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Dangerous Women Paperback Bundle

Dangerous Women Paperback Bundle

Beware of Dangerous Women in This Enthralling Gothic Series

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ 5200+ 5-Star Reviews

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Step into the world of fierce and audacious women as you dive into these captivating novels that blend dark gothic atmospheres with intricate plots and unforgettable characters.

This paperback bundle is perfect for fans of historical fiction, gothic thrillers, and strong female protagonists. Whether you're a seasoned reader of Blakemore's work or new to her novels, this collection is sure to captivate and enthrall. Order your Dangerous Women Paperback Bundle today and embark on a journey into the shadows of the past.

These books can be signed and personalized - send an email directly after purchase with the information.

ABOUT THE BOOKS

🟠 The Companion

In "The Companion," follow Lucy Blunt as she faces a death sentence for murders she claims she didn't commit. With its haunting atmosphere and unreliable narrator, this novel will keep you guessing until the final page.

🟠 After Alice Fell

"After Alice Fell" takes you to New Hampshire in 1865, where Marion Abbott grapples with family secrets and suspicions surrounding her sister Alice's tragic death. Blakemore masterfully weaves together mystery and historical detail, immersing you in a world of intrigue and suspense.

🟠 The Deception

In "The Deception," readers are transported to the intriguing world of post-Civil War Spiritualism, where mediums both real and fraudulent vie for fame and fortune. Maud Price, a once-famous child medium, now struggles to regain her gift and reputation. Enter Clementine Watkins, a cunning trickster known for her elaborate deceptions in the spiritualist community. As Maud reluctantly joins forces with Clementine, their partnership leads to unexpected twists and turns, culminating in a dangerous game of deceit and betrayal.

Click to Read the First Chapters

🟠 Chapter One: The Companion

The Companion

Chapter One

New Hampshire State Prison

1855

Count the bodies.

One. Two.

Three if we count Mary Dawson.

Four if we count my Ned, who breathed and suckled three days and nights before succumbing to the ague.

All blamed on me.

It is cold here. The last of winter. Wednesday, I think. Matron has brought another blanket but not lit the stove. Fingers of cold claw my collar; the mist cuts my lungs. Knives of ice.

Mary Dawson died in winter. Maybe Mary should be blamed. She was found face down in a frozen brook, on her way home from the Burtons’ after finishing the laundry and washing up. The men chipped her out of the ice, carried her like a board on their shoulder, her overcoat and skirts frozen in the patterns of the water’s ripples and flows.

It was to be her last day at the great house. She had been promised to Thomas Rogers in Peterboro. He was a cooper, though that has no bearing on her unhappy death. I’ve heard she was of fine character. She gave her wages to her family and was deemed good-natured. People called her “sweet” and “helpful” and “cheerful.” Drop those words in a pot and stir and they might congeal into the word “thick.”

Cook called me rude when I said that, though she did not deny it.

Mary Dawson was nothing to me then but a story. She was dead and the Burtons required a maid.

It was deep winter. The snow banked against the trunks and limbs of bare trees. It cracked under my boots, clicked and rattled in my hair. It rested in the seams of brick on the great house before me. The oil lamps flanking the wide stone staircase hissed and fluttered. They lit nothing, their glow meek in the purpling afternoon light. The curtains were closed on the tall windows, and the only sign of life came orange and warm through the thin slits of fabric.

I was not meant to call there. I was meant for the back entrance. I weaved around the carriages waiting in the drive between the stable and the house. Steam lifted from the feed bags twined round the horses’ nostrils. I pressed into the shoulder and neck of a chestnut mare, thankful for the warmth, wondering if I would make the last steps.

The door to Josiah Burton’s kitchen was thick. I could not coax the glove from my frozen fingers, my knock a dull thump against the wood. There was a squeal of metal, a lock tumbled, a door opening. The fat hand of the woman holding the handle connected to a round shoulder. Her jowl swung in disapproval, and her skin was gray from winter, red from kitchen heat. Colorless eyes ticked. I could tell she didn’t like my features. Steam floated off her, as her stove-warmed body met the February air.

“Yes?”

My lips felt clumsy, heavy as lead. “Lucy Blunt, mum.”

“And?”

“I’ve come in place of Mary, mum.”

She said nothing. Her eyelids fluttered and then lowered, her lips moving as if sending a silent prayer.

“Mr. Beede hired me. This morning.”

“Did he?”

“I’ve got excellent references,” I lied. Who’s to know? I had letters in my pocket, letters of reference extolling my virtues. I had made sure to find three different types of paper, used three different pens and ink.

“Give them over.”

I took them from my satchel.

She did not read them. Just pocketed them in her apron instead.

“You’re old for a washer-up.”

“Twenty-two.”

“The mistress is particular.”

“So am I.” I felt the wind against my neck. I wanted nothing more at that moment than to shove my way in and throw myself directly against the stove. “I have strong hands. She won’t find anything wrong with my work.”

The air in the room waved with heat. It was so close—a step away.

“Please, mum.”

The woman’s sigh filled with pity, rumbly and moist. “Then get in the door before my fingers are frozen to it.”

I slid past her. The door was shut, a key lifted and pressed, the lock turned.

