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Grieving widower Lord Matthias of Havensbeck Manor sends messages in a bottle to his lost wife and child, never knowing they are being found and read by spirited vicar’s ward Bernadette Goodrich!
It’s been six years since Matthias lost his family to a Christmas Eve fire at the manor. Still grieving, he secludes himself there every year, unable to bear the holiday celebrations of others. And every year, he sends his love and his broken dreams off in a series of letters tossed into the river.
Every holiday season, orphaned Bernadette looks for the dramatic and beautiful letters to arrive at her riverside vicarage. Will anyone ever love her the way the mysterious letter-writer loved? And who is the author of the heart-stopping letters she treasures so much?
A Christmas Ball brings the two together in a conspiracy by a mischievous little brother and an interfering butler. By turns heartfelt and hilarious, Sleepless in Staffordshire is a charming Regency historical take on the romantic Nora Ephron film “Sleepless in Seattle.”
Available online now!
Preview Chapter 1 of Sleepless in Staffordshire!
SLEEPLESS IN STAFFORDSHIRE
LORD MATTHIAS WATERFORD ENTERED HIS fine country manor of Havensbeck in county Staffordshire, removed his hat and was promptly greeted by his butler, Jasper. The stout man looked dignified as usual in his dark blue livery.
Jasper bowed. “How was your ride, my lord?”
“Cold.” Matthias shrugged out of his snow-dusted greatcoat and unwound his woolen scarf. Something caught his eye as he looked up. “Jasper, what is that hideous growth that is even now strangling my banister?"
Jasper wasn’t the slightest bit near-sighted, being no older than Matthias’s own thirty-two years. Yet he squinted up at the stair railing as if barely able to see what his master referred to. "Oh, that? That is a garland, my lord. A braided strand of winter greenery used to impart a sense of the season."
"Yes, I know what a garland is. Why is a garland allowed to infest my house?"
Jasper beamed at Matthias innocently. "Some people consider them very becoming decorations, my lord."
"Some people may, but not I. Take it down."
"Absolutely. Hideous thing. I shall banish it at once, my lord." The butler bowed so obsequiously low that Matthias could see the top of his ginger-haired head. Sarcasm, in his own house.
Matthias handed his black leather riding gloves to Jasper with an admonishing glare. Then he turned toward his study and the bottle of brandy that awaited him there.
Garlands. Blast it! Christmas just kept coming, every year, again and again, no matter how fast he rode or how far he traveled. So he retreated to this place, Havensbeck, deep in the Staffordshire valley, where the icy cold kept everyone indoors and the heavy snow muffled the sounds of their celebrations. And he still walked in on blasted garlands.
Matthias sighed and turned to face his most faithful and trusted and annoying retainer. "Out with it, Jasper."
"The Haven assembly rooms are under repair, my lord. Recall that storm last October? The roof leaked most abominably."
"I don’t believe a word of it."
Jasper nodded solemnly. "It is quite true, my lord. Mildew everywhere. The blue velvet chair cushions are positively green with stuff growing on them."
"And yet you drape my house with green growing stuff?"
"That’s different, my lord." Jasper’s tone was starchy. "That’s traditional."
Matthias sighed. "Mildew, eh?"
"It is most unrefined, my lord. The ladies will never sit down all night. You will be forced to dance with every single one, at least three times. That is, you would if you still danced."
Pity tinged the butler’s voice. Matthias flinched from it, parting his lips to reprimand Jasper. However, those black days of shouting at his devoted servants were long past. “Inform whomever is arranging this event that I will buy new chairs for the hall.”
Jasper blinked. “Ah. Yes. That is most generous, of course, my lord. But with only three weeks until Christmas?“
“Ah, you were hoping I would volunteer the manor for the celebrations?”
"Oh, it isn’t I, my lord. It’s the staff, you see. I’m simply the elected spokesperson." Jasper spread his hands in an apologetic gesture. "I’m fully against it, myself. I loathe people. I despise celebrations. So messy. Dreadful nuisance, guests. If it were up to me, my lord, I would keep the house dark and cold and serve only dry toast and brandy for the next three weeks, just as you prefer. Now, that’s my sort of Christmas."
