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Of Fates And Phantoms (The Ministry of Curiosities #7)

By:C.J. Archer

Of Fates And Phantoms (The Ministry of Curiosities #7)
        Author: C.J. Archer

       
         
       
        
Chapter 1

London, New Year's Eve, 1889


"You look beautiful," Lincoln whispered, enclosing my hands in his.

We stood in the corridor between our rooms on a freezing New Year's Eve. Lincoln's warmth, however, chased away the chill. A tendril of his hair skimmed his brow. He didn't plan on tying it back for the ball. Apparently pirates cared nothing for grooming.

"Thank you," I murmured, a blush rising up my throat and infusing my cheeks. "You look rather dashing yourself."

"Pirates aren't supposed to look dashing." He eased back, taking my hopes of a kiss with him, and rubbed his bristly jaw. "Perhaps I should have started the beard a day earlier."

"Not too dashing," I quickly reassured him.

Who knew that such a self-confident man cared so much about looking the part of a pirate for a masquerade ball? He'd gone so far as to purchase a new shirt, complete with ruffled sleeves at the wrist, a wide leather belt, and a tricorn hat that he'd thrown in the dirt as soon as he got it home. Apparently pirates couldn't be seen in brand new hats. At least not the roguish pirate that Lincoln wanted to portray.

"You will look frightening once you put on the eye patch," I said. "We maidens will tremble in our shoes."

He leaned in again, as far as the broad skirts of my Georgian costume would allow. "I hope to scare away all but the bravest of maids."

I tried to think of a quip in response, but my mind went blank when his lips caressed the corner of my mouth and he palmed my waist. I felt the light pressure even through the corset boning.

"I'll save a dance for you," I said.

"Save them all for me. I won't be dancing with anyone else."

"You should. People will talk if you only dance with me."

"Let them."

"You want them to gossip?" I asked.

His lips curved into one of his rare smiles, but this one held a touch of mischief, an even rarer commodity. "I want them to know you're mine."

In the week since Christmas, Lincoln and I had settled into a pattern that fell somewhere between friendship and betrothed. We were neither, and yet sometimes, like now, it felt like we were both. I had not plucked my engagement ring from its velvet bed in the ring box, but that didn't stop us from touching hands as we passed in the corridor or sat next to one another at dinner. Only once had we kissed passionately, in the privacy of the parlor the day after he emerged from his sickbed.

That kiss had not been repeated, not even on the single occasion when we'd found ourselves alone in the house one Sunday morning. He'd retreated to his study and I'd gone to find him. I wasn't sure what I hoped would happen, but I was certainly not expecting him to order me to leave. He'd sought me out later to apologize, blaming his abruptness on concern for my virtue and his lack of willpower. I'd laughed but he had not. 

Lincoln's hands dropped to his sides, and his gaze shuttered. "We shouldn't be doing this. Not here. Not now."

Not now.

It was a reference to our status as a couple, or lack of it. I knew he wanted to be engaged again, and that his offer awaited my response in the form of putting the ring on my finger. Yet I wasn't ready to give up my newfound freedom. I had a small house of my own now. I had a roof over my head here at Lichfield Towers, and I could make my own decisions regarding my life, my person, and my future. I didn't want to jeopardize that, and certainly not with a man who'd proven to be unpredictable. And yet, I loved him. That could not be denied.

"You're right," I said on a sigh as I moved away. "It wouldn't do for Lady Vickers to see." A few months ago, I hadn't cared a whit for propriety, but things had changed since then. Not the least of it, the arrival of both Seth's mother and my friend Alice. Where before I was still something of a street urchin in my thoughts and behavior, I was now more aware of the necessity to act my age of nineteen. It was time to fit back into a society that had been alien to me for so long and be the sort of person they could both be proud to associate with. My newfound maturity could be attributed to facing down the twin evils of the Queen of Hearts' army and the headmistress of the School for Wayward Girls. Escaping that place alive would bend even the most stubborn will.

I went in search of Alice, and together we put on the wigs and masks we'd purchased during the week. The gowns had been discovered in a trunk in the attic, having been left there by the previous owner of Lichfield. They'd required minor repairs and airing out, but they were otherwise perfect.

