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Series name change

Readers who have been with me from the beginning know that the original series name was the "Lady Wynwood series," but the name changed to the "Lady Wynwood's Spies series." You can read on my blog about why the name and the series structure changed.

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Lady Wynwood's Spies, volume 3: Aggressor

Part three in a Christian Regency Romantic Adventure epic serial novel with a supernatural twist
Lady Wynwood’s Spies volume 3

One man faces death

With the help of his team, Mr. Michael Coulson-Jones has overcome the deadly Root elixir that turned him into a monster. But now that they know more about the deadly potion, he is faced with an inevitable truth—unless he agrees to the risk of taking more, he will eventually die.

One man faces theft

In the meantime, a beautiful, infamous French spy and her group of thugs have landed on English soil, intent on stealing the mysterious plant that Apothecary Jack uses to control his underworld empire. They play a deadly game of hide-and-seek with Michael’s team amidst the rookeries of London.

One man faces rage

Then one of the team is afflicted by a savage, insane rage after exposure to the strange pollen of Jack’s plants. The team must not only battle the French spies and Apothecary Jack, but also a sickness of the mind tormenting one of their own.

PLEASE NOTE: This is the third book in the Lady Wynwood’s Spies series, an epic serial novel. Each volume has a completed story arc, but this is NOT a stand-alone novel and the story continues in volume 4.

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“Let me out! I can hear you breathing!”

“Michael?” Isabella breathed. “Is it you?”

What a strange question. Who else would it be? “Ugly, I’m going to burst if I don’t use the privy.”

There was a gasp, then a muffled laugh. The gasp was perhaps his mother—that didn’t surprise him—but strangely, the laugh didn’t sound like his sister.

But then he didn’t have time to analyze the laughter because someone was turning a key in a heavy iron padlock. Metal clanked, and the door rattled, and then swung open.

He met three startled pairs of eyes. His sister’s glass-green, but then also Lady Wynwood’s wide eyes of dark gold, and Miss Sauber’s mirthful ones the color of seafoam.

Oh, good Lord.

It was at that moment that he realized he wasn’t in his mother’s house.

--From Lady Wynwood's Spies, volume 3: Aggressor

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Excerpt

Lady Wynwood’s Spies, volume 3: Aggressor



A Christian Regency Romantic Adventure serial novel



Camille Elliot



I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.
Galatians 2:20

“And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”
John 8:32

Chapter One

Michael Coulton-Jones knew he ought to be profoundly relieved to be breathing, to be in his right mind, to not be injured or crippled or maimed. But at this moment, after waking in a dark, windowless room that held only a cot and the faint smell of moldy potatoes, all he could thing of, the sole need that consumed his thoughts, was the dire straits of his bladder.

He sat slowly, sensing that he had been asleep a long while, an unnatural sleep rather than a convalescing rest. His limbs were stiff, but not sore. His head was fuzzy, but not in pain.

What had happened to him? He remembered …

Silas’s meaty fists, slamming into his face, his torso. He clearly remembered the moment one of his ribs had cracked, the pain radiating out like a spiderweb on fire.

He had been hauled down the stairs of the brothel and tied to another chair as he struggled. The ropes had not been as tight as others he had escaped from. If he had time, he could wriggle free. The door leading outside was only a few feet away from him.

And then … what had happened?

He sat up, his head feeling a bit light and disconnected from his body, but his torso … no pain. Not even a phantom of pain from the injured rib. How long had he been asleep? He looked down at his arms and legs, but they seemed the same as he remembered. He had not been like unconscious patients who woke months later.

The wall was close enough for him to reach out and touch it, to use it to help him to stand. His overfull bladder groaned in pain at the movement, and he gritted his teeth. His legs were rather sore, reminding him of when he had been recovering from a sword wound. This tightness in his muscles was similar to how he had felt weeks—no, months after the injury. He now noticed a similar dull ache in the muscles of his back, his shoulder.

He straightened, but did not feel dizziness. He would have attempted to stretch if it wouldn’t have made his bladder burst.

He gingerly stepped in his stocking feet to the wall beyond the foot of the cot, where the outline of the door was just visible in the gloom. He reached for the latch, and there was none. He pushed, but it wouldn’t budge.

He pushed again, with the same result. He was locked in.

Was he still captive? But someone had dressed him in nightclothes made of fine white lawn, a gentleman’s garment, and there were fine knitted stockings on his feet, although no shoes. He doubted captors like Silas and that other man would bother with his comfort or his recovery.

The thought of the other man, pale-eyed and cold of expression, made nausea rise in his stomach. He remembered the taste of blood in his mouth, but not his own. Bitterness, then a numbness on his tongue.

He had drunk the Root.

But he didn’t remember what had happened after that.

He had been aware of the muffled voices of servants, which perhaps explained the dark room—he was in a storeroom, maybe next to the kitchen. The voices were strangely clear, despite coming through the thick walls.

And then he heard a bell-like voice he recognized.

Isabella.

He couldn’t quite hear her words, but he would know her voice anywhere, no matter how she disguised it. They had played that game as children, he, Richard, and Ugly, one them hiding behind a bush or tree and trying to guess who had spoken. Ironically, Richard’s gift for obscuring his voice had trounced Michael and his sister more often than not.

He began to pound on the door.

And all the voices abruptly stopped.

Surely they knew he was here. They had placed him here, had taken the effort to lock the door from the outside. Why the shocked silence?

He pounded harder, more insistently. He began hopping from foot to foot, trying to squeeze his pelvis and keep his lower regions from exploding.

He wasn’t certain how he knew, but people approached the locked door. He heard the whisper of their booted footsteps, their hastened breathing. He even clearly heard a shaking whisper, “What should we do?”

He could immediately tell that it was his sister who had said it, no matter how low and faint.

“Let me out!”

