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The Act of Living

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“Harcourt seeks to starve me back into his home,” Isabella spoke calmly despite her raging emotions.

Lady Josephine Granfield was one of two from the peerage who retained an acquaintance with the Lady Fitzwilliam. It had been a year since Isabella broke from her brother and gained her independence. Her naivety led her to trust Harcourt to provide her with half the holdings from their father’s various endeavors in addition to what was due her monetarily. When it became evident he had no such compunctions, she thought if she rationed well she would still be able to live the life of which she was accustomed and keep her daughter in that life after her eventual passing. Shortsighted. That was the word she used to describe her situation to her last remaining, dare she say friend?

Lady Josephine sipped her tea as she mulled over Isabella’s predicament. “He has disparaged you to every family who has holidayed in Paris for a full year,” she replied.

Isabella rubbed the deepening crease between her eyebrows. “I shall abscond to America before I return to that god forsaken house.”

Lady Josephine sat the cup onto her saucer then placed the set on the table they sat around in the dining room. “You must invest a portion of your inheritance in land or some trade.”

“I have been researching—,” Isabella started.

“How? Who will speak with you?” Josephine’s face broke into a grin, “You don’t mean through your harlot do you?”

Isabella felt her face and throat flush. “She is not mine, though her acquaintance does afford me meetings I otherwise would not be able to secure in my current situation.”

Josephine nodded, “Fair point. You were always cleverer than Harcourt ever accredited you.”

“And thanks to him I have learned a shrewdness I did not know myself capable of,” Isabella mused, she turned a polite smile to her friend to soften the venom in the words.

“I wait with baited breath to witness the fruits of your machinations,” Josephine replied, “Unfortunately, I must take my leave.”

Isabella nodded and rose from her chair. She rested her elbows on the stiff pannier beneath her gown with her hands clasped together lightly. She followed her friend to the front door and waited as her butler, Richard, closed it behind her. With a small sigh, Isabella walked back toward her library. She leaned the side of her head against the door frame, both in support of the heavy wig on her head—which she had grown accustomed to not wearing—and the heavy thoughts swimming in her mind. She watched her daughter with the governess she had hired. She smiled as Sophia recited a mathematics lesson. It was admittedly unusual for a young woman to be taught topics generally reserved for the men, but Isabella would happily damn herself a thousand times over if it meant Sophia would never be forced to be beholden to anyone. She would free her daughter of that necessity so that she may dare to stand on equal footing with a suitor of her picking.

Sophia caught Isabella’s eye and sat straighter in her chair. The smile Isabella wore was one of pride and a kind of contentment of which she never dared dream. She winked at her daughter and slipped out so to not distract Sophia from her lesson any further. The house was quiet, despite the bustle of St. James Square. Isabella climbed the stairs to her bedroom and sat at the vanity where she began unpinning her hair from the wig. “Allow me, my Lady,” a voice over Isabella’s shoulder made her jump.

“Oh, Abigail, you startled me,” Isabella replied.

“Sorry ma’am,” the young girl replied as she worked on slipping the remaining pins from the tall brown wig.

“Oughtn’t you be in the lesson with Sophia?” Isabella asked.

“I was, your Ladyship,” Abigail replied as she placed the wig on its stand, “Miss Ayres had me copying lines while she tested Miss Sophia’s division. I finished quicker than she thought.”

Isabella’s heart swelled with pride at her newest charge. It had taken no small sum of money to find the young woman after she fled Golden Square but Isabella had been dogged in the pursuit. She could not erase what Harcourt had done but she was determined to make it right for the girl. Employing her as a lady’s maid for herself and her daughter, giving her a wage, and an education. It was the least she could do to ensure Abigail the chance to make the life she wanted for herself. “What would your Ladyship like to wear this afternoon?” Abigail interrupted Isabella’s thoughts.

“I haven’t the faintest, Abigail. Something far less involved than this. If you’ll just,” Isabella reached her arm over her back to try and loosen the bow keeping her held together.

Abigail quickly untied the knot and loosened the petticoat, letting it fall to the floor. Isabella sighed in relief. “I can do the rest, thank you, Abigail. You need to learn your maths as well. If Miss Ayres tries to avoid teaching you she’ll have to contend with me.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Abigail stifled a laugh and quickly hung the dress in Isabella’s armoire.

Left alone, Isabella sank tiredly onto the bed. This year of social isolation had left her unprepared for the vigor it took to entertain her peers. Now that she was coming out of her only partially self-imposed seclusion, Isabella found she had little stomach for unnecessary niceties simply to appeal to the vanity of the peerage. She blamed Charlotte. Her fingers unconsciously traced the line of her lower lip thinking of Charlotte. She shook herself and resumed stripping down to her corset and chemise. From the small chest at the foot of her four-post bed, Isabella pulled a pair of black pants. Her mother would be scandalized if she could see Isabella. She pulled the black velvet over her legs. She was quite pleased with her handiwork as she made the clothing herself. The shirt on the other hand was one of her father’s which she found folded away in a trunk in the attic.

Isabella tucked the front of the shirt loosely into the pants then slid on a pair of slippers. She casually unplaited her hair. Her fingers hung on a knot which she took the brush off her vanity to carefully work through. When she finished brushing out her long hair, she eyed her features in the mirror. There was a slight puffiness under her eyes that shone through the blanc smeared on her face. Isabella took a cloth from the side of her water bowl and wet it. She carefully swiped her face clean, vigilant to remove all the blanc and rouge. There was a time where viewing her skin clean of makeup left her with a bit of terror in her ribcage. Now, the fine lines around her lips and at the outer corners of her eyes simply spoke to her determination to survive. Her face, rid of its mask, finally felt like freedom.

The top half of her hair, Isabella braided loosely and wrapped a ribbon around base of the braid. She laughed at her reflection that looked more like a boy than an Heiress. Harcourt would be scandalized. Isabella bit back the bile that rose in her throat as she involuntarily flinched recalling his expressions of displeasure. She forced her eyes to look in the mirror and see her reflection alone there and took a shaky breath. Those moments grew fewer as the days had stretched to a year, but she was still haunted. She wondered briefly if she would ever truly be free. Isabella pushed away from the vanity. Her body floated separate from her mind as she made her way down the stairs toward the kitchen. “Ma’am?” the voice of her maid, Ginny, cut through the fog.

“May I have a cup of tea, please, Ginny?” Isabella smiled weakly.

Ginny nodded, “Take it in the library, ma’am?”

Isabella watched the small Irish woman fill a kettle with water and set it on the stove. She shook her head, “The girls are still having their lessons. The music room, I think.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Ginny replied with a smile.

The music room had become a solace and her main office since she turned the library over to the girls for their studies. With the help of Richard, her butler, Isabella had a desk from the library moved to the music room. She placed it in front of the wall lined with bookcases. One of the tufted white arm chairs was pulled up behind the desk to use in lieu of a wood chair as Isabella often found herself sitting at the desk for hours on end. The bookshelves behind the desk, she filled over months with her favorite literature along with music composition theory books and volumes of plays and poetry. The bookcases were a rich mahogany which matched her long, sleek desk. The opposite wall held her most priced possessions. Her harp, which she enlisted the help of a butler still in service at her brother’s house to secret to her home, stood next to her violoncello case. There was an ancient harpsichord she found on auction which she obtained for a song. It was terribly out of tune still and the wood was rough and splintered from lack of care for the instrument. The harpsichord was to be Isabella’s restoration project. Once she determined her investments and saw a return, it was the first thing she planned on having repaired.

Ginny pushed the music room door open further with her hip. She carried a tray with a cup and saucer and matching teapot in her hands. Once the tray was laid on the corner of the desk, Ginny pulled open the heavy forest green curtains covering the windows. Sunlight streamed through the glass warming the room immediately. She tied the curtains back with thick gold ropes. Isabella poured the tea into a cup while Ginny worked. The sound of a sugar cube plunking into the cup drew Ginny’s attention away from the bustle of St. James Square. “Anything else, ma’am?” she asked.

