June 25, 2024

The Lady Sherlock Series, Book 8

Charlotte Holmes is accustomed to solving crimes, not being accused of them, but she finds herself in a dreadfully precarious position as the bestselling Lady Sherlock series continues.

Charlotte’s success on the RMS Provence has afforded her a certain measure of time and assurance. Taking advantage of that, she has been busy, plotting to pry the man her sister loves from Moriarty’s iron grip.

Disruption, however, comes from an unexpected quarter. Lord Bancroft Ashburton, disgraced and imprisoned as a result of Charlotte’s prior investigations, nevertheless manages to press Charlotte into service: Underwood, his most loyal henchman, is missing and Lord Bancroft wants Charlotte to find Underwood, dead or alive.

But then Lord Bancroft himself turns up dead and Charlotte, more than anyone else, meets the trifecta criteria of motive, means, and opportunity. Never mind rescuing anyone else, with the law breathing down her neck, can Charlotte save herself from prosecution for murder?

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

The interrogation

August 1887

Before Inspector Robert Treadles had wanted to be Sherlock Holmes, he had wanted to be Chief Inspector John Talbot.

The chief inspector had retired the year after Treadles had been promoted to detective sergeant, but Treadles had worked with him once. The senior officer had been patient and fair, interested not in producing likely-seeming culprits to prosecute, but in chiseling away at a case until he had revealed everything about the crime and its participants.

Under any other circumstances, Treadles would have been delighted to welcome the chief inspector out of retirement—and to observe the wise old policeman again in a professional capacity.

Under any other circumstances.

The parlor of the hotel suite in which he found himself boasted dark varnished wainscoting, scarlet velvet curtains, and a deep pile blue-and-gold Turkish carpet underfoot. The décor had been conceived to provide luxurious warmth during London’s long and gloomy winter. But on this sultry day, the room closed in.

Chief Inspector Talbot, his thick head of white hair combed back, his gaze kind yet penetrating, asked, “Young lady, may I inquire as to the nature of your association with the deceased?”

The young lady in question, a woman in her mid-twenties, was attired in a full English garden. So many roses, foxgloves, hydrangeas flourished upon her dress that it had taken a while for Treadles to discern that the garment was made of a light green muslin. And the circumference of the hem, of course, proliferated with embroidered sprigs of lavender.

In contrast to the gaudy botanical excesses of her frock, her expression was solemn and blank.

“Lord Bancroft Ashburton was the brother of my friend Lord Ingram Ashburton. Several years ago, Lord Bancroft asked for my hand in marriage. I did not believe we would suit and declined his proposal.”

She spoke with a calm detachment, as if she were fielding slightly intrusive questions at a tea party, rather than inquiries stemming from a murder investigation.

“And was that the extent of your acquaintance?”

“Not quite. Due to certain events, I am now no longer welcome in polite circles. After I became an exile from Society, much to my surprise, Lord Bancroft proposed again.”

Treadles, who had been in the middle of tugging on his collar, stilled.

He had learned some time ago that Miss Charlotte Holmes had been highly successful on the Marriage Mart: Several of the proposals she’d received had been considered not just good, but spectacular.

Even so, to number Lord Bancroft as a suitor not once, but twice.

“And I surmise that, once again, you turned him down?” murmured Chief Inspector Talbot.

“He withdrew his offer, rather,” said Miss Holmes. “But you are correct, Chief Inspector, in that after much consideration, I still did not wish to marry him.”

“And yet lately you have visited him—repeatedly.”

She was, in fact, the only person Lord Bancroft had met with in the weeks preceding his death.

The grandfather clock in the corner gonged. Treadles glanced at it. Half past three in the afternoon.

Miss Holmes cast her gaze in the same direction. “Our tea should be here.”

As if on cue, a knock came. Miss Holmes excused herself, went to answer it, and returned with a laden tea tray. She poured for her callers and handed around a plate of baked delicacies. “The hotel provides an excellent Madeira cake. The tea cakes are very decent, too.”

The hotel also provided suites that functioned much as residences, with private entrances from the street. That Miss Holmes had chosen to lodge at a hotel, rather than opening up 18 Upper Baker Street or Mrs. Watson’s house, had signaled to Treadles her intention of only a brief stay in London.