Irony, from his own butler. Matthias grunted as he turned away. "Just top off the brandy, Jasper. The dry toast is all yours this evening."
MATTHIAS LEANED BACK IN HIS fireside chair and cupped his snifter in both hands. His study remained quite satisfactorily dark, but it wasn’t cold. Jasper would never allow that. A cheery flame traced blue and gold over the coals in the fireplace. From his high-backed chair, Matthias watched it numbly until its merry dance seemed to mock his misery. He closed his eyes against its optimistic flare.
Another Christmas. Another year without Marianna, without his jolly little Simon, without his family. No happy singing of carols, no giddy hiding of gifts, just this bloody great echoing house and another snowy anniversary of that horrible fiery night.
His eyes opened and his gaze slid to the blotter on his desk. Jasper had left out a stack of foolscap and a filled inkwell. Next to the blotter stood a washed, dried wine bottle and a cork at the ready.
Matthias looked away. He didn’t know why he bothered. The letters never helped. The entire process was maudlin and unwise and useless. If anyone but Jasper ever learned of it, they would certainly think him mad.
So why did the next moment find him seated at his desk, sharpening a quill? Why did his fingertips grasp the pen, dip it into the ready ink and begin to write?
My dearest Simon,
He wouldn’t write to Marianna this time. But a man could pen a letter to his own son, could he not?
The snow is falling on the lawn and I think of you chortling away as your mama tried to show you how to make a snow angel. She moved your little arms and legs and you thought she meant to tickle you. And when she lifted you into her arms and pointed at what you made together, you clapped your hands and shouted "Doggie!" That’s when she began to call them snow doggies instead and we made them all over the lawn for you to see the next morning when you awoke.
The coals had gone to gray ash and the house was silent by the time he finished the letter. The pages, when rolled, scarcely fit through the neck of the bottle.
“You are a man of few words, my love,” she had told him once with a little laugh in her voice, “but when you take up a pen, you write volumes!
"Only about you," Matthias whispered now. "Only about him."
He corked the bottle tightly and stood, weaving just slightly. He’d been at the desk so long the brandy had nearly worn off, or it would have, if he’d taken the toast. He would have an aching head on him in the morning for his carelessness.
No matter. His step was steady as he left the study and the house. It wasn’t a far walk to the stone bridge over the river. His woolen surcoat and weskit would keep him warm enough, even in the snowfall.
The clouds held a glow, for the village was still alight with lanterns and the first round of celebrations. The people of Haven loved a fête, that was for certain. Marianna had adored throwing parties for them all. From baptisms to weddings, she had turned her considerable imagination to pleasing his people. Matthias had always held their respect, but it was Marianna they had loved.
His chest hurt. The hollow pain of loss and helpless fury that smoldered in his heart burned with a special, piercing ache as Christmas Eve approached every year.
The manor had long been repaired. Looking back at it now, no sign remained of the fire damage that had burned the heart right out of its master. Tonight, as the snow fell so peacefully and silently, muffling the faint sounds of fiddle music coming from the village, one would think that nothing bad could ever happen in a place so beautiful.
One would be wrong.
Marianna had loved the river. It was known as the River Churnet, a name so old no one remembered what it meant any longer. “Mundane,” she had stated, and renamed it the River Celadon and declared it chock full of naiads or dryads or whatever spirits haunted running water. Even now, in the harshest of winters, the swift running water had refused to freeze entirely, leaving a rushing stream down the center of the encroaching ice on both banks.
Matthias leaned his elbows on the sturdy stone railing of the bridge and pressed the freezing glass bottle to his flushed forehead. It was a silly thing to do, writing these letters.
"Stupid. Useless." He held the bottle to his cheek and squeezed his eyes closed. "I love you both. I miss you. Merry Christmas."
And he let the bottle fall into the hissing, rushing water yet again.
BERNIE GOODRICH WRAPPED ONE FIST in the back of her brother’s thick winter jacket and held tight to the leafless branch over her head with the other. Beneath them, the ice-edged water of the River Churnet swirled gray and white.
"Just a bit more."
"I haven’t any more, Simon. Do you want to take a dousing in the ice water and cause Aunt Sarah to carry on about you taking a chill? She’ll boil you alive in the tub until you’re the color of a cooked lobster!"
