Chapter 3

Own it, Tisiphone told herself.

She could not muster any energy, let alone determination. For a few days, at home, it was easy to let oneself be carried by Emmeline‘s and Meg’s vivacious personalities. No constant effort to keep one’s chin high was required. Tisiphone could relax, and let herself be distracted. But, on her own, she had very little strength left. So, walking up the gravel path leading to Whitecove Manor, all she had left to feel was exhaustion.

Own it.

“Sweetheart, why are you lagging behind?” her mother asked, pausing to wait for her. “Are you alright?”

“Merely woolgathering, Mother. Lord Whitecove went all out, didn’t he?”

“His daughter. He cannot be bothered, but I hear she has been ecstatic to get some ‘creative input’ this year. She is of an age with Margaret, I think. It is the first event she gets to help organise.”

Tisiphone smiled. She could imagine a giddy teenager overly excited by her new responsibilities. “She seems to have done an excellent job.”

“Be sure to tell her that,” Emmeline advised. “She will appreciate it. And you and Margaret might get along with her.”

I am not befriending a fresh-faced debutante. That would only taint her by association.

“Yes, Mama.”

Margaret, who had kept walking, hurried back to them. “What are you doing? Let’s go!”

They did. Tisiphone remained a step behind. She had some changes to make to her outfit without giving her family a chance to discourage her. The silk flowers and embroidered gloves were in her reticule.

She needed but a moment to don them. She switched gloves as Emmeline greeted the footman. And, while her mother and sister walked into the house, she stabbed the silk gardenia hairpins into her bun.

It had taken a little money and much secrecy to obtain the garments. She had borrowed Farrah’s clothes and walked all the way to the common parts of London, where one could hire a seamstress that would not rip you off (or, rather, instead of a modiste that would, while still barely paying the seamstresses). The young woman she had hired had been quite glad to get good silk fabric to reuse, on top of a small payment, even though said silk came in the form of a used nightgown. She had wondered why a noble lady would sneak to the slums to beg for fake flowers to be paid in old clothes and small coin, which Tisiphone had no answer to save for an apologetic “We nobles are dysfunctional”.

The silk gardenia flowers were lovely. So was the embroidery on Tisiphone‘s leaf green gloves, even if it wasn’t the height of quality.

All she had to do now was own it. If people wanted to define her by one tumble into greenery, then she would embrace it. She would wear the gardenias as a badge of honour, make them her symbol, so they could not be used against her anymore. As for the drinking rumours… Having brandy bottles embroidered on her clothes would have pushed it. She would have reclaim that part of her reputation in another way. She still had to figure said way out. In the meantime, she could still show strength.

Fake it until you make it.

She walked into the great hall. The place was crowded already, but her entrance did not attract much attention. Most of the guests would be in the ballroom or park already. Those who had remained in the hall were split into small, busy groups, and barely paid any mind to the newcomers. Only the hostess reacted to their arrival. It had to be Lady Cecilia, Lord Whitecove‘s daughter: with round cheeks and wide, twinkling eyes, she looked barely thirteen. She was accompanied by Lady Ashcroft, her aunt, who stood in for the teenager’s deceased mother.

Lady Ashcroft glanced at Tisiphone, then hurriedly looked away and whispered in her niece’s ear. The young lady deflated, nodded, and forced a smile on her face.

“Lady Emmeline,” she called, coming their way. “What a pleasure to see you. And those must be your daughters, Miss Margaret and Miss Tisiphone?”

Emmeline gave her the warmest smile, her motherly instincts taking over. “Indeed, they are. What a pleasure to attend, Lady Cecilia. The place is absolutely dazzling! My daughters were just telling me you had outdone yourself. And how I agree! Why, I am quite jealous of your skills as a hostess.”

Lady Cecilia blushed. “You’re too kind. You have to praise my aunt, not me. I contributed ideas, but she was the true genius behind this party.”

“Now, don’t downplay your efforts, dear niece!” Lady Ashcroft exclaimed. “You planned everything! I only had to contribute to the logistics, and barely, at that!” Turning back to Emmeline, she nodded gravely. “The girl is too modest for her own good. Why, it took me three years of managing my own house before managing a decent party! She is a natural.”

“Then I shall praise her to anyone who will listen,” Emmeline promised. “It’s well deserved.”

“The lighting is so nice!” Meg added. “It gives the gardens such a festive mood, and here, inside… It’s magical.

Under that onslaught of compliments, Lady Cecilia was warming up to them. Tisiphone knew she had to join in the chorus (which, frankly, was not lavishing her with undue flattery), but she feared that reminding their hostess of their existence would only sour her mood again. Yet, when her mother shot her a glance, she had to say something. “Everything is gorgeous,” she told Lady Cecilia. “You must have worked so hard. But I daresay your gala will outshine all of the season‘s events. You put the bar at the sun’s level.”

Cecilia frowned ever so slightly, analysing her words, as if there was a trap to expect. Then she relaxed, smiling nervously. “Thank you, miss Tisiphone. I do hope you are right… Um, are those gardenias?” she asked, looking up at Tisiphone’s hairpins.

Emmeline, Margaret and Lady Ashcroft’s eyes snapped to the ornaments.

Tisiphone, with a shy smile, brushed the white silk flowers with her fingertips. “Indeed, thank you for noticing. They are my favourite flowers.”

Lady Cecilia stared at her, gobsmacked. Meg opened and closed her mouth. Emmeline’s eyes went wide.

“A bold choice,” Lady Ashcroft scoffed. Her face went ashen as she realised her gaffe. It was generally regarded as somewhat impolite to insult your guests.

Tisiphone played dumb. “Is there a meaning to gardenias I am not aware of?” she asked, faking puzzlement. “I never managed to memorise the language of flowers.”

Her mother chuckled. “They mean ‘secret love’, Tisiphone. I believe you are sending an unintended message.”

“Oh! Oh my,” Tisiphone gasped. “Yes, that, um… Wasn‘t ’secret love’ gladiolus?”

“No, sweetheart, that‘s ’integrity’.”

“Well. Let us all pretend this is a white rose, or I shall die of embarrassment.”

Her companions giggled, some more nervously than others. Lady Cecilia, at least, seemed glad to see the situation defused. She still couldn’t escape the situation fast enough.

“It was a pleasure meeting you,” she said. “Unfortunately, we have other guests to greet. I hope we get a chance to talk some more later tonight.”

“We would be delighted,” Emmeline replied. “Have a great evening, Lady Cecilia. Lady Ashcroft.” Taking the arms of both her daughters, she stepped away. “Let’s not monopolise our lovely hostess. Come on, girls.”

