Veronica Speedwell Mysteries #2
September 19, 2017
Available in: Audio, e-Book, Trade Size (reprint)
A Perilous Undertaking
Now in paperback, the “wickedly clever and devilishly amusing” (Susan Elia MacNeal) Veronica Speedwell returns for a rousing adventure from Deanna Raybourn, the New York Times bestselling author of the Lady Julia Grey Mysteries.
London, 1887. At the Curiosity Club, a ladies-only establishment for daring and intrepid women, Victorian adventuress Veronica Speedwell meets the mysterious Lady Sundridge, who begs her to take on an impossible task—saving society art patron Miles Ramsforth from execution. Ramsforth, accused of the brutal murder of his mistress, Artemisia, will face the hangman’s noose in a week’s time if the real killer is not found.
But Lady Sundridge is not all that she seems, and unmasking her true identity is only the first of many secrets Veronica must uncover. Together with her natural-historian colleague, Stoker, Veronica races against time to find the true murderer. From a Bohemian artists’ colony to a royal palace to a subterranean grotto with a decadent history, the investigation proves to be a very perilous undertaking indeed….
Originally published January 2017 in hardcover.
London, September 1887
“For the love of all that is holy, Veronica, the object is to maim or kill, not tickle,” Stoker informed me, clipping the words sharply as he handed me a knife. “Do it again.”
I suppressed a sigh and took the knife, grasping it lightly as I had been taught. I faced the target, staring it down as if it were an approaching lion.
“You are thinking too much.” Stoker folded his arms over the breadth of his chest and looked down his nose at me. “The entire purpose of this exercise is to train you to react, not to think. When your life is in danger, your body must know what to do, because there is no time for your mind to engage.”
I turned to face him, not lowering the blade. “Might I remind you that I have, upon many and various occasions, been in mortal danger and I am still here.”
“Anyone can get lucky,” he said coldly. “And I suspect your continued survival owes itself to a combination of good fortune and sheer bloody-mindedness. You are too stubborn to die.”
“You are a fine one to talk!” I retorted. “It is not as if that scar upon your face were a love bite from a kitten.”
His lips tightened. I found it entertaining that such a hardened man of the world could have gained so much experience as scientist, explorer, natural historian, naval surgeon, and taxidermist and still let himself be nettled by a woman half his size. The thin, silvered scar that trailed from brow to jaw on one side of his face was not at all disfiguring. Quite the opposite, in fact. But it was a constant reminder of the failed Amazonian expedition that had destroyed his career and his marriage and nearly ended his life. It was not entirely sporting of me to mention it, but we had begun to pluck one another’s nerves in recent days, and it had been his idea to train me in the combative arts as a way to exorcise our bad tempers. It almost worked, not least because I pretended to be entirely inexperienced in the matter. Men, I had often observed, were never happier than when they believed they were imparting wisdom.
Stoker had set up a target in the gardens of our friend and benefactor, Lord Rosemorran, and we had taken the afternoon off from our various duties in the Belvedere. Situated on the grounds of his lordship’s Marylebone estate, Bishop’s Folly, the Belvedere was a singularly extraordinary structure. It had been built as a sort of freestanding ballroom and storehouse for an eccentric Rosemorran ancestor, and it served our purposes beautifully. The Rosemorrans were tireless collectors and had stuffed their London mansion, Scottish shooting box, and Cornish country seat clear to the rafters with treasures of every description. Art, artifacts, natural history specimens, mementos—all of them had found their way into the grasping, aristocratic hands of the Rosemorrans. After four generations of acquisition, the present earl had decided the time had come to assemble a formal and permanent exhibition, and Stoker and I had been given the task of establishing the museum. The fact that we were somewhat qualified to undertake such a feat—and recently homeless as well as in need of employment—had spurred the earl to make the thing official. The first order of business ought to have been a thorough inventory of all the Rosemorrans had acquired. It would be tiresome, backbreaking, tedious work, but necessary. Before the first display cabinet was built, before the first exhibit could be sketched or the first tag penned, we must have a complete accounting of what we had to work with.
So naturally we planned a trip instead. We had spent all of July and August of that year charting an expedition to the South Pacific, poring over maps and happily debating the relative merits of each location with regard to my interest in butterflies and Stoker’s rather less elevated interest in shooting things.
“I do not shoot things for my own pleasure,” he had argued indignantly. “I only collect specimens for the purposes of scientific study.”
“That must be some consolation to the corpses,” I returned sweetly.
“You do not hold the moral high ground there, my little assassin. I have watched you kill butterflies by the hundreds with just a pinch of your fingers.”
“Well, I could pin them first, but I am not an enthusiast of torture.”
“You might have fooled me,” he muttered. I passed off that bit of ill humor for what it was—sulking over the fact that our patron had sided with me in choosing the Fijian islands for our expedition. The location was a veritable paradise for a lepidopterist but offered little excitement for a student of Mammalia.
“Don’t grumble. The Fijian islands are rich with specimens for you to study,” I told Stoker with more kindness than veracity.
He fixed me with a cold look. “I have been to Fiji,” he informed me. “There are bats and whales. Do you know who is interested in bats and whales? Precisely no one.”
I waved a hand. “Feathers. The Fijians boast a very nice little fruit bat you might enjoy.”
What he said next does not bear repeating in a polite memoir, but I replied casually that Lord Rosemorran had mentioned calling in at Sarawak as long as we were in that part of the world. Unlike Fiji, this destination would afford Stoker everything from panthers to pangolins for study.
He brightened considerably at this, and by the time our preparations were concluded, any casual observer might have been forgiven for thinking the destination had been his idea from the first. He threw himself into the planning with enthusiasm, arranging everything to his satisfaction—arrangements I quietly reworked to my satisfaction. The travel documents were in order, the trunks were packed, and a fever of anticipation settled over Bishop’s Folly. All that remained was to depart, and Lord Rosemorran made a protracted leave-taking of his home, his children, his sister, his staff, and his beloved pets. It was the last that was to prove our downfall.
Returning from one last walk in the gardens where he housed his snail collection, his lordship managed to trip over his giant tortoise, Patricia, a tremendous creature who shambled about the grounds so slowly she was often mistaken for dead. How Lord Rosemorran managed to trip over an animal whose nearest relation was a boulder mystified me entirely, but the cause was not the concern. It was the effect which proved devastating. His lordship sustained a compound fracture of the thigh, a painful and thoroughly disgusting injury which Stoker assured me would take many months to heal. His experience as a naval surgeon’s mate had qualified him to take one look at the protruding bone and turn to me with instructions to see to the unpacking. The Rosemorranâ€“Speedwellâ€“Templeton-Vane expedition was officially canceled.
