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"This, Emily, goes beyond bad manners." Lady Catherine Bromley squared her shoulders, shook her head without displacing a single silver hair, and glowered at me, her only daughter. "One cannot have gentlemen falling down dead in the library, especially on an eighteenth-century Axminster carpet! It is entirely ruined; there is no possibility that bloodstain will come out. Such a thing would never be tolerated at Darnley House. What would your father say? I thank heaven that estate business took him home before he could see this."
"The dead are notoriously unreliable when it comes to standards of behavior," I said. "Particularly murder victims. They have no sense of decorum at all."
Another evening en famille at Anglemore Park.
Anglemore, prettily situated in Derbyshire in the midst of the Peak District, had been the seat of the Hargreaves family since Henry V's victory at Agincourt, after which the land had been given by the grateful king to one of my husband's ancestors for bravery in battle. During the reign of Henry VIII, the grounds, through a royal grant, expanded to include a nearby abbey, defunct after the reformation and all but destroyed by Cromwell's men. Its ruins, perched near a large lake, were some of the most picturesque in all of England, as if the structure had crumbled with deliberately artistic intent. The main house, originally built in the fifteenth century, had been added to and altered over the years, leaving it now with an Elizabethan exterior replete with rows of the most charming bay windows giving nearly every room a perfect nook for reading and none of the museum-like feel of so many great estates.
Anglemore was a house that was loved, a house that had sheltered the same family for more than four centuries. Generations of Hargreaves children (all born on the estate—no other location would be tolerated, even today) had carved their initials in the wooden bannister on the back stairs leading to the nursery. The family was rooted here, passionate about the land, deeply connected to their tenants, and confident beyond doubt that there was no better place to serve as one's anchor. Most of the family married in the chapel, and all of them were buried on the grounds in a towering mausoleum built in the late seventeenth century by a Hargreaves gentleman who, horrified by the Great Plague, determined he must make every effort to see his mortal remains well placed. In a letter written during the height of the epidemic, his wife, angry with him for spending what she viewed as too much time hunting, had threatened him with plague pits.
Today, despite tens of thousands of acres of land, a sizable house, and enough outbuildings to hold several villages, the estate felt nothing but crowded. Crowded by my visiting mother, the Countess Catherine Bromley, whose inflexible views on child rearing, wholly at odds with my own, had not contributed to a state one could describe as domestic bliss. She had come to Anglemore months ago, following the birth of our twins, but had not stayed long, informing us she would return once the London Season had finished and after she had hosted at least two shooting parties. Only then, she said, would she have the presence of mind and clarity of concentration to ensure the children were being looked after properly. Now we were bearing the full brunt of this mission. Her visit had weeks ago taken on the feeling of an endless tour through one of Dante's less pleasant circles of hell.
The evening had started badly, with her complaining bitterly about each course at dinner. She had found fault with the game dish in particular, objecting to pheasant stuffed with foie gras for reasons wholly indecipherable to me. Afterward, we had retired to the library, where our second houseguest, Simon Lancaster, Earl Flyte, offered his apologies and went to bed after having been interrogated by her on the subject of politics. One could hardly blame the poor man. Unhappy with his views, she had hounded him, all but following him to his room when he at last excused himself. My husband, Colin Hargreaves, buried himself in James's The Portrait of a Lady, ignoring with deft skill my mother's litany of questions about his views on how our boys ought to be raised. She had, it seemed, either grown fatigued of political discussion or realized she would be incapable of besting him on the subject. Eventually forced to accept that she was quite unable to penetrate his wall, she turned her attention to reprimanding a housemaid for not having tended adequately to the fire—a fire I was not convinced we needed on such a fine night.
"There are infants in the house," my mother said. "I shall not allow Henry or Richard to catch a chill."
