Authors: Kristin Bailey
I sat down in a fine velvet chair near a large globe and felt as if I were still sinking. “So he’s in France.” I wondered if my grandfather was there as well, so close.
Oliver tilted his head. “Our trail grows cold in Rouen, though it would be a fair conjecture to consider Paris, with the link to the Seine.”
I nodded. My hands trembled ever so slightly. I folded them neatly to still them. “Is there any connection to the Haddock family in Paris?”
The bomb the man had planted in the shop last summer had borne the mark of a man named Richard Haddock. There had to be a connection. While at the Academy, I had discovered what I could about Haddock. He had been given the Black Mark by the Order and had paid with his life.
Haddock had a clear reason for waging a vendetta against my family for our part in his downfall, and he was at the top of my list of suspects. There was only one problem. According to all accounts he was well and truly dead and had no heir to carry out his revenge.
Oliver twirled a small gear over the backs of his fingers. “Haddock’s only connection to France is his grave.”
It wasn’t enough. There was no certain place to begin, or a clear path to follow. “I’m afraid this isn’t very much to go on,” I muttered.
The gear paused its motion. His brow furrowed as Oliver shifted the gear back and forth with an imperceptible flex of his fingers.
“What is it?” I asked, needing to know what he was holding back.
He considered his next words carefully. “It appears our time is also running out.”
“What are you saying?” I leaned forward, away from the plush softness of the chair.
is due to sail back to New Orleans on the New Year,” he said. “And he knows we are watching him now.”
The New Year was only weeks away. If the
clear across the Atlantic, the only clue I had would grow cold. Gracious. I wanted to help my grandfather desperately, but now I found myself with little time, and even fewer resources.
Should the man in the mask slip our grasp, I’d have to wait for another attempt on my life before I could find his trail again, especially if he learned of Oliver’s bribes for information about the ship. Oliver’s attempts at espionage wouldn’t remain secret for long, knowing the loose tongues of the dockworkers.
I refused to live like a terrified rabbit in a warren, wondering if the hawk perched in the tree nearby had finally given up the hunt. This man had already killed my parents, nearly killed me, and he had callously drugged me and locked me in a trunk. He had proven he could break into my home. What if his next attack against me was the one that hit the mark?
Even with that horrifying thought, I didn’t wish to pursue a murderer, but I couldn’t leave my grandfather to the fiend’s cruel machinations either.
Oliver placed the gear down on the table. “Meg, I don’t want you chasing after a madman.”
“Then what am I supposed to do? Should I wait for the strike that finally kills me? Perhaps I should hand over my grandfather’s key next time I see him. I’ll wrap it up with
a neat little bow. At least then he can spare my windows.” I let out a hard breath. “No one in the Order, aside from you, cares about the fate of my grandfather. He’s the next in line to become head of the Order, and so long as he is missing, everyone else’s prospects at advancement seem brighter.”
“That’s not true,” Oliver said, but the defensive timbre in his voice proclaimed otherwise. “There isn’t a single member of the Order who would wish harm upon Henry so that he might increase his standing.”
I lifted one eyebrow and didn’t say a word. After all, Lord Strompton had murdered several members of the Order to increase his family’s standing and had hidden his evil plot by framing another. It was a circumstance Oliver had unintentionally benefited from once he’d married Strompton’s daughter.
Oliver held up a hand. “Don’t even say it.”
Clearly he understood me quite well. “You know I would never speak of it.”
He let out a heavy breath and leaned against the desk, then folded his arms. “What do you wish to do about all this?”
“Will you help me? The man in the mask won’t suspect you to follow him to Paris.” My cards were on the table. In the last year Oliver and I had demanded much of one another. I
could tell by the conflict written on his face, this request was simply too much to ask.
“I am needed here in London at the present until things are less—unsettled.” Rising up straighter, he tugged his fine waistcoat down. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. This isn’t your battle.”
