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Never in her worst imaginings had she thought it would come to this. Minerva tilted back the drooping feather of her hat and wiped a raindrop from her nose. All day the rain had been unrelenting. The draughty third-class train carriage had rattled and jolted all the way down from Manchester. She couldn't afford a hansom cab from the station, so she had walked, and now she shivered on the porch of a fashionable Kensington villa, waiting for her door knock to be answered. Mizzle and murkiness surrounded her. A chill had settled deep in her bones. A chill that had started days ago. Raising her gloved hand to knock once more, she started back as the door silently swung open. A tall, cadaverous manservant peered out at her.
Minerva drew herself upright, conscious of her unprepossessing appearance. "Is Mr. Quigley at home?"
The servant assessed her in a blink of an eye, pausing only a fraction before granting her entry. "Who shall I say is calling?" he asked as he led her into the front parlor.
"Tell him it's Miss Lambkin. Miss Minerva Lambkin." She had debated the wisdom of giving her real namemore than likely Asher would refuse to see her at allbut she would not resort to pretense. Either he would see her or he would not. If he did not...
The man retreated and left her alone in the warm parlor. With a sigh, she set down her carpetbag, took off her sodden cloak and drew closer to the crackling fire. As she peeled off her damp gloves and rubbed her hands, she surveyed the graciously furnished room, her curiosity mingling with a feeling of suspense. She noted the walls hung with striped silk, the black walnut settees richly upholstered in rose damask, the fireplace carved from the finest Italian marble. Asher Quigley was no stranger to wealth these days.
The door swung open, accompanied by a whirring noise. Minerva straightened in surprise as a large mechanical dog entered the room. Its multi-jointed body was made of polished brass joined together by hundreds of minute rivets. It had ruby eyes, copper claws and a small, articulated tail. She'd seen automaton animals before, but never one so detailed. The dog lifted its head and approached her, then stopped. Its red eyes glowed as it crouched and bared steel fangs at her.
More intrigued than afraid, Minerva inched closer. A menacing growl rumbled out of the dog's mouth.
"Cerberus! Sit." A man she recognized all too clearly strode into the room.
Her nerves seized. She lurched upright, knocking her hat askew. Hotly aware of her bedraggled state, she pushed the damp feathers away from her face. This was not how she wished to meet Asher Quigley again. In fact, she'd wished never to meet him again. Only desperation had driven her to his doorstep.
He seemed equally displeased at making her reacquaintance. He stopped and held himself some distance away, his expression stiff and unwelcoming, as if she were a proselytizer about to press a pamphlet on him.