Today's Reading

"There now, that's settled. We shall have our party, and a marvelous time shall be had by all. Dinner, laughter, good conversation. Perhaps an impromptu dance or two. It will be splendid, won't it, Fred?" Mum leaned an ear to the ermine's snout and nodded. "Fred concurs. Now let's be off before those horrible French fashions change my mind."

Clara hastened to match Mum's gait, twitching temple now a pounding migraine in the making. Somehow, she must prevent this dinner party from ending in disaster. Somehow, she must corral Mum's menagerie of rescued animals, make the house appear as normal as possible, and keep a wary eye on their sixteen guests. If she spotted any evidence of a wolf in sheep's clothing—so much as one wolf hair on a guest's woolen coat—out the door they'd go! She refused to lower her guard and let her family be put in greater peril because of her misplaced trust.

She set her jaw. By might and main, this day would not end with the remaining pieces of her heart being carted off to a madhouse and locked away forever. She'd already lost two people she loved to the horrors of an asylum.

She'd not lose another.

Years ago, she'd been too young and powerless to save her family from that pain. Now she had the advantage of years and wisdom. She was a strong, independent woman, after all. She could take care of her own. On her own.

Clara pulled back her knotted shoulders. Of course she could. For she would not let down her family and her God a second time.

Now. Wherever was she to hide the infernal talking parrot?


CHAPTER TWO

Hello again, London, old girl."

Theodore planted his crutch on the street, absorbing the rattling, growling city that thrummed beneath his single worn boot. He inhaled the city's unique stench—burning coal, horse manure, sewage from the Thames, and a hint of pretentious cologne. Just like he remembered.

By George, how he'd missed this place. Countless times, he'd wanted to return. Longed to return. How excruciating it had been to wait for the haggard years and hard miles to form a rusted patina on his polished appearance and thus eliminate the risk of being recognized. Now, finally, that day had come. All that remained was to find some tucked-away spot where he could settle down, tinker for his supper, and forget why he'd been forced to become a vagabond in the first place. A peddler woman trudged by with a basket of posies clutched in her arthritic hands. Theodore acknowledged her with the tip of an imaginary hat. Her wrinkled grin set him off with a jaunty air to his one-legged, crutch-aided gait. Right-oh. Everything was going to be all right. The sun had risen in the east, constant and reliable as a finely crafted clock. Life carried on with a chorus of clomping horse hooves, shouting costermongers, and laughing street urchins celebrating the spoils of a successfully picked pocket. And now it was his turn to—

"Oi, get back here!"

A ragamuffin barreled into Theodore and knocked him off-kilter. Reeling, he braced against his prop and tensed every muscle, somehow managing not to hit the ground as a ruddy constable dashed by in pursuit. The crutch dug into Theodore's armpit as he breathed through clenched teeth, clinging to the names he'd carved deep in the woodgrain. The names of the men he'd lost at the Charge. A tribute to the fallen, and a tangible reminder that he was just like them. Forgotten in death.

Father had made sure of that.

Quickly, Theodore shoved the memories back in the clock casing that kept his pain hidden. Contained. Without that mental encasement...without Arthur...he wouldn't have been able to carry on all those years ago. Only when the case door was shut tight and his broken pieces locked away was he able to find his bearings. Right-oh. Everything was going to be all right...so long as he could keep up the pretense that nothing was wrong.

After trekking along for an hour or so, he reached the tick-tocking heartbeat of London's timepiece trade, where entire streets were lined with clockmakers' shops. Ones that hopefully needed an extra pair of hands. Question was, which one would be willing to hire a drifter off the street?

All the shops appeared to have been designed by one architect with traditional tastes and a limited imagination. Wrought-iron hooks held glossy signs overhead that the elements were forbidden to touch. Marble columns framed every doorway like pairs of footmen in livery, afraid to so much as sneeze. Immaculate window displays boasted refinement and perfection, luring full purses with ornate clocks that varied from porcelain mantelpiece numbers to longcase clocks inlaid with gold. Fine goods that indicated a chap wouldn't get far without a smart suit and impressive references.

Yet one establishment at the end of the lane stood out like a hearty smile amid upturned noses. An older building ambushed by progress and surrounded by new construction. No fewer than six paint colors flaked off the speckled storefront, each shade representing a different season—long ago—when the owner had still bothered to keep up appearances. The windows were devoid of wares for sale. Devoid of anything apart from dusty curtains that veiled the interior in mystery. There wasn't even a sign over the door, just a pair of rusted chains robbed of purpose. Surely this place wouldn't snub a man who blended so well into its façade?
...

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