The Imposter’s Inheritance – C.J. Archer

I d been dreading dining with the Delanceys and their friends from the collectors’ club since we received the invitation a week previously. It was not my idea of an enjoyable way to spend an evening. Part of that apprehension could be attributed to seeing Lord Coyle again. Our meetings were never easy, but they had become even more of a trial since he’d asked me to encourage Matt’s cousin, Hope, to accept his marriage proposal. Doing so would expunge the debt I owed Coyle after he gave me information to blackmail Lord Cox into marrying Hope’s sister, Patience. Information that had somehow fallen into the hands of the very man who could destroy Patience’s happiness with her new husband. Lord Cox’s half-brother, and the true heir to the baronetcy, had discovered that he had been robbed of his inheritance, and Lord Cox blamed me for telling him. The half-brother was the son of the previous baron and his first wife, a governess. The marriage had been conducted in secret, in front of strangers, so it was easy for him to set her aside in favor of a more appropriate high-born lady who also gave him a son. That second child inherited the Cox title and estate, but his parents’ marriage had been bigamous, and so he was illegitimate. His older half-brother had been brought up none the wiser to his father’s identity, let alone his duplicity. I suspected Lord Coyle was to blame for informing the half-brother. I intended to find out tonight why he’d done so. The confrontation would have to wait until after dessert, however. The marbled jelly, iced pudding, apple tart, vanilla cream and fruit selection were too delicious not to enjoy.

Indeed, the food had made the evening marginally less tortuous than I’d anticipated. Being seated next to Professor Nash had also helped. I’d not been forced to endure conversation with the Delanceys, Lord Coyle, or Lady Louisa Hollingbroke. If I couldn’t sit with Matt, then Professor Nash was the best dining neighbor I could have asked for. Even Oscar Barratt, sitting on my other side, wasn’t someone I wanted to engage in casual conversation. I might blurt out that he was making a mistake in marrying Louisa. The announcement of their pending nuptials had appeared in the previous day’s newspaper and perhaps accounted for Oscar’s invitation to dinner. Mrs. Delancey was a dedicated hostess and would have insisted he join us, along with his fiancée, as soon as she learned of the engagement. “It’s been an edifying collaboration,” Professor Nash told me about his contribution to Oscar’s book on magic.

“I’ve learned some things from Barratt and, I humbly suggest, he has learned some things from me.” “I don’t doubt it,” I said. “Your knowledge on the history of magic is unsurpassed.” He chuckled as he scooped up a spoonful of jelly. “Thank you, you’re very gracious, but we don’t know if anyone else studies the topic. That’s the problem with being persecuted; magicians must research and perform their art underground.” It would be ungracious to point out that he wasn’t a magician. Magic had died out in his family with his grandfather, an iron magician. It was possible his family was distantly related to that of Fabian Charbonneau, my mentor and co-collaborator in furthering the study of magic, although Fabian didn’t know of a connection. “Have you ever traced your family tree?” I asked the professor.

“Only four generations back. There’s no connection to the Charbonneaus, if that’s what you’re thinking. None that I’ve found, anyway.” “You read my mind.” “Speaking of Charbonneau, how are your studies coming along? Have you managed to recreate any of the remarkable spells of the past?” I savored the last mouthful of apple tart, in part because it was so delicious but also because I wanted to think about my answer. I could only delay for so long, however. “Not yet.” “What are you working on? Something in particular?” “We’re still learning the words.” I didn’t tell him that Fabian and I were about to attempt to create our first spell. Matt was the only person who knew, and he wasn’t thrilled with the idea.

I’d assured him that it would be some time before we’d make it work—if it worked at all. We still didn’t know how to pronounce many of the magical words on our list. It was going to involve a lot of trial and error. I glanced at Matt over the bowl of exotic fruit perched on a vine-covered silver pedestal but he was in conversation with Sir Charles Whittaker and didn’t notice. Mrs. Delancey appeared to be listening in, her head tilted toward them, her food forgotten. “Have you received one, India?” Oscar asked. At my blank look, he added, “A threatening letter from some artless crackpot.” Out of the corner of my eye I saw Matt’s head lift, his attention now on Oscar too. “No,” I said.

