January 1832. After enjoying a delightful few weeks with her family, expectant mother Kiera and Sebastian Gage have been invited to the Duchess of Bowmontʼs Twelfth Night party in Traquair, Scotland. Though she normally avoids such fashionable, rambunctious events, Kiera is ready to join in the festive merrymaking. But upon their arrival at the opulent estate, it becomes obvious that all is not merry in their hostess’s home. The family appears to be under a great strain, and someone seems determined to cause mayhem among the guests with a series of forged notes.
Matters swiftly turn from irksome to downright deadly when the partygoers stumble upon a decomposing body in the castleʼs crypt. The corpse is thought to be the duchessʼs son-in-law who had purportedly traveled to Paris more than a month earlier. It is evident the man met with foul play, and Kiera and Gage soon realize that a ruthless murderer walks among them—and may well be a member of the duchessʼs own family. And when the investigation takes a treacherous turn, Kiera discovers just how deep the killer is willing to dig to keep their secrets from ever seeing the light of day.
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O, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive!
-Sir Walter Scott, marmion
January 5, 1832
If there had been any doubts I was visiting a ducal estate, the trumpeting buglers would have clarified the matter. Not that there was truly any confusion. Not when I was staying in a grand 284-room Gothic castle surrounded by nothing but miles of steep snowy hills and ice-choked burns, save the occasional sheep. And the soaring bedchamber to which I'd been assigned was so lavishly furnished it might have put Louis XIV's Versailles to shame. But the buglers were so unexpected, and so extravagant, that after first catching my breath from the start they'd given me, I found myself giggling at the absurdity.
My husband smiled down at me. "They are a trifle excessive, aren't they?"
"Do all dukes feel it necessary to summon their guests in such a manner?" I asked as we descended the stone spiral staircase, his arm linked with mine. Though I had spent a fair amount of time in a number of aristocratic households, including the establishments of my brother-in-law, the Earl of Cromarty, I had never visited the estate of someone as lofty as a duke. Upon our arrival at Sunlaws Castle earlier that day, we'd been greeted by a battalion of footmen dressed in crisp green and black livery with gold braid.
But prior to our marriage nine months earlier, Sebastian Gage's bachelor status, as well as his charm, wealth, and attractiveness had guaranteed he was a greatly sought after guest. And those attributes didn't even factor into account the delicate investigations he often undertook on behalf of the nobility as a gentlemen inquiry agent, or his father's friendships with men as highly ranked as the king himself.
"Not all, but the Duke of Bowmont certainly isn't an aberration," he replied. "In truth, he seems to be one of the more unpretentious persons of his rank. I suspect the buglers are merely tradition. And I suppose we can't argue with their effectiveness." He cringed as another musical barrage assaulted our ears. "You can certainly hear them echoing throughout the entire castle."
I rather thought a gong might be as effective, and a bit less jarring. Or perhaps furnishing each room with some sort of chiming clock.
We reached the first floor and a shiver ran through me from a stray draft wafting through the corridors. I pulled my ivory shawl tighter around me, grateful I'd elected to drape it over my bare shoulders revealed by the scooped neckline of my amethyst sarsnet gown. At nearly six months full with child, I found that I was more often warm than cold, but an ancient castle of such immense size was all but impossible to heat efficiently, especially during the chill of a Scottish winter. I could already hear the sound of merry voices drifting through the doors of the dining room further along the corridor. Warm light spilled out into the gloom of the passage, and we hastened forward, eager to join the festivities.
It appeared as if about half of the Duke and Duchess of Bowmont's approximately five dozen guests were already gathered in Sunlaws Castle's dining room. My maid, Bree, had already ferreted out the information that there was an even more opulent state dining room on the opposite side of the castle, but after surveying the room before me, in terms of opulence, I didn't know how much grander one could get. The ceiling was graced with not one but two Waterford chandeliers surrounded by intricate stucco medallions. The walls were fitted with panels of azure silk damask, and the fretwork across all the surfaces, including the curtain rails, was gilded.
