Doom was sitting heavy on Gabriel Beckford’s shoulders. He’d awoken with it an hour or so earlier on the cot in his club, the Orcus Society. The plaguing feeling wouldn’t go away, and he’d been lying there staring at the shadows dancing on the walls, trying to discern what was causing it. No luck so far. He likely should just get up and go home to his new house and his new wife, but he didn’t move.
He knew why, and it shamed him that he was avoiding Georgette. Though they had been wed six months, it still didn’t feel real. In a sense, it wasn’t. They loved each other, yes, but as friends—the closest of friends. They had the kind of friendship, the kind of family, that had been forged on the dangerous streets of London as orphans. Gabe had always had his younger sister, Blythe, but Georgette and their other friend, Hawk, had no one else. The four of them had made a blood vow in the dirty, rat-infested basement of the orphanage to be one another’s family.
That vow had seen them all through years of danger. That vow had kept them alive. And now that vow had been destroyed by Hawk. He had obliterated their bond with one unthinkable act.
Gabe swallowed back the disgust that came every time he thought of Hawk forcing himself on Georgette and ravishing her. Gabe had wanted to kill Hawk when Georgette had come to him, crying, shaken, and terrified because she’d discovered a couple of months prior that she was with child. She was starting to show and didn’t know what to do. Hell, he still wanted to kill Hawk, but Georgette had made him promise not to touch the bastard and begged Gabe never to tell a soul that they’d wed for anything but love. She didn’t want anyone to know what Hawk had done because she didn’t want her unborn child to ever know. How could Gabe go against that wish? He couldn’t. Besides, he felt partly responsible for what had happened to Georgette. Hadn’t he known Hawk better than anyone? Gabe should have known, should have protected Georgette.
Finally forcing himself up, Gabe tugged his shirt over his head and searched the dark office for his boots. His mind turned, and the nagging feeling that something terrible was about to happen increased while his thoughts ricocheted from that worry to the recent past. How had he not seen that Hawk was capable of such a thing? Gabe had not seen it because he’d been working during the day and fighting in matches at night to earn money to buy this club. He’d not had time to see it, and that was a failure on his part. Yet another failure to protect someone he’d vowed to take care of. It was the second largest failure of his life. The first had been when he’d failed his mother. She’d died in the dingy room they let because she’d gotten sick from having no heat or food or warm clothing. He’d failed to provide for her, and it didn’t matter that he’d only been eight. That was old enough.
Gabe’s jaw clenched as he shoved on his boots and made his way out of his office and through the quiet halls of his new club. He approached the door to the alley, now guarded at all hours since Hawk had taken to causing trouble for Gabe since he’d wed Georgette. Hawk had sent men to break into Gabe’s club twice, once starting a fire and the other time stealing the cash on hand from the night’s earnings.
Fury filled Gabe’s chest. Hawk wanted to be with Georgette, and somehow the man had conveniently twisted it to be Gabe’s fault that he was not, rather than placing the blame where it belonged: on Hawk’s own base shoulders. Now Hawk spent his time punishing Gabe for “stealing” Georgette from him.
Being infuriated was useless. But it didn’t change the fact that he was just that. Hawk had tipped over some edge of reason, and there didn’t seem to be any coming back from it. Maybe it had been all the hard years on the street. God knew the things they’d endured living hand to mouth as orphans. The begging. The shame. Being looked down upon and, worse, being treated as if they were invisible. Gabe had channeled his anger into boxing, but Hawk didn’t have quick feet or fists. Instead, he had channeled his anger into illegal trading. They made money in two very different ways, but Gabe hadn’t judged Hawk. No, he judged all the people who had turned a blind eye to the problem of children living alone on the streets.
Gabe paused in front of Bear, whom he’d known for years now. “Did you see Blythe home personally?” Gabe asked.
He didn’t truly think Hawk would ever try to harm his sister. For one thing, Hawk didn’t blame Blythe for losing Georgette. He blamed Gabe. For another thing, Blythe had saved Hawk’s life two years earlier, and for everything good within him that Hawk had lost, he still seemed to be upholding the street code of a life debt. Blythe had saved him, so he would never hurt her. Still, Gabe wasn’t willing to risk it.
“Exactly as you asked,” the man said.
Gabe clapped Bear on the shoulder. “Thank you. I’ll be back. I’m going to check on the warehouse.”
