It had taken Henry Scrope a good forty-eight hours to discover what was so peculiar about Harry Lancaster's latest house party. It was perfectly executed as usual--near-invisible servants, every guest's culinary preferences catered to, even three perfectly sunny days--but he'd been unable until now to pin down exactly why he felt as though something was missing.
There were no women.
It was the sort of realisation that, once achieved, left him baffled as to how he had not noticed it before. While it was often customary for a man to arrange discreetly to have his wife elsewhere for some house parties, there would inevitably be another woman carefully manoeuvred into the bedroom next to his. Not so here.
And it wasn't as though Harry disliked women. His excuse for not having married yet was that he hadn't found a woman who met his exacting standards--standards Scrope secretly suspected to have been inspired by a certain Isabelle, though he'd never say as much to Harry, or to anyone else, for that matter. And Scrope knew he had a girl discreetly tucked away near Regent's Park like everybody else.
No, it had to be a deliberate decision. But why? Scrope turned the question over and over in his head, barely noticing his valet's expert razor strokes. By the time he arrived in the breakfast room, there was a furrow between his brows.
Harry, unsurprisingly, noticed at once. "Something the matter, Scrope?"
"I had some trouble sleeping, is all," he deflected. Harry looked tired himself, no doubt having stayed awake late into the night as the host. "Now," he added as blandly as he could, "I must admit I've heard of house parties where the attendees were requested to leave their wives behind, but no women whatsoever?"
There was a low murmur of laughter from around the table. Harry held up his hands with a beneficent smile. "I thought you of all people might appreciate it, or was I imagining you hiding from your mistress in the park last week?"
Scrope bowed his head in defeat. "A fair point, sir." Harry had always been adept at not answering questions he did not wish to answer. Although he would have liked nothing more than to press the issue, Scrope knew better. Harry would tell him in his own time; after all, Harry told him everything eventually.
The weather had miraculously held out for a fourth day, and at one o'clock the gentlemen were clustered in the front hall, red hunting jackets interspersed with black-clad footmen carrying trays of sherry. Thomas Grey and Robert York were shooting none-too-subtle glances in his direction, and it was to stop them if nothing else that Scrope made his way to where they stood, near the staircase.
One of the footmen, as if only just noticing that the three men were empty-handed, stepped forth with his tray. "A drink, gentlemen?"
Scrope took a glass, his attention diverted by the sudden glitter of the cut crystal as the sunbeams hit it. "It really has been a most enjoyable stay."
"Lancaster lives like a king. We all know that." As he spoke, Grey did not meet Scrope's eyes. York finished his sherry in a single gulp, earning himself a sideways glare from Grey. "Do you want to break your neck?"
"I don't see why it matters to you," York muttered. "He knows something. Or at least he suspects something."
"You're jumping at shadows, York," Scrope heard himself say. "This is for the best, and you know it. Lancaster would have ruined us all, and himself, with this South African venture. We are merely protecting our interests--and even his, if he could just stop for a moment to think about it."
"It's difficult to think about anything rationally when diamonds are in the offering," Grey observed, taking a measured sip of sherry. Though he may have said more, Harry's voice boomed above the rest, catching their attention.
"Scrope, Grey, York, what are you discussing so intently over there?"
"Diamonds, Harry," Scrope said, his face perfectly straight. "I think you can understand why."
Harry smiled. "Hard not to think about them. It's only a pity we hadn't found the mine before Father died. It may well have made things easier for him at the end."
"I'm certain he would have been very proud of you," Grey put in. "You've worked wonders in a matter of a few years. Even Cecil Rhodes doesn't stand a chance."
"I shouldn't go that far," Harry demurred gracefully, reaching for two more glasses of sherry on the tray beside him and handing them to Grey and York. Scrope held up his still-untouched glass, earning a half-frown from Harry. "A toast, gentlemen, if you please. To the beginning of a glorious venture."
"Hear, hear," a dozen voices echoed, followed by the clink of ice and glasses as they drank. Scrope took a sip, impressed as usual by the quality of Harry's cellar, even if there did seem to be a slightly bitter aftertaste to this particular bottle.
He had just opened his mouth to say so when York began to cough. First, softly, and then doubling over, his breath rasping in the sudden silence. When he looked up, his face had gone white and his eyes wide with horror. "You bastard."
Harry merely looked at him, expressionless. "You would have sold me to Rhodes."
"It wasn't like--" Grey's glass shattered to the floor as he too began to cough. "Harry, don't do this, for God's sake..."
Scrope was staring at the half-filled glass still in his hand. When he looked up, he realised Harry was watching him even as York and Grey writhed on the marble floor, oblivious to the shards of glass.
"Cyanide." Scrope let out a bark of laughter. "Well, that would explain the aftertaste. A pity you had to spoil an entire bottle."
"How much did he offer you, Scrope? More than the others, I hope, since he must have known how close you were to me." Harry stepped over Grey's body to pause at Scrope's side. Behind him was breathless silence, ten pairs of eyes fixed on them. "What were you planning to do, really? Steal the deeds to the property? Or would you have killed me, if he'd offered the right price?"
"This is madness, Harry. You will ruin us all--"
"A quaint justification, but you know better than that." Grasping Scrope by the shoulder, he spun him till they were face to face. The next words he hissed, each consonant spit sharp like daggers. "I never gave you cause."
Scrope did not answer. His fingers trembled on the glass, wet from spilled sherry. Thrusting aside Harry's hand, he threw back the poisoned drink before he could change his mind.
For a split-second, Harry looked surprised. Scrope carried the image to his grave, smiling.