Excerpt: Manners and Monsters

Excerpt: Manners and Monsters

Boos 1-3

March 1816. London, England.

Life did not bestow her gifts with an even hand. There was so little in Hannah Miles’s favour that, in the quietest moments, she wondered if she had been overlooked by the Fates entirely. She possessed neither beauty nor fortune to make her a desirable catch, and her most constant companion was solitude.

Once, her father had been the brave surgeon saving the lives of dashing military men on the battlefields of Europe. That brought a modest number of social invitations, as other women thought Hannah could pass on love letters to wounded officers. Then tragedy struck their family and Sir Hugh Miles turned his focus to the research of Unnatural creatures and their diseases, which earned him the moniker, whispered discreetly, of mad scientist.

Hannah’s engagements became few and far between when it was known she assisted in her father’s research and even handled his test subjects. She wasn’t certain whether it was the stain of employment that made her unacceptable, or the risk of contamination escaping her father’s laboratory. Perhaps they feared that Hannah harboured a contagion in the folds of her clothing or catching a ride on her bonnet. Regardless, social invitations were in scarce supply when your peers feared a plague-ridden rat would jump from your reticule and spoil the scones.

Her mother, Lady Seraphina Miles, had once been the most powerful mage in all of England, and as such, held a rank equivalent to that of a duke. However, magical ranks were only bestowed on the mage and did not pass to family or descendants. That meant her mother’s position and any associated privileges had been lost upon her untimely death.

To add to society’s misgivings, Lady Miles still resided in the family home.

There were simply too many blots on Hannah’s name for society to know quite what to do with her. Far easier to omit her name from invitation lists entirely. Few missed her and she had no desirable skills to add to an evening. Life had not blessed her with a fetching singing voice or skill with a musical instrument.

This invitation was a rare exception.

She ran a finger over its rich, embossed paper. Her dearest friend, Lizzie—Lady Elizabeth Loburn, daughter of the Marquess of Loburn—had become engaged to a most handsome young duke. There would be a grand ball at the Loburn mansion to celebrate the engagement and soon there would be the society event of the year—the much anticipated wedding.

Hannah had no such expectations of marriage. There were no suitors knocking on the family’s forest green door and no prospects on the horizon. Some women were born to be the darlings of society. By dint of their beauty, wit, or talents, they dazzled others and were the centre of attention. Lizzie was one such woman, exceptionally beautiful and with the voice of an angel.

Then there were women like Hannah, whose place was in the shadows, applauding a performance or holding a shawl for a much-loved friend. Not everyone could be a star. Some people had to be the night sky, the dark background that allowed the star to shine.

While some women became bitter at never finding a place in society, Hannah greeted her prospects with quiet acceptance. The world needed spinsters to be companions, nurses, or governesses. Like any young woman, her heart ached to know true love, but she knew she was loved by both her parents and her friend. That would suffice, even if their love didn’t quite reach all the empty hollows in her heart.

“Have you said good night to your mother yet, my dear?” A booming voice echoed through the house.

A wistful smile touched Hannah’s dusky pink lips. Papa didn’t give a fig for society’s conventions. She could picture him standing at the bottom of the stairs, his gold pocket watch in one hand as he tapped his toes with impatience. It didn’t matter that they were supposed to be late; he would hustle her out the door and away so that they reached their destination early. Oh, the horror.

Her mind skittered away from that word and her smile dropped. One hand went to her breast, her fingertips resting lightly on the primrose yellow silk over her heart. So many unseen horrors existed in the world. How she wished to return to a time when her only experience of horror was being the first to arrive at a dance!

Thousands of years of magic and dark arts had fundamentally changed their world. A rift had opened with another mystical world, allowing creatures to seep through and walk the earth. Those who did not follow the rules of Nature were called Unnaturals—creatures outside the normal realms of humanity.

Others, like her mother, were called the Afflicted, and things that once had only resided in fairy tales and ancient myths now expected invitations to soirées or lurked in the dark to snatch the unguarded.

Smile in place, Hannah rose from the padded stool, picked up a gossamer-thin green shawl, and left her room. The soft satin slippers on her feet made no noise as she walked the short hallway and then took the wrought-iron spiral staircase upward. The balustrades were carved to resemble a vine and she felt like an adventurer climbing to a dangerous and unknown world above.

At the very top of the stairs was a small landing and a large panelled door. Hannah rapped on it.

A chill washed over her skin as she grasped the door handle and pushed into her mother’s tower. The atmosphere was charged with electricity that made her hair prickle on the back of her neck. Whispers rose from the bed—words of power that circled the high ceiling like ravens caught in thunder-laden clouds.

Silence fell, and the storm vanished as Hannah crossed the rug.

