April 13th, 1881
I am sorry I did not get the chance to write yesterday, Diary, but it was…well…it was yesterday. I am not sure there are words for it. I feel as though the highs and lows of a lifetime have been crammed into the last twenty-four hours. Perhaps writing will make sense of it.
The lows: Lavoisier is still here, as is Mary Ballew. I am hard-pressed to decide which is the bigger nuisance. Mary finds ways to fail at every task given her, and whines constantly of feeling weak. Perhaps there is some truth in that – of late, the girl seems unwell – but I suspect she exaggerates her symptoms to pawn her chores off on the other maids. I am counting the days until I can be rid of her.
She has learned to keep her place, however, which is more than I can say for Lavoisier. The coarse old frog treats everyone with contempt (yes, including me!) and refuses to stay downstairs as he ought. Instead, he waltzes through the house as if he owns the place, and does not even apologize when I catch him taking his meals in the family rooms. I do not know why Ethan tolerates him, for he seems to hold no fondness for him, and Lavoisier derides him to his face, speaking to him always as if he were a spoiled child. Lavoisier even dared to argue with him one night, though as soon as I walked into the study they stopped, so I do not know what the conflict was. I wonder sometimes if Ethan might have known him before – a childhood servant, perhaps, or a relation of one – otherwise I cannot explain why he puts up with such impropriety. My husband is hardly one to allow misbehavior, yet whenever I mention dismissing Lavoisier he snaps at me to mind myself. I admit this stings and silences me. I have never been one for argument. I haven’t the nerves for it. Besides, there is nothing worse than a nagging wife, so perhaps this is one issue I ought to resign myself to for the time being, for the sake of marital harmony if nothing else.
It is interesting what marital harmony can spring from, though, as last night proved in…exciting fashion.
You see, we planned a small farewell dinner for Amelia before she returned to Auntie’s. It was supposed to be an intimate affair – just Amelia, me, Ethan, and Cousin Eric, who came to fetch her. However, George threw a wrench in the plan. His break is over and he was supposed to go back to St. Andrews last weekend, but he missed his train. Thrice. Even when we brought him to the station ourselves. Apparently, they are making trains faster every day, so much so that if you bend over to tie your shoes, they’ll be loaded and off before you get to the second lace!
I do not mind George’s truancy. It is a mutual habit, so I can hardly judge, and he is always a delight to have around. I appreciated having a few extra days with him and Amelia both, and being Musketeers again, as if we were back in school. I am less thrilled, however, that half the family turned up looking for him. Lord Reginald is exceptionally forgiving of his middle son, but not enough to let him risk expulsion. With him came the Dowager Duchess and a small retinue of Cotton relations, none of whose names I recall and all of whom were more interested in clearing out my larder than in George’s education.
Cousin Eric also brought Auntie, who was curious to see the old place. It was lovely to see her, but she kept asking the most prying questions – “Does the quiet bother you? Do you see enough people, take enough air? You are well, aren’t you, truly?” She fears my taking after Mother’s disposition, but I will not allow that of myself. I am cheerful and of good spirit, and so I am determined to remain.
For once, the staff rallied enough to provide a proper meal, and everyone enjoyed themselves for the first two courses. Then, halfway through the fish, Lord Reginald turned to George and said, “You really must be more disciplined, my boy. Strong will is a necessity for a man of your stature, yes, but it is like a prize stallion. Too broken, it will not run, but too free, it can never be ridden. You must master it, and then it will carry you far.”
“Yes, sir,” George said with a mischievous smile, “but surely the sign of a master horseman is that his steed carries him wherever he likes.”
His father shook his head, but chuckled. “Nonetheless, you should guard your reputation.”
George shrugged. “I am a second son, Father. It is my calling to be as brazenly mediocre as I can manage. For your sake, though, I promise to make only small scandals from now on, as befits my lot in life.” He leaned his head back against his chair and sighed dramatically, making everyone laugh.
“I appreciate the consideration,” Lord Reginald said. “Though if you also decided to restrain your spending as much as your behavior, I would appreciate it more.”
George raised an eyebrow. “Spending? Pish-tosh! Surely that is Ethan’s lecture, not mine.”
“Thank you for that,” Ethan muttered, spearing an asparagus on his knife with undo force.
“Well, I would not want to take anything that was rightfully yours, dear brother,” George said. “I know how you hate that.”
Ethan returned his sneer. “Come now. I hate very few things, and that is not one of them.”
Lord Reginald raised his hands and his sons backed down. “Both of you could stand a lesson in frugality,” he said, “but it is you, George, who made the more baffling purchase this month.”
“I know, I know, but I was the one who thought up the stupid gag in the first place,” George said, “so I ought to foot the bill for the ruined coaches. Besides, it is far more than poor old Corky Withers can swing himself. Take it out of my allowance, I shall manage.”
“Not the carriage mess,” Lord Reginald said, though the mention did cause him to take a long drink. “The house.”
George blanched. “T-The what?”
“You purchased a flat in London, did you not? Under a new account, which you also neglected to tell me about.” His father clucked his tongue. “Really, boy, how long did you expect you could hide that from me, of all people?”
George hunched in his chair, speechless. Ethan, by contrast, fairly glowed.
“So what is it for?” said the Dowager, frowning. “I hope you are not planning on making your truancy permanent.”
“Um, no, of course not, Grandmother,” George said, clearing his throat and recovering himself. “I was simply doing a favor for someone. Investing, really. A friend of mine needs a good London address to start his business, but his family has fallen on hard times and he was short of funds. My name and credit are better than his, so I took the place for him.” He ran two fingers through the hair above his ear, his tell of a lie, but no one else seemed to notice.
“Which friend?” Ethan asked.
George looked affronted. “One who I will not embarrass in his hour of need.”
Ethan’s eyes narrowed curiously, but he did not press the point. “Your charity is admirable, in any case. Though you know me, Father, I have more sense than sensitivity. If we teach people to count on the largess of others, they will never learn to look after themselves.”
“And how are you enjoying your wife’s house, Ethan?” George muttered.
I jumped in before Ethan could thump him. “Tell me, Your Grace, how are things at Merrimore? My husband tells me you have been quite busy this season.”
“How is Oliver?” George said.
“Oh, how is Oliver ever?” Ethan said, and a murmur of assent went around the table. “Now there is a boy who could benefit from a few missed lessons. Get some sun, learn to kick a ball around, anything.” He inclined his glass at George. “You ought to help him with that. You are the sporting type, and he would listen to you more happily than the rest of us.”
“Oliver has his own interests.”
Ethan scoffed. “I am aware. One more poem, and I fear we shall end up with a little sister, rather than a little brother.”
George scowled, but his reply was lost in his cousins’ giggling.
“What?” Amelia said, looking nonplussed. “So the boy writes, what on Earth is the matter with that?”
