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  • What the Gentleman is Hiding

Prologue

Embryology

The study of the prenatal; the unborn child or the chicken yet to hatch from its egg.

From Buxton’s Scientific Dictionary and Glossary (1843)

Lilly Fortescue had spent almost sixteen years in this village in Derbyshire where she’d been born, but there was one place which she had not yet explored. Since she could remember, everyone—her friends, her parents, even the schoolmistress, who had taught her to read—had told her to avoid the Witch’s Cottage on the edge of the village. Some of the village boys even said that Grandma Witch ate children—that once, she’d had an apprentice who had disappeared, and was never seen again.

The tale had used to scare Lilly a lot as a child, but now she was almost a woman, and she knew the truth.

There is no such thing as a witch. The very notion simply isn’t scientifically sound. The so-called witch was merely an old lady, probably frail and harmless.

Lilly loved science. It fascinated her how humans and animals worked and how more was being discovered all the time about what caused sickness and illness. It was 1822, and scientific progress was coming on in leaps and bounds. Just this year, an American named Mr. Rush had published a whole book on diseases of the mind—and if they knew what they were, then surely, one day they could cure them! Lilly longed to be part of that endeavor, and the field of science called to her.

She held a special interest in Lamarck’s theory of transmutation amongst animals and people, which resulted in special traits passing down through the generations. He was a very old man now, and Lilly would likely never hear him speak—but oh, how she wished to follow in his footsteps! 

That was the second reason why she was visiting Mrs. Beauregard today. As well as proving the silly fantasies wrong, she had heard that the old woman had the widest collection of books in the whole village, perhaps even large enough to challenge the collection of Derby’s Literary Society. Lilly could not simply ask her father for a book on science—he’d disapprove of that almost as much as he disapproved of Miles, her older brother, singing and dancing.

Perhaps it is a little devious to befriend Mrs. Beauregard to get to her books—but I will do whatever it takes if it helps me to learn!

Lilly reached the door of the cottage, and, suddenly, her nervousness overcame her again. What was she doing there? Was she really going to do it? What if the old woman became offended or . . . worse?

She stood in indecision on the doorstep for a solid ten minutes, before she raised her hand to knock. Just as she did, though, the door opened, and a short woman stood there with her arms folded, staring directly up into Lilly’s eyes.

Rightly or wrongly, Lilly’s first thought was that this “grandma” of a witch was not nearly as old as she had been led to believe. The woman was a little unkempt and witchy-looking, certainly—especially with her short, plump stature, her pointed nose, and her flyaway grey hair—but at a guess, Lilly would only have placed her at around fifty.

That would make her a little younger than Father!

“What do you want?” Mrs. Beauregard demanded, her voice croaky, as if she had a terrible cough that she couldn’t quite shift. “A love potion? A hex? I don’t work for nothing, you know.”

Lilly bit her lip. “I . . . don’t think those things are real, Mrs. Beauregard,” she said. “In fact, I don’t think you’re a witch at all.”

The woman’s thick, grey eyebrows rose higher on her head at this declaration. “Is that so?” she asked, looking Lilly up and down. “You’re Fortescue’s daughter, aren’t you? Lillian?”

Lilly nodded. “It’s just Lilly,” she corrected. “My father named me after my mother, but I never use her full name.”

Mrs. Beauregard clucked her tongue. “I remember. Poor dear died in childbed around the same time my Henry went—consumption, you know. Terrible thing, that.”

Lilly shifted awkwardly. “I’m . . . sorry to hear it,” she said. It seemed like the right thing to say.

“Yes, I’ve heard about you,” Mrs. Beauregard went on, still eyeing her. “Tell me, Lilly, what is it with your youthful things and getting so tall? Women in my day had the decency to make it so I could look them in the eye.”

“I’m sorry about that too, I suppose,” Lilly replied, raising an eyebrow. “I’m actually considered to be quite short. My brother is tall, and my mother was as well, but I’m not even average height.”

Mrs. Beauregard snorted. “You’re still taller than me, which is just plain rude. Well. If you are to be Lilly, you may call me by my first name.”

“That’s . . . very kind,” Lilly said cautiously. “What is your first name?”

The woman smirked. “Hildegard. That’s right; my name is Hildegard Beauregard. Half the reason I married Henry was for the amusement of the rhyme.”

“Really? What was the other half?” Lilly asked.

The older woman grinned wickedly. “I shall tell you when you are older. Now, you should call me Hilda, for I rarely respond to anything else. So, here we are, Hilda and Lilly, who go by the short forms of their perfectly fine Christian names. It’s almost as if we were meant to be friends.”

Lilly blinked. Things were moving much more quickly and in a very different direction than she had expected. She must regain control—and perhaps she could turn the situation to her advantage. “Well,” she said, stretching out the world over several syllables. “Mrs.—Hilda. If we’re to be friends, then, perhaps you might be willing to . . . oh, I don’t know . . . let me read some of your books?”

Hilda stared at her. “They’re scientific tomes and philosophy for the most part. Hardly the kind of literature a young lady would enjoy reading these days.”

“Perhaps not in general, no, but it’s very much to my taste,” Lilly said. She hesitated for just a second, and then, emboldened by Hilda’s strangeness, said the words she’d been keeping locked inside her out loud for the very first time. “I am going to be a scientist, you see.”

Hilda said nothing, and for a moment Lilly panicked. What if Hilda told her father? What if she laughed at her?

But Hilda did neither of those. Instead, she nodded thoughtfully, then stood aside. “Come along then, girl,” she said.

“Where—where are we going?” Lilly asked.

“To the library, of course,” Hilda replied. “If you’re to be a scientist, it’s time we got started.”


Chapter 1

Homeostasis

A state of optimal function in a living organism; a resistance to change from outside forces.

From Buxton’s Scientific Dictionary and Glossary (1843)

Professor Herbert Buxton loved his parents. He truly did. They were kind, warm, and caring, and he knew he had something which many men did not. That being said, there was a good reason why he chose to live in London, more than two hundred miles from their home just outside Manchester, where he had grown up.