"Or Tom, Mother," I said. "You mustn't forget Tom." It was the presence of this third child, our ward, that caused my mother considerable agitation. "They are all two floors and one wing removed from us, not to mention in the care of an exceptionally capable nanny and her staff. I shouldn't worry if I were you. Furthermore, it is an unusually warm evening. They are more likely to be overheated than cold." To demonstrate the point, I crossed the room and flung open all six sets of French doors overlooking the neatly manicured terrace, its beds full of bright dahlias, chrysanthemums, and late asters. Autumn was at its best, a perfect September night. The sun had disappeared while we were in the dining room, leaving only a few streaks of gold in the inky sky. I pulled something to read down from the shelf without glancing at the title and installed myself in an overstuffed chair as far from the fireplace as possible. Nothing, I vowed silently, would distract me from this book.
Should it have become necessary, honoring this promise would have proved exceedingly difficult. The volume I had so carelessly chosen, a treatise on advanced mathematical theorems, had no hope of holding my attention for long, but it did not need to. No sooner had I soldiered through the introductory pages than the previously mentioned gentleman, tall and broad in his evening kit, staggered through one of the French doors. He braced himself on the frame, looked at Colin, took one step in his direction, and collapsed facedown on the floor.
My mother shrieked in a fashion so decidedly unladylike she would have been horrified to hear it. She swayed, unsteady on her feet, and appeared on the verge of fainting. I dashed to her side, took her firmly by the shoulders, and turned her to face me.
"Now is not the time, Mother," I said. "Do try to remember there are no smelling salts allowed in this house. Perish any thought you had of fainting."
The words—and, no doubt, my tone—shocked her into compliance, just as I had hoped. The color did not return to her visage, but she steeled herself, pulled her back straight, and looked away from the scene developing before us. There was no time to comfort her. We needed to focus on the injured man.
My husband, a trusted agent of the Crown and, hence, no stranger to trauma, disruption, and brutality, motioned for me to stay back while he knelt beside the prostrate stranger.
"His heart is not beating," Colin said, "and he is not breathing." His lips firm in a tight line, he closed the man's eyes. "I am afraid there is nothing to be done." I moved closer, standing behind him, watching as he carefully inspected the corpse for injuries.
"He is dead?" My mother's voice was rising to a screech. She pressed with trembling hands a linen handkerchief to her face. "This is too dreadful. I cannot bear it."
"Do try to be calm, Lady Bromley," Colin said. "Hysteria will help no one."
"There's a fierce scratch on his left hand," I said, ignoring my mother, who had started to sway again. This time I was willing to let her faint, although I doubted she would bother when the odds of anyone catching her were so low.
"He may have been fighting." Colin lifted the man's head to reveal a deep gash splitting the skull, blood congealing on the carpet beneath it.
"Have you any idea who he is?" I asked. "He is wholly unfamiliar to me."
"None," Colin said.
This admission revived my mother. She took a step towards us, made a point of forcing herself to look at the unfortunate corpse, and spoke, her voice loaded with a mixture of disgust and condescension. "That is Archibald Scolfield, the new Marquess of Montagu. He arrived from London yesterday. You ought to have known that, Emily, given that he's to be your nearest—and titled—neighbor. His cousin Matilda was hosting a party for him this evening. A party I believe you didn't bother to attend."
"No, I sent her our regrets," I said, noticing that my mother's face had gone an alarming shade of gray as she approached the body. She, unlike me, was not used to violent death. I had initially become close to Colin while trying to solve the murder of my first husband, Philip, Viscount Ashton. While embroiled in the case, I discovered I possessed a certain aptitude for the work, and had subsequently contributed to the arrests of six more violent criminals, earning for myself a reputation as a solid investigator. Colin and I, now married, made an excellent team, as even the queen herself had been forced to admit on more than one occasion.
I stepped to the marble fireplace, over which hung a fragment of a Roman fresco depicting a joyful scene of marriage, and rang the bell next to it. "We ought to summon the authorities."
