Wallace Adams knew how to take a whack at someone.
Imogen shouldn’t have been surprised, considering the fact that the man had been a Bow Street Runner and then a Peeler, and then the head of a whole lot of Peelers, but somehow, when the blow came, hard and fast—smack!—over her right cheek, she wasn’t prepared for how much it would hurt.
Nor for how it sounded, a sharp crack followed by a shocking roar that echoed all around her, bouncing off the stones of the buildings above. She reeled back from the blow, but Adams still held her tight enough that she couldn’t escape, and she came back around with her free hand at her face, protecting it.
He reached for the carriage door, jostling her into position so he could force her inside. “I hope he doesn’t come quickly. It will give me time to teach you to respect authority.”
What she would not give for her brooch. Something more dangerous.
Imogen forced a smile in his direction, refusing to show pain or fear, but knowing that if he got her into the carriage, she would lose all power. Her best bet was to keep this man talking. “I should tell you, far better men have tried it. And it has not turned out well for them.”
He pushed her harshly toward the carriage, and she stumbled, using the movement to resist, her mind racing as she looked for a way out. That was when she heard the roar again—punctuated by heavy footsteps coming toward them.
Instantly, Adams was jerking her away from the carriage, whipping her around to place her in front of him like a shield, one arm across her neck, tight.
“Get your fucking hands off her,” Tommy shouted, the words dark and threatening as he advanced, looking feral and furious.
Like tinder about to blow.
“Tommy, no—” There were men inside and God knew how many more on their way, and Tommy couldn’t be there. “You’re who they want!”
He didn’t look at her, still advancing. “Let her go, and I might not kill you for touching her.”
“Don’t come any closer, boy.” Imogen felt the kiss of steel at her throat and lifted her chin. Adams had a knife there. “I don’t want to hurt her.”
It seemed like a lie if you asked her.
“You’ve already hurt her.” Tommy kept coming. He kept his eyes on Adams and Imogen realized that he was not tinder about to blow. He was the explosion in progress. About to take down half of Mayfair.
Later, she would marvel at the beauty of it—Thomas Peck out of control.
But right now . . . if she didn’t defuse the situation, she feared Tommy was going to throw himself bodily at an armed and desperate man. “I’m right as rain, Tommy—though I sense the same isn’t the case for you. What have you done to your face?”
Behind him, Caleb Calhoun snorted a laugh.
“Perfectly! Though I do wonder if you might hurry inside and check on my brother? I exploded a roomful of corrupt policemen . . . and left him to deal with it, I’m afraid.” She paused, flinching as the tip of Adams’s blade pressed to her neck. “Too bad this one wasn’t with them, honestly!”
“Fucking hell—” Tommy took another step toward them.
“Uh-uh,” Adams said. “Keep your distance, my boy.”
“I’m not your boy. Let her go.”
“No, I don’t think I will. You see, this girl, she’s done you dirty, Tom. She got you into this mess with her running around all over the East End. If not for her, you’d still be clear of all this, which is what I wanted from the start.”
What nonsense. Tommy was a superior detective and possibly the only decent man at Scotland Yard. “If not for me, he’d have sorted it all out sooner, you cabbagehead.”
“Imogen—” Tommy said, sounding like he was coming undone.
“You’d best keep your mouth shut, gel,” Adams said, his knife tightening on her throat. “You ain’t in a position for clever quips, and you’re out of your fancy concoctions.”
“Stop,” Tommy barked.
The blade stopped, but its bite did not ease. “I tried to keep you out of it, Tommy. I wanted you to be far from it, so you could rise in the ranks. How did you think the News heard of you? The pride of Whitehall! You’ve me to thank for it . . . and now this little”—he shook Imogen harshly—“bitch has gone and ruined everything.” He paused. “For what? To save a few unfortunates? Fucking women. This is what happens when you let them off the lead.”
“Enough,” Tommy said, furious. “She’s not part of this.”
“Of course she is!” He was growing more desperate. She could hear it in his voice. Feel it in his hold. In the way the blade shook at her throat.
“You can’t kill me in a Mayfair alleyway, Adams,” she said, sucking in a breath as he gripped her tighter. “Even the monsters you’ve got paying you from the House of Lords won’t stand for that. Your work is in the East End, remember?”
She could feel the stiff surprise that came over Adams. “How did you know the money was coming from—”
“Parliament? There are only a few groups of people in London with the money and power to bring Scotland Yard to heel. Tell me,” she said, aiming for enough distraction that he might make a mistake, trying very hard not to think of the blade he held at her throat. “What do you think those men will do when given the opportunity . . . to take the blame? Or toss you and your men to the wolves?”
