Book 3 in the >Wicked Wallflowers Series
Rivalry, romance, and scandal run hot in this Wicked Wallflowers novel from USA Today bestselling author Christi Caldwell.
Regina (Reggie) Spark has loved Broderick Killoran, the resourceful and protective proprietor of the Devil’s Den, ever since he saved her from the streets and made her his right hand at the notorious gaming hell. For just as long, Reggie has never admitted her true feelings for him. Nor has she revealed her spirited ambitions—to buck convention and expectations and open a music hall.
While Broderick built his gaming empire with ruthless cunning, his loyalty to his employees is boundless. So when he learns of Reggie’s plan to leave his side and take charge of her own future, the betrayal cuts Broderick to the core. He responds as he would to any business rival…with swift retribution.
Instead of wilting, the savvy Reggie rebounds with a fury that shocks Broderick and stirs a desire he’s been holding in reserve for only ladies of nobility. But as their seductive battle of wills ignites under the harsh spotlight of the London Season, secrets are exposed as well—ones that could be ruinous in decent society but invaluable for the heart.
Killoran, I am coming for you . . .
Broderick Killoran, proprietor of the Devil’s Den, had survived falls from grace and violent battles in the streets. But this could be the one that destroyed him.
It was why he now stood in the heart of the Seven Dials, those cobblestones no sane man would wander at night—unless one had been born to them or one’s life depended upon it.
For Broderick, the latter held true.
Where in hell are they? I need to find them . . .
Broderick reread the note he’d received, the words there already etched in his mind.
“Ye sure ye dinna want me to handle this one, Mr. Killoran?” the burly guard, MacLeod, called out, cutting across Broderick’s dread.
Settling a flinty stare off into the shadowed mist of the early-morn London fog, Broderick refolded the letter. Tucking it back inside his jacket pocket, he pulled out the pair of leather gloves that rested along- side it. “Quite sure,” he said, his hushed tones infused with cheer as he drew the leather articles on with meticulous precision. “I will handle this meeting, MacLeod.”
The guard cast him a sideways look. “Ye certain, sir? Ah’ll gladly find him an’ gut him myself for ye.” MacLeod spoke the way one might offer to pay for a bottle of whiskey to share between them. “Wouldna be no trouble.” The friendly cheer to that thick brogue was contradicted by the slashing gesture he made at his throat. “Real quick it would be. We could be off and at the clubs faster than ye could say ‘the blighter deserved it.’”
That willingness to kill for the Killorans was a loyalty that went back to when Broderick had saved the man from his own miserable circumstances and appointed him to a position of power within Mac Diggory’s gang.
“I’ll see to this one, Mac.” In one fluid motion, Broderick withdrew the dagger tucked in his riding boot. The hiss of metal, an ominous echo of danger and death, filtered through the London quiet. “Stand watch.”
Worry darkened the other man’s eyes. The first hint of it. He doffed his hat and slapped the article against a thigh thicker than most tree trunks. “There’s Miss Gertrude and Master Stephen to think about.”
Gertrude and Stephen, two of his siblings of the streets, were the reason Broderick was here even now, in the early-morn hours, and not at his gaming hell. The Devil’s Den would be brimming with patrons— most of them drunk and loose with their purses, and it was therefore a time he never left the walls of the kingdom he’d built.
His family’s survival, however, mattered more than even his own existence.
Broderick’s fingers curled around the hilt of his dagger. “I don’t need you to remind me of my responsibilities.” That whispered warning sent the color fleeing from MacLeod’s cheeks.
“Nah insult meant, Mr. Killoran. Ah merely—”
Broderick held up a silencing hand. Laying swift mastery to the demons of old, he fixed on the task at hand. “I will not be long.” He touched the tip of his right index finger against the knife, testing the sharpness of his blade. The metal pricked through the leather fabric of his glove and pierced his skin.
With MacLeod standing guard alongside their mounts, Broderick stalked the streets of the Dials, the rancid alleys he’d had, for a brief time, the misfortune of calling home.
Back then he’d been a sniveling, terrified boy. Now he moved with purpose, a hunter on the prowl, fighting for survival, determined to succeed, and intent on getting the scum of the streets before they got to him . . . and everyone he cared about. Most men would have taken smaller steps, lost themselves in the shadows, and chosen concealment as the safest option. But not Broderick. His every stride sent his cloak swirling in the dank, thick fog hanging on the London streets.
Broderick narrowed his eyes, taking in his surroundings. He’d dis- covered early on that timidity was oftentimes more perilous than bold- ness. As such, he’d never been one to mince steps or words, or to present himself as anything other than the leader of London’s underworld.
He abruptly stopped.
His senses immediately went on alert.
Doing a quick sweep, he raised his knife close.
A whore with heavily rouged cheeks and unkempt, oily black hair stepped out of the shadows. “’ey, guvnor, want a good toime?” she purred, her barely discernible King’s English roughed by Cockney and misery.
He nudged his chin in a silent order that she step aside. “I’ve other pleasures awaiting me this night, love.”
