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Authors: Merryn Allingham

The Crystal Cage

BOOK: The Crystal Cage
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Captivated…or captured?

Appearances don’t always reveal the truth. Grace Latimer knows this better than most. Illusions of commitment and comfort have her trapped—until bohemian adventurer Nick Heysham charms his way into her world. Commissioned to recover a Great Exhibition architect’s missing designs, he persuades her to assist in his research. The mystery of the Crystal Palace seduces Grace, and once she discovers clues about a forbidden Victorian love affair, she’s lured into the deep secrets of the past…secrets that resemble her own.

As Grace and Nick dig into the elusive architect’s illicit, long-untold story, the ghosts of guilt and forbidden passion slip free. And history is bound to repeat itself, unless Grace finds the courage to break free and find a new definition of love….

The Crystal Cage

Merryn Allingham

To Alan with love.

Table of Contents

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter One

I could never have guessed that one single phone call would change my life.

The voice was a little too energetic for this early in the morning. ‘Hi there! Grace Latimer?’

I held the receiver at a distance and took a gulp of strong coffee. ‘Speaking.’

‘Hi! This is Nick Heysham. You probably don’t remember me.’ No, I thought, I don

t.

‘We met at the Papillon—the Gorski retrospective last month.’

I searched my barely functioning brain for some remembrance of the name, but none came.

‘I gate-crashed.’

A vision of a startlingly yellow shirt and suede trousers swam into my mind. The trousers had clearly seen better days. He’d appeared not to belong to any of the noisy groups sipping their champagne, and I’d suspected that he hadn’t been invited. For one thing, he’d been far more interested in the paintings than the people.

‘Yes, I remember you.’ I was cautious. ‘How did you get my number?’

‘A little amateur sleuthing, no more.’

It wouldn’t be that difficult, I imagined. The staff at the gallery would be unsuspicious. Most of them existed in worlds of their own. They would have given my number to the Yorkshire Ripper if he’d called.

‘How can I help?’ I tried to keep my voice polite while hoping that he’d called me in error. Unseen fingers had begun to pinch savagely at my temples; this was a conversation I didn’t need.

There was a deep intake of breath at the other end of the line. ‘It’s like this… I’ve been asked to do a job, a research job, and I’m having real problems. I think you could sort it for me.’

‘And why would that be?’

I could hear frost feathering my voice. A man who gate-crashed Oliver’s party, spoke to me for less than ten minutes and now had problems was expecting me to ride to his rescue.

‘I remember you were a pretty impressive woman, amazing qualifications and so on. In historical research—and that’s what I need.’ His voice sounded pleased that he’d explained everything to my satisfaction.

The little patience I’d mustered was beginning to evaporate. ‘You want me to do the research and you get paid for it?’

‘Not exactly.’ He sounded sheepish. ‘It’s hardly paying a living wage as it is. I can buy you a drink, though.’

‘I can manage that for myself, Mr Heysham, but thank you for the kind thought.’

‘Nick. I thought you might be interested. It’s the Great Exhibition.’

‘What about the Great Exhibition?’ I knew I should put the phone down, but I couldn’t prevent a small surge of interest. If I’m honest, it was more than a small surge, since I’d written extensively on the Exhibition. Before I settled for an easier life, that is.

‘Missing plans,’ he said hopefully. ‘Lucas Royde?’

Royde, I knew, had been the darling of Victorian architecture, but I’d never before heard of a connection with the Great Exhibition.

‘Can you be more precise?’

‘Royde is supposed to have designed some kind of pavilion for the Exhibition, his very first commission, but I haven’t been able to track the plans down. I was hoping you might know something.’

I didn’t, but his words had got me thinking. Was there really anything in this, or was I just willing there to be? I was debating with myself whether or not I should simply bid him a curt farewell when he seized on my silence.

‘Can we meet? There’s a wine bar just round from the Papillon.’

‘I’m in Hampstead, not Hoxton.’ That was something I shouldn’t have divulged. I could have him knocking on my door in the time it took to hop on a Northern line train.

‘Not today then. But tomorrow perhaps?’

I think my sigh was audible, but I didn’t much care. ‘I’m at the gallery tomorrow. I can give you a few minutes after work.’ A thumping headache and the faintest hint of a mystery were sufficient, it seemed, to ensure my surrender. My easy life must be more of a wasteland than I’d realised.

‘Early evening?’

‘Six o’clock at the wine bar.’ I knew my brusqueness would make no impression, and it didn’t.

‘Great. Thanks, Grace. See you there.’

‘Dr Latimer—’ I began, but the phone went dead.

I sat holding the receiver for some time. Nick Heysham might be perfectly harmless, just a tad eccentric and overly enthusiastic. On the other hand, he might be a clever manipulator and turn out to be the stalker from hell. I shouldn’t have agreed to go. Perhaps I should run it by Oliver first. No, I wouldn’t do that. Too much of my life was already run by Oliver. Not that I wasn’t grateful to him. He’d been immensely generous, kind, too, but he was a man who liked to control events, control people. The call had come unscripted, out of nowhere, and that was its appeal. That and the smallest possibility of uncovering something new. The researcher in me had risen to the bait and a small voice had whispered that, even at this late stage, I might take the art world by storm. Despite Oliver’s reservations. And if nothing else, finding a missing piece of Victorian art might help to bolster my spirits. They were worryingly dismal these days, and they shouldn’t be. For the first time in my life I had security and the love of a good man. That should be enough, and yet somehow it wasn’t.

