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London, April 1822
Charles Hunter always sat with his back to the wall to avoid unpleasant surprises—a tactic he had learned from his superior at the Home Office, Lord Wycliffe—and the Black Dog Tavern was not a place where one would want to be surprised. Charles watched Wycliffe come toward him now, wondering why he had arranged this meeting outside the office. The grim look on his face was not reassuring.
Trouble, then. Serious trouble, and highly sensitive if they couldn't they talk about it at the Home Office. He took a deep drink from his mug and gestured to the waiting tankard, which Wycliffe lifted promptly.
"Hunter," he said as he sat.
Charles nodded. "What is this about?"
"It's on the hush, Hunter. I can't make you take the venture, but it would be good for your career if you did. Probably get you that assignment to the Foreign Office you asked about. That's why I thought I'd give you first chance at it."
The Foreign Office? That was a plump little carrot to dangle in front of him. He'd wanted to get the hell out of England for months now. Maybe a transfer would clear his head. Ever since he'd been wounded last fall, he'd been restless, angry and a bit reckless. Standing by one's best friend as he was shot through the head could do that to a man, he'd been told.
"What's it about?"
Wycliffe sighed and looked down into his ale. "Long story. First, have you met the late Lady Caroline Betman's former ward, Georgiana Carson, currently known as Mrs. Gower Huffington?"
Charles covered his surprise and damned the quick twist of his gut at that name. Did he know her? Hell, he'd been about to propose to her when her guardian informed him that his feelings were not returned. But that was before she'd married for the first time. She'd been so fresh. So beautiful. So duplicitous.
"We've met," he admitted.
"What do you think of her?"
"I've always thought she is a stunner. Intelligent and self-possessed, though guarded and "
Wycliffe nodded again, as if confirming Charles's opinion. "Inscrutable?"
Charles shrugged. He'd been about to say deceitful, but perhaps that had only been his experience. "Aloof, I'd say. And not given to emotion."
"Odd for a woman who's been married twice."
"And widowed twice, and hides in the countryside now, from what I hear."
"Then you didn't know?" Wycliffe narrowed his eyes as he sat back in his chair. "Mrs. Huffington has come back to town."
The connection was lost on him. What did Georgiana Huffington, nee Carson, have to do with Wycliffe's assignment? He rubbed his shoulder, still aching from the ball he'd taken when his friend was killed last October. "Aye, she's come back to town and.?"
"Good Lord, Hunter! Where have you been? Allow me to catch you up." Wycliffe leaned forward again and lowered his voice as if he feared they might be overheard. "Rumor has it that she killed her husbands."
Charles stared into his ale, remembering his obsession with the woman seven years ago. He'd been taken with those olive-green eyes—and the promise of lush curves beneath her demure girlish gowns. She'd been shy, sweet and possessed of a gentle humor he found endearing but there had always been a hint of darkness and mystery about her. "She doesn't look like the type."
"You, better than most, know that appearances can be deceiving. Why, you've witnessed things that would shock the ton into speechlessness—with the possible exception of me."
Aye, the deceit and duplicity he'd seen beneath innocuous appearances no longer surprised him. He was a jaded man.
"But I am glad you find her appealing. That will make your job easier."
A job involving Mrs. Huffington? Never. Charles laughed and shook his head. "I am on holiday. Personal matters to settle."
"Come, now, Hunter. I know you are not spending your leave playing with the demimonde and dancing with new country lasses fresh into town for the season. Not while Dick Gibbons is still at large."
Gibbons. That misbegotten, vile, flea-infested bag of manure. Gibbons was the personal matter he intended to settle before taking another assignment. He'd wager all he owned that Gibbons was the man who'd killed his friend and put a bullet in his shoulder. "I have business of my own to attend, Wycliffe. I am not inclined to help you with any 'unofficial' problems at the moment."
Wycliffe sat back in his chair and tapped the table with one finger, a jaded expression on his face. "The truth is that you need to kill Gibbons before he kills you, eh? I've seen all kinds, Hunter, but the Gibbons clan is beyond my comprehension. I cannot think what could account for their felonious nature."
"It's in their blood," Charles murmured. "It's who they are and what they were born to be."
"I've known good men with no better beginnings. You do not really believe in 'bad blood,' do you?"
"Aye, I do. And I believe if it's birthed a Gibbons, you'd do the world a favor to exterminate it before it can spread."
Wycliffe gave a short laugh. "And nature and upbringing have no bearing? Are inconsequential?"