“Clean those pots,” she said. “The master’s having a party and you’d better know what you’re doing. I’ve got chicken coming out and potatoes to fry, and I need that pot for a stock. Water for cleaning’s on the left range near you. And I’ll need you to clean the serving platters and I mean with a gleam.”

“Where do I put my satchel, ma’am?”

“Give it here. And it’s not ma’am. Nor mum. Cook will do.” She tossed my bag into the low-ceiling pot room. “Have you lodging tonight?”

“Not yet.”

“You’ll sleep here, then.” She stared at me, as if assessing my worth. “If you’re good, you’ll stay on.”

There it was: the great cast-iron stove, all filled with food. Boiling, frying, baking. Sputtering and warm and lovely. Close by sat the pump and sink, and Lord, already too many pots. A thick pine table ran down the middle of the room. The white shelves along the inner wall were filled with plates and glasses, dainty and fine.

“What are you staring at?”

“Nothing, Cook.”

“Exactly, stupid. The serving trays are in the cabinet below the shelves. The towels are on the rungs. I need five oval servers set on the table—in a line so I can dish this all out.”

Then or never. I slung off my coat, threw it on a chair. Wiped the serving plates and lined them up. Watched Cook fill each with mound upon mound of chicken and leeks and mutton and rice and muffins. She was quicker than she should have been with the heft of her. Not even a second to sneak something in my pocket.

Behind me came a clatter on the stairs. Black polished boots first, then the man. He was thin with very long fingers that wrapped round the rail. Long legs like a heron’s. His vest was tufted and padded, but the effect only emphasized his spindliness. He stopped at the bottom, peering at me with faded gray eyes. “Ah. Miss Blunt. You are sent.”

It was Mr. Beede, the man who had hired me that morning at the intelligence office.

“It’s our new Mary,” he said to Cook.

“Where’s Jacob?” Cook’s voice echoed in the open stove as she pulled out the last of the roast.

The door at the top of the stairs swung wider. A boy barely in facial hair took the step above Mr. Beede. He wore black polished boots and white stockings and some silly blue frock like a toy soldier.

“Jacob!”

“Here here here, Cook.” He cut his eyes toward me. “Who are you?”

“This is the new washer-up. And there’s no time for this. Food upstairs. Now.”

The old man stepped down to the table. He set his hands on his hips, bent over a plate and sniffed. “Good.” He side-stepped to the next and the next, each with a bend and a sniff and a “Good.”

“No fish tonight?” he asked.

“It’s off.”

“Well, I suppose the Bostoners would look down on our river fish anyway.” He nodded to the boy. “Ready?”

“Yes, Mr. Beede.” Jacob grabbed a tray of leeks near me. “You’re not as pretty as Mary,” he whispered.

Mr. Beede ascended the stairs, holding the door for Jacob. A flurry of laughter and men’s voices tumbled down. “Adieu.” He clicked the latch shut behind him.

We stood in the sudden silence—Cook at the stove, me at the sink to continue my work.

“Go to it, girl.”

The night played the same for hours. Dishes cooked and platters taken, and sounds from above. Ale and brandy and wine replenished. All the while, I stood at the sink and scrubbed. Content for the pump in the kitchen and an ever-warm pot of water nearby. Big tin tub under the sink to empty the dirty water. I washed and dried and followed Cook’s pointed finger to the correct spots in the pot room where the things should hang.

I’m fast at learning. I refused to be sent away.

Through the window came the jingle of harnesses as the horses and sleigh transports were called back to service. Each time the door opened to the upstairs, the voices grew less until there was finally no sound at all.

“They don’t stay?”

“Thank God, no one stays,” Cook said. “I’d need three of myself and two of you, to boot.”

Jacob threw himself akimbo in a chair. “Jesus, Mary, and Creation. You should have seen them, Cook. Bet if one of them cuts himself, it’ll be brandy he bleeds.” He stared at the stove. “That’s a good smell.”

“There’s plenty for all. I’ve made a nice stew.”

The boy rubbed his face. He was as thin as Mr. Beede, but not sunken. A blond-thatched sapling growing every which way. He crossed a leg and removed a boot.

“Don’t take those off in here. You can offend the floors of your own room later. Take this plate to Mr. Friday and empty the dirty tub water. It’s practically overflowing and it’s hard enough to clean the floor.” Cook turned and stared. Empty sink and not a pot in sight. “It seems our new Mary has worked a house or two.” She handed Jacob a towel-covered pot.

He turned to the door and waited. “Key, missus.”

Cook reached for the ring of keys on her waistband, found the right one, and turned the lock. Closed and relocked the door after him. She dabbed a towel to her forehead to mop the sweat.

“The stew, missus.”

“What?”

I pointed to the pot and the froth that bubbled and threatened to spill out.

“The stew.” She picked up a ladle and stirred. Shifted the pot to a cooler place.

There came a knock on the door. Cook stared at it. She glared at the stew, her lower lip pushed out. Then she handed me the ladle and attended to the door—Jacob.

“Mr. Friday sends his thanks,” he said.

Plates, food, fuel. Four of us around the table. Cook in the seat nearest the stove, Jacob across from me, Mr. Beede at the other end. No one spoke; the only sound was the slide of metal forks against plates. I hadn’t eaten so well in days.

