The Toymaker’s Curse – C. J. Archer

That Mason woman needs a thorough talking to,” Aunt Letitia said in her most imperial voice. “And you, India, must be the one to do it.” I looked up from the deck of cards I’d been shuffling and shook my head. “I won’t interfere unless Cyclops wants me to.” I eyed him where he sprawled in an armchair by the fireplace, his long legs outstretched and a thin instruction book on the topic of policing loosely clasped in one hand. I thought him asleep until his eye cracked open. “Nobody can change Mrs. Mason’s opinion of me except me,” he said. “Maybe not even you,” Duke muttered from where he sprawled in an almost identical manner to Cyclops in the armchair positioned on the opposite side of the fireplace. I glared at him. He shrugged an apology. “I’m just saying she might be one of those people who never see reason because they’re blinded by their prejudice.” “Mrs. Mason isn’t like that,” I said. “She can’t be or she wouldn’t have brought up such a kind, considerate and open-minded daughter as Catherine.

” Cyclops brightened at my response after deflating upon hearing Duke’s statement. “I reckon you’re right, India.” “She usually is,” Matt said from behind the newspaper he’d been reading, proving he’d been listening to our conversation despite appearances suggesting otherwise. The only one missing from our quiet evening was Willie, which probably explained why the evening was quiet. She’d joined Lord Farnsworth for a night of card playing at a gambling den. They might never frequent that venue again after tonight, however. Lord Farnsworth had lost a wager on Christmas Day to Willie and had to wear a dress. No doubt he’d be too embarrassed to face the other gamblers again. Cyclops, suppressing a yawn, set the book on the occasional table nearest his chair. “I’m going to bed.

” “You don’t want to hear how Willie’s night with Farnsworth went?” Duke asked. “Not enough to stay up. I’ve had to work all day, unlike some who’ve lazed about here, drinking tea and eating cake.” Duke opened his mouth to protest but quickly shut it again. He couldn’t argue the point. He’d done very little today, whereas Cyclops had been performing drills as part of his police training. He was two days into the three-week course and had come home tired both nights from the drills and lectures. Once Cyclops departed, Aunt Letitia asked for the cards. “Matthew, Duke, we need you for a game of whist.” She indicated the spare chairs.

Duke dutifully joined us but Matt murmured a distracted, “In a moment.” “What has you so engrossed over there?” I asked. “Electricity.” He folded the newspaper and indicated the article about the newly opened City and South London Railway, the first deep underground railway and the first to use trains powered by electricity. “One day every home in the country will be powered by electricity, not just the streetlights, some trains, and a few public spaces.” “But it’s so expensive.” “To convert the whole house, yes, and it’ll be some years before it’s affordable to everyone, but I think it’s worth investing in now. I’ll speak to my man of business tomorrow. Duke, do you want to invest in an electric lighting company?” Duke shook his head. “I ain’t got nothing to invest.

Cyclops might. He’s better at saving than me.” “And he has a future wife and family to think about,” I added with a smile for Aunt Letitia. She, however, was staring at Matt with something akin to horror. “You are not going to install electricity in this house, Matthew.” “One day,” he said. “It’s inevitable.” “It’s much too dangerous!” “Actually it’s safer than gas if installed properly.” “If every home gets electricity we’ll be overshadowed by wires.” She dubiously eyed the ceiling rose above us.

“Not to mention the illness caused by leaking electricity.” “There’s no proof of that, Aunt.” She didn’t look convinced but dealt the cards anyway and mercifully didn’t mention electricity again. Nor did Matt, wisely. We played for a mere half hour before Willie returned home with Lord Farnsworth in tow. The dandy was dressed in an ill-fitting gown of russet silk with brown fur sewn into a diamond pattern on the skirt and trimmed with more fur at the collar and cuff. It was the most hideous dress I’d ever seen and I burst out laughing at the sight of it. Lord Farnsworth sashayed into the sitting room with all the elegance of a debutante showing off the swish of her hemline. “It is rather ghastly, isn’t it?” he said as he looked down at the dress. “It wouldn’t be so bad on a woman,” Duke told him.

Willie snorted. “You think all women look good.” “That’s because all women do. In a dress,” he added with a pointed glance at her buckskin trousers. Willie poked her tongue out at him and strode to the drinks trolley where she poured two glasses of brandy. “I think you make a very pretty woman, my lord,” Aunt Letitia said. “Doesn’t he, Willemina?” Willie handed one of the tumblers to Lord Farnsworth. “He would if he wore a wig and shaved. I reckon he’s been growing the fluff on his face just for tonight so no one would mistake him for a woman.” “It’s called a beard, Willie.

” Lord Farnsworth sat in one of the armchairs by the fire and flattened a hand over the silk skirt. “And I grew it because I felt like growing it.” He rubbed a hand over the patchy red-gold hairs that couldn’t quite be called a proper beard yet. “I think it makes me look even more handsome.” “It certainly does,” Aunt Letitia said. “Very handsome indeed.” “He can’t be pretty and handsome.” Willie threw herself into the other armchair, somehow managing not to spill a drop from her glass. “Anyway, I reckon the beard was a nice touch. You should have seen everyone’s faces and heard their lewd comments.

