A GEORGIAN HISTORICAL MYSTERY
Alec Halsey Mystery Series Book 1
S pring 1763. Career diplomat Alec Halsey returns to London to the shocking news his estranged brother, the Earl of Delvin, has not only killed his friend in a duel but is engaged to the woman Alec hoped to marry. The dead man’s mother wants Alec to investigate, so he reluctantly attends a weekend house party celebrating the engagement. Houseguests get more than they bargained for when a lady’s maid is murdered, the bride-to-be is attacked, and a guest is shot dead. Uncovering a connection between these sinister acts and his brother's duel, Alec confronts a cruel twist of fate and why his brother will go to any lengths to ruin him in Polite Society.
Lucinda Brant's mysteries explore the darker side of her richly authentic 18th century world. Along with her trademark wit and high drama there are deeper subplots and even quirkier characters that will have you shuddering and laughing in equal measure!
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Featured Reviews & Accolades
On the outside, the life of a member of the gentry is ideal, but Lucinda Brant goes beyond appearances and digs deep into the sordid secrets that people through the ages have always sought to keep hidden. I was reminded of my youth when I inhaled historical romances and books of intrigue as if they were air. I challenge anyone to read this first book of the Alec Halsey Mystery series and not crave more from the handsome Alec Halsey with his high sense of morals, dark good looks, and divine analytical mind. I have nothing but good things to say about Deadly Engagement.
Francine Zane, Readers’ Favorite
The plot, with its twists and turns, kept me riveted and the outcome is very clever. The book boasts a magnificent cast of characters, all of whom are perfectly captured by narrator Alex Wyndham, whose evident enjoyment of the telling of the story is obvious. Deadly Engagement is a fabulous story, made all the more so by the addition of the fantastic Alex Wyndham. I’m eagerly looking forward to the next in the series."
Wendy Romantic Historical Reviews
It took me no more than five minutes of listening to this to know that in Alex Wyndham, Lucinda Brant had found the perfect narrator for her story. I saw a recent entry on her Facebook page that said she was very excited at having engaged him to narrate this, the first of her Alec Halsey series of mysteries set in Georgian England—and having heard him, I can now understand why. Mr Wyndham is a well-known face on television, having appeared in such series as the BBC’s recent adaptation of Little Dorrit, and HBO’s Rome. Deadly Engagement appears to be his first foray into the world of historical fiction and romance, and on the strength of it, I can only hope that he’ll be narrating more in the genre.
Caz, Audio Gals
ALEC HALSEY strode into the cool of the wide marble hall of St. Neots House, home of his godmother the Duchess of Romney-St. Neots, and hastily struggled out of greatcoat, leather riding gloves, sash and sword. He pressed these on an attending footman then went up the curved marble staircase two steps at a time. On the first landing he paused, as if remembering his manners, and leaned over the mahogany balustrade.
“Neave?” he called out to the butler, “Tell the Duchess I’ll be with her shortly!”
“Her Grace has guests to nuncheon, sir!” Neave called up into the dome of the cavernous entrance foyer. “And Miss Emily is—” Alec Halsey’s head of black curls disappeared from view, and the butler spun around, saw two footmen juggling the visitor’s belongings between them and pointed a finger at the youngest, a freckle-faced youth with a mop of red hair. “Go after him! He’s not to disturb Miss Emily. Your job on it, boy.”
Alec was in the passageway that led to the rooms occupied by the Duchess’s granddaughter when quick breathing at his back made him turn. A young footman came scrambling towards him much in the fashion of a puppy not grown into its long legs.
From behind a set of double doors came the sounds of female chatter and laughter.
“Sir? Please, sir. No!” the young footman pleaded, coming to a dead stop in front of the tall, loose-limbed gentleman. “You can’t go in there! Mr. Neave will have m’job if you do!”
Alec paused, long fingers curled about the door handle, and stared down at the freckle-faced youth, who respectfully lowered his eyes and shuffled his feet. Something about the boy was oddly familiar and made him pause.
“What’s your name?”
