Once upon a time there was a very bad boy . . .
Ethan Jagger will do anything to leave his criminal past behind and take his place as a gentleman in Polite Society. Success is within his grasp until his boss discovers his double cross and frames him for murder. As if running from the law and the outlaws weren’t bad enough, he must protect an innocent young lady from the very criminals who want him dead. Worst of all, though, is the dangerous attraction that sparks between them. If he can escape the hangman’s noose and start anew, will she consent to love a scoundrel ever after?
Who met a very nice girl . . .
London only thinks of Audrey Cheswick as a wallflower—if they even think of her at all. She’s tried to find satisfaction—if not happiness—as a spinster-in-waiting, though her intrepid spirit yearns for a grand adventure. But when she runs away with England’s most wanted criminal, she learns adventure comes with a price—not just her reputation or her virtue, but her heart.
London, September, 1818
Ethan Jagger ran like hell.
Every swing of his arm pumped blood from the knife wound in his bicep and brought a fresh burn of agony. Still, he couldn’t stop. Stopping meant capture. Capture meant the hangman’s noose.
He didn’t chance a look back. Though he couldn’t yet hear them, he knew the Bow Street Runners were closing in. Wounded as he was, Ethan wasn’t sure he could outpace them. St. Giles was still too bloody far away.
He almost stopped cold. He couldn’t go to St. Giles. Despite his allies, and he had more than a few, everyone in the rookery would know Gin Jimmy was after him. And if they had to choose their loyalty, and they did, they’d award it to the man who could cause them the most harm: Gin Jimmy. Pursued by the law and the outlaw: Ethan was well and truly buggered.
There was no help for it. He had to get out of London and figure out what to do next. To do that, he’d need to get to one of the hiding spots where he kept his emergency funds. The closest one—and more importantly in the opposite direction of St. Giles—was in Berkley Square, which meant he had to double back.
But first he had to elude the Runners. He veered left onto a narrow street. And ran straight into a whore.
She grasped his arms to steady herself. Her hand closed around his wound. He sucked in air and white lights speckled his sight.
“Ho there!” She drew her hand away. “Wot’s wrong with ye?”
Lamplight from the wider street up ahead filtered back into the alley, but it was too dark for him to discern much of her features. He could, however, tell she was studying her hand. She had to have felt the blood seeping from the gash Gin Jimmy had given him scarcely a quarter hour before.
Aware that this pause was allowing his pursuers to gain on him, Ethan pushed her aside so he could slip past her down the alleyway.
“’Ey now, there’s no need to be rude!” she shrieked.
Ethan didn’t spare her a glance as he hastily set off once more. But then a very large man stepped in his way. “Ye shouldn’t be rude to me trollop.”
Bloody fucking hell. Ethan did not have time for a prostitute or her pimp. However, before he could take off running once more, the pimp stepped so close to Ethan that he could smell the man’s filth as well as the gin he’d swilled earlier.
“’Is arm’s ’urt,” the woman said.
Ethan braced himself, expecting the pimp to hit or grab him in the arm, but the hulking bloke only leaned in closer, sticking his face a mere inch from Ethan’s. “Jagger?” he asked.
It didn’t surprise Ethan that the pimp knew him, though the recognition was not reciprocated. One didn’t rise as far as Ethan had within the criminal ranks without developing a reputation and a . . . following.
“Yes, Jagger. Now, back off.” He kept his tone even, yet commanding.
The pimp stepped back, and Ethan inhaled fresher air. His pulse was slowing, which meant he’d been motionless too long. The Runners were going to be on him.
“Ye don’t spend as much time at the flash houses as ye used to.” The pimp’s tone carried an edge of skepticism that Ethan didn’t like. “I hear ye’ve taken up with a diff’rent class o’ folk, and that ye might not even go by Jagger no more.”
