Being shunned by Society gives Charlotte Holmes the time and freedom to put her extraordinary powers of deduction to good use. As “Sherlock Holmes, consulting detective,” aided by the capable Mrs. Watson, she’s had great success helping with all manner of inquiries, but she’s not prepared for the new client who arrives at her Upper Baker Street office.
Lady Ingram, wife of Charlotte’s dear friend and benefactor, wants Sherlock Holmes to find her first love, who failed to show up at their annual rendezvous. Matters of loyalty and discretion aside, the case becomes even more personal for Charlotte as the missing man is none other than Myron Finch, her illegitimate half brother.
In the meanwhile, Charlotte wrestles with a surprising proposal of marriage, a mysterious stranger woos her sister Livia, and an unidentified body surfaces where least expected. Charlotte’s investigative prowess is challenged as never before: Can she find her brother in time—or will he, too, end up as a nameless corpse somewhere in the belly of London?
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***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2017 Sherry Thomas
Thank goodness for a blatantly obvious murder.
Inspector Treadles did not say those words aloud—that would be disrespectful to the deceased. But he most certainly entertained the thought as he made his way, Sergeant MacDonald in tow, to the house where the body had been found.
After the taxing irregularities of the Sackville case, a run-of-the-mill murder would be calming and restorative. He looked forward to gathering clues. He looked forward to questioning witnesses. He looked forward to assembling an account that would serve as the crown’s evidence.
He looked forward to handling every aspect of the work on his own, without needing to turn to anyone else for help.
The district was unexciting, the streets without character, the houses unimpeachable in their blandness. Inspector Treadles was beginning to like this case more and more, even as in the back of his mind, a voice whispered that it was all he was good for: the utterly ordinary. The cases that required only dull, plodding work.
Grimly he pushed the thoughts away. They were for the small hours of the night. At the moment his time and his mind belonged to the business of the Criminal Investigation Department. And he would show his superiors that with or without Sherlock Holmes, he was a capable and effective man, an asset to any police force.
“That’s the place ahead,” said Sergeant MacDonald.
They were on a street that could have come from anywhere in the ring of suburbs that surrounded London: macadam lane, two- and three-story brown-brick buildings, a newsagent’s at one end and a pub at the other. A constable had been stationed at the murder site, outside the front door. As they approached, curtains fluttered in nearby houses.
A hackney drove past and came to a stop. A man alit.
“Is that . . .” murmured Sergeant MacDonald.
It was. Lord Ingram, Inspector Treadles’s esteemed friend—a little less esteemed these days, perhaps, given his association with “Sherlock Holmes.”
Lord Ingram stood by the side of the hackney and helped a lady descend. No, not a lady, a fallen woman, one who had never seemed remotely bashful of either her past or her present.
They saw Treadles, exchanged a glance with each other, and came toward him.
“Inspector, Sergeant, how unexpected,” said Lord Ingram. “Trouble in these parts?”
Treadles noticed that his friend was less warm than usual in his greeting. Had he read the tension in Treadles’s jaw and deduced his discomfort in the presence of Miss Charlotte Holmes? It was natural that as a friend to both, he might feel himself constrained. But Treadles couldn’t help a sense of injury, a feeling deep down that Lord Ingram would choose Miss Holmes over him any day of the week.
“I’m afraid I’m not at liberty to discuss police matters,” he said, hating the stiffness of his voice.
A tall, red-faced man emerged from the house. “Ah, Inspector Treadles,” he said loudly. “You are here. The body’s inside and it’s not pretty.”
“Let me not keep you from your work.” Lord Ingram nodded. “Inspector, Sergeant, good day.”
He and Miss Holmes returned to the hackney and drove away. Inspector Treadles stared after them. He had no idea how they had learned of the crime when he himself had been informed less than an hour ago, but he had a presentiment that their involvement in the matter was only beginning.
And he did not like it.
Six days earlier . . .
This is an account of a remarkable man named Sherlock Holmes.
No, no, too unremarkable an opening. Miss Olivia Holmes scratched out the line.
Let me recount a tale of woe and vengeance.
Better, maybe. At least a little more intriguing.
The origin of our story lies decades ago, in a paroxysm of violence and betrayal. Let your mind leap over the tumult of the Atlantic Ocean into the vastness of the New World. Past the cities on the East Coast of the continent, past the farms and homesteads of its tamer interior regions. Now you have come to the edge of the frontier. The land beyond is harsh; survival is uncertain. But you have come too far. You have no choice but to forge ahead.
