A murder has just occurred in the ballroom…
Standing in the doorway to the ballroom, he knew, quite quickly in fact, that this was more than just an adjustment, and his life really may never be the same again. She was beautiful. Well, not beautiful in any normal manner. In fact, she looked like she could put him in his place faster than make him buckle at the knees with want. Both options sounded vastly appealing, though.
She stood in the middle of an absolute mess. There was what looked like the remains of some kind of shrubbery strewn across the floor. Why shrubbery would be in a ballroom, he had not a clue. But a herd of society’s finest had done their best to maim the poor plants. Maids and footmen were gathering the fronds in piles growing almost too large to hold. Others were carefully picking up shards of glass, broken champagne flutes, and plates. More were crawling over the platform in the rear where he had entered earlier that evening. The ballroom had looked quite lovely then.
Miss Quinton was currently folding yards of a sheer, blue fabric, carefully placing it on a table away from the dirt and spilled liquor. Her white hat and apron were as starched and perfect as if nothing out of the ordinary had transpired that evening. The corners of her mouth were slightly turned up. Why? He did not know, but for some odd reason, he really wished to find out.
He felt Alec staring at him as he stared at Miss Quinton.
“Do not do it, Nathan. You still have time to flee. She has not seen you yet.”
Nathan glared at him. “I’m not going to run with my tail between my legs from a mere woman.”
“Who is this, my lord?”
The sharp tone made Nathan swing his head around. He stared openly, knowing his mouth was hanging down to his chest and not caring in the least.
Alec opened his mouth to speak, but Nathan moved first, grabbing her hand and bringing it to his lips. “Mr. Black, of Bow Street, Miss Quinton.”
He lowered her hand, letting her fingers slide slowly through his own before fully letting go of her.
Alec attempted to hide a laugh under a strained cough.
A little lie was not going to hurt things at the moment. After all, he had just killed a man.
Except Miss Quinton did not flinch.
Nathan straightened fully and smiled his most devilish smile.
She cast her eyes down along the length of him and back up. “Here is the body, Mr. Black.” She turned away from him, gesturing to the dead man on the floor about ten feet away.
Nathan frowned. Deeply. Had she just given him the once over and then dismissed him completely?
He threw a scowl at Alec who just shrugged his shoulders and moved to follow Miss Quinton. Nathan also moved and found his path blocked by one of the decimated ferns. He kicked it out of his way and continued on.
“Be careful, Nathan.”
He almost jumped out of his skin. He swung his head to the side to see Jane smiling at him. Where the bloody hell had she come from, and why was she still here?
He raised his eyebrows at her, and the crotchety woman stuck out her tongue at him. He went back to making his way across the cluttered ballroom toward the swiftly moving Miss Quinton.
“I apologize for the mess, Mr. Black. My staff is deeply horrified by such a tragedy and is trying hard to move past it. They are cleaning up this mess as promptly as possible, so that they may retire for the evening. And it has been quite a long evening, I’m sure you understand. I have not allowed them to touch the body, however, in case you may find some clue with it.”
She stopped three feet from the body and by God, folded her hands behind her back under the starched bow of her apron. He quirked a brow at Alec, who just shrugged again. He dared to look at Jane, who winked at him.
“Very astute of you, Miss Quinton.” Nathan bent down to look more closely at the body although he knew quite well who it was and what that who was. Lord Archer had been passing information to the damned French. It had been a pleasure to shoot the bastard. Nathan reached out and removed the man’s handkerchief from his coat pocket to cover his face. He straightened up and turned to speak to Miss Quinton.
“Why did you do that, sir?” She had her lips thinned out, no longer turned up at the corners, her head cocked, looking quite perplexed. He thought he heard Jane laugh behind him.
“I do not want your delicate sensibilities to be offended by the look of death.” Nathan smiled gently.
“I assure you, sir, my sensibilities are far stronger than you might think. A dead body is just a dead body. I have seen far worse.” She straightened her head and rolled her shoulders back. She became a full two inches taller, or perhaps that was an illusion. But Nathan took a step back anyway.
And that time he definitely heard Jane snort.
“I apologize for making an assumption, Miss Quinton. Please forgive me.”
“Of course, sir.” She nodded. “What do you plan to do with the body? It is quite upsetting to my staff.”