Surely she hadn’t planned on becoming a murder suspect in so short a time?

Miss Holmes took a bite of the tea cake she had recommended. “Lately I have called on Lord Bancroft a little more than is my wont.”

She glanced at Treadles. “Are you sure you wouldn’t care for a tea cake, Inspector?”

Treadles’s innards, wound tight, rebelled at the thought of sugar and butter. He didn’t know how she managed to enjoy—or at least appear to enjoy—the rich assortment on her plate. “I’m quite all right, thank you.”

Chief Inspector Talbot, in his dove grey Newmarket coat, sipped his tea and studied Miss Holmes. He seemed very much a benevolent if youngish great-uncle, inquiring after the latest doings of his favorite grandniece.

“And what would be the reason, Miss Holmes, for your more frequent visits to Lord Bancroft?”

Wildebeests rampaged inside Treadles’s stomach. Talbot could control an interview as well as anyone. But unlike some other investigators from Scotland Yard that Miss Holmes had dealt with, including Treadles himself at one point, Chief Inspector Talbot never underestimated women.

“I received a letter from Lord Bancroft.” answered Miss Holmes, who consumed her tea cake at a steady pace. “He expressed a desire to see me. The missive was unexpected, as were his sentiments. He had retired from public life under occluded circumstances and I was curious as to why he wished to meet again.”

“Did you find out why?”

“He told me that he feared for his life.”

Treadles hadn’t expected the lies to start flying so soon. When they’d met earlier in the month, Miss Holmes had said nothing to him about Lord Bancroft cowering in mortal dread. He tugged at his collar again, wishing for a draught of fresh air.

“And it appears now,” mused Chief Inspector Talbot, “that his lordship was right in his apprehension. But if you will forgive my question, Miss Holmes, why did he wish to burden you of all people with the knowledge that he might be in danger?”

“Do you believe, Chief Inspector, that there is any reason why he shouldn’t?”

“I can play games with you, Miss Holmes, but I won’t.” Chief Inspector Talbot set down his teacup and leaned back in his chair. “Part of the reason that I am investigating this case is a matter of personnel: Chief Inspector Fowler, who most likely would have been given the portfolio, is otherwise occupied.

“But in truth, that is only a convenient excuse. The real reason is that in the past I have worked with certain more obscure bureaus of the government and have become trusted for my discretion. For example, I have long known that Ravensmere, where Lord Bancroft dwelt for the better part of a year, is no ordinary lodging house for gentlemen, but a cushioned facility for sensitive prisoners.

“I have also been informed, though much more recently, that you, Miss Holmes, far from languishing in your exile, have in fact become the celebrated-but-reclusive consulting detective Sherlock Holmes, who has, among other great deeds, cleared my young colleague here of suspicion of murder last December.”

Treadles could only hope that Miss Holmes would not think he had been the informer. It had been discomfiting to learn from Chief Inspector Talbot that the senior officer already knew of Sherlock Holmes’s true identity. But at the same time, that had been nothing compared to the shocking revelations concerning Lord Bancroft.

The previous autumn, during the investigation of a murder for which Lord Ingram had been—briefly—the chief suspect, Treadles had met Lord Bancroft. It had seemed natural enough that with his youngest brother in trouble, Lord Bancroft had come to Stern Hollow, Lord Ingram’s estate, to lend moral and practical support. It had seemed equally natural that after the case was resolved, Treadles had never heard from or about Lord Bancroft again.

The police and the public had eventually learned that Lady Ingram, Lord Ingram’s then wife, had run away with a man named Moriarty. And that the body found in Stern Hollow’s icehouse had been not that of Lady Ingram but that of her twin sister, killed by Moriarty to frame Lord Ingram.

In private, however, Lord Ingram had informed Treadles that, no, Lady Ingram had never formed a romantic liaison with Moriarty. She had done something far worse: She had worked for Moriarty and used her proximity to Lord Ingram, and therefore Lord Bancroft, who handled highly sensitive portfolios for the crown, to ferret out bits of intelligence to pass on to Moriarty’s organization.

