Scotland, 1830. Following the death of her dear friend, Lady Kiera Darby is in need of a safe haven. Returning to her childhood home, Kiera hopes her beloved brother Trevor and the merriment of the Hogmanay Ball will distract her. But when a caretaker is murdered and a grave is disturbed at nearby Dryburgh Abbey, Kiera is once more thrust into the cold grasp of death.
While Kiera knows that aiding in another inquiry will only further tarnish her reputation, her knowledge of anatomy could make the difference in solving the case. But agreeing to investigate means Kiera must deal with the complicated emotions aroused in her by inquiry agent Sebastian Gage.
When Gage arrives, he reveals that the incident at the Abbey was not the first—some fiend is digging up old bones and holding them for ransom. Now Kiera and Gage must catch the grave robber and put the case to rest…before another victim winds up six feet under.
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Remember, friends, as you pass by,
—EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY GRAVE EPITAPH
CLINTMAINS HALL BORDER REGION OF ENGLAND AND SCOTLAND
DECEMBER 31, 1830
The flames leaped high into the starry sky. Revelers clapped and reeled about each other in the golden flickering light, there and then gone, swallowed by the darkness and the whirling mass of their fellow merrymakers. As the orchestra behind me paused between songs, I could just make out the feverish pitches of a fiddle and the low thump of a drum playing a Scottish jig. It floated on the crisp night air through the open French doors. What the players lacked in skill, they certainly made up for in exuberance.
The professional musicians playing in the ballroom behind me had also gotten into the festive spirit. Our hosts, my aunt and uncle, the Lord and Lady Rutherford, never would have stood for anything less. Most of the assemblage of local nobility and gentry were dancing, just like their servants and the villagers outside, and those who were not were either too old or too infirm to join in.
Or perhaps they’d simply wished for a quiet moment to themselves.
Unfortunately my brother, who’d been hovering about me all night, failed to understand this.
“Kiera, stop sulking,” Trevor chastised, appearing at my side.
“I’m not,” I protested.
He arched an eyebrow in skepticism. “Then why are you off in this corner by yourself?”
I nodded toward the scene outside. “I’m watching the antics of the servants at the bonfire. It’s quite diverting.” Once or twice I thought I saw the silhouette of one of our servants from Blakelaw House dance across the light, but they were too far away to be certain.
“That may be, but you’re supposed to be diverted by our antics in here,” he teased. Though his tone was light, I didn’t miss the glint of annoyance in his bright blue eyes.
We had argued over my coming to the Hogmanay Ball. I had not wanted to attend, while Trevor had insisted I must. Ultimately he had his way only because he had pointed out that many of our loyal servants would feel they couldn’t attend the accompanying bonfire if I remained behind, no matter how strongly I protested otherwise. But even my reluctant attendance still wasn’t enough for him. He had to linger about me all evening to ensure I was enjoying myself, which was irritating in the extreme, even as it was also endearing.
He gripped my elbow below the fashionably puffed sleeve of my midnight blue gown and tugged me toward the dance floor, where the orchestra played the first strains of a waltz. He pulled me effortlessly into the swirl of couples circling the gleaming wooden floor. The women were dressed in bright full-skirted gowns and the men in austere black coats and colorful tartan kilts.
I considered arguing with Trevor about his high-handedness, but then decided it would be silly. I did want to dance, and my brother was as skilled a partner as any. When he swung me into a tight turn, surprising a smile out of me, I suddenly realized how long it had been since we faced each other so. Certainly, I had danced with Trevor far more than any other gentleman of my acquaintance, for he had been forced to partner me by our childhood dancing master. We had stepped on each other’s toes and smacked one another in the face with an errant hand too many times to count. Once I had even bloodied his nose.
But that had been a long time ago. Sometimes it even seemed to me that it had been in another life. One I had lived before my disastrous marriage to Sir Anthony. Before his death and the resulting scandal from the charges brought against me because of my involvement with his gruesome work.
I shook away the troubling memories and tried to concentrate on the room before me. Trevor and I glided expertly across the floor to the Schubert waltz, proving that neither of us had forgotten how, though I suspected it had been far longer since I had done so than my brother. Trevor had always been a popular dance partner, and I doubted that had changed in the years since I had attended a ball in his company. Though even at my most awkward, he always had time for a dance or two with his little sister. That may have only been a small matter to him, but it had meant a great deal to me.
“Where have your thoughts gone?” His voice was flippant, but he couldn’t hide the concern I saw reflected in his eyes. “From the way you’re frowning, I expect my toes to be strategically crushed at any moment.”
I tilted my head. “As if my feet in these dainty slippers could cause you much discomfort.”
“You think not, but I seem to remember that the bone in your heel has always been remarkably sharp.”
I smiled sweetly. “Only when I’m grinding it into your instep.”
On the next dance step, he shifted his foot back as if to avoid my encroaching foot, and I laughed.
He grinned at my amusement and spun me in a faster circle, making the skirts of my gown bell out.
My cheeks flushed as the heat of the ballroom and the exertion of the dance began to warm me. I suspected Trevor and the other gentlemen might be sweating beneath their snowy white cravats, but he gave no indication of unease. Aunt Sarah had confided in me earlier that she worried the large ballroom would not hold the heat generated by the fireplaces on each end on this cold winter’s eve, but her concern proved unnecessary. Even though the gathering was not as large as I’d expected, being mostly extended family of my mother’s brother, Lord Rutherford, and his wife, and nobles and gentry from the nearby Border villages, the four score of people present still warmed the space quickly.
The Rutherford Hogmanay Ball and the accompanying bonfire and ceilidh dance for their tenants, the local tradesmen, and the servants of all who attended were an annual tradition. It had been many years since I last took part, but I had not forgotten the festive air, or the spirited ratafia punch so heavily brandied it burned the back of your throat. Great bowls of it stood on tables at one end of the ballroom next to bottles of whiskey, brandy, champagne, and a lavish spread of food—all within easy reach so that fewer servants were needed to attend to the guests of the ball, allowing them to enjoy their own gathering.
As a child, I remembered watching my mother ready herself for the Hogmanay Ball. Though I had been less fascinated than my older sister, Alana, who couldn’t wait to grow old enough to attend, I was nonetheless still enchanted by the sight of my parents together, descending the curving stair at Blakelaw House, dressed in full evening apparel. My father and mother certainly made a handsome couple, but it was the eager gleam I saw in each of their eyes, the joy and anticipation that arced between them that intrigued me. They kissed each of us children good night at the top of the stairs, and by the time they reached the bottom, it was as if they’d forgotten us entirely, so lost were they in each other and whatever mischief they anticipated that night.
I wished I could say that some of that enchantment remained. Perhaps had my father chosen differently, selecting a husband more like himself for me, someone steady and honorable, and without nefarious intentions kept hidden from us all until after the vows were spoken. Perhaps then I would feel more excitement at attending the Hogmanay Ball.
An image of Sebastian Gage swam to the forefront of my mind, as it inevitably did whenever I contemplated such matters. It had been almost two months since I had seen the golden-haired gentleman inquiry agent I had partnered with during two previous investigations, and somehow entangled myself with romantically, but the memory of his face, his voice, his lips pressed against mine had not lessened. The manner in which we had left things after I departed Edinburgh had not been satisfactory, but neither of us had been ready to discuss the tangled web of emotions that stretched between us. I had been raw with grief over my friend’s death during our most recent investigation, and he still had secrets he hadn’t reconciled with sharing.
As Trevor spun me through another set of turns, I couldn’t help wondering if Gage was still in Edinburgh. Was he attending another Hogmanay Ball, much like this one? Was he dancing with a lovely young lady?
I glanced up at my brother. “What?”
“Stop contemplating whatever it is you’re thinking about,” he clarified and then shook his head. “It’s not making you happy. And I refuse to allow you to have any more gloomy thoughts. Not this night.” He leaned closer toward me, a twinkle in his eyes. “If need be, I shall force you to drink two, no three glasses of that vile ratafia punch, and then proceed to push you into every available male’s arms one after the other and order them to dance with you.”
