About the book
Their love was a storm. Not the kind you run from, but the one you chase...
In a world ruled by men, ingenious detective Victoria McCarthy has to fight tooth and nail in order to be accepted. Titled “the Vixen” by her colleagues, she strives to walk in her late father’s footsteps.
And London has just declared a state of emergency.
With his fiancée the latest victim of a series of kidnappings, Christian Turner, Earl of Galbury, is willing to do anything to get her back. He never expected that joining forces with one Victoria McCarthy would leave him so conflicted: for the closer they get to their target, the nearer he gets to having to say goodbye.
With their trails going cold, and the clock ticking against them, Victoria comes up with a dangerous plan: she is to pose as a Lady and invite the kidnappers to come and get her, even if it means never seeing Christian again.
For there's one thing she knows for certain: she's about to walk into the lion's den and there is no escape plan...
Lady Helena, daughter to the prominent Duke of Pelsley, stirred in her slumber as silver moonlight glanced in through the parted drapes. The fabric billowed in a ghostly fashion, pushed by an errant breeze that slipped in through the window. Beyond, in the darkened landscape of her Mayfair home, foxes shrieked in the most terrible fashion. A bestial cry that might have made Helena shudder in fear, had she been awake.
She murmured in her sleep; her body suddenly overcome with a violent twitch as though in the throes of a disturbing nightmare. A soft groan escaped her lips, her forehead furrowing in consternation. Her fist gripped the bedclothes, the violent twitches spasming through her.
“No… no…” she whispered, still deep in unconsciousness. Something perplexed her in the dreamworld behind her closed eyes.
A creak of a floorboard splintered through her bedchamber, and those closed eyes opened slowly. Panting breathlessly, she peered over the edge of the sheets and viewed the shadowed room in perspiring terror, for the lines between her nightmare and reality had grown somewhat blurred.
“Hello?” She curled up under the covers, as if the thin fabric could somehow protect her from the monsters of her nightmare.
Silence echoed back.
It is but a dream, she told herself sternly. I ate too much clotted cream with my apple pie, that is all. It would not be the first time she had dreamt of terrible things after ingesting too much rich food. And yet, she knew she would not be able to drift off again. She did not want to re-enter that land of shadow and monsters.
“Hello?” she said again, to ease her mind. Her eyes grew accustomed to the gloom and searched every crevice for any lingering creatures of the night. But everything seemed as it ought to be.
“What a fool I am.” She gave a nervous chuckle. “There is nobody here but me.”
Satisfied, she lay back down upon her pillow and stared up at the ceiling, waiting for sleep to come. It would be hard won, but she was determined not to let her foolish terrors prevent her from resting. Her home was safe. Her mother and father slept in the bedchamber down the hall, and her brother slept in his, to the other side of Helena’s. Not to mention the multitude of staff who resided here, many of whom would still be awake—the kitchen maids, for one, who would be preparing the morning’s bread. If there were any disruption, they would know of it. And since the house rested in a serene silence, she encouraged herself to draw strength from that.
Pulling the covers up to her chin, she started to hum quietly. A quaint tune that she had heard some days ago, from a passing errand boy. It had been stuck in her head ever since.
The notes died on her lips as another creak ricocheted through the quiet like a musket shot. She bolted upright, shivering. The curtains billowed wildly, the window somehow open, though she was certain her lady’s maid had closed it before she went to bed.
“Hello?” she rasped into the bedchamber, pulling the covers tighter about herself.
Once more, no sound echoed back, and every shadow was in its place. Nothing moved. Nothing creaked. Yet she could not swallow the terror that lodged in her throat, that someone was in here with her.
She was about to coax herself back down onto the bed, when a strange, slithering sound crept into her ears. No, not a slithering… more of a hiss, or a rustle, as though something, or someone, were sliding along the floor. Her heart lurched. She wanted to scream, but no sound came out—her throat had clenched with utter terror.
Mustering all the courage she possessed, she shuffled as far toward the edge of the bed as she dared. Tilting her head down, she peered at the floor below. But it lay empty. As did the rest of the room within her field of vision. And that strange hiss had stopped… only to be replaced with the sharp, blood-freezing strain of a heavy weight upon the floorboards. Not ahead of her… but behind her.
The hairs stood up on the back of her neck. She didn’t want to turn around, for fear of what she may face if she did. A breath that most definitely was not hers whispered through the atmosphere. Low and harsh. Her heart beat faster, her mind urging her to scream at the top of her lungs to bring the cavalry. But no sound came out. Fear had rendered her throat silent.
Turning at a painstaking pace, Helena’s stomach plummeted. Cold sweat shivered up her spine. Indeed, she near fainted as she beheld a shadow looming over the far side of the bed. Dressed all in black, the face masked with some sort of material, she could only make out two glinting eyes.
Her mouth opened, to scream at last, but the figure lunged before a single sound could emerge. A rough hand clamped over her mouth, muffling her cries of despair. Indeed, the fingers closed so tightly that she began to struggle for air, that coarse palm covering her nostrils, too.
With the hand still rendering her silent, an arm snaked about her throat. It pulled her closer into a firm chest, her skin crawling as the assailant breathed hard in her ear. But she didn’t have time to think of what may happen to her, as the arm squeezed tighter around her throat. Her eyes bulged and she strained for breath, but it would not come. She flailed and writhed, but it did no good. Her attacker held fast.