“Divine. To a divine stew, Mrs. Cook.” Mr. Beede rose from his chair and lifted his wine glass. “And to a startling good claret. Or what’s left of it.” He sipped as daintily as a child would sniff a flower then tilted his head. His eyes were watery, as if he were perpetually on the verge of tears. But I knew it most likely meant he was a habitual imbiber. The fine threads of red on his nose and cheeks confirmed it; my father’s looked the same. He took a pipe and bag of tobacco from his coat. “A bit of claret, Cook?”

“Don’t mind if I do, Mr. Beede.”

“And for our new Mary?”

“Lucy. I’m Lucy. I don’t take spirits.”

“Good of you not to,” he said. “Sinful thing.” He uncorked the bottle sitting hard by him and filled a small glass. “The master’s got the contract for the new timber.” Mr. Beede sighed and rubbed his nose. “They’re speaking of building a rail line to the mills.”

“Lord, no, they’re the worst sort of men.”

“Progress, Mrs. Cook. Business and progress hand-in-hand. The master knows his plan. The navvies would be temporary. And would stay in their own camps. You shouldn’t worry yourself over them. Just think, though, our little spot in the world grows. Harrowboro, New Hampshire—manufacturing capital of the world.”

Jacob glared at me, his elbows resting wide on the table. “Mary drowned.”

“Did she?” I swallowed and gave a slow nod. The hiring agent only stated the girl deceased. An “unfortunate passing.”

“God rest the girl. It’s Lucy’s turn now.” Cook lifted the spoon and bowl from in front of me and set them in the sink.

“Are there only the three of you, then? For this large a house?” I didn’t say how queer it was to find such a place in the middle of wilderness and villages and sheep. I couldn’t imagine Cook on her knees sweeping ash from a fireplace, though I could see her gathering and throwing out the piss and shit from the chamber pots. She had the arms for it. “Are there children?”

“None.” Mr. Beede lifted an eyebrow then let it rest again. Said nothing more, though plenty of thoughts traveled his forehead.

“Who does the maiding?”

Cook pressed against the table and slid the claret bottle closer. “That would be yourself. Jacob will help. And Rebecca dusts when the fancy takes her.”

“Rebecca?”

“The mistress’s companion.” Mr. Beede reached for the claret, tipping it to his glass, waiting for the last splash to land. “I suppose if one counts Rebecca above and John Friday in the stalls, there are five of us. Six with you.”

“But it’s such a big house. How in the world—”

“We know our ways.” Mr. Beede sucked in the last bit of wine. “How many does one need?”

Later, I lay on my pallet, a nub of candle casting light on the irons and coppers, my satchel tight between me and the wall. Oh! Not much to be watchful of, really. Nothing but an extra shift, an apron, a tortoiseshell comb. And my secret treasure, folded into a square of paper: a lock of hair white as the summer sun and smoother than silk. My baby’s. Ned. All I had left of him.

The house slumbered. Master and mistress dreamt in one room. Down the hall past the larder, heavy snores. Could be Mr. Beede’s or Cook’s. A sleepy cry and then silence from Jacob’s. I snuffed the candle, curled under the blanket. I was to be the new maid in a new house with a new life. I’m good with lies. Lucky me.

🟠 Chapter One: After Alice Fell

After Alice Fell

Chapter One

Brawders House

Harrowboro, New Hampshire

August 1865

“Is it her?” The ward attendant holds up the oiled tarp. He chews on his dark mustache. Blinks and clears his throat. “I am sorry, Mrs. Abbott. I must ask.”

I clasp and unclasp my reticule, the metal warm between my thumb and forefinger, the click comforting, steadying in this room with white tile walls and black grout. There’s a single circular grate in the corner; yellowed paint chips from the ceiling clog its pipe. The cold pushes through the floor, needles of ice that poke my thin-soled boots. Ill chosen, meant for summer, not this chill room. But I hadn’t thought; I put on the first pair I found and last night’s stockings, too, hung from the bedpost because I was too weary to put them away.

A note delivered, too blunt:

Alice Snow deceased. Please collect.

The driver who delivered the note had waited, slumped against his hansom and fanning his face with a folded-up newspaper. His horse, roan and swaybacked, drooled and ground his teeth. The air shimmered and blurred the edges of the fence and abandoned barn across the road. It was too early and already too hot.

I had missed an eyelet when buttoning my boots earlier, and now the leather cuts into my ankle. I rub the heel of my other shoe against it until the chafed skin burns. Paint chips drift into a crevice of the tarp’s fabric, stick like snow to the crown of this dead woman’s head. Neat, straight part and white-gray skin. Strands of ginger hair blood stippled, a tangle loose and dangling. A mottled stretch of bruising across her forehead. I lower my gaze to the floor. There are divots there, hollows and gouges. Her body is cooled by a leather-strapped block of ice. The body who is Alice. Alice so still, Alice under the tarp.

Alice, my sister.

She is not meant to be here, her mouth agape as if she were about to share a thought, like she used to when she was very young, her finger to her lip, a shake of that ginger-red hair, then “Marion, I wonder . . .” Or “Marion, it’s an odd thing . . .” Her voice trailing away as she swallowed the words or clamped her jaw because I interrupted, finishing out whatever it was she wondered about or found odd. “Everything in and of itself, Alice, is so very odd that one must just consider it normal. Otherwise, you’ll drive yourself mad.”

