For now sits expectation in the air.
Julia Grey, I would rather see you hanged than watch any sister of
mine go haring off after a man who will not have her,” my
brother Bellmont raged. “And Portia, I am thoroughly appalled
that you would not only condone such behaviour, but abet it by
accompanying Julia. You are her elder sister. You ought to set an
I sighed and stared longingly at the whisky decanter. Portia and I
had known that the summons to our father’s London townhouse
was a thinly-veiled ambush, but I do not think either of us had
expected the attack to be so quick, nor so brutal. We had scarcely
taken our seats in Father’s comfortable library before our
eldest brother launched into a tirade against our proposed visit to
Yorkshire. Father, ensconced behind his vast mahogany desk, said
nothing. His expression was inscrutable behind his half-moon
Catching my wistful glance, Portia rose and poured us both glasses
of whisky. “Take this, dearest,” she urged.
“Bellmont is in rare form. He will surely rail at us until
supper unless he has an apoplexy first,” she finished
Bellmont’s already high colour deepened alarmingly.
“You may well jest about this, but it is unacceptable for
Julia to accept an invitation to stay with Brisbane at his country
house. He is an unmarried man, and she is a widow of thirty. Even
if you are there to chaperone, Portia, you must admit, it would be
a complete violation of propriety.” “Oh, Julia
hasn’t been invited,” Portia responded helpfully.
“I was. Julia rather invited herself.” Bellmont clicked
his teeth together and drew in a deep breath, his nostrils going
white at the edges. “If that is supposed to offer me comfort,
it is a cold one, I assure you.”
Portia shrugged and sipped at her whisky. Bellmont turned to me,
deliberately softening his tone. At more than forty years of age
and heir to our father’s earldom, he had long since grown
accustomed to having his own way. It was only with his eccentric
family that his success was mixed. With a cunning blend of
sternness, cajolery, and logic, he was sometimes able to bend us to
his will, but just as often he found himself not speaking to more
than one of his nine siblings. Now he attempted an appeal to my
“Julia, I understand you were quite bereft when Edward died.
You were very young to be a widow, and I am sympathetic to the fact
that you felt compelled to search out your husband’s
murderer.” I raised my brows. He had not been so sympathetic
at the time. When I had unmasked my husband’s killer in a
dramatic scene during which my townhouse was burned down and I
nearly lost my life, Bellmont had actually stopped speaking to me
for two months. Apparently, murder is a failing of the middle
classes only. Aristocrats are supposed to be above such
He went on. “I realise your connection with Mr. Brisbane was
a necessary evil at the time. He has proved himself a thoroughly
capable inquiry agent and, mercifully, a discreet one. But your
association with this man cannot continue. I do not know what
Father was thinking to invite him to Bellmont Abbey at Christmas,
but it was badly done, and it has given you ideas.”
“And God knows women mustn’t have ideas,” Portia
murmured into her glass. Bellmont did not even bother to look at
her. We were well-accustomed to Portia’s pointed
I looked helplessly at Father, who merely shrugged and poured
himself a glass of whisky. If Bellmont continued on we should
become a family of inebriates.
“Monty,” I began, deliberately sweetening my tone,
“I do appreciate your concern. But Father has already
explained to you Brisbane was there to pursue an investigation. He
left before the family arrived for Christmas. You did not even see
him. I have never invited him to accompany me to your home, nor
have I ever foisted him upon you in any social situation, although
he would not be entirely out of place. His great-uncle is the Duke
of Aberdour, you know.”
Bellmont rubbed a hand over his face, smoothing the furrows that
marked his handsome brow. “My dear, his antecedents are quite
immaterial. He is in trade. He is a half- Gypsy vagabond who makes
his living by dealing in the sordid miseries of others. His
exploits are fodder for the newspapers, and we have been dragged
through those rather enough at present,” he finished,
shooting Father a look that was ripe with bitterness.
Father waved an indolent hand. “Do not blame me, boy. I did
my best to sweep the entire matter under the carpet, as did
Brisbane.” That much was true. The newspapers, through
Father’s influence and Brisbane’s connections, had
taken little enough notice of the events at Bellmont Abbey,
although a few rather distasteful morsels had found their way into
Bellmont swung round to face Father while Portia and I huddled
closer to one another on the sofa and drank our whisky.