Black spots danced in her vision, as a sneaking oblivion edged into her mind, numbing her panic and sending her away into a strange serenity. Like drowning, she supposed. Everything slowed, as though she were drifting off to sleep again, at last.
Indeed, as the world turned to darkness, she did not know if she would ever see the light of day again.
London’s high society lay gripped in a storm of terror and uproar, with fathers keeping their daughters behind locked doors and the streets emptying of life the moment evening fell. A vain attempt to keep the horrors from darkening their own doorsteps, despite the knowledge that at least three young ladies had been stolen away from their very beds while the rest of their households slept.
“Terrible business, isn’t it?” A valet paused on the front step of his employer’s townhouse, speaking with the butler next door.
The butler nodded. “Terrible indeed. How many have there been, now that the Duke of Pelsley’s daughter has been taken?”
“She makes six, in total.”
“And the Bow Street Runners are not aiding in the investigation? Surely, someone must know who is doing these atrocious things? Why, whomever this wretch is, they have gone into the sanctuary of one’s own residence and stolen the ladies away. It is despicable!” The butler blew into his hands to stave off the bitter cold that rolled in with the oncoming dawn.
The valet shrugged. “I don’t know if them Runners have the means to do anything. I can’t say I’m fond of having them around. It were much better when we took matters into our own hands, as they don’t do much, so far as I can tell. You mark my words, if I were in charge of hunting this animal down, I’d have him in chains by nightfall.”
“Have you heard much from the Pelsley residence?” The butler turned his weary face up to the streaked sky, taking in the vibrant bolts of orange and pink that signaled the sun’s rising.
The valet shook his head. “Not too much, to be honest. The family is beside themselves, as you’d imagine. I mean, wouldn’t you be? How can a young lady simply disappear without a trace?”
“It is very perplexing,” the butler replied, though he felt a hint of gratitude that these terrors had not afflicted his place of work. They had no daughters, which meant they were likely safe. Unless this vile individual started kidnapping the wives, too—he didn’t like to dwell on that too much.
“Shouldn’t you be at your work, instead of chattering away like a pair of finches?” A voice cut through the frosty dawn, making the two men turn in surprise. Miss Victoria McCarthy emerged from the rolling fog of the street opposite, her cloak giving a haunting silhouette as she approached. Her fierce near-black eyes narrowed at the duo, while she pushed away a strand of her unruly dark locks.
She had heard the two fellows talking on her way to the Pelsley residence and had not been able to resist stopping to chide them. She loathed gossipmongers with a passion, especially when they attempted to speak of what they would do in an investigation, when she knew they wouldn’t lift a finger if they were actually encouraged to.
“And who are you, to speak to us like that?” the valet scowled.
“An investigator, determined to get to the bottom of who has commited these awful deeds,” she replied coolly, bracing herself for the scorn that would undoubtedly follow. It was the same wherever she went. Sometimes, the words altered, but the sentiment never did. A female investigator? Why, how queer. You will be telling me you have garnered permission to vote, next! Should you not be at home, with a husband and some children to distract yourself from men’s duties. Surely, you cannot be serious? A female investigator—who would have thought it possible!
She had heard it all.
“You? An investigator?” the valet snorted. “Why then, these poor young ladies have no hope of being recovered.”
“Then perhaps you might like to make good on your proclamations, sir?” Victoria shot back. “As you said, if you were the one in charge, you would have the villain in chains by nightfall. If you think you are capable of doing a better job than I, then perhaps you ought to.”
The valet paused. “I haven’t the time, given my employment.”
“No, I thought not.” Victoria smirked. “Now, if you would be so kind as to point me in the direction of the Pelsley residence, I will leave you to your aimless witterings.”
The butler chuckled. “My, you are a spirited creature.”
“Someone has to be,” Victoria replied.
“I pity the man who falls in love with you.” The butler grinned, somewhat impressed by the feisty young woman.
“Then it is fortunate for me that I never plan to avert my attentions to the institution of marriage. I’m already married to the position of investigator—that is the only husband I shall ever need or want.” Victoria tucked the same wild curl of raven hair behind her ear. “Now, the Pelsley residence, if you please?”
The butler laughed. “Yes, perhaps that is fortunate, for you are likely to eat any potential suitor alive.” He slowed in his hysterics. “As for the Pelsley residence—when you reach the end of the street, turn left, and then left again. Follow the road for a short while, past the gated garden, and you will find their townhouse midway along the curve of houses.”
“Gratitude, sir.” Victoria was about to move away, when she turned back. “And, if you do find an urge to assist in our investigation, please do make yourself known on Bow Street.”
“You’re a Runner?” the valet looked dumbfounded.
She smiled. “Goodness no. I am far, far better.” With that, she turned on her heel and set out for the Pelsley house, satisfied that she had managed to get the final word. For, if there was one thing she loathed more than gossipmongers, it was men who thought themselves superior to her. She didn’t care what the law or society claimed; there were very few in this world who could do what she did and, to her mind, that made her equal to any man in the same employ as she. And certainly equal, at least, to those who were not.
You’d be proud of me, Papa, for teaching him a lesson. She smiled sadly to herself as she walked, thinking of her beloved father, Solomon McCarthy. He was the man who’d taught her everything she knew about the investigative world. A family business, which had fallen to her when her parents hadn’t succeeded in siring a son and heir. Though her father had treated her as though she were a son, caring nothing for her femininity. She missed him every day, but more so when a case came calling.
