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THE IRON DUKE
by Meljean Brook

Genre: Paranormal Romance, Steampunk, Paranormal/Urban Fantasy

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Though Mina had never been introduced to someone of Trahaearn’s standing before, she’d seen Superintendent Hale meet a marquess without a single gesture to acknowledge that he ranked above her. Mina followed that example and offered a short nod before addressing him.

“Your Grace, I understand that you did not witness this man die.”

“No.”

“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 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.

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

She addressed the duke again. “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 he 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.” With a nod, she turned toward the steps, where Newberry adjusted the camera’s thermite flash. 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 hadn’t brought 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. She looked round for Newberry, and saw that the black powder from the ferrotype camera already dusted his hands. Blast it. 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 hackles rose at the command. She looked up into Trahaearn’s face and heard a noise from his companion, a snorted half laugh—as if Trahaearn had failed an easy test.

The duke’s expression didn’t soften, though his words did. “You’ll finish more quickly if I assist you. Will you allow me?”

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.”

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

Mina wouldn’t have been surprised if his presence had, as well. With his great size, Trahaearn 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. To her surprise, his teeth flashed in a smile—then his face quickly hardened again, as if his smile had surprised him, as well. He bent his head over her hand again and Mina found herself staring at his short eyelashes, so thick and black that his eyelids seemed lined with kohl. She looked away, but gold glinting through the thickness of his dark hair drew her gaze again.

Three tiny rings pierced the top curve of each ear. His earlobes had been pierced, too, though he wore no jewelry in them.

And so the newssheets had dressed him up. In a drawing, his thickly-lashed eyes and jewelry would have appeared feminine. But not up close, not in person. Instead, the effect was . . . primitive.

Unsettled, 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.” The Iron Duke studied her with unreadable eyes. “He wouldn’t let anyone through.”

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

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

His expression changed as he continued to pull. First registering surprise, as if he hadn’t realized 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. 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.

Mina 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 mind focused.

“Tell me, captain: Did you plan to assist her, or undress her?” she heard his companion ask. Trahaearn didn’t reply, and Mina didn’t look back at him.

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