Frances Wynn, the American-born Countess of Harleigh, enjoys more freedom as a widow than she did as a wife. With her young daughter in tow, Frances rents a home in Belgravia and prepares to welcome her sister, Lily, arriving from New York—for her first London season.
But no sooner has Frances begun her new life than the Metropolitan police receive an anonymous letter implicating Frances in her husband’s death. Frances assures Inspector Delaney of her innocence, but she’s also keen to keep him from learning the scandalous circumstances of Reggie’s demise. As fate would have it, her dashing new neighbor, George Hazelton, is one of only two other people aware of the full story.
While busy with social engagements on Lily’s behalf, and worrying if Reggie really was murdered, Frances rallies her wits, a circle of gossips, and the ever-chivalrous Mr. Hazelton to uncover the truth. A killer is in their midst and Frances must unmask the villain before Lily’s season—and their lives—come to a most unseemly end . . .
“This lighthearted debut tale of mystery, love, and a delightful sleuth will leave you wanting more—which is presumably just what Freeman had in mind.”
About the Author
Sarah Zimmerman is an Audie Award-nominated narrator, having recorded over 100 books to date, and has an extensive theater career. She has performed on Broadway, in regional theaters across America, and in numerous guest-starring TV roles. Sarah is a graduate of The Boston Conservatory and the Old Globe/USD.
Read an Excerpt
Black — no. Black — no. Black crepe? Oh, heavens no! I bundled the offending gowns and dropped them on a bench for my maid to dispose of, then glanced around my dressing room. One word described it — mourning. In my wildest imaginings, I never would have dreamed I'd find myself a widow at the age of twenty-seven. Though for me, the difference from marriage was barely discernible.
While I'll confess to a foolish infatuation, Reggie and I hadn't married for love. My mother instigated the match when she brought me from New York to London. I suppose love had something to do with it. Reggie loved my money, and my mother adored his title. When we married, I became Countess of Harleigh. My family gained the consequence of that title. The Wynn family gained me, Frances Price, commoner. Oh, and a little over a million U.S. dollars.
True aristocrats that they were, to this day the Wynns acted as though they'd been swindled.
I'd endured a whole year of mourning with them. Miserable, yes, but at first I had no desire to show my face in public. While only two people besides myself knew the circumstances of my husband's death, I'm sure many more had their suspicions. You see, my husband died just over a year ago — in his lover's bed.
At a house party.
At our home.
I eyed the gown I'd be wearing tonight, a rich royal blue. Ah, color in my life again. Mourning period over.
With a warning knock, Bridget, my maid, slipped into the room. "Are you ready to change for dinner, my lady?" Her eyes brightened with excitement when she saw the gown on the bed. "Are you wearing the blue?"
I smiled. "My first strike for independence."
"Well, I'm all for that." She turned me around and began unfastening my dress. Under her skillful hands, I was in the blue gown in a matter of minutes — a good thing as evening had brought the inevitable chill to the room. Bridget handed me a shawl for my rather bare shoulders and ushered me to the dressing table to do my hair.
"I don't remember seeing that picture before," she said, removing hairpins and shaping curls.
"I've been gathering things for packing." I picked up the photograph from the dressing table. "We sat for this one a long time ago. Must have been seven years as Rose was just a baby." I smiled down at the familiar faces. A family portrait, including Reggie's parents. I did have some pleasant memories of this family, and I'd tried my best to be a credit to them. I wasn't such a bad bargain. Reasonably attractive, I had my father's height and dark hair, coupled with my mother's blue eyes and fair complexion. No overly prominent chin, nose, or teeth. And I certainly knew how to act like a countess. My mother had been grooming me for this since my tenth year. Why, I'd even added a child to the family. Yes, Rose was a daughter, but I'd have been happy to try for an heir if Reggie had cared enough.
But pleasant memories aside, day-to-day life with this family had become intolerable. It was time to move on.
