In the second action-packed book in the Charlotte Holmes trilogy- The Last Of August, Jamie Watson and Charlotte Holmes are looking for a winter-break reprieve after a fall semester that almost got them killed. But Charlotte isn’t the only Holmes with secrets, and the mood at her family’s Sussex estate is palpably tense. On top of everything else, Holmes and Watson could be becoming more than friends—but still, the darkness in Charlotte’s past is a wall between them. What they learn this time around might change everything they know about their families, themselves, and each other. Keep Scrolling to read the first two chapters of The Last of August!
It was late December in the south of England, and though it was only three in the afternoon, the sky outside Charlotte Holmes’s bedroom window was as black and full as it would’ve been in the Arctic Circle. I’d forgotten about this, somehow, during my months in Connecticut away at Sherringford School, even though I’d grown up with one leg on either side of the Atlantic. When I thought of winter, I thought of those reasonable New England nights that arrived punctually just after dinner, disappearing into morning blue by the time you’d stretched awake in bed. British winter nights were different. They came on in October with a shotgun and held you hostage for the next six months.
It would have been better, all told, if I’d visited Holmes for the first time in the summer. Her family lived in Sussex, a county that hugged England’s southern coast, and from the top floor of the house they’d built you could see the sea. Or you could if you happened to own a pair of night-vision goggles and a vivid imagination. England’s December darkness would have put me into a mood all by itself, but Holmes’s family manor was stuck up on a hill like a fortress. I kept waiting for lightning to break the sky above it or for some poor, tortured mutant to come stumbling out of its cellar, mad scientist in hot pursuit.
The inside didn’t do much to dispel the feeling that I was in a horror movie. But a different kind of horror movie—some art-house Scandinavian deal. Long dark uncomfortable couches that weren’t designed to be sat on. White walls hung with white abstract paintings. A baby grand lurking in a corner. In short, the kind of place that vampires lived in. Really well-mannered vampires. And everywhere, silence.
Holmes’s rooms in the basement were the messy, living heart of that cold house. Her bedroom had dark walls and industrial shelving and books, books everywhere, organized alphabetically on shelves or tossed on the floor with their pages flung open. In the room beside, a chemistry table crowded with beakers and burners. Succulent plants, twisted and knobbled in their little pots, that she fed a mixture of vinegar and almond milk each morning from an eyedropper. (“It’s an experiment,” Holmes told me when I protested. “I’m trying to kill them. Nothing kills them.”) The floors were scattered with papers and coins and busted cigarettes, and still, in all the endless clutter, there wasn’t a single speck of dust or dirt. It was what I’d come to expect from her, except for maybe her stash of chocolate biscuits and the entire hardbound Encyclopedia Britannica, which she kept in the low bookshelf that served as her nightstand. Apparently Holmes liked to pore over it on her bed, cigarette in hand. Today was volume C, the entry “Czechoslovakia,” and for some unknowable reason, she’d insisted on reading the whole of it out loud to me while I paced back and forth in front of her.
Well. There might have been a reason. It was a way to avoid our talking about anything real.
While she spoke, I tried to avoid looking at the Sherlock Holmes novels she’d stacked on top of volumes D and E. They were her father’s, filched from his study. We’d lost her own copies in a bomb blast this fall, along with her chemical experiments, my favorite scarf, and a good deal of my trust in the human race. Those Sherlock Holmes stories reminded me of the girl she was when we met, the girl I’d so badly wanted to know.
In the last few days, we’d somehow managed to retreat backwards from our easy friendship, back to that old territory of distrust and unknowability. The thought made me sick, made me want to climb the walls. It made me want to lay it all out at her feet so we could begin to fix it.
I didn’t do that. Instead, in the grand tradition of our friendship, I picked a fight about something completely different.
“Where is it?” I asked her. “Why can’t you just tell me where it is?”
“It wasn’t until 1918 that Czechoslovakia liberated itself from the Russo-Hungarian Empire and became the country as we knew it in the twentieth century.” She ashed her Lucky Strike on the coverlet. “Then, a series of events that transpired in the 1940s—”
“Holmes.” I waved a hand in front of her face. “Holmes. I asked you about Milo’s suit.”
She batted me away. “During which the state did not precisely exist as it had before—”
“The suit that definitely won’t fit me. That costs more than my father’s house. The suit that you’re making me wear.”
“Until that particular territory was ceded to the then–Soviet Union in 1945.” She squinted down at the volume, cigarette dangling from her fingers. “I can’t make out the next bit. I must have spilled something on this page the last time I read it.”
“So you reread this entry a lot. A little Eastern Europe before bed. Just as good as Nancy Drew.”
“No one. Look,” I said, growing impatient, “I understand your wanting me to ‘dress for dinner,’ and that you can say those words with a straight face because you grew up with this level of unbearable suffocating poshness, and I don’t know, maybe you like that it makes me uncomfortable—”
She blinked at me, a bit stung. Every word out of my mouth today was crueler than I wanted it to be. “Okay, fine,” I said, backtracking, “so I’m having a very American panic attack, but your brother’s rooms are locked down more tightly than the Pentagon—”
“Please. Milo has better security than that,” she said. “Do you need the access code? I can text him for it. He changes it remotely every two days.”
“The code to his childhood bedroom. He changes it. From Berlin.”
“Well, he’s the head of a mercenary company.” She reached for her phone. “Can’t have anyone finding Mr. Wiggles. Plush bunnies need the same protection as state secrets, you know.”
I laughed, and she smiled back at me, and for a moment I forgot we weren’t getting along.
“Holmes,” I said, the way I’d done so often in the past—out of reflex, as punctuation, with nothing I really planned to say after.
She let the moment hang longer than was usual. When she finally said “Watson,” it was with hesitation.
I thought of the questions I wanted to ask her. All the horrible things I could say instead. But all I said was, “Why are you reading to me about Czechoslovakia?”
