Murder at Kensington Palace
Though Charlotte Sloane's secret identity as the controversial satirical cartoonist A. J. Quill is safe with the Earl of Wrexford, she's ill prepared for the rippling effects sharing the truth about her background has cast over their relationship. She thought a bit of space might improve the situation. But when her cousin is murdered and his twin brother is accused of the gruesome crime, Charlotte immediately turns to Wrexford for help in proving the young man's innocence. Though she finds the brooding scientist just as enigmatic and intense as ever, their partnership is now marked by an unfamiliar tension that seems to complicate every encounter.
Despite this newfound complexity, Wrexford and Charlotte are determined to track down the real killer. Their investigation leads them on a dangerous chase through Mayfair's glittering ballrooms and opulent drawing rooms, where gossip and rumors swirl to confuse the facts. Was her cousin murdered over a romantic rivalry . . . or staggering gambling debts? Or could the motive be far darker and involve the clandestine scientific society that claimed both brothers as members? The more Charlotte and Wrexford try to unknot the truth, the more tangled it becomes. But they must solve the case soon, before the killer's madness seizes another victim . . .
Release date: September 24, 2019
Publisher: Kensington Books
Print pages: 387
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Murder at Kensington Palace
Charlotte Sloane looked up from her drawing as two mud-encrusted boys peltered up the stairs and burst into her workroom.
“There’s been another Bloody Butcher murder!” announced the one called Raven in a breathless rush.
“Oiy, and this time the victim’s a titled toff!” piped up his younger brother, who was known as Hawk. “And—”
“And it’s disgusting,” cut in Raven. “Lilly the flower girl said—”
“Said it were so ’orrible the Bow Street Runner puked all over ’is boots,” exclaimed Hawk, tripping over his tongue to be first in revealing the gory details. “Because—”
“Because the Butcher cut off one of the gent’s bollocks!” finished Raven.
Holy hell. Though rarely shocked by man’s viciousness toward his fellow man, Charlotte felt the blood drain from her face. Putting down her pen, she leaned back in her chair, for the moment too taken aback by the gruesome news to chide the boys about their filthy faces and less-than-perfect English.
These mutilation murders seemed to be taking a terribly sinister turn. The first two victims had been nameless vagrants, followed by a respectable tradesman.
And now an aristocrat.
What madman was on the loose?
“Who was the victim?” she asked, forcing herself to focus on the grim practicalities of the news.
Her livelihood as London’s most popular satirical artist depended on feeding the public’s insatiable appetite for scandal and depravity. And they looked to A. J. Quill to be the first to trumpet all the juicy details of the evils that man did to his fellow man—though the fact that a woman penned such scathing commentary was a well-kept secret. She would need to do a drawing of the crime by evening so the engravers could have it ready for sale in Fores’s print shop for tomorrow morning.
“Lilly didn’t know,” answered Hawk. “She heard the news from one of the gardeners who found the toff.”
“Where?” demanded Charlotte.
“Kensington Gardens,” replied Raven. “The Duke of Sussex had a fancy party for some visiting men of science from Prussia last night at the Palace.”
Science. The word stirred a pricking at the back of her neck.
“Word is,” continued the boy, “the victim looks to be one of the guests. But Lilly said Bow Street’s being tighter than a flea’s ars—” He stopped and flashed an apologetic grin. “That is, the Runners are being closemouthed about any further details.”
Her brows drawing together in a frown, Charlotte took a moment to think over what she had just heard. Augustus Frederick, the Duke of Sussex and sixth son of King George III, had a keen interest in scholarly subjects and was a member of the Royal Society, which, along with the Royal Institution, was the leading bastion of London’s scientific minds. He often held lavish receptions for its members and guests in his apartments at Kensington Palace.
Given that such soirees usually included those who moved within the highest circles of Society, she couldn’t help but wonder . . .
“If Lord Wrexford was there, he might know more about it,” Charlotte mused aloud.
“You want for us to run along to Berkeley Square and ask?” volunteered Hawk, his pronunciation quickly improving. The earl’s cook was very generous with sweets.
Charlotte hesitated. But pragmatism quickly overruled emotion. She needed information, and if Bow Street was keeping tight-lipped about the crime because the victim was an aristocrat, her usual sources wouldn’t be of help.
