Speculations in Sin

Speculations in Sin

by Jennifer Ashley
Speculations in Sin

Speculations in Sin

by Jennifer Ashley

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Overview

To save an innocent man’s life, amateur sleuth and cook Kat Holloway must expose a financial scam that could ruin the most powerful aristocrats in Victorian-era London, from the New York Times bestselling author of The Secret of Bow Lane.

Kat Holloway is distressed to learn that Samuel Millburn, husband of the woman who looks after her daughter, has been accused of embezzling funds from the bank where he works as a clerk. The accusation is absurd, and Samuel’s wife fears that her husband will not only lose his post but be imprisoned. Kat vows to uncover the truth.

When she discovers the bank is involved in shockingly murky business dealings, Kat realizes she’s treading in dangerous waters. She turns to her confidante and handsome suitor, Daniel McAdam, for help. To exonerate Samuel, Kat and Daniel may have to expose the unseemly financial dealings of prominent aristocrats and government officials, and even those working to bring down the royal family. Kat will risk everything to protect the man who has sacrificed so much for her daughter, even if it means endangering herself and the friends she has come to love.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780593549926
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/05/2024
Series: Below Stairs Mystery Series , #7
Sold by: Penguin Group
Format: eBook
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 8,824
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Jennifer Ashley is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of the Below Stairs Mysteries, the Shifters Unbound paranormal romances, and the Mackenzies historical romances. She also writes as USA Today bestselling mystery author Ashley Gardner.

Read an Excerpt

1

January 1883

I was finishing a pleasant visit on my day out with Joanna Millburn, the friend of my youthful days who looked after my daughter, when I detected that something was very wrong.

The windows of Joanna's cozy sitting room were already dark, the blustery winter day at an end. The time was nearing when I must reluctantly take my leave and return to Mount Street, where I was a cook in a fine Mayfair household.

Setting down my teacup, I sent Grace from the parlor with the excuse that I wanted a recipe for tea cakes from Joanna's hardworking cook. Grace eagerly dashed away, closing the door behind her, as she'd been taught, to keep out drafts.

Once we were alone-the four Millburn children were in their father's study, attending to their books-I turned a severe eye on Joanna. "Tell me quickly, before Grace returns. What is troubling you?"

Joanna started so forcefully that the dregs of her tea splashed from the cup. She wiped the droplets from her wrist with agitated fingers.

"Whatever do you mean?" She tried valiantly to sound surprised, but her voice trembled.

"My dear, I have been your friend since we were tykes in pigtails. I know when something is the matter. You had better tell me at once. Grace will only be a moment."

Joanna continued to stare at me as though she could not imagine why I thought all was not well in her idyllic world. I continued with my persistent gaze, until at long last, she wilted.

"Kat, I don't know what I am to do." Joanna set down her cup and balled her hands in her lap. "Samuel's firm has threatened to sack him. We eke out a living as it is-if he loses this post, we'll be destitute."

My own cup clattered to its saucer. "Oh, darling, no." I reached for her tight hands and clasped them hard.

Such a situation would be dire. Sam and Joanna had four children of their own. The oldest, Matthew, was a bright boy, and they'd hoped to find a tutor for him so that he might have a chance to attend university in a few years. They also had to pay the rent on this modest home in a lane off Cheapside, an area so much better than the rookeries they'd likely inhabit without Sam's clerk's job at a private international bank.

There was another obvious consequence of Sam out of a job, one I knew Joanna did not want to voice. Without Sam's income, they would no longer be able to take care of Grace.

I sent Joanna as much money as I could for her upkeep, but the Millburns paid quite a bit out of their own pocket. Five children to feed took a hefty toll, and if Sam was dismissed, gone would be the hopes for Matthew's education. I would have to ease their burden and house Grace elsewhere, but at this moment, I had no idea where that would be.

"Why would they sack him?" I demanded. "I should think Samuel Millburn is a model clerk."

"They have accused him of embezzling funds." Tears filmed Joanna's eyes. "They haven't stated this outright as yet, but the hints are there. They are trying to shame him into confessing or leaving on his own. But Sam has done nothing wrong. I know it."

I knew it too. Samuel Millburn would no more embezzle than he would grow wings and fly. I'd known Sam since the day he'd come to woo Joanna fifteen years ago, when she'd still been living in Bow Lane next door to me and my mum. He'd fallen madly in love with her and devoted himself to her, and nothing much had changed since. I'd been a bridesmaid at their wedding in Bow Bells church, so happy for my friend and yet lonely for losing her.

