The Murder at Mandeville Hall
The Casebook of Barnaby Adair Novels #7
First published on August 16, 2018
In print, audio, and e-book.
PRINT ISBN: 978-1-925559-32-3
E-BOOK ISBN: 978-1-925559-12-5
#1 NYT-bestselling author Stephanie Laurens brings you a tale of unexpected romance that blossoms against the backdrop of dastardly murder.
On discovering the lifeless body of an innocent ingénue, a peer attending a country house party joins forces with the lady-amazon sent to fetch the victim safely home in a race to expose the murderer before Stokes, assisted by Barnaby and Penelope, is forced to allow the guests, murderer included, to decamp.
Well-born rakehell and head of an ancient family, Alaric, Lord Carradale, has finally acknowledged reality and is preparing to find a bride. But loyalty to his childhood friend, Percy Mandeville, necessitates attending Percy’s annual house party, held at neighboring Mandeville Hall. Yet despite deploying his legendary languid charm, by the second evening of the week-long event, Alaric is bored and restless.
Escaping from the soirée and the Hall, Alaric decides that as soon as he’s free, he’ll hie to London and find the mild-mannered, biddable lady he believes will ensure a peaceful life. But the following morning, on walking through the Mandeville Hall shrubbery on his way to join the other guests, he comes upon the corpse of a young lady-guest.
Constance Whittaker accepts that no gentleman will ever offer for her—she’s too old, too tall, too buxom, too headstrong…too much in myriad ways. Now acting as her grandfather’s agent, she arrives at Mandeville Hall to extricate her young cousin, Glynis, who unwisely accepted an invitation to the reputedly licentious house party.
But Glynis cannot be found.
A search is instituted. Venturing into the shrubbery, Constance discovers an outrageously handsome aristocrat crouched beside Glynis’s lifeless form. Unsurprisingly, Constance leaps to the obvious conclusion.
Luckily, once the gentleman explains that he’d only just arrived, commonsense reasserts itself. More, as matters unfold and she and Carradale have to battle to get Glynis’s death properly investigated, Constance discovers Alaric to be a worthy ally.
Yet even after Inspector Stokes of Scotland Yard arrives and takes charge of the case, along with his consultants, the Honorable Barnaby Adair and his wife, Penelope, the murderer’s identity remains shrouded in mystery, and learning why Glynis was killed—all in the few days before the house party’s guests will insist on leaving—tests the resolve of all concerned. Flung into each other’s company, fiercely independent though Constance is, unsusceptible though Alaric is, neither can deny the connection that grows between them.
Then Constance vanishes.
Can Alaric unearth the one fact that will point to the murderer before the villain rips from the world the lady Alaric now craves for his own?
"The Murder at Mandeville Hall is a perplexing and enthralling mystery. There are so many supporting characters in The Murder at Mandeville Hall who I was intrigued by and hope to see in future stories. In this story, Stephanie Laurens shows how the cruel actions of one person can ruin more than one life, and how characters are transformed by tragedy. I'm excited to see what kind of magic Stephanie Laurens works in her next book." Fresh Fiction
August 26, 1839
Mandeville Hall, Hampshire
What am I doing here?
With practiced languor, Alaric Augustus Radleigh, ninth Baron Carradale, strolled among the guests in the Mandeville Hall drawing room and endeavored to conceal his impatience to be elsewhere. Around him, the twenty-plus acquaintances the Honorable Percy Mandeville had summoned to his annual weeklong summer house party smiled, chatted, flirted, and preened. As it was after dinner and nearing ten o’clock on the second night of the planned revelry, amid the laughter and unceasing chatter, invitations of an intimate nature were being issued, not with words but with arch inviting looks. Or by a gentleman gazing into a lady’s eyes while holding her fingers in a possessive clasp—as Mr. Henry Wynne was presently doing with Mrs. Rosamund Cleary, a fashionable and racy widow.
Giving no indication he’d noticed the couple’s intent interaction, Alaric smoothly skirted the pair and continued moving through the crowd. He was passingly acquainted with all those present; Captain Freddy Collins determinedly caught his eye, and perforce, Alaric paused to exchange opinions on the latest fancy—and to bestow upon Freddy’s attractive companion, Mrs. Hetty Finlayson, the pleasant but distant smile he’d perfected as a means of conveying to lovely ladies that he was reluctantly, but definitely, otherwise engaged.
Mrs. Finlayson wasn’t the only bored matron attempting to lure him, but with gentle ruthlessness, he refused all offers; he had no interest in any short-lived and inevitably unfulfilling liaison.
He’d had a surfeit of such affairs over the years. Admittedly in the past, he’d found such engagements mildly amusing and had indulged when the mood took him. This year, however…he’d changed.
For the past decade and more, he’d prowled the drawing rooms and ballrooms of the upper echelons of London society and, in short order, had been deemed one of the more dangerous wolves of the ton. That long-established reputation was well known to those gathered at Mandeville Hall; they assumed it was the reason he was there.
Of course, by “dangerous,” the grandes dames had meant that he was likely to turn the heads of impressionable young ladies, leaving them smitten and dreaming of him rather than of the more attainable gentlemen their mamas and said grandes dames steered their way. He embodied a threat to the grandes dames’ schemes that, courtesy of his birth and station, was largely beyond their control—and such ladies never approved of anyone they couldn’t rein in.
If they could see him now…the grandes dames would cackle themselves into fits. The notion of him finally biting the bullet and seeking a suitable wife would have them grinning evilly; that was one of the reasons he was determined to make his choice quickly, efficiently, and with as little social noise as possible.
