Engraved: Book Five of The St. Croix Chronicles

BOOK: Engraved: Book Five of The St. Croix Chronicles
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Engraved:
Book Five of The St.
Croix Chronicles
By Karina Cooper

Cherry St.
Croix returns to the fog-ridden streets of Victorian London
,
where the balance of power threatens all that she loves.

I will not wither without laudanum. Sober and determined, I have chosen another way—alchemy, and the pursuit of wellness it embodies. My name is Cherry St. Croix, and though freedom is finally at my fingertips, I return to the blackened streets intent on righting the wrongs I’d left behind.

All is not well in London low. Caught in a war between gangs, men are torn limb from limb, and I am called on to ascertain how. The immoral Karakash Veil is no doubt involved, and Micajah Hawke, a prisoner in his own Menagerie, cannot soften the danger this time.

Armed with the alchemical arts I have learned, my ever present guardian, and what few friends are left to me, I embark on a campaign to rescue the ringmaster I cannot abandon, save the Brick Street Bakers from annihilation, and finally face that which frightens me the most—my own heart.

Book five of the St.
Croix Chronicles

106,000 words

Dear Reader,

August here in North America is one of last-minute frenzy for many of us: fit in as many more days at the beach as possible while it’s still blazing hot, get one final vacation in before school starts, and read as many excellent books as you can before next month’s books arrive. Okay, maybe that last one could be said of every month (at least for me) but with beach time and vacation time does come more reading time, so I find I often get to read more in August than any other month.

This month, kick off your beach reading with a little contemporary crack romantic suspense from Lisa Marie Rice. I’ve been a fan of her writing for years, and I’ve read everything she’s written, so I was thrilled when she agreed to come write for me at Carina Press, and revive her popular Midnight series in
Midnight Vengeance
. Longtime fans of Lisa Marie Rice will see a return to her well-known, compulsively readable, alpha-tastic story and characters. Readers new to Lisa Marie Rice can dive in to
Midnight Vengeance
and discover just what I mean by contemporary crack, compulsively readable and So. Darn. Good!

Fans of contemporary crack-type reads will find themselves drawn to Heather Long’s
Some Like It Deadly
, a book everyone on the team found themselves talking about just how much they liked it. As attorney and best friend to a grand duke, Richard Prentiss has dealt with everything from the paparazzi to business moguls, but when he takes an interest in Kate Braddock, his new “personal assistant,” it’s up to her to keep it professional—unbeknownst to him, it’s her job to step in front of the bullet with his name on it.

New York Times
bestselling author Shannon Stacey is back with her final (for now) novel in the Kowalski series. Meet Max: a little bit odd, a little bit obsessive, a whole lot sweet and sexy. He’s ready to find his perfect match, someone he can share his days and nights with. Meet Tori: a little bit flirty, a little bit sassy, a whole lot happy being single. She’s ready for some temporary fun, to help Max get in dating fighting form. What she’s not ready for is to find herself longing to be the person Max spends his time with. After having a front row seat to her parents’ bitter divorce—and bitter after-divorce—she’s determined not to go down that road herself. And Max is determined to be the one to change her mind. Don’t miss
Falling for Max
—you’ll fall in love with him too.

If you’re in the mood for more contemporary romance, I urge you to pick up Stacy Gail’s
One Hot Second
. Stacy has mastered the art of creating a contemporary romance that’s both deeply emotional and offers laugh out loud moments. And for those contemporary readers who love the
Upstairs
,
Downstairs
feel of
Downton Abbey
, you’ll love Tamara Morgan’s contemporary romance
When I Fall
. After a leaked photo forces rich, privileged media trainwreck Becca Clare to lie low for a few weeks, she puts her trust into the hands of the last man in the world who’s qualified to safeguard it—Jake Montgomery, a profligate playboy whose one ambition in life is to have no ambitions at all.

Kate Willoughby follows up her dynamite debut contemporary romance release,
On the Surface
, with
Across the Line
. Left winger for the NHL San Diego Barracudas, Calder Griffin is hellbent on proving he can be a top six player like his hotshot older brother, but when he meets Becca, he discovers that, like hockey, love demands a lot of hard work and pain, but in the end, it’s worth the fight.

Fans of paranormal romance will be drawn to
Dangerous Calling
by A.J. Larrieu. Powerful telekinetic Cass Weatherfield has learned to control her dangerous abilities, but when she faces a terrifying new enemy, she’s forced to embrace the dark side of her powers, with devastating results.

