London, 1813. The decapitation of a wealthy plantation owner at Bloody Bridge draws Sebastian St. Cyr into a macabre and perilous investigation. The discovery near the body of a lead coffin strap bearing the inscription KING CHARLES, 1648 suggests a link between this killing and the beheading of the seventeenth-century monarch. Equally troubling, the victim’s kinship to the current Home Secretary draws the notice of Sebastian’s father-in-law, Lord Jarvis, who will exploit any means to pursue his own clandestine ends.
Working with his wife, Hero, Sebastian amasses a list of suspects who range from an eccentric curiosity collector to the brother of a brilliantly observant spinster named Jane Austen.
But as one murder follows another, it is the connection between the victims and ruthless former army officer Lord Oliphant that raises the stakes. Once, Oliphant nearly destroyed Sebastian in a horrific act of betrayal. Now he poses a threat not only to Sebastian but to everything—and everyone—Sebastian holds dear.
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The Sebastian St. Cyr Series
Sunday, 21 March 1813
T hey called it Bloody Bridge.
It lay at the end of a dark, winding lane, far beyond the comforting flicker of the oil lamps of Sloane Square, beyond the last of the tumbledown cottages at the edge of a vast stretch of fields that showed only black in the moonless night. Narrow and hemmed in on both sides by high walls, the bridge was built of brick, worn and crumbling with age and slippery with moss where the elms edging the rivulet cast a deep, cold shade.
Cian O’Neal tried to avoid this place, even in daylight. It had been Molly’s idea to come here, for on the far side of the bridge lay a deserted barn with a warm, soft hayloft that beckoned to young lovers in need. But now as the wind tossed the elms along the creek and brought the distant, mournful howl of a dog, Cian felt the hard, pulsing urgency that had driven him here begin to ebb.
“Maybe this ain’t such a good idea, Molly,” he said, his step lagging. “The barn, I mean.”
She swung to face him, dark eyes shiny in a plump, merry face. “What’s the matter, Cian?” She pressed her warm, yielding body against his, her voice husky. “You havin’ second thoughts?”
“No. It’s just . . .”
The wind gusted up stronger, banging a shutter somewhere in the night, and he jerked.
To his shame, he saw enlightenment dawn on her face, and she gave a trill of laughter. “You’re scared.”
“No, I ain’t,” he said, even though they both knew it for a lie. He was a big lad, eighteen next month and strong and hale. But at the moment, he felt like a wee tyke frightened by old Irish tales of the Dullahan.
She caught his hand in both of hers and backed down the lane ahead of him, pulling him toward the bridge. “Come on, then,” she said. “How ’bout if I cross first?”
It had rained earlier in the evening, a brief but heavy downpour that left the newly budding leaves of the trees dripping moisture and the lane slippery with mud. He felt an icy tickle at the base of his neck and tried to think about the sweet warmth of the hayloft and the way Molly’s soft, eager body would feel beneath his.
They were close enough to the bridge now that Cian could see it quite clearly, its single arch a deeper black against the roiling darkness of the sky. But something wasn’t quite right, and he felt his scalp prickle, his breath catch, as the silhouette of a man’s head loomed before them.
“What is it?” Molly asked, the laughter draining from her face as she whirled around and Cian started to scream.
Monday, 22 March, the hours before dawn
T he child lay curled on his side in a cradle near the hearth, his tiny pink lips parted with the slow, even breath of sleep. He had one tightly clenched fist tucked up beneath his chin, and in the firelight the translucent flesh of his closed eyelids looked so delicate and fragile that it terrified his father, who stood watching him. Someday this infant would be Viscount Devlin and then, in time, the Earl of Hendon. But now he was simply the Honorable Simon St. Cyr, barely seven weeks old and oblivious to the fact that he had no more real right to any of those titles than his father, Sebastian St. Cyr, the current Viscount Devlin.
Devlin rested the heel of one outthrust palm against the mantelpiece. His breath came harsh and ragged, and sweat sheened his naked flesh despite the air’s chill. He’d been driven from his sleep by memories he generally chose not to revisit during daylight. But he could not stop the images that came to him in the quiet hours of darkness, visions of dancing flames, of a woman’s tortured body writhing in helpless agony, of soft brown hair fluttering against the waxen flesh of a dead child’s cheek.
The past never leaves us, he thought. We carry it with us through our lives, a ghostly burden of bittersweet nostalgia threaded with guilt and regret that wearies the soul and whispers to us in the darkest hours of the night. Only the youngest children are truly innocent, for their consciences are still untroubled, their haunted days yet to come.
He shuddered and bent to throw more coal on the fire, moving carefully so as not to wake the sleeping babe or his mother.
When Sebastian was a child, it had been the custom for the infants of the aristocracy and the gentry to be farmed out to wet nurses, often not returning to their own families until they were two years of age. But it was becoming more common now for even duchesses to choose to nurse their own offspring, and Hero, the child’s mother and Sebastian’s wife of eight months, had been adamantly against hiring a wet nurse.
His gaze shifted to the blue silk–hung bed where she slept, her rich dark hair spilling across the pillow. And he felt it again, that nameless wash of apprehension for this woman and this child that he dismissed as lingering wisps from his dream and fear born of a guilt that could never be assuaged.
A clatter of hooves and the rattle of carriage wheels over granite paving stones carried clearly in the stillness of the night. Sebastian raised his head, his body tensing as the carriage jerked to a halt and a man’s quick, heavy tread ran up his front steps. He heard the distant peal of his bell, then a gruff, questioning shout from his majordomo, Morey.
“Message for Lord Devlin,” answered the unknown visitor, his voice strained by a sense of urgency and what sounded very much like horror. “From Sir Henry, of Bow Street!”
Sebastian threw on his dressing gown and slipped quietly from the room.
T he head had been positioned near the end of one of the low brick walls lining the old bridge, its sightless face turned as if to watch anyone unwary enough to approach. A man’s head, it had thick, graying dark hair, heavy eyebrows, and a long, prominent nose.
