Death at the Dower House

Coming December, 2023




England, May, 1926

After the funerals of the late Duke of Sutherland and his daughter-in-law, Charlotte, (and of course Grimsby, the blackmailing valet), the younger members of the family—Philippa Darling, her cousins Christopher and Francis, and Crispin, Viscount St George—are invited to a weekend party at the Dower House in Dorset by Dowager Lady Peckham’s children, Constance and Gilbert.

Once in Dorset, things go sideways very quickly. Lady Peckham’s ward, the lovely Dutch emigree Johanna de Vos, has been making a dead set at Crispin, and has had him all to herself for the past few days. Constance’s time has been monopolized by Francis, while Pippa wouldn’t throw Crispin a rope if he were going under for the third time. However, the house party also includes the beautiful Lady Laetitia Marsden, a former dalliance of Crispin’s, and she doesn’t take the competition for his affections—or his title and fortune—lying down.

As a result, when the lovely Johanna is found murdered, the suspects are plentiful. Did Lady Laetitia decide to remove her rival? Did Lord Geoffrey, her brother, the handsy one, lose control and strangle the woman he was trying to seduce? Or perhaps Crispin was tired of the relentless pursuit, and took matters into his own hands?

When Lady Peckham also dies, miles away in Wiltshire, the case develops yet one more wrinkle. Now Pippa, with some help from Christopher, must figure out who wanted the two women dead, hopefully before the murderer can consign her to the same fate.

Chapter One

“I can’t believe we’re doing this again,” Christopher grumbled, as he heaved my weekender bag down from the train’s luggage rack and onto the seat below.

“I know.” I picked it up, while I watched him reach above his head again for his own.

Tuesday a week ago, we’d done this in reverse. It had been the afternoon of the morning Her Grace, Aunt Charlotte, Duchess of Sutherland, was found dead in bed, and all we really wanted to do, was put as much distance between ourselves and the events of the previous weekend as we could. Three deaths plus an attempted murder is enough to discomfit even the most intrepid of Bright Young Things, and that’s true even for those of us who imagine ourselves far too modern for finer feelings.

Neither Christopher nor I realized, or at least it wasn’t discussed between us, that we would have to return to Wiltshire and Sutherland Hall for the funerals just over a week later.

In addition to Her Grace, Lady Charlotte, the dead included Christopher’s grandfather, Henry, the Duke of Sutherland (the one before Aunt Charlotte’s husband, Uncle Harold; poor Aunt Charlotte only got to enjoy her title for a couple of days before she was dead, too), as well as Grimsby, the late duke’s valet. We wouldn’t be attending that funeral, of course. That was for the below-stairs, the ones who wanted to go, and any family or personal friends Grimsby might have possessed. Given that he was a sneak and a blackmailer, I imagined there might not be many attendees.

But we would definitely be required to be there both for the late duke’s ceremonials, and for the late duchess’s. They would both be buried in the family plot in the small graveyard outside the village of Little Sutherland in Wiltshire, so we’d had to make the trip from London via train to Salisbury, and by car from there to Sutherland Hall, yet again.

“I hope Wilkins is here with the motorcar,” Christopher groused. “I’m starved.”

“I’m sure he will be. I called and told Tidwell when to expect us. And if you hadn’t overslept, you would have had more time for breakfast.”

“I wanted luncheon,” Christopher said petulantly.

“Well, I’m sorry, but we were on the train at lunch time. Assuming Wilkins doesn’t make us wait, we’ll reach the hall about halfway between luncheon and tea, but perhaps Mrs. Sloane can find you a biscuit to tide you over.”

Christopher opened his mouth again, surely to say something else thoroughly unhelpful, and I got in first. “You know, I can see why some people have such a hard time telling you and your cousin St George apart. You both act like spoiled brats when you don’t get what you want.”

“I do not act like a spoiled brat!” Christopher said, offended, and then he seemed to hear himself, because he flushed. “I do, don’t I? Sorry, Pippa.”

“It’s all right,” I said as we carried our bags toward the train station exit. “I didn’t really mean it, you know. I’ve never had a problem telling you and Crispin apart. And I know neither of us is looking forward to the next two days. Last weekend was horrific, and this week will be even worse.”

