Home of Dr. Rupert Crowther
“You blackguard, I do not have to entertain your vile, hollow threats. I will go directly to the King and tell him of your actions. Entering my home by force and making demands of me? He will not look kindly on such behavior, I can tell you that much.”
Dr. Rupert Crowther’s furious words were clearly audible behind the false drawing room wall where Grace Crowther huddled with Mrs. Templeton, the Crowther household cook. The sheet of foolscap with the menu and market notes they’d been discussing only moments before was now crumpled, forgotten in Grace’s clenched fist. The two women had hastily ducked into the hiding place when they’d heard Rupert responding to a pounding on the front door, not wanting to be found using his plume pen and ink.
But now it appeared they had much more important reasons to be hidden. Any mention of the King, the notorious leader of London’s most feared gang, the Kingsmen, was truly cause for concern.
“Oh, will you?” The rough male voice that replied to Rupert held amusement and an unearthly, grating tone, as if the speaker were forcing the words out over gravel or broken glass. “And just who do you think ordered me to pay you a visit, eh?”
“I do not believe you.” Panic leached through Rupert’s words. “He would never hurt me or my wife. We have an agreement, the King and I. You are lying.”
“Ah, now ain’t this a shame.” A labored sigh followed the words. “I am right disappointed, Doc. There you go, making assumptions. And you an educated man what’s connected to the gentry, and all.”
“What do you mean, assumptions?” Rupert’s voice now held less terror and more hope.
“I am here for the woman, not you.” Contempt laced the man’s unnerving voice.
“As I said before,” Rupert countered in a high, shrill tone, “the King and I have an agreement. My wife is not to be harmed.”
“Should I kill you instead, hmm?” the man asked sarcastically.
“No,” Rupert pathetically begged. “Not me.”
Inside the hidey-hole, Grace covered her mouth to stifle a quick, disbelieving gasp, her palm faintly salty against her lips. A gift for cruelty came to Rupert with ease. Belittling and badgering counted amongst his favorite sports. And control . . . Grace gritted her teeth against the wash of scalding hate that instantly heated her cheeks. He had wanted to control her every move, every emotion--her very life. And when Grace had failed to bend to his ways? The doctor’s desire had only turned to deep-rooted loathing and contempt. Although she would never have planned to murder Rupert, she certainly wouldn’t grieve his passing.
Beside her, Mrs. Templeton slid one arm around Grace’s waist and pulled her protectively against her plump side.
Beyond the wall, the thud of heavy footfalls was accompanied by a string of filthy curse words. “The wife ain’t here.”
“She has to be. Everyone knows Mrs. Crowther never leaves this house,” the first man replied, irritation making his rough voice even more of a growl. “Where is she, Doc? There’s talk you tie the woman up for safekeeping.”
“That is absurd and utterly false,” Rupert replied with anger. “The minx has a gift for disappearing, is all.”
Grace heard the meaty crack of a fist hitting flesh and Rupert cried out, groaning loudly.
“Perhaps she’s in the kitchen below stairs. Spare me and I’ll help you find her.” Rupert’s voice was filled with desperation, his breathing loud, coming in audible gasps. “As you said, it’s Mrs. Crowther you want, not me. I’m no good to you dead.”
Shock and outrage dragged a sharp breath from Grace and she closed her hand tighter over her lips to prevent any sound from escaping. Surely even a man as devoid of conscience as the doctor would recognize the need for atonement at such an hour. Would perhaps, even, welcome such a chance?
“You’re no good to me alive, neither.”
“No, no! You need me. I can find her, just give me some time. And you will be searching for the Queen’s neck--”
Rupert’s terrified words halted suddenly, dissolving into wet, gurgling sounds. The thud of something heavy hitting the carpet carried plainly through the wall separating Grace and Mrs. Templeton from the drawing room.
Grace bit her lip to keep from screaming, concentrating on the anger and hatred in her heart rather than the fear looming ever larger in her normally pragmatic mind.
“You did not need to do that, did you?” the second male voice commented.
“Useless, that one.” The odd, gravelly voice of the first man was offhand, casual. “Forget about the doctor. Come help me with this desk drawer. It won’t budge.”
Both women jerked, startled by the loud screech of wood against wood. Grace’s gaze flew to meet Mrs. Templeton’s but the older woman appeared just as confused as she herself was.
“Not here.” The man’s voice held irritation. “Tear the house apart. Then we will go find the missus.”
