When antique dealer Kat Stanford stumbles upon the partially mummified body of a young woman in an abandoned wing at Honeychurch Hall, suspicion falls on those who had been living there many years ago. And it appears that the deceased had been murdered. Given her mother Iris’s checkered past, Kat is not surprised to learn that Iris knew the victim.
Meanwhile, the unexpected appearance of former lothario Bryan Laney sets female hearts aflutter. Despite the passing years, time has not dampened his ardor for Iris, but the feeling is not reciprocated.
As Kat becomes embroiled once more in her mother’s mysterious and tumultuous bygone days, she comes to realize that life is never black and white, and sometimes it is necessary to risk your own life to protect the lives of the ones you love.
With stories of hidden treasure and secret chambers, past and present collide in Hannah Dennison's A Killer Ball at Honeychurch Hall.
About the Author
HANNAH DENNISON began her writing career in 1977 as a trainee reporter for a small West Country newspaper in Devon, England. Hannah is a member of Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America, the Willamette Writers, British Crime Writers’ Association and Toastmasters International. She is the author of Murder at Honeychurch Hall and of the Vicky Hill mysteries.
Read an Excerpt
A Killer Ball at Honeychurch Hall
By Hannah Dennison
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2016 Hannah Dennison
All rights reserved.
"You are absolutely not selling William Dobson, Rupert!" The dowager countess, Lady Edith Honeychurch, was furious. Even Mr. Chips, her tan-and-white Jack Russell, seemed to bristle with indignation.
Edith's son looked pained. "Do we have to go through this again, Mother?"
For emphasis, Edith slapped her riding crop against the side of her leather boot. "As long as I am alive, this is still my house!"
"Mother," Rupert hissed and gestured to where Mum and I were standing in the doorway. "Not in front of ..."
"The servants?" Mum chimed in cheerfully. "Don't mind us. We're always arguing — aren't we, Kat?"
I gave a polite smile, but Rupert looked even more uncomfortable.
"Why don't we come back later?" I said and grabbed Mum's arm but she stood her ground and pulled her secondhand mink coat even closer. It really was freezing cold.
"Who is William Dobson?" Mum asked. "Is he for hire? Maybe he can help Kat hang her bathroom cabinet?"
"I think Edith is referring to the seventeenth-century artist, William Dobson —"
"An artist who painted one of our ancestors who saved the Hall from being razed to the ground in the English Civil War," Edith said angrily. "And now Rupert wants to sell it and he's asked you, Katherine, to take it off for auction, so I hear!"
"No," Rupert lied. "I just wanted to show Katherine and Iris the damaged ceiling."
"Nonsense. You thought you could sneak them in through the Tudor courtyard without my knowing but you seem to forget that Cropper never misses a trick."
Cropper, of course, was the old butler. Although he rarely spoke he seemed to have an uncanny gift of being everywhere at once.
The truth was, I'd also thought it odd that Rupert had arranged to meet us at the end of the half-mile-long pergola walk on the far southwest corner of the Hall. Covered in ancient wisteria with roots as big as my arm, I'd never noticed the old wooden gate that led to a narrow passageway. At the end, a pretty archway opened into a small cobbled courtyard. Mullioned casement windows took up three sides and on the fourth were two doors. It was there that Edith had been waiting.
Edith raised a quizzical eyebrow at me. "Why are you holding those padded blankets, Katherine? And what is in that canvas bag?"
I'd brought the padded blankets to wrap up the painting and my canvas bag was full of my tools.
Mum and I both looked to Rupert for the answer.
"Did he ask you to value the Dobson, Katherine?" Edith demanded.
Of course he had! Rupert had phoned that morning to say that something "catastrophic" had happened in the Tudor wing and that they needed to sell a painting.
I was only too happy to oblige. I was still trying to get my antiques business going. Despite having moved all my stock into the two gatehouses that flanked the main entrance, Kat's Collectibles & Valuation Services was slow in getting off the ground.
"You're right," said Rupert defiantly. "I did. Katherine told me that the last Dobson sold for around three hundred and fifty thousand pounds. Luxton's of Newton Abbot has a sale of old masters and British paintings coming up —"
"I knew it!" Edith exclaimed.
