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January 5, 1814. London
'Just look at that blue sky, guv'nor. Mornin' like this, all's right with the world and no mistake.'
'You must be in love, Dan.' Marcus Carlow, Viscount Stanegate, observed as he looped his reins and took the corner from Piccadilly into Albemarle Street at a brisk trot.
A waft of onions from behind him accompanied an indignant snort from his tiger. 'You won't find me shut up in parson's pound, guv'nor. Nah, just look at it: all crisp and sunny and fresh. A perfect day—proper lifts the spirits. Nuffin' could go wrong on a day like this.'
After a remark like that, a superstitious man would take to his bed, order the doors to be bolted and expect disaster.' Marcus grinned, steadying the pair as they took exception to a large party proceeding along the pavement in a flurry of bandboxes and fluttering scarves.
It was a damned good day, Dan was right. The sun shone, the air was crisp, the fog had lifted and the intriguing Mrs Perdita Jensen was showing unmistakeable signs of a willingness to accept his carte blanche.
Yes, if one disregarded a father whose poor health was wearing down his mother's spirits, one sister whose aim in life appeared to bring him to an early grave with worry, another whose sweet innocence was equally conducive to anxiety, and a brother who, when he was not putting life and limb at risk on the battlefield, was set on becoming the wildest rake in town, then one might, indeed, believe that nothing on earth could go wrong.
Marcus contemplated the day ahead. Luncheon with the family, a meeting with Brocket, the estate manager, up from Hertfordshire with a bulging portfolio of estate business, dinner at his club and then a visit to Mrs Jensen's discreet apartments to agree terms. Calm, ordered, satisfactory and predictable, just for once.
'Take the curricle round to the mews, Dan. I won't be—' The door of the double-fronted town house burst open as a footman emerged at the run. 'Peters?'
'My lord.' The man pulled himself up at the foot of the steps. 'Lord Narborough—it looks like another heart stroke, my lord. Mr Wellow said I was to take a hack and fetch the doctor, urgently.'
'Dan, take the reins.' Marcus thrust them into the tiger's hands as the young man scrambled round and into the seat. Marcus vaulted down and pushed the footman up beside Dan. 'If Dr Rowlands isn't at home, find where he has gone and bring him.'
He took the steps two at a time and caught the closing front door. The hall was in turmoil. Richards, the youngest footman, was wringing his hands and declaring that it wasn't his fault, the young lady looked respectable enough and how was he to know she was a murdering hussy? Wellow, the butler, was demanding of Felling, the earl's elderly valet, where his lordship's drops were, and at the foot of the stairs three young women were engaged in a noisy argument.
Or, at least, Honoria, his elder sister, was arguing. Verity, the younger, was in tears. Marcus shrugged off his caped driving coat and strode across the black-and-white chequered floor to the one person who appeared to be calm. 'Miss Price, what has occurred?'
His sisters' companion turned, relief at the sight of him clear on her face. 'Lord Stanegate, thank Heavens you are returned. No, Honoria! If your mama says the young woman is to remain in the library until Lord Stanegate says what is to be done, then that is where she stays and you are not to speak to her.' She put an arm around Verity and gave her a little shake. 'Now stop crying, Verity. What good is that going to do your papa?'
'None.' Verity threw herself onto Marcus's chest. 'Marc! Papa is dying!'
'Nonsense,' he retorted with more assurance than he felt, disentangling his sister and setting her firmly on her feet. 'Verity, Honoria, go and help Felling find Papa's drops. Miss Price, where is Lord Narborough?'
'In his study, with her ladyship,' she said. 'Mrs Hoby should be up at any moment with some sweet tea.'
'Thank you.' Marcus opened the door to the study and went quietly inside. His father was stretched out on the big leather chaise, his wife seated by his side, patting his hand. Marcus stopped dead, shaken despite knowing what to expect. The earl, always in poor health, was only fifty-four, but with grey hair and stooped shoulders he looked twenty years older. Marcus could barely recall his father as well and active. But now, with blue lips and his eyes closed and sunken, he looked a dying man.
