The Convent’s Secret – C.J. Archer

Matt had walked to Lady Buckland’s house, so there was no rumble of carriage wheels to announce his return to number sixteen Park Street, only the quiet click of the front door unlocking. The sound wrenched my frayed nerves and echoed through the deep silence of the small hours. He was home, thank God. I gathered my wrap around my shoulders and rose from the sofa where I’d given up trying to read an hour ago. I got no further than a few steps before his frame filled the doorway. The lamplight cast a soft glow over his face, highlighting his strong jaw and cheekbones, obscuring the signs of exhaustion. He should be resting, not breaking into the homes of well-to-do ladies. “I saw the light,” he said, prowling into the drawing room. It would seem that stealth, necessary for the night’s burgling, had not yet rubbed off. He stole toward me without making a sound nor a hair on his head moving. The dark pits of his eyes threatened to swallow me whole. I couldn’t tell whether his excursion had been successful or not, but I could read his desire. Or perhaps sense it. Or perhaps I simply wanted it to be there. Wanted it, yet did not at the same time.

Dared not. I was suddenly more anxious about being alone with him than I had been waiting for his safe return. “Well?” A whisper was all I could manage as panic set in. I really should have gone to bed. Tempting fate like this was a mistake. “Well,” he said, his rich voice sliding over me as thoroughly as his gaze. “You waited up.” “I was worried.” “There was no need. I’ve crept through houses while the occupants slept dozens of times.

Mostly the occupants were armed outlaws, not old ladies.” He stepped closer until we were barely a foot apart. He leaned forward a little and a small, crooked smile bedeviled his handsome features. “But I like that you were worried about me.” I clutched my shawl tighter and felt my heart flutter. It was definitely a mistake to stay up when no one else had. “But her servants…” “Were asleep in their beds. Nobody stirred.” “They could have. Or her dog may have heard you.

” “The dog is used to servants coming and going. Besides, I had treats.” He pulled out a paper bag from his jacket pocket. I smelled the bacon before he showed me the contents. I laughed, shedding the remnants of the worry that had weighed me down since he’d told me he would break into Lady Buckland’s house. “The others have retired?” he asked, pouring two brandies at the sideboard. “They weren’t as concerned.” Duke and Cyclops had remained up until one. Willie had come home from her own nocturnal adventures half an hour later and had promptly retired to bed. “They know me better.

” He handed me a tumbler and touched his glass to mine. “That side of me, anyway. You only know the respectable gentleman, not the outlaw.” “I’ve seen you in moments where you’ve shed your polished veneer.” Like the time he’d fought off my attackers, the times he’d threatened Eddie Hardacre and Mr. Abercrombie, and the time he undid my corset laces. He studied me over the rim of his glass, as if trying to determine which moments I meant. “And do you like those moments?” I didn’t answer him. That path led to treacherous waters. I sat on the sofa and sipped.

The brandy steadied my nerves enough that I felt I could look at him again without falling into the depths of his eyes. “I know you well enough to know you’re in a good mood. You were successful?” He sat too, and the tension that had enveloped us since his entry broke. I sighed but wasn’t sure if it was from relief or disappointment. “I was,” he said, a hint of triumph in his voice. “Tucked away in the hidden drawer of her escritoire was a document, from Mother Alfreda at the Convent of the Sisters of the Sacred Heart in Chelsea, stating that Lady Buckland agrees to give her child to the convent’s care until such time as he can be given to a good Christian family to raise.” I closed my eyes and breathed deeply. We had another piece to the puzzle of Matt’s magical watch. I’d been so afraid that our investigation would come to nothing. We’d opened old wounds and released painful memories for many people in recent days, including me, but I’d consoled myself with the thought that we were making progress.

And we had. My grandfather, Chronos, had taught me the spell to combine with another magician’s to extend their magic, and we had the doctor magician’s spell too. It was written in Dr. Millroy’s diary, now in our possession after we discovered who murdered him twenty-seven years ago. But the final piece of the puzzle had eluded us—a doctor magician to speak the spell. We only knew of one potential candidate: the illegitimate son of Dr. Millroy, who’d been given away by his mother all those years ago. Now we had a place to begin our search for him. We were drawing so close I could taste the hope on my tongue, feel it thrumming along my veins. We would find him soon and combine our magic in Matt’s watch to fix it.

