The Changeling's Moon by Nene Adams ©1999 - All rights reserved
This on-line novel contains graphic violence, adult situations and language, and the depiction of a romantic relationship between two mature, adult women. Reader discretion is advised. No unauthorized copying or duplication or publishing in any format, electronic or otherwise, will be permitted without the express, written consent of the author.
Rhiannon contemplated the action she was about to take. Once, she would have been appalled at the very notion; now, it seemed like the only recourse left to a woman whose life had fallen into flaming wreckage around her.
The ordeal she'd suffered at the hands of the madwoman Victoire Rousseau - daughter of Holmes' mortal enemy, Professor James Moriarty, and Lina's greatest foe - still haunted her; memories hounded Rhiannon unmercifully until it seemed she must either fall headlong into madness or simply shatter into a thousand screaming shards.
Rhiannon had initially pretended to be fine, had returned to England with Lina; getting away from Egypt and the specter of Victoire seemed like the best solution to her problems. For a month or more Rhiannon had gone about her daily life as if nothing had happened, nothing had changed. But it had... oh God! how it had changed.
It began with nightmares; she would wake herself up screaming, soaked in sweat, heart pounding so hard she thought it would break free from her chest. Rhiannon had rebuffed Lina's attempts to help, thinking that if she could only get enough time and distance between herself and the torture she had endured, it would get better. Everything would return to normal as if by magic; pain erased in some mythical, never-to-be-attained moment that she desperately chased, desperately craved - and never received.
Things had deteriorated to the point where she could no longer stand for Lina to touch her; even something so simple as a hug caused Rhiannon to flinch violently, then break down weeping, hot tears scalding her heart as well as her soul. She thought she'd lose her beloved Lina, and that thought was the hardest of all to bear.
Lina had been perplexed but had tried to be sensitive; after struggling to get Rhiannon to talk about it and finally giving up in frustration, the peer had just stopped touching her, knowing how much distress it caused. Things gradually ground into a familiar routine of bewildered and increasingly angry questioning on Lina's part... with storms of weeping and sullen silence on Rhiannon's. Soon, there was only silence left as Rhiannon withdrew further and further away from the world and their relationship.
At last, deeply wounded, Lina did the only thing she could. She moved out of their bedroom, determined to stay away from her lover until she was fully healed... however long that would take. Once Rhiannon was back to her old self - hadn't the doctors she'd consulted prescribed rest as the best cure for manic hysteria? - then they'd simply put the whole thing behind them and life would continue as it had before.
For Rhiannon, Lina's mistakenly good intentions proved to be the final straw.
She snapped under the strain, the weight of her emotional burden suddenly proving far too much to bear. She saw Lina's removal from their shared bed as the ultimate rejection, the death of the vows that had once bound them together, the splintering of both present and future.
Without Lina, she was nothing.
Without their love, she had nothing.
Hopes and cherished dreams had turned to bitter dust; ashes that trickled through her hands and left her grasping emptiness and dark despair. What was there to live for?
The answer was clear. Nothing.
Now Rhiannon lay in the bathtub, steaming water lapping at her chin. She stared at the object in her hand, momentarily fascinated by the play of light along its glittering edge.
Dreamily, she lifted a hand from the water...
And then used the straight razor to slit her wrist to the bone.
"My dear? Rhiannon, where the Devil are you?'' Lina's voice echoed through the empty house. All the servants had been given the night off; the peer intended to surprise Rhiannon with dinner at Delmonico's and the opera.
I hope I can persuade her to accompany me, Lina thought. She has been locked up in this cursed house like a martyr in a tomb for weeks; some fresh air and congenial company will surely do her good. True, I did not consult her as to my plans, but on the other hand, it is sometimes easier to ask forgiveness than permission, especially given the prickly mood my poor darling has been in lately.
''Rhiannon?'' Lina looked in the study; although the pocket door was open, there was no one inside.
Her brows drew together in a frown. A cab was waiting at the curb and if they didn't hurry, they would be late for their dinner reservation.
I wonder where she can be?
When Lina had left that afternoon, Rhiannon had been pale and withdrawn, but this in and of itself did not alarm the peer. Over the past three months, her wife had lost a shocking amount of weight, but Rhiannon had insisted it was due to a stomach virus she'd caught in Egypt and had refused to see a physician despite Lina's insistence.
She has grown so thin one can practically see through her, Lina thought as she gathered her skirts in both hands and began climbing up the stairs.
Cook has outdone herself preparing delicacies to tempt her appetite, but Rhiannon pushes the food around her plate then hides it beneath her napkin as if she was still in the nursery, slyly concealing unappetizing vegetables under the watchful gaze of a governess. Those Harley Street physicians I have consulted regarding her emotional state seem to be doing no good at all. Their sole panacea is laudanum.
Perhaps a slight bit of deception is in order. I can invite Watson and Holmes over for dinner. Surely, she will not refuse to see our old friends and the good doctor may be able to help.
Upstairs, the long corridor was as silent as the rest of the house. ''Rhiannon? My dear, I have something to tell you.''
There was no reply.
Lina began to feel uneasy.
Rhiannon has not been her usual self for some time. I have tried to get her to speak to me, tell me what is wrong, but she pushes me away again and again, telling me she only wants to be left alone. I gave her what she wanted... then she did not even want me to touch her anymore.
Moving out of our bedroom is the right thing to do, I suppose. If solitude is what Rhiannon requires in order to heal, then that is the least I can do.
It might be lonely and cold, but at least she has not left me.
This small consolation made the dark haired woman's chest ache dully. She may as well have left me, Lina said silently to herself. Her body is here, but I do not know where her heart has gone, only that I cannot reach it anymore.
Lina pushed open the bedroom door. ''Rhiannon?''
The room was deserted but the peer noticed something strange; Rhiannon's dress, the pale green wool gown she had been wearing that afternoon, was in a crumpled heap on the floor. Having come from a life of destitution, her lover never treated expensive clothing that way.
A trail of underthings led to the firmly closed door of the bathroom.
The feeling of uneasiness grew stronger. Lina opened the bathroom door, clearing her throat. ''I beg your pardon, my dear, for the intrusion,'' she began... then stopped, green eyes widening in shock and horror.
Rhiannon lay in the claw-footed tub, her hair loose and flowing in dark red strands around her colorless face. Both her wrists had been neatly slashed, the wounds still flowing sluggishly, crimson clouds blossoming in the still steaming water and diluting almost immediately to pale pink. A straight razor lay on the tile floor, the edge dark with blood.
With a strangled moan, Lina crossed the room and hauled Rhiannon bodily out of the tub, ignoring the stream of water that soaked her dress. Her lover's wet hair clung to her face and arms as the desperate peer carried Rhiannon to the bed and put her down gently. After a quick glance around, Lina tore strips from the bed sheet with a wrench.
She used the crude bandages to tie up Rhiannon's wrists, noting with a small sense of relief that the other woman's heartbeat was still strong.
She must have just done this, Lina thought, tying off a knot with her teeth. Thank God I arrived in time!
''Rhiannon? Please, love, talk to me!'' she said, patting her unconscious wife's face.
Rhiannon lay so still that Lina had to resist the urge to grab her by the shoulders and shake her. ''My dear... please... I beg you... WAKE UP!''
When that plea had no effect, Lina took a bare second to toss an afghan over Rhiannon's wet, nude body, then raced out of the room and down the stairs.
She threw open the front door, water dripping from her dress and pooling around her feet, bodice and skirts spotted with blood, ebony hair a tangled mess around her pale face.
''You! Driver!'' Lina shouted. ''Drive like the Devil to Paddington and fetch back Doctor John Watson! Tell him it is an emergency, a matter of life and death!''
When the driver hesitated, Lina scrambled across the threshold and stumbled to the cab. She literally flung a handful of pound notes up into his shocked face, screaming, ''GO! DAMN YOU! GO!'' and snatching the whip from its socket, lashed the harnessed horse with all the strength of her arm.
The horse half reared with a scream of its own and took off down the street, iron-shod hooves striking sparks from the cobblestones, the driver cursing and struggling with the reins. Lina panted, watching his progress, and nodded to herself when he managed to make the turn at the end of the street that would lead him to Watson's practice.
