The following morning dawned crisp and sunny. She dressed in a thin chemise, drawers, and a single petticoat. There were many who would have been horrified by the minimal amount of undergarments, to say nothing of the lack of a corset. Fashionable women often wore as much as fourteen pounds of underclothes beneath their even heavier gowns. But she and Emma were both staunch advocates of the rational dress movement, which held that ladies should wear no more than seven pounds of underwear. As for corsets, the movement had wisely declared them to be injurious to women’s health.
The dark blue gown she chose was also designed in accordance with the commonsense principles of the movement. The bodice was snug-fitting in the current style, but it lacked stays and was only lightly laced. The bustle was small and minimally padded for shape. The skirts contained considerably less fabric than was normally found in more stylish, elaborately draped gowns.
The reduced amount of material in the skirts was a crucial factor: By reducing the overall weight of the dress, it made walking much easier. The voluminous folds of the majority of fashionable gowns combined with the many layers of petticoats worn underneath made it impossible for a woman to take an invigorating stroll in the park. She was reduced to slow, mincing steps. If she tried to move at a brisker pace, her legs became hopelessly entangled in her skirts.
Louisa picked up the small notebook lying on the bedside table and went down the hall to the stairs. Emma’s door, she noticed, was still closed.
In the kitchen she found the housekeeper, Mrs. Galt, with her husband, Hugh, and her niece, Bess. Hugh, a burly man in his mid-forties, took care of the garden and Emma’s beloved conservatory. Bess served as the maid-of-all-work. The three were having their tea when Louisa walked into the room. They all rose quickly.
“Good morning,” Louisa said. “I just came for a cup of tea.”
“Good morning, ma’am.” Mrs. Galt smiled. “You’re up early. Would you like some toast to go with your tea?”
“That would be lovely.”
“I’ll bring a tray into the study in a moment.” Mrs. Galt turned to the stove and picked up the kettle.
“I’ll go see to the fire, ma’am.” Bess bobbed a quick curtsy and hurried down the hall.
“Thank you,” Louisa said.
She gave Mr. and Mrs. Galt another smile and started down the hall to the study.
She had not gone far when she heard the low murmur of Mrs. Galt’s voice behind her.
“Well, now, I’m surprised to see her up and about at this hour. She came in very late last night. She cannot have got much sleep, and that’s a fact.”
“Sleep’s the least of it, if you ask me.” Mr. Galt’s voice was a soft rumble. “It’s that business of coming home in a gentleman’s carriage that makes one wonder. First time that’s happened since we came to work here.”
“Hush, now,” Mrs. Galt said quickly. “We’ve known from the start that this is an odd household. It was no secret that Lady Ashton is a noted eccentric, but the wages are excellent. Don’t you dare do or say anything that might cause all of us to lose our posts.”
Louisa sighed and continued down the hall. It wasn’t easy keeping secrets around servants. One had to constantly bear in mind that there were always other people in the house aside from herself and Emma.
Not that Mr. Galt had spoken anything less than the truth. She had come home quite late last night, and she could not deny that arriving back here at Number Twelve in a carriage other than the one in which she had departed was certainly a first. So was being walked to the door by a gentleman.
In the study she found a cheery blaze crackling on the hearth.
“There you are, ma’am,” Bess said, getting to her feet. “It will be nice and cozy in here soon enough.”
“Thank you,” Louisa said.
“Here’s your tea, ma’am,” Mrs. Galt said from the doorway. She set a tray on a table. “Let it steep a bit.”
“I will,” Louisa promised. She needed her tea to be strong this morning. There was a great deal of thinking to be done.
She waited until she was alone before she sat on the chair behind her desk. Clasping her hands on the blotter, she surveyed the small room. The bookshelves were gradually filling up with volumes, among them a wide assortment of sensation novels. She had developed a passion for them in the past year because they generally featured stories of illicit love affairs. It had become clear to her that, given her secret past, an illicit love affair was the only sort she could ever hope to have.
Each new book increased her sense of security. It was as if every addition to her small library was a brick in the fortress wall that she was constructing around herself.
But the reality was that she would never be truly safe. Emma had done her best to make her feel welcome, but the small flame of hope that burned within her, refusing to be entirely extinguished, was enveloped in an icy dread. She felt this same gloom almost every morning when she woke up, and it was usually the last sensation she experienced every night before she went to sleep.
The emotion had a depressing effect on her spirits at times. Even on the sunniest days, the knowledge that someday she might be discovered and arrested on a charge of murder was always there, hanging over her head like an ominous thundercloud.