Livia tapped the end of her pen against her lower lip. This was a fair enough beginning, if she did say so herself. The setting was clear. The sentences were muscular. And when she read the whole thing aloud—as all good stories should be—she detected a pleasing cadence to the syllables.
Was it possible she could actually do it, compose an engrossing story inspired by the feats of her sister, Charlotte?
The day before, Charlotte had assured her that she was fully worthy of the task. Livia hadn’t been able to sleep a wink. As she’d stared at the dark ceiling, the story had come to her in flashes: a grassy, mountain-ringed oasis in an arid, hostile landscape, a wagon train laden with weary yet hopeful families headed for California, a massacre brewing in the hearts of Utah Territory militiamen who feared persecution and loathed outsiders.
If she did manage to give birth to this story, it could very well go on to be featured in a respected and widely read publication. How satisfying would it be, from her neglected corner in whichever Society drawing room, to hear those guests who never had any use for her discuss her narrative with astonished admiration.
Livia imagined the warm satisfaction she would feel, a snug, enduring sense of well-being.
She took a bite of bacon and consulted the travel handbook she’d borrowed from the circulating library. It was imperative that she give a correct description of Utah. Inaccuracies on the part of Sherlock Holmes’s chronicler could diminish readers’ opinion of the great detective, and she must not let that happen.
The problem was, she also couldn’t paint too complete a picture, as even the handbook only offered patchy information. She would have to be vague about the exact location of her setting—somehow cobbling together one or two descriptive paragraphs—then pivot onto the doings of her characters.
Except she didn’t know yet who those characters ought to be. The victim would be a girl—that much was clear. But what about the eventual avenger who swooped in decades later to punish the culprits? Would that person be a woman or a man? And those culprits, who were they?
According to Mr. Mark Twain, whose account of the Mountain Meadows Massacre first gave her the idea of a story of vengeance, nine men were indicted afterward, but only one was tried in a court of law. Those who escaped justice, naturally, made for good targets for a vigilant avenger. But eight targets were too many—two or three seemed more reasonable.
Did that mean she also had to reduce the scale of the massacre to account for the smaller number of killers? Or would it be all right to say more of them had been lawfully punished? According to the records, only children younger than seven were spared—and taken in by nearby families. If her avenger was one of those children, it would add an entire other dimension of complication to the story. Could an older child, an adolescent perhaps, have crawled away during the night and escaped?
Livia rubbed her temples. Now she remembered why she never proceeded beyond a few pages in any story: too many decisions to make. Often she wished that her life weren’t so constricted, that she could make more of her own choices. But staring at the still largely empty sheet of paper before her, she was reminded that no, Charlotte was the one who wanted to make her own decisions. She, Livia, merely wished the world would be served up on a platter, cut to bite size and seasoned exactly to her liking.
A housemaid entered the breakfast parlor. Livia slammed her notebook shut. But the maid only set an ironed copy of the paper on the table and left silently.
Livia swore under her breath. Why was she always so jumpy? Why couldn’t she be calm and majestic instead?
She reached for the paper. More specifically, the small notices at the back of the paper. She especially enjoyed the ones in code, secret transmissions between lovers who didn’t dare communicate openly.
The code they employed tended to be simple letter substitutions, frequently no more complicated than shifting the entire alphabet one letter over. Some aspired to a bit of sophistication. A series of notices that started a few days ago, for example, had taken the extra step of converting already substituted letters to numbers, according to where they stood in the alphabet.
A rather distressing set of messages they were, too, a discarded lover dispiritedly yet doggedly trying to get a response from the faithless beloved.
Or at least that was how Livia interpreted the messages. She didn’t believe the sender would receive the hoped-for response, but she couldn’t help but check each morning to find out whether the unrequited transmissions were still ongoing.
She almost didn’t see her sister’s nom de guerre in print. But something made her glance back at the columns of newsprint she had skipped.
Strange Noises in the Attic? There Is Always Sherlock Holmes
In June of this year the death of the Honorable Harrington Sackville brought to notice one Mr. Sherlock Holmes, self-styled consultant to the Metropolitan Police. Since then, Mr. Holmes has made his services available to the public. Which leads to that most reasonable question: What exactly has he done for the man on the street—or, for that matter, the lady in the parlor?
