Though American by birth, Frances Wynn, the now-widowed Countess of Harleigh, has adapted admirably to the quirks and traditions of the British aristocracy. On August twelfth, otherwise known as the Glorious Twelfth, most members of the upper class retire to their country estates for grouse-shooting season. Frances has little interest in hunting—for birds or a second husband—and is expecting to spend a quiet few months in London with her almost-engaged sister, Lily, until the throng returns.
Instead, she’s immersed in a shocking mystery when a friend, Mary Archer, is found murdered. Frances had hoped Mary might make a suitable bride for her cousin, Charles, but their courtship recently fizzled out. Unfortunately, this puts Charles in the spotlight—along with dozens of others. It seems Mary had countless notes hidden in her home, detailing the private indiscretions of society’s elite. Frances can hardly believe that the genteel and genial Mary was a blackmailer, yet why else would she horde such juicy tidbits?
Aided by her gallant friend and neighbor, George Hazelton, Frances begins assisting the police in this highly sensitive case, learning more about her peers than she ever wished to know. Too many suspects may be worse than none at all—but even more worrying is that the number of victims is increasing too. And unless Frances takes care, she’ll soon find herself among them . . .
“Engrossing . . . Freeman takes a witty look at Victorian polite society. Historical mystery fans will be delighted.”
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London in late summer was really no place to be. With society thin and events like Ascot and the derby a distant memory, the few of us remaining in town were hard-pressed for entertainment. But if one were required to spend the summer in London, one could not choose a better site for an afternoon soiree than Park Lane, with Hyde Park on one side of the street, and some of the largest mansions in London on the other. One might almost imagine oneself in the country. If one were in possession of a superior imagination, that is.
Though the garden was large by London standards, there were a good forty or more of us gathered here, dispersed between the conservatory at the rear of the house and the small tables scattered across the lawn. It made for a bit of a squeeze and might have been terribly uncomfortable if the sun were not playing its usual game of hide-and-seek.
This was my first summer in town and I can't say I found it to my liking. My previous summers — in fact, most of my previous nine years in England — had been spent in the countryside of Surry where my late husband, the Earl of Harleigh, dropped me off and left me shortly after our honeymoon.
He returned to London and his bevy of mistresses.
I didn't mind the country so much as I minded the mistresses. That's where I raised our daughter, Rose. And except for annual trips to London for the Season, it's where I stayed, like the dutiful wife my mother raised me to be. You see, before I was Frances Wynn, Countess of Harleigh, I was Frances Price, American heiress. I found neither role particularly satisfying, so a year after my husband's death, I left the Wynn family home, with my young daughter in tow, and set up my household in a lovely little house on Chester Street in Belgravia. Now I was in charge of my life, and I enjoyed it immensely, though I could wish my funds allowed for trips to the country in the summer.
I stepped down from the conservatory to join the group at the nearest table for a glass of champagne — Lady Argyle had planned this soiree in a grand style. No watered-down punch for her — when I caught a glimpse of a marine blue hat perched atop a head of chestnut waves. Ah, Fiona had arrived. As she moved through the crowd toward me, I saw her ensemble was also blue, trimmed in peach and white.
Sadly, I wore mourning. Again. This time for my sister-in-law, Delia, who died three months ago under rather unfortunate circumstances — which I'd prefer to forget. She'd left behind two sons and the current Earl of Harleigh, my late husband's younger brother.
Strictly speaking, I shouldn't even be at this gathering, but my brother-in-law, with a degree of compassion I never dreamed possible, refused to plunge his young sons into deep mourning, with the requisite black armbands, silenced clocks, and attention to nothing but one's grief for the duration of a year or more. Children needed the joy of childhood, he insisted, and decreed we'd all observe half mourning for no more than six months. Social codes be damned.
I jest not. Graham, the staid and starchy Earl of Harleigh, disregarded a firmly embedded social convention.
There just might be hope for him yet.
