Murder at King’s Crossing
Book Eight—The Wrexford & Sloane Series
A joyous event brings Wrexford and Charlotte and their inner circle of family and friends together for a long-awaited day
of merriment and good cheer. But when a terrible discovery
quickly entangles all of them in a twisted maze of
lies and deceit, Wrexford and Charlotte must ask themselves just how far they are willing to go for the sake of Justice . . .
Celebration is in the air at Wrexford and Charlotte’s country estate as they host the nuptials of their friends, Christopher Sheffield and Lady Cordelia Mansfield. But on the afternoon of the wedding, the festivities are interrupted when the local authorities arrive with news that a murdered man has been discovered at the bridge over King’s Crossing, his only identification an invitation to the wedding. Lady Cordelia is horrified when the victim is identified as Jasper Milton, her childhood friend and a brilliant engineer who is rumored to have discovered a revolutionary technological innovation in bridge design. That he had the invitation meant for her cousin Oliver, who never showed up for the wedding, stirs a number of unsettling questions.
Both men were involved in the Revolutions-Per-Minute Society, a scientific group dedicated to making radical improvements in the speed and cost of transportation throughout Britain. Is someone plotting to steal Milton’s designs? And why has her cousin disappeared?
Wrexford and Charlotte were looking forward to spending a peaceful interlude in the country, but when Lady Cordelia resolves to solve the mystery, they offer their help, along with that of the Weasels and their unconventional inner circle of friends. The investigation turns tangled and soon all of them are caught up in a treacherous web of greed, ambition, and dangerous secrets. And when the trail takes a shocking turn, Wrexford and Charlotte must decide what risks they are willing to take with their family to bring the villains to justice . . .
“What a lovely evening.” Charlotte entered the study chamber off the main room of the library and settled into one of the leather armchairs by the hearth. It was late, and while the others had all retired to their quarters in the guest wing of the manor house, Wrexford had chosen to stay up a little longer in order to continue sorting through some crates of books that had recently arrived from one of his minor estates in the north.
“Cordelia seemed pleased with the evening’s festivities,” said the earl absently. He turned the page of the book he was perusing without looking up.
“Relieved is perhaps a better word,” replied Charlotte. “Apparently her aunt can be prickly, but with both her parents gone, she wished very much to have her mother’s sister attend the wedding.”
He closed the book and picked up another from the worktable at which he was sitting. “Families are complicated.”
An understatement if ever there was one. Charlotte reflected for a moment on her own tumultuous relationship with her parents. The terrible rift in her family had been repaired now that her kindhearted brother was the pater familias. But Wrexford was still struggling with recent revelations about his younger brother’s death in the Peninsular War, which had forced him to question certain assumptions about his own relationship with his father.
The books her husband was perusing had come from the late earl’s personal library, as he had chosen to live at the small family estate in the north rather than Wrexford Manor after his two sons had left home to pursue their own lives.
“Anything interesting?” she asked lightly.
Wrexford hesitated, his gaze on the printed page. “I hadn’t realized that my father read poetry—much less made annotations in the margins about his reactions to the sentiments.”
“Wrex—” she began, only to be distracted by the click-click of canine claws on the oak flooring.
Harper appeared a moment later in the doorway. Nose to the ground, the big hound ignored both her and the earl as he crossed the room and paused in front of the French doors leading out to the back terrace.
“If you need to piddle, you could have woken the Weasels,” said Wrexford, as he rose to undo the latch.
“He did wake us,” announced Raven as he and his brother padded in from the main room. “But not for a call of nature. He seems . . . unsettled.”
“Perhaps he ate too much this evening,” drawled Wrexford, “and his stomach is feeling bilious—
A sudden growl cut him off.
“I don’t think it’s his stomach,” said Hawk. “Oiy, Harper! What’s wrong?”
In answer, the hound pricked up his ears. Another growl. Hackles rising, Harper turned abruptly and left the room.
Charlotte followed the others as they hurried to catch up with the hound. Wrexford, she saw, had grabbed Harper by the collar to keep him from bolting into the corridor that led from the back of the manor house to the guest wing.
