An excerpt from…
Beneath a Silent Moon
by Tracy Grant
The London Docks
The night air was like a lover’s touch. Cloaked in mystery, beckoning with promise, sweet at times but quickly cloying. And underneath rotten to the core.
He had forgotten what a foul whore the London night was. The river stretched behind him, a smooth dark expanse, shimmering where it caught the fitful moonlight. But the breeze off the water was choked with the stench of sewage and offal and remnants from the knackers’ yards. The air was heavy with soot from thousands of fireplace grates and coal oil lamps. It clogged his throat and clung to his skin and no doubt was turning his cravat and shirt cuffs more grimy by the minute.
He turned on the quayside. The greasy water lapped softly against the boat that had brought him across the Channel and down the Thames. Nearer at hand, the man who had sailed the boat fixed him with a gaze that was the ocular equivalent of a pointed pistol. He fished a purse from the pocket of his greatcoat and pressed it into the boat owner’s hand. “As agreed.”
The boat owner tugged open the drawstring on the leather bag, tested one of the coins between his teeth, and began to count them with ponderous precision. Strange to pay three times more for twelve hours huddled in a tiny hold with barrels of brandy and tins of tea and crates of turbot than one would pay for a comfortable cabin on the mail packet.
The boat owner nodded, satisfied with his payment. The man who had paid him strode away from the river. He turned up the collar of his greatcoat and drew the folds of wool about him against the night chill. Pity his sojourn in London wouldn’t allow for a visit to a tailor. One of the few things he missed on the Continent was a coat to equal those made on Bond Street.
A faded tavern sign with peeling gilt paint reminded him that he hadn’t had a proper meal since before dawn. He peered through the smoke-blackened glass of the tavern windows. Greasy sausages. Potatoes soaked in lard. Meat pies filled with God knew what and those infernal mushy peas that had been a staple in the nursery. It was going to be the devil of a challenge to get a decent meal during his stay in London. But on the plus side, it was a long time since he’d had a pint of good dark stout.
The tavern door opened to admit three men on the shady side of forty, tradesmen of the middling sort judging by the quality of their coats and the modesty of their shirt points. They were engaged in a heated discussion that appeared to concern the effect of excise taxes and smuggling on the tea trade. The rhythm of English was harsh and unfamiliar to his ears. A strange way to feel about one’s mother tongue.
Long buried memories teased at the edges of his mind. The smell of ripe oranges on a birthday visit to Astley’s Amphitheatre. The whack of a cricket bat. The syrupy sweetness of the treacle pudding he had actually once had the bad taste to like. The shapely calves and provocative mole of the Covent Garden opera dancer who had captured his attention at fifteen.
He shoved the memories aside and strode forward along the cobblestones. He had a job to do. The sooner it was done, the sooner he could leave this dank, smoky city which had long since ceased to mean anything to him.
He’d wait until he was closer to Covent Garden before he stopped to eat. There was always the chance of finding a passable coffee house run by a French migr. He walked on, keeping to the shadows, and set his mind to the task that awaited him. The task that had begun in a shadowy past playing cricket and eating pudding and never dreaming that this sceptred isle would ever cease to be his home. The task that had taken shape in the present, thanks to the end of a war, the vengeance of a restored monarchy, and the incovenient way secrets had of bubbling to the surface.
He hadn’t had such a challenge in some time. It went without saying that it was going to be difficult.
But then murder always was.
Glenister House, Grosvenor Square
Later the same evening
“I wish he’d never come back to England, damn him.”
The words, delivered in the light voice of a nineteen-year-old young lady of quality but with the intensity of a hardened soldier, hung incongruously in the rose-scented air. Evelyn Mortimer turned her gaze from the swirl of dancers on the black and white marble of her uncle’s ballroom floor below to study the speaker. She’d had a feeling when she awoke this morning that this bid fair to be the longest day of her life. At the moment, it was looking as though it might be rather worse.
