The Lady Sherlock Series, Book 4
Charlotte Holmes, Lady Sherlock, is back solving new cases in the Victorian-set mystery series from the USA Today bestselling author of The Hollow of Fear.
As “Sherlock Holmes, consulting detective,” Charlotte Holmes has solved murders and found missing individuals. But she has never stolen a priceless artwork—or rather, made away with the secrets hidden behind a much-coveted canvas.
But Mrs. Watson is desperate to help her old friend recover those secrets and Charlotte finds herself involved in a fever-paced scheme to infiltrate a glamorous Yuletide ball where the painting is one handshake away from being sold and the secrets a bare breath from exposure.
Her dear friend Lord Ingram, her sister Livia, Livia’s admirer Stephen Marbleton—everyone pitches in to help and everyone has a grand time. But nothing about this adventure is what it seems and disaster is biding time on the grounds of a glittering French chateau, waiting only for Charlotte to make a single mistake…
Caution: May contain spoilers for previous books.
Miss Olivia Holmes often found other women intimidating: the beautiful ones, the fashionable ones, the well-connected ones. And if they were all three at once, then she was certain to feel like a lowly grouse that had somehow wandered into an ostentation of peacocks.
The woman in front of her was handsome, rather than beautiful. She could not possibly be well-connected. And her attire would have bored Charlotte, Livia’s frippery-loving sister, to sleep; even Livia, who leaned toward the austere in her tastes, thought her guest’s visiting gown could use something: a brighter color, a more tactile texture, even a few folds and tucks to enliven the monotonous wintry blue of her skirt.
Yet Livia had never been as intimidated by a woman as she was now.
“Milk? Sugar?” she croaked. “And would you care for some Madeira cake, Mrs. Openshaw?”
Mrs. Openshaw was otherwise known as Mrs. Marbleton, who was otherwise known as the late Mrs. Moriarty. And she wasn’t really dead.
She inclined her head. “Thank you, Miss Holmes. Madeira cake would be delightful.”
“Excellent choice,” enthused Lady Holmes. “My housekeeper makes an exceptional Madeira cake.”
The Holmes family used to have a cook who made good cakes, when she’d been given the proper allowance for ingredients. But that cook had left their service several years ago and the current cook was at best an indifferent baker. And the family hadn’t employed a housekeeper, who presided over a stillroom of her own, in decades—certainly never in Livia’s memory.
Livia would not have bragged about any cakes from the Holmes kitchen, not when their quality, or lack thereof, could be ascertained with a single bite. But her mother was a woman of scant foresight, for whom the pleasure of boasting in this moment always outweighed the embarrassment of eating her words in the next.
Their caller, who had already dined once in this household and had followed with an afternoon call, wisely set down the plate of Madeira cake Livia handed her.
Lady Holmes launched into a monologue on the importance of her family in the surrounding area (lies and exaggerations), and the advantageous match her eldest daughter had made (Livia wouldn’t touch Mr. Cumberland, Henrietta’s husband, with a ten-foot pole).
Then again, that might be why Livia herself approached spinsterhood at an alarming speed: There were too many men she wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole—and she was invisible to all the rest.
When he’d unexpectedly walked into her house five days ago, she’d been so astounded—and enraptured—that she hadn’t immediately noticed that he wasn’t alone.
With him had come his parents.
Her pleasure had—well, not soured exactly, but been marred by enough tension and discomfort that she’d spent the rest of the evening on edge, unable to enjoy herself. Charlotte, in telling Livia about this young man, had been frank about the dangers of his existence—a hunted family, without a fixed abode or a trusted wider community, always on the move and never safe for long.
Livia, to her credit, had not imbued that life with any romance or excitement. She’d been deeply concerned, but even in her deepest concern she had not foreseen that—
“And what are your plans for this winter, Miss Holmes?”
Livia started. When had Mrs. Marbleton silenced Lady Holmes and taken charge of the conversation? She must have done so with sufficient skill, since Lady Holmes still gazed upon her with an intense and almost fearful hope.
That naked aspiration mortified Livia. But for her own purposes, Livia counted on Lady Holmes’s zeal for at least one more married daughter.