The other major reason was his sisters. One older and two younger, all were happily married and comfortably settled, and all three had long been of the oft-stated opinion that he should join their company. Well aware of his age and situation, lately they’d shown signs of growing restive. If they heard or saw enough to suspect he’d finally come to the point of selecting a bride, they’d be on his doorstep offering to help within the hour. In his mind’s eye, he could see their faces alight with enthusiasm… He would never be able to harden his heart enough to dismiss, deny, and disappoint them. Better he avoided the necessity altogether.
His parents had died more than a decade ago, leaving him as head of his ancient house, with the associated title and estate. Consequently, marriage at some point had always been in his cards, not least because his current heir, Montague Radleigh, also present at the house party, was viewed by the entire Radleigh family—Monty included—as unfit to inherit.
Monty had strengths, but those strengths did not include the talents required to run an estate. Although Carradale Manor, the house, was relatively modest, the wealth that lay behind it courtesy of farms, woodland, and funds invested was significant. So significant the family made a point of keeping that reality close to their collective chest; no one wished to see Alaric hunted by matchmakers intent on snaring a wealthy gentleman for their charges.
Luckily, Alaric’s intentionally well-founded reputation afforded him some protection, ensuring that matchmakers did not glance his way and never looked deeply enough to stumble on the family’s wealth. However, now he’d finally decided it was time to select a suitable lady and propose, the instant he took a public step in furtherance of that aim, the matchmakers’ eyes would narrow, and they would delve and find out…
He judged he would have not more than a week to cast his eyes over the likely candidates before he became a hunted man.
The advisability of learning all he could about suitable young ladies prior to returning to town in a few weeks when society regathered in the capital was weighing on his mind and making the hours he was wasting at Mandeville Hall all the more frustrating. Admittedly, there were two marriageable young ladies present, but neither fitted his bill; both were too young for his taste.
Given it was late summer, as was his habit, he was in residence at Carradale Manor, his ancestral home, located approximately half a mile away through the woods. He’d spent the past weeks ensuring his affairs were in order and the manor was in excellent repair so that his way would be clear to make an offer for his suitable young lady the instant he found her.
He’d yet to decide whether to secretly appeal to his older sister for assistance; he wasn’t at all sure she would agree not to tell the other two, and then…
With his ineffably urbane smile firmly in place, he finally stepped free of the crowd and paused by the wall, turning and pretending to idly scan the throng.
“Enjoying yourself, old man?”
Alaric turned his head as Percy Mandeville—his host—lightly buffeted his arm.
Smiling genially, Percy settled shoulder to shoulder with Alaric and surveyed his guests. “A good bunch, this year. Everyone seems to be getting on with no unexpected tensions.” After a second, Percy glanced sidelong at Alaric. “Sure you wouldn’t rather stay over the nights? You have before, and you know you always have a room here.”
Alaric’s smile grew more sincere. He shook his head, then met Percy’s brown eyes. “I know, but this year, I have business to attend to.” Deciding on the right wife surely qualified. “I didn’t want to miss your house party, but to justify attending during the days and evenings, I need to retreat to my library at night.”
And he needed the escape—and the safety of his own house. There, he was in no danger of having an unwanted companion attempt to invite herself into his bed.
“There you are, Carradale!”
In time with the booming words, a bony finger jabbed his arm.
Alaric turned to find himself being minutely examined through an old-fashioned quizzing glass wielded by a crone swathed in diaphanous draperies; thankfully, there were too many layers to permit any sight of what lay beneath. A silk turban in a hideous shade of puce wobbled atop the old lady’s head; steel-gray curls protruded beneath the turban’s lower edge. Knowing what was expected of him, he swept the old lady an elegant bow. “Good evening, Mrs. Fitzherbert. I would inquire as to your health, but I can see you’re in the pink.”
“Ha!” Mrs. Fitzherbert, an ancient aunt Percy invariably invited to act as his hostess and lend his house party a veneer of respectability, lowered her quizzing glass and narrowed her eyes at Alaric. “You always did have the most honeyed of tongues.” She wagged a gnarled finger at him. “‘Never trust a man who knows which compliments will most disarm one’ is a maxim no lady should forget.”
Alaric grinned. “In your case, ma’am, I speak only the truth.”
Mrs. Fitzherbert huffed, but then something caught her eye and her attention. She waved a vague dismissal and lumbered off.
Percy sighed. “She grows more eccentric every year.”
“If one lives to be her age, one is doubtless entitled to whatever eccentricity one chooses to claim.” When Percy said nothing more, Alaric glanced at the younger man. Percy’s gaze was fixed on someone in the crowd, but Alaric, following Percy’s gaze, couldn’t see who Percy was watching so intently and with an expression Alaric couldn’t interpret.
Although several years younger than Alaric’s thirty-seven, the Honorable Percy Mandeville had been a constant in Alaric’s life ever since Percy had been born. Alaric had only sisters, and with Percy’s brother considerably older, from an early age, Alaric and Percy had gravitated into each other’s company; they’d spent untold hours escaping from their nurses, tumbling through brambles, and falling into streams. Needless to say, Alaric—older, taller, stronger, and more confident—had always been the leader, while Percy, suffering from the tentativeness engendered by being a second and significantly younger son, had scampered in Alaric’s wake, much like a puppy eager to please.
Truth be told, Alaric suspected that the annual Mandeville Hall house parties Percy had hosted for the past six years—the present event being the latest—were simply another example of Percy attempting to emulate Alaric and, at least in Percy’s mind, copy Alaric’s lifestyle. Not that Alaric had ever bothered to host a house party; instead, he’d attended more of them than he cared to count.
Mandeville Hall had been made over to Percy a few years after Alaric had succeeded his father at Carradale Manor. In Percy’s case, it was his father who had inherited the title of Viscount Mandeville, after which Percy’s parents had decamped to the viscounty’s principal seat in Lincolnshire, and Percy’s older brother, next in line for the title, and his family had elected to remain at their home in Leicestershire.
