Today's Reading

I hauled myself up and set to righting my disheveled clothing. Try as I might, I simply could not get used to trousers, even the white cotton ones we used for training. They were forever becoming twisted up around my legs, and it was impossible to look dignified wearing them. Not that there was anything dignified about me that morning. Even my carefully pinned hair had come undone, leaving wisps of strawberry blond poking out in all directions.

"Shall I fetch us some water?" Thomas headed for the washstand, leaving me alone with the handful of other new recruits gathered around the tumbling mat for the morning lesson. I tried to busy myself with repinning my hair, but I was painfully aware of their gazes. We were few in the special branch—barely more than a dozen in the entire country, nearly half of whom were new recruits like me—but even so, there was always an audience for my humiliation.

"Well done with the falling, Miss Gallagher," Cabot Fisk drawled. "It's important to have a specialty." A ripple of amusement went through the group of gentlemen, though most were too well bred to laugh out loud.

"And here I thought my specialty was fieldwork," I said, and had the satisfaction of watching Fisk's expression curdle. At the moment, I was the only first-year recruit on active field duty, which went a long way to explaining the chilly reception I'd had from my peers. At least, that was what I told myself.

"Here we are." Thomas reappeared with a cup of water. "Now, you gentlemen will get along fine without us?"

Fisk gave a crisp nod. "Admirably, sir, thank you."

"Excellent. Mr. Murray, you'll take over as lead. Please observe the proceedings carefully—I'll want a full account later. Miss Gallagher, shall we?"

I held my head high in retreat, but I could feel their eyes following us out of the hall.

"You're still trying to counter me," Thomas was saying as we walked. "Rather, try to use my momentum against me. That way, strength and weight become irrelevant..." And so on, but I wasn't really listening. All I wanted was to get out of that training hall—a repurposed ballroom, actually—away from the whispers and judging eyes, and take a nice long soak in the porcelain tub in my bathroom.

Yes, you read that right. My own bathroom. You had to hand it to the special branch: They'd spared no expense when it came to grooming their new crop of agents. The Queen Anne "cottage" they'd leased as a training facility sprawled over a verdant expanse of Ochre Point, one of Newport's most eligibly situated communities. It boasted fifty rooms, including a library, music hall, billiard room, and something called a conservatory, which was stuffed with so many potted ferns that it resembled a small outpost of the Amazon. There were tennis courts, stables, a shooting range, and ample gardens. Best of all, each guest chamber was equipped with its own bathroom, a luxury I'd taken full advantage of. I'd thought it was a step up trading the communal privies in Mam's tenement for the shared servants' bathroom in Thomas Wiltshire's Fifth Avenue row house. But private guest bathrooms—why, even Mr. Burrows, who was rich as a Rockefeller, was astonished to hear of it.

Of course, none of this opulence was for our benefit. It just provided a convenient disguise for the true nature of the training facility, which, like everything else about the special branch, was a closely guarded secret. Here in Ochre Point, we could hide in plain sight, blending in amongst the Boston Brahmins and New York Knickerbockers at play. Riding, shooting, archery—the silk-stocking pastimes of the East Coast aristocracy provided the perfect cover for all manner of weapons training. To the casual observer, our little band of novice agents would appear to be nothing more than a group of wealthy vacationers. And if we kept to ourselves—well, our blue-blooded neighbors were only too happy to keep their distance from the vulgar nouveaux riches.

Luxurious as it was, though, I'd had my fill of it—the theoretical classes, the etiquette lessons, the infernal jujitsu. Most of all, the inescapable feeling that I was a disappointment to Thomas, who'd vouched for me so staunchly.

"Rose." He touched my arm, drawing me up short. As my partner, Thomas could take such liberties—an intimacy that also allowed him to guess my thoughts. "Try not to be so hard on yourself," he said. "These things don't come easily to anyone."

"Are you sure about that?" I kept my gaze on the parquet floor, unable to meet his eye. "The others seem to manage just fine."

"That's hardly a fair comparison. Those gentlemen are all accomplished athletes. Cabot Fisk was a champion boxer at Yale. Lawrence Murray wrestled for Columbia, and Archibald Rennington gives fencing lessons at the Pewter Club. On top of which, the mere fact that they're—"

"Men?"

"I was going to say lucky."
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