Her Dark Curiosity: Extract

Her Dark CuriosityTo defeat the darkness, she must first embrace it.

Happy publication day to Megan Shepherd! Her Dark Curiosity publishes today in paperback and ebook. Want to start reading this wonderful reimagining of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde? Scroll down for an extract!

That night, like most nights, I lay in my sprawling bed, staring at the ceiling, and trying desperately not to think about Montgomery.

It never worked.

When I had moved into the professor’s home, he had wallpapered my bedroom ceiling in a dusky pale rose print. Now, my eyes found hidden shapes among the soft buds, remembering the boy who would never give me flowers again.

‘He loves me,’ I whispered to nothing and to no one, counting the petals. ‘He loves me not.’

When I’d been a girl of seven and he a boy of nine, he’d once accompanied us to our relatives’ country estate. One morning after Mother and Father had gotten in a terrible row, I’d found a small bouquet of Queen Anne’s lace on my dresser. I’d never had the courage to ask Montgomery if he’d left them. When Mother found the flowers, she tossed them out the window.

Weeds, she had said.

Years later, he’d given me flowers on the island, when we were no longer children and he’d outgrown his shyness.

He’d won my affection, but his betrayal had left my heart dashed against the rocks, broken and bleeding.

‘He loves me, he loves me not,’ I whispered. ‘He’ll forget me, he’ll forget me not. He’ll find me, he’ll find me not. . . .’

I sighed, letting the sounds of my whispers float up to the rose-colored wallpaper. I rolled over, burying my face in my pillow.

You must stop with such childish games, I told myself, as the place beneath my left rib began to ache.

The next morning the professor took me to the weekly flower show at the Royal Botanical Gardens, held in the palatial glass-and-steel greenhouse known as the Palm House, where I found myself surrounded by ranunculus and orchids and spiderlike lilies, and where the only things more ostentatious than the flowers were the dozens of fine ladies sweating in their winter coats. A year ago I’d never thought I would find myself wearing elegant clothes once more, amid ladies whose perfume rivaled the flowers, who tittered about my past behind my back but wouldn’t dare say anything to my face.

It was shocking how much one’s fate could twist in a single year.

The professor, who I was quite certain wished to be anywhere but in a sweaty greenhouse surrounded by ladies, wandered off to inspect the mechanical system that opened the upper windows, leaving me alone to the sly looks and catty whispers of the other ladies.

. . . used to work as a maid . . .
. . . father dead, you know, mother turned to pleasing men for money . . .
. . . pretty enough, but something off about her . . .

Through a forest of towering lilies, a woman in the next aisle caught my eye. For a moment she looked like my mother, though Mother’s hair had been darker, and she’d been thinner in the face. It was more the way this woman hung on the arm of a much older white-haired man, dressed finely with a silver-handled cane. The woman wore no wedding ring – so the man was her lover, not her husband.

The couple paused, and the woman stopped to admire the lilies. I was about to leave when I overheard her say, ‘Buy me one, won’t you, Sir Danvers?’

Sir Danvers. I gave him another look, discreetly, studying the expensive cane, the bones of his face. Yes, it was he. Sir Danvers Carew, Member of Parliament, a popular lord and landowner – and one of the men who used to keep my mother as his mistress. He’d seemed kind, like his reputation, until he turned to drink. He had once knocked Mother around the living room, then struck my leg with that same cane when I’d tried to stop him. I hadn’t thought of him in years, and yet now my shin ached with phantom pain from that day.

I turned away sharply, though there was no danger of him recognizing me. Back then I’d been the skinny child of a mistress he hadn’t kept but a few weeks, and now I was one of the elegant young ladies come to admire hothouse flowers in winter.

‘May I show you these lilies, miss?’ a vendor across the aisle said. I turned my head, still a bit dazed by the memories. ‘They’re a new hybrid I developed myself,’ she continued. ‘I cross-pollinated them with Bourgogne lilies from France.’

Eager to be away from Sir Danvers, I pretended to admire the flowers. The blooms were beautiful, but the hybridization had made the stems too thick. They would have done better crossed with Camden lilies to keep the stems strong but delicate. I didn’t dare start talking aloud about splicing and hybridization, though – I’d have sounded too much like Father.

