Scandal proves deadly in this dark, emotional Gothic Regency Romance
Lady Jemma Forster knows all too well how ruthless gossip-mongers can be. She sacrificed her own happiness to restore her family’s reputation. Her marriage of convenience to an affluent earl meant saying goodbye to passion, and any chance at love with the dashing lawman who set her soul aflame. She leads a sedate, practical life as the Countess of Wolverston. Until her husband is murdered, and the only man who can bring his killers to justice is her former love.
Bow Street Runner Gabriel Sinclair has spent the last three years trying to forget about smart, beautiful Lady Jemma, who broke his heart when she married his best friend. The Earl of Wolverston’s death thrusts Gabriel and Jemma back together, as they work to find his murderer. Their investigation takes them into the darkest, most dangerous parts of London, with threats coming from all sides. They’re perfect partners for solving crimes, but can they be partners in love too?
Previously released in It Started with a Whisper
The cruel, senseless murder of the dashing Earl of Wolverston has rocked Hill Street—and not just because Wolverston leaves behind a beautiful widow!
Our secret sources tell us the earl was killed outside of one of Covent Garden’s most notorious houses of ill repute.
-Whispers from Lady X
West End, London, England
Zero days since the death of the Earl of Wolverston
Gabriel Sinclair had grown accustomed to the glossy sheen of blood splashed upon narrow London alleys. The sickly-sweet scent mottled with the reek of decomposition, the stench almost overpowering. He sucked in small, barely-sustaining breaths to keep from gagging, regretting the ale he’d drank at the Brown Bear before he’d received the message he was needed in Soho Square.
Although the patrolman who’d initially found the bodies spewed his dinner in the courtyard, Gabriel remained poised and alert in the face of such gore. In his ten years with the Bow Street Runners, he had seen far, far worse. Two middle-aged men—one dressed in high-quality clothing, and the other in little more than rags—rated tame in comparison. Robbery was common enough in Soho Square, and apparently, the cause for this crime. A man claimed he had been leaving the brothel with his brother and a blackguard had attacked them. A scuffle had occurred, and the assailant overpowered the older brother, murdering him. The younger brother was lucky to be alive—he’d managed to get the knife from their attacker and stabbed him.
Frowning, Gabriel’s gaze darted from the two corpses to where the witness sat with his back pushed up against the White House brothel, watched over by another policeman. Patrolman Green had taken the man’s statement and reported a quick summary to Gabriel. The man’s story seemed valid—he had the defensive wounds to attest to the struggle—but Gabriel still wanted to investigate further. Once he’d examined the bodies, he’d return to the station house on Bow Street with the witness and question him more.
But for now, he had more pressing matters.
Every minute that passed changed minute details, making it harder to recreate the murder in his mind. When he’d started as a patrolman, the others had teased him for his meticulous examination. Now that he’d been promoted to Principal Officer, no one questioned his methods.
Gabriel calmly removed his gloves and knelt down to inspect the bodies. He had no formal medical training, but he could at least make note of the injuries and possible cause of death before the coroner arrived. He’d start with the rich man first, since he appeared to be the victim.
To the average man, death was something to be feared. A failure. An ending.
But for men like Gabriel, death was business as usual.
He had work to do. Emotions only clouded the facts, leaving one blind to any clues that might not fit one’s preconceived notions of the case. When he was at work—and Gabriel was always at work, these last three years—he thought of nothing else but getting justice for the victims of a crime. It was easier that way. No time to ponder past regrets, to recall the tinkling laughter of the woman whose smile had always made him feel as though he could accomplish anything. Be anything.
The man was face-down, his arms and legs flung out, bent unnaturally. His gray-streaked brown hair was matted with blood. Gingerly, Gabriel pushed at the hair, revealing a gaping aperture, approximately the size of a club. Most likely the fatal blow, given the viscera clotting the hole. He let the hair fall back with a silent prayer that the man had died quickly—all the while knowing such was improbable. The man’s body bore too many wounds for that to have been the first hit.
Gabriel’s brows furrowed as he examined the man’s torn cutaway tail coat. Dirt and blood marred the blue pinstripes, but even in its disheveled state he could tell that the coat had been expertly tailored to the wearer’s somewhat corpulent frame. The silk was smooth to the touch, still retaining some of its naturally bright sheen. And there, right at his waist, were two dangling threads where gold buttons must have adorned the coat. He checked the sleeves, noting those buttons had been cut too. He’d have to examine the clothing, but so far this all confirmed the brother’s statement.
