Chapter 1: Preface
Here we go!
As usual, I own nothing aside from the twisted, angst-ridden plot.
North Gower Street, January 1788
The banging on the door never relented as Doctor Hooper rushed down the stairs, shoving his arms through the sleeves of his robe as he jumped the last step. He swiftly unlatched the door and swung it open to find a strange man, breathless and terrified, shaking on his stoop, a horse and carriage behind him in the street.
‘Please, you must help…the Countess of Westminster, she is in labour,’ he managed to say in between breaths. ‘She is early. Too early.’
Dr Hooper immediately fell into his physician role, reaching behind the door for his emergency bag and his coat.
‘I’m so terribly sorry to bother you, but the midwife wasn’t home and I had no other recourse,’ the man blathered on as Dr Hooper put his coat on over his robe and nightshirt.
Turning to the anxious man, Dr Hooper placed a calming hand on his shoulder. ‘You did well, I am more than happy to help out however I’m needed. Now, make haste, we must get there as soon as possible! Lest both the lady and her babe perish.’
The Holmes Estate, Westminster
Timothy paced outside the room anxiously. Twelve steps, spin, twelve steps back, spin, repeat. The worn floorboards creaked under him, barely heard above the cries and screams. He had protested against being forced from his wife’s side, but admitted that his own anxiety was only adding pressure to an already volatile situation.
Timothy turned mid-pace to see his son standing at the end of the hall, his nightshirt rumpled from a restless sleep. The little boy, fear on his cherubic face, hesitantly stepped closer.
‘Is Mummy hurt?’
Suddenly all of Timothy’s worries faded as he strode over and swept his son into his arms, the boy burrowing his head into the crook of his father’s neck. ‘Your Mama will be all right. The doctor is taking good care of her and the baby.’
Suddenly, a loud scream pierced the air. Timothy tightened his hold and prayed fervently for his wife and child.
As the last notes of the cry faded, leaving the house to descend into an ominous still, Timothy turned to face the closed door and held his breath, his heart pounding as the seconds dragged on in mournful silence.
Suddenly, a loud wail broke the silence and Timothy nearly collapsed in relief, tears pricking his eyes. He buried his smile in his son’s wavy hair and felt him release his own shuddering breath.
A few minutes passed before the door opened and an exhausted doctor stepped out into the hall, having discarded the no-doubt ruined smock and wearing his sweat-drenched nightshirt and robe.
‘Is she…? Are they…?’ Needing to know if his wife and baby were both fine, but terrified of the answers, Timothy trailed off.
The doctor smiled gently. ‘Perfectly fine. The baby was turned about and wasn’t breathing when your wife delivered, but I cleared out the throat and mouth and you have a healthy, albeit early, baby, my lord. And an amazingly strong wife, if I may say so. A lesser woman would have succumbed to the pain, but she is remarkably stubborn.’
Timothy laughed out a sob. ‘Yes, yes she is. May we?’ He nodded to the door in question.
‘You may,’ the doctor smiled. ‘I’ll leave you all to get acquainted with your new addition, but I’d like to keep an eye on the Lady Westminster and the babe for a week or so, just to watch for potential infection.’
‘Of course,’ Timothy agreed. Just before he turned away, he glanced back with a small frown. ‘In all that happened, I never did hear your name.’
‘Daniel Hooper, my lord.’
Timothy bowed his head, a shallow display of the gratitude filling his heart for the man. ‘Thank you, Daniel Hooper. I hope one day to repay your kindness.’
Violet sagged against a mountain of pillows, pale and exhausted, but with a radiant smile on her face as she cuddled her precious bundle close to her chest. She glanced up when the door opened and, if possible, her smile grew bigger at the sight of her husband entering with their eldest son in his arms.
Settling gently on the side of the bed, Timothy held his son on his lap as they both took in the sight of the newest Holmes.
‘Is it…?’ He trailed off in wonder at the eyes, so like Violet’s, blinking up at him in beautiful distaste at the new world.
Violet brushed a finger across the baby’s soft cheek. ‘A boy. Like we thought.’
Timothy swallowed the lump in his throat. Tugging his firstborn son close, he pressed a kiss to his temple and said, ‘Mycroft, meet your baby brother, William Sherlock Scott Holmes.’
artwork by Selena Guardi
Timothy Edward Sherringford Holmes, the Earl of Westminster, was a rather unusual man. His wife, the Countess, Violet Eleanor Holmes, was an equally unusual woman. The ton considered them exceedingly eccentric, but allowed them this, for the Holmes name was equated with power and wealth and it would simply not do to turn their backs upon such a family.
Violet Holmes was beautiful, with regal features and enviously disarming eyes, but her choice in fashion caused many to look twice with disbelief. Her gowns were practical and most had pockets, which were absolutely scandalous, that she used to carry a multitude of instruments or coins, which she would hand out to those on the streets she deemed in sincere need of her generosity. She studied the sciences with a passion most men lacked and her wit unequalled in society. She could engage in repartee about politics with the best of men and held no qualms about doing so.
Her husband, Timothy, stood proud by his wife’s side, going so far as to encourage her displays of unbecoming behaviour by bestowing smiles upon her and providing her with an extensive library of scientific books and sharpening his own political knowledge with hers. In truth, he was just as eccentric as she.
Their two sons were regarded in a similar manner. Both were quite handsome and held themselves tall with confidence, but were as unusual as their parents. The eldest, Mycroft Holmes, Viscount Belgrave, had already made a name for himself in the political scene not long after he had come of age and had only excelled in his position as the years passed. Coming to the prime of his life at 37, he was settled into a marriage with the beautiful Lady Anthea. They were, devastatingly, barren; a heartbreak that withdrew them from the social scene for many years following their wedding. Most believed Lord Belgrave thankful to be free of this burden, for he seemed a cold and distant man. But were one to look closely, they would see the lines of sorrow around his eyes as he watched the laughing children barrel through the throngs of dancers during socials. His hand would blindly reach for his wife’s and he would thread his fingers through her gloved ones. She would give him what comfort she could through the simple gesture of squeezing his hand, knowing anything more obvious would draw attention to his vulnerable moment.
Then there was the youngest son, The Honourable William Holmes, who refused to answer to any name other than his second, Sherlock. A more eccentric man could not be found in London. Though he kept his own home in the heart of the city, he was most often found at his parents’ estate tending to the bees in the apiary along the far edge of the land or conducting numerous experiments, often sending the servants into terror with ground-shaking explosions, in his father’s old laboratory. His Baker Street flat was relegated to an office, of sorts, where he met with those who would have their mysteries solved.
Yes, the Holmeses were all quite different from what the ton considered normal. So it came as no surprise, though it was met with resigned exasperation, when the Holmeses decided to take in as their ward a young woman, the daughter of a former doctor, when he was crippled by pneumonia and became unable to support her.
What did come as a surprise, however, was that in a year’s time the young woman was betrothed to the younger Holmes son.
The union between Molly Hooper and Sherlock Holmes did not appear to be out of necessity nor dubious persuasion. Indeed, it appeared to be that the assumed-heartless Sherlock Holmes had fallen in love with the woman, a sentiment she clearly returned.
Though it was only known to the couple themselves, the Holmes family, and a few close friends, those twelve months were not filled with amorous courting and the thrill of falling in love. In fact, were they privy to the interactions between the couple, most would assume all they shared was a deeply-abiding, mutual hatred for the other.
But there is a thin line between hate and love.
A million thanks to the amazing Selena-Guardi for the FANTASTIC artwork!
Chapter 3: A New Beginning
The Holmes Estate, April 1818
The carriage bumped and rolled along the road, before turning onto a private, tree-lined driveway. At the top of a slight incline, a large estate stood. The intimidating brick façade seemed to loom high above, ivy climbing its walls and windows brightly reflecting the sun, hiding all behind it. Swallowing nervously, Molly Hooper clutched her valise to her chest as the carriage pulled alongside the estate and slowed to a halt.
The driver hopped down and opened the door, offering her his white-gloved hand to assist her in stepping down.
Molly stared at his hand. This was it. Once she stepped out of the carriage, she would begin a new life, not closing the door on her past, but leaving most of it behind. A thrill of excited terror swept over her as she gathered her courage and took the proffered hand.
She climbed out of the carriage, the gravel drive shifting slightly under her booted feet. As she raised her head the front doors were thrown open and an elderly, but rather vibrant, woman rushed down the steps, a large smile on her aging face.
‘Molly, dear,’ Violet Holmes exclaimed, grasping the younger woman’s hands in greeting. ‘You’re right on time! Come, come,’ she ushered eagerly, gesturing for the driver to take Molly’s bag from her. ‘Edwards has already set out the tea in anticipation of your arrival.’
Somewhat stunned by Lady Westminster’s exuberance, Molly let herself be led into the home, leaving her few earthly belongings atop the carriage in the care of the footmen. Her heart was thundering so loudly she feared it echoed in the cavernous foyer. Doors leading to mysterious rooms and hallways yet to be explored lined the far wall and two staircases flanked her right and left. As soon as they crossed the threshold, a man in coattails stepped out of seemingly nowhere and held out his hand, the white glove pressed neatly, the three buttons lining the cuff polished to a shine.
‘Might I take your outerwear, Miss Hooper?’
Blinking in surprise, Molly hesitated before slowly undoing the buttons of her thin pelisse, revealing a modest gown, simply and somewhat ill-fitting around the bust as if it had been tailored to a larger woman. But the pale green fabric complimented her pale complexion and dark hair.
The butler took it from her and draped it elegantly over his arm.
‘Thank you,’ she murmured shyly.
He nodded his head and gestured with his other hand toward one of the doors. ‘Lord Westminster is already seated in the study, if you would care to join him for tea, my lady.’
‘We will, thank you Edwards,’ Lady Westminster replied and very nearly pulled Molly along behind her into a long hallway. Molly had no time to dwell on the shocking number of doors leading out of a single hall as they walked along quickly.
‘Here we are,’ Lady Westminster announced, pushing open a pair of heavy, engraved oak doors and gesturing for Molly to precede her. Shyly, Molly stepped inside the room. Her eyes widened at its beauty. Shelves of books lined one entire wall from floor to ceiling, a rolling ladder propped against it, and papers falling out between the books. A massive fireplace and mantel dominated the opposite wall, two plush and inviting armchairs beckoned to be used, promising relief from the coming winter’s chill by a cosy fire. Three tall windows were decorated with thick crimson draperies, tied back with gold cord, to let the early morning light stream across the expansive desk beneath. In the middle of the room, a settee and matching chairs sat around a small table with a tray of tea and biscuits set atop.
Lord Westminster stood from his place in one of the chairs and greeted Molly with a kiss to her gloved hand. ‘So glad to see you arrived safely, Miss Hooper.’
Molly blushed nervously as Lady Westminster guided her to the settee. The three sat in silence as Lady Westminster poured the tea, the smile never having left her face. Molly took her tea with a quiet ‘thank you.’
Molly sputtered a bit on her sip of tea and hastily dabbed her handkerchief on her lips before answering the Earl’s amused question. ‘A bit. This is all rather sudden and already much more than I anticipated.’
‘You will adjust,’ Lady Westminster reassured her and patted her arm. ‘Now, tell us about yourself.’
‘There’s not much to tell,’ Molly evaded. ‘You learned all there is to me during our visit here last week.’
‘I find that hard to believe.’ Lord Westminster set his tea down and leaned forward on his elbows. ‘But if you don’t feel comfortable opening up to us right now, that is perfectly all right. Hopefully, you’ll find us in your confidence as we get to know each other. Biscuit?’
Molly smiled at his understanding, relaxing as she heard the sincerity in his voice and shyly taking the proffered biscuit. Having only been acquainted with them the week prior, she was hesitant to speak about herself and she was glad he sensed that, clearly the steady reason to his wife’s exuberance.
‘Might I ask what is expected of me?’ She ventured.
Lady Westminster beamed at her. ‘Right to the point. Oh, we’re going to get along famously.’
Chuckling fondly at his wife, Lord Westminster sat back in his chair and set his elbows on the arms, steepling his fingers beneath his chin. ‘To begin, we will do our best to help you adjust to your new status as our ward. So as not to overwhelm you further, we will wait to introduce you to society until the summer ball at the end of August, which will give you several months to adequately situate yourself into life here.’
Molly swallowed nervously at the thought. Being a doctor’s daughter put her in the middle class. Thus, she had never had to come out in society as one was expected to do so if she were a member of the ton. And she was grateful to be in the background and unknown, the less pressure to put on a façade eased her self-conscious anxiety.
‘Lovely,’ she murmured, hiding her face behind her teacup as she took a long sip. She knew she should make a greater effort to be more gracious to the couple who had taken her in, but it had only been a week since her life had been thrown into chaos and she was struggling to adjust. Saying goodbye to her dying father, leaving the home she’d grown up in just that morning, was taking an emotional toll on her.
Though the Countess seemed oblivious to Molly’s growing tenseness, Lord Westminster lowered his hands and smiled softly at her. ‘Perhaps you would care to see your rooms and settle in before we introduce you to the servants?’
‘That would be lovely, thank you,’ Molly replied, her shoulders softening in relief.
As he led her through the intimidating manor to what would become her quarters, she swallowed back the desire to return to the familiar, small rooms of her father’s flat. The Holmeses were generous and selfless enough to take her in on simply the word of her father, returning a favour they once promised him. She would not let her fears stifle her new life.
The Holmes Estate, One Week Earlier
‘Daniel!’ Violet beamed and greeted the aging doctor with a warm hug, stepping back to let her husband shake their visitor’s hand. ‘Prompt as always. How are you?’
‘I am well, my lady.’ Turning, he held out his hand and gestured for a young woman to step out of the doorway. Compared to Daniel’s stocky build, this girl was a slim waif of a thing, her features delicate and her figure petite. Her pale, creamy complexion contrasted sharply to his weathered tan, but she had the soft brown tresses that Daniel had once boasted in his youth. ‘May I present my daughter, Marguerite Elizabeth Hooper.’
The woman barely flinched at the formal address, her eyes cast down as she curtsied. ‘How do you do?’
Violet exchanged looks with Timothy.
‘How do you do, Miss Hooper.’ Timothy bowed his head slightly, a smile teasing the corners of his mouth. ‘We do not stand on formality much here at home. Is there another name you carry a preference for?’
Marguerite glanced at her father, her brow furrowed. The doctor simply chuckled, his mirth turning into a brief coughing fit. Marguerite rubbed his back gently until the fit had passed. Waving off their concern, he leaned heavily on his cane and smiled. ‘She much prefers Molly. A pet name her mother gave her, but it seems to have stuck with all of us.’
A dimple appeared in Molly’s cheek as she bit back a smile, though her worried eyes still watched him closely.
‘Very well, Molly it shall be,’ Violet declared. Slipping her arm through Molly’s, she led them toward the drawing room. ‘Come, we shall sit and have some tea and learn a bit about each other before you move here next week. It shall be so nice to have another woman around the house; at times it feels positively overrun with my husband and youngest son.’
Molly’s already pale features whitened even more and she swallowed nervously. Violet felt her tense up. The poor child, she was being remarkably brave for having her life thrown into chaos and watching her father succumb to illness. At that moment, Violet promised to do what she could to ease Molly’s burdens and welcome her into their home.
Chapter 4: A Shadow Cast Upon Us
May 1818: One Month Later
The firelight danced across the desk as the man dipped his pen into the inkwell one last time, finishing the note with a dramatic flourish. The only other person in the dank room stood trembling at the door, her knees threatening to give as she watched a hollow grin spread across the man’s face as he read what he’d written, clearly pleased with it. He sprinkled a bit of sand on the wet ink and gently blew across the paper. He folded it reverently before sealing it with blood-red hot wax and a seal. He flicked his gaze to his audience, his dark, soulless eyes seemingly sunk into his face. With deceptively light steps, he walked over and, pressing a kiss to the letter, handed it to his messenger.
‘Be a good girl, my love, and deliver this immediately.’
She took the note and, with shaking hands, slipped it into the bust of her gown.
He brushed a hand down her cheek and she turned her head away, fighting back the rising bile in her throat. His expression turned stormy for an instant. Leaning down, he licked a path up her cheek, relishing the sob she unwittingly let out.
‘Such a good girl,’ he purred. With a final stroke of her cheek, he released her and watched, amused, as she fled the room. He turned and walked back to his desk, letting his fingers trail over the newspaper clippings laying there. One name linked every story. One name that had been impeding his plan. One name that was starting to become more of a problem than a nuisance.
An illustration peeked out from the pile and he slipped the piece out, grinning at the likeness staring back at him, the man’s eyes piercing and curls peeking out from beneath a ridiculous hat.
‘Let’s play a game, Sherlock Holmes.’
The smog of London obscured the barely rising sun, the streets slowly filling with the clatter of carriages and horse whinnies and shouts as the people of London set about their daily business. And through the crowds, his polished shoes clacking against the cobblestone, Sherlock Holmes strode confidently. He cut a handsome figure, both in appearance and in bearing. He held himself tall and wore a tailored coat cinched tight across his broad chest, his trousers slim and flattering, and his shirt’s top button undone in obvious disdain for propriety. His curls cut and brushed straight back in the latest style beneath his top hat, accentuating the sharpness of his cheekbones. But it was his eyes that distinguished him the most. They were a delightful swirling of blue, green, and brown and when one caught them in the right light, trails of gold seemed to flow between the colours. And when he looked upon you, those eyes sharpened in brilliance and read every detail about your person.
Behind him, Doctor John Watson hurried along, most always grumbling about the length of his taller friend’s stride compared to his own.
‘Do come along, Watson, we haven’t time to waste,’ Sherlock barked. ‘Our business is most urgent today.’
‘And what exactly is our ‘business’?’ Watson panted, quickening his pace to a near jog. ‘We only just returned from Sussex last evening, I’d like some time to properly greet my expectant wife.’
Sherlock didn’t reply. By now, they had reached the livery and he set about procuring their horses from the stable hands. Slipping a few pennies to the boys, Sherlock gracefully mounted his faithful stallion, Barbarossa, the urgent letter sent to him just that morning tucked securely in the inner pocket of his jacket.
He fought down the worry the note had elicited and the unwelcome guilt that accompanied it. It had been near gone two months since he had visited the estate, a string of seemingly unrelated cases keeping him tied to London. Perhaps if he had not been away for so long...
‘With haste, Watson!’ Sherlock called to his friend, who was just now swinging up atop his own mount, and clicked his tongue to urge Barbarossa into a trot. ‘Mummy and Father are expecting us for tea.’
Chapter 5: An Unconventional Meeting
Molly strolled along the edge of the estate, her shawl draped over her arm as the morning sun warmed the air. A gentle breeze sifted through the grass at her feet and pulled her light gown against her body. She hadn’t found time to explore the grounds herself, too busy adjusting to her new social status. Lady Westminster had taken her on almost as a project, teaching Molly all the proper ways of a lady from how to ride side-saddle to the correct way to eat from a soup spoon. Had it been anyone else, Molly would have felt trapped and pressured, but the Countess was kind and amusing, mocking society’s need for so many rules, but advised that knowing them was vital for certain situations.
The first few weeks of her new life had flown by and today Molly woke early to find the rest of the house barely stirring. The house boys were running about polishing the workers’ shoes and setting out the breakfast plates as the cook began preparing the meal.
Molly had dressed and quickly brushed out her hair, braided and pinned it atop her head carelessly, before slipping outside into the early morning fog. The grounds were expansive, rolling hills and patches of woods stretching away from the estate on every side. Molly set off for the north side, past the stables, her shoes quickly dampened by the dew on the grass.
The sunrise caressed the land, spreading gold and yellow rays across the hills, dispersed by the mists that were fast disappearing. The silence was a strange, yet welcome, companion. Having lived all her life in the midst of the London chaos and bustle, the quiet was somewhat disconcerting to Molly.
Not aware of how much time had passed, Molly found herself circling the estate only to come upon an area set back in the corner of grounds, a dozen odd-looking wooden boxes in haphazard placement. A faint buzzing sound came from the vicinity and Molly immediately knew what she had stumbled upon.
A smile broke across her face. Oh, how interesting!
She skirted around the edge of the apiary, a safe distance away, but close enough to observe the waking bees beginning to make their way out into the fields to harvest their nectar. The hives were worn from several winters and were an intriguing design she was sure she had seen before. She tilted her head. Were those… Her eyes widened and a smile spread across her face. They were!
Hand-carved Leafe hives!
Suddenly, the quiet morning was broken by a thunderous voice behind her.
‘What do you think you’re doing?!’
Sherlock burst into the study with his usual dramatics, Edwards on his heels and rolling his eyes. ‘Mr Holmes and Dr Watson to see you, milady,’ the butler announced monotonously to the unsurprised couple sitting together on the settee. Watson patted the man’s shoulder understandingly as he passed by. Edwards shook his head as he shut the doors behind him.
‘Mother, Father,’ Sherlock greeted them quickly and flopped into one of the chairs across from them, leaving Watson to the formalities of shaking Father’s hand and kissing Mummy’s cheek.
Lady Westminster began serving the tea as Sherlock immediately delved into business. ‘Hand me the letter,’ he demanded. ‘I need to examine it.’
Handing over the folded note, the Earl couldn’t help the slight shake of his hand. Sherlock ignored the anger that rose in his chest like a raging river at the thought of anyone upsetting his family and opened the paper.
All around London town, Sherlock chased the villain. The detective thought ‘twas all in fun… till his family joined the killings.
Sherlock felt his blood run cold.
I do apologise for not sending this directly to you in London, Sherlock, but I needed to make sure my point got through that, rather thick, skull of yours. If you continue to pursue me, I will burn the heart out of you.
‘What is this about? Who sent it?’ Mummy asked, fear lacing her normally joyful voice. Father pulled her hand into his lap and rubbed his thumb along her palm in a calming gesture.
Sherlock lifted the paper to the light, examining the spread of the ink, the broken wax seal that once held the imprint of a fox, and the writing itself. The paper came from a common manufacturer, easily obtained from any general store; the ink, as well. It was the seal and the handwriting that brought Sherlock up short. The fox indicated surreptitiousness, stealth, and cunning. No one in London would publically use such a seal. And the handwriting was strong, each letter deliberate and without hesitation. There was not a drop of ink on the paper that had not been permitted by the writer, clearly a man who valued perfection and order.
‘William, please!’ Mummy interrupted his deductions. ‘What are you involved in?’
‘I do not know,’ Sherlock sniffed the paper and then handed it over to John before steepling his fingers beneath his chin. ‘I have not interacted with anyone who would fit the description of the sender; although… several of my more recent cases I have suspected of being orchestrated by a single entity, though they have no common thread. They seemed much too neat for random acts of violence, but there was no evidence to lead us to a puppetmaster.’ He looked over to see John pale upon reading the threat. ‘When was it delivered and by whom?’
‘It wasn’t delivered. It was placed on my breakfast plate this morning,’ Mummy replied, swallowing loudly at the memory. ‘Edwards denies any messengers came by, no one recalls seeing anybody in the house beforehand, and it wasn’t there when the footmen prepared the table; we simply don’t know.’
‘Obviously, it is someone in the household. An accomplice, most likely, someone who is using their position in your employ to assist the person behind this.’ Sherlock stood and gestured for the doctor to follow him. ‘Come, Watson, we have some investigating to do. Surreptitiously, of course. Best not alert the accomplice that we are aware of their involvement.’ Just before they left, he turned back to his parents and said, ‘Send word to Mycroft. I’m sure he will be only too happy to send protection, as well. But do ask him for a little subtlety, two men at most to keep watch while I investigate; he so does like to go overboard and as much as I would agree with him in this case, if there are too many newcomers it will tip off this person and there would be unpleasant repercussions.’
The door slammed shut behind them, leaving Lord and Lady Westminster to sit and worry. The silence lasted for only a moment before Violet turned to Timothy. ‘We neglected to inform him of our new ward.’
‘Did we?’ Timothy glanced down at her, a frown on his face. ‘Did you not write to inform him and Mycroft?’
‘Well, I mentioned it in my weekly letter to Anthea the day Molly moved in. But I must have forgotten to write Sherlock. What with him being preoccupied with his cases these past few months.’
Timothy narrowed his eyes at her too-innocent tone. ‘Yes,’ he finally drawled. ‘Forgotten…’
Sherlock stormed out onto the patio, his coat tails billowing out behind him. He glared into the morning sun before rushing down the stairs and heading for the stables. Nothing. Nobody in the household had seemed suspicious or nervous, though he had overheard several of them gossiping about seeing a brown-haired maid sneaking out to meet a man at night. But considering of the 17 maids in the Holmes household, 14 of them were brown-haired, it would take some time to narrow it down.
And right now, he didn’t want to raise the staff’s suspicion by interrogating them.
Though, they were already somewhat suspicious of Watson, whose ability to be subtle was quite lacking. Sherlock, however, was already deemed eccentric, so his flapping about every room under the guise of looking for his missing jar of thumbs was taken for normal.
