From glittering ballrooms to London’s dark underbelly, Ash & Juliana are back on the hunt for a murderer in the second installment of this thrilling historical mystery series from L.C. Sharp.
The London ton protect their own. Even when it comes to murder.
“There’s been an incident.”
In the finer circles of 1749 London, incident is apparently the polite way to describe discovering a body with a gruesome wound and no sign of the killer. But for newlyweds Lady Juliana and Sir Edmund “Ash” Ashendon, it’s a chance to track down the culprit and right a wrong—something they are both intimately familiar with.
Indeed, it is the only thing they are intimately familiar with. For the moment.
Though their marriage may be one of convenience, there’s nothing convenient about learning the victim has ties to a name from their past: the dreaded Raven. And the Raven isn’t the only danger they face. The aristocracy protects its own, and in London’s darkest corners, no one wants to be unmasked.
With Juliana’s life on the line, time is running out for Ash to find the killer before their marriage comes to an inconveniently bloody end.
Ash & Juliana
Book 1: The Wedding Night Affair
Book 2: The Sign of the Raven
Release date: August 17, 2021
Publisher: Carina Press
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The Sign of the Raven
Chapter OneApril 1749
The dead man lay on his front, irregular light from the last of the fireworks flickering over him. The bloody, black-rimmed hole in his back told its own story. Before the bullet had spoiled it, the coat had been a fine one in red figured velvet. The color helped to disguise the blood, which was still seeping out, turning the grass a deeper shade. The heavy shadows, here beneath the makeshift stands erected for the show, cast the scene into morbid gloom.
“Oh my God!”
Whoever said that had brought light, one of the torches set in holders around the arena. The hot glare seared over the scene, bringing it into bright reality.
More blood pooled around the victim. His hands were sprawled out either side of him. His bald head gleamed in the light of the torches, his wig and hat lying a foot away.
“Is he dead?” someone said, his voice hushed. If Juliana hadn’t been standing so close to her footman, she wouldn’t have heard him. The noise outside almost drowned the sound here, creating an island of horror.
“Stay there. Make sure nobody else comes in.” Her husband, having finished his orders to the hastily gathered officials, came across the damp grass to join her.
A relieved member of Vauxhall Gardens’ staff had rushed up to them five minutes before. “Sir Edmund! There’s been an incident. Please come to see.”
At Ash’s raised brow, the man added, “I saw you at Bow Street last year. And you, ma’am.” Such was fame, although of the notorious kind. “Please help us now. We don’t know what to do.”
Fighting against the crowd, Ash and Juliana, followed by Ash’s sister Amelia and brother Gregory, followed the man back to the stands, erected for the spectators of the firework display. The show done, people surged to the exit, all trying to get to the ferrymen first. The occasional shout of “God save the king!” reminded everyone that while King George had not fought every battle personally, he’d been instrumental in making the peace that this display was to celebrate. This was only the rehearsal for the main celebration, but it had been spectacular. And hugely successful. Everything had worked, the music played on cue, the fireworks creating a wonderland of sparkling sensation.
Not here, in this shadowed, small space.
Outside this space, barely private enough for a quick discussion, people milled around, shouting, laughing. Inside, nobody laughed. They stood in a space made by angling two blocks of seats, a secret place. But at least two people had known of it.
This man hadn’t killed himself. The tang of freshly spilled blood mixed with the stink of burned powder, tainting the air, and making her nostrils itch. She’d smelled the burning all evening, but the blood was a new addition. Not a good one.
Ash bent and touched his fingers to the man’s wrist, then his neck. He straightened, his face devoid of expression. “He’s dead.”
Obviously, but he had to confirm it.
He exchanged a glance with her and the tiny muscles at the corners of his mouth tightened. Not a smile, but a wry acknowledgment. Anyone shot in the back behind the heart had no chance of surviving. Ash studied her briefly, and she nodded, a silent assurance that she was fine. Then he walked past to take control of the situation. Somebody had to.
From her position at the small gap between the stands, her sister-in-law Amelia gasped and pulled her young brother back by his collar when he would have rushed inside. “Come, Gregory. We’re only in the way here. Juliana, will you come with us?”
“I’ll stay,” Juliana said.
Amelia was doing her best to block her younger brother’s view. “Such a tragic ending to the evening!” She glanced at the man, then away, shuddering. “Did you know him? He looks richly dressed enough for the people you used to mix with.”