Her smile tightened. “Because my father is having the Czech ambassador to dinner tonight along with the newest Louvre curator, and I thought we might as well be prepared, because I rather doubt you know anything about Eastern Europe without my guidance, and we want to prove to my mother that you’re not an idiot. Oh,” she said, as her phone pinged, “Milo’s changed the code to 666, just for us. Charming. Go on and fetch your suit, but be quick. We still need to discuss the Velvet Revolution of 1989.”
At that moment, I wanted to take up arms myself. Curators? Ambassadors? Her mother thinking I was stupid? I was, as usual, in over my head.
To be fair, my own father had insinuated that this would be a difficult trip, though I don’t think he’d predicted the particulars. When, a few days after the Bryony Downs affair wrapped up, I told him my plans—we’d spend the break at my place first, then hers—he’d begun by saying that my mother would hate the idea, which was ineffective as a warning because it was so obvious. My mother hated the Holmeses, and the Moriartys, and mysteries. I’m sure she hated tweed capes just on principle. But after what had happened this fall, the thing she hated most was Charlotte Holmes herself.
“Well,” my father had said, “if you insist on going to stay with them, I’m sure you’ll have a very . . . nice time. The house is lovely.” He’d paused, clearly searching for something else to say. “And Holmes’s parents are . . . ah. Well. You know, I heard they had six bathrooms in that house. Six!”
This was foreboding. “Leander will be there,” I’d said, a bit desperate for something to look forward to. Holmes’s uncle was my father’s former flatmate and longtime best friend.
“Yes! Leander. Very good. Leander will surely act as a buffer between you and . . . anything you need a buffer for. Excellent.” Then he’d trotted out something about my stepmother needing him in the kitchen and hung up, leaving me with a whole new host of doubts about Christmas.
As soon as Holmes had brought up the idea of us spending the break together, I’d begun imagining us somewhere like my mother’s apartment in London. Sweaters, and cocoa, maybe watching a Doctor Who special by the fire. Holmes in some bobbly knit hat, dismembering a chocolate orange. We were, in fact, already sprawled out on my living room couch when Holmes told me to stop avoiding the subject and just ask my mother if I could go down to Sussex. I’d been actively avoiding that conversation. “Be diplomatic,” Holmes had said, then paused. “By that I mean, plan out what you want to say, and then don’t say it.”
It was no use. Holmes and my father had predicted her reaction more or less exactly. When I told her our plans, she began shouting so loudly about Lucien Moriarty that the usually unflappable Holmes backed herself bodily into a corner.
“You almost died,” my mother concluded. “The Moriartys almost killed you. And you want to spend Christmas in their enemy’s stronghold?”
“Their stronghold? What do you think this is, Batman?” I started laughing. Across the room, Holmes buried her head in her hands. “Mum. I’ll be fine. I’m almost an adult, I can decide what to do with my holiday. You know, I told Dad not to tell you about that whole near-death thing. I said that you’d overreact, and I was right.”
There was a long pause, and then the shouting got somewhat louder.
When she capitulated—which she finally did, with extreme prejudice—it came with a price. Our last few days in London were miserable. My mother sniped at me for everything from the cleanliness of the living room to the way my English accent had returned, with a vengeance, on my return to London. It’s like that girl even took away your voice, she told me. Maybe I had pushed my mother a little too far to begin with; she certainly wasn’t happy I’d brought Holmes to visit in the first place. I think it would’ve been a relief to both of them had she stayed behind, but I had a point I wanted to make—I was tired of my mother’s disdain for someone she’d never met. Someone who was important to me. For my sake, my mother should be able to accept my best friend for the brilliant, thrilling girl she was.
That worked out about as well as you’d expect.
Holmes and I spent a lot of time out of the house.
I took her to my favorite bookstore, where I loaded her up with Ian Rankin novels and she bullied me into buying a book on European snails. I took her to the chip shop on the corner, where she distracted me by giving a detailed-and-probably-bullshit account of her brother’s sex life (drones, cameras, his rooftop pool) while she ate all my fried fish and left her own plate untouched. I took her for a walk along the Thames, where I showed her how to skip a stone and she nearly punctured a hole in a passing pontoon boat. We went to my favorite curry place. Twice. In one day. She’d gotten this look on her face when she took her first bite of their pakora, this blissful, lids-lowered look, and two hours later I decided I needed to see it again. It was so good to see her happy that it made up for the embarrassment I felt that night, when I found her instructing my sister, Shelby, on the best way to bleach out bloodstains, using the curry dribble on my shirt as a test case.
In short, it was both the best three days I’d ever had, my mother notwithstanding, and a fairly standard week with Charlotte Holmes. My sister, unused to this phenomenon, was completely overcome. Shelby had taken to trailing Holmes like a shadow, dressing in all black and straightening her hair, dragging her away to show off things in her room. I didn’t know exactly what things were, but from the lilting, earnest music coming from under the door, I had a feeling that their soundtrack was L.A.D., Shelby’s boy band du jour. My guess was that Shelby was showing off her paintings. My mother had told me that my sister had taken up art with a passion while I’d been away, but that so far, she’d been too shy to show anyone what she’d made.
Not that I would have known what to say to her about it. I didn’t know a whole lot about art. I knew what I liked, what made me feel something—portraits, usually. I liked things that felt secret. Scenes set in a dark room. Mysterious books and bottles, or a girl with her face turned away. When asked, I trotted out Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson as my favorite work of art, though to be honest, I’d lost the ability to call it up clearly in my head. I tended to spend too much time with my favorite things, loved them too hard until I wore them down. After a while, they became more like a shorthand for who I was and less like things I actually enjoyed.
