New York City, New York 1885
Damn these skirts!
Emma Clearwater grunted as she raced down the alley. Her nose crinkled at the smell of the day’s waste, tossed out windows to the streets below. She stopped to catch her breath and bent forward, ripping at the layers of her dress to free her legs. Back at the chase, her booted foot had sloshed a puddle onto her newly exposed calf. Her adrenaline and blood pumped and throttled her forward. Only a few activities were more thrilling than a good chase, none of which were considered proper for a young “lady.”
The weight of her gold-plated, double-barrel revolver with the Clearwater emblem emblazoned on the frame, felt natural in her hands. A custom designed birthday gift from her father and everything a slayer ever dreamed of. She rounded the corner of the alley onto the city street. Her target darted past a motorized carriage. Bronze gleamed in the moonlight as Emma passed the medievalesque transport and she came too close to the guard spikes that decorated its sides.
A bead of blood ebbed down her shoulder and she cringed.
Bastard, you will pay for that.
She didn’t care that he wasn’t directly responsible for her injury, but his questionable behavior and night stalking for two months now had placed him on Emma’s radar. Clearly, it was his fault she was out here hunting.
A woman’s head covered in perfectly coiled curls poked out from the carriage’s open window. Aghast, she shrieked at the sight of blood on her carriage rather than on Emma. “Heathen child!”
“Do I look like a child?” Emma snapped as she dashed off, leaving the sputtering woman stuck in the horse-clogged streets.
Filth clung to her hem as she followed her mark down a narrow alleyway. The stench of rotten garbage and city smog assaulted her nostrils, but what would fell most proper ladies was merely a nuisance for her.
She would slay the man the moment she got her hands on him.
He came to an unexpected halt. Passing by at the end of the alleyway just ahead of him was a gaggle of excitable schoolchildren with bags slung over their shoulders and candies stuffing their pockets.
It was the perfect opportunity to kill the distance between them and catch up to her lead, but even the respectable Emma Clearwater had limits. She skidded to a halt at the man’s side as she offered the last passing child a warm smile.
“’Ello, miss!” the little boy announced before he scurried to catch up with his friends.
For a split moment Emma’s eyes connected with her target, revealing his palpable fear before his feet set off at a sprint back through the busy street.
“Oh, seven hells,” Emma muttered as her fingers clung to the weight of her skirts to keep them from tangling in her feet. She wished it was proper to wear trousers.
Her swift chase startled a passing bicyclist, sending the elderly gentleman crashing to the ground in a twist of metal and cry of surprise. She heard witnesses gasp, and had she been doing anything but putting on a chase, she would have stopped herself. This was far too important, though, to give it up for anything else.
The air turned thicker as they neared the industrial side of the city, lined with warehouses and factories pumping the skies full of smog and steam. Ahead Emma saw her chance in a tight alcove that would at least give her a moment’s privacy in taking the man down.
Only a few steps behind her target, she lunged after him, her outstretched fingers burying themselves in a forceful hold on the back of his linen coat. She jumped into the passing alcove, wrenching the man along with a forceful swing. His skull smacked off the stone wall and hung slightly limp.
Dazed and off-balance, the man’s weight plunged him and the unsuspecting Emma to the ground. Grappled together, they pawed at vulnerable necks for supremacy.
His blurted words threw hot air across her face. “I’m not the one you want!”
Emma’s fingers dug into his neck. “You’re a dragonborne, aren’t you?”
In her eyes, that was reason enough, but he was right in deciphering she sought one target in particular.
“The dragonborne haven’t killed a slayer in years,” he said.
His weight sent them rolling out of the alcove in a tangle of grasping limbs. Emma’s back hit the dirtied street first, soaking through her layers of crinoline and sending a stark chill down her spine.
The hard hit loosed her grip on his neck. A passing carriage splashed mud into the air and sprayed her face. She closed her eyes to shield them. Through the darkness, she knew the man slipped away. Emma peeked one eye open. Mud and dirt stung at her eyes, but she didn’t relent.
Unexpectedly, she felt his weight lifting but saw no one at all. He’d gone invisible.
“Dammit!” she said, as her fist slammed against the ground.
At her side, a more traditional horse-drawn carriage had come to a complete halt. Shocked ladies gawked out the open window at her dirty predicament.
Hopefully, none of them would recognize her. She did still have a reputation to uphold, and in their eyes, she’d just rolled around fighting nothing but her own imagination. Countering their assumptions with a blame of magic wasn’t the best course of action, either. Like most of society, they clearly had no idea anything outside of the ordinary even existed.
A night or more in the psychiatric ward did not sound like a fun evening, indeed.
“Charles!” One of the women sharply ordered of the driver. “Help that mad woman before she injures someone!”
Emma groaned as she pushed herself upright. The driver jumped down from his perch and before her, he cowered in utter loss.
“Uh, ma’am, what—”
“G’day, sir,” Emma called out politely as she offered a perfect curtsy and bolted down the street.
Dumbfounded, the man and his ladies stared with dropped jaws with no intentions of chasing down the lunatic running amok through the streets.
Lady Emma Clearwater was no true lunatic though, and in a hurry, she sprinted toward her first option of respite. She stood at the entrance of her friend’s home and knocked politely. She wiped at her gown to push off what little dirt she could. Unfortunately, much of it still dripped with thick mud and wouldn’t clean easily.
The door swung open, and Henrietta Collins’s eyes widened at the sight of her disheveled friend. “Emma, what’s happened?”
In a hurry, Henrietta ushered her inside, but Emma dared not move far beyond the threshold. Surely she would stain Henrietta’s favorite area rugs.
“I nearly had a dragonborne, but he vanished, quite literally,” Emma said with an air of disgust.