Once, they had been a formidable duo, even though she had been the assistant then. Now, it was up to her to carry on the legacy that her father had created. Her mother distained it very much, but she understood Victoria’s need to help those who had been harmed, and to rid the world of dastardly creatures. Her mother’s, albeit reluctant, support would always mean everything to Victoria, as it was hard enough to have everyone else spurn and scorn her, without having to contend with the same from her remaining family.
Pulling her cloak tighter around her chin, to take the edge off the biting cold that crept in, Victoria stared up at the blank-eyed windows of the houses she passed. She thought of all those resting soundly in their beds. Well, perhaps not so soundly these days, considering the threat that loitered in the air. But no light shone outward, at least not from the upper floors. The staff would have been awake for at least an hour, but high society did not know the meaning of an early morning.
I wonder if there would be a such an uproar if one of the staff had vanished without a trace, or if a common young woman from the docks, or the markets, or the canals had been taken from their bed.
Her contemplation came with a bitter twist of irony, for she knew full well that such furor would not have manifested, had the victims been ordinary girls. She knew that, because ordinary young women went missing all the time, from every poor district, and none but their families and friends deigned to care for their fate. Even the Bow Street Runners could only do so much, with the magnitude of crime that infested the city.
Turning the corner onto the sweeping crescent of townhouses, just past the gated garden that the butler had mentioned, it became immediately clear which house belonged to the Pelsley’s. Carriages lined the cobbled road, and clusters of men in black, woolen cloaks stood talking to one another. Puffs of condensation drifted up like tobacco smoke with every hushed word.
Without hesitation, Victoria strode up to the first cluster of grim-faced men. She recognized a few of them—some worked for Bow Street, while others worked under their own steam as private investigators. All and sundry had come out to assist on this latest case, and for good reason. Whomsoever managed to crack this mystery would undoubtedly be lauded with fame and fortune.
“Ooh, watch yourselves, fellas. The Vixen’s sniffed out our scent.” A grizzled older man with thinning gray hair and tufty white whiskers smiled upon Victoria’s approach. Admiral Benedict Thomson; her father’s oldest friend, whom she’d known since she was knee-high to a grasshopper. Indeed, after her father passed, Benedict had become something of a father to her. As well as her continued mentor in the investigative realm.
“Ah, the name stuck, then?” Victoria chuckled, and refused the offer of a nip of whisky from another investigator’s hipflask. It might have been a cold morning, but she needed to keep her wits sharp.
Benedict nodded. “’Fraid so, McCarthy.”
“Now, how is it that you have no trouble calling me McCarthy, but the rest of these sorry sods do?” Victoria sighed, as the three other men in their group laughed. Not unkindly, though; they’d respected her father too much to be cruel to his daughter. And Benedict would not permit any lack of courtesy toward her. She had his unfettered respect and, as such, the rest of Benedict’s colleagues admired Victoria. Well, perhaps not admired, but they certainly tolerated her.
She had a keen eye and an extensive knowledge of new investigative techniques that her father had passed on in his personal notebook. An item more valuable to Victoria than gold. With its help, more often than not, she spotted things that others had missed, and that was useful in their line of business, regardless of the sex of the one doing the spotting. She supposed that was what had earned her the nickname of ‘Vixen’, too, aside from the obvious relation to her given name of Victoria—she had a way of sniffing out evidence, as a fox might.
She had yet to decide if she liked the moniker or not. Maybe the best way to stop it from becoming derogatory was to own it and make it part of her identity. Still, she wished folks would refer to her as McCarthy, as they would call any male investigator by their surname.
“Because I know you as if you were my own,” Benedict said, with a wry grin. “And I’ve taught you as if you were my own. I never had children, so you’re all I’ve got, and if you want to be called McCarthy, after your father, then who am I to call you otherwise?”
“Thank you, Ben.” She could always rely on him to keep her from feeling like the odd one out.
“It ain’t right to speak with a lady so casual-like,” one of the other investigators—a younger man by the name of Robert Elfin—replied.
Victoria grinned. “I am no lady, Elfin.”
“You can say that ‘til you’re blue in the face, Miss McCarthy. It won’t change the facts of the matter.” Elfin gave an apologetic shrug.
“Anyway, enough babbling. All I’ve heard this morning is chatter about the Pelsley girl, but no actual information about what happened, or how it may have happened.” Victoria glanced up at the imposing townhouse, with its white walls and balconettes. Here, the lamps were very much lit among the top floors. Until their beloved daughter was found, Victoria doubted they would be able to sleep again. “Have the family let anyone inside yet?”
Benedict shook his head. “Not yet, no.”
The third fellow, a man called Edgar Greaves, shot Victoria a withering look. “Do you think we’re all standing out here for the good of our health, Miss? If the Pelsleys had let anyone in, we’d be in there.”
“You must be playing some sort of jest with me?” Victoria gaped. “They haven’t let a soul into the house since yesterday? How are we supposed to help if they will not grant us access?” Lady Helena, their only daughter, had been found absent yesterday morning, at around the same time as it was now. The Bow Street Runners had been alerted which had, in turn, alerted the veritable swarm of investigators who strove to keep this city a safer place.
It makes no sense whatsoever. Why bother informing the Runners of their missing daughter, if the Pelsleys had no intention of letting anyone do their jobs? Victoria had been detained with another case in Poplar the previous day, regarding a missing child that had duly been located. As such, she happened to be somewhat late to the proverbial party. She had thought that might put her on the back foot with finding her place in this investigation, but it seemed she had not missed anything at all.
