Authors: Sandra Lea Rice
Table of Contents
A Spencer Novel
SANDRA LEA RICE
SOUL MATE PUBLISHING
SANDRA LEA RICE
Cover Design by Fiona Jayde
This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, business establishments, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
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 (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the publisher. The only exception is brief quotations in printed reviews.
The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book via the Internet or via any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions, and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrighted materials.
Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated.
Published in the United States of America by
Soul Mate Publishing
P.O. Box 24
Macedon, New York, 14502
The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
To my darling daughter who went home
to be with the Lord during the writing of this book.
You were truly a beautiful woman with a loving heart
and gentle spirit, a brave mother who was willing
to give her life for her children.
You are missed, loved dearly,
and will forever be . . . our true heroine.
Until we meet again, baby girl.
I would like to thank the team of professionals at Soul Mate Publishing who worked with me to polish and make this book possible: Debby Gilbert whose belief in me I shall always treasure, my wonderful editor, Char Chaffin, who taught me to look into a scene and find a way to make it better, my talented cover designer, Fiona Jayde, and, of course, the ladies of The Writer’s Place, Carol Ann Erhardt and Lynn Gale, both talented authors who listen patiently while I ramble on about characters and plots.
The account of Mary, Queen of Scots’ death is well documented and I stayed as close to the actual events as possible. Although Queen Mary did have a pet Skye terrier who remained by her side at the time of her execution, for purposes of this story, and to give Anthony and Clairece a common goal, I took the liberty of adding the gem-incrusted collar.
Anthony Wade, the Earl of Harding, leaned back in his favorite chair, took a sip of aged brandy from a crystal snifter, and perused the room around him.
An Axminster carpet, its pattern depicting birds in flight, covered the floor, while towering, book-filled shelves graced three of the four walls in his study. The fourth, a bank of large mullioned windows, overlooked an enclosed rose garden.
He turned the signet ring on his little finger. Some claimed he had ‘The Midas touch,’
while others purported it was the Devil’s own luck. He’d once been on intimate terms with
Whether luck was involved in any way, he’d beaten the Prince of Darkness and survived.
The clearing of a throat drew his attention. “Yes, Hodges?”
“Chief Inspector Stallings to see you, my lord. He said the matter is urgent.”
The situation must indeed be dire to send one of Scotland Yard’s finest to Anthony’s private residence. “Please, show him up.”
Moments later, an imposing man in a suit of black worsted wool entered the library.
“Good evening, Chief Stallings.”
The inspector gave a deferential nod. “Lord Harding. I apologize for the intrusion, but as I informed your butler, my business is urgent.”
Anthony indicated the armchair next to the one he’d vacated. The chair creaked as Stallings lowered his big frame into the seat. “Would you care for a brandy?”
“A drink would be appreciated.”
While Anthony poured, he studied the Chief. Taller than his own six-foot-four inches, the man outweighed him by at least two stone. From outward appearances, there was not an ounce of fat on the muscled body. “How may I be of service?”
“We need your help to locate, and authenticate, a stolen relic. It’s a matter of concern to the CID, but most particularly to Her Royal Majesty, Queen Victoria.”
Anthony handed Stallings the snifter and retook his seat. “Why not just send for me?”
Caesar, Anthony’s giant wolfhound, sidled his way across the floor toward Stallings and offered his head for a pat. The Chief reached out and ruffled the dog’s wiry coat.
“We’ve waited well over two weeks for your return. Her Majesty is somewhat . . . fretful about the matter.”
Anthony sipped at his brandy. “All right, please continue.”
“Two years ago, a rare and valuable royal artifact surfaced in America. Lloyds was charged with its safe transport back to England, and Scotland Yard was to receive the relic upon arrival. The object was stolen from a museum in New York before this could happen. There are rumors of its resurfacing here.”
“Yes.” Stallings paused to swallow. “We, both the Yard and Lloyds, need your help in locating the piece. The rewards are high, the stakes even higher.”
