As "Sherlock Holmes, consulting detective," Charlotte Holmes has solved murders and found missing individuals. But she has never stolen a priceless artwork—or rather, made away with the secrets hidden behind a much-coveted canvas.
But Mrs. Watson is desperate to help her old friend recover those secrets and Charlotte finds herself involved in a fever-paced scheme to infiltrate a glamorous Yuletide ball where the painting is one handshake away from being sold and the secrets a bare breath from exposure.
Her dear friend Lord Ingram, her sister Livia, Livia's admirer Stephen Marbleton—everyone pitches in to help and everyone has a grand time. But nothing about this adventure is what it seems and disaster is biding time on the grounds of a glittering French chateau, waiting only for Charlotte to make a single mistake...
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Miss Olivia Holmes often found other women intimidating: the beautiful ones, the fashionable ones, the well-connected ones. And if they were all three at once, then she was certain to feel like a lowly grouse that had somehow wandered into an ostentation of peacocks.
The woman in front of her was handsome, rather than beautiful. She could not possibly be well-connected. And her attire would have bored Charlotte, Livia's frippery-loving sister, to sleep; even Livia, who leaned toward the austere in her tastes, thought her guest's visiting gown could use something: a brighter color, a more tactile texture, even a few folds and tucks to enliven the monotonous wintry blue of her skirt.
Yet Livia had never been as intimidated by a woman as she was now.
"Milk? Sugar?" she croaked. "And would you care for some Madeira cake, Mrs. Openshaw?"
Mrs. Openshaw was otherwise known as Mrs. Marbleton, who was otherwise known as the late Mrs. Moriarty. And she wasn't really dead.
She inclined her head. "Thank you, Miss Holmes. Madeira cake would be delightful."
"Excellent choice," enthused Lady Holmes. "My housekeeper makes an exceptional Madeira cake."
The Holmes family used to have a cook who made good cakes, when she'd been given the proper allowance for ingredients. But that cook had left their service several years ago, and the current cook was at best an indifferent baker. And the family hadn't employed a housekeeper, who presided over a stillroom of her own, in decades-certainly never in Livia's memory.
Livia would not have bragged about any cakes from the Holmes kitchen, not when their quality, or lack thereof, could be ascertained with a single bite. But her mother was a woman of scant foresight, for whom the pleasure of boasting in this moment always outweighed the embarrassment of eating her words in the next.
Their caller, who had already dined once in their household and had followed with an afternoon call, wisely set down the plate of Madeira cake Livia handed her.
Lady Holmes launched into a monologue on the importance of her family in the surrounding area (lies and exaggerations), and the advantageous match her eldest daughter had made (Livia wouldn't touch Mr. Cumberland, Henrietta's husband, with a ten-foot pole).
Then again, that might be why Livia herself approached spinsterhood at an alarming speed: There were too many men she wouldn't touch with a ten-foot pole-and she was invisible to all the rest.
When he'd unexpectedly walked into her house five days ago, she'd been so astounded-and enraptured-that she hadn't immediately noticed that he wasn't alone.
With him had come his parents.
Her pleasure had-well, not soured exactly, but been marred by enough tension and discomfort that she'd spent the rest of the evening on edge, unable to enjoy herself. Charlotte, in telling Livia about this young man, had been frank about the dangers of his existence-a hunted family, without a fixed abode or a trusted wider community, always on the move and never safe for long.
Livia, to her credit, had not imbued that life with any romance or excitement. She'd been deeply concerned, but even in her deepest concern she had not foreseen that-
"And what are your plans for this winter, Miss Holmes?"
Livia started. When had Mrs. Marbleton silenced Lady Holmes and taken charge of the conversation? She must have done so with sufficient skill, since Lady Holmes still gazed upon her with an intense and almost fearful hope.
That naked aspiration mortified Livia. But for her own purposes, Livia counted on Lady Holmes's zeal for at least one more married daughter.
"I do very much enjoy a country Christmas," said Livia in answer to Mrs. Marbleton's question, not that she'd ever known any other kind of Christmas. "And you, ma'am, have you anything in mind for you and your family?"
This was a question she'd intended to ask anyway.
Mrs. Marbleton studied her for a minute. "I have been thinking," she said with a certain deliberateness, "of the South of France. Winter is not the most charming season on this sceptred isle. The C™te d'Azur, on the other hand, has a sunny, temperate disposition even in December."
