Read Murder at Almack's: A Regency Romantic Suspense Short Story Online

Authors: Sharon Louise

Tags: #regency romance, #romantic suspense, #short story, #duke, #nobility, #aristocracy, #murder, #London, #Almack's, #wealthy

Murder at Almack's: A Regency Romantic Suspense Short Story

BOOK: Murder at Almack's: A Regency Romantic Suspense Short Story
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Murder at Almack’s

by

Sharon Louise

 

 

A Regency Romantic Suspense Short Story

 

 

Copyright © 2013 by Sharon Louise

All rights reserved.

 

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

 

Chapter One

 

London, 1814

 

Lady Eliza Marie Alicia Framphampton stared at the front entrance of Almack’s, the
ton
dancing past her as she stood at the edge of the dance floor, the twirling dresses fanning her as they passed, fluttering the primrose flounces on her elegant gown, enjoyment and frivolity all around her.

But not for Eliza. Her gaze slipped to the clock beside the front doors, the clock tall and gold and encased in gleaming mahogany and used by the patronesses of Almack’s to deny entry to even the highest born if they dared arrive after eleven p.m. Slowly—too slowly, Eliza’s heart beat so hard, so impatiently, so fearfully—the minute hand neared the hour.

Eight minutes.

She clutched her satin reticule with trembling, taut fingers, her serene mask of a face hiding her urgent need. Eight minutes, and the doors would close. She would be safe for another night. Another night in which a miracle might occur.

Something silky but firm tapped her bare shoulder.

Eliza started. Her pulse still racing, she gathered herself and eased her face—don’t let the
ton
see her fear, oh, the gossip would destroy Mama—and she turned toward her mother, whose blue, silk-and-lace fan had given her shoulder another tap, less gently, more peremptorily, this time.

“Lady Suthers was describing the new exhibition at Somerset House, dearest,” her mother, the Dowager Countess of Goodfield, said, her face serene, all but her eyes, which implored Eliza to be serene, too, to be at ease, gracious and charming as befit a duke’s future wife. “The one to which His Grace the Duke of Belville escorted us. Tell her ladyship his droll remarks on the painting of the lady in the pink dress, my child.”

Lady Suthers glanced at the front doors as if she, too, was expecting the duke, all of London, it seemed, knew of his return today to town from his principal seat in Surrey, then she turned inquisitive eyes, eyes that could quickly become malicious and cruel, toward Eliza.

Eliza’s heart beat out the seconds. Her mind shouted ‘
Close and lock the door
’ to the ramrod-straight footman stationed beside the clock, whose duty was to do just that.
Now,
her mind shouted.

Now,
her heart beat.

“His Grace said the woman’s bosom was too small,” her mouth said to Lady Suthers, her voice soft and gentle and as serene as her face. But Lady Suthers’s attention was on the front door.

The orchestra ended the quadrille.

The dancers stilled, bowed and curtseyed.

The
ton
in attendance hushed.

Dread crushing her chest, Eliza turned.

With two minutes to spare, His Grace the Duke of Belville strode toward her from Almack’s still-open front doors.

***

Derrick Albrecht Alphonse Trulington slipped through Almack’s front doors a careful distance behind His Grace the Duke of Belville with less than a minute to spare. He adjusted his cravat with an impatient tweak—damned nuisance, these foppish, dandy ways—and gave his forged voucher to the liveried footman just inside the door.

The man, his bearing that of a soldier, perhaps one that had been wounded in the war with France, glanced with sharp eyes at the voucher—really, the small, rectangular card was perfect, some of Derrick’s best work, signed ostensibly by the Countess de Lieven, the countess conveniently out of town with her ambassador husband—then the footman gave Derrick a quick review, then a deferential nod he didn’t deserve, and returned the voucher.

