They call her the “Ice Queen.” Catherine Everleigh is London’s loveliest heiress, but a bitter lesson in heartbreak has taught her to keep to herself. All she wants is her birthright—the auction house that was stolen from her. To win this war, she’ll need a powerful ally. Who better than infamous and merciless crime lord Nicholas O’Shea? A marriage of convenience will no doubt serve them both.
Having conquered the city’s underworld, Nick seeks a new challenge. Marrying Catherine will give him the appearance of legitimacy—and access to her world of the law-abiding elite. No one needs to know he’s coveted Catherine for a year now—their arrangement is strictly business, free from the troubling weaknesses of love. Seduction, however, is a different matter—an enticing game he means to ensure she enjoys, whether she wishes to or not...
So far, Catherine had managed to keep out of her brother’s sight, her hood disguising her from his backward glances. But it alarmed her that he seemed to know where he was going. Peter was a man of fine tastes and lofty ambitions. Whom could he be meeting here in the slums?
Peter drew up at an undistinguished row house, whose brick face had been handsome once, but now sported several broken windows. The front door swung open. An unseen hand admitted him, then closed the door.
Catherine came to a stop. Somebody had been expecting him. Watching for him—here, of all places!
She grew conscious of the curious looks of two girls strolling by, arm in arm—factory girls, she judged by their leather-stained hands. To her right, a rutted alley provided a place of relative concealment. She slipped into it and pressed herself against a damp wall. Her cloak was plain enough, for she had dressed today with the aim of receiving a cargo shipment. But it sported no patches, no rips or stains, and that alone made her stand out in this neighborhood.
Hurry, Peter. She had no wish to be in Whitechapel when twilight fell. Lilah had spoken highly of her uncle’s ability to impose law and order—but she had warned Catherine just as volubly about the dangers of prowling here as an outsider.
She sighed, drawing her cloak tighter. She might as well admit it to herself—she missed Lilah. She could not begrudge her a honeymoon, particularly since Lilah had never traveled outside England before. But now, of all times, she could have used a friend.
An icy drop of rain hit her nose. Alarmed, she looked up into the clouded sky.
“Hiding from somebody?”
She jumped. Around the corner stepped a familiar figure. Astonishment briefly caught her tongue.
She was not good with faces, but it would take a blind woman to forget Lilah’s uncle. He was nature’s cruel trick on the fairer sex, the perfect picture of dark, charming, masculine wickedness. Shining black hair, high cheekbones, lips as full as a woman’s . . . That was surely a flaw. But then, he had that brutal jaw and chin to make up for it . . . and the slight bump to his high-bridged nose, suggestive of some violent fracture in his past.
“Mr. O’Shea.” She spoke very stiffly, for she had never liked his effect on her. She herself was counted beautiful, and she had seen what power she could wield when she cared to try. She refused to fall prey to a similar spell.
But what a miserable coincidence to meet him here!
He propped his shoulder on the brick wall and looked her over. “Dressed for prowling, I see. Did you steal that cloak from one of your maids?”
She took a strangling hold on her collar. “It is mine, in fact. But I thank you for the insult.”
His black brows arched. “Don’t think much of your maids, do you?”
She opened her mouth, then thought better of it, and settled instead on a scowl. She had only met him twice, and both times he had looked at her in this smug, infuriating way, as though she were a joke designed for his private amusement. He made her feel . . . judged and ridiculed, found wanting as a woman.
As though he were in any position to judge her! He was impertinent, boorish, ill-bred, and criminal. She must never forget that, even if at present he wore a black tailcoat fit for a ball.
She frowned at him. He was in fact dressed with ludicrous elegance, with a diamond stickpin at his neck.
“I was unaware that Whitechapel required evening dress of its strollers,” she said tartly. “Next time I come, I’ll be sure to wear a ball gown.”
“You do that, darling. And be sure to keep an eye out for the weather, too.”
“I always do.” As though in reply, another raindrop hit her chin. “I enjoy the rain.”
His laughter had a rich, ringing note to it, unexpectedly beautiful. “Aye, you look as pleased as a wet cat.”
“The words of a poet, Mr. O’Shea.” She peered around him. No sign of Peter yet.
“Who are you waiting for?”
That purring tone drew her attention back to him. Despite his formal wear, he was lounging against the brick wall with the slouching posture of a dockworker. The sight of such physical perfection, married to such calumny, vexed her in the extreme.
She fixed her attention on the bump in his nose, the single imperfection to which she would direct all her scorn. How rudely he had replied to her letter! What kind of criminal turned down money, anyway? She had thought to hire him to intimidate Peter. It would have made an easy profit for him. “Is it any of your concern what I do, or for whom I wait?”
“In my streets? Yes.”
“Your streets?” She lifted her brows at this magnificent arrogance. “Has Her Majesty been informed of your claim?”
“Oh, I reckon Her Majesty would be glad to cede this piece of London,” he said amiably. “Certainly she’s never bothered to worry for it.”
That smacked of radicalism, which was just what she expected from a man like him. “I cannot say I blame her. There is a man lying in the road nearby, nearly dead from the cold.”
“Thomas,” he said lightly. “The gin keeps him warm enough.”
She scoffed. “How unsurprising, that you should know the names of the local drunkards.”
“He’s a relation, in fact.” His accent had grown abruptly coarser. “Husband to my cousin.”
“Note my continued lack of surprise.”
“I’ll be surprised for both of us,” he said. “Didn’t figure you for a soft touch. Next time you see a drunkard in the street, best keep moving.”
He had seen her stop to speak to the man? “Were you following me?”
“The streets have eyes, sweetheart. And they all report to me.”
Goodness. She glanced past him, toward the open lane. “You mean to say you employ spies? How . . . peculiar.”
