Excerpt – Blood Gifts

Warning! Blood Gifts was written at the request of fans who asked to see more of the story that preceded the Final Formula Series. The novella can be read as a stand alone with no prior knowledge of the series, but readers who haven’t read up through The Alchemist’s Flame will spoil some minor surprises in the series. For blurbs, excerpts, and retailer links on the previous books in the series, just click on my BOOKS tab above.

 

Blood-Gifts-800 Cover reveal and PromotionalChapter 1

Ian leaned against the wall, his attention focused on the well-dressed crowd as he brought his glass to his lips and took a sip. Expecting a rich flavor from the fragrant white wine, he was surprised by the thin liquid that hit his tongue. He wrinkled his nose and glanced into his glass. The wine had been watered down. No surprise. This was a public affair and not a function within the Community. How ironic that he could expect better treatment at a gathering of necromancers, than at a party hosted by Baltimore’s elite.

He smiled at the irony and took another sip.

A familiar figure left the crowd and moved toward him. Ian’s smile grew as he watched his brother make his way across the room. He moved with an easy confidence that belied his—their seventeen years. More than one lady stumbled when she tried to turn quickly enough to get a good look, and an equal number of men watched from the corner of an eye.

Normally, Lex would have acknowledged the stares by flattering the ladies and challenging the men, but some game must be afoot for Lex not to notice the attention, and Ian had no doubt he was about to be drawn into it.

“What’s with the smile?” Lex asked when he reached him. “It can’t be the wine.”

Ian laughed and lowered his glass. “I was just thinking that one can expect better hospitality at a gathering of necromancers than Baltimore’s finest.”

Lex raised a brow. “This surprises you?”

“Surprises, no. I was amused by the irony.”

“You find the oddest things amusing, brother.”

Ian set aside his glass. “And what has caught your attention?”

“Willis is here.”

“Ah.” Ian didn’t need more of an explanation than that. Bradford Willis was Lex’s current nemesis. Apparently, the son of statesman Robert Willis had slandered Lex at some art exhibit Ian had missed. Lex had been scheming ever since.

“He’s showing off his new fiancée,” Lex said.

Ian smiled, seeing where this was going. “Have we been introduced to her?”

“I have. You haven’t. Though I did promise to bring you around.”

“Is she attractive?”

“Tolerable. You can always close your eyes.”

Ian pushed off the wall and straightened his coat. Lex reached up and gave his brother’s tie a tweak.

“Will I do?”

The corner of Lex’s mouth hitched upward, dimpling his cheek. Ian knew he might as well be looking in a mirror. He and Lex were identical twins, right down to the dimples.

“The things I do for you, Lex.”

“The things you do for you. And you’re welcome.”

“I haven’t seen her yet.” Ian fell in beside him as they started across the room. Once again, the crowd watched them. Some whispered behind their hands, while others openly stared. It was such a common occurrence that it barely registered anymore.

Reaching the edge of the dance floor, Lex stopped and began a survey of the area. “I should mention that there is a charming little shed in the back garden.”

Ian grunted. “You are upset.”

“Hardly upset, just—”

“Nelson,” a male voice said from behind them.

Ian was still watching Lex’s face as he turned and noted the narrowing of his blue eyes. Ian turned as well—after all, the man had addressed them both—to face a burly fellow with an unruly mass of curly brown hair and a splattering of freckles across his cheeks and nose. His coat fit him well, and his waistcoat appeared to be silk. The soft sheen of his watch chain suggested real gold. The man had money—or rather, his family did. Ian estimated him to be in his mid to late twenties.

“Isn’t that cute,” the man said. “A matching set.”

The two men standing with him offered nervous laughs, though neither met Ian’s eye when he glanced at them.

“I don’t believe I’ve met your friend,” Ian said to his brother.

“He’s more of a passing acquaintance,” Lex said. “This is Bradford Willis. Mr. Willis, my brother, Ian Nelson.”

Ian bowed, noting that Bradford did little more than nod.

“The undertaker’s twins,” Bradford said.

Ian was beginning to understand why Lex disliked the man.

“Mr. Willis?” A trio of women joined them. The one who had spoken—a moderately attractive woman in blue—laid a hand on Bradford’s arm before turning her smile on them. “You must introduce me to your friends.”

Ian glanced at Lex, and his brother gave him a small nod. This was Bradford’s fiancée and Ian’s target. He looked her over while Bradford offered a begrudging introduction. Lex was right. She wasn’t a bad-looking girl. Though the snugness of the dress and the dimples in her ample bosom suggested that she would run to fat—most likely within a year of marriage. But perhaps Bradford liked that type.

When Ian’s turn to be introduced came, he stepped forward and took her hand. He deliberately trailed a finger along her palm as his fingers slid down to grip her own.