Someone stepped closer to the door, and he could smell Isabella’s faint lily of the valley perfume, but she still did not speak, although she must have heard him.

“Let me out! I can hear you breathing!”

“Michael?” Isabella breathed. “Is it you?”

What a strange question. Who else would it be? “Ugly, I’m going to burst if I don’t use the privy.”

There was a gasp, then a muffled laugh. The gasp was perhaps his mother—that didn’t surprise him—but strangely, the laugh didn’t sound like his sister.

But then he didn’t have time to analyze the laughter because someone was turning a key in a heavy iron padlock. Metal clanked, and the door rattled, and then swung open.

He met three startled pairs of eyes. His sister’s glass-green, but then also Lady Wynwood’s wide eyes of dark gold, and Miss Sauber’s mirthful ones the color of seafoam.

Oh, good Lord.

It was at that moment that he realized he wasn’t in his mother’s house.

*

Michael couldn’t look anyone in the eye after returning from the privy in the small paved back area of the house, which he belatedly realized belonged to Lady Wynwood. What surprised him was how wary the servants were as they escorted him upstairs to a guest bedroom, as though he were a rabid dog they were trying not to antagonize.

It was a distinctly unpleasant feeling, that somehow these people feared him.

The footman who drew his bath for him was a bit older than himself. The man’s slightly spiky red-brown hair reminded him of Richard, his brother, but the footman’s dark brown eyes appeared to be watching Michael closely. But after a few minutes, the footman had apparently seen something in his face or come to a decision, and thereafter did not act any more gingerly than a servant helping a man who had been unconscious for several days.

Or was it weeks? He didn’t know. And not knowing was an empty chasm in the pit of his stomach.

“How long was I unconscious?” he asked the footman.

“Seven days, sir,” the man answered readily, without a trace of the discomfort that his mother’s servants would have displayed at such a strange question.

Upon reflection, he should have known it was not very long, but he’d had an irrational fear that he had lost weeks of time.

The bath was very hot, and it relaxed muscles he hadn’t realized he had tensed because of the strange situation. But he did not linger long. Despite the excruciatingly embarrassing moment outside the storeroom door, he still desired to see the women and discover what had happened to him.

And why he’d been locked in a room.

The reason why drifted in his conscious mind in threads, the threads he remembered of the dream he’d had before waking. But perhaps out of denial, he didn’t pull at those threads.

Not yet, not just yet.

However, he had to wait for his clothing to arrive. The footman dressed him in the late Lord Wynwood’s dressing gown and slippers, informing him, “We have sent to your rooms at the Albany for your clothing, sir.”

“But my rooms are locked, and I have no manservant,” Michael said.

The footman paused, then said, “It will not be a problem, sir.”

“Anyone will be unable to enter unless they alert the house manager. It would not do to communicate the fact that I am absent from my rooms.”

The man’s mouth worked open and closed, and he seemed to be struggling to answer.

“Out with it, man,” Michael said.

“Clara can pick locks, sir,” the footman finally said.

“Er … who?”

“Clara, our scullery maid. Lady Aymer gave permission for her to, er, use her skills on your room door.”

“Your maid can pick locks?”

“She had a colorful childhood,” the footman said with a blank face.

He then remembered a rumor he’d heard once about Lady Wynwood’s household. Her servants were never improper, but the rumor had been that they were from decidedly unconventional—perhaps even scandalous—backgrounds.

So Michael let the matter go.

And as the footman had said, it was not a problem, because his clothing arrived a mere half an hour later. By then, he had long since wolfed down the tray of food that had been brought to him and had been clawing at the (very nicely papered) walls in his impatience to learn what had happened to him. He eagerly donned more respectable clothing. At last, he would get some answers.

Except that he wouldn’t, at least not right away. As soon as the footman had opened the bedroom door, Miss Gardinier appeared and entered. Before he could question her for her improper behavior, she had latched onto his arm and forcibly shoved him into a chair near the fireplace.

“Miss Gardinier?” he asked a the same time the footman said, “Miss?”

“You have been very ill, Mr. Coulton-Jones,” she said as she rather scandalously tested each of his limbs. “If I had been here when they opened the storeroom door, I would have examined you sooner.”

No, he was rather glad she hadn’t, or he might have piddled all over the floor.

“Do you feel dizzy? Weak? In pain?” she asked.

However, at the time she asked she was examining the inside of his mouth and he couldn’t immediately answer.

“Wa-wa,” he grunted.

“Excuse me?” Green-gray eyes blinked at him.

He pulled his jaw away from her surprisingly strong fingers and said, “I feel quite well.”

Actually, he felt unusually well. He hadn’t noticed before, but now that he was more aware of his body, he realized that the aches from old injuries were missing—the slight twinge he’d always felt in his shoulder from the knife wound he’d acquired on one of his earliest missions, the stiffness from the elbow he had dislocated on yet another mission, the hip that had never quite felt the same after the explosion on the smuggler’s ship that had tossed him and Sep into the Channel.

There was something clinical and yet inquisitive about Miss Gardinier’s gaze, and so he told her about the missing pains.

But her reaction was strange. She turned pale and bit her lip, then said, “You were given the Root.”

He had known. Of course he had known, for what else could be that memory of blood and bitterness in his mouth? And yet, having her tell him was somehow like a surprise.

But at that moment, swift movement at the open bedroom door was accompanied by a strident voice saying, “Keriah!”

Miss Gardinier looked distinctly guilty as she rose and faced Lady Wynwood, whose lips were pressed so firmly that they had disappeared in her stormy face.

“Calvin came to Lissa’s house and told me that Mr. Coulton-Jones was awake.” Miss Gardinier was obviously attempting to sound reasonable as she said, “Of course I’d rush here to ascertain that he was well, after what has happened to him.”

“What has happened to me?” Michael demanded.

