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A Trace of Copper

Chapter One

 

“IT BIT ME,” the young woman informed Piyali, hiking her skirts and rolling down her woolen hose. “Right through my stocking.” Miss Price, the shopkeeper’s daughter, plopped down on a chair and propped her foot upon a stool, pointing. “And now it’s blue.”

Dr. Piyali Mukherji leaned closer. As insane as Miss Price’s words sounded, they rang true. Her ankle was indeed blue.

Well, part of it. There was a decided lesion approximately two inches in diameter above her fibular protuberance. Piyali pressed two fingers against the blemish. She would describe it as an infection. Except it didn’t appear inflamed, and it wasn’t hot to the touch.

And it was blue.

Unheard of. But that was why she’d accepted the Crown’s commission, taken on the added duties of a Queen’s agent. The Duke of Avesbury, the gentleman at the head of this small, select group, had offered her a chance to be on the forefront of investigations into strange and unusual medical conditions. This certainly fit the bill.

“A frog bit you.” Piyali’s eyebrows rose, hoping she’d heard wrong. “A blue frog. With teeth.” Did frogs have teeth? And frogs—at least in Britain—were supposed to be green. Or brown.

Miss Price bit her lip. It didn’t bode well that she needed to consider her story.

Hoping for an explanation, she looked to the man who loomed beside her taking up far too much space in the small parlor. Time had turned familiar into foreign. Mr. Evan Tredegar wore his dark, tousled curls longer, no cravat wound under his collar beneath the rough shadow of his beard, and a small, curved scar cut through the edge of his right eyebrow. Under her study, a muscle twitched at his jawline, and his lips pressed into a thin line. He refused to meet her gaze. Perhaps it was just as well, for his eyes never failed to ignite a slow burn beneath her skin, and she needed to focus.

Still, a certain unease gave her pause. Once she’d been able to read his every mood and would have labeled his expression as concerned. Except the man she’d known wouldn’t withhold information vital to a patient’s treatment. What wasn’t he telling her?

“Miss Price?” Piyali prompted.

The young woman nodded. “Then it hopped away and disappeared into the woods.” Sticking her lower lip out in a pout, she looked up at her mother. “Is this really necessary? Besides, she can’t be a real doctor. How can a woman hold such a degree?” With a sidelong glance at Piyali’s clothing, her voice dropped to a whisper. “An Indian woman.”

A real doctor. Piyali resisted the urge to roll her eyes. If she had a shilling for every time she’d heard that sentiment… Instead, she lifted her chin and replied, “I attended medical school at the Université de Paris where women have been accepted since 1860.”

Never had Paris seemed so far away. Four of the best—and worst—years of her life. She’d earned her place there by being twice as good as the other students, most of them men. Any who had sneered at her inclusion swiftly adjusted their opinion as she collected one award after another, graduating first in her class. As to the prejudice, she no longer felt the need to justify the traditional clothing she wore. If a person could not appreciate the richness and intricacy of Indian designs, then it was their loss.

With an unsteady hand, Mrs. Price patted her daughter on the shoulder and threw Piyali a nervous look. “Lister University’s choice of medical practitioner is alarming. No doubt Dr. Mukherji was all they could spare, but I have every confidence in Mr. Tredegar’s ointment. The blue stain has barely spread since you first applied it. In fact, I think it’s grown smaller.” From the pinched expression on her face, the woman clearly wished Piyali elsewhere. “But your father worries and wanted to consult a board-certified physician in case amputation becomes necessary.”

“Amputation!” Miss Price’s chest began to heave, her eyes growing wide, her fingers digging into the cushion of her chair. “It’s just a spot!”

“A very unusual spot.” Evan finally spoke, though his words were tight and strained. “One that must be examined by someone with more expertise than myself.”

Resentment sparked. His defense of her skills was unwelcome. Both by her and, judging from the deep frown upon her face, Miss Price.

Piyali glanced again at the blue lesion. Could it be no more than a stain of blue ink? Had she interrupted a hoax, a bizarre courtship trick designed to lure a handsome, young pharmacist into this parlor? For upon her arrival, her purported patient had been fluttering eyelashes and casting Evan glances drenched with unfulfilled longing. Or—she narrowed her eyes—did the fault lie squarely on Evan’s shoulders? Did he toy with the young shopkeeper’s daughter, making promises he couldn’t—or wouldn’t—keep?

