About the book
Loving her was his commitment to eternity a long time ago...
A trail of peculiar riddles is all Miss Cleo Wallace has to go on to find her father’s killer.
Convinced that his death was no suicide as the authorities claim, she embarks on a quest to discover the truth.
When Arthur McDonald, half-Scottish Earl of Irondale and Oxford alumnus, hears of his ex-professor’s untimely death, he immediately wishes to pay his respects. However, upon his visit, he gets more than he bargained for: the professor’s beautiful daughter and a vow to help her.
Amidst their burgeoning feelings for each other and a new suitor vying for Cleo's hand, their worst nightmares become reality. Ηer father’s riddles lead them to a devastating conclusion: he knew he was going to die, and the culprit is still at large.
In their quest for answers, Cleo and Arthur have failed to see a most crucial detail: the answer has been right in front of them from the very beginning. An answer hidden in a painting that echoes through the ages, from thirteen hundred years ago…
Late 5th – Early 6th Century
Arthur Pendragon stood in the doorway, watching his bride as she undressed for bed. “Beautiful,” he murmured, moving forward as her dress slipped from her shoulders, and she unbound her hair. It fell in silken tresses down her back, and his fingers longed to reach out and feel it flowing through his fingers. “There is no other woman akin to ye in all the land.”
“Truly, My Lord?” Guinevere asked him, playing the coquette.
“Truly,” he murmured, bringing a lock of her hair to his lips, where he placed a gentle kiss. He pulled an intricately carved wooden box from behind his back and placed it in front of her upon the table.
“What is this?” she smiled and stretched out her finger to trace the images of intertwined animals and vines upon its surface.
“It is a gift,” Arthur answered, nuzzling her neck. “Open it and see what lies within.”
Guinevere lifted the lid, gasping in delight as the fire’s light caught on the gold and silver contents nestled within. “Arthur,” she exclaimed, pulling a golden jeweled brooch from the box. It sparkled with the purple reds of the almandine garnet set off by a silver filigree that served to accent the contrast between the yellow of the gold and the deeper tones of the stones. “It is beautiful.”
“There is more,” he urged her to look further.
Guinevere smiled as she pulled the cloth inside the box away to reveal a matching gold and garnet necklace, ring, and hairpin. “It is too much,” she blushed with pleasure.
“Nothing is ever too much for my beautiful bride.”
Guinevere blushed again and placed the necklace around her neck. She twisted her hair up and stabbed the hairpin through the silken mass, then turned to face Arthur with a suggestive light in her eyes. “How shall I ever thank you, My Lord?”
Arthur smiled knowingly and took his wife into his arms. “I am certain that we can find a way.” He bent his head and kissed her with a passion that even then he knew would resonate down through the ages, a passion to last until the end of time.
Thirteen Hundred Years Later
Cleo Wallace sat in front of her bedroom looking glass, placing the finishing touches on her hair. She smiled at her reflection, pleased with what she saw. She was quite pretty with her warm complexion, dark hair and eyes, offset by the creamy white lace trim of her lavender dress. “You look so much like your mother,” her father’s voice interrupted, matching her own thoughts as he came to stand behind her. He placed his hands on her shoulders and kissed the top of her head.
Her father, Henry Wallace, a university professor of Greek studies, had met Cleo’s mother, Dimitra, in Greece during a sabbatical. They had fallen in love, wed, and returned to Oxfordshire shortly thereafter. Cleo had been born a year later. Dimitra had died of childbed fever, leaving Henry to raise Cleo on his own. Henry’s older sister, Caroline, had offered to take Cleo into her own home to be raised by her and her husband, but Henry had turned her down. Cleo would forever be grateful to her father for making such a choice when so many other men in his position would have done otherwise.
“Does it pain you terribly that I look so much like her?” Cleo asked, placing her hand atop of his in empathy.
“Nay, never. You are the delight of my soul. It pleases me greatly that you resemble her so.”
“I am glad,” Cleo smiled, patting his hand. She lifted her mother’s necklace from the vanity and asked her father to aid in fastening it around her neck.
“I have something for you,” her father remarked, pulling a cloth bag from his pocket. “I wish you the most joyous of birthdays, my dear. I can hardly believe that you are now counting one-and-twenty years of age. Where the time has gone, I know not.”
Cleo took the bag from her father’s hand and opened it to find a set of milky glass hairpins and a matching ivory comb. “Oh, Father, they are lovely!” Cleo lifted the ornaments from the bag and had her father help her to place them in her hair for the best advantage.
“You are the lovely one, my dear. Now, I must be away to see to my students, but I will return this eve in time for supper. I will have Mrs. McGrath to make all of your favorites.”
