The Prisoner’s Key – C.J. Archer

Tell her she can’t have it, India,” Miss Glass said from the sideboard where she poured tea. No, not Miss Glass. She was Aunt Letitia to me now that I was Matt’s wife. Matt’s wife, Aunt Letitia…I still wasn’t used to it after two weeks, but at least I no longer giggled when someone referred to me as Mrs. Glass. I didn’t have time to answer Aunt Letitia before Willie snapped, “Tell Letty it ain’t up to her. Your old bedroom should go to me, India.” Aunt Letitia set the teapot down on the sideboard with a thud. She rarely joined us for breakfast, but today was a special occasion, the first day Matt and I were back. However, I was beginning to think she hadn’t joined us to talk about our honeymoon but rather to ensure Willie didn’t get in first with her request. Aunt Letitia rounded on Willie with a ferocious glare that lost much of its effect in the dainty way she held the teacup and the frailty of the woman herself. “It should go to you? I disagree, as does India. Do not appeal to Matthew,” she added when Willie turned to him. Matt picked up the newspaper that Bristow had set beside his place. He smirked at me before hiding his face behind it.

“Why me and not Matt?” I asked. “You’re the mistress of the house,” Aunt Letitia said as she sat with her teacup. “The allocation of rooms is up to you, now.” “Is this why you didn’t sort it out while we were away? Because you couldn’t agree?” Aunt Letitia sipped her tea. Willie stabbed a sausage with her fork and pointed it at the elderly woman opposite. “I moved my things in, then not a minute later, she got Fossett to move ’em back. He refused to move ’em again, so I slept in there anyway so she can’t get her way.” “I outrank you,” Aunt Letitia said simply. “Of course the staff listen to me.” “Pig swill! You’re Matt’s aunt, and I’m his cousin.

We’re equal.” Aunt Letitia clicked her tongue then muttered, “Americans,” into her teacup. Matt flipped the top of the newspaper down and glared at his aunt then at Willie. “May India and I eat our first breakfast at home together without listening to you two squabbling?” “This ain’t your first breakfast as man and wife here,” Willie said. “Just the first after your honeymoon.” His glare darkened, and I thought it best to step in before he was forced to choose between his aunt and cousin. Besides, Aunt Letitia was right, and it was now my duty as mistress of the house to make decisions about room allocations. Matt had to pay for the roof over our head, and every piece of furniture in it, as well as the servants’ salaries. Frankly, he had the easier job. “Why do you want my old room anyway?” I asked his aunt.

“Yours is larger.” “I don’t want it for me,” she said with a sanctimonious air. “It’s for Cyclops. He’s been sharing with Duke, but now that your old room has become free, India, they no longer have to.” Cyclops and Duke arrived at that precise moment. They must have heard their names, because they both sighed and headed for the covered platters of food at the sideboard with stooped shoulders. This was a disagreement that had been going on for a while then, perhaps the entire two weeks of our absence. “Why can’t Willie move into my old room and Cyclops move into hers?” I asked. “Then all three can have their own space. There, problem solved.

” “Nope,” Willie said around her mouthful of toast. “Letty says Cyclops should have the bigger room. He’s her favorite.” Cyclops gave her a smug look. “He is not,” Aunt Letitia said. “I like Duke equally well.” Duke gave Willie a smug look too. She rolled her eyes at both men. “Cyclops is the biggest,” Aunt Letitia went on. “He ought to have the bigger room.

” Willie wiped bacon grease off her lower lip with the back of her hand. “She’s calling you fat, Cyclops.” Cyclops merely grunted a laugh but ever-so-slightly sucked in his stomach as he pulled out a chair at the table. Aunt Letitia turned to me. “Well? What have you decided?” “I…I need more time.” I bit into my slice of toast and chewed slowly. Matt folded the newspaper and set it down. His lips were flat but his eyes twinkled. “More coffee, India, or would you rather escape?” I narrowed my gaze. “You find this amusing.