Whilst Stoker was extremely useful in a crisis, his medical expertise was soon usurped by that of his lordship’s own physicians and we were left cooling our heels in the Belvedere, sniping at one another in our frustration. We had each of us hoped to be shipboard once more, sea breezes blowing away the stultifying air of England as tropical climes beckoned with balmy winds and star-blazoned skies. Instead we were cooped up like hapless chickens nesting on our disappointed hopes. Even the opportunity to clear out the Belvedere did not entirely restore our good humor, although I should point out that Stoker’s fit of pique lasted far longer than mine. But then, in my experience, gentlemen are champion sulkers so long as one doesn’t call the behavior by that name. It was in such a state of heightened irritation that he—mindful of our previous perilous encounters—took it upon himself to instruct me in the defensive arts.
“Splendid idea,” I had replied enthusiastically. “What shall we shoot?”
“I am not giving you a firearm,” he told me in a tone of flat refusal. “I do not like them. They are noisy, unreliable, and can be taken away and used against you.”
“So can a knife,” I grumbled.
He pretended not to hear as he extracted the blade he regularly carried in his boot. He erected a target—an old tailor’s dummy unearthed from the Belvedere—and set about teaching me with maddening condescension how to murder it.
“It is one smooth motion, Veronica,” he said for the hundredth time. “Keep your wrist straight, and think of the knife as an extension of your arm.”
“That is a singularly useless piece of instruction,” I informed him, affecting a casual air as the knife bounced off the dummy’s groin and flopped to the grass.
Stoker retrieved it. “Try again,” he ordered.
I threw again, skimming the dummy’s head as Stoker explained the desirability of various targets. “The neck is nice and soft, but also narrow and unreliable. If you really want to hinder a man, throw for his thigh. A good hit to the meat of his leg will slow him down, and if you happen to nick the femoral artery, you will stop him for good. You could try for the stomach, but if he is a stout fellow, it will merely lodge in his fat and make him angry.”
He proceeded to lecture me for the next hour, about what I cannot say, for as I flung the knife with varying degrees of effort and success, I had leisure to be alone with my own thoughts.
“Veronica,” he said at last as the knife sailed past the dummy altogether. “What the bollocking hell was that?” He fetched the knife and handed it back, suddenly blushing furiously.
The cause of Stoker’s distress was the unexpected appearance of his lordship’s sister, Lady Cordelia Beauclerk. I turned and waved the knife at her.
“Forgive his language, Lady C. Stoker is in a terrible fuss. He has been sulking ever since his lordship broke his leg. How is the patient today?”
Mindful of Stoker’s baleful glance, I lowered the knife with exaggerated care.
“A trifle feverish, but the doctor says he has the constitution of an ox, although you would never know it to look at him,” she said with a smile. That much was true. His lordship had always resembled a librarian in the latter stages of anemia—pale and stooped from too many years poring over his books. But blood will tell, and Beauclerk blood was hearty stuff. Lady C. always looked the picture of health, from her English rose complexion to her slender figure. But as I assessed her, I noted an unaccustomed furrow to her brow, and her usually pink cheeks seemed lacking in color.
“You must be working yourself to death taking care of him as well as the house,” I observed.
She shook her head. “Things are a bit at sixes and sevens,” she admitted. “The doctor has ordered trained nurses in to tend his lordship, and I am afraid Mrs. Bascombe doesn’t care for the extra work of looking after them.” I was not surprised. His lordship’s housekeeper put me in mind of unripe quinces—plump and sour. Lady C. went on. “And of course it’s time to pack the boys up for school and the girls have a new governess to settle in.”
“For the moment,” Stoker murmured. The Beaucleark girls had a habit of driving away hapless governesses with well-timed hysterics or the odd spider in the bed. I rather thought it a pity that no one had told them about the efficacy of syrup of figs dribbled into the morning tea, but it was not my place to tutor them in misdemeanors.
Lady Cordelia smiled her gentle smile. “For the moment,” she agreed. “But everything seems in hand this afternoon—so much so that I have decided to pay a visit to the Curiosity Club.”
My ears pricked up. Known formally as the Hippolyta Club, it was an intriguing place, founded for the purposes of free discourse amongst accomplished ladies without the strictures of society limiting their conversation. That might have been the raison d’Ãªtre of the club, but like most high-minded institutions, it was entirely bound by its own set of Byzantine and impenetrable rules. Lady Cordelia had been admitted on the strength of a series of papers she had written on the subject of advanced mathematics, and it was good to see that her talents—frequently wasted in arguing with Mrs. Bascombe about the grocer’s bills—were once more carrying her into the circles where her intellect was most appreciated. Her own family thought of her as a sort of performer, conjuring numbers as a dancing bear waltzes to a tune. Her grave, calm eyes never belied the frustration she must have felt at being so frequently ignored or brushed aside, even by kindly and well-meaning hands, but I harbored outrage enough for both of us.
Lady Cordelia gave me a benign look. “You have put on a brave face, but I know how disappointed you must be at not embarking upon the expedition,” she began.
“Not at all.” I did not make a habit of lying, but it was not Lady C.’s fault the expedition had been beached, and she had never been anything other than gracious to me. I had sensed in her—if not a kindred spirit—at least a sympathetic one.
“You lie very well,” she said mildly. “But you are a world explorer, Miss Speedwell. I have heard you speak too eloquently of your travels not to understand how much you love the chase.”
“Well, perhaps,” I temporized.
She went on. “I know you have much work to do here, but I thought you might like to visit the club, as my guest. A little change of scene to sweeten the mood,” she added with a glance to Stoker.
I pursed my lips. “If you want to sweeten the mood, you would be far better placed taking him. But it is kind of you to offer. Yes, thank you. I would like to go.”
The little furrow between her brows smoothed, although if anything she seemed even less at ease than she had before I accepted. “Excellent. If you would like to collect your things, I will meet you in the drive.”
I blinked in surprise. “Now?”
“Yes. I thought we could go for tea,” she said. Her gaze drifted over my working costume. “Perhaps a change of attire?” she suggested gently.
I glanced at the enormous canvas pinafore swathing me from collar to ankles. It was an unflattering garment, to be sure, and streaked with paint, blood, dust, and the remains of a profiterole Stoker had flung at me earlier. I whisked off the offending pinafore to reveal a simple gown of red foulard. It was not a fashionable creation by any standards, but I eschewed fashion, preferring to have my working clothes tailored to my specifications rather than the latest whims of the rich and idle. Narrow skirts and an unobtrusive bustle were my only concessions to modernity.
Lady Cordelia gave a vague smile. “Very charming, I’m sure.” She paused and looked to my hair, her lips parted as if to say more, but she left us then, as swiftly as she had come.
I turned to Stoker, shoving a few errant locks into the heavy Psyche knot at my neck. With a smile of deliberate malice, I turned and—in a single liquid motion—flung the blade, lodging it firmly between the target’s eyes. “I am off to take tea at the Curiosity Club. Mind you take good care of that dummy.”
