Old Bailey, London
The courtroom was packed and smelled of sweat.
James Lambert, the Marquess of Hatherfield—heir to that colossal monument of British prestige, the Duke of Southam—was accustomed to the stench of jammed-in human perspiration and did not mind in the slightest. He feared, however, for the young woman who sat before him.
Hatherfield couldn’t watch her face directly, of course, but he could sense the tension humming away in her body, like the telephone wire his stepmother had had installed into her private study last year, in order to better command her army of Belgravian sycophants. He knew that her back was as straight as a razor’s edge; he knew that her eyes would appear more green than blue in the sulfurous light waxing from the gas sconces of the courtroom, and that those same eyes were undoubtedly trained upon the presiding judge with a fierceness that might have done her conquering Germanic ancestors proud.
He knew his Stefanie as he knew his own hands, and he knew she would rather be boiled in oil than sniff a human armpit. His darling Stefanie, who thought herself so adventurous, who had proved herself equal to any number of challenges, had nonetheless been raised a princess, with a princess’s delicate nose.
The judge was droning on, precedents this and brutal nature of the crime that, and Latin tags strewn about with reckless enthusiasm. He was a man of narrow forehead and prodigious jowl; the rolls about his neck wobbled visibly as he spoke. A large black fly had discovered the interesting composition of the curling white wig atop his pear-shaped head and was presently buzzing about the apex in lazily ecstatic loops. Hatherfield watched its progress in fascination. It landed atop the fourth roll of wiry white hair with a contented bzzz-bzzz, just as Her Majesty’s judicial representative informed the mass of perspiring humanity assembled before him that they were required to maintain an open mind as to the prisoner’s guilt ad captandum et ad timorem sine qua non sic transit gloria mundi et cetera et cetera et cetera.
Or perhaps he was now addressing the jury. Hatherfield couldn’t be certain; the man’s face was cast downward, into his notes; or rather into the jowls overhanging his notes. Like that chap at Oxford, that history don, the one who would insist on taking tea at his desk and dropping bits of crumpet unavoidably into the jowly folds, to be excavated later as he stroked his whiskers during lectures. On a good day, the dais might be strewn with the crumbly little buggers, and a positive trail left behind him on the way back to his chambers. What had they nicknamed him? Hatherfield screwed up his forehead and stared at the magnificent soot-smeared ceiling above.
Hansel, that was it.
A flash of movement caught his eye. Something was going on with Stefanie’s fingers: She was scribbling furiously on the paper before her, biting her tender lower lip as she went. She looked up, locked eyes with him, and flashed the paper up and down again, the work of an instant. He saw the words, nonetheless. They were written in large capital letters, underlined twice for emphasis:
Ah, Stefanie. He tapped his fingers against the rail before him and composed his reply in Morse code:
I AM PAYING ATTENTION. TO YOU. YOU LOOK EXCEPTIONALLY HANDSOME IN THAT WAISTCOAT. I SHOULD VERY MUCH LIKE TO KISS YOU.
He watched as her eyes dropped down to his fingers. He tapped the message again.
She changed color. Well, he couldn’t see her well enough to verify, but he knew anyway. The flush would be mounting up above her stiff white collar, spreading along the curving wedge of her regal cheekbones and beneath her mustache. The tip of her nose would be turning quite pink right about . . . now. Yes, there it was: a little red glow. Just like when he . . .
With her elegant and agile fingers, Stefanie tore the paper in half, and in half again; she assembled the quarters together and tore them rather impressively once more. She hid the pieces under a leather portfolio and locked her hands together. Her knuckles were bone white; Hatherfield could see that from here.
Familiar words struck his ear, jolting him out of his pleasant interlude: his stepmother’s name. “. . . the Duchess of Southam, who was found murdered in her bed in the most gruesome manner, the details of which will become clear . . .”
The Duchess of Southam. Trust her to toss her bucket of icy water over his every moment of happiness, even from the grave, merely by the sound of her name in a room full of witnesses. He had tried by every means to deny her that power over him, and still she laid her cold hands on his body.
Hatherfield found he couldn’t quite bear to look at Stefanie now. He trained his gaze instead on the judge. The fly had disappeared, frightened away perhaps by the thunderous vibration of those tempting white curls, as the speaker worked himself up to an indignant climax—a theatrical chap, this judge, for all his comical jowls—and asked the prisoner how he pleaded.
Hatherfield’s hands gripped the rail before him. He straightened his long back, looked the judge squarely in the eye, and replied in a loud, clear voice.
“Not guilty, my lord.”
Eight months earlier
Princess Stefanie Victoria Augusta, a young woman not ordinarily subject to attacks of nerves, found to her horror that her fingers were twitching so violently she could scarcely fold her necktie.
True, it was a drab necktie. She had longed for one in spangled purple silk, or that delicious tangerine she had spotted through a carriage window on a dapper young chap in London, before she and her sisters had been hustled away by their uncle to this ramshackle Jacobin pile perched on a sea cliff in remotest Devon. (For the record, she adored the place.) But the array of neckties laid out before her on the first morning of her training had offered three choices: black, black, and black.
“Haven’t you any interesting neckties?” she had asked, letting one dangle from the extreme tips of her fingers, as if it were an infant’s soiled napkin.
“My dear niece,” said the Duke of Olympia, as he might say my dear incontinent puppy, “you are not supposed to be interesting. You are supposed to be the dullest, most commonplace, most unremarkable law clerk in London. You are hiding, if you’ll recall.”