Excerpt: Third Husband’s the Charm


London, August 1870

When Captain Percival Carlyle, Earl of Granston, stepped onto the Royal Victoria Dock in east London, the pain in his temples eased for the first time in days. For a man with a reputation as a fun-loving, hard-drinking skirt-chaser, he spent an inordinate amount of time sober and alone, putting his family’s affairs in order and tending to headaches not caused by hangovers. But here on the docks, surrounded by ships that were more home to him than any house had ever been, some of his stress abated. Once again, he could take command of his destiny. He could shift his focus from his dependent family and his failing mind, and concentrate on his next voyage.

As he approached the SS Martinique, the newest addition to the Grayhall Shipping Line, he quickened his pace to a trot, always anxious to see the progress on the restoration of the beautiful vessel. When the Martinique sailed in three weeks’ time, he would be her captain, once again assuming his place as lord and master of that domain, even if it was for the last time.

He weaved his way through scores of dock workers soaked in sweat and sea spray. Hardened and hardworking men, who already had several hours of work behind them, even at this early morning hour, bowed as he passed. But here, unlike in the tedious ballrooms of London Society, the respect for Granston’s rank had been earned.

Finally, he set foot on the gangplank leading to the deck of the iron steamship that would launch Grayhall’s venture into transatlantic trade. The bosun, speaking with two of the finishing carpenters, glanced over his shoulder and nodded a greeting to Percy, then motioned to the carpenters to follow him below decks.

“Odd,” Percy mumbled as he glanced at the deserted deck. If he didn’t know better, he’d have thought his bosun was avoiding him. When his business partner Daniel Hallsworth, Marques of Edensbridge, emerged from the staircase, Percy’s headache returned. “What’s gone wrong, mate?”

Hallsy raised his eyebrows and gave an exaggerated bow. “Good morning to you, too, fine sir.”

Percy scowled, but bid his friend good morning. “And now will you tell me why the bosun has turned tail and run at the sight of me?”

Hallsy ran a hand through his hair. Another bad sign. “I need a word. Perhaps in your quarters, where we can’t be interrupted.”

Percy took one more glance around the empty deck. “Why have the men we’re paying so well to bring this girl up to Grayhall standards stopped working?”

“They were temporarily interrupted this morning. Better I should explain it all in private.”

Percy crossed his arms over his chest and held his ground.

Hallsy frowned. “I’ve brought cognac, Granston. You’ll need it.”

That could only mean something terrible was afoot. Hallsy knew more about Percy than any other man alive, and knew Percy’s carefully cultivated reputation as an affably prodigious drinker was a ruse. It had been for years, as Percy had feared over-indulgence in spirits would hasten his mental decline, as it had his father’s. An unfortunate inherited brain deficiency, the doctor in Berlin had called it. Percy had sought out specialists earlier in the summer to discuss his occasional nightmares that reminded him of his father’s descriptions of hallucinations. A biphasic mood disorder, the doctor in Vienna had put it more succinctly. Upon hearing that diagnosis, Percy’s family doctor had prescribed a sleeping tincture for Percy, but had further warned him off over-imbibing while taking it. For Hallsy to suggest cognac at this hour, knowing Percy’s poor tolerance of it, the situation must be dire.

“Lead the way,” Percy said.

They crossed the deck to the captain’s quarters, which had already been updated to match the layout of the other Grayhall ships, but were larger, as this transcontinental ship was now the largest of their fleet. The three adjoining rooms—a sitting room, a bedchamber, and a private washroom—featured inlaid wood paneling walls, polished wide-plank floors covered by thick, burgundy- and gold-patterned rugs, and sturdy, hand-carved walnut and upholstered furniture arranged in the same way as it was on every ship Percy had commanded. The familiarity allowed him to navigate his rooms even in dark of night during rough seas, and as an added benefit made the luxurious quarters feel like home.

But this morning, his large desk was strewn with his almanacs, maps, and papers, which should have been on the bookshelves on the left wall of the sitting room. The few bottles of spirits he had already stashed in the built-in cabinets along the back wall had been pulled out and dropped on their sides on the rug. Even the painting above the large, rough-hewn mantle over the hearth, a reproduction of a family portrait of him with his mother and sisters, hung askew.

Hallsy picked up the bottle of cognac sitting in the center of the table and poured out two portions in the accompanying glasses. He handed one to Percy, then pointed to the mess in the room.

“Courtesy of the constables,” Hallsy said.

“Constables?” Percy glanced around the sitting room, then crossed it, peering into the bedroom, which was in an equally messy state. “What were they looking for? The Martinique hasn’t been out of London in months. Surely they don’t suspect us of smuggling or some such nonsense.”

