Elizabeth Miles knows that honesty is not always the best policy when it comes to finding justice.
Elizabeth has discovered that navigating the rules of high society is the biggest con of all. She knows she can play the game, but so far, her only success is Priscilla Knight, a dedicated young suffragist recently widowed for the second time. Her beloved first husband died in a tragic accident and left her with two young daughters—and a sizable fortune. While she was lost in grief, Priscilla’s pastor convinced her she needed a man to look after her and engineered a whirlwind courtship and hasty marriage to fellow parishioner Endicott Knight. Now, about nine months later, Endicott is dead in what appears to be another terrible accident.
Everyone is whispering, but that is the least of Priscilla’s troubles. She had believed Endicott was wealthy, too, but her banker tells her she has no money left and her house has been mortgaged. He also hints at a terrible scandal and refuses to help.
Priscilla stands to lose everything, and Elizabeth is determined not to let that happen. But, as always, Elizabeth walks a fine line between using her unusual talents and revealing her own scandalous past. Elizabeth soon discovers that Endicott’s death was anything but accidental, and revealing the truth could threaten much more than Priscilla’s finances. To save her new friend’s future—and possibly her own—Elizabeth, along with her honest-to-a-fault beau, Gideon, delve into the sinister secrets someone would kill to keep.
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***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2018 Victoria Thompson
Elizabeth had to tell more lies on a Sunday morning at church than she ever had trying to cheat a mark out of fifty thousand dollars.
“Lovely hat, Mrs. Snodgrass.”
“So nice to see you, Mr. Peabody.”
“Good sermon, Reverend Honesdale.”
But when she glanced over and saw the way Gideon Bates was looking at her, she decided it was worth it. If she was going to marry him, she would have to live in his world, and if that involved lying, at least it was a skill she had already mastered.
“Lizzie!” Anna Vanderslice cried, pushing her way through the worshippers who had lingered after the service to chat. She took Elizabeth’s hands in hers and gave them an affectionate squeeze.
“Anna, I’m so glad to see you.” Finally, she got to speak the truth. “How are things going at home?” she added in a whisper.
Anna’s eyes sparkled with mischief. “David finally admitted to me that he was the one who broke your engagement and he only allowed you to take the credit to save your reputation.”
Indeed, if word got out that Anna’s brother had found Elizabeth unworthy, no other gentleman in New York would dare make her an offer of marriage. Not that Elizabeth wanted to marry any of the other gentlemen in New York. “He’s very kind,” Elizabeth said with a straight face.
“I told him so, too,” Anna said. “Even though we both know he was saving his own reputation with his kindness. No debutante in the city would trust him if he threw you over. How on earth did you convince him it was his idea?”
Elizabeth couldn’t explain how she’d gotten David to break the engagement she’d previously convinced him to make, even though he’d never actually proposed to her—at least not while they were standing in a church aisle. She simply smiled mysteriously. “Are you coming to the salon this week?”
“You know I am.” Anna hadn’t missed a single one of the weekly gatherings held at Elizabeth’s aunt’s house since Elizabeth had introduced her to them.
“We can talk about it then.”
“Anna, how lovely to see you,” Gideon’s mother said, having wandered over from where she’d been greeting some friends. “Is your mother here? I didn’t see her.”
“She has a cold, so she stayed home today.”
“Nothing serious, I hope,” Mrs. Bates said.
Anna’s shrug reminded them both that her mother was something of a hypochondriac whose ailments were never serious. The three women chatted for a few minutes before Anna took her leave to find her brother.
Mrs. Bates scanned the dwindling crowd with the shrewdness of a business tycoon determined to transact a multimillion dollar deal. Or rather with the shrewdness of a society matron determined to find a social advantage for her only son, which made her even more ruthless than a tycoon. Since her only son needed a wife who was completely acceptable to society, and since Elizabeth was the wife he wanted, Mrs. Bates had her work cut out for her.
At the moment, Gideon’s mother was limited to introducing Elizabeth to whatever illustrious individuals happened to have lingered to chat after this morning’s service. Judging from her expression, she didn’t see anyone left who was worth pursuing.
“Is Priscilla here?” Elizabeth asked, naming the one woman she’d actually become friends with so far. “I didn’t see her.”
“I thought . . .” Mrs. Bates scanned the auditorium again. “Yes, there she is, up front. Oh dear, I hope she’s not ill.”
Indeed, Priscilla Knight was still sitting in one of the front pews, staring straight ahead and making no move to chat with any of the ladies clustering nearby.
“I’ll make sure she’s all right,” Elizabeth said, hurrying toward the front of the church.
Priscilla had recently been widowed for the second time in her young life, and Elizabeth knew she carried a heavy burden. As she approached, she saw that her friend looked more distressed than ill.
Priscilla looked up and smiled when she recognized Elizabeth, but the smile didn’t quite reach her eyes. “Oh, Elizabeth, you startled me.”
“You did look like you were deep in thought. I didn’t know whether to interrupt you or not.” Elizabeth slid into the pew beside her. “Is everything all right?”
“No,” she said softly. “No, it’s not.”
Which was not what people usually said unless something was very wrong indeed. “Can I help?” Elizabeth heard herself say, although she usually wasn’t the least bit interested in getting involved with other people’s problems. But she really did care about Priscilla, which was somewhat of a shock to realize.
“I don’t know if anyone can help.”
Before Elizabeth could respond to this terrifying statement, Daisy Honesdale, the minister’s wife, arrived. Her handsome face was a mask of concern. “Mrs. Knight, are you all right?”
This time Priscilla raised her head and smiled the determined smile of a woman with no intention of giving in to despair. Then she rose to her feet. “I’m perfectly fine, Mrs. Honesdale. I was just praying. For Endicott, you know,” she added, naming her most recently deceased husband.
“Of course,” Mrs. Honesdale said a little uncertainly, glancing at Elizabeth, who had risen as well. “I’m glad to see you in church today, Mrs. Knight. It’s important to see one’s friends when one is in mourning.”
If that were true, then why were widows who were still in mourning forbidden to socialize in all but the most restricted ways? But Elizabeth wasn’t going to take this particular opportunity to challenge society’s strictures. Instead she took Priscilla’s arm, sensing her friend didn’t want the minister’s wife inquiring into her problems. “Mrs. Bates wanted to say hello to you, Priscilla. Let me take you to her.”
They nodded their farewells to Mrs. Honesdale, and Elizabeth escorted Priscilla down the aisle to where Mrs. Bates waited.
“Could you . . . ?” Priscilla whispered.
“Could I what?”
“Could you come to see me?”
Elizabeth could not mistake the desperation in her friend’s eyes. “Of course.”
Daisy Honesdale watched Priscilla Knight and her friend as they made their way out of the church. They were practically the last to leave, and she waited, knowing Peter would come to find her when he had shaken the hand of the last parishioner and closed the front doors.
He came down the aisle slowly, his clerical robes flapping around his long legs. He was a handsome man, just as she’d been promised, and not particularly bright, which had sealed the deal. She had made a good bargain, and soon she would have everything she had always wanted. How nice it would have been to share her victory with a beautiful man like Peter. He had worked just as hard as she to earn it, after all. But the truth was, she could no longer stand the sight of him.
“What do we know about that girl who’s been coming with Hazel Bates?” she asked when he was close enough.
