She realized she had spoken aloud when Poppy looked at her thoughtfully. “Then he is kind to you?”
Miranda forced her hands open, thought of cool things, calm things. “I have no complaints in that regard.”
Daisy leaned in. “Enough dreary thoughts of death and violence.” Her blue eyes went catlike. “Let us get to the heart of the matter. Have you any complaints in regards to the bedroom?”
Poppy snorted in disgust as Miranda licked her lips and wished for more tea.
Daisy grinned saucily. “To be sure, the mask is rather… unsettling, but I must say, the body is”—her light voice dipped to a low purr—“stirring. All broad shouldered and trim of waist.” Her voluptuous curves wriggled a bit on the seat. “And tall enough to overpower a lady with ease.”
“Daisy,” Poppy warned sharply.
Daisy went on with a Cheshire cat grin. “Admit it. Lord Archer cuts quite a delicious figure. I’d overlook the mask to ride such a body. How very wicked to bed a masked man.”
“Oh good God, Daisy Margaret!”
Daisy ignored Poppy. “Well, then? Am I wrong?”
Miranda smoothed a pleat on her flounce. M. Falle was really quite good with pleating. Perhaps she’d ask for a bit more on the next dress.
“Miranda…” Daisy’s stare would not relent.
“Leave her alone. Not everyone is interested in intercourse.”
“Even you don’t believe that, pet.”
Poppy flushed and she glanced at Miranda. The clatter of coach traffic on Oxford Street drifted in from outside as Miranda perspired under the harsh glare of their expectant looks.
“Our arrangement is not of that sort,” Miranda finally admitted.
Daisy’s mouth hung open prettily. “Not of that sort?” she parroted. “Forgive me, dear sister, but when a man who is as rich as sin and a baron marries a girl without position or fortune, the only sort of arrangement he could possibly desire is for a nightly tup with his beautiful young wife.”
Poppy, for once, looked as if she agreed with Daisy.
“I read to him,” Miranda lied in desperation, her cheeks hotter than oven-fresh bread.
Daisy snorted. “Read to him. The very idea. Has he not come to your bed?” she asked as though making a joke.
“No,” Miranda snapped rather loudly. She hadn’t expected the truth to be so humiliating. “He deposits me at my bedroom door every night and then goes off on his own. Perhaps he takes his needs elsewhere. I really couldn’t say.”
“That, my dear,” Daisy said, “is a ton marriage. Be thankful for it.”
No, that was loneliness, Miranda thought despondently.
They were silent for a moment, and then Poppy turned to her lunch. As if waiting for that signal, Daisy and Miranda did the same, Daisy delicately sipping tea and Miranda trying to force down a sandwich her stomach no longer wanted.
“Is Winston coming home for lunch?” Miranda asked to fill the awkward silence.
“Not today.” Poppy took a large bite of her sandwich and chewed industriously. “The whole department is focused on…” A flush touched her white cheeks. The promotion to C.I.D. had been a crowning achievement for Winston and a source of pride for Poppy. No doubt, Winston leading a high-profile investigation was another triumph.
Miranda set her sandwich down. “Is that why you did not want me here? Did you think the neighbors might see the dreaded Lord Archer’s coach outside and inform Winston?”
Poppy’s red brows drew together to form a straight line. “If you think I fear my husband then you don’t know me at all.” Her eyes pinned Miranda to the spot, a rather motherly trick that Miranda had loathed throughout childhood.
Miranda looked away. “I am sorry, Pop. I don’t know why… I’m just so… Archer is… he cannot be the murderer. But he is involved.” She pulled the coin from her pocket and held it out. “I need your help.”
Unfortunately, revelations did not spring forth as Miranda had hoped. West Moon Club was not on any official club register listed. It did not surface in old newspaper articles, history of London books, or any of the other literature that Poppy pulled down from her shelves. Nor was there a West Club, or a Club Moon, for that matter. Checking for old stories or accounts of the two victims did not help. The men in question had lived staid lives as far as society knew. Near the end of the day, all they had to show for their efforts were mountains of books and papers teetering precariously over the entire surface of Poppy’s counter.
