Murder on Cold Street (Lady Sherlock #5) - Sherry Thomas



A Norwegian fir occupied a corner of Mrs. John Watson’s afternoon parlor, its scent green and resinous, its branches festooned with ornamental hot-air balloons and handmade horns of plenty. At the very pinnacle of the tree loomed a slightly tilted, plaid-clad angel. The angel, his expression rapturous—eyes closed, lips apart, face raised heavenward—embraced a large and surprised-looking goose.

This farcical display would have drawn any visitor’s eye, were it not for Miss Charlotte Holmes, who stood next to the fir, clad with even less subtlety.

Her redingote was red on the top and brown on the bottom, open to reveal a seven-tiered white lace skirt underneath, each tier bearing appliqués of green spruce and golden candles. Moreover, the brown part of the redingote had been made to resemble a pinecone, rendering the entire outfit a literal representation of a Christmas tree.

The first time Lord Ingram Ashburton had seen Holmes in this dress, someone next to him had dropped a teacup. He himself had been incredulous that he not only knew this woman but corresponded with her—and had been thoroughly relieved that she had not walked up to him, obliging him to acknowledge her.

The next time he saw the dress had come four years and a lifetime later. By then he had become more or less inured to her taste in clothes. Another woman might have been swallowed whole by such an outlandish concoction. She, with her needlessly sweet face and her near-indestructible composure, somehow subdued the insurrection of velvet and lace, reducing it to merely another item in her gaudy wardrobe.

In the months since her public fall from grace, which had obliged her to run away from home and start life afresh on her own, he’d thought more than once of this particular dress, buried in her parents’ house in the country, lonely and pining to be worn.

To be abroad in all its absurd splendor.

And he’d also thought, more than once, of the surprise and gladness he’d feel, if he should ever see it again. Of the smile that the sight would bring to his face.

He was not smiling now.

Nor was the other woman in the room. Under different circumstances, Mrs. Treadles, wife of Inspector Robert Treadles, Lord Ingram’s friend and Holmes’s sometime collaborator, would probably have grinned in good-natured appreciation at such sartorial hullabaloo.

But pale and stricken, her hands still clutched around Holmes’s, she only said, “Please, Miss Holmes, I don’t know who else to turn to.”

Lord Ingram, travelling from his brother’s country estate to his own, had stopped in London to see Holmes, with whom he shared a long, complex, and increasingly line-blurring friendship. He had intended to tell her that he was ready to erase the lines altogether. And as he’d waited in the afternoon parlor of Mrs. Watson’s house to be received by Holmes, trying to rein in his anxiety and agitation at the enormity of what he was about to do, Mrs. Treadles had arrived, with the news that her husband had been arrested on suspicion of murder.

Lord Ingram was still trying to digest her words, trying to move beyond his initial and nearly overwhelming belief that it had to have been a mistake, pure and simple.

His friendship with Inspector Treadles had grown out of their mutual love of archaeology. This past summer, however, he had disappointed Inspector Treadles with his continued friendship with Holmes, given that Holmes was no longer a respectable young lady. He himself had been no less disquieted by this new coolness from Inspector Treadles.

But late in autumn, he’d had the feeling that the inspector was trying to see things from a different, less absolute point of view—and that their friendship was on the mend.

In the weeks since, he’d spent most of his time abroad. But all throughout that escapade, he had looked forward to returning home, seeing his children again, and hosting Inspector and Mrs. Treadles at some point after Christmas.

When Mrs. Treadles had first appeared in Mrs. Watson’s afternoon parlor, he’d been both surprised and somewhat embarrassed to see her—a man about to make a confession of an extremely private nature could scarcely wish for the presence of a third party. But his self-consciousness had quickly turned into pleasure: They hadn’t met in a while and her company had always been warm and thoughtful. He hadn’t in the least anticipated the reason for her unannounced visit. Now dread invaded him, sinking down to make him heavy, while swarming up at the same time, crippling his voice cord.

Holmes gave her caller’s hands