The attendant stares at me.

“It’s her.”

He lowers the tarp, pulling it up to her forehead. It is too short. Her left foot pops free: a dark welt across the bridge, crisscrosses of cuts, thin long toes. Maybe she’ll wriggle them now, as she used to. “Look, Marion. I’m royalty. Look at my middle toe, look at its length.”

“You’ll need to sign the certificate.”

There, on the small desk by the square window that looks out on nothing, on a wall of brick and pipe, is the document. Smaller than I would expect. Simple and harsh.

Record No.: 4573

Name: Alice Snow

Sex: F

Date of Birth: February 3, eighteen hundred and forty-one

Age: 24

Date of Death: August 3, eighteen hundred and sixty-five

Cause of Death: Accident. Acute mania.

Signed: Lemuel Mayhew M.D.

I’ve seen too many of these, pinned too many to uniform lapels. I’ve seen so many dead: Antietam, Poplar Springs, Spotsylvania. Men stacked on carts, tarps too short to hide the high arches and missing limbs and nails roughly cut. I’ve signed so many letters, whispers from the soon dead to their loves. Forgive me. Help me. I am almost at heaven, Mother.

One signature and Alice will be released. One signature to absolve this place of any responsibility for her slipping from the roof, absolve the staff from finding her body splayed on the pebbled drive, half tangled in the sharp thorns of pink hedging roses. I dip the pen and hold it above the signature line. Ink beads at the nib and splatters.

“What time was she found?” I keep my eyes on the ink, watch it soak and spread along the short edge.

His foot scrapes the stone floor. “You’d need to ask Dr. Mayhew.”

“But Dr. Mayhew isn’t here. He’s upstairs with my brother. You are here. Mr. . . . ?”

“Stoakes. Russell Stoakes.”

“Mr. Stoakes.”

The ink is a river now, rippling around the paper, a black frame around my sister’s name, her death, the date. When I hand it over, he’ll place it in the brown folder with her name printed neatly on the edge.

He waits for me to sign. He is as cold as I am, has his arms crossed over his barrel chest and fists curled round his elbows. His eyes are a muddy hazel and flick with resentment. It’s not his fault he’s been assigned this duty. He taps his finger on the corner of the iced table. “She didn’t suffer.”

“Yes, she did.”

I turn from the desk, holding out the official certificate officially identifying the now official death of my sister, Alice Louise Snow, and watch as the attendant shoots a glance at it before setting it atop the folder.

“She’s afraid of the dark.” I take my gloves from my pocket and fumble them on. “I must find my brother.”

The door sticks as I open it and step into the hall. Low voices slip and mumble from both directions, from under other doors and away down the tunneled walk. Away from the white-tile room with black grout and my Alice too silent under the tarp.

Metal wheels squeal and chitter behind me, loud and then silent. I stumble forward, my chest tight, hand grasping for the solid wall. The brick is chipped and scratched from too much use.

Mr. Stoakes’s footsteps are heavy on the stone behind me, following with enough distance to keep out of my thoughts. The light is dull, just a slit of sun through high casement windows, heating the narrow glass and sheeting the interior with layers of dust.

“Don’t follow me.” I grab at my skirts and gather them.

He reaches for my elbow. “Best I help.”

I twist and claw away from his grip. “Don’t follow me.”

 

My sister lies on a bed of ice. Our brother, Lionel, waits in the garden. He’s met with Dr. Mayhew but refuses this task. They’ve left me to attend Alice, and now I am lost in a jigsaw of halls and occasional gaslit lamps bolted to the wall. Steam pipes run the length, banging and knocking.

“Mrs. Abbott?” The attendant’s voice slips around corners and then is gone.

I follow the pipes through a door to a tunnel of red brick and a low, heavy arch, lamps spaced twenty paces apart, and then another door to a hall with squared walls and rippled paint and metal-latticed windows. A dance of signs, black iron, white letters, arrows every which way. Utility. Store C. Store D. Room A13. Utility B. Morgue.

I turn my back to that one, though I know if I follow that arrow, I’ll be on familiar ground. I’ll be back with Alice and can start again, trace my steps to the stairwell and up to the side door in the cheerful visitors’ lobby. It’s just a matter of steps, then, to the double doors and wide porch. Certainly, Lionel will be waiting. He’ll hand me up to the hansom cab; I’ll take out my handkerchief and wipe my forehead. “It’s so very hot,” I’ll say and watch the jonquils lining the long drive doze and dance in the sun.

But I don’t want to go back to Alice. I can’t. I can’t see her body on ice.

Utility. Store C. Store D.

My chest tightens. I press against the wall, hand to stomach, breath pulled through the nose. I scrape my fingers to the brick. I am lost here with Alice.

She is meant to be alive. How can I tell her now how sorry I am?

My knees give way. A door bangs, and there’s Mr. Stoakes, lumbering over. He passes the doors. Store C. Store D. Room A13.

With a squat and hmph, he’s on his haunches. He blinks, rapid fire, and tightens his lips into a smile. “We can’t have this, Mrs. Abbott.”

