Book 4 in the >Wicked Wallflowers Series
Two damaged hearts learn there’s a fine line between love and hate in a Wicked Wallflowers novel from USA Today bestselling author Christi Caldwell.
Gertrude, the eldest Killoran sister, has spent a lifetime being underestimated—especially by her own family. She may seem as vulnerable as a kitten, but given the chance, she can be as fierce as a tiger. Her adopted brother, Stephen, has just been snatched back by his true father, and she’ll be damned if she relinquishes the boy to the man reviled throughout London as the Mad Marquess.
Still haunted by a deadly tragedy that left him publicly despised, Lord Edwin holds only hatred for the Killorans—the people he believes kidnapped his son. And not one of them will ever see the boy again. But when Gertrude forces her way into the household and stubbornly insists that she remain as Stephen’s governess, Edwin believes he may have found someone madder than himself.
With every moment he shares with the tenderhearted Gertrude, Edwin’s anger softens into admiration…and more. Is it possible that the woman he loathed may be the only person who can heal his broken soul?
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St. Giles, London
It was as though someone had died.
And in a way, someone had.
This would be a physical loss felt throughout the club, leaving the unlikely home silent in ways it had never been.
Gertrude Killoran stared blankly at the maids folding shirts and garments and placing them in neat piles upon an immaculate four- poster bed.
Small garments packed up, to be gone forevermore . . . and never returned.
Stacks of fine wool trousers and jackets alongside tattered scraps better fit for a street urchin. Torn cotton shirts. Coarse wool. Muddied shoes.
Her throat spasmed. “I have it.” All the while the servants, so very focused on their work, continued on, methodical in their task. Gather. Fold. Pile. Repeat. Her quiet words were less of a command and more of a statement, and their whispery-soft quality lent the order an air of weakness.
The only one to pay her any heed was the grey tabby at her feet. Gus nudged his head against her legs and purred.
All these years, Gertrude had been known as the weak Killoran. Blind in one eye, she was the cripple whom no one saw any true value in—at least, not in the way one was valued in the streets. And in this instance, with her young brother, Stephen, being carted off, away from this household they’d shared to the true home he’d been born to, she confronted the reality of her character. And mayhap she was weak.
Because if she were as strong as she’d always considered herself to be, then she’d muster a greater show of strength than this for her brother’s benefit.
She’d have packed his garments herself. Offered him words of strength and encouragement. Something. He deserved that. He deserved more in the face of uncertainty. Because of all he’d suffered and the pain he would forever know.
From where she stood at the windows overlooking the streets out- side the Devil’s Den, the glass panes reflected a pair of footmen behind her, entering her brother’s rooms with yet another trunk.
Another one to fill with Stephen’s things, taking all with him when he was gone.
With jerky movements, she rushed over to the unfolded garments. “I have them,” she said, her voice slightly pitched, and something in it cut across the bustling activity that had existed in this room through- out the day. The maids looked up with bereaved eyes. Tear-filled ones. Stephen would not see tears. Not today. Not on his final day inside the Devil’s Den. “I said I have them,” she repeated, agony making her tone sharper than she’d intended. “You may go.” Gertrude looked to the four somber servants. “All of you.”
The group of servants hesitated.
Even though Gertrude had taken on a greater role at the clubs since her sisters had married, it was still new to the staff. They likely didn’t truly know what to do with this commanding version of her usually collected self. “Now,” she said curtly when they made no move to leave.
The pair of maids relinquished the garments in their hands and filed after the footmen. They closed the door in their wake so that Gertrude was left . . . alone.
Her breath came slow and shallow, straining the constricted walls of her chest as she stared at the oak panel of Stephen’s door, nicked and scarred from the tip of the dagger he’d hurled at it, a street game he’d carried with him into the club.
It was just one more physical proof of the wrongness of his having lived here. And of the life he’d been forced to live as a member of their family. They’d brought irrevocable harm to him. In every way. But how were they to have known? She bit hard at her lower lip, scrabbling the flesh. How were they to have known that the young boy brought into their gang, squalling and incoherently inconsolable as he’d wailed for his mum and da, had in fact been a marquess and marchioness’s son? How were they to have known Stephen had been kidnapped from the comfortable, exalted folds of the peerage and plunged into the living hell and squalor of St. Giles?