Ethan didn’t have time or patience for the man’s inquiry. His arm was killing him and if he didn’t start running again, Bow Street would be upon him. “I need to be on my way. Move aside.”
Ethan made to dash past, but as he stepped to the side, the pimp’s arm shot out and he grabbed Ethan’s bicep. With a howl, Ethan spun and sent his fist into the pimp’s jaw. He would’ve followed up with another jab to his middle, but Ethan couldn’t make his right arm work.
A shout of “There he is!” came from behind. Damn everything to hell. The Runners had found him.
The pimp had been momentarily surprised by Ethan’s blow, but he recovered quickly and threw a fist toward Ethan’s gut.
Ethan danced away, barely missing the hit. “Those are Bow Street Runners, you imbecile. We need to move!” Whatever the pimp’s motive, he wouldn’t want to be detained by Bow Street. None of their class ever did.
The pimp straightened, his body angled toward where Ethan had come from.
“Hold there, Jagger!” one of the Runners called. Teague. He’d been hounding Ethan for years, but particularly during the last fortnight. Ethan didn’t mean for him to catch him now.
Jabbing his elbow out toward the pimp, Ethan took off running.
“Catch him!” Teague shouted. “Or find yourself in trouble!”
The pimp’s hand closed around Ethan’s bicep and dragged him to a stop. Agony spiraled up and down Ethan’s arm. “Sorry, mate.”
No. Ethan refused to go down like this. With a surge of energy, he threw off the pimp’s grip and punched him in the jaw again. The pimp was slightly more prepared this time and angled his head away, though Ethan still caught a piece of him.
Then the Runners were on them.
Ethan moved quickly, pulling his knife from his boot and squaring off before all three men could get to him. Suddenly a high-pitched squeal filled the air as the prostitute jumped on Teague’s back and began to beat him about the head. Ethan would’ve thanked her for her support if he hadn’t needed to dispatch the other two blokes.
He glanced around the narrow alley, gauging his options. A half dozen or so wooden crates were stacked to his right. But they were the only relief from the bricked walls rising up on either side of the close.
The pimp rushed at him, but Ethan flashed his knife, which slowed the other man’s attack. Ethan didn’t want to cause him damage—the bloke was only trying to save his own hide—so he snatched up one of the crates to use it as a weapon instead of his knife, which he kept tucked into his left palm. He lifted the crate as the pimp came at him again. Ethan brought the box down over the man’s skull. The pimp stumbled backward as the crate splintered.
The second Runner rushed at him like a flash, his truncheon raised. Ethan pulled his arm back, but the truncheon hit his wrist hard enough that he dropped his knife. Swearing, Ethan skittered backward. He rubbed his wrist in an effort to banish the pain as he cursed the loss of his weapon.
The Runner eyed him warily. He kept a firm grip on his club, keeping it elevated. “Just come along with us now, Jagger. I don’t want to have to hurt you.”
Though he’d lost his knife, Ethan thought he could disarm the Runner. Even so, Ethan doubted his ability to take down all three men—the prostitute surely couldn’t overpower Teague, though she was managing to keep him occupied. Still, Ethan had to do what he could to escape. He held his hands up and speared the Runner with a direct stare. “I’ll go with you.”
The Runner didn’t appear convinced. He edged forward slowly, tentatively.
When the Runner drew close, Ethan kicked him in the knee. The Runner went down, colliding with the pimp who’d been shaking off the remains of the broken crate. They landed together in a tangle of wood pieces and flailing limbs.
Ethan lunged forward. He snatched the truncheon from the dazed Runner and waved it in his face. “I’m going now, and you’re letting me.”
“Jagger, hold.” Teague had finally gotten free of the hissing prostitute. He held the woman by the hair.
“Ye go on then, Jagger,” she said, gritting her teeth as Teague tugged at her scalp. “Don’t worry none ’bout me. I can take care o’ meself.”
Given her spitfire demeanor, Ethan didn’t doubt it. But he wouldn’t leave her to Teague.
