In honor of The Heartless City coming out ONE WEEK FROM TODAY, here is a sneak peek at the book - the entire prologue!
Virginia shivered but didn’t dare reach up to gather her damp, wool cloak around her throat. She didn’t dare breathe, though she doubted the sound would be heard over the heavy rain pelting the canvas above her, or the churning waters of the wide and mighty Thames. When she’d first arrived in London five years ago, it had also been raining, but the circumstances couldn’t have possibly been more different. Instead of a wooden crate on a narrow and shadowy riverboat, she’d arrived in a bright steam engine after an ocean liner brought her from New York to Southampton, and her heart had been filled with pride and ambition, not gnawing guilt and fear.
She’d been the first woman from Atwood, Kansas to earn a college degree, and once she’d completed her graduate work in biology at Cornell, she was offered the once-in-a-lifetime chance to study in London. Her parents had bragged to the whole town that she would spend the next four years studying abroad, working with the most renowned and respected doctor in London. Some had simply scoffed at the news; others had warned that pursuing a man’s profession would be her undoing. Then, when she’d returned to her parents’ farm after only a year, all of them got to smirk, sneer, and boast that they’d been right. The whispers spread through the farms, the church, the tavern, and dry goods store: The Carroll girl was ruined in London.
They had no idea.
The boat dipped, and she swallowed and tightened her arm around her daughter, who was curled up next to her on the single trunk they’d brought from home. There was so much Virginia regretted, so much she desperately wished she could change, but nothing more than tearing her daughter away from their family farm. Even after both of her parents died of scarlet fever, and those who hadn’t already shunned her in Atwood turned their backs, Virginia had remained determined to raise her daughter there. She’d managed to keep the land and gotten a job as a nurse in town, and eventually, even convinced herself that she’d never left Kansas at all, that everything that had happened in London had only been a dream.
But then, three weeks ago, she received a letter from Lady Cullum, who had been not only the benefactress of her mentoring doctor but the closest thing she’d had to family while living in London. The letter confirmed the rumors that had only just reached The States, stories of a crisis that was crippling the city.
And you’re bringing your daughter here, she thought, guilt slicing her like a knife. You’re bringing your three-year-old daughter into a lethal, quarantined city.
She closed her eyes, reminding herself that she didn’t have a choice. Her parents were gone, and she had become a pariah back in Atwood; even if someone had been willing to take her daughter in, they certainly wouldn’t have given the girl the love and care she needed. And she’d had to return to London and do what she could to save the city, not only because Lady Cullum, who had never begged for anything in her life, had implored her to, but because she knew what Lady Cullum didn’t.
That, in a way, the crisis was all Virginia’s fault.
The boat rocked and then stilled, and her heart leapt into her throat. This was it; they had finally reached the heavily guarded border. She heard the booming voice of their oarsman―a burly Scotsman who’d introduced himself as simply “Beck”―but couldn’t make his words out over the rush of pounding rain. He hadn’t told her what lie he planned to give to the border guards, who would surely be baffled by anyone wanting inside the quarantined city. Virginia could only imagine how much money Lady Cullum had promised him to smuggle her in, because once they made it inside, he wasn’t getting out again. For a moment, she almost hoped the guards would turn their boat away, but then she felt a jerk as the oars dug back into the water, and she knew they were gliding past the border and into the city limits.
She waited for her veins to flood with relief, but instead, her lungs began to tighten and her throat began to close.
London. God in heaven, she was actually back in London.
Her heart sped up, pounding against her chest, and she clutched her daughter’s hand, pulling the little girl closer and inhaling the scent of her hair.
He’s dead, he’s dead, she told herself. He can’t hurt you now. He’s dead.
It was madness, she knew, to fear a single man when they’d just entered a quarantined city filled with monsters, but she couldn’t fight her terror of his memory any more than she’d been able to fight her adoration for him five years ago. He hadn’t just been her mentoring doctor. He had been the epitome of all she wanted to be―brilliant, passionate, well respected―and though it made her sick to think it now, beautiful, too. His eyes had been the color of honey―a fierce, burning amber ringed with a band of vivid gold. But one night in his lab, she’d watched those beautiful eyes go black, and the man she’d come to worship as a god had become the devil.
She tightened her grip on her daughter and dug her free hand into her pocket, clutching the leather-bound notebook she’d been clinging to for three weeks. It was his journal, which Lady Cullum had found just after his death and mailed to Virginia along with the letter, hoping she’d be able to find some clues or solutions inside. At first, the sight of his coiled, familiar writing had turned her stomach, but she soon discovered that, strangely, touching the pages made her feel strong. There was something incredibly powerful about clasping the words he’d written with his hands in the palm of her own, as if it restored the power he had taken from her that night, when those hands―suddenly smooth, strong, and ethereally pale―had ripped the seams of her lab coat and severed the fabric of her life.