“No, Ginny, thank you. If you would like to sit for a while, I would not mind the company,” Isabella offered, “If you should like a cup to have some tea?”

Ginny smiled, “Thank you, ma’am, but I’ve supper to prepare for you and your guest this evening.”

Isabella’s cheeks flushed. She had forgotten. “Then thank you, Ginny.”

Ginny curtsied and closed the door to the music room behind her, leaving Isabella to her thoughts. The three floor to ceiling windows lining the outer wall of the music room showed carriages trotting up and down the street. In the distance she could see the greens of the trees in the park. Isabella blew over the top of her tea to cool it enough to drink. She picked up the small stack of papers on her desk and read them for the fifth time.

A small theatre off Drury Lane near Covent Garden. That was the object of her interest. A hundred pounds to buy the building. She knew without doubt the price was a gauge because of her disfavor. She had done the math a hundred times already. She knew what repairs needed doing, she knew the staff she would need to hire, she even had gotten in contact, through intermediaries of course, with a theatre troupe willing to be her first act once she was ready to open the doors. All that remained was signing the contract. That is where she hesitated. Once she did this she was committed, for better or worse, to a path she knew admittedly little about. It was a gamble and despite what she had her brother believe, she was not fond of risk—monetary or otherwise.

Isabella flung her long legs over one of the arms of the chair. She placed her cup back on its saucer and chewed her bottom lip as she again priced her tickets, employees, and repairs. One year, god willing, and she would be in the black. One more year and she would have her autonomy. Harcourt be damned. Isabella uprighted herself and dipped her quill in the inkpot.

Chapter Text

The sounds of pleasure drifted through the halls of the Wells house on Greek Street. It was a busy afternoon particularly for midweek. Charlotte thought to herself that perhaps if days like these kept, she could be able to buy the house she rented outright, become a property owner, and gain some legitimate social standing. Oh, she would not stop being a bawd. Whoring was the only trade she knew and as it turns out, she had a better business head on her shoulders than her Ma. No, that part of her vocation would never change and while she was a bawd she could at least ensure the Lydia Quigleys of the world had less of a monopoly. Some lines must never be crossed and Charlotte would see to it, by any means necessary, that no one would be forced to whoring. They came willingly or not at all. She merely provided a safe roof under which to ply their trade.

Charlotte Wells was a bawd and she was excellent at her role. It had surprised her this last year, how easily she transitioned from harlot to surrogate mother to the women in her employ. With the help of her Pa, she made repairs to their home: fixed the glass in the windows that Quigley’s men had broken, papered the walls in the parlor, applied new paint to all the whoring rooms and the upstairs hall, and stripped and stained the railing on the stairwell.

Allowing the Scanwells to remain in the house kept the justices out of Charlotte’s business and it was not terrible having Florence keeping tabs on Lydia during her stay in Bedlam. That is, once she enforced a rule that the woman was not allowed to shame or proselytize the culls. All in all, Charlotte was doing well for herself.

The stew Charlotte stirred on the stove smelled of exotic spices thanks to Prince Rasselas who visited sporadically to supply Charlotte with news and visit with Amelia Scanwell. Charlotte opened the beehive oven and stuck her hand in to gauge the temperature. She added another log to the fire then placed a tin with dough inside. Her cooking skills, at best, were mediocre. No one else in the house, though, seemed to know much beyond the correct way to slice bread. Despite Sukey’s past as a maid in a fancy house, she knew nothing of actual cookery. As such the task often fell to Charlotte. “That smells like heaven, Charlotte,” Fanny adjusted baby Kitty on her hip as she took a seat at the table.

Charlotte wiped her hands on the apron tied around her waist before adoringly tweaking the baby’s nose, eliciting a giggling fit. “It’ll be done by supper. I’m out tonight. Make sure ev’ryone eats?”

“Course,” Fanny replied as she tore a hunk of bread from the loaf on the table, “You seeing your Ladyship tonight?”

Charlotte nodded, long since having stopped correcting every member of the household that Isabella was not hers. “I’ll be back in the morning.”

“How come Ma never cooked like this for us when she was here?” Lucy plopped onto a chair next to Fanny at the table.

“Dunno, sprat, maybe ‘cause you didn’t appreciate ‘er,” Charlotte replied.

“Maybe,” William North interjected, “Because she was a terrible cook.”

“That’s more like,” Lucy agreed.

Slowly, the members of the house found their way to the kitchen, drawn by the intoxicating smells and the grumbling in their bellies. Charlotte looked around at her charges chatting with one another in the quiet between culls. They were plumper than they had been a year ago. Their clothes were nicer, the grooming better, and they seemed—she hoped—happier. She had feared that the scandals of the year would see them all destitute and desperate. It had the opposite effect, much to everyone’s surprise. The house of the hanged bawd, the sisters with a body count, and the thrill of rutting within earshot of the famed harlot turned zealot had opened them to a new clientele.

“When are you leaving?” Lucy asked.

“After I change,” Charlotte replied as she untied the apron from her waist.

Charlotte excused herself and made her way up the stairs. As she passed the room the girls all shared, she shouted, “Oi! Clean this mess ‘n keep the door closed. This ain’t a barn.”

There was a part of her that being a bawd brought out that Charlotte barely recognized. She knew it was from necessity, but she could not help but miss the carefree days of simply being a harlot. There was a thrill in controlling a cull while making them feel like they held the power, in negotiating her price, in flirting, and in fucking. Part of her envied Lucy and the other girls. She knew though, that she no longer had the stomach for all the pretending. Her time under Quigley’s roof stripped her of that particular talent.

Charlotte undid the laces of her dress to change into a gray silk hooded gown. Once tied in and secured, Charlotte sat down at her vanity. She applied a small amount of rouge to her cheeks and lips. Her small velvet beauty patch at the corner of her eye peeled at the edge which she reattached with a spot of glue. Charlotte wound her hair up in a high bun at the back of her head. She affixed several pieces of false hair to fill out the small egg shape at the crown of her head. A dab of pomade applied to a loose curl at the back of her neck completed the style.

Charlotte stood and looked herself over in the standing mirror in the corner of the room. She looked, almost like a Lady. “Coach’s here!” Jacob shouted up the stairs for Charlotte.

There was a moment where Charlotte wondered whether she was in over her head with Lady Isabella. As she walked down the stairs in her finery, she felt the familiar rise of nerves in her stomach. Her Pa stood next to Jacob—who had grown so quickly in the last year and was now nearly Charlotte’s height. She accepted a hug from her Pa then kissed Jacob on the top of his head. “See you in the morning, love,” William said.

“See ya, Pa. Sweet dreams, beansprout,” Charlotte rubbed the top of Jacob’s head before climbing into the waiting coach.

The path from Greek Street to St. James Square was well worn. Well worn, Charlotte mused, and that meant easy to intercept. The Spartans had been quiet for nearly a year but that did not mean they were gone. Charlotte had allowed herself to become complacent in the quiet months. Harcourt would not stay in Paris forever. Eventually he and the Spartans would come out from their hibernation. They needed to be prepared. Whether Isabella made the deal for the property off Drury Lane would likely speed his return. They needed to plan and protect themselves. Charlotte pinched the bridge of her nose as pain shot between her eyes. This was not a conversation she looked forward to having with Isabella.

When the coach stopped, Charlotte opened the door. The driver stepped down to help Charlotte out of the box and she tipped him sixpence. “Thanks, ma’am. I’ll be back at sun up like usual.”

“Thank you, James,” Charlotte replied.

The door to the house opened like clockwork just as Charlotte reached it. “Good evening, Miss Wells,” the butler moved to the side of the doorway to allow Charlotte entrance.

“Hullo, Richard,” Charlotte nodded.

“The Lady is in the library with Miss Sophia,” he explained.

