Read an Excerpt
The Earl of Somerton leaned back in his chair, steepled his fingers into an imaginary cathedral before his nose, and considered the white-faced man standing at the extreme edge of the antique kilim rug before the desk.
Standing, of course. One never made one’s underlings too comfortable.
He allowed the silence to take on a life of its own, a third presence in the room, a roiling thundercloud of anticipation.
The man shifted his weight from one large booted foot to the other. A droplet of sweat trickled its lazy way along the thick vertical scar at the side of his face.
“Are you warm, Mr. Norton? I confess, I find the room a trifle chilly, but you’re welcome to open a window if you like.”
“No, thank you, sir.” Norton’s voice tilted queasily.
“A glass of sherry, perhaps? To calm the nerves?”
“The nerves, sir?”
“Yes, Mr. Norton. The nerves.” Somerton smiled. “Your nerves, to be precise, for I can’t imagine that any man could walk into this study to report a failure so colossal as yours, without feeling just the slightest bit”—he sharpened his voice to a dagger point—“nervous.”
The Adam’s apple jumped and fell in Mr. Norton’s throat. “Sir.”
“Sir . . . yes? As in: Sir, you are correct, I am shaking in my incompetent boots? Or perhaps you mean: Sir, no, I am quite improbably ignorant of the fatal consequences of failure in this particular matter.” Another smile. “Enlighten me, if you will, Mr. Norton.”
“Sir. Yes. I am . . . I am most abjectly sorry that I . . . that in the course of . . .”
“That you allowed my wife, a woman, unschooled in the technical aspects of subterfuge—my wife, Mr. Norton, the Countess of Somerton—to somehow elude your diligent surveillance last night?” He leaned forward and placed his steepled fingers on the desk before him. “To escape you, Mr. Norton?”
Norton snatched his handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed at his temples. His narrow and unremarkable face—so useful in his choice of profession—shone along every plane surface, like a plank of wood left out in the rain. “Sir, I . . . I . . . I most humbly suggest that Lady Somerton is . . . she has more wits in her possession than . . .”
Somerton’s fist crashed into the blotter. “She is my wife, Mr. Norton. And she slipped through your grasp.”
“Sir, in all the weeks I’ve kept watch on Lady Somerton, she’s traveled nowhere more suspicious than the home of her cousin, Lady Morley . . .”
“Who is undoubtedly complicit in her affairs.”
“Oh, but sir . . .”
“And she has followed me,on occasion, has she not?”
“Yes, but . . .”
“Which means she has neither the good sense nor the propriety of a common shopwife.”
Norton’s massive jaw worked and worked. His gaze fell to the rug. “Sir, I feel . . .”
“You feel?” Somerton barked. “You feel,Mr. Norton? Allow me to observe that your feelings have nothing to do with the matter at hand. My wife, the Countess of Somerton, is engaged in an adulterous liaison with another man. It is my belief that she has carried on this sordid correspondence throughout the entire duration of our marriage. Your object—the task, the sole task for which I hired you, Mr. Norton, as the best man in London for clandestine work—your task was to obtain proof of this affair and bring it to me. You are not paid to have feelings on the matter.”
“Sir, I . . .”
“Look at me, Mr. Norton.”
Erasmus Norton, the most stealthy and deadly assassin inside these British Isles, known to have killed at least one mark with a single silent tap to the skull, lifted his dark eyes carefully upward until he met Somerton’s gaze. For an instant, a flutter of pity brushed the inside wall of the earl’s thick chest.
And then, like the butterfly snatched by the net, it was gone.
“Believe me, Mr. Norton,” said Somerton, in his silkiest voice, “I understand your little predicament. She is a beautiful woman, isn’t she? Beautiful and full of grace. You wouldn’t think, as you watched her smile in that gentle little way of hers, as you watched her float about her daily business, that she would be capable of dishonoring a pet mouse, let alone her husband. I can see how you’ve fallen under her spell. I can hardly blame you. I fell myself, didn’t I, in the most catastrophic manner possible. I married her.” The word married came out in a growl.
“If I may say, sir . . .”
Somerton rose to his feet. “But you are paid to set aside these tender notions, Mr. Norton, these misguided ideas of yours, and see to your business. Otherwise, I shall be forced to consider, one by one, the various means by which your feelings may be forcibly exhumed from your incompetent breast.” He leaned forward and spoke in a low voice, just above a whisper. “Do you understand me, Mr. Norton?”
Norton hopped backward from his perch like a startled brown-haired parakeet. “Oh, but sir! She’s innocent, I’ll stake my life on it . . .”
“Innocent?” The low simmer of fury in Somerton’s brain, the fury he had battled all his life to control, flared upward in a roar of heat. “Innocent? By God, Norton. Do I hear you correctly? Are you actually saying I’m mistaken about my own wife?”
Norton’s white mouth opened and closed. “Not mistaken exactly, sir, that’s the wrong word, I . . .”
Somerton walked around the side of his desk. Norton’s eyes followed his progress, while his words drifted into a wary silence.