“Shelby wanted my advice, and I know enough to give her my opinion,” Holmes was saying. I’d asked if she’d been talking to my sister about her art. It was our last night in London; we were leaving for Sussex the next afternoon. My mother had turned my bedroom into a study, so we were where we’d been all week—on a pair of hideaway mattresses in the living room, our bags stacked behind us like a barricade. The sky outside was beginning to lighten. One tradeoff of being friends with Holmes was sleep. As in, you never did again.
“Enough?” I asked.
“My father thought it was an important part of my education. I can go on endlessly about color and composition, thanks to him and”—she scowled—“my old tutor, Professor Demarchelier.”
I propped myself up on one arm. “Do you . . . make art?” It struck me, then, how little I knew about her, how all the facts of her life before this September had come to me either secondhand or in bits and reluctant pieces. She’d had a cat named Mouse. Her mother was a chemist. But I had no idea what her first bought book had been, or if she’d ever wanted to be a marine biologist, or even what she was like when she wasn’t wanted for murder. She played the violin, of course, and so I imagine she’d tried out other kinds of art as well. I tried to imagine what a Holmes painting would look like. A girl in a dark room, I thought, with her face turned away, but as I watched her, she tilted her face toward me.
“I don’t have the skill, and I don’t invest my time in things I’m rubbish at. But I am a fair critic. Your sister is quite good. A nice sense of composition, an interesting use of color. See? There you go. Art talk. Her range is limited, though. I saw about thirty paintings of your neighbor’s dog.”
“Woof is usually sleeping in their backyard.” I smiled at her. “Makes him an easy subject.”
“We could take her to the Tate Modern. Tomorrow morning, before we go. If you wanted.” She stretched her arms out above her head. In the darkness, her skin looked like cream in a pitcher. I jerked my eyes back up to her face. It was late, and when it was late, I had these kinds of slippages.
I had them all the time, if I was being honest. At four in the morning, I could admit to that.
“The Tate,” I said, pulling myself together. Her offer had sounded genuine. “Sure. If you actually want to. You’ve been really nice to Shelby already. I think you’ve heard enough L.A.D. for a lifetime.”
“I love L.A.D.,” she said, deadpan.
“You like ABBA,” I reminded her. “So I don’t actually know if that’s a joke. Next I’m going to find out that you wear a fanny pack in the summer. Or that you had a poster of Harry Styles in your room when you were eleven.”
“You did not.”
“It was Prince Harry, actually,” she said, folding her arms, “and he was a very good dresser. I have an appreciation for fine tailoring. Anyway, I was eleven years old, and lonely, and if you don’t stop smirking at me, I will come over there and—”
“Yes, I’m sure it was his fine tailoring you appreciated, and not his—”
She hit me with her pillow.
“To think,” I said through a mouthful of goose down. “You’re a Holmes. Your family’s famous. You could have maybe made it happen. Princess Charlotte, and the bad-boy spare. God knows you’re pretty enough to pull it off. I can see it now—you in a tiara, doing that screwing-in-a-lightbulb wave in the back of some convertible.”
“You would have had to make speeches. To orphans, and general assemblies. You’d have to have your photo taken with puppies.”
“What? You know I’m teasing. The way you grew up is just beyond me.” I was rambling, I knew it, but I was too tired to put the brakes on. “You’ve seen our flat. It’s a glorified closet. You’ve seen how my mother gets all weird and tight-lipped when you talk about your family. I think she worries that I’m going to go to the Sussex Downs and get sucked in by the decadent, mysterious Holmeses and never come back. And you smile politely and bite back whatever you actually think of her, and my sister, and where we live. Which, let’s face it, has probably taken a ton of effort on your part, because you’re not particularly nice. You don’t have to be. You’re fancy, Charlotte Holmes. Repeat after me. I’m fancy, and Jamie Watson’s a peasant.”
“Sometimes I think you don’t give me enough credit,” she said instead.
“What?” I sat up. “I just . . . look, okay, maybe I’m feeling a little punchy. It’s late. But I don’t want you to feel like you have to act a certain way, or impress anyone. We’re impressed already. You don’t have to act like you like my mum, or my sister, or where I live—”
“I like your flat.”
“It’s the size of your lab at school—”
“I like your flat because you grew up here,” she said, looking at me steadily, “and I like eating your dinner because it’s yours, which makes it better than mine. And I like your sister because she’s smart, and she worships you, which means she is very smart. You talk about her like she’s a child, I’ve noticed, but the fact that she’s attempting to explore her nascent sexuality by listening to a lot of droopy-voiced boy sopranos isn’t something you should tease her for. It’s certainly safer than the alternative.”
The conversation had taken a turn I hadn’t expected. Though maybe I should have seen it coming from the moment the words “you’re pretty” slipped out of my mouth.
She’d pushed herself up to face me. Her sheets were twisted around her legs, her hair rumpled, and she looked like she was in some French film about illicit sex. Which was not something I should be thinking. I ran through a familiar list in my head, the least erotic things I could think of: Grandma, my seventh birthday party, The Lion King. . . .
“The alternative?” I repeated.
“It’s rather better to dip in a toe before you get dragged underwater.”
“We don’t need to talk about this—”
“I’m so sorry if I’m making you uncomfortable.”
“I was going to say if you don’t want to. How did we even get here?”
“You were trashing your upbringing. I was defending it. I like it here, Jamie. We’re going to my parents’ house next, and it won’t be like this. I won’t be like this.”
“Like what, exactly?”
“Stop being dense,” she snapped. “It doesn’t suit you at all.”
For the record, I wasn’t being dense. I was trying, repeatedly, to give her an out. I knew she was skirting right around the edges of something we didn’t ever talk about. She was raped. We were framed for that rapist’s murder. Whatever feelings she had for me were caught up in that trauma, and so whatever feelings I had for her were on ice for the time being. While I might, on occasion, spiral into some stupid reverie about how beautiful she was, I’d never voiced those thoughts. While I’d given her openings to talk to me about the two of us, I’d never pushed her. The closest we’d come were these elliptical conversations at dawn, where we circled around the subject until I said something wrong and she shut down completely. For hours after, she wouldn’t even look at me.