But I'd never found anything objectionable in Sam. Through the years, he'd proved to be a good friend to me as well. In his professional life, he was respectable, punctual, capable, and dogged, all the qualities any employer would wish.

I read stark fear in Joanna's eyes. She loved her husband, believed in him, but I saw her flash of doubt, and the misery that engendered.

"Joanna, I will tell you right now that this is absurd," I said firmly. "Samuel would never do such a dishonest deed. I know it, and so do you."

"He has been working so hard, and with so little acknowledgment." The words were faint, ones Joanna must have been repeating to herself, afraid to state them out loud.

"I assure you, it is nonsense. If Sam were annoyed, he'd simply take things up with his head clerk. It would never occur to him to sneak money from his accounts. There are few honest men in the world, but Sam Millburn is one of them."

"I believe him." Joanna sent me the look of someone begging to have their fears proved wrong. "I am his wife. Of course I do."

"It has nothing to do with being his wife," I said sternly. "Whether he is married to you or not, he would never steal from his employer."

Joanna slid her hands from mine and rested them on her brown wool skirt. "You are right, Kat. I know you are. But that niggling voice inside me asks: What if I am wrong?"

"You are not. Samuel would never embezzle, and we both know it."

"But what are we to do?" Joanna's question held despair.

What indeed? I unfortunately had witnessed such situations a time or two in my life. An important person committed a crime, and the blame was shoved off onto someone deemed not so important. The insignificant man-or woman-was arrested and made to pay, thus preserving the reputations of the lofty. The scapegoat was inconsequential-except to his wife and children who would be destitute and share his shame and ruin.

I could not let that happen to Joanna and her sons and daughters.

"I will look into it," I said with assurance. "Never worry, dear Joanna. I will find out who has truly done the embezzlement and clear Sam's name."

Did Joanna clasp her hands, gaze at me in adoration, and thank me profusely? No, indeed. Her face fixed in tired lines, fear exhausting her.

"How can you, Kat? I know you have helped the police before, but these are men of the City. Wealthy men, from prominent families. They have power, influence, and a long reach. They care nothing for the likes of Sam Millburn." The tears in her brown eyes spilled to her cheeks.

I leaned to her and rested my hand on her knee. "I cannot tell lords and dukes what to do, no. But I know people who can-honest men and women who have influence. I promise you, my friend, I will leave no stone unturned until I prove that Sam is innocent."

Again, Joanna did not hug me to her bosom and weep with relief. I saw a flicker of hope in her eyes, but it was quickly suppressed.

"It is kind of you, Kat."

I held up my hand before she could try to tell me why I shouldn't bother. "You leave it to me. I will be discreet-do not worry."

Joanna opened her mouth to argue further, but the door swung open, and Grace danced inside, a folded paper in her hand. Joanna lifted her teacup again, while I took the recipe from Grace and praised her for writing it out so neatly.

The time had come when I must leave my daughter for the reality of my drudgery. I pushed the thought aside and hugged Grace, memorizing the feeling of my daughter in my arms. That memory would have to sustain me until I could visit again.

I tried to give Joanna a reassuring smile as I departed, but I left a woman dejected. Grace began to tell Joanna of the sights she and I had seen on our walk today, and Joanna tried to brighten. She'd never let her troubles upset the children.

I stepped out of the house into the cold winter air, the lane that led to Cheapside already dark. I adjusted my hat and trudged toward the main street, in search of an omnibus to take me back to Mayfair.

The lack of light went with my mood. I had vowed to make everything right for Joanna, but she spoke the truth. The powerful and wealthy would throw Sam to the wolves to save themselves, and I, a woman and a domestic servant, had even less influence in the world than Sam did.

I pondered the problem as the crowded omnibus bumped across the Holborn Viaduct and along to Oxford Street. I descended at Duke Street to continue on foot south through Grosvenor Square to South Audley Street and so to Mount Street. A hansom could take me home faster, but Mrs. Bywater, the mistress of the house, would have much to say about a cook who got above herself being dropped off in a hansom at her doorstep.

As I walked through the cold, flakes of snow settling on my coat, I confessed to myself that I had little idea how to begin on Joanna's troubles. The few men I counted as my friends concerned themselves with science or police matters, not finance.

Mr. Bywater, nominally the head of the household that employed me, worked in the City, but I had no idea what he did. I'd never been much interested in his day besides knowing what he liked on his dinner table by the time he returned home.