Somerton came to a stop next to the edge of the rug, mere inches away from Norton’s blunt and unlovely figure. They were of about the same height, he and Norton. In fact, taken both together, they made a pair of brothers: tall, dark-haired, brute-boned, thick with muscle, crowned by faces only a particularly adoring mother could admire.
Not that the woman who had given birth to Somerton was that sort of mother.
“Mr. Norton,” he said, “I find this conversation has dragged on long enough. Either do your duty, or I shall exact the usual forfeit. There are no other choices. We’ve done business together before, and you know this fact as well as any man on earth.”
Norton’s dark eyes blinked twice. “Yes, sir.”
“You may go.”
Norton turned and dashed for the door. Somerton waited, without moving, until his black-coated figure had stepped off the rug and reached gratefully for the handle.
“Oh! There is one more thing, Mr. Norton.”
The man froze with his hand on the knob.
“As I observed, you have allowed Lady Somerton to follow me about my business in the evening, from time to time. A dangerous occupation, that.”
“I have kept the closest watch on her, sir. As close as possible without revealing myself,” Norton said to the door.
“Let me be clear. If a single hair on Lady Somerton’s head, a single eyelash belonging to her ladyship’s face, is harmed, you will die, Mr. Norton. I shall perform the deed myself. Do you understand me?”
Norton’s hand clutched around the knob, as if struck by the actual cold-blooded wind of Somerton’s voice.
“I understand, sir,” he whispered.
Lord Somerton returned to his seat without another look. The door creaked slightly as it opened and closed, and then there was silence, profound and merciful silence, except for the rhythmic scratch of Somerton’s pen as he finished the letter that Norton’s entrance had interrupted.
A double knock struck the study door.
He signed his name, considered it carefully, and blotted the ink on the page before he answered.
“Come in,” he said.
The footman stepped cautiously through the doorway. “Mr. Markham is here to see you, sir.”
“For the position of secretary, sir.” The footman’s voice lifted just a single nervous trifle at the word sir, turning the statement into a question. Servants and peers alike performed a similar vocal trick when engaging Lord Somerton in conversation. He couldn’t imagine why.
“Send him in.”
Somerton folded the letter, slipped it inside an envelope, and addressed it himself in bold strokes of black ink. A wretched and time-consuming chore, that. He did hope this current secretarial prospect would prove capable of the position, but the hope was a faint one. For some reason, he had the most appalling luck with secretaries.
The footman dissolved into the darkness of the hallway. Somerton consulted the list he had prepared an hour ago—another damned chore he was eager to relinquish—and made a small check next to the word Ireland. Two more words remained: Secretary and Wife.
He was about to take care of the first, anyway. He preferred not to think about the second.
A coal popped in the fireplace nearby. The London air had taken a turn for the chillier this week, and the usual miasma of yellow fog had thickened like an evil enchantment about the streets and buildings of the capital, as millions of chimneys put out millions of columns of coal smoke into the damp English atmosphere. In another week, the household would retire to Somerton Hall for the Christmas season. Hunting every day, drinking every night. His wife’s uncomplaining mask at dinnertime; his son’s brave Yes, sir and No, sir to the few questions Somerton could stretch his adult imagination to ask.
In short, the usual jolly old Yule.
The door opened. Somerton flexed his fingers.
“Your lordship: Mr. Markham,” said the footman.
A young man stepped through the doorway.
“Good morning, Mr. Markham.” Somerton glanced at the clock on the mantel. “I hope the hour is not too early for you.”
“Not at all, your lordship. I thank you for taking the trouble to see me.” Mr. Markham moved into the lamplight, and something stirred in the pit of Somerton’s belly.
Indigestion, no doubt.
They were all young men who came to interview for the position of personal secretary to the Earl of Somerton, but this young man seemed younger than all of them. He could not have been more than eighteen. A suit of plain black wool covered his coltish limbs a little too loosely. His face was smooth and unlined, without a single whisker; his dark ginger hair was slicked back from his head with a stiff layer of pomade. In the symmetrical architecture of his face, there was a trace of almost delicate beauty, a lingering evidence of boyhood.
But there was nothing childlike about the way he moved. He squared his thin shoulders, propelled his lanky figure to the center of the rug, and went on, in a firm, rich alto, “I have come to interview for the position of secretary.”
Somerton set aside his pen in an exact perpendicular relationship to the edge of the desk. “So I am informed, Mr. Markham. I read over your references last night. Astonishingly fulsome, for a man so young.”
“I hope I have given satisfaction, sir.” In a voice that knew full well he had.
Cocky little bastard.
Not that cockiness was necessarily a fault. A secretary should approach his work with confidence. That cockiness could shove open more than a few doors in his employer’s service; it could accomplish what timid self-effacement could not.
Just so long as the two of them were quite clear: That cockiness should never, ever, direct itself toward the Earl of Somerton himself.
Somerton raised his most devastating eyebrow. “No doubt, Mr. Markham, you gave the—er—the attaché of this beleaguered ambassador of Holstein-Schweinwald-Huhnhof the very utmost satisfaction. I presume you left his employ because of the political revolution there?”
A slight hesitation. “Yes.”
