Veronica Speedwell Mystery #4
February 11, 2020
A Dangerous Collaboration
A bride mysteriously disappears on her wedding day in the newest Veronica Speedwell adventure by the New York Times bestselling author of the Lady Julia Grey series.
Lured by the promise of a rare and elusive butterfly, the intrepid Veronica Speedwell is persuaded by Lord Templeton-Vane, the brother of her colleague Stoker, to pose as his fiancée at a house party on a Cornish isle owned by his oldest friend, Malcolm Romilly.
But Veronica soon learns that one question hangs over the party: What happened to Rosamund? Three years ago, Malcolm Romilly’s bride vanished on their wedding day, and no trace of her has ever been found. Now those who were closest to her have gathered, each a possible suspect in her disappearance.
From the poison garden kept by Malcolm’s sister to the high towers of the family castle, the island’s atmosphere is full of shadows, and danger lurks around every corner.
Determined to discover Rosamund’s fate, Veronica and Stoker match wits with a murderer who has already struck once and will not hesitate to kill again.…
Originally published March 2019 in hardcover and eBook.
London, March 1888
“What the devil do you mean you're leaving?” Stoker demanded. He surveyed the half-packed carpetbag on my bed as I folded in a spare shirtwaist and Magalhães's Guide to Portuguese Lepidoptery. It was a weightier volume than one might expect, featuring an appendix devoted to the butterflies of Madeira and certain flamboyant moths found only in the Azores.
“Precisely what I said. I am packing. When I have packed, I will leave this place and board a train for the coast. There I will leave the train and get onto a boat and when it stops at Madeira, I will have arrived.” My tone was frankly waspish. I had dreaded telling Stoker of my plans, expecting some sort of mild explosion at the notion that I had at last secured an expedition, however minor, to which he was not invited. Instead, he had adopted an attitude of Arctic hauteur. I blamed his aristocratic upbringing for that. And his nose. It is very easy to look down on someone with a nose that would have done a Roman emperor justice. But I could not entirely blame him. As natural historians, we had balked at our enforced stay in London, each of us longing for the open seas, skies that stretched to forever, horizons that beckoned us with spice-scented winds. Instead, we had found ourselves employed by the Earl of Rosemorran to catalog his family's extensive collections—interesting and modestly profitable work that stunted the soul if endured for too long. One could count only so many stuffed marmosets before the spirit rebelled. The notion that I was to escape our genial confinement whilst he labored on would have tested the noblest character, and Stoker, like me, bore a healthy streak of self-interest.
“At Madeira?” he asked.
“At Madeira,” I replied firmly.
He folded his arms over the breadth of his chest. “And might one inquire as to the expected duration of this expedition?”
“One might, but one would be disappointed with the reply. I have not yet formulated my plans, but I expect to be away for some months. Perhaps until the autumn.”
“Until the autumn,” he said, drawing out the words slowly.
“Yes. Look for me in the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,” I instructed with a feeble attempt at a smile. But even a nod to his beloved Keats did not soften his austere expression.
“And you mean to go alone.”
“Not at all,” I told him, as I tucked a large pot of cold cream of roses into my bag. “Lady Cordelia and I shall travel together.”
He gave a snort of laughter that was distinctly lacking in amusement. “Lady Cordelia. You know her only experience with shipboard life is the Channel steamer, do you not? Her notion of rough travel is not taking the second footman. And I do not even like to think of what Sidonie will have to say on the matter.”
I winced at the mention of Lady Cordelia's snippy French lady's maid. “She will not be coming.”
His mouth fell agape and he dropped the pose of icy disdain. “Veronica, you cannot be serious. I know you long to shake the fogs of London out of your clothes as much as I do, but dragging Lady Cordelia to some benighted island in the middle of the Atlantic makes no sense at all. You might as well haul her to the North Pole.”
“I should never attempt a polar expedition,” I assured him with a lightness I did not feel. “There are no butterflies to be found there.”
He gripped my shoulders, his thumbs just brushing the tops of my collarbones. “If this is because of what I said earlier today,” he began, “what I almost said—”
I raised a hand. “Of course not.” It was a pathetic attempt at a lie. The truth was that both of us, in an unguarded moment, had very nearly given voice to sentiments we had no business declaring. I could still feel the pressure of his hand, burning like a brand at my waist, as his breath stirred the lock of hair pinned behind my ear, warm and impulsive words trembling on my lips. Had his brother, the Viscount Templeton-Vane, not interrupted us . . .
But no. That line of thought does not bear consideration. The point is quite simply that we were interrupted, and as soon as the viscount left, I had taken tea tête-à-tête with Lady Cordelia, Lord Rosemorran's sister and a good friend to both Stoker and to me. By the time we had shared the last muffin between us, we had decided upon a course of action that we knew would surprise and quite possibly annoy the men in our lives. Lord Rosemorran had behaved with his characteristic good-natured vagueness, offering money to fund the venture and raising objections only when he realized his sister's absence would mean taking care of his own children.
“Call one of the aunts to help you,” Lady C. instructed with unaccustomed ruthlessness. “I am thoroughly exhausted and a holiday is just what I require.”
Lord Rosemorran gave in at once, but Stoker was being bloody-minded as usual, not least because so much hung between us, unsaid but thickening the air until I thought I would never again draw an easy breath.
“It is quite for the best,” I said, forcing the last of my shirtwaists into the bag. “This business with the Tiverton Expedition has been demanding. A little peace and quiet to recover from it will do us both a world of good.”