Anthony blew out a breath through pursed lips while he searched his memory for a name in either Seven Dials or St. Giles. The notorious areas in the east side of London housed any number of ruthless gangs with leaders only too willing to offer up a competitor for a price. “Why are you involved?” he finally asked. “It’s my understanding your section primarily handles murders.”
“A man was killed during the theft. Although an American, we feel a sense of responsibility.”
And pigs fly.
“What is the description of the relic?”
Stallings handed him a sealed packet. “The information is in there. Her Majesty is keen on your accepting the assignment and anxious for the object’s return. She fears the artifact will disappear before it can be safely recovered.” He set his empty snifter on the side table. “If possible, we want those responsible apprehended. We’ll need your answer by tomorrow.” The Chief rose, their discussion obviously at an end.
Anthony came to his feet. “And, should I refuse?”
“Don’t.” Stallings’ expression hardened. “You wouldn’t wish to disappoint the Queen, now would you?”
Point well taken.
The ormolu clock on the mantel struck eight. Stallings crossed to the door where Hodges waited. The detective glanced at Anthony, a frown forming between his eyes.
“My manservant is trustworthy, Chief.”
“Of course.” Stallings set a black Bowler on his head. “Tomorrow, my lord.”
Anthony reclaimed his seat, weary both physically and emotionally. He wanted to deliver an excuse, but refusing Her Royal Majesty would not be prudent.
Caesar’s head slid beneath his palm. “Did you miss me, lad?” The dog’s cold nose snuffled Anthony’s hand before he settled on the floor to doze.
Hodges reappeared. “Is there anything you require, my lord?”
“In your estimation, what determines whether a man’s life has been worthwhile or well lived?”
“I’m sure I couldn’t say.”
“Of course you can.” Anthony rubbed his hand over the luxurious leather of the chair.
Hodges strode to the hearth and picked up an iron poker to encourage an errant piece of wood back into the burning pile. “Perhaps the value of a man’s life is best determined by what he leaves behind, and whether his passing would be mourned.”
The aging retainer had been with Anthony many years, and he valued the man’s opinion. “I assume you’re not speaking of monetary wealth or an accumulation of brick and mortar.”
“No, my lord, I was not.”
“And a failure?”
The butler straightened, laid the poker aside, and faced him. “Conversely, I would gauge a failure to be if the death were a relief to others. Might I inquire as to the reason for your questions?”
Anthony resisted the urge to squirm under Hodges’ penetrating stare. “I’m not planning on leaving this mortal coil any time soon, so do not let it concern you.” He leaned his head back. “I believe I’ll rest until the others arrive.”
“Yes, my lord.”
Anthony settled deeper into the overstuffed chair and listened to Hodges’ retreating footsteps. He closed his eyes and stretched his booted feet toward the blaze. The heat did little to alleviate the bone-deep chill of rejection, his constant companion since his last visit to Scotland.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust
A loud pop and hiss and his eyes flew open. He thrust out a booted foot to snuff the sparks dotting the carpet as the heavy knocker sounded from below. Rising, he called Caesar to his side. By the time Anthony gained the front hall, he’d managed to form a somewhat passable smile.
Caesar bounded ahead to greet their guests, his backside wagging as vigorously as his tail. After receiving his due, the dog padded off and flopped down.
Anthony signaled to a footman. “Jinks, please make certain Caesar is fed and taken out back for some exercise.”
“Aye, milord.” The footman patted his thigh. “Come along, ye fine beastie. Cook’s saved a beef bone for yer supper.”
Anthony turned to greet his friends.
A slender man, dressed in the latest fashion, stepped forward and extended his hand. “Good to see you, Tony.” Stephen Oxley, Lord Willoughby, smiled.
Anthony took the outstretched hand in his. “And you, Stephen.” He turned to James Ashley, Viscount Longhaven.
“Welcome back, Tony.” James clasped Anthony’s hand in a warm grip.
“It’s good to be home.” Anthony glanced around. “Where’s Phillip?”
“He’s to meet us at White’s.” James raised the fur collar of his heavy coat in preparation to step outside.