He normally was the last person to ensure everything was secured at the warehouse after closing every night, but he’d fallen asleep before doing so tonight. Maybe that’s what was clawing at his mind. The warehouse made him a tidy profit each month and was the first thing he’d bought. He stored excess supplies for not only his club there but many of the clubs in Covent Garden paid him a fee to store theirs, as well.
Bear cocked an eyebrow. “You spend an awful lot of time here and at the warehouse for a newly wedded man.”
Gabe didn’t like lying to everyone, especially his sister, but he’d promised Georgette, so he just shrugged. “Georgette understands.”
Bear didn’t look convinced, but he nodded. “I still can hardly believe you’re wed.” Bear said the same thing daily and gave Gabe that same probing look. The man knew something wasn’t quite right, but he wouldn’t ask. “I never saw that coming.”
Neither had Gabe. “It surprised us both,” he said, offering the same response as always, then turned and headed out the door. He paused in his fast-paced trek to the warehouse and glanced around the quiet back street of Covent Garden, searching for anything out of the ordinary, but all he saw were dark streets and burning oil lamps.
What was bothering him tonight? He thought about the people closest to him. The list no longer included Hawk, so only Blythe and Georgette remained. He considered other men friends, but he only allowed them on the outer edges of his life. None of them knew the truth about who Gabe was. None of them knew that he and Blythe had come to London from Scotland when they were eight and seven, respectively. None of them knew his mother had brought them here to find work after his dad had died, but all she’d found was poverty and then death. None of them knew he’d once eaten thrown-out food when there was nothing else to eat. How he’d huddled with his sister on their cot in the dead of winter in the freezing orphanage with only one blanket, which he’d insisted Blythe use. How the orphanage had lost its funding three years after they’d landed there, and so Blythe, Gabe, Georgette, and Hawk had all taken to living on the streets rather than risk being split up. They’d made an abandoned building their home, and they’d all learned to beg and con, eventually each of them finding something they could do.
Gabe was good with his fists and fast on his feet. Blythe was a genius with numbers. Georgette had the sweet disposition and a face that lured people to Gabe’s fights, and Hawk made sure people knew about the fights. It had been good for a time. When had it gone wrong? A year and a half ago when Gabe had bought the club?
Hawk had wanted in, but his idea for the club and Gabe’s idea for it had not been the same. Gabe wanted to entertain the nobs, and then someday, he could partner with them to open even more doors—respectable doors—that would get his sister out of Covent Garden. Hawk had wanted to take all the nobs’ money and ruin them for the way he’d always felt they looked down on him, on all of them. Gabe knew his worth, though. He didn’t need to destroy people to feel equal to them. It had been the first breach in their friendship.
Gabe squeezed his eyes shut for a minute and inhaled a long deep breath. His lungs burned from the cold as he tried to settle his disquiet, but it wouldn’t hush. He started toward the warehouse again, slowly going through his list of responsibilities. The club was closed for the night. Bear was on guard. Blythe had been seen safely home. Georgette would be home, asleep in her room.
Her room… Hell, that was it! The babe’s cradle. It had been mistakenly delivered to the warehouse, and Georgette had asked him to bring it home tonight. She’d threatened to retrieve it herself yesterday, her anxiety growing with each passing day. Not everything was ready for the babe’s arrival yet, and that arrival was fast approaching.
He eyed the warehouse in the distance, then looked over his shoulder at the club. He considered going back to ask Bear to help him retrieve the giant box prior to doing his evening checks, but he decided against it. Bear needed to stay on guard. It was late, and Gabe could slide the damn thing along if he had to. His house was in spitting distance of the warehouse anyway.
He turned back toward the warehouse and noticed two figures marching toward it.
Two figures with long hair…
He squinted, certain he could not be seeing what he thought he was. But there they were—Georgette with Blythe not ten feet behind her.
“What the devil?” he bellowed, already knowing the answer. Georgette had given up on his doing what she’d asked and had decided to fetch the cradle herself. She apparently had recruited Blythe to aid her, as well.
Blythe stopped in her pursuit of Georgette and started toward Gabe, but Georgette kept striding toward the warehouse—or striding as much as a woman eight months gone with child could. It was more of a waddle.
“Georgette!” Gabe shouted as she reached the warehouse door. He heard keys jangling, and knew she must have taken his extra set out of his office at home.
“Don’t you ‘Georgette’ me!” she shouted back at him without stopping what she was doing. “I can’t sleep knowing the cradle isn’t ready!”
“I planned to bring it home momentarily,” he replied, rushing after her even as Blythe still came his way.