And for those looking for a little more erotic with their paranormal, Nico Rosso’s
Ménage with the Muse
should be right up your alley. Two very different demon rockers, Wolfgang the wild drummer and Ethan the solitary guitarist, find their fated Muse at a music festival, and it’s the same woman, Mia, a musician who’s been hurt so many times she’s slow to trust anyone, let alone two satyrs who have drawn her into their world.

If you love your science fiction with an edge of mystery,
The Freezer
by Timothy S. Johnston is a chilling whodunit at a claustrophobic and secluded station; a classic murder mystery scenario transformed into electrifying techno-thriller... It’s a case where the only thing that can prevent the investigator from dying a cold and cruel death is the love of the most remarkable woman he’s ever met.

Also in the science fiction category, irrepressible heroine Cherry St. Croix is back and returning to fog-choked London to settle her debts once and for all—and to rescue the Menagerie’s wicked ringmaster, whether he wants it or not, in Karina Cooper’s steampunk
Engraved
.

As always, don’t forget to visit the awesome collection of romance, mystery, science fiction and fantasy in our backlist including titles from Ava March, Shannon Stacey, and Vivian Arend.

Coming in September, 2014: Mystery week! I can’t wait for you to get your hands on our “lifestyle Elvis” mystery! Also, the riveting conclusion to Lynda Aicher’s Wicked Play series, romances from Christi Barth, Alison Packard and more!

Here’s wishing you a wonderful month of books you love, remember and recommend.

Happy reading!

~Angela James
Editorial Director, Carina Press

Dedication

Hang in there
, #
TeamHawke

Chapter One

I was nine years old when I picked my first pocket.

Thanks in no small part to habits acquired in my youth, I could no longer recall what it was that I fogled from the gentleman at that time. With sobriety upon me, the laudanum-fueled dreams I had once suffered now dwindled to a trickle, and in that trickle, my already nebulous memories leaked away.

I recalled dimly a pocket watch, but I had not been allowed my own possessions for many months, and I could no longer remember what it looked like.

That what I knew of my past had been told to me, brief tales to shore up the patchy memories that seemed now to be more dream than truth. I spent my youth in Monsieur Marceaux’s Traveling Curiosities Show, plucked from the orphanage where the carelessness of my parents’ demise had left me. Already accustomed to the taste of Godfrey’s Cordial—a mix of treacle and opium by which the orphanage’s children were subdued—it seemed a simple matter to succumb to the good monsieur’s hegemony when he offered a purer form of the same.

Under his strict engagement, I developed skills that were as useful within a circus ring as they were committing innumerable felonious acts. I became an accomplished pocket-fogler, my body trained to agility so that I might slip into locations where I shouldn’t. I learned what it was to fight for my life by way of acrobatic skill and clever escape rather than fists, but each were lessons well-learned. The traits I’d developed to survive a criminal’s upbringing never faded, though the details of the learning might.

Despite the intervening years spent away from the good monsieur’s bait and lash, despite the obscure recollections that no longer painted the backs of my eyelids in lurid color, my body remembered what it was to be counted among his foysting best.

My name is Cherry St. Croix, and though I was in profession a collector, I could not rely on the designation to ease my way now.

In truth, while I had been called many things over the years, my name was rather more malleable than I would have preferred. I could not recall what it was they called me in my criminal youth, yet I inherited the St. Croix name when I lived for a time as a proper heiress after. Because I had no real love for the restrictions of the role, I took for myself a secret identity below London’s soot-ridden fog; a collector with no known moniker—only that minimally polite pet name designated by the fearsome ringmaster of the Midnight Menagerie.

For him, I was Miss Black. Though he had never explained the reason, I had always thought it for the lampblack that turned my natural garnet-hued tresses dark as the name he’d chosen. I wore this guise when I took on the dangers of a collector’s occupation, and this role saw me often within the decadent pleasure garden’s domains.

More accurately, within Micajah Hawke’s purview.

I consider Hawke’s existence to be one of several forces that caused me to accept an earl’s proposal of marriage—a proposal that I had not wholly thought I wanted, nor deserved.

Marriage gave me a title that should have come with freedom, and I became Countess Compton for the briefest of hours. My late husband, not only an upstanding member of the peerage but a good man by any standard, met his demise by way of a rival collector.

I did not want the title. Or the name. Without the earl to soften the gilded trappings of the peerage, I saw no life for me in London’s airy heights. I had always thought Compton too good for me; a truth made all the more apparent when he had died for my efforts to escape the life I’d led.