“Thank you, Father! I love you ever so much!” Cleo arose and embraced him with exuberance.
“And I love you, my darling girl.” With a final kiss to her forehead, he was off to broaden young minds further.
Cleo prepared herself for the customary birthday callers and descended the stairs to the drawing room where she could look out of the front window to anticipate her friends’ arrival. Mrs. Mary Margaret McGrath, the Wallaces’ cook and housekeeper, had brought Cleo breakfast in bed as a special treat making her feel quite decadent. She smiled at the thought of the beloved, servant who had been with their family long before Cleo’s mother had died and looked up to see her enter the room with a message on a tray.
“It is from yer Auntie Caroline, lass,” the cook’s thick Scottish brogue announced as she handed Cleo the missive. “Tae wish ye a joyous birthday, nae doubt. She has nae missed sending ye such greetings from the day ye were born, the good lass that she was.”
“And I have no doubt that a great part of that is due to your influence upon her as a child,” Cleo praised. She was not certain how old Mrs. McGrath actually was as she had looked the same during Cleo’s entire life. She had that ageless quality and boundless energy that was so envied by those who did not have it.
Mrs. McGrath had been with the household of Henry Wallace’s father, Alexander Wallace, when he had moved his family from Scotland to England. Cleo’s father had been but a wee baby back then. Alexander had taken a position as a tutor for a wealthy English family near Oxfordshire, and it had been there that Henry had fallen in love with academia. Alexander’s employer had taken a liking to Henry and had acted as a patron to the young man’s education. Now, all of these years later, Henry was a professor, his parents had long since passed, and Mrs. McGrath was still very much a fixture in their lives, irreplaceable in every way.
Cleo opened the letter and found the expected greeting. Her Aunt Caroline had been widowed for many years and had never remarried. She and her husband had not been blessed with children of their own and had viewed Cleo, their only niece, as the child that they had never had. They had doted on her over the years, and this birthday was no exception. When Cleo unfolded the paper, a British pound fell out into her lap. “Most generous,” Mrs. McGrath remarked with approval.
Cleo smiled at the light of pride in the old cook’s eyes. “Yes, most generous,” she agreed. “Shall we go to the shops later?”
“Aye, I see nae reason why nae,” Mrs. McGrath nodded in agreement. “Once ye have finished with receiving yer callers, we will nip down tae the shops, and ye can put yer auntie’s gift tae good use.”
Usually, callers would not arrive so early in the morning as proper decorum was to wait until the afternoon, but in the world of academia, things operated a bit differently. All of Cleo’s friends were the daughters of other university professors and, as such, adhered to their fathers’ schedules when ordering their days.
One of their favorite pastimes was to sit in the windows of their drawing rooms and watch the comings and goings of the students. They would play games in an attempt to guess what each student studied and what their personalities might be based on whatever clues they could glean from each student’s person. If one of the friends actually knew the student in question, they were not allowed to guess so as not throw the game. Cleo was actually quite good at the exercise, as she loved all things mysterious.
When Cleo’s friends arrived, Mrs. McGrath showed them into the drawing room. Cleo arose and moved to greet them. “Elizabeth, Sarah, how are you this fine morn?” she asked, taking their hands in hers and kissing them each on the cheek.
“Never mind how we are,” Elizabeth waved away the courtesy. “Do we ever have news for you,” she gushed, taking Cleo’s hand and leading her over to the window seat. Sarah followed close behind. “Wait until you hear about Gwendolyn.”
“What about her? Is she not coming?” Cleo asked in confusion. “She is not ill, is she?” she asked even though she thought perhaps Gwendolyn was not, considering the smiles on the girls’ faces.
“Nay,” Elizabeth shook her head, exchanging an excited look with Sarah.
“Then out with it,” Cleo instructed, as her patience waned. “What has happened?”
“Gwendolyn has eloped to Gretna Green,” the girls announced as one.
“She has done what?!” Cleo could not believe her ears. She could not imagine that sweet, quiet, retiring Gwendolyn could have ever done something so scandalous. “I was unaware that she even had a suitor of note.”
“Nor were we, but it appears that she did. She has gone and eloped with one of her father’s students, a Mr. Devon Houser, formerly of Kirkby-Stephen in the north of the country. He is not a man of means or note, an orphan raised by his elderly grandfather, who supported his academic endeavors. Apparently, he was one of her father’s best students who had been invited to dine with the family on several occasions with a group of other students, and it was then that Gwendolyn and the young man fell in love.”
“How do you know all of this if Gwendolyn did not tell you herself?”
“Her younger sister, Olivia, saw it all,” Sarah joined the conversation at this point, “and did not tell their father and mother until the morning after the couple was already gone. It has caused a great scandal for the family, but since they are by now good and truly wed, there is naught that can be done about it.”
