Her Rake of Hearts (Preview)

Chapter One

London, England

November, 1808

“Thank you, thank you!” The man sobbed as he held the girl close. “I dunno wha’ I woulda done wivout ‘elp!”

Rebecca watched through the glass window of the back office overlooking the small but clean lobby, where Frank was grinning and beaming at the young man and girl.

“That’s our specialty,” she heard him say proudly.

When the father had collected himself well enough, he set a heavy bag of coins on the counter with a grateful sigh. The familiar clink of coins was always a satisfying sound. As soon as the father and newly reunited daughter were out of sight, Rebecca dashed out of the back office to retrieve the bag. Frank watched her, amused, as she counted each coin and separated them into piles.

“A third for me, a third for you, and a third for Sally,” Rebecca said brightly.

“Another satisfied customer,” Frank agreed, sweeping his side of the coinage into a small leather pouch he kept on his person.

“Indeed. Though I sometimes wonder if we are only here to locate lost children and wives,” Rebecca said with a small frown.

“Everyone’s life has meaning to someone else,” Frank counseled. “And besides, what does it matter when we make good coin?”

“I suppose that’s true. I do need a new pair of gloves,” she said teasingly.

“Do you mind closing up shop? I have an important meeting I need to attend,” he asked, already halfway across the small lobby, clearly eager to leave as he was practically bouncing at the doorway.

“By important meeting, do you mean a liaison with a lady?” Rebecca quipped.

By now, Frank was immune to her teasing and no longer blushed in embarrassment when Rebecca said such things.

“Quite possibly,” he answered, matching that teasing energy.

“Who is it, then? Miranda?”

“No, no. Simply didn’t work out between us.”

“What about that other one? Eliza?”

Frank looked baffled. “Eliza? No, surely not. We stopped seeing each other quite a while ago.”

Rebecca put her hands on her hips and regarded her friend curiously.

“You are avoiding my line of questioning, Mr. Patterson,” she pried.

Frank ran a hand through his chestnut hair and sighed.

“If you must know, I have met someone new. She’s quite lovely. The daughter of one of our clients.”

Now that was interesting.

“Frank, you cannot entertain romantic notions for clients! It is bad for business!”

Frank held up his hands in mock surrender as if to show innocence.

“She was in need of support. A shoulder to cry on, if you will.”

Rebecca’s green eyes narrowed into slits.

“I’m sure you were happy to oblige,” she said sarcastically. “I do wonder what she would think if she learned that I did the bulk of the work.”

“Ah,” Frank said, holding his finger up in the air as if to indicate his bright idea, “but I helped. My assistance cannot be discredited.”

Rebecca rolled her eyes.

“You tacked pamphlets and broadsides to buildings.”

“In very poor and dangerous parts of London, might I add! If my mother knew you sent me to Poplar, she’d kick you out of the building this instant.”

“I highly doubt that,” Rebecca said dryly. “I do believe I am her best tenant. Never a noise complaint, rent is always paid on time, and I keep a clean storefront.”

“You’re also easily the prettiest tenant,” Frank said with a wink.

Rebecca’s words were cut short by the piercing chime of the grandfather clock, indicating that it was already ten o’clock.

“Sally should be here by now,” she mused. She retrieved her small pocket watch from the pocket underneath her skirt and compared its time to the larger one.

“Well, you know Sally. Always likes to make an entrance,” Frank offered.

“Not when it comes to collecting her share of the money. I wonder if her new beau is keeping her. She was never this distracted and forgetful before they met,” she mused.

“If she is happy, isn’t that all that matters?”

“I suppose you’re right. I still would like to meet him, though.”

“Perhaps Sally is embarrassed.”

“Why ever would she be embarrassed?”

Frank shrugged. “Maybe her new suitor is ugly. You have been known to speak your mind on such matters.”

“I’ve never once called anyone’s suitor ugly! Even if I really thought so!” Rebecca maintained.

“Perhaps not, but you have this…look on your face. You don’t need words to convey your true feelings.”

“It is all an act,” Rebecca said, a little put off by the conversation but doing her best to mask it. “That is what makes me a great detective.”

“Of course, it is. In any case, Sally will introduce us when she’s ready,” Frank conceded.