“Yes, I’m sorry.” I flatten my free hand to the wall. Let out a bark of a laugh. My heart slows. “I’m not like this, really. It’s the shock. It shouldn’t bother me; I was a nurse—”

“I’ll help you up now.” As he stands, he keeps a hold on my elbow, light like a comfort. “There we are. Let’s find your brother.”

 

“There you are.” Lionel looks up from his watch, thumbing the case shut and sliding it into his vest pocket. He leans against the white railing in the one streak of sunlight, his hair bright copper, much like mine, darker than Alice’s. The sun reflects in his glasses as he turns to me. His coat is as blue as the sky behind him, as if he had been set by a painter upon this porch, the coat and bright-sheened vest provided from a costume closet. A Languorous Day, the painting might be called. No one the wiser for the setting. No matter the confection of porticos and porches, vine-weaved lattice and wide sunny lawns, nothing masks the purpose. It is an asylum, and until last night, my sister was an inmate within its walls.

Lionel nods to Stoakes, then crosses to me and lays his hands on my shoulders before pulling me to him in a strong grip.

My ear presses against the pouch of tobacco in his coat pocket. He rubs the back of my neck, lays his cheek on my head, and his breath warms my scalp for only a moment before he steps away.

I smell like death. It’s why he moved away. The decomposing skin, the rot of liver and belly, the stench of gases, the sweet mildew and musk of it threads my black widow’s weeds and hair. Alice wraps around me like a shroud.

“My God,” I say. “What have we done?”

“Not now.” He glances behind, to Stoakes, his eyes apologizing. Then he strides down the stairs to the pebble walkway, just one glance over his shoulder to make certain I’m following him. “Come along, Marion. The cab is waiting.”

He leans forward to talk to the driver. The horses are edgy; the cab rolls back, then forward.

I take his hand and clamber to my seat, folding my skirts round my thighs and settling into the cracked leather. The driver in his faded coat turns his head halfway to hear us. His hat is dark rimmed with sweat and matted with horsehair.

“Move on.” Lionel rests his hands atop each other, snaking his gloves between his palms.

The carriage sways and starts forward.

“We’re all that’s left now.”

Lionel stares at a rip in the fabric, right near his shoulder. It’s been poorly mended. “Don’t be silly. There’s Cathy. Toby.”

“Your family,” I say. “Not mine.”

We slow for the gatekeeper. He chucks his crutch under his arm and uses the gate for balance, his left trouser leg loose below the knee, swinging with the motion. Where? I want to ask. Antietam, Fredericksburg, a nameless creek in Virginia muddled with late-spring runoff: I might have held his hand. Or lied and said there would be ether when there was none.

The driver turns the horses to the road. The light flicks through silver maples, planted to maintain privacy.

“She wasn’t well. If you’d been here, you’d have known.” His voice drips with accusation. “Not at the end. My God, she nearly—”

“I don’t want this argument now.”

“You made a lot of excuses for her.”

I shake my head and look down at my lap, at the tangled mess I’ve made of the thumb of my glove. I’ve picked it apart, cotton and silk now torn and in knots.

Lionel stares, too, then pulls the glass open. Just outside his window, orange dahlias and red heleniums line the drive, riotous and bloated with too much color. Just outside mine is the brown brick building that holds Alice in its bowels. Two workmen sit astraddle the far peak of roof. One fans his face with a wide-brimmed hat, staving off the heat and mosquitos. The other slaps at his arm, then turns up his palm to stare at whatever’s left of the bug before wiping it off on his trouser leg.

“I was going to visit,” I say. “When I’d settled. This week or next.”

“She’d have refused to see you.”

“Why?”

“Do you need to ask that?” He points out my window to a narrow road that meets with ours. A mule with heavy head pulls the buckboard. A simple pine casket rests in the bed. “There’s the wagon.”

The driver sits wide kneed, round backed, his chin jutted forward. He pulls the traces, slowing the mule, ceding the roadway to us. With a quick nod, he doffs his soft cap and holds it aloft as we pass by.

My chest burns with each breath. I force myself to watch our driver. I count the stitches along the back of his brown coat. The fabric is faded nearly yellow at the shoulders. He’s mended a rip in the hem.

Lionel’s wife, Cathy, will be waiting at the house. She’ll have cleared the dining room and gathered muslins. I don’t think I can take her condolences any more than I could take them when Benjamin died.

The horse whip bends and swings in its stand near the driver’s thigh, and he looks averse to using it. Other drivers flick and play the leathers on their horse’s backs, but he leaves it be, churrs and hums instead.

“Toby shouldn’t see Alice like this,” I say, my eyes following the swing of the leather. “He’s too young.”

“I’ll look out for him.” Lionel stretches his neck, first one way, and then the other, before staring out his window glass.

There’s a quick movement along the stone fence. A shard of sun reflects off a white cap and pale wrists and forearms. A girl, wraith thin, scrambles over the fence, hands waving, black hair frizzled at the forehead. She jogs next to us, reaching out to catch the doorframe. Her eyes are the palest of green, nearly incandescent against the scarlet birthmark marring her cheek and jaw.

“Mrs. Abbott. Oh please, Mrs. Abbott.” A wide scar rides along her chin and curves up as she speaks. “I need to talk to you.”

