Anthony went up the steps of the large house on Brackton Street. Dreading what lay ahead, he banged the gleaming brass knocker. Footsteps sounded in the hall. The door opened to reveal a tall, cadaverously thin, gray-haired man in a butler’s suit.
“Mr. Stalbridge, sir. Do come in.”
“Good afternoon, Shuttle.” Anthony moved into the hall and tossed his hat onto the marble-topped side table. “All is well with you, I trust?”
“I am in excellent health, thank you, sir.” Shuttle closed the door. “Your mother and sister are in the library. Your father, of course, is in his workshop.”
Anthony went along the hall and paused in the open doorway of the library, steeling himself for the assault. There was a large desk and an easel in the room, both positioned to catch the best light from the tall windows overlooking the extensive gardens. His mother, Georgiana, was at the easel, paintbrush in hand. The sun highlighted the silver in her dark hair. She was in her late fifties, tall and gracefully made. A paint-stained apron covered her gown. Clarice sat at the desk, poring over a stack of papers covered with her handwriting. Her latest script for the Olympia, no doubt. A cloud of red curls framed her elfin face and blue eyes.
“Good afternoon, ladies,” he said from the door. “You both appear to be busy. I will not intrude.” He took a step back. “I just stopped by to have a word with Father.”
“Tony.” Clarice looked up suddenly. “Come back here. Don’t you dare try to leave without explaining yourself.”
“Sorry,” Anthony said, edging farther out into the hall. “I’m in somewhat of a hurry at the moment. Later, perhaps.”
“No, not later,” Georgiana declared. She set aside her brush. “Your grandmother was here not more than an hour ago and told us everything.”
He swore under his breath. His grandmother, Lady Payne, was an indomitable woman who never failed to live up to her name. Her chief occupation in life, as far as he could tell, was to meddle in family affairs. At one time or another they had all suffered from her interference, but of late she had been focusing most of her attention on him.
To be fair, she was not alone. These days it seemed that everyone in the large clan was concentrating the full force of their no doubt well-intentioned attention on him. Fortunately, the only members of the extended Stalbridge family who were in town at the moment were his grandmother, mother, father, and sister.
Nevertheless, given the razor-sharp intelligence and forceful willpower that characterized virtually every leaf on the Stalbridge family tree, it was little wonder that he was doing his best these days to avoid even the four relations who did happen to be in London.
“Is it true?” Clarice demanded eagerly. “Did you really sweep a mysterious widow named Mrs. Bryce away from the Hastingses’ ball last evening and carry her off into the night in your carriage?”
He loved his sister. She was several years younger, sharp of wit, compassionate by nature, and generally quite entertaining, but there was no denying that she had a flare for the dramatic, a side effect of her playwriting talents, no doubt.
“Mrs. Bryce and I did leave the ball together,” he said, choosing his words with care. “However, we went down the steps and got into the carriage in an entirely normal manner. As I recall, there was no sweeping involved. Now, if you will excuse me, I will go find Father.”
“Wait, you must tell us more about her,” Georgiana insisted. “Who is she? What of her family background? What became of Mr. Bryce? Your grandmother did not have a great deal of information. The only facts she had were that Mrs. Bryce is a distant relation of Lady Ashton’s and that she has absolutely no sense of style.”
Anthony smiled at that. “The lack of details must have been extremely frustrating for her.”
“Does she really wear her spectacles when she goes to a ball?” Clarice asked.
“Yes,” Anthony said.
“Well?” Georgiana prompted. “What of her husband?”
“I do not know what became of Mr. Bryce,” he admitted. “The important thing is that he is no longer around.”
“Grandmother says Mrs. Bryce is out of mourning so he must have died at least three or four years ago,” Clarice offered.
“One could make that assumption, yes,” Anthony agreed.
“Your grandmother indicated that she does not appear to have any money in her own right,” Georgina observed. “Evidently Lady Ashton has taken her in out of the kindness of her heart.”
“That seems to be the case,” Anthony agreed. “Now, if you will excuse me—”
“What is she like?” Clarice asked.