“I was just trying to say that I won’t go there if you don’t want me to,” I said, and by there, I meant Sussex, and Lee Dobson, who I routinely fantasize about digging up and killing again, and talking about the two of us, which frankly, I am not equipped to do, and even though your hair keeps brushing your collarbone and you lick your lips when you’re nervous, I’m not thinking about you like that, I’m not, I swear to God I’m not.
The best and worst thing about Holmes was that she heard everything I didn’t say along with everything I did.
“Jamie.” It was a sad whisper, or maybe it was too quiet for me to tell. To my complete shock, she reached out and took my hand, bringing my palm up to her lips.
This? This had never happened before.
I could feel her hot breath, the brush of her mouth. I bit back a sound at the back of my throat and kept myself still, terrified I might scare her away or worse, that this might break apart the both of us.
She ran a finger down my chest. “Is this what you want?” she asked me, and with that, my willpower broke completely.
I couldn’t answer, not with words. Instead, I dropped my hands down to her waist, intending to kiss her the way I’d wanted for months—a deep, searching kiss, one hand tangled in her hair, her pressed up against me like I was the only other person in the world.
But when I touched her, she recoiled. A rush of fear went across her face. I watched as that fear turn to rage, and then to something like despair.
We stared at each other for an impossible moment. Without a word, she pulled away and lay down on her mattress, her back to me. Beyond her, the bruised colors of dawn spread out across the window.
“Charlotte,” I said quietly, reaching out to touch her shoulder. She shook off my hand. I couldn’t blame her for that. But it twisted something in my chest.
For the first time, I realized that maybe my presence was more of a curse than a comfort.
This wasn’t the first time something had happened between us.
We’d kissed. Once. It had been brief, a brush of a thing. I’d been sort of dying at the time, so the kiss might’ve come from pity; we were at the end of our murder investigation, so it might have come from a misplaced sense of relief. Either way, I hadn’t really seen it as a promise of things to come. She’d said as much. Even if she did want something romantic with me, it wasn’t hard to see she was working through a metric ton of psychic damage. Like I said, I had no intentions of pushing her. I didn’t know if I wanted to push past this, if I’d shatter the strange, fragile thing that we’d spun between us, if we’d be worse off. After last night, it seemed like we would be.
We didn’t go to the Tate that next morning. We didn’t sneak out for breakfast on a couple hours’ sleep, as we’d done in the days before. We packed in silence, Holmes pale in her dressing gown and socks, and after we said good-bye to my mother and my teary little sister, we walked to the station in silence. We rode to Sussex in a private compartment, her face turned resolutely to the window. I pretended to read my novel, and then stopped pretending. I wasn’t fooling her, or anyone.
When we finally got off the train at Eastbourne, a black car was waiting for us at the curb.
Holmes turned to me, hands stuffed in her pockets. “This will be fine,” she murmured. “You’ll be there, so it’ll be fine.”
“It would probably help the whole ‘fine’ thing if we were, you know, talking to each other.” I tried not to sound as hurt as I felt.
She looked surprised. “I always want to talk to you,” she said. “But I know you. You always want to make things better, and I don’t know how us talking to each other right now will do anything but make it worse.”
As the driver came around to take our luggage, she patted my shoulder in her absent way and stepped down to say hello. I stood there holding my suitcase, furious at her for deciding on silence as a way to handle this. For making every decision. She treated me like I was her pet, I thought, and it came over me in waves, the kind of world-splitting lostness I hadn’t felt in months.
It was that same feeling that had gotten me into the whole mess that was Charlotte-Holmes-and-Jamie-Watson to begin with, and I wasn’t so far gone as to not appreciate the irony.
Her parents weren’t waiting for us when we got to the house, which was fine by me. I didn’t think I could manage to be friendly to them, or anyone. A housekeeper met us instead, a neat, quiet woman my mother’s age. She took our coats and showed us down to Holmes’s rooms, and it was dark by the time we finished the lunch she brought down to us on a tray.
That night, after my impromptu lesson on European history, that same housekeeper produced a wooden box for me to stand on while she hemmed Milo’s too-long pants, a length of measuring tape draped over her shoulders. She’d been the only person in Holmes’s room when I returned with my suit. As I stood awkwardly, trying not to fidget, I tried to imagine where Holmes was hiding. Maybe shooting pool in a billiards room, or feeling her way blindfolded through some family obstacle course, the way Holmeses were rumored to train their kids. Maybe she was eating chocolate biscuits in the closet.
“Finished,” the housekeeper said finally. She stood up to survey her work with some satisfaction. “You look very handsome, Master Jamie. The open collar suits you.”
“Oh God,” I said, tugging on my cuffs. “Please don’t call me that. Do you know where H— where Charlotte is?”
“Upstairs, I imagine.”
“There’s a lot of upstairs here.” I had a vision of myself wandering aimlessly through their house in a borrowed suit. Speaking of obstacle courses. “Second floor? Third? Fourth? Uh . . . is there a fourth?”
“Try her father’s study,” she said, holding the door open. “Third floor, east wing.”
I think it might have taken less time for me to get from London to Sussex, but I found his study at last, at the end of a mullioned hall hung with portraits. This wing felt older, darker than the rest of the house. The paintings glowered down at me. In one, Holmes’s father and his siblings were clustered around a table piled high with books. Alistair Holmes looked just like his daughter, serious and withdrawn, hands folded before him. The one with the rakish smile was clearly Leander, I thought. I wondered if he’d arrived yet, and hoped he had.
“Come in, already,” said a muffled voice from behind the study door, though I hadn’t knocked. Of course they knew I was there. There were secrets in this house, it was clear, but I wasn’t going to be able to keep any of my own.
