Table of Contents
“A breathless ride through Victorian England . . . You’ll be hooked on this unique mystery from the very first line.”
—Victoria Thompson, author of
Murder on Sisters’ Row
“I loved this cheeky romp—a kind of Fanny Hill meets Nancy Drew—through a world Dickens would have known. India Black, the witty and resourceful young madam of a London brothel, is a delightful protagonist. I shall follow her future career with particular interest.”
—Vicki Lane, author of
The Day of Small Things
“[A] breezy, fast-paced debut.”
“A breakneck romp through Victorian England . . . Provides plenty of laughter and thrills to keep readers turning pages.”
“Readers will enjoy this impressive debut novel, which provides a colorful portrait of Victorian society as seen through the eyes of a strong, intelligent woman.”
“This saucy debut is a satisfying amusement, with the happy promise of more to come.”
“Bone up on your English and Russian history with this witty account of India Black’s escapades. She’s quite a character!”
“India is a charismatic character with depth, coyness and an unexpected ability to get exactly what she wants, no matter what.
is also full of romance for those who enjoy history, romance and mysteries rolled into one. This is one book that will satisfy all of your needs.”
Romance Readers Connection
“Terrific . . . Entertaining . . . A fast-paced Victorian mystery . . . There are escapes, cross-country chases by coach and by sled, sharpshooting and danger on the high seas.”
My Reader’s Block
“It’s the perfect mix of a great main character, interesting supporting characters, adventure, intrigue and historical setting—combined with a wonderfully descriptive writing style and fast pace.”
Fluidity of Time
“Expect to stay up late reading this fascinating and at times hilarious novel of espionage and intrigue; you won’t want to put it down.”
RT Book Reviews
Berkley Prime Crime titles by Carol K. Carr
INDIA BLACK AND THE WIDOW OF WINDSOR
THE BERKLEY PUBLISHING GROUP
Published by the Penguin Group
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This book is an original publication of The Berkley Publishing Group.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
Copyright © 2011 by Carol K. Carr.
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Carr, Carol K.
ISBN : 978-1-101-54501-0
1. Victoria, Queen of Great Britain, 1819–1901—Assassination attempts—Fiction. 2. Nationalists—Scotland—Fiction. 3. Spies—Great Britain—Fiction. I. Title.
My thanks to Maestro Nick Evangelista of the Missouri State University Fencing Society for answering an endless list of questions about the art, science, and history of fencing. I am also grateful to Debra Kendrick-Murdoch and to Nick for demonstrating the finer points of the sport and graciously “doing it one more time” so the author could experience the sights and sounds of an actual bout. Any errors made or liberties taken with regard to the fencing scenes in this book are attributable solely to the author.
lafair, you stupid girl. It’s
Samuel, for goodness’ sake.” Mrs. Evangeline LeBlanc rustled to the table in her black silk gown, taking up the heavy Bible from the table and flipping rapidly through its pages until she’d found the correct chapter and verse. “First Samuel, chapter 28. You had the pages turned to
Samuel, chapter 24.”
Her daughter shrugged. “Really, Mama, do you think any of these people will notice whether it’s First Samuel or Second Samuel or a page from Mrs. Gaskell? It’s so dark in here you can’t see your hand in front of your face.”
“Exactly as we like it, my dear. And, yes, details always matter. We don’t need some old biddy wandering over to refresh her memory about the encounter between Saul and the spirit of Samuel, and instead reading about some avenging angel flattening Jerusalem at the Lord’s command. It just wouldn’t do.”
Evangeline LeBlanc (born Elsie Gooch in Catahoula Parish, Louisiana, and whose most recent residence had been the women’s ward of the New Orleans municipal jail) cast an experienced eye over the room. The parlor of the little rented house was suitably respectable for a medium of Mrs. LeBlanc’s reputation (which was still wholly intact in Great Britain, if a bit tarnished in the States). True, the rooms were the tiniest bit shabby, but in an odd way that added to the verisimilitude of the experience; the people who came to see her were less interested in the quality of the lace antimacassars on the sofa and more concerned with her ability to contact the recently departed. The state of the room indicated a woman preoccupied with spiritual matters rather than earthly affairs. She couldn’t afford to be flashy, as that drew unnecessary attention to the fees she charged and the status of her bank account.
There was nothing flashy about the room now. It contained only the required articles for the séance. The round oak table was covered with a white lace cloth, and in the center stood a crystal ball. Two white candles in gleaming brass candlesticks stood north and south of the ball. The Bible, now open to the correct page, was situated on the western side of the crystal ball, and a piece of perfect white quartz acted as a paperweight. To the east of the ball, Alafair LeBlanc had positioned a bud vase containing a single white lily, its fragrance reputed to attract spirits. In the event any mischievous, or downright evil, spirits appeared, Alafair had laid out their defenses on a sideboard: a wicked-looking knife of Sheffield steel, a delicate silver bell and a salt cellar filled to the brim with coarse rock salt. Mrs. LeBlanc had never had the occasion to test these defenses against any ill-mannered apparitions, but then Mrs. LeBlanc had never actually been successful in contacting any spirits of any sort. The accoutrements of her trade were there for the comfort of her clients.
