Book 1 in the >Lost Lords of London Series
Christi Caldwell, USA TODAY bestselling author of the Wicked Wallflowers series, combs London’s underground and finds romance and danger for a missing lord and the lady who loves him.
To solve a mystery that’s become the talk of the ton, no clues run too deep for willful reporter Verity Lovelace. Not even in the sewers of London. That’s precisely where she finds happily self-sufficient scavenger Malcom North, lost heir to the Earl of Maxwell. Now that Verity’s made him front-page news, what will he make of her?
Kidnapped as a child, with no memories of his well-heeled past, Malcom prefers the grimy spoils of the culverts to the gilded riches of society. Damn the feisty beauty who exposed the contented tosher to a parade of fortune-hunting matchmakers. How to keep them at bay? Verity must pretend to be his wife. She owes him.
The intimacy of this necessary arrangement—Verity and Malcom thrust together in close quarters—soon sparks an irresistible heat. But when the charade ends, the danger begins. Will love be enough to protect them from a treacherous plot devised to ruin them?
Some twenty years earlier
“Keep up, ya little shite, or ya’re going back in the bag.”
Noooo. Not the bag.
Percival couldn’t go in there again. He couldn’t breathe in there. And it was so dark. So very dark. And he hated the dark.
That alone was enough to jar Percival Northrop into quickening his pace.
Or he tried to. He really did.
But he was just so tired, and every part of his body ached.
“Oi said faster.” A rough fist caught him hard between his shoulder blades, and he stumbled, pitched forward, and would have landed flat on his face.
The only thing to prevent it was when the tall, toothless man who’d been herding him along caught Percival by his hair. “Stay on yar feet,” he growled, yanking those strands so hard he whipped Percival’s head back.
His head hurt.
And not even like the sickness that had made him and his parents and all their household ill.
The stranger released him, and Percy bit his lip to keep it from trembling.
The man scoffed. “Ya’re a slow shite, aren’t ya?”
Tears filled Percy’s eyes. But he didn’t want to cry. He didn’t want them to see him do it. Even though his papa and mama had always said there was no shame in weakness, the men who’d snatched him didn’t seem to be of the same opinion. Neither the man who was hurting him nor the other ugly man, hairy like the bear his papa had shown him in an illustrated book, didn’t like tears at all. It made them angry and impatient.
Unlike Percival’s mama and papa.
Mama . . . Papa . . .
And this time, the tears fell freely. They coursed down Percy’s cheeks until they were warm and itched his face.
He missed his mama and papa. He missed them so much. He didn’t care what the mean men who’d taken him from that horrible place said about his crying.
Trembling, he stumbled, trying to keep up. Not because he wanted to go with them. He didn’t. He was trying to move as quickly as he could because when he slowed, they prodded him in the back, forcing him forward.
Only it was so hard to keep walking.
He still hurt from the fire in his chest, as his mama had called it. It burnt inside even now, and Percy hadn’t been out of his bed—any bed—since his sickness.
Until these men had come to his bed. Stood over it. Then, one of the men had given the mean nurse some coins, and the other stranger had tossed Percy into a sack and over his shoulder. Percy had been struggling to breathe since.
Now, Percy’s heartbeat came loud in his ears. Like the times he’d race his papa so fast and so hard that it had climbed into his ears and pounded hard there. So loud he could barely hear his and Papa’s laughter.
It was too much. He couldn’t do it.
Percy fell down.
He yelped, and put his hands out, but they scraped the rough stones, ripping up his skin.
“Oi said not a word, ya shite.”
The man hit Percy on the back of his head so hard it slammed him forward into the stone. He couldn’t even cry out. Blood filled his mouth. There was a rock on his tongue. Only it wasn’t a rock . . .
He spit a tooth out.
They broke my tooth. “You broke my tooth,” he whispered.
And then he cried.
Because he’d never lost one before. His tutor had said they’d one day fall out, and Percy hadn’t slept for nights and nights because he’d been so very afraid of when that day would come: his teeth falling out of his mouth. But now, these men had done it. These mean, ugly, angry strangers. Percy cried all the harder and curled his hand around his tooth.
“Let’s just cut ’im,” the bearish man whispered. “Oi told ya he was too weak. We’ll find another one.”
