Book 4 in the >Sinful Brides Series
Lady Eve Pruitt has never forgotten her childhood friend, the young pickpocket Calum, who she feared had been condemned to the gallows. Now, years later, Eve is the one in danger. Her brother, made desperate by gambling debts, threatens to steal her inheritance, and Eve has no choice but to run.
Under an assumed name, she takes a job as a bookkeeper at the notorious Hell and Sin Club. Nothing in this bawdy den shocks her more than discovering that her employer is none other than Calum. Keeping her identity a secret is one thing—but hiding her feelings for him is another.
As Calum becomes increasingly taken with the strangely haunting beauty, he looks forward to exposing her mysteries. But when her masquerade is revealed, it’s left to Eve to prove that her desire for him is no deception.
London, England 1807
Calum Dabney was dying.
And it was even more painful than his former gang leader, Mac Diggory, had threatened it would be. Stumbling along the alley, Calum clutched at his right side; warm blood coated his fingers. His breath came hard and fast in his ears as he crashed against the side of the white stucco townhouse.
At fourteen, he’d been beaten, shot, and stabbed more times than even the Almighty himself had a right to survive. But borrowing sup- port from the elegant building, he gritted his teeth through the pain and accepted the truth.
I’m dying . . .
On his birthday, no less. It was foolish, the staggering intensity, this need to survive. Since his parents’ death when he was a boy of five, he’d lived first in an orphanage, beaten for the pleasure of the nurses caring for him. Then he’d escaped and found a ruthless home among the Dial’s most lethal gang leaders. Calum had had an empty belly on most nights and had been forced to fight boys and men for scraps and coins. Mayhap it was a primitive need to survive that existed even in the basest beasts. But even with the misery of his existence, he still hadn’t wanted to die then and certainly didn’t now, since he’d found a family in Ryker, Niall, Adair, and Helena.
After all, even a starved dog snarled and fought for his last breath.
“I’m not a dog,” he rasped. He was Calum Dabney . . . one of the best pickpockets in the whole of London and second-in-command of the Hellfire gang. The band of brothers he and Ryker Black had formed three years ago. It wasn’t his time to die. He’d too many plans for the future. A future that involved climbing from the gutter and rising up. And security. And food. And a roof—he’d have a damned roof and a big bed and one of those fancy desks just like his late father once had . . .
With each reminder of his dreams, Calum dragged himself forward. He reached the end of the alley and stopped, frozen in the shadows. He breathed through his pain, waiting and watching. His gaze found the familiar mews. This place that had been an unexpected shelter nearly a year ago during a deluge and then became something more: a place where he’d come to escape the hell of St. Giles. The sight of the stables gave him a surge of strength.
The nighttime clouds stilled over the full moon hanging in the sky. With that cover, he darted forward, rushing to the mews. Holding one hand to the still-bleeding wound, Calum used the other to shove the stable door open. With all his remaining effort, he drew it closed behind him, and then he collapsed in a heap atop the hay.
A midnight-hued horse whinnied loudly and bent, nuzzling Calum with his cold nose.
“Hello, Night,” he whispered to the familiar mount.
The tall creature neighed in greeting and then, as if bored by Calum’s presence, resumed munching on hay.
Stars dotted Calum’s vision, and he pressed his eyes closed, willing those flecks of light gone. If he gave in to the inky darkness, he feared he’d never wake up. That was what his brother Niall was forever saying about sleeping after a knife wound.
Calum shifted onto his uninjured side and gasped as agony burned through his body. Sweating from the pain and his exertions, he promptly closed his mouth. Silence saved and sound destroyed. You’ll get yourself killed . . . Calum’s lower lip quivered, and he focused on the self-revulsion at his weak response. For all the times he and his brothers had been stabbed, they’d withstood the pain and never cried. This was different. This time there was so much blood. With shaking fingers, he made to draw back the fabric of his shirt. He winced as the tattered garment peeled away, revealing the open wound. Then, sucking in a slow breath through his teeth, he quickly covered up the mark left by the Marquess of Downton’s blade. Son of a duke, Lord Downton would one day be owner of the Mayfair mews Calum frequently visited. The ruthless bastard had caught him once before and promised him a hanging if Calum sullied his stables again. It had been one thing to disregard that long-ago threat, an altogether different one to rob from that same man in the street. Guilt and regret roiled inside.
