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With Good Grace (Victorian Vigilantes Book 3) by Wendy Soliman (1)


 

 

 

 

Chapter One

 

London, June 1852

 

Olivia Grantley removed her hat and gloves and handed them to her maid.

‘We went to look at the ships, Molly.’ Tom, Olivia’s three-and-a-half-year-old son, hopped from foot to foot, bursting to tell Molly about his afternoon. ‘One sailor said I was a right Jack-tar and he let me ring the ship’s bell.’

‘Well, Master Tom, I dare say he knew what he was talking about.’ Molly, acting as Tom’s nursemaid on Jane’s afternoon off, held out a hand. ‘Come along then, young man. Let’s get you cleaned up. I expect you’re ready for your tea.’

‘Why do I need to be clean to have tea, Molly?’

Olivia laughed, ruffled her son’s unruly mop of curls and left Molly to explain the benefits of cleanliness to her precocious child; a boy who habitually asked questions that were far too advanced for his age. She wandered through to the drawing room, ready for tea herself, still grateful for the moment when Tom caught sight of the colourful array of ships—a combination of sail and steam—lining the London docks or swinging on their anchors waiting to unload their cargos. He was captivated and immediately stopped asking for Gracie.

Like most children, Tom was easily distracted. Even so, Olivia expected at any moment to hear wails of protest coming from the nursery floor when Tom reached it and found that Grace was not there. There were bound to be renewed demands to know where she had gone and why Tom could not have gone with her. She thanked Green when he delivered her tea, took a fortifying sip and steeled herself for the inevitable. But blessed peace prevailed.

Grace was the daughter of Olivia’s good friend Lady Eva Woodstock—as of yesterday, Lady Isaac Arnold. Eva and Grace had lived with Olivia in her Chelsea home since her husband’s demise and Tom and the little girl had become firm friends—hence the distraction of the ships and the anticipated tantrum. Eva had raised a few eyebrows by marrying Isaac almost a year to the day after Isaac had killed her brutal husband in a duel. Since Woodstock had been a criminal, Olivia knew Isaac had saved the hangman additional duties, but that did not prevent society’s elite from gossiping about Eva’s haste to marry Isaac.

Olivia poured herself a second cup of tea, took a bite of the cake she had selected to go with it and sighed at the destructive nature of the gossip machine. She herself was notorious in some people’s eyes, having been falsely accused of her own husband’s murder. There were some who still doubted her innocence, even though the real perpetrators had been found and hanged. For that reason she had offered to stay away from Eva’s wedding. Her presence would not improve Eva’s acceptability in the eyes of the aristocracy’s gatekeepers. But Eva and Isaac refused to exchange their vows without her there to bear witness; and without Jacob Morton, the Earl of Torbay, to act as groomsman.

Jake was the man who had proved Olivia’s innocence and she repaid him by becoming one of his elite vigilantes. Having herself been tried and unjustly convicted by the jury of public opinion, helping to right miscarriages of justice had become a personal crusade. Far too often Jake was called to act on behalf of the government when it needed to distance itself from delicate situations. Jake was also the man who happened to own Olivia’s heart; a damnably annoying situation since she had vowed never to be beholden to any male ever again.

She stirred her tea, conscious of the fact that her spoon tapping against delicate china was the only sound in the quiet drawing room. She had grown accustomed to Eva’s company and would miss it now that the newlyweds had taken up residence in the property they had purchased in Surrey. But Olivia would not be lonely—if loneliness was what she felt—for long. Jake had invited her and Tom to join him on his estate in Torbay for the summer; a rare and coveted invitation. Jake was a very private man and when he quit the capital he turned into a self-proclaimed recluse, seldom craving company. 

She had barely seen the man who so fascinated her since helping him to foil a plot by Radicals to overthrow the government two months previously. During the course of that investigation they had finally found comfort in one another’s arms after two years of trying to pretend that the attraction did not exist. He had been travelling the country for the past few weeks at the behest of Thorndike, the Prime Minister’s aide. He had repeatedly assured her, before his almost insultingly fast removal from London and her company, that he did not need her assistance with that particular assignment.

All well and good, Olivia thought belligerently, but it was very ill-mannered of him to love her, at least in the biblical sense—neither of them had actually admitted to being in love—and then leave her with almost indecent haste. If he felt they had made a mistake then he ought to have the courtesy to tell her so. She was quite out of charity with him and furious because the sight of him after what seemed like an eternity had taken her breath away at the wedding yesterday. He was so suave, self-assured, so commanding; so every wretched thing that she most admired in a gentleman. At least his brown eyes had softened whenever he looked at her, implying that he was not as indifferent towards her as his manner in public suggested, which went some small way to salving her damaged pride.