"Mother!" Rupert ran his fingers through his thinning hair, clearly exasperated. "We have to do something and unless you can think of a way to raise thousands and thousands of pounds at the drop of a hat, I'm all ears."
"But surely it can't be that bad," said Mum.
"The plasterwork ceiling is Elizabethan and very rare," Edith said. "There is only one other like it in Devon at Holcombe Rogus."
"Presumably you're going to apply for a grant?" I said to Rupert. "The Historic Houses Association runs all kinds of maintenance and restoration programs. I have a contact there."
"Alfred is very good at decorating," Mum said suddenly.
It was true. Mum's stepbrother had helped paint the Carriage House.
"Repairing a plasterwork ceiling needs specific materials that can only be applied by skilled craftsmen," I said gently.
"That wouldn't faze my Alfred. He's got a real gift for making a copy look like the real thing." And of course, she was right. This so-called gift of Alfred's had sent him to prison more times than I could count.
Edith smiled. "Very kind of you to offer, Iris. But I'm sure that Alfred is far too busy overseeing the horses."
"Perhaps there is something else that might be worth selling?" I said, anxious to change the subject.
"I'm not sure if you remember, your ladyship," said Mum, "but if there's one person who knows what sells well it's my Katherine. She was the TV host of Fakes & Treasures."
"And I can assure you that there is nothing fake in this house," Edith said frostily.
"Perhaps you could sell your snuff box collection?" said Rupert with a hint of malice. To be honest, the thought had crossed my mind as well. Edith had more snuff boxes than I could shake a stick at and many were extremely valuable.
"Never!" Edith declared. "I will decide what needs to be sold. And may I remind you, Rupert, you are not the one who makes the decisions around here."
"I know!" said Rupert.
Mum started humming to herself. It was a peculiar habit she'd picked up when she was feeling embarrassed. I gave her a discreet nudge and she stopped.
"Really, we can come back another day," I said.
"Repairs need to be started right away," said Rupert. "Katherine says that this sale is one of the best in the country. But naturally, whatever you feel is best, Mother."
"Very well." Edith turned to me. "Rupert, take Katherine to the King's Parlor. Show her the Hollar drawings of Honeychurch Hall. They might do — oh!" Suddenly, Edith switched her gaze onto my mother. "What on earth are you wearing, Iris?"
Mum reddened. "It's a mink coat, m'lady."
"I can see that."
Ever since Mum had bought the old coat at the Chillingford Court sale, she'd worn it everywhere regardless of the occasion or whether we were inside or out. Apparently, it had been one of her dreams to own one and she hated to let it out of her sight. I teased her and called it Truly Scrumptious in honor of my mother's fictional Pekinese dog that was splashed over her website. I still found it hard to believe that my mother was the international best-selling romance writer, Krystalle Storm.
Edith stepped closer. I got a whiff of horse and lavender water that always surrounded her like an atmosphere. "Turn around," she commanded.
After a moment's hesitation, Mum gave a twirl. Although I detested fur coats of any description, I had to admit this was quite magnificent despite the all-pervasive smell of mothballs.
"I thought so," said Edith. "That coat belonged to my friend, Alice."
Mum's face lit up. "Yes! That's right. Princess Alice, the Countess of Athlone. How did you know?"
"I recognized the red paint on the back of the collar," said Edith.
"Oh." Mum seemed annoyed. "I didn't think anyone could see it." Needless to say, I had pointed the stain out to her before the coat went under the hammer but Mum's mind was made up. She had to have it.
"Activists, no doubt," said Edith. "Rabbit fur is much safer. So extraordinary to want to wear someone's castoffs."
"It's not that obvious," I whispered to Mum who looked utterly crestfallen.
"But speaking of paint, Katherine, how are you getting on at Jane's Cottage? I would have thought you would have moved in by now."
"The painting is all done, and most of the curtains and blinds are up," I said. "I just need a few mirrors hung and new shelves in the kitchen pantry ..."
"She put an ad in the post office for someone to do a spot of D-I-Y," Mum put in.
"The wood burner stove goes in next week."
"Central heating? Whatever for?" Edith exclaimed. "Well, I'm sure that's all very interesting. Rupert, show Katherine the Hollar drawings but I repeat, do not do anything without talking to me first." And, with a snap of her fingers, she called Mr. Chips to heel and the pair headed off.