“I got no idea where to look for ’er,” the second man complained. “You s’pose she got word we was comin’?”
Quick footsteps sounded on the servants’ stairway.
“Let’s ask whoever is coming up those stairs, shall we?”
Grace lunged for the lever to release the hidden panel, desperate to stop the unseen men from hurting a member of her staff. Mrs. Templeton grabbed her. She wedged her body against the wood, holding Grace in a determined grip and blocking access to the entry.
Grace twisted, savagely pushing against the woman in an attempt to free herself. “That might be Mr. Templeton, or Timothy!” Grace barely breathed the words, frantic to protect her butler and errand boy.
Mrs. Templeton’s arms remained wrapped tightly around Grace, pinning her hands against her sides. Her voice, barely audible even to Grace, quivered with fear. “I cannot let you do this, my lady. I won’t willingly put you in the path of those jackals out there. I cannot. So stop your fighting. Mr. Templeton wouldn’t hear of it. Neither would Timothy.”
“Who the hell are you? And what are you doing in my mistress’s house?”
Grace pushed Mrs. Templeton forward as she strained to reach the door.
“You will only make things worse, my lady.” Mrs. Templeton’s hushed words had become as implacable as her grip.
“I do not like your tone, boy.”
Grace froze at the sound of the thug’s reply, jerking in silent protest when once again, the sound of a fist hitting a body reached her ears. Timothy cried out.
“Tell me where your mistress is.”
“I will not.” Timothy’s voice was defiant. “My lady always warned me that bargaining with the Kingsmen is the work of a fool. And I’m no fool.”
Again, the thud of a fist meeting soft flesh was followed by a loud grunt of pain that carried clearly through the wall.
“We are not in the business of making bargains, boy,” the coarse voice rasped. “Tell me where she is or I’ll slit your throat just like I did the doctor’s.”
“I already gave you my answer,” Timothy replied, still grimly defiant.
“Is that right?” the thug asked, his words holding only mild indifference. “You ought not to have used up all my patience, boy.”
Grace made to scream, her violent cry for mercy cut short by Mrs. Templeton’s plump fingers clamping across her mouth.
“I am not afraid of . . .”
Timothy’s sentence dissolved into a sickening gurgle.
Grace gripped Mrs. Templeton’s arm, barely feeling the pinch of the older woman’s fingers as she did the same in reaction to the events outside their hiding place.
“I gave you fair warning, boy. Not my fault if you were too stupid to oblige.”
The thud of Timothy’s body as it fell to the carpet was loud in the otherwise silent passageway.
Grace’s heart slammed, pounding in her ears as she strained to hear.
“The King won’t like this at all--nor will the Queen, I am thinkin’.” The second man’s voice held unvarnished fear.
“Couldn’t be helped. We’ll find the valuables, then the wife. She can’t have gone far.”
Heavy footsteps sounded, the echo of the men leaving fading as they moved out of the room and down the hallway beyond.
Within the hidden passage, the two women remained motionless. It was a good while later when they heard the solid slam of the back door that led to the gardens and the mews beyond that they each drew a deep, shaken breath. Even then, they stood immobile, waiting several cautious moments more before truly believing the thugs had gone.
Then their grip on each other eased, and Mrs. Templeton removed her hand from Grace’s mouth.
Without the support of Mrs. Templeton, Grace’s cramped fingers and stiff limbs gave out and she sank to the floor. The rough planks were cold beneath her palms and fingers, echoing the icy chill of the blood moving sluggishly through her veins and freezing her tears.
Mrs. Templeton dropped to her knees beside Grace, her hands trembling as she reached out to offer comfort.
Grace squeezed the older woman’s shaking hand in hers as she stared unseeing at the rough floor. The sound of Mrs. Templeton’s quiet sobbing filled Grace’s head. She could not understand what had just happened. Timothy was a big, strong lad of twelve, smart as he could be, and just as kind. Four years before, when Mrs. Templeton had discovered him boldly attempting to steal a pie cooling on a table near the kitchen door, she’d boxed his ears then asked Grace what should be done with the rascal.
Timothy had cried. Then Grace had cried. And Mrs. Templeton had followed right along. The boy was hired; one potential criminal saved from the streets, and a family was knit together out of odd scraps and old thread.
Grace lifted her skirt and reached for the knife she kept strapped to her thigh. She stood with the blade in her hand, bracing herself. “Come, Mrs. Templeton. We must hurry.”