Ethan skipped back several steps, lest the downed Runner or the pimp decide to reach out for his ankles. “Let her go. Then let me go and I’ll get Gin Jimmy for you.”
That had been his original goal: Take down the man who would ensure Ethan never broke free of his past. However, he had no idea how he’d manage that when tonight’s plan had been a total pissing failure. Still, he had to try. It was the only chance he had.
Teague took a step forward, dragging the woman along with him. “I’d be much obliged, but that doesn’t erase what you’ve done. You’ll answer for your crimes, Jagger.”
“Which ones?” There were far too many to count. Far too many that Ethan would just as soon forget.
Teague’s glare was menacing. “Murdering Wolverton. Conspiring to kill Lady Aldridge.”
“Is that all?” Ethan drawled, injecting a false carelessness into his tone.
In a fluid movement surely born of years of practice, the prostitute turned toward Teague and kneed him square in the bollocks. Teague released her as he crumpled to the cobblestones. She cast a glance back at Ethan. “Run, Jagger!” Then she took off herself.
Ethan didn’t need further urging. He turned to go, but a hand wrapped around his ankle. The pimp had disentangled himself from the other Runner. His meaty fingers grasped at Ethan’s boot. Ethan brought the truncheon down on the man’s wrist. The pimp howled with pain and withdrew his hand. Ethan sped from the alley as if the very devil were licking at his heels.
And he supposed he was.
Ethan had eluded the law for more than a decade, and he only needed to do it a little while longer. Until he could get out from under Gin Jimmy and get on with the life he’d begun to taste. A life where he could be Ethan Locke—better yet, Ethan Lockwood—and hold his head up as a member of the precious ton, even on its fringes. Not because he cared about them, but because he wanted to stay close to his brother.
As Ethan raced up the new Regent Street, he looked back to see if any of the men were pursuing him. Nothing yet. Still, he kept up his pace until he was panting and his side began to ache.
A few moments later, he turned onto Conduit Street and the energy that had dulled the pain in his arm began to ebb. His steps were flagging, and the burn in his bicep reached a crescendo. Wincing, he reluctantly slowed to a fast walk. He looked behind him, ever aware that the Runners or even the pimp were likely chasing him. He should have taken a less traveled path, but he was desperate to get to Berkley Square—and to his stash of money—as quickly as possible.
That thought spurred him on. He dug deep, searching for the perseverance that had guided his survival for over a decade, and picked up speed again. He had to navigate traffic to get across New Bond Street, but it was late and he was lucky. With his goal nearly in sight, he pressed himself even faster, so that by the time he cut into the Berkley mews, his entire body was thrumming with exertion and pain.
It took every ounce of strength he had left to vault the wall into the garden where he’d hidden his money. He slumped back against the stone, its coldness seeping through his layers of clothing and offering a slight respite from the heat of his activity.
The garden was dark, but pale light flickered in a few of the windows of the house. No matter, as no one would notice a shadowy figure climbing a tree. The fucking tree. Climbing that was going to hurt.
Inhaling a shuddering breath, Ethan pushed himself away from the wall and put one foot in front of the other. He just had to get his money and then he could be on his way. A much-needed rest—maybe even inside the house—for an hour or so tempted him, but he wasn’t sure he dared. At the very least, however, he should find something to bind his wound.
At the base of the tree, he set the Runner’s truncheon on the ground. He winced as pain radiated from his sliced arm. How the hell was he supposed to pull himself up? Damn Gin Jimmy to hell and back.
Heaving out a frustrated breath, he reached up with his left hand and found a handhold. At least Jimmy hadn’t wounded his stronger arm.
Ethan pulled himself up and flinched as pain sparked anew. He stepped up into a vee and exhaled. He couldn’t use his right hand to climb, so he put his left up again and slowly made his way to the hollow where he’d stashed a bag of money the last time he’d gone up the tree. He nearly smiled at the recollection.