Lady Wynwood fixed Miss Gardinier with a steely eye. “You may have indeed had Mr. Coulton-Jones’s health in mind, but that does not excuse this highly improper behavior.”

She had had a physician’s detachment as she had examined him, but it had still been rather embarrassing, so he didn’t bother to speak up in her defense.

Lady Wynwood turned to Michael. “I apologize, Mr. Coulton-Jones. Won’t you please join us in the drawing room?”

“Mr. Drydale—” he began.

“Is present. As is tea.”

He’d eaten everything on the tray, but he was still rather famished, so he followed with alacrity.

When he entered the drawing room, he was again attacked—er, approached, but this time by his sister. She reached up and placed her hands on either side of his face, staring into his eyes. It seemed a long time since she’d done that, and he saw the ghost of his brother in her eyes, exactly the same shape and color as Richard’s.

“Hullo, Ugly.”

The nickname brought a sheen to her eyes, but she blinked it away and released his face, then sent a hard right cross to his left shoulder. “You are so infuriating, Smelly.”

“Why?”

“Would you really like me to list all the ways?”

“Not really.”

“Just so.”

He was surprised to find his childhood friend Thorne was also present, but even more surprised by the wariness on his face as he came up to Michael. “How do you feel?” he asked cautiously.

“I am well,” Michael answered in an equally cautious tone.

Thorne simply nodded, but didn’t quite look like he believed him.

Miss Gardinier had entered the room behind him, and she now said to Lady Wynwood, “My lady, we should have Dr. Shokes examine him.”

He would much prefer Dr. Shokes over another examination from Miss Gardinier, even though he was fairly certain she knew what she was about.

Lady Wynwood looked to Mr. Drydale, who had approached behind Michael’s sister, but his brows drew together. “I still haven’t heard from Dr. Shokes, so we have no method of contacting him.”

No method of contact? What about his brother’s apothecary shop?

Before he could ask, Lady Wynwood said, “Aya suggested my household doctor, Dr. Heddetch.”

Mr. Drydale seemed to be considering it. “Do you trust him?”

“He has been our doctor since before Wynwood died, and he is friends with many of the servants, but I can’t say I personally know him well. Aya is closer to him than I.”

Then Mr. Drydale shook his head. “I don’t want to bring in more civilians. We can’t go into detail about Mr. Coulton-Jones’s illness, and after Mr. Shokes …”

The room grew quiet, until Michael finally demanded, “Will someone explain what has happened?” He could also see a tea tray on the table beyond Mr. Drydale and he was starving.

Everyone was seated except for Miss Sauber, who had risen to her feet when Michael entered the room but had not approached him. It made him unaccountably miffed, until she gave him a plate heaped with piping hot scones slathered with butter, while limiting Thorne to only one.

However, she wouldn’t meet his eye, and he wanted her to do so. Perhaps it was simply his dream affecting him, making him yearn for more of her attention. He began to wonder what could have happened to change their relationship while he was asleep. In the days before … whatever had happened, he had been growing closer to her, despite his reason telling him to stay far away from her, and now that he had his wish, he felt disappointed.

Mr. Drydale did not make him wait long. As Lady Wynwood and Miss Sauber served tea, he asked Michael, “What do you remember?”

“I was captured by Silas and a pale-eyed man. They beat me, and then …” He swallowed, his throat suddenly dry. “… they gave me the Root, I think.”

“And after that?” Mr. Drydale asked.

He shook his head. “I don’t remember.” That may not be entirely true. He remembered rage and darkness, and he remembered seafoam green eyes and light. Or was that simply his dream?

And so Mr. Drydale told him what had happened. How Sep had gone looking for him with Lady Wynwood’s pageboy, how Michael had become a monster.

He knew it had been forced upon him. He knew he hadn’t been in his right mind. And yet he was appalled. It felt as though he had ripped open a seam in his soul and seen ugliness and putrid darkness, and it all belonged to him and were a part of him.

“Did I …” His throat felt raw. “Did anyone …?”

It was Lady Wynwood who seemed to understand what he was asking. “Unlike when Mr. Dunmark had become a crazed madman, no one was badly injured, and no one was killed.”

He closed his eyes in relief. He didn’t understand why—he had killed before, on missions, sometimes in self-defense, but sometimes not. It was never an easy task, but he performed his duty, a soldier for the Foreign Office.

And yet he was profoundly glad he had not killed any innocents on English soil. It would have weighed too heavily upon him. Because of Richard.

Mr. Drydale also explained how they’d herded him back to the burned factory, and suddenly the seafoam-green eyes in his dream, and the lights, made sense to him. It seemed rather silly now, to have been so moved by those images, and yet, now, he was the one who couldn’t look at Miss Sauber.

“We were able to render you unconscious with the sedative made by Phoebe and Miss Gardinier,” Mr. Drydale said. “In order to dose you, we, er …”

“I shot you with arrows laced with sedative,” Miss Sauber said calmly.

So the mysterious angel in his dream had shot him. Again. Any lingering doubts as to how she felt about him were firmly laid to rest. Women did not dispassionately shoot arrows at men they might be fond of.

“Arrows?” He looked down at his arms and legs. “I have no injuries.”

Miss Gardinier glanced at Lady Wynwood before answering, “They had closed by the time we brought you here.”

“It is fortunate that Miss Gardinier has received some training from her surgeon uncle,” Mr. Drydale added.

“I am fortunate to be alive at all.” He had not intended to say it, such raw and emotional words, but they flew from his mouth. “I know that the crazed man several weeks ago collapsed because his body could not withstand the stress of his anger and strength. And Mr. Dunmark ran blindly into a horse and was trampled.” He had known, even while guarding the two young women in the apothecary stillroom, that it had been fortunate that the ones who had found the Root had been Miss Sauber and Miss Gardinier, who were more interested in creating a sedative than recreating the elixir. “If you had not been there to help me—if there had not been the sedative to put me to sleep—I would be dead. I owe all of you my life, and I am grateful.”

