The Lady Sherlock Series, Book 7
Charlotte Holmes’s brilliant mind and deductive skills are pulled into a dangerous investigation at sea in the new mystery in the bestselling Lady Sherlock series.
After feigning her own death in Cornwall to escape from Moriarty’s perilous attention, Charlotte Holmes goes into hiding. But then she receives a tempting offer: Find a dossier the crown is desperately seeking to recover, and she might be able to go back to a normal life.
Her search leads her aboard the RMS Provence, sailing from Southampton for the eastern hemisphere. But on the night Charlotte makes her move to retrieve the dossier, in the midst of a terrifying storm in the Bay of Biscay, a brutal murder also takes place on the ship.
Instead of solving the crime, as she is accustomed to doing, Charlotte must take care not to be embroiled in this investigation, lest it become known to those who harbor ill intentions that Sherlock Holmes is still abroad and still very much alive.
“There’s something you’re not telling me, Ash,” said Charlotte Holmes.
The night was starless, the sky low and heavy. But spring was beginning to make itself felt as a certain fullness in the air, the swelling of blackthorn buds on the cusp of flowering.
Charlotte was warmly wrapped in an Inverness cape, a deerstalker cap on her head. No one who saw her in her masculine attire now—if anyone could see in the pitch blackness—would have mistaken her for the pink silk-clad vixen who had successfully ambushed Lord Ingram Ashburton earlier in the evening.
It had been their first meeting since her terribly inauspicious “death” in Cornwall, where her body was said to have been dissolved in a vat of perchloric acid. Her closest associates had “mourned” in a manner befitting those who could not publicly acknowledge their grief. But they had also worried in truth as weeks wore on with no news from her.
Charlotte, even before she had been advised to stay away from her usual haunts following that spectacle on the Cornish coast, had decided on a safe haven: none other than Eastleigh Park, the country seat of the Duke of Wycliffe, Lord Ingram’s eldest brother. The estate’s hunting lodge had proved a peaceful abode for her and, of course, an excellent location in which to lie in wait for Lord Ingram to turn up for his annual Easter visit.
And now, after a few highly pleasurable hours becoming reacquainted in his bedroom in the main residence, he was escorting her back to the hunting lodge, as she could not be seen in his quarters come morning, whether as a man or a woman. The night was thick as a wall. She walked nearly blindly, but he had grown up on this estate and ambled along, guiding her with an occasional touch on her elbow or the small of her back.
“I’ll tell you when we’re inside,” he said, in response to her earlier question, his tone deliberately light.
But when they’d entered the hunting lodge and lit a few sconces, he did not divulge what he’d kept from her. Instead, he left with a hand candle to make sure that the structure, bigger than her ancestral home, was free from hidden intruders. Charlotte removed her caped coat and prosthetic paunch, strolled into the drawing room, and stretched out on a settee the gold brocade upholstery of which was visibly fraying—the hunting lodge, an opulent addition to the estate a hundred and fifty years ago, had not been improved in at least two generations.
He returned, handed a biscuit tin to her, crossed the room to a padded chair upholstered in the same worn brocade, and leaned against its rounded armrest, one leg straight, the other half-bent. He was rarely so informal in his posture. But even so, his shoulders remained open, his weight evenly distributed. He could instantly spring into action.
A single lamp bronzed the antlers mounted above the door and delineated shadows in the hollow of his cheeks. Charlotte opened the tin, nibbled on an almond macaroon, and waited, though she had already guessed what he was about to tell her.
It was not about Moriarty—her lover was distracted, but not yet alarmed. But still the matter had made him concerned for her safety. A task that required her to leave Eastleigh Park then—a task for Sherlock Holmes? And who could make such a request and be sure that he would, in fact, relay it to her?
When she’d polished off the slightly too sweet macaroon and he still hadn’t spoken, she flicked crumbs from her fingertips and said, “What does my lord Remington want, exactly? And is he not aware that the estimable consulting detective of 18 Upper Baker Street is not currently offering ‘his’ services to the public?”
Lord Remington, Lord Ingram’s brother, was responsible for much of the intelligence gathering in the far-flung corners of the empire. But in recent months, he had taken a greater interest in the domestic side of things.
Lord Ingram expelled a breath. “Oh, Remington is more than aware of your absence from London. I believe he is of the view that rather than rusticating, you might as well lend him a helping hand.”