For a moment, Rupert just stood there. The fifteenth Earl of Grenville appeared years older than his fifty-two. Dark smudges lay beneath red-rimmed eyes and even his neat, military mustache had lost its crispness. Rupert wasn't even wearing his customary tie, choosing a pair of uncharacteristically scruffy jeans and an old moth-eaten sweater. For the first time, I realized just how much pressure he was under to keep the Hall afloat. Edith may rule the roost but it fell to him to manage the day-to-day running of the estate and handle all the bills.
A blast of cold air and the slam of an outside door brought Rupert to his senses. Mum shivered and pulled her mink coat closer. "It's like the arctic in here," she said. "I'm so happy I'm wearing my mink."
"As you gathered, Mother doesn't believe in central heating. If she had, perhaps the pipes wouldn't have burst and brought down the ceiling and we wouldn't be having this problem. Please, after you." Rupert ushered us ahead. "Down the passage and through the door at the end."
"I remember when the whole house was open," Mum said. "How many rooms are there, m'lord? One hundred? Two, perhaps?"
"I've never counted," said Rupert.
"How did you find out about the burst pipes?" Mum asked.
"Fortunately Harry's room shares a wall with the original house." Rupert cracked his first smile. "He was convinced the Germans had dropped a bomb."
Knowing Harry's obsession with Squadron Leader James Bigglesworth, the famous World War I flying ace, it was just the sort of thing he'd say. "And I bet he told you which kind."
"Yes." Rupert grinned. "Harry said it was a minenwerfer."
"A what?" Mum frowned.
"A high-power trench mortar shell that apparently makes no noise coming through the air."
"So if Harry had been away at boarding school," Mum said pointedly. "You would never have known."
Rupert scowled. "I'd rather have burst pipes."
"Thanks Mum," I muttered. It was common knowledge that none of the Honeychurches had been happy about Harry breaking the family tradition and going to the local school — and it had been my idea.
Rupert threw open the end door and ushered us into a screens passage. We passed through the first of two archways and into the Great Hall.
"Oh!" Mum gasped. "I know exactly where we are. Good heavens! I haven't been here for years!"CHAPTER 2
"My father closed off this part of the house before I was born," said Rupert.
"Yes, I remember it all," said Mum. "My brothers and I loved to go exploring."
I made a note to ask her about this so-called exploring. Mum was prone to change her version of events to suit the occasion. She'd often told me that "her kind" was never allowed inside the main house and that the closest she got was the servants' quarters and kitchens.
Like many medieval houses, as years passed and architectural fashions changed, the spirit of the house evolved, too. I was reminded of Charles Ryder, in Evelyn Waugh's novel Brideshead Revisited, who summed up my feelings perfectly by saying how much he "loved buildings that grew silently with the centuries, catching and keeping the best of each generation."
It was exactly what made the destruction of such magnificent houses so tragic. Each loss was a loss to history. I couldn't help wondering if Harry, as the future heir, would fight hard to keep the Hall going.
The Great Hall wasn't large by the standard of other great houses in England. The long rectangular room was typical of its time with a spectacular hammer beam roof. On one side were floor to ceiling stained glass windows showing knights in battle. On the other, an enormous stone fireplace bore an elaborate overmantel decorated with the Grenville coat of arms and the family motto: ad perseverate est ad triumphum —" To Endure is to Triumph."
Above the screens passage behind us was a minstrels' gallery. At the far end was a long oak refectory table atop a dais that spanned the width of the room. Two beautiful paneled back chairs with scrolled cresting and earpieces stood behind.
Covering the stone walls that flanked the fireplace was an impressive collection of weapons dating from the English Civil War. There were a variety of polearms and halberds; muskets, vicious stiletto knives, rapiers and basket-hilted two-edged mortuary swords.
"Yes." Mum nodded again. "I remember all this."
"Wow," I exclaimed. "What a collection! Have you ever considered ...?"
"These are not for sale," said Rupert as if reading my mind. "As you know, most of the suits of armor were moved into the modern wing. That is, if you can call our nineteenth-century façade modern."