On the surface, it was a tolerable excuse. The investigation we had just concluded had been harrowing in the extreme, entailing all manner of reckless adventures as well as a few bodily injuries. But Stoker and I throve on such endeavors, matching each other in our acts of derring-do. No, it was not physical exhaustion that drove me from the temperate shores of England, gentle reader. It was the recent entanglement with Stoker's former wife, Caroline de Morgan, a fiend in petticoats who had very nearly destroyed him with her machinations. I longed to repay her in kind. But I had learnt long ago that revenge is a fruitless pursuit, and so I left Caroline to the fates, trusting she would see her just deserts in time. Stoker was my concern—specifically the powerful emotions he stirred within me and what, precisely, I was going to do about them. It seemed impossible to assess them with the cool and dispassionate eye of a scientist whilst we were so often together. After all, a proper examination of a butterfly did not take place in the field; one captured the specimen and took it away to regard it carefully, holding it up to the light and accepting its flaws as well as its beauties. So I meant to do with my feelings for Stoker, although that intention was certainly not one I meant to share with him. Knowing how deeply he had been wounded by Caroline, I could have no hand in hurting him further.
Luckily for me, Lady Cordelia had been desperate, insistent upon getting right away, and I seized upon her invitation with alacrity, determined to make my escape without revealing our purposes, even to Stoker.
“I daresay I will have nothing more interesting to write about than butterflies, so do not be surprised if I am a poor correspondent,” I warned him. “You needn't trouble to write if it bores you. I am sure you will have far more interesting activities to occupy your time. I am sorry if it leaves you in a bit of a lurch with the collections,” I finished, buckling the carpetbag.
“I will manage quite well alone,” he replied as he turned away, his expression carefully blank. “I always have.”
As he no doubt intended, Stoker's parting words haunted me for the better part of six months. Madeira was beautiful, lush and fragrant and offering tremendous opportunities for my work as a lepidopterist. But more times than I cared to admit, whilst hotly in pursuit of a sweet little Lampides boeticus flapping lazily in a flower-scented breeze, I paused, letting the net drop uselessly to my side. Articles for the various publications to which I contributed went unwritten, my pen resting in a stilled hand while my mind roamed free. Every time, my thoughts went to him, like pigeons darting home to roost. And every time, I wrenched them away, never permitting myself to think too long of him for the same reason a child learns not to hold her hand too close to a flame.
In the summer, when the late-blooming jacaranda poured the honeyed musk of its perfume over the island, it was necessary—for various reasons I shall not detail here—to call in the doctor to attend both Lady Cordelia and me. By the time we had regained our strength, half a year had passed and our thoughts turned to England once more. Long afternoons had been spent upon the veranda of our rented villa as we rested like basking lizards in the sun. We were both slimmer than we had been when we set out. Lady Cordelia's pale milk skin had gathered a cinnamon dusting of freckles in spite of her veils and broad brims, but I had tossed my hat aside, turning my face up to the golden rays.
“You look the picture of health,” she told me as we boarded the boat in the port of Funchal. “No one would ever imagine you had been under a doctor's care.”
I plucked at the loose waist of my traveling suit. “You think not? I am skin and bone, and you are little better. But some good Devonshire cream and plates of English roast beef will see us right again,” I assured her.
Absently, she linked her arm with mine. “Do you think they have missed us?”
“The frequency of their letters would suggest so.” Frequency was not quite the word. Every mail ship had brought fresh correspondence. The earl and his children had written regularly to Lady Cordelia, and I had received my share of the post as well. Colleagues in lepidoptery had much to say, and there were weekly letters from Lord Templeton-Vane, Stoker's elder brother. He wrote in a casual, conversational style of current affairs and common interests, and as the months passed, we became better friends than we had been before.
And from Stoker? Not a single word. Not one line, scribbled on a grubby postcard. Not a postscript scrawled on one of his brother's letters. Nothing but silence, eloquent and rebuking. I was conscious of a profound and thoroughly irrational sense of injury. I had made it clear to him that I did not intend to write letters and expected none. And yet. Every post that arrived with no missive from him was a taunt, speaking his anger as eloquently as any words might have done. I had sowed the seed of this quarrel, I reminded myself sternly; I could not now complain that I did not like the fruit it bore.
And as I stood arm in arm with Lady Cordelia on the deck of the ship bearing us home, I wondered precisely what sort of welcome I could expect.
“What in the name of seven hells do you mean you want to 'borrow' Miss Speedwell? She's not an umbrella, for God's sake,” Stoker grumbled to his eldest brother as the viscount entered our workroom. (Such demands often comprised the bulk of Stoker's conversation; I had learnt to ignore them.) “Besides which, she has only been home for two days. I very much doubt she has even unpacked.”
Lord Templeton-Vane bared his teeth in what a stupid person might have mistaken for a smile. “Stoker, how delightful to see you. I hadn't noticed you behind that water buffalo's backside. Perfecting your trade, no doubt,” he mused as he looked from the moldering buffalo trophy to the pile of rotten sawdust Stoker was busy extracting. As a natural historian, Stoker's lot was often the restoration of thoroughly foul specimens of the taxidermic arts. The backside of a water buffalo was far from the worst place I had seen Stoker's head.
His lordship clicked his tongue as he gave Stoker a dismissive glance. “Besides which, I hardly think Miss Speedwell requires assistance in arranging her affairs.” He lingered on the last word just a heartbeat too long. The viscount had a gift for silken suggestions, and I suppressed a sigh of irritation that he had exercised it just then. Stoker and I had scarcely spoken since my return, exchanging cool greetings and meaningless chatter about our work. But I had hopes of a thaw provided the viscount did not scupper the possibility.
