An Unexpected Peril (Veronica Speedwell #6) -Deanna Raybourn

CHAPTER

1

London, 1889

Stoker, I cannot say that I care much for your goat. He is leering at me.”

Stoker grunted by way of reply. The Honorable Revelstoke Templeton-Vane—Stoker to friends and enemies alike—was my professional collaborator in endeavors of natural history as well as murderous adventures. (The solving of them, I should note, not the committing of them.) He was also, as of the previous month, my bedmate. The fact that our relationship, once an elevated meeting of the minds, had evolved to include a rapturous commingling of our persons did not preclude him from taking umbrage when I criticized his work. He was nothing if not exacting in his practice of the taxidermical arts.

“Protest all you like,” I told him with my usual firmness, “but that goat is most definitely looking at me, and with an expression I can only describe as unwholesome.”

Stoker rose from where he had been brushing out the pelt of the animal in question and gave me a pointed stare of his own. “That goat, I will have you know, is an example of Capra ibex, the European mountain goat. Furthermore, this particular specimen is an extremely rare variety found only on the slopes of the Alpenwald. You will note that the development of the horn—”

It was at this point that I stopped listening, letting the gentle tirade flow over me like a burbling river. Stoker was never happier than when imparting information, whether one asked for it or not. This, I had observed frequently upon my travels, is common in the male of the species. Did I hold forth at length on the details of Alpenwalder lepidoptery? I did not, although, I reflected as I regarded the display case before me, I had rather better cause than Stoker and his smelly old goat. Alpenwalder butterflies—and one rather spectacular moth—were few in number but charming, with a subtlety of color and line that only a true connoisseur would appreciate. One in particular, Papilio athena, sported a delicate blue coloration, its hindwings touched lightly with a spot of white, like a tender bloom against an Alpine sky. I gently adjusted the angle of a wing, showing it to best advantage against the dark cloth I had pinned for a backdrop with as much care as a theatrical impresario considering his leading lady.

“Are you listening, Veronica?” Stoker demanded.

“Not in the slightest,” I assured him cheerfully.

“I was saying that it is no doubt the pupils which account for the expression,” he informed me. “They are both square and horizontal, which is decidedly uncomfortable for human sensibilities to appreciate. I daresay another goat would find this fellow quite handsome.”

I flicked the goat a sidelong glance. “Perhaps his mother.”

Stoker went on as if I had not spoken. “Besides which, the horizontal pupil is, I suspect, a function of evolution. It may well provide a wider aspect for a grazing creature, which is naturally subject to predation, to be forewarned when a predator is about. If you consider the necessity of passing such a trait to one’s offspring—”

“If you speak of Lamarck’s theory one more time, I shall scream,” I warned him.

His expression was cool. “I certainly do think that Lamarck had some perfectly sound ideas,” he began.

I opened my mouth to deliver the promised shriek when the door opened and Lady Cordelia Beauclerk entered. “Good morning to you both. Getting on with the exhibition, I see?” she greeted us. Her color was good and her step firm, both of which I observed with real pleasure. In addition to being the sister of our patron and employer, the Earl of Rosemorran, Lady Cordelia was friend to both of us. The previous year had been a trying one for her in every possible way, and she had consequently suffered considerable lowness of spirits. I had attempted to counter this malaise by the occasional evening spent in reading fashion papers and drinking copious amounts of aguardiente, a potent South American intoxicant—to mixed effect. But with a new project in hand, she seemed invigorated. She had been chosen to oversee the installation of an exhibition of mountaineering including Alpenwalder flora and fauna at the Hippolyta Club, an establishment devoted to the edification and fellowship of women of adventure.

To those of us who were members, it was affectionately known as the Curiosity Club, a private aerie where we might gather and discuss our exploits and pursuits with like-minded women. We ran the gamut from mathematical geniuses (Lady Cordelia) to world-traveled lepidopterists (myself), with everything from botanists to zoologists

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