What can I say? Life happens.
The first novel in the Lethean trilogy has been sitting on the self-publishing platform for a couple months now, only waiting for the cover art to be complete and ready to launch. The big hold-up in the meantime is that my wonderfully-talented cover artist has been battling UPS over a damaged computer — a device she badly needs in order to create my cover art, not to mention dozens of other projects she has lined up for others. If you’re on Facebook, and have seen the page Unbound Quotes and Notes (among others), you’ve likely seen the beautiful work by NFD. She’s an amazingly awesome woman and graciously offered to do my artwork; and, considering her talent, I’m holding The Lethean until UPS finally releases her computer so she can work on the file.
By the way, if you’re feeling generous, and want to help out a fantastic woman who is trying to support two kids, you can join me in donating to NFD here. 🙂
In the meantime, while waiting to launch book 1, I’m engaged in an editing battle with book 2, while book 3 sits patiently in the wings, urging book 2 to cooperate and waiting its turn. I think book 2 might be the death of me, but I’m really excited to get around to publishing book 3, so the battle will be worth it.
And now, to the teaser. Hopefully book 1 will be ready to launch soon (please cooperate, UPS!), but for now, here is the prologue. Enjoy!
John Humphreys strode across his drawing room, puffing angrily at his cigar. His Hessian boots sank into the plush blue carpet as he paced from window to sofa and back, skirting around a high-backed chair in the process. Several times, he brushed past a delicate mahogany table, causing his cooling, untouched teacup to rattle on its saucer in the most irritating fashion. Through narrowed eyes, he glanced out the grand window, framed elegantly with gold-tone drapes that set off the gilt frames on the chairs and sofa, but still saw nothing other than the empty drive that stretched away into the distance between two perfect rows of stately oaks. With his unoccupied hand, Humphreys tugged free his watch, nearly tearing the pocket in his frustration, and noted the time.
“Five minutes more,” he grumbled to himself, thrusting the silver timepiece back in place.
“Jack, dearest,” his lady murmured, “I’m sure the inspector will arrive on schedule.”
Mrs. Humphreys sat alone on the sofa, a few of her grey-streaked light brown curls dangling from her cap as she bent her plump figure over her needlework. The sound of her voice grated on Humphreys’s nerves, and he whirled to face her, removing the cigar from his lips to better deliver a retort.
“Well I damned wish he’d be early,” he spat as he tapped his cigar over the fire, then stepped closer to his wife. “It’s trial enough to be robbed, but then to be kept waiting–”
His complaint ceased as the sound of the front door being knocked upon and answered alerted him to the arrival of the inspector. Mr. Humphreys thrust aside his cigar and checked his reflection in a large, gilt mirror, ensuring his cravat was neatly tied and his patterned silk waistcoat showed to advantage beneath his new broadcloth tailcoat. He brushed his fingers over his smooth chin, turned his head to the right and the left to confirm his dark hair was tidy, poked idly at the large, ugly mole just below his right eye, then spun away from the mirror and came to a halt at the fireplace, resting an elbow on the pure white mantle while his chin gained a few inches of elevation.
A footman bustled into the room, holding the door open as he bowed an introduction. “Inspector Farnsworth, sir.”
Mr. Humphreys offered the footman a mere jerk of a nod in response, and the man quietly vanished while the inspector approached. Humphreys almost smirked with satisfaction, seeing the inspector had not wasted any time by allowing the servants to take his hat and overcoat from him, and instead entered the room still bundled against the chilly weather.
“Mr. Humphreys.” The inspector bowed, sweeping his hat from his head, a businesslike alertness to his bright blue eyes. “I am at your service, sir.”
“What have you found?” the gentleman barked.
Inspector Farnsworth’s eyes flicked a bit wider, clearly abashed at the discourteous beginning, but wisely did not comment, and immediately reported, “We have recovered the stolen jewel, sir. It will be along shortly. Your jeweler, Mr. Pritchett, offered his services to transport the item securely.”
Mr. Humphreys snorted with impatience. He didn’t care much for the jewel in question – beside the fact that his wife would have given all manner of bother about it had it not been recovered – though he was livid over the simple matter of having been stolen from. It was not the jewel he wanted, so much as its taker.
“And the thief?” he demanded.
“Ah.” The inspector brightened, his eyes twinkling with the pleasure of success. “We have him in custody, though it was a bit of a trial to restrain him. With that accomplished, however, it was simplicity itself to wring a confession from the man. You see, he attempted to lie about the theft, but was unable to do so.”
