The residents of Middlesbrough were fundamentally a suspicious lot. The sudden arrival of a child at Elmhurst Park more than justified an investigation. Having risen early to inspect her prized apothecary roses, Mrs. Wittlehorne wasted no time in waking her neighbors with the news. By the end of breakfast, the bedraggled stranger, who made the delivery, became a mysterious foreigner at least seven feet tall, and the girl a grubby little thing destined to be troublesome. Significant citizens made immediate inquiries.
The child’s bewildered uncle later concluded that it must have been the combination of his rare tea blends and his cook’s famous canelé pastries that eased their fears. After all, he was a determined bachelor with a fascination for unusual books, and had long been considered a suspicious character. Having gained a ward of perfectly ordinary appearance, he suddenly found himself on the brink of respectability.
Abigail Dunlevy was small for her five years ,and possessed a natural cleverness that often startled her elders. Her mother had been a great beauty, but the only trait that Abigail inherited was a pair of startling green eyes. The pert chin that finished her round face could hardly be considered becoming, nor the decided arch of her brow. Abigail could barely remember her parents. Sometimes, she dreamed of a distant afternoon filled with sunlight and plants with unusually broad leaves. Her uncle called it the silly sort of nonsense that resulted from reading too many novels.
Even at eighteen, she still could not understand her uncle’s urgency in studying ancient relics. On a cold winter morning, the only matter that she considered troubling was whether the overcast sky foretold snow. Snatching her wool pelisse and bonnet from the suit of armor in the front hall, she hastened to the book-room that she might tempt her uncle with a trip to town.
“I certainly will not waste time out and about,” he declared. “But you may be so foolish if you wish. Only do not forget to turn thrice at the threshold! And mind the frost!”
With a fond smile, she kissed his cheek. “Of course, Uncle.”
Although it possessed a name that suggested otherwise, Middlesbrough was not central to anything of importance. This was of no concern to the residents, who were quite content to be nestled comfortably between a river of moderate size and a cluster of farms that boasted adequate harvests. Everything was always precisely as it should be.
Abigail slowed her strides as the woods gave way to the tightly packed buildings that lined the central thoroughfare of the town. A few men in crisp red uniforms lounged in front of the Dog and Crumpet. She saluted them with gusto. They returned the gesture with amusement, carefree in their duties unlike their compatriots abroad.
The passing rector shook his head. “Miss Dunlevy, you must not distract the soldiers with frivolous chatter.”
“Oh, of course not, Mr. Williams. I would not want them to think me a wet goose!”
“Yes, well, these are dangerous times. Dangerous times, indeed. Of course, I have faith that God will save us from the French.” His eyes grew misty at the thought of the magnificent triumph he envisioned at prayer. “I know it is an oft repeated query of mine, but is there truly no way that I might convince your uncle to join us on the Sabbath? I’ve been told that he was once a man very devoted to religion.”
The death of Abigail’s parents created an insurmountable rift between her uncle and faith. “I’m afraid that he will not listen to any advice on that subject, Mr. Williams. Even mine.”
“Well, I will continue to pray that his soul not remain in peril.” Spotting the approach of a familiar powdered matriarch, he bowed hastily, and departed for the sanctuary of his church.
In her youth, Mrs. Wittlehorne proved herself a successful flirt, marrying a naval officer many years her senior whose devotion was thankfully shortened by his death off the coast of Spain. He left behind a decent fortune, yet his widow was far from complacent in pursuing more for their only son. Her skill as a gossip was nothing compared to her single-minded pursuit of young ladies with sizable incomes.
“Miss Dunlevy! How excited we are to see you!” she gasped, breathless from the ordeal of street crossing. She steadied her wig with a practiced swish of her hand. “Is that not so, Nathaniel?”
“Terribly excited.” Her son’s attention was solitarily focused on a window display of vibrant damasks. No city smart dandy would mistake him for one of their ilk, but his preference for elaborately folded neckcloths and vibrant waistcoats attracted many female admirers in the country. None had yet satisfied his mother’s ambition.
“When we decided to take a walk, I said it would be a marvelous stroke of luck if we were to meet you, Miss Dunlevy. And so it is! I hope that you have not made plans for tomorrow night. I am holding a small card-party, and we will be quite at a loss if you do not attend. Oh, you needn’t worry about the expense. We shall only wager pin money for I daresay Nathaniel will have all the winnings! He is terribly clever.”
“No, I’m not. I’m absolutely lousy at cards. Why the last time–”
“No need to be modest, my love. My dear husband was a military man. A prolific gamester too, I’m sorry to say. Men in that profession are prone to it. But Nathaniel has not even a hint of the gamester about him.”