“You wouldn’t,” I replied, feeling less confident than I sounded.
He narrowed his eyes. “Try me.”
I searched his face for any sign of weakness. “You know you would be risking your coach’s leather seats. I cannot always handle such strong spirits.”
“Oh, I know,” he chuckled ruefully. “Remember Dottie Pringle’s card party? You vomited down the front of my jacket.”
Our cousin Jock laughed loudly at Trevor’s words, clearly having overheard at least part of our conversation from where he danced with a pretty brunette next to us.
I turned to scowl at him as a blush burned its way up into my cheeks. “I didn’t know their wassail was mostly spirits,” I replied defensively.
Trevor’s stern expression cracked at that. “Well, regardless, I’m willing to risk my coach seats to keep that stark expression from returning to your eyes.”
“How do you know the punch won’t make me maudlin?”
He arched an eyebrow. “I’ve seen you foxed, Kiera.”
“Wish I had,” Jock called out from over my shoulder.
I turned to glare at my annoying cousin, but his wide unrepentant grin had me smiling instead. “Fine,” I declared with a melodramatic sigh. “I shall endeavor to be joyful.”
“That’s my Kiera,” Trevor declared, swinging me around so sharply that my legs were lifted momentarily from the ground.
At a normal gathering, such behavior would be highly inappropriate, but at the Rutherford Hogmanay Ball it was a matter of course. I estimated that half the assemblage was already well on its way to being sotted, if the giggles and raucous laughter were anything to go by. Mr. Trumble and his dance partner were barely able to stay on their feet as they twirled drunkenly through the assembly, narrowly missing the other couples. It was impossible not to join in the good cheer.
As the waltz entered its last stanza, a cry went up from across the room. Trevor and I turned toward the sound, but were distracted as Uncle Andrew leaped up in front of the orchestra, where they were positioned on a dais in the corner of the room. The strains of the waltz slowly died away, and a murmur of excitement swept over the crowd.
“It’s nearly midnight,” he declared, lifting a small glass of whiskey. “Let’s toast the Old Year, and welcome the New Year in.”
Everyone scrambled to find their own glasses of the preferred Scots toasting beverage. Trevor reached out to grab two glasses from the tray of a passing servant and handed one to me. Jock and his dance partner joined us, along with our cousin Andy—Uncle Andrew’s oldest son and heir—and his fiancée, the aptly named Miss Witherington.
“What are you still doing here?” Andy asked our tall, dark-haired cousin. “Aren’t you our first-footer?”
“Nay. Not this year. Yer mam asked Rye,” Jock informed us in his Scots brogue, naming one of our other cousins, who had recently been widowed. Though educated as a gentleman, Jock refused to soften his accent. A fact that none of the rest of us had ever minded, but that aggravated his mother and older sister. “She thought he could use the good luck it might bring to him.”
We all nodded in agreement.
“First-footer?” the very English Miss Witherington asked in confusion.
“Aye. It’s an old Scottish tradition,” Andy explained. “The first person to cross the threshold of a home after the stroke of midnight on Hogmanay is the first-footer, and they can either bring good or ill fortune to the house. The luckiest are tall, dark-haired men bearing gifts.”
Her brow furrowed. “And the unluckiest?”
“Well, women, fair-haired men, and redheads are all regarded to be unlucky in varying degrees.” Andy grinned. “So it’s best to simply plan who your first-footer will be ahead of time to avoid any unhappy surprises.”
Miss Witherington scrunched her nose in a manner which I suspected she thought was endearing. “But isn’t that . . . well . . . silly?”
The rest of us shared the look of the long-suffering Scot faced with English ignorance.
“Nay,” Jock protested. “Ole Mrs. Heron in the village tells of the year she fell ill with the ague, her home flooded, and she lost two of her sons, all because she had an unlucky first-footer.”
Miss Witherington’s eyes narrowed skeptically.
“In any case, it’s a tradition,” Andy told her with a pacifying smile. “Much like your mistletoe and greenery, and the Yule log at Christmas. There’s no harm in following it.”
“I suppose not,” she hedged, returning his smile with one that didn’t reach all the way to her eyes. I suspected she was merely placating him. I wondered how much these Hogmanay gatherings would change once she was mistress of Clintmains Hall.
“Ten seconds to midnight,” Uncle Andrew announced, and then began to count us down as we all joined in. “Eight, seven . . .”
I couldn’t help but smile, feeling an unbidden surge of hope and anticipation in my chest that this new year would be better than the last. After all, last year I had celebrated Hogmanay quietly with my sister and her husband in their Highland castle, afraid to face the world following the scandal. And now I was welcoming in 1831 at a ball of all places, surrounded by family who loved me, despite my quirks, and facing down those acquaintances who still eyed me with suspicion. I found myself wondering where I would be a year from now.
“. . . three, two, one!”
A shout went up as everyone raised their glass and wished one another a Good New Year. I downed my tot of whiskey, feeling the warm, smoky liquid burn its way down my throat and into my stomach.
Trevor leaned over to kiss me on both cheeks. “Good New Year, sis.” His eyes shone with the force of his affection, and I returned the sentiment, blinking back a sudden wash of tears that stung my eyes.
Jock reached out to wrap an arm around my waist, and I laughed as he pulled me into a hug. Then the whole party broke into song, as was the tradition, singing Robert Burns’s folk tune, “Auld Lang Syne.” Miss Witherington, of course, did not know the words, and she looked around at us in bewilderment, likely having difficulty understanding as we all sang it in the heavy Scots dialect as it was intended. I smiled at her in commiseration, but she either didn’t want my sympathy or, more likely, simply wanted another chance to demonstrate her dislike of me, for she shot me one of her withering glares.
When the song finished, everyone hurried out into the large two-story entry hall, crowding down the steps, and peering over the railing to see below. The front door was opened with great ceremony by the Rutherford butler, letting the old year out, and welcoming in the new. This was swiftly followed by the arrival of our cousin Rye, standing before the door with gifts tucked under his arms. A cheer went up at the sight of him, and he smiled rather shyly, unused to the attention. It was a nice change, as their usual first-footer, Jock, was quite the braggart, playing up the part for all it was worth.
Uncle Andrew and Aunt Sarah stepped forward to invite Rye into their home, but as they did so, another figure appeared beyond Rye’s shoulder. A hush fell over the assembly as the figure stepped forward into the light, showing us his bright red hair and coarse clothing splattered in mud and a dark red substance I knew from experience must be blood. It was a young man, and his eyes were wide and very white in his grubby face.
He moved forward, forcing Rye to shift to the side. Several people gasped as the redhead crossed the threshold of Clintmains Hall at the same time or just a little before Rye’s foot touched the marble floor of the entry.
The hall began to buzz with murmurs of shock and dismay. A harmless tradition first-footing might be, but most Scots were superstitious enough that they had no wish to test its validity. At least, not if they were given a choice. But it was too late. What was done was done. The suspicion was laid. Perhaps Rye’s foot had crossed the threshold first, but perhaps it had not.
“But what if they crossed at the same exact time?” the woman behind me wondered. “What happens then?”
No one seemed to have an answer for her, but from the tense atmosphere that had suddenly spread over the hall, I knew no one believed the outcome could be good.
“I mun’ speak wi’ Lord Buchan,” the young man gasped to Uncle Andrew. His chest rose and fell rapidly as he tried to catch his breath. He was less than twenty years of age, his body still awkward and coltish, and extremely self-conscious. When he glanced up and realized the entrance hall was filled with people staring down at him, he flushed a fiery red that almost matched the hair on his head and the blood splashed across his linen shirt.
Worried the lad needed serious medical attention, I pushed past several of the people standing in front of me on the stairs still flustered by the man’s appearance. But as I got closer, I could see that most of the blood was dried, and from the quantity it was clearly not his own, or else he would not still be standing.
