In the latest Pink Carnation novel from national bestselling author Lauren Willig, rumors spreading among the ton turn deadly as a young couple unites to solve a mystery....
 
In October of 1806, the Little Season is in full swing, and Sally Fitzhugh has had enough of the endless parties and balls. With a rampant vampire craze sparked by the novel The Convent of Orsino, it seems no one can speak of anything else. But when Sally hears a rumor that the reclusive Duke of Belliston is an actual vampire, she cannot resist the challenge of proving such nonsense false. At a ball in Belliston Square, she ventures across the gardens and encounters the mysterious Duke.
 
Lucien, Duke of Belliston, is well versed in the trouble gossip can bring. He’s returned home to dispel the rumors of scandal surrounding his parents’ deaths, which hint at everything from treason to dark sorcery. While he searches for the truth, he welcomes his fearsome reputation—until a woman is found dead in Richmond. Her blood drained from her throat.
 
Lucien and Sally join forces to stop the so-called vampire from killing again. Someone managed to get away with killing the last Duke of Belliston. But they won’t kill this duke—not if Sally has anything to say about it.

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“Willig’s writing is witty and smart, and her addictive series sparkles with lively dialogue, intelligent characters and great plotting, which is why readers keep coming back for more. Willig represents the Regency romantic mystery at its best."

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“Once again, Willig doles out a completely delightful confection of romance and intrigue sure to please her many fans and leave them breathlessly anticipating the Pink Carnation’s final adventure."

 

Chapter One

London, 1806

“They say he’s a vampire.”

Sally Fitzhugh’s friend Agnes trotted after her as Sally made a beeline for the French doors to the garden, driven by a restlessness she couldn’t entirely explain.  Behind her, she could hear the scraping of the musicians, the swish of fashionable fans.  She just wanted out.  Away from the heat, away from the smells, away from the petty gossip and murmurings. 

It was October, and cold, but the ballroom was humid with the press of too many bodies in too small a place.  The very mirrors seemed fogged with it, blurred and distorted.  Even with her arms and neck bare, Sally felt uncomfortably warm in her silk and gauze gown.

The crisp October air hit Sally like a tonic, and, with it, Agnes’s words.  Had Agnes really said— 

“A what?”

Agnes ducked the rapidly swinging door.  “A blood-sucking creature of the night,” she said helpfully as she followed Sally out towards the balustrade, away from the crush in Lord Vaughn’s ballroom.

“I know what a vampire is.  Everyone knows what they are.”  Ever since The Convent of Orsino (by a Lady) had taken the town by storm the previous spring, the ladies of the ton had become intimate experts on the topic.  The men, just as sickeningly, had taken to powdering their faces pale and affecting red lip rouge.  Sally found it distinctly ridiculous.

But, then, she was finding it all a little ridiculous just now: the too strong perfumes, the smug smiles, the whispering voices behind fans, the incredible arrogance of those powdered fops and perspiring ladies.  It would serve them right if there were vampires in their midst.  Not that such things existed, of course.  Any blood-sucking that went on in the ton was purely of the metaphorical variety, although none the less draining for that.

Sally gripped the cool stone of the balustrade with both hands, breathing in deeply through her nose.  She wasn’t sure what ailed her.  Back in the cloistered confines of Miss Climpson’s Select Seminary, she had been itching to try her wings on the world, to flirt and laugh and bend beaux to her will.  She knew exactly what it would be like: a cross between a Samuel Richardson novel and those notices one read in the paper, the ones that began with “Lady A—wore a gown of watered green silk”.  She would be the toast of London, taking the town by storm. 

