Murder at Queen’s Landing
Book Four—The Wrexford & Sloane Series
The murder of a shipping clerk . . . the strange disappearance of trusted friends . . . rumors of corruption within the powerful East India Company . . . all add up to a dark mystery entangling Lady Charlotte Sloane and the Earl of Wrexford in a dangerous web of secrets and lies that will call into question how much they really know about the people
they hold dear—and about each oher . . .
When Lady Cordelia, a brilliant mathematician, and her brother, Lord Woodbridge, disappear from London, rumors swirl concerning fraudulent bank loans and a secret consortium engaged in an illicit—and highly profitable—trading scheme that threatens the entire British economy. The incriminating evidence mounts, but for Charlotte and Wrexford, it’s a question of loyalty and friendship. And so they begin a new investigation to clear the siblings’ names, uncover their whereabouts, and unravel the truth behind the whispers.
As they delve into the murky world of banking and international arbitrage, Charlotte and Wrexford also struggle to navigate their increasingly complex feelings for each other. But the clock is ticking—a cunning mastermind has emerged . . . along with some unexpected allies—and Charlotte and Wrexford must race to prevent disasters both economic and personal as they are forced into a dangerous match of wits in an attempt to beat the enemy at his own game.
“No.” The Earl of Wrexford gave a critical squint at the waistcoat. “Absolutely not.”
His valet gave an aggrieved sniff. “You can’t mean to attend tonight’s gala ball dressed in unremitting black. You’ll look like an undertaker.”
“You would rather I look like a street fiddler’s monkey?”
Tyler bristled. “As if I would ever suggest something so vulgar.” He ran his hand over the exquisitely embroidered silk. “This particular shade of cerise embellished with midnight-dark thread is both stylish and sophisticated.”
The earl made a rude sound. “Then you may wear it yourself. Preferably in the laboratory, when you are cleaning up the most caustic of our chemicals.”
“You are an arse,” grumbled his valet. “And a fashion Philistine.”
“And might I point out that you are my humble servant.”
“Not for long, if you insist on having such a boring wardrobe. A man of my rare talents needs challenges.”
“Then go the workroom library,” drawled the earl, “and fetch the book on Benjamin Silliman, so you can read up on his experiments with minerals.” He ran a hand through his hair, earning another huff. “I wish to see if we can replicate his results with acid on quartz. And then, assuming the results are what I expect, I have an idea I wish to try.”
Tyler’s look of injured outrage quickly dissolved into one of curiosity. “Hmmm, acids, eh? Are you perchance thinking of adding vitriolic acid to Silliman’s original mix?”
Wrexford was considered one of the most brilliant chemists in England, but most of his research was done in his private laboratory as he didn’t work well within the hierarchy of London’s prestigious scientific institutions. His sarcasm tended to offend people. Tyler, who served as his laboratory assistant as well as his valet, was one of the few people who could tolerate his mercurial moods.
“Perhaps,” answered the earl.
“I’ll have the summaries from my reading and all the supplies assembled by tomorrow.” The valet tucked the offending waistcoat under his arm and turned for the dressing room. But after a step, he paused. “Won’t you at least consider the silver and ebony stripe? It has the sort of subtle textures and elegance that Lady Charlotte would appreciate.”
Charlotte Sloane. Wrexford hesitated and looked away to the leaded windows, where the darkening night shadows were teasing against the glass. A lady of infinite textures, woven of complexities and conflicts. Though that, he admitted, was rather like the pot calling the kettle black.
“I don’t think Lady Charlotte gives a fig for how I’m dressed for the evening,” he replied.
After all, she cloaked herself in quicksilver shadows. And secrets—oh-so many secrets. An involuntary twitch pulled at his mouth. One of the more surprising ones he had discovered was the fact that having assumed her late husband’s pen name, she was the notorious A. J. Quill, London’s leading satirical artist.
They had first clashed when Wrexford had become the subject of her razor-sharp pen—that a highborn aristocrat had been accused of murder had all of London abuzz. But they had come to form an uneasy alliance in order to find the real killer.
Much to their mutual surprise, a friendship had developed. Though that was too simple a word to describe the bond between them. It had grown even more complicated over the course of several more murder investigations, in ways impossible to articulate. And recently, it had taken another twist—
Tyler let out a huff, drawing the earl back from his musings. “She’s a gifted artist, and a sharp-eyed observer. Of course she’ll notice all the little details that add color and texture to a blank canvas—or lack thereof.” Another rude sound. “So don’t blame me if she decides you’re a man of no imagination or taste.”
“Oh, please, Tyler, don’t tease Wrex into a foul humor,” came a voice from the corridor. A moment later, a tall, fair-haired gentleman attired in elegant evening clothes entered the sitting room of the earl’s bedchambers. There was a certain insouciance to the not-quite-perfect folds of his cravat and rakehell smile.
“Lady Charlotte will be nervous enough making her first foray into a Mayfair ballroom without having to endure his sharp-tongued sarcasm.” Christopher Sheffield fixed the earl with wary look. “Please try to refrain from misbehaving tonight. Especially as you tend to do it deliberately.”
Wrexford raised a brow. “Are you really chiding me for bad behavior?”
