Layers of freshly fallen snow blanketed the sidewalks, glistening beneath the light of the streetlamps, as darkness descended on London. On Park Street, in the affluent borough of Westminster, Matthew Hamilton inhaled sharply, bracing himself against the evening chill, as well as the curious glances of passers-by—the front of his coat was soaked in dark blood, but confident that no constables were trailing him, Matthew took no pains to hide the ghastly sight. With his lips set in a grim line, his dark eyes appearing almost black in the poor lighting, and the stern expression taking hold of his finely chiseled features, he appeared as daunting as the exterior of his home, a townhouse towering of height, forbidding of façade, and situated within walking distance of both Hyde Park and Grosvenor Square.
He ascended the steps quickly and, mindful of the sleet that was beginning to slick the ground, impatiently rapped on the front door. Within seconds, a servant appeared in the doorway. Matthew greeted the butler with a slight nod of his head and, upon entering the vestibule, handed him his hat, coat, and cane. "Thank you, Foster," he said, dropping his eyes to the stained garment. "Have Mrs. Hatchet wash it immediately, will you?"
"Aye, sir," the butler replied, bowing as he took his leave—the expression on his face suggested that he was much too familiar with the sight of bloody clothing to react squeamishly.
Matthew turned the corner and entered a chandeliered hallway with a grand staircase on one side and several closed doors on the other. Ignoring the winding steps, he fixed his eyes on a partially opened door farther down the corridor. A warm orange light, unlike the stark light of the gas-lit chandeliers, was spilling out into the hall from within the room, beckoning him inside with promises of a fire and pleasant company. Depositing his gloves on a nearby table, he raked a hand through his hair and cringed as the combination of blood and soap clinging to his fingers invaded his nostrils. Five minutes under nearly scalding water and the stench had yet to disperse. He shook his head disgustedly and continued for the agape door.
Within the room, the fire, warm and inviting, was the first object to catch his eye. The second was the young woman seated beside it. With her face buried in a periodical, she did not see, but rather heard, Matthew's entrance into the room. "Good evening," she said without lifting her head in his direction, her clear voice lilting.
Matthew returned the girl's pleasant greeting before sinking wearily into the seat across from her. But as his eyes landed on the cover of the periodical in her hands, an exasperated sigh fell from his lips. "How many times must I tell you, Eva?" he cried, thumb and forefinger alighting on his temple. "That is not appropriate reading material for an adolescent girl."
Eva Hamilton closed her brother's copy of The Lancet, a British medical journal that had, since its first publication three years prior, become as intriguing to her as the novels she often came across in Matthew's vast library. "Why?" she asked, laying the magazine down on the table between them. "Because I am not a member of the Royal College of Surgeons? Or because you like me best artless and ignorant?"
Matthew's jaw momentarily clenched as he stared at his sister in disbelief. Then, recomposing himself, he reclined against the sofa backing and mumbled, "I swear, Eva, I am going to put you in the next mail coach headed for Exeter; let your mother deal with you. How would you like that?"
The girl pushed a chestnut-colored curl out of her eyes and, flashing Matthew a grin that did not fail to further agitate him, said, "I would not like that at all. Why should I travel by mail coach when I can just as easily use your carriage?"
A groan of consternation escaped his throat, but instead of verbally responding, Matthew merely threw up his hands and jumped to his feet. He could feel the corners of his mouth twitching with the beginnings of a smile, but adamant against having his sister's impertinence provoke his mirth, he shot her a look of mock admonition and, turning on his heel, started for the liquor cabinet across the room.
Eva resumed her scouring of The Lancet, more grateful than ever that Matthew's impenetrable gravity was not the result of heredity.
After pouring himself a glass of brandy, Matthew returned to the sofa opposite the hearth. "Are you not curious as to how I found Mr. Crane?" he asked, taking a sip of his drink as he settled against the cushioned backing.
Eva placed the magazine in her lap. An inquisitive gleam entered her gray eyes, accentuating her youthful face, as she leaned forward. With her hands fidgeting atop the periodical, she said in a tone slightly too eager, "How did you find old Mr. Crane, Matthew? Horribly bloody? Deathly pale?"
"The former," Matthew replied, scrunching his face as he recalled the sight of his neighbor lying atop soaked bed sheets, stomach beneath him, nose dripping. "He broke his nose."
"Did he really?" Eva said, the twinkle in her eyes belying her horrified expression. "How?"
Matthew cast his sister a nervous, questioning look. "Eva, your thirst for gory details is disconcerting. I shan't indulge you." He brought the glass of brandy once more to his lips.
His words were met with an artful pout. "Come now, Matthew. I have had such a tedious afternoon. Will you not humor me this once?"