And why shouldn’t she?  She was, she knew, without false modesty, more than passably attractive.  Quite a bit more, really.  It didn’t do to be disingenuous about such things.  So what if Martin Frobisher called her a gilded beanpole?  He was just sore because she made him look like the sniveling little thing he was—and jealous because his family hadn’t two guineas to rub together.  Proud, he called her.  Well, yes, she was proud.  She knew her own worth, both in character and in coin.  What did it matter that her family had never thrown down a cloak for Elizabeth I or provided a mistress for Charles II?  Just because they had never toadied for a title didn’t mean that they weren’t as good as anyone.  They were certainly a sure sight better looking, and her dowry was as big as anyone’s. 

Both of those, Sally knew, guaranteed her entrée into society—or her brother’s name wasn’t Turnip. 

She had sallied off to London in the firm anticipation of champagne-filled evenings of compliments, in which she would hold court among her devoted and witty admirers. 

Well, she had been right about the champagne, at least.  She just hadn’t expected it to taste quite so sour. 

Even so, it was better than ratafia, the drink of young ladies, of which she had imbibed enough over the past year and a half to float a medium sized royal barge.  To be honest, she hadn’t minded the ratafia at the first.  And if her admirers were less witty and more waspish—well, she was too busy flirting her fan and enjoying her own wit to mind.  It was only bit by bit, along the course of her first Season, that she began to realize that it all felt a little flat.  The bright silks and satins looked best by candlelight, where the stains didn’t show.  The glittering jewels were too often paste.  The fashionable gossip, which had seemed so terribly clever and scandalous in that first month became nothing more but the endless repetition of a series of painfully similar on dits

Did it really matter that Lucy Ponsonby had been seen without her gloves at Lady Beaufeatheringstone’s latest ball?  It was hardly a matter of international policy.

She was just in a mood, she told herself.  Tired, cranky, weary.  Too many nights of too many entertainments that weren’t all that entertaining.  It would get better.  It had to get better.  She didn’t like feeling like this, so purposeless.  So restless.

She had hoped that having her friends Lizzy and Agnes join her this year would help, that introducing them to society would provide some of the vim that she had felt last year, when it was all fresh and new.  But Agnes didn’t care much for such things, and Lizzy had rapidly, without much help from Sally, acquired her own circle.

Lizzy had, in fact, become something of a minor sensation in her own right.  Part of it was due to her stepmother, Mrs. Reid.  Mrs. Reid’s novel, The Convent of Orsino, was the topic of conversation at all select soirees; her presence a coup for any hostess.  People fought to send cards to her step-daughter, in the hope that Mrs. Reid might attend, and—even better!—lose her temper and pink someone with her infamous sword parasol.  A wound from Mrs. Reid was a sure sign of social success.  But while Mrs. Reid’s notoriety might have garnered Lizzy the invitations, the rest she had achieved on her own.  At any party, one could find Lizzy surrounded by a fascinated group of men and women, telling hair-raising tales of her youth in India.  Given that Lizzy had left India at the age of six, and spent the rest of her formative years first with a retired vicar’s wife and then in the decidedly unexotic confines of Miss Climpson’s Select Seminary, Sally strongly suspected that the larger part of those stories were apocryphal, taken right out of the novels they had smuggled under the covers at Miss Climpson’s Select Seminary.  Not that that made any difference to her audience.

It didn’t hurt that the rumor had made its way around the ton that Lizzy’s mother had been an Indian princess, complete with elephant and priceless jewels.   

It was Sally who had started the rumor about Lizzy’s mother being an Indian princess.  Not the elephants.  The elephants had come later, along with other embellishments that made the originator of the tale raise her brows and wrinkle her nose.  People did come up with the most ridiculous things….

But, still, it was all better than the truth, which was that Lizzy’s mother had been a bazaar girl.  A touch of royal blood rendered Lizzy interesting and exotic; without it, she would be stigmatized as nothing but the bastard brat of an insignificant East India Company Colonel of little fortune and no birth.  That was what Sally had reckoned when she started the rumor.

Of course, she hadn’t reckoned on it running away from her like that.

She hadn’t reckoned on being left behind.