Gregory dodged, trying to get around them to see. Amelia took his shoulders firmly and forcibly turned him away. She wouldn’t be able to do that much longer. At twelve, Gregory was already shooting up like a beanstalk.
“I have no idea,” Juliana said. “I don’t know every richly dressed man in London, especially when he’s lying on his face.” Until recently, Juliana had moved in the highest circles. Even so, the aristocracy did not have the monopoly on expensive fashion. This man could be from anywhere.
She heard Ash giving orders for them to bring light and create a barrier so spectators would not see the man. For some, it would make the perfect, scandalous end to a good evening’s entertainment.
“Freeman is here,” Amelia said. “He will take us to the ferry.”
Juliana glanced at Ash and grimaced at her sister-in-law. “Considering the two-hour wait we had to get here, we will doubtless catch up with you before you get your ferry.”
They had arrived at Vauxhall Gardens by water, but the jam of ferries and other boats had rivalled the carriages, packed end to end. All London had wanted to come tonight to view the fireworks, a rehearsal for the celebration set to take place in Green Park shortly. That one would attract even more traffic. Workmen were building the pavilion, a monstrous palace in timber, as the backdrop to the celebrations. One dead man wouldn’t stop that.
The dead man’s bald head gleamed in the flickering light from the torches, his fine wig and gold-braided cocked hat beside it. He’d fallen with force, like a tree cut down in the forest. A sudden attack? Perhaps a cutpurse panicking at being caught. But cutpurses didn’t carry firearms. Pistols were expensive and heavy. Cumbersome for the nimbleness cutpurses needed.
Ash returned, came to Juliana’s side. “You’ll stay, then?”
She was flattered that he asked. Nobody had concerned themselves with her before she’d met him. While she couldn’t call that day fortunate, something good had come of it. “Yes.” And she was flattered that he wanted her to stay. “Freeman will take Amelia and Gregory to the ferry.”
“You’ll have a long wait,” Ash said. “With London Bridge closed, they can’t use their carriages unless they go all the way up to Putney Bridge. Next year or the year after, we’ll have Westminster Bridge.”
“That would have been useful.” The site of the new bridge was close by, but the never-ending building seemed to go on forever. “I’ll believe it’s open when I see it,” she said.
He humphed. A laugh wouldn’t have been appropriate. He spoke to Amelia. “Be safe.” He nodded to Freeman. The footman had given them signal service last year, when she’d nearly—she turned her mind away from past ugliness to concentrate on the current example.
Amelia worked her way back, and joined their footman, who led her and Gregory away. Gregory looked back. Ash’s younger brother showed signs of the keen intelligence that marked the family. Not least the man standing by her side. Unlike the unfortunate man on the floor, Ash was dressed modestly, but pin neat, his wig precisely set on his head, the hat at the perfect angle. Few people would give him a second glance in a crowd. That was one of his gifts. “Come,” he said, but he didn’t touch her, only led the way to the body on the grass. “Careful of the blood.”
Juliana lifted her skirts, but she was wearing a practical ankle-length gown with small hoops, easier to control in this crowd. The nobility had arrived in their private boats and carriages, the women with skirts so wide they could barely sidle into their seats, the men’s coats stiffened so they could have stood up on their own. White faces, enlivened by the occasional patch or circle of red, in the artificial style currently high fashion, made anonymous by the heavy paint that eventually ruined their skin. Until last year, Juliana would have belonged there, but now she did not. Would never belong in that way again.
She walked carefully around the corpse. The cramped space meant she had to bend her neck to avoid banging her head on the wooden benches set above. She bent, putting her revulsion away to deal with another time. She examined him closely without touching him. “I see no signs of struggle. He’s a strong man, large hands, but his nails are carefully manicured. He hasn’t broken any, and I don’t see any marks, either.”
Ash made a hmm of acceptance. Pulling off his coat, he set it on a ledge made of the back ends of two rows of seats. Then he crouched, sat on his heels. “Nothing else? No weapon?”
She shook her head. “No sword.” Only the nobility were supposed to wear swords in the city, but plenty of people disobeyed that bylaw.
Ash bent forward and examined the man’s head without touching it. “No injury there, either.” He stood, and brushed off his knees, although they had not touched the grass. They’d had no rain for a while, so the ground was dusty. Better than mud, she supposed. Or blood. She rose too, without taking his outstretched hand.
The happy chatter of gossiping people leaving the gardens rose all around them, but this enclave was almost empty in comparison.
“Let’s turn him.” Ash signaled to the attendants standing by. They rolled the dead man to his back.