“What are you being threatened with?” “It’s not specific.” Oscar now had the attention of all the guests. “And it’s not me who has been threatened but other magicians. My brother, for one, as well as some magicians I know who are all good craftsmen with successful businesses. That appears to be the common factor. I haven’t received a letter, nor have you or other magicians of my acquaintance who don’t have businesses relating to their particular magical art.” “How many of your friends have received letters?” Matt asked. “Four.” Oscar plucked up his cognac glass. “The anonymous author tells the recipient they should be ashamed for gaining their success through cheating and not through hard work like himself.

He insists they cease using their magic or there will be consequences. The actual consequences aren’t stated.” Mrs. Delancey placed a hand to the silver and jet cameo choker at her throat. “How does he even know who to write to? Most magicians are not open about their art.” Oscar shrugged. “An educated guess.” Lord Coyle leaned back in the chair, causing it to creak in protest at the redistribution of his considerable weight. “Once one becomes aware of the existence of magic, it’s logical to assume that the most successful craftsmen and businessmen are magicians. Barratt’s brother, for example.

” “Who would send such letters?” Mrs. Delancey asked. “A struggling businessman who wants to blame his lack of success on magicians,” her husband said. “It’s typical of that class.” I bit down on my retort. “My dear,” his wife scolded. “You forget yourself.” It wasn’t clear if she was reminding him they were among people from “that class” or that his own family had been in the wool trade before he turned to banking. “And so it begins,” Lord Coyle muttered with a glare for Oscar. Oscar ignored him, as did Louisa.

They seemed unconcerned that Oscar’s newspaper articles about magic had propelled the topic into the public sphere. The attention had faded after he stopped writing them, but clearly anger and frustration still simmered in some quarters. His book would bring a fresh wave of interest. And possibly a fresh wave of persecution. Oscar didn’t see it that way. He and Louisa hoped the attention would free magicians who’d lived in secret for generations. I wasn’t yet sure if that would be the outcome. Hearing about these letters made me think that Matt was right all along, and bringing magic into the open would only cause trouble between magicians and the artless. I glanced at Professor Nash. He agreed with Oscar and was writing the history chapters for his book.

He pushed his glasses up his nose. The light from the crystal chandelier reflected off the lenses and made it seem as though his eyes shone. After dessert, Mrs. Delancey rose, a signal for the ladies to adjourn to the drawing room. We headed through the door flanked by two potted palm trees and held open by a liveried footman. The lush tropical theme had been carried into the drawing room for the occasion. Palm trees occupied all the corners, the tips of the fronds brushing the mantel and vinecovered pedestals bearing bowls of pineapples, oranges, peaches, grapes and apples. A large birdcage positioned between armchairs contained two brightly colored parrots— stuffed, of course. A footman maneuvered between the furniture, a silver platter balanced on his fingertips. He set the tray down on a central table and poured tea into delicate china cups.

“So you are getting married, Louisa,” Mrs. Delancey began. “And to a newspaperman, no less.” Her disapproval was clear in her tone, there was no need for her to wrinkle her nose too. Louisa’s smile didn’t reach her eyes. “Oscar is an interesting man.” “A magician, yes.” Louisa didn’t offer up any of Oscar’s attributes, of which he had a good number. I liked Oscar, on the whole, although he could be over-zealous in regards to magic sometimes. He was a decent man, handsome and charming.

It would seem none of these things were worth mentioning by his fiancée. It was as Matt and I suspected—Louisa was marrying him for his magic. Mrs. Delancey accepted a teacup from the footman. “Your fortune and his magical connections will make you quite the formidable couple in some circles. We don’t have many magicians in the collectors club.” “Oscar isn’t invited into the club,” Louisa said, lifting the cup to her lips. “Coyle made that perfectly clear to me after the announcement.” “What a shame,” Mrs. Delancey muttered without any conviction whatsoever.

