I am a bit at loose ends at the moment. My cook, Queenie, is making my new role as mistress of Eynsleigh something akin to constant torture as Darcy is off on another one of his top secret jaunts. And Grandad is busy helping wayward youths avoid lives of crime. So when my dearest friend, Belinda, inherits an old cottage in Cornwall and begs me to go with her to inspect the property, I jump at the chance.
After a heart-stopping journey in Belinda’s beast of a motorcar, we arrive at the creaky old cottage called White Sails and quickly realize that it is completely uninhabitable. Just when I’m starting to wonder if I would have been better off trying to get Queenie to cook a roast that hasn’t been burnt beyond all recognition, we meet Rose Summers, a woman Belinda knew as a child when she spent time in Cornwall. Rose invites us to stay at Trewoma Hall, the lovely estate now owned by her husband, Tony.
Belinda confesses that she never liked Rose and had a fling with Tony years ago, so staying with them is far from ideal but beggars can’t be choosers as they say. Trewoma is not the idyllic house Belinda remembers. There’s something claustrophobic and foreboding about the place. Matters aren’t helped by the oppressively efficient housekeeper Mrs. Mannering or by the fact that Tony seems to want to rekindle whatever he and Belinda once had right under his wife’s nose.
Our increasingly awkward visit soon turns deadly when a member of the household is found murdered and all clues point to Belinda as the prime suspect. I soon learn that some long buried secrets have come back to haunt those in residence at Trewoma Hall and I’ll need to sift through the ruins of their past so Belinda doesn’t lose her chance at freedom in the present. . . .
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Monday, October 14, 1935
Last night I had a strange dream. I dreamed that I was mistress of an enormous house. It was so large that I couldn't find my way around it. I kept running down long dark hallways and opening doors but nothing looked familiar. Empty rooms. Furniture covered in dust sheets. I knew that somewhere was a man who would take care of me, but I had no idea how to find him. I awoke, sweating, reached out for Darcy and found only a cold empty bed beside me. I sat up, heart pounding, before I realized that he had gone away.
By the light of day I analyzed that dream. The strange thing about it was that it was all true. I had achieved my ultimate desire: I was married to a gorgeous and sexy man, and really was mistress of a big, empty house called Eynsleigh. I know-it's still mind-boggling to me! It was mid-October. We had been married for almost three months and much of that time had been wonderful. Darcy and I had been to Kenya on our honeymoon-a little more dramatic than I had anticipated. I had enjoyed learning to be mistress of a large house for the first time, arranging Eynsleigh to my own satisfaction and slipping into a comfortable routine with my new husband.
I had encouraged him to turn down a desk job at the Foreign Office, knowing him too well and suspecting he would be bored with inactivity. But now I was coming to regret this as last week he had accepted some sort of assignment from person or persons unknown, and gone off, unable to tell me the nature of this assignment or where he was going. I had accepted, in theory, that this is what life would be like with Darcy. I was pretty sure by now that he did something undercover for the English government but the reality that he might disappear at a moment's notice with no forwarding address was just beginning to sink in.
"You were the one who insisted I didn't take the desk job, Georgie," he reminded me as he packed a tiny suitcase for himself. He wouldn't even let me feel useful by packing for him. "You knew what you were getting into."
I nodded, determined not to cry in front of him. "I understand, but at least you could give me a hint about where you'll be and how long you'll be gone."
He smiled at me then and ran a hand down my cheek. "Like sending you a postcard saying 'Wish you were here' for all my adversaries to see?"
"Will there be adversaries?" I asked, picturing men with guns hiding behind trees.
"There are plenty around the world who do not like Britain and wish us ill," he said, "but don't worry. I'm not going into any real danger. I'll be back before you know it. Don't think about me while I'm gone. Just enjoy yourself."
"How can I enjoy myself if you're not here?" I said, resting my head against him. "I'll miss you every minute."
He turned toward me then and gave me a little kiss on the forehead. "I'll miss you too, but we have to get on with life, don't we? You must learn to keep yourself busy. Do some entertaining."
"Entertaining?" I sounded more horrified than I intended to. "Dinner parties and things? Without you?"
"It's about time we got to know our neighbors," he said, "and you know they are all dying to take a peek at Eynsleigh and meet the lady of the house, who is reputed to be related to the royal family."
