The Secrets of Lord Grayson Child
An original Cynster Next Generation Novel
Available in print, ebook and audio formats
PRINT ISBN: 978-1-925559-48-4
E-BOOK ISBN: 978-1-925559-47-7
Release Date: July 15, 2021
#1 New York Times bestselling author Stephanie Laurens returns to the world of the Cynsters’ next generation with the tale of an unconventional nobleman and an equally unconventional noblewoman learning to love and trust again.
A jilted noblewoman forced into a dual existence half in and half out of the ton is unexpectedly confronted by the nobleman who left her behind ten years ago, but before either can catch their breaths, they trip over a murder and into a race to capture a killer.
Lord Grayson Child is horrified to discover that The London Crier, a popular gossip rag, is proposing to expose his extraordinary wealth to the ton’s matchmakers, not to mention London’s shysters and Captain Sharps. He hies to London and corners The Crier’s proprietor—only to discover the paper’s owner is the last person he’d expected to see.
Izzy—Lady Isadora Descartes—is flabbergasted when Gray appears in her printing works’ office. He’s the very last person she wants to meet while in her role as owner of The Crier, but there he is, as large as life, and she has to deal with him without giving herself away! She manages—just—and seizes on the late hour to put him off so she can work out what to do.
But before leaving the printing works, she and he stumble across a murder, and all hell breaks loose.
Izzy can only be grateful for Gray’s support as, to free them both of suspicion, they embark on a joint campaign to find the killer.
Yet working side by side opens their eyes to who they each are now—both quite different to the youthful would-be lovers of ten years before. Mutual respect, affection, and appreciation grow, and amid the chaos of hunting a ruthless killer, they find themselves facing the question of whether what they’d deemed wrecked ten years before can be resurrected.
Then the killer’s motive proves to be a treasonous plot, and with others, Gray and Izzy race to prevent a catastrophe, a task that ultimately falls to them alone in a situation in which the only way out is through selfless togetherness—only by relying on each other will they survive.
"This full-bodied novel should please all long-time fans of novels about romance and intrigue set in nineteenth-century England." Virge B., Proofreader, Red Adept Editing
“Two old lovers embark on an investigation that is brimming with danger and intrigue. Their simmering, suspenseful tale is one that fans of Regency romance dare not miss.” Angela M., Copy Editor, Red Adept Editing
“After ten years apart, former lovers Lord Grayson Child and Lady Isadora Descartes work together to solve a high-stakes mystery (and) secrets from their past. Is it wise to rekindle their romance, or will the search for love be their undoing? The attention to detail in both setting and characters brings the story to life. Fans of Regency romance are sure to enjoy uncovering The Secrets of Lord Grayson Child." Brittany M., Proofreader, Red Adept Editing
January 2, 1852
Woburn Place, London
Lord Grayson Child stepped down from the hackney he’d instructed to halt at the southern end of Woburn Place, at the northernmost corner of Russell Square.
Gray glanced around, then paid the jarvey and waited until the cab pulled away before crossing the busy thoroughfare, at that hour thronged with traffic, and continuing into Bernard Street.
As Corby, Gray’s gentleman’s gentleman, had assured him, he found Woburn Mews a block along on the left. Thrusting his hands into his greatcoat pockets and dipping his head, Gray confidently strode up the mews, consciously projecting the image of a man who knew where he was going.
His bootheels rang on the cobbles. He adjusted his stride and placed his feet more quietly; he didn’t want to draw unnecessary attention. With the time nearing five o’clock, the encroaching winter evening progressively deepened the shadows that draped the western side of the street along which he was pacing.
As the street’s name indicated, the area had once played host to the homes of the well-to-do. While pockets of private houses wreathed in quiet gentility remained, with the university so close, many residences had been converted to lodging houses for scholars and faculty, and other buildings had been taken over by businesses catering to academe.
The eastern side of Woburn Mews played host to several such establishments—a paper supplier, a purveyor of artists’ supplies, and the Molyneaux Printing Works, which produced the popular gossip rag The London Crier.
From the opposite side of the street, Gray surveyed the printing works’ façade. Two stone steps led up to a neat, white-painted, half-glass-paned front door with the words “Molyneaux Printing Works” etched into the glass and highlighted in gold.
