ALH Anna Lee Huber - USA Today Bestselling Author

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Mortal Arts
Chapter 1

Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.
-Edgar Degas
    October 1830

    It was the groan of death.
    Or so one would think. But after five interminable days of listening to my sister moan and carry on as we trundled across Scotland toward Edinburgh, her grumbles and whimpers had lost their ability to alarm me. I had seen death, even if I hadn't exactly heard its guttural conclusion, and despite the dark circles around Alana's eyes and her wan complexion, I could tell my sister was far from its door.
    Although, with each excruciating hour I was trapped inside the carriage with her the closer she became.
    Alana was merely expecting, and the child inside her had decided to protest this journey persistently and forcibly. I had already decided that this troublesome niece or nephew would be my favorite. A child who could so unsettle my sister while still confined to the womb certainly merited my affection.
    "Kiera," my sister whined, rolling her head to the side so that she could see me, "do you have any more of that bread?"
    My lips tightened. "Yes."
    Her hand lifted from her stomach and reached toward me. "Give me some."
    "Why? You'll only vomit again and delay our arrival by another hour."
    A frown pleated Alana's brow. "Why are you being so cruel?"
    "I'm not. I'm simply stating facts. And hoping to salvage my last traveling dress," I couldn't help adding.
    "You know I didn't do it on purpose . . ."
    "Twice." I leaned forward to point out. "You got sick on me twice."
    "But that was yesterday . . ."
    "And you splattered my boots just this morning."
    Alana pouted and turned to stare up at the ceiling of the carriage. "Well, if you had held the slop bucket for me, I wouldn't have dropped it."
    "That was how you vomited on me the second time. The next time you begin to retch I'm going to leap out the carriage door. And, as I don't wish to break my neck by falling from a moving vehicle, I'm going to make certain there isn't a next time." I inhaled deeply and turned to stare at the crimson curtain covering the window. When next I spoke, I had managed to banish most of the anger from my tone. "At the last stop, Philip said we would halt for luncheon in a few hours' time. You can eat then." Though whether she would keep it down for more than a quarter of an hour after we rolled away from the roadside inn was doubtful.
    Alana huffed. "What does he know?" Clearly she was still irritated with her husband after their argument earlier in the day. I was also none too happy with my brother-in-law for abandoning me to my sister's irritability and illness while he rode alongside the carriages, though I couldn't blame him for doing so. Had I brought a suitable mount, I might have done the same.
    "It could be another hour before we reach our stop," she complained. "I cannot last that long. I need to eat now."
    I crossed my arms, unmoved by her plea.
    Her eyes widened in entreaty. "Please, Kiera. I think it will settle my stomach."
    I shook my head.
    She scowled. "Kiera. Give it to me."
    "If you want it so bad, get it yourself."
    "Fine," she snapped, pushing herself upright. Almost immediately her already pale face bleached of all color. She groaned and sank back against the cushions.
    Despite my annoyance, I was not without compassion or concern for her. I sat forward to take hold of her hand, offering her what comfort I could while she struggled to hold down the small amount of water she had managed to sip since the last time she'd lost the battle with her stomach.
    When the worst passed and a faint tinge of pink returned to her complexion, she opened her eyes to look up at me. "I'm fine," she murmured, squeezing my palm weakly.
    "Do you want a sip of water?"
    She shook her head and swallowed. "Not just yet."
    I reached up to brush a stray curl of chestnut hair away from her brow, fighting to keep the worry I felt from showing on my face. Either I didn't do a very good job or my sister simply knew me too well.
    "I'll be fine once we reach Edinburgh."
    "I know," I replied with a tight smile. I pulled the curtain over the window aside. Dense forest met my view. "I just wish we would get there already." I glanced back at my sister, whose cheekbones had noticeably thinned in the past two months of her confinement. "We made this move in hopes of improving your health, not diminishing it."
    Her hand squeezed mine again, stronger this time. "Edinburgh is home to the best medical minds in the world, is it not?"
    I nodded.
    "Then I wish you and Philip would stop questioning your decision to take me there. You believe our physician at Gairloch is a quack, and there is not another medical man or midwife for miles around. If I'm going to deliver this child safely, you had no choice but to take me to Edinburgh."
    A lump formed in my throat at hearing her state the matter so bluntly. After the complications she had faced during her third child's birth less than a year and a half earlier, she had been warned of the difficulty she might face in delivering any more children. Alana and Philip had taken the physician's counsel seriously, but, despite their precautions, Alana once again found herself heavy with child. I couldn't say that I was surprised. My sister and her husband had a very loving and affectionate marriage, and the natural result of such a relationship was children, whether planned for or not.
    Upon learning of Alana's delicate state, Philip and I considered the available options for her care. We agreed that Gairloch Castle, located in the wilds of the western Highlands, was not the ideal place for such a potentially difficult confinement, especially as winter set in, closing off the roads to the outside. By our calculations, the child was not due until mid-April, but winter was long and hard in the Highlands, and it was not uncommon for the roads to remain impassible long into spring. Neither of us wanted to take any chances with Alana or the child's health, so it became apparent we needed to travel somewhere with better access to medical care. Edinburgh was the natural choice.