Lady Narborough looked up and smiled.
'Marc, I knew you would not be long. George, here is Marc'
The hooded lids fluttered open and Marcus let out the breath he was holding. No, his father was not going to die, not this time. The dark grey eyes, so like his own, were focused and alive.
'Father, what happened?'
'Some girl… brought it. Don't know why.' His right hand moved restlessly. Marcus knelt by the chaise, taking his father's hand in his as his mother got up and moved aside to give him room.
His father gripped his fingers. 'There.' He turned his head towards the desk where a brown-paper parcel lay undone, something heaped in its midst. 'My boy.' His voice dropped to a whisper and Marcus leaned close to hear. 'That old business. Hebden and Wardale. Dead and buried… I thought.' He closed his eyes again. 'Don't fuss. Shock, that's all… Damn this heart.'
Lady Narborough met Marcus's eyes across the room, her own wide and questioning as he curled his fingers around his father's wrist and felt for the pulse. 'He'll do,' he murmured as the housekeeper came in with the tea, the valet at her heels with the belladonna drops.
Between them, they got the earl propped up and sipping his tea. Certain his mother was occupied, Marcus moved to the desk and examined the parcel that had caused all the trouble. Ordinary stout brown paper tied with string and sealed with a blob of red wax. The Earl ofNarborough and the address in a firm black hand, probably masculine. Marcus bent and sniffed: no perfume.
And lying in the centre, beside the knife his father had used to slash the string, a length of coiled rope. It was perhaps an inch thick and a strange colour, a mix of fine soft threads—blues, reds, yellows, white, brown and black.
Frowning, Marcus lifted it and it slithered, snakelike, in his grip. The feel as it moved was somehow alive. Silk? Then he saw the loop and the knot in the end, and recognised it. A silken rope, a luxurious halter to hang a man. The privilege, if such it could be called, accorded to a peer of the realm who was sentenced to death.
Hebden and Wardale, his father had said. One a victim, the other his murderer. Two dead men. And now, after almost twenty years, this rope delivered to their closest friend. Coincidence? He did not think so and neither, it was obvious, did his father.
With a glance to reassure himself that the earl seemed stable enough, Marcus slipped from the room. Raised female voices could be heard from the White Salon, but the hall was empty save for Wellow, on the watch for the doctor.
'Wellow, what the devil has been going on here?'
The butler tightened his lips, his face once more impassive beneath the imposing dome of his bald head. 'A young woman called—at the front door, my lord. Richards answered it. He says she appeared a lady, despite carrying a parcel, which is why he did not send her to the tradesmen's entrance. She asked to speak to his lordship, insisted that she must deliver the package into his hands.
'Richards showed her through to the study.' The butler's expression boded ill for the junior footman. 'I regret to say he has now forgotten the name he was given to announce. He left her alone with his lordship. A few moments later the young woman came out of the room, calling for help. His lordship was in a collapsed condition. I told Richards to shut her in the library and lock the door until your return, my lord, considering that the entire affair had a most irregular appearance.'
'Very wise, thank you, Wellow. I will speak to her now. Call me when the doctor arrives.'
The key was in the lock. Marcus turned it and went into the library, braced for almost anything.
The woman who turned from her contemplation of the street was tall, slender to the point of thinness and clad in a plain, dark pelisse and gown. Her bonnet was neither fashionable nor dowdy; the impression she gave was of neatness and frugality. As he came closer and noticed the tightness with which her hands were clasped before her and the rigidity of her shoulders, he realized that she was under considerable strain.
'The butler told me to wait for Lord Stanegate. Are you he?' Her voice was a surprise. Warm and mellow, like honey. Hazel eyes watched him, full of concern. Feigned?
'I am Stanegate,' he said, not troubling to blank out his feelings from either his face or voice. For whatever reason, she had made his father very ill. And you?'
Why couldn't I have thought of something more convincing? Nell stared back into the hard eyes, as dark as wet flint. He was too big, too serious, too male. And far too close. She locked her knees against the instinct to edge backwards as she read the anger under the control he was exerting.
