Stroke of Midnight

Cinderella Sisterhood Series (Volume 2)

Olivia Drake

St. Martin's Paperbacks

Chapter 1
She had no reason to fear the constable.
Holding fast to that thought, Laura followed the burly officer through the graveyard. The cloudy afternoon cast a gloomy pall over the rows of headstones and wooden crosses. A few of the mounds had been carefully tended, though many others showed signs of neglect. Rough masculine laughter came from one of the gin houses in the surrounding slums. It was the only sound besides the squelching of the constable’s boots on the sodden ground and the patter of her own footsteps.
Though any woman in her circumstances might feel a bit nervous, Laura had more reason than most to be wary. She reminded herself that the constable could have no notion of her true identity. A decade had passed since she and her father had fled London. She had been someone else then, leading another life under a different surname. A lady garbed in silk and jewels rather than the drab commoner she was now.
No one in this vast city knew her anymore. Miss Laura Falkner, toast of society, was as dead as the poor souls in this paupers’ cemetery.
The constable glanced over his shoulder, the dark sockets of his eyes boring into her. “Almost there, Miss Brown.”
Laura kept her face expressionless. Had a stray curl escaped her bonnet? She hoped not, for the police surely had a description of her that included mention of her distinctive tawny-gold hair. “You’ve done more than your duty, sir. If you’ll point me in the right direction, you can be on your way.”
“’Tis no trouble to take ye there. No trouble at all.”
His insistence increased her disquiet. He continued onward, his large head moving back and forth to examine the gravestones. What was his name again? Officer Pangborn. She had not wanted an escort, but he’d insisted that no decent female should venture alone into these crime-ridden stews.
Laura had acquiesced only because a refusal might arouse suspicion. She had taken a risk in going to the police in the first place. But she’d needed to learn more about her father’s recent death and also to discover the site of his final resting place.
The wind tossed a spattering of icy raindrops at her face. Shivering, she drew the cloak more securely around herself. After so many years in the sunshine of Portugal, she had forgotten the damp chill of an English springtime. Or perhaps it was just that she’d suppressed the memory of her old life before she and Papa had escaped into exile.
Now he lay dead. Murdered by an unknown assailant in an alley near Covent Garden. The shock of it still numbed her. News of the attack had arrived while she’d been tending the garden outside their little cottage in the mountains of Portugal. How contented she’d been that day, trimming the camellias, weeding the arum lilies, while having no inkling of the disaster that was about to shatter her tranquility. Then a boy from the village had delivered a letter from the London police stating that one Martin Brown lay severely injured, that her address had been found in his pocket. She’d departed in a rush, traveling for many days over land and sea, only to learn that her father had succumbed to his wounds shortly after the letter had been posted.
Laura swallowed past the painful lump in her throat. At their last parting, Papa had told her he would be gone for a fortnight on business—she had presumed to Lisbon to buy and sell antiquities, their only source of income. Instead, he must have boarded a ship to England. Why?
Why would he go back to a place where he would be tried and hanged if captured?
“There ’tis, Miss.”
Constable Pangborn stopped near the low stone wall that marked the perimeter of the cemetery. The middle-aged officer had muttonchop whiskers and the bulky build of a prizefighter. He had been out on patrol when he’d found Papa lying sorely injured in the alleyway. Now, as he pointed his wooden truncheon at a nearby grave site, his speculative gaze remained fixed on Laura.
Her skin prickled. She couldn’t shake the sense that he knew more about her than he let on. Had Papa in a delirium on his deathbed revealed his real identity? Did this officer believe she’d been her father’s accomplice in the jewel theft that had rocked society ten years ago?
She warned herself not to make wild assumptions. More likely, Pangborn’s interest in her was of a carnal nature. Over the years, she’d had ample experience in discouraging such lechers.