“I overheard the Duchess of Pelsley muttering that she didn’t want us trailing our filth through her home. How’s that for gratitude?” Elfin grumbled. “She won’t even open the door to the Runners, and they’ve got uniforms. We’ve got no chance.”
Victoria’s lips tugged into a smile, as an idea formed in her mind. “You’re forgetting one thing, my good men.”
“Oh? And what’s that?” Benedict cocked his head to one side, with interest.
“You’ve got a secret weapon. Well, I do.”
Greaves frowned. “What are you talking about? What secret weapon?”
“Me.” Victoria swept past them and mounted the front steps, while the entire congregation of constables and investigators turned to watch in surprise.
She knocked on the door and waited for an answer, praying this would work. If it did not, she would have to face a mass humiliation, standing center stage before the rest of these men.
The door wrenched open and the butler appeared in a bluster of exasperation. “We have told you once, and we will not tell you again. His Grace and Her Grace do not—” he stopped short as he beheld Victoria standing on the top step, finally setting his gaze upon her. He evidently had not realized that he was conversing with a young lady.
“I apologize for the intrusion, sir, and I apologize if the household feels they are being pestered by these investigators.” Victoria gestured back to her rapt audience. “They men well, and they only want to aid in finding Lady Helena. But I am no investigator, sir, so I hope you will permit me entry. You see, I have been sent to help the Duchess endure this awful experience, as part of the Bow Street Runners’ new initiative in comforting the families of victims.”
The butler faltered. “May I have your name, Miss?”
“Certainly, sir. My name is Miss Victoria McCarthy,” she smiled sweetly. She didn’t possess the fairest of faces, but there were roses enough in her cheeks, and her mother had always remarked that she could be a beauty if she took more care in her appearance. In that moment, she hoped that prettiness might shine through, if only as a tactic to persuade this gatekeeper to let her in.
“Allow me a minute or two, Miss McCarthy. I will speak with the Duchess.” He lowered his voice. “Truly, you may have arrived at the ideal moment, for she is in an awfully troubled state.”
“I will wait, sir. I hope that I may be of some help to her, in what must be her darkest hour.” A chameleon of voice and mannerisms, Victoria knew when to play upon her feminine wiles, and when to behave in a more masculine fashion. This required a tenderer touch, inspiring her voice to soften and her demeanor to appear more delicate. And it seemed to be working.
The butler disappeared inside, leaving the door slightly ajar. Victoria took the opportunity to peer through the narrow gap, beholding the elegant entrance hall beyond. A chandelier glinted overhead, and a curving staircase spiraled upward, to where the Duchess must surely be in hiding… and perhaps mourning, for her vanished daughter.
I will find her for you, I swear it. See, she was not callous in using somewhat underhand tactics. She merely wished to do the finest job she could, and she was incapable of doing that if nobody would allow her inside. It served a purpose and came from a good place, though she had long dispensed with feeling guilt over swaying people with her altered mannerisms.
She glanced back over her shoulder, where the other investigators were gaping at her, open-mouthed. Clearly, she had already advanced further than they had managed.
You should learn not to underestimate me. She smiled and turned back, awaiting the reappearance of the butler. He returned several minutes later, with a hesitant look of relief upon his face.
“Her Grace would like to welcome you into the house,” he said, gesturing for Victoria to come inside. She did so, without so much as a single look back at the others. If she could gain more information, then this would become her sole investigation, free from the invasions of the waiting men. And maybe, just maybe, solving this case might be the very thing that won their respect for good.
Christian Turner, the recently made Earl of Galbury, sat in the parlor with the Duchess of Pelsley. Nervous silence stretched between them, for nobody knew what to say in such times. It made matters all the more awkward every time Christian noted a tear trickling down the Duchess’ cheek. Tea had been laid, but neither he nor the Duchess had touched a drop. Indeed, it had likely gone cold by now.
The Duke had made himself scarce in his study, choosing to keep away from the turmoil, and the Duke’s only son had gone to visit with the other families who had fallen victim to the same criminal act. Christian could understand that. A man’s emotions were a private realm, and Christian knew that the Duke and his son would not want to show weakness in front of their household, wife, and mother. They would likely be in tears too, but it would not have done so to show that liquid misery in company. For his part, Christian felt dutybound to watch over the Duchess, given that he might one day be their son-in-law…
If Helena can be rescued, that is. He pushed away the dark thoughts, determined to believe that she would be found. She had to be.
“Can I fetch a blanket, or a shawl for you?” Christian asked. The Duchess had begun to shiver, though he had a feeling it wasn’t from the cold.
The Duchess shook her head. “No, thank you.”
“I am certain she will be found, Your Grace.” Christian had his doubts, but he was determined to bring comfort to the Duchess.
“Have the other young ladies been found?” A bitter note edged into the Duchess’ voice.
“It will only be a matter of time before they are located also,” Christian replied. However, even he sensed the words rang false. He had read the papers with horror and intrigue, when they had told of the five missing ladies who had been stolen away prior to Lady Helena.
Three had been taken from their beds, in the same manner that Lady Helena had. And two had been apprehended in their carriages, while making their way home from some engagement or another. Their chaperones had borne witness to their kidnapping, though they weren’t able to identify the two fellows who had snatched their mistresses from under their noses. He hadn’t read about there being two men involved, in the papers, but he had heard the story from various acquaintances who knew the bereft families.