“It’s no good trying to create a stir with your shocking language, Gelly,” Evie said. “I’m the only one within earshot. You wish who’d never come back to England?”
“Who do you think?” Gisele Fraser’s kid-gloved fingers tightened round the etched crystal of her champagne glass. “My odious brother.”
Evie gripped the gilded wrought iron balustrade in a vain attempt to still the unease roiling through her. The candlelight shimmered over the scene below, glinting indiscriminately off real diamonds and paste copies, flickering over painted silk fans and starched cravats, playing off polished silver trays and crystal glasses, tapestry-hung walls and classical friezes. Yet she could feel the tension rippling beneath this spun-sugar world. A tension which stood to shatter the peace of the evening as effectively as if someone smashed the champagne glasses, upended the potted palms, and slashed the damask draperies to ribbons with one of her uncle’s ornamental dirks.
She spotted the tall, lean figure of Gisele’s brother on the far side of the dance floor, talking with two other black-coated gentlemen. At first glance, Charles Fraser appeared little different from any other man at the ball. His coat was cut less extravagantly than some, though he wore it better than most, and his shirt points were not as ridiculously high as the style some of the young gallants affected. But something else marked him out from the throng, a restless intensity in the set of his shoulders and the angle of his head. Like an actor who is giving a creditable performance of Goldsmith but would much rather sink his teeth into Hamlet.
Alarm prickled the back of Evie’s neck. Of all the complications of the evening, it was Charles Fraser’s presence that chilled her to the bone. “Odious isn’t exactly the word I’d use to describe your brother,” she said.
Gisele tossed back the remaining quarter of her glass of champagne. “He doesn’t belong here.”
“At Glenister House?” Evie continued to watch Charles. He was leaning an arm against one of the pillars with casual ease, yet she had the sense that even here he was ready to spin round and disarm an attacker. “I hate to argue, but I went over the invitation list myself, and I can assure you he was invited.”
“In Britain,” Gisele said. “I’m sure Wellington and Castlereagh still need him in Paris, stealing documents and unmasking traitors and shooting people and that sort of thing.”
“Is that what diplomats do?” Was it too much to hope that Charles might decide to leave the ball early? Yes, it probably was. “And here I thought they filled their days with dull things like signing treaties and shuffling papers.”
“Charles, wasn’t a normal diplomat. Only he won’t talk about what he really did during the war and I’m not supposed to ask questions. Not that I want to talk to him. After nine years, we really don’t have anything to say to each other. Which is why I wish to heaven he’d stayed on the Continent, instead of coming home and dragging that wife of his along from Spain–”
“Portugal.” Evie mentally cursed herself for allowing the conversation to take this turn. Discussing Charles Fraser’s marriage was like stumbling into an ever more treacherous mire. “He was at the embassy in Lisbon when he married her.”
“But she’s Spanish. And French. She has those exotic looks that gentlemen find annoyingly attractive.” Gisele twisted one of the pink silk roses on the left shoulder of her gown. “Everyone says she married him for his money.”
“It’s always difficult to know why one person marries another,” Evie said. The words seemed to hang in the air, cutting like a knife through the pastel fabric of the evening.
“I can’t imagine why Charles married her,” Gisele said. “She’s very pretty, but he treats her more like a junior attache than the woman he loves. I’ve scarcely seen them within ten feet of each other all evening. Of course, the whole concept of Charles being in love seems self-contradictory.”
Evie glanced down at the ballroom again. Even amid a fair share of London’s Upper Ten Thousand, Mrs. Charles Fraser stood out like a poppy in a posy of hothouse roses. It wasn’t her looks, though her dark hair and pale skin were undeniably dramatic. Or her gown, though she had plainly brought the narrow, clean-lined creation of spider gauze and silver satin with her from Paris. It was the way she held herself, with a graceful ease that seemed out of place in an English ballroom.
It wasn’t easy to be an outsider in this world, as Evie knew to her own cost. For an instant her mind was flooded with the memory of her uncle’s crested black traveling carriage, arriving late one night to take her away from the crowded, dingy house that was the only home and family she’d ever known.
