The Confounding Case of the Carisbrook Emeralds
The Casebook of Barnaby Adair Novels #6
First published June 14, 2018
In print, audio, and e-book.
PRINT ISBN: 978-1-925559-31-6
E-BOOK ISBN: 978-1-925559-10-1
#1 New York Times bestselling author Stephanie Laurens brings you a tale of emerging and also established love and the many facets of family, interwoven with mystery and murder.
A young lady accused of theft and the gentleman who elects himself her champion enlist the aid of Stokes, Barnaby, Penelope, and friends in pursuing justice, only to find themselves tangled in a web of inter-family tensions and secrets.
When Miss Cara Di Abaccio is accused of stealing the Carisbrook emeralds by the infamously arrogant Lady Carisbrook and marched out of her guardian’s house by Scotland Yard’s finest, Hugo Adair, Barnaby Adair’s cousin, takes umbrage and descends on Scotland Yard, breathing fire in Cara’s defense.
Hugo discovers Inspector Stokes has been assigned to the case, and after surveying the evidence thus far, Stokes calls in his big guns when it comes to dealing with investigations in the ton—namely, the Honorable Barnaby Adair and his wife, Penelope.
Soon convinced of Cara’s innocence and—given Hugo’s apparent tendre for Cara—the need to clear her name, Penelope and Barnaby join Stokes and his team in pursuing the emeralds and, most importantly, who stole them.
But the deeper our intrepid investigators delve into the Carisbrook household, the more certain they become that all is not as it seems. Lady Carisbrook is a harpy, Franklin Carisbrook is secretive, Julia Carisbrook is overly timid, and Lord Carisbrook, otherwise a genial and honorable gentleman, holds himself distant from his family. More, his lordship attempts to shut down the investigation. And Stokes, Barnaby, and Penelope are convinced the Carisbrooks’ staff are not sharing all they know.
Meanwhile, having been appointed Cara’s watchdog until the mystery is resolved, Hugo, fascinated by Cara as he’s been with no other young lady, seeks to entertain and amuse her…and, increasingly intently, to discover the way to her heart. Consequently, Penelope finds herself juggling the attractions of the investigation against the demands of the Adair family for her to actively encourage the budding romance.
What would her mentors advise? On that, Penelope is crystal clear.
Regardless, aided by Griselda, Violet, and Montague and calling on contacts in business, the underworld, and ton society, Penelope, Barnaby, and Stokes battle to peel back each layer of subterfuge and, step by step, eliminate the innocent and follow the emeralds’ trail…
Yet instead of becoming clearer, the veils and shadows shrouding the Carisbrooks only grow murkier…until, abruptly, our investigators find themselves facing an inexplicable death, with a potential murderer whose conviction would shake society to its back teeth.
"The Confounding Case of the Carisbrook Emeralds is a superb drawing room mystery with a hint of romance. As always, I love the way Stephanie Laurens writes a wide array of intelligent female characters and men who respect a woman's intelligence and abilities. I look forward to the next exciting instalment in this series." Fresh Fiction
April 7, 1839
“Where is she?”
The feminine bellow echoed through the front hall and into the breakfast parlor, where Cara Di Abaccio was seated at the table with her cousins, Franklin and Julia Carisbrook. Startled, all three raised their heads; together with the butler, Jarvis, and the footman, Jeremy, they stared at the doorway.
A heartbeat passed, then in a rush of heavy footsteps and angrily swishing skirts, Cara’s aunt, Livia, Lady Carisbrook, stormed into the room. She was a tall, full-figured woman with dark hair, perennially pinched features, and jet-black eyes. Currently garbed in a frilly and much-beribboned dressing gown, her hair restrained beneath a silk nightcap, Lady Carisbrook halted just inside the door. Her face contorting in fury, she raised one arm and pointed at Cara. “There you are, you conniving little thief!”
Her eyes growing even rounder, Cara stared in utter incomprehension. “Aunt…?”
“Don’t you ‘aunt’ me! I always knew you were a sly little trollop—I warned Humphrey how it would be. But would he listen? No—of course not! He had to give house room to his scandalous sister’s get, and worse, he insisted you be treated as part of the family, living alongside Franklin and Julia. Pshaw!” Her cheeks mottled with rage, Lady Carisbrook advanced on the table. “And now, miss, we see the result. My emeralds—the Carisbrook emeralds—are gone!”
