"We are invited to dine with Mr. and Mrs. Alberton," Hester said in reply to Monk's questioning gaze across the
breakfast table. "They are friends of Callandra's. She was to go as well, but has been called to Scotland unexpectedly."
"I suppose you would like to accept anyway," he deduced, watching her face. He usually read her emotions quickly,
sometimes with startling accuracy, at others misunderstanding entirely. On this occasion he was correct.
"Yes, I would. Callandra said they are charming and interesting and have a very beautiful home. Mrs. Alberton is half
Italian, and apparently Mr. Alberton has travelled quite a lot as well."
"Then I suppose we had better go. Short notice, isn't it?" he said less than graciously.
It was short notice indeed, but Hester was not disposed to find unnecessary fault with something which promised to be
interesting, and possibly even the beginning of a new friendship. She did not have many friends. The nature of her work
as a nurse had meant that her friendships were frequently of a fleeting nature. She had not been involved with any
gripping cause for quite some little time. Even Monk's cases, while financially rewarding, had over the last four months
of spring and early summer been most uninteresting, and he had not sought her assistance, or in most of them her
opinion. She did not mind that, robberies were tedious, largely motivated by greed, and she did not know the people
"Good," she said with a smile, folding up the letter. "I shall write back immediately saying that we shall be
His answering look was wry, only very slightly sarcastic.
They arrived at the Alberton house in Tavistock Square just before half past seven. It was, as Callandra had said,
handsome, although Hester would not have thought it worth remarking on. However she changed her mind as soon as they
were in the hallway which was dominated by a curving staircase at the half turn of which was an enormous stained glass
window with the evening sun behind it. It was truly beautiful, and Hester found herself staring at it when she should
have been paying attention to the butler who had admitted them, and watching where she was going.
The withdrawing room also was unusual. There was less furniture in it than was customary, and the colours were paler and
warmer, giving an illusion of light even though in fact the long windows which overlooked the garden faced towards the
eastern sky. The shadows were already lengthening, although it would not be dark yet until after ten o'clock at this
time so shortly after midsummer.
Hester's first impression of Judith Alberton was that she was an extraordinarily beautiful woman. She was taller than
average, but with a slender neck and shoulders which made more apparent the lush curves of her figure, and lent it a
delicacy it might otherwise not have possessed. Her face, when looked at more closely, was totally wrong for
conventional fashion. Her nose was straight and quite prominent, her cheekbones very high, her mouth too large and her
chin definitely short. Her eyes were slanted and of a golden autumn shade. The whole impression was both generous and
passionate. The longer one looked at her the lovelier she seemed. Hester liked her immediately.
"How do you do," Judith said warmly. "I am so pleased you have come. It was kind of you on so hasty an invitation. But
Lady Callandra spoke of you with such affection I did not wish to wait." She smiled at Monk. Her eyes lit with a flare
of interest as she regarded his dark face with its lean bones and broad-bridged nose, but it was Hester to whom she
addressed her attention. "May I introduce my husband?"
The man who came forward was pleasing rather than handsome, far more ordinary than she was, but his features were
regular and there was both strength and charm in them.
"How do you do, Mrs. Monk," he said with a smile, but when courtesy was met he turned immediately to Monk behind her,
searching his countenance steadily for a moment before holding out his hand in welcome, and then turning aside so the
rest of the company could be introduced.
There were three other people in the room. One was a man in his mid forties, his dark hair thinning a little. Hester
noticed first his wide smile and spontaneous handshake. He had a natural confidence, as if he were sure enough of
himself and his beliefs he had no need to thrust them upon anyone else. He was happy to listen to others. It was a
quality she could not help but like. His name was Robert Casbolt, and he was introduced not only as Alberton's business
partner and friend since youth, but also Judith's cousin.
The other man present was American. As one could hardly help being aware, that country had in the last few months
slipped tragically into a state of civil war. There had not as yet been anything more serious than a few ugly
skirmishes, but open violence seemed increasingly probable with every fresh bulletin that arrived across the Atlantic.
War seemed more and more likely.
"Mr. Breeland is from the Union," Alberton said courteously, but there was no warmth in his voice.
Hester looked at Breeland as she acknowledged the introduction. He appeared to be in his early thirties, tall and very
straight, with square shoulders and the upright stance of a soldier. His features were regular, his expression polite
but severely controlled, as if he felt he must be constantly on guard against any slip or relaxation of awareness.