“Actually, I think it was just their way of showing their displeasure.” Hallsy took a swig of his own drink, then motioned to one of the upholstered chairs. “I think you should sit to hear this.”

Instead of sitting, Percy paced along the perimeter of the room. “Displeasure with what?”

He’d spent too much time in London recently, there was no doubt about it. He blamed his friends and their bloody forays into domesticity for the disruption to his life on the high seas. His attendance had been requested at no fewer than three weddings in the past year, with Hallsy’s rushed union by special license being the second of those. At this rate, he ran the considerable risk of being mistaken for a fixture of London society, a fate he’d managed to avoid for the past ten years. But while he did enjoy setting tongues to wagging if he had to be landlocked, he had crossed no line that should have raised the ire of the constables.

Unless there was something he was missing, something he had forgotten. Something his untrustworthy mind had obscured from him.

“Please, Granston, have a seat,” his friend said. “And your cognac, while you’re at it.”

Hallsy was hardly one given to drama, so his pleading tone caught Percy’s attention. He dropped into gold-upholstered divan and held his glass tightly in his hand. His skin pricked with sweat and he took a steadying slug of his drink.

“Tell me about Buenos Aires,” Hallsy said.

Percy couldn’t follow his friend’s logic from a raid by constables to a city a quarter of the globe away. But the fact that the Martinique’s last voyage had originated from the Argentinian port had to figure into Hallsy’s reasoning.

“You were there six months ago, visiting Harry,” Hallsy continued.

Percy nodded. He’d taken the trip as the guest of the Martinique’s previous owner to consider whether she was the right ship for Grayhall. It’d had the added benefit of taking him to South American shores, to the continent where another of their Harrow friends who had become a renowned botanist now conducted his research.

“Harry showed me his field laboratory and took me on a brief journey into the nearby jungle,” Percy said. “Then he traveled to Buenos Aires with me. We were there for the last few nights of Carnaval.” He grinned. “Full of color and music and beautiful women. So many beautiful women.” His grin faded. “Our last night there, I imbibed more than I should have.”

He had already drunk his three portions with Harry early in the evening. Then he’d had a nip of rum, followed by a bit of spiked punch at a grand party at the estate of some British ex-patriot or other. Percy was usually more careful, but there had been something about that night. The stars, the music, the heavy perfume of the flowers, the enticing women. One woman in particular. The most beautiful woman he had ever seen. He’d given into the temptation to relax and revel and truly enjoy himself like the untroubled soul he pretended to be. Not that he had been intentionally careless, but he hadn’t been familiar with the all the spirits and they had been stronger than he had realized.

While he always wondered how the madness had begun for his father, Percy also vowed never to become him. The manic, sleepless nights and restless hours filled by gambling, followed by deep, dark moods fueled by drink. The times when his father seemed unable to recall who he was, where he had been, whom he was supposed to love. The old man’s inability to take care of the family he was obliged to support and protect.

Percy set down his cognac. He had rules for himself, rules that kept him sane. Rules he wasn’t about to break again. “What does any of this have to do with the London constables?”

Hallsy set down his own glass, which was empty, and smoothed out an imaginary wrinkle on his pants leg. “There was one woman in particular. I remember you mentioned her a few times.”

“The widow Simmons.” Finola. Percy leaned back in his seat. He could still picture her: long red hair streaming down her back, a golden mask barely obscuring her milky-white skin that she’d somehow protected from the harsh South American sun, her bright blue eyes sparkling when, after much time spent trying, he had managed to make her laugh. “We met on Shrove Tuesday. The last day of Carnaval. But the constables…” Percy’s throat was parched. He reached for the cognac and took a sip out of desperation.

The widow had recently returned to London. Percy had caught a glimpse of her across a crowded ballroom. She’d been dressed in crimson and surrounded by would-be suitors. She was a beauty with a fortune earned from a South American silver mine. Any man in England would be lucky to have her, though perhaps none deserved her. Especially not one with an inherited mental deficiency. And meeting her here in London, where his responsibilities weighed so heavily on him and his bleak future stared him in the face, would destroy the joy of his memory of their charmed night together. It was one more thing he couldn’t bear to lose. So he had avoided her.

Now constables. A raid on his new ship. Hallsy’s questions about Finola. There was something more, something Percy should understand, something his unreliable mind couldn’t fathom. Was this how it had all begun for his father? For his great-grandfather before that? For other Carlyle men who might have had the same mental defect, but whose madness had been buried by their wealth and privilege?