Mr. Humphreys caught the inflection in the inspector’s words, but not understanding the meaning, he gave the inspector a puzzled look and asked, “Unable?”
“Yes, he–” the inspector began, nodding vigorously, then checked himself. He looked around, clearly noting that Mrs. Humphreys was watching the exchange with rapt attention, then cleared his throat and stepped closer, lowering his voice. “He was not one of us, sir.”
“I beg your pardon?”
The inspector motioned with his hand, and Mr. Humphreys, growling impatiently again, leaned closer. A single word of three syllables drifted into his ear, and at the sound of it, Humphreys reared back and roared, “Them! They are a menace! I do wish the Crown would do away with the lot of them!”
“Whom, dear?” his wife gasped, her needlework slipping from her fingers as her attention fixed on the two men.
“My dear!” he cried angrily, and gave his lady a look that she rightly understood to mean she was excused. The little woman rapidly gathered her things and bustled away, leaving the two men alone.
“A menace, I tell you!” he repeated once the door clicked shut. He spun away from the fireplace and resumed pacing, the carpet now useless to quiet his thundering steps. “Can nothing be done about them?”
The inspector spread his hands and shrugged. “They exist all over the world, sir, from what I hear. Not that there are a great many of them, comparatively speaking – a minor and dwindling race, as I understand it. Still, you can hardly judge the lot of them by the actions of one–”
“I may judge as I wish!” the gentleman spat, purpling with rage. “This one has used his abilities to his advantage, and against me! I would see the lot of them hanged!”
“Sir, if I may, in all my years, this is only the second I’ve encountered in a criminal role. Surely–”
When Mr. Humphreys turned his angry glare upon the inspector, the latter quickly silenced himself and waited, clasping his hands before him while his hat still dangled from where it was pinched between a thumb and forefinger. After a tense moment, Mr. Humphreys huffed angrily, then gave a curt bow. “Thank you for your trouble, Inspector. Good afternoon.”
Inspector Farnsworth stared at his host for a moment, clearly astounded at the conversation, then bowed deeply, giving a polite but forced, “Sir,” before he swept from the room.
* * *
That evening, facing her parents in the carriage as it rolled over the cobblestone streets, Agatha Humphreys sat as quietly as she could, knowing her father was still in a rather foul mood. She’d seen him brooding all afternoon, and he’d threatened to cancel their attendance at the ball that evening, until Agatha had begun to cry and he had given in.
When they arrived at the Caldwell’s townhouse, Agatha alighted from the carriage with the help of her father’s hand. She glanced down to make sure the skirt of her primrose gown was flowing just so, but straightened abruptly when she realized her father still maintained his clasp on her fingers. Startled, Agatha looked up and saw a hint of a smile on his face. He patted her cheek, being careful not to disturb the dark curls that graced her temples, then took Agatha and her mother on either arm as he led them inside. Agatha’s spirits soared, knowing she was her father’s dearest treasure as usual.
Once inside, servants helped them become divested of hats and cloaks, and Agatha followed her parents up a grand staircase and through to a large hall, emptied of furniture except for the chairs that lined the paneled walls. All earlier tension was forgotten as Agatha glanced over the sea of guests, looking for one face in particular amidst the swirling mass of ribbons, lace, monocles, tailcoats, gloves, and fans.
Agatha fought to keep her eager grin restrained as she turned with her parents at the sound of the voice. It belonged to a handsome young gentleman who was approaching them with a welcoming smile.
“Good evening, sir!” the young man exclaimed as he shook hands with Agatha’s father. “Please excuse my tardiness. I ought to have met you in the receiving line.” Then he turned to Mrs. Humphreys, repeating his apology while politely pressing her fingers, and finally bowed gallantly at Agatha herself. “Miss Humphreys. Might I have the honor of the first dance?”
Certain that she was blushing to the roots of her hair, Agatha dropped a curtsy and murmured, “It would be my pleasure, Mr. Caldwell.”
Young Mr. Caldwell bowed to them all again, his dark brown hair sweeping into his equally dark eyes as he did so, and Agatha longed to reach out and brush those locks aside, though the change in gravity did it for her as he straightened. With the flash of a perfect smile, he disappeared to greet other guests, and Agatha sighed to herself, resigned to wait. She followed her parents through the rooms, only stopping occasionally to chat gaily with her friends, but always keeping an eye on the young man who had captured her heart.