Refocusing on the shifting crowd—more than twenty people in the Mandeville Hall drawing room definitely constituted a crowd—Alaric noted again the overtly assessing and, indeed, inviting glances thrown his and Percy’s way. They were both tall and built to make the most of the prevailing fashion; Alaric had broad shoulders and the lean, rangy build of a horseman, while Percy was two inches shorter and heavier through the chest. Percy possessed a mop of shining blond hair and a complexion that, as he aged, would doubtless turn ruddy, making him an excellent visual counterpoint to Alaric’s more dramatic appearance—his near-black hair, aquiline features, and pale, faintly olive-toned skin. Percy had once declared himself a true Saxon, or perhaps a Dane, against Alaric’s rather obvious Norman.
What am I doing here?
In truth, Alaric knew the answer. He was there in support of Percy, in acknowledgment of the long association between Carradale Manor and Mandeville Hall, between the Radleighs and the Mandevilles, and between him and Percy. He was there because Percy invariably invited him and he always came, and if he’d declined, Percy would have been hurt.
In Alaric’s mind, Percy still featured as the younger boy following at Alaric’s heels, eager for approval and encouragement.
Percy stirred. “I should circulate.”
“We both should.” Remaining stationary for too long would invite an approach and an invitation Alaric would have to skillfully decline without giving offence. “I’ll see you before I head off.”
With a nod, Percy made for a large knot of guests before the main doors. Alaric went the other way, toward the loose gathering of couples before the fireplace. He paused beside Guy Walker, a gentleman of similar reputation, who was chatting with Mrs. Tilly Gibson, who was attending sans husband, as were her contemporaries, Mrs. Prudence Collard and Mrs. Mina Symonds. All three ladies had been casting looks in Alaric’s direction; he kept Guy between himself and Tilly and, after exchanging various inconsequential comments, moved on.
There were two married couples present—Mr. William Coke and his wife, Margaret, and Colonel Humphries and his wife, Maude—invited to bolster the respectability of the event, given the nine unmarried gentlemen in the company.
“I say.” Monty Radleigh, Alaric’s cousin and heir, hailed Alaric as he was about to step past.
Styling himself as something of a sartorial maven, tonight Monty was resplendent in a fine gray suit worn over a satin waistcoat in alternating stripes of a palette of grays. Shorter than Alaric by a good half head, with pleasant but undramatic features and a figure tending toward the rotund, Monty relied on the perfection of his appearance and his unparalleled knowledge of who was doing what in society to claim his place in the ton. Surveying the company, he opined, “A very pleasant gathering, what? Nice mix of people, don’t you think?”
When Monty looked inquiringly at him, Alaric voiced a niggling observation for which he hadn’t yet learned the reason. “The only surprise is the two young ladies—Miss Weldon and Miss Johnson.” Finding Holly Weldon and her chaperon, Mrs. Fortuna Cripps, and Glynis Johnson and her chaperon, Mrs. Dillys Macomber, among the company had been distinctly unexpected. “I can’t recall Percy previously inviting unmarried young ladies, complete with duennas.”
Monty nodded. “I gather Miss Weldon is a connection of sorts, and her parents, perhaps not quite understanding the nature of Percy’s event, pressed for her to be invited.”
Alaric didn’t doubt Monty’s information; his cousin had an uncanny knack for unearthing such tidbits.
“Actually”—Monty shifted closer and lowered his voice—“I have to wonder if there isn’t some on-the-quiet romance behind it. Freddy Collins seems much taken with Miss Weldon, and there’s no doubt she’s a bright young thing.”
Alaric chuckled. “Beware, Monty—she might turn her sights on you.”
Monty blinked. “No, no.” Agitatedly, he waved aside the notion. “Not on the lookout for a wife. Everyone knows that.” Monty cast a faintly harried glance around; quite aside from being Alaric’s heir, courtesy of several inheritances from his mother’s side, he was also independently wealthy enough to feature on the matchmakers’ lists.
Alaric took pity on him. “As you say, it’s common knowledge that you’re a dyed-in-the-wool bachelor. But when a young lady attends an event such as this, one has to wonder why.”
A gentleman approached, and both Alaric and Monty turned to meet him. It was Percy’s older cousin, Edward Mandeville. After exchanging a nod with Edward, Monty promptly excused himself and went off to join some other guests, leaving Alaric with Edward, a situation with which Alaric wasn’t all that thrilled.
“I must say, Carradale,” Edward intoned, turning to stand beside Alaric and look over the guests, much as Percy had earlier, “I’m pleased you saw your way to attending. It eases my—and the family’s—mind to know you’re on hand to rein Percy back from any behavior that would constitute that one step too far.” Pompously arrogant, Edward continued, “The family and I are well aware you are one of the few to whom my cousin will pay heed.”
Meaning Percy wouldn’t listen to Edward’s frequent and insistent proselytizing on the paths of virtue, a reaction few would hold against Percy. Edward was the son of Percy’s father’s youngest brother, who had become a clergyman in the fire-and-brimstone vein. Following in his father’s—and indeed, his religiously devoted mother’s—footsteps, Edward had elected himself the moral guardian of the Mandeville clan.
Alaric had met Edward at various Mandeville events over the years but had endeavored to spend as little time in his orbit as possible. And in light of Edward’s remark, it seemed that Alaric’s reputation wasn’t quite as widely known as he’d supposed; Percy’s wildest and most licentious forays were but a pale imitation of Alaric’s previous deeds. Or misdeeds, as the case frequently had been.