No one who had attracted Moriarty as an enemy could afford to merely rusticate. Charlotte had been busy. “Is my lord Remington dangling safety from Moriarty as a lure?”
She had no plans to venture abroad on someone else’s behalf for a lesser prize.
Her lover looked grumpy, very nearly irate. “At this moment, I’m not sure even the power of the crown—let alone Remington, merely a servant of the crown—could keep anyone safe from Moriarty.”
“Surely that’s too pessimistic an outlook?”
“Surely you’re right, madam. All the same, I find it difficult to be pleased about anything that involves risks to you.”
She smiled to herself, opened the biscuit tin again, and took out a jam tart. “What exactly is Lord Remington offering me?”
“More or less what Moriarty thought he might: When you decide to reemerge into the world, Remington will let it be known that to harm you would be to injure him.”
A magical amulet it wasn’t, but neither was it something to sneeze at.
“And in exchange,” continued Lord Ingram, “he wants you to find a dossier that has gone missing—Remington has judged you very good at finding things.”
“He is not wrong about that.” Ever since her toddlerhood, Charlotte had always known not only where everything was located in the house, but also if any items had been misplaced. “However, I imagine that what he wants found would not be as easy to locate as Mrs. Watson’s reading glasses.”
“No. Not only does Remington not know where it is, he cannot even be sure who has it.”
Apparently, Lord Remington’s underlings had been cultivating in secret a Prussian embassy attaché. But perhaps their practice of secrecy left something to be desired, for Herr Klein, the attaché, was abruptly recalled to the fatherland. Lord Remington’s underlings, however, were convinced that before Herr Klein’s hasty departure, he’d left them something.
But Herr Klein had not stepped out of his hired house in the days immediately preceding his removal. Moreover, his house had been watched by parties both British and Prussian. So to whom had he entrusted this dossier?
The Kleins, husband, wife, and two young children, were no longer in Britain and would not have been available for questioning even if Herr Klein had remained at his post. Their servants, relying on delivery for foodstuff and laundered garments, had also not left the place during the period of greatest interest.
By the time Charlotte officially took on the commission, the house—and the servants—would have been searched multiple times by agents of the German Empire.
Moreover, while she would be furnished a list of names, individuals who had entered and departed the consular assistant’s household during the most critical span of time, she would not be permitted to question anyone on the list for their connection to the Kleins or their reasons for visiting the Klein household. She was only to observe and search—while keeping her involvement an absolute secret, naturally.
Lord Ingram’s lips thinned as he finished enumerating the parameters of the task.
“Well,” said Charlotte dryly, “it is understood that the task must be arduous, for a reward as Olympian as my lord Remington’s protective aegis.”
Her lover snorted. “You’ll take it?”
“I can’t decide on that until I hear more details, and speak to Lord Remington’s emissary myself.”
“You should keep in mind that by assigning you this task, he is sparing his own agents the risks that you would face.”
“And I’ve never said that I’ll accept an incomplete assurance of safety as my entire payment. Worry not, I shall name a commensurate price.”
On that, Mrs. Watson had trained her well.
“Now tell me your other news,” she said, weighing the jam tart in her hand. It was small, but felt substantial, exactly how she liked her jam tarts. “The one that you considered, however briefly, as a substitute answer.”
At this her lover betrayed a slight surprise, but only for a moment. They’d observed each other for years. He would have expected her to have noticed that he’d been about to speak and thought better of it.
He sighed. “The other news is that Mrs. Newell, Miss Olivia, my children, and myself are going on a voyage together.”
Charlotte’s chest constricted. She felt. . . wistful.
I have my sisters to think of, and you your children. But if—if someday the conditions should be conducive, would you like for all of us to go away together? Spain, Majorca, Egypt, the Levant? By the time we reach India, it will probably be unbearably hot in the plains, but the hill stations should still be pleasant.
When she had uttered those words the year before, it had been less a proposal of itinerary than a statement of hope, that perhaps many things would be possible in a lovelier, more idyllic future. Many things had indeed changed for the better since then, not the least that they were now lovers, but they also found themselves in circumstances far more dangerous than she could have anticipated a mere six months ago.
The pang in her heart was as much regret for not being able to join everyone on the trip as nostalgia for a time when she’d believed the world to be a safer, simpler place.
