Kat Stanford is just days away from starting her dream antique business with her newly widowed mother Iris when she gets a huge shock. Iris has recklessly purchased a dilapidated carriage house at Honeychurch Hall, an isolated country estate complete with eccentric lords and ladies and butlers and cooks.
When a secret from the past comes back to haunt Iris, Kat realizes she hardly knows her mother at all. And when the bodies start piling up, it is up to Kat to unravel the tangled truth behind the murders 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. Hannah is the author of the Vicky Hill mysteries, published by Berkley Prime Crime; Murder at Honeychurch Hall is her first time being published in hardcover.
Read an Excerpt
Murder at Honeychurch Hall
By Hannah Dennison
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2014 Hannah Dennison
All rights reserved.
"Mum!" I exclaimed. "Thank God you've called. I've been so worried."
"I hope you're not driving, Kat," chided my mother on the other end of the line.
"I am driving," I said as my VW Golf crawled through the heavy stream of London traffic along the Old Brompton Road. "And don't change the subject."
"If you're not wearing a headset, you'll get a ticket —"
"Which is why I am pulling over," I said. "Do not hang up. Let me stop somewhere."
Mum gave a heavy sigh. "Quickly then. This call is expensive."
I turned into Bolton Place, a quiet residential street divided by two graceful crescents that encircled communal gardens. Spotting a space outside the church of St. Mary's, I parked and switched off the engine.
"Where did you get to last night?" I demanded. "I was about to call out the cavalry."
"You sound tense," said my mother, deliberately avoiding the question. "Is everything alright with Dylan?"
"You know very well my boyfriend is called David," I said, annoyed that she always knew how to hit a nerve. "God, it's boiling." I wound down the window, taking in the heat of a hot August day and the smell of freshly mown grass.
"You're too old to have a boyfriend —"
"Man friend then. And I'm not tense," I said. "I was concerned when you didn't come to my leaving party last night. Did you have another migraine?"
"No. I was in denial," said Mum flatly. "I was hoping you weren't going to go through with giving up Fakes & Treasures."
"I want my life back, Mum. Have you any idea what it's like to be constantly in the public eye?"
"Such a pity," she went on. "I loved seeing you on the telly. You always looked so nice. Are you sure you're not making a mistake?"
"You sound just like David —"
"Oh dear," said Mum. "In that case, I'm delighted and I'm sorry I didn't come."
Ignoring the barb, I said, "Good, because I'm delighted that we're going into business together. Speaking of which, I thought we could look at some properties this weekend."
"That may not be possible —"
"And I must show you what I bought at Bonhams saleroom this morning," I said. "Two boxes of Victorian toys and vintage teddy bears that I got at a bargain price — our first stock items. I can't wait to show them to you."
There was a long pause.
"Did you hear what I said, Mother?"
Another even longer pause and then, "I've broken my right hand," she said bluntly.
"Oh Mum," I cried. "Are you okay?"
"I am now."
"Why didn't you tell me?"
"I'm telling you now."
"How bad is it?" I said. "Can you cook? Dress yourself?"
"With one hand?"
"Well, you do have the other one."
"I'll drive over straight away," I said.
"What about Dylan? Won't he mind?"
"David is away this weekend."
"Your father wouldn't like me gadding off without him," said Mum. "Did you know that we never once spent a night apart in all our fifty years of marriage?"
"Yes I did know and it was forty-nine years, not fifty," I pointed out. "And if you are going to be unkind about David, I won't come."
"When did you say his divorce from that Trudy woman is final? I keep forgetting."
"It's complicated," I muttered.
"Have you watched Trudy's new television show?" Mum said, hitting another nerve. "Very amusing — Walk of Shame! Celebrity Family Secrets Revealed."
"Mum ... I'm warning you. I do not want to talk about Trudy Wynne," I said. "Do you want me to come or not?"
"Yes, yes," said Mum wearily. "I do have a little project that needs finishing. Some typing."
"I didn't know you could type."