“Yes,” she answered, and quickly penned a short note. “If he hasn’t risen from his lordly slumber . . .” A glance at the mantel clock showed it was well before noon. “Ask if you may wait for a reply.”
Both boys bobbed a quick nod and clattered off with undisguised enthusiasm.
Her own feelings were a bit more ambiguous. Wrexford. A man of maddening complexities and contradictions. Though, conceded Charlotte, she was just as difficult.
A sigh. She and the Earl of Wrexford had first been drawn together when he was the main suspect in a gruesome murder. Through her network of informants, she had reason to believe him innocent and so they had grudgingly agreed to work together to find the real killer. A wary friendship had developed . . . though that was a far too simplistic description of their relationship.
They had recently collaborated on solving another complex murder, which had caused Wrexford to come within a hairsbreadth of death. She had helped to rescue him, and in the heat of the moment, both of them had revealed personal secrets and expressed certain emotions . . .
Which perhaps they were both regretting.
It had been a fortnight since his last visit, and she couldn’t help but wonder whether he, like herself, felt a little rattled at having spoken—however obliquely—from the heart.
“What a pair we are,” she muttered. “Prickly, guarded, afraid of making ourselves vulnerable.”
Taking up her pen, Charlotte carefully cleaned the dried ink from its nib with a damp rag. As a rule, she tried not to brood over a decision once it was made. Noli respicere—don’t look back. But much as she tried to return her thoughts to her unfinished sketch of the Prince Regent’s latest peccadillo, she couldn’t keep from asking herself whether it was wise to get involved in another murder with the earl.
A shiver, sharp as daggerpoints, danced down her spine as Charlotte recalled how the thought of losing Wrexford had shaken her to the core. The depth of her sentiment had frightened her. Weakness of any kind was dangerous. Only the strong survived.
“I am strong. I always have been,” she whispered, trying to give some force to her breath.
Or am I?
Of late, so many of her defenses felt under siege. Caring too deeply made one vulnerable. Raven and Hawk, the two homeless, half-wild urchins she had found sheltering in her previous house, had taken hold of her heart in ways she had never expected. Charlotte couldn’t say exactly how it had happened. They had started running errands to her network of informants in return for scraps of food, and . . .
And now, they had a snug little aerie in her attic, respectable clothing, and an Oxford-educated tutor giving them lessons several times a week. Ye gods, they even had fancy new names to go along with their avian monikers! Thomas Ravenwood Sloane and Alexander Hawksley Sloane. A smile touched her lips. However unconventional, they had become a family, tied together not by blood but by love.
Love. In that word lay the heart of her dilemma. It set off a tangle of conflicted emotions, and Charlotte wasn’t quite sure how to go about unknotting them. Over the years, adversity had shaped her to think that in order to survive, one’s core inner strength had to come from within. One couldn’t count on others.
Now she wasn’t so sure. And that was frightening.
Which brought her full circle back to Wrexford.
“Hell’s bells, I’m simply asking him for some information,” she muttered. “Neither of us is in any danger of being drawn into this murder.” Forcing aside further thoughts on the earl, Charlotte dipped her now-pristine pen into the inkwell. Finishing the drawing of the Prince Regent was something she could control.
And besides, it was her art that paid for her independence. Despite all fears and uncertainties preying on her mind, that wasn’t something she ever intended to give up.
Focused on her work, Charlotte lost all track of the time. It was the loud thump of the front door falling shut and a tandem shout from the boys announcing their return that drew her back to the present.
“Excellent,” she murmured, anxious to learn what Wrexford had told them about the scientific soiree. However, that sentiment was quickly revised when the Raven added, “His Nibs has come along with us.”
Repressing an oath, Charlotte glanced down at her paint-smudged cuffs before quickly tucking a few strangling strands of hair behind her ear.
“I thought I might as well come along and subject myself to your interrogation in person,” drawled the Earl of Wrexford as she entered the downstairs parlor. “Knowing your infernal attention to detail, it seemed likely you would have so many questions, the Weasels would wear out their boots running back and forth between our residences.”
“Weasels” was what Wrexford had dubbed the boys, much to their hilarity. They knew he had long ago forgiven Raven for sticking a knife in his leg during their first encounter.
