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Clerkenwell, London: Thursday, 27 January 1814
A howling wind flung icy snow crystals into Hero Devlin's face, stinging her cold cheeks and stealing her breath. She kept her head bowed, her fists clenched in the fine cloth of her merino carriage gown as she struggled to drag its sodden weight through the knee-deep drifts clogging the ancient winding lane. A footman with a lantern staggered ahead of her to light the darkness, for Clerkenwell was a wretched, dangerous area on the outskirts of the City, and night had fallen long ago.
She was here, alone except for the footman and a petite French midwife who floundered through the snow in her wake, because of an article she was writing on the hardships faced by the families of men snatched off the streets by the Royal Navy's infamous press gangs. The midwife, Alexi Sauvage, had offered to introduce Hero to the desperate eight-months-pregnant wife of a recently impressed cooper. No one had expected the woman to go into labor just as a fierce snowstorm swept in to render the narrow lanes of the district impassable to a gentlewoman's carriage. Thanks to their presence, mother and child both survived the long, hard birth. But the snow just kept getting deeper.
"Do you see it yet?" Alexi called, peering through the whirl of white toward where Hero's carriage awaited them at the base of Shepherds' Lane.
Hero brought up a cold-numbed hand to shield her eyes. "It should be j-"
She broke off as her foot caught on something half-buried in the snow and she pitched forward to land in a deep drift on quickly outflung hands. She started to push up again, then froze as she realized she was staring at the tousled dark hair of a body that lay facedown beside her.
The footman swung about in alarm, the light from his lantern swaying wildly. "My lady!"
"Mon Dieu," whispered Alexi, coming to crouch next to her. "It's a woman. Help me turn her, quickly."
Together they heaved the stiffening woman onto her back. The winter had been so wretchedly cold, with endless weeks of freezing temperatures and soaring food and coal prices, that more and more of the city's poor were being found dead in the streets. But this was no ragged pauper woman. Her fine black pelisse was lined with fur, and the dusky curls framing her pale face were fashionably cut. Hero stared into those open sightless eyes and had no need to see the bloody gash on the side of the woman's head to know that she was dead.
"She must have slipped and hit something," said Hero.
"I don't think so." Alexi Sauvage studied the ugly wound with professional interest. As a female, she could be licensed in England to practice only as a midwife. But Alexi had trained as a physician in Italy, where such things were allowed. "She couldn't have died here. A wound like this bleeds profusely-look at all the blood in her hair and on her pelisse. Yet there's hardly any blood in the snow around her." With tender hands, she brushed away the rapidly falling flakes that half obscured the dead woman's face. "I wonder who she is."
Hero watched the snow fall away from those still features and felt her chest give an odd lurch. "I know her. She's a musician named Jane Ambrose. She teaches piano to"-she paused as Alexi swung her head to stare at her-"to Princess Charlotte. The Regent's daughter."
S ebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, stood at the river steps below Westminster Bridge, his worried gaze on the turgid ice-filled expanse of the Thames before him.
Never in anyone's memory had London seen a winter such as this. Beginning in December and lasting for more than a week, a great killing fog had smothered the city with a darkness so heavy it could be felt. After that came days of endless snow that buried the entire Kingdom beneath vast drifts said in some places to run as much as twenty-three feet deep. And then, yesterday, a brief, sudden thaw sent massive blocks of ice from up the Thames spinning downriver to be carried back and forth by the tide, catching in eddies and against the arches of the bridges, where they crashed into one another with a series of echoing booms that reminded Sebastian of artillery fire. Now, with this evening's plunging temperatures and new snowfall, the city had turned into a strange black-and-white world of bleak windblown drifts cut by a ribbon of darkly dangerous ice-filled waters. And still the snow fell thick and fast around him.
He was aware of a strange silence that seemed to press down on the city, unnatural enough to be troubling. Twenty years of war combined with falling wages, soaring prices, and widespread starvation had already brought England to her knees. There was a very real worry that this vicious, killing winter might be more than the country could-or would-bear.
He glanced back at the ancient stone walls of the Houses of Parliament, which rose just beyond the bridge. They seemed so strong and invincibly enduring. Yet he knew they were not.
"Gov'nor." A familiar shrill cockney voice cut through the icy silence. "Gov'nor!"