It had been a careless mistake. Always nick from a nob in a crowd, when they were unsuspecting. That was the way. The safest way to pick a man’s pocket. But the drunken gentleman exiting Diggory’s hell had diamonds dripping, from the rings on his fingers to the buttons on his jacket to the cover of his timepiece. Calum had made an uncharacter- istic misstep and found himself with a blade to his side for his efforts. He reached in the clever pocket sewn along the side of his pants. His fingers collided with a cool metal object, and he pulled it out.
Those exertions sent sweat dripping from his brow, into his eyes. He blinked back the stinging moisture and gazed at the heavy fob in his hand. Through the bloody agony of his side, he managed a grin. The piece was worth a damned fortune and had been worth the carelessness and risk.
Calum collapsed on his back and blacked out.
A faint creaking penetrated Calum’s unconsciousness, and he struggled to open his eyes. The scent of cloves and mutton lingered in the air. Trying to piece together where he was, Calum shoved up on his elbows and gasped, remembering too late—the knife. The injury. His surely impending death.
“Calum.” The faint singsong whisper, in those cultured tones, out of place in his world, pierced his frantic thoughts. “Are you here? I’ve brought you a birthday—”
A soft whir of air caressed his face as the familiar figure—a small one—sank down beside him. Little Lena Duchess, as he’d nicknamed her. He’d stumbled upon her in this stall in the middle of a rainstorm a year ago. Where any other lords or ladies would have turned him over to the constables, the small girl had run off and returned with leftovers from the evening meal. Little fingers captured his face in a surprisingly strong, if unsteady, grip.
“You’re hurt.” Hers was an accusation coated with heavy fear.
He marveled that she worried after him, when only his brothers and sister gave a rat’s arse if he returned to the shack they called home. Not wanting her pity or tears or worry, he threw off her fingers. “I ain’t hurt,” he snarled.
Lena’s lower lip quivered, and something moved in his chest. Setting down the plate in her hands, she swatted his arm. “What happened?” As one, their gazes went to the damning gold piece glittering in the dark.
He made a grab for it and, ignoring the burning in his side, stuffed the bauble awkwardly into his pants. Did she recognize it as her brother’s? “It ain’t your business.” What would she know of stealing and surviving?
She knew nothing but a full belly, a pompous family, and what it was to be pampered.
Then with a fiery show better fitted to a girl on the streets and not a fancy nob’s daughter who lived in the nearby townhouse, she unleashed her fury. “I’m trying to help you because you are hurt. And you know I hate when you use that fake way of talking. You don’t talk like that, but you pretend you do and . . . Please don’t die.” Her lip trembled again.
The sight of it caused that damned weakening again. And this time the reply came not as a bid to salvage his street-pride but to stop that damned sadness from her enormous brown eyes. “I can’t die,” he said, reminding her of those words she’d given him when they’d first met and she’d pointed out the scar by his lip. “I have the mark of life.” Or some such Greek nonsense she’d prattled to him about while he’d devoured a loaf of bread she’d once brought him.
“Lie down,” she commanded with more authority than the con- stables who still hadn’t managed to catch Calum. “What happened?” she asked, guiding him back atop the hay.
Breathing hard, he allowed her to help him down. “I nicked a piece and got stabbed for my efforts.”
“One can’t let oneself be caught unawares,” she scolded. “You’ve told me that.”
“I know,” he gritted out. “I know.” He expected that reminder from his siblings. Odd to hear a fancy lady spouting off on the rules of the street.
With determined little fingers, Lena pulled back his shirt.
“I am sorry,” she whispered, exposing the wound. He braced for her waterworks. Yet, she merely bit down hard on her lip and glanced searchingly about the room. “Oh, Calum.”
“Isn’t a lady supposed t-to cry over b-blood?” Pain lent a tremble to his voice, erasing all hint of the intended lightness.
“I’m not afraid of blood, Calum,” she said, directing that reply to his injury. She paused briefly in her examination. “They bled my mama.”
He furrowed his brow.
“When she was sick, the doctor would cut her and pour her blood into a dish.”
