I hope y'all don't see this as unmercifully teasing, since I know the book is still eleven months away from release, but I thought you might like a peek at the first chapter of Why Kings Confess, book number nine in the Sebastian St. Cyr series.
St. Katharine’s, East London
Thursday, 21 January 1813
Paul Gibson lurched down the dark, narrow lane, his face raw from the cold, his fingers numb. There were times when he wandered these alleyways lost in brightly-hued reveries of opium-induced euphoria. But not tonight. Tonight, Gibson clenched his jaw and tried to focus on the tap-tap of his wooden leg on the icy cobbles, the reedy wail of a babe carried on the night wind—anything that might distract his mind from the restless, hungering need that drenched his thin frame with sweat and tormented him with ghosts of what could be.
When he first noticed the woman, he thought her an apparition, a mirage of gray wool and velvet lying crumpled beside the entrance to a fetid passageway. But as he drew nearer, he saw pale flesh and the gleaming dark wetness of blood, and knew she was only too real.
He drew up sharply, the dank, briny air of the nearby Thames rasping in his throat. Cat’s Hole, they called this narrow lane, a refuge for thieves, prostitutes and all the desperate, dispossessed of England and beyond. He could feel his heart pounding; the stars glittered like shards of broken glass in the thin slice of cold black sky visible between the looming rooftops above. He hesitated perhaps longer than he should have. But he was a surgeon, his life dedicated to the care of others.
He pushed himself forward again.
She lay curled half on her side, one hand flung out palm up, eyes closed. He hunkered down awkwardly beside her, fingertips searching for a pulse in her slim neck. Her face was delicately boned and framed by a riot of long, flame-red hair, her lashes dark and thick against the pale flesh of her smooth cheeks, her lips purple-blue with cold. Or death.
But at his touch, her eyelids fluttered open, her chest jerking on a sob and a broken, whispered prayer. “Sainte Marie, Mère de Dieu, Priez pour nous pauvres pécheurs…”
“It’s all right; I’m here to help you,” he said gently, wondering if she could even understand him. ”Where are you hurt?”
The entire side of her head, he now saw, was matted with blood. Wide-eyed and frightened, she fastened her gaze on him. Then her focus slid away to where the black mouth of the passage yawned beside them. “Damion…” Her hand jerked up to clutch his sleeve. “Is he all right?”
Gibson followed her gaze. The man’s body was more difficult to discern, a dark, motionless mass deep in the shadows. Gibson shook his head. “I don’t know.”
Her grip on his arm twisted convulsively. “Go to him. Please.”
Nodding, Gibson surged upright, staggering slightly as his wooden peg took his weight and the phantom pains of a long-gone limb ripped through him.
The passage reeked of rot and excrement and the familiar coppery stench of spilled blood. The man lay sprawled on his back beside a pile of broken hogsheads and crates. It was with difficulty that Gibson picked out the once snowy-white folds of a cravat, the silken sheen of what had been a fine waistcoat but was now a blood-soaked mess, horribly ripped.
“Tell me,” said the woman. “Tell me he lives.”
But Gibson could only stare at the body before him. The man’s eyes were wide and sightless, his handsome young face pallid, his outflung arms stiffening in the cold. Someone had hacked open the corpse’s chest with a ruthless savagery that spoke of rage tinged with madness. And where the heart should have been gaped only an open cavity.
Bloody and empty.