"Of course I can type," said Mum with scorn. "I use Daddy's Olivetti."
"That's a collector's item. I'm surprised you can still buy the ribbon," I said. "I'll stop by my place to pick up a few things and should be with you in under an hour."
"I doubt it," said Mum. "I've moved — now, don't get all cross and silly."
"Moved? Where? When?" I cried. "What about our business plans?"
"I've changed my mind. What do you need me for anyway?"
"The whole idea was that you'd help me run Kat's Collectibles," I said, exasperated. "We'd find you a lovely flat above a shop —"
"Whilst you moved in with David," said Mum. "You know your father would never have approved of you living in sin."
"It's the twenty-first century, Mother," I said. "And anyway, Dad wanted me to look after you. He didn't want you to be lonely."
"I'm not lonely."
"When did you make this momentous decision?"
"Let me see, about a month ago."
"A month? But ..." I was beginning to feel light-headed. "We speak every day. Sometimes two or three times a day." Then I remembered that recently Mum was always the one ringing me. "I thought I didn't recognize the phone number. Where are you calling from?"
"You have a mobile? Seriously?" I said. "And when did you put the house up for sale?"
"All these questions," said Mum. "That nice man who runs the dry cleaners made me an offer I couldn't refuse."
"Mr. Winkleigh?" I gasped. "Dad would never have sold to Mr. Winkleigh. He couldn't stand him."
"Well, your father's not here so he won't find out, will he?"
I tried to absorb yet another piece of disturbing information. Even the thought of shopping for groceries would guarantee to bring on one of my mother's "turns" and yet somehow, she'd managed to move house. "You can't have done it all by yourself."
"I'm not an invalid, you know," said Mum.
This was rich coming from someone who spent all my school holidays with a migraine lying down in a dark room.
"And besides," she added. "Alfred helped."
"And Alfred is whom? Your Spanish boyfriend?" Nothing would surprise me at this point.
"Alfred is hardly a Spanish name, dear. A Spanish name would be Juan or perhaps Pablo," said Mum mildly. "Alfred is my brother."
I swear I stopped breathing. "I didn't know you had a brother."
"Well, I do," said Mum. "As a matter of fact I had two — though Billy's dead and gone. Aneurism on Blackpool Pier. He died young. So very sad."
"So I must have cousins. I'd love to have cousins."
"You wouldn't like them."
"I would like them." I could feel my temper rising as I remembered envying my friends' big families, especially at Christmas. I hated being an only child. "Did Dad know you had brothers?"
"Of course he knew. He just didn't like them so we didn't see them," said Mum. "Does it matter?"
"Actually, it does matter," I said. "I always thought you and Dad were orphans."
"Really? I wonder why?"
"Because that's what you told me," I shouted.
"Well, never mind all that," said Mum briskly. "You'd better get cracking if you want to be here in time for tea."
"Wait a moment," I said. "What did you do with all my things?"
"Oxfam," Mum declared. "And before you throw another wobbly don't worry — I put all your furry friends in a suitcase. I have it right here —"
"And my dressing-up box?" I said, recalling the iron trunk full of dozens of beautifully handmade costumes. Mum had always been very nifty with the needle. "I want my children to have those."
"You'd better get a move on in that department or it will be too late."
"Thanks for reminding me, Mum," I said.
"I was just joking."
But I knew she wasn't.
"Do you have a pencil?" Mum went on. "I'd better give you the address."
"Wait," I said. "I need something to write on." I pulled the sale catalogue out of my tote bag and found a pen. "Ready."
"The Carriage House, Honeychurch Hall Estate —"
"Honeychurch?" I snorted. "How very Winnie-the-Pooh."
"Don't snort. It's so unattractive," said Mum. "Honeychurch is all one word." There was a long pause. "Little Dipperton."
"Little what?" I said.
"Dipperton, like the Big Dipper only little. With t-o-n on the end."
"Where the hell is Little Dipperton?"
"Devon?" I sputtered.