“It is not ideal for her reputation and that of her family, but at the very least, they are wed in the eyes of God and man,” Cleo pointed out. It would have been far worse had they not wed. “However, I am certain that her father wished for a different outcome.”
“Indeed, he did. I believe there was an older gentleman, a colleague of our fathers’ that had set his heart upon Gwendolyn and had requested permission to call upon her. She declined in spite of her father’s urgings,” Sarah confirmed, nodding her head, her eyes wide with an owl-like awareness.
“Perhaps that is what spurred her to such rash behavior. Did this Mr. Devon Houser speak with Gwendolyn’s father before running off with her?”
“I know not. Her father is being rather closed-lipped about the entire ordeal,” Elizabeth answered, shaking her head sorrowfully. She had always been one for a good bit of gossip, an admirable trait to some within society, but not to Cleo, who felt it was always best to allow others the discretion of privacy. To her mind, there was nothing good to be gained from crowing over the miseries of others. Her father was often fond of saying that such idle talk showed a significant lack of intelligence.
“I cannot say that I blame him for that,” Cleo answered as Mrs. McGrath entered the room with a tea tray.
“What is that, dearie?” Mrs. McGrath asked as she set the tray down on the table in front of them.
“Gwendolyn Summers has eloped to Gretna Green with a Mr. Devon Houser, one of her father’s students. It has caused quite the stir,” Cleo informed her quietly so as not to start her friends in again.
Mrs. McGrath frowned in concern. “Is he a good lad, do ye ken?”
“Nay, I do not know anything about the young man, but I cannot imagine our Gwendolyn choosing anyone who was not. What I do not understand is her decision to elope. Surely she could have gotten her father’s permission with enough time and patience.”
“Ye dinnae think that she has found herself in the family way?”
“Nay,” Cleo shook her head firmly. “She would never.”
“Such things do happen, ye ken.”
“Yes, I am aware, but…” Cleo’s words faded away as she stopped herself from saying that her friend would have told her such a secret. It was now clear that she would not have done so as Gwendolyn had not informed Cleo of her attachment to the young Mr. Houser, to say nothing of her plans to run off with the fellow.
Mrs. McGrath reached out to pat her hand in understanding. “I will keep her in my prayers.”
“Thank you, Mrs. McGrath. She would be glad of it, I know.”
The remainder of the visit passed without incident as Cleo attempted to steer the conversation away from the elopement and toward safer ground such as the coming dance. By the time that the girls had left, Cleo was more than ready to step out of the house for a breath of fresh air. Her mind whirled with concern for her absent friend, and she prayed that Gwendolyn had found true happiness and not fallen victim to folly. Only time would be able to say which it would turn out to be.
Cleo gathered her cloak and bonnet, then met Mrs. McGrath by the front door. Leaving the house, they made their way along the streets of the town until they came to their favorite shop. They entered and spent the next hour looking at fabrics and patterns for new dresses. When they were finished, they left the shop and strolled leisurely to the grocers to pick up a few more things for supper, then stopped for tea at a hotel dining room. By the time that they arrived back home, it was time to begin preparations for the evening meal.
When Cleo offered to aid in the preparations, Mrs. McGrath declined and chased her out of the kitchen. Smiling in anticipation of the evening’s festivities, Cleo retired to the drawing room, taking up a copy of one of her father’s favorite books, Le Morte d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory. She quickly became absorbed in the story of knights and adventure, losing herself in the epic.
The clock merrily chimed the hour, startling Cleo out of the fantastical world of chivalry. It was time to dress for supper, but her father had not yet returned home. Mrs. McGrath made an appearance, her brows raised in inquisition. “Himself has nae arrived home yet?”
“Nay, he has not. It is most unusual of him.”
“Aye, I dinnae think that he has been late for supper since he was a wee lad.” Mrs. McGrath’s brow furrowed in a frown.
“Perhaps a student kept him,” Cleo offered to assuage her own concern, “So little ever happens in the safe environs of the university, it seems pointless to worry so over it.”
“As ye say, lass,” Mrs. McGrath murmured, but she had an odd expression on her face that did not sit well with Cleo.
“I am certain that all is well,” Cleo insisted but did not rise to go and dress for supper, instead remaining in the window seat to watch for her father.
Mrs. McGrath returned to the kitchen, wringing her hands in her apron. “Call out if ye need me.”
Cleo did not respond but kept her eyes looking out toward the direction of her father’s office. Hours passed as darkness descended until she could no longer see but for the few scattered lanterns along the way. Mrs. McGrath continued to keep the supper warm but brought Cleo a tea tray. When the knock finally came, Cleo rushed to the door, swinging it open and came to a horrifying halt to see the dean of the university standing on her doorstep with a constable, both holding their hats in hand.