And, on that, they leisurely ran away. Meg, thankfully, waited to be out of earshot to voice her opinion. “That old coot!” she whispered. “A ‘bold choice’ my—”

She didn’t get to finish her thought: two gentlemen were coming their way, and all but elbowed each other out of the way to ask her for a dance.

“Oliver. Oliver, get off the roof this instant.”

James, Ollie mused, did not sound too pleased. That was fair: he had been left to his own devices when his cousin had sidestepped from a conversation to vanish for thirty minutes. Still, he did not have to make it sound so unreasonable. Oliver had only needed to mentally prepare himself a little more. The gala was a lot more crowded than he had feared, and he was not ready for it.

“How did you even climb up there?” James hissed from his balcony. “There’s no handholds!”

“I used the stairs,” Oliver hissed back. “In the servants‘ passageways. This is a flat roof with benches and flower pots, James. I hardly perched myself on a church’s belfry.”

“It is not open to guests, now come down.

“In a minute.”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake.”

There was stomping. Oliver peeked over the roof’s edge, and found the balcony empty. His cousin was gone.

I am so getting dragged back downstairs.

He sighed. The solitude had been nice while it lasted. There was room for one to sit, a nice view on the festivities, and the music was not too distorted. He could have done worse. For a start, he was not in a tree. Crowded places that only offered trees as hiding places were even more awful than other crowded places. Especially when it started to rain during the party, as had happened at Lord Burnham’s masquerade three years prior. Oliver had come out of that one with a wicked cold.

He paced until James joined him, stomping loudly.

“You are not just shy, are you?” the young man sighed.

Oliver looked away, ashamed. What could he reply to that? Nobody but him seemed to have fits of panic at the idea of group conversations. He had never caught other nobles hyperventilating and getting weepy when faced with mild disapproval. How could he explain what he felt without sounding insane?

“Nevermind that,” James said when it became clear he would not get an answer. “The Lane ladies arrived and my friends have launched their ‘operation’. Come and see it for yourself. I won’t force you to mingle.”

Oliver perked up. “How did people react to their arrival? Was there any drama?”

James shook his head. “Very little, although Lady Ashcroft made some comment she clearly wished to take back, to miss Tisiphone’s face, too! But that was smoothed out quickly.”

“Good, good. Young miss Margaret is not noticing anything strange from your friends, is she?”

“Listen. When you asked me to send my friends fend off potential bad matches, I was under the impression I would have to bribe them. Hell, I did bribe them. Got scammed in the process, because they would have been all over her without any prompting. She’s quite lovely.”

“Um. Yes, I assume. I‘ll admit I didn’t pay close attention to her.”

“I’m sorry, but… Are you blind?”

“Merely old. Also, my business is with her sister.”

“Right! Maybe I’ll force you to mingle, then. Surely you can ask that young lady for a dance.”

Oliver‘s stomach lurched. “I said ’business‘, not ’interest’. I have apologies to give.”

James gave him a long, doubtful look. He took a moment to consider whatever he had seen, then nodded. “Fair, fair. Let‘s get back downstairs and see how the ladies are faring. You can’t play guardian angel and stay hidden on the roof. At least, watch the result of your efforts.”

“A roof seems like the perfect place for a guardian angel, to be honest.”

“We already established this wasn’t a church belfry. Come on!”

Ollie obediently followed him back to the ballroom, then did his best to drag him to the darkest corner. Not that the corners had much shadow to offer: Lady Cecilia had likely bankrupted her father with chandler bills. The room was bright as day, with oil lamps complementing the chandelier‘s lighting. Had the windows not been wide open, the heat would have been unbearable. The manor’s architects had clearly planned for comfort: the ballroom was gigantic, with windows on three sides. It allowed for the breeze to flow through.

“Here they are,” James whispered.

Oliver followed his gaze. He found Margaret first, the liveliest of the three: she was chatting amicably with two gentlemen, under the gentle gaze of her mother.

“Are those your friends?” he asked.

“Yes. Mulaney and Smith, friends from Eton. Neither are titled, but they are decent lads. There‘s three more ’volunteers’, but I told them not to crowd the girl.”

Oliver nodded. He had no idea whether Russelby would sic his “matches” on her tonight, but the interest of young gentlemen of fine reputation would, at the very least, make him think twice. Furthermore, it would keep the bullies at bay. Miss Margaret was likely to get targeted because of her sister’s imagined wrongs. There was nothing the ton loved more than to kick people when they were down, and rubbing scandal in the face of a fresh faced debutante was just their idea of entertainment.

Hence Oliver‘s plan: James’ friends would approach her, maybe dance, and — only if they were pleased with her company — would attempt to introduce her to their female relatives so she could form solid social connections. She was hardly a loner: some digging had uncovered that she had a group of friends already, but none of the young misses had any weight in society. She needed better protection.

“Thank you, James. You did a great job.”

“Let’s wait to see how it pans out. Lord Russelby is expected, but late. Things might sour when he shows up.”

Ollie‘s eyes drifted to Tisiphone, who was standing back, as she often did. She stood out all the same, despite her muted, unremarkable green dress. Taller than her sister, with lustrous brown hair and a curvier silhouette, she was different but not less attractive. Well, in Oliver’s opinion, in any case. He liked her quiet, indifferent attitude and her understated fashion choices. No gaudy jewellery, no frills, no patterns, merely green fabric embroidered in green, some white details on her gloves, and silk flowers in her hair.

He paused. “Are those gardenias?”

James looked, in turn, at the closest vase, second closest vase, and third closest vase, before following his cousin‘s eyes. “I don’t know!” he exclaimed loudly to get everyone‘s attention. “Why don’t we ask her?”

What?” Oliver gasped.

Placing a firm hand on his back, James pushed him towards the Lane ladies. There was no way to escape without making a scene: one couldn’t just backpedal while being marched through a room. Not when people were watching. So, Oliver panicked on the inside while looking outwardly placid, or some approximation of it.

“Lady Lane!” James said as they approached the three women. “Good evening. I am James Robinson, and this is my cousin, who is introducing me, since you are acquainted. He absolutely consented to it, and I did in no way drag him to you without the slightest warning. This is entirely proper.” He grinned cheekily at Miss Margaret. “Good evening.”

Miss Margaret was glaring at him. Lady Lane put a hand on her shoulder, chuckling. “Consider yourself introduced, mister Robinson. And good evening, Lord Bridgecombe. It’s a pleasure to see you again.”

Oliver bowed his head. “Likewise, Lady Lane,” he replied in the least strangled voice he could manage. He swallowed. “Miss Margaret, Miss Ti…”

Miss Tisiphone was gone. That was to be expected.