"Got it!" Eight-year-old Simon held the bottle aloft like a trophy, brandishing it in triumph.
Bernie pulled him back to the bank with a mighty heave. "Heavens, you’re growing. I won’t be able to do that for much longer." She set him on his feet and then brushed her fallen hair back into her knitted hat so she could better examine their prize.
"It’s a different label than last time," Simon pointed out. "Look, there’s a waterwheel on this one."
Bernie tilted her head. "I think it’s one of those Dutch inventions. A windmill." She held the greenish-brown bottle to the wintry gray daylight and tried to peer through it. "This one looks chock full of paper!"
"Bernadette Goodrich! What on earth are you doing on the riverbank on such a terrible day?"
Bernie tucked the bottle away into the folds of her skirt as she straightened. "Nothing, Aunt Sarah!" She called back up the bank.
Her aunt gazed down at her from the path above the Churnet, her work-worn fists plunked onto her angular hips. Her brow held the permanent furrows of confusion that Bernie and Simon seemed to inspire in their childless aunt and uncle.
"Are we late for something?" Simon whispered as they clambered up the bank. The grassy slope was covered in a thick fall of snow. They left a trail of footprints, one set small and the other not much larger, in the pristine bank.
It was a good question. "I don’t think so, but perhaps?"
It seemed to Bernie that she was usually in the wrong for one thing or another. Tardiness was her usual sin, although according to Aunt Sarah she was also accomplished in Laggardliness and Inattention. In the six years since she and Simon had been sent away from the epidemic that had taken their parents, they had lived in the vicarage of Green Dell and had done their best to adapt. Simon had only been two years of age, so the crumbling house and poor village was all he knew. Bernie, on the other hand, had been fourteen, old enough to recall every moment of another life.
A life very different from this one. "Let’s see. We fed the chickens, filled the coal scuttles and turned down the beds."
"I fluffed the pillows!"
"And a fine job you did of it, too." Bernie counted off on the fingers of her woolen gloves. "Chickens, coal, beds, wood-box, and the dough is rising."
"We didn’t dust the parlor!"
"Oh, Christmas Bells on a Stick!" Bernie swore. It was Wednesday and the village Ladies League met in the vicarage parlor every week. "Scurry home and get the cloths from the linen basket. I’ll put the bread in the oven and meet you in the parlor. Go on! Run!"
Simon bounced ahead of her. If her aunt wasn’t lurking watchfully about, Bernie would pick up her skirts and race him home. But the prospect of a lecture on decorum along with the usual one on duty made her head ache just a little bit.
She didn’t mean to be a slackard. It wasn’t that she minded the constant work, for Aunt Sarah was thrice as industrious herself. None of the chores she’d been set were terribly arduous, at least not now that she was fully grown. It was just that there were so bloody many of them!
And now she’d said bloody in her head, which had to count as some sort of sin. Bernie sighed. It was so easy to sin, living at the vicarage. When Mama and Papa were alive, she’d hardly seemed to sin at all!
The paper-stuffed wine bottle tucked deep into her coat pocket banged against her knee at every step. It was the first one they’d seen this year! Excitement simmered within her, fighting with the frustration that threatened to boil over.
With the Ladies’ League gathering at the vicarage today, she and Simon wouldn’t have a moment to examine their find until bedtime!
Christmas Bells!Close Preview
Best-selling and critically acclaimed historical romance authors Celeste Bradley, Eva Devon, Elizabeth Essex, and Heather Snow heat up this Christmas with four never-before-released novellas guaranteed to make your holiday season merry and bright.
“A Liar Under the Mistletoe” by Celeste Bradley
Fearless Amie Jackham doesn’t attend balls to dance, she’s there for the thrill of robbing the lockboxes of the unscrupulous. With the notorious Vixen still at large, Liar’s Club spy Lord Elliot Hughes is taking the opportunity to clean out a few lockboxes for the good of Crown and Country–and leaving the Vixen’s trademark lacy handkerchief behind. Thief and spy can’t resist each other in this sexy, catch-me-if-you-can Liar’s Club holiday novella.