“I am not unaware of your efforts, Father. But the press have
always been interested in our little peccadilloes, and you have
simply not done enough to keep them at bay, particularly when you
were so indiscreet as to entertain your mistress at the same
Christmas party as your children and grandchildren.”
“A hit, a palpable hit,” Portia whispered. I stifled a
giggle. Bellmont was being rather unfair to Father. He had
exercised as much authority over the press in the matter as he
could. Considering what had actually transpired at the Abbey, we
were lucky it had not become the scandal of the century.
“Madame de Bellefleur is not my mistress,” Father said,
puffing his cheeks indignantly. “She is my friend, and I
shall thank you to speak of her respectfully.”
“It does not matter what she is,” Bellmont pointed out
acidly. “It only matters what they say she is. Do you have
any notion how damaging such stories could be to me, to my
children? Orlando is considering a run for Parliament when he is
established, and Virgilia is to be presented this season. Her
chances for a good match could be completely overthrown by your
conduct, and it will not improve matters for her aunts to be seen
chasing off to Yorkshire to stay with a bachelor of questionable
Portia stirred. “I should think the fact that I live openly
with a woman would be far more damaging to her chances for a
society marriage,” she remarked coolly.
Bellmont flinched. “Your relationship with Jane is something
to which I have become reconciled over these past ten years. It is
a credit to Jane that she lives quietly and does not care to move
Portia’s eyes glinted ominously, and I laid a warning hand on
her wrist. “Jane is the love of my life, Bellmont, not a pet
to be trained.”
Father held up a hand. “Enough. I will not have you
quarrelling like dogs over an old bone. I thought we buried that
particular issue long ago. Bellmont, you forget yourself. I have
permitted you to abuse your sisters andmequite long
Bellmont opened his mouth to protest, but Father waved him off.
“You have a care for your sisters’ reputations, and
that does you credit, but I must observe for a man so often hailed
as one of the greatest brains of his generation, you are remarkably
obtuse about women. You’ve been married going on twenty
years, boy. Have you not yet learned that it is easier to pull a
star down from the heavens than to bend a woman to your will? The
most tractable of women will kick over the traces if you insist
upon obedience and, in case it has escaped your notice, your
sisters are not the most tractable of women. No, if they are intent
upon going to Yorkshire, go they will.”
Portia flicked a triumphant gaze at Bellmont who had gone quite
pale under the angry wash of red over his fair complexion. I took
another sip of my whisky and wondered not for the first time why my
parents had found it necessary to have so many children.
“Father,” Bellmont began, but Father rose,
straightening his poppy-coloured waistcoat and raising a
“I know. You are worried for your children, as you should be,
and I will see that their chances are not damaged by the actions of
their aunts.” He paused, for dramatic effect no doubt, then
pronounced in ringing tones, “Your sisters will travel under
the protection of their brother, Valerius.”
Portia and I gaped at him, stunned to silence. Bellmont was quicker
off the mark. Mollified, he nodded at Father. “Very well.
Valerius is thoroughly incapable of controlling them, but at least
his presence will lend the appearance of respectability. Thank you,
Father.” He turned to leave, giving us a piercing look.
“I suppose it would be too much to ask that you conduct
yourselves like ladies, but do try,” he offered as a parting
Portia was still sputtering when the footman shut the door behind
him. “Honestly, Father, I do not see why you didn’t
have him drowned as a child. You’ve four other sons,
what’s one at the bottom of the pond?”
Father shrugged. “I would have drowned him myself had I known
he would turn out Tory. I know you want to re- monstrate with me
over the suggestion of travelling with Valerius, but I want to talk
to your sister. Leave us to chat a moment, will you, my
dear?” he said to Portia. She rose gracefully and turned,
pulling a face at me as she went. I tried not to fidget, but I felt
suddenly shy and uncertain. I smiled up at Father winsomely and
attempted to divert the conversation.
“Valerius will be simply furious with you, Father. You know
he hates to leave London, and he is devoted to his work with Dr.