Of course, Alaric had long ago attained the age of wisdom; these days, any wild and licentious deeds on which he embarked were suitably cloaked in impenetrable discretion.
Now he thought of it, Alaric felt that Percy was also beyond the age of needing to be reined in by anyone, but convincing Edward of that—especially at Percy’s house party with the inevitable undercurrent of seduction and suggestive hints of illicit interludes—would be a lost cause.
Alaric lightly shrugged. “I confess I was surprised to see you among Percy’s guests.” Did he invite you?
Edward humphed. “I heard from my aunt, the viscountess, that Percy was stubbornly persisting in hosting this yearly bacchanal.” Edward’s gaze fell on Freddy Collins, who had Caroline Hammond on his arm and was laughing uproariously at one of the lady’s quips; Edward’s lip all but curled with contempt. “I took it upon myself to journey down and represent the family’s interests. While my uncle, naturally, has said nothing on the subject, I cannot imagine he is at all pleased by Percy’s libertine tendencies. I thought it wise to have someone from the family on hand to ensure that nothing of an inexcusable nature occurred.”
What would qualify as something of an inexcusable nature? Alaric was tempted to ask, but held himself back. He didn’t need to encourage Edward—the man was stuffy and stiff enough, convinced of his own superiority, and haughty and condescending with it.
More, Alaric was well acquainted with Percy’s parents. Percy was his mother’s favorite, her youngest child, and consequently would have to blot his copybook in some fairly major way to earn even her displeasure, much less her censure. As for Viscount Mandeville, he’d always treated Percy’s occasional lapses from grace as nothing more than the usual peccadilloes to be expected of a younger son of Percy’s station. Alaric knew that was the viscount’s opinion because Percy’s father had told Alaric so.
Clearly, Edward’s presence at the house party was nothing more than Edward being Edward. Self-important and self-aggrandizing.
Alaric felt compelled to state, “I doubt anything of any real moment will occur. As Monty and I were just remarking, Percy appears to have outdone himself in assembling a felicitous combination of guests.”
Preparing to move on, Alaric glanced about—only to realize he’d remained stationary for too long. Miss Glynis Johnson and Prue Collard were advancing on him, with Robert Fletcher and Monty in tow. It was impossible to mistake the shy intent in Miss Johnson’s eyes. Alaric knew many young ladies viewed him as an unattainable icon, one they’d all like to try their hands at attaching. Clearly, Miss Johnson was set on having her tilt at his windmill.
Inwardly resigning himself to the inevitable, he heard a suppressed snort and turned in time to note that Edward had grown even more rigid, his expression setting in stonily severe lines. Alaric had to wonder what Edward had heard about Prue Collard; it had to be she who had incited his disapprobation given Miss Johnson was, as far as Alaric had gathered, of pristine repute. Prue’s reputation, on the other hand, was distinctly spotty.
“If you’ll excuse me.” Before the others reached them, Edward curtly bowed, turned on his heel, and stalked into the crowd.
Alaric watched Edward go—put to flight by Prue Collard—and decided he owed Prue his very best smile. He turned to greet her and bestowed his welcome with gracious languor, making Prue beam with genuine good humor.
“No need to dazzle me, Carradale.” A good-natured, kind-hearted brassy blonde whom censorious souls might describe as being no better than she should be, Prue halted beside him, drawing Miss Johnson to face him. “As I was saying to Glynis here, you’re not one to exert yourself over any lady.”
“Nonsense.” Alaric aimed an easy smile at Glynis Johnson; a slender, sweet-faced young lady with wheat-blond hair piled in a knot on the top of her head and pretty pale-cornflower-blue eyes, Glynis provided an unflattering contrast for Prue, confirming the older lady’s good nature. “I refute Mrs. Collard’s assertion utterly.” Even though it was true.
With two quick comments, Alaric drew Monty and Robert into a glib, light-hearted exchange centering on the classic romantic pursuits.
“I always thought Romeo’s address to the balcony was a trifle overdone,” Robert stated, eliciting indignant if laughing protests from both ladies.
The five of them continued to entertain each other with similar nonsensical banter.
After ten minutes of easy repartee, Glynis Johnson laid a tentative hand on Alaric’s sleeve. When he looked at her, she softly said, “I find I’m in need of some cooler air. I wonder, my lord, if you would stroll with me on the terrace—just for a few minutes.” She glanced toward a grouping of three chairs set against the wall; on them sat Mrs. Fitzherbert and the two chaperons, Mrs. Macomber and Mrs. Cripps. “I can’t imagine anyone will make anything of it.”
Alaric agreed, although he doubted his reasoning was the same as Miss Johnson’s; all those present knew his tastes did not run to seducing innocent young ladies.
He was more than experienced enough to have refused Glynis’s request without giving offence, but he was, frankly, curious over why she’d chosen him as her escort. With a half bow, he said, “Of course. A few minutes on the terrace will doubtless refresh us both.”
They excused themselves to the other three, none of whom evinced any notable reaction, but as he turned Glynis toward the long windows open to the moonlit terrace, Alaric caught a flash of satisfaction in Prue’s eyes. As he guided the younger lady over the low step into the cool of the night, he deduced that—for some reason—Glynis Johnson had enlisted Prue’s aid in approaching him, presumably so Glynis could have the next minutes alone with him.
Intrigued, he gave Glynis his arm, kept a gentle, unrevealing smile on his lips, steered her along the flagstones, and waited to see what she had in mind.
Artless chatter appeared to be the answer. Contrary to any expectations he might have entertained, Glynis seemed, if anything, relieved to be on his arm; she strolled, apparently carefree, beside him.
Amused, Alaric continued to wonder what she was about. He was too well versed in social exchanges to need to think to keep up his end of the undemanding conversation. For her part, Glynis prattled happily about events and people she’d met during her Season—the plays she’d seen, the exhibitions she’d attended.