Olivia bared her teeth in an angry smile. She thought that their intimacies in the spring had brought an end to their treading on eggshells around one another. Evidently not. Well, he was not the only one who had an abundance of pride upon which to stand. She and Tom would not make the long journey to Torbay if there was the slightest possibility that he regretted issuing the invitation.

Jake, she knew, was concerned that the enemies he had made during the course of his work for the government would seize upon his connection to Olivia if he permitted it to become public knowledge. Foolish man! Olivia was more than capable of looking out for herself. Jake had taught her to fence, to shoot straight and she had already known how to defend herself with hand-to-hand combat. He had given more than enough of himself to the service of his country. It was beyond time for him to put his own desires first; always assuming, of course, he actually knew what it was that he actually desired.

He was engaged to dine with Olivia that evening and she would have a few direct questions to ask of him.

Thus resolved, Olivia finished her tea and made her way upstairs. She paused at the bottom of the stairs to the nursery floor and listened. Blessed silence still reigned. Either the expedition to the docks had worn Tom out or Jane had returned from her afternoon off and was reading him a story. Olivia would dress for dinner and then go up to find out which.

‘What to wear to seduce an earl…’ she mused, standing in front of her armoire, ‘or at the very least, remind him of what he has been missing these past weeks.’

An hour later, Olivia critically examined her appearance in the full-length glass and was satisfied with the reflection that stared back at her. The sapphire blue silk of her gown perfectly matched the colour of her eyes. It bared her slender shoulders completely, displaying her long neck and delicate chin to their best advantage. Molly had submerged into one of the disapproving moods that frequently beset her since she started walking out with a humourless curate who appeared to consider any activity that was the slightest bit pleasurable also to be sinful. She had spitefully pulled Olivia’s stays painfully tight; a petty means of displaying her disapproval at the nature of Olivia’s relationship with Jake. Olivia saw how  tiny her waist now appeared and how her breasts had been pushed high against the lace of the gown’s bodice, where it was trimmed with velvet and crystal beads. She suppressed a smile, aware that it had not been Molly’s intention to emphasise Olivia’s attributes, and easily withstood the temptation to thank her.

Molly had piled Olivia’s dark curls into a flattering style, her lips pinched with disapproval as her deft fingers did their work. Olivia barely noticed her maid’s curmudgeonly mood. All she cared about was that her ringlets now danced around her face whenever she moved her head, further emphasising the length of her neck. She was looking her absolute best, and if Jake did not care for the view then she would put him from her mind, make good on her half-formed idea of quitting the capital in favour of a house in the country and forget all about her dark, forbidding earl.

Somehow.

‘Thank you, Molly,’ Olivia said. ‘I am ready early so I shall check on Tom.’

‘He’s fighting to stay awake, madam.’

‘Has he asked for Gracie?’

‘Not in my hearing. Jane came back and took over from me so that I could help you to dress, so I don’t rightly know.’

‘Well, there is only one way to find out.’

Olivia lifted her heavy skirts and made her way cautiously up to the nursery. Jane was sitting beside Tom’s bed, a book open in her lap, but it was immediately obvious that Tom was sound asleep.

‘So adorable!’ she whispered to Jane, bending to gently kiss his brow.

Olivia loved her son with a fierce passion, but never more so than when he was asleep! He was a bundle of curiosity, relentless energy and mischief when he was awake, asking endless questions and, in the fashion of small boys the world over, always managing to get into scrapes. But the sight of him peacefully sleeping, his thick curls tousled on the pillow beneath his head, was another matter. With his thumb jammed into his mouth, the line of freckles decorating his nose stark against his temporarily clean skin and his much-loved Mr Rabbit clutched in one hand, the sight stole Olivia’s breath away.

She smiled, filled with fiercely possessive maternal love for this child, brutally conceived into a loveless marriage, and now the focal point of Olivia’s life. Nothing, not even her feelings for Jake, mattered to her more than the welfare of this incorrigible scamp.

Olivia returned to the drawing room. There was half an hour before Jake was due and, nervous at the prospect of being alone with him after such a long separation, Olivia felt too restless to remain still. She checked arrangements in the salon where dinner would be served; a far more informal setting than the dining room that, although small by Jake’s standards, would still feel cavernous with just the two of them occupying it. The table was beautifully set with crisp white linen, sparkling crystal and Olivia’s favourite china. There was a small vase of pink rosebuds in its centre, giving off a heady perfume. The fire and a plethora of candles as opposed to gas lamps created an intimate ambience. Perhaps Jake would think she was trying to seduce him. Olivia stifled a smile, unable to deny to herself that that was her exact intention.

