SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t yet read Bloodline, proceed at your own risk.
Something terrible has happened. Your Christmas present and I have been kidnapped! I hope to outwit our captor long enough to leave a trail for you to follow. I shall drop the first clue near where you kissed me amidst fire and snow.
Hurry, before it’s too late!
I groaned aloud. I’d left the museum early, looking forward to a quiet Christmas Eve at home with Griffin. Instead, I arrived to find…this.
“It’s finally happened,” I told Saul, our marmalade cat. He sat beside his food bowl in the kitchen, where I’d found the note. “The adventure fiction Griffin reads has finally rotted his brain.”
Saul only meowed plaintively, in an unsuccessful attempt to convince me Griffin had neglected to feed him earlier. With a sigh, I returned to the front hall and pulled my gloves, overcoat, hat, and scarf back on once again. I couldn’t imagine why Griffin had suddenly decided it a good idea to force me to tromp across Widdershins, let alone do it in this fashion, but it seemed I had no choice.
In theory, I could just go upstairs, pour myself a brandy, and sit in front of the fire until Griffin tired of his game and came home. Unfortunately, years as a private detective had taught him to wait patiently for hours or even days. It wasn’t a contest I could hope to win.
Widdershins didn’t receive as much snowfall as other portions of Massachusetts, but a thin blanket lay across our yard and turned the thick hedge surrounding the property into a wall of white. The cold air nipped at exposed skin, so I tugged my scarf more closely about my face. Neighborhood children ran and shrieked up and down the sidewalks. I ignored them as I passed by.
A snowball struck the side of my head.
My hat went flying, straight into a puddle of slush. I rushed to scoop it up, but it was too late—the silk was soaked and stained. Gripping it in my hands, I turned to see most of the children had fled, leaving behind only one tiny fellow with wide, terrified eyes.
“I’m sorry!” he squeaked. “I was trying to hit my brother, and—and—don’t tell Mam, please!”
I sighed. I’d never participated in a snowball fight as a child. Unless one counted serving as a target to my brother, who always mixed a generous helping of rocks and ice in with the snow. But if I had, I didn’t doubt my aim would have been as poor as this boy’s.
From the expression on his face, he thought I might do something terrible in retaliation. Put a curse on him, most likely. Or tell his mother, who, depending on her sorcerous inclinations, might put a curse on him herself.
“Confine your snowball fights to your backyards from now on,” I said. “Now run along after your friends.”
“Oh! Yes, sir!” He started away, then stopped. “Merry Christmas!”
“Bah, humbug,” I muttered, shaking off my hat as best I could. If this expedition turned me into a Scrooge, the fault lay entirely with Griffin.
I put my hat back on and continued on my way. The afternoon streets were crowded; it seemed others had taken leave of their work early as well. Men and women ducked in and out of shops, buying gifts for friends or ingredients for Christmas dinner. This year it would just be Griffin and I. Father had journeyed to the private lunatic asylum where my older brother now resided, and Mother had transformed into a fish woman.
Even inside my own head, that sounded insane.
I made my way to an older neighborhood, whose houses backed against the Cranch River. Although once fine, time had passed the neighborhood by, and the entire area had a disreputable air about it. Even so, I noted some of the houses had made an attempt at holiday cheer, with wreaths or red bows on the doors.
The address which was my destination held only burned-out ruins, now distinguishable only as lumps beneath the snow. The fire had been my fault, but I’d only set off the gas explosion to save Griffin and myself from monstrous creatures raised by a necromancer.
My life of the last two years had been…interesting.
A brick wall surrounded the property, pierced by an iron gate. A single line of footsteps entered and left through the open gate, leading me directly to my destination.
He’d tucked a note between two blackened bricks. With a sense of trepidation, I unfolded it.
You remembered, then? Where you first kissed me?
I snorted aloud. As though I would forget, especially given I’d never kissed anyone before.
I was wildly in love with you, but I couldn’t quite discern how you felt. If you wanted me for anything more than a friend. Or if you did, but weren’t willing to take things further no matter your desires. Your kiss stole my breath—and, I will admit, gave me a feeling of triumph that my courtship had been successful. I would have felt less so if I’d known at the time you didn’t even realize you were being courted.
Oh, but the villain who has kidnapped me (and your present, don’t forget) is returning. I will try to leave you a further clue where we celebrated last month.
* * *
I tramped back to River Street, hoping Griffin would be waiting for me at Le Calmar. Had he organized some sort of Christmas Eve party at the restaurant? God, I hoped not.
I flexed my left hand. I’d almost grown used to wearing a ring, after just over a month since I’d first called him husband. Griffin would have preferred a church ceremony, I knew, but such was out of the question for us. But our vows were no less real for having been witnessed by no one but ourselves.
Even so, we’d had a very small, discreet celebratory dinner a few nights later. My best friend Christine had of course been in attendance, but I’d chanced that my old colleague and new friend Dr. Gerritson and his wife would prove sympathetic. They had, and we five passed a cheerful dinner together, complete with a great deal of champagne.
When I arrived at the restaurant, the maitre’d hastened to greet me. “Dr. Whyborne! Always a pleasure.” His eyes went to my filthy hat and a tiny frown creased his mouth. “I fear the Waites are hosting a private party tonight, but I have a letter for you.”
“Of course you do,” I said glumly. I went back out onto the sidewalk, ripped open the envelope, and took out the missive inside.
The say the female of the species is the most deadly. My next note could have no less a guardian.
