Chapter 4

The days had come and gone. More letters from the Mysterious Man in the Closet, however, had not. Tisiphone had finished reading “Desmond”, which had left her feeling somewhat irritated at the protagonist, and exceedingly sorry for Geraldine, who had been saddled with the worst of husbands. Tisiphone had written down that opinion, and then some, in a letter she hoped to hand over to the book’s owner. And she had to return the book, because it was not the version found in bookstores: someone had the volumes rebound with quality embossed leather, gold leaf, and everything. Until she could find the young man, she had wrapped the book in cloth, placed it inside a locked box, and hidden the box under her bed (after, of course, checking thoroughly that she had not left green stains on it). She would have posted a classified in the Gazette, but she had not a penny to spare.

While Tisiphone had received no correspondence since “Desmond”, Margaret had been luckier: several young men had written to her, and a few had shown up at their door. Flowers had been involved. It had been nice while it lasted (and had certainly made Meg overjoyed), but the terrible weather and lack of social events had quickly smothered that budding male interest. Nobody wanted to brave the streets in a hailstorm either, so there was no point taking a walk through Hyde Park to socialise. Tisiphone had gone anyway, on her own, since it was the perfect opportunity not to have to deal with people.

That being said, the sun had finally returned, and she longed for some fresh, dry air. She just needed someone to accompany her.

“Meg?” she called, peeking into the drawing room. “Margaret! Are you still in bed?”

There was no answer. Their mother was still in bed, that much was a given, but Margaret was always up early. Tisiphone checked the empty dining room, trotted down to the kitchen (where Farrah was alone with the Gazette), then hauled herself to her sister’s room. She smelled some faint smoke as she neared the door.

“Are you up?” she called as she knocked. “Or on fire?”

“Come in!” Margaret called, opening the door. Her eyes were suspiciously puffy. “No, no, I got frustrated with my spelling and burned the letter I was writing. I should have opened the window, wait!” She hurried to said window, keeping her back turned. “Here. Much better.”

Tisiphone frowned. There was a bit of charred paper in the fireplace. Yet, she had no clue what kind of correspondence would drive her sister to such extremes as ‘setting it on fire’. Had a gentleman been too pushy? Had a woman been cruel, for that matter? Margaret had received quite a bit of mail, but none of it had come from ladies. That should have been worrying. Tisiphone would have to pay closer attention.

“Do you want to go out?” she asked, figuring Margaret would confide in her if and when she wanted to. There was no point prying. “I would love to head to the park, but I’ll settle for anywhere outside.”

“Now?” Margaret sighed. “I‘m not sure I’m awake enough. Can it wait for the afternoon?”

“If you prefer. I‘ll be in the garden, then. It’s mostly—”

The doorbell interrupted her. More suitors? She exchanged a look with Meg, who waved her away.

“Go, go, Mama is not up and I‘m not dressed!” she exclaimed. “I’ll hurry.”

Tisiphone nodded and hurried down the stairs. Farrah had already opened the door. The visitors were not suitors at all.

“—measurements for the furniture,” one of the men was explaining. “Did your mistress not warn you? Where is your mistress?”

“She is not home right now,” the housekeeper explained. “And she would have warned me, had we expected workers. Please leave a card, and she will contact you once she returns.”

The man’s eyes snapped to Tisiphone as she approached, but he turned to Farrah again. “The viscount of Russelby must have sent word! Our appointment was clearly today at eleven.”

Both visitors were well-dressed, but not richly so. The youngest carried a wooden tool chest, however, albeit engraved and made of polished rosewood. That they knocked on the front door, rather than go through the back, seemed to indicate they were valued artisans.

“Good morning,” she greeted them. “My apologies, but what is it you were saying about my cousin?”

The first man couldn’t hide his annoyance, but still bowed. “Good morning, Miss. You must be the eldest Miss Lane? I am Walter Davies, from Jefferson & Davies, cabinet makers. We work for your cousin, the viscount of Russelby. The viscount tasked us with measuring the rooms so we can get to work on the new furniture. It would seem your staff was not informed.”

Her legs turned to jelly. She kept herself from flinching. “Neither were us, I assure you, sir. Some mail must have gotten lost. I am certain this can be sorted out quickly. Can I see your business card, and maybe some document signed by the viscount?”

Davies turned to his companion, who pulled an envelope out of his toolbox. Tisiphone took it and checked its contents (not that she needed to, seeing how the envelope bore the viscount’s seal).

“I see,” she stated as she took in what she was looking at: a long and costly order. Their cousin was set to replace most of the house‘s furniture, from the dining room to the salon and at least the master bedroom. “This seems genuine, but… I am merely the daughter of the house, I am not privy to my mother’s correspondence. Farrah, did we get the mail today?”

“It’s possible, miss. Miss Margaret might have collected it without me hearing. I will go check.”

Tisiphone hesitated. “Please show the gentlemen to the drawing room, so they can wait and maybe get some work in. I shall ask Margaret and check Mother’s mail for word from our cousin.” She turned to the two men. “My apologies for this delay. As we were not expecting visitors, we might need a moment to get the house ready. We will fetch you as soon as possible.”

“Thank you, miss!” David snapped, with a sharp look at Farrah. “And it is no trouble. Postal issues do happen.”

“And at the worst possible time, too!” she joked before excusing herself.

She went up the stairs at an elegant pace, up to the point the drawing room door closed on the visitors, then she raced to her mother’s room. There was a pile of letters on the sideboard next to the door. With no surprise, Tisiphone found a sealed letter from Russelby among them. She slipped into the bedroom room.

“Mama!” she called. Emmeline was still asleep, with earplugs in, and barely shifted. Her daughter shook the mattress. “Mama, wake up.”

“Ugh… What? Tisiphone?” Emmeline blinked in confusion. Then, realising how unusual the situation was, she sat up, panicking. “Is something wrong?”

“We have something of a situation downstairs, our ‘dear’ cousin sent some furniture makers to take measurements. I am handling things. I need you to stay here and not make a noise, we told them you were gone.”

“Artisans? But he gave no warning!”

“He did. I think,” Tisiphone clarified, waving the sealed letter. “It arrived this morning.”

Emmeline reached for the missive. “Let me—”

“Just wait here. As long as it‘s sealed, you never saw it. And I can keep those men out of our bedrooms and such.” Seeing her mother was frantic, she put a hand on her shoulder. “Do not be worried, Farah and I have it well in hand. The viscount couldn’t be bothered to write in time, and I’ll turn that against him.”

“I’m your mother and the Lady of the house, I am perfectly able to manage the issue.”

“Mama. I already lied about your absence. There is no way around that, so you‘ll have to forgive me. I’ll accept every reprimand, just later.”