“It is a question of what he writes,” I said, putting a hand over my husband’s before he could retort. “Ethan considers playwriting and poetry frivolous pastimes, and I quite agree.”
Ethan squeezed my hand gratefully, but Amelia looked alarmed. “But you write poetry.”
“You do?” my husband said, raising an eyebrow at me.
“Not in a while,” I told him, “and never seriously. A schoolgirl’s fancy.”
“Got you in some trouble, as I recall,” George said, winking at me. “Spent your lessons writing the rest of us letters or poems or little codes. It is good thing you had Ashcroft wrapped around your finger, otherwise you never would have passed anything.”
“You were good, too,” Amelia said, though she was looking at Ethan as she spoke, and her voice was cold. “Publishable, which you liked the sound of once. I wish you would pick it up again.”
Ethan raised my hand to his lips. “My dear wife may do whatever she wishes with her spare time. She knows better than to neglect her household duties, after all, so I doubt writing would be a great interference. However,” he said, turning his sparkling eyes on me and petting my head, “I hope she also knows better than to seek publication. She has no need for spinster’s work, and our name is too great to risk such embarrassment.”
“Embarrassment?” Auntie said, screwing up her mouth, but I waved her off.
“It does not interest me in any case,” I said. “Not now. My greatest happiness is my new family, and in tending to our lovely home.”
I hoped that would be the end of it, but George, damn his eyes, had to scoff again. “Your lovely home, surely,” he said under his breath.
That was it. Ethan slammed his fist on the table and stood up. “If you have something to say, say it like a man!”
“Like what kind of man?” George snapped, springing up as well. “The kind who eats off his wife’s back and acts like she ought to be grateful for the weight?”
“George!” I cried, echoed by the others, but he spun on his heel and stormed out of the room before I could demand an apology.
“Oh, he is not getting away with that!” I whispered to Ethan as everyone slowly retook their seats. “Excuse me, dear friends, one moment.”
Ethan gave me a strange look, and took my arm almost pleadingly as I turned away. “You are going after him? What does it matter? Leave him to sulk.”
“I shan’t be long, darling,” I said, kissing him on the cheek. His annoyance did not shift, but he let me go.
I found George on the veranda, smoking like the firing squad was near. “I cannot believe you!” I said, slapping him up and down the arm.
“And I cannot believe you!” he shot back. “Letting him speak to you like that!” He shook his head in disgust. “He wants to talk about embarrassments, he ought to look in the mirror, and you ought to tell him so.”
“I will tell you so. You have humiliated me ten times worse than he ever has.”
He ignored me, put his cigarette out on the bottom of his shoe, and lit another. I pinched the bridge of my nose and took a deep breath. ‘It took Fitzpatrick two hours to do your hair tonight,’ I told myself. ‘Try not to rip it out.’
“Look,” I said, more softly, “I know you have reason to be melancholy, but you cannot take it out on the rest of us.”
He gave me a puzzled look, and I added, “I heard that Peter Temple is getting married.”
George took a sharp breath. “To Helen Davis. You know, Lord Blakely’s niece, the one built like a bulldog with manners to match. I am sure she, Peter, and her oversize dowry will be very happy together.”
“Stop that, you always got on with Helen,” I said, patting him on the back. “That talk is unfair of you.”
“It is, isn’t it? Damned unfair. Completely, utterly, bloody unfair.” His brown eyes were almost black, chilly as a winter storm.
“Maybe it is for the best,” I ventured. “Maybe this is better for your health.”
“There is nothing wrong with my health,” he growled. “Nothing wrong with me whatsoever.”
“I only meant…look, the worry it has caused you…” I said, wringing my hands, but he shot me a warning look and I let the matter drop.
He took a drag and exhaled hard through his nose. The smoke curled around his face like the kiss of a ghost. “Father mentioned my marrying the other day.”
“He would never make you,” I said, taking his hand, “he adores you. Surely you can put him off.”
He nodded absently. “For a time. Marriage is like death and taxes, though. Inescapable.”
I gave him a teasing nudge. “Well, if it is anything like taxes, your family will surely let you dodge it.”
A weak smile flashed across his face like fire down a split wick. “I live in hope. I shall do my duty either way, of course, but I am not built for matrimony.” He gave me a sidelong glance, then added in an undertone, “Truth be told, I often wonder if anyone is.”
“Of course we are!” I said, laughing incredulously. “I know I am, at least. This is everything I ever dreamed of.”
“Everything?” he said. There was a new sort of sadness in his eyes, though if it was for himself or for me I could not say. “Not a hair out of place? Nice as it is, it never seems a bit too…I don’t know…small?”
“No, never,” I said, but all the same my eyes followed his upwards, and we stared at the stars for some time.
“Then perhaps it is envy that stalks me through your halls,” he said at last, chuckling and offering his arm as he turned back to the house.
“As opposed to?”
I shook my head. “Peter is rubbing off on you. You worry too much these days.”
“I certainly hope so,” he said, with a smile that did not quite reach his eyes.
After everyone left, it was Ethan’s turn to be comforted. He seemed fine while bidding our farewells, but he did not follow me up the stairs to bed afterwords. Instead, he went to his study, slamming the door behind him. He has never done that before. I could not rest until I knew what was wrong.
When I entered, he was standing in the corner with a drink in his hand, staring at the wall like it was rotting. It took several tries to get him to speak to me.
“You did not knock,” he finally said, “and I did not say you could enter.”
My ears burned. “Sorry. I only thought –”
“You thought,” Ethan repeated coolly. “Like you thought it appropriate to abandon your guests? Like you thought you should ignore your husband’s wishes so you could go prancing off with his brother like a couple of bratty children? Do you know how long you were out there? How long I had to cover for your foolishness?”
“Forgive me, I truly did not think it that long,” I said in a small voice, but he just sighed and took a long drink.
“You must do better,” he said. His voice was low and potent, like the sea against the hull of a ship. “I love you, and for now my family accepts that, but you must know that many of them did not do so willingly.”
A chill went through me. “I thought you said they liked me.”
He cocked his head back and forth. “When you conduct yourself appropriately, yes. But you have married above yourself, Christina, far above, and my family demands certain standards. They were displeased. I did my best to silence them tonight, but I cannot control what they whisper behind my back, nor behind yours.” He crossed to the credenza and uncorked a decanter with a high, scraping sound. “Especially when I cannot even call their gossip unfair.”
“I understand,” I said, my voice trembling. I know he does not mean to hurt me, but he can do it so easily, so incidentally, just because I care for him so much.
Ethan sighed again, and spoke more softly as he refilled his glass, but did not turn around. “Darling, calm yourself. This is my love talking. If I did not adore you, if I did not hold your reputation in the highest regard, I would not mention your mistakes. I would let them break you. I wish to protect you, if only you will let me.”