“But you weren’t so lucky,” Gabriel murmured. “Must have been a hell of a fight. Miracle your brother survived.”
The clip-clop of horse’s hooves against the cobblestones made Gabriel rise quickly. Dawn was approaching, and soon the streets would be full of early morning traffic. The news would spread like wildfire, due to the crime occurring outside the infamous White House, where Mrs. Theresa Berkeley and her girls catered to a clientele that achieved sexual satisfaction through flagellation. The scandal sheets would delight in that on-dit.
Even now, he kept seeing curtains move at the brothel, as prostitutes and their patrons realized what was going on outside. People’s curiosity would soon surpass their desire to keep their sexual proclivities private, and there would be a mass exodus.
Time to start closing off the brothel so they could question everyone. He motioned to Patrolman Green to guide the brother back inside, and then he called to the other patrolman who had first found the bodies. “Wilcox?”
Once he’d finished ridding himself of mutton, Wilcox had stationed himself at the corner, claiming he was looking for the coroner. Gabriel had allowed him to save face with the pretense. But now he needed the younger man’s help.
Wilcox wiped the arm of his sleeve across his mouth, abashedly returning his stare. “I’m sorry, sir. It won’t happen again. It was just—”
“Your first dead body.” Gabriel nodded swiftly. Wilcox hadn’t been on the job more than a week, whereas Patrolman Green had served four years already. “Happens to us all. Nothing to be ashamed of. Here, help me turn him over, would you? I’d like to get a look at his wounds before the coroner comes.”
Wilcox’s lower lip shook, and his skin began to take on that puce hue again.
“Steady, lad,” Gabriel said encouragingly, as he grabbed hold of one side of the corpse.
Wilcox set his shoulders back, notched up his chin, and grasped the other side. Together, they rolled the man over, careful to not disturb his wounds.
“There we go. Very good, Wilcox.” Gabriel patted the patrolman’s arm, half to ensure the man wouldn’t run off and retch again and half to praise him.
“Bloody hell, he looks bad.” Wilcox’s voice only shook a little bit, so Gabriel released the man’s arm and turned his attention back to the scene.
Bad was an appropriate estimation of this victim’s state. The dead man had defensive wounds on his arms and hands, as if he’d thrown his hands up to protect his face. A blade of some sort had slashed into his skin, leaving behind shallow cuts. Likely, the same blade that had ended the attacker’s life. He’d verify that later with the coroner.
The pools of blood corresponded to his current position, so Gabriel doubted he’d been moved since the final blow. And his purse was empty of coin. That too supported the companion’s story.
Yet, something didn’t feel right. He couldn’t shake the niggling sensation that he was missing something.
Gabriel frowned, letting his gaze travel from one end of the street to the other. He took it all in: the stink of the pre-dawn emptying of the brothel’s chamber pots by the maid, the blood splattered on the stones and on the front wall and door of the White House, the bruises purpling the dead man’s face and neck. There was so much damage done to his face it was harder to imagine what he would have looked like before.
Even with the disfigurement, he seemed familiar. But why? His dress marked him as far outside of Gabriel’s current social circle. He squinted. Unless he’d met the man before he’d joined Bow Street, back when he was nothing more than the unfettered fourth son of a viscount, desperate to find a purpose for his life.
He reached into the man’s pockets, hoping to find something identifying. Luck was with him, for in the man’s pocket was a silken handkerchief embroidered with a crest.
When he unfolded the fabric and saw the sword with a wolf on either side of the blade, the ale in his stomach lurched precariously, and he barely stopped himself from suffering the same fate as Wilcox.
God, he’d been a fool. He should have asked Green for the victim’s name immediately. He’d been so consumed with detailing the scene, he’d missed the obvious. “Wilcox, go tell Mrs. Berkeley no one is to leave the brothel. This is the Earl of Wolverston.”
“Oh, bollocks,” Wilcox cursed, summarizing Gabriel’s feelings well.
Here he was, staring at the corpse of a man he’d once considered a friend. A man who had married the only woman Gabriel had ever loved.COLLAPSE
Short description: A Bow Street Runner and a scandalous widow join forces to solve her husband's murder in this Gothic romance novella
Epigraph for book:
"If I must die,
I will encounter darkness as a bride,
And hug it in mine arms."
Measure for Measure (Act III, Scene I, Line 82)