That seemed to convince Emmeline, who ran her hands over her face. “I’m so sorry.”

“Don‘t be. I’ll send you Margaret, alright? You can keep her quiet while I deal with mister Davies and… And the other man.”

She waited for her mother to acquiesce, then hurried out, closing the door behind her. She looked down at Russelby’s letter. Had the man arranged for them to look like idiots? He could have sent a messenger, or even written days before. Well, whatever his intentions, she would turn the tables on him.

She picked up the pile of the day’s mail.

Despite the good weather, Hyde Park was unusually empty. Oliver figured people did not trust London’s skies, and were still wary of random hailstorms and pouring rain. He was fine with it: the place was much more pleasant when deserted. You could take a long walk in peace, observe some birds and, apparently, pick flowers. It had never occurred to Oliver to pick flowers before, but James had recruited him for the recreation of “Spring”, his wilting masterpiece.

“I’m glad some flowers survived,” his cousin was saying, stealing tulips from a parterre. “I heard some hailstones were egg-sized. I thought everything would be ruined, for sure.”

“What kind of eggs?” Oliver asked.

James paused. “I did not ask. Does it matter?”

“Quail eggs are somewhat less impressive than chicken eggs. I reckon they would cause a different degree of damage?”

“I mean, they‘re still falling from the sky. That can’t be pleasant for a tulip. We are not talking skulls or windows.”

“Fair enough, I… Get up!” Oliver whispered. “People are coming.”

Unfortunately for him, James did not understand the concept of shame, so he was still crouching in the grass when a family of four passed by them, shooting them disapproving glances. Oliver lowered his hat to try to hide his face. He was mortified.

“Have you seen red ones anywhere?” his cousin asked. “I have enough yellow, I think. It’s always the easiest to find.”

No, I haven‘t,” Ollie snapped, crossing his arms. Good weather and quiet park be damned, he needed to leave. “Maybe we can head to a florist’s. There ought to be everything you need there.”

“But it wouldn’t fit the spirit of the painting, would it?”

What spirit? It’s just… Nevermind.”

There was no point arguing and getting overwhelmed once again. Oliver‘s frustration would always get the better of him. Instead of ruining his good mood, he walked away. The park had plenty of benches where one could wait for one’s relatives to be done with their nonsensical endeavours. Oliver found one, sat down, and waited. Far in the distance, he could see James collecting leaves from the bushes, and passersby gawking at him. He looked away.

You shouldn’t care. It is harmless, why would it bother you that people stare? They would not even be staring at you.

James had been nothing but supportive, and this was how he rewarded him. And after agreeing to come with him to Hyde Park, for the exact purpose of collecting flower petals. He had not been blindsided.

A name caught his attention.

“… Lane girl should be ashamed of herself,” some young lady was saying, somewhere behind him. Her voice was full of laughter. “Did you see how she behaved?”

“I did!” another woman replied. “Gosh, if I were her mother, I would hang myself in shame.”

They both giggled.

Oliver turned to them, livid. There were three women: two teenagers and a lady‘s maid serving as a chaperone. He didn’t recognize the noble girls, but one of them seemed vaguely familiar. If he wasn‘t mistaken, she had attended Whitecove’s gala. He looked back at his hands and kept eavesdropping.

“Lady Cecilia was livid! And after she was kind enough to invite the three of them, too.”

“Lady Lane still has some sway in society. She‘s owed many favours from her youth, or she’s be persona non grata.”

“Can you imagine getting your reputation ruined by your own children? I feel sorry for her.”

“No, you don’t.”

The first girl suppressed a giggle. “No, I don’t.”

James reappeared at that moment, plopping down on Oliver’s bench with his basket of flowers on his laps. He peeked at the ladies, eyebrows raised. Ollie shook his head. His expression had to be clear enough, for James frowned and tensed, turning his back to the women.

“Still, you know,” the first was saying. “There‘s being a coquette and then… There’s being a…” She lowered her voice. “Harlot. I hear she let Mister Barnes touch her, well, bosom.”

What? When?” her friend exclaimed. “Not in the ballroom, right?”

When, exactly, had the rumours about Tisiphone Lane taken such a turn? As far as Oliver knew, she was a leper among the ton. How did that reconcile with accusations of promiscuity?

“No, no. He called on her at home, and they got to be alone,” the gossip explained.

Her companion gasped dramatically. “No! Her family must be desperate to marry her off! I suppose they are grasping at straws, with the older sister a drunkard.”

Oliver whirled to them, wide-eyed.

James put down his flower basket, stood, and joined the gossips. “My apologies,” he interrupted them, “but are you discussing mister Jonah Barnes and young Miss Margaret Lane?”

The two ladies flinched back, while their chaperone stepped forward. James calmly bowed his head. “You must be, then. I must kindly ask that you refrain from spreading such frivolous rumours, seeing how you are insulting two people I know to be of impeccable reputation.”

One of the girls, a brunette, looked around in worry. While James had not raised his voice, his posture was rigid and disapproving, and some bystanders were watching. The second girl puffed her chest. “One, sir, who are you? And two, who allowed you to spy on our conversation?”

“I am James Robinson,” he stated. “And you are?”

His impeccable composure flustered her. She crossed her arms and lifted her chin. “I am appalled by your eavesdropping, mister Robinson. Now, do leave us, for we have not been properly introduced.”

“Seeing how you spoke so loudly the entire park was privy to your gossip, one can hardly call it ‘eavesdropping’. If you intend to slander people, do it quietly, or not at all. Lies will not tarnish their image overlong, but the stains of public behaviour,” he told her, lazily gesturing at their surroundings, “remain.”

She took an angry breath, but her friend grabbed her elbow and shook her head.

James bowed down and walked away from them, returning to Oliver without as much as a glance back. “Let’s go, Bridgecombe. The weather is souring.”

Tisiphone watched the front door close, walked back into the drawing room, and dropped herself on the sofa like a discarded rag doll. The day had been gruelling, and it wasn’t even noon.

“This was finely handled, miss,” Farrah told her.


“I’ll fetch your mother.”

“Thank you, Farrah,” Tisiphone sighed. She remained there, unmoving, until Theseus threw his whole tomcat weight from the sofa‘s back and onto her chest. Fifteen pounds of cat on one’s diaphragm made it hard enough to breathe without the momentum so, while she appreciated his cuddling intentions, she moved him down to her hips. “Hey, boy.”

Theseus nipped her wrist. His intentions were not “cuddling”, after all. He wanted to kick her while she was down. She tried to hide her hand under a pillow, but Theseus only swatted madly at it.