Peter’s perfect face creased slightly with the effort of thinking. “Her name is Miles. Elizabeth, I think. She’s one of Mrs. Bates’s suffragette friends.”
“She’s gotten awfully friendly with Priscilla Knight.”
He glanced over his shoulder as if he could still see them. “I did notice they walked out together.”
A miracle. “Where did this Miles girl come from? Do we know anything about her?”
“I don’t think so. She just showed up with Mrs. Bates a few weeks ago.”
“Gideon seems smitten.”
“Does he? She’s quite lovely.”
Of course he’d noticed that. “She’s smart, too.”
“How can you tell?”
“Mrs. Bates wouldn’t waste time on her if she wasn’t.”
“Oh.” He considered. “I suppose you’re right.”
Of course she was right. She was always right. “We need to keep an eye on her.”
Daisy managed not to sigh. “Because she’s taken an interest in Priscilla, and Priscilla will soon discover her true situation, and she might confide in the Miles girl.”
“What could she confide?”
“Peter, darling, there are lots of things she could confide. She can, for example, remember the role you and I played in her most recent marriage.”
“We were only trying to help her. You said so yourself.”
“Of course we were, and we had no idea of Mr. Knight’s true nature. We are as shocked as Priscilla will be.”
“Then why do we need to keep an eye on her?”
This time Daisy allowed herself to sigh. “Because we don’t know what trouble she might cause, and we need to be ready.”
Finally, he seemed to grasp the significance of the situation. “What can we do to be ready?”
She favored him with a smile. “I don’t know yet, but opportunities have a way of presenting themselves, don’t they?”
He smiled back. “Yes, almost as if they fell from heaven.”
“Who is Priscilla Knight?” Gideon asked.
Elizabeth had waited until they were enjoying Sunday dinner in the Bateses’ dining room and the maid had withdrawn before telling Mrs. Bates about Priscilla’s strange request.
“Priscilla Jenks,” Mrs. Bates told her son. “You remember, DeForrest Jenks died suddenly a little over a year ago. Priscilla remarried rather quickly, to Endicott Knight.”
“That’s right,” Gideon said. “I remember now. I also remember wondering why on earth she’d married Knight.”
“He was . . . rather attractive,” Mrs. Bates allowed.
Gideon leaned over to where Elizabeth sat to his left and stage-whispered, “The way a cigar store Indian is attractive—very noble but without much conversation.”
“You shouldn’t speak ill of the dead,” his mother scolded.
Gideon feigned chagrin and Elizabeth bit back a smile. “She must have been thoroughly charmed if she remarried so quickly. Or maybe she just didn’t care much for her first husband and didn’t see any point in mourning him too long.”
“Oh no, she adored DeForrest. They were devoted to each other,” Mrs. Bates said. “And Gideon is right. Endicott wasn’t . . . Well, let’s just say it’s unlikely he charmed her into marrying him.”
“I heard it was money,” Gideon said.
His mother stiffened. “Was DeForrest a client of yours?”
“Certainly not. I couldn’t gossip about him if he was. And I didn’t gossip about him at all, come to that, until this very moment.”
“But someone gossiped to you and said Priscilla married this Mr. Knight for his money,” Elizabeth guessed.
Gideon winced a bit. “Something like that. Someone hinted that DeForrest had left Priscilla destitute and she needed to remarry to provide for her girls.”
Elizabeth glanced over at Mrs. Bates and saw her own disgust reflected in her expression. “How awful for her,” Mrs. Bates said.
“But a very familiar story,” Elizabeth said.
“And now she’s been widowed twice in a little over a year, and she’s barely thirty.” Mrs. Bates shook her head. “No wonder she’s distraught.”
“So you’re going to see her?” Gideon asked Elizabeth.
“Of course. Except for the women I met in jail, she’s the only female who has shown any interest in being my friend.”
“And only a few of the jailed women live in New York,” Mrs. Bates added. “So of course Elizabeth is going to see Priscilla.”
Gideon shook his head in mock despair. “I just realized I’m probably the only attorney in New York eating Sunday dinner with two convicts.”
“Two convicts who happen to be your mother and your fiancée,” Mrs. Bates reminded him.
“I’m not his fiancée yet,” Elizabeth reminded her right back.
“That’s right,” Gideon said. “It’s bad enough that I’m stealing my best friend’s girl. I can’t be seen to do it too quickly.”
“Is there a specified period of mourning for a lost fiancée?” Elizabeth asked. “Where is Mrs. Ordway’s book? I must check the etiquette on that so you can inform poor David.” Mrs. Edith B. Ordway and her book The Etiquette of Today were considered the ultimate authorities on such matters.
“I’m very sorry to inform you, but David is not currently mourning the loss of his fiancée,” Gideon said gravely.
“You can’t mean it!” Elizabeth said in mock despair. “I thought I’d merit at least a month of grieving.”
“I believe it’s been almost a month,” Gideon said. “Nearly. Close to it, anyway.”
“It has not! I’m terribly affronted. And insulted.”
“I don’t know how to tell you this, but he’s actually relieved to be shed of you,” Gideon informed her.
Mrs. Bates was laughing now. “He told you this, I assume?”
Gideon managed to maintain a straight face. “Yes, this morning. Not in so many words, of course. A gentleman never besmirches a lady’s character to another gentleman.”
“Horsefeathers,” Elizabeth said. “I shall sue him for breach of promise.”
“No one does that anymore,” Gideon said in the ponderous voice he used to offer legal advice, or would use if anyone ever asked him for it. “That’s what engagement rings are for. The jilted lady can sell the ring to reimburse herself for her injured pride.”
“But I returned the engagement ring to him, so I can’t sell it.”
“You returned it because it was hideously ugly and you didn’t want it,” Gideon reminded her. “And because you’re the one who called off the engagement, you can’t sue him for breach of promise in any case.”
“Can he sue me?”
Gideon wagged his head. “Men are made of sterner stuff than that, Miss Miles. We don’t ask the courts to salve our broken hearts with financial settlements.”
“That’s enough of your nonsense,” Mrs. Bates said, although she was still smiling. “We shouldn’t be making fun of poor David. He probably did care for Elizabeth, at least a little.”
“And I’m sure Elizabeth deeply regrets tricking him into becoming engaged to her,” Gideon said.
“Yes, I do,” Elizabeth assured them. “And I never would have abused him like that except to save my life, which some people might consider selfish of me, but I considered vitally important, at least at the time.”
“We all considered it important,” Mrs. Bates assured her. “I’m sure David would, too, if he knew.”
“Perhaps we should tell him,” Gideon said.
“Perhaps we should,” Elizabeth said. “Especially if you want him to be best man at our wedding.”
In the end, Mrs. Bates decided to go with Elizabeth to visit Priscilla Knight that afternoon, for which Elizabeth was grateful. For all her varied life experiences, she’d never had to comfort a young widow.
“Oh, Mrs. Bates,” Priscilla said when the maid had escorted them into the parlor. “I didn’t expect to see you, too. Thank you both for coming.”
She looked even more distressed now than she had in church. Her face was pale and her eyes bloodshot, either from weeping or lack of sleep. Perhaps both. The unrelieved black of her outfit didn’t flatter her fair coloring either.
When they were settled, Elizabeth said. “You sounded so desperate this morning, we decided we needed to come right away.”
“Desperate? Yes, I suppose I am.”
