A GEORGIAN HISTORICAL MYSTERY
Alec Halsey Mystery Series Book 2
A utumn 1763. Career diplomat Alec Halsey has been elevated to a marquessate he doesn't want and Polite Society believes he doesn't deserve. And with the suspicion he murdered his brother still lingering in London drawing rooms, returning to London after seven months in seclusion might well be a mistake. So when a nobody vicar drops dead beside him at a party-political dinner, and his rabble-rousing uncle Plantagenet is bashed and left for dead in a laneway, Alec’s foreboding deepens. Uncovering the vicar's true identity, Alec suspects the man was poisoned. But who would want a seemingly harmless man of God murdered, and why?
Goethe International Novel Writing Competition Finalist for Outstanding Works in Post-1750s Historical Fiction, Romance Writers of Australia Romantic Book of the Year Finalist.
Character-driven amateur sleuth
Non explicit (mild sensuality, mild violence)
Story length 102,000 words
More Alec Halsey Mysteries
Featured Reviews & Accolades
Lucinda Brant is the queen of Georgian Historical Mystery just as Georgette Heyer was the queen of Regency Romance. What these two authors have in common, besides being superb writers, is their ability to weave historical information into the plot so that the reader is transported effortlessly to another time and place. Lucinda Brant gets 5 stars from me, and I can't wait to read the other books in the Alec Halsey series!
Anne B. Readers’ Favorite
Lucinda Brant has a beautiful writing style and a careful grasp on the social mores, political environment and tangled affairs of the aristocracy of Georgian England. Her characterizations are layered and complex. Lucinda Brant is a gifted writer and Deadly Affair is highly and enthusiastically recommended for lovers of historical mysteries!
Jill MacKenzie InD'Tale magazine
Lucinda Brant has crafted a clever and intriguing mystery in which she very skillfully pulls together her seemingly disparate plot threads to reach a thoroughly satisfying conclusion with a couple of plot twists I most definitely did not see coming. I really can’t fault Alex Wyndham’s performance, which is simply outstanding all round. This listener is hooked and eager for more.
Rated a Desert Isle Keeper
Caz Owens All About Romance
Mr. Wyndham gives voice to the large cast with consummate skill. He differentiates the characters by accent, pitch and tone, to the point where each was easily recognizable. I was particularly impressed with his female characters. The author struck gold when she retained his services to narrate this series.
Kaetrin, Audio Gals
LONDON, AUTUMN 1763
ALEC HALSEY had accepted Sir Charles Weir’s dinner invitation on the assumption he was the only guest. Now, standing in the politician’s drawing room surrounded by a dozen unfamiliar faces, he found himself in the midst of a party political dinner. The other guests were all in some way connected to the government, come together to celebrate the fifth anniversary of Sir Charles’s election to Parliament, not career diplomats in the Foreign Department like Alec. The guest of honor, the Duke of Cleveley, twice First Lord of the Treasury and the present Foreign Secretary, had yet to descend among them, and Alec supposed this was why the double doors to the dining room remained closed.
Wine glass in hand, Alec sidled to the sash window that overlooked Arlington Street, and turned his back on the crowded and noisy room. He disliked gatherings of this sort. Too intimate. In a faceless crowd, one could remain anonymous and still enjoy the evening’s entertainment. Here everyone knew his family’s history, had devoured every scandalous detail in the London newssheets about the macabre circumstances surrounding the murder of his estranged brother. Despite the coroner’s open verdict, it was Alec whom society blamed for his brother’s death, thus condemning the newly-elevated Marquess Halsey to a lifetime of suspicion.
Why had he returned to the city? He should have remained in Kent, where he had spent the seven months since his brother’s death resurrecting the family estate. He should be visiting his tenants and seeing to their needs, not wasting time rubbing shoulders with overfed, opinionated politicians, and their parasitic hangers-on, all of whom avoided his eye. There was so much for him to do and learn about his unwanted inheritance that he hardly knew where to begin.