That self-same path led me here.

All things appropriately calculated, I could imagine very little worse than where I stood now: frozen outside the Midnight Menagerie’s enormous circus tent, wide-eyed and trembling, whilst my tutor in all things exoteric and alchemical planted his lips upon mine.

Or so it might seem by way of casual scrutiny.

And there was much of that to be had. While the large red canvas tent had always been a fixture of the Menagerie grounds, I had never been close enough to see the workings of its own circus unfold. A gaily chattering crowd stood obediently in line as they awaited access to the seats within, many dressed in their evening best.

For those of the middle and lower classes, this included such materials as clean wool, unstained fustian and corduroy, pretty bits of trimming and the occasional fine brooch or cufflinks. Even the lowest class made an effort, washing up for a night under the canvas.

There was much talk and laughter. The tinkling cheer of the orchestra jangled a merry little tune to keep spirits high, though the stridency seemed overwhelming to me.

The whole of the atmosphere balanced on a precarious wire between excitement and something far more insidious. A sense of hunger, of thinly veiled anticipation that slipped under my guard and left me shuddering in its wake.

I felt all too keenly as though I knew this feeling. As though I had been born to it, or raised to act within it.

My fingers twitched.

My escort’s breath washed over my temple. “Are you unwell?”

It may have looked like a kiss, but the truth of it was that Mr. Oliver Ashmore, in his guise as careless rakehell showing off the bit of muslin that was my role, had taken note of my discomfort and halted us both before my legs gave way.

His fashionably gloved hand curved at my nape.

My fingers, also gloved, as was appropriate for an evening out, curled into the front of his greatcoat without my say-so.

I
was
unwell. So unwell that I thought how nice it might be if I could only taste a bit of the laudanum that had once been prescribed me for night terrors I no longer suffered.

I did not say so. To give voice to the hunger drying my throat would only assure Ashmore that I was not yet ready for this venture.

A truth that even I thought likely, but could not risk. We had come to this Menagerie despite the danger because I intended to rescue the very same ringmaster who had, in his final act as self-righteous bastard and Menagerie puppet, placed me upon a stage and sworn to own me.

Ashmore did not like it.

I did not care.

I had suffered my fill of my own stupidity. I had no more interest in playing the weak-willed creature I now realized that I had made myself out to be—a thing I had long convinced myself of.

I had survived an abrupt severing from the gentle embrace of the opium I’d grown accustomed to. I owed it to Micajah Hawke to attempt the same from whatever it was the Veil held over him.

The man, for all his unpredictable behavior, had helped me more often than I’d been aware. For all his wanton cruelty and boorish behaviors, he had softened consequences that I had not known were mine to take—an oversight that had cost us both. And I had many questions I intended for him to answer; the least of which demanded an explanation for his abominable behavior.

The greatest of my questions remained one even I was yet unprepared to ask.

Still, this determination was not enough to motivate my quailing heart. The tent beside us jutted into the dark sky, overshadowed by the gloom that covered all of London below the boroughs the peerage had raised on hydraulic girders. I was accustomed to this shrouded darkness, but tonight, it did not seem as familiar as it once had. Despite my ambition, I was afraid.

To be sure, I had naught but courage when it came to hunting down them what owed debts of flesh or coin. As a collector, I had faced men larger and stronger than I, doxies with little more to lose than a shivving would earn them, and fellow collectors. I had faced monsters of my own making—even them of my blood—and for all that, as the crowd pushed for the best seats and a band played merrily from within, I could not take one more step.

Hysteria caught me by the throat.

Ashmore’s hand clamped down upon my waist. “That’s enough,” he said tightly. “We are done here.”

I refused to allow this weakness a refuge.

“Just one moment,” I hissed through clenched teeth. “I’m all right.”

“You’re shaking,” he countered. The youthful countenance that I had come to admire—so at odds with the stern will beneath it—remained taut, overly austere for the rakehell he was meant to be. “We will find another way.”

I shook my head, an erratic tilt more than a full gesture.

“Then Hawke bedamned,” he snapped beneath his breath, and swept an arm around my corseted waist. I was not dressed quite so fashionably as Society demanded, but near enough that I might be mistaken for a kept woman of some means. The corset beneath my fitted bodice felt much too tight after my long recovery in unstructured tea gowns.

That I had lost a great deal of the excess flesh I’d carried was due to the vagaries of the tar I’d consumed, and it made Ashmore’s confining arm seem all the more long for it. He could practically cradle me in one.

