Shortlisted for the Edgar Awards
Ashley Weaver’s debut mystery, Murder at the Brightwell, is a delicious, stylish novel in which murder invades British polite society and romance springs in unexpected places, and a wonderful testament to the enduring delight of the traditional mystery.
“An elegant Christie-esque 1930s romp.” —Deborah Crombie
“If you love Downton Abbey, you'll adore Ashley Weaver’s charming debut.”—Susan Elia MacNeal
“It’s more terrible than you think, Mrs. Ames. It appears that Mr. Howe was murdered.”
Amory Ames, a wealthy young woman questioning her marriage to her notoriously charming playboy husband, Milo, is looking for a change. She accepts a request for help from her former fiancé, Gil Trent, not knowing that she’ll soon become embroiled in a murder investigation that will not only test her friendship with Gil, but also will upset the status quo with her husband.
Amory accompanies Gil to the luxurious Brightwell Hotel in an attempt to circumvent the marriage of his sister, Emmeline, to Rupert Howe a disreputable ladies man. There is more than her happiness at stake, however, when Rupert is murdered and Gil is arrested for the crime. Matters are further complicated by Milo’s unexpected arrival, and as the line between friend and foe becomes less clear, Amory must decide where her heart lies and catch the killer before she, too, becomes a victim.
*BONUS CONTENT: This edition of Murder at the Brightwell includes a new introduction from the author and a discussion guide
Also out now in the Amory Ames mysteries: Death Wears a Mask, A Most Novel Revenge, The Essence of Malice, An Act of Villainy, and A Dangerous Engagement
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Murder at the Brightwell
By Ashley Weaver
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2014 Ashley Weaver
All rights reserved.
KENT, ENGLAND 1932
IT IS AN impossibly great trial to be married to a man one loves and hates in equal proportions.
It was late June, and I was dining alone in the breakfast room when Milo blew in from the south.
"Hello, darling," he said, brushing a light kiss across my cheek. He dropped into the seat beside me and began buttering a piece of toast, as though it had been two hours since I had seen him last, rather than two months.
I took a sip of coffee. "Hello, Milo. How good of you to drop in."
"You're looking well, Amory."
I had thought the same of him. His time on the Riviera had obviously served him well. His skin was smooth and golden, setting off the bright blue of his eyes. He was wearing a dark gray suit, lounging in that casual way he had of looking relaxed and at home in expensive and impeccably tailored clothes.
"I hadn't expected to see you back so soon," I said. His last letter, an offhanded attempt at keeping me informed of his whereabouts, had arrived three weeks before and hinted that he would probably not return home until late July.
"Monte Carlo grew so tedious; I simply had to get away."
"Yes," I replied. "Nothing to replace the dull routine of roulette, champagne, and beautiful women like a rousing jaunt to your country house for toast and coffee with your wife."
Without really meaning to do so, I had poured a cup of coffee, two sugars, no milk, and handed it to him.
"You know, I believe I've missed you, Amory."
He looked me in the eyes then and smiled. Despite myself, I nearly caught my breath. He had that habit of startling, dazzling one with his sudden and complete attention.
Grimes, our butler, appeared at the door just then. "Someone to see you in the morning room, madam." He did not acknowledge Milo. Grimes, it had long been apparent, was no great admirer of my husband. He treated him with just enough respect that his obvious distaste should not cross the boundary into impropriety.
"Thank you, Grimes. I will go to the morning room directly."
"Very good, madam." He disappeared as noiselessly as he had come.
The fact that Grimes's announcement had been so vague as to keep Milo in the dark about the identity of my visitor was not lost on my husband. He turned to me and smiled as he buttered a second piece of toast. "Have I interrupted a tryst with your secret lover by my unexpected arrival?" I set my napkin down and rose. "I have no secrets from you, Milo." I turned as I reached the door and flashed his smile back at him. "If I had a lover, I would certainly inform you of it."
* * *
ON MY WAY to the morning room, I stopped at the large gilt mirror in the hallway to be sure the encounter with my wayward husband had not left me looking as askew as I felt. My reflection looked placidly back at me, gray eyes calm, waved dark hair in place, and I was reassured.
