Murder at Kensington Palace

Book Three—The Wrexford & Sloane Series

Wrexford and Sloane must unravel secrets within secrets—including  a few that entangle their own hearts—when they reunite to solve a string of shocking murders that have horrified Regency London . . .


Though Charlotte Sloane’s secret identity as the controversial satirical cartoonist A.J. Quill is safe with the Earl of Wrexford, she’s ill prepared for the rippling effects sharing the truth about her background has cast over their relationship. She thought a bit of space might improve the situation. But when her cousin is murdered and his twin brother is accused of the gruesome crime, Charlotte immediately turns to Wrexford for help in proving the young man’s innocence. Though she finds the brooding scientist just as enigmatic and intense as ever, their partnership is now marked by an unfamiliar tension that seems to complicate every encounter.
 
Despite this newfound complexity, Wrexford and Charlotte are determined to track down the real killer. Their investigation leads them on a dangerous chase through Mayfair’s glittering ballrooms and opulent drawing rooms, where gossip and rumors swirl to confuse the facts. Was Chittenden murdered over a romantic rivalry . . . or staggering gambling debts? Or could the motive be far darker and involve the clandestine scientific society that claimed both brothers as members? The more Charlotte and Wrexford try to unknot the truth, the more tangled it becomes. But they must solve the case soon, before the killer’s madness seizes another victim . . .
 

“M’lady, m’lady!”

Charlotte Sloane looked up from her drawing as two mud-encrusted boys peltered up the stairs and burst into her workroom.

“There’s been another Bloody Butcher murder!” announced the one called Raven in a breathless rush.  

“Oiy, and this time the victim’s a titled toff!” piped up his younger brother, who was known as Hawk. “And—”

“And it’s disgusting,” cut in Raven. “Lilly, the flower girl said—”

“Said it were so ‘orrible the Bow Street Runner puked all over ‘is boots,” exclaimed Hawk, tripping over his tongue to be first in revealing the gory details. “Because—”

“Because the Butcher cut off one of the gent’s bollocks!” finished Raven.

Holy Hell. Though rarely shocked by man’s viciousness toward his fellow man, Charlotte felt the blood drain from her face. Putting down her pen, she leaned back in her chair, for the moment too taken aback by the gruesome news to chide the boys about their filthy faces and less-than-perfect English.

These mutilation murders seemed to be taking a terribly sinister turn. The first two victims had been nameless vagrants, followed by a respectable tradesman.

And now an aristocrat.

What madman was on the loose?

“Who was the victim?” she asked, forcing herself to focus on the grim practicalities of the news.

Her livelihood as London’s most popular satirical artist depended on feeding the public’s insatiable appetite for scandal and depravity. And they looked to A. J. Quill to be the first to trumpet all the juicy details of the evils that man did to his fellow man—though the fact that a woman penned such scathing commentary was a well-kept secret. She would need to do a drawing of the crime by evening so the engravers could have it ready for sale in Fores’s print shop for tomorrow morning.

“Lilly didn’t know,” answered Hawk. “She heard the news from one of the gardeners who found the toff.”

“Where?” demanded Charlotte.

“Kensington Gardens,” replied Raven. “The Duke of Sussex had a fancy party for the some visiting men of science from Prussia last night at the palace.”

Science. The word stirred a pricking at the back of her neck.

 “Word is,” continued the boy, “the victim looks to be one of the guests. But Lilly said Bow Street’s being tighter than a flea’s ars—” He stopped and flashed an apologetic grin. “This is, the Runners are being close-mouthed about any further details.”

Her brows pinching together in a frown, Charlotte took a moment to think over what she had just heard. Augustus Frederick, the Duke of Sussex and sixth son of King George III, had a keen interest in scholarly subjects and was a member of the Royal Society, which, along with The Royal Institution, was the leading bastion of London’s scientific minds. He often held lavish receptions for its members and guests in his apartments at Kensington Palace.

Given that such soirees usually included those who moved within the highest circles of Society, she couldn’t help but wonder . . .

“If Lord Wrexford was there, he might know more about it,” Charlotte mused aloud.