I could not openly seek Mr. Bywater's help, because I'd have to explain who Joanna was. Such information might inadvertently reveal that I had a daughter-a fatherless one, at that-whom I was supporting in secret.

Nothing for it, but I would have to turn to the one person I did not want to be obligated to, for reasons I did not quite understand. Daniel McAdam had been nothing but good to me, but I supposed I feared to be under the power of a man ever again. Grace's father had ensnared me, lied to me, and then left me destitute. I'd believed myself married to him, but that had turned out to be false.

Daniel would never do such things to me, I understood. He would help, for Grace's sake, if nothing else. He'd become quite fond of Grace, and Grace of him.

For Joanna, I decided, I'd seek Daniel's aid. Daniel was familiar with all sorts of crimes, from brutal murder to clever fraud to forgeries to treason. I wouldn't be surprised if he didn't already know, or know something about, all parties involved in the embezzlement at Sam's bank.

I'd reached Mount Street by the time I finished my musing and descended the outside stairs to the warmth of the house. I had to pass through the scullery, and greeted Elsie, the scullery maid, who was elbow deep in water, scrubbing pots.

"Did ye have a nice day out, Mrs. Holloway?" she asked over the clanking in the sink.

"It was quite pleasant, thank you, Elsie," I replied absently as I moved past her to hang up my coat. I unpinned my hat but would carry that upstairs to put away safely when I changed my clothes. "Is all well here?"

"Think so. Mr. Davis has gone out and not come back, and isn't Mrs. Redfern annoyed about that?"

This information penetrated the haze of my thoughts. Mr. Davis, our butler, rarely took a day out. That he'd chosen to depart on a Thursday, which everyone knew was my full day off, was curious.

"I'm certain he will return in time for supper." I continued into the kitchen, where Tess, my assistant, bent over the work table, slicing potatoes like a mad thing. "Good afternoon, Tess."

Tess ceased banging her knife and glanced up at me without her usually cheery expression. "I'm that glad to see you, Mrs. H. Mrs. Redfern is in a right state."

From the loudness of this proclamation, I gathered that Mrs. Redfern, the housekeeper, must be above stairs where she could not hear us.

"I'm certain everything will be well, Tess. Do carry on."

Tess's knife began thumping away again, so much so that I feared for the condition of the potatoes. Telling myself that Tess had things in hand, I slipped out and along the slate-tiled corridor to the back stairs.

The door to the butler's pantry was shut, and no light flickered under the crack beneath it. On impulse, I tried the handle, but the door was locked.

I reasoned, as I mounted the stairs, that Mr. Davis's affairs when he was not in the house were his own. His outing must have been important, and I had no doubt he'd soon return. He'd never let the footmen attend supper without his eagle-eyed supervision, especially when Mr. and Mrs. Bywater had guests, as they did this evening.

Upstairs, I swiftly changed into my gray work dress. I shook out and brushed my good brown frock, before hanging it in the wardrobe. The hat went into its box on the wardrobe's top.

I'd been able to acquire a few more pieces of furniture for my small room: a bureau that held my washbasin and undergarments, and this wardrobe. I didn't have many gowns-two besides my work frocks-but Lady Cynthia, the Bywaters' niece, had insisted Mrs. Bywater put some cast-off pieces of furniture in my room. Mrs. Bywater, who didn't want the bother of hiring someone to lug the unused furniture away, allowed Cynthia this indulgence.

I'd done perfectly well without all these furnishings, but Cynthia was trying to be kind. I admitted it was nice to have a place to keep my best and second-best gowns free of dust.

After washing the soot of London's coal smoke from my face and hands, I descended to the kitchen again. I needed to pay attention to the meal, I decided as I began to help Tess chop vegetables at the table-we'd have ten at dinner tonight-but my mind strayed back to Joanna and her troubles.

Poor Sam. He worked hard to provide for Joanna and his four children, and uncomplainingly had taken in my daughter when I'd turned up on their doorstep with her nearly thirteen years ago. I'd been a wretched and terrified woman, sobbing in their parlor, my babe in my arms. Grace, always sensitive to atmosphere, had been crying as well.

Joanna, my dearest friend since we'd been tiny girls, had pulled me into her embrace and promised she'd do anything in the world for me and Grace. Sam had sat down with us and assured me that we could devise a way to keep Grace safe while I sought a position in a kitchen.

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