Dropping the whip to the ground, she hurried back into the house, oblivious to the open-mouthed stares of the gathered crowd that had watched the exchange.
Taking the stairs two at the time, she felt tears gathering behind her
eyes, but she gulped them back, and until Doctor Watson arrived, remained
on the bed next to Rhiannon, holding her lover's lifeless hand in her
The two women were in the cozy confines of the study having tea when the crisis erupted. The smell of sugared oranges brought back memories of Egypt - and for a moment, Rhiannon found herself back in that cave, reliving the horror, seeing Victoire's feral smile looming up from the darkness.
She began sobbing uncontrollably, tears streaming down her face. Lina tossed her teacup down with a clatter and immediately pulled the smaller woman into a tight embrace, stroking her back gently.
After a while, Rhiannon finally stopped crying and lifted her face from Lina's shoulder. ''I... I'm sorry,'' she blurted.
''Shhhh... it is quite all right, my dear,'' Lina soothed, wiping Rhiannon's face with a handkerchief. ''Here, blow your nose, sweet.'' She gave her lover a smile and was rewarded with a slightly blurry one in return.
Rhiannon blew her nose delicately then dabbed at her eyes. ''I just... sometimes it's all right. I don't think about it as much anymore. But it just comes back, all of it, all at once, and I can't...''
''Surely you remember what Doctor O'Bannon told you.'' Lina stroked the smaller woman's hair. ''If you need to cry, then cry. If you need to talk about it, then do so. I am here. I love you and I want... no, I need to help. Do not shut me out again, I beg you.''
''You're right. I'm sorry.'' Rhiannon sighed.
''Do not apologize again!'' Lina pressed her wife's head back down on her shoulder and hugged her tightly. ''You have nothing to be sorry for, my dear. NOTHING! Remember that, I beg you.''
Rhiannon nodded, snuggling her face against the peer's throat. Doctor Graham O'Bannon was an alienist; after her attempted suicide, Lina had forced her to see him. Oh, she'd fought hysterically, and even now after several months her face still colored in shame over her antics. It had taken Lina's threatening to leave her to her own devices - even going so far as to have her maid Solange begin packing trunks - to get her to go.
Through her own extremity, she'd finally realized the depths to which she'd driven her beloved. Lina had gone on a drunken spree in Cairo when Rhiannon had abandoned her, however briefly - so great had been her despair over losing the woman she loved so desperately.
For Lina to actually contemplate leaving... well, Rhiannon had at last understood that if she wanted to save her marriage and her sanity, she had to do something. But she still hadn't liked it.
She'd been sullen, uncooperative, even defiant. But Doctor O'Bannon had patiently drawn her out, his Scottish burr chipping away at her defenses until he'd exposed the festering wound that had driven her to such an extremity as suicide.
Rhiannon still remembered that afternoon.
She'd had an argument with Lina - a screaming, vicious attack on her part; sheer frustration on Lina's. They had parted with cold words, and Rhiannon had seethed and fumed all the way to O'Bannon's office on Harley Street.
Once there, she had flung herself down and begun babbling, eventually realizing with a growing sense of shock that she was blaming Lina for everything that had happened to her. A bitter flood of recriminations and accusations poured from her lips and she was powerless to stop it - nor had she really wanted to.
When she'd finished, however, panting for breath, fingers clutching the chair arms in a white-knuckled grip, face wet with angry tears, she felt as if some immense burden had been lifted from her shoulders; she felt empty, drained... and then filled with guilt. She'd begun to cry again, great racking sobs convulsing her body, as O'Bannon began questioning her softly.
It had taken several months of twice weekly sessions with the alienist, but from that afternoon, Rhiannon never looked back. O'Bannon had made her see that she had, in the hidden depths of her mind, considered Lina to blame for her ordeal. It was truly a terrible conflict that had caused her deep depression and attempt at suicide.
For how could she voice recriminations, how could she possibly cast blame upon her beloved when Rhiannon had begged, pleaded, threatened and ultimately, driven her lover almost to the brink in order to force Lina into accepting her as an equal in all things, including investigations which might involve life-threatening danger. When Rhiannon had been so insistent that Lina stop protecting her, believing that her lover's obsession with her safety was degrading and patronizing.
Then - after all the old arguments were over, after all the threats and ultimatums were finished - when Rhiannon finally got her own way at last, Victoire's evil nearly destroyed both women.
Who was to blame?
No one. And everyone. Or so her hidden mind insisted.
That was the key. Once Rhiannon understood and accepted the conflict, once she'd dealt with the guilt and self-hatred, once she'd broken through the shell of denial, she was finally able to get up the courage to move on.
Rhiannon felt better and grew stronger day by day. Sometimes, a smell or a sound would abruptly cast her back to that time of pain and degradation... but those frightening flashbacks were growing less and less frequent.
Thank God for Doctor O'Bannon, Rhiannon thought. And thank God for Lina. Her love has been my salvation.
O'Bannon had seen Lina as well, explaining what Rhiannon was going through, how she felt, what had caused her suicide attempt... and the peer had very nearly collapsed in grief and horror. She'd gone herself to see the alienist on her own behalf, trying to deal with her own load of self-recrimination and guilt.
It hadn't been easy; sometimes, the house had seemed more like a pair of armed camps laboring beneath a temporary, tentative truce. The tension had been wire-taut and as fraught with danger as an unstable explosive. Arguments had been frequent, tears even more so.
But they were past all that now.
The two women had spent hours alone together, just talking, and not always about the events in Egypt. Rhiannon's nightmares had diminished; the angry red scars on her wrists were concealed beneath wide gold bracelets Lina had bought after the strawberry-blonde had unconsciously picked at the healing wounds until they bled.
The love they shared was stronger and more profound than ever, the tribulations and trials they had endured only serving to draw them closer together.
They were scarred... but they had passed through the fires together and
were whole once more.
The storm of tears over and calm restored, Lina nestled Rhiannon in her lap, sniffing her hair with pleasure, hands stroking the other woman's back and shoulders. Her lover had regained some of the weight she'd lost, no longer looking so much like an animated skeleton, but Cook still labored over elaborate concoctions to tempt the strawberry blonde's appetite.
''Well, my dear," Lina said softly, "if you are agreeable, I believe you and I can attend a small soiree which should be pleasantly amusing.''
''What's that?'' Rhiannon kissed Lina's ear, wondering what on earth she could be talking about. They had never attended a formal social occasion; Lina's invitations came almost by rote, her wealth and title the only two things that permitted even the possibility of such a scandalous woman entering into London's social whirl.
Lina, considering most of her peers to be hypocritical, small minded idiots, always declined. No one expected her to attend anyway; sending Lady St. Claire an invitation was nothing more than a polite formality - and the lady liked to keep it that way.
''I recently received an invitation to an exhibition at Blackpoole's," Lina said. "I thought we might attend, if the idea does not altogether put you off."
"When is it?" Rhiannon asked. "And what sort of exhibition is it? Not those dull landscapes artists, I hope! If I'm forced to admire those beastly forests primeval, I swear I'll go mad!" She laughed when Lina wrinkled her nose.
"Not at all, my dear! I understand that Mister Blackpoole is opening up a new wing to his gallery, built especially to house phantasms, fairies and other fantastic art. You know the subject has become quite popular in recent times. Every dowager dame must have a host of wee folk staring goggle eyed down at her dinner guests. Ugh!"
She shivered before continuing, " At any rate, I thought you and I might attend this soiree, if only to shake up the aristocracy and cause collective apoplexy when the two most vilified women in London dare to show their sinful and unrepentant faces at the social event of the season!"
Rhiannon laughed again. "Well, I can take it if you can, love." She gracefully slid off Lina's lap and crossed the room, stopping to look out of the window while she poured herself another cup of tea. "I suppose since we've exhausted the theater, the museums, shops and other points of interest, you'll stoop to any means to get me out of the house."
"A nice outing will do you a world of good. If the artist's offerings are not up to your exacting standards, I shall amuse you by whispering the latest London gossip behind my fan." Lina smiled. "It is amazing how the aristocracy manages to fit their hats so well, considering they all possess two faces. When they require my discreet services, they are all 'if you please' and 'your humble servant.' But when the possibility of scandal has passed, the hypocrites look upon me much as they would a dog dropping accidentally trodden on in the street."