She exhaled. “Livia has always yearned to travel.”
“A change in scenery seemed a good idea for us all,” he said quietly.
She left the settee. But when she stood before him, she didn’t know what to say, precisely. So she offered him the jam tart in her hand, expecting him to turn it down. Instead, he pulled her closer by the wrist and took a bite. And then he took the jam tart from her and offered it back to her.
The pastry was short and crumbly, the jam sweet and sticky.
“We were hoping you could join us for a segment of the journey—or several segments, if safety allows,” he murmured.
He brought the jam tart to his own lips again, but this time, he only kissed the spot she’d bitten. Charlotte reacted more strongly than she thought she would, and with a hunger that was not only for his delectable self.
“Perhaps—perhaps I still could,” she said after a minute. “After all, how long can it take to find this thing of Remington’s?”
Livia Holmes stepped out of her hotel room, feeling as if she were in a dream.
All her life, she had longed to travel. And not just to London, or Cowes, or someone’s country house for a fortnight, but far, far away, a voyage for no other reason than to comprehend the height and breadth of the known world.
And now that the moment was here, now that she had but to walk down the stairs, exit the hotel, and head for the Port of Southampton, she was desperately afraid that she might wake up, after all, and find that everything was but a dream.
Like all those dreams she’d had as a child, running away from home, just Charlotte and her. And all those dreams she’d had of late, of holding her Mr. Marbleton by the hand and sprinting toward a carriage, a train, a ship, and once, even a hot air balloon that only needed its ballast removed to float into the sky.
She tightened her fingers around the handle of her satchel. Perhaps she was all the more anxious because it had already been such a lovely trip.
According to Lord Ingram, who had arrived first, he and his children had spent a few wet, chilly days in the port city. But as soon as Livia and Mrs. Newell reached, the weather had turned sunny and mild. Together, everyone had driven out to nearby New Forest and visited the ruins of a thirteenth-century abbey. They had made a tour of Southampton’s stretches of medieval town walls. And yesterday afternoon they had strolled along the sinuous River Itchen, then flown kites in a nearby park. Livia, who had only intended to watch, had found herself with a spool in hand, running on bright new grass, laughing as her butterfly kite caught the current and shot straight up.
On the way back to their hotel, young Master Carlisle, Lord Ingram’s son, had leaned against his father in the carriage and Lord Ingram had pulled the boy closer. And Livia had felt almost as warm and safely ensconced.
“Are you ready, my dear?” asked Mrs. Newell, stepping into the passage after Livia. She was both Livia’s second cousin and her official sponsor for this trip.
Livia took Mrs. Newell’s arm and felt steadier. She loved the dear old lady and it was her very great fortune to set out with someone who had always watched out for her. “Yes, ma’am. I’m ready.”
With a smile, Mrs. Newell patted Livia’s hand. They walked down the passage in the direction of the stairs. May I stride ever closer to the journey of a lifetime, silently Livia petitioned the universe with each step. May I begin a new life altogether.
They reached the stair landing. A man and a woman descended, the woman clad in the most beautiful traveling costume Livia had ever beheld.
The cut of the dress was impeccable, the construction precise, the material understated yet luxurious. It moved with the smoothness of cream pouring from a pitcher, but more sumptuously—the simple-looking grey skirt was lined with several layers of tissue-thin blush pink silk chiffon. Together the pink and grey were delicate and evocative, reminiscent of a cherry sprig in blossom just visible in a spring mist.
The only imperfection, Livia was sorry to note, was the wearer of this sartorial sorcery.
She was about Livia’s age, twenty-eight or so. Her figure served the dress well, but her features were more prominent than pretty. Had she evinced some vivacity or a steeliness of character, she might have made for an unconventional beauty. But she was simply…there. To say the dress overwhelmed her would be too generous. The dress, in all its splendor, existed independently of her.
Her companion was a tall, broad man whose day coat nearly burst at the seams to accommodate his shoulders and upper arms. His features, like hers, were oversized. On some men, that translated into a brooding handsomeness. But this man’s countenance seemed only ferocious—and vaguely misaligned, as if God had been in a hurry on the day of his creation.
Livia and Mrs. Newell emerged onto the stair landing as the man and the woman reached the bottom of their flight of steps. Everyone hesitated. Then the man motioned toward the next flight, indicating that Livia and Mrs. Newell should proceed. A courteous gesture, but it came across to Livia—who, granted, was wildly sensitive about such things—as tinged with a trace of impatience.
