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"I call this meeting of the Ladies Artistic Society to order," announced Calliope Chase, sounding her gavel on the table in front of her. "Our secretary, Miss Clio Chase, will take the minutes."
Slowly, all the teacups and plates of cakes were lowered to laps and tabletops, and the members of the Society turned their attention to their founder and president. Bright sunlight flowed from the tall windows of the drawing room of the Chases' townhouse, warm and bright after the chilly misery of the night before, casting pastel spencers and muslin gowns in a brilliant light. Everything in the fashionably appointed room was just as expected—the ladies seated in pretty groupings of chairs and settees, china tea sets, silver services, hovering housemaids, the soft sound of Mozart from the pianoforte in the corner.
All expected and proper. Except for one thing. Behind Calliope, set high on its pedestal, was a marble statue of Apollo. An anatomically correct, completely naked statue of Apollo.
But then, what else could be looked for in a house belonging to the famous scholar of Greek history, Sir Walter Chase? A house where his nine daughters, named after the Greek Muses, resided and pursued their own, not always completely ladylike, interests.
Calliope, the eldest of the Chase Muses at age twenty-one, was also not all that was expected. She was quite attractive, taking after her late mother's French family with her black hair and brown eyes, her flawless fair skin; and those good looks—with the Chase fortune—had attracted more than a few offers from very eligible partis. Yet she had turned them all down. "They just don't care about history and antiquities," she told her father, and he immediately agreed that those young men would never do for one of the Chase Muses.
She also cared little for fashion or for dancing or cards, preferring to spend her time in study, or in conversation about her studies with like-minded people.
That was why she founded the Ladies Artistic Society in the first place, so that she and her sisters could reach out to other females with more on their minds than hemlines and hats. "Surely there must be others like us here in London," she told her sister Clio. "You know—ladies who wish they could take books with them to pass the dull hours at Almack's."
And so there were. Their membership now included two of their friends, along with the three eldest Chase daughters (the other six still being in the schoolroom, and therefore members-in-waiting). There was also a waiting list, though Calliope suspected that many of those just wanted a glimpse of Apollo. They met once a week during the Season to talk about history, literature, art, music. Often a guest lecturer, provided by the Muses' father, would speak, or a painter would give a demonstration. Sometimes they would just discuss amongst themselves a book read or an opera seen, or Thalia, the third Chase sister and an ardent musician, would perform a scandalous, passionate Beethoven piece.
Not today, though. Today there was very serious business to discuss, and obviously everyone discerned that from the stiff set of Calliope's shoulders in her white muslin day dress. A hush fell over the bright room, all clinkings and rustlings stilled. Even Thalia ceased playing the pianoforte, swivelling around to face her sister.
Calliope lifted up a copy of the Post, pointing at a black, shrieking headline: The Lily Thief Returns!
"It has been many weeks since this criminal struck," Calliope said softly. Her voice was quiet, but she felt her cheeks burn with the force of her inner anger. Many weeks—and she had thought the Lily Thief gone, vanished like so many other ephemeral sensations in Society. A two-day scandal, and then something else, an elopement or divorce, or other such harmless trifle. "I suppose he realised that attention was drifting from his foul deeds."
Her sister Clio glanced up from the minutes, her auburn brow arched above the gilt frames of her spectacles. Clio said nothing, though. Merely went back to her note-taking. It was Lady Emmeline Saunders who spoke. "Perhaps the Lily Thief has very good reasons for what he does."
"Reasons such as profit and riches?" Thalia cried from her piano. Her golden curls, so shiny and pretty, trembled with indignation. Thalia might look like a china shepherdess, but she had the heart of a gladiator. And that accounted for the many scrapes she always found herself in. "I am sure he saw a pretty penny from the sale of Lord Egermont's Euphronios krater and the Clives' Bastet statue."
"Antiquities have more than a monetary value, you know," Clio said quietly. "Something their previous owners seemed to have lost sight of."
"Of course they do," Calliope said. "And that is what makes the exploits of this Lily Thief so heinous. Who knows where these objects have gone, or if they will ever be seen again? We will have no access to the lessons they could teach us. It is a terrible loss to scholarship."
Clio bent her head back over her notes, murmuring low enough for only Calliope to hear, "As if there was much scholarship going on in Lady Tenbray's library."
"The Lily Thief does not just steal money or jewels, as a common burglar would. Objects that could easily be replaced," Calliope said. "He steals history."
