Infamous by Lex Croucher (Excerpt)

Chapter One

When the bell rang for supper up at the house, Eddie and Rose were practicing kissing.

“Your mouth is too slack,” Eddie said, slightly muffled against Rose’s lips.

“What?” said Rose, pulling away, her face very flushed despite the fact that they were sitting in a rather half-hearted tree house on the first chilly evening of a London September.

“Your mouth. It’s just sitting there, a bit wet. Sort of akin to a mollusk. I don’t mean to dictate, but as you were the one who wanted to get in the practice, I thought you ought to know.”

“Oh,” said Rose. She had one hand on Eddie’s shoulder, and her fingers tightened on it as if she were reluctant to let go. “Sorry.”

“Put your hand on the back of my neck again,” Eddie instructed, pleased to be in charge of the operation, where she felt she belonged. “Yes, like that. It was nice before, when you were really digging your nails in.”

“You are so odd,” said Rose, but her mouth was already very close to Eddie’s, which softened her words somewhat. Her fingers were tentatively exploring the hair at the nape of Eddie’s neck, and it eased the transition from talking to kissing; Eddie leaned in first and felt Rose’s lips part at once. Whatever deficiencies Eddie may have noticed during their previous attempt had already been vastly improved upon, because she found herself relaxing into this kiss, with a warmth not unlike the burn of purloined whiskey spreading slowly through her chest.

“Well, that’s more like it. I think it’s working this time,” Eddie said. “You should try with your tongue. Just to see if you’re any good at it.”

Her friend sighed as if she were going to protest, but after a few seconds Eddie felt Rose’s tongue ghost hesitantly against her bottom lip, her eyelashes fluttering against Eddie’s cheek like moth’s wings against the glass of a lamp.

They had been sitting apart, leaning across the space between them, but it suddenly occurred to Eddie that it might make more sense, logistically speaking, to press her body closer to Rose’s—so she did. That certainly improved matters even more. She could feel the swell of Rose’s chest pressing into hers now, smell the faint scent of lilac in her hair. It all seemed to be going swimmingly until Rose shifted against her and let slip a breathy, halfrestrained gasp into her mouth.

Eddie broke away and stared at her. “What the hell was that?”

“The . . . what? What was what? I don’t know,” Rose said, flushed and red-lipped and looking mortally embarrassed.

“Well, I suppose it’s a good job we’re practicing. When it comes to the real thing, you might want to keep that sort of thing in check. Oh—hang on.” Eddie cocked her head to listen as the bell rang out, interrupting the velveteen quiet. “That’s supper.”

The bell was ringing quite insistently already, with the sort of urgency that indicated an imminent fire or that the French might be coming. Eddie disentangled herself from Rose, got to her feet, and held out a hand; Rose hesitated, looking dazed, and then took it and allowed herself to be hauled upright. There was the matter of the lantern to be dealt with, but Eddie had recently innovated a particularly ingenious method of scaling the ladder with it swinging festively from her mouth. Rose, who seemed very concerned with telling Eddie which materials were and were not flammable, did not approve.

Once they had alighted safely on the ground, it was just a quick sprint across the lawn to reach the house, skirts flying up behind them as they cast long, ungainly shadows in the lamplight. All four floors of the narrow house were lit up from within, the glow spilling out onto the patio as Eddie reached the back
door and flung it open.

A few steps into the hallway, a small girl with her dark hair gathered on top of her head so that she resembled a very angry pineapple was focusing too determinedly on her task to notice that they had entered.

“You can stop ringing the bell now, Trix,” Eddie said, ruffling her youngest sister’s alarming hair as she walked past her in the direction of the dining room.

“Father said I’m doing a damn good job of it!” Beatrice shouted, over the sound of the ongoing peals. She was seven, and enthusiastic to a fault about any task she was delegated.

“Oh, you are,” Eddie heard Rose say. “It’s just that . . . Well, we’re here now, aren’t we? I’ll follow your lead, of course, but . . . I’m quite hungry.”

“All right,” said Beatrice magnanimously, followed a second later by the loud metallic thud of something heavy hitting the floor. “You look very red in the face. Were you and Eddie having a fight?”

There was a short silence.

“Yes,” Rose said eventually, and then Eddie heard her hurrying to catch up.

The large dining room already seemed rather full. Mr. and Mrs. Miller sat at either end of the table, and between them in varying states of patience sat their three middle children. Simon, who was twelve and perpetually disappointed, was staring morosely down at the table as if he suspected supper might never
come. Amelia, who had just recently celebrated her fourteenth birthday by campaigning for her own horse and crying for an impressive six days when she only received one made of wood, was humming under her breath. Lucy-Anne, who fancied herself the eldest and most mature of them all, even though she decidedly was not on either count, was glaring openly at Eddie from across the room.

