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Anne Perry

Midnight at Marble Arch

CHAPTER 1

Pitt stood at the top of the stairs and looked across the glittering ballroom of the Spanish Embassy in the heart of London. The light from the chandeliers sparkled on necklaces, bracelets, and earrings. Between the somber black and white suits of the men, the women’s gowns blossomed in every color of the early summer: delicate pastels for the young, burning pinks and golds for those in the height of their beauty, and wines, mulberries, and lavenders for the more advanced.

Beside him was Charlotte, her hand resting lightly on his arm. She had no diamonds to wear, but he knew that she had long ago ceased to mind that. It was 1896 and she was now forty years old. The flush of youth had gone, but the richness of maturity became her even more. The happiness that glowed in her face was lovelier than flawless skin or sculpted features, which were mere gifts of chance.

Her hand tightened on his arm for a moment as they started down the stairs. Then they moved into the throng of people, smiling, acknowledging this one and that, trying to remember names. Pitt had recently been promoted to head of Britain’s Special Branch, and it was a heavier weight of responsibility than he had ever carried before. There was no one senior to him in whom he could confide, or to whom he could defer a difficult decision.

He spoke now to ministers, ambassadors, people of influence far greater than their casual laughter in this room might suggest. Pitt had been born in the most modest of circumstances, and gatherings like this were still not easy for him. As a policeman, he had entered homes through the kitchen door, like any other servant, whereas now he was socially acceptable because of the power his position gave him and because he was privy to a range of secrets about almost everyone in the room.

Beside him Charlotte moved easily, and he watched her grace with pleasure. She had been born into Society and knew its foibles and its weaknesses, even if she was too disastrously candid to steer her way through them, unless it was absolutely necessary, as it was now.

She murmured some polite comment to the woman next to her, trying to look interested in the reply. Then she allowed herself to be introduced to Isaura Castelbranco, the wife of the Portuguese Ambassador to Britain.

“How do you do, Mrs. Pitt?” Isaura replied with warmth. She was a shorter woman than Charlotte, barely of average height, but the dignity of her bearing made her stand apart from the ordinary. Her features were gentle, almost vulnerable, and her eyes were so dark as to seem black against her pale skin.

“I hope you are finding our summer weather agreeable?” Charlotte remarked, for the sake of something to say. No one cared about the subject: it was the tone of voice, the smile in the eyes, that mattered.

“It is very pleasant not to be too hot,” Isaura answered immediately. “I am looking forward to the Regatta. It is at Henley, I believe?”

“Indeed it is,” Charlotte agreed. “I admit, I haven’t been for years, but I would love to do so again.”

Pitt knew that was not really true. Charlotte found the chatter and the pretentiousness of lavish Society events a little tedious, but he could see in her face that she liked this woman with her quiet manner.

They spoke for several minutes more before courtesy required that they offer their attention to the others who swirled around under the lights, or drifted to the various side rooms, or down the stairs to the hallway below.

They separated with a smile as Pitt was drawn into conversation with a junior minister from the Foreign Office. Charlotte managed to catch the attention of her great-aunt, Lady Vespasia Cumming-Gould. Actually she was great-aunt by marriage to Charlotte’s sister Emily, but over the years that distinction had ceased even to be remembered, let alone matter.

“You seem to be enjoying yourself,” Vespasia said softly, amusement lighting her remarkable silver-gray eyes. In her prime she had reputedly been the most beautiful woman in Europe, certainly the wittiest. Did they but know it, she was also one who had fought at the barricades in Rome, during the turbulent revolution that had swept Europe in ’48.

“I haven’t forgotten all my manners,” Charlotte replied with her usual frankness. “I fear I am reaching an age when I cannot afford to wear an expression of boredom. It is terribly unflattering.”

Vespasia was quite openly amused, her smile warm. “It never does to look as if you are waiting for something,” she agreed. “Which is good. Women who are waiting are so tiresome. Who have you met?”

“The wife of the Portuguese ambassador,” Charlotte replied. “I liked her immediately. There is something unusual in her face. I’m sorry I shall probably never see her again.”

“Isaura Castelbranco,” Vespasia said thoughtfully. “I know little of her, thank heaven. I know too much about so many other people. A little mystery lends such charm, like the softness of the late afternoon or the silence between the notes of music.”

Charlotte was turning the thought over in her mind before replying when there was a sudden commotion a dozen yards away from them. Like those around her, she turned toward it. A very elegant young man with a sweep of fair hair took a step backward, raising his hands defensively, a look of disbelief on his face.

In front of him a girl in a gown of white lace stood alone, the skin of her bosom, neck and cheeks flushed red. She was very young, perhaps no more than sixteen, but of a Mediterranean darkness, and already the woman she would become was clear in the curves of her body.

Everyone around the two fell silent, either in embarrassment or possibly out of confusion, as if they had little idea what was happening.

“Really, you are quite unreasonable,” the young man said defensively, his voice light, trying to brush off the incident. “You misunderstood me.”

The girl was not soothed at all. She looked angry, even a little frightened.

“No, sir,” she said in slightly accented English. “I did not misunderstand. Some things are the same in all languages.”

He still did not seem to be perturbed, only elaborately patient, as with someone who was being unintentionally obtuse. “I assure you, I meant it merely as a compliment. You must be used to such things?”

She drew in her breath to answer, but obviously could not find the words she wished.

He smiled, now openly amused at her, perhaps just a little mocking. He was good-looking in an unusual way. He had a strong and prominent nose and thin lips, but fine dark eyes.

“You’ll have to get used to admiration.” His look swept up and down her with just a fraction too much candor. “You’ll receive a great deal of it, I can promise you.”

The girl was shaking now. Even from where she stood, Charlotte could see that she had no idea how to deal with such inappropriate appreciation of her beauty. She was too young to have learned the necessary composure. It seemed her mother was not close enough to have overheard the exchange, and the young man, whom she now recognized as Neville Forsbrook, was very confident. His father was one of London’s foremost bankers and the family had wealth and status, and all the privilege that came with it. He was not used to being denied anything, most especially by a girl who was not even British.

Charlotte took a step forward, and felt Vespasia’s hand on her arm, restraining her.

The color had drained out of the girl’s face, leaving her ashen. “Leave me alone!” Her voice was shrill and a little too loud. “Don’t touch me!”

Neville Forsbrook laughed quite openly now. “My dear young lady, you are being ridiculous, and making something of a spectacle of yourself. I’m sure that is not what you wish.” He was smiling, and he took a step toward her, one hand out in front of him, as if to soothe.

The girl swung her hand wildly in an arc, catching his arm with hers and knocking it aside roughly. She swiveled around to escape, lost her balance and almost fell against another young woman, who promptly screamed and flung herself into the arms of a startled young man close to her.

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