"Really, Lina! Is it so bad?"
"Of course, my dear." Lina stroked a stray ebony curl back into place. "However, I am quite thick skinned and determined not to allow cold shoulders to spoil my fun."
Rhiannon grinned. "You don't think they'll throw stones, do you?" she teased.
"Hardly," Lina answered dryly. "More likely stony stares. None of them have the courage to face me outright; they shall no doubt rely instead upon the exquisite manners hammered into them by their nannies."
She got up off the couch and went to join Rhiannon at the window. "The exhibition is next Saturday evening, my dear. Are you up to facing the combined disapproval of a hundred Earls?"
"With you at my side? Always!" Rhiannon took a sip of tea. "Do you think the art will be of the children's nursery variety?"
Lina shook her head, putting an arm around her lover's shoulders. "My dear, no doubt it will be more horrible than even I can possibly imagine."
Sugar-coated pixies and pastel elves cavorting in a toadstool glade...
Add to that the possibility of being snubbed by every important and influential peer and member of the Court that existed.
Plus the possibility - however remote - that Lina might become incensed and challenge the lot of those well-fed and well-bred aristocrats to a duel muscular...
And Rhiannon thought she'd probably have either a wonderful time, or face an evening of nightmarish proportions.
Rhiannon was lost to the world, transfixed by the painting in front of her.
Lina frowned. "My dear? I do believe you have not heard a word I have spoken in the last five minutes!"
She glanced down at Rhiannon. The smaller woman was dressed in a black satin gown that made the most of her strawberry-blonde coloring; jet beads picked up the light and gleamed in vaguely sinister patterns on the gown's bodice and skirt. She wore a silver collar of pearls, opals and turquoise, with matching earrings and a high comb that shimmered in the gaslight.
Lina absently acknowledged a cold nod given to her by a uniformed Duke and poked her lover lightly in the ribs. "My dear!'' she hissed. "Do you wish me to continue my anecdote regarding Lord St. James and the music hall monkey or have you lost yourself in art entirely?"
Startled, Rhiannon's eyes flew wide open and she focused on her waiting wife. "Oh! I'm terribly sorry, love! I just..." She waved a gloved hand helplessly at the painting. "Have you looked at it? I mean, really looked at it?''
Lina sighed. "No, I admit I have not paid strict attention to Mister Blackpoole's offerings. I have been far too busy trying to stay off incipient boredom and keep you entertained." Her smile took the sting out of the words. "If you are more intrigued by a work of art than by the laboriously gathered gossip I have acquired... by all means, impart to me your observations on the painting in question."
Rhiannon's gaze strayed back to the framed canvas. "It's just... well, fascinating is the only way I can describe it. All those tiny figures drawn so cleverly! Look, here's one having a bath... here's another sitting in a bird's nest with an egg. If I stared at this all day, I probably couldn't list all the details! Oh, look! A wee procession of elf lords! Isn't that cunning!"
Lina drew closer. "Here's the artist's name." She indicated the brass plaque fastened to the wall beneath the painting. "S.H. Moon. I have never heard of the fellow but one presumes he must have a reputation of some sort in order to be included in Blackpoole's. Perhaps he is one of those Bohemians one hears so much about. Wait a moment, the name is familiar but I cannot place it."
She broke off to snatch a glass of champagne from a passing waiter. Ignoring Rhiannon's pursed lips, Lina took a sip and continued, "S.H. Moon... obviously talented, even if I find his subject matter somewhat deplorable. I wonder if he is related to the Benjamin Moon's of Upper Canterbury."
"I don't care who he is!" Rhiannon lowered her voice when a full-bosomed dowager whipped up a lorgnette and gave her a basilisk glare. "I like the painting, I don't want to marry the fellow. And drink only the one glass, mind. Don't get carried away." She added suspiciously, "You've haven't been guzzling champagne all night, have you?"
"Good God!" Lina pressed a hand to her bosom theatrically. "I certainly hope not! One sips Dom Perignon; one hardly guzzles such an ambrosial beverage!"
She stooped down a little to whisper in Rhiannon's ear, "Although our physical relationship may be tolerated as long as it is not thrust into everyone's faces, if it were found out that I had committed the ultimate transgression against the peerage - swilling a fine champagne as if it were common stout - I would no doubt be tarred, feathered and strung up on the walls of Buckingham Palace as an object lesson."
Rhiannon giggled. "All right, no need to get sarcastic, love. I just..."
"You worry." Lina grinned. "I worry. If all we have to worry about is each other, I would say that we were trouble-free, indeed."
Rhiannon surreptitiously grabbed Lina's gloved hand and gave it a squeeze. "I do love you so, Lady St. Claire."
"And I love you."
After a moment of happy silence, Rhiannon sighed and said, "If it isn't too terribly expensive - the painting, I mean - do you think...?"
"My dear, if it appeals to you so much, of course you shall have it! Wait here a moment; I will fetch Mister Blackpoole in order to transact our business. Perhaps he can also enlighten us as to the identity of the mysterious Mister Moon."
Rhiannon watched Lina push through the crowd. The other woman's dress of raspberry silk dripped with swags of crystal-beaded fringe; the puffed net sleeves were decorated with tiny chips of ruby glass and small white feathers. A platinum hair slide had been fastened to one side of her elaborately braided coiffure; white ostrich feathers curved from temple to cheek, giving Lina a coquettish air and contrasting starkly with the darkness of her hair.
In a few moments, the peer returned, clutching the arm of Mister Alphonse Blackpoole, owner of the prestigious Blackpoole Gallery and a renowned art expert in his own right.
Once the necessary introductions had been made, Rhiannon asked, "Do you know this artist, sir? I notice this is the only one of his works on display tonight."
"That is correct, Miss Moore," Blackpoole replied, peering at the painting through the pince-nez perched on his nose. "I fear this was the only work he produced, poor chap. Took him nearly two decades to finish it, too."
"Really?" Rhiannon took in the painting with new appreciation. Twenty years!
"Yes. Sebastian Harrington Moon. He died several months ago while serving a life sentence in St. Catherine's Hospital." Blackpoole's brown eyes were nearly hidden by bushy salt-and-pepper eyebrows that seemed to have been given license to grow wild across his lined forehead. "It was... hmph. I believe it was back in the '70's that the crime took place, Miss."
"Crime?" Now Lina had become interested. "Can you elaborate?" When the art dealer gave her a sharp glance, Lina hastily added, "My companion and I are quite curious about the artist's background. When one makes such a substantial investment, one does like to keep au courant on the creator."
Blackpoole chewed his mustache for a moment before relenting. It was clear he was reluctant to dredge up a sordid story for fear of losing the sale. "Very well. If you must know - damned female curiosity! - Sebastian Moon was sentenced to the sanitarium for murder. The man might have been criminally insane, but he was a talented artist, and his unfortunate circumstance does not in any way undermine the value of his painting."
Rhiannon and Lina exchanged a glance. It appeared that their evening
was about to get far more interesting than mere champagne and caviar could
Blackpoole heaved a sigh. A tightly-laced dowager, whose immense bosom seemed to balloon up until it nearly met her chin, was signaling him with a fluttering handkerchief. "Ladies," he said, "my business calls. If you would care to call upon me tomorrow afternoon, it will be my pleasure to give you all the information I can regarding Moon and this painting."
"What's the title of the piece?" Rhiannon asked impetuously.
"The Changeling's Moon," Blackpoole answered. "A queer choice, perhaps, but one can hardly argue with artistic types or expect them to adhere to common sense." He sighed again; the dowager's signals were becoming more imperious. "I really must beg my leave of you. Should you still desire to purchase the painting, one of my assistants will be more than happy to aid you."
With that, the art dealer left, mopping beads of sweat from his creased brow.
Lina looked at Rhiannon. "Are you still itching with acquisitiveness, my dear? If so, let us seek out this assistant before your prize is snatched away beneath your nose by another appreciator."
