Home     Meet Cara Elliott    Books    Diversions    Goodies    Contests    Contact    
 


Join Cara's
Mailing List


Follow Cara
on Facebook


Follow Cara
on Twitter



Blog with Cara at
Word Wenches


Visit Cara's alter ego
Andrea Pickens


E-mail Cara

 

CHAPTER ONE

Murder.

The word looked rather ghoulish on the printed page.

Closing her eyes for an instant, Lady Ciara Sheffield reminded herself that it sounded even worse.

“Murder.” Though she said it with barely a breath, the echo seemed to shatter the stillness of the room. Seeing that the inquest was officially closed, she had thought that the past had finally been laid to rest. But apparently she was gravely mistaken.

She set aside The Morning Gazette, yet the flutter of newsprint was a disquieting reminder of the malicious whispers. For months following her husband’s sudden collapse, the drawing rooms of Mayfair had been aswirl in ondits, each one more outrageous than the last.

At least this morning’s article had not called her a witch, but accorded her the dignity of referring to her work as ‘scientific’.
Her breakfast was now cold, and as the taste of the tea turned bitter on her tongue, Ciara crumbled a bit of toast between her fingers. Would the ton never tire of gnawing on the bones of old scandal? Sighing, she angled another peek at the column of newsprint. By now the rumors and innuendo should have died a natural death.

Oh, how she hated being fodder for gossip. But perhaps, with any luck, her story would soon fade from the front pages.

Especially if the infamous Lord Hadley kept up his escapades.

Much as she despised wastrels in general, Ciara found herself almost liking the man for being so utterly, so outrageously debauched. His latest antics could not help but distract the tattlemongers from her own quiet life. When it came to selling newspapers, a reclusive widow was no match for a rakehell earl.

Not that she had any interest in learning the sordid details of this particular incident. Determined to turn a blind eye to the columnist’s lurid prose, Ciara reached for her notebooks. And yet she could not quite help catching sight of the next few lines . . .

Dear God, surely the writer was grossly exaggerating.

Despite herself, she read on. She was acquainted with the fountain in question—though not with the Cyprian who had apparently consented to play Leda to Lord Hadley’s Zeus-As-Swan. According to the account, the naked female was a good deal more statuesque than the sculpted marble. And a good deal more vocal. Apparently half of Berkeley Square had been woken by her shrieks when the earl’s slip landed both of them chest deep in the frigid water.

That ought to have cooled their ardor, thought Ciara grimly. Not to speak of inflicting more permanent damage. It was hinted that the earl had suffered several good-sized bruises to a rather sensitive section of his anatomy.

No doubt he was wishing that ‘brass balls’ was not merely a metaphor.

The newsprint suddenly crackled. The coals hissed, and flames licked up to consume the crumpled wad of paper. To hell with Lord Hadley. And the rest of London Society for that matter. Let them play their wicked games. She had witnessed enough malicious intrigue and mindless debauchery to last her a lifetime. It was no longer shocking, just dreadfully dull.

Pushing aside her plate, Ciara gathered up her notebooks and hurried from the breakfast room.

* * * *

“Bloody hell! Another hit, dead center through the card!”

Bloody luck. Lucas Bingham, the Earl of Hadley, squinted in the glare of morning sunlight. He was a damn good shot, but after consuming three—or was it four—bottles of port over the last several hours, even the sharpest aim could go astray.

“La, sir.” One of the luscious lightskirts he and his friends had hired for the trip slipped her hand beneath his shirt. “Your touch on the trigger is unerring. What say you to reloading and taking a shot at another sort of target?”

Before the earl could answer, Lord Farnam let out a low whistle. “Damnation, Lucas. I swear, you could shoot a farthing off the tip of a man’s cock without doing any damage."

"Especially yours, Freddy,” called Baron Greeley. “Even Hadley can’t hit what he can’t see."