He sipped at the wine and stared down at a sedan chair come to rest on the steps of Horace Walpole’s townhouse, and ruminated on fate. He had spent most of his adult life on the periphery of Polite Society, a diplomat on the Continent speaking in foreign tongues. His estranged brother’s untimely death changed his well-ordered life forever. Did he want to run an estate and take his seat in the Lords? He knew so little about either that a winter posting to St. Petersburg held more appeal. What was he supposed to do with a Marquessate he did not in the least want and one his peers considered he did not deserve? Yet he had been compelled to accept with good grace the newly-created title. As if his elevation from the family earldom of Delvin to the Marquessate Halsey would somehow miraculously expunge from the collective memory of Polite Society his connection to a murdered brother who had hated him with a passion bordering on mania. To Alec’s way of thinking, thrusting a Marquessate on him considerably complicated his life, and merely heightened suspicion.
Perhaps he would request a second posting to Constantinople?
He was roused from these musings at the mention of his name in loud whispered conversation over his left shoulder. Overhearing the rest was unavoidable.
“I don’t know why Weir invited him,” whined a weak male voice. “He’s not one of us. And when one considers what he did to poor Ned—well!”
“Sir Charles has a motive for everything,” mused his female companion. “I wonder…”
“Obviously Charlie fails to see the matter as we do, my lady.”
“He’s rather handsome in an angular sort of way. Big bony nose and large—”
“What? No powder and a scrap of lace makes him handsome?”
“—blue eyes,” Lady Cobham finished with a crooked smile, appraising Alec from well-muscled calf to coal black curls.
“You’re blind! He could very well be mistaken for an American savage.”
“Yes. That old rumor about—”
“—his real papa being a black lackey who took my lady Delvin’s fancy has stuck, hasn’t it?”
“It’s stuck, Caro, because the swarthy devil’s a-a half-breed. One only has to look at him to see that!”
The woman sighed deeply. “Yes, just look at him. Common report says he’s as virile as a savage…”
There was a snort of contempt. “You’re for Bedlam, Caro! Egad! The man’s uncouth, uncivilized, and disrespectful. The Duke won’t like him being here tonight, not one bit!”
“I dare say your father won’t like it, George, but given the Duke’s continued mourning for the Duchess I doubt Cleveley will care who Sir Charles has invited to dine. Can savages have blue eyes?”
“Be reasonable, Caro.” Lord George Stanton tucked his chins in his stock and said gravely, “Father is thinking of stepping down from the leadership.”
The lady gasped. “You can’t be serious? He said so in jest!”
“The Duke, my dear Lady Cobham, does not jest. Neither do I. And don’t think Father’s grief has made him blind to the world. He will certainly have a word with Weir for his lack of moral decency for inviting a man everyone knows but cannot prove murdered his own bro—”
“Oh, look! He’s finally here!” burst out Lady Cobham. She gave a nervous titter behind her fluttering fan when Alec stared straight at her. But when Lord George faced the doorway she lowered the fan of carved ivory to underscore her thrust-up breasts before turning to admire the full-length portrait dividing the windows. “I wonder if that’s a Reynolds…?” she mused to no one in particular, a sly sidelong glance of open invitation at Alec.
A commotion in the doorway had everybody looking that way. The Duke of Cleveley had arrived. It said much about the man’s formidable political and social influence that his mere entrance caused the room to hush. He was soon surrounded by the party faithful, all wanting to be noticed, and Alec had the satisfaction of seeing the great man snub his stepson, Lord George Stanton, in favor of a clergyman in tattered collar and cuffs. At least the Duke was not about to allow an arrogant nature to dictate to sense, he thought with a wry smile.
The meal itself was not the ordeal Alec had anticipated. In amongst the twelve courses there was much political discussion and many an impromptu speech praising Sir Charles’s five years as Member of Parliament for the rotten borough seat of Bratton Dene. And as Alec was seated between the scruffy clergyman, who ignored him in favor of conversation with the gentleman to his right, and Sir Charles, who sat at the head of the table, he began to feel more at ease. And with the comings and goings of the two footmen with the various courses on offer, he took the time to glance about at the other guests.