That was silly.  It wasn’t as though Lizzy had left her.  They still spent a great deal of time together.  It was just….  When Sally had left Miss Climpson’s for London, it had never occurred to her that Agnes and Lizzy would carry on without her, turning their trio into a duo.  They had even had an adventure of their own—not that it was terribly much of an adventure, given that Lizzy and Agnes had run off the moment there was a hint of a French spy on the scene, disappearing for weeks and causing everyone a lot of bother finding them again.  If Sally had been there, they would have routed the spy on their own, and saved everyone a great deal of trouble.

But she hadn’t been there.  As they had reminded her countless times.  Not always intentionally, but in little ways, in jokes she didn’t understand and in memories she didn’t share.  Sally was used to being the leader of their little trio.  It felt very odd to be rendered de trop.

 “—inconvenient diet,” Agnes was saying.  “Blood does stain so.”

Belatedly, Sally pulled her attention back to Agnes.  Unlike Sally, Agnes did not seem to be enjoying the cool night air.  Her teeth were chattering slightly and her skin was turning a faint shade of blue that matched the color of her gown . 

“Here,” Sally said, and took the light shawl from her own shoulders and wrapped it around Agnes, who hadn’t the sense to bring her own.  “What are you talking about?”

“The rumors,” said Agnes, blinking innocently at Sally as she absently tucked the corners of the wrap beneath her arms.  “Haven’t you heard?  They say he’s a vampire.”

“A vampire?  Hardly.”  Sally paused to glower in the general direction of the ballroom.  There was no love lost between her and their host.  Lord Vaughn was not an admirer of Sally’s brother Turnip, which meant that Sally was not an admirer of Lord Vaughn.  No one was allowed to insult Turnip but Sally.  Still, even so….  “Whatever else I may think of the man, Lord Vaughn looks perfectly corporeal to me.  Those waistcoats are just an affectation.”

It would be just like Lord Vaughn to set himself up as an undead creature of the night.  He prided himself on being slightly sinister, going about in those black waistcoats with silver serpents, murmuring cryptic comments.  It was, reflected Sally critically, all just a little too obvious.

“Not Lord Vaughn,” said Agnes patiently.  “The Duke of Belliston.”         

“The Duke of Who?”  Lizzy joined them on the balcony, her bronze curls escaping from a wreath of flowers that had gone askew, like the halo of a naughty angel.  There was a healthy glow in her cheeks and her brown eyes were bright.

“Belliston,” said Agnes, palpably unaware of any social frissons or fissures.  “In the house across the garden.” 

She gestured in the other direction, away from the crowded ballroom, past long rows of perfectly trimmed parterres. 

Even in the waning season of the year, Lord Vaughn’s shrubbery didn’t have a leaf out of place.  The garden was arranged in the French style, all gravel paths and geometric designs, scorning the more natural wilderness gardens coming into vogue.  Above the close-clipped hedges and the marble statues glimmering white in the moonlight, Sally could just make out the outline of the great house across the way. 

Unlike Lord Vaughn’s, that garden had been allowed to run to seed, either by accident or design.  Weeping willows trailed ghostly fingers over the dim outline of a pond on which no swans swam, while ivy climbed the walls of the house, dangling from the balconies, obscuring the windows.  In the heart of London, the edifice had an eerie air of isolation.

It was the largest house in the square, larger by far than Lord Vaughn’s.  Sally felt a certain satisfaction at that thought.  Lord Vaughn could put on all the airs he liked, but he still wasn’t the biggest fish in the square.  And by fish, she meant duke.  The Duke of Belliston out-housed and out-ranked Vaughn.

He was also remarkably elusive.  In her two Seasons in society, Sally had never met the man.  There was some sort of story about him… something to do with a curse and his parents.

But vampires?  Nonsense.

“Is that Belliston House?” Lizzy shook back her curls as she stared avidly at the house across the way.  “I hadn’t realized we were so close to the Lair of the Vampire.”