Desperation glittered in her bloodshot eyes. “Ya looking for a man to dicker? Oi can find ya one of those, too. If ya let me?” she whispered. Desperation or stupidity? Or mayhap a combination of both made her careless. She stretched her callused fingers out past his knife and ran cracked, dirt-filled nails along the lapels of his cloak. “Or mayhap a lass or lad?” she asked, her voice brightening.
Repulsion snaked through him, along with something else: long- buried disgust for the person he’d been a lifetime ago. Nay, how much he had been just like her. The street rat’s presence stirred reminders he didn’t want. Not at this time. Not when he was at his most vulnerable. But the door had been cracked open earlier, and the memories would not stay buried, forcing Broderick momentarily back to himself as a lad. Once pampered and then orphaned, new to East London. His father’s sins and mistakes had left Broderick alone, with his honor for sale and the hunger to survive strong. Begging for a scrap, selling the whereabouts of others if it meant he didn’t have to be buggered against a wall by men who at the time had been bigger and more ruthless than Broderick.
Self-loathing for the weak boy he’d been soured his mouth and renewed his purpose.
Broderick fished out a small purse and tossed it over. Her reflexes were slowed from drink, and the sack slipped through the woman’s fingers.
Like the rats the men and women of the Dials were forced to be, she tossed herself prostrate upon the meager offering and then scurried off, her figure disappearing within the swirl of grey fog.
Broderick resumed his hunt.
He stopped at the corner of Monmouth Street. Holding his dagger close, he worked his gaze over his surroundings. In no more than three hours, this place would be brimming with barefoot children hawking fraying boots and old shoes they’d filched from dead bodies or slumbering drunks. Pickpockets would be weaving amongst a crush of bodies out to buy or sell their wares.
But at this hour, battered souls surrendered to the grip of exhaustion and a too-brief respite from the hell that was the Dials.
The Wood Yard Brewery stood, an impressive redbrick structure, as a deceptive facade of respectability lent to a godless, soulless place.
At the entrance of Mercer Street is where you’ll find them . . . They rise at three and start thieving at three thirty . . .
The Runner’s report echoed in his mind as he slipped along the Seven Dials’ cobblestones.
Life, after all, had taught him there were greater dangers to face than the physical hurts to be dealt in London’s East End.
Rats chirped the Dials’ symphony as Broderick moved deeper into an alley the Devil himself knew not to enter . . . and then stopped.
The half-moon’s glow slashed down between the narrow slats of the buildings, casting an eerie light off the heavily scarred bastard stretched out on the hard stone.
Broderick resumed his march over to that prone figure.
With every step, hope—a rare emotion to these streets—spiraled through him.
He’d found him. The bastard who’d kidnapped Broderick’s youngest brother, Stephen. The man who’d passed off that same boy, a noble- man’s child, as a street orphan. And now Broderick’s very existence hung on a thread because of it.
But I’ve found him . . .
Broderick stopped over him. He kicked the prone man in the side with the tip of his boot. A hiss of pain whistled past the drunkard’s lips as he jerked awake. Broderick took a perverse pleasure in the fear that replaced the confused glint in the man’s eyes.
“You,” the man rasped.
Broderick smirked. “Me.”
“Oi didn’t think ya’d find me.” The faint slur hinted at a man with a weakness for cheap spirits and a carelessness that should have seen him with a blade in the belly long ago.
“You should think less and run more, Walsh.” Broderick gleefully doled out the first advice Mac Diggory had given him, a blubbering mess of a boy scared of his own breath.
The greying man struggled up onto his elbows. “Why would Oi run?”
“Because you kidnapped a marquess’s son.” A boy who became a brother to me. Broderick forced an icy smile. “Because I now intend to drag you to that very marquess himself.” Only this visit would not be one of empty words about what had happened that no nobleman would ever trust, but one with the thug truly responsible for those crimes in tow.
There was a marked calm to Walsh.
He was . . . too calm.
Broderick swiped his blade back and forth over his gloved palm. “You are not the only one I’m searching for.” He did a sweep of the nar- row alley, all the while knowing the other wretch he sought had gone. But he had one, and for now, that was enough.
A cocksure smirk marred Walsh’s gaunt face. “She ain’t ’ere.”
Bloody fucking hell. Broderick flashed a hard grin. “I’ll find her later, then. For now, I’ll deal with just you.” He ground the bastard’s hand under the slight heel of his boot.
“Ahhh!” Those cries carried forlornly and familiarly around Monmouth, cries that would be heard and invariably ignored in these merciless streets.
“You deserve this.” Broderick buried his foot in the bastard’s stom- ach. He’d brought a stolen child into Broderick’s life, and that same boy who’d become a brother to him would now go on to another—to his rightful family.
Agony spearing him, Broderick kicked Walsh again.
The street rat rolled onto his side. Clutching dirt-blackened hands around his middle, he glowered up at Broderick. “Ya think torturing me will make a bloody difference,” he panted. “Ya’re strong, but ya’re nothing compared to a bloody nob.”
