Little Longstone, Kent, 1820
Genevieve...alabaster box...letter inside proof who did this...
The Earl of Ridgemoor’s dying words echoed through Simon Coopertone, Viscount
Kilburn’s mind as he stealthily approached the cottage nestled among the soaring
elms, words the earl had gasped out with his last breaths to Simon’s urgent
question: Who shot you?
With any luck, Simon was about to find out the answer. And catch the killer
trying to frame him for the earl’s murder.
The radical social reforms advocated by the earl--a man rumored to be the next
Prime Minister--weren’t universally popular. An attempt had been made on
Ridgemoor’s life two weeks earlier, an act Simon had already been investigating
as part of his duties for the Crown. Now it was too late. Whoever had wanted
Ridgemoor silenced had succeeded on their second attempt, something that filled
Simon with a sick sense of guilt and failure.
Since becoming a spy for the Crown eight years ago, he’d suffered several
unsuccessful missions, but none that had cast suspicion on Simon himself.
Unfortunately, this failure had done just that after Ridgemoor’s butler
discovered him standing over the earl’s dead body, holding a pistol. Simon had
gone to the earl’s town house after receiving a note from him stating he had
important information to share. Sadly, Simon arrived too late. The butler
swore to the authorities that no one other than Simon had entered the house, and
indeed all the windows were locked from the inside.
When Simon saw the flickers of suspicion in his superior’s eyes, he knew trouble
was brewing. James Waverly, the man to whom he reported, hadn’t said anything
to indicate he doubted Simon’s account, but Simon sensed the man’s hesitancy, a
fact which hurt more than he cared to admit. Eight years ago Simon had known
nothing about being a spy, had indeed known nothing other than the wealth and
privilege afforded to him thanks to his exalted title and family name. He’d
wanted, needed a change--needed to do something useful with his life and John
Waverly had taken him under his experienced wing and taught him the intricacies
of the spy game. He’d always considered Waverly more than merely a boss--he
admired and respected him, and thought of him as both a trusted friend and
As if Waverly’s uncertainty in him didn’t rankle enough, Simon also saw the
glimmers of mistrust in the eyes of William Miller and Marc Albury, his two
closest colleagues, men he considered more like brothers. Indeed, he often felt
closer to Miller and Albury than his own brother as the Simon’s spying
activities weren’t something he could confide to his family or friends. If
Miller, Albury, or Waverly were in an untenable situation like the one in which
Simon now found himself, would he give them the benefit of the doubt--regardless
of the evidence pointing toward his guilt? He liked to think so, but perhaps,
in the face of such damning evidence, he’d doubt his friends as they were
With both the king and the Prime Minister demanding the swift capture of
Ridgemoor’s murderer, Simon feared speed would take precedence over accuracy and
the wrong man could hang for the crime--namely him, especially as there were no
other leads or suspects. Based on several missions gone wrong over the past
year, Simon, Miller, Albury, and Waverly, as well as other colleagues believed
someone in their ranks was a traitor, but had so far been unsuccessful in
discovering who. All Simon knew was that it wasn’t him. Now, unfortunately, it
appeared as if he stood alone in that knowledge.
Not knowing who he could trust, who had his best interests at heart, he lied
when asked if Ridgemoor had divulged anything to him. Since Waverly, as well as
Miller and Albury could smell an untruth at twenty paces, Simon’s prevarication
had only made matters worse and deepened the suspicion he saw in their eyes. No
charges had been leveled against him yet, but his instincts warned him it was
only a matter of time. Which was why he needed the alabaster box Ridgemoor
spoke of. Now. So he could reveal the identity of the guilty party before he
faced his own execution.