I settled myself comfortably opposite Lady Cordelia in one of the Beauclerk town carriages, mindful of her maid, Sidonie, who watched balefully from an upstairs window of Bishop’s Folly.
“I thought Sidonie accompanied you on all your outings,” I remarked.
Lady Cordelia smoothed her black silk skirts, her expression carefully neutral. “I do not require Sidonie’s company today. She is inclined to be indiscreet at times.”
I raised a brow in interest. “The Curiosity Club requires discretion?”
Almost against her will, it seemed, Lady C. smiled. “Frequently.”
She seemed disinclined to conversation, but I felt obliged to speak. “I do not know if you have considered the ramifications of being seen with me in public,” I began.
“Why should there be ramifications?”
I suppressed a snort. “We both know that my life is an unconventional one. I might look and speak like a lady, but my choices have placed me beyond the pale of propriety. I have traveled alone. I am unmarried, I live without a chaperone, and I work for a living. These are not the actions of a lady,” I reminded her. I did not mention my more colorful peccadilloes. I had made a point of choosing my lovers carefully—no Englishmen need apply—and of entertaining them only when abroad. Thus far mere whispers of my misconduct had reached England, but one never knew when one of the dear fellows would succumb to indiscretion and Reveal All.
“Society is willfully obtuse,” she returned, setting her jaw. I recognized the gesture. We had known each other only a matter of months, but I had already learnt that Lady Cordelia possessed an unbendable will when she chose. No doubt her elevated rank would protect her from the worst of the gossip.
I settled myself more comfortably as the coachman maneuvered his way through the darkening streets. A late summer storm had rolled in, blanketing the city with lowering cloud as sheets of rain began to fall, and when we reached the Curiosity Club, the windows glowed in welcome. It was an unassuming edifice, a tall and elegant house tucked in a row of other such buildings. It appeared to be a private residence, but just beneath the bell was a small scarlet plaque bearing the name of the club and the legend ALIS VOLAT PROPRIIS. “â€˜She flies with her own wings,’” I translated.
Lady Cordelia smiled. “Fitting, don’t you think?”
Before she could put a hand to the door, it swung back to reveal a portress dressed in scarlet plush, her head wrapped in a shawl of gold silk.
“Lady Cordelia,” said the young woman solemnly. She was of African descent, with the innately elegant posture I had observed so often upon my travels to that continent, but her speech was London born and bred.
“Good afternoon, Hetty. This is my guest, Miss Speedwell.”
Hetty inclined her head. “Welcome to the Hipppolyta Club, Miss Speedwell.” She turned back to Lady Cordelia as a page hurried forward to take our damp cloaks. She opened a thick leather book and proffered a pen to Lady Cordelia. “Florrie will have your things dried and brushed before you leave. Lady Sundridge is awaiting you in the Smoking Room.”
I gave Lady C. an inquiring glance, but she shook her head swiftly. “Later,” she murmured. So, our visit to the club had a purpose after all, I mused. Suddenly the promise of cakes and tea took on an additional spice.
The girl named Florrie whisked herself away with the brisk rustle of starched petticoats as Lady Cordelia took the pen and signed us in with a flourish. I glanced about, registering my first impression of the club. It was smaller than I had expected, intimate, and decorated with a restraint I found relaxing. The windows were draped in scarlet velvet, almost identical in hue to Hetty’s crimson plush, and the carpets were quietly patterned, tasteful things from Turkey, heavy and thick enough to muffle our footsteps. The walls were closely hung with photographs and maps, charts and memorabilia, all celebrating the accomplishments of the members. The club was fitted with gas, but a quick glimpse through the arched doorway into a large parlor revealed a fireplace in which logs were merrily crackling away. I heard the muted buzz of female conversation, punctuated here and there by excited remarks or unrestrained laughter, and I tipped my head at the sound of it.
“Debate and lively discourse are encouraged at the Curiosity Club,” Hetty told me with a smile. But in contrast to the warmth of Hetty’s welcome, Lady Cordelia’s mood seemed to have shifted. By the time she had guided me upstairs to the closed door bearing the inscription SMOKING ROOM, her usual calm had faltered and the furrow had etched itself again between her brows.
She tapped lightly, darting me an anxious look before the reply sounded, swift and peremptory. “Come.”
Lady C. opened the door upon a smallish, handsome room furnished in the same style as the hall downstairs. Framed maps hung upon the walls, books lined the shelves, and a table beneath the windows held celestial and terrestrial globes interspersed with a selection of potted orchids. A few comfortable leather chairs, like those in gentlemen’s clubs, had been installed, and one of these was occupied by a lady dressed in subdued but extremely expensive fashion. She rose slowly as we advanced, giving me a look of frank assessment.
Lady C. made the introductions. “Lady Sundridge, may I present Miss Speedwell. Veronica, this is Lady Sundridge.”
For a long moment Lady Sundridge said nothing. She merely stood in a state of composed stillness, like a figure in a tableau. But while her body was immobile, her gaze was rapacious, darting from my face to my hands and back again, as if searching for something.
As my social superior, she held the advantage. It fell to her to acknowledge me, and as long as she was content to play the mute, so was I. I returned her stare coolly, noting her fine-boned face and a tall, slender frame that she carried to elegant effect. Her hands were loaded with jewels, the facets shimmering ceaselessly in the shifting firelight.
She spoke at last. “I know the hour dictates tea, but I had in mind something more bracing.” She indicated a low table before the fire. There stood a bowl of hot punch, heavily infused with rum and spices, and I took the glass she offered. She watched me as I swallowed, nodding in approval. “You are not shy of spirits.”
“I am not shy of most things, Lady Sundridge.”
The beautiful eyes widened for an instant. “I am glad to hear it. I asked Lady Cordelia to bring you to the club so that I might have the pleasure of making your acquaintance. You are, in some circles, quite legendary.”
“And what circles might those be, my lady?”
If my forthright approach surprised her, she mastered it swiftly. She gave a dismissive little shrug. “Lepidoptery, of course. I know you trade in butterflies and publish papers very quietly, but it is not difficult to pierce the veil of anonymity if one is determined.”
“And why should you be determined? Are you a collector?”
She gave a low, throaty laugh. “Of many things, Miss Speedwell. But not butterflies, alas.”
“But of people, I imagine.”
She spread her hands. “You astonish me. You are taking my measure,” she added. But over the course of our conversation I noticed her movements, graceful and studied, and her voice, smooth as honeyed whiskey, with the barest trace of a German accent. It occurred to me that she would be violently attractive to men—and that she was entirely aware of it.
“Why should I not? You are taking mine,” I returned pleasantly.