“I do very much enjoy a country Christmas,” said Livia in answer to Mrs. Marbleton’s question, not that she’d ever known any other kind of Christmas. “And you, ma’am, have you anything in mind for you and your family?”
This was a question she’d intended to ask anyway.
Mrs. Marbleton studied her for a minute. “I have been thinking,” she said with a certain deliberateness, “of the south of France. Winter is not the most charming season on this sceptred isle. The Côte d’Azur, on the other hand, has a sunny, temperate disposition even in December.”
Livia yearned to visit the south of France. She didn’t need to feign wistfulness as she replied, “Oh, how lovely that sounds. I can already imagine the aquamarine waters of the Mediterranean.”
“We might also spend only a day or two on the coast, and the rest of our time inland,” mused Mrs. Marbleton. “In Aix-en-Provence, perhaps. Or in a little hilltop village in the Alpes-Maritimes. Sitting by a roaring fire, sipping local wine, and savoring peasant stews, while looking down toward the distant sea.”
Livia felt a pang of homesickness for a life she had never known. She reminded herself that she must not forget that the Marbletons had been on the run or in hiding for at least two decades. That as alluring as Mrs. Marbleton made the experience sound, it couldn’t have been all sybaritic contentment. That even as they wined and dined and wallowed in the panoramic views, their pleasures were veined with fear and their lives riddled with instability.
“I dare say I don’t have the courage to try French peasant fare. I’d be afraid of a frog in every pot,” said Lady Holmes, laughing too loudly at her own joke.
Mrs. Marbleton did not respond to that. “And you, Miss Holmes, how would you fare in the French countryside?”
“Oh, I’ll be all right, ma’am. I don’t pay too much mind to my suppers. If there is sunshine I can walk beneath, and a good book to read in peace and quiet, then I’ll be happy.”
This earned her another considering look from Mrs. Marbleton.
Not an approving look, but at least not a contemptuous one. Mrs. Marbleton had her mind quite made up about Lady Holmes, but she didn’t seem to have an equally decided view concerning Livia. Yet.
Livia didn’t know what to make of it.
The door opened then and her father and the Marbleton men came in—Sir Henry had taken the gentlemen to his study to inspect his latest acquisition of Cuban cigars, an extravagance the family could ill afford.
The senior Mr. Marbleton walked with a slight limp. Whether as a result of natural grace or sheer willpower, his strides gave the impression of near nimbleness, as if the ground he traversed were uneven, rather than his gait. And unlike Sir Henry, who put on a heartiness that seemed to say, Look how well pleased I am with myself. Could anything be amiss in my life?, Mr. Crispin Marbleton did not bother to convey any great conviviality. But in his soft-spoken words and his occasional smiles, especially those directed at his wife and his son, Livia thought she glimpsed a warmth that he reserved for his inner circle.
The younger Mr. Marbleton exuded far greater liveliness. It really was a shame that he’d led such a peripatetic life, never staying in one place for long: Livia could easily see him as a favorite among any gathering of young people, one whose good cheer and easy demeanor made his company sought after by both gentlemen and ladies.
She looked into her teacup.
She had longed to see him again, but she hadn’t been ready to meet his parents. Even his sister had been on hand, he’d told her, sitting in the servants’ hall disguised as their groom, visiting with the house’s meager staff.
They barely knew each other. They’d had three conversations months ago, during the Season, while he pretended to be someone else. Since then, he’d sent her a few small tokens of his regard, but had not appeared before her again until the dinner five nights ago, as she sat expecting Sir Henry’s newest business associate and his family.
Thank goodness her parents still had no idea what was going on, still thought of young Mr. Openshaw asan excellent but unlikely prospect for Livia. Everyone else, however, knew the true purpose of the visits: Stephen Marbleton was serious enough about Livia that his parents had no choice but to meet—and judge—her in person.
Too soon. Too soon. When she didn’t even know whether she wished to maintain her affection for him or to let it wither away in his continued absence—the wiser choice, given that the life he led was not one she would have chosen for herself.
The parlor filled with small talk, carried on capably by Stephen Marbleton. Then Lady Holmes inquired, with no preamble and even less subtlety, whether young Mr. Openshaw would care for a stroll in the garden, accompanied by her daughter. Stephen Marbleton responded with just the right amount of enthusiasm to please, but not embarrass, Livia.