“You cannot know that for certain.” The Duchess’ breath hitched. “How can she have been taken without a single soul within this house hearing? I cannot fathom it, Lord Galbury. I cannot.”
“It is exceedingly strange,” he paused, “Perhaps, if you were to permit the investigators to enter, they might be able to do more about seeking evidence and finding the perpetrator of this awful deed?”
The Duchess stared at him. “I will not have them desecrating my daughter’s bedchamber. I have heard terrible stories of investigators ransacking homes and stealing valuable items. I will not add theft to an already-dire circumstance. If they cannot find Helena without traipsing through her private quarters, then they cannot be very efficient at their employment.”
“As you prefer, Your Grace.” Christian saw that he wasn’t about to win this particular argument, though it seemed a waste of resources to have so many willing helpers standing in the street outside. Then again, if they had yet to succeeded in finding the other five ladies, then maybe the Duchess was right. They couldn’t be so efficient in their employment if they had yet to find a trace of those others.
The stilted atmosphere splintered a moment later, by the arrival of the butler, Phelps. A young lady walked behind him. Draped in a rather masculine cloak of thick, navy wool, she stood at an average height, with a long neck and a pale face emerging from the cloak’s collar. She possessed an elfin quality, with angular cheeks and a small chin, and large, improbably dark eyes that took in their surroundings, darting this way and that.
“Miss McCarthy, Your Grace.” Phelps bowed and allowed the young lady to fully enter the parlor.
The Duchess raised her head. “You are the comfort that has been sent by Bow Street?” She observed the newcomer with interest. “I must say, that is rather generous of them. Until now, I thought them to be uncaring brutes, who thought only of apprehending criminals. They do not appear to have cared a jot for the other poor families in my situation.”
Miss McCarthy sketched a graceful curtsy. “They are endeavoring to do better, Your Grace.”
“Then, I suppose you ought to sit and take tea with us. Phelps, will you send one of the maids to refresh this tray? I daresay the tea has gone cold.” The Duchess gestured to Christian. “This fellow is Lord Galbury.”
“My Lord.” Miss McCarthy bobbed a second curtsy in his direction. “Are you a relation of the family?”
Christian shook his head. “I am engaged to be married to Lady Helena.”
“Ah, I see.” Miss McCarthy crossed the room and sat in the proffered chair. “I am sorry to have heard the news of what happened. It seems all of London’s finest are gripped in a vise of terror. Truly, my heart aches for all those involved.”
“Gratitude, Miss McCarthy,” the Duchess murmured, her voice thick with emotion.
“Might I be so bold as to ask what occurred?” The young lady perched on the edge of the armchair cushion. “Sometimes, it’s beneficial for the family to progress through the stages of what happened, to aid in recovering from the initial shock.”
The Duchess frowned. “I suppose that makes a great deal of sense.”
“Is the Duke not at home?” Miss McCarthy glanced around the room, as though expecting him to emerge at any moment.
Christian answered first. “He has taken to some business in his study and does not wish to be disturbed.”
Miss McCarthy nodded in understanding. “Affairs such as this can be very difficult for fathers. They are not so free to feel as we ladies may.. I imagine he is coping with this terrible ordeal in the only way he knows how.”
“I hadn’t thought of it like that,” the Duchess said, with some surprise. “I have been so furious with his perceived abandonment of me, for he disappeared into his study yesterday and has not emerged since. Not even to dine. Do you truly believe he is merely attempting to cope with his emotions?”
“I do, Your Grace.” Miss McCarthy smiled. “My own father was much the same, when he still lived. If ever a traumatic event struck our family, he would vanish for days on end. It drove my mother to distraction, but he would always return and explain that he had been seeking to come to terms with what had occurred.”
Christian listened with interest. His knowledge of the Bow Street Runners wasn’t extensive and didn’t know that they had ladies in their employ, but this particular lady’s presence seemed to be coaxing the Duchess into a more relaxed state. There was a soothing temperament to her voice. Even he found himself in a less fractious mood, as her words drifted over him.
“Your father is no longer living?” The Duchess sounded sorrowful.
“I am afraid not, Your Grace. He died in a tragic boating accident some years ago. The vessel was recovered in pieces, and my father was found washed up on the shore some days later. The storm must have battered the boat severely, for my father… well, it would not do for me to go into the details, as they are not very pleasant. And I would hate to add to your discomfort.” Miss McCarthy dipped her head, and Christian noted the slight tremble of her lower lip. Whatever had happened to her father, it could not have been good.
This poor creature. Christian wished he had some words of comfort to offer her, but he did not know her, and he certainly did not know how to offer consolation to a complete stranger.
“Then we are, both of us, grieving.” The Duchess lifted a handkerchief to her eyes and dabbed them gently.
“Tell me of your daughter, Your Grace,” Miss McCarthy urged. “I should like to hear of her.”
The Duchess smiled sadly. “My Helena is a rare bird. Beautiful, intelligent, and full of grace. She looks a great deal like me, if you can imagine me in my youth. We share the same blonde hair, sapphire-blue eyes, and all my best features. And she dearly loved to laugh. My goodness, how I miss that sweet sound.”