To the left of the door, a tall, wide window, uncurtained and stretching from approximately waist height to what must nearly be the ceiling, presumably allowed daylight to strike deep into the large workshop beyond.
Gray’s eyesight was excellent; through the window, he could see a long counter that ran across about half the workshop’s width, running parallel to the window and separated from it by a narrow space—a foyer of sorts. Behind the counter, deeper within the lighted interior, several figures moved about, busy and absorbed with their tasks.
Noting that, Gray strolled on. After the wide window, a more normal-sized window, currently with blinds unhelpfully drawn, faced the cobbles; the window belonged to a narrower room separated from the printing works’ foyer and workshop by a wooden partition. Behind the screening blinds, a lamp burned brightly.
Gray eyed his target—the office in which he hoped to find either the proprietor of The London Crier, I. Molyneaux, or failing him, the editor of the gossip rag.
Surreptitiously, Gray glanced around, then slowed and stepped into a shadowy alcove before a padlocked door. Effectively hidden from sight, he settled to watch The Crier’s door.
He’d learned of the threat The Crier posed when, the previous Saturday, while visiting his parents at Ancaster Park, his ancestral home, he’d been reduced to reading the gossip rag and, on the front page, had discovered a notice touting The Crier’s upcoming exposé.
The words still rang in his mind.
From the Editor’s Desk:
An Upcoming Exposé
Which scion of a noble house, after a lengthy sojourn in far-flung lands, has recently returned to these shores a veritable Croesus, yet is being exceedingly careful to hide his remarkable fortune from the eyes of the world?
More details will be revealed in coming editions.
Unfortunately, given the festive season, his family’s expectations, and various social obligations he had not wished to break, he’d had to remain in Lincolnshire to see in the New Year. Today—the Friday after he’d first seen the vexatious notice—had been the earliest he’d been able to come racing down the Great North Road.
On reaching London, he’d been irritated to discover that, being a weekly publication, The London Crier had released a new edition that day. A copy was jammed into his greatcoat pocket; he didn’t need to consult it again to recite the substance of the latest titillating revelation.
Latest from the Editor’s Desk:
As promised, we have an update on our most recent and highly secretive Golden Ball, who continues to play least-in-sight, at least as far as society is concerned. However, in this season, perhaps such retiring behavior isn’t to be wondered at or, indeed, discouraged, as our sources assure us this long-lost son has spent the festive weeks being re-embraced into the ducal fold. And that, of course, can only heighten society’s interest in him. Be assured that, as the Season approaches, your trusty correspondent will reveal further insights into this elusive yet exceedingly eligible gentleman.
More to come.
Reading that had hardened his resolve to ensure no further revelations were made. He had no wish to become the target of every matchmaker in London, let alone every Captain Sharp and purveyor of shady investments, all of whom would, inevitably, beat a path to his door. News of sensational and unexpected wealth invariably brought all three types running, hoping, respectively, to marry the money, acquire it via wagering, or extract it through convoluted business deals.
Gray failed to understand why such charlatans believed that anyone blessed with unexpected good fortune should be a fool readily parted from it, but so it was. And while he would take a certain delight in disabusing anyone of the notion that he was an easy mark, having to do so repeatedly would quickly become annoying and—even more irritating—potentially damaging with respect to the genuine business and investment relationships he’d begun developing and nurturing.
In his opinion, having money brought with it a certain responsibility, and that meant The London Crier’s proprietor was going to have to find some other scandalous morsel with which to titillate his audience.
In the distance, the city’s bells pealed, melodiously tolling for five o’clock. Gray detected renewed movement inside the printing works, then the lamps deeper in the workshop were extinguished, with only one lamp, on the long counter, left turned low.
Gray glanced at the office. As he’d hoped, that lamp continued to burn brightly. He had no wish to identify himself to the printing works’ staff and was counting on the owner or editor being the last to leave.
The door opened, and a young woman—laughing at something—emerged, followed by two men in their twenties, another slightly older man, and two middle-aged men. All were garbed as respectable workers. The last man to leave, a burly, broad-shouldered individual with graying hair, pulled the front door shut, but didn’t lock it.
In a loose group, the printing works’ crew walked toward Bernard Street and were joined by workers emerging from the neighboring shops.
