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Philomena Amesbury, Dowager Countess of Dunbridge, slowly opened her eyes and peered around the darkened room. She let out a sigh of relief, a ritual she’d gone through every morning since the death of her erstwhile husband, the Earl of Dunbridge, rest his decadent, malicious, morally corrupt soul.
She closed her eyes, smiled complacently as she drifted back to sleep. Not a penniless young widow, disgraced and abandoned by her family and headed for a crumbling dowager house in the wilds of Kent, but at the Plaza Hotel in a delightfully comfortable four-poster bed in her own luxurious apartments overlooking Central Park. And paid for, not by her current lover—alas, she had none at the moment—but by an anonymous official—organization?—who hoped to call on her expertise during the year.
That expertise, she assumed, was murder. Investigating it, not committing it.
Ah. Manhattan. A new life. New adventures. Enchanting men. And the sweet scent of gardenias. Gardenias? She turned to her side beneath the soft sateen sheet. The scent was stronger. She stretched out her hand; her fingers came in contact not with a dashing bedmate, but with a stem … of a gardenia.
She sat up. It was November. There were no gardenias in any garden at this time of the year. There was also an envelope.
Neither the flower nor the envelope had been there when she’d arrived home well past dawn.
The envelope was sealed. She didn’t bother to call Lily to fetch her letter opener, but ripped it open and drew out a single sheet of folded paper. No salutation, no signature. Only one enigmatic sentence.
Rise and shine, Countess, you’re about to have a visitor.
A thrill raced through her. There was only one man who called her countess. And she had no idea who he was. She had dubbed him Mr. X, as elusive and mysterious as any dime novel hero—or villain—could possibly be.
But a visitor? Surely not.… She groped for the buzzer.
Phil let out a screech and turned to her other side to see her maid, Lily, standing by her bed. “How did you do that?”
“What is that, madam?”
“Arrive before I called for you.”
“I came to tell you that you have a visitor.”
“It seems I’ve already had one.”
Lily’s dark eyes flashed and her hand reached automatically for the dagger she kept strapped to her ankle—a habit that Phil had no intention of trying to break. The girl’s gaze flitted to the empty place beside her.
“Alas, not that kind of visitor, as you can see. So you can put that stiletto away.”
Lily snorted in a very unsubservient way and leaned over to slide the knife back into its sheath. She stood and fluffed her skirt. “There’s a visitor in the parlor, madam. Mr. Pr-r-r-eswick,” she said, rolling her r’s in the way she did when she was agitated, “sent me to ask you if you are receiving visitors.”
You’re about to have a visitor. How did her elusive correspondent know unless he’d sent him. Or was he the visitor?
Phil thrust the gardenia at Lily. “Did you leave this here?”
Lily shook her head.
Of course not; her butler would be loath to enter her bedroom at any time but especially if his mistress was sleeping. So the only way …
Phil pushed the covers aside and hurried over to the window, threw open the drapes, and looked out the window and to the busy street below.
Her rooms were five floors above the ground. No one, not even the mysterious Mr. X, could have managed such a feat.
“Madam. My lady, come away from the window, you’re practically naked.”
Phil looked down at her nightgown, the long skirt hanging in tiny tucks from a lace-yoked bodice. It was in impeccable taste.
She turned back to the room where Lily awaited with her brocade dressing gown. “You must hurry.”
Who could possibly be calling at this ungodly hour? And why?
“Send Preswick in.”
Lily bobbed a knife-sharp curtsey and hurried across the room.
She opened the door and stood back as Preswick stepped in. He was dressed in his immaculate black suit and white gloves, the extra pair he always kept at the ready—for spillages and such, he said, but Phil knew it was also because gloves didn’t leave fingerprints—tucked neatly out of sight.
The Amesbury butler was rather long in the tooth, old-fashioned in his notions, but unfailingly loyal. And though he disapproved of her “penchant for recklessness,” as he termed it, he’d insisted on leaving his approaching retirement and pension to travel to the wilds of America with his wayward mistress. It was during her visit with her friend Beverly Reynolds, and the subsequent murder of Bev’s husband, that he had reluctantly introduced Phil to his secret passion, detective novels.
“My lady.” Preswick bowed and looked discreetly away. “Mr. Luther Pratt is here to see you. He apologizes for the early hour but says it’s quite urgent. ‘Dire,’ I believe was the word he used.”
Oh dear. What on earth could her host from last night’s ball want with her this morning? She was almost certain she hadn’t participated in any egregious indiscretions nor led any gentleman on. At present she was only interested in one—or possibly two—gentlemen. She was very discreet when she cared to be.
What could the man want? She’d only met his wife, Gwendolyn, at the Colony Club luncheon last week. She was a delightful though rather frail woman with a quick wit and a gracious demeanor.