Farnam joined in the bawdy laughter before replying, “I, on the other hand, have no trouble spotting your fat arse, Georgie—especially as it’s exposed in a rather precarious position right now. So keep a civil tongue in your head unless you wish to feel the full force of my boot.”

Greeley’s ladybird lay draped over one of the garden statues, and her embrace had angled the baron and his naked posterior into full view. “Come, come, gentlemen,” she called. “Let’s have no talk of violence, only fun.” Her hands inched lower, drawing Greeley’s breeches along with them. “After all, we’re all here to have a good time.”

“I’ll drink to that!” Farnam uncorked another bottle of champagne. “A toast to Lucas—our own Mad, Bad Had-ley—for giving us such a swimmingly good reason to quit Town for a while. The Season was becoming a bloody bore. Nothing like a country house party to keep us all in good spirits until the prigs have time to forget about your moonlight swan dive.”

Forget.

Lucas winced as the word cut through the haze of wine.

Damn. Up until that moment, his promise to his uncle had completely slipped his mind. It wouldn’t be the first time that he had left Henry in the lurch. Not by far. Of late, his negligence was becoming such a habit that his failure to show up at the appointed hour was no doubt expected.

A fact which only made the prickling of guilt dig in a little deeper. And not even Marie—or was her name Marguerite—could caress it away.

The feeling was bloody uncomfortable. Not to speak of inconvenient, seeing as they had only arrived at Farnam’s estate at dawn, after carousing half the night in one of the seamier gambling hells in St. Giles. Tossing aside the pistol, Lucas grabbed a fresh bottle and gulped down a swallow, hoping to drown the host of tiny daggers jabbing against his flesh.

Instead, the ruthless little buggers intensified their attack. “Blast,” he muttered, pressing his fingertips to his throbbing temples. “You’ve just reminded me of a pressing engagement, Freddy. I‘m afraid I’m going to have to return to Town immediately.”

“Put it off, cheri.” Mademoiselle M began to toy with the fastenings of his breeches. “Along with your buckskins. Why rush off when we can play a bit of slap and tickle right here and now?”

“I can’t,” he replied, grimacing as he gingerly removed her hand. That particular portion of his anatomy was not feeling very . . . playful at the moment. He vaguely remembered a midnight encounter involving very cold water and very hard stone.

“The truth is, my uncle expected me yesterday.”

“But cheri!” She pursed her lips into a provocative little pout. “If you leave now, it will throw off the numbers.”

“Someone will have to double up.” Lucas watched Farnam take another swig of wine and then thrust himself between his companion’s thighs. “Freddy looks willing to give his pump handle a few extra turns.”

The lightskirt narrowed her kohl-rimmed eyes. “That leaves me with the short end of the stick, so to speak. I didn’t make the journey out here to sit around and twiddle my thumbs. The deal was that I got you.”

His headache seemed to be taking a turn for the worse. Fishing a wad of banknotes from his coat, Lucas tossed them over. “Here, perhaps counting these will keep your clever little fingers busy.”

“Don’t be such a spoilsport, Hadley,” called Ingalls. He was lying spreadeagle on the grass, smoking a cheroot. “Surely another day or two will make no difference to your uncle. After all, he isn’t likely to be going anywhere.”

His other friends found the quip uproariously funny.

“I say, that’s a good one, Fitz,” said Greeley, wiping the tears of mirth from his cheeks. “Not going anywhere! Ha, ha, ha.”

The casual cruelty concerning his uncle’s infirmity hit him like a slap in the face. Lucas felt a surge of anger well up inside him, and for an instant he was tempted to lash out and smash the slurred smiles to a pulp. But if anyone deserved to be pummeled, he realized, it was himself. The other three simply followed his example, as they had since their schoolboy days at Eton.

Mad, Bad Had-ley. Hellbent on raising the art of outrageous behavior to a science. The pursuit of pleasure, executed with perfect precision. He found himself frowning. Was he really such a sodden, self-absorbed sot? A reckless reprobate reeking of spirits and sex?