Meeting Emma had been a stroke of the most incredible good fortune. But she was only too well aware that the new life she had found for herself could be destroyed in an instant if her dark secret were ever revealed to the world.
Don’t think about the past or the future and, most of all, don’t think about Anthony Stalbridge. Concentrate on your work.
Her new career as a secret correspondent for the Flying Intelligencer was the one bright star in her life. It provided distraction from the melancholia and fear and gave her a strong sense of motivation and purpose. She had determined to dedicate her life to journalism.
She opened the leather-bound notebook she had brought downstairs. In her short career as a reporter she had learned the value of keeping good notes. For the sake of speed and out of concern that her notebook might be found and read by one of the servants or some other prying eye, she used a private code. She was always careful to spell out proper names, however. It would not do to get those wrong.
She picked up a pen and went to work, reviewing and elaborating on the brief, cryptic notes she had made.
There seemed to be little doubt that Hastings was engaged in blackmail, a criminal enterprise that meant he was even more vile than she had first thought. Unfortunately, she could see no way to expose him without also exposing the identities of his victims, which would not be right.
Of course, there was still the evidence linking him to Phoenix House, she reminded herself. The papers Anthony had retrieved from the safe confirmed Hastings’s involvement as an investor in the brothel. That news alone would be sensational enough to satisfy Mr. Spraggett, the publisher of the Flying Intelligencer. Spraggett prided himself on presenting only the most lurid and riveting news to the reading public. The announcement that a high-flying gentleman in Society was part owner of a whorehouse would sell a lot of newspapers.
But what if Anthony was right about Hastings also being a murderer? Now there was a piece of journalism that would send shock waves through the Polite World, not to mention the rest of the country. Her pulse kicked up at the prospect of bringing a killer to justice.
AN HOUR LATER FAMILIAR, brisk footsteps sounded in the hall, then a short, forceful knock on the library door.
“Come in, Emma,” she called.
The door opened. Emma, Lady Ashton, strode into the room. Emma never simply walked or strolled; she was a strider. A large, no-nonsense woman fashioned like a Grecian statue, she possessed a unique view of the world.
Today she wore a comfortably styled bronze gown. Her silver-gray hair was knotted in a tight twist at the back of her head. At sixty-three she was still a handsome woman. She was also an extremely formidable one. After losing her husband at an early age, Emma had defied convention and set out to see the world. When she eventually returned to England, her wealth, combined with her breeding and social connections, had enabled her to resume her natural place in the Polite World.
A little over a year ago she had consulted with an agency that supplied paid companions and governesses. Emma planned to write her memoirs. She wanted to employ a lady of good character and sound education who possessed modern opinions to assist her in the project.
She had gone through half a dozen ladies of good character and sound education who claimed to possess modern opinions before, in absolute desperation, the agency had sent over their newest applicant. Louisa and Emma had hit it off from their very first meeting.
“We shall put it about that you are a distant relative,” Emma decreed over tea. “That way you will be treated with more respect than if it were known that you were my paid companion and secretary.”
By the time Emma discovered that Louisa met only two of the three requirements that had been stipulated to the agency she was quite prepared to overlook the missing qualifications.
Louisa would never forget Emma’s verdict. It had come in the wake of a particularly bad nightmare, one that had left Louisa shattered and vulnerable. When Emma had offered comfort, Louisa had broken down, weeping, and related what happened the night she brained Lord Gavin with a poker.
The need to confide her dreadful secret to her friend had been overwhelming. She knew Emma well enough by then to be aware that her benefactress was unlikely to call the police. Emma did hold extremely modern opinions, after all. She had believed Louisa’s version of events. Nevertheless, who wanted a murderess living in their household?
After Louisa poured out her secret and apologized for the deception, she braced herself for dismissal. Instead, Emma had patted her on the shoulder and said, “Never mind, dear. The value of a good character is vastly overrated in my opinion.”
“GOOD MORNING, LOUISA.” Emma crossed the study to warm herself in front of the fire. “You’re up rather early, considering that you did not get home until quite late last night. I didn’t even hear you come in.”
Louisa put down her pen. “I didn’t want to wake you.”
Emma moved to stand in front of the desk. Her blue eyes sparkled with curiosity. “My, my. Anthony Stalbridge. When I got your message from the footman, you could have toppled me with a feather.”
“I seriously doubt that. Nothing could topple you, Emma.”
“Of all the gentlemen you might have run off with last night, Stalbridge strikes me as far and away the most intriguing of the lot.”
Louisa flushed. “It wasn’t what you think, Emma. Mr. Stalbridge and I encountered each other under somewhat unusual circumstances.”
