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London, England September, 1844
COVENT GARDEN KILLER STRIKES AGAIN.
Londoners grow nervous.
Thor scanned the front page article in the London Times details of the second brutal murder in the Covent Garden district in the last six months.
Unlike his older brother, Leif, Thor wasn't much of a reader. He figured the best use for a newspaper was to wrap up dead fish. He admitted it was probably important to keep up with what was happening around him, so he struggled through the English words, a language he had only started learning a little over two years ago. Before that, he had lived on an island far to the north, an isolated world only a handful of people knew existed.
With the help of his teacher, Professor Paxton Hart, he had learned to read and write, how to dress and move about in English society. Leif and his wife helped as well, and life here grew easier all the time. Still, Thor liked being out of doors, not inside reading a book.
"So you're the one who stole my paper!" An indignant female voice snagged his attention. "I've been looking all over." Hands on hips, Lindsey Graham marched across the office like a raven swooping down on its prey.
Holding the evidence of his guilt in one big hand, Thor stood in the doorway of the back room of Heart to Heart, the ladies' magazine owned by his brother's wife, Krista Hart Draugr, and her father, his teacher, Sir Paxton Hart. It was Thursday, the day before the paper came out, and the office hummed with activity.
"I did not steal it," he said to the avenging angel bearing down on him. "I borrowed it. I wanted to know about the murder."
Her eyes shot to his, a tawny golden color like the she-cat she was. "There was a second murder?"
He nodded, held the paper so she could read the headline. "Down in Covent Garden," he said. "Same as before."
Lindsey took the newspaper and scanned the article. She was taller than the average woman, yet far shorter than his six-foot-five-inch frame. She was slender, her hair a light golden brown. With her fine-boned, delicate features, she was pretty, but not in the way he preferred.
Like his brother, he wanted his women lusty, buxom and full-breasted, the kind built to satisfy a man. Leif had found Krista, the mate of his heart. Thor was still looking for the female who would be his.
"Another woman killed," Lindsey said, her tawny gaze glued to the page, "strangled just like the last time. The police believe the same man is likely responsible."
Lindsey was editor of the women's section of the paper and also wrote a gossip column called Heartbeat. She was a hard worker, he knew, a quality he admired since he worked so hard himself. Whenever he wasn't down at the docks, bossing the stevedores who loaded and unloaded the cargo carried by his brother's company, Valhalla Shipping, he worked for Heart to Heart. He was saving his money to buy a place in the country, far away from the choking air of London.
"Here's something new," Lindsey went on, her fine, straight nose immersed in the printed lines. "It says the women who were killed were 'ladies of the evening.'"
"Whores," Thor said simply.
Lindsey blushed. "That does not mean it is all right for someone to kill them."
"I did not say that."
She sighed. "I feel sorry for the people who live in the neighborhood. Two murders in the last six months. They must be terrified. I certainly hope the police apprehend him this time."
"The paper says they have found clues. They believe they will soon have a suspect. Mayhap this time they will catch him."
"I wonder what they have discovered."
Thor made no reply, since neither of them knew the answer. Engrossed in the paper, Lindsey wandered over to her desk, sat down and continued to read. In the middle of the room, the big Stanhope press sat silent, but soon the next edition would be rumbling off for sale on the streets.
Thor liked to watch the press at work. In truth, he was amazed by the heavy machinery he had seen since his arrival in England, equipment that could spin cotton into cloth, or press glass into various shapes and sizes. There were even powerful steam machines called locomotives that could carry people to distant places in hours instead of days.
There was nothing like that on the remote island of Draugr where he and Leif had been born and raised. People on Draugr still lived as they had hundreds of years ago. They were warriors and farmers, not city dwellers like the people in London.
Flashing a smile at the typesetter, Bessie Briggs, an older woman who mothered him as if he were her son, he went back to work stacking boxes and crates, making room for tomorrow's papers.
It was only a few minutes later that the bell rang above the front door, drawing his attention to a thin man, slightly beak-nosed and dark-haired, who walked into the office. Dressed in an expensive-looking dark brown tailcoat and tan trousers, he carried one of those stupid high hats London men favored and Thor flatly refused to wear.
