What connects a botanical illustration of a butterfly with a missing baby and an enigma fifty years in the making?
‘A twisty historical mystery from a bestselling Australian author.’
Theodora Breckenridge, still in mourning after the loss of her parents and brother at sea, is more interested in working quietly on her art at the family’s country estate than she is finding a husband in Sydney society, even if her elder sister Florence has other ideas. Theodora seeks to emulate prestigious nature illustrators, the Scott sisters, who lived nearby, so she cannot believe her luck when she discovers a butterfly never before sighted in Australia. With the help of Clarrie, her maid, and her beautiful illustrations, she is poised to make a natural science discovery that will put her name on the map. Then Clarrie’s new-born son goes missing and everything changes.
When would-be correspondent Verity Binks is sent an anonymous parcel containing a spectacular butterfly costume and an invitation to the Sydney Artists Masquerade Ball on the same day she loses her job at The Arrow, she is both baffled and determined to go. Her late grandfather Sid, an esteemed newspaperman, would expect no less of her. At the ball, she lands a juicy commission to write the history of the Treadwell Foundation – an institution that supports disgraced young women and their babies. But as she begins to dig, her investigation quickly leads her to an increasingly dark and complex mystery, a mystery fifty years in the making. Can she solve it? And will anyone believe her if she does?
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Excerpt from The Butterfly Collector
by Tea Cooper
The gate groaned as it swung open. Verity Binks wheeled her bicycle into the yard and slumped against the shed, waiting for the blood to return to her cramped muscles. The dunny door swinging on its rusty hinges creaked its usual greeting. She cast a hurried glance around, kicked it shut, then propped her bicycle underneath the decrepit lean-to next to the copper and wringer.
Squinting into the pool of light thrown from next door’s yard, she made her way under the clothesline and past the small patch of dirt that had originally been home to Grandma Clarrie’s prized vegetable garden. Since she was out of a job she’d have no excuse not to restore it to its former glory. She traipsed up to the house and retrieved the key from under the rock outside the door. It slid silently into the lock—one twist and she’d be inside, the door shut fast, bolts secured.
‘You’re late, love.’
Verity slapped her hand to her chest to still her thumping heart. ‘Mrs Carr, you made me jump.’
‘Not surprised, skulking around like that. Why don’t you use the front door?’
She didn’t want to confess her fear. No one who’d lived their entire life in the crazy warren of streets that made up Sydney’s oldest suburb would admit to being fazed by the occupants. ‘I came through The Cut. It was getting late and I had my bicycle.’ Besides, she hated using the front door, which opened directly into the parlour. It was like inviting the world into her sanctuary.
‘Wondered where you were. There’s a parcel. On the kitchen table.’
Ever since Grandma Clarrie and Grandpa Sid had passed, Mrs Carr had extended her role of next-door neighbour to mother hen and general busybody, but Verity couldn’t fault her—she’d provided a welcome shoulder on so many occasions. There’d been times, more than she’d like to count, when the offer of a cup of tea and a scone had saved the day. However, Mrs Carr’s habit of nipping in and out of the house rankled. Maybe the time had come to move the key to another hidey hole. ‘A parcel? Who from?’
‘No idea.’ Mrs Carr shrugged. ‘No return address, no name, no nothing. Young lad brought it. I found him hammering on the front door. Personal delivery, he said.’
She wasn’t expecting anything. In fact, couldn’t ever think of a time when she’d received a parcel other than Christmas. ‘Thank you.’
‘Right you are, love. Let me know if you need anything.’ Mrs Carr eased through the gap in the fence and disappeared into her kitchen.
Verity stepped inside, shrugged out of her coat and hung it onto the back of the chair then pulled off her cloche, shaking her hair free. A sliver of moonlight shone through the window; it threw quite enough light to see what was what—every step, every creaking board as familiar to her as the lines on her palm. The fragile pool of light revealed a large box—three foot by two, white cardboard. She ran her hand across the smooth surface and the strangest quiver rippled down her spine.
