Murder at the
Royal Botanic Gardens
Book Five—The Wrexford & Sloane Series
The upcoming marriage of the Earl of Wrexford and Lady Charlotte Sloane promises to be a highlight of the season, if they can first untangle—and survive—a web of intrigue and murder involving the most brilliant scientific minds in Regency London . . .
One advantage of being caught up in a whirl of dress fittings and decisions about flower arrangements and breakfast menus is that Charlotte Sloane has little time for any pre-wedding qualms. Her love for Wrexford isn’t in question. But will being a wife—and a Countess—make it difficult for her to maintain her independence—not to mention, her secret identity as famed satirical artist A.J. Quill? Despite those concerns, there are soon even more urgent matters to attend to during Charlotte and Wrexford’s first public outing as an engaged couple . . .
At a symposium at the Royal Botanic Gardens, a visiting botanist suffers a fatal collapse. The traces of white powder near his mouth reveal the dark truth—he was murdered. Drawn into the investigation, Charlotte and the Earl learn of the victim’s involvement in a momentous medical discovery. With fame and immense fortune at stake, there’s no shortage of suspects, including some whose ruthlessness is already known. But neither Charlotte nor her husband-to-be can realize how close the danger is about to get—or to what lengths this villain is prepared to go . . .
Lady Charlotte Sloane passed through the arched entryway of the grand drawing room and then paused. Wishing to compose her emotions for a moment before joining the crowd, she moved over to one of the massive urns flanking the double doors and pretended to be admiring the artfully arranged flowers—all spectacularly rare blooms chosen, no doubt, to remind the international gathering of botanists that no other repository of specimen plantings could hold a candle to the treasures of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew.
Pip, pip for the British Empire, Charlotte thought, though a small smile softened any edge of sarcasm. The Gardens were known for sharing their knowledge, as well as seeds and cuttings, with scholars from all over the globe, so while botany wasn’t one of her passions, she appreciated the importance of what they did.
Her gaze lingered on the floral arrangement, memorizing the profusion of colors and textures—
“That look in your eye worries me.” Her great aunt, Alison, the dowager Countess of Peake, finished making her way through the receiving line and came over to join her. “I do hope you’re not planning on lampooning this gala gathering because they’ve cut a king’s ransom worth of exotic blooms from their hothouses.”
Working under the pen name A. J. Quill, Charlotte was one of London’s most famous—some might say infamous—satirical artists. She had earned quite a reputation for exposing the misdeeds and scandals of the high and mighty who moved within the highest circles of Society.
And yet, now I’ve become one of them.
Her conscience still wrestled with the decision, though she had vowed that it wouldn’t dull the point of her pen.
Repressing a sigh, Charlotte murmured, “I do, on occasion, give credit where credit is due. I admire the good work that is done here for science and medicine, and the public appreciates an uplifting story as a change of pace from the revelations of peccadilloes and corruption that are their daily bread and butter.”
“Wrexford will be pleased to hear it,” answered Alison dryly. “I imagine he would feel a little guilty for inviting the fox into the henhouse, so to speak, if you were to savage his scientific friends and their grand symposium.”
The mention of the Earl of Wrexford sent a shiver of awareness down Charlotte’s spine. That she was, in fact, the notorious A. J. Quill was a closely-guarded secret known only to her closest friends.
Of which Wrexford was one.
Actually, he was far more than a close friend, she reminded herself. He was now her fiancé.
Both of them were still getting used to that fact.
“Are you perchance nervous about being here tonight?” demanded the dowager, after lifting her quizzing glass and subjecting Charlotte to a thorough scrutiny. “You look a little green around the gills.”
Charlotte dismissed the suggestion with a low snort. Granted, it was her first appearance at a gala party since the announcement of the impending nuptials, and she could already feel the prickle of surreptitious stares . . .
“I merely dislike being ogled.”
“You can’t blame them for being curious.” Alison’s sapphire eyes took on a glint of amusement. “Wrexford has a reputation for possessing a hair-trigger temper and a rapier tongue. They are likely trying to decide how much steel you have in your spine, and whether to place a wager in the famous betting book at White’s that you’ll cry off before the wedding.”
A pause. “The odds are apparently 7 to 5 in favor of his being jilted.”
“Ye gods, people should have better things to do with their mathematical skills,” muttered Charlotte.
“Raven and Lady Cordelia will no doubt be interested in working out some sort of incomprehensible equation to calculate how to beat the odds and make money on placing a bet,” mused the dowager.