Lionel leans over me. “Get away from the carriage.”

“No, I need to talk to Mrs. Abbott. Please . . . stop the horses.”

The driver flicks his long whip so it snaps the air by the girl’s leg. “Get back to work, Kitty Swain.”

“Oh, stop. Charlie, stop.” She calls and waves, stumbles in a divot as she sprints to keep pace.

The horses are urged to a trot. The girl gives up, lifting and dropping her arms to her skirts. She stares at me, her mouth moving and something akin to pleading in her visage. But the words are lost in the horse’s clops and the squeals of the carriage axles.

A spit of sweat, icy and sharp, stings my neck. I remove my kerchief from my sleeve and dab. But I turn my head, compelled to take one last look at this pompous brick building with the inviting porch and grated windows and a cupola ringed with lightning rods. A single-paned glass window in the middle dormer catches the sun and holds it. Each wing’s roof is steep pitched—easy enough to slip.

Three stories. Four along the left wing where the ground slopes away. An accidental, unfortunate fall. Sunken eyes, gaping mouth, crisscrossed slices and scratches from the thorns. Bruising on her forehead. Blood-stiff hair.

Three stories. Four at the apex.

How did you get on the roof, Alice?

 

🟠 Chapter One: The Deception

The Deception

Spring, 1877

Harrowboro, New Hampshire

Dear Miss Watkins,

I am in difficulty. My guardian spirit is unruly and serves distemperately. You have been recommended as a helper of those in need. If you could observe a sitting and give your thoughts and advice as to how I might amend my mediumship, I would be most grateful. I have included a card with my hours.

Yours in Faith,

Maud Price

 

Dear Miss Price,

Yes. I will help.

C—

Chapter One

Clementine

Clementine Watkins hooked her thumb to the parlor curtain, tugging it enough to spy out on the proceedings of the room. It was a late night. A Wednesday. Her head hurt from too much whiskey the night before. Her bum, pressed to the window, had chilled to a state of numbness. The trousers and jacket she wore gave no protection from the seeping damp cold beyond the glass panes and shutters. She wriggled her toes in her socks, curling them under then stretching them out.

A yawn threatened. She swallowed it down and forced herself to ignore the cold behind her and take heed of the goings-on.

Or lack thereof.

Five people sat around a table, hands clasped, eyes shut, faces wobbling and gleaming in the light of a solitary candle. Two men, three ladies. The family Ott and a Mr. Sullivan, to be precise. Clem was close enough to touch the shoulder of Mr. Ott. He would have done better with two chairs. Now he shifted his weight from one buttock to the other and every so often let out a discomfited groan. To his right sat a young girl of longish neck and pinkish nose, her mouth already curved like her mother’s—the next participant at the table—in a permanent scowl. The mother wore the finest of mourning: soft velvet ribbons, hard jet buttons, crinoline that glimmered in the low light. The broach at her neck boasted a braid of hair and a dangling ruby. Next to her sat Mr. Sullivan. He had come alone, trailing behind the family and twisting his hat in his hand. He had bobbed his head in a mumbled greeting before the medium requested they sit.

The medium herself—Maud Price—sat still as a statue, elbows locked straight, shoulder blades pushed against the slats of her chair. She wore a simple dress of organdy, pale as her skin and hair. She was of no great beauty, with a high forehead, a pinch of nose and chin. Beauty, of course, had naught to do with psychical gifts, not at all. Still, Clem was of the opinion it did not hurt.

Suddenly, Maud Price lifted her shoulder—an inadvertent jerk of movement, enough to alert the others that soon there would be communion, soon the dearly departed would join the circle—causing the stiff material of her skirts to rustle.

The girl’s eyes snapped open and she watched Maud.

Clem slipped the curtain back, lest her hiding place be spied. She had seen the sharp spark in the girl’s eye. Doubt.

Well, after all, they had been sitting now for an impossibly long time. And Maud had made no movement save that twitch of shoulder and a few bobbles of her eyeballs under the translucent skin of her lids.

Mr. Ott cleared his throat. “So sorry.”

“It’s the weather,” the mother said.

“Horrible spring.”

“Why are your eyes open, Celia?”

“Why are yours?” the daughter answered.

Then Sullivan began to burble and broke into a sob. “Would you all be quiet?”

Clem leaned against the window frame and picked at her thumbnail. This would be the time for a good, long disembodied screech.

She was tempted.

But this wasn’t her place. Her place was to observe.

I am in difficulty.

The note had come to Clem’s boardinghouse, slipped under the tea mug on the breakfast tray and nearly used as a napkin by Russell. But Clem had nicked it in time, and now she was here in the too-hot room with the too-cold window.

“You’re squeezing too tight, Mother.”

“Pay attention.”

“I don’t believe in ghosts. I—” The girl gave a shriek.

Clem flicked the curtain.

The candle had been snuffed. The wick glowed orange and umber and then went out.

An odor curled through the room, like cat urine and last week’s offal. Clem pinched her nose to it.

Someone gagged at the reek.

Maud moved. The organdy dress hissed.

Maud spoke. “Aaaaaahhhh.”

Nothing but a long groan, but still, Clem felt relief that something had happened.

“Are you there, Matthias?”

My guardian spirit, she had written, is unruly and serves distemperately.