“Hannah!” Lady Miles looked up, her features and expression obscured by the thin muslin veil covering her face. The fabric rested on her shoulders and brushed against her collar bones. Death had taken a cruel toll on her mother, but she was still a part of family life.

Hannah’s gaze glided over the end of the bed and the blankets that lay flat against the mattress. She tried to concentrate on her mother’s face, or what she could see of it.

“Oh, my child, you look exquisite.” One gloved hand went to her mother’s chest. Then she patted the spot next to her.

Across her mother’s lap rested a wooden tray, specially constructed to hold a book open at the right angle so the invalid did not tire herself holding it up. Lady Miles could bend the elements to her will, but magic took a physical toll on those who sought to control it.

Hannah sat on the blanket and drew her attention away from her mother’s too-short frame by glancing at the old tome, a book on the history of the dark arts in Europe. While her father laboured below their house, using science to find a cure for her malady, her mother used academic knowledge. In her tower she pored over ancient books, seeking a magical way to undo the curse that had struck down more than two hundred noblewomen.

“What were you doing?” Hannah asked, curious about the tiny clouds that had scudded into the corners of the room.

Lady Miles closed the book and rested her hand on the worn cover. “Would you believe finding a way for farmers to bring rain to parched crops?”

“No, I would not. England is not known for its lack of rain.”

A gentle laugh blew the veil outward. “Your father and I labour on the same problem, but we approach it from two very different directions.”

“Which is no real answer at all, Mother. Why do you not let me help you more?”

Maternal bonds of protection chafed. Hannah longed to be a full partner in her parents’ study, not merely an assistant. As the first descendant of a mage, Hannah was devoid of any magical ability, but she still had a keen mind.

“Because I do not wish to burden you any more than we already have.” Lady Miles reached out and took Hannah’s hand. Linen hid every inch of her mother’s skin. The long gloves disappeared under the sleeves of her nightgown. Three years ago, her mother had been struck down by an assassin as the French tested a most terrible poison. Their weapon had only stilled her heart, not her mind.

“It is no burden to find a way to restore your health,” Hannah said.

Nor was Lady Miles the only sufferer. What everyone referred to as the Affliction had invaded the finest parlours in London. An innocent-looking jar of face powder had been perverted by the French into a terrible weapon. Of the ton, or upper ten thousand, over two hundred women and a handful of men had been struck down after dusting their faces with cursed powder. Thankfully the sufferers were a small percentage of nobles and an insignificant number compared to London’s population of nearly one and a half million souls.

“Enough of maudlin thoughts. You must promise me that you will have at least two dances tonight.” Her mother’s voice was softened by the fabric covering her face. “One dance with your father, because the old goat needs the exercise, and at least one with a young gentleman.”

Hannah smiled at a request that seemed near impossible. Her father would disappear into the library to discuss business, and none of the gentlemen would notice her.

Her mother gently shook their joined hands. “I will not have you trying to disappear into the wall hangings, Hannah. A young woman should dance and laugh at a ball.”

“I will try, Mother, but I make no promises.” She kissed her mother’s hidden cheek and then stood. “Likewise, I would ask that you do not overtax yourself.”

A soft chuckle blew the veil a few inches. “When death finally claims me, I shall sleep for eternity. Until then, I continue my study. I have a letter for Kitty if you do not mind delivering it, along with the entertainment she requested. The letter is with the box over there. Do not open it until the exact moment arrives.”

“Of course, Mother.” Hannah slid the thick envelope into her reticule and then tucked the wooden box under her arm. It was about the size of a small hatbox and equally as light. She wondered what her mother had concocted for the evening, but her curiosity would have to wait.

Hannah closed the door as her mother’s clouds gathered above her once more. Both her parents possessed a rather large stubborn streak, and neither would be dissuaded from their chosen path. Her mother would whisper arcane words until she collapsed over an open page.

With one hand on the railing, Hannah wound her way back down to her impatient escort.

A broad smile wrinkled her father’s face. “Ah, there is my vision of loveliness.”

Tall and broad of stature, with grey mutton-chop whiskers adorning his face, Sir Hugh looked more like a publican than a doctor or a scientist. Hannah suspected he could hide a number of his mice within his enormous sideburns. Thick-corded arms should have carried kegs of beer, and his large hands seemed entirely unsuited to wielding a scalpel with delicate accuracy. Yet he was the country’s most esteemed surgeon.

Or had been, until 1814, when Sir Hugh and Lady Miles had returned from the war and shut themselves away in their secluded Westbourne Green home. There, the family devoted themselves to research.

While his face always wore a cheerful smile, Hannah saw the deep sadness that dwelt in her father’s warm gaze. A pain they both shared when their beloved Seraphina’s heart had stopped. Sir Hugh had subsequently found a way to keep the Afflicted’s condition under control, but it was so horrific that society was protected from any mention of it.