“Ah, you just missed her!” Lady Lane exclaimed. “I sent her to fetch refreshments, she must not have seen you coming this way.”

She absolutely saw us coming this way.

The excuse did not convince James either, since they had been observing Miss Tisiphone not thirty seconds earlier. His usual loquaciousness failed him, and he stared at the dowager viscountess. “Oh.”

“I am certain she would be delighted to meet you later tonight. Margaret and I sure are.” She squeezed her daughter‘s shoulder, as the girl’s expression in no way evoked “delight”. “Margaret, why don’t you ask our companions about themselves?”

Oliver pursed his lips. Inviting the young lady to contribute to the conversation didn’t seem like a wise choice. Someone was liable to get chewed out (most likely him). He ever so slightly stepped back and let James take the brunt of her mood.

“Nice to meet you, mr. Robinson,” she said, glowering at Oliver‘s over his cousin’s shoulder. It was quite the feat, considering she was a head smaller than both of them. “Earl Bridgecombe.”

Her mother’s death grip on her shoulder tightened, just like her smile. Oliver gave a noncommittal nod.

James, taken aback, bowed. “I saw my friends talk to you earlier. Smith and Mulaney. Do you by any chance know where they vanished to? I have not had a chance to greet them.”

“Ah, they were headed for the gardens,” Lady Lane cut in, all but shoving Margaret behind her. “Such nice gentlemen. If you cannot find them, Margaret is set to dance with mister Mulaney later. The fourth dance, I think? So, if everything else fails…”

James beamed. “I’ll be sure to come back to you then. And neither of them thought of asking you for a dance, Lady Lane? Might I have the honour?”

She blinked, surprised, then laughed happily. “Why, young man, I am past the age for those things. Do not tease me so. I am sure there is no shortage of young girls who’d enjoy your company.”

He acquiesced. “Bridgecombe and I would be delighted to get even a single dance with your—”

“No.” Miss Margaret cut in.

“Ouch, stabbed straight through the heart,” James exclaimed, grabbing his chest without a moment’s pause. “Very well, we will not impose upon you. Lady Lane, is there any young lady of your acquaintance who might benefit from a dance partner?”

She mulled over it. “Why, young lady Rosalyn Moore is lovely, but the quiet type, she tends to get ignored at those functions. And Miss Anne Wispberry has overprotective brothers. The two of you could team up to rescue her, so she gets at least one dance tonight.”

James grinned. “We can do that. Thank you, my lady.” He bowed, nodding to miss Margaret. “Enjoy your dances, and come to me if my friends bother you. They are great men, but barely out of Eton, so they can get a bit rowdy.”

Miss Margaret merely squinted at him, to the absolute horror of her mother, who gave him a look torn between apology and panic. I pretended not to be offended. It was entirely possible he was not offended. James took things in stride.

Oliver gaped at him as he worked his magic, and nearly forgot to follow him as he left. James had to tug the back of his jacket to get his attention. They made their way to the gardens, then to a quiet area under a hanging lantern, which was when James’ easygoing facade finally dropped.

“What, pray tell, was that?”

Tisiphone emerged from behind a convenient hanging tapestry only to find herself face to face with her beaming mother. It was a terrifying sight.

“What,” Emmeline asked in a sing-song voice, “pray tell, was that?”

Margaret tried to step away from her radiant, smiling rage. Emmeline daintily grabbed her elbow in a vice-like hold. “It goes for you too, Meg. The two of you were abjectly rude,” she told her daughters, in a chatty, enthusiastic voice laced with murderous intent. “There shall be no further shenanigans tonight. No hiding behind ornaments, no snapping at other guests: the two of you will behave, or else.”

He had no business with us, Mama!” Meg protested, a terrible, terrible choice.

Emmeline gave her a fond smile. “Sweetheart, do you want this to be your last outing this season?” She marked a pause. “I thought so! So let us return to the festivities and endeavour not to ruin Lady Cecilia‘s first big event, why don’t we?”

Tisiphone winced, nodding obediently. Margaret still sulked, so her sister “accidentally” crushed her foot with her whole weight. That would give her something less risky to be angry about.

“What did they want, Mother?” she asked. “And who was the young man with him?”

“The charming young man was James Robinson, Bridgecombe‘s cousin, I believe through his aunt on his father’s side. A pleasant man who did not deserve to get the cold shoulder.”

“He asked Mama for a dance,” Meg whispered to Tisiphone. “A flatterer.”

Why, young miss!” Emmeline exclaimed, theatrical. “What are you implying? Am I entirely devoid of appeal to you?”

“Did you accept?” Tisiphone asked.

“I wish I could have but, alas, the boy has to be younger than you are. It would hardly have been proper, which is a shame, because balls are awfully boring as a chaperone.”

“I’m sure suitably mature gentlemen would love to invite you. You are, whatever Meg was implying, quite lovely.”

“Ah, at least one of my daughters loves me!”

“That’s not what I meant!” Meg protested. “Mother! I—”

Emmeline grabbed her wrist, her face darkening. She stepped in front of her daughters. Their cousin was coming their way. He was not alone: a middle-aged man with a beer belly was following him, looking worryingly smug.

“United front,” Emmeline whispered before the two men got too close. Then, she smiled and curtsied. “My lord! I didn’t expect you today. What a pleasure!”

“Emmeline! The pleasure is mutual. And I wouldn’t have missed this gala for the world. Whitecove is a good friend of mine.” He studied her face, nodded to Tisiphone and Margaret, then introduced his companion. “This is sir Marnborne, nephew to the baron of Stratmere. We were discussing your beautiful daughters, and I figured an introduction was in order!”

Tisiphone moved between Marnborne and Meg just as her mother did the same, which had to appear quite peculiar to bystanders, as they ended up lined up like a row of ducks. Russelby shot them a dark look, which Tisiphone returned with a vacant expression.

Her mother turned to Marnborne. “We are delighted to make your acquaintance, sir. What do you think of the gala so far? Isn’t it absolutely fantastic? Lady Cecilia is a natural.”

The man acquiesced, with little interest. “It is decent, I suppose. I’ll admit I know very little about housekeeping and organising parties, myself. If men took over, what would their wives have left to do with their time?”

He laughed, forcing Emmeline to do the same. Tisiphone gave a blank smile at nothing in particular.

Russelby stepped forward, chuckling. “We gentlemen only come for the socialising and the dancing,” he said. “On that note, could young Margaret save a spot for Marnborne on her dance card? He was just telling me how lovely she was.”

