It’s mid-September 1893 and Eloisa Carstairs is the reigning debutant of Gilded Age Chicago society. To outsiders she appears to have it all. But Eloisa is living with a dark secret. Several months ago, she endured a horrible assault at the hands of Douglass Sloane, heir to one of Chicago’s wealthiest families. Fearing the loss of her reputation, Eloisa confided in only one friend. That is, until she meets Detective Sean Ryan at a high-society ball.
Sean is on the fringes of the Chicago elite. Born into a poor Irish family, becoming a policeman was his best chance to ensure security. Despite social boundaries, he is enamored with Eloisa Carstairs. Sean will do anything to keep her safe—even if he can never earn her affections.
Eloisa longs to feel normal again, but a killer is on the loose. In the last month, three debutants have been accosted by an assailant wielding a knife, and Eloisa fears for her safety at every event she attends. As the danger in the city increases, and as the romance between Eloisa and Sean blossoms, they both realize they want to be seen as more than how the world views them. But will they catch the killer before all their hopes come crashing down?
“Shelley Gray writes a well-paced story full of historical detail that will invite you into the romance, the glamour . . . and the mystery surrounding the Chicago World’s Fair.” —Colleen Coble, USA Today bestselling author of Rosemary Cottage and the Hope Beach series
- The Chicago World Fair Mystery series
- Book 1—Secrets of Sloane House
- Book 2—Deception on Sable Hill
- Book 3—Whispers in the Reading Room
- Book length: 86,000 words
- Includes discussion questions for book clubs
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Deception on Sable Hill
By Shelley Gray
ZONDERVANCopyright © 2015 Shelley Gray
All rights reserved.
CHICAGO, SEPTEMBER 1893
Don't keep me in the dark for another second, Eloisa," Quentin Gardner teased as they waltzed across the gleaming parquet floor of his family's crowded ballroom. "Where have you been? No one has seen you in what seems like ages. You've missed quite a few of the events around the fair."
"I've been the same places you have," she replied, taking care to keep her voice light and steady. "Though to be honest, it would be a wonder if you were able to spy me among this year's debutantes clamoring for your attention."
He chuckled. "I've hardly been that in demand."
"The Tribune did just list you as one of society's most eligible bachelors."
She raised an eyebrow, half expecting him to act surprised. Quentin enjoyed pretending he was above such things as the society pages.
He didn't deny the article. Instead, his cheeks flushed. "I was only on that list because of my family's money."
"And perhaps your good looks too." She tapped his shoulder lightly with her gloved hand. "I've been told that blue eyes and coal-black hair are an irresistible combination."
"You and I both know that article was mere gossip."
"One that has a shred of truth, though."
"Even if I was surrounded by a bevy of young ladies—which I most definitely was not—I would have noticed if you were in our midst. You have not been out, Miss Carstairs."
With effort she kept her expression impassive. "You sound so sure about that."
"That's because I am."
Just as she was formulating a reply, Quentin twirled her around. Then, as she chuckled at his exuberance, he eased her a bit closer. "I've missed your company, Eloisa. What made you decide to suddenly be so elusive?"
She had a very good reason. A very good reason that only a handful of people knew about. It was imperative that she keep it that way.
As she felt his warm breath brush against her neck, her unease returned. Pressing on his shoulder, she attempted to regain some space between them. "Quentin, there's no need to hold me so close."
Something flashed in his eyes before they filled with hurt. Anger? Frustration?
"I'm not doing anything inappropriate. I simply want to talk to you without having to raise my voice."
She tried to pull away again, but his arm around her waist was very strong. "The way you are holding me is rather improper."
"Hardly that. Besides, I can promise that no one is paying the slightest attention to us. It's a veritable crush here. I think my mother's guest list included every dignitary associated with the fair."
He was, of course, talking about the fair to commemorate the four hundredth anniversary of Columbus's discovery of America, the World's Columbian Exposition. Though some were still scratching their heads, wondering about the need to celebrate such a thing in such a grand fashion, no one could deny that the World's Fair of 1893 had certainly made Chicago feel as if it were the center of the universe.