“Good thing, really,” sighed Nathaniel. “I have terrible luck.”
Abigail smiled, for it was certainly true. “I should love to attend your card-party, Mrs. Wittlehorne. There are few things I enjoy more than a challenging round of picquet.”
“Picquet!” Mrs. Wittlehorne’s gaze turned disapproving. “I hope that your uncle does not let you practice such a risky game! I, myself, only allow backgammon or the occasional game of whist. Never the diversions that are the backbone of gaming-houses! I should not like to think of any young lady drawn into such habit forming games. Especially you, Miss Dunlevy.” She gathered her skirts with a flourish. “Now, Nathaniel and I must hurry to call on Miss Jenkins. We shall see you soon, my dear!”
Abigail was glad that Nathaniel did not share his mother’s opinions. For a man, he was a particularly fine judge of ribbon. It was not surprising that he had been distracted by the array of fabrics in the window of the Warren Bros. Mercantile. Abigail even spotted a pretty calico that might suit a morning dress from La Belle Assemblee. She leaned closer to consider the pattern’s merits.
For a town that thrived on routine, the unexpected arrival of a fine private coach drawn by two matched pairs of superb high steppers was cause for pandemonium. As it halted before The Lasting Rose, everyone stopped to stare, unabashed in their determination to discover the owner of so exemplary a vehicle. Abigail stepped forward to join them, curious to know who owned the battered trunk perilously secured to the roof. The traveller was a man, that was for certain. Tall with a very sharp nose. She could determine little else before the carriage lurched out of sight.
As the cloud of dust dispersed, so did the muttering crowd. With a sigh, Abigail turned away, and crossed the square to an elegant white building extravagantly embellished with molded stucco. She was not daunted by the imposing columns, for she had passed through them countless times to visit her dearest friend.
“Abigail! How fast the news of our return has spread. Mrs. Wittlehorne?”
“Of course!” Abigail enveloped the willowy blonde in a tight hug. “Did you enjoy the city? You look quite radiant.”
“That is the result of a new formulation of milk tonic. It brightens the complexion remarkably!” Olivia led her into the blue salon. “London was diverting, but I am glad that we have returned. Mama and I are in desperate need of recuperation after the crush of the warehouses.”
“It must have been wonderful to see the finery on display. And soon you will enjoy all the extravagances of the Season!” Discarding her bonnet, Abigail collapsed into a mahogany armchair. “I don’t know why Uncle believes that I will find a suitable husband here. The assemblies are dreadfully boring now that so many young men are off soldiering.”
“Men do love a chance to go to war,” murmured Olivia. “Have the past few weeks truly been so terrible? You must have been quite desired in my absence.”
“It hardly matters when there are no amiable partners to be had. There has been only one assembly since you left. Mr. Oakley did not attend as there was a business matter that required his attention, but Nathaniel was a most obliging partner. And Nick did help me practice beforehand, even though I stepped on his toes.” Reaching across the card table, Abigail clasped her friend’s hand. “I’ve been quite beside myself for someone to talk to. I thought your father might decide that you should remain in London for good.”
“Well, you needn’t fret. Papa says that we are to stay here until at least the Season, for you know my come-out ball is not for several months. We shall have plenty of time to plan the most shocking intrigues! Shall we include your particular friend, Mr. O?”
Arrestingly handsome with plenty of town polish, Mr. Oakley had inspired devotion in more than one maiden’s heart. However, it was Abigail alone whom he judged worthy of his attentions. In the two months since his arrival, he had made a habit of visiting Elmhurst Park in the afternoon. Abigail was hopeful that, upon her return, their paths would meet.
“If we must,” she sighed with perfected exaggeration. “Although, I daresay I shall be calling him something more than friend very soon.”
As they succumbed to a fit of giggles, Lady Mayberry swept into the room, and sniffed with unreserved disapproval. The small gesture shook the delicate gold curls that crowned her prodigiously maintained complexion. “Miss Dunlevy, I hope that you are in good health? You will stay for luncheon.” She signaled to their butler. “Inform cook that we have a guest.”
Abigail scrambled to her feet. “Thank you, Lady Mayberry, but I really mus–”
“I insist. We may be living in the country, but that is no reason to be immersed in provincial tendencies.” Lady Mayberry’s experiences in the Orient gave her considerable delusions of grandeur that she had no intention of relinquishing. She gestured broadly for them to follow. “Miss Dunlevy, I hope that your uncle has reconsidered bringing you to London for the Season. You will never find a match of any consequence in the country.”
