Jack the Ripper might be in town. But is marriage more terrifying?
In an alternate Deep South in 1890, society reporter Adele de la Pointe wants to make her own way in the world, despite her family’s pressure to become a society wife. Hoping to ruin herself as a matrimonial prospect, she seizes the opportunity to cover the recent Jack the Ripper-style murders for the newspaper, but her father's dashing new intern suggests a more terrifying headline—marriage.
Dr. Phillip Rawley’s most daring exploit has been arriving at his new home in America in a hot air balloon. A tolerable sacrifice, if it means he can secure the hand of his new employer’s daughter in a marriage of convenience. But Adele works, she's spirited, and she has an armored pet monkey running her errands. Not only does she not match his notions of a proper lady, she stirs up feelings he’d rather keep in tight control.
With Adele hunting down a headline and Dr. Rawley trying to protect and pursue her, a serial killer is spreading panic throughout Mobile, Alabama. Can Adele and Rawley find the murderer, face their fears, and discover true love?
April 8, 1890, Mobile, Alabama
Second Age of Pax Lincolnia
At nineteen years, Miss Adele de la Pointe hadn’t yet figured out everything, but three things she did know. She never wanted to marry, these society parties were an utter bore, and her pet monkey was about as genteel as a roly-poly at a butterfly tea party.
“Put that down.” Adele snatched a doily from Loki’s hairy fist and looked around the sunlit grounds.
Be-ribboned and be-bustled ladies sauntered between tables covered in crisp white linen and half the available lace on the Gulf Coast, but none looked her way.
Whew. No apparent witnesses to Loki’s shenanigans.
She smoothed the doily onto the lawn table, only a tad wrinkled from her monkey’s antics. Antics she must quell were she to survive this affair.
“Loki, I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t pull another stunt.”
Her capuchin monkey nuzzled her cheek, and the chinstrap of his oyster-shell helmet chafed her ear.
“Behave,” she whispered. “I can’t lose you, too.”
Every time someone hinted that she should trade in her childhood shoulder pet for the more refined parakeet, her heart lurched, in an if-you-do-I’m-staying-with-Loki warning. Having such a mentally enhanced pet did pose a risk if she didn’t keep him occupied, however.
She wended her way through the ladies, alert for details to immortalize yet another society gathering for the local newspaper. But the subtle snubs and dismissive glances and behind-the-fan whispers followed in her wake.
These same ladies would later scurry over and curry favor, showing off their latest hat or implant or dress. Adele pulled in a deep breath. Chin up.
All right, so society reporter might not be her ideal profession, but it certainly beat the path these ladies valued--landing a wealthy husband. She rubbed the four tattoos vertically aligned on her neck, each denoting her grandparents’ families. These would admit her to such a party without her official role, but the expectation inherent in its ink felt like an itchy reminder. She edged around a table and spotted the hostess simpering at the mayor’s wife. Adele tapped her pen against her lip.
A fresh breeze from the Mobile River skittered through the yard, rustling the oak leaves and Spanish moss. The wind loosed a silk ribbon from Claire Chastang’s monstrous hat and slapped the frippery against the mayor’s wife’s cheek. Adele pressed gloved fingers to her mouth and suppressed a chuckle.
How to cover the gathering without sounding scornful? What Adele wanted to pen for the society column would not do:
Miss Claire Chastang was resplendent (resplendently tacky) in her tailored aerophane silk day dress, sporting lace trim and chiffon flowers reminiscent of an explosion at a ladies emporium.
“Hello, my dear, how’s your aunt?”
Adele started at the familiar elderly voice and signature gardenia perfume. “Mrs. Tuttle. Nice to see you. Great-aunt, actually. Still the same.”
Mrs. Tuttle waved an elegant hand, declaring the familial distinction irrelevant. Faded neck tattoos identified her as a cousin of Adele’s Great-Aunt Linette. The older woman might be the image of proper Southern womanhood cinched into a fashionable shirtwaist with leg o’ mutton sleeves and a Gainsborough hat, but Adele had overheard her say, in tête-à-têtes with Great-Aunt Linette, more than one naughty phrase.
“Still a bit dotty, then?” Mrs. Tuttle winked like a co-conspirator, but dang if Adele knew the intrigue.
