Excerpt: Four Corners of Heaven


River Thames, Port of London, October 1870

The Honourable Harrison Stafford, a scientist with the ill luck to have been born a gentleman, caught a hazy glimpse of London from the deck of the SS Martinique. As far as he could tell in the gray morning light, the city was as grimy and chaotic as he’d left it three years earlier. The stench, that odd mix of metal, sulfur, and rotting fish, might even be more rank. He swigged the last bit of cold coffee from his cup and wished it was much later in the day so he could drink something stronger.

This was hardly the triumphant homecoming Harry had envisioned.

It could be worse. Probably. Possibly. At least he still had prospects. Many of his fellow scientists would give their eyeteeth for the plum position in the university botany department that was Harry’s for the taking. He would learn to be happy with that for now. He just needed this last bit of time before disembarking to make peace with his new life.

“Even with my fine port in you,” Captain Lord Granston said from behind him, “you’ll catch your death of cold without your coat.” Granston joined Harry at the railing. He wore his finest uniform, which should have looked imposing on one as tall and broad as he was. But even if the splash of freckles across his face and his reddish-blond hair hadn’t made him look younger than his age, carrying a small bundle of fur in his arms would have done it.

“You keep telling me that’s your sister’s dog,” Harry said, “but every time I see him, he’s with you.” He tried to keep a straight face, but it was impossible. Seeing this man who had avoided domesticity like a fatal disease now married, traveling with his wife and sister, and worrying about the welfare of a fluffy mutt was enough to break through Harry’s melancholy.

“Howard is Zinny’s dog,” Granston insisted. “He just needed a bit of a run this morning and we got ahead of the ladies.” He pulled Harry’s morning coat off the railing and tossed it to him. “And speaking of the ladies, they’re nearly upon us, so make yourself presentable. And put down that drink, for Christ’s sake.”

“It’s just coffee.” Harry handed Granston the cup, then shrugged into his suit coat.

Granston sniffed the empty cup, then wrinkled his nose. “Not even a drop of brandy to steady your nerves? You should have asked me, mate. I’ve plenty of fine spirits stowed away in the captain’s quarters.”

“I’ll keep that in mind next time.” Harry wondered if there would be a next time, though. Would he ever again board a ship to travel to the four corners of the earth in search of a medical miracle? Or would the shackles of his duties and inheritance trap him in England for the rest of his days?

As the ladies approached, Harry pasted on a smile and wished he had worn his gloves, overcoat, and scarf. His desire was driven more by modesty than the cool London air. Granston’s sister had grown up while Harry had been in the jungles of South America. Not as much as she thought, but enough for her to find her brother’s old Harrow school friend far more interesting than she should. And Harry, who couldn’t consider courting a woman until he had his life in order, let alone a girl, was determined to make himself as boring in Lady Zinnia’s eyes as possible.

“Lady Granston, good morning.” Harry reached for the brim of his hat, only to realize he wasn’t wearing that, either.

Lady Zinnia stared at his hair, which was so bleached by the South American sun that the pale blond color had turned nearly white. A fact she had commented on nearly every time their paths had crossed on the ship during the three weeks it had taken to transverse the Atlantic.

“Good morning, Harry,” Lady Granston said.

“Good morning, Mr. Stafford,” Lady Zinnia said before he could greet her. “What a pleasant surprise to see you out and about so early this morning. Can you believe our journey is ending? I’m returning from my first adventure outside of Great Britain! Oh, I’m sure that sounds provincial to one as well-traveled as you.”

Harry smiled at her as he might at his own little sister. “Not at all, Lady Zinnia. I’d only traveled to the Continent a few times by the time I was your age. Your brother’s adventures far outstrip mine.”

Lady Granston smiled as she reached for the dog and set him on his feet, holding his leash. “Before this devolves into a discussion about your brother’s adventures, let’s get Howard inside for his breakfast,” she said to her sister-in-law. “Harry, if we don’t see you again before the day is through, we look forward to entertaining you and the rest of your Harrow friends very soon.”

As the ladies and Howard walked in the direction of the ship’s main dining room, Lady Zinnia shot him a plaintive look over her shoulder. Granston excused himself to join the bosun in the pilot house and safely steer them into port, leaving Harry alone again with his thoughts.

It had been weeks since his colleague, Leo Weber, had disavowed their research and thrown in his lot with another team set to trek back into the jungle. Harry wished he’d had the luxury of doing the same, that his father’s patience with Harry’s “adventures” wasn’t worn so thin, that the pressure for Harry to return to the fold and undertake his duties as the future baron wasn’t so suffocating. Most of all, he wished he weren’t in line for the barony at all, so he wouldn’t be forced out of academia when he inherited the title, as was always the case with the peerage.

Harry knew of one wunderkind scientist who had been appointed to the university faculty at the age of twenty-three on the heels of several impressive discoveries. That professor had managed to work out an arrangement to keep up his role there even after inheriting a viscounty. But Harry had no such successes to his name. Just months earlier, he’d been close, though, as he’d held a newly discovered species of Curare in his hands. Delicate and dangerous. Poisonous and promising. But he and Weber had been unable to validate the Curare’s efficacy as a surgical wonder drug. Now three years of research were lost.

“There you are.” It was the leader of the research expedition, Mr. Theodore Gwinnen, the younger son of an earl who filled his idle time using other people’s money to fund his risky adventures. Fortunately for Harry, his Curare research had been an interesting exploit for Gwinnen.

“Good morning.” Harry tried to keep the annoyance out of his voice. After all, it wasn’t the man’s fault the plant hadn’t been what they’d all hoped.

“Strange, isn’t it, arriving here without Weber?” Gwinnen asked. “The three of us were going to present our findings in just a month from now. Such a pity.”