“I’m afraid my sister is all booked already,” Tisiphone demurred. “But I would be delighted to stand in for Margaret if sir Marnborne wishes me to. I still have a few openings.”

The young men who had come to flirt with Meg had not been able to ignore Tisiphone entirely: her younger sister would not accept a dance if they did not both get one, unless the gentleman was otherwise engaged. It had won Tisiphone more dance partners in a night than over the entire previous season. She feared Margaret would sabotage herself with such demands, but her suitors had been happy to oblige. Marnborne, however, was set on his target. He exchanged a look with the viscount.

“I am sure one of young Margaret‘s partners wouldn’t mind dancing with you rather than her,” he insisted. “Let’s not disappoint a family friend. One might ultimately come to regret it.”

Tisiphone gazed through him, her eyes unfocusing until he was a mere blur in front of her. Threats, then. He was likely to scrap the “ultimatum” and kick them out immediately. Was he planning to marry Margaret off to reimburse a “rent” of sorts for their house? Meg was devoted to her family, and likely to agree to it.

How do I thwart this?

Emmeline fidgeted, apologetic. “The dances are about to start. We cannot change our mind on such short notice. We might offend some gentlemen and make them feel cheated. Not to mention Tisiphone cannot dance twice with the same person.”

Russelby shot daggers at her, then smirked. “I didn’t expect someone so heavily indebted to our family to be quite as picky,” he said softly. “There really is no limit to your sense of entitlement.”

Tisiphone grabbed Margaret‘s wrist by sheer reflex, and felt her sister’s tendons tense as bowstrings. She slid her hand down to hold Meg’s balled fist. Emmeline had flushed beet red. She could not find her words. Thankfully, a saviour arrived, and the most unexpected one: Bridgecombe inserted himself between the viscount and Emmeline, without sparing a glance for the latter. Meanwhile, his cousin slid between the sisters and Marnborne.

“Russelby!” Bridgecombe exclaimed. “And sir Marnborne, is it? I was looking for you. Say! Are the two of you art enthusiasts?”

Tisiphone couldn‘t help but notice Robinson had placed a firm guiding hand on the earl’s back, and was ever so slightly shoving him towards the viscount. It took some more pushing for Bridgecombe to move forward. “Come, there’s a venture I would like to discuss with the two of you,” he recited. “The garden will be quieter.”

With a future duke pulling rank, there was nothing Marnborne and Russelby could do. They had to follow (or rather precede) Bridgecombe outside.

Mr. Robinson turned back to them with a wicked grin. “My apologies for poaching your suitor, Lady Lane, but us starving artists can show no mercy when it comes to finding patrons. Hopefully, your cousin has a large purse.”

Without waiting for a reply, he bowed and trotted off after Bridgecombe, leaving the three women befuddled. They exchanged concerned glances. Emmeline, usually quite savvy, seemed lost. As for Tisiphone, she couldn’t for the life of her say whether this had been a rescue in disguise or not. In any case, James Robinson was smooth, and he had his cousin under his thumb. That was good to know.

“Well, bless those young men,” Emmeline commented. “I might have to buy mr. Robinson’s art.”

Twelve dances. Twelve dances, out of fourteen. That was what Oliver had reaped for associating with James. Not that he had been given a choice by his father. But, really, James had a peculiar definition of “I will not force you to mingle”. And he was so smooth about it, too. When he had asked Lady Rosalyn Moore for a spot on her dance card, he had somehow roped Oliver into taking one of her free spots. He had done the same with Anne Wipsberry, and Ophelia Walter-Brown, and Mary Evans. All wallflowers, and it was not that Oliver had taken pity on the young women, but he had no other engagements, and no reason (but sheer terror) to walk away from them.

Handling Russelby had been harrowing enough. He had no idea how he had done it. The blind rage, possibly. Even from a distance, it had been clear the man was strong-arming his cousins into entertaining Marnborne. The lecherous creep had been ogling Miss Margaret since his arrival.

He had since been enlightened on the emotional and artistic impact of poorly aligned brown squares. Oliver had not done the “enlightening”: his limited bravado had deserted him well before they had reached the gardens. His presence, however, had been enough to keep Russelby and his crony put until the start of the dances, while James talked their ears off.

Oliver did not take well to people disliking him, and Russelby had disliked him very much for his intervention. By the end of the conversation, he wanted to cry.

And then he had been made to dance. In the defence of the young ladies, they had all been quite pleasant company. Oliver felt quite guilty to have proved a distracted and silent partner, as they would have deserved a lot more fun. He just didn‘t have it in him to be sociable. Hell, he didn’t have it in him to be present.

Dance number seven had finally given an opportunity to escape, which he had seized with both hands. James, busy with his new partner, had not managed to stop him from fleeing.

He was now hiding in a second floor closet, the first quiet place he had found. It was close enough to the stairs that he would be able to hurry back to the ballroom in time for dance number nine, which he had promised to Lady Cecilia. That guaranteed him a solid eight minutes of peace.

Or so he thought.

Hiding inside a dark closet, between cleaning supplies and the odd piece of furniture, seemed like a safe choice. Well, not most closets at parties: couples did like finding secluded spots. This closet, in particular, seemed like a safe choice: its door was seamlessly concealed, with no handle and a flat surface covered with wallpaper. If Oliver had not seen a servant open it, he would have missed it.

Someone else, clearly, had seen a servant open it, because that someone opened the door, slipped in, and closed the door.

Ollie, from his spot on the floor of the pitch black corner of the pitch black closet, wondered if he should let his presence known. He would have to explain why he was sitting on the floor of the pitch black corner of the pitch black closet. Word would travel back to his father, for sure.

The “someone” stepped on his foot.

“Ow!” he exclaimed.

“EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEK,” the someone shrieked.

“Don‘t shout! Don’t shout! I’m just hiding from the crowd!”

“Oh my God,” the lady shrieked, gasping for air. “Oh my God. You scared the hedge out of me.”

It was Miss Tisiphone Lane. Oliver broke into a cold sweat.

“You’re not a burglar or anything, right?” she asked. “I can scream again.”

“Please don’t.” He swallowed. “You do not want to be found alone in a closet with a gentleman.”

“Fair point. Um. My apologies for stepping on you. Does it hurt?”

“No,” Ollie lied, in a voice an octave higher than normal. Panic was strangling him. Also, his toes throbbed. “Don’t worry, I have good boots.”

“Alright. I‘m still sorry, sir. It won’t happen again.”

“I don’t think it will,” he replied. He cleared his throat. “I never hide in the same closet twice.” He cringed. The joke was terrible. Miss Tisiphone would be well within her rights to laugh at him rather than at it.

