Distinguished Rogues, book nine
Nearly twenty, Anna Beasley despairs of ever finding a husband. Eligible bachelors seem to avoid the stuttering, blushing debutante in favor of her bolder, more adventurous friends. Much to the delight of her father, who’s determined to marry her off to his godson, Lord Carmichael, despite Anna’s refusal. Her lifelong nemesis, Carmichael has kissed half the young women in London.
Surely Carmichael’s friend, Lord Sorenson, newly arrived in Town, is cut from the same cloth. Anna decides to stay away from him…despite his wicked smile that makes her quiver.
Gilbert Bowen, Earl of Sorenson, had planned to live out his days as a country vicar. But when his old friend Carmichael sends a desperate plea for help, he can’t say no. There’s a murderer among the ton—and every death leads back to Carmichael. Catching a killer during the social season is difficult enough…and then Anna catches his eye. The shy beauty is a distraction he can ill afford but scarcely resist.
When the pair are caught in a compromising position, Sorenson needs little convincing to claim her, especially if it keeps Anna out of harm’s way. But with as many twists and turns as there are suspects, this case may find no one safe—especially when the killer is closer to home than they ever dreamed.
Digital Edition: On sale
>>Purchase Married by Moonlight (eBook delivered via BookFunnel): Pay via PAYPAL
Praise for Married by Moonlight…
★ ★ ★ ★ ★ “Absolutely loved this story! … It is a page turner from start to finish and I highly recommend it.” ~ Lisa J
★ ★ ★ ★ ★ “Amazing book! It was a perfect combination of love, intensity, beautiful characters and great plot.” ~ Mari S
★ ★ ★ ★ “The mystery … had some great twists and turns to it. For the most of the book I had one person in mind as the killer and I ended up being totally wrong.” ~ Melanie V
★ ★ ★ ★ ★ “All the ingredients are there: smart, beautiful heroine; brave, handsome, worthy hero, villian, friends, romance.” ~ Donna O
★ ★ ★ ★ “A really sweet read.” ~ Angela D
Distinguished Rogues Series
1. Chills – Jack and Constance
2. Broken – Giles and Lillian
3. Charity – Oscar and Agatha
4. An Accidental Affair – Merrick and Arabella
5. Keepsake – Kit and Miranda
6. An Improper Proposal – Martin and Iris
7. Reason to Wed – Richard and Esme
8. The Trouble with Love – Everett and Whitney
9. Married by Moonlight – Gilbert and Anna
10. Lord of Sin – Julian and Portia
11. The Duke’s Heart – Sinclair and Kitty
Gilbert Bowen, Earl of Sorenson, burst through the swirling fog into the torch-lit rear courtyard of Lady Berry’s home in a violent temper a little before six o’clock in the morning. Mr. Albert Meriwether deserved to be horsewhipped, and so did the Runners for going along with this arrest.
A tall, narrow fellow, probably one of them, too, peeled himself off a wall by the servants’ entrance and moved to block Gilbert’s path.
Gilbert wasted no time on pleasantries. “Where is he?”
The man looked him up and down, taking in his fine clothing and superior size. “Who are you?”
“A man not to be trifled with.” He passed over his card and letter of introduction from a mutual acquaintance, hoping the man knew how to read.
Apparently, he did, for the Runner’s eyes widened and he swallowed hard.
The man handed them back, hand shaking a little. “We were not told to expect you, my lord.”
Gilbert scowled. “My presence should not have been needed if reason had prevailed. Take me to Mr. Meriwether, now.”
“Of course, my lord. He’s still interrogating the suspect inside.” The man smiled quickly. “The name is Davis.”
Gilbert recognized the name but made no further comment. Bow Street Runners were generally good men, thorough and effective at their jobs on most occasions. Except this one. They had little reason to rub shoulders with members of the tonor they would not have detained the man inside at all. He hated to think what had happened overnight inside Lady Berry’s home.
Davis may be one of the best. But Albert Meriwether, the investigator wrongly holding a suspect inside for interrogation, was definitely not of that quality, from all he’d heard tonight. Gilbert was here to put a stop to his interrogation before any lasting harm was done.
Davis led him swiftly down halls overflowing with chairs, folded tables and piles of soiled linen ready to be taken into the country for laundering. Gilbert should have attended the ball held here last night. Unfortunately, fate had not been on his side.
He stepped into a disordered drawing room and took stock of the situation.
Lady Berry was sobbing on a fainting couch by the far window, a maid hovering ineffectually at her elbow wearing an expression full of fear.
Gilbert swung his gaze to the man tied to a chair in the center of the room like a criminal. His temper did not improve to see fresh blood spotting his friend’s shirt front. His cream knee breeches were soiled by old blood too, likely the victim’s.
The investigator looked up slowly, his expression annoyed. “Sorenson? What the devil are you doing back in London?”
Gilbert raked his gaze over Meriwether, noting his bloodied knuckles and the sheen of sweat glistening on his face. “I’m here to rectify the grievous mistake you’ve made tonight before it is too late.”
“There is no mistake,” Meriwether insisted, circling his innocent captive.
“There most certainly is,” Gilbert insisted, withdrawing his orders from Bow Street and holding them out. “Read this.”
The investigator snatched them up and read every line—twice, he suspected. Gilbert moved to check that Lord Carmichael still breathed. He turned his friend’s face up to the light, appalled by what he saw. “Dear God. What has been done to you?”
Carmichael shuddered. His left eye was swelling shut and his lip had been split from a beating and was dripping blood down his chin. Meriwether had not been gentle or within his rights to do this. The magistrate would not be pleased.
“No. This case is mine,” Meriwether complained. “He’s all but confessed to the murder. He’s covered in her blood.”
“Old blood, judging by the state of his knees.” Gilbert grimaced, reaching into another pocket for a week-old letter. “You should read this, as well, before you say another word to implicate him further.”
Meriwether read the letter Gilbert had recently received from Lord Carmichael and Miss Berry, announcing their impending wedding, and their request that Gilbert come to London for the announcement last night. Rain had prevented Gilbert from reaching London in time.
