A Crimson Warning: New Excerpt

A Crimson Warning by Tasha Alexander Cover
A Crimson Warning by Tasha Alexander
Newly returned to her home in Mayfair, Lady Emily Hargreaves is looking forward to enjoying the delights of the season. The delights, that is, as defined by her own eccentricities—reading The Aeneid, waltzing with her dashing husband, and joining the Women’s Liberal Federation in the early stages of its campaign to win the vote for women. But an audacious vandal disturbs the peace in the capital city, splashing red paint on the neat edifices of the homes of London’s elite. This mark, impossible to hide, presages the revelation of scandalous secrets, driving the hapless victims into disgrace, despair and even death. Soon, all of London high society is living in fear of learning who will be the next target, and Lady Emily and her husband, Colin, favorite agent of the crown, must uncover the identity and reveal the motives of the twisted mind behind it all before another innocent life is lost.

Chapter 1

I was dancing while he burned, but I had no way of knowing that, not then, while spinning on the tips of my toes, my husband’s grip firm around my waist as he led me around the ballroom again and again, glistening beads of sweat forming on his forehead. My heart was light, my head full of joy, my only complaint the temperature of the room. Its warmth was oppressive, humid and thick; the air heavy with the oil of too many perfumes. Looking back, I realize I had not even the beginning of an understanding of real heat, or of the pain of fire with its indiscriminate implacability. How could I? I was in Mayfair at a ball. The man meeting his fiery end might as well have been on the opposite side of the earth.

That evening, my side of the earth was Lady Londonderry’s ballroom, one of London’s finest, where I stood surrounded by friends and acquaintances, happy and safe, with bubbles of political gossip and society rumors floating around me. The ornately decorated room, with its columns and gilded surfaces, took up nearly the entire first floor, and was rumored to have been modeled after the site of the Congress of Vienna. Lord Londonderry displayed his collection of paintings on the walls. Marble statues, in the Greco-Roman tradition, stood in regularly-spaced nooks. The house seemed to pulse as the orchestra began a waltz, my favorite dance.

“Shall we continue?” Colin asked.

I shook my head, out of breath. “It’s too hot, even for a waltz.”

Colin Hargreaves, a man always capable of anticipating a lady’s every
need, whim, and—sometimes more importantly—desire, steered me
through the crowds in both the main room and its antechamber until
we’d reached the landing of the grand staircase. Here, leaning against
the gilded railing, I was considerably less cramped. I could almost breathe.

“Better?” Colin asked, removing two champagne flutes from the
tray held by a waiter who disappeared with swift precision before we
could thank him.

“Much.” I lowered my fan—cerise silk to match my dress—and
gulped the cool drink.

Colin touched my cheek. “Easy, my dear, or I’ll have to carry you
home in disgrace.”

“The thought of you throwing me over your shoulder is hardly a
disincentive.” I tilted the glass again and drained it, marveling at how
handsome my husband was. His neat black jacket was perfectly tailored,
his crisp shirt and narrow tie both spotless white, his skin tanned from
the summer sun and flushed from dancing.

“I should hope not,” he said, his dark eyes full of the sort of heat to
which, unlike that caused by extremes of weather, I would not object.

“If anything, it encourages me to overindulge. I may need quite a bit more champagne.”

“Champagne or not, I’ve plans for you when we get home,” he said. “Dancing with you always has a profound effect on me.” In the early days of our acquaintance, after the death of my first husband, Colin had inquired whether the conventions of mourning helped me manage my grief. I’d told him no, and admitted to keenly missing dancing. He’d taken me in his arms at once, there in my drawing room, and the waltz we shared left me breathless, tingling, and more than a little confused.

All these years later, the memory of that evening never failed to make me tremble with desire. My eyes met his and I felt the delicious anticipation
that comes with waiting for a kiss.

The kiss did not come. The pleasant sounds that had surrounded us—the Highland schottische, laughter, and the rustle of silk skirts—faded to nothing as a voice boomed below us.

“I’ll kill you!” The speaker was standing at the bottom of the stairs, talking so loudly no one in the immediate vicinity need strain to decipher every syllable of the conversation. “She’s innocent in all this. I will not stand by and see her ruined.”

He looked like every other man at the ball, elegant in his evening kit. But the strain on his face—bulging eyes, cherry red splashed across his cheeks—came from anger, not from the exertion of dancing. The gentleman across from him stepped back, raising his hands as if to push away his companion.