” “Infinitely.” “You’re supposed to be on my side now that we’re husband and wife.” “I am on your side,” he said as he refilled our coffee cups at the sideboard. “I support whatever choice you make in this regard, and all others.” The sickening thought that was never far away these past few weeks resurfaced. Would he support my decision to use Lord Coyle’s information to blackmail Lord Cox into marrying Patience Glass, thereby freeing Matt to marry me? He knew Lord Coyle could help us, yet he’d refused the offered information, knowing it would put me in his lordship’s debt. He didn’t know I’d done precisely that. He’d be hurt if he found out. Hurt and furious. I tried to push the memory of my betrayal aside, only to fail.

I attempted a smile instead. Matt tilted his head to the side as he handed me back the cup. “You look pale. Are you all right?” I didn’t have a chance to tell him I was fine, because Aunt Letitia gasped loudly and almost dropped her teacup. “She’s with child!” Everyone stared at me. Matt blinked rapidly, his aunt clapped her hands in delight, and Willie looked horrified. “I’m not,” I said with certainty. It was one rumor I wanted to suppress before it grew legs. “It’s too soon to know for sure,” Aunt Letitia said, picking up her teacup. Willie shoved an entire rasher of bacon into her mouth.

“Leave her be, Letty,” she managed to say. “How many times have I asked you to chew with your mouth closed? You weren’t brought up by animals.” “You haven’t met my ma.” Cyclops chuckled, only to stop suddenly upon a stern look from Aunt Letitia. Duke leaned forward and lowered his voice. “They’ve spent too long together. But you’re back now, India, and we can fix up the shop. That’ll give everyone something to do.” I’d told Catherine and Ronnie Mason to move into my father’s old shop while I was away, but they insisted on waiting until the paperwork was complete. The leasing agreement had been finalized during our absence by our lawyer, and Cyclops had informed me that Catherine and Ronnie were ready to start cleaning the shop today.

Everything had an inch of dust covering it, and we also had to remove any watch and clock pieces from the premises into storage. The Watchmaker’s Guild had changed their rules to ensure no member could use parts handled by a magician. It was a clause written specifically to prevent Ronnie, their newest member, from purchasing parts cheaply from me. The guild’s master, Mr. Abercrombie, had hoped it would prevent them from setting up shop altogether, as a way of getting back at me, but Matt had extended the Mason siblings a loan instead. The look on Abercrombie’s face when we’d told him at our wedding had made the day even more memorable. Matt rested his hand on my shoulder. I gave it a reassuring squeeze that must have satisfied him because he sat again. “I have to meet Fabian Charbonneau this afternoon,” I said. “But I’d like to stop by and see Catherine this morning.

Let me know when you leave.” “You’re still going to meet that Frenchman?” Cyclops asked, his one eye drilling into me. “Is that wise?” “He answered my questions to my satisfaction. I’ll get to control any spells I create, if I can create spells at all. We don’t yet know. I trust him.” “I reckon it ain’t him you got to worry about,” Duke said. “It’s your grandfather. Don’t let Chronos take your spells from you, even if he says it’s to save lives.” “I can handle Chronos,” I assured him.

“He’s her family,” Willie said. “He ain’t going to betray her. I ain’t saying the Frenchman will betray her, but be careful around him, India.” Aunt Letitia nodded. “Willie’s right. Mr. Charbonneau is French, after all. Remember the war.” “Which one?” Matt asked. Aunt Letitia’s fingers fluttered at the gray curls artfully arranged at her temple.

“I can’t recall, but I’m sure they betrayed us in one of them.” Betray. That word was like a hammer in my head, tapping out an incessant rhythm. I swallowed my coffee and avoided Matt’s gaze. Duke raised his cup in salute. “Seems like Miss Glass and Willie can agree on something after all.” Reminded of their squabble, Willie and Aunt Letitia both turned to me and began talking over the top of each other. They didn’t stop until I tapped my butter knife against the plate. “Enough,” I bit off. “Honestly, who needs children when we have you two? Cyclops, do you mind which room you occupy?” “I don’t care where I sleep.