"Will that do, my lady?"
I placed the photograph back on the table and took a quick glance at the mirror. Then a much longer look. "Goodness, that's quite a sculpture you've created."
Bridget pursed her lips. "You're wearing a fashionable gown and you need a fashionable hairstyle to match." She gave me a firm nod that told me I'd better not argue.
"It's just so — tall."
"The extra height will give you courage."
That clinched it. "Thank you, Bridget. It's perfect." I glanced at the clock on the dressing table. "It's too early for me to go down, but you should go to your dinner. I'll just stay up here and gather some more belongings."
With a curtsy, she left. I let my gaze travel over the room. What should I take with me when I move out? And what would my in-laws insist belonged to the manor? Considering I'd been dreaming of this move for almost a year, I'd done little actual planning. In the back of my mind, I feared living on my own might be just beyond my financial reach and I'd have to give up the idea as a foolish dream. Bridget alone knew of my plans as she'd traveled with me to London last week under the vague guise of business. In my three-day trip I'd met with my solicitor, who scheduled appointments with an estate agent, who showed me five homes — four of which were definitely out of my reach.
But one was perfect. And in that moment I realized I could actually do this, assuming I could get past my in-laws' objections. I'd sworn Bridget to secrecy but wouldn't be at all surprised if several of the servants already knew, so Graham and Delia would have to be told before someone let it slip.
I blinked a few times. Heavens, it was dark in here. Stepping over to the bedside table, I turned up the wick on the paraffin lamp. Better. Between the lamp and the fire in the grate, the room now had a warm glow.
Hmm. Obviously my personal things would come with me, clothing and jewelry. I scanned the dressing table — silver-backed brush, comb and mirror, crystal bottles and atomizers. Their ownership was indisputable. I turned around and gazed at the large four-poster bed, and its beautiful carved rosewood head- and footboards. I'd miss it, but trying to lay claim to this bed — which I'd paid for — would cause far more trouble than it was worth. I ran my hand across the smooth silk coverlet. That was coming with me.
The sound of voices interrupted my inventory. Someone was speaking in my brother-in-law's study, located directly below my room, and the volume was increasing. I stood still as I waited — listening to the muffled words — for the sound of my name. There it was. Of course they were talking about me. They were always talking about me.
I moved to the other side of the bed and drew back the corner of the ancient Aubusson carpet along the wall, revealing a six-inch hole in the floor. This hole led to a corresponding one in the wall of Graham's study, complete with metal tubing. The holes were left from an attempt at installing gas lines to the family rooms of the house, aborted when the workmen learned Graham would be paying them late. If ever. As a result, the house retained its chill, but the holes made for an excellent listening device. Graham had hung a picture of his sons over that hole, but it made little difference to the quality of the sound.
It was quite an accomplishment to lower myself to my knees in the narrow skirt of my gown. Yes, I know, a lady has no business eavesdropping on the conversations of others, but I looked on this as a method of self-defense. Over the last year, Graham and Delia, my brother-in-law and his wife, had hatched an endless number of schemes, which always involved the use of my funds. So when they spoke about me, I listened. Forewarned is forearmed. I leaned closer to the hole, wrinkling my nose against the musty air in the tube.
"The balconies on the north wall are crumbling, Graham." That was Delia's voice. "We can't have guests here until they're replaced."
Graham muttered something about mourning and I pictured Delia rolling her eyes.
"Honestly, Graham, do you never consult the calendar? Our mourning period is well past. Now if we don't get workmen out here soon, we won't have the balconies repaired by summer."
A chair squeaked, and I assumed Graham had finally put down whatever he'd been working on to attend to his wife. "My dear, we cannot afford repairs. We can't even afford guests. Not now. Not this summer. You must be patient."
"I will not. If you're saying we have to wait for your investments to pay off, the manor will fall to rack of fruit by then."
