A Stroke of Malice (Lady Darby Mystery #8) - Anna Lee Huber


O, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive!


JANUARY 5, 1832


If there had been any doubts I was visiting a ducal estate, the trumpeting buglers would have clarified the matter. Not that there was truly any confusion. Not when I was staying in a grand 284-room Gothic castle surrounded by nothing but miles of steep snowy hills and ice-choked burns, save the occasional sheep. And the soaring bedchamber to which I’d been assigned was so lavishly furnished it might have put Louis XIV’s Versailles to shame. But the buglers were so unexpected, and so extravagant, that after first catching my breath from the start they’d given me, I found myself giggling at the absurdity.

My husband smiled down at me. “They are a trifle excessive, aren’t they?”

“Do all dukes feel it necessary to summon their guests in such a manner?” I asked as we descended the stone spiral staircase, his arm linked with mine. Though I had spent a fair amount of time in a number of aristocratic households, including the establishments of my brother-in-law, the Earl of Cromarty, I had never visited the estate of someone as lofty as a duke. Upon our arrival at Sunlaws Castle earlier that day, we’d been greeted by a battalion of footmen dressed in crisp green and black livery with gold braid.

But prior to our marriage nine months earlier, Sebastian Gage’s bachelor status, as well as his charm, wealth, and attractiveness, had guaranteed he was a greatly sought after guest. And those attributes didn’t even factor into account the delicate investigations he often undertook on behalf of the nobility as a gentlemen inquiry agent, or his father’s friendships with men as highly ranked as the king himself.

“Not all, but the Duke of Bowmont certainly isn’t an aberration,” he replied. “In truth, he seems to be one of the more unpretentious persons of his rank. I suspect the buglers are merely tradition. And I suppose we can’t argue with their effectiveness.” He cringed as another musical barrage assaulted our ears. “You can certainly hear them echoing throughout the entire castle.”

I rather thought a gong might be as effective, and a bit less jarring. Or perhaps furnishing each room with some sort of chiming clock.

We reached the first floor and a shiver ran through me from a stray draft wafting through the corridors. I pulled my ivory shawl tighter around me, grateful I’d elected to drape it over my bare shoulders revealed by the scooped neckline of my amethyst sarsnet gown. At nearly six months full with child, I found that I was more often warm than cold, but an ancient castle of such immense size was all but impossible to heat efficiently, especially during the chill of a Scottish winter. I could already hear the sound of merry voices drifting through the doors of the dining room further along the corridor. Warm light spilled out into the gloom of the passage, and we hastened forward, eager to join the festivities.

It appeared as if about half of the Duke and Duchess of Bowmont’s approximately five dozen guests were already gathered in Sunlaws Castle’s dining room. My maid, Bree, had already ferreted out the information that there was an even more opulent state dining room on the opposite side of the castle, but after surveying the room before me, in terms of opulence, I didn’t know how much grander one could get. The ceiling was graced with not one but two Waterford chandeliers surrounded by intricate stucco medallions. The walls were fitted with panels of azure silk damask, and the fretwork across all the surfaces, including the curtain rails, was gilded.

However, the other guests’ attention was not on the Van Orley tapestries or the priceless landscapes by Claude Lorrain spanning the walls, but on the two-tiered Twelfth Night cake perched at the center of the long carved mahogany table. The duchess had told me her pâtissier and confectioner had outdone themselves this year in their preparation of the evening’s treat, and while I could not judge their efforts against those from previous years, I agreed the dessert’s appearance was quite splendid. The plum cake was covered in layers of pale sugared icing and then lined with intricate figures made of marzipan. When I leaned closer, I could see that they were courtiers from a medieval court: a jester, a knight, ladies in waiting, and of course, a king and queen.

Upon our arrival, the duchess had prepared us for