Her Majesty's Necromancer - C. J. Archer


London, autumn 1889

"Put your arm around me," I told Lincoln Fitzroy.

He did, and as with every other time he touched me, my blood responded with a throb and my skin tightened. Imagine how I would react if he touched me with desire and not violence.

I hooked my fingers onto his forearm, dropped so that he suddenly held most of my weight, and spun toward his elbow, uncurling myself from the headlock he contained me in. I stepped away and beamed at him. He scowled in return.

It was the first defensive move he'd taught me, and after two months of daily practice, I'd finally succeeded in getting free from his grip. I probably could have managed it a month ago if my opponent had been an unsuspecting thug and not Lincoln. The element of surprise would work in my favor. It might even be my best weapon. Despite fattening up a little since moving permanently to Lichfield Towers, I was still on the small side. Any man would expect to defeat me if he attacked, but I was better equipped to defend myself now, thanks to Lincoln's training.

"That was adequate." Lincoln—I no longer referred to him as Fitzroy in my head—signaled that the session had ended.

He snatched up his waistcoat from the shrub he'd cast it across and marched off toward the house. As usual, his mood had darkened during my training. No matter how even-tempered he was at the beginning of the three-hour sessions, he always ended them by either snapping at me or not speaking at all, then storming away to his private chambers. It wasn't fair. I hadn't done anything to deserve his terseness. Buoyed by my success, I wasn't going to stand for it any longer.

"Adequate?" I called after him. "I got away from you for the first time, and the only thing you can say is 'adequate?'"

"You left yourself open to another attack. You should have run off."

"Or pulled out the knife hidden up my sleeve, but we weren't practicing combat, only getting free from your headlock."

"Weren't we?" He stopped and I almost ran into him. His face wasn't the least flushed from our exercise, whereas my skin felt damp and hot, despite the cool autumn air. Dusk had settled quickly, but there was enough light left for me to see that his features were set hard. "You have a knife strapped to your forearm?"

"Not at the moment, but I would if I were wandering about the city alone."

He walked off again and I trotted beside him to keep up with his long strides.

"'Well done, Charlie' would have sufficed," I said. "Even a simple 'good' is better than 'adequate.'"

He took the front steps two at a time and reached the door before me. He held it open even though he was entitled to enter first, being my employer. I didn't enter, but stopped in the doorway, blocking his entrance. We stood so close that we were almost touching. I tilted my head to peer up at him. He took a step back, crossed his arms, and watched me through thick black lashes.

"You require praise." He didn't pose it as a question, but I nodded anyway. "Very well. You have improved. You were always fast, but now you understand how to apply what strength you possess to greatest effect, and how to use your size to your advantage."

I smiled.

"Yet your skills are merely adequate. You might be able to escape from the average man who attacks you precisely in the manner we've employed in your training, but that's all. There is much to be done, if you