Defy or Defend (Delightfully Deadly #2) - Gail Carriger

CHAPTER ONE

In Which There May, or May Not, Be Sparkles

March 1869

(Just prior to the introduction of the bustle. No, really, it’s important to know this.)

Sir Crispin Bontwee chivvied up to an impressively large chartreuse front door with a sense of overwhelming relief. Not because of the color of the door, mind you (which was a touch assertive, frankly, for a door – what did it think it was playing at?) but because of the possibilities that lay behind it.

The door opened, and the possibilities proved themselves to be a female of biblical proportions and eccentric dress. She was that particular style of solid British womanhood that held firm against both military invasion and recalcitrant pie crusts, rolling pin wielded with consummate skill in either case.

Sir Crispin knew her of old.

He bowed slightly and hid his grin, because both woman and door demanded respect. “My dear Madame, what a pleasure to see you again.”

“It’s you, is it?” Mrs Bagley pursed her lips to hide her delight and threw the door wide.

“At your service.” He strode inside, fairly vibrating with suppressed excitement. It had been ages since his last mission. He was restless with a need to fix something, or rescue someone, or perhaps both.

Today Mrs Bagley was dressed like a butler. She looked rather dashing, truth be told. Her cravat was chartreuse to match the door and her striped waistcoat was cut to perfection. Cris was mildly perturbed by the fact that trousers suited her demeanor better than they did most men of his acquaintance. It could have been worse – Mrs Bagley had once answered the door dressed as a yellow butterfly. Or was it a moth? Regardless, a winged cape had been involved. One was never certain what exactly Bertie’s housekeeper would be wearing on any given evening. It was one of the most exciting things about Bertie’s household.

“I’ve been summoned, Madame.” Cris always referred to Mrs Bagley as Madame. Mrs Bagley suited her ill, and anything more informal from Cris would cause a one-woman riot. Mrs Bagley took meticulous handling. He didn’t envy Bertie.

Mrs Bagley widened her eyes at him in pretend shock. “Summoned, were you indeed? Wipe your feet, young man.”

Cris was already wiping them. Mrs Bagley’s favorite thing was to give orders she knew were already being obeyed. She didn’t even pause for breath. “A new mission, is it?”

“Now, Madame, I can’t discuss such things with you, even if I had an inkling.” Cris drew himself up, but only a little – wouldn’t do to loom over a woman like Mrs Bagley.

“As you’re very well aware, I’ll hear about it later.”

“Of course you will, although I’m not supposed to know that. I must say, it’s a good thing you’re on our side.” He twitched towards the hallway, needing to move past niceties into useful activity.

“Are you sure about that?” She pretended a wicked glare.

“I live in fear, dear Madame. We all do. No doubt the fate of the War Office rests upon your discretion. Now, where is he?”

“In the conservatory, of course. Is he ever anywhere else?” Mrs Bagley marched off. Cris strode eagerly after, careful not to overtake her. It was pleasing to trail behind a woman who walked like she had places to be and people to kill.

The hallway was scrupulously clean and well maintained, despite the fact that the walls were lined with hundreds of tiny drawers topped by glass-fronted curio cases. There might, just possibly, have been wallpaper behind it all, but no one would ever know.

Bertie was a dedicated dilettante who picked up and put down interests obsessively. They walked past a