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The first indication he got that his carefully laid plans for the night were doomed came when he opened his bedchamber door and found Cleopatra standing in the hallway.
“Bloody hell,” he said very softly. “I was expecting Minerva.”
His long-anticipated vision of a night of passion spent in a comfortable bed with his lover and occasional business partner, Lavinia Lake, faded into a hazy mist.
His past had come back to haunt him at a most inconvenient moment.
“Hello, Tobias.” The woman in the hall lowered the green and gilt mask attached to the little gold post in her hand. The cobra diadem that graced her long, elaborately braided black wig gleamed in the light of a nearby wall sconce. Wry amusement lit her dark eyes. “It has been a long time, has it not? May I come in?”
It had, in fact, been three years since he had last seen Aspasia Gray, but she had changed very little. She was still a stunningly beautiful woman with a classical profile that was well-suited to her guise as the queen of Egypt. He knew that her real hair was a deep, rich brown. Her tall, elegantly proportioned figure was displayed to advantage in a pale green gown trimmed with gold embroidery.
The last thing he wanted to do tonight was renew old acquaintances, Tobias March thought. But the sight of Aspasia Gray had definitely shattered the mood. Memories from that very dark time three years ago crashed over him with the force of storm-driven waves.
He collected his wits with an effort and quickly surveyed the darkened hallway behind Aspasia. There was no sign of Lavinia. Maybe, if he acted swiftly, he would be able to rid himself of his unwelcome visitor before his evening was entirely ruined.
“I suppose you’d better come in.” Reluctantly, he stepped back.
“You have not changed, sir,” she murmured. “Still as gracious as ever, I see.”
She entered the firelit room with a soft rustle of silken skirts and a whisper of exotic perfume. He closed the door and turned to face her.
He had not noticed any Cleopatras at the costume ball earlier in the evening, but that was not surprising. Beaumont Castle was a huge, sprawling monstrosity of a house, and tonight it was crammed with people. He had been interested in only one particular guest.
The invitation to the house party had come through the auspices of Lord Vale. Tobias’s first, automatic inclination had been to decline the offer. He had little interest in such affairs. House parties, in particular, struck him as tedious at best, albeit his experience of them was limited.
But then Vale had reminded him of the one singular attraction of a properly organized country-house party.
Yes, there are the lengthy, boring breakfasts and the frivolous conversations and the silly games, but bear in mind this vastly important, highly relevant point: you and Mrs. Lake will each be provided with a private bedchamber. Furthermore, no one will pay the least attention to which of those bedchambers you decide to occupy at night. Indeed, the true objective of a well-planned house party is to provide ample opportunities of that sort.
The reminder of the true nature of a large house party had struck Tobias with the force of a lightning bolt. When Vale, who had no intention of attending the Beaumont affair, graciously offered the use of one of his private carriages for the journey, Tobias had felt himself inspired.
He had been surprised, not to say greatly relieved, when Lavinia agreed to the plan with very little fuss. He suspected that her enthusiasm was generated in large part because she viewed the house party as an excellent opportunity to fish for new business. But he refused to allow that fact to depress his spirits. For the first time in their acquaintance, they would enjoy the luxury of being able to spend the better portion of not one but two entire nights in the cozy warmth and privacy of a real bed.
The prospect had been dazzling. For once there would be no need to sneak about in remote sections of the park or make do with the desk in Lavinia’s little study. For three glorious days he would not be obliged to rely on the benevolent graces of Lavinia’s housekeeper, who could sometimes be persuaded to take herself off to shop for currants when he came to call.
He certainly savored the all-too-brief encounters alone with Lavinia in town, but those occasions—stimulating though they were—tended to be rushed and occasionally nerve-racking. The weather had a nasty habit of delivering rain on afternoons when he chose the park for a tryst, and one never knew when Lavinia’s niece, Emeline, might select an inopportune moment to return home.
There was also the unpredictable nature of the business in which he and Lavinia were engaged. When one offered one’s services to persons who wished to commission private inquiries and investigations, one never knew when a client might knock on the door.
He looked at Aspasia. “What the devil are you doing here? I thought you were in Paris.”
“I am well aware that you have a tendency to be blunt to the point of rudeness on occasion, Tobias. But surely I deserve a warmer welcome from you. It is not as though I am only a casual acquaintance, after all.”
She was right, he thought. The two of them were forever linked by the events of the past and by a dead man named Zachary Elland.
“My apologies,” he said quietly, “but the truth is, you have caught me very much by surprise. I did not see you this afternoon when the other guests descended on the castle, nor did I notice you at the costume ball tonight.”
“I arrived quite late, after the evening festivities had commenced. I saw you at the ball, but you were preoccupied with your little redheaded friend.” Aspasia stripped off her gloves with languid grace and held her hands out to the fire. “Who on earth is she, Tobias? I would not have said that she was your type.”