“Miss Appleton.” He bowed over her hand. “Charmed.” He straightened, allowing his gaze to sweep up her body before returning to her face.

Color flushed her cheeks, and when she spoke, she sounded breathless. “Mr. Nelson.”

Ian smiled. Sometimes, it was too easy.

The opening strain of a new song was calling the next group of dancers to the floor. Ian glanced in that direction, his hand still holding hers. Yes, too easy.

“Would you do me the honor, Miss Appleton?” He dipped his head toward the dance floor.

“Go on, Millie,” one of her friends encouraged her. “We’ll keep his brother entertained.”

Lex laughed and turned to the girl. “Are you asking me to dance, Miss Bolson?”

She blushed, but took his hand when he offered it.

“Millicent?” Bradford was frowning at his fiancée.

“You can have the next dance,” she told him with a sly smile as she let Ian lead her out onto the dance floor. “He can be a little overprotective,” she confided once they were alone.

“I can see why.” Ian smiled then pulled her close as the waltz began.

She returned the smile, her eyes shining at the praise. Perhaps Bradford didn’t compliment her enough.

Ian moved easily into the dance, keeping up a front of small talk while subtly brushing his body against hers on the turns, or discreetly running his fingers along her back. By the time the song ended, her color was high and she stared up at him with wide eyes. Perhaps Bradford wasn’t much of a dancer, either.

“You seem a little flushed, Miss Appleton. Would a walk in the garden be helpful?”

She looked up. “With you? Probably not.”

He chuckled at her honesty and offered an arm. She took it. It amused him that she was on to him, yet still willing to come along. Apparently, Bradford hadn’t captured her heart—not that Ian believed such a thing possible. He had only to smile at any woman in the room to prove his theory.

He led Bradford’s fiancée along the garden path and with very little trouble, coaxed her over to the quaint shed Lex had mentioned. To Ian’s surprise, Lex was waiting for them. This wasn’t part of the plan.

Millie gasped when she saw him. “Mr. Nelson. What are you doing here?”

“Envying my brother.”

She dipped her head, her flushed features visible even in the low light.

Lex leaned over and opened the door to the shed, then gestured for them to enter.

Ian led her forward, and once again, she came willingly. He felt a quiver in the hand that gripped his sleeve and wondered what emotion she was feeling. Excitement? Lex’s sudden presence had made this encounter more interesting for him, though it was more along the lines of wondering what his brother was up to.

Lex followed them into the shed and closed the door behind them. The earthy smell of the dirt floor permeated the space, and Ian noted that it would be a poor location for a real tryst. A gap had been left between the top of the wall and the roof for ventilation, and currently served to let in enough light to see by. Enough that Ian saw Lex’s nod.

He was tempted to roll his eyes, but couldn’t with Millie facing him. He smiled at her instead, then leaned down and took her mouth with his own. Her kiss was hesitant at first, but she quickly warmed to him, opening her mouth to his questing tongue. She had done this before. Fortunately, Miss Appleton’s oral hygiene was good. There was nothing worse than getting caught up in one of Lex’s schemes, only to discover that the target had chronic halitosis.

Suddenly, Millie pulled back with a gasp. Ian lifted his head and discovered that Lex had stepped up behind her, his mouth currently trailing along one bare shoulder.

“What are you doing, sir?” she whispered.

“My brother and I do everything together,” Lex told her.

Ian couldn’t frown at him because Millie was once again watching his face.

“Truly?” she whispered, her eyes a little wide.

Lex straightened and gave Ian a grin. “Truly.”

This time, Ian did frown.

“Go on,” Lex encouraged. “Make her happy.”

Millie giggled and rolled up on her toes to kiss Ian again. He obliged her, wrapping his hands around her ample waist. She groaned against his mouth, and Ian wondered if it was in response to his kiss or had Lex gone back to nuzzling her shoulder. Ian was about to open his eyes and check when the fabric beneath his hands loosened. Lex was unlacing her dress.

“Oh.” Millie gasped and reached up to hold the fabric to her chest.

“Yes?” A smile colored Lex’s voice.

“I, I just expected a few stolen kisses,” she stammered. “Not—”

Lex took her chin and gently turned her toward him. “Only what you’re comfortable with.” He kissed her this time. Midway through the kiss, he opened his eyes, meeting Ian’s own. He gestured at the laces along the back of her corset.

Why? Ian mouthed the word.

Lex gestured at her back again. When Ian didn’t immediately comply, Lex ended the kiss. “My brother hesitates. He thinks you’re not interested in us.”

Millie didn’t answer in words. Instead, she reached up and pushed the dress off her shoulders. It slid down her body to pool at her feet.

Lex gave Ian a grin and a shrug.