She nodded and walked down beside Mrs. Newell—and nearly stumbled at the sight of the man who stood at the foot of the steps, looking up.
As Livia saw it, Charlotte had made only two unwise decisions in her entire life: trusting Sir Henry, their father, to sponsor her to an education; and after he’d reneged, ridding herself of her maidenhead to blackmail him for funds necessary for that education. The instrument of her lunacy had been none other than Roger Shrewsbury, a childhood chum who was married enough and pliant enough to be almost perfect for her purposes.
Charlotte had failed, however, to account for Shrewsbury’s monumental uselessness. How incompetent must a man be, to turn a simple hymen breaching into one of the biggest Society scandals in years?
Livia lifted her satchel two inches higher, gauging its weight. Her steamer trunk had gone to the docks directly from the train. Even her smaller cabin luggage had been collected this morning. And she, not entirely trustful that all her belongings would make their way onto the ship, had overstuffed the satchel.
It was heavy. So heavy. Perfect for coshing Roger Shrewsbury on the head.
“I wouldn’t, my dear,” whispered Mrs. Newell.
Livia gritted her teeth. She’d lacerate him with her eyes then and, when he took note, give him the cut direct.
But he didn’t notice her at all; he gawked somewhere above and behind her. She glanced back.
There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion, Francis Bacon had said. And it was Livia’s experience that some faces that at first struck one as irregular could, with greater familiarity, become ravishing. But even with a second look, the woman in the lovely traveling costume still failed to fascinate.
Not that Shrewsbury appeared enraptured, only incredulous, dismayed, and agog.
The man perceived this stranger’s undisguised scrutiny of his companion. He glared at Shrewsbury, such a menacing look that Livia, nowhere near its trajectory, flinched.
Roger Shrewsbury, on the other hand, failed to register the man’s displeasure. The woman looked bewildered and clung to the man.
Livia gave Shrewsbury another pointed stare as she walked past him. He remained oblivious.
As Livia and Mrs. Newell arrived in the hotel’s dark-paneled foyer, Lord Ingram came through the entrance. “Ladies, good morning. I have sent the children off with Miss Potter. Shall we also make our way to the quay?”
Livia lowered her voice. “My lord, I just saw Roger Shrewsbury. You don’t suppose that he is also traveling on the Provence?”
Lord Ingram did not appear as surprised as Livia felt. His gaze swept the foyer and returned to Livia. “I have not paid much attention to Mr. Shrewsbury’s doings of late.”
Livia was absurdly pleased. Of course he felt as she did, that Shrewsbury was a blundering ass who did not deserve to show his face in civilized society.
“My goodness,” hissed Mrs. Newell, “but what is that boy doing?”
Livia had stood with her back to the rest of the foyer, determined to give Roger Shrewsbury the cold shoulder whether he knew it or not. But at the alarm in Mrs. Newell’s tone, she turned to look.
Indeed, what in the world was Roger Shrewsbury doing?
The large man they had encountered on the stair landing had business to transact at the reception; his companion stood by meekly, her face lowered. And Roger Shrewsbury, the arrant fool, set himself barely three steps to the side and stared at the woman as if she were the first living, breathing female he’d ever witnessed.
Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he gaped at this otherwise ordinary woman as if she had two heads and three arms.
Lord Ingram sucked in a breath. “I think I’d better—”
He was too late.
The man spun around. He towered over Shrewsbury. “Sir, what is the meaning of this? Why do you persist in staring at my sister?”
He spoke with barely leashed anger, his Liverpudlian accent overlaid with the expansive vowels of . . . Australia?
Roger Shrewsbury blinked. His Adam’s apple bobbed up and down as he took in the size of the man before him. “I—I’m sure I don’t know what you mean.”
“Maybe you don’t. I scowled at you the entire way down the steps but you goggled at her so hard you didn’t even notice.”
“There’s—there’s a very good explanation for it, sir, I assure you. And you need not worry that I will approach your sister. I wouldn’t. I really wouldn’t.”
“Then what possible explanation could there be?”
The man took a step forward. He was nearly nose to nose with Shrewsbury—or rather, Shrewsbury’s nose was level with the second button of the man’s shirt.