“I can’t imagine what you must be going through, to lose two husbands in such a short time,” Mrs. Bates said.
“I . . . Well, I don’t want you to think I’m grieving for Mr. Knight. I . . . Actually, I hardly knew him.”
Elizabeth and Mrs. Bates exchanged a glance. “We know you had to marry him,” Elizabeth said, “to provide for yourself and your daughters.”
Priscilla frowned. “What? Where did you get that idea?”
Elizabeth glanced at Mrs. Bates again and saw her own confusion mirrored there. “Someone said your first husband left you penniless, and that’s why . . .”
“Oh no,” Priscilla said, shaking her head vehemently. “DeForrest left us very well situated. I never would have wanted for anything.”
Could that be true?
“I know you were devastated when he died,” Mrs. Bates said tentatively.
“I was! I cried all the time, for weeks. Some days I couldn’t even get out of bed. When I look back, I don’t know how I survived, but Mrs. Honesdale was so kind to me. She visited me every day and never let me completely surrender to my grief.”
Elizabeth frowned. If that were true, Priscilla would be deeply grateful to Daisy Honesdale. Why, then, had Priscilla been so eager to escape her this morning? “She takes her position as the minister’s wife very seriously.” She tried to see how Priscilla would respond.
“Yes, she does,” Priscilla said sharply, with what looked like anger sparking in her pale blue eyes. “And after a few weeks, she took it upon herself to convince me I needed a man to look after me.”
“Why did she do that?” Mrs. Bates asked.
“Because she believes that a woman alone is in danger. Anyone might take advantage of her if she has no man to protect her.”
“Don’t you have any family?” Elizabeth asked.
“No, I . . . I was an only child and my father died years ago. My mother and I lived with an uncle, but he passed away before I married, and my mother is gone now, too. I’m quite alone.”
“So you decided you did need to remarry,” Elizabeth said.
“No, I didn’t,” Priscilla said, shocking them both. “I never decided that at all. Reverend Honesdale brought Mr. Knight to call on me a few times. I wasn’t in any condition to entertain visitors, but I didn’t object. That would have seemed churlish after all the Honesdales had done for me.”
“Then did meeting him make you change your mind about remarrying?” Elizabeth asked.
“No, I told you. I never changed my mind about that.”
“Then how . . . ?”
“How did I end up marrying him? I honestly don’t know,” Priscilla said, her voice shrill with frustration.
“What do you mean, you don’t know?” Mrs. Bates asked, frowning now with the same determination that had kept Elizabeth and the other women focused when they’d been jailed almost two months ago.
“I mean much of that time is . . . well, foggy is the only word I can think to describe it. I was prostrate with grief and I wasn’t paying much attention to anything else. I just remember Mrs. Honesdale telling me how much I needed a man to look after me. Mr. Knight called here, but he hardly ever spoke to me, and I honestly have no memory of him proposing to me. All I know for sure is that one day the Honesdales and Mr. Knight arrived with another man I didn’t know and Reverend Honesdale married me to Mr. Knight.”
“How could they do that, marry you to someone against your will?” Elizabeth demanded, outraged.
“But I must have agreed,” Priscilla said. “They couldn’t . . . they wouldn’t do that unless I’d agreed, would they?”
In Elizabeth’s world, people got bamboozled all the time, but she didn’t think those things happened routinely in Gideon’s world. Maybe she was wrong about that, but Mrs. Bates looked baffled, so probably not.
“I can’t imagine anyone—and certainly not a minister—marrying someone against her will,” Mrs. Bates said, although Elizabeth could tell she wasn’t as certain as she was trying to appear.
“So you see, I must have agreed, but I felt so guilty afterwards. I know people wondered why I remarried so quickly, as if I couldn’t be bothered to mourn DeForrest, who had been the love of my life.”
“No one thought that, my dear,” Mrs. Bates assured her, although Elizabeth was pretty sure she was lying. Elizabeth hadn’t known any of them then, but she knew enough about human nature to be fairly certain that if people had a reason to gossip about someone, they would.
“And apparently, people thought you needed a husband to support you,” Elizabeth added, earning a black look from Mrs. Bates. Mrs. Ordway’s book said talking about money was always frowned upon in polite society, but Elizabeth thought Priscilla would rather be thought penniless than heartless.
The grateful smile Priscilla gave her proved her right. “That would have been a justification, I suppose, although I don’t know how a rumor like that got started. I had a very nice dowry when I married DeForrest, and he was quite comfortable as well. And Mr. Knight was quite well off, too, or at least that’s what everyone thought, but now . . .”
“Now?” Elizabeth prompted.
“Now my solicitor tells me I really am penniless or nearly so.”
“What?” Mrs. Bates exclaimed.
“How could that be true?” Elizabeth asked.
“I have no idea, and even worse, it appears this house is mortgaged and I have no way of paying that, either. The girls and I will have to leave, although I don’t know where we can go.”
“There must be some mistake,” Mrs. Bates said. “Fortunes don’t disappear overnight.”
Elizabeth could have disagreed. In her experience, that’s exactly the way they disappeared, and often they disappeared into the hands of one of her family members. She herself had been in the midst of cheating someone out of his fortune when she’d first met Hazel Bates and her son, Gideon.
Mrs. Bates knew all about her past now, of course, so Elizabeth had no trouble at all reading her thoughts when their gazes met across Priscilla’s parlor. Could Mr. Knight have lost Priscilla’s fortune to a con artist?
“I thought it must be some mistake, too,” Priscilla was saying, oblivious to the undercurrents. “I told my banker that, but he was certain he was right.”
“Did he know what happened to your money?”
“He claims he does not, and I don’t have the slightest idea of how to find out myself. I’m sure he’s wrong or has made some terrible mistake or—and I hate to say this, but I’m sure it does happen—that he has stolen the money himself. But no matter what happened, how will I ever find out?”
“And of course you don’t want to be making such serious accusations with no basis in fact,” Mrs. Bates said, “even if you’re just accusing him of making an error.”
“I don’t care about the money for myself, you know, or the house, either,” Priscilla said. “But my girls . . . What kind of a future will they have if . . . ?”
“Now, now, don’t borrow trouble, as my dear mother used to say,” Mrs. Bates said. “We’ll get this sorted out.”
“Will we?” Priscilla asked. “I wouldn’t even know whom to ask for help or whom to trust at this point.”
“Would you trust Elizabeth?” Mrs. Bates asked, giving Elizabeth a look that made her sit up straighter.
“Elizabeth? Of course I would, but what—”
“Elizabeth has a rather unique family history that . . . Well, let’s just say she might be able to figure out what happened to your fortune and who was responsible.” Mrs. Bates’s expression asked a silent question that Elizabeth was only too qualified to answer.
“I just might at that,” Elizabeth said. “Would you allow me to look through Mr. Knight’s papers? I think that’s the logical place to begin, and I might be able to figure out something.”
“If you think you could, of course. I’d be very grateful, although I don’t know what you might find.”
Elizabeth knew, though. She also knew the questions to ask Priscilla and anyone else who might know something about Mr. Knight’s financial dealings. If Endicott Knight had been cheated out of Priscilla’s fortune, she could find out who had done it. She might even know them by name. The chances of recovering the money were slim, but at least Priscilla would know the truth, and Elizabeth might—just might—be able to prevail on someone’s conscience to help a poor widow.
