Book 3 in the Jaded Gentlemen series
Widower Axel Belmont, like his brother Matthew, occasionally takes a turn serving as magistrate in his small corner of Oxfordshire. When the owner of a neighboring estate is murdered, Axel initially suspects Abigail Stoneleigh, the grieving widow, but then she too, appears to be in harm’s way.
Abby accepts Axel’s hospitality lest he take her into formal custody as a suspect, but it’s her heart Axel captures. He’s a conscientious and loving father, a devoted brother, and an astute magistrate, but will he solve the murder mystery before the villain strikes again?
Enjoy An Excerpt
“Any neighbor who turns up deceased in the middle of a frigid January night has exhibited the height—the very zenith—of bad form.”
Axel Belmont announced this thesis to his horse, for Ivan had never been known to contradict one of the professor’s opening statements.
“Said bad form,” Axel went on, “could be eclipsed only by a fellow who has the effrontery to complain of the inconvenience to himself resulting from that neighbor’s poorly timed death.”
Even if that fellow had pulled from his late night glass of wine among his dearest companions, all of whom hailed from the family rosaceae.
“The part about being magistrate I detest the most,” Axel muttered as he guided Ivan up the Stoneleigh Manor drive, “is becoming privy to my neighbor’s dirty linen. Mind the footing, horse. You are laden with precious cargo.”
Precious, cold cargo. Axel’s estate bordered the Stoneleigh property, but by the lanes, that was still nearly two miles of slow going in fresh snow. An arctic breeze did nothing to improve Axel’s mood, nor did the thought of his grafts, abandoned in the warmth of his glass house not thirty minutes earlier.
He brought Ivan to a halt in the Stoneleigh stable yard, and Ambers, the Stoneleigh head groom, stomped out of the barn.
“I’ll take your ’orse, Mr. Belmont and it’s that glad we are to see ya. Bad doin’s this night, very bad doin’s, indeed.”
“No argument there, Ambers. Hay for my intrepid steed. I don’t know how long I’ll be.” An eternity at least, of the figurative sort, for one who was cold, tired, and more interested in flowers than felonies.
Axel handed off the reins and marched across the stable yard, up the snow-covered drive to Stoneleigh Manor’s graceful three-story façade. Despite the lateness of the hour, lamps on the front terrace were ablaze. The door opened before Axel had used the boot scrape on his oldest pair of riding boots.
“Come in, Mr. Belmont.” Shreve, the Stoneleigh butler bowed. “Come in, please. It’s colder than Hades out there tonight, and you’ll catch your death… oh, dear lord…What I meant to say, well, begging your pardon, sir.” The old fellow bowed again, though he’d yet to close the damned door.
“Good evening, Shreve,” Axel said, pushing the door closed. “I can see to my own coat, hat, and gloves. Where is the deceased, and where is Mrs. Stoneleigh?”
Shreve gestured vaguely with an ungloved hand. “She’s in the library with the, er, with… her husband.” He blinked, then stared straight ahead, as if he’d heard an odd noise of the sort butlers didn’t acknowledge.
“Might we have a tea tray in the family parlor?” Axel asked.
More blinking and bowing. “A fine idea, sir. Tea in the family parlor. I’ll see to it at once.” He’d likely forget before he reached the kitchen, not that Axel was in the mood for damned tea.
Axel had been an occasional visitor at Stoneleigh Manor in years past, so he made his way to the study unescorted, knocked once, and let himself in.
Two impressions struck him before he’d taken a half dozen steps into the room.
The smell of death by gunshot at close range was unmistakable—a hint of blood, metallic and acrid, and overlaying that, the faint, sulfurous stench of the discharged weapon. The second salient aspect of the room was the cold, caused by the January night air intruding through open French doors.
Axel was halfway across the room, thinking to close the doors, when a single word stopped him.
Mrs. Stoneleigh remained so still in the shadows beside the hearth, Axel hadn’t noticed her until she’d spoken. She rose with a rustle of skirts and stepped from the shadows.
“If we lay my husband out in here, the room should remain unheated. Thank you for heeding my summons, Mr. Belmont.”
“Mrs. Stoneleigh.” Axel took her cold hand, bowed over it, and examined her as closely as manners and firelight would allow. She was tallish for a woman, though still a half foot shorter than Axel’s own six foot and several inches. Abigail Stoneleigh was also, he admitted begrudgingly, pretty in a quiet, green-eyed, dark-haired way.
Because she was—had been—another man’s wife, Axel’s assessment of her beauty had never gone further, though if she weren’t so perpetually aloof, if she ever once smiled, she might even be beautiful, not that he’d care one way or the other.
She had to be chilled to the bone from the temperature of the room.
“If I recall your note,” Axel said, “you begged the favor of my presence, at my earliest convenience. Hardly a summons, madam.”
Her penmanship had been elegant, though the groom who’d delivered the note had nearly babbled the news of Stoneleigh’s death.
Axel led her over to the hearth, where a dying fire was losing the battle with winter’s chill.
“I should warn you, Mrs. Stoneleigh, I am here in the capacity of magistrate as well as neighbor.”
“To come at this hour was still considerate of you.”
The woman’s spouse was crumpled over the desk, not fifteen feet away, her only defense against the cold was a plain brown wool shawl, and she was offering pleasantries?
Everybody coped with death differently. Caroline’s passing had taught Axel that.
He took off his jacket and draped it around Mrs. Stoneleigh’s shoulders. “Why don’t we repair to the family parlor? I’ve asked Shreve to bring the tea tray there.”
Mrs. Stoneleigh’s gaze swung away, to the darkness beyond the French doors. “My—the colonel would not want to be alone.”
Wherever Stoneleigh’s soul had gone, the life had departed from his mortal remains. Wanting or not wanting to be alone no longer came into it. Axel knew better than to argue reason at such a time, though.
“Nothing in this room,”—such as a dead body, for example—“can be moved until I’ve looked the situation over more closely, Mrs. Stoneleigh. I would prefer privacy to do that.”
“You may have your privacy, Mr. Belmont, but I’ll send Ambers to stay here thereafter. I’ll await you in the parlor.”
As imperious as a bloody queen—a pale, bloody queen. “You don’t want Shreve here, or perhaps the colonel’s valet?”
“Mr. Spellmen is on holiday visiting family in Hampshire. Ambers will do. Shreve is overwrought.”
While the lady was glacially calm. She also bore the faint fragrance of attar of roses, which realization had Axel longing for his glass house all over again.
He escorted her to the door, then turned his attention to the question of how a man reasonably well liked, in good health, with wealth aplenty, and no apparent vices had managed get himself shot through the heart at close range in his very own home.
Abigail waited until the door latch clicked shut before drawing Axel Belmont’s wool coat more closely around her. His garment smelled good, of fresh flowers and the green, growing scent of a conservatory, and the coat was blessedly warm from the heat of his big body.
Mr. Belmont had lost his wife the year after Abby had come to Stoneleigh Manor, and he’d been in mourning for the year thereafter. He and Gregory had been on good enough terms, though, both fond of their horses, so over the years, Abby had had some opportunity to observe her neighbor.
Axel Belmont was pleasant to observe: Tall, blond, and good-looking in the way of a man who likes to be out of doors. He was considered quite the catch, having both family and personal wealth, and he was always in demand as an escort or partner at the local assemblies. To his credit, he was devoted to his sons, Dayton and Phillip, and he had always been a quiet neighbor.
He’d come in response to Abby’s note, in the middle of a frigid, snowy night, too.
From Abby’s perspective, his list of positive traits ended there. Mr. Belmont had a blunt, uncompromising quality, an indifference to the opinions of others, an inner set of convictions that made him rigid, to her way of thinking. Others referred to him as quite bright—he lectured at Oxford!—and academically inclined.
In Mr. Belmont’s presence, Abby had always felt tacitly condemned for marrying a wealthy man thirty years her senior.
But what, what on God’s green earth, could she have done otherwise? And what was she to do now?
Shreve appeared with the tea tray, an inordinately comforting bit of consideration. Then Abby recalled that Mr. Belmont had ordered this sustenance for her.
Still, a hot, sweet cup of tea settled the nerves, and Abby’s nerves were…. Overwrought. She swallowed past a lump in her throat at that understatement. She could not have Mr. I-Am-Here-As-The-Magistrate-Of-Doom Belmont see her discomposed.
“Shreve,” she said as the butler turned to withdraw, “because Mr. Belmont will be joining me forthwith, perhaps you’d better fetch the decanter from the library.”
“Will there be anything else, madam?”
He needed to be kept busy, to be given simple tasks, lest he fall to pieces.
Abby needed simple tasks too. “If you’d bring me my lap desk, please. Family will have to be notified, and I’ll write those notes before I retire. When Mrs. Pritchard arrives, she can lay the colonel out in the study, provided Mr. Belmont is through. The neighbors may call Thursday afternoon between two and five, and I’ll send a note to the vicar to that effect.
“We’ll need the black hangings,” she went on, “which you’ll find in the attic above the gallery. Any servant still awake may have a medicinal tot of spirits, for we’ll need our rest, despite tonight’s upset. Draping the windows, mirrors, and portraits can all wait until tomorrow.”
As could crying, pacing, and fretting. Screaming and swooning might have to be deferred until next week.
“Yes, madam.” When Shreve returned with the brandy and the writing supplies, Abby sent him sniffing and blinking back to the kitchen. Shreve had been with her husband since the colonel had come home from India eleven years ago.
