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Authors: Trish Albright

Tags: #Romance

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BOOK: Siren's Secret
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Olivia was not prone to hysterics, but she felt on the border of an episode now. Mrs. Tisdale, on the other hand, poured some tea.

“Sit, Olivia. Drink.” Mrs. Tisdale poured some for herself. “Now. What is this about your father?”

Olivia pulled a worn letter from her pocket. She had received it less than a week earlier. “He wrote that I must deliver the funerary cone of Alexandria immediately to this address in Egypt, that Grayson would help me, and only he could be trusted. Only, when I approached Grayson, he said he couldn’t allow me to even borrow the artifact, as it would put him in a precarious position with the museum. So you see, I had to steal it.”

“Weren’t there several of these cones recovered?” Mrs. Tisdale asked.

“Yes, but the letter specifically indicated the star cone. It’s unmistakable.”

“Why does your father need it?”

“All he said was that it was urgent. ‘A matter of life and death.’ I interpreted that to be
his
death, Mrs. Tisdale. He is being held against his will, surely, or he would not ask me to do such a thing! I no longer have the relic, but at least I have the inscriptions. It might be enough. Only now I need to find a way to Egypt!”

“Egypt!” Mrs. Tisdale stared at her, aghast. “You’ve never been out of England. How would we even get there?”

Olivia smiled and knelt before Mrs. Tisdale, grasping her hand in relief. “I knew you would go with me. Thank you.”

Mrs. Tisdale laughed. “That still doesn’t mean we have a safe way to get there, dear.”

“Am I not the most brilliant woman you know?”

“Of course you are.”

Mrs. Tisdale didn’t tease. Rather, she smiled fondly. Olivia’s friend was one of the few in her life whom she could rely on to be a constant—maybe the only one, with her father away.

“Don’t worry,” Olivia said. “I have a plan.”

Samuel walked to Merryvale’s townhome. He’d wanted to visit yesterday evening but guessed they would still be recovering from the long night at the museum and would either be resting or visiting Lady Grayson. He wanted to make sure Lady Olivia wasn’t in any real trouble. From his recent inquiries, he’d found she led a very sedate, if privileged, life—surprising, considering how he’d met her. Possibly she had a secret life?

He smiled, definitely intrigued enough to find out. Unfortunately he had things to do down at the shipping office and couldn’t sit around town all day waiting for a fashionable hour to call on Lady Olivia. It was early, but with any luck, she’d be up and irritated enough at his faux pas to correct him on the proper rules of visitation. The thought brought a smile to his face. He knew he’d been away from women for too long, if that passed as entertainment. Still, he would put up with it. Then he could put her through an inquisition and learn what she’d really been up to at the museum.

Samuel checked the address, surprised at the activity outside the Merryvale home. A few bystanders crowded outside, whispering. Samuel assessed the scene with increasing trepidation, his pace increasing. He stopped at a small group, listening in.

“They said it was last night,” whispered a woman to her escort. “While she was sleeping.”

Samuel didn’t stop to find out whom they meant. Terror gripped him. He took the stairs three at time and literally tossed aside a Bow Street Runner standing guard at the entrance.

A butler stood just inside with some other servants who were lined up, being questioned.

“Where’s Lady Olivia?” he shouted.

The foyer went silent, all eyes turned to him. No one spoke for a long moment. Finally an investigator stepped forward.

“And you are … ?”

“Samuel Stafford. I’m a friend of Lady Olivia and Mrs. Tisdale.”

“I see.”

Samuel braced himself. He prayed for a quick relief, an answer that would prove him wrong, but it was not to be done.

“Lady Olivia Katharine Hastings …”

Samuel’s brain started to buzz unnaturally, a part of him leaving his body as if to go somewhere safe.

“… Yates was found dead this morning. Murdered in her bed.”

Samuel heard the words but did not register them. They simply would not register. The shock struck him so hard, his head spun and he sucked sharply for air, trying to maintain control.

“Sir?” the man said. “I’ll have to ask you to stay for a few questions …”

“How?” he demanded, his breathing harsh.

“I can’t tell you—”

“Who’s in charge?”

“Sir, if you’ll sit—”

“Where’s Mrs. Tisdale? Her companion?”

“We don’t know at this time. We understand she left just yesterday to visit relatives.”

Dizzy, Samuel turned and walked out.