Lucas shifted his stance, trying to shake off such dark musings. The fall into the fountain must have coshed his wits as well as his whirlygigs. He didn’t usually subject himself to such soul-searching introspection . . .

“You aren’t in any condition to travel,” called Greeley. His friend fixed him with a bleary-eyed squint. “Fact is, you look like shite.”

“Nonetheless, I mean to leave for London within the hour,” he muttered.

“Oh, come on,” coaxed Farnam. “It’s not like you to leave your friends in the lurch.”

“At the very least, have one more round of drinks with us,” added Ingalls.

“Well . . .” It was, after all, still early in the morning, thought Lucas. “Maybe just one more.”

Marguerite smiled, and ran a caress up the inside of his thigh.

Oh, what the hell.

* * * *

Her workroom—her sanctuary—afforded a place of refuge from the poison pens and other painful realities of the outside world. Tall mullioned windows filled the space with a clean-edged light. The leather bindings of her books glowed with the mellow warmth of aged sherry, a rich complement to the gleam of polished glass. The orderly rows of vials and beakers mirrored the precise arrangement of her scientific instruments. Microscopes, calipers and magnifying lenses . .

Here the truth was not distorted to suit personal desires. Empirical data could be measured. Rational thought ruled over raw emotion.

And yet, pressing her palms to her cheeks, Ciara was dismayed to find them still burning with indignation.

And perhaps a touch of fear.

“Damn,” she muttered, angry with herself for allowing the latest headlines to threaten her peace of mind. What did it matter if her name was splashed across the gossip pages? The inquest into her husband’s death was closed, and Sheffield’s family would have to live with that fact. “The danger is over,” she added, as if saying it aloud gave the words an extra ring of truth.

Don’t dwell on the past. With her young son away in the country, this fortnight was supposed to be a pleasant interlude for her as well. A time to catch up on her scholarly research, not stew over the latest efforts of her late husband’s relatives to blacken her reputation.

As she opened her notebook and began to write, the scent of the simmering herbs and spices filled the room. The original recipe—a potion for relieving the pain of gouty joints—had come from a medieval manuscript she had discovered in the attics of Sheffield Manor. But based on her own knowledge, she was making a few changes.

Rosemary, essence of juniper, sumac . . . Ticking off the list, Ciara made a note to mix in myrrh at the next chime of the hour. That would give her just enough time to organize her notes for the weekly meeting of The Circle of Scientific Sibyls.

Her lips quirked in a rueful smile. That was the group’s official name, but among themselves, they had taken to calling it “The Circle of Sin.” After all, intellectual pursuits were not considered proper conduct for a lady. But undaunted by public opinion, the five females members were serious scholars who shared a common interest in the natural sciences. And despite the differences in age and background, they had also come to share a special bond of friendship.

Ciara smoothed her papers into a neat pile. Lud, she was not quite sure how she would have survived the last half year without their stalwart support. By her own admission, she had shunned the social swirl of London. Still, the viciousness of the personal attacks after her husband’s sudden death had staggered her.

Drawing in a gulp of air, she forced herself to swallow the memory of terror, of confusion.

Sheffield’s relatives had been quick to start the whispers of ugly speculations. As the rumbling of suspicion grew more ominous, and the tone of the inquest turned more threatening, her own family had taken cover from the growing storm of scandal, leaving her to stand up to the sharp-tongued magistrates and hatchet-faced coroner on her own.

The law required that the circumstances surrounding a sudden death be looked into. No matter that her husband was a dissolute man who had probably drunk himself into an early grave. By all accounts he had downed a half dozen bottles of brandy during the night of his collapse. And yet, she had been forced to listen to his family and their cronies offer testimony about her shrewish temper, reclusive habits and secret lair full of strange potions.

Ciara closed her eyes, trying not to picture the faces of the jury as they listened to the witnesses. She had seen the fear and loathing when their eyes met hers. Indeed, right up until the end, she had been sure that they would find her guilty of her husband’s death and order her turned over to the authorities for a criminal trial.