“Lord Carmichael was in love with Angela Berry, and she with him. He would not kill her when he was about to announce their marriage, of that I am certain.”
“This gives him motive if she refused him,” Meriwether crowed. “Look at him.”
“Did you not read her own words in the letter?”
“Anyone could have written it.”
“Show her mother and have her disprove it is her handwriting.”
Meriwether rushed to Lady Berry and thrust the letter at her face. “Is this your daughter’s writing?”
Lady Berry sat in shadows, but the maid rushed to bring a candelabra to her so she could read. After a long wait, she began to nod. “That is her penmanship. I would recognize it anywhere.”
Meriwether swung around, scowling at the maid.
Gilbert shook his head. “It is known he was found with the body and was nearly incoherent when questioned. He would have attempted to revive her, which is why his clothing is soiled with her blood, you fool.”
“She was cold when I found her,” Carmichael mumbled, clearly in pain, judging by the slurred nature of his speech. “Never even had a chance to announce we would wed…”
Carmichael sobbed and turned his face away from everyone.
Meriwether sneered. “Isn’t that a convenient tale?”
“Actually, he’s never been a good liar. I’mthe reason he had delayed announcing they would marry last night. He wanted me here—which the magistrate believes too,” Gilbert told the fellow. “Now, I have Bow Street’s approval to release him, and you may go and track down a realcriminal in any other case you have on your hands. You are done here. Leave the Runners behind. They are under my command now.”
“Damn nonsense! You titled bastards always protect your own,” Meriwether complained as he began to straighten his clothes. He pulled on his wrinkled coat in a furious rush, scowling like thunder. Clearly the man was unhappy but that was just too bad. “I’ll speak to the magistrate about this immediately.”
“Good. He’s expecting you,” Gilbert told him, glad to have the investigator gone.
Gilbert gently untied Carmichael’s bonds, noticing red stripes had formed around each tightly bound wrist. Meriwether would have a hard time explaining to the magistrate why he’d treated a peer with such contempt. “Carmichael?”
Carmichael turned his head, squinting at him through his long hair. “What kept you?”
Gilbert brushed his hair back, continuing to assess the damage Meriwether’s fists had caused to his face. Nothing so far suggested Carmichael would bear any scars. “The roads from Kent were muddy,” he apologized. “I had only just arrived in London when a Runner I know well came with the news you were being held as a suspect in Miss Berry’s death.”
Carmichael carefully dabbed at his split lip with his shirtsleeve. “I’m innocent, Sorenson.”
“I believe you, but Meriwether does not know you like I do. He will be reprimanded for this, I swear.”
He put his arm around Carmichael and hauled him up onto his feet. Carmichael was unsteady and Gilbert held him tightly. “Let’s get you out of here, all right? My carriage is waiting in the mews to take you away.”
“I want to help catch Angela’s killer,” Carmichael protested.
“You’re in no condition to do anything but what I say, my friend. When you’re rested, we’ll talk again. Bow Street has given me complete autonomy in the matter. I’d like to keep this quiet for now, to protect your reputation and Bow Street’s. I am sending you to my home, where my man will tend to your injuries in privacy. As soon as I finish up here and sort through this mess, I’ll return home to take your real statement and discuss what will happen next.”
Carmichael nodded but then turned. He looked across the room to where Lady Berry watched their slow progress through puffy eyes. She still had the letter from Carmichael and her daughter clutched in her hand. Her expression was decidedly ashamed.
“Thank you for believing in me,” Carmichael whispered to Gilbert.
“Don’t thank me yet,” he warned. London policing was an imprecise business at best. “Meriwether is fond of beating confessions out of his suspects, whether they be true or not. He could still cause trouble for you.”
Reputations were made or lost because of harmful gossip, and Carmichael’s standing in society was in jeopardy now.
Lady Berry drew herself up and thrust out the letter to Gilbert. “He said it had to be him,” she whispered. “He said there could be no one else.”
“I loved her,” Carmichael protested. “We were going to marry next week by special license and go home to Edenmere. Angela had already chosen the bedchamber that would become yours. I swear to you, I could never harm her,” Carmichael promised the older woman. “I’ll find out who took Angela from us if it’s the last thing I do.”
The older woman seemed to crumple back onto the fainting couch, covering her face as she began to cry again. Gilbert tried to hurry Carmichael away but the man was barely able to move.
“Be gentle with her,” Carmichael begged of him once they were a distance from Lady Berry. “As prickly as she’s always been with me, she adored Angela. Meriwether is a convincing bastard. I almost believed his arguments myself.”
“No, you didn’t,” Gilbert disagreed. But he would need to ask some hard questions of her and everyone in the household again. There was no telling what sort of nonsense Meriwether had coerced the household staff to say to implicate Carmichael. Getting to the truth might take a while.
He pulled Carmichael through the rear door and paused to catch his breath.
“Can I help you, my lord?” Davis asked, rushing forward.
“Indeed you can,” he said as Davis took on Carmichael’s extra weight. “Carmichael has attended too many lavish dinners this season.”
“So I could be with Angela,” Carmichael added with a groan. “Any excuse.”
Tears flowed from Carmichael’s eyes now and mingled with the blood smeared on his face.
Although he should say something to comfort his friend in his grief, he couldn’t delay out of sympathy or concern for his well-being. There was a crime scene to inspect before anyone else disturbed the remaining evidence.
He loaded Carmichael into the carriage with Davis’ help and sent him on his way through the subdued foggy streets of London’s early morning traffic.
Gilbert looked around and then up. The fog was thinning but the clouds overhead suggested the bad weather had followed him from Kent. It would rain soon if he was not mistaken. “I’ll need you with me at all times, so there can be no question that my loyalty is to the truth,” he told Davis as he turned toward the house again.
“Very good, my lord,” Davis said as he hurried to catch up. “I was itching to get inside from the get go, but Meriwether kept us all away.”