“The bosun brought the constables to the offices after their dawn raid on the ship,” Hallsy said. “I told them I had no idea where to find you, but you’d show up here eventually. After they tore apart your quarters, they tasked me with convincing you to turn yourself into them. For your own good, as they put it.”

“Sounds as if they mean to arrest me.” Percy should be more shocked by the news that he was a wanted man, but with the recent plague of nightmares and sleepless nights and memory lapses, he wasn’t sure he was capable of surprise. “I swear I don’t know why. What did they tell you?”

“They didn’t come with an arrest warrant. Just questions.” Hallsy picked up his empty glass, scowled at it, and set it down again. “And a contract.”

“A contract.” Percy shifted to the edge of his seat. “Now we’re getting somewhere. Something about the paperwork for this old girl? You saw the bill of sale. Everything seemed in order.”

“Not that kind of contract, Percy. This was a marriage contract. From Buenos Aires.”

“Marriage!” Percy jumped to his feet, capable of astonishment after all. “Buenos Aires. This is about Harry, then? He’s married? At least he’s alive, then. When was the contract signed?”

If Harry had married in the months since Percy had visited him, it would explain why no one had heard from their old friend for so long. And maybe the knowledge would make Percy’s nightmares about horrible fates befalling Harry stop. Harry had disappeared into the jungle for long stretches of time before, but had always managed to keep up communications with his friends and family. However, this time it had been more than six months since he’d sent a letter or telegraph or one hint of viability to his parents. As things stood, Percy was the last person in England who had seen Harry alive.

Hallsy stood and laid his hand heavily on Percy’s shoulder. “This isn’t about Harry, and the contract isn’t recent. It was signed on the first of March.”

Percy’s thoughts scrabbled for purchase, but nothing was solid. Nothing made sense. “Did Harry…”

Hallsy shook his head. “The contract was signed by Mrs. Finola Tenney Simmons. And by Captain Percival Carlyle, the Earl of Granston.”

Percy saw the vibrant colors and pinpricks of stars from that night. He felt the drumbeat of the music and heat of the crowd on his skin. Felt the warmth of the beautiful redhead in his arms, heard her laughter in his ear. He had pulled her tighter, swayed to the music with her, kissed her. Not a chaste kiss, or even a flirtatious one. A deep, lingering, possessive kiss. The kind of kiss that was prelude to either a seduction or to a promise. All this time, he had assumed the wrong one.

Now the ship tilted under him, even though the port was calm and the Martinique was too large and solid to react to the gentle waves. “My mind…What is it…” He flailed out his arm, glad for Hallsy’s steadying grip. “What the hell have I done? I’ve been married for nearly six months, and I can’t even remember my own wedding.”

* * *

Finola Tenney Simmons Carlyle, the newly-revealed Countess of Granston, sat on a hard bench at the Metropolitan Police headquarters and waited for the husband who had deserted her. For the first time in nearly a year, since her first husband’s death, she felt some small measure of hope. For the thousandth time, she felt a no small amount of guilt. I have no choice, no options left to me. It was the same thing she had told herself every other time she had thought to abandon her plan.

Captain Lord Granston would deny her claim, of course. But with a signed marriage contract, Lord and Lady Delmar—waiting with her on the bench—as witnesses, and the sympathy of the constables to whom she and her solicitor had presented her case, his repudiation would fall on deaf ears, at least for now. Long enough for her to plead her true case to the captain and beg for his help, once they had a chance to speak alone.

His business partner entered the atrium first. The Marquess of Edensbridge, as wealthy as the captain himself, and recently married to the daughter of the Earl of Limely. Finola had learned all she could about the captain’s associates when she had been searching for a more civilized way to make his reacquaintance. Lord Edensbridge was followed by the two constables who—after they heard Finola’s story of being a deserted wife—had promised her justice first thing this morning, then by the bespectacled man who was one of the captain’s solicitors.

And then he entered.

The captain stood half-a-head taller than the marquess, who was the next tallest man in the group. She remembered his height, how he had peered down at her, even though she had been wearing heeled boots. Her first husband, Bernard Simmons, had been almost exactly her height, which had made no difference to her, but had caused Bernard much unhappiness. She had never been allowed to wear a heel higher than his, and had spent their nine years of marriage self-conscious about how large and awkward she was. But when she had danced with Captain Lord Granston under the stars at Carnaval, she’d felt beautiful. For that alone, she would forever owe him a debt of gratitude.

But she was about to repay him with grief.

The captain bent his head toward his solicitor, but when they drew nearer, he lifted his gaze to meet hers. She waited for a scowl, a cold glare, even a choice oath or two. Instead, his ocean-blue eyes crinkled at the corners as he smiled, and with his tousled strawberry-blond hair and boyish face, he looked even younger than his twenty-six years. She hadn’t mentioned her age when they had met, and now she wondered if he would care that she was twenty-eight. Which wouldn’t matter in the least, she reminded herself. Theirs would be a business transaction, and he would be rid of his older wife soon enough.