The footman gave a start. The pleasant drawling voice wasn’t angry, just curious and it made him glance up warily to wonder what was the intent behind the gentleman’s question. But there was no hint of insolence in the kind, friendly blue eyes that crinkled at the corners; no fancy airs and affected voice like so many of the visitors to St. Neots House. Even the clothes this gentleman wore were not out of the ordinary—no silver lacings, no frothy lace at his wrists, no diamond buckles in the tongues of his leather shoes—just good dark cloth, a plain linen cravat, and shoes without high heels. Perhaps he could reason with him and not have his ears boxed for doing his job. He swallowed hard and let his gaze wander to the door.
“Beggin’ pardon, sir. Thomas Fisher was what I was christened, but most call me Tam, sir.”
“Thomas Fisher,” stated Alec, racking his brain for a memory; he made no immediate connection. He followed the boy’s gaze to the double doors. “Well, Thomas Fisher: Tam, I’m going in there with or without your approval. Think me presentable enough to announce?”
Tam wondered if he was being roasted. There was a look in those blue eyes he could not make out. If Neave discovered him in conversation with a visitor, he’d be out on the streets again. And gentlemen callers, if they were gentlemen, did not enter a lady’s private apartments; they certainly didn’t canvass the opinions of footmen. He set his jaw hard and put just enough insolence into his voice to make the gentleman know his place.
Alec lifted a hand. “I’m not fragile. Out with it. It’s the hair, isn’t it?” he said, gathering the shoulder length hair tidily at the nape and retying the ribbon that held it in place. “Not enough wax and no powder. Can’t abide either.”
In spite of himself, Tam grinned. “It’s just as you say, sir. Your shoes will pass inspection. Females don’t care a whisker for dust on y’shoes, yet they like a gentleman to be neat. Least that’s what Jenny says. She can’t abide an ill-fitting wig or one with not enough powder. Says it ain’t right. But your hair—”
“—is my own. Yes. It’s my one concession to vanity,” said Alec with a wink, and slipped behind the door before the footman could stop him.
Tam cursed under his breath and dashed after him, saying as he crossed into the decidedly feminine sitting room, “Please, sir! Miss Emily is with her dressmaker. She ain’t receiving visitors and I doubt—”
“Don’t worry, Tam, I’ll vouch for you with Neave.”
“—she’ll notice your boots or your hair on account of the celebrations.”
This brought Alec Halsey up short and he turned and stared at him, puzzled. “Celebrations?”
Tam stepped up to him. “The engagement celebrations, sir. There’s to be a weekend party here. Here at St. Neots House.”
“Engagement celebrations? Here?”
Tam saw the gentleman’s look of total confusion. It was clear these tidings were new to him. “Yes, sir. Haven’t you been told, sir?”
“I returned yesterday from the Continent. I’ve been away eight months. An engagement celebration you say. Whose?”
“Miss Emily’s, sir.”
“Yes, sir. Miss Emily is engaged to be married.”
“When. When did this happen?”
“Jenny, she’s Miss Emily’s maid—”
“I know who Jenny is!”
Tam lowered his eyes. He’d never seen a face turn as white as a sheet. He’d heard the expression. The housekeeper used it quite a bit. He was witness to it now. Alec Halsey’s angular face had not only drained of natural color, but under his linen cravat his throat had constricted. He suddenly looked ill. Tam wondered if he should fetch up a brandy.
Alec swallowed. “I didn’t mean… It’s just—”
“No need to explain, sir,” Tam said quickly, averting his gaze and shuffling his feet, feeling the gentleman’s embarrassment.
He wished he could help him in some way. He didn’t care for Miss Emily’s betrothed, despite Jenny’s opinion that the Earl of Delvin was the handsomest nobleman in the kingdom. Lord Delvin certainly presented well, dressed in the latest fashionable powdered wig, tight-shouldered frock coat of elaborately embroidered silk, diamonds in his shoe-buckles, and yards of frothy lace gathered up at his wrists and throat, but there was something about the nobleman that would not wash. Tam wished he had tangible evidence for this feeling, particularly when Jenny continually sang the Earl’s praises.