She swallowed, so hard that she felt as if the life was being choked out of her. Absurd. It wasn’t the past that mattered now, it was the present. She needed her wits about her to get through tonight with all the key players still in one piece.
“Do you think she has a lover?” Gisele said, her gaze on her brother’s wife.
“Honestly, Gelly, they’ve only been married–”
“More than four years. I should think she’d want someone to pay romantic attention to her, especially if she only married Charles for his money. Everyone else in the Glenister House set has a lover. Or two. Except the unmarried girls. It’s so boring being a virgin.”
“Speak for yourself. At the moment I find life quite complicated enough without any lovers to muddy up the situation.” Evie studied Charles Fraser’s wife. Mrs. Fraser was standing alone, beside one of the archways. Charles seemed to have disappeared. Oh, poison. If he’d gone where Evie feared he had, the evening was rapidly unraveling.
Gisele rested her elbows on the balustrade, heedless of the way she was creasing her ecru gloves. “Of course, I suppose it could be worse.”
“How?” Evie scanned the ballroom for the golden-haired figure who, she had a sinking feeling, had gone in search of Charles Fraser.
“Charles could have married Honoria.”
* * *
“Charles Fraser, you wretch. Wild horses shouldn’t be able to drag you away from your lovely bride.”
The voice, a woman’s voice with the melodious sweetness of Schubert played on a well-tuned pianoforte, drifted beneath the Corinthian pediment of the library doorway and reverberated against the robin’s-egg blue plaster of the corridor. Melanie Fraser paused, a half-dozen paces from the library door. She had come in search of her husband, who had a habit of vanishing into the library at large entertainments. But evidently someone else had come in search of him first.
“Melanie’s well able to fend for herself in a ballroom. She wouldn’t thank me for hovering.”
That was her husband, but the teasing familiarity in his voice hit her like a shock of rainwater down the back of her neck. Prudence, good manners, and common sense indicated she should beat a hasty retreat. Instead she stayed where she was.
The woman in the library gave a brittle laugh. “I still can’t believe you actually went through with it after all the times you’ve sworn yourself blue in the face that you’d never do anything of the sort.”
“Anything of what sort?” Charles said.
“Getting yourself leg-shackled, as my cousins would put it.”
“You expect me to be consistent, Honoriae I thought you knew me better than that.”
Of course, Melanie realized. The musical voice belonged to Honoria Talbot, the Marquis of Glenister’s niece and ward and the hostess at this evening’s entertainment. Charles had scarcely seen Miss Talbot since he left England when she was in her early teens. Or so he had led Melanie to believe. Her guardian is my father’s oldest friend. We grew up together. Charles hadn’t elaborated, but then he rarely did. Melanie sometimes forgot just how much about her husband she did not know.
“You’re the most consistent man I know, Charles Fraser,” Miss Talbot said. “You have been since the age of seven.”
The swish of a silk skirt sounded from the library. Melanie could see the scene as clearly as if the plaster wall of the corridor were replaced with glass. Charles sprawled in a chair, probably with a book in his lap, long legs stretched out, brown hair falling untidily over his forehead, cravat slightly askew. Miss Talbot crossing the room toward him, her white satin skirts swirling about her graceful figure, her swanlike neck curved above the gathered tulle on the bodice of her gown, the smooth golden coils of her hair shining in the candlelight.
“‘I’m not cut out to be anyone’s husband.'” Miss Talbot mimicked Charles’s quietly emphatic voice with spot-on accuracy. “That’s a direct quote, Charles.”
“It sounds like the sort of categorical thing I might have said in my undergraduate days.”
“Then you went off to Lisbon and spent the war having all sorts of mysterious adventures–”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” That was the voice Charles used to deflect any comment on his work during the war.
“And now suddenly you’re back in London turned all domestic with a beautiful wife and two adorable children in tow. While I’m three-and-twenty and practically on the shelf.” Miss Talbot gave a laugh that was part rueful, part self-mocking. “You told me once that one day I’d meet the right man and fall in love. I sometimes think I should have given up years ago and settled for someone charming and agreeable.”