Damn the man, no one here deserved that kind of deference but those who’d served in the war. Derrick tucked the voucher into the exquisitely embroidered waistcoat he’d stolen in France that would feed a hundred score of starving families for a year and strode into the throng that was a Wednesday night at Almack’s.

He didn’t get far. Lady Eliza Marie Alicia Framphampton was staring in his direction, her blue-eyed gaze on the duke ahead of him. With an instinct that had saved his life more than once in Portugal, Derrick ducked behind the nearest gilt column, his pulse speeding faster.

She’d be what? Seventeen, eighteen now? About his sister Anne’s age—and a pang hit him in his hardened heart—and in her first season. The demure, pale-yellow dress he’d gotten a glimpse of proclaimed it to be so. The womanly figure beneath the gown confirmed, with stunning effect, she was no longer a child. She’d grown into a beauty, like her mother.

But she was pale, from fright, he was sure—though others looking at her would never see it—and what the bloody hell did an earl’s only daughter in a primrose dress with her golden hair in ringlets and blue eyes as vivid and clear as a china doll’s have to be afraid of at Almack’s?

Thank God the fright was not on his account. Of all the things he’d had to bear these past two years, he didn’t think he could bear her looking at him with fear. But afraid, she was. He’d known Eliza since she was a child, and he not much older, and that serene gaze that had been drilled into her as surely as gentlemanly manners had been drilled into him didn’t fool him an instant.

She was afraid.

No, terrified.

If she saw him, recognized him, she would give him away.

He would have to speak to her.

Marshalling the dissembling that had saved his life countless times, he strode around the army of toadeaters congregating around the bloody Duke of Belville and made his way toward Eliza.

***

From behind her hand-painted, silk-and-ivory fan she’d acquired from her lover only last month, Lady Prysden, widow—young widow, young,
grieving
widow, keep that in mind she told herself, you are a young,
grieving
widow—watched His Grace the Duke of Belville converse with Mrs. Drummond-Burrell, the duke’s hard face as haughty as the woman’s. His figure was powerful and manly, his countenance generally remarked on as handsome, his fortune Top of the Trees, his rank the highest save the royal dukes and princes and regent.

Her child—
his
child—would have that rank and fortune, too. And beauty. Hers. His.

Never mind that Framphampton chit, who was staring at her future betrothed with the blank expression of a fool. Belville was Lady Prysden’s. In all ways but one.

She would remedy that tonight, before he declared himself to that milksop child.

She breathed deeply against her low-cut, constricting, emerald-green gown, her ample breasts already growing with her pregnancy, and made her way through the crowd.

***

Eliza would never be first in the duke’s life, his actions silently told her. Better she became accustomed to that now.

Not that she had any intention of encouraging his attendance on her. The less time spent together, the more she could look at her future with anything resembling equanimity.

The crowd grew around the duke, a
nonpareil,
he was generally acknowledged. A hated one. Even a sheltered, young miss like Eliza knew this. A
nonpareil
who used his prowess with guns, swords, horses, fists, to tyrannize others. Who used his rank and fortune to control—and at times, ruin—the
ton
he loved to rule.

Behind the crowd, a man moved with a swift, decisive stride that spoke confidence and belonging, belonging here, belonging in his own skin, without need to toadeat the duke, and that belonging drew her attention. Any man without need of the duke was a man worth admiring.

He must be a stranger to London. No man was so foolish as to ignore the Duke of Belville, not if he wished to be in fashion. Not if he wished to be in the highest of circles.

Perhaps he didn’t know.

Perhaps he didn’t care.

He made his way through the growing throng, dressed in dark evening clothes—dark but for an elaborately embroidered, silver-threaded waistcoat—his clothes cut in the French fashion the duke favored and fitted to his well-formed body, and a stirring of recognition tweaked her heart, not a stranger, but who, then?

