Lady Evelyn Carlisle has barely arrived in London when familial duty calls her away again. Her cousin Gemma is desperate for help with her ailing mother before her imminent wedding, which Evelyn knew nothing about! Aunt Agnes in tow, she journeys to Scotland, expecting to find Malmo Manor in turmoil. To her surprise, her Scottish family has been keeping far more secrets than the troubled state of their matriarch. Adding to the tension in the house a neighbor has opened his home, Elderbrooke Park, as a retreat for artistic veterans of the Great War. This development does not sit well with everyone in the community. Is the suspicion towards the residents a catalyst for murder? A tragedy at Elderbrooke Park's May Day celebration awakens Evelyn's sleuthing instinct, which is strengthened when the story of another unsolved death emerges, connected to her own family. What she uncovers on her quest to expose the truth will change several lives forever, including her own. With the shadow of history looming over her, Evelyn must trust in her instinct and ability to comb through the past to understand the present, before the murderer can stop her and tragedy strikes again.
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London, April 1927
"Let me see!" Briony's hand reaches out, but the object of her desire is intercepted by another.
"I'll have that." Aunt Agnes snatches the thick sheet of paper, upon which my name is written in rich calligraphy beneath the seal of the University of Oxford. My degree. My time of study has passed in a whirlwind of examinations and instruction. I am sent forth into the world a wiser woman. Or so I should be. The reality is another matter. I feel untethered. The time I spent at St. Hugh's was one of direction and managed freedom. Now I am at loose ends, neither eager to continue my studies in the hope of becoming a professor, nor able to articulate concrete plans for the future, which are demanded of me at every turn.
"Congratulations, Evelyn!" Harold, my aunt's beau, beams at me across the table. I return the smile, happy for his presence in our lives and the change it has elicited in my erstwhile rigid aunt.
"Thank you, Harold. I must admit, I am rather pleased."
"And so you should be!" Briony grins, bouncing her youngest daughter, six-month-old Elsa, gently on her knee. "You are the first female Carlisle who attended university. I hope this little lady takes note." As if understanding her mother's words, Elsa gurgles an unintelligible reply.
We are seated at a long table in the back garden of Briony's new London residence in the heart of Belgravia. Briony and her husband Jeffrey Farnham, a curator for the British Museum, moved here two months ago with their four children, who are at this very moment bustling about, snatching a bun off the table, reading in the shade of an elm, and tugging at their mother's skirt. Aunt Agnes and Harold live — separately! — a hop and a skip away in Eaton Square, where the latter moved after a long military career in India.
"Oh, look who has arrived!" Briony gestures at someone behind me entering the garden idyll through open French doors.
"Daniel!" I call out, cheered to see him. "And you brought Hugh, how lovely!" I get to my feet, embracing Daniel in the chaste manner called for in the presence of my aunt, then touching Hugh's hand. He appears to be in good health, better than I have ever seen him, to be sure. He has found the odd job here and there and moved into a small flat in Covent Garden. Daniel worries about his friend, but in my view, Hugh has improved by leaps and bounds since we met him in France, a skittish, bitter man, living only for the past.
"Congratulations," Daniel steps further into the garden and I tuck my hand into the crook of his elbow, beckoning a reluctant Hugh to join us at the table.
"Thank you very much," I execute a small bow. Areta and Timon, Briony's children, imitate me with great pomp and ado, two little Victorian butlers in the making.
"Before you ask her 'what now'," Briony begins, addressing the group's newcomers, "let me warn you. The question is forbidden at this table."
"Quite right, too," Hugh agrees, smiling timidly at my cousin.