She was animated and engaging, but naturally so, and while anyone glimpsing them through the drawing room windows might imagine she was flirting with him, Alaric sensed nothing of the sort. Even when her eyes met his, their expression was open, innocent of guile.
She wasn’t trying to attract him or even to elicit any response from him, yet…
The night air was pleasantly fresh, and strolling with a pretty lady on his arm was no hardship. Her gown, fashioned in that year’s style, was of pale-blue silk, a hue the moonlight rendered almost silver.
Alaric listened to Glynis Johnson’s chatter, nodded and smiled when required, and continued to observe and assess.
After ten minutes had passed and he steered her back into the drawing room, he’d seen her dart two swift, almost-too-quick-to-be-caught glances at someone among the company.
It wouldn’t be the first time Alaric had been used as a pawn to incite jealousy.
Not sure what his next move ought to be—he was far more experienced in house-party dynamics than she—he guided her to where Percy and Monty were standing in a group with Cyril, Viscount Hammond, his sister-in-law, Caroline, and Colonel Humphries.
Cyril and Caroline welcomed them eagerly. While the older Walter Humphries chewed Percy’s and Monty’s ears over some matter of military history, Alaric stood beside Glynis and chatted easily—waiting for his chance to depart.
He needed time alone in his library to consider his next steps, matrimonially speaking.
At last, a break in the conversations allowed him to catch Percy’s eye. “I really must head back to the manor.”
“Oh! But you’ll be joining us tomorrow, won’t you?” Caroline asked.
“Assuredly,” Alaric returned with practiced charm. “I have no intention of missing the coming entertainments or the chance to spend time in such engaging company.”
Caroline laughed. “Flatterer.” Her smile said she was pleased.
Glynis appeared less certain, but when Alaric turned to her, she smiled sweetly and gave him her hand. “Thank you for a pleasant walk on the terrace, my lord.”
Alaric bowed with elegant grace. “The interlude was entirely my pleasure, Miss Johnson.” He smiled, taking in her expression—that of an ingénue. “I bid you a good night”—he lowered his voice to murmur, just for her—“and good luck.”
She blinked at the latter words, her expression turning faintly perplexed.
Alaric smiled more definitely; clearly, she didn’t realize how transparent she was—although, he had to admit, he as yet had no idea which gentleman she was truly interested in.
After exchanging nods with Percy, Monty, Cyril, and Walter, he made his way out of the room and into the front hall. There, he found Carnaby, Percy’s butler.
“Leaving us, my lord?” Carnaby moved to open the front door.
“Indeed. However, as I assured your master and several others, I’ll return tomorrow.”
Carnaby hauled the door wide. “For breakfast, my lord?”
Pausing on the threshold, Alaric shook his head. “No. I’ll come later.”
“Very good, my lord.”
Alaric stepped onto the front porch and looked up at the sky. The night was clear, with no clouds to shadow the black velvet in which myriad stars shone brilliant and bright.
Drawing in a deep breath, he inhaled the scent of the surrounding woodland—a scent he’d known from infancy—replacing the stale air of the drawing room and the cloying miasma of perfumes. Feeling rejuvenated, he started down the steps and heard the door close behind him. On reaching the gravel of the forecourt, he lengthened his stride and headed around the house, then diverted into the shrubbery, taking his customary shortcut to the stable.
There, he found Percy’s stableman, Hughes, holding Alaric’s horse, a huge gray hunter named Sultan, saddled and ready. “Didn’t think you’d be much longer, my lord.” Hughes ran his hand down Sultan’s long neck. “This old fellow seemed to know—all but put his own nose in the bridle.”
Alaric grinned, scratched Sultan between the ears, then took the reins Hughes offered; while Carradale Manor was within walking distance, to attend the house party’s events, he’d elected to ride, taking the bridle path that connected the two properties, stable to stable. “Thank you, Hughes.” Alaric swung up to the saddle, then raised a hand in salute. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Ride safe, my lord.” Hughes stepped back.
Alaric wheeled Sultan and set him trotting out of the stable yard, then picked up the bridle path and, allowing the big horse to choose his own pace, headed for the manor.
Two-thirds of the way along the path, on impulse, Alaric reined Sultan in. The horse stamped, then reluctantly settled. At that spot, a gap in the trees and a dip in the land afforded Alaric a view of Carradale Manor that he’d long considered his favorite vista. From where he sat, perched high on Sultan’s back, the woodland fell away, and rolling fields—all part of the Carradale estate—lay gently illuminated by the faint light of the moon. And on the distant rise, his house—his home—Carradale Manor stood framed by woodland, a comfortable manor house in excellent condition, the windows of its three stories arranged in simple symmetry to either side of the front porch; in bucolic peace and untrammeled serenity, the manor overlooked the lands some long-ago ancestor had claimed, the house’s pale-gray walls rising above the darker shadows of the lower-lying gardens.
It was a sight Alaric never tired of seeing, but it was rare to see it as it was at that moment, rendered in shades of gray and black by the lucent glow of the new moon.
Until recently—until he’d started thinking of a wife and of what was important in his life—he hadn’t consciously acknowledged how much he loved the place, how it called to something deep in his soul.
How it anchored him.
Now he’d realized that, the house had, in a way, become a touchstone for him; any lady he took to wife would have to fit—to suit the place as well as suit him. Indeed, she couldn’t do the latter if she didn’t do the former.
Sultan had grown restless; he stamped and shifted.
Alaric loosened the reins, pressed his knees to the horse’s flanks, and set him trotting once more. Generally speaking, riding deeply shadowed bridle paths at night was a foolish act, but he knew this path literally better than the back of his hand.
