The word looked
rather ghoulish on the printed page.
her eyes for an instant, Lady Ciara Sheffield reminded herself
that it sounded even worse.
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
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.
hell! Another hit, dead center through the card!”
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.
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?”
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."
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.”
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.”
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.”
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?”
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.”
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.”
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 . . .
in any condition to travel,” called Greeley. His friend fixed
him with a bleary-eyed squint. “Fact is, you look like shite.”
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.
* * * *
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
And perhaps a touch
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.
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.
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
Drawing in a gulp of air,
she forced herself to swallow the memory of terror, of confusion.
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
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
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
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
She quickly added it to
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.”
He shook his head. “No,
I must atone for all my recent sins of neglect by visiting my uncle
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
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.”
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
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?”
“The secret is in
not giving a damn.”
“Er, about what?”