The journal made her feel safe as well, because having it in her hands was further proof that he was dead, as he never would have let it out of his study otherwise. The story the pages told was common knowledge in London now, not because of the journal but due to one of the doctor’s friends, who spilled the truth to authorities before both of them were killed.
According to his journal, the doctor’s intentions had been noble; he’d wanted to find a way to extract the evil from human nature, but what he’d produced instead was a serum that did the opposite. The drug not only stripped him of conscience, sympathy, and compassion, it made him impossibly strong and terrifyingly beautiful, like the indefatigable offspring of an angel and a demon, with pale, glowing skin and deep and ravenous ebony eyes. The effects only lasted a couple of hours, but it was enough to change his mind and noble intentions forever. Soon, he began ingesting the potion nearly every weekend, prowling through the streets of London and taking and breaking its people and things like a child might batter its toys. Because he only took the drug while slumming in London’s East End, where minor spikes in violent crime were likely to go unnoticed, he managed to keep his secret under wraps for the next three years, but all that changed when he shared his creation with some of his wealthy friends.
The boat slowed and Virginia knew they must have been nearing the shore. Her suspicions were confirmed a moment later when the boat rocked back and she felt Beck leaping out and then dragging them up onto solid ground. She’d begun to smell a difference in the river soon after the border, but when he climbed inside again and peeled the canvas back from her crate, the stench of sewage, filth, and rotting death swept in like a wave.
“This is the building, miss!” he called out over the pouring rain, unlatching the door and extending his hand. “Lady Cullum will meet us inside!”
She nodded and took his hand, keeping her daughter’s tight in the other, and the two of them crawled up out of the crate and into the icy rain. They were somewhere near the East End docks, which a month ago would have been bustling, but now all the buildings were empty and dark, dead as the city’s trade. Virginia glanced up, unable to tell if the sun had set or not, as the sky was a blanket of fog, rain, and stormy, soot-stained clouds.
“Go to the door that says ‘Office,’” Beck yelled, crawling behind them and seizing their trunk. “She said it would be unlocked.”
Virginia nodded again and hurried toward the shadowy building, attempting to shield her daughter from the rain beneath her cloak. She found the door, pulled it open, and then ushered the little girl through. The room was dim and filled with ghostly papers, folders, and files.
“Are you all right, darling?” she asked, kneeling before her once they were both inside and smoothing the rain from her dark, unruly curls.
“Yes, but I’m cold.”
Virginia pressed her hand to her daughter’s cheek. “Go ahead. Just remember to stop once Lady Cullum comes for us with her carriage.”
The little girl nodded and closed her eyes, and her damp, clammy skin grew warm beneath Virginia’s fingers. She let out a breath and smiled, and Virginia smiled back.
“It shouldn’t be long now,” Beck called out.
Virginia looked up to see him hauling their trunk inside the room. He sat it down, closed the door, and then pulled a pistol from his pocket, peeking out through the curtains of the window a few feet away.
“I thought they couldn’t be killed with guns,” Virginia said, rising up. “That they heal and regenerate immediately after being wounded.”
There was a name for the creatures, but she didn’t like to use it, didn’t like to think it any more than she thought his name, because it was the name he had called himself that night. Thankfully, when Beck replied, he didn’t use it, either.
“They do, and that’s what people thought at first, but according to Lady Cullum’s latest wire, they can be killed by either a shot to the back of the head or complete decapitation. Anything that destroys the brainstem or severs it from the body.”
He glanced at the little girl then and cleared his throat, looking embarrassed, but she didn’t flinch, and Virginia actually brightened.
“That’s good,” she said, walking over to him. “They aren’t invincible.” She glanced at the second, smaller gun, sticking out of the top of his boot. “May I have that one then?”
He furrowed his brow. “You can shoot one of these?”
“I grew up on a farm. I’ve been shooting coyotes and rabbits since I was nine.”
Perhaps coyotes and rabbits weren’t the same as nearly invincible monsters, but Beck was impressed enough to hand her the gun.
“What else did she say about them?” she asked as she took it from him. “Lady Cullum, I mean. In the wire she sent to you.”