He looked at Davis in surprise. “Every single Runner was kept out?”
“Yes, my lord. Meriwether preferred to work alone on the interrogations, as he always does.”
Gilbert cursed under his breath. Beating a man to a false confession of guilt was abhorrent to him, and very easy to do without witnesses. Thank God he’d arrived in time to rescue Carmichael from Meriwether’s ham-fisted tactics. “That is not how it should be done. You will witness every interview from now on so the evidence brought before the magistrate is without reproach. Form your own opinions and we’ll discuss our conclusions in private afterward. Agreed?”
“Sounds fair.” Davis frowned though. “I am sorry about Lord Carmichael, my lord. It didn’t sit right with me the way he was held like that, but Mr. Meriwether wouldn’t hear reason.”
“He wanted the conviction, not the truth.” Gilbert handed over Carmichael’s last letter to Davis. The Runner would have all the information Gilbert uncovered, and help spread the word that Carmichael was wrongly accused and an abused mourner, should any gossip arise.
“Well, I’ll be damned.” Davis nodded and handed the letter back. “That’s clear enough for me. The poor woman is this way.”
Gilbert stepped into the conservatory, noting the room was well lit and quite crowded. There were cushioned settees, little side tables, and a few books scattered about the room.
He dropped his gaze to the floor. As Carmichael had alluded to in his many letters about the woman, Angela Berry had been pretty.
Dark auburn hair curled wildly around a pale, lifeless face. She’d been stabbed in the chest, a blow that most likely pierced her heart. Death would have been inevitable, if not instant from a wound like that.
“Hello, Angela,” he murmured. “I’m sorry we never had a chance to meet.”
Davis drew close. “What was that, my lord?”
“I was just introducing myself to the victim. I never had occasion to meet the deceased while she lived. She used to add a few lines to Carmichael’s letters occasionally, but that was the extent of our association. I should have come to London more often this past year.”
Davis made a noncommittal sound.
Gilbert drew in a breath and then got to work, noting the arrangement of her limbs, the location of the wound, and the blood smeared around her on the Indian tiles. “Did you read the initial reports?”
“I did. Maid found them together on the floor, Lord Carmichael holding her in his arms. She thought she’d stumbled on a tryst until she noticed the blood.”
“What brought her to this part of the house at that precise moment?”
“A cry for help.”
“The report did not say.”
“We’ll need to question the maid again and ask about the cry.” He turned to look around. Angela Berry had fallen not far from the doorway. She might have been waiting here for Carmichael, or someone else perhaps.
Gilbert moved away from the door and the body and investigated the perimeter of the room. There was a narrow path behind the potted palms lining the walls. It was possible to walk completely around the room behind them, he discovered. Along the way, he tested every window and doorway latch. The last glass panel gave way with a gentle push, revealing a hidden exit.
“Well, I’ll be!” Davis said as he joined Gilbert. He slipped outside and looked left and right. “Access to the street, and to the mews at the back.”
“I take it Meriwether did not discover this?”
“He looked nowhere but to Lord Carmichael once he arrived.” Davis scratched his head. “There are other suspects in my opinion, my lord…if you’d likemy opinion.”
“I would, but first things first. After the maid, tell me who else Meriwether might have spoken to. We need to re-interview everyone about Miss Berry’s movements from the moment she was found to the last time she was seen alive, to be sure they have not been influenced.”
“At least a dozen. There is a footman who is missing though.”
“We need to find him as soon as possible,” Gilbert said, making notes for himself in his pocketbook. “Tell me what else you know.”
“Miss Berry was last seen alive around eleven last night during the height of the festivities of her mother’s ball. There were thirty-three members of the toninvited, most present, and a dozen extra staff hired for the event.”
A hoard of suspects but the wrong one detained. “I’ll need Lady Berry’s guest list as soon as possible. Bring me the maid, and then the housekeeper and the butler, separately.”
“Right you are.” Davis stood straighter. “It’s good to have a proper investigator back in London, my lord.”
“Thank you, but I’m not happy about this at all.” He shook his head and looked down upon the deceased again. “I came for a wedding, not a funeral.”
Anna Beasley fanned her hot face as she was led from the Almack’s Assembly dance floor on the arm of a knight in shining armor.
“Thank you for the dance, Miss Beasley,” Lord Wade murmured to her through the slit in his visor.
Anna did her best to ignore the way his armor clanked horribly as he brought her back to her father’s side and offered a bow—shallow, most likely because he couldn’t bend any lower. Dancing in armor hadn’t been easy for him, and she again wondered why he’d asked her to stand up with him in the first place. “Oh, no. Thank you, my lord.”
Lord Wade, a plain-speaking viscount of modest fortune, wasn’t perhaps the partner other ladies might have wished for, but he bore the stamp of approval from the patronesses of Almack’s and that was enough to satisfy Anna. Besides, it wasn’t as if anyone else had asked her to dance that night. She was running out of time to impress, and she couldn’t bear to pass another night as a wallflower, so she had accepted without hesitation. “I had a marvelous time,” she promised him.
Anna adjusted the straps that held her heavy bow and arrows into a better position across her shoulder and smiled warmly at the viscount. Dancing so encumbered hadn’t been easy for her, either. Why hadn’t she just worn a simple mask like her friend Portia had suggested? Something without weapons perhaps might have appeared less threatening, too.
Lord Wade nodded politely to her father and released her. Iron screeched as he turned awkwardly to face the other direction, and then he clanked off into the crowd. She hoped Lord Wade left early tonight—only so he might be spared of the weight of the heavy armor sooner rather than later.
Anna wished for release, too. She had hope that supper would be announced soon, because only then could she divest herself of her costume’s weapons with the patronesses’ blessings.
“Was it dreadful?” Miss Portia Hayes asked in a whisper as she rushed over to join Anna. Miss Hayes, attired all in white, carried a harp upon her hip that she strummed softly as she waited for Anna’s response.
