London, 1888...Leather Apron (Jack the Ripper) is claiming victims in Whitechapel. And, Isabel Haynes achingly fears that her cousin, the enigmatic Thomas Haynes Cutbush, could be the serial killer. She hires The Zane Brothers Detective Agency to determine if her fears are founded. The roguish Noah Zane is determined to find the truth while protecting the captivating Isabel to whom he is losing his heart.
The Mayfair Section of London
She lifted her eyes to the sign, swaying slightly in the afternoon breeze. It hung on two chains attached to a long wrought-iron signpost, secured to a non-descript brick building and hanging above double wooden doors. The sign was painted a forest green color trimmed with gold and embossed with gold lettering reading…The Zane Brothers Detective Agency.
She sighed deeply.
She was so nervous that her palms sweat within her soft kid gloves and she could barely breathe with the constriction in her chest. And worst of all, plaguing doubts and a sense of betrayal pricked her conscience.
She turned to retrace her earlier steps and retreat, abandoning all thoughts of hiring the agency. But she could not take a step. She was frozen in place. A small voice, in the far recess of her mind, whispered courage and a reminder that perpetual doubts would gnaw at her soul. She needed to know the truth.
She turned back toward the double doors and slowly placed a gloved hand on the brass knob, fulling intending to open the door. But again, she froze, crippling doubts seizing her mind.
Would the detectives think her to be a fool and her suspicions but falsely founded?
She audibly sighed, again.
What did it matter what these detectives thought of her? She needed to know if her suspicions were founded or not. And she prayed that she was mistaken in her supposition.
She turned the knob and opened one of the double doors, causing a tiny brass bell above the door to chime, announcing her arrival. She closed the door behind her and crossed several steps to the center of what appeared to be a reception area.
She wrung her gloved hands together as she waited for someone to appear and acknowledge her presence.
She did not wait long. Within seconds a tall, handsome man appeared, standing framed in the doorway separating the waiting room from a rear office.
Her large brown eyes, fringed with long dark eyelashes, widened as she queried softly in a raspy voice, “Are you Mr. Zane?”
The gentleman smiled charmingly. “I am Mr. Evan Zane. Which Zane brother are you seeking?”
“Oh, I seek as many brothers as own this business. As I wish to hire the Zane Brothers Detective Agency.”
“Then please come into our office.” Evan stepped backward to allow the lady entry into the small but functional office where his brother, Noah, stood behind the centralized desk.
She nodded before crossing over the threshold into the room where she instantly spied another extremely attractive man waiting in anticipation of her entrance. She slowed her step, suddenly struck by the commanding presence of the second brother.
She resisted the urge to run and tried to hide her reticence. His piercing blue eyes, watching her every move as she gracefully entered the room, stripped her of her composure, causing her to feel vulnerable and exposed.
He harrumphed. “I am Noah Zane. Please be seated.” He mimed for her to take one of the wooden chairs positioned directly in front of the desk.
She smiled warmly before sitting gracefully. She noticed that the brother who called himself Noah suddenly appeared somewhat uneasy in her presence. She lowered her head, allowing the wide brim of her stylish green bonnet to hide her pleased expression. She liked Noah’s boyish appeal.
She thought that both brothers looked almost identical, each with piercing blue eyes. They were tall men, six feet in height, with long jet-black hair tucked behind their ears, accentuating their square jaws. They both appeared in their early thirties and she surmised that Noah was the elder of the two.
“How might we help you?” Evan quickly asked, amused by his brother’s sudden awkwardness. Evan surmised that the woman’s loveliness took his elder brother by surprise.
She lifted her head to reply in a husky voice. “I am Isabel Haynes and I…I…” She lowered her eyes to her gloved hands clasped together in a prayer-like pose. “…wish to hire you to…to…”
“Yes, you wish to hire us for what purpose?” Noah softly and sensitively asked as he lowered his lean frame onto the chair he had earlier vacated.
She lifted her eyes to Noah’s encouraging expression. “I wish to hire you to prove that…that…my cousin…is not who I think he might be.”
Noah glanced at Evan with a slightly perplexed look on his face. “I do not comprehend, Miss Haynes.”
Evan moved slightly closer to the seated woman. “Do you suspect your cousin to be… a thief…or…”
“No, no, not a thief,” she interrupted quickly before sighing.
“Then…you suspect…?” Noah prompted.
“I suspect my cousin to be…the Whitechapel Murderer...Leather Apron.”
She had spoken so softly that she thought perhaps the brothers had not heard her declaration. They both looked nonplussed.
“Beg pardon, Miss Haynes, but did you say that you suspect your cousin of being the Whitechapel Murderer?” Evan asked as he crossed to the chair positioned beside Isabel and sat, resting his forearms on his toned thighs and leaning forward in an attentive pose.