One gentleman, Mr. S______, enthused that Mr. Holmes helped him decipher clues from his beloved concerning her birthday present. A lady, Mrs. O______, claimed that Mr. Holmes located her lost ring. A trio of elderly sisters declared he was instrumental in easing their minds concerning mysterious noises in the attic, which did not emanate from spirits communing via Morse code, but wood-boring insects carrying out their daily routines.
When asked about Mr. Holmes’s overwhelmingly domestic private consultations, an official at Scotland Yard answered, “How Sherlock Holmes chooses to spend his time is not the Metropolitan Police’s concern.” The same official refused comment on whether Scotland Yard would seek Mr. Holmes’s assistance in the future, except to note that his advice is not needed on any current cases.
After an exciting arrival on the scene, has Sherlock Holmes’s great promise already faded into the tedium of uncovering household curiosities? Thunderous murders to the life cycle of deathwatch beetles?
Only time will tell.
“Oh, what drivel!” exclaimed Penelope Redmayne, as she finished reading the newspaper article aloud.
“I concur,” said her aunt, Mrs. John Watson, the lady of the house.
They both looked toward the third occupant of the table, a young woman in her midtwenties. She wore a dusky pink day dress with a ruffled collar of starched white eyelet lace, which perfectly set off her shiny blond curls, large blue eyes, and generous lips. The same lace, in three tiers, also fell from her cuffs, the trailing edge of which brushed against the tablecloth as she spread a pat of butter on a freshly baked muffin.
She did it with great concentration—Miss Charlotte Holmes, Mrs. Watson had realized from the very beginning, took her food seriously. In fact, given her pleasantly plump form and the suggestion of a second chin—her features were lovely but her face would never be praised for its bone structure—one might easily suppose that Miss Holmes thought of nothing else except her meals.
Miss Holmes took a bite of her muffin, her expression intense with pleasure. But when she spoke, her voice was cool and measured. “I enjoyed the article. The timing is good—we will not need to spend on advertisement this fortnight. And frankly, the writer’s thrust is no less advantageous to our interests. Household curiosities are the backbone of our enterprise. There must be a number of men on the street—and ladies in the parlor—who have decided against consulting Sherlock Holmes because they chiefly know him as someone who advises Scotland Yard on murders. Now that they understand Holmes is happy to help with domestic oddities, they are more likely to come forward.”
She glanced down at the muffin, as if debating whether to drench it with even more butter. The term Maximum Tolerable Chins popped into Mrs. Watson’s head—it had come up the first time they sat down at the table together, the benchmark for whether Miss Holmes ate as she wished or gave in to the lamentable necessity to curb her appetite.
With visible regret Miss Holmes set down her butter knife. “Besides, I think highly of uncovering household curiosities. They remunerate well and do not endanger anyone.”
“Hear, hear!” said Penelope cheerfully.
Mrs. Watson flattened her lips. “I still do not like the snide tone of the article.”
“Then you should be glad the writer is unaware of Sherlock Holmes’s actual gender, Aunt Jo.” Penelope tapped the offending broadsheet. “He clearly means to imply that Sherlock Holmes’s genius has been emasculated by Londoners’ everyday problems. Imagine if he learns Sherlock Holmes is but a woman going about easing the minds of old widows. Why, it would nullify said genius altogether.”
Miss Holmes took a small bite of her muffin. In a different young woman this gesture might be interpreted as delicacy of comportment, but Mrs. Watson suspected that Miss Holmes was only trying to prolong the pleasure of a single muffin, since she wouldn’t be indulging in another one.
“We are in no danger of that,” she said. “Even if I stand in the middle of Trafalgar Square and solve problems on the spot, there will be a large segment of the population who will believe that I am being supplied answers by secret means—and by men, of course.”
“But don’t you wish credit for your accomplishments?” asked Penelope.
Another tiny nibble on Miss Holmes’s part. “I’ve only ever wanted to put my abilities to use—and be respectably compensated for my work.”
Her equanimity could be interpreted as laudable maturity, for one whose circumstances had changed greatly of late. But Miss Holmes was also not prone to the kind of careening emotions most people either took for granted or suppressed from habit.
In fact, sometimes Mrs. Watson had the impression that Miss Holmes examined a situation as a dressmaker might measure a customer, and then cast an eye over a catalog of responses the way the dressmaker considered bolts of silks and velvets.