Someone had mentioned that Gwen’s husband was being considered for a position at some new banking commission that President Roosevelt had promised to form, and a lively discussion about the recent banking crisis—which some were calling the Panic of 1907—ensued.
The women at the Colony Club were quite up to date on political affairs.
Which somehow led to Phil’s unexpected and somewhat notorious involvement with a police investigation on her arrival in the city.
The women at the Colony Club were not above relishing a bit of social scandal.
A day later an invitation had arrived for the Pratts’ daughter’s debutante ball.
And now the mysterious note on her pillow, followed by an extraordinary morning visit by her host. Something was afoot, as Mr. Preswick’s favorite detective, Mr. Sherlock Holmes, would say.
“Good heavens, why didn’t you say?” Phil said. “Tell him I’ll be with him directly.”
“Begging your pardon, my lady, but I don’t think that nightdress will suffice.”
“Lily, my dressing gown.”
Preswick discreetly withdrew from the room.
While Lily straightened the collar of the dressing gown and fastened the satin frogs that closed down the front, Phil tried to catch a glimpse of herself in the mirror. Not terrible for someone who had enjoyed copious amounts of excellent champagne and only two hours’ sleep. And if she looked a little pale the colors of the dressing gown brought out the brilliance of her dark mahogany hair.
Lily pushed her toward the dressing table, where she quickly twisted Phil’s thick long braid into a coil at the nape of her neck and just as quickly fastened it by the expedient method of jabbing several hairpins into her scalp. “It will hold if you don’t move your head too quickly.”
“Not a problem, my dear, but we will need coffee in the parlor, immediately.”
Phil spent the two minutes it took to traverse the hallway from her bedroom to her parlor to drag herself from stupor to acuity and to wonder what on earth Mr. Luther Pratt could possibly want.
And why she had been warned of his arrival.
Preswick opened the parlor door and discreetly withdrew.
Phil stood on the threshold taking a moment to delight in the wonderful freedom of living on one’s own, surrounded by beautiful furnishings and all the modern conveniences. Not to mention the freedom of greeting visitors in one’s dressing gown.
Luther Pratt stood facing the window, feet apart, hands clasped behind him. He was a robust man, not exactly tall, but seemingly so because of the erect way in which he carried himself.
“Mr. Pratt.” Phil came toward him, extending her hand. What was the etiquette when one was called on before breakfast?
Mr. Pratt turned, the morning sun creating a nimbus of gray curls around his rather large head as he met her halfway across the room. He was freshly shaven, dressed for the office.
And he most certainly was not the mysterious Mr. X.
“My dear sir, please be seated. Preswick is bringing coffee, then you must tell me what brings you here at such an hour.”
He sat on the edge of one of the tapestry upholstered club chairs. “I must apologize…”
She sat on the scrolled sofa facing him.
He was still apologizing without ever getting to the point of his visit when Preswick brought in the coffee tray a minute later.
He refused coffee however.
“I’ve come because my wife, Gwen, Gwendolyn—it was her idea that I should come.”
“Yes,” Phil prompted, hoping this wasn’t a plea for an introduction letter to the king or some other such encroachment. Really, she barely knew these people.
“She says you were such a support to Beverly Reynolds during the tragedy of her husband’s”—he bit his lip as if constructing the next word out of the flesh—“um, death and her subsequent crisis.”
Phil straightened slightly, ears and mind attuned to the words between the lines. “And are you experiencing such a crisis?” What could have possibly happened during the last two hours?
He leaned forward in his chair. “Yes. There has been a terrible accident. Surely an accident. Only…” He rolled his head on his neck, very slightly, his eyes making an arc in the air. “But perhaps not.”
“Not an accident?”
“My goodness. Is there a body involved?” Phil asked, willing him to look at her.
“And has it been moved?”
“What?” His eyes bugged unnaturally. “No. Only … I left orders to keep the room closed off to everyone until I spoke with you.”
Phil smiled slightly. Her path lay clearly before her.
“Gwen said it was you who saved Beverly Reynolds’s reputation, not that Gwen or anyone in my household would hurt the dear boy. But she thought you could be a support to the women, in fact she insisted I come and plead with you to come to our aid. Or do I presume too much?”
“The dear boy?”
“Oh. Didn’t I say? It’s Perry Fauks. The heir to the Fauks fortune. I believed you danced with him last night.”
Perry Fauks. She had danced with him. A lovely young man, in looks and manners. Obviously the darling of the young unmarried women who were celebrating Agnes Pratt’s debut last night. And the hope of quite a few parents, including, if Phil was not mistaken, the Pratts themselves.