Lady Carisbrook flung her hands in the air. “Vanished!” She returned her gaze, black eyes flashing, to Cara. “You’ve been here four weeks, just long enough to learn what’s what, and now, you’ve stolen the emeralds.”
Feeling as if she was having a bad dream, Cara set down her knife and fork and slowly shook her head. “No, aunt. I haven’t—”
“Don’t bother denying it. The emeralds—necklace, earrings, case, and all—are gone, and we all know who took them!” Lady Carisbrook cast Cara a look brimming with loathing and contempt; her lip all but curled. “You’re the only foreigner in the house.”
With that unarguable pronouncement, Lady Carisbrook turned her adamantine gaze on Franklin and Julia, seated opposite Cara and as stunned as she. “Make sure the thieving minx remains in this room until the police arrive.”
All the blood drained from Cara’s face, from her head. Giddy, she stared at Lady Carisbrook while Franklin and Julia, equally white-faced and flabbergasted, did the same. Until then standing frozen behind the pair, Jarvis shot a wide-eyed look over their heads at Jeremy.
Commandingly, Lady Carisbrook swung toward the butler. “Jarvis—send for Scotland Yard. Inform them we have a thief they need to come and take away.”
Without another glance at any of them, Lady Carisbrook stalked from the room.
Leaving behind a stunned silence and a cloud of foreboding.
* * *
Sergeant Wilkes stepped over the threshold of Lord Carisbrook’s John Street town house in a state of nervous trepidation.
A veteran of the force, Wilkes did not like the looks of this assignment; handling crimes in Mayfair was very definitely not his beat. His bad luck that it was Sunday morning, and he’d been the senior man on duty when the Carisbrook footman had come in to report the theft of a set of priceless emeralds. Still, according to the footman, the household had already apprehended the thief and merely required the villain to be clapped in shackles and hauled to the station to be charged. Such action was well within Wilkes’s scope, and he’d brought Constable Fitch to assist if necessary.
With Fitch at his heels, Wilkes had followed the footman down the area steps and through the staff door. Wilkes looked ahead as the shadows of a long, unadorned passageway closed around them, and he spied a tall, lean, middle-aged butler waiting at the corridor’s end.
Wilkes removed his helmet, tucked it under his arm, and told himself he could manage this. He walked up to the butler and halted. “Sergeant Wilkes of Scotland Yard.” He flicked a hand over his shoulder. “And this is Constable Fitch. We understand you’ve had a spot of bother.”
The butler’s features remained rigid. “Indeed.” With a fractional inclination of his head, he turned. “If you will come this way.”
Wilkes wanted to ask about the emeralds and the thief, but he assumed he’d have his answers soon enough, so he held his tongue and, in his heavy boots, clomped behind the butler up a narrow staircase and into the front hall.
Before Wilkes realized what the man was about, the butler strode to a door, opened it, walked inside, and announced, “Two officers from Scotland Yard, ma’am. As you requested. A Sergeant Wilkes and a Constable Fitch.”
From within the room came a cold female voice. “Excellent. Show them in, Jarvis.”
Despite his rush of nervousness, Wilkes’s feet carried him on. He only just had time to register the oddity in the butler’s words—As you requested? Why had the man phrased it like that?—before he found himself entering a drawing room.
A gorgon sat on a sofa set perpendicular to the fireplace in which a cheery fire blazed. Through beady black eyes, she watched Wilkes advance. Her lips were thin and tightly pursed, and her expression stated more loudly than words that she was unimpressed by what she saw.
Wilkes halted on the fringed edge of a thick rug that looked expensive. Feeling Fitch halt just behind him, Wilkes essayed an awkward bow. Straightening, he adopted his blandest expression and assumed he was facing the lady of the house. “Lady Carisbrook. We understand your staff have apprehended a thief.”
The lady’s voice—tone and diction—reminded Wilkes of steel being sharpened.
Lady Carisbrook continued, “My husband’s foreign-born niece has stolen the Carisbrook emeralds. You need to take her away, find out what she did with my jewels, and return them to me.” Lady Carisbrook stared at Wilkes for three seconds, then waved her hand in arrogant dismissal. “You may go.”
Wilkes blinked. Behind him, Fitch shifted his weight. Wilkes cleared his throat. “If I could ask, my lady, if the girl—your husband’s niece—stole the emeralds, where are they now?”
Lady Carisbrook frowned. “It’s your job to find out, Sergeant.”
