He’d bollixed it up.
She’d left him earlier that night, when he’d pushed her away, and Tommy had told himself that she’d be better off without him, and safer, too, considering any number of Scotland Yardsmen were searching for him, intending to kill him.
He’d watched her depart Wilde’s from the window of that room he’d never forget, every muscle in his body screaming to follow her. To take her somewhere far away and make a life with her and hang whatever mess they faced here in London.
But he held onto his thin thread of control—the last he could muster—and told himself it was for the best. Her friend the Duchess of Trevescan had guards everywhere to keep Imogen from danger, and she would be better off with them. With her friends. With her brother.
A villain could tip Tommy into the Thames and no one would think twice, but Imogen? An aristocratic lady? Sister to one of the home secretary’s closest friends? They couldn’t disappear her.
Unless the home secretary was in on it.
The home secretary, the commissioner of police.
If they thought Imogen had a line to their crimes, to the no doubt vast amounts of money they were making from aristocrats looking to use the police as hired guns to cover up scandal and keep truth from discovery, there was nothing that would stop them from coming for her. For her friends. For the extensive network of the Belles.
Not her brother, the earl. Not the Duke of Clayborn. Not Alfie Trumbull and his Bully Boys across the river. In this, the Hell’s Belles did not have enough power to keep themselves safe.
They would need an army.
And he would be a part of it.
Tommy was out of bed, calling for a razor—the best tool for disguise for a man who’d had a beard since he could grow one. Once he’d shaved and dressed in a collection of gentleman’s clothing found in the wardrobe at Wilde’s, he disappeared into Covent Garden looking nothing like Detective Inspector Thomas Peck. Files in hand, he was grateful for the cover of night, unable to go back to his rooms in Holborn—no doubt tossed over or under watch—unable to return to Whitehall, even if he could stomach the thought of it. Unwilling to go anywhere the Belles might frequent, for fear of bringing a corrupt gang of policemen into their world.
As though he hadn’t already done just that.
Instead, he disappeared into the winding streets of Covent Garden, then into a hack to find the only person he believed could answer his questions—Wallace Adams. Once they’d passed the dark windows of Adams’s flat, he’d had the driver head east, to his mother’s home in Shoreditch.
Adams had been a Bow Street Runner and survived the corruption that destroyed the group, and he’d been a senior member of the Metropolitan Police from the start. He believed in the police. In their work. And he would see in the proof what Tommy saw. A St. Michael’s medallion. The fabric used as fuses. The similar blast sites.
What they needed was to follow the money, and that was where Adams excelled—he knew every powerful man in Whitehall and most of the powerful men in other police precincts across the city. Tommy needed him, and quickly. The faster they rooted out the corruption at the Yard, the sooner the East End was safe.
The sooner Imogen was safe.
Christ. He shouldn’t have let her out of his sight.
After a moment of failing to recognize his clean-shaven face, Esme Peck had hurried her elder son inside, knowing instantly that something was wrong. Adams wasn’t there, and Tommy lingered by the door, knowing he remained on borrowed time there—eager to leave before villains came looking for him in Shoreditch.
Worry etched in her pretty face, his mother asked, “Are you over your head, Tommy?”
He shook his head instinctively, and they both knew it was a lie. “I need Adams.”
She knew from experience that he wouldn’t tell her more. “Where’s your lady?”
The question surprised him, making it impossible to feign ignorance. “How did you know?”
Esme tossed him a look that only mothers claim mastery over. “It hasn’t been so long since I was shopping on Bond Street myself, Thomas. You think I can’t tell a girl from Mayfair when she steps in my house?”
“I thought—” he started, but Esme waved the words back.
“You and Wallace in here thinking I didn’t notice her shining boots, or her frock made from the softest of lamb’s wool and dyed yellow as a daisy in the dead of winter?”
He shook his head. “But she didn’t act like Mayfair.”
“She didn’t have to,” his mother said. “She walked like Mayfair. Talked like it. And, she was pretty as a picture and pure money, though she ate stew out of my chipped bowls and played games with Annabelle and asked me about your da, and smiled at you as though you’d hung the damn moon.” She paused. “Reminded me a bit of myself, if I’m telling the truth.”
That had been his fear.
Imogen had smiled at him that way. He ran a hand back and forth over his chest to release the tightness that came with the memory.
“So what did you do wrong, Tommy?”
He shook his head. “There are a great deal of differences between us, Ma.”
“She didn’t seem to care much about them.”
“She would,” he said. “Eventually, she would come to care about them.”
“Ah. An oracle, are you?” His gaze shot to his mother at the words. She couldn’t have known what the word meant between him and Imogen, and still, the question shattered through him.
“I’m not,” he said. “If I were, I would have stopped so much of what has happened.”