The excitement surrounding the fair had been exhilarating, wondrous—and exhausting. Every dignitary and society matron had used the event as an excuse to hold a soiree, dinner party, gala, or ball. And because her mother was intent on Eloisa marrying well, she'd encouraged her daughter to attend as many events as she could.
The only excuse she would hear of for Eloisa to decline was a migraine headache. Therefore, Eloisa had made sure she'd had as many such headaches as possible.
When Quentin twirled her again, Eloisa tried to relax. Tried to remind herself he was doing nothing but dancing with her—in plain sight of everyone. "Soon all the visitors will go back to their homes and Chicago will seem almost empty."
"Yes, the fairgrounds will close on All Hallow's Eve, you know."
"I'll be glad when it's over."
Quentin nodded. "As will I. Our city feels filled to the brim with miscreants and vagabonds." Tilting his head back so their eyes met, he added, "I know how independent you are. I hope you are taking care when you go out. It's no longer safe for young ladies to go anywhere unescorted."
"It hasn't been for some time."
Regret filled his clear blue eyes. "Forgive me for frightening you. I imagine you're still reeling over the news about Douglass Sloane's death. It has been only two weeks."
She nearly stumbled. "Yes. His death has been something of a shock. I can still hardly believe the news is true."
"I'm still trying to figure out why he decided to go boating in September. It isn't quite the thing, you know. He was never one I would call a friend, but still ... drowning in Lake Michigan? That's a terrible way to go."
Hardly able to even think about Douglass, she nodded and prayed for their dance to be over soon. Or, at the very least, for Quentin to change the subject.
And as if on cue, he did just that. "Now, of course we have even more to worry about, what with the recent string of attacks on women of substance."
"Indeed. It, uh, is a wonder any of us ever leaves the house."
"How many women have been attacked with a stiletto knife now?"
"I don't recall," she lied. However, she knew the number as well as she knew the number of faint scars on her own body. Three. Three acquaintances of hers had found themselves at the mercy of a crazed madman intent on ruining their looks.
"You're looking pale, dear. Forgive me. I'm not usually such a clumsy conversationalist."
"I am perfectly fine." She attempted to smile while peeking over Quentin's shoulder at the orchestra. Would this waltz never end? When it did, if the friends who accompanied her were ready to leave as well, she could quietly make her escape with them and return to the sanctity of her bedroom at home on Sable Hill. Leaving it had been a mistake.
The faint wrinkle that had been marring Quentin's perfect features smoothed. "Please don't be concerned about your safety, dear Eloisa. I'll look after you. This Slasher cannot get to you here."
"That is very kind, but people will talk if I monopolize all of your attention."
He laughed. "I don't care. Actually, my mother would practically start crowing if everyone believed you and I had formed an alliance. I might be this week's most eligible bachelor, but you, Eloisa, have been the focus of every man's attention between the age of eighteen and eighty since you made your debut two years ago."
"You flatter me."
"It's the truth. You are the object of many a man's attentions. Believe me, I've heard."
She shuddered. "Your observation doesn't make me feel any safer."
"How about this, then? My father hired two off-duty policemen to keep watch over tonight's event. I promise, all evening you've been closely guarded—though I would have preferred that they had stayed outside."
"Truly?" She looked around the room.
"Yes. They're right here with us. In the ballroom. One is Detective Owen Howard. You know Owen, of course."
She relaxed. "Of course. Though he is several years older than I am, I've known him for ages." Just like the rest of them had. Though everyone in their circle stayed the same, only growing older year after year, Owen was the exception. He'd reinvented himself, deciding to join the force when most men in their world elected to spend their days in far less demanding pursuits. Owen's decision made her admire him all the more.
"He is a good man, to be sure, though I have to admit to still being somewhat shocked by his chosen profession. He could have done much better."
"Perhaps he enjoys the work?"
"That would be doubtful. His father, after all, is a banker."
"Perhaps banking isn't for everyone."