I raised my head from the floor and mouthed her words. Rack of fruit. That couldn't be right. Delia must have walked away as she spoke. Well, I never said this device worked perfectly. I tried to puzzle out what she might have said while massaging a sore spot in my neck. Sometimes I wondered if listening to them was worth my aches and pains. Wait! The house would fall to wrack and ruin. That must be it. I huffed. As if it weren't already well on its way.
I placed my ear back on the floor and tried to catch up with the conversation. "She has the money, Graham." That would be me to whom Delia referred. "And should she ever run out, all she need do is ask her father for more."
"Yes, but I already plan to request some funds. It wouldn't do for us both to ask."
Heavens, they spoke as if I were a bank. Graham went on to explain some agricultural innovation he wanted to test on the home farm. Poor Delia. All she ever wanted was to be the grand lady, but fate thwarted her at every turn. First, she wasn't wealthy enough to marry the oldest son and was pawned off on the second. Then, when she finally became a countess, the old manor was falling apart and the coffers were nearly empty.
"Surely I can ask for a little money for the house. How else can we make the repairs?"
"You know my solution to that." Graham spoke so softly, I could barely hear him. Unfortunate, as I was truly curious to hear how he planned to ease their financial woes.
"Don't say it." Delia replied in a sharp tone, as if poking him with each syllable. "You know how I feel about your solution."
Oh, my. If Delia didn't like Graham's plan, it must involve some restriction on her spending while he continued to sink money into the estate.
I heard a door creak, followed by footsteps, then a swish of skirts near the bed.
Heavens, it was my door! I jerked my head up and tried scrambling to my feet. Instead I fell to my side in something of a sprawl on the floor. Jenny, one of the housemaids, dropped the linens she'd brought to my room and scurried over to assist me.
"Sorry to disturb you, my lady," she said, offering her arm so I could pull myself up. "I saw Bridget downstairs and thought you'd already gone to dinner."
How humiliating. With my ear to the floor and my posterior in the air, I must have looked like a worm inching across the room when she'd walked in. I stood and tried to compose myself — and some sort of explanation. When I looked at Jenny, her gaze was on the hole in the floor. Oh, dear. No chance of explaining that away. The maid was young, cheerful, and something of a chatterbox. How would I keep her from talking about this?
"Jenny, you may have heard some whispers below-stairs about my moving to town. Would you be interested in coming with me? I can promise you a good wage."
Her eyes widened as she bobbed her head.
"Excellent." I gave her a smile as I assessed her qualifications. I could do worse. "Why don't you roll that rug back into place and we'll talk tomorrow. Until then, don't breathe a word about my move."
As she bent to her task, the dinner gong sounded. I smoothed my skirt and stepped over to the dressing table to see if I'd mussed my hair. I took a deep breath. This move would come as something of a surprise for my in-laws and I anticipated resistance. No cozy family dinner for us.
* * *
Delia noticed my gown immediately. She gave me a nod of approval as I entered the drawing room where the family traditionally gathered before dinner. "Frances, what a lovely new gown. It's good to see you out of mourning. Isn't it, Graham?"
I took a quick glance over her head at my brother-in-law, busily pouring drinks, determined to ignore his wife's hints. Not only was the family's mourning period over, but I was spending money on myself.
With a blink, I looked back down at Delia. She was an inch or two shorter than I, which always took me by surprise, as her thin-as-a-whip frame gave her the appearance of height. In the same way, her heart-shaped face, blond curls, and ready smile camouflaged the backbone of a warrior. She intimidated our tenants and the local villagers, but she also stood as my ally back when I first came to this family and tried to make a place for myself. I quite liked her, despite the conversation I'd overheard, and her unwavering attachment to both my money, and this white elephant of a house. She was just trying to make the best of a bad situation.
"I'm glad you approve." I gave her hand a squeeze and waited for Graham to join us.