“Of course not,” Anna promised, smoothing her forest-green waistcoat over her gown of similar hue. She was meant to be a woodsman’s lady, rustic and wild. Anna hadn’t been brave enough to leave her dark hair unbound in public, so her maid had braided it so that the long rope of its length draped forward over her shoulder. Surely someone would find her appealing in this costume and look past her habitual blushes to see the woman within.
She fiddled with the long plait and settled it again. “Lord Wade is a competent dance partner, even in armor.”
“You know what I mean.” Portia leveled her with a knowing stare.
Anna did, unfortunately, remembering past conversations with the viscount that had made her uncomfortable for their bluntness. Given her lack of other dance partners, Anna had resigned herself to more of that and was determined to overlook anything untoward he said. Lord Wade never said anything truly beyond the pale yet. Nothing she hadn’t thought herself, really, but would never say out loud. It just wasn’t politic to speak your mind when you were hoping to catch the right sort of husband. Kind, handsome, and sufficiently plump in the pocket. “He said nothing improper to me.”
“He makes my skin crawl whenever he stares at me,” Portia complained.
Anna had heard that statement many times from Portia. She was an heiress with a great belief in her own worth. Anna hadn’t the confidence to refuse to dance with anyone. Portia even believed Lord Wade’s inclusion in the invitations to attend Almack’s from the patronesses a shocking mistake.
Anna feared her own inclusion was an error sometimes, too. But she had a supporter in the ton, a very valuable mentor for a motherless girl in search of a proper husband, and with another birthday fast approaching, Anna needed all the help she could get. Her twentieth year, and the specter of spinsterhood, was nothing to celebrate and everything to fear.
“I think supper is about to be announced,” Anna whispered to change the subject.
“I think you are right,” Portia agreed, staring around them with a serene smile. “Have you seen Lord Carmichael tonight?”
“He wouldn’t ever be admitted,” Anna warned. Lord Carmichael, the very horrid Price Wagstaff, was her father’s godson—and a devil when it came to breaking the hearts of ladies, she’d learned.
“Shall we go down to supper, daughter?” Father asked.
“Yes, of course,” she said obediently. She glanced at Portia. “Shouldn’t you return to your parents, too?”
“I suppose I must,” Portia said, sighing. Portia’s parents were oddly behaved for chaperones—standing at least ten feet away facing the other direction to their daughter. Portia squeezed her fingers quickly. “Are you attending the Williamson ball on Friday?”
“Indeed I am,” Anna exclaimed, holding her father back a moment. “I’ve been looking forward to the ball since knowing our invitation had arrived. Will you be there too?”
“Of course. I’m wearing my new blue silk gown. You should wear your pink muslin.” Portia waved her fingers and finally went off to rejoin her parents.
Father clucked his tongue in disapproval at Portia’s parting advice and drew Anna toward the great stone staircase of Almack’s. “Wear whatever you like to the ball, daughter.”
Anna laughed softly. “I had already decided on the pink, but it’s good to know Miss Hayes will be wearing another color.”
There was nothing worse than appearing to imitate a close friend.
They descended to the ground floor, left her weapons with a footman to collect later and slipped into the supper room. They found the only vacant table, next to a tall gilt pillar, and soon had tea and a plate of little sandwiches each laid before them. Not that Anna was particularly hungry, attending Almack’s always made her too nervous to eat, but she was thirsty and her aching feet were grateful for a respite.
Her father looked at the plates with a forlorn expression. “One must bear the expense to attend, I suppose, but it’s always such a poor offering at supper, isn’t it?”
Anna sympathized. The food was no better than what could be had at home but there was so little of it. She eased closer to him. “Did you remember to eat before leaving home?”
“I did not find the time, unfortunately.” Father looked at her sideways. “You danced well tonight with Lord Wade.”
His brow wrinkled. “That is the fifth night you have danced with him in as many weeks, is it not?”
Father made a small sound as he bit into a sandwich, something that might have been approval or perhaps merely hunger appeased at last. “You haven’t set your heart on an offer of marriage from him, have you?”
Anna glanced around guiltily, hoping no one had heard his question. It was one thing to talk about suitors in the privacy of home, but another entirely to discuss the matter where anyone might hear.
It appeared no one close had overheard them, but her mentor, Lady Scott, a widow and stickler for propriety, was watching them from across the room. Anna smiled at her quickly. “Lady Scott is here,” she whispered.
He nodded. “She always is.”
“I do hope I have a chance to speak with her tonight.”
Father squinted at the woman. “For what reason?”
“Nothing too important, I promise.” She wanted to ask Lady Scott about Lord Wade’s situation. Lady Scott knew everything about everyone, which had proved very useful so far this season.
Her father shook his head and resumed eating.
She was just starting to feel comfortable when a shadow loomed over them.
“Ah, Miss Beasley,” a familiar, masculine voice mocked. “I thought I saw your beacon-like blush guiding me across the supper room.”
Anna looked up, appalled at his appearance. Carmichael had been fighting at Gentleman Jackson’s again, and clearly had not been the winner this time. His lower lip had a healing cut and there was a yellowish bruise circling one eye. “What are you doing at Almack’s?”
“Why shouldn’t I be here?” He tossed off a loud laugh and turned to greet her grinning father. “I have as much right as anyone, don’t you think, sir?”
The Earl of Carmichael was quite unworthy of treading these hallowed halls, she was sure.
Anna had known him, suffered him, since their parents had forced them into close proximity as children, and she’d endured his company stoically on each and every occasion since she’d made her come out in society.
Father, unfortunately, loved Carmichael like the son he’d never had. He would say nothing about him returning to fight at Gentleman Jackson’s, even if Carmichael had promised that he never would again. “There you are, my boy. I trust you had no trouble when you presented yourself tonight.”
“None at all, and thank you for your assistance in applying to the patronesses.” Carmichael glanced about the supper room, his expression bored. “Not quite as I pictured it.”
“I did warn that you might be underwhelmed, my boy,” Father said with a soft laugh. “Better entertainment in the ring than here.”