He moved closer and opened his mouth as though to speak, but Finola’s solicitor jumped to his feet and blocked him.

“The chief inspector has offered us the use of his office,” Finola’s solicitor said, and the solicitors escorted Granston away from her and down a distant hallway.

Lord Edensbridge spoke quietly to the constables, who no longer looked particularly vexed, then took a seat on a bench at the other side of the atrium. The constables smiled and touched the brims of their hats as they passed Finola and her friends, but didn’t stop to regale her with the tale of the captain’s detainment.

She smoothed down the front of her pale blue skirt, then glanced at Margaret, the Lady Delmar. “Did I choose the right color, do you think?”

Do I still look the part of the innocent lamb? was what she wished to ask, but she couldn’t. Her friends, the Delmars, who had met Bernard and her in Argentina more than a year ago, had offered her any help they could give after his untimely death. But they had left just days after Carnaval, and then all of Finola’s troubles had begun.

Counting on their kindness, and remembering they had gotten blind drunk on a spiked punch at the Carnaval party they had convinced Finola to attend, she had arrived on their doorstep just over a month ago with a tale so ridiculous, it begged to be believed. And she had recounted the story so often of Captain Lord Granston wooing and flirting with her and proposing to her right in front of the Delmars, that they now believed it. One more reason to hate herself. But she would make it up to them once she had secured her rightful property. She would repay them in full for their kindness and then some. She was, after all, a very wealthy woman from the claim on the silver mine she and Bernard had staked in Argentina. But to reclaim her own fortune, she had to wrest it away from the son of her second husband, her true second husband, the elderly viscount who had married her in Buenos Aires so he could spirit her out of South America under his protection.

Margaret took her hand. “You look divine. And Captain Lord Granston—that despicable cad—looks just as disreputable as he did the night he married you. I’ll never forget that devious smile. Will you, my lord?”

“Never forget it,” Lord Delmar agreed.

Finola tried to console herself with the knowledge that this ploy had been a last resort. While Lord Delmar was a minor baron, he was hardly a powerful man like the captain, the Earl of Granston. And much to her chagrin, Finola desperately needed the help of a powerful man. She had hoped to see the captain at the few society events she had attended by invitation of the Delmars, but he had proved elusive. She had worn a crimson gown to one ball hoping to draw him to her, but while other hopeful beaus had surrounded her, the captain had quickly disappeared. That had left her with no alternative than to create a public spectacle, complete with witnesses, to get his attention and—she hoped—a private word with him where she could beseech him for his help. After all, a nobody such as she could hardly turn up on the doorstep of an earl, begging his indulgence. Not that she hadn’t considered that drastic step, as well. But the captain lived in a building with a doorman posted as a sentry.

Finola’s solicitor reappeared, followed by Captain Lord Granston’s man. She rose to her feet, bracing herself for the captain’s entrance, but he didn’t arrive. Panic seized her. He must have told them the truth, made them see reason, then slipped out a back door. Any minute, the constables would return to place her under arrest for lying about marrying the earl. She would never get back her fortune, the Delmars would disavow her, and she wouldn’t even have the funds to hire a barrister to defend her in court.

“Wonderful news,” her solicitor told her.

“Wonderful? Truly?” Finola pressed a hand over her pounding heart. Perhaps her life wasn’t about to end in tragedy after all. “He’s agreed to the trust and the divorce?”

“Better!” the man said.

She raised her eyebrows. “What could be better?”

The solicitor grinned. “Captain Lord Granston would like to discuss the arrangement with you himself.”

“Captain Lord Granston?”

Until this very minute, her solicitor had only referred to the captain as a deserter and a blackguard. Finola didn’t like his change in tone.

“Yes,” her solicitor said as he took her elbow. “Come along. I’ll show you to the chief inspector’s office.”

As they crossed the atrium, Finola ventured a glance at the marquess, who now spoke with the captain’s solicitor. He glanced her way with neither a smile nor a frown, giving away nothing. He, like all the captain’s friends, was powerful and loyal. And under the wrong circumstances, dangerous. But Finola had survived a mercurial husband, poisonous jungle snakes, bloodthirsty accusers, and a doddering second husband who had died before he could put her fortune into a protected trust. She wasn’t about to be intimidated by Captain Lord Granston or his friends, or her second husband’s horrible son.

She threw back her shoulders, resumed the self-righteous air of a woman scorned, and marched toward her reckoning.