When it was finally time to dance, Mr. Caldwell escorted her to the dance floor, making up the set, and she hardly noticed the movements, so enraptured as she was by his presence. He continued a lively stream of conversation, in which she participated she knew not how, and marveled at how effortless it was to dance with such an accomplished partner. The music came to an end long before she imagined possible.
For the next set, Agatha danced with another fine young gentleman, one whom she also considered a desirable match, though no one quite attained Mr. Caldwell’s amiability. Throughout the dance, she tried to be attentive to her partner, but also kept an eye on the other gentleman, secretly jealous of seeing him dancing with another girl, particularly as he was equally lively and gentlemanly with her.
The third set found Agatha resting on a chair near the wall, sipping a glass of lemonade while she watched the dancers and caught her breath. Going down the dance, Mr. Caldwell was easy to find: his confident, upright frame easily stood out amongst the crowd.
There was something different about him at that moment, though, and Agatha felt her spirits begin to sink. Instead of his usual smiling conversation, Mr. Caldwell was utterly silent as he danced with Miss Jane Parrish. The pair gazed intently at one another without saying a word, and something about the look in Mr. Caldwell’s eyes made Agatha want to cry.
Miss Parrish did not qualify as a great beauty, though Agatha knew the girl was quite an accomplished young lady – indeed, Agatha could not even begin to compete with Jane’s skill at the pianoforte, let alone in such matters as painting and a mastery of multiple languages. Nevertheless, despite the unremarkable face and average figure, Mr. Caldwell was clearly intoxicated by Jane Parrish, his gaze full of restrained longing as he led his partner down the dance.
There was a striking sense of intimacy in the way the pair danced. Despite the timing of the movements, Mr. Caldwell and Miss Parrish clasped hands as soon as they could reach, and released hands again only at the last possible moment before the steps took them away from one another. As Agatha watched, it struck her that both partners had removed their gloves, and she realized that she had never seen either of them without that article of dress – except for when they danced together.
Heart thudding with envy, Agatha saw the pair come together again, their hands meeting smoothly without either of them breaking their shared gaze. Agatha knew them for accomplished dancers, but their hands were certainly beyond the range of peripheral vision, as Agatha knew perfectly well from having participated in this dance herself several times in the past. She shut her mouth with a snap, realizing her jaw had dropped while she’d been lost in wonder of how their coordination and spacial awareness could be so precise.
An amused smile tugged at Mr. Caldwell’s lips, and a moment later Miss Parrish was showing every symptom of trying not to laugh aloud. Studying their features, Agatha saw their expressions change from amused to inquisitive to desiring, yet they said not a word to one another. She got the distinct impression that they were somehow reading one another’s minds.
But that’s impossible! Agatha thought, but another invitation to dance interrupted any further pursuit of her curiosity, and she found she had to force on a smile while she temporarily banished her musings.
The evening wore on, and when Agatha found herself paired with Mr. Caldwell again, all her jealousies were quickly forgotten as she lost herself in his presence and his utterly contagious joy. Surely this was the man of her dreams, and she would simply have to capture his heart.
When the dance ended, Mr. Caldwell retrieved two glasses of lemonade and escorted Agatha to the side of the room, helping her to a chair and taking one beside her as they watched the crowd. Conversation turned to various matters of couples and dress, each of them remarking how Mr. Hunter was a dreadfully clumsy dancer, and how elderly Mrs. Eastwood had simply refused to keep up with the latest fashions, her gowns all made with a cut that belonged to a prior decade. They maintained a steady stream of commentary until Mr. Caldwell made a passing remark about a couple newly engaged, and his tone seemed rather wistful to Agatha’s ears.
“Mr. Caldwell,” Agatha began, encouraged by the look on his face, though she knew she was performing a gross impropriety by saying: “You know, I come of age this year.”
He turned to her, eyes wide in a startled expression as he asked, “Pardon me, Miss Humphreys?”
Agatha blushed, realizing she’d made a mistake, and cast her eyes downward. “Charles– I mean, Mr. Caldwell…please forgive me. Forget what I said. I simply–”
She broke off, embarrassed, and an awkward silence ensued. When she looked up again, she found Mr. Caldwell giving her a strange, searching look, and then he sighed, seemingly resigned to something.