Raven, the older of the two street urchin brothers Charlotte had taken under her wing, was showing a remarkable aptitude for mathematics—and it was flourishing under the tutelage of her brilliant friend, Lady Cordelia Mansfield.
“Please don’t encourage such an idea, even in jest,” she replied. “I would rather not have to pen a satirical drawing on the scandal of an adolescent running a gambling consortium for the gentlemen of the beau monde.”
Alison snickered. “I daresay the little jackanapes would soon be richer than King Midas. He’s exceedingly clever—”
“Too clever at times.” Charlotte made a face. Thanks to Wrexford’s sleight of hand—she hadn’t inquired too closely on just how he had managed to create a family tree that was merely smoke and lies—she was now the legal guardian of the two boys, whom she loved as if they were her own flesh and blood.
But surrogate motherhood was a constant challenge.
“He is,” she added, “reaching an age when I fear we will likely begin butting heads over rules—”
The approach of a portly gentleman, whose curling silver hair was beginning to recede from his craggy brow, caused her to fall silent.
“My dear ladies, though I know we dottering old scholars aren’t nearly as alluring as these exotic blossoms, I do hope I can tempt you to come join us by the refreshment table.”
“Ha!” Alison waggling her cane “You can’t claim to be dottering until, like me, you’re forced to use a stick for support, Sir Robert . . .” She flashed a wink and lowered her voice to add, “So you don’t run the risk of falling on your arse.”
The baronet, an old friend of the dowager and a noted expert on orchids, chuckled as he offered Alison his arm. “Allow me to ensure no bodily harm comes to you.” Another laugh. “Though I daresay a gathering of botanists is the least likely place for any violence to occur. We tend to be very gentle souls.”
Charlotte held back a smile. No wonder Wrexford prefers chemistry over the study of plant life. His temperament tended to be a tad more volatile.
Some unkind individuals might even call it explosive.
“And may I offer my congratulations on your upcoming marriage, Lady Charlotte. Lord Wrexford is much admired by all of us as a brilliant man of science.” His lips twitched. “Though I think he considers botany to be a rather boring field. But of course, he’s too polite to say so.”
“Wrexford? Polite?” Alison let out a snort. “Ha! Over my dead body.”
“Dead bodies?” Another scholar, his face already flushed from several glasses of champagne, came over to join them. “My dear Lady Peake, let us not talk of such unpleasant subjects at such a festive occasion.” He gestured for a footman to come over and offer his tray of sparkling wine to the ladies and Sir Robert.
“Rather, let us toast to knowledge and discovery,” he said, lifting his glass.
“And to the coming nuptials of Lady Charlotte and Lord Wrexford,” added the baronet.
“I daresay one discovers a great deal about human nature when one dons a legshackle,” came a voice from out of nowhere.
For a big man, the Earl of Wrexford moved with surprising stealth.
“Oh, fie, sir,” Alison rapped her cane against the earl’s shin as he came to stand by Charlotte. “Not everyone is used to your sarcasm, and might misinterpret your words as less than complimentary to your bride-to-be.”
“If I’ve said something disagreeable to Lady Charlotte, I expect she’ll let me know herself.” Wrexford looked at her through his sin-dark lashes. “With more than with a mere tap-tap.”
The glitter of his green eyes sent a shiver of awareness down her spine. On their first encounter, her first reaction had been loathing. And fear. He could have ruined her life as London’s most important satirical artist with one flick of his aristocratic finger. Instead, he had proposed an unconventional partnership in order to solve a dastardly murder—one in which he was the prime suspect. To their surprise, a grudging friendship had developed.
Strange how she now couldn’t imagine her life without all the subtle textures and colors his presence wove into the very fiber of her being.
“An exchange of frank opinions between husband and wife seems an excellent way to ensure matrimonial harmony, Wrexford,” replied Charlotte. “Even if those opinions don’t align.”
“Just so, my dear.” He shifted his stance, the soft wool of his coat now touching her bare shoulder. The drafty room suddenly felt a little warmer.
“Matrimony!” The flush-faced scholar waggled his bushy brows. “As a noted chemist, you have a great deal of experience in working with dangerous substances, so I imagine you will be able to prevent that experiment from blowing up in your face, ha, ha, ha.”
“Indeed, I’m quite confident that I know what I’m doing,” said Wrexford in a silky tone that immediately sobered the scholar’s expression.
“Of course, of course! I did not mean to question your . . . er, judgment, sir, . . .” Hemming and hawing, the scholar backed away to join the crowd around the punch bowl.