Isabella was sitting in the chair next to him, and her hand reached over to twine with his. “I am grateful, as well.”

He looked around, suddenly noticing … “Where is Sep?”

Mr. Drydale explained about searching for Sep, finding him at the church only to lose him again, and then tracing him to the stable.

He was shocked that Isabella had revealed to them her secret. She had kept that secret for close to six years now on orders from a supervisor she would not even disclose to Michael, even though he had been the one to protect her on her first crucial mission. However he now suspected that she worked for the secretive department, the Ramparts, since Mr. Drydale had been the one to contact her when needing help to find Sep.

When he heard about Mr. Shokes, he then understood Mr. Drydale’s reluctance to use Lady Wynwood’s doctor. But he also found himself taut with worry. “Do you know if Mr. Shokes told Jack about Miss Sauber and Miss Gardinier?”

Mr. Drydale had grim look as he shook his head. “However, Mr. Rosmont and, er, Prince have been shadowing the two young ladies, and there doesn’t appear to be anyone watching or following them.”

At Isabella’s confirming nod, he relaxed. Aside from Sep, his sister was one of the few people he knew who could utterly disappear into a crowd, and if she could not see anyone who might be a threat to the young women, then he could be confident they were safe.

But Mr. Shokes’s betrayal forcibly reminded him of the danger threatening them, and he again experienced the nausea he had felt when he discovered Richard had been killed because of what he’d been investigating.

But he also could not repay the young women’s actions with the insistence that they did not belong here. Because it was only through their work than he and Sep were now alive.

“Septimus is chafing in bed, but his knee is still swollen. I only left to attend to Easter Sunday services this morning.”

“Easter Sunday?” He thought back and realized that yes, if he had been asleep for seven days, then …

“Ironic that you would wake today, of all days, Smelly,” Isabella said to him.

If he had a better relationship with God, he might have thought it was a sign, or a mark of spiritual favor.

“But you were asleep considerably longer than three days,” Isabella added.

“I don’t feel as though I’ve been asleep for so long,” he said slowly. In fact, now that he had eaten, he felt more energized and strong than he could remember feeling in years.

He reached for his teaspoon. “My lady, I apologize. I shall buy you a new one.” He grasped each end and bent it.

There was only stunned silence in the room.

He laid the bent spoon down gingerly. His hand looked as it always had. He felt nearly the same as usual. And yet he was not the same, not anymore.

Or rather … for a little while, at least, he would not be the same.

“Sir,” he said to Mr. Drydale, “you told me what Dr. Shokes said to Miss Sauber and Miss Gardinier, about a man who had been given the Root, but hadn’t had another dose.”

Isabella had also apparently heard it, because she bit her lip and squeezed his hand.

“We might be able to … reproduce it,” Miss Gardinier said in a small voice.

“We may have a clue as to the location of Jack’s greenhouse,” Miss Sauber said. “But … the pale-eyed man mentioned that the current batch of plants may have caused the Root to be tainted.”

“Tainted?”

“It turns men into Berserkers—what Jack called them—rather than simply giving them strength. It was what happened to Nick. However, Mr. Shokes collapsed first before becoming a Berserker later.”

“If we can find some of the plants Jack uses,” Miss Gardinier said, “we could … maybe reproduce the Root. But it may not work.”

“I do not wish to take the Root again,” Michael said firmly. “And especially not if I will become a monster again.”

“But …” Isabella’s hand gripped his so tightly he felt his bones creak. “But Michael … that man who hadn’t taken another dose of the Root died. You’ll die.”

“I know, Ugly.”

He had rarely seen her cry. She didn’t like to show weakness to anyone, but she also didn’t cry in front of him or Richard because she didn’t want to worry them. So now, as her eyes swam in her stoic face, she rose and hurried out of the room. Thorne hurried after her.

He knew he had hurt her. But the rage and darkness had frightened him more than any of the dangers he’d faced in France, and he did not want to face that again. And something buried deep inside of him, something he thought he’d lost, told him clamored that it would be wrong for them to try to create the Root, that it would be wrong for him to take the Root again.

There was a strained, awkward silence, but then Lady Wynwood said in a quiet voice, “Phoebe, I should like to speak to Mr. Coulton-Jones in private for a few minutes.”

She and Miss Gardinier both rose, giving polite curtsies, and left the room, followed by Mr. Drydale after a nod in his direction.

Miss Sauber hadn’t looked at him, and while a part of him knew that it would be best not to get close to anyone now, he had wanted to look into her eyes and see how she felt about all of this. And yet, perhaps it was better that he didn’t know. Perhaps she felt nothing. She had shot him, after all.

He did not pretend to feel indifferent, but he said to Lady Wynwood, “You needn’t be concerned about me, my lady. I have faced death before.”

“Not perhaps in this way,” she said with equanimity.

“Not exactly,” he admitted, “but I was always willing to face death when I went out on missions.” He would not be reprimanded by the Foreign Office for admitting to going on missions, not now.

“Was death ever as much of a certainty as now?”

He wanted to say that his death was not a certainty, that they knew nothing about what would happen to him because no one had ever become a Berserker and lived. But he was not in the habit of lying to himself like that. And he had to admit to himself that somehow, this situation seemed worse.

Perhaps it was because of her. Not that he would have allowed himself to surrender to his attraction to her. He would have fought it, just as he fought it all the years previous during the few times he saw her at social functions.

He could tell that the pull toward her was even stronger than before, perhaps because she had helped to save his life, perhaps because she was very similar to his sister in that she knew what he had done for the Foreign Office and not only accepted it, but was involved in it. But it would have been even more necessary that he not act on his feelings, because they were too dark and bleak to allow anyone to get close.

He didn’t realize that he hadn’t answered her until she said quietly, “I will not tell you what to believe, but I believe God will save you.”

