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Excerpt: The Price of Lemon Cake

6.5: Below Stairs Mysteries (Kat Holloway)

Any further speculation was interrupted by a blast on the speaking tube Judith had installed. No old-fashioned, clanging bells for Miss Townsend’s grand Mayfair home.

Judith set her brush on the lip of the easel, lifted the ear horn from its wooden box, and spoke into it. “Yes, Hubbard?”

The muffled tones of Hubbard, Judith’s creaky butler, came though the tube, his words too garbled for Bobby to discern from across the room.

“Is she?” Judith asked in delight. “Do please send her up. Or, if she doesn’t wish to climb so many stairs, we can come down.”

There was a pause, followed by Hubbard’s indistinct response.

“Excellent,” Judith replied. “We shall await her.” She laid the horn back into its box and turned to Bobby, her eyes alight. “It is Mrs. Holloway, come to visit us.”

Judith adored Mrs. Holloway, who was the cook for Cynthia’s family. Maybe adored was the wrong verb—Judith admired and respected her, which was saying a lot. Judith didn’t have much use for many people.

Bobby swung her legs down, brightening as well. “What a treat. Do you suppose she’s brought any cake?”

“She doesn’t exist to bake for us,” Judith admonished, then her eyes glowed. “Though what fun if she did.”

“Now, there’s a thought.” Bobby sprang to her feet. “You could hire her away from Cyn’s awful relations and set her up here as your cook.”

“An intriguing possibility.” Judith lifted the brush and touched another stroke to the canvas then wiped the bristles and dropped the brush into a jar filled with oil of turpentine. “But I am afraid I’d be a sore disappointment to her. I eat only simple fare. Mrs. Holloway is far too talented to waste on me.”

“I could eat your share.” Bobby patted her already ample stomach. “I don’t mind.”

Judith chuckled, but they could say no more because Hubbard opened the door and stated in his lugubrious tones: “Mrs. Holloway.”

He might have been announcing the queen. But instead of the mourning-clad monarch who occupied Britain’s throne, a much younger lady entered, one with dark hair, blue eyes, and flushed cheeks. She wore a frock of rich brown that was several years out of date, matched by a modest brown straw hat that sported a few black-dyed feathers.

Her best frock, Bobby knew. Today must be Mrs. Holloway’s day out, which meant she was on her way to see her daughter. Nothing would keep her from that, Cynthia had told them, which indicated that what she’d come to say was important.

Hubbard withdrew like a ghost, leaving Mrs. Holloway standing awkwardly in the doorway.

Judith, who’d risen at her entrance, quickly drew a chair forward. “Do sit down, Mrs. Holloway. How lovely to see you.”

Mrs. Holloway accepted the chair but perched on it uncomfortably. She was very conscious of her place in life—a highly talented cook in a wealthy household in Mayfair, which put her a cut above most people in service.

However, she held with the nonsense that Judith and Bobby were her “betters.” Bobby was in truth Lady Roberta Perry, daughter of an earl. Judith came from a prominent and blue-blooded old family—one half of them practically ran the Foreign Office, the other half, the Home Office. Bobby and Judith might have been born into these privileged households, but Bobby did not see how it made them better than anyone else planted on this earth.

Mrs. Holloway was perhaps a year or two younger than Bobby, but she gazed at them both with the deference of a schoolgirl in the presence of two headmistresses. She planted a dark leather handbag on her lap, enclosing it in her black-gloved hands. The bag was far too small to hold a cake—bad luck, that, Bobby mused. Though perhaps she’d left one downstairs.

“I hesitated to approach you,” Mrs. Holloway began in her smooth tones. “But I’m at a bit of a loss.”

“Not at all.” Judith returned to her painting stool and leaned to Mrs. Holloway encouragingly. “We are always happy to help, for dear Cynthia’s sake if nothing else.”

Bobby hid a snort. Judith might claim they’d assisted Mrs. Holloway in the past in gratitude for her looking after Cyn so well, but Bobby knew better. Judith liked playing detective for the fun of it. She’d had some exploits on the Continent a few years ago that Bobby was just learning about, such as hunting assassins and other exciting adventures. Judith was always up for intrigue.

“Why don’t you tell us the problem, Mrs. H?” Bobby paced to the skylight and rubbed a clear spot on the steamy pane. Judith’s house lay on Upper Brook Street, and the studio gave a view over the roofs of Park Lane to Hyde Park in the distance.

Mrs. Holloway seemed both reluctant to begin and impatient to have this errand behind her, but she softened under Judith’s kind interest.