“Well, I am done in,” Daisy finally exclaimed with a fleeting scowl.
Poppy sat back, her rail-thin shoulders bunched and determined beneath her cotton blouse. “I’ll have to give this some more thought.” She stared in a glazed manner at the books before her.
“I do believe an outside investigation is called for,” Miranda said.
Poppy’s eyes cut back to Miranda like a scythe. “Absolutely not.”
“I’m perfectly capable…”
“You are,” Poppy interjected, “Lady Archer, society’s newest curiosity. You would be instantly recognized.”
“I can disguise myself!”
Poppy looked pointedly at Miranda’s face before raising one red brow. “Try again.”
Miranda could only come up with a baleful glare.
Of which Poppy was immune. “If you are recognized, you would heap scandal and suspicion upon Lord Archer’s already overburdened shoulders.”
“That is true, pet.” Daisy nodded. “It will only add oil to the fire.”
Miranda’s back teeth met with a click. She would not risk Archer’s name to further scandal, no. But she had more confidence in her ability to disguise herself than Poppy and Daisy did.
Poppy smiled and briskly patted her knee. “There. Now that we have that settled, it is time for you to leave. It is nearly supper—or tea time for you lot, I suppose.”
They glanced at the windows. The light outside had faded to dark gray, and the lamplighter had come out, his long pole bouncing on his shoulder as he made his way from streetlamp to streetlamp. He stopped by the window, and a muted halo of light illuminated the panes.
“Blast,” Miranda muttered, tidying her pile of papers into a neater stack. “I’ve got to go before Archer begins to wonder.”
Poppy’s lips twitched. “Worries over you, now does he?”
She continued to sort the pile. “I don’t know if he worries…”
“He ought to. You’re incorrigible.”
“Or course she is,” Daisy said as she smoothed her skirts. “I taught her everything I know.”
“Hopefully not everything. Leave the papers, dears. I’ll sort them out later.”
Poppy duly kissed their cheeks as they parted by the door. “Stay safe.”
Something burned inside of Miranda, irritation, dread. She didn’t know anymore. “He cannot be a murderer.”
“You said that before,” Poppy murmured. “Is it what you believe, or what you hope?”
Having confined all aspects of espionage to skulking behind closed doors or hiding in small spaces, Miranda was uncertain how easy it would be to track Archer as he set out for town the next day. As it turned out, it was quite simple.
A man of uncommon height and breadth of shoulders wearing a black carnival mask while riding astride a gray gelding was not a sight one overlooked. John Coachman—who participated because he had no choice in the matter but wore an exceedingly sullen expression when Miranda told him of her plan—needed only to follow the trail of stunned onlookers like the proverbial breadcrumbs in the forest. Soon they were only four coach lengths behind him. Impatient, she craned her neck, putting her head as far out the window as she dared. Archer’s head remained high and forward, his seat light and trained. He cut through the traffic, seeming oblivious of the commotion he caused. Miranda’s chest tightened, watching him so. He had too keen an eye not to see the rudely gawking halfwits who hadn’t the decency to let him pass in peace.
Unfortunately London traffic got the better of them on Piccadilly, and the crush of omnibuses, carts, and carriages soon swallowed him whole.
“Blast.” She punched the seat and sat back in a huff as the coach creaked to a halt.
From the window came a plaintive bleat as a flock of sheep waddled by, leaving behind the acrid stench of urine and lanolin. She muttered again, expecting a cow to poke its wet nose through the window at any moment.
John Coachman’s blond head peeked in as he opened the box. “S’all right, milady. He’s gone to the British Museum, I’m sure of it.”
Miranda perked up. “How can you be sure?”
His brown eyes crinkled. “He’s been going there every Wednesday since as long as he’s been here in London.”
“Every…” She ground her teeth to keep from shouting. “Then why didn’t you simply tell me that when I endeavored to follow Lord Archer?”
