A Study in Silks
Evelina Cooper, the niece of the great Sherlock Holmes, is poised to enjoy her first Season in London’s high society, but there’s a murderer to deal with—not to mention missing automatons, a sorcerer, and a talking mouse . . .
In a Victorian era ruled by a Council of ruthless steam barons, mechanical power is the real monarch, and sorcery the demon enemy of the Empire. Nevertheless, the most coveted weapon is magic that can run machines—something Evelina has secretly mastered. But rather than making her fortune, her special talents could mean death or an eternity as a guest of Her Majesty’s secret laboratories. What’s a polite young lady to do but mind her manners and pray she’s never found out?
But then there’s that murder. As Sherlock Holmes’s niece, Evelina should be able to find the answers, but she has a lot to learn. And the first decision she has to make is whether to trust the handsome, clever rake who makes her breath come faster, or the dashing trick rider who would dare anything for her if she would only just ask . . .
Publisher: Del Rey
London, April 4, 1888
10:45 p.m. Wednesday
Evelina froze, a breath half taken catching in her throat, nerves tingling down every limb. She sat unmoving for a long moment, searching the shadows cast by her candle on the dusty attic floorboards.
Slowly, methodically, her gaze probed each corner of the space around her. Stacks of trunks and boxes made elephantine humps in the darkness. Furniture lurked phantomlike under dust covers. Attics were for storage of the useless and forgotten, for memories and the occasional secret. The only creatures that should be moving up here were ghosts and mice. Yet she’d heard something else. Or sensed it.READ MORE
Still barely daring to breathe, Evelina carefully set the miniscule piece of machinery she held back into its box, resting her tiny long-nosed pliers next to it. Her fingers lingered on the casket for a moment, caressing her brass and steel creation almost tenderly. Most nights, she retreated to the attic to work in private after the rest of Hilliard House had retired. This was the one place, the one time, she enjoyed the absolute freedom to indulge her talents. No one else came up here, especially not this late.
And yet, she heard the creak of the door at the bottom of the attic stairs, then a footfall. Someone was coming. Odd, because the household had retired early—His Lordship had declared himself and his lady in need of a quiet night in. Therefore, no one dared to so much as rustle a candy wrapper tonight.
So who was up and about? Apprehension prickled along her arms. In the privacy of her own mind, Evelina Cooper gave a very improper curse.
There were any number of reasons why a young lady, gently reared by a respectable grandmamma, did not want to be caught hiding in the attic in the dead of night. First would be the inevitable assumption that she was meeting a lover. Why was it that no one imagined a young lady might have more weighty interests?
Second, whatever trouble she got into would automatically rebound on her best friend, Imogen Roth. Hilliard House belonged to her schoolmate’s high-and-mighty father, Lord Bancroft, and Evelina was a guest for the Season at Imogen’s request. If she were caught doing anything even mildly scandalous, Lord B was more likely to mount both their heads on his study wall than to listen to excuses.
And an unladylike fascination with mechanics was enough to cause comment. It was time to vanish, thoroughly and quickly. She snuffed the candle with her bare fingers. Moonlight slanted through the window, painting the attic in a watery light. Quickly, she gathered up the scatter of parts and tools she’d strewn about the floor and placed them into the box, careful not to make a clatter. After a last glance around, she closed the lid and silently hid the box and candle behind a rolled-up carpet leaning against the wall.
Evelina’s stomach cramped with tension. There wasn’t just one pair of heavy feet coming up the stairs. She definitely heard two. Damnation!
Her mind went blank for a split second, as devoid of ideas as a pristine sheet of paper. There was only the single exit. She had to hide, but where? The third reason she absolutely, categorically could not be caught was because her box didn’t just hold tools; it held implements of magic. That fact would raise more questions than she was prepared to answer.
The footsteps were loud now, nearly to the top of the stairs. She could see the flash of a lantern swinging to and fro. Male voices filled the cavernous gloom. Servants, by their accents. The deep voices of big, strong brutes.
“Why the bloody hell is it always something in the attic they want moved?” one grumbled.
“’Cause if it were easy, they wouldn’t be paying us to lug it down the stairs, would they?” said the other. “Now shut it and do your job.”
With desperate haste, Evelina pulled off her shoes and stockings and stuffed them behind the carpet with her box. Then she bolted for the window and carefully pushed up the sash, hoping the noise the two men made was enough to hide the scrape of wood on wood.
A blast of night air ruffled her hair. Gathering her skirts tight, she crawled out the window, balancing on the narrow decorative ledge that ran along the outside of the house. It was lucky she was wearing a plain work dress, not much fancier than one of the maid’s uniforms. If she’d been dressed in a dinner gown with a bustle and miles of petticoats, she would never have managed. Fortunately, she’d abandoned all that nonsense during her late-night sessions, letting herself bend and breathe free.
Her bare toes felt for the cool stone, sensitive to every dip and ridge. The ledge was just wider than her foot, easy enough to walk on if one had good balance. The voices were getting louder. Anxiety nipped at her heels. Her knees trembled with the effort to hold herself back, not to move too quickly. She had no trouble with heights, but haste could literally be her downfall.
Taking a breath, Evelina edged away from the window, not daring to take the time to close it behind her. One step, then two, and she was out of sight. Even if they guessed someone else had been there, no one would look for one of Lord Bancroft’s houseguests clinging like a bug to the wall. Of course, how many graduates of the Wollaston Academy for Young Ladies numbered walking a tightrope among their accomplishments? Then again, how many were orphans with one grandmother in charge of a country estate and another who told fortunes with Ploughman’s Paramount Circus? In some ways, Evelina had spent her whole life on a narrow ledge, balanced between two completely different worlds.
She gripped the wall behind her, inching farther still from the open window. With any luck, she would find another unlocked window and crawl back inside. While she was safe from the servants within the house, too many neighbors had a good view of her perch. The house had a large walled garden behind it, a legacy from a rural past, but now it faced onto busy Beaulieu Square. To either side of Hilliard House, arches of terraced homes flanked a circular garden.
Perhaps she would have been better off ducking under a dust cover? But then, she had always been more inclined to take risks than to hide. That was half her problem. She might have learned to act like a lady, but she still didn’t think like one. Ladies didn’t sneak about, and they certainly didn’t attempt unheard-of experiments just to prove to themselves that they were every bit as smart as a man—and clever enough to attend a university college—but that was exactly what Evelina was doing in her attic retreat. She took risks, but not without a reason.
The wind snatched strands of her dark hair and whipped it around her face. She caught bits of sound: the clop-clop of horses, a distant pianoforte murdering a Chopin ballade, the muffled notes of a female voice coming from just around the corner of the house. Evelina caught a man’s answering tones, harshly ordering the woman, half buried beneath the chime of church bells. Eleven? How had it become so late?
She edged along, curious to catch more of the conversation, but the voices had died away. Her path toward them was blocked anyway. An oak tree grew beside the house, one of its thick branches angling up to scrape against the gutters. Evelina could easily reach it with one hand. Then two. She pulled herself up, swinging one leg over the rough trunk. Her skirts hitched, bunched, and generally got in the way, but she got to her feet and was soon moving cautiously toward the heavy foliage nearer the trunk. It wasn’t perfect cover, but a girl in a tree was a lot less visible than a girl silhouetted against a moonlit wall.
Evelina paused, crouching low and balancing with one hand on a neighboring branch. Bits of bark scraped the tender soles of her feet, but she forgot the discomfort in a momentary rush of exhilaration. It was so rare that she got to really use her body since she had passed the divide between girl and woman. At Imogen’s house, where she could roam almost at will, Evelina enjoyed the freedom to think and work. But even at Hilliard House, a lady did not clamber about in trees.
She let the April wind play with her hair and skirts. It was chill, the scent of rain reminding her spring was slow to give way to summer. From up here she could see a sliver of London, gaslights tracking in zigzags across the richer parts of the city. And, besides the lamps on the streets, individual homes sported their own displays beside their doors, on balconies, or wherever smaller globes could be mounted. The more prosperous a household was, the more of the fashionable—and expensive—lights it had, until the richest parts of the city sparkled like the jewels of a fairyland queen.
The lights nearby showed a faint gold tinge, while those farther away were blue or green or red. The color of the glass globes marked the district and the company that provided them—and, by extension, which of the so-called steam barons controlled the light and heat for the people who lived there. According to Lord Bancroft, the owners of the great coal and gas companies had divided London—divided all the Empire in fact—into uneven slices like a pie. Steam was their mainstay, but they had bought up other things, like coal mines, railways, and even some factories. She understood the colored lights were a symbol of their stranglehold, but it did make for a pretty sight when the lamps came on at night.
