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8

Elwin Hastings looked across the desk at his bride of two months. He knew himself to be the envy of many men. Dressed in a fashionable green gown, her honey-brown hair piled high in an elaborate coiffure that required the attentions of a hairdresser every morning, Lilly was nothing short of beautiful.

It was all he could do not to pick up the heavy crystal vase on his desk and hurl it at her silly, brainless head.

Next time you will show me the guest list before you instruct Crompton to send out the invitations, he commanded. Is that understood?

Yes, of course. Lilly clamped her hands together very tightly in her lap. Resentment flared in her eyes. But you told me that Crompton knew who was to be invited to the ball. You said your secretary is aware of precisely how things are to be done in this household when it comes to social affairs and that I am to leave everything in his hands.

I will speak with Crompton immediately and inform him that Anthony Stalbridge is to be removed from all future guest lists, Elwin said.

I dont understand why you are so angry that he attended our ball. Mr. Stalbridge is from a very prominent family. He is the nephew of the Earl of Oakbrook. Indeed, there is even speculation that he might someday come into the title because the old earl has never remarried and there is no heir.

Like everyone else in that family, Oakbrook is a devoted eccentric. Elwin controlled his rage with an effort. Everyone knows that all the old earl cares about these days is his archaeological research. I am well aware of Stalbridges bloodlines, Lilly. I repeat, from now on, he is not welcome in this house.

Lilly burst into tears. I thought everything went so well last night.

The tears were more than he could tolerate. He pushed himself to his feet. That will be all, Lilly.

She jumped up from the chair, cheeks flushed with anger. I do not comprehend why you are in such a temper today. Did Mr. Stalbridge do something to annoy you last night? I heard he left early with Lady Ashtons relative from the country. I forget her name.

He ground his teeth. Disaster had struck last night, but he was not about to inform the stupid girl of that unpleasant fact. My reasons for not wanting Stalbridge in this house are none of your concern.

Thats what you tell me every time I ask you what is wrong. Youve been in an absolutely vile mood since our wedding day. It is as if you have turned into a different person. When you asked Grandfather for my hand you were all that was charming and polite. Now everything I say or do is wrong in your opinion. I vow, I do not know how to please you.

Leave me, Lilly. I have business to attend to.

She whirled and rushed to the door, her eagerness to escape plain.

The feeling was mutual, Elwin thought, watching the door close behind her. She was everything he had believed that he wanted in a second wife: young, beautiful, and, most important, an heiress. True, her grandfather had made his fortune in trade, but after a couple of generations had passed one could overlook that sort of family background as long as there was enough money involved.

Nevertheless, Lillys empty-headed chatter and her obsession with gossip and clothes were driving him mad. On top of everything else, she was useless in bed. Unlike Victoria, she had no intuitive understanding of his special needs.

There were certainly times when he missed Victoria, he reflected. Fortunately, there was an establishment in Winslow Lane where his particular requirements were understood and catered to in the most satisfactory fashion.

He would give a great deal to be rid of his new wife, but he could not afford to dispense with her just yet. On their wedding day he had discovered to his horror that he had not obtained control of Lillys entire inheritance. Her grandfather, the clever bastard, had tied up the remainder of her fortune in such a way that it was doled out in annual stipends.

For all intents and purposes, Elwin thought bitterly, he was being forced to live on an allowance. Furthermore, if anything untoward were to happen to Lilly the yearly payments would be stopped immediately.

It was demeaning. Humiliating. An outright insult. This was what came of allowing men like Lillys grandfather to buy their way into Society. Bloody hell. If it werent for the damned money, he would never have even considered a woman with Lillys background as a potential bride.

This was the second time hed been forced to marry well beneath his station. First Victoria and now Lilly. And all because of money.

It wasnt right that a man of his breeding should be forced to stoop so low. A white-hot rage seared through him. He suddenly realized his hand had closed around a heavy silver paperweight. He hurled it against the wall. It struck the blue velvet drapes with a soft thud and tumbled onto the carpet.

He had needed money very badly this past year. Things had started to go wrong almost at once after Victoria died. It was certainly fortunate for him that Society did not condemn a man to three years of mourning as it did widows. Widowers were expected to remarry, the sooner the better. Although hed had no particular desire to acquire another wife, it had not taken him long to realize that a financially sound marriage was his only hope of remaining solvent.