We were sparring, after a fashion, as swordsmen will do—prodding one’s opponent delicately to assess the vulnerabilities in the other’s defenses—but I was at a loss to understand why. Unless she suffered from some sort of professional jealousy, there was no reason for us to be at odds. And yet, Lady Sundridge was, quite obviously, sizing me up. That she was doing so in front of Lady Cordelia was even more curious, and Lady C., clearly expecting this, sat quietly sipping at her punch as her ladyship and I circled one another like cats.
“You are direct,” Lady Sundridge said at length. “That can be a liability.”
“Only to those who require artifice.”
I heard a smothered gasp and realized Lady Cordelia was choking delicately on her punch, although from my forthrightness or the strength of the rum, I could not determine.
Lady Sundridge fixed me with a stare I found difficult to characterize. Was it assessment? Disapproval? Grudging respect?
I sipped at my punch. “I must congratulate you, my lady. I am enjoying this rather more than I expected. Generally I avoid the company of ladies whenever possible.”
“You find your own sex tedious?”
“Invariably. We are educated out of common sense, curiosity, and any real merit. We are made to be decorative and worthy of display, with occasional forays into procreation and good works, but nothing more.”
“You are hard upon us,” Lady Sundridge remarked.
“I am a scientist,” I reminded her. “My hypotheses are drawn from observation.”
She nodded slowly. “Yes. You are hard upon us, but you are not wrong. Women are frequently tiresome, but not in this place. Here you will find your own kind.”
“I am only a guest here,” I said.
“Indeed,” was her sole reply.
I finished the glass of punch and placed it carefully upon the table before I spoke. “And as much as I have enjoyed this exchange, do you not think it is time that you came to the purpose of this meeting?”
Lady Sundridge’s eyes narrowed. “What purpose?”
I inclined my head graciously. “I believe you have some questions for me, Your Royal Highness.”
The silence in the room was palpable. Then Lady Cordelia began to choke again, and surged from her chair. Lady Sundridge waved her back again with an imperious gesture.
"That is quite all right, Cordelia. We ought not to have taken Miss Speedwell for a fool. I was warned not to underestimate her. Now, I am certain you would like a glass of water to settle that cough, and I think it is time Miss Speedwell and I had a tête-à-tête."
Instantly, Lady C. curtsied deeply and withdrew, but not before throwing me a thoughtful glance. I sat mutely, using silence against Lady Sundridge as she had so adroitly used it against me at the start of our meeting.
"You know who I am?" Lady Sundridge began.
"I know you are a daughter of Queen Victoria. I am not entirely certain which, the family resemblance amongst you and your sisters is strong." The fact that the lady thought she could preserve her incognita was disingenuous if not absolutely naÏve. They were the most photographed family in the Empire, and scarcely a day passed without one of them turning up in the newspapers. That they bore a strong likeness to one another made it all the easier to spot one in the wild.
Unexpectedly, she smiled. "Guess."
I considered, studying the graceful bones of her face, the fineness of her tailoring, the strong hands folded prayerfully in her lap.
"Full marks. How did you know?"
I shrugged. "The eldest is Crown Princess of Prussia and not likely to be in London at present. Princess Alice is dead some ten years past. Princess Helena is frequently in ill health while you seem perfectly robust, and Princess Beatrice is expecting a child next month. You are slim as a willow. Besides, there is the matter of your hands."
"My hands?" She spread the long, tapering fingers so that the jewels upon them caught the light once more.
"I have heard that Your Royal Highness is a sculptress. Your hands, while lovely, show the marks of the chisel."
She sat back in her chair, steepling the fingers in question under her chin. "I am impressed with you."
"You oughtn't be," I told her. "It's little more than a parlor trick for someone in my profession. Tell me, do you know why lepidopterists make a point of following birds?" I inquired.
She blinked a little at the non sequitur. "Birds?"
"Birds are the lepidopterist's natural enemy. They feed upon caterpillars before the metamorphosis that we so desperately require in order to collect our specimens. But we have learnt to play their own game better than they. Some species of birds have been observed in the act of tracking caterpillars by looking for chewed vegetation. The lepidopterist's motto is 'Follow the bird, find the caterpillar.' Subtlety and detail are all in our pursuit."
"And are you always successful in your pursuits?" There was challenge in the princess's voice.
"Only a fool would claim perfect success. But I am better than most."
"I am depending upon that," she said slowly. She sat forward. "You and I have a mutual friend in Sir Hugo Montgomerie, I am told. I trust you remember making the gentleman's acquaintance?"
I inclined my head. Sir Hugo, head of Scotland Yard's Special Branch, had featured rather prominently in a previous adventure in detection that Stoker and I had enjoyed.
"He remembers you as well. Acutely, in fact. I believe your last interview with him established that you might be willing to lend aid to the royal family should we have need of you."
"My recollection is slightly different," I replied with some asperity. Sir Hugo had attempted, in the common parlance, to buy me off. He had offered a substantial sum of money to me in return for my silence upon a subject which could bring the royal family considerable pain and scandal should I ever choose to reveal it publicly. The fact that my word had not been good enough for him had enraged me, and naturally I rejected the money categorically. But Sir Hugo warned me that the family might seek certain proofs of my loyalty in future, and it appeared that time was nigh.
Her Royal Highness waved a hand, diamonds glittering. "Regardless of the exact terms, I have made a study of you, Miss Speedwell. I believe I understand your character very well. In fact, I would go so far as to say that we have much in common."
"Indeed? Well, they do say blood will tell."
She flinched. My allusion to the secret I carried did not please her. Her lips went thin, but she smiled. Princesses were trained to be forbearing and polite, and she had learnt her lessons well.
"Miss Speedwell, if you know that I am the Princess Louise, then you will also know that I am married to John Campbell, the Marquess of Lorne, heir to the Duke of Argyll."
"Then why the pseudonym of Lady Sundridge?"
She shrugged. "As you have discovered in your own work, anonymity has its uses. I wanted to meet you without the burden of my position coming between us, at least not at first."
I held her gaze with my own. "Your position as princess or as my aunt?" I saw no reason to beat about the bush. I had kept my promise to Sir Hugo not to reveal my complicated parentage, but the princess clearly knew who I was—the unrecognized daughter of her eldest brother, the Prince of Wales. That alone would have been an embarrassment to the royal family; the fact that I could be considered legitimate in some circles made me dangerous. How dangerous remained to be seen. Since I discovered the secret of my birth, we had remained in a state of armed neutrality, neither party acting against the other, but making no overtures either. The fact that one of them had made the first move gave me an advantage, and I intended to use it.
Louise's lips thinned again. "The situation is complicated, and it is not of my making. I hope you will remember that."
The princess clasped her hands tightly as she fell to silence, and a sudden realization struck me.
"You want my help."
She nodded slowly. One hand crept up to play with the jewel at her wrist, a slender gold bangle set with a black enamel heart, the ebony surface marked heavily with golden initials surmounted by a coronet. She noticed the direction of my gaze and held up her wrist. I saw then that the black heart was edged in white, and the initials entwined upon the surface were L's.