“Well, it’s not as if you should travel either,” Oliver said. “And I’m not saying that solely because I don’t wish for you to confront a murderer on your own. The oath will be given at the next Gathering of the Order on New Year’s Eve. It is mandatory, a worldwide call to assemble. If you are not back in time to take your vow, your place as an apprentice will be forfeit. You will never be welcome within the Order again.”
“I am aware of the situation.” I looked down at a callus on the heel of my palm. “You needn’t lecture.”
The fight drained out of him, and he ran a hand through his unruly hair as he often did when stymied. “Listen. I’ll write to my friend Gustave and send it through the Order’s urgent channels. He’s in Paris right now. Perhaps he can help discover more about this mystery.”
I needed more certain information and greater resources with which to confront this danger. As a nobleman Oliver had those resources. As a shopkeeper and an unmarried
woman, I did not. But I had grown to learn that I needed to rely on myself. Oliver had done enough, and I now had more information than I’d had before. “I appreciate your offer. Thank you.”
Oliver came closer and gave me his hand. He folded my palm in his and looked into my eyes with the most earnest expression I had ever seen. “Don’t think I don’t want to see Henry return,” he said, using my grandfather’s name. “Don’t ever think that I would wish for any of your family’s misfortune. I want to see his return. It’s only that we have so little information with none of it confirmed, and the dangers are so great.”
“I understand,” I said. “Truly. I have never had cause to doubt your intentions. Thank you for all you have done for me thus far. It is more than I could do on my own.” He led us back out to the hall and toward the conservatory. I only wished there were something more that could be done.
My grandfather was the only tie to my family I had left, and I felt the thread of that tie slipping through my fingers.
OLIVER TOOK MY ARM AND
escorted me into the conservatory. The frigid air washed over us, even as the bright fires burned merrily in the large freestanding braziers. The crowds had gathered around them. Most members of the houses of both Chadwick and Strompton had assembled. While I was familiar with the other Amusementists and Society members, I felt distinctly out of place.
This was an event for the gentry.
Oliver left me at a table, then wandered around greeting the various people seated around the fires.
“Fancy meeting you here,” David said too close to my ear. I spun around.
His eyes met mine, and his lips tipped up to the right in his usual uneven grin. Blessed with a golden hue to his fine hair and handsome features, tonight he was the epitome of a proper noble gentleman. “You look lovely this evening. What did Oliver have to say?”
“Must every conversation we have begin this way?” I asked.
“In what way?” He smiled a too knowing smile.
“You know in what way.” He was handsome, of that there was no doubt. He was elegant, wealthy, titled, intelligent, and I felt the allure of him. But beneath it all something was missing, something solid and real, like the feel of the ground beneath my feet.
Still, I’d been born an Englishwoman, and he was an earl. I had to be gracious. Yet every time I tried to be kind to him, I felt I was giving him encouragement when I shouldn’t.
It didn’t help matters that I honestly wished I could have the same relationship with him that I had with my other good friends. I wished I could trust him in the same way I trusted Manoj, Noah, Michael, and Peter.
He touched a curl of hair at my cheek. “You’re bothered by something. What did Oliver discover about the man in the mask?”
“Nothing of significance.” If I told David anything, he’d come up with a new plan, and I couldn’t be certain he fully had my best interest at heart. Not after what he had said to Oliver.
“Tell me,” he insisted.
“David, really. You’ve done enough.”
If David knew of my troubles, he would help, but that aid would turn into a debt I couldn’t repay.
“You can depend on me, you know. I can provide anything you desire, no matter the cost.” His voice dropped low for a moment.
“I know you would.” It would be wonderful to run to France without thought or consequence. I wanted my grandfather to come home. The problem was, in a short year’s time I had learned much about the dangers of acting rashly. I was determined to rise above my more foolhardy nature. “I would question the price.”
At that moment Oliver took his place at a lectern carved from ice and addressed the crowd.
“My dear friends and family,” he said with a sweeping smile. “At our last Gathering my honorable friend Albrecht had the audacity to imply that my efforts on the last Amusement lacked
David’s old Prussian uncle stood. “Your dancers for the Amusementist ball shook more than I do.” The other Amusementists in the room let out low and hearty laughs. The mischievous old inventor crossed his arms and returned to his chair.
