Mysterious Lover – Mary Lancaster

Grizelda liked to lose herself in opera, in the exquisite music and the inevitable tragedy. Unfortunately, there was little chance of that tonight, since her mother was restless and needed someone else to be running around for her. “Don’t you find it too warm in here?” the duchess whispered audibly to her son as she rummaged in her tiny reticule. “Where is my fan?” “You gave it to Griz,” Forsythe replied without taking his gaze off the stage. Grizelda suspected he was pursuing one of the chorus girls—which may have been what made their mother so restless, since she was trying to promote a match between Forsythe and their youngest guest, Miss Watters. Griz intercepted her mother’s glare, and remembered where she’d put the fan. “I’ll fetch it,” she murmured, and slipped from her chair. To her surprise, Miss Watters’s brother smiled at her as she hurried past. Disconcerted—for she was used to being the invisible member of her noble family —she settled her spectacles more firmly on her nose and walked out of the private box into the quiet corridor. It took only a minute to reach the cloakroom and retrieve her mother’s fan from the pocket of her cloak. With a word of thanks, she left, so lost in thoughts of Fidelio, that she walked straight into a large, solid object. The object was traveling with such speed that she was sent sprawling into the wall. It felt, she imagined, like being hit by a railway train. However, this particular train, a tall man with a dark green cloak falling from one shoulder, halted abruptly, reaching out to stop her from falling forward again. “Forgive me, are you hurt?” Dazed, Grizelda stared up at the most handsome male face she had ever seen.

Raven hair fell forward over a nobly high forehead. Dramatic black brows arched perfectly over a pair of longlashed, melting brown eyes. High cheekbones, a thin nose, and generous mouth lent him a deceptive air of delicacy—there had been nothing delicate about the force of the hard body slamming into hers. He was so lean that had he been less handsome, he might have looked cadaverous, but as it was, his ridiculous good looks snatched at one’s breath. Fortunately, she was immune to young men’s charms and well past the age of being enslaved by a pretty face. Though it was true, his voice did have an intriguing effect on her. It must have been the foreign accent. “Just winded,” she replied hastily. “Like falling off a horse.” His lips quirked upward.

A hint of amusement overlayed the relief in his eyes. His grip on her arm loosened, and he stepped back. “May I escort you somewhere, madam?” She shook her head, and at the corner of her eye, glimpsed a familiar figure flitting down the steps from the foyer to the front doors. Surely that was Nancy, the housemaid? What the devil was she doing here? “No, thank you,” she replied, dragging her gaze back to the handsome stranger. He bowed with considerable grace and hurried on his way to the door. Grizelda, oddly disappointed, moved more slowly toward the staircase, touching the fan to be sure it still dangled from her wrist. Her wayward mind could not help wondering why Nancy was at the theatre. It was not her evening off, and she really had no business being out of the house. Normally, Griz would not have troubled about a servant slipping away for a few hours. She did not grudge them the extra time, and in any case, it was not her business but her mother’s or the housekeeper’s.

But Nancy had been acting recently as her lady’s maid, helping her fasten and unfasten gowns, and dressing her hair in a manner that didn’t annoy Their Graces. And she had seemed distracted that evening as she’d helped Griz dress for the opera. Griz had taken three steps up the staircase before she changed her mind and hurried back down. She did not bother with her cloak since she only meant to glance outside and see if Nancy was still there. If the handsome stranger was still outside, she might even ask him if he had noticed which way Nancy went. The liveried doorman asked in some surprise if he could help her. “Oh, no, I just want a moment’s air,” she replied, sweeping outside. The road in front was well lit, and carriages lined the roads. A few coachmen had gathered for a gossip nearby. But there was no sign of either Nancy or the foreign gentleman until she spun around to go back inside and was sure she saw a skirt vanish around the side of the building.

It could have been anyone’s skirt, but on impulse, she followed it, walking the length of the building quickly and around the corner, where there were only more carriages and coachmen. She crossed the road and, hearing quick footsteps to the left, turned into a dimly lit alley. Since she could still be seen by the coachmen and an old couple were waddling toward her, arguing, she did not hesitate. There was still no sign of anyone who might have been Nancy. She paused and cast one glance up the next opening before she meant to return to the opera house. There was no lighting here. And she could hear no footsteps in that direction, only the snorting and shifting of horses closer to the theatre, and some distant, raucous coughing followed by a stream of male and female laughter. A faint sound of scraping stone reached her, but she could not tell the direction. Nothing moved in the dark passage ahead. But as she stared, it seemed to her there was a blacker heap of something on the ground.

A wink of moonlight glinted on an object closer to her, perhaps a coin. Griz cast another glance to either end of the back street she hovered in and then darted up the darker, narrower opening. She had no intention of lingering. Apart from anything else, the smell was unpleasant. She didn’t like to think what she was walking on, merely held up her voluminous skirts as much as she could. Something skittered off the toe of her shoe, and she bent to pick it up. The glinting object. As she grasped it, the heap she had discerned resolved into a troublingly human shape. She straightened, took a step nearer, and the moon blinked down again. On a woman lying on her back on the ground, a woolen cloak barely covering the black dress she normally wore under an apron.

