Moira stared up at the various rows of glass vials and containers that held her collection of herbs, flora, and other sundry bits that she used when mixing up her herbal remedies for the lovely ladies of London society. After a quick perusal she picked up a vial that contained dried lavender. She added several dried sprigs of it to the bowl of other herbs and proceeded to crush it with her white pestle. When it was all ground to a fine powder, she carefully poured it into a white envelope. She was closing the envelope and putting the vials back on the shelf when there was a knock at the door.
“Come in,” she called, tucking a stray auburn lock behind her ear as she slid down from the wooden stool she had been perched on. Her butler opened the door, looking displeased at the prospect of disturbing his mistress while she was working.
“Forgive me, my lady, but Mrs. Winthrop has arrived. She says she has an appointment to see you at two o’clock. I’ve placed her in the blue salon. She is quite eager to see you,” he said stiffly.
“Thank you, James. I just have to give this to Lady Barrymore in the music room, and then I will go in to see Mrs. Winthrop.”
“There is another young lady to see you as well,” he grimly said. “She wouldn’t give her name and she came by way of the kitchen door. What should I do with her? I tried to tell her that she would have to come back, but she would not be put off.”
“That’s fine. My meeting with Mrs. Winthrop should be brief. Place the young lady in the conservatory. Bring her some refreshments and tell her that I will see her as soon as I can,” Moira said as she breezed out of the room with James closing the door behind her. The butler nodded and headed off for the back staircase that led to the servants’ quarters and kitchen. Moira bit her lip in thought as she walked down the front staircase. She wondered who the young woman was and what wanted, but she knew that she would have to put it from her mind for now.
Placing a smile on her lips, she opened the door to the cheerful yellow music room where Lady Barrymore was patiently waiting, daintily sipping her tea. She hadn’t been pleased at putting the high ranking Lady Barrymore in the music room, but her two previous appointments had yet to leave when Lady Barrymore arrived. She’d had no choice if she wanted to give the woman some privacy.
“Thank you for waiting so patiently, Lady Barrymore. I have what you need,” Moira announced, as she swept into the room. Sitting in the chair beside the older woman, she handed her the white envelope.
“Just put a couple pinches of it in your bath. Make sure that the water is hot and that you soak for at least twenty minutes. It should not only relieve those leg cramps that you’ve been having, but help you relax. I use a similar mixture when I have headaches. I steep it in some hot water and let the scent fill the room.”
“Thank you so much,” the woman said, placing the envelope in her reticule. “I had to turn down a dinner engagement last week because I could hardly walk.”
Moira frowned for a moment in thought. “Are you keeping your legs elevated on cushions when you are alone at home?”
Beatrice Barrymore sighed heavily and waved a hand absently at Moira. “Dearest, you know the season has started once again. Everyone is in Town now, so I hardly know a moment’s peace to place my feet up.”
Moira suppressed a smile as she nodded. Despite the fact that Beatrice’s own two daughters had been wed for several years now, Lady Barrymore always maintained a busy social schedule as if she were making her own debut. “You might want to consider having your shoemaker tailor make something special for you; something made only of soft fabric and leather with no heels. You could just wear them around the house. It would be a great deal easier on your feet and legs and no one would ever have to know.”
“That is a splendid idea! I will have to try that,” she proclaimed with a little clap of her gloved hands.
“Please write me and tell me if what I made works. If it does, I’ll send some more over in a couple of days. I put lavender in it, but if you don’t like it I have rose, lilac, or heather that I could use.”
“Thank you again. This should be fine. I’m quite fond of lavender as you know.” Lady Barrymore set her reticule aside and picked up her tea again, but paused as if a thought suddenly struck her. “By the by, has Lady Davenport been to visit you yet?”
Moira shook her head at the nosy woman that she had known since she was a child. Beatrice was a sweet woman and had been a close friend of Moira’s mother, but she was also a known gossip and busybody. “Now you know I can’t tell you that. I have promised secrecy to all of the ladies that come to see me,” Moira chided her.
“Of course, forgive me. It’s just that she was by to see me a couple days ago and she told me that she was having trouble sleeping. I told her to just forget her doctor. They don’t know what they’re talking about. I told her we had an expert right in our midst and that she had to come see you immediately. I’d be shocked if she didn’t come right over. You are just a miracle worker, my dear.”
“Thank you. I am flattered,” she said with a light blush. The truth was that Lady Davenport had visited that morning, but Moira would never admit it.
Like her mother before her, Moira had a skill with traditional herbal remedies. She could easily craft draughts for cramps, headaches, back aches, sore feet, colds, and sleeplessness. Before her death, Anice had been the one all the ladies of London came to secretly see for all their aches and pains. Months after her sudden death, Moira stepped into the role, displaying both the same skill and delicacy her mother had shown. In less than a year, Moira had become the best-kept secret that every lady in London knew.
“Now, I must beg your pardon. I do have someone else who is waiting to speak to me. Feel free to rest here and have another cup of tea if you like,” Moira said, rising from her chair.