"A gift from Her Majesty upon the death of my brother Prince Leopold. He died three years ago. He was a lovely boy, my junior by five years. Unfortunately, he was sickly, even from childhood. You never saw such suffering—that poor, frail little body! But he bore it all with such sweetness. It seemed he would never be able to live as other men, but he had found real happiness. He married a German princess, you know, and they had children. It was the greatest joy of his life to become a father. He had such high hopes that he would outlive his illness. Fate, however, can be cruel. It was a terrible thing to lose him so young—only thirty. Not so many years older than you are now, Miss Speedwell."
Oh, it was masterfully done. Without ever acknowledging my true birth, she had drawn me into the family, appealing to my pity at the loss of an uncle I would never know. I admired and resented her for it. Suddenly, I had no stomach for the games she wanted to play.
"What do you want of me, Your Royal Highness?"
As if sensing my mood, she leaned forward, clasping her hands together. "I am desperate, Miss Speedwell. And I have no one else to whom I can turn."
"What is the trouble?"
She spread her hands. "I hardly know where to begin."
I said nothing. I might have encouraged her, coaxed the story from her, at least at the beginning, but I was conscious of a curious resentment and I held my tongue, forcing her to tell the story of her own accord.
"One of my dearest friends is dead," she managed finally.
"I am sorry for your loss—" I began.
She fluttered her hands impatiently. "I am reconciled to her death. It is not on her behalf that I have come." She paused, fixing me with a steady gaze. "Are you familiar with the Ramsforth case?"
Whatever I had expected of her, it was not this. The Ramsforth case had dominated the news for some months. The facts were simple, but the salacious details had ensured that the affair was splashed across the newspapers.
"I know a little," I told her.
"Then let me fill in the gaps. Miles Ramsforth was accused of murdering his mistress, an artist by the name of Artemisia."
"Your friend?" I hazarded.
Her lips trembled, but she brought the show of emotion under control immediately. "Yes. She was a brilliant painter, and Mr. Ramsforth engaged her to create a mural at his home, Littledown, in Surrey. They were already acquainted before the commission, but during the time she spent at his home, they became lovers, and in due course, Artemisia conceived his child. She was four or five months gone when she finished the mural."
She paused a moment as if to gather her courage to finish the story. "To unveil the piece, Mr. Ramsforth hosted an entertainment at Littledown to which many people in the artistic community, including me, were invited. During the party, Artemisia was murdered. Mr. Ramsforth discovered her, and unfortunately for him, he was found in his bedchamber with her dead body in his arms, his clothes soaked in her blood. She had been dead a very little time—perhaps half an hour. He could provide no alibi, and that fact, coupled with Artemisia's pregnancy, suggested to the police that he must have taken her life."
"For what reason?" I asked, curious in spite of myself.
"Mr. Ramsforth is married," she returned coldly. "The police believe he wanted to rid himself of her and her child before his wife discovered the state of affairs. His defense was naturally hampered by his inability to explain his whereabouts during the time of the murder, and he was found guilty and sentenced to death. He will hang next week."
I pursed my lips. "An intriguing tale, to be certain, Your Royal Highness, but I fail to see what part I am to play."
"Miles Ramsforth did not murder Artemisia!" she burst out, her iron control deserting her. She twisted her fingers together, the diamonds cutting into her flesh.
"How do you know?"
"I cannot say," she replied with a mulish set to her mouth. "Lives would be ruined if I came forward."
"What is that against a man's very existence?" I asked.
"I will not be the subject of impertinent questions, Miss Speedwell," she told me. "I am the best judge of what must be done."
"And what must be done?"
"You must find the murderer."
I gaped at her, wondering for one moment which of us had gone mad. "You cannot be serious."
"I am. A man's life—an innocent man's life—rests in your hands."
"It most certainly does not," I returned stoutly. "If he has an alibi, let him explain himself. If he is truly innocent, then whatever horrors the truth will unleash, they cannot be worse than his death."
"You would not say that if you knew," she told me, sudden tears filling her eyes. I might have stood then and taken my leave of her, walking out of that room and her life as easily as I had come. I might have forgot what she asked of me and never thought of her again. But for those tears. Her training, her royal blood, her position—all had failed her, and in that moment she was merely a woman who suffered. She stood on the edge of some unnameable abyss, and that I could understand. I had seen the abyss myself.
"Then tell me," I urged.
"I cannot," she said, shaking her head. "Miss Speedwell, I know I have gone about this quite badly. But you must understand, I want justice for them both. Artemisia was my friend, as is Miles. She was no encumbrance to him—he loved her! But he would go to his grave rather than speak the truth and ruin more lives, and I must honor that. Can you not see the nobility in his sacrifice?"
"I see the stupidity in it," I said, but my resolve was weakening. She must have sensed it, for she leaned forward suddenly, covering my hands with her own. They were strong, those sculptress's hands, and warm, too, and as I stared down at them, I realized that for the first time within my memory, I was being touched by a woman of my own blood. I realized, too, that she understood exactly what she was doing and that she meant to play upon my isolation, my otherness. They would never accept me as one of them, but she would dangle the possibility in front of me, as enticing as a lure to a rising carp. And possibly as fatal.
"Miss Speedwell—Veronica," she said softly, "please do this for me. I have no right to command, so I beg instead. Sir Hugo will not listen to me. He knows the investigation was badly handled. It would be an embarrassment for the Metropolitan Police to admit they were wrong. He is satisfied that Miles should hang for this, but if he does, an injustice will happen—a terrible injustice that you have the power to mend. Could you live with yourself if you did not even try?"
I hesitated, and with the unerring instinct of a hunter, she went for the kill. "I will not insult you by speaking of money. Sir Hugo told me of your pride, and I understand it. But I do have something to offer you for your services."
"What?" I demanded.
The grip on my hands tightened. "Your father."
I pulled my hands away sharply. "I require nothing from the Prince of Wales."
"I know," she said, her voice gentle, coaxing, insidious even. "But are you not curious? Would you not like to meet him face-to-face? I can arrange it. He will do it for me. Think of it—a chance to sit and talk to him, the father you have never known. And for nothing more than asking a few questions. It is a fair bargain, I think."
I gave her a long, searching look. I would do as she asked; we both knew that. She thought she persuaded me with her talk of family feeling and my father, but that was not why I helped her. Hatred, as it happens, can be as strong an inducement as the gentler emotions.
So I gave her a smile that hid a thousand things and settled back in my chair. "Very well. Tell me more."
