The Spitfire

 Book 5 in the >Wicked Wallflowers Series

Her dream is to open a music hall. Only one thing stands in her way—the man she loves. The final Wicked Wallflowers novel from USA Today bestselling author Christi Caldwell.

Leaving behind her life as a courtesan and madam, Clara Winters is moving far from the sinful life to which she was accustomed in the gaming hell the Devil’s Den. Her more reputable and fulfilling endeavor is a music hall for the masses. One night, when she sees a man injured on the streets of East London, she rushes to his aid and brings him home. It’s then that she discovers he’s Henry March, Earl of Waterson, and a member of Parliament. No good can come from playing nursemaid to a nobleman.

When Henry rouses to meet his savior in blonde curls, he is dazzled. This smart and loving spitfire challenges his every notion of the lower classes—and every moment together is a thrill. But after Henry returns to his well-ordered existence, he strikes a political compromise that has unintended consequences. Will his vision for London mean dashing the dreams of his lovely guardian angel?


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Chapter 1 

England 1826

Henry March, the Earl of Waterson, lived a well-ordered existence. Every minute of his every day was carefully laid out, organized in a neat schedule that he devoutly followed.

Even with the meticulous planning he’d put into every part of his existence, there was one area he’d never given much thought to: how he’d die.

If he had thought of it, given the life he’d led as a staid, proper, ever-vigilant lord, dutiful son, and devoted brother, he’d have expected to be one of those doddering lords who lived long after eyesight and hearing failed.

Mayhap there would be a wife and a pair of sons—the whole requisite “heir and the spare” to preserve the title—at his side. Of course, a nobleman would have to be married in order to leave behind either a loving widow or children.

In the end, in his end, it would turn out that Henry would meet his maker with no one at his side, and dying not in the comfort of his four-poster bed but in the unlikeliest of places—on the dank, grimy cobblestones of St. Giles, facedown, and with his cheek submerged in a puddle.

Henry lay there, on the hard, unforgiving London street, with his eyes closed.

I’m dead.

It had come so fast, so unexpectedly. From behind in the form of two masked brutes—a blade slicing through his flesh and then blackness.

And all because he’d been bent on good. Even in death, the irony of his demise was not lost on him. That he, leading MP, determined to see a universal constable force throughout the whole of England, should be cut down in his research of London’s most dangerous parts.

Except . . .
Henry forced his left eye—the one not submerged in water—open.
Surely in death one wouldn’t feel pain. Unless one found oneself cast out of heaven and into hell.

Which, given the mistakes he’d made in life, mayhap made hell his final resting place. And there could be no doubting his left side burnt with a searing viciousness that sent vomit climbing up his throat. The agony pulsing at his side caused his whole body to radiate pain.

From the attack. His flight. And then his collapse, here. Now, the icy chill that came from lying wet upon the unforgiving streets of East London. But in death one was released from feeling . . . anything. So Henry wasn’t dead. He was dying.

The frantic beat of footfalls came from around the corner.

Closing his eye, Henry said a prayer to a God he’d been woefully neglectful of attending in his  life that it was a constable.

But the steps were too unsteady. They bore down on him, crashing through puddles.

“Jaysus. There ’e is.”

And it appeared there’d be no intervention from the Lord this night.

“Oi told ya ’e couldn’t have gone far,” the other man said, his voice rasping and breathless. “I nicked him good.”

Henry’s two assailants staggered to a stop over his prone form.

“Is ’e dead?” That coarse Cockney slashed across the otherwise quiet London air.

That appeared to be the question of Henry’s night.

“Oi don’t know.” The admission, gravelly and rough, emerged almost hesitantly.

The pair of masked brutes who’d taken him down leaned over him. He felt them rather than saw them, blotting out the faint slash of moonlight that periodically peeked out from behind the thick clouds that rolled past.

“Oi stuck ’im in ’is ribs. Ya stick ’im if ya wanna be sure.”

“Ya do it.”

“Oi already did. It’s yar turn.”

They were going to shove another blade into him. That realization came with the usual matter-of-factness that had been part of Henry. Only this time, there was a blessed numbness to that realization.

One of his attackers grunted as his partner in crime pushed him. “Ya just want me to be the one to ’ave killed a nob. Only fair that ya stab ’im, too.”

“’e’s dead anyway,” the other man groused. “Ain’t no need for me to do it, too.”

As the pair fought, darkness plucked at Henry’s consciousness, muting the argument unfolding between the pair so that their words rolled together into an incoherent jumble that ultimately faded completely.

And still, he fought that pull of unconsciousness. Knowing with an innate sense that if he gave himself over to the inky blackness, he’d never open his eyes again. Knowing that he didn’t want to die like this. Not here. Not now.

And then . . . it was too much. The world went dark.

***

When Henry came to, a thick haze of confusion clouded his head and his eyes felt as if they were weighted shut. He struggled to open them. Where in blazes was he? And why did his side hurt like the Devil had touched a pitchfork to it?

“Didn’t say that we ’ad . . .”

And with the guttural Cockney penetrating the confusion, it trickled in: his meeting with several MPs who were at odds with him on cleaning up the streets of East London, surveying those same streets, and then parting ways.