I looked up from the tray of Nymphalidae I was sorting and gave them both a repressive stare. “I am not your nanny, but if required, I will put either of you over my knee,” I warned them.
Stoker, who topped me by half a foot and some forty pounds, pulled a face. His brother's response was slightly salacious. He lifted an exquisite brow and sighed. “One could only wish,” he murmured.
I ignored that remark and brushed off my hands, putting my butterflies aside. “My lord,” I said to the viscount, “before you explain further, perhaps we might have a little refreshment.”
His lordship looked pained. “I abhor tea parties,” he protested.
It was my turn to snort. “Not that sort of tea.” With Stoker's grudging consent, I retrieved a bottle of his best single malt and poured out a measure for each of us. We settled in and I studied my companions. In certain respects, they could not have been more different, yet in others they were startlingly similar. They shared the fine bone structure of their mother; from high cheekbones and determined jaws to elegant hands they were alike. It was in coloring and musculature that they varied. While his lordship was sleek as an otter, Stoker's muscles, honed by his long years of work as a natural historian and explorer, were heavier and altogether more impressive. He made good use of them as he worked on the mounts that would form the basis of the Rosemorran Collection. Whilst we sorted the family's accumulated treasures from centuries of travel, the earl had given us the use of the Belvedere, the grand freestanding ballroom on his Marylebone estate, as well as living quarters, modest salaries, and a few other perquisites such as entertaining visitors when we chose.
Stoker, as it happened, was not entirely pleased with our current caller. His relationship with his eldest brother was difficult at the best of times, and it was apparent from his lordship's expression of feline forbearance that he was rather less inclined than usual to tolerate Stoker's bad temper. Stoker, for his part, was determined to play the hedgehog, snarling with his prickles out.
The viscount gestured expansively towards the specimen Stoker had been stitching when he arrived. “Why don't you go and play with your buffalo? I have business with Miss Speedwell.”
Stoker curled his lip and I hastened to intervene before bloodshed broke out. “Poorly played, my lord. You know that Stoker and I are colleagues and friends. Anything you have to say to me can be said freely in front of him.” I had hoped this little demonstration of loyalty would settle Stoker's hackles, but his mood did not change.
The viscount's expression turned gently mocking. “Colleagues and friends! How very tepid,” he said blandly. He took a deep draft of his whisky while Stoker and I studiously avoided looking at one another. Our investigative pursuits, invariably dangerous and thoroughly enjoyable, had drawn us together, forcing a trust neither of us entirely welcomed. We were solitary creatures, Stoker and I, but we had discovered a mutual understanding beyond anything we had shared with others. What would become of it, I could not say. In spite of six months' distance, I still thought often of that last significant meeting, when words had hung unspoken but understood in the air. I had alternately cursed and congratulated myself on my narrow escape from possible domesticity—a fate I regarded as less desirable than a lengthy bout of bubonic plague. I had been so near to making declarations that could not be undone, offering promises I was not certain I could keep. My vow never to be relegated to the roles of wife and mother had been tested during a moment of vulnerability. Stoker was the only man I knew who could have weakened my resolve, but it would have been a mistake, I insisted to myself. I was not made for a life of ordinary pursuits, and it would take an extraordinary man to live with me on my terms. It was a point of pride with me that I hunted men with the same alacrity and skill that I hunted butterflies. Only one sort of permanent trophy interested me—and that had wings. Men were a joy to sample, but a mate would be a complication I could not abide. At least, this is what I told myself, and it was perhaps this elusiveness that made me all the more attractive to the opposite sex.
His lordship included. He was lavishly lascivious in his praise, his conversation usually peppered with deliciously outrageous comments. I never took him seriously, but Stoker took him too seriously, and that was the root of their current lack of sympathy with one another. Like stags, they frequently locked horns, and although neither would admit it, I suspected they enjoyed their battles far more than they did the civil affections they shared with their other brothers.
Stoker was glowering at the viscount, who held up a hand, the signet ring of the Templeton-Vanes gleaming upon his left hand. “Peace, brother mine. I can feel you cursing me.”
“And yet still you breathe,” Stoker said mildly. “I must not be doing it right.”
I rolled my eyes heavenwards. “Stoker, behave or remove yourself, I beg you. I still do not know the purpose of his lordship's call.” “I do not require a reason except that of admiration,” his lordship said with practiced smoothness. Stoker made a growling noise low in his throat while his brother carried on, pretending not to hear. “I missed you during your sojourn abroad, my dear. And, as it happens, I do have business. Well, business for you, dear lady, but pleasure for me.” “Go on,” I urged. “Tell me, Miss Speedwell, in all your travels around this beautiful blue orb of ours, have you ever encountered the Romilly Glasswing butterfly?” “Oleria romillia? Certainly not. It was as elusive as Rajah Brooke's Birdwing and twice as valuable. It is unfortunately now extinct. I have only ever seen one preserved specimen in a private collection and it was in dreadful condition.”
The viscount held up a hand. “Not entirely extinct, as it happens.”
My heart began to thump solidly within my chest as a warm flush rose to my cheeks. “What do you mean?”
“I mean that there are still specimens in the wild. Do you know the origins of the name?”
I recited the facts as promptly and accurately as a schoolgirl at her favorite lesson. “Oleria romillia was named for Euphrosyne Romilly, one of the greatest lepidopterists in our nation's history. She founded the West Country Aurelian Society, the foremost body of butterfly hunters in Britain until it merged with the Royal Society of Aurelian Studies in 1852. She discovered this particular lasswing on the coast of Cornwall.”