“Nasty business, this,” said the burly constable, the pine torch in his hand hissing and spitting as he held it aloft in the blustery wind.
Sir Henry Lovejoy, the newest of Bow Street’s three stipendiary magistrates, watched the golden light dance over the pale features of that frozen, staring face and felt his stomach give an uncomfortable lurch.
The night was unusually cold and starless, the flaring torches of the constables fanning out along the banks of the small stream filling the air with the scent of burning pitch. They’d need to make a more thorough search of the area in the morning, of course. But this was a start.
Even in daylight, this rutted, muddy lane was seldom traveled, for beyond the winding rivulet spanned by the narrow, single-arched bridge lay a vast open area of market and nursery gardens known as the Five Fields. All were shrouded now in an eerie blackness so complete as to seem impenetrable.
Hunching his shoulders against the cold, Lovejoy moved to where the rest of the unfortunate gentleman’s strong, solid body lay sprawled in the lane’s grassy verge, his once neatly arranged linen cravat disordered and stained dark, the raw, hacked flesh of his neck too gruesome to bear close inspection. He’d been Lovejoy’s age, in his fifties. That should not have bothered Lovejoy, but for some reason he didn’t care to dwell on, it did. He drew a quick breath fouled with a heavy, coppery stench and groped for his handkerchief. “You’re certain this is—was—Mr. Stanley Preston?”
“I’m afraid so, sir,” said the constable. A stout young man with bulging eyes, he towered over Lovejoy, who was both short and slight. “Molly—the barmaid from the Rose and Crown—recognized the, er, head, sir. And I found his calling cards in his pocket.”
Lovejoy pressed the folded handkerchief to his lips. Under any circumstances, such a gruesome murder would be cause for concern. But when the victim was cousin to Lord Sidmouth, a former prime minister who now served as Home Secretary, the ramifications had the potential to be serious indeed. The local magistrate had immediately called in Bow Street and then withdrawn from the investigation entirely.
The sound of an approaching carriage, driven fast, jerked Lovejoy’s attention from the blood-drenched corpse at their feet. He watched as a sleek curricle drawn by a pair of fine chestnuts swung off Sloane Street to run along the north side of the square and enter the shadowy lane leading to the bridge.
The driver was a gentleman, tall and lean, wearing a caped coat and elegant beaver hat. At the sight of Lovejoy, he drew up, and the half-grown groom, or tiger, who clung to a perch at the rear of the carriage leapt down to run to the horses’ heads. “Best walk them, Tom,” said Devlin, jumping lightly from the curricle’s high seat. “That’s a nasty wind.”
“Aye, gov’nor,” said the boy.
“My lord,” said Lovejoy, moving thankfully to meet him. “My apologies for calling you out in the middle of such a wretched night. But I fear this case is worrisome. Most worrisome.”
“Sir Henry,” said Devlin. Then his gaze shifted beyond Lovejoy, to the severed head perched at the end of the bridge, and he let out a harsh breath. “Good God.”
The Viscount was some two score and five years younger than Lovejoy and stood at least a foot taller, with hair nearly as dark as a Gypsy’s and strange amber eyes that gleamed a feral yellow in the torchlight as the two men turned to walk toward the stream. “Have you learned anything yet?” he asked.
“Nothing, really, beyond the victim’s identity.”
They had first met when Devlin was wanted for murder and Lovejoy had been determined to bring him in to trial. In the two years since that time, what had begun as respect had deepened into an unlikely friendship. In Devlin, Lovejoy had found an unexpected ally with a fierce passion for justice, a brilliant mind, and a rare genius for solving murders. But the young Viscount also possessed something no Bow Street magistrate or constable could ever hope to acquire: an innate understanding and knowledge of the rarified world of gentlemen’s clubs and Society balls frequented by the likes of the man whose head now decorated this deserted bridge on the edge of Hans Town and Chelsea.
“Were you acquainted with Mr. Preston, my lord?” Lovejoy asked as Devlin paused to study the dead man’s bloodless features. The wind shifted the graying hair in a way that, for one horrible moment, made the man seem almost alive.
Preston’s fine beaver hat lay upside down at the base of the pier, and Devlin bent to pick it up, his face thoughtful as he felt the crown and brim.
Lovejoy said, “I fear Bow Street is going to come under tremendous pressure from both the Palace and Westminster to solve this. Quickly.”
Devlin’s gaze shifted to meet his. They both understood the ways in which that kind of pressure could lead to the hasty arrest and conviction of an innocent man. “You’re asking for my help?”
“I am, yes, my lord.”
Lovejoy waited anxiously for a response. But the Viscount simply stared off across the darkened fields, his face giving nothing away.
Lovejoy knew Devlin’s own near-fatal encounter with the clumsy workings of the British legal system had much to do with his dedication to seeking justice for the victims of murder. But the magistrate had always suspected there was more to it than that. Something had happened to the Viscount—some dark but unknown incident in the past that had driven him to resign his commission in the Army and embark on a path of self-destruction from which he had only recently begun to recover.
The wind gusted up stronger, thrashing the limbs of the elms along the creek and sending a torn playbill scuttling across the bridge’s worn brick paving. Devlin said, “The crown and upper brim of Preston’s hat are wet, but not the underside. And since the hair on his head looks dry too, I’d say he was out walking in the rain but was killed after it let up. What time was that?”
“About half past ten,” said Lovejoy, and let go a sigh of relief.
S ebastian turned to where Preston’s body lay on its back, arms flung out to the sides, one leg slightly bent, the wet grass dark with his blood. He’d seen many such sights—and worse—in the six years he’d spent in the Army. But he’d never become inured to carnage. He hesitated for the briefest moment, then hunkered down beside the headless corpse.
“Who found him?” he asked, resting a forearm on one knee.
