Whitechapel Wagers, Book 1
Elizabeth Ainsworth has decided she will never marry. Years spent on the shelf have taught her plain looks and a distinct lack of ladylike talents won’t win a proposal from any of the eligible young constables or inspectors her Detective Chief Inspector father invites to their home. Most of them are too busy staring at her younger, prettier sister anyway. And Lizzy is content to be a spinster, especially if it means she can continue with her charity work in Whitechapel. But she has one lingering regret. She wants to experience passion at least once in her life and, most of all, she wants to experience it with Ian Reed.
Detective Inspector Ian Reed has aspirations to ascend the ranks of the Metropolitan Police, and he hopes proving himself to his superior, Detective Chief Inspector Ainsworth, will help him get there. A series of brutal murders plaguing Whitechapel have him working long hours, so when Ainsworth’s daugher shows up on his doorstep and offers herself to him, he fears he might be dreaming. Fascinated with Lizzy from the moment he meets her, Ian is determined to spend more than one night in her arms, despite what it might cost both of them.
“Scandalous Wager” is a novelette of approximately 17,000 words.
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London, September 1888
Whitechapel was different at night.
Elizabeth Ainsworth was used to spending her days surrounded by the district’s noise and crowded bustle—the chorus of costermongers calling out their offerings, rickety drays bearing their burdens across cobblestones, and the chatter of bedraggled children that followed her, and every other passerby, begging for a coin. But the night noises of raucous laughter, angry shouts, and the music of a distant squeezebox weren’t as familiar. Even the streets she was accustomed to walking in London’s daylight haze felt foreign and unfamiliar in the dark fog of night. Every aspect of the place stoked her anxiety.
The smells were much the same though, putrid but comfortingly familiar. Over time Lizzy had grown used to the noxious combination of refuse and horse manure that seemed to overflow half the gutters. Fog and smoke filled the air most days, and when the sun did shine on the East End, it only highlighted the layer of grime that seemed to coat the buildings and clothing of those who inhabited the teeming streets. She never expected to emerge clean from a visit to Whitechapel. As she preferred walking to any other form of transport, her practical boots and the hem of her skirt always took the worst of it.
Her mother read the newspapers and believed criminals and ruffians were all that was left in the crowded district. Lizzy was not blind to its dangers, but she had been fortunate to meet mostly downtrodden, hardworking people during her time as a teacher at the charity school on Rutland Street. The young men and women who came to Tregard School, or sent their children to attend, were hungry for knowledge and eager to improve their lot in life.
Volunteering her time at the school was challenging, bone-wearying work filled with long days spent on her feet and long weekends engaged in marking work and planning for the coming week, but it made her feel useful. And with a police inspector father and a mother who had served with Miss Nightingale in the Crimea, how could they blame her for wishing to find purpose in her own life? Now that she had found her niche, that purpose she sought, nothing would deter her from it. She could not imagine an endeavor more satisfying than teaching others to read or calculate sums and observing the joy and confidence they found in achieving the skills.
As she continued walking, Lizzy lifted the collar of her cloak higher, covering her bare neck against the crisp autumn air. She’d walked Cannon Street a hundred times, in rain and sun and the thickest of fogs, to seek out her father at the H Division police headquarters on Leman Street. But now, on a nearly moonless night, she found it the darkest street she’d ever traversed. The gaslights seemed to shed no light here, as if they’d never been lit at all.
Fear chipped at Lizzy’s resolve, yet it wasn’t a fear of the night or the crime-infested streets of the East End. It was fear of what he might say when she asked him. Fear he would laugh in her face. And a shiver of dreadful anticipation at the possibility he might agree to her scandalous bargain. The thrum of need that thoughts of Inspector Ian Reed inspired kindled with every step she took.