Together, Ash and Juliana studied the square face, slight jowls softening the lower jaw. “Alive and standing, he’d be tall,” she said. “And broad.” But not with fat, or not much of it. “He’s strong. He’d have fought off an attacker.” He looked familiar.
Her first husband had been such a man. Large, shorter than this one, and quick with his fists, as he’d proved on their wedding night. The memory remained with her, but every day its power declined. Except for the dreams she couldn’t control.
“Which indicates he was taken by surprise,” her husband added. He touched his jaw, smoothed his fingers along the sharp chin, his habit when thinking.
The dead man left a dark, irregular shadow where the blood had seeped into the ground. The skirts of his green coat flared around him, the ivory silk lining bright against the darker turf.
The bullet had left his body at approximately the corresponding point to the entry point; it hadn’t gone up or down.
“The killer pressed the pistol into his back and pulled the trigger,” she murmured.
“His back tells the same story, with the blackening of the wound and the neat entrance point.”
The waistcoat had been a fine one. Above and below the wound, traces of heavy embroidery remained. The buttons glittered with chips of diamonds or paste. His heavy green broadcloth coat had gold embroidery on the cuffs and down the front.
She might know him.
Reluctantly, she raised her gaze to the dead man’s face.
She didn’t need to know the rest of Ash’s question. “I’ve seen him; I’m sure of it, but in some ballroom somewhere, or at the theatre. He’s not an intimate, not a friend or a fellow houseguest. I’ll have his name in a minute.”
“So, he’s wealthy, probably aristocratic. We shouldn’t have difficulty identifying him. Don’t worry about it now.”
She loved to watch him work, listen to him reasoning his way through an event.
He folded his arms, touched his chin with his finger and frowned. “On an occasion like this, the explosions would have hidden any gun retort, if timed right. It could be a simple robbery gone wrong. His clothes are fine, so he obviously had a fat purse somewhere. Let’s see, shall we?”
He bent, one knee on the ground, and thrust his hand into one of the large pockets on the outside of the coat. He searched the man’s pockets, pulling out what he found and making a small pile on the skirt of the coat nearest to him.
A two and sixpenny ticket to the rehearsal of the fireworks for the celebration of the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle. She couldn’t read the small print, but she recognized it as the twin of one in her pocket. A few loose guineas, but no purse.
Ash passed the handkerchief to her, and she looked at the blue letters embroidered on one corner. The florid initials JC and their style meant nothing to her. She held it while she watched her husband pull more items out of the man’s pockets. No door key, which would mean he had servants to let him in. What gentleman bothered with a door key? Three square tokens of dull silvery metal, with something stamped on the surface. At least there were three, but when Ash dropped them on the pile of belongings, there were only two. He’d kept one back.
And that was all. Gold or pinchbeck buckles at his knees and fastening his shoes, fine buttons on his coat and waistcoat. All eminently sellable, and all left behind.
“I can think of a few possibilities,” she said when he straightened and came back to her side.
“The robber was interrupted or startled, and the gun went off. Could the weapon have been too finely tuned?” Some pistols were set to go off the minute a person touched the trigger. Not popular, because of the inherent dangers of such a weapon, but they existed.
“Possibly. But if you knew your pistol had that problem, would you really push it against someone’s back?”
“And what about the fireworks?”
“Ah. Yes. They would muffle the sound.”
“Is this it, sir?”
A man held out a wicked but beautiful weapon. Ash took it. The hammer was deep in the pan, which had been blackened by the recent explosion that had forced a bullet into the man on the ground. It was chased, engraved, the workmanship beautiful. “A gentleman’s weapon,” Ash remarked.
“Yes.” She took it from him, hefted it. Touched the place the murderer must have done, but she had no visions, merely her acute sense of observation. “A dueling pistol,” she remarked. Gentlemen collected them, showed them off to people.
She flicked a glance at the spatter of blood, bone and gore that had punched over the space when the gun had gone off and a sudden wave of nausea took her by surprise. She forced it down. If she were going to vomit, she would do it somewhere else. No, she would not be sick. She pulled her shawl more securely around her. The evening was fine, but the chill of spring still hung in the air. And now the chill came from witnessing this scene of death.
In the months since her marriage, she had seen a few gory scenes. When she demanded that her husband involve her in his work, he’d taken her to the messiest scenes. He either wanted to test her tolerance, or to see if he could rely on her not to become missish. She had coped, although it had not always been easy. Ash often helped Bow Street magistrates with their more interesting cases, as he put it, or took private commissions.