"Oh golly," I said. I had resolved to give up such childish exclamations when I married but they still slipped out in moments of extreme stress. "Darcy, you know very well I have no experience at entertaining. I grew up in a remote Scottish castle. We hardly ever entertained. No-make that never entertained, especially after Fig became Duchess of Rannoch. Who'd want more than one day of her company?" (Fig, for those of you who haven't met her, is my sister-in-law. The less said the better.)
"Then this will be good experience." Darcy looked up from folding a white shirt to give me an encouraging grin. "Nothing fancy. I'm not suggesting you have a costume ball or anything. Maybe a couple of ladies to tea or luncheon. Queenie can manage a luncheon, can't she?"
I nodded. "Maybe," I said dubiously.
He saw my look and went on. "It's always useful to be on good terms with neighbors. We'll become part of the local scene. And you never know when we might need them."
"I suppose so," I muttered while visions of sitting surrounded by formidable ladies at tea parties and my knocking over a cup or dropping a cream cake into somebody's lap swam through my head. I do tend to get a trifle clumsy when I'm nervous.
Darcy put a hand on my shoulder. "You are the mistress of Eynsleigh now, you know. You have to learn how to assume the role. And it will keep you busy so that you don't miss me too much."
"I'll miss you whatever I do," I said. "Do you think you'll be away long?"
"I can't really say." He gave a little frown. "Not too long, I hope."
"In which case I'd just much rather leave the entertaining until we're together, if you don't mind. I'd like reassurance the first time I play at lady of the manor."
He placed his pajamas on top of the other clothes. "Well then, why don't you go up to your family in Scotland? There will be shoots and things, won't there?"
"Do you want to punish me as well as desert me?" I asked, making him chuckle.
"All right. I can see that a week or so with your sister-in-law would be the ultimate punishment. In that case go up to town and stay with Zou Zou. See a show. Let her buy you clothes."
I nodded again, still not wanting my voice to betray me. I took a deep breath before I spoke. "Yes, I could do that. I do adore Zou Zou. Or you know what? I could invite my grandfather down to stay. The Times says that the London fogs have begun early this year, and you know he has a bad chest."
"Good idea." Darcy gave me a bright smile and my shoulder a squeeze. "Now I must be off or I won't catch that boat train."
So at least I knew he was going abroad. I was so tempted to ask which boat he was taking. The Berengaria? Or the ferry across the channel? Or a tramp steamer to Buenos Aires? It could be any of the above.
"I'll drive you to the station," I said. "I'll have Phipps get out the Bentley."
I constantly surprised myself how easily something like this rolled off my tongue. We had a footman called Phipps. We had a Bentley. We had a house. It seemed like only yesterday that I was camping out in my brother Binky's London residence, living on baked beans and cleaning other people's houses for money. Actually all this current bounty was not technically mine. It belonged to Sir Hubert Anstruther, a dashing mountaineer and explorer, my mother's former husband, or rather one of my mother's former husbands (she had worked her way through rather a lot of men, some of whom she had actually married). Sir Hubert had become very fond of me and wanted to adopt me. The family had not agreed to that-the family being the royal family, since my father was a grandson of Queen Victoria. You see, I'm not quite royal but related to them-too far from the throne to get a royal allowance or a palace or two, but close enough so that I had to abide by their rules. Not any longer, however. I had been permitted to renounce my place in the line of succession when I married Darcy, a Catholic. No Catholics on the throne of England, ever!
I hadn't found out until recently that Sir Hubert had made me his heir and had now invited me to come and live at his lovely house called Eynsleigh while he was off climbing mountains. More than that, he had told me to consider the house as my own and to do what I wanted with it. He had come home for my wedding but now had gone off again, back to Chile to find more peaks to scale. I think this had been prompted by my mother's departure. She had been staying with us all summer, after her own impending marriage to a German industrialist fell through, and I could see that Sir Hubert still had feelings for her. I rather suspected that she might still have feelings for him and hoped that something would come of it. He would make a more suitable husband than Max von Strohheim. I had nothing personally against Max. He clearly adored my mother, but he was also becoming remarkably thick with the Nazis in Germany. I suspected his factories might now be making weapons and tanks rather than motorcars and household items. I had been secretly glad when his father died and, not wanting to upset his puritanical mother, he declared he could no longer marry Mummy, because of her notorious past. But just when Mummy and Sir Hubert were giving each other long, meaningful glances she received a telegram from Max saying he couldn't live without her and to heck with his mother. And off she had rushed, straight back to his arms. I hadn't heard from her for ages. My mother, being completely self-absorbed, only communicated when she needed something.