“A Rake for Christmas” by Eva Devon
Lady Evangeline Pennyworth is done with being a wallflower and turns to London’s most notorious rake, demanding he teach her how to be desirable. After witnessing the love of his parents devolve into pain and anger, Anthony Basingstoke has vowed never to be swept away by passion, even if he finds himself taken by this wallflower in a way he’s never been before. Only a Christmas miracle will make true love a gift that will last forever.
“Up on the Rooftops” by Elizabeth Essex
Mischievous widow Caledonia Bowmont longs for London’s Christmas cheer, but a string of jewel thefts has brought the festive season to a standstill—and Society accuses the Scottish Wraith, Tobias McTavish. Toby is determined to clear his name and reclaim the life he’s built, so with Cally’s help, he heads up on the rooftops to trap the thief. Will they stop the high-carat crime, or find the hidden gem of lasting love instead?
“The Very Debonair Lady Claire” by Heather Snow
When Claire Barton’s twin is murdered, she takes his place in the War Department to flush out his killer. Her ruse works perfectly—until the man who once broke her heart becomes her new spymaster. The worst mistake of Andrew Sedgewick’s life was walking away from Claire that Christmas six years ago. Now that he’s found her again, he doesn’t intend to let her go—if they both survive this holiday season.
Available online now!
Preview Chapter One of Liar Under the Mistletoe!
A LIAR UNDER THE MISTLETOE
“Your Voice of Society declares that there is no need to clutch your reticules so tightly, my Lady Readers! The Vixen of Vauxhall strikes only at the strongboxes of the moneyed and miserly. Does Sir K— contribute to the orphanage not three blocks from his grand doorway? Does Lord P— pay his servants, or anyone else, in good time? Nay, your Voice of Society declares some fellows highly deserving of opening their treasure troves to find nothing but a lacy handkerchief left behind. Carry on, Dear Vixen, carry on!”
December, 1814 — London
Elliott dodged another drunken couple leaving the dance floor, and sent the apologetic gentleman on his way with a grin and a comradely slap on the back. Elliot didn’t know him or the so-called lady with him, but he had long ago discovered that a tolerant geniality made him simultaneously well liked and forgettable.
He continued casually strolling the outskirts of the ballroom, a slightly inebriated fellow at loose ends. It’s only me wandering about, just another useless offshoot of a noble family, beneath any special notice. He was as much background color as one of the potted palms.
Precisely the way he wanted it.
He had timed his arrival well, appearing somewhat late and well after the dreary receiving line where he would be forced to greet his host, yet early enough that the guests were still in and out quite actively and no one had actually asked for his invitation. Good thing, for he had no such thing on his person.
He doubted anyone at Lord Beardsley’s bawdy event would stick so closely to the niceties anyway. What a strange way to celebrate Christmas! It was almost as though the very notion of a reverential holiday spurred certain members of Society to renewed debauchery.
Tonight, rum punch ran freely and Elliot was certain he caught the scent of opium smoke now and again. It was a decadent display, full of brightly colored ladybirds with high hems and low necklines who attended to the needs of their high-ranking protectors with bawdy energy. All gathering about a great, festooned evergreen tree that reached easily to the next story.
Just like my schoolboy Christmas holidays…except, of course, not at all.
Elliott prided himself that he fit right in, youngest son of the youngest son of the Earl of Breckenridge, with a mountain of lordly uncles and cousins, all quite healthy, mind you, between him and any sort of future. As Lord Elliott Hughes, too highborn for real work, too late-born for any chance at advancement, he disappeared into the crowd of young men with more rank than sense, more time than brains and nothing to do with themselves but to overindulge.
“Marry well,” his father had advised before he passed away with as little fanfare as he’d lived. “Find an heiress who wants to be a lady.”
Elliott’s mother hadn’t had anything useful to add, as she died when he was born.
It wasn’t very good advice. He wasn’t inclined to marry some status-hungry steel-monger’s daughter. A feminine shriek of gleeful shock and horror rose up from behind a potted palm in Elliot’s path. He veered well around it.
Certainly none of the women here this evening were bride material.
So he carried on. He was living the life everyone expected of him, drinking and dancing and spending the allowance doled out by his dutiful but indifferent uncle, the current earl. A ball here, a horse-race there, a card game or two in between.