“Off the coast of Cornwall,” the viscount corrected. “As it happens, the Romillys own an island there, St. Maddern, just out from the little port town of Pencarron.”
“A tidal island?” I asked. “Like St. Michael's Mount?” The Mount was one of Cornwall's most famous attractions, rising out of the sea in a shaft of grey stone, reaching ever upwards from its narrow foundation. On sunny days it was overrun with parties of picnickers and seaside tourists and other undesirables.
The viscount shook his head. “Not precisely. St. Michael's is accessible on foot via a causeway whilst St. Maddern's Isle is a little further out to sea and significantly larger than the Mount. There are extensive gardens as well as a village, farms, a few shops, a quarry, even an inn for the occasional traveler seeking solitude and peace. It is a unique place, with all sorts of legends and faery stories, none of which interest me in the slightest, so I cannot recall them. What I do recall is that the Romilly Glasswing makes its home upon this island, and nowhere else in the world. And this has been an excellent year for them. They have appeared in record numbers, I am told, and they dot the island like so many flowers.”
I caught my breath, my lips parted as if anticipating a kiss. Nothing left me in such a heightened state of expectancy than the thought of finding a butterfly I had never before seen in the wild. And glasswings! The most unique of all the butterflies, they traveled on wings as transparent as Cinderella's slipper. Ordinary butterflies derive their color from scales, infinitesimally small and carrying all the colors of the rainbow within them, reflecting back the jewel tones associated with the most magnificent butterflies. Moths and more restrained specimens of butterfly have scales with softly powdered hues, but the most arresting sight is by far the butterfly without any scales at all. The wings of these butterflies are crystalline in their clearness, patterned only with narrow black veins like the leaded glass of a cathedral window, the thinnest of membranes stretching between them. It seems impossible that they can fly, but they do, like shards of glass borne upon the wind. Their unique wings make them delicate and elusive, and the Romilly Glasswing was the most delicate and elusive of all. The largest of the glasswings, an adult Romilly could span a man's hand if he were lucky enough to catch one. I lusted for them as I had lusted for little else in my life. But it was no use to me.
I forced a smile to my lips. “How kind of you to share this information,” I said in a toneless voice. “But I no longer hunt, my lord. My specimens from Madeira were all gathered after their natural demise. I have lost the drive to thrust a pin into the heart of a living creature. My efforts are directed towards the vivarium that Lord Rosemorran is graciously permitting me to develop on the estate.”
Once the derelict wreck of a grand freestanding glasshouse, the vivarium had been my own pet project, undertaken at Stoker's suggestion. While he tinkered happily with bits of fur and bone and sawdust, I had been permitted to stock the restored structure with exotic trees and the larvae of a number of specimens. I had nurtured them carefully as any mother, bringing several species to life in my bejeweled little world.
“You should know that better than anyone,” I reminded the viscount. “You were kind enough to send me a grove of hornbeams and luna moths to feast upon them.”
The viscount crossed one long leg over the other, smoothing the crease in his trousers. “I remember it well. You gave me quite the education upon the subject of the luna moth. What was it you said? That they have no mouths because they exist only to reproduce? One is not certain whether to regard them with envy or pity.”
He arched a brow at me and I gave him a quelling look. “Precisely,” I told him, my voice crisp. “And while I am glad to hear the Romilly Glasswing is not extinct, I must leave its pursuit to others.”
The words pained me. I had only within the last year discovered in myself a reluctance to carry on my life's work as I had always known it. The pursuit of the butterfly had given my existence meaning and pleasure, but it had dried up for reasons I did not entirely understand. Madeira had been an experiment after a fashion, a short expedition to test my mettle. And I had failed to conquer my reluctance to kill. The few inadequate specimens I had brought back had made the entire affair pointless and I could not justify further expeditions if I had no better expectations than the results I had achieved there. It chilled me to think that I might never strike out again, net in hand, for foreign climes and exotic lands. The notion of being forever immured in Britain, this too-often grey and sodden isle, was more than I could bear. So I did not think of it. I pushed the thought away whenever it occurred, but it had crept back over and over again as our ship had neared England, returning me to the complacent little life I had built within these walls. It teased the edge of my consciousness as I drifted off to sleep each night, that little demanding voice from a place that longed for adventure. What if this is all there is?
Stoker grasped his lordship's meaning before I did. “Tiberius does not mean you to hunt them,” he said quietly. “He has found you larvae. For the vivarium.”
I smothered a moan of longing. “Have you?” I demanded.
His lordship laughed, a low and throaty chuckle of pure amusement. “My dear Miss Speedwell, how you delight me. I have indeed secured permission from the current owner of St. Maddern's Isle, Malcolm Romilly, for you to take a certain number of larvae for your collection. While not a lepidopterist himself, he is an ardent protector of every bit of flora and fauna unique to his island, and he believes that if the glasswing is to survive, there must be a population elsewhere as a sort of insurance policy.”
My mind raced with the possibilities. “What do they eat?”
The viscount shrugged. “Some shrub whose name escapes me, but Malcolm did say that you might take a number of the plants with you in order to make the transition to London as painless as possible for the little devils. Now, I am bound for St. Maddern's Isle for a house party to which Malcolm has invited me. It seems only natural that we should combine our purposes and I should escort you to the castle.”
“What a splendid notion,” Stoker put in smoothly. “We should love to go.”