"Near Dartmouth. Very pretty little fishing port. You'll love it. I'll take you there for a cream tea."
"Devon!" I said again. "That's over two hundred miles away."
"Yes, I am aware of that. I just moved here."
"But you don't even like the countryside."
"Your father didn't but I do," said my mother cheerfully. "I love the countryside. I've always hated city life. Now I wake up to the sound of the birds, the smell of fresh air —"
"But ... Devon." I felt dizzy at yet another revelation. "What about Dad's ashes? I thought we agreed we'd put him in Tooting Crematorium? You'll never be able to visit him."
"I changed my mind about Tooting Crematorium. He suffered from claustrophobia, you know."
"Mum, he's in an orange Tupperware container right now," I exclaimed. "What's the difference?"
"It's too final."
I tried a different tack. "What about all your friends?"
"Your father worked for HM Revenue & Customs," said Mum. "We didn't have friends."
"You don't even drive."
"I've always been able to drive. I just liked your father driving me." Mum chuckled. "In fact, I've just bought myself a nice MINI Cooper in Chili Red."
"How can you afford a new car? A house — and a grand house by the sound of things — in the country?" Alarm bells began to ring in my head. "How did you hear about this carriage house in the first place?"
"I have contacts."
"But you must have viewed it? How? When?"
"I don't have to answer any more questions from you," Mum said. "I can do what I like."
Another ghastly thought occurred to me. "You've spent all of Dad's money, haven't you?" There was an ominous silence on the other end of the phone. "He said you would."
"Katherine, there's something I need to tell you —"
"You have spent it!" I exclaimed. "You only call me Katherine when you're about to give me bad news."
"Does the name Krystalle Storm mean anything to you?"
Thrown for a moment, I said, "No. Why? Who's she when she's at home?"
"Critics say she'll be even bigger than Barbara Cartland."
"The romance writer. Barbara Cartland."
"What's that got to do with Dad's money?"
"Her books are everywhere. Over half a million sold worldwide," Mum enthused. "I'm surprised —"
"You know I don't read that kind of rubbish, Mum. What did Dad call it? 'Penny Dreadfuls for pathetic old ladies,'" I said. "And don't try to change the subject again."
"Fine," Mum snapped. "You know what, I don't think I need your help after all. I can manage on my own."
"Now you're throwing a wobbly. I'm happy to come. In fact, I quite fancy a cream tea."
"No," said Mum coldly. "I don't want you here. I already have someone who is longing to lend me his hand. He's very kind. Very kind indeed." And before I could utter another word, my mother hung up.
I was deeply perplexed. It was clear that Mum's grief had made her rash and impulsive. What had possessed her to move so far away from London? The fact that she'd managed to get into my father's carefully protected pension fund was extremely worrying. My mother was notoriously hopeless with money. It was a family joke. Dad and I had gone to great lengths to make sure that she'd just receive a monthly income so she couldn't spend it all at once. I felt I'd let him down and he'd only been gone four months.
There was nothing else for it. I'd have to drive to Little Dipperton, wherever that might be, and make her see sense.CHAPTER 2
I made a quick stop at my garden flat near Putney Bridge to throw a few things into a suitcase including brochures of some properties I was determined to show Mum. I also decided to take the two boxes of vintage teddy bears and Victorian toys that I'd purchased that morning.
"Ready Jazzbo Jenkins?" I said to my lucky mascot, a six-inch-tall Merrythought "Jerry" toy mouse from the 1940s that I kept on my car dashboard. It had been given to mum as a child, and she had given it to me. "Let's go and sort out my mother."
It was a gloriously sunny day in August and — according to the temperature gauge inside my car — a stifling eighty-five degrees. Everything in England always seemed ill equipped to deal with heat waves and my car was no exception. The cold-air fan just sucked in the hot air from outside. Even with all the windows open, sweat trickled down my back. It was going to be a long, sticky drive.
Traffic was heavy as holidaymakers headed for the West Country for the official last week of the school summer holidays. I trailed behind lines of slow-moving caravans and the occasional sight of a car pulled onto the hard shoulder with an overheated engine.