“Thank you, but I must be going,” Beatrice said as she placed her tea cup and saucer back on the little table before her. “I have some other errands to run today, but you will be coming to my little dinner party in three days.” It should have been a question, but from Lady Barrymore, it was a statement.
Moira tried to look sternly down at the older woman, but the corners of her mouth kept trying to quirk into a smile. “I will as long as this isn’t another matchmaking attempt on your behalf.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” she said, rising from the sofa. “It’s a small little dinner party. No more than thirty or forty people at most. There are several young men and women about your age who are going to be there along with members of the old guard like myself. I’ve given up on trying to find you a husband.”
“No, you haven’t, but I appreciate the effort,” Moira chuckled. “I shall see you then.” She gave a brief curtsy and swept back out of the room, smiling.
Lady Barrymore was a tall, robust woman with a strong opinion and a loud voice. She was highly regarded by the London ton. It also helped that her family was connected with the royal family and that she married a duke. She was exceedingly wealthy and was long used to getting her way. She had been close friends with Moira’s mother Anice before she died. As a result, Lady Barrymore had taken Moira under her wing, keeping her up to her ears in social gathering once she made her debut at the age of nineteen. Unfortunately, that had been four years ago and Beatrice was still determined to see Moira married despite the young woman’s efforts to avoid such a fate. She had made several less-than-subtle attempts to match Moira with a husband, but all had been met with failure. But the duchess remained optimistic and determined.
With Lady Barrymore settled, Moira hurried to her meeting with Mrs. Winthrop. It was a quick meeting as usual. Mrs. Winthrop ran a fashionable millinery on Bond Street and stopped in about once a month for an herbal draught that helped her sleep. Apparently, the woman’s husband snored very loudly, keeping her up at nights. The two women usually chatted for a couple of minutes before Mrs. Winthrop rushed off. Her shop was always busy and she loathed being away from it for any length of time, particularly during the season.
With her regular appointments out of the way, Moira walked back to the conservatory. A small stone path led to the back of the all-glass room that was currently filled with bright afternoon sunlight. The walls were lined with flowers and herbs of all kinds. Most were extremely rare and had been shipped from great distances. At the end of the path was a small waterfall that fed a stream that led to the other end of the large room. Beside the waterfall was a white wicker pair of chairs and a table. A girl sat perched on the edge of the one of the chairs. She was stuffing cakes and sandwiches into her mouth as if she had been starved most of her life. And by the look of her tattered clothes and dirt-smudged face, Moira thought that she probably was.
“Good afternoon,” Moira said brightly, startling the girl. She instantly jumped from her chair and curtsied awkwardly. She looked unsure of what she was supposed to do. Fear made her nervous and Moira had a feeling that she wanted desperately to run from that place.
“G’ afternoon, my lady,” she said softly, keeping her eyes lowered.
“Please, sit.” Moira took the seat across from the girl and smiled. While Moira poured herself some tea, she took the chance to sneak a closer look at the girl. It was hard to judge how old she was and could only guess that it was between fourteen and eighteen. She was exceedingly thin and had dark circles beneath her large, brown eyes.
Moira took her time, trying to think of some way to put the girl at ease. She sipped her tea and sat back in her chair. For a moment, she was just grateful to have a minute to herself to relax. She had been running herself ragged since the season had officially started two weeks ago with the ton having returned to Town.
“May I ask your name?”
“Betsy. Betsy Potter,” the girl mumbled, keeping her hands tucked under her legs.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Miss Potter. I’m assuming you know that I am Moira Stanhope. Please, feel free to have a sandwich. Mrs. Riley makes the best chicken salad in London, I believe.”
“Oh, yes. They’re wonderful!” the girl replied, looking up at Moira for the first time with an animated expression.
“I’m glad you like them. I’ll pass it along to Mrs. Riley. She’s complains that I am far too picky and don’t eat enough.”
Moira took another sip of tea and set the cup down. The truth was she was tired of drinking tea. She had already seen six different women and each time she had taken tea with them. Moira owned four different tea serving sets and they were rotated throughout the day to keep up with all her visitors. A pot of water was always boiling for the next woman who would walk through the door.
Moira stared at the girl, trying to discern why she had shown up on her doorstep. The vast majority of the women who sought out Moira’s herbal remedies were members of the ton with considerable social standing. There were a few, such as Mrs. Winthrop, who owned shops, but she couldn’t imagine any of those women gossiping with someone like poor Betsy Potter. It wasn’t Betsy’s lack of social standing that bothered Moira. She was determined to help her regardless because it was the right thing to do. Her worry was whether she could help her. The herbal remedies she made were for minor aches and pains.
“What is it that I can do for you, Miss Potter?”
The young woman dug into the pocket of her dress and produced a pristine white envelope.
Moira was stunned. She hesitantly accepted the letter and automatically flipped over the envelope to look at the wax seal still intact, but she didn’t recognize the symbol pressed into it.
“I didn’t read it, ‘cause I can’t read,” Betsy said quickly.