” She chuckled into her tumbler. “He even got a proposition, and I reckon it was a real one, too. The fellow was blind drunk and thought Farnsworth was the bearded lady escaped from the fair.” Lord Farnsworth sank into the armchair, his legs spread wide beneath the skirts. “He was just having a lark.” “He kept trying to look down your bodice.” Aunt Letitia clicked her tongue. “That’s enough of that talk, Willemina. You’re not in America anymore. We don’t talk like that here in England.

” “Not in drawing rooms, but the English are just as vulgar as we Americans if you go to the right places. Maybe even more so.” “Last time I looked, this was a drawing room, so stop it. Lord Farnsworth has had a rather trying evening, thanks to you. It’s time you let him enjoy some peace and quiet.” Her tight smile softened as she turned to Lord Farnsworth. “Perhaps you’d like to change into more suitable clothing then join us for a game of whist. Duke will give up his seat, won’t you, Duke? And perhaps India can give hers up for Willemina.” Duke dutifully rose, but I merely eyed Aunt Letitia with a narrowed gaze. This wasn’t the first time she’d tried to keep Lord Farnsworth and Willie in close proximity to one another.

“I ain’t playing whist,” Willie declared. “Not unless there’s money on the table.” “You know we don’t gamble with real money in this household,” Aunt Letitia said. “I’ll decline too, dear Miss Glass,” Lord Farnsworth said. “This place by the fire will do me well for a while.” To prove his point, he stretched out his legs and sighed with contentment. “If you want to change clothes, I can send for Bristow,” Matt told him. Lord Farnsworth held up a hand. “Thanks, but I didn’t bring a change and your clothing won’t fit. You’ve got an inch or two on me.

” Willie barked a laugh only to wince when Duke smacked her shoulder to shut her up. Aunt Letitia looked pained at the spectacle they were making of themselves in front of a nobleman. No matter how ridiculous Lord Farnsworth acted, he was still an earl, and she’d always think him above the rest of us, including her own brother, a baron. “Duke, come back and rejoin us. Let his lordship and Willemina have some privacy.” It was Willie’s turn to narrow her gaze at Aunt Letitia. Duke sat again, seemingly unaware that Aunt Letitia was trying to get him out of the way so that Lord Farnsworth and Willie could form a deeper understanding. It was such a ridiculous notion that I almost allowed a bubble of laughter to escape. I managed to limit it to a smile, however, and only Willie noticed. She gave me a knowing smile in response.

Curiously, she did not seem appalled or amused. Surely she wasn’t giving it serious consideration? I spent the next hour watching them to see if Aunt Letitia’s plan had merit and there was something more than friendship between Lord Farnsworth and Willie. I was so determined to spot even the smallest sign of flirting that I forgot to concentrate. “You’re a terrible whist partner, India,” Duke said as we lost another game. Matt gathered up the cards and glanced over his shoulder. “She’s distracted by Farnsworth in a dress.” Lord Farnsworth, who’d been nodding off by the fire, roused with a snuffle upon hearing his name. “I say, is that the time? I’d better head off. I need my beauty sleep if I’m to look my best for my future wife.” We all stared at him, even Willie.

This was news to her too. “You’re getting married?” I asked. “Possibly. If I like her. I’m not one of these fellows who can wed a lady if she looks like a horse and has the character of a donkey.” He chuckled. “No matter if she’s the daughter of a duke and as rich as the queen.” “Is she either of those?” “No. Her father is a moderately wealthy viscount. The girl will be making an excellent match if she manages to catch me.

” He rocked back on his heels. He was either quite pleased with himself or a little drunk. “What if she doesn’t like you?” Willie asked. “Of course she’ll like me. Everybody does. I’m quite possibly the most liked peer in all the realm. And I’m handsome, of course.” “What woman could resist?” Duke asked with a large dose of sarcasm in his tone. Lord Farnsworth pointed his finger at Duke. “Precisely.

” Matt rolled his eyes, threw his hands in the air, and pushed up from the chair. “I’ll walk you out.” Lord Farnsworth gave his leave and they left together. “Such a shame he’s getting married,” Aunt Letitia said on a sigh. “Why?” Duke asked. “A gentleman with a large fortune’s got to get married and have heirs. You know it better than anyone.” “Yes, but I hoped he’d consider marrying a particular woman of our acquaintance. If I’d known he was so close to choosing a wife, I’d have written up a list of her good traits to present to him.” She winked at Willie who was staring at her, mouth ajar.

“I’m sure we can find some if we all put our minds to it.” Willie set her tumbler down on the table with a thud. “All right, Letty, that’s enough. Seems like I’ve got to make it clear. I ain’t interested in Farnsworth like that, and I wouldn’t marry him even if I didn’t have a nickel to my name.” “Which you don’t,” Duke pointed out. “You owe me money. Anyway, she wasn’t talking about you. She was talking about Charity Glass.” Willie screwed up her nose.