“How very thoughtful of you, milord,” replied Charlotte, matching his note of dry humor. “Would you care for—”
“Tea?” said the plain-faced, middle-aged woman, who had hurried out from the kitchen. “I’ve just set the kettle on the hob, Mrs. Sloane. And a pan of ginger biscuits are about to come out of the oven.”
Ignoring the hungry looks from the boys, Charlotte raised an inquiring brow at the earl. As McClellan was still technically in his employ, she left the decision to him.
“Halloo, McClellan,” said Wrexford with an amused smile. “I trust Mrs. Sloane isn’t proving too terrible a taskmaster.” He had dispatched the woman—whose arsenal of skills apparently included being a crack shot with a pistol—to stay with Charlotte after an intruder had broken into the house during their investigation of Elihu Ashton’s murder. The arrangement had proved to have a number of practical advantages, and so she had remained as member of the unconventional household. Her somewhat nebulous duties included serving as a lady’s maid on the rare occasions when Charlotte was required to venture into Polite Society, but most importantly, her presence allowed the earl to call at the house without violating the rules of propriety.
“I’ve no cause for complaint, milord,” answered McClellan dryly. “No one has tried to kill us lately.” A pause. “Though the lads do their best to slay any semblance of cleanliness to the floors and their clothing.”
“Tsk, tsk,” clucked the earl. “I would say no biscuits for the wicked—”
Hawk’s grimy face pinched in horror.
“Except I happen to be famished,” he finished.
“Now that we’ve performed all the necessary social graces,” said Charlotte to McClellan, “might you kindly fetch the refreshments, so His Lordship and I can get down to business.”
Assuming an air of innocence, Raven and Hawk fell in step behind the woman as she headed off for the kitchen.
The earl settled himself on the sofa, all well-tailored broad shoulders and long-legged elegance. The room suddenly felt much smaller as Charlotte took a seat in the facing armchair. He seemed to crowd out all else.
“This is a very pleasant room,” he remarked, looking around with an approving glance at the simple but tasteful furnishings. “You were wise to make the decision to leave your old residence.” A tiny, tumbledown sliver of a house, it had been located in a far less savory part of London. “I trust you have no regrets?”
“No,” she replied a little testily, impatient to get to work. In her profession, time was money. She needed to have a finished drawing of the murder to Mr. Fores as quickly as possible in order to best the competition. “Now, might we put aside household matters and turn to what you know about the Bloody Butcher’s latest victim?”
His mouth quirked in amusement. “Likely not enough to satisfy your artistic sensibility, but I shall try.” He shifted and recrossed his booted legs. “To answer the question in your note, yes, I was present at the duke’s gathering. However, I left early as Tyler and I were conducting a complex chemical experiment that required precise timing.”
The earl was one of the country’s leading experts in chemistry, though his devil-may-care behavior and hair-trigger temper often overshadowed his intellectual accomplishments. Tyler, his nominal valet, had advanced scientific training and served as his laboratory assistant.
Charlotte blew out her breath. “Damnation, I was hoping you could confirm the ghoulish details. Raven and Hawk heard that the victim’s—”
“They heard right,” interrupted Wrexford. “Mr. Griffin had the same idea as you did. He came to see me early this morning to see if I had attended the soiree, and whether I had seen anything suspicious.”
Griffin, regarded to be the best of the Bow Street Runners, had been involved in investigating the earl when he had been a prime suspect in a murder. Despite a less than auspicious start, they had developed a grudging respect for each other.
“And did you?” she pressed.
“Alas, no. But I managed to squeeze some of the more intimate details of the crime out of him.” A wry smile. “If he knew I was passing them on to the infamous A. J. Quill, he’d likely slice off one of my bollocks.”
Charlotte winced. “So it’s really true.” She waited as McClellan entered and set the tea tray on the side table and discreetly withdrew. “Just, er, one is missing?”
The earl nodded in confirmation.
Taking a small notebook and pencil from the pocket sewn into her work gown, she looked up expectantly. “Did Mr. Griffin describe how the victim was situated when he was found, and what the state of his clothing looked like?”
“I thought you might inquire about that. The poor fellow was seated slumped, but still upright, on the bench in the Queen’s Alcove. Death was caused by a single knife thrust to the heart. The blade then sliced the fastenings on the left side of the trousers . . .” Wrexford gave a short, succinct summary of the corpse’s condition.