It would be enough to drive an intelligent fellow mad with his own uselessness—if that fellow hadn’t come up with much better way to pass the time.
As he strolled, he glanced into one of the side rooms set apart for gentlemanly cards.
“Oh, look!” he murmured to himself. “Lord Beardsley is at the gaming tables. What a lovely time to take in that gracious view from the upper floor.” And find his lordship’s study… and his lordship’s strongbox!
Elliot slipped out of the ballroom as easily as he’d entered it. No reason to remember him at all.
Lord Beardsley likely believed that his eight-foot stone wall would keep the riffraff out of his garden. Miss Amie Jackham begged to differ.
From her small rucksack she removed a simple grappling hook with a lightweight line woven of leather strips. After a glance up and down the dark and icy cobbled alleyway, she easily tossed the hook up to catch on the top of the wall. Large cylindrical stone spikes marched across the top, surely intended to be intimidating, or perhaps hinting at Lord Beardsley’s self-deluded personal endowment. The spikes only aided her attempt.
Taking the line in her black-gloved grip, she ran nimbly up the vertical, hand over hand on the rope. Once on top she kicked the covering snow away and poised lightly, gripping the squat pedestal of one of the spikes between her feet as she pulled her line up after her. She tossed the line down the other side, and quickly followed it to the ground below.
Around her, the artistically placed boxwoods slumbered peacefully beneath a blanket of snow. It was the coldest winter in decades, people said. Amie had to agree. The snow was lovely, but the chill crept into her home and her bed and her bones. Also, the snow made her leave footprints.
No matter. She knew this part of the garden was invisible to the house beyond because she’d been in that house just this morning, checking the view from every window.
She smiled slightly at the memory. No one ever looked at chambermaids, particularly in a house filling up with guests. The other maids had given her a few curious glances, but there were so many new arrivals in the house already that they hesitated to question her for fear she served someone important.
Now, confident that no one could see this dark corner of the garden from any of the tall windows of the house, Amie didn’t hesitate to strip off her clothing. Off came her trousers and boyish shirt and vest, along with her grubby cap. Clad in nothing but a short chemise that came halfway down her thighs, she shivered as she pulled the last item from her rucksack and shook it out. The pale green silk gown had been cleverly folded so as not to wrinkle but Amie had to take care not to allow the hem to drag in the snow as she dressed.
The precautions paid off. Moments later she looked entirely different. The neatly folded boy’s garb, arranged in order for speedy dressing later, went back into the rucksack. She concealed the waterproofed leather bag behind a tree.
The line still dangled from the grappling hook but in the shadowed corner she doubted anyone would notice it. Best to leave it there. She might not be able to leave through the front door!
She had no mirror so she could only hope that the cap had protected her intricately braided hairstyle from her vertical gymnastics. It felt fine but she was perhaps not the best judge of fashionable hairstyles.
At any rate, this is not the sort of ball where a woman’s hair stayed tightly up. She paused, wondering if she ought to be a little more mussed to fit in. Never mind. Stop thinking, she told herself.
Light on your feet, quick on the pull, nothing on your mind. Just as Papa had always told her.
She was a Jackham, born of a long line of night-burglars and jewel thieves. Nerves had no place in her life. She stepped forward confidently, trotting toward the house with her skirts daintily lifted, nothing but a guest rushing back to the fun of the party. Up the stone steps, across the terrace, through the glass doors, just stroll inside the house as if I belong.
There were already many guests visible through the ballroom terrace doors, so no one took notice of her. By the time she arrived inside she was slightly flushed and panting. Nothing odd there, just another woman fresh off the rowdy dance floor. She reached a drink off a servant’s tray and stepped into the crowd.
Lord Beardsley’s ballroom was very grand, and lavishly decorated for the event. Evergreen garlands and draperies of golden silk festooned every surface. More silk was hung to create little alcoves where one might find a fainting couch, a decanter of whiskey, or tiny cakes of opium on a hookah tray.
Amie saw that she timed her arrival well. Any earlier, the other guests might’ve been more observant, social hounds that they were. Any later, the party might be growing out of control. Already she spotted a few women wearing richly decadent gowns that seemed rather the worse for wear. One creature had her bodice ripped wide open at that moment. The woman only guffawed and tossed back her glass, breasts exposed.