Once the printing works’ staff were two doors down the street, Gray left the shadowed alcove, crossed the cobbles, and climbed the steps to the printing works’ door. He grasped the handle and opened the door. A bell above the door tinkled loudly as he stepped inside.
He shut the door and walked slowly along the counter, taking note of the metal monstrosity looming in the dimly lit space beyond the barrier; he assumed it was the printing press. A scent drawn from ink, metal, and oil teased his nostrils.
The single lamp left burning at the end of the counter had been turned so low that, other than the shapes of two worktables and cabinets along the wall, he could distinguish little else in the body of the workshop. Closer to hand in the foyer, wooden benches ran along the front wall below the wide window, and a shorter, more comfortable bench sat against the side wall between the counter and the door.
No doubt summoned by the bell, brisk footsteps approached from inside the office. As he’d thought, wooden panels separated the office from the rest of the workshop. A half-glazed wooden door stood open, affording him a view across the brightly lit office to a wall of well-stocked bookshelves.
A woman appeared in the doorway.
With the bright light behind her, she initially appeared as a silhouette. A very attractive silhouette—tall, slender, yet nicely curved, with a well-shaped head topped by fashionably coiffed dark hair, a pale oval face, and a long, swanlike neck. Her gown was of some dark material, fashionably cut yet subdued in style.
She stepped into the foyer and, abruptly, halted. Then she stared.
Gray’s eyes adjusted to the poor light, and her features—stunned and shocked—came into sharp focus.
He blinked and stared back.
His senses hadn’t lied. She was definitely a lady.
Barely able to believe his eyes, he struggled to get his tongue to work. Eventually, he managed, “Isadora?” He felt as if his mental feet had been knocked from under him.
Lady Isadora Descartes couldn’t stop staring, but as the apparition had spoken, he wasn’t a figment of her imagination. Warily, she responded, “Grayson?”
He kept staring, and so did she—as if they couldn’t get enough of seeing the other. The seconds stretched, and his gaze seemed to grow more intense, almost…hungry.
So much had changed, yet so much hadn’t. Her leaping senses informed her he was just as tall as he’d been ten years ago, but he was carrying more muscle on his long frame, and even in the dim light, his hair seemed brighter—more burnished. His skin was more tanned than she remembered it ever being, and his features possessed a hard, harsher, sterner edge.
His amber eyes still held a glowing warmth she could drown in, yet the intellect behind those lovely eyes was, she sensed, significantly sharper.
A frown slowly claimed his face. Although he seemed to have to fight to do it, he forced his gaze from her and, frown deepening, looked over her shoulder into the office.
From where he stood, all he could see were the bookshelves filling the opposite wall.
He refocused his frown on her. “What are you doing here?”
The suspicion in his eyes and tone wasn’t surprising but served to snap her wits into place. Coolly, she met his gaze and, challengingly, raised her chin. “More to the point, what are you doing here?”
What possible business could have brought him there?
He was the last person she would have expected to walk through The Crier’s door, and beyond question, he was the very last person she wished to encounter there, let alone speak with.
He didn’t immediately answer. His still-confounded gaze raked over her again, this time comprehensively, taking in her ungloved hands with their ink-stained fingers and the severe plainness of her slate-colored day dress, specifically selected to conceal the smudges she invariably picked up while moving about the workshop.
He stirred and prowled closer.
Her senses skittered and leapt; that stalking walk was infinitely more predatory, more powerfully impactful than before. Locking her eyes on his, she fought to ensure not a whit of her instinctive reaction showed.
Four measured steps, and he halted directly before her. He searched her eyes. “I’m looking for I. Molyneaux, the owner of The London Crier. Or failing him, the editor.”
You’ve found them both.
His nearness was sending distracting frissons of sensation up and down her spine. She frowned and eased back a step. “Why?”
His amber eyes narrowed to shards, and he took another step.
Instinctively, she backed away, then caught herself, locked her spine poker straight, and halting squarely in the doorway, raised her chin and narrowed her eyes warningly.
He halted mere inches away and peered around her, surveying the office, and she realized she was holding her breath.
She knew what he would see—to his left, before the window, twin armchairs flanking an occasional table, then opposite the door, the bookshelves packed to bursting with a jumble of volumes, and to his right, the large desk, its surface strewn with articles and layout sheets illuminated by two banker’s lamps, and most notably, the chair behind the desk and the two armchairs before it, all empty.