I didn’t dare think about what we’d do if we found him only to learn he hadn’t inherited his father’s magical ability. “Did you find out anything else about the boy?” I asked. “No.” He drained the contents of his glass. For a moment, I worried he would pour himself another. He used to drink too much, years ago, but had curbed his excesses except for a minor relapse, the previous week, when he’d been with my grandfather in this very room. Matt remained seated, the glass dangling from his fingertips over the arm of his chair. He watched me from beneath heavy lids. “Will we visit the convent first thing tomorrow morning?” I asked. “Yes.

” At least he didn’t correct my use of we. While there was no need for me to accompany him, we’d fallen into a pattern of investigating together. We worked well as a team, our strengths balancing out the other’s weaknesses. That’s what I told myself, anyway. It could be that he simply wanted my company. “Then we should get some sleep.” I glanced at the clock on the mantel but it was too dim to make out its face. I guessed it to be almost three. He caught my arm as I passed. His fingers lightly skimmed my bare flesh and his gaze held mine.

“India,” he purred. “Stay. Talk to me. Tell me—” “No,” I said before he could ask me to tell him why I’d refused his offer of marriage. Only the day before yesterday he’d assured me he would find out. I wasn’t prepared to broach the subject and defend my decision. “Not now.” “When this is over, then. When my watch is fixed and I have a future to look forward to.” I nodded.

“Unless I coax it out of you sooner.” He smiled that crooked smile again, the one I found I wanted to capture and keep just for me. He let me go and I headed up to my room, my heart in my throat. “I have to go out with Matt now,” I said to Miss Glass, mid-morning. She sat in a rectangle of sunshine in the sitting room, reading her correspondence. She looked well, her eyes clear, but her frame seemed smaller of late, more frail. She ate very little, and I found I had to encourage her to finish her meals. “If I’m free this afternoon, shall we go for a walk? The day looks pleasant.” “Perhaps,” she said. “I have letters to write and the latest editions of both the World of Fashion and The Queen arrived this morning.

I’m thinking of having a new outfit made for the wedding, if there’s time.” That was if the wedding between her niece, Patience Glass, and Lord Cox went ahead. So far, knowledge of Patience’s past dalliance with a scoundrel had been kept quiet to insure her value as a society wife remained high; a gentleman such as Lord Cox prized virtue in a woman above all else. However, the knowledge had recently fallen into the hands of Sheriff Payne, the man who wanted to orchestrate Matt’s downfall in any way possible. His latest attack had been in the form of blackmailing the youngest Glass sister, Hope, into stealing Matt’s magic watch. Her failure to do so meant Patience’s secret could be exposed any day now. Lord Cox was unlikely to want to marry her then. “Ah, Matthew, there you are.” Miss Glass held out her hand to her nephew as he strode into the room. He took it and kissed her cheek.

“Where are you two off to this morning?” “A convent,” he said. Miss Glass lowered her correspondence to her lap and regarded her nephew as if he were mad. “Why do you want to go to a convent?” “There’s a matter I need to discuss with the mother superior.” “Oh my God. You’re not…” She fanned herself with her letter. “You’re not…” “Not what, Aunt?” “Not Catholic.” The word burst from her like a violent sneeze. Matt smirked. “No, I’m not.” Her gaze slid to me.

“Nor am I,” I said. “We’re hoping to find some answers about Matt’s watch.” She knew Matt’s magic watch kept him alive, but she didn’t know the extent to which it was failing. We didn’t know how long he had left, so we’d thought it best to keep her in the dark on that score. The problem was, she was cleverer than she seemed and may have guessed. “That is a relief,” she said. “But do be careful. They’ll try every trick in the book to convert you.” Matt looked as if he were about to argue the point, but I quickly grasped his arm and squeezed. It was best not to give Miss Glass a chance to expound on her prejudices.