Henrietta’s arms slipped across her chest. “You rolled around in the mud in front of witnesses, didn’t you?”
Sometimes it seemed the woman knew her all too well, though it wasn’t a difficult feat given they were both born slayers. Someone needed to protect the world from the magical creatures that need not exist on earth, and if ladies needed to take up the mantle, then so be it.
“There were perhaps . . . a few witnesses,” Emma admitted as she reached up to fix her fallen curls, only to realize mud had weighed them down as well. Replacing a dirtied gown was one thing, but repairing her hair was another entirely.
“And you chose to come here, rather than go home?” Henrietta asked as one of her house staff stepped into the room and froze at the sight of Emma caked in mud.
Emma ignored the woman. “Your house was closer, and father’s entertaining tonight. I certainly can’t waltz into the house looking like this while he’s in the throes of a poker game.”
“You’re in need of a fresh gown, then.”
“If you’d be so kind.”
Henrietta’s gaze turned to the maid who’d managed to mask her shocked expression. “Ms. Bonet, would you please ready some bathwater and my violet walking gown for Emma?”
“Yes, of course.” The woman’s curtsy was cut off quick as she rushed up the stairs.
Henrietta waited until Ms. Bonet’s footsteps faded before signaling the pair had privacy once more. “Come now, you’ve more to say, don’t you? I can see it in your eyes, Emma.”
Emma’s lips curled in response. It was nice to have someone she could talk with that understood her odd choice of career.
“It’s as if he knew who I was looking for. He said he wasn’t the one I wanted, and that the dragonborne haven’t killed a slayer in years.”
Henrietta’s head tilted in curious regard. “Ballocks! If that’s the case, then how did Everett die?” Henrietta’s great uncle lived in London and she’d often picked up on his colorful vocabulary.
“Precisely my thought, my dear friend.” Everett Brant was Emma’s cousin, and while they’d never been particularly close, she’d taken great personal offense to the untimely death of one of her family members. “And if this man and the dragonborne weren’t responsible, then why was it I caught him staring in Victoria Hadley’s windows?”
“No!” Henrietta looked aghast. Victoria was another of their slayer line, who would not allow her lesser sensibilities to be put on display in public. She would have let the perpetrator run free rather than allow anyone to see her in such a state.
“Oh, yes. I’d seen him before, lurking in the shadows on more than one occasion, but I hadn’t been able to put much thought to it until Father confirmed he was a dragonborne.” Such a genetic makeup was enough to condemn a man, but to add the stalking of women and spying on Emma’s dear friends made him a priority target.
A door clicked open upstairs, and at the crest of the second level, the woman’s mousy brown hair appeared. “Miss Collins? Your bath and gown are ready.”
“Ah, thank you.” Henrietta made her way for the stairs and waved at Emma to follow. “Come along now, we can’t have you showing up at home looking so drab.”
Soon, Emma found herself seated in her friend’s powder room while the latter dutifully plucked dried mud from her hair. It was a tedious task, but luckily one Henrietta didn’t mind. It also helped that she was able to gossip along the way.
“Have the final plans been set for your engagement party?” Henrietta asked, drawing a huff of a sigh from Emma.
“I don’t know if I can handle another question on what types of sandwiches or how much tea I desire for it.”
“But . . .” Henrietta wiped a particularly matted piece of Emma’s hair clean with a damp cloth. “You know that’s what everyone will judge you on, and you are a Clearwater, after all.”
“Yes, well, what will they think if Frederick doesn’t make it back in time?”
“What?” Henrietta stopped her motions. She stepped around her friend to look her in the eye. “You mean to tell me your own betrothed may not be at your engagement party?”
Emma merely shrugged. “I’m not certain, but from what I understand, his business has been delayed and that might affect his travels.” He’d been in London already for weeks, and crossing the Atlantic was no small task.
“That is the least romantic thing I have ever heard.” Henrietta scoffed as she returned to her task of hair with a renewed vigor. Emma winced under the pain of it but made no protests.
“What of our betrothal has been romantic? Nothing. You know this is simply an arranged match.”
In fact, she’d chosen Frederick Milton merely because he was from a family of slayers. Never could she have faced the prospect of being tied down by society’s traditional values, so at least with Frederick she would be given the chance to continue her work.
“What about love?”
“Love?” Emma practically choked on the word.
“Yes. Don’t you want love? Romance? Passion?”
No. Well—yes, she did—but love, romance, and passion weren’t practical for a woman like Emma. She’d a legacy to fulfill and a respectable name to uphold. Gentleman preferred wives fast asleep in their beds come nightfall, not scampering across the dark streets of New York.
“I think you’ve read far too many novels, my dear. Shakespeare will do naught but damage to a woman’s rational mind.”
“Well,” Henrietta huffed, “you know how I feel of it.”
“Yes, I know you’re a tireless, hopeless romantic in need of an intervention.”
“I am not!” Henrietta looked legitimately offended by the notion, but the truth often hurt.
Emma smirked to herself and grabbed the damp cloth to finish wiping the mud from beneath her nails. “You once declared you were in love after having met a man for no more than five minutes time.”
“I was young and didn’t know any better!”
Emma laughed, her eyes alit with amusement as she looked up to her friend. “It was only six months ago, Henrietta.”
The woman scowled, but Emma knew her friend wasn’t upset with her. She often tried to hide her amusement but failed miserably.
“Get up from there, would you? We’ve a whole new gown to get you into, and you know how terrible I am with the fasteners.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Emma said with a snicker as she jumped to her feet.
Sometimes, the best thing a woman could have, wasn’t a choice husband, but instead a best friend willing to deal with corset strings, gossip, and a bit of dragonborne slaying.