Sally rolled her eyes at the idiocy of mankind.  “Vampires are a myth.  And not a particularly interesting one,” she added repressively.

“People said the same thing about the Duke of Belliston,” pointed out Agnes, “about his being a myth, I mean.  But you can’t deny there are lights in the windows.”

That much was true.  Through the ivy and the dust, a faint but distinct light shone. 

“She has you there,” said Lizzy.  There was no denying that there was someone in residence at Belliston House.  Whoever—or whatever—that someone might be.

“Yes, but….”  Sally made an impatient gesture with her hands.  “Next you’ll be telling me you saw a bat flying around his belfry.”

Lizzy cocked her head, considering the urns that lined the roof of the house.  “I think it’s a crow.” 

“Did you know what a group of crows is called?”  Agnes’s voice dropped to a hushed whisper.  “The collective term for a group of crows is—”

“Oh, no,” said Sally.

“—a murder,” finished Agnes earnestly.

As an academic appellation it was just a little too atmospheric, especially with the moon silhouetted against the chimney pots, casting strange shadows through the abandoned garden.  Sally felt a chill shiver its way down her spine, beneath the thin fabric of her gown and chemise.

Catching Lizzy’s too-knowing eye, she hastily looked away, wishing she hadn’t given away her shawl.

There was no call for Lizzy to look at her that way.  Chills were simply what one got when one stood on a balcony in a scoop-necked ballgown in the middle of October.  It had nothing at all to do with the black bird flapping about the chimney pots. 

Somewhere in the depths of the garden, an owl voiced its mournful cry. 

“That”—Sally cast about for a suitably dampening adjective—“is absurd.”

“No, truly,” said Agnes.  “It’s a murder of crows and an unkindness of ravens.”

That last, at least, was appropriate.  Sally cast a glance back over her shoulder at the ballroom.  “I’d say it’s more an affectation of imbeciles.” 

Lizzy grinned at her.  “You sound like my step-mother.”  Before Sally could decide whether that was an insult or not, Lizzy turned her attention back to the dark shell of Belliston House.  Leaning her elbows against the balustrade, she said, with relish, “They say he sucks the blood of unwary maidens.” 

Agnes considered this.  “I imagine they’re less trouble than wary ones.”

“Utter rubbish,” said Sally crisply.  Before Agnes could argue with her, she added quickly, “Just because the man scorns society doesn’t mean that he’s an unholy creature of the night.”

In fact, at the moment, she would say it was rather a sign of his good sense.

“No one has seen him for seven years,” pointed out Lizzy.  “Or was it ten?  That’s rather a long time for societal scorning unless he had some other motive in mind.”

“Such as draining the blood of wary or unwary maidens?” Sally gave a delicate sniff.  “I think not.”

Agnes’s face took on the distant look it acquired when she was parsing out a difficult academic question.  “Seven is a mystical number….”

“So is three,” said Sally.  “Or five hundred and thirty-two.”  She had no idea about five hundred and thirty-two, but someone had to show a bit of sense.  Sally pushed away from the balcony, her gauze overskirt catching on the carved edge of an acanthus leave.  “Whatever the Duke of Belliston is, he’s just a man.” 

Lizzy’s eyes glinted with mischief.  “Prove it,” she said.

Agnes looked in alarm from Lizzy to Sally and back again.  “You don’t mean—”

Lizzy nodded decisively.  “Someone ought to go over there.  In the interest of truth, of course.” Her face was a picture of guileless innocence as she added delicately, “Unless, of course, you don’t care to go.”

They had played this game so many times before, in the safety of Miss Climpson’s Academy.    Sally had never yet turned down a challenge, and Lizzy knew it. 

“Why shouldn’t I?” Sally made a show of indifference, even though she could feel the thrum of the blood through her veins, sending her pulse racing, making colors crisper and sounds clearer.  “What could be more invigorating on a cool evening than a walk across a garden?”