The butler, unlike the lady of the house, was entitled to faltering composure.
Abby turned her focus to writing an obituary, because the local weekly would expect it of her.
Then too, she needed to remain occupied, or she’d hear again the obscene report of a gun in her own home, at an hour when all should have been seeking their beds.
Her third draft of an opening sentence was disturbed by a single, brisk knock on the door, followed by Axel Belmont striding into the family parlor. His height and his sense of purpose made the room seem small, and if Abby had resented him before, he provoked her to positive distaste now.
She rose from the sofa and shrugged out of his coat. “I trust you left Ambers at his post?” she asked, holding the coat out to her guest.
Though tonight he was the magistrate, not a guest at all.
Mr. Belmont slipped into the coat with the ease of a man who managed often without a valet.
“I left Ambers in the study with the Pritchard sisters. Shall we sit? We have matters to discuss, Mrs. Stoneleigh. Matters you will find troubling. I can delay this conversation until tomorrow, but the news will not improve with time.”
Gregory would be just as dead, in other words.
“My husband appears to have shot himself,” Abby said as evenly as she could. She put that blunt reality on offer, not because she wanted to spare Mr. Belmont’s delicate sensibilities, if any such sensibilities he possessed.
Abby spoke those blunt, bewildering words because she needed to yank the truth out of the shadows down the corridor, where it quite honestly frightened her.
“The colonel was in good health,” she went on. “He had much to live for, seemed in reasonably good spirits, and yet he took his own life. What could be more troubling than that?”
Your lack of reaction, Axel wanted to retort, but when his own spouse had died, his control hadn’t slipped until he’d come upon his brother Matthew holding a sobbing Dayton after the funeral.
“Let me tell you what I’ve observed so far,” Axel suggested. “Shall I pour?” A widower would expire of dehydration if he didn’t learn to navigate a tea service.
“I’ve had a cup. Shreve brought the brandy if you’d rather.”
“I would.” Tea at nearly midnight, at the scene of the crime, seemed insufficient fortification given what Axel had to tell her.
Mrs. Stoneleigh poured him a generous portion of brandy, the glow from the hearth creating fiery highlights in her dark hair. Her movements were elegant and graceful, and that was somehow wrong.
Was she surprised by her husband’s death? Relieved? Pleased?
“First,” Axel said, after a bracing sip of good brandy, “my condolences on your loss.”
“My thanks.” Two words, and grudgingly offered. She took one side of a brocade loveseat pulled close to the hearth. “Won’t you sit, Mr. Belmont? The hour is late, you have to be tired, and we must discussion awkward matters. I’d rather be able to see your face.”
Forthright, Axel thought, running a hand through his hair, which the winter wind had doubtless left in ungentlemanly disarray. Mrs. Stoneleigh had a way of expressing herself that made him feel as if he were trying her patience and insulting her intelligence.
All thorns and no blossom.
Axel could be blunt too. He lowered himself not into a wing chair, but to the place right beside her.
“I have reason to believe your husband was the victim of foul play.” Murder being the foulest form of human play imaginable. “To quiet misgivings from our vicar, I will preliminarily rule death by accident.”
Mrs. Stoneleigh was silent for a moment, not reacting at all.
Then she sat taller. “Sir, you will explain yourself. Please.”
“The cause of death was likely that gunshot to the chest—to the heart—as you no doubt suspected.” Contrary to what the gothic novels propounded, once the heart ceased performing its function, little bleeding occurred—and Stoneleigh’s heart had stopped instantly.
“I did not move the body,” Mrs. Stoneleigh said, her hand going to her middle. “I knew he was dead, because I put my fingers to the side of his neck, and I saw blood spattered on the desk and blotter. I also saw the gun in his hand, but I did not… I did not look.”
“You were wise not to disturb the scene.” Was she reacting now? Was there a slight tension around her eyes and mouth? She was mortally pale, though many English women went to pains to protect their complexions.
“You needn’t flatter me, Mr. Belmont. I simply did not know what to do, other than to send for my nearest neighbor.”
Who had the bad luck to be serving as the temporary magistrate—something she apparently hadn’t known.
“Given the gun in your husband’s hand, a casual observer might think the colonel had, indeed, taken his own life, or perhaps had an accident while cleaning his equipment.”
Axel took another swallow of brandy, resisting the urge to down it all at once.
Mrs. Stoneleigh reached toward the tea service as if to pour herself a second cup, but her hand drifted to her lap instead.
“God help my late husband if, after more than twenty years in the cavalry, he was attempting to clean a loaded gun.”
“True.” Axel hadn’t considered that perspective. “The difficulty with the theory of suicide, though, is that the gun in your husband’s hand had not been fired and was, in fact, still loaded. Your husband was shot, though the fatal bullet was not fired at close range.”
Axel braced himself for a swoon, some ladylike weeping, even a fit of hysterics. People took their own lives. This was tragic, of course, but in Axel’s estimation, suicide was preferable to murder most foul two doors down the corridor.
“How can you tell how far away the bullet was fired?” Mrs. Stoneleigh’s voice was steady, her gaze on the fire equally steady, and her very composure ripped at Axel’s sensibilities. She’d been married to the man for, what, eight years?
She might have been discussing the weather.
He topped up his brandy and gave her a brief explanation of the initial evidence.
“Powder burns,” she summarized. “You are saying the colonel’s clothes have no powder burns.”
“None to speak of, so the bullet must have been fired from some distance.”
“Is there more?” she asked, still calm, still gazing thoughtfully into the fire.
“Not much.” Would a second brandy refill would be rude—or stupid? “The absence of an exit wound suggests a small gun was used, and from across the room. Such weapons—pea shooters—are notoriously inaccurate. They lack the length of barrel to steady the projectile toward its target, and such a small weapon seldom fires with much force.”
“I’ve carried such guns and you are correct. Their greatest value is in the noise they create, but somebody apparently had good aim.”
Would a woman guilty of murder make such an admission? “Who heard the shot, Mrs. Stoneleigh?”
“I did. I was in my room, directly above, and the colonel was in his study, where he usually finished his evenings. Shreve would have heard the shot, because he was in the corridor, tending to the lamps as was his habit as the hour approached eleven. Those servants still awake belowstairs heard it, as did Ambers, who was outside the groom’s quarters smoking. Ambers was the first to arrive at the colonel’s side. Shreve became occupied with… escorting me to the scene.”
If somebody on that list hadn’t killed the colonel, then a murderer as yet unknown had also heard the shot, then taken off across the snowy grounds, all footprints conveniently obliterated by the brisk wind.
“The colonel never finished that nightcap,” Axel said. “I’ll want to talk to Ambers, and to Shreve, sooner rather than later, and to the rest of your staff.”
What Axel truly wanted was to return to the quiet and warmth of his glass house, there to work on grafts until his back ached and his vision blurred.
“Shreve is busy now,” Mrs. Stoneleigh said. “He should be available to speak with you mid-morning tomorrow.”
Axel was the magistrate, for pity’s sake, investigating the murder of her husband in her own home. She ought to want answers more than she wanted her next breath. “What can Shreve possibly have to keep him busy?”
The look in Mrs. Stoneleigh’s eyes was faintly pitying. Her expression was as close to warm as Axel had seen it, ever, then he realized the direction of her thoughts.
“When a spouse dies,” she said, gently, “there is much to be done. The windows must be hung with crepe, and the portraits and mirrors in the public rooms, as well. The liveried servants must acquire black armbands, the deceased must be laid out, the coffin built, the surviving family’s wardrobe must be dyed black, the hearse hired, the vicar notified, and so forth. You know this.”
Axel did know this, and he resented her bitterly for making him recall that he knew it. Resentment fueled by fatigue prompted his next observation.
“You’re coping with your husband’s demise well, Mrs. Stoneleigh.”
“Am I a suspect?” The pity, at least, was gone from her eyes.
“No.” Not yet. “But if murder was done in this house, while others were about, then we have both a crime and mystery on our hands.”
“And a tragedy,” she amended. “Have you more questions, Mr. Belmont, or shall I see you out?”
“I can see myself out,” Axel replied, unhappy with himself for his pique. “And again, my condolences.” He rose, surprised when she did as well, albeit slowly, and walked him to the door.
“You seem fatigued,” she said. “Unusually so, not merely like a man at the end of a long day.”
Her observation wasn’t rude, but neither was it… flattering. “I’ve arrived just this afternoon from my brother’s home in Sussex, hailed back to Oxfordshire by Rutland’s decision to nip off to Bath in the dead of winter. Phillip and Dayton chose to remain with their uncle until spring.”
Unfortunate word choice—dead of winter—which she was apparently too much a lady to react to.
“You are orphaned, then. I am sorry to have disturbed you when you are much in need of rest. Shall I tell Shreve to expect you tomorrow morning?”
Axel spared a thought for his grafts and crosses.
“By eleven,” he replied, taking her hand—still cold—and bowing over it. “Will you be all right?” he asked, not knowing where the question had come from, and not releasing her fingers, either.
“I don’t know.” She seemed unaware of their joined hands, or at least unconcerned. “I’ve heard of people being shocked beyond the expression of appropriate sentiments, and I suspect I am in that situation. My husband is dead, and though we were not… entangled, as some spouses are, I did not expect such an end to the day, to any of my days. The colonel was not ill, he was not reckless, he did not drink to excess….” A minute shudder passed through her, one Axel detected only because he was holding her hand.