“Sir, I must insist—”

He kept going. He would find Mrs. Tisdale later. Learn the facts. Talk to the magistrate. Right now he needed to get away. Far away. Oh, God. He should have come yesterday. He should have protected her. What the hell had she been involved in, the stupid woman! He was furious. This was not right. He pushed his way past the crowd, jostling a slender man with a beard and glasses.

Samuel apologized vaguely.

The man lifted a thin arm. “Sir, what’s happened?”

He started to walk away, but the man insisted. “Please, they are friends. Is all well?”

Samuel paused and spared a look for the pale-faced, bookish man. “The mistress of the house has passed away. Foul play it seems.” He cleared his throat. “Excuse me.”

The man gasped and swayed.

Samuel hesitated a moment in sympathy, but the man recovered, nodded, and went away, suddenly in his own world. Samuel rubbed a hand over the tingling on his neck, disturbed, then left.

* * *

Professor Oliver Hill stared at the retreating form of Samuel Stafford. The American was clearly upset and a touch pale.

Curious.

Professor Hill mixed with the crowd long enough to learn the situation. Someone whispered that Lady Olivia had been murdered while she slept. He shuddered, thinking sleep would not come easy tonight.

Oliver walked a couple of blocks, found a seat, breathed slowly in and out, then after a good while got up and continued. The hotel was still a half mile’s journey. That was fine. Time to think. Time to plan what to do next.

He entered the hotel lobby, inconspicuous to the other guests, and slowly climbed the three floors to the suite. He entered the main chamber, still deep in thought.

“I beg your pardon, sir! You must leave here instantly!”

Oliver jumped.

Mrs. Tisdale shouted. Again. “These rooms are taken—”

“Mrs. Tisdale …” Having forgotten the suit, beard, and hat that fit so perfectly, Oliver hurried to explain.

At the sound of her name, Mrs. Tisdale stopped and stared, confused. Slowly, Oliver took off the hat and glasses, then stepped closer for Mrs. Tisdale’s inspection, curious whether the brown hair without the hat gave enough of an illusion.

“Good lord,” Mrs. Tisdale said softly. “You are frighteningly masculine, Olivia. Were it not for your voice and your eyes, I would be quite deceived.”

Olivia plopped in a chair and closed her eyes, exhausted. “Alas, no time to relish the brilliance of my disguise. There is bad news to be shared.” She peeked open an eye. “It seems I am dead.”

“What?”

“Yes.” Olivia braced herself, swallowing the nausea that threatened to recur. “It appears a woman was murdered in my bed last night. They must know it is not me. The servants will have identified the body …”

Olivia fell into thought, wondering if Sturges had told the staff to remain silent, or if perhaps the authorities wished to trick her out of hiding. She must send him a message immediately.

“Meggie?” Mrs. Tisdale asked.

Olivia swallowed hard, tears pricking her eyes. The shock hitting her again.

“Yes, I think it must have been,” she said. Meggie was Olivia’s maid. She had blondish hair, and it was no secret that Meggie had often fallen asleep in Olivia’s bed, either waiting for her to return from a party or sneaking a quick nap. She would have been the only one with access to Olivia’s room. And now she was likely dead.

Mrs. Tisdale pressed a handkerchief to her mouth, growing pale.

Olivia knew she could not lose her composure just yet. She ordered tea, then sat to write a note to Sturges. She could trust him to make a discreet visit this afternoon. Then she had one recourse left.

She needed to get help from the one man least likely to give it to her.

Chapter Four

Disguised as Professor Hill, Olivia traveled alone in a hired hackney to London’s East End, to the waterfront where the Stafford Shipping offices were located. She entered the reception area, distinctly unimpressed. The room was sparse and unwelcoming, with only two waiting chairs and no furnishings whatsoever on the walls or the floor.

A voice from the inner office yelled out. “That you, Captain?”

She pressed the door open a bit wider, entering. “No. Excuse me. Stafford Shipping, correct?”

The man behind the desk was in his early thirties, with sandy hair and an attractive smile. Another American, only with an accent stranger than Mr. Stafford’s. More of a drawl.

“Yes, you’re in the right place. Nathan Riedell,” he said. “Can I help you?”