“You want for us to run along to Berkeley Square and ask?” volunteered Hawk, his pronunciation quickly improving. The earl’s cook was very generous with sweets.

Charlotte hesitated. But pragmatism quickly overruled emotion. She needed information, and if Bow Street was keeping tight-lipped about the crime because the victim was an aristocrat, her usual sources wouldn’t be of help.

“Yes,” she answered, and quickly penned a short note. “If he hasn’t risen from his lordly slumber . . .” A glance at the mantle clock showed it was well before noon. “Ask if you may wait for a reply.”

Both boys bobbed a quick nod and clattered off with undisguised enthusiasm.

Her own feelings were a bit more ambiguous. Wrexford. A man of maddening complexities and contradictions. Though, conceded Charlotte, she was just as difficult.

A sigh. She and the Earl of Wrexford had first been drawn together when he was the main suspect in a gruesome murder. Through her network of informants, she had reason to believe him innocent and so they had grudgingly agreed to work together to find the real killer. A wary friendship had developed . . . though that was a far too simplistic description of their relationship.

They had recently collaborated on solving another complex murder, which had caused Wrexford to come within a hairsbreadth of death. She had helped to rescue him, and in the heat of the moment, both of them had revealed personal secrets and expressed certain emotions . . .

Which perhaps they were both regretting.

It had been a fortnight since his last visit, and she couldn’t help but wonder whether he, like herself, felt a little rattled at having spoken—however obliquely—from the heart.

“What a pair we are,” she muttered. “Prickly, guarded, afraid of making ourselves vulnerable.”

Taking up her pen, Charlotte carefully cleaned the dried ink from its nib with a damp rag. As a rule, she tried not to brood over a decision once it was made. Noli respicere. Don’t look back. But much as she tried to return her thoughts to her unfinished sketch of the Prince Regent’s latest peccadillo, she couldn’t keep from asking herself whether it was wise to get involved in another murder with the earl.

A shiver, sharp as daggerpoints, danced down her spine as Charlotte recalled how the thought of losing Wrexford had shaken her to the core. The depth of her sentiment had frightened her. Weakness of any kind was dangerous. Only the strong survived.

“I am strong. I always have been,” she whispered, trying to give some force to her breath.

Or am I?

Of late, so many of her defenses felt under siege. Caring too deeply made one vulnerable. Raven and Hawk, the two homeless, half-wild urchins she had found sheltering in her previous house, had taken hold of her heart in ways she had never expected. Charlotte couldn’t say exactly how it had happened. They had started running errands to her network of informants in return for scraps of food, and  . . .

And now, they had a snug little aerie in her attic, respectable clothing and an Oxford-educated tutor giving them lessons several times a week. Ye God, they even had fancy new names to go along with their avian monikers! Thomas Ravenwood Sloane and Alexander Hawksley Sloane. A smile touched her lips. However unconventional, they had become a family, tied together not by blood but by love.

Love. In that word lay the heart of her dilemma. It set off a tangle of conflicted emotions, and Charlotte wasn’t quite how to go about unknotting them. Over the years, adversity had shaped her to think that in order to survive, one’s core inner strength had to come from within. One couldn’t count on others.

 Now she wasn’t so sure. And that was frightening.

Which brought her full circle back to Wrexford.

“Hell’s bells, I’m simply asking him for some information,” she muttered, “Neither of us are in any danger of being drawn into this murder.” Expelling a harsh sigh, Charlotte forced aside further thoughts on the earl and dipped her now-pristine pen into the inkwell. Finishing the drawing of the Prince Regent was something she could control.

And besides, it was her art that paid for her independence. Despite all fears and uncertainties preying on her mind, that wasn’t something she ever intended to give up.

Focused on her work, Charlotte lost all track of the time. It was the loud thump of the front door falling shut and a tandem shout from the boys announcing their return that drew her back to the present.

“Excellent,” she murmured, anxious to learn what Wrexford had told them about the scientific soiree. However, that sentiment was quickly revised when the Raven added, “His Nibs has come along with us.”

Repressing an oath, Charlotte glanced down at her paint-smudged cuffs before quickly tucking a few strangling strands of hair behind her ear. 