As applied to myself, Graham's decree meant I could venture out in company and would not be forced to wear black all summer. Though I was restricted to gray and lavender, black was decidedly worse. For this occasion, I wore a lavender confection, suitably light in weight and fashionable for the season, topped off by a cunning wide-brimmed hat, but gad — it was lavender. Did anyone look well in this color?
Fiona had caught sight of me and raised a hand in greeting. A parasol matching the trim on her dress dangled from a loop on her wrist. Her path to me intersected with that of Sir Hugo Ridley, who, upon noting her destination, raised his hand in greeting and followed in her wake.
She reached my side, bussed my cheek, then backed up to acknowledge our companion. "How do you do, Ridley? It's been an age since we've met."
I'd known Ridley for a number of years. He was a friend of my late husband, one of the few I didn't avoid. Like Reggie, he spent far too much time drinking, gambling, and generally wasting his life. The effects of his habits revealed themselves in the pallor of his skin, the slight paunch of his stomach, and the circles under his eyes. Unlike Reggie, he was devoted to his wife and could be amusing when he exerted himself.
He gave us a nod. "Lady Harleigh. Lady Fiona. I'm surprised to find you both in town this late in summer. Does that mean you'll be attending our little soiree in honor of the Glorious Twelfth?"
The Glorious Twelfth referred to the twelfth of August — the official start of the shooting season, when all — well, most members of the upper class return to their estates to shoot various varieties of fowl until February. The Ridleys, however, were Londoners through and through and never left town. Instead, they held an annual gathering on the twelfth for those who stayed.
"I've already sent my reply to Lady Ridley. My family and I will be delighted to attend."
Ridley smiled and turned to Fiona.
"As it happens, I'm on the eve of my departure to the country. Nash must shoot, you know," she said, in reference to her husband. "In truth, I'd hoped to take Lady Harleigh with me." She thrust out her lower lip in a caricature of a childish pout. "Are you sure you won't come, Frances? Nash and I would love to have you."
I caught her hand and gave it a squeeze. "Thank you for the invitation, Fiona, but that arrangement doesn't suit my houseguests." I was dejected to have to decline her offer but I could hardly accept her invitation and bring along three extra guests, and my daughter, and her nanny. "Besides, my sister is determined to stay in town to be near Mr. Kendrick."
"Young love," Ridley said. "Will they be making an announcement soon?"
A footman in black livery stepped up to offer a tray of refreshments, beads of sweat visible on his forehead. Poor man. Ridley distributed flutes of champagne among us and waved the man off. The three of us set off on a stroll across the lawn.
"They haven't yet set a date for the wedding," I replied. "I believe they'll wait until the fall to make any plans." Lily, my younger sister, had arrived from New York three months ago with the sole intention of finding and marrying a lord. Instead she found Leo Kendrick, the son of a wealthy businessman, and they'd been a couple ever since. Leo had asked for her hand in marriage and she accepted. They were eager to announce their engagement, but I urged them to wait. She was only eighteen. The same age I'd been when I rushed into a disastrous marriage.
I had no objections to Leo, but I'd had no objections to my feckless, philandering husband at the time I'd married him either. The objections came later and continued until the day he died in the bed of his lover. So, you see, I wasn't being obstructive, I simply wanted them to get to know one another before marriage.
Fiona tutted. "She's going to marry the man at some point, Frances. This delay will make no difference. You'd do better to concentrate on your little protégée. She must be starving for entertainment."
"If one is starving for entertainment in London, Lady Fiona, one has far too large an appetite." Sir Hugo raised his glass to emphasize his point. "I met the lovely Miss Deaver when you attended the theater last week. She seemed to be enjoying herself."
Charlotte Deaver, my "little protégée," as Fiona called her, was a friend of Lily's from New York. "Lottie is fascinated with everything London," I said, with a nod to Ridley. "And is quite able to entertain herself. She's just as content with a trip to the library or a museum as she is mingling with society. Actually, more so." I lowered my voice and leaned in toward my friends. "She's a bit awkward at social events."
Fiona raised her brows. "Dearest, you truly understate the case. More men have been injured dancing with her than were wounded in the Transvaal Rebellion."