Not long after, Sultan clattered into the manor’s stable yard. Hilliard, Alaric’s groom, had heard their approach and was waiting to catch Sultan’s bridle.
“A good evening, my lord?” Hilliard asked.
“Well enough.” Alaric dismounted and handed over the reins. “I’ll need him again tomorrow—about nine o’clock.”
Hilliard stroked Sultan’s nose. “Back to the Hall?”
“Indeed.” Alaric started toward the manor’s side door. “Only four more days to go, thank God!”
Hilliard chuckled; a local and longtime servitor, the grizzled stableman was aware that Alaric was attending Percy’s house party more from a sense of duty and loyalty than from any real wish to indulge.
Alaric continued along the flagstone path; through the pervasive quiet, he heard Hilliard coo to Sultan and the heavy clop of the horse’s hooves as he was led into the stable. Alaric reached the side door, opened it, and strode along the corridor that led to the front hall.
The lamps in the hall were still lit, but turned low. Through the dimness, Johns, Alaric’s gentleman’s gentleman, came hurrying from the rear of the house. “Do you require anything, my lord?”
Alaric paused to consider, then shook his head. “No—you can retire.”
With a dip of his head, Johns retreated.
Standing at the base of the stairs, Alaric debated where best to think—in his bed or over a nightcap in the library?
The nightcap won. He walked on to the library and went in. No lamps were lit, but the heavy velvet curtains had been left open, and sufficient light streamed in through the tall windows for Alaric’s purpose. He crossed to the tantalus and poured a measure of French brandy into a cut-crystal tumbler; the clink of the decanter against the lip of the glass produced a pure, clear note that hung in the silence.
Glass in hand, Alaric sank into his favorite armchair, angled before the cold hearth. Given the season, no fire burned in the grate, yet there was a certain comfort in the familiar position.
He sipped, and his gaze rose to rest on the coat of arms carved into the stone overmantel. It fell to him to marry and beget an heir so the long line of Radleighs could continue unbroken—from father to son down the generations. He’d always known that to be his duty, and now…it was time.
Everything was in readiness; there was nothing left to do—to prepare. All that remained was for him to choose.
So who was the lady who would be the right wife for him?
With his gaze locked on the empty hearth, he tapped the bottom of his glass against the chair’s arm. “I have no clue who she might be, so perhaps I should define what she needs to be.”
That seemed the most logical way forward.
He tried to conjure a vision of his paragon, imbuing her with the characteristics he required. She would, he assumed, be sweet faced and gentle, mild mannered and biddable—an elementally cheerful soul to balance his more cynical nature. Importantly, he required a lady unlikely to challenge, in any meaningful way, the direction in which he chose to steer their joint lives.
He knew himself well enough to admit that he never appreciated being countermanded, much less being directly opposed. He could and would hold his own in any confrontation, but he didn’t like being forced to do so. Consequently, in order to guarantee a peaceful married life, his lady should be an acquiescent sort, one who would lean on his arm and leave it to him to guide them both.
On the thought, an image of Glynis Johnson as she’d looked up at him while on his arm and strolling the terrace blazed across his mind.
After a moment, he grimaced and drained his glass. “Obviously, my vision of my ideal wife requires further work.” His hard edges and implacable will would frighten the Glynises of this world, and she—they—would bore him within a week.
And if a niggling inkling that a gentle, submissive wife might not be good for him—might exacerbate rather than ameliorate his tendency to hold aloof from the world—kept prodding at his brain, there was no denying that marrying such a lady would result in a more peaceful life.
Alaric snorted, rose, set the empty glass on a side table, and headed for the door.
As he climbed the stairs to his lonely bed, he reflected that that, at least, would shortly be rectified—just as soon as he found his ideal wife.
* * *
By the time Alaric rode into the Hall stable yard the next morning, the sun was well up, promising another warm summer’s day.
After handing Sultan’s reins to Hughes, Alaric, as usual, strode into and through the shrubbery. The area was extensive; the Mandeville Hall shrubbery consisted of five garden clearings of varying sizes, lined with high hedges and linked by grassed paths. The central clearing hosted a stone-lined rectangular pool with a small gazebo tucked away at the far end. The ivory water lilies floating on the surface of the pool had opened to the sun, and lazy droning drifted on the air as bees dipped into the cosmos nodding their bright flower heads along the pool’s edge.
Fixing his gaze on the neatly clipped grass before his boots, Alaric strode briskly over the lawn bordering the pool. Another glorious day he was proposing to waste pretending to enjoy a type of entertainment that had palled and, in truth, now bored him to the depths of his soul.
I’ve outgrown this.
The next phase of his life hovered in the wings—waiting for him to give it his full attention.
But first, he had to weather the rest of Percy’s house party.
Alaric’s feet followed the route to the shrubbery’s main entrance without the need for conscious direction. Turning in to the final avenue that led to the archway cut into the hedge bordering the side lawn, he glanced ahead—and saw a bundle of crumpled silk lying on the grass just inside the shrubbery entrance.
He blinked, stared, then understanding dawned, and his stride faltered. He recognized that particular shade of pale-blue silk.
He caught his breath and ran.
A second later, he stood looking down at Glynis Johnson. She lay discarded—thrown aside like a broken doll. Her pretty blue eyes stared sightless at the sky, her pale skin was discolored, and her tongue protruded between her once-lush lips. A ring of dark bruises circled her slender throat, an obscene marring of what had once been so lovely.
Alaric felt light-headed. He hauled his gaze up—away. Focusing on the green wall of the hedge, he forced himself to breathe…
Then he looked down again. Feeling battered by a rising tide of emotions—anger and fury foremost among them—he crouched and forced himself to look more closely, more impartially. To bear witness to the atrocity.