“Her name is Mrs. Lake.” He did not bother to conceal the edge to his words.
“Ah, I see.” She looked down into the flames. “You are lovers.” It was a statement, not a question.
“We are also business partners,” he said evenly. “On occasion.”
Aspasia glanced at him, fine brows lifted in a faintly quizzical expression. “I do not understand. Do you refer to some financial dealings in which the two of you are engaged?”
“In a manner of speaking. Mrs. Lake and I both make our livings in the same fashion. She takes commissions for private inquiries, just as I do. We investigate certain cases together.”
She smiled fleetingly. “I suppose the private-inquiry business is a step up from being a spy, but surely it is not nearly as respectable as your previous career as a man of business.”
“I find it suits my temperament.”
“I will not ask how your partner made her living before she went into this odd profession.”
Enough was enough, he thought. There were limits to one’s obligations to old acquaintances. “Aspasia, tell me why you are here. I have plans for the remainder of the night.”
“Plans that no doubt include Mrs. Lake.” Aspasia sounded genuinely apologetic. “I truly am sorry, Tobias. Please believe me when I tell you that I would not have come to your bedchamber at this hour had it not been extremely urgent.”
“Can this matter wait until morning?”
“I’m afraid not.” She turned away from the fire and walked slowly toward him.
Aspasia was a woman of the world. He knew that she was well-schooled in the fine social art of concealing her private sentiments and feelings. But now he glimpsed a disturbing shift in the shadows beneath her cool veneer. He had seen that same emotion often enough in others to recognize it instantly. Aspasia Gray was afraid.
“What is wrong?” he asked, somewhat more gently this time.
She sighed. “I did not come here to spend a few days rusticating in the country. As of last night, I had no intention whatsoever of accepting the invitation to Beaumont’s house party. Indeed, I sent my regrets some weeks ago. But things changed. I am here now because I followed you, sir.”
He glanced at his pocket watch lying on the dressing table and saw that it was nearly one o’clock in the morning. The house had settled down for the night. In a few minutes Lavinia would knock on his door. He very much wanted to get rid of Aspasia before that happened.
“Why the devil did you chase all this way after me?” he asked. “It’s a six-hour drive from Town.”
“I had no choice. This morning I went straight to your address in Slate Street but you had already departed. Your man informed me that you had left for Beaumont Castle and would be gone for several days. Fortunately, I remembered that the invitation mentioned the costume ball. I managed to find this wig and a mask at the last minute.”
“You received an invitation to this affair?” he asked, curiosity stirring.
“Yes, of course.” Aspasia brushed that aside. “Lady Beaumont sends invitations to everyone in Society. She delights in entertaining. It has been her passion for years, and Lord Beaumont is only too happy to indulge her.”
Everyone in Society certainly did not include Lavinia or himself, he reflected. They managed to hang around on the fringes of the polite world thanks to connections with some wealthy, powerful former clients such as Vale and Mrs. Dove, but that association did not automatically qualify them to be placed on any hostess’s regular guest list.
Aspasia’s pedigree, on the other hand, was impeccable. She was the last of her line, and she controlled a substantial inheritance that she had received from her father. At seventeen she had been briefly married to a man some forty years her senior. His death six months after the nuptials had left her with an additional income. Tobias calculated that she was now twenty-eight. The combination of beauty, breeding, and money made her an extremely attractive addition to any guest list. It was not at all surprising that she had received an invitation to Beaumont Castle.
“I’m surprised the housekeeper was able to find a bedchamber for you on such short notice,” he said. “I thought the castle was filled to the rafters.”
“It is quite crowded. But when I arrived and made it plain that there had been ‘a mistake with the invitations,’ the butler and housekeeper consulted together. They managed to find a very pleasant room for me just down the hall. I suspect that they arranged to move someone of lesser consequence to a less desirable location.”
“Tell me what this is about, Aspasia.”
She began to pace back and forth in front of the hearth. “I’m not sure where to start. I returned from Paris last month and took a house in Town. Naturally I had intended to call upon you in due course after I was settled.”
He watched her face very closely and decided that he did not entirely believe that last statement. He was quite certain that, if she’d had a choice in the matter, she would have been content to avoid him indefinitely. He understood. She would always associate him with the tragic events of three years past.
“What changed your mind?” he asked.
Her expression did not alter, but her elegant bare shoulders stiffened with tension. It would, he reflected, take a great deal to rattle Aspasia’s nerves.
“Something happened this morning,” she said, gazing into the fire. “Something quite unsettling. I could not think of anything else to do but to consult with you immediately, Tobias.”
“I suggest you come straight to the point,” he said.