She chuckled. “A wise decision, sir. I found my mother waiting for me in some hiding spots when I tried reusing them. The staff will always betray you. They know everything.”

“Thank you for the advice, I’ll keep it in mind. Are you hiding from your mother, then?” he asked, ready to head back downstairs for a murder if Russelby had gone back to harass the Lane ladies.

“Nonsense, I love my mother. No. I’m hiding from the limelight.”

“Then you came to the right place. No limelight here, nor light of any sort.”

Something magical was happening: Oliver was not in the habit of being talkative, let alone humorous, with strangers. Maybe it was the anonymity. Maybe he was drunk. A lot of champagne glasses had been pushed into his hands in the previous hour, and he had not managed to discard them all. As a rule, he never wanted to get drunk: if alcohol proved useful against his issues, he would never crawl out of a bottle. He deemed it dangerous to test its effects.

“What about you, sir?” she asked. “Were you also wary of the ton’s attention?”

“Oh, no, merely my creditors’!” He sighed. “To be honest, yes, I was somewhat overwhelmed by the crowd. I would rather be home with a book.”

“I hear you. I had reached a most interesting part of ‘The Old Manor House’, and now the book is languishing on my nightstand.”

“By Charlotte Smith? I still have to give that one a shot. Did you read ‘Desmond’? I found it quite enjoyable.”

“No, I just discovered the author. I might give her other works a shot, provided I get some time to myself.”

“Would you recommend ‘The Old Manor House’? I’ve heard mixed opinions.”

“For the characters: no. For the social commentary: absolutely. But we rich and fortunate members of society need to not take it as an attack. So, your enjoyment of it would very much depend on your politics.”

“I‘m afraid I’m very upper-crust, an absolute monster of greed and vanity. I eat tenants for breakfast.”

“Then you ought to read it twice,” Tisiphone laughed. “It‘s an interesting perspective. What about ’Desmond’?”

“The epistolary format might be off-putting to some, but if you love political commentary, it is the book for you. I highly recommend it. Ah! Since we‘re talking about books… There is this brand new writer I find most enjoyable! She is unnamed so far. You might have heard of ’Pride and Prejudice” and —”

“‘Pride and Prejudice’ and ‘Sense and Sensibility’. Yes,” Tisiphone cut in, the humour gone from her voice. “Witty prose and great observations on society, but too optimistic for my taste, and somewhat boring? If you’ll forgive me for disliking novels you enjoy. I merely…”

She paused, and the silence lasted entirely too long. Oliver, whose heart was not attempting to escape his chest, and who was neither trembling nor gasping for air, acquiesced. Not that there was a point to it, in absolute darkness.

“You are, yourself, a young lady sharing circumstances with the protagonists, I assume.”

She took a deep breath. “Yes. To put it bluntly, it hits a bit too close to home.”

Ollie had nothing to say to that. He sighed. “It’s such a shame. You know, this is the most interesting conversation with a stranger I had this year.”

Tisiphone chuckled. “My apologies, sir, but we are both dodging social interactions by hiding in a closet. For all I know, this is the only conversation with a stranger you had this year.”

“Ah. Let me think about it.” Oliver marked a pregnant pause. He cleared his throat. “You might very well be right. I‘ll amend my compliment from ’this year‘ to ’in my life’.”

“Now you are just flattering me.”

“Am I? Do you know many young ladies who offer book recommendations on politically subversive pieces of literature? Because, if you do, by all means, introduce me to your circle of friends.”

“Our convent meets every full moon in Kensal Green. You have to bring your own hooded robes and black cat. Just follow the blood covered totems lined with candles.”

“I do not have a black cat, but am owned by several grey ones who look dark enough in the moonlight. Would that do?”

“All cats are welcome. Mine is a red furball called Theseus.”

“After the king of Athens?”

“After the ‘ship of’. According to my mother, our cat is now thirty-two. There is speculation he might have been switched for a somewhat identical model when my sister and I were too young to notice.”

Oliver slapped his hands on his face to contain his laughter, which came out as strangled snorts and a terrible cough. Hopefully, both were quiet enough not to be noticed. If guests came to investigate the ruckus in their closet, they would be in deep trouble.

Just as he thought those words, there was a knock at the door.

He froze. If Miss Tisiphone reacted, she did it silently.

“A-hem,” came a woman’s voice from outside. “Um um.” And then, there was more knocking.

“Oh, I‘m sorry,” Tisiphone whispered. “That would be my mother. I’m here, Mother,” she called out. “Is it safe to come out now?”

Oliver grabbed a bucket and put it over his head. He had enjoyed the conversation and had no desire to spoil the memory of it.

“Yes!” Emmeline Lane hissed. “Now!”

The door opened. Tisiphone slipped out. There was a moment of silence, during which the ladies were, no doubt, gawking at the gentleman sitting on the floor with a bucket over his head. He knew they could see him: his body was well lit. A moment later, without any acknowledgement of his presence, the door was slammed shut.

“I do not want to know,” he heard Lady Lane say from the hallway.

“Know what, Mama? I did not see anything strange tonight. Ha ha. Um. Where is, um, ‘she’?”

“Dancing with her partner, under the watch of some of my friends. And we‘d best hurry, I pretended I was visiting the ladies’ room. Not that anyone believed me, since you were nowhere to be found.”

“I am so sorry, Mother. I needed a moment to collect my thoughts. Let us…”

Their voices grew distant, and the muffled music coming from the ballroom swallowed them. Oliver took a deep breath. Said music sounded dangerously like the ending of a quadrille, which meant the eight song was nearly over. Discarding his bucket, he stealthily left the closet.

“Something is off with Lady Cecilia,” Tisiphone whispered to her mother as they waited for Margaret to finish her eleventh dance. “I am worried.”

“Off?” Emmeline wondered, peeking at their hostess. The girl was dancing with Lord Emerson. “She only looks tired to me, and it has been an eventful night for her.”

Tisiphone shook her head, studying her own shoes. She was well used to faking blank exhaustion to conceal less acceptable feelings, and Lady Cecilia‘s mask wasn’t quite perfect yet. “No, she is angry. And I do not like it, because she has been looking at Margaret quite a lot.”

“What? Why would she… Oh no. How many dances did Lady Cecilia miss?”

“Three, that I noticed.”

“And meanwhile…”

“And meanwhile, Margaret has attracted an unexplainable amount of interest from various gentlemen, and has not been seen alone all night. Lady Cecilia must feel horribly neglected. It’s her own party, too, it should have been her night.”