However, the other guests' attention was not on the van Orley tapestries or the priceless landscapes by Claude Lorrain spanning the walls, but on the two-tiered Twelfth Night cake perched at the center of the long carved mahogany table. The duchess had told me her p‰tissier and confectioner had outdone themselves this year in their preparation of the evening's treat, and while I could not judge their efforts against those from previous years, I agreed the dessert's appearance was quite splendid. The plum cake was covered in layers of pale sugared icing and then lined with intricate figures made of marzipan. When I leaned closer, I could see that they were courtiers from a medieval court: a jester, a knight, ladies in waiting, and of course, a king and queen.
Upon our arrival, the duchess had prepared us for the prospect of eating dessert at four o'clock in the afternoon, though Gage and I were less certain what the remainder of the evening would hold. The duchess's annual Twelfth Night Ball was somewhat notorious for its revelry and high-spirited antics, and invites were coveted among the elite. Normally, I would have wished to avoid such a fashionable soiree, but a friendship had recently developed between me and the duchess, and despite her infamous reputation, I realized not all the things whispered about her and her family were true. And thus, all the things said about their party were not likely to be either.
In any case, I was not here only for the festivities, but also to finish painting the duchess's portrait after she'd been called away from London suddenly a month prior. Though we hadn't yet had much time to discuss it, she had already mentioned she'd set a room aside just for the purpose, and I looked forward to beginning our first session together in the next few days. Capturing the duchess's aging beauty accurately and unflinchingly on canvas was a rare challenge for my abilities, and I was anxious to succeed.
"Oh my," my older sister, Alana, Lady Cromarty, breathed in admiration as she moved forward to stand beside me at the table, linking her arm with mine. She leaned forward, squinting at the marzipan figures. "Kiera, is that a herald? And a hunting dog? And . . . is that courtier . . . ?" She broke off, her eyes widening.
"Yes," I replied. There was indeed a page or courtier exposing his bottom to the maid next to him.
Apparently, not all the rumors about the Bowmonts' Twelfth Night Parties were untrue.
She straightened. "Well, given the speculation of all that went on in our royal court in centuries past, I suppose they could have chosen a much more shocking depiction to re-create."
Even so, I elected not to circle the cake to examine the marzipan figures on the other side.
We glided away from the cake, our husbands following in our wake. Footmen circulated the room with glasses of wassail and whisky, and we each accepted one as we took up a position near the far end of the table while the remainder of the guests continued to congregate in the room. There was a palpable air of excitement as everyone anticipated the commencement of the festivities. Alana's and my brother, Trevor, paused at the threshold looking rather dashing in his dark evening clothes, his gaze sweeping over the assemblage. A wide grin split his face as he caught sight of us and he began edging his way through the crowd toward us. The jovial spirit had infected him as well.
I didn't know whether the duchess had already intended to invite Philip and Alana to her party-they were the Earl and Countess of Cromarty after all-but I was quite certain she had invited Trevor on my behalf. The same could be said for my friend Charlotte, the widowed Countess of Stratford, as well as my cousin Rye Mallery, who had been ardently courting her. I dipped my head to her as our eyes met across the room, pleased to see that her eyes were shining and her cheeks flushed happily as she stood close to Rye's side. It was true, Charlotte's great-aunt, Lady Bearsden, was an old crony of the dowager duchess. In fact, the two ladies were seated in chairs near the windows, cackling over some outrageous bit of gossip, no doubt. However, I still suspected Charlotte had been added to the guest list because of me.
That the duchess had thought to do so made my heart warm even more toward her. She was aware of my scandalous past, and she could commiserate in some ways that other people could not. That she'd made such an effort to make me feel more comfortable showed I wasn't wrong in my assessment of her. Beneath her bold facade and irreverent defiance lay a heart of empathy and kindness.
As if summoned by my thoughts, she appeared in the doorway with the duke. At the sight of them, the assembly broke out into a smattering of applause. The duke and duchess nodded their heads, as if this was their due, gliding into the room. The diamond necklace glittering around the duchess's throat seemed to compete with the dazzle of the crystals in the chandeliers overhead. The duchess knew how to present herself to best advantage, and tonight was no different. Her elegant figure was swathed in a bold shade of scarlet, the fashionable puffed sleeves finished with organza and lace trim. The colors offset her white hair and creamy skin to perfection, and made the duke, with his saggy jowls and the paunches under his eyes, appear rather sallow.
For my part, I was most surprised to see them standing arm in arm, though I knew they often enough did so for show. Both of their current lovers might be present among the guests, but that wouldn't stop them from performing this bit of pageantry.