I huffed. "That's unfair, Fiona. She may be somewhat lacking in grace, but she's injured none of her dance partners."
Ridley covered a laugh by clearing his throat. "Graceful or not, I found her charming, and doubt any man in London would say differently. I'm sure Evingdon finds her so." He inclined his head in the direction of the house where Lottie stumbled over three short steps leading from the conservatory to the lawn. Charles Evingdon, descending the steps himself, quickly caught her arm to stop her from falling face-first into the rose bushes. Sadly, he couldn't prevent her hat, a confection of pink bows and white plumes, from launching itself into the shrubbery.
"Oh, I wasn't expecting to see Evingdon here today."
"I don't mind seeing him," Ridley said. "It's speaking with him that rather challenges my patience."
I gave the man a cool stare. "I'll remind you, Ridley, Charles Evingdon is part of my family."
His eyes sparkled with mischief. "Cousin to your late husband, I believe. Therefore, I won't hold it against you, my dear Lady Harleigh. But I will beg you to excuse me."
With that he gave us a cheeky grin and sauntered away, my glare boring into his back. "Every time I think that man has turned over a new leaf, he reminds me of what a scoundrel he really is."
"Marriage isn't likely to make that man civil, dear," Fiona said. "But in this case, I'd say he was just being honest."
"Charles is different, I'll grant you that." He was certainly different from my other in-laws in a number of ways. Most notably, his branch of the family managed to hold on to their wealth, he didn't hold my American background against me, and in contrast to the cold austerity of my nearest in-laws, he was as friendly as a golden retriever.
I turned my attention back to the house and smiled when Charles raised a hand to gain my attention. He steadied Lottie on her feet, set her hat atop the wreckage of her hair, and headed in our direction.
"I daresay he's coming over to thank me for introducing him to Mary Archer." I tipped my head toward Fiona and preened a bit. "He seems quite taken with her. I believe I can count that match as one of my successes."
"I wouldn't say that overloud, dear." Fiona leaned in closer. "You wouldn't want anyone to think you were in the business of matchmaking. Or in business at all, for that matter."
"Of course not." I took a quick glance around to assure myself no one was close enough to hear. "I've simply made one or two discreet introductions. Can I help it if the recipients of those introductions chose to show their gratitude with a gift?"
"But I wonder if Mrs. Archer is grateful. Do you really suppose she's equally taken with Evingdon?" She wrinkled her nose. "He's rather dim-witted, don't you think?"
"You're as bad as Ridley. It's terribly uncharitable of you to say such a thing. Aside from being my relation, he's a very likable and kind man. He's also a good friend of your brother's, and George doesn't suffer fools."
Her lips compressed in a straight line. I was right and she knew it. In fact, it was George's good opinion of Charles that led me to believe the man must have a brain somewhere in his head. His actions certainly led one to think otherwise.
He approached us with a genial grin, one he wore frequently and which made him seem much younger than his thirty-six years, as did his tall, athletic frame and thick head of wheat-colored hair. He wore it slightly too long for fashion, but it suited him.
"Ladies," he said with a tip of his straw boater. "I was hoping to find you here. Well, actually I was only hoping to find you, Cousin Frances."
He paused, but as I drew breath to speak, he continued. "Not that I didn't want to find you, Lady Fiona, just that I wasn't actively seeking you, you understand? Good to find you all the same. Rather like looking for a book you'd mislaid somewhere and stumbling across another that turns out to be equally diverting. Not that I would ever stumble across you, of course. But one would have to admit you are diverting."
He finished this monologue with a show of dimples.
"It's lovely to see you too, Cousin Charles."
I glanced at Fiona. A line had worked itself between her brows. She parted her lips to speak, then seemed to think better of it.
I gave her arm a squeeze. "I'm sure Lady Nash is pleased to see you as well."
"Yes, of course," she said. "If you'll excuse me. I've yet to greet our hostess."