“It’s not any business of mine,” he said. “I was only trying to warn
you. To keep you from making an enormous mistake.”

“Speak of this to anyone else and you are a dead man. I’ll not have
Polly’s reputation destroyed.”

He was already too late to save it.

“Emily!” Ivy Brandon, my dearest childhood friend and quite possibly
the sweetest woman in England, tugged at my arm. “Have you
heard? Polly Sanders, who’s to marry—”

“Shhh, listen,” I said and motioned to the gentlemen below.

“Oh. Oh, I say.” Ivy’s eyes widened and she lifted her hand to her
mouth as she watched Thomas Lacey punch the other man square in the
jaw. “It appears he already knows.”

Colin broke away from us and rushed down the steps, forcing himself
between the fighters, ducking to avoid a blow.

“That’s enough,” he said. “Whatever it is, you’re causing more of a
scene than it sounds like you want, Lacey. Walk with me and tell me
what’s going on.” They hadn’t taken more than five steps when the Londonderrys’ butler approached and pulled my husband aside. Their
heads bent together for only an instant as the servant handed Colin an
envelope. He bowed to my husband and retreated but not before shooting
a disparaging look at his mistress’ recently fighting guests.

“Sort this out amongst yourselves in private if you must,” Colin said
to the gentlemen, folding the note when he’d finished reading. “I’ve no
more time for your antics.” He turned on his heel and took the stairs
two at a time, reaching Ivy and me in a matter of seconds.

“Urgent business, I’m afraid. There’s been a fire in Southwark. Forgive
me? I know I can rely on the Brandons to see you home,” he said,
giving me a quick kiss on the cheek. “I’ll meet you there as soon as I can.”

One might have thought the ball would fall to pieces after such a scandalous
interruption, but this was not the case. The orchestra continued to play, couples turned around the dance floor, and the guests consumed
a steady stream of champagne. But Ivy and I had lost our taste
for frivolity and asked her husband to call for the carriage and take us
to my house in Park Lane.

At the end of festive evenings, my friends and I often retired to my
library, with its tall windows, wide fireplace, and cherry bookcases that
went all the way to the ceiling. I displayed my collection of ancient
Greek vases here, and felt more sentimental about them than I did any
of the other objects in the house. It was a Greek vase owned by my first
husband that had sparked my interest in antiquities. As for the room
itself, it had been my preferred gathering spot from the moment Colin
and I were married. Tonight, however, it felt too hot and close. The night
had cooled, but the air inside was still cloying, so we sat in the garden,
Ivy and I perched on wrought-iron chairs while her husband, Robert,
leaned against a large tree near one of the Japanese lanterns lighting the
space around us. Behind him rose a sculpture of Artemis, her graceful arm steady as she pulled back an arrow in her strong bow. An old friend of mine had made the piece, a modern copy of a Roman copy of the long-lost Greek original, fashioned by my favorite ancient sculptor, Praxiteles.

“I still hold out hope for Polly,” Ivy said. “Thomas Lacey is a younger
son. It’s entirely possible his mother will let him go through with the
marriage. It’s not as if it would make any real difference to the family.”
“There is no possibility that Polly Sanders is going to marry any son
of Earl Lacey. The countess is far too proud,” Robert said. Robert Brandon
was a man of principle who had once been a great political hope for
the Conservative party. A staunch traditionalist, he had seemed on a
fast path to greatness until he was charged with murdering his mentor,
a man universally despised throughout Britain. Desperate and abandoned
by all his former supporters, he’d summoned me to his cell in Newgate and asked me to help clear his name. I was more than glad to assist. The fact he was with us now was a testament to the success of my subsequent investigation.

I pressed my hands against my temples. “Let me understand. A woman
of ill repute steps forward to claim she is Polly Sanders’s mother, and
that Lord Sanders persuaded his wife to raise the child as her own?”

“It wouldn’t be the first time such a thing has happened,” Ivy said.
“Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, raised her husband’s illegitimate
daughter.”

“Ivy.” Robert shot her a sharp glare.

“It’s true,” Ivy said. The beadwork on her gown, made from Nilegreen
embroidered silk, sparkled as she moved to reach for her husband’s
hand. “Even if it was a hundred years ago.”

“Why are we to believe this woman?” I asked. “What has Lord Sanders
to say about the matter?”

“Unfortunately, he’s chosen to remain silent on the subject,” Robert
said. “He left the ball without uttering a word. Which, naturally, leads
those around him to assume the veracity of the woman’s story.”

