A season in London promises a welcome change of pace for two friends from the village of Kurland St. Mary—until murder makes a debut…
With the reluctant blessings of their father, the rector of Kurland St. Mary, Lucy Harrington and her sister Anna leave home for a social season in London. At the same time, Lucy’s special friend Major Robert Kurland is summoned to the city to accept a baronetcy for his wartime heroism.
Amidst the dizzying whirl of balls and formal dinners, the focus shifts from mixing and matchmaking to murder when the dowager Countess of Broughton, the mother of an old army friend of Robert, drops dead. When it’s revealed she’s been poisoned, Robert’s former betrothed, Miss Chingford, is accused, and she in turn points a finger at Anna. To protect her sister, Lucy enlists Robert’s aid in drawing out the true culprit.
But with suspects ranging from resentful rivals and embittered family members to the toast of the ton, it will take all their sleuthing skills to unmask the poisoner before more trouble is stirred up…
It was a beautiful spring morning and Major Robert Kurland intended to enjoy it to the fullest. After breakfast he planned to take a turn around the home park with Simmons, his head gardener. It would be his first opportunity to discuss his plans without the loving interference of his aunt Rose, who had very particular ideas about what should be planted where, and often forgot whom the garden actually belonged to. Then in the afternoon, he was going to the home farm to discuss the more agricultural aspects of the Kurland estate with Mr. Pethridge.
For the first time in more than two years, Robert was almost content.
“Here’s the post for you, sir.”
“Thank you.” He glanced up as Foley, his butler, placed a silver tray with a pile of letters on it by his elbow. “Is there more coffee and some fresh toast?”
“Of course, Major. It’s good to see you eating so heartily again.” Foley offered him a fond smile. “Oh, and, sir, don’t forget that you have Mr. Thomas Fairfax coming for his interview at three o’clock this afternoon.”
Robert paused, the letter knife in his hand. “I had forgotten it was today.”
“I thought you might have, sir. I only remembered because as Mr. Fairfax was traveling down from the north, we offered him a room for the night. Mrs. Bloomfield was asking me which bedroom you wanted to put him in.”
“How would I know? One that’s clean, dry, and doesn’t have leaks in the ceiling will suffice.”
Foley looked pained. “All the bedrooms at the manor are up to the highest standard now, sir. It’s more a question of where will he suit. As your potential land agent, he might well be a gentleman, so it wouldn’t do to offer him a bed in the attics, now would it?”
Robert groaned. “Foley, put him wherever you like, but please try not to mention the subject to me again, would you?”
“As you wish, sir. You know you can trust my impeccable judgment in these matters.”
Foley left and Robert looked through his correspondence, which consisted of his usual monthly letter from Aunt Rose, and four or five bills from tradesmen pertaining to his spate of renovations to the manor house. He’d keep his aunt’s letter to read later, and pass the rest over to Miss Harrington to deal with in her usual efficient manner. Stacking the post in a neat pile, he hesitated. Miss Harrington wouldn’t be here for much longer to deal with anything. She’d gotten some foolish notion in her head about rushing off to London for the Season in search of a husband.
He snorted. She had no idea what she was letting herself in for. In his opinion London society could go hang. If he never had to return to the city he’d consider himself a lucky man. And what was wrong with Kurland St. Mary? It was a quiet, peaceful place where very little happened to disturb the rural way of life that had contented his ancestors for centuries.
He finished his coffee. Perhaps after the shocks of the previous year, Miss Harrington had a valid reason not to feel safe in her current environment. A few months in the chaos and filth of London would surely change her mind and bring her home. He would be willing to wager a large sum on it.
A buzz of noise made him lower his morning newspaper and turn toward the open door of the breakfast room. Foley was talking to someone female and excitable, which was never a good combination at this hour in the morning. After perusing the paper, he’d planned to walk along the terrace to ease the ache in his thigh and smoke one of the cigarillos Foley refused to allow him to enjoy in his own house.
He half-rose from his chair and grabbed his cane, but it was far too late to flee. He remained standing instead and tried to look agreeable.
“Miss Harrington and Miss Anna Harrington to see you, sir.” Foley bowed low. “I have your fresh coffee and toast. Shall I fetch some more cups?”
“Oh, yes, please, Foley,” Miss Anna said. “I’m quite thirsty after that walk.” She twirled around to face Robert, her beautiful face aglow. “I do hope you don’t mind us arriving while you are still at breakfast, Major, but we wanted to see you before we left.”
Robert nodded at Miss Anna and waited until she took a seat at the table before addressing her quieter companion.
“Good morning, Miss Harrington.”
When Miss Lucy Harrington turned toward him he suffered a small shock. She looked quite unlike herself in a new traveling outfit and a blue bonnet that he’d never seen before. He held out a chair for her. “Please be seated. I apologize for still being at the breakfast table.”
“We’re the ones who should be apologizing for calling so early.” Miss Harrington shot a fond glance at Anna, who was chatting to Foley. “But my sister could not be dissuaded from her plan.”
“I’m glad you both came. When are you leaving?”