Weighted with increasing suspicion, his gaze returned to her face.
Lips compressed, she met his gaze.
He searched her eyes. “I. Molyneaux. That I wouldn’t happen to stand for Isadora, would it?”
She held her nerve and his gaze and, as coldly as she could, responded, “What is your business with The London Crier?”
He scanned her face, then his tone flat and faintly menacing, said, “The Crier has recently commenced touting an exposé that…greatly concerns me.”
She did her own searching. “Why would that—”
“Concern me?” He studied her eyes, and his incipient glare faded to a puzzled frown. “Obviously, I don’t appreciate having my—”
Comprehension struck; he saw it leap in her eyes, saw dawning realization lighten her expression, and belatedly pressed his lips shut.
She nearly laughed; she didn’t need further confirmation. Unable to conceal her mirth, she grinned. “Really? You have just returned from abroad and are as rich as Golden Ball, too?”
“Too?” He dropped all pretense, letting his aggravation show, along with his confusion. “Who else…?”
His face wasn’t all that easy to read, but she’d once studied his expressions avidly, and that long-ago knowledge stood her in good stead; she knew he’d accepted that he’d irretrievably given himself away and also that he at least suspected who the intended target of her exposé was.
His gaze locked with hers. “Who is The Crier’s supposed Golden Ball?”
“Ah, now—that would be telling. Buy the next few months’ editions, and you’ll find out, along with the rest of the ton.”
The sound of her nickname, falling from his lips in that half-pleading, half-threatening way, sent her whirling about and walking purposefully to her desk and around it. She gathered her skirts, sat in her chair, and waved him to one of the chairs facing her.
While he subsided into it with the graceful elegance he’d always possessed, she reminded herself to be careful in how she dealt with him. He could make life exceedingly difficult for her, her family, and all at The Crier. With little effort, he could destroy all she’d worked to establish and build since they’d last met.
As for their past association, that was water long under the bridge—and all the way out to sea.
She folded her hands on her blotter, met his gaze as it returned to her face, and succinctly stated, “Suffice it to say that the gentleman referred to isn’t you.”
His amber gaze roamed her face. “How many ‘scions of noble houses’—ducal houses, no less—have returned from ‘far-flung lands’ recently, much less as wealthy as Croesus?”
“Apparently, there are at least two.”
“Indeed, and I know them both.”
Gray hung onto his temper, admittedly one of the lesser emotions feeding the unprecedented tumult churning through him. “Permit me to assure you that neither of us will be delighted should The Crier proceed to wave our wealth like a red flag, alerting all society and bringing every matchmaker, trickster, and chancer in town down on our heads.”
“I daresay not,” she coolly replied. “Equally, there are those who would maintain that society has a right to know the status of those the hostesses welcome, and not least among that group are the hostesses themselves.”
“Not to mention the matchmakers, although admittedly, they’re often one and the same.”
Her serenity pricked his temper, but he bit back the words that leapt to his tongue; given their past, mentioning mercenary, husband-hunting females would assuredly cut too close to her bone, and from the awareness in her emerald eyes, she was half expecting him to attack on that front.
He shifted his gaze from those mesmerizing eyes to the wall behind her, which was covered with framed copies of The Crier’s past front pages.
If he’d been clear-headed enough to formulate a strategy to undermine her and The Crier’s intentions, he might, indeed, have used their past, but he was still inwardly reeling, buffeted by a maelstrom of roiling emotions evoked purely by seeing her again.
Hearing her voice, drinking in her features.
He’d had no idea the mere sight of her would affect him to such a degree, as if his mind and his senses were wholly immersed in discerning and absorbing every little detail, every change and nuance about her.
It struck him that he yearned for her more avidly and in myriad more ways than he had all those years ago.
He literally felt giddy as memory sucked him back to the last time he’d seen her. He’d been younger, naive, so eager and full of love, and she had been, too—or so he’d thought. Yet the very next day, he’d overheard her talking with her mother and her aunt about how many pounds he would have per annum, and her aunt had instructed her to bring him up to the mark in short order. He could still hear Izzy’s voice as she’d blandly agreed. He’d been in her house, standing in the corridor outside the open drawing room door, and in that moment, something inside him had irretrievably smashed to smithereens.