“I could come tomorrow morning, if that’s convenient for you,” Elizabeth said.
“Every day is convenient for a woman in deep mourning,” Priscilla said sadly. “I can hardly ever leave the house.”
“Do you think he could have been . . . cheated?” Mrs. Bates asked as she and Elizabeth huddled together under the lap robe in the back of the taxicab. The winter sun was setting, and it was too cold to walk back home.
“It certainly sounds like he was,” Elizabeth said. “How long was she married to this Knight fellow?”
“Let me see . . . About nine months, I’d say. That’s not much time to dispose of a fortune in the usual way.”
“What is the usual way to dispose of a fortune?”
“Spending it, I suppose,” Mrs. Bates said, shaking her head. “I’ve never had the luxury of trying it, but I’m told it’s possible.”
“And I suppose you could do it rather quickly if you put your mind to it, but what would he have spent it on?”
“Maybe he was a gambler, although I can’t say I’ve ever heard a whiff of gossip about him. People do talk, and it doesn’t seem likely the Honesdales would pair Priscilla up with a gambler or someone with similar expensive vices.”
“Would a minister know if someone had vices?”
Mrs. Bates gave her a pitying look. “Ministers tend to know everything. People confess their shortcomings to ministers in hopes of getting help, and of course others are only too eager to tattle about their neighbors’ shortcomings.”
“So whatever Mr. Knight was doing, he managed to keep it private.”
“Which is what made me think it might be something like the way you got Oscar Thornton’s money.”
“We call it a con,” Elizabeth said sweetly. “And Knight wouldn’t necessarily even think what he was doing was illegal, so he’d have nothing to confess.”
“Exactly. Will you be able to find evidence if that’s what happened?”
“Probably, but I also probably won’t be able to get the money back, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
“I don’t hope for miracles, but I would like to give Priscilla some explanation for what happened.”
“What I don’t understand is why the Honesdales were so anxious to get her remarried,” Elizabeth said.
“That does seem strange, doesn’t it? Of course, some people are always deciding they know what’s best for someone else. Maybe the Honesdales really did think Priscilla needed a man to look after her and were only trying to help.”
“I wouldn’t consider it helping if someone tricked me into marrying a man I hardly knew.”
Mrs. Bates nodded. “Neither would I, especially if he squandered all my money, but of course they couldn’t have known he’d do that.”
No, they couldn’t, could they? It seemed unlikely. Still, they’d assumed a lot of authority over poor Priscilla. Elizabeth hadn’t really formed an opinion of the minister and his wife one way or the other. Her limited exposure to them hadn’t given her much opportunity. She’d have to pay more attention.
“Are you going to tell Gideon what we found out?” Elizabeth asked.
“Not yet. I was thinking you should just go straight home so he can’t ask you anything this evening, and I’ll just say it ended up being a condolence call.”
“What if we’re right and Mr. Knight was conned?”
“Then we’ll tell him, of course,” Mrs. Bates said impatiently.
But Elizabeth wasn’t fooled. She knew Mrs. Bates was trying to protect her somehow. “Gideon already knows what I am,” Elizabeth reminded her.
“And that’s why he won’t want you to get involved, so if he doesn’t know our plans, he won’t try to stop you.”
“And we won’t have an argument about it,” Elizabeth said, completing the thought.
Mrs. Bates smiled at that. “Which was my ultimate goal, yes. You also won’t have to lie to him.”
“Which is the one thing he can’t forgive, I know. I’ll never lie to Gideon, but you must accept the fact that means we’ll probably have lots of arguments.”
“I accept that fully, which is why I’m going to avoid this one by not telling him anything about this just yet.”
Priscilla was with her two little girls when Elizabeth arrived the next morning. They were, Priscilla informed her proudly, aged two and four. They were probably too young to even remember their father. They were both blonde, like their mother, and so very small and defenseless that Elizabeth had to swallow down the surge of rage that bubbled up at the thought of what had been taken from them.
After sending the children back to the nursery with their nanny, Priscilla took Elizabeth upstairs. “This was Endicott’s room,” she explained, opening one of the doors that led off the hallway. It was a bedroom, although plainly not the master bedroom, containing a double bed, dresser, washstand and wardrobe cabinet, but it also contained a desk and, oddly enough, a safe.
“He used this as his office?” Elizabeth asked. Usually, men had a study of some sort where they smoked and read their newspapers and conducted whatever business men of that social class conducted at home. A house of this size would have such a room and it would ordinarily be downstairs.
“His office and his, uh, bedroom as well.”
Elizabeth couldn’t help noticing that the room didn’t adjoin any other, the way bedrooms of married couples usually did, and Priscilla had said it was his room. “I see.”
“And to save you from asking, Mr. Knight and I did not share a bedroom,” Priscilla said, her pale cheeks pinkening.
“I wasn’t going to ask.”
“I wanted you to know, though, so you’d understand why . . . Well, why I didn’t know very much about him.”
“You did say you didn’t know him very well.”
“As I told you, we’d hardly spoken before the marriage. That night—our wedding night—he told me he would allow me my privacy—that’s how he phrased it—and he moved his things into this room. I thought . . . I suppose I assumed it would be temporary. You aren’t married, Elizabeth, but I was, and I know how much men enjoy the privileges of the marriage bed.”
Now it was Elizabeth’s turn to blush, which she did because she thought of Gideon and how very much he would enjoy those privileges. “So I understand.”
“I enjoyed them, too. With DeForrest, that is. I was relieved when Mr. Knight didn’t demand his rights immediately, though. I couldn’t imagine . . . Well, at any rate, I didn’t have to. Mr. Knight never mentioned the subject again.”
Elizabeth was starting to develop a completely new theory about Endicott Knight, but she’d keep it to herself for now. “Is this where he kept all of his papers?”
“This is where he kept everything that belonged to him. And he also kept the door locked. I don’t think he realized I have duplicate keys to all the rooms, just in case one gets lost. I never used my key while he was alive, of course, but when he died, I opened the room. I needed to get fresh clothes for him to be buried in, but I haven’t been in here since.”
“Do you know anything about Mr. Knight’s business dealings?”
“Nothing at all. He didn’t seem to have an office elsewhere or a profession of any kind. He inherited his money, or so I understood, and lived off the interest.”
The way most rich people did. “Do you know his friends?”
“Not really. He never invited anyone to the house. In fact, he was hardly ever here himself. He went to his club most days and often took his supper there. Some days I didn’t see him at all.”
How curious. A man so anxious to marry he allows his minister to practically kidnap a bride for him and then declines to consummate the marriage or even spend any time with his new wife. “Did he seem particularly anxious or worried just before he died?”
Priscilla frowned as she considered the question. “Now that you ask, he did seem anxious, but that wasn’t at all unusual.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean he always seemed worried and distracted. I did try to develop some sort of relationship with him. We were married, after all, no matter how it had come about. But he seemed almost incapable of having a conversation.”
“I know it sounds odd, but when I did manage to catch him at home and at leisure, I would ask him about his day or whatever, trying to engage him. But he never said anything except to answer a question or two before . . . I’m not sure how to describe it, but I got the feeling he was thinking about something else, something very important, and he couldn’t focus his attention on me for more than a moment or two.”
“So he didn’t ever seem particularly excited or happy about anything, I suppose.” Which is how he would have appeared if he were about to fall for a con, thinking he was going to turn his fortune into a much larger fortune.