Who had dared to do this?
This, truly, was desecration of an innocent, and Alaric’s true self—the inner man who was not nearly as far removed from his warrior ancestors as his elegant sophistication led others to believe—was already reaching for his sword.
Why he felt so strongly over a girl he’d barely known, he didn’t know, but this shouldn’t have happened.
Not here. Not now.
His faculties slowly emerging through the fog of shock, he reached out and gently drew down Glynis’s lids. There was no point checking for a pulse; she’d passed beyond reach long ago. The dew had dampened her gown, enough to make it cling, converting the ball gown into a chilling shroud.
He stared, committing the sight to memory; there was something—some point, some earlier observation—niggling at the back of his brain, but he couldn’t seem to catch it and haul it forward.
Registering the coldness of the skin beneath his fingertips, gently he grasped and lifted one outflung arm. The limb was slightly stiff—stiffening. Although it was summer, the night had been clear, the air cool.
He heard the brisk rustle of skirts, then Monty’s voice piped, “This is the shrubbery.”
Before Alaric could react—could find his tongue and call a warning—an Amazon swept through the archway in the hedge.
The Amazon’s gaze fell on him, still crouched by the body. The woman—the lady—froze.
Garbed in a green carriage dress and with a hat perched atop glossy brown hair, the lady was tall, curvaceous, and statuesque, and with just that one glance, Alaric knew she possessed a commanding, forthright, and forceful nature; a peaches-and-cream complexion notwithstanding, her character was there, displayed in her face for all to see. And to take warning.
With her, nothing was hidden; she made not the slightest attempt to veil the power of her personality.
Then her wide green eyes shifted and locked on the body itself…
On the periphery of his awareness, Alaric registered that Monty had followed the Amazon past the hedge and, goggling, stopped to one side and a pace behind her.
Also stumbling into view on the Amazon’s other side was Mrs. Macomber, Glynis’s chaperon. She peered at the body and went as white as a sheet. “Oh no!” came out in a thin wail.
The sound pricked the Amazon to life.
She swayed, then her gaze snapped to Alaric, and gold blazed in the green. “What have you done?”
Constance struggled to breathe. Glynis—that was Glynis lying there dead! And this man…
Her eyes took him in as he slowly rose, straightening to a height she didn’t want to be impressed by. His face was of the sort she’d heard described as that of a fallen angel—a term she’d always associated with Lucifer and evil. The black hair that fell in thick locks, one sweeping over his broad forehead, added to the image, as did his clothes—a superbly cut gray coat over buff breeches and top boots.
Light-headedness threatened, but she thrust the sensation aside.
She was a second away from accusing the man of murder when he said, “I just found her.”
His voice—deep, but strangely flat—held undertones of sadness and respect for Glynis and, buried beneath that, if Constance wasn’t mistaken, a shock to rival hers.
He looked at the body, then drew in a breath, one that shuddered slightly. He glanced at Constance, then waved toward the woods. “I live in the neighboring manor house. I just rode in—this is the shortcut I always take to the house.”
His gaze returned to the body. “I found her like this.”
Mrs. Macomber’s wail had devolved into ugly gulping, racking sobs.
“Of course you did.” The dapper gentleman Constance had been introduced to and who’d volunteered to come with her to search for Glynis—Montague Radleigh—was chalk white and having difficulty catching a decent breath, but he waved at the other gentleman and gabbled, “He’s Carradale. Lord Carradale. M’cousin, you know.”
The name meant nothing to Constance, but the evidence of her eyes did. Despite his current pallor, despite his evident shock, Carradale was instantly recognizable as a dangerous sort. He doubtless possessed a languid façade, but the circumstances had stripped that away, revealing the unforgivingly hard angles of his face and the innate power beneath his surface.
A hedonistic rake he might be, yet by all the signs—his dry and pristine attire, the dampness of Glynis’s gown and the sheen that dewed her skin, plus his shock and total lack of guilt—she’d been wrong to imagine he had any hand in Glynis’s death.
Glynis is dead.
The realization was difficult to assimilate, even with the dead body before her. As for her emotions—the stunned shock, pending sorrow, and the underlying anger—she would deal with them as she always did, by giving vent to them through action.
She dragged in a breath, then looked directly at the gentleman—at Carradale; his gaze had returned to Glynis’s body. “I apologize for leaping to an unjustified conclusion.”
He glanced at her, then faintly frowned and waved one hand dismissively before his gaze again fell to the body.
Oh yes, the languid hauteur was there, albeit currently largely in abeyance.
She followed his gaze, forcing herself to catalog the horror that had been visited on her innocent relative. From the way Glynis was lying, with her knees and legs together, wrapped in the tangle of her skirts, which still covered her calves, it seemed unlikely she’d been ravished; at least, she’d been spared that.
But death at a man’s hands should not be for the likes of Glynis, who had always been a sunny, unthreatening soul.
After a moment of dwelling on that—and the urge for vengeance that was steadily building—she cleared her throat. “How long ago do you think she was…killed?”
He didn’t look up, just drew breath and said, “Sometime in the small hours.” He nodded at the body. “That’s the gown she wore for the soirée yesterday evening.”
Constance frowned. “I thought you lived next door?”
Alaric finally looked up and met the Amazon’s green eyes. “I do, but I’m an old friend of Mandeville’s and always attend his house party. This year, I elected to ride back and forth.” He paused, then added, “My people and Mandeville’s can confirm I wasn’t here through the night, and when I left, Miss Johnson was very much alive and the soirée was still going.”
“S’right.” Monty tugged at his collar as if it was the reason he couldn’t breathe properly. “As far as I recall, she was there to the end. And that was an hour or so after you left.”