"The authorities?" The color rushed back into my mother's face. "Don't be absurd. Lord Montagu fell and hit his head, probably on a rock. Why on earth would you involve the police or sheriff or whatever unseemly sort of authority is to be found? Send for your personal physician and insist he sign a death certificate at once and be done with the dreadful business. Gentlemen ought not to be so cavalier about wandering around the countryside after dark."
"Nothing about this situation suggests an accident," Colin said. "I'm afraid we've no choice but to summon the police, Lady Bromley."
"Do you want a scandal?" she asked. "On your own estate?"
"Surely, Mother, you are not questioning my husband's judgment?" I asked. "I can assure you he—"
"It is quite all right, Emily," Colin said. "Your mother has nothing but the best of intentions. However, Lady Bromley, given my position, it is essential I report this incident with no delay. To do otherwise would be less than honorable. Perhaps you would like to retire upstairs for a bit? It will give you a chance to recover from the shock of what has transpired. I shall send for you when the police are ready to speak to you."
"Speak to me?" My mother's eyes bugged. "Speak to me? As if I would be involved in such a thing."
"You saw Lord Montagu take his last breaths and collapse," I said. "The police will need to hear your description of what happened."
"I do not know why you are still standing here, Emily," she said. "If you believe there is some sort of criminal on the loose in the neighborhood who is going about murdering people, you ought to be ensuring the safety of your boys rather than embroiling yourself in an unsavory debacle utterly inappropriate for a lady. Children are always a mother's primary duty."
I took a deep breath and paused before replying. First and foremost, I knew I need not worry about the boys because they were in the hands of a most trustworthy nanny. Second, the idea that my mother, who had limited her involvement with her children up to the age of twelve to formal visits made once daily for not more than a quarter of an hour, would condemn me for relying on said nanny struck me as not a little hypocritical. I had always forgiven her neglect because she and my father had lost so many of their offspring to illness. I, the youngest, was the only one of seven to survive to adulthood. My mother had recovered from the death from influenza of my twin brothers, the only of my siblings I had ever known, by distancing herself even further from me until it was time to mold me into a sparkling debutante. "Perhaps you could take care of that for me. Nanny should be put on alert."
"I shall see to it at once," my mother said. "Heaven knows someone in this household ought to be concerned about what matters, rather than getting distracted by the details of some ridiculous alleged crime." She marched out, slamming the door behind her.
"I can't think of less propitious circumstances in which to find ourselves. She could impede an investigation before having her first cup of tea in the morning." I sighed. "One of us should go to Montagu and inform Matilda of what has happened."
"Would you be so kind as to handle that?" Colin asked. "You are better acquainted with her than I. I shall have Flyte come down and inquire whether he heard anything and then deal with the police when they arrive."
I nodded. "Of course. The police will doubtless respond better to you than to me. As for Matilda, I know all too well there is no good way to have this sort of conversation."
Matilda and I were not close friends, but our political beliefs, particularly those regarding suffrage, had thrown us together at meetings of the Women's Liberal Federation. We had worked to educate and enlighten the women in the district about their rights—that is, the rights we both believed they should have—and had organized several rallies on our estates. Our success could only be described as limited. While the women were captivated and energized, their husbands reacted to the issues with somewhat less enthusiasm. Through it all, our interactions had not escalated much beyond that of two business acquaintances. Nonetheless, it was appropriate that I, not my husband, speak to her about her cousin.
"Shall I bring her back here?" I asked. "She has a house full of guests whom I imagine the police will want to interview. It might be nicer for her to be in somewhat quieter surroundings."
"Quite," Colin said. "She may also wish to see Scolfield."
I shuddered. Colin gave me a quick kiss, and I set off, dread consuming me. I would never grow comfortable with the task of informing someone of the violent death of a loved one.