“A barmaid and stableboy from the Rose and Crown,” said Lovejoy. “Just after eleven. It was the barmaid—Molly Watson, I believe she’s called—who alerted the local magistrate.”
Sebastian twisted around to study the deserted lane. “What was she doing here at that time of night?”
“I haven’t actually spoken to her. Sir Thomas—the local magistrate—told her she could go home before I arrived. But from what I understand, she couldn’t seem to come up with a coherent explanation.” Lovejoy’s voice tightened with disapproval. “Sir Thomas says he suspects their destination was the hayloft of that barn over there.”
Sebastian had to duck his head to hide a smile. A staunch reformist, Lovejoy lived by a strict personal moral code and was therefore frequently shocked by the activities of those whose approach to life was considerably freer than his own.
“Was his greatcoat open like this when he was found?” asked Sebastian. He could see Preston’s pocket watch lying on the ground beside his hip, still fastened to its gold chain.
“One of the constables said something about searching the man’s pockets for his cards. I suspect he must have opened the greatcoat in the process.”
Sebastian jerked off one glove and reached out to touch the blood-soaked waistcoat. His hand came away wet and sticky. “He’s still faintly warm,” he said, wiping his hand on his handkerchief. “Do you know when he was last seen?”
“According to his staff, he went out around nine. His house isn’t far from here—just off Hans Place. I’m told he was a widower with two grown children—a son in Jamaica and an unmarried daughter. Unfortunately, the daughter spent the evening with friends and has no knowledge of her father’s plans for the night.”
Sebastian let his gaze drift over the darkened, grassy banks of the nearby stream. “I wonder what the devil he was doing here. Somehow I find it doubtful he was looking for a warm hayloft.”
“I shouldn’t think so, no,” said Sir Henry, clearing his throat uncomfortably.
Sebastian pushed to his feet. “You’ll be sending the body to Gibson?” he asked. A one-legged Irish surgeon with a dangerous opium addiction, Paul Gibson could read the secrets of a dead body better than anyone else in England.
Sir Henry nodded. “I doubt he’ll be able to tell us anything beyond the obvious, but I suppose we ought to have him take a look.”
Sebastian brought his gaze, again, to the head on the bridge, the puddle of blood beneath it congealed in the cold. “Why cut off his head?” he said, half to himself. “Why display it on the bridge?” It had been the practice, once, to mount the heads of traitors on spikes set atop London Bridge. But that barbarity had been abandoned nearly a hundred and fifty years ago.
“As a warning, perhaps?” suggested Sir Henry.
The magistrate shook his head. “I can’t imagine.”
“It takes a powerful hatred—or rage—to drive most people to mutilate the body of another human being.”
“Rage, or madness,” said Sir Henry.
Sebastian went to study the ground near the bridge’s old brick footings. He carried no torch, but then, he didn’t need one, for there was an animal-like acuity to his eyesight and hearing that enabled him to see great distances and in the dark, and to distinguish sounds he’d come to realize were inaudible to most of his fellow men.
“What is it?” asked Sir Henry as Sebastian slid down to the water’s edge and bent to pick up an object perhaps a foot and a half in length and three or four inches wide, but very thin.
“It appears to be an old metal strap of some sort,” said Sebastian, turning it over in his hands. “Probably lead. It’s been freshly cut at both ends, and there’s an inscription. It says—” He broke off.
“What? What does it say?”
He looked up. “It says, ‘King Charles, 1648.’”
“Merciful heavens,” whispered Sir Henry.
Every English schoolboy knew the story of King Charles I, grandson of Mary, Queen of Scots. Put on trial by Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan cohorts, he was beheaded on 30 January 1649. Only, because the old-style calendar reckoned the new year as beginning on 25 March rather than the first of January, chroniclers of the time recorded the execution date as 1648.
“Perhaps it’s unrelated to the murder,” said Sir Henry. “Who knows how long it’s been here?”
“The top surface is dry, so it must have been dropped since the rain let up.”
“But . . . what could a man like Stanley Preston possibly have to do with Charles I?”
“Aside from sharing the manner of his death, you mean?” said Sebastian.
The magistrate tightened his lips in a way that whitened the flesh beside his suddenly pinched nostrils. “There is that.”
A church bell began to toll somewhere in the distance, then another. The mist was beginning to creep up from the river, cold and clammy; Sebastian watched as Sir Henry stared off down the lane to where the oil lamps of Sloane Square now showed as only a murky glow.
“It’s frightening to think that the man who did this is out there right now,” said the magistrate. “Living amongst us.”
And he could do it again.
Neither Sir Henry nor Sebastian said it. But the words were there, carried on the cold, wild wind.
T he smell of freshly spilled blood had spooked the horses so that Sebastian had his hands full as he turned the curricle toward home.
“Is that really an ’ead on the bridge?” Tom asked as they swung into Sloane Street. “A man’s ’ead?”
The tiger let out his breath in a rush of ghoulish excitement. “Gor.”
Small and sharp faced, the boy had been with Sebastian for more than two years now. Not even Tom knew his exact age or his last name. He’d been living alone on the streets when he’d tried to pick Sebastian’s pocket—and ended up saving Sebastian’s life.
More than once.
Sebastian said, “It belongs—or I suppose I should say belonged—to a Mr. Stanley Preston.”
Tom must have caught the inflection in Sebastian’s voice, because he said, “I take it ye didn’t much care for the cove?”
“I barely knew him, actually. Although I must admit I have difficulties with men whose wealth comes from sugar plantations in the West Indies.”
“Because they grow sugar?”
“Because their plantations are worked not by tenants, but by slaves—mostly Africans, although they also use transported Irish and Scottish rebels.”
They bowled along in silence until they’d passed the Hyde Park Turnpike and were weaving their way through the quiet, rain-drenched streets of Mayfair. Then Tom said suddenly, “If ye didn’t like ’im, then why ye care that somebody offed ’im?”