I reached for the handle, then stopped. I hadn’t noticed this final portrait. Beside me, Sherlock Holmes sat with pursed lips and a magnifying glass clutched in one hand, clearly annoyed by the whole enterprise of being painted, at having to do his best impression of himself for someone else’s benefit. Dr. Watson, my great-great-great-grandfather, stood behind him. He rested a reassuring hand on his friend’s shoulder.
I could’ve taken it as a sign that everything would be okay. But I looked at that hand for a long minute and wondered how many times Sherlock Holmes had tried to shake it off. Watsons, I thought, generations of masochists, and pushed open the door.
The room was dimly lit. It took my eyes a moment to adjust. A massive desk stood in its center, and behind it, bookshelves spread out like wings. Sitting in front of all that collected knowledge was Alistair Holmes, his canny eyes fixed on me.
I liked him immediately, though I knew I shouldn’t. By all accounts, he’d driven his daughter half to death with his training and expectations. But he knew me. I could tell by the cataloguing look on his face, one I’d seen on Charlotte Holmes time and time again. He saw me for what I was, a flustered middle-class boy in a borrowed suit, and yet he didn’t judge. Honestly, I didn’t think he cared about my social class one way or another. After the emotional turmoil of the last few days, it was nice to encounter a little impassivity.
“Jamie,” he said in a surprising tenor. “Please, sit. It’s a pleasure to finally meet you.”
“You too.” I perched in the armchair across from him. “Thanks so much for letting me stay with you.”
He waved a hand. “Of course. You’ve made my daughter very happy.”
“Thanks,” I said, though it wasn’t entirely true. I’d made her happy, or I thought I had. I’d also made her miserable. I’d held her while our hideout burned. I’d collapsed at her feet, too weak to stand, while Lucien Moriarty taunted her through Bryony Downs’s pink sparkly phone. This was a practice round. I wanted to see what was important to you. I wanted to see how much this foolish boy trusted you. I threaten him, and you kiss him. Cue strings. Cue the applause. And now I’d driven her to hide somewhere in her massive house by the sea, while her father made the kind of small talk with me that she’d always found abhorrent.
“Did you like that last painting in the hall, of our shared ancestors? I heard you stop to look at it.”
“You look a lot like Sherlock Holmes. Like the pictures I’ve seen of him, anyway,” I said. He nodded, and I found myself wanting to push past all the pleasantries and get to something real. “It made me think about how things have ended up. I mean, Charlotte and I are running around together. We’ve solved a murder case and found a Moriarty on the other end of it. It’s almost like history is repeating itself.”
“There are plenty of family businesses in the world,” he said, steepling his long fingers under his chin. “Men pass on their cobbler shops to their sons. Lawyers send their daughters away to school and then give them a place at the firm. We may have certain affinities that we pass down to our children, through genetic inheritance or through the way we teach them to think, but I don’t think it’s entirely out of our control. It’s not like we’re Sisyphus’s scions, forever pushing his boulder up the hill. Look at your father.”
“He’s in sales,” I said, trying to keep up with his train of thought.
Holmes’s father lifted an eyebrow. “And the woman who painted that portrait you were admiring in the hall was Professor Moriarty’s daughter, and she presented it to our family as an apology for her father’s actions. The past’s actions may echo, but you shouldn’t take it to mean that we’re predestined. Your father may like solving mysteries, but ever since he moved to the States, he’s seemed to be happier as a spectator. I imagined it helped him to be away from Leander’s influence. My brother is an actual agent of chaos.”
“Do you know when he’s getting in? Leander?”
“Tonight or tomorrow,” he said, checking his watch. “One can never really be exact, with him. The world must reshape itself around his desires. He’s much like Charlotte in that way. Not content to observe, not even content to mete out justice. Working for the benefit of others has never been their primary goal.”
I leaned forward, despite myself. Alistair Holmes was like a relic from a long-ago time—his formal language and determined stare. It was hypnotic, almost, and I didn’t resist the spell he cast. “Then what do you think Charlotte and Leander’s goals are?”
“To assert themselves on the world, or so I’ve always thought.” He shrugged. “They aren’t content to act behind the scenes. They always manage to be caught up in the play itself. In that way, I suppose they’re both more like Sherlock than any of the rest of us. He was always the would-be magician of the family. Do you know, I toiled away at the Ministry of Defense for years—I was the architect of some small international conflicts—and yet I rarely stepped out from behind my desk. I was content to move theoretical armies in a theoretical battleground, and let others make those ideas real. My son Milo does similar work. In many ways, for good or ill, he’s made himself from that mold.”
“But is that the best way?” I heard myself ask. I hadn’t meant to challenge him; it’d just slipped out. “Don’t you think it’s better to see the consequences of your actions firsthand, so that you can learn from them and make smarter decisions in the future?”
“You’re a thoughtful boy,” he said, though I wasn’t sure if he meant it. “Do you think I should have insisted that Charlotte stay and watch the fallout from her actions, after that debacle with August Moriarty, instead of sending her away for a fresh start?”
“There are many ways of taking responsibility. We don’t always have to pay for our sins with our blood, or by sacrificing our futures. But I hear Charlotte down the hall, so we should change the subject.” He squinted at me. “You know, you aren’t what I imagined.”
“What did you expect?” I asked, feeling self-conscious all of a sudden. I wasn’t built for these sorts of deep-sea conversations, all murky ocean floor.
“Something rather less than you are.” He stood and walked to the window, looking over the dark hills that rolled down to the water. “It’s a shame.”
“What is?” I asked, but Holmes was rapping sharply on the study door.
“Mother is going to kill me,” she said when I opened it. “We should all be downstairs five minutes ago. Hello, Dad.”
“Lottie,” he said, without turning around. “I’ll be there soon. Why don’t you show Jamie down to the dining room?”