With time short, he’d asked Waverly for a leave to clear his name. His superior
had studied him at length, then finally nodded and said, “I believe you’ve
lied--and you’d better have a bloody good reason for it--but I don’t think you
killed Ridgemoor. Still, the evidence against you is damning and if the top
demands your head, there won’t be much I--or anyone else--will be able to do to
“I’ll give you a fortnight, Kilburn. I’ll tell everyone you’re recovering from
a fever believed to be contagious--that should temporarily keep them away. Do
what you have to do to clear your name, and for God’s sake do it quickly. I’ll
do what I can from this end to help you, and see to it that Miller and Albury do
It was all Simon could ask for and he hadn’t wasted any time. His
investigations over the past two days since Ridgemoor’s murder had led him
here--to the home of Mrs. Genevieve Ralston, the woman who, until a year ago,
had been Ridgemoor’s long time mistress. Had Ridgemoor’s final words meant Mrs.
Ralston was involved in the plot to kill him? Or had she perhaps shot him
herself? It seemed a good possibility.
From what information Simon had ferreted out, he’d discovered that Ridgemoor had
abruptly ended his decade-old arrangement with Mrs. Ralston a year ago. Could
she be a woman scorned who’d sought revenge? Or could her motives be of a more
political bend--was she an enemy to the Crown who’d helped get rid of Ridgemoor
before he could become Prime Minister?
Mrs. Ralston rarely left her property in the small country village of Little
Longstone, and the earl had been murdered in London. But then, London was only
a three hour carriage ride away. What better ruse than to be a recluse and
sneak away unseen to commit crimes?
Such as tonight. Mrs. Ralston had left her cottage five minutes ago. She had
only one servant, a giant of a man named Baxter, who Simon had ascertained was
currently sitting in a booth at the village pub, a tankard of ale in his hand.
So long as Mrs. Ralston returned home before Baxter, no one would know she
hadn’t spent the evening in her cottage.
No one except whoever she may have gone to see.
Standing in the deep shadows cast by tall trees surrounding her home, Simon had
watched her walk down the path which eventually led to the hot springs on her
property as well as and a pair of neighboring cottages. He’d learned that one
of the cottages was currently unoccupied, and the other had been let several
months ago to an artist, Mr. Blackwell. Was Mrs. Ralston heading for the hot
springs, or a visit with the artist? Or did she have another destination in
mind? Simon didn’t know, and as much as he’d wanted to follow her, right now
the cottage was empty and he needed to take advantage of the opportunity to find
the alabaster box containing the proof that would clear his name.
Crouching low, he sprinted the short distance to the cottage. Slipping a thin
strip of metal between the nearest French windows, he expertly finessed the tool
over the lock. Good fortune was with him as clouds momentarily obscured the
stars and moon, casting the area surrounding the cottage in unrelenting black,
which suited his purposes perfectly.
He pulled in a slow, deep breath of cool air scented with the first hints of
autumn, opened the window, and slipped inside a well-appointed sitting room. As
he searched, taking care to leave everything exactly as he found it, he noted
that Mrs. Ralston had an eye for excellent furnishings and a weakness for
artwork. Framed pieces adorned the cream colored walls, everything from
landscapes to sketches to framed poetry to portrait miniatures.
Based on the little he’d been able to find out about her since he’d first heard
her name just two days earlier, Genevieve Ralston was not a rich woman, yet her
possessions bespoke of understated wealth. How did she afford such trappings?
Gifts from a generous benefactor--or payment for murder?
loud meow broke into his thoughts and he looked down. An enormous black and
white cat stared up him, fluffy tail twitching.
“Are you friend or foe?” he murmured.
The cat rubbed its whiskers against his boots then twined its furry self between
“Friend, then.” He crouched down and scratched behind the beast’s ears and was
rewarded with the loudest purr he’d ever heard.
“You like that, don’t you.” A smiled pulled at his lips when the cat answered
with what sounded like a feline sigh of bliss.
“You must be a lady cat. You’re much too pretty to be a boy.”
She flicked her tail and moved just out of his reach, then looked at him as if
to say, “If you want to continue to pet me, you’ll have to come over here.”
chuckle tickled Simon’s throat. Definitely a female.
He stretched out his arm and gave the cat one last scratch, then rose. “As
grateful as I am that you’re not a large, snarling dog, I’m afraid I have no
more time for you.”