And now . . . he would return. Still, by Polite Society’s standards, a boy in years, but in the suffering he’d endured and the hell he’d visited upon others at the behest of their gang leader, Mac Diggory, Stephen was more jaded than a man who’d lived sixty years.
Gertrude slid onto the edge of the mattress, depressing the too- soft feather-down bed he’d insisted on. It had been the one luxury he’d embraced when he’d shunned every other hint of respectability.
Her ears pricked.
And she heard him before he’d even reached the other side of the door.
That heightened sense was a gift that had come after she’d lost vision in one eye and been forced to rely upon all her senses in order to survive on the streets.
Gertrude leapt to her feet. Then, catching a glimpse of her grim pallor in the mirrored wall chest that cased Stephen’s weapons, she hurriedly pinched her cheeks and plastered a smile on her lips . . . just as the door opened enough to allow the gaunt boy to slip right through.
Stephen scraped a hate-filled stare over the clutter of his belongings that covered the bed behind her, and then his gaze settled on the large trunks marked with their family name.
His familiar scowl slipped, and in that instant he underwent a rare transformation into a vulnerable, scared child.
Gertrude’s heart buckled.
“Hullo,” she greeted with false cheer.
His glower deepened. “Are you happy to see me go?”
The muscles of her face froze in a painful mask that strained her cheeks. “What?” How could he . . . ? He was like the child she had never had—and would never have. “How could you dare ask that?”
“Yar grinning like the village lackwit,” Stephen muttered, and shoving his heel behind him, he slammed the door, shaking the wood frame. He started past her.
Gertrude slid herself into his path. “Stop.” She planted her hands on her hips and gave him a pointed look. “Seven years.”
He wrinkled his high, noble brow. A young earl’s brow. “Wot?”
“I’ve been giving you lessons on reading and writing and every other last topic considered polite and respectable. You know how to speak properly, Stephen.” And yet despite it, he moved between flaw- less English tones and Cockney the way a skilled thief slipped through a just-emptying Covent Garden theatre.
Fire flashed in his eyes, and he jutted his chin out. “It doesn’t matter how I speak.” It did not escape her notice that he’d adopted those perfect tones, the ones she suspected came more readily to him than he’d ever dare admit . . . even to himself.
Gertrude settled her hands on his narrow shoulders and, stooping down so she might meet his gaze, gave her brother a little squeeze. “It does matter. You know that. And you might be angry at”—she struggled to get the words out—“your change in fate,” she settled for. “But you know your life will be . . . easier.” Or as easy as it could be for a stolen boy reseated at his rightful place. “If you attempt to . . . if you . . .” Words failed.
“Make myself someone I’m not?” he jeered.
“But it is who you are,” she said quietly, sucking the energy from the room and dousing it with a thick, impenetrable tension.
Stricken eyes met hers, a mark of her brother’s vulnerability.
Stephen came to life. “It is not,” he cried. He whipped himself out of her arms with a hiss that sent Gus into flight across the chambers and sprinting under the oak side cabinet. “I’m from the streets, just like you and Cleo and Ophelia and Broderick. I’ve committed the same crimes as all of you.” Fury blazed within his too-jaded eyes. “Worse,” he reminded her in a chilling whisper that raised the gooseflesh on her arms.
His was more an unnecessary reminder of the crimes he’d com- mitted. Trained by Gertrude’s sire, the vile and thankfully dead gang leader Mac Diggory, he had been schooled on how to light fires and had destroyed countless businesses and ruined lives. “That time in your life is over,” she said, as much as for him as for herself.
His lower lip trembled, and then with a growl, he stalked to the window overlooking the St. Giles streets.
A sense of helplessness clawed at her heart.
God help her, she had no words. What did one say to a boy who’d been raised as one’s brother, only for them to learn together that it had all been a lie? That the ruthless gang leader, whom they’d all hated, hadn’t found Stephen in the streets as he had so many other orphans, but had ordered two of his thugs to steal the child? Oh, Cleo and Ophelia would have some words for Stephen. They always had a ready supply of them and invariably hurled them first and worried about any consequences after.
He broke the quiet. “They’re loading my things.”