Just as I was about to say something, Lord Buchan appeared out of the crowd to the left of the front door. “Willie, what is the meaning of this?” His eyes flicked up and down the young man’s form. “What has happened?”
The young manservant’s name startled me for a moment, for I couldn’t help but think of another Will—a friend who had died so recently, and so horrifically. But this Willie’s words swiftly recalled me to the present.
“It’s Dodd,” he replied with wide haunted eyes. “He’s dead.”
Someone behind us gasped in horror, and the agitated murmuring began again.
The Earl of Buchan’s brow furrowed in confusion. “Dead? What do you mean? How?”
“He’s been shot. Oot by the ole abbey. But that no’ be all.” Willie shook his head, still breathing heavily. “The graves. One o’ ’em was dug up.”
One lady actually shrieked at this pronouncement, and the people in the back of the room and on the balcony above who couldn’t hear young Willie demanded to know what he was saying.
“Dodd, the ole caretaker at Dryburgh House, has been shot,” one man in the crowd hollered. “And a grave at the abbey’s been disturbed.”
More voices were raised in dismayed shock, and I turned to look at Trevor, who moved forward to stand beside me, a sick feeling entering my stomach. He met my eyes with the same knowing look of dread.
“Dug up?” Buchan spluttered, clearly having trouble grasping the implication.
“Body snatchers,” I murmured softly, not wanting to alarm the entire assembly, though I knew that more than a few of them must have already had similar thoughts.
Lord Buchan, my aunt and uncle, and cousin Rye all turned to look at me, and I watched as understanding slowly dawned in their eyes, first of the grave robbers’ intentions, and then of my unpleasant history with the product of their trade.
“You mean . . .” Buchan began. I didn’t know if he was that slow to comprehend or just too stunned to make the connection with the abbey cemetery.
“Have you had trouble with them in the past?” Trevor turned to ask our uncle, as he had only returned to the area himself three months prior.
He frowned. “Unfortunately, yes.”
I was surprised to hear this news, as I’d had no idea that the body snatchers were traveling so far afield to find fresh corpses. But then it made sense, as all of the cemeteries nearby the medical schools in Edinburgh and Glasgow had added heavy security measures. They’d had to do something to keep the resurrection men from stealing their recently deceased and selling the bodies to the schools and local anatomists.
“But watchmen have been hired to guard the cemeteries these criminals most often target,” Uncle Andrew added. “So I don’t quite understand how . . .”
“But the graves at Dryburgh Abbey aren’t new,” Lord Buchan protested, finally grasping what the rest of us were saying.
I glanced at him in surprise.
“The newest grave there is my uncle’s. And he died almost twenty months ago.” His already heavy brow lowered farther, and I was surprised when he looked to me for answers. “What could they possibly have wanted from an old grave?”
“I . . . don’t know,” I admitted.
Aunt Sarah cleared her throat and nodded toward the assemblage still gathered in the entrance hall. They were pressing ever closer, trying to hear what we said. “Perhaps I should escort our guests back to the ballroom.” She arched her eyebrows at her husband in silent communication.
“Er, yes,” Uncle Andrew replied, looking at the crowd. His butler gestured toward a door behind him, to the left of the entrance. Uncle Andrew nodded at Willie and then at the circle of men closest to him. “Gentlemen, if you will,” he murmured, indicating they should follow him. “Ah, you, too, Kiera. If you don’t mind?”
I blinked in surprise, not having expected my uncle to include me. He was a good man, but not usually the most tolerant. I had always been aware that he didn’t exactly approve of me or my painting, even if he’d never said a word against me. His disapproval was evident in his stilted conversation and stony expression whenever my art became the topic of discussion. I had also overheard him express his condemnation of my father’s choice of Sir Anthony as my husband—an objection I had ignored at the time as just another indication of my uncle’s stodginess, but later wished I’d listened to more attentively. Though, to be fair, even Uncle Andrew had not predicted the exact cause of my disastrous marriage. I’m not sure anyone could have foreseen that.
In any case, my relationship with my uncle was one of polite distance. We supported each other in that we were family, but beyond that, we were courteous strangers. So to hear him request my presence, especially in regards to a matter that was rather delicate and highly inappropriate for a young lady’s ears, at least in society’s general opinion, certainly astonished me.
I allowed Trevor to guide me through the crowd as we followed in Uncle Andrew’s wake. Aunt Sarah was addressing the gathering behind us, some of whom protested our withdrawal. It appeared everyone wanted to know what the young man had to tell us.
The door through which we disappeared led into a small receiving room lined with slatted walls of gleaming oak. A bench and a few chairs were all the space held, as well as a pair of landscapes depicting the countryside surrounding Clintmains. The fireplace sat dormant, though a log and kindling had been laid, ready to be lit. I shivered, but I couldn’t be certain whether it was because of the drafty room or the topic we were about to discuss.
“Now,” Uncle Andrew declared, once the door was closed, sealing us off from prying eyes. “Tell us what happened,” he told Willie, not ungently.
The young man shuffled from foot to foot, and his shoulders slumped over. He clearly was unnerved by my uncle’s and Trevor’s muscular figures and by his employer, Lord Buchan’s, scowling visage. I sidled a step closer to the lad, hoping to offer him some sense of solidarity. His troubled gaze flicked to mine and I gave him a reassuring smile. Behind the panic, I could see pain in his eyes, and I realized that in our quest for answers, we had forgotten that this Dodd had likely been his mentor, and possibly his friend.
“It’s all right,” I said. “We just want to find out what happened to Dodd.” When he still didn’t answer, I prompted him. “Did the men who were digging in the grave shoot Dodd? Did he catch them in the act?”
“I dinna ken, m’lady,” he finally replied, lowering his head in shame. “Dodd said he saw lights o’er at the abbey and wanted to find oot what they were. But I told ’im he was seein’ things. Or else a group o’ merrymakers were out scarin’ themselves on Hogmanay. But he went to look anyway. An’ I let ’im go alone.” He scuffed his boot against the floor. “I was angry at ’im for makin’ me stay behind when everyone else was goin’ to the bonfire.”
“You heard the gunshot?” I guessed.
He nodded. “I . . . I was puttin’ our tools up—we’d been fixin’ a bit o’ fence doon by the river—when I heard it. ’Tweren’t very loud. Mare like a cracker. I went to see what it was, but by the time I found ole Dodd by the west door o’ the abbey, they was gone, whoever done it. And . . . and ole Dodd were hardly breathin’.” The boy swallowed loudly and swiped a grimy finger across his nose. “He pointed t’ward the graveyard—that’s how I ken to look there—and . . . and then he jus’ died.”
I offered him my handkerchief, but he shook his head, and lifted the hem of his already filthy shirt and wiped his nose.
I glanced at the others, who all listened with silent frowns. Lord Buchan, in particular, looked distressed, and I wondered how close he had been to his old caretaker.
“Willie,” the earl said, his voice rougher than it had been before, “run round to the bonfire and fetch Paxton. Tell him to ready the carriage.”
Willie nodded, holding his head a little higher, and bowed swiftly before dashing out the door.
Uncle Andrew moved to the door, catching it before it closed behind Willie, and beckoned his butler into the room. “Send one of the footmen to get Dr. Carputhers from the ceilidh at the bonfire,” I heard him murmur, and my heart sank. Evidently Uncle Andrew’s sensible nature had returned, and I could not argue. It should be a surgeon who examined Dodd’s body, not an anatomist’s widow with three years enforced instruction. The possibility should never have even entered my mind. The fact it had, and I hadn’t been as horrified by the possibility as I should have been, was somewhat surprising.
“If you don’t mind, I’ll join you,” Uncle Andrew told Lord Buchan as the butler left to do his bidding. “If there’s been foul play, as the lad suggested, then I’ll need to examine the evidence anyway.” As one of the county’s magistrates, Uncle Andrew ruled on many of the crimes in the region, though they were usually minor disputes between neighbors or petty thefts—nothing so serious as murder.