Her aunt dotty? Eccentric maybe. Prone to wear hats to dinner maybe. “I haven’t seen you at the house this week. Are you well?” Mrs. Tuttle and her great-aunt had a standing weekly canasta engagement.
“Yes, yes. Had to leave town, only returned this morning. I’ll be there Monday, never fear.”
Like the other women, Mrs. Tuttle had a shoulder pet, but unlike their parakeets, hers was a sleek ferret. Her single nod to fashion its matching hair color, a slate gray.
She stroked a hand down Winston’s tail. “Still rabid on Wollstonecraft?”
Adele bounced on her toes. “Indeed.”
“While in Boston this week, I found an excellent bound edition of her memoirs her husband published. Next time I’m by your way, I’ll bring it.”
“Thank you. So sweet of you to think of me.”
“Don’t mention it, dear.” She patted Adele’s shoulder. “But you shouldn’t take her teachings too much to heart if it’s a husband you wish to capture.”
“Well, nothing to fear there, as I have no plans to marry. Career woman for me.”
“If you insist, but it’s beyond me why you’d forsake a gentleman’s companionship. They can be mighty useful,” she said with another wink. “In all seriousness, though, I am proud of you. It’s not easy ignoring society’s expectations.”
And that comment made Adele feel so tall, she was in danger of tangling her hat in the Spanish moss dripping from the overhanging branches of the live oaks.
“You’re welcome, dear. Anyway, I better toddle off. I need to make an appearance, you know.” She waved, and Winston jounced his head up and down a few times in farewell.
Adele smiled and consulted her notepad—what else to document? Clothes, check. Menu, check. Pithy quotes, hmmm. “What else, Loki?”
Oooh, chocolate—dark and round with a fleur de lis drawn in white icing, they glistened in the humidity. She popped one in her mouth and closed her eyes. The creamy interior melted on her tongue and soothed. She glanced around—no one watching--and snagged a second.
Another peek, and she snuck Loki a cheese straw. “Want another?”
“Talking to your shoulder pet, Adele?” asked a familiar feminine voice. “How quaint.”
Adele spun about, Loki deftly remaining on her shoulder. “Claire, how are you? Enjoying your party?” The words sounded natural enough, despite her jaw’s I-can-barely-tolerate-you clench.
Claire stepped forward, her hyper-bred parakeet on her shoulder exactly matching the brown locks of her elaborate hairdo. “It’s all right.” Her faux-bored voice said it was anything but—after all, she mustn’t look too pleased. Implanted between Claire’s shoulder blades, a lightweight brass bar curved upward, topped by a frilly, crepe de Chine parasol in the same shade as her dress: mustard yellow. The parasol bzzzed, automatically shifting to block the sun. So, Claire had adopted the latest fad. Typical.
Adele would never go under the knife for such frivolous enhancements, despite it being her father’s profession. Who cared about keeping pace and hobnobbing with Mobile’s best families?
Claire studied Loki as if he threatened her sterile, symmetrical, supercilious world and the thought was more than a little scary. “Here’s a list of guests. I’d appreciate it if you talked to all of them. And include the full menu. No one else has displayed individual servings of Charlotte Russe in champagne glasses.” She fingered her diamond bracelet. “We imported the cherries from the new state of Washington.” The last said with smugness.
Oh, spare me. “I’ll be sure to.”
“See that you do.”
Adele’s eyes—oh, they wanted to roll at that. Years of training in comportment held sway, and she imagined Loki doing it. Was she supposed to be impressed Claire’s family conducted trade with the West? The flaunting of wealth, nothing new there. But associating with the lawless and free-thinking West? A surprise given the Chastangs’ politics and position in society. Ever since the Late Great Unpleasantness, the political and economic polarity had shifted from North vs. South to an East vs. West alignment.
Claire eyed Adele, her petite nose wrinkling and dainty mouth puckering as if she’d found a June bug in her Charlotte Russe. “If Cousin Pascal could see you now. Working?” she scoffed. “Truly a Godsend the engagement ended.”
Claire paused. Waiting to see if her remark stung? Adele kept her face blank. Though the same age as Adele’s nineteen, Claire had married two years prior and viewed it as a singular accomplishment. Whereas Adele had seen her broken engagement as a blessing. Seen it as her path to independence. Seen it as A Very Near Thing. Claire’s verbal jabs might smart, but it was better than becoming like that woman. Society wife to a physician. Yes, a blessing indeed.