Millie presented her back to Lex, and he began to tug at the laces of her underclothes. In moments, she was dressed in only her dancing slippers. Perhaps the whole hesitation thing had been a tease on her part. She certainly wasn’t shy now. She pressed her bare body to Ian’s fully clothed one and kissed him once more. Her kiss much more intense and forceful.

A familiar taste suffused her mouth, and it took Ian only a moment to recognize it. Blood. And not just blood. It was subtle, diluted, but he sensed the essence of necromancy. Powerful necromancy. Lex’s blood gift.

Ian caught her by the shoulders and pushed her back. She stared up at him, her brown eyes several shades lighter than they had been.

Lex chuckled, and Ian looked up into his brother’s white eyes.

Suddenly, the door banged open and light flooded the shed. Millie screamed.

“You!” Bradford shouted from the door. “Both of you.”

“Time to go,” Lex said.

Ian felt him reach out, and a portal into the land of the dead opened in the darkness behind Bradford. Of course, Bradford sensed nothing. Had he been looking right at it, he wouldn’t even see it. Only those sensitive to death could.

Millie let out another cry and ran to Bradford. Ian didn’t know if the move had been her doing or Lex’s, but it had the desired effect.

Distracted by a naked woman bouncing his way, Bradford didn’t even attempt to stop them.

Laughing, Lex ran past and jumped through the portal, Ian right behind him. The portal closed and they stood on the dark, featureless plain that stretched in every direction. The sky overhead was the inky black of a moonless and starless sky. Only a dim red glow gave this dead world a hint of light.

Lex doubled over with laughter.

Ian crossed his arms and waited. And waited. He was seriously considering giving Lex a hard kick in the ass before he finally got control of himself.

“Did you see his face?” Lex straightened and wiped his eyes.

“What did you just do?”

“Don’t start. The jerk deserved it. If you had heard the way he spoke of our Family, you would congratulate me.”

“And that justified it?”

“All we did was kiss her and get her naked. It isn’t like we forced her.”

“You possessed her.”

“So?”

“Did you forget the part where I keep quiet about your blood gift and you promise not to use it?”

“It was no big deal. You’re just mad because I was controlling her when she kissed you.” The corner of his mouth curled up.

“We’ve discussed that, too.” Ian frowned. Lex had once possessed one of Lady Scarlet’s girls—while Ian was with her. Lex had found it hilarious until Ian punched him.

“You’re such a prude.” Lex rolled his eyes.

“And you’re not right.”

Lex grinned, clearly too excited about his success to be reprimanded.

Ian sighed. There really was something not quite right about his brother. But Ian loved him, so it had fallen to him to keep Lex’s little idiosyncrasies secret. Most of the time, that wasn’t a problem.

“Come on.” Ian pulled open a portal into the old cemetery near their home and led Lex back into the mortal world. The moon had risen, bathing the graveyard in silver light.

Ian released his cramped soul, sighing as it flew free, animating several corpses deep in the ground beneath them where their moans and shufflings wouldn’t be heard. He felt Lex do the same. Necromancers had to periodically relieve the pent-up pressure on their powerful souls, or grow debilitated by the pain. The more powerful, the more frequently the necromancer had to vent. Ian and Lex visited the graveyard nightly—unless they had spent the day working at their father’s undertaker business.

Lex sighed and released the dead as Ian did the same. Wordlessly, they walked to the nearest mausoleum where they kept an empty burial vault stocked with some kind of alcoholic beverage. Tonight, Lex pulled out a bottle of brandy most likely stolen from someone’s study. With the ability to come and go at any point on the mortal plane, it was easy to keep their liquor cabinet stocked.

Unscrewing the lid, Lex took a long swallow then passed Ian the bottle.

“Speaking of your prudish tendencies,” Lex said while Ian took a long pull of brandy, “how about we visit Lady Scarlet’s tonight? Seeing Willis’s fiancée in all her glory has left me longing to release more than my soul.”

“Not tonight. You know I have to get up early.”

Lex crossed his arms. “This might be our last chance—your last chance to enjoy yourself for a while.”

“Lex.” He didn’t want to be reminded of that now.

“What? We’ve discussed this. Our Family needs this connection.”

“I know that.”

“We were very fortunate that Lord Dunstan decided to take you as his apprentice.”

“Now you sound like Father.”

Lex ignored that. “And even more fortunate that old man Dunstan’s niece and only heir is unmarried.”

“I’m sure it will be enough that I am his apprentice. That alone will elevate my status, our status in the Community.”

“Not the way it would if you were Lord Dunstan’s nephew.”

