A Dangerous Collaboration – Deanna Raybourn

What the devil do you mean you’re leaving?” Stoker demanded. He surveyed the half-packed carpetbag on my bed as I folded in a spare shirtwaist and Magalhães’s Guide to Portuguese Lepidoptery. It was a weightier volume than one might expect, featuring an appendix devoted to the butterflies of Madeira and certain flamboyant moths found only in the Azores. “Precisely what I said. I am packing. When I have packed, I will leave this place and board a train for the coast. There I will leave the train and get onto a boat, and when it stops at Madeira, I will have arrived.” My tone was frankly waspish. I had dreaded telling Stoker of my plans, expecting some sort of mild explosion at the notion that I had at last secured an expedition, however minor, to which he was not invited. Instead, he had adopted an attitude of Arctic hauteur. I blamed his aristocratic upbringing for that. And his nose. It was very easy to look down on someone with a nose that would have done a Roman emperor justice. But I could not entirely blame him. As natural historians, we had balked at our enforced stay in London, each of us longing for the open seas, skies that stretched to forever, horizons that beckoned us with spice-scented winds.

Instead, we had found ourselves employed by the Earl of Rosemorran to catalog his family’s extensive collections— interesting and modestly profitable work that stunted the soul if endured for too long. One could count only so many stuffed marmosets before the spirit rebelled. The notion that I was to escape our genial confinement whilst he labored on would have tested the noblest character, and Stoker, like me, bore a healthy streak of self-interest. “At Madeira?” he asked. “At Madeira,” I replied firmly. He folded his arms over the breadth of his chest. “And might one inquire as to the expected duration of this expedition?” “One might, but one would be disappointed with the reply. I have not yet formulated my plans, but I expect to be away for some months. Perhaps until the autumn.” “Until the autumn,” he said, drawing out the words slowly.

“Yes. Look for me in the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,” I instructed with a feeble attempt at a smile. But even a nod to his beloved Keats did not soften his austere expression. “And you mean to go alone.” “Not at all,” I told him, as I tucked a large pot of cold cream of roses into my bag. “Lady Cordelia and I shall travel together.” He gave a snort of laughter that was distinctly lacking in amusement. “Lady Cordelia. You know her only experience with shipboard life is the Channel steamer, do you not? Her notion of rough travel is not taking the second footman. And I do not even like to think of what Sidonie will have to say on the matter.

” I winced at the mention of Lady Cordelia’s snippy French lady’s maid. “She will not be coming.” His mouth fell agape and he dropped the pose of icy disdain. “Veronica, you cannot be serious. I know you long to shake the fogs of London out of your clothes as much as I do, but dragging Lady Cordelia to some benighted island in the middle of the Atlantic makes no sense at all. You might as well haul her to the North Pole.” “I should never attempt a polar expedition,” I assured him with a lightness I did not feel. “There are no butterflies to be found there.” He gripped my shoulders, his thumbs just brushing the tops of my collarbones. “If this is because of what I said earlier today,” he began, “what I almost said—” I raised a hand.

“Of course not.” It was a pathetic attempt at a lie. The truth was that both of us, in an unguarded moment, had very nearly given voice to sentiments we had no business declaring. I could still feel the pressure of his hand, burning like a brand at my waist, as his breath stirred the lock of hair pinned behind my ear, warm and impulsive words trembling on my lips. Had his brother, the Viscount Templeton-Vane, not interrupted us . But no. That line of thought does not bear consideration. The point is quite simply that we were interrupted, and as soon as the viscount left, I had taken tea tête-à-tête with Lady Cordelia, Lord Rosemorran’s sister and a good friend to both Stoker and to me. By the time we had shared the last muffin between us, we had decided upon a course of action that we knew would surprise and quite possibly annoy the men in our lives. Lord Rosemorran had behaved with his characteristic goodnatured vagueness, offering money to fund the venture and raising objections only when he realized his sister’s absence would mean taking care of his own children.

“Call one of the aunts to help you,” Lady C. instructed with unaccustomed ruthlessness. “I am thoroughly exhausted and a holiday is just what I require.” Lord Rosemorran gave in at once, but Stoker was being bloody-minded as usual, not least because so much hung between us, unsaid but thickening the air until I thought I would never again draw an easy breath. “It is quite for the best,” I said, forcing the last of my shirtwaists into the bag. “This business with the Tiverton Expedition has been demanding. A little peace and quiet to recover from it will do us both a world of good.” On the surface, it was a tolerable excuse. The investigation we had just concluded* had been harrowing in the extreme, entailing all manner of reckless adventures as well as a few bodily injuries. But Stoker and I throve on such endeavors, matching each other in our acts of derring-do.