“You’re a joke,” Claire continued. “First you’re engaged, then you’re not. Now you’re working, but for how long?” Claire nodded. “Flighty and immature.” Her voice said the words too fluidly, as if repeating another’s.
Adele locked her knees and inhaled a shaky breath through a suddenly tight throat. All right. Claire’s jab-wielding skills had markedly improved. No one took her seriously? She pulled her bodice’s ruffled collar, but a little ball of tension coalesced in her stomach and stubbornly squatted. She knew society wouldn’t approve of her decision—she counted on it—but it did rankle that they thought her flighty.
She managed to make her shoulders shrug.
“Word of advice from an old friend. If you quit now, you can be redeemed. Society reporter is a tad unconventional, but at least it’s respectable. With your family’s position, you’re still marriageable. Don’t ruin yourself completely.”
With that, Claire spun around, the flounces on her skirt and bustle sashaying, exaggerated by internal mechanical springs.
“Nretch bichiki,” her capuchin monkey chittered, earning glares from the nearest society ladies and their matching parakeets. Were they thinking the same as Claire? Adele rubbed Loki under his chin, tried to ignore her too-fast pulse.
Adele shoved all the unpleasant emotions away, dredged up a party smile, and strode to the refreshments table. The clockwork mint julep maker handed her a chilled silver goblet, and she sipped the sweetened bourbon. Mechanical hummingbirds, each clutching a globe illuminated by captured fireflies, buzzed overhead. She flattened a palm against her side to keep from swatting the annoying creatures. Interspersed amongst the hummingbirds flitted automaton sparrows puffing out plumes of lavender scent. One poofed a perfume lump overhead, and Adele waved her hand, choking on the aren’t-I-so-cultured scent.
Stately live oaks stretched their arms over the grounds, lending gravitas to the proceedings and making Adele dislike the frilly, dangling Spanish moss for the first time, as if it were an affectation especially ordered by Claire for her shindig. Another breeze hissed through the oak leaves, lifted the edges of the linens, and set an errant hair ribbon to tickle her cheek.
Claire. Hoity-toity Claire. Her comments chafed. Because it had the can’t-be-ignored ring of truth. She had been growing tired of this job. But it was a better alternative. Following the expected path, with all its restrictions, fattened that anxiety ball. She couldn’t do it. No. And her choice of profession hadn’t been enough to make her unmarriageable?
She glanced skyward. “Blessed Virgin, grant me patience,” she whispered. A red and blue hot air balloon sailed overhead, and her chest expanded, aching to be in its wicker hold. Who was the pilot? What adventures awaited him?
“The punch,” someone cried nearby.
Adele spun around, the lack of weight on her shoulder filling her with unease.
Loki sat in the crystal punchbowl, splashing the too-pink liquid in his face and scattering large dollops on the starched white linen tablecloth. From across the expansive lawn, Claire screeched.
That screech punched through Adele’s belly, hollowing it out. Criminy. The party seemed populated now with eyes, judging, condescending, see-what-a-joke-you-are eyes, all pointed at her.
And that screech felt as if it arrowed straight to her boss across town. He would not be happy.
No. Not at all.
Angela is a geek girl romance writer. What makes her romances geeky? Whether it's fan girling over Ada Lovelace by having her as a secondary character in Must Love Breeches, or outright geek references with geek types in her romantic comedy with paranormal elements, Beer and Groping in Las Vegas, or going all Southern steampunk in Steam Me Up, Rawley, she likes to have fun with her romances and hopes her readers do too.
Angela works at an independent bookstore and lives in an historic house in the beautiful and quirky town of Mobile, AL. When she's not writing, she enjoys the usual stuff like gardening, reading, hanging out, eating, drinking, chasing squirrels out of the walls and creating the occasional knitted scarf. She's had a varied career, including website programming and directing a small local history museum, and has discovered that writing allows her to explore all her interests.
She has a B.A. in Anthropology and International Studies with a minor in German from Emory University, and a Masters in Heritage Preservation from Georgia State University. She was an exchange student to Finland in high school and studied abroad in Vienna one summer in college.
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