I turned to stare unseeing at one of the landscapes. I reached up to finger the amethyst pendant given to me by my mother that I almost always wore around my neck and wondered at my strange eagerness to assist. The past two investigations in which I had helped, I’d been compelled to take part only because my sister’s family and an old friend had been involved. They had needed and asked for my aid. Otherwise I never would have presumed, or even wished, to have anything to do with the inquiries. But I had discovered something in myself that apparently I wasn’t eager to dismiss, or have others dismiss for me.
I bit my lip, knowing in this instance there was nothing I could say. With family, I should have felt able to offer my help, but I knew Uncle Andrew. He would only flash me his disapproving frown and ignore my suggestion.
And after all, who was to say he wasn’t right? I wasn’t an inquiry agent, not like Mr. Gage or his father, Captain Lord Gage. Just because I had aided in two murder investigations didn’t mean I was qualified to conduct one alone. In any case, I was supposed to be distancing myself from things like murder and corpses. They would only remind people of my scandalous past and make my return to society more difficult.
It would be best for all if I was not involved.
Which was why I was so surprised when Uncle Andrew did address me. “Kiera,” he said, and then hesitated when I turned to look at him. I folded my hands demurely before me and waited, silently hoping he wouldn’t think better of whatever he was about to ask me.
And amazingly he didn’t.
He cleared his throat, clasping his hands behind his back. “What do you think of all of this?”
“About Dodd and the disturbed grave?” I asked in clarification, lest I had missed something the gentlemen had discussed while my attention was focused elsewhere.
“Er, yes,” he replied, and rocked forward on his heels. “I only ask because . . . well . . . you . . .”
“Have some experience with this sort of thing,” I finished for him, sparing him the embarrassment of having to say it.
He cleared his throat again. “Quite.”
“Well . . .” I glanced at Trevor but, upon seeing his stony expression, decided it would be best to avoid his gaze. “If one of the graves at Dryburgh Abbey has been disturbed, then someone must have been digging there. And doing so at night on the grounds of a deserted abbey, with only the light of a lantern to guide them, certainly suggests a desire for secrecy.”
My uncle nodded, following my train of thought.
I turned to pace the small space in front of the door. “If Dodd surprised them and they wished to remain undiscovered, they might have shot him. That seems a logical enough explanation to me. At least, the most logical we have so far.” I frowned. “But why was someone digging in an old grave to begin with? What were they looking for?”
I glanced at Lord Buchan, but he merely shrugged. “Most of those graves belong to old monks, local commoners, and a few members of my family. But as I said, the most recent burial was almost twenty months ago.”
I furrowed my brow and resumed pacing. When several moments passed without anyone offering an explanation, I wondered aloud, “I suppose the body snatchers could have just been incredibly stupid and unaware that a body that long buried would be far too decayed to be of use to a medical college.”
Trevor’s mouth twisted in skepticism. “I have a hard time believing anyone is that ignorant. Especially if body snatching is your chosen trade, so to speak.”
I crossed my arms over my chest and turned to face them. “I agree. It’s far more likely they were looking for objects buried with the bodies—clothing, jewelry, what have you.” Seeing the distressed expression on Lord Buchan’s face, I added, “But there’s really no way of knowing until you find out which grave was disturbed and examine it to see if anything was taken.”
Uncle Andrew nodded in agreement.
I noticed he didn’t correct me. It would be they who examined the grave, not I. But absurdly, I had been hoping against hope that I was wrong. That he would insist I come along.
My uncle leaned in to confer with Lord Buchan, and I stifled a sigh and resumed my perusal of the landscape. It really was an incredibly dull and uninspiring piece.
Trevor shifted closer to me. “Perhaps we should return to the ballroom.”
I glanced up at him, wondering if I could, or even should, try to stall him.
He arched an eyebrow in sarcasm. “Don’t tell me you’re actually interested in that landscape. I don’t have nearly your artist’s eye, and I can still see that it’s dreadful.”
I couldn’t stop a smile from quirking my lips. “Hush. I think one of Uncle Andrew’s relatives may have painted it.” I darted a look over my shoulder to see the other two men still deep in conversation.
“Well, someone should have done us all a favor and kept the paintbrush out of his fingers,” he drawled.
“How do you know it wasn’t a woman?”
“Her fingers, then. Now come,” he urged, cupping my elbow.
I knew there was no use arguing, yet still I found it hard to comply.
But before we could move more than two steps toward the door, a footman from Uncle Andrew’s staff rapped softly on the door before opening it.
“I’m sorry, m’lord. But Dr. Carputhers appears to be a bit . . . indisposed,” he said, choosing his words carefully.
Uncle Andrew frowned. “How indisposed?”
The footman cleared his throat. “Very.” And as his employer was waiting for a more specific response, he added, “He’s drunk as a wheelbarrow.”
Uncle Andrew sighed heavily. “Well, we did invite him to a ceilidh. The man wouldn’t expect to be on duty.”
He dismissed the footman with a wave of his hand and began to pace, rubbing his pointed chin. Meanwhile, Trevor tugged on my arm, urging me to return to the ball. I hesitated a moment longer, wondering if I should offer to help, but my brother glared down at me, seeming insistent that I not say a word. So I gave in, allowing him to pull me toward the door.
“Just a moment, Trevor,” our uncle called out behind us.
My brother glanced at me, and I tried to keep any of the anticipation I felt from showing on my face, but I must have failed, for he lifted his eyebrows in gentle reproach. “Yes, Uncle,” he replied, turning us toward him.
Uncle Andrew stood stiffly in his formal coat and blue and black tartan kilt with his arms behind his back, studying me across the short distance that separated us. I could tell he was wrestling with himself, much as my brother-in-law, Philip, had wrestled with his conscience before he asked me to assist Sebastian Gage during our first investigation together four and a half months prior. Uncle Andrew likely rebelled at the notion of exposing me to such an unsavory thing as murder, and yet he knew I possessed the skills he needed to help him understand the crime. Had I been a man, he would not have hesitated. But I was a female, and what’s more, his niece. He was supposed to protect me from such things, not encourage me to speculate on them.
He grimaced and turned away. “I know I shouldn’t be asking you such a thing, but . . .” he sighed, almost angrily “. . . it seems I have no choice.” Gathering his courage, he looked me squarely in the eye. “Kiera, would you be willing to assist us? Perhaps it’s not necessary,” he hurried on to say before I could answer. “But I’m not so experienced with murder, or anatomy and those things . . .” He waved his hand vaguely in the air. “And I would rather be sure. I know that once the body has been moved . . .”
“Yes, Uncle,” I replied before he stammered on. “I will do what I can.”
However, Trevor was not as resigned to the necessity of my lending them assistance. “Isn’t there another surgeon you could ask? What of your local physician?”
“I’m afraid not,” Uncle Andrew replied. “And Dr. Kennedy is visiting family in Ayrshire.”
My brother frowned.
“Believe me, Trevor, if I thought there was any man near enough and capable enough to lend us their assistance in this matter, I would not have asked your sister.” His eyes hardened in censure. “I didn’t approve when Cromarty asked her to assist in that murder investigation at Gairloch, or when she got dragged into that mess with the Dalmays. But . . .” he turned his head to the side, and I could see the tendons standing out in stark relief “. . . I begin to understand the predicaments those gentlemen were in.” The expression he fastened on me was tinged with reluctant admiration. “Kiera is nothing if not discreet. And she did receive instruction from one of the foremost anatomists in England, unwanted as that was.”
Trevor turned to study me, his brow heavy and his eyes clouded with uncertainty. I thought I could guess at some of his distress. After all, I was his baby sister, and he had been looking after me all my life. That he believed he had failed me once, in regards to protecting me from Sir Anthony’s nefarious intentions, was bad enough. And he had no intention of letting me come to harm again. At least, not while I was living under his roof.
He had heard about my involvement with those previous investigations, and likely felt just as much disapproval as our uncle, though he’d not told me so. The fact that I had come to him angry and broken following my last investigation did not help matters. I had been poor company these past seven weeks, but that had more to do with my grief over the death of my friend Will than the investigation itself, disturbing as that had been. I wondered if he understood that. Or did he blame my melancholy on my continued involvement with corpses and murder?