Treadles had been chosen to assist Chief Inspector Talbot because he was already acquainted with Miss Charlotte Holmes, the current case’s—as of now—sole suspect. And because he had at least met the victim and knew something of his general background.

Only to then learn that he’d known nothing of the dead man when Chief Inspector Talbot notified him that Lord Bancroft had not stopped by Stern Hollow last autumn as a concerned brother, but a perturbed perpetrator. He had placed a body in the estate’s ice well, hoping to frame his brother. Moriarty had played the spoiler and swapped one body for another, but the scheme had begun with Lord Bancroft.

As for why Lord Bancroft had done something so nefarious? In the end, it had been to protect himself. He had been living a secretly lavish lifestyle, which he had financed by selling state secrets in his keeping.

“You need not worry that the knowledge of your secret profession will travel beyond this parlor,” continued Chief Inspector Talbot, to a Miss Holmes who, on the surface of it, did not appear remotely concerned.

Once Treadles had believed her unfeeling. But now that he knew her—and himself—better, he saw that in the past he’d missed a number of clues with regard to her state of mind. For someone who delighted in food, last autumn she’d scarcely touched the myriad delicacies served at Stern Hollow.

And now, despite her matter-of-fact praise for the hotel’s baked goods, she ate not with the savor of a gourmet, or even the gluttony of a gourmand, but the resolve of a ditch-digger, one with a great deal of cold, hard ground to bore through.

“Even if I weren’t required to keep everything concerning this investigation in the strictest confidence, I still wouldn’t have interfered with your livelihood,” Chief Inspector Talbot went on. “But I will need you to answer my questions honestly and completely, because I also happen to know that it was as a result of Sherlock Holmes’s inquiries at Stern Hollow that Lord Bancroft’s misdeeds came to light.

“You tumbled him off his pedestal—into infamy among a select few, and into obscurity in the eyes of the public. You made him an inmate. I did not know the late Lord Bancroft very well, but I cannot imagine that he would have wished to entrust the matter of his personal safety to the one who had deprived him of his freedom in the first place.”

Miss Holmes, having finished the small tea cake on her plate, set it aside and took a sip of tea. “The crown deprived Lord Bancroft of his freedom, Chief Inspector,” she pointed out, with the sort of perfect logic that worked only for a very few. “But yes, I see what you mean. The immediate assumption would be that Lord Bancroft would want nothing to do with me and vice versa.

“To a certain extent, that is correct. For the past few months, my patroness, Mrs. Watson, and I have been living in Paris, where her niece studies medicine. Upon receiving Lord Bancroft’s letter, I was not moved to travel across the Channel solely for his sake.

“But recently we visited England for a different reason and I thought I might as well look in on Lord Bancroft before I left again. A man such as he is hardly neutered when kept behind bars. It would be wiser, I felt, to find out his purpose.”

“But once you found out his purpose, what compelled you to care whether his lordship’s life was in danger? If you will pardon the observation, Miss Holmes, you are of a cool disposition and not given to sentiments another young woman might feel toward a man who has twice proposed to her. I can easily envisage you brushing aside Lord Bancroft and his sense of impending doom.”

This was very blunt, but . . . not wrong. Indeed, sometimes Treadles worried about his friend Lord Ingram, so in love with this woman who, by temperament, might not be able to return his affection in equal measure.

Miss Holmes took no offense at Talbot’s remark. If anything, she seemed to warm up a bit toward the older man. “True, Chief Inspector. It would have troubled me had Lord Bancroft escaped. But his destruction at the hands of his enemies? That would not have affected either my daily appetite or my nightly rest.

“Lord Bancroft understood that. He offered me five hundred pounds sterling to find his faithful acolytes, who had scattered in the wake of his arrest, so that they could come to his aid. I told him that I would not bestir myself—not for him, in any case—for less than two thousand.”

“I applaud your astute negotiation, Miss Holmes, but may I remind you that Lord Bancroft’s crimes came to light largely because of his very unkind act toward Lord Ingram. Your friend Lord Ingram. Yet you still took him on as a client, this man who betrayed your friend?”

Chief Inspector Talbot appeared distressed at this line of questioning; Miss Holmes, not so. She had been about to go out when the policemen had arrived. Now, as if realizing she would not be going anywhere in a hurry, she removed her hat and placed on her knees.

