When I first got my hands on A Restless Truth, I immediately dove in. A lesbian Romance (yes, Romance with an uppercase “R”... Romance readers know what I’m saying) on a luxury cruise ship? With magic? Ms. Marske, say less. I was there. What I found was a fast-paced book full of delightfully witty repartee, wonderfully lewd sexytimes, and a truly biting class and gender commentary that does not waste time with subtlety. I highly recommend this book, and I’m delighted that io9 is hosting an exclusive excerpt for your enjoyment.
Here’s a summary, the full cover, and an excerpt from the new novel.
Magic! Murder! Shipboard romance!
Maud Blyth has always longed for adventure. She expected plenty of it when she volunteered to serve as an old lady’s companion on an ocean liner, in order to help her beloved older brother unravel a magical conspiracy that began generations ago.
What she didn’t expect was for the old lady in question to turn up dead on the first day of the voyage. Now she has to deal with a dead body, a disrespectful parrot, and the lovely, dangerously outrageous Violet Debenham, who’s also returning home to England. Violet is everything that Maud has been trained to distrust yet can’t help but desire: a magician, an actress, and a magnet for scandal.
Surrounded by the open sea and a ship full of suspects, Maud and Violet must first drop the masks that they’ve both learned to wear before they can unmask a murderer and somehow get their hands on a magical object worth killing for—without ending up dead in the water themselves.
Bright and cheerful the company was indeed as Maud entered the first-class dining saloon for dinner that evening. The huge room was abuzz with people. One long edge of the saloon had doors leading out to a deck promenade, and at this dark hour of night the windows were nothing but a canvas reflecting the brightness within. Electric lights and table candles fought one another for prominence, illuminating the greens and reds of the carpet and the darker green upholstery of the chairs.
A few groups of richly dressed people still lingered standing, like clusters of jewels hung from a woman’s throat, but most were seated. The steward who’d opened the door for Maud cleared his throat meaningfully.
Maud had meant to be early, and now she was late. She was not accustomed to dressing for formal dinners without the assistance of a maid, and some of the buttons on her evening gown had proven fiddly. The dress had won the battle with Maud’s shortening temper; one button had come off entirely in the struggle. She’d thrown a wrap around her shoulders to disguise it.
“Shall I sit . . . ?”
“Wherever you fancy, miss. Only the captain’s table requires an invitation.” The steward nodded across the room to where the gilt trim of the captain’s hat caught the light as brightly as the polished glasses and silver place settings.
Maud skimmed her eyes over the throng. There were empty seats scattered at various tables. She’d never attended a dinner where her place at table was not predetermined. She’d never been asked to choose. She was filled with the sudden conviction that if she chose wrongly, the hubbub of conversation would turn at once to a stony silence and every eye would find her.
Maud clutched the strings of her evening bag tightly in one gloved hand, willing that hand not to shake, and turned her head in unthinking response to a laugh too loud for propriety. At a nearby table sat a woman with simply dressed yellow hair and a dark-blue gown cradling the creamy skin of her shoulders, which shook with the aftermath of that laugh. She was taking a gulp of champagne. To her right, a middle-aged woman was staring at her with a look of mixed horror and pleading, which
manifested as a mouth clenched tight enough to crack walnuts.
To her left was an empty seat. Maud realised this in the same moment that the blond woman lowered the glass from her lips, revealing the firm and striking profile that adorned the middle pages of Robin’s notebook.
Maud’s heart gave a pound.
The next moment, she was on the move. She trod without shame on the foot of a portly gentleman with a monocle, who had clearly espied the blond woman and was just as eager to fill the empty seat, and slid herself triumphantly to lay a hand on the chair’s back.
“Good evening.” She dimpled at the table at large. “Is this seat spoken for, or may I intrude?”
Seven pairs of eyes landed on her. The first person to speak was one of the only two men at the table, seated directly across from Maud’s purloined chair. He looked around Robin’s age, with heavy brows and brown hair pomaded back but beginning to curl rebelliously behind the ears, and a serious but not unkind expression.