    The fact that someone I very much wanted to see might also be in Edinburgh had not factored into the decision, though it had not been far from my thoughts.
    So, before the chill of winter could settle over the land, Philip, Alana, their children, and I set out for Edinburgh. As the Earl of Cromarty, Philip already owned a town house on Charlotte Square in the Georgian New Town. Much of his household had been transferred to the city ahead of us, along with a large portion of our luggage. Only the personal servants and the nanny lagged behind, the latter of whom was to ride with the children in the carriage that followed ours. Malcolm and Philipa had begun the trip in our carriage, but Alana's illness had swiftly necessitated their removal to the second coach.
    I released Alana's hand and sank back against the squabs with a weary sigh. "If we ever arrive." I felt my sister's eyes on me as I reached up to peer outside the curtains once again at the autumn forest. I braced myself to refuse yet another one of her pleas for bread, but the careful tone of her voice alerted me there was something far more perilous on her mind.
    "You know, there will be a great deal of society in Edinburgh."
    "Yes," I replied neutrally, hoping she wasn't about to suggest that I accept every reluctant invitation I received. I might have been less nervous about reentering civilization than I had been two months prior, but that did not mean I was ready to jump in with both feet just yet. Society had not yet forgotten my forced involvement in the dissections my late husband, the great anatomist Sir Anthony Darby, had carried out, or the subsequent charges of unnatural tendencies. And even though my assistance in helping the authorities capture a grisly killer two months ago had done much to calm their fear of me, I knew that just one such incidence of heroics was unlikely to repair my reputation. As such, I had decided to approach my reentry into society with great care. Any minor faux pas could destroy all the good my turn as an investigator had done, and since I had never been very interested in following the rules to begin with, I was already at a distinct disadvantage. Fortunately my sister and brother-in-law would be there to guide me. As long as Alana's health improved once we reached Edinburgh.
    "And, if I remember correctly, didn't Mr. Gage venture to Edinburgh upon leaving Gairloch?"
    I could tell my sister's casual observation was far from innocent, just as I knew her memory was far from faulty in regard to this matter. "I believe so," I replied obscurely.
    "Perhaps he's still there. Wouldn't it be lovely to see him again?"
    My heart tripped at the possibility. Not that I hadn't already thought of it, had been thinking of it ever since Philip and I realized we would need to take Alana to Edinburgh. In fact, Mr. Sebastian Gage had not been far from my thoughts since the night I trailed him down to the makeshift crypt below Gairloch's chapel to assist him with the murder investigation I helped to solve. I had been uneasy with my fascination with him back then, and still was, especially considering my ignorance of his feelings toward me. The idea that we might meet again in Edinburgh both thrilled and terrified me. But I wasn't about to admit any of that to my sister.
    I could tell that, upon his departure two months ago, Alana had suspected some sort of involvement between Gage and me, but we had never discussed it. I preferred it that way, not able to name my feelings for the exasperating inquiry agent even to myself, let alone someone else. I still didn't want to have that conversation, least of all when trapped in a carriage with my nosy sibling. So I proceeded with caution.
    "Of course," I replied, satisfied that neither my voice nor my face gave away just how anxious I felt about seeing Gage again.
    Alana narrowed her eyes up at me from her reclined position. "Of course? That's all you have to say? The man saved your life, for heaven's sake."
    I stiffened. As if I could forget. "What do you want me to say? Yes, it would be lovely to see him."
    Her mouth pursed in frustration. "I thought you'd grown fond of him. Philip thought you two were getting along rather well near the end."
    I ran my hands over the skirt of my russet brown traveling dress, trying to hide the tension vibrating through my frame. I wondered just how much my brother-in-law had told my sister. Had he witnessed the kiss I thought Gage and I had shared in the loch just before I fell unconscious? Did he tell her about our final confrontation on the morning Gage departed? I had not believed Philip to be a tattler, but perhaps relaying such information to one's spouse was not considered tattling.
    "I did. We were." I sighed in exasperation. "I don't know what you expect me to say. The man helped me unmask a murderer and then went on his merry way. I doubt he expects to see you or me again, just as I never expected to see him. So, yes, it would be lovely to see him, but it's not a blessed event." I sank back against the squabs and scowled at the curtains blocking the light from hurting Alana's eyes but also obstructing my view.
    "Are you angry about that?"
    "Are you angry that he 'went on his merry way' with no intention of seeing you again?" my all-too-perceptive sister clarified softly.
    "What? No," I lied. "The only thing I'm angry about is that you keep trying to make more of this than there is." I glared at her and she lifted her hands in a staying gesture.
    "All right, all right. I'm sorry I pressed you."
    I crossed my arms over my chest. "Besides, chances are he's not even in Edinburgh." I ignored the sick feeling in the pit of my stomach at the thought. "He probably returned to London weeks ago. So this entire discussion is for naught."
    "Probably," Alana agreed.
    I watched her prone form suspiciously, but her eyes were closed and her face, for the moment, relaxed and free of the pallid cast it had taken on so frequently over the past few days. I decided to hold my tongue, in hopes that she might actually be resting.
    Unfortunately, that left me all too alone with my thoughts of Gage, my worries about Alana's health, and my anxiety over society's reaction to my arrival in Edinburgh. I realized I preferred to argue with my sister.

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