“Bored, are you?” she asked, poking his nose. “I didn‘t see one orange hair while mister Davies and his friend were here. Couldn’t you bother them?” she insisted, booping him again. “Um? Um?”

He pounced on her arm and kicked it mercilessly.

“Do not teach the cat to murder your hand!” Emmeline wailed from the doorway. “You‘ll give him bad habits!” Then, remembering why she had come, she hurried to Tisiphone and kneeled to hug her prone form. “My god, I’m so sorry you had to deal with this. Did they give you much trouble?”

She was alone, surprisingly: Meg’s curiosity ought to have gotten the better of her.

Tisiphone sat up. “They were quite accommodating once I returned with a pile of mail that included our cousin‘s. I just had to give them a good dose of ’woe is me‘ and ’let me read the letter posthaste‘. It wasn’t dated, but I made sure to leave the rest of the letters on the table where they could see, and they were all sent yesterday.”

Thankfully, Emmeline spared no effort when it came to her correspondence, and received several responses on the daily. The two visitors had pretended to believe Russelby’s letter had gotten lost on the way, but had exchanged telling glances. Meanwhile, Tisiphone had been flawlessly helpless and apologetic. By the end of the tour of the house she had given them, they seemed quite embarrassed to have pushed their luck at the door.

“You are smart,” her mother said. “You are incredibly smart. But, should this happen again, shove me out of bed and let me handle it.”

“Yes, Mama. I promise,” Tisiphone lied. “In any case… Our cousin ordered replacements for basically everything downstairs… Possibly upstairs, too. All of it from ‘Jefferson & Davies’, so the deliveries will be spaced over a year, but they are to start in three months for the largest pieces. AND. AND! The house is to be refurbished first!”

What? But we were not… I see!” Emmeline snapped. “This is all on purpose to run us out before the ‘ultimatum’, then. No warning, no requests, no nothing. That man.”

Tisiphone crossed her arms and leaned back on the sofa. She had words about the viscount, and they were better left unsaid. “Yes. I didn’t manage to find out when the renovations would start, but I expect the dining and drawing rooms will be dealt with first. I asked Davies when the current furniture would need to be gone, see, and he had no precise date, but he could tell me the dining table and chairs were already in the works.”

Emmeline sat down on the floor and buried her face in her hands. “I bet he will sell everything we have now,” she murmured.

Tisiphone couldn‘t stomach the pain in her voice. Everything in the house, Emmeline had picked with her husband, when they had been newlywed. It predated even her daughters’ births. How could she bear to lose everything? No words of comfort would soothe such a blow. Instead, Tisiphone slid down and wrapped an arm around her waist. “Mama, at least take the sofa…”

Theseus, seeing them sitting at his level, took it as a game: he bumped his head against Emmeline’s hands and climbed on her lap.

She started petting him. “I can’t dislodge him, can I?” she joked.

“Yes, you can! He’s a potato!” Tisiphone pointed out, although she made no attempts to move the two of them. Theseus was purring his little heart out.

They stayed like that for a while, until the feline ingrate decided to wander off, at which point Emmeline deflated. “How are we to receive people if the house is in tatters?” she sighed. “What about Meg’s suitors, and yours?”

“We‘ll figure something out, Mama. We’ve always been resourceful.”

“I… I‘m sure you’re right, sweetheart. I should be more optimistic. There is no point fretting over what hasn’t happened yet.”

“Indeed. Now! How about we get some fresh air? The good weather will lift everyone’s mood!”

In normal circumstances, Oliver and James would have gotten back into their carriage, headed to some restaurant for lunch, and spent a nice afternoon sharing drinks. It was not happening, because Oliver was having a crisis. They were still a street away from Hyde Park, sitting in the parked carriage, with the curtains drawn and the doors locked. James was being absurdly accommodating, considering how foul his mood had been fifteen minutes before, but that was James for you.

“It‘s my fault,” Oliver was repeating, rocking on his seat, his feet on the brocaded cushions. “It’s my fault, it’s my fault.”

If he had not conspired to get more dance partners for Miss Margaret, then she would not have been surrounded by gentlemen, and would not have attracted Lady Cecilia‘s attention, nor anyone else’s, and it would likely have prevented the gossips from latching on to the events of the ball, and her unusual popularity, which of course they would frame in a negative way, because it was what they did and the Lane were acceptable punching balls, which meant young Margaret would now be saddled with a reputation as some wanton seductress before she even got a single real suitor, which would make her untouchable and ruin the three women’s lives even more and—

“Oliver. Ollie. Breathe.”

“I a-am breathing!”

James switched seats, settling next to him to put a hand on his shoulder. “Do it any faster and you’re liable to faint,” he murmured. He took a flask out of his inner pocket. “Here, drink this.”

Oliver didn’t question him, and attempted to take a sip of whatever the flask contained. He braced for alcohol and, instead, got cold sweetened tea. The surprise proved a welcome, if faint, distraction. He focused on the tea, which he drank slowly, in controlled sips. It helped him get a modicum of sanity back. The receding panic left him anxious and exhausted. He unfolded his legs, put his feet back on the ground, and leaned back in his seat. He still was not breathing quite right.

“S-sorry,” he said. “I-I don‘t… I… We’ll drive you home, I just… I’m sorry.”

James merely stared at him. When he saw Oliver hunch over again, he bolted up, banging his head on the carriage‘s roof. “Ow! Ugh. I mean, don’t apologise. It happens.”

Ollie looked away, bitter. Sure. It happened. To the insane.

“Although,” his cousin went on, “I don’t know why your mind would feed you such obvious lies. It is not in any way your fault.”

“Had I not set up a—”

“I sent five friends, Oliver. Miss Margaret filled her dance card, so that‘s nine partners she found on her own. I daresay she’d have found five more with ease. She was the prettiest girl in the room, that’s all.”

“I know… I know, but I do not feel it‘s true, if that makes any sense? There’s no use reasoning with me.”

Oliver was not entirely honest. Logic scarcely ever worked on his anxieties. The truth was that he could not rely on his thoughts and had to be aware of it, as the validity of even his craziest fears seemed unassailable to him. It was only much later, looking back, that he could tell how nonsensical they had been.

“Alright. Well. You need exercise. I don‘t know how to deal with a cluttered mind, but I know how to soothe nerves. We’re going fencing.”

“What about your flowers?”

“I can get more flowers.”

Oliver could not possibly cause him more inconveniences today. He shook his head. “We‘ll drive you to your atelier so you can get to work. I’ll head home, I’ll be fine.”

“How about we walk to my atelier, then? Exercise and work, all in one!”

To one who wanted to curl up and die, or at least bathe the remnants of cold sweat away while recovering from an emotional meltdown, a long walk outside was not an appealing prospect. Yet, James was being nice. He deserved some appreciation. So, Oliver acquiesced, wiped his face, put his hat back on, and followed him out and down the street.