“The best sort, I always say.”
“I found him waiting for me in the hall outside Hastings’s bedroom.”
Emma’s eyes widened. “Good heavens.”
“He came to the rescue when one of Hastings’s hired guards attempted to question me.”
“Hastings employs guards?”
“How very odd.”
“He has good reason. It transpires that he is not just an investor in a brothel. It appears that he is also a blackmailer who has been extorting money from some very distinguished families.”
Emma stared at her, shocked. “Never say so.”
“There is worse to come. Mr. Stalbridge believes that Hastings murdered his fianc'ee, Fiona Risby. He suspects that Hastings also killed his own wife.”
Emma sat down abruptly and gripped the arms of the chair.
“Tell me everything, dear,” she said. “Right from the start.”
Louisa gave her a quick summary of events.
Emma listened intently and then sat back. “This is astonishing. Absolutely stunning. And here I thought you’d set off for a romantic tryst. I was so happy for you, dear. I admit I was somewhat concerned because the man in question was Anthony Stalbridge. Nevertheless, I thought it was a good sign that you were starting to emerge from your shell.”
“I have told you on numerous occasions that I have no plans to emerge from my shell. At least not in the sense that you mean.”
“Rubbish. You just haven’t found the right man.” Emma frowned. “But enough of that. What is your opinion of this business about Hastings being a murderer?”
Louisa drummed her fingers on the desk. “To be honest, I do not know what to think. There is no doubt that Hastings has a financial interest in Phoenix House, and it seems clear that he is also a blackmailer, but I am not at all certain that we can leap to the conclusion that he murdered Fiona Risby.”
“I agree. Her death was, by all accounts, a suicide.” Emma considered briefly. “But there is that necklace Stalbridge found in Hastings’s safe. Emeralds and diamonds set in gold, you say?”
“Yes. It looked quite valuable. At this point, however, I have only Mr. Stalbridge’s word that it belonged to Fiona. Even if that proves to be true, it no longer constitutes proof of Hastings’s guilt now that it has been removed from the safe.”
Emma gave a ladylike snort. “Stalbridge was right about one thing: Leaving it in the safe would have served no purpose. If Hastings really is guilty of murder, he is hardly likely to allow the police to search his house.”
“And even if it were found in the house, I’ve no doubt that Hastings would be able to provide some explanation. He could always claim that the necklace belonged to his first wife, who had admired the Risby necklace and had ordered an exact copy from a jeweler.”
“Not that Victoria Hastings would have worn a copy of anyone else’s jewelry,” Emma said dryly. “She was a lady who set the fashion. She did not follow it.”
“I recall that you mentioned she was noted for her sense of style.”
“Yes. She was a very beautiful woman.”
Louisa quickly opened her notebook to the pages labeled VH. At the start of the investigation into Hastings’s business affairs she had asked Emma for some background information on Hastings and his first wife. She had also interviewed the lady’s maid who had worked for Victoria Hastings.
There were not many notes on Victoria. At the time she had not considered the first Mrs. Hastings important, but in hindsight a couple of phrases took on new meaning.
She ran her finger down a page of her own cryptic handwriting and paused.
“You mentioned that she was one of the few women you had met who knew how to swim,” she said.
“She was the only woman I ever met, aside from myself, who knew how to swim,” Emma stated. “It is not a skill that many females ever learn.”
“That would seem to lend credence to Mr. Stalbridge’s theory that she may have been murdered. Why would a woman who could swim choose to jump off a bridge as a means of suicide?”
“Any woman, skilled swimmer or not, who leaped into the river fully clothed would likely drown,” Emma pointed out. “A fashionable lady often wears nearly forty pounds of clothing. The sheer weight of her skirts and corsets would draw her down to the bottom as surely as if she were chained to a boulder.”
Louisa shuddered. “True.” She consulted her notes again. “You said you did not know her well.”
“No. I don’t believe she had any family connections of her own to speak of. I met her occasionally at various social affairs, but that was the extent of our acquaintance.”
“Her maid told me that Hastings was in the habit of discussing his business affairs with her. It is rather uncommon for a husband to do that. He must have admired her intelligence.”
Emma nodded. “She seemed to me to be a very shrewd woman. I can well imagine that she had a head for financial matters.”
Louisa closed the notebook again and leaned back in her chair. “There is something that worries me about Mr. Stalbridge.”
Emma raised her brows. “I am pleased to see that your intuition is functioning well. Tell me, what is it that alarms you? Aside from the fact that he knows how to break into a safe, of course.” She paused for emphasis. “I trust you do realize that is a rather unusual talent for a gentleman?”