Christopher made a face. “Bad enough if they’d all died of natural causes. But when one of them killed the other two and then herself…”

I nodded. “I’m amazed your uncle and St George have managed to keep it out of the newspapers. Could you imagine what kind of money your mother would have gotten for the inside scoop that the Duchess of Sutherland killed her father-in-law, his valet, and then herself?”

“Let’s not talk about my mother and her little sideline right now.”

He pushed the door open for me and then followed me out. It was early May in Southern England, and the sun shone warmly on the red brick of the barely twenty-year-old train station. Everything was perfectly lovely until Christopher said, “Brace yourself, Pippa.”

“What—” For was left unsaid, because I saw immediately the reason I needed bracing.

Heard it, as well.  

“Afternoon, Darling. Kit.”

There, just beyond the red-brick pavement, in a slot clearly designated for ‘drop off’ and not ‘pick up,’ sat the bright blue Hispano-Suiza H6 racing car that was the pride and joy of Christopher’s cousin. The formerly Honorable Crispin Astley, now the Viscount St George since his grandfather’s death a week hence, was lounging in the driver’s seat, a soft cap pulled low over his face—to keep the afternoon sun out of his eyes, I assumed—and the usual smug smirk on his lips. He made absolutely no move to get out of the car and help with the luggage. Instead, he reached back and pulled open the back door without ever stirring from behind the wheel. “Make yourselves at home.”

“I’ll take the back seat,” I told Christopher, since I didn’t fancy spending the next hour sitting next to St George, who is by way of being my least favorite person. For being so physically like Christopher that a lot of people have a problem knowing which is which, Crispin is nothing like Christopher in personality. As a result, I do my utmost to avoid spending any time with him whatsoever.

In this case, I couldn’t avoid the motorcar, but I could make Christopher bear the brunt of his cousin’s company while I hid myself away in the back. Christopher was brought up to be a gentleman, and he minds Crispin less than I do, anyway.

He bowed me into the back seat and then dumped his bag on the seat next to me. That done, he circled the car and got into the passenger seat next to his cousin.

“Ready?” the latter asked, even before Christopher had properly latched the door behind him. “Let’s blouse.”

The H6 took off down Western Road, roared up Mill Street, and scattered traffic to cross the bridge over the River Avon. (This is not the same Avon that Shakespeare gazed upon, in case you wondered. There are five Rivers Avon in England, three more in Scotland, and one in Wales. The Salisbury Avon is the third longest, and it runs from Pewsey in Wiltshire through Hampshire and Dorset before it empties out into the English Channel at Mudeford.)

From the bridge, we barreled down the old High Street past the Salisbury Cathedral and the Magna Carta Charter House—“Might as well do the scenic tour,” Crispin said from the front seat—before we proceeded out of town on our way south-east toward Sutherland Hall.

I made myself comfortable in the back and watched the scenery fly by. The one good thing about the Hispano-Suiza and Crispin’s love of speed is that he drove so fast that there was no way I could partake in any conversation taking place in the front seat. Any words either of them spoke were literally ripped from their mouths as soon as they were uttered, and dissipated in the wind long before they reached me. I had no idea what they were discussing, so I spent the time watching the landscape outside the car go from Salisbury to scattered households on the outskirts of town to rural fields and pastures as we drove further into the countryside to the south. And occasionally, when he turned sideways to say something to Christopher, I looked at Crispin, and wondered what the last week had been like for him.

When we’d scurried away from Sutherland Hall last Tuesday, like rats leaving a sinking ship, Crispin had just been taken off by a chief inspector in Scotland Yard for an interview. Aunt Charlotte had been found dead in bed that morning, with what amounted to a suicide note—or at least a letter addressed to her only son—left behind on the writing table. That was after an attempted murder of me—or possibly Christopher—the previous day, the discovery of the dead valet the morning before that, and the death of the old duke the afternoon prior to that again. All in all, it had been quite an eventful weekend, and while none of the deaths had really affected me personally—the old duke wasn’t my grandfather, his valet was a blackmailer but he hadn’t been blackmailing me, and Christopher’s aunt hadn’t liked me much at all, a feeling which was decidedly mutual—they were obviously much closer to Crispin’s heart (assuming he had one). The duke had been his grandfather, he’d lived in the same house as the valet, and Christopher’s aunt was his mother, who had adored him. I imagined the last few days couldn’t have been easy.