For once he’d made her promises, ones she’d clung to for four long years abroad. Promises he’d failed to keep when he returned from his overseas voyage some three months ago. Upholding her own vow, she’d sent him a message, then pounced upon the daily post for days—weeks—hoping for word of his imminent arrival, but… nothing. Save a devastating silence.

Heartache must have shown upon her face, for her mother had hunted down coconuts and banana leaves before taking herself down into the kitchens of their London townhouse to personally oversee the preparation of Piyali’s favorite dish, bhetki macher paturi—marinated steamed fish—in an effort to coax her to eat something… anything. Food wasn’t her mother’s only crisis response. Gentlemen of all kinds had begun to appear around the dining table. At first they were Bengali, then merely Indian. She knew her mother grew desperate when a six-foot-four, blond Swede had joined them.

“Choose a husband, Piyali,” Ma had begged, reminding her that if her father were still alive, he would even now be arranging her marriage. Even Piyali’s British stepfather conspired to assist Ma, making noises about grandchildren. But no other man, no matter how accomplished or handsome, could mend the rift in her life.

An acidic pain had lodged itself beneath her heart, slowly corroding all of her hopes and dreams. Though she’d buried herself in her work, establishing a research program in her laboratory while training to become a Queen’s agent, nothing eased the ache.

Which was why she’d cringed when Mr. Black, the duke’s right-hand spy, had handed her this first assignment. “Aberwyn, Wales?” she’d read. Evan lived there.

“Two birds, one stone.” The agent’s eyes had sparkled with mischief. “A competent research pharmacist and a specialist in infectious disease reconnecting over a mysterious and peculiar illness.” He’d laughed. “What could go wrong?”

Though she’d wanted to cry, orders were orders. She’d packed a trunk with the essentials and boarded the first train to Cardiff, enduring lewd stares and bawdy speculations about the bedroom predilections of exotic young women. Aether, how she hated that word. In Cardiff, she bought a ticket for a rickety steamstage, one that had broken down twice en route to Aberwyn. There, despite her exhortations to be careful, the driver had tossed her trunk from the roof onto the muddy street where a grumbling stable boy had dragged it—bumping up each step—to a small, cramped room above the town’s only tavern, Yr Ysgyfarnog Wen—The White Hare. Later, a short walk along the rutted main street had brought her here, to the shopkeeper’s cottage.

“Are you all right?” Evan’s voice was soft and considerate.

“Merely contemplating treatment options,” she lied.

The long hours spent traveling had jarred every joint and coated her with a film of dust, all while doubts gnawed at her mind. But deceitful hopes kept whispering that perhaps Evan’s missive had gone astray and so, though exhausted, she’d taken special pains for their first meeting in five years.

Shaking the travel wrinkles free, she’d donned a favorite green lehenga—skirt—with a simple, paisley embroidered border edging the hem. Buckling her corset atop the matching half-sleeved choli, she’d brushed her long, wavy hair to a shine before twisting a green, satin ribbon into a plait over her shoulder. But his eyes hadn’t flashed with desire, his pulse hadn’t jumped in his throat, and his fingers hadn’t twitched—as they once had—with a need to touch her skin. Evan had barely looked at her at all.

The ache settled back into her chest. It was no use, clinging to the past. She kept her gaze fixed upon her patient, trying to anesthetize her response, for it hurt too much to gaze upon Evan’s once familiar face, to fight the urge to smooth his unkempt curls and drag her palm over the roughness of his cheeks.

“Ointment?” she asked, pulling a decilamp from its loop upon her leather corset, shaking it to activate the bioluminescent bacteria within. She bent over Miss Price’s foot, directing a beam of light at the lesion. There. At its center, a tiny, curved, pink line. A scratch—bite? —that had already healed. Possibly the entry point of whatever organism had invaded her skin.

“An ointment of khu-neh-ari,” Evan replied, speaking a foreign word that likely originated deep within the Amazonian rainforest, “made from the Caniramon divaritum, a climbing shrub.”

She glanced at him out of the corner of her eye. “Have you encountered this particular ailment before?”

“I’ve been unable to identify it.” He shifted on his feet. “Though the outward progression of its margins is reminiscent of a fungal infection. Hence the ointment.”

“Infection!” The older woman yanked her hand from her daughter’s shoulder.