The sorrowed looks on their faces filled Cleo’s heart with terror. “Miss Cleo Wallace?” the constable asked.
“Yes,” Cleo stammered out.
“I regret to inform you that your father, Professor Henry Wallace, has passed.”
“What? How?” she asked in a state of shock, tears instantly springing to her eyes.
Both men exchanged a look of dread before the constable answered her. “It saddens me to say it, but it seems the Professor Wallace has committed suicide.”
“What?” Cleo could not believe what she was hearing.
“Your father has killed himself, my dear,” the dean answered, stepping forward to offer her his handkerchief.
Cleo ignored it. “I know what suicide means,” she snapped, the shock she felt dispelling with any sense of decorum. “I simply refuse to believe it.”
“It is true, Miss Wallace. There is no doubt,” the constable insisted. It was clear that he considered her to be in a state of denial, and perhaps she was, but with everything she knew about her father, she knew that he was incapable of performing such an act.
Unable to bear the looks upon their faces a moment longer, and not believing a word that they were saying, Cleo dashed past them out of the door. She ran out into the darkness without thought to anything else, but with an iron determination to get to her father’s office so that she might prove the dreadful men wrong.
“Wait, Miss Wallace! You really should not…” His words faded into the distance as Cleo ran for all that she was worth toward what she hoped would be a much better truth than the one that they had claimed.
When she reached her father’s office, she found a large crowd of men standing in the doorway. Unwilling to deal with any of them, she charged through the mass without pardoning herself. When a constable tried to stop her, she dropped to her hands and knees and crawled through the last of the legged jungle. When she emerged through the door into the room, she found a body covered in a sheet, blood staining the floor.
“Nay, it cannot be!” Cleo rushed forward and fell to her knees beside the body. She lifted the sheet and gasped in distress at the sight of her father’s pale lifeless face beneath. “Father,” she sobbed, tears pouring down her face in uncontrolled desolation. She took him into her arms, exposing the other side of his head. There, she saw the wound that had ended his life, a gunshot to the temple.
Somewhere in the room, Cleo heard screaming, a heart-rending, stomach curdling sound. It was not until her vision faded to black, just before she lost consciousness, that she realized the screams were coming from her own mouth.
When Cleo awoke, she found herself being lifted into the arms of one of the constables. Not wishing to leave her father’s body behind, Cleo commanded the man to put her down immediately. He did and she knelt back down beside her father. “Who did this?” she asked him, unwilling to believe the suicide theory that the other constable had insisted upon.
“It was a suicide, Miss,” the constable repeated his colleague’s assessment.
“Nay, it is most certainly not a suicide. My father would not have killed himself, not ever,” she insisted, getting angry. Attempting to get her tears under control, she surveyed the room for any signs of foul play. The office was exactly how she had last seen it with the exception of a few books and papers scattered here and there, as per usual in a professor’s sanctuary. She did not see a gun but knew that it was likely that the constables had already retrieved it.
“And the gun?” she asked the constable standing over her.
“Where no one can be harmed further by it,” he answered, his eyes not unsympathetic to her plight, but it was clear that he thought that she was wrong.
“May I see it?” Cleo asked, ignoring the disapproving looks of the newly arrived dean and the other constable who had come to the house.
“Nay, you may not,” the constable from the house answered moving into the room. “You should not be here, Miss Wallace. I will take you home.”
“My father did not kill himself!” By this point Cleo was shouting. Her emotions were scattered about and she was gasping out tears.
The men standing over her exchanged looks and stayed tight-lipped. The constable approached and helped her up. “I will escort you home.” And without giving her a moment more to protest, he dragged her from the room. The group of observers parted like the Red Sea, allowing them to pass.
“He did not do it,” Cleo sobbed to anyone who dared to make eye contact with her. “He did not do it!” She fought the constable, but to no avail. He was far bigger and stronger and used to dealing with unwilling personages. “Let me go!”
“Nay, I will not let you go. I am sorry, Miss Wallace, but you are in a terrible state of grief and must be returned to the safety of your own home. Your father’s office is no place for a young woman at this time.”
“I will not go! I will not abandon my father to the likes of your incompetence!”
The constable dragged Cleo kicking and screaming back to the house. She knew that she was making a scene, but she did not care. All she cared about at that moment was that her father had been murdered and no one seemed to care enough to listen to her about it.
“Unhand the lass,” Mrs. McGrath came barreling out of the front door of the house. “Unhand her at once!”
The constable released Cleo into Mrs. McGrath’s arms. “He is dead,” Cleo sobbed as she fell to her knees at the cook’s feet. “Father is dead.”