“Stoker,” the viscount said firmly, “you are not invited to the castle.”
“Castle!” I exclaimed. “Is it really so grand as that?”
His lordship favored me with one of his enigmatic smiles. “It is small, as castles go, but it is at least interesting. Lots of hidden passages and dungeons and that sort of thing.”
“What of ghosts?” I demanded archly. “I won't go unless there is a proper ghost.”
The viscount's eyes widened in a flash of something like alarm before he recovered himself. “I can promise you all manner of adventures,” he said.
I could scarcely breathe for excitement. Stoker gave me a long look as he drained the last of his whisky, put down his glass, and walked silently back to his buffalo.
His brother leaned closer, pitching his voice low. “Someone is not very pleased with us.”
“Someone can mind his own business,” I said fiercely. “I am going to St. Maddern's Isle.”
“Excellent,” said Lord Templeton-Vane, his feline smile firmly in place. “Most excellent indeed.”
“He means to seduce you, you know,” Stoker said after the viscount had left. He was removing rotten sawdust from the badly mounted water buffalo, punctuating his words with vigorous gestures and showering the floor and himself with the smelly tendrils of moldering wood. He had stripped off his shirt as was his custom when he worked, but the nasty stuff had stuck to his tumbled black curls and the sweat streaking the long, hard muscles of his back and arms. I paused for a moment, as I always did when Stoker was in a state of undress, to admire the view. I had given him the better part of an hour to master his temper, but it seemed it had not been enough. I adopted a tone of generally cheerful reasonability.
“Of course he does,” I agreed.
He stopped and fixed me with a disbelieving stare. “You know that?”
I sighed. “Stoker, I am twenty-six years of age. I have traveled around the world three times, and I have met scores of men, some of whom I have known far more intimately than you can imagine. I promise you, I can smell a burgeoning seduction from across the room. I am no fainting virgin,” I reminded him.
“Then why in the name of bleeding Jesus are you going with him?”
“He promised me Romilly Glasswings,” I said simply.
“And that is all it takes? Bought with a butterfly?” he said in a particularly harsh tone.
“Oooh, how nasty you can be when you are sulking,” I observed.
He turned to his buffalo, wrenching out the sawdust in great, choking clouds. The original taxidermist had thrown in whatever he could to absorb moisture—sawdust, newspaper, bits of cloth. The stuffing had made cozy nest material for all manner of rodents. Tiny bones flew through the air with horrifying regularity as Stoker worked in a frenzy. After a few moments, he stopped.
“I am not sulking. I am concerned,” he told me, his voice soft and gentle now, but the words clipped at the end, as if admitting them caused him pain.
“I can take care of myself.”
“That is what I am afraid of.”
“I will not be gone long. His lordship and I settled the details before he left—a fortnight at most.”
He nodded, his witch black hair gleaming in the lamplight. I waited for him to rouse himself to temper again, waited for the inevitable repetitious clash of wills, but it did not come. When Stoker and I disagreed, a frequent occurrence if I am honest, it was a thing of beauty—volcanic and ferocious. I took it as a mark of the highest affection and respect that he fought with me as he would a man, and I gave him no quarter either. Our rows were legendary on the Marylebone estate, with frequent wagers amongst the staff as to which of us would prevail. (The safest bet, I need not reveal, was always upon me.)
But this time Stoker simply refused to rise to the occasion. I knew he was angry at his brother's presumption. Any invitation or gift that had come from the viscount in the past had been met with rage on Stoker's part. The skeletons in their cupboard of childhood troubles danced vigorously. The viscount's overtures were intrusions, Stoker believed, encroachments on something he held dear and that belonged to him—me. Even though our relationship had not progressed past a firm friendship and perfect companionship, he resented any attempt by the viscount to win me to his side. I anticipated our quarrels on these occasions. I enjoyed them. But this time, Stoker merely worked at his buffalo, his jaw set and his gaze averted.
“Well, I suppose I ought to pack,” I said finally. “We leave in the morning. His lordship wants to take the early train from Waterloo.”
“Don't forget your hot-water bottle,” he said, baring his teeth in a ghastly impression of his brother's smile. “I should hate for you to get cold in the night.”
I returned the smile. “Do not worry on that account,” I told him. “I know well enough how to keep warm.”
I rose in good time the next morning, fairly fizzing with anticipation as I washed and dressed and gulped a hasty breakfast. Is there any feeling as delicious as the beginning of a new adventure? To be perched upon the precipice of a fresh endeavor, poised for flight, the winds of change ruffling the feathers, ah, that is what it means to be alive! I glanced around my quarters, but to me they had assumed an air of emptiness. Everything I truly cared about was packed into my carpetbag; the rest was merely trappings. I gathered two last items for the journey—the latest installment of the adventures of Arcadia Brown, Lady Detective, and the tiny grey velvet mouse I had carried since infancy. Wherever I had ventured in the world, from the misty foothills of the Andean mountains to the lush islands of the South Pacific, Chester had been my constant companion. He was a little the worse for wear these days, his velvet thinning in some places and one of his black-bead eyes a trifle loose. But I would have sooner traveled without my head than without my stalwart little companion.
I stepped outside and drew in great breaths of morning air, but not even the choking soot of London could stifle my elation. At my feet, the dogs—Stoker's bulldog, Huxley, and Lord Rosemorran's Caucasian sheepdog, Betony—romped along as I made my way to the Belvedere to take my leave of Stoker. He was already there, immured once more in his buffalo. To my acute disappointment, he wore a shirt, and his usually disordered locks were rather neater than was their habit.
