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Tobias watched Lavinia walk up the steps of Number 7 Claremont Lane and knew at once that something was very wrong. Beneath the deep brim of her stylish bonnet, her face, always a source of intense fascination for him, showed signs of an odd, brooding tension.
In his admittedly limited experience, Lavinia rarely brooded over a problem or a setback. She was more inclined to take immediate action. Much too inclined to do so, in his considered opinion. Reckless and rash were words that came to mind.
He watched her from the window of the cozy little parlor, every muscle in his body tightening with a battle-ready tension. He had no patience with premonitions and other such metaphysical nonsense, but he trusted his own hunches, especially when it came to matters concerning his new partner and lover. Lavinia looked nothing short of shaken. He knew better than most that it took a great deal to rattle her composure.
"Mrs. Lake is home," he said, glancing at the housekeeper over his shoulder.
"About time." Mrs. Chilton set down the tea tray with an air of enormous relief and bustled toward the door. "Thought she'd never get here. I'll just go and help her with her coat and gloves. She'll be wanting to pour the tea for her guests, I'm sure. Likely be looking forward to a cup herself."
From what he could see of her face in the shadow of the bonnet, Tobias had a feeling that Lavinia was more in need of a healthy dose of some of the sherry she kept in her study. But the medicinal dose of spirits would have to wait.
The guests waiting for her here in the parlor had to be dealt with first.
Lavinia paused at the front door, searching through her large reticule for her key. He could read the signs of strain around her fine eyes quite clearly now.
What the devil had happened?
During the affair of the waxwork murders a few weeks ago, he thought that he had come to know Lavinia rather well. She was not easily flustered, overset, or frightened. Indeed, in the course of his own occasionally dangerous career as an investigator, he had met very few people of either sex who were as cool in threatening circumstances as Lavinia Lake.
It would require something quite dramatic to put that grim expression in her eyes. The prickle of unease that drifted through him had a chilling effect on both his patience and his temper, neither of which was in especially good condition at the moment. He would look into this new situation just as soon as he could get Lavinia alone.
Unfortunately, that would not be for some time. Her guests appeared prepared to converse at some length. Tobias did not care for either of them. The tall, elegantly lean, fashionably attired gentleman, Dr. Howard Hudson, had introduced himself as an old friend of the family.
His wife, Celeste, was one of those extraordinarily attractive females who are only too well aware of their effect on the male of the species and not the least hesitant to use their gifts to manipulate men. Her shining blond hair was piled high on her head, and her eyes were the color of a summer sky. She wore a gossamer-thin muslin gown patterned with tiny pink roses and trimmed with pink and green ribbons. There was a small fan attached to her reticule. Tobias considered that the dress was cut quite low for such a brisk day in early spring, but he was almost certain that the deep neckline was a carefully calculated decision on Celeste's part.
In the twenty minutes he had spent with the pair, he had reached two unshakable conclusions. The first was that Dr. Howard Hudson was a charlatan. The second was that Celeste was an out-and-out adventuress. But he suspected he would do well to keep his opinions to himself. He doubted that Lavinia would welcome them.
"I am so looking forward to seeing Lavinia again," Hudson said from the chair where he reclined with languid ease. "It has been several years since we last met. I am eager to introduce her to my dear Celeste."
Hudson possessed the rich, resonant voice of a trained actor. It had a deep, vibrant quality that one associated with well-tuned instruments. The sound grated on Tobias's nerve endings, but he had to admit that it commanded attention in an almost uncanny fashion.
Hudson cut a decidedly fashionable figure in an excellently tailored dark blue coat, striped waistcoat, and pleated trousers. His neckcloth was tied in an elaborate and unusual manner that Tobias thought his brother-in-law, Anthony, would have admired. At one-and-twenty, Anthony was at the age when young men paid acute attention to such things. He would no doubt also approve of the unusual gold seals that decorated Hudson's watch.
