Home > A Wicked Conceit (Lady Darby Mysteries #9)

A Wicked Conceit (Lady Darby Mysteries #9)
Author: Anna Lee Huber


        Be sure to taste your words before you spit them out.

    —Scottish proverb



February 1, 1832

   Edinburgh, Scotland

   I blamed it on the salmon mousse. That, and my preoccupation with the stilted conversation around my sister’s dinner table that evening. If my stomach hadn’t been struggling to digest all the rich food I’d ingested and my mind hadn’t been turning over my uneasy reconciliation with my sister, I felt certain I would have noticed the man before he stepped out of the shadows.

   My husband, Sebastian Gage, pulled me to a halt, for the man clearly wasn’t a servant employed by the town house from whose stairwell he had emerged. The night was too cold, and the likelihood of someone wandering by too slim for him to be a thief waiting for some hapless victim to stroll through this part of New Town. Most of New Town’s inhabitants would have been huddled inside their carriages to travel to and from their evening entertainments.

   Gage and I had decided to walk because our home on Albyn Place was less than five minutes by foot from my sister’s in Charlotte Square. Not only did using our equipage for such a short journey seem more of a fuss than was necessary, but at seven months heavy with child, I welcomed the chill of a brief evening stroll, and the benefits to my constitution, especially after a large meal.

   I clutched my ermine-trimmed claret pelisse tighter around me, my arm unconsciously coming to rest over my rounded stomach in protection. Even when the man rounded the railing which separated the stairwell leading downward from the pavement, allowing the faint light of the streetlamp on the corner behind us to reveal his features, I didn’t relax my guard. For while I now recognized him, the fierce glitter in his eyes did nothing to reassure me he meant us no harm.

   “Oot for an evenin’ constitutional, are we?” Bonnie Brock Kincaid bit out, his words no less menacing despite their seeming innocuousness.

   “Returning home from a family dinner.” Gage’s eyes narrowed. “But you already knew that.”

   Bonnie Brock had told us once that nothing happened in Edinburgh without him knowing, and that seemed to prove true in the Georgian splendor of New Town as well as the cramped and fetid wynds and closes of Old Town, particularly when it came to me and Gage. The previous spring he’d deployed men to observe me and report my movements, and since our return to the city the week prior I’d begun to suspect his men were at it again.

   Gage studied our surroundings to our left and then our right. “Where are Stumps and Locke?”

   Bonnie Brock’s ever-present henchmen and bodyguards appeared to materialize out of the misty darkness, but my attention remained firmly fixed on their leader.

   It had been nine months since I’d last seen the ruthless and charismatic head of Edinburgh’s largest criminal gang. Nine months since he’d been poisoned and almost killed by a revenge-mad enemy from his past. Gage and I had departed Edinburgh soon after the culprit was apprehended, and while I’d known Bonnie Brock had made a full recovery, my last memory of him was a weak shadow of his normal self.

   From what I could view of him through his open greatcoat, his body had regained much of the weight and muscle it had lost. As always, he seemed underdressed for the cold of a Scottish winter, sporting well-tailored but simple garments and no neck cloth. But I’d realized a year ago that he chose to sacrifice warmth for ease of movement and ready access to the weapons tucked about his person. His tawny hair brushed his collarbone, much like a lion’s mane, and concealed the puckered scar which ran from his hairline down across his temple to his left ear.

   Though I knew it would irritate him for me to refer to our last meeting—to those days when he was as weak and helpless as a kitten—I couldn’t let this moment pass without saying something. “I’m relieved to see you appear as fit as ever.”

   His brow puckered as if suppressing some emotion, either further vexation or something softer, but no less cutting. “Aye, weel, looks like you’re in fine health as weel.” A roguish glint lit his gold-green eyes as he let them dip lower to my abdomen. “I see Gage has been an attentive husband.”

   In the past such a comment might have made me blush, but I could tell Bonnie Brock was resorting to crassness in order to distract from his own vulnerabilities. I’d suspected as much in the past, but now I knew it. And when neither Gage nor I rose to his bait, his scowl deepened.

   “What do you want, Kincaid?” my husband demanded.

   I had a fair guess what this was about, but I wanted to hear it from Bonnie Brock himself.

   He strode closer until Gage lifted a hand, warding him off. His mouth twisted. “What’s the matter? Worried I’ll stick a dagger in your side and run off wi’ your bride?”

   “No, but I am worried you carry the cholera, and I’d prefer if you didn’t infect my expectant wife,” Gage replied sharply, his voice brooking no argument.

   At these words, some of Bonnie Brock’s ferocity diminished, recognizing as well as we did how dangerous such a thing would be.

   Cholera morbus, which had run rampant through Russia and the countries surrounding the Baltic Sea, had arrived in Britain in October. From Sunderland, it had spread north and south largely along the coast, arriving in Edinburgh just before Christmas. With Old Town’s squalid rows of tenements packed together cheek by jowl, with naught but a narrow wynd or close separating some of them, it was no wonder that the disease had gained a foothold there. The air was often foul, at best, and the food consumed by its residents sometimes barely edible, while the wide streets and airy squares of New Town, with their spacious Georgian town houses filled with a healthy, well-fed populace, had thus far escaped the worst of the infection.

   By all reports, the cholera was much worse than the minor outbreak of typhus that the lower denizens of the city had faced the previous spring. As overrun as the infirmary had been then, I could only imagine the difficulties they were facing now. Of course, cholera morbus could also kill more quickly. Sometimes in less than twenty-four hours. The numbers in which people were dying were frightening, although the reports from Glasgow, London, and places on the European continent seemed to suggest that Edinburgh had thus far escaped the worst.

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