Princess Louise paused a moment, her relief a palpable thing between us. Now that I had indicated I would act as her puppet, she dropped much of her pretense, speaking candidly. "I have always endeavored to do my duty to my family and to my country," she began slowly. "But as you have observed, I am an artist. As such, I have insisted upon the freedom to make friends amongst like-minded people. The cage in which I have lived my life may be gilt, but it is nonetheless a cage," she said, her lips twisting into a thin, humorless smile. "And I have beat myself bloody against the bars. Over time, I have won certain concessions, my work and my friends among them. Artemisia was one of the dearest of these friends."
"It is a curious name."
Her expression was touched with nostalgia. "An affectation. Her real name was Maud Eresby. She thought it too prosaic for an artist, so she chose another. Are you familiar with the work of Artemisia Gentileschi?"
"I am not."
She shrugged. "Few people are, and more is the pity. She was a painter of the Italian Baroque school, and she counted Michelangelo among her admirers. She often chose women for the subjects of her paintings—Judith, Bathsheba, Delilah. Her paintings are unflinching and powerful. My Artemisia aspired to the same, so she took the name."
"How did you meet her?"
"I presume you are familiar with the name of Sir Frederick Havelock?" There was hardly a soul in England who wasn't. He was the most accomplished artist of the age, lionized for his exquisite compositions and lavish and unexpected use of color. He had founded a new school of art, one that was decidedly English and distinctly modern, with influences of Aestheticism and Neoclassicism. He was notoriously bad-tempered and reclusive, preferring the company of a handful of chosen acolytes who lived with him in the Holland Park mansion of his own design. Seldom seen in public, he had matured from the enfant terrible who once tried to drown Dante Gabriel Rossetti to an eccentric legend bent on creating his own utopia.
"He is almost as famous as your mother," I remarked rudely.
Princess Louise overlooked the comment and went on. "Artemisia was one of Sir Frederick's protégés. She lived at Havelock House and she met Miles Ramsforth at one of Sir Frederick's entertainments. The gentlemen are brothers-in-law, and Miles has always relied upon Sir Frederick to provide him with introductions to artists to whom he might offer patronage."
"How exactly are the gentlemen connected?"
"Sir Frederick was married to Augusta Troyon, who died some years ago. Miles is married to her younger sister, Ottilie. They are still quite close to Sir Frederick, even after Augusta Havelock's death."
"And it is because of his marriage to this Ottilie that the police believe Miles was driven to kill Artemisia?"
She waved an impatient hand. "And that is where they have the wrong of it! Ottilie and Miles have a very sensible arrangement. Theirs is a friendship, a partnership of sorts. They married because Miles had an estate falling down about his ears and a bloodline that stretches back eight hundred years. Ottilie brought him a biscuit-manufacturing fortune that her uncle made. They have used her money and his connections to rebuild Littledown and travel the world, collecting art and antiquities. They have had a very pleasant life together, and Ottilie Ramsforth is far too reasonable a person to care about the occasional peccadillo in her husband's private life."
"Occasional peccadillo?" I lifted my brows in inquiry. "So there have been others?"
A fleeting smile touched her lips. "Have you seen a photograph of Miles? No? Just as well, the newspapers do not do him justice. He is a very charming fellow—not precisely handsome, you understand. His features are not nearly regular enough for that. I should never dream of sculpting him," she added with a frown. "There is something elusive about his expressions, they are so changeable. But he is a good friend. He listens, you see. And so few men know how."
Her gaze slid from mine and her expression took on a faraway, slightly disgruntled look. I wondered if she were thinking of her husband. By all accounts, the Marquess of Lorne was not the most attentive of husbands.
"And Ottilie Ramsforth didn't mind," I prodded.
Princess Louise roused herself, turning her attention back to me. "Of course not. She did what all of us do—she redecorated her house or bought a new hat or took a trip to Baden. She knew better than to take it seriously, but of course you cannot explain these things to the authorities. The investigators of the Metropolitan Police suffer from a want of imagination. They assume a man like Miles Ramsforth would wish to hide Artemisia and her pregnancy from his wife, and it made a tidy story for them. They did not trouble to look further. The verdict was precisely the one they expected." She paused, and when she spoke again, it was with real bitterness. "I spoke to Sir Hugo—at least I tried. But he believes artists are all vagabonds and wastrels. He could not say as much, not to me, but his attitude was plain. He had no wish to expend his resources upon searching for the murderer of one insignificant girl when he has the whole of the Empire under his care and a viable suspect ready to hang." That was stretching the truth a bit, I reflected. Sir Hugo was merely the head of the special department within the Metropolitan Police that handled matters touching the royal family. But it required little imagination to believe he saw his own role as much larger.
"Did he suggest you bring your problem to me?" I asked.
She shook her head slowly. "Not at first. He tried to dissuade me. But I knew of your . . . efforts . . . this past summer to uncover the truth in the matter of your own identity. And I knew that Sir Hugo considered you beholden to us."
"Beholden!" I bridled.
"Obliged," she said, gentling her tone. "He told me if I insisted upon pursuing this matter, I could not retain a private inquiry agent. It was too dangerous. But he agreed that you would understand the need for discretion—perhaps better than anyone."
"Sir Hugo has a more refined sense of humor than I would have guessed," I replied. I considered all she had told me for a long moment, and the silence stretched between us, punctuated only by the snapping of the fire and the low ticking of the mantel clock. I thought of my mother, the beautiful actress who had married in secret and borne a love child, only to have her sweet prince marry another—a woman of his own class who would fill his royal nursery with pedigreed babies while his firstborn grew up motherless. And I thought of the desperation my mother must have felt when she realized she had been left all alone with me, of the black despair that must have driven her final, fatal act.
"Very well," I said as I rose. "I will be in touch when I have discovered what I can." Her expression was one of stunned surprise. "But we have not discussed terms," she protested.
"Terms? My terms are these: I will work with my associate, Stoker. You may find him in Debrett's under the heading 'the Honourable Revelstoke Templeton-Vane, third son of the sixth Viscount Templeton-Vane.' We will bring no one else into our confidence. We will do everything in our power to bring these matters to resolution."
"I do not like it," she said, "but I suppose I have little choice in the matter."
"None whatsoever," I agreed.
She lifted her head and looked coolly down her nose at me. I returned the stare, and it pleased me when she looked away first. When she spoke her voice was marginally warmer. "You must not think me ungrateful. I realize I am asking something quite unorthodox and possibly dangerous of you."
I shrugged. "I am no stranger to either. In fact, some would say I actively seek the dangerous and unorthodox."
The princess looked me over slowly. "I cannot make you out, Miss Speedwell."
"Do not try, Your Royal Highness," I advised.
The princess ended our interview by scribbling instructions on how to contact her when we had learnt anything of interest. "I think it best if we do not meet more than we can possibly help," she told me.
"My thoughts exactly."
"I will dine tonight with Sir Frederick and Ottilie. I shall explain to them that I have asked you to make inquiries."
"You did not ask them prior to speaking with me?" I was a little surprised at her temerity, but I ought not to have been. She eyed me with hauteur.