“I’m afraid that Uncle remains suspicious of city society.”
“He is right to be careful. Fortune hunters will find your name alone very attractive, but with a chaperone there is nothing for a sensible girl to fear. A proper introduction into society is of the utmost importance. You must tell your uncle that I said so.” Seating herself at the head of the table, Lady Mayberry frowned at the selection of cakes. “He can at least have no objection to your spending a few weeks in my care.”
“Oh, Mama!” Olivia clapped her hands with delight. “Can Abby join us?”
“I think that she must. Miss Dunlevy would be excellent company for you, my love.”
Abigail could not help expressing her enthusiasm for this idea. When the topic of the Capital was at last exhausted, she rushed her goodbyes. She was eager to share the news with her suitor; however, there was no sign of Mr. Oakley along the wooded path that led home.
Elmhurst Park was not as grand as the Mayberry’s residence, but what it lacked in elegance it made up for in charm. Separated from the lane by a row of ponderous elms, the house was a rambling construction of dark brick, white trimmed windows, and dense ivy. The roof sloped where it should not and drafts were not uncommon, yet Abigail would not exchange it for any other dwelling in the world.
Shaking her head at the persistent clutter that threatened to overtake the vestibule, Abigail unbuttoned her pelisse, and reached to hang it on the suit of armor. The perch was already occupied. The culprit was a man’s driving-coat, spattered with mud, and sporting only two capes when the trend called for at least five.
“There’s a gentleman in the drawing-room, miss.”
Abigail turned to find their butler standing solemnly at the bottom of the staircase. “A gentleman?”
Everard held out his hand to take her pelisse. “It is not Mr. Oakley.”
“That is strange. I was certain that he . . .”
There was an unfamiliar trunk propped against the wainscoting. The leather was cracked, and the brass fittings were almost black with tarnish. It was very similar in appearance to the abused luggage from the fine coach that had startled everyone in town.
“Mr. Reynolds is an old acquaintance of your uncle. I was about to show him to the book-room.”
It had been a long journey, and very little of it was pleasant. Mr. Reynolds might be the most powerful magician in all of England, but he had been given few resources. Napoleon’s army remained as invincible as it was at Waterloo. In France, magic was a secret no longer. The cheerful drawing-room was a welcome change from the battlefield.
“The subject is Evaline Dunlevy,” said a female voice.
“Yes, I know.” He turned, and his breath caught in his throat. The young woman before him bore an astonishing resemblance to the portrait above the fireplace. For a moment, he thought that he must be in the presence of a ghost.
Abigail gave the stranger an appraising glance. He was tall, but not overly so, with a slim physique ill-suited to his loose clothing. His dark hair was unkempt, almost wild, and there was more than a days growth of beard upon his face. Abigail supposed that he could not be faulted for his ill-tended countenance considering the battered state of his trunk. However, there was no reason that his waistcoat should be so perilously unbuttoned, and his lack of any kind of neckcloth was quite unforgivable.
“You don’t look old enough to have known my mother,” she said.
The stranger took an uncertain step toward her. “You’re . . . Abigail?”
“Have we met?”
“We . . .” He stopped himself with a small shake of his head. “You have grown considerably since I last saw you.”
Abigail did not know how to respond to so curious a statement. “My uncle is with his books. I can bring you to him.”
“Yes, of course.” He followed her out of the drawing-room, pausing to inspect a primitive statue of a goddess cradling a sheath of grain. His gaze wandered over the other artifacts haphazardly piled along the hallway. “Rather a mess in here, isn’t it?”
Abigail didn’t think that so disheveled a stranger had any right to criticize her uncle’s housekeeping. “It is always like this. Tell me, Mr. Reynolds, how are you acquainted with my uncle?”
“That is a very long story, and this is a very short hallway.” With confidence, he opened the book-room door, and indicated that she should go first. “Mortimer has always been such a stickler for tidiness. He never lets me borrow any of his books. I like to dog-ear my pages, you know.”
Unnerved by Mr. Reynolds’s familiarity with the house, Abigail took several steps into the room, before she noticed anything amiss. Books were scattered across the floor. A maelstrom of papers consumed her uncle’s desk, and his leather chair was tipped over beside it, concealing everything but an arm, twisted at a very unnatural angle.
Abigail could not look away. Fear seeped through her skin. “He’s . . .”
Mr. Reynolds edged closer. “Dead.”
“Dead,” she repeated, numbly. “Dead.” The room spun like one of the tops she treasured during quiet afternoons as a child. Spinning and spinning into the welcoming embrace of nothing at all.