I approached him cautiously. “Please look at me.” I hated how desperate I sounded, but I could not help it. “Do not be angry. If you love me, let me see it.”
He turned at this with a gentle smile. “There, there, child, of course I love you,” he said, taking me in his arms, “and of course I’ll let you see it.” He wiped a tear from my cheek and looked into my eyes for a long moment before adding, “I hope you will do the same. God, how I hope for that.”
“What,” I asked, frowning, “do I not already? You are my planet, darling, why do you doubt me?”
“I do not doubt you,” he said, but his eyes shifted. When I pressed him, he sank into an armchair and stared at his hands, looking more fragile than I have ever seen him. “It is just…you spent quite a while out there with George.”
“I told you, I meant no offense, you know how stubborn he is.”
“I know, I know,” he said. “But you spent so much time with him this week, too. I hardly saw you. And you know him better, always writing and playing with each other growing up, so much in common, and, well, it makes a man wonder.” He trailed off.
My mouth fell open. “Are you jealous?”
“Oh, it is not jealousy exactly, it is…it is…” He drummed his fingers on his knee, his cheeks red. I knelt at his side and he lowered his voice, as if we were the last two people in the universe. “Everyone has always preferred him. My father, my brother, practically all of society, everyone! I could not even have friends over for fear he would steal them!”
“I am sure he did not mean to.”
“That’s just the rub of it!” he said, folding his arms. “He did not even have to try for favor, he simply got it. I would be hard-pressed to find a single skill in the boy besides swinging a cricket bat – rather less well than me, I might add – yet he goes through life on golden skates purely by virtue of being so damn likable.”
“My heart, you are being silly!” I said. “You are just as admired as him, moreso even.”
Ethan stroked my hair like he was touching Heaven. “But not as loved. Everyone in my life would chose him over me. And forgive me, sweetheart, but sometimes I wonder if you would too.”
“Never!” I cried, kissing his hands, but he barely seemed to notice.
“If you only settled for me because he would not have you.”
“Not at all, I swear it!” I climbed into his lap, still kissing him everywhere I could reach. He turned away in his melancholy, but his hands slowly trailed up and down my body.
“If it was all just a ploy to keep close to him. Or to get my money and his company in one stroke. Or if, deep down, all you ever thought you loved in me was what I share with him, and one day you will wake up and see me as nothing but a shadow, like how the sea is blue only because it reflects the sky.”
“Never, never,” I said, over and over, caressing him with all the fire in my heart. His head turned by degrees as my passion increased, until finally he seized and kissed me like it was his last act on this earth. As he pushed my skirt around my hips, I took his face in my hands, and I saw trust in those beautiful gray eyes again.
We made love all night.
I must leave you on that note, Diary, for I should see what is keeping my morning tea. Mary was supposed to bring it ages ago, but that wretched girl is late again. I keep ringing and ringing and yet she does not come! Where in the world could she be?
“This is your house?” Joshua croaked, looking up at the high, arched ceiling in awe. It was the first thing he’d said since they’d arrived at Merrimore, though he’d whistled at increasingly higher pitches as the car neared the building (the car itself merited a full octave). “When I said ‘castle,’ I kind of thought I was being, y’know, figurative.”
“It’s really not that much,” Pippa said, caught between arrogance and guilt. “Hallsbury is a small duchy, and Grandfather preferred to simplify things as he got older, so there’s far grander houses out there than Merrimore.”
Joshua tapped a gold cigar box on the entry table as if expecting it to bite him. “Simplified. Right,” he laughed. “And your uncle got this after everybody dropped him? The hell’d he lose, Ireland?”
Pippa thought for a moment. “A bit of Scotland, actually.”
“Ah,” Joshua said, nodding sagely, “so nothing important then.”
She started to laugh, but at that moment something struck her from behind and the laugh turned into a shriek of pain. It felt like a den of ferrets clawing at her legs.
Wincing, Pippa turned to see the twins scrabbling at her skirts, almost climbing her in their frenzy. Miss Baxter hurried after them, carrying Phineas in one arm and leading Kate by the opposite hand. Lacey’s 12-year-old son Danny brought up the rear, waving cheerfully at Pippa. Kate was more composed than she had been that morning, but she shuffled more than walked, and gripped her nanny’s hand so tightly both their fingertips were white.
“Where’s Mummy?” Elizabeth asked. She tugged on her cousin insistently, but without fear, as if impatient to open a present she had already seen delivered. “Mummy and Papa, you got ’em back, right?”
“Children, hush, your cousin’s had a day,” Baxter said, but even she shot Pippa a quick, hopeful look under her bangs.
“No,” Pippa said, kneeling, “I’m afraid not. But I will soon, I promise.”
Elliot nodded as easy as a bird, but Elizabeth looked confused, and Kate hid her face in Baxter’s apron, trembling. Even Phineas seemed to feel the air shift, craning his neck this way and that, whimpering like a dog before a quake.
“But you’ve gotta do it now,” Elizabeth said. “It’s the rules. You gotta put things right straight ‘way when it’s your fault.”
“Elizabeth Matilda!” Baxter snapped. “What a wicked lie, shame on you!”
“Sorry,” Elliot said by proxy, taking his sister’s hand, but she pulled away and shook her head.
“’Snot wicked, it’s true! The maids said Mummy and Papa were tooked away because Pippa’s papa was a bad man, but he’s dead, so she’s next up.”
There was no malice in the words, but they made Pippa flinch. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Kate glaring at her like the devil himself.
“Believe me, I’ll take care of it,” Pippa said, ruffling Elizabeth’s hair.
Baxter beckoned to the twins, who scampered back to her, content with the world again. “Come now, lambs. Let’s leave Miss Pippa to her business, shall we?”
Pippa watched them go, willing Kate to look back with the same smile as her siblings, but when the child did turn, her face was still full of hate. Pippa frowned, wringing her hands.
“They don’t mean it,” Danny said, lagging behind. “They just don’t understand, you know? Too small.”
She nodded, but guilt and anger still prickled up her neck. “Good to see you all, anyway,” she said, changing the subject and waving her companions forward with a forced smile. “These are Mr. Deshmukh and Mr. Tabak, they’re helping on the case. Sirs, this is my cousin, Danny Mahoney.”
The boy shook their hands, scrutinizing them with a sly expression. “Two for one this time, cuz?”
Pippa cuffed him upside the head. It was the world’s instinctive reaction to anything the boy said, and he got upset if he didn’t provoke it at least nine times a day.
“Where are your parents? I should speak with Lacey, and I assume your father came too?” Pippa looked nervously around the hall. She supposed Frank Mahoney must have some nice qualities, but she had never seen them. She’d never seen any qualities in him at all, actually, good or bad. He was a huge, salt pillar of a man with the personality of a headstone. Even Walton was skittish around him.