Of course, there were always exceptions—those houses that sat dark and cold. There were whole neighborhoods like that in the poor districts like Whitechapel, but the rich streets had them, too. They were called the Disconnected, these people who had either lost all their money or, even worse, lost the favor of the steam barons.
The thought went by in a moment, as fleeting as the breeze, but it was enough to distract her. When she shifted her weight to move again, her foot slipped. For a wild, heart-stopping moment, she felt herself falling. Leaves and branches rushed toward her, clawing at her hair and face. Reflexively, she hooked a leg around the branch while her hands flailed for something to grip. Then, with a hoarse gasp, she caught herself.
Now Evelina hung upside down, a gentlewoman’s version of a tree sloth. Waves of panic slid beneath the surface of her control, threatening to crack her to pieces. She squeezed her eyes closed, refusing to give in to the tears of fright and embarrassment prickling for release.
The voice came from inside her head, but she felt the light pressure of the greeting like a finger prodding her consciousness. She opened her eyes. A faint, slightly luminous green smudge hung inches from her face.
“Hello,” she muttered.
The light bobbed, seeming to look her over. What are you doing?
Evelina bit back a scathing retort. The creature was a deva, a nature spirit. They seemed to bear the characteristics of different elements: woods or air, fire or water, or maybe a combination in between. Some were tiny and others huge and fierce. The countryside was thick with them, though city gardens sometimes had spirits, too. This one had probably claimed the tree as its home. Those of the Blood—like her fortune-telling grandmother’s side of the family—could see them. Everyone else called them the stuff of fairy tales.
Just Evelina’s luck if someone found her stuck in a tree talking to an invisible creature. Lord B would send her packing before she could say “Bedlam.” Of course, it would be worse if anyone actually believed she could talk to nature spirits. That counted as magic, deemed by most as immoral and by the courts as illegal. Just today, they’d arrested a witch who was also a renowned actress named Nellie Reynolds. If someone as popular as her wasn’t safe, Evelina didn’t stand a chance.
I asked, the deva repeated in a tart voice, what you are doing in my tree?
“I’m stuck. I was running away, and I fell.” What had she been thinking? Evelina cursed her idiocy. She wasn’t one of the Fabulous Flying Coopers anymore and hadn’t been on a tightrope since she was a child.
You should leave climbing to cats.
She just growled by way of response. Using her legs for leverage, she started to squirm in an effort to haul herself upright. Unfortunately, there were no handholds to help her get to the top side of the branch. It was a matter of pure strength and balance, both of which seemed to be fading fast. Her arms were starting to shake. I’m getting soft.
The thought made her jaw clench. “Give me some help, deva!”
Of course, it didn’t. They never did unless compelled, and her tools—the needle and grains of amber she used in the spell with which she bound a spirit—were in the wretched box, hidden where bothersome servants couldn’t find it. Making a last effort, Evelina wriggled and twisted until she found new handholds. When she finally got her bearings, she was facing the other way, toward the house, but she was upright again.
The deva had vanished. “Thanks for nothing,” she muttered. Now she had scrapes on her palms, and she was sure she’d heard her hem tear on the stump of a twig. Still, she had got herself back up on the branch. That counted for something.
She glanced toward the attic window, hoping against hope that the servants had left. No, she could still see their lamplight. What were they looking for?
More carefully this time, she moved along the upward-sloping branch just far enough to get a better view. Not too close, though. She didn’t want them to see her looking in.
The men had hung their oil lantern from a hook in the ceiling. A pool of light spread over the scene, far brighter than that of Evelina’s candle. Now that she saw the men’s faces, she recognized them as Lord Bancroft’s grooms. From what she’d observed, he used them frequently for odd, hard-to-explain tasks.
Five huge brass-studded steamer trunks had been taken from a stack against the wall and moved onto the floor. Evelina remembered they bore a maker’s mark from Austria, where Lord Bancroft had served as ambassador.
“What’s in these?” asked one groom. She could just hear them through the open window.
“Don’t know.” The other stopped, wiping his forehead on his sleeve.
“Figure if we have to take them cross-country, we should know, eh?” The first one bent down, pulling out his pocket knife and worrying at the lock. She heard the click of the heavy mechanism. Heavy metal hasps sprang open, as if triggered by springs.
Evelina watched intently, fascination outweighing the cold and her highly uncomfortable seat. It took both men to lift the lid of the trunk. One of them stepped back, seeming to recoil with disgust.
“God in Heaven,” the man cursed. “It smells like something died in there.”
Evelina’s eyes widened, and she gripped the branch even tighter. The scent didn’t reach her, but her skin prickled as if doused with magnetic energy. Stale, bad energy that left her fearful of the dark.
The interior of the trunk was lined with blue satin and sculpted to hold the limbs, head, and torso of a dismembered body. Panic clenched her belly, and Evelina gasped loudly before she could stop herself. Good God, what is this?
Then she caught sight of the metal joints at the shoulders and hips. The body wasn’t human. In fact, was covered in coarse, dun-colored ticking, and the face and hands were painted porcelain, just like a child’s doll. An automaton. But it looked just real enough to send another shiver down her spine. She must not have been the only one to feel that way. The man pulled the lid down with a bang, shutting the frightful thing from sight.
She felt an almost palpable relief. That had to be the ugliest automaton ever made, the face staring and slack-jawed. Was it one of Lord Bancroft’s souvenirs from Austria? She’d never heard anyone mention such a thing. Did each of those trunks have a monstrosity like that inside?
Of course, the appearance of the clockwork girl wasn’t the most interesting thing. Even from where Evelina sat in the tree, she could tell the automaton vibrated with magic. And not any magic, but sorcery of the wickedest kind.
A chill of relief, anxiety, and a peculiar kind of terror shivered through her. What she had just witnessed was both a shield and an Achilles’ heel. Whatever secrets Evelina was hiding, she now knew the impeccable Lord Bancroft was concealing much, much worse.
Speculation faded as Evelina, trapped in the tree, grew colder and increasingly disgruntled. It took another half hour before the grooms left, carting the trunks away to who knew where, then another thirty minutes to make sure all was quiet again. Finally, half frozen and aching, Evelina crawled back through the attic window.
Her first priority was safety. She willed her feet to make no noise as she crept down flight after flight of plain oak stairs to the soft carpeting of the second-floor corridor. Her box was nestled in a canvas bag slung crossways over her shoulder, and her breath was frozen in her throat. At every turn of the stairs, she paused to listen for the slightest movement, but so far her luck had held.
Her final task was to run the gauntlet of the family’s bedchambers, where the row of doors stood like oak-paneled sentries. Behind each, a titled or at least honorable head lay on goose down pillows. Her bedroom lay at the other end of the long hallway.
Pausing to listen, she heard only the ghostly tap-tap of the oak outside the stairway window. At the end of the corridor, a longcase clock beat a rhythm half the pace of her racing heart.
She shielded the flame of her candle with one hand, the light etching her fingers in glowing red. The glimmer that escaped touched the pattern of the Oriental carpet, the dark paneling, the glint of brass on doorknobs and wall sconces. Evelina tiptoed forward, catching the scent of wood polish and lavender. Lord B’s domestic staff ran his house with exacting efficiency.
She made it past Lady Bancroft’s chamber, then the youngest daughter’s bedroom. Poppy was in the country with her grandparents, so there was no need to worry about waking her. Then came Tobias, the handsome son of the family. Though he often sat up very late, there was no light under his door. There was under Imogen’s, but then she always slept with a candle burning.
The clock made a chunking sound as something inside it shifted. As well as the time, it told the date, moon phase, barometric pressure, and occasionally spit out a card in a cipher only Lord Bancroft understood. Clockwork drove part of it, but tubes of bright chemicals were also nested inside, powering parts of the machine. Evelina had figured out some of the workings, but by no means all. Every dial and spring worked perfectly, except for the function that predicted the weather. For some reason, it was wrong as often as not.
At least the clock, unlike some of Lord B’s other souvenirs, didn’t give her the shudders. Her mind went back to the trunks in the attic, the thought of them raising a chill down her nape. Why did the ambassador have those automatons? And why was he moving them?
Then without warning, Imogen’s bedroom door opened.
Evelina sprang into the air, barely stifling a squeak. The box rattled as if she had purloined all the silverware in the house.
A figure stepped into the corridor, closing Imogen’s door. Despite the hour, the young upstairs maid was crisply turned out in black and white, though dark circles sagged under her eyes.
“Miss Cooper! Have you come to check on Miss Roth?” Her gaze flicked over Evelina, but only for an instant.