“Fungus!” In a move worthy of Drury Lane, Miss Price threw herself backward upon the chair and tossed an arm across her forehead.

“Possible, but—” Piyali shifted the beam of light and the lesion… sparkled? She flicked the light away, then back. For a second, the skin shimmered, flashing pink and silver. Then, once again, it was blue. Not good. “I’m going to need a biopsy.”

“Biopsy?” Miss Price’s voice quivered, and she squirmed on her seat. “What’s that?”

Turning to her bag of medical equipment, Piyali extracted a glass aetheroscope slide, a few eyedropper bottles of stain and a sterile razor, arranging them all upon the small side table. “I’m going to shave away a tiny portion of the surface of your skin so that I might analyze it beneath my aetheroscope. You should feel no more than a slight pinch.”

Miss Price whimpered.

With a long-suffering sigh, Evan reached out to take Miss Price’s hand. Odd that he wore gloves inside the parlor. “Squeeze as tight as you feel you must.”

Minutes later, the skin sample was prepped and loaded within her small, portable aetheroscope. Once the light source was activated, Piyali screwed in a pressurized canister of aether, listening to the gas hiss as it filled the chamber of the device. Perched on the edge of a chair, she bent over, peering through the eyepiece to adjust focus and magnification.

“Interesting,” she murmured under her breath, then changed the angle of illumination. The color shifted.

A brush of feet on carpet. The faint disturbance of the air around her as Evan crossed the room to her side and leaned close. “What is it?” The heat of his breath swept across the bare skin of her neck and sent uninvited shivers across her skin.

How was it one man could affect her so?

She took a deep, steadying breath before answering. “A pearly luster.” Still, her voice caught. He was much too close. “One that tends toward iridescence of the pink and blue variety. It could be…” She dialed in to the highest resolution and stifled a curse. As feared, the jolting of the steamstage—or the tossing of her trunk—had indeed broken valuable equipment. Shaking her head, she stood and stepped back from the aetheroscope—and away from Evan. “My objective, the one with the highest resolution? Its crystalline lens is cracked.”

She could guess, but she wouldn’t. Not even for Evan. Especially not for him. He knew something, and he wasn’t sharing. Childish of her, but now that she too knew something, she wasn’t sharing either. Resolve stiffened her spine. He could wait—they all could—until she confirmed her findings with cold, hard evidence.

“Piyali?” Evan prompted.

Mother and daughter drew offended breaths at his overly informal address of an unfamiliar and unmarried woman. Even in a small Welsh village, propriety must be maintained.