“Are you sure about this?” he asked, searching my face. “You do not have to help, no matter what he says.”
“I know,” I replied, holding his gaze steadily with mine. “But this is something I want to do. Something I can do.” I moved a step closer and lowered my voice. “I need to feel useful. And I want to help find whoever killed Dodd. For Dodd. For Willie. If I just walk away . . .” I left the sentence unfinished, knowing he recognized the guilt I would feel.
He continued to regard me, and then just when I thought he would argue further, he reluctantly nodded. “All right. But I insist on accompanying you.”
I agreed and we turned toward our uncle.
“Of course. If you wish.”
Trevor scanned me from head to toe in my evening gown. “You’ll need your cloak, and gloves or a muff. What of your slippers?” he fussed. He suddenly sounded so much like our nursemaid growing up that I couldn’t help but smile.
“These shoes will be fine. But I would appreciate a pair of gloves,” I told my uncle. “Preferably an old pair. If they should be ruined . . .”
He nodded, understanding the implication. Blood was not easy to wash out. “I shall send a servant to fetch whatever you require.”
The drive to the abbey took less than ten minutes, down a road bordered by winter fields of trampled hay and barley. For several minutes before the road turned away from it, I could see the Hogmanay bonfire blazing in the distance, a beacon in the darkness with the hazy shadows of the dancing villagers whirling around it. I huddled in my corner of the seat and tried not to shiver. I knew the night breeze would slice even colder once we stepped out of the carriage.
Trevor sat stiffly beside me, staring out the opposite window. I couldn’t tell exactly what he was thinking, but I knew he wasn’t pleased with this turn of events. Neither was our Uncle Andrew or Lord Buchan, both of whom seemed reluctant to meet my eyes. I did my best to ignore them, but it wasn’t easy when my nerves were already stretched taut with a disquieting mixture of dread and anticipation.
I didn’t know exactly what to expect. Willie had heard a gunshot, just one, so Dodd had likely died from a wound to his head or torso. From the amount of blood on Willie’s clothes, I surmised Dodd had bled out, so the scene could be quite gruesome, or not. It depended on the wound and how much movement Dodd had made while dying.
As far as the disturbed grave, my guess was no better than the next person’s. The body would be all or mostly bone and perhaps some hair, which would save us from the uncomfortable sight and smell of decomposition.
If the body was even still there.
Had the body snatchers taken it as planned, or abandoned their work after shooting Dodd, worried about the arrival of reinforcements? I supposed it depended on how close they were to being finished, and how ruthless they were.
If the bones had been left behind, then I presumed there would be two victims for me to examine. Such a thought didn’t cause me as much discomfort as I’d expected. But the thought that I might be growing accustomed to all of this did.
After the horrors of my marriage to Sir Anthony and my enforced involvement with his work—observing his dissections and sketching the results for his anatomy textbook—I had been keen to escape anything associated with that world. I had viewed the victims’ corpses from the previous two investigations I had been involved with only out of necessity and a desire to see justice done for my friends and family. But this crime had nothing to do with me. I had no relation to Dodd or Lord Buchan. I should have no desire to be near this tragedy, despite my uncle’s reluctant request for my assistance. Instead, not only had I allowed myself to be coaxed into lending my aid, but I could also feel an undercurrent of excitement running through me at the prospect.
My late husband’s colleagues had called me unnatural when they discovered my contribution to his anatomical work, and not for the first time, I wondered if they might be right. Or else why would I be running toward a dead body and a disturbed grave when by all rights I should be fleeing in fright?
Trevor’s shoulder bumped against mine as the carriage made a sharp turn to the left into the grounds of Dryburgh House. Through the dark outline of the trees, I could see the pale stones of the Earl of Buchan’s manor gleaming in the moonlight. The coach made another turn onto the gravel of the house’s drive and then rolled to a stop.
My heart jumped as I felt the manservant leap down from his perch on the back of the carriage. A moment later, the door opened and Lord Buchan pulled himself forward to descend. I was the last to disembark, with the assistance of my brother, and was instantly grateful for the kid leather half-boots loaned to me by my cousin. I had changed into them before we left and my feet now sank into the mud at the edge of the drive. I grimaced at the realization of what my gown’s hem would look like after this midnight foray, and silently said an apology to my new maid, Bree.
Dryburgh House stood some distance away from us to the right, farther up the gravel drive. Its west front, on the far side of the house, bordered the River Tweed, whose waters rambled southward only to sweep around in a wide curve to flow north again, forming the small peninsula on which the old abbey had been built. The carriage had stopped on the drive just short of a well-trampled trail that led south, paralleling the river, and straight into the trees bordering the manor’s lawn.
I had visited the ruins of Dryburgh Abbey with my family several times as a girl, and also once with William Dalmay ten years ago, the summer he acted as my drawing master. I felt a twinge of pain as the memory of Will’s earnest joy and excitement also brought to mind his recent death. It sometimes seemed impossible that he had been gone just ten short weeks. And now I had to face this place that, until now, I had forgotten I last visited in his company. It was almost too much to bear.
I closed my eyes and inhaled deeply, trying to push aside the image of Will’s haunted gray eyes.
Someone gripped my elbow, and I opened my eyes to find Trevor watching me closely, a look of concern tightening his features. I offered him a smile of reassurance, grateful he couldn’t know the real source of my distress. Let him think I was nervous about viewing Dodd’s body, for that was where my mind should have been focused.
Young Willie hefted one of the lanterns the men had removed from the coach and set off down the path into the trees with Lord Buchan trailing close behind him. Uncle Andrew followed next, carrying the second lantern, while Trevor and I brought up the rear. The dirt of the trail was soft from the recent rain, but the temperature had also cooled considerably in the past few days, hardening the earth just enough so that it wasn’t a muddy mess as the drive had been. Even so, I was forced to take care where I stepped, and to heft the skirts of my gown and chocolate brown cloak to keep them from trailing in the muck.
I was grateful for the fur trim of my hood surrounding my face, for it kept the chill from my head, but unfortunately, it also obstructed my view. I could see little more than straight in front of me, but the sounds of the nighttime were all around. Every pop of a twig or creak of the barren branches made me glance about to locate the source of what I had heard. The low rush in the distance I knew to be the river, but the scratching and clattering and creaking in the gloom of the forest surrounding me I could not always immediately name. I was reminded of a Scottish proverb I’d often heard quoted: The day has eyes, the night has ears.
Suddenly, in a break through the trees, I could see the moonlight illuminating the gable of the south transept with its large five-light window, now empty of all glass. Little else remained of the Dryburgh Abbey church, but for a fragment of the choir and the north transept, and the reddish-brown sandstone bases of the pillars that once held aloft the soaring roof of the church.
When the eleventh Earl of Buchan, the current earl’s uncle, acquired the monastic ruins forty years earlier, it was little more than an overgrown wreck, true to the name of ruins. The earl set about preserving what was left, adding a large formal garden within and around the stones. The effect was charming and romantic, but my father had noted that Buchan, who had been an eccentric antiquarian, also couldn’t resist adding a few “improvements,” namely an inscription and an obelisk south of the abbey. His nephew, the current earl, seemed much more practical, but as we approached the ruins, I could tell he was at least maintaining the abbey grounds.
I had been rather fond of the Gothic pile of Dryburgh Abbey, and its air of peace and tranquility, of nature merged with the fallen creation of man. But at night, with only the faint gleam of our lanterns to light the way, and the moon casting strange shadows across the faces of the crumbling ruins, I felt less assured.
We skirted the edge of the abbey cemetery, which we were divided from by a row of hedges and then the remnants of the abbey wall. It rose in jagged portions from waist-high to forty feet above our heads before it met up with the decorative rounded arches of the west door.