The other Society members glanced at each other. Finally, Emmeline raised her hand again. "What must we do about this, Calliope? Perhaps engage a don from Cambridge to speak on cultural thefts?"
"Or tomb-raiding!" cried Miss Charlotte Price, the youngest and most excitable of the Society. She had an unfortunate predilection for reading horrid novels, but her father was a friend of Sir Walter Chase. He hoped the Society would help her expand her horizons. So far the hope was in vain, but one never knew. "I did read about a cursed tomb robber in The Baron's Revenge—"
"Yes, indeed," Calliope said, interrupting smoothly before Lotty could be carried off into a rambling synopsis. "But I have something rather more—personal in mind."
"Personal?" the others chorused.
"Yes." Calliope placed her palms flat on the table before her, leaning towards her audience. "We are going to catch the Lily Thief ourselves."
A great sigh went up, floating to the plaster-ceiling medallion in a wave of exclamation.
"Oh, how very thrilling!" trilled Charlotte. "Just like The Curse of Lady Arabella—"
"We are to turn amateur sleuths?" Thalia said, clapping her hands. "What a marvellous idea!"
"Indeed," agreed Emmeline. "Scholastic inquiry is all very well, but sometimes we need to move"
Clio's pen stilled, her brows drawn down in a puzzled vee. "How do you propose we go about this task, Calliope? If even the Bow Street Runners could not find the Lily Thief…"
Honestly, Calliope had not thought quite that far ahead. The idea of taking action themselves had only occurred to her at breakfast that morning, as she read the papers in mounting anger over the harmful exploits of that show-off Lily Thief. She had some vague notion that, as ladies of the ton, they could move about more freely and with far more stealth than those Runners. They could listen and observe with no one being the wiser, and perhaps catch the villain at a vulnerable moment.
For she was sure of one thing—the Lily Thief was a member of the ton. He had to be, to possess such knowledge of the houses and schedules of lords and ladies. But she was not entirely sure how to begin catching him in their net.
"I suggest," she said slowly, "that we begin with last night's theft of the Etruscan diadem. Was anyone at Lady Tenbray's rout?" Calliope herself had not been, turning down the invitation to what was sure to be a dull crush to attend the theatre with her father. Macbeth, she had thought, was sure to be more exciting. If only she had known the Lily Thief was to strike again!
Clio and Thalia were of no help, having chosen to stay home with their studies. There must have been someone there whose observations she could trust!
Finally, Emmeline raised her hand again. "I was there, but I noticed nothing untoward, I fear."
"No one behaving oddly at all?" Calliope asked hopefully.
"Just Freddie Mountbank," Emmeline answered. "But then, what does one expect of him? I would have been suspicious if he behaved normally."
The ladies all giggled. Poor Mr Mountbank—he was so earnest, so very much in love with Emmeline, yet he had the unfortunate tendency to lose his temper and blurt out curses when he was nervous in a lady's presence (which was always). He had launched more than one dance set into disarray by knocking down all the participants. Unless Mr Mountbank was very clever indeed—and, judging by his parents, that was not likely—he was not the Lily Thief.
"Nothing else?" Calliope asked.
Emmeline shook her head regretfully. "I fear not. It was so very crowded. And my mother insisted I dance with Mr Mountbank, so I was rather distracted in dodging him."
More giggles rippled around the room, and even Calliope had to laugh at the vision of her rather tall friend ducking behind curtains and potted palms to hide from her persistent suitor.
"I'm sorry," Emmeline said. "If I had known…"
"Yes." Calliope sighed. "If only we all knew."
"What shall we do now?" asked Thalia, her tone suggesting that she would prefer to armour up like a Valkyrie and go marching out into Mayfair to destroy all villains in her path.
"I am not entirely sure," Calliope admitted. "But I think I do have an idea where the Lily Thief will strike next."
"Oh, do tell us!"
Calliope had not completely worked out all this in her mind. Yet sometimes, she thought, intuition was the best guide. "The Duke of Averton's ball."
"The Alabaster Goddess," Thalia said. "Lud, but that is clever of you, Cal."
"I'm surprised the Lily Thief hasn't made a move towards it yet," Emmeline said.
"He is obviously growing in audacity," Calliope said, gesturing towards the newspaper. "To snatch the diadem in plain sight indicates confidence."