Returning to his work, he forgot about the man until he heard voices raised in anger. Saying a grateful prayer that this time the object of Lindsey's wrath was someone else, he gazed through the door in her direction and saw the well-dressed man standing next to her desk. They were arguing. Noticing the hard set of the man's jaw, the blood-lust in his eyes, Thor's senses went on alert.
Lindsey clamped her hands on her hips. "I don't give a fig whether you bloody well like it or not. If you hadn't been cheating on your wife, I wouldn't have found out and I wouldn't have written about you in my column!"
"You little bitch! My wife is threatening divorce. I am the Earl of Fulcroft and a Whitfield, and Whitfields do not divorce! You will write a retraction immediately or I will personally see you ruined!"
"And how, may I ask, do you intend to do that?"
A grim smile curved the earl's lips. "I will dig into your past until I find something that will scandalize the very people your column is meant to impress. There will be somethingthere always isno matter how young and innocent you seem. And I shall keep digging until I find it! Then we'll see how much you 'bloody well like it!'"
Thor had heard enough. Seeing Lindsey's face had turned a little pale, he strode toward Fulcroft, grabbed him by the lapels of his expensive coat and jerked him up on his toes.
"You are finished with your threats to the lady. You will apologize for the name you called her and then you will leave."
"Put me down this instant!"
Ignoring the stunned look on Lindsey's face, Thor shook him like the rat he was. "I said you will apologize. Do it now."
The earl dangled there, his feet swinging, his shiny leather shoes dangling several inches above the floor. "All right, all right. I'm sorry I called you a bitch. Now put me down!"
Thor set the man back on his feet and the earl eased toward the door. He pierced Lindsey with a glare. "Your bulldog notwithstanding, I meant every word. I'll expect to read your retraction in the next edition of the paper."
"Don't hold your breath!" Lindsey called after him as he turned and hurried out of the office.
Thor was feeling well pleased with himself when Lindsey rounded on him. "Don't you ever do that again!"
"What are you talking about?"
"You interfered in my business. I can deal with my problems myself. I don't need any help from you."
Thor clenched his jaw. "You wished for the man to continue his insults? You did not mind that he called you a female dog?"
Her eyes widened. Then a corner of her mouth twitched. "I minded. But I could have handled him myself."
"Fine. The next time a man insults you, I will pretend not to hear. Does that suit you, lady?"
Her eyes held his an instant before she glanced away. "It suits me. I don't need your help or anyone else's."
Thor shook his head. "Stubborn as an ugly horse."
"You mean mule," she corrected.
"Fine. Stubborn as a mule."
Lindsey flashed him a last brief glance, turned and walked away.
Damned woman, he thought, trying not to notice the way her hips swayed beneath her full skirts, to wonder if her waist was really small enough for his hands to fit around it. She was as slender as a boy. Why he should notice her at all he could not imagine.
Still, he had to admit she had a very pretty face and skin as smooth and pale as cream. Her hair, the color of rich, dark honey, shimmered in the sun shining in through the window.
His body tightened. Grinding his jaw against a shot of lust that angered him more than aroused him, he strode back to the rear of the office and began stacking the rest of the newspaper bundles.
He wasn't attracted to Lindsey Graham. She wasn't the sort of woman he found the least attractive. But as she moved across the office in that graceful way of hers, Thor found himself watching her again.
Lindsey finished reworking the notes she had made for this week's column. At the back of the office, she could hear Thor at work loading stacks of bound newspapers, getting ready for the edition that would be on the streets tomorrow.
Lindsey knew Krista was eager for this particular issue to come out. She was campaigning hard against the institution of baby farming, the awful practice of selling illegitimate infants into places that ultimately resulted in their deaths, neatly disposing of unwanted problems.
Their mutual friend, Coralee Whitmore Forsythe, had uncovered the terrible practice during her search for the man who had murdered her sister. While Corrie was away on her quest, Lindsey had taken over writing the society column for the gazette. Though Corrie was currently on her honeymoon with her husband, the Earl of Tremaine, once she returned to England, she and Gray would add their support to Krista's campaign.