The Duke of Cleveley sat directly opposite, looking supremely bored. His Grace said little throughout the discussions, ate sparsely from the many dishes put before him, and continued to drink steadily, although this fact did not affect in any way his political acumen. Alec observed that whenever the Duke tired of the conversation he fiddled with his snuffbox, and that his fellows took this as a sign that they could lower their guard, but no sooner did they do so than the great man would offer up some scathing criticism guaranteed to send the diners into a spin of counter-arguments. Alec would never agree with the Duke’s politics, but this did not stop him admiring the great politician at work. Now he knew why his uncle Plantagenet found the Duke such a worthy and infuriating opponent, and it made him smile, contemplating what that old gentleman would have to say at breakfast the next morning when he learned just who had been at Sir Charles Weir’s dinner party.
Sir Charles leaned in to Alec.
“It’s all rather a bore for you, I’m afraid. Don’t worry, with the ladies gone to the drawing room, we fellows can have a good port and a rest.” He patted Alec’s upturned velvet cuff. “I’m glad you came up to town.”
“I should’ve remembered. At school you had a way of getting what you wanted by fair means or foul.”
Sir Charles raised his glass. “That’s what makes me such an effective politician, my lord Halsey.”
Alec flinched. Seven months was not time enough to be comfortable being addressed as “my lord”. Annoyed with himself for letting such a social trifle get the better of him, he downed the rest of his wine in one swig. Looking up, he encountered the Duke’s penetrating gaze. He stared back at him and the heat in his face said it all, because the Duke set down his glass, took up his snuffbox, and offered it across the table.
Alec shook his head. “Thank you, Your Grace, but I don’t dip.”
The Duke inclined his powdered head and put the little gold box back on the table. “One of your uncle’s many eccentricities is a hatred of tobacco. I read his pamphlet on the subject with great interest. You were raised by him, were you not?”
“Yes, Your Grace. Raised by him to form my own opinions,” Alec replied, surprised the Duke had bothered to read anything his uncle had written. “I simply don’t find snuff to my liking.”
“Ah,” said the Duke, dismissing the topic with a long sniff, as if suddenly bored by it. Alec found the mannerism annoying. “Tell me your opinion of the Midanich question.”
“Is there a question, Your Grace?” asked Alec. He knew the rest of the diners had broken off their conversations and were listening intently. “I presumed that little corner of northern Europe now put to rest. England ended French occupation of the principality and invasion of Hanover was avoided, which was your government’s prime objective. Thus a successful campaign for you, Your Grace…”
The Duke tapped the lid of his snuffbox and flicked open the filigree lid with one finger. His gaze remained on Alec, weighing up his remark, deciding if it contained any hostile insinuation. After all, his government’s decision to drive out the French and occupy Midanich had been met with hostility on both sides of Parliament. Alec Halsey’s uncle Plantagenet was its most vocal critic. But Midanich shared a border with Hanover, English sovereign territory, and thus keeping the French out was imperative. The strategic move proved successful and helped England win the Seven Years’ War.
“I will allow that remark to stand, Halsey.”
“As was intended, Your Grace,” Alec answered politely.
There was a long silence broken only by the sound of the Duke taking snuff. It was left to Sir Charles to interpret the mood, and he pushed back his chair and gave the nod to his butler, a sign for the ladies to take their leave to the drawing room. The rest of the gentlemen stood, still silent, waiting a cue from the Duke who was oblivious to the tension hanging about him.
With the door firmly closed on the ladies’ backs, Lord George Stanton made his way to the sideboard at the far end of the long room where Sir Charles was refilling his snuffbox, and those belonging to guests who required replenishment, from one of a number of ornamental jars kept on the top shelf of an ornate mahogany cabinet. The rest of the gentlemen had undone the last button of their waistcoats and were settling down to the good drop of port the butler had placed on the table in large crystal decanters.
Alec stretched his long legs by the windows opposite the sideboard, escaping the intense gaze of several gentlemen who were diverted when the scruffy clergyman invited himself to sit beside the Duke. The cleric’s familiar behavior annoyed these men who had awaited this opportunity to make themselves better known to the great man. Alec noted that it also annoyed the Duke’s stepson, who could not hide his contempt for the old cleric. And two bottles of claret had loosened his tongue.