“She sounds delightful, Your Grace. And I can well imagine you in your youth, for you do not look as though you would have a daughter grown.” Miss McCarthy flashed a winning smile. It disarmed Christian somewhat, though he had become somewhat suspicious of her easy charm. The more he contemplated it, the less he reasoned the Bow Street Runners would have sent such a lady to this house. It was unheard of.
But why else would she be here? She radiated no malevolent ambience, and truly seemed to be putting the Duchess at ease. And yet, something felt amiss. Something he could not quite put his finger on. Not just yet.
“You are too kind, Miss McCarthy.” The Duchess dabbed the last of her tears away and folded her hands neatly in her lap. A force of habit, no doubt, learned through decades of propriety.
“Did anything seem peculiar, the night she went missing?” Miss McCarthy asked, in a quiet voice. “As I mentioned, it serves a family well to remember the events leading up to a tragic occurrence such as this. Sometimes, it can help their loved ones be found. Sometimes, it simply helps them to corroborate everything in their minds.”
What are you trying to discover, Miss McCarthy? Her line of questioning echoed soft and casual, but Christian saw a glint of something in her eyes. A determination, perhaps. He didn’t think it possible that she could be an investigator, given the nature of her sex, but she spoke with the persuasive skill of an expert one.
The Duchess paused in thought. “I do not think so, from what I am able to recall. We spent the day together at the botanical gardens and returned home in the early evening. We dined, as we always do, at seven o’clock. After which, we convened in the drawing room to read and converse. She retired half an hour before I did, but I peered into her bedchamber on my way to bed, as I always do. Nothing seemed amiss. That is why all of this is so atrociously upsetting. She was fast asleep in her bed. I saw her. I even went into her bedchamber, as she had left the window open. I went to close it in case she caught a chill, but I did not see anybody else in the room, and I must have spent several minutes there.”
“I am so very sorry, Your Grace.” Miss McCarthy reached out to pass the Duchess a clean handkerchief. “That must be horrible for you, knowing you left her safe and sound, only to find that some brute had stolen her away in the night.”
The Duchess heaved a sob. “I cannot comprehend how no one heard anything. Her brother sleeps in a chamber close by, and he did not stir.”
“Tell me, Your Grace, was the window to your daughter’s bedchamber open when she was found to be missing?” The glint of determination had come back into Miss McCarthy’s eyes, and Christian spotted it immediately.
She was most definitely speaking like and investigator now. He had been privy to a similarly gentle investigation when his own mother had not returned home from an engagement in the countryside. As it turned out, the carriage had acquired a broken wheel, and they had been forced to stop in a local village until it could be fixed, but he remembered the investigator’s skillful repartee, all the same, when the fellow had spoken with his now-deceased father about it.
The Duchess’ mouth fell open. “Why… yes, yes it was open! My goodness, how could I not have observed such a thing? But I know I closed it and pulled the drapes across it. My goodness, Miss McCarthy, the drapes were also open!”
She must be a sorceress. Christian could hardly believe it. A few moments in this room, and already this young lady was garnering information that could be useful in locating Lady Helena. It urged Christian to remain silent upon the suspicion that she was not all she seemed, for if she could aid in finding his fiancée, then that could only be a good thing. Regardless of her apparent subterfuge.
“Might you take me to Lady Helena’s chambers? We might see if you remember anything else of that night, for your own sake. The more you recall, the more sense you may be able to make of what has happened.” Miss McCarthy spoke with such innocence that even Christian almost believed she had no ulterior motive.
The Duchess nodded effusively. “Yes, of course. I cannot believe that I did not remember that I had closed the window and the drapes. What a fool I must be! Perhaps… yes, perhaps there may be something more that I have yet to recall. Please, follow me. Oh, Miss McCarthy, you cannot know what hope this gives me.” She stood sharply and hurried across the room, with Miss McCarthy and Christian in pursuit.
Well done, whomever you may be. Truly, it inspired some hope in Christian, too, for he had been attempting to encourage the Duchess to allow the investigators to do their work, ever since the first one had arrived outside the house. Now, it finally looked as though the Duchess was relenting, even if she did not realize she was under some method of investigation.
As they walked, Christian jolted when Miss McCarthy turned her attention on him. The Duchess was a short way ahead, just out of earshot. Perhaps, that had been deliberate—Christian was uncertain how careful Miss McCarthy was endeavoring to be.
“Did you dine with the family, the night Lady Helena was taken?” she asked, in a hushed tone.
Christian shook his head. “No. I was at my own residence, on the other side of Mayfair. I had not seen Lady Helena since the day before.” He didn’t know why he was giving up such information without hesitation. Again, it appeared that Miss McCarthy had a way about her that loosened people’s lips.
“You may be her fiancé, but do you know of any other gentlemen who had an interest in Lady Helena? Any spurned suitors, or anyone of that ilk?”
“I do not, Miss McCarthy. Lady Helena had many admirers, but I cannot think of anyone who might wish to cause her harm.” Christian frowned, as he wracked his brain for any possible perpetrators.
Miss McCarthy nodded. “And she loves you?”
“What sort of question is that?” Christian could not help but feel affronted. What is she attempting to say in this?
“Lady Helena would not be the first young lady to elope with a gentleman she is not engaged to.” Miss McCarthy tucked an unruly strand of hair behind her ear. “If there were not five others in the same situation, it may have seemed the most obvious conclusion. Unless, she sought to use the kidnappings as a means of eloping without suspicion?”