“I simply don’t understand her lately,” Rebecca said as she returned the earnings to the office, securing them in the safe. “She never used to be so secretive.”

“Can’t a woman keep secrets? It is, after all, part of what makes them so alluring,” Frank said. Had Rebecca been closer to him, she would have thumped him on the back of the head with the account book.

“I dislike your tone. I will, however, call on Sally on my way home. At the very least, I want to know if she’s all right.”

“Don’t be too late. Mother’s nerves will be inconsolable if she has to stay up late for you again.”

“I appreciate that she does that for me, but she doesn’t have to. Please tell her to go to sleep at a reasonable time. Other landladies do,” Rebecca urged, a tinge of guilt creeping up the back of her neck. Mrs. Patterson was kind to her, almost like a mother. She did far more than she should as her landlady for the shop and her small but respectable rooms.

“My mother is not like other landladies. She’ll be upset you said that,” Frank said flippantly.

“Then I trust you to be sensible, Mr. Patterson. It is no use upsetting her any more than you already do.”

Just last week, Mrs. Patterson had given Frank quite the lecture when she found out he was courting yet another woman and had stayed out late at the clubs without telling her.

Frank sighed in defeat.

“Yes, I suppose you are right. Well, in any case, please come home at a reasonable hour. Tell Sally I love her dearly.”

“I’m sure she’ll be very appreciative,” Rebecca replied sarcastically.

Frank stuck his tongue out at her as he walked out of the shop but still smiled. Despite his charms and rakish ways, he was a good friend, and she knew that without his support, her detective business would struggle. People were still unwilling to trust a woman for such serious matters. Frank was the face, and she was the hands. She had not stumbled into detective work entirely by chance, though her life circumstances had certainly pointed her in that direction. Captain John Lyttleton, her late father, had retired from the military. He needed to occupy himself after becoming restless and landless due to Parliament’s enclosure laws. He’d always been good at chess, puzzles, and general cleverness, so he started a private detective agency. Harriet, Rebecca’s late mother, had come from a wealthier family than John. She, too, restless and constrained by society, used her dowry to fund John’s private detective business. She’d been clever too, always enjoying word games and solving riddles. Thus, Rebecca had a natural proclivity for such work. After their untimely passing, the business was all she had. She threw herself into her work, leaving little time for mourning. But she knew that if she stopped, even for a second, she wouldn’t be able to continue.

It was already dark by the time she concluded her business at the office. Her father had taught her the importance of keeping detailed, organized records, and she did so dutifully. It was tedious, especially when she wished for the comfort of her bed, but if she was going to have the best private detective agency in London, with a better reputation than even the Bow Street Runners, she needed to be meticulous. When satisfied that all the files were in order, she fastened her bonnet and Spencer jacket on, locked the door, and began the walk home. The little sign above the door swayed back and forth in the wind. Helios Lyttleton, Private Detective, it read in swoopy gilded letters, with a black magnifying glass painted in the corner. No, it was not her name. It was not even really her father’s name–but he had called her his “shining sun” when he’d been alive. Helios at least harkened back to that term of endearment while sounding interesting and trustworthy. Rebecca took one last look at the office to make sure it was locked up before heading out into the night.

It wasn’t particularly cold, especially for November, which explained the thick fog that had settled around the city. It would be even worse near the Thames, where she rented a small apartment from Mrs. Patterson. Nonetheless, she tightened her jacket around her slim frame. Something about the fog made a nighttime walk home even eerier. No one bothered her on the way home. Sometimes there were beggars or drunks out and about, but it was probably too early for the drunks and too late for the beggars. Rebecca was surprised to find Sally’s house, a townhouse she shared with several other women, locked. There seemed to be candlelight in the upstairs windows, indicating that someone was home—it wasn’t like Sally to be so irresponsible. London had already burned down once; it had no need to do so again.

No one answered when she knocked. After a few moments, Rebecca knocked again, and still nothing. How odd. Pressing her ear to the heavy wooden door, she couldn’t hear any footsteps and saw no shadows in the windowpanes. She was unsettled.  At least one of the ladies was usually at home, so panic began to rise in her belly. She took the small lock pick from her pocket and crouched by the doorknob, fully aware that this was illegal, but it couldn’t hurt as long as no one was looking. Rebecca had asked Sally for a key several times, the latter had one for hers, after all.  But the poor girl had been so absentminded lately. It was highly concerning.