* * *
Matilda Scolfield's grandfather, the previous Marquess of Montagu, had outlived Matilda's father, making her cousin Archibald next in line for the title. The old man had not seen fit to settle upon his heir the significant fortune he had amassed during his lifetime. Instead, he left his money, a house in London, two in Scotland, and a seaside cottage on the southern coast to his favorite granddaughter. The only part of his estate entailed was Montagu Manor itself, and that was all Archibald got. This had proved no hardship to him, as he stood to inherit a sizable sum from his parents and was already the recipient of a generous allowance. He was a capable young man, cheerful and eager, who had distinguished himself well enough at Oxford (knowing himself incapable of getting a first, he avoided the dreaded second and secured the third that perfectly reflected his academic ambitions) and now devoted much of his time to sport, earning a reputation as a fine rower. Had devoted much of his time. I reminded myself it was now necessary to use the past tense when referring to Archibald Scolfield.
A festive atmosphere still filled Montagu Manor when I arrived, no one inside knowing yet of its owner's demise. I asked the butler to take me somewhere where I could speak privately to Matilda and informed her of the tragedy in the gentlest way I could. Her countenance did not change as I spoke, but a slight gasp escaped her lips. Maintaining her composure in the manner of the best Englishwomen, she went to the drawing room, explained to her guests what had happened, and asked for their patience when the police arrived. I bundled her into my carriage, and we returned to Anglemore, where Cook sent up a tisane for her. She sipped it slowly and did not speak, still shocked by my horrendous news.
Eventually Colin, returned from his dealings with the police, sent for me. I left Matilda in a drawing room and went to his study, where he had placed a carefully wrapped bundle on his desk. He opened it and showed me a heavy chunk of carved stone that I recognized as having come from the ruins of the old abbey near the lake on our estate. A sticky mass of blood and hair clinging to the object told me it was the instrument of Archibald Scolfield's demise.
"The ground is soft enough after all this week's rain for him to have left footprints," Colin said, "but even without them I wouldn't doubt the abbey is where the murder occurred."
"Were there any signs of a struggle there?" I asked.
"Not particularly, but you know what the place is like. There are bits and bobs of stonework all over. It always looks a mess. I have contacted Scotland Yard and told them I will handle the investigation. Where is Matilda?"
"I've put her in the cinnamon drawing room," I said. "She's rather stunned, but quite upset beneath the surface."
That particular drawing room, hung with cinnamon silk after some long-ago resident of Anglemore had returned from a trip to India, was decorated with family portraits and Eastern artifacts and filled with a suite of Chippendale furniture upholstered in cream silk embroidered with small gold flowers. When we entered, Matilda was standing in front of one of the long windows, where she had pulled back a curtain to reveal bluish darkness lit by an enormous full moon.
"This ruins everything, you know," she said, not turning to us. "Nothing will ever be the same."
"I am so terribly sorry," Colin said. "It is a dreadful loss. Emily tells me you and your cousin were close."
"We grew up together," she said, her voice trembling. "It is a crushing blow to lose him. He was so good, like a beacon of light. Montagu won't be the same without him."
"But he did not live at Montagu?" Colin asked.
"No," Matilda said. "He came to shoot every year and at Christmas. There were no better times." Her hazel eyes pooled with tears, but her face was like stone. "I suppose my guests have all been tormented with questions?"
"No more than necessary, I assure you." Colin sat her on one of four delicate chairs surrounding three sides of a small rectangular table and took the seat beside her.
"Should I be pleased by that?" she asked.
"Tell me about tonight's party," I said, sitting perpendicular to her. "You threw it in your cousin's honor?"
"Yes," she said.
"Why did he wait so long to take possession of the estate?" Colin asked. "Your grandfather's death was—"
"Nearly a year ago, yes," Matilda interrupted. "My cousin has always preferred London, while I have always loved it here. I could not bear the thought of living anywhere else, so Archie agreed to let me stay on at Montagu and manage the estate for him. In exchange, he was living in my London house. It was quite convenient, as his parents did not much like him insisting on them keeping their house in town open year-round."
"So this was a pleasant arrangement for you both?" I asked.
"And who will inherit now?" Colin asked.
