"If I might have your attention," Violet called out.
Twenty or so women, ranging in age from eighteen to eighty-five, turned their faces to Violet. Despite the circumstances, her pride and joy in what they'd created here buoyed her spirits. These members of the true Athena's Retreat were sworn to secrecy—bound by a set of rules that encouraged the sharing of knowledge and the protection of one another.
Violet's bubble of happiness punctured at the sight of Mrs. Sweet, arms folded and lips pursed in a disapproving moue. Violet ventured a tentative wave in the housekeeper's direction.
Mrs. Sweet did not wave back.
"We had a small accident this evening," Violet announced.
"You mean Milly and Willy were at it again." A dry, cultured voice cut through the amused murmuring.
"Ahem." Violet shot a warning glance at the commentator, Lady Phoebe Hunt. Violet had hoped to avoid a discussion of Milly and Willy's propensity for damage. "A benefit of Athena's Retreat connecting to my home, Beacon House, is the ability to pass off some of the phenomena that occur here as coming from my kitchen."
"Your cook is not going to like it," Letty noted.
"Thank you, Miss Fenley, for the reminder," Violet said. "As club president, I delegate it to you to figure out an alternate explanation for the noise and record the explanation in our club diary."
Letty blinked in consternation, but Violet had other concerns.
"We must cut our activities short tonight," she continued. "Otherwise, we risk exposing the truth of what happens behind the public rooms."
"Is the threat of explosion over?" Lady Phoebe leaned back and kicked one expensive boot onto a stool, flipping a hand in Milly's direction. "I don't want my work burned to a crisp because these two reckless—"
"Reckless? Brilliant, rather," Willy said. "Someday, our work will change the economy of the whole of Britain." The flapping of her cap, which hung from the side of her topknot like a singed flag, offset Willy's indignation as she waved her arms to make a point. "You, on the other hand, would rather feature in the gossip papers than finish your work. I haven't seen hide nor hair of any advances in the so-called process of electrolysis."
Violet interrupted this conversation before it turned into a protracted row. "Either way, can we call a halt to any experiments posing the threat of explosion? Please, remember we host our first public event in a month. Miss Fenley has advertised it as An Evening of Education and Elucidation."
"How appallingly alliterative," said Phoebe.
"It's An Evening of Edification and Entertainment," Letty reminded Violet.
"That's even worse," Milly whispered.
Violet took a moment to smooth her features into a ladylike blandness. "There is much to be gained by recruiting more members to our club, and everything to lose if we become a subject of ridicule. For tonight, a discreet exit would be best. Will you begin, Lady Phoebe?"
"Discreet may not be in the cards, my lady," Letty said. "It seems a handful of reporters have been waiting outside to speak with Lady Phoebe. Something about a wager with Lord Henderson?"
"He was tormenting Althea Dertlinger," Phoebe said with mock innocence. "All I did was wager I could fit my entire boot in his—"
"They were so noisy the neighbors alerted the watch," Letty said, addressing Violet. "When I asked Winthram to call us hackneys, he reported that a crowd had gathered at the entrance. Among them is your stepson, Lord Greycliff."
Dozens of women surrounded Violet as she ushered them to the cloakroom, where Winthram, the doorman, helped them with their coats and bonnets. Outside the club entrance, the throng of reporters waited for her and Phoebe to appear. Once the events of the night were finished, more bodies would envelop her as servants prepared her for bed.
Yet amid all these people, Violet Greycliff had never felt so alone.
* * *