Authors: Tasha Alexander
No excellent soul is exempt from a mixture of madness.
Although a stranger to the Norman countryside, even I knew a dark pool of blood under a tree was not something a tourist should expect to see during an afternoon ride. Sliding down from the saddle, I put a calming hand on my horse's neck, then bent to investigate more closely. Had I been able to convince myself the congealing liquid was something less nefarious, the sight of a pale hand, blue fingertips extended, would have changed my mind at once. Without stopping to think, I rubbed my abdomen, the remnants of dull pain still present after my own encounter with violence, and took a step towards the body.
Only a few months ago, during what was meant to be a blissful honeymoon, I'd been trapped in a cavernous cistern deep below the city of Constantinople with the villain who shot me in an attempt to keep quiet my discovery that he was guilty of murder. His efforts were, of course, in vain. But although I succeeded in exposing the odious man and saving the life of the sultan's concubine whom he'd held as a hostage, I'd lost something more dear. I did not know when I stepped into the gloomy bowels of the city that I was with child. Now, instead of preparing for an heir, my husband and I were no longer sure we could ever have one.
Colin Hargreaves was not a man to be daunted, even in the face of such tragedy. He insisted that nothing mattered but my recovery and packed me off to France the moment I was well enough to travel. His intentions were the best. His choice of location, however, fell something short of perfection. Not Normandy itselfâthe lush countryside was stunning, the rich, cream-laden food magnificentâbut our lodgings at his mother's house left something to be desired. Although that, too, is not entirely precise. There was nothing wrong with the manor, a sprawling, comfortable building constructed primarily in the seventeenth century by an aristocrat whose descendents did not fare well during the revolution. Rather, it was I who was the problem. At least so far as my new mother-in-law was concerned.
I'd heard nothing but complimentary words about Mrs. Hargreaves, who had fled England after the death of her husband some ten years before. Her own father had been left a widower early, and encouraged his daughter to remain at homeânot to take care of him, but because he, not much fond of society, felt she should be allowed to lead whatever sort of life she liked. His fortune ensured she would never need a husband for support. Free from the restraints of matrimony, Anne Howard passed nearly twenty years traveling the world while her girlhood friends married and had children. It was only when she reached her thirty-sixth year that, halfway up the Great Pyramid at Giza, she met Nicholas Hargreaves. By the time they were standing again on terra firma, the couple were engaged. Three days later they married, and afterwards, never spent a single night apart.
I had hoped Mrs. Hargreaves would shower me with the warmth she showed her sonâthat she would rejoice to see him so happily matched. But after a fortnight of her cool detachment, I determined to spend as much time as possible away from the prickling discomfort of her disapproving stare, and it was this decision that led me to the unhappy resting place of the girl sprawled beneath a tree, her blood soaking the ground.
Bile burned my throat as I looked at her, my eyes drawn from her fingers to her face, framed by hair so similar in color and style to mine we might have been taken for twins. There was no question she was dead, no need to check for any sign of life. No one could have survived the brutal gashes on her throat. The bodice of her dress was black with blood and had been ripped at the abdomen, revealing what seemed to be an empty cavity.
I could look no further.
I wrapped my arms around my waist as my stomach clenched. I wasn't sick, but only because I was too horrified, too stunned even to breathe. Closing my eyes, I tried to focus, to move, to think, but was incapable of anything. I spun around at the sound of a sharp crack, like a branch breaking behind me, then turned back as my horse made a hideous shriek and reared. Realizing I'd neglected to tie him to the tree, I started towards him, but was too late. He'd already broken into a run.
Which left me six and a quarter miles from home, alone with the murdered girl.
Trees and grass and flowers spun around me as I tried to regain enough composure to take stock of the scene before me. I should have been better equipped to deal with this. In the past two years, I had become something of an investigator after solving the murder of my first husband, Philip, the Viscount Ashton, whom everyone had believed died of fever on a hunting trip in Africa. Since then, I'd thrice more been asked to assist in murder cases, the last time while on my wedding trip in Constantinople. Colin, my second husband (and Philip's best friend), worked for the Crown, assisting in matters that required, as he liked to say, more than a modicum of discretion. Because no man could gain entrance to the sultan's harem, he had asked me to work with him in an official capacity when a concubine, who turned out to be the daughter of a British diplomat, was murdered at the Ottoman Palace.
Successful though I'd been, none of my prior experience had prepared me for the sight before me now.
I squinted, blurring my vision so the field of poppies beyond the tree and the body melted into a wave of crimson buoyed by the wind. My boot slid on slick grass as I stepped forward and forced myself to look, memorizing every detail of the gruesome scene: the position of the girl's limbs, a description of her dress, the expression on her face. Simultaneously confident and sickened that I was capable of giving a thorough report of what I'd seen, I turned and started the long walk back to the house, my stomach lurching, my heart leaping at every sound that came from the surrounding fields, my legs shaking.
For the briefest moment, I wanted to pretend that I'd seen nothing, wanted to abandon myself to fear. Tears, ready to spill, flashed hot in my eyes, and I dug my fingernails into my palms. Which was when I heard a twig snap. I stopped long enough to see a rabbit scurrying across the path in front of me. And all at once, my fear turned to angerâanger that I no longer felt safe in this place that was supposed to offer respite. Pulling myself up straight, I marched back to the house, ready to tell Colin we had work to do.
It had taken me more than two hours to reach Mrs. Hargreaves's manor, nestled in a tree-filled grove deep in the Norman countryside northwest of Rouen, but as long rides had become my daily habit, I had not thought my absence would strike anyone as unusual. Hence my surprise when my husband rushed to greet me almost as soon as I'd opened the door. Overcome with relief at the sight of him, I collapsed into his arms, hardly pausing to breathe as the story tumbled from my lips.
