Chapter 1

WINTER, 1885

His voice drew her, and Bertie wanted to hear more of it. She leaned forward in the balcony to watch the man standing upright and arrogant, one hand touching an open book on a table in front of him, the other gesturing as he made his argument.

The villains Bertie knew called the barrister Basher McBride, because Mr. McBride always got a conviction. He wore one of the silly wigs, but his face was square and handsome, and far younger than that of the judge who sat above him. A wilted nosegay reposed in a vase in front of the judge, both judge and flowers looking weary in the extreme.

The case had caught the attention of journalists up and down the country—the sensational murder of a lady by one of her downstairs maids. The young woman in the dock, Ruthie, had been accused of stabbing her employer and making off with a hundred pounds’ worth of silver.

Bertie knew Ruthie hadn’t done it. The deed had been done by Jacko Small and his mistress, only they’d set up Ruthie to take the blame for it. Bertie had known, had heard Jacko’s plans, but did the police listen to the likes of Roberta Frasier? No.

Not that Bertie was in the habit of talking to constables most days. She stayed as far away from them as possible, and her dad and Jeffrey, Bertie’s self-styled beau, made sure she did. But she’d tried for Ruthie’s sake.

Hadn’t mattered. They’d arrested Ruthie anyway, and now Ruthie would get hanged for something she didn’t do.

The handsome Basher McBride, with his mesmerizing voice, was busy making the case that Ruthie had done it. Ruthie couldn’t afford a defense, so she was here on her own in the dock, thin and small for her age, a maid who’d been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Bertie could only clench her fists and pray for a miracle.

Mr. McBride, despite his dire statements, had a delicious Scots accent. His voice was deep and rich, rolling over the crowd like an intoxicating wave. Even the bored judge couldn’t take his eyes off him.

Mr. McBride had broad shoulders and a firm back, obvious even in the black robes. He was tall, dominating all in the room, the strength in his big, bare hands apparent. He looked as though he’d be more at home out on a Highland hillside, sword in hand as he fended off attackers. One glare from those gray eyes, and his attackers would be running for their lives.

His accent wasn’t so thick Bertie couldn’t understand it, but his Rs rolled pleasantly, and his vowels were long, especially the Us.

“If your lordship pleases,” Mr. McBride said, his voice warming Bertie again, “I would like to call Jacko Small back to the witness box.”

Bertie swallowed, nervous. Jacko had already given evidence that he’d found the body in the sitting room of the London house, then seen Ruthie down in the kitchen, crying, with blood on her apron. The silver had been gone, and no one had found it, so Ruthie must have hidden it somewhere, hadn’t she? The police had tried to get its location out of her, but of course Ruthie hadn’t known, as she hadn’t stolen the silver in the first place.

The judge sighed. “Is it relevant, Mr. McBride? This witness has already told us his version of events.”

“One or two more questions, your lordship,” Mr. McBride said without hurry. “You will understand my reasons in due time.”

In duuui time. The vowel came out of his mouth with a round, full sound.

Jacko came back in, was reminded he was under oath, and faced Mr. McBride with all innocence on his face.

“Now, then, Mr. Small.” Mr. McBride smiled pleasantly, but Bertie saw a gleam in his eyes that was a cross between anger and glee.

Now what was he up to?

“Mr. Small,” Mr. McBride said smoothly. “You say you opened the door of the sitting room to find the lady of the house on the floor, her dress covered in blood. You’d been asked to refill the coal bin on your return from your day out and had gone up there to do so.” Mr. McBride glanced down at the notes on his bench. “That day was the seventh of July. The middle of the afternoon, in the middle of summer. Quite the warmest day anyone could remember, the newspapers reported. A bit too warm for a fire, wouldn’t you say?”

Jacko blinked. “Well . . . I . . . the nights were still nippy. I remember that.”

“Yes, of course. Bloody English weather. Begging your pardon, your lordship.”

People tittered. The judge scowled. “Please get on with it, Mr. McBride.”

“You say in your statement that you saw quite a lot of blood,” Mr. McBride said, not missing a beat. “On the sofa, on the floor, smeared on the door panels and on the doorknob.”

“’Sright.” Jacko put his hand to his heart. “Gave me a turn, it did.”

“So you fled the room and went down to the kitchen, where you saw the accused wearing an apron stained with blood. She says she got the blood on her because she thought she’d help out the cook by stuffing the chickens for dinner. The chickens were still a bit bloody, and she wiped her hands on her apron. Correct?”

“It’s what she said, yeah.”

“Now, I need your help, Mr. Small. I must ask you a very important question, so think hard. Was there any blood smeared on the doorknob of the door to the back stairs?”

Jacko blinked again. He obviously hadn’t rehearsed this question. “Um. I don’t think so. I can’t be sure. Don’t remember. I was, you know, in a state.”

“But you remember distinctly the blood on the doorknob in the sitting room. You were quite poetic about it.”

More titters. Jacko looked flustered.

What the devil was Mr. McBride doing? Bertie’s gloved hand tightened on the railing. He was supposed to be proving Ruthie did it, not that Jacko lied. Which Jacko had, of course, but how did Mr. McBride know that?

Besides, it wasn’t his job to expose Jacko. Bertie knew from experience that courtrooms had procedures everyone followed to the letter. It was as if Mr. McBride had stepped onstage and started playing the wrong part.

“Was there blood on the doorknob to the back-stairs door?” Mr. McBride repeated, his deep voice growing stern.

“Um. Yeah,” Jacko said. “Yeah, now that I recall it, there was. Another big smudge, like in the sitting room. I had to touch it to open it. It were awful.” A few of the jury shifted in their seats in sympathy.

“Except there wasn’t,” Mr. McBride said.

“Eh?” Jacko started. “Whatcha mean?”

“The door to the back stairs, or the green baize door as it is also known, had a broken panel. It had been taken away, since it was a quiet day, to be mended. There was no door that day, not for you to open, nor for the maid to smear blood on.”