Amie kept her revulsion to herself. Not her sort of party at all. She might be a thief, but she was still a lady!
She continued around the ballroom, slipping unnoticed through the press of guests who laughed a little too loudly, stood a little too close, or swayed a little too loosely in the dance. She wasn’t the prettiest woman in the room, nor the plainest, nor the best dressed, nor the worst. Utterly forgettable, precisely as planned.
On the other side of the great ballroom a staircase arched up to the doorways on the next floor. That was where she needed to be. A tricky moment. That curving stair was intentionally in full view of the party, intended for grand entrances and exits. Amie looked around her. She wondered if she could—
“Oh, there you are!” She widened her eyes fervently, gave a loopy grin, and clasped the muscled arm of an overdressed dandy staggering past. He was a pimply, sweaty-looking fellow, but he was good and drunk, which was all she required. He stopped to look blankly at her, slowly focusing his gaze on her face. Then her breasts. But to his credit, his eyes did eventually return to her face. He smiled back, although he looked a bit confused. “Yes!” he said gamely. “Here I am!”
Amie leaned her bosom into his arm and squeezed his bicep. His jacket was padded. He likely had an arm like a chicken leg beneath his stuffed sleeve. That was all right
with her. She didn’t need a muscled oaf. She only needed someone who was still more or less upright.
“I thought you’d forgotten,” she scolded playfully, giving him a little pout. “You promised you’d show me the conservatory.” She batted her eyelashes.
He just stared at her. “But…it’s winter.”
Good heavens, what a clod. Perhaps she wasn’t convincing enough. She wasn’t much of a performer, to be sure. She exaggerated her pout slightly, then more. She toyed with his cravat as she went on tiptoe, sliding her body up his side. “You told me that you would take me to the conservatory because you wanted to see me naked in the moonlight!” she shouted over the din.
The notion that he might actually have sexual satisfaction sometime in the near future seem to pierce the idiot’s drunken fog. He began to nod emphatically. “Yes! Yes, I remember! I would never forget that! The conservatory, yes, let’s go to the conservatory!”
Amie giggled sickeningly and then tugged his arm toward the arching stair. “It’s this way, silly!”
“Ah, ah, yes! This way!” He stumbled along with her and even managed to pick up the pace on the steps.
At the top of the stairs, the hallway led off in two directions. One way would take them to the front stair and front door, where still more guests were arriving. The other led deeper into the house. Amie gave a little yelp and pushed the dandy away, uttering the magic words. “There’s my lover! I think he saw us!”
Wizardly words, indeed. In a flash, her companion had vanished, likely gone back down the stairs to lose himself in the crowd below. She ought to write a pamphlet—How to Make a Man Disappear.
She was well shut of him, for her only goal had been to appear as just another tipsy demi-rep looking for a dark corner.
No reason to remember at her all.
Elliot silently closed the door behind him and lifted the candle-stub he’d lighted from a hallway wall sconce. The host’s study was as ostentatious as his ballroom. Lord Beardsley was known as a libertine who denied himself nothing. Hence the plush carpet, the gleaming rosewood desk and the priceless art.
The house had thick walls. Elliot could barely detect the rousing country-dance tune now being played in the ballroom. He could likely fire a brace of pistols in here and no one in the house would know.
He went directly to the desk and sat in the chair. Then he reached beneath the inlaid lip of the desktop and slid his fingers to the right. There should be a—
His index finger touched a tiny brass button. A spring-loaded segment of the wooden trim popped into his hand. Within lay a heavy iron key. Elliot hefted it in his hand and turned to a large box resting in a corner of the study. It had been brightly painted with pastoral scenes with some intention of making it look like a decorative piece, but when Elliot touched it, he could feel the cold iron beneath the thin skin of paint.
The strongbox was a good one. Solid iron, strapped with bands of more iron. Beardsley was so sure of its solidity that he’d not even bothered to carefully conceal it. The lock was good as well. Elliot smiled. There was a large, obvious keyhole on the front. It was meaningless, a distraction. Elliot pulled a small lock-pick set from his cuff and turned his attention to a tiny hole concealed in the painted design of a wheel of a hay wagon. It required a tiny key that Elliot happened to know never left his lordship’s watch fob.