As he began descending the slope toward the stables, he caught an anomaly in the landscape out of the corner of his eye. At the edge of the apiary, a woman stood with her back to him, her plain brown hair wrapped up in an untidy braid and the hem of her dress was darkened by dew. Not a servant. He immediately altered course toward his beloved beehives and the strange woman trespassing on the sacred grounds.
‘What do you think you’re doing?!’ The woman whirled about, her eyes taking up too much of her face as they widened. He easily read the deductions surrounding her and by the time he reached her side, he knew everything he needed to know.
‘Just because my parents have foolishly decided to take in an old maid as their ward does not mean you have full run of the estate. The hives are off limits to those who aren’t knowledgeable about the behaviour of bees and are idiotic enough to put themselves in danger by wandering through an apiary.’
The woman gaped at him, her initial surprise giving way to an indignant anger. Her brown eyes sparkled with unshed tears and her cheeks and neck were red with… some emotion. Sherlock tried to determine if it was embarrassment, anger, or attraction. He usually had no problem distinguishing the three.
The woman snapped out of her surprise and lifted her chin. ‘It is customary to introduce one’s self before insulting another person based on arrogant assumption.’
‘I do not dabble in assumptions,’ Sherlock drawled. ‘Arrogance, though, is a trait I am often accused of. A consequence of my impeccable deductive ability.’
‘Impeccable,’ she murmured dryly, before picking up her skirts and walking toward him. She kept her wide, brown eyes on him until she stood in front of him, the top of her head barely coming to his chest. She pursed her lips to the side, as if contemplating something. ‘It’s not every idiot who can recognise the design of a Leafe beehive.’
Sherlock’s lips parted in surprise as she quirked her brow and stalked away. He found himself staring after her until she disappeared into the manor.
Well. This was certainly an interesting development.
Chapter 6: Dinner
A knock on the door interrupted Molly’s reading.
‘Come in,’ she called, sliding the ribbon into the crease and setting the book aside.
One of the housemaids stepped inside and curtsied quickly. ‘Lord Westminster asked me to call you to dinner, Miss.’
‘Oh!’ Molly stood and glanced out of her bedroom window to see that, indeed, the hours had passed rather quickly. ‘I did not realise how late it had become. Thank you, Janine.’
The maid smiled and ducked back out into the hall. Molly sighed and walked over to the mirror table. She quickly set her hair to rights and gently pinched her pale cheeks until they turned rosy. She had not intended to spend the day inside, but after that awful man accosted her that morning, she had not wanted to come across him again.
Even if he had been the most intriguingly handsome man she’d ever seen, aggravating manners aside.
Her ire rose once more as she thought over their meeting. To call her an old maid and an idiot! The very nerve of him! She may be older than most in society would deem appropriate for an unmarried woman, but to her, 24 was a perfectly fine age to be unbound by a husband. Her time could be spent poring over the many scientific books in the Holmeses’ library and discussing ‘unladylike’ subjects such as religion and politics, which, to her great delight, her guardians encouraged.
Nodding firmly at her reflection, she straightened her shoulders and headed down to the dining room. Lord Westminster met her at the foot of the stairs. His weathered face broke into a smile and he slipped her arm through his elbow before leading them down the hall toward the tantalising smells of fresh rolls and roast.
‘Did you enjoy your walk this morning, my dear?’
‘I did, though I do apologise for not breaking the fast with you this morning. I was rather preoccupied upon my return.’
He patted her hand understandingly. ‘You need not apologise. I often find myself in need of solitude, as well. And you have been quite overwhelmed these past few weeks, it is perfectly understandable.’
Molly smiled gratefully at his kindness.
They walked into the dining room to find the Countess and a blond-haired man already seated and chatting animatedly. When they noticed the newcomers, they both stood.
‘Doctor Watson, I’d like you to meet Miss Marguerite Hooper, our ward. Molly, this is Doctor John Watson, a dear friend of ours.’
The man was about three inches taller than her and perhaps a decade older, his face beginning to show lines of aging around his sparkling eyes and his mouth, which had curved into a broad smile. Clicking his heels together, he bowed as Molly curtsied.
‘A pleasure to meet you, Miss Hooper.’
‘And you, Dr Watson.’ She smiled at him. His ready grin and overall air of friendliness endearing him to her already.
The Earl led Molly around the table to the chair across from the doctor. Once they had all taken their seats and a brief grace had been said, Molly glanced at the empty place to her right, noting that is was the only other setting on the table unoccupied.
‘Oh, my youngest son rarely eats with us,’ Lady Westminster answered her unspoken question. ‘His meals ever since he became of age usually consist of swiping sweets or toast from behind the Cook’s back. He claims digestion slows down his mental faculties.’
Molly stared at her in confused horror. All her instincts and training under her father cried out in protest at someone treating their body so abominably. ‘He must be ill quite often.’
Dr Watson snorted. ‘One would think so, but no. I don’t recall him coming down with anything worse than a bothersome cold in the nearly ten years of our acquaintance. A feat I find myself envying at times.’
‘Oh my,’ Molly said in surprise. ‘Remarkable.’
They all looked up to find the very man they were discussing striding boldly through the door.
‘Physical condition plays a large part in maintaining an optimal transport, as does avoiding at all costs the germ-infested children running about the streets of London,’ he drawled. Dr Watson rolled his eyes good-naturedly, while Lord and Lady Westminster simply sighed in resignation.
Sherlock smirked and went to pull out the chair next to Watson, then froze when he saw that the only other place setting was beside Molly. He glanced toward his mother in suspicion, but she simply sipped her water and blinked at him innocently. ‘Are you joining us, Sherlock?’
His nose twitched in annoyance and he turned toward Molly, who lifted her chin and glared at him in challenge. His eyes flashed in surprised amusement. Slowly, he rounded the table, pulling out the chair and dropping into it.
‘Miss Hooper, this unfortunately-mannered man is our youngest son, William Sherlock Scott Holmes. Sherlock, this is-’
‘Yes, yes,’ he cut off his father’s introduction with an impatient wave of his hand. ‘I’ve already met your old-maid of a ward, whom you conveniently neglected to mention previously.’
The detective jerked back at the three voices shouting at him simultaneously. Molly bit back a laugh at the completely bewildered look on his face. She would have felt offended at his barb, even though admittedly, in society’s eyes, she was an old maid at 24. But it was quickly becoming apparent he lacked any sort of verbal filter and only spoke the blatant truth. He didn’t realise his words could be construed as insulting. And he looked like a lost child who didn’t understand why he was in trouble. A bubble of laughter escaped her and he looked down at her incredulously.
Succumbing to her mirth, she wiped a tear that escaped and struggled to compose herself. Dr Watson watched with raised eyebrows and a bemused smile, while her guardians appraised her with something akin to admiration.
‘I’m terribly sorry,’ she sputtered breathlessly and sought to sober her laughter.
‘Are my apparently insulting, though correct, deductions amusing to you, Miss Hooper?’ He sneered.
Hiding her smile behind her napkin, Molly shook her head. ‘No, Mr Holmes.’
‘Are you usually caught in moments of hysteria at inopportune times?’
Molly’s hackles rose at his condescending tone and her mouth got away with her. ‘Not at all, I just have never met such a tall, well-dressed toddler and the juxtaposition struck me in an amusing way.’
Mr Holmes drew back as if slapped, his eyebrows raised. Around them, his parents and Watson were laughing and Molly could barely contain her smug grin. Oh, later she would feel embarrassed and awful about insulting a near stranger, the son of her guardians, but for now, she relished the gobsmacked look on his face.
Which was quickly replaced with a scowl. ‘I happen to be the World’s Only Consulting Detective,’ he said haughtily and not without a bit of defensiveness.
By now, Watson and the Holmeses were watching the banter between the two of them like spectators at a sporting event, and were all silently cheering on the surprisingly witty Miss Hooper.
‘Indeed,’ she murmured and sipped her water. She tried to appear nonchalant, but could not hide the spark of interest in her eyes at the strange word. ‘And are you quite certain about that? Surely someone else has come up with a similar idea elsewhere or at another time.’
Folding his arms over his chest, he actually pouted. ‘Impossible. I created the position myself.’
‘The position, or the title?’
‘Both! I created the position of Consulting Detective and, as such, there is none other in the world. In fact, I invented the word ‘detective’ as a title for the work I do: solving crimes through detection, deduction, and logic.’ His striking eyes narrowed and his pale cheeks were red with indignation.
‘Ah, but what if someone else has created the exact same position, but does not call himself a Consulting Detective. Would that not refute your claim to be the World’s Only?’ Molly grinned triumphantly. ‘After all, weren’t those who practiced medicine in different countries called many different titles? Healers, medics, philosophers of medicine, physician… and now doctors? One man himself cannot claim responsibility for the entire realm of practicing medicine, can he?’
His incredulous expression was all the victory she needed. Holding out the bowl of mash to him, she smiled sweetly and said, ‘Potatoes, Mr Holmes?’
‘Potatoes, Mr Holmes?’ Sherlock murmured mockingly as he stormed upstairs later that evening. Watson had already departed for London, leaving Sherlock at the estate to continue his investigation indefinitely. He had left with a cheeky grin and a hug for the irksome Miss Hooper, after regaling her with praises of putting Sherlock in his place.
The woman had the nerve to blush and stammer an apology for her improper manners, which had been waved off by everyone except for Sherlock. Apparently, he’d had it coming.
She had bit her lip in uncertainty, but said no more. Despite her bravado at the table, Sherlock noticed the tremor in her hand and the way her voice wavered slightly on the higher notes. She was nervous, intimidated perhaps, yet she had continued to be the very opposite of a quiet, seen-not-heard woman expected of the middle class.
Had he not been the target of her remarkable wit, he might very well have been impressed by her argument.
‘Enough!’ He shouted, trying to quiet his mind. Straight-arming his way into his room, he slammed the door shut behind him and immediately set about putting all thoughts of Miss Hooper away.
The woman was proving to be an intriguing enigma. One almost rivaling the case of the threats against his parents.
And it just wouldn’t do to become distracted.
Chapter 7: Boredom Sets In
Life with Sherlock Holmes running amuck was loud and chaotic. The quiet of the library pulled Molly in, an escape from the detective thundering through the halls and sending servants scuttling for cover. Molly quickly made the alcove against the far wall hers, stashing several books at a time on the plush cushion. It was there Mr Holmes found her, three days after the dinner incident, where she was curled up with a new book, A Modern Prometheus, a present from the Earl. So engrossed in the gripping tale, she failed to hear the door open and her peace interrupted until a booming baritone above her scared her from her reading.
‘Fiction? How utterly disappointing.’
Molly shrieked wholly unladylike in surprise and fumbled to keep hold of her book as she jolted upright. With the book clutched to her chest, she glared up at the smirking detective. She pointedly ignored how her heart raced at the sight, telling herself the man may be attractive, but he was an arrogant sot.
‘Mr Holmes,’ she bit out, forcing a smile. ‘I was not expecting you.’
‘Obviously,’ he drawled and flopped onto the seat, barely giving her time to move her feet out of the way. ‘I expected better of you than this drivel erroneously termed ‘literature’.’
‘And what makes you think this is drivel? Have you read it?’ She shifted her legs underneath her and adjusted her gown to cover her properly. With her finger in her spot, she closed the book and held it in her lap.
He rolled his eyes and sighed. ‘I have no desire to clutter my mind with anything other than scientific pursuits that will complement my work. Thus,’ he waved a hand toward the book. ‘I shall not demean my intelligence by reading such drivel. And considering your obvious somewhat-above-average intelligence, I expected the same of you.’
Molly opened her mouth to protest, then froze. Had he just….? ‘Did you just compliment me?’
Dropping his head back against the window, Mr Holmes inhaled deeply. ‘I… suppose. Though, it was entirely unintended.’
‘Well, thank you,’ Molly said dryly and lifted the book again. Casually opening to her marked page, she raised an eyebrow. ‘I would take offense at the rest, but since you have no idea what this book is about, you have no empirical evidence and your argument is invalid.’
Suddenly, the book was ripped out of her hands.
‘I beg your pardon!’ Molly leaned forward and scrambled to get it back.
‘Frankenstein; or A Modern Prometheus. No author named.’ Mr Holmes read from the inside cover, holding it just out of Molly’s reach. ‘And you would argue that this is literature?’
‘Though I have not quite finished the first volume of three, I believe that yes, it is.’ Molly finally was able to snatch it back and she held it safe against her chest.
‘Explain your argument.’
She frowned. ‘My argument?’
He raised his eyebrows in a sign of obvious frustration. Slowly, as if speaking to a child, he said, ‘Tell me why I should consider this book literature and not pointless drivel.’
‘Don’t you have something else to do? Terrorise the servants, perhaps?’
‘Bored. There is nothing left to do but... wait,’ he growled, as if the very thought of being patient was debilitating.
Molly furrowed her brow. ‘Wait for what?’
He froze, almost imperceptibly, for a second. Then, with a dismissive wave, he shifted to face her, curling his legs underneath him until he mirrored her position, but with his hands steepled and placed under his chin, his face expectant.
‘Go ahead, Miss Hooper. I’m awaiting your explanation.’
Narrowing her eyes, Molly straightened her back. He was evading her question, but had proposed a challenge, expecting her to fail. And she would not give him that satisfaction.
When he had reached a dead end in his investigations into the staff, Sherlock had locked himself away for a time in the old cottage at the edge of the estate that served as his makeshift laboratory. But it had been many years since he’d used it and there were pitifully few experiments to run that did not involve fire and potentially burning it down… again. And if there was one thing he didn’t want, it was Mummy taking him to task for inadvertent arson like she’d done when he was fourteen.
But when he’d wandered into the library intent on browsing his mother’s latest additions to her mathematics collection to alleviate his boredom while waiting for new developments, the last person he’d expected to find was Miss Molly Hooper.
She was engrossed in a book and had not even noticed him until he stood over her. He read a few sentences over her shoulder and resisted the urge to sneer, just barely. Fiction. Pure, gratuitous fiction.
Now sitting across from her as she animatedly sung the praises of the book he’d derided, he found himself bemused at the woman before him. She was the daughter of a praised doctor, her upbringing middle class, clearly a woman who has worked alongside her father in his practice. Her manners were practiced, not impeccable, but clearly something she had been taught from a young age. If she were any other middle class woman, he would expect her to be constantly bemoaning her unmarried status or sitting primly on the settee in the sitting room and sipping tea while discussing the benefits of cross-stitching.
Yet here she sat, tucked away in an alcove with a book in her hand and a pile of his parent’s scientific books stacked on the floor. Her hair was coming undone from its loose chignon and her cheeks were flushed from indignation. Her beauty itself was unremarkable, simple and her face unpainted, but her brown eyes were bright and her gaze danced across the room as she spoke. Her hands, small, were somewhat calloused on the fingertips and she gestured somewhat awkwardly, as if she didn’t know quite how to use her limbs.
And he felt compelled to admit, albeit begrudgingly, that her argument for the book was moderately convincing. Not that he would agree, but he would concede that the book held merit; a young scientist determined to piece together body parts and create sentient life from a dead corpse. Yes, despite his misgivings of fiction, he found the concept quite intriguing. Once this threat-business was over, perhaps he would take a day and determine for himself if the book was worthwhile.
He tilted his head as she continued speaking.
And perhaps Miss Hooper, as well.
Chapter 8: Experiments in Falling
Three days later
‘Blast it all!’
Molly bolted upright at the shout, her cup clattering to the table.
‘Stupid, infernal laws of bloody physics!’
She jumped up from her seat on the patio as Mr Holmes came running across the yard, a dressing gown flapping about him and his curls in disarray. The suit underneath was covered in soot and seemed to be smoking in places. As he raced up the stairs, Molly nearly stumbled back in surprise when he immediately strode up to her and towered over her like a great, smoking thundercloud. His cheekbones were polished with ash and his eyes were wild. His chest heaved and sweat dripped down his temples, as he snarled, ‘Just what exactly do you find so humorous, Miss Hooper?’
Unaware that she was smiling widely, Molly quickly schooled her features and pulled her lips back to prevent the laughter bubbling up from escaping.
His eyes narrowed at her. ‘Well? What do you have to say?’
‘Would you care for some tea, Mr Holmes?’ She smiled and blinked her eyes innocently.
‘What I would care for, Miss Hooper, is for you not to find humour at my expense when I have nearly just lost my life!’ He snapped, scrubbing the soot from his face.
‘Oh?’ Immediately, concern swept over her and she found herself stepping toward him, her hand outstretched. He eyed her warily and she pulled her arm back, wringing her hands together.
‘Those preposterous curtains my mother insists on hanging in my laboratory ‘to shield the sights of my grotesque experiments from prying eyes,’’ he pitched his voice high and waved his hand in an overdone mimicry of his mother’s swoon. His scowl returned and he began rubbing his other cheek. ‘Ready kindling, if you ask me. One flare from the burner and it all nearly went up in flames!’
Relieved, Molly rolled her eyes. ‘Did you not think to just take them down? As a scientist,’ she paused and looked him over dubiously. ‘An amateur scientist, even you are sensible enough to value safety over decor.’
He paused in his scrubbing and shot her a dirty look. ‘I am a graduate chemist, Miss Hooper, hardly an amateur,’ he growled.
‘But not a sensible one, obviously’ she retorted, hands on her hips. ‘Else you would have removed the curtains; I’m sure your mother would rather you live than inflict the sights of your experiments upon the world. Or you could learn to use a burner properly, a graduate chemist would know not to let the concentration of gas get too high and cause a flare.’
Mr Holmes gaped at her and blinked rapidly, his mouth parted slightly in surprise.
Molly flushed under his stare, suddenly realising that she may have been too audacious. Meekly, she stepped back and bowed her head. ‘Forgive me, I seem to have let my tongue run away from me.’
‘No, no, it’s…’ Mr Holmes seemed at a loss for the words that came too easily for Molly. She glanced up to see him staring at her, his eyes narrowed as he assessed her. ‘You appear to be at least moderately knowledgeable of the sciences. And since Watson has abandoned me for wife and family, I find myself lacking an assistant.’
It was Molly’s turn to blink in surprise. ‘Assistant?’
‘For my experiments,’ he explained. ‘Watson was never one much for the hands-on, but he did in a pinch. But you obviously have significant medical experience and sufficient scientific expertise. Which might prove to be most convenient, even if it means having to work with you.’ His nose twitched in annoyance. ‘Well, what say you? Do you accept the position?’
Feeling very much on uneven footing, Molly opened and closed her mouth several times. She frowned and tried to find the words to refuse the arrogant sot. But she was instinctively curious and had a keen desire to be back in a laboratory. Working with Sherlock Holmes might be the only way she could have that in this new world in which she found herself.
Before she could even take a breath to accept, he broke into a beaming smile, his unnatural exuberance striking fear into her heart. ‘Wonderful!’
‘You didn’t need to say anything, it was obvious you were going to accept. Now, let’s not waste any more time, I wish for us to begin immediately.’
He spun on his heel, the dressing gown billowing out around him, and immediately strode back toward the laboratory. Molly stared after him, too stunned to move. When he noticed she wasn’t following, he shouted over his shoulder, ‘Don’t dawdle, Miss Hooper, we’ve experiments to conduct!’
His excitement was infectious and Molly found herself smiling back, her feet carrying her down the stairs. Together, they raced across the lawn like two children.
When the door to the laboratory had slammed shut behind them, Violet Holmes stepped out onto the veranda. A clattering sounded from the lab followed by Molly’s strict tone telling Sherlock that under no circumstances would she work with him until they’d cleaned the decade-old accumulation of mess.
A knowing smile spread across Violet’s face.
And so the summer passed with no further sign of danger. Sherlock’s restlessness in the stalled investigation and waiting for a break in the case was alleviated only by the enigma of Molly Hooper. She had become his regular assistant in the lab, her intelligence proving to be above that of most men, and Sherlock was rightfully impressed. Although, he could do without her insistence on cleanliness.
He had never imagined a woman such as Miss Hooper existed. Though she lacked the innate grace and habits of a gentlewoman, her kindness and intelligence more than compensated. She took Sherlock’s bad moods with a patient understanding and gave him the silence he craved when his mind overwhelmed him. Before he knew it, Miss Hooper had become his right hand and his conscience.
It was these… odd feelings for her that were a different matter. They came upon him rather suddenly.
They had been sitting in their alcove on a midsummer’s afternoon. Rain poured steadily outside and they had retreated from the dank laboratory for the dry warmth of the library. Miss Hooper was curled around the final volume of Frankenstein, reading it for the second time, while Sherlock drifted into his thoughts, steepling his hands beneath his chin.
Without either realising it, several hours had passed. Then, Miss Hooper broke the silence with a contented sigh and closed the book, leaning her head against the window.
Attuned to her subconsciously, Sherlock was pulled out of his thoughts and he blinked his eyes open to find her contemplating him.
‘Where do you go?’
He frowned. ‘What do you mean?’
She smiled shyly. ‘When you’re thinking. You do it so often, I wonder if there’s a specific thought pulling you back constantly.’
Sherlock averted his gaze to stare at the rain-drenched veranda below. ‘I’m afraid there are too many thoughts running through my mind to choose just one.’
‘Oh.’ She bit her lip. ‘It must be very noisy in there then.’
He looked back at her and said cryptically, ‘Not so much recently, but yes, it usually is. Everything I see is deduced and appropriately catalogued or discarded.’
Miss Hooper was silent for a moment, tucking a strand of hair back that had fallen from her loose chignon. ‘Catalogued?’ She ventured hesitantly.
Sherlock hesitated before admitting, ‘In my… Mind Palace.’
Her eyes widened.
‘It is my memory system,’ he explained with a wave of his hand. ‘Without organisation and deleting extraneous information, my mind would drive me to the edge of insanity and push me over.’
‘A… Mind Palace,’ she tested the words. Her head tilted in thought as she tried to understand. Sherlock braced himself for the moment she shook it off as one more eccentricity or finally looked at him for the freak he was.
Suddenly leaning forward, she smiled up at him and said, ‘It sounds lovely. Will you tell me about it?’
He blinked at her in surprise. ‘You… you do not think it is strange?’ All his life, apart from his family, people had mocked him for his intelligence, his deductions unwelcome and his genius feared. He had not expected the same of Miss Hooper, but was surprised by the pure interest shining in her eyes, no sign of uneasiness whatsoever.
‘Of course not! If it’s anything like I’m imagining it to be, it must be wonderful!’ She exclaimed.
A burden he hadn’t known he’d been carrying rolled off his shoulders. Her smile was like the sun, unfettered and shining in the darkest places, pulling him out of his cold loneliness. He found himself beaming back at her, a warmth suffusing his heart. The resistance he’d put up around his heart was being broken down by her little by little.
And it both terrified and exhilarated him.
Chapter 9: Dancing Around Our Feelings
Molly turned this way and that in front of the mirror, worrying her lip. ‘It’s so extravagant, my lady. Surely there’s something a little less…’ She trailed off and looked dubiously at her guardian’s reflection over her shoulder.
The Countess placed her hands on Molly’s shoulders and shook her gently, grinning. ‘You look lovely, Molly. Indulge me for tonight.’
‘If you’re sure,’ Molly sighed and acquiesced, though her brow remained furrowed. The gown was a rich burgundy trimmed with satin and tied back under her bust with a simple ribbon. The capped sleeves and wide collar were studded with soft pearls and a single pearl pendant rested against her clavicle. Ivory gloves went to her the middle of her upper arms. Janine had already come in and done up Molly’s long hair in an elaborate braid and wrapped it in a bun-shape high on her head; tendrils of hair escaped, softly framing her face.
As she stared back at herself, she couldn’t help feeling that she was a child playing dress-up in her mother’s gowns.
A knock on the door interrupted her musings. Lady Westminster opened the door to let Edwards enter.
‘The carriage is ready, my lady.’
‘You’re going, Holmes, and that’s all there is to it!’
Sherlock didn’t even have time to open his mouth in protest before Watson tossed his coattails at him. He spat out the fabric and glowered at the doctor. ‘Why?’
‘It is Miss Hooper’s first ball, her introduction to society, and as her friend, you need to be there for her!’ Watson huffed.
Sherlock pouted at the clothes in his arms. ‘But there will be so many people there,’ he whined.
Rolling his eyes, Watson moved behind him and began pushing him toward his bedroom. ‘Go! You’re already an hour late.’
‘Fine.’ In defeat, the detective cast a deadly glare at his friend and slammed the door. Tugging off his dressing gown, he shouted through the door. ‘But I refuse to be happy about it!’
From the other side, Watson rubbed his temple and grumbled, ‘When are you ever?’
He knew this was a bad idea. Sherlock shrank back into the corner and tried to find Miss Hooper in the throng of people. He had spent the past decade avoiding these blasted things. If he wasn’t being flirted with by the bevy of women and their mothers looking for a wealthy match, the men were trying to one up the Great Detective and it all inevitably ended with them angry and Sherlock ducking out to avoid being attacked.