"I think..." Rhiannon glanced at the painting again; it seemed to call to her with an eerie aura that both fascinated and repelled. Whoever this Sebastian Moon had been, he'd clearly been a genius. "Yes! I want it," Rhiannon replied, tilting her head up to flash a broad smile at her lover. "If the price isn't..."
"My dearest, sweetest love, your bank account is quite healthy. As is mine." Lina smiled back. "I realize you prefer to pinch every pence till it squeals - when it comes to yourself, that is! - but really, a treat now and again will hardly cast you back into penury. If you feel the painting comes too dear, I shall be pleased to purchase it for you myself."
"No." Rhiannon blushed slightly; she knew that her late Great-Aunt's legacy had left her tolerably wealthy, but the habits of a lifetime - those of a penniless tutor's daughter and ex-prostitute - were difficult to break. Lina often teased her for her miserly tendencies; curiously enough, when it came to presents for her lover or their servants, she was open-handed with a vengeance.
"It's all right, love," Rhiannon said, straightening her shining black skirts with a flick of her wrist and assuming a more erect bearing. "Come on; let's find that assistant. I want The Changeling's Moon and I'm going to have it!"
"Excellent!" Lina stifled a chuckle at Rhiannon's near military bearing and took her lover's arm, guiding her through the crowd and seeming not to notice how the ladies drew back the skirts of their gowns as the pair passed, as if fearing they would be soiled by the two unwelcome women's contaminating presence.
Eventually, the haggard assistant was pried away from the clutches of a silly young socialite and her uniformed escort and Rhiannon quickly finished the transaction, making arrangements for the painting to be delivered to their home in Grosvenor Square.
That done, she sighed. "Should we stay a while longer?'' Rhiannon asked.
"I think not, my dear," came the reply. Lina was staring down a monacled lord who had just made some uncomplimentary remarks to his wife in what he obviously considered a discreet whisper. Unfortunately for the lord, the ebony-haired peer had excellent hearing... and she'd had enough irritation for one night.
"I do not quite take your meaning, sir," Lina said loudly, green eyes snapping with ire. She opened her fan and pretended to peer innocently at the suddenly quiet and attentive crowd. "What, pray tell, is a 'filthy tribade?' And since my governess apparently neglected a portion of my education, would you be so kind as to define the term, 'cunny,' and why I should be interested in 'lapping' it? Some exotic dessert, perhaps?"
The lord suddenly appeared to take an absorbing interest in his shoes, but the rising flush that crept up his cheeks soon caused his hairless dome to shine a brilliant crimson.
Despite the indrawn, shocked breaths of bystanders, the lord's wife - a bone-thin matron whose bodice was quivering with indignation - opened her heavily rouged lips to let out a blistering reply. Lina's timely interruption caused whatever remarks she was about to emit to die withering in her throat.
"As to other matters, can anyone tell me what a 'wooden priapus' is and why anyone - particularly I, a gently reared lady - should be required to 'thrust it into that red-head whore in a pathetic attempt to prove oneself a man?' Why, a wooden priapus sounds more like a tool of the common man rather than a gentleman's apparatus!" Lina's smile was more like a snarl of fury, and everyone drew back a pace at the sight.
By this time, some of the more heavily corseted ladies - whose well-fed physiques caused their wasp-waisted forms to look positively grotesque, their bodies resembling two enormously inflated balloons joined in the middle by a thin rod - began to faint, their escorts frantically waving fans and applying smelling salts.
Flicking her raspberry silk skirts disdainfully, Lina sniffed and concluded, "Alas, my dear! We have obviously fallen in with an ill-bred crowd, indeed! Such language - although I do not pretend to understand it at all - is more the province of a Billingsgate fishwife than members of the honorable peerage. Come; allow me to see you away from this apparent den of iniquity and thence, to home, where we shall enjoy the felicity of one another's company... that being the sole delight of an otherwise dull and inhospitable evening among snide, spiteful cowards whose actions belie the supposed blueness of their blood."
With that parting shot, Lina hooked her arm through Rhiannon's and glided away, the crowd parting to allow them through without hindrance.
Only Rhiannon noticed the small, secret smile that wreathed one young lady's features as they marched proudly out of the door and into the starlit night.
It wasn't until they were well on their way home that Rhiannon realized they'd left their wraps at Blackpoole's.
Lina refused to turn around and retrieve them. "What?" she said, body swaying slightly as they jolted along. "Go back and spoil the finest exit line since the incomparable Bernhardt?" Her teeth glittered in the faint light that penetrated the comforting darkness of the carriage. "I do believe it is the first time I have caused a mass fainting of the ladies since I scandalized the guests at my debut by appearing in a gentleman's tuxedo instead of the frilly gown my mother chose."
Rhiannon laughed for a moment, then sobered. "You know you haven't made any friends tonight. Perhaps even some enemies." She leaned forward and took one of Lina's hands. "Was it wise, confronting them all like that?"
"Wise? No. Necessary? Yes!" Lina took the jade and platinum cigarette case out of her reticule and lit one of the brown Egyptian cigarettes she preferred, the flaring light of the lucifer illuminating her features briefly.
Exhaling a cloud of smoke, the peer continued, "I am not sure what I expected to come of this night's work, my dear. I should know by now that the approval of my social peers is simply not possible, due to the choices I have made about my life. But I could hardly allow such insults to pass, particularly since the lord in question - Sir Ernest Christopher - came to me not two years ago seeking my assistance in the matter of his involvement with a Parisian ballet dancer... and I do not mean a personage of the female variety, either."
It took Rhiannon a moment to comprehend what Lina was saying. "You mean, he's..."
"Yes." Lina smoked in silence a moment, then drew aside the sash at the window and flicked her cigarette out. "If there is anything I despise beyond all else, it is hypocrisy. Had Sir Christopher not made his remarks within my hearing - and also the hearing of others, my dear! - I would have allowed it to pass. But he chose to make all too public what has been whispered in private... and so I was forced to put him back in his place."
"What difference does it make, what they say about us in public or what they gossip about around the tea table?"
Lina huddled down into her seat. "If I do not hear it, although I know it to be said privately, it does not hurt me as much. Or you, for that matter. It is when such matters are waved beneath my nose, I have no choice but to respond. Besides... Christopher's behavior was really beyond the bounds of polite convention. I have no doubt it is he who will be ostracized for some time... not for what he said, but for being indiscreet enough and careless enough to allow me to overhear it."
Rhiannon sighed. "He'll be punished because he dared to remove the mask of propriety and show the rotten maliciousness beneath. I'm not sure I'll ever understand the aristocracy, love!" She rubbed her forehead. "But I know I didn't like what they said or how they acted."
"Neither did I, my dear. Neither did I."
"If they'd ignored us, that would have been all right."
"Would it?" Lina stared out into the darkness. "Perhaps you are correct. Being nonexistent is infinitely better than being openly despised."
Rhiannon had no answer for that except, "You knew it would happen. From the moment we began living together openly."
"Of course. Oh, do not misunderstand, my dear! I willingly endure all the slings and arrows of my fellows, and worse besides, because I am not ashamed of you or our love. Let them speak as they will! Let them hurl their filth and point the finger of disdain! Let them whisper in parlors or shout it aloud to the treetops... as long as we are together, what real harm can they do?"
Rhiannon felt her heart skip a beat. "I love you, Lina."
"I love you as well, Rhiannon." Lina sat up and rapped the carriage ceiling. "Driver! A little more speed, if you please!"
As the carriage lurched then began moving at a faster rate, Lina carefully slid off her own seat and wriggled her way next to Rhiannon. Putting an arm around the smaller woman, she kissed her.
Rhiannon pressed herself against her lover, mentally cursing the narrow confines of the carriage.
The two remained close, kissing and caressing, all the way home.
The following afternoon, the lady and her companion were seated in Mister Blackpoole's private office.
The art dealer didn't look happy to see them - his grand exhibition and opening had been all but ruined by Lady St. Claire's scandalous behavior - but it was clear that he at least intended to honor his promise... probably with an eye to further sales. He might not like what Lina was or what she represented - he most certainly found Rhiannon's presence an uncomfortable reminder of subjects better left unexplored - but he wasn't fool enough to jeopardize the future custom of two ladies of wealth and means.