Somerton shook his head. “A shocking state of affairs. The ruler murdered, the heir snatched away from the funeral itself. Is there any news of the missing princesses?”
“None, I’m afraid,” said Mr. Markham. “One hears they escaped to relatives in England with their governess, but it’s only a rumor. Likely a false hope.”
“My sympathies. Regardless, I should warn you that my standards are perhaps a trifle more exacting than those of a backward, corrupt, and regicidal Germanic principality.”
Ah. Was that a flare of indignation in Mr. Markham’s warm brown eyes? But the lad smothered it instantly, returning his face to the same pale symmetry as before. Another point in his favor: the ability to control emotion.
“That unfortunate state,” he said icily, “is nonetheless most exact in its notions of ceremony and diplomatic procedure. I assure you, I am well versed in every aspect of a secretary’s duties.”
“And I assure you, Mr. Markham, that the duties required of my secretary will soon prove unlike any you have encountered before.”
Markham’s eyelids made a startled blink.
“We will, however, begin at the beginning, so as not to shock your tender sensibilities. I start work directly after breakfast, which you will enjoy on a tray in your bedroom. I dislike company in the morning, and my personal secretary does not take meals with the household staff.”
“You will report to this room at half eight. We will work through until ten o’clock, when coffee is brought in and I receive visitors. Your desk is there”—he waved to the small mahogany escritoire set at a right angle to the desk, a few feet away—“and you will remain in the room, taking notes of the meeting, unless I direct otherwise. You can write quickly, can you not, Mr. Markham?”
“I have recently learned the essentials of shorthand notation,” Mr. Markham said, without the slightest hesitation.
“We will take lunch here in the study, after which your time is your own, provided you complete your assignments by the time I return at six o’clock. We will work for another two hours, after which I dress for dinner. I invariably dine out. You may take your evening meal in the dining room, though you will likely find yourself alone. Her ladyship dines in the nursery with my son.” Somerton congratulated himself on the absence of expression in his voice.
“Very good, sir. Do I understand you to mean that I have met with your approval?” Mr. Markham said. His face tilted slightly against the lamplight, exposing the curve of his cheekbone, prominent and graceful, in perfect balance with the rest of his face. His arms remained crossed behind his back, his posture straight. Almost . . . regal.
What an extraordinary chap. The thought slipped without warning between the steel columns of Somerton’s mind.
He rose to his feet. “Approval, Mr. Markham? Nothing of the kind. I am in want of a secretary. You, it seems, are the only man daring enough to apply for the position.”
“Rather a tight position for you, then, sir.”
The words were said so effortlessly, so expressionlessly, that it took a moment for Somerton to process their meaning.
What the devil? Had the fellow actually just said that?
Rather a tight position for you. The cheek!
Somerton’s shoulders flexed in an arc of counterattack. “You have one week, Mr. Markham, to prove yourself capable of the position. A position, I hardly need add, that no man has held for longer than two months together. If you succeed in winning my—what was your word, Mr. Markham?”
The young man smiled. “Approval, Lord Somerton.”
“Approval.” He sneered. “You will be compensated with the handsome sum of two hundred pounds per annum, paid monthly in arrears.”
Two hundred solid English pounds sterling. A fortune for an impecunious young man just starting out in his profession, clinging by his claws to the first rung of the professional ladder; twice as much as his wildest hopes might aspire to achieve. Somerton waited for the look of startled gratification to break out across Mr. Markham’s exquisite young features.
A small curl appeared in the left corner of Mr. Markham’s round pink upper lip.
“Two hundred pounds?” he said, as he might say two hundred disemboweled lizards. “I no longer wonder that you have difficulty retaining secretaries for any length of time, your lordship. I only wonder that you have tempted any to the position at all.”
Somerton shot to his feet.
“I beg your pardon! Two hundred pounds is impossibly generous.”
“You will forgive me, Lord Somerton, but the facts speak for themselves. I am the only applicant for the position. Evidently two hundred pounds represents not nearly enough compensation for an ambitious and talented young fellow to take on such an overbearing, demanding, bleak-faced despot as yourself.” He uncrossed his arms, walked to the desk, and spread his long, young fingers along the edge. “Allow me, if you will, to make you a counter-proposition. I shall take on the position of your personal secretary for a week’s trial, beginning tomorrow morning. If the conditions of employment meet with my approval, why, I’ll agree to continue on for a salary of three hundred pounds a year, paid weekly in advance. My room and board included, of course.”
Mr. Markham’s eyes fixed, without blinking, on Somerton’s face. That unlined young face, innocently smooth in the yellow glow of the electric lamp, did not twitch so much as a single nerve.
“By God,” Somerton said slowly. The blood pulsed hard at the base of his neck. He sat back in his chair, took up his pen, and balanced it idly along the line of his knuckles. His hand, thank God, did not shake.
“Well, sir? My time this morning is limited.”
“You may go, Mr. Markham.” He waved to the door.
Markham straightened. “Very well. Good luck to you, sir.” He turned and walked to the door, at that same regal pace, as if leading the procession to a state dinner.