“We already paid the coin for this one,” the other stranger spat. And then he turned to Percy. “Forget yar damned tooth. Or Oi’ll break yar bloody head,” he growled as he yanked Percy up on his feet. “Get movin’.”
And Percy knew he was supposed to be afraid. He knew they were going to hurt him and then kill him. But he didn’t want to die. Even though when they killed him, he’d get to go see Mama and Papa. But he was an earl’s son and had responsibilities that now fell to him.
Papa was now in heaven, and Percy was all that remained of the Northrop line. Christi Caldwell
“Let me go,” Percy whispered. And when the ugly stranger tightened his hold, Percy used all the energy he had to fight. “I said let me go.”
Except they weren’t impressed. They merely laughed.
Anger shot through Percy. “Stop laughing at me,” he yelled, and they only roared all the more. “Do you know who I am?”
At last they stopped laughing, and then Percy wished they hadn’t, because they’d gone all quiet. And the quiet was scarier than when they’d yelled. “Oh, yeah, Oi know.”
He did? Percy’s heart jumped. They knew him. Which meant they’d free him. Because they couldn’t hurt an earl’s son. No one did.
“Ya’re the fuckin’ king of England.”
Both men exchanged a look, and then—
“Bwahahaha!” The bear of a man bent over and clutched his side.
They were . . . laughing at him. None had ever dared laugh at Percy’s father. But these men, these ugly, stupid, dirty strangers, would make fun of Percy . . .
All the rage and pain and heartache he’d felt snapped him. “I said stop laughing at me,” he cried, and with all the energy he could manage, he rushed at the pair of brutes.
One of the men easily caught Percy by the thin shirt he’d been given, lifting him by its front and raising him so that they were at eye level. He stared at Percy for a long time. Close as they were, the smell of the other man burnt Percy’s nose and stung his eyes—putrid, like the sick that he’d thrown up.
“Put me down. I demand it.” Percy had never heard his papa be mean to anyone, but he had heard him use big words and make demands, and people always listened.
“Ya hear that, Sparky? The bloody king demands it.”
Sparky . . . What a silly name for a man who looked like a bear.
Sparky’s buglike eyes went wide. “Oi ’eard ’im, Penge.”
And then the pair of strangers burst out laughing.
4 In Bed with the Earl
Percy cried out as Penge set him down so hard his knees buckled and he hit the ground again.
The tooth slipped free of his hand, and, his cheek pressed to the wet stones, Percy stretched his fingers, reaching for it.
“Boy’s mad,” the bear—Sparky—was saying. “Ain’t of any use to anyone. And certainly ain’t going to be of any use to ’im.”
Him? Who is “him”?
And Percy quite decided then that he didn’t want to be of use to anyone who knew these men.
“We already paid coin for the little shite. Another mad king we ’ave here in England. Let’s go, Yar Majesty. Ya’ve subjects to meet.”
And as the two men dragged him off, all his bravery faded. Tears fell once more, staining his cheeks. “I want to go home,” he begged. “Please.” Even if Mama and Papa weren’t there . . . he wanted to go where it was safe and warm, and where people were kind.
Penge cuffed him on the back of his head so hard that stars danced behind Percy’s eyes. “Didn’t ya know, King?”
“Kn-know what?” he whispered, his voice trembling from both pain and fear.
Sparky flashed a toothless grin, cold, empty, and missing all warmth. “This is yar home now, Yar Majesty. King of the sewers. Get used to it.”
Another surge of energy burst through Percy, and he didn’t care that he’d been sick. Or that his stomach turned like he was going to throw up. “This isn’t my home. Do you hear me? This will never be my home!” He kicked and twisted and fought the mean men. “Someone will save me.” Only . . . Percy sobbed. Who would save him? There was no Mama or Papa anymore.
Penge slapped him across the face, rattling his teeth. “Get the bag,” he ordered Sparky.
And this time, as the scratchy fabric was brought over his head and Percy was shoved inside and flung over one of the strangers’ shoulders, he closed his eyes, grateful when the darkness crept in.
“No one is comin’ for ya. Ya ’ear me? Ain’t no one lookin’ for an orphan.”
That cruel threat echoed, coming as if from a distance, far, far away.
Someone was coming. They had to be . . .
He tried to speak the words aloud but couldn’t make his mouth move. Or make a sound.
Someone was . . .
Percy closed his eyes and remembered no more.