The house was cold and quiet. Clearly, no one had been there in a while. There was, however, a small glimmer of light at the top of the stairs, where Rebecca knew Sally’s bedchamber was.

“Sally?” Rebecca shouted cautiously as she ascended the staircase. “Sally, are you here? I’ve got your cut.”

The staircase creaked underfoot, sending a shiver down her spine, which intensified when she noticed the door to Sally’s room was ajar.

“Sally, I hate to interrupt, but–”

Rebecca’s heart sank as soon as she opened the door. A scream, almost inhuman, ripped through the night, causing her to fall to her knees in shock as her hands trembled.

Chapter Two

“You’re absolutely certain you didn’t touch the body?” Adrian asked, pinching the bridge of his nose and stifling a sigh.

The young woman shook her head.

“Nay, sir. The moment I found her, I came runnin’ here.”

Adrian nodded. At least that made his job a little easier. Nights like this made him regret his decision to become a Bow Street Runner. It was cold and humid, and the last thing on his mind was a murder. He just wanted to go to bed, but the woman had knocked on the door so urgently that he felt compelled to help her.

“All right. I will alert the other runners and we ought to be on our way. I need to see the room exactly as you left it.”

The woman waited in the lobby while Adrian alerted the others, instructing them that he’d likely need assistance very soon at this particular address. And then they were off. The address was not in a particularly nice part of London, but Adrian had seen worse as a Bow Street Runner. When they were at the stoop, the woman stopped short and gasped.

“I…I swear I locked it ‘afore I left!” The front door was open just slightly, as if she might not have closed it hard enough when she scurried to his office in such haste. But the look of panic and bewilderment on her face was genuine, which was enough to tell Adrian that this was a more dangerous situation than he had previously thought. Any hint of tiredness almost instantly evaporated from his body as all his senses switched to high alert.

“Stay here. In case the killer is still inside and comes out this way, I need you to tell me which way he goes,” Adrian instructed.

The woman was on the verge of crying but nodded and dutifully remained at her post. She didn’t even blink as Adrian drew his pistol from his jacket and held it ready as he crept inside the house.

His military training had taught him to inspect the rooms at strategic angles before simply walking in, so he did just that. It was difficult in the dark, but his eyes adjusted quickly. No one was downstairs, but there was still light on the upper level, so someone was either still there or had left rather quickly. Adrian rushed up the stairs, cursing internally as they creaked underfoot. Nearing the door, he could see candlelight flickering. Oddly enough, he could hear mutterings and whispers too. Someone was definitely there. He took a deep breath to center himself, tightened his grip on his pistol, and swung the door open, catching the person off guard.

Immediately he was met with a scream, and a small glass vase sailed past him, narrowly missing his head, and smashed against the wall. His gun was raised but he did not shoot–for the face looking back at him was terribly familiar. Suddenly, he was transported through time, and images from the past flooded his mind, most notably of the woman before him, dressed in a beautiful gown with flowing hair, telling him that he needed to kiss a woman to become a man. Then his thoughts turned to her lovely lips and how they tasted. Those strange memories, however, vanished as soon as she spoke.

“Good God! What are you doing here?!” Rebecca Lyttleton shouted at him.

“Keep your voice down!” Adrian scolded.

Good God, this was a horrible sight. Rebecca Lyttleton was holding the horribly butchered body of a woman, whom he could only assume was Sally, based on what the other woman had said on their way over here. To make matters worse, Rebecca had clearly been there for a long time, as her gown was blood-soaked in some places, and her eyes were rimmed with red and puffy. It was not at all the reunion he’d pictured.

“Sally’s gone,” she said morosely, crying again.

As bad as Adrian felt for Rebecca, the state in which he found her was much worse. She was in the middle of the crime scene, covered in blood and holding a woman’s murdered body. If anyone else had found her, they would have immediately deemed her the killer, crying out of immense guilt and female hysteria. It was a good thing he was there, but it was still an ugly sight.

Adrian placed the pistol on a nearby side table and cautiously approached her, his hands up in surrender.

“Miss Lyttleton, I need you to come with me,” he said in that soft but firm voice that he used when talking to victims or close associates of victims.

