Fitzwilliam Darcy is enjoying his marital bliss. His wife, the former Elizabeth Bennet, presented him two sons and a world of contentment. All is well until “aggravation” rears its head when Darcy receives a note of urgency from his sister Georgiana. In truth, Darcy never fully approved of Georgiana’s joining with their cousin, Major General Edward Fitzwilliam, for Darcy assumed the major general held Georgiana at arm’s length, dooming Darcy’s sister to a life of unhappiness.
Dutifully, Darcy and Elizabeth rush to Georgiana’s side when the major general leaves his wife and daughter behind, with no word of his whereabouts and no hopes of Edward’s return. Forced to seek his cousin in the slews of London’s underbelly, at length, Darcy discovers the major general and returns Fitzwilliam to his family.
Even so, the Darcys’ troubles are far from over. During the major general’s absence from home, witnesses note Fitzwilliam’s presence in the area of two horrific murders. When Edward Fitzwilliam is arrested for the crimes, Darcy must discover the real culprit before his cousin is hanged for the crimes and the Fitzwilliam name marked with shame.
“What is our destination?” Darcy asked as he followed Cowan into a let hack.
The investigator arrived on Darcy’s threshold a few minutes before eight with a demand to speak to Darcy. Six and thirty hours passed since they parted, and Darcy knew relief with a possible lead to his cousin’s whereabouts.
Darcy did not bother to hide his surprise.
“Wapping? Surely you do not think my cousin is in Wapping.” Darcy shook his head in disbelief. As one of the three roads entering and exiting London ran through the Wapping streets teeming with the poor, Darcy often rode through the area; but none of the beau monde visited the shops lining the road. It was not an area for the faint of heart.
The roads built by the Romans bordered the bluff above Wapping Marsh. In the 1500s, early Englishmen founded a harbor along the red cliff. Now, filth and tenements crowded the road, frequented by sailors, prostitutes, pawnbrokers, rat catchers, carpenters, and the like.
Wapping once served as the place where pirates knew public hangings. The broken buildings followed, reaching to Limehouse, Poplar, Radcliff, and Shadwell. The streets twisted in upon themselves, often coming to unexpected dead ends—unsavory hovels. The steps of Pelican Stairs, Wapping New Stairs, and King James’s Stairs led to the River Thames, which brought both life and death. The residents catered to the desires of the sailors, who swarmed the cheap boarding houses and the businesses like the Biblical plague of locust.
“I possess a good accounting of a man fitting the major general’s description at an inn near Wapping. Rather than employing your Town carriage, I thought the let one more desirable for this task.”
Darcy glanced out the window to the sprawl beyond central London. “How did Edward fall so far? I never thought it possible.”
“War eats at a man, Mr. Darcy,” Cowan offered in explanation. “The major general saw more than his fair share of death in both America and upon the Continent. So much devastation rips a man’s heart to shreds.”
“I do appreciate your repeated cautions, but I experience difficulty in comprehending how the major general suffered without any of his dear family being aware.”
“Is it your failure to recognize the major general’s pain or Fitzwilliam’s plunge into remorse that you question?” Cowan challenged.
Darcy would dearly love to ignore Cowan’s question, but he was not one to shun his responsibilities. Even so, Darcy’s insides twisted in a stranglehold upon his heart.
“I am not certain. Perhaps a bit of both.”
“At least you did not deny the possibility of your being equally at fault in this matter,” Cowan observed.
“Nevertheless,” Darcy asserted, “the responsibility for seeking assistance for what ails him falls upon the major general’s shoulders.”
Noting Cowan’s scowl of disapproval, Darcy attempted to soften his disdain.
“In truth, what I do not understand is my cousin’s abandonment of his wife and child.”
The Runner offered no conjectures. Perhaps there were none. Mayhap only an acceptance of the madness would resolve the issue. At length, the let hack entered St George’s-in-the-East parish, where the smell of fish, sweat, the river, smoke, urine, and businesses intermingled, and Darcy snarled his nose in response.
“Quite pungent,” Cowan remarked, “but not as repulsive as the smell of blood upon a once-sturdy companion. That particular smell stays with a man long after they bury the body. I can close my eyes and relive the odors, the sights, and the sounds.”
“I understand.” Darcy swallowed hard. “I will attempt to temper my criticisms.”
The coach rolled to a halt before a row of public houses. Cowan disembarked to give the driver instructions to wait.
“Four times your usual fare.”
The driver looked about in apprehension.
“No more than a quarter hour, Sir. Not safe to remain a standing target.”
“A quarter hour and not one second less,” Cowan warned. “Come, Darcy. We must hurry.”
Darcy tailed Cowan along a busy street to turn into a four-walled alley. Cowan pointed to a once brightly painted sign.
Darcy shook his head in incredulity, but he followed close on Cowan’s heels as they entered the dim foyer.
“Yes, Sir?” a woman in a low-cut dress greeted them. “Do ye gentlemen require me services?”
Her smile showed several missing teeth. Cowan ignored the woman’s offer, pushing past her to mount the stairs, while Darcy dodged the female’s grasp to follow.
“How did you know to look for the major general here?” he whispered when Cowan stopped before the third door along the hall.
“The Runners are a corps d’elite, guarding the main roads leading to London. One of my former associates overheard a watchman speaking of a gentleman taking housing at the Sephora. I asked questions of the innkeeper before I sought you out.”
Darcy nodded his appreciation.
“Do we knock?” he gestured to the door.