Emmeline frowned. “I‘ll take Margaret off the dancefloor. It’s too late to ensure she dances less than our hostess, but they can still be equally noticed.”

“I hope so. Do you think someone could distract Lady Ashcroft? I expect she‘s the reason gentlemen have been staying away from Lady Cecilia, since she is otherwise a lovely young woman. Her aunt might want to keep her away from men of lower standing, but that doesn’t leave much of a pool of partners.”

“I’m on it. Grab your sister. Pretend to faint. Do what it takes.”

Tisiphone acquiesced. She could take one for the team. Hell, she had danced with Marnborne, to pacify both him and the viscount, which had gone swimmingly enough once the good sir had realised he would get to stare at her cleavage (Margaret, for all her charms, had not been graced with much in the way of curves). It hadn’t convinced her she was the better sister to seduce in the long term, but the tactic might work on future occasions.

She waited for the music to end, waved at her sister as she left the dance floor, and ‘accidentally’ poured some apple juice on her own skirt.

“Did you just pour juice on your dress on purpose?” a man asked from right next to her.

She did not shriek. Unless she stepped on a corpse (or, rather, a gentleman lying on the floor and who felt like a corpse), her composure was excellent. She turned to the man. It was Robinson. She took a deep breath. “I am afraid not. I am dreadfully clumsy, mr. Robinson.”

“No, no. You did it on purpose!” he murmured back. “You even looked down and aimed.”

“What is it to you?” she exclaimed. “If I say I—”

Her sister arrived just in time to prevent an argument. “Tisiphone! Oh no! What happened to your dress?”

“I‘m so sorry, Meg! I tripped and poured juice all over myself. Would you mind accompanying me to the ladies’ room?”

Robinson produced two handkerchiefs. Had she paid better attention, Tisiphone would have noticed their monograms were different. She muttered a “thank you” and started blotting the small, carefully applied juice stains. She had planned to dye the dress a darker green and pass it off as new. Rescuing it was not of the utmost importance.

“Of course, of course,” Margaret replied. “Mister Robinson, I‘m set to dance with Richard Fiennes. He is one of your friends, isn’t he? Could you please convey my apologies?”

“Why, of course,” the young man replied, looking straight at Tisiphone with a knowing smile. “It is obviously more important for you to leave the room this instant.”

“You,” she snapped, at a volume between the whisper and tones only bats could hear. She handed him his kerchiefs back, only to notice the “O. M-P” embroidered on one. “You… can… have those back,” she faltered, as her eyes met Bridgecombe‘s over Robinson’s shoulder. She looked away, grabbed Margaret’s wrist, and prepared to bolt. She stopped. “Actually, while I have both of your attentions: you, go dance with Lady Cecilia,” she hissed at Bridgecombe. She turned to his companion. “And you, go sell your art to Lady Ashcroft. Be verbose.”

“I, I!” Bridgecombe stuttered, befuddled.

“My cousin just danced with her,” Robinson pointed out. “So, as much as he would be glad to…”

“Trade duties!” she snapped with the most polite of smiles. She even curtsied. “Now, if you’ll excuse us, my lords…”

“Is there a particular reason one of us should dance with our hostess?”

Tisiphone sighed. She supposed she owed them an explanation. “Lady Ashcroft is watching the poor girl like a hawk,” she explained, lowering her voice. “It’s spooking suitors. As a consequence, Lady Cecilia has missed several dances at her own party. Her first own party.”

“So, you are asking us to protect an innocent girl who might be neglected due to circumstances not of her own making,” Robinson commented. He seemed to find the notion hilarious.

Tisiphone glowered at him. “Yes. Now, kindly, go be gentlemen. I will owe the two of you.” She forced a pleasant smile back on her face. “Come on, Meg. The stains are drying.”

Oliver climbed into his carriage, waited for James to get in, then kicked off his boots. He curled into a ball on his seat. He was drained. God, what an evening. His anonymous conversation with Miss Tisiphone had brought him some relief, but then he had been made to distract Lady Ashcroft. For half an hour. Alone. And she had not been satisfied with “quite, quite” and various forms of nods: she had wanted his opinion. “What do you think of the gala?”, “What are your thoughts on the upcoming Parliament session?”, “Do you agree with the new taxes on newspapers? Some of my favourite publications shut their doors”.

Lady Ashcroft was a widow who had not relinquished control over her husband’s holdings when her son had inherited them. She was knowledgeable on a great many topics, including politics, law and the economy. To Oliver, who could barely formulate an opinion on the weather when caught unaware, the conversation had been torture. Lady Cecilia, however, had gotten to fill two blank spots on her dance card.

“Are you alright?” James asked.

Oliver sighed. Did that even need an answer? “Are you?”

“It was such a bizarre evening! I loved it! Also, you need to marry Miss Lane.”

With his brain circling the drain, it took a while for Ollie to react. He first processed the words, listened to them again in his mind to make sure he had heard them right, then came to the conclusion they could not possibly make sense. “I beg your pardon?”

“Miss Lane. She’s charming. You need to start courting her yesterday!

“First of all, which miss Lane? The child, or the one who loathes me?”

“The latter. You have a lot in common!”

“I beg your pardon, again. What could we possibly have in common? ‘Avoidance strategies’?”

“Well, there‘s also the ’secretly conspiring to get dance partners for young ladies’.”

“So two things in common, one of them being a major character flaw.”

“My parents’ marriage was built on less, and they love each other very much!”

Oliver, whose tendency to hide in unexpected places made him privy to a lot of gossip, knew his uncle and aunt’s marriage was built on an unintended pregnancy, which implied some level of emotional attachment had existed prior to their union. Alas, he could hardly use that as a retort.

“James, I do not have the energy to argue against nonsense now. Kindly drop it.”

His cousin shrugged. “As you wish.” Rather than pursue the conversation, he knocked on the car’s roof to signal the coachman to drive, and relaxed in his seat.

Oliver got a few precious moments to himself, which he used to question whether Lady Ashcroft now believed he was an imbecile. He had not proved coherent, let alone eloquent, while talking to her. There had been a few interverted words, a lot of stuttering, and he had not counted his gaffes, but they had to number in the three digits. He still felt her irritated glare on him. And she had not been the only one judging him, either: their discussion had attracted a few drifters who had stood there to watch him fumble.

Father will kill me.

He ran his hands over his face.

“So,” James said. “Marnborne. My god, what a swine of a man. And Russelby is a snake. Are you going to do something about them?”

Oliver’s chest flared with righteous anger. “Yes!” he exclaimed, looking up. The burst of emotion faded, and he lowered his head again. “Not that I know what, but they are gross and they are to be kept away from miss Margaret.”