“Marriage isn’t anything to rush into, Noria.”
“Now you sound like Evie. She’s always giving me maddeningly sensible advice. Sometimes I grow tired of being sensible.”
Evie must be Evelyn Mortimer, the chestnut-haired girl who had made a point of stopping to speak with Melanie and ask after her children earlier in the evening. Miss Mortimer was also Lord Glenister’s niece. She and Honoria Talbot had both been raised at Glenister House, almost like sisters from what Melanie had heard.
“Besides, you’re a fine one to try to be sensible,” Miss Talbot continued. “As I hear tell, you’d known your wife less than a month before you married her.”
“We were in the middle of war,” Charles said. “One doesn’t have the luxury of time to wait.”
Or to think things through.
“Confess it, Charles,” Miss Talbot said. “You took one look at that ebony hair and those sea green eyes and all your qualms about marriage went out the window. ‘Love wrought these miracles.'”
The pause that followed could not possibly have been as long as it felt to Melanie, standing motionless in the corridor. Her fingers closed on the molding, so hard she could feel the plaster chip beneath the silk of her glove.
“I’ve never been one to believe in miracles,” Charles said, with the practiced lightness of an actor playing Sheridan. “And God knows in our world love and marriage often have very little to do with each other.”
Something twisted in Melanie’s chest, like a piano wire stretched to the breaking point. But what else could Charles have said? He was honest to a fault.
There was a rustle of tulle, as though Miss Talbot had turned her head. “It’s odd the things one misses. Sharing apples at harvest dances. Wading through tide pools and getting sand between our toes. Sitting on the edge of the cliffs and watching the sun sink into the sea on those incredibly long Scottish evenings. Picking wildflowers. Rosemary for remembrance. We can’t go back, can we?”
“To the people we were then? Hardly. We can’t forget what we’ve learned in the interim. I don’t know about you, but for myself I wouldn’t want to.”
“No? Perhaps not. But sometimes it seems life would be so much simpler if we could. In those days I never thought–”
“What?” Charles’s voice sharpened, the way it did when he scented danger.
“Nothing. Nothing that makes any difference now. And yet– I can’t help but think how my life might have been different if we’d made different choices.”
“There were no different choices to make, Honoria.” Melanie knew that tone of her husband’s voice as well. Stripped to nothing but honesty. And she knew the look in his eyes that went with it. A tenderness all the more devastating because it contained no artifice.
“You can’t know that for a certainty, Charles. Neither of us can.” Miss Talbot drew a quick breath, like the shattering of glass. “When you told me that one day I’d meet the right man, you also said that you’d bring me nothing but unhappiness. Do you remember when you said that? And where?”
The silence was so thick Melanie could feel the pressure reverberating against the walls. The crystal girandoles on the sconce overhead might just as well have been the sword of Damocles. “Yes,” Charles said, in a harsh voice that was wholly unlike him.
“You practically told me to get me to a nunnery. I’ve often wondered–” Melanie could almost see Miss Talbot stretch out a white-gloved hand and then let it fall. “You’re right, we can’t go back to the people we used to be. The girl I was in those long ago summers believed in fairytales. A prince who’d place a slipper on my foot and take me to his beautiful, safe castle in his mythical kingdom.”
“You never needed a slipper to make you a princess.”
“It wasn’t the princess part I wanted. It was the prince. But now I know such endings don’t exist.”
“Honoria.” The wood and leather of the chair creaked, as though Charles had leaned forward. “If something’s the matter, you know you can turn to me, don’t you? No questions asked, nothing expected, no secrets revealed. I’ll do whatever’s in my power to help you.”
“Dear Charles. You’re far superior to a prince with a glass slipper. But some plights are more complicated than what one finds in a story book.”