“I am looking into a matter for the Countess of Coulson,” Mrs. Holloway said. “She approached Lady Cynthia for help—she is worried about her son.”

“As she’s right to be,” Bobby said, turning from the window.

Lady Coulson was the wife of the Earl of Coulson and much despised by Bobby’s mother. A vapid, vacant woman, Lady Lockwood—Bobby’s mother—always snapped. Lovely to look at but hasn’t got the brains of a mouse.

Bobby’s sister-in-law, Eliza, had snidely confided to Bobby that Bobby’s mum had once held a grand passion for Lord Coulson. Handsome and athletic, he’d apparently broken many a lady’s heart in his day. When Coulson had married the very blonde, very comely chit who’d become Lady Coulson, Bobby’s mum had never forgiven her. Still hadn’t, though thirty and more years had passed.

Lady Coulson’s second son, Terrance, was a wild and untamable rogue of twenty who routinely ran through his allowance and begged for more. His indulgent mother often convinced his father to give it to him.

“I take it you’re speaking of the Honorable Terrance Makepeace, black sheep of the family,” Bobby said.

“No, the older son, the Honorable William.” Mrs. Holloway adjusted her bag minutely on her lap. “Lady Coulson is worried that Terrance has pulled William into trouble, but she is not certain. She fears the wrath of their father, if this is the case.”

Bobby stuck her thumbs into her waistcoat pockets. “Coulson might come down hard on her beloved Terrance if he’s led William, the heir and apple of his father’s eye, astray,” she concluded.

“You know the family?” Mrs. Holloway asked her.

“I know of them,” Bobby said. “Both sons a bit of a loss, in my opinion. Even my insipid brother doesn’t like them. Any reason you’re keen to aid these rather wet Coulsons?”

“Is that any of our business, Bobby?” Judith asked quickly, probably afraid Mrs. H. would grow incensed at Bobby’s impertinence and depart.

Bobby shrugged. “Merely curious.”

“Lady Cynthia indicated to me that Mr. William has attended a few of Mr. Thanos’s lectures at the Polytechnic,” Mrs. Holloway explained in her patient way. “Mr. Thanos believes that Mr. William has great cleverness and much potential, but he is being dragged into the muck by his brother.”

“Ah,” Bobby said. She leaned back against the windowsill, ignoring the cold of the glass. “Thanos hopes you can save young William—and his brother in the process—in case William proves to be a scientific prodigy. Thanos is too good to his fellow men, if you ask me.”

Elgin Thanos, the man Cynthia was mad sweet on, though she’d never say so even if her toenails were pulled out, had an immensely clever brain. He was a bloody genius, able to carry long and complex mathematical equations in his head. He knew a damned sight more about everything than anyone Bobby had ever met. He was also a gentle soul and headlong in love with Cynthia—likewise, torture would never make him admit it.

“In other words, you’re not doing this so much for the lofty Lady Coulson, but as a favor for Cyn,” Bobby said. “And by extension, Mr. Thanos. Or the other way about.”

“Indeed,” Mrs. Holloway said primly.

“I commend you,” Judith said. “But how can we help?”

Mrs. Holloway lost her assurance and looked embarrassed. “Well, it’s a bit of a cheek, actually. Daniel—Mr. McAdam—has gone to Ireland, so I cannot ask him.”

The blush when she slipped and called McAdam by his first name tickled Bobby. Mrs. Holloway was as gone on him as Cyn was on Thanos. So much romance in the air.

“Ask him what, Mrs. H.?” Bobby prompted when Mrs. Holloway seemed reluctant to continue.

“Mr. Terrance has been taking Mr. William to a gambling club,” Mrs. Holloway said. “A rather rough one, on the Strand. Called the Adam since it’s near a street by that name. Gentlemen only, of course.” Mrs. Holloway’s mouth tightened, she clearly having second thoughts about her errand.

Bobby saw Judith realize Mrs. Holloway’s intent at the same time she did.

“The penny drops,” Bobby declared, her anticipation heightening. “You want me to infiltrate said gentleman’s club and see what Terrance and William get up to. And then what? Simply report? Or drag them out by their heels?”

Judith’s lovely eyes filled with alarm as she pictured Bobby doing the latter. “Mrs. Holloway, I am not certain that we are the best to ask—” she began.

Bobby cut her off. “Nonsense. Of course, I’ll do it. Happy to. Only one thing to ask in return, Mrs. H. If I carry out this mission, will you bring us one of your stupendous lemon cakes?”

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