Evelina felt herself coloring. She had the bag slung over her shoulder, her hem was ripped, and no doubt her hair looked like she’d been climbing a tree. Yet the well-trained servant pretended to see none of it.
“What’s the matter, Dora?” Evelina asked. “Is it her old complaint?”
“I don’t think so, miss.”
“Is there a fever? Should Dr. Anderson be summoned?” The questions came out in a panicked rush.
Dora shook her head. “I don’t know, miss. Miss Roth simply said she could not sleep. I was going to prepare the draft the doctor left for her, miss, just as she asked me to.”
Evelina exhaled slowly. “Then you do that. I’ll look in on her.”
Dora nodded, visibly relieved to be able to share the responsibility. “Very good, miss. I’ll come back in a tick with fresh candles.”
Imogen couldn’t abide the dark. Evelina pushed open her friend’s door and stepped inside. The room was cool and spacious, a sitting room on one end and a large bed in an alcove at the other. Bed curtains of heavy sky-blue silk were looped back, framing Imogen where she sat propped against a mountain of snow-white pillows.
“Evelina!” she said. “What are you doing up and about at this hour? And why do you look like you rolled through a forest?”
Imogen’s fair hair hung in long, thick braids against the pin tucks of her nightdress. Her face looked pale, but part of that was her porcelain complexion.
“Dora said you couldn’t sleep.” Evelina set down her bag and candle and crossed to the bed. “Are you unwell?”
Her friend’s gray eyes searched the ceiling as if she expected to find poems scribed on the ornate plaster. “I had a nightmare,” she said flatly.
Evelina was silent for a long moment. Night terrors were a symptom of the nervous ailment that had plagued Imogen since she was no more than five or six years old. The illness came and went, until finally her parents had sent her to the Wollaston Academy for Young Ladies, hoping the good Devonshire air could achieve what the doctors could not. That was where Evelina had met her.
More to the point, that was where Imogen had taken her under her wing and given her the social advantage of her companionship. Though Evelina’s disgraced mother had tried to teach her how to act the lady, a lot of polishing had been required, and Imogen had taken it on with a will. Evelina owed her a great deal for that, as well as for being a steadfast friend.
“You haven’t had one of your bad dreams for a long time.”
“No.” Imogen was still looking at the ceiling, seeming embarrassed. “It wasn’t the usual one about being trapped. This time I was dreaming about the castle in Vienna, where Papa was ambassador. I was floating through the tower. Flying, you know, like a feather on the breeze. I was terrified because I couldn’t find my way back to my bed.”
Vienna. Mention of it reminded Evelina of the trunks in the attic. She thought of asking Imogen if she knew about them, then discarded the idea. Her friend was already having nightmares without bringing up ugly automatons. “My grandmother says that dreams of old houses mean you’re trying to find a lost memory.”
“Your circus grandmother?” Imogen finally looked at Evelina.
“Yes, Grandmother Cooper. She knows what dreams mean. I don’t think Grandmamma Holmes would let such fancies through the door. She’d tell the footman to toss them out.”
Imogen chuckled. “I can see her doing it, too. You’re lucky, having two such different grandmothers. Mine are almost interchangeable.”
Of all Evelina’s acquaintance, Imogen was the only one who knew about Ploughman’s. The circus was all very fine to watch, but the gentry would never embrace someone who grew up with knife throwers and clowns. The first thing Evelina had been forced to learn when she joined the gentry was to hide her past.
“Do you know you have leaves in your hair?” Imogen asked. “Are you coming as a dryad to Mama’s garden party?”
Evelina felt through her tangled locks. “I had to climb a tree.”
“Indeed?” Imogen hitched herself a little higher on the sheets, a smirk curving her lips. She reached over to her bedside table, picking up an ivory comb and handing it to Evelina. “I think you had better tell me all about it.”
“I did something foolish, and I’m sorry for it.” Evelina perched on the edge of the bed, pulling the pins out of her hair. “I was in the attic.”
“Working on—whatever it is you’re doing. I know you tried to explain it.”
“My toys. I’m indulging my unladylike penchant for gears and springs.”
“You wicked, wicked girl.” Imogen settled back against her pillows, clearly ready to be entertained.
“Fit for nothing but Newgate Prison.”
And she hadn’t even mentioned the magic part of it. Imogen knew a tiny bit about Evelina’s talent—it was impossible to hide such a gift from her very best friend, especially in the confines of the academy—but she had never told her everything. There were only so many secrets she could ask her friend to keep.
Evelina started to drag the comb through her locks, wincing as it snagged. “I was nearly caught by a couple of the servants. I crawled out the window to hide and ended up in the oak tree. I just about fell out.”
Imogen laughed—a hearty chuckle that had nothing to do with her delicate looks. “I wish I’d been there to see that!”
“I beg your pardon? It was most distressing!”
That only made Imogen laugh the harder, a healthier pink rising to her cheeks.
“I’m being serious.” Evelina frowned with mock severity.
Imogen gave her a scathing look. She looked brighter for the conversation, but shadows still smudged the skin under her eyes. She truly wasn’t well.
“I’m sorry for being so thoughtless,” Evelina said. “If I’d been caught, your father would have blamed you as much as me. I’m in this house at your invitation, and I have no right to risk its reputation, or yours.”
Imogen shook her head. “Your escapades don’t frighten me.”
“They should. I’ll land you in trouble yet.”
“I can look after myself.”
Evelina felt something tighten inside. At school, she’d been the one who’d nursed Imogen when she fell ill. She’d been the guard dog when schoolroom bullies loomed. She still felt fiercely protective. “I should know better.”
“You can’t be anything but who you are.”
“And what is that?”
Her friend squinted in a considering way. “I’m not sure yet.”
“But you’re going to be brilliant, Imogen Roth. The belle of all London.”
Now that they had completed their education—an event slightly delayed because of Imogen’s illness and Evelina’s late start—this would be their first Season. Evelina had promised to be her companion through the balls and routs and the inevitable string of suitors—or at least as much as her modest place in the world would allow. A champion until death, Imogen had called her, although Evelina suspected her role would be short lived. Despite her health, Imogen was too beautiful to remain unmarried long.
As for Evelina—she doubted she would marry. At least not now. Unlike Imogen, she would not be presented to the queen—the seal of approval that granted worthy young women access to Society. Just before Easter, the summons had been sent to those young ladies deemed suitable for the honor, and Evelina had not received one. That limited which parties she would be invited to, and which young men she would have the chance to meet, and how far she could accompany Imogen. Even though her heart yearned to dance at the Duchess of Westlake’s ball, she would never set one slipper on that glorious polished oak floor. Grandmamma Holmes would give her a dowry, but nothing like what Lord Bancroft could bestow on his daughter. Barring a romance worthy of Sir Walter Scott, Evelina’s future lay in something other than a brilliant match.
Perversely, that bothered her less than missing out on the fun of the Season. It was hard to miss a man she would never meet, but she itched to go dancing. As it was, she would have to content herself with family gatherings, like Lady Bancroft’s birthday party, or improving occasions, like the opening of the Gold King’s show of ancient Greek artifacts at the new Prometheus Gallery. All of the exclusive events, to which only the cream of Society was invited, she would have to experience from the sidelines.
The sense of passing time tugged at Evelina like a dull, persistent pain. She and Imogen had been inseparable for years. This would be the last few months before they went their separate ways into womanhood. No doubt Imogen would rise to a title. Evelina would . . . well, she had her plans.
Dora’s light step sounded in the passage. Evelina squeezed her friend’s hand. “Shall I stay with you tonight?”
“Stop playing the mother hen. It was just a dream. Nothing more.”
Evelina rose, picking up her things. “Then I had better go to bed myself. Sleep well.”
Dora entered with the sleeping medication just as Evelina left. The maid bobbed a curtsey as she passed, but gave Evelina another assessing look. No doubt looking for twigs in her hair.
Still, Evelina hovered outside Imogen’s door, unease seeping through her flesh. For all her efforts to avoid getting caught in the attic, Dora had seen her wandering the house. Since Evelina had caught Dora kissing the second footman last Tuesday, the maid was unlikely to speak of her twiggy disgrace. Any good servant knew the value of a little quid pro quo. But what if she’d been found out by someone besides Dora? Someone with the authority to ask questions? Someone who knew what those little mechanical toys really represented?
Evelina stared into the candle flame, no longer bothering to hide its light. Naked, it flickered and dipped in the air currents, as exposed as she felt. She had to be more careful.
Imogen had opened the doors to her heart and her home, and offered it without reserve. But her friendship—the only one Evelina could truly claim—could not shield her if things went wrong. Lord Bancroft’s pretty daughter was only a young woman, with no power or money of her own.