“She decided to confront him in the Londonderrys’ ballroom?” I
asked. “She couldn’t possibly have thought she’d gain admission.”
“She didn’t need to. She did a masterful job of causing a scene outside.
More effective than if every guest in the house had seen her, I’d
say,” Robert said. “Far better to let the story make its way through the
crowd on its own.”

“Our old friend gossip,” I said.

“It was hideous,” Ivy said. “Half the room knew what had happened
before the countess—and they were all breathless, waiting to see what
she would do. I was standing not three feet from her when she turned
on poor Polly. The girl withered in an instant.”

“Lord Thomas seems more concerned with defending his fiancée’s
honor than in throwing her over,” I said.

“That will change as soon as his father’s through with him,” Robert
said. “The family will not allow him to marry the daughter of a house maid.”
“I’d imagine not,” I said. “Of course, if her mother had been a mistress
of higher class, we’d all turn a blind eye, wouldn’t we?”

“We would not!” Ivy said.

“No,” I said. “You’re correct. Because a mistress of higher class would
have raised the child herself and everyone would have pretended to believe
it to be her husband’s, not her lover’s. Society prefers a fine, wellbred
deception.”

“Emily!” Ivy’s smooth brow furrowed. “You know perfectly well that
sort of thing hardly ever happens.”

“I won’t argue with you, Ivy. It’s too hot.”

The sound of crunching gravel announced the approach of my incomparable
butler, Davis, who arrived carrying a tray heavy with a large pitcher of cold lemonade.

“Madam?” he asked.

“Please pour for us, Davis,” I said. “I’m exhausted and can hardly
move. Too much dancing in the heat.”

He did as I asked, then bowed and turned to leave, stopping before he’d taken more than half a step. Looking back at me, he raised his eyebrows and his lips quivered ever so slightly.

“Yes?” I asked.

“I left Mr. Hargreaves’s cigars inside, madam, as the combination
with lemonade would be rather atrocious.”

“You’re very bad, Davis,” I said. “I’ll expect an entirely different outcome
the next time I call for port rather than lemonade.” With another
bow, he left us. “He knows Colin doesn’t mind when I smoke, but dear
Davis refuses to be an accessory to what he views as my ruin.”

“A good man, your butler,” Robert said.

“I won’t take any nonsense from you, sir.” I smiled. Robert had long
ago given up on trying to influence me. He had come to tenuous terms
with his wife’s own small rebellions (drinking port with me, for example),
so long as she restricted them to private situations. Decorous behavior,
however, he required in public.

It was I who had corrupted Ivy, just as I’d corrupted myself. While
locked up in mourning after the death of my first husband, I’d undergone
an intellectual awakening and taken up the study of Greek. I’d
learned to read the ancient language, reveled in the poetry of Homer,
and become a respected collector of classical antiquities. As I became
more enlightened, I’d also come to despise the restrictions of society,
and in the course of rejecting them, had come to discover the simple
pleasure one could afford from a glass of port, a drink ordinarily forbidden
to ladies. Now, at the prodding of another dear friend, I’d expanded
my studies to include Latin, and had convinced Ivy to learn it as well. She might not have been quite so enthusiastic a student as I, but she had
a sharp mind and was learning quickly.

The lemonade cooled us and we sank into more relaxed postures as
the blue light of dawn reached for the dark sky. I wondered how much
longer Colin would be. His work as one of the most trusted and discreet
agents of the Crown took him from me at odd times of the day and
night, and I had come, after more than a year of marriage, to trust his competence absolutely. His missions might be dangerous, but no one
was better suited than he to handle them. When he at last staggered into
our garden that night, his evening clothes were tattered, his face black,
and the bitter smell of smoke heavy on him.

“Colin!” I cried, jumping out of my seat. He raised a bandaged hand
to my cheek, a crooked smile on his face.

“Don’t be alarmed, my dear, I’m perfectly fine.” He dropped onto a
chair and Robert poured a tall glass of the now lukewarm lemonade for
him, emptying the pitcher. “But I’m afraid I do come with terrible news.
Mr. Michael Dillman is dead, burned to death in his warehouse south of
the river.” He swallowed hard and ground his teeth.