“Good morning,” I said in a cordial tone as I rummaged in a biscuit barrel for a few scraps to throw the dogs. They quarreled over the largest—a bit of moose antler from the Canadian wilderness—before Huxley surrendered it as a courtship gift to Bet. She rolled ecstatically on the ground, waving her enormous paws in the air and upsetting a model of the Golden Hind made out of walnuts as Huxley watched, his deep chest puffed out proudly.
Stoker merely grunted by way of reply.
“I am leaving, then.”
He withdrew his head from the buffalo. He appeared tired, and he was wearing his eye patch, a certain sign that he had fatigued himself. It was a reminder of an accident he had suffered in the Amazon that had nearly taken his eye and his life. He still bore a slender silver scar that ran from brow to cheek, and from time to time, he had recourse to the black patch to rest his weaker eye. I never minded as—coupled with the golden rings in his lobes—it gave him the look of a buccaneer. A rather bored buccaneer at present. His expression was bland as he gave me a casual glance. “Oh? Pleasant journey.”
He resumed his task and I stared at him, slack-jawed. I had expected an argument. I had depended upon it. There were few things I enjoyed more, and a set-to with Stoker was just the thing to cap my ebullient mood. The fact that the past few days had seen us somewhat at odds with one another made me all the keener to resume our usual banter. After six months with no word from him, I had anticipated a row to shake the rafters upon my return. Instead he had been blandly cordial, unreachable even, and his apathy goaded me far more effectively than any display of temper might have done.
“Is that it?” I demanded. “No dire warnings about your brother's wandering hands? No glowering silences or raging tantrums?”
He backed out of the buffalo again, his expression inscrutable. “My dear Veronica, you must make up your mind. Do you want silence or savagery? You cannot have both.”
Ordinarily such a remark would be heavily larded with sarcasm, his rage barely held in check. But this time there was only that maddening calm, a newfound self-possession I could not prick. If he meant to wound me he could have chosen no sharper blade than indifference.
“You are quite right,” I remarked acidly. “Do forgive the interruption. I'll let you get on with your buffalo. I expect to be back in a fortnight. If I am not it's because I eloped with your brother to Gretna Green.”
His sangfroid never slipped. He merely smiled and returned to his specimen, calling over his shoulder, “Mind you ask for separate lodgings. He snores like a fiend.”
Silence dropped between us with all the finality of a stage curtain. That was it, then. I turned on my heel and left him without a backwards look. Carpetbag firmly in hand, I strode to the front of Bishop's Folly, admiring the unholy muddle of architectural styles that had been assembled courtesy of several generations of Rosemorran earls. The Folly was well-named, for there was not a builder's fancy that had been omitted—buttresses, vaults, towers, crenelations, the Folly boasted them all. Just as I rounded the corner, the great front door swung back and Lady Wellingtonia Beauclerk, the present earl's great-aunt, emerged, calling a greeting. I paused to give her a smile.
“I am so glad you happened to come out,” I told her. “I had no chance to say good-bye.”
“It was not happenstance,” she said as she came down the short flight of stone steps to the drive of loose chipping. “I was looking for you. I've not yet welcomed you back from Madeira and here you are off again, like one of your pretty butterflies.” Her tone was light but her eyes were shrewd. “One might even think you were running away from something.”
I gave an involuntary glance back at the Belvedere, where Stoker still labored. “Don't be absurd, Lady Wellie.”
“Are you certain there is nothing you would like to share with an old woman?” she prodded, lifting her walking stick to gesture vaguely in the direction of my person.
“Absolutely not,” I returned.
She did not bridle at the sharpness of my tone. She was obviously preoccupied as she brandished a newspaper at me. I could not quite read the headlines, but the text was enormous and the story clearly lurid.
“Have you seen the newspapers? This Whitechapel murderer business is whipping up hysteria.”
“I'm afraid I have heard nothing.”
Her brows raised. “Lucky you. Prostitutes in the East End, child. Someone has been ripping them up and all of Scotland Yard has been thrown into tumult.”
I thought of our previous involvement with the Yard and the head of Special Branch in particular. “Poor Sir Hugo,” I said lightly. “He must be keeping busy.”
She gave me a narrow look. “It is not just on Hugo to solve these atrocities,” she replied with a firmness that belied her eighty-plus years. “It is a national disgrace to have this monster stalking our streets and our police force unable to apprehend him. England ought to be better than this.”
In Lady Wellie's estimation, the Empire was the center of the universe and England the center of the Empire. Nothing else mattered but this blessed isle. The whole of her father's life and hers had been devoted to its service, secretly, as each had fulfilled the function of an éminence grise, the power behind the royal family, always guiding, protecting, shielding, not for love of the family themselves but for love of the land and people they governed. Her blood was red as St. George's Cross. She was, without doubt, the most patriotic individual I had ever known, and she was not above using anyone or anything in order to serve her goals. She was ruthless and hard-edged, and when she smiled, it was a crocodile's smile, full of guile. I quite liked her, if I am honest, but that morning I was eager to be on my way.
Her shrewd dark eyes missed nothing. “I know you want to be off. I'll not keep you. But tell me where you mean to be in case I should like to write to you.”
I rattled off the castle's address, watching as she pursed her lips. “Malcolm Romilly's place. I knew his grandfather. Waltzed with him at Victoria's coronation ball. He trod on my toes, but he was a very good kisser. Quite a skillful tongue,” she said with a dreamy look.
I smiled in spite of myself and pressed her hand. “Good day, Lady Wellie.”