“Oh, Tommy.” A long silence stretched between them. “Loveless, you said her name was?”
“Sister to Earl Dorring,” he said with a nod, a helpful reminder to speak that title here, in the three-room flat where he was born. “Lives in a palace in Mayfair. Two of her closest friends are duchesses.”
“And what, we’re to punish the girl for being born into a title?”
“She doesn’t care about the title,” he said.
“I noticed that when she walked in here and made sure everyone thought her a miss.” Esme scoffed. “She didn’t seem much interested in ceremony.”
“She isn’t,” he said. Indeed, the only times he’d ever seen Imogen happy were in places where her title meant nothing. And still . . . “She deserves better than me. What do I have that she could possibly want?”
Esme sighed and set a warm hand on his shoulder. “Tommy Peck, sometimes you are so like your father, I could spit.”
He turned surprised eyes on her. “What does that mean?”
She smiled. “Only that you’re smart and strong and noble and righteous . . . and you spend your days carrying the heavy weight of the world all by yourself, believing that there’s no one out there who wishes to shoulder it with you . . . and you’re dull as a spoon when it comes to knowing what women want.”
I’ve been very clear about what I want. Who I want.
“I can’t give her what she wants,” he said. “Not without taking everything away from her.”
“Is that what you think you’re doing if you love her?” His mother’s hand came to his cheek. “Is that what you learned from your father and me?”
Tommy put his hand to hers, closing his eyes. “He worked so hard, Ma. And you, too. A girl from money, in three rooms in Shoreditch.”
“Don’t you dare disparage this place,” Esme said, and Tommy’s eyes flew open at the words. Words Imogen had spoken herself in his own rooms in Holborn. “This place gave us a roof over our heads and space to love each other and make a beautiful family and three beautiful children. And the only regret I have, Tommy, is that your father didn’t trust me with the weight of his worry. He didn’t tell me enough so we could face what came together.”
She dropped her hand and stepped back, tears in her eyes. “Think of what we could have been if we’d been side by side.”
Tommy was silent, filled with an ache like none he’d ever experienced.
Finally, Esme sighed and moved to the washbasin. “I’ll tell Wallace you’re looking for him if he comes round.”
He nodded and approached, pressing a kiss to his mother’s warm, soft cheek. “I love you.”
“I love you, too, my boy. Be careful.” He’d made it all the way to the door when Esme called out to him. “Tommy—if you ask me, Loveless is a strange name for a girl who is so well-loved. She ought to change it.”
I will never marry, Tommy. Not if I cannot marry you.
“It should be Peck,” he said aloud. Surprising himself as much as his mother. “She ought to change it to mine.”
His mother nodded. “She ought to at least have the choice.”
He might not be worthy of her, but he was going to spend the rest of his life trying to be. And he was going to do it by her side.
If she forgave him.
He met his mother’s warm blue gaze. “I bollixed it up.”
She nodded. “It is not uncommon. You’ll set it right.”
He would. He’d do whatever he could to fix it.
And they’d face what was to come together. He hailed a hack and made for Mayfair, intending to find her and beg for forgiveness, and ask her to have him not as her guard, not as his assignment, but as her partner. As her husband. As father to her children—to the children they raised to believe in honor and fairness and justice and hope.
And though she was not there to hear it, Tommy vowed, in that moment, to stand by her side, whatever her fight. As long as she wanted him.
And if it was too late? If he couldn’t win her back? The truth was that he would guard her forever. He would stand behind her forever. Even if she never knew he was there. Because he would never stop loving her, even if it meant having her in barely-there doses: glimpses of her going in and out of carriages, sips of her alongside her crew on the Docklands, breaths of her shopping on Bond Street. Whispers of her in Covent Garden.
He’d take crumbs of her while the rest of the world was able to feast.
And he’d keep her foes at bay.
Starting that night.
The carriage slowed unexpectedly, coming to a stop up the square, before they reached Dorring House. He threw open the door and jumped down, already looking up the street. “What’s happened?”
The driver peered down the dark street.
“Peelers, sir. Police wagon blocking the road.”
Cold dread landed in Tommy’s chest. “Where?” But he already knew the answer.
“About where you’re headed.”
And everything became clear. They were going to arrest her for stabbing the policeman on the riverbank. Probably for exploding the other one. They’d take her to jail, then happily serve her up to the News as a dangerous woman. A lady with a penchant for violence.
They’d commandeer her carpetbag, filled with gunpowder, and call it treason. Imogen Loveless, a modern Guy Fawkes, a cautionary tale for what happens when you let women think.
He’d been around Whitehall long enough to predict the play.
To know, also, how well it would delight the audience.
“My thoughts, exactly.”