Alaric focused on the Amazon; he couldn’t go on labeling her that. “Having established my bona fides, who are you?”
She blinked, and faint color returned to cheeks that shock had rendered over-pale. Her face was striking, not pretty. Dramatically winged brows lay otherwise straight, angled over her large, well-set eyes—possibly her best feature. Her nose was too strong for feminine beauty, and her chin gave clear warning of her stalwart character. Her mouth was too wide, but combined with lips rosy and firm was of the sort to make men fantasize.
As he stared, those fascinating lips thinned, then parted on “My name is Miss Constance Whittaker. I’m Glynis’s distant cousin.” Miss Whittaker looked down at the body—and again, she swayed fractionally. Immediately, she stiffened her spine, then she drew in another breath and, in an uninflected tone, declared, “Glynis’s mother sent me to fetch her home.”
That information seemed to penetrate Mrs. Macomber’s awareness. She stopped sobbing, stared at Miss Whittaker in something close to horror, then Mrs. Macomber gulped and gulped and dissolved into a fresh bout of racking sobs that sounded halfway to outright hysteria.
Apparently, Miss Whittaker thought similarly. She swung to Monty. “Mr. Radleigh, could I ask you to take Mrs. Macomber back to the house and place her in the care of the housekeeper?”
“Yes. Of course.” Monty tugged down his waistcoat, advanced gently on Mrs. Macomber, and solicitously took the older woman by the arm.
“And if you would also inform Mr. Mandeville that we’ve found…my cousin?” Miss Whittaker’s voice wavered, spurring Monty to shoot a helpless look at Alaric.
“Miss Whittaker arrived as we were finishing breakfast,” Monty rushed to say. “When she asked after Glynis, we realized that she—Glynis—hadn’t come down. We’d assumed she was sleeping in—some of the other ladies had—but when we checked, it seemed Glynis had vanished, and Percy organized a search.” His voice higher than usual, Monty waved. “There are groups of us searching all over. I offered to go with Miss Whittaker, and we came this way…”
Curtly, Alaric nodded. “Tell Carnaby what’s happened and ask him to send footmen with a stretcher—a ladder, door, or a gate will do. We need to carry Miss Johnson inside.”
“Will do.” Monty backed away, drawing the copiously weeping Mrs. Macomber with him.
Alaric transferred his gaze to Miss Constance Whittaker. She’d straightened and reassembled her composure, although to his mind, in the circumstances, a momentary weakness was hardly to be wondered at.
Nevertheless, she watched Monty and the chaperon depart, and when Monty glanced back, Miss Whittaker inclined her head in regally gracious thanks.
She was distinctly stiff, a managing female with a strong line in condescension, yet Alaric was grateful she wasn’t the swooning, weeping, helpless sort. Monty would be in his element soothing the weeping chaperon, but Alaric had never had that skill; distraught ladies made him want to run—far away.
After a second’s thought, he crouched by the body and, once again, gently lifted the same arm he’d earlier moved.
Constance studied him, then she walked to the body and crouched on the opposite side. “What are you doing?”
He glanced at her. His hazel eyes were sharp, their expression shrewd as he studied her face. On the evidence thus far, he seemed decidedly more intelligent—more direct and straightforward—than any of the others she’d met at Mandeville Hall.
Eventually, he said, “If her limbs are stiffening, and they are, then she was killed at least four hours ago. Given it was cool overnight—and that delays the stiffening—it seems likely she was killed more like eight hours ago.”
She frowned. “It’s just after nine o’clock now, so possibly an hour or so after midnight.”
He nodded and gently set Glynis’s arm down.
She hesitated, then reached for Glynis’s other arm, the one closer to her. As soon as she raised it, she felt what he had; it was as if the muscles were locking in place. Carefully, she set the arm down. She debated, then looked at him. “You said you were attending the house party. As you knew what Glynis was wearing last evening, I assume you attended the same event. Did you happen to notice if she went outside with any man?”
Carradale met her eyes—and she knew he was deciding whether to tell her something. Then his lips—lean and mobile and curiously visually magnetic, at least for her—twisted, and he said, “Glynis strolled the terrace with me—that was at her suggestion, which others overheard. But that wasn’t that late, and I returned her to the drawing room. I left her with a group of others—including Mandeville and Monty—then I quit the house and rode home.”
Constance tried to imagine how and why Glynis was where they’d found her. “She must have gone outside later, with some other man.”
“Possibly.” Carradale rose, hesitated for a heartbeat, then offered her his hand. She gripped it—feeling the strength in both hand and arm as he closed his fingers around hers and drew her to her feet.
She almost felt flustered and inwardly scoffed; no man had ever rattled her senses. What she felt had to be a lingering effect of shock. Then his reply registered, and she frowned and looked at him. “Why ‘possibly’?”
He met her gaze, held it for an instant, then replied, “Did she leave the house before or after the gathering broke up? If after, then it’s possible she ventured out on her own, either to meet someone else—man or woman—or simply to get some air.”
She looked down at the necklace of bruises marring the white column of Glynis’s throat. “No woman did that.”
“No—it was a man. But depending on when and why she left the house, it’s possible that the only person who knew she was outside was”—he followed her gaze and rather grimly concluded—“whoever did that to her.”
Constance continued to look down at Glynis’s body, and the responsibility that habitually weighed on her shoulders seemed to grow heavier. She’d come there to rescue Glynis…only to find her already dead. Anger and more rose within her. “I swear I will not rest until your murderer is caught. And hanged.”
She felt Carradale’s sharp gaze touch her face and linger, then he said, quite simply, “Indeed.”
The single word carried a full measure of lethal promise. In pursuing justice for Glynis, evidently Constance wasn’t—and wouldn’t be—alone.
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