Bent. He’s just bought a new microscope.” It might have
been a good diversion under other circumstances. Father could rant
easily for an hour on the subject of Valerius and his unsuitable
interest in medicine. But he had other game afoot.
He turned to me, folding his arms across his chest. “Do not
look to distract me,” he said sternly. “What the devil
do you mean by hunting Brisbane like a fox? Monty is right, though
I would not give him the satisfaction of saying so in front of him.
It is damned unseemly and shows a distinct lack of pride. I reared
you for better.”
I smoothed my skirts under nervous fingers. “I am not hunting
Brisbane. He asked Portia to come and help him sort out the estate.
Apparently the former owner left it in a frightful state and
Brisbane hasn’t any lady to act as chatelaine and put things
in order.” I opened my eyes very wide to show I was telling
“Nicholas Brisbane is entirely capable of ordering his own
bedsheets and hiring his own cook,” he commented, narrowing
“There is nothing sinister afoot,” I assured him.
“Brisbane wrote in January to accept Portia’s offer to
help arrange his household. He told her to wait until April when
the weather would be more hospitable. That is the whole of
“And how did you become involved?” Father
“I saw the letter and thought springtime on the moors sounded
Father shook his head slowly. “Not likely. You mean to settle
this thing between you, whatever it is.”
I twisted a bit of silken cushion fringe in my fingers and looked
away. “It is complicated,” I began.
“Then let us have it simply,” he cut in brutally.
“Has he offered you marriage?”
“No.” My voice was nearly inaudible, even to my own
ears. “Has he given you a betrothal ring?”
“Has he ever spoken of marrying you?”
“Has he written to you since he left for
My replies dropped like stones, heavy with importance. He waited a
long moment and the only sounds were the soft rustling of the fire
on the hearth and the quiet ticking of the mantel clock.
“He has offered you nothing, made no plans for the future,
has not even written. And still you mean to go to him?” His
voice was soft now, free of judgment or recrimination, and yet it
stung like salt on a wound.
I raised my gaze to his. “I must. I will know when I see him
again. If there is nothing there, I will return to London by the
first train and never speak of him again, never wonder what might
have been. But if there is a chance that he feels for
me—” I broke off. The rest of it need not be spoken
aloud. “And you are quite determined?”
“Quite,” I said, biting off the word sharply. He said
nothing for a moment, but searched my face, doubtless looking for
any sign that I was less than resolute and might be persuaded to
abandon my plans.
At length he sighed, then drained the last of his whisky. “Go
then. Go under Valerius’ protection, however feeble that may
be, and find out if Brisbane loves you. But I tell you this,”
he said, folding me into his embrace and pressing a kiss into my
hair, “I may be above seventy years of age, but I still fence
every day and if the blackguard hurts you I will hunt him down and
leave a stiletto in his heart.”
“Thank you, Father. That is very comforting.”
Dinner that evening was a peculiarly quiet affair. Portia was a
charming hostess and kept an admirable table. She was renowned for
the quality of her food and wines as well as the excellence of the
company. She knew the most interesting people and often invited
them to little suppers arranged to show them to perfection, like
gems in a thoughtful setting. But that night there were only
ourselves—Portia, her beloved Jane, and me. We were all of us
occupied with our own thoughts and said little, our silences
punctuated with phlegmy snorts fromPortia’s vile pet,Mr.
Pugglesworth, asleep under the table. After one particularly nasty
interlude, I laid down my knife. “Portia, must you have that
dog in the dining room? He is putting me quite off my
She waved a fork at me. “Do not be peevish just because
Bellmont took you to task today.”
“Puggy is rather foul,” Jane put in quietly. “I
will remove him to the pantry.”
She rose and collected the animal, coaxing him out with a bit of
stewed prune. Portia watched her, saying nothing. They were a study
in contrasts, each lovely in her own way, but different as chalk
and cheese. Portia had a fine-boned elegance, coupled with the
classic March family colouring of dark hair faintly touched with
red and wide green eyes. She dressed flamboyantly, in colours
suited to the pale alabaster of her skin, always in a single hue
from head to toe.