So much hung by a thread. Evelina listened to the rattle of the oak branch on the window, the quick patter making a counter-rhythm to the longcase clock. The sense of passing time did nothing to soothe her anxiety.
She heaved a quick breath, her chest too tight for a proper sigh. How on edge was she that a small incident could overset her?
Positive action was the only antidote to this mood. Her problems could wait. She would hide her box and then take her old place in the armchair by Imogen’s bed—just in case the nightmares returned. No one, especially not Imogen, should wake up alone and afraid.
She’d no sooner finished the thought than a flicker of shadow caught the corner of her eye. With the candle held aloft, she scanned the corridor.
No one was there. The only movement was her own reflection in a narrow mirror that hung outside Imogen’s door. Maybe that was what she had seen: the swing of her skirts. Forcing herself to breathe, Evelina strode toward her bedroom door.
The candle blew out, leaving her in utter blackness. Evelina stopped midstride, nerves straining. Someone passed by to her left, leaving a scent of sweat and brandy. She didn’t hear footsteps on the soft carpet, but felt the displacement of air—a light exhalation like the sound of a gloating smile.
Her skin shrank against her bones. Panic sent her skittering a few steps. “Who’s there?” she whispered.
But there was no reply, just the insistent tap-tap of the branches outside.
The silence shredded her nerves. She listened intently, straining every sense, but could detect no sound—no footfall, no whisper, no breath. Had the figure been going toward the stairs or away from them? She couldn’t tell.
She retraced her steps, finding her way back to Imogen’s door, but still she sensed nothing. At last, she decided it would be safe to leave for the time it would take to put her box away. The presence she had felt—if there had been one at all—was gone.
With one hand skimming the wall, she hurried to her door, groping to find the familiar shape of the handle. It rattled open and she plunged inside. Moonlight streamed in the windows, giving the impression of a photograph. For a long moment, Evelina stood with her back to the door, one hand grasping the key that she used to lock herself in.
Had she been imagining things? Should she wake the footmen and have them search the house?
No, that would be awkward. And she hadn’t actually seen anyone. It was probably just Tobias, come home after a night of carousing. Or a rampaging ghost. How mortifyingly Gothic.
She allowed herself a wry smile. That had been no remnant of the dead. She knew spirits well enough—anyone with her gifts saw them once in a while. It had to be Tobias.
Her heart still pattered, but slowly the calm dignity of the guest room—the pale counterpane, the wardrobe painted in Italian scenes, and the heavy velvet curtains—had its effect. Finally relaxed enough to move, Evelina left her post by the door.
Still working by moonlight, she set the candlestick on the desk, then slid the box out of the bag and placed it carefully on the polished wood surface. The box was really a train case—one her Grandmamma Holmes had given her—covered in black leather and fitted with twin brass hasps.
The stern old lady would have an apoplexy if she knew what her gift concealed. Evelina studied the train case for a moment, her mind flicking from Imogen to her fright in the corridor. Tobias. It must have been him.
Sliding into her desk chair, she drew the candle closer, smelling the smoke from its extinguished wick. With gentle fingers, she touched the warm wax, noting the shape and texture of it, feeling the potential energy inside. She let her mind drift a moment, envisioning the bright veils of flame she desired. Come.
Light sprang back to the wick, flaring up a second before settling back to a normal flame. Evelina pushed the candle back, satisfied. Though the bloodlines that granted such magic were thin these days, she could call the essence of things: fire, water, perhaps the deva living in a stream or a tree.
And it was a power that could damn her. Science was the currency of the educated, monied, polite classes. With the rise of industry, magic—impossible to measure, regulate, or rule—was banned by Church and State, and especially by the steam barons who controlled so much with their vast wealth. Fortune-tellers and mediums were usually tolerated as amusing if immoral tricksters. Anyone claiming to use real power was subject to jail and probably execution or—if there was some suspicion they actually had the Blood—a trip to Her Majesty’s laboratories for testing.
The specter of the latter terrified her into nightmares at least as bad as her friend’s. When she’d read about the arrest of Nellie Reynolds, she had wept with fear. And yet, Reynolds was far from the first magic user put on trial even in the last twelve months. It was hard not to grow numb and, from there, resigned that someday it would be her standing in the dock.
Yet, dangerous or not, the power pushed at her as urgently as thirst or desire. It wasn’t something a person could just shut down. Plus, it was the strongest link to her childhood. Denying it would be like denying half her flesh.
She put her fingers on the hasps of the box, breathing hard. There was too much going on. She needed to calm herself. Everything’s going to be fine.
“Evelina.” Breath stirred the fine hairs at the nape of her neck.
Shock vaulted her out of her chair. The candlestick wobbled as she braced herself to wheel around, sending shadows lurching over the walls and ceiling. Before she had fully focused on the intruder’s face, Evelina was holding a paper knife inches from the speaker’s eyes.
He held her gaze, as if daring her to look. Evelina obliged, cataloguing what she saw: straight dark hair falling to his collar, dark eyes fanned in lashes any woman would have envied, and skin the color of milky coffee. Candlelight sculpted a face like a young falcon, lean and hook-nosed. A faint bruise fanned his cheekbone, as if he had caught a fist there, and a thin white scar tracked like a tear under one eye. His clothes, a curious mix of homespun and silks, were threadbare and wet with rain. Wisely, he held his hands away from his sides, showing them open and empty of weapons.
The knife hadn’t wavered from where she held it poised to strike. Evelina’s hand was perfectly steady, but her pulse thundered like the sea in a typhoon. Her mouth drifted open in astonishment.
Doubting, hoping, she flicked her attention back to those liquid brown eyes. Yes, she knew the face, or a version of it. Same gold hoops in his ears. Same quirk at the corners of his mouth. But the strong, muscled body smelling of saddle leather and adult male was entirely new.
“Nick?” she said in a choked whisper. “What are you doing here?”
“Is that how your fine governess taught you to welcome guests?” He smiled, teeth showing white in his swarthy face.
She lowered the impromptu weapon, stepping back until the edge of the table pressed into her skirts. So it had been Nick in the corridor, frightening her half to death. He had the Blood, too, but a different bloodline than the Coopers. Somehow it had given him an annoying ability to sneak up on other people with the silence of a falling shadow. Gran had said she’d never seen anything like it—but then Nick was one of a kind.
But knowing who it had been scarcely improved matters. She kept her fingers curled around the wooden handle of the knife, if only for the feeling of something solid to cling to. Her breath was coming in short, sharp pants, but she forced her voice to be crisp. Five years. She hadn’t seen him in five whole years. It felt like lifetime.
The moment stretched uncomfortably until she saw the flicker of doubt in his eyes. In that instant, her heart cracked. She dropped the knife onto the table and stepped into him, flinging her arms around his neck as she had when she was no more than a child. He closed the embrace carefully, his touch far more cautious than his bold words. A hot ache filled her throat, yearning and sorrow mixed with dread.
And anger—because there was nothing safe or good in this reunion. All the anxiety she had felt during her earlier adventure flooded back. She would be disgraced if the household found a strange man in her bedchamber—and just as bad, her past with the circus would be revealed. There would be no chance to explain, not with her history, and Nick would be arrested whether or not he was actually committing a crime. She couldn’t count on luck saving her this time. Surely she’d used up her store for the night.
Even more dangerous, she felt a familiar ripple of energy pass between them as Blood met Blood. A hot, heavy pressure stirred inside her, calling her own magic to the surface. As they had grown older, whatever it was that made Nick unique made her own talents almost impossible to hide when he was near. Now, after so many years, the pull was stronger than ever before. In the flickering candlelight, she could almost see a silvery glimmer where they touched. Power—raw and uncontrolled. Whenever they had called it, it had slipped its leash. That was the last thing they needed now.
Evelina shivered, and as Nick ran his hands down her arms in a time-honored gesture of comfort, magic tingled along her skin. Her throat constricted with unspoken pain. The very spark that made them who they were made it incredibly dangerous to be together.
Swallowing back a rush of sadness, she took a deep, steadying breath. It had taken so long to get over the loss of him that he couldn’t—he just couldn’t be there. The sight of him brought back too much pain. She pushed him away, wanting to stop the reunion before old wounds began to bleed. “You’re damp with rain.”
He pressed a hand over his heart. “That is enough to send me away? A little rain shouldn’t frighten you. We’ve slept together under the open stars.”
She crossed her arms, keeping her embraces to herself. “I was eleven, and it was disgustingly cold. And Old Ploughman was snoring a dozen feet away.”
“Your memory lacks romance.”