He shifted behind her and Imogen was consumed with a tiny thread of triumph.
Adams was not stupid. He understood her point—rich, powerful, evil men would never relinquish power, and they would never take responsibility. Not when there were working class, less powerful, equally evil men to take it for them.
“Wallace,” Tommy said, seeing it too. Moving closer, “if you needed money—I could have helped you. You didn’t have to do this.”
“I tried to keep you out of it. I had plans for you to run Whitehall. Out of the way. You’d take care of the Detective Branch and keep your hands clean. We’d see you commissioner of police, son.”
Tommy’s gaze narrowed. “Don’t you ever call me that.”
“Why not? I was your father.”
“You were never my father. My father was a good man.”
“Your father was an idiot!” Imogen flinched in Adams’s grasp at the sound of his high-pitched screech, and he let her shift her weight, giving her more freedom of movement in his own distraction. “Got your mother into trouble and married her with nothing. Not a farthing to offer. A street sweep,” he spat. “She could have married me!”
Imogen could barely breathe at the last. There was something strange in the words. A meaning she couldn’t find.
Perhaps because high above them, on the roof, a bell rang.
There. On the other side of the carriage. Through the hazy window. There was someone there. Imogen’s gaze flew to Tommy, but he still wasn’t looking at her. Hadn’t looked at her from the moment he’d arrived.
Adams was still talking. “I took you under my wing. I sent your brother to school, got your sister married. All I wanted was to have your family as my own. To grow old making your ma happy. That’s what the money was for. Enough to build a house. Live there with the woman I’ve wanted forever. It was a good plan.”
It was a terrible plan. And not only because Esme Peck hadn’t agreed to it.
Something dangerous flashed in Tommy’s gaze. “You’ll never get near my mother again.”
“Your mother deserved better,” Adams said. “You think your da made your mother as happy as I would have?” There. Again. The comparison. “As I have done? A street sweep? Begging me to get him into underground fights so he could pay the rent in Shoreditch?”
Understanding dawned for Imogen just as it clearly hit Tommy. This monster. “My father.” Tommy’s voice was hoarse, disbelieving. “You arranged the fights.”
Imogen would have given anything for a weapon at that moment. For the means to punish this man the way he had punished Tommy.
“Your father needed the money. I found a way to get it for him. He knew the risks.”
“And you stood outside the ropes,” Tommy said. “You stood outside the ropes and watched him die and thought you’d win my mother in the balance.”
“I wanted your mother from the start,” Adams said. “From the moment I set eyes on her. She made a bad choice. It should have been me.”
Wanted. Like Esme was a prize, not a person. “Come now, Superintendent,” Imogen said, breaking her silence. “She chose not to marry you, which seems a top-notch choice, if you ask me.”
“And you,” Adams scoffed, low and menacing in her ear. “He never put a foot wrong until you came along and ruined every plan I had for him.” He looked to Tommy. “You could have found another skirt to lift. There are plenty of plump ones with dark hair and wide mouths to be found.”
Tommy’s gaze darkened. “When I take you down, Wallace, it will be for many reasons. But don’t for one moment think it won’t be because of the way you disrespected my lady.”
Imogen’s heart pounded at the words.
Adams backed toward the open door of the carriage. “Oho, disrespected your lady! The lady who wades about in the muck of the East End? I ain’t worried about her.”
“You should have worried, Wallace,” Tommy said, the words thick with warning. With promise. “You should have worried when you put her in danger. When you threatened her life. When you touched her. That alone was enough for me to wreck you.”
“Bold of you to be making threats, Tom,” Adams said. “As I’m the one with a knife to the bitch’s throat.”
Though she ordinarily took great pleasure in the moments when stern, serious Thomas Peck went all dark and growly, it was difficult to do that just then . . . as she could suddenly smell what was coming.
And not the kind she kept in the library.
“Tommy,” she said brightly, “I realize you’re in the midst of a whole to-do here . . . and I really do appreciate it, but . . . it is very, very warm out here.”
Bless that brilliant man; he understood. He lunged for her at the exact moment the rear end of the carriage exploded.
Imogen ducked out of Adams’s hold as he was knocked back from the blast, instinct sending her turning away from the explosion as pieces of wood splintered through the alleyway and Tommy collected her in his arms before they were both blown off their feet.
The horses, it turned out, were able to be shocked by something, and they tore down the alleyway . . . without the carriage attached. Thanks surely to Caleb, as once a stable boy, always a stable boy.
