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October's crisp autumn nights are perfect for reading

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The Affair continues...


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Is he dead or alive?



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A Lady Fan Mystery #2
Berkley
April 2012
On Sale: April 3, 2012
Featuring: Lord Francis Fanshawe; Ottilia Fanshawe
384 pages
ISBN: 0425245675
EAN: 9780425245675
Kindle: B005GSYY3U
Trade Size / e-Book
$15.00
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Mystery Historical

Also by Elizabeth Bailey:

The Deathly Portent, April 2012
Trade Size
The Gilded Shroud, September 2011
Paperback
A Trace of Memory, September 2007
Paperback
The Count's Charade, July 2006
Paperback
Kitty, December 2005
Paperback

Excerpt of The Deathly Portent by Elizabeth Bailey

The overnight storm had given way to a fresh summer day, with a rapidly rising temperature. But it had left the roads a quagmire.

Lord Francis Fanshawe was hot, sticky, and decidedly out of temper. He unbent his body from useless contemplation of the axletree, in the vain hope that Ryde was mistaken in saying it was broken. He shifted to flex the ache in his back from bending too long and regarded the muddy road with acute disfavour. The coach wheels were stuck fast, and his boots were caked. They were probably ruined forever—or would be, once he put them in the hands of the boots at a wayside inn. Why in Hades had he come away without his valet?

As if in sympathy, his stomach growled, protesting the hours since breakfast. Francis glanced over to where the three remaining horses, released from their traces and temporarily tethered to a nearby tree, were grazing, ready to eat themselves into a stupor while Francis starved.

At that instant, his gaze fell upon his bride, and his vexation intensified. Tillie was palpably to blame for these evils, but instead of decently railing at an unhappy fate, she could think of nothing better to do than to wander along the roadside admiring wildflowers and humming.

"Ottilia!"

His wife of a few short weeks merely turned her head and waved before continuing on her way. Francis cursed and strode in her direction.

"For pity's sake, come and wait in the coach," he called. "You will exhaust yourself wandering about in this heat."

Tillie checked and turned her clear gaze upon him, raising her brows.

"I am more like to faint from being shut up in that stuffy coach, do you not think?"

"No, I do not. It may be hours before Ryde or Williams gets back."

His groom, despatched to locate the nearest smithy, had gone off in one direction across country, while the coachman, riding the post-horse, had gone back along the main road towards Atherstone, through which they had passed a little before the breakdown, in a bid to locate a decent hostelry where some form of transport might be hired to enable the stranded travellers to seek shelter.

"Surely not," objected Tillie. "That kindly yokel spoke of a village a mere half mile or so from here."

Francis all but snorted. "Do you know no better than to take a country fellow's estimate for gospel? I daresay it is five miles or more to this Witherley place, if we only knew."

For a moment, he received no reply other than his wife's measured regard. Francis knew that look.

"If you are about to try your cajolery on me, Tillie, let me warn you I am not in the mood."

Tillie's characteristic laugh escaped her lips, and his ill temper lightened briefly. "I can see that, my dearest."

She stepped gently off the grass verge and picked a path across the muddy road, holding up her skirts. Having wisely left her travelling greatcoat in the coach, she was clad only in a gown of soft green muslin that emphasised her curves, a mere wisp of lace tucker covering the swell of her bosom. Below her chip straw bonnet, tendrils of her banded hair escaped confinement under a cap and her high-boned cheeks seemed unaffected by the heat that was adding to Francis's frustrations. For an instant he softened, reflecting on the pleasure the mere sight of her gave him, transformed—thanks to his mother's insistence and his own open purse—from the dowdy companion he had first encountered. Then his eye caught on the clutch of coloured stems tucked in her fingers, and his irritation flared anew.

"You are the most maddening female, Tillie," he told her as she came up.

She looked rueful. "Dear me. Am I still in disgrace?"

Francis almost relented, but for the lurking twinkle in his wife's eye. "You know very well we should not have been in this mess had you not insisted on leaving your godmother's this morning. Anyone with a modicum of common sense must have known what the outcome would be after such a storm as we had last night."

To his intense satisfaction, his wife's patience cracked.

"For heaven's sake, Fan, don't start again! All well for you, able to leave the room the moment you could no longer endure it, but I was obliged to answer again and again to the same set of questions and comment. I tell you, if we had not escaped, I would have been ready to stab her with the carving knife."

"Thus ensuring you don't receive a farthing when she is finally gathered to her forefathers."

"Just so," Ottilia said, disregarding his sarcasm. "Far safer to leave at once."

The duty visit to Lady Edingale had indeed been trying, as Francis was obliged to concede. Tillie's ancient benefactor, a schoolfriend of her deceased grandmother, was both deaf and forgetful. She had signally failed to grasp the fact of Ottilia's marriage, despite endless repetitions by both parties and the old lady's long-suffering companion. Or if she had grasped it, she had forgotten it within minutes, enlivening every attempt at conversation with a refrain that at last alienated even his wife's wide tolerance.