“I like accuracy.” She shot the words back before the sheer physical presence of this new, fully adult Nick could cloud her mind. Her gaze roved over him, taking in the lean hips and strong shoulders, the long, lithe legs of the horseman. There was nothing of the boy left in the hard muscles she’d felt under his shirt, or in the graceful power of his every gesture. Her skin felt hot and tight, as if she’d suddenly contracted a fever.
“You pierce my heart, fair lady.”
“Rot. Don’t waste your patter on me; you’re impervious to a mere comment. I’m willing to wager you have more knives on your person than Lady Bancroft has place settings.”
He shrugged—the gesture so familiar it brought a throb to her chest. Memories crashed in, stifling in their urgency. When they had parted, Nick had been seventeen years old; she had been not quite fourteen. If she had stayed with the travelers, they would eventually have wed as surely as summer followed spring.
But that hadn’t happened. She looked at him now, wondering what he would have been like as a husband. Wondering what secrets this older Nick had hidden behind his cautious smile and those silken rags. The thought of it left her empty and aching.
“What are you doing in my bedchamber?” she demanded.
“Do you think I am here to ravish you, after all this time?”
She allowed herself a smile. His showman’s persona never quite came off with the costume. “I doubt you’ve kept the image of my pigtails and pinafore etched on your soul.”
“How little you understand me,” he said with another flash of teeth. “I was not whisked away by a long-lost and eminently respectable grandmamma. Perhaps my memory can afford to be longer.”
“Why are you here?”
“I asked for you at every stop the traveling show made, from Scotland to Dover.”
“No.” She had to deny it. She couldn’t bear the idea of him suffering anything like what she had felt. But then Nick, for all his faults—including the foolhardy bravery that had brought him there tonight—had always been loyal.
“It’s true.” He reached across the distance between them, his fingertips barely brushing her cheek. They were rough, but she didn’t flinch away. Instead, she felt turned to stone, mesmerized by his plain, almost coarse accent. No Mayfair polish here.
“Stop,” she whispered.
“I knew you would grow into a beauty. Skin like the moon and hair like a starless night, as the old song goes.” His voice was husky. “We were close once. Are you so far above me now? I suppose you are.”
As long as no one burst in and found them together. At the very least, that would send her plunging back to the mud as fast as the laws of gravity allowed. She had to make him leave.
Still, Evelina wanted to know everything. Where he’d been. If he still devoured any and every book that fell into his hands. If he had found another girl to follow him around like a worshipful duckling. She had run away to find him once, when her courage failed at the beginning of their life apart. Her Grandmamma Holmes had locked her in the cellar.
The questions jammed up, tangling her tongue. “Are you still with the show?” she managed.
He dropped his hand, a mix of irony and pride flickering over his features. “Where else would I be? I’m the Indomitable Niccolo, supreme knife man and best trick rider in all Italia.”
“You’ve never been farther south than Kent,” she said in caustic tones. And she suspected his parents had been more Romany than Italian, but no one actually knew. He’d been a foundling who knew his first name and nothing else.
“Italia plays better with the crowd. Besides, it’s no more a sham than you playing at gentlewoman. Your father was one of us.”
There it was, the betrayal. She’d left Nick behind.
“But this,” Evelina gestured at the elegant room, “was my mother’s world.” And she was caught between, half gentry and half vagabond, two halves that never knit properly together.
Nick’s gaze roved over the bedchamber, lingering long on the silver candlesticks. Instinctively, she moved to screen his view of the box. “Why are you here?” she repeated. “What are you doing in London? Ploughman’s never wintered here.” It wasn’t one of the big, famous shows. She remembered when all the performers had taken a cut in wages so the show could afford to buy the lions.
“We’ve been here since November.”
That meant they were moving up in the hierarchy of the circus world. That should have been good news, but Evelina’s throat tightened at the thought of her Gran, of Nick, of all the circus folk she’d grown up with being in the same city and never knowing it.
“I’ve been watching the house, wondering what was the best time to come see you, if you might be happy to see me. But then I saw you climbing a tree tonight, and I knew that at least part of you was still the same girl I knew. What were you doing, little Evie?”
The old endearment stung, reducing her back to the barefoot girl picking up pennies the crowds threw for her elders. “It’s none of your business anymore.”
His face went solemn. “Perhaps. But I saw you two days ago. In the street. I had given up hope of ever finding you. But a little silver to your groom and a gardener let me know where you sleep.”
The look Nick gave her was far too soft. She felt blood mount to her cheeks. How she had wished he would look at her like that, once upon a time. How it had finally started to happen when it was time for her to leave him. Now it was too late. “You know it’s madness for us to be together.”
“I do. I’m not stupid, Evie, but knowing you’re safe is worth the risk.”
She bit her lip. He didn’t have the right to choose that risk for her. “Are you so certain about that?”
He blinked, his face falling back to his insouciant expression. “I don’t expect you to come home with me. I just needed to know that you are happy. Is that so wrong?”
She took a breath, held it, and tried to find the right answer. “No. Are you? Happy, I mean.”
He shrugged. “You know me. I am content as long as I am the best.” He looked around the room again, as if trying to memorize it. “So what do you do with yourself now? Have tea parties? Look for a husband?”
It was a good question, and one Evelina asked herself daily. She was caught between between her circus past, with its hidden magic and its poverty, and her present, with schooling and science and enough to eat. She’d thought long and hard about another option, a place where she might find a brand-new path. “I want to go to university. There are colleges for women.”
His gaze came back to her, wide with surprise. “Why do you want that?” Probably no one in his acquaintance had set foot inside a proper schoolroom, much less a lecture hall.
“I’m good at learning. I want to see how far I can go. Maybe I’ll figure out . . . things.”
“What for?” Nick asked practically. “What don’t you already know?”
How to be whole. In her daydreams, she had fabricated a place where she would finally fit in. There would be women like her who loved a book of chemistry more than a new ball gown, and who didn’t care where she grew up. She could study with the finest scholars. Maybe, with their help, she could crack the code to why magic worked and how it meshed with science. She could finally solve the puzzle of her own nature.
At last, she would know where she belonged. And maybe that mattered more than anything else.
The look on Nick’s face was hard to read, so she changed the subject. “I’m glad you came.”
One corner of his mouth curled up. “Is that the truth?”
“It is.” But she couldn’t tell. She felt suffocated by an emotion that was not guilt or loneliness or irritation, but a painful mix of all three. It’s not my fault that I couldn’t stay with you.
Nick watched her with eyes that missed nothing. His mouth was a flat line, with the deliberate neutrality of someone hiding pain.
Please go. She wanted to say it, but that would sever everything between them. She didn’t want that, either. Instead, she grasped his hand. It was warm and hard with calluses and the slow, languorous pulse of his power. It tingled up her arm, a sensual temptation to throw caution to the wind. It was hard to be the only one with Blood. Falling into Nick’s arms would put an end to isolation—but also an end to both their lives. “We’ll find a way to talk later, but now you should leave before you’re caught. And don’t go through the corridor this time. It’s late, but there’s a maid about.”
Nick had been staring at her hand clasping his, but now he looked up in confusion. He jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “I climbed the wall and came in that window. I wasn’t in the corridor.”
Downstairs, a woman shrieked—a long, chilling wail of terror.
Evelina locked eyes with Nick. “Somebody was, and I think we know which way he went.”
She gave Nick a shove toward the window, but he just leaned into the gesture, grabbing her wrist.
“Go!” she said, exasperation turning the word to a hiss.
“You think I’m leaving?” he growled. “What the blazes is going on out there?”
“Whatever it is won’t improve if you’re found.” Her words came out short and tight, urgency vibrating in her veins. She planted her free hand on his chest and pushed again. “And I’ll be sent packing right along with you.”
He bared his teeth. “Would that be so terrible?”
“Do you wish me ruined?” Her chances for school turned to dust?
They held each other’s glare. Evelina had to know what the scream was about, and there was no time for squabbling. Plus, she was terrified for him—far more than for herself. “It’s the only way we’ll both be safe. Nick, my conscience can’t bear it if you’re arrested when all you did was come to see me for old time’s sake.”
“Old time’s sake.” His lips curled at the last words, and he flicked a hand as if batting them away. “There’s a woman screaming downstairs. You thought someone was creeping around the corridors. I would worry about more than your reputation.”
Pounding shook Evelina’s door, making her jump. Nick pulled a knife from his belt, the blade gleaming in the candlelight. She caught her breath and grabbed his forearm, feeling the play of lean muscle under layers of clothing. “Wait here, then. Get out of sight.”
Nick didn’t budge.
The pounding came again, making the door latch rattle. “Miss Cooper?”
It was Dora.