“I suppose,” she went on, “I will realize more fully what has befallen this house when the Pritchard sisters and I lay out my… the body.”
“The Pritchards will charge you good coin for tending to that office, and they need the money, too. You are not to return to the study until the morning.” Axel made it an order, which was a blunder. The father of two adolescent boys learned that giving orders all but guaranteed his wishes would be disrespected.
Mrs. Stoneleigh withdrew her hand. “I want to argue with you, but only to argue for argument’s sake, not because I want to see my husband’s corpse, particularly, not with a bullet…”
Another little shiver, two…
“Mrs. Stoneleigh?” Axel took her by the hand and drew her back over to the hearth, grabbing an afghan from the back of the loveseat and draping it over her shoulders. “Have you somebody who can sit with you, get you up to bed?”
“I do not use a lady’s maid,” she said, much the same as she might have reported eschewing sugar in her tea. “The colonel regards it….regarded it…. Well, no. I do not have a lady’s maid.”
Axel endured an inconvenient stab of compassion—one that temporarily obliterated the question of her role in her husband’s death. Abigail Stoneleigh was alone, more alone than a woman expected to be at the age of… twenty-eight? Twenty-nine? Her husband had died violently, and even if she’d killed him, who knew what her motivations might have been.
Time enough later to locate proper outrage if she’d done the old boy a fatal turn.
Axel took a moment to study her, the way he’d studied each and every specimen in his glass houses when he’d returned to Candlewick after weeks of absence. Mrs. Stoneleigh looked overwatered and undernourished, ready to drop leaves and wilt.
“I don’t want to leave you alone.”
“I’ll manage.” She was grimly certain on that point. “I’ve been managing alone for quite some time, Mr. Belmont. My thanks for your concern. Until tomorrow.”
Axel had no authority to gainsay her, so he bowed and took his leave. He was back on his horse—why on God’s good green earth had nobody devised a means of warming a saddle before a man sat his innocent, unsuspecting arse on chilled leather?—when he finally put a name to what he’d seen in Mrs. Belmont’s luminous green eyes the last time he’d bowed over her hand.
Fear. Mrs. Belmont was afraid, but was she afraid of the murderer, or of having her part in the murder revealed?
A small crowd stood about in the frozen churchyard after the service, most people keeping scarves wrapped about their faces. The snow muffled sound further, in addition to the quiet required by the solemnity of the occasion.
Because nobody seemed comfortable approaching the widow directly, Axel took it upon himself to escort Mrs. Stoneleigh back to the manor, a mile’s distance along a frozen, rutted lane. He let the other menfolk see to the graveside ritual, and the concomitant freezing of ears, nose, and toes.
“Shall I have a carriage sent?” he asked.
Mrs. Stoneleigh lifted back her black veil and pinned it to her bonnet, revealing eyes a little red at the rims. By daylight, she was too thin, too pale, and yet, also too pretty.
“We can walk,” she said, which comported with the decision of most of the congregation. “I am much in need of activity and fresh air, if you don’t mind. The past days have seen me nigh trapped in that house.”
Axel tucked her hand over his arm, knowing all too well the road Mrs. Stoneleigh faced—assuming he didn’t have to arrest her for murder.
“When Caroline died, I was struck by the contrasts,” he said. “The house was so full of people on the day of her funeral, I wanted to bellow them off the premises, and then it was empty. Wretchedly, unendingly empty. I wanted company, and I wanted to be alone. Caroline was nowhere to be seen, and she was everywhere I looked.”
“She died in winter, didn’t she?”
“March. We spent the next March with my brother, but then his spouse also died.” Axel’s own grief had finally lessened when he had become the one who knew the path of mourning. He’d tended to the practicalities while Matthew had reeled and stumbled, and stared into an unrecognizable future.
“Aren’t you supposed to tell me time will heal my loss, Mr. Belmont? That a quick death is a mercy?”
Axel suspected spouting platitudes to this woman, even as wan and slender as she was, might land him on his arse in the snow.
“Somebody has already told you what a blessing it is to have your freedom, I take it, along with all the casseroles you can eat, provided the sight of nothing but black for the next year doesn’t destroy your appetite.”
A chance to start over, some fool had said upon Caroline’s death. To find a fresh mount. Axel hadn’t known whether to be violent or sick, or violently sick, at that brand of comfort.
“You might consider going away,” Axel suggested after they’d hiked a quarter mile directly into the wind. “Spain is a pleasant contrast this time of year, or Italy.”
“And who will tend Stoneleigh Manor? Gregory left it to me, or told me he would, and I don’t trust his children to care for the estate in my absence. They are much enamored of their city routines.”
Mrs. Stoneleigh was Axel’s immediate neighbor, and Colonel Stoneleigh had ridden Candlewick’s bounds more than once in Axel’s absence.
“I will keep an eye on the property for you, if necessary. For the next month or two, nothing will need much tending in any case.” Travel would also allow the widow a margin of safety if the murderer was still in the vicinity—assuming she hadn’t had Stoneleigh killed herself.
“That is a generous offer, Mr. Belmont. A kind offer, and I will consider it, but I would like to know who killed my husband before I abandon his house for sunshine and new faces.”
“We would both like that answer.” She, likely so she could put her husband’s memory to rest; Axel, so he could return to the soothing embrace of his flowers, and the herbal on horticultural remedies for female complaints that would be his next publication.
After more trudging arm in arm, they passed through the Stoneleigh Manor gates. Black bunting luffed in a bitter breeze, and the head footman, a black armband pinned to his sleeve, black crepe about his hat, bowed them onto the property.
“You will tell me if I am a suspect?” Mrs. Stoneleigh asked, halfway up the drive.
By night, the house had looked settled and solid. Under gray skies, with windows swagged in black crepe, the façade was as grim as an open grave. All dead grass, dark earth, cold, and sorrow.
Mrs. Stoneleigh’s question required an answer.
“You are not a suspect, as of now. I considered you, of course, because you had opportunity, living in proximity to the deceased. You had motive, being one of Stoneleigh’s heirs. Shreve reports you came down the stairs in response to his cries of alarm. Unless you found a way to shoot your husband, discard the murder weapon, climb up to the second floor, and then emerge from your room and run down the stairs, you are not the perpetrator. Finally, Mrs. Jensen was going up to her room and saw you emerge from your bedroom.”
Axel’s relief upon interviewing the housekeeper had been considerable. For all Abigail Stoneleigh was not likable, he’d wanted her to be innocent of murder. As a result, he’d investigated her activities thoroughly.
“I am truly not under suspicion?” Her voice was low, carefully steady.
“You were concerned?” She was not under suspicion of having pulled the trigger, though she might have hired an accomplice.
Her gaze flicked over his face as they crunched along the frozen road. “Rather than sleep, I have thought and thought about the colonel’s death. Shreve said the French doors were open a crack when Ambers found Gregory—Ambers came through those doors and claims he hadn’t had to unlatch them.”
Thus far, her recitation comported with the sequence of events as Axel had been able to reconstruct them. Shreve had dissolved into dignified tears fifteen minutes into Axel’s attempts to question him. Ambers had been summoned from his interview by news of the colonel’s favorite afternoon hunter cast beneath a pasture fence.
“Shreve assumed the doors were open for fresh air,” Mrs. Stoneleigh went on, “because Gregory often enjoyed a pipe with his brandy, though doubtless the killer left in haste. I asked Ambers to look for fresh tracks, but he was unwilling to leave me alone under the circumstances, and the winter wind did its work quickly.”
Axel could not fault Ambers’s decision, for the circumstances had included a murderer at large, or possibly dithering about the very scene of the crime.
“We have only Shreve’s word regarding the open French doors,” Axel said. “Ambers told me that they were unlocked, not that they were ajar.”
Shreve ought to be a suspect, along with the dapper, devoted Mr. Ambers, who’d been so conveniently smoking out of doors at the very hour his employer had been murdered. No night porter had been on duty at the front door to confirm Ambers’s contention that he’d come hotfoot up the main drive either.
“You don’t want to accuse Shreve?” Mrs. Stoneleigh asked.
“I do not.” What man wanted to accuse anybody of murder? “He hasn’t as clear an alibi as you. He was closest to the scene, and he had time to commit the crime, open the French doors, secret the murder weapon somewhere, then run into the corridor.”
Though, damn and blast the luck, diligent searching with a strong compass magnet had not revealed a gun beneath the snow anywhere near the house.
“What is Shreve’s motive?” the lady asked, as if repeating a familiar query. “Gregory left Shreve a tidy sum for years of service, but Shreve will probably keep his post with me.”
Clearly, Mrs. Stoneleigh knew the contents of her late husband’s will. “Lack of apparent motive is one reason I have not taken him or Ambers into custody.”
“Character,” Mrs. Stoneleigh rejoined, “is another. Ambers has been with us for years, as has Shreve. He and Gregory struck up an acquaintance on the passage home from India, and they were as close as servant and employer could be.”
Axel and the widow toiled up the drive arm in arm, the silence between them growing chillier with each step.
“I am sorry, madam. Murder is offensive business. I am insensitive to discuss such matters with you now. I do apologize.”
“Don’t,” she said. “I would rather have your blunt questions than Mr. Weekes’ well-meant platitudes. His eulogy was interesting.”