“Because even those who own West Indies plantations don’t deserve to be brutally murdered. Apart from which, I find the idea of sharing my city with someone who goes around cutting off the heads of his enemies somewhat disconcerting.”
“Disconcerting. It makes me feel . . . uncomfortable.”
“I reckon it was a Frenchman,” said Tom, who had a profound suspicion of foreigners in general and the French in particular. “They’re always cuttin’ off folks’ ’eads.”
“An interesting theory that certainly merits consideration.” Sebastian drew up before the front steps of his Brook Street town house. The oil lamps mounted on either side of the door cast a soft pool of golden light across the wet paving, but the house itself was dark and quiet, its inhabitants still sleeping. “Take care of the horses, then go to bed and stay there. It’s nearly dawn.”
Tom scrambled forward to take the reins as Sebastian dropped lightly to the pavement. “Ye gonna ’ave a lie-in?”
“Then I don’t reckon I will,” said Tom, his chin jutting forward mulishly.
Sebastian grunted. The lad’s grasp of the concept of obedience was still rather shaky.
He watched Tom drive off toward the mews, then turned to enter the house. Moving quietly, he stripped off his clothes in the dressing room and slipped into bed beside Hero. He didn’t want to wake her. But the need to feel her warm, vital body against his was too strong. He carefully slid one arm around her waist and pressed his chest against the long line of her back.
Her hand came up to rest on his, and in the darkness he saw her lips curve into a soft smile as she shifted so she could look at him over her shoulder. “You were a long time,” she said. “Was it as bad as Sir Henry’s message led you to expect?”
“Worse.” He buried his face in the dark, fragrant fall of her hair. “Go back to sleep.”
“Can you sleep?”
“In a while.”
“I can help,” she said huskily, her hand sliding low over his naked hip, his breath catching in his throat as she turned in his arms and covered his mouth with hers.
He came downstairs the next morning to find Hero in the entryway wearing a hunter green pelisse and velvet hat with three plums. She was pulling on a pair of soft kid gloves but paused when she looked up and saw him.
“Well, good morning,” she said, her eyes gently smiling at him. “I didn’t expect to see you up this early.”
“It’s not early.”
She shifted to adjust her hat in the looking glass over the console. “It is when you’ve been up most of the night.”
She was an extraordinarily tall woman, nearly as tall as Sebastian, with hair of a rich medium brown and fine gray eyes that sparkled with an intelligence of almost frightening intensity. She had the kind of looks more often described as handsome than pretty, with a strong chin, a wide mouth, and an aquiline nose she had inherited from her father, Lord Jarvis, a distant cousin of the mad old King George and the real power behind the Prince of Wales’s fragile regency. Once, Jarvis had tried to have Sebastian killed—and undoubtedly still would, if he found it expedient.
“Another interview?” he asked, watching her tilt her hat just so. “What is it this time? Dustmen? Chimney sweeps? Flower girls?”
She was writing a series of articles on London’s working poor that she intended to eventually gather together into a book. It was a project that disgusted her father, both because he considered such activities unsuitable for a female, and because the entire undertaking smacked of the kind of radicalism he abhorred. But then, Hero had never allowed her father’s expectations or prejudices to constrain her.
She said, “Stanley Preston’s murder is in all the morning papers. Was he truly decapitated?”
She pivoted slowly to face him again, her eyes wide and still.
He said, “Do you have a moment? There’s something I’d like you to see.”
“Of course.” Slipping off her pelisse, she followed him into the library, where he’d left the ancient metal strap on his desk.
“I found this not far from Preston’s body.” He handed her the length of lead and gave her a brief description of the scene at the bridge.
“‘King Charles, 1648,’” she read, then looked up at him. “I don’t understand. What is it?”
“I could be wrong, but I’ve seen strips of metal like this before, wrapped around old coffins.”
“Surely you’re not suggesting this came from the coffin of Charles I?”
“I don’t know. But it’s telling the inscription reads, ‘King Charles’ rather than ‘Charles I,’ and 1648 rather than 1649. Where exactly is Charles I buried? I’ve realized I have no idea.”
“No one does. After the execution, there was talk of interring him in Westminster Abbey. But Cromwell refused to allow it, so the King’s men took the body away at night and buried it in secret. There are conflicting reports about what they did with him. I’ve heard speculation he may be somewhere in St. George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle. But no one knows for certain.” She frowned. “What were Preston’s politics?”
“I’d be surprised if he nourished any secret nostalgia for the Stuarts, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
She ran her fingertips over the scrolled engraving, her features composed but thoughtful. “Do you mind if I show it to Jarvis?” she asked, reaching for her pelisse again.
“He’s not going to like my involving you in another murder investigation.”
“Don’t worry,” she said as Sebastian took the pelisse from her hands to help her with it. “I seriously doubt he could dislike you more than he already does.”
He laughed at that. Then he turned her in his arms, his hands lingering on her shoulders, his laughter stilling.
“What?” she asked, watching him.
“Just that . . . whoever killed Stanley Preston was either driven by a rage bordering on madness, or he is mad. And of the two, I’m not certain which makes him more dangerous.”
“Madness is always frightening, I suppose because it is so incomprehensible. Yet I think I’d fear more the man who is brutal but sane, and therefore capable of shrewd, cold calculation.”
“Because he’s clever?”
“That, and because he’s less likely to make mistakes.”
S ebastian ordered his curricle brought round and came out of the house half an hour later to find Tom walking the grays up and down Brook Street. It had rained again sometime in the early morning hours, leaving the pavement wet, with dull, heavy clouds that pressed down on the city’s crowded rooftops and soaring chimneys. The horses’ breath showed white in the cold.
“If you fall asleep and tumble off your perch,” said Sebastian, taking the reins, “I won’t stop and pick you up.”
But Tom simply laughed and scrambled back to his place.
They headed south, curling around the edge of Hyde Park, where faint wisps of mist still drifted through the trees and the distant clumps of shrubs were no more than blurred shadows.