Then Imogen wasn’t paying attention, because Tommy was there, crouching over her, blue gaze flashing with worry and fury and frustration and something wild that she might have been afraid of if she didn’t feel it, too. He reached for her, wrapping one strong hand around the back of her neck and pulling her to him, tilting her face up to his. “Are you hurt?”
Ears ringing, she shook her head. “You?”
He didn’t answer. Instead, he was kissing her, deep and lush—a wicked, wonderful kiss that stole her thoughts, save one.
He was growling.
When he broke the kiss, he pulled back to look at her, fury in his eyes. “Hear me, Imogen Loveless. You are mine. And I will always, always come for you.”
“You could have decided that a bit sooner, Tommy Peck.”
One of his dark brows rose just slightly—just enough to promise that they’d be discussing this at length later. “Stay right here. I’m coming back to tell you how much I love you.”
Her eyes went wide. Yes, please.
He turned to restrain Adams, who had pushed himself to his feet, knife gone from his grip, lost in the blast.
“That was excellent!” Sesily announced happily from the other side of the wreckage, where Caleb had her pinned protectively against the stone wall. “No wonder Imogen is so mad for explosions!”
“Fucking hell, Sesily,” Caleb grumbled from his position. “You nearly got everyone killed.”
“But I didn’t. Instead, I did the job!”
Just then, the Duke of Clayborn burst through the door, brow furrowed, stopping immediately, blocking Adelaide and Duchess from any danger that might still be afoot.
Her crew. Arrived like cavalry.
Duchess came up on her toes to look over his shoulder. “A pity. We’ve missed the fun.”
“Sesily nearly blew us up,” Imogen said. “I wouldn’t call it fun.”
“You’ve nearly blown us up dozens of times,” Sesily said.
“Yes, well, I use a bit less gunpowder, generally. But well done, Ses. It certainly got the job done.”
And then Tommy was back, pulling her to his side, away from the chattering crowd and into the darkness as they headed back into the house for whatever was to come next—who did one summon to handle a gang of corrupt policemen and the powerful men who paid them to commit crimes?
The News, it turned out.
Because the only thing more powerful than Parliament . . . was the public.
The Belles would sort it that night, because that was what they did. And Imogen wouldn’t mind missing it, because she was with Tommy instead.
He pulled her into the darkness, holding her tight, staring down at her, his hands running over her body as if to ensure that she was safe.
Which she was. Because she was his.
“Are you hurt?” he asked again.
She shook her head. “No.”
“Christ, Imogen. You almost died tonight. Multiple times.”
She smiled. “Nonsense. I didn’t even lose consciousness.”
He gave a little laugh. “Love, if you had lost consciousness, I think I would have torn down Mayfair.”
“I had no intention of dying until you told me all the reasons you came back for me.” She shivered in his arms, and he immediately moved to shuck his coat, draping it over her shoulders.
“You’re cold. We should go inside.”
“No—” she protested. “The world is inside and we will have to face it soon enough. I want to stay here, with you. A little longer.” She tipped her face up to his and he kissed her, lingering on her sweetness until they both sighed their pleasure. When the kiss broke she said, “You came back.”
He nodded. “I couldn’t stay away.”
“Only one reason,” he said. “I love you.”
“Did you not love me earlier when you let me go?”
His chest grew tight at the words. “I thought you would do better without me.”
“And look what happened,” she teased. “I was nearly kidnapped.”
He pulled her tight to him, giving her a stern look, turning her face to the distant light and running a thumb over the bruise blooming across her face from where Adams had struck her. “I’m not ready to laugh about it. I still want to kill him.”
She reached up to hold his hand to her cheek. “Instead of killing him, I’d rather you’d kiss me.”
He did, slow and deep, turning her out of the wind, pressing her to the wall behind them and blocking her from everything but him—his warmth, his scent, the sound of his breath in her ear as he whispered his love.
“I love you.” A stroke down her neck. “I love you.” One warm hand sliding into his coat, wrapping around her waist. A dark curse, full of passion and promise. “I don’t deserve you. I’ll never understand why the universe delivered you to me. But I’ll be damned if I let you go.”
She turned to catch his lips, to drink in the sweet words. “I’ll never leave you.”
“Promise me,” he said.
“Better than a promise,” she replied, pressing herself tight to him. “A prophecy.”
“My oracle,” he whispered, pressing a kiss to her lips. “My heroine.” To her jaw. “My love.” To the soft skin at her neck.
Another shiver, full of desire. “Tommy . . .”
“Captain of your own fate,” he whispered. “What course do you wish to set, my love?”
“One with you,” she said. “Together.”
And so it was decided.
Thomas Peck was having a very good day.