Yes, his role at the university had a lot to do with that—but at eight-and-twenty, there was perhaps a little more to it. In fact, as he read over the letter from his mother, which had just arrived, he remembered exactly why he only visited them on the holidays.

Our dearest Herbert,

We are now almost through the Year of Our Lord 1827, and your parents are beginning to wilt with concern. You are closer to thirty than twenty, and yet you remain unmarried. How long will you stay in that small house with no servants and no wife? We know that you are successful in your work, and we are proud of your employment at London University, but we still worry.

Will you never marry? You are our only child, and we are not getting any younger. We paid for the best education possible because we wanted you to flourish—not to stop you from living. You work far, far too hard. Can your science bring us grandchildren? If not, perhaps it’s time to consider what is truly important.

The letter went on in this vein for some time, and it was truly a struggle for Herbert not to roll his eyes as he read. He felt as though the topic would haunt him until the day he went to his grave—but how to escape it?

He could hardly tell his parents the truth; he had long since given up on the idea of love and having a family. It was not that Herbert, in his heart, didn’t want those things, but his passion lay in his scientific work. He’d learned over the years that his life was simply incompatible with courtship.

If I must pick one or the other, I will pick my research. It may hurt to do so, but it is a sacrifice I make gladly.

Herbert sighed to himself and picked up his pen. He pulled out a fresh piece of paper and began to write … a long, meandering reply calculated to flatter his parent’s wisdom and acknowledge their wishes but actually say very little at all. He intended to send it off the next morning, along with a note and some money for his mother to spend on flowers. He supposed that would appease her for a while, at least.

When he was finished, he put both letters aside and headed into the back room of his house. It was small compared to the house where he had grown up—but most London townhouses not owned by members of the nobility were small, and this was significantly so, because of the way the two back rooms were occupied.

He pushed open the door and smiled as squeaks of greeting met him. There were cages all around the room, each with a mouse or two inside, and a description explaining where the mice were from. This was his lab, and it had been totally overrun by the rodents, much to the disgust of almost every girl he’d ever tried to court. He’d once considered following a different line of work to better prepare himself for marriage, but . . .

Why should I want to marry a woman who would make me hide such an integral part of myself anyway?

“Good morning, ladies and gentlemen,” he said, pulling on his gloves and starting his daily rounds. He would check each cage to ensure there had been no fights overnight; that there were no signs of illness; and that the little creatures had enough food, water, and wood shavings.

This was the grand experiment which, when the results were concluded, he intended to take to the university. Herbert was fascinated by language and linguistics as much as he was entrenched in biology and zoology. When he’d had the idea of an experiment combining both, he hadn’t been able to resist. It had all started when, in Marseille, he had witnessed the odd African giraffes, with their towering necks and strange yellow coloring. The animals had been presented as gifts at courts all over Europe, but they had been more of a gift to Herbert than anyone would ever know.

“It started like this, you see,” he said conversationally to his Parisian mouse as he refilled her food bowl. “The giraffes looked so strange that I started to wonder about how they could thrive so well in some places and not others, yet I can find you and your brethren almost anywhere.”

The mouse stared up at him with black beady eyes, not even twitching a whisker. As soon as he withdrew his hand from the cage, she rushed forward, eagerly grabbing at the chunks of food with her tiny front paws.

Herbert smiled, moving to the next cage, which contained his Spanish mice—one from the north and one from the south, distinguished by a little harmless dye coloring on their tails—and took out their bottle to refill it with water. “Of course, I could hardly fit a crowd of giraffes in here, and so I went with the smaller option,” he explained to them. These mice weren’t as skittish as their French counterparts and squeaked impatiently while they awaited their water. “I’m going to find out how you communicate, and whether you have difficulties with mice from other countries, or even from other regions within your own country.”

He gradually moved around all the cages, before ending up at the last—his personal favorite, the little English mouse he’d picked up right here in London. As a rule, he tried not to name or—God forbid—get attached to the subjects of his experiments, but every rule had its exceptions. The exception to this rule was Fauntleroy.

“Which is why you’re so useful,” he told Fauntleroy. He opened the cage, and the little mouse eagerly ran onto his hand, ready to be scratched just behind the ears and fed by hand. Herbert knew he spoiled the little thing, but he couldn’t help it. “My little street urchin.”

Fauntleroy wasn’t a young mouse. He’d been only a week or two old when Herbert had found him a year ago, daringly darting across the kitchen of Miss Penny Wilde, the last woman whom Herbert had attempted to court. She’d screeched at the sight of the creature, demanding that Herbert kill it immediately. Instead, Herbert had caught Fauntleroy right there in his hands and declared he would keep him.

“If you do,” Penny had warned, “then there shall be no more of this courtship.”

Herbert didn’t understand how anyone could be terrified of such a sweet creature. Fauntleroy reminded Herbert somewhat of himself. Both had hair the color of black ink, and both were rather tall for members of their species, though Herbert’s eyes were brown and Fauntleroy’s black, shiny beads. Herbert had also been chased out of more than his fair share of kitchens in his life. Despite himself, he felt an instant kinship with the creature.

He still regretted the way he had responded to Penny’s threat, however. He had simply shrugged and, taking his hat, his coat, and his new mouse, left the Wilde’s’ home, and never returned.

“I can be a bit of a stubborn fool, Fauntleroy,” he told the little mouse, who was now nuzzling against his palm. “But truth be told, I am simply not a man who does well with ultimatums. A person who forces me to make a decision on the spot is a person who loses.”

Fauntleroy squeaked.

Herbert chuckled. “Yes, I know, I know—it’s a trait that will get me into trouble one of these days. Another one of the many reasons why I am better off on my own.”

Just then, the doorbell rang, and Herbert cursed. Who could it be so early in the morning? He placed Fauntleroy gently back into his cage, took off his gloves, and headed out to the front room. Herbert didn’t employ any servants except a housekeeper once a week, so he was more than used to answering the door himself.

