The problem with weddings is that everyone has an opinion, from the date of the ceremony to the length of the bridal veil. In the two months since Lincoln and I announced our engagement, I’d been inundated with advice from the Lichfield Towers household. Even Cook insisted the wedding cake be topped with an effigy of both Lincoln and me made from sugar. Apparently, all society wedding cakes sported outlandish decorations, these days. I didn’t think someone with my past could be considered part of that society, but if Lady Vickers had her way, and half of the peerage attended, Cook may have a point. Not that I would yield to Lady Vickers on the issue of the guest list. I would not have anyone at my wedding I’d never met in person. It was bad enough that Lord Gillingham would be there, but his presence was unavoidable since I liked his wife. As for Lady Harcourt and her two stepsons, I couldn’t yet decide. Lincoln had left it up to me. When I’d called him a coward, he’d retorted that he’d prefer there be no guests at all and we be wed the following day. It was impossible to argue with him after that. Seth and Gus bickered over who would walk me down the aisle, and occasionally tried to bribe me with sweets or gifts, until I put them out of their misery and asked both. The truce lasted less than a day as they took issue over who would walk in the traditional father-of-the-bride position at my left. Lincoln tried to act as a peacemaker, of sorts, by giving them quelling looks, but unfortunately neither man found him as frightening as they used to.
“They need something to do,” I said to Lincoln on a cool yet sunny March day. He had suggested we take a turn in the garden to admire the daffodils bravely poking their golden heads through the cold earth. I’d readily agreed to walk with him, partly to get away from Seth and Gus and partly because I wanted to be alone with Lincoln. Despite living in the same house, we rarely saw one another privately. According to him, we shouldn’t be alone until our wedding night. Even our outdoor walks were restricted to areas of the garden that could be seen from the house. “They’re irritating when they’re bored,” he agreed. “I’ll set them a task. Their injuries have healed, and there’s work to be done.” He slipped his arm around my waist, drawing me to him.
“Are you warm enough, Charlie?” “No. Hold me closer.” “Liar,” he murmured but tucked me tighter to his side anyway. I tilted my face up. “Kiss me.” He kissed my forehead. “I meant on my lips.” His gaze slid to the house. “Lady Vickers is watching.” “Nothing short of you ravishing me on the lawn will shock her.
Besides, are you telling me you’re afraid of Lady Vickers?” “It’s not her censure I fear but her lectures. She has a habit of droning on and on about preserving your virtue. Glaring at her doesn’t make her stop, nor does threatening to evict her. She’s a unique individual.” “She certainly is.” I took his arm, linking my gloved hands at his elbow, and we resumed our walk along the drive. The lawn was too damp and slippery and the orchard too far from the house for Lincoln’s newly developed prudishness. “But I don’t think it’s Lady Vickers’s lectures that are stopping you from kissing me. It’s your own self-imposed ban. You’re afraid that kissing me on the lips will lead to intimate encounters in the bedroom.
” “Not just the bedroom,” he muttered. My cheeks heated despite the chill in the air. Winter may be over but its tail had some wag left in it. I had never been fond of winter, having spent years walking in thin shoes on streets slick with ice and huddled with other children in crumbling buildings that failed to keep out the damp and cold. Spring meant the slow climb to warmth had begun. I looked forward to the first appearance of flowers because it meant that somehow they had survived another harsh winter. Like me. This spring signaled my fourth season at Lichfield Towers. I had been here nine months, and I would remain here for the rest of my life. Sometimes I had to pinch myself for reassurance that I wasn’t dreaming.
I breathed in the sweet air and took in the view in front of me and the handsome view walking beside me. Lincoln stopped watching me from beneath lowered lashes, gathered me in his arms, and kissed me passionately on the mouth. A moment later, we parted and I looked back at the house. No one spied on us. “She moved away from the window,” he said. “And I only get one kiss?” “I didn’t bring you out here to kiss you. I want to talk.” I narrowed my gaze at him. Lincoln wasn’t much of a conversationalist. “That sounds ominous.
Is it about tonight’s dinner party? Because you have to be there. You can’t get out of it, so don’t pretend your injuries still bother you when I know they don’t.” “I’ve long given up hope of getting out of tonight. Indeed, I don’t want to. I’m looking forward to seeing you shine.” Tonight’s party, my first as hostess, had been planned to the finest detail. Cook began preparations weeks ago. Mrs. Cotchin the housekeeper and Doyle the butler had employed extra staff on a temporary basis, and everything was in order for our guests’ arrival in seven hours’ time, from the polished doorknobs to the ice cave in the basement ready to receive Cook’s ice molds. Under Lady Vickers’s guidance, I’d left nothing to chance.
“So what do you want to talk about?” I pressed. “Doors.” “Pardon?” “Doors. More specifically, one door—Alice.” “Ah. That kind of door.” When Lincoln’s mother had met my friend, Alice Everheart, she’d called her a door to other realms. Alice had dreams that came to life and caused havoc for those near her, but it seemed we’d been wrong about their cause. It wasn’t her imagination that came to life, but real individuals from other realms who made their way here, searching for her. Somehow Alice’s dreams brought them.