Matthew, however, was unaffected by her plea and attempted to rid her of her curiosity with a thoroughly, determinedly disapproving stare.
But the girl was relentless. "Matthew," she began again after anxiously observing him as he finished the last of his drink, "you cannot begin a tale and then abandon it just as it becomes interesting." She picked up the magazine in her lap and waved it threateningly in front of him. "I shall delve into its inappropriate depths if you do not continue."
With a roll of his eyes, Matthew stood and snatched the medical journal from Eva's hand. He idly flipped through its pages before tucking it under his arm and heading over to an end table sitting below a window draped with velvet curtains. Feeling Eva's indignant glare burn a hole into his back, he sighed resignedly and said, "Would you care to guess how Mr. Crane was situated when I entered the chamber in which his wife had had him placed?"
Vexation was quickly replaced with familiar inquisitiveness as Eva, hoping to determine from Matthew's expression the nature of her pending conjecture, inclined her head to better catch a glimpse of his face. But her brother's head was bowed and his tone was indifferent. "Upright, with a towel pressed to his nose?"
Matthew swung around and, for a fleeting second, a smile graced his lips. "You would think so, wouldn't you? But no, dear sister, I assure you that that was not the case." A frown returned austerity to his countenance. "He was lying face down with a key pressed to his bare back."
Eva raised an eyebrow. "How odd."
"Indeed." He returned his attention to the end table, absently rummaging through the mail sitting atop it. "It's actually a sort of home remedy for nosebleeds, if you can believe it."
"But his was more than a regular nosebleed."
"Precisely." A small card hidden beneath an insignificant missive caught his eye as he spoke. "But his wife failed to inform me that when I arrived. She led me to believe that I was merely treating a nosebleed, when in truth, she had broken Mr. Crane's nose."
A soft but amused gasp slipped past Eva's lips. "Good gracious, how were you able to contain your laughter?" Matthew cast her a quick glance over his shoulder, reminding her of whom she was speaking to. "Well, at least I would not have been able to help myself, had I been the physician to treat Mr. Crane."
"It was in no respects an amusing situation, Eva," he weakly reprimanded her. "But I thought you might find humor in it."
Following another quip at their neighbor's expense, Eva's grin faded. But the curiosity in her eyes remained as she noted the lessening severity in Matthew's profile. "A letter of interest, I presume," she said, jerking her chin at the card in his hand.
He eyed her suspiciously. "You've gone through my mail, haven't you?" When she only smiled, he shook his head reproachfully and continued, "Yes, apparently your cousins, the Pratts, are in town."
"How thoughtful of them to send us word of their arrival, don't you think?"
"Yes, indeed." Matthew closed the card and replaced it on the end table. "We shall call on them tomorrow."
"Excellent," Eva replied, clapping her hands together. "I should certainly like to see George and Samuel again. I think they must be six and four years old now."
"Yes, I think they are." He knit his brow, adding, "I hope they've grown less rambunctious, though."
Eva nodded in agreement. "As do I. When they started fighting with one another during Mr. Browne's funeral service, I felt so awful for Emma."
"But the incident was quickly taken care of, was it not?" Matthew replied. "I was very sorry that I was out of the country at the time."
"Yes, so were Liam and Emma, but having her sisters near was a great comfort to Emma."
"Does not her youngest sister live with her now?" he asked in hopes of steering their conversation in a less somber direction.
"I believe so," Eva replied, fixing her gaze on the periodical still tucked beneath Matthew's arm.
A strange look, half disapproving, half amused, was on his face as he resumed his seat across from his sister. "I hear she is quite an ill-bred and frank sort of woman." He leaned forward to place the medical journal on the table, but his hand froze halfway as his eyes suddenly flitted to Eva's face. "You have never met her, have you?"
Eva folded her arms across her chest and, leaning back in her chair, said in a resentful tone, "I was introduced to her at her father's funeral, but I was only thirteen at the time and I'm sure we did not speak with one another long enough for her to transfer any of her poor manners to me—assuming that she has poor manners."
Matthew's only response was a skeptically arched eyebrow.
Within close proximity of Park Street was Baker Street, the address of the Hamiltons' cousins, the Pratts. Theirs was a townhouse of moderate size, elegant and cozy within as well as without, but not nearly accommodating enough to lodge the Pratts, their two children, and Mrs. Pratt's accompanying relations. Mr. and Mrs. Gabriel Winters had a London residence of their own, several miles from the Pratts', on Eversholt Street, but as they were merely passing through on their way to Taunton from Brighton, where the holidays had afforded them a visit with Mr. Winters' brother, they had not been compelled to open their townhouse. After spending the night in cramped quarters at the Pratts', the Winters, their children, and Mrs. Winters' younger sister were ready to depart.