Charlotte nodded and made her way down the hallway. As she approached, Ginny was exiting the library. “Miss Wells,” she curtsied and pulled the door open allowing Charlotte entrance.

“Thanks, Ginny.”

The smile that lit Isabella’s face sent Charlotte’s ribcage aflutter. Sophia rose quickly from the divan to wrap Charlotte in a hug. “Bonjour, Charlotte,” Sophia grinned.

“Hullo little minnow,” Charlotte replied squeezing the teenager to her side.

Sophia rolled her eyes at the sobriquet. Isabella watched her two loves interact and felt her heart fill to bursting with affection. Charlotte took a turn rolling her eyes, “I feel you watchin’, Bella.”

“Am I not allowed to admire my two favorite individuals?” Isabella replied with feigned offense.

“You may do as you like, but be prepared for the consequences, your Ladyship,” Charlotte retorted.

“And I shall take my leave,” Sophia interrupted.

Charlotte and Isabella shared a laugh as Sophia gathered her book and scurried from the library. Charlotte’s eyes raked over Isabella clad in men’s clothing. The corner of her lip quirked, “You look a tasty morsel,” she said.

Isabella rose from the couch in a motion so smooth she may as well have been silk blowing on a breeze. She cupped Charlotte’s cheek then bent to place a soft kiss on Charlotte’s lips. Charlotte felt herself sigh under the tender touch. When Isabella pulled back, she pulled the corner of her bottom lip into her teeth and smiled down at Charlotte. Charlotte’s eyebrows scrunched together, “You’ve signed them, haven’t you?”

Isabella nodded, her face breaking into a full grin. “I am equal parts excitement and terror.”

Charlotte took hold of Isabella’s hands and laid a kiss on the knuckles of each. “Then we must celebrate.”

Isabella hummed in response. Charlotte moved to a table behind an oversized desk and poured a finger of scotch into two small crystal glasses. The scotch, Isabella had procured specifically for Charlotte who liked her liquor stronger than Isabella. Charlotte held a glass out toward Isabella to take which she did. “Congratulations, my Lady,” Charlotte delicately tinged her glass against Isabella’s.

They both drank the amber liquid in one swallow. Charlotte luxuriated in the radiant warmth that ran through her body. She chuckled at the grimace Isabella wore, still unused to stronger spirits. Charlotte took the glass from Isabella and placed it on the table by the divan. She smoothed her hands down the front of her dress, reveling in the cool, softness of the material. She felt the Lady’s eyes on her back so she quickly turned with a smile. She watched Isabella register the hesitancy in Charlotte’s posture which made her straighten minutely. Before Isabella could ask, a knock at the door interrupted them. “Supper is ready, my Lady,” Abigail dipped her head toward the woman and turned a nearly hidden glare at Charlotte, “Miss Wells.”

The girl did not forgive Charlotte and Charlotte did not blame her. She felt she deserved every ounce of vitriol and more that the girl could show her. Charlotte could never make amends for what was done to Abigail. She knew that. It was one of only a handful of things Charlotte regretted in her life. Isabella’s soft touch on her arm drew Charlotte’s mind back. She placed her hand atop the Lady’s and allowed herself to be led to the dining room. Dinner was a roasted pheasant and root vegetables. Charlotte listened while Sophia told her mother about the day’s lessons. The pair flitted easily between English and French, the sounds lulled Charlotte into a bit of a stupor. Isabella’s voice was melodic and gentle. Sophia spoke with a similar affect except her voice was more soprano where Isabella’s was an alto.

Charlotte started when Sophia pushed away from the table and came to squeeze Charlotte’s shoulders, “Bonne nuit, Charlotte.”

“G’night, Soph,” Charlotte smiled distractedly.

Charlotte turned her focus to Isabella who sipped from her wine glass. Isabella sat the goblet on the table and folded her hands neatly in front of her, “You are a million miles from here, my darling. What troubles you?”

Charlotte thanked Ginny as she took the plate from her and waited until the woman had left the room before taking her wine glass to sit next to Isabella at the long table. “If your brother were to come back from France tonight, we’d be in for it.”

Charlotte watched Isabella straighten and the mask perfected for nearly 30 years descend upon her features. Charlotte instinctively reached out to draw Isabella back. She laid her hand on Isabella’s and moved her head into the taller woman’s line of sight, “I just want you to be prepared, Bella. Your autonomy will hasten his return.”

Isabella turned her gaze back to the wall at the far end of the room with a sigh, “Lady Josephine implied as much today as well.”

The hand beneath Charlotte’s trembled. It was the first in months that Charlotte saw the familiar naked fear in Isabella’s eyes barely contained behind a façade of calm. “I cannot be reduced to a trembling child at every mention of his return,” Isabella’s eyes welled.

Charlotte felt her heart break in her chest. She stood and pulled Isabella up with her. Charlotte wrapped her arms tightly around Isabella’s waist. Isabella leaned her head against Charlotte’s shoulder. Charlotte felt warmth there as tears spilled from the Lady’s eyes. “We’ll be ready for ‘im, Bella,” Charlotte shrugged Isabella’s head off her shoulder and ran her thumbs lightly under Isabella’s eyes, “I’ll not let ‘im harm you or Soph.”

Chapter Text

Isabella stood across the street from the theatre and shielded her eyes from the blazing late summer sun. The theatre. Her theatre. A thrill of joy and apprehension coursed through her body. “Lady Fitzwilliam?” the bass voice behind her made her turn.

William North and ten strong looking men crossed the avenue toward her. She smiled, “Mr. North, good morning.”

“Good morning, Lady Fitzwilliam,” he bowed his head slightly which she acknowledged with a lowering of her own head.

It was not often that Isabella interacted with Charlotte’s father without her nearby and she found herself a little nervous—as a suitor might. The thought made laughter bubble in her chest, which she attributed instead to the undertaking standing before her. “Shall we, Mr. North?” Isabella motioned toward the building.

A thin, nervous looking man waited for them by the door. He shifted uncomfortably at the sight of Isabella’s companions. William stood a step back and to the side of Isabella who extended her hand to the man. His eyes darted over her shoulder to the men. Isabella raised her perfectly manicured eyebrow, “Is there a problem, Mr. Winter? Did you not receive the payment from the bank this morning?”

Mr. Winter swallowed, “I didn’t know you’d be coming with so many people.”

“And what does the nature of my company matter to you?” Isabella clasped her hands lightly in front of her.

The man opened then closed his mouth. Isabella sighed, “Did you think to intimidate me?”

At this, he looked at Isabella. He sucked his teeth and offered the key to the Lady. “Your help,” he sneered, “Won’t always be around. The Marquess of Blayne sends his best wishes on your new endeavor,” Mr. Winter patted his pocket.

Isabella’s eyes moved from the motion to Mr. Winter’s face. A knot of fear rose in her throat, Isabella plucked the key from his hand. Isabella felt a presence at her side. “Would you like the weasel removed from your property, my Lady?” William asked.

When he stepped up next to Isabella, she had not noticed, her attempts to settle her nerves took more attention than she realized. She tasted bile in her throat and forced herself to look at William North, strong and tall at her side, “That won’t be necessary,” she looked back at the squirrely man in front of her, “Mr. Winter won’t be troubling us again,” Isabella marshalled her will to glare at the man stood between her and her livelihood.

Isabella watched Mr. Winter scurry from the steps and push his way through the crowd of men. As she watched his head disappear around a corner, she felt her posture dip slightly in relief. She turned a quiet smile to William before turning the key to open the door. She moved to one side of the door as William took to the other and opened the heavy drapes flanking the entry. Light shone in. The sight made Isabella gasp. William muttered a soft, “Shite.”