Sebastian turned to see his sharp-faced young groom, or tiger, slip and almost fall as he took the icy footpath curling down from the bridge. "Tom? What the devil are you doing here?"
"I like t' never found ye, yer honor," said Tom, almost falling again as he skidded to a halt. "A message jist come to Brook Street from 'er ladyship."
"Yes, I heard she's been delayed in Clerkenwell."
"Aye, but this is a second message, yer honor. She's at the Queen's 'Ead near the Green, and she says you'll be wantin' t' come right away. Somebody close to Princess Charlotte's been murdered, and 'er ladyship done tripped over the body jist alyin' there in the street!"
He found Hero beside a roaring fire in the private parlor of a ramshackle old inn at the base of Shepherds' Lane. She stood lost in thought, her hands held out to the blaze. Her wet, rich dark hair lay plastered against her face; the skirts of the elegant black gown she wore in mourning for her dead mother hung limp and sodden.
"Devlin. Thank heavens," she said, turning as he entered.
"I'm sorry it took so long for your message to find me." She was one of the strongest people he knew, determinedly rational and fiercely brave. But as she came into his arms and he held her close, he felt a faint shudder rack her tall Junoesque frame. "Are you all right?"
"Yes." She drew back to give him a lopsided smile, as if vaguely embarrassed by that brief display of vulnerability. "Although more shaken than I'd care to admit."
"Anyone would be shaken."
"Not Alexi. She's gone off to treat the cook's frostbite."
Sebastian grunted. He wasn't sure anything could shock that enigmatic fiery-haired Frenchwoman. But all he said was "Tell me what happened."
He drew her back to the fire's warmth while she provided him with a crisp, calm summary. "A couple of the parish constables are guarding the body," she said. "But I made certain they sent word directly to Sir Henry at Bow Street rather than to the public office here at Hatton Garden."
"That was wise," said Sebastian. Violent deaths connected in any way with the royal family had a tendency to present the officials involved with a Faustian dilemma. And the magistrates of Hatton Garden had in the past proven themselves to be far from reliable. "Does anyone else know yet?"
"Not to my knowledge."
Sebastian nodded, his gaze meeting hers. There was no need to give voice to what both were thinking. "Good."
Sir Henry Lovejoy arrived in Clerkenwell not long after Sebastian.
The Bow Street magistrate was a small man, barely five feet tall, with stern religious views, a serious demeanor, and unshakable integrity. There'd been a time not so long ago when Sebastian had been a fugitive on the run for murder and Sir Henry the magistrate tasked with tracking him down. But in the years since then an unusual friendship had developed between the Earl's son and the dour middle-aged magistrate. As different as the two men were, they shared a fierce dedication to the pursuit of justice.
Huddled now in a heavy greatcoat with a scarf covering his lower face, Sir Henry stood outside the Queen's Head in quiet consultation with his constables while Sebastian handed Hero up into her carriage. Sebastian was watching the coachman pull away to carefully guide his team down the snowy street when Sir Henry came up beside him.
"Her ladyship is certain of the victim's identity?" said the magistrate, his eyes narrowing as the carriage's rear wheels slid sideways on the icy cobbles.
Sebastian nodded. "I'm afraid so."
"Not a good situation."
"No," agreed Sebastian.
The carriage swung around a distant corner, and the two men turned to wade through the deep drifts clogging Shepherds' Lane. The snow still fell thick and fast around them.
Two parish constables stood guard over a dark, silent form rapidly disappearing beneath the falling snow. The men had been stomping their feet and swinging their arms in an effort to stay warm, but at the Bow Street magistrate's approach, both went rigid.
"At ease, men," said Sir Henry.
"Aye, yer honor," said one of the constables, although he still didn't move.
Crouching down beside Jane Ambrose's body, Sebastian yanked off his glove and used his bare hand to brush gently at the snow that had already re-covered the dead woman's lifeless skin and dark blue lips. She'd been a poignantly attractive woman, he thought, his hand curling into a fist as he rested his forearm on his bent knee; she was probably somewhere in her early thirties, with thick dark hair, wide cheekbones, and a heart-shaped face.
The side of her head was a pulpy mess.