Anthony donned his greatcoat and hat, pulling on his gloves as he instructed his butler. “Please inform Beetles I won’t need his assistance this evening.”
“Certainly, my lord. I fear he will be quite distraught at the news.” Anthony caught the twinkle in Hodges’ eyes.
“I’m surprised your valet hasn’t given notice, the little you value his expertise,” Stephen ventured. “Let me know if he does.”
Anthony grinned. “I pay him too well. Shall we away, gentlemen?”
Later, ensconced once more in the comfortable library at Inniswood, Anthony let his friends’ voices flow around him as he considered the upcoming event to be held at his London home. With the arrangements all but completed, his attention turned to the envelope and its contents.
“What’s wrong, Tony?” Stephen asked. “You seem preoccupied with something.”
At the sound of his name, Anthony glanced up. “I was thinking of the annual masquerade ball.”
“Who have you asked?” Stephen queried.
Stephen looked aghast. “The ball is two days away.”
“I’ve neither the time nor the inclination to pursue a woman,” Anthony stated.
“You’re not serious,” Lord Phillip Spencer scoffed.
“You need to find another paramour. All work and no play, you know.” Stephen raised his glass.
“Even so, I do not parade my mistresses around for all to see, and I do not bring one to my home.”
“Doubtless, you could have your choice of any lady.” Stephen grinned a bit lopsidedly. “But mark my words, Tony, one day you’ll find yourself head over ears for some woman and facing an altar.”
“Did Lady Millicent wave her dainty little hand and you dropped to bended knee, Stephen?” Phillip teased.
“Something of the sort.” Stephen looked bemused. “Which reminds me, I’d best be going. With my wife in a delicate way, I do not wish her to fret.”
“Will we see you at Tony’s, or will it be hearth and home for you?” Phillip continued the gentle harassment.
Stephen didn’t hesitate. “Home. Millie’s still not herself and I want to begin the New Year with her. I must admit to enjoying a quiet evening alone with my wife.”
Anthony inclined his head. “I won’t expect you. Give my best to your lady, Stephen. You’re a lucky man.”
While Stephen staggered for the door, Phillip gained his feet and set his half-empty snifter on the tray. “I’ll walk out with you. I’ve an early morning with my father’s man of business and need a clear head.” He laid a steadying hand on Stephen’s arm and sent a wink over his shoulder.
James settled into the armchair across from his, obviously intending to stay. As one of his closest friends, Anthony had known James since Eton. “How was your journey?” he asked.
Anthony would laugh if the memories didn’t hurt so much. He’d arrived in time to see his natural father’s remains lowered into the ground. At Duncan’s sudden and unexpected death, Anthony had been immersed with grief. “Worse than expected.”
After the funeral, Anthony found the hunting lodge Duncan bequeathed him reduced to a pile of burnt rubble. A gift, he presumed, from his half-brothers.
He returned his attention to James. “Do you ever feel as though something vital is missing in your life?”
“In what way?”
Anthony shrugged. “I’m not certain. Direction, purpose beyond the accumulation of wealth.”
James stretched his legs out before him. “Like you, I knew one day I’d formally take the title, lands, and my place in the House of Lords and Parliament. I understood the decisions I made would influence not only my future, but the future of those who depended upon me. Every choice I’ve made was to that end.”
Anthony lifted the decanter and raised a brow in question. James shook his head. Anthony poured himself a fresh snifter and gestured for his friend to continue.
After a reflective pause, James mused, “My father died when I was six. Uncle Adrian became my guardian and made certain I had those necessities to succeed, whether through education or advice.”
Anthony downed the last of the brandy in his snifter. “You’re fortunate to have a man like him.”
James frowned. “What of your father?”
“The late Earl?” Anthony uttered a sound of disgust. “If the rules of succession weren’t so strong, he would have tried to repudiate me. Instead, he chose to leave me with a mountain of debt and no way to pay it. Anything not entailed and with any value, he squandered or bequeathed.”
He sighed in frustration. “Bequeathed to my cousin Gerald, his brother’s son.”