What day is it today? Friday, I think. A few more days until my weekly home-cooked meal . . .

He opened the door, still pondering that thought, and was surprised to see a young man, whom he vaguely recognized, standing outside wringing his hands. It was a boy perhaps ten or eleven years old, Herbert's junior, and he looked distraught.

“You’re Professor Buxton?” the boy asked nervously.

Herbert raised an eyebrow. “For my sins,” he said. The boy stared at him in pure confusion, and Herbert sighed. His sense of humor was lost on these boring Londoners. “Yes, lad. I am Buxton. What can I do for you?”

Far from looking relieved, the boy simply looked more nervous. “Well, erm, you see, I’m a clerk at the university, sir,” he said.

“You barely seem old enough,” Herbert noted dryly.

Once again, his sarcasm went unrecognized. “I’m quite new to the position, Professor,” the boy told him earnestly. “But the thing is . . . well, you remember the lecture you gave the other week on animal adaptation to heat and moisture?”

“Vividly,” Herbert replied. “I left the papers in the lending library so that anyone might access them any time they wished. They’ll be there another fortnight if you want to take a look.”

“Well, you see . . .” the boy said hesitantly. “That’s actually why I’m here.”

Herbert raised an eyebrow. “Ah. Not a student, I take it.”

“No, Professor,” the boy replied. “Like I said, I’m just a clerk. My name is Graham White, sir; my dad got me the job. I’m just . . .”

“Not to worry. I shall write you a note bearing my personal signature permitting you to take out the papers if you wish,” Herbert told him with a small smile. “I shan’t be the one to stand between you and learning, whatever fascinates you about the world, Graham White.”

He expected at least a smile, but the look young Graham gave him was instead full of true horror. “I appreciate that more than you know, Professor Buxton, but that’s not why I’m here,” Graham told him. He began to wring his hands again, looking, if anything, even more nervous. “You see, there was an accident.”

Herbert’s charitable mood vanished almost immediately. “What . . . kind of accident, Mr. White?” he asked cautiously.

Graham cringed. “Well, one of your students, who prefers to remain nameless, you see, well, he may have managed to smuggle a bottle of ale past our esteemed librarian on his way to study.”

Herbert felt a chill running down his spine. “And?” he asked quietly.

“And,” Graham went on, “well, the ale might have spilled, sir . . . all over your manuscript.”

“My manuscript. The very papers I need to hand in to the chancellor in exactly two weeks from today, the ones that took me a year and a half to put together?” Herbert asked slowly.

Graham couldn’t meet his eyes. “Yes, er . . . and then Mr. Mil—I mean, the student in question, he thought he might be able to clean them up before you noticed.”

“To clean them,” Herbert repeated, feeling cold.

“So, he . . . bathed the manuscript, sir. And now, well . . .”

“Now it’s ruined. Unreadable,” Herbert guessed.

Graham nodded, flinching as he did so.

All my work. Gone.

He should be angry—furious, even. He should rant and rave and take it out on this unfortunate messenger, or he should cry and pull at his hair. Or perhaps he should become lost in a bout of terrible, hysterical laughter? None of that happened, though. When Herbert was faced with the worst situation in his academic life, he only felt . . . numb.

“Thank you for the information,” he told Graham in a voice of almost mechanical flatness. “Tell me, did Milton pay you to come here on his behalf, or threaten you instead?”

The boy went pale. “I didn’t say it was Milton, sir,” he replied quietly.

Herbert gave him a wry smile. “I grew up with boys like him. They think that our parents having money puts us above the law of the land. Never mind, I will ensure he is appropriately punished myself. And don’t worry. Your name won’t pass my lips.”

Graham blinked in relief, looking ready to cry. “I . . . thank you,” he replied. “But what will you do now?”

“Oh, repeating a year and a half’s worth of work alongside my current classes and research, in the space of a few weeks. It should go excellently,” Herbert replied. “Do me one more favor, Mr. White. Inform my secretary that today’s lecture is cancelled, won’t you?”

Graham nodded, looking anxious. Herbert knew it was rude, but he couldn’t think of anything else to do then but close the door in the boy’s face.

When he was alone again, Herbert retreated to the living room and the large soft armchair that had come with the house. It was old, probably several decades, but when he’d moved in and the previous owners had offered to remove it, he’d paid them extra to let it stay. He sank into it now, his sudden weariness making it too difficult for his bones to support his body and closed his eyes.

Lord above. Perhaps I can’t do everything alone after all. How smug my parents would be if they could see me now.

But what was the alternative? He certainly could not find a wife to help him in such a short time. The last time he had requested help from one of his research students it had resulted in nothing but accidentally left-open mouse cages and thirty tiny rodent pups he’d had to rehome.

There was nothing for it, Herbert realized. He would have to hire an assistant. He would go outside the university to find someone to help—perhaps someone who usually lived outside London, who might be free of town and university politics.

Muttering to himself, he reached for another sheet of paper and began to write.

SCIENTIFIC ASSISTANT SOUGHT FOR IMMEDIATE START

Professor Herbert Buxton of 7 Maple Road, London, seeks an assistant to aid in his scientific endeavors. The candidate should be interested in the fields of biology, zoology, and general scientific progress. Non-Londoners preferred. No married couples. No academic experience is necessary, but the applicant must describe in a letter their specific interest in the field of animal linguistics and any knowledge which may be relevant to the post.

Must be willing to work long hours and at short notice. Residence will be provided at the above-mentioned address as part of employment. Please write with your application.

Herbert stopped for a moment to read over the advertisement. It was good—short, succinct, it got the point across—yet there was something missing.

Housing an assistant in the townhouse would not be a problem. Small it might be compared to the home his parents expected of him, but there was still a spare bedroom, which currently housed, in a haphazard fashion, most of his excess property. If, for some reason, that wasn’t to his new assistant’s taste, then they were welcome to any of the three empty rooms downstairs meant to house servants.