But she had not let him down. The first two times, she did vomit, but not where it affected the scene of the crime. Sometimes the stink and degradation of the place forced that out of her, rather than the crime itself. Sometimes she wanted to weep, like the time when a husband had beaten his wife to death. So she took to carrying more than one handkerchief with her.
The work, the stubborn crimes that multiplied in a city as large as London, fascinated her. If she had to learn to bear the sight of death, then she would. She was useful, performing a service that benefitted people, rather than becoming a decorative ornament.
After all, the first time she’d met Ash was the morning she woke up next to the body of her dead husband.
Was this man somebody’s husband? Would his death cause mourning and sorrow? Or had the person who killed him wanted him dead? Juliana had wanted her first husband dead, but she had not killed him. She’d have been stupid to do so, as she’d have become the prime suspect. Which she had. Only Ash had cared, only he had sorted through the evidence until he got to the truth. And for that, she would be forever grateful, even though he didn’t want her gratitude.
“Could he have known his killer?”
Ash hummed in agreement. “I am thinking about that possibility. After all, what was he doing here, in this space? He could have arranged to meet someone, or someone forced him here at gunpoint. Or both. I need to know who he is, who he came with, if anyone, where he was sitting for the performance. There are two things absent from his pockets that I’d expect to find there.”
She got his meaning. “His card case and his purse.”
An attendant approached them. “Could this be it, sir?”
He held out an elaborately chased case with that same monogram on the lid. The victim had a positive fever for his initials.
“Where did you find it?” Ash asked.
The man pointed to a corner of the area, toward the back. “Just there, sir. Didn’t see it until we brought more torches in.”
“Thank you.” Ash took the case from him. “Perhaps he’d already got it out, ready to present his card to the person he met.”
“Which indicates he didn’t know the person.”
“It does.” Ash ran his finger along the front edge of the case, searching for the button or lever that opened it. Knowing his impatience with devices, she took it from him. There should be a catch just below the center of the slim box. Ah yes.
A stentorian throat clearing at the opening drew everyone’s attention, including hers. She knew that sound, had dreaded it most of her life.
“What is Coddington doing here?” demanded her father.
When Juliana moved closer to Ash, he knew who stood before them. How he had got in here was a matter Ash intended to take up with the men he’d tasked to secure the entrance. But he could guess how. The man’s arrogance was notorious, even in the highest echelons of society.
Ash didn’t consider himself a man of violence, but he wanted nothing more than to punch Lord Hawksworth in his privileged, smug face. That man had condoned the abuse of his daughter, all to perpetrate his title, to consolidate his name. Well, he was doomed to disappointment.
What he’d allowed that man to do to Juliana was beyond admissible. The earl had lost even more weight recently, his face resembling a cadaver’s more and more. He’d read that Hawksworth followed a special diet. His wife obviously had not joined him. She appeared far less unhealthy than he did.
Instead of answering the earl, Ash spoke to the man who’d found the card case. “Have these people removed,” he said. And meant it.
But Juliana put her hand on his sleeve. “Wait.”
With anyone else, he’d have shown a little impatience in order to clear the scene. But he listened to her. He had married a woman of great understanding and perception. And she was touching him, something she did rarely, even now.
“They know him,” she reminded him, and held something out for him to read.
Ah yes. A card from the case, the embossed pasteboard announcing the same name Lord Hawksworth had just said. James, Baron Coddington. He mulled the name over in his mind, and the pieces fell into place.
He’d heard of the baron because of his exploits around town. Known in the gentlemen’s clubs and the hells alike, a man who had inherited a fortune from his father and a female relative. Gaming and womanizing were his preference. Ash had read about his exploits, assumed most of them were inventions. He supposed he was about to find out.
He might as well use Juliana’s father, since he’d pushed into the scene. “A baron, yes?”
He turned to the men behind him. “Nobody else is to get past you. If anyone does, I’ll require an answer from you personally.” They should understand he would ensure any of them who transgressed would be dismissed. He could do without this crime scene becoming the purview of the great and arrogant.
Lord Hawksworth, two ranks above Coddington, inclined his head. “But a friend,” he added. “He’s drunk. You can release him to me. I’ll see he gets home safely.”