With that she slipped away like an animal escaping a trap. I took a breath and returned my attention to my cousin. "Did Mrs. Archer not accompany you today?"
"Ah. Mrs. Archer. Yes. Exactly why I wanted to speak with you."
"How are things progressing with the two of you?"
He brushed off his sleeves as if they were dusty, then straightened his tie. As he fidgeted, his gaze traveled in every direction but mine. "Well ..." He finally looked me in the eye. "Actually, not well. Not well at all." He cast a suspicious glance at two young ladies nearby, their heads together in giggling conversation, and offered me his arm.
"Would you care to stroll, Cousin Frances?"
I took his arm and we set off at a leisurely pace around the perimeter of the garden. "Is there something you wish to tell me?"
"No," he said. "Well, yes. It seems we may not suit after all, Mrs. Archer and I. I thought we might. She's an excellent woman." He rubbed the back of his neck and let out a breath. "Lovely, pleasant, intelligent. Took quite a shine to her, in fact. But as it turns out, we don't. Er, suit, that is."
"I'm so sorry to hear that." Truly sorry. Mary Archer was one of the most patient and kind women of my acquaintance. I'd be hard-pressed to find another suitable lady if she wouldn't do. Though I could hardly tell him that.
"It sounds as though you've grown fond of Mrs. Archer. Are you certain you wish to end the acquaintance? What you now view as a difficulty may, in time, become nothing."
He set his jaw and gave a slight shake of his head. "No, I don't see how I can pursue the connection. If there's someone else of your acquaintance who might be interested in an introduction," he added, his expression a mixture of hope and doubt.
"I'm sure there is, Charles. But in an effort to avoid another mistake, perhaps you could tell me why you didn't suit."
"As to that, I'm afraid it would be rather ungentlemanly to say more. I found no fault with Mrs. Archer and I do wish to marry, but we simply —"
"Didn't suit?" I raised my brows.
"Exactly!" He gave me another glimpse of his dimples. "I knew you'd understand."
I did not understand. Nor was it likely I'd gain any insight by speaking to Charles. Perhaps George could provide me with some guidance. Or Mary herself.
Yes, Mary was far more likely to provide an explanation for their rift. I'd have to pay her a visit tomorrow. "Just give me a few days, Charles. I'll let you know how I get on."
* * *
The garden party lasted only a few hours more. Storm clouds rumbled overhead as I took my leave of Fiona, forcing the stalwart Brit to endure my hugs since I likely wouldn't see her until spring. Unless, of course, I gave in to Lily's longing for a winter wedding. Fiona would certainly attend that event. I doubted I'd be able to hold Lily and Leo off much longer. The way they were saying farewell, one would think they too wouldn't see one another until spring. In fact, their parting would only be for perhaps a day.
Once they completed their farewells, the four of us — Lily, Lottie, Aunt Hetty, and I — climbed into George Hazelton's carriage. Mr. Hazelton was my neighbor, Fiona's older brother, and a wonderful friend who acted as escort to our little group when he was free and loaned us his carriage when he wasn't. Though I had funds sufficient to maintain my household, they didn't stretch to keeping a carriage and horses. Lily had traveled to England with Aunt Hetty as her chaperone. Hetty was my father's sister and shared his genius for making money, but I didn't know how long she'd be staying with me and I feared growing accustomed to living within her means.
The two young ladies took the rear-facing seats, allowing Hetty and I to face forward. She climbed in first, pulling out the newspaper she'd tucked into the seat earlier. I tutted as I seated myself beside her. "Hetty, you'll strain your eyes reading in this light."
She dismissed my concerns with a few mumbled words and folded the broadsheet to a manageable size. "Don't concern yourself with my vision, dear. It's fine."
I frowned at the paper hiding her face. "Can't you put that down? I have a dilemma and hoped to get your opinion."
"We have opinions." Lily gestured to Lottie and herself.
"Of course, but I'd like Aunt Hetty's, too." I gave her a nudge with my elbow.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Lady's Guide to Gossip and Murder"
Copyright © 2019 Dianne Freeman.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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