Once she’d stirred the coals to spark some latent warmth into the stove, she reached for the box of matches, lit the lamp’s wick and took a long, slow look at the box. She hooked her fingers under the lid and wriggled it, releasing a tantalising scent of the unknown, exotic—a mixture of rose, spices and something woody. Beneath the lid she discovered a mound of soft, white tissue paper and in the centre a thick cream envelope, her name scrawled across the front in black ink. The sort of envelope that would contain an invitation to a wedding—not any wedding, a society wedding. The sort of invitation that sat on a marble mantelpiece next to a carriage clock, though chance would be a fine thing.
A matching card slipped out, the writing as bold and flamboyant as the event.
SYDNEY ARTISTS MASQUERADE BALL
TOWN HALL, AUGUST 23, 1922
DANCING 8PM TO 2AM
One pound! Almost a week’s wages. She flipped it over:
TICKET NUMBER: 768
PAID IN FULL
The invitation slipped from her hand and fluttered to the tabletop. Who’d sent it? More to the point, why? Her attention flicked to the window where the scraggy fig tree in the backyard rubbed its branches against the dirty panes. Shadowy wings flitted past—bats searching for a roosting place more than like—but her reflection hampered the view and the recollection of the unease she’d felt as she’d cycled through The Cut returned. Stepping away from the window she shook off her uncanny sense of dread.
Imagination, nothing more.
She repeated the mantra. The same overactive imagination that had plagued her for the last week or so.
The box lay innocently enough in the middle of the table, tantalising, calling her bluff, willing her to investigate the cloud of tissue paper. She plucked at the corner, peered underneath.
Black material, neatly folded, rustled in approval as she lifted it from the box. A plain black, round-necked, sleeveless dress. She held it by the shoulders and dangled it in front of her body. The handkerchief hemline fell just below her knees. She swirled this way and that, admiring the simple lines and fingering the expensive material. Nothing like anything she’d ever seen, never mind worn.
As intriguing as the dress was, it didn’t seem to belong to the invitation. She lay it on the back of the chair and peered into the box. Beneath the next layer of tissue, a silken haze danced: bright orange edged in black, a row of white dots accentuating the outline. She shook it free and held it high. It hung from a choker-like collar and draped down to two points like folded wings. She picked up either side of the cape.
The wings spread, revealing wrist straps.
She fastened the shimmering silk around her neck and tucked her hands inside the loops, raised her arms then lowered them. The wings fluttering like a bird preparing for flight. Her reflection stared back at her from the darkened window. No, not a bird—a butterfly.Her curiosity drifted back to the invitation. The envelope carried her name, but the costume? Obviously intended for the ball but who had sent it? It couldn’t be a mistake; her name was emblazoned across the envelope.The Sydney Artists’ Ball—everyone was talking about it—the first since the end of the war. Sydney’s statement to the world that the dark, drear days and the scourge of the influenza lay behind. An opportunity to celebrate and raise funds for those less fortunate. Sydney Town Hall and its basement would be trans-formed. All the newspapers were full of the story, more than two thousand tickets sold and every available piece of accommodation in the city booked. Dressmakers sworn to secrecy, working late into the night to produce the obligatory costumes. Once an annual event, the balls had ceased during the war, but would be spectacularly relaunched, with a modern makeover. And she, Verity Binks, had an invitation.But did she dare to attend?She dived back into the box, lifted the remains of the tissue paper and discovered a smaller box. With fumbling fingers she prised it open.A mask—of course, all masquerade balls relied on a mask, identities concealed until the midnight reveal—half-faced with elongated eyes and black ribbons to hold it in place, long eyelashes painted to sweep like wings across the domed forehead. She lifted it and stared into the night at the creature she could become.
If only she had the courage.
Australian and International Bestselling, Award Winning Author
Historical fiction – from the ocean to the outback
Read more about Tea Cooper and her books
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