It took time, I had learned, to prepare myself for Milo. Unfortunately, he did not often oblige me by giving notice of his arrival.
I reached the door to the morning room, wondering who my visitor might be. Grimes's mysterious announcement was a reflection of my husband's presence, not the presence of my visitor, so I would have been unsurprised to find as commonplace a guest as my cousin Laurel behind the solid oak door. I entered the room and found myself surprised for the second time that morning.
The man seated on the white Louis XVI sofa was not my cousin Laurel. He was, in fact, my former fiancé.
"Hello, Amory." He had risen from his seat as I entered, and we stared at one another.
Gilmore Trent and I had known each other for years and had been engaged for all of a month when I had met Milo. The two men could not have been more different. Gil was fair; Milo was dark. Gil was calm and reassuring; Milo was reckless and exciting. Compared with Milo's charming unpredictability, Gil's steadiness had seemed dull. Young fool that I had been, I had chosen illusion over substance. Gil had taken it well and wished me happiness in that sincere way of his, and that was the last that I had seen of him. Until now.
"How have you been?" I asked, moving forward to take his hand. His grip was warm and firm, familiar.
"Quite well. And you? You look wonderful. Haven't changed a bit." He smiled, eyes crinkling at the corners, and I felt instantly at ease. He was still the same old Gil.
I motioned to the sofa. "Sit down. Would you care for some tea? Or perhaps breakfast?"
"No, no. Thank you. I realize I have already imposed upon you, dropping in unannounced as I have."
A pair of blue silk-upholstered chairs sat across from him, and I sank into one, somehow glad Grimes had chosen the intimate morning room over one of the more ostentatious sitting rooms. "Nonsense. I'm delighted to see you." I realized that I meant it. It was awfully good to see him. Gil had kept out of society and I had wondered, more than once in the five years since my marriage, what had become of him.
"It's good to see you too, Amory." He was looking at me attentively, trying to determine, I supposed, how the years had changed me. Despite his claim that I was still the same, I knew the woman before him was quite different from the girl he had once known.
Almost without realizing it, I had been appraising him as well. Five years seemed to have altered him very little. Gil was very good-looking in a solid and conventional sort of way, not stunning like Milo but very handsome. He had dark blond hair and well-formed, pleasant features. His eyes were a light, warm brown, with chocolaty flecks drawn out today by his brown tweed suit.
"I should have written to you before my visit," he went on, "but, to tell the truth ... I wasn't sure you would see me."
"Why wouldn't I?" I smiled, suddenly happy to be sitting here with an old friend, despite what had passed between us. "After all, the bad behavior was entirely on my part. I am surprised that you would care to see me."
"All water under the bridge." He leaned forward slightly, lending sincerity to his words. "I told you at the time, there was no one to blame."
"That is kind of you, Gil."
He spoke lightly, but his lips twitched up at the corners as though his mouth could not quite decide if he was serious, could not quite support a smile. "Yes. Well, one can't stop love, can one?"
"No." My smile faded. "One can't."
He leaned back in his seat then, dismissing the intimacy of the moment. "How is Milo?"
"He's very well. He returned only this morning from the Riviera."
"Yes, I had read something about his being in Monte Carlo in the society columns." I could only imagine what it might have been. Within six months of my marriage, I had learned it was better not to know what the society columns said about Milo.
For just a moment, the specter of my husband hung between us in the air.
I picked up the box of cigarettes on the table and offered one to him, knowing he didn't smoke. To my surprise, he accepted, pulling a lighter from his pocket. He touched the flame to the tip of his cigarette and inhaled deeply.
"What have you been doing these past few years?" I asked, immediately wondering if the question was appropriate. It seemed that some shadow of the past tainted nearly every topic. I knew that he had left England for a time after we had parted ways. Perhaps his travel since our parting was not something he wished to discuss. After all, there had been a time when we had traveled together. In the old days, before either of us had ever thought of marriage, our families had often been thrown together on various holidays abroad, and Gil and I had become fast friends and confidants. He had good-naturedly accompanied me in searching out scenic spots or exploring ancient ruins, and our evenings had been occupied by keeping one another company in hotel sitting rooms as our parents frequented foreign nightspots until dawn. Sometimes I still thought fondly of our adventures together and of those long, comfortable conversations before the fire.