"Have you ever thought about opening the Hall to the public?" I suggested. "It doesn't have to be like the National Trust or British Heritage, but the Historic Houses Association conducts open houses to private homes."
"Can you imagine my mother playing the gracious hostess?" said Rupert.
"Not really," I admitted.
"Every summer there was a bit of a do on midsummer night for her ladyship's birthday," said Mum, who was clearly walking down memory lane. "Her brother — that would be your uncle, m'lord, the thirteenth Earl of Grenville — would host a costume ball. Beautiful costumes, they were. And the games! Lots of games! People running all over the house playing charades and squashed sardines."
"What on earth are squashed sardines?" Rupert asked.
"It's a form of hide-and-seek," Mum enthused. "Only it's the other way around. One person hides and the others must find him and hide with him and the last person to find them must pay a forfeit."
"Oh, you mean Smee," said Rupert. "That's what we call it."
I hated it when Rupert pulled his upper-class card. He seemed to deliberately want to put Mum in her place.
"Wasn't there a ghost story called Smee?" I said.
"You know it?" Rupert sounded surprised. "It was written by A. M. Burrage. Nanny used to read it to me at night and frighten me half to death."
"The hiding places get incredibly cramped and as you can imagine," Mum went on, oblivious, "there was quite a lot of hanky-panky going on." She turned to the minstrels' gallery. "And a band played up there."
"For someone who wasn't invited to the ball," I said, "you seem to know a lot of details."
"Alfred, Billy and I used to sneak in," Mum continued. "There was one of those peephole things where we could watch everything." She laughed. "Oh, begging your pardon, m'lord."
"I'm sure you did," said Rupert dryly.
"What these walls must have seen," said Mum. "How exciting to know your ancestors lived here, m'lord. To be able to trace your lineage all the way back to when Henry V created the first Earl of Grenville — that's just wonderful."
"Good heavens, you've been looking at all that?" Rupert exclaimed.
"I'm becoming quite an expert on your family history."
Rupert gave a polite smile. "I can't imagine why."
I suppose for him, it was normal but Mum had really gotten involved in studying the family trees of both those who resided upstairs, and down. I felt a twinge of something that felt like inferiority! Maybe that was why the English aristocracy carried a sense of entitlement and assurance. They knew their roots. Portraits of their ancestors lined the walls of countless country estates. But for me, an only child, I'd never met my father's parents — in fact, they were a bit of a mystery. Mum's background was just plain murky. She claimed to have been adopted by a traveling fairground and spent her life on the road. Perhaps I did regard the "toffs" as Mum liked to call them, as different from us, after all.
It also brought up feelings about this new life I was embarking upon. Much as I disliked the fame that my celebrity status had brought me, it had given me a sense of identity. Even being the girlfriend of David Wynne, an international art investigator, had reinforced that. Now that I was starting over, I felt a little lost and unsure of myself.
"Why the long face?" said Mum, bringing me out of my thoughts.
"I was just thinking about the Dobson painting," I lied. "Wasn't he the principal painter to King Charles I after van Dyck died?"
"She's a walking encyclopedia of knowledge, is my Katherine," said Mum proudly.
"I'm sure she is." Rupert turned us back into the screens passage and toward the open oak door at the end. "The King's Parlor is through here."
"Oh! I must write this down." Mum withdrew a block of Post-it Notes from her mink coat pocket and a pen. "So King Charles actually stayed here? How thrilling!"
"One of my ancestors was commissioned under the great Seal of England to mint coins for King Charles. The Royalists needed the money to raise troops for the king."
"They made coins here?" Mum said.
Rupert nodded. "Yes. The Honeychurch mint."
"Fancy being able to make your own money," said Mum. "Alfred would have been in his element."
We entered the King's Parlor and I couldn't hide my dismay. "Harry was right when he said he thought someone had dropped a bomb."
Water from the burst pipe above had brought down a quarter of the ornamental plasterwork ceiling. Chunks of plaster had been swept into the corner with a broom and an attempt had been made to save the Aubusson rug by pushing it away from the sludge that still covered half of the floor.
Excerpted from A Killer Ball at Honeychurch Hall by Hannah Dennison. Copyright © 2016 Hannah Dennison. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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