Anger bristled through Christian’s chest. “She was very much looking forward to our union. We have known each other since we were children and have always supposed we would be engaged to one another, one day. Nor is she the type of fickle creature to make her family endure such torment, for the sake of an elopement. If there was another who had captured her heart, she would have told her mother and father, and they would have understood. Even if there were another, and they would not have understood, she adores her family far more than she adores me. She would not be making them suffer, I assure you.”
“I had to be sure,” Miss McCarthy replied. “I meant no offence by it. And I believe you are correct, but I had to inquire, in case.”
“Who are you?” Christian hissed.
“I am a woman of no importance to you, but of great importance to Lady Helena being found safe and well.” Her eyes leveled with Christian’s, and they held a challenge within them. “It is my duty, and my desire, to ensure she is rescued.”
Christian’s head spun with confusion. “What are you?”
“As I said, a woman with a duty to discover the villains who did this, and see Lady Helena safely back in your arms, so you may be wed.” Miss McCarthy sped up, moving to the Duchess’ side as they entered the bedchamber of Lady Helena. Naturally, Christian did not dare to follow, for his fiancée’s chamber was sacred ground where he could not step. Instead, he lingered on the threshold as they went inside, his eyes widening in bemusement as the door closed in his face.
Who the devil is she? Her gall, her subterfuge, her manipulation… he did not know whether to be appalled or impressed. But, if she truly could do something to find Lady Helena, then perhaps it was for the best that he kept his mouth firmly shut.
However, one thought remained as he stared at the closed door. Whomever this terrier was, he reasoned she would not stop until she had a culprit in chains. Which begged the sickening question…
Does she think me a suspect?
Victoria switched directly into investigative mode, though she made a point of not appearing too peculiar to the Duchess. She need not have worried, for the Duchess had fallen silent the moment they came into her daughter’s bedchamber. She stood still, staring about the place as though she did not recognize it, or as if it were a far-off dream that she had almost forgotten.
Using the distraction to her advantage, Victoria walked to the window and peered down. The room lay on the first floor of the house and looked directly over the stretch of greenery that served as a garden. A tall fence bordered the back of the lawn, with a doorway built into the center. Behind it, she knew there sat an alleyway, separating this garden from the ones opposite.
How could someone have spirited Lady Helena away from a first-floor bedchamber, without anyone hearing? If they had used the chamber door, one of the staff would surely have seen them leave, or someone would have stirred at the heavy sound of the villain and his quarry. Victoria presumed the wretch had carried Lady Helena, for she would not have gone willingly. Not unless Lord Galbury was mistaken about Lady Helena’s potential lovers. However, Victoria did not think he was—it was obvious that the young lady adored her mother and would not have put her through this heartache.
She had garnered as much from the way the Duchess spoke of her daughter, with some supporting evidence from Lord Galbury. They had been to the botanical gardens together—the Duchess and her daughter—on the day Lady Helena was snatched. And they dined and conversed together, seemingly as part of a well-worn routine. That suggested a happy family, and Victoria had no reason, as of yet, to think otherwise.
I wish I might speak with the Duke… but perhaps that will not happen today. Encouraging herself to be satisfied with the intelligence she already had at her disposal, Victoria glanced down at the sill. Two dark smudges streaked the white-painted exterior, just below the window. She brushed her fingertips across the smudges, feeling two fresh, ragged grooves beneath.
A ladder… he used a ladder to gain entry, and presumably to remove Lady Helena. After hearing the Duchess describe Lady Helena’s appearance, Victoria realized it was not an impossible notion. The Duchess had a very slender build, and since she had clarified that she and her daughter were very much alike, it stood to reason that Lady Helena had the same delicate figure.
She thought back on the other kidnappings. Every young lady who had been taken had also been of slight build, though she had not realized its importance until now. It was not a factor that many gentlemen would have noticed or dared to comment upon. But Victoria didn’t have the same mentality that they did.
“Have you noticed anything else amiss, Your Grace?” Victoria turned to the Duchess, keeping the presence of the two smudges to herself for now. She did not want to reveal her true employment until she had everything she needed.
“No…” The Duchess sounded despairing, fresh tears springing to her eyes.
“Do not fear, Your Grace. She will be found. I have faith that she will.” Victoria walked to the Duchess, who had come to a pause beside the rumpled sheets of Lady Helena’s bed and put a tentative hand upon the older woman’s forearm. A gesture of friendliness and reassurance.
The Duchess looked at her with imploring eyes. “Do you truly believe so?”
“I do.” Because I am the one looking for her, and I refuse to fail.
Victoria was about to offer further words of comfort, when a speck on the floor caught her eye. Spurred on, she left the Duchess to her private thoughts and knelt beside the bed, to get a closer look at the curious anomaly. A scrap of black fabric hung limply from a nail that had come loose, sticking out of the wooden bedframe. Peering even closer, Victoria noticed a faint trail of rusty brown, smeared on the head of the nail.
She ducked under the bed and found a thin blanket of dust beneath. However, in the center of the gloomy floor, there lay a spread of clean ground. As though someone had lain there… waiting for their moment to pounce. She closed her eyes and tried to encourage a scene to play out in her mind. A man hiding beneath the bed, having entered through the window. He would have pulled himself up so he could seize his prey, catching himself on the nail as he did so.
Then what? The bedsheets were twisted, as though Lady Helena had wrung them in fright. And right where Victoria crouched, she found crumbled morsels of… mud, perhaps? From the boots of whomever had done this. Following the trail, she discovered more of the crumbled granules, leading to and from the window.