But as they exited the house, properly coated and gloved against the damp, chilly day, her heart palpitated with apprehension.
No, with dread.
What if he should offer her the choice to leave behind her current existence, which she hated, for something that would not resemble anything she’d ever experienced?
She didn’t know whether she dared to commit herself to Mr. Marbleton. She didn’t know whether marriage would suit her—her sister Charlotte wasn’t the only Holmes girl with deeply skeptical views on matrimony. And above all else, she didn’t know—though she had an unhappy suspicion—whether a trying marriage wouldn’t turn her into an exact replica of her disappointing mother.
Livia glanced back at the house. Through the rain-streaked window of the parlor her mother was just visible, gesticulating with too much force. Lady Holmes could be vain, petty, and coarse, sometimes all at once. Yet Livia still saw, on the rare occasion, the echo of the girl Lady Holmes must have been, once upon a time. Before she fell in love Sir Henry Holmes, before she learned to her lasting bitterness that Sir Henry had never reciprocated her sentiments—and had courted her only to spite his former fiancée, Lady Amelia Drummond, by marrying another on the day originally intended for their wedding.
And the ghost of thatgirl reminded Livia uncomfortably of herself: She too possessed a fierce pride, alongside a bottomless need for affection, and a desire to give that warred constantly with the fear of rejection.
Trapped in a miserable marriage, far away from family and friends, having for companions only a philandering husband and a quartet of difficult children, Lady Holmes had succumbed to all the worst tendencies of her character and hardened into an utterly unlovely woman.
Livia stepped on the garden path. The uneven gravel poked into the thinning soles of her Wellington boots—a sensation of jabbing discomfort, much like her awareness of the unlovelier elements in her own character. She could hold a grudge—oh, how she could hold a grudge. She was angry at the world and mistrustful of people. She wanted too much—wealth, fame, wild acclaim, not to mention abject groveling from everyone who had ever slighted her, however unintentionally.
Could the young man next to her, strolling lightly on the leaf-strewn garden path, know all that? Or was he under the illusion that she was someone whose gratitude at being rescued would ensure that she would remain a happy, pliant partner for the rest of her life?
“I think we fear the same thing,” he said softly. “That you would choose me—and someday regret your choice.”
She halted midstep. Their eyes met; his were clear, but with a trace of melancholy. For a fraction of a moment it hurt that he had fears—that his feelings for her hadn’t inspired an invulnerable courage, blind to all obstacles. And then relief inundated her, so much so that her heart beat wildly and her fingertips tingled, as if they were recovering sensation after being chilled to the bone.
“I mistrust myself,” she said, resuming her progress. “I’m not happy here, and there’s a chance I’ll bring that unhappiness with me wherever I go. I’d be concerned to be asked to make a home for anyone.”
“Some people are like desert plants, needing only a bit of condensate and perhaps a rainstorm every few years. The rest of us require decent soil and a reasonable climate. It is no fault of yours not to have thrived at the edge of a desert. Your eldest sister married a stupid man at the earliest opportunity to get away. Your younger sister chose to shed her respectability rather than to remain under your father’s thumb.”
Charlotte would have preferred to overthrow their father’s control while keepingthat respectability, but Livia understood his argument. “They are women of strength. I would label Henrietta a brute, but brutes know what they want and they care not what impediments stand in their path. And while Charlotte is no brute, she is both ruthless and resilient.
“More than anything else I envy her that resilience. She goes around if she cannot go through—and a cup of tea and a slice of cake seem to be all she needs to keep herself even-keeled. But I will work myself into a state. I will teeter between desperate hope and black despair. And I fear that I will not bend but simply break, should life become too heavy to bear.”
He sighed. The sound conveyed no impatience, only a deep wistfulness. “You are telling me that before you can be sure of your affections, you must be sure of yourself.”
And she was so very unsure of herself.
“I will gladly attribute some of the blame to Charlotte. She has always viewed romantic love as highly perishable.”
“I hold a slightly more optimistic view of romantic love. I see it not as doomed to spoilage, but as prone to change. Yes, it can dwindle to nothing. Or harden into bitterness and enmity. But it can also ripen like a fine vintage, becoming something with extraordinary depth and maturity.”