“Of course.” She tucked her hand into my arm in a matter-of-fact way. Were we still fighting? Had we been fighting in the first place? I was exhausted by this train of thought, and anyway, it didn’t matter, not in her family’s sprawling house in the dead of winter. I was getting the sense that, without Holmes as my translator, I wasn’t going to make it through this week alive.
“You look very nice,” I told her, because she did—floor-length dress, dark lips, her hair tied up in a knot.
“I know,” she sighed. “Isn’t it awful? Let’s get this over with.”
Emma Holmes wasn’t speaking to me. She wasn’t really speaking to anyone. Her left hand glittered with rings, and she was using it to rub the back of her neck. The other was busy with her wineglass. This wouldn’t be a problem except that if their dining room was a continent (it was the size of one), I was sitting somewhere in Siberia.
I’d been placed between Holmes’s mother and the silent, sullen daughter of the Czech ambassador, a girl named Eliska who gave me a once-over and sent a pleading look up into the ceiling. Either she could sniff out my lack of a trust fund, or she’d been hoping for a taller, buffer Jamie Watson, one who looked a little more like a volunteer fireman and less like a volunteer librarian. Either way, I’d been left to make small talk with Holmes’s mother while Eliska sighed over her food.
Holmes—my Holmes, if she was that—wasn’t any help. She’d cut up all the food on her plate and was now busily rearranging it, but I could tell from the distant look in her eyes that she was preoccupied with the conversation at the other end of the table. The only conversation, actually, something about the going prices for Picasso sketches. Alistair Holmes was correcting the weaselly-looking museum curator. Of course he knew more about art than someone who worked at the Louvre. I couldn’t muster the energy to be surprised.
In fact, I couldn’t muster much energy at all. I kept waiting for the threat in this place to be made real, something I could see or hear, something I could counter. I’d expected a colder welcome. Holmeses falling over themselves to put me in my intellectual place. Maybe an actual flaming hoop. What I’d gotten instead was some very nice food and one cryptic conversation with Holmes’s father. I thought back to the warning she’d given me before we’d arrived, and I couldn’t make heads or tails of it.
“Sherringford? What a horrid school,” Alistair was saying. “Yes, it’s been something of a disappointment, but we had no doubt that Charlotte acquitted herself well, despite the circumstances.”
Charlotte’s smile was small and cold.
“I’m sorry to be so quiet, James,” her mother said to me in a low voice. “I’ve been having a rough go of it recently. In and out of hospital. I hope you’re enjoying your dinner.”
“It’s great, thanks. I’m sorry you’re not feeling well.”
At that, Holmes’s attention snapped back to me. “Mother,” she said, scraping her fork against her plate. “You really could ask Jamie some of the standard questions. It’s not a difficult script to remember. How does he like school. Does he have any sisters. Et cetera.”
Her mother flushed. “Of course. Did you have a nice stay in London? Lottie loves it there.”
“We had a lot of fun,” I told her, giving her daughter a dirty look. Her mother seemed to be doing her best. I felt bad for her, all dressed up in this ridiculous room when she clearly wished she was back in bed. “Walked along the Thames. Saw a lot of bookshops. Nothing too demanding.”
“I always think it’s nice to take a break after a difficult semester. From what I’ve heard, yours was especially so.”
I laughed. “An understatement, actually.”
Her mother nodded, eyes half-focused. “And remind me. Why was it, again, that you and my daughter were immediately suspected for that boy’s murder? I understand that he attacked her. But why on earth were you involved?”
“I didn’t volunteer to be a suspect, if that’s what you’re asking.” I tried to keep my tone light.
“Well, the reason I’d been given was that you’d been nursing some ridiculous crush on my daughter, but I still don’t understand how that demanded your involvement.”
It was as if I’d been hit across the face. “What? I—”
Charlotte continued rearranging her food. Her expression hadn’t changed.
“It’s a simple question,” her mother said in that quiet voice. “A more complicated one would be, why are you still shadowing her if those circumstances have resolved themselves? I don’t see why she has any use of you now.”
“I’m fairly sure she likes me.” I enunciated my words. Not out of spite—I was terrified that I would stutter. “We’re friends, spending time together over the winter holiday. It’s not a new concept.”
“Ah.” There was a wealth of meaning in that syllable: doubt, derision, a healthy dose of scorn. “And yet she doesn’t have friends. It hardly hurts that you’re handsome, or that you’re from reduced circumstances. I imagine you’d follow her anywhere. That combination must be catnip for a girl like our Lottie. A ready-made acolyte. But what could possibly be in it for you?”
Had we been anywhere else, with anyone else, Holmes would have barreled into this conversation like an armored tank. I knew how to defend myself, but I was so used to her quick, fearless wit that, in its absence, I found myself speechless.
And it was absent. Holmes herself was absent. Her eyes had gone dark and faraway, her fork still tracing patterns on her plate. How long had this been broiling under Emma Holmes’s skin? Or was it something concocted on the spot, a punishment for Charlotte mouthing off to her mother?
Emma Holmes turned her lantern eyes to me. “If you’re planning something. If you’re in someone’s employ. If you demand things from her that she cannot give—”
“You don’t have to—” Finally, her daughter spoke. Only to be cut right off.
“If you hurt her, I will ruin you. That’s all.” Emma Holmes raised her voice to the rest of the table. “And on that subject, Walter, why don’t you tell us about the exhibit you’re working on? I thought I heard the name Picasso tossed around.”
It wasn’t meant as punishment. It was love for her daughter, and it was terrifying.
I watched as a shudder ground through Charlotte’s shoulders. No wonder she never had an appetite, if mealtimes had always been as tumultuous as this.
Down the table, the curator was dabbing his mouth with his napkin. “Picasso, yes. Alistair was just telling me about your private collection. You house it in London? I’d love to see it. Picasso was quite prolific, as you know, and gave away so many sketches as gifts that new pieces are always coming to light.”
Holmes’s mother waved a hand. I recognized the gesture from her daughter. “Call my secretary,” she said. “I’m sure she can arrange a tour of our holdings.”