"I am not accustomed to asking permission before I take action," she informed me. "A few times each month, Sir Frederick hosts entertainments at Havelock House to introduce the public to his 'pets'. The next is tomorrow evening. I suggest you begin your investigations there. He and Ottilie will be expecting you, and I have no doubt you will enjoy their full cooperation."
"You will not attend?"
She flinched but hid it well. "I think it best if I keep my distance publicly."
I went to the door, but her voice, imperious as an empress's, called.
I turned. "Yes, Your Royal Highness?"
"If you are not successful, Miles Ramsforth will hang in one week. Do not forget that."
I did not curtsy, and I think she had learned in our short acquaintance not to expect it of me. I merely inclined my head and took my leave.
I found Lady Cordelia perched on an armchair outside the room, her expression one of faint chagrin. She rose at the sight of me. "Should I apologize? That was rather an ambush."
"But an intriguing one." I grinned to show her I bore her no ill will.
We descended the stairs, and I heard the pleasant hum of conversation from the large parlor. There was the rattle of crockery punctuated with laughter. Two women were arguing fiercely over the best fixatives for photographs, but apart from that it was a decidedly cozy environment.
The portress brought our things and when we had settled ourselves into the Beauclerk carriage, I turned to Lady Cordelia. "Do you know why she wanted to speak to me?"
She shrugged. "Royalty are eccentric, and Princess Louise is more eccentric than most. She is not an easy woman to understand. I suppose she was interested in you after our conversation."
"You spoke to her about me?"
"Yesterday. She told me she had heard of my brother's plans to organize his collections and asked me about the experts we had engaged. I told her about you and about Stoker."
Little wonder Her Royal Highness had not balked at the mention of his name. Lady Cordelia would have been fulsome in her praise of him for they were friends of long standing.
Lady C. went on. "She asked many questions about you, and my replies only seemed to kindle her interest further. She pressed me to bring you along today for an introduction but was quite adamant that I not disclose to you her identity. She wanted to meet you incognita."
"Did she tell you why?"
Lady C. waved a dismissive hand. "She often moves anonymously amongst her artist friends. A pointless affectation, really. Everyone ends up discovering who she is in the end, and those who don't—well, if she isn't treated with deference, she can be quite peremptory."
"I can well imagine," I told her. Lady Cordelia lapsed into silence then, making no further inquiries, and I was grateful. I was an accomplished liar when the occasion demanded but as a rule I preferred honesty.
As we neared Bishop's Folly, Lady Cordelia roused herself. "I must bid you farewell for a few weeks, Miss Speedwell. I am leaving to take the boys to school for the Michaelmas term, and then I am off to Cornwall to establish the girls and their new governess at Rosemorran House. His lordship has decided London offers too many diversions and thinks the girls may settle better to their lessons in the country," she told me. I was not surprised at Lord Rosemorran's decision, only that he had troubled himself to think of his children in the first place. As a rule, his lordship—a vague and gentle fellow—was far more interested in his latest scholarly project than his own progeny. He left the practical management of his children to his sister, expecting that his whims would be carried out with little fuss or bother to himself. Only Lady Cordelia's life was continually upended by his demands. It would never have occurred to him that she might have interests of her own to pursue.
"When will you return?" I asked.
She gave a tired shrug. "That depends entirely upon the children. If Rose will behave herself and stop putting frogs into the soup tureen, I might manage October sometime. Otherwise, I will have to remain until it is time to collect the boys for Christmas. I do not like leaving his lordship alone during his recovery, so I am glad to say that a relation of ours is coming to stay."
"Yes, our great-aunt, Lady Wellingtonia Beauclerk."
I lifted a brow. "Wellingtonia?"
"She was born on the day Waterloo was fought. Her father was an aide-de-camp to the Duke of Wellington. She is a very interesting old lady . . . rather eccentric."
"In what way?" I asked.
"I hardly like to say," she hedged. "Far better for you to make up your own mind," she added briskly. The carriage rocked to a stop and Lady Cordelia put out her hand. "Until we meet again, Miss Speedwell."
I ran Stoker to ground in the Belvedere where he was busy cataloging the contents of a bookshelf. He gave a low, ardent groan, like that of a lover on the precipice of fulfillment. "His lordship has Pliny's Natural History—all thirty-seven volumes," he said, caressing book nine, one of the volumes on zoology. He looked up and must have seen something in my expression, for he put the book aside at once.
"I was going to offer tea, but I think something stronger," he said. We made our way up to the little snuggery on the first floor. Once a bolt-hole of the Third Earl of Rosemorran, who had built the Belvedere to escape the demands of his wife and thirteen children, it was now our private retreat. Surrounded by shelves and case furniture, it held a comfortable sofa, an armchair, a tiled Swedish stove, and a writing table as well as a campaign bed that had once belonged to the Duke of Wellington. With the little water closet concealed behind the wall, it had provided us with a safe haven during our previous adventure, and it had become our custom to withdraw to it when we wished for seclusion. The elder Beauclerks were mindful of our privacy, but Lord Rosemorran's children were an inquisitive lot, and I was forever falling over one or another of them in the Belvedere. The snuggery was the only spot free of sticky fingerprints and prying ears. Trotting obediently at Stoker's heels came his bulldog, Huxley, and the earl's Caucasian sheepdog, Betony. She ought to have been lying at her master's feet, offering him companionship during his recuperation, but since Stoker had come to live at Bishop's Folly, she had transferred her affections to him—and to Huxley, who seemed a little bewildered by her devotion. Huxley settled with a wet snort into his usual bed, an overturned elephant's foot, while Bet arranged her mammoth proportions into a suitably enormous basket. The fact that the basket had once served as the gondola to a balloon piloted over Versailles by the Montgolfier brothers troubled her not at all.
Stoker poured out a stiff measure of whiskey and handed me a glass. I waited until he had stirred up the fire in the stove and taken his own chair before launching into my tale. He listened, his expression carefully neutral until I finished.
His first words were cordial in tone if not in content. "Have you lost your bloody mind?"
"If you mean to abuse me, let me finish my whiskey first."
He gave an exasperated sigh. "Veronica, you have obligated us to a member of the royal family—and not for some trifling favor. You have promised that we will solve a murder."
"Yes, that is rather the idea."
"We are not investigators," he pointed out, his tone decidedly more acid. "We are natural historians."
I waved a hand. "Precisely. We are trained to observe life in the closest detail, to pursue facts, to hypothesize, to conclude—all necessary skills for a detective. We didn't do so badly this past summer," I reminded him.
"We were very nearly killed for our pains," he retorted.
"Oh, don't fuss, Stoker. The most significant injury sustained in the course of that investigation was when you stabbed me, an action for which I have entirely forgiven you."
"That was an accident," he returned, clipping the words off sharply.