Ian knew Lex was right. The Dunstans were the most powerful Family in the Baltimore area. They led the necromancer Community and had since this country was settled. Being selected as the elderly Lord Dunstan’s apprentice had been a huge boon, but Ian wasn’t as enthused about seducing the old man’s spinster niece.

“We must all make sacrifices,” Lex said.

Ian had no argument for that. He knew how much it bothered Lex to live in his shadow, never admitting that he, too, possessed a blood gift. But unlike Ian, Lex’s blood gift would not benefit the Nelson Family. It would see them driven from polite company.

“So, Lady Scarlet’s?” Lex asked. “Shall we enjoy our last night together?”

And here was another concern. Who would keep Lex out of trouble while Ian was away? Tonight had gotten a little out of hand, but Ian could typically keep Lex from doing something they would all regret. How could he keep him in check if he wasn’t around?

“I’ll make you a deal,” Ian said. “We’ll go to Lady Scarlet’s tonight, but you aren’t to engage in any of your schemes until I get back at Christmas.”

“Deal.” Lex held out his hand.

Ian took it, marveling at how easy that was.

Lex gripped his hand. “One stipulation.”

“Lex.”

“We only rent one room.”

Ian frowned.

“Come on. Janie loves to take us both at once.”

“Seriously. You’re twisted.”

“And you’re a prude. We’re necromancers. We’re supposed to be twisted.”

Ian sighed. “Fine. Just tonight.”

Lex laughed and released his hand. “Come now, brother. Live a little. You’re soon to be a married man.” He clapped Ian on the shoulder.

“The things I do for you.”

 

Chapter 2

Ian gritted his teeth against the pain in his temples and tried not to let his irritation show as his mother adjusted his tie. Again. Lex lounged in a chair by the fireplace, smirking at him between snores. They had gotten in at a little after four this morning, and the three hours of sleep Ian had managed to get had not been enough.

“What were the two of you thinking?” Mother shook her head. “You know how important this apprenticeship is.”

“I’ll be fine,” Ian reassured her. “Lex and I just stayed up too late, it being my last night and all.”

She frowned but didn’t get to continue her lecture as the parlor door opened.

“Matilda, are you still fussing over that boy?” Father stopped on the threshold, a faint frown on his handsome features.

“She’s trying to make Lory presentable,” Lex said, getting to his feet. “You know how tough that is.”

“First impressions are important.” Mother met Ian’s eye, then stepped back.

“Lord Dunstan will not be impressed by the knot of his tie.” Father crossed the room to join them. “The only reason Ian is being considered is because he is the first Nelson to be born with a blood gift since our Family came to America.”

Ian kept his attention on his father’s imposing figure, making an effort not to glance at Lex. It was a bit annoying that he couldn’t even tell his parents about Lex’s gift. Lex was older—by ten minutes. He should be the one being shipped off for apprenticeship and forced to seduce some old spinster.

“I trust you have been practicing.” Father’s blue eyes narrowed as they met Ian’s. Could he tell that Ian was hung over? “Your blood gift caught Lord Dunstan’s attention, but he will not be impressed if you are sloppy in your animations.”

Lex snorted. “As long as Lory is up to speed on his alchemy, he’ll do fine.”

Ian bit his lip. Old man Dunstan was supposed to be an alchemy enthusiast. If not for his high standing in the Community, he would have probably been laughed out of it.

“Do you have something to add to the conversation, Deacon?” Father asked, using Lex’s first name. Father always used their first names rather than the nicknames their mother had made from their middle names.

“No, sir,” Lex answered. He glanced in Ian’s direction, clearly trying not to smile.

“Ian has the opportunity to gain the Nelson Family a place within the upper echelons of the Community. You will support him, if you wish to continue to lounge around my house.”

“Yes, sir.” Lex’s tone was cool and any hint of a smile gone. It struck Ian at that moment just how much he, or rather they, resembled their father. Though they were just beginning to achieve their father’s height and wide shoulders, they had always shared his handsome features, bright blue eyes, and golden hair.

Their mother used to tell them stories about how their father commanded attention every time he walked into a room. Even now, nineteen years later, she was still awed that he had chosen her. She was not unattractive, but certainly not an equal of her husband. It was Lex who had figured out the real reason their father had chosen her. Their mother had an unmanifested blood gift.

“Before we leave,” Father continued, addressing Ian once more, “I have something for you.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out an object.

Ian recognized the silver chain dangling from his father’s fingers before he opened his hand to display the pocket watch. On the lid, an elaborate N had been worked into the silver.

“Grandfather’s pocket watch,” Ian said.

“You will be moving in elevated circles,” Father said. “I will not have you shame our Family by presenting a cheaply made watch when asked for the time.”

“Of course.” Ian accepted the watch. He chided himself for expecting more from Father on the occasion. It wasn’t a congratulatory gift for achieving a milestone along the path to manhood, but just a means of avoiding shame for the Family.