“Yes.” Gertrude drew in a slow, silent breath and then exhaled through her nose. She strode over to the still messy pile of garments and, with jerky movements, proceeded to fold them. Shirts in one pile. Trousers in another. As long as she’d been alive, organizing the once meager, now great belongings they owned had calmed her. It had proven a distraction that kept her mind from the horrors that had been and always would be her life.
Now she was . . . empty and aching.
Desolation swept through her.
“Ophelia would have somethin’ to say,” Stephen taunted, aiming a fierce glare at her.
She didn’t pause in her folding. “Ophelia always has something to say.”
Stephen retrained his stare outside. Shoulders hunched and head down, he was an empty shadow of the spitfire she’d always known. And she didn’t know what to do with this agonized version of him. Gertrude forced herself to stop folding but reflexively drew the threadbare shirt close to her chest. “There will be good in you returning.” He belonged there. He had never been one for this place. Not so for Gertrude. The blood of a whore and a street thug flowing in her veins, and with a blind eye to boot, she’d never been destined for any- where except this place.
“To him?” Stephen chuckled, an empty darkness to his laugh. “He shoulda burnt in the fire beside her.”
Oh, God. How could he . . . ?
“Do not say that,” she rasped. The “her” in question was the very woman who’d birthed him, who’d been just another of Mac Diggory’s victims, pregnant, burnt to death after that same Devil had given the orders and sealed her fate.
“He’s a stranger,” Stephen said with an indifferent shrug. “And he’s proven to be a monster. Believe—”
“What someone shows himself to be,” she finished the familiar adage.
My God, how is my voice so steady? How, when I’m splintering apart and breaking up inside?
“Stealing my goodbyes,” Stephen whispered, resting his brow against the crystal pane. “Making decisions for me about when I go. Who I’ll see. Who I won’t . . . s-see.”
Gertrude briefly pressed her eyes closed. “He is within his rights.” Even as she said it, it rang hollow. “And he has reasons for his resentment toward our family.” How could the marquess, who’d had seven years with his son stolen, ever have any warmth or affection or anything less than a deep, abiding loathing for the Killorans? Gertrude cleared her throat. “He’ll be expecting us shortly.”
That statement, spoken in a hollow voice, brought her brother back around, his usual sneering self restored. “Ain’t letting you go.”
She cocked her head.
Her brother gave her a once-over. “You or Broderick or Cleo or Ophelia. None of you.” He spat in a disgusting habit that she had long despised but now ignored, focused solely on that statement.
“What?” she demanded, stalking over, her arms still filled with his favorite shirt.
“Broderick called me to his office. Explained the Mad Marquess don’t want any of my family about. Making me come on my own.”
Her mouth moved, but no words were forthcoming. He’d rob them of that final goodbye. And why shouldn’t he? The marquess was well within his rights and reasons for his hatred. Why should he allow those who’d served, and shared the blood of, the scourge of St. Giles, a man who had destroyed the marquess’s own family, to set a foot near his properties?
Yet . . . he should still consider how the changes would affect his son.
And for the first time that day, some emotion other than despair and pain flared in her chest: anger. Palpable. Biting. Distracting. And she clung to it.
“Ya got nothing to say,” Stephen taunted. “And that is why you’ll never be Cleo or even Ophelia.” With that he stormed off. “You. Broderick. You’re both weak.”
“Stephen,” she called after him, but he was already through the door and slamming it once more in his wake, so that only his name echoed around the room for company.
Yes, because over the years, he’d been clear that his affections were reserved for only one of the Killoran girls, and it had always been Cleo. Nor had Gertrude given him, or any of the other Killorans, much reason to believe in her strength—at least in the ways that mattered. Relegated to the role of invisible child after she’d lost partial vision, she had been allowed to remain within the household only because of Broderick’s intervention and the care she’d provided for the boys and girls in the gang. Oh, the family had relied upon her to teach the children and staff. But, be it when they’d lived on the streets or in the Devil’s Den, none had ever come to her for guidance. She’d never danced with danger as her siblings had. As far as Stephen knew, she had done none of these things, because shortly after he’d come to them, she’d been relegated to the position of caretaker. She’d neither killed nor stabbed nor stolen to protect. Instead, she’d allowed her younger sisters to serve in that role of de facto protector.
Her fingers gripped the shirt in her hands, and she glanced down at the threadbare garment.
“He is right,” she whispered. Stephen was right.