Anna glanced between Father and Carmichael, startled that her father would actually help the earl gain entry to Almack’s. Why, the foundations of society must be crumbling beneath them. “I thought you said you hated the very idea of attending Almack’s?”
“You were misinformed.” Carmichael’s expression darkened a moment. “Oh, and here is the friend I was telling you about yesterday, Mr. Beasley. May I present Gilbert Bowen, Earl of Sorenson, to you?”
Father stood, leaving Anna sitting at the table with her cooling tea as he was introduced to a Lord Sorenson of Kent. She’d heard that name before. The older man’s reputation preceded him, and she didn’t care to be introduced to a known scoundrel.
“May I offer condolences on your father’s passing and your elevation to the title?”
“Thank you, Mr. Beasley,” Lord Sorenson murmured in a voice that sounded a bit younger and more vibrant than she’d expected.
Anna stilled. She had not known the Sorenson title had passed to a son. Apparently, there were some things Lady Scott had not told her.
But Carmichael’s friends were in general an unruly and forward lot, most with a known disinterest in pursuing matrimony but would gladly chase any lady in skirts. The apple wouldn’t fall far from the tree.
Despite knowing her interest would be fruitless, she turned her head slightly to glimpse the newcomer discreetly.
Almost out of her line of sight, Carmichael’s friend appeared to be costumed in tight-fitting tan leather breeches, a jerkin of sea green and, to her shock, he wore a bow and quiver of arrows strapped to his back just as she had worn earlier.
He moved slightly, and she could suddenly see Lord Sorenson very clearly. He was young, perhaps younger than Carmichael even, and handsome in a severe way. Carmichael’s friend was not just handsome—he was downright devastating.
His hair, worn long enough to brush the collar of his crisp white shirt, was the color of an angry sunset, his eyes an unusually bright shade of green exactly matched to the shade of her own costume. He laughed suddenly, revealing even white teeth and a wickedly inviting smile that must charm every woman he met.
Anna nearly swooned herself when he pursed his lips the next moment.
She turned back to her plate quickly, suddenly far too warm for even a fan to do her any good. She reached for it anyway and beat air at her face.
“Anna, my dear girl. Forgive me. Where is my mind tonight?” Father caught her hand and hauled her up on shaking legs. “Lord Sorenson, might I present to you my only daughter, Anna.”
Anna lifted her eyes slowly and quaked anew under the force of the earl’s wicked gaze.
“A pleasure to make your acquaintance, Miss Beasley,” Lord Sorenson said after a slight pause.
His deep voice sent a burst of pleasure racing all over her skin. He had a dark voice, the tone of which made her shiver.
The blush that never seemed to go away around handsome men heated anew, and she lowered her eyes quickly. This was a man she ought not to encourage if she wanted to keep her virtue intact. “My lord,” she managed to say before becoming utterly tongue-tied.
Carmichael poked her shoulder. “Lord Sorenson is quite new to Town, Anna, and hasn’t a clue of the fun he’s been missing all these years,” he stated. “Can you believe him once a dull vicar?”
Anna glanced at Lord Sorenson swiftly. He could notbe a vicar. Not with those looks or that voice. “No.”
“All true, I swear,” Lord Sorenson promised, his expression amused by her denial.
Anna’s skin heated even more and she glanced down again.
“Sorenson’s been rusticating in the countryside for far too long. I mean to show him the ropes around Town and educate him on the pleasures to be found here. I’m sure you’ll be seeing a lot of him in the coming weeks.”
At most, she’d likely see his back as he slipped away to seduce some bold and foolish woman. Carmichael was notorious for showing his friends a very good time in the capital. He would take Lord Sorenson under his wing and lead him to places Anna should never know about. Poor Lord Sorenson wouldn’t stand a chance of avoiding corruption and vice during his visit. Even a week of Carmichael’s company was bound to ruin him.
“Will you be staying in London long?”
She hoped not, for his sake.
“Not the whole of the season. I must stay as long as required, on business, before returning to Kent for the summer, no matter what mischief my old friend is planning for me,” Lord Sorenson promised with a lofty stare for Carmichael. He looked at her again and his smile returned. “How are you enjoying the season, Miss Beasley?”
Her body seemed to be quivering with each word Lord Sorenson uttered. She took a moment to collect herself before answering.
“Very well, thank you. My friends and I look forward to seeing you at future events.”
Was that too forward? She hoped not.
She looked at Carmichael quickly. “Have you by chance seen Miss Berry tonight?”
“Who?” Lord Sorenson asked.
“She’s a very good friend of mine.” She looked at Carmichael expectantly. He had been flirting with Angela for weeks and months. Anna expected an announcement of an engagement any day now, or to hear he’d broken Angela’s heart.
“Haven’t seen her,” Carmichael mumbled. “Now that introductions have been completed, we’d best return to the ballroom,” he announced suddenly. “Sorenson has promised to dance with Miss Hayes for the next set after supper.”
“Please excuse us,” Lord Sorenson murmured, but threw one last smile toward Anna before he followed after Carmichael.
Anna let out a shaky breath as she watched them go, her stomach twisting with jealousy and longing. Portia Hayes would be just what Lord Sorenson might like. Bold. Daring. Flirtatious. Anna wasn’t at all like that. She didn’t have the knack for turning heads like her friends could.
The pair strode from the supper room side by side, a wide path clearing before them as they made their way toward the staircase.
A little despondent now, Anna sat again and finished her cold tea in silence. Some nights she felt so very insignificant when compared to others on the marriage mart. She had a dowry but it was a modest sum. Her family was distantly related to the Earl of Windermere, which meant she could count on being invited to the most important tonevents.
But her dance card was empty more often than not.
That was entirely her fault. Blushing at every introduction tended to be off-putting for many gentlemen.
A little bell rang, signaling the end of supper and the commencement of the next round of dancing. Although she had not been asked to dance another set tonight, she would watch and console herself with enjoying the music.