"Now, I believe you were interested in the subject of Sebastian Moon," Blackpoole began, ruffling some papers on his desk, then paused and glanced up. "I trust the painting you purchased was delivered this morning? I'm afraid I did not quite anticipate such an enthusiastic response to my little collection. We have all been at sixes and sevens, especially since some of my less experienced clerks made some unfortunate mistakes in paperwork."
Rhiannon smiled. "I received it this morning, thank you. Although I'm still trying to decide where to hang it."
"Many of my customers face similar agonies." Blackpoole returned Rhiannon's smile; if his was a bit artificial and chilly, neither lady chose to comment. "On to business, then."
Rhiannon removed the small notepad and silver pencil from the pocket of her gray-and-navy blue checked visiting gown and began to take notes while the art dealer told his tale.
"Sebastian Harrington Moon was the second son of Sir Arthur Moon, the industrialist. You may be familiar with his elder brother - Sir Bartholomew Bluestroke Moon is a very respected member of the House of Lords and one of the wealthiest men in England."
Lina nodded. "His reputation is formidable. I have no personal admiration for the man - he advocates public floggings via horsewhip for Suffragettes and was one of those who supported the horrible force-feeding program for those ladies who fast in protest - yet I cannot claim him to be a coward. He offered to personally lead forces to aid the gallant 'Chinese' Gordon when he was besieged at Khartoum. And his foreign policy is sound. As one of the personal advisors to Her Majesty, I owe him respect... even when our opinions on policy violently disagree."
"Quite." Blackpoole seemed at a loss but rallied; it was clear he hadn't expected such a well considered response. "At any rate, young Sebastian lived with his brother, mother and father in Mayfair. His mother - Lady Amanda Moon - died when Sebastian was but ten years old."
The art dealer's voice sank to a near whisper. "I've heard rumors that lady Amanda was mad. Perhaps this was the hereditary origin of Sebastian's own madness, perhaps not."
His voice rose once more to conversational level. "While I do not possess many details, I can tell you that Sebastian Moon was, by all accounts, prone to a certain mania. When he was happy, all the world was not large enough to contain his joy. But all too soon, he would sink into the blackest depression, only to rise again. When he was twenty, Sebastian moved out of his father's house and into his own flat, where he painted for four years. Unfortunately, these efforts bore little fruit. Then, in 1870, I believe, Sebastian murdered his father with a palette knife and fled for France. He was apprehended at Calais and sentenced to be confined in a sanitarium. Bartholomew Moon paid for his brother to be kept at St. Catherine's, where for twenty years Sebastian worked on the singular painting purchased by Miss Moore. He died of influenza a few months ago."
Judging from Blackpoole's expression, that was the end of his information. Rhiannon nevertheless asked, "How did you come to possess the painting, sir?"
The art dealer was surprised but recovered quickly. "A friend of mine was shown the painting by one of the hospital's attendants. Knowing as he did of my intention to create an exhibition of such works, he contacted me immediately. According to the attendant..." He broke off and consulted a small slip of paper. "Ah. Mister Basil Appleford. Appleford showed me a 'will' that had been made out by Moon before his death, bequeathing the painting and his few possessions to Appleford. After consulting with my solicitor - who assured me that the will was completely valid - I purchased the painting. Here is the receipt, if you wish to examine it."
He offered the paper, which both Rhiannon and Lina looked at carefully. Written in a careless hand on thin, cheap paper, it merely stated that Basil Appleford had sold the painting to Blackpoole for the sum of one hundred pounds.
Rhiannon glanced up at Blackpoole. "One hundred pounds? I paid considerably more."
Blackpoole spread his hands apart in apology. "It is a seller's market, Miss. Such artworks are in high demand, but alas! in few supply. I took considerable trouble to obtain the work in question; is it not meet and just that I show a profit for my efforts?"
Lina stifled a chuckle at Rhiannon's outraged expression. "My dear, you cannot argue with the long established tenants of capitalism."
Rhiannon relaxed a trifle and returned the paper to the art dealer. "Didn't his brother object? After all, I assume Sir Bartholomew would have wanted some kind of remembrance of his poor sibling."
"In point of fact, Sir Bartholomew approached me shortly after I obtained the painting. However, the price he offered was rather low and he refused to make a higher bid. So I decided to exhibit it at my soiree and seek a more - shall we say - open-handed owner."
Rhiannon's lip crinkled but she didn't comment.
Lina fussed with the strings of her reticule a moment before saying, "Thank you, Mister Blackpoole. We certainly appreciate your taking the trouble to give us this little history lesson, particularly in view of your own extremely busy concerns. Good day."
Blackpoole rose politely, giving each lady a little bow. "It was my pleasure,'' he said. "And dare I hope that you charming ladies will grace my next soiree?"
Rhiannon paused in the action of adjusting her ribbon trimmed hat. "Perhaps,'' she said coolly. "If your taste in invited guests improves to the point of having civilized people attend."
Blackpoole stared as the two women swept from his office.
Then he collected himself and returned to his paperwork with a sigh, making a mental note to tell his secretary to strike Lady St. Claire and her... companion... from the guest list forever.
After all, a respectable art dealer such as himself could hardly afford another such scandal.
What a shameful waste of female loveliness and grace!
On the other hand, considering the icy blue eyes and cold stare of Miss
Moore, as well as the formidable size, beastly reputation and poisonous
tongue of Lady St. Claire... well, a man would be better off bedding a
fanged serpent - and be less likely to sustain injury.
When they arrived home, Lina and Rhiannon immediately secluded themselves in the study to go over their notes.
The painting was propped up on Lina's massive mahogany desk; the rococo gilt frame gleamed faintly in the darkened and subdued atmosphere of the room.
As soon as they entered, Rhiannon busied herself in removing gloves and hat, flinging both onto a nearby chair. Next, she walked to the sidebar where she fixed herself a small sherry. Although Rhiannon rarely drank alcoholic beverages, Lina had recently discovered a sweet Spanish sherry that was very much to the smaller woman's taste. Still, she only indulged occasionally.
"My dear?'' Lina asked. "Has your appetite been whetted by Mister Blackpoole's account or...?"
"No, it hasn't." Rhiannon sat down on a fringed ottoman in front of the desk and looked at The Changeling's Moon. Her half-filled glass dangled from one hand. "I mean, why did Sebastian kill his father? Why did it take him twenty years to make one painting? Was his mother really mad? How did she die? There are so many questions, I hardly know where to begin!"
"Hmph." Lina sat down on the sofa and spent a few moments reading Rhiannon's notes. "Well, we have a number of choices. We can investigate Moon's family life, his mother, father and so on. Or we can begin at St. Catherine's; hopefully, Appleford is still employed by the hospital and willing to speak to us. Or we can begin with Arthur Moon's murder. Or..."
Rhiannon held up her free hand. "Stop, please!" she said with a giggle. "My father always said that one should begin at the beginning. So I suppose that means we must found out what we can of Sebastian's family life, particularly his mother and father."
"Well enough." Lina rose from the couch and quickly scribbled a note. "We shall consult Holmes."
"I don't think that's wise, love." Rhiannon sipped her sherry. "You know he was very ill only recently, then with all the horrible goings-on at Wisteria Lodge. I called on Doctor Watson earlier in the week and he expressed his extreme concern. Mister Holmes has been practically shackled to the bed and Watson is refusing to allow him to work at all until he's recovered."
"I see." Lina put down her pen. "I had hoped to raid Holmes' encyclopedia for information, but it seems we must consult another source."
"I have a suggestion," Rhiannon offered diffidently. It wasn't often that she was in a position to "upstage" Lina, as it were. "I know a gentleman who works for The Times. Maybe we can get in to see the morgue and look at some back issues. Surely, the death of Lady Amanda would have been in the news, much less the death of a wealthy and powerful man like Sir Arthur."
Lina looked at her lover with astonishment. "You know a gentleman at The Times?" Her green eyes narrowed. "Who is he, pray?" She did not - dared not! - ask what sort of connection Rhiannon had with the unknown man, but she felt a huge lump settle itself in her chest and squeeze her heart until she felt breathless with jealousy and pain.