“Miss Humphreys, you must understand, I–”
He paused, and glanced across the room, gazing at something for a long moment, then turned back to her again, saying very quietly, “Miss Humphreys, I’ve no wish to cause you pain, but I realize now that it is important for me to tell you something. You are a darling girl and should make any man quite happy, but please do not waste your hopes on me. I am not at liberty–”
A deep, cheerful, masculine voice interrupted him, booming out, “Charles!”
Agatha saw Mr. Caldwell turn, a smile lighting up his face as he greeted the other gentleman, and as Agatha fought to hold back her tears of rejection, she barely noticed when the men bowed and took their leave of her. She turned her face from the crowd, trying with all her might to school her features, and only when she had forced herself to a sufficient calm did she slowly rise from her seat and make her way through the room to find her parents.
Forced gaiety wore on her as the evening continued, and just when she thought she couldn’t bear anything more, she caught sight of Mr. Caldwell once again. He was standing with a group of men who were deep in conversation, though he was looking past them and not really contributing much in the way of words. Agatha followed his gaze across the room and saw that Jane Parrish was gazing directly back at him, a hint of a smile on her face. As Agatha watched, she saw Mr. Caldwell give the subtlest of nods, which Jane returned, and after a few moments, though no one else appeared to have noticed, she saw Jane disappear through a side door, followed a few minutes later by Charles.
Before the tears could burst from her eyes again, Agatha’s father came to her side and took her arm, announcing that they were going home. Agatha nodded absently and followed him.
* * *
Mr. Humphreys looked at his daughter, a woman grown and the pride of his life, sitting demurely in the carriage across from himself and his wife. He could tell something had upset Agatha, but decided to wait until they were home and he could have a moment alone with her to discuss it, not wanting his wife present to complicate matters the way she always managed.
Once home, Mr. Humphreys called his daughter into his study and helped her to a seat. The room was dim and quiet, the light of a few candles pushing the shadows back against the dark wood panels and bookshelves that encircled a patterned red carpet and a capacious writing desk. Humphreys leaned back against the desk as he looked down at his daughter, sitting there quietly with her hands neatly folded in her lap.
“Now, my pet,” he murmured, crossing his arms over his chest. “What troubles you? You look quite distressed.”
Agatha shook her head, her ringlet curls dancing sweetly as she did so. “Nothing is the matter, Papa. I’m quite well.”
“Agatha,” he insisted, reaching out and putting a finger under her chin, forcing her to look up at him.
She instantly burst into tears. “Oh, Papa! It’s so unfair! I’m sure I shall break my heart!”
“Tell me, child,” he soothed, dropping to one knee and clasping her hands between his.
“Charles– Forgive me, Mr. Caldwell,” she sobbed. “I had such hopes, but…he said–”
His daughter put her face in her hands, shaking as she cried, and Mr. Humphreys swallowed down his anger at the gentleman mentioned, trying to keep his tone light as he asked, “What has he done to hurt you, my sweet?”
“Oh, Papa, you said he would make such a good match, and I love him so! But he told me to put the idea right out of my head! He said he wasn’t at liberty, but he’s never announced an engagement to anyone else! Oh, it’s not fair!”
“Shhh, child, shhh,” he soothed, rocking her. “We’ll just see about this, alright? Don’t you fret. Your dear papa will get to the bottom of this, I promise.”
After a good deal more crying, he finally got his treasure to calm herself enough to go to bed, and once she was out of the study, Mr. Humphreys took himself to his desk, wrote a brief note, and handed it to a servant to deliver first thing in the morning.
* * *
The next day dawned bright and clear, finding Mr. Humphreys already dressed and pacing about while he awaited the breakfast hour. He attended to business throughout the morning while also watching the clock, counting down the hours until he would likely receive a reply to his note.
It arrived sooner than expected, and in Charles Caldwell’s elegant hand. Proper and polite, the note informed him that the young man had agreed to Mr. Humphreys’s summons, and that he would attend him promptly at the requested hour of two o’clock. Mr. Humphreys threw himself back into his work, helping the hours pass with productive activity.
Five minutes before the clock chimed two, Mr. Charles Caldwell entered Mr. Humphreys’s study.
“Thank you for coming, Mr. Caldwell,” his host greeted, shaking hands, and offered the young gentleman a seat.
“My pleasure, sir,” the young man replied with a smile. “However I might be of assistance to you–”
Mr. Humphreys held up a hand to silence him. “I’ll come right to the point, sir. My daughter was quite distressed after last night’s party, and she claims it was due to something you said. I would like an explanation, sir.”