The doors leading to the auditorium leaned against the wall, removed from their hinges, showing Isabella the gallery. Seats were torn from the floor and strewn about. Boards were ripped from the stairwells leading to the boxes. Shattered glass and sand were scattered all over the stage. Isabella felt her heart drop straight to her toes. As she turned, glass crunched beneath her feet. Isabella looked at the window. The large cathedral style pane was jagged at the edges where someone had smashed it to pieces. The woman felt her knees weaken. She put her hand out against the wall to steady herself. Strong hands grasped her elbow. William’s face was determined and held a tinge of what Isabella might call rage. It caused something in her to crack. Her voice squeaked as she tried to speak. William shook his head, “We just need more men, your Ladyship.”

She nodded and straightened. William released her arm and turned to a tall, young man, “Go ‘round the pub and bring another ten men,” he commanded.

Jacob pushed his way through the men gathered in the frame of the great double doors and whistled at the mess. Isabella watched William look at the boy and nod out the door. He disappeared before she could fully process what kind of unspoken conversation passed between them. The flurry of activity gave Isabella the separation she needed to gather her strength again. She ran her damp palms down the front of her gown and began exploring, what could only be called, the wreckage. The men began their work, at William’s direction. Isabella opened the remaining curtains flanking the entryway, revealing more and more of the mess her brother wrought.

Isabella pressed her fingers against the key in her pocket. No matter what was ahead of her, it was hers. Her destiny, for the first time in her life, was in her hands. She shook her arms at her sides and breathed deep searching for the wells of strength she knew lay inside her. Her eyes traced the lines of the structure of the theatre. The damage was superficial. The men her brother hired had not laid ruin to the bones of the building. She drew solace in the knowledge that all could be repaired. To her left, she saw a crooked golden plaque on a door that read, “Manager’s Office.” She tiptoed carefully through the debris and pushed open the door. The room was mostly intact. A tall backed leather chair with knife slashes on the back stood in front of the desk. Isabella ran her hand across the top of the chair as her eyes took in the desk. A note with her name on it in Harcourt’s ornate cursive sat on the center of the desk.

There was a fine trembling in her hand as she plucked the letter from the desk. Isabella slid her finger under the melted wax of the Fitzwilliam seal. Her jaw clenched as she unfolded the parchment.

My Dearest Izzy,
Congratulations on your newest endeavor. News of your impending purchase reached my ears in Paris and so I immediately booked a return home. I must support my darling sister as she spreads her wings. I hope they are not clipped from reaching too wide. It would be such an unfortunate circumstance should your first investment fail. I will pray that you achieve naught but success in all you do. Give Sophia my love. I shall see her and you soon.

Your Brother,
Harcourt Fitzwilliam

Isabella carefully folded the letter. She dazed staring at the wall in front of her. Isabella lost all track of time and space as her mind floated above her body and left her empty shell sitting below her. “Bella.”

Soft fingers grasped her shoulder. Isabella’s hand moved involuntarily to cover Charlotte’s. She closed her eyes and lifted the letter over her shoulder. Charlotte took the letter and read it to herself. Isabella felt Charlotte’s hands slide around her waist distantly as if through a fog. She felt adrift at sea. Vaguely, she felt herself straighten. There was a haze over her vision even as she looked at Charlotte. “Fuck Harcourt,” Isabella heard herself say the words but started at Charlotte’s eyebrows climbing straight to her hairline and the laugh that filled the small office.

A laugh tumbled out. Isabella clutched Charlotte’s hand lightly and laid a kiss on the woman’s palm. Charlotte followed Isabella out to the auditorium. William’s crew was already busy setting up their tools and clearing pathways in which to work. Once again Isabella felt the sting of tears in her eyes. Charlotte took in, for the first time, the extent of the damage. “Christ,” she muttered.

Isabella turned to look at the woman beside her. “You feel your money is not being well spent. I can reimburse you for your father’s services if you wish to back out of the bargain.”

“No,” Charlotte replied firmly, “No, I am invested.”

“Then let’s discuss with your Pa, what space you require.”

_________________________

Isabella sank tiredly onto the couch in the parlor of her home. Sophia spoke excitedly about her day and it was all Isabella could do to keep her eyes pried open. “Mama, perhaps you should retire for the evening. You look absolutely spent,” Sophia said, finally registering her mother’s exhaustion.

“I did not expect to be quite so drained, though perhaps I should have,” Isabella pinched her daughter’s chin as she spoke.

“Supper is ready, my Ladies,” Ginny curtsied and just as quickly left the room.

“If you would not think me terribly dull, I will leave you to your own entertainment after supper tonight,” Isabella sighed.

Sophia helped her mother stand. “Of course not,” she replied.

“I am the luckiest mother on the earth,” Isabella added.

“Of that we can both be certain,” Sophia responded with a grin.

Supper was eaten in relative quiet, Isabella’s thoughts were consumed by Harcourt’s letter and the extent of the repairs required. When Sophia bade her goodnight, Isabella poured herself a second glass of wine which she carried with her to her rooms. She sipped the drink as Abigail unpinned her hair from the brown wig. Isabella watched Abigail hang her dress in the cabinet next to her others. She inhaled her first truly deep breath of the day as her chest was released from its cage. “Thank you, Abigail,” she said while the girl placed the corset in a drawer.

Abigail curtsied then closed the door behind her, leaving Isabella fully to herself. She drained the last of her wine then sat the glass on a small table beside her chaise lounge beneath the window that overlooked St. James Square. She pulled the curtain back and leaned her head against the cool glass. She watched a light smattering of rain tap against the pane. Lightning ignited the sky in flashes, revealing coaches quickly crossing the Square. She could barely make out the forms of the drivers hurrying their horses along and, she hoped, out of the rain.

Her eyes followed the light from the oil lanterns along the side of the avenue. The darkness between the buildings was absolute. In a flash of lightning she saw the outline of a man staring up at her window. Isabella started. She pressed her forehead against the glass and squinted in the direction of the alley waiting for another lightning strike to illuminate. The next strike revealed an empty alley. Isabella shook herself and closed the drapery. Between the day’s events, the wine, and her overactive imagination, she renounced the sighting as her imagination playing tricks on her.

Isabella sank tiredly into the bed. She pulled the covers up around her neck. There was a slight chill in the air brought on by the rain for which she said a silent prayer of thanks. She required the weight and protection the blankets offered to lull her to drowse. It did not take long for Isabella to find sleep. Though as quickly as slumber took her, dreams began. Nebulous hands grasped at her neck. She twitched in her sleep, a small whimper pushing through her closed lips. More hands than she could number grabbed and ripped and pressed against her. Isabella shifted and contorted on the bed in response. Her throat tightened in an unexpressed scream.

Through the dream haze, Harcourt’s face materialized in front of her. Isabella shot up in bed amidst a shriek. Her fist clenched around the covers clutched to her chest. Her eyes darted around the darkened room, desperate for focus. The knock on her door drew her eyes and she found herself wholly unable to reply to Sophia’s frightened voice. The door cracked and candlelight filled the room, illuminating Sophia’s golden hair just enough like her brother’s to send her heart back to hammering. Isabella willed her mind to cooperate. “Maman, ce qui ne va pas?” Sophia’s voice held a twinge of fear that became an immediate balm to Isabella’s frayed nerves.

Isabella took a stuttering breath, “Nothing is wrong, my angel. I simply had a frightening dream,” Isabella forced a smile onto her face.

Sophia came to stand beside the bed. Isabella’s hair was sweat soaked and plastered to her cheeks. Sophia placed the candlestick on the table next to the bed. Isabella ran her hands over her hair and pulled it back off her neck. The cool air hitting her skin drew her further onto solid ground. Sophia sat on the edge of the bed. She did not know what to say to comfort her mother.

The nightmares had diminished over the year. Now, instead of being woken from sleep once a week, it was once every several months. Sophia could not help but worry about her mother and this undertaking. “Whatever dark thoughts are crinkling your brow will leave marks upon your face, my angel,” Isabella pressed her thumb into the crease between Sophia’s eyebrows, Isabella held Sophia’s chin between her fingers, “I am sorry I woke you. I am fine now. Will you be able to go back to sleep?”