Someone would have to know just where to look for that inconspicuous keyhole.
That someone would be Elliot.
He pulled his picks from his pocket and quickly sprang the miniature lock, which caused a two-inch square painted door to open. Behind that door was the large keyhole meant for the heavy key Elliot had found concealed in the desk. Elliot turned the key, listened to the thick bolts slide open and swung the weighty lid of the chest upward.
He grinned. “That will teach you to fire your faithful butler without reference because he skimmed a bit off the top of the household budget, you miserly wanker.”
Not only had the furious butler spoken freely about the strongbox, he’d given Elliot some very interesting notions about might be found within. The interior was filled almost entirely with stacked folios, each at least an inch thick with documents. Beneath those was a small wooden casket.
Elliot knelt on the floor, his candle planted in a dollop of wax on a small side table holding brandy and glasses. He gave a quick sort to the folios, making piles, scanning each page in the way he’d been taught—not so much reading as drifting his eyes over it for an instant, allowing a few key phrases to leap out.
Deeds and provenance for estate property and art treasures? Useless. A set of accounts, including income from Beardsley’s estate…and then another, nearly identical set of accounts, that added up quite differently.
His lordship was keeping double books. Not of interest to Elliot, but he would be sure to alert the King’s Remembrancer about Beardsley’s rather monumental income tax evasion.
Finally, one slender folio revealed all that any Crown spy could wish. Several coded pages, which appeared to be two sides of a secret correspondence, presumably letters to his lordship and his lordship’s own copies of his replies. The code was nonsense to Elliot’s eyes, but no matter. He wasn’t the one charged with finding the cipher. His job was to make a quick, neat copy and put the originals back where they belonged.
He used his lordship’s own paper and ink. He was fast at his work, as were all the operatives of the Liar’s Club. He was just one of a well-trained ring of thieves, infiltrators, code-breakers and yes, even the odd assassin or two.
A quarter of an hour later his careful copies were drying to one side while he bound up the folios, winding their cords precisely as he’d found them. Lord Beardsley wound clockwise, with a half-twist on the third round. Elliot placed half the folios back in the iron box, the original left-hand stack in the very order in which he’d found them.
The wooden jewel casket he saved for last. Without really looking inside, he dumped the contents into his large, plain handkerchief. Then he pulled a lacy lady’s hanky from his pocket and laid it in the jewel casket.
The Liars were taking advantage of the fresh notoriety of the mysterious Vixen, concealing their activities in the wave of jewel thefts. Besides, as James, Elliot’s immediate superior, said, “The coffers can always use a bit extra—all in the cause of national defense and whatnot.”
There had been some recent activity in a once-defunct ring of highborn traitors. Every Liar who with a hand at lock-picking was being stuffed into a flash coat and weskit and sent out to infiltrate Society’s ballrooms—and a few other rooms as well. The timing was excellent. Too excellent?
Elliot paused in his rifling to look down at the stones twinkling in the pile. A glamorous, mysterious thief hits grand house after grand house. A spy ring, led by some incredibly powerful people, needs to peruse a few secret files in a few grand houses. No one had ever seen the Vixen. Other than the trademark handkerchief, Elliot wasn’t even sure how Society could be so sure the thief was female…
Unless someone with a stable of primarily male spies had needed the distraction of a female suspect? “Knots within knots,” Elliot muttered. He was a loyal sort and a patriot, but even he could only trust the brilliant, devious minds of his superiors so far! He could only hope that all his assignments worked in aid of the Crown and leave the deep thinking to others.
He replaced the jewel casket beneath the right-hand stack of folios, folded the bauble-stuffed handkerchief tightly and tucked the flattened parcel into the right breast pocket of his coat.
His copies, he folded down to half page and was preparing to fold them down to a size he could conceal in his cravat. No guard ever thought to search a man’s cravat.
A floorboard creaked beyond the door of the study. Elliot didn’t bother to turn or even hesitate. With a few swift motions, he had the strongbox shut tight again and the key back in the hidden slot of the desk. With his copies stuffed roughly into his coat, he turned to the door with a loose drunken grin and bit of a stagger.Close Preview