"You should think of getting married again, Ottilia. You cannot be mourning your lost love forever."

In vain had his poor Tillie, virtually shouting into the old lady's ear trumpet, protested her new state. It proved of no avail to point Francis out as her husband, for whenever he walked into a room where she was, Lady Edingale invariably took immediate exception to his presence.

"Who is this? What's that? Francis, you say? Know him? Of course I don't know him. Never seen the fellow before in my life."

Nevertheless, it had been foolhardy to set out in these conditions, despite the early promise of the sun. Annoyed with himself for giving in to Tillie's insistence against his better judgement, Francis was aware of being driven to vent his spleen unfairly. He moderated his tone.

"Tillie, I'm hungry and hot and frustrated."

A faint smile flickered on her lips. "And sadly out of temper." She lifted the gloved hand in which her collection of wildflowers was still clutched and rested it lightly against his chest. "Could you truly have endured another such night of creeping about in the dark?"

Francis felt his irritation melting away. Lady Edingale's steadfast refusal to acknowledge their marriage had resulted in furtive assignations in either one of their allotted separate bedchambers. His fingers came up to grasp her hand as he lifted a teasing eyebrow.

"To tell you the truth, I was rather enjoying the romance of it all."

He was rewarded with the gurgle that never failed to affect him.

"You should have mentioned that at the outset," said Tillie. "Such an argument might well have persuaded me to remain."

"What, and miss this adventure?"

"How well you know me!"

He had to laugh. "Wretch!"

Tillie leaned up, and Francis obligingly kissed her on the lips.

"Am I forgiven?"

He gave an elaborate sigh. "I suppose I must be magnanimous."

"Especially considering I am the newest of brides and entitled to a deal more latitude than might normally be the case."

"Latitude? I am more like to end by locking you up and forbidding you to leave the house under any circumstances."

"I should call on your friend George to throw a rope ladder up to my window," returned his wife with scarcely a tremor in her voice. But the mischief in her eyes drove away the last of his irritation.

"Is that the best you can do?" he scoffed. "For shame, Tillie. And here I thought I would provide you with puzzle enough to tax your ingenuity to the utmost."

Before she could retaliate, a hail from behind drew Francis's attention. Releasing his wife, he turned to see his groom reentering the main road from the little lane into which Ryde's steps had been directed by the local whom Francis had earlier accosted.

"Ah, there you are at last."

As Ryde crossed the road towards them, Ottilia noted a look of perturbation in the man's face.

"All is not well, I think," she murmured.

Her husband cast her a frowning look but made no comment, instead turning his attention back to the groom. "Had you no success? Don't say there is no blacksmith at this village after all."

A faint smile twisted Ryde's lips as he came up. It struck Ottilia as grim. A dour fellow at the best of times, the groom was nevertheless, so Francis assured her, one of his household's greatest assets. He had served his master from Lord Francis Fanshawe's earliest years and, like his valet Diplock, had followed him through his soldiering adventures. Ottilia had learned already to trust the man's judgement.

"There's a blacksmith, all right, m'lord," he responded, removing his hat and wiping his hand across his grizzled and sweaty head. "Only he's dead."

Ottilia saw renewed vexation leap quickly into Francis's eyes, and she made an immediate effort to deflect his attention. "Recently, Ryde?"

"Last night, m'lady."

"Last night?" Francis echoed. "If that isn't the devil's own luck."

"For Duggleby, m'lord, as I hear is the man's name."

From no other servant would her husband have accepted the implied rebuke, Ottilia knew. She intervened swiftly, knowing his temper to be exacerbated already.

"What happened to him, Ryde?"

"Seems the roof caved in on him, m'lady."

"Good God," uttered Francis, startled. "Then the poor fellow was crushed to death?"

"Was it the storm, Ryde?"

A faint twitch attacked the groom's mouth, and his eye gleamed. Noting these rare signs of amusement, Ottilia waited with burgeoning interest.

"The storm, m'lady, or a witch's curse, if the villagers are to be believed."

A spurt of laughter was surprised out of Francis, but Ottilia was intrigued.

"How could that be?"

Ryde shrugged. "I couldn't make much sense of it, m'lady. Seems this witch claims she saw the roof come down in a vision."

"Wise after the event, eh?"

"Before, m'lord. By all accounts, this Mrs. Dale gave warning to this Duggleby a couple of days back."

"And it happened as she said? Sheer luck, no doubt."

Ottilia put up a finger. "Don't dismiss it so lightly, Francis. Perhaps the woman has second sight."

The groom was nodding. "That's what they say, m'lady. It ain't the first time as she's been right."

"And I daresay the villagers don't like it?"

"No, m'lady. They say she caused the roof to fall in."

"Yes," Ottilia mused, "people are apt to attack what they fear or do not understand."