Lincoln had been researching other worlds, portals, and traveling between realms ever since, but with little luck. I’d urged him to visit his mother to ask her what she knew, but he’d refused. Instead, he’d gone to Frakingham House in Hertfordshire where a gentleman by the name of Jack Langley lived. Lincoln had met Langley and his wife in Paris a year ago, where he learned that the gentleman could start fires simply by thought. Lincoln added him to the ministry’s files upon his return to London and had not been in contact with him since. But an inkling had sent him to the manor, which the locals called Freak House, to try to find out more about realms. He’d come home disappointed a week later. Mr. Langley had acted as if he didn’t know what Lincoln spoke about. Lincoln had known he was lying.
His mother’s seer’s abilities flowed through him, albeit in a diminished capacity, but it meant his instincts were strong. “I had a letter from Langley yesterday,” Lincoln told me. “He’s decided to tell you everything he knows?” I asked, hopeful. “He’s still refusing. That’s what I wanted to talk to you about. I want your help informing Alice that we’ve got no answers to explain her predicament or rid her of it. You’ll deliver the news better than me.” “We wouldn’t have to deliver bad news at all if you agreed to see your mother and ask her questions instead of a stranger in Hertfordshire.” The muscles in his arm stiffened. “We don’t know if Leisl will have answers either.
” “Precisely. We don’t know. We’ll never know if you don’t visit her.” I sighed. There was no point pressing him on the issue. I’d tried countless times, to no avail. A cold breeze swept up the drive, and I huddled into Lincoln’s side. He steered me toward the house and helped me out of my coat and hat in the entrance hall. We didn’t need to ask Doyle where to find Alice. The dramatic notes of a Beethoven sonata filled the house and she was the only one who could play the piano that well.
We bypassed footmen carrying silver to the dining room and found Seth lounging against the wall outside the music room, reading a folded newspaper. He could not be seen from the room nor could he see into the room. He put a finger to his lips to silence us. “I’m not here,” he whispered. “Where are you?” I whispered back. He rolled his eyes and made a shooing motion toward the door, ushering us inside. Lincoln bent his head to mine. “Do you know why he’s avoiding Alice?” “He’s in love with her but is afraid of being rebuffed.” “I can hear you,” Seth hissed, thrusting the newspaper under his arm. “And that is not the reason I’m avoiding her.
Indeed, I’m not avoiding her at all. I merely remained out here so as not to distract her from her playing.” Gus emerged from the music room, his features scrunched into a frown. “Either come in or stay out, but be quiet.” He disappeared inside again. I followed him, Lincoln behind me. Seth finally came in too and set the newspaper down on a table by the armchair. Alice glanced at me with a small smile then returned to her playing. Seth moved to stand by the piano, his hand poised to turn the page of Alice’s music book. Her fingers faltered and she hit the wrong key.
He quickly turned the page. “Sorry!” She turned the page back. “I’m not up to there.” He looked at the book then looked at her still hands and frowned. “Then why did you make a mistake? Your playing up until now has been perfect. Better than perfect.” “There ain’t no such thing as better than perfect,” Gus said. “Perfect is already perfect. You distracted her, you dolt, that’s why she made a mistake.” Alice turned her face away from Seth, no doubt to hide her small smile.
She was enjoying his awkwardness, it seemed; perhaps even enjoying it in that way. It was the first sign she’d ever shown that she welcomed his attentions. Not that he’d been paying her much attention of late. He’d done more lurking outside of rooms than actually addressing her. I suspected that might be my fault. Ever since I’d urged him to be more himself in her presence and less like an eager schoolboy, he’d withdrawn when Alice came near. “Something is afoot,” Alice said, swiveling to face the room. “Or have you all suddenly developed an interest in the piano?” “We do enjoy your playing,” I told her. “But you’re right. That’s not why we’re here.
” Her pretty features tightened, as if she braced herself for bad news. “Go on.” “What is it, Charlie?” Seth said in a rush. “What’s wrong?” “Nothing terrible,” I quickly reassured them. “It’s just that Lincoln has reached a dead end in his research into your condition, Alice. His books are of little help, and Mr. Langley in Hertfordshire refuses to tell him what he knows. Lincoln heard from him again today after sending yet another request for information.” Alice crossed one hand over the other on her lap. “Why would he deny me knowledge about myself? It’s so unfair.
” “Langley claims he knows very little anyway,” Lincoln assured her. “A little is better than nothing.” Seth went to lay a hand on her shoulder but pulled back before touching her. “Who does this Langley fellow think he is? Alice has a right to know. It’s not up to him to decide who the keeper of the knowledge is, even if it is insignificant.” “He doesn’t want the knowledge to be in the hands of too many, which implies it’s dangerous,” Lincoln said. “I cannot blame him for that. I’d do the same thing, in his position.” “Did you tell him about the ministry?” Gus asked. “Yes.