“Not that I ever saw. He always seemed . . . sad, I guess. Or worried, like I said.”
“Do you know what club he belonged to?” Maybe some of his friends there would know more, although she’d need Gideon’s help with something like that.
“No, I’m sorry. He never talked about it.”
“That’s all right. Someone will know, or there’s probably a bill from them somewhere in his desk.”
“Do you need me to help you sort through his things?” Priscilla asked with no enthusiasm whatsoever.
“Not at all. Go off and play with your beautiful little girls and leave me to it. I’ll let you know if I need anything.”
When Priscilla had departed, Elizabeth closed the door in case one of the servants got nosy. Keeping secrets from servants was always difficult, but there was no reason to make it too easy for them.
She sat down in the desk chair and scooted it closer to the desk. The top of the desk was clear, but in the first drawer she opened, she found a stack of recent mail. Only the top envelope had been opened. It bore no return address and had been addressed in neat block printing. She pulled out a piece of stationery that had been folded around a photograph. She unwrapped the photograph and stared at it for a long moment.
The image was so bizarre and unexpected that at first her mind couldn’t even comprehend what she was seeing, and when she did, she yelped and tossed it away as if it had burned her.
Gideon was reviewing some estate documents for a client when his law clerk knocked on his office door.
“A young lady is here to see you, sir. She does not have an appointment.”
Plainly, Smith considered anyone foolish enough to arrive at the offices of Devoss and Van Aken without an appointment to be beneath contempt.
“Did she give her name?”
“A Miss Miles, I believe.”
Gideon managed to reveal only surprise. No one knew his true relationship with Elizabeth yet, and he certainly did not intend to give anyone in his law firm reason to gossip. “Oh yes. Miss Miles is a friend of my mother’s. A fellow suffragist. Please show her in, Smith.”
Smith wasn’t going to give in easily. “Are you sure, sir?”
“Of course I’m sure. If Miss Miles needs more than a few minutes of my time, I will instruct her to make an appointment to come back later.”
That seemed to placate Smith, even though Gideon had no intention of sending Elizabeth away to make an appointment, and he did as Gideon had instructed.
Elizabeth, as usual, looked lovely when Smith escorted her into his office, and for a moment Gideon almost forgot to breathe. She smiled at him but betrayed nothing beyond common courtesy until Smith had closed the door behind himself.
“I don’t think he approves of me,” she said, her beautiful blue eyes wide with mock concern as she set down the bag she’d been carrying.
“We rarely have such beautiful clients at Devoss and Van Aken,” he said hurrying around his desk to greet her properly. “They tend to be portly and middle-aged at best.”
“Ah, that would explain his dismay.” She gave him her hands and lifted her face for his kiss. “He must have guessed I’m not here to prepare my last will and testament.”
When he’d properly welcomed her, he sat her down in one of the client chairs situated in front of his desk and took the other so he could hold her hand while they talked. “Then why are you here, if I may inquire, or did you just come to apologize for going straight home last evening and leaving me bereft of your company?”
“I came because I need your legal advice, Mr. Bates.”
“Then you really are here to make your last will and testament?”
“Of course not, although I’m sure you’d advise me that everyone should have one.”
“I certainly would.”
To his surprise, her playful smile faded. “I really do need your advice about something, Gideon. It’s concerning Priscilla Knight.”
“Does it have to do with Knight’s estate? Because even if he didn’t have a will, she should inherit everything.”
“It has to do with Knight, but . . . I don’t know what your mother told you about our conversation with Priscilla yesterday . . .”
“She didn’t say much of anything.”
“Then you don’t know the reason Priscilla asked me to call on her. The real reason. She has just learned that Mr. Knight somehow managed to squander both his fortune and her own, and he has left her penniless.”
“That’s impossible. There must be some mistake,” Gideon said instinctively, but he instantly realized it was not impossible at all. Hadn’t he and Elizabeth just recently been part of a scheme that had accomplished just such an impossibility?
“Priscilla thought it must be a mistake as well, although your mother and I . . . Well, I see you’re thinking the same thing we were. We thought Mr. Knight might have been taken advantage of, so your mother suggested—because of my unique experience—that Priscilla allow me to go through Mr. Knight’s papers to see if I could figure out what happened to the money.”
“And neither of you thought about mentioning this to me?” Gideon said, dismayed he wasn’t able to keep the anger from his voice.
“Of course we did, my darling, but Priscilla was too embarrassed to ask anyone . . . or rather to ask any man for help. She thought her banker might be lying to her, and she didn’t know whom to trust.”
“You could have told her to trust me.” Now he sounded dangerously close to whiny. He cleared his throat in an effort to get some dignity back. “I mean, you know I would have told her the truth.”
“Of course I know that, but at the time your mother and I were fairly certain Mr. Knight had been conned out of his fortune. You couldn’t have done anything about that, and your knowing would have just caused Priscilla more humiliation.”
That did make sense in a female sort of way, he supposed. Then he realized what she’d said. “But now you don’t think he was conned.”
“No, I don’t, and I want you to know that as soon as I figured it out, I came straight here to see you, although I now realize I should have made an appointment first.”
“I’ll make sure Smith knows you never need an appointment.” He glanced down at the bag she had carried in. He could see now that it appeared to be a man’s valise.
She released his hand and reached down to open the case. She pulled out a ledger. “Mr. Knight was rather good at keeping his accounts, it would seem. I’m not sure why, but thank heaven he was. I think these pages give a very interesting picture of what became of his fortune.” She opened the book to a page she’d marked with an envelope and handed it to him.
Gideon wasn’t an accountant, but he didn’t need to be to read the story told in these pages. This was apparently a record of Knight’s household expenditures. Beginning on the page she’d indicated, each month a generous set amount was deposited, probably from the income of his investments, and each expense was recorded and subtracted. All of them seemed to be normal expenditures for a man running his own household. He noted Knight seemed to have belonged to several clubs, including the Manchester Club, where Gideon himself belonged, although he didn’t recognize all of the names. The monthly fees for each were paid out accordingly, although one club seemed to have much higher fees than the others, and Knight paid them two or three times a month. Gideon turned the page.
“This is where it starts to get interesting,” Elizabeth said, pointing to the new page. The date was approximately three years earlier. The monthly deposit increased substantially, and Knight had paid out five thousand dollars in a lump sum.
“Do you know what these letters stand for?” Gideon asked, indicating the letters identifying the five thousand dollar expenditure.
“No, and neither does Priscilla. Keep going.”
A few months later, Knight made another large deposit and withdrawal, this time for three thousand dollars. The trend continued until a month when the deposit was much smaller than usual and the balance at the end of the month was less than a hundred dollars. The following month, the deposit was even smaller and the ending balance even lower.
“I suspect Knight was running out of money at this point, and that’s about when he married Priscilla and got access to her money,” Elizabeth said, pointing to a date in the ledger shortly after the lowest monthly balance.
Within a few days of the wedding, Knight had deposited another substantial amount of money into the account and made another large payment to the person or business indicated by the mysterious letters.
“Priscilla told me he sold his house when they got married, or at least he told her he did, so that would account for some of the money he used after they married, but obviously, if she’s now penniless, he used her money, too.”