So far, he’d avoided both, but it was only a matter of time based on the looks he was receiving from people passing by.
He had very nearly given up seeing Miss Hooper at all until a flash of familiar brown hair caught his eye. He straightened and smiled in triumph when he recognised her as she excused herself and slipped out onto the veranda.
He automatically followed her, nudging people out of his way without thought. Finally breaking free into the cool night air, he took a moment to watch her as she leaned against the railing, her back to him, and took a centring breath.
Her gown was an alluring red with white lace decorating the décolletage and draped over her curves in a more womanly fashion than any of her other dresses. He found himself swallowing nervously as his gaze travelled up the curve of her neck, the milky white skin flawless in the moonlight. His mouth went dry and his palms were suddenly slick.
Affection wasn’t a foreign emotion to him. He loved his mother and father, and at times even Mycroft, and was deeply fond of Watson and his wife. But what he was finally starting to admit he felt toward Molly was much different, it was a conglomeration of an entire range of emotions, from protectiveness to shyness, from comfort to desire.
Desire was not a strange sentiment, either; he was a functioning male, after all. But his desire for Miss Hooper went beyond flesh. He wanted to be with her constantly, to see her eyes dance with laughter whenever he set fire to an experiment, to hear her argue in favour of those ridiculous fiction books she adored, and to just be in her presence to calm his racing mind.
Some might call it love, but Sherlock would not quantify it as such. Not yet, at least. But his natural curiosity was beginning to override his fears and he found he was more than willing to let the sentiment take him where it may.
Hiding his nervousness behind an indifferent mask, he clasped his hands behind his back and cleared his throat.
The loud chatter and throngs of people pressing in was beginning to overwhelm Molly. She politely smiled at the conversation around her, all the while desperately seeking an escape without causing undue rudeness. She was endlessly grateful to the Holmeses for their kindness and generosity, but right now, her first ball where she had been introduced to the ton, she suddenly felt every ounce the ugly duckling trying desperately to fit in and hating herself for it. She was confident in herself and all her eccentricities. But looking around at the beautiful women twirling by, their hair coiffed to perfection and their gowns floating about them, Molly felt she absolutely faded into the wallpaper, despite her beautiful dress. The pins pulling her hair back in an elaborate, curled updo were beginning to give her a headache, and she feared the possibility of someone asking her to dance. The Holmeses had given her lessons, of course, but to dance in front of these people!
The very thought made her feel faint.
‘If you’ll pardon me,’ she interrupted the conversation, curtsying and hastily removing herself from the room. People jostled into her as she tried to find an exit. Finally breaking out onto the veranda, she took in a deep, shaking breath of the cool night air.
The raucous laughter and music faded as she leaned against the railing and tried to relax. She did not want to disappoint her guardians, especially not after all they had done for her. She loved them dearly, but did not think they would understand just how out of place she felt in their world.
A sudden loneliness swept over her. Her burdens were hers to bear alone; her father was falling into the clutches of his illness and did not need to worry about his daughter and her trifles. She had no friends to speak of and from the disdain in the gazes of the women here tonight, she would not likely make any.
And the one person she wanted to be here most of all hadn’t come. Though, to be fair, a social gathering would be the last place she’d expect Sherlock Holmes to be without a nice murder on the side. But she would have liked to have one more familiar face among the sea of aristocratic strangers.
A sad smile crossed her face. Their odd friendship was perfect in so many ways. Experiments, arguments, bickering over proper lab etiquette, and the excited stumbling over each other as they discussed popular and emerging scientific discoveries. But as the summer had passed, Molly found herself feeling something deeper than friendship for the detective. Never having been in love before, she wasn’t sure, but it definitely felt like all the books had described it: the yearning for his presence, the desire flooding her body when he looked at her, the tumbling in her abdomen when he smiled, the joy that overwhelmed her when he confided in her.
But she was realistic above all else and Sherlock Holmes was not the marrying kind. So, she forced down her romantic notions and took a deep, cleansing breath.
Suddenly, someone cleared their throat behind her.
Gasping, she whirled about to find Mr Holmes standing in the doorway, his hands clasped behind his back. His suit was tailored tight to his body and his curls were left unruly, bouncing around his head as he stepped closer, the moonlight playing over his face. Molly’s heart raced when his eyes flashed in the light, locked on her.
‘I didn’t consider you to be one for balls, Mr Holmes.’ she commented when he made no move to greet her.
‘Normally, I make every attempt to avoid the damn things. But it being your introduction to the ton, I felt I should attend.’ Was it a trick of the light or were the tips of his ears dark?
Molly bit her lip to hide her pleased smile. ‘Then I must thank you for your sacrifice. I’m sure there are plenty of other things you could be doing instead of suffering here on my account. Setting fire to the laboratory, for example.’
He smiled briefly before sobering, looking away for a moment. ‘I must admit something, Miss Hooper.’
She gulped. ‘Oh?’
‘Yes, you see, I have an ulterior motive for coming tonight.’
Molly waited with bated breath, her heart pounding.
He inhaled deeply… ‘It’s the dancing. I’ve always loved to dance, since I was a child. And I couldn’t bear to pass up another opportunity to do so, even if it meant dealing with the ton.’
A rush of disappointment came over her. Forcing a small laugh, Molly looked down and twisted her fingers together. ‘I admit, I would never have guessed.’
‘I say this because…’ he swallowed and his gaze darted about. ‘...I was wondering if you would like to… dance. With me, that is.’
Molly inhaled sharply, her cheeks flushing. He stepped into her space and she tilted her head back to look up at him.
‘Do you, Miss Hooper?’ His face was devoid of emotion, but as Molly searched for… something to convince her of his sincerity, she caught the hesitance in his eyes, the slightly lost look of a little boy looking for acceptance.
A smile creased her face and an answering, relieved grin broke across his. ‘I would love to.’
To her surprise, instead of leading her back into the dance hall, he held out his hand. With a smile, she slipped her hand into his and he immediately swept her into a gentle waltz right there on the veranda.
‘Oh,’ she exclaimed breathlessly and tried to calm her suddenly racing heart. Mr Holmes chuckled as she stumbled the first few steps, but then she easily fell into the pattern, not even hesitating to trust his leading.
‘You are a natural,’ he commented after a few minutes.
Molly blushed under his praise. ‘Thank you, Mr Holmes.’
A furrow appeared in his brow and their steps became more lethargic. ‘I… think perhaps it’s time you called me just ‘Sherlock’,’ he said softly.
Molly inhaled sharply and they slowly came to a stop. His eyes were shadowed in the dark, but the moonlight danced across his face. He looked worn and vulnerable, no longer the cold, heartless detective. No, the Sherlock Holmes before her was now just a man. Perhaps a man who felt something for her… like she felt for him.
Her pounding heart, Molly took a deep breath. ‘Only if you call me Molly.’
His fearful expression gave way to a beaming smile. ‘Very well, Molly.’
Hearing her name in his deep, gravelly baritone sent a shiver down Molly’s spine. Sherlock’s smile deepened knowingly when he felt her reaction and she lifted her chin defiantly.
‘I thought we were dancing, Sherlock.’ He blushed at his name falling from her lips. She raised an eyebrow, biting back her laughter as he blushed darker when he realised they had indeed stopped dancing altogether. ‘Or have you suddenly forgotten how to?’
‘Entirely too cheeky,’ he mumbled fondly as he began guiding them about the veranda once more.
Timothy glanced out the window and grinned at the sight of his son dancing with Molly on the veranda, shy, smitten smiles on their faces. He turned and sent his wife a subtle wink across the room. She smiled indulgently before returning to her conversation, but with a slightly smug air about her.
Timothy shook his head fondly, before returning to his own conversation, puffing his pipe heartily.
Chapter 10: The Game Continues
Sherlock found that he was now actually enjoying himself at this, albeit overcrowded, ball. The overwhelming inundation of information that usually assaulted him during these public events was shockingly minimal. Oh, the flitting deductions about each person were still there, but they were not bombarding him, hounding him until the roar of his mind drove him to seek solitude. No, tonight the rushing river had become a gentle stream and instead of sweeping him away in a sea of information, it moved around him in a gentle flow.
Not without his brilliance still, he knew it was because of the woman at his side. Her presence seemed to instil a serenity in his mind that he’d never experienced before even with the purest of substances in his youth. His mind focused on her, cataloguing her smiles, her somewhat improper sense of humour, the way she would cast her eyes in his direction shyly and the blush that rose along her neck and up her cheeks when he caught her.
It took longer for his blush to fade than hers when it was she who caught him staring.
‘Mr Holmes, it’s good to see you!’
Gregory Lestrade, a Principal Officer with the Bow Street Runners, approached with a boyish grin on his tanned face, interrupting Sherlock’s thoughts. He nodded at the older man in greeting.
‘And who is this lovely woman?’ Lestrade turned his gaze to Molly and his smile brightened. Sherlock felt a strange tightness in his chest at the blatant interest in the widowed man’s eyes and the flustered smile on Molly’s face.
‘Mr Lestrade, may I present Miss Marguerite Hooper,’ Sherlock said hastily and waved a hand between them. ‘Mo-Miss Hooper, Mr Graham Lestrade.’
‘Gregory,’ Lestrade corrected off-handedly, lifting Molly’s gloved hand to his lips. ‘Poor chap, he never gets it right.’
Sherlock rolled his eyes, sure Molly would see right through Lestrade’s flirtatious ways. But, of all things, she actually giggled, her eyes sparkling. A strange, tight feeling gathered in his stomach. Worry and… was this jealousy? Unacceptable. It wouldn’t do for another man to make a play for Molly’s affections. Especially not when he’d only just decided to pursue her.
Surprised, and somewhat unsettled, by his thoughts, he cleared his throat and glared at the older man. ‘How are things down at Bow Street, George? Bumbling along without me to solve your crimes?’
Lestrade frowned. ‘Actually, we’re doing quite well on our own. It might surprise you to know that the Bow Street Runners have been solving crimes without you for nigh on seventy years and doing a fine job.’
Sherlock sighed dramatically. ‘And yet, you still call on me when you’re out of your depth. I fear to see the crime rates from these past few months without me.’
‘If you care so much, then move back to London,’ Lestrade huffed, his chivalrous bravado falling.
‘Unfortunately for you, I’m in the midst of a case right now,’ Sherlock said casually and brushed the wrinkles from the front of his tailcoat.
Sherlock blinked and looked between Molly and Lestrade, who were both staring at him in surprise. ‘Yes, I am. Threats have been made against my family and I have been working on finding the culprit.’
Molly’s eyes widened and she gasped, laying her hand on his arm. ‘What? Are your parents okay?’
‘Why didn’t you come to me?’ Lestrade demanded to know, abandoning all light-heartedness. ‘I could offer your family protection and help you find this person.’
Sherlock’s face contorted in derision. ‘I do not need your assistance. Mycroft has sent two of his best and I’ve made significant progress without being hindered by the floundering of your men. In fact, by this time next week, I expect to have found not only the accomplice but the culprit and will deliver them to you… with a few minor delays.’
‘Holmes, that is not how the law works,’ Lestrade glowered.
‘You’ll get them in the end, Lestrade,’ Sherlock waved his warnings off. ‘I have conceded to their demands thus far, but it’s only a matter of time before they realise I’m still on their tail. And then, they’ll inevitably make a panicked mistake. Sloppy and disappointing.’
‘Mr Holmes, if Mr Lestrade could help…?’ Molly beseeched him with concern written across her face. Sherlock rolled his eyes.
‘I have no need of his help, I’m more than capable of catching these idiots on my own. They wanted to play a game and then they cannot keep up.’
As Molly and Lestrade listened with worrisome hearts, Sherlock continued expounding his greatness, heedless of the danger he was now inflicting on his family. For not a few steps away stood a strange man, leaning against the mantel, a glass of wine in his hand. People flitted about him, but his attention was fixed on the tall detective. His brows lowered as the detective spouted his arrogance and an unholy rage filled him.
‘You want a game, Sherlock Holmes?’ He sipped his wine, a dangerous glint in his black eyes. ‘Let’s play.’
Chapter 11: The Rings That Bind Us
The Next Day
Violet had just finished sealing her weekly letter to Anthea and Mycroft when a knock sounded on the door.
‘Come in!’ She called, blowing on the wax to cool it. She turned around as the door opened and smiled upon seeing her youngest son.
‘Mother, I…’ He hesitated in the doorway, his hands clasped behind his back, and his gaze firmly planted on the floor.
Violet set the letter down and walked over to her son, concerned. ‘What is it, my love?’
He swallowed and rubbed the back of his neck almost… nervously. Violet watched as a blush rose up his cheeks and spread across his face to his ears.
‘I came to a decision last night after the ball and I wonder if I might inquire about the state of…’ He cleared his throat and looked everywhere but at her. ‘...Grandmother’s ring?’
Her eyebrows shot up. ‘Oh?’ A smug smile teased the corners of her lips, but she valiantly held it back.
Sherlock lifted his chin and took a deep breath. ‘I wish to ask Miss Hooper’s father for permission to court her. I believe my suit will be aided by the ring, as a sign of my sincere request.’
Tears stung Violet’s eyes. She cupped his cheeks, finally letting her full, beaming smile shine. ‘My Sherlock. Oh, I’m so proud of you.’
‘Mother, please.’ He looked almost panicked at the sight of her tears.
Gently patting his cheeks, Violet turned away to compose herself. ‘Oh, she is a darling child. I’m so happy for the both of you.’ She couldn’t help the wobble in her voice as she walked over to her jewellery case and lifted the wooden lid. Nestled in a secret compartment in the back, her mother’s ruby and gold betrothal ring lay, waiting for a day she thought would never come.
The simple, elegant ring had been a treasured possession of her mother’s, a kind woman who reminded Violet of Molly. She had been soft-spoken, but with a backbone of steel.
Holding the ring reverently, Violet held it out to her son. ‘Treasure her, Sherlock. For she is precious.’
He nodded and took the ring, tucking it into the inner pocket of his jacket. With a kiss to her cheek, he left the room.
Violet stared after him, her heart nearly full to bursting. She had known from the moment she had met Molly that the young woman was unique. And after that first dinner where she saw just how much Molly challenged Sherlock, intrigued him, Violet knew that the two of them were more than compatible. It had only been a matter of time and patience (and a smidgen of meddling) as they stumbled around each other, before their friendship blossomed and gave way to the roots of love.
...it turned out that the cabby was behind it all along, yet he died the day before he was to be tried. Natural causes. Remarkable, isn’t it, Papa? Such an incredible mystery! Mr Holmes has said that it was the first time Dr Watson accompanied him on a case.
A knock on the door interrupted Daniel’s reading and he looked up from Molly’s letter.
‘Come in,’ he said hoarsely.
The nurse entered and said, ‘Mr Holmes to see you, Dr Hooper.’
Surprised, Daniel took off his spectacles. ‘Oh, please, show him in.’
The detective strode past the nurse without any further ado and stuck out his hand. Daniel blinked in surprise at the brusque entrance, but took it in stride, shaking his hand. ‘Mr Holmes, good of you to stop by.’
‘Doctor Hooper,’ Sherlock nodded.
‘Please sit down.’ Daniel gestured toward the chair beside the bed, the one Molly always sat in when she read to him. Mr Holmes seemed hesitant to sit, but did so anyway, his leg bouncing and his fingers drumming on his knees. Daniel took pity on the man and said, ‘Would you like to continue with the unnecessary formalities or would you care to cut right to the point and tell me what has you in a strop?’
Mr Holmes stilled. ‘I see now where Molly’s forthrightness comes from.’
‘Indeed,’ Daniel smiled.
Taking a deep breath, Mr Holmes reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a small, cloth satchel. Upending it into his palm, Daniel watched as a beautiful ruby ring fell out.
‘I would like to court your daughter. With the intention of marriage… at the end.’ Mr Holmes seemed to almost stumble over the words, as if they were foreign.
Less surprised than he would have expected to have been, Daniel looked at him closely. The man tried to appear casual, yet determined, but Daniel could see the uncertainty beneath the bravado. His hand shook slightly and an almost panicked look crossed his face when Daniel took too long to speak.
‘My Charlotte made me promise just one thing before she passed: that our Molly would be happy, that her life would be filled with joy and love and adventure, free from the expectations society has put upon her.’
Mr Holmes lowered his hand with a questioning gaze.
‘My daughter cares deeply for you, Mr Holmes.’ Daniel looked down at the letter in his hand. ‘I hear her admiration when she speaks of you, I can read the growing roots of love in the way she writes of you in her letters. My Molly is a rational girl and I’m sure will accept what you offer for society’s sake, but she deserves to be courted and wooed, her heart won. She deserves to be loved. Can you tell me, honestly, that you love her?’
The young man seemed surprised by Daniel’s speech and looked down for a moment in thought. ‘I can honestly say that I will… try. I do not have a great deal of experience in matters of the heart. Until recently, I wasn’t even sure I was in possession of one, let alone how to love with it.’
Daniel furrowed his brow. ‘And now?’
Swallowing, Mr Holmes said, ‘I will learn.’ He looked up, his eyes no longer uncertain but filled with determination. ‘For her.’
Daniel considered him for a moment. ‘Will you promise me that you will never stop learning and never stop trying to love her?’
Staring at him unwaveringly, Mr Holmes nodded. ‘I promise.’
‘Then,’ Daniel said with a contented sigh, ‘I am happy to give my consent.’
Mr Holmes tucked away the ring and stood, reaching out to shake Daniel’s hand. ‘Thank you, sir.’
‘Good day.’ Mr Holmes bid him farewell and whirled about to leave, but before he was halfway to the door, Daniel called out to him.
‘There is one thing I would ask of you, though.’
The detective turned back and watched as the doctor reached toward the other side of the bed and picked up a leather-bound journal from the table. It was clearly old, the edges worn and the cover showing signs of age and staining.
‘I want Molly to have this… after I’m gone.’ Daniel rested a shaky hand on the cover. ‘It’s my personal journal. Please… see that she gets it.’
Mr Holmes took it with a firm nod and stiff bow. Then swept from the room with a swiftness Daniel envied.
Staring after him, Daniel sighed with a knowing smile. ‘Well, Charlotte, my love. It seems our Molly will be more than taken care of when I’ve gone. She will be loved. It’s just a matter of waiting for that boy to realise it.’
Chapter 12: The Ride of the Pirates
Sherlock was not one for frivolous metaphors and clichéd sayings. Until now. The ring had been in his pocket for nearly a week now and it burned him. Oh, not literally. But knowing it was there made the burden of carrying it heavier and heavier on his mind until it felt like fire.
Every time he had opened his mouth to propose, all his panic and doubts stole the words from his mouth. His mind would race and he would lose his resolve. Was he making a mistake? Hadn’t he always believed sentiment to be a weakness? How had she managed to break down his mental barriers?
Then Molly would do or say something, look at him with those beautiful brown eyes shining with intelligence and suddenly all his doubts would be silenced.
And he was determined today to get it over with. So he had invited her to go horseback riding with him, thinking it would be a suitably romantic stroll along the estate’s border and he could assist her down, the perfect excuse to touch her. Then he would take her hand, drop to his knee and propose. Foolproof.
But his entire plan went out the window when Molly entered the stables wearing loose trousers and a white tunic under a tailored jacket with her hair bound in a loose braid. All thoughts fled his mind as Sherlock gaped at her. She blushed under his stare and said, ‘Your mother insisted that these are okay, as long as I stay on the property.’
He gulped and nodded dumbly. ‘Right.’
A dimple appeared in her cheek as she held back a smile. ‘Ready to go?’
She giggled and he shook himself out of his shock, his cheeks tinged red in embarrassment.
‘Your horses, Mr Holmes, Miss Hooper.’ A stable hand approached them, guiding a saddled Barbarossa and strange red mare by their harnesses. Sherlock took a moment and deduced the tall man. His hair was light brown and curly, his ill-fitting jacket hid a well-muscled physique and his eyes were sharp and observant. Ah, one of Mycroft’s covert operatives. Impressive, it had taken Sherlock less than a day to deduce the other man, a footman who had not quite mastered the art of ‘subtlety’. But this man had worked unnoticed even under Sherlock’s eagle eyes for almost four months. He was impressed.
‘Thank you, Tom,’ Molly smiled sweetly.
Tom grinned widely at her and his pulse jumped in his throat, admiration for the young woman in his eyes.
Then again, maybe not. Sherlock scowled and yanked the harness from the man’s hand and shooed him away.
‘Would you like me to assist you up?’ He offered Molly with a bright smile, eager to show her his prowess as a rider.
To his great surprise, and slight dismay, Molly shook her head and, in one smooth motion, mounted her horse gracefully. She reached down and brushed a soothing hand along the horse’s neck, murmuring a soft hello. The mare neighed and Sherlock swore it smirked at him.
‘This horse is yours?’ He gaped.
She looked back at him, her braid flicking over her shoulder. ‘Your parents gave her to me.’
A tinge of pink touched her cheeks. ‘I call her Jacquotte. We ride every so often, usually in the morning.’
Sherlock hefted himself atop Barbarossa, trying to keep his racing heart and smile to himself. ‘I’m more of a night rider myself. I don’t sleep much and a ride with Barbarossa calms my mind.’
‘Barbarossa?’ She raised her eyebrows and her eyes widened. ‘Would he happen to be named after a certain pirate?’
He smirked. ‘You need ask? You, who I deduce named your horse after Jacquotte Delahaye.’
‘Ah, a man who knows his pirates. I’m impressed,’ she said. With a smile, she nudged Jacquotte into a trot and they left the stables.
Sherlock drew up to her side, impressed at her impeccable form. He deduced that she had ridden as a child, but it seemed she had been trained properly, her back straight and heels down, no regard for society’s expectations of a lady sitting side-saddle. Clearly the work of his mother.
His chest puffed out in pride and his doubts vanished for the moment. If he had to fall for someone, he was most certainly glad it was Molly Hooper.
Tom watched Miss Hooper ride out, quickly followed by Mr Holmes, with a small amount of disappointment. He knew it was foolish to harbour romantic notions for a woman he had been hired to protect. If Mycroft Holmes ever got wind of his unprofessional thoughts, he’d be reassigned to the bowels of London. But her kindness pulled him toward her, her soft beauty a jewel shining in the midst of the socialites’ made-up faces. If he were a greater man, he would waste not a moment in asking for her hand. But he would have to be content with her friendship and protecting her, for he knew her heart belonged to someone else. A man who, Tom believed, did not deserve her.
Sighing, he turned back to his duties and began the process of brushing down the remaining horses. His thoughts so consumed with Miss Hooper and Mr Holmes, he didn’t hear the sound of the stable door gently latching shut or the soft footsteps coming closer.
It wasn’t until he heard a strange metallic scraping sound that he raised his head, immediately on alert.
Standing on the other side of the horse, a man with black hair slicked back, his eyes just as black, stared at him. The man clucked his tongue and shook his head.
‘Tommy, Tommy, Tommy,’ he murmured in an Irish lilt.
Tom froze in the process of brushing and frowned, his hand going behind his back to grip his pistol. ‘Can I help you, sir?’
The man sighed and walked around the horse. Tom flicked his gaze to the jewel-encrusted stiletto in the man’s hand, a sharpening stone in the other. He took a step back, his eyes narrowing as he instinctively read the man’s intentions.
‘I do so hate to get my hands dirty.’
Chapter 13: And So It Begins...
Warnings for slightly gruesome description of death.
Molly glanced back at Sherlock as their horses trotted along the edge of the Holmeses’ land, having almost made a complete circuit around the property in silence. He seemed to be deep in thought, a frown line appearing between his brows.
Knowing better than to interrupt him, Molly turned her attention back to the beautiful scenery around them. Autumn was in its full glory. The trees were painted in stunning hues of gold and red, the setting sun skimming across the tops. It was early enough in the season that the air was still warm, but the promise of chill clung to the breeze.
‘Molly, there is something I wish to discuss with you.’
She looked over to find that Sherlock had come out of his Mind Palace and pulled up beside her, a serious frown on his face. Tugging lightly on the reins, she slowed Jacquotte to a stop.
‘Is everything all right, Mist-I mean, Sherlock?’ Molly flushed at her fumble.
If anything, his frown deepened at her stumble. ‘You are not comfortable with the intimacy of calling me by my Christian name.’
It wasn’t a question. Molly ducked her head and nudged Jacquotte back into a slow trot. ‘Not quite.’
‘Do you regret offering me the privilege?’ He followed her lead and they continued their ride.
‘No!’ She looked over at him, eyes wide. ‘It’s just…’
Sherlock watched her carefully. She bit her lip, unsure of how to phrase the biggest doubt that choked her. Facing forward, she took a deep breath and admitted, ‘Why?’
He blinked. ‘Why… what?’
‘Why are we calling each other by our Christian names?’ Bravely, she lifted her chin and looked at him. ‘Most would consider such a privilege shared between an unmarried man and an unmarried woman highly improper, impertinent, really, if not downright scandalous.’