“Hold your water, laddie. Let’s not wake the entire house,” murmured the earl, ruffling a calming caress to the hound’s shaggy head. After a look up and down the unlit passageway, where there wasn’t a flutter of movement among the slumbering shadows, he shrugged. “I daresay he’s not yet reacquainted with all the creaks and noises of the manor.”
A rumble rose in Harper’s throat.
Hawk crouched down beside him. “Shall I fetch you a nice, meaty bone from the kitchen to gnaw—”
“!” Raven edged halfway out the doorway and cocked an ear. “What was that?”
Charlotte had heard it, too. A faint scuffing sound coming from the first-floor landing of the West Wing staircase. Repressing a smile, she touched Wrexford’s arm. “It’s likely Kit paying a visit to Cordelia’s room,” she whispered. “Let us not embarrass—”
But in the same instant a shrill shout—it was Cordelia—shattered that surmise.
“Intruder! There’s an intruder in the house!”
Wrexford reacted in a flash. “Stay in the library and shut the door!”
Charlotte nearly tripped as he thrust the agitated hound at her and pushed the boys back through the doorway.
“And don’t let the Weasels and Harper follow me,” he added.
She nodded and managed to retreat just enough for him to slam the door shut.
In protest, Harper began barking, the throaty rumbling punctuated by indignant protests from the Weasels.
“Quiet!” she commanded.
The cacophony ceased.
“You’re right,” said Raven. “We need to make a plan.”
“We have one,” replied Charlotte. “You heard Wrex. He told us to remain here and stay out of trouble.” Though in all honesty, she was no happier about the order than they were.
“But he needs our help to ensure that the intruder doesn’t escape!” countered Raven. “There are any number of ways for the varlet to slip out of the house.”
That was true . . .
Charlotte drew in a measured breath and glanced back at the closed door, weighing her options.
A furtive scuff and click.
She spun around—just in time to see the tip of Harper’s tail disappear into the reading area.
Too late. She heard the French doors open, and by the time she stepped out to the back terrace, the Weasels and the hound had disappeared into the midnight shadows.
“Drat,” muttered Charlotte, after stepping back inside and closing the doors. She hesitated for a long moment, then picked up the wrought-iron poker leaning against the hearth and hurried for the corridor.
* * *
Wrexford skidded through a sharp turn and sprinted down the darkened corridor leading to the West Wing, mentally gauging his chances of catching the intruder as he came down the main stairs.
The odds were good, decided the earl, thanks to Raven’s batlike hearing. Unless the intruder was unnaturally fleet of foot, the fellow was likely in for a rude surprise. No doubt he had expected everyone to be sound asleep, their slumber deepened by copious amounts of celebratory champagne.
However, the thud of racing steps descending the stairs urged Wrexford to quicken his pace.
Damnation, the fellow is faster than I thought.
He rounded the corner just as a dark-clad figure leapt over the two remaining treads and hit the floor running. With a well-timed swerve, the intruder narrowly avoided a potted palm and then headed for the back entrance by the mud room for riding boots and oilskins.
Intent on catching the fellow before he escaped from the house, Wrexford accelerated—only to collide with Cordelia as she came flying down the stairs. Her flapping wrapper tangled around his foot, causing him to stumble.
“I’m so sorry,” she gasped, grabbing his arm and somehow keeping both of them upright.
The earl regained his balance, just as the sound of more footsteps echoed in the corridor. He pulled free from Cordelia’s hold and spun around, shielding her with his body.
“Lower that damn poker,” he said to Charlotte. “The intruder has fled, and the house is safe.”
“What—” began Charlotte.
“Keep our guests calm if any of them have been awoken by the ruckus.” Wrexford was already moving. “I’m going after him.”
Given the fellow’s speed, he doubted there was any chance of catching up to him after the unfortunate delay. However, he was not yet ready to give up the chase.
The back door by the mud room was swinging in the breeze. The earl barreled through the opening and jumped from the raised terrace down to the sloping lawns. Catching sight of his quarry in the moonlight, he threaded his way through a narrow orchard of apple trees and scrambled over a low stone wall.