Laura leveled a cool stare at him. “Your assistance has been very helpful,” she said in polite dismissal. “I shall bid you good day now.”
His thick Wellington boots remained planted in place. “I have me orders, miss. I’m to guard ye from harm.”
“The sergeant bade you only to escort me to the cemetery. You’ve already done more than enough.”
“There be drunkards and thieves roaming these stews, ready to pounce on a wee creature such as yourself. I’ll see ye home—and that’s that.”
Home was a cheap lodging house in an area nearly as wretched as this one. Yet Laura would sooner risk the walk alone than let this man learn her temporary place of residence. If the constable really did harbor a suspicion about her true identity, he might search her portmanteau and find the news article about the decade-old robbery that she’d clipped from an English paper. Then he would have proof that she was the notorious Miss Laura Falkner.
She dipped her chin in a pretense of humble acceptance. “That’s very good of you, sir. If I may, I should like a few minutes alone now. Kindly await me at the entrance gate.”
Constable Pangborn scowled as if gauging her sincerity. Then he gave a curt nod and marched away, glancing back several times over his shoulder. The breeze carried the far-off sounds of conviviality along with a fishy stench from the nearby Thames.
She watched until he reached the gate before lowering her gaze to the grave site. Weeds already had sprouted on the freshly turned mound. A small square of stone lay flat on the ground, and a name was chiseled into the surface: MARTIN BROWN.
Heedless of the damp earth, Laura sank to her knees in a billow of gray skirts. Tears blurred her eyes as she reached out to trace the crude letters with a gloved fingertip. “Papa,” she whispered brokenly. “Papa.”
The harsh reality of his death struck her anew. She hunched over the grave, weeping, no longer able to stem the tide of sorrow. He had been the very best of fathers, full of good cheer and wise words, concerned more for her happiness than his own. He had treated her as an equal and schooled her as the son he’d always wanted. He didn’t deserve to have suffered such a brutal end—or to lie forgotten in a pauper’s tomb. His memory should be honored with a fine marble headstone carved with haloed angels and a loving tribute.
And it should bear his true name: MARTIN FALKNER.
With trembling fingers, she plucked out the weeds and tossed them aside. Someone here in London had destroyed his good reputation. Someone had deliberately planted evidence to make him appear guilty of stealing the Blue Moon diamond. Had her father returned to England to track down the villain? Why had he done so without telling her?
It must have been the quarrel they’d had over that news clipping.
When Papa had brought home the broadsheet and she’d noticed the small article, it had resurrected her buried anger over their forced flight from England ten years earlier. She’d spoken bitterly about the injustice of their exile. They had exchanged sharp words over her wish to restore their standing in society. But when his expression had turned melancholy, she’d regretted her mistake in bringing up the topic and had hastily reassured him of her contentment. It had been only a day later that he’d set out on his fateful journey …
Across the cemetery, a bulky form started down the path, arms swinging purposefully. Constable Pangborn!
The prospect of leaving the grave site wrenched her heart. Yet Laura dared delay no longer. Leaning down, she whispered, “My dearest Papa … good-bye.”
She sprang to her feet and made haste to the stone wall. Since it stood no higher than her bosom, the barrier should be easily climbable. Hitching up her skirts, she found a few toeholds and hoisted herself to the top. Hard work and mountain hiking had strengthened her limbs, one more reason to be thankful she was no longer the fragile debutante.
“You there!” Pangborn shouted. “Stop!”
Dear heaven, she’d been right to mistrust the officer.
A bramble hooked her hem, causing a brief delay. Laura yanked herself free and scrambled over the wall. As she landed, her shoes slid on a mound of damp leaves. Her arms wheeled as she caught her balance, only just managing to stay upright.
She risked a backward glance. The constable had left the path and sprinted on a straight course over the graves. The scowl that darkened his whiskered face sent a chill into Laura’s heart. There could be no doubt he meant to arrest her.
As he neared the wall, she plunged into the maze of narrow streets.

Copyright © 2013 by Olivia Drake