It was the first they’d spoken of Weber, or of anything, really, since they’d left Buenos Aires. Harry had needed time and distance from anything to do with their great failure, and Gwinnen had been good enough to steer clear of him.

Now the man leaned forward and propped his forearms on the railing. “Listen, Stafford, I’ve been thinking about it. We need to finish the work without him.”

“Weber was right. The science doesn’t support the conclusion we wanted.”

Gwinnen shook his head. “Forget about Weber. Let’s stop worrying about his microscopes and cell walls and…” He fluttered his hand in the air. “You’ve brought plant samples and soil with you. I’ll talk to our backers, have them set up a laboratory for us. We’ll find another chemist or biologist or whomever you need to work with you, and you can get back to it.”

“I’m not sure what else we can hope to find.”

Gwinnen leaned closer and dropped his voice, despite no one else being on deck. “We both know what we saw in the jungle. The medic performed surgery on my assistant’s gut. Sliced him open to stitch up his muscles. No ether. No chloroform. And Mr. Tremont didn’t feel a thing. Didn’t make a peep. The why of it is still a mystery. You’re too good a scientist to let that go without an explanation.”

But he had no choice. It was time to move on. “Gwinnen, I’ve been meaning to tell you. I’ve been offered a faculty position at the university.”

“Have you, now?” Gwinnen frowned as he stared at the horizon.

“Yes, and I intend to take it. Once I’m there, I’ll look for projects with more promise.”

“Boring positions at stuffy institutions can wait.” Gwinnen turned to face Harry. “Don’t give up on three years of work just yet. At least consider my offer. I’ll meet with our investors and get back to you in a week. You can tell me your decision then.”

Gwinnen bid Harry adieu, and Harry could once again wallow in peace. But against his will, his thinking had already shifted. Maybe Weber had been wrong. Maybe Harry had been too tired and frustrated. Maybe they’d given up too soon. Just considering the possibility made the future seem less bleak and the city on the horizon look less foreboding.

For now, he would return to his stateroom and make himself presentable his arrival. In a few days’ time, he would secure his academic position. After that, he would give Gwinnen’s proposal serious consideration. He glanced at his empty coffee cup and frowned. If the distress of his return didn’t soon subside, he might heed Granston’s advice after all and take to drinking something stronger before breakfast.

* * *

Miss Adelia Dawson stood on the Royal Victoria Dock amongst a throng of onlookers, waiting for passengers of the SS Martinique to disembark. Dressed in the black frock she wore at the hospital and a plain gray coat and bonnet, she drew no undue attention to herself. It was important skill for a young woman traveling about London unchaperoned. Her father and even her dear Uncle Bexton would have a fit were they to realize she had come here alone this morning instead of going straight to her work.

She turned up the collar of her coat against the damp chill as she waited for the porter she’d approached to deliver her message to Leo. She began pacing, worried about how much time it was taking. She was too full of restless energy and she willed herself to be calm. It would be shocking enough to Leo that she’d come here all alone to welcome him home. She needn’t make him worry she’d gone totally ’round the bend by appearing over-anxious.

If she was overwrought, she had good reason. Judging from the quality of the light through the morning haze, it was nearly seven o’clock. She would have to leave in ten minutes, regardless of whether she was able to greet her old friend by then, in order to make the start of her eight o’clock shift at the lying-in hospital. And she’d been unnerved by what had looked like a wraith on the deck of the ship. Adelia was a woman of science, not of superstition. Still, there were things she avoided. One, stepping on graves in the churchyard. Two, cursing the heavens when patients took a turn for the worse. Three, crossing paths with ghosts on her way to the hospital.

She stopped pacing and drew a deep breath, which she immediately coughed back out. The mix of industrial by-products and filthy water produced a pungent concoction that stuck in the back of her throat. The air on the East End docks was swollen with grime. It practically shimmered with particulates and cast an eerie—one might even say ghostly—glow on the scene. She nearly laughed at herself for being so melodramatic as to believe she’d seen a spirit, and her nervous energy abated. And just in time, as the porter reappeared on deck, followed by the captain, a well-dressed lady, a girl with the same coloring as the captain chasing a yapping dog across the decks, and a pale-blond-haired gentleman, heretofore known as Adelia’s wraith. Only he now wore a pair of spectacles, a bowler hat, and black gloves, making him look quite human after all.

The gentleman headed down the gangplank and made a beeline in Adelia’s direction. He stopped mere feet in front of her. There was no denying he was flesh and blood. Suddenly Adelia was very aware that, despite the crowd, she was alone with this stranger. He was taller than she had judged from a distance, and the black-gloved hand he held out to her was broad. His demeanor said nobility, but he had a fading tan and wrinkles around his eyes that seemed out of place on his youthful face. The man had spent time outdoors, perhaps had even performed physical labor, given his physique.

“Mr. Stafford, at your service, Miss…?”

She cleared her throat and brushed her gloved fingertips against his in the slightest handshake. “Miss Dawson. If you don’t mind, Mr. Stafford, I’m waiting for my friend, Mr. Weber.” The name Stafford was familiar, but she couldn’t place the reason.

“I see.” Mr. Stafford pulled off his spectacles and slid them into his pocket. “Might I inquire as to how you know Mr. Weber?”

He most certainly might not. But he stood so still and quiet as he waited for her response, it seemed he might wait hours if she didn’t reply. Adelia knew how to wait as well. Babies arrived in their own time, after all, and there was precious little even the most skilled doctors and nurses could do to hurry them along. But the delivery was neither quiet nor still. Not unless the very worst happened.

She shifted from one foot to the other. Unsettled by his patience, she answered despite her misgivings. “I’ve known Leo…Mr. Weber for years. We’re old friends.”

He raised his eyebrows ever so slightly. She nearly blurted out the rest of it, that they’d been colleagues, both students of her Uncle Bexton. But a young lady in the sciences tended to raise eyebrows higher than a woman suspected of carrying on a tryst.