I swallowed. ‘They’re beautiful.’

‘There you are!’ called a voice at my side. Lucy came tripping along the steam grates in a tight green velvet suit, fanning her face. ‘I’ve been up and down every hall looking for you. Oh, this blasted heat.’ With her free hand she dabbed a handkerchief at the sweat on her forehead. Beneath our feet, the boilers churned out another blast of steam that rose as in a Turkish bath. I inhaled deeply, letting it seep into my pores. I felt healthier here, in the tropical warmth, where the symptoms of my illness never seemed quite as bad.

Lucy glanced rather disdainfully at a bucket of mangled daisies with broken stems. ‘Good lord. It looks as though someone pruned those flowers with a butter knife.’

‘It isn’t about the sharpness of the blade,’ I said. ‘It’s about the hand that holds it.’

‘Well, if you ask me, that hand isn’t anything special either. Must we come here every week? What do I care for flowers, unless a young man is giving them to me?’

I smiled. ‘Which dashing young man would that be? You seem to have quite a few these days.’

Her powdered cheeks grew pinker as she brushed by a display of orchids, absently knocking their petals to the floor. ‘Papa prefers John Newcastle, of course, and I know he’s handsome and a self-made man and all that, but he’s so boring. And then there’s Henry, and my goodness, I simply can’t abide him. He’s from Finland, you know, which might as well be the end of the earth. He hadn’t even seen an automobile until one practically ran him over in Wickham Park.’

As I watched her carelessly knock over an entire plant, I said, ‘For a boy you keep claiming to dislike, you certainly seem to dwell on him.’

She gasped with indignation and rattled on more about her other suitors, but I only half listened. I’d heard all this before, time and time again, different young men depending on the week. I nodded absently while I stooped to clean up the flowers she’d knocked over.

‘Really, Juliet,’ Lucy said in exasperation. ‘You must remember you’re not a maid anymore.’

I paused. She was right. I lived with a wealthy guardian now and was back in good social standing. Seeing Sir Danvers and remembering my mother’s fall from grace had made me relive my former shame all over again. At the far end of the aisle, Sir Danvers and his mistress admired some orchids. He tapped the cane on the steel grates at his feet, sending vibrations all the way to where we stood. I had the sudden urge to stride over, snatch the cane from his hand, and slam the silver tip into his shin, as he had once done to mine. For a man his age, it wouldn’t take much force to shatter the bone.

My hands itched for that cane. More tittering laughter came from behind me, cruel and high-pitched, and I imagined the flower show ladies whispering among themselves.

. . . violent tendencies . . .
. . . well, with a father like hers . . .

Itch, itch, itch. But I forced myself to turn away. The professor wanted to prove I could be a respectable young lady despite who my father had been. The only problem was, being respectable wasn’t nearly as second nature as I had thought it would be.

I turned my back on them, facing the frost-covered wall of the greenhouse, beyond which I could make out the shadowy shapes of falling snow. As I watched, a black police carriage pulled up outside. My breath froze. Ever since Scotland Yard officers had arrested me in response to Dr Hastings’s accusations, I’d been jumpy around policemen.
All that is behind you, I reassured myself.

But the carriage stopped, and a handsome officer perhaps ten years my senior climbed out, and through the glass panes dripping with condensation, he looked directly at me.

I turned toward the sprays of ferns, Sir Danvers forgotten, thoughts racing. If this had been Father’s island, I could have disappeared into those vines with silent steps I’d learned from his beast-men. But large as the greenhouse was, the police would find me in minutes.

Lucy gave me a strange look, dabbing at her brow. ‘Whatever’s the matter with you?’

‘The police are here,’ I whispered. I jerked my chin toward the door at the far end of the palm court, where the groan of the heavy iron door sounded. I should get away from Lucy. It would only humiliate her to have her friend arrested so publicly.

I started for the door to intercept him, but Lucy grabbed my arm. ‘The police? Oh, don’t tell me you’re still afraid of the police. That was ages ago, and everything was sorted out. And look at you; you’d look like royalty if you’d just stop slouching so much. Only criminals slouch.’