She lifted a withered hand. “Godspeed, child.”
His lordship and I had arranged to meet at Waterloo Station, and I very nearly missed him in the teeming throng of travelers that balmy late September morning. The platforms were heaving with people of every description, starched nannies with their screaming charges, turbaned gentlemen making their way with courtly elegance past nut sellers, and pale, thin girls selling the last of the summer flowers, bawling out their wares in harsh cries to make themselves heard above the plump matrons offering meat pies for the journey. Through them all strode City men of business in their pinstriped rectitude, discreetly ogling the aristocratic ladies gliding past without glancing to the left or right, little dogs and ladies' maids trotting in their wake.
The viscount found me at last. “Miss Speedwell,” he said, coming to my side with long strides that earned the admiration of more than one passing lady. “I was beginning to despair of ever finding you in this melee. Come, I have secured our compartment and the porter will see to your bags.”
A very upright porter with the posture of a broom handle took my bag from my hand and gave me a searching look. “Shall I wait for the lady's maid, my lord?” he asked the viscount.
Lord Templeton-Vane waved him off. “Miss Speedwell is a modern lady. She does not travel with a maid.”
If his lordship had told the man I intended to travel stark naked with a pumpkin on my head, he could not have looked more appalled. He swallowed hard and gave a half bow that was both respectful and condescending. “Very good, my lord.”
“And I will carry my own bag, thank you,” I said, retrieving my carpetbag with a gesture that brooked no argument.
He gave a little sniff—offended either at my intransigence or the fact that he would see no tip from me—before drawing himself up to his full height and turning to the viscount. “In that case I will bid you a happy journey, my lord. The hamper and your small case are in the compartment and your larger bags are marked for Pencarron and stowed in the luggage van. Good day, sir,” he finished with a hopeful look at the viscount. His lordship obliged him with a substantial coin and the fellow gave me a dismissive look as he strode away.
The viscount turned to me. “My dear Miss Speedwell, two minutes in and already you are causing a scandal. Whatever shall I do with you?”
I did not trouble myself to reply. He offered his arm and we were soon comfortably established in our private compartment. As the train drew from the station in great gusts of steam, he settled back against his seat, regarding me thoughtfully. “I suppose I ought to have considered better the impropriety of our traveling together,” he said.
I shrugged. “I am no stranger to impropriety. It troubles me not in the slightest,” I assured him. “After all, I work for a living. I am hardly a lady.”
His handsome upper lip quirked into an effort at a smile. “And yet you speak with such distinction and your manner and gestures are thoroughly elegant. Tell me, Miss Speedwell, how did you come to be?”
The tone was casual but the gaze that fell upon me was watchful. It occurred to me then that his lordship might have penetrated the truth about my identity. It was an imperfectly kept secret at best. Stoker knew, as did their second brother, Sir Rupert, along with an assortment of government officials, a few Irish malcontents, and our own royal family. Being the semi-legitimate daughter of the Prince of Wales came with a few drawbacks, not least the lack of recognition from my own blood relations. I had made my own way in the world, no thanks to them, but I concealed my birth from prying eyes. Permitting my story to become publicly known would rock the monarchy, I had been warned, although they needn't have bothered. I had as little desire to be pestered and fussed over as they had of being deposed. The fact that one villain had already attempted to put a crown upon my head was enough to convince me that the life of royalty was not for me.
But the question I pondered now was how much of this Lord Templeton-Vane knew. I gave him a noncommittal smile. “It is a dreadfully dull story, I'm afraid. My mother died when I was a year old and I never knew my father.” That much was true, strictly speaking. “I was brought up by two of my mother's friends, a pair of spinster sisters who were like aunts. One of them encouraged my interest in lepidoptery, and I discovered that I could make a comfortable living with my net as well as see the world,” I finished lightly.
His lordship said nothing for a long moment. “I think you underestimate how interesting a person you are,” he remarked finally.
“I have always said that it is interesting people who find others interesting.”
“And how neatly you turn my observation to a compliment! That takes real skill.”
“I am merely observant—as are you, my lord.”
He canted his head, a gesture I had seen Stoker perform a thousand times. “I think that we have progressed beyond 'Miss Speedwell' and 'my lord.' I would take it as a mark of generosity on your part if you would address me as Tiberius.”
“Very well. If you wish.”
“I do. Veronica,” he replied, drawing out the syllables as if reciting an incantation. Without warning, his expression darkened.
“Is there something wrong?”
He shook his head. “Not precisely. But I have taken a liberty of which you might not approve. You see, I remembered only this morning that Malcolm Romilly is a Roman Catholic, rather a fussy one. He would not approve of my traveling with a young lady unchaperoned.”
“I am hardly a young lady!” I protested.
“Young enough,” the viscount corrected with a wry twist of the lips. “And delectable to boot. No, I'm afraid Malcolm's sensibilities might be offended and we can't have that. But I realized a little polite fiction might smooth the path. He could hardly think it amiss if we travel together as an affianced couple.”
I blinked. “You want me to pose as your fiancée?”
“Yes,” he said, obviously relishing the idea. “That small pretense will serve us quite nicely.”
“I hardly think it necessary,” I protested.
“Oh, but it is,” he told me with an unmistakable air of satisfaction. “Malcolm can be a stickler about such things. What if he took offense and decided to withdraw his offer of the glasswing larvae? How dreadfully disappointing that would be.” His voice trailed off suggestively, letting the insinuation do its work.
I had, as he had known, no choice. “I will not lose the glasswings,” I said forcefully.