Somerton waited until his hand had reached the knob. “And Mr. Markham? Kindly tell my butler to arrange for your belongings to be brought over from your lodgings first thing tomorrow and delivered to the suite next to mine.”
“Sir?” At last, a note of astonishment in that imperturbable young voice.
Somerton took out a sheet of blank paper, laid it on the blotter, and smiled. “I suspect you shall suit this overbearing, demanding, bleak-faced despot very well, Mr. Markham.”
• • •
Luisa closed the door to the study and leaned back against the heavy carved wood.
Her heart still thudded inside her ribs at an alarming speed, as if she’d just finished a footrace around the shore of the sparkling clear Holsteinsee. Thank God for starched white collars and snug black neckties, or else that man—that Somerton, that predatory prizefighter of an aristocrat with his keen black eyes and his impossibly thick shoulders—would have detected the rapid thrust of her pulse against her skin.
Her tender female skin.
He would have seen right through her mask of male bravado. He would have annihilated her.
How her chest had collapsed at the words You may go, as if the world had vaporized around her.
And then unpacked in the suite next to mine, the point at which her heart had resumed beating, with this alarming and reckless patter of . . . what? Fear? Relief? Anticipation?
When Luisa was younger, before her skirts were lengthened and her hair arranged in elaborate knots and loops under a jeweled tiara, her father used to take her out in the Schweinwald to stalk deer. They would set out at dawn, while the grass still breathed out rings of silver mist, and the thud of the horses’ hooves rattled the autumn silence. In those quiet mornings, Luisa learned how to hold herself still, how to be patient, how to listen and watch. She would study her father’s movements and replicate them. She was Diana, she was the virgin huntress, wise and ruthless.
Until that October day when her horse had gone lame and she had fallen behind, unnoticed, and the familiar trees and vines of the Schweinwald had become suddenly and terrifyingly unfamiliar. She had hallooed softly. She had whistled. She had called out in mounting alarm, panic mottling her brain, and as she stood there with her hands gripped around the loops of her horse’s reins, a black bear had wandered into view among the trees and come to a stop about twelve feet away.
They had stared at each other, she and that bear. She knew, of course, that you weren’t supposed to stare. You were supposed to look away and back off slowly. But she couldn’t remember all those rules of engagement. She couldn’t leave her lame horse. She had nothing to fall back on, no rear position in which to shelter. So she stared back, for what seemed like an hour, and was probably less than a minute.
She still remembered the absolute blackness of the bear’s fur, except for a small patch of rufous brown where a miraculous ray of sunlight penetrated the forest canopy. She remembered the dark watchfulness of its eyes, the fingerprint texture of its round nose. She remembered the syrupy scent of the rotting leaves, the chilling handprint of the air on her cheek.
She remembered thinking, I am going to die, or I am going to live. Which is it?
“Sir? Are you going to see my father?”
Luisa opened her eyes and straightened away from the door.
A young, dark-haired boy stood before her, examining her with curious black eyes so exactly like those of the Earl of Somerton, her heart jumped an extra beat for good measure.
“I beg your pardon?” she said.
“My father.” The boy nodded at the door. “Are you going in to see him? Or has he tossed you out?”
“I . . . I have just finished my interview with his lordship.” Luisa heard herself stammering. Children made her nervous, with their all-seeing eyes and their mysterious minds, occupied with infant imaginings Luisa could no longer even attempt to guess. And this one was worse than most, his pale face poised upward with unsmiling curiosity, his eyes far too reminiscent of that pair she’d just escaped. She scrambled for something to say. “You are Lord Somerton’s son?”
The boy nodded. “Philip. Lord Kildrake,” he added importantly.
“I guess he’s tossed you out, then. Well, buck up. That’s what Mama says. Buck up and try again later, when he’s in a good mood.”
Young Lord Kildrake sighed and stuck his finger in his hair, twirling it into a thoughtful knot. His gaze shifted to the door behind her. “The trouble is, he never is. In a good mood.”
From the entrance hall came the sound of feet on marble, of the butler issuing quiet orders. A woman’s voice called out. The boy’s mother, probably. Lady Somerton, summoning her son.
He never is. In a good mood.
In the end, that long-ago day, Luisa had lived, but not because she had stared the bear down. The thunder of avenging hoofbeats had filled the forest, and Prince Rudolf had appeared on his white charger. He had risen in his stirrups, dropped his reins, lifted his rifle, and shot the bear dead without a break in the horse’s stride.
Luisa looked down at the little boy. He had lost interest in her now. He let out another long sigh, turned, and ambled back down the hallway, still twirling his hair.
Her father was dead. Her husband was dead. Her sisters, her governess, all scattered to the winds of England.
She was alone.
Luisa straightened away from the door and shook out her shirt cuffs. She had better get on with it, then, hadn’t she?
On the occasion of his fifteenth birthday, the Earl of Somerton’s father had taken notice of him at last. “Getting to be a man, aren’t you, Kildrake, my boy?” he’d said, in his rough-edged voice. “Look at the shoulders on you.”