The eulogy had been blessedly short, given how cold the church was. The Stoneleigh Manor drive, by contrast, seemed quite long.
“Did the vicar’s eulogy in any way describe the man you were married to?”
“As long as we’re being shockingly honest, there was a resemblance—Gregory loved his hounds.”
Gregory Stoneleigh had loved to strut about, waving his riding crop in time to his bloviations.
“But Gregory had no more clue how to run this estate and care for his lands than I would have about, say, building one of your glass houses. I think he married me largely for my ability to salvage his estate.”
“I wasn’t aware of that.” Because Mrs. Stoneleigh’s attractiveness was the first thing any man would see about her—and her reserve.
She marched up the front drive, from which the snow had been cleared. “Gregory was a cavalry officer to his bones. The horses were exclusively his domain, and he doted on them endlessly. The home farm, the tenant farms, the cottages, the commerce, the crops, the cloven-hoofed stock, the dairy—they baffled him, and by the time we married, the functional parts of the estate were much in need of management.”
“Stoneleigh came out eleven years ago?” Axel tried to recall the year, pegging everything in memory against his sons’ ages, his wife’s death, or when he’d built the second glass house.
The wind caught Mrs. Stoneleigh’s black veil and batted it against her mouth. She re-secured the lace with an onyx hat pin, never missing a step.
“The colonel returned to England more than ten years ago. He lasted here some years before the income stopped covering the expenses. He wasn’t about to invest his own money in the land, his Indian wealth being for his children, so he acquired me to improve the situation.”
Her recitation was matter of fact, not quite bitter.
“The colonel explained this to you?” If this was Stoneleigh’s entire view of marriage, the lady’s lack of obvious grief made more sense.
Axel was so intent on the conversation, that when Mrs. Stoneleigh slipped on a patch of muddy ice, he nearly didn’t catch her.
For a moment, she hung against him. For those few instants, she struck Axel as too slight, disoriented, and winded, rather than prickly or overly composed.
She straightened and resumed her progress. “Gregory was honest. I was desperately in need of marrying—my parents had recently perished in a house fire—and he was in need of a competent wife for his country estate. He provided well, and I saw to it he was left free to ride about the countryside—occasionally with you—while his children got on with the business of being adults.”
None of the mourners walking ahead had so much as glanced back at Mrs. Stoneleigh’s misstep.
“When are Stoneleigh’s children expected?”
“Gervaise will arrive on Tuesday, Lavinia probably the same day, possibly a day later, but they’ll stay in Oxford. Each made it plain I was not to delay the final obsequies on their behalf.”
Axel had met the son—a handsome, bachelor barrister quite assured of his own consequence—but not the daughter.
Mrs. Stoneleigh stumbled again on a rut, this time pitching right into Axel.
He wrestled with the impulse to carry her to the manor, which lay a hundred yards ahead. She’d hate him for that, and yet… He kept both hands on her shoulders and studied her, not as a magistrate searches for clues, but as botanist assesses a specimen newly arrived to his care.
“You are tired. Exhausted, probably. Can you sleep?” The question was personal, even from one who had been bereaved himself, though she did not appear to take offense.
“I can sleep.” She glanced away, as if she recognized the bleak winter landscape and could not place where she’d seen it before. “Some. Gregory and I were cordial, but my bed is not where I miss him.”
Her husband had been thirty years her senior, and had had a daughter nearly her age. Conjugal relations between the Stoneleighs had likely been infrequent and … subdued. And yet, the male part of Axel regretted that a man was dead and his own wife would not miss his attentions—at all.
“You missed your Caroline that way, though, didn’t you?” Mrs. Stoneleigh asked. “As more than a cordial housemate? I am so sorry, Mr. Belmont. Women can cry, carry on, faint, and go into declines, but men are allowed much less latitude when bereaved.”
How Axel hated funerals, all funerals, and nearly hated Abigail Stoneleigh for her very solicitude.
“I missed Caroline.” He still missed her—sometimes.
“She was wonderfully lively,” Mrs. Stoneleigh replied. “I envied her that boisterousness, and she seemed an ideal mother for two busy little fellows.”
They reached the house, the widow leaning on Axel more than she had earlier. Perhaps she allowed his support because she was tired, or perhaps because Axel had given her a few honest words, and she’d comforted him.
Caroline had died so long ago, he should no longer need comforting, and he didn’t. And yet, Mrs. Stoneleigh’s condolences hurt, albeit not with the same tearing pain they might have years ago. The late Mrs. Belmont had been a healthy, strapping Viking of a woman, lusty, lively, and perfectly capable of matching her retiring young spouse measure for measure, in bed or in an argument.
Some might have considered Caroline unfeminine, but she’d been a good mate for him, and she had thrived on raising the children.
“My wife and I suited, as opposites do,” Axel said, pulling his thoughts back into the present. “You and I have arrived to our destination, Mrs. Stoneleigh. I believe Mrs. Weekes has commandeered your music room and formal parlor for the buffet.”
“Will you escort me there?” Trepidation flickered in her eyes as she beheld the black crepe wrapped about the front door knocker. “If I must stand around and accept condolences, at least I’ll do so indoors. That sky looks like snow, and my feet are frozen. But forgive me. You are being very kind, and I am out of sorts.”
“You are grieving,” Axel said, quietly enough not to be overheard by others coming up the drive. “There is nothing to forgive.”
The look she gave him might have been gratitude, with a bit of adroitly masked surprise.
He took her around to a side entrance—no crepe on the knocker—and let her establish herself in a corner of the music room. Folding doors between the largest parlor and the music room had been opened, and furniture moved aside to create a large open space—large enough for dancing, in other circumstances.
A groaning buffet was set up along the outside wall.
Like his brother Matthew, Axel could put away a prodigious amount of food. Maybe the local populace hadn’t particularly taken to Mrs. Stoneleigh when her husband had lived, but by God, they knew how to cook for a funeral. Axel put himself together a plate and found a quiet vantage point from which to observe mourners offering their platitudes to the new widow.
As he demolished the food—why did all funeral casseroles taste the same?—he kept an eye out for possible suspects.
Mrs. Stoneleigh had been holding court in her corner for almost two hours when Axel decided the shadows under her eyes and her pallor demanded she be allowed privacy.
“Would you be offended, Mrs. Stoneleigh, if I suggested the assemblage is waiting for you to withdraw?”
“Is that how it’s done? Well, I am willing to oblige.” When she rose, she leaned on Axel and didn’t merely take his arm for show.
Mrs. Weekes took Mrs. Stoneleigh’s other arm. “She hasn’t taken a thing to eat, poor lamb. Not so much as a tea cake.”
The poor lamb stiffened, perhaps at being referred to in the third person.
“Wait here.” Axel ducked over to the buffet and filled another plate. He crooked his elbow at Mrs. Stoneleigh, and barely waited for her to wrap her fingers around his arm. “You simply leave. You keep walking, you don’t chat, don’t meet anybody’s gaze. Otherwise, your neighbors will shower you with their infernal, interminable kindness until you can barely stand.”
The lady heeded his instructions, and within moments, he had her upstairs in her private sitting room, a plate of food before her.
“Eat,” he admonished. “I’ll fetch you tea, unless you’d like something stronger?”
“Tea would be lovely, with milk and sugar.”
He eyed the plate, from which she had eaten nothing, and realized he was well and truly—if inconveniently—worried about her. The worry housed a goodly dose of resentment too, which probably made him convincing when he treated her to his best “do as the professor says” scowl before taking his leave.
Axel Belmont, an unlikely guardian angel if ever there was one, would stand over Abby until she consumed her portion, so she tucked into the food. He’d chosen simple fare: slices of apple, cheese, and ham, and two pieces of liberally buttered bread.
He paid attention, and not simply to the evidence relevant to a murder investigation.
Mr. Belmont had loved his wife, as had been obvious to anyone with eyes. His Caroline had loved him back, and loved their boys as well. They’d been such a happy little family, Abigail had dreaded the sight of them, the boys up before their parents when they rode out, or all four in the buggy on their way to church.
So of course, Mr. Belmont would comprehend that rich food did not digest easily on a grieving stomach. He would understand that a woman needed solitude after dealing with so many people, most of whom hadn’t bothered to call on her twice in all the years she’d dwelled among them. He would grasp immediately all manner of realities Gregory would never have understood even were they explained in detail.
Mr. Belmont reappeared carrying not a delicate tea cup, but a substantial, steaming mug.
“Your tea, and I purloined a few of these.” From his pocket he withdrew several tea cakes in a serviette, keeping one for himself and putting the rest on Abby’s plate.
“Will you sit, sir?” The tea was ambrosial, soothing and fortifying, prepared to the exact sweetness she preferred.
Mr. Belmont flipped out his tails and lowered himself beside her. “I will remain as long as you keep eating. I am avoiding interrogation by the gentlemen around the punch bowl.”
Interrogation about—? Oh.
Oh dear. Abby bit into a cold slice of apple. “For you and I to be closeted up here isn’t quite proper, is it?”
He settled back, his frame filling his corner of the sofa with elegant, sober tailoring, and a perpetual scowl.
“You’re a widow now. By virtue of your husband’s demise, you graduate from needing chaperonage to being a source of it.”
Like the tea, the apple was lovely. Belmont’s brusque company was fortifying too, oddly enough.
“We are such a silly society,” Abby said.