Hawksworth’s wife nudged him. Ash would not give her the satisfaction of calling her Juliana’s mother, even in his mind. She had birthed Juliana. And exploited her. “Coddington will not be going home tonight,” she said. “Or any other night.” She remained totally calm. Ash had noted the way Juliana had gone pale when she’d seen the body. She had retained her dinner, and her calm, but it had taken effort. On the other hand, Lady Hawksworth showed no reaction at all. Her carefully painted mask gave her a look of blankness, but even her eyes remained cool and uncaring.
His lordship took another look, closer. The blood had soaked into the grass, but the gaping exit wound on his chest was hard to miss. And yet, his lordship had missed it until he concentrated on it.
After a pause, he bellowed, “What has happened here? I demand an answer!” For good measure, he glared at Ash.
“So do I,” Ash said, keeping his voice soft and unchallenging. He had no mind to involve this man in any case he might take. And yes, he wanted this one. There was a puzzle to be solved here, and that always drew him to a case. He didn’t need the money. He did it for the pleasure of solving a conundrum, and the even greater pleasure of seeing justice done.
Juliana had moved closer to him when her father yelled. The movement enraged him, that Hawksworth still had that effect on her. He could not expect her to recover from the habits of a lifetime in a few months.
“I repeat. What has happened here?” Hawksworth demanded.
What business was it of his?
Ash moved closer to Juliana, his shoulder in front of hers. “If you could kindly moderate your tone, we would attract fewer people,” Ash told him.
Lord Hawksworth glared at him. Ash met his stare levelly. After a moment, the earl swallowed. “Go on,” he said, the pitch of his voice considerably lower.
“As you see, Lord Coddington has met an untimely end.” Should he ask his lordship for discretion? Asking this man for anything stuck in his throat. No matter, the story would get out soon enough on its own.
Ash glanced at Juliana. She appeared unmoved, but he was well acquainted with her ability to keep her expression clear. She met his inquiring gaze and he saw the assurance in her eyes.
Ash turned back to the body. Ideally he would have made a sketch of the scene, but he would have to make do with remembering it. They had not the light to do it, nor the equipment he needed. No pen, no charcoal stick, since he’d worn what his new valet termed as one of his good coats. Never mind, because he had the best observer he had ever met standing next to him.
“Who would do such a terrible thing?” his lordship demanded.
“Obviously that is why we are here.” Ash turned his back. The earl would not like that, but he would have to put up with it. Ash had more important things to do.
Hawksworth’s outraged exclamation told him as much, but Ash ignored it until the earl shoved his way past, heading for the body. He bent, as if to touch Coddington, even try to lift him. “I will not allow poor Coddington to be left here for every ruffian to see!”
Juliana moved to block him from touching the body. “Father, please do not make a scene. It will do nobody any good.”
Ash glanced at a man standing by—one easily as large as his lordship, but in better condition—but there was no need. After glancing at Juliana, the earl gave a reluctant nod, then stepped back.
Ash addressed his lordship. “After we leave here this evening, Lord Coddington will be placed in the morgue, where he will remain until the coroner releases the body.”
Lord Hawksworth turned to Ash. “You, sir, have no manners.”
“One does not discover the truth by politeness,” he answered. Juliana touched his arm and he turned his head and smiled at her. “Yes, sweetheart?”
Perhaps he did slather on the honey, but Hawksworth annoyed him at best, infuriated him at worst. Anything he could do to make his existence less comfortable was welcome.
“We should, perhaps, draw this unpleasant encounter to a close.” She indicated behind them with a jerk of her head. “People are gathering. You can always count on the instinct of the mob.”
Yes, that was true. At least Lord Hawksworth had not tried to pick up the body in his arms. Instead, Hawksworth faced Juliana directly, staring at her. Her hand trembled on Ash’s arm, and he covered it, pressed gently. “Coddington is married?”
“Yes, and he has children,” Lord Hawksworth said. “I will pay a call to Great Jermyn Street directly.”
Ash’s heart sank. That meant he’d have to go to see her even earlier. He needed to see the woman’s response to the news before anyone else broke it to her.
“Do you intend to deal with this matter?” the earl demanded.
“As much as I can. It might be a simple case.”
The countess, silent until now, burst out. “Simple? You call a murder like this simple?”
He had to ease his wife’s hand away so he could turn and face the woman. Even more than her husband, he despised the Countess of Hawksworth.
Ash’s anger came out cold.
“Madam, murder is never simple. Whatever the cause, the perpetrator will end his or her life on the gallows. But we have to find them first.” If it was simple attempted robbery, it would be relatively easy, but there were aspects of this scene that troubled him.
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