His sister caught him by the arm. “Jacob, please, please don’t make a scene. Let’s just go.”
“No, this man hasn’t expressed the least contrition.”
“It doesn’t matter, Jacob. I—”
“It does matter, Willa. You should never tolerate such disrespect.”
“But it’s not disrespect,” mewled Roger Shrewsbury. “I was just bowled over, that was all. You understand, right, miss?”
Livia, who had craved for the brother to bury his fist in Roger Shrewsbury’s face, was now torn between a desire to kick Shrewsbury in the head—why not simply apologize and bring the matter to an end—and a wild curiosity.
Shrewsbury took half a step backward, even as his hand stretched out in a beseeching gesture. “I don’t know whether you recognize me, miss, but last I saw you, you were—you wore only hors d’oeuvres and a bunch of grapes.”
The siblings froze. Livia, too, could not believe what she was hearing. She looked around. She hadn’t noticed earlier how crowded the foyer was, how many astonished and scandalized faces swiveled between Shrewsbury and the woman against whom he’d leveled a charge of indecency, at the very least.
“How dare you!” roared the brother. “How dare you cast aspersions on my sister!”
His meaty hand gripped Shrewsbury by the neck.
“I swear I’m telling the truth,” squealed Shrewsbury. “Please, miss, please don’t let him kill me. It was autumn before last, at that house party in the Kentish countryside. Surely you remember? You were the centerpiece on one of the tables. I gave you a glass of water when you told me you were thirsty!”
Livia gasped. The worst was Shrewsbury’s desperate sincerity. He really believed he was helping himself in relating the specific details of an act of public indecency.
The brother’s gaze swung to his sister. Her hands hovered, trembling, before her lips. And then she turned, picked up her skirts, and ran, her heels clacking loudly on the floor.
Livia was convinced that she would trip and injure herself. But the woman named Willa, though she stumbled and nearly mowed down a porter, shot out of the foyer at an impressive speed.
Her brother, like Livia, stared at the door through which his sister had disappeared.
He turned around and plowed his fist into Shrewsbury’s face. Ladies screamed. Porters screamed. Livia would have screamed, too, if any sounds could have emerged from her throat.
Roger Shrewsbury staggered backward, teetered over someone’s luggage, and crashed to the floor. Porters came rushing and attempted to hold the man back from further assault.
“No, Mr. Arkwright, you mustn’t! Please! No more!”
But Mr. Arkwright shook them loose, yanked Roger Shrewsbury up by the collar, and administered another awful-sounding punch. Shrewsbury spun and fell face first into reception, landing with a loud ding upon the bell.
Amid another fusillade of screams, Mr. Arkwright marched out of the hotel.
The RMS Provence, berthed quayside, shone in the sun, its steel hull a gleaming black, its upper levels blazing white. Four masts, each with three sets of cross-beams, rose fifty feet from the weather deck. Though they had the full complement of rigging, no sails had been unfurled to flap in the breeze. A platoon of seagulls squatted on the cross-beams; one strutted across as if on parade.
The masts were only auxiliary features. The Provence’s propulsion depended on a triple-expansion steam engine that drove a single screw propeller. Two stubby and rather incongruous-looking funnels rose between the masts, to conduct exhaust from the great boilers below up and away from the vessel.
“Are you sure that one over there is not . . . her?” asked Mrs. Watson, her voice low and anxious.
Charlotte, standing with her back to the bulwark, her face tilted up to admire the Provence—so as not to appear too interested in the passengers—glanced toward “that one over there” referred to by Mrs. Watson, a woman of about thirty who had her hand on the shoulder of a young girl, the girl just tall enough to peer down at the bustling quay that smelled of coal smoke, grease, and a hint of rubbish.
“No,” she murmured, telling Mrs. Watson what the latter already knew. “The one we’re looking for would be traveling with a boy. Two boys, in fact.”
Three weeks had passed since Charlotte and Lord Remington’s emissary had agreed to terms. Her search since had been thorough, systematic, and fruitless. As fate would have it, her final possibility, a German governess, was scheduled to board the Provence on the exact sailing as that taken by Livia, Mrs. Newell, and Lord Ingram.
The ship had a maximum passenger capacity of seventy and sold only first-class passages, so everyone boarded on the same gangplank. Charlotte was sure she’d missed no one, but noon was drawing nigh and Frau Schmidt and her charges still hadn’t appeared.