"Well, he is a third son. With no chance of inheriting much, I understand why he might elect to go into the police business." After a pause, his tone turned haughty. "It's his partner who looks a bit more ... swarthy. His name is Sean Ryan."
"Trust me, he's as Irish as a four-leaf clover. He has also been lurking about in an ill-fitting tuxedo. I don't know if the poor fit is from an inferior tailor, a weapon, or the fact that he likely borrowed it from some unfortunate soul."
As Quentin guided her across the marble floor, she scanned the crowd. "I don't see him."
"You will. I promise, once you start looking, you won't miss him. He sticks out like a sore thumb! However, Owen has vouched for his character, which is the only reason my parents allowed him to be in our midst." He leaned closer to drawl into her ear. "So don't worry about a thing, Eloisa. As long as they're here, everything is going to be just fine. As far as I'm concerned, they're worth every penny of their exorbitant fee. If they keep you safe, it will be money well spent."
It took a lot of effort to pretend she believed him. But what Quentin didn't realize was that it wasn't only the threat of being attacked by a stranger that frightened her.
It was the knowledge that much worse than a threat could happen with someone she knew.
* * *
"You're staring again," Owen Howard blurted as he reached Sean's side. "If you're not careful, someone besides me is going to notice."
"I'm merely scanning the area," Sean lied. Only through careful effort was he able to refrain from flushing. "There are a lot of people here, you know. Hundreds."
"Yes, but only one Eloisa Carstairs."
"I'm sure I don't know to whom you are referring."
"Of course you do," Owen countered with a wink. "But don't be embarrassed, chap. You aren't doing anything the rest of us haven't done a time or two. Or ten. Eloisa is pure golden-haired perfection. Angelic even."
Sean raised his eyebrows at the descriptor. At times like these he truly wondered why Owen had elected to join the police force. Though he wasn't quite as high in the instep as the majority of the gentlemen and ladies in attendance, he was certainly far and above Sean's social standing.
In addition, Sean was fairly certain if he, like Owen, had made such a social stumble like joining the police force, he certainly wouldn't be showing up at society functions like this. It seemed an odd choice.
Sean, however, was making a small fortune for Hope House this evening. That was what he needed to focus on. His fee would cover the expenses of the women and children who lived there for almost a month. That was reason alone to be standing around in an ill-fitting, borrowed tuxedo, attempting to look vigilant.
"Ready to split up again?" Sean asked. "I'll check the balconies and alcoves while you check the perimeter grounds."
Owen pulled out his silver timepiece. "That suits me fine. Meet back here in an hour?"
As the set ended and the men escorted their partners off the dance floor, Sean watched Owen walk in the direction of the balcony and the outdoor steps that led down to the patio and garden. The patio was decorated with a flurry of white candles.
Then, unable to help himself, he looked for her pale lace gown the color of spring grass. He exhaled as he saw Eloisa being escorted off the floor and toward one of the private rooms off to the side. She was in Quentin Gardner's company, which was reason enough for Sean to pretend he didn't see her. Quentin's father was not only paying his fee, the family was also believed to be above reproach. In short, Quentin was everything Sean was not. He was exactly the type of gentleman Eloisa should be near.
But then Sean noticed her expression had become strained, and she seemed to be trying to pull her arm from Quentin's grip. Her eyes were darting around the room, as if she were looking for anyone to give her assistance.
He stilled and stared at her hard, not caring if his attention was garnering notice.
He knew the exact moment she recognized him—from when they had previously met or merely a fish-out-of-water policeman, he didn't know. He didn't care. Her lips parted. Her pleading look told him everything he needed to know.
It didn't matter who she was or whom she was with. Eloisa Carstairs was looking to him for help.
And he would do almost anything to go to her assistance.CHAPTER 2
Only with the greatest effort was Eloisa able to keep from crying out. "Quentin, where are you taking me?"
"Nowhere special. Only to one of my mother's quiet seating areas." He stopped in front of a pair of ornately carved chairs framed by heavy velvet curtains. "I never understood why she'd been so intent on designing the perfect alcove. Now I have a very good idea. We'll be able to rest here as long as we like without being disturbed."