So now I found myself all alone in a big, beautiful house. Alone with precious little to do. Sir Hubert's former housekeeper, Mrs. Holbrook, had come back at our request and the house now ran like a well-oiled machine. The one thing I had not yet done was to find a new cook. My former maid Queenie, undoubtedly the worst maid in the entire world, had now taken over the cooking. She had proved to be remarkably good at it, but could only manage the plain cooking she was used to. Eventually one does tire of shepherd's pie and toad-in-the-hole. And as Darcy had pointed out, I knew that as chatelaine of a great house I would eventually be expected to entertain. My neighbors had been hinting that they'd love to see Eynsleigh return to its glory days with dinner parties and balls. I pictured a glittering dinner table, women dripping with diamonds and men adorned with medals and then serving them spotted dick (which, in case you don't know, is a suet pudding with currants in it). They would prod it politely, say "Spotted what did you call it?," take a tentative bite . . . no, it was not going to happen. I did need a real cook, but I had hesitated, having had no experience at all in hiring servants.
Was I brave enough to do as Darcy had suggested and start off with a tea party or even a luncheon? Queenie was a dab hand with scones and little cakes. I wasn't so sure about luncheons. I doubted she had even heard of a soufflŽ and the weather was no longer conducive to ham and salad. Then I came to a conclusion. Tea parties could wait. I'd go and see Zou Zou. She might even know where I could find a cook who wouldn't cost too much. Sir Hubert was paying for the upkeep of the house but I didn't want to use too much of his money and of course had none of my own. Darcy was almost as penniless as I was.
Having come to a decision I found my current maid (a willing village girl called Maisie who had taken over the position from Queenie and was proving a remarkably quick learner-not having lost, scorched, or torn a single item yet) and told her to pack an overnight bag as I was going up to town. I must say it was a relief to know that I would open my suitcase and actually find a matching pair of shoes and enough underclothes after years of Queenie's packing for me. I felt quite excited as I sat in the first-class compartment of the train and we sped past fields of startled cows toward the City. It was an absolutely sparkling day. Instead of being engulfed in fog the outline of the parliament buildings was etched against the purest of blue skies. My spirits soared. A few days of good food with Zou Zou and then taking my grandfather back to Eynsleigh. What could be better? And Darcy would be home before I knew it.
I splurged on a taxi to Eaton Square, where Zou Zou, known to the world as the Princess Zamanska of Poland, lived. I went up the front steps and gave the door a sharp knock. I waited. Nothing happened. This was odd as Zou Zou's French maid, Clotilde, was normally in residence even when her mistress was away. It occurred to me that perhaps I should have telephoned first, but Zou Zou was an impetuous type of person who didn't at all mind one dropping in without warning. I gave the knocker a second, louder, rap.
"The lady's not here, miss," a voice said and I noticed a maid, down on her hands and knees, scrubbing the front step of the next-door house. "She went off in a taxi only yesterday. She had ever so many bags and her maid with her and I heard her tell the taxi driver Victoria Station."
Oh rats, I thought. Zou Zou had gone off to the Continent again. And with ever so many bags it was hardly likely to be a flying visit. I came down the steps feeling rather foolish.
It doesn't matter, I told myself. I'll rescue Granddad, take him down to Eynsleigh and we'll have a lovely time together. We'll take long walks and play cribbage in the evenings. I expect he's feeling lonely too, now that Mrs. Huggins is no more. So I set off resolutely toward the nearest Tube station at Victoria. As I crossed the King's Road I did pause and glance in the direction of my friend Belinda's little mews cottage at the other end of Chesham Street. I gave a little sigh. Belinda had been in Paris for a month, honing her dress designing skills with the best in the business. I missed her. I missed female companionship. To be truthful I even missed Mummy, which was saying a lot as Mummy only liked to talk about herself.
I sighed and walked on. As I came onto Buckingham Palace Road I looked in the direction of the palace and felt another pang of regret. In the past Her Majesty had summoned me to tea with her and given me various little assignments. These ranged from spying on her son the Prince of Wales to recovering a valuable snuffbox or hosting a foreign princess. Actually some of those assignments had been downright embarrassing or even terrifying but it still hurt a little that I might no longer be welcome in royal circles, now that I had officially renounced my place as thirty-fifth in the line of succession.