For all the ghoulishness of the killer’s mutilation, it sounded as if he had performed the task with a certain civility, removing the trophy with surgical precision. No other damage or disfiguration had occurred.
From what Charlotte had heard about the previous deaths, it was the same modus operandi. Though, she reminded herself as she finished jotting her notes, that didn’t necessarily mean it was the same killer. Over the years, she had learned that criminals could be diabolically cunning. Someone might be mimicking the Bloody Butcher to cover his own personal reasons for wanting the victim dead.
Whatever the motive—assuming a madman could be said to have rational thoughts—Charlotte had a feeling this was going to be a horribly difficult murder to solve.
That the victim was from the highest circle of Society could soon have the investigators caught up in a vortex of secrets and lies. Beneath their gilded smiles and polished manners, the wealthy hid a multitude of sins.
“What a coil,” muttered Charlotte as she rose and went to pour tea for him before it turned cold.
“Indeed,” agreed Wrexford. “Though you will likely make a fortune, given the rather sensational nature of his injuries.” He pulled a face. “Thank God I can’t be accused of having any connection to the fellow. I hadn’t yet made his acquaintance.”
She began adding sugar to his cup. “Is the identity of the victim known?”
“Yes. He’s a young gentleman from the North by the name of Lord Chittenden.”
The spoon slipped, sloshing hot tea over her fingers.
“A baron from the Lake District,” the earl went on. “Apparently, he had only recently come into the title . . .”
A strange buzzing rose in Charlotte’s ears, drowning out the rest of his words.
And then suddenly the room began to spin.
“Allow me to congratulate you, Mrs. Sloane,” drawled the earl as Charlotte’s eyes fluttered open. “For the first time in our acquaintance, you’ve finally reacted like a normal, flighty female who swoons into a dead faint at the mention of an indelicate subject.”
She tried to sit up, only to choke back a retch and sink back down against the sofa pillows. Her ghostly pale face was now shaded with a faint tinge of bilious green.
Wrexford realized with a start that he had never seen her look so shaken. Refraining from any further jesting, he rose and fetched the bottle of brandy that he knew was kept in one of the cabinets.
“Drink,” he commanded, splashing a measure into the empty teacup and bringing it to her lips.
Charlotte gagged at the first sip, but managed to down a weak swallow.
“Oh, dear God,” she whispered, so softly that he barely could make out the words. “This changes everything.”
A cryptic announcement, which could mean any number of things. Given the secrets within secrets in which she had swathed her true self, it wasn’t surprising.
She had recently revealed her real identity to him. It had come as a bit of a shock to learn the fiercely independent young widow, who through hard work and unshakable strength had created a profitable business for herself, was, in fact, an aristocrat. The daughter of an earl, who had tossed away a life of privilege and comfort to elope with her drawing master . . .
Shaking off his momentary musing, Wrexford asked, “Would you care to elucidate on that statement?”
But before Charlotte could reply, McClellan hurried in with the reviving compress he had called for.
“Permit me to be of assistance, Mrs. Sloane.” With her usual show of brisk efficiency, McClellan took a seat on the edge of the sofa and applied a wet cloth to Charlotte’s brow.
“A whiff of vinaigrette might also be advisable,” murmured the earl. Charlotte was still looking as pale as death.
Both women reacted with a very unladylike reply.
“Nor do we need to burn a feather under my nose,” added Charlotte. “Or any other of the damnably stupid remedies you men deem essential for the weaker sex.”
Wrexford was somewhat reassured by her show of sarcasm. “Yes, I can see that you’re well on the way to recovery.”
She chuffed a snort.
“M-M’lady’s not . . . going to die, is she?”
He turned to see the two boys hovering in the shadows of the doorway, their faces clouded with uncertainty. Growing up in the stews of London, they had no illusions about how swiftly the Grim Reaper’s scythe could strike.
“No, lads,” he answered quietly. “It was just a passing megrim. These things happen.”
“Not to m’lady.” Fists clenched, Raven edged into the room, belligerence not quite covering the flicker of fear in his eyes. The boy had assumed the role of protector to his younger brother and Charlotte—a heavy weight for such young shoulders. “Ye must have done something to upset her.”