“Perhaps they had succumbed to their nerves. Falling in love is a terribly risky affair, after all,” Oliver countered. Again the crowd responded to the jab with laughter.
David glanced at me out of the corner of his eye, but I kept my attention fixed on Oliver.
“In defense of my reputation as an Amusementist, allow me to present this. A carousel of the most delicate nature.” Oliver reached out a hand, and Lucinda rose like a queen. “My darling love, will you be the first to ride?”
Lucinda smiled and stepped toward the carousel.
It looked even more breathtaking than it had the evening before. The light from the fires caught in the facets of the ice and made it seem as if a million tiny fires had been trapped within the glittering ice and cool silver. I had seen many beautiful things in my time with the Amusementists, but this was by far the most remarkable.
Lucinda stepped up onto the platform, and a dark figure rose out of the crowd. “Oh no, dear. That isn’t good at all for
someone in your condition,” Lucinda’s mother proclaimed from underneath her heavy mourning veil.
I sat straighter, as everyone’s eyes turned to Lucinda.
I hated to think that Lucinda was ill with some horrible affliction, but she really didn’t look well.
Oliver tucked his wife close to his side as the crowd murmured in low, hushed tones. “Since Lady Strompton has already caused some undue speculation, I’d like to announce my great joy. I’m proud to welcome the forthcoming Chadwick heir, or the daughter I shall dote on like no other.” The rumbling murmurs turned into a surprised gasp of collective delight. The people at the tables burst into rounds of congratulations.
It took a moment for it all to sink in. Lucinda was increasing with child! That was why she was looking so ill. She must still be early on and not feeling right. It was no wonder Oliver didn’t wish to leave her to travel to Paris. She had lost one child from her first marriage, and she had to be terrified.
“Perhaps it is best for my lovely wife to remain on firm ground. So who will be the first to ride? Apprentice Margaret?” Oliver swept his hand toward the carousel, and I rose. My mind was full with thoughts about the coming
baby, but I couldn’t miss an opportunity to ride the beautiful machine before me.
I was first to reach the carousel, but others had followed. I climbed atop a beautiful shimmering griffin and sat sidesaddle on the dark blue velvet pad that insulated me from the cold chill of the ice. I admired the artistry in the lion’s claws, and the chiseled feathers of the creature’s head.
Albrecht waved to me from the twisting coils of the dragon’s back, and I was surprised to see Oliver’s grandmother perch regally upon the Pegasus in front of him. The flying horse tossed its head high, with its translucent mane sweeping through the air as if the creature were frozen in flight. As the light shifted within the ice, the animals seemed to come alive, flexing and straining to run as the carousel began to turn. Uncle Albrecht tipped his hat to the dowager duchess, and I thought I saw her blush.
I laughed before I could help it. I held on to the silver pole with my gloved hands when the carousel began to move more quickly, and I gasped in delight as it swirled around and around to the beautiful music pouring from the machine.
I hadn’t felt so free or so joyful in such a long time.
Every other concern melted away as the wintry conservatory swirled around in a blur of frosty white.
I knew how desperately Lucinda wished for a child after the untimely loss of her first husband and the child she had carried from that marriage. I was so grateful she had been given a second chance to be a mother. She would be a wonderful one.
Already in my mind I was sorting through my inventory at the toy shop and wondering which of the delights I should give to the baby, or if anything suitable had survived at all. I could invent something new entirely. Oh, the thought had merit. It would be such fun.
Dizzy and elated, I didn’t want the carousel to stop, but it slowed its wonderful spin. I stepped off the turning platform and fell into the nearest chair.
That was when I noticed David next to Oliver by the lectern.
Then the unnatural silence.
And the stares of everyone in the room had fixed on me.
Perplexed, I turned my gaze to Oliver. His mouth was set in a hard line, and his bright hazel eyes seemed to catch the light of the hot fire of the braziers within them. He looked as if he were about to cuff David over the back of the head.