There, at the edge of the door, lay Dodd’s body propped against the stone frame. His head had fallen back to rest between the small niche created by two of the arches, exposing his neck to the light of our lanterns. One hand trailed across the ground beside his body while the other sat cradled in his lap, as if he had tried until his final breath to stanch the blood flowing from the wound in his upper chest and the hand had dropped with his last gasp to where it lay. His eyes were blessedly closed.
“Poor Dodd,” Lord Buchan murmured, the first to break the tense stillness.
I glanced up at him, and then Willie, whose cheeks were streaked with silent tears. Biting back an answering surge of emotion, I moved closer to the body, determined to remain unaffected. My tears would do neither Dodd nor Willie any good, but my reluctantly accrued knowledge of anatomy just might.
“Bring that lantern closer,” I told Willie, hoping that by giving the young man a purpose, it would help him collect himself.
He sniffed loudly and shuffled closer, nearly treading on my skirts.
I pushed the hood of my cloak back and knelt carefully beside the body. The air was cool enough to mask most of the odors, but I still breathed shallowly through my mouth, as I’d learned in Sir Anthony’s surgeries. My finely tuned nose could still smell the old caretaker’s musty body odor and the metallic tang of blood. I pushed back the edge of Dodd’s coat to see that his coarse woolen shirt beneath was, as expected, soaked with blood. The hole torn into the right side of his chest was quite obviously the cause of the bleeding. I quickly scanned the rest of his torso and his limbs, but could see no other signs of injury.
“One gunshot to the chest,” I said, stating the obvious in case one of the gentlemen could not see.
I reached a hand around Dodd’s shoulder, trying to pull his body forward to see his back. Willie passed his lantern to one of the other men and leaned over to help me.
“No exit wound.”
Willie and I gently rested Dodd’s body back against the stone arches. I surveyed the stone and the ground around the corpse and then made to rise. Trevor’s hand cupped my elbow, assisting me to my feet. Pressing my now blood-smeared fingertips together, lest I unwittingly touch anything, I turned to thank him, and then wished I hadn’t. The tight line of my brother’s mouth and the stark look in his eyes told me just how little he appreciated seeing this side of me.
I inhaled quickly and stepped away, returning to the task at hand.
“It doesn’t appear that he was shot here,” our uncle commented, and I joined him in scanning the grass-choked path through the arches.
A drop of color at the base of the stone caught my eye. “Bring the lantern closer,” I urged. Stepping through the doorway, I cautiously pivoted to the right. “Here. See the blood?” I pointed to the splatter on the stone arches just inside the door, and then backed away, circling wide of the path. “Dodd must have been coming through the doorway when he was shot.”
The men followed my gaze to the spot where Dodd must have been standing. It fit well with what we knew so far. The old caretaker must have come inside the abbey ruins to find out what the source of the light was. I wondered if Dodd had seen the man who shot him or if a lookout had been positioned near the door and stepped out to kill Dodd before he could ask questions. There were shadows deep enough to conceal a man here. And if a group of grave robbers had been working here, and they were any bit as organized as the gangs of body snatchers who plied their trade in Edinburgh and London, they would most certainly have had at least one sentry.
I turned around once again to survey the darkened ruins of the abbey church and the trees and cemetery encroaching on it to the left. At the edge of our lantern light I could see a pile of stones that had once been the base of one of the pillars, but beyond that everything was illumed only by moonlight. About a hundred feet in front of us, the hulk of the remnants of the north transept and presbytery were visible only because they towered above everything else, an island unto itself, separated from the south transept and the remainder of the standing abbey by the loss of the roof and walls that had once connected them. However, even that was only a mass of pale arches and craggy shadows.
Trevor moved forward to stand beside me, his breath condensing in the cold air around us as he sighed. “Willie, where is this grave Dodd pointed you to?” he asked, following the same bent of my thoughts.
Willie shuffled across the grass and pointed toward the ruins of the north transept. “O’er there. Near St. Mary’s Aisle.”
I glanced over my shoulder at Lord Buchan. His face was creased in a troubled frown, his thin lips almost disappearing. “That’s what my uncle always called it,” he explained, and then moved forward, his urgent stride lengthening with each step.
I shared a look with Trevor, suspecting the earl knew exactly who was buried in that prime location of the ruins. The rest of us hurried to catch up with him, dodging the bits of stone still remaining on the abbey floor. We heard him gasp a sigh of relief as he got closer to the transept.
“My Elizabeth,” he explained, standing before an undisturbed grave near the ruins, a hand pressed to his chest as he tried to catch his breath.
From the gravestone I could see that his wife had not been dead long, only since 1828, but still longer than twenty months.
I was about to ask after his uncle when at the edge of the lantern light I saw it. The mound of dirt. And beyond it the yawing hole of a grave.
Lord Buchan followed my gaze and gave another gasp, though this one was horrified. “My uncle.” He stumbled forward and then halted abruptly, as if he wasn’t certain he wanted to peer down inside the empty tomb.
I could sympathize. I felt a fluttering in my stomach at the same thought. It seemed rather like tempting fate.
Willie did not have similar qualms. Or perhaps he’d already faced them earlier. His foot sank into the loose soil, releasing the pungent scent of the earth into the night air, as he looked down into the grave. Feeling silly that this young man, barely out of boyhood, was braver than the rest of us, I moved closer, and the other gentlemen followed suit.
I’m not sure what I expected to find. A fully dressed corpse? A ghost? A vampire like Lord Ruthven in Polidori’s story? I was not normally given over to fancy. And I knew that in twenty months the body would have decayed so significantly as to be not much more than bone.
But when I looked down into the grave and into the open coffin and saw only a pile of discarded clothing, I was momentarily shocked speechless.
The effect on my uncle was much the opposite. “What the devil!” he spluttered in outrage and then turned to glare at me. “They took his body, but not his clothing. Who does such a thing?”
“From what I understand, it’s very common,” I replied softly. “After all, theft of property, whether from the living or the dead, is a more serious crime than merely snatching a body. Or at least, according to common law, it is.” I took another step closer to the edge of the grave, trying to get a better look at its contents. Trevor stepped up next to me, wrapping his hand around my upper arm to steady me and pull me back. “A grave robber who steals something as simple as a corpse’s waistcoat can be sentenced to death or transportation. A body snatcher only faces a fine or a short imprisonment if he’s caught.”
“But why?” Lord Buchan demanded, his hooked nose quivering in indignation. “Why would they steal his body, his bones, and not take his effects? What could they possibly be worth?”
He was right. It didn’t seem to make any sense. The eleventh Earl of Buchan’s discarded fine-woven suit, silk waistcoat, and gold pocket watch alone would have fetched more than fifty pounds. I wasn’t currently aware of any market for stolen bones. Maybe the teeth could have been made into dentures. Or the smaller bones of the hands and feet into trinkets. But what did they propose to do with an entire skeleton?
And why this skeleton? Why this graveyard? There were plenty of other cemeteries less conspicuous and easier to reach. And for that matter, plenty of other graves that were easier to dig up, even in this graveyard. I could see from the scuff marks and the gap in the earth above the coffin that the Earl of Buchan’s enormous headstone must rest partially over the grave, which made it difficult for the robbers to get to the top of the coffin. They’d been forced to dig a foot of earth out from the bottom of the coffin and shift the entire thing backward in order to open it. That had not been a simple feat of manual labor, and had risked the stability of the gravestone.
It seemed someone had wanted to get into this grave in particular. But why? If they hadn’t come for his effects . . .
“Do you know for certain they didn’t take anything but your uncle’s bones?” I questioned Lord Buchan. He blinked at me in confusion. “Do you remember everything that was buried with him?”
He stared down into the grave, his brow wrinkled in thought. “I . . . I’m not sure,” he admitted. “I would need to think about it.”
“It’s not written down anywhere?” I pressed.
“It might be.”
“We need to find out. Perhaps these men did take something else. Something you’ve forgotten about.” I frowned. “Though, I still can’t see why they would take the bones. Unless it was to confuse us.”