“Who is that?” Nick whispered.
“One of the upstairs maids. Hide! Quickly!” Evelina was already in motion toward the door. When she cast a glance over her shoulder, Nick had vanished. Only a flutter of bed curtains betrayed his hiding place. Nick in my bed. Spectacular. I’ll never explain that one away. She turned the key in the lock and opened her door.
Dora stood with a candle in one hand. Her face was whey-pale, her lips bloodless. “Miss, you must come. I don’t know what to do.” The maid looked smaller than usual, as if her entire body had retracted in shock.
“What is it?” Evelina stepped into the corridor and pulled the door shut behind her. She wasn’t surprised that she was the first port of call in an emergency. Although she had little authority in the household, she knew the servants relied on her for a cool head and practical advice. That was one advantage of growing up in Ploughman’s Paramount Circus, where sword swallowing was a daily event. It tended to promote strong nerves.
Plus, the odd problem could be dealt with by one of Gran Cooper’s spells. Not that the servants knew why Miss Imogen’s friend seemed to be able to solve the unsolvable on so many occasions; they were just grateful that she cared about their lot. But, taking her cue from Dora’s expression, Evelina was already having doubts that this situation could be rescued with a bit of herb magic.
“What is it, Dora?” she asked again.
The maid opened her mouth, inhaled, then closed it again. She gave a quick shake of her head, as if to say the words couldn’t come out. Tears were leaking from her eyes, trailing beside her pink-tipped nose.
This wasn’t getting them anywhere. “Show me,” Evelina said, wanting to get away from her bedroom and the man hiding there.
Without another word, Dora led the way toward the stairs. Once on the main floor, instead of going left to the stately drawing rooms, she turned right toward the main entrance and the cloakroom used to hang the outerwear of the ambassador’s many guests. Though now retired from foreign service, Emerson Roth, Lord Bancroft, still moved chess pieces around the board of the Empire’s political scene, and that required lavish parties.
They were almost to the entrance hall with its gold sconces and coffered ceiling. Evelina walked two paces behind Dora, following the silent, hunched form. Shadows dragged at the hem of her skirts, reminding her that someone—not Nick—had passed her in the upstairs corridor. There had been those hideous, dismembered dolls in the attic. And then there had been screams.
Despite her vaunted nerves, a shudder slid down her backbone. Why didn’t I at least bring along some of Nick’s knives?
Evelina hurried to keep up with Dora, who was clearly on the verge of panic. She seemed to be heading directly to the cloakroom. The door stood open, light pooling on the marble floor beyond. Outside, one of the kitchen girls sat on a long upholstered bench, placed there so guests could change their footwear.
The girl, surely no more than fourteen or fifteen, was bowed nearly double, her face in her hands. The housekeeper sat next to her, wrapped in a quilted housecoat. She murmured softly, cradling the youngster in a motherly embrace. Evelina dragged her gaze away, giving them privacy. “What happened?”
“It was Maisie that cried out,” Dora said, the statement jerking out in pieces. “When she saw what was in there.” She pointed to the cloakroom.
It was no wonder that Evelina had heard the cry all the way upstairs. The sound, far from being lost in the high ceilings, would have carried right up the stairwell. But what had the young girl seen?
Evelina realized that her hands were icy and she badly wanted the water closet.
The door to the cloakroom stood open. The moment was so silent, she could hear the faint sibilance of the gaslights that had been laid in throughout the main floor. She took a step toward the doorway when Dora touched her arm. The maid’s brow was knitted in concern. “It’s a terrible sight in there, miss. It’s . . .it’s . . .”
Dora began to cry again, losing her power of speech.
Evelina squeezed her hand. “Sh. You stay here and help with Maisie. Has someone told Bigelow?” The butler—pillar of all things respectable—was just what the staff needed.
Dora nodded quickly. “He’s gone to tell the master.”
“Good.” With that, Evelina went through the cloakroom doorway. The gas was turned up, as if someone had tried to banish what was in the middle of the floor.
That sight made her forget every other detail of her surroundings.
Evelina stared at the crumpled lump, gradually making out the still form of a woman in a plain jacket and skirt. Not the rags of the poor, but not much above that, either. Her face was turned away from Evelina, giving a view of the back of her head. Her pale brown hair had been torn from its pins, the long tresses trailing around her. A well-worn hat lay a little distance from the body. Someone had carelessly stepped on it, crushing the crown. From the looks of her wardrobe, it had probably been the only one she owned.
It was the last detail that struck home, clogging Evelina’s throat with a trembling ache. As a child, she had never gone hungry, but there had been days when the proverbial wolf howled just outside the door. She knew what it was like to have few clothes, and how precious each item could be. It was something the Roths, for all their kindness, could never understand.
Slowly she came to terms with the fact that she was looking at a dead body. Not just dead, but violently dead. The straggling hair was matted with blood. A flutter of nausea worked its way up from Evelina’s stomach. She’d seen plenty of funerals and even helped with the laying out, but this was different.
And Evelina was utterly alone in the room. The soul of the girl was gone. Sometimes the dead lingered, but this time Evelina’s magic would be of no use. Death reigned over the tableau. Her nausea soured to a chill anger as questions began crowding in—a babble that threatened to turn into a roar. Foremost among them: Why was this dead woman here, at Hilliard House?
Anger thawed the first shock, and Evelina began a slow circuit, looking at the fallen figure from different angles. Suddenly the room itself came into focus, and what had been irrelevant noise turned to important details.
Clearly, the woman’s life had been ended here, at this very spot. It was a good thing that the rows of hooks and hangers along the wall were empty of costly garments that night. The simple white paint in the room made the sprays of blood stand out in gaudy contrast.
Evelina’s path took her past the victim’s feet. A broken candle lay on the floor, as if it had dropped from her hand during the struggle. Wax stuck to the floor, still soft enough to feel greasy when Evelina poked it with her finger. How long ago did this happen, then?
When she finally caught a glimpse of the woman’s front, Evelina gave a stifled gasp. The dead woman’s face was obscured by the tumble of her hair, but Evelina could see the throat had been slashed from ear to ear. What was left of Evelina’s dinner began rushing up her throat and she was suddenly aware of the sticky, meaty smell of flesh, thick with the coppery tang of blood.
She turned away, gulping. She had to skitter to avoid the slick of blood pooling under the body. Someone had already stepped in it—the partial arc of a shoeprint had been left just beside the dead girl. It was small—maybe it belonged to the girl herself.
Narrowing her eyes, she studied the skin of the victim. She knew blood pooled inside the body once someone died, leaving bruiselike marks. But there were other faint shadows—very slight abrasions, perhaps—around the neck and chin and along the jaw as if the killer had grabbed her there. Perhaps in order to cut her throat? The fatal injury angled a tiny bit downward from left to right, seeming to trail away at the end. Did that mean the killer was right-handed? She was too inexperienced to be certain, but one thing was clear. Whoever had done this had strength. The wound was so deep that it had cut clear through the trachea.
“Evelina? What the blazes is going on here?”
She whirled to face the door. Tobias Roth, Imogen’s brother, leaned against the wall, his posture as bonelessly indolent as usual. He was handsome, golden-haired, and dissolutely rumpled, as if he’d redressed himself while leaping out a paramour’s window. Even from where she stood, she could smell tobacco, brandy, and sweat. He’d been out at the clubs again and was probably half drunk. He’d also been in a fight, judging by one eye that was starting to purple and the tears in his waistcoat and trousers. His jacket was gone.
Nevertheless, Tobias still looked like the Archangel Gabriel. And even here, the sight of him made her breath hitch, betraying a weakness she refused to surrender to. Angels weren’t always as advertised, and Tobias would definitely be of the fallen variety.
But now he stiffened, his face turning pale as he gazed at the corpse in naked horror. “Dear God, that’s Grace Child.”
“What?” Shocked, Evelina looked at the corpse again, this time seeing past the dreadful wounds. Gingerly, she pushed back the lock of hair that had fallen over the top part of the face. She hadn’t recognized Grace out of her maid’s uniform and away from the pots and pans. No wonder Maisie and Dora were so upset.
And death had made a strange mask of the features, robbing them of expression. The hazel eyes were mere slits, the mouth slack, the cheeks splattered with blood. She was barely more than a girl.
“You wouldn’t know her to look at her, would you? She was so. . . .” Tobias trailed off.
Evelina said nothing, still astonished by how different the girl looked.
“Who would do something like this? And why?” His voice had gone quiet, a thread of anger giving it a darker edge.
“I don’t know.” Evelina shook her head. Despite the fact that she was suddenly cold enough to shiver, sweat trickled under her arms and between her breasts. She swallowed hard for the fortieth time, forcing her stomach back down her gullet. “But I think I know how they did it.”