“Chief Inspector, I took on Lord Ingram’s estranged wife as a client, too, when they were still married—and for far less than two thousand pounds. Also, do you believe Lord Ingram would have advised me differently, had he accompanied me to my initial meeting with Lord Bancroft?

“His lordship, as Inspector Treadles can tell you, has a truly noble soul. As disappointed as he was in his brother, he would not have wanted Lord Bancroft to die. Had I been able to save the latter’s life and win myself two thousand pounds in the bargain, he would not have questioned my loyalty to him, but only said, ‘Well done, Holmes.’”

Chief Inspector Talbot cleared his throat. “That is, of course, between you and Lord Ingram, Miss Holmes. But did you also feel no compunction about the provenance of Lord Bancroft’s funds? He would have paid you with money derived from the illicit sale of crown secrets, would he not?”

The wide brim of the hat in her lap featured an abundance of flowers, a circular boulevard of yellow silk petals. She smoothed the trio of ostrich plumes that erupted from its crown, dyed a matching, eye-jabbing yellow. “Are you trying to persuade me, Chief Inspector, that Lord Bancroft, a son of a noble family, and a man gainfully employed for many years in a position of high trust, did not possess two thousand pounds that he had procured by honest means?”

“That I cannot say, without a thorough auditing of Lord Bancroft’s personal finances.”

“Then you can see how I easily convinced myself that my remuneration shall consist entirely of funds from legitimate sources.”

Chief Inspector Talbot shook his head. “I must say, Miss Holmes, even after learning how you came to be Sherlock Holmes, I still thought that the person behind the great detective’s façade would be of a more heroic character.”

The gentle reproach, which would have stung Treadles to the soul, fell off Miss Holmes like raindrops from a mackintosh. She gave a small flick to the tip of one ostrich plume; its buoyant barbs undulated. “People come to Sherlock Holmes not for his character, but his detection. Men who are capable enough are rarely taken to task for personal flaws. Therefore I do not ask more of myself than the world would have, were I a man.

“But we digress, Chief Inspector. Surely Sherlock Holmes’s qualms or lack thereof isn’t your primary concern?”

A change came over Chief Inspector Talbot. There was no clenching of jaw or narrowing of eyes, yet Treadles felt the hardening of his attitude: Upon meeting Miss Holmes, the senior policeman had viewed her as an unusual young woman; now he considered her only an adversary.

Or perhaps he had always seen her as purely an opponent, and Miss Holmes had known from the first that she faced an interrogator unlike any she had encountered before. Perhaps that was the reason for her dogged consumption of the teacake—the reason for the fidgeting of her fingers, climbing and descending the central rachis of a plume, when she could otherwise effortlessly remain still.

“Indeed, I am here not only because you were a frequent visitor to Lord Bancroft in the final days of his life, but because he himself declared, in a handwritten note, and I quote”—Chief Inspector Talbot set a pair of eyeglasses on his nose, pulled an envelope from his pocket, and extracted a piece of paper—“‘Should anything happen to me, I have no doubt that Miss Charlotte Holmes would bear the preponderance of blame.’”

To this direct accusation, Miss Holmes’s response was a tight smile. “Surely you must see, Chief Inspector, that as a professional who has unraveled a number of murders, if I were to take justice into my own hands, so to speak, I would not choose to call on my alleged victim several times in a short span and allow him to leave behind such a message.”

“Well said, Miss Holmes,” replied Chief Inspector Talbot. “However, it remains that, of late, you are the main vector of change in Lord Bancroft’s life. Would you, as an investigator yourself, choose to leave your doings and whereabouts unexamined?”

“Certainly not,” said Miss Holmes. She set aside her hat and laced her fingers in her lap. “Please go ahead with your questions.”

Her knuckles were pale with tension. Treadles’s pulse accelerated.

“I should like a detailed account of your doings since your return to England,” said Talbot. “And a thorough report of all your dealings with Lord Bancroft.”

Treadles’s heart now thumped. In the softness of the chief inspector’s tone, he heard a new conviction: This woman made for a brilliant murderer.

