Strangers at Dawn

By: Elizabeth Thornton

“Even if that were true,” said Max, his voice tipped with frost, “it has nothing to do with this case.”

“I know. But juries are all too human.”

Max brooded on that thought as he made his way to Sir Ivor.

PETER FALLON SMILED TO HIMSELF AS HE WATCHED Max in conversation with Sir Ivor. Sir Prig, as the reporters had named Sir Ivor, had allowed his stiff upper lip to soften into something like a smile. He’d aroused a good deal of sympathy at first. Not only had his son disappeared, but his only other child, a young daughter, had died of lung fever some years before. He’d seemed like a tragic figure, but his air of superiority, his pride and arrogance, had soon dispelled that impression. He was more of an avenging angel than a grieving father.

“Prince Charming does have a way with him, does he not?”

Fallon recognized the drawl and grinned at the gentleman who had joined him. Jameson of the Times, fortyish, portly, sweating and crumpled, had a caustic wit that Fallon rather enjoyed.

“Prince Charming?” said Fallon.

“Lord Maxwell. He has Sir Prig tamed to his hand.”

“Well, you know how it is with the aristocracy. They talk the same language.”

“Oh, yes. I know how it is. Bluebloods must stick together.”

Fallon laughed. “You sound envious.”

“You’re mistaken, Fallon. I’m not envious. I just wish Prince Charming would do what he’s supposed to do.”

“Which is?”

“Marry a princess, carry her off to his castle, and live happily ever after. Then we lesser mortals might get the recognition we deserve.”

Fallon laughed, but he was well aware that Jameson’s remarks were prompted by pique. Though Lord Maxwell was too likable, too genuine a character to arouse real envy, it did seem unjust that a young man of thirty, a man who had everything to start with, should also possess more than his share of good luck.

Max Worthe was heir to his father, the Marquess of Lyndhurst. There really was a castle, only fifteen miles from Winchester. A castle, a house in town, a life of wealth and privilege-what more could a man want?

The fates had also blessed him with good looks. His fair hair was cropped short; his square jaw added a manly touch to a face that might have been considered too handsome. He was tall, an inch or so under six feet, and every trim inch was as solid as granite. It was no secret that Lord Maxwell’s favorite pastime was boxing, and it showed.

Six months ago, he’d bought the Courier when it was on the brink of bankruptcy. Everyone thought it was a joke, the whim of a bored aristocrat, and predicted the Courier’s demise within a matter of months. Fallon, himself, at four-and-twenty, and the youngest reporter on staff, was sure that his days on the Courier were numbered, and he began looking around for another position. He’d listened to those who should know. Lord Maxwell was a novice, they said. He didn’t know the first thing about producing a newspaper. It was true that he published a periodical, the London Review, but that came out once a month and was devoted to literary works or essays by well-known wits. A newspaper was a different matter entirely. The competition was fierce. The Times was firmly established as London’s leading paper, and most of its competitors had gone to the wall.

Lord Maxwell, however, had not taken the Times as his model. The first thing he did was take the parliamentary report off the front page and replace it with stories with a more popular appeal. Murders, tragedies, natural disasters, scandals-that’s what sold papers. What the Courier had lost in prestige, it had made up in a dramatic increase in circulation.

Peter Fallon was not one of those who begrudged Lord Maxwell his success. As the Courier’s fortunes had risen, so had his. He admired Lord Maxwell; he studied his manners, his habits, his preferences, and tried, as far as was in his power, to emulate his mentor.

Jameson said consideringly, “I suppose he eats like a bird?”

“Actually, he eats like a horse.”

Jameson sucked in his stomach. “You know, Fallon, if I really put my mind to it, I think I could muster a thorough dislike of your Prince Charming. But let’s not quibble. Tell me your impressions of Miss Carstairs.”

HALF AN HOUR LATER, THE JURY ROOM BELL sounded, and there was a flurry of movement as spectators reclaimed their seats. Max could not ignore how tense he felt. His mouth was dry; his heart was pounding. He’d expected the jury to take longer to reach their verdict, and he didn’t know whether their early return was a good or bad omen.

When the court had reassembled, Max turned to look at the dock. A moment later, Sara Carstairs emerged from the trapdoor and took her place. Nothing in her demeanor betrayed the least nervousness, yet, thought Max, she must know that if the verdict went against her, she would go to the gallows. If she didn’t feel the gravity of her situation, he did.

Her gaze, once again, was fixed on one of the junior attorneys who assisted her leading counsel. A look passed between them, but it did not linger. The jurymen were in.

The next few minutes passed as though they were hours. The clerk of the court slowly called each jury man by name. When the foreman was asked to give the verdict, an expectant hush gripped the spectators.