At her Father’s ancestral estate of Bellmont Abbey for the holidays, Julia Grey is piqued to discover that her erstwhile partner in detection, Nicholas Brisbane, has also been invited along with his fiancee, Charlotte King. Her own love life has been complicated by the presence of Count Fornacci, an ardent young Italian who takes the opportunity of a game of sardines–hide and seek to Americans!–to make a declaration of his affections to Julia. Brisbane, ever watchful, has not missed the incident, and is quick to stake his own claims. But the childish game of sardines is about to turn deadly, and murder is afoot at the Abbey…
I had not gone four steps when I collided heavily with another figure, bouncing ever so slightly off a solidly muscular form. The other player’s candle was held just at my line of sight, dazzling my eyes.
“I do hope I didn’t interrupt your interlude with Count Fornacci,” Brisbane said nastily.
“Lower your candle, you’ve half-blinded me.”
He placed it on a table, and I could just make out his face, inscrutable in its fitful light. There were times I understood him better than most, I liked to think. Other occasions, I found him as difficult to comprehend as ancient Greek.
“If you mean Alessandro, I can only say you are being absurd. He is a boy.”
Brisbane arched a brow at me. “You are ungenerous. I would have called him a man fully grown.”
I tapped the toe of my slipper on the carpet. “I will not quarrel with you, Brisbane. Besides, we are meant to be playing sardines and I have not yet begun to hunt properly.”
“Do not bother with the dining room. I have already been there.”
“How kind of you to share your intelligence with me. Now if you do not mind–”
Brisbane turned, maneuvering me down the hall toward the nave. “I thought we should try the billiards room.”
“We are not supposed to work together,” I reminded him.
He ignored me, and it occurred to me then that he had some ulterior purpose in seeking me out. For an instant, I thought of Alessandro’s declaration and wondered if Brisbane had something similar in mind. Immediately, i rejected the notion and cursed myself for a fool. He was betrothed to Charlotte King, and although I was certain the engagement would come to nothing, he insisted upon maintaining the fiction of their relationship. No, Brisbane wanted me with him for some other reason, but I could not yet work out what it might be.
Grumbling, I allowed him to lead me to the billiards room. We searched the shadows, and I found it curious how the near-darkness heightened my senses. I could hear my pearls click softly in the silence and the hushed rustle of my taffeta petticoats. I was conscious too of Brisbane, never more than a few feet from me. I caught the scent of him, his shaving lotion–something herbal, with a hint of spice, and something else, something indefinable but essentially Brisbane. It was a distinctive scent, and had I been blindfolded and asked to choose him out of a thousand men, I should have done so without hesitation.
I shook myself from my fancies and moved away to look behind the heavy draperies at the window, but Brisbane followed me. He was casual about it, lazy as a panther stalking a deer, but just as effective.
“There is no one here,” I said finally. “I mean to try Father’s study.”
“A fair idea,” he said smoothly, opening the door for me. He had taken it as understood I would not question his accompanying me again, and it is a credit to how well he knew me that I did not. He could be silent as a tomb when he chose, and nothing would pry him open.
I preceded him to the study, and after a lengthy conversation with Grim, we searched it, turning up nothing. My gaze lingered on the box where Father kept the newspapers, the ones that told of the vicious riot in Trafalgar Square. Questions trembled on the tip of my tongue, but I did not ask them. We were at last forced to admit defeat and moved on, closing the door softly behind us.
A few shadows flickered in the nave, a few glimmers of light glowed from under closed doors, but there was no one about. I had just begun to wonder if we were entirely alone in this part of the Abbey when the silence was shattered by a broken scream.
It faltered, then started again, over and over, until I thought I should run mad from it.
“The chapel,” Brisbane muttered. He grabbed my hand, crushing it in his, and began to run. I dropped my candle along the way, glancing back only once to make certain the flame had not sparked the carpet.
I dropped the candlestick and pressed my free hand to where a pain stabbed my side. “Brisbane, I am tightly laced. I cannot run so quickly.”
If he heard me, he did not care. He did not slow his pace until we reached the great oaken doors of the chapel. One was closed; one stood open a scant few inches. Light spilled across the carpet of the hall, and yet I was as reluctant to enter the chapel as I would have been to cross the very threshold of hell.
The screams had stopped, and there was only a tense, expectant silence as Brisbane pushed open the door and we stepped inside. The scene before us was like something out of a nightmare.
Lucian Snow was lying on the cold stone floor just in front of the altar, his neck twisted so that he faced us, his eyes wide open and staring.
And above him stood Lucy, clutching an iron candelabrum that dripped slow, heavy drops of crimson blood onto the floor…