Charlotte Holmes inclined her head. “I shall furnish a complete narrative.”

Chapter 2

A fortnight ago

My dear Mrs. Watson, Miss Holmes, and Miss Redmayne,

I write with less than joyful news.

No, do not fear. Nothing is terribly wrong, only that I have sustained an inconvenient injury.

From London, the children had gone with their cousins to Eastleigh Park. Home by myself in an echoing manor, I became a little restless, decided on a long walk, and got carried away.

By the time I realized that the day had waned, it was nearly eight, with a storm rolling in. The abrupt darkness made me choose a shortcut. Alas, chancing an unfamiliar footpath in pouring rain led to an unfortunate slip down a small ravine that fractured my left limb.

The trek back nearly bested me, even with the lucky find of a suitable branch for a makeshift crutch. But I was spared the worst as I was found half a mile from home and carried the rest of the way.

I have since been fitted with a plaster cast and two proper crutches. The pain has become tolerable even without morphine. Instead I take a few tablets daily of a new synthetic substance called phenacetin and I must say its effects are remarkable. I am in no particular discomfort and my mind is unclouded.

Pray do not worry about me. My overall health remains robust and the physician expects the limb to be good as new, in due time.

Your faithful if hobbling servant


P.S. You are probably wondering why I chose not to keep this news to myself. Indeed, I would have, but I was to attend a dinner at a neighbor’s estate, where a gaggle of houseguests had just come from London, on their way to Cowes. My staff, in conveying my regrets, let slip the truth and now there is no point concealing it from you.

The day was fading, the sun dropping below the tops of the trees. Yet the gentler illumination of early evening saturated every vista with a rich golden tint—a wall of pink and white rhododendrons, a slope of lavender in bloom, a family of swans gliding across a small lake, passing in front of a slender marble pavilion that seemed to float above its own reflection.

The last time Mrs. Watson had visited the grounds of Stern Hollow, she had been in raptures. Today, however, its beauty failed to ease her apprehension. The solitude and vastness of the estate did not feel sanctuary-like, only faintly sinister, an area too large to patrol and too easy to infiltrate.

The silence also did not help. Who knew that birdsong, the rustling of leaves, and the rotation of steel wheels upon well-packed gravel could produce, after a while, a palpitation in the heart, a tense expectation that this tranquility would be brutally shattered.

All this uneasiness, with Lord Ingram perfectly sound and whole!

Yes, his letter was a ruse. Mrs. Watson, Miss Charlotte, and Penelope’s hasty trip, traveling overnight from Paris to England, so that they could see this beloved young man with their own eyes and make sure that he was all right—that, too, was part of the ruse.

But ruses would not be necessary if they didn’t find themselves in perilous circumstances. They already had their hands full with Moriarty and his minions. This new wrinkle from Lord Bancroft—what in the world did he want?

“I, for one, am looking forward to an excellent dinner,” said Miss Charlotte.

She was dressed as Mr. Sherrinford Holmes, brother to the fictional Sherlock Holmes. Her seafoam-colored jacket was cut to show a large expanse of anchor-printed waistcoat. Instead of a tie, she wore an elaborate cravat, secured by a jeweled shell brooch below the knot. And to complete the nautical theme, for her boutonniere, an actual—if deceased and long-desiccated—starfish, three inches across in diameter, which remarkably looked not too out of place on the lapel.

“I volunteer to brush your beard afterwards!” said Penelope.

Overly enthusiastic combing might damage the costly hairpiece but the last thing they wanted was to put a prosthetic beard into storage with food crumbs trapped inside.

“Thank you,” said Miss Charlotte in all seriousness. “It would have been better if Sherrinford Holmes had no stomach. Alas, mine is always in need of sustenance. I wonder what marvels Stern Hollow’s pastry sous-chef has prepared for us—I hope there will be a charlotte russe.”

The carriage emerged from a tunnel of green bough and before them unfurled acres upon acres of gardens in lavish bloom, as if all the annuals knew that the peak of summer was about to pass them by and there was no time to waste in luring one more honeybee into that eternal dance of pollination.

Beyond the gardens, a reflecting pool glittered. The plume of water at its center, jetting up twenty feet in the air, glittered. The windows of the house, lit just so by the setting sun, also glittered. So beautiful, so serene, so normal—when what they were about to attempt was anything but.