“Yes, mama,” Sophia replied.

“I love you, Sophia,” Isabella kissed Sophia’s forehead, “May your dreams be naught but sweet.”

“And yours,” Sophia replied as she stood up from the bed.

She pulled the door closed behind her and tiptoed to her rooms at the other end of the upstairs hallway. Abigail waited for Sophia in front of the girl’s bedroom. “Is the Lady all right?” Abigail asked.

Sophia nodded, “She is fine. It was just a nightmare.”

Abigail nodded. Her own sleep was often tormented by Harcourt. While she had no notion of the content of Isabella’s dreams, her heart swelled in sympathy at growing up with the Marquess. Her brief night was more than enough to damn her, she could not imagine... Abigail shook the thoughts from her mind. Abigail jolted to find Sophia staring at her. “I’m sorry milady, do you need anything before I return to bed?”

“No, thank you, Abigail,” Sophia replied, “Will you be well?”

Abigail squinted but nodded quickly. Sophia squeezed Abigail’s shoulder, “Good night then, Abigail.”

Chapter Text

Violet Cross was fast becoming known throughout London as the best spy to those looking for someone with her skill set. A whore, a fingersmith, and an excellent liar: the talents she cultivated served her in much the same way the talents cultivated by the fancy ladies in St. James Square. She had endeared herself to as many as she was a thorn in the side of others. She fancied herself a bit of a pirate on land rather than sea. Back under Nancy’s roof in Angel Court, Violet was able to use the guise of simple harlot to maneuver secrets from whom she needed information. She had become indispensable to former Justice Hunt who had made it his personal vendetta to track down and destroy—legally of course—those Spartans who had slipped through his fingers.

When the missive came from Greek Street, Violet pulled her hood over her head and set out in the early morning hours to see what the Wellses could possibly want from her. She traversed the allies with deftness despite the darkness lingering from the low morning sun, if there even was any from what she could tell. Instinctually, she peeked her head out from the alley to glance up and down Greek Street before stepping onto the paved road. The heavy, black door swung open as she approached. Florence Scanwell straightened her bonnet as she exited the building. Violet fought the eyeroll and instead smiled at the woman who she knew was aware of her silhouette. Violet wondered how much Florence was actually able to see on more than one occasion. She suspected it was significantly more than she let on, content to keep her daughter pinned to her side. Not out of truly ill will, Violet thought, but certainly out of a desire to keep her daughter untangled from the many sins surrounding them.

Florence pretended not to see Violet or legitimately did not see the woman, Violet assumed the former. It did not bother her in the slightest. She waited until Florence was at the end of the street before clapping the knocker against the door. She glanced in Florence’s direction and noted with a grin, Florence’s head inclined to the sound. The door opened after several seconds. William North was dressed in his work clothes. He wore long, thick, brown breeches and a navy hunting shirt. “Miss Cross, Charlotte’ll be wanting to speak with you in the kitchen,” he greeted and stepped aside.

Violet squeezed William’s shoulder as she passed him. He placed his hat on his head then exited. The door closed behind him as she passed by the stairs to the kitchen. Charlotte stood over the stove stirring a pot of what Violet assumed to be porridge. A container of honey sat on the table. Charlotte smiled and nodded for Violet to sit. “’ave you eaten?” she asked.

“Not yet,” Violet replied as she sat down.

Charlotte nodded and wordlessly picked up a bowl from the counter next to her and ladled in some porridge which she handed to Violet, “Honey if you want it,” Charlotte gestured, “A cull brought it for Fanny. She graciously shared with us.”

Violet spooned a bit of honey onto her porridge and stirred quietly while Charlotte prepared her own bowl and sat across from Violet at the table. It was good porridge which surprised her. Seeing Charlotte in a more matronly role was something Violet still had not wrapped her head around though Charlotte had made the transition seamlessly enough. “While I appreciate it if you invited me here just to feed me, I doubt the likelihood of that,” Violet said around bites of her breakfast.

Charlotte smiled then. It was an apologetic smile tinged with a bit of sadness. Violet knew instantly it had to do with her Lady. Which meant it was not her whoring skills for which Charlotte had sent. “What do you need me to find out then?” Violet asked.

“The Marquess of Blayne is back in London. He’s threatened the Lady Fitzwilliam an’ her daugh’er. Your Justice Hunt’ll want ‘im,” Charlotte folded her hands on the table as she spoke.

“He ordered Lord Fallon to kill my Amelia. I want him,” Violet replied.

Charlotte smiled again, this time one of delight. “I’d hoped you’d say that.”

“We’ll work with Hunt up until the point that I can put my hands around his neck,” Violet added before resuming her breakfast.

That afternoon brought Violet to the theatre on Drury Lane. William and his men were making quick work of repairs. Charlotte had told her the extent of the damage Harcourt had paid to inflict. By her count, twenty men worked around the building. It would make sneaking in impossible and Charlotte had been very specific that Isabella must not find out she had hired her. “Miss Cross.”

Violet turned around to see former Justice Hunt approaching with his tricorn hat in his hands. She quickly linked her arm around his and diverted him to walk with her around the block. “W-what are you doing?” he asked.

“Mr. Hunt, do you know who owns that theatre now?” Violet motioned with her head.

Josiah looked around Violet’s shoulder at the building and the men working there. He saw William and Jacob North. “From the looks of it, I would say your friend Charlotte Wells. But I don’t imagine she has the funds for such an endeavor.”

Violet pulled him toward the park on the far end of the lane. “Lady Isabella Fitzwilliam is the new owner of the theatre.”

“So she has made an investment, of w-what interest is that t-to us, Miss Cross?” Josiah shook his head.

“Her brother the Marquess of Blayne has sent her a threatening letter and informed her of his imminent return,” Violet laughed loudly and patted Josiah’s arm as a small group of men approached them.

Josiah smiled politely as they passed. Once they were out of earshot, he replied, “And who has procured our employment? Miss Wells or Lady Fitzwilliam?”

Violet smiled and leaned against Josiah’s arm as a lover might as more people passed them by. “Miss Wells has hired us to find the Marquess and build a case against him without the Lady’s knowledge.”

“Without L-lady Isabella’s knowledge?” Josiah’s eyebrows scrunched together in a way that Violet knew all too well.

“For all his faults and evils, he is still her brother and she cannot bear to be the one to tie the noose around his neck. Though I don’t believe she will fight it once it is there,” Violet explained, “I will come back once the men have all gone and see if I can find any clues in the building. Charlotte said the letter will be in the office, the Lady Fitzwilliam did not take it home with her. William North has been instructed to leave a door open for me to go inside. It ain’t illegal if I’ve been let in. You should come. I’ll be here at sundown.”

With that, Violet released Josiah’s arm and continued through the park while he mulled over the invitation. She was not certain whether he would feel this too near an illegality. It would help, if the damage was as severe as Charlotte explained, to have a second or even third set of eyes on the place. Her eyes lit at the notion and she made her way leisurely back to Greek Street. She strolled with her arms behind her back, taking time to stop at stalls in the market along the way.

Arms filled with a loaf of bread and a bag filled with sweets is how Violet arrived back at the Wells house on Greek Street. “Violet!” Fanny greeted with a welcoming grin.

“Morning Fan,” Violet replied and handed the loaf of bread to Fanny, “For you and the girls to go with your honey.”

Fanny’s face flushed, “Mr. Armitage brought it to me. Felt too decadent to keep to meself.”

“It’s a lovely gift and you deserve it, Fanny,” Violet added then remembered the bag of sweeties, “These are for Kitty.”

“Thanks Violet,” Fanny grinned.

“Amelia up yet?” Violet asked as they moved to the bottom of the stairs.

Fanny shrugged, “I ain’t seen her yet. Might be she’s still prayin’.”