“Priscilla should have consulted an attorney before she married Knight. He would have advised her to put some of her first husband’s money into a trust for the children,” Gideon said, still scanning the ledger entries and seeing the same pattern of huge amounts of money being paid out with no logical explanation.
“I don’t think Priscilla ever really intended to marry Knight, though.”
“What?” Gideon looked up from the figures in amazement.
“She was devastated when her first husband died, and she said she doesn’t remember much from that time. Everything seemed foggy, she said. But Reverend Honesdale and his wife called on her almost daily, and Mrs. Honesdale kept telling her she needed a man to take care of her and the children. Then, even though Priscilla doesn’t remember ever agreeing to it, one day they showed up with Knight and a witness and performed the ceremony.”
“Just like that?”
“Just like that. She was so embarrassed, because her first husband hadn’t even been dead four months. She knew people would talk, but she had no explanation for how she’d ended up remarried so quickly. She doesn’t even remember Knight proposing to her.”
“And you say Reverend Honesdale performed the ceremony?”
“None of this makes any sense at all.”
“Doesn’t it?” Elizabeth asked. “What do those large payments suggest to you?”
“Not a con,” Gideon said. “Nobody would fall for a con so many times, over several years, again and again.”
“You might be surprised, but in this case, I think you’re right. So why would someone be making large payments like that over and over?”
“Debts, maybe. Gambling debts, but I’ve never heard a hint of scandal about Endicott Knight. If anything, he was always somewhat of a mama’s boy.”
“He was? What’s his mother like?”
“A real harridan, but she’s dead.”
“When did she die?”
“I don’t know. Several years ago, I think.”
“Maybe he started sowing some wild oats after she died.”
“If he did, he was very discreet. And he was an elder in the church, which is quite an honor for someone so young. He wouldn’t have been named elder if he was a known gambler.”
“What else could it be, then?”
He wasn’t fooled by her wide-eyed innocence. “I think you already have an opinion.”
“Of course I do. I just wanted to see if you agreed.”
Gideon sighed wearily. “Even though I can’t imagine why, I think he was being blackmailed.”
“That does explain the payments. Which is the problem with blackmail. It never ends.”
“Which is why no one should ever pay in the first place. But what could someone like Knight have done to attract a blackmailer?”
He should not have been surprised when Elizabeth reached into the valise again and pulled out an envelope. It was addressed to Knight and had been opened. He pulled out a photograph and peered at it for a long moment before he comprehended what he was seeing. Then he gasped and instantly turned the photograph over and slapped it onto his desk. “Did you see this?”
“Yes, unfortunately, which is why I was pretty certain he was being blackmailed. There’s a letter, too.” She nodded at the envelope he still held.
He pulled the letter out and read it. In simple block letters it said, “Just a reminder.”
“I assume the man in the photograph is Knight,” Elizabeth said. “I never met him, and I didn’t want to ask Priscilla.”
“Good heavens, no. She must never see this. But yes, it’s Knight.” He rubbed his eyes in a vain effort to erase the image of the photograph.
“And the, uh, woman?”
“I have no idea, but I’m guessing the photograph was taken in a brothel.”
“Really? Is that what goes on at brothels?” she asked with far too much interest.
He gave her what he hoped was a disapproving frown. “I couldn’t say. I have no personal experience.”
“But I’m sure you’ve heard rumors.”
“Of course I have, but you don’t need to hear them.”
She looked as if she wanted to disagree but thought better of it. “All right. So Mr. Knight was being blackmailed, and he used up his entire fortune and then married Priscilla practically against her will and used up hers as well.”
“The man was a cad,” Gideon said, not bothering to hide his anger now. How could anyone do something so despicable?
“And he got the Honesdales to help him.”
Gideon had been thinking of all the things he’d like to do to Knight but would never have the opportunity, and he almost missed what she’d said. “What?”
“I said, the Honesdales helped him.”
“I doubt that. He’s a minister.”
“But Mrs. Honesdale convinced Priscilla she needed to remarry.”
“Because Priscilla was . . .”
“Because she was penniless?” Elizabeth guessed when he hesitated. “Because she wasn’t penniless, as I have just shown you. She said she would have been fine with what her first husband left her, and we now know Knight was the one who was penniless. So who told you she married Knight for his money?”
“I’m trying to remember. I think I heard it from more than one source. There was a lot of talk when she remarried so quickly.”
“Could it have been from the Honesdales?”
“I don’t believe I’ve ever heard either of them gossip. That would be fatal for a minister, I think. If people thought he couldn’t be trusted, they’d never confide in him.”
“And your mother tells me people confess everything to ministers.”
“Probably not everything, but a lot, I’m sure.”
“Do you think Mr. Knight would have confessed that?” She gestured toward the photograph still lying facedown on his desk. Gideon hoped it wouldn’t leave a scorch mark.
“If he did, I can’t imagine why Honesdale would allow a decent woman to marry him.”
“Are you sure of that?”
Gideon’s first instinct was to defend Honesdale, but he caught himself. “What makes you think the Reverend Honesdale would be involved is something as sordid as blackmail?”
“Nothing in particular, but it is suspicious that he and his wife played such a big role in getting Mr. Knight married to a rich widow before she’d even had a chance to mourn her dead husband. Why do you think he wasn’t involved?”
“Because he’s a man of God.”
“What does that mean?” Gideon asked uneasily.
“It just means I see your logic.”
“It’s more than just logic. If I heard the rumor about Priscilla being penniless, maybe the Honesdales did, too. Obviously, everyone believed it, so that would explain why they’d encouraged Priscilla to remarry so quickly. They had her best interests at heart.”
“I suppose you could be right.”
“But you don’t think so?”
“It doesn’t matter if I do or not, and I don’t really know enough about the man to judge one way or the other. In any event, none of this helps poor Priscilla in the least. If Knight squandered her fortune and his own in blackmail payments, she has little hope of recovering it.”
“But we could at least find out who the blackmailer was and turn him over to the police.”
“What good would that do?”
“He’d be arrested and tried and punished,” Gideon said. “And he’d never be able to do this to anyone else again.”
“Would he really be arrested?”
Gideon opened his mouth to assure her that he would but caught himself when he saw her skepticism. And she was right, unfortunately. He closed his mouth with a snap.
“Just as I thought,” she said. “A blackmailer would think nothing of bribing the police to keep from being arrested. And even if he really was arrested and brought to trial and even found guilty, how would that help Priscilla? Would it get her money back?”
“That’s . . . unlikely.” The police often confiscated money from criminals, but it rarely found its way back to the original victims.
“And imagine how the newspapers would report on a blackmail trial. They create scandals even when they don’t exist. This is a real scandal, and when people find out why Mr. Knight was being blackmailed . . .” Elizabeth shuddered delicately.
Gideon winced at the thought of how the press would swarm on a story like this, like a school of hungry sharks. “But Knight is dead. Scandal won’t hurt him.”
“You’re right, he’s dead,” Elizabeth said, “so Priscilla is the only one left to suffer. The scandal could certainly hurt her and her poor little girls, too. A story like that would follow them for the rest of their lives.”
“And it would ruin the rest of their lives,” Gideon said.
“So what can we do? How can we help her?”
Gideon could hardly bear to look at her, the woman he loved more than life itself. The woman who had every right to turn to him for help and expect to receive it. The woman he would die to protect. How could he admit that he was powerless here, that he had no answer for her? “I . . . I’ve never dealt with a case of blackmail before, and criminal law is not my area of expertise. Let me see what I can find out. There must be something . . . some way to help her.”