“She’d make an even worse wife than me!” “It’d be about even.” “Did you mean Charity?” Willie asked Aunt Letitia. “Or me?” Aunt Letitia passed the deck of cards to me and rose. “I think I’ll retire. Goodnight, all.” “Letty?” Willie said as Aunt Letitia left the room. Once she’d gone, Willie clicked her tongue and picked up the glass again. “I’d make him a better wife than Charity Glass, ain’t no mistaking it.” Duke and I shared a glance. He shrugged, and I saw his point.

In the race to be the worst wife, it would be a tie between Charity and Willie. Lord Farnsworth and Willie got along, however, which was a necessity for a successful marriage. He also seemed patient, which was a necessity when dealing with Willie, something Duke lacked. A marriage between Willie and Lord Farnsworth wouldn’t be a complete disaster, I decided. The thought took me by surprise. It would make Willie the wife of an earl. She’d outrank almost everyone, including Matt and his family. I giggled at the thought of Lady Rycroft begging for an invitation to a luncheon hosted by the incomparable Lady Farnsworth. “What’s so amusing?” Matt asked as he strolled in. “Willie marrying Farnsworth.

” He pulled a face. “I don’t know which one I should pity more in that relationship.” “You ain’t funny, Matt,” Willie snapped. “I reckon we’d make a good match. We’d go gambling together, and host wild parties. All of London would talk about us.” “I’m not sure that’s a good reason to marry someone.” “We ain’t getting married, though. It’s just talk. Seems like he’s got a girl in mind anyway.

” Was that a hint of disappointment in her voice? Perhaps it was just disappointment that she might lose her gambling partner. Cyclops and Duke seemed less inclined to go out with her lately. Cyclops was settling down, and Duke spent many evenings with Widow Rotherhide, whom he’d met during our investigation into the theft of a magical gold coronet. “What’d you want to speak to Farnsworth about in private?” Duke asked Matt. Matt poured himself a small glass of brandy at the drinks trolley then refilled Willie’s glass. “I asked him to introduce me to a gentleman who frequents his club. The gentleman is a good friend of the home secretary’s, and I’m hoping he can find out why Sir Charles Whittaker was knighted.” We had learned that Sir Charles’s knighthood was given to him in secret with no reason given. Usually such things went through a committee, but his nomination did not. Matt and I had come to the conclusion that Sir Charles could be a spy for the government, and both he and the government wanted to keep that fact a secret.

Obtaining evidence to support the theory was proving difficult, however. “I’ll meet Farnsworth at the club tomorrow night,” Matt went on. Willie retired to her room, and Duke bade us goodnight a few minutes later. Matt and I snuggled on the sofa until the fire died down to glowing embers then he kissed the top of my head and unseated me from his lap. He rose and extended his hand to me. “We’ll find out more soon enough,” he said. I accepted his hand and stood. “I do hope so. I’m wildly curious about her.” He frowned.

“Her?” “Lord Farnsworth’s prospective wife. Oh. You were referring to Sir Charles again, weren’t you?” “Just something slightly more important than the future Lady Farnsworth.” “Of course it is. Although it’s not necessarily more interesting.” THE FOLLOWİNG AFTERNOON, after returning from a walk with Aunt Letitia, I was met by a frantic visitor upon our arrival at the Park Street house. Louisa—Lady Hollingbroke—was about to step into her carriage when she spotted us approaching along the pavement. “India, thank goodness you’ve returned.” She gave Aunt Letitia a cursory greeting out of politeness but her entire attention focused on me. “Please, come with me.

We must hurry.” “What is it, Louisa? What’s happened?” “My dear, you’ll do yourself harm with your fretting,” Aunt Letitia cut in before Louisa could respond. “Do come inside and have tea. The problem will seem less important after a soothing cup.” Louisa ignored her and clasped my hand. “Come, India, before Oscar does something he’ll regret.” “Why? What’s he about to do?” “Confront Sir Charles Whittaker.” “Oh dear,” Aunt Letitia muttered. I gasped. “Is this about Sir Charles setting a thug upon him in the lane on the day Lord Coyle married Hope?” “That, and the fact he blames Sir Charles for costing him his job at the paper,” Louisa said.

“There’s no time to explain. You must come. I tried to talk him out of it, but he won’t listen to me. I do think he’ll listen to you, however. He respects your opinion.” I doubted I could stop Oscar if he was angry enough. The situation might require a more physical solution. “Wait here,” I ordered as I gathered my skirts. “I’ll ask Matt to accompany us, and perhaps Duke.” “You ought to fetch Willemina,” Aunt Letitia said from behind me.

“And her gun.” “When did you get so bloodthirsty?” “You must admit it can be quite an efficient way to resolve a confrontation.” “We will not be shooting anyone.” “I think it’s a good idea,” Louisa called out from the pavement as Bristow opened the front door for me. “Oscar was rather furious, and I don’t trust either he or Sir Charles to back away without a fight.” Even so, I would not invite Willie or her gun along. Adding her to an already volatile situation seemed about as smart as lighting a match in a room filled with gas.

.

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