Anthony gave that a few seconds of close contemplation.
“Unconventional,” he said finally.
“In what way?” Clarice demanded. “We want details, Tony. This is the first woman you have shown any interest in since Fiona died. The least you can do is tell us a little about her.”
“Among other things she admires your plays,” he said.
“You told her that I write for the Olympia?” Clarice’s eyes widened.
“I believe she was quite pleased that the heroine who had the illicit affair in Night on Sutton Lane did not drown at the end of the story even though she was not rescued by the man who had seduced her.”
“I couldn’t have Nigel rescue her,” Clarice explained. “He was already married.”
“I did try to explain that,” Anthony said. With that, he made good his escape.
He climbed the stairs and went down the long hall to the large room at the back of the house. The architect had intended the space to serve as a master bedroom and sitting room, but it had functioned as his father’s workshop for as long as he could remember.
The muffled clang of metal on metal reverberated through the upstairs hall. It was a familiar sound, one he remembered well from his childhood. He had spent countless hours in the workshop. When he had not been actively assisting his father with a project, he had wiled away a considerable amount of time playing with the unique clockwork and mechanical toys his father had created for him.
One thing about having an inventor for a parent, he thought, opening the door: Life had never been dull.
“Is that you, Clarice?” Marcus Stalbridge had his back to the door. He did not turn around. “I haven’t finished work on your burning house project yet. Bit of a problem with the chemicals that create the smoke, I’m afraid. They produce far too much of the stuff. The audience won’t be able to see the action on the stage.”
Anthony closed the door, folded his arms, and propped one shoulder against the wall. “Clarice is planning to burn down a house?”
“Tony. About time you got here.” Marcus put down a wrench and swung around. “I sent that message hours ago. Where the devil have you been?”
Dressed in a heavy leather apron, grease-stained shirt and trousers, and a pair of sturdy boots, his father could easily have been mistaken for a dockside worker or a carpenter, Anthony thought. He certainly did not present the typical image of an English gentleman descended from a long line of the same.
Marcus had been educated as an engineer. According to everyone who had known him in his youth, he had been inventing things since he was old enough to climb out of his cradle. He was in his sixties now, a big man with big, competent hands and aggressively modeled features. His green-and-gold eyes could be disconcertingly piercing and direct when he was consumed with the creation of one of his countless inventions. At other times he appeared vague and distracted. Everyone knew that expression well. It meant that Marcus was dreaming up a new device.
“My apologies, sir,” Anthony said. “I’ve been busy today, and then, when I arrived, I had some difficulty getting past that pair of inquisitors downstairs.”
Marcus wiped his hands on a rag. “Expect your mother and sister had a few questions for you. Your grandmother paid us a visit earlier.”
“I heard. Tell me about Clarice’s burning house.”
“It’s another one of her sensations. She says the competition is becoming quite fierce. Every theater in town is trying to outdo the others with dramatic scenes on stage. Ghosts, storms, runaway trains, rotating towers, and the like have all become quite common. She says fires never fail to dazzle audiences.”
“It will be difficult to top the sinking ship in her latest production. It is so realistic the critics complained because they got damp.”
“Bah.” Marcus grimaced with disgust. “The critics always find something to complain about. The audiences love the show.”
“Now she wants to burn down a house on stage?”
“Yes. The hero has to rescue a child trapped in the flames.”
“I’m sure it will be thrilling.”
Marcus pursed his lips. “Not as thrilling as Clarice had hoped, I’m afraid. It seems the owners of the Olympia got a trifle nervous when she told them she planned to use real flames on stage. But I’ve come up with an alternative that I think will work. It involves an array of fire-colored lights and a great deal of smoke.”
“I shall look forward to it.”
“Speaking of sensations, your grandmother told us that you and a widow named Mrs. Bryce managed to create a small one of your own last night. What happened? I thought you were deeply involved in your investigation of Hastings. Did you change your mind?”
“Don’t look so pathetically hopeful. I’m afraid Mrs. Bryce is connected to my investigation.”