“I see,” he said again.

Adelia gritted her teeth. Whatever game this pompous toff was playing, she’d nearly reached the end of her indulgence and the time she had to spare. “Might I inquire as to why you’re asking questions on Mr. Weber’s behalf as opposed to fetching him?”

The skin around Mr. Stafford’s eyes, his very bright blue eyes, crinkled again as he smiled. This time it seemed more genuine. “I beg your pardon. That was rude of me. I’m one of Mr. Weber’s research partners. And I would gladly fetch him for you, were he not three thousand miles away.”

That was why his name was familiar to him. She’d read the name Stafford many times in Leo’s letters. But now Stafford was here and Leo wasn’t. She frowned. “He stayed in South America? But his research… He said he would finish it here in London. He wrote to me and…”

She stopped speaking because Mr. Stafford’s smile had faded and his mouth was set in a thin line.

“Weber wrote to you about our research?”

She didn’t know why that news had affected such a change in him, but again reminding herself he was a stranger, she took a step back to put distance between them and chose her next words carefully. “He wrote to me that he would be coming home to complete his research.” It was none of Mr. Stafford’s business that Leo had written much more than that.

“I’m sorry if my tone was off-putting, Miss Dawson.” He took a step back as well, giving her even wider berth. “I’m just surprised. I didn’t know Weber was writing to anyone other than his parents, and our research is quite confidential.”

“I understand the nature of scientific discoveries. You needn’t worry I’ll break any confidences. And in return, I hope you’ll tell me why Mr. Weber didn’t come back to England with you. In the last letter I received, he wrote that he’d just booked passage on the SS Martinique.”

“He had the opportunity to join another research team,” Mr. Stafford said. “It came about quite suddenly, just weeks before we set sail. Perhaps he wrote another letter that included his change of plans, and it hasn’t reached you yet.”

“Perhaps.” It was true the post was sometimes delayed months. But something about Mr. Stafford’s glib answers didn’t sit well with her. The man was hiding something. And it was strange for a dedicated scientist such as Leo to walk away from an incomplete project, especially after promising that Adelia could help him finish it once he returned to London. “And what about his research?”

Our research remains confidential, Miss, as I’m sure you’ll understand.”

Adelia didn’t understand. She didn’t understand at all. Leo had promised her the chance of a lifetime to work on research into medicinal plants. That work could be the proof of her worth that finally gained her admittance to medical school. Leo truly was a good friend, almost a brother to her. He wouldn’t jeopardize her future for no reason. “Mr. Stafford, I beg your pardon, but I must insist. Why didn’t Mr. Weber accompany you back to London? Is he unwell?”

Mr. Stafford took a long, slow breath. In Adelia’s professional opinion, the man didn’t look entirely well himself. “If you must know, the financial support for our research was withdrawn. Mr. Weber has a reputation as a fine scientist, and when our investors were no longer paying him, he had several offers to join other expeditions.”

That at least made sense to Adelia. Leo was from a family of modest means, unlike his expedition partners, with their pedigrees and wealth. “But the research was so promising. Surely it hasn’t come to an end. Will you be continuing it, now that you’re here?”

Mr. Stafford stared at her with wide-eyed surprise, and Adelia regretted her forthright question. She was so used to speaking her mind in her family, she sometimes forgot to tread more cautiously in the presence of other men. Mr. Stafford covered his shock with a smile and a slight bow. “To be honest, Miss, I don’t yet know what will happen to the research.”

“But you might continue it?” she pressed. After all, he had cracked the door just an inch. She had no choice but to jam her foot into that space. Her entire future depended upon it.

“Perhaps.” He went still and silent again.

She supposed there was nothing more she would learn from the tight-lipped man, and besides, she couldn’t dally another minute. “Thank you for telling me about Mr. Weber’s change of plans,” she said as she turned on her heel. “Good day.”

“Wait, Miss Dawson,” he called after her. “May I hire a coach for you?”

She glanced back over her shoulder at him. Did he think her daft? Incapable of arranging her own transportation? In need of a tall, handsome stranger to do it for her? “I have a coach waiting just down the street. How do suppose I came here?”

“Oh, of course. I didn’t realize. Well, then, good day.”

As a scientist, he really should have realized. “Good day,” she repeated.

As she hurried toward the coach, she ordered her troubled thoughts. One, she’d wasted far too much time on this fool’s errand and now she might be late to the hospital. Two, she must get to the bottom of what had happened regarding Leo’s research and its funding. Three, regardless of what had happened and Mr. Stafford’s opinion on the matter, she would insert herself into the research project. And four, once they were colleagues, they would work to improve Mr. Stafford’s deductive reasoning skills.


At precisely three minutes past eight, Adelia arrived at the hospital, a rather dingy looking place from the outside, with its gray bricks coated in city grime. As soon as she walked through the doors, she assumed the stoic demeanor required by Mr. Corbyn, the head obstetric surgeon. When Adelia entered the main atrium of the building, the young nurse behind the front desk greeted her.

“Good morning, Miss Dawson.” The woman dropped a small curtsey.

Adelia smiled back at her. “Good morning.”

She had long since given up asking the women on the staff not to defer to her. As the niece of a viscount—neither the daughter nor the wife of a peer—she hardly expected such behavior. But she was the rare lady of breeding who had chosen to take up the nursing profession rather than fundraising, and it seemed the staff never knew quite what to make of her.

Except Mrs. Dalrymple. The head nurse, a tall, sturdy, serious woman with a mile-wide streak of kindness, put Adelia to work just as she did every other woman who fell under her charge. Now Mrs. Dalrymple marched toward Adelia.