Fauks Copper, Coal and Steel. One of the larger trusts that had so far survived the recent financial crisis. He would be quite a catch. Or would have been.
“Perry Fauks is dead,” Phil repeated, just to be sure.
Luther Pratt swallowed convulsively and nodded. “Yes. Can you come?”
To console his wife and daughter? Or was there something larger here? Of course there was; that’s why she’d been warned about his visit from the illusive Mr. X.
Could she come? He couldn’t keep her away. “Of course I will. But I must get dressed. I want you to return home, make sure that Mr. Fauks isn’t disturbed in any way. Keep everyone—absolutely everyone—out of the room where he was killed.”
“Tell Mrs. Pratt that I will pay a morning call to discuss … the color of draperies she’s planning to order for the parlor.”
“The draperies? But she just—”
“The subject of draperies gives me an excuse to be in the house. Dressmaking would merely give the police an excuse to put both myself and your lovely wife into the carriage and out of their way.”
“The police? Must it be the police? I don’t know if you are aware. Perry Fauks, though a young man, is the heir apparent of a major industrial trust. He’s only a junior partner as of the moment because of his age. Was. Was a junior partner—” Mr. Pratt jumped up, strode to the window. Turned back to Phil. “If word were to get out—”
He collapsed into the nearest chair. “You know of the recent financial crisis?”
Really, men could be so obtuse. How could she not know. A run on the banks because the trust companies didn’t keep enough money on hand to pay out when necessary. Add some bad investing and a dip in the stock market … Fortunately her allowance—that she had one was thanks to the foresight of her maternal grandmother—was wired monthly from the Bank of England. It wasn’t enough to live “in style” as they said, but with the necessities paid for by her unknown benefactor, she’d remained unscathed … so far.
“Yes, narrowly averted, I believe, by Mr. Morgan.”
He laughed stridently. “By demanding, blackmailing, or strong-arming the banks to put up money to cover the losses whether they had the funds or not. Things are very volatile. Something must be done to keep this from happening again.
“If there is any chance of this being more than a foolish accident, I don’t know what it might do in financial circles.”
Or to your nomination to the banking commission, Phil thought.
“Did Mr. Fauks have any enemies that you are aware of?”
“Enemies? Why would a boy of that age have any enemies?” He ran his hand over his hair, sending gray curls springing through his fingers. “But of course because of the business, he had serious competitors. Man is a greedy beast, Lady Dunbridge, envious, and sometimes ruthless, but not among our friends. And none who would maliciously cut off a young man’s future.”
Phil smiled. Surely the man wasn’t that naïve. Or did he protest too much?
“But I digress,” he said, recovering himself. “You must come, Lady Dunbridge. Not just for our sakes but … but you just must.”
“And I will,” Phil assured him. “Now please return home; stay there until I arrive and do exactly as I’ve told you.” She held up a preemptory hand. “It’s distasteful and disrespectful, but necessary. If it was an accident, there will be no harm done. But if it wasn’t, much harm will be done if he is moved.”
Mr. Pratt had an odd expression on his face as if he couldn’t believe what he was hearing.
“Lady Dunbridge, really, this is most unusual. My wife merely wished to have some female understanding.”
“And she will certainly get it,” Phil assured him. Just not from her necessarily. And besides, Gwen Pratt didn’t seem the type to need cosseting. Unless she missed her guess, Gwen Pratt was one of the reasons for her husband’s success. The lady knew her way around a financial discussion. Phil had learned that much about her at luncheon.
“Fauks was a guest in your house, is that correct?”
“Yes, but I don’t see what—”
“Please keep the maids from cleaning any room that he might have used last night. And try to keep the situation as much of a secret as possible.”
His mouth opened, closed again. Not exactly what he’d bargained for when he came asking her to bring her smelling salts to shore up the females in his house. Which she would also do. Appearances could sometimes be everything and Lily and she had prepared a valise for just such a circumstance.
The social events of the summer had been amusing, but she had to admit she’d been waiting for something to happen that would make her blood race. And since Mr. X had failed to make an appearance himself. Well …
She was feeling the thrill of the chase at last.
“One last thing. I believe you have other guests staying in the house.”
“Yes, my wife’s sister and husband and their two daughters are visiting from Virginia. And my old friend and Agnes’s godfather, Godfrey Bennington.”
A full house, it would seem. Phil took his elbow and nudged him toward the door. “We’ll discuss this later. Go now. Tell Gwen that I will be happy to visit her, shall we say in an hour? Until then, stay calm.”
“And the police will have to be called?”
Really, she was a visiting countess, why was he asking her, he must already know the answer.
“Of course they must be called. But not until your wife and daughter are suitably recovered from their inevitable shock.” And not until Phil had time for a good look around.
Copyright © 2019 by Shelley Freydont