No, it was not physical exhaustion that drove me from the temperate shores of England, gentle reader. It was the recent entanglement with Stoker’s former wife, Caroline de Morgan, a fiend in petticoats who had very nearly destroyed him with her machinations. I longed to repay her in kind. But I had learnt long ago that revenge is a fruitless pursuit, and so I left Caroline to the fates, trusting she would see her just deserts in time. Stoker was my concern—specifically the powerful emotions he stirred within me and what, precisely, I was going to do about them. It seemed impossible to assess them with the cool and dispassionate eye of a scientist whilst we were so often together. After all, a proper examination of a butterfly did not take place in the field; one captured the specimen and took it away to regard it carefully, holding it up to the light and accepting its flaws as well as its beauties. So I meant to do with my feelings for Stoker, although that intention was certainly not one I meant to share with him. A Knowing how deeply he had been wounded by Caroline, I could have no hand in hurting him further. Luckily for me, Lady Cordelia had been desperate, insistent upon getting right away, and I seized upon her invitation with alacrity, determined to make my escape without revealing our purposes, even to Stoker.

“I daresay I will have nothing more interesting to write about than butterflies, so do not be surprised if I am a poor correspondent,” I warned him. “You needn’t trouble to write if it bores you. I am sure you will have far more interesting activities to occupy your time. I am sorry if it leaves you in a bit of a lurch with the collections,” I finished, buckling the carpetbag. “I will manage quite well alone,” he replied as he turned away, his expression carefully blank. “I always have.” • • • s he no doubt intended, Stoker’s parting words haunted me for the better part of six months. Madeira was beautiful, lush, and fragrant and offering tremendous opportunities for my work as a lepidopterist. But more times than I cared to admit, whilst hotly in pursuit of a sweet little Lampides boeticus flapping lazily in a flower-scented breeze, I paused, letting the net drop uselessly to my side. Articles for the various publications to which I contributed went unwritten, my pen resting in a stilled hand while my mind roamed free.

Every time, my thoughts went to him, like pigeons darting home to roost. And every time, I wrenched them away, never permitting myself to think too long of him for the same reason a child learns not to hold her hand too close to a flame. In the summer, when the late-blooming jacaranda poured the honeyed musk of its perfume over the island, it was necessary—for various reasons I shall not detail here—to call in the doctor to attend both Lady Cordelia and me. By the time we had regained our strength, half a year had passed and our thoughts turned to England once more. Long afternoons had been spent upon the veranda of our rented villa as we rested like basking lizards in the sun. We were both slimmer than we had been when we set out. Lady Cordelia’s pale milk skin had gathered a cinnamon dusting of freckles in spite of her veils and broad brims, but I had tossed my hat aside, turning my face up to the golden rays. “You look the picture of health,” she told me as we boarded the boat in the port of Funchal. “No one would ever imagine you had been under a doctor’s care.” I plucked at the loose waist of my traveling suit.

“You think not? I am skin and bone, and you are little better. But some good Devonshire cream and plates of English roast beef will see us right again,” I assured her. Absently, she linked her arm with mine. “Do you think they have missed us?” “The frequency of their letters would suggest so.” “Frequency” was not quite the word. Every mail ship had brought fresh correspondence. The earl and his children had written regularly to Lady Cordelia, and I had received my share of the post as well. Colleagues in lepidoptery had much to say, and there were weekly letters from Lord Templeton-Vane, Stoker’s eldest brother. He wrote in a casual, conversational style of current affairs and common interests, and as the months passed, we became better friends than we had been before. And from Stoker? Not a single word.

Not one line, scribbled on a grubby postcard. Not a postscript scrawled on one of his brother’s letters. Nothing but silence, eloquent and rebuking. I was conscious of a profound and thoroughly irrational sense of injury. I had made it clear to him that I did “W not intend to write letters and expected none. And yet. Every post that arrived with no missive from him was a taunt, speaking his anger as eloquently as any words might have done. I had sowed the seed of this quarrel, I reminded myself sternly; I could not now complain that I did not like the fruit it bore. And as I stood arm in arm with Lady Cordelia on the deck of the ship bearing us home, I wondered precisely what sort of welcome I could expect. • • • hat in the name of seven hells do you mean you want to ‘borrow’ Miss Speedwell? She’s not an umbrella, for God’s sake,” Stoker grumbled to his eldest brother as the viscount entered our workroom.