"Of course it was. You would never stab me deliberately—at least, not without excellent provocation."
"Such as this?" he asked.
"Don't be peevish, Stoker. It makes your lips go thin and you have such a beautiful mouth."
He hid the feature in question by taking a swift drink of his whiskey while I continued on.
"Think of it," I urged. "The two of us, out there in the vast city, sleuthing down a murderer in a hunt of our own making. You cannot say we did not enjoy our last adventure, nor can you deny that we have both of us seen enough excelsior and packing crates to last until the New Year."
"Take me through it again," he ordered, and I did, aware that he was scrutinizing the tale this time with all the fervor of his training as a scientist. He closed his eyes and thrust his hands into his hair, tumbling the long dark locks through his fingers as he listened.
When I finished, he shook his head, dropping his hands and reaching once more for his whiskey. "I do not like it."
"Well, murder is generally regarded as disagreeable," I replied.
"I mean the whole affair. It's none of my business if half of London wants to garrote the other half and serve them up on parsley."
"Feathers," I said succinctly. "You have the most keenly developed sense of justice of any man I have ever known. You would never let an innocent fellow like Miles Ramsforth swing for a crime he did not commit."
Stoker leaned forward, his bright blue eyes glittering. "But we have only the princess's word for the fact that he didn't."
"You think she is lying." An uncomfortable snake of doubt curled itself coldly around the base of my spine.
"I think it is possible. Veronica, you must look at this rationally. If she has information that can save his life, why does she not come forward?"
"I asked her," I reminded him. "She said she could not say. That lives would be ruined."
"What is that against the death of an innocent man?" he demanded. "Rather than agree to do this for her, you ought to have called her bluff—insisted she go back to Sir Hugo and tell the truth, whatever the cost."
I said nothing. I merely stared into the depths of my whiskey glass, surprised to find it empty.
"I know why you didn't," he told me, his voice suddenly gentle. "You think that by doing this for her—for them—that they will acknowledge you somehow, that it will make up for all the years of neglect."
"Of all the absurd—" I burst out, but he carried on, as implacable and unstoppable as an incoming tide.
"I understand that you believe you have something to prove to them, but you don't. You are worth a thousand of them, Veronica. But they will never see it. If you set yourself up as their lackey because you want their approbation, it will not stop. This is a game you cannot win, so do not play it. Walk away now, before they've got under your skin," he warned.
"Like your family have yours?" I shot back. I had not meant to say it, but once the words were there, hanging in the air between us like pieces of rotten fruit, I could not take back the stink of them.
"What do you mean?" His voice was even and calm, and that is how I knew he was truly angry. A thundering, barking, pillaging Stoker was a happy Stoker. But stillness was the thing that betrayed his deepest rage.
I rose and went to the chinoiserie cabinet in the corner. It took only a moment to lay my hand upon the letter. "This. From your brother, two weeks ago. Your father is dead and you said not a word to me. You have not been absent, so I know you did not attend his funeral. Your brother alludes to other letters written by assorted members of your family. I have searched the Belvedere and found eleven. Tell me, were there more?"
I wanted him to swear at me, something vicious and suitable for a former sailor, but he merely sat, a muscle working furiously in his jaw as he listened.
"If you truly did not care for your family, you would not have kept the letters. But you did. And they all bear the same message—your family want to see you. They implore you to name a time and place. But you have ignored them all, driving them to distraction, it seems. You have no high ground here, Revelstoke," I said coldly. "Not when you are playing a game of your own."
He passed a hand over his face, and with the gesture, the coiled anger seemed to ebb a little. "God, you have a brutal tongue when you put a mind to it. Sharp as a blade and twice as lethal." He poured out a second measure of whiskey for us both and drank his off swiftly. "Very well. My father is dead and my family beg my presence which I will not grant them. You're quite right. I have withheld myself because it gives me pleasure to think of them gnashing their teeth over it. It is a satisfaction you ought to permit yourself," he advised. "Tell the Saxe-Coburg-Gothas to go hang themselves."
"After," I said, and with that single word he suddenly understood. Comprehension broke over his features like morning across a landscape, and he shook his head slowly.
"Poor child," he murmured.
"Don't you dare. I will brook no pity from you," I warned.
"You don't want to solve this puzzle of theirs so they will like you," he said, giving voice to the feelings I could not acknowledge even to myself. "You want to do it so you can throw it in their faces."
I drained my own whiskey, taking courage from the burn of it. "Something like that," I admitted finally.
He considered this a long moment, then shrugged. "As good a motive as any. Besides, if you save a man's life and tell your family to go to the devil, it might improve that temper of yours. Don't think I haven't noticed the freight of anger you have been hauling about. And I understand it, better than anyone. You have been in a foul mood ever since we discovered the truth about your parentage."
"I have not! Besides, you only knew me for a few days before we learned the truth. How do you know what I am like? This might be my usual temper."
His grinned, then settled to the particulars of our investigation. "We cannot neglect our obligations here," he warned.
"Naturally," I conceded. "We shall simply have to work more quickly and finish our cataloging for the day before luncheon. That will give us the rest of each day and the evening to investigate."
He shook his head. "You are mad. And I am madder still for letting you talk me into this."
I gave him a wry smile. "We will be like Arcadia Brown and her faithful sidekick, Garvin," I said, invoking our favorite literary detective. Stoker claimed not to enjoy popular fiction, but ever since I had introduced him to the lady investigator's adventures, he had devoured them while still pretending to be above such diversions.
He narrowed his gaze. "If you are expecting me to brandish a pistol and go haring off with you, crying 'Excelsior!,' you will be waiting until the crack of doom," he warned. "I am only doing this because I know there is no point in attempting to talk you out of it, and you will need someone to watch your back with a murderer on the loose."
I grinned at him and lifted my glass in salute. "It begins."
back to Top
- Once again, Veronica’s curiosity propels her into solving a mystery. Is this curiosity a fatal flaw? What motivates Stoker to partner with her for the investigation?
- What do Veronica and her family stand to lose if her identity is revealed? What does each side stand to gain?
- We are introduced to a significant new character in Lady Wellingtonia in this novel. What do you think ultimately motivates her?
- Princess Louise feels bound by honor and duty to behave in a certain way. Are you sympathetic to her situation? How do you think you would handle similar expectations?
- The Elysian Grotto and Havelock House are historically accurate but not what many typically think of as Victorian settings. How important are these two locations in the novel’s development?
- One of the most consequential characters, Miles Ramsforth, does not appear in the novel, forcing readers to develop their impressions of him based upon other characters’ feelings. What do you think of Miles?
- In what ways do we come to better understand Stoker as his past is slowly revealed?
- Veronica and Stoker are both willing to make tremendous sacrifices for each other. What does this say about the nature of their bond? What developments do you anticipate in their relationship going forward?