From London, With Love by Bec McMaster

“Oh no,” she hastened to reassure her queen. “He wanted me to rest, but there’s no rest to be had, unfortunately. I may as well keep my mind and body busy.”

“Oh, I remember those days,” the queen murmured, one hand resting on her flat midriff.

Ava stiffened. Oh, no. She’d completely forgotten. The queen’s only child had been stillborn. It was the worst thing she could imagine. “I’m so sorry—”

“Don’t be.” There was no emotion in the queen’s eyes, though her lips curled in a placating smile. “Edward’s memory should always be kept alive.”

Awkwardness fell upon the pair of them, however, and Ava couldn’t help bringing a hand to rest upon her swollen abdomen. She’d been cursing the way the baby kicked all night, but she would never take such gestures for granted again.

But what should she say?

“I should get back to the ball,” the queen murmured, as if sensing Ava’s distress. “Malloryn will be wondering where I am.”

“I hope you find someone,” Ava called as Her Majesty turned toward the door. “I hope he makes you happy.”

The queen glanced over her shoulder. “You’re very kind.”

Through the door, Ava heard the whirr of a servant drone sensing movement and rolling toward the queen.

Accepting a glass of cordial from the drone’s tray, the queen swished past, heading toward the ballroom in a cloud of perfume, cordial and something else, something bitter—

Ava’s head turned unerringly.

That smell….

The scent of lilacs and oils was almost overwhelming, but her sense of smell was stronger now she was with child—as all scents seemed to be—and she’d know it anywhere.

Ava lumbered toward the drone, grabbing the second flute of champagne and sniffing it.

Bitter almonds. Cyanide. An impressive dose of it.

The cordial!

The doors swung shut behind the queen, and Ava lunged after her, hampered by both her skirts and her bulk. She shoved the doors open, but the queen was vanishing toward the second gallery. Two guards stood side by side at the next set of doors, but it was the elegant brunette pacing in front of a painting that drew her attention. Gemma had drawn guard duty for the night.

“Gemma!” she cried, meeting her friend’s eyes from across the room. “The cordial!”

Gemma’s smile faded in an instant. Her gaze tracked Ava’s, and she leapt toward the queen.

Even as Ava watched, the queen laughed at something a guard had said and lifted the glass to her lips.

There was nothing she could do, nothing she could say—

And then Gemma slammed into the queen, sending the glass flying, and the pair of them toppling.

Instantly, a cry went up. Guards swarmed out of nowhere, swallowing the pair of them whole.

“What the hell is going on here?” The captain of the guards demanded, as several Coldrush guards hauled Gemma off the queen.

Ava finally fought her way through. “The cordial smells like cyanide!”

The captain helped the queen to her feet, and someone handed her the crown, which had gone flying. The queen shot Gemma a pale-faced look—and Ava couldn’t help remembering how long it had taken Her Majesty to forgive Gemma for trying to kill her when she’d been implanted with the mind-controlling chip.

“It’s the cordial,” she begged the queen. “I smelled it as you went past me. I think it’s poisoned.”

Malloryn appeared out of nowhere, tucking Gemma under one arm and giving Ava a curt nod to retreat. “I’ll handle it,” he said to the waiting guards, visibly inspecting the queen. “Did you drink any of it?”

The queen looked shocked. “A sip, perhaps.”

“I think you should retire,” he stressed.

The queen nodded, and Malloryn gestured for the captain of the guards to escort her to her private rooms.

“Ava,” he said.

“I’ll gather the evidence,” she replied, slipping a small leather satchel from one of the pockets in her gown and withdrawing a sample vial.

She found little enough of the cordial to test, but as she brought her damp fingers to her nose to sniff it, she realized she’d been right.

Someone had poisoned the queen’s cordial.

Chapter 3

“What the hell do you mean, she was poisoned?” Sir Gideon demanded, pushing his way through the doors into the queen’s antechambers despite the burly mech standing on duty outside.