The Alabaster Goddess was a rather small, perfectly preserved statue of Artemis with her bow, taken only a few years ago from a ruined Greek temple on the island of Delos and purchased by the Duke of Averton (or Duke of Avarice, as he was known in certain circles) for his famous collection. She was quite unblemished for being thousands of years old, and the duke loved to show her off, strangely enough, for he was a well-known recluse. The goddess had even sparked quite a fashion in society for "Artemis" hairstyles and "Artemis" sandals. The duke had made it known she would soon be moved to his heavily fortified castle in Yorkshire. But next week she could be seen at a grand masked ball the duke was hosting. His first ball in years.
The ball had a Grecian theme, of course.
Yes, Calliope thought, suddenly sure. The Lily Thief would strike there.
"We must all go to the ball, and there we will—"
"Oh!" Calliope's instructions were cut off by a sudden cry from Lotty, who sat closest to the window. She pressed her nose to the glass, leaning forward precariously. "Oh, it is Lord Westwood! And your beau Mr Mountbank, Emmeline."
Those words, of course—Lord Westwood—caused a great rush to the windows, silks and ribbons furiously a-rustle. More noses and fingers pressed to the glass, unheeding of smudges and dignity.
"Oh!" cried Thalia. "He is in his beautiful phaeton. I wish Father would buy one for me, I'm sure I would be a rare hand at the reins. But Westwood appears to be in some sort of altercation with Mr Mountbank. How fascinating."
Oh, what a great surprise, Calliope thought sarcastically. Where Cameron de Vere, the Earl of Westwood went, "altercations" were sure to follow.
"Cal, Clio, come, you must see this. It's too amusing," Thalia said.
Clio left off her scratching of pens and joined the others, peering down as if observing some scientific demonstration.
Calliope did not want to go and gawk with her friends, as if they were all silly schoolgirls who had never before seen a man rather than the intelligent, rational women they were. She did not want to give Lord Westwood the satisfaction of yet more attention. Yet, somehow, she could not help herself. It was as if a thick cord suddenly tightened around her waist, pulling her inexorably towards the window. Towards him.
Calliope dropped the newspaper and strolled reluctantly towards the others, peering past Thalia's shoulder to the scene below. It was indeed Lord Westwood, his bright yellow and gleaming black phaeton wedged into traffic, at a complete standstill. His matched bay horses snorted and pranced restlessly, as Mr Mountbank, in his own conveyance, blocked Westwood's way, shouting and gesticulating, as he was wont to do. Mr Mountbank's face was an alarming shade of purple above his overly starched cravat, yet Westwood looked on with an expression of amused boredom on his ridiculously gorgeous face, as if the quarrel had nothing at all to do with him, and he merely watched the action at Drury Lane.
"Really," Calliope muttered. "Our street is hardly Gentleman Jackson's saloon."
"Oh!" Thalia exclaimed. "Do you really think they might come to blows? How terribly interesting."
"How very handsome he is," sighed Lotty. "Just like the comte in Mademoiselle Marguerites's Fatal Secret."
Handsome—well, yes. Even Calliope had to admit that, albeit grudgingly. Westwood was sometimes called "the Greek God" in more florid circles, and strictly from an aesthetic viewpoint it was all too true. He could have been their Ladies Society Apollo statue come to warm, vivid, breathing life, if he were to shed his buckskin breeches and exquisite bottle-green coat. He was hatless now, despite the sunny skies, his glossy, sable-dark curls tossed by the wind until they fell in artistic disarray over his brow. His skin was always a golden-bronze, his eyes dark and maddeningly unreadable.
No, Calliope thought as she watched him now, trying to reason with Mr Mountbank with a half-grin on his lips. He was not so much a god, as a young Greek fisherman, virile, earthbound, as secret as the deepest sea. Surely he got that sense of otherness from his mother. Like the Chases' own mother, the late countess had hailed from more exotic climes. She came from where else but Athens, the daughter of a famous Greek scholar.
For an instant, it seemed as if Westwood would actually alight from his phaeton and face the apoplectic wrath of Mr Mountbank. The ladies at the window held their collective breath, but, alas, fisticuffs—and shirtsleeves—in Mayfair were not to be. Mountbank, faced with an opponent potentially closer than several feet away, backed off and hurried on his way, steering his carriage precariously around the corner.
The ladies, disappointed, also backed away, leaving the view to return to their seats. The drawing room was soon filled with the mingling of chatter, music, tea being poured into delicate cups. Calliope, though, could not yet leave with them. Could not break that cord. Something tightened, binding her there, staring down at Cameron de Vere.