"We are very proud of the old girl," Jeffrey adds cheerfully. Since leaving the home of his in-laws, his mood has brightened considerably. While my Uncle Robert and Aunt Louise are the loveliest hosts, he never felt entirely at home at Chesterton, the family's Kentish estate. Their absence is noted today. They are traveling, touring Italy to mark the thirtieth year of their marriage. I envy them the escape, for spring has been bleak. Today is the first day of the sun indicating it has not forsaken our little isle entirely. I itch to travel after a year spent in one place, my eyes yearn for new sights, my feet for the sensation of treading upon foreign soil. All of this I do not say, but smile and laugh, accepting toasts in my honor and far too much of the imported champagne.
It is late when Daniel, Hugh and I finally leave the verdant garden, the children having been carried to their rooms hours ago, Agnes and Harold left earlier still. The streets in this plush area of town are quiet now. Despite attempts to persuade Hugh to join us at Daniel's house in Grosvenor Square, he bids us goodnight at Wellington Arch. We walk on in companionable silence, commenting occasionally on the events of the day.
How easy it is to be here again, yet how my circumstances have altered. Two years ago, I fled from this city, leaving behind an aunt with whom I never celebrated a happy relationship, though she has been my guardian from the age of four, when I lost my parents to a fire. Returning to England after a year in Greece, travels to France and time spent in Oxford, has cast London in a softer light. For the past few days, I have discreetly stayed with Daniel in his spacious Grosvenor Square house. Though he lives in the company of his butler, Mr. Wilkins, a veteran of the war as well as a kindly cook, he confessed to spending most of his time in only two or three of his many rooms. I think he would have preferred Hugh to stay on longer, for a friendship has formed between them, built on their shared love for Daniel's elder, long gone brother, Henry. Nonetheless, Hugh was ill-at-ease in these opulent surroundings, as well as living with another person after having existed solely with own company for many years.
"What are you thinking about?" Daniel interrupts my reminiscence.
Daniel continues, "It was a nice day, wasn't it?"
"Very. I'm so happy Briony and the children have moved to London, just as I am to return as well. I have to start the house search soon." I say the words without thinking and instantly register a slight clouding of Daniel's features. He has made it plain that he considers his house mine and buying another to be a waste. I sense it is disappointment, not economy fueling his feelings. I have never lived alone, never had so much as my own kitchen — not that I would know what to do in it, admittedly — and I yearn for the chance to experience such freedom. My decision is not a rejection of Daniel's proposal, simply a delay in accepting it. He does not quite understand this explanation, frequently though I have foisted it on him.
"Don't pout," I chastise gently. "You will have me living under your roof in good time. Besides, property in London is always in demand, I may decide to rent mine out or sell it again later."
"Or you will like it so much and never leave."
"Then you must come and live under my roof." I smile and squeeze his arm. After a moment, he smiles back. We have reached his house and, upon climbing the few steps leading to the elegant entry, are welcomed in by the butler, Mr. Wilkins, who takes our hats and is excused to retire for the night. I have grown fond of him during the short time he has been in Daniel's employ and think of all the advantages living here would offer, his attentive services included.
"And what now? How does the former Oxford student, Evelyn Carlisle, plan to spend her week?"
I open my mouth to answer when Mr. Wilkins reappears.
"Lady Carlisle," he says, unable to refrain from using his strangely studied formal tone, "you have a telephone call. Miss Gemma McNally."
"Gemma?" It takes me a moment to register the name and the implications of her late-night communication. Gemma is my aunt Iris' youngest daughter. Far from being a child — she turned twenty-five last month — she has always acted the role of the little girl, and we never enjoyed a close bond. I am surprised to hear from her and at this address. She must know the number from her mother, who has made use of it on one or two rare occasions in the past.
I step into the study, where the telephone is kept, gleaming and black on a side table.
"Evie, is that you? The connection is terrible!" This may be so, but I recognize my cousin's voice in an instant.
"Is everything —"
Before I can finish the question, however, Gemma interrupts with, "Oh, Evie, you must come! Mother is worse, and I am to be married soon. It is just a disaster!"
"Married? And what do you mean she is acting worse?" I have raised my voice, almost shouting my confusion into the receiver.
"Evie, we sent wedding invites ages ago!"