Herbert could look after himself just fine. The weekly housekeeper was a blessing whenever his experiments or work became too overwhelming, but, other than that, no servant was necessary. He lightly cleaned up after himself during the week, he knew how to wash his own clothes—and had to, often, due to working with animals—and he preferred to make and keep his own social appointments. The only useful addition might be a full-time cook, but Herbert hardly saw the point. After all, on every day except Sunday, he could either have food delivered from the local tavern or simply eat with a friend.

He paused, thinking about it, then added one more line to his advertisement.

Candidates who are willing and able to cook for the household will be given preference. A weekly stipend will be offered for this, with the amount to be negotiated depending on skills.

It was an odd thing to add to a job advertisement, he supposed, but then it was important for anyone who planned to work for Herbert—much less live in his house—to understand that they were accepting an odd position with a man who had been politely labeled “passing strange” by many.

Herbert nodded to himself. That was as good as it was going to get. He stood up once more, the paper in his hand as he went to continue his rounds with the animals. Fauntleroy squeaked in excitement when he saw Herbert, which broke the man’s bad mood a little.

How is it that people are disgusted by these creatures?

It made no sense to him. As he fed a crust of bread through the cage bars to an ecstatic Fauntleroy, a thought occurred to him, and he glanced over his advertisement one more time.

“What do you think, my diminutive friend?” he asked. He smiled as Fauntleroy sniffed at the paper. “You make a good point,” he said.

He finished the feeding and watering, then went back into the sitting room and picked up the pen once more. There was one critical condition he had forgotten to add that would separate the perfect candidate from the weak one.

Must be fond of rodents.

Smiling to himself, Herbert folded the paper and placed it in his pocket. He would head to the newspaper offices immediately to have it inserted. With any luck, his assistant would start work the following Monday.

If so, then perhaps there was a slim possibility that his entire scientific career would not be left in tatters by a drunken student. If it were, though—well, at least he’d have a story to tell.


Chapter 2

Catalysis

The process of causing or speeding a chemical or biological reaction by adding an outside element.

From Buxton’s Scientific Dictionary and Glossary (1843)

Over the last five years, Lilly and Hilda had formed a significant bond, to the point where the young woman of one-and-twenty considered the older woman her closest friend. There were several reasons for that, and not only the obvious, practical ones—namely, that Hilda always had books ready, and that there were no other young women Lilly’s age in the village.

More than this, though, was the fact that the two women simply seemed to fit together in a way which defied their age difference. They always had something to talk about, and Lilly found Hilda had become something between a grandmother and a mother to her—perhaps an older aunt.

Today, Lilly was helping Hilda to pack her things, as the widow was taking an extended trip to London.

“I hate London,” Hilda observed for the fifth time that hour, while Lilly neatly folded her clothes and placed them in the trunk. “It’s dirty and smoggy and filled with rats.”

“Rats are sweet creatures. Their terrible reputation is unearned,” Lilly replied mildly.

“Didn’t they bring the bubonic plague?” Hilda asked, amused. Before Lilly could object, she said, “Besides, it isn’t those kinds of rats I’m referring to. I’m talking about Baron Whosit and Colonel Whatsit, who like to parade their status and Lord it over everyone over everyone. London is a cesspit where the title “eat the poor”, mark my words.”

“Well, if they’re eating the poor, no wonder they end up with plagues,” Lilly told her matter-of-factly. Hilda laughed, and Lilly felt a little sadness tinge her responding smile. She was going to miss Hilda, who, apart from her brother Miles, was the only person who seemed to understand Lilly’s deadpan sense of humor.

“You’re a clever girl. Euphemia could have done with a friend like you, and perhaps she wouldn’t have run off with the first blue-eyed blunderbuss who promised her the world,” Hilda said, shaking her head. “She’s only two years your senior, too. It’s a shame you never played together as girls.”

“Father didn’t let either me or Miles out much when we were young. He was terrified that something would happen to us as it did to our mother. We were only allowed to roam the village without him when Miles turned fifteen.”

“By which point my fool daughter had already run off with the Lord of Spanish Coin,” Hilda said contemptuously. “I told her, I said, ‘Effie, if you follow that young buck to London without first setting your cap, then you only have yourself to blame if it goes wrong’. But of course, she knew better than her own mother. He would marry her, she said, just as soon as he found a job. Stuff and nonsense!”

Lilly had heard this story before, but she listened politely anyway. It always made her quite sad. Euphemia had behaved in a silly manner, certainly, and Hilda had reacted in anger, but the result had been that seven years had passed since the day Hilda had last seen her daughter.

“Anyway. He left her, of course. She was lucky she did not end up in the family way, for what would she have done then?” Hilda went on with a scowl. “There she was, alone in London. I wrote to her that she should come home, that all she had to do was apologize. But no! She’d make a new life there, she said. She was a town girl now. Modern women could live alone. Well! I told her if that’s how she felt, she could live without me.”

Lilly said nothing, folding another dress.

“Honestly,” Hilda said, shaking her head and sounding sad. “Her father was the sweetest man. I can’t imagine where she gets her stubbornness from.”

Lilly bit her lip, trying not to laugh. “No idea,” she lied. “But in any case, I’m truly glad you two have decided to make amends. I never had a mother. It’s not right that you and your daughter should be so at odds.”

Decided is a strong word, young lady,” Hilda said, giving her a sharp look. “Don’t think I don’t know what you did.”

Lilly did her best to don an innocent expression. “I don’t know what you mean,” she replied placidly.

She did, of course, know exactly what Hilda meant. It had been Lilly who discovered Euphemia’s postal address tucked away in a drawer in the house, darkened by age but still legible, and Lilly who had written a letter pleading with the other young woman to write to her mother.

Euphemia had done so a week later, pretending it was a spontaneous idea, but apparently Hilda wasn’t fooled. Nonetheless, until she was directly accused of interfering, Lilly had no intention of admitting what she had done.