“Listen, Charlie,” Lord George hissed loudly and hiccupped. “I thought you were going to do something about him.”
“What do you suggest I do with a cleric, my lord?” Sir Charles answered with heavy sarcasm.
“What’s he doing here?” came the arrogant demand.
“It wasn’t my idea to invite him. I thought that obvious, even to you,” Sir Charles answered cuttingly, replacing the stopper to the porcelain snuff jar. He returned this and its companion to the cabinet shelves. “And do, please, lower your voice.”
“I’m not drunk, y’know,” said Lord George, taking a pinch of snuff from the box offered him. “Thanks. The old badger’s come to stay. Can you believe it? Father allowing that dirty piece of filth to stay at St. James’s Square? He’s got his own room, for God’s sake!”
“Perhaps his grief—”
“Oh, come on, Charlie!” scoffed Lord George and hiccupped again. “I miss Mamma just as much but it hasn’t unhingedme. It’s been a twelvemonth and I call that long enough to grieve. After all, it’s not as if mamma was a well woman. She’d been confined to her rooms for the better part of a year before her death. So don’t give me that rot about blind grief!”
“My lord, I—”
Lord George leaned a large arm on the sideboard, his round face close up to Sir Charles. “Know what I think, Charlie.”
“No, I don’t th—”
“He’s got something over him.”
“That’s absurd,” Sir Charles replied with a hollow laugh. “What could that old vicar possibly have over—”
“You think because you were secretary to the great man for ten years you know everything there is to know about him? Then tell me why Father gives that caterpillar the time of day. Only yesterday they were closeted in the library for three hours. Three hours, Charlie.”
Sir Charles took Lord George by the elbow and pulled him about so that his back was to the room. “Have you thought that His Grace may merely be carrying out your mother’s dying wish?”
Lord George belched. “Eh?”
Sir Charles smiled thinly. “If you recall, my lord, it was the Duchess who requested to see Mr. Blackwell. Just before she went into her final decline she summonsed the cleric to her bedside. It was he who administered the last rites.”
“What? That threadbare nobody presided over Mamma’s deathbed?” It was news to Lord George, and he turned and looked down the room at the clergyman who was very much at home with the noblemen about him, joining in the laughter at their bon mots. “Why did she do that, I wonder?”
Sir Charles sighed. “We shall never know now, and I suggest you not bother the Duke with it.” He pocketed his snuffbox, closed the sideboard door, and turned the little silver key in the lock. “If His Grace sees fit to rub shoulders with athreadbare nobody it’s not for us to question.”
Lord George Stanton gave a snort and slapped Weir’s back. “Ever the faithful secretary, Charlie!”
He sauntered off to join the others. Sir Charles grimaced his displeasure and came up to Alec with a smile full of resignation. “You mustn’t mind Lord George,” he apologized. “He’s young, and lamentably, he can’t hold his liquor like the rest of us. Makes him say things he doesn’t mean. Blackwell’s not so bad.”
Alec’s non-committal reply and the fact he immediately went over to introduce himself to the clergyman had Sir Charles wondering. If he’d not been claimed to settle a dispute on a point of law, he would have followed to hear what his old school friend had to say to a threadbare nobody.
“Mr. Blackwell,” said Alec. “I owe you an apology.”
The Reverend Blackwell smiled and offered Alec the vacant chair beside him. “Do you, my lord?”
“Yes. I feel rather foolish for not knowing you at dinner, but we have met before, some months back, when on my uncle’s invitation the board of governors of the Belsay Orphanage convened at my house.”
“Yes, that’s right. Forgive me for smiling, but I do know who you are and I am well aware of our previous meeting. I thought it best to allow you the opportunity to acknowledge me or not, as you saw fit.”
Alec was surprised. “How could you think I wouldn’t want to know you? I admit I’ve got out of the way of socializing since… I don’t come to town often, preferring to spend my time in Kent, yet I enjoyed that nuncheon immensely—all the more because talk centered on the Belsay Orphanage.”