He removed his own watch and passed it to Mother before tucking his grandfather’s watch in his pocket.

Father nodded after Ian had secured the chain. “Your trunks have been loaded. Make your farewells and join me in the carriage.” He turned without another word and left the room.

Mother immediately resumed her fussing. “You will write?”

“I won’t be that far away, nor gone so long.” Ian captured her hands before they could return to his tie. “Depending on what old man Dunstan has me doing, I may even be able to come home some weekends.”

“Lory.” Mother glanced toward the open door. “Do not speak of your benefactor like that.”

Lex chuckled and sat down on the arm of the settee. “You might forget yourself and say it to his face.”

Mother gave Lex a worried glance before turning back to Ian. “Perhaps you should heed your brother’s advice.”

“It was your advice.” Ian leaned down and kissed her cheek. “I’ll be fine, Mother. I’ll be back before you know I’m gone.”

“I feel your absence already.” She pulled a handkerchief from her pocket and dabbed her eyes. “The darkness gets closer.” Abruptly, she turned and fled the room.

Ian sighed and Lex echoed him.

“Glad Father wasn’t here to see that,” Lex muttered.

“You’ll watch over her while I’m gone?” Ian asked.

Lex gave him a frown and rose to his feet. “You say that as if you’re the only one who has been watching over her up to now.”

“You’ve been going out more and more lately.”

“You lift our Family’s fortunes your way, I’ll lift them my way.”

Ian frowned. “What are you up to?”

Lex smiled, a twinkle in his eye as if holding back a laugh.

“The smile doesn’t work on me. I’m immune to your powers of persuasion.”

Lex eyed him, his expression sobering. “Indeed, you are.” He clapped him on the shoulder, the grin resurfacing. “Good luck satisfying your old man—perhaps you should work on your smile or he might lock you in his basement laboratory.”

Ian shook his head. “As I said before, you’re twisted, Lex. Don’t forget your promise. No schemes while I’m gone.”

“You worry too much, Lory.” A wink, and Lex left him standing there.

“Here’s hoping the people in my next situation are a little less crazy.” Ian shook his head and headed for the door.

 

Ian stared at the neatly appointed laboratory that occupied what had once been a parlor in Lord Dunstan’s house. It explained the strong scent of vinegar and turpentine he had noticed upon entering the house, but it did little for his expectations of sanity. At least there were windows.

“Well, what do you think?” Lord Dunstan asked. The old man leaned on his cane and gave Ian a wide grin. His hair, more gray than dark, stood in disarray, and what appeared to be a grease stain marred the thigh of his trousers, but everything else about his new mentor spoke of wealth. Ian didn’t let the man’s rumpled appearance put him off. Lord Dunstan was supposed to be a bit eccentric, after all.

“It’s not what I expected, sir,” Ian admitted.

“The quality of the equipment exceeds your expectations?”

“The quantity. I am ill qualified to judge quality.”

A faint frown wrinkled Lord Dunstan’s forehead. “Your father told me you were a man of science.”

“I am an enthusiast,” Ian said, trying to cover his father’s falsehood. “My mother would not allow me to convert the parlor into a lab.” Ian smiled, wishing he had Lex’s easy charm and talent for falsehood.

Lord Dunstan’s expression softened, then he chuckled. “Sometimes, I forget that without a proper female influence, I have more freedoms than some men.”

“What a thing to say, Uncle,” a female voice said from the doorway behind them. “Do you mean to say I am not proper?”

Ian turned along with Lord Dunstan, expecting to face the old man’s niece. But it wasn’t a homely, middle-aged woman who had joined them.

Ian had to clamp his teeth together to keep his mouth from falling open. The girl standing on the threshold was a long way from middle-aged and the furthest thing from homely. This dark-haired beauty would turn heads wherever she went. She certainly had Ian’s full attention.

“Never, my dear.” Lord Dunstan hobbled over and took her arm. “What I meant is that you are here so infrequently that your sensible influence is seldom available to guide me.”

“Sensible? I believe it was I who suggested you turn this old parlor into a lab.” When she looked up, eyes of golden brown fringed in long dark lashes met Ian’s own. “What would you say, young man? Does that sound sensible?” She arched one perfect brow.

The young man line could have been a slap across the cheek. This girl couldn’t be much older than he, yet she baited him. What was she about?

Refusing to let her see how much the comment nettled him, he smiled. “It is an airy, pleasant room, and much more suitable for your uncle than some dank basement.”

She stripped off her gloves, still eyeing him with something close to disdain. “Much more suitable for me as well.”

“You’re an alchemist, Miss…” He glanced at Lord Dunstan, both for confirmation of her claim and a name.