They only had to turn the one corner to bump into Tisiphone Lane.

Tisiphone had not been watching where she was going. She ought to have: it tended to prevent one from knocking gentlemen over. Yet, her attention had been focused on where Marnborne was putting his hands, so she had not been looking at her surroundings. She had turned a corner and collided with a lanky young man, who had promptly toppled over.

No gardenias were involved. At least, there was that.

Their outing had begun so well! The sun was radiant, a pleasant breeze kept the air fresh but not cold, and the streets were not overly crowded. With such a lovely weather, Emmeline’s mood had improved quickly. Margaret, who had been withdrawn at home, had forgotten her troubles. The day looked like it could be salvaged. And then, Marnborne had showed up. Tisiphone knew he could not possibly have been stalking them: he had met them by chance, four streets away from their house, and they had been taking the scenic route to Hyde Park. No, the meeting had merely been terrible luck. And there had been no getting rid of him.

He was a creep.

She was of the personal opinion that a man of forty with an “interest” in a teenage girl deserved a mediaeval public shaming. A day in the stocks, maybe, with a purely female audience armed with rotten tomatoes. Alas, you couldn’t do that to gentlemen. Not without being higher up in the nobility.

“I will walk you to the corner,” he had insisted. And then, past the corner: “I will walk you to the park!” And, all the while, he had attempted to insert himself between Emmeline and Margaret, or between Tisiphone and Margaret, battling their obvious efforts to serve as human shields. In a group of women that included a widow in her forties, he kept offering his arm to the teenage girl.

Keeping an eye on his antics what was had led Tisiphone to turning the next corner with a little more rage in her step than strictly warranted, and knocking a gentleman down. Namely: Bridgecombe.

She gaped at him — of course, it had to be Bridgecombe — but only for a second, then kneeled to help him up. “Are you alright?” She asked out of reflex. She saw his expression. However bad her day had been, his must have been worse, because he looked as if someone had died. “Are you all—”

“My apologies,” he blurted out, pushing her extended hand away. His voice was creaking. “I, this, I… I was not paying attention.”

“Woman!” Marnborne snapped, elbowing her out of the way. “Can‘t you look where you are going?” He bent down and grabbed the young earl’s arm. “Lord Bridgecombe, here, let me help you.”

Bridgecombe, stunned, let himself be pulled up. Twiglike as he was, there was little he could do to prevent it: despite his beer belly and general portliness, Marnborne was a muscular man with a large frame. The earl must have seemed weightless to him.

Once on his feet, Bridgecombe backstepped.

“I am fine,” he said. “There is no need to berate Miss Tisiphone, sir. I was woolgathering, and am entirely to blame.”

His voice lacked authority, and was scratchy and weak. Thus, it did little to deter Marnborne.

“She hit you with the force of a cannonball, Bridgecombe! There is no need for you to apologise to her.”

“I was standing in the middle of the way. Drop it.”

Marnborne would not have dropped anything, had James Robinson not defused the situation by picking up his cousin’s hat and handing it to him. “Here you go.” He whirled to Emmeline, nodded at her, and bowed to both Tisiphone and Margaret, smiling to the latter. He handed her a single yellow tulip from the basket he was carrying. “Nice weather today, right? Where are you headed?”

Margaret took the flower and held it up in confusion. “Um. Good morning, Mister Robinson, Lord Bridgecombe. We were headed to Hyde Park, Tisiphone insisted on a walk.”

Robinson handed Emmeline a white tulip, and Tisiphone a red one. They hadn‘t been plucked out cleanly. There were aphids on them. “I would avoid it today,” he advised. “It’s quite muddy still, after the hailstorms. Although…” He locked eyes with Emmeline. “Didn‘t I vanish on the three of you at Whitecove’s gala? I seem to remember promising a dance to your daughters, and… not coming back. Might I invite you ladies for tea? There is an excellent establishment just a street away!”

That invitation did not extend to Marnborne. Maybe Robinson was rescuing them, after all. Getting the old pig away from them to discuss his art, at the gala, was one thing. Here, he was getting them away from Marnborne.

Emmeline picked up on it instantly. “Why, young man, if you have an hour to waste…” She ignored Margaret’s betrayed look.

Tisiphone kept her expression carefully neutral. Bridgecombe was livid. As for Marnborne, he was frowning, but could hardly invite himself. Still, he stared expectantly at Robinson, who refused to take the hint.

“Sir Marnborne! Are you free tomorrow evening?” he asked. “I’ve been meaning to invite you for a drink at my club, and a tour of my atelier. Have you ever been to the Oak Barrel?”

“I can’t say I know the place. Is it new?”

“Somewhat. I have been trying to lure more of a clientele there. I can send the address to your place. Anyway! Join me there tomorrow evening, if you feel like trying something new! I‘ll be there from, say, five o’clock.”

“I’ll see if I can free myself. Will you be going, Bridgecombe?”

The earl snubbed his nose at him. “I have other engagements. Another time, maybe.”

Marnborne could not conceal his irritation. “Well, I would be delighted to see you there all the same.” He lifted his hat. “On that note, I should be on my way for my own engagements. A good day to you all.”

Tisiphone gave him the fakest smile she could muster while her mother and sister exchanged goodbyes. Since the man’s target was Margaret, he did not even notice Tisiphone. Robinson once again vouched for his club. Bridgecombe gave a sharp nod. And then, finally, Marnborne left.

They watched him go.

“That,” Emmeline exclaimed, “was masterful, mister Robinson.”

He chuckled. “So I did not eject a welcome suitor? I wasn’t sure. It did appear the man was overstaying his welcome.”

“He was!” Margaret blurted out. She slapped a hand on her mouth. “I mean. We were hoping for a quiet, short walk.”

“Sir Marnborne is a pleasant gentleman, but my daughters are unused to holding conversations with men twice their seniors,” Emmeline “innocently” clarified. “That is my failing, I assume, for only letting them have friends their own ages.”

“We will not force you to have tea,” Robinson promised. “That being said, I am parched and I have nothing better to do.”

“Your flowers!” Bridgecombe hissed.

“Need to dry. So, Lady Lane, Miss Tisiphone, Miss Margaret… Would you spare a moment for us?”

Tisiphone squinted at the earl, caught herself, and looked at her shoes. Meg squinted at the earl, did not catch herself, and squinted some more.

“We would be enchanted!” Emmeline replied. “Why, it’s such a sweet offer after such a sweet rescue.”

“Well, then! Please follow me, it’s this way.”