Somerton—then merely Leopold, Viscount Kildrake—had beamed with embarrassed pride. He had returned home from school just the day before for the summer holiday, and apart from the butler, who had made the arrangements for his journey, nobody in the house seemed to have noticed his arrival. “Yes, sir,” he said.
“You’re rising fourteen now, aren’t you?”
“Fifteen today, sir.”
“Today! By God!” The earl’s red-tipped nose had dipped toward his. “Been having a go at the housemaids, have you?”
A bolt of pure fright went through young Leopold’s body, as if his father had just read his thoughts. Not that he’d attempted a single housemaid—he hadn’t dared to poach on his father’s established turf—but he’d admired them from afar. Plump bosoms and round arses and . . . He folded his hands behind his back and dug his fingers hard into his skin, because his unruly young adolescent body was already responding to the mere suggestion of female flesh. “No, sir!”
“No?” A perplexed scowl. “Well, then. Come along with me.”
It was ten o’clock in the evening, and Leopold had been on his way upstairs to undress for bed, after a solitary dinner in the family dining room. (His mother was attending three different balls that evening and took the usual tray in her dressing room during her two-hour preparatory toilette.) “Yes, sir,” he’d said, and walked outside to the waiting carriage with his father. They had proceeded to his father’s favorite brothel, where Leopold had lost his virginity to a plump forty-year-old whore in one room while the Earl of Somerton had expired of a stroke in another.
In the curious way of memory, he recalled little of the carnal act itself, or how he had come to be lying in mingled shock and shame atop the wide white belly of his companion, veins still throbbing, at the vivid instant when his father’s two strumpets had burst naked through the doorway screaming, He’s dead! He’d dead! God save us! He was still wearing his shirt, and his trousers were tangled around his ankles; he remembered that, because he had tripped off the bed and fallen on his face, and the whore had laughed. “Why, then, you’re the earl now! And I’ve got your mess in my cunt this instant, bless me! Ha-ha!”
He’d turned red with humiliation at the words mess and cunt;he’d turned black with horror at the words He’s dead, which the other two prostitutes were still screeching, over and over. Eventually the proprietress had swept through and sorted out the bedlam, arranged for a discreet visit by a friendly pair of police inspectors, apologized profusely to the new Earl of Somerton and hoped he would continue to favor Cousin Hannah’s with his custom.
In fact, Cousin Hannah sat before him now: a different and younger Hannah, in the way of things, but just as efficient. Her violet skirts pooled on the chair about her, and her copious bosom was buttoned up to the throat, because it was daytime. By some miracle of corsetry, her waist appeared almost as narrow as her neck.
She released the stopper of a slim bottle of brandy, allowed a luxurious splash into the teacup below, and stirred with a dainty spoon of well-polished Sheffield plate. She motioned the bottle in Somerton’s direction. He shook his head patiently.
“To answer your question, sir,” said Hannah, though not before taking a sip of tea, “his lordship has frequented my humble establishment a number of times in the past fortnight, but never in company with your wife.”
“You have examined all his companions? She would, of course, have disguised herself.”
Hannah sent him a look of patient indulgence, a look he particularly loathed. “Yes, sir. As I did the previous fortnight, and the one before, and all the others.”
Somerton’s cup of tea sat untouched before him. A last thin gasp of steam rose upward from the surface and dissolved into the air. He leaned forward. “Obviously she’s been too clever for you.”
“With all respect, sir, she hasn’t.” Hannah returned his gaze squarely. She spoke firmly and slowly, as she always did, taking care to avoid the telltale pronunciation of her East End roots. Before taking over the business from the original Hannah, she’d been the best girl in the house, a true good-natured whore who actually enjoyed her work, gentle with newcomers and abandoned with regulars, dropping her haitches and her knickers with equal enthusiasm. Now she only slipped a consonant after her third glass of sherry, and only took on a customer if he was a virgin. (Defloration of the young and nervous was her particular specialty.)
Somerton smacked the table with his open palm. “She must have! What about the other houses?”
“Nothing, sir. Now, Penhallow, he makes his round about the bawdies, regular as clockwork, sometimes two or three houses a night. But he hain’t . . . hehasn’t brought a lady with him in ever so long. He brings his friends and takes his pleasure with the girls here, like any honest gentleman.” Just as she finished the last sentence, her eyes dropped to her tea. She lifted the cup and took a studious sip.
The air sharpened in Somerton’s ears. He had interrogated hundreds of people—usually in far less amicable circumstances than this—and he knew when his opposite number was hiding an important fact.
Or rather, attempting to hide. Because Somerton always ferreted out the truth.
One way or another.
He stretched out one long leg and adjusted the razor crease of his trousers until it peaked precisely in the center of his knee. Every sense was alert; every muscle relaxed with latent power, ready for use. “Brings his friends, does he? Takes his pleasure with the girls here?”
“Not every night,” she said hastily. “P’rhaps three or four in the week.”
“Regularly, then. Regularly enough that he’s a good customer, isn’t he? A customer you wouldn’t want to lose.”
Hannah shrugged. “I has enough customers.”
