The man who called himself Mr. Flint approached the imposing house on its precarious cliffside perch. The winding path to it was barely large enough for a pair of feet, but he had visited before and knew his way even through the fog. It was a dim, dreary morning obliterated by the crash of waves, and he kept a hand close to the pistol holstered by his ribs over having two of his senses dulled. Nothing more than instincts bred by working in the city too long; old Frank Harper didn’t seem like the type to shoot the messenger for bringing bad news.
He rang at the front door without giving his name, aware that the one servant available would remember him by now. It didn’t take Mr. Harper long to meet him in the parlor, eyes shrewd even as he grinned around his cigar and offered a hearty handshake. “Flint, by God don’t you even get Sundays off?”
Mr. Flint ignored the crushing grip. The other man always reminded him of a boisterous dog that didn’t realize its strength. “Not in my business, sir.”
“What’s the news, then?”
“Mr. Clayborne is still intent on hiring a private detective.”
Mr. Harper didn’t look surprised. “Has his reason changed?”
“No. He’s about to reach out to Sam Hayes and that Marshall girl.”
“The wolf and his socialite, eh?” Mr. Harper chomped his cigar again, this time thoughtfully. “Strange pick. Are they really that good?”
“They’re always successful with their cases.”
“That’s unfortunate. Even if Clayborne is hiring them to sort out his own business, they might come poking into ours.”
Flint saw no reason to respond directly to the comment. “I can find out more about the two detectives.”
“For the right price, of course.” Mr. Harper’s good humor returned. “Focus on whatever else you can learn about Clayborne. We don’t want our groom to blindside us with anything about the big day, do we? I want to know whatever he does. The cost doesn’t matter.”
Flint nodded, keeping his own smile mild. He knew—the entire city knew—that the man clutched at the amazing luck of Phineas Clayborne falling in love with his pretty, young niece as a way to restore the Harper family name and fortune. Flint never held personal opinions about his clients, but he was completely willing to use their desperation when it meant being paid more.
Mr. Harper’s focus narrowed to his cigar as he removed it from his mouth to blow out a ring of smoke. Flint’s attention followed his, noting the gleam of the gold band. The man was already enjoying the boons of Phineas Clayborne’s deep pockets.
After a few more puffs, Mr. Harper said, “Onto the second business. Have you—”
The parlor’s sliding doors were shoved open sharply, the warped wood retracting with squeals of protest. Mr. Flint’s hand twitched toward his ribs until he saw Mrs. Harper standing there with a cigarette in one hand and a drink in the other.
She reacted to the tip of his hat with a cynical smile before moving for her husband. The slight lurch to her step suggested this wasn’t her first gin buck of the day. “He’s here again, Frank? And I stupidly thought we might enjoy breakfast together like husband and wife are supposed to.”
Mr. Harper sighed, irritation tightening the already small features of his face. “For God’s sake, Berta. Find something to do. This won’t take long.”
She didn’t seem to hear, instead lounging on the worn green velvet couch beside them. “Do you know how much you two look like children caught with stolen cookies? He’s even grubby like one.”
Neither man rose to the bait. Instead, Mr. Harper gestured at Flint, voice still short. “We’ll finish this in my study.”
Berta Harper laughed but remained where she was, stirring the ice in her glass. She had been beautiful once, and might still have been if not for the bitter lines at the corners of her mouth and a certain flatness to her eyes that warned she had long lost any feeling softer than self-pity. The old grandfather clock ticked minutes away while she stared at one of the portraits on the wall, muttering beneath her breath.
Just as she stumbled upright, Frank Harper returned. Her husband didn’t seem any happier while he watched her weave over to the giant globe on its wooden stand. She grinned at him over her shoulder and wrenched open the top of the globe, revealing full bottles of gin and fresh ice. “All finished with your devious plans?”
“It’s too early for that,” he said, frowning at the alcohol.
She filled her glass to the brim. “If you want to tell someone what to do, then let me ring for Kitty. She’s always a good girl. Just like her mother pretended to be.”
“Isn’t hating your sister enough? Why sink claws into your niece as well?”
Berta downed half the glass, gaze on the portrait again. “Yes, a good girl. That’s one of the many things they said about Iris. So vivacious. So beautiful. Such life in her eyes. A perfect figure.”
After a moment, her husband came up from behind and began rubbing her shoulders. “They said that about the both of you. The Espinola sisters were the stars of the city, equally. I remember those days. Fellas went crazy over just getting you to smile.”
The lines around Berta’s mouth deepened. “Only when she wasn’t in the room with me. She was beloved. Worshipped. I heard her called ‘angel.’ Angel! I was the better one, not her. The happiest day of my life was when she went and got herself pregnant like a common tramp. Then everyone had to admit what she really was.”
“You can’t talk about this whenever Clayborne is in hearing. This is our only chance, Berta. We don’t want him to cut us off for speaking ill of Kitty or her mother. He’s truly infatuated with her.” Then Frank Harper’s fingers stilled against her neck, not quite squeezing. “And if you’re planning to somehow ruin all of this just so that Iris’ daughter ends up as miserable as she did… I’ll drown you in that damned gin.”
At that, Berta slowly faced him. She didn’t appear fazed by the hands against her thin throat, or the warning in his voice. “You’re the schemer, my darling. I’m just here to watch the fun. If this miracle of a wedding comes to nothing, it won’t be my fault. Remember, she’s just like her mother.”
“Only in looks, thank the heavens.” He moved away, then, studying the portrait of Iris himself. It was eerie, how much Kitty resembled her. Right down to the sweet face and delicate build. “Behavior-wise, she’s—”
“A good girl?” Berta collapsed back on the couch, her bracelets jingling as she raised the glass to her lips again.
“Very tractable,” finished Frank, glaring at her. “She’s happy to marry Clayborne.”
“If you say so, darling. Very well, to the bride and groom.” Then Berta threw her glass at the portrait of her sister. It missed and smashed against the fireplace below.
The bright, vicious clamor of scattered shards pierced even the third-floor bedrooms of the house, including the small, plain one used by Catherine Harper. The girl froze by the unlit hearth, listening for several moments to the muffled shouting below. It sounded like Uncle Frank and Aunt Berta were having an argument again. And if Auntie had broken something, that meant Sarah would be distracted with cleaning it up. Now was her best chance to do this without being caught.
Quickly, Catherine took the letters she had pulled out of hiding and used one as kindling to light a fire. Her fingers trembled as she added the others page by page, and pain etched her pretty face as flames devoured the words scrawled over both sides of the surface. She had promised herself not to read them while doing this, afraid that even one sentence would strike her with the full blow of this loss. Yet with the very last letter, she broke that promise, gaze jumping to a line even as she stretched the paper toward the hearth.
My heart’s as full as the moon with you in it. I’ll never stop loving you.
Catherine Harper’s expression broke as if she were glass herself, and she clutched that final letter to her chest while rocking back and forth, tears streaming silently down her cheeks.