“By all means.” The North sang baritone in his words. “I’m sure we’d be glad of your company.”
Maud deposited herself in the seat before anyone could gainsay this welcome. As if it had been a signal, another steward appeared and poured a shallow inch of champagne into her glass, and suddenly there was a flock of the men, like magpies in a flower garden, beginning the dinner service.
Maud shrugged off the wrap. Her back was to one of the pillars; she could probably risk it. The air was close and warm and alive, the scent of food mingling with the perfumes of hundreds of ladies.
Well. No time like the present to begin an investigation.
Before her gloves were even removed, Maud discovered through polite questioning that the Northern gentleman was called Mr. Chapman, and the majestic pile of furs and diamonds seated beside him was a Mrs. Moretti. To Maud’s left were two women with the same nose: a pair of married sisters from Boston who left their husbands at home and did this trip every year, to go to London and Paris for the fashions. Maud murmured her admiration of the sumptuous beading of Mrs. Babcock’s dress and the drip of emeralds from Mrs. Endicott’s ears, after which the sisters turned back to each other and ignored her entirely.
Maud inhaled a determined breath to ask the blond woman if she was travelling alone, and was struck with the conviction that Champagne would bolster her courage. She took a quick gulp from her glass.
Unfortunately, she’d forgotten that she was still inhaling.
It was entirely typical of how this day was going, Maud thought in wheezing despair, that her first encounter with the mysterious blond woman from Robin’s visions—who was almost certainly meant to help her in this dangerous and magical adventure—was said woman handing Maud a fresh napkin to dab at the now-soaked front of her dress while Maud coughed around a flurry of cold bubbles in her nose. Maud was probably bright red too. She always went red when she coughed.
“All right?” American, cool and bemused.
“Yes.” Wheeze, splutter. Maud wanted to die. “Th-Thank you. Goodness. I’m so sorry.”
“Not in the least. I like a suitably dramatic opening number. Have you considered taking to the stage? I could introduce you to all the least reputable producers in New York.”
“Violet,” wailed the walnut-mouthed woman. “Please, my dear.”
“But that would require me to know your name,” the woman prompted Maud.
“Oh! Maud. Maud Cutler.”
“There. Violet Debenham.” She turned in her seat and held her hand mannishly out to Maud. Yet more self-conscious heat filled Maud’s cheeks as she shook. Miss Debenham had a firm grip. Her eyes were a pleasant grey, and they sparkled.
Miss Debenham was travelling with Mrs. Caroline Blackwood—fair, fussily dressed, and with a figure that put Maud unfortunately in mind of chicken bones—and this lady’s son, Clarence, a young man desperately in need of a portion more chin. Clarence nodded at Maud with his eyes fixed somewhere below her neckline.
“And what brings you to England, Miss Debenham?” Maud asked.
“Money,” said Miss Debenham.
A pained noise escaped Mrs. Blackwood. Miss Debenham’s eyes gained even more sparkle, as though the attention of the table were a spotlight and she wished to relish its illumination. “A distant relative of ours recently passed away and named me as her heir. A rich relative. So my dear, concerned aunt and cousin took it upon themselves to come to New York and deliver me from treading the boards in that pit of dissolution known as the Bowery, and restore me to the bosom of my loving family.
I am eternally in their debt. Or so”—with a rich laugh—“they hope.”
Mrs. Blackwood gave a small twitch at the word debt. “Don’t speak rot, Violet,” said the young Mr. Blackwood.
“Practically had to drag you out of that place by the hair.” “Clarence,” snapped his mother.
“Clarence, you couldn’t drag a kitten out of a bag,” said Miss Debenham. “The money did the dragging.”
“Violet,” her aunt assured the table, “is an English gentleman’s daughter—”
“He has five of us, I doubt he missed one.”
“A gentleman’s daughter, brought up in comfort and propriety—”
“And now upon the stages of the Bowery?” Mrs. Moretti looked to have scented blood. “That must have been quite the scandal.”
“Indeed it was.”
“Violet,” moaned Mrs. Blackwood.