“In many ways, though you have cleared the first hurdles of losing a spouse, so some of the silliness is behind you. You’re through the death, the wake, and the burial, and can get on with the grieving.”
Death. Mr. Belmont eschewed platitudes and euphemisms, while Gregory had hardly ever dealt in blunt truths. All bluster and chit-chat, when he wasn’t scolding some servant or other.
Or his wife.
“I keep waiting for the grieving to start.” Abby considered a slice of apple, which her grandpapa had insisted was the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. “I keep waiting for tears, for sorrow, for something momentous, but all I feel is upset and… sad.”
“I recall saying nearly the same thing to my brother when Caroline died. There’s no wrong way to mourn. You’ve described your relationship with Stoneleigh as cordial, and maybe a marriage free of passion means you are spared passionate grief as well.”
Must he be so philosophical? Abby set the rest of the apple slice on the plate.
“Perhaps I will sit bolt upright in bed at midnight, realize I have no spouse, and be overcome by strong hysterics.” Again. For what Abby did have was a late spouse, who’d been murdered at his very desk.
Mr. Belmont ranged an arm along the back of the sofa, the gesture of a man not put off by an ungracious comment.
“Does the possibility of hysterics concern you, Mrs. Stoneleigh?”
Abby had many, many concerns. “One doesn’t know whether to be more concerned by a temptation toward drama, or a lack thereof. I’ve never been a widow before. Ah, what an awful word that is: widow.”
His scowl became less fierce, more irascible. What sort of man had a vocabulary of scowls?
“Widower is equally as unappealing,” he said. “Then it takes on a gilded edge in the eyes of some, as a man becomes desirable for his bereaved status.” This gilding had not appealed to Mr. Belmont.
“Women whose spouses have died are seldom viewed as having the same cachet as men in similar circumstances.”
Perhaps because the men could and did quickly remarry. Nonetheless, this startlingly unsentimental conversation was safer ground than the floundering bewilderment that had struck Abby the instant she’d seen her husband’s body.
Or the fear.
Mr. Belmont passed her a slice of cheese. “If you inherit this property, then you are a wealthy widow. Stoneleigh Manor is lovely, well run, and large, as acreages go in this area. I’d wager that among those assembled below, you will find several of the single gentlemen prompt with their condolence calls, and a few won’t even wait three months.”
A spark of anger flared, at Gregory, for subjecting Abby to those gentlemen and their prompt calls after years of neighborly indifference.
She took a bite of the cheese, an excellent cheddar. “You speak from unhappy experience.”
“I do. A man cannot possibly raise his own sons without the assistance of some female who knows the children not and loves them not.”
Many men wouldn’t even try. “I regret that we never had children.”
Mr. Belmont moved Abby’s tea closer to her side of the tray. “Would you really want to be comforting a seven-year-old today, trying to explain why her papa can’t ever take her riding again, or why death isn’t like oversleeping?”
Abby accepted the second slice of bread from Mr. Belmont’s hand, along with the knowledge that his wretched honesty was more comforting than all the platitudes of condolence put together.
“No wonder you are such an ill-tempered fellow.”
He shot his cuffs, which sported a surprising dash of lace. “My sister-in-law calls me reserved, my sons describe me as professorially stern. My brother says I’m backward but dear, and my late wife called me an ass more often than you might think.”
Heavenly days, Mr. Belmont’s recitation provoked him to something approaching a smile.
“Your brother has remarried?” Abby posed the question with the relief of a befogged mariner whose conversational oars have bumped against dry land by chance.
“Recently.” Mr. Belmont held her mug of tea out to her.
She sipped and set it down, but shook her head when he presented a slice of ham.
“You are pale as a winter sky, madam. You need sustenance.”
“I need a pause in my gluttony.” Abby cradled the mug close, wrapping both hands around its warmth. “I haven’t eaten much lately, and my digestion is tentative.”
Blond brows lowered to piratical depths. “Could you be carrying a posthumous child?”
How… presuming and sad the question was. “I could not.” Before Mr. Belmont could stumble through an apology for that bluntness too, Abby charged on. “Oh, don’t poker up. I wasn’t that sort of wife.”
He busied himself building up the fire, while Abby wondered what he’d make of her expostulation. He was apparently condoling the widow today, not investigating the murder, so he kept his questions behind his perfect, white teeth.
“I will take my leave of you,” he said, when the fire was throwing out decent heat. “I would like to call upon you within the week, to discuss what I learned when speaking with the staff yesterday, and I want to hear the reading of Gregory’s will.”
So did Abby. Gregory had made promises concerning that will, but Gregory’s promises were more often earnest in appearance than reliable in fact.
“The will should be read next week, after Gervaise and Lavinia have recovered from traveling out from London,” Abby said, rising and putting her mug of tea down. “You have been most kind, Mr. Belmont, exceedingly kind. You have my thanks.”
She did not want him to leave, and she couldn’t wait to get rid of him.
“I have been merely polite,” he replied. “Some would say not even that. Get some sleep, and call upon me should the need arise. I am not saying that for form’s sake.”
“You’re not, are you? You have unplumbed depths, Mr. Belmont.”
“And a murder investigation to complete.”
The Stoneleigh Manor servants had congregated in their parlor, black armbands in evidence on the livery, tankards of ale or cups of tea for any who weren’t stepping and fetching for the gathering upstairs. Madeline Hennessey wondered if her employer, the estimable Professor Axel Belmont, might have been more comfortable below stairs on such a day.
He’d asked her to keep an ear out for the odd snippet of talk, and Lord knew, the talk was flying. To facilitate loitering among her peers, Hennessey kept her plate full—the Stoneleigh cook had a lovely hand with the roasted beef—and her eyes down.
She could do nothing about her red hair, which got her noticed at any gathering.
“Mrs. Stoneleigh claims the colonel left me his pipes,” Robert Ambers said, not for the first time. He never referred to himself as the head stable lad, he was the stable master. He affected a neck cloth even on weekdays, and had his clothing made in London, and according to Mrs. Turnbull, the Candlewick housekeeper, Ambers had once mentioned titled family among his antecedents.
He might be a baron’s by-blow. Had the public school diction and the London tailoring of the Quality, and apparently gave orders like they did too.
“Nigh ten years of service,” Ambers went on, “and he left me a perishing lot of stinking pipes.”
He shot a look at Shreve, who was too old to be on his feet for hours at a time, though too conscientious to desert his post above stairs for long. That look was resentful, and commiserating too.
“Some of the colonel’s pipes are quite ornate,” the housekeeper observed from her seat by the hearth. Mrs. Jensen was reported to be a strict but fair supervisor, a fussy way to say she made a relentless pest of herself to the maids, just as a housekeeper ought.
Hennessey took another sip of her winter ale, a bitter brew for a bitter day.
“Did Missus say anything else?” Heath asked. He was an underfootman and had asked Hennessey to walk to services with him more than once.
She’d declined, of course. Raising a man’s hopes when she was abundantly happy with her post at Candlewick would have been unkind—also a nuisance.
“We do not gossip,” Jeffries, the head footman said, helping himself to more of the sliced beef on the sideboard. Jeffries was a strapping blond specimen who’d made it through the foolish years of young manhood without losing his hair or his common sense.
Hennessey had collected a few kisses from him at a harvest gathering or two. A nibbler, not the worst approach a man could take to kissing.
“Meaning no disrespect, but we can worry for our positions,” Heath retorted around a mouthful of beef. “We can long to know if we’ll have bread in our bellies and a place to sleep at night. Times are hard, and Missus might decide to take a repairing lease at some spa town.”
To go husband hunting? Hennessey didn’t know the lady well, but doubted Mrs. Stoneleigh was anxious to replace the colonel any time soon. He’d been a cold fish, full of his own consequence, and stinking of dogs and pipe smoke even when Hennessey had run into him in the Weasel.
Jeffries paused in his consumption of sliced beef long enough to shoot Heath a reproving look.
“Today is not the day to air those worries.” Jeffries and Heath bore a slight resemblance—cousins, or possibly half brothers. These things happened.
“Death turns a household upside down,” Mrs. Jensen observed. “And such a death as this…”
“Quite so,” Ambers said, rubbing his thumb over a signet ring on his smallest finger. “A tragedy for all concerned.”
The staff clearly knew the colonel had been murdered. Mr. Belmont had said nothing to the Candlewick servants, of course. Suicide was a bad, awful business, wreaking havoc with the inheritances and denying the deceased an honorable burial. A ruling of suicide would not require the magistrate—whose first love was the solitude of his glass houses—to spend hours interviewing servants, peering into desk drawers, and otherwise poking about.
Himself had grumbled about the burdens of his official duties the last time he’d invaded the Candlewick kitchen in search of sustenance, a transgression of which he was regularly guilty, much to Cook’s feigned horror.
“I’m sure madam would write characters for any seeking other prospects,” Shreve said, pulling on his gloves.
Nobody looked relieved.
“Mrs. Stoneleigh needs to know she can rely on us now,” Mrs. Jensen said, rising from her wingchair. “We’re worried about ourselves, when we all know the lady of house hasn’t been faring well lately, and now this.” She surveyed the various footmen and maids taking advantage of the generous fare.
Ambers was gazing out the window, holding himself slightly apart from the house staff, as usual. Whether he did this out of deference to the usual servant hierarchy—house servants being above ground servants—or because he considered himself superior to them all, Hennessey neither knew nor cared.