Nothing then but breath drawn and released.

“Matthias is . . .” Maud’s voice rose to a keen, then dipped to a whisper. “Here. He is here.”

“Is it our Tom?” Mrs. Ott’s voice quavered.

Clem turned her head away. How often she heard the plaintiveness, the scraping ache of a mother for a son.

“Is it my Maisie?” Mr. Sullivan asked. A wife, a sister, a mother, a sweetheart. Gone too soon and leaving a grown man in fits of sobs and sighs.

The girl whined, and then stopped herself.

Mr. Ott moaned. “Tom?”

Then came the clapping. Solitary. Winding round the room, ricocheting from corner to corner, then circling closer and closer. Clap behind the girl’s back, clap behind her mother’s. Sullivan’s shoulders hunched to his ears in readiness. Clap. The claps floated to the ceiling and faded into the plasterwork. Clap clap clap clap . . .

“Tom misses . . .” Maud’s voice was that of a child’s. “. . . everything. No, Billy.”

“Billy?” the father asked. “Who’s Billy?”

“Quietnowquietbe.” The deep voice shot down Clem’s spine.

“Who’s Billy, I ask?”

“Billy’s my new friend. Billy play.” Maud gasped, her breath rasping in short bursts. “No, no.” Her shoulders shook, and she hunched over until her forehead touched the table. “They have left me.”

The air sagged, sinking back into itself.

“That is all.”

***

You have been recommended—but here the words bled from a drop of cider. Russell had picked up the enclosed calling card, holding it to the tavern’s whorled window.

Miss M. Price

MEDIUM

328 Hall St H’boro

Circles at 7p Mon–Sat.

25c All Welcome

Russell scratched his stubble. “Here we go, Clem, here we go.”

***

Nothing much happened after. A chair scraped. A match fizzed and flared. Maud leaned over the table to light the candle. She cupped the flame, moved to a sconce by the fireplace, opened the glass and lit that before dropping the match to the grate. Then she crossed her hands before her, one resting upon the other on top of her skirt. How small she was, how unassuming and bland, sloped shoulders and downcast gaze. “Perhaps tomorrow, Mr. Sullivan. Perhaps then.”

Clem could see only a sliver of the group now. Mr. Ott’s bald pate and circling curlicues of gray. The girl’s mouth hanging open. The mother curled into herself.

“Sometimes the veil is too thick.” Maud dipped her head. “We can try again tomorrow?”

“Yes. If you think Maisie—”

“Thank you, Mr. Sullivan. For your confidence.”

The father twisted from his chair.

“I won’t come again. There’s Mrs. Martin. We’ll go to her.”

“Yes, of course, Mr. Ott. If you must.” Maud’s real voice was no more than a murmur.

“Where is Tom now?” Mrs. Ott had moved to the door. “Where is he, Miss Price?”

“I do not know. I think he needs guidance.”

“Which you cannot give.”

“Not tonight.”

Clem sat on the window ledge and listened to the shuffle of chairs, then the quiet as the room emptied. The rain plonked against the glass. She watched a spider spin a tendril of web in the fold of curtain, then climb the web to spin another length of silk.

“You can come out.”

Clementine pushed the curtain aside, then dropped it behind her. Maud sat in a stuffed chair by the cold fireplace, her hands gripping the wooden arms. “Oh.” She tilted her head and puzzled over Clem’s gray serge trousers and vest.

“It allows me the night.” She shoved her hands in her pockets, strode across to the door, and peered out to the hallway. The stairwell was dark, as was the entryway. The only illumination came through the arched window above the front door, a pallid glow from the streetlight. Clem’s brown beaver-felt bowler hung from the rack near the door. Her umbrella rested in a tin bucket.

“Hello?” Her voice echoed and was not answered.

She closed the parlor door and looked at Maud. “The smell.”

“I’m sorry?”

“How do you do the smell?”

“I don’t—”

“It’s clever.”

Clem ran her gaze along the wall, peering into a curio cabinet that held nothing but aperitif glasses and a single half-empty crystal of liquor. She pulled its stopper and sniffed. Sherry.

The room held very little. Just the chairs, the table covered in a lace cloth. The glass globe sconces. Two portraits: a scowling man with wild brows and high collar facing a woman of great resemblance to Maud. White walls. Heavy curtains, but it was still April, and the days too dismal to change to a lighter set. Rag rug on a dark, scarred wood floor. And Maud herself in the chintz chair with an antimacassar starched and neat on its back.

Clementine followed a ceiling beam across the breadth of the room, then snapped her fingers. “The fireplace. Very good. But easy to spot.” She leaned down, hands to knees, twisting to look up the chimney. It smelled of old ash. But easy for the maid or an accomplice to toss some oils and cat piss when the timing was right.

“No. No, that comes when—if—Matthias comes.” Maud raised a hand to her forehead and smoothed her hair. “I sent Margaret away. She doesn’t approve of these nightlies.”

“She let me in, though. Well, she left the kitchen door open.”

“She’s Catholic.”

“They have their spirits.”

Maud let out a great sigh. “Never mind the maid. She’s only one of slews.”

“Who gave you my name?” Clem pulled a chair from the table and sat. The room had cooled, now that there were only her and this Maud to heat it. “A fire would be nice.”