“Good morning, Miss Dawson,” the woman said. “I’ve assigned you to Mrs. Abbey today. She’s started her labor and will need someone with her at all times.” Mrs. Dalrymple dropped her voice as they hurried through the long windowless halls. “She’s asked for you. I think she might have waited until Tuesday to have this baby, just so you’d be here with her. But Mr. Corbyn is attending her.”

That was bad news in more ways than one. “Does that mean he expects she’ll need surgery?”

“It’s quite possible. Now, stay out of the old man’s way and nod in agreement if he happens to look at you, but don’t answer him, even if you think he’s asked you a question.”

Adelia bit her tongue. She hardly needed Mrs. Dalrymple’s reminders about how to placate the irascible but skilled surgeon. She was used to stepping lightly around him, hoping one day to earn his recommendation for medical school, despite his poor opinion of women.

When they arrived at Mrs. Abbey’s bedside in the labor ward, Mr. Corbyn was snapping out orders to two of his students. He glanced at Mrs. Dalrymple. “Someone will need to sit with her. Keep her quiet and still.”

Mrs. Dalrymple nodded. “Yes, sir. I’ve brought Miss Dawson.”

Mrs. Abbey grabbed her swollen abdomen and keened, the sure sign of another contraction.

“Keep her silent!” Mr. Corbyn yelled at Adelia.

He marched away from her and his students fell into step behind him. One of them, Mr. Lang, a rather dim-witted young man Adelia had met in a chemistry lecture at the university, paused long enough to wink at her.

“Nurse,” Lang said, adding a curt nod.

Adelia prickled. She could read volumes in that one word. Lang’s marks had been so far below hers, it was more sad than laughable. And yet here he was, a graduate of a surgical program and a protégé of Mr. Corbyn, while she served as a nurse who might not be admitted into a medical program for years, if ever.

With the men gone, Mrs. Dalrymple checked Mrs. Abbey’s vital signs and repositioned the pillows behind her back. “I’ll check back every half hour. Call for me if you think anything is amiss.”

Adelia picked up a glass from the bedside table and helped Mrs. Abbey take a sip. Then she pulled up a stool and took the woman’s hand as she sat beside her.

“You’re doing fine,” Adelia whispered.

Mrs. Abbey glanced at the door to the ward, where Mr. Corbyn had just exited.

“Silence, I know.” If Corbyn’s rule had made any difference to her patients’ health, Adelia would have enforced it. But in her year as a nurse, she had seen no evidence of its efficacy. “I’ve learned that if we whisper, Mr. Corbyn won’t hear us.”

Mrs. Abbey smiled. “I’m glad you’re here.”

“So am I.”

When the next contraction came, Adelia helped Mrs. Abbey breathe through it, the way the midwives instructed women to do. It was a coping mechanism the doctors and surgeons never bothered to prescribe. At the end of the contraction, Mrs. Abbey drifted into a light sleep until she was interrupted by another pain, and they breathed together again.

After each contraction, Mrs. Abbey was a little more awake. Finally, she spoke again. “The pains are getting closer, aren’t they?”

“Yes.” Adelia glanced at the timepiece attached to her dress pocket, as she had after each contraction. “Less than two minutes apart now.”

“Do you think I’ll end up in the cutting room?” Mrs. Abbey asked.

Adelia wished she could lie to the woman, but she couldn’t give her false hope that might make the reality that much harder. “If you do, Mr. Corbyn is the best surgeon to be had in all of London, despite his horrible bedside manner.”

“But you’ll stay with me?”

Adelia squeezed her hand. “As long as they’ll allow me.”

After the next contraction, Mrs. Abbey shifted position and stared intently at Adelia. “I need to tell you the names I’ve picked. I haven’t told anyone, not even Mr. Abbey. But I need to tell you. If it’s a son, his name will be Albert.”

“Albert. After the prince regent?” Adelia asked.

“After my husband. He’s made no secret of wanting a son.”

He and every other father. Except Adelia’s own, who seemed perfectly content with two daughters. “And what if it’s a girl?”

“Ah, a precious little girl.” Mrs. Abbey lay back against her pillows and placed a hand over her protruding belly. Her face softened. She looked serene. At peace. “If it’s a girl, she’ll be called Marie, after my mother.”

“Marie. That’s lovely.”

Mrs. Abbey closed her eyes. But instead of relaxing, her hand clenched Adelia’s. Her body stiffened and vibrated. She was having a seizure.

“Mrs. Dalrymple!” Adelia grabbed a rubber mouthpiece from the bedside stand and forced it between Mrs. Abbey’s teeth, then ran to the doorway. “Mrs. Dalrymple!”

The head nurse ran from the end of the hallway. She and Adelia held Mrs. Abbey down and spoke soothing words until the woman’s body relaxed. But she didn’t open her eyes. Mr. Corbyn and his students arrived with a rolling bed. Adelia shook her head. The man hadn’t even performed a pelvic exam.

Mrs. Dalrymple grasped Adelia’s shoulder to pull her aside. “We knew it might come to this. Best not to delay. It might only make the prognosis for mother and child worse.”

“I told her I would stay with her as long as I could.”

“We both will,” Mrs. Dalrymple said. “But stay out of Mr. Corbyn’s path and his sightline.”

The three men and two women ran along the hallway with the gurney and passed through the large doors that led to the surgery room. Several yards away, three young doctors—all of them gangly, poorly shaven, and sporting dark rings around their eyes, stepped through another door that led to the observation deck. Surgery was always a spectacle, but even more so when two lives hung in the balance.

As the young men crowded against the glass of the observation deck above them, Corbyn, his students, and two surgery attendants lifted Mrs. Abbey onto a metal table in the center of the room. They stripped off her thin nightdress, rendering her naked with her limbs akimbo and her long brown hair falling out of its pins. Bright lights shone down on her and the medical men surrounding her. Following Mrs. Dalrymple’s silent instruction, communicated with a tilt of her chin, Adelia stood by Mrs. Abbey’s head, across from the surgeon who fitted a mask over the unconscious woman’s face to administer ether. Adelia said a silent prayer for mother and child, and held her breath.