Georgette slung open the warehouse door, then turned, taking a few steps toward him. “Then hurry your arse up before—”
A boom blasted the calm of the night, and the ground beneath Gabe’s feet began to shake. Before his mind registered what was happening, Georgette seemed to fly through the air toward him as the warehouse behind her burst into orange flames. Blythe’s screams echoed around him, and Gabe’s heart stopped, then started again at a full gallop. He raced toward Georgette, passing his sister along the way. Georgette was lying facedown in the street surrounded by debris and moaning.
The feeling of doom that had been with Gabe since he’d awoken dropped him to his knees beside her. He turned her over, worry snaking through him at the blood trickling from her mouth and nose. He began to scan her body for injuries, then stilled with a curse frozen in his throat. A piece of thick wood was buried deep in her chest. Her eyes were glassy, but she was mumbling something to him.
“Go get help,” he called to Blythe. Then he leaned in, his body shaking violently, and said, “It’s going to be all right.”
She grasped him by the arm as she coughed, blood spewing from her mouth. “Remember your vow to me, Gabe,” she struggled to say. “You won’t kill him.”
“Shh,” he cooed instead of answering and cupped her face with his hand as waves of guilt and grief washed over him. Her gown was soaked in blood, and the only color on her face was the brown of the eyes that clung to his.
“Thought I loved him,” she said, her voice a threadbare whisper.
Gabe frowned. “What?”
“I…thought I loved him,” she repeated. “Gave myself to him because I thought I loved him.”
Her words rendered him speechless.
Her hand dropped from his to the street, her breathing growing more labored. “Sorry. So sorry. Saw him kill…a man over a quarrel for money, and…knew I could never be with him again. Then…then he forced me.” Her eyes fluttered shut, then opened once more and locked on Gabe. “I was scared,” she whispered. “Needed protection from him…for me and the babe. Hoped one day…” She coughed up more blood. “Hoped one day maybe I could let him into the babe’s life. He used to be good.”
She’d lied to him. He couldn’t hate her. He couldn’t even be angry with her. She’d been desperate, and she’d been afraid to tell him the whole truth. Now he understood how Hawk could have twisted things in his mind and blamed Gabe, even if it still wasn’t reality.
“Gabe… Gabe… I’m cold.”
He gathered her to his chest and held her tightly as she began to shudder.
“Gabe… Keep your promise to me.”
Her desperation sliced through him and cut into his thick hatred of Hawk, who must have done this. When her nails dug into his arm, he pulled back and met her frantic gaze. “I’ll keep it,” he vowed, hugging her close again. “Go in peace.”
Her body gave another shudder, and a cool burst of breath wafted against his cheek. Gabe froze, afraid to look at her and equally afraid not to. He knew that whooshing sound. His mother had made that same sound. That was death, claiming its next victim. He pulled back once more and their eyes met for a brief moment before hers fluttered closed.
Behind him, footsteps thudded in rapid succession. Gabe laid Georgette on the ground, only now noticing the heat from the flames of the warehouse. He stood on weak legs and turned to see an onslaught of people coming at him from his club and the surrounding houses and businesses. Orders were being shouted, and Bear was suddenly there, along with the local doctor and three other men who hurried to take Georgette to the doctor’s office. Gabe followed in a daze, moving through the stream of people dashing this way and that to try to contain the fire. Blythe appeared out of the darkness as Gabe trailed behind the men carrying Georgette’s still body. She took one look at Gabe and swept her gaze back to Georgette. Her mouth slipped open, her only show of shock, and then she walked slowly toward him, put her arm around his shoulders, and they moved as one behind the men, through the thick smoke billowing from the warehouse.
Not long later, Gabe stood with Blythe at his side and watched helplessly as the doctor worked first on Georgette, pronounced her dead, and then tried and failed to save the babe. He saw the doctor talking to him, heard Blythe answer the man when Gabe failed to, but it was as if he were floating above, looking down on the scene, drowning in the guilt and rage that he couldn’t contain. His throat burned with the need to bellow, and when he opened his mouth, an inhuman sound poured out of him. The grief he’d held in for years—for the loss of his father, then his mother, then Hawk as a friend, and now Georgette—burst forth, scraping his throat raw.
Near dawn, Gabe left the doctor’s office and somehow made his way back to his office. He ordered everyone out of the club, but Blythe refused to go. His sister. The only other person left whose loss could cut him to the quick. It was too late to push her away, but he’d be damned before he’d let anyone else close again.
“Gabe, what are you doing?”
He couldn’t recall ever having heard his sister sound so worried. “Waiting,” he said, knowing deep in his bones that Hawk would come.