He’d turned on his heel and walked away. Without a word; he’d never felt he’d owed her an explanation.
That had happened nearly ten years ago. They hadn’t set eyes on each other since.
He told himself it was the shock of meeting her in a place and in a context he could never have foreseen that had pitched him so far off balance.
He knew she was waiting, using the moments to study him. In an effort to spur his wits into action, he pretended to scan the room, using the moment to draw in a breath. Then he surrendered to impulse and met her guarded gaze. “I still can’t believe I’m having this discussion with you.” He waved his hand about the office. “What on earth are you doing here, Izzy?”
When she didn’t reply, he borrowed some of her calm and silently waited while she debated what to tell him; although her poker face had always been good, when arguing with herself, she had a habit of catching the inside of her lower lip between her teeth.
Eventually, she released her lip and raised her chin to an indomitable angle. “If you must know, I am, indeed, I. Molyneaux.”
Izzy saw Gray’s frown return, then his gaze fell to her left hand—to the plain gold band that adorned her ring finger—and she inwardly blessed her mother and their maid, Joyner, for insisting she always wear the ring when in her guise of Mrs. Molyneaux.
His frown darkened. “You’re married?”
His almost-accusatory tone flicked her on the raw. “What did you expect when you vanished as you did?”
Her flash of fury momentarily rocked him.
Seizing the chance to avoid his question, she continued, “Where did you take off to, Gray? The East? Or was it America? I eventually heard that you were believed to be somewhere in America, although no one had any certain information.”
His gaze rested heavily on her. “Those who needed to know knew where I was.”
Clearly, the silly female who’d believed they’d reached an understanding and that she stood on the cusp of entertaining a proposal of marriage hadn’t been among that number, but instead, had deserved to be left in complete ignorance of his change of heart and mind.
It took effort to rein in her temper, but she managed and coldly responded, “I see.”
The hurt and pain she’d buried all those years ago started to rise, and determinedly—desperately—she shoved it back down, deep, where neither he nor anyone else could ever see it.
She drew in a steadying breath; she couldn’t afford to indulge in emotional catharsis no matter how good telling him what she thought of him might feel. Besides, she was past all that—over him entirely—and with him sitting before her, potentially poised to wreak havoc on her life, she needed to keep her wits about her.
There was no sense revisiting their past. No sense remembering that while her elders—her aunt in particular—had approached the matter of her prospective husband in a calculating and mercenary way, she had steadfastly refused to do anything other than follow her heart, and when she’d met Grayson Child and lost her heart to him, nothing had mattered more to her than following what she’d believed had been her fated path into marriage with him. Given her family’s need at the time, that he’d been wealthy had seemed like Fate’s blessing.
Then he’d vanished.
Leaving her bereft and without a heart to gift to anyone else.
She wasn’t going to say another word, wasn’t going to allow her anger and her hurt to tempt her into any further revelation. Her gaze steady on his face, she waited.
He waited, too, but eventually, his features hardened. They were significantly more spare, more chiseled and austere, as if the years had pared all softness from him.
He glanced at the doorway. “Where’s Molyneaux, then?” He returned his gaze to her face. “Or is this somehow wholly your province?”
She allowed a slight smile to curve her lips. “I’m”—masquerading as—“a widow.”
Gray had thought he’d got his emotions corralled, but his instant and intemperate response to that knocked him sideways again. Predatory eagerness shot through him—a widow being fair game—but in the next heartbeat, that was drowned beneath welling concern that, as a widow, she was facing life alone.
Normally, he was even-tempered, in control, and completely sure of himself; being battered by such countervailing compulsions was unnerving.
Shoving aside the contradictory impulses, he managed a bald “I see.” Not that he did, but he needed to refocus on what he’d come there to achieve. “In that case, my business here is, indeed, with you.” He met her emerald gaze. “I’m here to demand you cease and desist with your current exposé.”
He watched her face for some hint of reaction—in vain.
Her gaze level, her tone measured, she informed him, “As I’ve already told you, The Crier’s upcoming exposé has nothing whatsoever to do with you.”