Lovejoy thrust his hands deep into the pockets of his greatcoat and looked away. "Did you know her, as well?"
Sebastian pulled on his glove again, his gaze returning to that still, pale face. "Only by reputation." She'd been born Jane Somerset, the daughter of the organist at Westminster Abbey. As child prodigies, she and her twin, James, had given numerous musical performances to great acclaim. But modesty required females of her class to retire from public view once they reached marriageable age. And so, while her brother James Somerset had gone on to be acknowledged as a promising young composer and one of the greatest pianists of their age, Jane had ceased to perform, married a successful dramatist named Edward Ambrose, and confined herself to such socially acceptable "feminine" pursuits as writing glees and ballads and teaching piano to the children of the wealthy. Premier amongst those students was Princess Charlotte, ebullient young daughter of the Regent and heiress presumptive to the throne behind her father.
Sebastian found himself considering Jane Ambrose's ties to the House of Hanover as he studied the pink-tinged snow around the dead woman's head. Alexi Sauvage was right: If Jane Ambrose had been killed here in Shepherds' Lane, the snow would have been drenched crimson with her blood. It was not.
"I wonder why she was left here, of all places," he said aloud.
Lovejoy hunched his shoulders against an icy gust. "Unfortunately, the wind and snow have covered any tracks her killer might have left. I suppose it's possible she was attacked somewhere near here by footpads who were then interrupted in the process of dragging the body to a less public locale."
Sebastian touched the bloodstained fur-trimmed collar of Jane Ambrose's pelisse where a gold locket still hung around the dead woman's neck. "No footpad would leave that."
Lovejoy cast a quick glance around, then crouched on the far side of the body and pitched his voice low enough to be inaudible to the constables holding back the crowds that were beginning to gather despite the freezing temperature and wind-driven snow. "And yet I fear the palace is likely to insist on saying some such thing is what happened. If we're to get a postmortem, we'd best move quickly."
Sebastian met the magistrate's gaze and nodded.
Pushing to his feet, Lovejoy sent one of his men running to the nearest deadhouse for a shell that could be used to transport the body to the surgery of Paul Gibson, an anatomist known for his ability to read the evidence left by violent death. It was when they were lifting what was left of Jane Ambrose onto the shell that Sebastian noticed the dead woman's hands, which until then had lain hidden beneath the folds of her pelisse.
They were bare.
"She's not wearing gloves," said Sebastian. "Or a hat, for that matter."
Lovejoy came to stand beside him. "How very odd." Even in the best of weather, no gentlewoman would think of appearing in public without a hat and gloves. And in this weather, it would be madness. "I'll set the lads to beating the snowdrifts to look for them. Perhaps they're lying somewhere hereabouts."
"Perhaps," said Sebastian. "But it would still be odd."
W hile a solemn-faced Lovejoy set off to personally notify Edward Ambrose of his wife's death, Sebastian spent the better part of the next hour scouting the surrounding area and knocking on the doors of the ancient dilapidated houses that lined the crooked lane. He was hoping to find someone who'd seen or at least heard something. But the bitter cold and heavy snowfall had long ago driven the area's residents to their firesides; no one would admit to knowing anything.
Giving up, he stood for a moment and watched Lovejoy's constables, their lanterns shuttered against the driving snow as they continued to flounder about in the deep drifts looking for Jane Ambrose's missing hat and gloves or anything else that might help explain what had happened to her. The snow muffled their movements the same way it silenced the usual racket of the vast, freezing city around them. And it struck Sebastian that, so intense was the unnatural hush, they might have been in a snowy forest glen surrounded only by the unseen creatures of the night.
Readjusting his hat against the snow, he shook off the peculiar thought and turned his steps toward the Tower Hill surgery of a certain one-legged, opium-eating Irishman.
Sebastian's friendship with the Irish surgeon Paul Gibson stretched back nearly ten years, to a time when both men wore the King's colors and fought the King's wars from Italy and the West Indies to the mountains of Portugal. Then a French cannonball shattered Gibson's lower left leg, leaving him racked with phantom pains and struggling with a dangerous opium addiction. That was when he had come here, to London, to teach anatomy at hospitals such as St. Thomas's and St. Bartholomew's and to open a small surgery in the shadow of the Tower.