Griffin had best plan to keep leaving notes for the rest of his life, because I was going to throttle him when I finally caught up.
* * *
“I don’t want to know,” Christine said, thrusting a folded piece of paper at me. We stood on the porch of her boarding house. The landlady peered between the curtains of the parlor window, as though she thought we might do something scandalous in the front yard. “And what happened to your hat?”
I suppressed a sigh. “An ill-aimed snowball from the neighborhood children. Griffin apparently thinks it the height of humor to make me walk about in the snow all afternoon. He’s forcing me to follow a string of ‘clues’ to find my present.”
“Oh, I assumed it was some sort of romantic game,” she said. “You know, to liven things up a bit.”
“Christine!” The cold air stung my hot cheeks. “Why on earth would you think such a thing? No, don’t answer that.”
“Have it your way. I’m going back inside for some mulled cider. I’d offer some to you, but…” She shot a glare at the window where the landlady lurked. “Thank heavens I’m moving out on the first. The woman is going to drive me utterly mad.”
“I’ll see you at work then.”
“Merry Christmas, Whyborne.”
I wanted to sulk, but this wasn’t her fault. “Merry Christmas, Christine.”
* * *
“I really am going to kill him,” I said to no one.
Griffin’s trail of notes led me through Widdershins, to places—or people, in Christine’s case—which held some significance to us. At first I couldn’t decide whether to be touched or exasperated. Now, though I was leaning toward strangling him with a garland.
Evening had fallen by the time I came to the final note.
You were so surprised when I first called you that. I hadn’t meant to—I’d just gotten you into my bed and I feared it too soon for such endearments. But you undid me utterly that night. And every night after.
My captor is taking your present and my poor self back to where I first spoke your name in such a fashion. Come and save us!
All of my love, forever,
In other words, he wanted me to come home. Back to our house, where I’d started this entire absurd chase.
I walked slowly through town. Carolers sang merrily on a street corner, and the sound drew a reluctant smile from me. His first Christmas in Widdershins, Griffin had been taken aback by “Let Us Meet in the Woods” and “Blood on the Altar,” which he assured me weren’t part of the holiday repertoire in other towns. Now he hummed along with them, no different from anyone who had been born in here.
As the darkness gathered, candles began to glow from windows, and the air smelled of smoke and mulling cider. The clop of hooves was accompanied by the jingle of bells, some cabs having decided to add them to the harness as a cheery salute to the holiday.
I stepped through the gate leading to our house…and stopped. A large wreath hung on the door, which hadn’t been there when I left. Rather than the electric light I’d expected, the soft flicker of candles glowed in the front parlor.
I shut the gate behind me and went inside, unsure what to expect. The scent of evergreen filled the front hall, mingled with the aroma of roasting turkey. Stepping into the parlor, I let out a soft gasp.
There was a tree. An actual tree, which we’d never bothered with before, decorated with ornaments and small candles. More candles burned on the mantle. Griffin’s desk stood against the wall instead of near the center of the room, and the chairs had been removed altogether. On the desk sat a phonograph, its horn decorated with a large red bow.
My breath caught as I crossed the room. A home phonograph! I’d been wanting one…which of course Griffin knew.
“I see you’ve fallen into my cunning trap,” Griffin said from behind me.
I turned to see him standing in the doorway, a grin on his face. He’d removed his coat, and his sleeves were rolled up. No doubt he’d been cooking.
“Surprise,” he went on. “I was the kidnapper all along!” He let out a laugh worthy of a stage villain.
“I would never have guessed,” I said dryly, but I couldn’t fight the grin on my face. All of my annoyance had evaporated. “Griffin…the tree…and the decorations…and the phonograph!”
He crossed the room to me. “You’re pleased?” he asked, and I caught the trace of uncertainty in his voice.
“Of course I am.” I pulled him into my arms and kissed him. “It’s wonderful. All of it.”
“I wanted to do something special for our first Christmas as husbands.” He slid his arms around my waist. “When you said you planned on coming home early today, I had think of some way to get you out of the house long enough to get everything in place. I hope you enjoyed revisiting some of our memories?”
At the time I wouldn’t have said so. But faced with everything he’d done to try to make the holiday special, I could only reply, “Of course, darling.”
His smile lit up his green eyes. “Dinner will be a while yet. Shall we try your present?”
He went to the phonograph. A few moments later, the sweet strains of a waltz filled the air.
Griffin turned to me and gave a little bow. “Would you care to dance?”
My heart stuttered. I’d been taught to dance as a youth, of course, with the expectation I’d someday court heiresses. I’d always wondered if I’d enjoy it more with him, but actually doing so had always been out of the question.
“I’d love to,” I said.
Dancing with women had always felt somehow awkward, but with Griffin it seemed natural. I led, and he followed my movements easily, our shoes whispering over the rug as I spun him around the room in time to the music. I gazed down at him, trying to express through my eyes all that I felt but couldn’t find the right words to say. From the tender look on his face, I succeeded.
The recording came to an end. I cupped Griffin’s face in my hands, leaned down, and kissed him.
“Merry Christmas, Ival,” he whispered when the kiss ended.
I nuzzled him. “Merry Christmas, Griffin. Do we have time for another dance before dinner?”
“Indeed.” He gently freed himself from my hold and went to change the recording. “I take it you like your gift?”
I looked around at the tree and the decorations, the impromptu dance floor he’d created in the parlor. “The phonograph is wonderful,” I said. “But I think the real gift is you.”
The previous adventures of Whyborne & Griffin can be found at this link.