If Rhiannon noticed anything unusual, she didn't let on. "I met him when I was 'working' in Whitechapel. He used to hang about the pubs, chatting up the ladies. He's the one who ruined the Earl of Dunkenny when it came out that he'd contracted an unmentionable disease from a fourteen-year-old girl who worked at the Crib, remember?"
Lina nodded. It had been an enormous scandal at the time; the Crib was a notorious house of ill repute that specialized in offering the favors of underage girls and boys to those whose tastes ran to such things. The Earl had committed suicide the morning the story broke, preferring to blow his brains out at his club rather than face public ridicule and shame.
Rhiannon continued. "At any rate, he's now a well respected gentleman at the newspaper. His name's Benjamin Salt. I'm sure he'll remember me and besides, he owes me a favor."
Lina's eyes narrowed further until they were mere slits. "Really?'' she purred. "What sort of favor, my dear?"
"I was the one who introduced him to poor Mina, the Crib girl." Rhiannon finished her sherry and plunked the glass down. "I hated that horrid place and I especially hated the men who went there. I'm glad it was closed down by the police."
She rose from the ottoman and crossed the room to sit beside Lina. "Shall we go see Mister Salt before dinner?" She shifted her position until she was seated in Lina's lap, arms around her lover's neck.
Lina nodded again, feeling the constriction in her chest ease somewhat. The strangling tightness returned immediately when Rhiannon said carelessly, "I liked Benjamin. He was a good friend to us girls, treated us like real ladies. And he gave good tips, too! We had a lot of fun, he and I. It'll be just like old times, seeing him again. I loved him so much... I'm sorry I haven't let him know where I'm living now."
The fuming Lina held Rhiannon, who chattered away, oblivious to the fact that Lina wasn't listening. Her thoughts were far away, seething in an acid-green pool of jealousy.
Love? LOVE?!! What is this stranger to her? Is it to be as I have always secretly feared... my dearest love falling for a gentleman's charms? Oh, God... I will kill him first! No... I have never dared admit it to myself before, but I have seen the coveting looks Rhiannon receives from men, appreciating glances from males of every sort, chimney sweeps to members of Parliament.
She knew this man when she was a prostitute. Granted, I knew she had 'business relations' with gentlemen when I met her - unavoidable in her position! - but I never gave the matter much consideration.
I lie to myself.
It has always disturbed me, despite my best efforts. Wondering if she finds my embraces repugnant, insufficient, far less appealing than those of a man. No! No! It cannot be! The passion I feel from her cannot be counterfeit; the desire in her eyes must be real. The connection between us has survived so much; how could it be broken by a mere reunion with a man whom Rhiannon has never mentioned before, and so therefore cannot be of much import!
She loves me... I trust in that.
Her thoughts continued to circle round and round one another in dizzying confusion.
For her part, Rhiannon didn't notice that anything was wrong, until they made their unannounced arrival at Benjamin Salt's office at The Times.
Benjamin Salt was a handsome gentleman in his thirties with sandy blonde hair and eyes so blue they seemed to have been formed from bits of stolen sky. When the two women entered his office, he gasped, rose and hastened around his desk.
"Miss Rhiannon!'' he said, features wreathed in a huge smile. "Sugarbaby! My God! It's been too long!"
He flung his arms around her and squeezed tight, his mustache tickling her ear. Before the strawberry-blonde could say a word, Benjamin bussed her vigorously on the lips several times, saying between kisses, "I've... missed... you... woman!"
At last, Rhiannon was able to get in a word. "Benjamin!" she said, pulling away slightly but keeping both hands on his shoulders. "I missed you, too! My, but you've certainly become a fashionable gentleman since we last met!"
Benjamin kept an arm around Rhiannon, much to Lina's hidden fury. "Yes, I'm afraid that since I've been promoted to the higher offices, a sedate heather tweed is more appreciated than the loudly checked monstrosities I used to wear. And speaking of fashionable- you've come up in the world yourself, if I'm not mistaken."
Rhiannon stepped out of his embrace and pirouetted, her skirts belling out as she spun around. "You wouldn't believe it, Benjamin. It's like Cinderella, really! I've found my very own white knight at last."
For the first time, the gentleman noticed Lina, who was standing so silently and still she might have been a statue - except for the tiny tremors that shook her arms as she wrestled with the near overwhelming desire to crush Benjamin Salt like an egg.
"And this charming lady must be Lady Evangeline St. Claire," Benjamin said, eyeing the slightly trembling and unusually tall beauty with concern. He hoped she wasn't prone to fits, although from the way he'd heard she put one in the eye of Lord Ernest Christopher at the Blackpoole's opening, she didn't seem the type to suffer from hysteria.
Biggest private scandal of the decade, that, he thought. By God! I wish I'd been there to applaud the downfall of Sir Christopher the Monumental Prig.
"Oh!" Rhiannon reached out and patted Lina's arm. "You're right. She rescued me from Whitechapel. I live with her and we're..." Almost imperceptibly she paused, then continued proudly, "we're lovers. See?" She displayed her left hand; prominent on her ring finger was the great phoenix ring Lina had given her as a wedding pledge.
Of course, Benjamin knew all about it - at least, he'd heard all the gossip and rumors - but he decided not to elaborate.
He whistled in appreciation, raising a blonde brow as he grasped Rhiannon's offered hand and examined the ring. "Lucky girl! So that's what happened to you! I was half afraid something awful had occurred when you disappeared, especially with all that Ripper business down in Whitechapel. Nobody knew where Sugarbaby had gone. I admit I've thought that the gorgeous red-headed wench described as the notorious Lady St. Claire's lover might have been my Sugarbaby, but I wasn't sure. And given the lady's reputation - she does like her privacy, doesn't she! - I didn't think it prudent to pay a call, particularly given my profession."
He smiled brilliantly at the still silent peer. "The last journalist who attempted to interview you ended up with a broken nose. I trust you treat our little Rhiannon more gently, Lady St. Claire?" he teased.
Lina gave him a cold glance from eyes that were as hard and crystalline as the emeralds they resembled. "What business is that of yours, Mister Salt?" she replied in a freezing tone.
Rhiannon looked up at Lina, surprised. "What's wrong, love?'' she asked softly.
At last, Lina could contain herself no longer. The scenarios that she had constructed within her imagination had not equaled the agonizing sight of her Rhiannon joyously throwing herself into the arms of another... and that other a man, no less! Rage boiled up; she yielded restraint and let caution fly to the winds.
"Wrong? Why, nothing is wrong!'' she spat violently. "You bring me here to see your ex-lover - practically bragging of the fact, no less! - and embrace him with such excesses that I am near to being ill! It is obvious that you have pined for his wretched company. It is equally obvious that you consider your liaison with me to be an odious and unwelcome one. Well, I wish you luck of him, my dear! Good-bye!"
As the infuriated and tearful peer turned to go, she was halted in her tracks by an unexpected sound. Benjamin Salt was laughing, huge belly-wrenching guffaws that threatened to burst his waistcoat. "Oh, my dear, sweet Jesus!" he managed to gasp after a few moments, "What have you been telling her, girl?"
Rhiannon looked from Benjamin - helpless in the throes of a laughing fit - to Lina, who stood stock still, unsure how to react. Her pale blue eyes began to glow with anger. "Evangeline!'' she said forcefully, causing the peer to flinch. "What the bloody hell do you think you're doing?"
Lina was confused. "Rhiannon, all you told me about this fellow and particularly the way you greeted one another led me to believe that he... that you... that the two of you were..." Her voice trailed off in a defeated sigh. "I cannot keep you against your will. If you prefer his attentions to mine, then I shall admit defeat and leave to the victor the prize.''
Rhiannon grabbed her taller partner's arm. "Are you really that much of a fool?" She searched Lina's face. "Yes, I see you are!"
She dragged the pliant Lina over to a chair and pushed her down. Looming over her suddenly shame-faced partner, Rhiannon began speaking rapidly. "Benjamin and I weren't lovers. Ever! He was more like a brother to me, a fact that I would have been glad to make clear had you only asked! Instead, you obviously came here with a set of pre-conceived ideas and proceeded to cast me aside as if the time we've spent together means nothing to you!"