The majordomo himself, the stately Mr. Walsh, awaited by the granite steps that led up to the house. He seemed especially glad to see Sherrinford Holmes—that gentleman had been, after all, instrumental in clearing Lord Ingram’s name following a particularly unfortunate turn of events at the estate—but he was also highly solicitous of Mrs. Watson and Penelope. “Had you arrived under different circumstances, ladies, I would have arranged for a tour of the house. But I imagine today you will wish to see his lordship first?”

“Indeed that is so,” answered Mrs. Watson gravely. “His lordship first, everything else later.”

She had visited the grounds of Stern Hollow, but never the manor, and she had long wished to wallow in its spectacular interior. But as Mr. Walsh led them down the avenue of statues at the center of the grand entrance hall and up the double-returned staircase to his lordship’s apartment, she did not need to pretend that she was too worried to gawk.

She sincerely paid little mind to the old-master paintings that littered halls and galleries. All she wanted was to see her dear boy.

Yet his brilliant, delighted smiles weren’t enough to put her mind at ease. Or even his whispered reassurances that everything had gone according to plan. With the footmen off to fetch tea, all the curtains drawn, and his valet Mr. Cummings guarding the door—Mr. Cummings, along with Mr. Walsh and the housekeeper Mrs. Sanborn, took part in the ruse—Lord Ingram rose and hopped a few times on his “broken” limb, to show Mrs. Watson that indeed all was well.

They returned him to his chair, his plaster-entombed left limb placed on the exact same spot on the leather ottoman, just in time for the staff to parade in with enough tea things to host a garden party.

“I am very sorry to have put you to so much trouble with my carelessness,” he said for the benefit of their audience with a perfect degree of ruefulness. “Could I at least propose tea and jam tarts? We’ve some excellent strawberry and raspberry jams made only days ago.”

His eyes were on Sherrinford Holmes as he made his offer, his lips softening into the beginning of a another smile.

“Sir, our haste was assuredly motivated by concern for your well-being,” replied Sherrinford Holmes. “But I cannot deny that my mad dash to Stern Hollow was also spurred on by the anticipation of your legendary hospitality. I am ready for jam tarts—and all other acts of generosity you choose to bestow upon us.”


“Now this is an act of generosity I had not anticipated,” said Holmes.

Following dinner, also in Lord Ingram’s apartment, Mrs. Watson and Miss Redmayne, citing fatigue, had left, leaving the “gentlemen” to their glass of postprandial port. And Holmes had wasted no time in ripping off her beard and climbing atop Lord Ingram.

Even men with actual broken limbs could probably cope with the amatory act just fine, and Lord Ingram was only somewhat inconvenienced by the large cast.

He managed splendidly.

Afterward, he expected that they would discuss the situation at hand, what with Bancroft’s abrupt and unwelcome insertion. But she wanted to look at a pair of letters he’d penned during his “convalescence,” largely to amuse himself.

“How nice that I don’t need to write this performative letter—that you’ve done it for me,” she murmured.

He looked down at her, lying across his bed, using his “uninjured” leg as a pillow. This also surprised him. As much as she enjoyed lovemaking, outside of it, she was not one to linger in a cuddle or to engage in any kind of prolonged touching. He supposed that putting her head on his thigh suited her, as she could change her position or cease contact at any moment.

But a small part of him—no, a large part of him; all of him, in fact—wanted this semi-embrace to be a harbinger of things to come.

Except he couldn’t quite conceive what a future might look like for them—or how it might differ from the status quo of occasional meetings followed by long separations.

She read aloud. The first letter purported to be from her to him.

Dear Ash,

I know I already thanked you for the gift of the hamper, but now that I’ve at last plumbed its great depths, I am beyond delighted at this vast stockpile of foodstuff at my disposal.

She glanced up. “I can’t say I’ve ever been informed in so agreeable a manner that I am about to receive a heroic quantity of delicious things.”

“You are most welcome, Holmes.”

“I look forward to discovering the contents of this fabled hamper. And by the way, thank you for the scrumptious charlotte russe at dinner.”