“Hm,” Hilda replied with a sharp look. “Well, I hate London.”

“Yes, you already said so,” Lilly replied patiently. “But you must go and see your daughter.”

“If you’re so insistent, come with me,” Hilda suggested. Lilly paused, and she saw a smile on the widow’s face. “Yes, come along as my companion or what have you. You can finally meet my daughter, and if you like, we can dress you in men’s clothes so that you can attend some lectures at the university. Heaven knows, you wouldn’t be the first woman to don a pair of trousers for such a thing, no matter what those blowhards believe.”

The university! That’s everything I ever dreamed of!

But Lilly shook her head. “No,” she said, though she couldn’t keep the regret from coloring her tone. “No, I can’t just leave, no matter how tempting it is. I have responsibilities here.”

Hilda shrugged. “As you will, child,” she said, “But do remember that my offer will be open until I leave. Now, speaking of your responsibilities, you’d better run along before your father starts to panic.”

Lilly looked at the time and jumped. So late already! “I’ll be by again later,” she promised.

“Don’t worry yourself,” Hilda replied. “I have the feeling you’re going to be otherwise occupied. I can finish the packing myself.”

Lilly gave her a quick hug, then left.

Otherwise occupied?

As she walked along the road toward her own house at the other end of the village, she could only hope those words weren’t a bad omen.

* * *

The first thing Lilly saw when she arrived at their cottage half an hour later was her older brother, Miles, sitting on the old rickety bench-swing which had kept them so amused as children. Miles was a handsome young man of almost three-and-twenty, tall and well-toned, with dark-blonde hair and the kind of green eyes women swooned over.

Yes, and he knows it, too. He flirts with anyone in a skirt who isn’t a relative.

Lilly had always been jealous of her brother’s coloring. He looked like their mother, whereas Lilly, who was petite and slim and had hair the color of a horse chestnut, took after their father. Rather than the bright green of their mother, Lilly’s eyes were hazel, with only flecks of interesting color depending on the light.

Miles liked to make fun of the fact that the top of Lilly’s head only came up to his chest, but that didn’t stop him from being intimidated whenever she scolded him. Though he was older, Lilly always found herself mothering him—and she realized she was going to have to do it again now.

“What’s that in your hand, Miles?” she asked accusingly as she walked up the steps.

Those green eyes fixed on her, and Miles’s expression turned into a guilty grin. He held a tell-tale green bottle, which, Lilly supposed, had contained significantly more of the liquid it contained until very recently.

“It’s not even five in the afternoon yet,” she scolded, holding out her hand. “Give that to me.”

Miles tutted. “I pity the man who expects a wife and instead gets a mother when he weds you,” he said. Lilly didn’t react—Miles always made terrible jokes when he had been drinking—and soon enough he looked ashamed. “I’m just teasing, Lil,” he said apologetically.

“I know you are,” she replied. “Now, give me the bottle and tell me what has happened.”

Miles sighed and handed it over. “Sorry,” he muttered. “I . . . talked to Father. About the thing we discussed yesterday.”

Lilly exhaled and sat next to him on the bench. “Ah,” she said. “So, you told him you have no intention of carrying on the family business.”

“Hence the wine,” Miles replied. “Still, it made some difference.”

Lilly gave him a hopeful look. “What difference?”

Miles snorted. “He told me that if I don’t get a job by the end of the year, he’ll disinherit me entirely. All the money will go to your husband when he dies, or, if you don’t have one, to Cousin Randy. He’ll turn me out of the house on January first and leave me destitute.”

Lilly silently handed him back the bottle, and Miles grimaced, saluting her with it before taking a deep gulp. “Miles, I . . . do you want me to talk to him again?”

“What’s the point?” he asked with an air of false cheer and a tired shrug. “He thinks I’m useless. Lazy. He doesn’t see that I have any value at all. Perhaps he is right; I certainly must be a disappointment as his only son.”

“Don’t say that,” Lilly said quickly, though it was true. Her father was disappointed in Miles. He couldn’t see what Lilly saw—that Miles, despite his fun-loving, flirtatious ways, was one of the most dedicated and hard-working men Lilly had ever known. His mind just didn’t work in the same way as every other man’s seemed to. He had no interest in business, or politics, or even science. Instead, his dreams lay in the ballet and the opera, as a singer and dancer on stage performing for millions.

Miles, sometimes, liked to joke that the pair of them had switched brains somehow—Lilly with her love for the gentlemanly arts and him with his passion for the stage. The problem, however, was that though their father was well aware of both their preoccupations, he only saw Miles’s as a real problem.

“At least Lilly will eventually marry and have a husband to remove that nonsense from her head,” Miles said now in an acidic impersonation of their father. “At least she’ll be taught how to be a real woman. But you! You’re no man. Who would marry you?!” 

“Father doesn’t really believe that,” Lilly said, hoping it was true. “He only wants what’s best for you. I know it.”

“Perhaps he doesn’t know what that is, Lilly,” Miles replied. “I shall give him a hint—it is not constant insults.”

This . . . was exhausting. Lilly had been dealing with it for what felt like her whole life. John Fortescue had tried his best to be a good father to them after Lilly’s mother had died in childbirth, but it was true that he did not seem to know his children very well. Nurses had raised them since Lilly’s birth, with only passing commentary from their father. They’d been confined to a small area at their end of the village, unless they were traveling with Mr. Fortescue, far from everyone else, until Miles was fifteen.

In short, my father may try, but he isn’t particularly good at his job.

“Give me the bottle, Miles,” Lilly said.

“You just gave it back,” he replied with a scowl. She waited, then he rolled his eyes and handed it to her. “Whatever you say, Mother.

“If I must be Mother, then I will,” she replied. “To both of you.” She put the wine down on the porch, then said, “Come, now. We are going inside to talk with our father and put an end to this nonsense once and for all.”

Miles didn’t say anything. He gave her a look that was almost . . . well, pitying . . . but he did not argue. Instead, he nodded, and the pair walked inside, hand in hand.