Violet nodded and squeezed Fanny’s arm lightly before ascending the stairs. It was early enough still that culls had not started filtering in. Violet knew that Amelia liked to be out of the house before their arrival. Not out of discomfort like she had originally assumed, but out of respect for the girls and not wanting them to feel uncomfortable. Amelia was everything Violet imagined church goers ought to be and as Amelia had taught her to read using the bible, everything Jesus had taught that one ought to be. The thought made her lips quirk in a smile. Her light knock at Amelia’s door brought a small, “Come in.”

Violet pushed the door open to find Amelia tying the fabric around her waist. “I heard you downstairs with Fanny,” she smiled.

“And so you got dressed instead of the opposite?” Violet smirked.

Pink appeared on Amelia’s cheeks in a manner so endearing that Violet could not help but pepper those cheeks with tiny kisses. “What on earth was I thinking?” Amelia giggled.

“Obviously you weren’t,” Violet replied as she guided Amelia to sit on her lap on the bed, “In seriousness though, I would like to invite you on a job. You said you wanted to learn. Tonight?”

“Truly?” Amelia smiled, “I’d love little more!”

“Meet me at Angel Court just after supper and I’ll have some clothes for you,” Violet replied between kisses down Amelia’s neck.

“Mmm-hmm,” Amelia replied absently.

She jolted when Violet’s hands suddenly left her person. She saw Violet’s raised eyebrow and rolled her eyes, “Angel Court just after supper. Much as you like to think your kisses render me senseless, I can still hold a thought.”

“Was that a challenge, Miss Scanwell?”

___________________________

Violet uncovered her head from the hood which hid it as she opened the backstage door to the theatre. Her hair was pulled back in a high bun on top of her head. She nodded and Josiah and Amelia appeared from the shadows of the alley to join her inside. Months ago she would have balked if someone would have told her that she would be working with Josiah and Amelia. Josiah handled his broken engagement with dignity befitting a Justice. She wondered often what Amelia had told him to keep them on such good terms. Violet shook the thoughts from her head.

“Miss Scanwell, you should go with Violet until you get a grasp on the kinds of things we will be searching for. I w-will search the front of house area and obtain the letter from the office,” Josiah provided the ladies with orders.

Violet nodded and felt Amelia’s questioning eyes on her. She knew without the question being stated what the woman wondered. Once Josiah disappeared in the direction of the auditorium, she turned to Amelia, “He was a Justice and knows the kind of evidence we need in this situation. He knows I work for myself now but in this he is the one with the expertise.”

Amelia nodded and followed Violet as she picked her way through piles of debris. The weighted bags for pulling the curtains all laid slit open amid piles of sand. Violet pointed at the scattered sand around them, “Steer clear so you don’t leave footprints. We must be as ghosts.”

“Ghosts, right,” Amelia muttered as she stepped lightly around the sandbags.

Violet snickered. It was near pitch black further in the building. She reached in the pocket of her black breeches for her firesteel and flint. Amelia brought a candle from the wall. Violet said a silent prayer to the fire gods and struck the flint against her steel knuckles. The fifth attempt graciously sent enough of a spark to light the wick. Violet quickly scanned the room for a candlestick and another candle. “Don’t move,” she instructed Amelia as she took the candle from her and carefully made her way across the room to light a second candle and place the first in a holder.

She carried both back to Amelia and resumed their search. It was quiet save for the squeaking of wood beneath their feet. The large space behind the stage opened to a long hallway with four doors lining it. Violet and Amelia opened the doors on opposite sides of the hallway. Both rooms were large enough to fit five people comfortably. The mirrors lining one wall were smashed and a giant wardrobe with the doors torn off the hinges stood on the other side in both rooms. They came, at last, to the end of the hallway. Violet opened a door marked Male Lead while Amelia opened one marked Female Lead. Amelia found a room significantly larger with a couch, a mirror and vanity, and a large wardrobe. Violet stalled outside the door she opened. When she felt Amelia turn, she held up her hand quickly to stop the woman, “Go carefully get Josiah.”

Violet held the candlestick high above her head after she heard Amelia’s footsteps depart. Hung from a noose in the center of the room was a lamb with a long slit down its belly. Blood pooled beneath the animal. Violet covered her mouth and nose with one hand and continued looking around the room. Something glinted in the light on the vanity. Violet stepped carefully around the puddle. A knife with a plain gold hilt and swooping forward curved blade was jammed into the tabletop, a matching plain gold sheath sat next to the small sword.

Chapter Text

William North rubbed his hand across the stubble quickly growing on his chin. He watched as one of his workers cut the sheep from the rope it hung by. “At least the meat does not look spoiled,” Isabella offered.

He turned a raised brow toward the woman, “Your ladyship?”

She shrugged, “What am I to do? Go into hysterics at every act of intimidation my brother places in front of me?” she sighed, “On another day, perhaps.”

William appraised Isabella’s face. She did seem to have darker bags under her eyes than usual. If someone had told him that a marchioness would come to be almost as family to him, he would have first punched them for their audacity then laughed in their faces. Yet, here he was with what appeared to be a third daughter. His neck cracked as he rolled it. “As the Lady says, see if there is meat still good there.”

“And divide it amongst yourselves however you see fit,” Isabella added as the young man exited the room.

“Yes, your Ladyship,” the young man replied.

“It is lucky you found this today before it started to smell. I didn’t think you planned to work behind the stage for another week,” Isabella said.

William sighed, “I was made aware of it by former Justice Hunt and Violet Cross.”

Isabella pursed her lips, “And how did they come about it?” her arms crossed over her chest reflexively.

“Charlotte hired Violet to discover your brother’s plans.”

Isabella inhaled slowly, pushing past the growing pain in her temples, “And what else has your daughter taken upon herself to do? Perhaps hire someone to watch me in my own home?”

William raised his hands, “I’m not looking to be in the middle of this. You should take it up with her when you see her tonight.”

“You are right, I’m sorry Mr. North. I should not take my grievances out on you,” Isabella rubbed the point on her temple that throbbed with her pulse.

Isabella excused herself and returned to the office. She sat down in the chair. Rationally, Isabella understood Charlotte’s thoughts in hiring people to investigate her brother’s schemes. It was the subterfuge which made her head throb. It was a good idea to have someone working to uncover Harcourt’s plots before they occurred. She should have thought of it herself.

The pain travelled down behind Isabella’s eyelids. She took a deep breath and closed her eyes. She would give Charlotte the opportunity to explain herself. Perhaps there was a valid reason for keeping her in the dark. They had just gotten to steadier ground after both impulsively made decisions that wound up hurting the other. She liked to think that they had learned and would not repeat the same mistakes. The first of hers which she determined not to repeat was of assuming selfish intent on the part of her lover.

With each breath, Isabella felt the pain in her head subside. It was yet early morning and the day ahead held plentiful activities for her to complete. Prince Rasselas, much done with the Quigleys, had offered his services in finding an acting troupe willing to work with harlots on stage. The meeting was to begin in an hour. So, she set about reorganizing the office space. She had yet to hire a manager and would be performing the duties until such a time as she found someone reliable.

Isabella lit the candlesticks sitting atop the cabinets and opened the door. She leaned her head out to see if one of William’s men could assist her in moving the desk. She called to a young man just finished nailing a board into the box office wall. He helped her to swing the desk around so that the person occupying the seat could face the office door rather than have their backs to it. It also served to hide the slices on the back of the plush leather chair which she had not yet mended. Isabella instructed the young man to move the empty bookcases behind the desk and help her move the two stuffed arm chairs to face the desk. When they finished, she thanked the man and gave him an extra shilling for taking the time to assist. “You needn’t do ‘at, your Ladyship. We’re paid well enough,” he replied.

“Take it anyway for my pulling you away from your duties,” she insisted.

“Thank you, your Ladyship,” he replied before returning to his task.

When Prince Rasselas arrived, Isabella had her back to the door placing books on the shelves. He cleared his throat and knocked on the open door. Isabella turned with a professional smile on her face and offered her hand to him instinctively. He took her hand and kissed the back of it. “Your Ladyship, may I present to you, Mr. Hobbs,” he said as he released her hand and stepped to the side in one smooth motion.