Wilkes clamped down on the desire to retreat. “When was the last time the jewels were seen, ma’am?”
“I wore them last night. When I returned to the house, I put them in their case and left the case on my dressing table. This morning, after the Italian girl delivered my breakfast, I saw the case was gone.”
Wilkes frowned. “But you didn’t see her take the case?”
“No. But I was hardly watching her every move.”
“Has the girl left the house since the jewels went missing?” Wilkes flicked a glance at the butler—Jarvis—who had moved to stand to one side, maintaining a clear line of sight to the gorgon.
At Wilkes’s question, Jarvis’s expression grew even more rigid.
In contrast, Lady Carisbrook bent an uncomprehending look on Wilkes. “I’m sure I don’t know.”
Wilkes exchanged a sidelong glance with Fitch, then drew breath and stated, “In that case, my lady, we’ll need to speak with the rest of the household and search the premises.”
“Good God, no!” Lady Carisbrook looked utterly appalled. “I won’t have police tramping through my house—the very idea! Especially as there’s no reason whatever to put us all out. The matter is simple—the Italian girl stole my emeralds. Search her and her room by all means and then take her away. I refuse to harbor a foreign criminal under my roof for an instant longer!”
Wilkes’s heart was steadily sinking; so much for his hopes of a straightforward case. In his experience, when one of the upper ten thousand suggested a case was a “simple matter,” invariably, said case proved anything but.
Lady Carisbrook continued, “No one else could possibly be the thief—our staff have all been with us for years. It’s perfectly obvious that Cara Di Abaccio is the culprit.” Lady Carisbrook pointed at the door—this time accompanying the gesture with an arrogantly commanding look. “Do your job, Sergeant, and remove her from this house!”
Wilkes was out of his depth. He bowed to her ladyship, turned, and with Fitch beside him, made for the door.
Jarvis moved to hold the door for them, then followed them from the room. After closing the door with a soft click, the butler paused, looking at Wilkes. Jarvis hesitated, but then, strengthening what appeared to be a rigid control over his features and especially his tongue, offered, “Miss Di Abaccio is in the breakfast parlor with her cousins—Mr. Franklin Carisbrook and Miss Julia Carisbrook. If you’ll come this way.”
Wilkes cocked an eyebrow at Fitch, who dutifully pulled out his notebook and started scribbling as they walked.
Jarvis led them to a room on the other side of the house.
Wilkes followed Jarvis inside. A highly polished round table with six straight-backed chairs arranged around it stood at the center of the room, and a sideboard sporting numerous covered dishes sat against one wall. Large windows looked out on a small square of garden and admitted the weak sunlight of the April morning, illuminating the three people seated about the table.
A gentleman in his mid- to late twenties with dark-brown hair and a young lady of perhaps twenty-one years sat facing the door; they looked up as Wilkes and Fitch entered. Their features were tense. Both looked helpless; their gazes locked on Wilkes as if hoping he would rescue them. From what, he had no idea.
The third person at the table was another young lady. Glossy black hair hung in heavy ringlets from an artfully fashioned knot at the back of her head; when she swung to look at Wilkes, he saw that the black mane was drawn severely back the better to reveal a countenance of quite startling loveliness. Wide, black-lashed, emerald eyes fixed on his face. The young lady had a finely drawn and straight, if longish, nose—a Roman nose without a doubt—and her lips were deep rose and lushly curved above a softly rounded but determined chin.
From the honeyed tint of her complexion, Wilkes took her to be the Italian girl—Miss Cara Di Abaccio, their supposed thief.
Wilkes halted a few paces into the room and managed to suppress a disbelieving snort. He’d collared more thieves than he could count, but, he reminded himself, this was the ton, and he knew better than to allow appearances to sway him. Still…
He favored the three with a short bow. “I’m Sergeant Wilkes, and this is Constable Fitch. We’ve been sent by Scotland Yard in response to Lady Carisbrook’s summons.”
Wilkes studied the three faces turned his way; all remained pale and expectantly tense, as if waiting for some axe to fall. He wouldn’t have said he was a sensitive sort, yet even he felt certain that there was more going on than simply a misplaced accusation of theft.
He returned his attention to Miss Di Abaccio.
She met his gaze steadily, but, he sensed, with bated breath.
“Miss Di Abaccio. As I assume you are aware, Lady Carisbrook has accused you of stealing her emeralds.”