She stopped to pant furiously, then swallowed her ire with an effort. In a far calmer voice, although her eyes still glowed, Rhiannon continued, "What on earth made you think we were lovers, you cloth headed idiot?"
Lina mumbled, "You said you loved him..."
Rhiannon rolled her eyes. "Why is it when jealousy rears its ugly head, common sense flies out the window? You didn't ask me what I meant and when you were so quiet, I thought you understood. Lina, if you really believe that I'd desert you for anyone else - male, female or otherwise - then I suppose you don't trust me. Have never trusted me. And that hurts me more than you can possibly imagine."
Benjamin cleared his throat. When two sets of eyes - one brimming with anger and the other with tears - turned upon him, he said diffidently, "I'll just go fetch some tea, shall I?'' and left the office, shutting the door discreetly behind him.
Rhiannon grasped Lina's chin and said, "For God's sake, Lina! Don't cry, please." She wiped away a stray tear. "Did you honestly think I'd throw you away without a second thought? No, I see you really didn't. You were just upset and blurted out the first thing that came to mind, I expect."
The peer sniffed. "I apologize, my dear. I believe I have told you before that I have certain insecurities..."
"Yes, I know." Rhiannon smiled ruefully, anger completely gone. "We both do. Every time you introduce me to someone from your past - particularly a female! - I have to wonder if you're comparing her lovemaking to mine."
"I suppose I have made a fool of myself," Lina said.
"Not an enormous one, no. If you'd challenged poor Benjamin to a duel for my honor, then you'd have gone too far." Rhiannon kissed Lina's cheeks, first left then right. "Have you been letting this gnaw at you all day? Good Lord! Why didn't you just ask me!"
Lina took out a handkerchief and blew her nose. "I allowed my heart to rule my head, I suppose. No... that is not entirely true. I will tell you why, my dear. Because deep inside - in a place I rarely acknowledge and have had on more than one occasion to regret possessing - I fear losing you so much that at the slightest hint, my courage deserts me and I cannot help but descend into a maelstrom of doubt and worry."
Rhiannon sighed. "Do you believe - deep down - that I love you?"
"Then next time, if you feel unsure, ask! I shall do the same. We've been together long enough to be sure that what we want is one another and no other. And questions don't mean questioning our love. Agreed?"
Lina took Rhiannon's hand and let her lips brush across her lover's palm. "Agreed, my dear. I shall never doubt you again."
"Never say never," the strawberry-blonde replied, rapping one knuckle on the wooden arm of Lina's chair. "At least, that's what my father always said."
A knock came from the door. Benjamin tentatively poked his head inside the office. "Fireworks over?'' he asked.
"Yes," Rhiannon said. "I was just about to explain to Lina about... well, you know."
Benjamin came into the room, carrying a battered tin tray covered with tea things. "Oh, yes," he replied knowingly, startling Lina with a blue-eyed wink. "Do enlighten your lover about the notorious Benjamin Salt."
"Lina, Bennie is... hmph. A delicate way of putting it would be to say that he prefers the company of gentlemen." Rhiannon raised both eyebrows and gave Lina a significant look.
It took a moment, but the light finally dawned. "Ohhhh," Lina breathed. She turned her face to Benjamin and said contritely, "I do beg your pardon, Mister Salt. I made erroneous assumptions which have caused both you and Rhiannon distress. If there is any way I can atone for my atrocious behavior..."
Benjamin waved a hand, balancing the tea tray. "Think nothing of it, Lady Evangeline. Mistakes happen. I'm sure you merely misunderstood something Rhiannon told you, that's all. No harm done, truly."
He stepped back behind his desk, sat down and assumed an air of brisk command. "Now that all has been explained, perhaps you'll tell me why you've come. Not,'' he added hastily, "that I'm not thrilled to the core to see you again, Rhiannon! But I assume that something other than reunion has brought you to my door."
Quickly, Rhiannon explained the reason she and Lina had come. When she finished, Benjamin smiled. "Nothing easier, ladies! My morgue is your morgue, if you will excuse the forbidding term. We do have copies of The Times from the period you seek; allow me to escort you downstairs to the cellar and introduce you to Old Mike."
As they left, Benjamin said, "Attend, ladies! Old Mike is a formidable fixture in this hallowed institution. Woe to any who mar the perfection of his archives! Such infidels have disappeared into the crypt-like depths of labyrinthine cellars, never to be seen or heard from again."
Rhiannon giggled; after a moment, so did Lina.
Benjamin gave Lina another wink as he escorted them out of his office.
Lina winked back. Somehow - despite her fears, jealousy and earlier reservations
- she felt that this impudent gentleman would turn out to be a good friend,
After spending several hours poring over enormous leather-bound copies of The Times, sneezing as the seldom used shelves and archives sent clouds of dust into the air each time they were disturbed, both Lina and Rhiannon were overjoyed when they finally came across a small article dated August 23, 1856.
Lina read the item aloud while Rhiannon wrote furiously in her notebook.
to the family's physician, Doctor
maid, Hermione Middleton,
prayers are with the family and we
"Hmph. Small help there," Lina complained after she finished the article. "Although I find the lady's death a bit... odd. We shall see if we can locate this maid and the family physician. Perhaps they can shed some more light on the circumstances."
"Surely you don't think Lady Amanda's death was anything more than an accident, do you?," Rhiannon asked, putting down the pencil and shaking her wrist. It was a bit stiff after all her mad scribbling. "If she was under a doctor's care..."
Lina snorted. "You would be surprised how many doctors overlook the obvious, my dear. Do you recall the young physician we encountered in Scotland? If you and I had not investigated the matter, your Great-Aunt's death would still be considered an accident and Sir Gregory the possessor of a fortune rightly belonging to yourself!"
Rhiannon nodded thoughtfully. "Well, I certainly don't expect much to come out of this. It all happened so long ago. And besides, I'm more interested in Sebastian Moon than his mother."
"True. But we shall persevere," Lina said, continuing to flip over pages. "One odd circumstance may very well lead to another."
When she was unable to find anything else pertaining to the Moon family, Lina scanned along the shelves until she located another massive volume. Taking it down - and getting a faceful of dust that left her looking as if she'd been dipped in flour - she began quickly scanning the newspaper pages after a brisk shake of her head that sent grayish powder flying.
"Ah! Here it is," she crooned, pointing to a narrow column dated June 15, 1870. "Are you ready, sweetheart? The article is short but, I believe, pertinent to our investigation."
TWO MISSING - FOUL PLAY SUSPECTED
15. Sir Arthur Moon and his youngest son,
the family has made no public comment,
of the public who may have information
"I wonder if A.B. Montrose still works for The Times?" Rhiannon asked.
Lina shrugged. "Such longevity is not unheard of, my dear. Only twenty years have passed since Sir Arthur's murder; if Montrose was a young man at the time, he may very well still be haunting the newspaper's environs."
"We must ask Mister Salt regarding Montrose," she continued. "It is often the case that journalists uncover far more than actually appears in print."
"Why is that?"
Lina chuckled. "Editors are often far more concerned with newspaper sales volume and public opinion than they are in telling the unexpurgated truth. Besides, if a story has its roots in scandal - as this one certainly does! - then he must be especially careful not to offend powerful parties... including the owner of the paper."
"So Montrose may know more than we see here. Well! Then I definitely want to see him!," Rhiannon exclaimed. "He could have the entire business at his fingertips and save us a lot of trouble."
Lina dusted off her bodice and skirts, clapping her hands together to rid her black kid gloves of dirt. "Possible, my dear, but not probable. Nevertheless, we shall endeavor to have a word or two with the gentleman in question."
She rummaged around in the leather-bound volume and found the next article. "This one is dated a few days after the first," the peer said.
INDUSTRIALIST FOUND MURDERED!
18. The body of Sir Arthur Moon, missing
whereabouts of Sir Arthur's youngest son, Sebastain,
is not the first tragedy suffered by the Moon
"So... brother Bartholomew was called upon by the police," Lina said. "I wonder what his first impressions were when he was summoned to the scene of the crime."
Rhiannon made a face. "I imagine what any other brother would feel under similar circumstances. Appalled, saddened and shaken to the core."