“Nae, that cannae be,” Mrs. McGrath answered, shaking her head in denial.
“I am afraid that it is true, madam,” the constable answered, righting his clothing that had been jumbled in the struggle.
“I regret to say that Professor Wallace killed himself, madam.”
“Nay, he did not! He was murdered!” Cleo exclaimed in protest. “My father would never do such a thing!”
“The lass is right, her faither would ne’er leave her in such a way and he would ne’er leave her on the anniversary o’ her birth. Only a cruel man would do such a thing, and our Henry was nae a cruel man.”
The constable frowned in concern but feeling that there was nothing more that he could do readied himself to depart. “See that she rests. I will have a physician sent to administer a sedative. The girl is clearly distraught.”
“Ne’er ye mind about that. I will see tae the lass.” Mrs. McGrath’s protective tone left no room for argument. “Ye can return tae yer duties if ye even ken what those may be.”
The constable bowed and silently walked away. Cleo stared after him, grief and anger seething through every fiber of her being. “My father did not kill himself,” she shouted after him.
“Come in tae the house, lass.” Mrs. McGrath helped Cleo onto her feet. “We will talk about it all inside.”
Cleo followed the cook into the drawing room where she collapsed on the closest chair that she could find. “He would not have done this,” she kept murmuring over and over again. “My father would not have done this.” She could not shake off the state of shock she had been in since the constable and dean had arrived on her doorstep.
“Nay, he would nae have done such a thing tae ye, I agree.”
The cook’s agreement jarred her out of her state of shock just enough to respond. “The true question is, who would have done so?”
Mrs. McGrath shook her head. “I dinnae ken anyone who would have wished the professor harm.”
“Nor do I.” Cleo’s frown deepened in thought as she wiped the tears from her cheeks attempting to gain some control over herself. The question gave her a sense of purpose among the turmoil that had ripped her world apart. She needed something to cling to or risk slipping into insanity. She was now an orphan, a grown woman, but an orphan nevertheless, and the pain of it was more than she could bear. Her heart felt ripped from her chest and trampled upon, and returned with no concern for the pain caused her.
“What do ye wish tae do, lass?”
“I wish to find whoever has done this and to see them hanging from the gallows.” By this point, Cleo was shaking with barely contained rage.
Mrs. McGrath studied Cleo’s face, then nodded. “Then that is what we will do, lass.”
“Aye, we. I will nae let ye do this alone, nor will yer Auntie Caroline when she hears word o’ yer faither’s passin’.”
Cleo turned startled eyes toward Mrs. McGrath’s face. “Auntie Caroline…I had forgotten about Auntie Caroline. She will be devastated.”
“Aye, she will, as we all are, but she will help ye. I am certain o’ it.”
Cleo nodded slowly. Her hands still trembled, but it helped to have a purpose to focus upon. “I will send word to Auntie Caroline immediately. She will wish to have a say in the funerary arrangements of her brother, though for the most part they have been laid out in detail since the death of my own dear mother.”
“Aye, he will wish tae be laid out next to yer sainted maither in the kirkyard. I will lay out his best suit, but ye will need tae speak with the undertaker about everything else. Do ye wish tae wait for yer auntie for that? I dinnae believe she will be able tae get here in time for it, but I could be wrong.”
“Nay, you and I will go and see to it ourselves. We will let Auntie Caroline plan the wake.”
“Aye, it is a grand idea.” Mrs. McGrath nodded, swiping the tears from her cheeks. She had loved the professor like a son, and it struck Cleo that his death was just as hard on Mrs. McGrath as it was on herself. “It will give her a way tae deal with her grief.”
“Is such a thing even possible…” Cleo murmured, not actually desiring an answer as it was not a true inquiry, but a bitter tide that swept over her being with violent force.
“Aye, it is, but it is nae a thing that comes easy tae anyone, and certainly nae tae a daughter who has just lost her faither. Give it time, love, it is all that ye can do.”
“I will not rest until I have found my father’s murderer,” Cleo swore, balling her hands into fists, willing herself to calm her torrential tears. “I will find who has done this or I will die in the trying.”
Arthur MacDonald, Earl of Irondale, sat at the breakfast table with his friend and former classmate, Jacob Glickman. “Have you seen this?” Jacob asked, handing Arthur the morning’s paper. “It says that Professor Henry Wallace has committed suicide.”
Arthur frowned and took the sheet of paper from him. “That cannae be so. He would ne’er commit such an act.”
“The two of you became close friends during our time at university, did you not?”
“Aye, we did at that, two Scotsmen who had been required tae leave our Scottish homes tae make a new life for ourselves in England, Henry for his faither’s work and me tae become my maternal grandfaither’s only heir.”