The first thing Henry registered . . . was a voice. An unfamiliar one. Except . . . it wasn’t completely unfamiliar. Why did he know it? Why should he know a coarse East London Cockney? And then it came rushing back.

The attack. The assault he’d suffered on the streets.

He must have gone black for just a moment. And then a groan escaped him, piteous and— worse than that—damning.

His assailants went silent.

“Wot was that?”

There was a grunt, followed by a curse. “Wot in ’ell do ya think it was? It was ’im.”

And through the agony lancing at the wound he’d sustained, there was something more— terror, and a hungering to escape.

I cannot die here . . .

Digging deep for one last grasp at a fight to survive, Henry pressed his gloved palms against the cobbles and struggled to push himself to a stand. Only one thought compelled him: flee.

Alas, Fate or God or, mayhap, the Devil had other plans for him this night.

His body collapsed, weak from his earlier attack. Struggling to lift a hand but knowing his very life, or what remained of it, depended on the movement, Henry grabbed the purse from inside his jacket. “Money,” he rasped. “I have money.” He tossed the bag weakly at the pair, and it landed with a jingle that sent greed dancing in his assailants’ eyes.

The pair exchanged a look, and then as one, they made a grab for it.

The bulkier of the two beat his partner to it and then cuffed the other man about the ears for attempting to best him.

When he spoke, his reedy voice contained a whine to it. “Oi told ya ’e wasn’t dead,” he complained, stuffing Henry’s purse inside his tattered and patched wool jacket.

“Ya didn’t. Ya asked, and Oi said if ya wanted to kill ’im that ya should see to it.”

“You don’t have to do this,” Henry said, his voice thin, weak, barely audible to his own ears. Please don’t do this. It was an entreaty that, because of a lifetime of honor ground into him as a peer of the realm, he couldn’t bring himself to utter. Not even with death facing him.

“Ya don’t tell us what we ’ave to do or not.” With a growl, the burlier of his attackers buried his foot in Henry’s bleeding side.

Henry cried out, the sound weak and threadbare, but the other assailant kicked him in the face. “Shut yar damned mouth,” he warned Henry, skittering his gaze about.

The metallic bite of blood tinged Henry’s mouth and ran down his throat. He choked and spit into the muddy puddle already aswirl with crimson.

“Oh, foine. Oi’ll do it,” one of the brutes muttered. There was a sharp hiss, the whine of a blade being unsheathed.

Henry closed his eyes. This was it. They intended to finish him off, after all. Now. In this instance, with another blade to his body. “Don’t,” he whispered, determined that his last word come forward as a command and not as a plea.

Then in the distance, the echo of a horse’s hooves sounded, and he was spared. At least, temporarily.

“Bloody ’ell. We can’t do this ’ere,” the scrawnier of the pair muttered. “Get ’is legs.” “Ya take ’is legs. Oi’ll get ’is arms.”

“Stop foighting about everything. Do ya want to be seen?”

And as one of them grabbed Henry roughly under the arms, the darkness inched back over his eyes, pulling it across his vision like a curtain descending.

“Bloody ’ell. ’e’s ’eavier than ’e looks.”

“I can pay you more,” he whispered weakly as they struggled to lift him. Henry would likely end up with another knife wound before this night was through and felt desperation clutching at him through the pain, but he’d be damned if he humbled himself in his final moments by begging.

“Pay us more?” One of the men snorted. “Wot do ya intend? To ’ave us join ya at yar townhouse, where ya’ll give us a fortune?” The thug grunted, panting from his exertions. “We’ll settle for yar purse.” He paused, bringing Henry’s dragging body to a brief stop. “Ya got a timepiece?”

A gold timepiece. A signet ring. A silver carrier with his cards in it. They’d take it all and end him anyway.

“Will ya ’urry up?” the other man whined. “Oi ’eard someone, and yar blabbering ’ere with this nob?” As if to punish Henry for that annoyance, he punched him.

This time there was a sickening crack, followed by the spray of blood.

His assailant chortled. “Ain’t such a foine-looking nob now with a crooked nose.”

Digging deep for a last bit of strength, Henry struggled, kicking. That unexpected showing startled the attacker carrying his legs into dropping him. The added weight sent the one at his shoulder stumbling, and he lost his hold on Henry.

With a Herculean strength that could come only from a primitive place that lived within all to survive at all costs, Henry found his feet. Clutching at his side, he took off running once more. Blood soaked through his fingers, coating his gloves, the sticky warmth penetrating the thin leather. His breath rasping loudly, Henry staggered, and his legs weakened.

All his life’s energy drained from him.

He stumbled, and too weak to even hold the agonizing wound seeping blood from his side, he collapsed to his knees.

And sensed the blow before it even landed.
One of his attackers clubbed him hard at the back of his head.
Light danced behind Henry’s eyes, flickering, vivid, bright specks that twinkled like false stars

in the miserable St. Giles night sky. He fell forward, his cheek slamming hard into a broken cobblestone. Its jagged edge shredded the flesh.

This time, as the pair of thugs grabbed him and began dragging him off, he surrendered the fight and turned himself over to the inevitable fate that awaited him.

And he remembered nothing more.

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