“Don’t go fainting on us,” Lang said he winked at her again.

Adelia laid a hand on Mrs. Abbey’s shoulder and held her tongue. She was here for the distressed mother, not the likes of Lang. Lang, who was the only one in their small anatomy class at the university who had taken one look at a surgeon cutting into a cadaver—a cadaver!—and had dropped to the floor like a bag of bricks.

Lang shifted his focus to brace Mrs. Abbey’s legs, just in case the ether and her physical distress didn’t render her oblivious for the entire procedure. Mr. Corbyn pulled a glinting knife across Mrs. Abbey’s abdomen. A line of blood gathered in its wake. As Corbyn cut deeper, the surgeon beside Adelia regularly doused Mrs. Abbey with more ether, and the students clamped down harder on the woman’s legs. After what seemed like far too long to be safe, Mr. Corbyn pulled out a small, thin, wax- and blood-covered form from Mrs. Abbey’s body. The baby was eerily quiet as Mr. Corbyn handed the child over to a doctor who’d been waiting outside the room, but after a few quick slaps to the back, the infant wailed to life.

“Alive, then,” Lang said. “A girl.”

“Her mum’s not so lucky,” the other student said.

Adelia clutched at her belly as the surgeon who had administered the ether pressed his ear to Mrs. Abbey’s chest, then placed his fingers under her nose. He shook his head at Corbyn.

“She’s a goner,” Lang said. “Didn’t even leave her husband with a son to show for it.”

“More’s the pity,” Corbyn agreed.

Adelia nearly shrieked with indignation. The sweet, terrified woman who had held Adelia’s hand and asked for her help and shared her daughter’s name had died. She had never gotten to see her baby’s face or hold her little hand. Mrs. Abbey had left behind a motherless child. A widowed father. A broken family. And these pompous men sneered at her.

But once again, Adelia kept her silence. It was the only way to protect her position at the hospital.

She backed up slowly and pressed herself against the wall as the surgeons, students, and other male attendants filed out of the room. The baby’s doctor handed the child over to Mrs. Dalrymple and left as well. Mrs. Dalrymple and Adelia were alone with mother and child.

“I’ll fetch the charwomen to clean the room and attend to Mrs. Abbey.” Mrs. Dalrymple handed over the baby. “While you look after this little one.”

Adelia blinked back tears and pulled the warm bundle of blanket-wrapped babe against her chest. “Her name is Marie, after Mrs. Abbey’s mother.”

Mrs. Dalrymple looked down at the child. “Welcome to the world, little Marie.” She glanced at Adelia. “Let’s hope her father is prepared to care for her alone.”

Adelia carried Marie to the end of the hallway where there was a small window letting in the afternoon sunlight. “You see, not everything in the world is bad, even though it might seem so right now.”

She shifted Marie in her arms and stared down into her eyes. “You and I have something in common. My mother had a difficult birth with me as well.” Adelia’s birth had caused a blood clot, a seizure, and permanent damage, but fortunately for Adelia, her mother had survived. “You poor thing. I’m so sorry. It will be difficult, but your grandmother…” She hesitated. She didn’t know whether Mrs. Abbey’s mother was still alive. “If your grandmother is alive, she’ll be so thrilled to have you in her life. If not, your father…”

Adelia stopped speaking and rocked the baby in her arms. She could make the child no promises about Mr. Abbey without having met the man. He wanted a boy. Whether that was a hope or a demand was impossible for Adelia to say, and little Marie’s fate depended not only on her father’s interest in raising a daughter, but also on his ability to do so without his wife.

“Your mother loved you so much. I saw it on her face when she spoke of you. I didn’t know her well, but I know she was very excited to meet you, to see your face and tell you your name.”

The baby girl, not yet aware of how precarious her path in life might be, closed her eyes.  Adelia swallowed, trying to choke down the lump in her throat. As one tear slid down her cheek, Mr. Corbyn and his students rounded the corner and came face to face with her. The men stopped short, and Mrs. Dalrymple and the child’s nurse, who were just steps behind them, halted as well.

Mr. Corbyn turned to Mrs. Dalrymple. “Hysterics have no place here. Send Miss Dawson away. I won’t have her in my hospital.”

The floor dropped out from under Adelia and she leaned against the wall to stay anchored. “Please, it was just a moment of weakness.”

Corbyn glared at her. “To think, you had the audacity to believe you could become a physician. Or perhaps you fancied yourself qualified to become a surgeon. Do what you were born to do. Find a husband and bear his sons. There is no other use for you.”

Even Mr. Lang gasped at that last remark and gave Adelia what might have been a pitying look, but Mr. Corbyn turned on his heel and stalked away, leaving the young man to scramble after him. The wet nurse, who didn’t meet Adelia’s eyes, took the baby from her. Mrs. Dalrymple took her hand.

“I’m sorry, Miss Dawson,” she said. “You’ll have to go home now, but I’ll work on changing his mind.”

Adelia shook her head. They both knew it the man wouldn’t change his stance. It wasn’t her one tear that had invoked his fury. It was the audacity he had mentioned. She had shown him her true self the first day they’d met, when she’d admitted her aspirations thinking he might become an ally. He had never forgiven her for it. At least now she could stop pretending that her work here ever could have ended differently. She would never get Mr. Corbyn’s recommendation for medical school. And if she never entered medical school, she wouldn’t have the necessary skills to improve upon what men like Corbyn, with their total disregard for their patients’ humanity, were doing.