“You’re really very late,” she said, as Caroline the housemaid appeared with the roast duck. “We shouldn’t have to ring a bell to fetch you in, like you’re livestock.”

Eddie ignored her and took a seat next to her father; Rose sat down next to Simon, who solemnly offered her his hand to shake.

“They were wrestling in the tree house,” Beatrice said helpfully, scrambling into her own seat, which had been pre-cushioned to ensure maximum height and a greater sense of authority over proceedings.

“Oh, Edith,” said Mrs. Miller, sounding tired but unsurprised. “You are a woman of two-and-twenty. Don’t you think you’re a little old for that sort of thing?”

“I wish you’d told me you were going to wrestle,” added Simon. “If I’m really not to have any brothers, you ought to think of me and extend an invitation to any horseplay, don’t you agree? Think next time, Ed.”

“Did you get in any good right hooks?” said Mr. Miller, sounding interested. “Are you keeping your thumbs out, like I showed you?”

Eddie looked up and surveyed them. For some reason they were all looking at her expectantly. She glanced at Rose, bemused, and then picked up her fork and pointed at the spread in front of them.

“If you’re quite finished with the interrogation,” she said, “this bird is not going to eat itself.”

After supper they gathered in the drawing room, as was customary, although their approach to the whole ceremony was noticeably lax. In other houses across London, men would be huddling to discuss war, finances, or recent sporting endeavors, and ladies would be laughing from behind their fans or preparing
to entertain with a jaunty tune on the pianoforte; at the Millers’, Beatrice was clinging on to Simon’s leg like a limpet as he walked, and Eddie was holding a piece of cake in her mouth, shedding crumbs as she led them into the room.

“What’s the latest story about?” Rose asked Eddie once they were settled.

The heavy blue drapes were closed, the smell of her father’s pipe smoke filling the air, and Lucy-Anne had started playing her harp with a sense of grandiosity and an excess of flourishes that did not quite match the occasion. She kept shooting them all furious, narrow-eyed looks every time they were too loud; juxtaposed with the angelic piece she was playing, it was starting to feel like a very surreal performance about the duality of man.

Eddie unfolded the rather ink-stained and crumpled wad of paper from her pocket and smoothed it out on the polished walnut table between them.

“Do not get ink on my polished walnut table,” Mrs. Miller said from her customary chair in the corner. Eddie rolled her eyes.

“This one,” she said, leaning in close to Rose with a dangerous grin, “is about lady pirates.”

“They don’t let ladies be pirates,” Simon said from underneath the table. “They are bad luck, and bad omens, and their arms are too small to put hooks on the end. Imagine how silly it would look, to have a spindly little arm and a big great hook at the end of it.”

Simon!” Beatrice shouted. “They’d just get smaller hooks. There isn’t just one size of hook, you ninny!”

“I am having a private conversation,” Eddie said, although she knew it was futile. Their house was generously proportioned and should have been more than big enough for all seven of them—eight, if Rose was to be included, as she almost always was—but no matter which room she entered in search of some much-needed privacy, there always seemed to be at least one sibling in there, ricocheting off the walls or demanding help with their dress or asking if she thought their fingernails had grown a suspicious amount since last inspected.

“Go on,” Rose said, nudging Eddie’s foot with hers underneath the table, and narrowly avoiding kicking Simon in the ear.

“These were real lady pirates,” Eddie said loudly, mostly for Simon’s benefit, but also to encourage Beatrice, should she have aspirations of a piratical nature. “From just a hundred years ago. Anne Bonny and Mary Read. They dressed as men and they pillaged the Seven Seas and then, when the time came for them to
face the noose, they pleaded their bellies so they wouldn’t swing.”

“God,” said Rose, looking fascinated and a bit sick. “Is that what your story is about, then?”

“No,” said Eddie. “My version imagines them as young academics, disguised as men so they can study at university. They meet for the first time in a teahouse, both reaching for the last piece of gingerbread. A tense argument ensues.”

“Which one of them gets it on their hook first?” said Beatrice, already entranced, if slightly confused. Amelia, who had been lying facedown much too close to the fireplace, flopped gracelessly onto her back. Even their father had lowered his book and was waiting expectantly for Eddie to speak.

“You’d all better be quiet if you want me to read it,” she said sternly. There were general noises of assent, except from LucyAnne, who only played the harp more loudly.

“All right. It was a cold, misty morning in March when Anne Bonny opened the door to the Jelly Roger Tea House—for all intents and purposes a morning like any other, although the events that were about to transpire were to change the course of her life forever . . .”