“Not intentionally. But if you feel compelled to bloody my beak, we can step out to the garden and settle the matter like gentlemen.”
“Good God, let’s not add any further violence to the morning,” rasped Charlotte. To Raven, she added, “Be assured, His Lordship was no more annoying than usual.”
A grudging grin tugged at the boy’s mouth. “Oiy, well, in that case, I won’t have to thrash him to a pulp.”
“If you wish to be truly useful with your fives,” interjected McClellan, “you and your brother could fly to the greengrocer and fetch me more gingerroot for an herbal tisane.”
As their steps peltered down in the corridor, Charlotte pushed herself into a sitting position. Her gaze, noted Wrexford, avoided meeting his.
“I fear I must have eaten something that disagreed with me,” she muttered. “I’m still feeling rather nauseous.”
She looked ill, but the earl was sure it was not on account of any tainted food.
“Milord, if you would excuse us, I think it best for Mrs. Sloane to retire to her bedchamber,” suggested McClellan.
Charlotte’s eyes remained averted. No question she was hiding something.
“Of course.” He rose without argument. “I’ll see myself out.”
On reaching the street, he climbed into his carriage and leaned back against the squabs as the coachman cracked the whip.
Closing his eyes, Wrexford pondered the strange scene that had just taken place. No one—no one!—of his acquaintance possessed the same core of unshakable strength as Charlotte Sophia Anna Mallory Sloane. Not only had she calmly faced terrible revelations about her late husband, which would have crushed a lesser woman, she had also endured death threats to her beloved urchins . . . and charged into danger, time and time again, with no thought to her own safety. Not to speak of her profession, where she had not let the harsh realities of life corrupt her idealism or her commitment to justice and social reform.
Her courage, both moral and physical, was frightening—which made her reaction to the Kensington Palace murder all the more disturbing.
There seemed to be only one logical answer. Lord Chittenden was not a stranger.
A past lover, perhaps?
The idea was more unsettling than he cared to admit. Granted, as a widow, she was allowed more freedom in her personal life than other women. Or ladies, he corrected himself. Charlotte was a highborn lady, which allowed her even more leeway . . .
Pushing such thoughts aside, Wrexford concentrated on the practical question—what was her connection to the murdered baron? For the rest of the ride home, he pondered the possibilities.
“Tyler!” he barked, striding into his workroom without pausing to hand over his topcoat and high-crown beaver hat to the trailing footman.
“Milord?” His valet looked up from the various cauldrons suspended over several flaming spirit lamps. Steam had plastered his red-gold hair to his angular brow. In the glow of the fires, his eyes had a demon-like glow, giving him the look of Vulcan’s apprentice.
“Might I finish adjusting the temperatures before you go on?” added Tyler with an aggrieved sniff. “The process, as you well know, requires precise concentration.”
Wrexford perched a hip on his desk and folded his arms.
After several minutes, Tyler straightened, and wiped his hands on his shirtfront, leaving a gunpowder grey streak on the white linen. “I shall need to cool the liquids in a quarter hour. In the meantime, is there some other task you wish done?”
“I’ll take charge of the chemicals.” The earl quickly scribbled out a few lines on a piece of paper. “I want you to gather all the information you can on this gentleman. I’ve suggested a few lines of inquiry to pursue.” Likely, he would think of more.
As his valet read over the note, a frown tugged at the corners of his mouth. “I thought you said the Bloody Butcher murders had had nothing to do with you.”
Wrexford set aside the pen. “I’ve changed my mind.”
The sweet-sharp scent of ginger tickled at her nostrils as a gossamer plume of steam floated up from the mug. “Thank you,” murmured Charlotte, accepting the fresh-brewed tisane.
McClellan smoothed a crease from the coverlet. “Is there anything else I can get you?”
“No. A bit of sleep is all I need to put me right.” She forced a smile. “My apologies. My digestion is not usually so delicate.”
McClellan fixed her with an unblinking stare. “No, I don’t imagine it is.” A flick of her fingers banished another wrinkle. “Do you wish to talk about it?”
“About what I ate?” asked Charlotte. “In all honesty, I’ve no idea what it could have been.”
The reply earned a tiny frown and a stony silence as McClellan reordered her tray and prepared to leave.
It deserved worse, thought Charlotte guiltily. She disliked being less than forthright with her friends, but she needed to think.