And so they followed. Bridgecombe attempted to escape, but his cousin put an “encouraging” hand on his back. Margaret slowed down so she could hang back with Tisiphone.

“What is Mama playing at?” she whispered. “I don‘t want anything to do with them! We don’t want anything to do with them.”

Tisiphone shook her head with a confused gesture, even though their mother’s intent was obvious. Robinson was young, charming and considerate: the perfect match for Meg. Why Meg herself could not see it was a mystery, but her sister was not about to point it out. She, herself, was bracing for tea time with her nemesis.

“And,” Meg murmured. “What are we meant to do with the tulips?”

The tulips ended up in a glass of water at “Mrs. Josephine‘s Tea Room”, a fine and lovely establishment that you could only find by chance, while getting lost through the back alleys. You had to spot the back alleys, too, squeezed as they were between respectable buildings. The teahouse’s entrance was in a small courtyard surrounded by high hedges, between the gardens of residential buildings. Its facade was painted white and its door green, with an ornate iron railing lining the dainty little stairs that led to the entrance. The courtyard, while paved, was coloured by the potted flowers and small potted trees placed all around garden tables. It was surprisingly enchanting for a place nobody would ever notice. The establishment had to rely on word-of-mouth, Tisiphone supposed, and word was not quite spreading.

Robinson peeked inside the empty tea room. “Mrs. Josephine? I brought customers!”

“Jamie!” an enthusiastic voice exclaimed. “How kind of you!” A middle-aged lady with dark brown skin and a thigh bun wrapped in lace came to the door, beaming. “Welcome, my lord, my ladies. Please get seated, I’ll bring you the menu posthaste.”

“I am moving here,” Emmeline announced.

Ten minutes later, the tulips were enjoying fresh water and an extension on life. The humans were enjoying delicious tea and biscuits. Few of them were enjoying their company. Emmeline had taken a liking to the young James Robinson, and the two of them were discussing painting, art, and the obscure qualities that made painting art. Bridgecombe, despite being seated in the bright sun of spring, gave out the same feeling as if he had retreated in the darkest corner of a dimly-lit room. If he leaned any farther back in his chair, it would topple. The man radiated emotional distance. As for physical distance, he was the only person at the table sitting at more than an arm’s length from the others.

Margaret, sullen, was examining her nails. At least, she would have been, had she thought of removing her gloves.

Tisiphone aimed at impassiveness. She paid minimal attention to the conversation, in case someone’s engagement was decided.

“And so, the flowers are for a painting?” Emmeline was asking.

“Indeed! I intend to make some kind of paint or ink out of them. I will then use those for a landscape themed on spring. My first attempt didn’t turn out too well. Right, Bridgecombe?”

“Right,” the earl repeated.

“But I have great hopes. Anyway, my cousin has been kind enough to drive me all over London, and to promote my art to his friends. I’m so glad to have family in high places.”

Emmeline laughed. “Is that going well?”

“It is going exactly as I wanted!” Robinson replied with a mischievous grin. “Isn’t that so, Bridgecombe?”

“Quite, quite.”

There was a thumping noise under the table. The table itself trembled. Their cups clattered. Bridgecombe’s shot daggers at Robinson, who smiled innocently.

“I‘m so clumsy! Sorry about that. Anyway! I’ve been talking about myself. What about you, Lady Lane. What are your plans for the season?”

Tisiphone frowned. She did not like that line of questioning. Her mother was astute enough to dodge the sensitive topics, but it sounded like Robinson was fishing for information.

“Ah, the usual. We are a quiet lot, we tend to stay home a lot, or at least to only venture as far as Hyde Park. But if the weather allows, I might take my embroidery to the countryside.”

“To one of the Russelby estates, I assume? I hear your family has a lovely mansion in Dorset.”

Emmeline did not miss a beat. “Maybe, but we have smaller houses much closer. We haven’t yet decided, in any case.”

Her acting was perfect. Margaret was the one to flinch. Tisiphone watched, in turn, Robinson‘s peek at her sister, Margaret hide her expression behind her cup of tea, and Bridgecombe frown, even though he hadn’t been looking at Meg.

Emmeline waved her hand. “We wouldn‘t be gone for long, in any case. I wouldn’t rob my daughter of too much of her first season. They pass so fast already. So, expect to find us home with our embroidery and our books. By the way, feel free to drop by for a cup of tea and cookies, as a thanks for today. We always welcome visitors!”

Robinson beamed. “Then you must invite my cousin, since he’s the one paying.”

Bridgecombe did not react. At all.

“I am inviting the two of you,” Emmeline replied.

Meg dropped her cup of tea, fumbled to catch it, and revealed in the process she had been drinking from an empty cup. She put it down elegantly and looked away as if she had meant to do all that, not unlike Theseus when he missed a jump and crashed into a sideboard. Nobody commented on it.

“We would both be delighted to visit!” Robinson said. He turned to his cousin, who gave no sign of having heard him. He cleared his throat.

“Ah! Why, yes, of course,” Bridgecombe declaimed. Was he able to utter even a single world without sounding like he was reading off a script? Along with his turning up his nose at his interlocutors, and refusal to even look their way, it was infuriating.

“Farrah‘s cookies are a work of art,” Emmeline went on. “Our cook, I mean. Not to dismiss Mrs Josephine’s delicious pastries, which are scrumptious.” She turned to the store owner, who was rearranging the flowers on a nearby table. “By the way, Mrs. Josephine, is this place new? I am appalled not to have known about it until now!”

The old woman smiled. “Three months to a day, my lady! My husband retired, and we figured we would put our savings into something for me and my daughter! Rent being what it is in Mayfair, however, we had to settle for a smaller place.”

That explained the “secluded” location, although Tisiphone expected the costs were still colossal.

“Mister Byrne worked as my family’s butler for thirty-five years!” Robinson explained. “The kindest man you can imagine. I hear he is now enjoying his grandchildren.”

“That, he is,” Mrs. Josephine nodded. “Having a fine time, too.”

“The kids must love it. I have the fondest memories of climbing on Byrne‘s back when I was five or so? He’d run with me all over the garden so I could win races against my father!”

“It must have been amazing!” Margaret blurted out, forgetting to sulk at Robinson. Their own home had lacked fatherly figures, and their mother had never been fit enough for such antics. When the girls had wanted to run, they had to use their own legs. “And your father didn’t mind?

“Kindly do not make me sound like a monstrous disciplinarian,” Emmeline muttered under her breath.

Robinson laughed. “Ah, no. My father is one of many children, he is used to rowdiness.”

Aaaaand he won her over. He really is smooth.