“Yes, there must,” she said, although she didn’t sound very hopeful.
She reached for the ledger that lay in his lap, but he stopped her. “Leave these things here.” He snatched up the photograph and stuck it back into its envelope. “I’ll put them in my safe. We wouldn’t want them falling into the wrong hands.” He also didn’t want her to ever see that photograph again.
“Of course.” She managed a smile. “Will I see you this evening?”
“At the salon?” He smiled back, although it felt a little strained. “I’ll escort Anna as usual, although I think her mother is getting the wrong idea.”
“Mothers often do, but don’t worry. Anna has promised not to steal you away from me.”
He took her hand in his again. “No one could.”
“Lizzie, you know I hate these soirées of Cybil’s,” the Old Man said when she opened the front door to him that evening. He’d come early, as she’d asked, and as usual, he was immaculately dressed. He really was a handsome man, even in his middle years, tall and slender with silver hair and amazingly blue eyes.
Elizabeth’s Aunt Cybil and her “close friend” Zelda were busy preparing refreshments for the guests who attended the event they held every Monday evening at their ramshackle home in Chelsea. This left Elizabeth with some free time to discuss her current problem with her mentor, the Old Man.
“You don’t have to stay for the salon,” she told him. “I just need some advice from you. Let’s go upstairs so nobody overhears us.”
“This sounds serious,” he said, following her up the stairs. “Has your young man proven false?”
She gave him a glare over her shoulder. “Do you really think I’d ask you for romantic advice?”
“You wound me to the quick.” He laid a well-manicured hand over his chest, taking care not to dislodge the diamond stickpin he wore.
“I doubt it.”
She led him into her bedroom and shut the door. He lowered himself into the stuffed chair in the corner of her well-decorated room while she sat down on the bed.
“How can I help you, my dear? Does your swain demand a larger dowry?”
“You know perfectly well he doesn’t even want the one he’s getting. No, this isn’t about me at all. I have a friend who asked me for help.” She quickly explained Priscilla’s marital history and the discovery of her financial situation after the death of Mr. Knight.
“So you think someone conned him?”
“No, although that was my first thought. It turns out someone was blackmailing him.”
The Old Man raised his eyebrows. “I hope you don’t think I know anything about it.”
“No. Blackmail is beneath you, I know.” Although cons were right up his alley. “I wanted to ask you about brothels.”
He shifted uncomfortably in his chair. “Why on earth do you need to know anything about brothels?”
“Because this Mr. Knight was apparently frequenting them and doing things that, well, that most people would consider shocking.”
“I have observed that most people are easily shocked.”
“I saw a photograph, and believe me, it would shock even you.”
He frowned his disapproval, but unlike Gideon, he knew better than to express it. “And you think this is why he was being blackmailed?”
“Yes, that’s pretty clear. The question is, who would know about his, uh, activities?”
He gave the matter a few moments’ thought. “If his appetites are as strange as you say, I think you’re correct in assuming this man would have to indulge them at a brothel. Depending on what those appetites were, he would also have to find one that specializes in his particular tastes.”
“They specialize?” she asked in amazement.
He smiled a bit sheepishly. “I’m not sure this is an appropriate topic to discuss with a maiden lady.”
“No one ever seemed to hesitate to discuss their adventures with ladies of the evening in front of me before.”
“Oh dear. I must speak to the boys about being more careful when you’re around.”
“I won’t be around them anymore,” Elizabeth reminded him. “I’m a respectable lady now.”
“A respectable lady who wants to know how brothels specialize,” he added with some amusement.
Elizabeth sighed in frustration. “Are you going to answer my questions or not?”
“I suppose so. There’s no telling who you might ask if I don’t, and I don’t imagine young Gideon would approve.”
“Young Gideon doesn’t have experience in this area.”
He raised his eyebrows again but had the good sense to say nothing.
“So,” she continued, “they specialize?”
He sighed in defeat. “Some do. Men with, uh, unusual appetites require cooperation from the, uh, bawds they hire. And, sometimes, uh, special skills.” He shrugged apologetically. “They also require a certain level of confidentiality. All of this costs money, too. A lot of money.”
“Because a man would be ruined if people found out,” she mused, “and that would also make the men vulnerable to blackmail.”
“As your Mr. Knight apparently was.”
“Who would blackmail him, though?”
“I don’t know much about blackmail. It’s not a crime people talk about, as you can imagine. But I suppose anyone who found out his secrets could do it, although I’m sure he took great pains to ensure that no one did.”
“So it would have to be someone at the brothel.”
“Maybe. That seems logical, but he might have confessed to a friend.”
“Or a minister,” she mused.
“Did you say minister?”
“Yes, he was a church elder.”
“Ah, so he had even more reason than most to hide his unusual tastes.”
“Unless he was confessing to unburden himself.”
“I can’t help you there. I’ve never been tempted to unburden myself, and certainly never to a minister.”
She smiled at that. “I’m sure you haven’t.”
“So, when is the wedding? I thought young Gideon would be quite eager to take you for his bride.”
“We have to wait a bit. He can’t be seen to be snatching up his best friend’s discarded fiancée.”
“Why not? If his best friend was foolish enough to let you slip away . . .”
“It’s one of those strange rules they have in society.”
“They have a lot of them, I assume.”
“More than you can imagine. Some woman wrote a whole book about them.”
“Dear Lord. But I suppose you think Gideon is worth it all.”
“Will he be here this evening?”
“Good. I want to have a word with him.”
“About what?” she asked in alarm.
“I haven’t decided yet.”
“Your father keeps glaring at me,” Gideon whispered to Elizabeth when he managed to catch her alone in the hallway later that evening. The crowd at the salon tonight was smaller than usual, only about a dozen people, which meant he had at least a chance of having Elizabeth all to himself for a few moments.
“Don’t call him that,” she scolded him. “Someone might hear you.” But she was smiling, so he knew she was teasing.
“What’s he doing here anyway? He doesn’t seem interested in talking to anyone.”
“He said he wanted to talk to you.”
Gideon managed not to groan aloud. “Why?”
“He didn’t confide in me. Go sit with Miss Adams. She’s been left all alone on the sofa.”
He glanced into the parlor, where the ancient Miss Adams sat in solitary splendor. “All she ever wants to talk about is poetry.”
“Good, then you’ll be safe from my father with her.”
“Don’t call him that,” Gideon countered with a grin. “Someone might hear you.”
He was heading into the parlor, Elizabeth’s laughter tinkling behind him, when the Old Man stepped out in front of him and blocked his way.
“Step outside with me a moment, will you? I’d like to smoke,” he said.
Gideon could have pointed out that it was freezing outside and, besides, he didn’t smoke, but instead he found his overcoat amid the jumble on the coat tree and followed the Old Man out onto the large front porch. He was, after all, Elizabeth’s father.
“Elizabeth said you wanted to talk to me,” Gideon said as the Old Man pulled out a cigar, cut off the end and lit it, puffing furiously to get it started.
When he had finished with the ritual and the cigar was burning to his satisfaction, he said, “Lizzie asked me about brothels.”
Gideon swore under his breath. “I told her I would handle all that.”
“She said you don’t have much experience in the matter.”
