Authors: Elisabeth Kidd
Tags: #Historical Romance/Mystery
Historical Note: The itinerary given to the Prince of Wales in this work of fiction is not the one he followed in 1899, but it might have been. An assassination attempt did take place—but not that year, and not in Baden-Baden. It happened in Brussels the following year—the year before the prince became King Edward VII.
Devin Grant was playing for time. He had always prided himself on his ability to read character, and it disturbed him that he couldn’t make this woman out, couldn’t penetrate her disguise—for disguise it was. Of that much he was certain.
She had seemed straightforward enough at first, but he soon recognized that he had made the conventional British male assumption about beautiful American women—that they were spoiled but naïve, outspoken to a fault, and incapable of deception. She had probably intended him to think that when she made her entrance, looking like a Worth mannequin and pausing in the doorway to his office so that he could get a good look at her.
She was tall, and her luscious curves were covered by not concealed by a dark red skirt and matching tight-fitting bodice jacket buttoned up to just below the chin. She had waited a moment before pulling back the veil fastened with a long cloisonné pin to her hat and letting him see her face. She looked directly at him from a pair of long-lashed, deep brown eyes.
“Mr. Grant? Mr. Devin Grant?”
“I am Mrs. Edward Malcolm. I want you to help me find my husband.”
He stared at her for a moment, hoping his face did not betray his surprise. For the first time since he opened the detective agency as a cover for his real work in the service of the Prince of Wales, it occurred to Grant that he was getting more than he had bargained for.
The original idea had been to provide a plausible excuse for his having access to police files and consular memorandums—as well as a location convenient to Marlborough House and accessible to the Foreign Office by means of a secret underground passage. The agency did actually take on—and often solve—cases of theft, blackmail, and even murder, but, as the head of the agency, Grant had been involved in them solely in an advisory capacity.
Up until six months ago, at least, when the prince had invited him to join a shooting party. Although Grant had gone to Sandringham suitably equipped to mingle with the other guests, he was aware that he was there as an employee—a glorified bodyguard, in fact. Although the Princess of Wales had welcomed him with special warmth for just that reason, Grant did not expect that he would be allowed to relax and enjoy himself. He was certain of it only two days later, when the Earl of Southington’s valet, who had been standing off to the side to watch the hunt, was killed by a stray shot, and Devin was asked to assist the local police in their inquiries regarding the incident.
It was a simple enough request, and it should have been a simple matter, easily resolved. But the shot that killed the valet had come from the end of the woods opposite to where the shooting party stood, so it could not have been the simple shooting accident that it appeared; the valet turned out to have forged the references that had persuaded the unsuspecting earl to hire him only weeks before; and the sighting of a stranger in a village pub had led Grant on a further investigation that was proving far from simple or easily resolved.
Six months later, he was no nearer identifying the murderer than before, and the case had developed complications within complications to the extent that Grant was now suspicious of any new turn of events or chance acquaintance. He knew he was becoming obsessed with the case, but he was also convinced that any unlikely event—even the appearance of an American beauty with an apparently unrelated, apparently easy-to-solve case—could have a connection.
So he asked Madeleine Malcolm to tell her story from the beginning, and he used the time to gather his thoughts. At least, he tried to pull himself together, but every time he looked at her, her beauty struck him as disturbingly as it had the first time he saw her, making it increasingly difficult to concentrate on her story.
She told it in a low, slightly husky voice, with no digressions into domestic asides or emotional irrelevancies. It was this lack of detail that finally began to clear Grant’s senses and free his mind to suspect some major gap in the information she laid so candidly before him. He probed for the missing truth, gently at first, but with a mounting impatience.
Grant—well-born, good-looking, a bachelor by inclination rather than financial necessity—hadn’t reached the age of thirty-four without learning a good deal about women. Or so he had thought. Here was one who didn’t reveal herself instantly and completely to him, and he was a little surprised to find that the mystery irritated him as much as it attracted him.
“When did you last see your husband?” he began.
“On the night of April twenty-eighth of last year, at our home in St. Louis, Missouri. I reported him missing to the police three weeks later.”
“Why did you wait so long?”
“Teddy—my husband—had mentioned to me earlier in the week that he intended to go to Kentucky for the Derby, which as you may not be aware takes place on the first Saturday in May, unlike your English
which I believe is run on some date in June chosen by astrological means.”
“It always falls on a Friday, within a fortnight before or after Whitsun,” he felt obliged to respond. “You can’t get much more specific than that.”
He thought he detected the beginning of a smile on her ripe mouth, but it died unborn. He found himself suddenly possessed with the idea of forcing her to reveal herself, to drop that beautiful but rigid mask, and he wondered if laughter might be a means of catching her unawares. He could try to seduce her, of course, but somehow he was certain that she would know how to deal with that. Other men had doubtless tried to penetrate her defenses that way, and Grant was not so burdened with past conquests as to suppose that he could succeed with Madeleine Malcolm where others, presumably, had failed. He wished the idea hadn’t occurred to him, however; it was going to be difficult to get rid of now.
He stood up again, coming around to the front of the mahogany desk that stood between them and perching himself on the edge, close enough to catch the echo of her perfume—patchouli, mostly, but he couldn’t identify the blend. No doubt she had it made specially for her. She had the money; now that he was closer to the workmanship of her
dress and to the diamonds in her ears and the brooch on her collar, he could almost smell the expense behind them.