Jane, on the other hand, seemed determined to wear all the colours
of the rainbow at once. She was an artist and scholar, and her face
was modelled along those lines, with handsome bones that would
serve her well into old age. Hers was a face of character, with a
determined chin and a forthright gaze that never judged, never
challenged. People frequently offered her the most extraordinary
confidences on the basis of those eyes. Deep brown, touched with
amber and warm with intelligence, they were her greatest beauty.
Her hair, always untidy, was not. Dark red and coarse as a
horse’s mane, it curled wildly until she grew tired of it and
thrust it into a snood. It resisted all other confinement. More
than once I had seen Portia, laughing, attempting to dress it,
breaking combs in its heaviness.
But she was not laughing as she watched Jane remove Puggy to the
pantry. She merely took another sip of her wine and motioned for
the butler to fill her glass again.
“When do you think we ought to leave—” I
“Tomorrow. I have already consulted the timetable. If we
leave very early, we ought to make Grimsgrave by nightfall. I have
sent word to Valerius to meet us at the station.” I blinked
at her. “Portia, my things are not yet packed. I have made no
She looked down at the pale slices of pork on her plate. She poked
at them listlessly with her fork, then signed for the butler. He
removed the plate, but she kept hold of her wine. “There are
no arrangements for you to make. I have taken care of everything.
Tell Morag to pack your trunk, and be ready at dawn tomorrow. That
is all that is required of you.”
I signalled to the butler as well, surrendering my wine, and
wishing Portia had done the same. She did not often drink to
excess, and the extra glass had made her withdrawn, icy even.
“Portia, if you do not wish to go to Yorkshire, I can go
alone with Valerius. I am offending propriety well enough as it is.
I cannot think that travelling without you will make much of a
She stared into her wineglass, turning it slowly in her palms,
edging the dark, blood-red liquid closer to the crystal rim.
“No, it is better that I should go. You will need someone to
look after you, and who better than your elder sister?” she
asked, her tone tinged with mockery.
I stared at her. Portia and I had had our share of quarrels, but we
were extremely close. She had offered me the use of her townhouse
when I was in London, and my stay had been a pleasant one. Jane had
welcomed me warmly, and we had passed many cosy evenings by the
fireside, reading poetry or abusing our friends with gossip. But
every once in a while, like a flash of lightning, brief and sharp
and hot, a flicker of something dangerous had struck between us. I
was not certain why or how, but a new prickliness had arisen, and
more than once I had been scratched on the thorns of it. A word too
sharp, a glance too cold—so subtle I had almost thought I had
imagined it. But there was no imagining the atmosphere in the
dining room. I glanced at the door, but Jane did not return.
“Dearest,” I began patiently, “if you want to
remain here with Jane, you ought to. I know Brisbane invited you,
but he will understand if you decide to stay in
Portia circled the glass again, the wine lapping at the edge.
“To what purpose?”
I shrugged. “The season will be starting soon. You might
organise a ball for Virgilia. Or give a dinner for young Orlando,
introduce him to some of the gentlemen of influence you have
cultivated. If he means to run for a seat in Parliament, he cannot
begin too soon.”
Portia snorted and her hand jerked, nearly spilling the wine.
“Our niece’s mother would never permit me to throw a
ball for her, as you well know. And the gentlemen of influence
would have little interest in meeting our nephew at the dinner
table, and I have little interest in meeting our nephew. He is a
dull boy with no conversation.”
She was being far too hard on Orlando, but I knew that
recrimination would only provoke her. “And you hope to find
good conversation in Yorkshire?” I teased, hoping to jolly
her out of her foul mood.
She stared into the glass, and for just a moment her expression
softened, as though she were prey to some strong emotion. But she
mastered it as swiftly as it had come, and her face hardened.
“Perhaps there is nothing to find,” she said softly.
She tilted her hand and a single crimson drop splashed onto the
tablecloth, staining the linen with the finality of blood.
“Portia, leave off. You will ruin that cloth,” I
scolded. The butler moved forward to scatter salt over the
Portia put her glass down carefully. “I think perhaps I have
had too much to drink.” She rose slowly. “Julia, do
enjoy dessert. I will retire now. I must supervise Minna whilst she
packs. If I leave her to it, she will hurl everything into a
bedsheet and knot it up and call it packed.”