She turned around. The Provence measured four hundred forty feet in length and forty-four feet across at the beam, but other than the towering masts that dwarfed the funnels, it was not a terribly tall ship. With a hull full of coal and cargo, and the quay a good six feet above water, Charlotte did not loom much higher above the quay than she would have been, standing at the bow window of her office looking down to Upper Baker Street below.
Burly stevedores surrounded wagons of luggage and provisions. Enormous slabs of ice covered in straw mats were crane-lifted into the hold to keep those provisions fresh. Farther away a mail wagon jostled toward them, eager to entrust its contents to a royal mail ship headed for the distant outposts of the empire.
Wait, the man coming up the gangplank, early middle age, tall, slightly portly, with a deep-featured face and a cordial expression, was he . . .
Yes, he was. Inspector Brighton of Scotland Yard.
Charlotte glanced down at the water; it was low tide in the estuary and a band of green growth clung to the side of the quay. She did not look at Inspector Brighton again, not even when he must have disappeared inside. There had been a Brighton on the passenger list, but she and Lord Ingram had not considered that it might be their former adversary.
What was he doing here?
Ah, here came the Shrewsburys.
Because she had seen the passenger list, she had not worried earlier when Livia had embarked looking troubled. One of Livia’s great regrets in life was not being able to bludgeon Roger Shrewsbury daily. To be confined shipboard with him must strike her as aberrant and intolerable.
Shrewsbury had lowered the brim of his hat almost past his eyes, but when he glanced up at the small forest of bare masts atop the ship, Charlotte spotted the beginning of a black eye. As well as a cut cheek, swelling up shiny and purple.
This was odd. To know that he’d sail on the Provence, Livia had to have seen him. But if she’d seen him like this, she should have appeared delighted, rather than disturbed.
Come to think of it, her dear Ash, when he’d come aboard, had also appeared somber. She’d attributed it to his concerns for her safety, but there could have been more than one cause for his gravity of mood.
The Shrewsburys did not embark by themselves, but followed closely in the wake of a man in his early thirties, who strolled up the gangplank swishing his walking stick. Yet for all his air of jaunty superiority, his jacket was not new, but had been remade to follow the most current dictates of fashion. Cutting the collar sharper likely presented no great difficulty, but the lengthening of the hem . . . As he sauntered past Charlotte and Ms. Watson, stationed near the top of the gangplank, a strong breeze flapped up the hem of the jacket and revealed that the inside lining was short by three quarters of an inch.
A man of appearances.
Roger Shrewsbury, upon setting foot on the Provence, emitted a moan halfway between relief and anguish. He turned, as if he wanted to remain on deck for a while and look around.
His wife, her face stony, tugged on his arm. “Come.”
When they’d gone past, Mrs. Watson leaned into Charlotte. “What did the wife see in him?”
Yet another luggage wagon drew up quayside; stevedores hoisted cabin trunks to their shoulders and deployed handcarts for the bulkier steamer trunks.
“His older brother, the baron, was childless after ten years of marriage,” Charlotte whispered into Mrs. Watson’s ear. “She’s a minor heiress, some fortune but not enough to tempt a titleholder. Her parents thought they ought to take a chance on a younger son and Mr. Shrewsbury was the younger son they settled on, since he seemed to have a decent chance of coming into a title. But after they married, the baroness gave birth to two boys in two and a half years.”
“Ah . . .” said Mrs. Watson. Then, after a pause. “Do the children look like the baron?”
Charlotte had always enjoyed Mrs. Watson’s earthy and mischievous bent of mind. This separation from her—Mrs. Watson had been in France since the events of Cornwall—had been long indeed. “Before Livia and I made our debut, Mrs. Newell told us, Never comment on likeness. But I will venture to say here, between friends, that yes, the boys resemble their father greatly.”
Down below, three carriages pulled up to the quay almost simultaneously. A large man descended from the first and handed down a beautifully dressed woman—the man, too, was handsomely attired, but his physique was such that theoretically well-fitted garments ended up bunching and straining with the least movement.
The next carriage disgorged a medium-size man of about thirty. He glanced at the man and the woman from the first carriage, who were clearly related, and made a move as if to approach. But in the end, he only followed them, seven or eight paces behind, as the pair made their way toward the gangplank.