Virginia hadn’t had contact with Lady Cullum since her letter, as she’d spent the three weeks since then on a train and an ocean liner. She hadn’t even written her back, as it wouldn’t have been any use; by the time her letter had reached Virginia, the quarantine had begun, and mail was no longer being carried in or out of the city. Apparently, however, she had managed to transmit more information to Beck by telegraph.
“She told me what they do,” he replied. “I mean, the way they kill.”
Virginia swallowed, glancing down at her boots. “Yes, she told me that, too.”
In truth, she’d read that particular detail in the journal. A few months after the doctor shared his secret with his friends, one of them broke the circle of trust and tampered with the serum, altering the substance from a liquid to tablet form. Harsher and more potent, the new product didn’t simply increase its user’s strength and strip them of conscience, it transformed them into massive, hulking beasts with black, unseeing eyes; razor-sharp teeth; and smooth, hairless skin as white as a corpse. High on his own arrogance and eager to pad his pockets, the doctor’s friend began to manufacture and sell the tablet, and only then did the devastating effects become apparent. The doctor and his friends had stolen, raped, and brutalized, but the monsters the new drug created did one thing and one thing only: kill. But that perversion was not the worst nor the one that doomed the city. Once consumed, the new drug altered the user’s genes forever. After that, they could become the monster at any time, without any warning and completely against their will.
That was how, in the span of only two months, London collapsed. Half of its people were dead and a fourth of those left were clandestine killers―ticking bombs that could detonate at any given moment. And, as Beck had noted, they had a particular way of killing, a way that seemed quite fitting to Virginia.
They ate people’s hearts.
That was what the doctor had done in his lab all those years ago―gouged her hopes, slayed her dreams, and devoured the heart of her life. After that, she’d fled the country, never telling a single soul what her mentor had created.
Or that she’d been the first to face one of London’s original monsters.
But he was dead now, she reminded herself, gripping the gun and clenching her jaw as she looked back up through the window. When the crisis broke out and the government captured the man who’d made the tablets, he exposed the doctor’s secrets in an attempt to save himself. It didn’t work, however. Both men were taken and charged with treason, and an angry mob stormed the jail and killed them before the authorities could. Virginia would never see those burning amber eyes again.
Except, of course, whenever she looked in the eyes of her own daughter.
“That’s how they sense them, you know,” Beck said.
She blinked. “I’m sorry, what?”
“The monsters. They don’t see very well. The way they find their victims is by sensing their beating hearts.”
Virginia glanced at her daughter, who had seated herself on the floor against the wall, now warm and content. Lady Cullum’s wealth would give them a measure of security, but perhaps there was an additional way the girl could protect herself.
“There―I think that’s her.”
Virginia felt the relief she had expected when they made it across the border wash through her veins. She turned to the window and followed Beck’s gaze as two stately horses materialized through the fog and rain. They were drawing Lady Cullum’s carriage, the same coach Virginia had ridden in with her five years ago, only now there were bolts on the doors and thick, black bars across the windows. Two armed men sat on each side of the coachman, and when the carriage stopped, they leapt down into the mud, unlatched the door, and slid it open. A wide, black umbrella emerged, and then finally, Lady Cullum.
The wealthy widow had no relation to the royal family, but one would never suspect it from the way she carried herself. Her firm posture and smooth gaze were nothing short of regal, and Virginia had never known a woman more confident or quick-witted. Even now, in a downpour on the ghostly East End docks, she walked up the path to the office door as if ascending a throne. The two armed men followed close behind her, and once the three of them reached the building, Beck opened the door and extended his hand to help her through.
“Mr. Beck,” she said in her firm, crisp voice as she took his hand and allowed him to guide her inside. “I can’t thank you enough.”
He nodded deferentially and took her dripping umbrella, while the two other men remained outside the door, keeping watch through the rain. Lady Cullum turned and searched the room, and when she found Virginia, her eyes grew soft and visibly moist, and the thin line of her mouth curled into a smile.
“My darling girl.”
“Lady Cullum,” Virginia murmured, her own eyes suddenly stinging with tears.
The regal woman swept across the room.
“Silly child, call me Mary.”
She embraced her, filling her lungs with her familiar lilac scent, and Virginia closed her eyes and allowed the tears to slip down her cheeks. Besides her daughter, no one had embraced her since her parents died, and she hadn’t realized until that moment just how much she’d missed the comfort of someone else’s arms. Then, with a jolt, she also realized she still had the gun in her hand.
“Oh, wait,” she said, pulling back from the embrace and walking around Lady Cullum to hand the gun back to Beck. “Thank you. I won’t be needing it now.” She wiped the tears from her eyes and then turned back to Lady Cullum, but she was no longer looking at her.