I looked to Willie to see that he had been observing our conversation in silence, his gaze still trained on the empty grave. Though, from their tortured expression, his eyes seemed to be seeing something else.
“It seems very likely that whoever dug up Lord Buchan’s grave also shot Dodd.”
Willie’s gaze rose to meet mine.
“That’s not to say it’s impossible that someone else did it. But it seems impractical to suggest otherwise, given the fact that Dodd was coming here to investigate a suspicious light, and he pointed Willie toward it when he arrived to help. And these men clearly left in a hurry . . .” I gestured to the disturbed earth “. . . leaving the grave exposed and their shovels behind.” Most body snatchers at least attempted to cover up their crimes.
Trevor turned to Uncle Andrew and Lord Buchan. “Do either of you know who these grave robbers might have been?”
Lord Buchan shook his head.
“I can check my magistratical records and speak with my colleagues,” Uncle Andrew replied, his eyes troubled. “But I must say, I haven’t the slightest idea who might have done this.”
I nodded, sympathizing with his obvious distress. My uncle and I might not be close, but I knew how seriously he took his responsibilities. The fact that a murder and body snatching had occurred in his jurisdiction, and on the same night, would never sit well with him.
“I suppose it will be difficult to keep this quiet,” Lord Buchan said.
After Willie’s frantic arrival at the Hogmanay Ball with the first-footer, it would be nigh impossible. But Uncle Andrew only replied solemnly, “I’m afraid so.”
“Although we can endeavor to keep the details quiet,” I suggested, looking at each of the men in turn, including Willie. “It would help with the ensuing investigation.”
I could see my estimation rise even higher in my uncle’s eyes. “Kiera’s correct, of course. There’s no need for any of us to speak of specifics with anyone who isn’t authorized to have the information.”
“True.” Buchan nodded thoughtfully. “Lady Darby, you are acquainted with Captain Lord Gage, are you not?”
I was stunned for a moment by his query. Though, in hindsight, I should have expected it. I fumbled for words. “I . . . have not had the honor. But I am acquainted with his son.”
“Acquainted” was perhaps too innocuous a word for what lay between us, but I was not about to explain that to these gentlemen.
“I’ve heard that Lord Gage sometimes assists the king and his high-placed friends when they find themselves in . . .” he arched his eyebrows significantly “. . . troubling circumstances.”
“Yes,” I replied, letting him know I understood what he meant. “Troubling” could be used to describe anything as simple as a gambling debt or as serious as the murder of one’s mistress. “As does his son.”
“Who is still in Edinburgh, I hear.”
I was startled by his knowledge of that detail, but did my best not to show it. “As far as I’m aware.”
“Would you write to him? Ask him to come to my aid?”
When I didn’t answer immediately, Buchan begged. “I don’t know what else to do. And I can’t simply allow these men to get away with stealing my uncle’s bones and shooting my caretaker.”
I understood his predicament. None of the surrounding villages had any sort of organized police force, and though my uncle, the local magistrate, would try, he had very little experience with this sort of thing. Lord Buchan’s best option was to hire a private inquiry agent, and he would find no gentleman better than Sebastian Gage.
But still I hesitated to reply, knowing I stood at the brink of a decision I should have seen coming. If I wrote to Gage, even on Lord Buchan’s behalf, and asked him for his assistance, I knew he would also see it as my asking him here for myself. To him there would be no difference, no matter how carefully I worded the request.
I had no doubt he would come. He had promised as much the last time we parted. All I need do was ask, he’d said, and he would come to me. Such a small thing, and yet so immense. And I didn’t know if I was ready for it.
My feelings were still confused when it came to Gage, and I wasn’t certain I was prepared to face them yet. It was true I had needed time and space to heal from the loss of my friend Will, but I also had needed that same time and space to sort through my emotions when it came to Gage. And though in some ways I had done just that, in others I hadn’t. I still felt Will’s loss so keenly. I didn’t know if seeing Gage would make things better or worse, whether his presence would give me comfort and clarity, or cause me more heartache and frustration.
Trevor’s feet shifted in the loose earth beside me, recalling me to the present. I felt the sting of a blush in my cheeks that had nothing to do with the wind. How long had Lord Buchan been waiting for my answer? It had likely been only a matter of seconds, but gauging by the taut silence, that had been long enough to become awkward.
I offered the earl a smile of apology. “Of course. I’ll write to him as soon as we return to Clintmains.”
Lord Buchan’s shoulders sagged in relief. “Thank you.”
I nodded and turned away to strip off the bloodstained gloves, doing my best to conceal the fact that my hands were shaking.
When Uncle Andrew, Trevor, and I returned to Clintmains Hall in Buchan’s carriage, we were surprised to see that many of the guests had already departed, though perhaps we shouldn’t have been. Normally the Rutherford Hogmanay Ball lasted long into the night, almost until dawn, but not this year. It seemed Willie’s disruption of the first-footer ceremony had dampened the festive spirit.
Most of those guests who remained were staying the night at Clintmains, but even many of them had retired. Aunt Sarah waited for our return in the ballroom with a few stragglers and two pickled men who had yet to be carried up to their assigned chambers. When Trevor asked if, under the circumstances, we might spend the night at Clintmains instead of making the fifteen-mile journey back to Blakelaw House, she readily agreed. She already had rooms made up for us and our servants were bedded down with some of her household staff.
I excused myself to Uncle Andrew’s study and sat down to write my letter to Gage on Lord Buchan’s behalf. With my uncle hovering over me, I didn’t have time to agonize over my choice of words, which was perhaps a blessing, as I certainly would have, given the opportunity. Instead I jotted off a quick missive, providing him with only a brief account of events, and stamped it closed with my uncle’s seal. He already had a rider waiting to depart to deliver the message to Edinburgh by the swiftest route.
I didn’t sleep well that night, and the fault for my restlessness did not lie with my aunt. For despite the short notice and the house overflowing with guests, she had still managed to provide me with a lovely little room facing the gardens. No, the fault lay in me. I had never slumbered easily, but my insomnia had only grown worse in the months since Will’s passing. My mind simply would not allow me the undemanding peace of a deep sleep. It was always on guard. And this night’s new worries over Dodd’s murder and the eleventh Earl of Buchan’s missing bones, coupled with my anxiety over Gage’s pending arrival, only added to the burden.
Consequently, I was up almost with the sun and down to the breakfast parlor before I expected to see any of the other guests. But I was wrong. Two young men sat conferring with one another in hushed voices at one end of the table. The tone of their voices would have seemed suspicious but for the fact that one of them was very clearly nursing a thick head from a long night of drinking. It was he who jerked upright at the sound of my approach from where he had been draped over the table and then winced, brackets of pain forming around his mouth and eyes. I recognized Lord Shellingham at once and waved him down, lest he try to rise and cast up his accounts. I couldn’t imagine why on earth he would be out of bed at this hour in his condition.
My gaze swung to take in the man beside him, who was eyeing me with some misgiving, though I couldn’t think why. Unless, having heard the rumors concerning me, he thought I was about to lure him to his death before selling his body for dissection. If that was the case, the man must not be very bright.
“Good morning,” I murmured, moving to the sideboard. A yawning footman stood to the side, ready to assist, and I smiled at him in sympathy. A servant’s duties were never done, even the morning after a ceilidh.
I settled across from the two men, observing that Lord Shellingham had nothing more than a cup of black coffee before him, while the other man’s plate of food had barely been touched. I sipped my tea and eyed him curiously. In my experience, young men of his age practically inhaled their food. He didn’t appear to be suffering the ill-effects of a night of overindulgence, but I supposed he could simply be hiding it better.
“Forgive me. I’ve forgotten your name,” I said. Trevor had introduced us the previous evening, but though Lord Shellingham’s name had stuck, thanks to his friends’ manner of calling him Shelly for short, this fellow’s had not. “Remind me.”
He cleared his throat. “Archibald Young, my lady.”
I nodded. Now I remembered. Though only two or three years younger than I, thanks to his rather puppy-doggish looks, he seemed younger still. Even now he was staring at me with his big brown eyes like I was about to scold him for piddling on the carpet.