“Jenny told me, sir,” he added glumly. “Miss Emily became engaged three days ago.”
Tam winced at the wretchedness in the deep voice. “I’m—I’m sorry, sir.”
There was a long silence. It was broken by Jenny who rushed out of her mistress’s bedchamber, saying something over her shoulder, and ran straight into Tam. She fell back a pace and put a hand to her hair.
“Tam? What are you doing—Oh!” She saw Alec and dropped a respectful curtsy. “Mr.—Mr. Halsey? Sir!” Her eyes went very round and she glanced at Tam, who kept his eyes lowered and his hands behind his back.
There was a rush of silk petticoats behind her, one or two voices raised in protest, and then Emily stood there in all her fair loveliness, straw-blonde curls caught up off her shoulders with a couple of long pins. She had on a new gown of patterned silk that was held together with tacking and needed alteration at the bodice, for it was cut far too low for the Duchess’s liking.
Madame the French dressmaker was at her elbow, urging her to come back into the room so she could continue with her work. Catching sight of a gentleman she gave a French squeak of alarm. Jenny spun about to shield her mistress from prying eyes, but when Emily saw who it was, she forgot Madame’s pins and threw herself at Alec’s inanimate form.
“You’re home at last! You’ve no idea how much we’ve missed you. Grandmamma said not a word. Did you two conspire to surprise me? How like you! Oh, it’s so good to see you.” She grabbed Alec’s hand and dragged him into the bedchamber, oblivious to the fact his mood did not match her own. “Careful where you step. It’s fitting day today. Jenny? Jenny! Forget the tea. Bring champagne. Yes. Champagne. We’re going to celebrate Alec’s return.” She shooed Madame and her assistants away. “I’ll get out of this wretched thing and then I can give you a proper welcome home. So, what do you think of this gown? Do you approve?”
“The bodice is indecent.”
“So Grandmamma says. But it’s the fashion.” She disappeared behind an ornate screen set in one corner of the sunny room and Madame followed, clucking over her in broken English. “You’ll be pleased with me. I’ve kept Phoenix well exercised,” Emily called out from behind the screen. “To the detriment of my horses. I was out on him this morning. Remember that problem he was having with his left hock? Well, it’s all better, so you needn’t worry. I suppose you’ll be taking him back to St. James’s Place? There!”
When she reappeared, Alec was by the window looking out on the long sweep of east lawn and not seeing any of it. He wished himself anywhere but here. He felt suddenly weary. When she came over to him and playfully tugged his sleeve, he could not bring himself to look at her.
“I’m decently dressed,” she said, sitting on the window seat beside where he stood. “All up to the neck and shoes on my feet, too!” When he made no response to her playful banter she added conversationally, “How was Paris? Did you bring me something wonderful? Something to wear? Or something for this room perhaps? And I must thank you for the fan you sent at Christmastime. It’s beautiful. Grandmamma was quite envious.”
Alec turned and looked about the untidy room, at the deep carpets covered in dressmaking patterns and fabrics, at the familiar pictures on the patterned-papered walls, but not at her. Everything was as he remembered it. He had often come up here. To have tea at the little table by the window. To hear the latest news of town and to tell her in return the happenings at the Continental Courts. The look on Tam’s face! The boy had no idea, had he? He wondered if Jenny was at this moment giving him a good tongue-lashing.
Jenny came back into the room then, followed by Tam carrying a tray. He put it down on the small table by the arrangement of sofa, chaise longue and chairs, and glanced at Alec to find him staring at him in a vacant sort of way. Jenny saw it too, and with a quick word, Tam left them alone.
“I brought you a brandy, sir,” Jenny said gently.
“No, Jenny. We are going to drink champagne. Aren’t we, Alec?”
Alec took the brandy glass and drank without tasting.
Emily sipped her champagne thoughtfully. “Will they give you a post here now? You—You aren’t going away again so soon, are you?”
“What’s his name?”
Emily blinked at his bluntness. “I beg your pardon?”
“The name of your betrothed,” he enunciated coldly. “What—is—his—name?”