In the months following Victorias plunge into the river he had suffered several serious financial reverses. The death of Phillip Grantley two weeks ago had come as a devastating shock. Among other things, he had depended on Grantley to collect the blackmail money in an anonymous, untraceable manner. The blackmail scheme was the only one of his business arrangements that had continued to work properly after Victorias demise.

More crucially, it was Grantley who had concocted the plan for the new investment consortium that was his only hope of freeing himself from Lilly and her stingy grandfather.

Grantleys supposed suicide had panicked him for several reasons. The fear that one of the blackmail victims had discovered the identity of the agent who collected the payments and had taken lethal action had badly rattled his nerves. Victoria had insisted that they select victims who were wealthy, elderly, and frail. It was difficult to imagine any of them tracking Grantley down, let alone killing him, but the possibility that one of them had done just that could not be ignored. What if that same individual had also learned that he, Hastings, was the person behind the scheme? It was that fear that had caused him to hire the two guards.

Luckily, there had been no further indications that he was in danger. Indeed, in the past few days he had begun to believe that he had overreacted. Perhaps his suspicions and fears were groundless. Maybe Grantley really had taken his own life. It wouldnt be the end of the world, because the investment consortium was fully formed and ready to be launched.

He had even been thinking of dismissing Quinby and Royce, but the disaster last night had changed everything. The fear had returned to chew on his vitals. Much as he disliked having the guards constantly hovering, they were necessary for his peace of mind, if nothing else.

He consoled himself with the thought that when the profits from his new investment venture began to pour in he would at least be able to rid himself of his irritating bride. He wondered if the suicide of a second wife would raise too many eyebrows in the Polite World. Perhaps an accident this time. But first he had to deal with the current catastrophe.

He reached for one of the velvet bell pulls hanging on the wall behind his desk and yanked hard, twice. Quinby and Royce appeared immediately.

He looked at Quinby first. It had been evident from the outset that he was the more intelligent of the two guards. He was also the most dangerous and the most annoying.

Tell me again what happened in the hall outside my bedroom last night, Quinby.

I already gave you a full report, Mr. Hastings. Quinby raised one shoulder in a careless shrug. Nothing more to add.

Elwin clamped down on another wave of rage. Quinbys attitude was infuriating. He was rarely overtly insolent or disrespectful, but the lack of deference for his betters was always there, just under the surface. It was obvious that he had been born into the lower classes. He did a remarkably good job of concealing the accents of the street, but they were there, nonetheless, in his speech. That gold-and-onyx ring on his finger was clearly expensivea gentlemans ringbut the bastard worked for a crime lord. How did he dare to consider himself the equal of a true gentleman?

Royce, on the other hand, hulking and dim-witted, at least displayed proper respect for those born into a higher station.

If he had any choice in the matter he would dismiss Quinby in a heartbeat, Elwin thought. But that was the problem, of course. He did not have a choice. He required protection, and, according to Clement Corvus, Quinby was the best in that line. Elwin believed it. One look at Quinbys eyes told you that he was cold to the bone.

Go through your tale again, Elwin ordered evenly.

I was doing my usual rounds, Quinby said, sounding bored. Keeping an eye on the interior of the house while Royce watched the gardens. I finished the top floor and went down the back staircase to the floor where the master bedrooms are located. There was a lady and a gentleman in the hall. They were kissing.

Mrs. Bryce and Mr. Stalbridge.

Yes, although I didnt learn their names until I talked to the footman.

The woman had definitely been Louisa Bryce, Elwin assured himself. Her identity had been confirmed by the servants who had seen her leave with Stalbridge. There was no mistaking Lady Ashtons unfashionable country relative. With her spectacles, unstylish gowns, and dull conversation, she was a perennial wallflower at every social event she attended. The only mystery about her was why Stalbridge had shown some interest in that direction.

Elwin leaned back in his chair, trying to think. This was another one of those occasions when he missed Victorias shrewd insights. She had always been extremely clever when it came to comprehending what motivated men.

Any idea how long Stalbridge might have been up there in that hall outside my bedroom? he asked.

Not more than a few minutes, Quinby said. When I spoke with the servants a couple of them mentioned having seen him in the ballroom shortly before I found him upstairs.

How long does it take to crack a safe?