She was looking at her daughter.
Virginia’s muscles tensed. She’d known this moment was coming, but she still was not prepared.
“Is this… your daughter?” Lady Cullum asked, turning back to her.
Virginia swallowed, set her jaw, and walked over to the girl, then helped her to her feet and took her hand.
“Yes, it is.”
Lady Cullum held her gaze and then looked at the girl again, and Virginia knew she was calculating her age and doing the math. There was no way she didn’t recognize those amber eyes; the secret Virginia had kept from even her parents was now laid bare. The room seemed to shrink and the air seemed to thin around her, but then Lady Cullum spoke.
“What a lovely child,” she said, glancing up. “She looks just like you, Virginia.”
Those words, combined with the warmth and understanding that shone in her face, filled Virginia’s lungs with air and her eyes with grateful tears. She knew Lady Cullum wouldn’t ask her any more questions, wouldn’t force her to open the wounds she’d worked so hard to close. But others, she knew, would not be nearly as kind or sympathetic. No one else who had known the doctor could find out about her daughter.
Or the strange, inexplicable things the girl could do.
Lady Cullum bent down and extended her hand to the child. “How do you do, my dear?”
Virginia felt her daughter’s skin obediently cool as she took the woman’s outstretched hand and replied, “Very well, thank you.”
Lady Cullum beamed. “What a proper young lady you are.” She released her hand and straightened back up. “Well, now that we’ve all been introduced, we’d best be on our way.”
They hurried out through the mud and rain toward the waiting carriage. The two armed men returned to their seats on either side of the coachmen, and Beck―his pistol still at the ready―hoisted the trunk up into the carriage and climbed in beside Lady Cullum, across from Virginia and her daughter.
“I’m sorry you had to arrive this way,” Lady Cullum said to Virginia as the carriage lurched and then rattled up to the street and away from the docks.
“There’s no need to apologize. How else could we have gotten inside a heavily guarded city?”
“You wouldn’t have had to cower inside a crate like some kind of criminal if the Lord Mayor hadn’t refused to listen to me, as usual.”
“The Lord Mayor?”
“Harlan Branch. He’s in charge of the city now.” Lady Cullum sighed and shook her head. “The queen, all members of parliament, and most of the House of Lords escaped as soon as the crisis broke out. They relocated to York and made it the temporary capitol, leaving the Lord Mayor to run the city until the quarantine ends. I asked him to make a special provision for you to be allowed inside, and he not only refused me, he specifically instructed the border guards to deny you entry.”
“But why?” Virginia asked. “What could it hurt to let me in?”
“He said it would be a waste of time,” Lady Cullum said with a snort. “That only real scientists―and by ‘real,’ of course, he meant ‘male’―could possibly be capable of discovering a cure. In truth, however, I think he simply resents the influence I still have and wanted to show me once and for all that he’s the boss of the city.”
Virginia’s chest tightened. “What will he do when he finds out I’m here?”
“He’ll remember that I’m a powerful woman who’s not to be trifled with. And then, when you do discover a cure, he’ll apologize and thank me.”
Virginia flushed, both with admiration for her audacity and with pride for how fervently she believed Virginia could help. But then the warmth dissolved, replaced by a rush of icy fear.
“But what if he’s right?” she asked. “I never finished my degree. I’m hardly qualified―”
“There’s no one more qualified than you. You were studying with the doctor when he first created the drug.”
“But he kept all that a secret from me, and this new drug isn’t the same―”
“But it exists because of his.” Lady Cullum leaned forward, her fierce gaze penetrating the shadows. “You will find a cure, Virginia. And in the meantime, I will do my part by creating shelters.”
“Yes. For the people who are infected.”
Virginia knit her brow, her blood running cold. “You mean… for the monsters?”
“They’re people,” Lady Cullum replied, leaning back but not averting her gaze. “They have a horrendous disease, but they are people like you and me. If I can create a place where they feel safe enough to admit they’re infected and lock themselves away from society with dignity, then we can make the streets that much safer until you find a cure.”
Virginia’s daughter yawned and laid her head in her mother’s lap, and Virginia smoothed her hair with one hand and pressed the other against the carriage wall to keep herself upright, as if she were physically bending beneath the weight of the challenge ahead.
“We can do this,” Lady Cullum continued, leaning forward again and clutching Virginia’s free hand in her own. “All hope is not lost.”
Virginia nodded, her throat dry, and Lady Cullum squeezed her fingers once more and sat back in her seat.