He spoke with confidence and conviction. Briefly her gloved hand came to rest against the topmost button of her bodice. How did it feel to hold such lovely, uplifting views—was it like having been born with wings? His views did not change her own, but made her rue that her own beliefs were nowhere near as luminous.
The garden path turned—she’d been waiting for this moment, when they would be temporarily hidden from view by an arbor. She gave him a letter. “Will you drop this in the post for my sister?”
He stowed the missive inside his coat. “Of course.”
His cheeks were pink with cold. He wore a beard as he had in summer, when they first met, but this beard was much shorter, the accumulation of a fortnight at most. She wondered how it would feel against her palm—and was astonished both at the direction of her thoughts and that she had lived to be twenty-seven and never had a thought like that before.
He gazed at her intently. She realized she was doing the same, sustaining an unblinking stare that made her forget everything. Hurriedly she resumed walking. A few more seconds and her mother—or worse, his—would wonder what they were doing behind the arbor.
“Will you really go to the south of France?” she asked, her voice holding steady, but her pace much too fast, as if she were trying to get away from a scene of misdeed.
This was the Openshaws’ farewell visit, the last time she would see him in goodness knew how long.
“I very much doubt it. Nor are we likely to spend Christmas together. Calling on others as a family—that isn’t what we normally do. It has made my sister highly uneasy. She wants us to leave Britain, disperse, and disappear for a good long while.”
“She tries, but she doesn’t yet dictate everything we do.” He smiled. “I will try to remain in the country for as long as possible. And I will write—long letters on everything under the sun.”
He had never written before. The idea of those letters, of their compact weight in the envelope, of the decadent, luxuriant sprawl of lines, of the intimacy and escape they promised—she yearned for them.
For this substitute of his companionship.
But how long would he persist?
“Speaking of letters, Mr. Marbleton,” she said, “I must tell you something about the one I asked you to post for me. It involves you and your family—and it involves fraud.”
“I told Mamma I’d make her a book of pressed pansies,” said Lucinda, Lord Ingram’s daughter, a budding botanist who loved to potter about in gardens and hothouses.
They were in the orangery at Stern Hollow, his country estate, and she was inspecting a trough of pansies with a serious, critical eye that belied her tender years. He looked her over carefully—nowadays he was always looking his children over carefully, alert to the least signs of unhappiness. But Lucinda was a sturdy soul. And even Carlisle, shyer and more sensitive, hadn’t moped too much.
Through the orangery’s glass walls, he could see Carlisle by the duck pond, holding on to Miss Yarmouth’s hand. The governess held a loaf of bread in her other hand, and offered it frequently to Carlisle so he could tear off a piece to toss to the waterfowl.
Not long ago he’d been afraid of the honking and sometimes aggressive ducks. Lord Ingram was heartened to see the boy calmly shooing off one particularly large goose when it came too close. Miss Yarmouth smiled and spoke to him, no doubt with words of praise and encouragement.
Perhaps on her own Miss Yarmouth could be too dreamy and impractical, but her gentle, undemanding presence cushioned the children against the blow of their mother’s departure.
As if sensing his gaze, Miss Yarmouth glanced toward the orangery. She probably wasn’t be able to see him past the bank of potted orange and lemons trees lining the glass walls. But nevertheless, as if feeling abashed, she tucked a strand of hair behind her ear and, after a moment of hesitation, turned back to Carlisle.
Lord Ingram frowned. He didn’t care to flatter himself, but of late, there had been something in Miss Yarmouth’s demeanor to suggest that she felt more for him than the obligation owed an employer.
The lot of a governess was trying enough—she was neither a servant in the strict sense of the word nor a member of the family. To add sentiments to the mix . . .
At least he had the comfort of knowing that he’d never given her any encouragement. Indeed, never spent a moment longer with her than strictly necessary.
“Maybe not these ones,” said Lucinda. “I don’t think Mamma likes orange.”
And these pansies were very orange.
“Does Mamma like pansies?” he asked.
He’d thought her tastes leaned more toward roses and orchids, elegant, stately flowers.