Nathan pulled his gloves off and tucked them into the pockets of his greatcoat, bumping into the pistol still in his pocket. He bent down and rolled Archer over from the bent position he had landed in. It was pretty spectacular that the bloke had plummeted off the balcony after the bullet had smashed into his chest. Nathan really had not expected that to happen.
Alec squatted down beside him and leaned close. “I warned you.”
“Yes, please do remind me to heed your warnings in the future,” Nathan whispered back.
They both stared at the body without a bloody clue what to do with it. This was Rogers’s territory.
And as if on cue, Rogers appeared. “Very sorry, sir. Was detained by a very large, irate butler in the entranceway.” Shiny Flip Rogers looked like a weasel that had been smacked in the face with a rug beater. But really the most trustworthy and kind fellow once you got to know him. True, he was a body snatcher. But he only sold the bodies to the really elite schools of medicine, none of those dodgy, experimental quacks.
Alec and Nathan stood, moving apart to allow Rogers and the two men he had brought with him to approach the body. He would take Lord Archer off their hands, and no one would miss him. And the dead lord would be contributing to the advancement of science. How thoughtful of him.
“Irate butler?” Nathan quirked an eyebrow at Miss Quinton. He thought he saw her assess the statement for a moment as if the description did not match an idea she held in her head. But she quickly recovered and moved on.
“Would you not be irate, Mr. Black, if someone went and got himself shot and kept you from your bed?”
Nathan found he had no response.
Miss Quinton’s mouth returned to its normal position, corners slightly turned up. She actually looked pleasant then, looking up at him from under the stark white cap on her head. He noticed thin tendrils of hair had fallen out from under the cap around her ears. It was brown. No, red. Maybe both. The thousands of candles around them were setting it on fire, and he wasn’t sure what color it really was.
He cleared his throat. “Mr. Rogers,” he pointed behind him, “will move quickly and get Lord Archer removed, so that your staff may finish their cleaning and be in bed before long.”
“Lord Archer?” Miss Quinton bent her head to look at the body.
“Yes, the, um, dead man.” Nathan watched her face, fascinated by the movement in her eyes, wondering what she could possibly be thinking.
“That is not Lord Archer, sir.”
Nathan had not thought she had been thinking that.
“Of course, it is Lord Archer.” Nathan turned back to the body.
“No, it is not.” Miss Quinton stepped forward and actually bent down. “This is his brother, Frederick. Or Mr. Westley, as his brother is the elder and inherited the title of lord while Frederick is a mere mister.” She tugged on the man’s cravat revealing a scar along one side of his neck. “He got that in a duel over his mistress’s honor. Most preposterous thing.” Miss Quinton stood back up. “Lord Archer is in Wessex at Lord Heathenbaum’s house party.”
Nathan, Alec, and Rogers all stared at Miss Quinton. Jane bent over and looked at the scar, letting out a soft Oops.
Alec spoke first. “What?”
Nathan thought that a profound statement from his little brother.
Miss Quinton drew in a deep breath and held it a moment. She released it slowly through her nose in a soft sigh. “Franklin, Lord Archer, is in Wessex attending a house party with his mistress while his wife is in Rome recovering from a bad chest cough which involves the personal attention and care of one Monsieur Pierre, last name unknown.” She stared directly at Nathan.
Nathan pointed at the body. “That is not Lord Archer,” he said.
He felt his throat closing.
“Precisely, sir.” She adjusted her apron, which did not need adjusting, and placed her hands carefully behind her back.
Nathan moved his gaze over to Alec, who in turn looked at Rogers.
Rogers, daft idiot that he was, blurted out, “Even though it’s the wrong bloke I still get the body, right?”
Miss Quinton’s spine straightened. Her whole body seemed to lengthen, and Nathan knew, had she been a dog, her ears would have stood up. Her gaze sharpened. “Mr. Black?”
Jane stepped up. “I really think you should tell her. If anyone can understand the need for discretion right now, it would be Miss Quinton.”
Nathan’s mouth was open again without sound coming out. Second time in two minutes. That was not a good sign. He took Miss Quinton’s elbow and tried to turn her away from poor Frederick. She did not budge an inch, and he thought his own elbow might have been dislocated from the jarring.
“Tell me what, Mr. Black?”
