MAGISTRATE'S FOLLY

Prologue

February 6, 1773

London, England

From his perch above the fray, Graham Sinclair eyed his courtroom. The shabbiness of his domain mocked his dreams of justice. The cracksman he had just bound over for trial was two-thirds drunk and staggering. It wasn’t justice. It was farce.

“Next case.” He kneaded the bridge of his nose and shut his eyes.

The usual shuffles and thumps were accompanied by the usual muted uproar from the waiting mob. These few moments between cases always reminded him of a scene change at the theatre. Would comedy or tragedy play out next? He sighed. He had his role to perform just as the other players in the drama. He opened his eyes and sought Connor.

His old friend and assistant nodded, and Graham cleared his throat. Connor slid a document before him.“Mrs. Paget.” He glanced from the brief in his hands to the accuser, a woman in middle years, who wore a pinched expression as if her stays were too tight. As he regarded her, she sniffed and raised a handkerchief to her nose with excessive delicateness. The venomous glance she cast at the noisy throng of victims and vagabonds, constables and criminals milling on the other side of the railing might have wilted the lot—had they noticed.

Graham lifted his gaze to the raised dock directly before him. He blinked and looked again. A slight figure stood there, head held high. Surely he knew that auburn hair and those fiercely determined brown eyes. His finger ran down the document as he sought the name of the accused.

“Merry Lattimore.” He whispered the name aloud as he read it. He dropped the paper, making no move to catch it as it fluttered to the ground.He sought her face once more, searching for something, anything, that would put the lie to her claim of identity. She seemed not to recognize him. But then it had been years since they had last seen each other. Connor placed the retrieved document before him and gave him an odd look.

Graham cleared his throat. “Are the accusers present?”

“We are, Your Honor.” The plaintiffs’ singsong chant sounded like a chorus of smug Eton lads.

“Of what does the prisoner stand accused?”

“Theft from her mistress,” Connor said in his official voice.

Graham looked again at the prosecution bench. “You are Mrs. Paget?”

“Yes, Excellency.”

“Your Honor will do.” The woman came perilously close to shrugging.“You stand as accuser of this young woman?” His severest frown, which had quailed hardened cutthroats, had no marked effect on her.

“Yes, Your Honor.”

“State your case.”

The woman’s chin jutted out farther. “This morning I discharged Merry Lattimore from my employ. I gave her time to pack her belongings. I then retired to the drawing room to recover my nerves from the unpleasant scene she made.” She paused a moment as if to gauge his reaction. “A few moments later, my son came to me and stated that he had seen her sneaking from my room. I assure you she had no cause to be in my chambers. I went in search of her, and apprehended the little baggage as she was about to leave the house. She claimed her valise contained only her things. Indeed, she acted as if I were in the wrong.” Outrage turned her voice brittle. She sniffed and raised a handkerchief to her nose. “As soon as my son opened it, I found several pieces of my jewelry right there on top.”

“Is that all you have to say?”

She looked confused, as if wondering what other proof he could possibly desire. “Yes.”

“Have you any other witnesses to call?”

“My son, Lucas.”

Lucas Paget took his mother’s place.

Graham could not quite name why the man should be so off-putting. He looked like any of a thousand other louts with more money than sense. His pea-green jacket was embroidered with wildflowers, his pale satin breeches shone. His lace cuffs dripped over his hands, as languid as their wearer.He recounted his tale of seeing Merry sneaking from his mother’s room.

“Why was Miss Lattimore discharged from employment?”

Scarlet suffused the young man’s face. “Immoral conduct.”

Graham narrowed his eyes. Not the Merry he’d known. She had her faults. He knew that more than most, but she would not easily thrust aside her virtue. “And those scratches on your cheek? Where did they come from?”

“I don’t see that it has any bearing on the theft.” Paget took a pinch of snuff from an enameled box and sniffed.

“I can see why you might think so.” Graham fought to keep the contempt from his tone. He’d have laid money that Merry had discouraged an unwanted advance. That was the real cause of her dismissal. But then why the accusation of theft? It made no sense. Unless she had taken the items in misguided retribution for getting the boot.

Paget’s lips compressed into an ugly sneer.

“Have you anything else to add?” Graham said.

“No.”

The constable who had taken Merry in charge was called, and he attested to being summoned to the house and seeing the jewelry in Miss Lattimore’s bag. Graham groaned inwardly. The Pagets’ case was strong. What possible explanation could Merry produce to excuse herself? He had to find some way to help her. He owed her father that much. In the curve of her lips and arch of her brow he again saw the carefree girl he had known. How had she been reduced to such circumstances? Two spots of crimson burned brightly in her otherwise pale cheeks, and he could see the white of her knuckles as they clutched the railing. She stood unmoving in the dock. Was it possible that she had not moved since the proceedings started?

“Have you anything to say in your defense, Miss Lattimore?” He smiled. Nodded. Come along, girl. Exonerate yourself.

She met his gaze without flinching. Still he saw no hint of recognition in her eyes. Had he changed so much? Mayhap it was his stiff, white judicial wig. It tended to obscure the man beneath his office.

“I took nothing from the Pagets. Indeed, I was leaving without even the wages I had earned.”

“And would you happen to know how Mr. Paget received the injuries to his face?”

The carmine blotches in her cheeks bled into the rest of her face. “Yes.” The answer was little more than a whisper.

He had expected as much. “Please explain.”

Merry closed her eyes and inhaled deeply, as if she needed the fortification of extra breath in her lungs. When she opened her eyes again, the color in her cheeks had drained, leaving her skin ivory pale.“I caused the injuries in the course of discouraging his advances.”

An outraged murmur issued from the plaintiff’s bench, and Graham held up his hand for silence.“How do you explain the presence of the jewelry in your case?”

“I cannot explain it. I don’t know how it came to be there.”

“Did you pack the bag yourself?” Silently he willed her to give him something to work with.

“I did.”

A muscle in his jaw ticked. “And was it in your possession until you attempted to leave the house?”

“No.”

Ah, finally the first ray of hope. “Please explain.”

“I placed my bag on the table in the foyer as I went to say farewell to some fri—” Merry’s gaze flickered toward Mrs. Paget. “Fellow servants in the kitchen before I departed.”

“How long was your bag unattended?”

“A few moments.”“Were there other people about?”

“Yes, Your Honor.”

“Is it possible that someone else placed the jewelry in your bag?”

“It’s possible. Indeed, it is the only explanation, but I don’t know who would do such a thing. At least. . .” Her voice sank, and she seemed to be talking half to herself. “Surely it was enough to see me out the door?”

Graham quieted the impulse to rub his temples. Was she intent on a visit to Tyburn’s gallows? “Did you see anyone near your valise when you came to retrieve it?”

“No, sir.”

Graham sighed deeply. There was no help for it now. He had tried to aid her, but he had no choice. There wasn’t a scrap of evidence to support her. His throat seemed suddenly as parched and dusty as a volume on legal ethics. “Merry Lattimore, I hereby bind you over for trial before the Sessions Court. You are to be committed to Newgate gaol until such time as your case is heard.” The single crack of his gavel sounded as final as a blow from the executioner’s ax.

With a grimly satisfied smile, Mrs. Paget flounced from his courtroom, followed closely by her son.

Merry remained motionless. The horror on her face cut Graham to the quick. “Your imprisonment won’t last long. The Sessions are to be held in but three days.”

Her eyes narrowed and she leaned forward, brow furrowed. A constable took her arm and escorted her from the dock. She accompanied him without protest, but shot one more look over her shoulder as she was pulled away. Their gazes met for an instant, and Graham knew she had finally recognized him.

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