“I like pansies. Mamma said that I should do what I like—for her. So I told her I’d collect pansies and make really pretty pressed flowers. And that every time I see a pansy, I’d think of her.”
He crouched down beside her and traced a thumb down her cheek. “That is thoroughly lovely of you.”
“Yes,” she agreed without any self-consciousness. “And when she sees how many pressed pansies I’ve made, she’ll know I’ve thought so, so much about her.”
A shard of pain pierced deep in his chest. This was not the life he had imagined for her when he’d first held her, tiny and swaddled, in his arms. “I’m sure Mamma will be deeply moved. And she’ll treasure every one of the pressed pansies.”
“I’m going to make so many that even if she loses some, she’ll still have lots.”
She didn’t sound sad, but determined and matter-of-fact about her absent mother. But what would happen if she were to learn about the divorce? His petition had been logged with the Probate, Divorce and Admiralty Division of the High Court, but the case was unlikely to be heard before the Hilary sitting in January. Or maybe not until the Easter sitting, he was beginning to hope.
When the divorce was granted, he would need to tell his children the truth. But increasingly he worried that they might learn it first from someone other than him. His sister-in-law, the Duchess of Wycliffe, had invited his children to Eastleigh Park for Christmas and he had accepted: The little cousins adored one another, and he couldn’t deny such joy to Lucinda and Carlisle, despite the rumors they might hear, visiting an estate as large as Eastleigh Park.
The door of the orangery opened. Carlisle took a few steps inside, still holding on to Miss Yarmouth’s hand. When he saw Lord Ingram he let go and rushed to him. “Papa, look at this feather I found.”
“Look at it indeed.” The feather was almost a foot long, perfectly clean, perfectly white, each barb neat and orderly. “A most handsome find.”
“Can I give it to Mamma?”
Lord Ingram was acutely aware of Miss Yarmouth’s presence. He would much prefer never to speak of his wife again in front of an outsider but he couldn’t very well order the children’s governess to absent herself every time her charges brought up their mother. “Of course you may. Do you have a place to put it?”
“On my nightstand.”
More pain punctured his heart. Carlisle’s nightstand was becoming crowded with small objects that he wished to pass on to his mother.
Lucinda looked up from her pansies. “Can we go to London, Papa? Mamma might be in London.”
He blinked and almost demanded to know where his daughter had got that idea from. Then he remembered that last time they’d been taken to London, they had, much to their surprise and delight, met their mother.
Lady Ingram had been about to go on the run again, not from the Crown, which had promised to no longer pursue her for past misdeeds against its agents, but from Moriarty, a shadowy figure of power she had openly accused of serious crimes. Lord Ingram did not know where she had gone, but he doubted that she was waiting in London to see her children.
Carlisle’s eyes lit. “Can we, Papa? Can we please?”
Once again he was intensely aware of Miss Yarmouth. Thank God she wasn’t looking at him with pity, but it was almost as bad that she regarded him in admiration.
“I don’t think Mamma is in London. She has gone abroad, far away.”
“But if she came back, she’d be in London first,” said Lucinda, most reasonably.
“And I can give her this feather!” said Carlisle, waving the feather in the air.
“If you’d like, my lord, I can take the children back to the house,” said Miss Yarmouth diffidently, trying to help.
“Thank you, but that won’t be necessary, Miss Yarmouth. I am going to take them to Story Cottage. You may see to your other duties.”
“Yes, my lord.” Her reply sounded reluctant, but she went.
“Are you children ready for a nice long walk?”
They were. They were sturdy walkers who didn’t mind a little cold. And they loved Story Cottage, which he had rehabilitated from a derelict hut to something out of the pages of a fairy tale, a tiny, immaculate house in the midst of a tiny, immaculate garden.
They stopped by the manor for a supply of foodstuffs, then set out for the long hike to Story Cottage, at the other end of the estate. Halfway there, Lucinda asked, “So when are we going to London?”
He didn’t think she’d forgotten, not this child. “Tomorrow.”
The children exclaimed. “Tomorrow?”
“Yes, tomorrow. We are anyway expected at your aunt and uncle’s place in a few days. And London is on our way. So we might as well stay a short while in London, until it’s time to head to Eastleigh Park.”