‘Yes, they would.’ He agreed with a nod. ‘And though usually I would disagree with society’s expectations, in this case, I-’
His explanation was cut off, to Molly’s surprise and Sherlock’s complete aggravation, by an ear-splitting scream. The looked ahead to see a woman racing away from the stables.
‘Help! Somebody call the constable!’
Sherlock immediately kicked Barbarossa into a gallop, Molly quick on his heels. They made it to the stables just as two footmen ran inside, armed with pistols. Sherlock dismounted and rushed in after them, freezing not two steps inside.
Molly was right behind him, but before she could see what was going on, Sherlock had turned around and caught her by the arms. ‘Molly, no. Get out. Now.’ His voice was strained and his face was completely white.
‘Sherlock?’ Molly’s heart raced and she tried to see past him, but he easily blocked her view.
‘We need to clear the scene, Mr Holmes,’ one of the men approached them, his face slightly green and his shoulders tense. ‘If you’ll take Miss Hooper outside.’
‘Of course,’ Sherlock nodded and whirled a surprised Molly about as if she were a spin top.
He had almost got her outside before she realised what he was doing. Curious and angry at being patronised, she easily ducked under his arm and slipped back inside the stables before he could snatch her back.
Immediately, she wished she had listened to him. She wished desperately that he had forcibly removed her, thrown her over his shoulder and carried her kicking and screaming back to the manor.
For there, on the floor, covered in blood and dirt from a mighty scuffle, lay Tom. His head was turned toward the door and his green eyes were glassy in death, a gaping hole in his chest where his heart should have been.
Molly pressed a hand to her mouth in horror.
‘No,’ she whispered. ‘No, no, no.’
She blindly stepped forward, but her legs collapsed underneath her. Hands caught her before she could fall. Turned around, she found herself being swept up into Sherlock’s arms and swiftly carried outside. He was silent, a tick in his jaw, and rage in his eyes, but Molly saw nothing but the blank stare of Tom’s lifeless eyes.
Three Hours Later
‘Your tea, Mr Lestrade.’ Molly didn’t even try to force a smile as she handed the cup and saucer to the older gentleman. He nodded a solemn thanks. She took her seat beside him, wringing her handkerchief in her lap.
The air in the room was tense and thick. Molly closed her eyes, her stomach churning at the memory of Tom’s body burned against her eyelids. His face covered in dirt, his eyes staring up at her unseeing. A sob caught in her throat.
Lord and Lady Westminster sat together across from them, solemn and sorrowful. Molly tried to listen as they discussed Tom’s burial and the need for a delay during the investigation. When it came out that Tom had been one of Mycroft’s men, an urgent message was immediately sent out to the Viscount. Lestrade’s men were scouring the estate, looking for any sign of the murderer, but Molly didn’t hold out much hope that they would find him.
‘We don’t want to bury him…’ Lord Westminster hesitated a moment, his face paling at the thought. ‘...until he’s whole, a man cannot be buried without his… his heart.’
Lady Westminster’s bravado cracked slightly and she hid her face behind a handkerchief. Her husband tucked her into his side and patted her hair comfortingly.
‘I-I’m sorry,’ Molly stood to her feet. ‘Excuse me.’ Unable to hold herself together, Molly lifted her skirts and fled the room. Tears burned her cheeks and she didn’t know where she was going until she found herself in the familiar comfort and privacy of the library. Clutching her stomach, she gave in to the cries and stumbled over to her alcove, curling into the corner of the bench.
The pillows were the recipients of her tears as she grieved for her friend.
It was some time later that the door opened and someone walked up behind her. Without turning around, Molly knew who it was.
‘Please go away.’ She brushed the tears from her cheeks with her sleeve and took in several shaky breaths, waiting to hear him leave.
Sherlock hesitated for a moment.
She saw him move from the corner of her eye to sit on the bench beside her.
‘I am sorry, I know you felt… deeply for him.’ Sherlock frowned at the thought, not sure how to elaborate on the subject appropriately.
Molly sniffed and leaned her head against the windowpane. She liked Tom a great deal, maybe not romantically, but he had been a friend. ‘He is… was a good man. A good friend who didn’t deserve to die, not like that.’
‘Did… did you find who did this?’
Sherlock looked over at her hopeful face. Her cheeks were pale and her nose red and eyes were bright red. His heart clenched painfully at the sadness in her eyes, knowing he would have to destroy that bit of hope she had.
‘I… did not.’
Her face crumpled. Before she could bury her face in the pillow once more, his hand shot out and gripped her hand. She tensed at the intimate touch and her gaze flew to his.
‘But I promise I will.’ The words and sincerity were foreign to him, but he knew it that instant he would do everything in his power to never see her sad again.
Slowly pulling her hand away, she hugged the pillow closer against her middle. ‘Thank you,’ she whispered.
Chapter 14: Doubt and the Devil
The next few weeks passed in a haze of grief and fear. Sleep eluded Molly, much as it did the rest of the household. The elder Holmes son had sent three more men who were standing guard at the weakest points along the estate border. Sherlock was barely seen, flitting in and out of rooms like a phantom and looking at everyone with a suspicious eye. Molly had not spoken to him since the day Tom died and she desperately missed him, his calming presence that would have soothed her worries.
It was the early hours of the morning that found Molly unable to sleep once again. She paced her room, chewing her lip, and listening however irrationally for the sound of someone sneaking about the house.
Restless, she leaned against the window and watched the moonlit trees sway in the wind. She wrapped her arms around her middle and shrugged deeper into her dressing gown. The chill of autumn was swiftly turning into the frigidness of winter.
Suddenly, she saw a shadow shift near the stables. Her heart skipped a beat and she pushed off the wall to press her face close to the glass.
Nothing. Maybe she had imagined it.
No, there! By the stable door, a person… a man, was ducking inside. Molly bolted across the room and out the door. Her feet flew towards the opposite wing of the house and she did not slow down until she stood outside Sherlock’s door. Rapping firmly, she bounced on her feet impatiently.
When he didn’t answer, she pounded harder. Oh, hurry up. He’ll get away!
‘Confound it all, Sherlock Holmes,’ she hissed, banging louder. ‘Get up!’
Realising he wasn’t there, she bit her lip, trying to decide what to do. With a whine of defeat, she took off once more, going down the stairs before sliding out into the cold night. Her bare feet skimmed the grass as she stole across the lawn. She slowed when she got close and kept out of sight, hugging the side of the building as she made her way to the slightly open door.
A single light flickered inside as she hesitantly peered around the door.
His back to her, a man was crouched on the floor directly on the spot where Tom had been killed. His black coat brushed the ground and he wore a top hat. Molly furrowed her brow, wondering what he was doing. Some instinctive part of her screamed at her to go back and find someone else, anyone else, but by then he might leave. And she wouldn’t know who it was.
He set something down on the ground. Something solid and made of glass, based on the slight clinking sound. Molly waited for him to move slightly so she could see what was inside. And when he did stand up and move aside, she desperately wished she hadn’t.
A human heart.
Horrified, Molly sucked in a breath, her stomach churning at the sight of it displayed so horrifically. The man froze at the sound, his head slowly turning in her direction. Molly’s eyes widened and she pulled back quickly, her heart racing and her chest rising and falling rapidly.
She listened closely for any sound of his approach, her back pressed against the stable wall. When several minutes passed, she slowly turned around and peered back inside.
She bit back a cry when she came face to face with the man and stumbled back. His face was blank as he stared at her, his black, soulless eyes boring into hers and setting her heart into a frenzy of fear. She gasped when a cold hand shot out and clenched around her throat, pulling her close. ‘You were just supposed to distract him.’ His warm breath brushed her cheek and she shuddered. ‘You weren’t supposed to see that,’ he whispered in an eerily calm voice. ‘I’d hate to have to cut such a… delicate throat.’
Molly shivered as he released his grip only to trail his fingers along her jawline. She swallowed the bile that rose and closed her eyes, turning away from his touch. ‘You’re the one who is threatening Lord Westminster. You killed Tom,’ she accused breathlessly. ‘Why?’
He smiled, the gleefulness of it prompting Molly to take a step back. The carefree Irish lilt belied the darkness of his words as he leaned down toward her and whispered in her ear, ‘I enjoy it.’
Molly gasped as her eyes widened in horror. She turned to flee, to call for help, but found herself caught in an iron hold and being pulled into the man’s chest and his mouth pressed to hers. She struggled against him, terror blinding her and bile rising in her throat as her cries for help were muffled against his mouth. Why, oh why, had she not called for help when she could? Mycroft’s men stood guard somewhere close by, if only she could get away to them!
The man seemed to enjoy her attempts to break free and she felt his tongue slide disgustingly against her lips. She pushed against his chest and tried to turn her head away, but his other hand gripped the back of her head firmly and held her tight against him.
Suddenly, he shoved her away. She stumbled back, gasping, and clutched at her chest. The man winked salaciously and said, ‘Until the next time, my dear.’ In an instant, he was striding away, swallowed into night.
‘Halt!’ The sound of running men came from behind her as Mycroft’s men raced from their posts. They skirted around her after the man, but the sinking feeling in Molly’s stomach told her they would be too late.
She nearly collapsed to the ground, struggling to catch her breath and calm the churning of her stomach. But before she could, her arm was suddenly caught in an iron grip. She gasped as she was jerked around and came face-to-face with a thunderous Sherlock.
‘Miss Hooper,’ he sneered, his eyes raking over her rumpled appearance in disgust. He held his horse’s reins in his other hand.
Her eyes widened and she unconsciously looked to where the man had disappeared then back to Sherlock, her heart sinking at the accusation in his eyes. ‘No, no that wasn’t-‘
Her words were cut off as he scoffed. He let go of the reins and pushed his horse into the building, pausing when he caught sight of the jar on the floor. His face paled in the dim lantern light and he clenched his jaw, slamming the door shut.
‘Sherlock, please listen…’ She cried out in pain as he tightened his hold on her arm and began dragging her back to the house.
‘I am not interested in the pitiful excuses of an accomplice to murder and a harlot.’
Her heart shattered at the disgust in his eyes.
Several of Mycroft’s men, panting, intercepted them. The leader stepped forward. ‘We lost him, he backtracked toward the estate and disappeared.’
Sherlock’s face turned thunderous. ‘I’ll have Mycroft deal with your ineptness. For now, Grunts Two and Three, keep searching with the others.’ He waved a hand between the other two operatives. ‘He’s here somewhere. Grunt One, with me.’
He glared down at Molly, his grip tightening around her arm. ‘We’ve got an accomplice to interrogate.’
Chapter 15: The Devastation of Our Choices
With every step he took, Sherlock damned his weakness and damned the woman he held in an iron grip, as he dragged her into the library and firmly pushed her into one of the armchairs. She deserved a less comfortable seat, but the library was the most private area and he needed to be sure they were not disturbed by the household staff. She made to rise, but one look at his thunderous expression and she sank back down, crossing her arms and pulling her dressing gown tighter around herself, keeping her gaze fixed on him. Grunt One stood sentry at the door, just in case Molly foolishly tried to make a break for it.
He glared at her as he struggled to rein in his racing heart. Hurt, betrayal, anger all waged a vicious battle in his heart. Seeing her in the stables with the stranger, all of his doubts culminating in truth at the evidence, he knew then that letting himself be vulnerable to her was a mistake. A costly mistake that endangered the lives of his family.
She hadn’t said anything since he had caught her. He crossed his arms and leaned back against the table. ‘Aren’t you going to say anything?’
She looked up at him and he was mildly surprised to see her eyes burn with righteous indignation and not a hint of remorse. ‘You have already declared me guilty. What defence could I possibly offer when you are of such resolute judgement? What use would my defence be against the word of an Earl’s son?’
‘Perhaps if you were to explain why you were cavorting with a criminal and assisting him in his murder and threats against my family, I might show you a bit of mercy,’ he bit out. ‘Let’s start with his name.’
Her expression hardened. ‘You accuse me so readily. Why should I trust that you would show me mercy, even if I were party to the crimes you believe me capable of?’
‘You are the most obstinate woman I have had the misfortune to meet!’ He shouted, uncaring of the sleeping household around him. ‘Even when caught in the arms of an enemy, you refuse to admit your guilt! Even when I offer you mercy, you remain stubborn in your rapidly diminishing aura of innocence! If you insist on lying about your guilt, then I have no choice but to turn you over to the Bow Street Runners.’
She tilted her chin up in defiance. He breathed heavily as his words faded, watching as each struck her with an almost physical blow. The fire in her eyes dimmed as tears filled them, one lone drop escaping down her pale cheek.
He waited with bated breath as she waged an internal battle. Finally, she looked up at him, defeat burdening her shoulders. But when her weary gaze met his, she seemed to regain her confidence, and she sat up straight. ‘I cannot do as you ask, sir. You demand that I confess to a crime I did not commit. Condemn me, if you must. But I am innocent.’
His heart skipped a beat. He was inclined, for just an instant, to believe her. But the evidence suddenly came rushing to the front of his mind and he shut out the tiny voice of dissent crying out her innocence.
Just then, Violet rushed in, her hair unbound and a dressing gown belted around her, Timothy on her heels. ‘Sherlock, what in heaven’s name…’ The rebuke died on her lips when she saw the dishevelled Molly, her eyes widening in shock. She looked between her son, Molly, and the operative at the door. ‘What is the meaning of this?’
‘I have merely determined that Marguerite Hooper is an accomplice to the man who is blackmailing you,’ Sherlock snapped, taking no pride in his accusation.
‘Molly?’ Violet gasped.
‘I am innocent, my lady.’ Though her eyes were filled with tears, Molly’s shoulders were pulled back and she stared up boldly at her guardian.
Sherlock stepped between them, blocking the woman from his mother’s sight. ‘She is guilty. I caught her in an improper embrace with a strange man, not ten feet from where Tom had been killed, his heart in a jar there on the ground.’
Violet gasped in horror and Timothy paled, wrapping his arm around his wife’s shoulders.
Molly spoke up behind him. ‘You don’t understand, I saw that man outside, I tried to wake Sherlock, but he wasn’t there. I promise you, I didn’t-’
‘Silence!’ Sherlock bellowed, whirling around with a thunderous expression. She looked at him pleadingly, but he hardened his heart against her ruse. ‘Enough, Miss Hooper. Your game is done.’
‘Sherlock, are you sure…?’ Violet asked hesitantly, glancing between Molly and her son. Timothy, pale and slightly ill-looking, furrowed his brow in thought.
Sherlock glared at her as he spat, ‘Completely. The evidence is overwhelming. She has free reign of the estate, easy for her to assist the man inside; she’s been keeping me… distracted and she was sneaking out to meet him tonight, a celebration as he left us the ‘gift’ of Tom’s heart. The only thing they didn’t count on was my returning from a midnight ride to find them in a lovers’ embrace.’
Her lips trembled and more tears fell. A primitive part of him called to him to cease this immediately and care for her, wipe the sadness from her eyes and trust her. But the logical side that he’d nurtured and built for decades was adamant of her guilt, that she had tricked him, distracted him, and caused him to feel… things… for her that made him lose focus.
He turned from her in disgust.
‘P-please,’ she whispered. ‘I didn’t do this.’
‘Timothy, we should discuss this elsewhere.’ Violet tugged on her husband’s sleeve. He nodded and with one final look at Molly, they left. Sherlock leaned against the desk and crossed his arms.
However close his parents had become with Molly, he was their son and they trusted his judgement above all. And he knew that they would find her as guilty as he did.
He glanced at Molly. The only question was, what would they do with her?
Devastated, Molly sat meekly in the back of the carriage, her hastily packed belongings at her feet. The light from the lanterns flashed wildly as they rushed toward London.
A thousand thoughts ran through Molly’s head, but it was her heart that held her attention. Pain like none she’d ever known held her heart in an unforgiving grasp. She struggled to fill her lungs properly and her hands gripped the bench beneath her with white-knuckled force.
The rest of the household had slept through the turning over of her life. The Earl had stood with forced indifference as he told her that they would not be turning her over to the authorities, as they suspected she had been blackmailed or coerced naively into it. But they would be retracting all financial support for her father and returning her to London immediately, on the condition that she never contact them in any way again. Sherlock had protested their leniency, but was quickly cowed by a single look from his mother.
Once her sentence had been given, Sherlock had watched her like a hawk as she numbly gathered a small bag of her things, the rest to be delivered upon the morrow. His parents stood outside while Sherlock tossed her bag inside. Giving one last beseeching look to the devastated, but resolute couple, she climbed into the carriage and flinched as Sherlock slammed the door shut.
As the miles passed, Molly felt the crushing weight of everything fall heavier upon her. The thought that Lord and Lady Westminster believed her capable of such betrayal made her physically ill. And now she’d have to face her father, their friends, bearing the shame of something she had not done.
The carriage stopped suddenly and she nearly slid to the floor from the force. Glancing out the window, she saw that they had arrived in front of her father’s home. Swallowing the lump in her throat, she reached for the handle, but the door swung open beneath her fingertips. Sherlock held the door open expectantly while she picked up her bag and ducked out of the carriage.
She nearly stumbled when she felt his hand grip her elbow in assistance. She looked up, the sick feeling in her stomach increasing at his touch, his betrayal like poison to her heart. His eyes were shadowed in the night, but she could make out the sharp angles of his face, condemnation in the set of his jaw. When their eyes met, his grip tightened and the muscles in his neck strained as if he was biting back his tongue.
All her pain came rushing forth and, to her further humiliation, tears filled her eyes. Jerking her arm from his grasp, she turned and stumbled across the cobblestone. Her hands were shaking violently as she scrambled for her key, blindly shoving it in the lock. Without looking back, she pushed her way inside and shut the door firmly, leaning back against it as she waited to hear the sound of the carriage pulling away. A near eternity passed, it seemed, before she heard the clack of the horse’s hooves on the street and the familiar rumble of the wheels. Hiccupping a sob, she slid to the ground, burying her face in her knees as she gave in to the cries she’d denied Sherlock Holmes the pleasure of hearing.
Chapter 16: Distractions
Two Weeks Later
Haggard and tired, Sherlock crossed his arms and glared at the wall of Baker Street.
‘How did he get in…’ he mumbled, staring at the map of papers pinned to the peeling wallpaper. Without distractions now, he could focus completely on finding out who was threatening his family and how he was related to Sherlock’s previous cases. And he knew what the man looked like now. Medium-height with slicked black hair and wide, sunken eyes. He wasn’t someone familiar and Mo-...that woman had refused to give up his name.
Lestrade had taken Sherlock’s account of the man off the books, so as not to endanger the Holmeses any further. Of course, Sherlock had to change up his recounting of discovering the heart, so as not to implicate Mo-...that woman, because his parents wished to protect her still. If he had his way, she would be paying penance for what she’d done, coerced or not.
Sherlock crossed his arms and frowned at the wall, struggling to suppress that voice of doubt in his mind. She was guilty, and that was all there was to it.
The only question now was, how had the man gotten inside the estate and then disappeared? Twice? The borders of the land were watched by Mycroft’s men, so obviously he was getting inside through a secret passageway. Not unheard of in the older estates, but he had spent the weeks following the murder looking for an entrance, and had not been able to find it.
Clearly someone on the inside knew and let him in.
Not someone: Molly. He shook his head. He knew she was the accomplice.
All the logical conclusions pointed to her: brown-haired woman seen sneaking around the estate at odd times, her closeness to his parents to keep track of their movements (and his, for that matter), her intelligence would have made it easy for her to find a secret passage and use it to smuggle the murderer in just before they set off for a ride, giving her the perfect alibi of being with him.
So why was he suddenly doubting that she was guilty?
‘Still struggling, brother mine?’
Sherlock whirled about, his face dropping immediately into a scowl. Three weeks and that woman was still distracting him, else his brother would never have been able to even step out of his carriage in front of 221B without Sherlock knowing it, let alone step inside his flat and catch him by surprise.
‘Mycroft,’ he sneered. ‘Don’t you have a war to start?’
The unofficial head of the British Nation strolled inside, swinging his umbrella casually, and setting Sherlock’s teeth on edge.
‘Just avoided one, as a matter of fact.’ Settling himself comfortably in the plush armchair that once belonged to Watson, Mycroft grinned up at him. The very sight of it turned Sherlock’s stomach. It was the same wide, knowing smile his older brother had always used when he knew something Sherlock didn’t.
Rolling his eyes, Sherlock dropped into the chair opposite. ‘What? What is it you know?’
‘Oh, do be a sport, Sherlock,’ Mycroft sighed. ‘What good does it do you if I tell you everything you need to know? How will you learn?’
‘Did you come all the way down from Birmingham just to mock me?’
Mycroft quirked his eyebrow. ‘I have urgent business at the War Office. I thought I might also visit our parents who are now worrying needlessly that their youngest son has abandoned them to the mercy of a madman.’
‘Grunts One and Two are still there. And they’re your least incompetent of idiots.’
‘And what of Mr Johnson?’ Sherlock looked at him in confusion and he sighed. ‘Grunt Three.’
‘Ah,’ Sherlock averted his eyes.
‘He has informed me that you have posted him at a flat on North Gower Street belonging to one Doctor Daniel Hooper. May I ask why you thought you could forge my signature on an official document to reassign my operative?’ Mycroft looked at him expectantly.
Sherlock replied defensively, ‘If this man tries to contact his accomplice again, I’d like to be aware.’
Mycroft sighed. ‘You’re still insistent that Miss Hooper is guilty, then.’
‘You believe otherwise?’
Fiddling with the handle of his umbrella, Mycroft said, ‘I think you saw… but you did not observe, brother mine. You let your fears determine that girl’s guilt based on the basic evidence before you and you judged her accordingly, without investigating further. But I think somewhere underneath all your adamant proclamations… you know her to be innocent. That is why you did as Mother and Father asked and returned her to her father, instead of turning her over to the Bow Street Runners, as you would have done if you truly believed her to be guilty.’
Sherlock shifted uncomfortably. ‘Enough with this sentimental drivel,’ he snapped and sprang to his feet. ‘If you haven’t come to divulge the necessary information pertinent to solving this case, then I suggest you take your leave.’ He whirled to face the wall.
Behind him, Mycroft remained silent for a moment, then sighed in defeat. ‘Very well. Though you may not like what I have to say.’
It was nearly midnight when Molly slid her key into the lock and slipped inside the flat. Her father’s snores could be heard coming from down the hall. Exhaling deeply, she removed her nurse’s cap and shrugged off her coat, hanging both on the stand by the door. She turned around and gasped, coming face-to-face with her father’s nurse. The old woman scowled at her.
‘You said you’d be back ‘fore half past 11,’ the woman snapped.
‘I’m terribly sorry, Mrs Hutchinson. I had to finish-’
Mrs Hutchinson cut her off. ‘Jus don’t let it ‘appen agin.’ She snatched her coat and bag from the stand and stalked out the door, slamming it behind her.
Molly sighed. That woman was quite possibly the worst nurse on God’s green earth, but she was all Molly could afford for her father.
Her feet ached and she could barely keep her eyes open. Four days of double shifts at the hospital were beginning to take their toll on her, but the extra money was taking care of her father. A sharp pain pierced her heart at the thought that soon she wouldn’t need to worry about that at all.
Swallowing the lump in her throat, she made her way down the hall to her own bedroom, despite knowing sleep would elude her. It had been nearly a month since she’d been thrown out of the Holmes estate. And the pain was still very much present. She closed her eyes and she saw the betrayal on Lord and Lady Westminster’s faces.
But what haunted her most were the hollow eyes of the man she loved, no longer staring at her in admiration or fond vexation, but with cold condemnation. Without trial or trust, he’d taken one look at the situation and assumed the worst of her. He’d seen, but he had not observed. And in doing so, he had proven all her doubts about his feelings for her to be true. He hadn’t been her friend, he hadn’t entertained romantic notions toward her. No, all he had been doing was keeping an eye on her. He assumed she’d been an accomplice to that madman and stuck around to gather evidence against her.
Changing into her nightdress, Molly climbed into bed and curled onto her side. As they had been for the past month, her pillows were the recipients of her tears. Little by little, she hardened her heart against the love she held for Sherlock Holmes, each tear another reason to try.
Chapter 17: Innocence
The Holmes Estate: Three Weeks Later
Janine crept quietly down the corridor, her dressing gown swishing with each step. The light from her candle flickered eerily in the darkness.
Silently, she unlocked the study and slipped inside. She nearly screamed when her candlelight illuminated a figure sitting in Lord Westminster’s chair, their feet propped up on the desk. Her heart raced as she breathed out slowly.
‘You frightened me, sir.’
‘I won’t lie,’ Moriarty drawled. ‘That was my intention.’
She gulped when he swung his legs down and stood, swaggering over to her. The light cast dark shadows over his angular face, his eyes black as he stared down at her. ‘Did you bring it?’
Nodding, she reached into her robe and pulled out a portfolio. ‘Took it from the Earl’s case and replaced it with the fake.’
