Book 1 in the >Wicked Wallflowers Series
USA Today bestselling author Christi Caldwell’s Wicked Wallflowers series burns hot as two rivals meet in the flesh and feel the heat…
Adair Thorne has just watched his gaming-hell dream disappear into a blaze of fire and ash, and he’s certain that his competitors, the Killorans, are behind it. His fury and passion burn even hotter when he meets Cleopatra Killoran, a tart-mouthed vixen who mocks him at every turn. If she were anyone else but the enemy, she’d ignite a desire in him that would be impossible to control.
No one can make Cleopatra do anything. That said, she’ll do whatever it takes to protect her siblings―even if that means being sponsored by their rivals for a season in order to land a noble husband. But she will not allow her head to be turned by the infuriating and darkly handsome Adair Thorne.
There’s only one thing that threatens the rules of the game: Cleopatra’s secret. It could unravel the families’ tenuous truce and shatter the unpredictably sinful romance mounting between the hellion…and a scoundrel who could pass for the devil himself.
St. Giles, London
Early Spring 1825
Adair Thorne was destined to be destroyed by fire.
Orphaned more than two decades earlier by a blaze that consumed his father’s bakery, his parents, and his sister, Adair now stood at the burned ashes of his own establishment.
Numb. Frozen. Unmoving.
Gone. It was all gone.
The conflagration had only just recently been tamed by the fire brigade; the hiss of those fresh embers still crackled in an eerie stillness of St. Giles. Servants, guards, serving girls, and the men and women who called this place home hovered on the cobblestones, silent but for a soft weeping among the women.
Adair stared blankly ahead at the metal gargoyles, still fiercely proud and intact, at the scorched stone steps of the Hell and Sin Club. It was gone. The kitchens. The guest suites. The gaming hell floors. All but the private offices and suites kept by the men and women who lived here.
Agony wadded in his throat, choking at him, until a primitive, desperate moan better suited for a wounded animal filtered past his lips. It blurred and blended with the quiet weeping at his back.
“. . . several with bad burns . . . a miracle none were killed . . .”
Yes, everyone had safely evacuated. And despite the hell of all they’d lost this night, some of the tension eased in Adair’s chest. Human lives had been spared.
It is just everything else you lost—everything.
“They’ll never be able to save it . . .”
Those casual utterances from two members of the fire brigade who’d wrestled the blaze under control brought Adair back from the edge of confusion, horror, and despair.
He blinked slowly. Yes. They had been fortunate. Not a soul had perished in that fiery blaze, and yet—Adair curled his soot-stained fingers into tight fists—there was still an ungrateful fury. A longing to toss his head back and rail at the world for all that had been lost this day.
He dimly registered his brother of the street Ryker drawing up beside him. Numb, Adair glanced over.
His cheeks ashen, the street-hardened head proprietor had a haunted glitter in his eyes. “Come,” Ryker said. “We can’t do any- thing standing here. We have to find a place for our displaced workers and . . .”
His voice droned on and on in Adair’s clogged mind. Of course, that was why Ryker had always been the leader of their gang in St. Giles. He’d commanded and taken control. He’d harnessed his blinding rage and hatred of the world around them and dictated the terms of survival against their foes.
Ryker settled a hand on his shoulder. “Come.”
“Oi’m not leaving,” Adair snapped, wrenching away. “Ya’d have us walk away? Not me. This club means something to me.”
His brother’s nostrils flared.
Like the head guard he’d been, rushing to break up fights in the now burning club, Niall sprinted over. His recent marriage to Lady Diana, a duke’s daughter, hadn’t managed to erase that indelible part of who he’d always been. “Enough,” he barked, quickly putting himself between Ryker and Adair.
“Oi’m not leaving,” Adair repeated, and resolutely planted himself on the pavement.
Their other brother of the street, Calum—calm by nature, even when presented with fire—abandoned the staff he’d been speaking to and joined them. “What is it?”
How is he so damned calm? “This one”—Adair jerked his chin at Ryker—“wants to leave.” While their dreams burned down around them.
“Nothing can come of us watching . . . this,” Ryker countered, motioning to the blaze.
Adair lifted frantic eyes up to the cracked and shattered windows. Before any of his siblings could speak, the words rasped from Adair’s throat. “This place is our very existence.” This was the dream that had sustained them when they’d not allowed themselves that whimsy. “It got us through freezing winters, vicious knife fights, and ruthless beat- ings by Mac Diggory, and now you’d have us simply walk away?” There was a frantic timbre to his voice that hadn’t been there since he was a boy, watching his birth family and their bakery burn down in a similar conflagration.
The fight seemed to go out of the trio . . . just as it always did with mention of their former gang leader.