The last person was the Albertons' daughter, Merrit. She was about sixteen, with all the charm, the passion and
vulnerability of her years. She was fairer than her mother, and had not the beauty, but she had a similar strength of
will in her face, and less ability to hide her emotions. She allowed herself to be introduced politely enough, but she
did not make any attempt to pretend more than courtesy.
The preliminary conversation was on matters as simple as the weather, the increase in traffic on the streets and the
crowds drawn by a nearby exhibition.
Hester wondered why Callandra had thought she and Monk might find these people congenial, but perhaps she was merely
fond of them, and had discovered in them a kindness.
Breeland and Merrit moved a little apart, talking earnestly. Monk, Casbolt and Judith Alberton discussed the latest
play, and Hester fell into conversation with Daniel Alberton.
"Lady Callandra told me you spent nearly two years out in the Crimea," he said with great interest. He smiled
apologetically. "I am not going to ask you the usual questions about Miss Nightingale. You must find that tedious by
"She was a very remarkable person," Hester said. "I could not criticise anyone for seeking to know more about her."
His smile widened. "You must have said that so many times. You were prepared for it!"
She found herself relaxing. He was unexpectedly pleasant to converse with; frankness was always so much easier than
continued courtesy. "Yes, I admit I was. It is ..."
"Unoriginal," he finished for her.
"Perhaps what I wanted to say was unoriginal also, but I shall say it anyway, because I do want to know." He frowned
very slightly, drawing his brows together. His eyes were clear blue. "You must have exercised a great deal of courage
out there, both physical and moral, especially when you were actually close to the battlefield. You must have made
decisions which altered other peoples lives, perhaps saved them, or lost them."
That was true. She remembered with a jolt just how desperate it had been. It was as remote from this quiet summer
evening in an elegant London withdrawing room, where the shade of a gown mattered, the cut of a sleeve. War, disease,
shattered bodies, the heat and flies, or the terrible cold, could all have been on another planet with no connection
with this world at all except a common language, and yet no words that could ever explain one to the other.
"Do you not find it extraordinarily difficult to adjust from that life to this?" he asked, his voice was soft, but edged
with a surprising intensity.
How much had Callandra told Judith Alberton, or her husband? Would Hester embarrass her with the Albertons in future if
she were to be honest? Probably not. Callandra had never been a woman to run from the truth.
"Well I came back burning with determination to reform all our hospitals here at home," she said ruefully. "As you can
see, I did not succeed, for several reasons. The chief among them was that no one would believe I had the faintest idea
what I was talking about. Women don't understand medicine at all, and nurses in particular are for rolling bandages,
sweeping and mopping floors, carrying coal and slops, and generally doing as they are told." She allowed her bitterness
to show. "It did not take me long to be dismissed, and earn my way by caring for private patients."
There was admiration in his eyes as well as laughter. "Was that not very hard for you?" he asked.
"Very," she agreed. "But I met my husband shortly after I came home. We were . . . I was going to say friends, but that
is not true. Adversaries in a common cause, would describe it far better. Did Lady Callandra tell you that he is a
private agent of enquiry?"
There was no surprise in his face, certainly nothing like alarm. In high society, gentlemen owned land or were in the
army or politics. They did not work, in the sense of being employed. Trade was equally unacceptable. But whatever family
background Judith Alberton came from, her husband showed no dismay that his guest should be little better than a
policeman, an occupation fit only for the least desirable element.
"Yes," he admitted readily. "She told me she found some of his adventures quite fascinating, but she did not give me any
details. I presumed they might be confidential."
"They are," she agreed. "I would not discuss them either, only to say that they have prevented me from missing any sense
of excitement or decision that I felt in the Crimea. And for the most part my share in them has not required the
physical privation or the personal danger of nursing in wartime."
"And the horror, or the pity?" he asked quietly.
"It has not sheltered me from those," she admitted. "Except for a matter of numbers. And I am not sure one feels any
less for one person, if he or she is in desperate trouble, than one does for many."
"Quite." It was Robert Casbolt who spoke. He came up just behind Alberton, putting a companionable hand on his shoulder
and regarding Hester with interest. "There is just so much the emotions can take, and one gives all one has, I imagine?
From what I have just overheard, you are a remarkable woman, Mrs. Monk. I am delighted Daniel thought to invite you and
your husband to dine. You will enliven our usual conversation greatly, and I for one am looking forward to it." He
lowered his voice conspiratorially. "No doubt we shall hear more of it over dinner--it is totally inescapable these
days--but I have had more than sufficient of the war in America and its issues."From the Paperback edition.
Excerpted from Slaves of Obsession by Anne Perry. Copyright © 2001 by Anne Perry. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.