Edinburgh, Scotland. March 1832. Kiera and Gage have been eagerly awaiting their bundle of joy but trouble has been brewing in the form of the roguish criminal Bonnie Brock Kincaid. A new book and subsequent play features some of Kincaid's daringly heinous exploits, although he swears he had nothing to do with it or the characters which are obvious representations of Kiera and Gage. While the scoundrel's fury seems genuine, as well as his determined quest to uncover the real identity of the author, the Gages still hold doubts about his innocence.
A rash of crimes break out across the city, seemingly inspired by the play and book. When the publisher is found brutally murderedin an imitation of a gruesome scenethe finger not only points to Bonnie Brock as the possible culprit, but also the Gages, who have been outspoken in their condemnation of the tale. Now, the Gages are on a hunt to unmask the killer. Between the infamy garnered by the play, the cholera outbreak still wreaking havoc throughout the city, and the impending birth of their child, they will need all the resources they can garner.
But family quarrels and the revelation of a secret Kiera has been keeping from Sebastian threaten to undermine everything they have overcome. When they find themselves in the crosshairs of the killer, trapped in the squalid underground vaults of the city, they will soon discover that the truth does not always set you free, and death can lurk around any corner.
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Be sure to taste your words before you spit them out.
February 1, 1832
I blamed it on the salmon mousse. That, and my preoccupation with the stilted conversation around my sister's dinner table that evening. If my stomach hadn't been struggling to digest all the rich food I'd ingested and my mind hadn't been turning over my uneasy reconciliation with my sister, I felt certain I would have noticed the man before he stepped out of the shadows.
My husband, Sebastian Gage, pulled me to a halt, for the man clearly wasn't a servant employed by the town house from whose stairwell he had emerged. The night was too cold, and the likelihood of someone wandering by too slim for him to be a thief waiting for some hapless victim to stroll through this part of New Town. Most of New Town's inhabitants would have been huddled inside their carriages to travel to and from their evening entertainments.
Gage and I had decided to walk because our home on Albyn Place was less than five minutes by foot from my sister's in Charlotte Square. Not only did using our equipage for such a short journey seem more of a fuss than was necessary, but at seven months heavy with child, I welcomed the chill of a brief evening stroll, and the benefits to my constitution, especially after a large meal.
I clutched my ermine-trimmed claret pelisse tighter around me, my arm unconsciously coming to rest over my rounded stomach in protection. Even when the man rounded the railing which separated the stairwell leading downward from the pavement, allowing the faint light of the streetlamp on the corner behind us to reveal his features, I didn't relax my guard. For while I now recognized him, the fierce glitter in his eyes did nothing to reassure me he meant us no harm.
"Oot for an evenin' constitutional, are we?" Bonnie Brock Kincaid bit out, his words no less menacing despite their seeming innocuousness.
"Returning home from a family dinner." Gage's eyes narrowed. "But you already knew that."
Bonnie Brock had told us once that nothing happened in Edinburgh without him knowing, and that seemed to prove true in the Georgian splendor of New Town as well as the cramped and fetid wynds and closes of Old Town, particularly when it came to me and Gage. The previous spring he'd deployed men to observe me and report my movements, and since our return to the city the week prior I'd begun to suspect his men were at it again.
Gage studied our surroundings to our left and then our right. "Where are Stumps and Locke?"
Bonnie Brock's ever-present henchmen and bodyguards appeared to materialize out of the misty darkness, but my attention remained firmly fixed on their leader.
It had been nine months since I'd last seen the ruthless and charismatic head of Edinburgh's largest criminal gang. Nine months since he'd been poisoned and almost killed by a revenge-mad enemy from his past. Gage and I had departed Edinburgh soon after the culprit was apprehended, and while I'd known Bonnie Brock had made a full recovery, my last memory of him was a weak shadow of his normal self.
From what I could view of him through his open greatcoat, his body had regained much of the weight and muscle it had lost. As always, he seemed underdressed for the cold of a Scottish winter, sporting well-tailored but simple garments and no neck cloth. But I'd realized a year ago that he chose to sacrifice warmth for ease of movement and ready access to the weapons tucked about his person. His tawny hair brushed his collarbone, much like a lion's mane, and concealed the puckered scar which ran from his hairline down across his temple to his left ear.
