Anne Perry

Slaves of Obsession


“We are invited to dine with Mr. and Mrs. Alberton,” Hester said in reply to Monk’s questioning gaze across the breakfast table. “They are friends of Callandra’s. She was to go as well, but has been called to Scotland unexpectedly.”

“I suppose you would like to accept anyway,” he deduced, watching her face.

He usually read her emotions quickly, sometimes with startling accuracy, at others misunderstanding entirely. On this occasion he was correct.

“Yes, I would. Callandra said they are charming and interesting and have a very beautiful home. Mrs. Alberton is half Italian, and apparently Mr. Alberton has traveled quite a lot as well.”

“Then I suppose we had better go. Short notice, isn’t it?” he said less than graciously.

It was short notice indeed, but Hester was not disposed to find unnecessary fault with something which promised to be interesting, and possibly even the beginning of a new friendship. She did not have many friends. The nature of her work as a nurse had meant that her friendships were frequently of a fleeting nature. She had not been involved with any gripping cause for quite some little time. Even Monk’s cases, while financially rewarding, had over the last four months of spring and early summer been most uninteresting, and he had not sought her assistance, or in most of them her opinion. She did not mind that; robberies were tedious, largely motivated by greed, and she did not know the people concerned.

“Good,” she said with a smile, folding up the letter. “I shall write back immediately saying that we shall be delighted.”

His answering look was wry, only very slightly sarcastic.

They arrived at the Alberton house in Tavistock Square just before half-past seven. It was, as Callandra had said, handsome, although Hester would not have thought it worth remarking on. However, she changed her mind as soon as they were in the hallway, which was dominated by a curving staircase at the half turn of which was an enormous stained-glass window with the evening sun behind it. It was truly beautiful, and Hester found herself staring at it when she should have been paying attention to the butler who had admitted them, and watching where she was going.

The withdrawing room also was unusual. There was less furniture in it than was customary, and the colors were paler and warmer, giving an illusion of light even though in fact the long windows which overlooked the garden faced the eastern sky. The shadows were already lengthening, although it would not be dark until after ten o’clock at this time so shortly after midsummer.

Hester’s first impression of Judith Alberton was that she was an extraordinarily beautiful woman. She was taller than average, but with a slender neck and shoulders which made more apparent the lush curves of her figure, and lent it a delicacy it might otherwise not have possessed. Her face, when looked at more closely, was totally wrong for conventional fashion. Her nose was straight and quite prominent, her cheekbones very high, her mouth too large and her chin definitely short. Her eyes were slanted and of a golden autumn shade. The whole impression was both generous and passionate. The longer one looked at her the lovelier she seemed. Hester liked her immediately.

“How do you do,” Judith said warmly. “I am so pleased you have come. It was kind of you on so hasty an invitation. But Lady Callandra spoke of you with such affection I did not wish to wait.” She smiled at Monk. Her eyes lit with a flare of interest as she regarded his dark face with its lean bones and broad-bridged nose, but it was Hester to whom she addressed her attention. “May I introduce my husband?”

The man who came forward was pleasing rather than handsome, far more ordinary than she was, but his features were regular and there was both strength and charm in them.

“How do you do, Mrs. Monk,” he said with a smile, but when courtesy was met he turned immediately to Monk, behind her, searching his countenance steadily for a moment before holding out his hand in welcome and then turning aside so the rest of the company could be introduced.

There were three other people in the room. One was a man in his mid-forties, his dark hair thinning a little. Hester noticed first his wide smile and spontaneous handshake. He had a natural confidence, as if he were sure enough of himself and his beliefs that he had no need to thrust them upon anyone else. He was happy to listen to others. It was a quality she could not help but like. His name was Robert Casbolt, and he was introduced not only as Alberton’s business partner and friend since youth, but also Judith’s cousin.

The other man present was American. As one could hardly help being aware, that country had in the last few months slipped tragically into a state of civil war. There had not as yet been anything more serious than a few ugly skirmishes, but open violence seemed increasingly probable with every fresh bulletin that arrived across the Atlantic. War seemed more and more likely.

“Mr. Breeland is from the Union,” Alberton said courteously, but there was no warmth in his voice.

Hester looked at Breeland as she acknowledged the introduction. He appeared to be in his early thirties, tall and very straight, with square shoulders and the upright stance of a soldier. His features were regular, his expression polite but severely controlled, as if he felt he must be constantly on guard against any slip or relaxation of awareness.

The last person was the Albertons’ daughter, Merrit. She was about sixteen, with all the charm, the passion and the vulnerability of her years. She was fairer than her mother, and had not the beauty, but she had a similar strength of will in her face, and less ability to hide her emotions. She allowed herself to be introduced politely enough, but she did not make any attempt to pretend more than courtesy.

The preliminary conversation was on matters as simple as the weather, the increase in traffic on the streets and the crowds drawn by a nearby exhibition.

Hester wondered why Callandra had thought she and Monk might find these people congenial, but perhaps she was merely fond of them and had discovered in them a kindness.

Breeland and Merrit moved a little apart, talking earnestly. Monk, Casbolt and Judith Alberton discussed the latest play, and Hester fell into conversation with Daniel Alberton.

“Lady Callandra told me you spent nearly two years out in the Crimea,” he said with great interest. He smiled apologetically. “I am not going to ask you the usual questions about Miss Nightingale. You must find that tedious by now.”

“She was a very remarkable person,” Hester said. “I could not criticize anyone for seeking to know more about her.”

His smile widened. “You must have said that so many times. You were prepared for it!”

She found herself relaxing. He was unexpectedly pleasant to converse with; frankness was always so much easier than continued courtesy. “Yes, I admit I was. It is …”

“Unoriginal,” he finished for her.


“Perhaps what I wanted to say was unoriginal also, but I shall say it anyway, because I do want to know.” He frowned very slightly, drawing his brows together. His eyes were clear blue. “You must have exercised a great deal of courage out there, both physical and moral, especially when you were actually close to the battlefield. You must have made decisions which altered other people’s lives, perhaps saved them, or lost them.”

That was true. She remembered with a jolt just how desperate it had been, how remote it was from this quiet summer evening in an elegant London withdrawing room, where the shade of a gown mattered, the cut of a sleeve. War, disease, shattered bodies, the heat and flies or the terrible cold, all could have been on another planet with no connection to this world at all except a common language, and yet no words could ever explain one to the other.

She nodded.

“Do you not find it extraordinarily difficult to adjust from that life to this?” he asked. His voice was soft, but

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