When she saw him start to pull the drapery closed, she pulled free from his firm grip at last and stepped away. "I'd rather not sit here."
"Why? I assure you it's nothing no one here hasn't done a time or two." He grinned, but that grin slowly faded as he stared at her intently. "Eloisa? Dearest, you're deathly pale." He reached for her gloved hand and tugged her toward the chairs. "Sit down. Relax. You look as if you're about to faint."
Fearing he was correct, she sat. However, she was very far from relaxing. That same old fear gripped her as she scanned the area. Hoping for someone to come upon them soon. Praying for help. Perhaps the man whose eyes had just met hers.
"D-don't pull the curtains shut. Please."
Immediately, he pushed them back against the wall. As she tried to catch her breath, he knelt at her feet. "Shall I get you a glass of water? Lemonade?"
"I-I don't know."
Concern crossed his face as he picked up one of her gloved hands. "Why not?"
She didn't have an answer for that. Her mouth went dry as she attempted to think of something to say. Of any excuse to explain her skittishness.
But nothing was coming to mind.
Suddenly, the man in the ill-fitting tuxedo—the one who must indeed be Mr. Ryan—appeared. "Miss Carstairs, are you all right?"
Quentin scowled as he got to his feet. "Detective, be off. This is a private conversation."
After looking at her for a long moment, the detective turned to Quentin and replied, "I beg your pardon, sir, but your father was asking for you. I told him I'd find you."
"What did he want?"
"I couldn't say, sir. Only that I told him I'd convey his message." Looking then directly at her, Detective Ryan said, "Sir, it appears Miss Carstairs has gotten overheated. Since you are needed elsewhere, I'll escort her outside."
Quentin eyed him with a decidedly haughty glare. "Detective, you seem to be mistaken about your assigned duties here. My father hired you to make sure the women are safe here, not to interfere in my business."
"I understand exactly what my duties are. Sir." To Eloisa's surprise, the detective didn't look cowed in the slightest. Instead, he looked relaxed, almost at ease. But his eyes never left hers. "Miss Carstairs, would you care to take a breath of fresh air?"
Feeling both men's gazes, Eloisa knew there was only one real choice. The proper, correct thing to do would be to stay with Quentin. She'd known him for years, he was hosting the party, and nothing would make her parents happier than for her to spend time with him.
If she left with the detective, eyebrows would be raised and questions would be asked.
However, she had recently learned that the best decision wasn't always the obvious one. She had also learned that feeling safe was something not to be taken for granted.
Therefore, she stood as gracefully as she could on unsteady feet. "Thank you so much, Detective. I would enjoy taking a turn outside, especially since Quentin has been called away."
Quentin edged forward, just as if he feared she would actually make a social faux pas and take the policeman's arm. "Eloisa, I will escort you wherever you wish."
She inched closer to the detective. "Please don't trouble yourself."
"It would be no trouble." His speech was clipped, his tone hard.
With effort she kept her smile in place. "But I would feel terrible if I monopolized your company, especially since your father summoned you." Before Quentin could say another word, she turned to Detective Ryan. "Are you sure you don't mind escorting me out to one of the balconies? I really am in need of some fresh air."
"I don't mind at all."
Then, before Quentin could protest again, she wrapped a hand around the policeman's forearm as he led the way out of the alcove.
Quentin was most likely sputtering behind them, but she didn't care. All that mattered was that she felt safe with this man. And, with luck, he would even find a way for her to get home before she burst into tears.
When they were halfway to the balcony doors, the detective looked down at her. "By the way, my name is Lieutenant Detective Sean Ryan, miss. We've met before."
Though she had already recognized him, his words brought back a rush of memories she had tried very hard to forget. "Yes. Um, I remember. The Sloane ... matter. You were one of the officers who asked me questions about the family." Smoothing a faltering smile, she said, "Would you mind terribly if I acted like I know you better than I do? I don't want anyone to suspect that we're not acquainted."
Excerpted from Deception on Sable Hill by Shelley Gray. Copyright © 2015 Shelley Gray. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN.
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