Gus trotted out from his place under the cabinet and bounded over. The fat tabby knocked into her lower legs, and his sturdy weight ruffled her skirts.
She sank to the floor and distractedly scratched the beloved place where his tail met his back. He purred loudly and curved into her touch. With her two younger sisters recently married, Gertrude had taken on greater roles and responsibilities in the club’s running, but the role of protector had still escaped her. She’d had an obligation to care for her younger siblings . . . and she’d failed them all.
Gertrude exploded to her feet so quickly Gus hissed and bounded off, rushing this time under the bed.
Fueled by purpose, she stormed from the room.
The wide halls were a bustling space of servants gathering up and carting off Stephen’s belongings. Young maids and footmen stepped out of her way, allowing her a path.
A handful of minutes later, Gertrude reached a familiar paneled door. Not bothering with a knock, she tossed the door wide.
From his place at the window, Broderick withdrew his gun and had himself positioned in front of his former assistant and now wife, Regina, with that pistol pointed at Gertrude’s chest.
He swallowed a curse. “I could have killed you.”
“I need to speak with you,” she said, ignoring that worry. Each of them had been trained as better shots than that. They didn’t fire or lunge first but rather assessed their opponent.
“What is it?” he asked quietly.
Reggie looked between brother and sister and then cleared her throat. “I’ll leave you both.”
Gertrude let out a sound of protest. “You don’t have to do that.” Reggie was as much a member of the family as any of the Killorans, in a bond that went back further and deeper than her marriage and to the years she’d spent like another sister to the Killoran girls.
“I should check on Stephen,” the other woman insisted in an indication of just how very much she knew each member of their clan.
Gertrude smoothed her palms over the front of the apron covering her bronze skirts. “That . . . would probably be best.” Time and life had proven the perils of leaving a volatile Stephen alone and to his own devices.
On the day he was to leave St. Giles and journey to the fancy end of Mayfair? Shivers dusted her spine. There was no telling what he might do.
Regina offered a slight nod. She very well knew and shared Gertrude’s fears. Gathering Broderick’s hands, Regina gave them a slight squeeze. Nearly of a same height as her husband, she easily met his gaze.
Some unspoken language passed between them, one where words were neither necessary nor used. Two people whose thoughts moved in a synchronic beat. Gertrude averted her stare, allowing them that shared moment. Theirs was a bond between a man and a woman, so foreign to Gertrude, who’d long ago accepted the fact that blind women were at best pitied and at worst treated with kid gloves. The last thing awaiting a cripple was romantic entanglement.
A floorboard started to creak, and she glanced back.
With a thankful smile, Gertrude waited until the other woman had gone before she spoke. “You aren’t going.”
Broderick exhaled a long sigh and, reaching inside his jacket, fished out a cheroot. “I cannot,” he said simply, fiddling with the small striker he kept in his pocket. He struck one, and the faint glow of the orange flame fizzled to life. “The marquess was clear.” Broderick lit the scrap of tobacco and took a long draw. With his other hand, he waved the match, wafting a puff of white smoke as the fire went out.
Gertrude frowned. “You don’t accept ‘no’ from anyone.” More stub- born than Lucifer, he’d gone toe to toe with the Devil for control of the underworld and won.
Broderick exhaled a small circle of smoke, his breath faintly shuddering, his hand faintly atremble. “He’ll see me hanged.”
She opened her mouth and then closed it.
With a sound of frustration, he stalked over to his desk. Grabbing the scrap of paper with a crimson seal broken down the middle, he tossed the page down in invitation.
Her frown deepening, Gertrude joined him. Picking it up, she assessed the wax crest, the imprint of a shield divided into four quad- rants, neatly severing the crisscrossed swords.
Gertrude unfolded the note and read.
I owe you nothing. I’ve spared your life because my son is living. But the minute he returns to my fold, your contact with him is over. You will have no communication with him. You will not see him. You will not even set foot on my stoop to deliver him. Your time in his life will be at an end. Any failure to honor these demands will result in the hanging you deserve. Nor do I expect to see your guttersnipish sisters darkening my doorstep, or I’m fully prepared to see their gracious entrance into Polite Society made far less comfortable.
The Marquess of Maddock
Robbed of the ability to speak, Gertrude looked up from the page. He’d threatened not only Broderick but also all the Killorans.