I hadn’t known Mr. Dillman well, but there was no one in London
unfamiliar with his stellar reputation. He ran a successful export business
and treated the men who worked in his warehouses more decently
than was the current custom. He paid them generously and ensured his
personal physician was on hand whenever their family members fell ill.
Several charities depended on his generosity, and he was a great supporter
of the arts. Yet, despite all this and a not insignificant fortune, he
wasn’t much of a fixture in society. He could be socially awkward, not
because he was unkind or disinterested, but because his personality
tended to a quiet shyness rather than the buoyant joviality required
during the season. I regretted that I had not taken the time to know him
better.

“What happened?” I asked.

“Someone chained him to the bars on the office window and set the
building on fire. I’m sorry, Robert, to speak of such horrors in front of
your wife, but I see no point in disguising the truth. The newsmen were
there almost as soon as I was. There will be no hiding from the story.”

“He . . . he was to be married next week,” Ivy said, her voice thin. “Cordelia showed me her wedding dress not two days ago.”

“Cordelia Dalton?” I asked. Ivy nodded. Cordelia was a quiet, thoughtful
girl who’d made her debut the previous season. She’d not made much of a splash amongst the fashionable set, but that was likely due to a failing on their part rather than hers. We’d discussed novels when our paths crossed at parties, and she always seemed more interested in reading and sketching than in dancing. I was quite fond of her.

“I’m more than sorry, Ivy,” Colin said. “Your friend will need your
comfort now.”

I did not listen to the rest of the conversation; the words no longer
made sense to me. I could not stop imagining the hideous scene, the terror
the poor man must have felt when he realized what was happening,
the pain he must have endured before succumbing to death.

I shuddered. And remembered that only a few hours earlier, I’d had
the audacity to complain about the heat in a ballroom.

 

6 June 1893
Belgrave Square, London

How quickly things change! I was pleased when Colin asked Robert and
me to bring Emily home from the Londonderrys’ ball. Not because Colin
had been called away for work, but because I was looking forward to
quiet time with my dearest friend and discussing all the gossip of the
night. Polly Sanders has all my sympathy, and I do wish there was something
I could do to secure her happiness. But the moment Colin arrived
with his dreadful news, Polly’s plight seemed utterly insignificant.

I felt almost paralyzed when he told us Mr. Dillman had been murdered.
Emily was equally affected, though she retained her composure
better than I. She’s more experienced in such matters. But I know she gets
little crinkles that creep around her eyes when she’s upset, and I saw
enough of them to night to tell me I was not alone in my reaction. I hope I
never see enough of this sort of brutality to control my emotional response.
To acquire such strength would swallow who I am.

Poor, poor Cordelia. When I think of what she must be feeling I can’t
help but cry. Robert says it’s unbecoming to take on someone else’s misery,
and I’m certain he’s right, yet I can’t find a way to stop. I remember the
joy that consumed me as I became a wife. Cordelia will never feel that.
Even if, years from now, she finds affection somewhere else, how could she

ever escape a constant dread that her happiness is about to be ripped
away from her?

I suppose it can happen to any of us, at anytime. I feel so fortunate to
have escaped a similar fate. My husband languished in prison, but only
for a relatively short period of time (although at the time it did not seem
so). He wasn’t taken from me forever, he was returned to me, and now I’ve
the sweetest daughter on earth. What does one do to deserve such luck?
I’m off to see Emily now. She’s persuaded me—much against my will—to
accompany her to some dreadful meeting. I never could refuse her anything.
I have two hopes: one, that it won’t last too long; two, that it is more
interesting than Latin. Surely the latter is a certitude.

Chapter 2

Violent death was no stranger to me. In the past few years, I’d been intimately
involved in apprehending four heinous murderers, one of whom
had killed my first husband, Philip, the Viscount Ashton. Only a year
ago in Normandy, I’d found the brutalized body of a young girl, and
had been kidnapped and cruelly tormented by her killer, whose subsequent
trial and execution had enthralled Britain and the Continent. Try
though I might to shake the images of these ghastly events from my mind,
I found I could not do so, and now the news of Mr. Dillman’s death was
taking its own gruesome hold on me.

“We were dancing, Colin,” I said. “Dancing.”

“It’s a disturbing contrast, I agree,” he said, smearing ginger marmalade
on a piece of toast. We were sitting next to each other at the round table
in our sunny breakfast room. On the bright yellow walls hung a Roman
mosaic, an emblema, its tiny pieces of glass carefully laid out to depict an
elaborate scene of Apollo driving his golden chariot across the sky, sunbeams
streaming from the crown on the god’s head. I’d purchased it in a small village near Pompeii, and promised the British Museum I would eventually donate it to them. I couldn’t yet bring myself to part with it.