Moriarty took the pile of papers and thumbed through it, seemingly satisfied with its contents. ‘I trust you made sure no one saw you.’
‘Yes.’ Sweat dripped down her back and her hands were shaking under his intense stare.
He stared at her for a while longer, until she was trembling in fear. Then, with a snap of his fingers and a grin, he turned and sauntered over to the desk. ‘Come, I believe it’s time we celebrate.’
‘Surely, someone is going to hear us!’ Janine hissed, casting a worried look at the closed door.
‘Oh, don’t be so worried, Miss Hawkins. We have time for at least one drink before anyone even wakes up.’ He winked.
‘I-if you don’t mind, I would much rather-’
‘You will stay,’ he snapped, interrupting her stammering and dropping his light-hearted tone. Setting the portfolio on the desk, he swiped a bottle of wine and two glasses from the silver tray on the table behind the desk. Janine glanced nervously around, listening for any sign of someone approaching as he busied himself pouring the drinks, stopping only once to look back at her over his shoulder.
‘Here you are, Miss Hawkins,’ he declared, spinning around and handing her a full glass of the amber-coloured drink. ‘To the fall of the Holmes family and the British nation itself.’
He tapped his glass against hers. Her hand shaking slightly, Janine brought the glass to her lips and took a sip of the sweet liquid. The wine slipped down her throat with ease.
Moriarty smiled at her over the rim of his glass. ‘You know, Miss Hawkins. I’m going to miss working with you.’
Janine blinked in surprise. ‘A-are you releasing me?’ She looked at him hopefully, her head already starting to feel a bit woozy from the alcohol.
‘In a way…’ He sniffed his drink then turned to set it on the desk. She tilted her head and stared at the glass, something about it not seeming quite right. ‘You see, my dear, I like order. Even if it means having to get my hands a bit… dirty.’
Suddenly feeling unbalanced, Janine stumbled forward and caught herself on the armchair. The glass slipped from her fingers and fell to the floor, the glass shattering and spilling amber liquid onto the rug.
‘And you, Miss Hawkins, are a loose end I don’t need.’
She stared down at her hand, her fingers going in and out of focus, and tried to understand what he was saying above the sudden ringing in her ears. ‘You… you poisoned me, didn’t you?’
Moriarty tutted. ‘Now don’t go taking it the wrong way. You’ve been very useful! But he’s getting too close to discovering who I am and I can’t have anyone running about with knowledge of me, now can I? And you, Miss Hawkins, know far too much about me to be worth the risk.’
‘I n-never would have s-said anything!’ Her breaths coming shorter, she felt the darkness begin to pull her in. ‘P-please! Don’t do th-this…’
‘It’s already done.’
Her eyes rolled back in her head and she fell to the floor in a heap. Her blue-tinged lips parted in surprise as she breathed out one last time before succumbing to the poison.
‘That was much faster-acting than I expected,’ Moriarty remarked. ‘Delightful.’
Stepping over Janine’s body, he picked up the portfolio and tucked it under his arm. ‘Ciao, love. It’s been all sorts of fun.’
With a mock salute, he slipped into the hall and strode boldly down the driveway, a skip in his step and victory close at hand. Just one of these papers held enough information to put the Prime Minister under his control. And he had close to thirty. It hadn’t been his initial intention to acquire the portfolio. No, that was just a lovely opportunity that came along in the process of stopping Sherlock Holmes from his little crime-solving pursuits that threatened Moriarty’s empire.
Now, oh, he was going to have so much fun running the monarchy!
A sudden noise, the crunch of gravel under someone else’s foot, halted him in his tracks, just around the bend from the road. The footsteps grew closer and from the darkness appeared that blasted Sherlock Holmes, flanked on either side by his War Office pets.
The detective walked up to him, eyeing the portfolio.
Moriarty rolled his eyes. ‘It’s a fake, isn’t it?’
Three weeks previously
‘Enough with this sentimental drivel. If you haven’t come to divulge the necessary information pertinent to solving this case, then I suggest you take your leave.’
‘Very well. Though you may not like what I have to say.’ Mycroft stood and walked to his brother’s side. ‘The man’s name is Professor James Moriarty. He is an ingenious man, insane, but brilliant. He’s been coordinating a series of seemingly unrelated attacks that, when seen in the right circumstances, paint a terrifying picture.’
‘These attacks, I assume they were the cases I solved within the past year.’
He saw Mycroft’s nod from the corner of his eye.
‘You posed a threat to his plan, you were getting close to discovering the link between them all: Moriarty. He has built a criminal web that cannot be stopped. I have held off his attempts to bring down the Royal Family, but I fear I may not be able to stand by much longer. He has attempted to bring us down by the only weakness he knows of: our parents. And in my case, my wife, though the one time he sent someone to take her, the man met an unfortunate end. It seems Moriarty’s intelligence neglected to include Anthea’s training as a War Office operative.’
Sherlock felt his respect for Anthea deepen as he smiled fondly. She was indeed a formidable force.
Mycroft looked down and twisted the handle of his umbrella. ‘I had hoped that with you preoccupied with Mother and Father, Moriarty would back off and focus once more on his empire so I could bring him down without distraction. I see now I underestimated your importance in his plan.’
‘Thomas Higgins, one of the best.’ A look of remorse crossed Mycroft’s face. ‘I regret that I took the danger Moriarty posed to our family too lightly and it cost a man his life.’
‘You couldn’t have known-’
‘But I should have.’ Mycroft cut him off sharply. Suddenly looking older than his 37 years, he turned and lowered himself onto the settee, as if burdened by the weight of the world. ‘If it had been Mummy or Papa… or you that Moriarty had targeted, I…’
Sherlock watched as Mycroft uncharacteristically struggled to maintain his cool exterior, fear colouring his face. ‘But he didn’t. And he won’t. If you tell me how to stop him.’
‘I know what he’s after. It’s locked in the depths of the War Office. But I have no idea how he plans to get his hands on it. And I do not think it wise to wait for him to strike, by my estimation 47 to 64 percent of my operatives would be killed in any of the sixteen ways he could enter. But we cannot wait much longer, his patience in playing the game with you grows thin.’
Sherlock paused for a moment. ‘Then let’s make it easy for him. If you want to stop him, don’t wait for him to move.’ Sherlock looked back at the wall, his eyes bright as a plan began to form. ‘He wants to play a game, let’s make it interesting. A little cheating never hurt anyone.’
‘Indeed. A fake you fell for, Moriarty,’ Mycroft drawled, approaching him from behind. Moriarty tossed the now-worthless portfolio to the ground in disgust. Duped! He’d been played by the persons he’d been playing all along. Such an anticlimactic ending.
A distant rumble of hooves and shouts drew his attention. ‘The Bow Street Runners, I assume.’
Sherlock quirked an eyebrow in response.
‘Touché, Sherlock Holmes.’ Moriarty pursed his lips and clasped his hands behind his back. ‘I expected better, though. A fight to the death, perhaps.’
‘There’s been enough death, Moriarty.’
Moriarty sighed. ‘I see that morbid little mouse has softened you. Shame, really.’
A muscle twitched in Sherlock’s jaw. ‘That was your plan all along, though, wasn’t it. Distract me from your real goal, make me focus on my family, so you could take over the British nation by blackmail and force.’
‘And I almost succeeded. But for that damnable girl. If she hadn’t caught me, you wouldn’t have gotten rid of her and would still have been beautifully distracted with your lovelorn sentimental musings.’ The Professor pitched his voice in a hauntingly high, mocking lilt.
Before Sherlock could question that statement, the Bow Street Runners flooded around them, jumping down from their mounts and arresting the oddly calm Moriarty.
‘Good work, Mr Holmes.’ Sherlock jumped when Mr Lestrade clapped him on the back. ‘We’ve got enough to hang him.’ Lestrade glared at Moriarty with disgust.
‘Mmm, yes,’ Sherlock agreed distractedly, never breaking eye contact with Moriarty, who wore a smug grin despite being manhandled into cuffs. Sherlock set his jaw and stalked over, pushing aside the men about to put Moriarty into the carriage.
He grabbed the man by the lapels and growled at him, ‘If not her, then who?’
Moriarty giggled. ‘Is that your heart I see showing, Sherlock?’
‘Tell me now. Was she your accomplice?’ He spat each word.
Leaning close, Moriarty breathed against Sherlock’s face. ‘Nope.’
As the Bow Street Runners jerked Moriarty into the carriage, he laughed, the cackling continuing as they drove away leaving Sherlock to stare after it.
He didn’t acknowledge his parents running out, his mother in tears after finding the body of one of the maids in the study, poisoned and Mycroft’s men hastening to the scene. The world was crumbling around him as the truth hit him.
‘Molly is innocent,’ Sherlock breathed.
His heart raced. Two emotions, strange and unwelcome, warred for dominance.
Joy, that she was innocent.
And overwhelming guilt for believing she wasn’t.
Chapter 18: A Fresh Start
Not given to the want of pride, Lord and Lady Westminster bundled up and made the journey to London the next morning. It was with humble, heavy hearts that they knocked on the door of the Hoopers’ small flat and waited to be permitted entry.
Shuffling sounds from inside preceded Molly’s appearance at the door. She froze in surprise, her eyes wide and her mouth gaping quite unbecomingly, upon seeing who it was who stood on her stoop, before her entire expression shuttered close. ‘Lord and Lady Westminster,’ she murmured and dipped her head accordingly. ‘I confess, this is a surprise.’
Her heart already breaking at how they had been so deceived and that the one to have suffered most was Molly, Violet snubbed all thoughts of etiquette and immediately swept the girl into a clenching embrace. Molly stiffened in shock.
Violet tried not to think about how the past month had changed the young woman, but she couldn’t help the rising tide of worry at how drawn Molly had become, her eyes sunken and marked with dark circles, her gown hanging off her thinning frame, and the absence of her once ready and bright smile.
Pulling back, unmindful of the few tears that had escaped, Violet held Molly by the shoulders and smiled sadly. ‘My dear girl, we… we have come most humbly to offer our sincerest apologies.’
Timothy stepped forward and wrapped an arm around his wife’s shoulders as she stepped back. ‘We were deceived and, in our haste for justice, we wrongly accused you.’
Molly simply blinked at them.
‘The person to blame has been caught and your name has been cleared. We cannot possibly begin to make right our mistake, but we hope that you will at least accept our assistance once more for your father’s care. And also... that you will consider returning with us. We find our home lacking without you,’ Timothy finished quietly, his voice soft and hopeful.
Completely flabbergasted, Molly just stared at them, her mouth hanging open quite unbecomingly.
‘Please, Molly.’ Violet asked, her eyes filled with tears. Sherlock’s eyes, Molly thought. Her lungs suddenly felt tight, her breaths shallow. If she returned with them, she would inevitably have to see him. Her hardening heart protested at the thought, even as it also yearned for him.
‘I-I don’t think that would be-’
‘You should go.’
Molly whirled around to see her father leaning against the doorframe of his bedroom, out of breath. ‘Papa!’ She abandoned the Holmeses and rushed to his side, wrapping her arm around his bony frame and guiding him back to bed. He watched passively as she fussed over him, stacking pillows under his back and tucking the blankets around him, all the while chastising him for taxing himself.
‘Molly,’ he interrupted her, catching her wrist. She stopped and looked up at him, seeing the fondness in his weak smile. ‘I know you… are hurt… But you have the greatest… capacity for love… and forgiveness…’
A lump lodged in her throat as she ducked her head. His grip tightened slightly and she clasped her other hand over his, brushing her thumb over his bony knuckles.
‘Let me rest knowing you will be taken care of.’
Her shoulders sagged at the earnest plea. His grip tightened and he nodded his head toward the Holmeses, who stood in the doorway. ‘They’re good people. Fallible, but good. And I’d trust no one less with you, my dear.’ He swallowed, grimacing at the strain on his throat. ‘Please.’
Molly glanced over her shoulder at the Holmeses, unsure and untrusting. But their earnest apology had already sown the seeds of forgiveness. Sighing, she turned back to her father and brushed his thinning hair from his forehead.
Chapter 19: Finding the Right Words
John sighed and sipped his tea.
‘You’re not taking this seriously, Watson.’ Sherlock paced back and forth in front of his friend, his curls mussed and his clothes rumpled. The man looked as if he had not slept in days; his cheekbones, normally strikingly handsome, now stuck out sharply, making his already angular face seem more skeletal. ‘I am finally in need of some of your infernal advice, and you insist on silence.’
‘What do you want me to say, Sherlock?’ John set his tea down and leaned back in his chair. ‘That a simple apology will make things right between Miss Hooper and yourself? That things will go back to the way they were if you say you’re sorry and give her your best beseeching look?’
The detective looked at the doctor hopefully.
John took a deep breath. ‘Sherlock, it’s going to take so much more than words to mend the relationship between the two of you, if it is even possible.’
Sherlock frowned and lowered himself into his chair. ‘You think she will refuse my apology?’
Rubbing his forehead, John said, ‘Considering her previous feelings for you and the fact that you betrayed her so completely, I think she’d be well-justified in never even speaking to you again. Not to mention the fact that she was proven innocent more than a fortnight ago and you have yet to see her.’
Swallowing loudly, Sherlock averted his gaze and steepled his hands beneath his chin. ‘I’ve been… preparing my apology. I did not want to take the risk that she would not accept it.’
John raised an eyebrow. ‘Well, taking three weeks to form an apology may constitute overthinking it. Just go and… say you’re sorry. Explain that you were a colossal arse and leave it at that. Don’t pressure her or force her to accept it, she will most certainly need time to forgive you.’
With a huff, Sherlock dropped his hands to the armrests and drummed his fingers impatiently. ‘Time… pah! You can’t think of any way to speed up this tedious ‘forgiving’ process?’
‘Sherlock,’ John warned.
The detective slumped in the chair. With a defeated sigh, he looked over at the mantle. Yorick, his ever-faithful skull, stared back at him blankly. But underneath his friend, hidden in an ordinary matchbox next to his stash of cigars, lay the betrothal ring he’d intended for Molly. Despite everything, all his doubts and his betrayal of her, he had never given it back to his mother in the hope that Molly was truly innocent.
It had been a ridiculous hope at the time, one that he had hated himself for holding onto, when all his logic fought against it. And he would have discarded it, but for that night, that awful night, when he had left her at her father’s. Instinct had made him reach out to help her out of the carriage. His fingers burned when he touched her and she had frozen for a moment, staring up at him in shock. It was in that moment that the seed of hope was borne. Her eyes, the brown eyes that once sparkled with brilliance and affection, were filled with tears and she looked at him with such betrayal that it felt as though a piece of his heart had died. There had been no guilt or guile in her eyes, only overwhelming sadness.
Regret was not a feeling he was accustomed to. But he felt it keenly now, and would gladly trade all his possessions to go back to that moment and pull her into his arms, begging her to forgive him for his momentary lapse in judgement.
Instead, he had watched as she’d torn herself from his grasp and ran away. He could still hear her stuttering breath as she tried to hold herself together. The door had slammed shut behind her, echoing in the empty street, and he still could not move, shaken by the brokenness in her eyes.
He had never admitted defeat before. And here a slip of a woman had reduced him to a grumbling, sleep-deprived mess with her intelligence, and kindness, and those wide brown eyes. He needed to apologise promptly; Watson was right, he had already waited for far too long. But he needed to ensure that she would accept it and immediately. He wanted her back, but he never had liked waiting.
Molly sighed and closed her book, leaning her head against the alcove window. It was no use, she just couldn’t concentrate on the words. Three weeks and she had not seen Sherlock. Yet he occupied her thoughts almost constantly. Was he avoiding the estate because he was busy? Or did he just not want to see her and face his mistake? Molly’s heart clenched at the thought of seeing him. Part of her wanted him to apologise and then they would resume their lost rapport as if nothing had happened. But she knew it would not be that easy. If he apologised at all, she knew she would find it difficult to forgive him. A small, selfish voice in her heart declared she would never forgive him. But she was also afraid that she would be swept away by him and find herself back in the same broken place because she trusted him too readily.
It was with a heavy heart that she abandoned her book and left the library. But just as she closed the door behind her, she heard familiar voices coming from the foyer down the hall and froze.
‘Your parents are in the drawing room, if you’d care to join them for tea.’
‘Not right now, Edwards. Tell me, where is Mo-Miss Hooper? I must speak with her.’
Molly’s eyes widened and she glanced around in panic for an escape.
‘I believe she’s in the library, sir.’
She didn’t wait to hear his reply as she ran down the hall in the opposite direction.
Sherlock strode across the foyer and turned down the hall just in time to see the hem of Molly’s gown disappear around the far corner. Frowning, he quickened his pace, but when he reached the place she’d been, a hallway of closed doors greeted him. Taking a moment to determine logically which she would have chosen, he opened the second door on the left.
And found an empty guest bedroom, the door to the patio propped open slightly, the curtains flowing in the breeze. He rushed to the window and caught sight of her halfway to the apiary, her braid swinging behind her as she ran.
Cursing, he made to follow her when a voice from behind him pulled him up short.
‘And just where do you think you’re going, William?’
Oh, bloody… Turning around, he came face to face with his scowling mother. ‘Hello, Mummy.’
‘If you think you’re going to follow that poor child, I will give you a walloping so hard, you’ll have to walk back to London. She’s been through enough.’
If there was one thing in the world Sherlock actually feared, it was the wrath of his mother. And judging by the crossed arms, thunderous expression, and clenched jaw, he would have a long way to go to appease her.
‘I want to apologi-’
‘Three weeks ago would have been the time to do so,’ Mummy cut him off sharply. Her eyes flashed dangerously and Sherlock took a cautious step back. ‘Three weeks ago when we found out that we had made a huge mistake in listening to you.’
‘That’s not true. At the time, her guilt was the logical conclusion!’ Sherlock snapped angrily. ‘You always told me to look at the world logically, to see the evidence in front of me and deduce accordingly and not let sentiment cloud my judgement.’
Waving his hand toward the open door, he glared at her. ‘So don’t tell me that it was my fault. Don’t tell me that none of the blame lies with you, because from where I stand, I did only as you taught me.’
Suddenly looking very weary, Mummy stared up at him. ‘Did I really fail you so?’ A deep sorrow creased her face and she walked up to him, reaching up and cupping his cheek. ‘Sherlock, I never meant to imply that sentiment itself was the opposite of logic. I only meant that sometimes…’ she took a deep breath. ‘Sometimes we can be fooled by our hearts. And I didn’t want that for you. I wanted you to love and be loved, but without being hurt.’
‘But it’s impossible. Life is full of hurts; that’s part of learning to love.’ She frowned. ‘And the consequences of my failure have hurt all of us; especially the one person who loved you without reservation.’
Loved? Sherlock felt a rush of panic. Did Molly no longer have feelings for him? The thought of her no longer smiling at him, her brown eyes sparkling, no more experiments and arguing over the validity of fiction, suddenly made him feel very cold and alone.
Jaw set, he stepped back and declared, ‘I’ll make this right. I’ll find her, and I’ll fix this.
‘Don’t make it worse, Sherlock’ she called after him. ‘Don’t let your fear speak for you.’
Sherlock ignored her warning and spinning on his heel, he strode out onto the veranda and rushed down the steps, leaving his mother behind with a worried look on her face.
Molly Hooper could run, but she could only hide for so long.
Chapter 20: The Wrong Words
The next morning Molly went out to the apiary to check on the bees. It also provided the perfect excuse to miss breakfast and the inevitable confrontation with Sherlock, who had spent the night.
She carefully closed the last hive and latched the box shut.
With a stifled shriek, Molly jumped and spun about. Standing just on the edge of the apiary, Sherlock watched her closely, a scowl on his angular face. On the outside, he appeared casual with his hands in his pockets and his shoulders relaxed. But Molly saw how his eyes were haunted, his curls brushed back not by a comb, but an agitated hand.
‘Mr Holmes,’ she stammered. Her cheeks flushed as she was suddenly very aware of her state of dress, her gloves dwarfing her arms, her smock bulky and unflattering, and her screened hat falling sideways off her head.
The furrow in between his eyes deepened and he huffed. ‘Miss Hooper,’ he bit out.
‘W-what are you doing here? I thought you were returning to London.’
He ignored her question and drew closer. ‘You have been avoiding me at every turn. I must confess, I have deliberately caught you in a situation that you cannot escape in order to gain an audience with you.’
Molly’s throat convulsed as she swallowed nervously, the slight shifting of her eyes betraying her even as she fibbed, ‘I have not been avoiding you.’
Sherlock’s expression darkened and he stepped closer. ‘Do not lie to me.’
‘Even if I have been,’ she countered with a rising ire while she walked back toward the estate. ‘Is avoidance not also a practice you have been employing recently as well, Mr Holmes?’
‘Mr Holmes? Are we no longer familiar, Molly?’ His long legs easily covered the distance.
‘You presume much to address me so intimately.’ Her words were cold even if her heart had skipped a beat at the sound of her name falling so softly from his lips.
He smiled sadly. ‘A privilege you once granted me.’
Lifting her chin, she busied herself with unbuttoning the cumbersome gloves as she replied as disinterestedly as she could manage. ‘A mistake on my part, to believe we were friends and permitting you the familiarity.’ She stopped walking, fumbling with the gloves.
Several moments passed and a shadow fell over her. She could feel his presence intimately and improperly close behind her. ‘A mistake? You wound me, Miss Hooper.’
Stepping away, Molly cast a dark look over her shoulder. ‘It is not I who have inflicted wounds upon the other, sir.’
His throat convulsed. ‘I suppose an apology is in order.’
‘You need not exert yourself. I find myself uncaring of your insincere sentiments,’ she said with forced bravado, finally pulling her gloves off and folding them neatly over her arm after checking for stray bees.
‘You accuse me of false regret?’
She reached back and undid the tie at the nape of her neck, letting the smock fall away. She lifted it carefully and gently brushed it down. ‘You have made no move to apologise and now more than a fortnight has passed. I find it difficult to believe that you have been suddenly overcome with a bout of conscience.’
‘I regret that my delay has only served to fuel your doubts. But my regret and apology are sincere.’
She pulled off her hat and brushed her hair back neatly, trying to hide the shaking of her hand as she stared at him disbelievingly.
‘Is there truly no way to convince you of my earnestness in this matter?’
He took another step closer. She turned and resumed her walk toward the house, her head held high.
‘Molly, I…’ He started to follow her.
Molly whirled around in a fury. ‘I did not give you permission to address me so informally, Mr Holmes!’
His breathing deepened until he was nearly huffing in anger. ‘I am trying to apologise, but you insist on being the most infuriating woman on the face of the earth!’ She paled when she recalled him spewing similar words before on that fateful night. He grimaced and stepped back. ‘That… that was uncalled for. I… did not intend that in an insulting manner.’
Her eyebrows rose. ‘Oh? Am I supposed to be flattered by that assessment?’
‘It is a valid assessment.’ He defended himself with a frown. ‘I have yet to meet another woman who has vexed me so! You constantly argue with me, you’re insistent, scholarly, and altogether unbecoming for a lady in society. Yet, I cannot help but be completely intrigued by the enigma you present. Your intelligence is by no means equal to mine, but far above that of most men. In essence, we are equally matched in all but title.’
By now, Sherlock was pacing in agitation. Molly watched him, her eyes wide and her breathing deep, whether from anger or flattery, she did not know. Perhaps both.
‘If you are endeavouring to confound me, then you are succeeding, sir.’ Gathering her skirts, she turned to leave, but his hand shot out and grasped her upper arm.
Molly gasped at the contact and looked down, her eyes locked on the forbidden touch. Though the fabric of her gown and his glove were between them, she felt the heat of his touch and her entire body warmed.
He seemed to be debating with himself, his hand clenching at his side, before he jammed it into his pocket. Molly watched in befuddlement as he pulled his hand out and opened his fist. Her eyes widened and her heart froze when she saw the gold betrothal ring laying in the curve of his palm, dwarfed by his hand, but somehow larger than life. A single ruby in a setting of gold filigree reflected the sunlight and rendered Molly mute in shock.
The gravely demand barely fazed Molly, the blood rushing past her ears drowning out all other sounds. ‘I-I-I beg your pardon?’
He blinked rapidly and his gaze flittered around them as if he was surprised she had not immediately accepted his hand. ‘Marriage. A permanent union between a man and woman, namely between the two of us.’
‘You… want to marry me?’ She pointed at herself in complete bemusement, dread settling heavily in her stomach. She could see the uncertainty in his face coupled with a stubborn persistence only he could display. This was not how she had imagined, hoped, or dreamed, it would be. There was no steadfast resolution in his gaze, no smile on his face. Whatever feelings had grown between them before had been strangled by his betrayal. A faint twinge in her conscience belied that fact, on her part at least, but she resolutely ignored it. ‘Why?’
‘I regret that my mistakes have hurt you and cost me a... friendship I value quite highly. I want to make amends.’ He seemed to waver on the edge of saying something more, but then closed his mouth and stared at her expectantly.