At that, I excused myself. I needed to do that clichéd movie thing where I splashed cold water on my face. To my surprise, Eliska dropped her napkin on her chair and followed me down the hall.
“Jamie, yes?” she asked in accented English. When I nodded, she peered over her shoulder to make sure we were alone. “Jamie, this is . . . bullshit.”
“That sounds about right.”
She stalked into the bathroom to check her reflection in the mirror. “My mother, she tells me we go to Britain for a year. Not too long to miss my friends back in Prague. I will make new ones. But everyone is a thousand years old, or stupid, or silent.”
“Not everyone here is like that,” I found myself saying. “I’m not. Charlotte Holmes isn’t. Usually.”
With a finger, Eliska wiped off a bit of stray lipstick. “Maybe somewhere else, she is better. But I go to these family dinners in these big houses and the teenagers are silent. The food is very good. At my home, the food is terrible and the teenagers are much more fun.” She looked at me over her shoulder, considering. “My mother and I go back in one week. She has a new job in the government. If you are in Prague, come see me. I feel—how should I say?—sorry for you.”
“I always appreciate a good pity invite,” I countered, but my heart wasn’t in it. Eliska could tell. She flashed me a smile and left.
When I got back to the table, Emma Holmes had already gone up to bed. Dessert had been served, an architectural piece of cheesecake the size of my thumbnail, and Alistair Holmes was asking his daughter a series of softball questions about Sherringford. What have you learned in your chemistry tutorial? Do you like your instructor? How do you think you’ll apply those skills to your deductive work? Holmes answered in monosyllables.
After a minute, I found I couldn’t listen to the questions anymore. I couldn’t, not when Charlotte Holmes was pulling one of her magic tricks right across from me. She wasn’t pulling a rabbit out of a theoretical hat or transforming herself into a stranger. This time, without moving a single muscle, she was disappearing completely into her high-backed velvet chair.
I didn’t recognize her. Not here. Not in this house. I didn’t recognize me.
Maybe this is what happened when you built a friendship on a foundation of mutual disaster. It collapsed the second things righted themselves, left you desperate for the next earthquake. I knew, deep down, there was more to it than this. But I wanted an easy solution. It was awful to wish for a murder case to fall at your feet, and I found myself wanting it anyway.
Holmes left dinner without saying anything to me. When I caught up to her, she’d already locked her bedroom door. I knocked for a solid five minutes without any reply. For a long, pointless moment, I stood there in the hall. Upstairs, I heard the edges of a male voice, shouting. They can’t do that to us. They can’t take that from us—and then a door, slamming.
“We can’t have that,” a voice said behind me. I jumped. It was the housekeeper, who’d found me waiting in the hall like some pathetic dog. She showed me to my room. From her kind, impersonal manner, I got the idea that she must have been used to finding strays around.
I spent that night in a giant bed across from a set of giant windows that rattled every time the wind whipped by. “Spent the night” was the right term—it’d be a lie to say I slept there. I couldn’t sleep at all. I knew now that I wasn’t the only one who wished for awful things. Every time I closed my eyes I saw a slump-shouldered Holmes willing herself into nonexistence across the dinner table. It kept me up because I knew that if she made up her mind, she was determined enough to follow through, to take a handful of pills and lock the world out. I’d seen her do it once already, under my father’s porch. I couldn’t watch it happen again.
Back then, I’d stopped her. I didn’t think I could now. Now, I was the last person she wanted to comfort her, because I was a guy, and her best friend, and maybe I wanted to be more than that, and with every passing hour she added another brick to the wall she was building between us.
At two, I got up and shut the curtains. At three thirty, I opened them again. The moon hung in the sky like a lantern, so bright that I pulled the pillow over my head. I slept, then, and dreamt that I was awake, still staring out across the Sussex countryside.
At four, I woke but thought I was still dreaming. Holmes was perched at the end of my bed. Actually, she was perched on top of my feet, effectively pinning me in place. It might have been sexy, except she was wearing a giant T-shirt that read CHEMISTRY IS FOR LOVERS, so it was insane, and her face looked like she’d been crying, so it was terrifying.
Completely unbidden, my father’s list of rules for dealing with Holmeses began scrolling through my head. #28: If you’re upset, Holmes is the last person you should ask to make you feel better, unless you want to be chided for having feelings. #29: If Holmes is upset, hide all firearms and install a new lock on your door. I swore and scrabbled to push myself up on my elbows.
“Stop,” she said, in a graveyard tone. “Just shut up, will you, and listen to me for a minute.”
But I was too wound up to do that. “Oh, are we talking now? Because I thought we were just going to let your crazy family eviscerate us at the dinner table and then abandon each other there without saying a word. Or maybe I could try to kiss you again, so that I could get another round of the silent treatment—”
“Will you just stop with the theatrics? They’re not fun anymore. This is not a game. This isn’t the nineteenth goddamn century. My name is Jamie, and I don’t need you to act like we’re part of some story, I just need you to act like you like me. Do you even like me anymore?” I was embarrassed to hear my voice cracking. “Or am I just some . . . some prop for the life you wish you had? Because I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but we’re back in real life now. Lucien Moriarty’s in Thailand, Bryony Downs is in a black box somewhere, and our biggest threat is having to eat breakfast with your batshit mother tomorrow morning, so I’d appreciate a little acknowledgment of reality.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Actually, the housekeeper will bring us in a tray.”
“I hate you,” I said, with feeling. “I hate you so much.”
“Are we finished with this little production? Or do you need to rend your clothes first?”
“No. I like these pants.”