"How terribly unfair," the latter, Sophia Browne, remarked as she descended the steps of the Pratts' home, her bright and pleading eyes fixed on her eldest sister. "Why cannot I stay on with you and Liam?"
Wrapping her shawl tightly about her shoulders, Emma Pratt inadvertently but wearily sighed. "Sophia, my dear, you know we have not a room for you while the boys are here."
"Well, I would happily exchange places with your sons," Sophia replied, "if you would only say the word."
"Do not be silly, Sophia. Until yesterday afternoon, George and Samuel were completely unfamiliar with London. But you have been here numerous times. Why should you now rob them of their chance to acquaint themselves with the city?"
"You're the one being silly," Sophia said, dismissively waving her hand. "They are naught more than little boys. What enjoyment can they find in shops and assemblies? Would I not benefit more from such entertainment?"
The undercurrent of irritation in Emma's tone was barely concealed as she replied, "We are to join Gabriel and Clara in Taunton in a week; that is hardly enough time to attend assemblies and gallivant about town."
Sophia scoffed, but as the horses were growing antsy, she was forced to relinquish her argument. "If you say so, Emma. But if I am utterly miserable at Heathersfield, then I shall be holding you accountable." She threw her arms about the older woman's neck as she had often done in her younger days, but the advantage in height that she'd gained over Emma in the ten years since Emma's marriage voided the awkward attempt at embracing.
A soft laugh escaped Emma's lips as she took hold of her sister's hands. "Am I not held accountable for every instance of your unhappiness?"
"No," Sophia replied rather sheepishly, having detected the fatigue accompanying Emma's words, "Clara is also to blame." She received, in return for her surly remark, a playful reprimand, but the unease that quickly accompanied it prevented both from speaking again until, climbing into the barouche, Sophia suddenly turned around, much to the startled footman's annoyance, and said, "I've left a list on your dressing table of the books I'd like you to purchase for me while you are here. Pray, remember it."
Shaking her head in mock exasperation, Emma assured her sister that she would. Then, turning her attention toward the chaise parked in front of the barouche accommodating Sophia, she waved good-bye to Clara and Gabriel Winters.
As the horses began their steady trots down the street, Emma returned to the house.
Forcibly removing her eyes from the scenery outside her window, Sophia turned her gaze on the three boys seated on the bench across from her. The oldest one, with his large hazel eyes and tousled black hair, was the exact replica of his father, while the two younger ones resembled no one more than each other. Sophia studied their smiling faces suspiciously before glancing toward the empty seat at her right hand. "Where is your sister?" she addressed the eldest of the boys.
"Gabby is in the other carriage with Mamma and Papa," he replied, snickering as one of his brothers poked him in the arm.
Sophia pursed her lips. Dear Lord, I cannot believe they've left me to the mercy of these three imps, she thought indignantly, warily scrutinizing the boys before turning her attention once more to her window. Although the carriage was slowly reaching the end of the street, Emma's doorstep was still in sight. Sophia's brow knit curiously as she noticed a man and woman heading up the front steps. But with the townhouse retreating farther and farther into the distance, she had not the chance to see their faces and was left with only the impression that they were well-dressed people of roughly the same height.
The advent of a snowfall soon reduced the houses whose modern exteriors she dearly loved to mere blurs. She turned from the window, disheartened by the gloomy weather, and nearly screamed aloud as her eyes fell on the curly-haired boy suddenly at her side. "Edward, you little scamp, get back to your seat."
"I'm not Edward," the little boy protested and, pointing at his twin brother, added, "He's Edward; I'm Henry."
"Well, whichever one you are, get back to your seat," Sophia replied, failing desperately as she tried to shoo him to the other side of the carriage.
"But I want to show you something first."
An annoyed sigh fell from Sophia's lips, but knowing that the boy would not leave her in peace until she complied, she said, "All right, what is it?"
Henry glanced mischievously at his brothers. "Will found it in Aunt Emma's kitchen," he said, reaching into his pocket and removing from it a gray ball of fur. "May we keep it?"
Unsure as to what the boy was actually holding, Sophia leaned down and poked it. When the gray ball uncurled, revealing a small, beady-eyed mouse, she let loose a scream that was so loud the driver abruptly reined in the horses.
The servants frantically climbed down from their seats and raced, one following the other, to her door. Within the carriage, they found Sophia huddling closely against the window curtains, screeching, "Kill it! Kill it! Good God, won't somebody kill it!"
The driver and footman exchanged inquisitive glances before turning their eyes to the three boys opposite her. Henry, his expression sheepish, was the only one in control of himself enough to speak, holding the mouse up to the servants as Will and Edward suppressed giggles. "We're sorry."