Tisiphone leaned back in her chair and let the conversation unfold. Her own childhood memories involved books, books, and more books. One could hardly extract funny anecdotes from sitting on the couch and reading for fifteen years in a row. So, she let Margaret out herself as a rambunctious little girl who climbed trees, fed squirrels and tried to spin all the way round on her swing. She did not count on her sister launching into a sales pitch about her own hobbies.

“Tisiphone reads all the time,” Margaret told Robinson. “It‘s really amazing. And I don’t mean she’s into cheap romance novels or anything: she reads everything.”

She had a way with words. Tisiphone attempted to vanish. If she stood still enough, they would all forget she was physically present. Alas, even Bridgecombe had turned to her at Margaret’s pronouncement.

“She got it from her father,” Emmeline proudly said. “He left quite the library, and I think you read everything in it, right, Tisiphone?”

“I would not say ‘everything’,” her daughter replied. There had to be a way to escape the conversation. Bridgecombe’s direct attention was giving her goosebumps. “Merely the fiction and the history books.”

“And the scientific ones, and the philosophy books, and the encyclopaedia,” Meg added.

Tisiphone winced. “It rains overly much in London, and I was a bored child.”

Robinson burst into warm laughter. “I know someone else like that.” Smiling, he inclined his head towards Bridgecombe, who looked pointedly away.

While Margaret could be seduced with tales of childhood adventures, she was not about to forgive the earl. “I suppose we all do,” she replied. “Although I have to admit I favour simple novels myself. My sister, however… Why, last week… What‘s the book you just finished, Tisiphone? The one your suitor sent you, about the man who went to France during the Revolution? It was quite interesting, wasn’t it?”

Oh god. She was rubbing Tisiphone‘s imaginary suitors in Bridgecombe’s face. Worse, he was listening! His face went through a variety of expressions, from confusion to disbelief to disdain. Tisiphone ignored him and turned to Margaret.

“It was ‘Desmond’, by Charlotte Smith. A great read indeed. Quite subversive and political with a background of romance, but I’m sure everyone at this table knows of it already.”

“Did you like it?” Bridgecombe asked.

For the first time since their arrival, he was leaning forward in his chair. His expression remained closed off, however, giving Tisiphone the impression he was questioning her. She turned to him, neutral. “I did. I had my issues with it, particularly its ending, but it did an overall great job at picking apart social customs and the aristocratic system, not to mention the hazards of marriage.”

Robinson stared at her, wide-eyed.

Bridgecombe looked down, biting his lower lip. He nodded. “I do suppose it might have worked well as a tragedy, but I did find the ending uplifting. And Charlotte Smith herself separated from her scoundrel of a husband, which I expect inspired her.”

“True,” Tisiphone conceded. She picked up the teapot and refilled Emmeline’s cup, then her own. “Meg, do you want some more tea?” She did not wait for her sister to answer, and poured her some more tea. “Mister Robinson?”

He studied her face, as if she were a puzzle he had to solve. He peeked at Bridgecombe’s full cup, then back at Tisiphone. “Gladly, thank you.”

“This shall be my last,” Emmeline said. “We cannot keep those charming gentlemen hostage all afternoon.”

“What?” Robinson gasped in mock surprise. “Are we supposed to be captives? And here I was having the best day of my life.”

She giggled. “Flatterer. But, alas, while I echo the sentiment, I haven’t even started on my correspondence today, and I have a few responses to send out posthaste. However, you are still welcome to visit us when it strikes your fancy.”

“I have been promised cookies. I would not miss that for the world.”

The torture had lasted two hours, but it was over: the ladies were gone. Oliver sank into his chair and ran his hands over his face. Thankfully, Mrs. Josephine’s Tea Room was a failed business. He and James were the only customers, this on a sunny afternoon in the middle of Mayfair. It was terrible for “Mrs. Josephine” herself, of course, but Oliver appreciated having no witnesses to his despair. Except James, but James did not count: he had left their table to join Mrs. Byrne at the door of the tea house, and was chatting happily.

Had the circumstances been different, Oliver would have loved the place: it was quiet, pretty, and smelled of flowers thanks to the generous helping of potted plants sprinkled around the courtyard. He could see himself visiting again, with a book, to read undisturbed. Mrs. Byrne, as he remembered her from brief encounter at James’ house, was not the prying type. She would know to leave him alone with tea and snacks. He would give it a try.

That being said, this visit had not been pleasant, and he could not wait to return home to contemplate why Tisiphone‘s family had not acknowledged he had sent her a gift. Did they not know? Had she somehow not noticed his letter? Had he attached the letter? He had certainly struggled to write it. He had put it in the package, he was sure of it. It had been over the book’s cover when he had closed the packaging. Maybe the package had been damaged and lost?

This is what you get for sending your mail through a toddler.

Maybe an actual suitor had sent her the same book, and his own copy had never arrived. Or Miss Tisiphone had not told her family who had sent it. But it she knew it came from him, then what kind of mind games was she—

“I think I might just manage to reconcile you with Miss Tisiphone!” James announced, plopping down in a chair facing him. He came with a fresh pot of tea and a piece of strawberry pie. “And easily, at that.”

Oliver stared at him. His stomach attempted to redirect his attention to the single piece of pie by grumbling loudly, but he put the hunger aside to better gawk at his cousin. “I’m sorry, what?”

“Well, this all seems to stem from a misunderstanding. I just need to get the two of you on speaking terms, and the problem should solve itself.”

“Weren’t you merely rescuing them from Marnborne?”

“Two birds in one stone? In any case, Mrs. Lane is charming, and Miss Margaret seems to be coming around. I’ll get her to like you, and then Miss Tisiphone will lower those high walls of hers. What do—” James finally realised Oliver had gone ashen. “Was that not the intent? Reconciling with her, restoring her reputation?”

Ollie took a deep breath. “I… I had quite hoped to do that from a distance.” Anonymous conversations in dark closets aside, he was petrified around Tisiphone.

James frowned, mulling over his answer. “Well, I cultivate their friendship on my own. They are good company and I would be a fool to walk away now.”

“That you would,” Mrs Byrne cut in, bringing the rest of the pie to their table. “What a lovely young lady you brought today.”

“I, what?”

“The youngest one, in the yellow dress. I didn‘t think I’d live to see the day you’d be courting someone!”

“Josephine. You are only sixty-two. You’re likely to see my grandchildren get wed.”

“How kind of you to subtract five years from my advanced age. May I sit, my lord?” she asked Oliver, who fumbled to make room for her. She put down the plates and took the chair between them. “And do not think me too old to lose track of a conversation, little Jamie. It didn’t work when you were ten and it will not work now.”

“I am not courting her,” James pointed out with genuine puzzlement, as if he had not spent two hours endearing himself to the girl and her mother.