“What do you mean?”
“Someone seized her by the throat and choked her, most likely when her back was turned. That would have made sure she didn’t cry out. Then he cut her open while she was down. You can see her hairpins have been pulled out. If I’m right, the murderer grabbed her jaw to hold her head steady.”
Tobias went utterly still. “Bloody hell.”
Evelina could see it in her mind’s eye—but what about what came next? Or before? “Someone must have seen who came and went from the house tonight. There has to have been a witness.”
Tobias was silent. Then he seemed to pull himself together. His silvery gray gaze lifted to search Evelina, taking in her unbound hair and torn hem. “Are you all right? How did you come to be part of this?” He stepped into the cloakroom, coming far too close.
“I’m fine,” she said shortly, all too aware of his nearness. “I came to see if I could help.” As if to prove it, she drew close enough to bend over the body, to touch it. She would never, ever play the vulnerable woman with Tobias. That was a trap she might never have the will to escape.
But, oh, it was hard. The top buttons of his shirt were undone, his collar gone. She could see the smooth pale arc of his throat. Beneath the scent of brandy, she could smell coal smoke, as if he’d been standing next to a steam engine. What had he been doing? The question dissolved—one detail too many to absorb.
He crouched next to her. He was so near, she could feel the heat of his body, and it was all she could do not to lean even closer. And if Tobias is a fallen angel, what does that make Nick? A handsome creature of the shadow world, come to tempt me with visions of lost love? Both men were desirable, and both were dangerous.
“What happened to you?” He frowned at the grimy stains on her clothes.
Evelina looked away. “What happened to you? You look a fright.”
He made a noise that wasn’t quite a laugh. “Touché. Nothing happened. The commotion woke me, so I came down to see what was the matter.”
Evelina looked up. Tobias met her eyes, as if defying her to contradict him. And yet there he stood, with the black eye and rumpled clothes, the very picture of a rake fresh from his late-night carousing. The question crept into her mind like some hideous subterranean beetle: Did he have anything to do with Grace’s death?
No, I don’t believe it. I don’t want to. She lowered her eyes, wondering if it would have been easier if he were guilty. Anything would be simpler than the hopeless longing she felt whenever he was close.
He must have read her expression. “I can promise you on everything I hold sacred that I had nothing to do with this. I might be a rascal, but I’m not evil.” His tone was gentle, almost apologetic, but she saw a flash of anger flit under the surface of his gaze.
It took every ounce of strength to keep her own voice level. “I know.”
How many women, she wondered, had been tempted to reform Tobias Roth? “You startled me in the upstairs hall,” she said.
“When?” His white, drawn face didn’t change.
If it hadn’t been Nick, or Tobias, then whom? Her stomach lurched. Dear Lord.
“Do you know what to look for?” he asked, jerking his chin at the body.
“Are you asking me to name the murderer by looking at the body?”
“Why not?” His eyes were bright with emotion. “If anyone could do it, you could. You’re smart enough.”
There was his redeeming grace. He didn’t treat her like a fool.
Evelina shook her head. “I’m not a consulting detective like my uncle. And be careful. You’re nearly standing in the blood.”
Tobias drew back with a sharp oath, then noticed the footprint. “Is that yours?”
“No. And I can’t be certain it’s Grace’s. Maybe it belongs to the girl who found her. I need to look more closely.”
“Well, I would suggest that you be quick about it. The police are on their way. They couldn’t find their backsides with an ordinance survey, but you can be sure they’ll toss everyone else out of the room.”
“Someone called the constables already?”
Tobias spoke low, through gritted teeth. “Bigelow did, before my father could stop him.”
“Someone crept into our house and committed murder. The scandal will be ferocious if it reaches the papers, so you can be sure the event will be buried faster than a plague victim.”
His words stalled Evelina’s brain. “How can you say that?” And then she realized that she was being naive.
Tobias made an impatient sound. “You know my father. Best to get on with your work.”
What work? What am I looking for? And why?
There was no good answer, outside the fact that it was impossible not to look. Partially it was curiosity. Partially it was respect. This woman had died. She deserved attention.
Carefully, she ran a hand down Grace Child’s arm, feeling for broken bones but not finding any. The limbs were still loose and slightly warm, the blood tacky enough to stick to Evelina’s fingers. She shuddered, wondering if it would be bad form to wipe herself clean on the victim’s skirts.
A small cross hung at Grace’s neck, the gold paint chipped. A purse with tattered fringes still held a few pence. Not robbery then—though any thief in this house would be after a bigger prize. Mended stockings. A hem and boots with fresh mud.
Grace had been out before this had happened. Errand? Assignation? Just a night off work to visit with friends? Evelina sniffed near Grace’s mouth. No telltale stench of gin. No scent of cheap perfume. Just a burned smell, as if clothing or hair had caught fire, but she saw no scorch marks on Grace’s clothes.
She lifted the hem of the skirt slightly, trying to gauge the depth of mud the girl had tromped through. Not too bad. Probably paved streets, then. Moving the skirts revealed a long, careful mend in Grace’s right stocking. And, oddly, a brand-new petticoat trimmed in Brussels lace. Where had she come by that?
Evelina had a sudden, sinking feeling. A girl clinging to the edge of society, one with no protection, one tempted to seek affection in the wrong places. But for the grace of God, it could have been Evelina.
She squeezed her eyes shut for a long moment, fighting back tears, imagining the terror Grace had felt and no doubt falling short of the real thing. Then she drew out her handkerchief and covered the girl’s face, giving her some dignity. She tried to remember some detail about the girl, but knew woefully little about the servant who slept under the same roof.
She arranged Grace’s skirts, smoothing them over the edge of her petticoats. I’ll do what I can for you. It would be little enough. As she’d said to Tobias, she was no detective.
There was the stomp and shuffle of men’s boots, and Tobias left Evelina to greet the newcomers at the door. A glimpse of tall, distinguished Lord Bancroft told her that time was running out. Even in a dressing gown, he had the look of a man ready to slap an unruly colony back into obedient servitude.
But he was a man with secrets. She knew that now. Dark magic, Your Lordship? Now there’s a tale you’ll keep close at all costs.
Evelina slipped her fingers under Grace’s jacket, questing for anything the servant might have hidden. Too many assumed a woman always used her bodice as a hiding place, but there were other options. Sure enough, there was an envelope tucked in the waistband at the small of Grace’s back, still moist with sweat. Evelina retrieved it and checked for the address. It was blank. Something hard was inside.
An unpleasant sensation swept up her arm. Magic. It had a strange, double-layered flavor, as if the envelope’s contents had come into recent contact with not one, but two spells. Some substances, occasionally stone but more often metal, could absorb magical residue. Where were you, Grace? These were dark spells, unlike anything her Gran Cooper would have spun. Evelina squeezed the envelope, trying to guess what it held.
She was suddenly all too aware of the constables standing with Lord Bancroft. Her pulse began to speed. There is evidence of murder and dark magic on your cloakroom floor, my lord. With a little careful management, the death of a servant might not arouse undue interest, but a scandal involving magic would be ruinous. There would be jail, or worse, and the courts were swift to find a culprit whenever and wherever magic was found. Every year, the penalties grew harsher, and a lordship was no guarantee of safety.
And if Lord Bancroft were destroyed, his family would be, too.
The thought made Evelina stiffen. Faces flashed through her mind: Tobias, Poppy, gentle Lady Bancroft, and even Lord B himself. They had been good to her. And Imogen was her only real friend. She slipped the envelope into her pocket and out of sight. Guilt flushed her cheeks, but she wasn’t handing it over until she understood what was going on—or, more precisely, until she was sure Imogen and her family would be proven innocent.
“What is Miss Cooper doing here? And not properly dressed?” Lord Bancroft asked in a brusque tone. A slight sibilance betrayed the fact he had been enjoying a late-night tête-à-tête with the whisky decanter. “Do I need to point out the obvious and say this is not a suitable scene for a young woman?”
“I invited her,” Tobias lied coolly. “You know she has an excellent head for details.”
“I fancied I heard something earlier,” Evelina interjected, thinking about the voices she had heard while in the tree. The clock had struck eleven, drowning them out. And then there had been the figure in the hallway. “I thought I might prove helpful.”
“Is that so, Miss Cooper?” Lord Bancroft lowered his brow. “It has nothing to do with your taste for sensational novels? Perhaps you should return to your bedchamber.”
She was about to protest, to say he had to listen, or at least the police did. But, with a lift of his chin, he effectively dismissed her.