(Such demands often comprised the bulk of Stoker’s conversation; I had learnt to ignore them.) “Besides which, she has only been home for two days. I very much doubt she has even unpacked.” Lord Templeton-Vane bared his teeth in what a stupid person might have mistaken for a smile. “Stoker, how delightful to see you. I hadn’t noticed you behind that water buffalo’s backside. Perfecting your trade, no doubt,” he mused as he looked from the moldering buffalo trophy to the pile of rotten sawdust Stoker was busy extracting. As a natural historian, Stoker’s lot was often the restoration of thoroughly foul specimens of the taxidermic arts. The backside of a water buffalo was far from the worst place I had seen Stoker’s head. His lordship clicked his tongue as he gave Stoker a dismissive glance.

“Besides which, I hardly think Miss Speedwell requires assistance in arranging her affairs.” He lingered on the last word just a heartbeat too long. The viscount had a gift for silken suggestions, and I suppressed a sigh of irritation that he had exercised it just then. Stoker and I had scarcely spoken since my return, exchanging cool greetings and meaningless chatter about our work. But I had hopes of a thaw provided the viscount did not scupper the possibility. I looked up from the tray of Nymphalidae I was sorting and gave them both a repressive stare. “I am not your nanny, but if required, I will put either of you over my knee,” I warned them. Stoker, who topped me by half a foot and some forty pounds, pulled a face. His brother’s response was slightly salacious. He lifted an exquisite brow and sighed.

“One could only wish,” he murmured. I ignored that remark and brushed off my hands, putting my butterflies aside. “My lord,” I said to the viscount, “before you explain further, perhaps we might have a little refreshment.” His lordship looked pained. “I abhor tea parties,” he protested. It was my turn to snort. “Not that sort of tea.” With Stoker’s grudging consent, I retrieved a bottle of his best single malt and poured out a measure for each of us. We settled in and I studied my companions. In certain respects, they could not have been more different, yet in others they were startlingly similar.

They shared the fine bone structure of their mother; from high cheekbones and determined jaws to elegant hands, they were alike. It was in coloring and musculature that they varied. While his lordship was sleek as an otter, Stoker’s muscles, honed by his long years of work as a natural historian and explorer, were heavier and altogether more impressive. He made good use of them as he worked on the mounts that would form the basis of the Rosemorran Collection. Whilst we sorted the family’s accumulated treasures from centuries of travel, the earl had given us the use of the Belvedere, the grand freestanding ballroom on his Marylebone estate, as well as living quarters, modest salaries, and a few other perquisites such as entertaining visitors when we chose. Stoker, as it happened, was not entirely pleased with our current caller. His relationship with his eldest brother was difficult at the best of times, and it was apparent from his lordship’s expression of feline forbearance that he was rather less inclined than usual to tolerate Stoker’s bad temper. Stoker, for his part, was determined to play the hedgehog, snarling with his prickles out. The viscount gestured expansively towards the specimen Stoker had been stitching when he arrived. “Why don’t you go and play with your buffalo? I have business with Miss Speedwell.

” Stoker curled his lip and I hastened to intervene before bloodshed broke out. “Poorly played, my lord. You know that Stoker and I are colleagues and friends. Anything you have to say to me can be said freely in front of him.” I had hoped this little demonstration of loyalty would settle Stoker’s hackles, but his mood did not change. The viscount’s expression turned gently mocking. “Colleagues and friends! How very tepid,” he said blandly. He took a deep draft of his whisky while Stoker and I studiously avoided looking at one another. Our investigative pursuits, invariably dangerous and thoroughly enjoyable, had drawn us together, forcing a trust neither of us entirely welcomed. We were solitary creatures, Stoker and I, but we had discovered a mutual understanding beyond anything we had shared with others.

What would become of it, I could not say. In spite of six months’ distance, I still thought often of that last significant meeting, when words had hung unspoken but understood in the air. I had alternately cursed and congratulated myself on my narrow escape from possible domesticity—a fate I regarded as less desirable than a lengthy bout of bubonic plague. I had been so near to making declarations that could not be undone, offering promises I was not certain I could keep. My vow never to be relegated to the roles of wife and mother had been tested during a moment of vulnerability. Stoker was the only man I knew who could have weakened my resolve, but it would have been a mistake, I insisted to myself. I was not made for a life of ordinary pursuits, and it would take an extraordinary man to live with me on my terms. It was a point of pride with me that I hunted men with the same alacrity and skill that I hunted butterflies. Only one sort of permanent trophy interested me—and that had wings. Men were a joy to sample, but a mate would be a complication I could not abide.