And the face was only too familiar. “Nancy!” She bent over the girl in alarm, but even before clouds blocked the moon once more, she had seen the open, staring eyes of death. Please let me be wrong, please! Her movements suddenly clumsy, she tore off her glove, touching the girl’s hand, her face, both reassuringly warm. Abruptly, a swinging lantern light swept up from the direction she had just come. “Please, can you help her?” Griz called urgently. The light moved faster, rising higher to reveal the handsome face of the stranger she had walked into at the opera house. Immediately, he dropped to a crouch on Nancy’s other side, setting the lantern in the filth beside him without looking at it. His attention was all on the maid. He took her wrist in his hand, then pressed his long slender fingers to her neck. And then she saw the terrible, red stain on Nancy’s chest, blooming from the small tear in her dress.

Everything inside her seemed to lurch in horror. Especially when the stranger took hold of Nancy’s face and bent over her. For a bizarre moment, she thought he would kiss the dead girl, but it seemed he was trying to give her his own breath. Appalled, she could only watch as he straightened and sat back on his heels. “She is beyond anyone’s help,” he murmured. “Except God’s,” Griz whispered, touching Nancy’s hair. Her bonnet had been pushed back, crushed under her head. The stranger did not respond. When she glanced at him, his gaze was on her other hand, the one that held the glinting object she had picked up. A dagger.

A Renaissance Italian dagger with a jeweled hilt, remarkably like the one in her father’s collection. She stared at it with ominous fascination. “Perhaps you should give that to me?” He had risen and stood holding out his hand over Nancy’s body. Instinctively, Griz leapt back. After all, she did not know this man, who could have followed her, or, worse, Nancy. He could have come back to Nancy, perhaps to find the dagger with which he had killed her… He moved quickly, stepping over the body and grasping her wrist. Before she could cry out, let alone flee, he had wrested the dagger from her. At least he released her immediately, leaving her glaring at him. “Here! Stay where you are!” shouted a voice from the end of the alley. The sound of a policeman’s rattle ensued, summoning his colleagues, and a tall-hatted policeman, lantern in one hand, truncheon in the other, ran toward them.

His lantern shone in her eyes, blinding her until he lowered it again. He looked very young and very determined. “Nancy is dead,” she said, a sudden wave of grief catching at her voice. The policeman shone his lantern over the dead girl’s body. Briefly, Grizelda closed her eyes. “She’s been murdered,” he uttered grimly. “With this, I imagine,” the stranger said, holding out the dagger. The policeman snatched it from him. “And you just happen to be holding it,” he said with satisfaction. “Name!” “Tizsa, Dragan.

” “Foreign,” the policeman accused. “What are you doing here, and what are you to this poor, dead young woman?” “I was passing, and I am nothing to her.” “She’s my maid,” Grizelda blurted. “Nancy Barrow.” The policeman stared at her, no doubt taking in her opera finery wildly out of place in this squalor. “And your name, ma’am?” “Grizelda Niven.” Her eyes flickered to the young man, Dragan, who was watching her intently. He had very intense eyes. “What happened here?” the policeman asked her. “Did you see this man murder your maid?” By then, another, older constable had run up from the opposite end of the passage and now halted beside them, panting.

“No,” Grizelda said. “I just found her here, already dead, and then…” The older policeman walked around the body portentously, while the younger told him all that he had learned. “My lady!” exclaimed the second policeman, suddenly interrupting as he recognized her. With an effort, Grizelda remembered him from last month’s dog and meat-barrow incident. “What in the world are you doing in this place?” “I was at the opera with my parents.” “But it hasn’t finished yet,” the first policeman pointed out. “And you shouldn’t be out here alone. ’Specially not dressed like that!” “Were you looking for the maid?” the older constable asked, suddenly enlightened. “Then followed her out here, I daresay?” “Yes, that was it,” Grizelda said with relief at telling at least partial truth. Though she did not look at Mr.

Dragan, she could feel his gaze boring into her. More policemen came running from either end of the alley. “Come, we’ll escort you back to the theatre,” the older constable said kindly. “Send someone to Her Grace…” “Oh, no,” Grizelda said quickly, “there is no need. I’ll go back myself. Only Nancy…” She blinked rapidly down at the dead maid who would never scold, pry, or serve her again. “Don’t you worry, my lady,” the constable soothed. “We’ll see she’s taken care of and her family informed. Now you,” he added in quite another tone to Dragan, “had better come to the station with us.” At his nod, two officers seized hold of Dragan, who made an instinctive jerk to throw them off.

“No, no,” Grizelda protested, perversely annoyed because they shared her initial suspicion. “He arrived after me. I very much doubt he did this.” “He was holding the weapon, my lady,” the first policeman said dryly. “I picked it up there, and he took it from me,” she retorted. Several constables stared at her, frowning. “How long have you known this man?” the older policeman demanded, as though he suspected an assignation.

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