Charles shrugged. "I'd say they count for very little."
An arched eyebrow was Wycliffe's reaction. "I can see this is not the night for a philosophical discussion."
It certainly wasn't. Charles brought the conversation back to the point. "So if you think the Huffington woman is guilty of something, put someone else on her trail."
"That's precisely why I need your help. It isn't official, you see. Not yet. It is delicate, and requires someone who is socially adept, accepted at all levels of society and who has a light touch."
"If it is not official, why are we poking our noses in what doesn't concern us?"
"Requests from some rather prominent people. Her former husbands' families are suspicious of the nature of the deaths. Too coincidental, they say. Too convenient. For her.
"She has profited nicely from both deaths. And her last husband, Gower Huffington, was quite wealthy. No immediate family, but he has a distant nephew who was expecting to inherit. He thinks Mrs. Huffington cozened his uncle into changing his will and thus cheated him of his due."
Disgruntled relatives looking for an inheritance were not reason enough to drag his attention from Dick Gibbons. He shook his head again. "Not interested."
"You haven't heard the rest." Wycliffe finished his ale and pushed his chair back. "About her and Adam Booth."
A cold feeling settled in the pit of Charles's stomach at the mention of his friend. "What about Booth?" Adam had taken a bullet that had been meant for Charles, and Charles had been carried away with a bullet in his left shoulder. Dick Gibbons had been gunning for Charles, not Adam. His friend had just gotten in the way. And what did any of that have to do with Mrs. Huffington?
"He'd been courting Mrs. Huffington. 'Tis rumored they'd signed marriage contracts the day he was killed."
Charles remembered Booth's interest in the widow, but he hadn't realized how serious it was or he'd have warned his friend against her. He took a long, slow drink, digesting this information.
Wycliffe pressed his advantage. "Furthermore, Mrs. Huffington's former guardian, Lady Caroline Betman, died rather suddenly. Her death is being seen as yet another convenience for Mrs. Huffington. Each death was ruled accidental, save Lady Caroline's, which was thought to be natural. That is why the investigation must be kept unofficial. There is no new information that would warrant reopening the inquiries. Gathering that information would be your task."
Charles was forced to admit that Mrs. Huffington looked guilty of something. And he'd known unlikelier killers. "I only knew her briefly seven years ago, and have no way of knowing what she may or may not be inclined to do. In fact, I can think of no reason to take this assignment. I need to find Gibbons before he finds me."
"That's what I've been trying to tell you. Maybe it isn't Gibbons you are looking for."
For a moment—just a moment—Charles thought Wycliffe was suggesting. "Mrs. Huffington?"
Wycliffe spread his arms wide. "Why not? If she is guilty of killing her husbands, then why not Adam Booth? Even his father has paid a visit to the secretary. You always said it was not like Gibbons to miss, nor was a pistol his first choice of weapons. What if it wasn't Gibbons holding the gun that night after all?"
That supposition gave Charles a moment's pause until logic took over. "What could her motive be? She wasn't married to Booth, so she did not stand to inherit. Would she not have waited until the nuptials?"
"Lady Caroline had negotiated a nominal settlement should Booth not wed her, no matter the reason. Afraid he'd back out, no doubt."
Bloody hell! Was everything he 'd believed wrong?
"Two husbands? And both of them dead?" Lady Sarah Travis asked without preamble, her violet eyes wide with astonishment.
Georgiana Huffington was well aware that the Wednesday League book club had convened an emergency meeting on her account. The ladies were quietly dedicated to helping women who, for one reason or another, found themselves in a pickle.
She gave a decisive nod, feeling the color rise to her cheeks. It was always the same—this reaction. Perhaps it was because she was only three-and-twenty. Or perhaps they were wondering how she could possibly have had such colossal ill fortune. They might as well know the worst immediately. "And one fiance," she admitted with a breathless sigh.
Grace Hawthorne leaned forward and placed her teacup on a low table. "My dear! That is too heartbreaking."
Lady Annica Auberville and Lady Charity MacGregor, the other two women present, nodded their agreement.
"Is this why Gina has brought you to us?" Lady Sarah prodded with a sideways glance at her sister-in-law, Eugenia Hunter.
"She said you might be able to help me."
Lady Annica placed her teacup beside Mrs. Hawthorne's and studied Georgiana intensely. "I confess I do not know how."