He grimaced. There was no making sense of the nobility. Silly, loud garments and stupid ideas about healing. “That wouldn’t make anyone stronger,” he said automatically. He’d been cut in enough fights to know that bleeding weakened a person. “No wonder she died,” he muttered.
The usually garrulous girl went silent, when she was always chattier than a magpie. He forced heavy eyes open. Lena stared vacantly down at his side. Pain wreathed her little features, and despite the cold exterior he presented to world, the sight of her suffering pierced through his own misery. Nine years old, and yet she, with her pixielike appearance, could have passed as a child of six. Little Lena Duchess had more cour- age than most men he knew in the streets. Sometimes, it was too easy to forget how innocent she remained to the true ugliness in the world. “I’m sorry,” he said quietly.
She brought her shoulders back. “She’s been gone two years. I’m all right.” He no more believed that than he believed that nob’s knife wouldn’t end him this day. But he wasn’t the boy to pry into another person’s secrets. Not even the little girl he’d secretly taken to calling friend.
With determined little hands, Lena grabbed a napkin resting on the nearby tray. A tray containing food that would have had his belly growling on any other day. Now, however, he was incapable of focusing on anything but that stinging in his side. Lena pressed the fabric against the gash.
The air hissed between his clenched teeth. “I’m so sorry,” she repeated, glancing up. It was a day of sorrys.
“It’s foine—fine,” he automatically corrected. In the streets of St. Giles, a boy with unblemished tones, and anything less than a Cockney accent, was marked as weak. She’d been the only person he’d shared his true accent with. “I’ll be all right.” He always was. The words danced on his lips, but his tongue fell heavy in his mouth, making a lie of that assurance.
“It won’t stop bleeding.” She shoved to her feet in a whir of white skirts.
He glanced up. “What—”
“You need hel—”
Calum shot a hand out, startling a shriek from her. He captured her small wrist in his grip. “No.”
“I. Said. No.” How did his voice emerge so strong despite the pain wrenching at him?
Lena pursed her lips. “Fine,” she muttered, and he released her. “But I need water and rags to mend your side.”
Mend his side. Nothing short of a seamstress’s skilled hand with a needle would help him now.
She settled her hands on her hips and glared. “Calum,” she said warningly.
Calum opened his mouth to protest further, but another wave of dizziness hit him. He fell back.
Lena’s quiet cry pealed around his muddled head. Then he heard the patter of her footsteps as she rushed from the stable. Giving himself over to the dark once more, Calum embraced the detachment that came with the darkness.
“Where is he?” The deep voice pulled him back to the moment, followed by Lena’s answering reply.
“He is in here, Gerald. This way.”
Dread swamped Calum’s senses, blotting out the fog of pain. Calum frantically glanced about and took in the walls blocking him from escape. His palms moistened, and he struggled to his feet. The timepiece fell from his pocket just as the stable door opened.
The gentleman blinked in the darkness as he stopped, Lena at his side, blocking off the entrance. The man said nothing for a long moment. “You have done very well, Lena,” the man murmured, some- thing strikingly familiar in those tones.
Fighting through his panic, Calum tried to place it.
“Return inside while I see to this.” Lena lingered. “Now,” the man barked.
You little bastard, I’ll see you in Newgate . . .
Oh, my God. Calum stared between the glittering fob and the lord with his menacing eyes. The same man he’d nicked, who’d stabbed him for his efforts. And that vital rule of his gang, the crucial one he’d ignored echoed around his mind—never trust anyone but one’s family. Now he’d pay the ultimate price. Ignoring his pain, he glared at Lena. “You bitch,” Calum growled.
She cried out. “No. I . . .” A footman proceeded to drag her away, and Calum forced himself to follow her retreating form until she’d gone. His friend. You fool. You bloody fool.
Rough hands dragged Calum to his feet, jerking him from that momentary escape. A hoarse cry tore from his lips at the force of that movement as pain lanced his side.
Bile climbed up his throat.
“You filthy guttersnipe,” the man snarled, shaking him wildly. Another cry spilled past Calum’s lips as the gentleman proceeded to drag him by the hair from the stables. “Steal from your betters, will you?” The nob punched him in the side, and flecks danced behind his eyes.
“Get him out of here . . . Newgate . . . see that he hangs . . .”
Weakening, Calum slumped against the burly footman and fixed on a slow-burning hatred for the girl who’d betrayed him.