Lord Shellingham, on the other hand, was quite the fop—his clothes and hair arranged just so. Although this morning that was definitely not the case. I found him to be handsomer without the artifice. If you looked beyond the green cast to his true complexion, that is.
If I remembered correctly, the pair were cousins, and I thought I could see a shared familial trait in the strength of the jaw and the shape of the eyes, though there the similarities ended.
“Are you off early?” I inquired, taking in their riding attire.
“Er, yes,” Mr. Young stammered, darting a glance at his companion. “We’re due back in Edinburgh for a dinner.”
“Blasted dinner,” I heard Lord Shellingham mutter as I took a bite of toast, and bent my head to hide my answering smile.
“And you?” Mr. Young asked politely.
I shrugged one shoulder. “I’m up early most mornings, regardless of how late I retired.”
I studied Mr. Young as he picked at the food on his plate and Lord Shellingham as he cradled his head in his hands, and decided they were as good a place to start as any.
“So what are your impressions of what happened last night? Quite an odd way to begin the new year, don’t you think?”
Mr. Young darted another nervous glance at his cousin, who merely parted his fingers to look at me through them.
Neither man spoke, so I clarified. “The interruption of the first-footer.”
“Oh, yes.” Mr. Young gasped, almost seeming relieved.
What else had he thought I referred to?
“That was odd,” he confirmed.
Clearly interpreting my probing gaze, Lord Shellingham added, “We both got a little more foxed than we intended, Lady Darby. I think Archie, here, has been worried he might have gotten into some trouble he shouldn’t have.”
“I see,” I replied neutrally, not at all sure there wasn’t more to it than that. But before I had a chance to question them further, another guest entered the room.
“Good morning,” he announced loudly with good cheer.
Lord Shellingham winced so sharply I thought he might collapse under the table.
I turned to smile at the newcomer, a gentleman about my uncle’s age with a wisp of very fair, thinning hair. “Good morning.”
He halted at the edge of the table rather abruptly and, after examining my features quite thoroughly, offered me a dazzling smile. I began to worry there was some smudge on my face or that my hair, which was never really tamed, had already fallen from its pins. But he quickly disavowed me of my fears.
“There is nothing quite like the sight of a lovely lady in the morning to brighten one’s day,” he declared, a slight nasality to his accent betraying his country of origin.
I blushed at his outrageous flattery, and he swept around the table to take my hand, bowing before it.
“Gentlemen . . .” he urged the two men sitting across from me “. . . please introduce us.”
“Oh, er, Lady Darby, may I present Mr. Stuart,” Mr. Young stammered.
“Lady Darby.” Mr. Stuart rolled my name over his tongue like it was a savory treat. “I have heard of you.” His silver eyes twinkled. “And, I must say, the pleasure is all mine.”
I arched my eyebrows at the old roué, but couldn’t suppress an answering smile. “Thank you, Mr. Stuart.” Then I glanced down at where his hand still held mine. “But perhaps you might let go of my fingers now. I would like to finish eating.”
He chuckled. “Of course.” He nodded to the footman standing by the sideboard, who moved forward to pour him a cup of coffee, and settled into the seat beside me.
I watched him out of the corner of my eye as he inhaled and then took his first sip of the beverage, preferring it black and bitter. He sighed contentedly.
I grinned at his obvious enjoyment. “Have you been in Scotland long?”
“A few months only. A lovely country. And such fascinating customs! The singing, the bonfire, the first-footer. I have never been here before to celebrate what you call Hogmanay in your country.”
“But you’ve visited Scotland before?”
He nodded briskly as he took another sip of his coffee. “My first visit was in 1812.” He paused, a strange expression tightening his features. “So long ago now, it seems,” he murmured, almost wistfully. But before I could ask him about it, he hurried on to say, “But I’m afraid I did not stay long. I soon set sail for Philadelphia.”
Mr. Young perked up at this bit of news. “You’ve been to America?”
A smile returned to Mr. Stuart’s lips. “I have. And quite the adventure it was. I saw the city of Washington burned by the British. Even visited the frontier.”
Mr. Young leaned forward eagerly. “Did you see any Indians?”
“I did. I was even able to speak to a few of them.” He paused dramatically, a knowing twinkle in his eyes telling us he had more to share. “Davy Crockett introduced us.”
This finally caught Lord Shellingham’s interest, as he lifted his eyes to the man, still carefully cradling his head in his hands. “The frontiersman?”
Mr. Stuart relaxed back in his chair, clearly enjoying the attention. “Fascinating man. I even witnessed him dispensing what he liked to call ‘justice’ by shooting a man who was attempting to steal his horse in the b—” His gaze strayed to mine, as he seemed to recall the presence of a lady at the last moment. “Er . . . an uncomfortable place.”
I hid a smile, knowing Mr. Stuart was eager to share more, but had halted out of respect for me. Taking the cue that none of these gentlemen would be so impolite as to actually express, I excused myself from the table. It was unlikely I would be able to glean any useful information about the night before from them anyway.
I couldn’t help but chuckle as I exited the breakfast room, wondering if I should believe a word Mr. Stuart said. He simply did not seem the type who would go off on these sorts of adventures. He might have visited America. He might have seen the city of Washington burn—from a safe distance. But the rest seemed more like embellishment.
“I see you’ve made Mr. Stuart’s acquaintance,” Aunt Sarah remarked, correctly interpreting my amusement when she intercepted me at the doorway. Dark circles rung her eyes, but they twinkled with good humor as she peered over my shoulder at the Frenchman. I suspected she had only managed to snatch a few hours of sleep, but being hostess, she would feel it was her duty to be up early to see to her guests.
“Yes,” I replied. “He’s quite a colorful character.”
“Telling tales of his exploits, is he?”
“Ah,” she said knowingly, and then slipped her arm through mine, striding with me a few steps away from the door into the hall. “Well, he is charming. And perhaps a bit . . .” she wrinkled her nose as if searching for the right word “. . . eccentric.”
I smiled. That word could encompass any number of odd behaviors. I myself was called eccentric, but I was nothing like Mr. Stuart. However, I knew what my aunt was trying to say as tactfully as possible.
“I’m glad you found me,” I admitted.
She arched her brows in query.
“I wanted to ask you whether anyone mentioned if they’d seen anything strange last night—before, during, or after the ball.”
Her face tightened. “You mean, other than when that poor young man stumbled in during our first-footing?”
“That upset quite a few people, didn’t it?” I asked, thinking of how superstitious some Scots could be.
She sighed. “You saw how quickly everyone left.” She lifted a hand to her forehead wearily. “It was not exactly an auspicious ending to the evening.”
“No. It wasn’t.”
Pressing a hand to her stomach over her lavender morning dress, she tilted her head to study me. “Your uncle told me you sent for this investigator, Mr. Gage.”
I nodded. “Lord Buchan asked me to.”
“Well, hopefully he can get to the bottom of this nasty business.” Her eyes narrowed in scrutiny. “And I suppose you mean to assist him.”
Excerpted from "A Grave Matter"
Copyright © 2014 Anna Lee Huber.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
What People are Saying About This
Praise for the novels of Anna Lee Huber:
“Lady Darby is an engaging new sleuth to follow.”—Julia Spencer-Fleming, New York Times bestselling author
“A riveting debut.”—Deanna Raybourn, New York Times bestselling author
“An unusual and romantic heroine.”—Judith Rock, author of The Whispering of Bones
“A fast-paced, atmospheric, and chilling debut featuring a clever heroine with a shocking past and a talent for detection.” —Carol K. Carr, national bestselling author of India Black and the Shadows of Anarchy
“Huber’s protagonist is complex and likable and the well-plotted mystery is filled with fascinating secondary characters…You’ll be engaged right to the end.”—RT Book Reviews
“Huber’s debut…reads like a cross between a gothic novel and a mystery with a decidedly unusual heroine.”—Kirkus Reviews