“I must do better,” she told herself in a whisper, darting a glance around her at all the unattached gentlemen passing her by without a second glance.
Although her chances were slim of impressing anyone tonight, she squared her shoulders and followed her father to collect the pieces of her costume.
“The worst is over.” Gilbert slipped a glass of port into Lord Carmichael’s hand, studying his friend’s pale face with concern. His wounds were healing slowly, the cut on his lip no longer bled and the bruises on his body were fading. But the wounds on his heart would take a great deal longer.
It had been a dreadful evening for Carmichael, a man who should have been mourning the loss of a loved one instead of flirting all night long with the young ladies attending Almack’s Assembly Rooms.
Gilbert had ruthlessly forced him back into society to catch a killer because he had no choice. The Berry household servants save one had been cleared of suspicion. Bow Street wanted a swift capture of Miss Berry’s killer, and the best way to gather evidence discreetly was to speak to every guest who had attended the Berry ball.
Gilbert had worked with Bow Street many times before, and had hunted villains as a vicar, too, earning the respect and gratitude of Bow Street in the process. When Gilbert had taken over his father’s title at Christmas after his sudden passing, he’d expected to leave his former life as an investigator behind him. His quarry then had been mostly local riffraff and outcasts.
Carmichael shook his dark head and settled with a groan onto the leather settee in Gilbert’s cluttered upstairs parlor. He had kept this house in London for years, an infrequent resident. Gilbert had rarely needed to visit London but a few times a year.
Carmichael’s pale blue eyes were glassy, bright with unshed tears when he eventually looked at Gilbert. “How can you say the worst is over? Angela is dead, and you forced me to pretend I didn’t care one whit about her whereabouts whenever her name came up in conversation tonight.”
Gilbert exchanged a glance with Davis, who leaned against the doorway, seemingly ready to soak up every word they said, as was his right. However, he didn’t need to see Carmichael break down in tears again. “If you could leave us now.”
“I’ll see if there is any news about the footman,” the man suggested before sauntering out.
“I like him better than Meriwether,” Carmichael murmured.
“Meriwether is no longer involved in this investigation,” Gilbert promised.
Meriwether was in deep water with Bow Street for his behavior toward Carmichael, a peer and engaged man, and had been assigned a new case and a levelheaded partner to work with. The London investigator was too impatient to be fair, and no longer taken seriously by those who mattered. He would accuse first and acquit later, but by then, irreparable damage would be done to reputations.
Meriwether was a bull in a china shop, he’d love nothing more than to tell society he was tracking a killer just to bask in their gratitude.
Carmichael scrubbed at his eyes as weariness crept up on him.
“I understand it is difficult to hide the truth from so many acquaintances, but to succeed, we must act as if nothing is wrong,” Gilbert promised, resigned to the necessity of playing everyone false a little while longer.
“Everythingis wrong.” Carmichael downed the drink and then stood abruptly. “I could have spoken to Angela’s killer tonight and still never known it.”
“It is possible,” Gilbert conceded as Carmichael paced the room. “And yet it is entirely plausible her death had nothing to do with you or anyone connected to you in the ton. My men are searching the city for Lady Berry’s missing footman, and we will question him once he is in my custody. Have no doubt we will get to the truth.”
“I cannot credit that her death was an act of violence by a mere servant. It makes no sense. She was generous and kind to all. But she died coming to meet with me,and now we’ve learned that two other young women known to me died during the last season under equally suspicious circumstances.”
“If you continue to bandy about this new theory of yours, you could find yourself a suspect all over again. Davis is a fair man but others might not be. I am trying to help you so listen to me very carefully. You are not to blame for Angela’s death, or the death of any other lady. You dance with many women. Talk with them. Not all of them are dead.”
“I kissed all the dead ones!” Carmichael cried.
Gilbert sighed, crossed the room to Carmichael and, after slinging an arm around his shoulder, led him back to the chair he’d vacated. Carmichael had once had a reputation for stealing kisses from debutantes new to Town, but Gilbert had trouble believing he could ever be the provocation for such a violent killing spree, if one existed. Carmichael needed to calm himself before he was overheard by someone not quite so levelheaded.
“I know these deaths, hers particularly, are difficult for you to not feel some misplaced guilt over, but you must set aside your suspicious nature and concentrate on facts. We will find Miss Berry’s killer together, and we will not rest on our laurels until we have a conviction. I need your assistance. I don’t have the right connections yet to make headway on my own. I need to interrogate people without anyone realizing I’m doing so. I need you at my side.”
“Is that how you caught Jane Peabody’s killer in the end? Pestering good people all day and all night?”
As always, Gilbert’s stomach clenched with hate when he thought back to the first murderer he’d chased and captured—a woman who had stalked another young lady in his parish and lured her from the protection of her family to kill her. Gilbert had known both girls reasonably well from their attendance at services. The disappearance had shocked his parishioners, the discovery of Jane Peabody’s broken body on a windswept hillside above the village had enraged them—turning friend against friend. Gilbert had gone door to door, striving to restore peace, and discovered quite by accident that he had a knack for uncovering hidden truths. The girl had been murdered by a jealous rival.
“I was more discreet than that.”
Bringing Jane Peabody’s killer to justice had been only briefly satisfying.
He had seen the signs of envy the other girl had felt toward her victim, but like everyone else, had brushed them aside as unimportant initially. Gilbert knew exactly how powerless Carmichael was feeling right now. He’d blamed himself, too.
“Someone knows or deep down suspects the culprit isn’t quite right. They always do on some level. We just have to ask the right questions of the right people.”
“I wonder if you missed your true calling. You shouldn’t have spent so many years delivering sermons when there are monsters on the loose to catch here in London.”
Gilbert shrugged. If he’d stayed in London, he might have become a degenerate rake—chasing women and gambling for high stakes every night like his father. He was grateful his sire had been a terrible man, gambling and whoring for most of Gilbert’s life. Vice and corruption had been his natural elements. His poor example had set Gilbert on a better path and turned him on to a profession and life he was proud of. “I chose my profession well. The solving of crimes was borne out of a desire to help others. An extension of my life in the church.”