Mac Diggory. Dead these two years now, he lived on still in their minds and also in the actions of the men and women who’d sworn their fealty to that Devil . . . and who’d taken on the cause of revenge after Adair, Ryker, Calum, and Niall’s sister, Helena, had ended the bastard. It hadn’t mattered that a place beside Satan in the flames of hell was too good for that ruthless whoreson. He’d beaten, killed, raped, and pillaged, and yet he’d earned the eternal fealty of a few.
“It was Killoran,” Adair whispered. Broderick Killoran, the owner of the Devil’s Den—their rival club—was to blame. Over the years, the battle for supremacy between them had played out not upon the streets but in the fine clubs resurrected with stolen riches. “He’s been trying to ruin us since he inherited from Diggory.”
His brothers stopped talking, and their silence stood as their agreement.
“And we trusted him to honor an oath of peace,” Adair spat. After Diggory’s now dead wife had captured Diana, it had been Killoran’s family who’d led Niall back to her. Adair and his brothers had struck a dangerous alliance only now to be proven fools for letting their guard down. “Ya said to trust him.” But I’m just as responsible because I did so, even against my better judgment.
The hot-tempered one of their group, Niall shed his earlier control. “This ain’t my fault,” he growled, surging toward Adair.
Calum and Ryker swiftly caught them each by an arm.
“It ain’t your fault.” Adair spat in the street. “It’s all our faults. We all let our guard down.” It was one of the most basic rules for survival, and they’d been lax—and it had cost them their club. Bile stung his throat, and he choked it back.
“Enough,” Ryker gritted out. He looked pointedly at the ashen employees scattered about. They stared on with fear in their gazes.
The weight of responsibility settled heavily on Adair’s shoulders. It was the only thin thread that kept him from giving in to the panic tearing at the corners of his mind. It reestablished purpose. Purpose was good. It kept him from giving in to despair. The men, women, and children behind them depended upon the club for their very existence. They’d been loyal workers and deserved more than this uncertainty and fear.
“We need to see to them,” Ryker said in grave tones.
A large, burned corner of the stucco establishment tore away and tumbled to the alley, falling atop a pile of debris. That crumbling ushered in a new flurry of tears and agonized moans from the men, women, and children around them.
“We’ve survived worse,” Calum said somberly, ever the optimist of their core group. “We will survive this.” He spoke with the same confidence he’d had when they’d been boys without a roof over their heads in the winter months. Calum flexed his jaw. “And we’ll grow stronger.”
Yes, they’d survived worse.
Adair briefly closed his eyes. It surely spoke to his brothers’ strength and his weakness, but the prospect of rebuilding from the ground up set panic rioting in his chest. Selfishly and cowardly, he wanted to dwell at the top of their kingdom and never again know the beginning. The beginning of everything . . . from drawing one’s first breath, to getting on after tragedy, to finding a new family or building a new home was work. It was uncertainty and fear and the unknown.
“Come,” Ryker said again. “We need to see everyone off the streets until . . .” Dark glitter sparked in Ryker’s eyes, the first evidence of the ever-confident Ryker Black’s uncertainty. Ryker strode out into the street, barking out orders and commands for the terror-filled employees.
Adair glanced back over his shoulder at the scorched building, and a feeling of desolation squeezed at his chest. At best, there had been seven years of his life when he’d been capable of innocence and good- ness, but that had died with his parents and sister in a different fire. In this instance, grateful though he was that none of the men, women, and children who called this place home had suffered the same fate as his family, he still raged inside. For the club hadn’t been just a building or a place of employment . . . it had been a dream and his home and the only thing he’d wanted in his life. And it was gone.
“Adair?” Calum called out. “We need help organizing the staff into hacks and carriages.”
Adair nodded and immediately turned his focus over to the task, ordering men, women, and children about, and in that, he found a distraction from the tumult of his mind and spirit.
With his brothers at his side, he worked through the long hours of the night until every servant and guard and serving girl and dealer had boarded a carriage and been ushered off to Ryker’s, Niall’s, and Calum’s townhouses. Until at last, the only ones who lingered in the streets of St. Giles, outside the charred remnants of the Hell and Sin, were Adair, Calum, Niall, and Ryker: the men who’d brought this club into existence.
Adair narrowed his gaze on the facade destroyed by fire. Truce. What foolishness.
A truce had been struck between Killoran’s people and the propri- etors of the Hell and Sin. That peace had died in the fiery embers that had raged the previous evening.
“The deal is off,” he said quietly, and his brothers looked over to him. “Killoran wanted Ryker and Penny to introduce his bastard kin to Polite Society. The only person a single one of us will introduce them to is the Devil himself.”
His brothers looked around at one another, and then over to Adair. In unison, they nodded.
“The deal is off,” Ryker confirmed, his lips hardened into an unyielding line that promised retribution.
Not a single Killoran would ever benefit from any efforts of the Hell and Sin family. Adair would rather gut himself than give over an inch to that vile crew.
Pledges be damned.