He held her gaze. “If your new Golden Ball is Martin Cynster, then your exposé is most definitely of concern to me.”
A faint frown in her eyes was the only sign that he’d guessed correctly.
Feeling on surer ground, he smiled, all teeth. “We’re friends.”
“Of course you are.” She lightly tapped the blotter with a fingernail, a gesture he recalled as indicating she was thinking rapidly. Her gaze remained on his face; he had no idea what she hoped to read there. “Regardless,” she said, “as the exposé doesn’t concern you personally, then—”
“Do you seriously want to bring down the wrath of the Cynsters on your enterprise?” He arched his brows high. “They might not yet have noticed your pending exposé, but soon enough, one of them will, and they’ll realize who your target is, and then you’ll face far more pressure than an evening visit from me.”
To his surprise, she appeared unmoved. “Actually, I’m willing to wager the Cynster ladies have already noted the upcoming exposé. They all take The Crier, you know.”
That was said with a certain pride. And of course, the Cynster grandes dames would pore over The Crier. Virtually all were active ton hostesses, and not a one was above playing matrimonial games.
“My information,” Izzy went on, “is that they are, at present, blissfully unaware that their prodigal son is anywhere near as wealthy as he is. He’s kept the extent of his fortune a close secret.” Her gaze refixed on him. “As have you.”
“Indeed, and perhaps you should dwell on why that might be.”
“To keep yourselves off the matchmakers’ most-eligible lists?”
She frowned. After a moment of regarding him, she invited, “How so?”
He was happy to enlighten her. “Martin and I are carefully—cautiously—investing the wealth each of us, independently, brought back to this country.” He paused, marshaling his thoughts, then went on, “In making business investments and, even more, acquisitions, having the other side know you’re sitting on a veritable pile of gold is not helpful. Instead of being reasonable and naming a price that has some relation to the asset’s value, any business owner or company chairman is going to push for an exorbitant sum, and far from negotiating down to something sensible, they’ll stick to that high price or even seek to inflate it further.”
Presumably through owning the printing works, she’d gained some degree of business acumen; from her expression, she understood the scenario he was describing.
“And that’s just the legitimate businesses Martin and I might be interested in. If you imagine matchmakers are the worst we have to fear, then you have no idea of the avariciousness of the men who seek to part those with great and unexpected good fortune from their money.” Candidly, he added, “I would rather face the ton’s matchmakers en masse than have to wade through the importunities of every last shyster in Britain. And if such men gain an inkling of the wealth Martin and I possess, they’ll descend on us like locusts.”
She held his gaze for a long moment, then grimaced. She searched his face, seeking he knew not what, but from the quality of her frown and the fact she was biting the inside of her lower lip, he assumed she was debating whether or not to believe him.
Eventually, she asked, “Is it truly that bad? Or are you painting a dramatic picture in an attempt to sway me?”
Her suspicion—more, her lingering distrust—brought a hard and unyielding emotion to the fore. Obeying the promptings of his inner demons, he stated, “If I was at all inclined to indulge in drama, then all those years ago, when I overheard you, your mother, and your aunt assessing my suitability as a husband in terms of pounds per annum, instead of turning around and quietly leaving the house, I would have stormed into the drawing room and told you what I thought of young ladies who valued a man purely on the basis of his wealth.”
Long before he got to the last word, her eyes—her whole expression—had filled with a creeping horror that, he suddenly realized, he didn’t understand. She made no attempt to deny his description. How could she? It was the truth, and they both knew it, yet she’d paled until her complexion resembled alabaster, and the shock and dismay in her eyes were entirely genuine.
He searched the deep pools of her emerald eyes, drowning in distress, and once again felt shoved off balance.
Some part of him had wanted the truth of their past stated and clear between them. He couldn’t comprehend why him describing an event she knew in every detail had so shaken her.
In an attempt to regroup, he forced himself to evenly state, “As you’re aware, I didn’t react in any histrionic manner then, and neither am I being overly dramatic in describing how much damage having Martin’s and my wealth broadcast to all and sundry will cause—how much of a threat the exposé you propose to run poses to our respective futures.”
Her expression had shuttered; he could no longer glean any hint of what she was thinking, not even in her usually expressive eyes, which now seemed dull and opaque.
