Before plunging into my narrative, I must first state categorically that no reasonable person could have anticipated a murdered corpse turning up in my stepdaughter's bed. I reject all charges of insensitivity lobbed at me following those chaotic and desperate days in Florence. It should also be noted that Kat was not in her room, let alone her bed, during the moment in question, a detail that surely must mitigate the situation.
It all began on a seemingly mundane Tuesday. As a rule, I do not take naps. Much though I appreciate the wisdom of a siesta in hot, southern climates, it can hardly be justified on our sceptered isle. Our rocky shore may beat back the envious siege, but given our geography, we're more likely to be plagued with cold rain than a lethargy-inducing heat wave. On that day, however, I did succumb to slumber, and I lay the blame entirely on my dear friend Cécile du Lac. A relentlessly elegant Parisian of a certain age who, after more than a dozen years of friendship still hides from me her family's involvement in the French Revolution, Cécile had long harbored a passion for bohemian sensibilities. The latest manifestation of this leaning was her decision to embrace the designs of a Belgian architect, Henry van de Velde. Not the designs of his buildings but of ladies' dresses. For reasons incomprehensible to me, he turned part of his attention to fashioning gowns in a reform sort of style, not requiring a corset. Granted, no one who has spent decades encased in such undergarments would mourn their demise, at least not entirely, yet one might also hope for something rather less frumpy than Mr. van de Velde's creations.
Cécile, a fellow devotee of the cosmopolitan House of Worth, sent a van de Velde original cut to my measurements and implored me to give myself the gift of comfort at least once before condemning the dress to flames. And so, that morning, Meg, my maid, lowered it over my head, frowning the entire time. Fitted only through the bosom, its fabric—dark red velvet—flowed freely to the floor, enabling the wearer to both breathe freely and slouch. Attractive it might not be, but what did it matter when I planned to spend the day in my library, reading?
I went downstairs intent on doing just that, only to find that for me, certain books might indeed require a corset. Relishing the freedom of movement Mr. van de Velde's gown allowed, I stretched out on a long chesterfield sofa and fell asleep before I'd got through a dozen pages. Sometime later, a voice I did not recognize woke me.
"The world can change in an instant. It falls on gentlemen like us to determine the course of that change. What you have done, Hargreaves, is nothing short of saving the empire. His Majesty is beyond grateful."
I was about to sit up and announce myself when my husband's reply stopped me cold.
"I fear it may not be enough," Colin said. "The danger is alleviated but not eliminated."
I do not condone eavesdropping. It is underhanded; dishonorable; and something a lady should never, ever do. It is also undeniably useful. Furthermore, when one is thrust accidentally into a theoretically private conversation, as was the case that October afternoon, it is less morally dubious. I lay perfectly still, not allowing myself even to blink.
"Alleviated enough that you are free to deal with the situation in Florence. Once that's in hand, you can return your focus to this other business. But while you're away, the prescribed methods to contact me, yes? This is not the time for open communication."
"Quite. I'll spend as little time as possible abroad, sir. This won't prove a distraction."
"I'd choose a different tack, Hargreaves. Bring your wife and give every appearance of this being a holiday. Gaze on Michelangelo's masterpieces and climb the steps to the lantern of Brunelleschi's dome."
"You believe there's a connection between this and the other?" Colin asked.
"We cannot afford to dismiss the possibility. Your daughter is safely at Oxford, is she not?" My husband must have nodded; the other man continued. "I'll put two on to watch her. She'll be in no danger while you're away."
"Thank you, sir." Colin's clipped tone told me he was not wholly convinced.
"Three, if you'll feel better. And make use of Benton-Smith. He's at Lake Garda, but could get to Florence easily enough."
"I shall get in touch with him at once."