There was a scratch on the outer door and Jenny was glad to go in answer to it, leaving Emily all alone and feeling for the first time in her life uneasy with her grandmother’s godson. She did not understand his coldness. She thought her own happiness would be sufficient for him to be happy for her. How many times had he lectured her in the manner of an elder brother, on the importance of being guided by her elders, but not to be forced into a marriage she disliked. And she had done precisely that. Perhaps he needed reassurance? Fortified with a gulp of champagne, she bravely stared up at him and said,
“I want to marry Edward. When he sought my hand in marriage, Grandmamma let it be known that the decision was mine, that I did not have to accept him if I did not want to. But,” she said in a clearer voice, her happiness giving her strength, “I do want to marry him. I want to marry him very much.”
“Edward? Edward…” Alec repeated quietly. “That isn’t much to go on. Who is this fellow?”
“We had only met on a few occasions, and those at public gatherings, but I knew straight away that if he did ask me I would accept him,” Emily continued, because Alec looked wholly unconvinced. “Grandmamma is very happy for me, especially so because I am to marry an earl.” She looked down at the bubbles of champagne, adding nervously, “Not that that circumstance means much to you—”
“It doesn’t. I don’t care for title,” he stated. “Edward, earl of what?”
“—but it matters to Grandmamma,” Emily said firmly, finishing the sentence despite being close to tears. She wished Jenny would return. She didn’t know for how much longer she could sit here with Alec looking for all the world as if her engagement were the worse news he had ever heard in his life. “Edward warned me you’d take it badly,” she confessed naively. “But I assured him you would only want for my happiness. And you do want me to be happy, don’t you, Alec?” she asked in a small voice. “Regardless of the ill feeling between the two of you, I hope you’ll see that he wants to make me happy. He is very solicitous and caring and, oh—everything a girl could ask for in a husband. I know you’ve been estranged since small boys. You could very well be strangers, not brothers at all…”
He stopped listening the moment he realized she was engaged to his elder brother. If he was shocked into senselessness to discover she was engaged to be married, he was now beyond rational thought knowing that the man who had robbed him of her was his own brother; this not the first time his brother had interfered in Alec’s life.
Six years ago, Delvin had put a stop to Alec’s engagement to Selina Vesey. A second son with a thousand a year wasn’t entitled to marry an heiress, whatever his brilliant prospects in the Foreign Department. When his elder brother, who was also head of the family, publicly voiced his opposition to such an unequal match, Alec’s fate was sealed. Alec not only endured the humiliation of having his suit rejected by Selina’s father, but was forced to stand by while the love of his life was married off to George Jamison-Lewis, who had ten thousand a year, was grandson of a duke and one of his brother’s cronies.
Alec never expected to fully recover from his disappointment, but time helped close the wound. And just when he had convinced himself that in asking Emily to marry him he would finally be moving his life forward, his brother’s timely interference had robbed him once more of personal happiness. What was he to do?
Before he knew what he was about, he found himself halfway down the curved staircase, full of purpose—to do what, he had no idea. He just knew he had to get out of St. Neots House, to escape from a thousand memories locked within its walls, and to get away from Emily. He had to find a place where he could think calmly and rationally. Failing that, he would find a place where he need not think at all…
A LADY IN BLACK mourning crepe had just ascended the staircase, and it was inevitable that they would collide; such was the width of her hooped petticoats and Alec’s blind determination to quit St. Neots House. The lady’s quick thinking saved her from taking a tumble. She grabbed the banister rail with a gloved hand, while the other clung to the gentleman’s sleeve; a small party taking leave in the foyer below breathed a collective sigh of relief.
It was not until the woman’s body fell hard against him and he instinctively caught her that Alec realized he had run full force into someone coming up the staircase. He held her hard against his chest, their hearts thudding as one as he waited for them both to be steady on their feet. In the brief moment she was in his arms he breathed in the pleasing flowery scent of her hair, and inexplicably felt a stab of nostalgia. He knew her identity at once. Instantly he released her with a curt apology for crushing the silk of her petticoats and would have passed her then, but she unintentionally moved in the same direction, and again they blocked each other’s path. The woman’s quiet apology finally lifted Alec’s gaze to her face.