Anger fired along her nerves, bright and sharp as lightning. She barely stopped herself from making a gesture unbecoming a lady—or shouting that he should be quiet and let her help him, because she might be the only one who saw the full danger his family was in. Instead, she turned back to the body, continuing with her inspection despite her seething.
Uncle Sherlock very rarely gave in to emotion. Now she saw why—she needed a clear head. It was impossible to concentrate when she wanted to snarl like a tinker’s cur.
There wasn’t a whiff of magic on the body itself, which meant someone, not something invoked by sorcery, had wielded the blade. That meant Grace Child had been killed by a purely human agency. Or did it? In Evelina’s limited experience, it took time for magical residue to stick, especially to flesh, so was it safe to make an assumption?
That raised an interesting question. Was there a connection between this murder and those trunks in the attic? Two unusual events in one night could be coincidence, but it seemed unlikely.
Lord Bancroft gestured to the man on his left. “This is Inspector Lestrade.” The former ambassador’s voice was dry as he addressed his son.
Evelina started. Lestrade. She knew the name from her uncle’s cases, but she’d never met him in person. She studied him carefully, thinking that Dr. Watson had described him well.
“I’m sure you and Miss Cooper will leave him and his men to do their work,” Bancroft added.
All eyes were on Tobias, who had his mouth set in a defiant frown. Evelina was invisible, just a girl who had accidentally strayed into the affairs of men—even though she was the one getting her hands bloody. Piqued, Evelina rose to her feet.
The motion of her standing drew the eyes of the inspector. “Miss?”
He was a wiry man of middling height with dark hair, a sallow complexion, and the sharp, pointed features of a rat. He had dressed with the look of one eager to impress, but something in his air made Evelina uneasy. This was no fool. She wondered, with a sick feeling, if Nick had finally found the wits to leave the house.
She looked at him squarely. “This is Grace Child, one of the kitchen staff.”
Lord Bancroft barely stirred at the news. There were doubtless more drudges where Grace had come from.
Lestrade narrowed his eyes—an expression that did not match his polite nod. “Thank you, miss, but I’d appreciate it if you stepped away. There’s a chance you might disturb the evidence.”
As she moved toward the door, the evidence in her pocket, she counted the uniforms Lestrade had brought with him. There were three, all crowding into the cloakroom with chests puffed out and brass buttons shining.
One had a chemical whistle strapped to his belt, set to give off a shrill alarm if its plunger was depressed. Her uncle, something of a chemist, had designed the prototype and given it to Scotland Yard. If only the coppers’ brains were as sharp as their gear.
With a pang of frustration, she wondered if anyone had thought to search the grounds. Or was that too much a breach of His Lordship’s privacy? Lucky for Nick, they weren’t combing the upstairs rooms, but . . .
She thought again about that moment in the upstairs corridor. Had Grace surprised someone? The idea gnawed at her.
But Lestrade’s eyes were on her. The only thing Evelina could do right then was retreat, so she returned to the hall where Dora sat. Maisie and the housekeeper were gone, but someone had brought tea, the universal restorative. A little steam-powered trolley sat huffing to one side, smelling of Assam and brandy.
Evelina sat next to Dora. “How are you?”
Dora sniffed wearily. “I’ll be all right, miss.” But she shook her head, as if nothing would ever be right again. “Poor Maisie’d done the last of the pots and was going to bed. Taking the short way rather than the servant’s stairs like she was supposed to. Saw the light and went to shut it off and then there was Gracie.”
Evelina thought a moment, trying to picture the scene in her head. “There was a woman’s footprint by Grace, and I noticed she was wearing walking boots that would have left a much larger outline. It couldn’t have been hers. Do you know if Maisie went right up to the body?”
“No, miss. She barely set foot in the room once she saw the blood. I didn’t, either. I get all hot and shuddery at the sight of a scraped knee, to say nothing of . . . of this.”
Then whose shoe made that mark? She would have to find out where all the servants were tonight. She moved on to the next question. “Do you have any idea why Grace was in the cloakroom?”
A flush crept from the neat white collar of Dora’s uniform, turning her ears crimson. “I wouldn’t know that, miss.”
Obviously she did. Evelina softened her voice. “Was she going to meet someone there? After all, it is a quiet room, and no one was using it. A private place.”
“I don’t know, miss. She wasn’t a careful girl.”
“To hear her talk, you’d think her latest beau was the crown prince.”
“What do you mean?” Evelina asked, more sharply this time.
Dora suddenly looked very frightened. “I don’t mean anything by it, miss.”
“Was she someone’s . . .” Evelina trailed off, thinking about the fancy petticoat.
Dora tucked in her chin, resembling a turtle on the defensive. “If it were anything much, she wouldn’t have been peeling spuds all day, if you know what I mean.”
“But she was seeing someone who had money?”
A sidelong glance shot from under the maid’s lashes. “That would have been a bit of all right, but her bad stomach in the morning said there was trouble on the way.”
Evelina caught her breath. Grace had been about to be ruined. She would have lost her place. There weren’t many options open to an unwed mother, especially a poor one. Usually those stories ended with death or emigration. “Did she ever say who the father was?”
Dora shook her head. “She never said any names.” There was clearly more she wanted to tell, but she pressed her fist against her lips, as if to hold back the words.
The maid shook her head again, tears glistening in her eyes. “Oh, miss, I saw Grace barely a half hour before Maisie found her.”
Dora nodded in quick, jerky movements. “I saw her out the window. She was in the garden, as if catching a breath of air before coming in to bed.”
Evelina automatically calculated the hours. That narrowed down the time of death considerably. “Right after you left Imogen’s room?”
Dora nodded. “When I went to fetch the sleeping draft.”
That would have put the time at around twelve thirty. Evelina again remembered the voices she’d heard when she’d been outside. That had been much earlier, almost an hour and a half before.
Evelina felt her scalp crawl. “Who was she with?”
The maid was silent, gaze falling to her hands, where they kneaded the fabric of her apron.
“Dora, I won’t repeat what you say. You know me better than that.”
That seemed to reassure her. Dora leaned forward, dropping her voice to a whisper. “Mr. Tobias.”
Evelina felt her jaw fall open, but couldn’t summon the presence of mind to close it.
What has the great ninny gone and done now?
Tobias chose that moment to walk out of the cloakroom, pausing to look her way. Dora stiffened, obviously sharing Evelina’s dangerous thoughts. His shirt and hands were pristine, free of blood, but the bruise on his face seemed darker in the shadows beyond the gaslight. Someone had fought him hard.
A paralysis came over Evelina, pinning her where she sat. Frustration bubbled up, a painful pressure in her chest. She wanted to jerk her chin away, to ignore the steady searching of his gray eyes.
They both had secrets. Even though he’d learned nothing about her girlhood in the circus, much less her magic, he knew other things about her—such as her unorthodox taste for science and mechanics, and that she understood far more of the world than any young lady ought to.
She knew more than was proper about his gambling and women. She didn’t need to be a detective for that—just have the eyes of a girl half in love. Neither of them ever spoke a word about what they saw in the other, and yet they both knew that the mutual knowledge was there.
Any other day, Evelina treasured that shared complicity as something that bound them together. Tonight, with so much suspicion in the air, it felt unsafe.
Tobias’s mouth twitched downward, as if he sensed her discomfort. He turned with a slight hitch in his shoulder—the merest suggestion of a shrug—and left the room. A moment later, Evelina heard his footstep on the stairs. Going to bed. Returning to bed, if one believed his tale, though how one got a black eye while snugly tucked beneath the covers beggared her imagination. Of course he knew Grace. He saw her just before she died.
Yes, keeping his secrets forged a link between them, but it wasn’t at all the kind of intimacy she had dreamed of sharing with Tobias Roth. And for that merest sliver of time, she hated him for it.COLLAPSE
RT Book Reviews wrote:
Holloway stuffs her adventure with an abundance of characters and ideas and fills her heroine with talents and graces, all within a fun, brisk narrative.
Susan Griffith, Vampire Empire series wrote:
Holloway’s splendid first entry in her Baskerville Affair series will thrill fans of steampunk urban fantasy.
Pip Ballantine on The Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences wrote:
Holloway’s clever writing, attention to detail, and sublime characters forges a fascinating world that combines brass-plated steampunk technology with magic. By turns a coming-of-age story, a gaslamp thriller, and a whimsical magical fantasy, A Study in Silks is the premier novel of an author to watch.
Literary Escapism wrote:
A charming, adventurous ride with a heroine that is both clever and talented, and the brushes with the Sherlock Holmes mythos only add to the fun.
A Study in Silks effortlessly entertaining and an incredible start to a trilogy.