“More than disturbing, I’d say.”

“There’s nothing to be done about it, Emily,” Colin said. “You’ll drive
yourself mad if you keep tally of such things. Not everything in London
is gaiety and balls.”

“I’m well aware of that,” I said. “I—”

He reached for my hand and interrupted me, his dark eyes fixated
on mine. “I know you are, my dear. Forgive me if you thought I was
implying otherwise. I know how well suited you are to our work.”

“Thank you,” I said, squeezing his hand back. “You can’t believe Mr.
Dillman was killed by one of his employees? He treated them far too
well for any of them to want to do him harm.”

“We can’t rule anything out at this stage of the investigation.”

“You wouldn’t have been called in if they thought this was some sort
of common crime.”

“Quite right, Emily.” He smiled. “And that’s all I can say at the moment.
What do you have planned for today?”

I studied his handsome countenance, taking careful note of the intensity
in his eyes and decided not to pursue the subject further. Not yet, at any rate. I capitulated and moved to another topic. “Your mother wrangled Ivy and me invitations to this morning’s meeting of the Women’s Liberal Federation.”

“And you’re going?”

“Yes. First, because you’ve made it clear you don’t need my help with
this investigation. Second, because I’d like your mother to feel pleasantly
disposed towards me when she moves back to England. But most important,
because I’m being brought round to the idea that I should have the vote.” I sat up a little straighter and pushed my plate away from me.

“Heaven help us. Next thing you know, you’ll want to stand for Parliament.”

“You’d object?”

“They’d be lucky to have you,” he said. I questioned his sincerity, but
appreciated that he did not outright balk at the suggestion. “But what
would your mother say?”

“More like what will she say,” I said. “To her, the mere act of considering
the possibility of getting the vote for women is anathema. I’ll live
out the remainder of my days in disgrace. He who submits to fate without
complaint is wise.” I swallowed my last drop of tea.

“Epictetus?” Colin asked.

“Euripides,” I said.

“Ah. At any rate, disgrace is a powerful motivator, to be sure. Which
interests you more: casting a vote or scandalizing your mother?”

I folded my napkin neatly and placed it on the table. “Isn’t it marvelous
when two noble causes can be addressed in one fell swoop?”

Davis stepped into the room. “Mrs. Brandon is here, madam,” he
said.

Ivy entered the room in a swish of silk, her skin glowing with the
flush of summer heat. “Good morning,” she said as she gave her hand to
Colin. “You don’t mind that we’re doing this, do you?”

“Not at all,” he said. “I always believed it was only a question of time
before Emily became a suffragette. In fact, I’ve known it longer than she
has. I do, however, draw the line at her chaining herself to the gate at
Downing Street.”

“He keeps insisting it will come to that,” I said to Ivy. “But I can’t
imagine anyone would ever do such a ludicrous thing.”

“It would make a powerful statement,” Colin said. “Don’t, however,
take it as a suggestion. Enjoy your meeting.” He kissed me and picked
up the Times.

I adjusted my straw hat, Homburg shape with a large brim, and we
set off for Lady Carlisle’s house in Kensington. Crossing Park Lane, we
entered the sprawling expanse of Hyde Park at the Grosvenor Gate and
made our way along crowded paths shaded by towering trees. Sunshine
and warm weather had brought most of society outside, and the park
was a favorite gathering place on summer mornings. All around us,
couples tilted their heads close together as fearsome chaperones walked
beside them, ready to poke with well- placed parasols any over eager gentlemen. Friends waved to us, calling out greetings, but we had no time to
stop and chat.

Until we saw Winifred Harris.

I would have liked to pretend not to have noticed her, but the figure
she cut was too imposing to miss, not only due to her larger-than-average
height and girth, but also because of her booming voice. I walked faster,
but to no avail.

“Ivy, dear!” she called, then stood, unmoving, as if waiting for us to
come pay homage to her.

Ivy smiled and crossed to her friend. “My dear Winifred,” she said.
“What a delightful surprise to see you.”

“It can’t be much of a surprise, Ivy,” Mrs. Harris said, squinting at
us through a fashionable lorgnette that was attached to her too-snugly
tailored jacket. “It’s the Season. Where else would you expect to find a
woman of my standing at this time of day? Hyde Park is the only place
to be seen.”