“Mr. Hobbs,” Isabella inclined her head.

He copied Rasselas’ bow and kiss. She motioned toward the seats in front of her desk, “Please, let us discuss your acting troupe.”

Mr. Hobbs was amicable enough. He said his troupe toured the English countryside in the last year and consisted of four men. They often had to either recruit locals or have their actors play multiple roles for whatever show they performed. Isabella watched the redheaded man speak with sweeping hand gestures and a smile that bespoke the passion he had for his craft. When he finished, Isabella asked bluntly, “And do you have any qualms with sharing the stage with harlots?”

“My Lady,” Mr. Hobbs met Isabella’s eyes directly, “We all must do what we must to survive. For a chance at working in a theatre on Drury Lane, we will work with whomever you ask and treat them as if they were members of our troupe from the start.”

Isabella weighed his words for truth, “You will not be permitted to bed them as a form of payment for your services.”

Mr. Hobbs glanced over at Rasselas next to him who bit back a smile. He turned back to Isabella whose eyebrows were knitted, “With all due respect, my Lady, I am certain they are lovely women, but they are of no interest to myself or my troupe.”

Isabella’s lip twitched in a smirk, “Ah. Then I will draft your contracts. We can begin rehearsals as soon as Mr. North finishes the stage repairs. I would like you to come tomorrow with three options of plays you would like to perform so that I may decide between them. If you find the terms of the contract amenable, we will not waste time starting.”

“Lady, if it’s all the same to you, I can tell you the three plays now,” Mr. Hobbs offered.

“By all means,” Isabella replied and pulled the quill on her desk from its inkwell.

As he spoke, she copied the names. Hobbs leaned forward to watch her write as he listed, “Venice Preserved, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and The Roaring Girl. We have performed each with some regularity. And it would not be terribly difficult for the women joining us to learn the lines. Who would be deciding on the roles?”

Isabella considered for a moment, she put the quill back in the well then folded her hands on her lap, “I believe it should be a collaboration with the final word belonging to you. It is your area of expertise. You should be an adequate judge on role dispersal.”

Rasselas did not curb the snicker that pushed past his closed lips. Isabella rolled her eyes playfully, “I shall break the news to Charlotte and ensure she does not over interfere.”

Mr. Hobbs looked between the two of them and their private jest. Isabella rose from her seat, “I will look over the plays and ensure the contracts are ready for your perusal.”

“Of course, your Ladyship. I’ll bring the boys with me tomorrow,” he replied.

“I will send word to have your actresses join us as well.”

_________________________

Isabella straightened the stack of contracts before closing the leather pouch to protect them. She leaned back in the tall backed chair in her music room. She propped her long legs, clad now in soft brown velour breeches, up on the desk and crossed them at the ankle. A book sat next to the pouch which she picked up and continued reading. That was how Charlotte found her some twenty minutes later. Isabella placed a strip of paper between the pages of the book and took her legs off the desk. Charlotte looked cowed. It was evident to Isabella that Mr. North warned Charlotte about her knowing of Charlotte’s scheming. Isabella laid the book on the desk and motioned for Charlotte to join her on the divan. Charlotte sat down and stared at her folded hands.

The behavior was jarringly unlike Charlotte. It made anxiety trickle through Isabella’s chest like ice water. “It wasn’t my intent to outright deceive you, Bella,” Charlotte started.

“But your intent was clandestine in nature?” Isabella inferred from what remained unsaid.

Charlotte stared at the thick curtains covering the windows opposite them. She nodded. Isabella angled her body toward Charlotte and waited for her to continue. “I should’ve said what I was plannin’. I just didn’t want you caught up if your prig of a brother found out I was ‘avin’ ‘im watched.”

“Did you also hire someone to watch me?” Isabella asked.

“No, course not,” Charlotte shook her head passionately.

Isabella chewed on her lower lip. Charlotte straightened, “Is someone followin’ you?”

“I am unsure,” Isabella shrugged, “I thought I saw someone watching the house from the street two nights past, but it could’ve easily been a trick of the light,” Isabella waved her hand dismissively.

Charlotte considered hiring someone to watch the house. It was not a terrible idea. Isabella rolled her eyes, an action more Charlotte than the Lady, “Do not hire someone to watch my home, please,” Isabella traced the pad of her thumb across Charlotte’s temple, “Stop those particular wheels from turning.”

“All right, all right,” Charlotte raised her hands with a grin.

For the first time since arriving, Charlotte took in Isabella’s countenance. Dark circles rimmed her eyes. “Ain’t been sleepin’?” Charlotte asked.

Isabella smiled reflexively and ran her fingers over the soft fabric covering her lap. Charlotte placed her hands atop Isabella’s, stilling the motion. Charlotte had been witness, on more than one occasion, to Isabella’s nightmares. Charlotte pulled Isabella’s hands to her lips then placed soft kisses across her knuckles. “I’ll check on dinner and have Abigail start heating water for you for after.”

Isabella sank back against the cushions of the divan after the door clicked softly closed behind Charlotte. “Oi, Minnow,” she heard Charlotte call to Sophia but could not make out any further conversation.

The skin beneath her right eye began jumping as if possessed. Isabella pressed against the spot. She pushed herself off the seat and returned to her desk. The play, The Roaring Girl, was perhaps a bit on the nose but Isabella found herself pleasantly entertained. An additional merit in the play’s worth was that it would not take a terrible amount of stretching for Charlotte’s girls to play the roles. Isabella sighed and rubbed her temple. They still needed to determine how they were going to coordinate the bidding for the young ladies. She had an inkling, but the mechanics would require a more adept mind at subterfuge than Isabella felt herself capable of in her current state. She closed her eyes to the throbbing that erupted in her head in response. She needed a good night’s rest.

Charlotte watched Isabella from the doorway. The way she sank tiredly into the chair and did not even notice her open the door, left Charlotte feeling an odd mix of concern and affection. “Bella,” she spoke only just loud enough to be heard.

Isabella looked over the edge of the book, a small smile evident at the corners of her eyes. Charlotte reached out the hand holding a goblet of red wine. Isabella offered Charlotte the book in her hands in exchange for the glass. “Thank you,” she said before taking a sip, “This is the play that I believe best suits our opening.”

Charlotte laughed upon reading the title. Isabella’s eyebrows knit together in question. Charlotte held up the book, “Our kind all know this ‘un well. When we saw it first performed last year, Violet swore it was about her. The girls’ll ‘ave no problem with this.”

Chapter Text

Through dinner, Sophia regaled Charlotte with stories of her studies as was their weekly routine. Isabella watched, as was her weekly routine. She marveled at her daughter who, against all reason, wanted to stay with Isabella rather than return to her school. A school that was safe and familiar, filled with companions and surrogate parental figures. Sophia had chosen a stranger over the life of which she was accustomed. It baffled Isabella. She was uncertain that she would have made the same decision given the circumstances. Sophia was a miracle. That Charlotte sat across from Sophia, their heads bent in collusion of some scheme of which Isabella certainly would not approve, lent credence to the existence of a Divine.

“May I be excused, mama?” Sophia asked.

Isabella’s gaze was fixed on the flames dancing atop the candlesticks in the center of the table. Sophia glanced at Charlotte who looked away from Isabella long enough only to shrug in reply. Charlotte tentatively reached for Isabella’s hand, “Bella?”

“Mama?” Sophia repeated.

By way of answer, Isabella reached an arm toward Sophia and motioned for a hug. Sophia rose from her chair and wrapped an arm around her mother’s shoulders. Isabella patted Sophia’s waist, “Good night, my angel.”

“Bonne nuit, mama.”

As she watched Ginny cleared away Sophia’s dishes, Isabella called over her shoulder, “Take care not to read the entire night away, Sophia.”

Isabella clearly pictured the look of annoyance on her daughter’s face despite the, “Yes, mama,” response she received.