“How, though? You have a lot of sway, in your position, but I‘m not certain the ladies want your help. I couldn’t help notice some animosity from the two misses.”

“I did ruin Miss Tisiphone‘s reputation, so it’s quite warranted. I am sorry you found yourself at the receiving end of it?”

“Oh, don’t apologise! I had a lot of fun tonight. Prime comedy. Especially when Miss Tisiphone stained her dress on purpose so she could get her sister out of the room.”

That was not my fault. They were avoiding someone else.”

“Something else. Lady Cecilia‘s ire, to be precise. She was about to weep when I asked her for a dance, and she did make a comment about not being as noticeable as ’some‘ ladies, emphasis on ’some’.”

“Right!” Ollie winced. Despite being roped into the plan to save Cecilia Whitecove’s evening, he had not been in a state to analyse the ins and outs of the situation. “And she was with her aunt, too, who is a notorious complainer. She would have commented on a debutante getting too many suitors. I hate the ton so much.”

“Forget Lady Ashcroft. Write to Lady Cecilia to praise her amazing party, get your mother to visit her, and it will all solve itself.”

“How are you so good at people?”

James shrugged. “Entirely too many cousins on my father‘s side who constantly visited us. It’s the exposure, I reckon. You were always all alone in that huge house of yours, while I had to bat relatives out of the way.”

Oliver snorted. “Now that’s a mental image.”

“I say ‘bat’, but I used a mallet. Lots of croquet to keep us busy.”

That got Oliver to laugh. He unfolded himself. “See, you’re doing it again, being good at people.”

His cousin grinned. “I can lend you a mallet, should you need one to keep the viscount in line. They work best when you aim for the —”

“I need to investigate which connection he has with Marnborne. There might be debt involved, or merely some business venture that requires some bribery. We already know Russelby frequents your club. Does Marnborne?”

“Not that I know of, and basically live there. The viscount isn’t a regular either, but I see him there maybe once a week?”

“Good to know. I‘ll talk to my father. With some luck, he will know something we don’t.”

Tisiphone glared at her newly dark green dress. Farrah had done a great job with the garment. It was a nice shade of dark green. It had swallowed every fruit juice stain that had “accidentally” soaked through the fabric three days before, when Tisiphone had last worn the then leaf-green dress. With some tailoring to go with the dye job, nobody would recognize it. But her hands, too, were green.

“How many times must I wash you?” she mumbled at the cursed thing. She dropped it back into the tub (which, too, was green). She would have to haul more water to the bathroom, and regretted not having left the dress out in the rain overnight. The lawn wouldn’t have minded turning somewhat greener. “Fricking hedge.”

She laid down on the tiled floor. The best thing to do was likely to scrub the tub, get dressed in a potato bag, and continue her washing outside. Hopefully, the next bathers would retain their normal colouring. She was mulling over it when she heard a stampede in the staircase. Meg barged in.

“You have a package,” she announced. She squinted at Tisiphone. “What happened here? It looks like a murder scene, but—”

“I know. Who is the package from?”

“Well, Mama and I would like to know! A paperboy dropped it with the Gazette, and he didn‘t know who the sender was. I mean, nothing more than ’some gentleman who was buying his paper, Miss‘! Anyway, it’s a book,” she said, holding out what was, indubitably, a book wrapped in paper. You could tell, because someone has patted it down so thoroughly the leather corners poked out. There was no way to know who the person was, but Margaret’s fingers were rubbing the edges of the book. “Here!”

Tisiphone raised the wreckage of her hands. “Just open it.”

“As you wish!” Meg replied, happily ripping the wrapping paper off. “Ah! There‘s a letter! And the book is… ’Desmond’, by Charlotte Turner Smith.”

Tisiphone stumbled to her feet. Oh no. OH NO. He knew who I was? She tried to remember whether she had given her name to the stranger in Whitecove‘s closet. She had not. No way. He certainly hadn’t given his. In all likelihood, he had heard her mother use her name, or recognized her voice later in the evening. She snatched the letter before Meg could open it, and unfolded it an inch away from her own face.

Dear Miss Tisiphone,” the letter said. “Please don‘t be scared. My apologies for writing directly contacting you in your home without a formal introduction. I wanted attempted to talk to you during Whitecove’s gala, but you left before I could gather my courage get the opportunity to do so. Hence this letter, so I can remediate solve correct my oversite.”

The word “oversite” had been heavily scribbled through.

Meg put her chin on Tisiphone’s shoulder. “Did your suitor send you his draft?”

“It… Sure looks like it,” her sister replied. “Wait! He’s not a suitor.”

“So it is a ‘he’.”

Tisiphone groaned. “Hush, you. It’s none of your business.” She spun away from Margaret and escaped the bathroom, trying to read the letter as she raced upstairs.

“Mama!” Margaret shouted. “Tisiphone got a gift from a suitor!”

“Oh no you don‘t,” her elder mumbled, throwing herself into her bedroom and locking the door behind her. “HE’S NOT A SUITOR.”

“It‘s a ’he’ who sent you a gift!” Margaret yelled back.

Letting out a weary sigh, Tisiphone put the missive down on her bed, then slipped out of her soaked (greenish) shift. She fumbled for somewhere to put it down, so it wouldn’t stain something else, then sat down by the fireplace. The mysterious stranger had most certainly not pictured her reading his missive in her undergarments — or so she hoped — but he would never know. If it ever came up in conversation, she could just redirect it with a description of her sylvan skin tone.

She snatched the letter and looked straight at the signature. Which was not present.

Mister Mysterious Man, who had indeed mailed her a draft, had abandoned his writing in the middle of a sentence. He had started over from the beginning after the dreadful “oversite”, and managed a whole paragraph.

“Hence this letter, so I can correct my terrible oversight. Accept this copy of ‘Desmond’ as an apology. I do believe you will enjoy it, and hope we can dispute discuss the story someday, preferably not in a closet. If you are uncomfortable with public locations, as I am, do not hesitate to write back. If you are uncomfortable with me, simply”

And then there was nothing. No name, no signature, no return address, no seal, and no postage. No way to stalk the member of parliament whose franking privilege had been used (or abused). The handwriting was as unfamiliar as they came.

“An ‘oversite’ indeed,” Tisiphone muttered. How was she supposed to return the book, with or without an opinion? Hopefully, the young man would find his actual letter abandoned on his desk, and correct his mistake. Otherwise… Otherwise, she just got a free book! She would peek into random closets at parties, just in case, but her hands were otherwise tied. The book’s retrieval would be up to the absent-minded gentleman.