Danny shrugged. “Dunno. Ma’s been in a state all day, Dad’s probably trying to calm her. Last I saw they were asking Miss Eddleson to stay a while more, but she weren’t having none of it.”
“Mattie’s leaving?” Pippa asked, mouth falling open. “Mattie is leaving now?”
“Yeah, she went up to pack just a bit ago,” he said, thumbing over his shoulder. “You might catch her if you’re quick.”
“Eddleson,” Joshua repeated, frowning. “I’ve heard that name somewhere.”
“She’s the Duchess of Penwicke’s daughter,” Pippa said.
Joshua’s eyes bugged out. He looked back and forth between the three of them, laughing nervously. “Wait, like Penwicke Agents, Penwicke? Those weird government ghouls? ‘A Penwicke finger in every pie,’ ‘six more arrows,’ those creeps? Holmes mentioned them a few times, but I figured they was just tall tales. They’re real?”
“They certainly are, Mr. Tabak,” Pippa said, hiking her skirts and charging up the stairs. “And if the best one thinks she can just bail out on us at a time like this, she is in for a nasty shock.”
She took the stairs two at a time until she reached the guest room. The door was cracked open, and she saw Mattie tying up a large canvas bag. A small, hard-cover suitcase lay at her feet. As she bent to pick it up, Pippa burst through the door so hard the hinges sang.
“You’re leaving?” she asked, hands on her hips.
“Folley asked me to find Pierce,” Mattie said, shouldering the bag, “and I only ever let her down once. I do not intend to make a habit of it.”
“You’re not even staying for the arraignment? If you lean on the judge even a little, he’ll bend. Nobody defies a Penwicke.”
“Sadly, I am not the only Penwicke,” Mattie sighed, “and the rest of the family would rather stay out of this. I cannot compel them otherwise, but I can find Pierce.”
“Mr. Holmes thinks that won’t be worth very much,” Pippa said, folding her arms and leaning against the doorway so that her feet stuck out across the gap.
Mattie snorted. “I’m sure Pierce would say the same of Mr. Holmes, yet here we are, carrying both the bastards on our backs. Sometimes you can sort through your tools at your leisure, but sometimes you have to grab what you can and move.”
She picked up the small case and crossed to the door. Pippa locked her legs. Mattie started to step over them, but paused, then awkwardly patted her on the head like she was tending a cactus.
“Listen. I’ve worked with Pierce for ten years. He is my closest friend. He is also the least reliable, least dignified, most excruciatingly ill-behaved ass to ever stain the earth with his presence.”
“You’re great at this whole reassurance thing,” Pippa said, slumping further down the wall.
“But when a friend is in trouble, he gets them out of it,” she continued. “Without fail. Your Mr. Holmes can sneer all he wants, but Pierce never folds when the chips are down, and he always wins the hand.”
Her brow furrowed, and she checked the hall before pulling Pippa inside, closing the door, and dropping her voice. “That’s why I must find him immediately. The fact that he hasn’t shown – hell, that he didn’t beat me here – means something is going on under the table. Someone stopped him coming here, I’d stake my life on it.”
“Who, though?” Pippa said. “One of the Cottons? Or the Fairboroughs?”
Mattie shook her head. “The Fairboroughs are nobodies, only about three of them left, none of whom have the influence to interrupt a Penwicke agent. The Cottons might have the power, but not the nerve. Folley and Oliver are of no concern to Mother, but if anyone came after someone on the payroll, she’d crush them. Even the stupidest Cotton wouldn’t dare cross her.”
“You may be giving them too much credit,” Pippa said, thinking of Blackwood.
“Well, perhaps,” Mattie said with a smirk, “but either way, this is definitely not as it seems.”
“Then what is it?” Pippa said, failing to hide her frustration. Talking to Mattie was like cracking a safe. “What do you think is going on?”
Mattie shrugged. “Couldn’t say. That’s your job.”
Pippa groaned and kicked the wall. “Great. Because that wasn’t hard enough already.”
“Well, so what if it is?” Mattie said, hands on her hips. “Sink or swim, girl, and be grateful you have the option!”
“Grateful?” Pippa said, balling her fists.
“Yes, grateful!” Mattie snapped, pointing up. “You could be one of those children. You could be Kate, bright enough to know what’s at stake but too young to do anything about it. Or you could be some wooly-headed swooner without the sense God gave a gerbil, of no help to anyone.”
She pinched the bridge of her nose and took a deep breath, and when she surfaced her eyes were hollow. “Or you could be me ten years ago, watching this place go up in flames with your friends inside it, knowing you could have stopped it once, but no longer.”
“What do you mean?”
Mattie ran her hand up and down the strap of her canvas bag for a moment before finding her voice. “I was supposed to keep an eye on Folley that night. We knew Masque would be in the crowd, but we didn’t know who he was. I was not to let Folley out of my sight.”
The woman swallowed hard and cringed. “But I misjudged. I let my guard down. By the time I realized my mistake, Folley had vanished, and by the time I knew who had taken her, smoke was already pouring under the door. It was nine minutes before they came out. I counted. Nothing hurts like helplessness, child. I won’t bend to it again, and I hope you don’t either.”
“Of course I won’t,” Pippa said firmly. “What, just because I vent a little, you think I’m going to sit on my hands and watch the cart go over the cliff? Folley asked me to help, same as you, so same as you I’m going to.”
“Asked you to help?” Mattie said with an incredulous laugh. “God above, no, she just wanted you to hire the old sod and come home. Bless her heart, but Folley has a limited view of children’s abilities, if you ask me. Too coddling. I mean, my mother had me smuggling state documents at half your age, and I turned out fine.”
With that, she picked up her suitcase again (which hummed ominously), opened the door, and shook Pippa’s hand. “Best of luck to you,” she said, then took off down the stairs before Pippa could so much as return the phrase.
[PIPPA GOES AND GETS THE LIST FOR SOME REASON, BREAKS INTO THE STUDY TO MATCH THE HANDWRITING]
Pippa pulled on the highest drawer and it slid open, which made her frown. They don’t usually leave that unlocked. Still, perhaps it was best not to look a gift horse in the mouth this time.
For a pair of thespians, Folley and Oliver were the most maniacally organized creatures outside of a patent office, so Pippa found what she was looking for at once: A green file marked “MEDICAL” in her uncle’s needle-thin handwriting. The folder was so thick she needed both hands to get it out. It was mostly filled with the consequences of raising five clever, impulsive, clumsy children under one roof (Pippa’s section alone was fifty pages), but as she moved to the adults at the back, some oddities caught her eye.
While George’s file was detailed and carefully arranged, Oliver’s was patchy, and Reginald’s suddenly stopped after 1889. Folley’s folder was completely empty, barefaced as a lie. Pippa remembered the poker in her ashen hands. Fire, it seemed, had been exceptionally kind to her guardians, though it was being less agreeable to her.