* * *

Lilly had often been told how much she looked like her father, and the people who said so were not wrong. Her father was bald now, but he still sported a large mustache the exact shade of brown as Lilly’s hair, though in his case, it was tainted with grey. His eyes were the same as her own, too. The main difference lay in the lines on their foreheads. While Lilly loved to laugh, her father, especially when Miles was around, had his expression pulled into a deep frown.

“You’ve been drinking,” he said as soon as Lilly and Miles walked into the study. He didn’t look up from whatever he was writing, nor did he greet Lilly in any way. “You’d better hope that wasn’t one of my vintage bottles, boy.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t know, Father,” Miles replied very cheerfully. “In your own words, you wasted your money on my education, as I can barely count higher than my own fingers. 1817, 1718—they’re practically the same number, am I right?”

Their father’s face instantly turned a dark red, and Lilly put a warning hand on Miles’s arm.

“He’s teasing, Father,” she said quickly, though she could not actually confirm if it were true or not. She sincerely hoped Miles hadn’t popped open one of her father’s favored vintages out of spite, but she wouldn’t put it entirely past him.

And if Father had actually been so unkind, then she thought he wouldn’t be entirely undeserving of such a thing.

“Teasing!” Mr. Fortescue scoffed. “He turned down his rightful role as my heir in the company, Lilly. He spits in my face, and on your mother’s grave, with every movement.”

Miles’s cheer vanished, and he spoke in a deathly quiet voice as he said, “Do not bring Mother into this. If she’d be disappointed with anyone, it would be you for the way you treat your son.”

“You barely knew her,” Mr. Fortescue shot. “She would have been ashamed to—”

“Father, Miles, that’s enough,” Lilly said. She tried hard to contain the anger in her own voice at the turn the conversation had taken, but she wasn’t entirely successful. “What is the goal here? To hurt each other? Is that what Mother would have wanted?”

Neither man spoke, though they glared at each other so fiercely that Lilly found herself glad men didn’t generally carry swords these days.

“Now, Father, you can’t possibly mean this about taking everything away from Miles. He is your son,” she pleaded. “Think rationally.”

“You tell me to be rational, and yet the boy wishes to perform on the stage! Is he a monkey? Shall we sell him to a traveling circus as a clown?” Fortescue demanded.

“One of us would look fine with our face painted white with red triangles over our eyes, Father, but I do not think it would be me,” Miles snapped.

“Enough!” Lilly declared. “Enough. Father, please, I have an idea. Will you listen to me? You too, Miles.”

Both men looked at her as if they wanted to yell at her, too, but then, grumbling under their breath, they both nodded.

If only they could see how similarly they act!

“Mrs. Beauregard has invited me to London,” Lilly told them. “Her daughter is a society lady there, and she has offered to introduce me to several eligible gentlemen during the trip who may be worth considering in terms of my making a beneficial marriage.”

This was a lie, but a calculated one—she saw how her father’s eyes lit up at the idea. Miles cocked an eyebrow at her, obviously questioning the truthfulness of her claim, but Lilly simply ignored him.

“What if Miles came along too? There is plenty of room in Miss Beauregard’s London home, and it will not do me any harm to have my older brother there to look out for me,” Lilly continued. “You know London; perhaps we will be able to find him a job, and maybe even a woman to take care of him on top of that.”

She could see her father considering the offer. Miles caught on to what she was doing and gave her the most grateful look she had ever seen on his face.

“I hate that idea,” Miles said out loud, making a theatrical show of folding his arms and even going so far as to stomp his foot in annoyance. “I won’t do it. I won’t.”

“You will, boy, if you ever want a penny of my money again,” Mr. Fortescue snapped at him. “Now, the pair of you, go along and tell Mrs. Beauregard the news. I shall see you at dinner tonight for the final arrangements.”

“Ugh!” Miles replied, throwing his hands in the air. “Fine!”

Lilly bit back her laugh as she grabbed him by the arm and pulled him out of the study. In silence, they walked through the house and back outside.

As soon as the door closed behind them, Miles hugged her around the waist, picking her up and spinning her around in the air until she squealed with glee. He set her back on her feet and kissed her on the forehead. “You,” he said, “are a genius.”

“So, I have been told,” Lilly said with a grin. “And while we’re in London far from Father’s prying eyes, we’ll work together to find a way to make your wishes come true.”

Miles smiled gratefully at her. “Here’s to dreams, little sister.”

“To your dreams,” Lilly replied.

And, perhaps, to my dreams, too.


Chapter 3

Biodiversity

The wide variation of biological entities in a single area. A city, country, or even planet with many different living organisms is said to be an area with high biodiversity.

From Buxton’s Scientific Dictionary and Glossary (1843)

Effie Beauregard didn’t know why her mother had named her “Euphemia,” but she’d always secretly assumed that it was some sort of elaborate joke. Effie had never gone by that in her life, though. It was a name for high class snobs and foreign dignitaries, and Effie was as far from either of those as a person could get.

No, Effie Beauregard was simply a shop girl awaiting her moment. One day, she’d see her name up in lights on the London stages and beyond—but for now, she wrapped packages of sliced meat and smiled through the asinine flirtations of old men to make sure she could afford her home. As the hours ticked by and the end of her shift approached, Effie began to worry—because once she got home, the real trial would begin.

I haven’t seen my mother in seven years. Will she even recognize who I’ve become?

Effie really wasn’t sure. She doubted that Hilda would approve of how she had been living her life these seven years—flitting between houses and jobs and, yes, even men—treating everything as temporary until she found where she was supposed to be.  She wasn’t a society woman, but something new, something modern, and while Hilda had no time for the upper echelons, Effie wasn’t sure she’d view her daughter’s lifestyle with much more compassion.

It was a matter of great shame to Effie that so long had passed since she had seen or even spoken to her mother. She’d been a foolish girl, not even really a woman, when she had believed Albert’s lies and followed the soldier here. He had abandoned her shortly after—as Hilda had warned—but Effie’s pride had prevented her from returning home.

