Authors: Pearl Darling
Tags: #Historical, #Romance, #Fiction, #Regency, #Victorian, #London Society, #England, #Britain, #19th Century, #Adult, #Forever Love, #Bachelor, #Single Woman, #Hearts Desire, #Series, #Brambridge, #War Office, #Military, #British Government, #Romantic Suspense
A BRAMBRIDGE NOVEL
Pearl Darling is the author of The Brambridge Novels, a series of romantic suspense books that each feature a potent combination of passion and mystery set within the dazzling regency period.
Each of the titles can be read as a standalone, but for those that follow the entire series, each book will provide new information about the mysterious thread that ties the central figures of the Brambridge Novels together.
And which hero and heroine will be the last to fall to love’s seductive touch? Follow the series to its inevitable conclusion to find out.
Also by Pearl Darling
Published by Magnus & Melinno
ISBN: 978 1 911536 02 4
All characters and events in this publication, other than those clearly in the public domain, are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead is purely coincidental.
Copyright © 2016 Pearl Darling
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, without the prior permission in writing of the publisher. The only exception is brief quotations in printed reviews.
Cover design by Kim Killion at The Killion Group Inc.
Bayswater, London, May 1817
Melissa waited silently in the lane behind the old garden gate. Pulling her hood further over her head, she pushed the brass rims of her cracked spectacles further onto her nose and dropped her bag to the ground.
She drew in a deep breath as a stout woman with white hair made her way unsteadily out of the stable gate of the house opposite and determinedly limped her way to stand in front of her.
“Where have you been for so long?” the woman grumbled.
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Hobbs,” Melissa gulped. “I was…we were taking the air on the coast.”
She threw a desperate glance back into the garden behind her where the burnt grass and herbs grew around an old moldering flower press. Pulling her hood even closer round her head, she shivered and dipped her head to look at Mrs. Hobbs through an unbroken part of her spectacles.
She couldn’t leave now—behind the woman a queue had suddenly formed, some she knew by sight, Mrs. Wenthrop, and a Mr. Adder. The others, two young men in high quality clothes, were new.
“For six months? Well it’s alright for some. Whilst you were away my husband lost his job because of you.” Mrs. Hobbs stepped closer to Melissa and peered in at the garden. “Cooee. You’ve left this go to wrack and ruin. My Albert could have this up and going in no time. Where’s your mother Eliza?”
Melissa gulped. “Gone.” Bound and chained on a slow boat for deportation for the attempted murder of Lord Stanton. What did Melissa care? Eliza was not and apparently
been her mother.
“Well, when are you going to set up the apothecary business again? My Albert needs work. If he doesn’t work the landlady says we have to move. And only your herbs make the difference to his stomach pains see?”
I have no intention to
…she wanted to say, but the words failed her. The house was going on the market and then she was going to disappear. She’d only stepped outside on a whim, to empty her bag and then be gone. “My… mother gave everything away, my father’s books on plants and animals… and his desk and chair.”
Melissa started, and looked uncertainly back at the house.
“Well I had better be going,” Mrs. Hobbs huffed and turned around. “I’ll send my Albert round.”
“I’d like my usual please.” Mr. Adder stepped smartly up to her, almost treading on Mrs. Hobbs’ swaying skirts. Melissa pulled her bag up in front of her and shuffled backwards. Where had Mrs. Wenthrop gone?
“She’s left.” Mr. Adder turned his head and pointed down the lane before inserting his finger into his very hairy ears and
Melissa swallowed as his finger emerged coated in wax. He stared at her unblinking as he stroked his dirty hands along the length of his small moustache. Darting a glance over his shoulder, she searched for a friendly face, but the two gentlemen behind him carried on chatting loudly with little regard for Mr. Adder’s actions.
“And then she just dropped out of sight. Refused all the hands of all those gentlemen, and then trapped Lord Stanton into an engagement through false pretenses.” The taller of the men nodded stiffly as if the woman in question had ensnared Lord Stanton like a spider in a web.
Melissa gasped and knelt over her black bag.
She was no spider! “I… I’ll just get your remedy, Mr. Adder,” she mumbled.
“Did you see her at that last London ball before she appeared in Devon at Stanton’s place?” The shorter gentleman stretched his neck over his cravat and eyed his companion sideways. “Earl Harding said that she played the role of a mute debutante to entrap him. Even called herself Diana. Can you imagine? I say, do you like my carnation? Harding wears them all the time.”
Melissa ducked lower over her bag, rummaging frantically for the last few slips of dried flowers that she knew were in there.
“—Johnnie was very enamored with Regina. Let’s hope this woman can help us. Apparently we’re lucky to find her.”
Melissa froze as her hand closed finally over an old twist of lavender.
What had she missed? She kept her head low as she stood and handed the lavender to Mr. Adder, hurriedly waving away his offer of money. As he hesitated she held her breath, but with a quick glance over her shoulder at the garden gate, he stalked away with measured steps.