My action brought us closer together and earned a narrowed gaze from Miss Glass. I let him go. “Matthew,” she said, “I’d like to discuss something when you return.” “Of course,” he said. “May I know what, in case I need to prepare a defense?” His light heartedness was met with an even narrower gaze. “Securing interest in your future marriage before the wedding.” “Aunt,” he said on a heavy sigh. “Not now.” She held up a finger. “The wedding may be a few weeks away, but we must at least have some viable prospects before then to use as ammunition against your Aunt Beatrice and Hope.

” “You’re likening marriage to war, Aunt. Doesn’t that say something about the way you’re approaching it?” “It can be a battle to find the right wife, certainly. Fortunately you’re better equipped for it than most men. You have a fortune and are the heir to a title and estate. It’s enough to overlook your American mother.” His spine straightened. “I’m as proud of my American mother as I am of my English father. Now,” he said when she opened her mouth to speak, “no more talk of marriage until after my watch is fixed, and then it will be on my terms, since I already have a wife in mind.” Her lips parted with her gasp. Then, realization dawning, her cool gaze slid to me.

I wanted to run off but I feigned ignorance instead. “She simply needs to agree,” Matt finished. “India?” “No!” I cried. He indicated his outstretched hand, angled toward the door. His eyes twinkled, damn him. “I was simply asking you to leave with me,” he said. I marched out but stopped at the top of the stairs. Cyclops and Duke leaned casually on the balustrade, but Willie scowled, arms crossed. She turned her scowl onto Matt. “You look tired.

” She placed her hands on her hips. The movement pushed back her unbuttoned jacket, exposing the gun tucked into the waistband of her trousers. “You should stay and rest.” “Are you going to shoot us?” Matt asked, his good humor still in play, despite the discussion with his aunt and now this delay. “Don’t be a dang fool.” “Willie’s right,” Duke said, pushing off from the balustrade. “You had a late night and could do with more sleep. Stay here and we’ll go to the convent with India.” “And let Willie loose in a house of high principles and quiet contemplation?” Matt chucked her under her out-thrust chin. “That would be like asking a tornado not to spin.

” “More like asking a stuck pig not to squeal.” Duke chuckled but had to quickly duck to dodge Willie’s fist. Matt strode past them. “I’m fine. We won’t be long, and I have the watch if necessary. India will also keep an eye on me.” “I don’t like it,” Willie said, “but I won’t stop you. Just make sure you get answers. Nuns are a secret lot, and you can’t rough ’em up like you can a cowboy to get answers.” I pressed my lips together but spluttered a laugh despite my efforts.

Matt joined in, earning a glare from Willie. “I’ll drive you,” Duke said, stepping aside to let us pass. Cyclops laid a hand on Duke’s shoulder and shook his head. “Let the new coachman do his job, and let Matt go to the convent. He don’t need a nursemaid.” “Thank you, Cyclops,” Matt said. “Besides, we need to continue to look for Payne.” “We ain’t never going to find him,” Duke muttered. “This city’s too big.” “And he’s a slippery snake,” Willie finished.

“But we got to try. We ain’t no use to anyone sitting around here sewing and reading.” “You’re coming with us?” Duke asked, sounding surprised. “Don’t you have someone to see at the hospital?” Willie swanned off without answering, a smile teasing her lips. Duke stomped down the stairs. He was unhappy that she wouldn’t tell him why she was visiting the London Hospital most nights. Indeed, she wouldn’t tell us if that’s where she continued to go or if the time we’d seen her there had been a one-off. I suspected she was having a dalliance with a doctor or orderly and didn’t want Duke to know. It worried me at first, as Duke was sweet on her and I didn’t want to see his heart broken. But the more I thought about it, the more I suspected she didn’t want to tell him because the dalliance meant nothing to her and was merely a temporary intrigue.

He still had a chance, if that were the case. Not that he saw it that way. The curiosity was eating him up, poor man, and Willie didn’t help by maintaining silence. “Do you think the mother superior will speak to us without an appointment?” I asked Matt as I settled in the carriage. “I hope so,” he said. “It would be better to have a letter of introduction from the police commissioner, though. She’ll be more likely to give information if she knows it’s for an official investigation.” Our investigation was not official, nor was it even related to a crime. Indeed, the more I thought about it, the less likely it seemed that the mother superior would tell us anything. We were going to ask her to hand over highly sensitive information—of course she wouldn’t do it.