The children jumped up and down and hugged him tight. He buried his face in Carlisle’s downy hair and did not remind them that their mother would not be there. In time they would learn that seeing her again would be an infrequent and improbable event.
And he had reasons of his own for wanting to be in London.
The next day, Miss Charlotte Holmes, who made her living as oracle to her fictional brother Sherlock, was regretting the fact that she was a far more inept oracle where her real-life sister Bernadine was concerned.
Sir Henry and Lady Holmes had four daughters. Bernadine, the second eldest, had been born closed off to the world. She was not mad or violent, but she could not look after herself, nor be made presentable in public. And because of that, her existence had been all but erased.
Charlotte, who had run away from home this past summer, had concocted a ruse and removed Bernadine from their parents’ home as soon as she’d saved up enough funds from helping clients as Sherlock Holmes, consulting detective. Her small enterprise flourished thanks to Mrs. Watson, her partner and benefactress.
Charlotte also lodged with Mrs. Watson and Bernadine seemed to like the room that had been prepared for her—it contained an entire rack of gears and spools on rods, and she loved nothing more than spinning objects. But she still wasn’t feeding herself and Charlotte could not get her to eat more than half of a small bowl of porridge.
She tried to tempt Bernadine with a slice of cake. Charlotte very much wanted to consume it herself. But alas, she must refrain from such blatant gourmandise only an hour after lunch. And even more unfortunately, this moist, buttery morsel with the gravitational pull of a major planet—to Charlotte, at least—somehow managed to repel Bernadine, who spun another spool and turned her face resolutely away.
Charlotte exhaled—and wished that she had Bernadine’s distaste for cake. Not always, of course, but for brief and intense spells that made it easier to give up extra servings in times of impending Maximum Tolerable Chins.
Charlotte preferred to indulge herself perennially. Alas, her love of cake and other sweet confections sometimes conflicted with her vanity: at around 1.5 chins the shape of her face changed. But Maximum Tolerable Chins wasn’t merely a matter of features, it was also the point at which her garments became restricting. And beyond that, uncomfortably tight.
She had a great many uses for her money and didn’t have room in her budget for outgrowing her entire wardrobe.
Charlotte tried one last time to offer the cake to Bernadine. This final overture was also rejected.
“She’s got a mind of her own, our Miss Holmes,” said Rosie Banning, one of Mrs. Watson’s servants, who’d been sitting with Bernadine. “Don’t you think, Miss Charlotte?”
Bernadine was the eldest unmarried Miss Holmes. Since her arrival in this house, her sister had been addressed as Miss Charlotte, as befitting a younger daughter.
“A very firm mind of her own,” answered Charlotte.
But the rest of the world was not privileged to know what was in, or on, Bernadine’s mind. Even Charlotte could only guess ineffectually. She watched for a while as her sister tirelessly spun spool after spool. Then she took out a notebook and shook open a newspaper.
Ever since summer, she’d kept a careful track of the small notices in the papers. Moriarty’s organization had disseminated keys to ciphers via small notices. She and Livia had sent coded messages to each other. She had also communicated with the Marbleton family in this manner.
But at the moment she was waiting for news from a different quarter. The small notices were thick as ants and about as legible. But she’d been at it for so long that she could spot the new ones right away, even among the dozens and dozens of coded personal messages.
There was nothing from Mr. Myron Finch, her half brother, whom she’d last seen at the end of the Season. She’d received two small-notice messages from him, one in early September, the other roughly four weeks later.
The two were identical. After decoding, both read, Dear Caesar, how fares Rome? Here in Italy all is well. 3 N N
The mention of Italy meant that he was in Britain. The number indicated the level of danger he was in: 3 out of 10 was the best one could hope for, if one had betrayed Moriarty. The first N signaled that he was north of London, in relative position. The second N meant that no, the message would not be followed by a more detailed letter, which Charlotte would call for at the General Post Office under a previously agreed upon alias.
But now two months had passed by without any news and Charlotte was beginning to feel uneasy about his chances. Had he been captured by Moriarty, which would indeed account for his silence? Or was it far more likely that he was on a fifty-day voyage from London to Adelaide via the continental United States, which would also explain his lack of communication?