Carmichael squinted at him. “Surely the army was a more appealing career for an earl’s only son than the church.”
“We’ve gone over this a dozen times.” Gilbert poured Carmichael another drink and handed it to him. “It might have been if I wasn’t an only son. Father forbade me from serving my country.”
“I couldn’t picture you a vicar until the moment I heard you sermonize about the evils of idle occupation and vice last year.”
Gilbert had come to like his life as a country vicar very much, save for the call to investigate some tragedy or other. His had been a quiet life of introspection and polite gatherings otherwise, quite in contrast to his new life in Kent, where all sorts of temptations awaited him. Father had nearly kept a harem of women lying idle about the estate. It had taken all of the first month to pack up their belongings and get them to leave.
“I wrote that one with you specifically in mind,” Gilbert teased with a laugh.
“That was the old me,” Carmichael promised morosely.
“That is you from top to bottom even now,” Gilbert promised. “Falling in love with Angela Berry didn’t change you that much as far as I can tell. I need you to behave as you always would have before her death. No one must know you are heartbroken over this loss.”
Carmichael downed his drink. “Beasley knows something is wrong. I could see it in his eyes tonight when we spoke.”
Gilbert sat forward, keen to know more about the Beasleys. Anyone connected to Angela Berry was a suspect until proven otherwise. “Will he say anything to his daughter?”
“No, but Anna and Angela were close. They’d been whispering to each other for weeks about me.”
Quietly spoken Anna Beasley hardly seemed the type of girl to be friends with an outgoing lady like Angela Berry was reputed to be, or to gossip. “How do you know Miss Beasley was speaking of you to Angela?”
“Angela berated me for teasing Anna not long ago. She said I should grow up and stop being mean to her. A ‘monster,’ and that’s what Anna always said I was to her when we were young.”
He pictured the girl he’d been introduced to earlier that night. Anna Beasley appeared very shy on first glance. As he recalled the way she’d kept peeking at him, dark, gentle eyes drawing him closer, he found himself smiling for no good reason. “Why on earth would you be mean to Miss Beasley?”
“Habit.” Carmichael pulled a face. “We were children when we first met. Our parents were plotting a marriage between us. I protested quite strongly against the idea. I also made sure Anna would look elsewhere for a potential husband when she came out. Thankfully she took every remark to heart and doesn’t trust me even now.”
Gilbert shook his head. “You’d never do for her anyway.”
Carmichael finally laughed. “Spoken like a man who couldn’t stop stealing glances at her all night. If I didn’t know you were looking for a killer, I’d say you’ve been struck down by instant lust.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.” Gilbert scowled, despite knowing he had not been able to stop looking at the young woman even before their introduction. “I am committed to finding Miss Berry’s killer.”
Given the late hour they were introduced, Miss Beasley would not have had room on her dance card for him anyway, so he had not risked a rebuff by asking her to dance. “I was merely interested in her costume and trying to work out how she managed to seem so graceful with a bow strapped to her back. Mine was a damn nuisance to wear all night. Why the devil did you choose it for me?”
“Seemed appropriate, given we’re on the hunt together.” Carmichael peered at him closely. “Are you sure that’s the extent of your interest in her? I warn you, her costume was entirely accurate. She’s definitely hunting a husband this season. Her father cannot stop mentioning it.”
“Understood.” Gilbert rubbed his brow. He was not used to the hours kept by Londoners and his bed was calling to him all of a sudden. “I am here to catch a killer, not find a wife.”
A small smile ghosted over Carmichael’s lips. “Anna’s not a bad sort, for all that she blushes all the time.”
“I noticed that.”
“Everyone notices that first, and it drives countless fellows away, I fear.” Carmichael frowned again. “It would be a believable excuse for you though—you searching for a bride and singling Anna out for attention. She has a lot of friends in common with Angela and those other murdered girls.”
“I’d not use her, or anyone, like that,” he warned.
Carmichael looked down at his hands. “Angela and I made a pact last year—to pretend an interest in each other to quiet her mother for this season.”
“I know you feel guilty that you waited so long to ask for her hand,” Gilbert said gently.
“I should have asked after our first kiss.” Carmichael squinted up at him. “It wouldn’t have to be a successful courtship between you and Anna. Just enough to convince others that you’re assessing the field. Anna’s quite the shy mouse, but she’d go along with the deception for a good cause. If you let me explain to her father what we’re doing, I’m sure he’d help us, too.”
Gilbert laughed. “Wouldn’t it be better if youwere the one to court Miss Beasley, since her father already wishes for a match between you?”
“And put her in danger?” Carmichael grimaced. “No. Besides, no one would believe she’d have me. Not with our history. It has to be you.”
Gilbert held fast to his principles. A false courtship would be cruel to Anna Beasley…even more so if she knew the direction his mind had traveled as he’d looked upon her last night. If she had some fellow in mind for her husband, a false courtship might harm her chances of receiving a proper proposal. “No. I won’t do it to her.”
“Come on, man. You’re an unknown, and who knows how long the excuse of being in London on ‘a business matter’ will remain convincing? Besides, if you’re believed to be courting Anna, it will be easier to keep an eye on her, and other young women too, without accidentally getting yourself leg shackled in truth.”
Carmichael had a point—onlyifhis wild theory held some truth. If Carmichael’s suspicions were in any way real, only a few ladies could be in danger, those with a romantic interest in Carmichael himself. Anna Beasley might certainly be at risk by association, but only if guilt wasn’t making Carmichael assume connections that were not there.
Still, he would not entirely dismiss the motive Carmichael ascribed to the killer. He’d investigate first and dismiss it later.
“Think about it,” Carmichael pressed. “She’s not entirely without reason, and we will have to tell her what happened to Angela Berry soon.”
Gilbert shook his head. “Absolutely out of the question. Not yet. You say she was close to Angela. Have you considered she might be acquainted with the killer too?”
