After feigning her own death in Cornwall to escape from Moriarty’s perilous attention, Charlotte Holmes goes into hiding. But then she receives a tempting offer: Find a dossier the crown is desperately seeking, and she might be able to go back to a normal life.
Her search leads her aboard the RMS Provence. But on the night Charlotte makes her move to retrieve the dossier, in the midst of a terrifying storm in the Bay of Biscay, a brutal murder takes place on the ship.
Instead of solving the crime, as she is accustomed to doing, Charlotte must take care not to be embroiled in this investigation, lest it become known to those who harbor ill intentions that Sherlock Holmes is abroad and still very much alive.
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There's something you're not telling me, Ash," said Charlotte Holmes.
The night was starless, the sky low and heavy. But spring was beginning to make itself felt as a certain fullness in the air, the swelling of blackthorn buds on the cusp of flowering.
Charlotte was warmly wrapped in an Inverness cape, a deerstalker cap on her head. No one who saw her in her masculine attire now-if anyone could see in the pitch-blackness-would have mistaken her for the pink silk-clad vixen who had successfully ambushed Lord Ingram Ashburton earlier in the evening.
It had been their first meeting since her terribly inauspicious "death" in Cornwall, where her body was said to have been dissolved in a vat of perchloric acid. Her closest associates had "mourned" in a manner befitting those who could not publicly acknowledge their grief. But they had also worried in truth as weeks wore on with no news from her.
Charlotte, even before she had been advised to stay away from her usual haunts following that spectacle on the Cornish coast, had decided on a safe haven: none other than Eastleigh Park, the country seat of the Duke of Wycliffe, Lord Ingram's eldest brother. The estate's hunting lodge had proved a peaceful abode for her and, of course, an excellent location in which to lie in wait for Lord Ingram to turn up for his annual Easter visit.
And now, after a few highly pleasurable hours becoming reacquainted in his bedroom in the main residence, he was escorting her back to the hunting lodge, as she could not be seen in his quarters come morning, whether as a man or a woman. The night was thick as a wall. She walked nearly blindly, but he had grown up on this estate and ambled along, guiding her with an occasional touch on her elbow or the small of her back.
"I'll tell you when we're inside," he said, in response to her earlier comment, his tone deliberately light.
But when they'd entered the hunting lodge and lit a few sconces, he did not divulge what he'd kept from her. Instead, he left with a hand candle to make sure that the structure, bigger than her ancestral home, was free from hidden intruders. Charlotte removed her caped coat and prosthetic paunch, strolled into the drawing room, and stretched out on a settee, the gold brocade upholstery of which was visibly fraying-the hunting lodge, an opulent addition to the estate a hundred and fifty years ago, had not been improved in at least two generations.
He returned, handed a biscuit tin to her, crossed the room to a padded chair upholstered in the same worn brocade, and leaned against its rounded armrest, one leg straight, the other half-bent. He was rarely so informal in his posture. But even so, his shoulders remained open, his weight evenly distributed. He lifted his head and seemed about to speak-but didn't.
A single lamp bronzed the antlers mounted above the door and delineated shadows in the hollow of his cheeks. Charlotte opened the tin, nibbled on an almond macaroon, and waited, though she had already guessed what he was about to tell her.
It was not about Moriarty-her lover was distracted, but not yet alarmed. Still the matter had made him concerned for her safety. A task that required her to leave Eastleigh Park then-a task for Sherlock Holmes? And who could make such a request and be sure that he would, in fact, relay it to her?
When she'd polished off the slightly too sweet macaroon and he still hadn't spoken, she flicked crumbs from her fingertips and said, "What does my lord Remington want, exactly? And is he not aware that the estimable consulting detective of 18 Upper Baker Street is not currently offering 'his' services to the public?"
Lord Remington, Lord Ingram's brother, was responsible for much of the intelligence gathering in the far-flung corners of the empire. But in recent months, he had taken a greater interest in the domestic side of things.
Lord Ingram expelled a breath. "Oh, Remington is more than aware of your absence from London. I believe he is of the view that rather than rusticating, you might as well lend him a helping hand."
No one who had attracted Moriarty as an enemy could afford to merely rusticate. Charlotte had been busy. "Is my lord Remington dangling safety from Moriarty as a lure?"