Agnes looked at her in alarm.  “Sally, you wouldn’t….”

Oh, wouldn’t she?  Sally caught Lizzy’s grin and knew she understood, even if Agnes didn’t.

“Don’t worry,” Sally said to Agnes.  “I shan’t do anything foolish.  Anything else foolish,” she amended.  “I’ll just peer through the window and report back.  That’s all.”

Before Agnes could protest, Sally pushed her cameo bracelets up on her wrists and ran lightly down the path. 

“Be—”  and behind her, Sally heard Agnes’s voice, soft and worried, on the night breeze.  “Careful?” 

Careful was just what she didn’t want to be.  She had missed this, the sense of being alive that only came from taking risks, from pushing the edges of the rules—all for good reason, of course.  Always for good reason.  They were nothing if not civic minded, Sally told herself virtuously.  But, oh, it felt good to be free of the leash of polite society, if only for a few stolen moments.

Gravel crunched beneath Sally’s slippers.  The cool October breeze lifted the corners of her shawl and set her golden curls dancing.  Dimly, Sally was aware of Lizzy, on the bottom step, fidgeting with impatience, all eagerness to run across the garden herself; Agnes behind her, a pale presence leaning over the balustrade, prepared, despite her own doubts, to leap into the fray and fight blood-sucking creatures of the night on Sally’s behalf should the occasion call for it. 

Sally’s heart swelled with affection for them.  Sometimes, she wished they could go back to Miss Climpson’s, back to the safety and security of the rambling school in Bath, where they all wore identical white muslin gowns and their greatest worry was who was to play whom in Miss Climpson’s annual Christmas fiasco and whether it might be possible that someone was attempting to elope with the music master.  Not that she would ever admit it to anyone.  At Miss Climpson’s, she had itched and fretted to be out in the world, but now that she was out, she had to admit that she was finding the world strangely flat.

But not tonight.  Not now, with an adventure before her on the other side of Lord Vaughn’s garden.    

The formal parterres had been cleverly arranged to provide the sense of an endless vista, but, as was always the case with the Vaughns, the sense of spaciousness was an illusion; it was a London garden, and Sally was at the end of it in moments. 

There was no wall separating Lord Vaughn’s property from that of the Duke of Belliston, only a series of Cyprus trees.  Their spindly shapes lent a funeral aspect to the scene, but they had one major benefit; there was plenty of space between them for one slender woman. 

At the Cyprus border, Sally checked slightly.  For all her bravado, there was something more than a little dodgy about willfully trespassing onto someone else’s property.  It had been quite another thing to slip down to Miss Climpson’s sitting room in the dead of night; the students did that so often it was practically an official extracurricular exercise.

But she couldn’t turn back now, not with Lizzy watching.  And it really couldn’t do any harm just to creep up to the house and back.  Admittedly, a white gown wasn’t the best attire for creeping, but, if spotted, she could always raise her hands above her head and pretend to be a statue.

Which was, Sally realized, a plan worthy of her brother, Turnip.

With a shrug, she plunged through the Cyprus border.  And came up short as a candle flame flared in front of her face.

For a moment, she had only a confused image of a dark form, silhouetted against the fronds of a weeping willow.  Childhood memories of ghost stories surged through her mind, the horrible tales Nanny used to tell her, of faceless ghouls and headless horsemen and phantom monks in their transparent habits.

“Who is it?” she demanded, her voice high.  But not with fear.  It was just shortness of breath, that was all.  “Show yourself.”

A man swept aside the fronds of a weeping willow tree.  “Show myself?”  The man’s voice was well-bred, and distinctly incredulous.  “I should ask the same of you.”

For a moment, Sally froze, wildly recalling all of the tales Agnes had recounted.  The man’s face was marble pale against the dark leaves, his features chiseled as if from stone, beautiful and stern. 

The only sign of color was the single splotch of blood that marred the snowy whiteness of his cravat.

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