Eliza was to recall later that she’d been smiling that afternoon when the new footman interrupted her letter writing. She’d almost finished a missive to her older sister, Martha, who was married to Baron Preston and lived in Sussex. Martha always enjoyed stories involving the antics of their youngest sister, seven-year-old Abigail—who called herself Abby-gal because she thought that was her name.
So, Eliza had written, when Abby remembered she had imprisoned the kitten in Mama’s sewing basket, she ran back to the sitting room to release Boots and discovered the feline had entangled herself in several colors of thread, and in the process destroyed the order of Mama’s basket. Were it not for poor Abby’s condition, I believe Mama would have paddled her on the spot.
“Excuse me, my lady.”
Eliza jumped, not having heard the footman enter the drawing room. What was his name again? Mitchell? Marshall? Whatever it was, he moved too quietly for her taste. He stood practically at her elbow, and she hadn’t even heard him enter the room.
She suppressed a sigh, placed the quill back in its stand, and turned in her chair to face him. “Yes?”
“You have a message, my lady.” He grasped a folded sheet of paper in his hand but made no effort to hold it out to her. Instead, he merely stared at her. Eliza narrowed her eyes. His expression bordered on a sneer, but that made no sense. Footmen didn’t sneer, especially footmen who had been in the family’s employ for only two weeks. They were generally eager to please so they would not lose their position.
But this fellow continued to stare, and he certainly appeared to sneer. Eliza searched her memory and finally recalled his name.
“Thank you, Mayhew.” She nodded toward the paper he held. “May I have my message, please?”
He leaned forward to hand her the letter, then pulled back quickly as though to avoid her touch.
Irritated, Eliza turned her back on him and unfolded the paper. The writing was bold and black.
We have Abigail. If you want your feeble-minded little sister returned to you in one piece, you will follow the instructions in this letter carefully. Otherwise, your sister will disappear forever.
First, you will make an excuse to forego any activities that might have been planned for this evening and retire early.
At ten o’clock, you will make your way to the back door leading out into the garden. There you will be met by a man who goes by the name of Nate. Nate will escort you to a house where you will be the dinner guest of a man and whichever of his followers he chooses to invite.
You are to obey anything and everything Nate or one of your dinner partners tells you to do. If you follow instructions successfully, you will be returned to your home unharmed, and when you arrive home, you will find that your sister is safe in her bed.
Should you fail to obey or successfully follow instructions, your evening will be prolonged and your sister will be turned loose in one of the worst of London’s slums. Considering her limited mental capacities, I doubt she would live a long life, and certainly it would not be a happy one.
Her future is in your hands.