“I didn’t take them.” Cara Di Abaccio’s voice was low and husky. She shook her head. “I would never do such a thing.”
She spoke calmly, evenly—with transparent honesty. But underneath, Wilkes sensed she was afraid.
Afraid of what?
Given he couldn’t be sure, Wilkes merely inclined his head in acknowledgment of her statements; he could hear the scritch of Fitch’s pencil as he jotted down her words. “Be that as it may, miss, we need you to come with us.”
For an instant, he wondered if she would resist, but then, slowly, she pushed to her feet. She drew in a deep breath and tipped up her chin. “Very well, Sergeant.” Then her façade wavered, and her fear shone through. “May I fetch my coat and bonnet?”
Her uncertainty—the underlying vulnerability—tugged at Wilkes, and he hurried to assure her, “This will probably just be temporary, miss. Just until we can figure out what happened. And—” He paused, then, looking into her wide eyes, went on. “As it happens, we’ll need to search your room, miss, so you’ll have time to collect whatever you want to take with you.”
Her expression eased enough to be noticeable.
Wilkes darted a glance around the room. His words had lowered the tension in all those watching—not just in her two cousins but in Jarvis and the silent footman, too.
Wilkes shot a glance at Fitch and saw his own dawning understanding reflected in the constable’s eyes. No one in that room believed Cara Di Abaccio was the thief—that she’d been the one to take the Carisbrook emeralds.
Everyone thought Lady Carisbrook had chosen her as a scapegoat.
Wilkes swallowed a groan. Ton cases—they were never straightforward.
“Thank you, Sergeant.” Miss Di Abaccio nodded in patent gratitude. She glanced once—fleetingly—at her cousins, then looked at Jarvis. “Perhaps, then, we should go to my room.”
Jarvis signaled to the footman. “Henry will show you up.”
Wilkes softly humphed, but didn’t argue. Obviously, Cara Di Abaccio knew the way to her own room, but Wilkes wasn’t averse to a non-Yard witness able to testify to anything found—or not found—during the upcoming search.
Without another word, Cara Di Abaccio swept out of the room and into the front hall. She paused to allow Henry to lead the way up the main staircase, then followed. Wilkes trooped behind her, with Fitch bringing up the rear.
Miss Di Abaccio’s bedchamber was a smallish room on the first floor, toward the end of one wing of the house and facing the street. A medium-sized two-door armoire stood against one side wall, with a modest dressing table next to it. A washstand and a chest of drawers lined the opposite wall, flanking a small fireplace with a neat fire still smoldering in the grate. Opposite the door stood a tester bed with a pretty chintz coverlet that matched the curtains hanging at the windows to either side. A flat-topped traveling chest draped with a colorful shawl sat at the bed’s foot.
The windows were shut against the noise rising from the street. It was only early April; there was unlikely to have been any reason the windows would have been opened for months—not unless Cara Di Abaccio had wanted to toss a jewel case to an accomplice waiting in the street.
Wilkes crossed to one window. A quick survey of the lock showed it hadn’t been unsnibbed recently—indeed, not for some time.
Fitch had moved to check the other window. He looked at Wilkes and infinitesimally shook his head, then turned to survey the room.
After noting that the footman had taken up a stance against the wall just inside the door and Cara Di Abaccio was holding herself rigidly upright in a similar position on the other side of the door, Wilkes scanned the space with an experienced eye.
Searching the sparsely furnished room wasn’t going to take long.
Cara clasped her hands, her fingers twining and gripping tight, and watched as the burly policemen searched through her belongings. They wouldn’t find anything…
At least, nothing put there by her.
Her always-active imagination threw up the horrifying specter of her aunt hating her enough to have hidden—or had her horrible dresser hide—the jewel case containing the Carisbrook emeralds somewhere among Cara’s things.
Chilled, Cara examined the mental vision, then drew in a breath through lungs painfully constricted and, by an effort of will, banished the image.
If her aunt hated her that much…there was nothing she could do.
From the moment she’d arrived in John Street, she’d known Lady Carisbrook disapproved—mightily—of her; her uncle Humphrey’s sincerely warm welcome hadn’t lessened the impact of her ladyship’s cold glare and her grudgingly uttered and stilted words. From the instant of setting eyes on her, her aunt had wanted her gone.
Cara had no idea why and had worked to ensure she did nothing to incite her aunt’s active malevolence.
Apparently, she’d failed.