She wandered back from the salon to the main drawing room and sat down. Two minutes had passed. Still another twenty eight to fill. She sighed and picked up a book she knew she would not be able to concentrate upon, startled out of her reflective nervousness by the sound of the door knocker. Jake was here already? He was always punctual but being this early implied that he was as impatient for her company as she was for his. A small smile tugged at Olivia’s lips at this display of un-Jake-like behaviour.

Olivia’s momentary feelings of euphoria gave way to anxiety and confusion when Green entered the room and informed her that Lady Grantley required a moment of her time.

‘Margaret?’

Olivia could not have been more shocked if Green had informed her the Prime Minister had called. She nibbled at her index finger, at a loss to know what her sister-in-law could possibly want with her. Even if she had a compelling reason to call, she was a stickler for protocol and would never impose herself at such an unsocial hour. Olivia had little time for the woman but knew, given their history, that she must have a very particular reason for wishing to see her. Curiosity overcame distaste.

‘Show her in, Green,’ she said, sighing.

Olivia stood as Margaret Grantley walked through the door, wearing a smart walking gown of green twill and an unbecoming hat trimmed with excessive ribbons and ostentatious silk roses balanced precariously on its brim. After all the false accusations Margaret had thrown at Olivia at the time of Marcus’s murder, she ought to be quaking in Olivia’s presence. Margaret had not apologised to Olivia when she discovered that she was innocent; in fact she had not contacted her at all.

This was the first time they had seen one another in two years, but it appeared that Margaret’s opinion of her own self-worth had not undergone any marked alteration during that time. With her nose in the air, as though stepping into a drawing room situated in the relatively unfashionable district of Chelsea was beneath her, she seemed anything but humbled to be begging an audience with Olivia.

‘Thank you for receiving me,’ she said stiffly. ‘I can see that you are expecting company,’ she added, her glance taking in Olivia’s evening gown, an edge of disapproval in her expression, ‘and so I shall not detain you for long.’

‘I wonder at your wishing to detain me at all,’ Olivia replied, waving her unwelcome visitor to the nearest chair but not offering her refreshment. ‘How can I help you?’ she asked, resuming her own seat.

‘Nothing but the direst necessity would have brought me here, I can assure you of that.’

‘And only good manners persuaded me to receive you,’ Olivia replied with asperity.

‘I will get directly to the point.’

‘I wish you would.’

‘It is Hubert.’

Olivia lifted one shoulder. ‘What of him?’

‘He has disappeared.’

Olivia’s mouth fell open. ‘Excuse me, let me see if I have got this straight. You have come all this way just to tell me that your husband has disappeared?’ Margaret’s lips tightened but she remained haughtily aloof. Olivia ought to take satisfaction from telling her to go to the devil, but she was not quite that petty minded. Besides, beneath Margaret’s display of remote superiority, Olivia could see that she was very anxious. ‘Evidently that is your reason for calling. What is less clear is what you imagine that unfortunate situation has to do with me.’

‘I will be the first to admit that we have not always seen eye to eye, but—’

Olivia fixed her nemesis with a look of chilly disdain. ‘You told the officer investigating my husband’s murder that you always knew I would kill him one day.’

‘It wasn’t like that.’ Margaret appeared uncharacteristically flustered. The woman had ice in her veins and Olivia had never seen her lose control of herself. ‘You had already been arrested. The detective implied that they had proof of your guilt and asked me about your relationship with Marcus. Surely you did not imagine I would lie for you?’

Olivia shook her head. Even now when it was evident that Margaret thought Olivia could help her in some way, she still refused to acknowledge her own prejudices. Her assertions about the state of Olivia’s marriage—assertions that were based on nothing more solid than conjecture—had helped to keep her incarcerated in the hellhole of Newgate Prison for longer than might otherwise have been the case. If Olivia closed her eyes she could still smell the desperation and misery that clung to the place and its miserable inhabitants like a dingy shroud.

‘What makes you imagine I can help you to find Hubert, even if I felt so inclined?’

Finally Margaret lowered her head and had the grace to look ashamed of herself. ‘I was not fair to you; I can quite see that now.’

Olivia lifted a brow. ‘You have come to apologise and assume that will make things right between us.’

‘I am in dire straits.’ Margaret sat a little straighter—a feat Olivia would have considered impossible—and sent Olivia a defeated look. ‘I dare say that knowledge affords you considerable pleasure.’

‘I am nothing like you, and do not take pleasure in the misfortunes of others.’