I bade her a quiet good-night and told the butler I wanted nothing
more except a strong cup of tea. He brought it scalding and sweet,
and I sipped it slowly, wondering why the trip to Yorkshire, which
had filled me with elation, should now cause me such apprehension.
It was not just Portia’s antics that alarmed me. I knew very
well that Brisbane had not invited me to Yorkshire. Moreover, I
knew his uncertain temper and how scathing his anger could be. He
was entirely capable of packing me onto the next train to London,
my purpose unresolved. I knew also his stubbornness, his pride, his
stupid, dogged persistence in blaming himself for my brush with
death during our first investigation together. I had told him in
the plainest terms that the idea was nonsense. If anything,
Brisbane had saved my life and I had told him so.
Whether he had listened was another matter entirely. The whole of
our acquaintance had been an intricate, twisting dance, two steps
toward each other, three steps apart. I was tired of the
uncertainty. Too many times I had abandoned myself to the
exhilaration of his company, only to be thwarted by circumstance or
his own stubborn pride. It seemed a very great folly to attempt to
force a declaration from him, but it seemed a greater folly to let
him go. If there was a single chance at happiness with him, I was
determined to seize it.
But determination was not enough to silence my jangling nerves, and
as I put the cup onto the saucer, I noticed my hand shook ever so
Just then, Jane returned. She resumed her place, giving me a gentle
smile. “I do apologise about Puggy. He is not a very nice
dinner companion. I have often told Portia so.”
“Think nothing of it. With five brothers I have seen far
worse at table,” I jested. Her smile faded slightly and she
reached for her glass as I fiddled with my teacup.
“I wish you were coming with us,” I said suddenly.
“Are you quite certain your sister cannot spare
Jane shook her head. “I am afraid not. Anna is nervous about
her confinement. She says it will give her much comfort to have me
in Portsmouth when she is brought to bed, although I cannot imagine
why. I have little experience with such matters.”
I gave her hand a reassuring pat. “I should think having
one’s elder sister at such a time would always be a comfort.
It is her first child, is it not?”
“It is,” Jane said, her expression wistful. “She
is newly married, just on a year.”
Jane fell silent then, and I could have kicked myself for
introducing the subject in the first place. Anna had always been a
thorn-prick to Jane, ever since their father died and they had been
cast upon the mercy of Portia’s husband. Younger than Jane by
some half-dozen years, Anna had made her disapproval of
Jane’s relationship with Portia quite apparent, yet she had
happily reaped the benefit when Portia had insisted upon paying the
school fees to have her properly educated. Portia had offered her a
place in her home, an offer that was refused with the barest
attempt at civility. Instead Anna had taken a post as a governess
upon leaving school, and within two years she had found a husband,
a naval officer whom she liked well enough to enjoy when he was at
home and little enough to be glad when he was abroad. She had
settled into a life of smug domesticity in Portsmouth, but I was
not surprised that she had sent for Jane. Few people were as calm
and selfpossessed, and I hoped that this olive branch on
Anna’s part would herald a new chapter in their
I almost said as much to Jane, but she changed the subject before I
“Are you looking forward to your trip into Yorkshire?”
she inquired. “I have never been there, but I am told it is
very beautiful and unspoilt.”
“I am not,” I confessed. “I should like to see
Yorkshire, but I am rather terrified to tell you the
I nodded. “I just wish I knew. It’s all so maddening,
the way he drops me entirely for months on end, then when we are
brought together, he behaves as though I were the very air he
breathes. Most infuriating.”
Jane put a hand over mine. Hers was warm, the fingers calloused
from the heavy tools of her art. “My dear Julia, you must
follow your heart, even if you do not know where it will lead you.
To do otherwise is to court misery.” There was a fleeting
shadow in her eyes, and I thought of how much she and Portia had
risked to be together. Jane had been the poor relation of
Portia’s husband, Lord Bettiscombe, and society had been
cruel when they had set up house together after Bettiscombe’s
death. They had a circle of broad-minded and cultured friends, but
many people cut them directly, and Portia had been banned from the
most illustrious houses in London. Theirs had been a leap of faith
together, into a world t