“For God’s sake, ‘Noria, if you’re in some sort of trouble–”
“Nothing you can do anything about. Just go on believing in the girl I was, Charles. And look at me sometimes, the way you’re looking at me now. When no one else can see.”
Intimacy pulsed through the air. Melanie knew with absolute certainty that something had passed between her husband and Honoria Talbot. Images raced across her mind. Fingers twining together. A hand brushing tousled hair. Lips against a hand, a cheek, a forehead. A mouth claiming another.
She turned away, betraying tears stinging her blackened lashes, and cursed herself for a bloody fool.
* * *
Gisele ducked into an alcove on the edge of the dance floor and tugged at the folds of her blond lace scarf, which had become hopelessly twisted. She never could get it to lie smooth, the way some women did. Women like Honoria Talbot and Charles’s intimidatingly lovely foreign-born wife.
She’d very nearly made a hideous mistake with Evie just now and told her things she had no business revealing. It was difficult, keeping secrets all the time. How on earth had Charles managed when he was having adventures on the Peninsula and no doubt telling lies to everyone he met? Just one evening of pretending to feel and think things that were alien to her left her with a pounding headache and a hollow ache in the pit of her stomach.
Or perhaps that was the number of glasses of champagne she’d swallowed. It had seemed to help at the time, but now she felt the alcohol churning in her insides. She pressed her face against the cool plaster of a convenient pillar.
Picking her way through the tangle of people and relationships at Glenister House was as difficult as negotiating the yew hedge maze on her grandfather’s Irish estate. But tonight she’d swear there was something more. Some tension she couldn’t explain rippling beneath the polished surface of the evening, pressing against the candle-warmed air like the heaviness that warns of a thunderstorm about to break.
A man lurched into the alcove, shoes thudding unsteadily against the marble floor. Gisele drew back against the pillar. The man clutched a potted palm. “Sorry,” he muttered, “I didn’t– Oh. It’s you, Gelly.”
His voice was thickened and his face shadowed, but Gisele recognized William Talbot, Earl Quentin, Lord Glenister’s elder son. “Hullo, Quen,” she said, stepping away from the pillar.
“Hiding from the gorgons, child?” Quen’s eyes glittered in the shadows. He always seemed one step short of punching his fist through a window.
“Only trying to recover my defenses.” Gisele peered at him. Perhaps it was a trick of the light, but his face looked green. “Are you all right?”
He gave a strangled laugh. “‘All right’ is a relative term, but I assure you I’m perfectly–” His face turned chartreuse. “Oh, Christ, I’m not. Profoundest apologies.” He pushed past her and proceeded to be sick into the potted palm.
The smell nearly made her vomit herself. Her instinct was to run, but the memory of the boy who’d rescued her favorite doll from the duck pond made her stand her ground. She put a tentative hand on his back. He was shuddering as though he had the fever. “It’s the champagne,” she said. “I don’t feel very well myself.”
“It’s the champagne and the claret and the brandy and all the damn–” He retched again.
“There you are, Gelly, thank goodness, I’ve–” Evie swept into the alcove and went stock-still. “Oh, Quen, you’re foxed.”
“I should think so.” He straightened up, gripping the palm tree for support. “How else am I supposed to get through a family party?”
Evie tugged a handkerchief from her puffed sleeve and wiped his mouth. “You couldn’t have waited until afterward?”
“After– Oh, right. Forgot this is an important night.”
Gisele looked from one to the other. “Important how?”
Quen stared at her with eyes that suddenly seemed to focus. “Lord, infant, they haven’t told you?”
Something in his gaze made Gisele go as cold as if a champagne bucket of ice had been dumped over her head. “Told me what?”
“Oh, God, you’ll never–” Another spasm of retching brought him to his knees.
Evie bent over her cousin, arms round his shoulders. “Gelly, could you find one of the footmen and ask him to have coffee sent into the bookroom as soon as possible?”
“Quen doesn’t know what he’s saying. Please, Gelly.”
The foregoing is excerpted from Beneath a Silent Moon by Tracy Grant. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews. For information, address HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022.