“I know you are very devout, but I would not have thought you’d request a miracle from the Almighty.”

“The Almighty performs miracles every day. We often don’t see them. God was watching over you—over all of us—when He led Phoebe to find the Root sample, when He gave Keriah wisdom to create the sedative. He guided Phoebe’s arrows, even the one on Hampstead Heath.”

“I can admit that it was extraordinary coincidence that those particular ladies—a botanist who is friends with a chemist—found the Root only a few days before I was forced to take it, and that they have the moral character not to be tempted by it like Mr. Shokes had been,” Michael said. “But to be honest, I don’t know why God would bother with me, after … all I’ve done.”

She did not pry or ask what he meant by that, but she simply said, “And yet, you are here, alive.”

“For now.”

She gave a sad smile at his reply. “I believe God will save you,” she repeated. “However, I also hope you will settle in yourself how you feel about God and what you believe about death.”

He nodded, but didn’t answer her.

He knew that he must get his affairs in order, that there were many little things he must see to. But right now, he simply felt numb and alone. Lady Wynwood believed God would save him, but couldn’t share that belief.

He didn’t believe in miracles, and certainly not for someone like himself.

Chapter Two

The man she was beginning to care about would die soon. Which made it very hard for Phoebe to focus on treacle buns.

Strange as it might be, the treacle buns might hold even more importance than the man, in the grand scheme of things. But as she took the carriage toward Miss Tolberton’s home for a visit, all Phoebe could see was Mr. Coulton-Jones’s bleak face as he declared he would prefer to die rather than take the Root.

She understood him. She even felt she would choose the same, if the alternative was to become a mindless beast. But she could not so easily accept it, and the emotions had become a tempest of wind and waves and lightning and hail inside of her.

She did not want him to die.

It wasn’t as though she had had hopes. She was not so foolish, not after four unsuccessful Seasons. She was too ineligible and he was supremely uninterested. So why did she feel so empty now, as though she had lost something precious?

If she could, she would do something to save him, certainly. It frustrated her that there was nothing she could do.

But essentially, he was nothing to her and she was nothing to him. It would be wisest and most logical for her to take an emotional step back, to allow him to connect with his family, to not form new bonds with him, or rather, to not strengthen the bonds that had begun to form. Hadn’t she learned her lesson about forming emotional ties that could be severed and cause her pain and anguish? Mr. Coulton-Jones was not like her father, and it would not be by his wish, but he would still sever his ties.

She was ashamed of herself because she hadn’t been able to look at him in her aunt’s drawing room. The knowledge of what he was going through had felt like a flood washing over her head, and she hadn’t wanted him to see that in her eyes, nor to have her emotions gush out and embarrass him. And herself.

She visibly started when the carriage stopped in front of Miss Tolberton’s house, and Clara, sitting across from her, asked, “Miss? Is something wrong?”

It took an effort of will to draw her mind from maudlin thoughts of Mr. Coulton-Jones. “I am well.”

They descended from the carriage and rapped on the door, where a butler let them in with alacrity. “Miss Tolberton is expecting me,” Phoebe told him as he took her pelisse and bonnet.

“Of course, Miss Sauber.”

Earlier last week, Miss Tolberton had made her promised call upon Phoebe at the time she and Aunt Laura and Keriah had been visiting Mr. Ackett for the first time, so Phoebe had sent a note ’round asking when would be convenient for her to return the visit.

After Clara had been dispatched to the kitchens to wait, the butler led Phoebe through the house. She had been here several times before, mostly during evening parties that the Tolbertons hosted during the Season, and twice for intimate luncheons among the set of friends with whom Miss Tolberton played archery. 

The house was small but very richly furnished, which tended to make Phoebe nervous that she would accidentally brush against a vase and knock it to pieces. There were copious portraits of ancient Tolbertons staring down their noses at visitors, and while the drawing room was newly refurbished with the latest fashionable pieces, other areas in the house were crammed with old family heirloom furniture, heavy and dark and smelling like spiders.

Miss Tolberton and her father were like their house—both small and richly dressed. Miss Tolberton was always at the first stare of fashion, while her father was conservative and a cold representative of his ancient lineage.

Phoebe met Mr. Tolberton at the landing on the grand staircase, and she gave a respectful curtsy.

“Miss Sauber, is it?” An irritated crease formed between his brows when he had to crane his neck to look up at her. “I imagine that lately, your father is quite distressed.”

Her face was placid as she replied, “We are seeking a quick resolution, sir.”

“Ah, good, good. It is always best to be reconciled as soon as possible.”

He had misunderstood the word she used, but she did not correct him. “I am come to call at the request of your daughter.”

Another crease formed between his eyebrows, but this time it was not directed at her. However, he only said, “I see. Enjoy your visit.”

“Thank you, sir.” She gave him another curtsy.

To her surprise, the butler guided her not to the drawing room but up another floor to Miss Tolberton’s bedroom. It was a large, spacious apartment decorated in peach with emerald-green accents, a rather bold color combination, which somehow did not quite match the sweet, delicate personality of the woman herself.

Miss Tolberton was dressed in a long-sleeved morning gown of pale apple green, with lace lavishly trimming the sleeves and collar. Her fine golden-brown hair had been swept up in a casual knot, and it had a hint of red from the sunlight streaming through the windows.

She greeted Phoebe with a wide smile that brought out her dimples, then instructed the butler, “I am not at home to any other callers.”

“Very good, miss.” He bowed and closed the door as he left.

She led Phoebe to the settees in front of the blush-tinged fireplace where a lavish tea had been laid. “I hope you do not mind that we may have a comfortable coze here. I feel as though we are drawn closer to one another through our shared harrowing experience.” She gave a little laugh.