Lindsey glanced through the door leading into the back room of the office. She could see Thor at work, his powerful body hoisting and moving the bound stacks of newspapers as if they weighed nothing. It was a laborer's job. Thor was a man who seemed to enjoy physical exertion.
He wasn't obsessed with learning as his older brother, Leif, had been, but considering he had arrived in England only a few years ago, he had educated himself fairly well.
She didn't know much about him, only that he came from some tiny island north of the Orkneys. He spoke English well, with just a slight accent that sounded faintly Norwegian. He could read and write, though not as well as he could speak, and Krista and her father had taught him at least the basics necessary to move about in polite society.
Still, in most ways, the man was a barbarian. He had no interest in the arts, theater, or opera, no desire to attend the soirees, balls, and risottos that Lindsey enjoyed so much. As society editor of Heart to Heart and author of the weekly gossip column, Heartbeat, it was necessary for her to mingle and mix with the social elite. As the daughter of a baron, Lindsey did it well.
She liked her job, liked the independence it gave her. Of course, in the beginning, her mother and father had been horrified at the notion of their twenty-two-year-old daughter actually working, but they were gone a great deal and Lindsey had insisted she needed something to do. In the end, as usual, she had gotten her way.
Once again, her parents were traveling on the Continent, leaving Lindsey in the house under the care of her mother's older sister, Delilah Markham, Countess of Ashford. Lindsey liked her aunt, an extremely forward-thinking woman who, at forty-six, had lived an exciting life and intended to enjoy every moment of the years ahead.
Which meant that basically, Lindsey was on her own.
It was warm in the office this early September day. Lindsey fanned herself with the newspaper she had been reading, then flicked a glance toward the back of the building, where Thor bent down to hoist another bundle. He always dressed simply, never wore a waistcoat, cravat or stock.
Her eyes widened as she realized the man had stripped off his tailcoat and unbuttoned his fine lawn shirt all the way to his navel. She could see his massive chest, a wide V of swarthy skin covered by thick slabs of muscle, even the ladder of muscle across his flat belly. The work was heavy and perspiration ran in rivulets through his dark hair and down his thick neck. It plastered his shirt to his incredible body. His arms bulged with muscle, and when he turned away, slabs of muscle tightened across his broad back.
Lindsey's stomach contracted. The only thing the big brute had going for him was a body that seemed to mimic the Norse god he was named for, and eyes so blue that when you looked into them, you felt as if you might disappear.
It simply wasn't fair that a man should look so good on the outside and have so little of interest on the inside.
It simply wasn't fair.
Still, Lindsey stared at him, unable to look away, fascinated until he turned round and caught her.
His dark head came up and those incredible blue eyes locked on her face.
"I am not decently clothed," he said. "A lady would not look."
Her chin inched up. "And a gentleman would not disrobe except in private!" Whirling her chair around, her pulse hammering far too fast, she jerked her plumed pen from its silver holder, jabbed it into the inkwell and stabbed it down on the paper, leaving a purple stain as she tried to scratch out the first paragraph of her upcoming column.
Thor said something beneath his breath and went back to hoisting bundles.
"Are you all right?"
Her head came up and she flushed guiltily at the sight of her employer and best friend, Krista Hart Draugr, approaching her desk. She started to say that she was just fine before Thor had stripped off half his clothes, but stopped when she realized Krista was referring to the argument she'd had earlier with the Earl of Fulcroft, not Thor.
"Bessie told me about the earl," Krista went on. "I'm sorry I wasn't here." She was tall, taller than most men, except, of course, for her husband and Thor. With her big green eyes and golden blond hair, she was a beautiful woman. And she had found exactly the right man for her in Leif. The pair had a nine-month-old son they adored, and as virile as both brothers appeared to be, soon there would probably be another addition to the family.
Lindsey looked up at Krista and smiled. "I am fine. Fulcroft was just blowing off steam."