A special hump-day treat! An excerpt from the forthcoming Cursed: The Complete Imnada Brotherhood Novellas. And even hump-day-ier: This one is from the story Vanish the Curse, which has never been published before!
If I was a shapeshifter like these guys, I’d shapeshift a second hand so we could high-five ourselves for getting this teaser out to you a little early!
Once a thief. Always a thief.
Lieutenant Jack Ramsay had spent five long years trying to erase his criminal past. It had taken Nelson Skaytes less than nine months to ferret out the truth and use it against him. “It’s been a long time, lad. I wouldn’t hardly recognize you.”
That had been Jack’s hope. A false one, as it turned out.
Skaytes was a thick, stubby man with a jolly round face, flashing dimples, and clear green eyes. Those who saw him imagined him a good-natured, jovial simpleton. Jack knew better.
Skaytes circled Jack’s chair in an ominous orbit, his unnerving gaze raising gooseflesh across Jack’s bare back. A preternatural sense of danger prickled along his spine, an inborn awareness of the man’s feelings—none of them conducive to Jack’s continued good health.
“You could have blowed me down with a feather when I heard the best damned cracksman in London was back in town. And calling yourself Ramsay now? Was your old name not good enough? Was your old life not good enough?”
“My old life ended when they offered me the choice between the executioner’s noose or the King’s shilling.”
Jack worked at the ropes that bound his wrists to the chair. The tips of his fingers were turning blue, the feeling reduced to painful pins and needles.
“But I’m thinking you probably ain’t lost the knack. Leastways, I hope, for your sake you ain’t. You see, I worked my way up in the world same as you did. Got my own gang of carriers now. Got a reputation too. I ordered my boys to bring you to me, and they did—just like that.” He snapped his fingers.
Jack knew all about Skaytes’s reputation. He might have avoided his old haunts, but he didn’t discount them. Word was that Nelson Skaytes, onetime forger and beggar’s jarkman, had both hands elbow-deep in every form of vice to be found in the stews, and those who crossed him tended to end up very dead very fast. So why was Jack still breathing? What did the raunchy old criminal want?
“Not that I don’t enjoy swapping stories of the good old days, but was it necessary to bash me over the head for this little reunion?” Jack asked. By now the tingling in his fingers had become an ominous numbness, blood pooling dark under his nails.
A hand wrenched Jack’s head back and a cold blade touched his neck just below his jaw, freezing him in place, all pain in his fingers forgotten.
“Think you’re special, don’t you? Think you’re better than me now with your upper-class poncy accent and your nabob ways. That what they do to you in the army? Take a beggar boy from the rookery and turn you into a trained monkey? Teach you to eat with the right fork and wipe your bum with scented handkerchiefs?”
“Along with how to shoot, stab, and blow a man up. Oh . . . and march. The army was very high on marching.”
The blade pierced Jack’s skin. A drop of blood slid hot down his throat and pooled amid the thick scars the blade across his throat, though he refused to shut his eyes or flinch. Instead, he met Skaytes’s brutal gaze with one equally as hard and unfeeling. This wasn’t the first time he’d held his breath, anticipating the blow that would end his life. “Go on. Do it.”
After a long moment, Skaytes withdrew his knife, his smile going twisty and wild. “You might have been special on the battlefield with your pretty coat and your officer’s privileges, but here you’re nothing.” Skaytes’s voice carried enough menace to send a trickle of icy sweat curling down Jack’s spine and dread coiling tight in his belly. “No better than the lowest whore’s bastard groveling in the dirt. That’s who you truly are. That’s who you’ll always be. Nothing but trash.”
“Now that we’ve got the compliments out of the way, what do you want?”
The backhand caught Jack by surprise. Delivered by a man with fists that could tenderize sides of beef, it left him seeing stars and spitting blood.
“I’ve got a job for a skilled housebreaker. I need someone who can sneak in with nary a sound and sneak out with nary a notice.”
“You’re out of luck. I’m not looking for work.”
“You misunderstand me, Jack. I’m not asking. I’m telling. And refusal isn’t an option. You succeed and you live. You fail or double-cross me and you die. Got it?”
“What’s the haul?”
“Easy enough. I can have a flashy bit of sparkle to you in an hour.”
“Hold a tick. Not just any necklace. This one’s rubies. Worth more than you could make in ten lifetimes.”
“Impossible. A one-of-a-kind piece like that would be too quickly missed, too easily traced. Any fencing ken would tell you the same.”
Skaytes leaned against his desk, arms folded across his chest, heavy brow low as he narrowed his eyes. “So they have, which is why I’m coming to you.”
“You weren’t always so craven.”
“Age and experience makes cowards of us all.”
Skaytes shoved off to pace the floor once more. “You bring me that necklace or I’ll make sure you don’t steal ever again. Or do anything else for that matter. And if that ain’t enough of a threat, mayhap I’ll pay your dotty army friend a visit and explain my disappointment to him. He might not have the wits of a goose, but I bet he screams real pretty.”
“You fucking bastard!” Jack started in his chair, coming up hard against the ropes, heart slamming against his ribs. “You leave Captain Carruthers out of this.”
“I thought that war-sick nodcock might be the lever what gets you to move. What did they do to you over there to make you go soft over a moon-faced lordling? That’s not the lad I knew.”
And therein lay Jack’s answer. He was not the uncaring predator he’d been at the time of his arrest, and that was solely due to Captain Simon Carruthers.
It had been Simon who’d convinced the magistrate to turn Jack over to the army. It had been Simon who’d made sure Jack was placed in his company under his Jack’s world inside out with a damning confession—they were half brothers.
Jack had scoffed at the deathbed confession of a father he’d never known, but Simon had refused to give up on him, no matter how Jack pushed him away. Simon’s unswerving loyalty had worn him down. His selfless generosity had built Jack up.
Simon had taught Jack how to be an officer, then a gentleman, and finally a brother.
He’d have followed Simon into hell.
In the end, hell had caught them both. And it had been all Jack’s fault.
Not again. He would do whatever it took to keep Simon safe this time.
Skaytes fingered his blade once more with deadly intent. “What say you, Ramsay? Are you too much a gentleman these days to dirty your hands? Or are those famed skills of yours starting to come back to you?”
“I’ll steal your damned necklace. When they catch you trying to fence it, it’s your neck, not mine.”
“That’s my boy. You’re still one of us no matter how pretty you talk or how sweet you smell. Remember that.”
Skaytes circled Jack once again. He felt the man looming at his back like a dangerous gargoyle, his senses flashed a warning just before his skull exploded in bright pinwheels of light and color, and oblivion reached out to drag him under.