It was unusual to see her in high spirits. She was never a gloomy personality, but she was often quietly sweet in company with the other guests at archery tournaments or at evening parties. Just as Phoebe had seen another side of her with her charity organization at the church, here was a Miss Tolberton further unfettered from the strictures of polite society.

“I have been eagerly awaiting your call.” She began pouring tea for them. “I realized that I did not know your preferences, so I asked Chef to make all manner of good things for us to enjoy.”

“I am overwhelmed by your kindness. Everything looks quite delicious.”

As Miss Tolberton handed Phoebe her teacup, the long sleeve of her frilly morning gown rose a few inches and exposed her wrist. There was an ugly purple bruise circling it, in the shape of a man’s fingers.

Miss Tolberton did not notice at first, until she followed Phoebe’s gaze. Her face paled and she tugged the lace to hide the bruise.

It had not been there during the Layton sisters’ archery party, when Miss Tolberton had laced up the leather gauntlets she wore when shooting. Neither had it been present at the church, when she had removed her gloves in order to serve treacle buns to Phoebe, Keriah, and Mrs. Laidlaw.

In a slightly over-bright voice, Miss Tolberton said, “How strange it is that I find myself more interested in knowing you now that we have experienced something quite shocking and exciting together. I do hope it is not scandalous of me to say so.”

“Of course not. I feel the same. It was quite a distressing occurrence. I was surprised to see you at first, but it was rather comforting to have an acquaintance there.”

Miss Tolberton’s expression grew troubled. “Was your servant able to speak to Mr. Brimley?”

“He was quite clever. Instead of speaking to him, he followed him to a stable, then returned to tell us.”

“Oh! That is very clever, for I had doubted Mr. Brimley would have spoken to your servant at all. Did you find Mr. Ackett?”

“Yes, we returned to the stable later and found him there, injured but alive.” Phoebe hesitated, but then decided that Miss Tolberton was likely to hear the story—or a version of it—eventually through her work in the Long Glades, so she might was well confess all. “However, we also found Mr. Shokes, the apothecary, in the stable, and he was dead.”

Miss Tolberton gasped. “How terrible! Dr. Shokes was very close to his brother, if I recall. And Miss Gardinier appears to be quite close to the family.”

“Did you know the apothecary very well?”

“No, I am afraid not, although some of the other women from the Society of the Benevolent Voice in the Wilderness for the Rescue of Souls Lost in the Darkness of Heathenism have spoken very highly of Dr. Shokes.”

Phoebe sipped her tea, which was very hot and strong. “I had no idea of your charitable works before, Miss Tolberton. You have kept your good deeds quite hidden.”

“I believe good deeds ought to be hidden, but I must also admit …” She sighed as she served Phoebe an orange sponge biscuit. “I was apprehensive about how people like Miss Farrimond might react if they knew I associated with people in such a low area.”

“I don’t believe you should care much about what people like Miss Farrimond think of you,” Phoebe said tartly.

Miss Tolberton gave a wide smile that was a tiny bit wicked. “That is exactly what I would have expected you to say, Miss Sauber.”

“Why, thank you.”

“You mentioned that you visit the women in the area? What do you speak to them about?”

Miss Tolberton’s face was neutral as she said, “We are to speak against the wickedness of their ways and entreat them to turn toward the righteousness of God and the church.”

Phoebe wasn’t certain how to respond to that, so she sipped her tea. It sounded … rather judgmental and proud.

Miss Tolberton sighed. “But I prefer gossiping with them.”

Phoebe snorted her tea.

“Oh! Miss Sauber, are you all right?” Miss Tolberton handed her a cloth napkin.

Phoebe dabbed at her face and a few drops that had fallen onto her dress. “What sort of gossip?

“Oh, nothing mean-spirited. I like to hear what their neighbors are doing, whose husband found employment, whose child had a birthday, who fell ill. I have become quite familiar with many of the families in that area, which was why I recognized Mr. Brimley.”

“It was fortunate for us that you did. I hope you were not scolded by Mrs. Laidlaw.”

Miss Tolberton absently stirred her tea. “The ladies in the group are all quite nice, but I am not as interested in spreading their religious message so much as meeting and interacting with the people in the Long Glades and providing needed supplies.”

“What sorts of supplies?”

“Oh, when we visit a family. I usually leave a basket with things like blankets, clothing, perhaps some cuts of meat, and always a nice, bright bunch of flowers. I find that cheers the women up immensely.”

“Flowers? Are you able to buy flowers in the Long Glades?”

“Goodness, no. I enjoy growing flowers in my greenhouse.”

Phoebe was startled. “Miss Tolberton, you are interested in gardening?”

“Oh, yes. I especially enjoy growing poppies. I have extensive experience with the different varietals.”

“I enjoy growing roses, myself.”

“You do?” Miss Tolberton’s eyes shone. “Why, Miss Sauber, we have known each other for over four years, and yet this is the first I have heard of our shared interests, aside from archery.”

Phoebe said sheepily, “I am afraid I am rather focused when it comes to archery, and think of little else when I attend a tournament. And I have usually been so tense when attending balls and parties that my conversation skills are lacking.”

“Do you have a greenhouse?”

Phoebe hesitated. “It is on my father’s estate.”

Miss Tolberton had doubtless heard the rumors about Phoebe and her father, the same as Mr. Tolberton, and she politely replied, “I use a greenhouse on a small property outside of London which my father bought several years ago. I drive out there nearly every day.”

“How lovely! I am never so happy as when I am elbow-deep in potting soil.”

The two young women laughed together. “Do you belong to any botanical societies?”

“Oh, several. I attend their meetings when I am in town for the Season.”

“You will think me cow-hearted, but I have not had the courage to attend association meetings alone.”

“It can be very intimidating. Shall I send you a note when next I will attend a meeting?”

“Oh, yes, please!”

They delved into a discussion on types of fertilizer for different flowers, until Phoebe realized that she must leave soon and she had not yet acquired the information she had specifically come to get. “By the way, Miss Tolberton, I quite enjoyed the treacle buns you brought to the church. Where did you buy them?”

