“You look very nice,” I told her, because she did—floor-length dress, dark lips, her hair tied up in a knot.
“I know,” she sighed. “Isn’t it awful? Let’s get this over with.”
EMMA HOLMES WASN’T SPEAKING TO ME. SHE WASN’T really speaking to anyone. Her left hand glittered with rings, and she was using it to rub the back of her neck. The other was busy with her wineglass. This wouldn’t be a problem except that if their dining room was a continent (it was the size of one), I was sitting somewhere in Siberia.
I’d been placed between Holmes’s mother and the silent, sullen daughter of the Czech ambassador, a girl named Eliska who gave me a once-over and sent a pleading look up into the ceiling. Either she could sniff out my lack of a trust fund, or she’d been hoping for a taller, buffer Jamie Watson, one who looked a little more like a volunteer fireman and less like a volunteer librarian. Either way, I’d been left to make small talk with Holmes’s mother while Eliska sighed over her food.
Holmes—my Holmes, if she was that—wasn’t any help. She’d cut up all the food on her plate and was now busily rearranging it, but I could tell from the distant look in her eyes that she was preoccupied with the conversation at the other end of the table. The only conversation, actually, something about the going prices for Picasso sketches. Alistair Holmes was correcting the weaselly-looking museum curator. Of course he knew more about art than someone who worked at the Louvre. I couldn’t muster the energy to be surprised.
In fact, I couldn’t muster much energy at all. I kept waiting for the threat in this place to be made real, something I could see or hear, something I could counter. I’d expected a colder welcome. Holmeses falling over themselves to put me in my intellectual place. Maybe an actual flaming hoop. What I’d gotten instead was some very nice food and one cryptic conversation with Holmes’s father. I thought back to the warning she’d given me before we’d arrived, and I couldn’t make heads or tails of it.
“Sherringford? What a horrid school,” Alistair was saying. “Yes, it’s been something of a disappointment, but we had no doubt that Charlotte acquitted herself well, despite the circumstances.”
Charlotte’s smile was small and cold.
“I’m sorry to be so quiet, James,” her mother said to me in a low voice. “I’ve been having a rough go of it recently. In and out of hospital. I hope you’re enjoying your dinner.”
“It’s great, thanks. I’m sorry you’re not feeling well.”
At that, Holmes’s attention snapped back to me. “Mother,” she said, scraping her fork against her plate. “You really could ask Jamie some of the standard questions. It’s not a difficult script to remember. How does he like school. Does he have any sisters. Et cetera.”
Her mother flushed. “Of course. Did you have a nice stay in London? Lottie loves it there.”
“We had a lot of fun,” I told her, giving her daughter a dirty look. Her mother seemed to be doing her best. I felt bad for her, all dressed up in this ridiculous room when she clearly wished she was back in bed. “Walked along the Thames. Saw a lot of bookshops. Nothing too demanding.”
“I always think it’s nice to take a break after a difficult semester. From what I’ve heard, yours was especially so.”
I laughed. “An understatement, actually.”
Her mother nodded, eyes half-focused. “And remind me. Why was it, again, that you and my daughter were immediately suspected for that boy’s murder? I understand that he attacked her. But why on earth were you involved?”
“I didn’t volunteer to be a suspect, if that’s what you’re asking.” I tried to keep my tone light.
“Well, the reason I’d been given was that you’d been nursing some ridiculous crush on my daughter, but I still don’t understand how that demanded your involvement.”
It was as if I’d been hit across the face. “What? I—”
Charlotte continued rearranging her food. Her expression hadn’t changed.
“It’s a simple question,” her mother said in that quiet voice. “A more complicated one would be, why are you still shadowing her if those circumstances have resolved themselves? I don’t see why she has any use of you now.”
“I’m fairly sure she likes me.” I enunciated my words. Not out of spite—I was terrified that I would stutter. “We’re friends, spending time together over the winter holiday. It’s not a new concept.”
“Ah.” There was a wealth of meaning in that syllable: doubt, derision, a healthy dose of scorn. “And yet she doesn’t have friends. It hardly hurts that you’re handsome, or that you’re from reduced circumstances. I imagine you’d follow her anywhere. That combination must be catnip for a girl like our Lottie. A ready-made acolyte. But what could possibly be in it for you?”
Had we been anywhere else, with anyone else, Holmes would have barreled into this conversation like an armored tank. I knew how to defend myself, but I was so used to her quick, fearless wit that, in its absence, I found myself speechless.
And it was absent. Holmes herself was absent. Her eyes had gone dark and faraway, her fork still tracing patterns on her plate. How long had this been broiling under Emma Holmes’s skin? Or was it something concocted on the spot, a punishment for Charlotte mouthing off to her mother?