Somerton’s brain fastened for an instant on that telling grammatical slip. “But I suspect a generous youth such as Lord Roland Penhallow pays better than most, doesn’t he?”
“He pays well enough.” Hannah’s mouth formed a tight line, as if straining to contain something inside. She grasped the teapot and tilted it over her cup.
A half second before the liquid appeared from the spout, Somerton reached across the low table and plucked the delicate porcelain from its saucer. He held it up to the gaslight.
“A very fine cup,” he said. “Very fine indeed. Your business is doing well, isn’t it, my dear Hannah?”
“Tolerably well, thank you.”
He replaced the cup beneath the shaking teapot. “Excellent. I’m glad to hear it. I presume my little contributions have added in some small way to your store of treasure.”
“Why, sir.” Bravely. “I hope I’ve given you full value for your money.”
“Full value, my dear Hannah?” He laughed, the sort of laugh that had once made the man sitting across the interrogation table—a fit, hale, hearty, bloodthirsty fellow—roll his eyes back and slither down the wooden seat to the floor below with a resounding thump.
For an instant, Hannah looked in danger of doing just that. She recovered herself just enough to squeak, “Yes, sir. I’ve told you all I know.”
“Have you, Hannah?” Somerton picked up the teapot, removed the lid, and peered inside. “But that’s not what I asked for, is it? I asked for evidence—solid evidence, of the sort allowable in a court of law, should the need arise—of my wife’s repeated acts of criminal conversation with her lover, Lord Roland Penhallow, brother to the Duke of Wallingford.” The very words tasted bitter on his tongue. An image arose in his head: Lord Roland and Elizabeth swirling about a London ballroom over six years ago. The look of adoration on her beautiful face as she gazed upward to her Adonis; the smug look of satisfaction Penhallow returned to her. Elizabeth had worn pink. He remembered that, because of the rosy way it had shimmered in the light of the Duke of Wallingford’s ballroom chandeliers as Penhallow swirled her through the open French doors and into the intimate seclusion of the veranda outside.
Hannah said, “But no such evidence exists, sir. I’ve made my own inquiries. They’ve not seen each other, not once. His lordship . . .”
Somerton shot to his feet, sending the chair tumbling down behind him.
“. . . his lordship has his own friends, sir. I’ve watched him closely, these past weeks.” Hannah glanced down at the fallen chair and back to Somerton’s face. Her voice had steadied, her back had straightened.
The subtle exchange of power made his throat throb. “You’re in his pocket, aren’t you?”
“He pays me for his time, like any honest gentleman.”
“You’re hiding something for him.”
A flush appeared on her cheekbones. “I keeps his secrets, like any customer. Those that hain’t got to do with you.”
“You admit it!”
She rose, in that awkward straight-backed way of a woman wearing a corset laced too tight. “Lord Roland Penhallow is not meeting your wife, your lordship, not here nor at any other house. That’s fact.”
He wanted to hit her. His fist clenched at his side, with enough force to crack a walnut. In his mind, he saw a hand swinging and swinging, pounding and pounding, and he heard his mother crying, Stop, Philip, stop, and his father saying, You’re a whore, a whore, fucking him in your own bedroom, you whore, you whore, and he was paralyzed, the slim boy in the corner whom nobody noticed, watching and hurting and powerless, feeling his father’s blows on his own body, feeling his mother’s sobs in his own chest.
Hannah watched the progress of his rage. No doubt she was used to that, dealing with men in a passion. “There, now,” she said. “It’s good news, isn’t it? Whether you believe it or not.”
“You’re a fool,” he said. The swell of rage subsided. He opened his fist and stretched out his fingers, one by one.
She shrugged. “One of us is a fool, at any rate.”
Somerton sucked in his breath. Above his head, the floorboards groaned, over and over, and a man’s voice called out in time with the wooden rhythm, repeating a word Somerton couldn’t quite make out. Hannah’s confident face blurred before him.
“There, now,” she said again. She walked around the tea table and picked up the chair behind him. “Go on back to your lovely old house, sir, and talk to her. By all accounts she’s a dear lady, and true. She’ll love you again, if you let her.”
Somerton walked to the door and opened it. “She never loved me,” he said, and he strode out into Hannah’s crimson hallway and the dank London November beyond.
• • •
The painful electric lights of the Aerated Bread Company tea shop forced Luisa to pause and blink as she stepped through the doorway, earning her a hard shove to the backside.
“Oy, move along, ye bleedin’ half-wit!” someone snarled in her ear.
She stumbled aside. Her nerves were already jangling from the cramped Tube ride, from the unwholesome, greasy air of the Mansion House station, from the pushes and shoves of her fellow cheap-suited humanity. A man rushed past her, the Daily Telegraph fluttering impatiently beneath his elbow, to join the queue at the counter. Luisa wrinkled her nose at the inescapable steam-thickened scent of warm bread and cheap tea; it enveloped her like a hood.
A chair scraped loudly against the tiled floor. “My dear Mr. Markham. Come, have some tea. You look shattered.”