As she was about to set aside the newspaper, a knock came on the door. It was Mr. Mears, Mrs. Watson’s butler, with the latest correspondence that he had retrieved from Sherlock Holmes’s private box at the General Post Office.
Charlotte and Mrs. Watson had been absent from London recently. Before they left, they had advertised Sherlock Holmes’s sabbatical in the papers. During their time away, they unexpectedly handled a case at Stern Hollow, Lord Ingram’s country estate. Miss Redmayne, Mrs. Watson’s niece, rushed back from Paris, where she was studying medicine, to help with the investigation. And Mrs. Watson, who had seen Miss Redmayne only briefly, had wished to spend some more time with her. Soon after she helped Charlotte move Bernadine to London, she’d taken off for Paris.
Charlotte had also not been in a great hurry to resume her work: Bernadine had been moved around a great deal in a short time, and Charlotte wanted to make sure that her sister was properly settled down before she took on any tasks that might require her attention elsewhere.
So they had not made it known to the public that Sherlock Holmes was back. Therefore not many letters came for the consulting detective. But today there were a few and she was glad to see them: She could postpone, for a little more time, the reply she owed Lord Ingram.
There should be nothing difficult about writing to him—they’d corresponded since they were children. The nature of that correspondence had changed upon his marriage, the wide-ranging, sometimes digressive discussions of their youth narrowing to concrete and immediate subjects. He wrote about his archeological digs, his children, and his other responsibilities. She gave accounts of the gatherings she attended, her minor chemical experiments, and occasionally, very occasionally, Bernadine’s unhappy bowels.
Both their lives had changed dramatically in the past six months. Yet now that their correspondence had resumed, he still stuck to the same topics. She supposed she could easily tell him about her cases, Madame Gascoigne’s latest foray into fine pastry, and occasionally, very occasionally, Bernadine’s still tormented bowels.
But she didn’t want to. And she didn’t want to with a force that surprised her.
With a flick of her wrist, she sliced open the letters that had come for Sherlock Holmes.
Half were early Christmas cards, wishing the great detective and his very helpful sister the joys of the season. Two more were clearly pranks, composed by those who didn’t have enough cunning or experience to make a convincing go of it.
The last letter in the stack came on stationery from the Langham Hotel.
Dear Mr. Holmes,
It has come to my attention that you are someone to whom one could appeal, if one needed important objects retrieved.
I should very much like such a retrieval. May I call on you at your earliest convenience?
A Traveler from Distant Lands
She read the letter again, then she picked up the newspaper she’d just discarded. If she was correct in her assumptions, then this was a woman in need.
And Charlotte Holmes could use the distraction of a woman in need.
The woman in need was indeed a traveler from distant lands. It was obvious that she hailed from the Indian subcontinent—and she was exceptionally lovely.
Well, lovelywas a lazy description. Her features were clean and sharp, her eyes large and dramatic. But more than beauty she possessed magnetism, a commanding presence that mesmerized without ever needing to be something as commonplace as pretty.
Lifting one elegant hand, she adjusted the diaphanous shawl draped around her hair. The shawl, which matched her dark green tunic and trousers, was a translucent green, embroidered with golden flowers and leaves. The hair it covered contained a few traces of grey. But her face was very nearly unlined; only her hand, with its faintly crepe-like skin, gave away her age.
“I am very sorry to hear of Mr. Holmes’s misfortune,” she said, her voice soft and cultured, her accent as subtle as the fragrance of a rose petal.
But Charlotte heard her disappointment.
From the moment she had walked into the parlor at 18 Upper Baker Street, and had seen that she would be received by Charlotte and Charlotte alone, that disappointment had been palpable. She’d politely listened to Charlotte’s usual explanation of Sherlock Holmes’s incapacity. But whereas other clients became anxious, wondering whether the consulting detective would still be able to help them, what Charlotte read on this woman’s face was an absolute certainty that she had wasted her time.
“Despite his handicap,” Charlotte pressed on, “my brother has helped a number of clients, many of whom are happy to provide testimonials for the services they have received. Would you like a list of names to whom you may apply for such reassurances?”
A vertical crease appeared at the center of the woman’s forehead. “That will not be necessary. I thank you for your time, Miss Holmes, but I do not believe that your brother is the right person for the task I have in mind.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. Are you sure, ma’am, that there is nothing we can do to convince you otherwise?”