She didn’t blame him. Wrexford didn’t suffer fools gladly.
“Mr. Throckmorton has clearly imbibed too much of the Royal Society’s fine champagne. A distinguished-looking gentleman dressed in an azure blue swallow-tailed coat grimaced in apology as he came over to join them. “Allow me to express my felicitations in a more traditional manner, milord. And might I request an introduction to your fiancée?”
The ritual of polite pleasantries began, and was quickly expanded as several other gentlemen scholars and their wives drifted over to express their good wishes.
Wrexford, noted Charlotte, was behaving with admirable restraint. Such trivial socializing bored him to perdition, and he usually ended his part in it by saying something egregiously rude.
However, the talk quickly shifted to safer ground as one of the scholars brought up a recent lecture given at the Royal Society on minerals—a subject that greatly interested the earl. “Now, it seems that Sir Humphry Davy tested the hypothesis by performed a chemical analysis . . .”
Charlotte allowed her attention to wander as Wrexford shifted away to join the gentlemen discussing the technical details. The drawing room was growing more crowded as the guests made their way into the palace from the conservatory. The lilt of foreign languages—French, German Spanish, Italian—twined with all the different accents of English, creating a lively buzz. The swirl of the Continental fashions, with the colorful sashes and fancy medals highlighting the various styles of cravats and waistcoats, couldn’t help but catch her eye.
Already she was composing a drawing in her head—
She spun around, her eyes widening in surprise. “Marco!”
“Why, it is you!” A tall, slender gentleman with curling black hair and the fine-boned features of Renaissance sculpture flashed a winsome smile. “And looking lovelier than ever.” His gaze quickly took in her elegant gown and the lustrous pearl necklace—an engagement gift from Wrexford—nestled at her throat. “How is Anthony? I’m sure his career is flourishing here in London. He’s an immensely talented—”
“Anthony passed away, several years ago,” she interrupted. “As you might remember, his constitution was delicate, and the return to a cold, damp climate proved injurious to his health.”
“I’m so sorry.” Sympathy pooled in his hazel eyes. “Please accept my condolences.”
“Thank you—but let us speak of happier things,” said Charlotte. “I see your star has continued to rise in the firmament of Italian science.”
She and her late husband had met Marco Moretti while living in Rome. The Florentine scholar, who like all their acquaintances was dancing on the razor’s edge of poverty, had been finishing his advanced scientific studies at the university. But his interest in art and literature, as well politics, had led him to join their bohemian circle of painters and poets . . .
All of us barely scraping by, surviving on lofty dreams, macaroni and cheap wine, reflected Charlotte.
Moretti gave a self-deprecating shrug. “I’ve been lucky enough to write several papers, which have attracted a bit of attention, and I’m quite excited to have been invited here to present a lecture. It may even lead to an opportunity for advancement and recognition in my field of study—as well as a secure financial future.” Another shrug. “As you know, teaching pays but pittance.”
“That sounds very promising,” she said.
“I hope it will be so,” replied Moretti, his voice holding a hint of longing. “There is a new scientific society about to be formed, one dedicated to discovery. Its patron is a worldly, wealthy man of science who very in generous in funding research, and he’s expressed some interest in my work.”
A flicker of curiosity lit beneath his lashes. “And what brings you here, Charlotta? You were very skilled in botanical drawing. I still have several sketches you made of wildflowers growing around the ruins of the Coliseum. Are you helping with making a visual catalogue of collection here at the Royal Botanic Gardens?”
“No, I’ve not kept up my drawing of plant life,” she answered. “I’m here because my fiancé is a noted man of science here in Britain, and is a member of the Royal Society.”
“Ah.” Moretti smiled politely. “Felicitations on your upcoming remarriage. Your fiancé sounds like a very admirable and interesting fellow.”
“He is.” Charlotte looked around and spotted Wrexford some paces away. “Come, allow me to introduce you.”
She started to squeeze through the press of guests, but just as she managed to circle around a trio of chattering Germans and approach him, a gentleman slipped free from the crowd and touched the earl’s arm.
“Lord Wrexford.” It was said in a discreet murmur, but Charlotte heard the note of tension in the speaker’s voice.
The earl did as well, for she saw him stiffen as he looked around. She recognized the man as Lord Bethany, the Secretary of the Royal Society, and one of the organizers of the symposium.
“Forgive the interruption, sir.” The look of alarm in his eyes belied his smile as he drew Wrexford aside. “But might I ask you to come with me to the conservatory. There’s been an . . . unfortunate mishap.”