When she remained silent, he hardened his tone to one he used in tense business negotiations. “You owe me, Izzy, and I’m calling in the debt. Halt your exposé. It hasn’t gone too far yet.”
She stared at him. He wasn’t even sure she was seeing him and not some ghost from the past, then she breathed in and shook her shoulders slightly, as if throwing off the shackles of memory. Her gaze refocused on his face, then she winced. “It’s not that simple. I can’t just”—she gestured—“cancel the exposé. If I do, I’ll never be able to use the ploy to generate interest, drive distribution, and boost sales again. And we—The Crier—can’t afford that. Our advertisers would leave in droves.”
“Be that as it may—”
“The only way around it would be if I could find something even more compelling to report.”
He studied her. “A scandal?”
She shook her head impatiently. “We don’t do scandals or, at least, not the sort you’re thinking of. Whatever it is needs to be more fascinating and engrossing than that. Something that would enthrall your mother and sister-in-law yet still be an incident they could freely share at an at-home.”
He arched his brows. “What about something royal? They always seem to be gossiping about them.”
She met his eyes. “I shouldn’t invite the wrath of the Cynsters, but instead, you suggest I invite the ire of the palace?”
“Victoria and Albert and their brood aren’t the only royals about.”
She tipped her head consideringly. “True.” After a moment, she looked at him. “Do you know of anything I can use in place of the exposé?”
He frowned. “Not off the top of my head, but surely we can find something.” He met her gaze. “How long do we have before your next issue?”
“I would need the copy by Wednesday at the latest.”
She still looked troubled—worried and concerned—and he felt an absurd yet impossible-to-deny impulse to help, to wipe the evidence of underlying anxiety from her features.
Features he remembered as being so wonderfully full of life and love—
He shifted, and she looked up, then glanced at the clock on the bookshelf to her right. He followed her gaze and saw it was a minute before six o’clock.
“Good Lord!” She pushed back her chair and rose, bringing him to his feet. “It’s late.”
She bent and rummaged in a drawer, then straightened, a black reticule in her hand. She rounded the desk, crossed the office to the hat stand beside the still-open door, and reached for her coat. “I need to get home.”
Why? Do you have children waiting for you there?
Automatically, he’d followed her. He took the coat from her hands and held it for her.
She shot him a wary look before thrusting her arms into the sleeves. After settling the coat and looping the reticule’s strings over her wrist, she lifted down a plain silk bonnet, put it on, and swiftly tied the wide ribbons.
He watched as she returned to her desk and turned off both lamps.
He had no idea why, but instinct prodded, and as she walked back to where he waited by the doorway, he asked, “Why don’t we see what we can drum up together to replace the exposé? I can ask around the clubs and see what I turn up.”
Briefly, Izzy met his eyes; she was still reeling in the aftermath of his revelations. But he was offering an olive branch and a way to end this encounter. She nodded. “All right. I’ll be here tomorrow—we open for the half day.”
She needed to get away from him, needed time to work through what he’d said and decide what it meant.
She waved him through the doorway ahead of her, then followed and drew the office door shut. As she always did, she looked down the length of the darkened workshop toward the rear door, then stepped past the end of the long counter to scan the area—her fiefdom—one last time.
He came up beside her. “Is that the printing press?”
His gaze was fixed on the metalwork monstrosity that was The Crier’s pride and joy and principal source of income. “Yes. It’s steam driven.” She looked deeper into the workshop, toward the boiler that powered the belt that ran the press. “We don’t just print The Crier. We produce lots of booklets and pamphlets for the scholars at the university and for the museums and other institutions.”
“I wondered if that was why The Crier’s offices were located here.”
“Indeed. We have relationships that Fleet Street doesn’t.” She scanned the area one last time and noticed the sign on the darkroom door was set to Occupied.
“Damn! Quimby’s still here.” She set off across the dimly lit floor.
“Quimby?” Gray’s long strides quickly caught up with hers.
“Our photographer.” She pointed to the yellow-lettered sign. “That means he’s in there, fussing with his photographs.”
Separated from the rear wall of her office by a space half the workshop’s length, the darkroom had originally been the nearer of two offices nestled in the rear corner of the workshop. The other old office, located between the darkroom and the workshop’s rear wall, was used for storage.
She halted before the darkroom door and rapped sharply. “Quimby?”