"Well, we shall certainly add one Inspector Henry Stirling to our list of individuals to be interviewed," Lina said, rifling through the volume. "Not to mention Sir Bartholomew himself, if possible. I wonder if Mycroft Holmes could be of some assistance in the matter?"
It took only a few moments to locate the next article.
MOON'S MURDERER CAPTURED IN CALAIS!
24. Today in a shocking revelation, the murderer
to Bartholomew Moon, Sir Arthur's eldest
was apprehended by authorities in Calais while
"It makes one wonder how mad Sebastian Moon could have been, if his faculties were such that he was able to elude discovery for a few days and even contemplate a moonlight flit," Lina said.
"Depressive mania and nervous hysteria?" Rhiannon asked. "What is that supposed to mean?"
"If you will recall, my dear, Mister Blackpoole mentioned that Sebastian suffered from fits of depression and maniacal joy. The workings of the human mind are still somewhat of a mystery, notwithstanding the excellent work of such doctors as Sigmund Freud in Vienna and our own Doctor O'Bannon, and twenty years ago the understanding of such matters was darker still. Those catch-all terms still exist even in these more enlightened times."
"I wonder in what form Sebastian's mania manifested itself? Besides the homicidal impulse to kill his father, I mean."
Lina frowned. "We must not make assumptions until we have all the facts at hand, my dear. The death of Sir Arthur Moon may not have been the impulsive act of a simple madman. It may very well have been a closely considered action taken for a number of reasons, none of which we can guess at until we have gathered as much information regarding Sebastian Moon as possible."
Rhiannon shuddered. "Why would anyone want to kill his father?" she asked.
"Inheritance, although in this case unlikely," Lina replied absently, continuing to turn pages. "Revenge for some injury or slight. Who knows? We may never discover the absolute truth; however, I do intend to try."
They were required to consult another volume before the final article was revealed.
24. Sebastian Moon, son of the
Bartholomew Moon, now sole member of his
"Once again, good Master Montrose has revealed himself, much like the demon king in a pantomime leaping up through the trap and frightening children into fits. Or rather, like a Jonah of ill-luck, spreading doom, gloom and disaster in his wake." Lina smiled. "We must make it a priority of the first order to uncover the whereabouts of Montrose and interview him at our earliest opportunity."
"I'd sooner call him a vulture than a Jonah," Rhiannon said. "Hovering about, waiting for disaster to strike. Still, that's the nature of a newsman, and one can hardly fault him for doing his job."
They spent a few more moments consulting the archives but were unable to find any more references to Sebastian Moon. Shaking her skirts in a futile effort to rid them of dust, Lina said, "Let us return abovestairs to deliver our thanks to Mister Salt. Afterwards, I suggest we make some repair to our toilette at home and settle down to a quiet evening of Cook's excellent dinner and further contemplation of your painting."
Rhiannon, wrinkling her nose ruefully at the soiled condition of her
dress and gloves - by this point the two women were so covered in strings
of cobwebby dust and dirt that they looked more like street urchins than
ladies of fashion - agreed with her lover heartily.
During the course of the next week, Lady Evangeline sent out inquiries to friends and acquaintances in order to uncover the whereabouts of several of the people she wished to interview.
In the midst of messages and telegrams flying back and forth, Benjamin Salt visited Grosvenor Square, bringing with him an address for the mysterious A.B. Montrose.
"Never knew the chap myself," he said, perching on the rolled arm of the sofa and accepting a cup of tea. A sheaf of blonde hair concealed one merry blue eye. "From all accounts, he was a formidable fellow. Reported solely on crime and had a nose like a hunting hound when it came to bloodshed and murder. At one point he was even suspected of homicide himself because he arrived at the scene of the crime before the police even got wind of the matter!"
"Is there anything more you can tell us, Mister Salt?" Lina asked. She still didn't feel comfortable calling him "Bennie" as Rhiannon did.
"Hmmm...." Benjamin nibbled on a slice of cake before answering, "I heard from some of the older gentlemen that Montrose was a bit of a queer duck. Lived alone, never went out, quite unsociable. He retired from the business two years ago at the age of fifty, moved to Southend and runs a lodging house with a woman. Called the Bide-a-While Guesthouse' or some such thing"
Rhiannon raised a brow. "Lives with a woman? Not his wife?"
Benjamin blushed, dusting crumbs from his trousers. "Er, no. By all accounts, Montrose and Mrs. Lucinda Whiteletter reside together without the benefit of a clergyman's blessing. I say, you do have a dirty mind, woman. It may all be perfectly innocent, you know!"
Rhiannon giggled. "I just wanted to see if you could still blush, Bennie." She crossed the room and stood in front of the painting; Bob the footman had hung it on a wall in the study.
"Have you seen The Changeling's Moon?" she asked. "I find the details fascinating. All those wee people doing such funny things, so much detail it's amazing! Mister Blackpoole, the dealer, told us it took Moon twenty years to finish."
Benjamin got up and took a look, peering at the painting with polite interest. After a moment, he said, "Don't you find it a bit, um, strange... no, not strange but perhaps a bit odd. No, not odd, either." He blushed again. "Forgive me. I'm babbling."
Lina rose from the sofa and went to join Rhiannon, putting an arm around her lover's waist. "No, not at all, Mister Salt," she said. "Please go on."
"Well, it's a foolish observation," Benjamin said. "It just struck me that the artist's name - Sebastian Moon - is also reflected in the title of the piece. The Changeling's Moon. I wondered what he could have meant by it, that's all."
Lina's emerald eyes narrowed. "Possibly nothing, a mere trifling impulse on the part of the artist. On the other hand..." She fell silent.
Rhiannon looked up at Lina. "A 'changeling' is an old superstition, a fairy child put in the place of a stolen human child. I can't think of a connection, however."
The peer released Rhiannon and stepped closer to the painting. "My dear," she said, "How would you feel about a trip to Southend tomorrow?"
"To find A.B. Montrose? I'm certainly game," the strawberry-blonde answered. "Would you care to come along too, Bennie?" she asked.
Benjamin inclined his head. "I fear that duty calls, ladies," he replied. "However, should you care to enlighten me on any points of interest you may uncover..."
"Of course." Lina suddenly turned and confronted the young man. "As long as we have an understanding. I do not care to see the details of this investigation glaring at me from newspaper headlines, Mister Salt. All our conversations should be considered 'off the record' as I believe you people say, until I give you my express permission otherwise."
Benjamin nodded. "I completely understand, Lady Lina. You may rely on my discretion."
After Benjamin took his leave, pleading business concerns, Lina turned to Rhiannon. "Can we trust him, my dear? I certainly do not want to make an enemy out of so powerful a man as Sir Bartholomew Moon unless it is absolutely required."
"Yes, Bennie can be trusted." Rhiannon slid her arms around her lover and pressed close, tilting her face up for a kiss. "I give you my word that he's a man of honor."
"Excellent." Lina scooped Rhiannon even closer, hands molded to her back, marveling anew at the delicacy of the other woman's shoulder bones, seeming like wings of finest porcelain but far stronger.
For a moment, the two lovers stared at one another, green eyes melting into blue.
Time stopped for a single heartbeat, then two...
And Lina bent her head down and kissed her lover with sensuous ease, teasingly outlining Rhiannon's lips with her tongue before plunging it inside, enjoying the slightly sweet taste of cinnamon and cloves in her mouth, eyes closed against the explosion of breath upon cheek, leisurely outlining Rhiannon's teeth and sparring with her tongue before releasing her with a long, drawn-out moan of appreciation.
"Shall we retire upstairs or do you deem it too early in the afternoon for connubial bliss?" Lina asked breathlessly.
Rhiannon panted, hands clutching Lina's muscular shoulders in a convulsive grip. She swallowed, pale blue eyes hazy with lust. "Too early?" she replied in a near whisper. "Love, if you keep kissing me like that, in five minutes it'll be too late!"
With a knowing grin, Lina scooped Rhiannon up into her strong arms and carried her up the stairs to their bedroom, shutting the door firmly behind them.
(Author's Note: *See The Banshee's Wail for the full story.)