Quinby spread the fingers of one hand. Depends on the expertise of the safecracker. Most of the professionals are fast. Very fast.

Royce cleared his throat. Beggin yer pardon, sir, but your strongbox is an Apollo Patented Safe.

What of it? Elwin demanded, forcing himself to hang on to his patience.

Theyre known for being impossible to crack without the aid of an explosive device, Royce said. And there werent any used last night. Explosives, that is.

Damn it, Stalbridge is not a professional safecracker. Elwin surged up out of his chair and started to pace the room. Hes a gentleman.

Quinbys mouth twisted in a derisive smile, but he did not offer a comment.

Elwin tensed. What do you find so amusing, Quinby?

Just struck me that, although there seems to be an unwritten rule that says a member of the lower classes cant aspire to be a gentleman, theres no law that says a gentleman cant become a member of the criminal class.

Insolent bastard, Elwin thought, but he refused to allow himself to be drawn into a discussion of the niceties of social rank with a man who had come out of the gutters of London.

My point, he said aloud, is that Stalbridge has no reason to turn to burglary or safecracking. The family has become extremely wealthy in the past few years. And where in blazes would a gentleman learn the trade of safecracking?

Good point, Quinby said. Probably not the sort of thing they teach at Oxford and Cambridge.

Elwin clamped his teeth together. He could not afford to let Quinby distract him. He had to keep his attention fixed on the problem at hand.

Royce cleared his throat again. Beggin yer pardon, sir.

Elwin sighed. What is it now, Royce?

The name Stalbridge, sir, Royce said diffidently. Would there be any connection to Mr. Marcus Stalbridge, the gentleman who designed the Apollo Patented Safe?

Elwin felt as if he had been struck by lightning. He turned slowly, slack jawed.

Whats this? he said tightly. Marcus Stalbridge designed my safe?

Quinby scowled. What the devil are you talking about, Royce?

Royce fidgeted nervously. Got a cousin who knows a bit about the safecracking business.

That would be Bert, Quinby said. And the reason he knows something about the business is because he is a professional safecracker.

Retired now, Royce said hastily.

Get on with it, Elwin snapped.

Yes, sir. Royce shifted uneasily on his big feet. Its just that Ive heard Bert talk about the subject. More than once hes told me that, generally speaking, the professionals avoid Apollos because in the end the only way inside is to blow a hole in them.

Elwin gripped the back of a reading chair. What are you getting at, Royce?

Explosives create a lot of noise and draw attention, which is not what your average safecracker is after, Royce explained, assuming an instructive mien. Especially if the safe happens to be located in a private house like this one, where there are usually a number of people on the premises.

I am not interested in how one cracks a safe, Elwin said, spacing each word out with great care the way one does when conversing with an idiot. Tell me more about Marcus Stalbridge.

Royces head bobbed up and down several times. Yes, sir. Well, the thing is, sir, Marcus Stalbridge is much admired by my cousin and certain of his, uh, colleagues on account of he holds the patent on the Apollo.

Damnation. Elwin wanted to throw something at the nearest wall. Anthony Stalbridge grew up in the household of a man who invented the most secure safe on the market, the very safe I happen to own. If anyone would know the secret of opening an Apollo, it would be him.

Or his father, Royce pointed out helpfully.

Bah. Marcus Stalbridge was not here last night. His son was.

What of the woman, Mrs. Bryce? Quinby asked.

Shes not important. Elwin waved that aside with a short, chopping movement of one hand. A little nobody. Stalbridge must have used her for some purpose. Probably as camouflage to hide his real reason for being in that part of the house in the event he was discovered coming out of the bedroom.

I dont think its wise to jump to conclusions, Quinby said.

Surely you are not going to suggest that Mrs. Bryce cracked that safe, Elwin snapped.

Quinbys shoulder rose in another one of his annoying shrugs. Never pays to underestimate a woman.

It strains credibility to the breaking point to think that dull female is a skilled safecracker, Elwin said, but someone opened my safe last night. Whoever he was, he certainly knew what he was about. There was nothing to indicate that anyone had even been in my bedroom. If I had not opened the safe this morning I still wouldnt know that certain very valuable items were missing.

Quinby lounged against the corner of the desk with the insouciant ease of a man who felt as if he were in his own home. Calm yourself, Mr. Hastings. Well get this sorted out.