Dizzy with the implications of what she was about to say, she took a deep breath before she could say the words aloud. "I have begun to wonder if their deaths were altogether natural."
She expected protests, or at least some sort of reassuring denial. But the ladies merely studied her as if she had said something perfectly reasonable. For a long moment, the only sound in Lady Sarah's elegant sitting room was the rhythmic tick-tock of an ornate tall case clock in one corner.
Finally, Lady Sarah nodded. "Please rest assured that anything revealed in this group is utterly confidential. And we shall expect the same of you."
She heaved a sigh of relief and nodded her agreement rather vigorously. What she was about to say was bad enough, but to risk it being repeated was untenable.
The women smiled and Lady Sarah inclined her head. "Could you give us a brief summary, Mrs. Huffington?
A sick feeling settled in the pit of Georgiana's stomach. "I was first married at seventeen, barely three months after entering society. His name was Arthur Allenby. The night of our vows he tumbled down the stairs, having had a bit too much celebration."
"Consummated?" Lady Annica asked in a very frank manner.
Dear sweet Allenby. He'd been so eager for the marriage bed, and then "No. He fell before, well, you know. Mr. Allenby's family returned my dowry, added considerable compensation and sent me back to my aunt Caroline's at once. I was a reminder of the tragedy, they said. Then, after my mourning and an extra year, came Gower Huf-fington. We wed two years ago. In December. We traveled to his country estate for our honeymoon." This time there had been a consummation. He'd been quite eager and quick—over before she'd been able to ease the pain. And once again, for good measure Gower had said. She had dared hope she would come to tolerate it in time. "A day or two after we arrived, he went for a walk and did not return. By the time the woodsman found him the next day, he was quite dead. His heart gave out, the coroner said."
She glanced at Lady Annica and answered before it was asked. "Consummated, no issue. Mr. Huffington's lands were not entailed, nor his fortune. He had no other close heirs and left me quite comfortable."
"And and you wonder if these unfortunate incidents were entirely natural?" Lady Sarah repeated.
"It seems rather odd to me that neither of my marriages have lasted longer than a day or two. It could be a tragic coincidence." Georgiana hesitated. The final story was shorter, and even more tragic. "But last fall, before Aunt Caroline and I left town so quickly, I was betrothed to another man. He was killed barely a day after signing our contracts and before any announcements had been made."
Even Gina's eyebrows went up at this. "Who was it, Georgiana?"
"Mr. Booth. Mr. Adam Booth."
"I was at the Argyle Rooms that night! I recall the in-cident—in the street outside Argyle House."
Georgiana nodded. She still did not know the particulars of that event, except that she had been assured it had nothing to do with her. But still.
"Too much for mere coincidence," Lady Annica mused. "Do you have any particular reason, aside from the untimely nature of the deaths, for suspecting foul play, Mrs.
"I have been over it in my mind endlessly. I did not know of anyone who wished them ill, nor can I think of anyone who would wish me ill. There is simply neither rhyme nor reason to it all, and that, I think, is the reason it took me so long to see the unlikelihood of mere coincidence."
Grace Hawthorne put her teacup aside. "Has there been a threat to you personally, Mrs. Huffington? A note or a warning? A near call, an unaccountable accident, odd occurrence?"
"Nothing. I vow, each time it came without warning. One moment, all was well, and the next."
"Disaster," Gina finished for her.
"The most troubling was my betrothal to Mr. Booth. Our engagement had not even been announced, and he was dead. We—Aunt Caroline and I—were assured that the matter was quite unrelated to our betrothal, but."
"The facts speak for themselves. And, to be blunt, I would almost rather think there is something or someone else behind these things than to think of myself as being cursed. I've heard it whispered in the ton that only a madman would propose to me now. And I've heard there are some who are speculating that I hastened my husbands' ends."
"Do you want to be married again?" Lady Sarah asked with a note of wonder in her voice.
Georgiana shuddered. "I've had quite enough marriage and mourning, thank you." Not again. Never again. Marriage and men were not for her.
Lady Sarah sat a little straighter. "Then the worst that could happen is that we are unable to get to the bottom of this and that the rumors persist. But if you do not wish to marry again, those consequences are not so very dire."
"No," Lady Annica corrected. "The worst that could happen is that we stir the pot and it somehow comes to a boil and implicates Mrs. Huffington and she is arrested."
Arrested? If she was found guilty, she would hang. Dare she risk that?
"Is there anything—anything at all—that you have not told us, Mrs. Huffington?"