England, 1865: Newspaper columnist Lady Katherine Bascomb finds herself the subject of speculation when her latest article leads to an arrest in the murders plaguing London. The English believe women ought not to write about such vulgar things as crime, and a particularly attractive detective inspector is incensed that she’s interfered with his investigation. To escape her sudden notoriety, Katherine heads to the country-only to witness a murder upon her arrival.
Detective Inspector Andrew Eversham is appalled when Lady Katherine entangles herself in one of his cases-again. Her sensationalist reporting already nearly got him kicked off the police force, and he’ll be damned if he permits her to meddle a second time. Yet, her questions are awfully insightful, and he can’t deny his attraction to both her beauty and brains. As the clues point to a dangerous criminal, the two soon realize their best option is working together. But with their focus on the killer lurking in the shadows, neither is prepared for the other risk the case poses-to their hearts.
If Sir Horace did not desist from his asinine talk about what constituted appropriate conversation for a lady, she would do one of them an injury, thought Lady Katherine Bascomb, hiding her scowl behind her fan.
She was quite fond of his wife, Millie, who’d been a friend since the two ladies had made their debuts together, but it really was hard work to endure the company of Sir Horace Fairchild as a condition of seeing her friend.
Kate had allowed herself to be persuaded away from the evening she’d had planned of catching up on the latest news of the murderer who was currently roaming the streets of the metropolis, the so-called “Commandments Killer,” in order to make up the numbers for Millie’s dinner party.
A decision she’d regretted as soon as she was ushered into the Fairchild townhouse on Belgrave Square and saw that the guests were among the most stiff-rumped in London.
She’d suffered through dinner, where she’d politely listened to a member of Parliament drone on about the need for something to be done about the coarseness of language in the English press—it never having occurred to him that she was, herself, owner of one of those newspapers. (Or perhaps it had but he did not care. Men were far less prone to diplomacy in their conversation than ladies, in Kate’s experience.)
Then, thinking to find some more sensible conversation when the ladies withdrew to leave the gentlemen to their port, she’d been trapped in a corner of the drawing room with Mrs. Elspeth Symes, who’d talked of nothing but purgatives and remedies for digestive ailments for nearly a quarter hour without pausing for breath.
The reappearance of the gentlemen had given her a chance to escape Mrs. Symes, but no sooner had she accepted a cup of tea and a plate of what looked to be delicious biscuits than Sir Horace began to speak.
If this was what one had to endure to maintain friendships, Kate thought crossly, then really it was better to remain at home alone.
“Not if I do him an injury first,” said a voice from beside her. And to her horror, Kate realized she’d spoken aloud.
Turning, she saw that a dark-haired young woman had taken the seat beside her.
“Caroline Hardcastle.” She offered her gloved hand. “My friends call me Caro. We met before dinner, but really, anyone who is capable of remembering names after one introduction is not worth knowing, don’t you agree?”
Kate blinked. Miss Hardcastle was a tiny creature with large dark eyes and a pointed chin. She was exactly what Kate’s mind would have conjured if she’d tried to imagine a woodland sprite in exquisitely tailored silk.
“These are quite good,” Miss Hardcastle continued, biting into a biscuit. “I detect a hint of lemon, but it’s not enough to overpower. And the shortbread is exceptional. There’s not enough butter, but one can’t have everything, I suppose.”
“I’m Lady Katherine Bascomb.” She felt as if she should say something, and there were so many options that Kate decided to go with the most obvious.
“Oh, I know who you are.” Caro discreetly brushed the crumbs from her hands. “I read your column in The Gazette religiously. I’m something of a writer myself, but my work is mostly about cookery. I was pleased to learn you would be a guest tonight, so I could meet you.”
Kate opened her mouth to demur at the compliment, then Caro’s words sank in. “Caroline Hardcastle. You don’t mean to say you’re C. E. Hardcastle, the cookbook author? I think you’re too modest! There’s not a housewife in London without one of your recipe books in her home.”
But Miss Hardcastle waved away the praise. “It’s little more than trial and error coupled with writing down observations. I daresay anyone could do it if they felt the inclination.”
It was the sort of modesty that was expected of ladies, but Kate disliked seeing someone as obviously talented as Miss Hardcastle so dismissive of her own talent. “Your books are more than just recipes, though. There are bits of history and cultural notes. I’ve read all of them, and I only set foot in the kitchen to give instructions to my cook.”
Flags of color appeared in Caro’s cheeks. “Thank you. Coming from you, that’s praise indeed.”
Clearly uncomfortable with the discussion of her own writing, Caro changed the subject. “It seems we were both captured by less than entertaining conversationalists before we found each other.” She cast her eyes in the direction of their host, who was speaking to the room at large. “And now we all are forced to listen to this lecture on propriety from a man who is known throughout the ton for his affairs.”
That was news to Kate. Poor Millie. She’d known Sir Horace was a rotter; she just hadn’t realized how much of one he was.
“He is a bit hard to take, isn’t he?” Caro said, watching as the man continued his monologue.