In this modern world, witches were no longer burned at the stake, but the mythical powers of a woman mage made the population nervous. In the rural community, curious eyes were deprived of the spectacle of Lady Miles, and Hannah could walk without the twitter of gossip following her footsteps. The tiny settlement had only five large houses, of which theirs was one. Seraphina had built the rambling, Gothic-inspired mansion when she became engaged to Sir Hugh. As her domain, Lady Miles had a tall, square turret with a dragon-adorned finial that pointed to the sky. With its panoramic views over the rural pastures, she conducted her own quiet research.

Into the earth Lady Miles had dug rooms for her beloved’s laboratory. In the cool, windowless network of rooms he established a place of science, where he strove to advance man’s knowledge of himself. Hannah could never make the moniker of mad scientist fit. His course was also hers and if he were mad, did that mean she likewise was addle-brained or insane?

“Stop daydreaming, Hannah, or we shall be late. What is in the box?” Sir Hugh held out his arm to her.

She smiled in indulgence even as she wrapped her hand around his thick forearm. “We are supposed to be late, Papa. Nobody arrives on time. But if you insist on being terribly gauche and arriving early, at least I will be able to help Lizzie prepare for her grand entrance. As to the box, it contains Mother’s surprise for the evening.”

A broad smile crinkled the corners of his eyes. “I shall have to wait to see what Sera has constructed. You know the Loburns adore you, and I have much to discuss with the marquess. There has been some improvement in my mice and I believe we may be on the verge of a breakthrough at last.”

Ah, there was the reason for his impatience—some news to carry to his patron. The marquess was head of the Society of Unnatural Scientific Study, a group of men who sought to pierce the veil of mystery around those people who defied God’s laws. Hannah pitied the small creatures confined to their cages in laboratories around England. They did not know that they gave their lives to advance humankind.

The carriage conveyed them from the lush expanse of Westbourne Green, along Uxbridge Road, and toward the bustle of London. The farther they travelled into the city, the more the streets became crowded with horses, carriages, and pedestrians. Hannah breathed a sigh of relief upon seeing the congestion; it would delay their arrival.

They alighted at one of the most desirable addresses in England—Grosvenor Square, Mayfair. Tonight’s was an exclusive affair. Only two hundred people would be present to celebrate the engagement of the daughter of the Marquess of Loburn to the Duke of Harden.

The marquess was both Sir Hugh’s patron and his friend. Despite the taint of madness, magic, and death that pervaded their lives, her father provoked curiosity whenever he went out in public. The Afflicted might only be two per cent of the peers in London, but they represented a percentage with immense power and influence. Nobles demanded answers to the curse that had taken their wives, daughters, and sisters.

The ton expected a cure and Sir Hugh, along with his fellow SUSS scholars, were supposed to provide one. He fielded all questions with the good humour of a politician and wrapped his answers in nonsense and scientific babble, so that those asking never knew the cure still eluded him.

“Will you be all right on your own, my dear?” He patted Hannah’s hand as they crossed the entry hall to the ballroom.

He fussed as though she were still a child frightened of being lost in a crowd, not a woman used to her own company. “Yes, Papa. You go find the marquess and I will offer my assistance to Lady Loburn before I go to Lizzie.”

With some relief, Hannah found they were not, in fact, the very first to arrive. There were at least ten other people in the ballroom to save her from that awkwardness. Their hostess was easy to spot: a tall woman who bore an uncanny resemblance to a bird of prey. With an eagle eye, a hawk-like hook to her nose, and rapid motions, she could have been a caricature of herself, except that her avian appearance concealed a generous heart.

Whenever Hannah met Lady Loburn, she wondered how the lady’s daughter had not inherited her looks from either her mother or her lean father. It was a matter that aroused Hannah’s scientific curiosity, but good breeding kept her tongue silent.

“Lady Loburn.” Hannah bobbed a curtsey. “I have the entertainment for tonight. My mother said not to open it until the exact moment arrives.”

“Oh, brilliant. Thank you, Hannah.” She took the box from Hannah and brushed a hand over the top.

“May I do anything to assist?” Hannah asked.

Her hostess reached out and patted her cheek. “My little angel of efficiency. Could you please ensure the housekeeper has everything in hand below stairs, and then run up and see how our Lizzie progresses?”

“Of course. I do wish to see Lizzie before the ball commences. I have a letter for you from Mother.” She extracted the letter and set it atop the box.

A warm smile softened Lady Loburn’s sharp features. “Thank you. I do so look forward to news from Sera. I shall tuck this away to savour later, when I am alone.”

With tasks allocated, Hannah headed back along the main corridor to the hidden servants’ stair.