My heart pounded harder as the officer appeared through the vines that draped from the catwalk above. He was a tall man with a sweep of chestnut hair that matched Lucy’s, and he walked with the confidence of the upper classes. Not a beat patrol officer, then. They’d sent someone important for me – how thoughtful. He was dressed in a fine dark suit with an old-fashioned copper bulletproof breastplate beneath his cravat, and a pistol at his hip.

My muscles twitched, urging me to flee, but Lucy’s arm still held me.

‘Oh, him?’ She sighed. ‘You’ve nothing to worry about. He’s not here for you. Papa must have sent him to collect me.’
I looked between the officer and Lucy, still not understanding.

‘What do you mean?’

‘That’s John Newcastle, the suitor Papa’s so fond of,’ she said. ‘I was just telling you about him. Weren’t you listening? Really, Juliet.’

I stared at her. ‘You didn’t say he was a police officer!’

‘He isn’t a police officer,’ she said, fluffing her hair where the humidity had made it go flat. ‘He’s an inspector. Scotland Yard’s top inspector.’ Her voice dropped to a mutter. ‘He’s rather fond of telling me how important he is, not to mention handsome. He’d marry himself, I do believe, if he could.’

‘Lucy—’ I started, but Inspector Newcastle reached us then and gave us a dashing smile, his eyes only darting to me in a perfunctory manner before settling on Lucy.

‘Lucy, darling.’ He bent forward to kiss her cheek, which left a glistening mark that she dabbed at with the handkerchief.

‘Papa sent you, I presume?’

‘He invited me to supper, and I offered to come collect you.’

She pounced on my arm again. ‘John, this is my friend Juliet Moreau. Oh, Juliet, I’ve a fine idea. Go ask the professor if you can join us for a bite to eat.’ Her insistent wink told me she didn’t want to spend an extra moment alone with her suitor.

‘Yes, you’re welcome to join us, Miss Moreau.’ He extended his hand to take mine, but as soon as my fingers were in his, his hand tightened. ‘Have we met before? Your name sounds somewhat familiar.’

I glanced at Lucy. ‘I don’t believe so, Inspector. I think I would remember.’ I extracted my fingers from his grasp, wishing I could just as easily remove his suspicions about my name from his thoughts. I nodded my chin toward his copper breastplate. ‘What an unusual piece. Is it an antique?’

‘Why, yes,’ he said, clearly pleased. ‘It belonged to my grandfather. A lieutenant in the Crimean War. Kept him alive despite five bullets and a gunpowder explosion. I try to be a modern man, and we have better protective garments these days, but a little sentimental superstition can be healthy, don’t you think?’ He tapped his breastplate good-naturedly.

I smiled, relieved I’d managed to distract him from my name.

Lucy slid her arm into mine and said, ‘Juliet’s quite a tragic case, I’m afraid. Both parents dead, left penniless. She even had to work at one point.’

She started to lead me toward the door, but I pulled away a little too fast. I had errands to run before returning home, errands I had to keep secret.

‘Thank you for the offer, but I’ve plans with the professor. It was a pleasure meeting you, Inspector. I’ll see you soon, Lucy.’

I ducked away from them and found the professor amid the crowd, still engrossed by the rusted mechanics of the greenhouse. He smiled warmly when he saw me.

‘I wondered if you’d mind if I had a bite to eat with Lucy,’ I said.

‘Well, certainly,’ he said, eyes twinkling. Now he could go home to his books and a thick slice of Mary’s gingerbread cake. I kissed him on the cheek and hurried through the tunnel of palms to the doorway, where I could at last be on my own. I took one last breath of the thick, warm air, before pushing the heavy door open and bracing for the cold.
A swirling gust of snow ruffled my velvet skirts. The botanical garden’s ice-covered lake spread in front of me, the water sprite fountain in the center now frozen under a waterfall of ice.

I’d get an earful from Lucy later. She wouldn’t like that I’d left her to fend off John Newcastle’s kisses alone. But just being around the police – even a well-mannered inspector – made me nervous.

And I had my errands to run.