"That's why you spoke of a witch's curse, Ryde?"

"Yes, m'lord. Only it's worse than that. Seems the place was set afire. And rumour has it the doctor weren't satisfied as it was the cave-in as killed the blacksmith. They're saying he had his head bashed in."

"But his head must have been damaged by the falling masonry," objected Francis.

Ottilia's mind was buzzing. "Do you say someone administered a blow to the man's head before the roof fell in on him?"

Ryde grimaced. "It's what the tapster in the tavern told me. Only the constable can't go arresting the witch because she's took sanctuary in the vicar's house."

A ripple of unholy delight ran through Ottilia. "It sounds the most glorious muddle."

But her husband's attention had reverted to their own difficulties. "What the devil are we to do now?"

"Nothing for it but to wait for Williams, m'lord."

Ottilia ignored her husband's fluent curses and once more claimed the groom's attention. "Is there a decent hostelry in this village, Ryde?"

"In Witherley, m'lady? But there ain't no point in going there."

"Is it a pretty place?" pursued Ottilia, wholly ignoring this rider.

"Tillie, what are you about?"

She heard the suspicious note in Francis's voice, but she did not answer, merely putting out a hand to enjoin his silence.

The groom looked both puzzled and suspicious, and his answer was brief. "It's well enough, m'lady."

"And does it have a decent hostelry?"

The repetition made Ryde frown and cast a glance at his master. Ottilia turned to smile blindingly at her husband. His gaze narrowed a little, but he did not fail her.

"Answer, man."

Ryde's patent disapproval increased, but he did as he was bid. "I did see a likely place across the green from the Cock and Bottle."

"Excellent," said Ottilia. "Francis, why should we not rest there for a while? You may satisfy your hunger, and I can—"

"Ryde, go and check on the horses," said Francis, cutting in without apology.

Ottilia gathered her forces while Francis waited until the groom was out of earshot. The moment he turned on her, she caught his hand.

"I know what you are going to say, Fan, but—"

"Tillie, no!"

"—it will be only for an hour or two, and I am excessively thirsty—"

"An hour or two? I know you better than that, my love. And pray don't give me any fiddle-faddle about thirst and hunger."

Ottilia released his hand. "Well, but you said you were starving, and I could kill for a cup of coffee."

"And there you have uttered the operative word. Tillie, I will not have you embroil yourself in this business."

Ottilia could not suppress a giggle. "Well, I will admit to being intrigued, but I promise you I only mean to satisfy my curiosity."

"Promise forsooth! Do you take me for a flat? If I allow you to set foot in the place, as sure as check you will be hobnobbing with all and sundry and hunting down this witch."

"Not necessarily," objected Ottilia without thinking. "Merely because the villagers are silly enough to fall for a lot of superstitious nonsense does not make the woman guilty."

Francis threw up his hands. "I knew it! You are going nowhere near the place. Besides, how will you get there?"

"On foot, of course."

"You'll walk half a mile or more?"

"I am not made of china, Fan. I was bred in the country, you know."

"That is all very well, but we are due at Polbrook in a matter of days."

"Who said anything about days?" said Ottilia mildly. "I was only thinking of remaining there until Williams has found somewhere more suitable."

"Yes, and when Williams arrives to fetch us, I suppose you will meekly get into the carriage and allow yourself to be driven away just when you have uncovered half a dozen clues to set you on the trail of the murderer? No, Tillie. I know you too well."

Ottilia smiled at him. "But are you not the teeniest bit curious?"

Her husband's eyes narrowed, the beloved features growing ever more suspicious. "Don't waste your cajolery, Tillie, for I am adamant."

Ottilia blinked rapidly and fetched an elaborate sigh. "I did promise obedience."

Francis was almost betrayed into a laugh, but he managed to suppress it. "You did. And if I remember rightly, you declared after the business with my family last year that one murder was quite enough for you."

Mischief flitted across her face, and he could feel his resolve weakening.

"Astonishing, is it not, how one can be mistaken? But although it was all perfectly horrid in the end, you must recall that at the outset I was highly entertained."

Which was perfectly true, Francis was bound to admit. At the time, his world turned upside down by the discovery of his sister-in-law's death and his brother's subsequent disappearance, he had been too upset to think beyond the immediate necessity to handle the aftermath. That very day he had met his future wife, and been grateful thereafter for her calm good sense as she set about uncovering the culprit, and indeed for the playful manner that had done much to lighten those dark days. His heart softened despite himself.

Abruptly, he turned to call to his groom. "Ryde, exactly how far is this Witherley?"

A hand stole into his and squeezed. "An hour or two, no more."

Francis looked down at his wife. He knew that smile. He groaned inwardly. Let Tillie but get her teeth into this and nothing would serve to bring her away until it was all over. All he could hope was that it would prove but a storm in a teacup.

Excerpt from The Deathly Portent by Elizabeth Bailey
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