The drawing room boasted gas lighting, but was still rather dim. The dark, heavy furnishings and carpets, well into their dotage, only added to the gloom. After a significant battle, I'd been permitted to change the draperies. Lighter, they allowed sunlight in during the day, but as soon as evening set in, the room turned dismal.
Graham stepped up and handed me a glass of sherry. As I turned, I noted a section of scaffolding outside the window, and wondered if Delia had already hired the workmen for the balconies. Poor Graham.
Shaking off that concern, I smiled at my in-laws. "I feared it might shock you both that I cast off my mourning, but it has been over a year. I thought it time, so I had a few things made up while in London last week."
"A few things," Delia echoed, giving her husband a significant look. I took a sideways glance at him myself. His bland face showed no reaction. There was nothing unattractive about him, but Reggie definitely had the looks in the family. Graham was a toned-down version of his brother, hair more sandy than blond, average height, average build. On the asset side of the ledger, though, he was far more responsible than Reggie, and seemed truly to care about his wife. I gave him high marks for that.
We didn't bother seating ourselves, but rather stood near the doorway making small talk, as the second gong would sound shortly, disrupting any relevant conversation. When it did, we processed into the dining room like well-trained hounds, responding to the sound of the horn.
"I suppose you noticed we're preparing for another round of construction," Delia said, as a footman seated her at one end of the massive table. He then scurried around to the center, where I stood at my chair, waiting for him to perform the same service for me.
"Scaffolding does tend to herald construction." I spoke in a strident tone in order to be heard at either end of the table, then waited a beat as my words echoed off the high coffered ceiling. How ridiculous to dine in such formality when it was only the three of us. The nine-foot mahogany table, candle-lit, and laden with floral arrangements, was lovely, but who on earth were we impressing? "Is it to be a large project?"
Delia placed a hand to her chest, releasing a false sigh of regret. "They are always larger than we expect, but an honorable old structure such as this demands a great deal of maintenance."
"Over two centuries old, you know," Graham added from his end of the table.
I was well aware of the age of the house, and intimately familiar with the amount of maintenance it required. I smiled in acknowledgment. The footman served the soup course so we left off conversation for a moment. The only sound was the tapping of his heels on the marble floor as he rounded the table with his tray.
"Well," Delia continued, through sips of consommé, "Graham and I wish to restore the manor to its original splendor."
"At some point in time, my dear." Graham scowled at his wife. "Right now the home farm requires an infusion of cash." He turned to me. "As the dowager countess, I'm sure you'd agree. After all you are still a member of this distinguished family."
I forced myself not to cringe at the epitaph. Dowager countess indeed! Another bit of misery Reggie had left me to endure.
Once I got past the denigrating title, I realized they were still fighting over my money. As the only member of the family who had any, of course the useless dowager countess would pay for everything. Of all the devious tricks! My gaze drifted over to the sideboard where Crabbe, the butler, decanted wine for the next course. The footman stood nearby, waiting to clear the soup course. It would be unseemly to discuss finances in front of them, but if I ignored these hints, they would assume my consent. I'd intended to wait until after the servants had withdrawn before giving them my news, but now they left me with no option.
"There is nothing dearer to my heart than assisting the family, but I'm afraid my funds are committed elsewhere."
Delia's ingratiating smile faded. "Whatever do you mean, dear?"
I'd been bursting to tell them for a week now, and foiling their little trick made it all the more thrilling. "Well, I have some rather exciting news." I paused, glancing from Delia to Graham and back. "When I was in London last week, I leased a house."
Delia's jaw sagged, and I heard Graham choke at his end of the table. When I turned toward him, he was mopping his mouth with a napkin. Clearly breathing, so all was well. "Do you mean you're leasing a house for the Season?"
"No, indeed. I bought the leasehold. There are eighty years left on the lease, so it required a significant down payment, but my solicitor negotiated splendidly, and, well, it's mine." I nearly sang out the words.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Lady's Guide to Etiquette and Murder"
Copyright © 2018 Dianne Freeman.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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