I drew my fur-lined coat around my neck and waited behind the frozen skeleton of an azalea for Inspector Newcastle and Lucy to leave. They climbed into the black carriage amid pleasantries I couldn’t make out, save for a single curse from Lucy when her skirt caught on the curb. I smiled at her impropriety as their carriage rolled away over the cobblestone.

Pulling my coat tighter, I made my way toward Covent Garden. The sun was already heading for the horizon, so I slipped into an alleyway that would cut my walk by half. The alley was quiet, save for a pair of cats chasing each other through abandoned crates.

Ahead of me a short young man approached from the opposite direction, cap pulled low over his brow so his face was hidden in shadows. As our paths grew closer, he took his time looking me up and down, giving me gooseflesh. He wasn’t wearing gloves, and I noticed that he was missing his middle finger – a difficult detail to ignore. I stiffened. The only reason an otherwise warmly dressed man wouldn’t wear gloves on a day this cold was if he planned on needing his dexterity for something.

I stepped into the street to pass him with a wide berth, but he spun around and walked alongside me. The hair on the back of my neck rose. I forced myself to keep walking, hoping he’d just doubled back on some forgotten errand, even though I knew it was too late for wishes. I glanced at my boot, where a knife was hidden – a trick I’d learned from Montgomery.

‘Spare a coin, miss?’ the man asked, suddenly right at my side, in a voice that seemed unnaturally deep. His bare fingers reached out, the missing middle finger leaving an unnatural vacancy.

I jerked away. ‘Sorry, no.’

‘With those fine buttons? Come on, miss. Just a coin. It isn’t safe out here, alone on the streets. Not safe for a girl at all.’

I saw his arm twitch a second before he grabbed my coat. I ducked out of his grasp and pulled the knife from my boot, then shoved him against the curb at the right angle for his ankles to catch. It threw him off-balance and he fell. I collapsed on top of him, knee digging into the soft center of his chest, knife at his throat, as I checked the alley to make certain we were alone.

His cap fell back, and I started as shoulder-length red hair tumbled out around a pretty face. A girl younger than me, disguised as a man, which explained the put-on deep voice. That was good – a girl I could scare off. A man I might have had to inflict some damage upon.

‘I know it isn’t safe,’ I hissed. ‘What do you think knives are for?’

I pressed the knife closer against her neck, watching the flesh wrinkle beneath it. Her eyes went wide.

‘I didn’t mean nothing!’ she said, voice substantially higher now. ‘Please, miss, I swear, I just wanted them buttons!’

I narrowed my eyes at her, digging my knee deeper until I felt a rib, and then gave an extra jab before climbing off her.

I jerked my chin toward the opposite street. ‘Go on,’ I said. ‘And next time put some lampblack on your chin to look like a beard, and for god’s sakes wear gloves; your bare hands gave you away instantly.’

She scrambled to her feet, brushing the muck off her clothes, and stumbled away at a run. I sheathed the knife in the boot holster, then wiped a trembling hand over my face, breathing some life back into my cold hands.

I took off at a brisk walk, still shaken, the afternoon clouds overhead the only witness to the incident I couldn’t forget fast enough, until at last I saw the shining lights of Covent Garden.

Find out more about Her Dark Curiosity, which publishes today in paperback and ebook

Other Articles

Voyager Con 2021

We’re thrilled to announce VoyagerCon 2021, a festival of events exploring the worlds of fantasy and science fiction, taking place on 10th and 11th September 2021. All events will be held virtually and tickets are free. If you’d like to attend both days you’ll need to register for both a… Read More

Introducing Kingdom of Souls by Rena Barron

When I sat down to write Kingdom of Souls many years ago, I was terrified. Growing up, I desperately searched for characters in books who looked like me and was always disappointed to find none. I loved reading stories where kids saved the world, tamed dragons, wielded magic, flew… Read More

Welcome to Rilpor, please enjoy the stabbing! by Anna Stephens

On 5 September 2019, the third book in my Godblind Trilogy will be published. Godblind, Darksoul and Bloodchild chart the story of an epic, world-changing and god-killing war of conquest and religious zealotry, not just between the neighbouring kingdoms of Rilpor and Mireces, but between the Gods… Read More