Oliver served himself tea and let James claw his way out of the grave he had dug himself. Apparently, you could be the most socially astute man in the world and still have blind spots. Had he been a better cousin, Ollie would have rescued James from intrusive questions on his romantic life, but Ollie was a wreck who could not rescue himself from small talk.

Mrs. Byrne served Oliver a generous piece of pie. She raised her eyebrows at James. “Then why did you gift the girl a flower, boy?”

“I gifted them all flowers, which didn’t even outlive one teapot. Just look,” he insisted, waving at his basket of dead tulips. “It was merely a distraction to rescue them from some old fart who was harassing Miss Margaret.”

“That‘s true,” Oliver confirmed. “Sir Manborne — have you heard of the man? — fancies himself the girl’s suitor. We met them by chance and had to stage an intervention.”

The old woman’s features hardened. Her voice dropped to a dour muttering. “I have not heard of him, no, but I am familiar with the type. Good on you, boys. Ahem. My lord.”

He shook his head. “You needn’t bother with formality when there is no one around to hear it.”

“There are always ears around.”

Oliver sighed. He would not be the one getting in trouble if someone overheard her address him familiarly. He did not push the issue. “This is a lovely place you have here,” he said instead. “You did a wonderful job with the decoration. A-and t-tea, of course.”

“That‘s very kind of you to say. A little more advertising and we’ll be all set!”

“I’m working on it!” James exclaimed. “Look, I brought an earl today!”

“You brought a purse wrapped in an earl,” Oliver mumbled.

His cousin laughed. “That too.”

The Lane ladies‘ trip home took a while, due to the military level of reconnaissance they exercised on the way. They had endured enough of Marnborne’s presence to last the entire week so, on their slow walk back, Tisiphone eyed every nook and crevice with wariness, and turned every corner first to check the next street.

As was usual, she heard snickers and whispers aimed at her, but she was quite used to ignoring those. She wished Margaret could do the same but, alas, her sister’s emotions had always been quick to inflame. Today, maybe because their situation was growing direr and direr, Meg did not grow angry. Instead, she lowered her head and retreated into silence. Even at home, she remained sullen, retiring to her room only minutes after their return. Tisiphone could only watch helplessly as her sister dragged herself (and her feet) out of the drawing room, leaving her alone with their mother.

“I’ll give her a moment,” Emmeline sighed, putting her mail down next to her on the sofa. “This was a long day.”

“It was,” Tisiphone acquiesced. She let a minute go by, shifting uneasily in her armchair, then braced herself. “Mama, did you just invite Bridgecombe to visit us?”-

“Yes! Yes, I believe I did. I’m starting to believe we might have some misconceptions about the young man.”

“I’m sorry?” her daughter erupted. Years of pent-up rage seemed to have burst out in a second. She swallowed it down. “Ah, my apologies, Mama. I did not mean to yell. Misconceptions?”

Emmeline nodded with a serene expression. “I have been giving the matter some thought since Whitecove’s gala. Having spend some more time with the young man today, I am carefully revising my opinion of him.”

“What could you possibly have noticed that I did not?” Tisiphone replied, careful to get her tone in check. “The man snubbed us all afternoon. He did not even bother to listen to his own cousin.”

“Now, now. I am not entirely certain ‘snubbing’ is the word. Now, I might be wrong, but the issue might be something else. I feel he is guarded, cripplingly so. Possibly shy.”

Tisiphone narrowed her eyes. Against her best judgement, her arms crossed themselves and her body sank back in her armchair. She forced herself to relax, putting her hands on her lap. “That is not at all the impression he gave me.”

“I have more experience with awkward young men than you do. In any case, spending more time in his company should clarify things.”

“I do not see it.” In truth, she had no inclination to give the earl the benefit of the doubt. She wished to banish him from her mind entirely. Him, and all of the gossips and bullies who had made her life hell for four years. However, she owed it to her mother to try. Breathing in, she closed her eyes and pictured their afternoon. Had Bridgecombe shown the slightest interest in them? Any curiosity, any kindness, any friendliness? He had not. Robinson had been the one to carry the conversation, to smile and charm his guests, to ensure they felt comfortable. Meanwhile, Bridgecombe had sulked and counted the minutes, sitting back with his arms crossed and his face turned away. That was not “shy”, that was “annoyed”. Tisiphone shook her head. “I don’t. He clearly could not wait to get rid of us.”

Emmeline sighed, nodding. “That is the most obvious conclusion, isn’t it? Yet… I trust my intuition on this. I know how painful all of this is to you, so I will not force you to be present if he visits. However… I will try to get to know him. Through his cousin, too. We might have been wrong about Bridgecombe all along, or he might have matured into a reasonable man. He was only nineteen back when…”

“During my first season. I know.”

Her mother took a shaky breath, running a hand over her face. “His character aside… Cultivating a polite relationship with Bridgecombe, or at the very least his family, would give our family a boost in reputation. Robinson visiting would be helpful. Bridgecombe signalling a reconciliation and approval of us might very well wipe out the rumours about you. Those who seek only to impress him—”

“Are only the tip of the iceberg,” Tisiphone cut in. “But I get your point, Mama, I do. Margaret deserves a clean slate, too. Whatever I can do to free her from my baggage—”

“Forget Margaret! I‘m worried about you! It’s your life we would get back. I am your mother.* I* am responsible for the two of you. I will protect Margaret. You worry about you!”

It was a heartwarming perspective, yet a naive one: there was only so much Emmeline could accomplish on her own. Whatever she did, her actions would never balance out the mere weight of Tisiphone‘s presence. The ton loved to hate her, and it fell to Tisiphone to control her own actions, so they would not find further fodder for their gossip. If she had to tolerate Bridgecombe to regain some ground, she would. Hadn’t she decided to face him already?

Pointing all of that out would only hurt Emmeline, but Tisiphone could not bring herself to simply acquiesce. She deflected. “Mama! Did you just order me to forget Margaret?”

The joke landed flat. Her mother studied her face, with such sadness that Tisiphone’s stomach twisted in guilt.

“I was just…” She flailed, gesturing for her to remain seated when she got up. “Mama!”

Emmeline paid her no mind. She joined her, squeezing herself in the free space on the armchair, and pulled her into a crushing hug. “I am telling you not to forget yourself, Tisiphone.”

One would expect “supper with the duke of Willingshire” to be a formal affair but, provided there were no guests to entertain, it was scarcely the case. Romuald liked his peace, a healthy dose of potatoes and butter, and to get to exchange pieces of food with his wife. Sitting at the opposite ends of their huge oak dining table would have made it impossible without a slingshot, so they took their shared meals in “small salon number six”, at a much smaller round table with comfortable chairs.