“I thought I might as well come along and subject myself to your interrogation in person,” drawled the Earl of Wrexford as she entered the downstairs parlor. “Knowing your infernal attention to detail, it seemed likely you would have so many questions, the Weasels would wear out their boots running back and forth between our residences.”

“Weasels” was what Wrexford called the boys, much to their hilarity. They knew he had long ago forgiven Raven for sticking a knife in his leg during their first encounter.

“How very thoughtful of you, milord,” replied Charlotte, matching his note of dry humor. “Would you care for—”

“Tea?” said the plain-faced, middle-aged woman, who had hurried out from the kitchen. “I’ve just set the kettle on the hob, Mrs. Sloane. And a pan of ginger biscuits are about to come out of the oven.”

Ignoring the hungry looks from the boys, Charlotte raised an inquiring brow at the earl. As McClellan was still technically in his employ, she left the decision to him.

“Halloo, McClellan,” said Wrexford with an amused smile. “I trust Mrs. Sloane isn’t proving too terrible a taskmaster.” He had dispatched the woman—whose arsenal of skills apparently included being a crack shot with a pistol—to stay with Charlotte after an intruder had broken into the house during their investigation of Elihu Ashton’s murder. The arrangement had proved to have a number of practical advantages, and so she had remained as member of the unconventional household. Her somewhat nebulous duties included serving as a lady’s maid on the rare occasions when Charlotte was required to venture into Polite Society, but most importantly, her presence allowed the earl to call at the house without violating the rules of propriety.

“I’ve no cause for complaint, milord,” answered McClellan dryly. “No one has tried to kill us lately.” A pause. “Though the lads do their best to slay any semblance of cleanliness to the floors and their clothing.”

“Tsk, tsk,” clucked the earl. “I would say no biscuits for the wicked—”

Hawk’s grimy face pinched in horror.

“Except I happen to be famished,” he finished.

“Now that we’ve performed all the necessary social graces,” said Charlotte to McClellan, “might you kindly fetch the refreshments, so His Lordship and I can get down to business.”

Assuming an air of innocence, Raven and Hawk fell in step behind the woman as she headed off for the kitchen.

The earl settled himself on the sofa, all well-tailored broad shoulders and long-legged elegance. The room suddenly felt much smaller as Charlotte took a seat in the facing armchair. He seemed to crowd out all else.

 “This is a very pleasant room,” he remarked, looking around with an approving glance at the simple but tasteful furnishings. “You were wise to make the decision to leave your old residence.” A tiny, tumbledown sliver of a house, it had been located in a far less savory part of London. “I trust you have no regrets?”

“No,” she replied a little testily, impatient to get to work. In her profession, time was money. She needed to have a finished drawing of the murder to Mr. Fores as quickly as possible in order to best the competition. “Now, might we put aside household matters and turn to what you know about the Bloody Butcher’s latest victim?”

His mouth quirked in amusement. “Likely not enough to satisfy your artistic sensibility, but I shall try.” He shifted and recrossed his booted legs. “To answer the question in your note, yes I was present at the Duke’s gathering. However, I left early as Tyler and I were conducting a complex chemical experiment that required precise timing.”

The earl was one of the country’s leading experts in chemistry, though his devil-may-care behavior and hair trigger temper often overshadowed his intellectual accomplishments. Tyler, his nominal valet, had advanced scientific training and served as his laboratory assistant.

Charlotte blew out her breath. “Damnation, I was hoping you could confirm the ghoulish details. Raven and Hawk heard that the victim’s—”

“They heard right,” interrupted Wrexford. “Mr. Griffin had the same idea as you did. He came to see me early this morning to see if I had attended the soiree, and whether I had seen anything suspicious.”

Griffin, regarded to be the best of the Bow Street Runners, had been involved in investigating the earl when he had been a prime suspect in a murder. Despite a less than auspicious start, they had developed a grudging respect for each other.

“And did you?” she pressed.

“Alas no. But I managed to squeeze some of the more intimate details of the crime out of him.” A wry smile. “If he knew I was passing them on to the infamous A. J. Quill, he’d likely slice off one of my bollocks.”

Charlotte winced. “So, it’s really true . . .”