“House of Diamonds is just down the way.” He waved in the direction of the high road, causing the multiple rings on his long fingers to glitter. His jewelry was as gaudy as a grocery girl’s. “Patrons don’t like to be disturbed. So I keep track of who’s coming down the lane.”
She nodded tightly. The House of Diamonds was his gambling palace—thoroughly illegal, although it scraped by on the pretense of a social club. That explained his apparel, then. She recalled having read, in various scathing editorials by upright crusaders, of the dress code enforced there.
If he kept track of passersby, he would certainly know all the tenants in this street. “Do you know who lives in that building?” She pointed toward the tenement into which her brother had vanished.
He did not follow her gesture. “Reckon I do.”
“Then—might you share their names with me?”
“No.” His gaze met hers squarely, forestalling argument.
He had remarkable eyes, the color of quicksilver, thickly and darkly lashed. She gazed into them a moment too long before remembering herself. She made a noise to signal her disgust—and dismissal. “You may go, then,” she said. “I am not in a conversational mood.”
He snorted and shoved off the wall, as fast and powerful as a spring uncoiling. “Got a coach standing outside Diamonds. It’ll take you back home.”
In her amazement, she almost laughed. “Indeed it won’t.” Decency, and her friendship with his niece, compelled her to add, “But I do thank you for the offer.”
He looked at her now as though she’d grown another head. “It wasn’t an offer. Something happens to you here, I’ll have the entire world poking about to investigate. And that won’t suit the business at Diamonds.”
She frowned. Sound logic, good strategy. He was a businessman, in his way. If only he paid similar respect to her! Chickens lured toward a cliff: that was how he had described her clients. Glittery bits—his view of fine arts.
“I’ll go,” she said sourly, “if you tell me who lives in that tenement.”
He eyed her. “Thought it was the ale that made you so frisky. But it seems you’ve got spirit when sober as well.”
Boor. “I cannot imagine what you mean. I am always sober.”
His answering snort was unjust in the extreme.
“That night at Mr. Neddie’s public house,” she said sharply, “was an extraordinary occasion, which no gentleman would mention. Your niece and I had been through a very great trauma, after all. If either of us had overindulged in the aftermath—which I did not—then certainly it would not have been from any inclination to intemperance, but merely from a natural wish to forget the events preceding it. To say nothing of the company in which I found myself afterward!”
Here, she gave him a pointed look.
His brows climbed. “There’s a proper speech. I think I preferred you drunk.”
“I told you, I was not—” She cut herself off with a hiss. No use in arguing with this ruffian. And, truth be told, she had not been entirely . . . herself that evening.
If only she could manage to forget the whole of it! But she remembered saying some very forward things at the end of the night, to do with Mr. O’Shea’s face and figure . . . and the amount he might bring at auction, were he a sculpture for sale . . .
Oh, she refused to think on it. She had vowed never to drink again.
She crossed her arms and looked over his shoulder toward the tenement. “Please go.”
“In a minute, I’m tossing you over my shoulder.”
She recoiled. “You wouldn’t dare.”
But perhaps he would. His smile looked rakish. “You might enjoy it. I seem to recall a fine compliment to my shoulders, last time we met. I’d put it down to the drink, but you say you were sober. Well, then. Your sober self, Miss Everleigh, adjudged me a handsomely equipped man.”
Mortification crawled through her. “You’re a churl.”
“Maybe. Course, a churl wouldn’t drive you home. He might throw you over his shoulder and carry you to his coach, though. Why don’t you think on it for a moment.” As another spate of rain dampened them, he grimaced and said, “I’ll give you five seconds.”
She darted another glance at the tenement. Peter might be in that building for hours, yet, and the light was fading now. “Fine. I will allow you to hail me a hackney.”
“It’s a wonder,” he said, “that you ain’t been robbed yet. You travel much by cab?”
“I would sooner trust a cabman than you,” she said through her teeth.
“You think you’ve got anything I want?” As his gaze trailed over her, she flushed and crossed her arms again.
“Ah,” he said, laughter twitching at his lips. “I see. You reckon me a lecher.”
“I see the insult gratifies you.”
“Oh, I’m gratified by something.” His gaze lifted again, but his smile had faded. “You didn’t get that idea from my niece,” he murmured. “Which means you cooked it up all by yourself. You think of me, Catherine, when you’re lying in bed at night? God knows I’ve thought of you, once or twice.”
She gaped at him. Never had any man spoken to her so vulgarly. ‘You flatter yourself’ did not seem like a properly sharp retort.
The truth would not serve, either. God help her, how did he see it? Since their first meeting, she had wondered about him. He was so very . . . free . . . in his attitudes and behavior. She had never met anybody like him.
He made some soft noise, then stepped toward her. The alley was not wide. Inches separated them now. She could feel the warmth radiating from his body, so welcome in the damp. She shrank against the brick wall, her pulse drumming in her throat. “What—what are you doing?”
“Wondering,” he said softly. He cupped her cheek, his palm warm and rough. She sucked in a breath, and smelled coffee and soap, where she’d expected gin. She could see the fine black grain of his oncoming stubble; his eyes were the shade of mist on a meadow, gray mixing with the faintest hint of green.
She averted her face, appalled by herself. “Let go of me.”
His thumb made a soft, lingering stroke down the slope of her jaw. “I’m not holding you,” he said. “Seems a pity, don’t it?”
She swallowed. “Please.”
“Please, what?” He spoke very low into her ear. She felt his nose brush against her hair. He was nuzzling into her, and the knowledge, as much as the sensation, sent a shiver over her skin. “You’re blushing,” he said, and the delighted surprise in his voice made her blush harder. “Tell me, Catherine. What do you imagine I’ll do to you, if I get you alone in a carriage?”