Broderick took another long, slow inhale of his cheroot. “And so, I cannot bring him . . . b-back.” He coughed into a fist in a failed bid to cover up the slight crack in his voice.
“But it is the last time we’ll see him . . .”
Her brother offered a sad smile. “We lost him long ago.”
Gertrude rocked back on her heels. That he should be so accepting . . . so matter of fact? “Where is your outrage at being denied even a last goodbye?”
“I don’t deserve a last goodbye,” Broderick said quietly as he tipped his cheroot ashes into a crystal tray.
“It is not about what you deserve or don’t,” she gritted out through her teeth. “It is not about what any of us deserve.” It was only about Stephen. “It is about easing his way from the only life he remembers.”
“And you think we’re the ones to do that?” he asked in achingly painful tones. “I’m the one who ordered him taken.”
Her frown deepened. “Do not say that,” she snapped. Gertrude tossed the marquess’s threatening note atop her brother’s ledgers. “You are the one who tried to save an orphan in the streets.” She took a step toward him and jammed a fingertip into the surface of his desk. “It was Diggory’s sick fascination with the nobility that led to Stephen’s kidnapping. You merely sought to give an orphan boy a home. Walsh and Lucy were the ones who brought a child of the nobility as Diggory always craved.”
Through a small circle of smoke, Broderick flashed a wistful smile. “You were the one always capable of forgiveness . . . of seeing goodness where there wasn’t any.”
Her fingers curled into the sides of her muslin dress. Broderick and her other siblings had always had an inflated sense of her goodness and depth of forgiveness. They had put her on a pedestal that separated her from her origins and sins.
“Cleo needs to go,” she said, stating that deliverance as fact.
“Thorne’s club would be ruined.”
“She won’t care,” Gertrude shot back, stunned.
“No. But Stephen does.”
There it was, yet again. The evidence that the boy was in fact a man with a weight of responsibility upon his narrow shoulders. He’d sacrifice that last opportunity to see his siblings in order to protect them.
“Look at me, Gert,” Broderick murmured. “Cleo is not accompanying him,” he said when she’d forced her gaze to his.
The sting of tears blurred the whole of her vision. “It cannot be like this,” she whispered, blinking furiously to keep those drops from falling.
A hand rested on her shoulder, jerking her attention upward.
Broderick held her gaze. “It is to be like this.” His throat muscles worked. With a grimace, he released her and took another pull from his cheroot. “Are his belongings packed?”
That is what he’d ask after? But then, mayhap it was just simpler to speak of garments and impersonal artifacts than the loss of their sibling. Only they weren’t impersonal. They were items Stephen had groused about. Wrinkling his pert nose at the fine wool garments. Clinging to articles that bore rips and hints of faded blood from street fights he’d fought and won.
Yes, it was very nearly done.
A knock sounded at the door.
“Enter,” Broderick called out.
MacLeod, the head guard, ducked inside the room. His gaze briefly lingered on Gertrude, and then he doffed his hat. “Pardon the interruption. Mr. Killoran, there’s a question regarding the boy’s . . . weapons.” Emotion wadded in her throat. Weapons. They weren’t just weapons. A Western Great Lakes Pipe Tomahawk. An Indian Bank dagger sickle. The Turkish composite dagger. A jade-and-silver Mongolian eating knife. A Scottish targe.
Aside from the jewel-studded dagger Broderick had insisted upon, the rest of Stephen’s collection had all been learning tools she’d used to motivate a child who’d chafed at the lessons Broderick had demanded Stephen be taught.
She hugged her arms around her middle. Oh, God. “He’ll take them with him.”
MacLeod went slack-jawed and looked questioningly at his employer.
Yes, because she’d never been one to publicly challenge Broderick or interject her opinion in front of a crowd. Her cases had been pleaded quietly.
A slight frown puckered between Broderick’s brows. “We’ll speak on it later, MacLeod.”
“Sir. Miss Killoran,” the guard murmured and backed out, leaving them alone once more.
Broderick tamped out his cheroot. “Everything is changing, Gertrude. It has to.” He paused, staring down at the ashes in the crystal tray. “For all of us.”
Everything was changing.
Her eyes slid closed.
They were losing Stephen. And nothing could be done to stop it.
And before she broke down and revealed the expected weakness in front of her eldest brother, Gertrude stormed off.
What were they going to do without him?