“Yes. Oh, I . . . I’ve sent the maid home.”

“You said. May I smoke?”

“I . . .” Maud shook her head. “If you must.”

“I must.” Clem flipped open her jacket and removed her pipe case. She set it on the lace cloth, opened the leather pouch of tobacco, and stuffed it into the pipe bowl. “What do you think you need from me, Maud Price?”

“I have a reputation.”

“It precedes you.”

“But you see the room.” Maud gestured. “It once held twenty.”

“And once you enraptured hundreds. I saw you once. When I was a child and you were too. At a fair in Laconia.”

Maud’s mouth quivered and then rose in a smile. “Yes.”

“The Maid of Light. I remember.”

“Yes.”

“It was on a banner. Tied to the side of the wagon cart. You sat on a white chair.”

“You watched.”

“Mm.” Clem remembered. The sky the bluest of blue. The girl in her poplin, holding white roses and swinging one white-booted foot. Her father in his shiny suit with apple-red cheeks and swaggering walk.

“O Wonder, O Light, hear the dead speak.”

But Clem’s mother had shaken her wrist and dragged her past, turning only to spit. “Godless.”

The tobacco tasted of apples and cherries, which made Clem’s stomach growl. How long since her last full meal? And damn the last of the whiskey. She gave a shake of her head. “How did little Tom die?”

“He . . . he didn’t tell me. He’s with Billy.”

“Who is Billy? Another of your . . . ?”

“I don’t know. Another child lost. Perhaps someone come to bring him to the other side. It was so faint.”

“You should’ve known the child’s death before sitting with his grieving parents.” Clem crossed a leg and swung her foot. “Now they’re twice as upset and sure to visit someone else. There’s no shortage of you all.”

“If I know this beforehand, I leave myself open to accusations of fraud. I am not a fraud, Miss Watkins.”

“I am not accusing you. It’s just . . . clapping and rapping. I see no planchette. No levitating tables. Do you know a three-hundred-pound man levitated at Mrs. Martin’s last week? He still has a bruise on his crown from smacking into the ceiling. You can bet those around that table will return to her.”

“The spirits speak through me. They are not circus performers.”

Clementine leaned forward, an elbow to each knee. “You need a three-legged monkey.”

“A three-legged what?”

“You need fish that drop from the ceiling, or floating goblets—and you definitely need to know what poor Tom died of, and darling Maisie, and if you had a bauble or two to return to the grievers? Well, that’s the three-legged monkey.”

Maud just stared at Clem.

“An act. You need an act.”

“That’s fraudulent.”

“It’s a small necessity. For when your Matthias disobeys.”

“Harriet said—”

“Ha. Mrs. Martin sent you. I’ll have to thank her.” Clem shrugged. Harriet was as fake as a medium could be.

“She said you helped.”

“I do.”

“Not like that. I don’t want that. Flying trombones and . . . I feel I fail those who seek me now. I serve, Miss Watkins, that’s—”

“You don’t have money for the maid because you don’t hear the voices. Your guiding spirit takes runners when you need him most. What money you do have comes from paltry twenty-five-cent entry fees, not leaving people to their own generosity. You’re serving no one.”

“Miss Watkins—” Maud rose from her chair and stood directly in front of Clem. She smelled of lavender and cedar. “There’s a spirit right next to you.” How keen she was, her breath coming in quick gasps as she ogled something just past Clem’s shoulder. “Very weak, but there, nonetheless.”

Clem forced herself not to turn. “There’s nothing behind me.”

Maud studied her. “It’s there. Touching your shoulder.”

“You should have done that during the séance. When the girl opened her eyes. That would have sold her.” Clem emptied the ash into the candleholder, packed the pipe in its case, and stood.

“But it follows you.”

“No. Nothing follows me.”

“You are not a true believer.”

“My convictions are as strong as yours.”

“It is beautiful. To believe.”

“Yes.” Clem glanced at the empty fireplace grate, then back at Maud. She lifted a shoulder and dropped it. “You found me before. Send a note. If you want a full parlor, I can help.”

“I was mistaken to have you—”

“Tom Ott fell from a tree. He broke his neck. His sister Celia was the one watching him, or supposed to have been, anyway. She is torn with guilt and she’s afraid of her brother’s ghost because she blames herself.”

“He fell?”

“An oak in the yard. It’s been cut down. What mother would want to look on that every day? It’s like a murderer leering from the edge of the yard. What comfort she could have if she knew little Tom felt no pain. If just once she could feel a kiss on her cheek. Something, anything. But you know all this.”

Clem opened the door and took her hat from the rack. She twisted her hair into a bun and tucked it under the brim. “I don’t know about Mr. Sullivan’s Maisie, but I can find out for you.”

Maud followed her to the foyer. “I do wish to bring solace. That has always been the aim.”

“Then we are agreed.” She lifted the umbrella and pointed it across the entry at Maud. “It’s never about the dead, Miss Price. What counts, in our line of work, is bringing comfort to the living.”

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Meet the Author

Kim Taylor Blakemore writes historical novels that feature fierce, audacious, and often dangerous women. She writes about the thieves and servants, murderesses and mediums, grifters and frauds - the women with darker stories, tangled lies and hidden motives.

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