“It is a rather delicate affair, Miss Quinton—”
“Mr. Black, you are operating under a false impression. I am not a stupid, fragile girl like the rest of the debutantes in this society. I have lived things that you only have nightmares about, so could you please stop assuming that I am going to break at your every word?”
Nathan nodded, not daring to open his mouth.
“Thank you, sir. Now what is going on here?”
Nathan actually turned to look at Alec, but somehow, Miss Quinton ended up in front of his face. “Do not try to avoid me, Mr. Black. I would like an explanation.”
“Very well, madam, but only in some place more private.” He grabbed her elbow and swung her around, not caring in the least anymore for her delicate sensibilities. She ended up smacking into his side, but he just scowled at her. Her cap had fallen back on her head, and she looked up, her eyes huge.
Nathan forgot what he had been doing.
There was fear in her eyes.
Stark, naked, and piercing fear.
He immediately let go of her, thinking his touch had brought on the sudden terror in her. She backed up, two whole steps, her eyes never leaving his face, always wide and watching as if waiting for him to strike. Her hands were bunched in the front of her apron, making the fabric crease with jagged wrinkles he was sure she absolutely would have hated had her mind been functioning. But he could see her mind was completely focused on him.
She was scared to death of him.
Nathan pulled his gaze away from her, hoping to stop whatever his touch had begun. Alec and Rogers were both staring at the suddenly silent Miss Quinton. Jane was staring at her hands. Nathan stepped in front of the men to block their view. Leaning close, he whispered, “Take the body. Alec, go to the Office. Tell them what has happened. Find Lofton.”
Rogers snapped his fingers at the two men with him and started to gather the body for transport. Alec stepped over the dead man’s leg to take Jane’s arm to lead her away. Jane would not budge.
“I am only leaving if Miss Quinton says it is all right for me to leave.”
Nathan looked back at Miss Quinton. Her hands were now pressed flat against the fabric she had moments before tried to rip to shreds. Her eyes were blank, and her face frozen as it had been before Nathan had touched her. The corners of her lips were no longer turned up.
“It is all right, Your Grace.” She never took her gaze off of Nathan.
Nathan flicked a glance at Alec. He had not been aware that Jane had gotten quite this close with Miss Quinton.
Jane turned to let Alec lead her away.
Nathan wanted to rub his hands over his face in exhaustion, but instead he turned to Rogers with an eyebrow raised.
“Are you going to be all right alone with her?” He pointed rudely at Miss Quinton.
Nathan stupidly followed the line of his finger and instantly watched the blood drain from the poor woman’s face at his look. He supposed he would have reacted the same way if two strange men were whispering and pointing in his direction.
He quickly shifted back to Rogers, grabbing the offending finger and shoving it against the man. “I will be fine. Rest assured, Rogers, I can handle one woman.”
“I would never doubt it, sir. Normally. But this is not just any woman.” Rogers leaned in. “She could cut your ballocks off with that tongue. Mark my words.” Rogers leaned back and gave him a frightful look.
Nathan cleared his throat and adjusted his jacket, covering the front of his breeches. He hoped the gesture looked casual, or Miss Quinton was going to faint on him.
He wondered then what had happened. She had been confident and sure, even a bit demanding. And then suddenly, she had withdrawn, pulling so far in on herself she had disappeared from his grasp. Leaving her dead. And scared. Absolutely terrified. He thought her eyes would have never shown emotion beyond efficient progression, and the emotion they had shown was not something he wanted to see in them again.
But he also wanted to know what had put it there. What had happened to Miss Quinton that had made her so reflexively nervous? What had her pulling away from him?
He stepped over some fronds, slowly approaching her again. “Is there somewhere we can speak privately, Miss Quinton?”
“His lordship and ladyship will wish to be informed of anything that involves their home. They have retired for the evening, however.” It appeared the confidence had come back.
Nathan nodded, acknowledging the validity of her statement. “You can tell them anything you see fit tomorrow when they rise, but I will tell you some things you should not even know and therefore, I cannot let you tell them.” He watched Rogers and his men carrying the body out wrapped in canvas. “It is state business.”
Her tone made him look at her.
“Is that what it is called?”
“Very well, Mr. Black. It appears I require a lesson on the definition of state business.”