Ambers had once tried to demand kisses from her—more fool he. He’d made quite a fetching picture, writhing on the ground in his London finery.
Hennessey glanced at the clock. In fifteen minutes, she’d file out the servants’ entrance with the rest of the Candlewick employees paying their respects, and wedge herself into the Belmont traveling coach for the short journey home.
Mr. Belmont had declared that his staff was not to tromp the lanes in frigid weather when reasonable people availed themselves of coaches on such a solemn occasion. The professor was a great one for declarations, treatises, lectures, and general grumbling.
Hennessey wished him the joy of his investigation. If she’d concluded anything in more than an hour of sitting on a hard chair and avoiding Heath’s hopeful glances and Jeffries’s subtle ones, it was that the servants were keeping secrets.
Servants did that. Their discretion was bought and paid for, also a matter of honor. This group might quietly admit Mrs. Stoneleigh wasn’t faring well, but never go so far as to worry aloud that the widow looked positively sickly, and had lost too much flesh in recent months.
Heath was right to worry, and Mr. Belmont was right to investigate, alas for his roses, lectures, and much-respected treatises.
Axel Belmont returned to Stoneleigh Manor for the reading of the will, which to Abby’s relief, did indeed, leave her the entirety of the landed estate. Gervaise inherited the London-based import business—another relief—and Lavinia received a trust to be administered by her solicitor husband.
All in order, all quite equitable.
Gervaise went trotting back to Oxford along with Gregory’s solicitor immediately after the reading, Lavinia’s coach following in their wake.
“I’m glad you have some family in the area,” Mr. Belmont said, peering out the formal parlor window as if to ensure that family had in fact gone haring back to town. “Even if they’re staying elsewhere and only for a few days.”
“Lavinia is dear.” Lavinia was particularly dear in small doses, and she was a dear unwilling to bide under a roof where murder had been done. “Was there something else you wanted to discuss, Mr. Belmont?”
“I have more questions for you, though we should sit, because this might take a while.”
“My private parlor is warmer,” Abigail said, turning to go.
Mr. Belmont’s hand on her arm stopped her. “You’re not eating and probably not sleeping.” His blues eye held the concern of a man who had explained to a seven-year-old that death was not the same as oversleeping.
“I’m managing, Mr. Belmont. You need not be anxious.” Because if he continued looking at Abby like that, she might… lose her wits, run barefoot across the snow, drink every drop of spirits in the house. As she’d lain awake night after night, she’d concocted a long list of things she must not do.
Startle at every sound the house made as it creaked its way through the interminable hours of darkness, for example.
Abby shrugged out of Mr. Belmont’s grasp and led the way to the smaller, cozier room closer to the back of the house. A wood fire—extravagant, that—burned in the hearth, while Shreve added water to a vase of roses.
“Gervaise sent them,” she said, when Mr. Belmont—the botanist—leaned in for a whiff. “He knows they are my favorite, and I will never again enjoy the scent of lilies.”
The scent of funeral casseroles was equally disagreeable, along with Gregory’s infernal pipes. In recent months, the pipe smoke had been enough to put Abby off her feed entirely.
The sight of Shreve hovering by the door didn’t agree with her lately either. Ambers, she’d been able to mostly avoid, and she kept the door open when she met with Mrs. Jensen these days too.
“Funeral lilies aren’t my favorite,” Mr. Belmont said. “Trim up the stems on the roses daily. Change the water, don’t simply add more, and they’ll be happier by the window, where the temperature is lower and the light stronger. Shreve, would you be so good as to bring Mrs. Stoneleigh the tea tray and some sustenance, and for myself, pencil and paper?”
“Of course, Mr. Belmont. Madam, anything else?”
“Thank you, no,” Abby replied, not wanting to delay Mr. Belmont’s interrogation one moment more than necessary. She moved the roses to the table near the window, lest the professor do that himself, and took the rocking chair she’d had brought down from the nursery years ago.
Mr. Belmont took the nearest corner of the settee. Behind him hung a painting of hydrangeas arranged in a purple crock—one of only four paintings in the entire house Abby had chosen—the flowers the same lustrous blue as Mr. Belmont’s eyes.
“We might as well begin with the handsome, charmless barrister,” Mr. Belmont said, crossing his legs at the knee. “Gervaise benefited greatly from his father’s death, so he had motive to commit murder. How well do you know him?” The magistrate’s pose was relaxed and Continental, a neighbor paying a call, not an inquisitor starting on a martyr.
And yet, Abby knew his pose was likely the only thing relaxed about him. She earned a few moments’ reprieve from answering when Shreve returned with the tea, sandwiches, sliced apples, and a small offering of tea cakes.
Abby poured Mr. Belmont a cup of tea, recalling when he’d brought her a mug to savor in private.
“You will have it that we don’t stand on manners, Mr. Belmont, but talk murder over our tea and crumpets?”
“You are refreshingly direct, Mrs. Stoneleigh.”
He wanted this over with too. The realization brought Abby a drop of comfort in an ocean of heartache and anxiety. Who had killed Gregory? Why? When, if ever, would she be able to eat and sleep normally again?
She passed over his tea. “Would it surprise you to know you have also been called refreshingly direct, Mr. Belmont?” Blunt as an andiron, according to Mrs. Weekes, unless he was discussing his blooms.
“I would be astonished,” he replied gravely.
They had shared a joke. Abby was almost sure of it. She dropped her gaze, but not before she saw the flare of humor in his eyes. Next she might be tempted to flirt with him.
With him? She wouldn’t even know how.
“I don’t know Gervaise well,” Abby said, preparing her own serving of tea. “He was already through with his terms when I married Gregory, and well established in London’s legal community. The import business will make a suitable inheritance for him, for he seldom leaves Town. It’s said he never represents a party unless he believes his client to be innocent.”
Mr. Belmont stirred his tea slowly, deliberation apparently part of his nature. Abby knew from churchyard talk that he didn’t simply direct gardeners to see to his roses. He personally tended the plants in his glass houses, and published scholarly botanical treatises too.
Axel Belmont was probably closer to his roses than Abby had been to her own husband.
“Murder is usually motivated by greed, revenge, or passion,” Mr. Belmont said. “Gervaise doesn’t strike me as particularly greedy, or passionate, and I cannot discern what revenge he might have taken on his aging father.”
“Gregory was hardly doddering.” Though he’d no longer been a man in his prime. Abby had never seen him unclothed, but she’d noticed the tremor in his hands of late, a quaver in his voice where command had once been. Gregory had been tall, but in the past year, that height had taken on the stooped quality of advancing age.
“Eat something, Mrs. Stoneleigh.”
For form’s sake, Abby arched a brow at Mr. Belmont’s peremptory tone, but then reached for a scone. Her digestion was off, though no worse than usual.
“With butter, madam, if you please.”
She let her hand fall and hoped her stomach wouldn’t growl. “You are not my nanny. What else would you like to know?”
“Tell me of Lavinia.” Mr. Belmont slathered a scone with butter, slapped it on a plate, and passed it over.
They were to be very informal then. “She is the friendlier of the two.” Abby’s stomach did growl, drat the luck. “Lavinia wed the year after I married Gregory, and has two small children. She dotes on them and on their father, Roger, a successful solicitor who should manage Lavinia’s bequest quite competently.”
Or… was Roger a solicitor who only appeared successful? “Roger has sent the children here for an occasional summer,” Abby went on, “and the children seemed to love their holidays.” She had certainly loved having the children underfoot, while Gregory had barely tolerated them. “Roger would be called high-strung were he a female, and I think he’s relieved when the children are elsewhere.”
And their mother with them, though Abby munched a luscious, buttery bite of scone rather than admit that.
“Any other family?”
“Gregory had a cousin or two, older fellows. Gervaise could tell you more about them. They sent Gregory the occasional letter. I recall a few old chums from the army too, some of whom were mentioned in the will. Mr. Brandenburg, his London factor until recently, was a business acquaintance of long standing, but he’s gone to his reward.”
“Do you have Gregory’s correspondence?” Mr. Belmont asked, picking up the second half of Abby’s scone and holding it out to her.
He was relentless, like one of those thorny climbing roses that took over all in its ambit.
“I have his letters,” she said, accepting the scone. How had Mr. Belmont’s children avoided acquiring dimensions comparable to market hogs? “I suppose you’ll want to see every note and rough draft? At times Gregory and Mr. Brandenburg were weekly correspondents.”
“My brother, who has brought numerous felons to justice, has cautioned me against undue haste in my investigations. Nonetheless, the murderer doesn’t seem inclined to step forward and announce himself, so I’d best have a look at those letters.”
“A woman can fire a gun, Mr. Belmont.” And what were tea cakes with chocolate icing doing on that tray? “I do not recall asking Mrs. Jensen to stock our larder with sweets.”
“I sent them over.” Mr. Belmont was not apologizing for that presumption either. “When Caroline died, Day and Phil developed a fondness for chocolate. I enjoy it myself.”
Abby chose a confection and held it out to him. Someday she might be capable of saying the words when Gregory died without wanting to clap her hands over her ears and run shrieking from her own home.
“My thanks.” Mr. Belmont took the sweet from her hand and set it on a plate.
“The treat provides greater pleasure if you place it in your mouth.” Abby demonstrated with her own tea cake. For the first time since the colonel’s death, she was almost… enjoying herself. Not in the sense of merriment, but in the sense of feeling on her mettle, despite an unsolved murder, bad digestion, and an utter lack of energy.