She couldn’t turn back and face a lifetime without passion. This was her only choice. He was her only choice. Her only chance before she succumbed to spinsterhood, gave in to it like some women capitulated to loveless marriages. It was far better to be a spinster than a miserable wife. And with her work to keep her busy, she was certain she would not miss the companionship of a husband. It was only the thought of a lifetime without passion, the notion of never experiencing it even once, which had given her the courage to sneak out of her father’s house this night and seek the man she desired.
If she could have one night of passion with Ian Reed and still maintain her independence, she would be luckier than any betrothed miss. Did not some of her suffragist friends eschew marriage altogether? After leaving their fathers’ homes, they argued, why invite another man to control their comings and goings, to relegate them to household duties and prevent them from being useful to society at large.
He’d caught her staring. Her gaze shot up to his eyes and she found he still watched her. His gaze burned into her, melting her. Damp heat pooled between her thighs. Though separated by the space of the Ainsworth drawing room, it was as if they drew near each other, suspended between her father’s drone and Sara’s silly giggles.
Her mother broke the spell, calling Lizzy’s name and insisting she join them, entertain them. It was a tried and true ritual when the Ainsworths had guests. Lizzy played the piano and Sara accompanied with her sweet, high voice.
Lizzy agreed. How could she do otherwise? She’d strode toward the piano, crossing near Ian Reed, much closer than was necessary. His gaze was still on her. She felt it like the lightest touch against her skin. Sitting at the piano, waiting for Sara to take her place, Lizzy looked back at him.
He’d lost interest in her. He was watching Sara as she practiced scales and prepared to sing.
Then an extraordinary thing happened. Sara, always so sure in her notes, soaring higher than a human voice should, lost her pitch. She sounded out a squeak and then a deep, low octave warble, as if she was singing round a mouthful of wool.
When Lizzy looked up to see about Sara, she caught him smiling. It was only a flash of straight, white teeth, but it transformed his face, maintaining all of the night-dark beauty and adding a hint of boyishness.
What if she saw that same smile this night, laughing at her ridiculous request, just as he’d found amusement in her sister’s poor singing?
She rapped on the door of his lodging. She half expected a landlady to open and turn her away. Most landlords did not allow their single gentlemen to have women callers. But there was no landlady.
The door creaked open and Ian Reed stood before her, just a hairsbreadth away, smelling of soap and clean linen, his black hair slightly damp and his skin smooth and freshly shaven.
She didn’t get a word out before she heard her name on his lips and felt his warm breath against her face.
His tone belied shock and disbelief at her presence on his doorstep so late at night. No proper woman would be at his door at this hour. He ushered her in, closed the door behind them, and slid the lock in place.
“Is your father unwell?”
It was natural he would think her visit related to her father. It was the only connection between them. Except for her inability to keep Ian Reed from her thoughts.
“My father is well, Inspector Reed. Thank you.”
His rooms were small—just two rooms separated by a doorframe without a door. A suit lay on his bed, a brush discarded beside it. She had interrupted his household chores. Sparsely furnished, the room’s only true adornment was his collection of books, some in a neat row on a shelf, others stacked on a wooden chair, and two lying on a small table near his bed. His love of books and literature, his intelligence and voracious curiosity, had become clear during his visits to Lizzy’s home. She also loved to read, and it pleased her to see that books were all the decoration his rooms required.
But the room’s simplicity only highlighted the scandalous nature of her visit. Here was a man doing his nightly duties, snug in his cozy rooms surrounded by works of literature and tomes of knowledge, and she was going to ask him to spend his
“Please sit, Miss Ainsworth.”
Lizzy lowered herself into the straight-backed chair he indicated.
“Would you like a cup of tea? I was just going to have one myself.”
He tidied as he made his way across the tiny room, hanging his suit on a hook near the bed and placing the brush in a drawer.
“Yes, thank you, Inspector Reed. I would—”
Her thoughts scattered as she watched him pour steaming water from a kettle into a chipped white teapot. He reached for two cups from a high shelf. As his shirt pulled tight, she savored the outline of his muscular body beneath the cloth. Even in his overcoat or the suits he wore on visits to her home, it was easy to suspect he possessed a fine physique, but she had never before been afforded such splendid evidence.
