Checkmate, My Lord

One

August 6, 1804

London, Somerton House

“Please, my lord,” Catherine Ashcroft said. “If you would only read my husband’s letters.” She indicated the small packet she’d placed on the Earl of Somerton’s clutter-free desk moments ago, willing him to pick it up. Despite her personal misgivings about her humorless neighbor, she had made this godforsaken trip to the city to beg his assistance, hoping her late husband’s friend would know what to do.

With trembling fingers, she pushed the tattered, black beribboned packet across his desk. “These two mention you,” she said. “I have more at Winter’s Hollow. Could you please read them and tell me if anything feels amiss?”

He cast her a level stare. “Aren’t you in a better position to judge such things, Mrs. Ashcroft?”

From the moment she had entered his study ten minutes ago, he had treated her with courtesy and respect, but she had yet to witness a single emotion crease his strong brow or bend his full lips. It had always been so with him. Unlike her late husband, Jeffrey, she had never enjoyed a companionable relationship with the earl. Their acquaintance had always been one of distance and wary glances. A situation she now regretted, for Lord Somerton might be the only one who could help her locate her husband’s murderer. A murder she might have been able to prevent had she been home to receive his numerous missives.

Catherine’s gaze took in the earl’s wide shoulders and six-foot-something frame, both a formidable contrast to Jeffrey’s slighter build. Not for the first time, she noted his calm strength and an almost indistinguishable aura of danger penetrating the air around him.

“Indeed, sir.” Her fingers curled until her nails dug into the tender flesh of her palm. “I have already determined something’s wrong, but what, exactly, I do not know.” Had there been any other way of determining Jeffrey’s state of mind, she would have gladly followed it. Being in the earl’s company made her body hum with restlessness and her mind waver with doubt—a state that likely had her father, a highly decorated naval officer, convulsing in his grave. There had been no getting around this meeting, though. Jeffrey’s virtual abandonment three years ago ensured she knew little of her husband’s activities and even less of his desires.

Lord Somerton’s eyelids lowered a fraction. “What makes these letters different from the rest of Ashcroft’s correspondence?”

This was the difficult part. His lordship was known for his cold logic and his intolerance for theatrics of any sort. How could she explain the tenor of desperation that penetrated Jeffrey’s every word? Its subtlety would be easily missed by those unfamiliar with her husband. Most would think her daft to fault her husband’s written words of love, but Catherine knew them a farce. Would Jeffrey’s friend also read the message beyond the words?

“I’m not sure I can supply you with a satisfactory explanation, my lord,” she said. “It’s complicated, to say the least.”

He tapped his fingertips against the small stack of letters several times and then caught the telling sign of irritation and stopped. “I’ll be sure to listen very closely, Mrs. Ashcroft.”

Emotion, at last. But it came with a cost. His scrutiny intensified and the space between them turned thick and suffocating. Catherine smoothed her damp palms down her black pelisse, and a sudden urge to flee scraped against her nerves. What if she had been wrong about the character of Jeffrey’s letters? Maybe he really did wish to reconcile and happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. If that were the case, her entire trip to London was nothing