Salon number six was known as “the yellow one”, all in soft tones and muted lighting. It took well to candlelight and provided a relaxing mood at the end of the day. It was the best place to approach Romuald, as he was more likely to pay attention to his plate than to the fine details of what you were asking him. Oliver, who had some questionable requests, had thus deemed supper the perfect moment to talk to his father.

He should have known things would not be easy.

He watched as Romuald paused mid-chew, peered at him above his spectacles, and put his fork down.

“I do not know where you got the idea that I have a ‘network of spies’, but I most assuredly do not,” he said. “Whatever would I need one for?”

Oliver cleared his throat. He tried not to peek at his mother. He failed. She raised her hands helplessly.

Romuald took a deep breath. “The two of you will be the end of me. Forty years of marriage, twenty-three years of fatherhood, and you still manage to surprise me. Oliver! Why, pray tell, would you need a ‘network of spies’?”

His son cleared his throat and looked away. “I-I need to investigate two gentlemen.”

“I see. Is there any particular reason for that?”

“I, um.”

“One of the men is causing issues for his friends,” his mother clarified. “The second one, I have no idea.”

“They are both causing issues for the same friends,” Oliver sighed. “And I would like to pressure these two men so they stop.”

Romuald considered his words. He cut a piece out of his chicken breast, then made sure to chew it thoughtfully as Oliver sweated bullets in his seat. Evalyn couldn’t help but lean to her husband.

“He came to me asking for blackmail material!” she proudly announced. “He grew up so fast.”

“Mother!” Oliver protested. He had asked for exactly that, but he would have used somewhat different terms with his father. Terms with less of a criminal undertone, for a start.

“And who are we blackmailing?” Romuald asked, returning his attention to his fried potatoes.

Not having to look him in the eye made the conversation much easier.

“Um. Russelby and a friend of his. Lord Marnborne.”

“Ah, yes, the idiot, I heard of him. What did the two of them do? You’re not usually one for confrontation.”

“Marnborne is attempting to sink his claws into a debutante, and the viscount is encouraging him. I don’t like it.”

Romuald raised an eyebrow. He did no, however, look away from his plate, so Oliver still had some leeway.

“Which debutante?” his mother exclaimed. “Is that why you did not give me names?”

“What? No!” Oliver lied. “I barely know the young miss. I just felt it would be easier to say ‘friends’ than explain my going on a crusade against strangers, for strangers. Russelby’s behaviour got under my skin.”

His father pushed his plate away. He was not even done eating. Oliver swallowed hard and braced for serious questioning.

“Why don‘t you start from the beginning?” Romuald asked. “I feel like your mother and I are sufficiently involved to hear the specifics, by now. And I’ll need the details, should I hire a brand new network of spies.”

The marble drawing room table broke in half when the two burly men who had been sent to retrieve the old furniture banged it against the door frame. They had been careful, the angle was just awkward, and the ‘bang’ had been more of a ‘bump’, if even that. Everyone in the house had known not to put too much weight on that table, however, seeing how it was cracked. Once upon a time, a six year old Tisiphone had jumped on it during a tantrum, which had ended swiftly when she had heard the marble creak. Ever since then, the household had avoided straining the table too much: some items (such as heavy books, potted plants and whole human children) were not to be put on it.

“Godamnit! He’ll take that off our pay,” one of the movers exclaimed, unaware that Tisiphone was watching from the stairs landing. “Should have gotten it out through the window.”

It was unlikely the table would have survived either way. Its own weight could have finished it off, under a strong breeze.

“The viscount has no clue what‘s in the house,” she said from her vantage point, startling the men. “He hasn’t visited in ten years. Just throw it in the garden and we’ll dispose of it.”

They both looked up, blanching. Idly, she mused that they couldn‘t possibly be accustomed to noble ladies sitting on their stairs to watch them work, especially not with bed hair and a plate of biscuits. If one had to witness one’s home being torn apart, Tisiphone figured, one might as well do it on a full stomach. She nibbled on a biscuit.

“Miss! Apologies, we didn’t know you were here.”

“Well, my reading spot is in your carriage along with the other armchairs,” she pointed out. “So I had nothing better to do.”

She knew from experience that grown men were rarely impressed by her, let alone scared stiff. Yet, the two workers had gone somewhat pale and wide-eyed. Oh, right. She was acting crazy. Not that she cared, for she was as empty and at peace as, well, something entirely empty and at peace. No emotions whatsoever. It beat uncontrollably weeping in one’s bedroom, which her mother was currently doing. Margaret and Farrah were comforting her. Tisiphone would have helped them, but she felt someone had to watch the proceedings.

There had been no warning. Of course not. Farrah had answered the doorbell expecting the mail, and found a team of movers instead.

The ‘warning’ would likely arrive later in the day. She was growing familiar with the viscount‘s tactics. He was setting them up to lose, whatever they did. Either they endured his games, or they rebelled. And, should they rebel, he would paint them as parasites and throw them out. Tisiphone had managed to salvage the situation with mister Davies, an artisan of renown who understood the ton. Her reward for playing her cards well was a do-over of the same game, except her cousin had taken away her cards. With no reputable witness to testify to Russelby’s tricks, there was nothing she could do.

The movers, quite abashed, resumed their work. They took the broken table (which meant Tisiphone could not get their coachman to sell the marble itself). They carried out the last sideboard. One of them came back to the bottom of the stairs and hesitantly looked up.

“Um. Miss, We‘re done for today,” he announced. “We have to drive this back to the warehouse for storage, so we won’t be returning before tomorrow. What’s a good time for you?”

“I have no idea,” Tisiphone replied, still entirely detached from her own emotions. “Any time after seven, I suppose? There’s always someone up at that point.”

He swallowed, then cleared his throat again. “Alright, miss, thank you. Um.” His uneasiness was tangible. “We‘re to empty the study next. It, um, would be best if you could remove your belongings before we get here. Ah, uh, we packed what you didn’t grab, I mean, ‘remove’, earlier.”

Right. Tisiphone and Margaret, with intermittent help from Farrah, had scrambled for fifteen minutes to get their smaller possessions out of the drawing room. Vases, framed drawings, books, gloves, their growling cat… Meanwhile, Emmeline had tried to delay the workers without collapsing into sobs.

“It will be done, thank you,” she told the men. She didn’t move a muscle. “Have a nice day.”

They exchanged concerned looks, bowed and saluted, and showed themselves to the door. She heard one of them whisper to the other a baffled “What the hell was this? Those ladies didn’t even know!”. The door closed behind them, leaving the hallway eerily quiet. There was no way the emptying of an entirely different room would impact its acoustics, yet the silence seemed to echo more.

Tisiphone shook her head and got back to her feet. She had a mother to console.