Even the police would find it difficult to coerce her. If any institution thought themselves above the law, it was the church—Catholic or Protestant. “I can’t lie,” I told him. “Not to a nun.” “Why would you lie?” “Isn’t that your plan? Perhaps tell her that the baby known as Phineas Millroy is your last surviving relative and you need to find him to make your family complete?” It was a story we’d used previously to extract the information that led us to this point. Matt was very good at playing different roles, and I was getting better. But it didn’t feel right, now, not inside holy walls. “If you want to go that route, I’ll support you by saying nothing.” “I’m not going to use that story,” he said. “I’m going to tell her the truth, leaving out the parts about magic, my watch, and the boy being a magician.

” I didn’t think there was much of a story left after removing those facts. “I’m also going to offer a sizable donation to the convent to use in any way they see fit.” He winked. “I’ve never known a church to refuse money.” That eased my mind somewhat. “I’m sure they’ll be grateful. Catholics are thin on the ground here in England, so donations must be too.” It made sense that Lady Buckland had taken her son to the mostly middle class area of Chelsea. It was far enough from her home in Mayfair that she was unlikely to meet anyone she knew, yet still respectable enough that her son would likely be given to a local family of adequate means and prospects. The convent belonging to the Sisters of the Sacred Heart was everything my imagination conjured up.

The original house was a perfectly symmetrical manor of sootstained red brick with narrow arched windows. A gabled roof topped three levels and the door looked as if it had been carved from ancient oak and ravaged by enemies that had besieged the convent as far back as the Reformation. The building itself wasn’t old, but I liked the idea of its blackened, worn door returning after centuries of exile to a less hostile country. Matt tugged on the bell pull by the door and after a moment the panel slid aside and a woman’s face appeared. She blinked back at us but did not speak. We hadn’t checked if this order of nuns took a vow of silence. At least they weren’t the cloistered variety. Silence was difficult enough, but access to a cloistered convent would be almost impossible. “My name is Matthew Glass,” Matt said in a pleasant voice, “and this is my friend, Miss Steele. We’d like to see the mother superior about a donation.

” The hazel eyes widened then disappeared altogether. The panel slid closed and the door swung open. The hinges groaned. “Welcome to the Order of the Sisters of the Sacred Heart,” the nun said. It was difficult to tell her age with the bandeau covering her forehead and hair but I guessed her to be mid-thirties. “Come with me.” She led us toward the back of the house, passing a young nun carrying a mop and bucket. She gasped when she saw us and blushed profusely when Matt smiled, before hurrying on her way, head bowed. Our guide left us in a plainly furnished sitting room where the pope’s portrait looked down at us from his lofty position above the fireplace. A large wooden cross with a crucified Christ hung on the wall, and a tapestry depicting him preaching to a flock of listeners occupied a prominent position on the opposite wall.

We sat on stiff-backed chairs nestled around a table with a black leather-bound bible in the centre. The wooden floor was bare and the curtains didn’t look particularly thick. It would be a cold room in winter. I shifted on the hard seat, unable to get comfortable. “Do you think they consider cushions to be a sin?” I whispered to Matt. There was no one near to overhear us, yet I felt the need to keep quiet. “Perhaps,” he said, his attention focused on the view out of the large bay window. A simple rectangular building had been attached to the back and one side of the main convent building. It faced a courtyard paved in the same bricks as the house. Knotty roots from a large lime tree had erupted between the pavers and seemed out of place in this orderly, no-nonsense setting.

A bell rang, and a few seconds later, girls dressed in simple gray dresses surged out of the doors leading from the attached building and into the courtyard. They giggled and talked and skipped in the sunshine until two nuns shushed them. The girls quieted but continued to talk eagerly, as if they’d been waiting an age to do so. “Our pupils,” said a nun standing in the doorway to the sitting room. I hadn’t heard her enter, despite the lack of carpet. She moved as stealthily as Matt. “They’re all from poor homes and are in desperate need of basic schooling to make them valuable members of society instead of a menace to it.” We both stood and Matt made our introductions. The nun introduced herself as Sister Clare, assistant to the mother superior. Going by the lines on her face and the sagging cheeks, I guessed her to be about sixty.

She had kind eyes that smiled even when her mouth did not.

.

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