Livia yearned to visit the South of France. She didn't need to feign wistfulness as she replied, "Oh, how lovely that sounds. I can already imagine the aquamarine waters of the Mediterranean."
"We might also spend only a day or two on the coast, and the rest of our time inland," mused Mrs. Marbleton. "In Aix-en-Provence, perhaps. Or in a little hilltop village in the Alpes-Maritimes. Sitting by a roaring fire, sipping local wine, and savoring peasant stews, while looking down toward the distant sea."
Livia felt a pang of homesickness for a life she had never known. She reminded herself that she must not forget that the Marbletons had been on the run or in hiding for at least two decades. That as alluring as Mrs. Marbleton made the experience sound, it couldn't have been all sybaritic contentment. That even as they wined and dined and wallowed in the panoramic views, their pleasures were veined with fear and their lives riddled with instability.
"I daresay I don't have the courage to try French peasant fare. I'd be afraid of a frog in every pot," said Lady Holmes, laughing too loudly at her own joke.
Mrs. Marbleton did not respond to that. "And you, Miss Holmes, how would you fare in the French countryside?"
"Oh, I'll be all right, ma'am. I don't pay too much mind to my suppers. If there is sunshine I can walk beneath, and a good book to read in peace and quiet, then I'll be happy."
This earned her another considering look from Mrs. Marbleton.
Not an approving look, but at least not a contemptuous one. Mrs. Marbleton had her mind quite made up about Lady Holmes, but she didn't seem to have an equally decided view concerning Livia. Yet.
Livia didn't know what to make of it.
The door opened then, and her father and the Marbleton men came in-Sir Henry had taken the gentlemen to his study to inspect his latest acquisition of Cuban cigars, an extravagance the family could ill afford.
The senior Mr. Marbleton walked with a slight limp. Whether as a result of natural grace or sheer willpower, his strides gave the impression of near nimbleness, as if the ground he traversed were uneven, rather than his gait. And unlike Sir Henry, who put on a heartiness that seemed to say, Look how well pleased I am with myself. Could anything be amiss in my life?, Mr. Crispin Marbleton did not bother to convey any great conviviality. But in his soft-spoken words and his occasional smiles, especially those directed at his wife and his son, Livia thought she glimpsed a warmth that he reserved for his inner circle.
The younger Mr. Marbleton exuded far greater liveliness. It really was a shame that he'd led such a peripatetic life, never staying in one place for long: Livia could easily see him as a favorite among any gathering of young people, one whose good cheer and easy demeanor made his company sought after by both gentlemen and ladies.
She looked into her teacup.
She had longed to see him again, but she hadn't been ready to meet his parents. Even his sister had been on hand, he'd told her, sitting in the servants' hall disguised as their groom, visiting with the house's meager staff.
They barely knew each other. They'd had three conversations months ago, during the Season, while he pretended to be someone else. Since then, he'd sent her a few small tokens of his regard, but had not appeared before her again until the dinner five nights ago, as she sat expecting Sir Henry's newest business associate and his family.
Thank goodness her parents still had no idea what was going on, still thought of young Mr. Openshaw as an excellent but unlikely prospect for Livia. Everyone else, however, knew the true purpose of the visits: Stephen Marbleton was serious enough about Livia that his parents had no choice but to meet-and judge-her in person.
Too soon. Too soon. When she didn't even know whether she wished to maintain her affection for him or to let it wither away in his continued absence-the wiser choice, given that the life he led was not one she would have chosen for herself.
The parlor filled with small talk, carried on capably by Stephen Marbleton. But soon Lady Holmes inquired, with no preamble and even less subtlety, whether young Mr. Openshaw would care for a stroll in the garden, accompanied by her daughter. Stephen Marbleton responded with just the right amount of enthusiasm to please, but not embarrass, Livia.
But as they exited the house, properly coated and gloved against the damp, chilly day, her heart palpitated with apprehension.
No, with dread.
What if he should offer her the choice to leave behind her current existence, which she hated, for something that would not resemble anything she'd ever known?
She didn't know whether she dared to commit herself to Mr. Marbleton. She didn't know whether marriage would suit her-her sister Charlotte wasn't the only Holmes girl with deeply skeptical views on matrimony. And above all else, she didn't know-though she had an unhappy suspicion-whether a trying marriage wouldn't turn her into an exact replica of her disappointing mother.