It was not calculation so much as . . . the closest analogy Mrs. Watson could think of was that of a foreigner who didn’t learn English until an advanced age. Through perseverance and a great deal of practice, the foreigner had achieved a passable grasp of the syntax, grammar, and vocabulary of this mishmash of a language. But a conversation would always be a trial, what with all the idioms and quirks of usage just waiting to ambush the non-native speaker.
“Miss Holmes,” said Penelope, leaning forward with eagerness, “given that you are about to have more clients, would you be willing to put me to use this summer? I’d be delighted to show people up to the parlor at Upper Baker Street and bring in the tea tray. I, too, have a resolute lack of contempt for domestic mysteries and quotidian oddities.”
Mrs. Watson sucked in a breath. She wished Penelope had asked her first before posing the question directly to Miss Holmes. But more importantly, the business of Sherlock Holmes was not all domestic mysteries and quotidian oddities: Mrs. Marbleton’s recent case, for example—suffice to say it did not involve little old ladies befuddled by noises from the attic.
“And, of course, my true ambition is to play Sherlock Holmes’s sister,” continued Penelope. “I might not have appeared on stage professionally, but my aunt can testify that I staged performances for her in the nursery and made for a convincing Juliet—and an even better Lady Macbeth.”
Miss Holmes glanced in Mrs. Watson’s direction. “Mrs. Watson is in charge of the assignment of duties. I am sure she’ll let you know, should we need an assistant on Upper Baker Street.”
“Aha, you saw through my scheme. I was hoping to bypass my aunt’s strictures.” Penelope grinned cheekily at Mrs. Watson. “But I see now I must level a mountain with nothing more than a soup ladle. It’s a good thing I have a temperament built for Herculean tasks.”
Without waiting for Mrs. Watson to respond, she rose. “I’d better go change into my walking dress. We’ll need to hurry if we want to get in our daily constitutional before it rains again.”
Left alone at the table, Miss Holmes continued to nibble while Mrs. Watson nursed her cup of tea. She felt uneasy. A note from Lord Ingram had come this morning, letting her know that Miss Holmes had seen through their deceit—that Mrs. Watson hadn’t stumbled upon an exiled Miss Holmes by accident, but had been tasked by Lord Ingram to help this young woman in need.
But Miss Holmes hadn’t said anything about the matter, nor had Lord Ingram expected her to. I do not believe she holds it against us—certainly not against you, he had written. But I felt her disappointment: She had averted disaster because of whom she knew before her fall from grace—and not because life had turned out to be fundamentally gentler than she had supposed.
Mrs. Watson hadn’t known Miss Holmes as long as Lord Ingram had—she could not sense either ire or disappointment in the young woman. And this made her anxious. She held Miss Holmes in the highest regard and was loath to alienate her, however unintentionally.
But how to broach the subject? How to reassure Miss Holmes that her affection and camaraderie was genuine without coming across as protesting too much?
Miss Holmes finished her muffin—and everything else on her plate. “If you will excuse me, ma’am,” she said with her usual placidness, “I will also change and get ready for our walk.”
“Did you see the article in the paper about Sherlock Holmes?” asked Inspector Treadles’s wife as she worked his necktie.
He had. “No, I must have missed it. What did it say?”
Alice flattened her lips. “Nothing worth reading, really. Quite snide about his everyman—and everywoman—clientele and their less-than-shocking problems. Shouldn’t it be a given that the general public doesn’t wade hip-deep in dramatic criminality?”
She patted the finished knot and looked up at him, her hazel eyes more green than brown. “And that official from the Yard who gave the statement doesn’t come across any better. One would think Scotland Yard would be more grateful.”
He had been the official who had given the terse statement. That she did not know it only made her remark cut deeper.
“What else could anyone from Scotland Yard say besides something bare-bones and obvious?”
Did he sound defensive? Or more defensive than he ought to be?
Her gaze was curious, baffled, and—was it possible? Was there, however slight, a trace of suspicion? “I believe I’ll write to Miss Holmes and let her know that I think the article is utter rubbish.”
No, you will not write her.
He swallowed the words.
By the end of our meeting I knew I would never think lightly of her again, he had confessed to his wife shortly after encountering Miss Holmes for the first time. But he had never told Alice the truth—that there had been no Sherlock Holmes, ever, only a woman possessed of a brilliant mind.
A woman who was no longer acceptable in polite society.
But why should he be so cruel? Why not let Alice enjoy the illusion of the great consulting detective, flexing his deductive prowess from his sickbed, tenderly surrounded by a gaggle of concerned women?