Rebecca didn’t seem to hear him. She was still crying and holding Sally’s body, running tender fingers over her cheeks.

“Miss Lyttleton,” he said, a little firmer this time, “please. We need to go.”

He tried to grab her arm, but she thrashed wildly, refusing to be held.

“Get away from me!” she screamed.

Poor thing, she looked like a wild animal caught in a trap, scrambling to get out.

As Rebecca sobbed, Adrian took a moment to survey the scene. There had been no sign of forced entry downstairs, and there didn’t seem to be any in the room. There had clearly been a scuffle as papers, clothes, and furniture were strewn about and out of place. And then there was the matter of Sally’s wounds; the several stab wounds on her torso and part of her neck. She’d tried to fight, hence the multiple stabbings, but the one at her throat was the fatal one. Whoever did this was enraged, as evidenced by the brutality of the wounds. There was no way of knowing if anything had been taken without knowing what the room had looked like earlier, but Rebecca could know. This was also not a particularly awful London neighborhood. If word got out that a woman had been stabbed to death in her own home, the ton would be flooded with gossip, making assessing the truth that much more difficult.

“Rebecca, look at me,” he said, taking her face between his hands and forcing her to look at him. “You need to tell me what you’re doing here.”

Her green eyes were glassy and she hiccuped, unable to calm herself and speak coherently.

“I… Sally…the m-money… and now, she–she’s–” Rebecca broke into tears again. Adrian still couldn’t figure out why she was there. If she’d uttered such words to anyone else, she’d be clapped in irons and hauled off to jail, or worse, Bedlam.

“Rebecca, we need to get out of here. The rest of the Bow Street Runners will be here soon, and the circumstances are most unfortunate for you.”

“I can’t! I can’t leave Sally!” she cried, her shoulders heaving with the effort of the sobs.

“Rebecca, you are covered in blood in the middle of a crime scene, holding your friend’s body. If anyone else finds you here, you’ll be arrested.”

With his help, she rose clumsily onto her feet, surveying her surroundings as if really noticing them for the first time. And then all color drained off her face when she saw her reflection in the mirror. But alas, not a moment later, she fainted, her eyes rolling back into her head. Adrian cursed as he rushed over to catch her before her head hit the ground.

This was quite a conundrum, indeed. He’d taken enough visual notes to recall it well, but it was a fresh crime scene, and he needed to stay and search for any other clues. But he also needed to protect his old friend. The others would be here soon, and he could not risk them seeing Miss Lyttleton in such a state. Adrian sighed and cursed again. He set the unconscious Rebecca on a nearby chair, slumped against the wall. That was good enough for now. He took his pistol and stuffed it back into his jacket, then retrieved his small notebook and pen. If nothing else, he could at least take some notes before anyone else tampered with the evidence. He noted the various wounds on Sally’s body, counted them all, and the position in which he’d found the body, guessing how it would have lain before Rebecca held her. Then he took stock of every single item in the room in case something was found to be missing later.

When he was done, he went downstairs to speak to the young woman who’d initially alerted the office.

“Miss, is there somewhere else you can stay for the next few days?” he asked.

The poor girl looked frightened, but she nodded.

“Good. If you need to pack a bag, please do so quickly. I have to finish some of the initial investigation, but it is unsafe for you here should the killer decide to return. When the other officers arrive, they will most likely want to question you. Stay calm; they mean no harm.”

The woman nodded.

“Right. Please provide your fellow officers with the address of your accommodation in case any further inquiries arise.”

Having tied up the loose ends, he ran up the steps two at a time until he reached the crime scene. Rebecca was still uncoscious, and did not even stir as Adrian scooped her up. He did not want to go out the front door in case anyone saw–because that would look very suspicious indeed–but houses like these usually had a small back garden, or at the very least, small back area to stow trash or coal. He quickly located a back door, and some rickety old wooden steps led down to a small stone courtyard with a washing tub and a sad looking potted plant. This led into an alley behind that. Perhaps the killer had escaped this way–but it was too dark to see, and without a candle, he wouldn’t be able to closely inspect for bloodstains. Hopefully the rest of the Runners would think to look. At the very least, he’d be back in the morning.

Right now, he needed to get Rebecca as far away from the crime scene as possible.

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