Moira smiled at her reassuringly. “I believe you,” she said, as she carefully broke the seal and opened the envelope to withdraw the single piece of paper. She expected a request for help, an invitation, anything but the dark threat that rose up from the neatly written letters.
My Dearest Moira,
Long have I watched you. I have watched you on your early morning ride through the park and know of the six different apothecaries you visit for the herbs that you do not grow in your conservatory.
Does your mother’s death still haunt you? Can you see her in your mind lying on the ground in a growing pool of her own blood? The Turtle Doves and Tawny Owls cried at her death. Did you hear them?
And you now search for me. Don’t worry, my dear. I’ll leave you a trail. I took her eyes, and, in the end, I will have your heart.
“My lady, are you ill?” Betsy demanded, snapping Moira’s attention from the horrific letter. Her hands were trembling and she was as white as the sheet of paper she clasped. Moira forced herself to nod, closing her eyes for a moment in a desperate attempt to order her scattered thoughts. She carefully folded the letter and put it back in the envelope.
“Betsy,” she said, trying to steady her voice. “Do you remember the person who gave you this letter?”’
“Not really.” Her eyes darted away for a second, dropping down to her hands tightly clenched in her lap before she looked back at Moira. “You see, he grabbed me from behind and told me to deliver the letter to Lady Stanhope. When I got away and looked back, he’d already disappeared into the crowd. I never saw him.”
Moira frowned, but then she wasn’t surprised. “What about his voice? Did he sound like a gentleman?”
“Yes, he had a deep voice like he was a big man and talked all proper like.”
“Did he have an accent? Did he sound foreign?”
“No, I’d say he was from London.”
Moira sat back in her chair and sighed. A voice. A vague description of a voice was all she had to go off of. It could be anyone. The letter was right on too many counts. She had been searching for her mother’s killer during the past five years, but she’d made so very little progress. It would have been wonderful if Betsy Potter has seen the man who gave her the letter, but Moira would not be deterred.
“Am I in trouble, my lady?” Betsy inquired, seeming to shrink in her chair.
“No, Betsy,” Moira said, trying to brighten her demeanor for the girl even though her stomach was twisting into knots. “Everything is fine. If you will excuse me, though, I have a little matter I need to take care of. But I want you to rest here. Have some more to eat and I will have my butler give you a reward for delivering this important message for me.”
“Thank you, my lady,” Betsy said, jumping from her chair and awkwardly curtsying as Moira left the room clutching the letter tightly in one hand.
She had just entered the main hall when she saw James leave the front parlor, shutting the doors behind him.
“Lady Gravely has just arrived. I told her you were in another interview, but she insisted,” James informed her.
“I didn’t think I had another appointment this afternoon,” she said, stuffing the letter into the pocket of her dress.
“My guess is that Lady Gravely has another sore throat,” James said with a slight frown.
“Probably. Hold on the tea. I may have her in and out before it is necessary. Besides, I couldn’t possibly drink another cup.”
“Yes, my lady. Has your other guest left?”
“Not yet. Please give her a few pounds out of the desk in my study and have Mrs. Riley put together some food for her in a basket.”
“I will. Anything else?”
“Have any letters arrived today?”
“Eight invitations, I believe. The season has once again started.”
“You need not remind me. I have half a mind to rusticate in the country this year,” she grumbled. James only raised a doubtful brow, saying nothing. He had been with her since she was a child and dared a little more than most would in his position. He knew her better than any other member of her staff. Moira would stay in London as long as she thought someone needed her help.
Moira started to walk toward the front parlor and paused before turning back to James. With a motion of her head, he followed her into the rarely used front study. “I believe Stefan will be visiting soon as well,” she said as she pulled the letter from her pocket and handed it over to James.
The butler hesitated for only a second as he looked questioningly up at Moira. With a curt nod from his employer, he pulled out the letter and quickly read it. The older man’s only visible reaction was a flush to his cheeks and his eyes growing wide. He cleared his throat as he folded the letter and placed it back in the envelope. “This was delivered by the young lady?”
“Yes, but she never saw who gave it to her.”
“That is … unfortunate.”
“I have the feeling that this only the beginning. Stefan needs to know about this. My mother’s killer will not escape.”
It was on the tip of James’s tongue to say that Moira needed to be more concerned with her own neck that getting vengeance for her mother, but he swallowed back the words. “Understood. I believe we have acquired some new staff members who are not acquainted with Lord Stefan’s … eccentricities. I’ll see that they are reassigned away from the front rooms for the time being.”
Moira gave a little snort at James’s choice of words. “Yes, I’m sure Stefan will be popping in at odd times as we hunt. No need to upset anyone.”
“Very good,” he said, bowing to her.
Moira grabbed the butler’s hand as he started to turn away. “We will get him,” she fiercely whispered.
James graced her with a rare, reassuring smile. “Yes, we will,” he said, but his heart ached with worry for the young woman. He knew if she did not succeed, she would be killed like her lovely mother.