Tobias mentally calculated that the doctor was somewhere in the middle of his forties. Hudson was endowed with the distinguished, well-modeled features of a man who would no doubt always turn ladies' heads, regardless of his age. His wealth of dark brown hair was silvered in a striking manner, and he wore his clothes with an authority and aplomb that would have done credit to Brummell himself in the heyday of his social reign.
"Howard." The strain evaporated from Lavinia's green eyes as she swept into the parlor. She held out both hands in unmistakable and enthusiastic welcome. "Forgive me for being late. I went shopping in Pall Mall and misjudged the time and the traffic."
Tobias was fascinated by the change that had come over her in the past few minutes. If he had not caught that brief glimpse of her expression when she came up the steps, he would never have guessed now that she had been troubled.
It annoyed him that the mere sight of Dr. Howard Hudson had had such an uplifting effect on her mood.
"Lavinia, my dear." Howard rose and took both her hands in his long, well-groomed fingers, squeezing gently. "Words cannot express how wonderful it is to see you again after all this time."
Another wave of disturbing, albeit inexplicable, unease washed through Tobias. Hudson's most arresting features, aside from his riveting voice, were his eyes. An unusual combination of brown and gold in color, they had a compelling effect.
Both voice and gaze were no doubt extremely useful in his profession, Tobias thought. Dr. Howard Hudson was a practitioner of the so-called science of mesmerism.
"I was so very pleased to receive your note yesterday," Lavinia said. "I had no notion that you were in London."
Hudson smiled. "I was the one who was delighted to discover that you were in Town. Imagine my surprise, my dear. The last I heard, you and your niece had gone off to Italy as companions to a lady named Mrs. Underwood."
"Our plans changed quite unexpectedly," Lavinia said smoothly. "Emeline and I were obliged by circumstances to return to England sooner than we had anticipated."
Tobias raised his brows at that understatement, but he wisely kept silent.
"Well, that is certainly fortunate as far as I am concerned." Howard gave her hands another little familiar squeeze and released her. "Allow me to introduce my wife, Celeste."
"How do you do, Mrs. Lake," Celeste murmured in dulcet tones. "Howard has told me so much about you."
Tobias was briefly amused by her manner. The almost theatrically gracious inclination of Celeste's head did not conceal the cold assessment in her pretty eyes. He could see her measuring, weighing, and passing judgment. It was obvious that she immediately dismissed Lavinia as no threat and of no consequence.
He was amused for the first time that afternoon. Dismissing Lavinia was always a mistake.
"This is, indeed, a pleasure." Lavinia sat down on the sofa, arranged the skirts of her plum-colored gown, and picked up the teapot. "I had no notion that Howard had married, but I am delighted to hear it. He has been alone much too long."
"I had no choice in the matter," Howard assured her. "One look at my beautiful Celeste a year ago and my fate was sealed. In addition to making me a lovely wife and companion, she has proven herself quite adept at handling my business accounts and appointment book. Indeed, I do not know how I would get by without her now."
"You flatter me, sir." Celeste lowered her lashes and smiled at Lavinia. "Howard has attempted to teach me some of his skills with mesmerism, but I fear that I have no great talent for the science." She accepted the cup and saucer. "I understand my husband was a dear friend of your parents?"
"He was, indeed." A wistful expression crossed Lavinia's face. "He was a frequent visitor in our home in the old days. My parents were not only exceedingly fond of him, they counted themselves among his greatest admirers. My father told me on several occasions that he considered Howard to be the most accomplished practitioner of mesmerism he had ever met."
"I take that as a very great compliment," Howard said modestly. "Your parents were both extremely skilled in the art themselves. I found it fascinating to watch them work. Each had a unique style, but each achieved amazing results."
"My husband tells me that your parents were lost at sea nearly a decade ago," Celeste murmured. "And that you lost your husband that same year. It must have been an extremely trying time for you."
"Yes." Lavinia poured tea into two more cups. "But my niece, Emeline, came to live with me some six years ago and we do very nicely together. I am sorry that she is not here to meet you this afternoon. She is with friends attending a lecture on the monuments and fountains of Rome."
Celeste managed an expression of polite sympathy. "You and your niece are alone in the world?"