The ball of dread grew in her stomach, pushing a lump into her throat. ‘And how would marrying me mend our friendship? How is that logical in any way?’
He lowered his hand. ‘Because you love me and it would make you happy.'
Molly stared up at him in shock, icy tendrils spreading out from her heart, until her entire body was numb, except for a distant, throbbing ache somewhere in the vicinity of her heart. A hardness fell over her face as she blinked out of her shock, turning a cold gaze on him. ‘You wish to marry me because I love you and giving yourself to me would make me happy?’
His face contorted in confusion. ‘Yes,’ he replied, his tone almost questioning.
‘I see,’ she said, her words drawn out. Pulling her shoulders back, she lifted her chin in defiance. ‘Then I must tell you that I refuse your proposal.’
Clearing his throat, he blinked in confusion. ‘You cannot be in earnest.’
‘Indeed I am,’ Molly ground out through her teeth. It was all she could not to slap the man silly. Instead, she spun on her heel and stalked away, refusing him the courtesy of a curtsy. ‘Good day, Mr Holmes.’
‘I said good day!’ She snapped over her shoulder, grabbing the folds of her dress as she hastened up the hill toward the estate. Tears were already flowing down her cheeks and a tremendous ache in her chest nearly robbed her of breath. She could feel Sherlock’s eyes on her as she broke into a run. Without looking back, she burst inside just as her resolve broke, sobs muffled against the palm of her hand, leaving him to stare after her, her heart broken at his feet.
Sherlock watched her run away. He started after her before he heard a sob catch in her throat. The sound stole his breath and he stumbled to a halt.
How had it gone so wrong?
‘You’re joking, right?’
Sherlock stopped his pacing to glare at his friends. Watson and his wife sat on the sofa in 221B Baker Street, their arms folded over their chests, and glared at him like he was an errant, rebellious child.
‘What?’ He spat. ‘I want her to be happy; it was a logical argument!’
Mary Watson slowly rose to her feet, hindered by her growing belly shifting her centre of gravity. The righteous indignation on her face was enough to cow him into his chair.
She towered over him, pointing her finger at him as she growled, ‘From what I understand, that woman has been through so much, a lot of it at your hands. And you insult her, break her heart, and mock her for her feelings, all because you want things to go back to the way they were, before you were a colossal bastard to her.’
Sherlock glanced over to John for help, but the doctor only shook his head, the look on his face indicating he was entirely behind his wife.
‘Then, you have the absolute gall to propose marriage when she isn’t as accommodating as she used to be and you’re insulted when she refuses your ‘logical argument.’’ Her finger was trembling in anger, her blue eyes flashing dangerously. ‘Tell me I’m wrong.’
‘No,’ Sherlock said, almost as if in question.
John stood and moved over to the chair next to Sherlock, tugging Mary down onto the arm, his arm around her waist to soothe her. Pausing for a moment in thought, the doctor took a deep breath. ‘Sherlock, Miss Hooper loved you deeply. Anyone could see that. And the few of us who know you, could see that you felt something for her that went deeper than friendship.’
A flash of pain crossed Sherlock’s face. Loved?
‘But you let your fears and doubts strangle those feelings. And when it came down to a test of faith, you let those doubts win and in consequence, you have betrayed her. You broke her and irreparably destroyed whatever relationship was growing between the two of you.’
Shame filled him and he struggled to breathe with the pressure in his chest.
‘It will take a long time to repair that and it may never happen. But you cannot force her to be your companion again. It has to be her choice. And if her choice is no, you will need to accept that. Your actions have consequences, Sherlock. And I’m sorry, but this time they may very well have cost you Molly.’
Chapter 21: A Widening Chasm
November 1818: One Month Later
Tugging her shawl tighter across her body, Molly burrowed deeper into the pillows on the window bench and turned the page of her book as the winter wind battered the thick windowpane of the library alcove. She seemed content now, even happy, to be back at the estate after all that had happened.
Sherlock glared at her, unseen, from the doorway, his hand gripping the doorknob with white-knuckled force.
Mummy and Father were ecstatic that Molly was back and their rapport with her had been almost completely rebuilt. Molly was a bit hesitant to trust still, understandably. But between her scientific debates with Mummy juxtaposed by their knitting to her weekly chess game with Father, she was settling back into the estate as if she’d never left.
But after the proposal debacle the month before, Molly had become a near ghost to Sherlock, only the evidence of her presence lingering in the room proof that she still lived there. He did not know how to undo the damage he had caused in trying to undo the damage from his first folly. So, he followed her lead and made it easier for her to avoid him, spending most of his days in London and, when at the estate, locking himself in his laboratory for hours on end and attending to the apiary when he knew Molly would be out for a ride or visiting her father. Of course he knew that her father did not have much longer to live, something Molly was aware of, if her increasingly longer visits to London were any indication. By his estimation, Dr Hooper would not live to see the New Year.
The thought saddened him more than he expected. The doctor was a kind and good man, but Sherlock did not know the man beyond a nodding acquaintance. So why did his heart ache at the thought of the man’s passing?
Suddenly, Molly laughed quietly, breaking the silence and his thoughts. He blinked as his attention refocused back on her. Her smile was genuine, but it did not reach her eyes, no dimple appeared in her cheek. He tilted his head and felt a wave of empathy. He frowned at the strange feeling; empathy was not something he ever exhibited, the ability to understand, commiserate, with someone else was not a characteristic associated with him.
Disturbed, he turned to leave when a flash of memory brought him up short: the echo of a dog’s bark in his mind, the phantom sensation of long, soft fur under his fingertips, the sorrow of saying goodbye to someone he loved.
He remembered the days following his beloved dog’s passing, the darkness and hopelessness of losing the only friend he’d had. He understood the pain, though he had done his best to prevent himself from ever feeling it again.
And now Molly was inevitably facing that darkness tenfold. Her father, the only family she had left, was fading away and she was powerless to stop it.
Sherlock felt the sudden, primitive desire to protect her from the pain, to shoulder her sorrows, and hide her away from the darkness of the world, illogical and impossible, though it was. She may hate him, for which he would not blame her, but he knew he needed to be there for her and deep down, beneath the pain, she needed him.
‘Molly, I-’ He said as he turned back around, only to find the window seat empty and the side door clicking shut.
Chapter 22: Christmas Part I
December 1818: One Month Later
The halls of the Holmes manor were filled with evergreens and holly. Festive whistling and humming carried from room to room as everyone happily prepared for the Christmas holiday.
Everyone, that is, but for Sherlock.
The servants were in unspoken agreement not to engage the young man in conversation and to scurry away as quickly as possible whenever he thunderously entered the room. This did not go unnoticed by the detective. He glared at everyone, snapped at those who were too cheerful, and thundered from room to room, slamming doors as he went.
He stalked into the parlour and suddenly skidded to a halt. Her back to him, placing boughs of greenery along the mantel, was the object of his madness. Molly Hooper. Her brown hair was pulled back in an elaborate braid, clearly done by one of the maids that wound her way into Molly’s fondness, garbed in a rich gown of deep emerald green with white lace adorning the cuffs and neckline. The skirt swayed slightly as she hung the holly and happily hummed a Christmas melody.
She looked… (He wrinkled his nose as he searched for the word)… right.
Like she belonged. Content and happy, spreading her touch over the house, turning it into a welcoming home.
Much like she would at Baker Street.
He scoffed at himself for the sentimental thought, even as his mind displayed a pleasing image of her curled up in his chair by the fireplace, her favourite novel Frankenstein in her hands with her hair unbound and falling over her shoulders softly.
Molly whirled about in surprise at the sound. The smile on her face abruptly dropped when she saw him and she held the sprigs of holly against her chest, dipping her head as she spoke.
‘Mr Holmes, I was not aware you were here.’
His heart clenched at her cool tone and the formal use of his name, his heart breaking at the pain hidden in her eyes. He raked his hand through his hair in agitation. How was he supposed to speak to her now? It was easier when they were friends. He hadn’t realised how deeply he missed her familiarity until she no longer offered it.
But he had destroyed that with his pride and fear, proposing marriage as if it could right the devastating wrong he had committed against her instead of admitting that the reason he wanted to marry her was that he was irrevocably in love with her.
Molly glanced up at him when his silence grew. ‘If you’ll excuse me,’ she murmured and hastily turned to drop the rest of the greenery upon the mantel. With a quick curtsy, she hurried away, skirting around him to leave the room. He stood still as she brushed past, the scent of cinnamon and evergreen clinging to her drifted by and teased him of warmth and home. He turned around, catching a brief glimpse of her just before the door clicked shut behind her.
Christmas had always been Molly’s favourite time of year; the festivities, the carols, everything. But this year, knowing it would likely be her father’s last, she had to force herself to enjoy the season. Her efforts were made all the more difficult by Sherlock’s constant presence. After his… abrupt proposal, they had avoided each other completely. But as hurt and offended as Molly was, a part of her, buried beneath the pride and fear, lamented the loss of his friendship and comradery. And, though she would never acknowledge it aloud, she knew beneath it all, she still loved him. And that scared her to death.
‘Is there something wrong with your tea?’
Molly glanced up to see Anthea Holmes, Viscountess Belgrave, grinning cheekily at her. Her cheeks reddened at how impolite her lack of attention had been. ‘My apologies, Lady Belgrave. My thoughts wandered.’
‘Anthea, please,’ the young Viscountess insisted with a wave of her hand. ‘May I call you Molly?’
‘I understand about wandering thoughts, Molly. They tend to do that.’
‘Pardon?’ Molly frowned in confusion.
Anthea smiled knowingly and nodded her head toward the window through which they could see two dark figures silhouetted against the white grounds. ‘The Holmes men. They tend to consume your every thought, much as they do one’s heart.’
Molly blushed a deep red and, though she tried to school her features, she couldn’t help twisting her fingers anxiously in her lap as she opened her mouth to refute.
Anthea raised her hand to stop her. ‘Don’t deny it, please. Afford me the courtesy of honesty. It’s rather obvious that the two of you hold affection for one another.’
‘Affection?’ Molly said incredulously. ‘No, if Mr Holmes feels anything for me at all, it is regret, possibly pity.’
‘You do not believe that. You are far too observant to miss the signs of a man in love.’ Anthea sipped her tea calmly, enjoying the blush rising in Molly’s cheeks. The younger woman opened her mouth to protest, but Anthea smoothly cut her off. ‘My husband is much the same as his brother, holding his emotions so far deep inside that it is nearly impossible to believe he feels anything at all. But in truth, they feel just as deeply, if not more so, than the rest of us. They have just had more practice building up an immunity to… experiencing them.’
Molly blinked quickly and swallowed several times before she managed to say, ‘You said love. You… he’s not in love with me.’
‘Perhaps not,’ Anthea conceded. ‘But he feels something for you that is bordering on it. Have you not noticed that he cannot look at anything or anyone aside from you and since we arrived yesterday, he has let five ideal opportunities to mock Mycroft about his weight pass by completely because he was watching you.’
Molly thought back over the past few days. If Sherlock had been a bit more attentive than usual, she hadn’t noticed. Then again, she had been doing her best to ignore him entirely, so her memory was certainly compromised.
‘It does not matter,’ she said. ‘I… I cannot let my infatuation evolve into anything more. I cannot love a man who has so little faith in me.’
Anthea opened her mouth to speak, but Molly shook her head.
‘I know you love him, he is your brother-in-law, after all. And I apologise for speaking out of turn, but I do not wish to discuss him any further. Please.’
Reluctantly, Anthea nodded and sipped her tea. She wrinkled her nose at the taste, setting the cup back in the saucer with an air of defeat.
‘Too sweet?’ Molly asked.
Anthea frowned at the cup in her lap in confusion, her thumb rubbing the rim thoughtfully. ‘Too bitter, actually. Despite the three lumps of sugar I stirred in.’
Molly sipped her own, overly sweet, tea. ‘That will pass when you’ve entered the second trimester.’
‘The second trimester?’ Anthea laughed lightly, though a pained look crossed her face and waved off Molly’s assumption with her hand. ‘I’m not expecting.’
Frowning, Molly looked over the other woman once more, sure that her medical training wasn’t failing her in this instance. She blushed when she realised she had spoken of a lady’s delicate condition without prompting, but concern for the baby’s well-being led her to say, ‘I-I don’t mean to overstep, but as a nurse and the daughter of a doctor, I do believe you are. You were not aware?’
Anthea felt her heart begin to pound hard, not from the pain of believing herself barren, but as she recounted her days for the past month, the little changes to her body and behaviour that seemed inconsequential at the time were suddenly connected by a single thread.
Her hand automatically went to her abdomen and a heady feeling of wonder filled her at the thought that beneath her fingertips, the faint flutter of life stretched its wings.
‘Oh,’ she breathed, lifting her gaze to Molly’s, a smile breaking across her stunned face.
Mycroft blew out a lungful of smoke, watching the tendrils twist and bend in the air. ‘Moriarty has been dealt with appropriately. And the portfolio has been destroyed with extreme malice. The danger has passed… for the moment.’
Beside him, Sherlock grunted and brought his cigar to his lips once more. He’d known of Moriarty’s consequences from the beginning, but it was nice to hear a confirmation.
‘Miss Hooper continues to refuse you, I take it?’
Sherlock ignored the question and exhaled sharply, shooting his brother a side glare.
‘Perhaps you should concede defeat, brother mine, if the lady will not to be wooed.’
Sherlock didn’t miss the underlying challenge and taunt in his brother’s tone. He felt his hackles rise and he turned to face Mycroft with a snarl. ‘Perhaps you should tend to your own business and leave me to mine. I will not accept her refusal, she is no more stubborn than I am.’
Mycroft quirked an eyebrow and flicked the remnants of his cigar into the snow-laden brush. ‘That would indeed be a monumental feat.’ He flipped up the collar of his overcoat and spun on his heel to head back to the manor. ‘Now, if you’ll excuse me, I find myself in need of the warmth of a good fire and my wife’s company.’
The words, though spoken seemingly without malicious intent, struck Sherlock’s heart painfully as he threw his half-smoked cigar to the ground, all interest in the vice lost as he followed after his brother.
Mummy glowered at them disapprovingly as they attempted to sneak back inside, the scent of cigar smoke clinging to their overcoats. They handed their coats off to Edwards, then, looking for all the world like two little boys caught sneaking goodies from the kitchen, shuffled over to her one at a time and kissed her cheek in apology. Waving her hand in front of her face, she pursed her lips and shoved them in the direction of the study, insisting they remain with their father until the disgusting odour had left their persons.
Chapter 23: Christmas Part II
‘You seem to be in a state, my dear. Is anything the matter?’
Anthea jerked her head around to stare at her husband. They were lounging about in the sitting room, his parents having just retired to bed, Sherlock ensconced with a book in the corner, and Molly had been engaged in a lively political debate with Mycroft, but Anthea’s excitement was getting much harder to contain. It had taken all her control to act normally during their last few hours with the family and she was surprised that Mycroft, ever-observant, had not mentioned it earlier.
‘It’s nothing.’ She dismissed it with a wave of her hand. She wanted to tell him privately, when they were alone in the guest wing, where they could revel in the news without listening ears. But the hour was still early and it would not be too much longer before Molly left for her father’s. Until then, Anthea did not want to leave Molly alone with Sherlock, not when the younger couple were still at odds.
Mycroft frowned, undeterred. ‘You’ve been acting rather nervously for some time. Was it my having a cigar?’ He plucked imaginary lint from his trousers. ‘I know how you hate the habit and I do apologise for the moment of weakness.’
‘No, love.’ She smiled softly at him, her heart melting at the way he tried to hide his guilt and sought her approval.
‘Would it help my case if I told you Sherlock supplied the cigars and I was merely his test subject of peer pressure?’
‘They were your cigars, Mycroft. Don’t lie,’ Sherlock called from across the room, before returning to his pretence of reading. Molly smiled and sipped her tea.
Anthea laughed and shook her head. ‘Mycroft, believe me, I know how Sherlock can play on your vices. And I’m truly not upset about the smoking.’
‘Then please explain to me why you are on edge?’ He seemed caught between worry and agitation, his impatience barely contained.
Molly interrupted them with a badly-faked yawn. ‘I do believe it’s time I rang for Edwards to take me home. Best leave now before it snows and the roads become impassable’ She stood and hugged Anthea. ‘Have a Merry Christmas, Anthea.’
Anthea clasped her friend’s hands earnestly, silently conveying her thanks for understanding. ‘And you, Molly.’
Molly felt a smile tug on the corners of her mouth as she thought of the Viscount and his wife, the joy they were going to share as they welcomed a baby. She’d seen the pain and loneliness in their eyes, the trails of gossip she’d heard for years of their barrenness. And now they were blessed with a child.
She sighed happily and closed her bag. Picking it up, she made her way from her bedroom and down to the foyer where Edwards was waiting.
‘Miss Hooper,’ Edwards greeted and took the bag from her hand. ‘Are you ready to leave?’
‘I am,’ she said, taking her coat from him and slipping it on. ‘How long do you think the ride will be?’
‘We don’t believe it should take more than two hours, if the snow holds off.’
Molly froze in the process of buttoning her coat. ‘We?’
‘Mr Holmes is accompanying you tonight,’ Edwards said apologetically. Molly’s face paled. ‘He’s waiting in the carriage as we speak.’
She swallowed loudly. ‘Oh.’ Oh, dear.
Mycroft burst into their bedroom in a huff, Anthea trailing behind him. She had refused to offer any explanation for her anxiousness and he was growing impatient. No, he was well past impatience. Lesser men had cowered under his authority, but somehow Anthea had never been susceptible to his intimidation, a trait he secretly admired in her. Except for this day. She had never hidden anything from him before and it greatly concerned him.
‘Will you tell me now?’ He snapped, earning a scowl from his wife as she shut the door behind them. He yanked open his cravat and shrugged his coat off, tossing it over the chair by the hearth. With no one else around, he let down the Iceman mask and let his frustration show.
‘You know, for a genius, you’re being remarkably blind,’ she retorted.
He stopped in the middle of unbuttoning his shirt, his mouth hanging open in shock. Blind?! He gaped like a fish, completely flummoxed, while she crossed her arms over her chest and raised an eyebrow at him.
‘H-how am I being blind?’
Anthea sighed and sank slowly into the chair. ‘I was hoping this would be a happy moment… not a fight.’
She looked up at him, a tired but fond smile on her face. ‘I guess I should never expect the expected with you.’ Placing her hand over her abdomen, she raised both her eyebrows expectantly.
Somewhere in Mycroft’s racing mind, two thoughts sparked together and shut everything else down, leaving him rooted to the floor, his shirt gaping open, with a look of incredulity on his face. He blinked rapidly, trying to understand as the deductions that normally scrolled through his mind as he looked at his wife froze with one word emblazoned across her.
‘W-w-w-we’re… y-you’re…’ he stammered, trying to unstick his tongue.
Anthea laughed softly and nodded. ‘Molly was kind enough to bring it to my attention this afternoon. Apparently, I’ve been as blind as you to the obvious.’
Stumbling forward, he knelt before her and grasped her hands. ‘You’re sure?’
‘Positive. All the signs have been there for some time,’ she whispered, tears now coursing down her cheeks. ‘But we were both just too afraid to hope.’
Mycroft brought her hands to his lips, laying kisses along her knuckles. She giggled and turned her hand around in his, guiding it to the barely-there bump under her gown. His fingers splayed, he took in the most obvious change they had ignored: the firmness of her abdomen that was just beginning to curve. An overwhelming, light-hearted giddiness filled him and he did nothing to hold it back. His smile threatened to split his face as a tear fell and he looked up at his beautiful wife. With his other hand, he cupped her cheek and leaned up to press his lips tenderly to hers.
She sighed into the kiss, happily deepening it until they were both breathless and he’d swept her into his arms, carrying her to their bed.
It was snowing gently as Edwards pulled the carriage to a stop outside Dr Hooper’s flat.
The last time they were here, she had been dropped off like a criminal, bearing the weight of a wrongful judgement, her heart broken and torn. Both nights, not a word had been spoken the entire drive, the air tense as they sat across from each other. Molly had felt the weight of his judgemental stare, but determinedly refused to look at him. She had hated his overbearing presence and his touch, the vice he had held her in was like the shackles of condemnation.
But tonight, his gaze was softer, without judgement. His presence was a, dare she think it, comfort on the cold, slippery road.
Sherlock opened the door and stepped out, turning around and holding out his hand to assist Molly out.
As she hesitated, she considered their fragile relationship. She didn’t know her heart, too confused with hurt and fear, hope and dread. She was utterly at a loss as to his motives and feared putting herself in the position to be hurt again.
Tentatively, she slipped her hand in his and let him help her down onto the snow-covered street. She immediately pulled her hand back and stepped away. His hand lingered between them for a moment before he let it fall to his side.
‘Thank you,’ Molly murmured, ducking her head to hide the blush in her cheeks that was not the fault of the cold.
Edwards looked over his shoulder from his perch on the front of the carriage and watched the couple hesitate almost painfully. Miss Hooper was looking anywhere but at Mr Holmes, who was staring at her with singular focus. Edwards sighed inwardly. They had made such a mess of the odd, yet blossoming, romance between them.
Sherlock pulled his lips back in a tight smile. ‘You are welcome… Miss Hooper.’
They would have stood there for some time longer, had the door to the house not opened. Molly looked up to see the nurse standing in the doorway, waiting expectantly for Molly to relieve her for the holidays.
‘I best leave.’ She gripped her valise tightly and inclined her head in Edwards’ direction. ‘Merry Christmas, Edwards.’
The butler tipped his hat in reply, a fond smile on his face. ‘And to you, Miss Molly.’
Shyly, she finally looked up at Sherlock. The snow had coated his uncovered curls in a fine dusting, dampening the strands and clinging to his eyelashes. His cheeks and the tips of his ears were rosy from the cold. Her heart lurched at the endearing sight and she glanced down, trying to control the sudden racing of her heart.
‘Merry Christmas, Molly Hooper.’ His baritone voice was soft and she inhaled sharply, her eyes flying to his when he caught her hand and brought it to his lips, placing a lingering kiss on her knuckles, never breaking eye contact.
He reluctantly let her go, her eyes panicked as she backed away, holding her hand close. Her features were strained as she forced a brief smile before hurrying away.
Long after he’d driven away and the nurse had left, Molly sat reading by her father’s bedside, the hand Sherlock had kissed held against her chest.
Chapter 24: The Inevitability of Life and Death
Christmas morning was a chaotic affair in the Holmes manor. Mycroft and Anthea had come into the drawing room unable to hide their bright smiles and within seconds of their announcement, Mummy was pulling Anthea into a fierce embrace and Papa was slapping Mycroft on the back. Sherlock watched all this with a sneer on his face to hide the happiness and twinge of envy he actually felt.
His cold-hearted brother, who practically ran the British Nation, was beaming at everyone in sight, loudly declaring his impending status of ‘father’, his eyes bright and his cheeks rosy red. He fussed over Anthea, pulling her away from Mummy’s strong hold and gently guiding her to the settee. She slapped his knee, saying something about not being made of glass.
Sherlock finally stood and approached them.
‘Congratulations, brother-mine.’ He shook Mycroft’s hand then leaned down to kiss his sister-in-law’s cheek. ‘And to you, sister-mine.’
Anthea beamed up at him, the joy of motherhood settling well on her.
‘A wonderful Christmas present,’ Mummy sniffled, dabbing her tears with a handkerchief.
‘One we might not have known about if not for Miss Hooper,’ Anthea said, looking up at her husband and grasping his hand. Mycroft tugged her close to his side and pressed a kiss to her temple.
‘Miss Hooper? What has she to do with this?’ Papa interrupted Sherlock’s exclamation.
‘Had Miss Hooper not deduced Anthea’s condition yesterday afternoon, we might have not known until she began showing. And who knows what dangers could have befallen the child before then,’ Mycroft frowned and tightened his hand around Anthea’s.
As Mummy and Papa praised the absent Molly, Sherlock stepped back and turned toward the window. The snow had stopped sometime during the night, blanketing the countryside in a thick layer of pure white, and the mid-morning sun shone across it in shimmering sparkles and hues of gold and blue.
But Sherlock didn’t see any of it.
All he could think of was Molly. And that, for the first time, the Holmes family felt incomplete.
Hooper Residence: December 26th
Molly sat at her father’s bedside and clasped his hand tightly. Just outside the door, Dr Watson waited, though there was nothing he could do. Her father’s time had run out and it was now just a matter of days, if not hours.
‘I love you, Papa,’ Molly whispered and pressed a kiss to his bony knuckles.
‘I love you too, my Molly,’ he whispered hoarsely. ‘And I want you to promise me something.’ Molly leaned over him, brushing her thumb across his bony knuckles. The feeling of inevitable loss clutched her, the air suffocating her. He wouldn’t live more than a few more days. She did not know how she was to survive without him, without his love and care. But for tonight, she would hide it and not burden him with her own sorrow and worries; not when he had so little time left.