It wasn’t just my fault. There was wounded pride on both sides. She could have come to me.

Still, it had been a true relief when a letter had arrived from the girl, Lilly, who had apparently been looking after Hilda all these years. At heart, Effie was a girl who missed her mother, and knowing she’d see her so soon was almost as exhilarating as it was terrifying.

Effie’s shift ended, so she signed out for the day and began the short walk back to her little house. She reached into her pocket for the last of Lilly’s letters, though she didn’t withdraw it—she knew its contents by heart.

If it pleases you, we shall all come to visit—your mother, me, and also my brother, Miles.

Effie vaguely remembered Miles. She’d seen him around the village once or twice, though she’d never gotten a chance to speak with him. She was extremely relieved to receive the letter in any case. Lilly was practically a friend, as they had been corresponding for several months, and this Miles—well, if nothing else, he would act as a buffer between her and a mother who could be quite overbearing.

Her little house appeared in the distance, and just as she arrived, almost as if it had been waiting for her, the coach pulled up beside it. Effie waited a little out of sight as the three passengers dismounted and then paid the driver, taking the time to examine her new guests.

Miles Fortescue had grown into the kind of man whom Effie would, under other circumstances, be overjoyed to have in her home. He was handsome, and he had a cheeky grin that made Effie want to know more. The pretty, short girl next to him must be Lilly, and while Effie was eager to meet her, all her attention was quickly taken by the older woman with them.

Hilda had aged significantly in the seven years since Effie had last seen her. Even though that only made sense, it was something of a shock to Effie that her mother didn’t look exactly as she had the last time, they’d seen each other.

It was as though the older woman felt eyes upon her, for she spun and saw Effie a second later. The two of them locked eyes, and Effie nervously shuffled in place.

“Mother,” she said, stepping forward toward the three of them. “Friends. Welcome to London.”

Lilly and Miles both stared at her, though neither commented, waiting for Hilda to make the first move. The pause between when Effie stopped speaking and when Hilda started was so long that the air felt almost oppressive in Effie’s throat.

Seven years. What do a mother and daughter say to each other after such a horrific length of time spent apart?

At last, Hilda stepped forward. “Euphemia Hildegard Beauregard,” she said. “What in the world have you done to your hair?”

* * *

Miles was absolutely enchanted by Hilda’s daughter, and, even better, it seemed she was equally enchanted by him. Over dinner, Effie kept shooting him secret smiles and replying to his unsubtle commentary with even more brazen suggestions of her own. It had resulted in a lot of eye-rolling from Hilda, and several hidden sniggers from Lilly.

“Let me fetch some more drinks,” Effie said, winking at him as she stood up. “Mother, will you help me?”

“Hmph. And I thought I was a guest,” Hilda grouched. Miles had come to realize on the journey here that it was simply her way. Sure enough, despite her complaints, she got up and followed her daughter immediately into the kitchen.

When Miles and Lilly were alone, he turned to his sister and said, “Thank you for bringing me here. I am in love.”

Lilly didn’t even have the decency to look fazed. “Mmhm,” she replied through a spoonful of potato and gravy. “Just like you were last week, and twice last month?”

“I’m a romantic at heart. Is it such a crime?” Miles asked, making sure to sound as offended as possible. “And this is different. Effie is a marvel.”

“Matilda was a marvel, too,” Lilly noted. “And Lucy.”

“Pfft, not like this,” Miles said dismissively. “Have you seen how daringly short Effie keeps that sunshine-filled hair? Have you seen the beauty of the heather in those grey eyes?”

“You missed your calling as a poet, Miles,” Lilly told him with a grin. “Though she is rather pretty,” she conceded.

“Rather pretty!” Miles asked, appalled. “Lilly, you must understand. If I had a ring, I would marry her on the spot!”

All right, so he was being a little more dramatic than he had to be. However, he was not exaggerating her loveliness. Effie looked like no woman he had ever seen before, and the instant he had laid eyes on her, he knew that coming to London had been worth it just for that moment.

“Well, whatever you do, be nice,” Lilly replied. She didn’t even seem ruffled. Miles’s charm and wit worked on everyone, except for his little sister. Miles pretended it annoyed him, but truthfully, he was quite glad of it. He needed Lilly to keep him stable. “We’re quite good friends who have been corresponding for some time. I like her a lot, so do not break her heart.”

“How can you say such a thing?” Miles complained. “When have I ever broken the heart of any of your friends?”

Lilly put down her spoon and gave him an incredulous look. “Must I bring out the list?”

Miles started to laugh, but before he could say anything else, Hilda and Effie returned with more drinks and handed them out to the siblings.

The Beauregard women took their seats once more. “So, Lilly, Mother tells me that you and Miles both have rather unusual dreams,” Effie said, smiling politely at Miles’s sister.

What a beautiful smile she has! And such interesting lips!

Lilly shrugged. “I’m not sure about unusual, apart from perhaps my gender. I am hardly the first woman to express an interest in science, no matter what my father seems to think. After all, your mother’s book collection has been instrumental in increasing my knowledge.”

“Mostly inherited from my late husband, but your point stands,” Hilda noted. “I wish Effie had taken some more time to read some of those books. Perhaps then . . .”

“Enough, Mother,” Effie said. She spoke lightly, but there was steel in it. To Miles’s surprise, Hilda obeyed immediately, simply shrugging and shaking her head. “Coming to London was the best thing for me, as it turned out. I’m just waiting for one of the theaters to realize what an asset I could be, and then . . .”

“Theaters?” Miles asked. His ears perked up, and he felt like a puppy who had heard the word “walk.” “You’re interested in the theater?”

Effie turned to him with a smile that seemed to light up her whole face. Miles was truly enchanted because he knew that smile. Lilly wouldn’t understand, and neither would Hilda, most likely—but Miles did. This was a woman who adored the stage as much as he did. Suddenly, it felt like fate that he should have come to London now.