"I do not think of it as being alone," Lavinia said crisply. "We have each other, you see."
"Nevertheless, there are only the two of you. Two women alone in the world." Celeste gave Tobias a veiled glance. "In my experience, being on one's own without the advice and strength of a man to lean upon is always a difficult and unhappy situation for a woman."
Tobias nearly fumbled the cup and saucer that Lavinia had just thrust into his fingers. It was not Celeste's completely inaccurate assessment of Lavinia's and Emeline's personal resources and abilities that jolted him. It was the fact that, for a few seconds there, he could have sworn that the woman was deliberately flirting with him.
"Emeline and I manage very well, thank you," Lavinia said, an unexpected edge on her words. "Pray, have a care, Tobias, or you will spill your tea."
He caught her eye and realized that beneath her drawing-room manners, she was irritated. He wondered what he'd done this time. Their relationship seemed to lurch from the prickly to the passionate with jolting force and very little middle ground, as far as he could determine. Neither of them was entirely comfortable yet with the fiery affair that had blossomed between them. But he could certainly say one thing about their liaison: It was never dull.
That was unfortunate, to his way of thinking. There were times when he would have given a great deal for a few dull moments with Lavinia. The time might provide him with an opportunity to catch his breath.
"Forgive me, Lavinia," Howard said with the air of a man who is about to broach a delicate subject. "I cannot help but notice that you are not practicing your profession. Did you abandon the science of mesmerism because you found the market weak here in London? I know that it is difficult to attract the proper sort of clientele when one lacks social connections."
To Tobias's surprise, the question seemed to catch Lavinia off guard. She gave a tiny start that caused the teacup in her hand to tremble. But she recovered swiftly.
"I have embarked upon another career for a number of reasons," she said crisply. "While the demand for mesmeric therapies appears to be as strong as ever, the competition is extremely fierce in that line and, as you noted, it is not easy to attract an exclusive sort of clientele unless one has connections and references in Society."
"I understand." Howard nodded somberly. "Celeste and I will have our work cut out for us, in that case. It will not be a simple matter for me to establish a new practice here."
"Where have you been practicing until now?" Tobias asked.
"I spent several years in America, traveling and lecturing on the science of mesmerism. A little over a year ago, however, I grew homesick and returned to England."
Celeste sparkled at him. "I met Howard in Bath last year. He had established a flourishing practice there, but he felt it was time to come to London."
"I hope to discover a greater variety of interesting and unusual cases here in Town," Howard explained very seriously. "The vast majority of my clients in Bath, as in America, sought treatments for rather ordinary afflictions. Rheumatism, female hysteria, difficulty with sleeping, that sort of thing. All worrisome enough for the patients, of course, but rather boring for me."
"Howard intends to conduct research and perform experiments in the field of mesmerism." Celeste gave her husband an adoring look. "Indeed, he is dedicated to discovering all of the uses and applications of the science. He hopes to write a book on the subject."
"And to do that successfully, I must be able to examine clients with more exotic nervous disorders than one generally encounters in the country," Howard concluded.
Lavinia's eyes lit with enthusiasm. "That is a very exciting and admirable goal. It is high time that the science of mesmerism was accorded its proper due." She shot a speaking glance in Tobias's direction. "I vow, a great many ill-informed people still persist in believing that mesmerists are all quacks and charlatans of the worst order."
Tobias ignored the barb and swallowed some tea.
Hudson exhaled heavily and shook his head with a grave air. "Unfortunately, I must admit that there are far too many fraudulent practitioners in our profession."
"Only advancements in the science will discourage that sort," Lavinia declared. "Research and experiments are precisely what is needed."
Celeste gave her an inquiring look. "I am curious to know the nature of your new career, Mrs. Lake. There are so few professions open to a lady."
"I am in the business of taking commissions from persons who wish to employ me to make private inquiries." She put her cup down on the saucer. "I believe I have some of my cards around here somewhere." She leaned across the arm of the sofa and opened a small drawer in a table. "Ah, yes, here we are."