He must have managed to immobilize her, somehow, and then carried her back down the ladder. She suspected that, if she were to investigate the doorway at the back of the garden, she would find boot prints in the dirt. That was why nobody had heard a whisper of any wrongdoing. The cretin had entered and departed through the window, taking pains to ensure that Lady Helena remained silent.
“Miss McCarthy?” The Duchess shattered Victoria’s reverie.
“Yes, Your Grace?”
The Duchess sighed. “Who are you, really? You do not seem to be here for the sole purpose of bringing me comfort. I am grateful for the comfort you have offered, but you appear to know more of this sort of thing than an ordinary young lady would.”
The ruse could not last forever. Concern churned in Victoria’s stomach, for she was so very close to attaining all of the information she required. To be cast out now would not be beneficial to her investigation.
“I pray you will not be cross with me. My intention was to bring you comfort, but I also intend to ensure that your daughter is returned to you. That is the comfort I truly want to offer.” Victoria paused. “I am an investigator, Your Grace. I do not belong to Bow Street, but I occasionally work alongside them. Admiral Benedict Thomson is my true colleague.”
The Duchess gasped. “You are an investigator?”
Here comes the usual tirade…
“Why, how wonderful!” the Duchess continued, taking Victoria by surprise. “I have often thought that we ladies would feel more content to be in the care of other ladies, if ever a crime were to happen. Gentlemen can be so brusque and unfeeling.”
“I fully agree with that sentiment.” Victoria mustered a shy smile.
The Duchess lowered her gaze. “In all honesty, I did not expect you to say you were an investigator in your own right. I thought one of those sulking ingrates outside had, perhaps, sent you in their stead.”
“Goodness, no.” Victoria chuckled tightly. “I like to have as little to do with most of those men as possible. All but the Admiral, who is as honest and genuine a man as you are likely to find. Indeed, he has been as a second father to me, after the passing of my actual father. He would have treated you with the same care and attention that I have.”
“Is that so?” The Duchess tapped her chin in thought. “In that case, perhaps I may relent to having the two of you search for my daughter. Although, you would have to promise that you would not allow any of the others to partake. You have told a white lie to me, Miss McCarthy, but there is something about you that makes me want to trust you. Besides, if this Thomson fellow was once an Admiral, then that inspires a great deal of faith.”
“I hope that you will trust us, Your Grace, and I would be only too happy to convey your wishes to the Admiral.” Victoria jittered with excitement. “We will bring your daughter home, I swear it. In fact, I have already taken some steps that may aid us.”
“You have?” She stepped closer to Victoria.
“Yes, Your Grace.” Victoria proceeded to move about the room, pointing out the evidence she had found: the smudges, the scrap of black fabric, the trace of blood, and the disturbed dust beneath the bed.
The Duchess looked deathly pale when Victoria had finished. “You are exceedingly talented at this, Miss McCarthy, and you have been unerringly discreet and polite. You have not torn this room to shreds, as others might have done.” She swallowed loudly. “Yes, I quite think that you and your Admiral will suffice in pursuing this, to locate my daughter.”
“There is hope, Your Grace.” Victoria never forgot the human element to these cases. The worries of the families were precisely what drove her to succeed, so she could put those concerns to rest. Of course, there were occasions in which she wasn’t able to deliver good news, but she hoped this would not be one such occasion.
“There is?” The Duchess trembled in fear.
“There is no sign that your daughter was injured, or that any physical harm came to her. There is no blood of hers, which is always encouraging.” Victoria paused for a moment to collect her thoughts. “And, if this villain has struck before, then it stands to reason that he has some purpose for his victims.”
The Duchess braced against the bedpost. “What sort of purpose?”
“I cannot say, as of this moment, but if he has chosen to target the wealthy elite, then my gut tells me it has something to do with that. If he had wicked ideas in mind, he would have selected easier targets—dock workers, prostitutes, barmaids, and the like. This required effort and planning. I would not be surprised if it pertained to the value of the ladies he has taken,” Victoria explained. “That way, he has a hope of a return on his investment, after putting such pains into this dastardly endeavor.”
The Duchess seemed to rally. “My girl, that makes a great deal of sense. Why has no one thought to suggest such a thing in the papers? I have read every story on the matter, and not one person made that allusion.”
“They do not think as I do, Your Grace,” Victoria smiled. “I learned much from my father, who was an investigator like me. The best of them, in fact. He had ways of thinking that others lack, and he passed those onto me.”
“You are rather remarkable.” The Duchess stepped away from the bedpost, looking immediately stronger than she had a moment ago. Victoria recognized the look on her face—the expression of a woman who had something to cling onto. Victoria resolved not to disappoint the Duchess. Come hell or high water, she would bring Lady Helena home.
Unless I am mistaken… Victoria liked to have faith in her convictions, but she wasn’t always correct. The idea of this wretch kidnapping wealthy young ladies seemed like it might have a great deal to do with what could be offered in return. But there was every chance that this devil merely liked the challenge of capturing high society darlings and had no intention of letting them live. Maybe, getting away with it was this man’s reward.
But Victoria could not say that to the Duchess. Not now since she had given the woman a sliver of hope. The high society did not understand that demons lurked in this world—evildoers who behaved purely out of self-satisfaction, to feed their sick desires.
If this kidnapper was one of those demons, then those young ladies were doomed.
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