She had no plans to venture abroad on someone else's behalf for a lesser prize.
Her lover looked grumpy, very nearly irate. "At this moment, I'm not sure even the power of the crown-let alone Remington, merely a servant of the crown-could keep anyone safe from Moriarty."
"Surely that's too pessimistic an outlook?"
"Surely you're right, madam. All the same, I find it difficult to be pleased about anything that involves risk to you."
She smiled to herself, opened the biscuit tin again, and took out a jam tart. "What exactly is Lord Remington offering me?"
"More or less what Moriarty thought he might: When you decide to reemerge into the world, Remington will let it be known that to harm you would be to injure him."
A magical amulet it wasn't, but neither was it something to sneeze at.
"And in exchange," continued Lord Ingram, "he wants you to find a dossier that has gone missing-Remington has judged you very good at finding things."
"He is not wrong about that." Ever since her toddlerhood, Charlotte had always known not only where everything was located in the house but also if any items had been misplaced. "However, I imagine that what he wants found would not be as easy to locate as Mrs. Watson's reading glasses."
"No. Not only does Remington not know where it is, he cannot even be sure who has it."
Apparently, Lord Remington's underlings had been cultivating in secret a Prussian embassy attaché. But perhaps their practice of secrecy left something to be desired, for Herr Klein, the attaché, was abruptly recalled to the fatherland. Lord Remington's underlings, however, were convinced that before Herr Klein's hasty departure, he'd left them something.
But Herr Klein had not stepped out of his hired house in the days immediately preceding his removal. Moreover, his house had been watched by parties both British and Prussian. So, to whom had he entrusted this dossier?
The Kleins-husband, wife, and two young children-were no longer in Britain and would not have been available for questioning even if Herr Klein had remained at his post. Their servants, relying on delivery for foodstuff and laundered garments, had also not left the place during the period of greatest interest.
By the time Charlotte officially took on the commission, the house-and the servants-would have been searched multiple times by agents of the German Empire.
Moreover, while she would be furnished with a list of names, individuals who had entered and departed the consular assistant's household during the most critical span of time, she would not be permitted to question anyone on the list for their connection to the Kleins or their reasons for visiting the Klein household. She was only to observe and search-while keeping her involvement an absolute secret, naturally.
Lord Ingram's lips thinned as he finished enumerating the parameters of the task.
"Well," said Charlotte dryly, "it is understood that the task must be arduous for a reward as Olympian as my lord Remington's protective aegis."
Her lover snorted. "You'll take it?"
"I can't decide on that until I hear more details and speak to Lord Remington's emissary myself."
"You should keep in mind that by assigning you this task, he is sparing his own agents the risks that you would face."
"And I've never said that I'll accept an incomplete assurance of safety as my entire payment. Worry not, I shall name a commensurate price."
On that, Mrs. Watson had trained her well.
"Now tell me your other news," she said, weighing the jam tart in her hand. It was small but felt substantial, exactly how she liked her jam tarts. "The one that you considered, however briefly, as a substitute answer."
At this her lover betrayed a slight surprise, but only for a moment. They'd observed each other for years. He would have expected her to have noticed that he'd been about to speak and thought better of it.
He sighed. "The other news is that Mrs. Newell, Miss Olivia, my children, and myself are going on a voyage together."
Charlotte's chest constricted. She felt . . . wistful.
I have my sisters to think of, and you your children. But if-if someday the conditions should be conducive, would you like for all of us to go away together? Spain, Majorca, Egypt, the Levant? By the time we reach India, it will probably be unbearably hot in the plains, but the hill stations should still be pleasant.
When she had uttered those words the year before, it had been less a proposal of itinerary than a statement of hope, that perhaps many things would be possible in a lovelier, more idyllic future. Many things had indeed changed for the better since then, not the least that they were now lovers, but they also found themselves in circumstances far more dangerous than she could have anticipated a mere six months ago.
The pang in her heart was as much regret for not being able to join everyone on the trip as nostalgia for a time when she'd believed the world to be a safer, simpler place.
She exhaled. "Livia has always yearned to travel."
"A change in scenery seemed a good idea for us all," he said quietly.