The occupants of the third carriage were slower to emerge. Charlotte held her breath. Let it be Frau Schmidt and her charges. Let it be them.
This was not how she had envisioned joining her friends and her sister on this trip: Spending so much time near her closest associates would make it easier for Moriarty to find her; nor could she use Lord Remington as a shield against this heightened danger since she hadn’t yet completed her task. But now that she was here, on the verge of a grand reunion, she was loath to leave because her quarry did not show up.
Besides, where else would she find Frau Schmidt, if not here?
A woman alit from the third carriage. She was too young and too fashionable to be Frau Schmidt. An older, amply proportioned woman in a puce overcoat stuck out her head, and studied the ship with a skeptical look.
Charlotte was astonished enough to raise a brow. Mrs. Watson gasped. “But that’s—that’s—”
That was none other than Lady Holmes, Charlotte and Livia’s not particularly beloved mother. And her name had notbeen on the passenger list.
Lady Holmes stomped forward; the other woman, who must be her new maid, hurried after her.
Halfway up the gangplank, the beautifully dressed woman stopped and tugged at her skirt—it had snagged on the fibers of the rope railing. Her brother, who had been walking ahead of her, turned back and crouched down by her side.
The woman spoke. Snippets floated up to Charlotte.
“…won’t come loose.”
“. . . so frightfully costly.”
Her tone was much too distraught for a mere snagged hem.
The man from the second carriage stopped a few paces away. He looked eager to help, and at the same time, afraid to go near.
Lady Holmes, her path blocked, turned down the corners of her lips. She tapped him on the shoulder and gestured for him to yield. The gangplank was narrow, and Lady Holmes not. The man turned sideways. The ropes behind him bowed outward as Lady Holmes shoved past.
“It was not that expensive, Willa,” said the brother, sounding exasperated. “Really, I promise you it wasn’t.”
“I don’t think you remember how much things cost anymore, Jacob.”
The woman was still trying to untangle her skirt, but her gloved fingers were no help.
“Let me,” said the man.
“You’ll just tear it,” answered the woman with such despair that Charlotte and Mrs. Watson glanced at each other.
“They’ll weigh anchor any minute now and some of us are in a hurry.” said Lady Holmes, her voice loud and peevish. “Step aside, will you?”
The sister’s head whipped around. Her brother didn’t move at all. “I will, when I’m asked nicely.”
Lady Holmes looked as if someone had shoved a fly into her mouth. She’d heard his rough origins in his accent and she would never ask anything nicely of him.
Her finger jabbed out. “Listen, you common blackguard, when a lady tells you to step aside, you step aside.”
The man remained unbothered. “And where is this lady? All I hear is some old fishwife barking for no reason.”
Lady Holmes stood agape. Her husband had said a great many unkind things to her over the years, but Charlotte didn’t believe she’d ever been spoken to with such disregard by a stranger.
The man’s sister, who had tried so hard to avoid damaging her hem, now freed her skirt with a hard yank. She straightened. “Let’s go, Jacob. Let’s go.”
She sounded desperately weary, yet pulled at her brother with a fierce strength.
It was not until they’d boarded that Lady Holmes managed a half-strangled, “How dare you!”
Her maid murmured some soothing words and persuaded her to resume her progress.
But Charlotte’s attention was no longer on her. Down below, a woman was being tugged in opposite directions by two young boys. One jumped up and down and tried to run up the gangplank—she could hardly hold him back. The other, whom she was attempting to guide forward, drooped down as if he were asleep; she could not move a single step without dragging him along the not-so-pristine quay.
Finally. Frau Schmidt, in the flesh.
With great effort Frau Schmidt restrained the overexcited boy and rebuked him. The boy lowered his head and stood penitently to the side. She next sank to her haunches, set her hands on the other boy’s arms, and spoke to him softly and seemingly not in English.
The governess had only one charge in the Pennington household, the boy she was able to discipline with a few words. And this other boy, listed as G. Bittner, must be a temporary charge—it was not an uncommon practice for parents of unaccompanied children to retain someone else’s governess for the duration of a voyage.
Charlotte tapped Mrs. Watson, whose gaze had followed the combatants of a minute ago, and gestured with push of her lips toward the quay. “Madam, we have work to do.”
Berkley (March 14, 2023)
Narrated by: Kate Reading
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