“Then we are in agreement,” he said, settling back with a broad smile. “And you will naturally forgive me for taking the precaution of sending a wire to our host with that information just before we departed.” Before I could respond, he gestured with an elegant hand, imperious as Jove. “Now, if you will reach into the hamper beside you, you will find a bottle of rather good champagne. I think a toast is in order.”
The next hours passed in a haze of succulent food and drink and amiable company as the viscount and I talked and laughed and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. The champagne was not the only delight to be found in the hamper. His lordship—or Tiberius as I had been instructed to think of him—had laid in a supply of delicacies to last the better part of a week.
“I thought the journey was to be completed by nightfall,” I told him as I helped myself to a tiny pie with a featherlight crust and a filling of herbed chicken.
“And so it should be, but there is no reason for us to deny ourselves as much pleasure as possible along the way,” he remarked. I might have taken that for a proposition, but he merely selected a sandwich of the thinnest, whitest bread filled with slivers of perfectly roasted beef and lashings of horseradish sauce. “Divine,” he pronounced.
“You have a crumb upon your lip,” I told him. He put out his tongue in search of it and missed. Laughing, I moved forward and touched my fingertip to the corner of his mouth. I had not considered the intimacy of such an action. It was the sort of thing I might have done to Stoker, and I had come to enjoy a similar although less intense rapport with the viscount.
But if I was slow to appreciate the familiarity of the gesture, Tiberius was not. He held my gaze with his, all mockery fallen away as he leant forward. He parted his lips, taking my finger into his mouth as he removed the crumb. His eyes locked with mine, he gave a gentle suck, and I felt the blood beat in my veins.
He released my finger and sat back with a slow, deliberate smile. “Delicious. As I suspected it would be,” he told me. And I knew he did not mean the crumb.
For the rest of the journey—and make no mistake, to travel from London to the tip of Cornwall takes hours—the viscount behaved with almost perfect decorum. He still made the odd remark that might have been construed as inappropriate by Society's standards, but nothing that imperiled my virtue, slight as it was. And he did not touch me again. Instead he applied himself to my comfort, insisting upon opening the window when the compartment grew stuffy and asking intelligent and penetrating questions about lepidoptery. I was no fool. I was familiar enough with the machinations of men to know when I was being catechized simply so that a gentleman might appear to marvel at my accomplishments thereby endearing himself to me. But Tiberius was more skilled than most. I almost believed that he was sincerely impressed with the breadth of my knowledge.
Almost. To test him, I spent the better part of an hour describing the Gypsy moth in exhaustive detail. If I am honest, which I have sworn to be within these pages, I will admit that I embroidered most of the facts and invented some out of whole cloth. Throughout my recitation, he kept his expression attentive and even offered thoughtful comments from time to time.
“You don't say,” he remarked at one point. “The Gypsy moth has a furry tail and feeds solely on Madagascar lizards. How frightfully interesting.”
“No, it isn't,” I corrected. “Because I made it up. Lymantria dispar do not have furry tails, nor do they eat lizards. No moth does. I was merely testing your ability to pretend to be interested. It is a prodigious skill, my lord. You lasted fifty-seven minutes.”
He looked aggrieved, then smiled. “You were supposed to call me Tiberius,” he reminded me.
“And you have no need for this pretense. Why play at being interested in moths, of all things?” I asked.
“I am not interested in moths,” he admitted. “But I am interested in you.”
“That,” I told him without a blush, “is entirely apparent.”
He sat forward, hands resting upon his knees. They were good hands, like Stoker's, beautifully shaped, although Tiberius' were unstained by chemicals and glues and the various other nasty things that habitually fouled Stoker's. These hands were strong and clean, the nails trimmed and the moons stark white.
“You have never done a day's work with those hands,” I told him.
“No, but I've done many a night's,” he said, reaching one out to cup my cheek.
“My lord,” I began.
“Tiberius,” he reminded me, leaning forward still further until his name was a breath across my lips. I was just trying to make up my mind whether to let him kiss me—the viscount was after all a very handsome man—or to give him a polite shove, when the train jerked to a stop, flinging him backwards onto his seat.
“Oh, look. We've arrived in Exeter,” I said brightly.
 A Treacherous Curse
 As related in A Curious Beginning, A Perilous Undertaking, and A Treacherous Curse.
© Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2018 Deanna Raybourn
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- Tiberius brings Veronica to the island under false pretenses. Why does he hide the full truth? Do you think she would have come if he had been honest from the beginning?
- St. Maddern’s Isle is a unique setting. How does Mertensia’s poison garden add to the atmosphere? How does it add to her role as a healer?
- Malcolm seems unable to move forward with his life as long as Rosamund’s disappearance remains a mystery. How important is closure in moving on?
- Rosamund chose practicality and security over a dangerous love that would have threatened her emotional independence. Was she right to do so? Would you?
- Caspian and Mertensia are possible heirs to the island. Which of them would be more suitable to assume control of St. Maddern’s? Why?
- Mertensia feels Rosamund usurped her role on the island. In what ways did she do so? What recourse would Mertensia have had if Rosamund had been mistress of St. Maddern’s?
- Veronica and Helena have both been forced to earn a living but have chosen different paths. How do their choices reflect the limitations on Victorian women?
- Stoker risks a tremendous sacrifice. Was it for Tiberius or Veronica? Or both? How would you characterize his relationship with them?
- Was justice served in the end? Do all villains need to be brought before the law or is nature’s justice as valid?
- How will Stoker and Veronica’s relationship develop after their return to London?