I elbowed him as subtly as I dared. “Tap me on the cheek, would you?”

The look he slanted me from beneath ordinarily orange eyebrows, taken to a walnut brown for sake of this masquerade, burned with affronted dignity. “I beg your pardon?”

“Just a bit of a love tap,” I insisted, aware that few enough eyes rested upon us—but among them were those who spied for the Karakash Veil that owned the gardens we stood in.

Owned Hawke.

And, truth be told, all but owned me.

Were it not for this false hair of light brown and the heavily applied rouge to cheeks and lips, I had no doubt the footmen in black and green livery would have converged upon us the moment we were seen crossing the gates. The Veil’s spokesman would undoubtedly relish seeing me again, if only to hide behind the silk screen that concealed his face and offer pithy proverbs as his finely trained servants took my head.

Though we could do little enough about the color of my green eyes, I was hardly the only woman to possess a pair. The features I had become known for were my hair—jeweled red or flat black—and the various items I wore when collecting.

These, too, had been taken from me. I needed to replace them, and quickly. I felt all too vulnerable without my armor. The carefully designed corset had been stitched with thin slats of steel underneath the structured panels, high-necked to protect my heart and buckled in place at my throat. While I had walked away from collections bruised and battered, the armor had saved me the worst of it, just as the fog-protectives I’d worn over my eyes had saved my sight.

I had grown to rely on these items, just as I had come to rely on the opium I’d used to salve my mind.

Of the two, I knew it was not the tools of my trade I would have reached for first, but it was the only option Ashmore would allow me. I simply needed the supplies to build more. And the time to do so, which I had not yet given myself.

Nor yet been allowed, truth be told.

Previous antics—of my own design and of my mad father’s, who had not been quite so deceased at the time as I had been led to believe—had placed me within the Karakash Veil’s debt. The first of Hawke’s open rebellion against his Chinese masters unfolded in the wake of my father’s mad schemes, and though I did not know that he acted out of turn, he had saved my life.

Later, I witnessed the scars left upon him for that temerity.

I had been too fixated on my revenge, and though I labored long and hard to rid myself of the burden of debt, I had been too blind to see what shackles I’d forged for myself. The cage the Veil closed about me proved to be unbreakable, and I’d lost more than my identity—I’d lost friends.

I had lost the security of a life I now knew had not been entirely mine, but indirectly safeguarded by those who had come to care for me.

That
was a debt I would repay.

That was why I stood in this godforsaken line, why I listened to the strident fury of the orchestra and thought to enter the one place that had terrified me from the start.

Responsibility, keenly felt whilst sober, was a damnable burden.

Ashmore knew of the Menagerie’s many dangers; just as surely as he knew of the lure to be found within. Although most anything could be purchased within its borders, discretion was not among them, and what I asked now would not be discreet.

I had thought to simply set eyes upon Hawke, to judge for myself his placement and the state of his being, but if I could not even do that with the ease of a common spectator, how did I expect to extract him from the Veil he served?

The appreciative chatter of the queue behind my escort, the swish of fine fabrics and gossamer hems in sway alerted me to the presence of the midnight sweets—flesh for purchase, girls owned by the Menagerie that peddled them like fine wares.

Some worked the circus rings, as bits for show or ringside flirts, and all knew how to work the crowds in order to loosen purse strings. That they bantered along the line was common enough.

I recognized none who teased and laughed with them that waited, tickets in hand. A relief, for the sake of my purpose, but also a disappointment.

I wanted a friendly face to step outside; better were it the less-than-friendly but all the more important face of the ringmaster.

If I could simply
see
him.

My chest squeezed. My breath shorted as my pulse knocked hard enough to nearly drown the trilling music. I could not get enough air.

I had to be better than this.

My only recourse was to cause a scene, the sort that might garner the ringmaster’s interest. I had known Hawke for years. He was a man who handled all matters under his watch with his own hands. Fearsome though the Menagerie ringmaster could be, he was nothing if not efficient and brutally responsible.

Far more than I, who had allowed him to take the burden of my well-being too often.

I forced myself to inhale deeply, silently apologized to Ashmore, who suffered for his concern for me, and whispered, “
Allez
,
hop.

My escort’s jaw tightened until I thought he might grind his teeth into dust. Although the corona of copper bright hair that so distinguished him had been turned to a deeper brown, the eyes beneath his drawn brows were the same catlike brown they had always been, and they filled now with steely resolve.

BOOK: Engraved: Book Five of The St. Croix Chronicles
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