“Dr. Mukherji,” she corrected him, her voice cool and clinical. Unless Evan decided to share whatever he concealed, there was nothing more she could do today. She was tired and hungry and irritated. And a report was due to Mr. Black. “I can’t say for certain. Further tests are required.”

~~~

A light mist of rain dampened Evan’s hair as he stood in the street staring at the door of Yr Ysgyfarnog Wen. If only he could turn back time.

Five years and she was still as beautiful as ever. He had no right to look, no right to steal glances. But he had. Of dark eyes he’d once stared into. Of long, wavy hair he’d once twined about his fingers. Of deep pink lips he’d once kissed.

He’d done his best not to stare, not to notice how the graceful arc of her collarbone peeked from beneath the edge of her neckline, how a short corset clasped her narrow waist beneath its tooled, leather surface, how her skirt flared outward over generous hips, or how its raised hemline revealed ankles encased in laced boots.

Her corset was studded with metal loops, hooks and chains to which she’d clipped all manner of essential devices and tools. Including a government-issued TTX pistol that gave his pulse a jolt. Was there anything more alluring than a strong, competent woman? But it was the familiar, amber glass vial dangling from a chain beside her hip that focused his gaze. Wondering, he’d bent close to peer through the aetheroscope and inhaled. Essence of orange blossoms. All these years she’d kept it, the same essential oil still scenting the water that rinsed her hair. Long-suppressed desires stirred.

He closed his eyes. He had no right to such thoughts.

Not one week after he’d returned to Britain’s shores, a skeet pigeon with rust-tipped wings had alighted upon his window sill, a brief note tied to its jointed ankle with news of her degree and the direction to her family’s London townhouse. To speed his reply, she’d even included a punched return card for the clockwork bird.

With stars in his eyes, he’d sat down in his tropical greenhouse to put pen to paper. Halfway through his letter a small, blue frog had leapt onto the back of his hand. A stowaway upon one of the many lianas—climbing vines—he’d brought back from his voyage to the Amazonian rainforest. He’d thought the shimmering creature cute, adorable, delightful.

Until it bit him.

Evan rubbed his thumb and forefinger together, the soft black leather of his gloves reminding him of the moment everything went wrong. He’d never sent that letter. Or any letter. One didn’t ask the woman he loved to share a slow descent into madness.

Time passed, and the vine of his silence slowly twined itself about his throat, growing so thick that only a machete could cut it free. Too late to ask her for help now. Not only did she likely despise him, she was a Queen’s agent.

Nonetheless, he must speak with her. Her aetheroscope was broken and that meant she would want to return to London on the morning’s steamstage. That couldn’t happen. He couldn’t allow her to leave, not with a sample of Miss Price’s skin in her possession. Here, in Wales, things could be kept under control.

Stopping her meant entering The White Hare where one Miss Sarah Parker, the tavern’s daughter, would be lying in wait. He willed his feet to move, to cross the rutted road, willed his hand to wrap around the iron handle of the tavern’s door and pull it open.

“Evan!” Sarah cried, her voice a confection of icing and spun sugar. Wiping her hands on her apron, she rushed to his side.

Out of the proverbial pan and into the fire.

Three months ago, Sarah and Miss Price—Tegan, she insisted whenever her mother wasn’t around—had begun fighting to gain his attention, all in a futile effort to secure a marriage proposal. Their bickering was a constant reminder of what he would never have, a thorn that pricked at his conscience.

Tegan found any remotely credible excuse to throw herself in his path. Unchaperoned, she regularly dropped by his cottage—a three-mile walk into the countryside—to request more packets of headache powder and throat lozenges for the shop. Chances she sold that much were close to zero.

And Sarah? She pounced on him every time he stepped into The White Hare, always ready with a pint of his favorite ale, begging for tales of his time in the rainforest even as she tugged the bodice of her dress scandalously low. Worse, her parents aided and abetted, turning a blind eye to her blatant flirtations and not calling her to task when she ignored the other customers.

“Miss Parker,” he replied. “Where is Dr. Mukherji? I need to speak with her.”

Wrapping her arm about his, Sarah urged him closer to the peat fire burning in the grate. “Upstairs,” she admitted, playfully pushing him into a chair and dropping into his lap. “But I’m right here.”

“Sarah,” he warned in a low voice. “I’ve asked you not to—”

She leaned forward, pressing generous breasts against his chest while twisting a finger into his curls so tightly it threatened to rip his hair from its roots. “Oh, please. All these months you’ve been without a woman to warm your bed. You need a wife, one who can help you run that pharmacy of yours in Cardiff. Tegan might know business, but she’s far too uptight to keep you satisfied after hours.”

“Stop,” he snapped, grabbing her hips and shoving her away. “I’ve no intention of taking a wife.”

Laughing, Sarah caught her balance on the sticky tabletop. “No? Then you’d best be careful. The Indian princess can’t take her eyes off you.” The lift of her chin redirected his attention.

What? He whipped his head about, catching Piyali’s narrow-eyed gaze from across the room as she descended the stairs. Guilt stuck in his throat. He’d not been unfaithful and didn’t want her to think… Did it matter? Her eyes slid away, and she turned her back, climbing onto a stool at the bar. A deliberate move to avoid any and all private conversation.

“She’s not a princess,” he said.

“Oh?” Her voice rose in a teasing lilt. “Then why do you stare at her as if she wears a crown of gold and precious jewels?”

Evan glowered. “Please, just bring me a pint.”

“Of course,” Sarah said, then winked. “And I’ll see what I can do about a little something extra.” She sauntered away, swinging her hips with each step. Tossing a quick word to her father, she jerked her head in Evan’s direction. Then, sliding onto a stool, Sarah turned her bright eyes upon Piyali. Her lips moved, and Piyali laughed. Not good. Sarah’s interference was akin to swatting a bee hive with a stick. The dull, throbbing beginnings of a splitting headache began to hammer away at his skull.

Glass banged on wood as Mr. Parker dropped a pint of frothy ale onto the table before him. “The way you’ve been handling my daughter? I think we ought to speak about calling banns.”

Evan dropped his head into his hands.

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