She watched him move at an angle from her, craning to glimpse his face, his steps drawing him nearer despite a path that seemed to take him away from her. Of larger-than-average height, he bowed to Lady Sefton with the same grace with which he strode, then he turned fully toward Eliza as he made way for Lord Ponsonby to pass, the smile with which he’d greeted Lady Sefton still lingering on his masculine mouth, his blond hair fashionably cut
à la Brutus,
fashionable yet on the edge of unruly, his features handsome in a manly way, handsome and relaxed, but there was wariness in his deep-set, green eyes—one had to look to see it, but it was there—and a scar on his…

Eliza’s body stilled. Her breathing stopped.

Derrick.

Her hands gripped her reticule tighter, her mind wanting to scream.

Was she dreaming?

Had the dreadful deed she was about to commit disordered her mind?

Had her desperation brought his ghost to her like a mirage to a stranded, heat-struck desert traveler? He looked like a ghost, his body too thin for that tall, strong frame, his face haggard on the edges.

Derrick.

Derrick Albrecht Alphonse Trulington.

Viscount Trulington.

It had to be. That square jaw. That stubborn chin. That scar on his neck, near his ear, where she had smote him with a sharpened tree branch turned sword when he was ten and she was five. That smile, that devilish smile, muted now, the devils in the slight upturn of his mouth, but they were there, devils of mischief, Derrick playing a jest, a jest known only to himself.

Her legs wobbled beneath her primrose gown.

It couldn’t be.

But
his
legs moved toward her with that light-footed, easy gait she knew so well, strong legs, muscled legs, a grown man’s legs, that’s why she hadn’t recognized him at first, Derrick had grown from a mischievous youth to a hardened man. A hardened man with a scar on his jaw, a scar that was new.

Her breath began to hitch, tiny, inaudible gasps. Her miracle had arrived.

 

Chapter Two

 

Derrick saw the instant Eliza recognized him, disbelief warring with hope in her lovely, blue eyes, eyes widened with shock.

“Derrick?” she said between tiny, inaudible gasps that hitched
in her chest, tiny little hitches that rose and fell with her breasts, her voice less than a whisper.

He shook his head in the slightest of warning moves and held out his arm, and she took it, gripping it hard, as if to assure herself he was real, as if to ensure he didn’t leave. Her eyes never leaving his face, he steered her swiftly through the crush to the empty refreshments room, stopping briefly to pick up a candelabra, the scent of beeswax and lemonade and cake in the air, then he led her to the storeroom he’d reconnoitered hours ago as a tradesman delivering the flowers that adorned this evening’s festivities, the
ton
more interested in the Duke of Belville than either of them. “We must be quiet,” he said in a low tone as he clicked the storeroom’s door closed behind them and set the candelabra on a shelf.

She grasped his hand and clung as hard as she’d clung to his arm. Through her white silk glove, her small hand was warm and trembling like a hummingbird’s heart. “I thought you were…”

“Dead?” His voice was harsh, for all its hushed tone. He’d been reported so, as he’d learned in his French prison, the English soldier newly arrived who’d told him of this and of the charges of treason against him spitting in Derrick’s face.

Tears filled her beautiful eyes. “Yes,” she said, her sweet, soft voice breaking.

Dead. He’d prayed many a time the last two years that he
was
dead, but it was a prayer that had gone unanswered.

“Your mother will be—”


No.
” His hand clenched on hers, and she gave a small cry, taking a step back from him. He released her, his heart wrenching at the small harm he’d done her.

“You cannot deny her the truth,” she said of his mother.

“I will not shame her among the
ton.

“It is not shame she will feel, Derrick.”

Footsteps trod outside the storeroom door.

The fear Derrick had seen in her deepened, her skin going stark white, her body trembling as fast as her hand had. Concerned she would drop her reticule, he took it from her and
pressed her back among the shadows, and together, her face pressed to his shoulder, her quivering hands gripping his sleeves, they listened to the footsteps fade away, the thuds moving toward the refreshments room.

“What is it you fear, Eliza?” he said quietly.

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