Having been raised by a mother and father who adored each other, and taught us to eschew such immoral behavior, I found the rampant infidelity among a large portion of society to be awkward and disconcerting. But I was also aware that much of the nobility did not marry for love, but for wealth and connections. For many, the best that could be hoped for was mutual respect and friendship with their spouse.
I moved a step closer to Gage, deeply conscious of how lucky I was. My first marriage to Sir Anthony Darby had been arranged, and it was not an exaggeration to call it the worst years of my life. I hesitated to call his subsequent death a blessing, but it most certainly had saved me from further torment. To have then found Sebastian Gage, a man who loved and accepted me for who I was, seemed at times a miracle.
His hand pressed against the small of my back, drawing me in, as he always had. As I hoped he always would.
"We are pleased to welcome you all to this year's Twelfth Night Ball," the duchess declared, raising her voice to be heard over the murmur of the crowd. "As those of you who have attended in the past will recall, our first order of business is to select our Lord of Misrule and his glorious Lady."
At this, the duke's butler-who was quite possibly the tallest man I had even seen, his head seeming to nearly brush the doorframe-and four footmen stepped forward to slice the cake.
"I hope you have all been enjoying my staff's confectionary work of art, for it's now time to taste it. But chew carefully," the duchess warned, her eyes lively with good humor. "For the gentleman who finds the bean in his slice of cake and the lady who finds a pea, shall be crowned lord and lady for the evening."
I was aware of the tradition of crowning a Lord of Misrule, or alternatively the King of the Bean or the Abbot of Unreason, but I had rarely taken part in any Twelfth Night festivities. Growing up along the Borders region between England and Scotland, we had been more apt to follow my mother's Scottish family traditions than those of my father, who was from southern England. The Rutherfords, along with most of the Scots, made mischief at the turn of the New Year on Hogmanay rather than on Twelfth Night. In fact, Trevor, Alana, Philip, Gage, and I, along with Alana and Philip's children, had celebrated Christmas at our childhood home along the River Tweed. We had then welcomed in the year of 1832 at our aunt and uncle's annual Hogmanay Ball before traveling further north to the Duke and Duchess of Bowmont's castle. But for all that Sunlaws might lie in the heart of the Ettrick Forest, an ancient hunting ground of the Scottish kings, firmly entrenched on Scots soil, their family an offshoot of the noble Kerr clan, the dukes had been happy to adopt the traditional merriments from both sides of the border.
We watched as two footmen distributed slices from one side of the cake to the women, while the other two footmen passed slices from the opposite side of the cake to the men.
Feeling an anxious stirring in my stomach, I leaned closer to my sister to whisper. "If I find the dried pea in my slice of cake, will you claim it instead?"
Her gaze cut to mine, thick with understanding. I had never been eager to be the center of attention, and despite the strides I had made to distance myself from the scandals of my past, and stare down those who sought to belittle me, the prospect of acting as lady for the evening was beyond me. I would not enjoy myself in the least.
She nodded once.
Relieved on that score, I felt my shoulders relax as I received a slice of the heavy cake and began to taste it. Appearances had not been deceiving. It was as delicious as it looked, which made it difficult to consume slowly. Especially as I would have happily swallowed the pea and claimed ignorance.
Before I'd realized it, I'd devoured nearly half of my cake. As compared to the few dainty bites the trio of ladies standing near us had eaten while mincing up their slices in search of the pea.
"A bean and a pea," one of them scoffed. "You would think the duke and duchess would join the rest of the polite world and use gold tokens instead. It's far more gentile."
"I wish they would follow the example of Lady Cowper and send us our roles in the mock court before the party," a second lady remarked waspishly. "I've brought half a dozen gowns for this evening, and yet I still might have to send my maid to search through their musty trunks for an appropriate costume."
"It's perfectly dreadful," the third commented with no small dose of melodrama.
Alana's gaze met mine and she rolled her eyes, having overheard the same exchange. These ladies had missed the purpose of the evening's merriment. In forming a mock court, we would be making fun of ourselves, and of the conceit and pomposity of the royalty and nobility who came before us. It was a chance to turn everything on its head-to transform the fool into the wiseman, and the servant, the king. Little as I wanted to be the lady, I understood that choosing the roles ahead of time would take away some of the charm and excitement from the festivities.