“As soon as Sophia and Mrs. Hathaway arrive to collect us. We’re expecting them at noon.” Miss Harrington lowered her voice. “Are you sure you are going to be all right?”
“Whatever do you mean, Miss Harrington?”
“There’s no need to stiffen up, I wasn’t trying to imply anything, just that you still need a secretary, a valet, and a land agent, so you will be managing everything by yourself.”
“Despite your fears, I am quite capable. In fact, I have an interview today with a potential land agent.”
Her brow cleared. “Oh, yes, that’s right. Mr. Fairfax. He sounded quite satisfactory in his correspondence. I do hope you can get along with him.” She sighed. “I almost wish I could be here.”
“To interview him in my place?”
“You are rather impolite, Major.”
“I prefer to consider myself direct. In my opinion, if the man can’t stand up to me in an interview, he won’t be worth employing anyway.”
“You may have a point. He does have to work for you, after all.” She removed her gloves. “Betty, our housemaid, has an uncle who is looking for a position as a valet. Would you like me to ask for his references?”
“You might as well.” He sighed. “I’m finding it rather more difficult than I anticipated to replace my valet.”
“I’m sure Betty’s uncle will be perfectly suited to the task.”
“I’ll need to meet the man first.”
“Naturally. I’ll get his direction from Betty and write to him when I am settled in London.”
His good humor dissipated. “I wish you’d reconsider leaving Kurland St. Mary.”
“Because I”—he scowled down at his plate—”I’ve become used to the way you manage things around here.”
“You mean you appreciate having an unpaid drudge to do your bidding.”
“I don’t think of you as a drudge. You are far more useful than that.”
“I only offered to help you on a temporary basis until you hired a secretary of your own. As an unmarried woman, my presence in your house at all hours of the day and night is not acceptable.”
He frowned. “No one has said anything untoward to me about your being here.”
“Well, they wouldn’t, would they? Everyone is too in awe of you to dare to criticize a war hero.”
“You have been criticized?”
She looked away from him. “Yes, the majority opinion being that I have set my cap at you and am determined to be the new lady of the manor.”
“But that’s ridiculous.”
“Thank you.” She folded her gloves and placed them on the table. “That’s one of the reasons why I decided to go to London and seek my own husband.”
“Which means you might not come back at all.”
“I’m sorry, Major, but I cannot live my life for the benefit of every male of my acquaintance. The twins are settled at school, and Anthony is with your old regiment. If I don’t leave my father now, I am quite certain that I will never have the opportunity again.”
“So you’d rather be subject to the will of one man, your husband? I think you’ll find that harder than you imagine, Miss Harrington.”
“Not if I choose carefully.”
“By finding a spouse who is willing to let you have your way in everything?” He inclined his head an inch. “Good luck with that.”
“You—” She blinked hard at him. “You have no right to judge me. My choices are my own. I do not have to explain myself to anyone.”
Robert opened his mouth to argue and then closed it again. “I apologize, Miss Harrington. What I meant to say is that I will miss your company. I wish you a safe journey and a successful outcome to your husband-hunting.”
“Thank you.” She turned her attention to her coffee cup.
Robert looked across the table at Anna Harrington, who was also dressed in brand-new clothes and was a vision of soft gold curls and sparkling blue eyes. Robert doubted she would have a problem acquiring a husband in London at all.
“Are you looking forward to going to Town, Miss Anna?”
Anna smiled and clasped her hands to her bosom. “Oh, yes….”
Several hours later, Robert sat in his study awaiting the arrival of Mr. Thomas Fairfax. From all reports, the Hathaways and the Harringtons had departed Kurland St. Mary at noon, and would be conveyed to London in easy stages in the Hathaway family coach. Miss Harrington hadn’t quite forgiven him for his petulant outburst over her leaving, and had departed without giving him her usual smile.
He felt bad about that. He of all people knew how restricted her life had become since the death of her mother and how she longed to escape the rectory. She deserved to be happy. If it hadn’t have been for her, he would still be cowering in bed unable to walk and unwilling to accept his place in the world. She’d put up with his ill humor, bullied and cajoled him first into a wheelchair, and then outside to reestablish his connection with the lands his family had owned and farmed for centuries.
Who was he to begrudge her the same freedoms he had always taken for granted? He doubted she’d find a spouse who was willing to put up with her rather managing ways, but she deserved the opportunity to find that out for herself. She was no fool. If such a paragon existed amongst the vapid fops of a London Season, he was certain she would discover him.
He imagined her face as she stepped out of the Hathaway carriage and got her first sight of the teeming, bustling city of London. Would she let it overawe her and behave like a subdued country mouse? Somehow he doubted it. She’d probably treat society with the same lack of respect as she did him. Such boldness in the notoriously fickle world of the upper ten thousand could be a blessing or a curse.
Lucy gently wiggled her nose, which had been pressed up against the grimy window of the coach for what seemed like hours. The road had widened again, and the carriage slowed to a crawl to avoid the river of people streaming through the streets. She had never seen so many people before in her life, and had never imagined that so many would choose to live in such squalor and close proximity.
Mrs. Hathaway patted her arm.