There’d been a time not so long ago when Knightsbridge and Hans Town were sleepy, pleasant villages lying several miles beyond the sprawl of London. Now, neat terrace houses of three and five stories—plus basements and attics—lined spacious squares and a broad thoroughfare called Sloane Street that stretched from Knightsbridge down toward Chelsea and the Thames. This was a district favored by prosperous barristers, physicians, and bankers, with a scattering of respectable lodging houses and workshops and a few more modest but comfortable homes for tradesmen.
Reluctant to disturb Preston’s grieving daughter so early in the day, Sebastian went instead to the Rose and Crown. A well-tended inn built of brick in the last years of the eighteenth century, it had a freshly whitewashed arch leading to a bustling yard and a public room that smelled of bacon and wood smoke and hearty ale. A buxom, dark-haired, dark-eyed girl of perhaps sixteen was wiping the tables when Sebastian walked in.
“You’re Molly?” he asked.
She turned, a smile lighting up her pretty face as she let her gaze rove over him in frank assessment. “I am. Who’re you?”
“Devlin. I wonder if I might ask you a few questions about last night?”
The smile disappeared and she retreated behind the gleaming oak counter that stretched along one wall. “What you want t’ know fer? You don’t look like no beak t’ me.”
“I’m not.” He laid a coin on the counter between them, the metal clicking softly against the polished wood. “I’m told you recognized Mr. Preston last night. Did he come here often?”
Her hand flashed out, and the coin disappeared. “Sometimes. Though he mostly favored the Monster.”
She jerked her head toward the west. “It’s just off Sloane Street.” She wrinkled her little button of a nose. “The place is so old you have t’ walk down a couple of steps to get in the front door.”
Sebastian let his gaze wander around the taproom, with its neat round tables and straight-backed chairs and gleaming wainscoting. “Did Mr. Preston come in here last night?”
“Nah. Ain’t seen him for a fortnight or more.”
“When he would come in, what did he drink?”
“Ale, mostly. But he weren’t no lush, if that’s what you’re askin’. Usually, he’d just pop in for a quick pint of an evenin’, then leave.”
Sebastian brought his gaze back to her pretty, expressive face. “I understand you’re the one who told the magistrate what you’d found at the bridge. But someone else was with you, wasn’t he? Someone from the stables?”
“Cian O’Neal.” Her voice dripped scorn. “Took one look at that head sittin’ up there and started screamin’ like he weren’t never gonna stop. When I said, ‘We gotta go tell Sir Thomas,’ he took t’ shakin’ all over, and his eyes got so big I thought they was gonna pop right out of his head. I grabbed hold of his arm, but he jerked away and run off. Never even looked back.”
“Did you see anyone else near the bridge?”
She stared at him. “What’re you thinkin’? That there was two heads there?”
“I was wondering if you might have seen someone running away as you walked up the lane.”
“No. I remember laughin’ at Cian because it was so dark and quiet, he was scared even before we seen the head.”
“Can you think of any reason for Mr. Preston to have been at the bridge at that time of night?”
Her eyes widened slightly. “Never thought about that, but . . . Well, no. Truth is, most folks around here tend t’ avoid Bloody Bridge after dark.”
“That’s what it’s called, you know.”
“No, I didn’t know.”
She sniffed, nearly as contemptuous of his ignorance as she was of poor Cian O’Neal’s terror. “Folks say it’s haunted by those who’ve died there over the years.”
“Yet you weren’t afraid to go there,” said Sebastian.
She shrugged. “It’s the quickest way t’ get t’ Five Fields, ain’t it?”
“And why would you want to go to Five Fields at night?”
She gave him an impish smile and raised her eyebrows in a knowing look. “I won’t be goin’ there with Cian again, that’s fer sure.”
“Tell me, what did you think of Mr. Preston?”
She shrugged. “He never give me no trouble, the way some of ’em do, if that’s what yer askin’.”
“Have you heard anyone speculating about what they think might have happened to him?”
“Most folks’re sayin’ footpads must’ve done it, which just goes t’ show what they know.”
“What makes you so certain it wasn’t footpads?”
She lifted her chin. “Why, I could see his pocket watch, couldn’t I? Danglin’ from its chain like he was just checkin’ the time. Ain’t no footpad gonna go t’ all the trouble of cuttin’ off a feller’s head and then leave his watch like that.”
“Mr. Preston’s greatcoat was unbuttoned when you saw him?”
She frowned. “Well, I guess it musta been. Didn’t really think about it, but, yeah, I reckon it was.”
Sebastian made inquiries at the stables, but Cian O’Neal hadn’t come to work that morning. He eventually tracked the lad to a tumbledown cottage off Wilderness Row, where he lived with his widowed mother and five younger siblings.
Sebastian’s knock was answered by the lad’s mother, a rail-thin, worn-down woman with gray-threaded hair who looked sixty but was probably younger than forty, judging by the squalling infant in her arms.
“Beggin’ your pardon, me lord,” she said, dropping a curtsy when Sebastian explained who he was and the purpose of his visit, “but I’m afraid you won’t be gettin’ much sense out of Cian. He didn’t sleep a wink all night—just sat in the corner by the fire and shivered. Some constable come by here from Bow Street and tried to talk to him a bit ago, and the poor lad started babblin’ all sorts of nonsense about havin’ seen the Dullahan.”
Sebastian had heard of the Dullahan. A figure in Irish folklore said to be a horseman dressed all in black and astride a black, fire-breathing stallion, he rode the darkened lanes and byways, carrying his own head in his hand. According to legend, whenever the Dullahan stops, a man, woman, or child dies.
Sebastian said, “I’d like to try talking to him.”
He knew by the worry pinching the woman’s face that she’d rather have denied him. But she belonged to a class whose members had been trained since birth to obey their “betters.”
She dropped a curtsy and stood back to let him enter.