“Very well, but I fear you will not credit what I have to say if I do not show you what was left on my front step early this morning.”
She opened a tiny, beaded reticule and removed a small object wrapped in a linen handkerchief. She offered it to him on the palm of her hand.
He plucked the small parcel from her fingers and carried it across the room to examine it in the light of the candle. There he untied the handkerchief and let the cloth fall away.
He looked at the ring that had been revealed and felt the hair lift on the back of his neck.
“Hell’s teeth,” he whispered.
Aspasia said nothing. She folded her arms beneath her breasts and waited, eyes shadowed.
He studied the ring more closely. The band was set with black stones. The darkly glittering gems framed a small gold coffin. He used the tip of one finger to raise the lid.
A tiny, exquisitely detailed white skull grinned up at him from inside the miniature sarcophagus.
He angled the ring to read the Latin inscription on the inside of the lid, translating the ancient warning silently to himself. Death comes.
He met Aspasia’s eyes. “It is an old memento-mori ring.”
“Yes.” She hugged herself more tightly.
“You said it was left on your doorstep?”
“My housekeeper found it. The ring was inside a small box covered in black velvet.”
“Was there a note? A message of some kind?”
“No. Just that damned ring.” She shuddered, no longer bothering to conceal her disquiet. “You see now why I went to such lengths to find you tonight?”
“It is impossible,” he said flatly. “Zachary Elland is dead, Aspasia. We both saw the body.”
She closed her eyes briefly in pain and then looked at him very steadily. “You do not need to remind me.”
The old guilt slammed through him. “Of course not. My apologies.”
“Afterward,” she said slowly, “you told me you’d heard rumors of another man who once made a profession of murder, just as Zachary had done, a killer who used the same ghastly signature.”
“Calm yourself, Aspasia.”
“I recall you told me that he was never caught and that there was never any proof of murder in the first place because the deaths always appeared accidental or natural.”
“Maybe he’s still out there, Tobias. Maybe—”
“Listen closely,” he said in a tone that finally succeeded in silencing her. “The original Memento-Mori Man, if he ever actually existed, would be quite elderly by now. Dead, most likely. Those rumors dated from decades back. Crackenburne and some of his companions heard them years ago when they themselves were young men.”
“Yes, I know.”
“They eventually concluded that the tale of a professional killer for hire was never anything other than just that, a grisly legend. It was fed by rumors among servants who gossiped in the taverns and told tall tales to their friends. Zachary no doubt took pleasure in invoking the old stories because it suited his sense of melodrama. You know how he thrived on excitement.”
“Yes, of course.” The room was warm, but she rubbed her arms as though she felt a chill. “He craved thrills and drama the way some are addicted to opium.” She hesitated. “He no doubt enjoyed re-creating the legend of the Memento-Mori Man. Now it would appear that someone else has the same taste for melodrama.”
“Tobias, I do not mind telling you that I am quite frightened.”
“Obviously someone else knows about Zachary Elland and his connection to you.” He contemplated the miniature skull in the gold coffin. “Are you sure there was no note?”
“I am positive.” She stared bleakly at the ring. “He left that death’s- head on my step to terrify me.”
“Why would he do that?”
“I do not know.” A visible shiver went through her. “I’ve been thinking about that question all day. Indeed, I’ve thought of little else.” She paused. “What if . . . what if whoever left that ring blames me for Zachary’s death and seeks some sort of crazed revenge?”
“Zachary took his own life when he realized that I was about to have him brought up on charges of murder. You had nothing to do with his death.”
“Maybe whoever left that ring doesn’t know that.”
“Indeed.” But that conclusion did not feel right, he thought. He raised the little skull to the light again. The death’s-head stared back at him with its empty eye sockets, taunting him with its macabre grin. “We must also consider the possibility that this was intended as an announcement of some sort.”
“What do you mean?”
He weighed the ring in the palm of his hand. “You are one of the very small number of people who would comprehend the significance of this ring, because you are one of the few who knew that Zachary Elland styled himself the Memento-Mori Man and used such rings as his signature. I wonder if this is some new villain’s way of telling us that he plans to take up Zachary’s professional mantle.”
“You mean there might be another murderer out there who seeks to emulate the Memento-Mori Man? What a terrible thought.” She paused. “But if that were true, it would have been far more logical for him to leave his calling card with you, not me. You were the one who hunted Zachary down.”
“For all I know there will be a ring waiting for me when I return to Town,” he said quietly. “I set off very early this morning. Perhaps he delivered this ring to you first, and by the time he got to my house I was gone.”
She swung around and took a step toward him, anxiety clear in her eyes. “Tobias, whoever left that ring has something dreadful in mind. If you are right and this is a calling card, we are dealing with a new Memento-Mori Man. You must find him before someone is murdered.”