Luisa swiveled her head in the direction of the voice. A slight-boned man stood expectantly at a nearby table; to his right sat a large-boned dowager under an extraordinary hat, bearing at least three different types of papier-mâché fruit. The man wore a large smile. The woman appeared disgruntled.
Luisa drew in a deep sigh, clutched her umbrella to her side, and approached the table. “Mr. Dingleby,” she said, removing her hat and placing it upon the table. “And Mrs. . . . Mrs. . . .” She coughed. “I beg your pardon, ma’am.”
“Mrs. Duke,” the woman announced, in a high-pitched strangle of a voice. Her lips were painted a startling shade of mulberry red.
“Mrs. Duke. Of course.” Luisa made a little bow to disguise the smile that would insist on curling its way to the corner of her mouth, despite her dark mood.
She’d been against this plan from the start. She simply couldn’t imagine her uncle could pull it off. She hadn’t quite believed it could be done, that the august Duke of Olympia, that grand puppeteer of human affairs, that towering figure with his glowering ducal face, had actually transformed himself into a woman. A large-hatted, large-figured, large-featured woman who’d layered her face in enough paint to supply a Gilbert and Sullivan troupe for an entire summer’s tour, and embalmed her hair in enough red dye to color a warehouse full of Christmas mittens.
The effect was rather amusing, she had to admit.
“I see we are not above attracting attention to ourselves,” Luisa observed, as she took her seat next to the Duke of Olympia, and immediately found herself asphyxiated by a mouthful of immense purple-feathered boa.
“Hide in plain sight, that’s what I’ve always said.” Mrs. Duke settled her boa and lifted her teacup with one gloved pinkie delicately outstretched.
“The tea looks marvelous,” Luisa said placidly.
Mr. Dingleby delivered a firm elbow to Mrs. Duke’s corseted middle. “Madam?”
“Oh!” Mrs. Duke set down her cup and reached for the pot. “Dear me. Where are my manners? Cream or sugar, Mr. Markham?”
“Both, if you please.”
Where on earth had Olympia found a pair of ladies’ gloves to fit those enormous hands? Luisa watched in fascination as the tea fell into the cup, as the splash of cream and the dash of sugar bravely followed.
Mr. Dingleby coughed. “So, my dear fellow. I am given to understand that your recent interview was successful, and you will shortly begin service in a certain Belgravia household?”
“Yes, indeed.” Luisa accepted the cup from Mrs. Duke’s thick gloved fingers and stirred briskly. “So good of you to refer me to such a friendly and kind-hearted employer. I’m in your debt.”
“Now, Mr. Markham,” said Mrs. Duke, in a splendid hushed falsetto, tinged with East End. “Remember a powerful employer is always the best employer. You’re certain to get ahead with his lordship.”
“Get ahead?”Luisa pursed her lips. “I beg your pardon. Get ahead? What sort of phrase is that? American?” She suppressed a shudder.
“It’s a business term,” said Mr. Dingleby. “The sort of phrase that an ambitious young man—a man like yourself, for example—might take to heart.”
“I see.” Luisa cast a deadly gaze at her former governess, whose neat black suit and thin shoulders contrasted with Mrs. Duke’s extravagance like a sheet of newspaper next to one of those impossible new French paintings. “Speaking of which, have you had any news of my brothers? Are they getting on well? Getting ahead—am I using the phrase correctly, Mr. Dingleby?”
“Oh, quite.” Mr. Dingleby picked up his bread and buttered it thoroughly. “Our studious Tobias has taken to tutoring his spoiled young charge with aplomb, and our sprightly young Stephen, if you can possibly believe, has settled down to the gray old practice of British law like a prodigy. I couldn’t be more pleased.”
“And their employers? What sort of men are they?” The words slid out a little more sharply than Luisa had intended.
Mr. Dingleby smiled a secret smile, a cat’s smile. “Oh, I daresay your brothers are well looked after. Well indeed. You needn’t worry yourself a bit.”
“Mr. Dingleby. I’m the eldest, the . . . the head of the household. Of course I worry. I’ve always worried. I can hardly stop now, can I?” Luisa stared at her shirt cuffs, white and starched, studded by unremarkable pewter cuff links that absorbed rather than reflected the light from the multitude of gas lamps along the walls. The old weight sank down about her shoulders again: the responsibility for her sisters, the responsibility for her people. And she was powerless now. Powerless to help them, powerless to do anything except grieve. Grieve, and bide her time, while the duke of Olympia and Miss Dingleby—her onetime governess, now a trained agent under her uncle’s command—tracked down her father’s murderers. Her husband’s murderers.
She swallowed her tea and ground the cup back into its saucer.
It was intolerable. The entire situation, intolerable. She, Princess Luisa, biding her time as a common clerk. Paddling about aimlessly in her makeshift life belt, while Olympia and Dingleby manned the helm and righted the ship.
“You are too valuable,” said Mr. Dingleby, very low.
Luisa looked up. “What’s that?”
“The three of you, but you especially, my dear Mr. Markham. It’s why we’ve hidden you like this, as young men, where no one would think to look for you.” Dingleby’s eyes were soft with compassion. Luisa shifted her gaze to the tranquility of tea before her.