“The treacle buns? Yes, they were quite delicious, were they not? I get them from a little bakery on the far edge of the Long Glades, on Elm Street. Strangely, it doesn’t have a name, although the residents call it Finlay’s bakery, after the owner.”

“On Elm Street, you said? Is it nearby the church?”

“Oh, no, it is quite far, but it is on my way to the church. The bakery is near …” Miss Tolberton wrinkled her nose. “It is near a candlemaker’s, which is known to sell good candles at inexpensive prices, but the smell is rather … pungent.”

“I shall ask my servants, perhaps.”

“Oh, yes, do not go there alone, Miss Sauber. It is not a very bad area, but it is not an area for proper young ladies.”

And Phoebe was oh, so proper.

“Speaking of that,” Miss Tolberton said with consternation in her blue eyes, “might I ask you not to tell anyone in our archery circle about my work with the Society of the Benevolent Voice in the Wilderness for the Rescue of Souls Lost in the Darkness of Heathenism? I don’t wish to announce to anyone about my charity work, for it would seem too much like bragging while pretending to be humble.”

Phoebe was amazed at Miss Tolberton’s humility and sensitivity. “Of course, if that is your wish. But I personally feel that your work is quite admirable.”

“I thank you.” Miss Tolberton smiled. “Shall I see you at Miss Farrimond’s archery party next week?”

Phoebe felt an uncomfortable wriggling sensation in her breastbone. “I had not known about it. I probably have not been invited.”

“Not invited? That is outside of enough!” To her surprise, Miss Tolberton’s eyes blazed with fury. “Simply because you are staying with your aunt? It is hardly scandalous. Miss Farrimond can be so petty.”

Phoebe tried to be generous. “It may not be in her control. Her father may desire to cull favor with mine, or with my father’s fiancée.”

Miss Tolberton’s eyes softened. “I noticed that odious Mr. Vernon cheated at the Layton sisters’ archery party when he mentioned your father’s engagement in the moment before you shot your last arrow. I hope you will forgive me, but you seemed quite upset about it.” She asked shyly, “Are you resigned to your father’s remarriage, or is it causing problems for you? I don’t wish to pry, but I would like to offer help if I can.”

“That is quite kind of you. My father did not tell me until the morning of the archery party, so I was still in shock over the news.”

“But that would mean … Mr. Vernon heard the news before you did? Before his own daughter?” Miss Tolberton’s expression was indignant. “I also saw the events at Miss Farrimond’s party, with your father and his fiancée. I was looking for you later in the evening when I heard you had left the party early. I don’t understand why your father would treat you thus. Is there truly nothing I can do for you?”

Phoebe was touched by her concern. “My father wishes to send me to Bath to care for an elderly aunt and doesn’t wish me to remain in town for the Season.” Especially since he had already stolen her dowry. She damped down the surge of anger and continued, “I am endeavoring to convince my father to allow me to stay.”

“But if you are staying with your aunt, Lady Wynwood, why should he be affected if you stayed in town? Is the elderly aunt in dire need?”

“I don’t believe so …” Although she wouldn’t put it past her father to say that Grand-Aunt Bethia was quite ill and Phoebe was being selfish in refusing to attend to her.

“Even if your aunt isn’t in need, your father might put it about in society that she is, which would paint you as an uncaring and ungrateful daughter, Miss Sauber,” Miss Tolberton said, as though she had read Phoebe’s mind. “This is quite untenable!” Her pink lips pulled into a pout, and she looked like an angry kitten.

“I appreciate your kindheartedness on my behalf, Miss Tolberton.” But in reality, what could be done?

Miss Tolberton seemed to realize that, also. Her expression became hard. “It is quite unfair that men have such control over women, regardless of their wishes, and even sometimes their best interests.” She rubbed her wrist, apparently unconsciously. “My father was displeased with me because I made up an excuse in order to refuse an invitation to dance with Mr. Adderly last night.”

Just the mention of his name made Phoebe’s shoulders tense. Mr. Adderly had an unsavory reputation for stealing kisses—and perhaps more—from young women in dark corners whether they wanted him to or not. Luckily, Phoebe was much taller than he and so he had never asked her to dance, but he often manipulated his dance partners into walking with him in the garden or along an empty corridor in the house.

“Perhaps your father does not know of Mr. Adderly’s reputation?” she asked weakly.

Miss Tolberton’s eyes grew flat and hard. “He does, but he does not care, because I am not his daughter. I am his pet.”

Phoebe understood that scorn. She felt it herself every time she remembered her forged signature on the funds transfer documents that stole her dowry.

And yet they were both helpless. It was as Miss Tolberton had said—men had control over women, regardless of their wishes.

“Is there nowhere you may go to escape from him?”

Miss Tolberton’s expression grew soft, resigned. “No. Miss Sauber, I envy you. For if I had an aunt living in London, I would move out, also.”

Phoebe would never have expected beautiful, petite and feminine Miss Tolberton to ever say that to her.

Miss Tolberton saw her discomfort and distress and smiled to try to soothe it away. “Goodness, I have become maudlin. Pray, forgive me.“

“There is nothing to forgive.”

“My only excuse is that I have come to feel so close to you, Miss Sauber.”

“It is a shame that we have known each other for four years and yet have never had occasion to speak so candidly with each other.” While she valued Keriah’s friendship, it had sometimes been lonely for her to have no one amongst their social acquaintance who shared her love of gardening. Phoebe felt she was such a boring person, and she had no one with which to share the few topics of conversation she most enjoyed. Yet if she had made more of an effort to reach out to those around her, she might have found Miss Tolberton’s hidden depths long before today.

Miss Tolberton smiled. “We can make up for lost time by becoming quite good friends from now on, shall we?”