She was one step below him and had gathered up her billowing petticoats, positioning herself with her straight back up against the mahogany balustrade to let him pass. Yet, Alec remained as if fixed to the marble step. He stared at her as if at an apparition, for he had not been within ten feet of her in six years. He never dreamed of seeing her in mourning, though in the darkest days of his despair he had wished it upon her time and again. But not here, not now, not on this of all days. Large dark eyes full of sorrow stared up at him and he turned his head away, color flooding his close-shaven cheeks.
“Did Emily tell you her news, Mr. Halsey?” Selina Jamison-Lewis asked quietly, the blood drumming so loudly in her ears at this unexpected encounter that she couldn’t keep the tremble out of her voice. “Her engagement, it—it came as a surprise to all of us.”
Alec’s blue eyes stared pointedly at her mourning gown before again meeting her eyes. “No doubt an ill-timed and disappointing announcement for you, Madam…?”
Selina’s lips parted, but she did not trust herself to speak and so stood mute as he made her a short bow and went on his way, her blush as red as the hair of the young footman who rudely bumped her shoulder in his pursuit of Alec Halsey.
Alec ignored the knot of persons leave-taking by the door and pushed through the ministering footmen without a word or a look. When the butler stepped forward with his greatcoat, he demanded his sword and put out a hand for his gloves. Neave said something to him, but he wasn’t listening. A bejeweled hand touched his arm. It was his godmother. But Alec angrily shrugged off the Duchess of Romney-St. Neots as he snatched his sash and sword from a footman, oversetting the Duchess, who stumbled backwards, to be caught at the elbow by her butler. Five footmen rushed to her aid. An old man with gray-grizzled hair stepped forward, but it was the Earl of Delvin who took matters into his own hands.
The Earl poked his brother in the kidney with the end of his Malacca cane.
“You’re in a hurry, Second,” Delvin drawled. “Can’t go bargin’ about other people’s houses knocking ’em willy-nilly. It’s not done. Not done at all. Dear Mrs. Jamison-Lewis could’ve broken her neck on the stairs just now, and you of all people certainly wouldn’t want to see the beautiful young widow join her dearly departed so soon, would you? For a diplomatist, you certainly show a marked lack of man—”
It needed only that. Alec snatched at the cane and threw it away from him before pushing his brother up against the nearest wall, a hand about the layers of lace at his throat, long fingers pushing the Earl’s chin up until he was forced to look Alec directly in the eye. No match for his younger brother’s strength born of rage, Delvin offered little resistance.
“You cold-hearted blood sucker,” Alec spat in his face. “I wish to God you were no brother of mine!”
The Earl attempted a moment of bravado. “You’re a fool, Second,” he hissed viciously. “Time you learned your place: No female wants second best.”
“If they want you then they’re not worth the having,” Alec sneered, fingers convulsing about his brother’s throat until the Earl spluttered for breath and clawed at his strong hand.
A cluster of open-mouthed footmen stared at the two gentlemen struggling by the open front door. As mesmerized as his fellows, the butler stood rooted to the spot until the Duchess demanded that someone do something to break up the fight. With an imperious snap of his fingers, Neave scattered the footmen. It was left to the grizzled-haired old man to step in and put a stop to the one-sided fight between his nephews.
“Alec! Stop!” growled Plantagenet Halsey. “Let him be!”
Delvin was released at once and fell to his silken knees, gasping great gulps of air into his deprived lungs. He quickly picked himself up and attempted to regain his arrogant bravado by brushing the sleeves of his velvet frock coat and straightening the lace at his wrists as if he had been touched by something unclean. Alec stared at him with contempt, hands balled into fists of frustrated rage. He saw the butler with eyes suitably lowered, and standing beside him the freckled-faced footman who had introduced himself as Tam. And when he glanced at his uncle, he saw so much unspoken sadness in the old blue eyes that Alec turned away from him with impatience. A glance up at the staircase and there was Selina still on the step where he had left her. God, what had he done to deserve her silent witness? His humiliation complete, Alec made the Duchess a curt bow and strode from the house.