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Excerpt: Murder in St. Giles

Book 13: Captain Lacey Regency Mysteries

London, 1819

I entered the house on South Audley Street one early April morning to hear my wife shouting.

I paused in disquiet. My wife—Donata, the former Lady Breckenridge—shouted at no one but me. Indeed, she enjoyed our occasional spirited quarrels, her voice rising in volume to match mine. 

With all other mortals, she was as cool as a winter icicle. Any who displeased her were shown the door by Barnstable, her equally cool butler.

That her voice rang down from the upper floors, this early in the day—I was returning from my morning ride—worried me greatly.

“Who the devil is here?” I asked Barnstable, who’d come off the stairs as a footman took my hat. My concern was mirrored in Barnstable’s brown eyes. 

“Her cousins, sir,” Barnstable said. “That is, Mr. St. John, a cousin of the late Lord Breckenridge, and Mr. Phillips, the cousin of her ladyship. They arrived shortly after you departed. They came unannounced,” he finished in a chilly tone.

Timed well, then. They’d meant to corner Donata alone.

I tossed my coat over the footman’s arm as I moved to the stairs. “A pity I decided to return early,” I said, and I saw a gleam of satisfaction in Barnstable’s eyes.

He stepped aside as I made my way up the staircase to the first floor of our elegant home. Though I was technically the man of the house, as had been Lord Breckenridge before me, this abode showed Donata’s touch, her hand, her personality. Its male inhabitants only lived here.

I heard my wife’s voice coming from a reception room tucked behind the stairs, a chamber in which guests waited before being shown into the grand drawing room in the front of the house. Her reception room was more comfortable than most, with soft chairs, pleasant paintings of flowers, and a few books left about for her waiting callers.

However, Donata coming to the reception room to see these cousins instead of having Barnstable or a footman show them into the drawing room spoke loudly of her disapprobation. She likely hadn’t felt she could turn away her kin, but she could make certain they knew they weren’t welcome.

I opened the door without knocking—I lived here after all—in time to hear Donata say, “If either of you touch him, I will shoot you.”

“Now,” came a voice that chilled me. “Don’t be unreasonable, woman. You know his father wanted this.”

“Then he’d have said so in his will. I read every word of that document, and it mentioned nothing of giving him to you.”

“Donata.” The thinner voice of the pair spoke placatingly. “St. John is only looking after your happiness.”

“Happiness?” Donata spat the word. “You do not have any—”

I cut through her fury by putting myself between her and the two men facing her. I gave them my best regimental captain glare. 

“Explain, sirs, why you have forced your way into our house and are badgering my wife.” 

The reedy-voiced gentleman was Edwin Phillips, Donata’s cousin, son of her father’s sister. He had dark hair receding far up his forehead, though he was only thirty, and watchful blue eyes in a narrow face. He’d wanted to marry Donata and hated me for cutting him out. Not that she’d had any intention of accepting him.

The second man was unknown to me, and it was his voice that had unnerved me so. The sound of it was very close to that of the late Lord Breckenridge, Donata’s unlamented husband.

The man resembled Breckenridge as well, large and thick of body but tall, and only some of that thickness was fat. He had a broad face, sharp nose, and flat brown eyes. Like Breckenridge, he had little hair on top of his head but a thickness of it in the back. He sported full sideburns that had been trimmed to halt just shy of his jaw.

I hadn’t met this man in the year I’d been married to Donata, and she rarely spoke of the Breckenridge side of the family. She’d told me about the two gentlemen she called Romulus and Remus, who were first cousins to her son, Peter, but I had seen them at a distance, and this gentleman was neither of those.

The Breckenridge cousin turned a cold eye to me. “This is not your business, sir.”

He expected me to grovel before my betters, I could see. I rarely groveled, however, and I did not consider the cousin of a peer to be my better.

“Mrs. Lacey is my wife, and therefore it is my business,” I stated.

Donata stepped beside me. She did not look at me, but I sensed her gratitude that I hadn’t simply closed the door and left her to it, nor immediately knocked the two men to the carpet.

“Cousin Edwin and Cousin Stanton believe that Peter will be better off living in Somerset with the St. John family,” she said coldly. “I am certain that would only be a short stay before Stanton moves into the Breckenridge estate to ensure that all is well for Peter to take over at his majority.” Her voice cut like a whiplash, but the dark curls that trickled to her shoulders trembled. 

A chill cut through my anger. This man, Stanton St. John, was several places removed from inheriting the viscountcy, but life was uncertain, and Romulus and Remus, the two rakehell cousins between him and Peter, could any time expire from disease, dissipation, drink, or wrecking their phaetons racing to Brighton. 