She left the settee. But when she stood before him, she didn't know what to say, precisely. So she offered him the jam tart in her hand, expecting him to turn it down. Instead, he pulled her closer by the wrist and took a bite. And then he took the jam tart from her and offered it back to her.
The pastry was short and crumbly, the jam sticky and sweet.
"We were hoping you could join us for a segment of the journey-or several segments, if safety allows," he murmured.
He brought the jam tart to his own lips again, but this time, he only kissed the spot she'd bitten. Charlotte reacted more strongly than she thought she would, and with a hunger that was not only for his delectable self.
"Perhaps-perhaps I still could," she said after a minute. "After all, how long can it take to find this thing of Remington's?"
Three weeks later
Livia Holmes stepped out of her hotel room, feeling as if she were in a dream.
All her life, she had longed to travel. And not just to London, or Cowes, or someone's country house for a fortnight, but far, far away, a voyage for no other reason than to comprehend the height and breadth of the known world.
And now that the moment was here, now that she had but to walk down the stairs, exit the hotel, and head for the Port of Southampton, she was desperately afraid that she might wake up after all and find that everything was but a dream.
Like all those dreams she'd had as a child, running away from home, just Charlotte and her. And all those dreams she'd had of late, of holding her Mr. Marbleton by the hand and sprinting toward a carriage, a train, a ship, and once, even a hot air balloon, which only needed its ballast removed to float into the sky.
She tightened her fingers around the handle of her satchel. Perhaps she was all the more anxious because it had already been such a lovely trip.
According to Lord Ingram, who had arrived first, he and his children had spent a few wet, chilly days in the port city. But as soon as Livia and Mrs. Newell reached Southampton, the weather had turned sunny and mild. Together, everyone had driven out to nearby New Forest and visited the ruins of a thirteenth-century abbey. They had made a tour of Southampton's stretches of medieval town walls. And yesterday afternoon they had strolled along the sinuous River Itchen, then flown kites in a nearby park. Livia, who had only intended to watch, had found herself with a spool in hand, running on bright new grass, laughing as her butterfly kite caught the current and shot straight up.
On the way back to their hotel, young Master Carlisle, Lord Ingram's son, had leaned against his father in the carriage, and Lord Ingram had pulled the boy closer. And Livia had felt almost as warm and safely ensconced.
"Are you ready, my dear?" asked Mrs. Newell, stepping into the passage after Livia. She was both Livia's second cousin and her official sponsor for this trip.
Livia took Mrs. Newell's arm and felt steadier. She loved the dear old lady, and it was her very great fortune to set out with someone who had always watched out for her. "Yes, ma'am. I'm ready."
With a smile, Mrs. Newell patted Livia's hand. They walked down the passage in the direction of the stairs. May I stride ever closer to the journey of a lifetime, Livia silently petitioned the universe. May I begin a new life altogether.
They reached the stair landing. A man and a woman descended from above, the woman clad in the most beautiful traveling costume Livia had ever beheld.
The cut of the dress was impeccable, the construction precise, the material understated yet luxurious. It moved with the smoothness of cream pouring from a pitcher, but more sumptuously-the simple-looking grey skirt was lined with several layers of tissue-thin blush pink silk chiffon. Together the pink and grey were delicate and evocative, reminiscent of a cherry sprig in blossom just visible in a spring mist.
The only imperfection, Livia was sorry to note, was the wearer of this sartorial sorcery.
She was about Livia's age, twenty-eight or so. Her figure served the dress well, but her features were more prominent than pretty. Had she evinced some vivacity or a steeliness of character, she might have made for an unconventional beauty. But she was simply . . . there. To say the dress overwhelmed her would be too generous. The dress, in all its splendor, existed independently of her.
Her companion was a tall, broad man whose day coat nearly burst at the seams to accommodate his shoulders and upper arms. His features, like hers, were oversized. On some men, that translated into a brooding handsomeness. But this man's countenance seemed only ferocious-and vaguely misaligned, as if God had been in a hurry on the day of his creation.
Livia and Mrs. Newell emerged onto the stair landing as the man and the woman reached the bottom of their flight of steps. Everyone hesitated. Then the man motioned toward the next flight, indicating that Livia and Mrs. Newell should proceed. A courteous gesture, but it came across to Livia-who, granted, was wildly sensitive about such things-as tinged with a trace of impatience.