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The words on the envelope began to blur as I stared at them in disbelief.
The Viscountess Ashton.
The rest of the address was correct, down to the number of our house in Park Lane, but the name—the name—nearly stopped my breathing. More than a decade ago, I had married Philip, Viscount Ashton, only to be left a widow in the space of a few months. I had given up the title of viscountess when I married again, four and a half years later.
Davis, my butler, who had handed me the day’s mail on a silver tray, remained standing in front of my desk in the library. He did not speak and, as always, his countenance appeared impassive, but I suspected him of sharing my curiosity as to the contents of the letter.
“Is Mr. Hargreaves home?” I asked.
“No, madam, he is still at his club.”
I fingered the silver letter opener in my hand. One envelope ought not invoke such a pressing sense of ominous foreboding. “Very strange to be called ‘viscountess’ again after all this time. Surely there’s none among my acquaintances who is unaware I am no longer the Viscountess Ashton.”
“I could not comment, madam.”
“Oh, Davis, don’t be so serious,” I said, trying to sound cheerful. I sliced open the creamy white paper and pulled out what was inside. “Look, it is nothing but a photograph from Greece. The Parthenon. Someone must have sent it as a joke. There is neither note nor signature.”
“Port, madam?” Davis asked. He knew me too well.
Memories of my first husband always filled me with mixed emotions. Our marriage had not been an arranged one, but neither had it been a love match, at least not on my part. I had accepted his proposal because I viewed becoming a wife as an inevitable, if unwelcome, step in my life. On the day he asked for my hand, living with him seemed preferable to staying any longer in my mother’s house. He was kind and decent, a respectable gentleman, and I expected we would be happy enough, whatever that meant.
Nearly two years after he died, I found a journal—one volume out of the many he had kept from the time he was a schoolboy—and reading it made me feel as if I knew him better than I had when he was alive. On its pages I learned he had entered into our union with an attitude far different from mine: For reasons beyond my comprehension, he fancied himself in love with me. Since then, I have always felt a keen guilt at not having recognized this while he was alive, despite the fact that his death, only a few months after our wedding, had precluded me from ever getting to know him well.
My youth and inexperience might have rendered it impossible for me to recognize his feelings, but that is no excuse. The journal revealed the man he was, and I appreciated and loved that man, even though my feelings came far too late. Philip gave me a gift that enriched my life in ways I would never have thought possible. He fired in me, through his writings, a desire for intellectual pursuits, a longing to study Ancient Greek, to read Homer, and to travel to the land of Alexander the Great and gaze upon the monuments of Pericles’ Athens.
What began as an attempt to emulate his interests grew into a deep intellectual passion, and over the years I had gained a reputation as a careful scholar. I translated both The Iliad and The Odyssey, and had written several well-received monographs on vase painting in Hellenistic Athens. Philip had left me a villa on Santorini that he’d had built as a gentleman’s retreat, using traditional Cycladic methods, and from the moment I first set eyes on its brightly whitewashed walls, curved archways, and bright blue shutters, I recognized it as a place in which my soul would always rest easy. I spent as much time as I could manage to in its comfortable confines.
I owed a great debt to Philip. I would never have become the woman I am now if it were not for him. Furthermore, had I not married him, it is unlikely I would have made the acquaintance of his closest friend, Colin Hargreaves. Thrown together by circumstances two and a half years after Philip’s death, we fell in love. After two more years passed, we married, both of us conscious of Philip’s role in our happiness; but all those raw emotions conjured up by his death had long since smoothed away.
Until now. This envelope had, for me, brought them all back to the surface.
I accepted the port Davis brought me and tried to clear my mind, focusing on all the things I needed to accomplish during the fortnight I would be in London before we departed for Greece with two of our dearest friends, Jeremy Sheffield and Margaret Michaels. Margaret and I had organized the trip in an attempt to distract Jeremy from his multitudinous woes. The previous year, his engagement to Amity Wells had scandalized le beau monde. England’s best had objected to his choice of an American heiress as his future bride, but this had paled next to the furor caused by her subsequent actions, which left him heartbroken and humiliated. He soldiered through the next season as best he could, maintaining an admirably stiff upper lip in the face of an onslaught of gossip, but he had no interest in dealing with more of the same this year.