” Seth folded his arms. “Did you tell him the ministry is the official organization for cataloging supernatural knowledge?” “We’re not official,” Lincoln said. “We have an emblem,” Gus said, as if that made all the difference. “Told you we should have ordered a letterhead with the emblem on it. He’d have to take notice then.” “I think it’ll take more than a letterhead,” I told him. “If Lincoln couldn’t get Mr. Langley to talk, nothing will.” “Did you threaten him?” Alice asked, her eyes huge. “No,” I told her.
“Only a little,” Lincoln said at the same moment. I frowned at him, and he shrugged, all innocence. Alice swiveled back to the piano and began to play a tune more suited to a funeral than a sunny spring day. Seth, still standing beside her, glared at me over her head. Lincoln, too, turned to me and nodded in Alice’s direction. It would seem they were relying on me to cheer her up. I joined Alice on the piano stool. She shuffled over to give me room without breaking her rhythm. “I am sorry, Alice. We all are.
We’ve failed you.” “It’s further than I was able to get on my own,” she said. “And at least I know I am not alone. I have all of you to support me if the dreams reoccur.” “Yes, you do. We’re here to help you.” “We are,” Seth said. “Do I need to turn the page yet?” She laughed softly. “I’m playing from memory.” Gus snickered.
Lincoln rose and Alice suddenly stopped. “Before you go, Mr. Fitzroy,” she said in a sweet voice that warned me, but not Lincoln. “Tell me, where does your mother live?” The ticking of the mantel clock suddenly seemed too loud for a music room. Gus expelled a breath. We all looked to Lincoln. I had a strong urge to rescue him, and make excuses as to why he couldn’t speak to his mother, but stopped myself. There was no reason why he couldn’t tell Alice how to find Leisl. Indeed, there was no reason why she couldn’t speak to Leisl at all. I hadn’t suggested it before because I didn’t want to cross him, and I’d hoped he would come to realize he was being obstinate.
He had not so it was time to follow my conscience and not my heart. “I know where to find her,” I said. Lincoln arched a brow at me. “It’s in the archives,” I told him. “We can go this afternoon, if you like, Alice.” She beamed, turning her pretty face into one of classic beauty. “You will come with me?” “Of course.” “So will I,” Seth announced with a thrust of his square jaw in Lincoln’s direction. Lincoln didn’t move. He didn’t even blink.
I suspected he was warring with himself over whether to forbid us or not. Forbidding me went against his principles nowadays, although it hadn’t always been so. Those episodes had taught him that I rarely went along with such orders, and if I did, it never ended well between us. “Thank you, Seth,” Alice said. “But I’d rather we go tomorrow. Charlie will be needed this afternoon.” “Everything is organized for tonight,” I told her. “Little things will require your attention. My mother rarely held dinner parties, but when she did, something unexpected always came up and she was needed. You’ll feel better if you’re here to keep an eye on things.
” “Tomorrow then,” Lincoln said. “We’ll go before lunch.” “You’re coming with us?” I asked, unable to keep the smile out of my voice. “Yes. And if you gloat, the engagement is off.” The twitch of his lips turned his words into a tease. “I would never gloat in public, Lincoln.” I refrained from asking him why he’d changed his mind. Perhaps he was softening now that he was in love. I quite liked the notion and smiled at him.
He smiled back, if the brightening of his eyes could be considered smiling. “Seth, Gus, my office. We have work to discuss.” “Is this about the murder?” Seth asked. “Murder?” several voices echoed. “It’s not so much the murder that caught my attention, although it was described in gruesome detail. It was the wolf sighting.” Alice clutched her throat. “Wolf!” Seth picked up the newspaper and handed it to Lincoln. “A wolf-like creature was seen running away from the victim, whose body was found in Hyde Park.
Two constables pursued it but couldn’t find it.” “You’re only giving this to me now?” Lincoln said, reading. “I thought you’d already seen it. Besides, I’ve been busy.” “Doing what?” “Er…” Seth cleared his throat and glanced at Alice. “Does the article say anything else?” I asked. “The constables found a man in bushes nearby and questioned him,” Lincoln said, tossing the newspaper back onto the table. His eyes were hard, the good humor no longer in evidence. “He claimed not to have seen any wolves.” “But that’s not the interesting thing about the witness,” Seth prompted him.
“No,” Lincoln agreed. “The interesting thing is that he was naked, and his clothing was nowhere to be found.” Oh God, not again. Gus groaned and rubbed his jaw where the bruises obtained from the fight with the shape changers had only recently faded. “I hate them shifters. Lady Gilly excepted, of course.” “Does the article give a name for the witness?” I asked. The previous leader of the shifter pack was dead, and the new leader, Mr. Gawler, vowed to keep his creatures in check. Perhaps one of them had rejected his authority and left the pack.
Lincoln shook his head. “He was probably deemed unimportant by the reporter. The reporter did note something about the naked man, however. Something which doesn’t quite make sense with what we know about Gawler’s pack.” “What is it?” “The witness is described as a gentleman.” Gawler’s pack was made up of slum dwellers, except for Harriet, Lady Gillingham. “So there’s a new shifter in London.” My words dropped like stones in the silence. “And he’s a murderer.”