“It was three years ago. I fancied a change of scenery, and so”—a shrug of those fine shoulders, where a simple necklace of gold filigree sat draped over her collarbones—“I packed up and got on a ship.”
“All on your own?” said Maud, who felt rather as if she were observing an energetic game of badminton.
“On my own.” Miss Debenham smiled. Her accent was stronger than Maud would have expected for someone who had only divorced herself from her native shores for a handful of years. It wasn’t the genteel tones of the Boston sisters either. It was a smoky, brash twang that Maud had heard often enough on the streets of New York but never in its parlours.
“So you are an actress, Miss Debenham?” Thrilled questions jumbled themselves up in Maud’s mind. In her parents’ circles, any woman on the stage could be assumed to have the loosest of morals.
Maud had voiced her intention of becoming such a woman, once, when she was sixteen. Her mother had flashed a look of heated poison with those green eyes—so exactly like Maud’s own—and Maud had gloried in a moment of attention. Then Lady Blyth had given one of her mild, buttery company-laughs, and said, “What strange fancies you do get into your head, Maud.”
And removed her attention, again.
“I am a performer.” Miss Debenham sparkled even harder. “Most of what appears on a concert-hall stage isn’t exactly Shakespeare, you know.”
“Did you ever do any magic?”
The pause was not long. Maud kept her expression innocently hopeful; Miss Debenham’s didn’t change, but there was another subdued twitch from her relatives. Ah. Good.
“Magic?” said Miss Debenham.
“Isn’t stage magic popular in America? It’s all the rage in London. My friend’s brother took us to see Mr. Houdini perform once, and before he came on there was a mentalist who named every single member of a woman’s family, and another man who made objects disappear. Mr. Houdini is an American, isn’t he? Though perhaps,” Maud mused, diverted, “he came to England because the Americans care less to see that sort of thing.”
Miss Debenham’s expressive mouth was twitching. Maud noted it with the part of her mind that wasn’t now busy wondering if Mr. Houdini was in fact a magician. She felt vaguely cheated by the idea.
“My theatre did engage some stage magicians, yes.” Miss Debenham hadn’t moved her glittering grey eyes from Maud’s. “Sadly, there are some frauds in this world who call themselves mentalists and spiritualists in order to fleece a gullible public,” said Mrs. Moretti. “It does nothing but make life difficult for those of us who are truly gifted in that regard.”
The spotlight of the attention’s table turned. Maud’s stomach rumbled and she realised that she had been neglecting her dinner. She hastily took the opportunity to get down a few large mouthfuls of herbed carrots and fish in white sauce.
“Indeed, ma’am?” said Mr. Chapman.
“Oh, yes.” Mrs. Moretti stroked her fur. “Amongst my own circles I am a famed medium, and I was consulted in New York by such ladies as—well, I shall respect their privacy,” she said impressively, “but rest assured you would gasp if I named them. I am extremely sensitive to the spirits of the departed. In fact . . .” She leaned forward. A corner of the fur began to collect gravy. “Did you hear that a passenger on board the Lyric has already died? Oh, yes. Barely out of port. I heard some of the stewards discussing it, but of course I already suspected something of that nature had happened. My senses are so attuned. Oh, don’t be afraid, my dear.” She directed her impressive look at Maud, who was attempting valiantly not to laugh around a piece of carrot. “There is no negative or malevolent energy aboard. Quite the opposite. I’m sure the saintly departed will be watching over us and ensuring our safety throughout this voyage.”
“How reassuring,” said Mrs. Endicott faintly.
For a ludicrous moment Maud wondered if she could get away with pretending the death had nothing to do with her. But sooner or later someone at the table was going to ask what brought Maud back to England, and then it would look suspicious that she hadn’t spoken up now.
So she swallowed her carrot and said, “It was Mrs. Navenby who died. The woman I was travelling with.”
General gasps and murmurs. Mrs. Moretti looked displeased to have lost the spotlight. Maud kept her eyes open for reactions as she gave a slightly expanded version of the explanation she’d given the master-at-arms. This one contained the necessary falsehood that she was a distant cousin of Mrs. Navenby’s, and had obeyed the summons to America to act as the snappish old woman’s companion because she had no prospects in England and felt herself a burden on her brother.