Peter, Donata’s son from her first marriage, was seven years old. While Peter was robust, many children did not live to see adulthood, a fact that had Donata keeping Peter close to home or well guarded by her parents in Oxfordshire. 

I could see in Stanton’s eyes the frustration about the gap between him and the Breckenridge fortune and title—a gap filled by two fops and a little boy. But if Peter were to fall from a horse while galloping across the Breckenridge lands … Well then, one less person in his way.

I let my gaze harden. Stanton stared right back at me, knowing I understood him. But I also caught a hint of smugness, a look that said I would not have the last word in this debate.

“This house is Mrs. Lacey’s to use for her lifetime,” I said. “According to the settlements made by her husband.”

“Yes,” Stanton admitted reluctantly. His eyes darted to the fine paintings on the walls and the silver objet d’art, his look covetous.

“As mistress of the house, she can admit or deny whomever she wishes,” I went on. “As her husband, I can also say who enters and whom the butler should eject. In other words, gentlemen, you may take your leave. Now, if you please.”

I noted no argument from the woman standing next to me. Her jaw was rigid, her dark blue eyes tight. 

She made a stiff nod to her cousins. “Good day, gentlemen.”

“Now, Donata,” her cousin Edwin began. “He means only the best for young Peter.”

“Good day,” Donata repeated, a bit more firmly. “Barnstable will show you out.”

With that, she turned her back on them and glided from the room. The door opened for her, one of her footmen always ready. My wife never touched a door handle in her own house if she did not wish it.

Donata walked with her head high, her step even and dignified. The discreet footman shut the door but not all the way—the latch did not catch.

This left me alone with Donata’s male relatives, neither of whom liked me. Edwin had made it immediately clear how put out he was because Donata had chosen to marry me. He’d imagined himself as stepfather to a viscount and son-in-law to an earl.

Though I’d never met Stanton St. John, his dislike for me wafted from him like cloying perfume. While I had no legal power over Peter, I did have influence, and I now considered myself his father. I could see in the back of Stanton’s dark eyes how much that rankled.

“Captain Lacey,” Edwin said. “Surely you can understand that Mr. St. John is correct. The place for Peter is with his family.”

“I must wonder how you stand to gain from this,” I returned bluntly. “If Peter lives with Mr. St. John, surely that puts him out of your reach.”

Edwin’s cheeks went scarlet. I wondered whether Stanton had offered him money or perhaps access to Peter if he helped with his petition. Their idea, I supposed, was that Peter would grow dependent upon his two cousins and be manipulated into granting them favors—gifts, position, power—in gratitude. 

I read this in Edwin’s flush, though Stanton looked flinty. I had to wonder how quickly Stanton would cut Edwin out of the bargain.

I leaned on my walking stick. “I have a rather large valet who aspires to be a pugilist,” I said. “And another man who styles himself as my guard, who actually was a pugilist. I can call them to help me show you the door if you wish. One is young and vigorous, the other quite a skilled fighter. Within this house, they answer only to me.”

Edwin looked worried, but Stanton’s scowl deepened. “Keep your dogs contained,” he said. “It will make no difference whether I am admitted to the house or not, Captain. Lady Breckenridge will receive letters about the matter, as I am certain she realizes. Good morning.”

I stepped aside as he strode to the door, which silently swung wide for him. Bartholomew, the tall, well-muscled young man I’d threatened him with, was on the other side. 

Bartholomew glanced at me, his eagerness unmistakable—he had pitched unwanted visitors to the pavement before. I gave my head the slightest shake, and Bartholomew withdrew, looking disappointed.

Edwin hastened after Stanton. I followed him, Bartholomew silently falling into step behind me.

When Stanton reached the bottom of the stairs, a footman handed him his coat, another positioning himself with Edwin’s. Barnstable, stationed at the front door, gave them his butler’s bow.

“Good day, gentlemen,” he said.

A carriage had already halted at the doorstep. Stanton climbed into it, barely waiting for Edwin to more clumsily ascend before the coach jerked forward.

Barnstable closed the front door. He looked up at me standing on the first landing, inquiring without words if he could assist. 

I shook my head, told Bartholomew to go about his business, and turned to seek Donata.

Before I could set foot on the next flight of stairs, a commotion sounded beneath me. I heard the imploring voice of a footman, shocked into dropping his trained tones—“’Ere. You ain’t allowed …”

A large man pushed his way past the servants trying to stop him emerging from the backstairs. He was Brewster, the former pugilist and thief who acted as my bodyguard, the second man I’d threatened Stanton with.

Brewster sent a grim look up to me. “You need to come, guv. My missus sent me to fetch you.”

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