“I only meant it was a pleasant surprise for me,” Ivy said. “I never
meant to suggest you would—”

“Yes, yes,” Mrs. Harris said. “How is your husband, Lady Emily? I
understand he’s embroiled in this unpleasant business that occurred in
Southwark last night.”

“He’s involved in the investigation, yes,” I said.

“A very dodgy business,” she said. “I do hope his insistence on working
doesn’t harm your reputation. It’s unseemly for a man of his fortune
to seek gainful employment.”

“He’s never shirked from his duties to the Crown,” I said. “The
queen quite depends upon him.”

“He’s charming enough— and handsome enough— for us to tolerate
nearly anything he does. But you don’t quite share his status, my dear. It
would behoove you to be very careful when choosing how you occupy
yourself. People are prone to talk. You should keep well clear of the investigation. I know you’ve insisted on doing otherwise in the past.”

“Mr. Hargreaves is taking care of everything,” Ivy said. “You’ve no
need to worry on Emily’s behalf.”

“Only intervenes when he gives her permission, does she?” Mrs.
Harris asked, as if I weren’t standing directly in front of her. “I’m glad to
hear someone in the family has a drop of sense.”

“Forgive me, Mrs. Harris,” I said. “Ivy and I will be late to the
Women’s Liberal Federation if we don’t beg our leave at once. It was as
lovely to see you as it always is.” The sentiment was strictly true. If she
chose to take from my statement that I found it empirically lovely to see
her, that was her choice. Pulling Ivy by the arm, I dragged her back to
the pavement before she could protest our hasty departure.

We walked along the southern side of the Serpentine, the park’s
long, curving lake and then continued on towards the Round Pond,
where countless children were playing with toy boats. The pavements
were slightly less crowded here, and became even emptier as we passed
Kensington Palace and moved out of the park and into Kensington Palace
Gardens, one of my favorite streets in all of London. Tall plane trees
lined both sides and elegant houses stretched the half-mile length of the
edge of the park. We turned left to reach Palace Green, the southernmost
part of the road, but stopped before we’d taken ten paces. There
was Polly Sanders’s house. Its noble edifice was gracious and neat, but
the front door and the steps, along with the fence in front of the
property—all of which had been gleaming white—were covered with a
swathe of dark red paint.

“What happened here?” I asked, inquiring of the servant on her
hands and knees, scrubbing the bottom of a white square pillar that
stood between sections of the fence.

“Madam?” She looked down, seemingly afraid to speak to me.
“I’m Lady Emily Hargreaves, a friend of Polly’s,” I said. “Who did
this?”

“It was a vandal of some sort, madam. We don’t know who. I’ve been at it for more hours than I can count, but it’s right near impossible to remove. They’ve sent someone off to get turpentine.”

“When did it happen?” I asked.

“It was like this when we woke up yesterday morning. Terrible thing,
’specially now. The missus doesn’t need any more trouble.”

“No, she certainly doesn’t,” I said. “Don’t let me distract you from
your task.”

“Yes, madam.” She returned to her work, her face tense with effort.
We continued towards Lady Carlisle’s house in the bottom of the
street. “This is dreadful,” Ivy said. “Poor Polly is all but ruined. And now
this? It’s grotesquely unfair. Who would have done such a thing to her
house?”

“I can’t imagine,” I said. “Isn’t it enough that the family have suffered
such pain and humiliation? Why would someone want to draw further
attention to their plight?”

We’d reached our destination. I looked up at Number One Palace
Green. It was smaller than the other homes on the street and looked as
if it had been built more recently, although its red bricks fronted a relatively
plain façade. I pulled open the iron gate and felt a twinge of nerves
as we walked up concrete steps to the narrow, arched entrance to the
house. I felt as if I were on the precipice of something important, as if
I were about to enter a world full of other people who shared values
similar to my own, a place where I would not be ostracized for my intellectual
interests and social radicalism. I took a deep breath and lifted my hand to knock on the door.

In retrospect, I admit precipice might not have been quite the right
word. The ladies of Women’s Liberal Federation, while charming and
welcoming, weren’t as different from the rest of society as one might
have thought. I’d expected—or perhaps hoped for—firebrand politics.
Instead, we entered a pleasant drawing room papered in a William
Morris design and found ourselves in a crush of violently fashionable
ladies. Their sleeves, in every bright color of fabric, were so wide one
could hardly squeeze past them. We drank tea and enjoyed genteel conversation that focused as much on needlepoint and which balls everyone
planned to attend that evening as it did the issue of we ladies
gaining the vote. It was pleasant, but a little anticlimactic.