“Oh, excuse me,” Lord Dunstan said. “Allow me to introduce my ward and great niece, Miss Isabelle Dunstan. Izzy, this is Mr. Ian Nelson. His father delivered him just this morning for apprenticeship.”

“A pleasure to meet you,” Ian said, unable to contain his smile. Lex was going to be so envious.

She gave him a small nod at the greeting before turning back to her uncle. “Yes, I heard that you had taken a Mr. Nelson as your new apprentice. In which discipline have you apprenticed him, Uncle?”

“Necromancy, though he is also an enthusiast of the science.” He waved a hand at the lab.

“Ah.” She started to step past them.

Lord Dunstan frowned. “Will you not shake hands with him, Izzy?”

“Pardon me.” She offered Ian her hand. “Welcome to the household, Mr. Nelson.”

Did she put a particular emphasis on his name, drawing attention to the fact that his Family was so far beneath her own? Or was he reading too much into this? Perhaps she was simply annoyed to have her private space invaded by a stranger.

“Thank you, Miss Dunstan.” He took her hand in his, sliding his fingers along her palm as he bowed over her hand.

She practically jerked her hand from his as soon as he straightened, then rubbed her fingers against her skirt. “And which discipline do you prefer to study?”

Ian smiled at her reaction, pleased that he had made her uncomfortable in turn. “I am grateful for whatever your esteemed uncle wishes to teach me.”

Lord Dunstan chuckled. “Such flattery. The young man has a blood gift, Izzy.”

“Indeed.” She lifted a brow once more. Ian thought she might be impressed before she continued. “A bragging point among those who haven’t had their family torn apart by one.”

“I was not bragging.” Ian let a little of his annoyance color his tone. This girl seemed determined to dislike him. “And I, too, have seen what an unstable gift can do.”

“Then what is your gift, sir?”

“I am told that I am a lich king, though I have never Made with my blood.”

She pursed her lips, but didn’t comment. Coming from the Family she did, she no doubt knew that the lich king was the most stable of blood gifts—as her great uncle was living proof. Maybe. An alchemy lab in the parlor didn’t instill high confidence in his sanity.

“Marvelous, isn’t it?” Lord Dunstan cut in. “It’s been decades since I have taught a fellow lich king.” He gave Ian a grin before turning back to her. “I hope you will be joining us for dinner?”

“As you like, Uncle.” Her golden-brown eyes shifted to Ian once more. “Mr. Nelson.”

“Miss Dunstan.” He dipped his head, but straightened in time to watch her walk from the room, the sway of her skirts drawing his eye. He was going to enjoy seducing her, if for no other reason than to put her in her place. She could no longer sneer at his Family once she became part of it.

Ian realized that Lord Dunstan was watching him and quickly turned back to his mentor, fumbling for something to say. “I did not realize your great niece lived with you.”

“When she’s not away at school.”

“Ah. I see.” Ian glanced again at the doorway.

“I had not expected her to return home until next week, but she arrived unexpectedly last night.”

“Is that a problem?”

“I would have preferred to get to know you better before introducing you to her.”

The old man’s bluntness surprised him. “I’m certain you inquired after the references my father sent.”

“As to your suitability for apprenticeship.”

“If my character was flawed, I’m sure it would have been mentioned.”

“Perhaps. Come along, Mr. Nelson. I will show you to your room.” Lord Dunstan led him to the door, but hesitated on the threshold. “And I should mention that unlike you, I have Made with my blood.”

Ian met the old man’s gaze, reassessing his new mentor. Lord Dunstan might not be the addled eccentric he had expected. “Warning received, sir.”

 

Chapter 3

Ian dressed for dinner with particular care, grateful that Lex had insisted he take his best and most fashionable clothing with him. Ian had argued to the contrary seeing no need to go to any great trouble to seduce a spinster niece or a doddering old fool. He had been proven wrong on both counts.

The valet Lord Dunstan had supplied him had to be ninety if he was a day. Ian dismissed his services when it came to his tie, preferring to do the task himself. But then, he did the same at home. Sometimes, if a task was to be done right, he had to do it himself.

When his tie was knotted to his satisfaction, Ian left his room. He eyed the expensive furnishings as he walked the wide halls of the stately home. He could imagine his mother exclaiming over the fall of the draperies and the plushness of the rug. Their own home was large and well-appointed, but nothing like this. Perhaps one day, he could give his mother something similar. Maybe this very house.

Ian smiled as he left the stairs and turned down the hall to the dining room. But as he drew near the adapted parlor, he heard voices within.

“You are quite certain?” a female voice asked—no, demanded. Ian recognized Isabelle’s haughty tone.

“Yes. What has you so stirred up?” Lord Dunstan asked. “You’ve barely met the young man. Do you dislike him so?”