The handsome young man sighed. “I must beg your forgiveness, sir. It was never my intention to hurt Miss Humphreys, though I’m afraid I did so inadvertently. It became apparent to me, last night while she and I were conversing, that I was considered an acceptable match. I had to inform her – indeed, I did not know any other way to do so – that I was not one upon whom she ought to set her ambitions.”
“And is my daughter not good enough for you, sir?!” Mr. Humphreys growled. “She has had the finest education; she’s well thought of in the highest circles; she–”
The young man nodded. “She will make an ideal wife to any man, sir. However, not to me.”
“And why is that, sir?!”
That handsome face looked at him steadily, one of the very few which had never cowered under his angry glare. After a long moment, Charles Caldwell sighed with resignation, reached into a pocket of his coat, and pulled out a simple gold ring which he slipped onto his left ring finger, holding the hand up for inspection. Humphreys’s jaw dropped at the sight.
“I’m already joined,” the young man explained. “My partner and I are bound for life, and it is only a matter of Jane and myself to come of age – thanks to the confounded norms and legalities in this country – before our union is considered ‘legitimate’ and fit to be recognized. For now, it is a secret.”
“How is it you are married, sir?!” Mr. Humphreys almost bellowed, shocked by the break with tradition. “You are far too young!”
Charles Caldwell laughed. “Jane and I have been ‘married’ these three years, at least. I can assure you, our parents are fully aware of the fact. Though, more to the point, we are not yet married by law, but simply and naturally joined by soul.”
Mr. Humphreys started at that, his eyes widening as he stared at the young man across from him. His mind reeled, his anger from the day before rising up once more and joining the new anger he was feeling at that moment.
“You–” he began, fuming. “You are not human, are you?”
With a perfectly serious expression, the young man answered, “No, sir. I am not.”
“Then you are–”
“One of them!”
Mr. Caldwell seemed a bit startled by the angry outburst, but offered neither excuse nor apology. The young man sat perfectly still under Humphreys’s angry glare, the expression on his face showing clearly that he felt his revelation was the most natural thing in the world, despite law and tradition. The shocking disregard for social norms was more than Humphreys could bear.
“Out!” Mr. Humphreys roared.
“I said, out! I will not tolerate your kind in my house!”
Mr. Caldwell rose smoothly to his feet, bowed politely, and took himself from the room. Mr. Humphreys watched him go, his eyes wide with anger, and once the door shut between them, he slammed his fist down on his desk, sending his pens and ink pots rattling.
“I’ll see the lot of them hanged, I will!”
* * *
A few days later, long after the sun had set, Mr. Humphreys ordered his carriage and traveled across town, arriving just at the border of the least reputable part of the city. Making sure he was well-cloaked, Mr. Humphreys got out and continued on foot, leaving his driver and footmen – all armed – to stay with the carriage until he returned.
He slunk through the shadows, weaving his way through cramped, filthy alleyways until he reached the building to which he’d been directed. It was by no means prepossessing: the windows were so thick with grime that one could hardly even discern the flicker of candlelight within, and the garbage strewn about made Humphreys pick his steps very carefully. Bracing himself, he knocked upon the rotting door.
It was promptly answered by a middle-aged man – slightly stooped, with greasy, lank hair, and a vile grin that lacked a few teeth. Without a word, the man welcomed him inside, and Mr. Humphreys took care not to touch anything as he followed the man through the crowded opium den to an empty back room.
Once shut inside and away from prying eyes, Mr. Humphreys uncloaked himself and took an offered chair, sitting gingerly on its edge, while the other man sank lazily onto a bench across from him, saying, “I hear tell you need information.”
“Yes,” Mr. Humphreys answered shortly, trying to swallow his disgust at the sight of yellowed, rotten teeth when the man had spoken. “And I have a little…problem…I would like to have addressed.”
“Oh, aye, I’m good at problems.” The man grinned, rubbing his dirty hands together, his rags swaying loosely on his unwashed arms as he did so.
Mr. Humphreys extracted a purse from his coat and tossed it to the man, who caught it from the air and whisked a coin from within all in one fluid motion. He tested the coin between his teeth, savored the rattle of the purse in his hand, then sneered, “How can I help you, Mr. Smith?”
Mr. Humphreys leaned forward conspiratorially and narrowed his eyes, growling, “Tell me everything you know about the Lethean.”
The man across from him leaned back against the wall, leisurely stretched out his legs, and grinned.