“My fellow board members and I are honored to have been appointed, but it is your uncle who is grease to the axle, my lord.” The clergyman caught Alec’s frown and spread his fat hands in a gesture of sympathy. “The past seven months have not been easy for you. I am sorry for it. A lesser man couldn’t have carried it off. Yet, I have every faith in you making the most of a circumstance that was not of your making.”
Alec looked up from the heavy gold signet ring on the pinkie of his left hand, harsh lines either side of his mouth. “Thank you for your support, Blackwell.”
The vicar nodded and leaned across the table to grab the nearest snuffbox. It was gold and identical in design to the box carried by the Duke. “Pretty, isn’t it?” he said, changing the subject. “A gift. I’d never truly enjoyed snuff until given a good blend.” He snorted a generous half-pinch up one nostril. “Always smoked a pipe. But this is more agreeable in company.” He then snorted the rest up the other nostril and dusted off his fingers on the sleeve of his frock coat.
Alec politely waited, although he had so much he wanted to ask the clergyman. Not least, how he came to be taking snuff from a gold box in an elegant drawing room full of high-ranking politicians, when less than a year ago he had been ministering to the wretched poor in the parish of St. Jude’s. He glanced at the Duke surrounded by the party faithful, intrigued by the possible connection between a nobleman of the highest rank and a poor, ill-dressed cleric of no family. The Duke could not be called benevolent. His disdain for those socially beneath him was well known. He was the epitome of what Alec most despised about his own order. Blackwell was a mild-mannered, honest man without pretense and ambition; a person of little worth to a consummate politician such as the Duke. Strange bedfellows indeed.
“My lord, oblige me by refilling my glass,” the clergyman said in a thin hoarse whisper, tugging at his frayed neckcloth as if for air.
Alec did as he was requested but one look at Blackwell told him the man had taken ill. His face had changed color and he looked suddenly uncomfortably hot. Sweat had begun to bead on his forehead. Alec felt for the man’s pulse and was surprised by the rapid, pulsating beat in his wrist. He loosened the clergyman’s cravat, sitting him back in his chair as he did so. This only seemed to aggravate the old man. Blackwell let his head drop back as he sucked in air through a slackened mouth. Alec had the neckcloth unraveled and the man’s waistcoat undone, but still Blackwell gasped, his wheezing so loud that the other guests were alerted to his condition, and conversation and laughter ceased.
Sir Charles rushed to Alec’s side, calling for his butler to bring a pitcher of water. He turned to his old school friend for guidance, not knowing what to do with the gasping bulk now convulsing in his chair. “What’s to do?”
“Fetch a physician!” Alec commanded, his arm feeling as if it was about to break under the cleric’s writhing weight.
Just as he said this, Blackwell pitched forward and vomited. A great stinking mass of undigested food splashed Alec’s stockinged leg and fell in lumps to the carpet. It was enough to send the onlookers staggering backwards. One gentleman heaved, stuck his head in the chamber pot beneath the table, and followed the cleric’s example. Alec held back his own nausea and maneuvered the cleric to his knees where he vomited once more. The great guttural shudders were the last straw for even the most hardened stomach, and the circle of gentlemen surrounding him broke and scattered. Lord George Stanton made the mistake of peering over Sir Charles’s shoulder. The stench hit him before the sight, and he reeled back, almost losing his balance had not the Duke caught his stepson by the elbow and thrust him onto the nearest chair.
Alec was at a loss to know how to alleviate the man’s suffering. Until a physician could be found, there was not much anyone could do but shuffle about, helpless and uncomfortable. Sir Charles tried to put a tumbler of water to the vicar’s parched lips, but it was to no avail. Blackwell, his once sallow complexion now bright pink, continued to gasp, unaware of his surroundings and unable to ask for help.
Then all at once, the convulsions ceased as suddenly as they had begun. There came a collective sigh from around the room. Blackwell was perfectly still, his bald head now minus its brown-haired bob wig, bent forward as if in prayer. He gave one last great shuddering breath and promptly collapsed, face down, into the mess he had created.
He was dead.
“WHAT A WRETCHED end to the evening,” complained Lord George Stanton, refilling his port glass.