“You're not hurt?” he asked, patting my arms and taking a step back to inspect me.
“No,” I said. He looked me over again and then, seemingly satisfied, took me inside, sent the nearest servant to get the police post-haste, and sat me down on an overstuffed settee in the front sitting room. His mother, who had been reading, set aside her book and rose with a look of horror on her face.
“What has happened?” she asked.
“Emily has found a body,” Colin said, pacing the perimeter of the room. Mrs. Hargreaves remained perfectly still, her face serious, as he recounted for her all that had transpired.
“The police?” she asked.
“Are already on their way,” he said and directed his attention back to me. “You're quite certain of the location?”
“I'll have to show you. I don't know that I could explain how to get there,” I said. “I hadn't followed a specific route.”
“I was frantic when your horse came into the garden without you,” he said. “I wanted to look for you but had no idea what direction you'd gone.”
“I can't imagine you frantic. You're beyond calmâinfuriatingly calmâin the face of danger.”
“Not, my dear, when it comes to you. Not anymore.” He sat next to me and took my hand, rubbing it with both of his.
“I will not stand for you going all protective,” I said. “Next thing I know you'll be sending me to bed early and censoring the books I read.”
“I know better than to try to influence your choice of reading material.”
“You do have excellent taste,” I said. “I might consider taking your advice.”
His mother sighed loudly and all but rolled her eyes. “I wish you would let me send for my physician to look her over, Colin,” she said. “Do you think, Lady Emily”âshe insisted on addressing me formally, her voice full of sharp scorn, to remind me of her disapproval of the use of the courtesy title to which I, the daughter of an earl, was entitledâ“that you'll be quite able to bear the sight of the body again? I can't help but worry about the constitution of such a delicate and sheltered girl.”
“I'll be perfectly all right,” I said, feeling my cheeks blush unpleasantly hot. “Anyone would be upset by what I've seen, but that doesn't mean I'm incapable of doing the work necessary to ensure justice for the victim of this unspeakable crime.”
“And am I to believe you are better capable of achieving such a thing than the police?” she asked. I had no time to reply as the butler announced Inspector Gaudet, a towering man, tall and broad, with a beard and handlebar mustache that made his face resemble George, newly created Duke of York, younger son of the Prince of Wales. His size, however, would have dwarfed the duke.
“I assume,” he said, crossing to me, “that you are Madame Hargreaves, who found the body.”
am Madame Hargreaves,” Colin's mother said, stepping forward. “I believe you want Lady Emily.”
“I'm afraid my own lack of a title puts me beneath my wife in rank,” Colin said, shaking the policeman's hand. “Hence the confusion. But I must say, there's no other lady I'd rather have precede me.”
“Yes, of course,” Mrs. Hargreaves said. “At any rate, Lady Emily is the one who found the murdered girl.”
“Investigation will determine the cause of death,” Inspector Gaudet said.
“There can't be much of a question,” I said. “She was brutalized.” Before I could stop them, tears sprang from my eyes. I pressed a handkerchief to my face and tried to compose myself.
“I do not need you to describe for me what had been done to her. I've already summoned a doctor to analyze the state of her body. He can't be more than ten minutes behind me. What I need is for you to show me the precise location of the scene. Do you feel able to do that? I understand how difficult all this is.” His voice was full of sincere worry.
“I appreciate your concern,” I said. “But I'm prepared to do whatever is necessary.”
Within a quarter of an hour the doctor and another policeman had arrived, and we were all mounted on horseback, Colin keeping close to my side. Mrs. Hargreaves had debated joining the party, but in the end was persuaded by her son to stay behind. We set off, and it quickly became apparent retracing my route was not quite so easy as I thought it would be. I had followed a path from the house beyond the road that led to the village, but then diverted through fields on whims in search of flowers, or to follow the sound of a particularly fetching birdsong, or hoping to find the peace that had eluded me since the day of my injuries in Constantinople.
“I know it wasn't much farther,” I said, frowning. I'd made a habit of timing the length it took me to reach the beginning of the village roadâexactly half a mile from the houseâand I knew how long I'd been riding at approximately the same speed. Six miles in any direction was not so easy to find, and I made enough misstepsâmistaking one field of poppies or flax or wheat for anotherâthat the others began to doubt I would be of any use to them. In the end, I managed to recognize from afar the twisted limbs of the tree that stood over the body.
My horse reared as we approached, sensing, I suppose, my own tension as much as it did the smell of blood that hung in the air. We all slowed, then stopped, no one moving for several minutes. I could not bring myself to look again at the hideous sight.
“I can't believe it,” Colin said, dismounting, his voice gruff. “I never expected to see something like this again.”
“Again?” Inspector Gaudet stood next to him.
“It's as brutal as the murders in Whitechapel,” he said. The collective terror that had descended on all of London when Jack the Ripper stalked women in the East End was something no English man or woman would soon forget. Chills crawled up my arms at the mere thought of his horrible handiwork. “Emily, did you hear anything at all when you found her? Sounds that suggested someone was close by?”
“Only the crack of a branch,” I said, hesitating. “But I can't say I was aware of much beyond her.”
“She hasn't been dead long.” The physician was kneeling beside her. “You're lucky not to have arrived any earlier than you did, Lady Emily.”
My eyes lost all focus. I came off the horse and tried to walk towards Colin, but my knees buckled. He stepped back and moved to catch me, but I pushed him away, knowing there was no stopping the inevitable. I ran as far as I could from the tree, then doubled over and was sick.
Gaudet turned to the other police officer. “Organize a search. We must comb the entire countryside. Hargreaves, take your wife home and look after her. She's done all we need of her and ought not trouble herself with this matter any longer.”