She cupped his face. “Is something the matter?”
Mere weeks ago he had thought himself the most fortunate of men. He had the favor of his superiors, the respect of his subordinates, and the love of the most perfect woman alive. Not to mention a direct line of transmission to Sherlock Holmes—a magnificent boon for his career.
To be sure, God had chosen not to gift him with children. Nevertheless, he had been filled with gratitude for everything he had been given. And then Sherlock Holmes had turned out to be a woman with loose morals and no remorse. And Alice, Alice had let it be known that she had aspired to helm Cousins Manufacturing, the great industrial firm that had been her father’s life’s work.
Treadles would never have guessed. She was intelligent and well read, not to mention competent and organized. But ambitious? Ambitious far beyond her lot?
Of course there was no danger of her running Cousins Manufacturing—she had been candid about her father’s refusal to consider her for the business. And in any case, the firm was now in the hands of her brother.
Yet her revelation had sent him through various stages of shock, anguish, and grief. Why do you want things I can’t possibly give you? Why must you desire power and unwomanly accomplishments? And are you, in the end, also not who I thought you were, not the one I loved and respected?
“Of course nothing’s the matter,” he said, after a delay perhaps a fraction of a second too long. “Why do you ask that?”
She worried a corner of her lower lip, as if wondering whether to say anything. “You’ve been a little distracted lately.”
“Sometimes I come back from work a bit tired.”
She studied him another moment, then smiled and kissed him on his cheek. “In that case, we’ll make this Sabbath a true day of rest.”
He couldn’t be sure whether she believed him—or chose to let it go for the moment.
She walked to her vanity table and put on her Sunday hat, an elaborate confection as architecturally complex as a Gothic cathedral. “Oh, I almost forgot. A note came from Eleanor while you were in your bath. Barnaby isn’t feeling well. She asks that we postpone our Sunday dinner until next week.”
Barnaby Cousins, the man currently at the head of Cousins Manufacturing, and his wife, Eleanor, were two of Treadles’s least favorite people. And the feeling was mutual. While Mr. Mortimer Cousins, his estimable late father-in-law, had been alive, the entire family had met each week after church for Sunday dinner. After his death, the joint Sunday dinners had become less and less frequent, once a fortnight, once a month, and now, once every two months.
“Are we going to meet quarterly henceforth?” Not that Treadles minded not seeing them, but still, the insult of it.
Alice slid a long pin through the crown of her hat; her eyes met his in the mirror. “That was also my first thought. But when they’ve wanted to bow out of Sunday dinners before, they’ve always said that Eleanor wasn’t feeling well. This is the first time Barnaby has been cast in that role and a part of me wonders whether it’s true, that he really is ill.”
Treadles shrugged into his coat. “You’re not going to drag me to call on him, are you?”
“No, but I might, in the evening.” She smiled at him again. “You put up your feet and enjoy your day off, Inspector.”
Charlotte Holmes stood before the window of her room and took in the greenery of Regent’s Park across the street. A soft mist drifted across the lake, which was just visible beyond a colonnade of mature trees, heavy with rain and foliage.
She relished a good winter downpour, but she enjoyed a summer shower almost as much—that is, when she had a proper roof over her head and no pressing concerns about losing said roof.
Odd to realize this, but she was in a finer town residence than any she had ever lived in.
Her father, Sir Henry Holmes, baronet, had once owned a house in London. But that was sold well before Charlotte had her first Season. Every year Charlotte’s mother, Lady Holmes, lamented the loss. Oh, how much better it would have been to arrive at one’s own house, rather than a hired property.
The houses they hired were in more fashionable parts of the town than Mrs. Watson’s, but that made them expensive—and never large enough for Lady Holmes’s needs. A dinner of more than sixteen was out of the question and proper balls were daydreams. The best they could do for dancing was to push all furniture out of the drawing room and pray that gentlemen who dared to waltz were skillful enough not to crash their partners into other guests.
Those houses did not offer views or the latest advances in plumbing. And certainly not electricity, which she was still slowly coming to terms with. Her parents never employed a cook as fine as Madam Gascoigne or a butler as efficient as Mr. Mears. She had, in fact, never had a room to herself.
Charlotte had the unnerving sensation that she did not deserve such good fortune—or at least, that she hadn’t earned it. And she did not know how to reconcile herself to the fact that the seed of this good fortune had been bestowed upon her by Lord Ingram, whose aid she had not sought, even in her most desperate hour, because she had not wished to be indebted to him.