Olivia bowed, politely, uncertain how to proceed. The man seemed friendly enough. She hadn’t expected that. She had expected Mr. Stafford. Or a crusty, uncouth, tobacco-chewing seafarer wearing a worn-out cap and spitting as he talked. This man was clean and well-spoken. Well, no point in dawdling. She must continue.

“I’m Professor Hill. I wanted to see Mr. Stafford about passage to Egypt. I’m told he stops at several Mediterranean ports—in particular, Alexandria.

“Sorry, Professor. We don’t carry passengers.”

“You don’t?” That had never occurred to Olivia. “I can pay, if that’s an issue.”

The man nodded and put up a hand. “It’s not that, we just never do, and we don’t have cabin space that would be comfortable for passengers if we did.”

“But it’s truly imperative that I get there with all possible speed. I’m working at a site, you see … the excavation of a tomb. I’m the only one who can read the hieroglyphics—that’s the language of the ancient Egyptians—and without me the party could be in danger.”

“Grave
danger?” he asked.

“Well, possibly …”

“Sorry, Professor. That was a joke.”

“Oh.” Olivia heated up, embarrassed at missing the pun. “Oh, I see.”

“Why didn’t they bring you along to begin with?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“If you are so important to this expedition, Professor Hill, why did you not go with your colleagues?”

Her colleagues. How nice that sounded. Would that it were true. “They thought, like most Englishmen, Mr. Riedell, that they knew everything. I’m sure you can understand.”

The American grunted. “Sure enough. And you’re the exception?”

“Before today, I promise you I have never been taken for the average Englishman.” Olivia let her lips curve slightly under the mustache, enjoying her own joke.

“Regardless, we don’t take passengers. There’s a ship taking passengers in two weeks. You should purchase tickets now. They could be booked up already. People generally plan these things well in advance, Professor.”

“I understand, but—” Olivia bit her lip, frustrated. “I’d like to speak with Mr. Stafford, please.”

Mr. Riedell shook his head. “I doubt he’ll agree. He’s down the street at the Crow’s Nest. You can’t miss it. But today’s not a good day to bother him with frivolous requests.”

Olivia paused. “Why’s that?”

“He got some bad news and he’s been at the Nest for a while.”

“I see.” She was not accustomed to drinking men. Then again, that might make it easier to manipulate him. Perhaps a blessing in disguise. “Well, thank you for your time, Mr. Riedell.”

Olivia left the offices upset. If Mr. Stafford would not take her and Mrs. Tisdale to Egypt, she would have to wait two weeks. She did not feel safe staying in London after Sturges’s visit earlier. Meggie had been murdered. Choked to death. Her room had been torn apart as well. The killer was looking for something. Something Olivia still had. Would he come back when he realized he had killed the wrong person? Olivia tried to swallow, tension in her throat tightening against the effort as she picked up her pace again.

What if the man who’d killed Meggie was still looking for her?

Samuel stared at the freshly poured pint. He hadn’t worked his way through two pitchers yet in the hours he had been sitting there. The world was still in very sharp focus and his mind all too clear. The vision of
her
all too clear.

He should have insisted on the truth when she fell through the damn window. She had obviously been escaping from someone or something. But she had been so damned …
English.
Dammit. The one time he didn’t get involved … and it was fatal.

He raked a hand through the top of his hair and rested his head in his palm, his elbow holding him up. Closing his eyes did not block the vision of that unusual silver sparkle of her flashing eyes. Remembering would do no good, and there were plenty of women in London who could help him forget. It was just that … she had been different.

The door to the Crow’s Nest opened, and he heard footsteps walk toward the bar. A man sat near him at the counter. With irritation, he rubbed his neck to stop the tingling sensation.

The barkeep came over to take the request, and after a pause a husky voice said, “The same as Mr. Stafford.”

Samuel glanced down and saw slender legs in a brown suit. “I don’t know you, and business hours are over for the day.” He rubbed the strange sensation tickling the back of his neck again, annoyed.

“Actually, we bumped into each other this morning. Outside Lady Olivia’s home.”

Samuel looked again. He barely remembered anyone from this morning. He studied the profile more clearly. The small man in the brown suit was vaguely familiar. He’d looked upset when Samuel told him the news.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” Samuel said.

“Thank you.”

Samuel winced, then rubbed his temples, wanting to scrub his ears. That voice was making him insane. Familiar. Yet not.

BOOK: Siren's Secret
5.8Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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