She did not change her position to maintain the space between them; her spine was still straight against the back of her chair, and she held one leather-gloved hand firmly over the other in her lap. But she did lower her head slightly, so that her wide hat obscured her face. Disappointed, he asked the first question that came to mind, just to get her to look up again.
“Wouldn’t you have gone with him—to Kentucky, that is?”
“No,” she said, raising her head but looking at the window behind him rather than at him. “I am not enamored of horse races. I try to inform myself about them, for my husband’s sake, but he and 1 agreed at the start that he would be free to go to any he wished without me.”
“He is a gambling man?” What he really wanted to know was what sort of a marriage the Malcolms had that required such things to be spelled out.
“He’s not addicted to it. But yes, he does bet on the horses. Happily, he seems to win as often as he loses, and he does enjoy it.”
“Whose money does he gamble with?”
“I beg your pardon?” She did look at him then, with the kind of expression a duchess might level at a dustman who had just addressed her by her Christian name. Grant did not back down.
“Is your husband a man of means, or do you have a larger stake in the marriage than he does?”
She hesitated briefly; he wondered how much longer she would tolerate his impertinences.
“We have simpler laws in America than you do here regarding inheritance and the property rights of women, Mr. Grant,” she explained, as if to a child. “When my father died, he left a considerable fortune to me, his only child. As my husband, Teddy naturally enjoys the use of a good deal of it. He had very little ... he had
money of his own when I married him.”
Very good, Mrs. Malcolm, very candid. But you made your first slip just then. I shall put it in my pocket to mull over later.
“And when he did not return home when he said he would, you became concerned?”
“He didn’t say precisely when he would return. I met one of his racing friends by chance, and he mentioned how sorry he was that Teddy had been unable to attend the Derby that year. I led him to think my husband had been called to Chicago on family business, and the same day went to the police.”
“Who were unable to be of assistance.”
“You put it kindly, Mr. Grant. They as much as told me that boys will be boys and I should not waste their time until I received a ransom note from the Black Hand or some other sinister entity. So I went to Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency.”
“Who believed you?”
“Perhaps not at first. But you can only attempt to bribe the police. The Pinkertons work on a daily retainer and were more willing to take on what looked to be a time-consuming case. I had no clue as to where my husband had gone, but I had plenty of money to spend on finding out.”
Grant wondered idly how often she had had to bail her wayward husband out of jails and whorehouses before this last
escapade. There was a faintly caustic note in her voice that suggested he had been in more than one such scrape.
“What makes you so certain your husband is not dead?” he said, using the harsh word to see if she would flinch at it. She didn’t.
“The Pinkertons traced Teddy to France,” she replied, equally blunt. “They consulted the Paris police, who examined their records and found that an unidentified body had been fished out of the Seine a week before. They decided, on no clear evidence, that it was Teddy’s and closed the case.”
She took a deep breath and went on. “The body could not be positively identified. Most of
the clothing had been removed by the current, and the corpse itself was no longer in a whole state. Indeed, I also understand from my agent that the police did not at first even attempt an identification, assuming the body to be that of one of the vagrants who make their homes under the bridges of Paris. It was buried in a pauper’s grave, along with a dozen others, so that it cannot even be exhumed.”
She paused then, and her full lower lip trembled slightly as she added, “I can’t, of course,
that it was not Teddy’s body. I just
it was not.”
She was overacting now. Grant was disappointed; it had been such a good performance up to then, but that speech wouldn’t convince anyone. He snatched unchivalrously at it, even as he hated himself for doing so. Placing his hands on the edge of the desk and leaning slightly toward her, he said softly, “Are you certain, Mrs. Malcolm, that you are not deceiving yourself? That you do not feel in some way responsible for your husband’s death and so refuse to accept its certainty?”
raised her lovely face to him. Any further sign of weakness he might have found in it vanished—if it had ever existed—and she looked at him with those bottomless brown eyes.
“Mr. Grant, I love my husband. That is why I know that if he were dead, I would feel it. I do not. That is why I am certain he is alive. I came to you on the strongest recommendation of the Pinkerton office in St. Louis, and I am prepared to pay any sum necessary for your services. But if you do not wish to help me—and you can’t if you don’t accept what I tell you—then I will make do with the
best detective agency in London.”
He said nothing, rising and turning his back on her to look out the window, as if considering her proposition. A tram rattled past in Whitehall, two stories below, and a gaggle of schoolgirls in white straw hats shrieked with delight as it bumped to a halt at the corner of Downing Street.
Damn and blast, he couldn’t let her get away.
He was convinced that she was on a fool’s errand and wanted to drag him along with her, but he couldn’t let anyone else go. He would have to get involved himself.
“Very well, Mrs. Malcolm,” he said at last, reseating himself where he could face her. “I accept your case. I shall, moreover, accept everything you tell me at face value—on the understanding that you keep nothing back. You have been very frank, but often the family of a missing person is too closely involved always to be able to differentiate between what may be relevant to the case and what may be beside the point. You must agree to let me make that decision.”
She nodded, looking up at him expectantly, as if to say she was prepared to submit to his inquisition there and then.
Curse her, she was acting again
again he was almost convinced by the performance.