She drew a sheet at random from George’s file, lined up his signature with the list, and grunted in frustration. It was not the same hand. From the loops in the Gs to the tails of the Ns, nothing matched, and neither speed nor age nor slovenliness could account for the differences. Short of a particularly well-mannered bout of demonic possession, there was no way that George wrote the list.
She set the file aside, and read the next label with a jolt.
COTTON, CHRISTINA J.
Pippa opened it hesitantly. Inside there were only a few sheets of typewritten paper.
DECEASED IS TWENTY YEARS OF AGE, FEMALE, IN GOOD HEALTH PRIOR TO INCIDENT. NO INDICATIONS OF LONG-TERM POISONING; ALL SIGNS POINT TO SINGLE EVENT.
Pippa pushed the report to the far side of the desk. She was sweating, and her mouth was dry. Save it for Holmes, she told herself. You aren’t even sure what you’re looking for, anyway.
As she moved to the next folder in the stack, however, she realized that wasn’t exactly true.
COTTON, ETHAN A.
It was one of the heavier ones, so full it made Pippa wonder how long her guardians had been preparing to get caught. The top sheet was a copy of the old coroner’s report. Useless now. She glanced at it just long enough to register the signature – Dr. X. Abberley – before setting it aside.
The forms beneath it seemed both endless and senseless, nothing but bills, sick notes, and reports of childhood mischief, all of which were heavily underlined and notated in either her grandfather’s or her uncle’s hand. She couldn’t see why, as none of them seemed unusual save a single page at the back.
It was a yellow half-sheet, marked throughout in green ink, detailing the cost and proper care for her father’s broken arm. He would have been around five years old when it happened, which made the memo at the bottom of the page all the more alarming.
Patient injured fighting with another child (3). No liability; injury not inflicted by other child but sustained falling downhill during altercation.
The phrase seemed familiar somehow. Pippa opened her own folder and shuffled through the pages until she came to a similar receipt. It was marked up in the same green ink as her father’s.
Fractured ankle. Patient (5F) reportedly quarreled with relative (4F), sustaining injury in the process. Mutually injurious incident; culpability unclear.
Along the margin, in her uncle’s spindly cursive, was a circled phrase: The devil is in the details.
“Hideous,” Shekhar said, spitting into his napkin as the children giggled. “Absolutely ghastly.”
“Try this, sir, try this one next!” Elliot said, pushing a plate of head cheese in front of him.
“Now, now, don’t pester Mister Deshmukh, I’m sure he’d rather eat in peace,” Lacey said, wagging a finger at her nephew.
Shekhar waved her off. “It is quite alright. They are doing me a favor. You see, my mother worries I will stay in England forever, but you children can put her at peace. Thanks to your cookery lesson, I shall be back in Raigad every other week.”
“Is the food really so much better there, Mr. Deshmukh?” Kate asked.
“Infinitely so, madam.” He mimed wiping a tear from his eye. “Truly, we never appreciate what we have until it is gone. I feel like I ought to wear black from hereon out, in mourning for my lost suppers.”
“Feel free to pass your present suppers my way in the meantime,” Joshua said. The table had overwhelmed him at first, but as the night wore on his helpings grew more courageous, so that now he had several small turrets of food piled in front of him. “I see nothing to sneeze at here.”
“Sneezed out, perhaps,” Shekhar said, turning over the gelatin with his spoon and sending the children into more peals of laughter.
“We tried Indian food once,” Elizabeth said. “Mummy liked it, but Papa couldn’t eat it.”
“If this is what they have to offer in your country, I am surprised he can eat anything at all,” Shekhar said.
“Be nice,” Pippa said, though she couldn’t help smirking. “Walton is about ready to throw you out the window.”
“I would never dream of disrespecting a guest, Miss Phillipa,” Walton said as he refilled her water glass. When she raised an eyebrow, he added in an undertone, “Besides which, windowpanes are expensive.”
“I’d love to see India,” Danny said, twirling his fork in the air like a sword. “Sounds like a proper adventure.”
“Doubt they’d love to see you,” Frank grunted. “Got enough Englishmen tramping about as is, you should know what that’s like.”
Danny rolled his eyes. “Dad, I’m about as English as the Kaiser.”
“So far too English for comfort, then?” Pippa said.
Shekhar grinned. “Quite.”
Danny pushed his peas around his plate, grumbling. “Still. It’s not like you never went anywhere, Dad. Who are you to tell me off?”
His parents groaned in unison. “Christ, not this Navy nonsense again, boy,” Frank said. “You’ll worry your mother straight into the ground.”
“Frank used to serve,” Lacey explained, “and I trust his word that there are better careers out there.”
“He got medals, though,” Elliot said, grasping the air as if expecting his uncle to pull one out of his pocket and hand it to him. “From Cape Cama – uh, Comma – um, um –”
“Cape Comorin?” Shekhar said quietly. He kept smiling, but his eyes were dark, and his fingers stiffened on his knife. “So you were at Kanyakumari. You must have seen a great deal of action.”
Frank held his gaze, though he hunched a little lower over his plate. “A man must work, sir. He can’t always choose his master.” he said.
Shekhar’s smile grew frostier. “So they tell us,” he muttered into his wine glass, but after a long drink the chill passed.
“I hope you do like England, Mr. Deshmukh, even if the food is bad,” Kate said.
He inclined his glass to her. “It has many higher points to recommend it, Lady Katherine.”
“Maybe some lower points, too,” Danny said, winking at Pippa, and she kicked him under the table.
“What about you,” Elizabeth asked, leaning across the table towards Joshua, “you been anywhere?”
“Not really, little miss,” he said. “Know London better than any man kicking, though. I can get you anywhere in the city in fifteen minutes or less.”
“Impressive,” Pippa said. “That must come in handy chasing Mr. Holmes all day. I felt like a hound after a fox trying to follow him to Scotland Yard. Or was he just trying to lose me?”
Joshua waved his hand in a circle beside his head. “Little of A, little of B, probably. Don’t take it personal, though. Holmes isn’t a society type. Or a people type. Or a living-creature-what-makes-noise type.”
“Yes, I picked up on that,” Pippa said.
“He’s not bad once he’s used to you, though,” Joshua said through a mouthful of chicken. “Plus, he must think you’re sharper than the average nail. Otherwise he’d have kicked you off the case so fast you’d never get the bootprint off your – erm.” He cleared his throat. “I mean, he doesn’t usually let clients participate in investigations, my lady.”
“Does he let you in on many?” Shekhar asked.
“Couple dozen over the years,” Joshua said casually, though he straightened up. “Took me loads of whining and studying and making myself useful to get the first one, but once I pulled it off he let me help out pretty steady.
“Do you hope to be a police detective then, Mr. Tabak?” Lacey asked.
Joshua nearly choked. “Not with this name, ma’am,” he said with a short, dark laugh. “I’m an independent sort anyway.”