“Ma’am,” Ginny curtsied, “Abigail has finished drawing a bath. There’s a bottle of red and two goblets waiting.”

“Thank you, Ginny,” Isabella replied.

Charlotte quietly watched the exchanges. “I can feel you watching, Miss Wells,” Isabella said.

There was a tiredness in the corners of Isabella’s eyes. Charlotte rose from the table. The way Isabella moved was an intense contrast between her manner of dress. Charlotte watched Isabella attempt to rest her forearms on a nonexistent pannier before settling on clasping them in front of her. Her posture was perfect even without the telltale lines of a corset beneath her blouse. Charlotte walked a step behind Isabella up the large staircase toward her bedroom. Isabella’s hand trailed loosely over the railing. That she neither noticed nor commented on Charlotte’s lagging drew a worrying crease on Charlotte’s brow.

As they neared Isabella’s bedchambers, Abigail moved from her spot next to the door to open it. Isabella squeezed the girl’s shoulder by way of acknowledgement. Abigail bit her cheek and glanced at Charlotte. The move was rare enough for her that Charlotte stopped short of entry. Abigail looked back into the room where Isabella began unpinning her hair. “How long she been like this?” Charlotte asked.

“It’s not my place,” Abigail started then sighed, “Started about a week ago, today’s the worst it’s been so far.”

“Thank you,” Charlotte reached out and grimaced when Abigail recoiled, “It causin’ memories for you too?”

Abigail glared at Charlotte before turning unceremoniously toward the stairs. Charlotte sighed. She shook the weight of her own sins from her shoulders as best she could. Charlotte closed the door to the room behind her. Isabella’s long hair fell in waves around her shoulders. Charlotte took a moment to note how long Isabella’s hair had gotten in the last few months. “Here,” Charlotte said, announcing herself, “Let me.”

Isabella handed over the brush she held. With her hands free, she folded them together on her lap while Charlotte gently dragged the brush through her hair. Isabella’s eyes closed. Charlotte finished and laid a kiss on top of her head. Charlotte leaned over Isabella’s shoulder to return the brush to her table. “Let’s get you in the bath before it starts to cool.”

Behind the large cloth dividers, steam rose in tendrils of white floating above the water in the large tin basin. Charlotte pushed up the arm of her blouse to test the heat with her forearm. It was still a touch too hot. When she turned, Isabella was already undressed. Gooseflesh covered her skin despite the warmth rising from the tub and the hearth. Charlotte exited around the partitions to pull a robe from Isabella’s wardrobe. When she returned, Isabella was lowering herself into the water with a grimace. Charlotte shook her head at the pink radiating up Charlotte’s thighs from the heat. “You’ll burn, Bella.”

Isabella simply shook her head and continued until the water covered her waist. Quick as she could, Charlotte undid the laces on her top, stripping down to her shift so not to wet her clothes. She folded her skirt between her legs as she knelt next to the tub. Isabella sat with her arms folded over her bent legs, resting her chin atop pink knees. Charlotte took the washcloth and lye soap from a small wood table near where she knelt. Isabella turned her head to watch as Charlotte dipped the cloth into the water. The soap smelled very faintly of honeycomb.

Charlotte placed the soap back on the small table and gently took Isabella’s left arm in her hand. She pushed away the tendrils of Isabella’s hair that floated in the water before rubbing the cloth against Isabella’s soft skin. Again, Isabella’s eyes drifted closed. Charlotte moved around the tub on her knees, washing Isabella. When the water began to cool, Charlotte walked to the fireplace to pull a hot stone from the flames. Isabella leaned back against the basin. She watched Charlotte carry the stone over in a metal shovel. Isabella pulled her feet back toward her chest as the stone hissed and sizzled when it touched the water.

The lull of sleep peeled back some from Isabella’s senses when Charlotte began to unlace the strings of her skirt. Isabella lifted herself from the water then. She stood, naked and dripping, while Charlotte handed her a large towel. Isabella placed a kiss on Charlotte’s shoulder as she stepped out of the tub and Charlotte stepped in. Isabella wiped herself off before wrapping the robe around her and retrieving a second stone from the fire to warm the water further for Charlotte. With the sleeves of her robe pushed up above her elbows, Isabella began washing Charlotte. Charlotte’s hair was considerably shorter than her own so when Charlotte leaned back in the tub to allow Isabella to wash her legs, the ends barely hung over the curved edge of the basin.

When Charlotte looked at Isabella, she noticed how the light from the fireplace brightened the high collared scarlet robe she wore—a gift from Charlotte—and ignited Isabella’s blue eyes. Charlotte felt warmth grow in her belly. The way Isabella looked at her made her feel things for which she did not have words. She was often desired, lusted after, but the reverence with which Isabella always gazed felt like the world did right before lightning struck. Like copper on one’s tongue.

Charlotte pulled herself to the opposite edge of the tub where Isabella kneeled. She watched Isabella’s attention dip to Charlotte’s breasts and back up to her lips before finally landing on her eyes. Charlotte reached out, careful to keep eye contact and trailed her fingers from between Isabella’s breasts, up her throat, to lay against her cheek. A trail of water droplets left Isabella’s nipples cold and pebbled. Isabella leaned forward, capturing Charlotte’s lips in a soft kiss. Isabella then leaned back on her heels, pulling away from Charlotte. She stood and took another towel from the floor. Charlotte lifted a leg from the water and let Isabella dry her foot. She balanced with a hand on Isabella’s shoulder then offered the other foot. Standing on dry ground, Isabella wrapped the towel around Charlotte’s back and pulled their bodies flush. Charlotte grinned, “The idea of a robe is to keep you dry.”

“I find that I am rarely that with or without robe when subject to your touch,” Isabella whispered into Charlotte’s ear.

Charlotte licked her suddenly dry lips. That was what she could not name. That reaction within her. The focus on her pleasure that drove Charlotte to elevations she very nearly reached with Daniel but missed by inches. Lust but more, sex but—and Charlotte’s mind blanked as Isabella trailed soft fingertips down her stomach toward her sex while she planted kisses along the column of Charlotte’s throat.

_________________________

Charlotte ran her fingers through Isabella’s hair, scratching at the back of her head. She wrapped her leg tighter around Isabella’s waist and pulled her closer against her beneath the covers of Isabella’s bed. Isabella nuzzled into Charlotte’s arms, laying lazy kisses against her collar bone and running her fingers up and down Charlotte’s spine.

Isabella sighed. She leaned back only far enough to look into Charlotte’s eyes. Thoughts swam in her mind, each chasing the other from the chance to form on her lips. Charlotte cupped Isabella’s cheeks and kissed her soundly. “Let’s get you into your nightgown,” she said when they parted.

Isabella nodded, thankful for Charlotte’s ability to read her so well. Both women pulled long cotton gowns over their heads. Charlotte went back to the tub and closed the dividers, opening the room to the warmth trapped behind them. Charlotte rubbed her hands quickly over her arms as she hurried back to bed. Isabella waited until Charlotte was in before blowing out the flame of the lamp on her bedside table. She curled onto her side. “Only me,” Charlotte said as she wrapped her arms around Isabella’s middle.

The early months of their relationship taught Charlotte always to announce herself before touching Isabella suddenly. That Charlotte bothered to make the effort made Isabella fall further in love with Charlotte with every passing moment. It was a feeling she dared not share with the woman now draped over her back. Every inch of her body radiated with it. All the places she thought long dead and numb blossomed in a kind of awakening of which Isabella never dared dream.

Isabella glanced in the direction of her bedroom window. Light filtered in from the moon between the curtains. If life had taught her one thing it was that delicate balances need only a sharp wind to cause everything around her to tumble to ruin. Isabella buried herself in the curve of Charlotte’s body. She would protect her happiness by force if necessary. Isabella listened to Charlotte softly snoring behind her and kissed Charlotte’s knuckles before finally closing her eyes.