“Yes, Mr. Zane, my cousin is Thomas Haynes Cutbush and I…I…suspect him of being…Leather Apron. But mind you, I have no concrete evidence that he is. And that is why I wish to hire you. I want…I need to have my beleaguering suspicions put to rest and have you prove that my cousin is not who I fear he is.”
“But why do you think he is the man stalking women and killing them in Whitechapel? Was he questioned by the police?” Noah asked as he leaned his elbows onto the desk blotter and placed his smoothly shaven chin onto his cupped hands.
“Yes, Thomas was questioned. But from what I understand, the Metropolitan Police and Scotland Yard have interviewed hundreds of potential suspects, possibly thousands. And they did not detain my cousin.”
“Then why do you suspect that he is the Whitechapel Murderer?”
She angled her body toward Evan, facing him fully as she bluntly responded, “I suspect him for a myriad of reasons but I pray with every fiber of my being that I am mistaken.”
“Perhaps you should explain, Miss Haynes,” Evan encouraged.
“Yes, yes, of course.” She sat perfectly erect before beginning her tale. “My mother is Clara Haynes and when my father died, she and I moved in with my father’s sister, Aunt Kate, who is my cousin Thomas’ mother…Kate Cutbush. Thomas and I were raised together, more like siblings than cousins and I love him like a brother.” She touched her chest, near her heart, as she added, “That is why I feel so guilty to be suspecting him of these horrid crimes sensationalized in the newspapers and so ashamed to be here requesting your help.”
“We sense your trepidation and understand your emotional turmoil. But please continue with your explanation, Miss Haynes,” Noah softly encouraged.
“Oh, yes, I digress. My cousin was a brooding and temperamental child. He felt abandoned by his father who left the country and shortly thereafter died…in Australia, I believe. But I understood his sense of abandonment as my father also died when I was young and so I was patient with my cousin’s occasional outbursts and violent temper.”
“How violent was his temper?” Evan queried.
“My mother claimed that Thomas was a spoilt child, often breaking various items and once throwing an object at a chandelier, causing it to crash to the floor, shattering it. I personally do not remember those instances but my mother does not lie. I remember his rudeness toward me and his verbal outbursts, often chastising me for one thing or another while hurtfully pinching my cheeks.”
“And how old is your cousin now?” A tinge of anger laced Noah’s query.
Isabel angled her face to a questioning Noah and replied, “He is two years older than I am. I am twenty and he is two and twenty years of age.”
“So, if you were four years old, for instance, when he was six, you might not have remembered his display of destructive temper, resulting in broken objects,” Evan perceptively added.
“No, perhaps I would not or mayhap out of love for him I have mentally blocked out those memories. But in any case, his temper seemed to improve as he grew older until…of late, when again he has become overly brooding and violent.”
“Does your cousin still live with you, your mother and your aunt?” Noah probed.
“Yes, we all live at 14 Albert Street, Kennington.”
Noah nodded. “Kennington is south London and within walking distance to Whitechapel.”
“Yes, and my shop is in Mile End Old Town, just on the edge of Whitechapel.”
Isabel turned to face Evan who had spoken. She responded proudly, “Yes, I am a milliner and I opened a hat shop about six months ago. It is not in the most ideal location but I could only afford rent in Mile End Old Town.” She shrugged. “Fortunately, numerous ladies, who purchased my designed hats when I was employed here in Mayfair, now patronize my newly opened shop.”
“Did you design the bonnet you are currently wearing? It is most flattering,” Noah complimented with sincerity.
She touched the iridescent ribbon tied beneath her chin in a wide bow. “Yes. I design hats to match the woman’s personality. My own personality is very simple and straightforward. Thus, you see a simply rendered hat, devoid of excessive trim.” She smiled luminously. “I am a very perceptive woman with great powers of observation. For example, you brothers look very much alike and yet I glean differences.”
“Do tell…” Noah urged with a wolfish grin.
“You, Mr. Noah Zane, have an impish quality about you and when you smile, your eyes twinkle and a deep dimple appears on your upper right cheek.” She cocked her head as she observed Noah’s smile create the very dimple upon which she had just commented. “And, you, Mr. Evan Zane, are a more serious personality with a very caring heart. But with a little coaxing I believe you can be as mischievous and naughty as your brother.”
Both brothers laughed heartily.
“I think that you have characterized us perfectly. And please call us by our Christian names.” Evan leaned slightly closer to Isabel as he laughingly confessed, “Many call us the ‘insane’ brothers, not for our spirited ways but for our choice of profession.”
Isabel frowned. “But why should anyone criticize you for your chosen profession?”
“I am the second son and Evan is the third son of an Earl and the members of the peerage believe that we should just live off our inheritance and live a wastrel lifestyle. Evan and I prefer purpose in our lives and help others when we can. But we digress. Please continue telling us why you suspect your cousin, Thomas, of being a brutal killer.”
“Yes, of course.” She paused dramatically before matter-of-factly stating, “It is because of the blood.”