a breath when the reality of the situation struck her. She was on a bed that smelled of Mac. Beneath the pounding of her heart she could hear engines—a gentle whump, whump that never failed to lull her into slumber.
Bloody hell, she was on the Queen V!
Her attempt to launch herself off the bed ended with her strengthless carcass being dumped on the rug. Her muscles were still twitchy from being electrocuted. She spat out dog fur and cursed herself for giving him that overgrown mutt. Then she gathered all her willpower and pushed herself to her knees. Using the side of the bed helped her make it to her feet.
She grasped the edge of a window and peered out. The muscles in her thighs trembled, but held.
Clouds. Not fog but clouds. They were in the bloody sky. She knew it. She just knew it!
Closing her eyes, she swore silently until she ran out of foul words. It took three languages for her to pull herself together. She should have known that meeting Nell wasn’t just a coincidence. It never was.
Why did they put her in this room, though? Of all the rooms about this vessel, why did she have to wake up on the bed she’d slept in for months during one of the happiest times of her life? Everywhere she turned, there was something of his—a discarded shirt, a pair of shiny brown leather boots, a straight razor with a pearl handle she’d held in her own hand more times than she could remember.
That was a lie. If put to the test, she could probably recall every damn one.
Her knees trembled, but she’d be tarred and feathered if she’d touch that bed again. Slowly she made her way to the desk. The room was large for one on a ship, but still small enough that there was a place for everything and everything in its place. The ship hit a pocket of wind and bucked, tossing Evie into the captain’s chair with graceless ease. Thank God it was bolted to the floor.
No sooner had she righted herself than the door opened. No knock, no inquiry as to her state of decency. There was only one person it could be. She drew a deep breath.
Please let him be fat and pockmarked. And bald. His hair had always been his vanity.
God was obviously not in a mind to favor her today. The door swung open to reveal shoulders almost the same width as the frame in a cream linen shirt and narrow hips in snug brown trousers. She was on eye level with his crotch—not that she minded, but it wasn’t very dignified.
She raised her gaze and wished she hadn’t. The last few years had been kind to Gavin MacRae. He was a tall man with long legs. His back was as straight and proud as ever. His stubbled jaw was just as firm, and his chin still had that shallow cleft. His mouth was wide and slim, bracketed by smile lines. They fanned out from the corners of his eyes, too, like faint scars in the tan of his face. Only, those blue eyes didn’t sparkle at the sight of her as they’d once done.
She dropped her gaze, chest pinching. It had to be because of the current still tormenting her body. His nose . . .
“Did you break that poor thing again?” she blurted.
He didn’t have to ask. His hand went immediately to the center of his face. Even his hands were as she remembered—long and strong.
“No,” he replied, quickly dropping his fingers. “Someone else did it for me.”
His mouth was as smart as ever as well. And he still possessed that drawl of a voice that sounded almost completely without accent except for a little Texas with a hint of Scotland—he’d grown up in both places and considered them equally as his home.
Or at least he had at one time.
Bloody hell but it was good to see him. Painful, too, like pressing on a bruise. He seemed healthy and hale—the lawless life obviously suited him. At least he was alive, which meant he’d survived a lot longer than she ever expected.
“You look good,” he said, nodding his head in her direction as he crossed his arms over the width of his chest. His shirt strained at the shoulders.
Evelyn looked down at herself. Her clothes were dirty and she’d been wearing them for almost a full twenty-four hours, she calculated, given the look of the sky outside. If he thought this was good, then his taste certainly hadn’t improved.
“So do you.” How calm she sounded—as if they were having tea. As if she hadn’t broken his heart and her own in the process. “What Nell told me about Jock—was it true?”
His features tightened. “Yeah. It’s true. We lost him two years ago.”
Just a year after she’d walked out on him. “That must have been hard for you.”
“Been through worse.” The edge in his usually smooth voice said more than any words ever could. She hadn’t been forgiven. Odd then that he’d had her brought aboard his ship unconscious.
“What’s this all about, Mac?” she asked wearily. Despite a forced nap, she was tired. Exhausted even.
“Worn out after your night of unbridled rutting?”
Under different circumstances she would have smiled at his jealousy. He rarely ever used coarse language in front of women. “Rutting” was as rude as he was likely to get. She didn’t smile, however; she rubbed her forehead and hoped the look she gave him was more disinterested than remorseful.
“If you wanted to talk, you could have come to my hotel. There was no need to grab me off the street.” Wait, was that her luggage in the corner by the armoire?
He flashed that smirk she remembered so well and leaned one shoulder against the doorframe, arms still folded over his chest. “Talk? I don’t want to talk. Darlin’, this is an abduction. Consider yourself my prisoner.”
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