He cleaned his plate, and immediately a footman set down another. Eagerly, he helped himself to the tray of prawns, but his glowing expression was replaced by confusion as he looked down at the row of forks by his setting. “Um…wait, so it’s…” He started counting them.
Pippa carefully picked up the prawn fork, staring down her cousins like Hell incarnate. Their snickers died before they were even past their lips. “Lord, Walton, why do even still have these? You know Folley hates this snotty stuff,” she said.
Joshua copied her with a grateful wink. “Well, I doubt she hates it. Not much to hate about this-” he gestured at the glittering room – “fussy or no. Must take some getting used to, though. Some of those chandeliers and things look like they’d break if you breathed on them wrong. I don’t know how you avoid smashing up the place just by living in it.”
“You’re not the only one,” Pippa said. She pointed at the three children with her fork, and they exchanged wicked grins. “Between me and these little goblins growing up, I’m amazed my aunt and uncle didn’t have to seal off half the house in wax.”
He laughed. “I can see that. I mean, cripes, you’ve got a proper bloody telescope up there, just leaning on a balcony like it’s nothing. Almost knocked it over, which near stopped my heart, I don’t mind telling you. Do they just let all of you fiddle around with that whenever?”
“They let me, at least,” Pippa said. “It’s mine, had it since I was a child myself.”
“Cor, no kidding?” he said. “How’d you get ahold of something like that?”
Suddenly there was a lump in her throat. “Um, it was a gift. From my grandfather. He, uh, liked stargazing, and we used to do it together.” Just like he did with Father, she thought, though he never mentioned that again after the fire. Took the easy way out.
Joshua whistled. “He must’ve been right fond of you, to spring for something like that.”
“I suppose,” she mumbled. Either that or he wanted a do-over. Use the second to wipe away the guilt of the first. She felt queasy.
Joshua eyed her nervously. “Hey, you okay?”
Everyone turned towards her, and the weight of their combined worry pushed her to her feet. “Yes. No. Um, it’s nothing, just, er, excuse me,” she said, stepping away from the table.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to…to…” He fumbled, looking lost. “Whatever just happened, I didn’t mean it.”
“It’s not your fault, Mr. Tabak. It’s nothing, it’s really nothing at all,” she said, almost sprinting out of the room. It certainly should be nothing, she told herself as she approached the stairs, but it sat in her heart like a brick.
Hearing familiar footsteps behind her, she braced her arm on the banister and sighed. “Walton, I’m fine. Go back and see to the others.”
“If I may, my lady, I would suggest that you return with me. Company did seem to improve your mood, and the days to come will go easier if you are well.”
A strange giggle escaped her. It didn’t even sound like hers, which only made her laugh harder. “Well in the head, you mean?”
For the first time she could remember, Walton reached out and put his hand over hers. “Miss Phillipa, please, do not say such things.”
“You overreach, Mr. Vaughn!” she shouted, wheeling on him.
He stepped back and bowed, but his patience only enraged her further. “Pardon my presumption, madam.”
“Which presumption, though?” she said. Her nails dug into the banister. “That you can intrude upon my thoughts at will? That I will share every private moment, trust you with every secret, just because everyone else has?”
Comprehension dawned on him, and his mouth fell slightly open. “Miss Phillipa, let me assure you -”
“Oh yes, assure me! Tell me all will be well, that you will see to everything, as you did for my uncle and grandfather before me!”
“Is everything alright?” Joshua said, poking his head around the corner, but neither of them replied. Walton leaned back into cool deference. A question settled in Pippa’s hand like a dagger, and she drove it home.
“As you did for my father, perhaps?” she asked. “What secrets did he have you keep?”
A hush fell over the hall.
“My lady is upset,” Walton said at last. “Forgive my intrusion. I shall make sure you can compose yourself in peace.”
“You make sure of so many things,” she said with a snort, turning up the stairs. “You are an uncommonly good servant, Mr. Vaughn. You know everything, hear everything, handle everything, and yet you say nothing. No matter what ought to be said.”
“I do my duty, madam,” he said.
She spat over the railing at the top of the stairs. “Hang duty,” she hissed, “and every coward who wraps himself in it!”
She stormed off, barely following her own feet until they brought her to the library. Without thinking, she opened the door and immediately regretted it.
The library was the largest room in the house, though so crammed with books, cushions, and curios as to feel like no space at all. Only the two far walls were free of shelves. The one to her left was covered with recent photographs, a loving clutter rare in stately homes. To the right, around the fireplace, was a more respectable, less invested handful of portraits, some dating back centuries. Most of the collection was lost in the fire – that why was her father wasn’t there, they told her – but some familiar faces remained, including the one Pippa least wanted to see at the moment. Hanging over the mantelpiece, consuming most of the wall, was her grandfather’s portrait.
Pippa threw herself in an armchair, shifting it away from him. “Don’t give me that look. If you’d told off a few more people, we probably wouldn’t be in this mess.”
Drumming her fingers on the armrest, she glanced over the smaller satellite paintings in her periphery until one of them caught her eye. It was a bland, sentimental picture of her uncles as children. The artist had done his best to make them appropriately cherubic, teasing out their dark curls and pinking their cheeks until they were almost florescent. Blotting out their exhaustion, however, was apparently beyond him; Oliver leaned his head back, holding his eyes wide open as if trying to stay awake, whereas George glared at the viewer, making it seem less like he was embracing his little brother and more like he was reaching across him for a sword. She must have seen the stupid thing a thousand times, but for some reason this time, the hair on the back of her neck stood up.
Why is it only the two of them?
Hesitantly, she got up and squinted at the date in the bottom corner of the canvas. 1869. So he wasn’t in school yet. They would have all been home. The frame was off, too, not obviously, but surely they didn’t sell canvas in such squat proportions, and even if they did, why put a new frame on this piece and not the others? It couldn’t just be because it was a portrait of George. They had half a dozen of those, and their frames were all nearly twenty years old.
Taking the painting down, she flipped it over and undid the pins on the back, removing the canvas. Three sides were smooth, but the top was rough, dotted with little nicks and snags. As she turned the piece in her hands, the fire highlighted some faint pink streaks in Oliver’s hair and along George’s shoulder.
Fingers, she realized.
A knock at the door made her jump, and she turned to see Shekhar watching her. “What is that?” he asked, pointing at the canvas.
Pippa ran her fingers along the frayed edge. “He cut him out,” she said at last.
Shekhar frowned and cocked his head. “Who did what?”
“My uncle. He cut this painting in half because my father was in it. Tried to paint over whatever bits were left, see?” She pointed at the phantom fingertips, then hung the frame back on the wall. “Can’t say I blame him.”
“No, nor can I,” he said with a grim nod. “Who could look at that face day after day, after it put you through all of this?”
Pippa traced the curve of her jaw with one hand. “Who indeed?”