The cottage was clean but wretchedly poor, with low, heavy beams, a swept dirt floor, and a worm-eaten old table with benches that looked as if they’d been knocked together from scrap wood picked up off the street. Of one room only, the place had a mattress in an alcove half-hidden behind a tattered curtain and a pegged, roughly hewn ladder that led up to a loft.
Cian O’Neal sat on a low, three-legged stool before the fire, his shoulders hunched forward, his hands thrust together between his tightly clasped knees. He was a fine-looking lad of seventeen or eighteen, big and strapping and startlingly handsome, with clear blue eyes and golden hair that curled softly against his lean cheeks. He kept his attention fixed on the fire, as if oblivious to Devlin’s approach. But when his mother touched him on the shoulder, he jerked violently and looked up at her with wide, terrified eyes.
“Here’s a lord come to talk to you, Cian,” she said gently. “About last night.”
The boy’s gaze slid from her face to Sebastian. A spasm passed over his features, the chest beneath his thin smock jerking visibly with his quick, agitated breathing.
Sebastian said, “I just want to know if you saw anything—heard anything—that might help us figure out what happened last night.”
The boy opened his mouth, the air rasping in his constricted throat as he drew a deep breath that came out in a high-pitched, terrified scream.
Sebastian pressed a coin into the poor woman’s hand and left.
“You aren’t seriously suggesting that I might somehow know who killed Stanley, or why? Good God!”
Henry Addington, First Viscount Sidmouth and Home Secretary of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, stood with his hands clenched at his sides, his gaze on the big man who sat at his ease in a tapestry-covered armchair beside the empty hearth of his Carlton House chambers.
Charles, Lord Jarvis, fingered the handle of a diamond-studded quizzing glass he’d lately taken to wearing on a riband around his neck. “You would have me believe you do not?”
“Of course not!”
Jarvis pursed his lips. He was an unusually large man, impressive in both height and breadth, his face fleshy, his lips full and unexpectedly sensual, the aquiline nose he’d bequeathed to his daughter, Hero, lending a harsh cast to his face. Addington might be Home Secretary while Jarvis carried no official title, but Jarvis was by far the more powerful man. He owed his preeminence not to his kinship with the King—which was distant—but to the brilliance of his mind and the unflinching ruthlessness of the methods he was willing to use to protect the power and prestige of the monarchy at home and the interests of Britain abroad. The only thing that had kept the Prince Regent from suffering the same fate meted out to his fellow royals across the Channel was Jarvis, and most people knew it.
Jarvis raised his quizzing glass to one eye and regarded the Home Secretary through it. “You would have me believe this murder has nothing to do with you?”
“The man was your cousin.”
A faint, telltale line of color appeared high on the Home Secretary’s cheekbones. “We were not . . . close.”
“And his death in no way involves any affairs of state?”
Jarvis let the quizzing glass fall. “You’re quite certain of that?”
Jarvis rose to his feet. “You relieve my mind. If you should, however, discover you are mistaken, you will of course alert me at once?”
Sidmouth’s jaw tightened. He was in his mid-fifties now, his once dark hair turning silver, his waist grown thick, the flesh of his hands and face as soft and pale as any pampered gentlewoman’s. But he had the jaw of a butcher or a prizefighter, strong and powerful and pugnacious. “Of course,” he said.
“Good. That will be all.”
Sidmouth bowed curtly and swept from the room.
A moment later, the tall, dark-haired former hussar major who had been waiting in the antechamber appeared in the doorway. His name was Peter Archer, and he was one of several former military officers in Jarvis’s employ.
“Sidmouth is hiding something,” said Jarvis. “And I want to know what it is.”
A faint smile curled the major’s lips as he bowed. “Yes, my lord.”
H oping that Paul Gibson had made some progress in the postmortem of Preston’s body, Sebastian turned his horses toward the Tower of London, where the Irishman kept a small surgery in the shadow of the grim medieval fortress’s soot-stained walls.
The friendship between Sebastian and the former regimental surgeon dated back nearly ten years, to the days when both men wore the King’s Colors and fought the King’s wars from Italy to the West Indies to the Peninsula. Then a cannonball took off the lower part of Gibson’s left leg, leaving him racked with pain and tormented by an increasingly serious opium addiction. In the end, he’d left the Army and come here, to London, where he divided his time between his surgery and teaching anatomy at the city’s hospitals. He knew more about the human body than anyone Sebastian had ever met, thanks in part to an ongoing series of illicit dissections performed on cadavers filched from the area’s churchyards by resurrection men.
Until that January, Gibson had lived alone. But he now shared the small, ancient stone house beside his surgery with Alexi Sauvage, a beautiful, enigmatic, and unconventional Frenchwoman who was as damaged in her own way as Gibson.
Rather than chance an encounter with her, Sebastian cut through the narrow passage that ran along Gibson’s house and led to the unkempt yard at the rear. Overgrown with weeds and a mute witness to the secrets buried there, the yard stretched down to a high stone wall that abutted the single-room outbuilding where Gibson performed both his legally sanctioned autopsies and his covert dissections. Through the open door, he could hear the Irishman singing softly under his breath, “Ghile Mear ‘sa seal faoi chumha, ‘S Éire go léir faoi chlócaibh dubha. . . .”
The headless, naked body of Stanley Preston lay on the high stone table in the center of the room. When Sebastian’s shadow fell across it, Gibson broke off and looked up. “Ah, there you are, me lad,” he said, exaggerating his brogue. “Thought I’d be seeing you soon enough.”
He was only several years older than Sebastian, but chronic pain had already touched his dark hair with gray at the temples and dug deep lines in his face. His opium addiction hadn’t helped either, although Sebastian noticed he didn’t look quite as emaciated as he had lately.
Pausing in the doorway, Sebastian let his gaze drift around the cold room until he located Preston’s head, cradled in an enameled basin on a long shelf. In the last twelve hours, the face seemed to have sunk in on itself, taking on a waxy, grayish tinge.