Matilda lowered her eyes. "Archie was supposed to live long enough to have a surplus of sons."
"Does he have any brothers?" I asked.
"Do any of them have sons?" Colin asked.
"None," Matilda said. "Which I suppose leaves me next in line. There are no more males, you see, and when there are none, the title goes to the first female."
"That's considerably more fair than letting the line die out," I said. "Although what would be even more fair would be to let females inherit in the first place."
"Better yet, halt the archaic practice altogether and let people earn what they can through their own merits," Colin said.
I stopped him before he could set off on an antiaristocracy tirade. Right or wrong, his views on the subject would not be helpful in the present situation. "Had Lord Montagu any difficulties this evening, Matilda? Any arguments?"
She shrugged. "Not that I saw. He was as amiable a man as you could ever hope to meet. Altercations did not come naturally to him." The new Marchioness of Montagu shifted her weight with an awkward movement. "Do you need anything further from me at the moment? I must confess to being rather exhausted. It has been a trying night. I should like very much to return home."
"Of course," Colin said, rising. "I shall send for the carriage at once."
He offered to accompany her home, but she refused, insisting that what she needed now was solitude. We respected her wishes, and stood and watched as the carriage pulled away. "A peeress in her own right," I said. "Imagine that."
"Her grandfather would no doubt be pleased," Colin said. "If he'd had any faith in young Archibald he would have left him the fortune."
"Perhaps," I said. "Everything seems to have worked out very nicely for Matilda, don't you think?"
"Already focusing on who benefits from the murder, my dear?"
"You suspect your friend?" he asked.
"We have never been much more than acquaintances, and even if we were, it wouldn't keep me from considering her motives. I've learned through experience the dangers of overlooking suspects I trust."
"Matilda did not leave the party all night," Colin said. "There was never a time when any of her guests reported not seeing her."
"I never suggested a lady of her means would deign to sully her own hands in such a matter."
"Would she have cared so much about a mere title? She already had the money, and she was going to be able to continue to live in the house she loves."
"Not everyone, Colin, shares your disdain for the aristocracy," I said. "Understand that or it could prove your undoing. Matilda may have wanted the title very much. It would be a mistake to underestimate the desire most people have to rise in the ranks of society. You are far too well educated to need me to remind you of all the wars fought over the subject."
He glowered and raised an eyebrow. "I shan't argue with you now," he said. "But do not expect me to remain silent on the subject forever."
Lily was applying herself to her work that morning with more vigor than usual. Always a conscientious girl, she valued her position as a housemaid to the Hargreaveses. They were a generous and fair family, not expecting their servants to hide themselves from sight, and they hosted regular servants' balls every month. Furthermore, unlike so many other employers, they allowed their staff to marry instead of giving notice to a maid at the first hint of her having a follower. Not that they would tolerate indiscretions, of course. Nothing like that. They were reasonable, and Lily respected them for it. What she liked the most about her position, however, was the way her labors showed immediate results. Feathers swept away dust, leaving gleaming wood. A crisply made bed pulled together an entire room. Blacking and polishing a fireplace revealed a shine that was like nothing else. Lily felt that, in a way, it was she who kept the day moving along for the family. She opened their shutters in the morning and closed them at night. She prepared their dressing rooms so that everything was ready when it was time to make one of their frequent changes of clothing. She lit fires before sunrise and tended to the coals after the family had gone up to bed. The routine suited her, as she liked rules and order. They gave rise to a feeling of ritual, and that was something Lily had craved from the time she was a tiny girl.
Last night, though, a man had died in the library. Work was more than just satisfying today, it was also a welcome and necessary distraction. She scrubbed hard, blacking the fireplace, but it was not enough to remove thoughts of the poor dead man from her head, so she began to sing, softly, "Ave Maria," a favorite hymn that transported her from Derbyshire to the Welsh parish church of her childhood, where she had sung in the choir. Father Michael had always said her voice was like an angel's, but her Irish mother only frowned, reminding her daughter of the evils of pride. The simple melody calmed Lily's nerves a little, and she let her voice grow just a bit louder until it filled the room.