Tommy turned toward the words. At a distance, backlit by the lantern light of the row houses beyond, was Caleb Calhoun, easing his way toward Tommy, as though this were all perfectly normal.
Or, more likely, as though he were enjoying Tommy’s discomfort immensely.
“I hardly recognized you. Bare face and all that.” Caleb waved a hand in front of his own face while taking in Tommy’s clean-shaven jaw and luxurious clothes. “You could pass for a toff if not for the fuckin’ size of you.”
“You’re one to talk,” Tommy said, tucking into the darkness to survey the scene. “Have you ever met a doorway you didn’t have to duck through?”
“Can’t help it. This is how they make those of us who don’t come up with titles and money.”
That much was true.
“I don’t suppose you’re still friendly with that crew?” the American said, tipping his chin toward the police wagons and uniforms down the row. His jovial smile, as though Imogen weren’t in danger, made Tommy want to throw a punch.
The American tipped his hat back. “Good. It was only a matter of time before you saw that the ‘good men’ aren’t really the good men, eh?”
“I suppose so.”
“The Belles will be glad to hear you’ve decided to stand for justice.”
He had, of course. But it wasn’t just that. “Decided to stand with Imogen.”
Calhoun tilted his head in the direction of the wagon ahead, a handful of men standing guard outside of Dorring House—and God knew what going on within. “I’ll tell you, Peck, your timing could’ve been better. This would be much easier if we had a senior member of Scotland Yard to stop whatever show they’ve got on.”
Reminding himself that Caleb Calhoun was the closest thing he had to a friend in that moment, and it was best not to maim friends, Tommy said, “Why are you here?”
“To help you,” Calhoun said.
Tommy’s brows furrowed and he bit back his instinctive I don’t need your help. Because he did. Obviously. “Thank you.”
“What else is there to do? I’ve an outstanding debt, don’t I?”
It was meant in jest, though Tommy couldn’t find a response in kind. Fourteen months ago, he’d looked the other way when Caleb and Sesily Calhoun had broken out of the jail on the lower level of Scotland Yard.
“We didn’t have a debt,” he said. “Not even then. If not for that night, when you landed in my jail and tore the place apart, I wouldn’t have seen all Imogen was. I wouldn’t have become fascinated by her. I wouldn’t have made sure that, anytime anything happened in London that might bring me in proximity to her and your wife and their crew, I was the lead investigator.”
“You really are gone for her, aren’t you,” Caleb said, his tone full of understanding and no small amount of pity. “Take it from me, you should tell her so. As soon as possible.”
“Get me inside that house and I’ll do just that,” Tommy replied. He’d tell her everything. As soon as he held her in his arms and apologized for all the mistakes he’d made. As soon as he told her how much he loved her.
“Well—you can’t go through the front door. They’ve likely got a club or two with your name on them.”
“Then we go through the back, and hope the kitchens aren’t busy.” Tommy was already headed for the shadows and the narrow alleyway that marked the mews behind Dorring House. As they crept through the shadows, he asked, “How did you know I would be here?”
“You’ll learn soon enough that Duchess has eyes and ears everywhere—including on Scotland Yard—so the moment that wagon rolled out, messages were spreading through the network.” Caleb paused, then added, sounding almost English, “But even if she didn’t—of course you would be here, Peck. You’d be here, because Imogen would need you. And that’s what we do, bruv. We go where they need us.”
“You all say that,” Tommy said softly. At the other man’s questioning look, he clarified, “We. You bandy that we about as though you’ve never for a moment had to go it alone.”
Calhoun’s face split in a wide grin—wide enough that it made Tommy angry, because there should be no amusement as long as Imogen was in danger. “When we are out of these particular woods, you’ll realize that it’s them who are one crew, and we who are lucky enough to be along for the ride.” He leaned in, like he was telling Tommy a secret. “But here’s the truth. Once they let you in, you’ll do everything you can to make sure the Belles never let you out.”
Imogen’s ladies, in their bright silks and satins. What had she called them? Her Vigilante of Belles.
And her, a damn queen.
“She loves me.”
“That’s good, isn’t it?” Calhoun asked.
“I told her it was a mistake,” he said. “I let her go.”
“You cocked that up.”
“Too good for you, hmm?” Caleb understood. Likely because he, too, was married to a woman so far above him he shouldn’t even attempt looking at her.
“Better than I’ll ever deserve.”
“God knows that’s true,” Caleb said. “But it’s funny how those women are . . . They don’t like it when you tell them that. In fact—they go out of their way to show you just how wrong you are.”
“I’m not wrong,” Tommy said, full of rage and desperation and a wild kind of love that he feared would burn him up. “But I’d rather spend the rest of my life trying to be worthy of looking at her.”