Yet somehow she had found the strength to survive the terrible ordeal. Not for herself, but for Peregrine. She would have died a thousand deaths before she let Sheffield’s grasping family gain custody of her son. Oh, they had tried, even after the coroner had grudgingly announced that there was not enough evidence to indict her for murder. Even now, they continued to spread stories about how her unnatural interests and unstable mind made her unfit to be a mother.

More lies, more innuendos.

Her hands clenched. She had done her best to protect Peregrine—first from the fickle moods of his father, then from the sordid details of the inquest, and now from the swirl of scandal that still surrounded her name.

But was her best good enough?

Forcing her chin up, Ciara refused to surrender to despair. While there was still a breath left in her body, she would not let Sheffield’s family beat her down. So far, they had not been able to offer a shred of proof to support their allegations. No doubt they would keep trying, but surely as time went on, it would become more and more difficult to claim they had actual evidence of a crime.

Let them continue their campaign of evil whispers. Let them plant nasty lies in the newspapers. Words were their only weapons—and words could not hurt her. And yet Ciara felt her throat constrict. The same could not be said for Peregrine. He was so young and impressionable . . .

Thank god for friends like Alessandra della Giamatti.

A fellow member of the Circle of Sin, the marchesa was also a widow, and had a daughter the same age as her son. Having experienced her own share of personal travails in Italy, Alessandra had gone out of her way to include Peregrine in the everyday activities that made life seem . . . normal for a child.

At the moment, the three of them were spending a fortnight in Bath, where some ancient Roman ruins had recently been unearthed. Ciara allowed a small smile. An expert in archeology as well as chemistry, Alessandra had been eager to observe the initial digging up close. And so had the children. The fresh air and open fields would do Peregrine a world of good.

As for herself . . .

The chime of the clock roused her from such unsettling reveries. Shoving the past aside, Ciara hurried to mix the last ingredient into the bubbling potion before leaving for the meeting. As she reached for her shawl, her glove grazed a small blood-red notebook lying beneath the fringed silk.

She quickly added it to her reticule.

After all, hadn’t Hippocrates had written that humor was one of the most potent medicines known to man—or woman? Following the regular agenda of the meeting, her friends might find her latest additions to their other ongoing scholarly research amusing.

* * * *

It was far more than hour later when Lucas finally staggered to his feet and refastened his breeches. “I really must be off,” he muttered, gathering up his rumpled coat and cravat. Turning for the terrace, he cocked a last salute to his friends. “Enjoy the country. I fear that London is going to be a bore without your company.”

“Then stay,” called Greeley.

He shook his head. “No, I must atone for all my recent sins of neglect by visiting my uncle today.”

Farnam caught up to him on the stairs. “Er, see here, Lucas, are you sure that you have no objection if I step in to fill the void with Mathilde . . . so to speak?”

“None whatsoever. Nature abhors a vacuum,” replied Lucas with some cynicism.

"Er . . .” Farnam cast him a puzzled look.

“Never mind. It’s merely one of the many scientific observations my uncle is fond of pointing out.” Lucas quickened his step, anxious to order his valise packed and his team of greys harnessed. “You are welcome to avail yourself of Mademoiselle M’s company.”

“That’s awfully sporting of you.” Farnam grinned and lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “Admit it—all this talk about your uncle is pish-posh. I take it you are running back to an even more delectable morsel.”

Lucas was loath to confess the truth. “What do you think?” he drawled.

His friend let out an admiring whistle. “You have the devil’s own luck with women.”

Or was it a curse. Sometimes he couldn’t help wonder if everything came just a little too easy for him. The truth was, the lack of a challenge had left him feeling bored of late.

Brushing off such unsettling thoughts, he flicked a mote of dust from his sleeve. “Care for a bit of advice?”

“Hell, yes!”

“The secret is in not giving a damn.”

“Er, about what?”

“About anything at all.”