Feeling somewhat safe too, as long she had Mr. Belmont to spar with—lowering thought.
He watched her devour her sweet, his scowl thunderous. Perhaps he was feeling on his mettle too.
“Have you family, Mrs. Stoneleigh?” he asked when he’d dispatched his tea cake.
“How is that relevant?”
“Greed,” he said, quartering an apple with the silver paring knife. “You are now personally wealthy; hence, your heir’s circumstances have improved.”
He held out a section of apple on the point of the knife.
“I don’t know as I have an heir.” Which was sad, and also Gregory’s fault, though Abby hadn’t pressed him on the matter. She’d learned not to press him on any matter.
She plucked the apple from the knife.
“The Regent will be happy to serve as your heir of last resort. Have you no family whatsoever?”
“Third cousins, perhaps?” Abby bit into the apple, thinking. “When I was a girl, my grandfather took me to Yorkshire to meet some cousin of his. He was a delightful old fellow, the Earl of Helmsley. His lordship grew flowers over every arable parcel of his estate, or so it seemed to a child. I recall two girls and a boy, his grandchildren. I was older than the girls, but younger than the boy, and he was a boy—nasty business, boys of a certain age, you know? I cannot recall their names.”
“The last Earl of Helmsley,” Mr. Belmont said slowly, “died this past summer under house arrest for attempting all manner of mischief against his sisters. The title has lapsed, and the estate reverted to the crown long enough to be passed out to some war hero—a duke’s by-blow, I believe. The flowers were famous throughout the realm in their day, though the gardens have long since been neglected.”
“You know this, how?” Abby asked, because really, what need had a rural squire for such gossip?
“I read the papers, and I have an abiding interest in ornamental horticulture.”
Mr. Belmont also lied when it suited him, though not well. He must have a towering passion for his flowers to know this sort of trivia.
“I do not read the papers, much less the society pages. What was your next question?”
“Have you any lovers?”
“Why do you ask?”
Color stained Mrs. Stoneleigh’s cheeks, and Axel was relieved to the point of gladness to see a normal reaction from her.
Duty alone could force him to put such a question to a recent widow. “You might lack the ability to end your husband’s life, but you are an attractive woman, and a man intent on spending the rest of his life with you, on this large and thriving estate, could act rashly.”
Attractive was a parsimonious word for her beauty, but she’d take offense at anything more honest. She resembled a pale, blown rose, all the more lovely for the delicacy of her appearance.
She munched a chocolate tea cake into oblivion. “You insult me by suggesting I would play false a husband who provided for me generously when I had neither grandfather nor parents to look after me. You compliment me as well, implying somebody would desire my company enough to kill for it.”
“I am not withdrawing the question.” And she was stalling rather than answer directly.
“I do not now,” she said, picking up another tea cake, “nor have I ever, had reason to stray, Mr. Belmont. What on earth would be the point?”
Not a clear no, and since when did erotic pleasure require a point? Axel poured himself more tea to buy a moment to consider her prevarication. He’d lifted the silver teapot and served himself half a cup before he caught her watching him.
Helping himself to a lady’s tea tray.
“I beg your pardon.” He sat back, chagrinned at this small, pathetic evidence of his widower status.
She didn’t smirk, she didn’t even smile. “Perhaps you’d top up my cup as well?”
He obliged, as a memory assailed him. He’d come upon Colonel Stoneleigh on a morning hack, hounds trotting at the horse’s heels, Ambers several respectful yards behind on a nervous hunter. By way of small talk, Axel had asked if Mrs. Stoneleigh enjoyed riding out, and the colonel’s ruddy face had wrinkled with distaste.
“She’s the delicate sort,” he’d said. “Easily overset, always flying into the boughs. A man wants to start his day with some peace and quiet. Can’t be cossetting the weaker sex at all hours, can we?”
Mrs. Belmont might be pale, but easily overset had been husbandly exaggeration from one who was himself given to tempers at the local pub and in the hunt field.
“Back to the topic, Mrs. Stoneleigh.” Axel set the teapot down, then realized he’d only bungled further. “Oh, very well.” He added milk and sugar to her cup, then passed it to her.
“Thank you, Mr. Belmont. I cannot recall when I last was served a cup of tea as I prefer it, but for your fussing on the day of the funeral. My husband was far too liberal with the sugar. You will have to call more often.”
Axel Belmont did not fuss, except when among his roses. Was she teasing him? Flirting? Or maybe—sad thought—realizing that life without a spouse could be grindingly lonely?
“About your lovers?” Axel prompted. “You may have none now, but I want you to keep a list of fellows who come calling, and the ones who seem particularly solicitous or curious about your finances.”
“Gregory has—had—an old friend several miles east of here.” She took a sip of her tea, closing her eyes for a moment as if inhaling fortitude along with the fragrance of a mild gunpowder. “Sir Dewey Fanning. They served together, and as you heard, Sir Dewey is the recipient of Gregory’s collection of hunting horns. He’ll likely come to call any day—hang protocol, for Sir Dewey is a bit of a mother hen—and several other old army chaps might come around as well. You don’t need to know about those fellows, do you?”
Half the regiment would soon be camping on her doorstep, Axel suspected, though where were her friends who’d hang protocol to be at her side?
“I do need to know about those fellows, Mrs. Stoneleigh, and why are you frowning?”
Worse than frowning, he’d caught her blinking at her tea cup in a manner that made a man eye the door and hope his handkerchief was clean. She set down her tea cup, rose, and went to the window.
“Would you frown, Mr. Belmont, were I to order you to name your potential intimates for my perusal, lest one of them be guilty of murdering your spouse?”
He would eject her from the premises. “Valid point, but my brother assures me that dalliance, while a predictable element of grief, is not usually suspicious. You want to take note of those fellows who are subtly beginning the courting dance.”
He approached her, wanting to see her eyes when the conversation turned difficult—also wanting to look her in the eye when he apologized.
“I have offended, and I regret that. Is this transgression greater than my usual lack of tact or delicacy?”
She stared out at the snowy landscape, though she likely did not see the gray stone walls marching over the bleak pastures and fields.
“I am… knocked off my pins, Mr. Belmont. I found myself thinking this morning that we hadn’t enough chairs in the formal parlor, because we’d need one for Gregory when the will was read. I expect Gregory to come in to breakfast, kiss my cheek, and tell me how his ride went while he fixes my first cup of tea with twice as much sugar as I prefer. I hear a door slam and think he’s back from the kennels… but he isn’t, and he never will be again.”
“You can’t prepare for those ambushes.” Nor could Axel have prepared for the urge to comfort this woman with an embrace. “Knocked off one’s pins is a good way to describe the ordeal you face.” Axel settled a hand on her arm, then moved back to the hearth, out of the range of hysterics and temper, both.
Though if ever a woman had justification for a bout of dramatics, Mrs. Stoneleigh did.
“The first year is the hardest,” he said. The second was hardest too, in a way, and the fifth as well. “The first spring, the first summer holiday, the first Christmas, the first time you observe all those small rituals alone that you used to observe together.”
Outside the cozy parlor, flurries danced down on the bitter wind. In deepest winter, Axel had gloried in the hours required in his glass houses, while Caroline had complained about having the boys constantly underfoot and her husband nowhere to be seen.
“You know you are making progress,” he said, “when you can recall the bad things honestly.”
“I beg your pardon?”
Telling her this was not disloyal, it was honest, and Abigail Stoneleigh deserved at least that. Axel had the sense that nobody else, not the widows in the churchyard, not Mrs. Weekes, not anybody, would explain this aspect of grieving to her.
“Six months after Caroline died, I admitted to myself while fishing with the boys, how blessedly quiet it was without their mother along. A fellow could hear himself think and catch some fish, though the very thought made me feel like a cad. I realized then that one day, one distant, unimaginable day, the grief would become manageable.”
Mrs. Stoneleigh resumed her seat, and Axel settled beside her, as much fortification as he could safely offer.
“When I am relieved not to have to smell Gregory’s blasted pipes, that is not a bad thing?”
Poor woman. The entire house still reeked of the colonel’s fondness for tobacco.
“It is not. Have a sandwich.” Axel chose one for her, and she took it without any fuss or posturing—a relief, that.
“I will have to think on this, though we are far, far from the topic of our murderer.”
Or her lovers. “We are. Are you comfortable turning the colonel’s correspondence over to me, or shall I read it here?”
She made a face, probably finding the prospect of Axel running tame in her halls distasteful.
“Why not sort through it here and take with you what you want to read in detail?”
“That will suit, but as for the estate books, I’d best look at those on premises.”
Another grimace, this one around a bite of sandwich. “In some ways, Mr. Belmont, that is more presumptuous than asking about my personal life.”
Her love life, given how women typically viewed sexual intimacy. “If somebody has embezzled from your accounts, Mrs. Stoneleigh, then they had a motive to murder your husband.”
An uncomfortable thought intruded: They had a motive to murder Mrs. Stoneleigh now too, if she was about to discover the embezzlement.
“You are so sure you are correct about the means of death, Mr. Belmont, all you concern yourself with is the motive.”
Gregory Stoneleigh had not died of a heart seizure or an apoplexy while cleaning his weapon. He hadn’t had the grace to die of a plant-based poison either, which Axel was uniquely positioned to have detected.