I turned back to the papers on my desk and the letter from Marigold Carmichael surfaced from the pile where I’d carefully hidden it two days ago. There was no escape from the latest in a long line of complaints from this most demanding of clients. It seemed that Mrs Carmichael had become newly enraged by my suggestion that the ‘original features’ of White Heather Cottage had been added some time in the 1950s. Naturally she was gathering expert opinion to disprove my theory. No wonder I felt apathy seeping into every crevice of my life. It wasn’t just Marigold Carmichael and her ilk. What kind of a job was it researching the history of other people’s houses, most of them vastly uninteresting except to their owners? ‘No kind of job’ was the answer. Not, at least, for a woman facing the watershed of thirty. A stop-gap, a dead end, until the next foreign buying trip, the next gallery event, when for a short time I would blossom at the head of Professor Oliver Brooke’s entourage. I wasn’t sure how I’d walked into this life. I used to have plans, ambitious plans, but then Oliver had come along and somehow they had been put on hold. I hadn’t exactly protested; it had seemed simpler that way, and after the turmoil, a simple life was what I’d craved. But simple had gradually metamorphosed into dreary, and I had only myself to blame.

* * *

By ten minutes past six the following evening, Nick Heysham had not made an appearance. The bar was already humming, excited chatter almost drowning the wail from the stereo system. I was hoping that no one from the Papillon would decide they needed a drink before they left for home, but just in case I’d found a seat in one of the darker enclaves where I wouldn’t be spotted. I’d spent a frustrating afternoon at the gallery and had no wish to encounter any of Oliver’s colleagues again. I’m sure they saw me as an interloper whose visits merely interrupted their pleasant routines. I was still trying to tidy up paperwork from the Gorski show, but getting their cooperation was painful and I’d managed to do almost nothing.

I craned my neck around a gargantuan palm that obscured my view of the door, but there was still no sign of him. Five more minutes, I thought, then time is up and I can leave with a clear conscience. I should never have agreed to this meeting, but my head had been hurting and I’d wanted to get him off the phone as quickly as possible. There was a more truthful reason though. I’d agreed because for an instant an implausible search had sent a ripple of colour through my life. And it was implausible: what possible excitement could the Great Exhibition provide? It was a terrain that had been so thoroughly sifted by generations of researchers that it was now barren. I gathered up my bag and took my coat from the nearby rack.

‘Sorry I’m late.’ Nick Heysham emerged from behind the palm, breathing heavily. ‘I lost a wheel on the corner of Gosset Street.’

‘Lost a wheel! Your car lost its wheel?’

‘Bike. Remember I work for a pittance.’

‘What’s happened to the bike?’

‘I abandoned it. It has no one to blame but itself. The brakes have been faulty for weeks, but losing the wheel was the last straw.’

His nonchalance in the face of potential death made me blink, but he appeared wholly unperturbed. He was dressed in frayed jeans and a tee shirt that proclaimed Same Shirt, Different Day. At least they looked clean. He glanced briefly at my empty glass and ordered two large glasses of white wine. I was about to quarrel with this high-handed behaviour when I took a sip. It was surprisingly mellow. He might be short of money, very short by the look of him, but somewhere in the past he’d acquired a knowledge of good wine.

‘Thanks for coming.’

He smiled engagingly and I found myself drawn into studying his face. He was eminently paintable. A strong jawline, dark hair and very blue eyes. He could have sat for a study of any Romantic poet, except for the expression. That was as far from soulful as you could get.

‘Thanks for coming,’ he repeated, and I realised just how hard I’d been staring. I flushed with annoyance.

‘I’ve only got half an hour, so you better fill me in on details.’ I sounded ungracious.

He grinned, rightly gauging my embarrassment. ‘I take it that you’ve heard of Lucas Royde?’

‘Of course I’ve heard of him. He was probably the most influential of all Victorian architects.’

‘Right, well this is the thing. The Royde Society is putting on a celebration to mark the centenary of his death. They want to do a life-size mock-up of one of his designs and use that as the venue.’

‘Where’s the problem?’

‘Like I told you on the phone, they want to focus on Royde’s beginning rather than his final years. So the design has to be his earliest project—that’s the problem.’

‘I can’t see why. It must be well documented. You said something about a pavilion for the Great Exhibition, but I think you’ll find it was a chapel.’

‘Hey, you’re pretty good.’ He smiled his approval. ‘An Italianate chapel Royde designed for the Earl of Carlyon.’

‘A very individual take on an Italianate chapel,’ I corrected him, recalling shreds of my past studies. ‘His design got rave reviews and was copied any number of times over the next few years.’

‘Really?’

‘Forgive me, Mr Heysham.’

‘Nick.’

‘Forgive me, Nick,’ I steepled my fingertips together in deliberation, ‘but you seem to have only the haziest idea about Royde. Why would the Royde Society ask you to research his plans?’

He looked a little self-conscious. ‘My sister works in events management. They asked her to come up with the goods. And she asked me.’

‘Your sister? So this job…’

‘Pure nepotism, I’m afraid. But I need the money. And I
am
a freelance writer with plenty of research under my belt. Lucy thought I could manage it. I thought so, too, but it turns out that I can’t. And that’s a shame because I’ve just about got through the pleasantly large cheque from
Art Matters
.’

‘What were you doing for
Art Matters
?’ I found it difficult to imagine the man who sat opposite writing with any sensitivity on art.

‘I did a series of profiles on significant Eastern European artists. Gorski was the last.’

‘Hence the gate-crashing.’

‘Sorry about that.’ He didn’t sound too sorry. ‘I needed to see his paintings before they went on general display. It worked, too. The magazine paid me well, but now their bounty is gone.’ His tone was mournful, but almost immediately he recovered his bounce. ‘That’s where you come in.’

‘Me?’

‘Yes, I need to find those plans for the pavilion—if they exist.’

BOOK: The Crystal Cage
13.39Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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