When her mother and father had been called to battle, the young Hannah was left in the care of Lady Loburn. She imagined an army camp preparing to meet the enemy looked a lot like the marquess’s kitchens. Maids in starched white aprons and men in their fine livery marched back and forth. Serving trays and dishes were arrayed on the long table, waiting to be filled and carried upstairs. Orders were shouted and staff jumped to fulfil the demands.

She spotted the housekeeper in her black uniform. The efficient woman had everything in hand, down to the timing of the hors d’oeuvres and the correct temperature of the champagne for the celebratory toasts. Satisfied the evening would run smoothly, Hannah headed back up the stairs and knocked on the door of a second floor bedroom.

“Come in,” someone said.

She pushed open the door into quite a different battlefield, the complete opposite of the ordered routine of the kitchens. Up here, chaos reigned. Women dashed back and forth, clutching clothing or accessories. The wardrobe doors hung open as though the piece of furniture had tried to fan itself in exhaustion. Drawers were half open, their contents draped over the sides. Even the bed was unmade, as though the occupant of the room had only recently arisen.

Three maids clustered around the dressing table with its large and ornate mirror. Their charge sat before it on a padded stool.

“Hannah!” Lizzie exclaimed from under all the attention. “Come tell me which earrings I should wear. We simply cannot decide.”

Hannah bent down and kissed the air next to Lizzie’s cheek and considered herself fortunate to have such a friend. Their mothers had been firm friends as girls and while one had married up and the other down, the two women had remained close. When they bore daughters at the same time, it seemed natural to continue the bonds of sisterhood to the next generation. When war intervened, Hannah had been raised under this roof with Lizzie; the two young women considered themselves sisters by friendship, rather than blood.

Hannah cast a critical eye over her best friend. Lizzie wore a pale pink silk gown with silver embroidery that offset her delicate complexion and blonde hair. The long curls were wound up on her head. A three-strap headpiece embellished with pearls kept the mountain of hair in place.

Next, she studied the fortune in jewellery scattered over the dressing table’s surface. Rubies, diamonds, and emeralds were tossed down as though they had been made of paper or paste. Hannah frowned. What were they thinking, trying to match a coloured gem to pink—to say nothing of her friend’s fair colouring? It would never do for her to clash with her earrings and necklace on such an important night.

“The diamonds. The colour won’t detract from your ensemble, but the sparkle will add to the effect.” She picked up the long drop earrings and handed them to the maid.

She watched to make sure her friend’s evening was perfect. “Your mother sent me to make sure you would be suitably late to go down.”

Lizzie laughed. “But how can I keep my darling Francis waiting? How I long to dance with him and feel his arms around me.”

Hannah waggled a finger in Lizzie’s face. “Don’t even think of being early. As a future duchess, you would spark a trend. You simply cannot have people arriving on your doorstep early. It won’t do.”

Lizzie shooed away the maids and rose. She was exactly the right height, with a plump bosom, enviable curves, and the alabaster skin of a woman who never encountered sunlight. Coupled with blonde hair and vivid blue eyes, Lizzie was the storybook beauty.

By comparison, Hannah’s brown hair and brown eyes allowed her to practically blend into the wood panelling, and she was too tall and flat-chested to ever attract the glances her friend’s form elicited.

Lizzie took her hands and a rare serious glint entered her gaze. “I cannot believe that I will soon be an old married woman.”

“It is no mystery to me. You have been inundated with suitors ever since you came out.” Hannah had watched the whirlwind of Lizzie’s debut. For three years she had considered her options. Many late nights had been spent in this bedroom discussing the merits of each suitor, but only one had captured her heart.

“If only we could find a suitable match for you.” Lizzie frowned and then chewed her lip. “I swear, as duchess it will be my first task to see you wed. Then we’ll have children to raise together, just as we were.”

Hannah shook their clasped hands and stopped her friend from a review of her discarded suitors. “Don’t, Lizzie. You know I have no desire to marry. Do not torment me so.”

The Fates had decreed she would walk a lonely path, but she didn’t want her sad state to remove some of the shine from Lizzie’s evening. Nothing should spoil her grand engagement party.

“At least, dear Hannah, do say you will consider being my companion once I am wed? I cannot imagine embarking on married life without you by my side. Who else will I discuss all the horrid details of my wedding night with?” Lizzie winked.

Hannah laughed. “But you could not possibly tell me tales of your wedded passion. It wouldn’t be seemly.”

“I don’t give a fig for seemly. Promise we are sisters forever? I cannot live without your friendship.” Lizzie held out her hand, pinkie finger extended.

Hannah drew a deep breath and smiled, then wrapped her pinkie finger around that of her friend. “I promise. When the day arrives that Mother and Father no longer need me, I shall devote myself to you and your family.”

Yes, she was loved and wanted.

Just not in the way that a woman longed for.

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