‘No, I don’t think you do.’ Margaret’s sigh was deep and prolonged. ‘I misjudged you.’

‘We have never liked one another and that situation is unlikely to change, so why come to me with your problems? Surely if Hubert is missing then it is a matter for the police.’

‘They are not interested.’ Margaret flapped a hand, a flash of her usual arrogance evident in her expression. ‘Because Hubert’s business affairs often take him away from home for a week or two at a time, they refuse to take my report seriously.’

Business affairs! Olivia was obliged to hold back a derisive snort. The only affairs that took Hubert away from his Surrey household were of a more intimate nature. Indeed, when Olivia was not convicted of murdering his brother—a very real possibility that Hubert did little to try and prevent—he had the audacity to approach Olivia with a view to managing her finances…and her. As far as Olivia was concerned, Margaret and Hubert were cut from the same cloth and thoroughly deserved to be stuck with one another. She wanted nothing more to do with either of them.

‘Then I fail to imagine what you suppose I can do.’ Olivia lifted her shoulders, furious because she felt a twinge of sympathy for the other woman. Margaret was well aware of her husband’s peccadillos but, providing he was discreet and she could still hold her head up in front of her society friends, she chose to turn a blind eye. So, to be fair, did many of the friends in question. It was not unusual for gentlemen to take their pleasures where they could find them and expect their wives to tolerate the situation. ‘The last time I saw Hubert I made it very clear that I had no wish ever to do so again. That was almost two years ago and I have not seen or heard from him since.’

‘I understand you are associated with Lord Torbay.’

Olivia stiffened. ‘What has that to do with your husband’s disappearance? I hope you are not going to tell me whom I can or cannot have as a friend.’

‘Not in the least. But I do know that Torbay helped to prove your own innocence.’

Olivia made no attempt to hide her disdain. ‘That must have come as a grave disappointment for you,’ she said.

‘Please, Olivia.’ Margaret twisted her fingers together, clearly agitated. ‘I know I have no right to ask, but would you please mention Hubert’s disappearance to his lordship. He has connections…he might be able to…to find out where he has gone. And why.’

Dear God, Margaret’s shoulders were shaking. She was actually crying. That was a sight Olivia had never imagined she would see. In spite of her low opinion of the woman, her heart melted at the sight, even though she knew Margaret’s feelings were affected as much by the possible scandal that would be created if Hubert had deserted her as they were for his welfare. She would probably prefer to see him dead than enjoying the society of a younger woman who had been attracted by Hubert’s unquestionable good looks, mercurial charm and title.

‘When did you last see Hubert?’ she asked as Margaret dabbed at her eyes with her handkerchief.

‘Two weeks ago. He told me he would be staying overnight at his club here in town. He often does that when he has business that brings him into London, but if he is delayed for any reason, he always sends word to prevent me from worrying.’

‘Have you made enquiries at his club?’

‘Yes, but they have not seen him for over a month.’

‘I see.’ Olivia drummed her fingers on the arm of her chair, deep in thought. ‘There have been no reported accidents in your district?’

‘No. He travelled into London on the train.’ She spread her hands. ‘He has disappeared into thin air and I have no idea where to start looking for him. I am, as you can imagine, at my wits end.’

No, Olivia thought, you are not. Being at one’s wits ends is being confined to a prison cell for a crime one did not commit.

‘You have spoken to his friends?’ When Margaret hesitated, Olivia nodded her understanding. ‘How silly of me to suggest something so obvious. Of course you have not. If you had done so, you would have to admit that your husband had disappeared; possibly deserted you.’

‘I dare say you are enjoying this.’ Margaret gathered up her stocking purse. ‘I should not have come.’

‘I will speak with Lord Torbay, but that is all I can promise you,’ Olivia said, standing when Margaret did.

‘Thank you, at least for that.’

‘Go home, compile a list of Hubert’s closest friends and send it to me. Check his appointment book and see if he had any engagements during the days that he has been missing. Send me anything that you think relevant. Check his clothing, see if anything is missing that might imply he intended all along not to return.’

‘He would not…’

‘But he has, and you must have accepted at least that much, otherwise desperation would not have brought you to my door.’

Margaret shuffled her feet. ‘As you say…’

Olivia rang the bell and Green appeared to show Margaret out. Olivia resumed her seat and stared through the window, watching as Margaret climbed into the waiting Hansom and headed off, presumably towards the station. Damn it, now she wanted to know what had happened to Hubert almost as much as Margaret did. Her nemesis was right about one thing. Hubert might be a scoundrel but he was mindful of his wife’s finer feelings and would not disappear in such a fashion without good reason.

So what had become of him, and why?

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