Margaret and I had easily convinced him a holiday abroad was what he required, but the details of our itinerary proved far more difficult to agree upon. Margaret, a devoted Latinist, and I, a lover of all things Ancient Greek, clashed over what would better soothe our friend’s soul. She wanted him to stand in the Forum in Rome and mourn Caesar. I wanted him to seek solace in the beauty of the Acropolis in Athens. In the end, I won the argument, but only because Jeremy intervened, insisting upon Greece because he knew we would include in our travels several weeks at my villa on Santorini, where we would find no expatriate society, no preening young ladies, and, best of all, no hope of useful occupation.
I did not require an entire fortnight in London to organize the journey, but I had other reasons to be in town. My husband, one of the queen’s most trusted agents, is frequently called upon to investigate matters that might prove embarrassing to members of the royal family or the aristocracy. Together, not always in conjunction with his work for the palace, we have brought at least ten heinous murderers to justice. Over the years, my own detectival instincts and skills have been honed, and I beg the reader’s forgiveness if it is immodest to admit I am quite good at my work. My talents, however, did not often interest Her Majesty; she nearly always required only Colin’s services. He had just returned from St. Petersburg, where he had spent six weeks working, and we wanted some time in town with our twin boys, Henry and Richard, and our ward, Tom, all of whom had now passed their third birthdays.
I heard the door open, and looked up to see my husband. “You appear almost dour,” he said, crossing to me and sitting on the edge of my desk. “Davis tells me the mail disturbed you.”
“Davis speaks most freely to you,” I said. “I do wish he would offer me the same courtesy.” I handed him the envelope.
“The Viscountess Ashton,” he said. “I almost forgot you were once called that.” He barely glanced at the picture of the Parthenon before returning it to my desk.
“Do you not find it slightly unnerving that someone has anonymously sent this?”
He shrugged. “Not in the least. You do draw controversy, my dear. Between your scholarly pursuits, your campaigns for social justice, and your refusal to behave like a good little wife, you manage to scandalize society at least once every six weeks. No doubt some ill-mannered person who thinks himself very important sent this to remind you of your aristocratic connections. Poor bloke doesn’t realize he’s taken entirely the wrong tack.”
“It is possible, I suppose.”
“Come now, this can’t be troubling you so much, can it? I thought we were done with all that.”
“We are,” I said. “Yet there are times I think of Philip and feel a twinge of guilt.”
“That, my dear, is one of the many reasons I adore you. You have an extremely sensitive soul. It is a most fetching quality.” He moved very close to me and traced the neckline of my bodice with his finger. “Although at the moment, I am afraid I am inspired to act in ways one might not consider entirely ‘sensitive.’ Would you object to me locking the door?”
I did not object. His subsequent actions pushed all thoughts of the mysterious envelope and Philip out of my head. I might not have considered it again, had the spectre of my late spouse not surfaced the next day, when we had taken the boys to the zoo. Colin, wanting to spend as much time as possible with them before we left for Greece, had insisted we wrangle them without the aide of Nanny, the elderly but still-spry woman who had raised him and was now entrusted with the care of this latest generation of Hargreaveses. Tom and Richard held Colin’s hands, dutifully following any instructions he gave them as we strolled through the park, but Henry tugged at mine, dragging me from enclosure to enclosure, until at last he stood still, mesmerized by an exhibit of silkworms in the insect house. Tom and Richard, less enthralled with the tiny creatures, pleaded to go back outside. Colin obliged them, leaving Henry to study the remaining terrariums. He reached his little hand out to the glass, careful not to touch it, and traced the path of an aquatic beetle in the tank before him. I bent over to look more closely myself, but was shocked upright when I heard a voice call out.
“Ashton! Philip Ashton, as I live and breathe!”
Hearing this name spoken aloud squeezed the breath out of me.
I spun around on my heel to see a rotund gentleman vigorously shaking the hand of an even more rotund gentleman, neither of whom fit the description of the Viscount Ashton to whom I had briefly been united in matrimony. Still, it unnerved me to hear his name. I shook off the discomfort. I did not see the gentlemen again, but while waiting outside the camel house so the boys might have a ride on one of the ungainly beasts, I heard someone call out Ashton! Philip Ashton!