“I want to dance. And to sing,” Effie told him. “My dream is to perform in a French ballet or perhaps sing in a Russian opera. I want to travel the world and bring art wherever I go—and when I leave, I’ll take some in return. I’m taking ballet classes, you know—don’t look at me like that, Mother—and my teacher tells me I have real promise.”

Miles just stared at her. Was his mouth hanging open slightly? He made a show of coughing to cover it up, just in case.

Effie blushed. “I suppose that sounds silly to you, sir,” she said.

“Silly!” Miles exclaimed. “How can it be silly to hear you take the very words from my heart and recite them through those lovely lips?”

“Oh, dear Lord,” Lilly muttered in the background. Out of the corner of Miles’s eye, he saw Lilly and Hilda exchanging looks and rolling their eyes.

“Ignore her,” he told Effie. “She is determined to remove the mystique from everything. She has no time for love or romance. If Lilly had her way, we’d reduce everything down to little more than base biological urges.”

That was a mistake. Lilly couldn’t help herself when challenged so directly, and so Miles had nobody to blame but himself when his sister said, “Actually, love is a biological urge, of a sort, and romance even more so. Humans aren’t the only ones to display courtship behavior. Birds, for example . . .”

“So, is that why you came down to London?” Effie asked. Miles was impressed with the artfulness of her interruption; if one didn’t know better, they might have believed it was accidental. “To find a job in the theater?”

Lilly looked a little put out to be interrupted, but she didn’t make a fuss. “If he wants to be disowned, yes,” she said. “My father believes that the stage is a den of scoundrels.”

“Your father isn’t incorrect,” Hilda noted placidly.

“My father was an actor, Mother!” Effie protested.

“Oh yes,” the older woman said with a wicked grin. “I remember.”

Miles chuckled, then said, “My father has threatened to cut off all my financial support. He’s very offended that I don’t intend to take up our terribly drab family business, and he insists I find a ‘real’ job if I wish for any support at all. Lilly, on the other hand, I believe is here because he wants her to find a husband.”

“Hm,” Lilly replied. “Societal gender roles are such a bother. If it was down to you to flirt yourself into riches, and me to find a career in a respectable field, then all our problems would be solved.”

“I know you are attempting to insult me in that playful manner you so often use,” Miles told her in a haughty tone. “But since you are entirely correct, I shall not take offense.”

Everyone laughed at that, then Hilda said, “Didn’t you say the shop you work at is looking for a new day-to-day manager, Effie? Could we perhaps recommend Miles for that role?”

“Oh, no, I like him far too much to torture him in such a way,” Effie replied. “However, I do perhaps have a solution to your problem. Both of your problems, in fact.”

Miles and Lilly looked at each other in mild confusion, as Effie got to her feet and hurried out of the room. While she was gone, Miles allowed himself to get lost in a daydream involving a St. Petersburg stage, twirling a bright young woman with a daring smile, and receiving applause from the crowd . . .

“Here!” Effie’s voice interrupted. They all looked up as she re-entered the room, carrying with her what looked like a page torn from the daily newspaper. “Lilly, you said you were interested in science?”

“My favored field is zoological studies, but yes,” Lilly replied curiously. “Why?”

Effie bit her lip, then spoke directly to Miles. “How would you two feel about a little mutual deception?” she asked. “Miles, it would be the acting role of a lifetime.”

He grinned at her, already caught up in whatever mad plan she had concocted. “You have me convinced already.”

“Not me, not yet,” Lilly cautioned. “What is this?”

Effie handed her the paper, and Lilly read it over. As Miles watched, Lilly’s eyes grew wider and wider, her cheeks paler, and her eyebrows rose so high, he was afraid they’d disappear into her hairline.

“Don’t keep us all in suspense, girl,” Hilda demanded brusquely.

Silently, Lilly handed the paper to Miles. He took it and scanned over the words on the page. Some local scientist—no, a zoologist—was looking for an assistant to help with his scientific endeavors, and the package which he offered seemed more than generous.

Buxton . . . I’m sure I’ve seen Lilly reading one of his books.

“I don’t know, Lil,” he said uneasily. “Do you really think we can pull this off?”

“It wouldn’t be so hard,” Lilly said eagerly. “We are brother and sister; we could make some excuse as to why I would need to reside with you. From there, it would be a simple matter of you taking credit for work that I do. I could teach you the basics so that you aren’t lost, and anything I create can bear your name.”

“I don’t know,” Miles said uneasily. “Would people—would Father—truly fall for such a thing?”

“And why not?” Lilly asked with a shrug. “You’d hardly be the first man to take credit for the hard work of his sister or wife. This way, we both win. Won’t you at least consider it, Miles? We could even take our spare time to see about getting you a role in a show.”

Miles was still uncertain, but Effie looked thrilled with herself, and Lilly was so excited that Miles half-expected the young woman to vibrate right off her chair.

Slowly, he nodded. “All right, we can at least apply,” he said. “Though, look here—it seems Buxton is giving a public lecture in a few days. Before we hand in any applications or make any decisions, I want to meet him face-to-face. I might not always be the greatest big brother, but I’m not taking you to live with a strange man about whom we know nothing.”

Lilly beamed. “Thank you!” she said. “Thank you, thank you. It will be worth it, believe me. It’s going to be the best decision you ever made. Oh, Effie, thank you, too! I can’t believe—”

Hilda cleared her throat. “I’ve told you before, Lilly, that I can’t keep up when you young people go off into such excited ramblings. Won’t someone spare a thought for the poor old woman in the corner here?”

They all looked at her.

Hilda rolled her eyes. “You, boy. What did my daughter give you?”

“Oh, it’s an advertisement,” Miles began. “You see . . .”

“No. Too long. Lilly, you answer,” Hilda said. “Same question.”

“She gave us an opportunity, Hilda,” Lilly said. Miles was surprised to see genuine tears of happiness in his sister’s eyes. “One I will not throw away. No matter what it takes.”

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