“Devil take it.” Marcus grimaced. “Should have guessed as much. When your mother and I and Clarice heard that you had taken a lady home from the ball, I suppose we leaped to the assumption that perhaps—”
“I had allowed myself to be distracted? I’m sorry to disappoint you.”
Marcus leaned back against a workbench. “You can’t blame us for worrying about you, Tony. You’re obsessed with this business of proving that Hastings murdered Fiona. It’s a dangerous business you’re pursuing. If you had been caught prowling through Hastings’s house—”
“I found Fiona’s necklace last night,” Anthony said quietly.
Marcus stared at him. “Bloody hell. Where?”
“It was in Hastings’s safe.”
Marcus exhaled heavily. Then his eyes narrowed. “Are you certain it’s the Risby necklace?”
“Yes. He must have taken it off her after he killed her.”
Marcus rubbed the back of his neck. “So you were right, after all.”
“It certainly looks that way.”
Marcus folded his arms, thinking. “But it makes no sense. Why would he do such a thing?” He squinted a little. “You don’t think it’s possible that he seduced her, do you? A lover’s quarrel, perhaps?”
“No,” Anthony said.
“You sound very certain. I know you were fond of Fiona, Tony—we all were—but don’t let your old affection blind you to certain possibilities.”
“Fiona was not intimately involved with Hastings.”
Marcus did not look entirely satisfied, but he nodded, not arguing further.
“Very well, then,” he said. “What of a motive? What possible reason could he have had for murdering an innocent young woman?”
“I don’t know. That’s one of the things I intend to find out.”
“Give it up, Tony. Too much time has passed. You won’t be able to prove anything now.”
Anthony went to stand at one of the workbenches. He looked down at the array of tools arranged on the wooden surface. “Hastings has been blackmailing several wealthy old ladies for over two years.”
“You’re joking. Hastings? An extortionist?”
“I found the proof in the safe, along with the necklace. Unfortunately, like the necklace, it was useless. I will make arrangements to return the extortion evidence to the various victims anonymously, but for obvious reasons none of them can be expected to testify against him. In fact, I very much doubt that they even knew the identity of their blackmailer.”
“Good Lord.” Marcus grimaced in disgust. “The man’s a villain, all right. But if you can’t prove anything, what do you hope to do?”
“First things first.” Anthony looked up from the tools. “My main objective at the moment is to discover why he murdered Fiona. That question has plagued me from the start of this affair.”
“And just how in blazes will you manage that?”
“I’m certain there was no intimate connection between them. That leaves the possibility that Fiona somehow learned too much about his business affairs. Perhaps she discovered that he was a blackmailer.”
Marcus thought about that. “You think he killed her to keep his secrets?”
“It would be a strong motive.”
“Perhaps. But, again, how will you prove it after all this time?”
“I don’t know.” Anthony went to the steel safe that stood on one side of the room. He put a hand on the gleaming green surface and traced the decorative gold design with one finger. “Hastings’s safe was, indeed, an Apollo, as you said. He had it installed in the floor of his bedroom, just as Carruthers told you. Thank you for getting the information for me.”
Will Carruthers of the Carruthers Lock and Safe Company was an old friend of the family. He was the exclusive purveyor of the Apollo Patented Safe in London. Carruthers had sold the safe to Hastings. He had also overseen its installation.
Marcus’s brows arched. “I take it you haven’t lost any of your safecracking skills?”
“I was a bit rusty, but I had it open inside of thirty seconds.”
“Would have been fifteen in the old days.” Marcus smiled reminiscently. “I’ll never forget the many happy hours you spent picking locks in this workshop, testing out new devices for me.” His white brows snapped together again. “Which reminds me, it’s about time you provided me with some grandchildren. I need new assistants. You’re never around anymore, and Clarice is always busy with her plays.”
“Someday,” Anthony promised. “When this other affair is concluded.”
“Promises, promises.” Marcus’s expression sharpened. “What of Mrs. Bryce? Where does she fit into this?”
“It’s complicated. Last night I encountered her just as she emerged from Hastings’s bedroom.”