The woman looked as if she were on the verge of another emphatic no. But then she glanced toward the closed door of the bedroom. “Frankly, Miss Holmes, I am not even convinced that there is indeed someone in that room.”
Different clients reacted differently to news of Sherlock Holmes’s incapacity, but this was the first time anyone had openly called into question the fundamental conceit of Charlotte’s masquerade.
Charlotte raised a brow. Her client’s tone was not adversarial—in fact, her voice remained as soft as a shower of feathers. But there was no mistaking the challenge in her claim.
“Madam, I cannot satisfy your wish in that regard. My brother cannot speak due to his injuries and you must forgive me for not allowing clients to intrude on his privacy. So my word will have to suffice on this matter—my word, that is, and a demonstration of Sherlock’s mental acuity.”
“And how will this demonstration proceed, given all Mr. Holmes’s infirmities?”
Despite her disinclination to use Sherlock Holmes’s services, there was still a note of curiosity in her voice.
“We have built a camera obscura between those two rooms, so he has observed your image as projected on his walls. And he can communicate by touch via a modified Morse Code.” Charlotte rose from her chair. “I will be a very short while. And when I return, I will relay my brother’s deductions and you can judge to what extent he is correct.”
She stayed inside for three minutes. During that time, her client did not move, nor did she take either tea or cake.
“Thank you for your patience, madam,” said Charlotte, upon her return. “Or perhaps I should say, Your Highness.”
The woman had not been relaxed in her demeanor—no one who came to these premises for help was. But now she tensed and Charlotte was put into mind of an eagle about to take flight. But to flee or to hunt?
“Not every Indian woman in London is a maharani, Miss Holmes.” Her voice was still soft, as soft as a velvet glove around a hand that had just drawn a sword.
“Indeed not. The last one I came across was an indigent widow of a British soldier, trying to gather enough funds to go home. But you wrote from the Langham and expressly labeled yourself a Traveler from Distant Lands.
“Upon seeing your note my brother recalled reading in the papers that a princely delegation from India had landed in the Langham last week. After he said that, I found another article concerning said delegation’s reception at Windsor Castle two days ago, in which it was mentioned that Her Majesty the queen was particularly gracious to the Maharani of Ajmer, holding a conversation with the latter lasting nearly three quarters of an hour.”
The maharani’s face shuttered. She now regarded Charlotte as if she, too, had drawn her weapons.
Charlotte reached for her teacup. “Madam, clients do not choose to consult Sherlock Holmes if they can seek help closer to home. As an establishment of last resort, we take our role seriously and would never needlessly expose anyone’s difficulties.”
“Needlessly?” murmured the maharani. “So if you believe it needed, you will set aside this veneer of confidentiality.”
“Indeed. We have done so twice. The first time to prevent the possibility of further physical harm to a client; the second time when we found out that a client had come to us under fraudulent pretenses—and that there were lives at stake. Given the circumstances and the stakes, we are at ease with the choices we have made.”
The maharani was silent.
“You may or may not wish to confide in us. But if you are being blackmailed and hope to extract the incriminating evidence rather than continue to dance to the tune of your extortionist, we will be happy to offer our assistance.”
The maharani too reached for her teacup. She stirred its contents delicately, then set it down again. “As I do not intend to further pursue Mr. Holmes’s assistance, I will make no comments on his deductions. I wish him the best of luck and health. You, too, Miss Holmes.”
This had not happened before, that a client would leave a meeting without engaging Sherlock Holmes’s services. But Charlotte had not expected a different outcome. “In that case, let me ring for Mr. Hudson to show you out. And you need not worry about the consultation fee, madam. Consider it waived.”
“No need on either account,” said the maharani, rising. “I will show myself out and pay the consultation fee.”
Charlotte also rose. “Good day, madam.”
“Good day, Miss Holmes.” A trace of a smile briefly animated her lips. “And I must say, I have seen no evidence that it was this brother of yours and not you yourself, Miss Holmes, who made these so-called deductions.”
Charlotte inclined her head. “If I am so good as to pass for the great consulting detective, then you, madam, are no worse off for having seen only me.”