She put the letter away. While Margaret hadn’t attempted to barge in (yet), it would be for the best if Tisiphone made herself presentable. You never knew when an enterprising younger sibling would pick a lock. She hurried: the house was too silent, an ominous sign.

Five minutes later, she was leaving her room and bumping into her mother.

“You forgot this,” Emmeline announced, handing her the newly acquired copy of “Desmond”.

Tisiphone cleared her throat. “Thank you, Mama. Anything I can help you with?”

“Why, no, I just wanted to let you know I’m available, should you want to t—”

“Just tell us who it is from!” Margaret exclaimed from the staircase. She leaned over from her hiding spot on the landing. “We gave you ample time to process.”

“I couldn‘t tell you if I wanted to,” Tisiphone sighed. “There’s no signature.”

“What?” her sister gasped, outraged. She had been robbed of prime gossip.

“Not signed?” their mother was puzzled. “Why not?”

Tisiphone extracted the folded letter from her pocket and handed it over. She would have needed to ask for her help anyway. “Here,” she said. “He sent the wrong sheet. This is just an unfinished draft. If it helps, it‘s from the young man you briefly saw at Whitecove’s gala.” She gestured near her head, trying to mime a bucket without being obvious about it. “You didn’t happen to recognize him, did you?”

Emmeline stared at her. “I am afraid,” she started, pausing to find a diplomatic answer, “it was quite dark. I did not get a good look at the gentleman. Had I known we would hear from him again, I would have paid closer attention.”

Margaret trotted to them, followed by Farrah, who hopefully had not seen the bathroom yet. Tisiphone shook her head.

“We barely talked, and he didn’t sound like anyone I know. It was a chance encounter, really, and it lasted maybe three minutes.”

“Let me think, let me think,” Emmeline murmured, eyes closed in deep concentration. “A shy young man in dark clothes. What colour was his hair?”

“I have no idea.”

“How do you have no idea?” Meg rambled. “Did you, or did you not, meet this man?”

“It’s complicated.”

“They were talking to each other from their respective hiding spots,” Emmeline placated her youngest. “At a good, respectable distance.”


“In any case, that’s not much information to go on. I will keep an eye out for gentlemen with an interest in books and none in social events.”

“Thank you, Mother,” Tisiphone said. “Now, I don’t mean to leave you hanging, but I have to finish washing my dress. That is, if anyone wants a bath today.”

Farrah’s eyes narrowed.

Meg beamed. “Tisi! Tisi, you must show them your hands.”

Tisiphone bolted.

It was well past noon when Oliver returned home, having handed his package to miss Tisiphone to the youngest and least imposing paperboy of London. Whether the six year old would deliver it or not remained to be seen but, all in one, that was a perk. It allowed him to pretend Miss Tisiphone would not get it, and thus not judge him, nor find him creepy, nor mock him for having misinterpreted what he hoped was a genuinely nice conversation about literature. Time would tell.

The hallway leading to the dining room smelled of fresh bread and jasmine, which meant Oliver‘s mother was home, which put him in a good mood. He hadn’t seen her in three days (granted, that was because he had moped in bed since the gala). He loved his mother, but she was either a “I’ll be out all day” or a “do not disturb me” person, with no in-between. It took some effort catching her. Stumbling upon her at random was quite the rare event. Thus, he hurried to join her at the dining table.

“Mother!” He greeted, beaming. “You haven’t left yet?”

She put down her jam-covered toast. “No, you nitwit! I‘ve been staying in for two days, hoping you would emerge from your room! And today, I woke up, and you were gone! Didn’t you know how worried I was?”

He swallowed. His wallowing had kept his mind occupied, and he had forgotten about his parents entirely. In his defence, staying in his room all day was typical behaviour for him. There was no reason to believe this time was any different. “I’m so sorry, Mother. I was feeling a bit under the weather, nothing to worry about.”

“Was the gala that bad? Your cousin told us you handled yourself splendidly.”

“Did he. Oh. I did try my best.”

Several dances, Oliver! And a long conversation with Lady Ashcroft, whom you impressed. She wrote to me and showered me with praise for raising such a polite son. I was so proud. Lady Cecilia sent you a thank you note, too.”

“Did she. Ah. Um. Well, I suppose that’s the polite—”

“Oliver. They were delighted to have you, and I will not have you convince yourself they were not.”

He averted his eyes, sheepish. “Yes, Mother. Um. How is your day treating you?”

“So far, so good. Especially the jam. Here, have some,” she instructed, pushing pot and plate his way. “It’s rhubarb.”

Oliver obediently prepared himself some toast. “Mother… How familiar are you with Russelby?” he asked before taking a bite. “Are you at all acquainted?”

“The new viscount? Ah. Conniving little snake. I never liked him much, and neither did his father.”

“Any reason in particular?”

“You‘ll understand if you talk to him. He’s…” She waved her hand dismissively.

“I did, actually. I cannot say I enjoyed the experience. So. Do you have any sort of dirt on him?”

It wasn’t every day one watched the Duchess of Willingshire choke on a piece of toast. Oliver had to rush to his mother and pat her back until she recovered. He poured her a glass of water. She took three slow sips, put the glass down, and breathed out.

“Can you please repeat that?” she asked, still teary-eyed. “I do no think I heard you right.”

“Um, I…” Ollie hesitated. He was not ready for a repeat of her reaction. But, considering she was no longer actively chewing, he risked it. “I was asking if you knew anything compromising about Russelby. Blackmail material would be perfect, but rumours of gambling debts or bad investments would do.”

“Oh my God! You do take after me!”

“I… I’m sorry?”

“Your father is not petty. I am petty. What did Russelby do to you?”

“To me, nothing, but he is causing trouble for friends of mine, and I’d like to put an end to that.”

She mulled over it, drumming her nails on the table. She appeared quite disappointed not to come up with anything. “I have no specifics. He has a reputation as a greedy scoundrel, but there is no scandal attached to him that I know of. His wife is the reserved type, and I never heard gossip about her private life. You ought to ask your father. He has his network of spies.”

“His what now?”

“Just ask him. If there is anything to unearth about the man, he will find out. As for me… Is there anything I can do to help your friends?”

Oliver froze. Describing the Lane ladies as “friends of his”, had, in retrospect, been a terrible mistake. He did not recall having ever mentioned any interest in any women (be it platonic or otherwise) to his mother, nor had he ever expected to get to do so, but the notion was now giving him cold sweats. “I need to think about it,” he replied. “Everything I have tried so far backfired. But thank you for your offer. I will keep it in mind.”