We met Lady Vickers, Seth and Lincoln at the appointed hour. I bit back my giggle at Seth's foppish Georgian attire, complete with powdered wig and beauty spot. He'd insisted on matching our costumes, and wanted Lincoln to do the same to identify us as a group to the other guests. Lincoln had refused to dress as a dandy and decided on the pirate outfit instead. His argument that he matched the same era of our costumes had been unassailable, much to Seth's frustration.

Seth slapped on his hat, blew its long black feather off his face, and held his arm out to Alice. "You do look smart," he told her.

Smart? That was the best he could do? For such a charming man, he wasn't always at his most charming with her. Indeed, he even seemed a little overwhelmed by her. She was uncommonly pretty and possessed an air of aloofness.

He must have realized his response lacked enthusiasm because he added, "And beautiful. Lovely. A vision."

"And historically accurate," Alice said. "More or less."

Lady Vickers followed them out, her scowl directed at Alice's back. The severity of it became lost, however, with all the tinkling of the beads and tokens attached to the hem of her gypsy dress, visible beneath her fur coat. I'd tried to tell her that the beading and colorful dress were a cliché, and that gypsies didn't wear such ostentatious outfits, but then I'd have to tell her how I knew. Lady Vickers, for all her strength of character, might not like knowing that the woman she'd taken under her wing had visited a gypsy camp with a man who was half-gypsy himself.

I glanced at that man now and accepted his arm with a smile. "Are you sure you'll be warm enough?" I asked, eyeing his jerkin and doublet. He wore no coat.

"Charlie," he chided. "You promised."

"I promised not to ask if you were all right, not if you were warm enough. Besides, I said at the ball. We haven't arrived yet."



       
         
       
        

"Next time I'll be more specific."

"You have been ill, Lincoln, not to mention injured." And the evening air already felt icy. Frost would settle on the lawn overnight and into the bones of the homeless who could not find adequate shelter, as I knew all too well.

"I'm neither ill nor injured anymore."

"You may have recovered from your ordeal, but I have not." I left him contemplating that as Doyle, the butler, held the carriage door open for me. "Do you have enough blankets for warmth, Gus?" I called up to our coachman and friend. We really did need to find a proper coachman to take over his duties, as well as a housekeeper and maids. Lichfield was ready for them, and so was I.

"Thank you, Charlie." Gus patted his coat pocket where he kept his flask. "All set."

Seth leaned out of the carriage and spoke loudly enough for Gus to hear. "Don't worry about him. His skin's so thick nothing penetrates it."

"Unlike yours," Gus said. "It's so delicate you have to wear furs and feathers."

"It's a costume."

Gus snorted. "You told me you cobbled it together from pieces found in your own wardrobe. Costume, my ar-"

"Let's go!" I said, pushing Seth's shoulder. He retreated back inside the cabin.

The carriage was too crowded for five people, two of whom wore voluminous skirts. I didn't realize until Lincoln shut the door without joining us. The coach rocked as he climbed onto the seat next to Gus. I tried not to think of him sitting out in the cold, but memories of him lying unconscious in his bed after the kitchen explosion assaulted me anyway. That nightmare had occurred too recently for my liking. Not even he could be fully recovered yet.

As if she sensed my concern, Alice kept the conversation lively all the way to the Curzon Street residence of Lady Vickers' friend, Lady Hothfield. A footman opened the carriage door and we lowered our masks and shed the blankets keeping our knees warm.

"This is rather grand," Alice whispered as we stepped inside the house onto crimson carpet.

The spacious entrance hall was indeed grand, with the central staircase diverting into two at the landing and wrapping around the walls leading up to the next level. Lamps and a central chandelier blazed with light, catching the gilt in the frames, furniture legs and the tip of the spear clasped in a semi-naked statue's hand. The white marble Grecian's modesty was maintained by a flimsy red cloth that looked as if the flick of a finger could dislodge it.

I curled my hands into fists. "A little grander than the school," I agreed. "But don't tell the ghost of Sir Walter that I said so."

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