“Are you all right, my dear? We’ll take Anna to Clavelly House first and then proceed to Dalton Street. I do hope the house Perry has chosen for us is acceptable.”
“I’m sure it will be, Mrs. Hathaway. It is a shame that he has been called away to the embassy in France and that we will not see him.” Lucy stared up at the tall white town houses of the square they were turning into. “Is this truly where my uncle and aunt live? Uncle David and my father do not like each other at all, and we have never visited before.”
“If we have the correct address.” Mrs. Hathaway looked worried. “It is rather grand, isn’t it?”
Anna positively bounced in her seat. “Uncle David is an earl. He is supposed to live like this.”
“I often forget how high and mighty your family are, dear Lucy,” Mrs. Hathaway murmured. “I can only hope that they will treat us with kindness.”
Lucy was about to say something encouraging when the carriage drew to a swaying halt and a footman leaped forward to open the door. Anna and Sophia were the quickest to alight, leaving Lucy to assist Mrs. Hathaway down the small steps. She kept her on her arm as they ascended into the mansion and were greeted in the hall by a tall man who bore a distinct resemblance to their father.
“Good evening.” He bowed to Mrs. Hathaway. “Ma’am, may I take you up to my wife? She is so looking forward to meeting you.” He smiled at the sisters. “I do hope we can put our family grievances behind us and enjoy this reconciliation.”
Lucy curtsied. “We are very willing to do that, sir, and very grateful to you for offering Anna a chance to enjoy a Season.”
She relinquished Mrs. Hathaway to the earl and followed meekly behind him as he took them up the stairs and into a large drawing room on the first floor. The house was decorated in the latest classical style and in the most expensive taste. Lucy found herself cataloguing how much it would cost to make such luxurious curtains and chair coverings, and then reminded herself that it was none of her concern.
Anna squeezed her hand, even her natural confidence awed by the grandeur around them. When they entered the drawing room, the countess had already risen from her seat and was welcoming Mrs. Hathaway and Sophia. Lucy hung back a little as the countess moved toward them, her pleasant face all smiles.
“And you must be Ambrose’s girls.” She offered them each a hand and they curtsied. “You are Anna, I think? Your father said you were blond and very pretty.”
Anna blushed charmingly. “It is a pleasure to meet you, my lady. I am so grateful that you offered to bring me out.”
“Please call me Aunt Jane. I was already set to bring my daughter, Julia, out and, as I said to your father, if I was forced to scale the social world once more, another young lady to chaperone would not make any difference.”
She turned to Lucy. “And you must be Lucy.”
“Yes, my lady.”
“I understand that you are staying with the Hathaways, but you must not hesitate to consider this your home as well. I consider you both as in my charge.”
“That’s very kind of you,” Lucy said. “But I want this to be Anna’s moment, not mine.”
The countess drew them over to a sofa and sat down between them. “You don’t wish to be married, Lucy?”
“Oh, I do, Aunt, but my expectations are far more modest than Anna’s.” She glanced over at the Hathaways, who were conversing with the earl. “My friend Sophia is a widow. She and her mother will be able to chaperone me quite adequately.”
“But if they are unavailable, you will come to me.” Aunt Jane held Lucy’s gaze. “And when we have our ball here, you will be part of the receiving line.”
“If you wish, my lady.” Lucy was reluctant to start arguing with her aunt on their very first meeting. “But my father—”
“Your father is a man who has no understanding of such things. If I choose to aid you in your search for a husband, then he has nothing further to say in the matter.” She looked Lucy over. “I think you will do very well, indeed.”
Lucy held her tongue as the countess beckoned to her husband. “Will you ring the bell, dear, and ask Julia and Max to come down?”
She had a sense that she’d met her match in her aunt, who appeared to be just as managing as everyone insisted Lucy was. It was also comforting to know that the countess didn’t share her father’s opinion that she was too old and too plain to find a husband. She glanced over at Anna, who was smiling again, and felt far happier about leaving her with her uncle and aunt than she had earlier.
When the door opened to admit the butler and her two cousins she rose to her feet and was introduced to them. Julia was of a similar age to Anna and the two girls were soon talking as if they’d known each other for years. The eldest son, Max, was a little more reticent than his sister, but perfectly amiable and more than willing to meet his new relatives.
She’d never met her cousins before. After the death of their father, the rector and his brother had fallen out and visits between the two families had ceased. Lucy had never been given the exact details, only that it had to do with her father’s portion of the unentailed part of the estate. Communication was reestablished when the dowager countess died and Lucy insisted on writing a letter of condolence. That led to an exchange of letters resulting in the invitation for Anna to join the family and be chaperoned by the current countess.
Eventually, Mrs. Hathaway caught Lucy’s eye and reluctantly stood up.
“We will have to be going. We’ve left the horses standing for far too long as it is.” She turned to Anna. “Come and give me a hug, my dear.”
Anna obliged and then made her way to Lucy. It was the first time in their lives that they would be apart.
“Oh, Lucy …”
She hugged Anna hard and then stood back with a decisive nod. “I will send you a note first thing tomorrow so that we can make plans. I’m quite certain you will be happy here.”