Though I knew it would irritate him for me to refer to our last meeting-to those days when he was as weak and helpless as a kitten-I couldn't let this moment pass without saying something. "I'm relieved to see you appear as fit as ever."
His brow puckered as if suppressing some emotion, either further vexation or something softer, but no less cutting. "Aye, weel, looks like you're in fine health as weel." A roguish glint lit his gold-green eyes as he let them dip lower to my abdomen. "I see Gage has been an attentive husband."
In the past such a comment might have made me blush, but I could tell Bonnie Brock was resorting to crassness in order to distract from his own vulnerabilities. I'd suspected as much in the past, but now I knew it. And when neither Gage nor I rose to his bait, his scowl deepened.
"What do you want, Kincaid?" my husband demanded.
I had a fair guess what this was about, but I wanted to hear it from Bonnie Brock himself.
He strode closer until Gage lifted a hand, warding him off. His mouth twisted. "What's the matter? Worried I'll stick a dagger in your side and run off wi' your bride?"
"No, but I am worried you carry the cholera, and I'd prefer if you didn't infect my expectant wife," Gage replied sharply, his voice brooking no argument.
At these words, some of Bonnie Brock's ferocity diminished, recognizing as well as we did how dangerous such a thing would be.
Cholera morbus, which had run rampant through Russia and the countries surrounding the Baltic Sea, had arrived in Britain in October. From Sunderland, it had spread north and south largely along the coast, arriving in Edinburgh just before Christmas. With Old Town's squalid rows of tenements packed together cheek by jowl, with naught but a narrow wynd or close separating some of them, it was no wonder that the disease had gained a foothold there. The air was often foul, at best, and the food consumed by its residents sometimes barely edible, while the wide streets and airy squares of New Town, with their spacious Georgian town houses filled with a healthy, well-fed populace, had thus far escaped the worst of the infection.
By all reports, the cholera was much worse than the minor outbreak of typhus that the lower denizens of the city had faced the previous spring. As overrun as the infirmary had been then, I could only imagine the difficulties they were facing now. Of course, cholera morbus could also kill more quickly. Sometimes in less than twenty-four hours. The numbers in which people were dying were frightening, although the reports from Glasgow, London, and places on the European continent seemed to suggest that Edinburgh had thus far escaped the worst.
Gage settled his arm protectively around my waist. "Speak your peace but at a distance. And do it quickly," he added as gust of wind whipped down Charlotte Street, ruffling the tendrils of hair which had curled so artfully around my face earlier in the evening and now threatened to come unmoored from their pins beneath my bonnet.
"Who did ye tell?"
"Who did we tell what?" Gage countered.
"Who did ye tell aboot my past?" Bonnie Brock growled in his deep Scottish brogue.
I frowned, sharing a look of confusion with my husband, neither of us having expected to be accused of anything. But it was evident that Bonnie Brock was perfectly serious, and one look at Stumps and Locke told me they were equally furious.
"Is this about that book?" Gage replied.
It was the wrong thing to say. Bonnie Brock's nostrils flared, and Stumps and Locke each took another step toward us, their muscles tensing as if in preparation for doing violence. My breath tightened in my lungs, and I had to resist the impulse to back away, to turn and run.
"Who did ye tell?" Bonnie Brock's voice crackled like a whip.
Gage stepped in front of me, holding out his arms to ward off both henchmen. "Now, wait one minute! We don't have anything to do with that book, if that's what you're insinuating. Neither of us has told anyone anything about you or your past. Why would we?"
"Why, indeed?" the hardened criminal drawled, not believing us.
Gage lowered his arms, perhaps realizing they would do little to ward off any impending blow. He would be better served to lower his center of gravity and prepare to dodge around their fists to land a punch of his own. Or even better, draw the pistol concealed in his greatcoat pocket.
With that thought, I began to pull the strings of my reticule as unobtrusively as I could. But Bonnie Brock noted the movement, and he knew me too well.
"I wouldna do that, lass."
My fingers stilled as he stared pointedly at the beaded bag which concealed my Hewson percussion pistol. It had been a year since I'd taken to carrying it.
"The last time ye pointed a gun at me, things didna go the way ye hoped." His eyebrows arched, reminding me how swiftly he'd disarmed me and backed me against a wall. "And before ye make the mistake o' thinkin' the distance between us will spare ye, let me disabuse ye of the notion that any o' us is unarmed." He drew aside his greatcoat to reveal his own pistol, and I knew better than to think that was the only weapon he carried. He likely bristled with knives.