“Like the damn sun, eh?”
It was nice to have someone who understood.
They turned up the street to access the mews, Tommy beginning to feel like he would lose his mind. “I have to get inside. To her. To fix it.”
The words were barely out when a rumble sounded in the distance, from the direction of Dorring House. Both men stilled, immediately knowing what had happened. One didn’t spend any amount of time with Imogen Loveless and not know that sound.
“Well. At least we know your girl is still in charge.”
Tommy was already headed through the darkness at a clip, toward the sound, hiding in the shadows of the buildings even as anger and fear coiled tighter and tighter, until he feared he might rip the whole of Berkeley Square down if that’s what it took to get to her.
There was a carriage sitting at the center of the lane, the horses unmoving despite the way the explosion had shaken the buildings around them. Horses trained by Scotland Yard to be unflappable.
And that’s when he saw the man ahead, tucked into the shadows himself, so well that a less perceptive man would have missed him.
A less perceptive man wouldn’t have recognized him, either.
And definitely wouldn’t have taken such a blow with it.
Tommy crouched low instantly, telling himself it was strategy and not shock, pressing himself to the flat stones of the house and taking a deep breath, trying to calm his racing thoughts.
Calhoun followed suit, quiet concern in his words. “What is it?”
“It’s Wallace Adams.”
“Wallace Adams, the superintendent of Whitehall?” Caleb’s brows rose in recognition. “You’re sure? Isn’t he . . .”
“My superior.” Tommy trailed off, shock fading into disappointment. This was his mentor. His father’s closest friend. One of the only men in the world Tommy trusted. A man who was supposed to be decent. Just. Disappointment became rage. “The bastard wants to marry my mother.”
The American stayed still and said nothing, which was for the best, as there was nothing to say.
Tommy looked to him, jaw clenched. “If he touches her, I’ll kill him.”
Caleb nodded. “And you’ll have a crew by your side.”
Before they could move, the door to the Dorring House kitchens burst open and Imogen flew out, headed for the road. Tommy knew instantly that she was headed for help. But she was also headed straight for them. Straight for him.
Eleven years of training stopped Tommy from revealing himself, from stepping into the alleyway to meet her. To be whatever she needed.
“That’s right,” the American said softly. “Wait for—”
As they watched, Adams came out of the darkness and caught Imogen by the arm, pulling her up short, wrenching her back toward him. Tommy sucked in a breath as Imogen cried out, the sound rending the night, and he barely bit back a wild roar as he made for them, ready to unleash punishment on Adams for touching Imogen. For daring to threaten her.
Only Caleb’s quick reflexes stopped him, pulling Tommy back, holding him tight. “I know you want him. I know,” the American said with quiet force. “But they have the house, the girl, and the men. All we have is surprise.”
Caleb was right, Tommy knew it. But he could not find control, his emotions raging as the woman he loved turned to her captor—a man he’d trusted for a decade. Her words rang in the night. “Tell me, Mr. Adams, how does this end?”
“However it must,” he said. “And it will be your fault, as all you had to do was let Tommy play nursemaid for a few weeks, and instead, you got him tied up in a mess that wasn’t his concern.”
Wasn’t his concern? It was corruption at all levels of Scotland Yard. Did Adams really think he’d never uncover it?
“Where is he?” she asked, and he clung to the tiny hint of concern in the words.
“We don’t know,” Adams said. “Another thing that’s your fault. But he’ll come running when he discovers we have his girl.”
A low growl sounded at the threat in the words. They thought to use her as bait? They thought to threaten her? He would not rest until he’d ruined their lives.
She met his gaze. “I’m not his girl.”
Adams scoffed. “I’ve seen the way the boy looks at you.”
Like she is the fucking sun.
“As have I, Mr. Adams, and I assure you, Thomas Peck has made it quite clear he has no interest in my being anything close to his girl.”
Tommy hadn’t imagined he could feel hotter rage than in that moment, as he heard the resignation in her voice and realized she was not bluffing—that she meant what she said—that she thought there would ever be a time when he did not come for her. When he did not fight for her.
“Fucking hell,” Caleb said as he pushed Tommy back against the wall, sensing his frustration. His desire to tear the whole place apart. “Easy, Peck. Surprise.”
In the distance, Adams had had enough. “That’s Superintendent Adams to you,” Adams sneered at Imogen.
“Not if I have anything to do with it,” she said as he pulled her toward the carriage.
Adams stopped at the words, turning back to her, his face—now visible in the light from the carriage lantern—full of malice. “I’ll teach you to disrespect me, gel,” Adams said, his backhand coming fast and furious, surprising everyone, and knocking her back hard enough that she would have fallen if he hadn’t been holding her upright.
That was it.