Marcus’s mouth opened, closed, and opened again. “His bedroom? Are you joking? What in blazes was she doing in there?”
“The same thing I had intended to do. She went there to search his private possessions.”
“She was looking for proof that Hastings invested funds in a brothel.”
“She cracked the Apollo?”
“No. But after she made my acquaintance in the hallway outside the bedroom she hired me to do the job for her.”
“She hired you?” Marcus was practically sputtering now.
“She mistook me for a jewel thief. As I said, it’s somewhat complicated.”
“Good Lord.” Marcus scowled. “Who the devil is this Mrs. Bryce?”
“I am still working on the answer to that question. However, I have discovered that, among other things, she is a correspondent for the Flying Intelligencer.”
“I don’t believe it. She writes for the sensation press?”
“But you despise the press because of how it handled Fiona’s tragic death. I find it difficult to believe that you have formed an association with a journalist.”
“It comes as something of a surprise to me, as well, sir. But, then, I have discovered that Mrs. Bryce has a way of keeping one off balance. While we’re on the subject, I would appreciate it if you would keep Mrs. Bryce’s career a deep, dark family secret. She goes to great lengths to conceal her identity.”
Marcus’s brows shot skyward. “Because she’s a female?”
“In part, no doubt. But the primary reason she uses a pen name is because she conducts her journalistic investigations in the Polite World. Her career would come to an end rather quickly if her identity were to be revealed to Society.”
“That’s a fact.” Marcus snorted. “Her name would be dropped from every guest list in town if word got out. She would never receive another invitation.”
Marcus stroked his chin thoughtfully. “This is astonishing. Absolutely astonishing.”
“Do you recall the Bromley scandal?”
“I should think so. Talk about a sensation. Who would have imagined that pretentious, self-righteous prig, Lord Bromley, was making money off a ring of opium dens. When the news appeared in the Flying Intelligencer, Bromley was forced to leave the country on an extended tour of America. He hasn’t dared return.”
“Mrs. Bryce is the one who first reported that story and presented evidence to the public. She writes under the name I. M. Phantom.”
“So she’s Phantom.” Marcus paused, frowning. “And now she’s after Hastings. Well, well, well.”
“I tried to talk her out of conducting the investigation, but she won’t hear of it. I feel responsible for seeing to it that she doesn’t come to any harm, so I have agreed to work with her on this venture. For the foreseeable future it will appear to the world that she and I have formed an intimate liaison.”
“I see.” Marcus looked shrewd. “And have you?”
“I assure you, our association is based entirely on business.”
“According to your grandmother, everyone is saying that you have formed an intimate liaison with Mrs. Bryce.”
“That is the point, sir. With luck, the gossip will serve as camouflage. If people, including Hastings, believe that Mrs. Bryce and I are involved in a liaison, they are less likely to guess what we are really about.”
“An interesting theory,” Marcus said without inflection.
“Unfortunately, it is the only one I’ve got. Good day, sir.”
Anthony left and walked swiftly toward the staircase. He half-expected Clarice to be lurking in the front hall, but luck was with him. There was no one around downstairs. Nevertheless, he did not breathe easily until he was safely outside on the street.
MARCUS WAITED until he heard the front door open and close. When he was certain that Anthony had departed, he took off the leather apron and went downstairs to the library.
Georgiana and Clarice were both drinking tea. They looked at him with expectant expressions.
“Did Tony tell you anything about his association with Mrs. Bryce, Papa?” Clarice asked.
“A little.” Marcus took the cup of tea that Georgiana held out to him. “It is all quite amazing. Bizarre, in fact.”
“Do you think he is serious about her, dear?” Georgiana asked. “Or is she some passing fancy?”
“She’s no passing fancy,” Marcus said, absolutely certain of the conclusion. “Although I don’t think Tony realizes that yet. He’s still fixated on finding Fiona’s killer.”
“What do you think of Mrs. Bryce?” Georgiana asked.
“Difficult to say. Haven’t even met the woman.” Marcus drank some tea and lowered the cup. “But from what I’ve heard so far, I’d say she would fit rather well into this family.”