But now she was, always and forevermore.
The rain had started only after they’d returned from their walk, during which Miss Penelope Redmayne, with steadfast cheerfulness, worked on Mrs. Watson’s resistance. Mrs. Watson remained resistant. Charlotte had maintained—without any effort, it must be said—her complete neutrality.
At the moment Mrs. Watson enjoyed a respite from Miss Redmayne’s determined appeal: The ladies were at church. Charlotte had not been to church since she ran away from home. God likely wouldn’t mind if she stepped inside His house—Jesus voluntarily associated with women of less-than-pristine repute—but His followers tended to be less magnanimous.
In any case, she had a prior appointment, one she hadn’t mentioned to Mrs. Watson.
Umbrella in hand, she made her way to 18 Upper Baker Street. The house belonged to Mrs. Watson and was usually let to a tenant. But recently it had been turned into a dwelling for the fictional Sherlock Holmes, who was stricken with a mysterious illness that left him bedridden and incommunicado by ordinary means, leaving his sister as the oracle with whom his clients must consult, in order to gain his great and terrible insights.
Normally Charlotte played the role of the sister, though Mrs. Watson had also, on occasion, taken the part.
The parlor of 18 Upper Baker Street was of a good size, furnished with comfortable chairs clustered around a fireplace. The air held whiffs of whisky and tobacco, enough to hint at a masculine presence, but not so much as to put one in mind of a public house. There was also the scent of convalescence, of camphor and linseed oil. And floating serenely above it all, the fragrance of flowers, courtesy of the fresh bouquet that always bloomed on the seat of the bow window.
At precisely eleven o’clock, the doorbell rang—Lord Bancroft, like his brother, possessed exquisite punctuality, one of the few traits they shared.
“You look well, Miss Holmes,” he said, as he settled himself into the seat she offered, his tone somewhat surprised.
Charlotte had timed a kettle to boil over the spirit lamp for his arrival. Now she warmed a teapot and set two spoons of first-growth Ceylon leaves to steep. “Thank you, sir.”
In some ways he was the antithesis of his brother. While Lord Ingram radiated physicality and magnetism, Lord Bancroft was devoid of any personal charisma. But instead of being forgettable, the consensus was that those stuck next to him at social functions emerged mere shadows of their former selves.
His “blandness” consisted of a singular lack of warmth, a dogged social persistence, and a heavy application of skepticism. Livia had been his dinner companion once. She was obliged to answer questions for hours on end, from the Holmes girls’ practically nonexistent education to all the minutiae of a parliamentary election in their rural borough, in the wake of their father’s unsuccessful attempt at standing for office. Lord Bancroft had demanded that she source each fact and justify every opinion, while he played devil’s advocate and asked why she didn’t believe in the exact opposite of what she did.
Livia, who already suffered from a lack of confidence, came home in tears, convinced that she was the stupidest and most ignorant creature alive.
His social conduct did not stem from malice, but obligation as he understood it: One ought to keep the conversation going at table, and keep it going he would. But he had few interests and no hobbies, did not want to inform anyone what they should have learned from books and newspapers—and of course could not possibly recount to mere debutantes the clandestine work he did on behalf of the crown.
And so he asked questions of those with whom he socialized, men and women alike. Charlotte had heard gentlemen swearing foully after an encounter with him, because he had interrogated them on their management of estate, friendship, and horseflesh, and they had come away feeling as immature and incompetent as Livia had.
Charlotte, on the other hand, got along well with Lord Bancroft. She sourced her facts and was not particularly attached to her opinions—opinions, by their very nature, were subject to change. Possessing neither the desire to please nor the need to impress, she answered his questions as long as he had questions to ask and when he ran out of them, she was happy to eat in silence.
As she did now, nibbling on a slice of excellent pound cake while Lord Bancroft looked around the parlor.
“Pleasant surroundings,” he said, after a while. “And very fine pound cake.”
“Thank you,” she said.
Many people, women especially, she had observed, responded to a compliment by explaining what they had—or hadn’t done—to merit it. But with Lord Bancroft, simple, unembellished answers were the way to proceed, unless one stood ready to verify the provenance of one’s chairs by producing affidavits from long-dead carpenters and upholsterers—or to admit that said chairs were inexpensive reproductions manufactured in Leeds.