The last time she’d visited Stern Hollow, her appetite had suffered a rare collapse and she’d picked apart, rather than enjoyed, a beautiful slice of charlotte russe. Tonight, she’d relished it and he had been most gratified by the sight of her empty plate.

In fact, when Inspector Treadles called at my hotel this afternoon, I treated him to some excellent plum cake from the hoard.

“Ah, so I’m to expect a visit from our Scotland Yard connection. You are beginning to sound clairvoyant, my lord.”

Her golden hair had been dyed grey to play an old lady on the RMS Provence. Since then it had been shorn and was now just long enough to hold a curl again.

“I have been working on my ability to control the future,” he said modestly, taking hold of a strand of her hair and feeling its fine, weightless texture against his skin.

The good police officer was saddened that the trip you two had planned for the Isles of Scilly must now be postponed. But he was far more concerned that your injury might not have been a result of pure bad luck. I tried, but he left still fixated on the absence of kerosene at your children’s play cottage, which would have provided illumination for you on the way back.

It is possible that I could not convince him otherwise because I myself do not entirely believe that there were no other forces at work that night, lack of evidence notwithstanding.

“I like this bit,” she declared. “If you had truly been hurt, everyone would have been highly suspicious of foul play.”

Inspector Treadles then asked whether I would be leaving directly. You know I do not wish to be away from France for too long but I could not bring myself to cross the Channel right away. The odd timing and serious nature of your injury—I told the inspector that I planned to remain in Britain until I felt better assured.

Upon hearing that, he replied that he would like me to look into something for him, if I happened to be idle in the near future. This surprised me, but I accepted the commission, with the understanding that other demands may preclude me from finishing the investigation in a timely manner.

“Have I mentioned yet, my lord, that I am somewhat alarmed by your extraordinary imitation of my handwriting? I can scarcely tell that I haven’t penned this myself.”

She could indeed post the letter to him from London, if she so wished. He let go of her hair and briefly touched her soft, cool earlobe. “Why, thank you, Holmes.”

So there you have it, my itinerary for the days immediate ahead. Keep me apprised of your recovery. If circumstances are favorable, perhaps I’ll travel to Stern Hollow again before I return to Paris.



P.S. Have I mentioned how grateful I am for the lovely hamper, one of the best gifts I’ve ever received? So grateful that I have decided to write the next installment in the very sedate little story that you found so relaxing.

At this Holmes sat up.

Six months ago, he had sent her a pair of fuchsia silk stockings and she, in return, had penned an erotic vignette of a man watching a woman undress. And enjoyed his deliberately overwrought response so much that she asserted more than once her intention to continue the tale. Well, now he had done so for her.

She scanned the next few lines, which had been set down in a simple Caesar cipher.

He, of course, knew exactly what it said.

Her clothes lay discarded at the foot of the bed. Firelight caressed her smooth, supple skin. She made no attempt to cover herself, though occasionally she adjusted the pillows underneath her head.

He stared at her. His hands were busy, but his feet had been nailed in place since she had removed her garments and lain down on the rumpled bed. Light refracted from the folds of black satin sheets. Her lips were red, her contours decadent.

He swallowed.

His alarm clock clanged. He swore under his breath and silenced it. The woman rose, dressed quickly, came forward, and took her payment from him.

“Thank you,” she said softly. “Will the painting be finished soon?”

“Yes, soon,” he mumbled.

“Ah, I’m almost sorry,” she said as she walked out of the door. “Your studio is the only one that is warm in winter.”

“You made my tale of torrid seduction into one of a professional relationship, and a platonic one at that? Ah, but wait, you wrote a reply to this letter, too, didn’t you?”

Dear Holmes,

The hours have been long since your departure.

To answer your question, my recovery continues apace. My staff aim to build the best wheelchair known to man, so that I could move about outside. But they have had to admit that even if they fitted pneumatic tires to this wheelchair, without a spring suspension, my broken limb would still be badly jostled along the garden paths, which had not been designed with invalids in mind.

So, for now, I remain confined to my apartment. There are also plans to have me carried, like a pharaoh upon a palanquin, on the shoulders of four footmen, for me to visit other parts of the house. I have thus far demurred, not only out of hidden egalitarian principles deep in my heart, but also out of fear that my inexperienced footmen might drop me while descending the grand staircase and give me a concussion and a dislocated shoulder to go with my fractured femur.