Moving about the small room in their heavy uniforms and coats, the policemen were surprisingly quick and efficient. To Cara’s relief, they didn’t tumble her few possessions about but lifted, looked, and set things back.
Finally, the pair exchanged a glance, then the older man—the sergeant, Wilkes—turned to her. “Perhaps, miss, you would like to pack a small bag. Just the essentials to tide you over for a few days.”
She drew in a deeper—freer—breath and nodded. “Thank you. I will.” It seemed her aunt hadn’t tried to…what was the English term? Pin the crime on her? Regardless, the jewel case wasn’t in her room. Did that mean it was truly missing?
As she pulled her empty traveling valise from beneath her bed—unexpectedly grateful that she hadn’t sent it upstairs to the attic—Wilkes said to his helper, “Check with the staff.” Cara felt the sergeant’s gaze briefly touch her face but, setting her bag on the bed, didn’t meet it. Wilkes looked back at his man. “Ask around and learn what they can tell us about Miss Di Abaccio’s movements late last night and this morning.”
The other man snapped off a salute, shut the notebook in which he’d been jotting, and made for the door.
Cara set about systematically packing as much as she could into the valise.
Ignoring the footman, Henry, who watched her with sympathetic resignation, Wilkes studied her as she moved about the room. After a time, he grunted. “You didn’t take the jewels, did you?”
Pressing a folded gown into the case, Cara looked up and, across the bed, met Wilkes’s eyes—kindly brown eyes, their expression steady. “No.” After a moment, she straightened and went on, “I can’t imagine why anyone would think I would.” She spread her hands. “What would I do with them?”
Wilkes frowned. “Wear them?”
She made the scoffing sound her aunt and her cousin Julia had told her ladies in England never made and moved to the dresser and pulled open the top drawer. “The Carisbrook emeralds are famous for their age and quality. But the design is very old and…heavy.” She turned back with her underthings in her hands. Without looking at either Wilkes or Henry, she prosaically laid them in the case. “They would look”—she frowned—“outré.” She searched for the English words. “Awkward and clumsy—silly—on me. I am far too small, too”—straightening, she gestured, indicating a massive bosom—“not-large to carry off such a piece.”
Henry made a strangled noise, and Wilkes’s face turned decidedly pink. He cleared his throat. “I see. Then I assume your aunt imagines you would sell them.”
About to close her case on her meager wardrobe—all the clothes she’d brought with her to England—Cara paused and met Wilkes’s gaze. “As I am what the English call a ‘poor relation,’ perhaps that is what my aunt thinks in making her accusation.” Cara shrugged. “Who can tell what is in her mind? But I only arrived in England a month ago. I have never been here before, so I know no one, and through the past four weeks, the only people I have spoken to outside my aunt’s or my cousins’ presences have been the staff of this house. And my uncle, of course.”
“Your uncle—Lord Carisbrook.” Wilkes frowned. “Her ladyship said you were his niece.”
Cara nodded. “My mother was his younger sister. She eloped with an Italian painter. But both my parents died of an illness last year, and Lord Carisbrook—who was made my guardian in my parents’ wills—insisted I come here to London and live with his family.” Cara thought back to that moment when she’d received his lordship’s summons; in the straits she’d been in, the directive had appeared a godsend. She looked down at her valise. “It was a very kind offer.”
She moved back to the dresser and reached for the bottom drawer.
“So where is your uncle at the moment? It’s Sunday—most gents of his ilk would be at home.”
“He left for his estate in Surrey on Friday.” Cara studied the contents of the bottom drawer. “He isn’t expected back until later today.” She honestly wasn’t sure if, in the circumstances, her uncle would defend her against his wife’s accusation. He’d been kind, but even when he was in London, he held himself aloof from the household, from Cara, and Franklin and Julia, too, as well as his wife.
Cara bit her lip. She couldn’t allow herself to think of what might come. She needed to preserve what hope she still had and wait to see where this latest bend in her life’s road would take her. Her recent experiences had taught her that clinging to hope and being open to whatever possibilities Fate deigned to offer was the surest route to survival.
Refocusing on the pencils, crayons, and sketchbooks stored in the drawer, she debated her options. She couldn’t take her wooden art case in which she normally transported her supplies; it was too big and bulky. Along with her easel—also far too big to carry—the art case, still holding her paints, was pushed to the back of her armoire. But she could probably take all her drawing supplies if she crammed things in and didn’t worry about crushing her clothes.