” He gave Aunt Letitia an apologetic shrug. “Then you may have Willie’s room and she may have my old one.” Aunt Letitia glared at him. He rose quickly and grabbed a slice of toast off his plate. “We have to go. The Masons will be at the shop soon.” It was the signal for the rest of us to disperse too. Matt, Willie and I met up again in the carriage and drove to St. Martin’s Lane, while Cyclops and Duke followed in a cart. We arrived to see Ronnie Mason on a ladder, scraping paint off the façade.

Catherine stood nearby, a bucket filled with cleaning cloths at her feet. She threw her arms around me before I set foot on the pavement. “Welcome back, Mr. and Mrs. Glass. How was the honeymoon?” “Wonderful,” I told her. “The weather was warm and the seaside perfect.” I could still feel the sun on my face and Matt’s hand in mine as we walked along Brighton Pier. It had been two weeks of uncomplicated bliss. We hadn’t wanted to go far from London and Gabe Seaford, the magician doctor who’d helped me save Matt’s life, so we’d chosen Brighton with its short rail journey back to the city.

“I hope you don’t mind,” Ronnie said as he descended the ladder. “But I thought I’d get started while we waited for you.” We all looked up at the remaining letters of the previous sign. Only the word WATCHMAKER was left. The name E. HARDACRE had been obliterated. A weight lifted from my chest and brought tears to my eyes. Tears of happiness. Matt pressed his hand to my lower back and stood very close. I lifted my gaze to find him staring at me with that familiar intensity.

He loved me. It was there in his eyes, the reassuring touch, the concerned downturn of his mouth. And I loved him. He was everything I ever wanted or needed in a husband, friend and lover. He was my future, and I was his. Eddie Hardacre was a distant memory. Matt had helped me erase him from my life as thoroughly as the sign above my family shop had been erased. I smiled and took Matt’s other hand in mine. He winked. “Are you going to give them the key?” “Of course! I almost forgot.

” I fished the key out of my reticule and pressed it into Catherine’s palm. “It’s yours now.” She bounced on her toes and grinned. “Come on, Ronnie, let’s do it together.” They both held the key and inserted it into the lock. A stale smell wafted out as Ronnie pushed open the door. Catherine opened the shutters and windows before my eyes had time to adjust to the dimness. The brighter light revealed dust covering the counter, display cases, and clocks. We’d boxed most of the time pieces up and stored them in a warehouse, but the heavier ones remained where they’d stood. Some hadn’t been moved in months, and one large long-case clock had occupied the same corner for years.

I pressed my palms to its case and caressed the warm mahogany. Magic warmth. I recognized it now. My pulse quickened in response and my blood heated in my veins. The pendulum in the housing throbbed. I snatched my hands back and stared, wide-eyed, at the clock face. Its elegant brass hands held correct time but it was otherwise unremarkable. My old watch used to chime when I was in danger and had even saved my life. It had done those things independently of me. My new watch did not.

Nor did it throb like this clock. I pressed my hands to the wood paneling again and felt another deep throb that echoed within me. I’d worked on this clock often when I lived here, sometimes out of sheer boredom when I had little else to do. Just like I’d worked on the watch my parents had given me. I’d only tinkered with my new watch a few times. I’d begun to doubt my magic was as powerful as everyone thought and that my old watch had a special magic, put there by my father or grandmother. But now… Perhaps if I handled my new watch more, it would one day respond to me as this clock did. It might even save my life. “India?” came Matt’s quiet voice in my ear. “Everything all right?” I turned to him with a smile.

“May we take this one home with us?” “I don’t see why not. It looks heavy, but Duke and Cyclops will manage.” “They’re still working,” Catherine said as she admired a simple mantel clock on a shelf. “They’re all running on time.” “Except this one.” Ronnie lifted a black marble clock off the far end of the counter only to immediately set it down again. “It’s heavy.” “We always had trouble with that one,” I said. “It never kept correct time.” Willie opened the glass case and twiddled the hands.