Aye, that much was true. Having been born to a powerful noble- man’s man-of-affairs, Broderick had known precisely how the world was ordered and his place in it. “Ah, but you see . . .” Leaning down, he stuck his blade against the man’s enormous Adam’s apple. Walsh’s throat bobbed wildly, and Broderick reveled in the scent of fear that clung to Walsh, more pungent than even the cheap whiskey on his breath.
“I don’t need to be more powerful than a nob,” he whispered, trailing his knife tauntingly back and forth. A crimson bead pebbled on Walsh’s skin and trickled a winding path down his threadbare, stained white shirt.
“P-please,” Walsh sputtered. A damp circle formed on the front placket of the coward’s pants.
Broderick chuckled, and with one hand he dragged the man to his feet. Gripping his throat, he shoved him against the building. Fragments of a shattered brick sprinkled around them. “I’m not pleased with you, Walsh.” The thief’s face grew a mottled red as he struggled in vain against Broderick’s grip. “You gave me bad goods.” Even uttering that latter part left a jagged mark upon Broderick’s soul. For these weren’t watered-down spirits or rotted shank they spoke of. His grip tightened reflexively, and he reveled in Walsh’s near noiseless rasping.
The man’s thin lips moved, but speech was impossible because of Broderick’s hold. He kept the pressure there and then released his hold.
Hands rubbing at his throat, Walsh fell hard to his knees. He sucked in great, gasping breaths. “Diggory a-asked for a ch-child.”
Broderick backhanded him. “I asked you for an orphan, you pisser,” he hissed. Diggory had been running the clubs, and acting as his second at that point, Broderick had been calling the proverbial shots on his master’s behalf. “I asked you for a fatherless babe, and you brought me a fucking marquess’s son.”
“D-Diggory l-loved the n-nobs,” Walsh said in weak, graveled tones.
“I asked you for the child.” Broderick seethed. “I gave you the orders.” What had been his attempt to save some boy from the fate he himself had known as a young lad had been twisted and turned and warped into an evil act perpetrated by the one before him.
But I can get to the marquess. I can give him the ones he really seeks. The ones truly deserving of his wrath and ire.
“Pfft, the babe came to ya in foine garments. Ya knew precisely what he—aheee,” he howled as Broderick buried his fist in his nose, reveling in the crack of shattered bone and the spray of blood.
And yet, with Walsh twisting and squirming at his feet, the dread that had wound about him since he’d learned Stephen was in fact a marquess’s stolen child blossomed. Guilt stuck in his gut, sharp in its intensity. “I didn’t order you to do that,” he said hollowly. “You stole that child. You and that whore who served as nursemaid.”
Broderick’s family’s only hope for surviving this was in turning Walsh and Lucy Stoke over to the marquess . . . before they paid him that favor first.
While the man writhed and groaned on the hard ground, Broderick’s mind raced.
There would be no mercy for the soul who found himself in the vengeful sights of the nob whose son had been stolen. Broderick’s sources had turned up a file on the Mad Marquess, as the widowed gent was known. His wife burnt to death in a fire set by this man before Broderick, and his only child and heir stolen, the Marquess of Maddock wouldn’t forgive a single soul linked to Diggory.
But if Broderick could hand-deliver to the marquess the ones who’d wronged him, and present himself and his family as the saviors who’d given Stephen a home, then he could escape ruin—escape ruin, at the expense of losing Stephen.
Agony swept through him. With a curse, he dragged Walsh back to his feet. He forced the smaller man on his tiptoes and stuck his face in his. “You will pay the price. I’ll have my meeting with Maddock, and he’ll know precisely what you and your whore wife have done.”
He welcomed the flash of terror and the frantic pleading . . . that did not come.
A slow, hideous chuckle rumbled from Walsh’s concave chest until his entire frame shook with the ugly expression of mirth. “Ya’re a day late to that meeting.”
For the first time since Broderick had set out to find the pair who’d stolen Stephen and drag them to the marquess for their belated day of reckoning, unease pitted in his gut.
“What do you mean?” When Walsh only continued laughing, Broderick propelled him against the wall once more. “I said . . . what do you mean?”
But he knew. Knew it with an intuition that had saved his life countless times in the streets.
“I got to His Lordship. He knows ya ordered a nob’s babe for Diggory. And . . .” Walsh’s lips curved in a triumphant smile. “He believes me.”
All the air left Broderick on a swift rush.
His hands went slack. “Impossible.”
Walsh struggled out from his hold, and with the tables now turned, the vanquished became the victor. “Not so impossible? Ya thought yarself better, but to that nob, we’re the same.”
They were. God help him.
Walsh crowed. “Not so tough now, are ya?” He spat at Broderick’s feet. “Only a matter of time before His Lordship comes a-calling with the constables in tow to take down the one who filched his boy.”
Broderick stumbled back a step. No.
Walsh smirked. “Yes,” he said, confirming Broderick had spoken aloud.
Dread slithering through him, Broderick backed away from the street rat, and with Walsh’s triumphant laugh trailing after him, he took off running.