“That doesn’t mean—”
“I don’t either, at least not in the kind of brothels she was interested in.”
“She told you?” Gideon asked, not sure if he was more angry or horrified.
“Not the details. Her mother raised her to be a lady, in spite of the education she got from me. All she said was the man in question had rather odd tastes.”
“Indeed he did.”
“She said there was a photograph.”
“She didn’t describe it, did she?” Gideon asked with renewed horror.
“No, and I’m disappointed that you allowed her to see it,” he said mildly.
“I didn’t allow her to do anything, since I knew nothing about any of this until she brought it to me and started asking me about brothels!” Gideon said in a furious whisper.
The Old Man calmly puffed on his cigar. “Yes, of course. Well, there’s no remedy for it now. The question is, how do we throw her off the scent?”
“You mean you think you can convince her to forget about helping her friend?”
The Old Man smiled slightly “You make it sound impossible.”
“It is impossible. And what is also impossible is getting her friend’s money back from a blackmailer, but that’s what she wants to do.”
“Is it, now?”
“Yes, it is. After she showed me what she’d found, I talked to some of my partners in the firm. None of them had ever dealt with a blackmailer, either, but they all agreed it was foolhardy to even try, because—as we already determined—the very reason the blackmail took place is because the victim wanted to avoid scandal, and exposing the blackmailer also exposes the scandal.”
The Old Man didn’t reply for a long moment, allowing Gideon to think he’d stymied him. But only for a moment. “I wonder if it’s possible to blackmail a blackmailer.”
“You know, beat him at his own game.”
“You mean find out a secret about him and threaten to expose it?”
The Old Man puffed on his cigar again. “That’s my understanding of how it works.”
Gideon considered the concept for a few moments of his own. “If you’ve got the stomach for it, I suppose it could work, but first you’d have to find out who the blackmailer is.”
“Ah, yes, and you don’t know, do you?”
“I don’t, and Elizabeth doesn’t. The widow doesn’t either. She also doesn’t know her husband was being blackmailed. She doesn’t even know about her husband’s, uh, perversions.”
“I think I’d like to see this photograph.”
“Why?” Gideon asked suspiciously.
“Not to blackmail anyone,” the Old Man assured him with a smile. “They’ve already been bled dry, in any case. No, I’d like to get an idea of what kind of brothel we’re looking for.”
“Did I say ‘we’? I meant you. You and Lizzie, although I don’t like to think of her looking for brothels.”
“She won’t be.”
“That’s why I taught her the grift, you know,” he said, staring out into the darkened street. “I didn’t want her involved in my business. I hope you believe that. But her mother died, and I did the best I could, but I knew I wouldn’t always be around. Life is uncertain for a female alone. She can’t be sure she’ll find a good man to take care of her. Far too many men are like this fellow we’re talking about. Idiots, the lot of them. And a young woman on her own . . . Well, it’s hard for a woman to support herself honestly. I wanted to make sure she’d never be taken advantage of, if you know what I mean.”
Gideon found himself in the awkward position of feeling obliged to thank this man for turning his fiancée into a con artist. “I’m sure she’s very grateful” was as close as he could come, however.
“Oh, I know what you think of me. I sometimes think the same things, but I took care of my wife and my children, and when I’m gone, they’ll be provided for. How many men can say that?”
A lot, Gideon hoped, but he didn’t say it aloud. “So you think if we could figure out who the blackmailer is . . . ?”
“That we could blackmail him in return? I think it might be the only hope of getting this poor woman’s money back.”
“So that means we need to figure out where the dead man went for his entertainment.”
“Which is why I need to know more about him. That photograph—I don’t suppose you have it with you?”
“Of course not! It’s locked up in my office.”
“Then tell me about it.”
Gideon glanced around to make sure no one was near enough to hear. Then he whispered the awful details to the Old Man.
He whistled. “I don’t expect many places cater to things like that.”
“Then it should be easy to find them.”
“Easy? Do you think they’re listed in the city directory?” the Old Man asked, amused.
“Well, no, but . . .”
“And don’t look at me. My tastes run to a feather bed and a willing wench. Nothing exotic about that. You’re going to have a hard time finding the kind of place you’re looking for, because everything about them is a secret that the men who use them pass by word of mouth and only to people they know and trust.”
Gideon frowned. The men at his club often joked about various houses of ill repute but he’d never heard anyone mention one that catered to the kind of appetites Endicott Knight had had. Short of ruining his own reputation by inquiring outright about such places, he didn’t have the slightest idea of where to start.
Before he could mention this to the Old Man, the front door opened and Elizabeth stepped out.
“It’s freezing,” she said, instantly wrapping her arms around herself against the chill. “What are you two doing out here so long?”
“Discussing your little problem,” the Old Man said. “We’ve decided we might be able to blackmail the blackmailer, if we can figure out who he is.”
“What a marvelous idea!” she exclaimed.
“Gideon thought of it,” the Old Man said, earning a black look from Gideon, which he ignored. “But we need to know more about this fellow. Who his friends were. That sort of thing. They’ll know something.”
“His widow doesn’t know any of his friends, except for the people he knew at church,” Elizabeth said.
Gideon sniffed. “I hardly think Reverend Honesdale and the other elders will be of much help with this.”
“Who?” the Old Man said in surprise.
“Reverend Honesdale,” Elizabeth said. “He’s the minister at—”
But the Old Man was laughing.
“What’s so funny?” Gideon demanded.
“I think your job just got a lot easier, son. There’s a man who owns several brothels in the city, the regular kind you understand, but maybe he also runs some of the more secret kind, and his name happens to be Matthew Honesdale.”
Excerpted from "City of Secrets"
Copyright © 2018 Victoria Thompson.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Reading Group Guide
1. Elizabeth believes that trying to fit in with the wealthy-society crowd often requires her to pretend to be someone she is not. Are there areas of your life where you feel you must act differently or speak in a certain way to be accepted?
2. Following her husband’s death, Elizabeth’s friend Priscilla must grapple with the unspoken rules of 1920s society that state she needs a man to look after her. Are there mandates in your own family or community that you feel obliged to follow? Do these mandates ever conflict with how you want to live your life?
3. Elizabeth and Gideon realize they are very different people in this book. Do you feel that opposites generally attract, or do you look for as much common ground as possible when considering a relationship? Are there certain things—deal breakers—that you and your prospective significant other need to agree on?
4. Gideon has certain expectations of Elizabeth that change throughout the course of the novel. How do you feel about his transformation? What moments in the novel do you think played a part in his decisions regarding his relationship with Elizabeth?
5. In the novel, we learn about the West Side Cowboy, a man whose job includes riding ahead of freight trains waving a flag and carrying a lantern to alert pedestrians of the oncoming train. What other jobs have been made obsolete by today’s technology? Are there any careers you wish were still viable that have become outmoded?
6. Fear of scandal motivates several of the characters in the book, and word of mouth is the main way damaging information is disseminated. What role does this fear play in today’s society? How have things changed regarding what constitutes a scandal and how rumors are spread?
7. Elizabeth and Gideon debate the merits of breaking the rules to help someone in need. What do you think of their approach? Have you ever had to think outside the box to come up with a helpful solution to a problem?
8. The Honesdale family, despite outward appearances, seems to have no moral compass to speak of and regularly do horrible things. Do you agree with what ultimately happens to each of them?