Murder at the
Book Six—The Wrexford & Sloane Series
Beyond the glittering ballrooms and salons of Regency London there are mysteries to untangle and murders to solve—and the newlywed duo of Lady Charlotte and the Earl of Wrexford once again find themselves matching wits with a cunning enemy . . .
Charlotte, now the Countess of Wrexford, would like nothing more than a summer of peace and quiet with her new husband and their unconventional family and friends. Still, some social obligations must be honored, especially with the grand Peace Celebrations unfolding throughout London to honor victory over Napoleon.
But when Wrexford and their two young wards, Raven and Hawk, discover a body floating in Hyde Park’s famous lake, that newfound peace looks to be at risk. The late Jeremiah Willis was the engineering genius behind a new design for a top-secret weapon, and the prototype is missing from the Royal Armory’s laboratory. Wrexford is tasked with retrieving it before it falls into the wrong hands. But there are unsettling complications to the case—including a family connection.
Soon, old secrets are tangling with new betrayals, and as Charlotte and Wrexford spin through a web of international intrigue and sumptuous parties, they must race against time to save their loved ones from harm—and keep the weapon from igniting a new war . . .
The Earl of Wrexford paused to survey the surroundings. It was just past midnight, and the mild evening was beginning to show some teeth. A gust swirled, nipping through the darkness and rustling the leaves of the nearby trees. The air had turned chilly and was heavy with the threat of impending rain.
Wrexford sighed and turned up the collar of his coat. Much as he would have preferred to be sitting comfortably in his workroom with a book and brandy in hand, he and his three companions had just entered the Hyde Park through the Stanhope Gate and were now making their way along the footpath leading toward the Serpentine—
“Wrex! Wrex!” The shout rose from somewhere close by.
A moment later, Hawk, the younger of the two boys accompanying him, broke free of the mist, nearly tripping as he tried to keep pace with an iron-grey hound whose large size and fearsome jaws caused many people to mistake him for a wolf. “May I let Harper off his leash now?”
Squinting against the gloom, Wrexford took a last look around the vast swath of meadowland and wooded groves. “Aye, lad,” he answered. “But remember what I said—I expect you and your brother to keep the beast from wreaking any havoc, or else there will be no further nocturnal forays.”
In truth, given the hour, there was little danger of running into any difficulties. However, he had sensed that the boys wanted to feel they were having a slightly risky adventure. They were used to having unfettered freedom to roam the city as they pleased. However, their lives had recently undergone a momentous change.
As has mine . . .
A happy woof drew him back to the moment as Hawk unfastened the length of leather from Harper’s collar. The hound danced a few circles around the boy and then loped off into the nearby grove of elms.
“After him, lads!” called the earl. Few people ventured into the park after dusk—and those who did usually preferred to remain unseen. Still, he didn’t wish to take any chances.
Raven, Hawk’s older brother, appeared from out of nowhere and let out a snicker as he fell in step beside the earl. “Ha! As if there’s any reason for alarm.”
“With you two Weasels, there’s always reason to expect mayhem,” replied Wrexford. During his first encounter with the brothers, Raven had stuck a knife in his leg and Hawk had hit him with a broken bottle . . . All with good cause, he conceded, as they thought he was threatening Charlotte Sloane.
The earl made a wry face as the footpath led into the trees. Life’s journey was full of strange twists and turns. Much to everyone’s surprise, that initial angry confrontation had softened into friendship. And then . . .
A smile touched his lips. The unexpected alliance had deepened in ways that defied words. He and Charlotte had recently married, and Raven and Hawk, the two wild urchin orphans she had taken under her wing, had become his legal wards. They were all now a family—an unconventional one, to be sure. But perhaps that made the bonds even stronger.
“I’ve already checked the area,” continued Raven. “There’s nobody around.” A pause. “And you know as well as we do that Harper wouldn’t hurt a flea.”
“That’s because the beast has grown as spoiled and lazy as a dowager’s lapdog,” retorted the earl. “However, I’d rather he didn’t frighten someone to death.”
“You know . . .” The boy fixed him with a cheeky grin. “You should show a little more respect for Harper. After all, he recently saved your life.”
“And you should show a little more respect for me,” said Wrexford. “I’m considered a very dangerous man to annoy.”
The boy made a rude sound. “Like Harper, your bark is worse than your bite.”
“Don’t be insolent, Weasel,” he growled.