“My family is not as well off as we once were,” she finished, which had the advantage of being true.
“And now the old lady’s died, I suppose you’re holding out expectation of being left something in the will, for your pains?” Mr. Blackwood laughed at her. Maud, who had been mocked by experts, felt only the mildest sting and brushed it away like an ant at a picnic.
She lowered her eyes to her plate. “No. I have no such expectation.”
“At least you had the chance to cross the Atlantic. Twice! Look on it as an adventure, then,” said Miss Debenham. “Clarence, I know you can’t help being such a toad, but perhaps the next time the urge strikes you to open your mouth, you could shove some bread into it.”
Mr. Blackwood did in fact open his mouth. Then he jerked, shot a look at his mother, and closed it again.
“Your dress appears to be of a remarkably fine make, Miss Cutler,” said Mrs. Endicott.
“Thank you,” said Maud, “I—”
“Yes, I had one just like it made up for my daughter.” A sweep of unimpressed gaze down Maud’s body and back up again. “Several years ago.”
Maud having now been mentally filed in the role of poor cousin, the majority of the table seemed content to ignore her. She chewed over this problem, along with a slice of rare roast beef, while Miss Debenham gestured for more champagne and then flirted outrageously with the serving steward, to her relatives’ rigid discomfort. It didn’t matter what anyone thought of Miss Maud Cutler, who didn’t exist, except that Maud needed people to talk to her. She needed information.
During the dessert course the captain of the Lyric gave a short speech of formal welcome. This first night’s dinner was a special affair included in the price of first-class passage; most nights, as with the luncheon service, the dining saloon would function as a restaurant. The captain explained that the final night before they arrived in Southampton would again be a formal event of this nature, but closer to a ball, with an early dinner and a lottery followed by an orchestra performance and dancing.
The captain then introduced the musical entertainment for the evening: the celebrated mezzo-soprano Miss Elle Broadley, fresh from an opera company in New York City, who had been engaged to perform on the Lyric during her own relocation to England to seek further fame and fortune in the Old World.
Miss Broadley was a Black woman with a stunning set of jewels winking at her ears and a red dress with darker layers of gauze and beads. Her white satin gloves shone against the dark hue of her skin. Her posture was immaculate as she gestured her readiness to the accompanist at the grand piano in the corner.
And for the next quarter of an hour, Maud forgot that she’d choked on champagne; forgot that Mrs. Navenby was dead and the contract piece gone; forgot that any magic existed except this. The opera singer had a voice like running one’s hand first the wrong way and then the right across an expanse of velvet. The music carried the throb of yearning and the twist of agony, and something hotter and darker, which sat low in Maud’s body.
When the music ended, Miss Broadley bowed low to applause and made her sedate way out of the saloon. A disharmony of spoons on plates filled her absence.
“You enjoyed the music, Miss Cutler,” said Mr. Chapman. Maud, still struggling up from the warm depths of her en-
joyment, simply nodded.
“She’s superb,” said Miss Debenham. “I bet she’s being paid a third of what she’s worth.”
“Perhaps Miss Debenham could contribute to the ship’s entertainment budget by donating her services for an evening,” said Mrs. Endicott.
“Splendid idea,” said Miss Debenham. “There’s a trouser act I did last year that would do nicely, though I suspect some of the lyrics would— Aunt Caroline, kicking Clarence beneath the table may shut him up, but I’m not afraid of a few bruised shins.”
Mr. Chapman hastily volunteered that he saw no shame in money coming from hard work, and that his own family’s wealth was in cotton mills. He had been to America to learn more about the state of the cotton industry there, and to co sider the purchase of some modern machines for his father’s factories.
“There certainly is some very new money aboard.” Mrs. Babcock appeared to decide that if everyone else planned to indulge in the vulgarity of this conversational topic, she wasn’t going to be left out. “Did you see that red-faced gentleman at the captain’s table? And that woman beside him wearing a prince’s ransom in rubies? That’s Mr. and Mrs. Frank Bernard. He’s an industrialist. They’ve two daughters with them— clearly hoping to marry them off in England. Fancy themselves grandparents to a duke or a viscount, I’m sure. England’s full of gentry families who act like they’ve just come from tea with the king but haven’t two pennies to rub together.”