Melissa braced herself as the two gentlemen strode towards her and stared fixedly over her shoulder. “I really wouldn’t visit the Lamb and Flag Inn if I were you,” she said quickly in a low voice. The men started and clutched nervously at their breeches. Ah, so Regina
still in business. “Any more visits and who knows what you might catch.” Swiftly she pulled a bottle of powder out of her bag, the last one that she owned. “Powder ‘down there’ with this. It will stop the lice itching. Then comb out with the smallest comb you have.”
Melissa dared to lift her head a bit higher, but the men showed no signs of recognition. “And I might suggest investing in some tweezers.”
The tall gentleman fished reluctantly around in his pocket and held out a three penny bit. His hand brushed briefly over her palm as he pushed the coin into her hand and she shuddered, whipping away the money in her fist.
Melissa shook her head.
Go away Eliza
. Waiting until the men had turned away, she hurriedly backed through the creaking garden gate and ran up the scattered stones of the garden path, stumbling as again the
voice echoed out of the partially open kitchen door.
“Melissssssssaaaa! I have a proposition for you…”
The calling tones were insistent. Shakily, she yanked the kitchen door open fully.
“Melissa! Where have you put it?”
Melissa froze, her gaze riveted on the dusty tiles of the kitchen floor. Muddy half-moon shapes tracked from side to side across the small room, and then out into the hall. All of the cupboards were open, their meagre contents spilled to the ground, as if someone had pawed their way to the very back. She bit her lip and laid a hand on the kitchen table to steady herself as a memory flooded her.
Edgar and I have some news for you, we’re married! Isn’t that lovely? Now all you have to do is pay the coal man. In the kitchen will do.
Her breath hitched. Pressing the brass rims of her glasses to her nose, she put the black bag down on the cold kitchen tiles and shuffled slowly through into the dark hall. Although the front door was closed, leaves had blown onto the ceramic tiles of the entranceway, and its lock hung askew surrounded by enormous splinters.
Melissa licked her lips and looked back down towards the kitchen. She could leave now, send in the agent to deal with the intruder or…
. Slowly she felt for doorknob of the front room. Pulling her cloak more tightly around her, she closed her eyes and stepped through the door.
A hoarse voice echoed in the darkness of the damp empty room.
“Hello Melissa. You are a pretty little one, aren’t you? Did you hear me?”
How had she ever thought the voice had belonged to Eliza?
“If you don’t give it to me along with the money, I’ll set the Viper on to you.”
“I don’t understand.” Melissa shivered and felt her way by the tips of her fingers to where the sideboard had been. Her fingers trembled as she felt at the wall. “What money? And what is…”
“The money that your mother owed us.”
“But everything has been paid for!” Melissa stopped looking for the sideboard, her heartbeat sounding loudly in her ears as she stared into the darkness. “Why don’t you show yourself?” She coughed as her voice quavered. “Only cowards hide in the dark.”
A deep laugh rolled through the blackness. “Only clever people hide in the dark,”
Gasping, Melissa waved a hand wildly in front of her, but still she could not find the edge of the sideboard. It wasn’t
, gone with all the rest of the furniture ready for the house to be sold.
She stopped and froze against the wall. The last time she had been in the small front room there had been a box of matches and a taper on the fireplace. But to get to them would mean moving in further towards the disembodied voice.
“I haven’t the time for this foolery.” The voice floated towards the window. “Even though you are a delightful little morsel and I would so love to stay and play.”
Melissa squinted through scrunched up eyes. Although the curtains were drawn, the outline of a figure showed fleetingly against the material. “I’m not going to pay you. I told you once, and I tell you again, everything was paid.”
“Not her gambling debts to the Viper. And the sizeable interest accrued of course.”
Melissa tensed her hands in her skirts. “How much is it?”
. Eliza and Edgar had already gambled away Melissa’s inheritance with anyone who would play. Why had she ever believed any of Eliza’s lies
? Because one doesn’t normally question a mother’s word.
“Thirty thousand pounds.”
She gasped. “Thirty thousand?”
That was more money than the house was worth, many times more. Pulling herself from the wall, she fled uncaring to the fireplace, and swept her hand along the mantel, grasping at the matchbox that skittered away from her fingers. Hands trembling, she fumbled with the box, striking at it twice with a match before lighting a taper.
The soft glow revealed a young man crouched by the windows. He turned to face her, standing sharply as the light reached him. With an oath, he swung lithely behind the curtains. “You have six months to find it!” he cried and with a splintering of glass he was gone.
The Rookery of St Giles, London, 1818
Earl Hades Harding pressed his large form against the side of the building and peered around its wood-framed corner at the square beyond. He cursed quietly as his boot squelched audibly in the gutter. The streets of St. Giles were covered in horse manure and effluent from the sewers and although he was out of sight behind the building, his prime position meant that he stood ankle deep in unidentifiable mud that smelled strongly of fermented grass and