Victoria Thompson

Murder On Waverly Place

Book 11 in the Gaslight Mysteries series, 2009

To Ryan,

the very newest Thompson!


WITH A WEARY SIGH, SARAH BRANDT PUSHED OPEN THE front door of her house. She’d been awake for more than thirty-six hours, and she wanted nothing more than a quick bite to eat and a long night in the comfort of her own bed. But as she closed the door behind her, she heard a childish shriek of joy and all her fatigue fell away.

She looked up to see her daughter, Catherine, clattering down the stairs to greet her. “Mama!” she cried in a voice that was almost normal and threw her small arms around Sarah’s legs.

Sarah blinked back tears. When she’d found Catherine at the Prodigal Son Mission a few months ago, she wouldn’t speak at all. She’d appeared on the doorstep of the Mission one morning, and no one knew a thing about her life up until that moment except that something had frightened her into total silence. For months she’d remained mute, and only after coming to live with Sarah had she finally begun to speak again.

“What have you and Maeve been doing while I was gone?” Sarah asked, setting her medical bag on the floor so she could hug Catherine back.

The child looked up, her brown eyes wide with excitement. “Mrs. Decker is here!” she reported happily.

Sarah looked up in surprise to see her mother coming down the stairs at a more sedate pace than Catherine had used. Elizabeth Decker wore a simple dress that gave no indication her husband was one of the wealthiest men in New York City.

“Home at last,” Mrs. Decker said with a smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes. Sarah thought her mother must have been worried about her.

“It was a difficult case,” midwife Sarah Brandt explained apologetically, thinking of the breech birth that had taken forever, only to be followed by an unexpected twin sibling. The surprised parents had needed more than a little reassurance. “Have you been here long?”

“All afternoon,” Mrs. Decker said. “But Catherine and Maeve kept me entertained.”

“We played with my doll house,” Catherine reported. “I got new furniture for the nursery.”

“Did you?” Sarah asked with a meaningful look at her mother.

“Yes, she did,” Mrs. Decker confirmed without apology.

“It’s beautiful,” Maeve added. The young woman who served as Catherine’s nursemaid had come down the steps behind Mrs. Decker.

“I’m sure it is,” Sarah said.

“We saved you some ham from supper,” Maeve said. “I’ll fix you something to eat.”

“Thank you,” Sarah said with heartfelt appreciation. “I’m starving.”

“And you’re exhausted, too,” Mrs. Decker said with the slightest trace of disapproval. She didn’t like the idea of her daughter earning her own living, especially when she had a family who was more than able to support her in grand style.

“Come see my new furniture,” Catherine begged, taking Sarah’s hand and tugging her toward the stairs.

“Let your mama take off her things first,” Mrs. Decker said, and Catherine obediently dropped Sarah’s hand and waited with ill-disguised impatience while Sarah removed her hat and jacket.

The next hour passed in a blur as Sarah went upstairs to admire the new doll house furniture, then ate the hearty supper Maeve had reheated for her while listening to a recounting of Catherine’s day. While Sarah was eating, her mother’s driver returned for her, but to Sarah’s surprise, she asked him to wait while she visited with Sarah a bit longer. Finally, Maeve took Catherine up to get her ready for bed, and Sarah had a chance to speak to her mother alone.

“Won’t Father be wondering where you are?” Sarah asked as they sat across the kitchen table from each other.

“He’s out of town on business,” she said, giving her another of those tense smiles. Only now did Sarah realize that the strain she’d sensed earlier in her mother went deeper than simple worry over Sarah’s safety.

“What’s wrong?” she asked, certain now that something must be. Why else would her mother ask her driver to keep the horses standing in the street? “Are you ill? Is Father ill?”

“No, no, don’t be silly,” Mrs. Decker said. “What makes you think something’s wrong?”

“You came here to visit, but instead of going home at a decent hour, you’ve been waiting for me to come home, and… Well, I can see that something is bothering you. What is it, Mother?”

Mrs. Decker smiled again, sadly this time. “I’m amazed at your powers of perception, Sarah. But nothing’s wrong, nothing at all, I assure you. I just… I wanted to ask a favor of you.”

“A favor?” Sarah couldn’t think of a single favor a poor midwife could do for a society matron like her mother.

“Yes, I… It’s difficult to explain, so please, Sarah, have an open mind and don’t judge me until you’ve heard me out.”

“Don’t judge you?” Sarah echoed in dismay, wondering what her mother could have done to merit judgment. “When have I ever judged you?”

“You can be quite uncharitable about other people’s… weaknesses, Sarah,” her mother said.

Sarah gaped at her in astonishment. “I’m not uncharitable!” she insisted, stung by the accusation. “And what weaknesses could you possibly…?” Her voice trailed off as she had a most horrifying thought. “Have you taken a lover?”

Her mother gaped back at her in equal astonishment, and Sarah watched the emotions race across the familiar face-surprise, amazement, revulsion, and then amusement that finally dissolved into hysterical laughter. Elizabeth Decker, one of New York society’s four hundred most elite members, was suddenly howling with laughter at Sarah’s kitchen table.

“I suppose this means I was wrong about the lover,” Sarah guessed wryly as her mother tried to compose herself.

“Oh, dear me, yes,” Mrs. Decker assured her as she wiped the tears from her eyes with a lace-trimmed handkerchief that cost more than Sarah earned in a month. “A lover! What on earth made you think of such a thing?”

“You asked me not to judge you,” Sarah reminded her tartly. “And you said I was uncharitable. I tried to think of what you could have done that I would find unforgivable.”

“And moral turpitude was the only thing that came to mind?”

“It also had to be something you were embarrassed to tell me,” she said, realizing it for the first time herself. The strain she’d sensed in her mother was embarrassment, not worry.

Mrs. Decker sobered. “Oh, yes, well, perhaps that is part of it. Not embarrassment, exactly, but a bit of… discomfort.”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake, just tell me,” Sarah said in exasperation. “It can’t be worse than what I was

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