“For what?” Blythe whispered, kneeling suddenly and glancing up at him. “She’s not coming back, Gabe. I’m sorry. I know you loved her.”
He sat still, his heart thudding, his mind processing what his sister was saying. She thought he’d just lost the woman he loved. And he did love Georgette, just not as Blythe believed. He’d let her keep believing it, though. He’d not betray his promise to Georgette, even in her death. His vow was his honor, and that honor was what separated him from Hawk.
“Gabe, please.” Blythe squeezed his knee. “Let me go get the vicar.”
“Soon,” Gabe promised. “Go now. Hawk will come, and I don’t want you here when he does.”
Her eyes went wide. “How do you know Hawk did this?”
“I simply know.”
Hawk had known Gabe’s pattern of going to the warehouse every night. He’d surely intended to kill Gabe in that explosion. Georgette should have been home, asleep. But that damn cradle…
Gabe’s throat burned and tightened with her loss, the loss of her child, the knowledge that he’d failed to protect her just as he hadn’t protected his mother. He grasped his sister’s hand as she turned from him. She looked back at him sharply, eyebrows raised in question. “You’re all I have left,” he said. “I won’t fail you.”
Blythe’s eyes filled with tears that she brushed quickly away. Beckfords did not cry. Crying was a luxury they could ill afford. “Someday, Gabe…” Her words drifted to silence, but he knew what she’d intended to say.
Someday he’d meet someone else, love someone else. He’d never found someone like that in the first place, and he didn’t want to. “Have one of the men see you home,” was all he said in response.
~ ~ ~
Gabe didn’t know how long he sat there staring out the window after Blythe had left, but when the door behind him creaked open, he blinked, realizing the sun was fully in the sky.
Standing just in the doorway was Hawk, his face twisted in loathing and covered in soot. So he’d been at the fire, just as Gabe had suspected. Fury filled him as he rose from his seat.
“You killed her,” Hawk said.
Gabe’s mind registered the wretchedness, the brokenness in Hawk’s voice, but ice filled his heart, freezing any sparks of sympathy, even as the burning desire to kill Hawk heated his blood. But he’d made a vow, and he would only break it if Hawk tried to kill him. He moved toward Hawk and came to stop in front of him, nothing but a sliver of air between them. “You killed her,” Gabe said. “You blew up my warehouse, thinking to kill me.”
Hawk grabbed Gabe by the shirt, twisting the material into his fists. “I loved her. I loved her, and you took her from me.” The veins in his forehead protruded, and his voice shook.
Gabe shoved Hawk away, sending him reeling backward toward the door and slamming him into it. Hawk slid to the ground in a half-crouched position, holding his head in his hands as if it might fall from his neck. “I loved her,” he said, looking down.
Gabe stared at his old friend, rejecting the compassion that tried to come. “You killed her,” he said. “She loved you, but you drove her away with the blackness in you. She came to me for help. I didn’t take her from you; she ran from you.”
Hawk jerked his head up, rose, and bellowed, “No! No! You killed her!” He kicked over the chair in front of him as he strode toward Gabe and stopped when they were a hairsbreadth apart. “I could have worked things out with her, made her understand I had to kill that man, but you, you intervened.” His nostrils flared, and Gabe could hear the man grinding his teeth. “You took her from me and now she’s dead.” He stared at Gabe misery etched on his face. “She wasn’t supposed to be there. You were.”
Hawk’s jaw flexed and released, flexed and released. Gabe curled his hands into fists to keep from putting them around Hawk’s neck and squeezing the life out of him. “You killed her, and you killed whatever love she held for you the day you murdered someone in front of her and then ravished her when she no longer wanted anything to do with you.”
“She loved me still,” Hawk insisted. “She would have come back around. But you couldn’t just let us be. You always have had to be the damned savior, the hero, the one we were all supposed to count on. You took her from me, and it’s your fault she’s dead.”
“You’re out of your head.” Gabe turned away, the desire to kill Hawk so strong that he was shaking from it. He needed distance, but Hawk grabbed Gabe by the forearm. Gabe swung back toward him, their gazes clashing.
“Someday, Beck, you’ll meet a lady, and you’ll want to make her yours. And when you do, I’m going reappear in your life and take her from you, as you’ve taken Georgette from me. Then you’ll suffer the rest of your life as I’m suffering.” Hawk offered Gabe a twisted smile. “Brothers to the end, Beck. That’s what we are. Brothers to the bloody, bitter end.”