At least, this is what I told myself, and it was perhaps this elusiveness that made me all the more attractive to the opposite sex. His lordship included. He was lavishly lascivious in his praise, his conversation usually peppered with deliciously outrageous comments. I never took him seriously, but Stoker took him too seriously, and that was the root of their current lack of sympathy with one another. Like stags, they frequently locked horns, and although neither would admit it, I suspected they enjoyed their battles far more than they did the civil affections they shared with their other brothers. Stoker was glowering at the viscount, who held up a hand, the signet ring of the Templeton-Vanes gleaming upon his left hand. “Peace, brother mine. I can feel you cursing me.” “And yet still you breathe,” Stoker said mildly. “I must not be doing it right.

” I rolled my eyes heavenwards. “Stoker, behave or remove yourself, I beg you. I still do not know the purpose of his lordship’s call.” “I do not require a reason except that of admiration,” his lordship said with practiced smoothness. Stoker made a growling noise low in his throat while his brother carried on, pretending not to hear. “I missed you during your sojourn abroad, my dear. And, as it happens, I do have business. Well, business for you, dear lady, but pleasure for me.” “Go on,” I urged. “Tell me, Miss Speedwell, in all your travels around this beautiful blue orb of ours, have you ever encountered the Romilly Glasswing butterfly?” “Oleria romillia? Certainly not.

It was as elusive as Rajah Brooke’s Birdwing and twice as valuable. It is unfortunately now extinct. I have only ever seen one preserved specimen in a private collection and it was in dreadful condition.” The viscount held up a hand. “Not entirely extinct, as it happens.” My heart began to thump solidly within my chest as a warm flush rose to my cheeks. “What do you mean?” “I mean that there are still specimens in the wild. Do you know the origins of the name?” I recited the facts as promptly and accurately as a schoolgirl at her favorite lesson. “Oleria romillia was named for Euphrosyne Romilly, one of the greatest lepidopterists in our nation’s history. She founded the West Country Aurelian Society, the foremost body of butterfly hunters in Britain until it merged with the Royal Society of Aurelian Studies in 1852.

She discovered this particular glasswing on the coast of Cornwall.” “Of the coast of Cornwall,” the viscount corrected. “As it happens, the Romillys own an island there, St. Maddern’s, just out from the little port town of Pencarron.” “A tidal island?” I asked. “Like St. Michael’s Mount?” The Mount was one of Cornwall’s most famous attractions, rising out of the sea in a shaft of grey stone, reaching ever upwards from its narrow foundation. On sunny days it was overrun with parties of picnickers and seaside tourists and other undesirables. The viscount shook his head. “Not precisely.

St. Michael’s is accessible on foot via a causeway whilst St. Maddern’s Isle is a little further out to sea and significantly larger than the Mount. There are extensive gardens as well as a village, farms, a few shops, a quarry, even an inn for the occasional traveler seeking solitude and peace. It is a unique place, with all sorts of legends and faery stories, none of which interest me in the slightest, so I cannot recall them. What I do recall is that the Romilly Glasswing makes its home upon this island, and nowhere else in the world. And this has been an excellent year for them. They have appeared in record numbers, I am told, and they dot the island like so many flowers.” I caught my breath, my lips parted as if anticipating a kiss. Nothing left me in such a heightened state of expectancy than the thought of finding a butterfly I had never before seen in the wild.

And glasswings! The most unique of all the butterflies, they traveled on wings as transparent as Cinderella’s slipper. Ordinary butterflies derive their color from scales, infinitesimally small and carrying all the colors of the rainbow within them, reflecting back the jewel tones associated with the most magnificent butterflies. Moths and more restrained specimens of butterfly have scales with softly powdered hues, but the most arresting sight is by far the butterfly without any scales at all. The wings of these butterflies are crystalline in their clearness, patterned only with narrow black veins like the leaded glass of a cathedral window, the thinnest of membranes stretching between them. It seems impossible that they can fly, but they do, like shards of glass borne upon the wind. Their unique wings make them delicate and elusive, and the Romilly Glasswing was the most delicate and elusive of all. The largest of the glasswings, an adult Romilly could span a man’s hand if he were lucky enough to catch one. I lusted for them as I had lusted for little else in my life. But it was no use to me. I forced a smile to my lips.

“How kind of you to share this information,” I said in a toneless voice. “But I no longer hunt, my lord. My specimens from Madeira were all gathered after their natural demise. I have lost the drive to thrust a pin into the heart of a living creature. My efforts are directed towards the vivarium that Lord Rosemorran is graciously permitting me to develop on the estate.”

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