Wilkes had said “essential” things, and to her, her drawing implements were as essential as air—far more important than clothes. She stacked the pencils, crayons, and books, lifted them from the drawer, and turned to the bed and the valise.
Wilkes continued to watch, but as if he wasn’t truly seeing her press and push and rearrange her things until she could shut the case. He seemed to shake himself back to the present as she buckled the straps.
When she straightened and reached for the bag’s handle, Henry stepped forward. “Allow me, Miss Cara.”
She gladly surrendered the case; even though she’d been among them for only four weeks, she’d come to know and like the staff. “Thank you, Henry.”
She looked at Wilkes. He walked to the door, opened it, and led the way out. Cara drew in a breath, raised her head, and followed him into the corridor.
Henry shut the door, then quickly caught up to her. He glanced at the back of Wilkes’s head, then murmured, “Don’t you worry, Miss Cara—we’ll make sure the master knows what’s happened the instant he steps through the door.”
She smiled, although it was a weak effort. “Thank you, Henry. And please thank the others, too.” She paused, then, as they neared the stairs, added, “And please assure everyone that no matter what her ladyship thinks, I did not touch her jewels.”
“No, miss. Of course not.”
Henry sounded vaguely offended that she’d imagined the staff would think such a thing.
Wilkes heard the exchange and inwardly grimaced. Staff in a house like this always knew what was what; the more he heard, the more he was convinced that Lady Carisbrook’s accusation was all a hum.
He started down the stairs, unsurprised to hear Miss Di Abaccio’s footsteps lightly but determinedly descending behind him. She was a sensible young lady with a decent spine, and he liked her the more for it. Lots of young ladies would have had the vapors. Just the thought made him shudder, a reaction he endeavored to suppress.
Jarvis was waiting in the front hall, along with Fitch. Wilkes could tell from Fitch’s demeanor that he’d learned something pertinent from the staff, but rather than asking for a report then and there and prolonging what—judging by Jarvis’s and Henry’s torn expressions—was already a fraught moment, Wilkes met Jarvis’s gaze. “Please inform Lord Carisbrook that we have detained Miss Di Abaccio for the moment. We’ll be taking her to Scotland Yard.”
Jarvis inclined his head in acknowledgment, his expression signaling that he was glad to have been given such a definite order.
As if to confirm that, Jarvis’s gaze cut across the hall.
Wilkes followed the butler’s glance and saw Lady Carisbrook standing in the drawing room doorway with her arms folded beneath her impressive bosom, vindictive triumph all over her face.
Wilkes glanced at his “prisoner.” Miss Di Abaccio was standing with her back ramrod straight and her head held high. Her gaze remained steady, fixed on Wilkes; she didn’t spare a glance for her aunt.
Wilkes looked again at Lady Carisbrook and saw an ugly sneer further distort the lady’s countenance. Then she uncrossed her arms, stepped back, and shut the drawing room door.
The words “good riddance” hadn’t been uttered but had been most effectively conveyed.
Another glance at Miss Di Abaccio confirmed that her composure remained intact.
Feeling ever more convinced of her innocence, Wilkes gestured to the door. Jarvis opened it, and Wilkes solicitously ushered Miss Di Abaccio out and down the steps.
Fitch moved past and went to open the door of the plain black police carriage they’d arrived in.
Wilkes guided Miss Di Abaccio to the carriage. Henry, who had followed, stowed her valise in the boot, then saluted her before turning away.
“Thank you,” she softly called before allowing Wilkes to help her into the carriage.
Wilkes clambered in after her and settled on the seat beside her.
Fitch joined them and, after shutting the door, fell onto the facing seat.
The instant the carriage rattled off, Wilkes met Fitch’s sharp eyes. “What did you learn?”
Fitch’s gaze shifted to Miss Di Abaccio, and he politely inclined his head. “The staff said her ladyship came home in the small hours from some ball, and Miss Di Abaccio, as well as the son and daughter, were with her. Seems they all went upstairs—it was close on two o’clock—and her ladyship was wearing the jewels then. Miss Di Abaccio and the others all went to their own rooms. The next thing the staff knew, at about half past eight this morning, her ladyship came raging downstairs and accused Miss Di Abaccio of stealing the emeralds.”
Wilkes grunted and shook his head. “Who knows what’s going on in the lady’s mind? The instant we get to the station, collar a runner and send him off to Greenbury Street. This is definitely one for Senior Inspector Stokes and his friends.”