“We are trained professionals, my dear boy,” said Mrs. Duke, in a comforting falsetto undertone. “Trained professionals. You must trust us.”
“Trained professionals?” Luisa allowed her gaze to travel over the papier-mâché fruit, the abundance of mulberry lip rouge. “Trust you?”
Mrs. Duke’s voice shifted a fraction lower. “Since before you were born, my dear. I do know my hacks from my handsaws.”
“When the wind is north by northeast,” added Mr. Dingleby, with a cryptic pop of buttered bread into rosy mouth.
Luisa shook her head, drained her tea, and stood. “I don’t know what the devil”—how surprisingly liberating it was, to use such words!—“what the devil you’re talking about, but I do know this: I shan’t be able to endure his lordship’s company for longer than a month. One of us is certain to murder the other by Christmas, so whatever it is you do, the two of you . . .”
Mr. Dingleby shot to his feet. “Excellent, excellent! I see we are all quite in accord, Mr. Markham. Glad to hear your prospects are looking up at last.” He popped a brown felt bowler hat upon his head. “And now, if you’ll be so good as to escort your dear old aunt . . .”
“Old?” screeched Mrs. Duke. She patted the stray red curls at the nape of her neck. “Old? Not a day over forty, you insolent wretch.”
“Aunt?” said Luisa, rather faintly.
“. . . Your charming aunt back to her lodgings,” went on Mr. Dingleby, quite placidly, patting his pockets, “I should be very much obliged. Various business appointments. Must be off.”
Luisa looked at Mrs. Duke in some alarm. “Your lodgings, ma’am?”
“Battersea, my dear boy. That nice, snug little house I bought with your dear uncle’s insurance, God rest him.” Mrs. Duke hoisted her magnificent frame from the chair and held out her boa-constricted arm to Luisa. “The very latest in hygienic plumbing. An entire water closet, all to oneself, and a genuine porcelain Crapper for . . .”
“My dear Mrs. Duke.” Mr. Dingleby snatched one large gloved paw and pumped it vigorously. “A pleasure to see you again, ma’am. Mr. Markham?” He turned to Luisa and repeated the snatch, pump with equal vigor. “Good day.”
“Good day,” Luisa began, but Mr. Dingleby was already bumping his way outward among the close-packed tables, black umbrella hooked over black forearm, setting teacups to rattle cheaply in their saucers.
Mrs. Duke looped her arm around Luisa’s elbow. “Well, then, dear boy! Don’t just stand there, catching flies. Find us a hackney. I’ve a few matters to discuss with you.” She bent her fruit-bedecked head toward Luisa’s ear. “In private.”
• • •
You want me to spy for you?”
Luisa spoke in a hushed voice, mindful of the hackney driver hovering above the roof, but with all the necessary intensity.
Mrs. Duke—the Duke of Olympia—reached underneath the brim of her hat and scratched vigorously. “Damned wigs. Itch like the devil. Impossible nuisance, but there it . . .”
“Uncle.” They were flying down the Embankment in a hackney, dank November wind whistling across their ears, and Luisa was happy to let the disguise drop.
Olympia sighed heavily and replied in the same low tones. “Spy is such a common word, my dear. A word for vulgar minds and sensational newspapers. Altogether lacking in nuance. I say, I should sincerely appreciate a glass of brandy at the moment, wouldn’t you?”
“Whatever you want to call it,” said Luisa. “I can’t possibly go searching through Somerton’s papers in the dead of night, and peeping through the keyhole, and whatever it is. For one thing, I haven’t the smallest amount of training in such matters . . .”
“All the better,” said Olympia. “No one smokes out an amateur. It’s the professionals who get kil . . . that is to say, caught.”
“. . . And for another thing, unless Somerton has something to do with the band of vile assassins who have taken over my country, I refuse to waste my time on your affairs. I want to find out who murdered Father and Peter, I want to deliver the most thunderous justice upon them, not to idle my days away in some Belgravia town house, sneaking about in search of . . . of whatever it is . . .” She slammed her fist into the hard leather seat between them.
“Such an outburst, my dear,” said Olympia. “And so very much out of character for you.”
She rubbed her aching knuckles. “I’m angry. I’m frustrated. You won’t tell me a thing, and I know you know more about all this . . .”
“I know very little. When your mother died in childbed all those years ago, God rest her dear soul, I thought it best to send someone I trusted to watch over your interests. I sent Miss Dingleby—one of my best agents, mind you—to guide the three of you . . .”
“Yes, yes. You told me all this when we reached England.”
“Indeed. And it was she who soon detected the presence of a group of anarchists, members of the Revolutionary Brigade of the Free Blood, a damned filthy pan-European organization, quite sophisticated in its structure and methods, and which as you know is responsible for countless attempts at coup and regicide, not to mention that dreadful ferry bombing in the North Sea last year, and . . .”
“And I say to you now, just as I said to you in your study when you first explained: If we know all this, why aren’t we back in Holstein-Schweinwald-Huhnhof, bringing them to justice?” A sharp pain dug into her palms. Luisa looked down. The fingers were curled into angry black balls of leather.