Precisely. Time was ticking and the alabaster box was no where in the sitting
room. He moved on to the dining room, library, and morning room, with the cat
following him, weaving between his legs. Artwork and finely crafted furniture
filled each room, but no box. Tamping down his frustration, Simon climbed the
stairs and made his way to Mrs. Ralston’s bedchamber. After closing the door
behind him to keep out the overly curious cat, he glanced around, noting it was
the most richly appointed room in the house. Moonlight now streamed in through
the windows flanking the four poster bed covered with a pale green counterpane
and accented with fluffy pillows. Opposite the bed was a dresser and an oval
cheval glass. A massive carved wood wardrobe and dressing screen occupied the
far wall, while a feminine escritoire and chintz covered chair lined the other.
More framed artwork hung on the pale gray walls, but the most striking object in
the room was a life-sized statue of a woman wearing nothing save a secret
smile. She stood in the corner beside the escritoire, a reigning goddess of
pure white marble that glowed in the moonlight. One of her graceful hands
extended outward in invitation, and Simon could almost hear her teasingly
whisper touch me. In her other hand she held a bouquet of flowers between her
breasts, the petals of one bloom curving to touch her nipple. She was so
lifelike Simon found himself tempted to actually touch her to assure himself she
Pulling his gaze from the statue, he pushed off the door and crossed to the
wardrobe. An examination of the contents revealed that Mrs. Ralston preferred
simple yet exquisitely made gowns from fine materials and owned more bonnets and
shoes than any woman could possibly require. His brows raised when he
discovered a small, pearl-handled pistol tucked inside a boot in the back of the
wardrobe. Clearly in spite of living in a sleepy little village, Mrs. Ralston
felt the need for protection. From what--or whom? Did she fear for her safety
because she was guilty of something--such as the death of her former lover?
So many questions regarding this woman...questions he suspected would lead to
the answers he sought regarding Ridgemoor’s death, thereby proving Simon’s
innocence and saving his neck from the hangman’s noose.
He continued on to the dresser. Based on the several pale strands trapped in
her brush, Mrs. Ralston was blond. He lifted the cut crystal perfume bottle to
his nose, and sniffed. And she liked the scent of roses. Several ceramic pots
on the dresser top contained an array of feminine creams and potions.
The first two drawers revealed dozens of pairs of gloves, in a dizzying variety
of styles, materials and colors. Bloody hell, her weakness for shoes and
bonnets didn’t begin to compare with her apparent addiction to gloves. The
other drawers revealed chemises and stockings so sheer they were nearly
transparent. Simon well knew that the more sheer the underclothes, the more
costly they were. Obviously Mrs. Ralston had done very well for herself.
Because she traded in secrets and murder plots that impacted national security?
He slipped his hands beneath the filmy undergarments and stilled when his
fingers brushed something hard. Pulse kicking with excitement, he slipped the
object from its hiding place.
An alabaster box.
With a rush of satisfaction, he moved closer to the beam of silvery
moonlight and turned the book-sized box in his hand. A quick examination
revealed it wasn’t an ordinary box, but a puzzle box. Bloody hell. He’d opened
boxes such as this--depending on the intricacy of the pattern involved, it could
require anywhere from a few minutes to several hours to find the correct
combination of moves to release the top.
He hoped like hell it would only require a few minutes.
Employing the calm patience that had served him well through the years, he
pressed his fingers over the cool, smooth surface, searching for a panel that
would slide. The previous boxes he’d opened had been made of wood inlaid with
intricate designs, which had made finding the sliding panels a bit easier. This
box, however, looked like a solid piece of alabaster and contained no markings
other than the pale swirls of color that naturally occurred in the mineral.