It was then that the weight of her dismissal hit her. She wouldn’t miss Corbyn or his students or the other men who skulked about these halls, sneering at the weak women who required their intervention to give birth. But she would miss her patients, each and every woman she might have helped, even the ones she hadn’t yet met. She wouldn’t be able to comfort the next Mrs. Abbey or help the next mother suffering from eclampsia, the dangerous condition of pregnancy that had afflicted her mother. Not here, not on Corbyn’s turf.

“Thank you.” Adelia squeezed Mrs. Dalrymple’s fingers. “But don’t jeopardize your own position. These women need you.” She bit her lip, staring down the hall after Marie as the wet nurse rounded the corner and disappeared from sight. “If I might ask one favor, I’d like to write a letter for little Marie. Some words about her mother. It might bring her comfort someday.”

Mrs. Dalrymple nodded. “If you deliver the letter to me, I’ll make sure it gets into the right hands.”

Adelia turned to leave, determined to escape the building before more traitorous tears drew attention to her.

“Miss Dawson,” Mrs. Dalrymple said, causing Adelia to turn around, “I do know this much. You’ve got just as strong a mind as any of the doctors I’ve ever met. And you have something many of them will never have to go with that mind: a tender heart.”

“Ah, my downfall.”

“For now. But someday, possibly your greatest strength. Find another way to get into medical school. Your patients will thank you for it.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Dalrymple, for all you’ve done for me.” I’ll make you proud of me, she added silently to herself. And she’d make her family proud as well. Then perhaps they could finally forgive her for what she’d done to her mother.


Two days after arriving back on British soil, Harry followed Mr. Crenshaw, Dean of Natural Sciences, from the university’s botany building to its newest wonder, an immense steel and glass structure with a footprint as big as Buckingham Palace. Outside, the greenhouse was surrounded by gardens with dozens of varieties of native plants, some of them still in bloom. Harry named them in his head as they passed them. Lonicera periclymenum. Digitalis purpurea. Viscum album. Pulsatilla vulgaris.

Inside, the building was divided into dozens of rooms. Each space was maintained at a specific temperature and humidity level to approximate the plant collection’s native conditions. The men crossed the threshold into one of the Amazon rooms, which was easily twenty degrees warmer than London’s early fall weather. Harry longed to shrug out of his morning coat, roll up his shirt-sleeves, and dig his hands into the loamy soil whose scent hung heavy in the air.

“I have something wonderful to show you,” the dean said, stopping just inside the room. He was a small man with a habit of rolling forward on the balls of his feet when he stood still. It generated an air of excitement that was contagious.

Harry grinned. For all his misgivings about forfeiting up his research, he could imagine spending his days here, teaching, overseeing the greenhouse, and beginning a new research project. Something unrelated to the Amazon and Curare.

Mr. Crenshaw led him along the stone path, pointing out exotic plant species as they passed. Exotic in England. But quite familiar to Harry. They stopped in front of an eight-foot by four-foot plot near the middle of the room and Mr. Crenshaw held out his hands in front of a silver plaque.

“The Stafford-Gwinnen Collection,” Harry read out loud. “I knew the plants were being tended, but I didn’t know the university had named the collection after me. And Mr. Gwinnen.”

His heart ticked up a notch with the thrill of seeing his name there. The names of the plants on the plot, each one a varietal that Harry had painstakingly chosen, raised, harvested, and wrapped for shipment, were engraved on the plaque as well. His excitement faded when he saw the blank spaces reserved for future contributions to the collection. Contributions he would never make, now that he was back in England.

“Mr. Gwinnen thought it would be a nice gesture,” Mr. Crenshaw said, “and he insisted you be given precedence.”

A niggling concern crept up Harry’s spine. “You’ve spoken with Gwinnen? I didn’t realize he had an affiliation with the university.”

“His father is acquainted with many of the trustees, as I understand it. Now, let me show you some of my favorite vines.”

They spent a pleasant quarter hour exploring the Argentina Room, and Harry relaxed. When they arrived back at the front of the room, he turned the conversation toward the faculty position so they could come to terms before he left.

“I’d like to see the current class schedule,” Harry said. “And the procedures for maintaining the greenhouse. Who curates the collections? Are there specific written instructions for nurturing each species of plant? Because if not—”

“Mr. Stafford, I assure you, we’ll discuss that and much more with you after we’ve made a decision,” Mr. Crenshaw said. “Assuming we choose you to fill the position.”

Harry’s thudding heart caught in his throat. He swallowed hard to compose himself. “Are there other candidates? Because when we began corresponding about this a year ago, you said it was mine if I wanted it.”

Mr. Crenshaw smiled. “Surely you can understand, the trustees would like the university to be associated with a miraculous medical breakthrough.”

“But surely not as a condition of my employment,” Harry said. “That was never mentioned in your correspondence. If this Curare species is an avenue the trustees wish me to pursue after I’ve joined—”

“I’m sorry.” Crenshaw dropped his voice, despite no one else being in sight. “Mr. Gwinnen seems to have convinced the trustees of the importance of this work. He says there was some sort of miracle you and he witnessed in the jungle, a surgery using the Curare as an anesthetic.”

“It was promising.” Harry shook his head. “But Mr. Weber and I couldn’t find a scientific reason for it to have worked.”

The dean frowned. “Mr. Stafford, I’m sorry, but Mr. Gwinnen, and now the trustees, are quite invested in you finding that scientific support of Gwinnen’s claims. From what I’ve heard, he’s already promoting it as an unmitigated triumph in order to secure funding for his next expedition.”

“I see.”

It was something Harry said when he was at a loss for words. But he truly did see things clearly now. He’d always known the Curare research was simply a means to an end for Gwinnen, the science be damned. Now he also realized Gwinnen was selfish and careless enough to ruin Harry’s future unless Harry gave him the evidence—true or otherwise—he wanted.   