His eyes closed briefly and he took a shuddering breath. ‘Promise me that, no matter what, you will smile. Smile in the days to come; I can’t be there to share them with you and I want you to find a little bit of happiness in every day, until the sadness fades.’
Closing her eyes, she felt a tear fall down her cheek. She knew he was only trying to prepare her for life after he passed, but she couldn’t bear to think on such things, not when he was still here and she could cling to that hopeless hope that perhaps things would be all right. But when she opened her eyes, the earnest worry in his gaze prompted her to bring his hand to her lips.
Her heart broke as she pressed a kiss to the frail fingers and murmured, ‘I promise.’
It was the only promise she had ever made that she knew she would break.
Three Days Later
‘What of his books?’
Molly turned from her place at the window to find Lady Westminster perusing the bookcases lined with medical journals, theology books, religious texts, and more. All that had sparked her father’s interest had found a home on the oak shelves. Swallowing hard against the ever-present lump, Molly slowly walked across the room, her hand rising of its own volition to caress the spines of the books she held so dear.
Violet watched her closely, knowing that the younger woman wouldn’t ask to burden them with such a library, but wishing it all the same. She smiled softly. ‘Would you like to bring them all?’
Molly looked at her, the sadness on her face breaking Violet’s heart all over again, but the faint glimmer of gratefulness in her eyes reassured her that she had done the right thing.
As the estate manager made note of her choice, Molly made her way down the hall. The door to her father’s room had remained closed since his passing. She gripped the doorknob tightly. A sob caught in her throat, but she fought past it, refusing to acknowledge the pain of packing away the evidence of her father’s life. If she was weak for even just a moment, she would never make it through this. Taking a deep, yet shaky, breath, she turned the handle and stepped into the room.
Untouched, his room was exactly as it had been when he’d breathed his last, the bed showing the faint imprint of his body. Struggling against the ache in her heart, Molly drifted over to her chair and sank into it. The bedclothes were soft against her trembling hand as she reverently touched the fading impression he’d left.
She closed her eyes, hearing his voice once again. ‘I know I promised to smile,’ she whispered, a lone tear falling softly onto her black gown. ‘But I can’t. I’m sorry, Papa.’
Hastily wiping the tear track from her cheek, Molly looked up to see Sherlock standing in the doorway, looking uncharacteristically unsure of himself. His eyes seemed softer as he took off his hat and entered the room, never breaking his gaze from her.
‘Mr Holmes.’ She nodded in greeting before averting her gaze, uncomfortable under his scrutiny. ‘Is there something you needed?’
‘I’ve come to offer my condolences.’ His soft voice, filled with uncertainty and hesitance for fear of saying the wrong thing, was nearly her undoing.
‘Thank you,’ she whispered, the words barely more than a forced breath. She couldn’t take his presence at this time, the confusion of her feelings for him, his betrayal, were overshadowed by her grief, but there nonetheless. And she had neither the capacity nor desire to address their fragile rapport while in the midst of her breaking sorrow.
‘I have something that belongs to you.’ Placing his hat under his arm, he reached into his inner pocket and pulled out a book. ‘Your father left this in my care. He didn’t trust the estate men to see it was returned to you, at least not without reading through it themselves.’ A small smile quirked the detective’s lips and he held it out to her. ‘An intelligent man, your father was.’
Molly stared at the leather-bound book in his hand, the cover stained by time and elements and the pages worn and loose in places. Reverently, she took it from his grasp and brushed her hand across the top, her eyes drifting over her father’s gold embellished initials in the bottom right corner.
Opening it, she felt tears fill her eyes at the sight of her father’s handwriting filling the page. On the inside cover, in slightly smudged ink, was an inscription to her.
My dearest Molly,
I once promised you that I would live forever. Forgive an old fool. It was never my intention to leave you. If I had power over the Almighty, I would have lived to see every day that you breathe. Please, forgive this old fool for breaking his promise.
Though I can never make up for that, I can give you a piece of me once I pass on- this journal.
It isn’t just my story. It’s ours. And I hope that my words will help you heal. When you’re ready, I hope that reading it brings you comfort in the way I no longer can.
My love, always, to you my Molly,
Her tears fell on the page, blurring the ink further and she quickly shut the cover and held the precious book tightly in her lap as she wiped away her tears. A handkerchief was thrust under her nose, a bold SH embroidered on the corner, and she gratefully accepted his offering, dabbing her eyes with the soft cloth.
‘Thank you,’ she mumbled, not sure if she was thanking him for the book or the handkerchief. Both, if she thought about it.
Sherlock opened his mouth as if to say something else, but then closed it tight, a muscle working in his jaw as he bowed stiffly and fled the room, the tails of his coat snapping behind him.
Molly watched the door close behind him, one hand holding the precious book, the other gripping the handkerchief: tokens from the two men she loved most in all the world. One who couldn’t comfort and the other who would never comfort her again.
Chapter 25: Broken Hearts
Baker Street: Mid-January 1819
‘I’ll take it.’ Sherlock declared, earning him an entirely surprised look from Mycroft sitting across from him in John’s old chair.
‘Are you sure?’
Sherlock rolled his eyes at his brother’s sceptical tone. ‘Yes. Why would I possibly turn it down?’
Mycroft shrugged his shoulder. ‘You have a record of refusing any cases I offer you, not to mention Miss Hooper’s emotional state is concerning. I would have thought you would want to be helping her through this time… however one goes about doing that.’ The politician wrinkled his nose.
Sherlock drummed his fingers on the arms of his chair and looked away. ‘You and I both know comforting is not one of our strongest qualities.’
‘We make exceptions for the ones we love, Sherlock,’ Mycroft said coolly. ‘No one is asking you to be good at it. But it is expected that you try.’
‘I would do more harm than good.’ Sherlock clapped his hands together, pushing down the rising guilt, and said eagerly, ‘Now, when should I expect my client?’
Mycroft stared at him for several moments before finally sighing. ‘I shall have him come this afternoon.’
Lord Westminster was very worried. Molly had locked herself away after the funeral, not attending meals or tea, moving about the house as though a shadow, before retreating back into her room. She had closed herself away from the world, both figuratively and literally. He knew that her grieving would take time and that the ache would never truly go away. But he also knew that she wasn’t healing, by the way her black gowns hung from her slight frame, the way her eyes didn’t sparkle, the lack of the ever-present smile on her lips. She was a sweet child and he knew she cared deeply for his family, especially Sherlock, and Timothy had begun to think of her as a daughter. He could never take her own father’s place, but he could do what was possible to comfort her as a father would.
He had kept a close eye on her these past few weeks. And on this day, his vigilance was a blessing. He had entered the library and was delightfully surprised to find Molly standing in the middle of the room. She looked small, almost lost, amongst the massive shelves lining the walls. Her back to him, she had her arms wrapped around her waist and her hair in a messy braid.
She turned her head slightly in acknowledgement.
‘Care for some tea?’ He asked gently.
She shook her head once.
Timothy approached her carefully. Her face was worryingly pale and she swayed slightly as she looked up at him. ‘Molly, I think you need to see Dr Watson.’
She shook her head. ‘I’m fine. I don’t need to bother the good doctor.’
‘Molly,’ he chastised her softly. ‘You’re not well.’
‘I’m fine. I just feel a bit tired, that’s all’ she murmured, pressing a shaky hand to her brow and frowning at the burning heat she found there. ‘Perhaps if I were to just sit down for a… moment…’
Her arms suddenly felt heavy and her legs wouldn’t cooperate. She tried to take a step toward the nearest armchair, but found herself tipping toward the ground instead. Blackness seeped into her vision and the last thing she saw before the blissfulness of oblivion pulled her in was the Earl reaching for her as she crumpled to the floor.
Sherlock steepled his fingers and glanced over his fingertips at the man across from him. The politician, who had specified complete anonymity, glared back at him.
‘You do understand that it was not my choice to come to you, Mr Holmes. But you come highly recommended in these matters and I find myself with no other options.’
A 7. At least, if not an 8. Sherlock resisted the urge to grin. There were times when having Mycroft as a brother came in handy, specifically when it came to matters of international crime.
‘And yet, here you are. Because you’re right, you have no other options. The imbeciles at Bow Street are incapable of more than solving petty crimes, or committing them, depending on who you are referring to.’
‘Your assistance will be greatly repaid-’
Sherlock stopped the man with a wave of his hand. ‘Money is of no concern to me. Now, explain your case.’
Sherlock tapped his fingers against the arm of his chair as the man finished, only just withholding his childlike glee. Oh, this was a proper case. A proper 9! Finally!
‘And he was speaking Japanese? You are sure?’
The man nodded. Sherlock narrowed his eyes, checking one last time for any sign of deception and, not finding any, clapped his hands together, his eyes sparkling with barely concealed joy.
‘Excellent! I shall take the c-’
A frantic knock on the door interrupted him and he clenched his jaw in annoyance. His housekeeper had strict orders not to let anyone interrupt.
Jumping to his feet, he stalked to the door and whipped it open, prepared to tear down whoever had dared intrude. He opened his mouth to shout only to find himself staring down at a boy, no older than ten, who was sweating and panting awfully. He snapped his jaw shut.
‘S-sir?’ The boy stammered, cowering under the force of Sherlock’s glare.
The detective quirked an eyebrow. ‘Yes?’
The boy reached into his pocket and withdrew a folded paper, thrusting it into Sherlock’s hand. He waited while Sherlock unfolded it, his panting filling the suddenly stifling silence. Sherlock felt his heart fall into the vicinity of his stomach when he recognised his father’s frantic handwriting.
Molly has collapsed. Come immediately.
His lungs filled with ice and he struggled to breathe. Five words, so bland against the paper, the ink stark and simple against the cream parchment, yet he could not help but hear them echo hauntingly in his mind.
Tossing the note aside, he barked at the boy, ‘Ready my horse!’
‘Sir, I am only a messenger,’ the boy began to refute the order, but stumbled back as Sherlock stalked toward him, a dark and dangerous expression on his face.
‘My horse. Now!’
Nodding rapidly, the boy staggered out the door and flew down the stairs.
Sherlock grabbed his coat from the hook and shoved his arms through it. ‘I apologise, but I am required elsewhere at this time. Please let yourself out.’
‘Now, see here, Holmes!’ The man protested, but Sherlock was already heading out the door. He paused and turned back for a moment.
‘While you present an intriguing case, I find I am no longer available to assist you. Mr Lestrade of the Bow Street Runners is the least idiotic of all their men, I suggest you go to him. Immediately.’ With that, he slammed the door behind him and raced down the stairs, tugging his hat on as he went.
It was nearing dusk by the time Sherlock arrived back at the estate, Barbarossa’s hooves gouging deep in the grass as he sped toward the house. Barely slowing down, Sherlock pulled the reins in and jumped down from the saddle, handing the horse over to a ready Edwards and immediately sprinting inside. His hat fell off as he burst through the doors, his boots leaving a trail of mud as he took the stairs two at a time until he reached the upper floor. His parents stood outside Molly’s door, speaking in hushed tones with John, their brows knit with worry. John glanced up to see Sherlock striding toward them and schooled his face into a neutral mask. But it was too late, Sherlock had already seen the worry in the doctor’s eyes.
Without a word to any of them and ignoring their attempts to hold him back, he shoved his way into the room. All the deductions that his mind threw at him faded into nonexistence as his eyes fell upon the young woman lying deathly still on the small bed. His breaking heart thundered loudly and he slowly approached her side, taking in all the changes. Her pale skin was nearly white and gave her a ghostly sheen in the flickering firelight and her hair was brushed and braided over her shoulder, but lacked the softness his fingertips remembered. The sight of her ill figure churned his insides.
He sat on the chair beside her, cringing as the wood creaked loudly. Molly stirred at the sound as he held his breath, hoping to see her open her eyes, to see the brown orbs he loved so dearly sparkle with life.
His heart lamented when she did not wake up, but furrowed her brow and shivered beneath the covers. He reached out and lifted her small, limp hand in his and was shocked to find her fingers icy cold.
‘You’re cold,’ he whispered as concern clouded his focus. Standing up, he walked over to the hearth and used the poker to shift the logs around, stirring the fire in hopes of warming the room up. He picked up the spare coverlet at the foot of the bed and eased it up over her, tucking her arms beneath it.
Resuming his place at her side, he leaned his elbows on his knees and bowed his head.
‘I’m sorry I wasn’t here.’
Chapter 26: Healing Hearts
A sliver of awareness pierced the darkness of oblivion, a distant and muffled voice breaking the silence. Molly turned to it, listening closely as it pulled her from the darkness.
Slowly, she became aware of more than just the voice; the soft fabric beneath her fingertips, the heat on the soles of her feet from the hearth, the sound of a page turning every now and then. Her eyelids were heavy and she struggled to open them, fighting against the pull of oblivion once more. Groaning, she finally managed to blink her eyes open, her vision blurred and out of focus. The voice had stopped and she became aware of a pressure on her hand.
‘Here, you must be thirsty.’ A hand cupped the back of her neck and the rim of a cup was pressed against her dry lips. She clumsily sipped the cool water, the liquid soothing her dry throat. ‘Would you like to sit up?’
Molly closed her eyes and shook her head once. The voice sounded like Sherlock’s. But it was gentle and tender, almost loving. But the only man to have loved her was her father. And he was gone. Tears filled her eyes and she turned her head away, letting the soft pillow absorb her sorrow as she let the numbness of oblivion take her once more.
The next time she woke up, she kept still, listening as the same voice spoke over her.
‘She laughed at me. I have never been so enamoured in my life. I should have been embarrassed at my faux pas, but all I could see was the way her face shone with mirth, albeit at my expense. Her eyes, brown with hints of gold, drew me in like the call of a siren and blinded me to all else. I do believe she has bewitched me with her kindness and beauty. I fear if I feel this way after one day, I shall be hers forever.’
Molly furrowed her brow and opened her eyes. Beside her, with his elbows propped on his knees, Sherlock Holmes sat reading by the firelight, her father’s journal in his hands.
Confused and shocked, Molly could only listen as he read the private words her father had written. But instead of feeling invaded and indignant, a warmth touched her numb heart.
Too exhausted to contemplate the feeling, Molly closed her eyes and let his soft baritone lull her back to sleep.
‘I’ve never seen anything so perfect in all my life. Ten fingers, ten toes, two beautiful brown eyes. I’ve delivered hundreds of babies, but to deliver my own child, the evidence of the love Charlotte and I share… I cannot describe the rapture and joy that has taken over my soul. Our darling daughter, Marguerite Elizabeth. The joy I feel writing those words! For a man to know the blessing of fatherhood when he thought it impossible? To be so blessed is to know that it is so undeserved.’
Sherlock quietly read the precious words. He hadn’t intended to read something so intimate and precious, knowing that doing so would most likely offend Molly for intruding on something private, but when he had sat down by her bed that first night with no idea how to help her during her time of mourning, he’d seen the journal on her nightstand, untouched. For the first time, he went with instinct over logic and he opened the journal to the first page and began reading. For nearly two days, he’d read to her as she drifted in and out of sleep.
The late doctor’s story began the day he opened his practice in London and traversed the early days of his life with Charlotte, their marriage, the sorrow of suffering miscarriages and a stillbirth, and the joy of Molly’s birth. Sherlock tried to remain distant from the emotional pull the doctor’s words elicited, but as he read, he couldn’t help the faint tug of his heart.
Closing the journal for the night, Sherlock looked up to find Molly awake and staring at him, her eyes reflecting the dancing firelight. His heart jolted and he blinked at the strange, unwelcome feeling.
She didn’t respond to his greeting, but glanced down at the book in his hands. He followed her gaze and felt the ill sensation of guilt settle in his gut.
‘I apologise for reading something so personal, but I-’
Molly interrupted him softly. ‘Thank you.’
He stared at her. No sign of a smile on her face, she held his gaze firmly before closing her eyes again. Standing up, he gently tucked the bedspread around her, his fingers grazing hers and sending a thrum of warmth up his arm. He was suddenly gripped with the urge to clasp her hand in his, holding it tightly to him. Clenching his fist, he pulled away and stifled the rush of emotion.
Once he was satisfied that she was settled for the night, he slipped out of the room. As he walked down the hall to his own bedroom, he found himself rubbing the tips of his fingers, the phantom feeling of her skin against his own burned into the skin.
Two Weeks Later
The February winter wind raged fiercely outside, the snowfall growing thicker by the minute. Molly stood by the window, watching as Sherlock and the stable hands rushed about the stables, boarding up the horses and placing hay bales in along the cracks in the windows and doors.
Her heart was torn as she watched him work. He was bundled in a thick scarf, gloves, and his trademark wool coat, but she knew it would not be long for the frigid cold to break his barriers despite his exertion. Her inclination was to worry about him… but the part of her heart that was still broken and bruised from his betrayal protested loudly at feeling anything for him.
‘They’ll be inside shortly.’
Molly turned to see Lord Westminster standing in the doorway.
‘Oh… good.’ Molly blushed at being caught. ‘I… It would not do for any of the servants to fall ill from the cold.’
The Earl raised his eyebrow knowingly, but did not call Molly out on her evasiveness. ‘How are you feeling today?’
Molly stepped away from the window and lowered herself into a chair by the warm fire. ‘Fairly well, thank you.’
‘I’m glad to hear it. May I join you for a spot of tea?’
‘Please.’ Molly gestured to the opposite chair and leaned down to pour the still hot tea from the tray Edwards had sent up just earlier. Lord Westminster watched her with a contemplative expression. Molly handed him a cup before pouring her own.
They sat in silence for a time, the only sound the gentle tinkling of the cups against the saucers. Eventually, though, the Earl broke the silence, his words causing Molly to fumble with her tea.
‘He loves you, you know.’
Molly carefully set her cup on the table and dabbed at the spill with her napkin. ‘I-I’m sorry?’
‘Sherlock, dear. He loves you.’ He smiled at her fondly. ‘I know he deeply regrets what he did to you and the loss of your companionship.’
‘I understand that, but I do not think that it constitutes love, my lord,’ Molly twisted her napkin in her lap.
Lord Westminster studied her for a moment and frowned empathetically. ‘You still love him, though.’
Molly’s eyes widened and her cheeks burned hot, her mouth opening and closing several times.
Lifting his hand to stop Molly’s flustered denial, he said, ‘If you didn’t love him, you wouldn’t have been so hurt by his betrayal. You’re afraid if you forgive him, you’ll be setting yourself up for the same thing to happen again somewhere down the road.’
Tears stung Molly’s eyes and she averted her gaze. ‘I’m not saying I love him, but I do care for him deeply. And you’re right, I am afraid that he will betray me again.’
‘Even as he’s doing so much to prove he cares just as much for you as you do for him?’
Molly sighed and rubbed her thumb along the rim of the saucer. ‘He is only motivated by guilt, my lord, not by any depth of feelings you think he holds for me. He believes he has to make right his wrongs against me.’
‘He wouldn’t be here if he didn’t want to be.’
Molly looked at him dubiously.
The Earl sighed and sat back. ‘Sherlock is a stubborn man and has never, in all his 30-some years, been swayed by the human feeling of guilt. He is not moved by such things. But love? I believe he once said that ‘love is a more powerful motivator.’ Though,’ he frowned, ‘I do believe he said that about a murderer.’
Despite her conflicting emotions, Molly breathed a laugh. That certainly did sound like Sherlock.
‘He loved you even before all this, Molly.’ He reached over and grasped her hand, his eyes beseeching her to believe him. ‘It terrified him and when it came down to choosing the unquantifiable emotion of love or the logical deduction, he let you down. Now he’s trying to show you his regret and love in the only way he knows how. By helping you. That’s what he does. Help people. It’s the only way he knows to show what he’s feeling. Why else would he forego returning to London for nearly a month to be near you while you recover? Why else would he have turned down a government case, a 9, as he terms it, in order to race back here when he heard of your collapse?’
Molly’s heart skipped a beat. ‘He what?’
Lord Westminster shook his head fondly. ‘That boy is helplessly in love with you. And I do mean ‘helplessly,’ for he has no idea how to go about telling you. So he’s trying to prove it, prove that he is worthy of your love and somehow make up for all he’s done.’ He tilted his head with a half-smile. ‘He’s quite like his mother in that regard. It took quite some time for me to prove to her that her eccentric ways were what I loved about her, not something I put up with because we were arranged to be married. Their insecurities hold them back from the risk of love, because they believe they will never be worthy of it.’
Molly’s mouth parted in surprise and she turned to look out the window. The past few weeks ran through her mind and she began to see the thread. His constant presence and hovering weren’t out of guilt or pity… but was it really… love?
Something in her mind settled into place, like the final note in a chord, and the knot that had been tight across her chest since this whole mess began finally began to unwind.
Chapter 27: Being Brave
The next morning brought a calm after the storm. All had been covered in a thick layer of pure snow, creating a picture of serenity, belying the harsh winds and biting cold from the night.
It was with this same calm that Molly, washed and dressed, walked downstairs for the first time since her collapse. Her body was almost completely healed and her gown fit her better, thanks mostly to Cook’s insistence on feeding her rich foods and sending up fruits and treats throughout the day.
Her heart, though, would take a much longer time to heal. Grief for her loss would run its course and she accepted that. But forgiveness and trust for the one person who had caused her the most confusing mix of pain, heartbreak, and love; they were another matter, because, unlike grief, they were a choice. She could choose to forgive Sherlock, trust him again, but right now, she knew she would always be holding back in the grip of doubt.
But she loved him deeply, beneath all the hurt, even though she’d tried to deny it. And if there was a chance that the Earl was right, that Sherlock wasn’t doing any of this out of guilt, but instead because he loved her… could she take the chance with her heart again?
A night of restless contemplation had brought her to one conclusion.
She loved him, all his eccentricities and, though in the end it had hurt her the most of all, she loved his logic and the way he saw the world in black and white, Good and Not Good. So, she would forgive him and take the risk of letting him win back her trust.
And that meant being brave.
‘Molly!’ The Countess exclaimed as Molly entered the dining room. Immediately, the older woman rushed across the room and enveloped Molly in a tight embrace. ‘Oh, it’s wonderful to see you up and about!’
Molly smiled and pulled back, only to find the Earl taking his wife’s place and wrapping his long arms around her for a brief hug before offering her his elbow and guiding her to the table.
‘We were just about to begin our breakfast,’ he said as he pulled out her chair. ‘You’ll join us, of course.’
‘It smells wonderful.’ Molly looked at the spread of porridge, sausages, potatoes… her mouth watered at the sight. Piling her plate high in what was unlikely a ladylike manner, she took a large bite and groaned at the burst of flavour, oblivious to the fond, relieved looks that passed between the Earl and his wife.
Suddenly, the door banged open and she jerked her head up, her mouth full.
Head down and scrubbing a hand across his tired, scruffy face, Sherlock strode in. His curls were in frizzy, wild disarray, coiling out from his head in every which way. He wore wrinkled trousers, obviously having been slept in, and his shirt was buttoned, though untucked. He yawned and plopped down in the closest chair, which happened to be right across from Molly.
Sitting up straight, Molly quickly swallowed and set her hands in her lap.
‘Good morning Sherlock,’ Lord Westminster said dryly as his wife tsked, reaching over and fussing about her son’s curls.
Sherlock grunted in reply and ducked out of his mother’s reach, reaching for a piece of toast and finally looking up. He did a double-take when his eyes met Molly’s and he froze, the toast halfway to his mouth. A small smile formed on her face and she looked at his hair in amusement.
‘Good morning, Mr Holmes,’ she murmured.
He blinked, his lips parted in surprise and the toast dropped to his plate. His gaze seemed almost questioning, confused. Molly bit her lip as he regarded her, searching for something, answers to questions he didn’t know he was asking. Whatever he read on her face or deduced about her intentions caused the line between his brow to ease.
Uncomfortable in the silence, Molly reached for the nearest bowl. Handing it to him, she said, ‘Potatoes?’
He looked down at the fried mash. His lips twitched in a smile and he took the bowl, his fingers brushing hers lightly and sending a jolt up her arm.
‘Thank you… Miss Hooper.’
Nodding once, Molly looked down at her plate. It wasn’t much. But it was a start.
At the ends of the table, unbeknownst to the hesitant couple, the Countess was glaring at her husband knowing he had meddled somehow, his smug grin telling, but her gaze held no heat. He was an old busybody, but as she watched Sherlock and Molly exchange shy glances when the other wasn’t looking, she knew she wouldn’t have him any other way.
The afternoon sun shone across the sparkling snow as Molly trudged out to the hives, clad in two pairs of her riding trousers under a thick winter coat and wearing knee-high boots one of the stable hands had given her. Though it was still very cold, the wind had died down after the storm and the sun was warm on her face.
As she drew closer to the apiary, she noticed a familiar figure shoving piles of snow from the tops of the hives. She paused momentarily, every bone in her body screaming at her to retreat back to the manor. But she had made a promise to herself to be brave.
Taking a deep breath, she continued down the slope.