* * *
Hugo Adair slipped through the throng of worshippers who, at the end of the morning service, had spilled onto the porch of St. George’s Church at the corner of Hanover Square. Tall enough to see over most heads, Hugo scanned the crowd, searching for a glimpse of glossy black curls framing a face of Madonna-like sweetness whose features, instead of exuding serenity, glowed with vibrant liveliness.
Cara Di Abaccio’s face held so much life—radiated so much engaging vivacity—that Hugo could literally stare at her for hours and had whenever he could get away with such unwavering absorption.
He’d taken to assiduously escorting his mother to Sunday service precisely for that reason.
But today in the church, when he’d located Lady Carisbrook’s hatted head among the devoted—not difficult given her ladyship had a fetish for extravagant headgear that put all others to shame—he hadn’t seen Cara in her usual position, seated three places past her ladyship, with Franklin and Julia, the Carisbrooks’ children and Cara’s cousins, between.
The thought that Cara must be ill and languishing at home alone prodded Hugo on as he quartered the shifting crowd, searching for the Carisbrook party.
He’d first encountered Cara Di Abaccio three weeks before, at an alfresco luncheon one of his sisters had dragged him to. He’d been instantly smitten; he was willing to admit that, no matter how silly it made him sound.
Smitten. It was the right word. Struck beyond recovery, he’d been drawn to Cara—to her laughing eyes and her fascinating smile and the warm glow that suffused her face when she looked at him.
Since their first meeting, he’d tracked her through the ton, attending the same events she did. Given his family’s connections, that hadn’t proved all that hard. His only concern was that, sooner or later, his mother and sisters would learn of his doings and insist on meeting Cara before he and she had progressed to that point.
Hugo paused at the edge of the crowd to sweep the gathering again. There! The gauzy creation with countless tiny ribbon bows in a hideous shade of puce could belong to no other than Lady Carisbrook. Of course, her ladyship was holding court right in the middle of the crowd. Muttering a curse, Hugo dived in again, smiling and nodding and resisting all attempts to waylay him.
Something was wrong—or at least, not right. His instincts were pricking as they hadn’t in a long while—not in all the months since he’d sold out of the army and returned to civilian life.
He’d spent nearly a decade in the cavalry, serving in a regiment of Hussars. With the wars long over, he’d seen no battlefields—just as well given he’d discovered a year ago that dead bodies left him nauseated. Instead, his time had been consumed by parades and balls and looking the part as he rode with his troop in this or that procession or guard. Being tall and dark haired and possessing broad shoulders and a long lean frame, he had excelled at the activity of looking the part. For the rest of his time, along with a circle of like-minded friends, he’d engaged in the usual hedonistic pursuits at which gentlemen of his class also excelled, wine, women, and song being the least of them. Gambling hard, riding to hounds, consorting with opera dancers, and even more reckless adventures had filled uncounted days and nights.
Then, abruptly, his interest in such activities had died. Whether it was age or something else, he didn’t know, but one day, he’d simply had enough. Restless and dissatisfied, he’d sold out.
A month later, during the Season last year, his mother had hauled him off to a ball in the vain hope he would stumble on some sweet young miss who would fix his peripatetic interest and get him off his mother’s hands, or at least that was how she’d phrased it. Instead, he’d gone out to smoke a cheroot and stumbled over a dead body—a lady with her head bashed in.
After that experience, he’d lost his taste for cheroots.
But through what had followed, he’d seen more of his cousin Barnaby Adair and his wife, Penelope. Both were, each in their own way, decidedly eccentric, yet they’d found purpose in their lives, and through being in their company, Hugo had realized that that—purpose—was what he lacked and what he needed to find.
He’d left town and retreated to his family’s estate in Wiltshire. Enfolded in the peace of the country, he’d set his mind to the task of defining what he wanted to do—to achieve with his life.
Long walks and talks with his father had helped, and he’d realized that his answer lay in the one thing he was especially good at and that he truly enjoyed.
His father had always bred hounds, and during his earlier years, Hugo had helped and had nudged their dogs into a higher category of quality. His father had continued the work while Hugo had been in the army, and the breeding kennels had advanced to a point where their name was well known, and gentlemen and hunt masters came to buy dogs for their packs.