* * *

Adelia was quite pleased with herself for wearing her emerald green dress to visit Uncle Bex at the university. It made it easier to blend into the greenhouse scenery while keeping tabs on Mr. Stafford. His arrival back in the country had made quite a splash amongst her uncle’s scientific circles, and it was no surprise to anyone that the man was meeting with Dean Crenshaw regarding the prestigious position available in the botany department. The date and time of his interview was less widely known, but Adelia had a few friends at the school who were in a position to learn such details and willing to pass them along to her.

She stood in the Uruguay Room admiring something labeled as a cockspur coral tree. It certainly wasn’t her fault that she could hear every word the two gentlemen in the Argentina Room were saying. At least, that was how she planned to present her case to Uncle Bex should anyone find her here and accuse her of eavesdropping.

“Mr. Crenshaw,” Mr. Stafford said, “I can only go where the science leads me.”

Adelia nodded her agreement, although no one but the tree was there to see it.

“I understand,” the dean said. “That’s what we all want, for you to follow the science. Complete your work. Publish the findings and present them here at the university.”

Mr. Stafford took a long pause before responding. “If I don’t complete the work Gwinnen wants me to do, is there any chance I’ll be given the department position?”

Adelia sucked in her breath, impressed by Mr. Stafford’s boldness.

The dean sighed. “The trustees merely want you to consider continuing the work while we consider who will best fill the vacancy in our department.”

“I see,” Mr. Stafford said. After another pause, he added, “Given Gwinnen’s affiliation with the university, I worry there’d be pressure for my findings to prove a particular hypothesis.”

“There wouldn’t be,” Mr. Crenshaw assured him. “The trustees like to check in periodically. But that’s standard procedure regarding research being conducted on university property.”

No, it is not, Adelia wanted to scream. The man was lying to Mr. Stafford’s face. Uncle Bex would be appalled to hear it.

Mr. Stafford started speaking again, but Adelia was distracted by someone coming toward her.

“Miss, excuse me.” A young man, a university student by the looks of it, stepped between her and the cockspur coral. “What are you doing here?”

Adelia glared at him, but she spoke in a quiet tone so as not to draw attention from the adjoining room. “I’m looking at the flora and fauna.”

The man scowled. “That’s not what I meant. You’re an unaccompanied woman, and you’re trespassing on university property.” He gripped her arm, his bony fingers biting into her skin, and turned her toward the exit door.

“Keep your voice down,” she whisper-shouted. “And unhand me. I have permission to be here.”

But it was too late. The man’s voice must have reached the gentlemen in the Argentina Room, as they now stepped into the Uruguay Room. Adelia wrenched her arm away from the obnoxious stranger, then stepped behind him, putting him between her and Mr. Stafford’s sightline. She dashed off into the next room with the young man on her heels and didn’t stop until she was sure Mr. Stafford hadn’t followed.

She stood her ground and clenched her fists while staring up at the bully who had manhandled her. Before she could speak, he grabbed her arm again, then he grabbed the other one and held her close to him.

“Someone needs to teach you a lesson,” he hissed at her.

Panic closed around her throat and she couldn’t even scream for help. A pot crashing in the next room made the man jump and release her. She turned and ran, calling over her shoulder, “My uncle will hear about this!”

Only when she was safely out of the building and well along the path to Uncle Bex’s office in the biology building did she give in to tears. It wasn’t just the fear that had shaken her. It was the anger that men with no authority over her believed themselves in charge of her actions, her choices, her very thoughts. It was the frustration of having to prove herself more capable than all the men she’d studied and worked with put together, and still being barred from medical school. It was the feebleness of having to invoke Uncle Bex’s name at every turn to receive an education, garner a modicum of respect, and remain safe.

As she entered the biology building, she wiped away her tears and resolved not to tell Uncle Bex about the stranger’s assault or her own frailty, or about anything she might have overheard while eavesdropping. If he thought her behavior untoward or worried for her safety, he might restrict her freedom in the name of her own protection. Instead, she would ask Uncle Bex to help her get she really needed: the opportunity to join in on Mr. Stafford’s research. And she knew just how to make Mr. Stafford agree.

* * *

Less than an hour after his demoralizing meeting with Dean Crenshaw, which might spell the end of Harry’s academic career aspirations, Harry arrived at the address Granston had given him yesterday, when they had met for Harry’s first official drink in London since returning home. He pulled the card out of his pocket and checked it. The number on the building matched, but it made no sense.

“A fencing club?”

It would be just like Granston to have a lark at Harry’s expense. On the slight chance Granston really was here, he pulled at the front door. It was locked. He knocked, and an attendant dressed all in white opened the door.

“Mr. Harrison Stafford, here to meet Captain Lord Granston,” he said. “Or so I think.”

“Right this way, sir.” The attendant led him to a small room where a fencing outfit and mask hung on a peg. “After you’ve changed, please join the other gentlemen in the room across the hall.”

Five minutes later, dressed from head to toe in white, Harry stepped into the room with every expectation that there wouldn’t be a soul there he knew. To his surprise, he knew all three of the men in the room quite well.

Relieved but still wary, he slapped Granston on the back. “So this is what my old friends have gotten up to while I’ve been away.”

Harry shook hands, patted shoulders, and exchanged warm greetings with Simon, known to his friends as Swimmer, despite being His Grace, the Duke of Wrexham. He repeated the region with Daniel Hallsworth, old Hallsy, who was now the Marquess of Edensbridge, and finally with James Alcott, their prefect from their Harrow days.

“You’re a sight for sore eyes, Harry,” Swimmer said when they’d gotten past the formalities.

“Yes,” Edensbridge agreed. “Granston spent the years you were away pining for you.”

Granston scowled. “I did no such thing. Enough of that rubbish. I least I haven’t been hiding from my mother at my country estate, isn’t that right, Swimmer?”

Harry laughed. “The Dowager Duchess? I remember her as a kind and doting mother. You weren’t actually hiding from her, were you?”