The sound drew the attention of a guest of Mr. Hargreaves's. Lord Flyte knew breakfast wouldn't be laid for some hours, but he made a practice of rising early as he enjoyed the quiet time when the rest of the house was asleep. The habit had started when he was a young boy and would accompany his father—a much-admired eccentric—on his morning inspection of his Yorkshire estate. The old Earl Flyte had never liked London so stayed in the country, where his tenants swore he was the best landlord England had ever seen. His son emulated his father in every way but one. He did go to London, but only to sit in the Lords, feeling a deep obligation to contribute whatever he could to the parliamentary process. He considered it an extension of looking after his tenants.
He followed the sound of the song coming from the drawing room and stood in the doorway, watching the wisp of a girl from whom it came. She was a housemaid, but her luminous beauty would have been more fitting in a London ballroom or on a Sargent canvas. Her skin, smooth and pale, glowed as her cheeks colored at the realization she was no longer alone.
"Lovely morning," Lord Flyte said, smiling at her. "I do hope I haven't disturbed you."
"Of course not, sir," she said. "I shall be out of your way in just a moment."
"No need to rush," he said and walked to the window. The view was a striking one, over the gardens with the peaks in the distance. "It would be difficult to find a house more pleasantly situated than this one, wouldn't it?"
"Yes, sir." Her voice was soft and husky, not ringing with the clarity it had when she was singing.
"Have you worked here long?"
"I came with Lady Emily," she said. "I'd been with her in London before she married Mr. Hargreaves."
"So you are used to being spoken to instead of being ignored?"
This drew a smile from the girl. Her mistress was notorious for talking to her staff. Just last week Lady Bromley had stormed into the servants' hall and demanded that they stop replying to her daughter when she tried to engage them in conversation. Mr. Davis, the butler, had handled her well, letting her think her request would be honored, but making sure, once she had gone back upstairs, it was clear that they all were to obey their mistress, not her mother. "Quite right, sir."
"And singing is tolerated in the house?" He grinned but then saw the wave of panic cross her face. "I am certain it is. Lady Emily may not be particularly musical herself, but she admires the talent in others, and you have that in spades. I apologize if I alarmed you."
"Not at all, sir."
"Do you sing often?"
"I suppose I do, sir," Lily said. "Nobody's ever minded, and it does pass the time ever so pleasantly."
"You have an enchanting voice. There's something almost ethereal about it." He paused, wondering if she knew the word. "Ethereal is heavenly or—"
"Yes, ethereal," she said. "I've always thought it a beautiful word. It sounds like it means, doesn't it?"
"Yes, it does," he said. "What is your name?"
"It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Lily."
Lily watched him. He had moved away from the window and was standing near her, smiling. She couldn't decide if it was unnerving or a compliment to be paid such attention. She nodded her head in acknowledgment of his words and turned back to her work, feeling heat flush her cheeks. She narrowed her eyes, scrutinizing the room, making sure she had left not a single speck of the fireplace short of gleaming.
"I am Simon Lancaster, Earl Flyte."
He was still hovering over her. Having not the slightest idea what to do, she gave him a small smile, unwilling to meet his stare.
"You've lovely eyes, Lily." He was quite taken aback, in fact, to find such a stunning girl hard at work. It seemed wrong, an offense against beauty itself.
Her whole body stiffened and she looked away, attacking a small dull spot on the fireplace with renewed vigor.
"I don't mean to alarm you," he said. "It was an inappropriate comment. Can you forgive me?"
"Of course." Her voice was barely audible.
"You will find I am even worse than your mistress when it comes to chatting with the staff. I rarely entertain at home, and my servants are more like friends than employees."
"That's very odd, sir." Lily bit her tongue, worried that she'd overstepped her bounds. But Lord Flyte laughed.