“Ha! The great magician ain’t so great after all.” I nudged her aside and fixed the hands to the correct time, even though I knew it would lose an entire minute before dusk. “We’ll take it home with us too. The rest can go into storage with the others until we think of something to do with them.” “Damn guild rule,” Duke muttered. “All these clocks and watches will go to waste, and all the spare parts too.” “Damn Abercrombie,” Cyclops said. “Speaking of Abercrombie.” Ronnie’s blue eyes lit up, making him seem more like his spirited sister. Both siblings were slender and fair haired, and some would call them silly, although I knew better.

Neither were silly, merely full of youthful exuberance. This new venture would see them mature quickly, but I hoped the burdens of business didn’t erode their enthusiastic nature. “Abercrombie is no longer master of The Watchmaker’s Guild,” he went on. “They forced him to step down.” “Good,” I said. “He didn’t deserve to remain as master after he tried to stop you joining. I’m glad the Court of Assistants saw reason and ousted him.” “It’s not just what he did to Ronnie,” Matt said. “He tried to block you at every turn too.” “Nothing has changed there,” Catherine said.

“The guild still won’t allow magicians in.” “And never will,” I added. “None of the guilds will. It’ll be the beginning of the end for their artless members if they give out memberships and licenses to magicians. It’s understandable. Anyway, it doesn’t matter to me. I’m not going to sell timepieces. But you two are, and if you stand about talking all day, this place won’t be in a fit state for customers next week.” It was more satisfying than I cared to admit to learn that Abercrombie had lost his position as guild master. He’d worn the title like a crown and wielded his power like a club.

Hopefully the new regime would be less biased toward Ronnie. It wasn’t fair that he should be tainted because of his association with me. By late morning, we’d made considerable progress, and I’d learned two things. Firstly, that I’d become too comfortable living in Mayfair with servants at my beck and call. My back ached from scrubbing floors and I couldn’t lift heavy objects. Secondly, Cyclops and Catherine were still avoiding one another yet couldn’t stop stealing glances either. I finally caught Catherine alone in the workshop where she was wiping down boxes of parts before packing them in a crate. “Has he spoken to you since the kiss?” I asked. “Barely a word. Last time we spoke, we argued.

He said the kiss meant nothing. I told him it meant something to me.” I clasped her hand. “I’m sorry.” “It’s all right, India. Don’t be sorry. I don’t believe him. It did mean something to both of us. I may be younger than you, but I’m quite experienced in the ways of men. More than you were before you met Matt.

” “Much more,” I said then realized how that sounded. “I didn’t mean you are a hellion. It’s just that I was very naive, hence my mistake with Eddie.” She pulled a face. “Weasel. At least he’s out of your life now.” I took in the clean bench and floor, the boxed up parts and empty spaces where clocks and watches had cluttered the surfaces for years. It was so bare, and yet the barrenness didn’t upset me as much as it had to see Eddie working at the very same bench my father had occupied for years. “What are you going to do about Cyclops?” She sighed. “I don’t know.

Give him time, I suppose, while I settle in to things here.” “It’ll be good to be busy, and for him not to be.” “What do you mean?” “You’ll have work to occupy your mind, but after he’s finished helping here, he’ll have little to do. It’ll give him time to think about you and come to the conclusion that he misses you and wants you in his life.” She sighed again. “I hope so.” With a customary toss of her blonde curls, she shrugged off her melancholia and smiled. “Tell me more about your honeymoon. What was it like?” “Lovely. The air was fresh, the hotel was—” “That’s not what I meant, India.

” She glanced at the door then leaned closer to me. “What was it like? Being with a man?” “If you’re trying to shock me, you failed. I’m used to Willie and her crassness. As to your question, I’ll say that waking up in Matt’s arms was delightful.” She made a sound of disappointment. “You can do better than that. I need more details.” She slowly wiped over an already sparkling cog before repeating the action. “Without being too specific, of course. Just generalizations about the…” She searched for the right word before holding up the cog.

“The mechanics.” I took the cog from her and placed it with the others in the box. “I’m sure your mother will discuss it with you when the time comes.” “Lord, I hope not. Besides, she won’t tell me until the day before my wedding.” “So?” She clutched the box of parts to her chest and leveled her gaze with mine. “What if I never marry? I don’t want to die a spinster whose castle has never been conquered, India.”

.

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