Sheffield had been the earl’s close friend since their days at Oxford. The younger son of a marquess, he was allowed no responsibilities for running the vast ancestral estates, and his imperious father kept a stranglehold on the family purse strings, doling out naught but a tiny stipend. Bored and frustrated, Sheffield retaliated by drinking and gambling to excess—a pattern of behavior that did no one any good.
His expression pinching to an oddly pensive look, Sheffield crossed the carpet and took a seat in one of the armchairs set by the hearth. “Perhaps I’m trying to change.”
“Well, that calls for a drink,” quipped Tyler as he moved to the tray of decanters on the sidetable. Sheffield was very fond of the earl’s expensive brandy.
Sheffield dismissed the suggestion with an airy wave. “No, no—I wish to keep a clear head.”
“Are you ill?” queried Wrexford.
“Ha, ha, ha.” Assuming an injured look, his friend slouched deeper into the pillows. “Actually, I was hoping to discuss something—” He stopped short as he caught sight of the waistcoat Tyler was carrying, and then started to laugh in earnest.
The valet fixed him with a pained look. “Pray, what’s so amusing?”
“The idea that Wrex might wear that.” Sheffield made a face. “Ye heavens, he would look like one of those peacocks from the court of King Charles I. You know, the ones painted by what’s-his-name, the flamboyant, good-looking fellow who was a great favorite with the ladies.”
“Anthony Van Dyck?” suggested the earl.
“Yes, that’s him.” His friend looked rather pleased with himself. “As you see, I didn’t sleep through every lecture at Oxford.”
Heaving a long-suffering sigh, the valet stalked out of the room.
Sheffield’s smirk lingered for a moment, and then gave way to a more uncertain mien. “I daresay Lady Charlotte is feeling nervous about making her first grand entrée into Society.”
Another of Charlotte Sloane’s secrets had recently wrought a great change in her life. The daughter of an earl, she had been disowned by her family for eloping to Italy with a man beneath her station. And then, after becoming a widow, she had dared to forge an independent life for herself within the dog-eat-dog world of the lower classes through talent, grit and determination. But the recent murder of her cousin—and the arrest of his twin brother for the crime—had forced her to step out of the shadows and back into the glittering world of the beau monde in order to find the real culprit.
Wrexford moved to the sidetable and poured himself a brandy. “I daresay she is.” He lifted his glass. “You’re sure you won’t join me?”
A curt wave dismissed the offer.
He shrugged and took a swallow, allowing the liquid fire to prickle against his tongue.
“What if it turns out that she hates this new life?” Sheffield rose and began to pace. “You know how she despises the hypocrisy and selfishness of the aristocracy. She’s already made some small compromises—but she’ll have to keep making even more changes to fit into her new world, and . . .”
His friend gave a troubled sigh. “And once you change, there’s no going back.”
“Change is an inexorable part of our existence, Kit,” he replied. “With every tick of Time, we’re moving ever closer to our mortality. Our lives are in a constant state of flux. Try as we may, we can’t stand still.”
“Thank you—that makes me feel ever so much more sanguine about the coming evening.” Despite the quip, Sheffield looked even more unsettled.
The earl sensed they were talking about more than Charlotte’s challenges. “The idea of change frightens us all, Kit.”
“Not you.” His friend came to a halt. “Nothing rattles you.”
Ah, would that it were so, thought Wrexford.
“You have the gift of sardonic detachment,” went on Sheffield. “You can laugh at the absurdities of our human foibles rather than find them terrifying.”
“Terror is also an inexorable part of our existence,” he said quietly. “To claim otherwise means there’s no blood pulsing through your veins.”
“Don’t fret over Lady Charlotte,” counseled Wrexford. An oblique answer, perhaps, to the real question his friend was asking. But Sheffield was a clever fellow. “She has courage, resilience, a sharp sense of humor.” He paused. “Most importantly she has friends. Terror loses its power when you’re not facing it alone.”
An odd glimmer seemed to spark beneath Sheffield’s lashes. “Did I just hear you say a good word about the power of friendship and love?”
“Heaven forfend. You must have imagined it.” Wrexford quaffed another swallow of brandy. “But getting back to what you started to say a moment ago . . .” He quickly changed the subject, having no wish to pursue the topic of emotions. “You wish to discuss something?”
“Yes.” His friend looked away for a moment. “A rather important matter, in fact.”
“Ah.” The earl’s lips twitched. “I take you’ve run through your quarterly allowance and wish to borrow some blunt for brandy and revelries.”
Sheffield stiffened. “I’m aware of my reputation—admittedly richly deserved—as a beef-witted fribble. So you’ve every right to be sarcastic. But I wish . . . I wish to change.” He drew in his breath. “And so . . .”
Wrexford put down his glass, cursing his rapier tongue.
“And so I have a business proposal to present to you,” blurted out Sheffield as he pulled a sheaf of papers from the leather portfolio he had tucked under his arm. “Assuming, of course, that you’re willing to listen, instead of falling into a fit of laughter.”
Am I really such an unfeeling friend? The thought wasn’t a comfortable one.
“Let us go down to the study,” he replied, “where we may spread out your documents and have a careful look at everything.”