“I’m concerned that he is here to take advantage of you.”

“Of me?” Lord Dunstan chuckled. “I invited him, my dear. He did not put himself forward. Cousin Agnes told me years ago that the Community could expect great things from his Family. When I learned he was a lich king, I had to see for myself.”

Ian lifted a brow at the comment. He had just assumed that his father had approached Lord Dunstan. Was it the other way around?

“So, now you’ve seen him,” Isabelle said, drawing Ian’s attention back to the conversation.

A moment of silence met this pronouncement, and Ian wondered at Lord Dunstan’s expression. Had she planted doubt in his mind?

“I did not raise you to see yourself as better than other members of the Community,” he spoke at last, his tone stern. “He is my apprentice and you will treat him with civility.”

“As you wish, Uncle.”

Footsteps approached the door, and Ian quickly backtracked to the corner. He didn’t want to be caught eavesdropping. He waited until he heard two sets of footfalls move into the dining room, then went to join them.

It seemed he had been right about Isabelle’s opinion of his Family. That should anger him, but he caught himself smiling as he walked down the hall. Perhaps it was the challenge. It was going to take more than a few smiles to win Miss Dunstan over, but Ian had no doubt that she would be his in the end.

 

Ian’s hopes of softening Isabelle’s cold nature over dinner were soon dashed. Though he had been given the seat to Lord Dunstan’s right, with her across from him, the old man took it upon himself to dominate the conversation. Ian was relegated to one-word answers when he joined the conversation at all. Most of the talk involved Lord Dunstan’s summary of local events Isabelle had missed while away at school. She responded with polite interest, rarely glancing in Ian’s direction over the course of the meal.

They retired to the laboratory after dinner. Isabelle moved off to the far table, and after donning an apron, began to mix some powders in a heavy porcelain bowl. Ian didn’t get to watch, because Lord Dunstan launched into a lecture on the best methods for drying herbs to preserve their magical properties. The ridiculousness of the topic didn’t make it easy to concentrate on the lecture, especially when his attention kept drifting to the far corner of the room where Isabelle now swirled a flask of bright blue liquid. Ian couldn’t help but wonder what she was mixing and why. Was she truly an alchemist or did she only humor her uncle? From what Ian understood, her present comfort did depend entirely on him—until she chose to marry.

“Have I lost your attention, sir?” Lord Dunstan’s voice broke into Ian’s musings.

“My apologies.” Ian turned back to the old man, groping for some excuse. “It has been a long day, and…I haven’t had the opportunity to exercise my gift.” That sounded like a reasonable excuse. As a powerful necromancer, Lord Dunstan should be able to appreciate that.

“While on my morning ride, I have the driver pass through the cemetery. You may join me and stop in as needed.”

Ian frowned. If he relented and said that a visit tomorrow morning was acceptable, it didn’t make his current distraction as plausible.

“I am accustomed to an evening walk,” Ian said. “I would be glad to reverse my schedule tomorrow, but might you direct me to the local graveyard this evening? I fear my sleep will be fitful otherwise.”

Lord Dunstan studied him. “You must exercise your gift daily?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Impressive.”

“More of a hindrance, except those days I work for my father.”

“I had not intended for us to spend much time at the business. My nephews oversee that now.”

Ian kept his expression neutral. If Lord Dunstan hadn’t planned for him to work as an undertaker, what exactly had he been apprenticed to do?

A clink of glass drew his attention to Isabelle. Alchemy, of course. It seemed Ian was going to spend his apprenticeship learning to be an alchemist.

She glanced back at that moment and her gaze met his. “I can show him, Uncle.”

Both Ian and Lord Dunstan stared at her.

“I’m sure the young man can find his way,” Lord Dunstan said.

“It has been a few days, and I could do with a release myself,” Isabelle said.

Ian wondered at her offer. She had shown no interest in interacting with him until now.

“He is an honorable man, is he not?” she continued. “I know you are very selective with whom you apprentice.”

“Well, yes, I am.” Lord Dunstan still looked uncertain.

“Besides, I have this.” She held up a vial of yellow-green liquid. “I shall turn him into a toad if he forgets himself.”

Ian laughed. “Indeed, Miss Dunstan. I will give you no cause for such a harsh act.”

She removed her apron and draped it over the table where she had been working. “You don’t believe, but you will.” Her golden-brown eyes bore into his own with no hint of amusement.

“Very well,” Lord Dunstan said. The way he acquiesced surprised Ian, and he watched with unease as Isabelle tucked the vial into the pocket of her dress. Might there be more to this alchemy hocus-pocus than he realized?

“You will treat my niece with the utmost courtesy,” Lord Dunstan said to him now. “Otherwise, your father will collect you on the morn—or worse.”