“Fine. Fine,” she said again, and took a slow breath. “I want things from you, intellectually, that I don’t want physically. That is to say, I could want you like—like that, but I can’t. I . . . want things I don’t want.” I could feel her shift her weight. “And maybe I just want them because I think that you want them from me, and I’m afraid you’ll up and go if you don’t get them. I have no idea. Either way, if it wasn’t bad enough to know that I’ve lost control over my own reactions, I also know that I’m hurting you. Which, honestly, isn’t my main concern right now, because it can’t be. But I feel badly about that. You’re feeling badly about that. Every time you look at me, you flinch. And I’m fairly sure my mother has interpreted that as you having secret nefarious plans toward me, and then when she tore you apart at dinner, I was happy, because I’m frustrated with you and I’m not allowed to express it. Watson, this is boring, all this wheel-spinning, and there’s no way out I can see unless we turn each other loose. But that isn’t an option for me.”
“It isn’t for me either,” I said.
“I know.” Her mouth twisted. “So I suppose that means we’ll be sharing this prison.”
“I knew we’d end up in one eventually.” The moon hid behind a cloud, and the room was washed dark. I waited for her to say something. I waited a long time, and she watched me watching her. We were each other’s mirrors, always.
But the air between us wasn’t charged the way it had been. It wasn’t suffocating anymore, either.
“So what now?” I asked. “You get a therapist, and I go back to London?”
“I loathe psychology.”
“Well, right now, I think you might need it.”
To my surprise, she flopped down next to me, her dark hair spilling over her eyes. “Watson, how do you feel about an experiment?”
“Not terrific, actually.”
“Stop. It’s not a difficult one,” she said, her face buried in a pillow.
“I need you to touch my head.”
Gingerly, I poked her scalp with my finger.
“No,” she snarled, and grabbed my hand, fitting it against her forehead as though I was taking her temperature. “Like that.”
“Why am I doing this?”
“You’re demonstrating nonsexual touch. It’s akin to how a parent would touch a child. When you were ill last semester, I felt fine climbing into your bed, because I knew that nothing could happen. Look, I’m not recoiling. I don’t want to hit you.” She sounded pleased. “Really, I should be recording my findings.”
“Wait,” I said. “You wanted to hit me the other night?”
Holmes lifted her head from the pillow. “I want to hit everything all the time.”
“I should join the rugby team,” she said nervously. Stalling. “I, um. I want you to . . . touch my face. Like you would have, the other night, had we kept going.”
I eyed her for a long minute. “I want to help you do—whatever it is we’re doing. But I don’t want to be your guinea pig.”
“I don’t want you to be one. I want you to understand.”
For some reason, it felt dangerous to breathe, and so I didn’t. I held myself as still as I could, except for my hand running down her soft, shining hair to her cheek. Her skin was pale in the dark, but as I traced my thumb along her cheekbone, she flushed the barest pink. I bit my lip, and her mouth opened, and without thinking about it, really, I let one finger brush against her mouth, and then her hands slid up my chest, pulling against my T-shirt and then pulling at the collar, pulling me down toward her until I could feel myself pressing her down into the mattress, and my nose dug into her neck and she laughed, she exhaled and her breath was soft and a little sharp, and I tangled my fingers in her hair, the way I’d wanted to for months now, all of this I’d wanted for so long, and she angled her head as though she was about to kiss me—
Then she dug her elbow into my stomach and heaved me off her.
“Shit,” she said as I gasped for air. She swore again, fluently, and pulled the pillow down over her face.
“That was a terrible idea.” I needed to throw up. I needed a cold shower. Maybe I would take a cold shower and throw up in the tub. That sounded great, actually. I staggered to my feet.
She nodded. I could tell because the pillow was moving up and down. “Come back,” she said.
I dragged my hands through my hair. “God. Why?”
“Holmes—are you okay? Like, really, actually okay?” It was such a dumb question, but I couldn’t think of another way to ask it.
“Don’t you think it’s sort of backward, that you’re the one always asking me that and not my family?”
“Honestly? All the time.”
We stared at each other.
“They think this sort of thing shouldn’t’ve happened to me at all,” she whispered. “Not to someone as . . . capable as me.”
“This isn’t your fault,” I said fiercely. “God. Has no one told you it’s not your fault? Of all the fucked-up families in all the world—”
“It was never said, as such. It was implied.”
“Like that makes it any better.” I stared at the ground. “I know this isn’t your favorite subject, but have you thought about—”
“Talk therapy isn’t a panacea. Neither are drugs. Neither is wishing it away.” When I glanced up at her, she was wearing a sad little smile. “Watson. Come back.”
“Why? No, give me an actual answer.”
With a groan, she pulled the pillow down against her chest. “Because, contrary to how I just reacted, I don’t actually want you to leave.” She looked at me with baleful eyes. “I also don’t want to . . . do that again. I just want to go to sleep, and if I’m correct, it’ll be much easier for us to continue talking to each other the way we normally do if we don’t have to first go through tomorrow’s formalities.”
Gingerly, I sat down. “I still think that makes little to no sense.”
“I’m fine with that.” She yawned. “It’s dawn, Watson. Go to sleep.”
I eased myself back in under the covers, careful to leave a few inches between the two of us. Leave room for the Holy Spirit, I thought semihysterically. I hadn’t been to church since I was a kid, but maybe the nuns had gotten it right.
“Are you measuring the space between us?”
“It’s not funny,” she said but it was dawn, and we were exhausted, and I could tell she was trying not to laugh.
“What we need is a good murder,” I said, not caring how horrible I sounded. “Or a kidnapping. Something fun, you know, to keep our minds off all this.”
“All this? Do you mean sex?”
“Lena keeps texting me. She wants to fly out from India and take us shopping.”
“That’s not a distraction. That’s a reason to throw myself into the ocean. I need an explosion or something.”
“You’re a sixteen-year-old boy,” she said. “I think we’ll probably need a serial killer.”
Leander Holmes would turn up the next day. Three days later, he would disappear. And for weeks and weeks after, I’d wonder if, by wishing, we’d brought everything that happened after that onto ourselves.
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