The intruder was halfway across the back pasture and heading for a swath of woodland.
Wrexford set off in pursuit, only to catch a glimpse of a four-footed shadow running through the meadow grass, followed by two wraithlike figures, pale as ghosts in their white nightshirts.
“Raven! Hawk! Stop at once!” he bellowed, hoping his words weren’t blown away in the wind.
The Weasels showed no sign of slowing. The intruder, however, came to halt just as he reached the trees and turned around. Spotting the boys, he fumbled with something in his pocket and then raised his arm.
A wordless cry tore from Wrexford’s throat as the Weasels, suddenly alert to the danger, dove for cover.
He saw a flash and a puff of silvery smoke, which was gone in the blink of an eye. An instant later, the crack of the gunshot swirled through the night, dulled to naught but a whisper by the fitful breeze.
Heart pounding hard enough to crack a rib, the earl abandoned the chase and ran as fast as he could to where he had seen the boys fall.
“Ouch.” Raven was on his knees, rubbing at his wrist. “There are nettles down here.”
“Oiy. And prickers.” answered his brother, gingerly plucking a thorn from his thumb.
Wrexford crouched down beside them. No sign of blood. Which drew a sigh of relief. “Hell’s bells, I ought to birch your bottoms for disobeying my orders.”
”We didn’t disobey, Wrex,” replied Raven. “It was m’lady you told to stay in the library.” A pause. “Nor did we follow you.”
“And besides, you don’t believe in corporal punishment,” pointed out Hawk.
“In this particular case I might make an exception.” He scowled . . . and then pulled them both into a fierce hug. “Don’t ever do that again. You scared me half to death.”
“Sorry.” Both boys apologized at once.
Harper, who was standing guard beside the earl, let out a low whuffle and butted his head against the earl’s arm.
“Harper is sorry, too,” said Hawk softly.
Wrexford helped the boys up. “You could have been killed.”
“Naw, he wasn’t aiming at us,” responded Raven. “I saw his arm rise at the last instant and heard the bullet whistle high overhead.”
“You were lucky,” replied the earl. “But we all know from our previous brushes with trouble that Lady Luck can be awfully fickle.”
Seeing Hawk wince from a thorn in his bare foot, he lifted the boy into his arms. “Come along, the three of you need to get some sleep.” A glance at the hound, whose paws were now black with mud. “You’ll need to rise early in order to bath Harper and comb every last bramble out of his fur before the wedding ceremony.”
The tall grasses shivered in a gust of wind.
“Or Aunt Alison will cut off your supply of ginger biscuits for the foreseeable future.”
* * *
“Thank heaven,” muttered Charlotte as Wrexford and the runaways emerged from the night’s gloom and trooped up the terrace stairs.
“Indeed,” he replied, as she and Cordelia stepped aside from the open door to let them enter the library.
“Was that a gunshot I heard?” she pressed.
“We dodged a bullet,” admitted the earl. “But I’m fairly certain it was only meant as a warning.”
“That’s not amusing,” replied Charlotte.
Raven and Hawk avoided meeting her gimlet gaze.
,” said Wrexford.
A single chime from the mantel clock—sounding loud as gunfire in the fraught silence—announced that the midnight hour had passed and a new dawn was not far off.
“Good Lord, the wedding day is here!” Cordelia forced a smile, trying to lighten the tense mood. “Let us hope that it will bring no .”
Charlotte released a pent-up breath, which ended in a reluctant laugh. “Deo volente,” she said in Latin, glancing up in mute appeal to the Almighty before turning her gaze back to the Weasels.
“I should ring a peal over your heads.” Her expression softened as she eyed their bedraggled clothing and scratched hands. “However, I would rather that you head up to your beds without further delay.”
They wisely made no peep of protest and hurried away. Ears drooping, Harper was quick to follow.
Wrexford moved to the sideboard and poured himself a glass of whisky. “Sláinte,” he said, lifting his glass in salute. “The first of many toasts to be raised on this special day.” He pursed his lips. “I’m surprised Kit wasn’t roused by the commotion.”