Livia glanced back at the house. Through the rain-streaked window of the parlor her mother was just visible, gesticulating with too much force. Lady Holmes could be vain, petty, and coarse, sometimes all at once. Yet Livia still saw, on the rare occasion, the echo of the girl Lady Holmes must have been, once upon a time. Before she fell in love with Sir Henry Holmes, before she learned to her lasting bitterness that Sir Henry had never reciprocated her sentiments-and had courted her only to spite his former fiancée, Lady Amelia Drummond, by marrying another on the day originally intended for their wedding.
And the ghost of that girl reminded Livia uncomfortably of herself: She too possessed a fierce pride, alongside a bottomless need for affection and a desire to give that warred constantly with the fear of rejection.
Trapped in a miserable marriage, far away from family and friends, having for companions only a philandering husband and a quartet of difficult children, Lady Holmes had succumbed to all the worst tendencies of her character and hardened into an utterly unlovely woman.
Livia stepped on the garden path. The uneven gravel poked into the thinning soles of her Wellington boots-a sensation of jabbing discomfort, much like her awareness of the unlovelier elements in her own character. She could hold a grudge-oh, how she could hold a grudge. She was angry at the world and mistrustful of people. She wanted too much-wealth, fame, wild acclaim, not to mention abject groveling from everyone who had ever slighted her, however unintentionally.
Could the young man next to her, strolling lightly on the leaf-strewn garden path, know all that? Or was he under the illusion that she was someone whose gratitude at being rescued would ensure that she would remain a happy, pliant partner for the rest of her life?
"I think we fear the same thing," he said softly. "That you would choose me-and someday regret your choice."
She halted midstep. Their eyes met; his were clear, but with a trace of melancholy. For a fraction of a moment it hurt that he had fears-that his feelings for her hadn't inspired an invulnerable courage, blind to all obstacles. And then relief inundated her, so much so that her heart beat wildly and her fingertips tingled, as if they were recovering sensation after being chilled to the bone.
"I mistrust myself," she said, resuming her progress. "I'm not happy here, and there's a chance I'll bring that unhappiness with me wherever I go. I'd be concerned to be asked to make a home for anyone."
"Some people are like desert plants, needing only a bit of condensate and perhaps a rainstorm every few years. The rest of us require decent soil and a reasonable climate. It is no fault of yours not to have thrived at the edge of a desert. Your eldest sister married a stupid man at the earliest opportunity to get away. Your younger sister chose to shed her respectability rather than to remain under your father's thumb."
Charlotte would have preferred to overthrow their father's control while keeping that respectability, but Livia understood his argument. "They are women of strength. I would label Henrietta a brute, but brutes know what they want and they care not what impediments stand in their path. And while Charlotte is no brute, she is both ruthless and resilient.
"More than anything else I envy her that resilience. She goes around if she cannot go through-and a cup of tea and a slice of cake seem to be all she needs to keep herself even-keeled. But I will work myself into a state. I will teeter between desperate hope and black despair. And I fear that I will not bend but simply break, should life become too heavy to bear."
He sighed. The sound conveyed no impatience, only a deep wistfulness. "You are telling me that before you can be sure of your affections, you must be sure of yourself."
And she was so very unsure of herself.
"I will gladly attribute some of the blame to Charlotte. She has always viewed romantic love as highly perishable."
"I hold a slightly more optimistic view of romantic love. I see it not as doomed to spoilage but as prone to change. Yes, it can dwindle to nothing. Or harden into bitterness and enmity. But it can also ripen like a fine vintage, becoming something with extraordinary depth and maturity."
He spoke with confidence and conviction. Briefly her gloved hand came to rest against the topmost button of her bodice. How did it feel to hold such lovely, uplifting views-was it like having been born with wings? His views did not change her own, but she rued that her own beliefs were nowhere near as luminous.
The garden path turned-she'd been waiting for this moment, when they would be temporarily hidden from view by an arbor. She gave him a letter. "Will you drop this in the post for my sister?"
He stowed the missive inside his coat. "Of course."
His cheeks were pink with cold. He wore a beard as he had in summer, when they first met, but this beard was much shorter, the accumulation of a fortnight at most. She wondered how it would feel against her palm-and was astonished both at the direction of her thoughts and that she had lived to be twenty-seven and never had a thought like that before.