“My lady?” the cook asked, tears spilling down her cheeks as she looked up at her. “I can’t go out there. Not with our dear Timothy . . .”
Grace swallowed hard. She dreaded the scene that she knew with deep certainty awaited them in the drawing room beyond the hidden panel. But she also recognized they had no time to waste. The killers would be back. She could not risk Mrs. Templeton’s safety.
She tugged, urging the woman to her feet.
“You’ve no choice. Stay here and we will be found, as will Mr. Templeton. I need you to be strong. Can you do that for me?”
Mrs. Templeton nodded, her chin firming with purpose, and tightened her hold on Grace’s hand.
“Good.” Grace reached for the lever that would allow the panel to swing open. “Now, close your eyes. I will guide you. There’s no need for you to see Timothy as he is now. Remember the lovely boy as he was.”
She grasped the wooden handle and turned it, wishing she could also close her eyes.
Grace steeled herself, breathed a silent, fervent prayer, and pushed the door panel outward.
Langdon Bourne, the Earl of Stonecliffe, rubbed his tired eyes and then examined the deep wrinkles that crisscrossed his clothing. He attempted to stir some disgust within himself. Linen shirt, silk waistcoat, even his buff breeches looked as though the earl had recently slept in them--which he had. He could not remember when he’d last changed. Nor eaten a decent meal, for that matter. Or left the room he inhabited at present. And he did not particularly care.
Some would say his indifference was due to the urgent nature of the business at hand. As an agent for the Young Corinthians, a covert spy organization in service to the crown, Langdon had spent a long, grueling three days interrogating members of the Kingsmen.
Others would wonder if the recent marriage of Langdon’s fiancée, Lady Sophia Afton, to his brother might have something to do with his detachment.
Both would be correct.
His entire life had been spent in the pursuit of what was right, honest, and true. Goodness was the ultimate goal. A true gentleman, who put family and honor first, the only role he ever possessed any desire to play. And where had all of his effort, his restraint, his sacrifice, his bloody goodness gotten him?
Langdon shrugged his wide shoulders as he considered the question. Nowhere. Or worse than nowhere--lost. He absentmindedly took in his surroundings for the hundredth time. The office supposedly occupied by the solidly respectable firm of Manx & Chisom was a fraud, though one would never suspect it to be so. Created by the Young Corinthians as a place for interrogation, the room’s unadorned white walls, solid wood desk and chairs, and neat stacks of documents placed about the rooms proclaimed the resident to be a man who practiced law, not espionage.
What the spy organization set out to accomplish they did with single-minded determination, be it the minute details of the false office where Langdon now sat or the overthrowing of criminal gangs, duchies, and even countries. Formed during the reign of Queen Elizabeth, the Young Corinthians would have pleased Socrates, who so famously touted that necessity was indeed the mother of invention. Elizabeth’s Golden Age had been a highly creative period in England’s history, as well as a time of prosperity and peace--or so it looked on the surface. The Queen’s father’s reign had proven to be one of the bloodiest England had ever seen. As for the Virgin Queen? She had intended to end the Tudor dynasty on a high note and had ruled with a more moderate hand and forgiving heart.
But beneath the Virgin Queen’s seemingly perfect empire? Plots, intrigue, and conspiracies brewed.
Queen Elizabeth was the target of many assassination attempts and conspiracies against her rule--a fact that did not please her particular friend and spymaster, Francis Walsingham.
In order to safeguard the Queen and her crown, Walsingham had formed the Young Corinthians and hidden the organization deep within the British government. The year was 1570. Though Walsingham had successfully defended the Queen countless times before, the infamous Ridolfi plot shook the spymaster to his core. An early supporter of the Northern rebellion, Florentine banker and ardent Catholic Roberto Ridolfi conceived of a plan that included support from abroad in a bid to bring Mary, Queen of Scots, to the throne.
The plot was foiled, the Queen saved. And the Young Corinthians were born.
Walsingham engaged those men whom he felt he could trust--in other words, nobles with a stake in the success of the Queen’s empire. The spymaster recruited heavily from the ranks of dukes and earls, viscounts and barons. He funded the undertaking with his own coin and taught his recruits all that he knew about operating within the deep and murky world that lay beneath the shimmering facade of Elizabeth’s Golden Age.
Excerpted from The Wicked Widow Meets Her Match by Stefanie Sloane. Copyright © 2014 by Stefanie Sloane. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.