Hugo had spoken for hours with his father, discussing the prospects, the ins and outs, and had ultimately won his sire’s agreement that he could take over the fledgling enterprise. He was eager to do so, but his father had made one non-negotiable stipulation—that Hugo allow his mother to have one last try at finding him a suitable bride.
That stipulation was the only reason Hugo was in town—the only reason he’d been there to fall under Cara Di Abaccio’s spell.
He knew he was handsome, dashing, and all the rest. He was well born, well-connected, and despite being a second son, would be no pauper. Yet even over the few short weeks she’d been in town, from watching Cara discourage other would-be suitors, Hugo already knew such considerations were of no importance to her.
She was a rebel like him—a free spirit who, while acknowledging the tenets of society, allowed them no real purchase.
He’d discovered she was an artist—that she had an artist’s soul—and she loved animals, all animals, as he did.
He didn’t yet know if she felt for him in the same way he was already willing to admit—at least to himself—that he felt for her. He hadn’t yet reached the point of speaking—of seeking the consent of her uncle and asking her to marry him—but day by day, he was edging closer to that precipice.
He was almost at the point of looking forward to falling over it.
To falling irrevocably in love.
That had worked for Barnaby; Hugo couldn’t see why it wouldn’t work for him.
Indeed, just as his inherently reckless nature had made him perfect for dealing with the potential risks faced by any cavalryman, those same traits paved the way for him to take the biggest risk of all and venture his heart on love.
That was one life gamble that, hour by hour, he was drawing closer to taking.
Finally, his patience well-nigh exhausted, he slid between two older matrons into a gap behind Lady Carisbrook. He concentrated on her, and as the surrounding chatter faded, her voice reached him clearly. She was declaiming to an audience of her cronies; usually, Hugo judged that most of her ladyship’s toadies were secretly bored by her diatribes, but today, all gave the appearance of hanging on her ladyship’s every word.
“Of course,” she stated, “I always knew she wasn’t to be trusted, but not even I would have dreamed that the wretched girl would steal my emeralds!”
Her ladyship paused, allowing the expected oohs, aahs, and sycophantic murmurings to run their course before continuing, “Naturally, I had no alternative but to summon Scotland Yard, and they came and took the wretched ingrate away.”
Hugo’s instincts flared, not just prodding but screaming. His blood ran cold. She couldn’t mean Cara?
He listened to the responses from the other ladies, but comments such as “after all you’d done for her,” “after taking her in,” and “a viper under your own roof” could have applied to a favored maid as much as to Cara.
Suddenly desperate, Hugo turned and searched the crowd again. Franklin and Julia were usually found within feet of their mother, but not today. “Where are they?” he muttered.
Then he spotted the pair. They were clinging to the edge of the crowd, and neither looked the least bit happy.
Hugo all but barged his way to them.
He planted himself directly before the pair, making their eyes go wide. “Cara,” he rapped out, using his captain’s voice. “Where is she?”
Julia looked stricken and wrung her hands, but volunteered nothing.
Hugo shifted his gaze to Franklin, who apparently understood the threat in his eyes.
Franklin swallowed and said, “This morning, Mama accused Cara of stealing the Carisbrook emeralds. Mama had them last night, and this morning, they were gone, and she said Cara had taken them.”
His jaw clenching, Hugo ground out, “I heard your mother mention Scotland Yard.”
Julia nodded frantically. “It was horrible. Two policemen came and took Cara away.”
For one instant, Hugo told himself he’d misheard. In the next, that part of him that had made his commanders beg him to remain in the army surfaced, pushing through the accumulated layers of sophisticated-gentleman-about-town camouflage.
“Right.” Hugo didn’t know what his face looked like, but both Franklin and Julia straightened and lost some of their irritating vagueness.
Franklin looked at him with blatant hope, while Julia put a hand on his sleeve and ventured, “Please, can you think of any way to get her out of there—wherever they’ve taken her?”
He would do that or die trying. But…he searched Franklin’s and Julia’s faces. “You don’t believe Cara’s guilty.”
“Of course not,” Franklin muttered, his features growing grim. He stared at Hugo. “Do you?”
Hugo blinked, then spoke what he realized was the truth. “It didn’t even occur to me.”
With that, he swung around and scanned the carriages drawn up by the curbs on both sides of the street. He spotted his mother’s and quit the church porch and strode for it.
He found his mother’s footman, Jenks, waiting in the carriage’s shade. “Find my mother and tell her I’ve been called away. I’ll see her at home later.”
Jenks tipped him a salute.
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