“Ian.” She hadn’t meant to speak his name aloud. It came out in a throaty whisper as she tested it on her lips, savoring it on her tongue.
His black head snapped around and he shot a look straight at her mouth. Shifting her gaze to his eyes, she fancied she could hear his heartbeat but then realized it was her own, thundering in her ears.
“Would you call me Lizzy?”
He smiled that smile, disarming and lovely, boyish and yet seductive. No man should be allowed such a smile.
He approached and handed her a cup of tea.
She sucked in her breath and held it until he was seated across the short expanse of the room from her.
“Lizzy.” He said her name and then paused, as if he had said more and she should take his meaning clearly. “What possessed you to come out at such an hour? And to Whitechapel? Alone? It is dangerous at the best of times, but now… No woman is safe in Whitechapel now. ”
If the voice had not been Ian Reed’s low, rich tone, Lizzy might have thought she was listening to her father speak. There was a more than a hint of chastisement behind his words, and lately she had heard little but warnings from her father about her activities in Whitechapel. Though he worked in the East End himself, he had saved to purchase their family a spacious home far outside its boundaries. Almost daily Papa urged her to find charitable work closer to town.
“I’m here to see you, of course.” She saw a flicker of amusement on his face after she’d spoken, but it slipped away so quickly she could convince herself she’d imagined it. It seemed he never allowed himself mirth for long. He opened his lovely mouth as if to question her, but she took a deep breath and continued. “I have something to ask of you, Inspector Reed. Ian.”
She could no longer meet his eyes and studied her hands, folded tightly in her lap, as she forced the rest of the words out. “And something to offer.”
He didn’t speak, but he made a sound, a slight murmur, as if talking to himself under his breath. His voice was quiet when he spoke. “And what is it you ask and offer, Lizzy Ainsworth?”
His name on her lips set her already rapid heartbeat skittering. Lizzy shot up from her chair. Body roiling with emotion, she could not sit, could not contain the nervous energy coursing through her.
Ian stood too, as a gentleman should.
She hoped he wasn’t too much of a gentleman.
He stood patiently and watched her. She could always sense when his eyes were on her.
Every time she began to speak the words, her tongue grew thick in her mouth. She swallowed and then swallowed again. The words wouldn’t come, though her body hummed with unspoken desires. If only he were a mind reader, like those tricksters with their crystal balls and tea leaves.
He moved closer and it took all her strength not to reach out to him, touch him as she’d longed to do since the night they’d met.
“You seem distressed and you’ve come to me. How can I help?” He reached out then. Lizzy felt his hand, warm and heavy on her arm.
“I…” The words were there, waiting to burst from her, but once they were out, she could never take them back.
“What is it?” His fingers closed around her arm and he drew closer. She was enveloped in the scent of him—shaving soap and a unique musk all his own—and dizzy at his nearness.
“I shall never marry.”
The words stunned him. She could tell by the look on his face and the way his body recoiled, almost as if she’d struck him.
She closed the distance between them again, emboldened now that she had begun. “I will never have a husband to love me. To share…” The words stuck again.
“Lizzy.” She heard pity in his tone. The last thing she wanted was his pity.
She held her hand up to him. “No, please. I must finish.” She hadn’t meant to touch him, but her palm grazed his shirt front. Boldly, she let her hand rest against his chest.
He looked down at it, seeming to study her fingers. She hadn’t worn gloves. Another sign of her impropriety.
“I won’t have a husband to share carnal pleasure.” Lizzy saw him swallow hard, watched the movement across his throat, and the impulse to kiss him there, to taste his skin, overwhelmed her.
He reached up and placed his hand over hers where it lay against his chest. His hand was warm and strong. It nearly enveloped her own.
She could feel his heartbeat now, racing, thumping a wild tattoo against her palm.
“I want to share those pleasures with you.” There. The words were out now. She could not take them back. She could only wait for his reaction.