“I admit that skill does raise a few questions, but what concerns me the most is that he appears to be obsessed with the notion that Fiona Risby did not commit suicide. I got the impression last night that he would go to any lengths to prove that she was murdered.”
Emma gave a small shrug. “I expect it is because he would like to clear his own name.”
Louisa stopped drumming her fingers. “What on earth are you talking about?”
“You were not moving in Society last year at the time of Fiona’s death. You did not hear the rumors that circulated.”
“What sort of rumors?”
“There was gossip to the effect that Mr. Stalbridge was about to end his engagement to Miss Risby at the time. Some said that the prospect of facing the humiliation of being jilted was what drove Miss Risby to take her own life.”
Louisa shuddered. “Any woman who is rejected by her fianc'e certainly finds herself in a dreadful situation as far as Society is concerned. But would she resort to suicide?”
“It wouldn’t be the first time. A jilted woman becomes something of a pariah in the Polite World. There are those who would have expected her to retire from Society altogether, as though she were a widow in the first year of mourning.”
“Was she from a wealthy family?” Louisa asked. She told herself it was the journalist in her that was interested in the answer. She had no personal curiosity about the woman Anthony had chosen for his bride.
“Yes, indeed,” Emma said. “The Risby fortune is quite substantial. The fact that Fiona was an heiress would certainly have gone some distance toward easing her plight. There were bound to be other suitors. Also, she was very lovely. A charming young lady, indeed. I’m sure her father could have found another eligible gentleman for her. Nevertheless, the experience of being cast aside by Stalbridge would have caused enormous distress for her and her family.”
Of course Fiona Risby had been rich, beautiful, and charming. What else? Louisa picked up a pen and did a little staccato on the desktop.
“The marriage was considered an excellent match,” Emma continued. “Both families were exceedingly pleased. The Stalbridges and the Risbys have been close friends for years. Their estates in the North march side by side.”
“I see,” Louisa repeated. She realized she was tapping the pen tip with such force now that she was leaving little marks on the blotter. She made herself put the writing instrument down.
“I should mention that there were other rumors last year,” Emma continued somberly. “Rumors that were far worse than those concerning a broken engagement.”
Shocked, Louisa straightened. She did not take her eyes off Emma’s face. “Surely no one suggested that Mr. Stalbridge actually murdered Fiona Risby.”
“I’m sorry to say that there was some speculation to that effect.”
“What? Why would he do such a thing? What possible motive could he have had?”
Emma looked at her very directly. “There was talk that Mr. Stalbridge discovered Fiona in the arms of another man.”
A little shiver went through Louisa. “Surely you didn’t believe he murdered her?”
“My dear, if there is one thing that I learned in the course of my travels, it is that any man or woman, regardless of social background or degree of civilization, may be driven to murder under certain circumstances.” Emma met her eyes in a very somber look. “The only question is which circumstances will motivate a particular individual.”
Louisa swallowed hard. “I cannot quarrel with you regarding that conclusion.”
Emma’s face softened. “My apologies. I never meant—”
“There is no need to apologize. You are right, Emma. Nevertheless, I think it is safe to say that Mr. Stalbridge did not murder Fiona Risby.”
“What makes you so sure of that?” Emma sounded genuinely curious.
“Surely if he had killed her he would not be searching for the real murderer.”
“It has been a little over a year since he lost his fianc'ee,” Emma said quietly. “Mr. Stalbridge is no doubt in the market for a new one, but the old gossip will likely complicate the business. Under normal circumstances, he could look for a bride among the most distinguished families in Society. As I told you, the Stalbridges can claim a very distinguished lineage, and now that their fortunes have been repaired they hold an unassailable position in Society. However—”
Emma stopped and gave a tiny shrug.
Louisa got a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach. “I understand what you are saying. Many of the best families will surely hesitate before marrying off a daughter to a gentleman who is rumored to have murdered a woman.”
“Even if they don’t believe that gossip, they will be quite hesitant to allow a daughter to become engaged to a gentleman who is said to have jilted his first fianc'ee. What if he does it again? Concerned parents will be wary of subjecting a daughter to that sort of social humiliation.”
“In other words, whether he is guilty of jilting Fiona or of killing her, he has a strong incentive to make it appear that she was murdered by someone else,” Louisa concluded.
“He would need persuasive evidence, but if he succeeds, Society will conclude that he is innocent. He would then be free to marry any of the wealthy heiresses who will no doubt be cast before him by their extremely enthusiastic parents.”