“I will protect her as if she were my own,” Ian swore. It wasn’t until the words were out that he realized how odd they sounded. His own what? Sister, niece…lover?

Maybe he really did need to release the tension on his soul. He and Lex hadn’t spent much time among the dead last night.

Isabelle was studying him, a faint frown wrinkling her brow.

“If you’re ready?” Ian said, needing to break the awkward silence.

Isabelle nodded and headed for the door. Ian hurried after her, not wanting to hear any more of Lord Dunstan’s threats.

 

“So…a toad?” Ian asked as they walked along the street. He had offered Isabelle his arm, and she surprised him by taking it. What was behind her sudden change of heart? Had her uncle’s reprimand affected her so much?

“More of a rash with painful boils. Certainly you did not believe me capable of such powerful magic?”

“Your uncle relented rather quickly when you brandished your vial. I feared there might be some truth to it.”

She glanced up, then away again. “You are not an alchemist, are you, sir?”

Ian hesitated. His father had clearly implied to Lord Dunstan that Ian had studied the art, but if Ian went along with the falsehood, Isabelle was sure to see through it.

“Mr. Nelson?” she prompted.

“My Family is new to the area, and my father values your uncle’s opinion a great deal. I believe he may have embellished my knowledge in that sphere.”

“Mmm.”

“That’s not to say I’m uninterested. It just never occurred to me as a course of study.”

“Because alchemy is the science of crazy old men and charlatans?”

“The public might make a similar claim about necromancy, but we both know it’s very real. If one form of magic exists, who am I to judge that another does not?”

“That does sound like a logical conclusion.”

Ian smiled. Yes, it did, didn’t it? “Perhaps you might show me a little of the craft so my lack of knowledge doesn’t cause your uncle to dismiss me.”

“I believe you will gain more if you are honest with him. My uncle is a reasonable man. He cannot expect you to be a master of such an archaic craft.”

“So you do not wish to instruct me?”

“I know what you are about, Mr. Nelson.” She released his arm and walked ahead of him. They had reached the cemetery, and she stepped through the open gate then began to weave her way among the headstones.

“I’m not certain I understand you,” Ian said, following. The fall leaves crunched underfoot, adding their musty scent to the air.

She stopped near a worn wooden bench beneath a large oak tree and faced him. “It may come as a surprise, but I have heard of you. You and your brother.”

A thread of unease twisted through Ian’s stomach at the mention of Lex. “In what manner?”

“A school mate of mine told me of a pair of handsome twins with the worst reputations.”

The little thrill he got at the handsome comment died instantly. “Please, go on.”

“They are said to be the very worst of rakes.”

“And you believed this idle report?” Was this the reason she had been so cold to him?

“My friend’s name is Bernice Adams.”

The argument Ian had been preparing died on his lips. “I’m sure it’s all just a misunderstanding.”

“That your brother had a tiff with her brother, and instead of settling their differences honorably, you allowed yourself to be caught with her in compromising circumstances?”

“Compromising? Hardly. All I did was kiss her.”

“All? You had to know how the incident would be viewed in society. Why else would you have used this method to get back at her brother? The pair of you may have managed to anger him, but you destroyed her, and she did you no wrong.”

“Destroyed? Oh, please. Such language you use.”

“You do not appreciate the fragility of a woman’s reputation. You are a cad, sir. Nothing more than a devil with the countenance of an angel.” She took a step toward him, her golden-brown eyes flashing in the evening light. “I tried to convince my uncle of your unsuitability, but he saw my protest as simple snobbery. I refuse to drag down Bernice’s good name further by giving him the particulars—though it might not have mattered. He is, after all, enamored with your blood gift.”

Ian sighed. “Miss Dunstan.”

She held up a hand to silence him. “Your words are no better than your smiles. Spare me both. Good night, sir.” She turned on her heel and marched away.

“Hell’s blood.” Ian dropped onto the bench and watched her go. He now understood why she had offered to show him to the cemetery. She wanted to get him alone so she could scold him. “Damn it, Lex.”

He had known that it was only a matter of time before Lex got him in trouble, but he didn’t expect repercussions like this.

He should just laugh them off. After all, Lord Dunstan had refused to turn him away. So why did it bother him that she knew of his sins? He rubbed both hands over his face. Blazes, she was beautiful when she was angry.

Dropping his hands, he glared at the foliage overhead. What a stupid thing to notice.

He rose to his feet. Perhaps it would be best to let this whole marriage scheme go. He would focus on Lord Dunstan and win his approval honestly. Well, as honest as one could be while feigning an interest in alchemy.

<<<>>>

Pick up a copy at: Amazon | Kobo | Barnes & Noble | Smashwords | Apple