And if I looked closely, I could see it on his face. There were dark circles under his eyes, as if he hadn’t been resting well, and his skin wasn’t just pale, it was pasty. The eyes themselves were bloodshot, and if I had to guess, I would have said he’d lost a few pounds in the week since I’d last seen him. All in all, he made a perfect picture of a young man who didn’t sleep, didn’t eat, and didn’t exercise, but spent much too much time in a bottle.

“You look awful, St George,” I told him when we had finally arrived at our destination, Sutherland Hall outside the village of Little Sutherland in southern Wiltshire, and he was standing in the courtyard holding the car door open for me.

He sneered. “Thanks ever so, Darling.”

“I mean it. Haven’t you bothered to eat since we left last week?”

He shrugged, and moved past me to close the car door, before lifting the weekender bags out of the back seat and handing them over to Alfred the second footman, who had appeared out of thin air to receive them.

“Same rooms as last time,” Crispin instructed him.

I made a face, since I knew that that would put me in the west wing, as far away from Christopher’s room in the east wing as it was possible for me to get.

Alfred headed into the foyer with the bags and Crispin arched a brow. “Problem, Darling? Did you want to be closer to the action?”

“I thought it was your mother who was obsessed with keeping me away from the men’s wing,” I told him, without really thinking about what I was saying.

And then, of course, I realized what I had said when he grimaced. “Oh, no. I’m sorry, St George. I didn’t mean…”

“I’m sure,” Crispin said dryly. “No reason why you would take any special care with my feelings.”

He paused expectantly, probably for me to express doubts as to his possessing any. Under the circumstances I refrained, since I could tell quite well that he was still reeling from his mother’s death.

So instead I steeled myself before I put a hand on the arm of his tweed coat and said, as sincerely as I could, “I’m sorry, St George. Truly. I forgot for a moment.”

He looked down at my hand, appalled or perhaps just astonished that I was actually touching him, before he nodded. “I do that, too. Go along as normal, until suddenly I remember that my mother is dead. And then the world ends all over again.”

His eyes met mine for a moment, storm-cloud gray, before he twitched his arm out from under my hand and took a step back. “At any rate, it made sense to put Christopher and Francis into the rooms they had last time. The only other empty room in the east wing is my mother’s, and I’m sure you wouldn’t want to sleep there.”

No, I definitely wouldn’t. If I had a choice between the room where Aunt Charlotte had died, and the west wing, I’d take the west wing every time.

“You won’t be alone in the west wing this time,” Crispin added. “Aunt Roslyn and Uncle Herbert will be here by supper. And my mother’s old friend Lady Peckham is staying the night. She’s bringing her daughter and her ward, along with her son. They’ll be in the west wing, too.”

“Constance Peckham?” I asked. “Her mother and brother?”

He nodded. “How do you know Constance?”

There was a faint sneer to his expression, as if he didn’t think much of Constance Peckham. I wanted to chastise him for it, but the truth was that I had never thought much of Constance Peckham myself.

And it wasn’t because she was stuck up or unpleasant or anything like that. She was merely very quiet and unassuming, and as such, very easy to dismiss. It galled me that I couldn’t take Crispin to task for his cavalier attitude to someone who was, by all accounts, a very sweet-natured young lady. But it was hard to do when I had mostly dismissed her as mealy-mouthed myself.

“We went to Godolphin together,” I told him, “while you and Christopher were away at Eton.”

This might have been the longest, most civil conversation I’d had with St George in eons. It made me feel strange, and I looked around for Christopher, for something else to focus on. He was standing on the other side of the Hispano-Suiza looking from one to the other of us with a strange expression on his face. Couldn’t believe the lack of hostilities either, probably. “Did you hear, Christopher? Constance Peckham is coming.”

Christopher nodded warily. Perhaps he had been watching to see whether the conversation would escalate so he’d have to step in. “Do I know Constance?”

“I doubt it,” I told him. “She and I weren’t close. She was a very meek, mousey sort of girl. Kind and well-meaning and all of that. Just very unassuming. Not St George’s type at all.”

“Nothing at all like you, then, Darling,” Crispin retorted.

Whatever truce we’d temporarily enjoyed was obviously over, and we were back to snide remarks and verbal slaps. “That’s right. No one’s ever called me meek or mousey.”

He nodded pleasantly. “No, you’re not a mouse. What you are, Darling, is a shrew.”