“The professor must have moved at a young age, as I do not remember him having an accent such as your own.”
“Aye, he did at that, but my faither hailed from the Clan MacDonald, once the Lords of the Isles, so even if Henry had retained an accent, it is unlikely that it would be as braw as my own.” Arthur smiled briefly at the thought of his friendship with the professor, but his smile faded as he read the words upon the paper in his hands. “I dinnae believe this,” he announced shaking his head. “I dinnae believe it at all. Henry was nae the kind o’ man tae do such a thing, especially nae tae his daughter.”
“Are you acquainted with the bereaved?”
“Nae, I ne’er had the pleasure o’ meeting the lass. I always met with Henry in his office or in a pub. All he had remaining in this world was his daughter and a sister I ne’er met either, but tae whom I should pay my respects.”
“Will you do so today? The paper says that the death occurred last evening.”
“Aye, I will. I ken that it is soon, but if I can be o’ aid tae his family in their time o’ need, I would like tae do so.” Arthur felt tears sting the back of his eyes as he spoke. The loss of his dear friend did not seem real and he needed to find out the truth of the matter before another day had passed. “Would ye care tae go with me?”
“I would do so gladly if I did not need to work to survive.”
“Ye could always come and work for me,” Arthur offered not for the first time.
“I must follow in the family business, as you well know much as you have had to do yourself, though I will admit that there is a great deal of difference between my being a businessman and you being an Earl.”
“I suppose that there is, but I was nae born tae the Earldom. It was tae be my maither’s brother afore he died leaving nae heirs behind tae take his place. Grandfaither was heartbroken.”
“But he had you, just as my father has me, to carry on his legacy. It is important work that we both do on behalf of our families. It is good that you wish to help Professor Wallace’s family in his absence, to honor his legacy.”
“It would have been better had Henry had a son tae care for those he left behind, but as he did nae, I cannae in good conscience leave his daughter tae suffer alone.”
“You are a good man, Arthur, much like your namesake of old.”
“I would nae go so far as that,” Arthur shook his head, “but if I can do even the smallest thing tae ease the lass’ grief, then I will.”
Cleo awoke the morning after her father’s death with a nearly debilitating headache after having cried herself to sleep. She had sent word to her Aunt Caroline, but it would take time for the missive to reach her and still longer for her to arrive. Groaning, Cleo rolled over in bed and pulled her pillow over her head in an attempt to hide from the day ahead. Today, she would have to go and speak with the undertaker about her father’s arrangements. It was a task that she was not looking forward to.
Mrs. McGrath entered the room carrying a breakfast tray. “My poor wee lamb,” the cook murmured as she moved about the room opening the curtains and setting the tray on Cleo’s lap.
Cleo sighed and removed the pillow from her face. “Must we face this day?”
“Aye, lass, I am afraid that we must.”
Cleo sat up and surveyed the tray. “I am not hungry.”
“Ye must eat whether ye wish tae or nae. Ye need tae keep yer strength up, lass.”
“I do not think that I can keep anything down.”
“Try some toast and tea, lass, if nothing else, but a wee bit o’ parritch would nae go amiss.”
“I will try.”
“That is all that I ask, lass.” Mrs. McGrath patted Cleo’s cheek affectionately, tears glistening in her eyes. The cook left and Cleo did her best to eat something, but every bite of food hit her stomach as if she were swallowing rocks.
Cleo shoved the tray aside, climbed out of bed, and readied herself for the day. Mrs. McGrath had set out Cleo’s black mourning dress and shawl, which only proved to accentuate her Greek heritage. Mourning attire made so many of the fair English roses of her acquaintance appear pale and drawn, but black made Cleo’s coloring shine. She studied her reflection in the looking glass, noted the dark circles under her eyes from weeping, and found the imperfection to be a paltry memorial to her father.
She met Mrs. McGrath at the bottom of the stairs where they both donned their bonnets and cloaks and headed toward the undertaker, each lost in their own thoughts. A heavy weight of sorrow hung over them like fog over a mountain peak. Cleo managed to walk, but her mind was elsewhere.
This cannot be happening! But, in spite of her silent protestations, she was inching closer to the undertaker akin to the ferryman on the River Styx.
Mr. Elias Carver, the undertaker, met them at the door. “How may I help you today?”
“My father’s body was brought to you last night.”
“Ah, yes, Professor Henry Wallace. A terrible state of affairs. I am sorry for your loss.” The undertaker’s expression was devoid of judgement or emotion from years of dealing with death every day, and she did not envy him. She was, however, grateful that he did not mention the presumed method of her father’s death.
“Yes, thank you.”
“I assume that you have come to settle his arrangements.”