He blew out a puff of smoke. "I've traveled some. Kept busy."
"I expect you enjoyed seeing more of the world. Do you remember the time we were in Egypt ..."
He sat forward suddenly, grounding out his cigarette in the crystal ashtray on the table. "Look here, Amory. I might as well tell you why I've come."
Years of practice in hiding my thoughts allowed me to keep my features from registering surprise at his sudden change of manner. "Certainly."
He looked me in the eyes. "I've come to ask a favor."
"Of course, Gil. I'd be happy to do anything ..." He held up a hand. "Hear me out before you say yes." He was agitated about something, uneasy, so unlike his normally contained self.
He stood and walked to the window, gazing out at the green lawn that went on and on before it ended abruptly at the lake that marked the eastern boundary of the property.
I waited, knowing it would do little good to press him. Gil wouldn't speak until he was ready. I wondered if perhaps he had come to ask me for money. The Trents were well-off, but the recent economic difficulties had been far-reaching, and more than a few of my friends had found themselves in very reduced circumstances. If that was the case, I would be only too happy to help.
"I don't need money, if that's what you're thinking," he said, his back still to me.
Despite the tension of the situation, I laughed. "Still reading my mind."
He turned, regarding me with a solemn expression. "It's not so hard to read your mind, but your eyes are harder to read than they used to be."
"Concealment comes with practice," I replied.
"Yes, I suppose it does." He walked back to the sofa and sat down.
When he spoke, his tone had returned to normal. "Have you seen anything of Emmeline these past years?"
I wondered briefly if he had decided not to ask me the favor, reverting instead to polite conversation. Emmeline was Gil's sister. She was younger than me by three years and away at school in France during much of our acquaintance, but we had been friends. After my engagement to Gil had ended, however, Emmeline and I had drifted apart.
"Once or twice at London affairs," I answered.
"Was she ... do you remember the chap she was with?" I cast my mind back to the last society dinner at which I had seen Emmeline Trent. There had been a young man, handsome and charming, if I recalled correctly. Something about my memory of him nagged at me, and I tried to recall what it was.
"I remember him," I said. "His name was Rupert something or other."
"Rupert Howe, yes. She plans to marry him."
I said nothing. There was more to come; that much was certain.
"He's not a good sort, Amory. I'm sure of it."
"That may be, Gil," I said gently. "But, after all, Emmeline is a grown woman." Emmeline would be twenty-three now, older than I had been when I married.
"It's not like that, Amory. It isn't just that I don't like the fellow. It's that I don't trust him. There's something ... I don't know ..." His voice trailed off, and he looked up at me. "Emmeline has always liked you, looked up to you. I thought that, perhaps ..."
Was this why he had come? I had no influence on Emmeline. "If she won't listen to you," I said, "whatever makes you think she will care what I have to say?"
He paused, and I could see that he was formulating his words, planning out what he would say. Gil had always been like that, careful to think before speaking. "There's a large party going down to the south coast, a little village outside Brighton, tomorrow. Emmeline and Rupert and several other people I'm sure you know. We'll be staying at the Brightwell Hotel for a week. I came to ask you if you would go on the pretext of a holiday."
I was surprised at the invitation. I had not seen Gil in five years, and suddenly here he was, asking me to take a trip to the seaside. "I still don't understand. What can I do, Gil? Why come to me?"
"I ... Amory," his eyes came up to mine, the brown flecks darker than they had been. "I want you to accompany me ... to appear to be with me. You understand?" I did understand him, just as easily as I once had. I saw just what he meant. I was to go with him to the seaside, to give the impression that I had left Milo. That my marriage had been a mistake. Emmeline had seen the society columns, the reports of my husband gallivanting across Europe without me; she would believe it.
I suddenly comprehended that there would be good reason for me to talk to Emmeline, how I would have authority when Gil didn't.