Louisa set down her cup and rested her hands on her lap in a languid, elegant motion. She regarded me with her soft blue-gray eyes. It would have been easy to think her sweet, with such gentility seeming to run through her veins, but I knew her to be sharp and, at times, selfish. “India, tell us about your work with Fabian,” she said. “There’s nothing to tell. We’re still learning.” “You must keep us informed of your progress.” “You ought to ask Mr. Charbonneau, Louisa, not India,” Mrs. Delancey said.

“I’m sure he’ll be more forthcoming, given your long-standing friendship.” Louisa’s fingers curled into fists, but her face didn’t lose its smooth calmness. “Fabian and I are not that close. Acquaintances, nothing more.” They had been friends, but that friendship had withered when Louisa asked Fabian to marry her, and he’d refused. I didn’t feel any sympathy for her, then or now. She had asked him to marry her because he was a magician. After his rejection, she’d turned her attentions to Gabriel Seaford, the doctor magician who’d saved Matt’s life, only to be thwarted when we warned him about her. Matt and I had decided to inform Oscar of Louisa’s prior marital interests tonight so that he could go into the relationship with his eyes open. We couldn’t withhold something so important from him.

I glanced at the door, wondering if Matt had managed to speak to Oscar alone. He’d promised he’d try, but given the cool nature of their acquaintance, I wasn’t sure he’d try very hard. We endured awkward conversation for a long twenty minutes until the gentlemen finally joined us. I knew instantly from Oscar’s face that Matt had found a way to broach the subject of Louisa. The signs were so subtle that I doubted Louisa noticed, but I’d been looking and I saw the hardened jaw, the slight pursing of the lips, and the way in which he did not immediately go to his fiancée’s side until she put out her hand in summons. I wasn’t the only one who noticed the change in Oscar. Lord Coyle did too, going by the way he watched them from beneath pendulous eyelids. The rest of the evening was blessedly short. Once Louisa became aware of Oscar’s moroseness, she lost her appetite for conversation, even when it centered on magic. They were the first to take their leave, and Matt took the opportunity to suggest we depart too.

Lord Coyle left with us. “What did you say to Barratt?” he asked Matt as we made our way down the front steps of the Delanceys’ townhouse. “That’s none of your business,” Matt said oh-so casually. Lord Coyle grunted. Our carriage rolled up and a Delancey footman opened the door for me. “Is there something else, Coyle?” Matt asked as he assisted me up the step into the cabin. “I wanted to ask Mrs. Glass if she has considered my proposal any further. It has been a week since we last spoke of it.” He turned his gaze to me.

“I don’t think I need to remind you that you owe me, Mrs. Glass, and that convincing Hope to accept my marriage proposal will absolve you of the debt.” “It’s not a debt,” Matt snapped. “You forced her into an impossible position.” Lord Coyle ignored Matt. “Mrs. Glass?” “I haven’t seen Hope all week,” I said. “Call on her tomorrow. I expect an answer in two weeks.” “You can’t expect a young woman to make up her mind about something this important in two weeks!” “Hope Glass isn’t a silly girl.

I’d wager she has already made up her mind and is just delaying.” “Why would she do that?” Matt asked. “To make it seem as though she can’t make up her mind. I may never have been married, but I do know how young women like to be the center of attention.” I rolled my eyes but he might not have seen it in the dim glow of the street light. Lord Coyle touched the brim of his hat. “Good evening, Mrs. Glass.” “One more thing,” Matt said, squaring up to Coyle. My blood ran cold.

He was going to confront his lordship, even though I’d asked him not to. “We received a letter from Lord Cox stating that his half-brother found out the truth. Why did you tell him?” “I didn’t.” Despite his denial, he showed no surprise at the news. “It was unfair—cruel, even. Cox is a good man. He has children, for God’s sake. They don’t deserve the stigma that will be placed on them when Cox’s illegitimacy becomes public.” “The half-brother hasn’t made it public. Perhaps he won’t pursue the matter.

” Lord Coyle stabbed the end of his walking stick onto the pavement. “If you didn’t inform him then who did?” I asked. “It wasn’t me.” “It could have been any number of people who knew about the first marriage. Servants, a midwife, old neighbors, the vicar, the vicar’s wife. A secret like that is impossible to keep forever.” “What will happen now?” I asked quietly. “That will be up to the half-brother. You’ve received no more correspondence from Lord or Lady Cox?” I shook my head. “Then we shall wait with baited breath.