"I never received one." In fact, I am not sure of this. With my post coming here, to Oxford and to Agnes' house, the invitation may well have been lost. But that is beside the point. "Gemma, what is wrong with your mother?"
"I shouldn't be calling you, Lucy said I should not, but I can't cope with her and the wedding as well!" Gemma wails into the other end, and I have to take a slow breath to keep my patience.
"Is she in one of her black moods again?" I ask, eager to understand. I have not been in contact with Iris for a while. In fact, I was surprised not to hear from her when I completed my studies. Still, I was so busy, I am ashamed to acknowledge that I did not dwell on her silence.
"She has been acting strangely. Everyone is aware of it. Seb's family will arrive soon. What will they make of her? She is always wearing the same clothes and forgets to eat or fix her hair."
"What does Martin say?" Martin is Iris' second husband.
"He is useless, as ever. Fishing and reading and goodness knows what. Lucy is in St. Andrews most of the time and rarely comes to visit and Teddy is not to be depended upon."
"I see." I frown into the empty room.
"So you will come?" Gemma chirps, misunderstanding my silence.
"Of course! You will come anyway for the wedding in May, so you can easily travel a few weeks earlier. There is plenty of space."
Go to Scotland? I am lost for words. Gemma seems to take this as assent.
"Will you take the morning train? The sooner the better. Oh, good! I am so relieved! Don't tell Lucy I telephoned!" The connection is severed. I am left holding the receiver in one hand and staring bewildered at my reflection in the blackened window until I hear a sound behind me.
"Everything all right?" Daniel looks at me with a bemused expression. He has never met the Scottish side of my family. I set the receiver down and brush a hand over my face.
"It was my cousin Gemma. She says Aunt Iris is unwell. She also told me she is getting married next month." I shake my head.
"Weren't you invited?"
"Apparently. Maybe the invitation got lost," I wave this thought away, my mind already drawing images of my aunt's decline.
Daniel moves closer, placing a hand on my shoulder.
"You are concerned for your aunt's well-being? What did your cousin say?"
I explain all I understood myself, ending the recounting of our conversation with Gemma urging me to come to Scotland post-haste.
"And will you go?" Daniel asks, his expression open, yet difficult to read. I sigh and crouch on the edge of an armchair.
"Shall I come with you?"
Smiling, I look up and take his hand. "I wouldn't ask it of you. Better not to overwhelm Iris, too. You must come for the wedding, though. To meet that mad branch of my family up north?"
Daniel returns the smile and nods. "When do you leave?"
"Tomorrow, I think. I should ring Agnes, to find out if she knows anything else. Or maybe I'll stop by before I leave. She hates to use the telephone."
"Admit it, you were getting restless at the prospect of settling down, weren't you? The opportunity to dash off to Scotland isn't as inopportune as you pretend."
I cannot prevent a grin from tugging at the corners of my mouth. "Well, I do not like the circumstances, but I confess, a spot of travel has been on my mind ..."
Daniel chuckles. "I can read you better than you imagine, Lady Carlisle."
Getting to my feet, I thread my fingers through his. "You can, Mr. Harper. And that is precisely why you may help with my packing. No time to waste," I say, already dragging him behind me toward the stairs.CHAPTER 2
The orb of the sun is a pale outline behind a blanket of clouds when I slip into a cab the next morning. Before leaving for Scotland, I must speak with Aunt Agnes. Perhaps she can tell me more of her sister's troubles, although they are not terribly close. My mother's death shattered the sisters' fragile bond. When Agnes and her husband took me in, Iris was lost in her grief.
Daniel already left for the offices of Harper Ltd., but promised to see me off at the station at eleven. That gives me two hours. The cab slides easily into mid-morning traffic. We pass the lush expanse of Grosvenor Square garden, where trees are finally in bloom and delicate shoots of hawthorn and bluebells sprinkle the grass with specks of color.