Several minutes passed before he finally touched the right spot and a slim
section of alabaster slid forward. He continued on, painstakingly touching the
box again and again until he discovered the next small section to slide into
For the next quarter hour, the only sound in the room was the ticking of
the mantel clock as he turned the box over and over, working the intricate
pattern of sliding pieces. Finally he slid the piece into place that released
the top of the box. At last. The evidence he needed would, in mere seconds, be
his. Simon drew a deep breath then slowly slid back the top panel.
And stared into an empty cavity.
A frown jerked down his brows and he slipped his fingers all around the
inside the chamber, but it was indeed empty. Bloody hell.
Where was the letter? The proof he needed to present to Waverly to keep from
hanging? His lips flattened into a grim line. It seemed clear that Mrs.
Ralston had found the evidence before he could.
Why would she remove it? Her doing so certainly pointed directly toward guilt
of some sort. Had she acted alone in the plot to kill Ridgemoor, or was she in
cahoots with others? What role did she play in this circle of death closing in
on him? And what the bloody hell would she have done with the information?
Hidden it somewhere else in the house?
Another quick examination of the box confirmed his belief that no other opening
existed. With a sigh of frustration and disgust, he slid the panels back into
place, replaced the box among the sheer underclothes and closed the drawer.
What next? Where to look? His gaze landed on the night table, and he strode
across the room. A bouquet of flowers in a small crystal vase rested on the
table’s polished wood surface, along with an oil lamp and a book. Simon peered
at the title. A Ladies’ Guide to the Pursuit of Personal Happiness and Intimate
Fulfillment by Charles Brightmore.
Interesting. He’d noted that same title during his search of the library.
There had recently been some scandal attached to the book, although he hadn’t
paid particular attention as he had no interest in a ladies’ guide. Still, it
was curious that Mrs. Ralston would possess two copies. Could the letter from
the box be tucked inside? He picked up the book and leafed through the pages,
but unfortunately his hope was in vain. He was about to close the book when a
phrase caught his attention and he frowned. Tie up her man?
Turning so he could better capture the light streaming through the window,
he read: Today’s Modern Woman should not hesitate to insist upon getting what
she wants, be it in the drawing room or in the bedchamber--even if she has to
tie up her man to get it. Indeed, tying him up in the bedchamber will most
assuredly lead to very intriguing results...
His brows shot upward. Clearly he’d been mistaken to assume that a ladies’
guide would merely contain information about fashion and etiquette.
“No wonder there was a scandal,” he murmured.
An image flashed through his mind...of his hands being tied with a silken cord
to a bedpost. He couldn’t see his captor’s face, but her voice was ripe with
sensual promise when she whispered, “You’re going to give me everything I want.”
He blinked and the image evaporated, leaving him feeling slightly stunned
and--he winced and shifted--more than slightly aroused. Unable to stop himself,
he flipped to a different page and read: Today’s Modern Woman must realize the
importance of fashion in her quest for intimate fulfillment. Simon nodded. Ah,
yes. This is more like what he’d expected. There are times to wear a fancy
ball gown, times to wear a negligee, and times to wear nothing at all...
So much for what he’d expected.
Another image materialized in his mind, this one of the same woman who’d
tied his hands, her face still blurry and indistinguishable, shrugging her
negligee from her shoulders. The satin puddled at her feet, leaving her bare to
his avid gaze. Coral nipples erect, the pale curls between her legs glistening,
she stepped from the pool of material and walked slowly toward him with a sinful
sway of her hips. Where have you, been? she whispered. I’ve been waiting for
Simon shook his head to dispel the sensuous image. Bloody hell, no wonder
a scandal had erupted surrounding this book. He’d never read anything like it.
Of course he wasn’t in the habit of reading ladies’ guides. At least he hadn’t
been until now. Even as his mind ordered him to put down the damn book and
resume his search, he found himself again turning the page. Just as he peered
at the words he heard the unmistakable sound of a door opening then closing.
Bloody damn hell.
feminine voice softly crooned, “Hello, sweet Sophia. Did you miss me?” Sweet
Sophia answered with a loud meow. “I missed you, too. We’ll play tomorrow.
I’m tired and off to bed.”
Double bloody damn hell.