'Miss Smith?' No, he didn't believe her. There was scepticism in the deep voice, and one corner of his mouth turned down in the reverse of a smile as he studied her face. 'Why, exactly, have you delivered a silken rope to my father?'
Nell made herself withstand the compelling dark eyes. 'Is that what it was? The parcel seemed innocuous enough. I saw no harm in it.'
'The rope looked like a snake. You are fortunate that he did not die of the shock. The earl is not a well man, his heart is weak.' There was the anger again, like fire behind the flint. A man who loved his father and was afraid for him.
'I had no idea what it contained. It was only a parcel to be delivered.' Just let me go…
'Indeed? You hardly look like the sort of female to be employed delivering parcels.' The viscount—she supposed that was what he was; her grasp of the ranks of nobility was escaping her under stress—folded his arms across his chest and looked her up and down. She knew what he was seeing. Shabby gentility, neatness and decency maintained by sheer willpower and a refusal to give in and allow her standards to slip.
'I am a—' Lie, her instincts shouted '—dressmaker. I deliver garments for fittings to clients' homes on behalf of my employer. One gentleman asked, as a favour, if she would have me deliver that parcel here. He has spent a good deal of money at the shop recently. Madame did not like to refuse such a good customer.'
'His name?' He did not seem to actually disbelieve her despite the sceptical line of that hard mouth. And it was true. Almost.
'I do not know it.'
'Really, Miss Smith? An excellent customer of your employer and you do not know his name?' He moved closer, just a little, just to the very edge of discomfort for her, and narrowed his eyes.
Nell lifted her chin and stared back, letting him see that she was assessing him in her turn, refusing to be cowed. Almost thirty, she guessed; six foot, give or take half an inch; fit; confident, used to getting his own way. Was that because of his station in life or his inherent qualities? All she could tell of the latter, just now, was that he was an angry man who loved his father.
'No, I do not know his real name, my lord. I know the name he gave: Salterton.'
'And how do you know that is false?'
'I assumed by the style of what he chose that he was buying items for his mistress. He spent a lot of money. Money, I deduced, that he would not want his wife to know about. I was there when he first came into the shop and I heard Madame ask him his name. He hesitated, just a fraction, and then there was something in his voice. He was lying; one can tell.'
'Indeed, one can,' Lord Stanegate said, that mobile corner of his mouth twitching up into a fleeting smile that held no humour whatsoever. Nell felt her cheeks grow hot and stared fixedly at the cabochon-ruby pin in his neckcloth. 'What does he look like?'
'I hardly saw him and I think that was deliberate on his part. I do not think even Madame has fully seen his face. He always seems to come in the evening and he wears a slouch hat, his collar is turned up. He pays in cash, not on account.
'But one can see he is dark.' She struggled for remembrance and to assemble her impressions into a coherent description. 'He is foreign perhaps, because there is something in his voice—not quite an accent, more of a lilt, although he speaks like an English gentleman. He looks fit, he moves well.' She frowned, chasing the elusive words to describe the shadowy figure. 'Like a dancer. He is not quite as tall as you and of slighter build.'
As she spoke, she realized she was letting her eyes run over the man in front of her, assessing the elegant simplicity of expensive tailoring and the fit, well-proportioned, body under it. He was dressed for driving in a dark plain coat and buckskin breeches with glossy high boots. She dragged her gaze back to the tiepin: there was something about the set of the strong jaw above the intricate folds of the neckcloth that suggested he was aware of her scrutiny and did not relish it.
'You are a good observer, Miss Smith, considering you only glimpsed him and had no reason to take an interest.' He did not believe her, but she was not going to admit that the dark man had both intrigued and repelled her from the start. He had seemed to bring danger into the frivolous feminine world of the shop. 'What is the name and direction of your employer? Doubtless she will remember even more.'
'I prefer not to give it. Madame would not be pleased if she found I had involved her in an awkward situation.' And that, my girl, is where you get yourself when you lie. I cannot tell him now, not without admitting I do not work for a dressmaker, and then he will believe even less of what I say.