I lowered the reticule to my side, inhaling a deep breath to try to settle the quaking in my stomach. Regardless of the assistance he'd given us in our past inquiries, and the tentative friendship that had sprung up between us, Bonnie Brock had also displayed ample evidence of his capability for violence. On more than one occasion he'd made it clear that no matter what had occurred between us in the past, if we crossed or threatened him, or someone he cared about, he would not hesitate to harm or even kill us. There was a reason he succeeded in controlling the largest Edinburgh gang, and despite his Robin Hood-like reputation among the lower classes, it was not because of his compassion.
I had feared that his show of weakness the previous spring when he was poisoned would sour our relationship. It was one of the reasons I'd been so glad Gage and I had departed Edinburgh soon after, giving Bonnie Brock time to regain his strength and salvage his pride. After all, for a man in his position, used to wielding power quickly and sometimes brutally, any sign of weakness could spell death.
But this was different. If he was speaking of the book, then this was an accusation of betrayal. Or perhaps it was all wrapped up together. Either way, if we didn't make him see reason now, we might not live long enough to have the chance.
Straightening my spine, I met his irate glare. "We don't have anything to do with that book, Brock," I stated evenly, reminding him he'd urged me to call him thus the last time we'd spoken, hoping the intimacy it implied would pierce through his haze of fury. "We hadn't even heard about it until our return to the city a week ago." My lips pursed, allowing some of my own aggravation to shine through. "If we had, do you honestly think we would have permitted the offensive insinuations the book made about us?"
This seemed to give him pause, but only for a moment. "I dinna ken. Maybe ye were betrayed as well."
I shook my head at the irrationality of this remark. "Then we would be the first to reveal the author for the fraud he is."
Not that it would do a bit of difference. Society often chose to believe what it wished, and the more scandalous the better. Bitterness flooded my mouth, for this was something that at least my sister and her husband used to understand. Now, that didn't appear to be the case.
After a particularly vexing end to our last inquiry and the failure to see real justice done, Gage and I had decided to take a respite from the investigations we often undertook until after the birth of our child, just as Alana and Philip had urged. And yet our return to Edinburgh had still been marred by gossip and speculation. The turn of the new year had seen the publication of the book titled The King of Grassmarket, which alleged to tell the true story of the city's most infamous rogue, one Bonnie Brock Kincaid. Many might have viewed the book as merely a continuation of the tendency begun some years earlier in publishing to print rather romanticized histories of notorious criminals. These highly fictionalized accounts had shown to be popular, and novels such as Paul Clifford and Eugene Aram had been devoured by a public eager for more.
So it was no surprise that Edinburgh had proven to be fertile ground for the publication of the adventures of one of its most intriguing and perhaps mysterious citizens. After all, few people knew where Bonnie Brock had come from or how he'd seized power to build his gang of criminals and amass his wealth. He had preferred to keep it that way.
But for all its similarities to those other novels, there were two notable differences about The King of Grassmarket. First and foremost being that Bonnie Brock was still alive and at liberty to move about the city and perpetuate further instances of the crimes the book accredited to him. All of the cutthroat heroes in the other books of this style had been either executed or at least tried for and convicted of their crimes and sentenced to transportation. And secondly, that the author had chosen to use a nom de plume, hiding behind a fictional identity which, thus far, no one had been able to strip away.
Clearly Bonnie Brock was intent on doing so. And deathly earnest about it, if the intensity of his threats to us were any indication.
Outrage surged through me at the affront of him believing we would have betrayed his secrets so easily. "Truthfully, we questioned whether you might be the author. After all, infamous or not, your reputation seems to have been enhanced, and what better way to control the narrative of your life." I narrowed my eyes. "Not to mention the fact that I suspect you find it devilishly funny to watch all of Edinburgh speculate on whether you might be the true father of my child."
Not only was it insulting for the book to insinuate there had been any sort of relationship between Bonnie Brock and myself-or rather the character Lady Dalby, a thinly veiled allusion to me-but the fact that it purported to question my child's paternity was both outrageous and completely preposterous. I would never have been unfaithful to Gage. Not to mention the fact that I had last seen Bonnie Brock in early May, while the baby had been conceived in July on Dartmoor in southern England, four hundred fifty miles away. Thus making the rumor impossible.