“Of course not.” Swimmer glared at Granston. “Merely putting some distance between us. She’s been enjoying the weddings of my friends far too much.”

“Where’s Meriden?” Harry asked about their remaining missing friend.

“I last saw in the countryside, where, I repeat, I was not hiding,” Swimmer answered. “He’s tending to some business for his father-in-law.”

“The mysterious Fairbank,” Harry remarked. The  rumors whispered about Fairbank ranged from frightening to fantastical. Harry dropped his voice. “Do you suppose this errand has to do with something nefarious?”

“Probably,” Granston said. “But not in the way you think. Fairbank is affiliated with…” Showing more restraint than Harry had ever seen from him, Granston didn’t finish sharing what he knew.

“I think it’s safe enough to tell Harry,” Alcott said.

Swimmer and Edensbridge exchanged a look, then nodded.

“Fairbank has some association with the Metropolitan Police,” Alcott said. “It’s all very hush-hush, and if Fairbank ever finds us sharing that information with anyone, we might learn more about his rumored prowess in sharpshooting than we care to know.”

“Understood,” Harry said. “We shall never speak of it again.”

“And now, ladies,” Granston said, “if teatime is over, we have some fencing to do.” He threw a practice sword in Harry’s direction.

Harry barely managed to catch it awkwardly by the handle. “I never took to swords,” he reminded his friends. “And please never throw sharp objects at me again.”

“The practice blades are quite dull,” Granston said. “And your inexperience is why we’ve paired you with the poet.”

Granston and Swimmer moved to the opposite side of the room and faced off, while Edensbridge took up a position along the wall and waited to challenge the winner of that match.

Harry turned to Alcott and shrugged. “Sorry you got stuck with me, mate, but I really don’t remember the first thing from our fencing lessons. Granston only said we were taking exercise.”

“That, and preparing for the next time we need to help rescue Fairbank from dangerous underworld types,” Alcott said.

“What? You can’t be serious.”

Alcott nodded. “I am. A secret to share another day, over one of Granston’s very good bottles of Armagnac. But for now, I’ll show you the basic parry and thrust combinations.”

Alcott separated his feet and lifted his weapon. Harry followed his lead and repeated the name of each of the movements as they stepped through them multiple times.

“Good,” Alcott said after several minutes. “Now, once more without me calling out the moves. That will give you the opportunity to tell me what’s weighing so heavily on your mind.”

“Is it that obvious?”

“You’ve always carried your worries in your shoulders. If you relax a bit, the foil won’t feel so heavy. And if you share your problem with me, it might not feel so heavy, either.”

Harry grinned. “Once our prefect, always our prefect.” Harrow’s Finest Five, as Granston had dubbed their close group of friends, might not have made it through school without their unofficial sixth member, who now stood across from him. After all these years, Harry was still compelled to impress Alcott, so he adopted a lighthearted tone to downplay his shortcomings. “My research has reached an unfortunate end, and now there’s just a chance that my academic career is over before it started.”

“Is that what you want, to join the hallowed halls of academia?” Alcott straightened and propped the tip of his sword on the floor like a walking stick. “Someday you’ll have to assume the barony, and you’ll be cast out of your position.”

“What if that’s not the case?”

“You’re thinking of Professor Bexton,” Alcott said.

“Yes. Viscount Bexton, who has retained his post long after assuming his title,” Harry said. “Do you know him?”

“Only by reputation. And I can’t say I’m sure how he’s managed it, although his laudable success with his early research helped him.” Alcott frowned. “Is that what’s driven your research all this time?”

“No.” Harry rested the dull blade against his shoulder and slouched. “Not at first. It really was for the science and the adventure, while it could last. Then I met Mr. Weber, one of Bexton’s best students, and learned there was a peer who hadn’t been forced to leave academia. But I don’t stand a chance of following in his footsteps if I don’t make a name for myself soon.”

Across the room, Granston cleared his throat and glared at Harry and Alcott. Both men held out their foils and assumed a fighting stance. When Granston turned back to his own match, Alcott relaxed.

“There must be more to what Professor Bexton has done,” Alcott said. “Perhaps before you attempt to follow in his footsteps, you should learn what his path actually was.”

“I’ve tried, but I hardly have entrée into his inner circle.” Had he and Weber not fallen out over the Curare research, the man might have given him a letter of introduction. But now, if Bexton even knew of his existence, his opinion of Harry was probably rather poor. And until Harry provided Crenshaw with what he wanted, the dean would be disinclined to help him meet Bexton.

Granston’s louder cough, followed by Edensbridge’s laughter, prodded Alcott and Harry to assume their positions again and step through a friendly thrust and parry exercise.

“You’re one of the brightest people I know,” Alcott said, stepping forward slowly and giving Harry time to block. “You’ll work it out. And in the meantime, I’ve a secret to share that will cheer you up.”

“Oh?” This time Harry went on the offensive and Alcott blocked.

“After our match, Granston is going to invite you to join Lady Granston and him for a nightcap this evening.”

Harry sighed. Granston was a good mate and Lady Granston was a delight, but observing blissful British domesticity wasn’t likely to put Harry in a better mood. And then there was Granston’s chatty younger sister who was likely to be underfoot.

“Don’t look so glum,” Alcott said, advancing again. “It’s a ruse. Meriden will arrive back in town this afternoon, and we’re all meeting at Granston’s to take you out for a proper homecoming celebration.”

Harry dropped his blade a few inches and Alcott landed a tap to his chest, but Harry didn’t mind the symbolic death. “That is cheerful news.” Finally, a reason to look forward with anticipation rather than dread. In the coming days, he would have to face his family, resuscitate his research, and salvage his career, but tonight he would revel in good spirits and better friends and appreciate—even if just for a few hours—being home.