Colin raised an eyebrow as he studied my face. “That’s an odd look.”
“It is nothing, I assure you,” I said, and explained what had happened. “I am a bit unnerved to hear the name twice in one day.”
“Unnerving indeed.” Our eyes met and he gave me a knowing smile. In the early days of our courtship, we had both struggled with the painful knowledge that our attachment could never have occurred without Philip’s death. The dead are beyond betrayal in matters of love, but that had not precluded a host of emotions from rearing their, if not ugly, certainly complicated heads. One does not expect to fall in love with one’s dead husband’s best friend. We had come to terms with all that long ago, yet I could see in Colin’s dark eyes a hint of the grief he still felt at the loss of someone so dear to him. I was reaching out to touch his arm when Henry burst into tears and flung himself to the ground.
“Cruel, vicious man!” he cried, beating his little fists into the grass next to the pavement. Henry had a vocabulary beyond that of either of his brothers and most of his peers. He also had a penchant for dramatically stating his opinions for maximum effect.
I crossed my arms. “Up, Henry, now.”
“Cruel man making camel unhappy.” I had to agree with my son that the camel did not appear happy, but the keeper leading it around a smallish circle while visitors rode on it hardly seemed cruel. If anything, he looked bored.
“He isn’t hurting the camel, Henry,” I said. “The rope is only so he doesn’t run away.”
“I want camel to run away.” Henry had stopped pounding the ground and drew himself back up to his feet, his clothing now covered with dust. Nanny would not be pleased. I took him firmly by the hand.
“Camels do not do well on their own in London,” I said. “And little gentlemen who cannot behave do not get rides.”
“Don’t want a ride,” Henry said, the tears pooling in his eyes betraying the lie. Colin dropped Richard’s and Tom’s hands and picked up his ill-mannered son.
“You are good to worry about the camel, Henry,” he said, turning so the boy could better see into the enclosure. “But he is quite all right and looks a rather happy chap to me. Camels don’t have the same expressions as us, do they, so their faces can be rather difficult to read.”
I sighed. “Colin…”
“I am not indulging him, Emily, I am teaching him. Now then, Henry, did you know camels live in the desert?”
“I am not a baby, Papa,” Henry said. “Even Richard knows about deserts.” Henry, born four minutes before his brother, considered Richard intolerably young.
The queue inched forward, and it became clear that I would be in charge of managing Richard and Tom, as my husband was now thoroughly embroiled in a discussion of the care, maintenance, and emotional well-being of camels. Henry would get no ride—we could not allow that after he had caused a scene—but I did not doubt he far preferred what he viewed as a serious discussion with his father to bumping along on the platform strapped to the poor beast in question. As I handed the other boys up to the keeper, who secured them for their ride, I caught a glimpse of a lean gentleman with a striking shade of sandy hair, the precise color of Philip’s. Shocked, I stepped away from the queue to get a better look, but the man had disappeared.
When we returned from the zoo (Nanny was quite severe with Henry upon our return—he had ruined his jumper), I retired to the library to consult the itinerary for our trip. There, on my desk, I saw a slim leather-bound book: Philip’s journal, which I kept stored, wrapped in tissue paper, in a box tucked away in my dressing room. Not even Colin knew of its location.
Philip had filled volume after volume of diaries, but I had kept only the single one I found in the house I had shared with him in Berkeley Square. The rest I left for his family—his nephew might enjoy reading them, and if not, some future viscount might find them diverting, or at least worthy of a place in the family history. This volume, though, cut too deeply into my heart to part with. I always intended that I would see it eventually returned to the Ashtons, but for now, I kept in my possession the words he had written while courting me.
I had not looked at the journal in years. Yet now here it was, carefully placed in the middle of my desk, next to the envelope addressed to The Viscountess Ashton and turned to the entry he had made the day of our engagement. There was no question of this being accidental—a heavy leather book weight held the ivory pages in place—leaving me to wonder who had chosen to open the book of my past.
Copyright © 2016 by Tasha Alexander