“I confess I’d worried they would be more radical,” Ivy asked, her
voice hushed as she scooted her chair closer to mine. The meeting had
started in earnest, though many of the ladies weren’t paying much attention.

“I thought they would be, too,” I said, not voicing my disappointment
to find they were not.

“Can you hear me, Lady Emily? I need to know if we can count on
you.” Lady Carlisle’s voice carried over the group, and I felt like a child
caught talking out of turn at school. “Will you distribute pamphlets
with us?”

I had heard everything she’d said about these pamphlets, which the
group planned to hand out to specially selected ladies in the most unobtrusive
way possible so as not to put off any possible recruits.

“I should like very much to be in charge of handing them out to the
Conservative MPs, if that would be allowed,” I said. “I’m not afraid of
direct opposition.”

“Well, now,” Lady Carlisle said. “I do admire your determination.”

Our hostess was well known for the fervent support she lent to her favorite
causes: temperance, Irish Home Rule, and free trade. It was she who had directed the movement for the Women’s Liberal Federation to pursue an aggressive agenda to get votes for women, a policy that had caused a schism in the group. Nearly ten thousand members had resigned and started their own organization, the priorities of which did not include supporting such controversial stances.

“As soon as I have the documents in hand, I’ll set off for Westminster.
I’d like to confront them there,” I said. “I want to present myself as
if I’m already a constituent and coming to them with a concern. I think
they’ll respect me for taking a direct approach, even if they don’t agree
with our position. My goal will be to identify those who show the slightest
hints of sympathy and then I’ll begin cultivating relationships with
their wives.”

“What an interesting idea,” Lady Carlisle said. Her smile suggested
she was pleased, and I wondered if she was glad to have found someone
else who shared a more radical vision. “I look forward to hearing about
your results. You shall all have pamphlets and distribution lists by the
end of the week. And unless anyone has something else to add, I believe
that concludes our business for today.”

Ivy and I milled around the room for another quarter of an hour,
drinking tea and listening to the usual sort of society gossip. No one
mentioned Mr. Dillman’s brutal death out loud, though I knew it was
on everyone’s mind. We’d all seen the sensational coverage given to his
murder by the morning papers. Instead, most of the chatter focused on
Polly Sanders. The words said about her were not kind, and she was not
the only person to suffer under the rule of icy tongues.

“That hideous Lady Glover sent out another round of invitations,”
one of the ladies said to another. “I do hope no one has the bad form to
accept.”

“I don’t understand why she even bothers,” the other said. “No one
is going to befriend her, no matter what airs she puts on.”

“Have you ever met Lady Glover?” I asked Ivy, keeping my voice
low. “She drives her phaeton through Hyde Park with zebras pulling it.”

“Yes, I’ve seen them,” Ivy said. “She makes it rather hard to miss.”

“Zebras, Ivy. Zebras,” I said. “Why are we not better acquainted
with this woman?”

“Because the matrons of Society have never forgiven her for having
got her start as a pantomime girl at the Surrey Music Hall,” Ivy said. “Or
so I’ve heard. Apparently there are some crimes even a good marriage
can’t erase, no matter how much money is involved.”

“She lives just down the street from me,” I said. “Perhaps we should
call on her.”

“I’m not sure that’s a good idea.”

“Don’t be silly,” I said. “It’s an excellent idea.”

“What is an excellent idea?” Lady Carlisle asked, coming to my
friend’s side.

Ivy looked at me questioningly, and I knew she was afraid of what I
might say. Undaunted, I took a deep breath and soldiered forward.

“Calling on Lady Glover,” I said. “I’ve been longing to question her
on the care and maintenance of zebras in town.”

 

Copyright © 2011 Tasha Alexander

If you’d like to read a blogger’s first impression of this title, also check out our Fresh Meat post.


Tasha Alexander is the author of the Lady Emily novels, a series of historical suspense, including Tears of Pearl and Dangerous to Know. She attended the University of Notre Dame, where she signed on as an English major in order to have a legitimate excuse for spending all her time reading. She and her husband, novelist Andrew Grant, divide their time between Chicago and the UK.

Comments

  1. Saundra Peck

    Wow, beautiful, descriptive details and the mystery combination is intense. Looks like a new must read for me!

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