She waited, but heard nothing—certainly not the grumpy roar she’d expected. She frowned. “That’s odd.”
Gray reached past her and thumped a fist rather more forcefully on the solid wooden panel.
“Quimby!” she called, exasperation and command in her tone.
“The room’s not that large, and while he’s an irascible old coot, he’s not deaf.” She reached for the doorknob and rattled it vigorously. “Quimby!”
Even she heard the rising anxiety in her voice.
When nothing happened, she bit her lip and glanced at Gray. “Usually, the threat of anyone walking in brings him roaring to the door.”
Gray didn’t need better light to see the apprehension in her face. Apparently, Quimby was old enough for her to fear he’d had a seizure and collapsed. Feeling slightly grim himself, he nudged her sideways, gripped the knob and turned it, then slowly pushed the door open.
Nothing happened. He stepped into the strange dimness created by a low-level, red-shielded lamp. He halted and, while his eyes adjusted, scanned the area. Filing cabinets lined the wall to his left, with a large, white enamel sink in the far corner. A high, narrow table ran down the middle of the room, and a raised bench stood along the right side.
Scattered along the bench was a conglomeration of photographic implements and supplies, including numerous trays, bottles, and jugs, and there was an untidy pile of glass plates strewn on the central table. The plates looked to be the treated glass photographers used to capture their images. Gray estimated over fifty or more plates lay haphazardly discarded in the pile.
What he failed to see was any man who might be Quimby. “There’s no one here. Perhaps your Quimby simply forgot to reset the sign when he left.”
Crowding close, Izzy peered around him. “That would be even more odd. Quimby’s a stickler about using that sign.”
Her hands splayed on his back and tentatively pushed.
He stepped to the right, allowing her into the room.
She paused beside him, scanning as he had, then she gasped. “Great heavens!” She rushed to the table and the pile of glass plates.
“Oh no!” She reached out to touch one, but stopped before she did. “His daguerreotype plates!” She leaned closer, squinting at the plates. “Good Lord—they’re all scratched and ruined!”
She looked at Gray, then glanced around wildly. “What on earth happened?”
Her gaze snagged on several partially open cabinet drawers. “Why would he—”
Her voice suspended.
Moving down the other side of the table, Gray glanced at her.
She was staring at the space before the sink. Even in the poor light, her face was deathly pale, and a mask of horror had overlaid her features.
“Oh, my God!” She rushed forward. “Quimby!”
Gray swore beneath his breath and strode along the narrow table. He rounded the end to see Izzy crouched beside the slumped form of an older man in a dun-colored dustcoat, presumably Quimby. The photographer appeared to have staggered back against the wall, then slid down to a sitting position with his legs half stretched before him.
“Quimby? Can you hear me?” Izzy lightly patted one of Quimby’s cheeks.
His head lolled forward.
“Here! Let me help you up.” She lowered her hands to Quimby’s sides, then froze.
She drew back her right hand and stared at the palm. Her expression stunned and stricken, she looked at Gray and held up her bloodied palm. She swallowed. “He’s been stabbed.” Dragging in a shaky breath, she looked back at Quimby. “I think he’s dead.”
Gray stepped around the photographer’s legs, bent, and gently gripped Izzy’s shoulders. He drew her upright, then eased her aside. “Let me look.”
Once he was certain she was steady on her feet, he released her and crouched before the fallen man.
Even in the weak red light, it was plain the fellow was beyond mortal help. Nevertheless, Gray checked, but there was no pulse to be found. As far as he could tell, Quimby had been stabbed very close to the heart. Just one blow. But what made the hairs on Gray’s nape rise was that the body was still warm, the blood still sluggishly oozing, only just turning sticky.
He rose and drew in a deeper breath. The photographer had been killed while Gray and Izzy had been in the office.
What if I hadn’t been here? Izzy would have been alone…
Thrusting aside the thought, he turned to her, taking in her stricken expression and stunned, helpless eyes. He was shocked, too, but he’d seen death—even violent death—before and in much uglier circumstances.
He stepped across, blocking her view of the body, and urged her toward the darkroom door.
She made an incoherent sound and tried to turn back to the dead man, but inexorably, Gray steered her on. “Yes, he’s dead. We need to summon the police.”
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