“So what was that all about?” he asked, hesitantly patting her on the back. “What’s the matter?”
Pippa sat down and leaned her head against her fist. “They don’t want me on the case,” she said. “They don’t really want my help.”
He frowned. “Holmes and Watson?”
“No, my aunt and uncle. Mattie told me. Folley just wanted to me hand everything off to Holmes and scurry back to Merrimore, to hide here with the others like a mouse in the hole. She doesn’t trust me with anything more.”
“She is only trying to keep you safe,” he said, sitting down across from her. “It has nothing to do with your ability, I am certain. No one could live with you for so many years and not have faith in your mind.”
Pippa scoffed and took the half-sheets out of her pocket. “I found these in my uncle’s study. One about me, one about my father.” She gave them to him with a bitter smile. “See any differences? Because he didn’t.”
Shekhar squinted at the margin notes and shook his head. “He cannot mean that. Not the way you think.”
She shrugged. “Maybe not. Maybe so.”
“Maybe so?” he repeated incredulously.
Pippa took a deep breath and closed her eyes, not trusting his face to tell her what she wanted to hear.
“What if they’re right?” she said in a small voice. “What if I can’t save them? Holmes is right, I’ve got no self-control, I never have, and what if that’s because of him? He’s my father, there’s part of him within me, and what if that part gets in the way now, at the worst possible time?”
“There is none of him in you,” he said firmly. “Not a shred.”
“You didn’t know him. You can’t say.”
“Nonetheless, I’m positive. You are good, Pippa, truly, you are not him at all.”
She pulled her knees up to her chest with a shudder. “I’m not so sure. I didn’t think I remembered him anymore, but I keep seeing him now, flaring up in things I do. I’ve failed at things before because of my impulsiveness, because of my temper and my selfishness and my pride. It never bothered me then, but now, when it really matters…what if I fail again? What if I can’t help but fail?”
She could see the automatic platitudes coming as he opened his mouth, but at the last second he stopped, stood up, and paced across the room with his hands folded behind his back. At last he moved his chair closer to hers, right up against the hearth, took a seat, and spoke slowly into the flames.
“When I was ten, my father took me with him on a business deal. I cannot remember what it was, mining or exports or something, something the jumped-up Englishman we went to see clearly had no business handling. The man had a son about my age and they sent us off to play together, show of good faith, you know.”
He clenched his fist and laughed bitterly. “Well, it turned out we had very different ideas of play. As soon as our fathers were gone, the boy took me to the window to show me his favorite game: throwing stones at his servants.”
“Horrid little toad,” Pippa said, leaning forward and spitting into the fire. “That’s the sort of boy switches were first cut for.”
Shekhar smirked. “That was my thought. Unfortunately, I was foolish enough to act on it. I pushed him down, there was a scuffle, and he went running for Daddy. The man was furious. I knew he would be, but I also knew I was right, and was determined to prove it. Before anyone could speak, though, my father struck me in the back of the head.”
He stared into the fire a long while before continuing. “It sent me to my knees, though I am not sure if it was really that hard or if it was just the shock of it all. My father had never hit me before – quite the opposite, in fact, spoiled me half rotten – and he certainly never grovelled. Yet here we were. Me with a sore skull and ringing ears and him, the Deshmukh of Raigad, whose family had owned that land for the last two hundred years, scraping and flattering and pleading with this bloated, self-important white nobody, who didn’t have enough noble bearing to run a grocery. I still don’t know everything my father gave up during negotiations to pay for my actions, but I’m certain it was more than those people deserved.”
“Hush, none of that was your fault,” Pippa said, but he just shook his head.
“I did not speak to my father the whole way home, could not even look at him, I was so disgusted. Finally he took hold of me.”
He wagged a finger at her and deepened his voice in imitation. “’I know my arm. I do not know his.’ And that was that. We let the matter pass.” He narrowed his eyes. “But even though I understood my father’s behavior, I could not accept the reason for it. I still don’t.”
“How do you mean?” she asked.
“I mean I will give no man more of me than he has already taken,” he said, pounding on his leg. “I must be pragmatic, of course. I know I cannot shift the whole world to my whim at once. But I will not play halfway as nice as everyone wants me to. I am too good for that.” He shrugged. “Perhaps that is foolish of me, as foolish as giving that brat what-for, but I never regretted that and I doubt I will regret this. People can try to stomp on me all they like. I will never make it easy for them.”
Pippa grinned and clapped him on the back. “Good. I quite like the sound of that plan.”
“I know,” he said. He leaned in as he spoke, then, when he could lean no further, slid from his chair and knelt beside her. “That’s what drew me to you. You have all the strength I aspire to. The same sort of fire in your blood.” He laughed softly, making her skin dance. “Honestly, the second you looked up at me from that flowerbed, shameless as daylight, I was in awe of your will.”
Pippa swallowed. Her will was precisely what she felt slipping away each time he touched her. “I fear you see more in me than is actually there.”
He tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. “Whatever is there, I admire it. I admire you more than I can ever say, Pippa Cotton.”
God, he’s so close, she thought.
“We are all made of decisions,” he said. His voice was as warm and quiet as smoke. “Most of them are not even ours, made long before we were born, and no matter if the outcome is kind or cruel, the process is never fair. Before we have a say in our definition, half of it is written down.” He drew up, rising over her like a wave, eyes gleaming as if he were staring into the sun. “But not all of it. And if there is a woman I trust to define herself magnificently, it is you.”
He raised her chin, and she felt as though she were looking, truly looking, at him for the first time. It was a dangerous move. They lunged for each other.
His mouth was soft, but the kisses were hard, hot and gasping. She raked her hands through his hair, clinging to him with clenched fists, and he crushed her against the chair with a groan. Their hands and teeth roamed each other, hungry as wolves. She knew it was wrong, but it was so distant and, God, she needed this so badly, just one beautifully thoughtless moment –
There was a cough behind them, and they resurfaced to see Joshua staring determinedly at the empty space above their heads.
“Sorry, erm, soft walker,” he mumbled, thumbing over his shoulder, “but somebody’s climbing your ivy.” He caught Pippa’s eye and turned crimson. “I mean, like – like actually – the stuff on, um – on the house, and, er – not like, uh – like your – someone’s trying to get in the window. Thought you ought to know.”
The pair untangled themselves, smoothing out their clothes. “Right, um, thank you,” Pippa said. “Mr. Deshmukh and I were just – we just -”
Joshua frantically waved his hands, mimed buttoning his lip, and scurried away. Shekhar cringed and ran a hand through his hair.
“I did not -” he began.
“I know we -” Pippa said in the same instant.
But further words failed them, and after a dreadful, scraping pause they hurried out of the room.
In the gallery, Joshua struggled to unlatch one of the windows.