“I saw your husband’s body, and yes, I am convinced he died of a gunshot wound to the chest. I had quite the frank talk on this very point with Gervaise Stoneleigh, and asked him to make inquiries regarding any suspicious aspects of the import business.”
“Gervaise will make those inquiries regardless. Thoroughness runs through his very veins.”
Axel’s impression of Gervaise Stoneleigh was one of brisk, unsentimental competence. The younger Stoneleigh wouldn’t leave to chance what diligence and effort could make certain.
A fine quality in a barrister—also in a murderer.
“Have you more questions, Mr. Belmont, or shall I show you to Gregory’s correspondence?”
“One more question.” Axel rose, and his hostess stood with him, which put them close enough he could see fine lines of fatigue fanning out from her eyes. She might have hidden them with cosmetics were she more sophisticated or less honest female.
She might also have emphasized her grief with cosmetics, but she had not.
“Ask, Mr. Belmont. I can’t imagine you’ve anything remaining your arsenal to shock me with.”
“Did Gregory have a mistress?”
Mr. Belmont was relentlessly inappropriate, but also fearless, and thus when he asked Abby the questions she’d been pushing aside since Gregory’s death, she came closer to answering them.
“I did say a woman’s hand can pull a trigger, did I not? But why would a mistress shoot her protector?” At least some of the sleep Abby had lost had been spent trying to come up with that answer.
“Because that protector was leaving her? Because he’d cast her aside for another, got her with child and denied his own progeny, given her diseases? Because he’d been unkind, or lost his temper and injured or disfigured her? A woman can have many reasons for hating a man with whom she’s been intimate.”
Blunt speech indeed, and yet, it proved Mr. Belmont had been thinking the case through, and that was reassuring.
“Hell hath no fury?” Abby recalled being furious, early in her marriage. Then she’d learned to keep busy and out of Gregory’s way. “You must also ask: Would I be so jealous as to put someone else up to killing Gregory if he disregarded his vows?”
A wife committed adultery, a man disregarded his vows. The law and society both considered it so, though most wives doubtless took a different view of the matter.
“You don’t strike me as a woman…” Given to passion. Apparently, even Axel Belmont would not put that sentiment into words. “As a woman given to violent impulses.”
Before her marriage, Abby had been very passionate. She’d argued politics with her grandfather, philosophy with her father, and the rights of women with her mother. She’d been infatuated with the son of another bookselling family and even had girlish designs on that fellow’s future. Her fondness for the fellow had blossomed in the midst of many heated debates over literary matters.
“I honestly don’t know if Gregory was unfaithful.” Abby hadn’t wanted to know. “He’d pop into Oxford every few weeks, and light-skirts abound there, for the university boys and the unmarried faculty, both. Gregory liked to go to Bath each quarter or so, and he and Sir Dewey went into London on occasion, or up north, shooting in the summer. They were always off on some lark. My husband and I were cordial, but… I don’t know how to answer you, Mr. Belmont.”
In too many instances, Abby simply did not know how to answer the magistrate’s questions, and that probably made her look like a very bad wife indeed.
Gregory might not argue with that characterization—he’d found much about her to criticize. The longer he was gone, the less Abby cared what her husband had thought of her, and the more she succumbed to the simple fear that whoever had killed Gregory might come for her next.
Mrs. Stoneleigh pulled open the desk drawers and produced two bags of tobacco, three pipes, and some pipe-cleaning supplies—all of which Axel had come across the night of the murder and replaced in the desk. Another drawer yielded bundles of correspondence.
Her hands were not quite steady as she passed him the letters.
He’d never enjoyed being magistrate, and he was coming to loathe the job now. “And the estate books?”
“I keep those in my office. Come along.”
They returned to her office, as she called it, where she crouched before the shelves beside her desk and heaved up a bound ledger from a lower shelf.
“I keep the books myself. You are welcome to look at the ledgers here, or take them with you.”
“I’ll start with the letters,” Axel said. “This would seem to be the most private place to work.” Also the most comfortable, and the only part of the house he’d seen so far that belonged to his hostess. The roses would like it here too, simply because the air did not reek of pipe smoke.
“You’ll not be disturbed. Make yourself at home, and I’ve wanted to ask, when will you take possession of your mares?”
His… mares. Stoneleigh had bequeathed him a damned pair of yearling mares.
“I’d honestly forgotten them. I can fetch them early next week.” An idea popped into Axel’s head, one having to do with Mrs. Stoneleigh’s pallor, the passing tremor in her hands, and too many years of not being a very good neighbor to her. “Would you be willing to accompany me on such an errand?”
She lifted the vase and sniffed at the roses, the gesture artlessly lovely.
“Isn’t that a little like going riding with you, Mr. Belmont? I am in first mourning and barely allowed to set foot out of the house for the next two months or so, save to go to services or see family and very close friends.”
Or to humor a magistrate whose investigation had brought no answers thus far?
Axel liked his idea the longer he thought about it, and he did not like the idea of her becoming a prisoner in this house on behalf of a husband who’d regarded a lady’s maid as an extravagance.
“And what a pleasure that will be,” Axel said, “to sit alone and watch the snow fall, then melt, then fall again. We’ll merely walk the mares from your stable to mine, and we can accomplish this without even using a proper road if you’re concerned about public opinion. I hardly think seeing the colonel’s bequest executed constitutes gross disrespect for the dead.”
“I suppose not.”
Axel didn’t press for a definite yes, having learned a few things in the years of his marriage.
Instead he offered a slight bow. “Until next we meet.”
Mrs. Stoneleigh disappeared in a swish of black skirts, leaving Axel to absorb himself for the next two hours in the artifacts of another man’s life. Gregory had kept up a rambling and occasionally illegible correspondence with several old friends—late-night applications of brandy seldom improved penmanship—and he heard occasionally from his children. Nothing stood out as evidence connected to murder.
Shreve appeared, wheeling a tea cart before him. “Beg pardon, sir. Madam thought you might be getting peckish, and suggested luncheon would be in order.”
Sandwiches had been stacked in a tower beside a dish of sliced pears. A vented tureen savored of hot barley soup. Chocolate tea cakes graced a candy dish.“Madam is thoughtful,” Axel said. Surprisingly thoughtful, for a woman whose husband had accused her of requiring constant cosseting.
“She is that.” Shreve fussed with trays and rearranged linen. “But, Mr. Belmont?”
“Shreve?” Stoneleigh’s own wife may not have known if he’d had a mistress—what wife wanted to confront such a fact?—though Stoneleigh’s butler likely would.
“About Mrs. Stoneleigh.” Shreve’s gaze remained on sliced pears arranged in a pink bowl.
Axel kept his tone level when he wanted to shake the old fellow until his jowls flapped.
“I can keep a confidence, unless it points to somebody’s guilt in Mr. Stoneleigh’s death.”
“Well, as you are the only neighbor coming and going from the estate,” Shreve began, a blush creeping up his neck, “and as duty alone prompts me to speak, I am breaching all protocol to mention this to you.”
“I am listening.” Axel had also prepared lists of further questions, for both Shreve and Ambers, though at Mrs. Stoneleigh’s request, Ambers had taken several horses to Melton for sale.
“Madam isn’t doing well, sir. She barely eats, and I know she’s suffered a grievous shock, but one must eat.”
“One must, though these things take time.” The words were ashes rather than a source of warmth to a grieving heart, and yet, they were true.
Shreve lifted the lid over the soup tureen for the third time. “If it were only that, Mr. Belmont.”
“Out with it, Shreve.”
“She doesn’t sleep, and she’s taking laudanum, which madam has never done before with any frequency.”
“Many people medicate their grief.” The mention of laudanum sparked alarm and anger. Why wasn’t the woman’s physician calling on her, or had that fool prescribed the poppy to a widow when she was enduring the most vulnerable and isolated weeks of grief?
Shreve drew himself up. “Madam leaves the candles burning at night on every floor, walks the house for hours, then collapses in her bed near dawn, only to rise shortly thereafter. Her digestion is most delicate, her strength ebbing. She is not coping well.”
Axel considered the woman who’d spoken with him at such length earlier in the day: polite, gracious, cooperative, and capable of humor and humanity if not exactly warmth.
Not that he had acquired the knack of warmth on social situations.
He compared that woman with the widow who’d greeted him at the crime scene: composed, calm, physically cold, and something else plucked at his awareness, like brambles snagging at his sleeve…
“I’ll deal with it, Shreve. For now, I suggest you run out of laudanum, or at least make sure the supply is limited, and do likewise with the decanters.”
“But sir, I wouldn’t want…”
“Shreve,” Axel said gently, “Madam knows you are grieving too, and she will not hold it against you if the decanters aren’t immediately refilled, or the medicinals run low. Falling asleep with the candles lit is dangerous, and she doesn’t need for this place to burn to the ground.”
Shreve’s sigh should have fluttered the curtains. “I will see to it.”
Axel ate in silence, considering his options and his duties, which had lately multiplied, much to the detriment of his progress with the herbal.
Mrs. Stoneleigh was without family, and she needed to be taken in hand. She was grieving, frightened, and living in the same house where her husband had been murdered, while the murderer was still at large.
Axel had heeded the neighborly summons, he was investigating the murder as best he could, but was he being a gentleman when the damsel was clearly in distress?
And of those three duties—neighbor, investigator, and gentleman—which mattered the most, and where did that leave the other two?
End of Excerpt
Axel is available in the following formats:
Grace Burrowes Publishing
December 15, 2015