“And really, how dare he suggest that any topic should be off-limits for ladies?” Kate scowled. “After all, we ought to know what’s going on in the world around us. We are the ones who are most often preyed upon by unscrupulous, and even deadly, men. I, for one, would even go so far as to say that if ladies were encouraged to speak openly about the things that most frightened us, we would all be the safer for it. One cannot protect against a danger that’s completely unknown.”
As she spoke, Kate’s voice rose and, as sometimes happens, did so during a lull in the other discussions in the room.
“I must protest, Lady Katherine,” said a portly gentleman with walrus-like whiskers. “Ladies are not constitutionally strong enough to hear about the harshness in our world. It is our job as fathers, brothers, husbands, to protect you from the knowledge of such things. Why, I know of one young lady who went mad from hearing about such awfulness.”
Before she could respond to the criticism, Kate heard a sound that was partway between a train coming into the station and a kettle on the boil. To her amusement, it had erupted from Miss Hardcastle’s mouth.
“Mr. Symes, please acquit us with some degree of sense. I know very well you’re speaking of your niece, Miss Ruby Compton, and everyone knows that she was and is far from mad. She simply chose to fall in love with a fellow neither you nor her parents found smart enough and you had her spirited away to Scotland. The story of her madness and fictitious institutionalization might very well fool some people, but I knew Ruby at school and had the full story from another school friend.”
It was quite difficult to watch the man’s mouth open and close, rather like a fish removed from a stream, without laughing, so Kate decided to speak instead.
“I agree with Miss Hardcastle. It does no one any good to be wrapped in cotton wool and protected from the things that pose the most danger. I don’t suppose you would agree that it was perfectly acceptable to tell your daughter that arsenic is safe to eat, Sir Horace? Or you, Mr. Harrington, would you tell your sister that your prize bull poses no danger to her?”
Not waiting for them to respond, Kate continued, “Only a mile or so from here, there are girls as young as five years old who know more about the dangers posed by the predators of London than a gently raised young lady of eighteen. Why should an accident of birth mean that we should be kept in ignorance?”
“Well said,” Caro agreed from beside her.
“I think Katherine’s right.” Millie’s voice was a bit shaky, but she pressed on. “There are dangerous things, and men, in the city and yet you would protect us to such a degree that we wouldn’t recognize the devil himself if he crossed our paths.”
Kate rather suspected Satan counted disguise as one of his specialties, but refrained from pointing it out.
“An excellent point.” Caro gave a smile of encouragement to Millie. “And since Scotland Yard hasn’t managed to capture the likes of the Commandments Killer as yet, then we need every tool at our disposal. And knowledge happens to be the most readily available.”
At the mention of the murderer whose string of killings across the capital had even the most confident of men looking over their shoulders, a murmur went through the room.
“Now, Miss Hardcastle, you go too far,” said Sir Horace. “The superintendent of police is a good friend of mine, and he’s got his best man working on the
At the mention of the man leading the investigation, Kate couldn’t stop her own sound of skepticism. “If you mean Inspector Andrew Eversham, Sir Horace, then I fear your confidence is misplaced. He’s been leading the investigation for months now and hasn’t brought forth one reliable suspect.”
“There was a hint in The Chronicle that Eversham was fixated on the theory that perhaps the killer was a tradesman because he was so easily able to move through the streets,” a matronly lady with graying gold hair offered. “But I think perhaps a hansom cab driver could just as easily elude capture.”
“What about a servant?” asked Mrs. Araminta Peabody. “They’re always around, but one doesn’t notice them, does one? Why, you there”—she gestured to a footman who was collecting the tea things—“you might be the Commandments Killer and we’d never even know it.”
“Eversham is a good man, dash it,” said Sir Horace, his florid face growing redder. “I won’t have his name or that of Superintendent Darrow sullied in this way. This is just the sort of conversation that I was warning against earlier. See what’s happened already? The lot of you women have grown overexcited. I daresay you’ve grown feverish, you’re so overcome by all this talk of mischief and mayhem.”
“Oh, don’t be an ass, Horace,” said the man to the left of him. He was a doctor, but Kate couldn’t have recalled his name at pistol point. “This talk is no more dangerous for ladies than it is for men.” He turned to Kate. “I think the Commandments Killer is a woman, myself. Remember that a posy was found on the body of the second victim. It’s possible it was from a man’s buttonhole, but I don’t know many men who would wear forget-me-nots.”
At the doctor’s words, the room erupted into chaos.
Under cover of the din, Kate turned to Caro.
“I know we’ve just met, but I’ve an idea for my paper and I think you might be interested. What would you think about our writing a column together about this sort of thing?”
“About men trying to stop us from commonsense understanding of the world around us?”
Kate laughed. “Not quite. I had something else in mind. A column about our thoughts on the kind of crimes typified by the Commandments Killer. Two of the victims have been women, after all. These are the sorts of things ladies find of interest but are discouraged from speaking about.”
Caro tilted her head, a grin widening on her face.
“A sort of lady’s guide to murder, you mean?”
“Yes, but I think we should call it A Lady’s Guide to Mischief and Mayhem.”
“A tribute to Sir Horace?” Caro tittered.
“Exactly right.” Kate glanced over to where that gentleman was holding forth on more of his notions of propriety. “He deserves it, don’t you think?"