“Yes.” Cleo handed Mr. Carver the papers that she had brought from the house detailing her father’s wishes to be buried next to her mother.
The undertaker took the papers and read the first page. “Ah, I remember your dear sainted mother now. She was a woman of rare beauty. It was so very sad that she was forced to leave you as she did. It is a fate that befalls too many women, I am afraid.”
Mrs. McGrath handed over the professor’s suit with instructions for the task of dressing the body. Cleo refrained from reminding the cook that Mr. Carver’s livelihood was handling such personal instructions, but it served as a way for Mrs. McGrath to deal with the grief that threatened to overwhelm her. Cleo, on the other hand, was relieved that her father had left nothing to chance and written down everything that he had desired to transpire upon his death.
“I promise you, madam, that I will do all in my power to provide for your loved one’s care.” The undertaker bent over Mrs. McGrath’s hand in respect. The gesture had the desired effect to soothe the cook’s fragile emotional state.
“See that ye do, Mr. Carver.” Mrs. McGrath nodded her head firmly then took a step back and waited for Cleo by the door.
“Your father is in good hands, Miss Wallace.”
“Thank you, Mr. Carver. It brings me some comfort to know that the same man who cared for my mother will now care for my father. It is a connection of love that I appreciate.”
“It is my honor.” The undertaker bowed and Cleo turned to leave the store, with Mrs. McGrath following close behind.
They stood in the street for a moment attempting to regain control of their emotions. “I believe that I would like to visit my mother’s grave before we return home.”
“Are ye certain, lass? Would it nae bring ye more pain?”
“I am certain.” Cleo nodded and headed for the cemetery.
When they arrived, Mrs. McGrath held back and allowed Cleo to walk to the grave on her own. Kneeling down upon the grass, Cleo laid her hands upon her mother’s stone. “He is with you now, Mother,” she sighed. She could not stop the tears slipping down her cheeks. “I know that he missed you dearly and will be overjoyed to be with you now, but I also know that he would not take his own life to do so.”
Cleo turned her gaze to the empty place on the headstone that was soon to bear her father’s name and ran her fingers over the cold stone. Her mind filled in the words that would soon be written there. Here lies Henry Woodward Wallace, beloved husband, father, teacher, and friend.
There and then, she swore to her parents’ ghosts, “I will find who has done this.”
Rising from the grass, Cleo rejoined Mrs. McGrath by the cemetery gate. “What do ye wish tae do now?”
“We will return home to await Aunt Caroline for now, but as soon as the constables have finished with my father’s office, I would like to return and see what might be found out about his death. There must be someone that saw or heard something.”
“Aye, we can only hope,” Mrs. McGrath agreed, bobbing her head. “It would have been better if the constables had kenned the truth o’ the matter and nae decided that it was by himselves’ own hand.”
“Yes, but they cannot see much past their own noses.” She had never been a person prone to violence, but she sincerely wished that she had punched the constable in the face when he had dragged her away from her father’s office. This mental image brought her a moment of bitter pleasure.
“Ye will show them differently, I ken it in my bones.”
“Thank you, Mrs. McGrath, for your confidence in my father and in me.”
“Always, lass, ye are my family.”
“And you are mine.”
They walked back to the house leaning on each other for support; every step seem to be weighted as if sacks of stones were being dragged along behind them. They were fueled by the fire of their determination to uncover the truth of their loved one taken so violently.
When they arrived back at the house, Mrs. McGrath retired to the kitchen to prepare some tea and Cleo went to sit in the drawing room. She stared blankly out of the window, mindlessly watching the people as they traversed the road going about their daily lives as if the world had not just ended. I suppose to them it has not, but it feels as though mine most certainly has.
A knock on the door drew her from her thoughts, and she arose to see who it might be. By now, word would have reached the surrounding community about the circumstances of her father’s demise. It upset her to know someone on the loose not only took a life by also a professor’s reputation. I will avenge you, Father. I swear it.
Taking a deep breath to steady herself, Cleo opened the door to find a tall stranger with broad shoulders. When he removed his hat and bowed, she saw blond hair falling roguishly over crystal-blue eyes. He was the most handsome man that she had ever seen. He raised his eyes to meet hers. “Arthur MacDonald, Earl o’ Irondale,” he introduced himself with a Scottish burr. “I have come tae pay my respects tae the family o’ Professor Henry Wallace.”
“I am Cleo Wallace, his daughter.”
“Miss Wallace,” he bowed over her hand. “My sympathies for yer loss.”
“Please, come in.” Cleo stepped back and allowed the Earl to enter. She had never met a member of the nobility, at least not that she was aware of.
Cleo showed him to the drawing room. “Yer home is lovely,” the Earl complimented as he took a seat across from Cleo.
“Thank you, My Lord.”