Cowan dug into his inside pocket.
“No need. I have the key.”
“I shan’t ask how that particular fact came about.” Darcy chuckled.
Cowan slid the key into the lock.
“If the innkeeper speaks the truth, the man within is rather inebriated. If it is the major general, we must carry him from here; if it is another, we will leave him to his devices.”
With that, Cowan released the lock and opened the door on silent hinges. Grabbing a rush candle from a small table, the former Runner struck a flint and set the long tube on fire. Leading the way into the room, Cowan held the rush high.
The room was empty except for the bed, a small table, two straight- backed chairs, and a shaving bowl with an ewer. The stench of vomit and urine filled the air as Darcy’s eyes searched the darkness for a sign of his cousin. At length, a loud snort announced that the room’s occupant stirred.
“Who’s there?” the man slurred. “Leave me be.” He rolled to his stomach to bury his face in the single pillow upon the bed.
But Darcy and Cowan ignored the man’s objections.
“My God, Fitzwilliam! What have you done?”
Even with the poor lighting, Darcy could see that blood covered the bedding. He rushed to turn his cousin to his back.
“Where are you injured?”
Darcy tore at his cousin’s bloody clothes.
“We cannot remain, Darcy,” Cowan coaxed. “We must remove the major general before he draws more attention.”
“But he is injured!” Darcy objected.
“The blood is dried,” Cowan corrected, “and a competent surgeon is not to be found in the area.”
The investigator placed the quickly burning paper tube in a high vase.
“Assist me in lifting Fitzwilliam to his feet. The coach is waiting.” Darcy did not agree, but he bowed to Cowan’s expertise in such matters. Together, they each grabbed an arm and pulled Edward Fitzwilliam first to a seated position and then to his feet.
“Grab his purse and pistol from the table,” Darcy instructed.
Edward’s knees buckled under his weight, and Darcy scrambled to wrap his cousin’s arm about his shoulder. Cowan did the same, and between them, they managed to drag the major general to the room door.
“How do we maneuver him down the stairs?”
“Release him and permit Fitzwilliam to roll down them.” Cowan smiled with sardonic amusement.
As they struggled to pull his cousin through the door, Darcy grunted, “It is a tempting idea.”
To Darcy’s amazement, Edward did not stir until they reached the main street and the coach. As they departed the Sephora, Darcy noted that Cowan slipped several coins and the room key into the innkeeper’s hand.
Irritated by the indignity of chasing his cousin to a run-down establishment, without ceremony, Darcy dumped Edward into the floor’s muck, squeezing his cousin’s long legs into a curled position.
The scene would make an excellent burlesque if the situation were not so serious. He and Cowan crawled over Edward’s form to assume a crowded seat.
“We should take my cousin through the mews. I do not wish the neighbors to observe our entrance.”
A wary expression crossed Cowan’s features.
Darcy sighed with resignation as the coach rolled forward.
“Look at him.”
He toed his cousin’s drunken form.
“Behold the second son of the Earl of Matlock,” Darcy said with contempt. “No better than a common vagrant lying in the filth.”
“The major general succumbed to the pain that never leaves a man: The fear that failure haunts his steps.”
Bridled with resentment, Darcy frowned.
“You speak of a man I do not know. Over the years, Edward Fitzwilliam was my most constant companion. How do I justify this man’s infirmary with the gentleman who claimed my sister’s heart.”
Darcy studied the dirt and dried blood, which marred his cousin’s classically handsome features.
“I am glad Georgiana will not see him thusly. It would kill her to know her husband sought to destroy himself.”
Except for the snore of an intoxicated man, they finished the journey in silence.
Arriving at Darcy House, Darcy ordered several of his footmen to carry the major general to one of the guest rooms before ordering a bath.
“I will not have that stench filling Mrs. Darcy’s home,” he told Cowan.
Darcy dispatched a footman to Lockland Hall for fresh clothes while two of Darcy’s men bathed his cousin. Edward used every curse word concocted by man until Cowan assumed the role of commanding officer and demanded the major general act the part of a gentleman.
Darcy’s housekeeper delivered coffee, which the major general consumed in silence, and slowly, a sense of order arrived.
“Where am I?” Edward asked as his conscious mind fought with his unconscious one.
Fitzwilliam opened one eye to behold Darcy’s uninterrupted scowl.
“I thought I recognized your voice.” He closed his eyes again. “Please tell me my wife is not here.”
“My sister and Elizabeth remain at Yadkin Hall.”
His cousin blocked the light with his forearm. “It is best Georgiana not observe the failure I have become.”
“Bloody hell, Edward! I never heard anything so absurd! Mrs. Fitzwilliam loves you, and you treat her poorly!”
Darcy gestured to Edward’s nude body draped with the counterpane.
“You abuse all which you profess to hold most dear.”
“You do not understand.” A pang of guilt filled Edward’s voice.
“Then explain it to me. Better yet, permit me to send for Georgiana, and you can explain it to her. She is the one you must trust with your secrets.”
“Georgiana must hate me,” Edward moaned.
Darcy recognized his cousin’s plea for empathy as an empty promise. Edward’s continual self-pity frustrated Darcy.
“We will discuss this in more detail later. You should rest now.”
“Do not send for Georgie. I beg you, Darcy,” his cousin implored.
“I will not send for Mrs. Fitzwilliam, but I do mean to send word that you are safe. Neither Mrs. Darcy nor my sister deserves to spend another hour in worry over your actions.”
Darcy could not control speaking in disappointment.