Which only drew a laugh from Raven. The earl had called the boys “Weasels” during that first attack, and the moniker had stuck, much to their hilarity.
Wrexford scowled, though the corners of his mouth betrayed a twitch of amusement.
A bark sounded from beyond the trees.
“You had better go keep your brother and Harper from getting into any real mischief,” he said. “The Serpentine is quite deep at this end of the park, and I don’t fancy having to fish either of them out of the water.”
The boy nodded and darted off, a fast-moving blur that was quickly swallowed in the shadows.
Leaves rustled as the breeze swirled again. From somewhere in the trees came the twitter of a nightingale. Wrexford continued on at a leisurely pace, his thoughts straying once again to family. As a man ruled by the principles of reason and scientific logic, he had always thought himself immune to the vagaries of Love. And yet, Charlotte Sloane had taken hold of his heart in ways he couldn’t begin to define.
A chuckle rumbled deep in his throat. So much for logic.
He couldn’t imagine life without her.
Indeed, their recent marriage had proved—
“Harper!” Hawk’s cry shattered the stillness. “Nooooo!”
Damnation. Wrexford quickened his steps . . .
At the sound of a loud splash, he broke into a run. To his knowledge, the boys didn’t know how to swim.
As he burst free of the trees he caught a glimpse of the moon-dappled Serpentine up ahead, but the flitting shadows around the lake’s edge made it impossible to discern what was going on.
Where were they?
“Raven!” he shouted, feeling as if his heart was about to leap into his throat. “Hawk!”
“Here, sir!” A muffled answer floated up from the terraced stone embankment edging the end of the lake.
As the earl scrambled over the rough terrain to join the boys, he spotted the big hound swimming through the murky water, dark ripples trailing in his wake.
“What the devil—”
“S-something spooked Harper,” explained Hawk. “His hackles rose, then, before I could grab him, he let out a bark and leaped into the lake. I—”
“Holy Hell—there’s something floating out there,” said Raven in a tight voice. “It looks like . . .”
Wrexford saw it, too. “Get back, lads,” he ordered. “I want you both well away from the water’s edge.”
The edge of alarm in his voice must have warned them not to argue. Raven took his brother’s hand and quickly led him off to the grassy verge.
Looking back to Harper, Wrexford saw the hound had taken hold of the dark shape with his teeth and was laboring to tow it back to shore. The earl glanced around. To his left, the stone embankment ended, giving way to a bank of earth, rocks and grass.
“Harper, Harper!” Waving his arms, he picked his way to a gently sloping patch of ground.
As the hound paddled closer, Wrexford’s worst fears were confirmed.
A body. And by the look of the injuries to the poor soul’s head, there was little chance of him being alive.
“Well done, Harper.” He ruffled his fingers through the panting hound’s sodden fur before grasping the body by the shoulders and pulling it up to the footpath bordering the Long Water.
Crouching down, Wrexford turned the man over—and let out a grunt of surprise . . .
One didn’t often encounter a person of African descent in the exclusive environs of Mayfair.
His brow creased in thought as he fingered the fine linen of the man’s shirt and cravat. Especially one dressed as a gentleman. But he quickly pushed aside his initial shock. Whatever reason had brought the poor fellow to the park at this hour, it had cost him his life.
There was no need to check for a pulse. The head injury was too ghastly. Wrexford guessed that the man had been dead before he hit the water. Perhaps, he mused, that was a mercy.
And yet . . .
The earl sat back on his haunches, gazing first at the lake and then moving his eyes move to the stone embankment. The top flagging was narrow, but not overly so. Looking down at the lifeless face, he frowned.
“How the devil you contrived to fall off is a mystery.” As was where he landed. Basic laws of physics seemed to indicate the dead man had been running at full tilt . . .
“Yes, a mystery,” he repeated softly. But one for the authorities to solve. His only duty was to fetch one of the night watchmen patrolling the park and inform him of the accident.
“Weasels!” he called, suddenly aware that they were nowhere to be seen. Harper, who had stretched out beside the body, lifted his shaggy head and pricked up his ears.
A chill teased against the back of the earl’s neck, as if the Grim Reaper had touched an icy finger to his flesh. Wrexford rose abruptly and called again.
The hound shot up as well, a growl rumbling in his throat.