Though in this case, she was half tempted to say something about the pound cake, which deserved every praise. She touched the side of the teapot, gauging the temperature of the brew within. “You wished to see Sherlock Holmes about something, my lord?”
“Was that what I wrote in my note? No, I have come to see you, Miss Holmes.”
The evening before, in delivering Lord Bancroft’s message, Lord Ingram had said, half jokingly, I was always afraid this day would come. That Bancroft would discover you for your mind. Charlotte, on the other hand, had not been as sanguine. Lord Bancroft was accustomed to solving his own problems. He had vastly more resources than Inspector Treadles. And most likely he rarely thought of women as useful outside their biological functions.
His tone, a peculiar mix of pushiness and hesitation, further solidified her suspicions. But she only folded her hands in her lap. “Oh?”
“We were all dismayed when you left home,” he began. “It was reassuring to learn that you had landed on your feet.”
He looked at her; she poured him a cup of tea. “You take it black, if I recall correctly.”
She added cream and sugar to her own tea while gazing at him with her usual lack of facial expression, which was almost always misinterpreted as a look of sweet hopefulness.
He took a sip. “But of course the situation is still highly irregular.”
She remained silent, stirring her tea.
“Ash tells me that you have been to the house near Portman Square.”
Ash was what Lord Ingram’s intimates called him. Recently, when 18 Upper Baker Street had suffered from a bout of housebreaking, they had met, along with Inspector Treadles, at the house Lord Bancroft referred to.
“Yes, I have.”
“He also tells me you had a positive impression of it.”
The place had boasted the most . . . exuberant interior she had ever come across, a combination of color blindness and willful abandon—and she would have liked it just fine if its excesses had been pared back by a half dozen or so orange-and-blue cushions. “There was much to admire about the decor.”
It was a gaudy zoo, and she enjoyed gaudy zoos.
“I had once hoped we would dwell there as husband and wife.”
And so it begins. He would now propose that they dwell there as man and mistress.
“I still entertain the same hope,” he said.
Her teacup paused on its way to her lips. In fact, she had to set it down altogether. Had she heard him correctly? “My lord, I am no longer eligible.”
“You are no longer welcome in Society, but as you are of sound mind the Church can have no cause to consider you ineligible for matrimony.”
Matrimony. It wasn’t easy to surprise Charlotte, but Lord Bancroft was coming dangerously close to flabbergasting her. “You are most kind. Nevertheless, I remain ill-suited to marriage.”
“But you are not ill-suited to me. I would be happy to never be invited anywhere again—you would serve as a good excuse. I would be happy to never indulge in small talk again—I have a feeling you share that sentiment. And I will be busy and away from home a great deal—not something most brides look for in a groom, but for you it would count as an added attraction, no doubt.”
Whatever his faults, he was an intelligent and honest man.
“I am not a rich man, but I can provide comfortably for a wife. By marrying me, you will not rehabilitate your reputation completely. But at least you will be received by your family again. That must count for something.”
She didn’t believe in being grateful for marriage proposals—men did not pledge their hands out of the goodness of their hearts. Even so, she found herself inclined to consider this particular union, at this moment in time, more on sentimental rather than rational grounds.
With a small shake of her head, she pulled herself back to reality. “I am honored by your gesture, sir. But I take it you would require me to give up my friendship with Mrs. Watson, as well as my practice as Sherlock Holmes.”
“It will not be necessary to cut Mrs. Watson. She was an acquaintance of our father’s. Ash is on excellent terms with her and even I have crossed paths with her on occasion. She strikes me as a sensible woman, not one to exploit your position to promote her own. I do not see why you shouldn’t be able to call on each other in the future, provided it is done discreetly.
“As for the business with Sherlock Holmes, I understand Mrs. Watson has invested in the venture. If you feel that she has not received a sufficient return against that initial outlay, I will be more than happy to compensate her as a part of our marriage settlement.”
In other words, she was to discontinue as Sherlock Holmes, consulting detective. “I thank you most warmly, my lord, for the honor of—”
He raised a finger, forestalling the no, thank you part of her answer. “However, given that mental exertion gives you pleasure, I shall be happy to supply the necessary exercises. After all, I come across them on a regular basis.”
He opened a leather portfolio he had brought, extracted a slender dossier, and set it before her. “These are but a small sprinkling of items that make their way to my desk. Do please examine them at your leisure.”
And with that, he rose and saw himself out.