Do please convey my regards to Inspector Treadles, next time you see him. I am sure he is grateful to receive your help and I have no doubt you will be of great assistance to him.

I do not know how else to reassure you that the accident was indeed a result of my own misadventure so I will simply let time bear witness to that. Please do not worry about me.



P.S. While I am relieved for your immortal soul that your story has taken on a, well, not exactly wholesome, but at least less lubricious bent, I must say the part of me that was looking forward to a bit of outrage was rather disappointed. Ah, Holmes, how you have corrupted your old friend.

P.P.S. However, I cannot help but think that the story would benefit from the addition of a few more lines. May I suggest the following?

The man stared at the closing door.

The painting was finished some time ago and he suspected that she knew it.

Where did that leave him then?

Holmes did not say anything, even after enough time had passed for her to have read the letter five times over.

Pinpricks of sensations stung Lord Ingram’s fingertips—and the inside of his chest. It had not occurred to him when he wrote his “reply,” but now it was blazingly obvious that he had revealed everything of himself in the little addendum to “her” story.

What did it say about them that her naughty and lighthearted tale, when he took over its authorship, immediately became a narrative of suppressed yearning, even though he had intended only a humorous rebuttal?

Perhaps it was a sign of how much more relaxed he had become around her that at this realization, he felt not a soul-crushing angst, but only a bout of acute self-consciousness which caused him to say, “I noticed that Mrs. Watson was tense—far more tense than she had reason to be. Did anything happen?”

The answer occurred to him as the question left his lips. “My goodness, did Bancroft write again?”

Holmes had informed him of Bancroft’s first letter as soon as she’d received it and he had been waiting, on tenterhooks, to see what his brother would do next.

She glanced at him, but chose not to question the abrupt change in their topic of discussion. “He did. His latest missive reached us just as we were about to begin our trip here to see you. The first letter had been addressed to Sherlock Holmes and sent to the General Post Office in London. This second note was delivered directly to the front door of Mrs. Watson’s hired house in Paris.”

The windows of Lord Ingram’s apartment had been closed for hours. But now the air became too still, too thick to flow into his windpipe. “Did he say this time what he wanted?”

“No, he only chided me for not yet replying to his previous note and neglecting our long-standing friendship.” Holmes was silent for a moment. “You and I are lifelong friends. Lord Bancroft and I, his two proposals notwithstanding, are only acquaintances. And my lord Bancroft, as you know, never does anything without calculation.”

His hand gripped the cast on his limb. He had the irrational desire to claw at the plaster. “What about the situation in Aix-en-Provence?”

In the struggle against Moriarty, they were not without allies, one of whom was none other than Moriarty’s daughter, Miss Marguerite Moriarty. Above all else, Miss Moriarty wanted to be reunited with her son—and Holmes had discovered the boy’s whereabouts aboard the RMS Provence earlier in the year.

Now Miss Moriarty was ready to strike, which meant that they, if they wished to pry their friend Stephen Marbleton from Moriarty’s grip, must act at the same time. Otherwise, once Miss Moriarty’s actions became known to her father, Mr. Marbleton’s chances of a successful escape would tumble precipitously.

“The situation in Aix-en-Provence is manageable,” answered Holmes. “For now at least we have enough personnel.”

Thanks to her bargain with his brother Remington, which allowed her to borrow some of his agents, with the understanding that they were officially on loan not to her, but to Lord Ingram.

Slowly she folded the letters in her hands, as if she were reading them again as she did so. “As for my lord Bancroft, we will learn soon enough what he wants.”

“I suppose that’s the reason I only wrote a single exchange of correspondence for us ahead of time. After tomorrow I have no idea what will happen.”

And compared to the difficulties ahead, that she didn’t read his letters and immediately offer  reassurances of love and regard barely counted as a vexation, let alone a problem.

“But these are lovely letters.” She kissed the edge of the letters and looked him in the eye, her gaze deep and clear. “One of the best I’ve ever received, and certainly one of the best I’ve never sent.”

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