Maud briefly imagined Robin’s face if she befriended and brought home an heiress for her brother to marry. The entire table was now engaged in attempting not to look like they were staring in the direction of the captain’s table, while staring as hard as they could.
“Looks like they’ve begun on the right foot,” said Mrs. Moretti. “Someone told me that young gingery one is the son of a marquess. And Mrs. Bernard’s simpering at that other gentleman, so he must be worth something.”
There was a pillar in Maud’s line of sight. All she could make out was one shorter head—gingery, yes—and one taller one, dark.
“I say, mater,” said Mr. Blackwood suddenly, “isn’t that—” Another invisible kick was delivered. For some reason, both
Blackwoods now looked at Miss Debenham as though she were a barrel of gunpowder rolled perilously close to a flame.
“Vi,” said Mr. Blackwood, too loudly. “Tell us more about—” But Violet Debenham’s eyes had widened.
“Oh, look. It’s dear Hawthorn.”
Maud clenched a hand in her napkin. “Lord Hawthorn?” “Are you acquainted?” asked Mrs. Blackwood, sharp. The
whole family now watched Maud with the same wary interest as they had when she’d mentioned magic.
“No, not for myself. I believe a friend of my brother’s knows him slightly.”
“At one time, he and I were very close indeed,” said Miss Debenham.
Maud wondered if Mrs. Blackwood was going to wear out the toes of her shoes. “Violet, my dear,” the woman said between her teeth. “I believe Clarence was asking you—”
But Miss Debenham pitched her performer’s voice effortlessly above the interruption. “What my aunt and cousin are so desperate for me not to mention, Miss Cutler, is that before scandalously ruining myself by running off to become a concert-hall performer in New York, I first ruined myself in a much more conventional way.” A broad, leonine smile. “With Lord Hawthorn’s able and thorough assistance.”
One of the Boston sisters choked. Maud blushed, incredulous, and then found her eyes trying to simultaneously swivel to inspect Lord Hawthorn and to remain where they were, pinned to the satisfied mouth of the woman who’d just dropped that explosive little fact at a table full of strangers.
“I still think of him fondly. In fact, perhaps I’ll see if he has any interest in renewing our acquaintance. It would be only polite to greet such an old friend.”
The girl pushed back her chair, collected her wineglass as an afterthought, and was on the move: a tall, slim figure like a dash of blue ink on the page, golden head erect as she shimmered across to the captain’s table.
The Blackwoods were now matching shades of mortified puce. The Boston sisters had their heads together, whispering in scandalised cadences.
Maud waited for the blush to settle in her cheeks. She had never met anyone like Violet Debenham. How did one attain that kind of confidence, and that ability to not so much prod one’s relatives with sticks as hurl an entire armful of javelins in their direction?
Why had Maud never found the courage to ruin herself and run off to a New York concert-hall?
“Miss Cutler?” Mr. Chapman was doing the polite thing and turning the conversation elsewhere. Maud sidestepped some queries about her life in England by chattering vaguely about the sights she’d enjoyed in New York, but her attention kept leaping across the way.
Lord Hawthorn. So Robin’s visions had been entirely correct on that score.
Maud made her excuses and left the dining saloon before any of the captain’s party rose from the table. She made her way quickly to her own cabin, where she retrieved an item from her trunk and then left again, trying to walk as Miss Debenham had walked: head high, with purpose. As if anyone questioning her would be made to think themselves a fool.
And so the truthful Maud Blyth, brought up in comfort and propriety if not much love, made her way in the dangerous hour of the evening to baldly lie her way into Lord Hawthorn’s bedchamber.
Excerpt from Freya Marske’s A Restless Truth reprinted by permission of MacMillan Publishers.
A Restless Truth by Freya Marske will be released November 1; you can pre-order a copy here.
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