If only my thoughts would stop spinning and screaming like wild whirling dervishes inside my skull.
“The lads went out to get you flowers from Covent Garden. I’ll make sure they wait until you’ve woken before presenting them.”
“Thank you,” repeated Charlotte, hating the prim hollowness of her words. She despised the everyday deceptions and manipulations that passed for politeness in the beau monde. The self-serving little lies, the puffed-up conceit.
She took pride in being unflinchingly honest, and yet, like Achilles, she had one elemental vulnerability. Whether it would prove mortal to her present existence remained to be seen.
Aside from Wrexford, she hadn’t revealed her true identity to anyone else yet. She had told him she needed time to consider all the ramifications of such a momentous decision.
One that would irrevocably change her life.
Throwing off the covers, Charlotte rose and moved to the mullioned window overlooking the tiny back garden. A chill prickled against her skin as she pressed her forehead against one of the panes. Her breath fogged the glass, and in the blink of an eye, the familiar tree was blurred beyond recognition.
Vita et praebebit spem fallacem—life is but an illusion.
She had always known, deep down inside, that this day would come. Even before Wrexford had known the truth, he had been challenging, cajoling . . .
Daring her to confront the life she had so painstakingly constructed out of smoke and sleight of hand.
Charlotte stepped back and pressed her palms to her eyes, feeling the hot sting of tears.
“Cedric,” she whispered, finally allowing her grief to well up in a shuddering sob. Cedric was dead. Never again would she see the golden glint of his hair dancing in the wind as they rode neck and leather through the rolling fields. Never again would they help each other translate a particularly difficult passage of Ovid from Latin into English. Never again would they steal apple tarts and gorge themselves out by the lake.
They had been little fiends. Cedric, Nicky, Charley—a trio bent on devil-may-care mischief in those long-ago carefree summers.
Her throat tightened. Dear God—what of Nicky? Did he know yet? The two of them had been the closest of friends—twins in spirit, as well as looks. He would be devastated by the news.
Murder, as she had come to know all too well, always had more than one victim.
Pushing aside raw emotion, Charlotte forced herself to regather her wits and think rationally. Chittenden, Chittenden . . . She paid little heed to the social gossip of the beau monde, but she seemed to recall reading that Lord Chittenden had recently taken up residence in London. She had assumed it was Cedric’s father and had thought nothing more of it.
She had long ago made the decision to cut off any contact with people from her previous life. But if Nicky was in Town, the instinct for self-preservation must yield to the bonds of love. She couldn’t—she wouldn’t—remain aloof from the two stalwart friends of her youth.
Murder . . .
“Murder,” she rasped, suddenly recalling that duty demanded she make a drawing of the Bloody Butcher’s latest victim.
For an instant, every fiber of her being rebelled against it. But she quickly silenced the protest. Rather than a betrayal, her art could be a powerful force in provoking the public to demand that the murderous madman be apprehended before he struck again.
After splashing some water on her face and pinching a bit of color back to her cheeks, Charlotte drew a deep breath and headed for her workroom.
Cedric had always been willing to think outside the boundaries of conventional wisdom. She felt sure he would applaud her decision.
Wrexford looked up from his laboratory ledger at the sound of fast-approaching footsteps in the corridor.
“Back so soon?” he remarked as his valet flung open the door and entered the workroom. “Your efficiency is always impressive, but in this case it seems unusually so.”
“The plot thickens,” said Tyler, punctuating the announcement by removing his hat and shaking off the raindrops. “I thought you would want to know right away.”
“Then kindly stubble the theatrics.” His valet had a penchant for drama. “What have your learned?”
“That Chittenden’s younger brother—younger by naught but a few minutes—has been taken into custody by the Runners and charged with the murder. Apparently, a bloody knife was found hidden in his quarters at the Albany Hotel, along with a silk handkerchief containing a gristly scrap of flesh.”
Good God. A depraved twist to an ugly crime. Wrexford pursed his lips, wondering how Charlotte would take the news.
“You are sure of this?” he demanded.
Tyler nodded. “Aye. On hearing whispers of it at the Royal Institution—where, by the by, both men had frequently been attending scientific lectures and discussions—I made a visit to Bow Street. Griffin had just returned from taking the prisoner to Newgate and confir. . .
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