Another burst of rage flashed through Elwin. Dont you dare patronize me, you criminal bastard. Remove yourself from that desk at once. Ive had enough of your insolence. Who in bloody hell do you think you are?

Quinbys jaw jerked. His eyes turned very, very cold. He rose slowly from the corner of the desk, uncoiling like a cobra.

A small, breathless whisper of dread swept through Elwin. He reminded himself that Quinby and Royce took orders from Clement Corvus and that Corvus had instructed them to guard him. Nevertheless, the fact remained that both men held their current positions in Corvuss organization precisely because they were capable of cold-blooded violence.

Royces blunt features screwed up into an expression that was no doubt intended to express polite curiosity.

Beggin yer pardon, sir, he said. As you just said, by all accounts, Mr. Stalbridge is a wealthy gentleman. Why would he want to break into your safe? He doesnt need your valuables.

That, of course, was the question here, Elwin thought. He released his death grip on the chair and forced himself to concentrate. There was only one thing that connected Stalbridge and himself: the death of Fiona Risby. And that damned necklace was the only piece of jewelry that had been taken. Coincidence? What in blazes was going on here?

For a time after Fiona was pulled from the river rumors had circulated to the effect that Stalbridge was not convinced that she had committed suicide. But even if he did suspect that Fiona had been murdered, why did he care? By all accounts, he had been about to terminate the engagement, anyway. There was even gossip that he had found her in bed with another man. What possible interest could he have in avenging her? And why would he wait this long to act? And if Stalbridge was the thief, why did he also help himself to the extortion items and the business papers?

It was all so bloody bewildering. He felt hopelessly muddled and very, very uneasy. Something had gone badly wrong.

He stalked to the window and stood looking out into the garden. He wished he could discuss the problem with someone he could trust. He certainly did not intend to confide in Quinby and Royce. He was playing a dicey game with their employer at the moment. The last thing he wanted to do was make a slip that might get back to Clement Corvus.

In the old days he would have sought Victorias advice. She had possessed an extraordinarily clever mind when it came to fitting together the pieces of this kind of puzzle, but Victoria was gone, and so was Grantley, the only other person he could consult. There was no one else he could trust.

He hesitated. There was always Thurlow, he thought. Victoria was the one who had chosen him as the seducer par excellence to compromise the various young ladies in their extortion scheme. Thurlow had his talents. He was, according to Victoria, one of the most handsome men in London. Certainly the innocent young women he had seduced had thought so.

Thurlow, however, was also a devout gambler. That was what had made him so useful, of course. He was regularly in need of money to clear his debts. But Victoria had never entirely trusted him. A gamblers first loyalty is to the next game of cards, she had said.

Another uneasy thought arose. Thurlow knew about Grantley. Damnation, maybe it was Thurlow who had murdered Grantley. That appalling possibility sent another jolt of fear through him. Had Thurlow decided to go into the extortion business himself? Perhaps he had started out by getting rid of the middlemanGrantleyand then helped himself to the items in the safe, items that Thurlow, himself, had originally stolen from the young ladies. It seemed highly unlikely that Thurlow was skilled in the art of safecracking, but perhaps it was not altogether impossible. That still left the question of Stalbridges role in the affair.

Elwin began to feel as if he were sinking into quicksand. It was all so damned complicated.

He swung around to face Quinby and Royce. Here is the plan. First, you will both make certain that Stalbridge does not come anywhere near me or this house again. Is that understood?

Yes, sir, Royce said dutifully.

Quinby shrugged.

Elwin hesitated. He desperately wanted to order the guards to kill Stalbridge and Thurlow as well, just to be safe, but that was not possible; they were Corvuss men. The crime lord was unlikely to agree to allow members of his organization to be used to murder two gentlemen.

Corvus was not overly troubled by scruples, but killing two respectable men, one of whom moved in Society, would be a dangerous business for a man in his position. That sort of violence would attract Scotland Yards attention. Corvus had no reason to take that risk.

Second, Elwin said, I want to employ someone to keep a watch on a man named Thurlow, who lives in Halsey Street. I assume one of you is acquainted with the sort of person who can be hired to perform such a task?

Quinby shrugged again.

Royce cleared his throat. Theres a man named Slip, who might be interested in that type of employment.


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