Sebastian swallowed and brought his gaze back to the rest of the cadaver. A small purple slit, clearly visible against the alabaster flesh, showed high on the man’s chest.
“He was stabbed?” said Sebastian. “Why the hell didn’t I see that?”
“Probably because he was so drenched in blood from his head being taken off. And because he was stabbed in the back. What you’re seeing is where the tip of the blade came all the way through his body—but not by much, I’d say. It just barely sliced his waistcoat. If you’ll help me turn him over, I’ll show you.”
“That’s quite all right; I’ll take your word for it.”
“So that’s what killed him?” said Sebastian.
“It might have, eventually. But not right away. I suspect he fell when he was stabbed, and his killer finished him off by slitting his throat.” Gibson paused. “Obviously, he got a wee bit carried away and completely cut off the head.”
“With what? Any idea?”
“My guess is a sword stick; the stab wound in the back is the right size. I’d say your killer ran him through with the sword stick, then used the same blade to slit his throat, slashing down as the poor man lay on the ground. Could be he wasn’t intending to cut off the head—he was just trying to make sure Preston was dead.”
“So why did he then pick up the head and put it on the bridge?”
“Ah. Nobody told me that part.”
Sebastian studied the ragged, truncated flesh of the cadaver’s neck. He’d lopped off more heads than he cared to remember with a heavy cavalry sword swung from the back of a horse. But to chop the head off a man lying on the ground with a slim sword stick must surely be considerably more difficult. “How easy is it to cut off a head like that?”
“Not easy at all, evidently. Took whoever did it at least a dozen blows, maybe more.”
“Lovely.” Sebastian turned to stare out at the yard. The cloud cover from last night’s storm was beginning to show signs of breaking up, but the sunlight was still weak and fitful. As he watched, a woman came out of the house and paused for a moment on the back stoop. She was small and slight, with a head of fiery red hair and the kind of pale skin more often seen in Scotland than in France. Her gaze met his, and he saw her nostrils flare, her lips tighten into a flat line as she picked up a basket and trowel and moved to where he realized someone was nurturing a small plot of sweet peas and forget-me-nots along the house’s rear wall.
Sebastian said, “Does Madame Sauvage know you’ve spent the last few years planting this yard with the remains of your dissections?”
“Aye, I told her. She says all the more reason to clean it up.”
Sebastian leaned one shoulder against the doorjamb and watched her. He knew some of her history, but not all of it. Born in Paris in the days before the Revolution, she’d trained as a physician in Italy. But because Britain refused to license female physicians, she was allowed to practice in London only as a midwife. Like Gibson, she was in her early thirties and by her own account had already gone through two husbands and two lovers.
All were now dead—one of them by Sebastian’s hand.
Gibson said, “And how is young master Simon St. Cyr?”
“He’s an angel—until the clock strikes six in the evening, at which point he starts screaming bloody murder and is impossible to console until nearly midnight.”
“Colicky, is he? It’ll soon pass.”
“I sincerely hope so.”
The surgeon grinned and limped over to stand beside him. Gibson’s gaze rested, like Sebastian’s, on the woman now working the rich black soil near the house. “I’ve asked Alexi to marry me a dozen times,” he said with a sigh, “but she won’t hear of it.”
“Does she say why not?”
“She says all of her husbands have died.”
So have her lovers, thought Sebastian, although he didn’t say it.
He shifted to study his friend’s lean, pain-lined face. “She said she could do something to help with the phantom pains from your missing leg.” His pain—and his opium addiction. “Has she tried?”
“She keeps wanting to, but it sounds daft to me. How can a box with mirrors possibly do any good?”
“It’s worth making the attempt, isn’t it?”
The Irishman simply shook his head and turned back to his work. “I’ll let you know if I find anything else.”
Sebastian nodded and pushed away from the doorframe.
But as he followed the narrow path to the gate, he was aware of Alexi Sauvage’s gaze on him, silent and watchful.
It often seemed to Sebastian that trying to solve a murder was somewhat akin to approaching a figure in the mist. At first an indistinct, insubstantial blur, the murdered man or woman began to take form and emerge in detail only as Sebastian came to see the victim through the eyes of the various people who had known, loved, or hated him.
At the moment, virtually all Sebastian knew about Stanley Preston was that the man was cousin to the Home Secretary, a widower and father of two who owned plantations in Jamaica and was not in the habit of trying to fondle the pretty young barmaid at the local pub. Before he approached the dead man’s grief-stricken daughter, Sebastian felt the need to learn more. And so his next stop was the home of Henrietta, the Dowager Duchess of Claiborne.
One of the grandes dames of Society, the Duchess had long maintained a relentless interest in the personal lives and antecedents of everyone who was anyone. Since she also possessed an awe-inspiring memory that deemed few details too trivial not to be retained forever, he couldn’t think of anyone in London better able to tell him what he needed to know about Mr. Stanley Preston.
Born Lady Henrietta St. Cyr, elder sister of the current Earl of Hendon, she was known to the world as Sebastian’s aunt, although she was one of the few people aware of the fact that the relationship between them was in name only. She lived alone with an army of servants in a vast town house on Park Lane, in Mayfair. Technically, the house belonged to her son, the current Duke of Claiborne, who resided at a far more modest address in Half Moon Street. An amiable, somewhat weak-willed gentleman now of middle age, he was no match for the Dowager Duchess, who had every intention of dying in the house to which she had come as a bride some fifty-five years before. She was proud, nosy, perceptive, arrogant, judgmental, opinionated, and wise, and one of Sebastian’s favorite people.
He found her ensconced in a comfortable chair beside her drawing room fire, an exquisite cashmere shawl draped about her stout shoulders and a slim, blue-bound book in her hands.
“Good heavens, Aunt Henrietta,” he said, stooping to kiss one subtly rouged and powdered cheek. “Have I caught you reading a novel?”