The earnestness of his expression was genuine. “But my lady, you only asked me to follow Lord Archer, not tell you his habits.” The traffic around them moved, and John’s head snapped up. “Here we go, then,” he said quickly and then closed the box. The coach gave a lurch and went off at a nice clip.
Her ire died down as they pulled up before the British Museum. She bade John to wait and entered the cool quiet of the stately neoclassical front building. A guide took her mantle and informed her that extraordinary exhibits were currently being held in galleries one and two. Having never been inside, Miranda hadn’t realized the sheer size of the place. She despaired of finding Archer. Unfortunately, her quiet word of inquiry to the stout guide yielded nothing more than a raised shaggy, white brow.
“The privacy of our patrons is sacrosanct, madam. I’m sure I would be remiss in my duties if I did not treat it as such.” His stern expression broke for a fleeting moment. “However, you may wish to examine the paintings of our Pre-Raphaelites in the Red Salon. I vow you shall find them most enlightening.”
She found Archer in the center of the otherwise empty Red Salon.
Miranda stayed back, hiding in the outer corridor just behind the doorway. He stood for several long minutes gazing up at a portrait upon the wall. She dared not move closer to see what it was, but something about the tilt of Archer’s head, the way his shoulders hunched, spoke of longing and loneliness.
“Though lovely, that gown is hardly inconspicuous.”
Miranda inhaled with a rush, Archer’s sudden words causing her heart to promptly stop before starting up again madly. She cursed herself for being seduced by duchess satin the color of new butter and a high-flaring collar of starched bronze organza.
“How did you know I was here?” she said as she moved into the gallery to stand beside him.
Archer chuckled silently but kept his eyes on the painting before him, a voluptuous girl with a yellow rose tucked behind one ear. Her rosebud lips were soft and yielding, her eyes dreamy as she stared off into the distance. Flame red hair parted down the middle, flowing in molten wings down to her shoulders.
“La Bocca Baciata.” Archer’s rich voice rolled over the Italian like a wave. Perfect diction. Miranda thought of his second name—Aldo. There was Italian in his background, to be sure.
He shifted until he stood just behind her right shoulder, his great height looming over her. “You ought to have hired a hack,” he said. “Covered your bright hair with a larger, less beguiling hat, worn heavy perfume to hide your natural scent…”
“Yes, all right. You’ve gone on quite enough about my lack of prowess as a spy, thank you.” Pursing her lips, she kept her eyes on the painting.
He made a sound of amusement, but said nothing more. Miranda hedged a glance at him. Melancholy surrounded him like a shroud. “Why do you come here every Wednesday, Archer?”
For a moment, she thought he hadn’t heard her soft query, but then his shoulders moved with a silent sigh. “I would come here with my mother. When I was a boy.” Gray eyes cut to hers. “Art brought her peace.” He turned his attention back to the portraits. “And now it does me.”
They were silent for a moment, then he took her elbow and guided her from the gallery. Although his manner appeared calm, his brisk pace belied his demeanor. Not for the first time, she wished she could see his expression and felt an inordinate surge of hatred toward the hard, full masks he wore. He was so much more than what he chose to show. Curse it, Victoria had seen what lay beneath; why not she?
“Where are you taking me?” Miranda asked.
“I should think it obvious.”
She eyed him impatiently, and he made a small bow of acquiescence. “As you are clearly wasting away from boredom, I must make it my duty to keep you entertained.”
Her mouth opened, then promptly closed as an elegantly turned-out couple glided by, their eyes determinedly held away from Archer.
Archer guided her down another corridor and into the zoological collections.
“You have not asked why I was following you,” she said when they were alone again.
They paused beside a display case filled with beetles. “To question would imply that I do not know the answer.” He glanced at her. “It is because you are the most stubborn, impetuous, overtly curious creature I have ever known.”
Something rude passed over her lips, and the corners of his eyes crinkled. She turned away from him and studied a wall of pinned butterflies.
Archer’s sigh of resignation broke their stalemate. “All right, I’ll play your game. Why are you following me?” Despite his jesting manner, irritation sharpened his voice.