"I am quite aware of it," he said, a warm smile on his narrow face. "Fortunately for me, one benefit of being an aristocrat is that everyone around you is forced to accept your eccentricities. Do you like these early morning hours?"
"I do, sir, I do," Lily said. "It's almost like magic opening the shutters and watching the light pour in. Lovely is what it is. It's like waking up the world." She clamped her mouth shut. She hadn't meant to say so much.
"Good girl. I shall leave you to your work. I'm off for a constitutional. Best way to start the morning."
"Yes, sir." She smiled at him as he retreated from view. A nice-looking man, she thought. Not like the master, but then no one was as handsome as him. Lord Flyte was shorter, and thin, but he carried himself with dignity despite a slight limp. Lily admired dignity. Lost in thought, she let her brush clatter to the floor just as Alice pushed the door open.
"Cook's having a go at that useless kitchen maid again. Don't know why she bothers. Pru will never amount to anything."
"I heard she went upstairs last night," Lily said, pushing the image of Lord Flyte out of her head.
"She did. Wanted to see the dead body. Morbid thing." Alice flashed a wicked smile. She had been self-conscious about her crooked teeth when she first came to the house, but had started to let herself smile once Lily had convinced her no one else noticed anything but her contagious sense of fun. Alice organized every amusement for the staff and was the only one of them who had ever spotted a ghost at Anglemore. It was a nun, she had told the rest of the junior servants, murdered by one of Cromwell's men when they'd overrun the old abbey. Lily had always thought that she, a devout Catholic, would be more likely to encounter the ill-treated sister who had shared her faith, and half suspected Alice of inventing her stories wholesale, but they were so entertaining she wouldn't say anything that might make her stop telling them.
Lily's eyes widened. "Did she see it?"
"Heavens, no. Mr. Hargreaves marched her straight back downstairs. Cook near thrashed her, and I can't say I would have regretted it if she did."
"Flirting with Johnny again, is she?" Lily asked. Alice had been sweet on him, one of the grooms, for months.
"I suppose you could call it that."
"He's not worth it if he lets her," Lily said. "A gentleman should stay true to his lady."
"Johnny's no gentleman any more than I'm a lady," Alice said. "Which is just as it ought to be. But that girl had better keep her distance unless she wants there to be a second murder in the house."
"What are they saying upstairs about last night?" Lily asked. "Do they know what happened?"
"Lady Matilda could've been in on it, that's what I hear. Lady Emily said near as much. But I don't see how a lady like her could whack someone the size of that corpse and leave much of a mark."
"She's not so little," Lily said. "Her shoulders are as broad as a boy's. Still, I wouldn't think she could kill a man."
"Anger makes for strange strength," Alice said. "If he trifled with her—"
"Ladies like that don't get trifled with," Lily said, rubbing the last bit of blacking off the now gleaming fireplace. "It's girls like us who do, if they're not careful."
"I know, I know. Don't start lecturing on that count again. I must admit I could do with a bit of trifling just now. That would show Johnny a thing or two."
"That is not something to joke about. I'll tell you—watch Lord Flyte. He's up too early every morning for a gentleman, and he has far too much to say to a housemaid."
"Was he bothering you?" Alice asked.
"I don't let myself be bothered, and you shouldn't either."
"Lord Flyte doesn't seem like a bad bloke. Can I do the fireplaces tomorrow? I wouldn't mind a chat."
"Alice!" Lily flushed. "How can you say such a thing?"
"I'm only half serious," she said. "Though I do know a girl who worked with someone who married a son of the house. A younger son, mind you, but a son nonetheless. She's a proper lady now."
"Things like that only happen in fairy tales, Alice, if they even do there. In real life, the endings are much worse."
Alice rolled her eyes. "Dismissed without a character."
"Keep that in mind next time you're tempted to talk to Lord Flyte."
"So far as I can tell, you're the only one he's talked to, Lily. Maybe you're the one who should take care."
Copyright © 2013 by Tasha Alexander