“Oh, lovely,” I said, putting my hands together for a couple of slow claps. “You’re so clever, St George. Imagine coming up with that. You’re brilliant, is what you are.”

He flushed. “Get stuffed, Darling.”

“You know,” I told him, “I think I will. Christopher?”

Christopher offered me his arm, the way any well-trained young gentleman would when addressed in this manner, and we swept into the foyer of Sutherland Hall leaving Crispin to no doubt grit his teeth in our wake in the courtyard.

“Mr. Astley.” Tidwell the butler was waiting just inside the front door. “Miss Darling.”

“Tidwell,” I said warmly. “Lovely to see you.”

Tidwell blinked, since it’s not usual for the above-stairs to address the staff quite so exuberantly. But this was the effect Crispin had on me: after talking to him, I felt so much more fondly toward the entire rest of the world, which, after all, had the benefit of not being Crispin St George.

“You’re in your usual room in the west wing, Miss Darling,” Tidwell informed me once he’d gotten his countenance back, “and Mr. Astley, you’re in your usual room in the east wing. Tea will be served in the parlor at five o’clock.”

“Lovely, Tidwell.”

I must have verged on sounding too maniacally friendly again, because Christopher gave me a quelling sort of look before addressing Tidwell himself.

“We missed luncheon, Tidwell. Do you suppose there’s any chance Cook could rustle up some victuals early?”

“I can ask Cook for a tray, Mr. Astley.” Tidwell bowed politely. “Do you wish a tray too, Miss Darling?”

“I’ll share Christopher’s,” I said. “Just have her send two of everything. Cups, saucers, plates…”

Tidwell nodded. “Very well, Miss Darling. To Mr. Astley’s room?”

“That’ll be fine,” I said. “Unless…”

I lowered my voice and leaned a little closer. “When was the last time St George ate a solid meal, Tidwell? He looks like a ghost.”

“The last week has been hard on the young master,” Tidwell said blandly, which was surely an understatement if I’d ever heard one.

“He left before luncheon, too, didn’t he? To pick us up?”

“Yes, Miss Darling.”

“Then have Cook send enough for three,” I said, “and put it in the breakfast room or somewhere like that. Scotland Yard is done with the breakfast room, I assume?”

The breakfast room was where Inspector Pendennis and his two underlings, Detective Sergeants Finchley and Gardiner, had set up their incident room last week, after Grimsby’s murder.

Tidwell nodded. “Yes, Miss Darling. The breakfast room is currently used for breakfast only.”

“Then we’ll eat there. Where we won’t disturb any preparations for tea that might be going on in the salon.”

Tidwell nodded. “Very well, Miss Darling.”

He withdrew. I turned to Christopher. “Go get your cousin before he decides to get back in the motorcar and take off again.”

I was honestly surprised we hadn’t heard the roar of the Hispano-Suiza’s engine already.

“He’s probably waiting for it to be time to go pick up the Peckhams,” Christopher said.

“All the more reason to force some food into him before he leaves again. He looks ill.”

“You’d look—” Christopher began, and then shook his head. “Sorry, Pippa.”

“Think nothing of it. You’re right. If I had lost my mother under the circumstances he lost his—” instead of to the influenza epidemic that had ravaged the Continent back in 1919, “I’m sure I’d look terrible, too.”

I hadn’t seen my mother in five years when she died. I’m sure that made the loss easier to bear. So did the fact that I had a new family around me, to hold me and pet me and make sure I was all right. It didn’t seem as if Crispin had anyone. No siblings, and a father who had never seemed to be very affectionate even when his son was small.

And that didn’t make him my problem, especially as he was someone I didn’t particularly like, who didn’t particularly like me back. But even so—

I turned toward the staircase. “I’m going to go wash my hands before we eat. Get him inside, Christopher. I don’t care how you do it. Hit him over the head and drag him into the breakfast room if you have to. If he doesn’t take better care of himself, he’s going to die, too, and that won’t help anyone in the slightest.”

Except perhaps Uncle Herbert, who would be second in line for the title with Crispin out of the way. But that was a horrible thing to think, and would be a worse one to express, especially to Uncle Herbert’s son, so I didn’t say anything about it.

Christopher nodded. “I’ll get him.” “I’ll be down by the time the tray arrives,” I said, and headed up the staircase to the lavatory while Christopher went in the other direction, toward the door to the outside and the courtyard.