“Oiy, oiy!” Raven’s reply was muffled by the thick shadows twined within the trees. Holding his breath, the earl stared into the darkness, unsure of why he was so on edge. Granted, death was always unsettling, an unwelcome reminder that existence was finite. The clockwork universe ticked through the same elemental cycle for all living creatures, great and small. And yet, this seemed to stir an uneasiness . . .
The boys materialized from the darkness, a flutter of moonlight revealing that Raven was cradling something in his arms.
“I found this near the stone wall,” announced the boy, rushing to hand over an old-fashioned tricorn hat.
It was well-worn, but like the dead man’s shirt and evening coat, it was made of quality material. Closer inspection revealed a maker’s mark on the inside band. Wrexford didn’t recognize the name.
“There were footsteps, too,” offered Hawk. “One set of tracks came from the direction of Knightsbridge, while two other sets came from the same footpath we used. They met up right at the end of the Long Water. And then—”
“And then, it looked like they had a confrontation,” interjected Raven. Having spent most of their early years in the London stews, both Weasels were far more streetwise and observant than other boys their age. Their skills had also been sharpened by having played a part in previous murder investigations—much to Charlotte’s dismay.
“Judging by the length of the stride,” continued Raven, “the Knightsbridge tracks took off at a run.”
“An attempted robbery, perhaps,” mused Wrexford. Though footpads were usually smart enough to choose a wealthy-looking victim. After crouching down again, he felt inside the dead man’s overcoat pockets and found a purse. “They would have been greatly disappointed,” he added after giving it a jingle.”
“Perhaps they were partners in crime, and had a quarrel,” offered Raven.
“A good surmise,” replied Wrexford. “But it’s pointless to speculate.” In his opinion, the exact reason for the death—be it an unfortunate accident or some more nefarious cause—would likely never be known.
He shifted. “There’s nothing more for us to do. We need to fetch a watchman and be done with this sorry affair. You two stay here . . .” However, as his hand brushed up against a bulge inside the dead man’s evening coat, the earl hesitated. If the dead man had been chased for something on his person, then a pair of dangerous ruffians might well be lurking nearby, hoping to get their hands on the body.
“On second thought,” said Wrexford, “I want the two of you to run to the powder magazine by the stone bridge.” A watchman would be on guard there. “Explain that we’ve fished a body from the Serpentine and bring him back here.”
“Shall we take Harper with us?” asked Hawk.
The hound wagged his tail.
“I think it unwise, lad,” he replied. “The sight of Harper might be intimidating and discourage the watchman from obeying the summons.” To Raven, he added. “Move quickly and stay alert.”
“You expect trouble, sir?”
“No.” But alas, trouble seemed to take a pernicious delight in appearing in their lives when least expected. “I simply wish to err on caution.” Wrexford waved them away. “Off you go.”
Harper huffed a canine sigh and lay down with his head between his paws.
“Don’t look at me like that,” muttered Wrexford. “There are times when your ferocious face doesn’t work to our advantage.”
The hound’s response was to roll over on his side and sink into a gusty slumber.
Turning his attention back to the corpse, Wrexford probed at the bulge beneath the wet wool. It felt like a rectangular case made of metal. Perhaps a silver box for cheroots—though it felt a little large, he thought, working the object free of the inner pocket and holding it up to what little light was dribbling through the overhanging leaves.
A glimmer of gold winked from the brass corners of the case. Other than that, it was crafted out of a fine-grained dark wood. Ebony or rosewood, he guessed as he turned it over in his fingers, admiring the workmanship. There was a decorative inset at the center of the lid, which appeared to be ornate initials made of ivory.
Wrexford clicked open the latch and looked inside.
Set on a bed of black velvet lay a set of precision drafting instruments. Compass, protractor, dividers and tiny ruler . . . Somehow, they gave the dead man an individuality—he was no longer just a nameless victim of circumstance, but a person with flesh and blood interests . . .
Angling the lid higher, Wrexford looked for a name, but the inside of the lid was also covered in velvet—
A sliver of white silhouetted against blackness caught his eye. There was, he realized, a pocket sewn into the fabric. Taking careful hold of the folded paper, he eased it out. The exquisite craftsmanship of the box had sealed out most of the lake’s water—it was damp but still intact, and as Wrexford smoothed the sheet open, he saw the pencil lines hadn’t blurred beyond recognition.
It was a sketch . . .
“Bloody hell.” Drawing a deep breath, he looked down at the dead man’s shadow-dark face with a searching stare.
“Who are you?”