Gil had said he didn't trust Rupert Howe. I knew he was right. I knew Gil had seen in Rupert the same thing that had caught my attention when I had met him.
Emmeline's Rupert had reminded me of Milo.
My decision was almost immediate. "I should be delighted to come," I said. "I should like to keep Emmeline from making a mistake, if I possibly can."
Gil smiled warmly, relief washing across his features, and I found myself returning the smile. The prospect of a week at the seaside in the company of old friends was not an unappealing one, at that.
Of course, had I known the mayhem that awaited, I would have been more reluctant to offer my services.CHAPTER 2
GIL LEFT IMMEDIATELY, declining my offer to stay even for lunch.
I walked him to the door, and there was an easy silence between us, the companionability of shared conspiracy.
He took my hand as we stepped out onto the drive and into the warm morning light. "If you don't want to do this, you have only to say so. I have no right to ask anything of you, Amory. It's just that I knew at once that you would understand." He offered me a slightly unsteady smile as the past resurfaced. "And I seem to recall that you were always keen on a bit of adventure."
I had been once. Gil had teased me for my sense of daring, my daydreams of great exploits. However, life so seldom became what we expected it to be; adventure had been very sparse these past few years.
"I am happy to do what I can, Gil. Truly."
He brushed his thumb lightly over my hand. "What will you tell your husband?"
"I don't know that I'll tell him anything." I smiled weakly. "He probably won't notice I'm gone."
Gil's eyes flickered over my shoulder. "I'm not so certain of that."
I didn't turn around, but instead leaned to brush a kiss across his cheek. "Good-bye, Gil. I'll see you soon."
He released my hand as he turned toward his motorcar, a blue Crossley coupe. "Yes, soon."
I watched his car as it drove down the long driveway; I didn't turn around, even as I sensed Milo behind me.
"That was Gil Trent, wasn't it?"
I turned then. Milo was leaning against the door frame, arms crossed, his pose as casual as his tone had been. He was wearing riding clothes, a white shirt under a black jacket and fawn-colored trousers tucked into shining black boots. The picture of a country gentleman.
"Yes. It was."
One dark brow moved upward, ever so slightly. "Well. Did you ask him to stay for lunch?"
"He didn't care to."
He tapped his riding crop against his leg. "Perhaps he hadn't expected me to be here."
"Yes, well, you do flit about, darling."
We looked at one another for a moment. If Milo was waiting for more, he was going to be disappointed. I had no desire to satisfy his curiosity. Let him wonder what I was up to for once.
"Going riding?" I asked breezily, moving past him and into the shadowed entryway.
His voice followed me into the dimness. "Care to join me?"
The invitation stopped me, and I was instantly irritated with myself. I turned. The light behind him in the doorway turned him to shadow, but I could tell he was watching me.
I wanted to go, but I knew that it really mattered very little to Milo if I did or not.
"All right," I said at last, weakening. "I'll just run up and change."
"I'll wait for you at the stables."
I went up to my room, preoccupied by the morning's strange turn of events. Fancy Gil Trent coming to see me, after all this time. There had been something a bit mysterious in his manner. I wondered if things were as straightforward as he had made them seem. Could there really be something so very wrong with Rupert Howe? I tried again to remember the young man but could recall only a fleeting impression of suave attractiveness. I hoped that Gil was merely playing the role of overprotective brother, but I knew that he was not inclined to exaggeration, nor would he have judged Rupert Howe harshly without good reason.
Good reason or not, I reflected, our intervention was likely a lost cause. I was not under any illusions that I would somehow be able to deter Emmeline from her course if she had truly determined to wed the man, but I supposed it wouldn't hurt to try.
However, if I was honest, I had to admit that I was partly compelled to accept Gil's proposal for motives that were not entirely altruistic. The truth was that I was finding it more and more difficult to ignore that I was terribly unhappy. Perhaps I had not admitted it completely, even to myself, until today.
Excerpted from Murder at the Brightwell by Ashley Weaver. Copyright © 2014 Ashley Weaver. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.