Phoebe found herself returning that infectious smile. “I should like that very much.”

*

Miss Tolberton stood at a window and inched aside the curtain. Down below, Miss Sauber’s carriage pulled away from her home and left with a clatter of wheels.

She did not know what to make of Miss Sauber.

On the day she’d seen Miss Sauber at the church, she had arrived early at the church to find two women speaking to the rector most urgently. She recognized them as two of the more talkative gossips in the area, Mrs. Seymore and Mrs. Ellis. “Did you hear of it?” Mrs. Seymore was asking the rector, but when she saw Miss Tolberton, she immediately hurried to her. “Did you arrive alone, Miss Tolberton? The streets might be dangerous today.”

“Nonsense, Sarah,” Mrs. Ellis said to her friend. “It happened last night.”

“What happened?” Miss Tolberton asked.

“A man—”

“He must have been drunk,” Mrs. Ellis interjected.

Mrs. Seymore glared at her friend. “I was getting to that. A drunk named Archipelago Constipation went absolutely mad.”

Miss Tolberton thought privately that if she had a name like that, she’d go mad, too.

“No, it wasn’t him,” Mrs. Ellis said impatiently. “He was the one before this one.”

“Oh, you’re right. We don’t know this one’s name.”

Miss Tolberton was completely turned around and dizzy trying to follow their conversation. She looked to the rector, who sighed and said, “Mrs. Seymore, Mrs. Ellis, you are confusing Miss Tolberton.”

“Oh, I apologize, dear,” Mrs. Seymore said. “We’ll start from the beginning again. Last night some unknown man went completely mad.”

“A drunk,” Mrs. Ellis repeated. “He destroyed property and injured a score of people.”

“He may have been drunk,” Mrs. Seymore said, “but it seems strange, doesn’t it? That Mr. Constipation man was supposedly drunk, but he was the same way.”

“He destroyed property?” Miss Tolberton said.

“Smashed up doors and windows,” Mrs. Seymore said.

Miss Tolberton’s breath caught in her throat. She remembered hearing about the other man—although she hadn’t known his name—who had displayed remarkable strength as he ravaged carts and attacked people. He had eventually been trampled by a horse. And there had been another man just like him last night?

“But then those people showed up,” Mrs. Ellis said, apparently irritated that her friend was taking too long to tell the story. “And they seemed to be trying to lead him away.”

“Foolish thing to do,” Mrs. Seymore said. “The man was dangerous, I tell you.”

“If they hadn’t, he might have hurt more people,” Mrs. Ellis said. “I wonder who they were?”

“Where did they lead him?” Miss Tolberton asked.

“One of those burned factories on Harding Lane,” Mrs. Seymore said.

Mrs. Ellis leaned in close and lowered her voice. “And then the strangest thing happened. That crazed man just disappeared.”

“Now, Mrs. Ellis, you mustn’t spread rumors,” the rector chided her.

“It’s true! My cousin lives nearby and she heard the ruckus, and then suddenly the sounds stopped. And when people got the courage to come out to see, the factory was empty.”

The rector looked worried, and at the time, Miss Tolberton hadn’t known about Mr. Ackett lying injured in the basement. He had likely been concerned that his injured guest had something to do with the crazed man.

She had arrived early and had time to spare, so Miss Tolberton had made an excuse and found a hackney to carry her to Harding Lane so she could see the factory for herself. And outside, on the street, she had found it.

An arrow. Finely made, like the ones she used herself at her archery tournaments. What was even more curious was that she recognized the fletching, although she couldn’t place it at first.

She returned to Brannon Church. Mrs. Seymore and Mrs. Ellis were long gone, but she was shocked to see Lady Nola descending into the basement.

Miss Tolberton knew all about Lady Nola. She was primarily a midwife, but she knew much about the human body and was often called upon to physick patients. Lady Nola was rather taciturn, but Miss Tolberton had spoken to her several times and they had once had a short conversation about herbs.

Miss Tolberton followed Lady Nola to the basement, where she’d immediately recognized Mr. Ackett. lady Nola had warned her not to say anything to anyone, and Miss Tolberton had returned upstairs in a state of shock.

Then those men had arrived and taken Mr. Ackett away, and in following them out of the church, she’d seen Mr. Brimley accompanying them. And then she’d suddenly seen Miss Sauber, of all people!

Miss Sauber was one amongst her archery friends whom she would never have imagined to see in an area like that one. Miss Sauber was not snobbish, certainly—not like Miss Farrimond—but she had seemed very comfortable in her world of polite society and not the sort to venture out of it.

And as soon as she saw Miss Sauber, she remembered where she’d seen that fletching before. It had been Miss Sauber’s arrows, which she said she fletched herself.

What had Miss Sauber to do with that man who had gone mad the night before? She remembered Mrs. Seymore and Mrs. Ellis talking about a group of people who led him away to that factory. Why had they done that? And what had they done to the crazed man, the second in several weeks to appear in the Long Glades?

She had also heard rumors about a third man, weeks ago, who had been the same—apparently drunk, violently destructive, and impossibly strong. He had killed two men before suddenly collapsing in the middle of a road, dead.

And Mr. Constipation less than a fortnight ago, and then the man she had heard about at the church. Three men with extraordinary strength, extraordinary rage.

And today’s visit had been curious. What had made Miss Sauber want to know about treacle buns?

She had considered confessing about finding the arrow, but something had held her back. Even beneath Miss Sauber’s normal, friendly, polite face, there had been something … intent, and implacable. A stone wall that Miss Tolberton had never seen in her eyes before.

And so now, as she watched Miss Sauber’s carriage roll away, she resolved to simply wait and watch.

Yes, she would keep a close eye on Miss Sauber.

Copyright © 2021 Camy Tang
eBook: ISBN-13: 978-1-942225-25-6
Print book: ISBN-13: 978-1-942225-26-3