“He and my family enjoyed several more bottles of your excellent champagne after the two of you excused yourselves from the postprandial celebration,” said Cordelia dryly. “I am hoping that he’ll be able to walk down the aisle without falling flat on his face.”
“Ha! He wouldn’t dare.” A moment later, the dowager came into the reading area from the main room of the library. She was wearing a flame-red silk dressing gown over her night-rail, the embroidered fire-breathing dragons rippling in the lamplight as she took a seat in one of the armchairs.
“If he does,” she added, “we’ll just have to pick him up and carry him to the altar.”
A grim smile touched Cordelia’s lips. “As you said, he wouldn’t dare.” A pause. “I do hope my shout didn’t wake any of the others.”
“No, like Sheffield, they were all three sheets to the wind when they finally retired to their quarters,” answered Alison. “But just to be sure nobody had any cause for alarm, I stayed upstairs. If necessary, I would have created a diversion by claiming that I had a bad dream and cried out in my sleep.”
She raised a brow at the earl. “I take it you didn’t catch the miscreant?”
“No.” He took a swallow of his whisky. “However, we scared him off.”
“We?” Her eyes narrowing in suspicion, the dowager raised the quizzing glass hanging around her neck and took a look around the room. “Where are the Weasels?”
“Upstairs in their beds,” replied Charlotte. “That is all you need to know.”
Before Alison could respond, she turned to Cordelia. “I take it nothing is missing from your rooms?”
“The fellow didn’t really have a chance to make any mischief. I was only half asleep, and the click of the doorlatch opening brought me instantly awake. I raised the alarm just as he was beginning to search the escritoire in the sitting room.” Cordelia shrugged. “In any case, all he would have found was a pile of mail that I’ve not yet had a chance to open. So all’s well that ends well.”
Charlotte wasn’t so sure.
She moved to the hearth and took a moment to warm her hands over the glowing coals. Something about the incident was bothering her, though she couldn’t quite put a finger on what it was.
“Does it strike any of you as strange that an intruder would break into Wrexford Manor?” she mused aloud. “Wrex is well known in the area and has a reputation for generosity with all the locals.”
Cordelia and the dowager looked thoughtful, but the earl didn’t hesitate in responding.
“I doubt it was a local fellow. Earlier today, when Kit and I were overseeing the clearing of the road, the workers mentioned that several raggle-taggle groups of men have been spotted in the area.”
Wrexford’s expression tightened. “With peace now reigning over Europe, the army is reducing its ranks, and there are many ex-soldiers who have returned to Britain only to find there are no jobs to be had. How the devil are they supposed to survive?”
Ah. Charlotte now guessed that part of the reason he had tried to capture the intruder was to offer him food and money.
“We all have good reason to know that there is much evil in this world.” Alison shifted uncomfortably in her chair. “But for today, might we not allow its darkness to overshadow the light of love and friendship?”
Charlotte felt a stab of guilt for voicing her misgivings. Indeed, it was she herself who had proposed that the family remain in the country for several weeks after the wedding as a respite from their recent experiences with murder and mayhem.
“Speaking of friends, I do hope Baz will arrive in time for the ceremony,” she said. Basil Henning, an irascible Scottish surgeon, had served in the Peninsular War with Wrexford and was an honorary member of their admittedly eccentric family. “Mac heard from one of the maids that the main road from London suffered considerable flooding.”
“Baz will sail here on a whisky barrel, if need be,” said the earl, which made everyone chuckle. The surgeon was very fond of Scotland’s uisge beatha.
However, Cordelia’s mirth did not quite reach her eyes. “I do hope the other missing guests will also arrive in time. Oliver is usually very punctual.”
“Don’t fret,” soothed Charlotte, knowing that her cousin was traveling from the north and several other missing relatives were coming from the university town of Cambridge, which wasn’t far away. “No doubt they all simply wished to give the roads another day to dry out and will arrive in the morning.”
“It already is morning,” said Alison, punctuating the observation with a gusty yawn. “Indeed, the sun will soon be up.” She rose from her chair. “So come, I suggest we toddle off for a few hours of sleep before the festivities begin.”