His gaze flicked up a few feet to where he’d entered the house on two other occasions. He’d climbed in Miss Audrey Cheswick’s window for secret waltzing lessons. He shook his head at how ridiculously normal that sounded—save the secret part. How he yearned for such simplicity as dancing lessons or paying court to some young woman. Not that he’d courted Miss Cheswick. He was in no position to court anyone. And he wasn’t even sure he wanted to.
He pulled the bag from the hollow and cradled it in his left arm. Though he was content with its weight, he opened it and stuck his hand inside to feel the notes and coin within. Relief and comfort at having his hard-earned money, however, didn’t take the edge off the pain shooting up his arm. Definitely time to find some sort of bandage. Once inside, he’d also nick a bottle of brandy or whisky or whatever the hell he could lay his hands on.
Cinching the bag tight, he tucked it back in the tree. There was no way he could carry it and climb, so he’d have to fetch it on the way down. He gritted his teeth for the final ascent. It was only a few feet, but he had to stretch to reach the window. He only hoped the sash wasn’t locked.
He pulled himself up to the branch and thought about which hand to use to hold on to the tree and which hand to extend for the sash. However, before he could make up his mind, a pale face appeared in the window. He nearly fell out of the tree.
The sash came open and the stricken expression of Miss Audrey Cheswick sent a shaft of fear straight to his gut.
“Mr. Locke,” she said. “Thank goodness you’ve come. There are men in the house!”
Shit. “What sort of men?”
“I can’t say, but they don’t mean well. There was a tussle in the foyer.” Her eyes were wide with fright. “I’m afraid for our butler.”
Men in her house on this night of all nights couldn’t be a coincidence. But why? They hadn’t trailed him here unbeknownst to him, had they? But no, it wouldn’t be Bow Street. They would’ve treated the occupants of this house, including the retainers, with respect. These had to be men of a different sort.
He leaned forward with his right arm because he didn’t trust it to hold on to the tree. “Help me.”
She took his hand and pulled. Then gasped. “There’s blood on your arm!”
“I know.” He clutched the window ledge. Clenching his teeth against the pain, he took his hand from the tree while keeping his feet braced on the branch. Then he hauled himself up over the ledge and into the room.
He sank down to the floor. His breath came in deep pants as he closed his eyes in sheer agony.
“I hear them in the corridor,” she whispered.
Ethan opened his eyes. There’d be time to nurse his pains later. God, he hoped there’d be time.
He pushed himself up with his left hand. He touched her shoulder, and she turned her head back to look at him. The coals burning low in the grate cast a faint glow over her frightened features, made her eyes glimmer like aquamarines. Ethan put his finger to his lips, then crept past her toward the door.
Pausing with his ear against the wood, he listened intently. Low voices. Footsteps. Two men. One large, one not as large. Something shattered, like glass or pottery. A man swore.
“Watch yerself,” a voice hissed. “Which room do ye s’pose is ’ers?”
They were here for her. Why?
Sweet Christ. This was an entanglement he didn’t need right now.
Miss Cheswick thrust a pistol into his hand.
He stared at her. Especially when he realized she was holding one too. “Where in the hell . . .” he mouthed, then shook his head. It didn’t matter where she’d gotten them. “Do you know how to use that?”
It seemed the fairer sex was bent on saving his arse tonight.
“What the devil’s going on here?” came a loud booming voice. Not one of the invaders.
Ethan pressed against the door as she crashed into his back, presumably in an effort to get around him.
There went their advantage. She reached around him and wrenched open the door. The sound of a body hitting the floor greeted them as they rushed into the corridor. Light from a sconce illuminated two burly thugs standing over an elderly gentleman in his nightclothes.
“Grandfather!” Miss Cheswick tried to rush forward. Ethan moved in front of her to block her progress.
But it didn’t matter. It turned out she could shoot a man just fine right where she was.