“Please, call me Arthur. Yer faither and I were dear friends long afore I became the Earl o’ Irondale.”
“How did you know my father?”
“I was one o’ yer faither’s students, but that was quite some time ago.”
“Forgive my curiosity, My Lord, but your accent clearly places you as Scottish and yet the Earl of Irondale is an English title.”
The Earl chuckled at her impertinence. “Aye, I am Scottish. The Earl o’ Irondale was my maternal grandfaither’s title. After his son died, I became my grandfaither’s heir. When he died, I became the Earl.”
“I am sorry for your loss.”
“As I am for yers. I realize that I am paying call earlier than is customary or perhaps even appropriate, but when I heard the news about yer faither’s death, I felt it my duty tae come as soon as was possible.”
“I dinnae believe that yer faither killed himself.”
Cleo’s heart thudded hard in her chest at his words. “What do you know?”
“I dinnae ken anything specifically, but I do ken yer faither, and he would nae do such a thing. He loved ye and would nae leave ye o’ his own accord.”
“Nay, he would not, but the constable would not listen to me on the matter. In fact, he accused me of having a fit of hysterics and offered to call a physician.”
The Earl’s brows rose in disapproval. “That is most unfortunate. I had hoped that a daughter’s entreaties would have received a more empathetic ear.”
“I am afraid not, but it gives me hope that I might have an ally within the nobility.” Cleo gave the Earl a questioning look.
“Aye, that ye have, and it is the reason that I am here. I would like tae aid ye in proving that yer faither did nae kill himself, but that he was a victim o’ murder.”
“I dinnae ken as o’ the moment, but I believe that the best place tae start would be the office where he was killed.”
“I agree, but I was not very well received the last time that I attempted to visit.” Cleo wasn’t accustomed to hearing the bitter edge of her voice, and she didn’t like it. And she was ashamed for sounding inhospitable to a guest offering help. “My apologies for my tone.”
“Nae at all. I completely understand. I tae would feel verra much the same way as ye do now were I in yer place. Perhaps I might go in yer stead. A constable would be hard-pressed tae refuse an Earl admittance.”
“You would be willing to do such a thing?”
“Aye, I would. Henry was my friend and I will nae rest until I have seen his killer discovered. I dinnae wish tae bring ye trouble, Miss Wallace, but I would verra much like tae be o’ service tae yer family.”
“Thank you, My Lord. I would be most grateful for your aid.”
The Earl nodded. “Is there anything that ye can tell me about yer faither that I might nae ken? Anything about his work or associates perhaps?”
“My father has always been a studious man, quiet and kind. I cannot think of anyone who I would be able to say disliked him, and most certainly not anyone who would wish to kill him. I am completely and utterly at a loss in the matter.”
The Earl nodded his head again. “There is always competition in any field, and academia is nae exception, but I cannae think o’ anything related to his teaching that would make someone wish tae kill him.”
“Nor can I.” A tear slipped unbidden down Cleo’s cheek.
“I am sorry, lass. I dinnae mean tae cause ye further pain.” The Earl took a handkerchief from his pocket and stood to hand it to her.
“Nay, you did not cause me further pain, far from it. Your offer of aid brings me immeasurable comfort
“It pleases me that I have, lass.”
Cleo studied his face to assess his sincerity and saw the ghost of tears in his eyes. “Thank you. I trust that I will see you at the funeral service tomorrow morning?”
“Aye, I will be there.” The Earl stood once more. “Until then I will bid ye farewell.”
Cleo arose and walked with him to the door. “Thank you for coming.”
“I only wish that we had met under different circumstances.” The Earl took Cleo’s hand in his, squeezed it in reassurance, then left the house.
Mrs. McGrath exited the kitchen and came to stand behind her as she watched the nobleman walk away. “A nice lad, a handsome lad…”
“I take it you were listening in on our conversation.”
“Aye, and it is glad I am tae have a fellow Scot tae aid us in our time o’ need.”
“Assuming that he is not responsible for my father’s murder himself.”
“Ye think that he could be?”
“I do not know, but I find it interesting that he was the first person to call claiming to be my father’s friend and yet Father never once mentioned him, nor invited him over to the house.”
“So ye dinnae trust him.”
“After what happened to Father, I do not trust anyone, but you and Aunt Caroline.”
“Then why did ye agree tae let him help ye?”
“I agreed because we need all of the help that we can get and if he is the man who killed my father, then it would be easier for me to discover his intentions if he is near.”
“Ye are nae afraid for yer life?”
“Nay, I am not. My anger has made me braver than I ever thought was possible.”
“And if he proves tae be the man who killed yer faither?”
“Then I will see his handsome head swinging from the gallows before the year is out.”
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