“The room looks perfect,” Mrs. LeBlanc said. She cocked her head critically at her daughter. “Should we go over things again?”
Alafair wheezed in exasperation. “No, Mama. We’ve done this dozens of times.”
“Another round of practice wouldn’t hurt. If we’d only covered that bit of string in New Orleans, I wouldn’t have spent seven months in the pokey, listening to whores scream for morphine or a drop of rum.” Mrs. LeBlanc sniffed. “Jail is no place for a woman of my sensibilities. It nearly shattered me.”
Alafair dropped a comforting arm around her mother. “That was the past, Mama. We’ve done really well here in London. Your name is known all over town. Everyone who is anyone wants you to conduct a séance.”
Her mother dropped her eyes modestly. It was true. Londoners were coming out of the woodwork for a chance to have Evangeline LeBlanc contact dear Uncle Piers (he was fine in the morning, but cholera acts so swiftly) or sweet little Mary (who knew there was an abandoned well there?).
“Of course,” Alafair went on, “we got terribly lucky when Lady Bancroft was run down by that hansom cab, just after you warned her to expect bad news by horse. Probably wasn’t expecting it to be quite such bad news, though.”
“I was only trying to scare the woman,” Mrs. LeBlanc said indignantly. “I didn’t take to her at all. What a snob. Acted like we weren’t fit to wipe her feet. I just wanted to put the wind up her.”
“Her death was regrettable,” said Alafair, without the slightest hint of regret. “But it’s been good for business. The swells are lining up to see you. Just look at the size of the fish we’ve landed tonight.”
There had been more involved in landing this particular fish than Mrs. LeBlanc had shared with Alafair, but then the girl need not know everything, especially since Mrs. LeBlanc found herself a bit uneasy about this specific detail. Still, bills must be paid, and if she did her job well, quite a lot of bills would be settled out of tonight’s work. She looked at the clock and clapped her hands. “Mercy! She’ll be here any minute. Look sharp, Alafair, and mind you don’t snag your ring on that wire again or there will be hell to pay.”
Alafair rolled her eyes. By now she was used to her mother growing anxious as the time arrived for the séance. Mrs. LeBlanc would turn snappish, like she had about First Samuel, and then pace the room in circles, muttering under her breath and wringing her hands. Alafair had mentioned it once, only to endure a diatribe about the similarities of séances to theatrical productions and the strenuous preparations her mother had to undergo in order to present a realistic performance. Like most artists, though, Mrs. LeBlanc would be ready when the curtain rose.
They heard the jangle of harnesses and the ring of iron shoes on the cobbled lane outside the house. The driver of the coach shouted hoarsely, slowing his charges to a standstill, wheels crunching to a halt in the rime of frost on the stones.
“She’s here,” said Mrs. LeBlanc, who made a dash for the mirror, tucked her fading grey ringlets into her cap and ran a finger over her eyebrows.
“How do I look?” she enquired of her daughter.
“Very correct,” said Alafair. “And quite trustworthy.”
Mrs. Leblanc spared her a quick smile, flung herself into a chair with her hand on her chest and breathed deeply to calm her nerves. “Go to the door, dear, and welcome our guests. And don’t forget to curtsey,” she shouted after Alafair as she smoothed her dress and checked one last time for escaping curls.
Alafair opened the door and found herself staring at the chest of a tall, slim footman wearing a cloak and hat against the winter chill. He removed the hat and inclined his powdered wig at her.
“Mrs. Evangeline LeBlanc?”
“I am her daughter, Miss Alafair LeBlanc.”
The footman pirouetted and bowed prettily, his arm sweeping gracefully backward to indicate the stout, dark form that had appeared at his elbow.
“Her Majesty, the Queen,” he said, then stepped aside as the little figure marched resolutely into the hall, brushing past Alafair with barely a glance. Alafair bent a knee and wobbled dangerously, rising just in time to snare the first of many garments the Queen was beginning to shed with the help of a lady-in-waiting who had accompanied her. Alafair collected shawls, scarves, cashmere gloves and a severe bonnet in varying hues of black from the Queen, then held out her arms as the men and women who were participating in the séance with Her Majesty discarded their heavy coats and cloaks, bonnets, top hats, mittens and gloves. Alafair staggered under the weight, wished they had hired a maid for the evening and pondered the task of escorting the Queen into her mother while carrying the contents of a clothing shop.