Rather than put the book aside, she thrust one plump finger between the pages to mark her place. “I bought it to see what all the fuss is about—it has quite taken the ton by storm, you know. But I must confess to finding it unexpectedly diverting.”
Sebastian went to stand before the fire. “Who wrote it?”
“No one knows. That’s partly what makes it so delicious. It’s simply ascribed to ‘the author of Sense and Sensibility.’ And no one has yet to discover who she is.”
He reached to pick up one of the other two volumes resting on the table beside her and read the title. “Pride and Prejudice. Whoever it is obviously likes alliteration.”
“And she has the most devastatingly wicked wit. Listen to this.” She opened the book again. “‘They were in fact very fine ladies . . . had a fortune of twenty thousand pounds, were in the habit of spending more than they ought, and of associating with people of rank; and were therefore in every respect entitled to think well of themselves, and meanly of others. They were of a respectable family in the north of England, a circumstance more deeply impressed on their memories than that their brother’s fortune and their own had been acquired by trade.’”
“Devastating, indeed. I wonder, could you tear yourself away from this delightful tale long enough to tell me what you know of Mr. Stanley Preston?”
“Stanley Preston?” she repeated, looking up at him. “Whatever for?”
“You haven’t seen the morning papers?”
“No; I’ve been reading this book. Why? What’s happened to him?”
“Someone cut off his head.”
“Good heavens. How terribly gauche.”
“Frightfully so. What do you know of him?”
She laid the book aside, open and facedown, although he noticed she gave it one or two reluctant glances before she brought her attention back to him. “Well, let’s see. The family is old—he’s from the Devonshire Prestons, you know, although his is a rather insignificant, cadet branch.”
“Yet his cousin is Lord Sidmouth.”
She waved a dismissive hand; obviously, the Home Secretary’s antecedents did not impress her. “Yes, but Sidmouth himself was only recently raised to the peerage. His father was a mere physician.”
“So where did Preston acquire his wealth?”
“His father married a merchant’s daughter. The woman was dreadfully vulgar, I’m afraid, but quite an heiress. The elder Preston invested her inheritance in land in the West Indies and did very well for himself, as a result of which he was able to marry his own son—Stanley—to the daughter of an impoverished baron.”
“Wealth acquired from trade being seen as something vile and shameful that can be magically cleansed by investment in land—even when that land happens to be worked by slaves?”
She frowned at him. “Really, Sebastian; it’s not as if he were engaged in the slave trade. Slavery is perfectly legal in the West Indies. The French tried to do away with it, and look what happened to them. A bloodbath!”
“True,” said Sebastian. “What was the name of this baron’s daughter? I gather she’s dead?”
“Mmm. Mary Pierce. Lovely young woman. In the end, the marriage was surprisingly successful; Preston positively doted on her. But she died in childbirth some seven or eight years ago. I’ve often wondered why he never remarried. He’s still quite attractive and vigorous for his age.”
“Don’t be vulgar, Devlin.”
He gave a soft huff of laughter. “Tell me about the daughter. What’s her name?”
“Anne. She must be in her early twenties by now. Still unmarried, I’m afraid, and in serious danger of being left on the shelf. Not that anyone is exactly surprised.”
“Why? Is she ill-favored?”
“Oh, she was pretty enough when she was young, I suppose. But Preston never did move in the highest circles, and Anne has a tendency to be rather quiet—and a tad strange, to be frank.”
“Strange? In what way?”
“Let’s just say she’s more like her father than her mother. And of course it hasn’t helped that her portion from her mother is not large.”
“I was under the impression Preston’s holdings in Jamaica are substantial.”
“They are. But that will all go to the son.”
“I assume the man was a Tory?”
“I should hope so. Although unlike Sidmouth, I don’t believe he was overly interested in affairs of state. His passion was collecting.”
“Collecting? What did he collect?”
“Curiosities of all sorts, although mainly antiquities. He had a special interest in items that once belonged to famous people. I’m told he has a bullet taken from the body of Lord Nelson after Trafalgar, a handkerchief some ghoulish soul dipped in Louis XVI’s blood at the guillotine . . . that sort of thing. He even has heads.”
Sebastian paused in the act of leaning down to throw more coal on the fire. “Heads? What sort of heads?”
“Those with historical significance.”
“You mean, people’s heads?”
“Mmm. I’m told he has Oliver Cromwell, amongst others. But don’t ask me who else because I’ve never seen them. They say he keeps them displayed in glass cases and—” She broke off. “How did you say he died?”
“Someone cut off his head.”
“Dear me.” She readjusted her shawl. “I take it you’ve involved yourself in this murder investigation?”
“I have, yes.”
“Amanda won’t like it. That girl of hers is starting her second season, and Amanda blames you for Stephanie’s failure to go off last year.”
Sebastian’s older sister, Amanda, was not one of his admirers. He said, “From what I observed, I’d say my niece was enjoying her first season far too much to settle down and bring it all to an end.”
What People are Saying About This
“As Devlin’s personal life has become richer and fuller, with his deepening love for wife Hero and infant son Simon, so has this novel, the tenth in the series featuring St. Cyr. With such well-developed characters, intriguing plotlines, graceful prose, and keen sense of time and place based on solid research, this is historical mystery at its best.”—Booklist, starred review
“This riveting historical tale of tragedy and triumph, with its sly nods to Jane Austen and her characters, will enthrall you!”—Sabrina Jeffries, New York Times bestselling author of How the Scoundrel Seduces
“Draws Sebastian St. Cyr and his wife, Hero, into greater danger than ever before. Unbearably exciting, filled with historical details, multiple suspects and, unexpectedly, Jane Austen, the reader will not be able to put this down.”—Romantic Times, Top Pick
“The solution, one of Harris’s trickiest, will appeal both to fair-play fans and those interested in a vivid evocation of the period.”—Publisher’s Weekly