Along the roadside I saw a sign STRAWBERRIES HALF A MILE. Tears unexpectedly stung my eyes as I recalled family outings when I'd beg Dad to stop for strawberries but we never did because I always spilled food, drink — or anything really — on my clothes. I slowed down to look at the table filled with punnets of strawberries under a large umbrella and decided to pull over.
Feeling rather guilty, I bought two — one for Mum and one for me to eat right this second. I devoured mine in five minutes flat. The strawberries were sweet, plump, and delicious and unfortunately, the juice dripped onto my white capris. Dad had been right.
By the time I'd driven past Stonehenge on the A303, the sun had vanished and the sky was heavy with dark storm clouds rolling across Salisbury Plain. With a loud crash of thunder, rain started to come down like stair rods. Traffic slowed to a crawl and ceased altogether. Then, just as quickly as it had fallen, the rain stopped and an exquisite rainbow straddled the distant hills.
I pulled into a petrol service station to pick up some flowers and a bottle of Blue Nun for Mum.
Queuing at the register I noticed Gypsy Temptress by the author Mum had mentioned — Krystalle Storm — on a revolving stand of paperbacks. Against the backdrop of a church, a scantily clad gypsy girl with raven hair and masses of bracelets leaned against a vast oak tree trunk looking seductive in her low-cut dress. I picked up a copy and read the back cover. "He was a man of the cloth. She — an outcast from her kin. Can love ..."
"It's good," said a young woman in her late twenties. "It's the first in the Star-Crossed Lovers Series — oh! Excuse me. Are you Kat Stanford from Fakes & Treasures?"
I smiled politely. "Yes."
"I love that show!" she said. "It's your hair."
Unfortunately television personalities are pigeonholed with certain character traits — Gordon Ramsay and his famous temper; bra-less Charlie Dimmock from the TV show Ground Force; and me, nicknamed Rapunzel because of my mane of hair.
"Thanks," I said. "Maybe I will buy this for my mother."
"Be careful," she said with a chuckle and pointed to a warning at the bottom of the cover. "See there? It's categorized as a 'sizzler.' Racy stuff."
"I'm not sure if my mother could handle sizzling," I said and put it back. Then, on impulse I grabbed it, after all. It would be a peace offering of sorts. Maybe I'd even give it a try.
My spirits lifted as I barreled down the M5. Wiltshire turned into Somerset and then — at last — I flew past a road sign featuring a jaunty tall-ship logo announcing WELCOME TO DEVON and the sun came out again.
The countryside was breathtakingly diverse. There were vast expanses of lush rolling fields dotted with sheep and cattle, rushing streams bounded by thick woods or ancient low stone dry walls, gullies, and crags lined with the rich red earth that Devon was famous for. And, amongst all this beauty was another kind — silhouetted on the horizon, stood the dark, sinister tors of Dartmoor with its shifting mists and treacherous bogs.
With a last look at the detailed directions I'd carefully jotted down courtesy of Google Maps, I turned off the dual carriageway and onto a quiet two-lane road flanked by thick pine forests on one side and a low stone wall fronting a bubbling river on the other. Dartmouth was signposted twelve miles and from there, Little Dipperton just two miles farther.
I checked my watch. It was almost four. I'd made excellent time and was feeling thoroughly pleased with myself.
Two hours later I was hopelessly lost and incredibly frustrated.
It would appear that Google Maps had no knowledge of the myriad of tiny, interconnecting, twisting lanes that spread across Devon — 90 percent of which had no signposts at all or if they did, ended in impassable tracks. Picking up a mobile phone signal was erratic, too, and when I finally got one and rang my mother, she didn't answer.
By six o'clock all my good humor had completely evaporated. At last a church spire appeared in the distance so I headed for that.
Excerpted from Murder at Honeychurch Hall by Hannah Dennison. Copyright © 2014 Hannah Dennison. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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