“Shit, he’s really booking it now, you better hurry.” He finally popped the bar free and flung the pane open with a clatter. “OY! YOU! DON’T EVEN THINK ABOUT IT!”
Pippa nudged him aside just in time to see a cloaked figure leap down into the bushes. It was hard to make anything out in the dark, but the figure appeared to be limping, and carrying something heavy around its neck.
“I’ll call for someone,” Shekhar said, “see if they can catch him.”
Pippa shook her head. “Too late. He’s practically gone already, look.” She followed the figure with her finger as it took off into the foggy marshes, soon disappearing from view.
“Damn reporters,” Shekhar spat.
“Photographers are the worst of the lot,” Joshua said with a nod. “Reckon that’s what he was up to. Pressed right up to the glass, he was.”
Pippa moved to close the window, but something flashed in the pale moonlight, and she paused. Angling the window back and forth, she finally hit the right angle. There, illuminated on the glass, was the faint impression on a diamond. Four corners were shiny but colorless, mere oil from a fingertip. From the top point to halfway down the right side, however, was a dark red smear. She put her nail in it and hesitantly raised the scraping to her lips. It tasted of salt.
“Did you get a good look at him?” she asked Joshua.
“’Fraid not,” he said, “coward covered his face. A scarf, I think, or maybe a mask.”
A faint shuffling sound woke Pippa several hours later. In an effort to shake the chill of the mysterious intruder, the three of them had stayed up long into the night, chatting away like perfectly normal people living perfectly normal lives. It was the most pleasant evening Pippa had experienced in a while, and all of them were so loathe to end it that they stayed until they nodded off, one by one, around the library fire. Now she could just barely make out Joshua in the darkness, outlined by firelight, slowly creeping towards the door, cursing under his breath every time the floorboards creaked.
“You don’t have to leave,” she said, stretching out in her armchair. “We have plenty of rooms.”
He paused in the doorway, shifting on his heels. “Thanks, but I’d rather get back to London, if it’s all the same to you. You’ve got a grand place, Miss Cotton, very grand, but…” He shoved his hands in his pockets and stared up at the molded ceiling as if afraid it would fall in. “Anyway, I ought to see if Holmes and Watson need a hand with anything. I’ll see you at court, alright?”
He hurried into the hall, but Pippa nimbly hopped over the sleeping Hattie and caught the boy by the arm. “I hope you’re not embarrassed about dinner. Or…the other thing. That was my fault entirely, not yours. I am sorry if my rudeness made you uncomfortable.”
Joshua chuckled and shook his head. “Nah, it’s not you. Cripes, you think I’ve never seen a screaming match before? Or a…other thing?”
“Then why run off with your tail between your legs?”
“I’m not! I just didn’t want to wake everybody on no account!”
Pippa raised an eyebrow. “Mr. Tabak,” she began, and he flinched. “Now why does that bother you?”
“I dunno,” he said, backing along the gallery rail as if at gunpoint, “it’s just weird. I’m always just Joshua or just Tabak or something. I en’t Mister nothing yet, and somebody like you don’t need pretend I am.”
Something clicked, and Pippa reddened. “You think I pity you?”
He chewed his lips for a moment and scratched his heel with the toe of his shoe. He wasn’t wearing socks. She hadn’t noticed it before, under his long trousers, and she tried not to notice now, but he still pulled the hem down with a scowl.
“They used to have these mercy drives when I was a kid,” he said, “where they’d bring a bunch of us up the hill to some rich old lady’s house to get clothes and stuff. The ladies were nice enough, I guess, gave us nice things and called us poor dears and fussed over us more than our own folks ever did. But we were like dolls to them. I could feel it, and now if I even stand in a grand house’s shadow, I feel it again.”
“I’m not giving you charity,” she said, but he held up a hand.
“I know, I know. Still, I’d rather deserve whatever I’m offered, instead of feeling like I’m supposed to scrape and bow. Otherwise I’m right back where I started. Trading my pride for a used pair of shoes.”
He started down the stairs, but Pippa still pursued, and while she did not block him, she kept to the same step he did. The staircase was uncomfortably narrow at the neck, but whenever Joshua stepped down to make room for her, she followed him.
“Go if you like, then,” she said, “but don’t mistake my house for me. We hold very different pretensions. Take away the trappings, and I suspect there is more of a gentleman in you than there is of a lady in me.”
There was a flash of genuine warmth in his eyes, though he hid it in a wink. “Careful. Less of a gentleman could get the wrong impression from a line like that.”
She smirked. “You know what I mean.”
“Yeah. Thanks.” There was the sound of footsteps above them, and he looked up. “Speaking of gentlemen.”
She followed his gaze to see Shekhar on the landing.
“Pardon, sir,” Joshua said, “didn’t mean to wake you. Your lady was just seeing me out.”
At the words ‘your lady,’ Pippa and Shekhar lowered their eyes, and Joshua turned red again. “Oh. Ah. Um.” He looked around like a fox in a trap and chuckled. “Yeah, leaving seems like a real good plan. Thanks for dinner, see you in the morning.”
“Mind if I tag along?” Shekhar asked.
“You don’t have to do that,” Pippa said in a small voice, but he held up a hand.
“It’s alright,” he said with a sad smile. “Besides, it is late, and a long walk back to the station, and it is always easier to make such treks with a friend.”
‘Friend,’ too, made Pippa drop her gaze. “Lord, I’m not going to let you just walk all that way, though,” she laughed, playing with the end of her plait. “Take the car.”
Joshua shook his head. “Thanks, but it looks a decent night. I’d rather walk.”
“As would I,” Shekhar said, albeit a bit more reluctantly. His eyes were locked on Pippa’s hair. Something wicked whispered in her ear and she undid the ribbon, slowly separating the plait between her fingers.
Joshua, with a deductive speed that would have made his master proud, zipped down the stairs like they were on fire, humming as loudly and casually as he could. Shekhar grinned and rolled his eyes, but as soon as the other boy was out of sight he took a lock of Pippa’s hair between his fingers. Her breath caught in her throat.
“Forgive me,” he murmured, rolling the hair across his thumb like it was solid gold.
She put a hand on his chest, unable to help herself. “For which offense?”
A tiny, terrible part of her hoped he would commit a new one, and for a moment he seemed to consider it. At last, though, they each took a step back and he kissed her hand so lightly you’d have thought it was poisoned.
“For struggling to keep my word,” he said. “I usually can do it, and I promise I will do it from now on.”
He turned to go, but when he reached the last step she blurted out, “I am struggling too.”
There was a twinkle in his eye when he looked back, but it faded quickly. “I know. Nonetheless.”
She nodded. “Yes, still.”
“Good night, Miss Cotton.”
“Until tomorrow, Mr. Deshmukh.”
“Get some rest. You have quite a battle to fight tomorrow.”
Pippa shook her head, a smile playing around the corner of her lips. “No. I have a war to win.”