” He tapped his walking stick on Matt’s leg. “Go home with your wife, Glass. It’s late and my conveyance is waiting.” Matt climbed in and sat beside me. He closed the door and the carriage moved forward with a jerk as Sir Charles and Professor Nash came down the front steps. “You promised you wouldn’t mention Lord Cox’s letter to Lord Coyle,” I said. “I never promised.” Matt turned to me and lifted a lock of artfully curled hair off my shoulder. The intermittent streetlights cast his face in alternate light and shadow, and within each moment of light, he was a little bit closer, his lips a little more parted. He was going to kiss me.

I lightly smacked his shoulder. “You might not have promised in so many words, but it was still a promise.” He sat back with a sigh. “How is not promising still a promise?” “It just is.” “Are you mad at me, India?” “Yes. No. Perhaps.” I snuggled closer to show I wasn’t really mad and because it was a little chilly. He adjusted the fur collar of my stole and tucked me into his side. His warmth instantly enveloped me.

“Do you believe Coyle when he said he didn’t inform Cox’s half-brother?” I asked. “No. He has no compunction about lying.” “But he had no reason to tell him.” “No reason we know of.” I yawned and tucked my hand inside his jacket to feel the comforting beat of his heart. “Oscar seemed unhappy after you spoke to him. Do you think he really is in love with Louisa?” “Hard to say. She told him about proposing to Fabian, by the way. Louisa said she’d done it out of familial duty, as their families have a long association and it was expected.

” “Then why did he look so cross when he came into the drawing room?” “Because he didn’t know about Gabe Seaford.” “Ah. So now he’s aware it wasn’t familial obligation but a pattern that proves she’s after him for his magic.” I yawned. “Poor Oscar.” “They deserve each other.” “They won’t have each other, now. He’ll call it off, or do the honorable thing and let her end it so that she can appear to be the jilter not the jilted.” “Perhaps. Or perhaps the lure of her fortune will help him overcome his misgivings.

” WİLLİE BREEZED into the sitting room, took one look at me with Aunt Letitia’s portable writing desk on my lap, and clicked her tongue in admonishment. “You working on a Saturday?” “It’s a miserable morning,” I said, indicating the rain-splattered window. “And this isn’t work. I enjoy learning about magic.” It fulfilled me in a way that only tinkering with clocks and watches had in the past. Now that I no longer had ready access to broken timepieces, I found my restlessness soothed by memorizing Fabian’s list of magic words and attempting to put them together to create new spells. “Sounds like work to me.” Willie slouched into a chair by the fire with a loud sigh. She sighed again when no one took any notice of her. Matt lowered the corner of the newspaper.

“Something wrong, Willie?” “I’m bored.” “Already? You just got out of bed.” “And it’s almost eleven,” Aunt Letitia noted without looking up from the letter she was reading. “I slept in because I got in late last night,” Willie said. Duke lowered the newspaper he was reading just as Matt raised his. “Were you with Brockwell?” “Ain’t none of your business who I was with.” Duke rolled his eyes and lifted the paper again. “Fine, I’ll tell you.” Willie stretched her feet toward the fire. “I met a woman down by the docks—” “The docks!” Duke cried at the same moment that Aunt Letitia said, “Spare us the vulgar details.

” She might accept Willie’s inclination for both sexes but she didn’t like discussing it. Duke put the paper down on the table and regarded Willie with concern. “You do know those women ain’t looking for love.” “Who says I’m looking for love?” “The only thing you’ll find there is disease.” Aunt Letitia made a sound of disgust. “Must we speak of these things?” “What about the detective inspector?” I asked. “Are you two no longer a couple?” “A couple?” Willie scoffed. “We were never that. We were just two people who like each other’s company, once in a while. We still see each other some nights, but neither of us wants to make it something it ain’t.

We’re happy.” She did seem rather happy with the arrangement. I wondered if Brockwell was too. “Who wants to play poker?” Willie asked. “Not me,” I said, once again concentrating on the list of magic words. “Duke?”

.

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