Sherlock turned in surprise at hearing the crunch of snow under her feet. His cheeks were rosy from the cold and the exertion of clearing off the hives. Clumps of wet snow clung to his coat and his curls were stuck to his forehead, but it was his eyes that made her heart skip a beat. The swirls of blues and greens looked at her in fragile hope, even as he schooled his expression into one of nonchalance.
‘Good afternoon,’ she greeted.
He nodded. ‘And to you.’
Clasping her gloved hands in front of her, Molly glanced at the hives. ‘How are they?’
‘Alive. For the most part.’ He turned and opened one of the boxes. Molly walked over and peered inside to see the cluster of bees fluttering and buzzing. ‘They’ve protected their queens at the cost of a half dozen workers, possibly more.’
‘Poor things.’ Molly murmured and turned to look at Sherlock. She straightened in surprise to find him looming over her, his expression uncertain, but hopeful. Molly blinked and found that her feet would not cooperate in stepping back. Her heart was thundering at being so close to him, half a step closer and she would be able to wrap her arms around his waist.
His eyes darted across her face and he took a deep breath. ‘Miss Hooper, I-’
‘Don’t say it,’ she cut in quickly. He looked at her in surprise, the words dying on his tongue. Swallowing nervously, Molly looked down at her hands. ‘Please. I… I’m not ready to hear it.’
He paused, then nodded. ‘Will you ever be?’
Molly tried not to let the uncertainty in his voice sway her resolve. ‘Someday,’ she whispered. ‘But not today.’
A line appeared between his brow, but he accepted her answer with a firm nod. They turned away and regarded the hives in silence, each lost in their own thoughts.
Sherlock looked down at the woman beside him, her cheeks flushed from the cold. Tendrils of hair escaped her braid and brushed against her face in the gentle breeze, clinging to her lips. He smiled in fond amusement at her choice in outfit, the multiple layers of trousers and brightly-coloured scarf wrapped thrice around her neck, the clunky boots that disappeared under the hem of a coat that nearly dwarfed her.
The barest glimmer of hope he’d been clinging to for months, that they could move past his mistakes, had been rekindled that morning. And now, he knew that it was a certainty. Molly was still hesitant, but he knew her forgiving nature; had been on the receiving end of it far too many times to count, in fact. And he saw the doubt and reservations wavering in her gaze. She still loved him deeply, despite the hurt and pain and he was now beginning to win back her trust.
It was just a matter of proving to her that he truly was sorry and worthy of her treasuring her heart.
Chapter 28: Explanations
For the next few months, Sherlock and Molly treaded carefully around the other. Their familiarity had been lost and both found it difficult not to fall into old habits. Molly was still hesitant to open up, take the risk, but slowly, Sherlock was breaking down her barriers. They’d begun conducting experiments together again just within the past few weeks. And even though their rapport lacked the camaraderie and banter it once had, Sherlock took their arguments over proper scientific approaches as a good sign.
Slowly, but surely, he was proving himself worthy of her heart and winning back her affections, if the way she was beginning to blush and stammer again was any indication. She was still very much hurt, but underneath it all she loved him.
It was an early morning in May that Sherlock found himself walking down the road to the parish.
This was something he’d been putting off for some time. And the longer he waited to do it, the worse he felt.
The sun was just beginning to cast its golden rays across the blooming, green land when he arrived at the parish and opened the gate to the cemetery next door. Slowly weaving in between headstones, he came to a halt in front of one, well-cared for and a bundle of two-day-old wildflowers at its foot.
Daniel Frederick Hooper
Swallowing nervously, Sherlock cleared his throat a few times. ‘Hello, Dr Hooper. You’re obviously dead and cannot possibly hear me. But… I need to do this.’
He took a deep breath and shoved his hands into his pockets. ‘I came to say that… I’m sorry. I broke a promise I made to you and as a result, I hurt someone we both love beyond measure. Many times.’
‘And then I was a coward. I was too ashamed to face you, knowing what I had done. You trusted me with her heart, and I failed you. I failed her.’
A bird chirped in the trees above him and he paused. ‘I’m sorry I didn’t have the courage to tell you this before you… passed. At the time, I wasn’t sure why, aside from how ashamed I was. Now, I know I was afraid. Afraid you would revoke your consent for your daughter’s hand and I would lose her forever.’
A sound, like a soft gasp, came from behind him and he spun around.
The cemetery was empty and there was no sign of anyone else, but the birds hopping along the ground. He dismissed it before turning back.
‘I can’t undo the damage I’ve caused. But I can make good on my promise to you. I can do one better, in fact. When I asked you for Molly’s hand, I didn’t know my heart. All I knew was that she was everything I didn’t know I could ask for. And I didn’t want to lose that. My motives were selfish and self-seeking.’
‘But now… I love her. Irrevocably and completely. I don’t know how to say it or show it, but I’m learning. Still learning. It all comes down to her and if she’s willing to give another chance to the coward who broke her heart. And if she doesn’t,’ he straightened up and fought against the clenching of his heart at the thought. ‘I will respect her decision and accept it as the consequence of my own actions.’
He stared down at the headstone, as if the response would be written across it. Finally, with a nod and respectful bow, he turned on his heel and strode out onto the road, his burden lighter than when he’d came.
It was only when Sherlock had disappeared over the far hill that Molly finally stepped out from the back of the parish, a bouquet of wildflowers dangling from her hand.
She stared after him, tears falling down her cheeks.
It was time.
Sherlock looked up from his book in surprise. His eyes widened at seeing Molly standing in the doorway of the library.
‘Am I intruding?’
He gaped for a moment, then quickly shook his head. ‘No, please, come in.’
Her hands twisting in front of her, Molly hesitantly stepped closer. ‘I was hoping… could we speak for a moment?’
‘Of course.’ He gestured for her to sit with him in the alcove.
Perching on the edge of the seat, she glanced down at her hands clenched tightly in her lap. ‘I think I’m ready to hear it.’
Sherlock’s heart skipped a beat.
Slowly, so as not to frighten her, he swung his legs over the edge and sat next to her, enough space for another person between them. This was the moment he’d been anticipating, his chance to explain his actions. The moment when she would decide if she could forgive him and they could possibly move on… together.
Taking a deep breath, he braced himself on his knees and cleared his throat. ‘I’ve always had doubts about sentiment. Growing up, I saw the good and the bad, but I more often than not focused on the bad and made the erroneous decision to see sentiment as a weakness.’
He sat back and folded his hands. ‘Then you came along and chipped away at my resolution until you found my heart and stole it away from me.’
Her soft gasp emboldened him to continue.
‘I let you in like I’ve never let anyone in before. You were perfect. Brilliant, understanding, kind… beautiful. And I wanted you.’ He ducked his head as a sense of shame washed over him. ‘I had every intention of proposing to you the day Tom died.’
She looked at him, her mouth parted in surprise. ‘Y-you did?’
He nodded and glanced over at her briefly, noting the tears welling in her eyes. ‘But then everything started falling apart. I saw the evidence and the doubts I’d been pushing aside began to cloud my judgement. But what I thought was logic was really fear. I was afraid, and angry, that I had been fooled. All the evidence,’ he paused and considered his words for a moment. ‘Well, all the evidence I wanted to see pointed to you as the accomplice.’
‘So you didn’t even consider that I was innocent?’ Her soft, broken whisper tore his heart.
He opened his mouth to deny it, but couldn’t bring himself to say the words. Exhaling deeply, he shook his head. ‘No. No, I didn’t.’
A tear dripped down her cheek and he caught himself just before he reached over to brush it away. The intimate act would only frighten her and he would ruin his chance.
‘And the… the other proposal?’
Sherlock grimaced. ‘That was a consequence of my romantic ineptitude. I didn’t know how to apologise or tell you that…’ He trailed off uncertainly, swallowing the I love you that threatened to come out. Molly’s breath hitched and she looked up at him with wide eyes. ‘And I panicked, reverting to logic and emotional distance. I never intended to hurt you, Molly.’
Her cheeks darkened at the sound of her name and he felt encouraged at the sight.
‘I’ve thought of a thousand ways to justify my actions. Well, to be honest, I’ve come up with 41. But none of those reasons matter when at the end, I hurt someone I care about fiercely.’ He paused and placed his hand between them.
‘Please… forgive me, Molly Hooper.’
Molly’s heart was racing and she felt like she was drowning in the sea of colours in Sherlock’s eyes.
Everything he had said, she had already known. But to hear it just made it real and tossed away any doubts she’d held onto.
She took a deep breath. ‘I was afraid that if I forgave you, if I let go of it all, that I’d be back to being that naive girl who fell for a charming man only interested in keeping an eye on her.’
‘Molly, that’s not-’
‘I know. I know that now,’ she said with a small smile. And I… I forgive you. For all of it.’
His shoulders relaxed and a smile broke across his face.
Molly ducked her head shyly. ‘To be honest, I think I forgave you a while ago. But I was afraid to trust you again, to believe that you weren’t just pretending, and risk getting hurt.’
‘You’re not afraid anymore?’ Sherlock asked, his voice tinged with hope.
‘I am still afraid,’ she replied softly and glanced up at him. ‘But fear shouldn’t hold us back. Life would be pretty dull if we didn’t fight it and take a risk every now and then. And that’s what I’m doing, Sherlock.’
His eyes widened when she said his name.
‘I’m taking a risk.’ She placed her hand next to his between them. Sherlock stared down at them, his fingers twitching against the cushion.
‘Trust and love are not earned, they are given.’ Taking a deep breath, she slowly closed the distance between their hands and wrapped her fingers in his. His pulse pounded against her fingertips and she took courage in the knowledge that he was affected by her. Tilting her head back, she looked up into the face of the man she loved, the man who had hurt her so deeply by his own fear and distrust. ‘And I give them freely now… to you.’
Humbled, Sherlock stared down at the remarkable woman in front of him. She wore her heart on her sleeve and without even trying to had broken down all his barriers and expectations until she was so deep inside his heart that he didn’t know how to remove her. He had been terrified of his feelings and ran from her like a coward at the first test of faith. And yet, here she sat, offering him not only the forgiveness he craved, but the love he needed. Freely.
Turning his body to face her, he lifted her hand to his lips and pressed a tender kiss to her knuckles, smiling at the hitch in her breath.
He felt her pulse skip when he reached up and cupped her cheek, brushing away a tear that had fallen. She closed her eyes and breathed a shaky sigh that melted into a soft smile.
He vowed then and there to never again be the reason for her sadness.
‘I’ll accept them on one condition,’ he said. Opening her eyes, she looked at him expectantly, hopefully. A smile tugged at the corner of his mouth. ‘You take mine in return.’
Her eyes sparkled and her voice was breathless when she said, ‘I would be amenable to that.’
He breathed out and finally let his doubts and fears free. The tiresome mask he wore to hide his emotions fell away and he let her see all of him.
Reaching up, Sherlock brushed his fingers lightly down her cheek. She leaned into his touch, but did not look away, her brown eyes sparkling up at him and a smile on her beautiful face. Slowly, he lowered his head, hesitating just as her breath blew across his lips, and pressed a soft kiss to her cheek. Her breath hitched and his own heart skipped a beat.
It was a promising new beginning. The betrothal ring was still in his pocket, where it would stay for a time. But as he stared down at her, the brown eyes he loved so dearly looking back at him in shy adoration, he knew it wouldn’t be long before he would have the privilege of placing it on her finger.
‘We did good, didn’t we?’
Timothy hummed happily in agreement as he and Violet watched the young couple unabashedly through the crack in the door.
‘Yes. Yes, we did.’ With a gentle push, he shut the door. Violet pouted, but he deftly caught her hand and pressed a kiss to her knuckles.
Sighing happily, she leaned into him and arm in arm, they strolled away.
Chapter 29: Babies and Betrothals
August 1819: The Estate of the Viscount Belgrave
‘George Mycroft Nicholas Holmes, you will leave this room at once! I may be open-minded, but this is absolutely indecent!’
Mycroft glared at Violet from his perch on the bed. ‘Mother, this is my home, that is my wife and my child, and no one apart from the Almighty Himself will drag me from this room! Now, would you kindly attend to my wife? Or would you rather wait outside while my son is being born?’
‘Daughter!’ Anthea bellowed between huffing breaths.
‘We’ll see,’ Mycroft murmured and brushed her sweat-slicked hair back, letting her crush his other hand in her vice-like grip. Violet merely harrumphed and turned back to the basin of water. She soaked the cloth and grudgingly handed it to Mycroft who dabbed his wife’s brow, whispering words of encouragement to her.
From her place between Anthea’s splayed knees, Molly looked up at the mother-to-be.
‘All right, Anthea, you’re ready. When you feel the urge, push!’
‘How long does it take for a baby to be born?’ Sherlock stopped pacing and threw his hands up in the air.
Timothy looked at his youngest son with fond exasperation. ‘You took 12 hours, Sherlock. It can be a long wait, so best prepare yourself for a long night.’
‘I could be at home right now, solving a nice murder.’
‘And do stop your complaining, William.’
Sherlock lolled his head back and closed his eyes. When they had all discussed making the trip to see Mycroft and Anthea in Sussex, he had selfishly hoped that the baby would have been born before their arrival. It was his misfortune that the moment the carriage pulled up to Mycroft’s estate, the British Nation rushed out in a panic, shouting for a doctor.
While one of his staff took off to fetch the doctor, Molly had strode inside, whipping off her cloak and demanding hot water, clean sheets, and 'for goodness’ sake Mycroft, calm yourself!'
Three hours later, neither the doctor nor the baby had arrived, and Sherlock was finding it hard to sit still. He drummed his fingers, he bounced his leg, he reorganised his Mind Palace’s filing system… twice. His father calmly read a book he’d plucked from Mycroft’s expansive library. Eventually, the lateness of the hour and the tiredness from the long drive took its toll on the Holmes men and they gradually dozed off.
The misty dawn was just breaking over the horizon when the doors to the study burst open, jolting both Holmes men from their light slumbers. Mycroft leaned against the doorframe, panting and dishevelled, a look of rapturous wonder on his face. Sherlock and Timothy jumped to their feet.
He looked between them and a smile broke across his pale face. ‘I have a daughter.’
Timothy strode across the room and enveloped his eldest child in a hug, exclaiming loudly, ‘Congratulations, my boy! Finally, a girl in the line of Holmes.’
Neither mentioned the tears of joy in their eyes, clapping each other’s backs and laughing. Sherlock rolled his eyes, but allowed himself a small smile while they weren’t looking.
‘I should have known Anthea would have her way.’
‘There was an equal chance she would have been a boy, Sherlock,’ Molly chastised him with a teasing frown.
He huffed, but didn’t retort. They sat in silence for a few minutes, relishing the calm after the storm. Anthea and Mycroft were upstairs with Violet and Timothy and their yet-to-be-named daughter. Sherlock had declined the invitation to meet his niece, claiming he couldn’t be introduced to someone without a name.
Molly, of course, had seen right through him to the soft heart beneath the gruffness. He needed some time to process the change in dynamic, but she knew he already loved the little girl he’d yet to meet.
Molly sighed and snuggled deeper into the sofa cushions. So tired was she, that she didn’t even think to cover her mouth as she yawned. Beside her, Sherlock chuckled and she peeked one eye open to glare at him.
‘Men who slept while I was delivering a baby have no right to laugh at me,’ she pouted.
‘Are you sure you don’t want to go to bed?’
She shook her head. ‘Not until the doctor gets here. I want to be nearby if Anthea or the baby needs me.’
Sherlock ran his gaze over her. Her hair was in complete disarray and she had bags under her eyes, she had changed into a fresh gown, but it was wrinkled from being packed, and she kept yawning.
She was utterly captivating.
‘You were incredible tonight.’
Molly blushed under his praise and gave a small smile. ‘She’s a beautiful baby.’
Yawning again, she shifted into a more comfortable position, leaning into the plush cushions and struggling to keep her eyes open. Sherlock reached out and boldly twined his fingers with hers, a warm contentment flowing through him when she moved closer.
He furrowed his brow before asking, ‘Have you… ever thought about having children, Molly?’
He felt her tense and he glanced up in time to see her eyes snap open and a flash of panic cross her face.
She blinked and feigned nonchalance, shrugging one shoulder. ‘Not to any great extent.’
‘Molly…’ He frowned at her evasive fib.
‘I suppose,’ she paused and bit her lip. ‘I suppose I just gave up hope once my time passed me by and I wasn’t married.’
Sherlock stared at her in surprise. ‘I don’t understand. You’re beautiful, no, you are,’ he emphasized when she looked away. ‘You’re intelligent, a bit socially lacking, but your dancing abilities are more than compensatory. You’re kind and forgiving and loving. And you just delivered a baby.’
She flushed at the pride in his voice.
‘In essence, you are the ideal woman. So why haven’t you married?’
Molly gnawed on her bottom lip for a moment. ‘I didn’t have many chances to meet any potential husbands. My time was spent helping my father with his practice or keeping house. And the men I did meet weren’t exactly thrilled by what I offered.’
She laughed ruefully. ‘Who wants a wife who would rather read about a reanimated corpse than primp in front of a mirror to look beautiful? Who wants a wife who would rather teach their children about politics and science than how to marry well and rub noses with high society?’
Without hesitation, Sherlock said, ‘I do.’
Molly’s head snapped up. ‘You what?’ Her eyes were wide, all traces of sleepiness gone.
Sherlock drew back, surprised at his own declaration. ‘I…’
She leaned forward. ‘Yes?’
He hadn’t intended to blurt it out in his brother’s sitting room, the both of them tired and weary from the long ride and subsequent birth. But he had and now she was looking at him with hope and love in her eyes and all his well-thought out words fled.
He cleared his throat and looked down at their entwined hands. ‘To me, you are not only the ideal woman, you are the only woman. The only woman I have ever and will ever consider making my wife.’
He glanced up at her and saw that her eyes were glistening, wide with wonder.
‘I know this is rather soon, especially after everything that happened, but…’ He swallowed and reached into his breast pocket, pulling out the ring he’d been carrying and held it out. Her gaze flew between the ring and him.
‘Sherlock?’ She whispered in disbelief.
‘Your father gave me his consent long ago...’ He trailed off, his eyes softening in sadness. ‘And despite my actions, I would hope he still approved of me.’
Molly nodded as a tear fell down her cheek.
He brushed his thumb across the empty expanse of her ring finger. ‘I love you, Molly Hooper. Will you marry me?’
Wiping the tear away, Molly broke into a wide smile. ‘Yes, of course!’
Sighing in relief, Sherlock slid the ring onto her finger, officially making her his betrothed. She looked down at the ruby and gold ring that fit perfectly on her finger and, if possible, her smile grew brighter.
‘I love you, Sherlock.’
He lost himself in her big brown eyes, completely content, until she said, ‘But let’s not tell anyone just yet.’
‘Whyever not?’ He asked, incredulous.
She tilted her head with an exasperated smile. ‘Mycroft and Anthea deserve to have their time celebrating their daughter without competing with us.’
Sherlock pursed his lips, a wicked gleam in his eye. ‘Or, while they’re distracted by the child, we could sneak away to, say, Gretna Green?’
‘Sherlock Holmes!’ Molly gasped. ‘Are you suggesting that we abandon your family during this celebration for a runaway wedding in Scotland?!’
He leaned closer and looked at her with all his tricks; furrowed brow, pouting lips, and a smouldering stare. ‘Don’t tell me you aren’t tempted.’
‘I love your mother far too much to risk incurring her wrath should we elope, Mr Holmes,’ Molly said, trying to hide the waver in her voice and the blush in her cheeks from the force of his gaze.
‘You are far too good for me.’ He sat back with a sigh. ‘Fine, no eloping.’
Molly smiled understandingly.
He took her hand and pressed a kiss to her fingers, just below her betrothal ring, looking up at her with burning intensity. ‘Just don’t make me wait too long, Miss Hooper.’
Her pulse jumped beneath his fingers and her blush travelled down under her décolletage.‘Oh, Mr Holmes, I don’t think I could even if I wanted to.’
Chapter 30: Epilogue
‘Good evening, Mr Holmes.’
Molly stepped out onto the private balcony and felt her entire body sing when Sherlock turned around, his eyes dark. He took in her unbound hair and silk nightgown with an appreciative smile.
‘You are beautiful.’ He held out his hand and pulled her toward him. She rested her hands against his lapels, admiring the stretch of his black coat across his broad chest.
Molly hummed happily when he leaned down and kissed her tenderly. Her arms slid up and around his neck and hands gripped her waist firmly, keeping her close. When they finally broke apart, Molly was delighted to see the dazed look on his face.
‘Did you enjoy today?’ She asked, brushing her hands along his chest.
‘Tolerably.’ He dipped his head into the curve of her neck and slowly laid a trail of kisses along her neck to her jaw. She tilted her head to the side and caught his lips, kissing him until she felt weak in the knees. ‘Now, I am very much looking forward to having you all to myself for the next month.’
‘Surely marrying me was not such a burden?’ She giggled when his curls tickled her cheek.
He pulled back and cupped her cheeks. ‘Marrying you, most definitely not. But having to share you all day with a hundred people? That I could have done without.’
She slid her fingers through his curls, relishing the new, delightful feeling of the silky strands. He groaned at her touch. ‘Mmm, wasn’t the four week wait worth it?’
‘We’ll have to see.’ He smirked and suddenly bent down, slipping his arm under her knees and sweeping her into his arms.
Molly gasped and wrapped her arms around his neck, her surprise turning into soft laughter as Sherlock carried her back into the bedroom.
Laying her down on their bed, Sherlock kissed her deeply, pulling back only when they were both breathless. ‘I love you, Mrs Holmes.’
‘I love you, too.’
Her bright smile warmed his heart and when she slid her arms around his neck and lifted herself up to kiss him again, he knew that, though the journey had been long, it had been worth it in the end.
30 Years Later: The Holmes Estate
It was a beautiful warm summer day with sunny skies and nary a cloud in sight.
Molly leaned back in the patio chair with a happy sigh and sipped her lemonade. ‘How are you feeling, my dear?’
Julia placed her hand atop her rounded belly and smiled. ‘Tired. And quite ready to meet him.’
‘Her,’ William corrected as he stepped out onto the patio and took the seat beside his wife at the patio table. He threaded his fingers through hers and Molly felt her heart melt as her son lifted Julia’s hand to his lips. Matching blushes graced the couple’s cheeks, even after six years of marriage.
‘We’ll see,’ Julia teased. Mycroft’s son, Frederick, and his wife Charlotte, laughed at William’s mock pout.
Molly lifted her glass to hide her smile just as the door opened and a gaggle of children burst out onto the veranda, followed by Sherlock.
Five-year-old Emma immediately ran up to Julia. ‘Mummy, Granddad said he’s going to show us the bees!’
Julia raised her eyebrows and said, ‘Is that so? And did Granddad ask Mummy if that was okay?’ She looked up at him knowingly. Sherlock simply adopted an innocent look and picked up the nearest child, Mycroft and Anthea’s grandson Nicholas, holding the four-year-old in front of him like a shield.
‘I thought it was time to begin their education. I have the appropriate garb for them and the younger ones will be watching from a safe distance.’
William and Julia exchanged glances, as did Frederick and Charlotte. Finally, Julia turned to her father-in-law with a fond smile. ‘Oh, go on then.’
The jubilant cries of the children as they raced back inside to change faded to the background as Sherlock set Nicholas down and walked over to Molly, bending down to kiss her cheek. His curls were now more silver than black and his face bore lines from age and several fading scars from past cases.
And Molly loved him more today than she did all the days of their marriage.
‘Mycroft and Anthea will be arriving soon with Daniel and his brood. And John and Mary’s families are due to arrive tomorrow.’ He leaned his head against hers and sighed. ‘Why did you invite everyone here this weekend?’
Molly reached back and patted his cheek. ‘Because it’s been too long since we’ve all been together. And because you love them.’
He brushed his nose against her temple and whispered the three words he never failed to say every day. ‘I love you.’
She smiled and looked into his heart-stopping eyes. ‘And I love you.’
‘Come on, Granddad!’
He pulled back with a mock groan and turned his head to find five children standing behind him, swallowed in their too-large beekeeper outfits and staring up at him in barely-contained excitement, their little bodies practically vibrating in anticipation.
‘Go train the next generation of apiarists.’ Molly smiled and pushed his chest until he straightened up.
With his trademark smirk, he winked at her then spun on his heels. ‘All right, my Apiary Apprentices, let us begin!’
Molly’s heart filled with joy as she watched her husband usher the children across the lawn toward the hives.
It was more than a beautiful day.
It was a beautiful life.
I hope you all enjoyed the story! It's been so much fun to be a part of the Sherlolly Big Bang and I'm so glad I was able to finish in time for the reveal! This story quickly got out of hand and it was such a wild ride writing it!
A million and one thanks to my sweet friend and unparalleled Beta, Mandy95! Thanks for keeping me encouraged, on track, and historically accurate (and putting up with my, frankly horrifying, inaccurate grasp of all things history-related). You're the best!