I remember when I was very young and my parents took me to Scotland to visit my cousins, there was a field of bluebells belonging to a bordering farm. Lucinda — Lucy — Iris' eldest daughter liked to play mother and she took me by the hand, a basket swinging from one arm. We spent the afternoon ripping up fistfuls of purple blossoms to take home as a present for our parents. When they saw the carnage we had wreaked, they were none too happy and Lucy claimed it had all been my doing. Her older brother Hamish came to my rescue, saying he had seen us both about our forbidden business. In truth, he had been off somewhere catching butterflies or toadstools, which he showed me later in a tall glass jar. Lucy squealed and screamed at the sight of the slimy toads, but Hamish was always kind to me, so I trusted they would do no harm.
When I think back, I see the scenes in my mind's eye as if they happened only days ago. How long poor, kind Hamish has been gone. What could have become of him, had his life not been cut tragically short a decade ago? I shudder, remembering his broad, open face, the slightly crooked row of bottom teeth, his permanently tousled hair. Hamish was declared missing, presumed dead the summer of 1916. I was barely fifteen. We hadn't seen each other often, him living in the north, me in London and Kent. Still, I was fond of him and for the longest time, much like his mother, I held on to the thread of hope he might return. Unlike for Iris, that tendril has long since slipped from my grasp. Too much tragedy occurred for me to believe in miracles. Even if Hamish survived, he would be a different man now. We might not even recognize him anymore. If ... There I go, perhaps hope truly does die last.
Lost in reminiscences, I have not noticed our journey past Hyde Park and Buckingham Palace Gardens. However, when the car comes to a standstill, my eyes focus on the facade of my aunt's proud Georgian house.
I pay the cabbie and climb out. A gust of wind sends my hem fluttering. I clamp a hand on my hat and with the other push down my skirt as I hurry up the steps to the door. Before I can raise my hand to the knocker, it swings inward, revealing my aunt's faithful butler, Mr. Harris.
"Lady Carlisle, come in. Is your aunt expecting you?" He steps back to allow me entry. Before I can answer, a sharp voice does it for me.
"No, I don't believe I am." Aunt Agnes appears in the hallway. Her cheeks are flushed and she wears a pale mauve dress with tiny pearl buttons at the wrist, quite a change from her favored wardrobe of greys and blacks in the years following Uncle Brendan's death. It suits her. This recent change in appearance and demeanor can largely be credited to her neighbor and beau, Harold Finley.
"Aunt Agnes, I apologize to burst in on you unannounced and early, too. However, there is something I need to talk to you about. Are you busy?" My tone with my aunt has remained strangely stilted and formal, a result of our relationship when I still lived under her roof. Though we are nearing a tentative friendship, old habits are hard to break.
"Come through to the sitting room, I want to show you the new curtains," Agnes says, and we move into the familiar room. To my stunned surprise, that familiarity no longer applies. Gone are the dark ancestral portraits looming over stiff brocade sofas and armchairs; gone are the dark green curtains and faded satin wallpaper. The room has transformed. Dainty furniture rests upon intricately woven carpets, two tranquil landscapes hang elegantly on the walls, acting like added windows, illuminating what was once a dour and charmless room.
"Aunt Agnes, this is incredible! You didn't tell me you were changing so much!" I exclaim with earnest appreciation.
"Well, you are never around anymore," Agnes replies in a faintly chastising tone. Still, I can tell she is pleased in the face of my enthusiasm. "What do you think of the curtains?" She gestures at the gauzy, rose colored fabric dancing in the breeze from an open window.
"Lovely, just lovely! Will you redecorate the rest of the house as well?" I ask, sitting down on a velvet sofa.
"Do you think I should? Harold suggested it." Agnes sits across from me, glancing about the room with an expression of pride. "I was surprised at first that he liked the change, to be honest, my dear. It looks rather feminine, doesn't it? Brendan's mother chose the old furnishings."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Golden Hour"
Copyright © 2019 Malia Zaidi.
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