“Keeping her in the dark is better protection,” Gilbert promised. “We can question her discreetly and that will be the end of her involvement in the case.”
“Then before I forget, I should give you this.” Carmichael produced a letter. “You need a reason to be at Friday night’s ball. Lady Williamson is breathless with anticipation for your attendance in her ballroom. She remembers your father fondly and cannot wait to become reacquainted with his handsome son. Her words not mine. Make sure you ask her to dance as payment for including you at short notice.”
“Thank you, I think.” Gilbert looked up just as Davis appeared at the door. The Runner nodded and disappeared again. Their quarry had been captured. Gilbert got to his feet. Duty called.
Carmichael stood too, raking his hand through his hair. “I want this over.”
Gilbert clasped Carmichael’s shoulder. “You should get some rest. Do you want to stay again?”
Carmichael wasn’t sleeping in his own bed anymore. The only way he seemed able to rest was to drink to excess in his study or sleep here in Gilbert’s home. Gilbert preferred the latter and didn’t mind the company.
Carmichael nodded. “Home seems so very empty of late.”
Carmichael lived alone but for his servants. So did Gilbert, for that matter. He was better off staying the night.
“The guest room is prepared and waiting for you as usual,” he promised. “I’ll send my man to fetch you clean clothing again for tomorrow.”
“Thank you, my friend. I don’t really know what I’d do without your support.”
“Think nothing of it. I’m happy to help,” he promised. “Be off with you, and call for breakfast when you wake.”
Carmichael pulled a face suddenly. “She fancies you.”
“Anna, of course.” Carmichael grin turned sly. “That blush of hers is always a dead giveaway for how she feels.”
“Go to bed, Carmichael. Your tiredness is making you delusional.”
Carmichael laughed softly. “I know what I saw written all over your faces,” he promised. “The sooner you admit it, the better for me.”
Gilbert didn’t believe in love at first sight. But instant attraction he knew to be very real. He shrugged the desire for companionship away. There would be time to consider Anna Beasley later.
As soon as Carmichael could no longer be heard on the stairs, Gilbert slipped downstairs to the wine cellar.
Davis was waiting, a pair of hulking men at his back. “Bold as brass, this one. Waltzed right up to the Berry’s kitchen door with a spring in his step,” he said.
“Confident,” he murmured. Or innocent. Only asking the right questions would tell. “Good.”
Davis turned to give the order and his men moved aside.
Gilbert stepped into the wine cellar, Davis on his heels. “Mr. Toombs.”
The pale-haired footman stopped pacing and turned blazing eyes on him. “What right do you have to hold me here?”
“I am Lord Sorenson, and I am commissioned by Bow Street to investigate a crime committed at your employer’s residence on the night of May five.” He took a seat opposite Toombs, noting the man showed immediate signs of concern for his employer. “My first question, where have you been, Mr. Toombs?”
The footman frowned. “Am I in trouble?”
He nodded slowly. “How much will depend on what you say to me today. Most likely you will at least lose your position.”
“But I had leave to go home,” the man protested. “I cannot marry without a position.”
A marriage in the works was news to him. The household staff had not hinted the fellow had any romantic entanglements. “Neither Lady Berry nor her senior staff gave any such permission.”
The fellow shook his head, and his arms dropped to his sides. “But her ladyship’s daughter gave me permission. Just ask her.”
Gilbert leaned forward to stare at Mr. Toombs. On the surface, he seemed oblivious to the crime under investigation but many criminals excelled at lying. “That would be difficult, as Angela Berry is no longer alive to collaborate your tall tale.”
The fellow’s eyes bulged. “What?”
The man stared, mouth agape. He closed it suddenly and looked about the room a little wildly. “I swear she was breathing when I left her! Is Sally all right?”
“Miss Berry’s maid.” He swallowed hard. “We are going to marry. Miss Berry promised us both a place with her when she married Lord Carmichael.”
“You knew about Carmichael’s proposal?”
“Only that it was expected on the night of the ball,” Toombs promised. “Everyone in the household was waiting for it. The poor man.”
Toombs’ shock and sympathy seemed genuine and completely convincing to Gilbert. “No one else was harmed, and Lord Carmichael had no chance to propose at all that night,” he murmured. “Convince me of your innocence, sir.”
The fellow came and sat opposite Gilbert, hands between his knees. “I spoke to Miss Berry at four in the afternoon,” Toombs began, and then blurted out every moment of his following days in such detail as to be entirely convincing. “Sally, my intended, had finally agreed since we found out we could go with her mistress and stay together.
“I went home to tell my father the good news, obtained his permission to marry, and returned to London after speaking with Sally’s parents on the way back. We had grown up two villages apart, never knowing each other until we entered Lady Berry’s service.”
Gilbert exchanged a glance with Davis, who was nodding slowly. Innocent, but still…it would do to keep this one close. “Lady Berry will be leaving London soon to bury her daughter. She has dismissed all but a few of her London staff.”
The man looked shocked.
“You will undoubtedly be without a position, should you return to Berry House under a cloud of suspicion.”
“I would never hurt Miss Berry. She was the kindest in the household. What about Miss Berry’s lady’s maid? Does she still have a position?”
The fellow burst to his feet. “I have to find her. Anything could happen to her if I’m not there to protect her.”
“Sit down,” Davis warned. “Lucky for you, Lord Sorenson has a tender heart.”
“What have you done with her?”
“Employed her. Not as a lady’s maid of course, since I am not married, but she has a respectable position in the kitchens for now.” Gilbert stood, straightening his waistcoat. “I do not condone the rash dismissal of staff in times of grief. There could be a permanent position for you, as long as you’ve been honest today.”
“I was. I am. Thank you, my lord.”
He gestured to Davis to lead the fellow away. Toombs trotted after Davis eagerly, and then Davis returned alone.
Gilbert studied the fellow. “Tell the staff to keep an ear open. Make sure his story holds up over the next few days. If it doesn’t, we will question him again; if it does, I will find him a better position elsewhere.”