England, April 1926
When Henry Astley, Duke of Sutherland, turns up dead in bed at the end of an afternoon spent calling his family on the carpet, everyone assumes that the excitement finished the old boy off. He was quite old and also quite vociferous in his opinions, so it isn’t an unreasonable assumption.
It isn’t until the next morning, when the duke’s valet and confidant is found shot to death in the hedge maze, that the whole thing takes on a more sinister cast.
Bright Young Thing Philippa Darling, her best friend Christopher and his brother Francis, as well as their parents, Lord and Lady Herbert, have all been summoned to Sutherland Hall for a dressing down. So has cousin Crispin, the future duke, along with his parents, the Viscount and Viscountess St George. Everyone has a string of small peccadillos they’re trying to hide, along with a few guilty secrets they don’t want anyone to know about. The only question is, which secret was worth killing for?
Pippa isn’t worried on her own behalf. She had no reason to want the duke dead. But when it looks like suspicion might fall on Christopher, she has no choice but to step up. She’ll sacrifice Francis if she has to, and would throw Crispin to the wolves without a second thought, but Scotland Yard will arrest Christopher over her dead body.
And it might just come to that.
I let the front door slam behind me as I headed across the parquet floor of the foyer and deeper into the flat. “Kit! Are you home?”
“In here, darling.”
The voice came from the first bedroom to the left of the living room—or more specifically, my bedroom. I veered in that direction and found my flat-mate and cousin seated at my dressing table, using my brush and rice powder to set his makeup. A pair of sky-blue eyes, perfectly outlined in kohl, met mine in the mirror for a second before he spun the chair around to face me. “What’s the matter? Didn’t the interview go well?”
I shook my head, plumping my posterior down on the edge of the bed and crossing my ankles. “Mr. Bancroft said he’d consider my application for the position if I showed him my qualifications on the divan in his office. I told him no and walked out.”
“And who could blame you?” Christopher said, and swung back to the mirror. “You don’t have to work, darling. I have enough money to keep us both.”
“I know you do.” And what’s more, he was happy to spend it. But— “I don’t want to be a burden.”
He shook his head. “It’s not a burden, Pippa. You know as well as I do that you’re the closest thing I have to a sister. You’re my best friend. I don’t want you to lower yourself to the divan in Mr. Bancroft’s office when I have more than enough to take care of both of us.”
“I have no intention of lowering myself to the divan in anyone’s office,” I informed him. “Certainly not for a job. Even though I would love to work for The Bodley Head. They published The Mysterious Affair at Styles, did I tell you?”
“You did,” Christopher said, eyes on the mirror as he painted his lips scarlet. “And told me, and told me.”
He flicked his gaze up to meet mine again. “You know, you should just write a book of your own, Pippa. You’re always going on about that Christie woman. And now there’s the Sayers woman, too.”
That was true. I had been reading Agatha Christie’s mysteries since the first was released in early 1921 by The Bodley Head Press. Three or four or maybe five books to date. And now there was Dorothy Leigh Sayers and Whose Body?, which had been released in 1923. And—
“There’s a new Sayers coming out in a couple of months, did you know? Maybe I should apply for a job at T. Fisher Unwin instead. Maybe they’d let me read it early…”
I trailed off, as my mind delighted in the possibilities.
“Or you could just write your own,” Christopher reiterated.
I squinted at him. “I don’t think I could do that, do you? I’ve never even seen a dead body.”
“We’ll find you one, if you’d like,” Christopher said, with the air of someone happy to go to great lengths to please. “Although I’m not sure personal knowledge of dead bodies is necessary to write successful detective fiction. It’s less about the body and more about the puzzle, isn’t it?”
I supposed it was, really. “I could write about us. Two cousins who live in London and solve mysteries together. We could be like Tommy and Tuppence.”
“But without the romance,” Christopher said, since he’d also read The Secret Adversary, “of course?”
I nodded. “Of course. No one who knows us could possibly think we’re anything but platonic.”
Christopher looked relieved. I watched as he lifted a black, bobbed wig off the stand on the edge of the dressing table and lowered it, carefully, over his own slicked-back hair.
“Where are you off to?” As if I couldn’t guess.
“Drag Ball at Lady Austin’s.” Christopher’s eyes were on the mirror as he minutely adjusted the wig. He’s a natural blond, but with his lashes and brows darkened, the black wig was ridiculously becoming, and made him look like someone totally different.
And I don’t mean the obvious. Clearly, the makeup and wig and the evening gown I knew was waiting turned my cousin from a young gentleman into a young lady. But he also didn’t look like Christopher Astley, second-youngest grandson of the Duke of Sutherland, in drag. Instead, when he walked out the front door tonight, he’d be Kitty Dupree, belle of the ball, and I’d defy most people, even those who knew him well, to recognize Christopher under the wig and makeup.
“Are you certain it’s safe?”
Lady Austin, for the uninitiated, was not a lady, nor was her name Austin. Truth be told, I wasn’t even sure she was a woman. I’d never met her, and I wasn’t sure Christopher had. The lady—or gentleman—was elusive.
And for good reason. While Christopher’s lifestyle had become more acceptable to the bright, young set in the second decade of the twentieth century, the London constabulary was not so sanguine. Raids were common, and the buggery laws were still in effect, and being in violation could lead to anything from fines to hard labor. Lady Austin—whoever he or she might be—was taking a big chance hosting the balls, and so was Christopher and the others who attended them.
“It’s been safe so far,” Christopher said, his lips glistening blood red as he adjusted the sparkling headband over the short, black wig.
“I suppose that’s true.” We’d been in London for more than two months, and Christopher had attended several of the balls with no problems. “But surely the more often you tempt fate…”
“Don’t worry, Pippa. I promise to be careful.” His eyes met mine in the mirror.
“See that you are. I don’t want anything to happen to you.”
“I don’t want anything to happen to me, either. I’ll be back by tomorrow morning, as always.”
Before I could say anything else, he jumped up. “Did I show you my dress? It’s divine, Pippa. Absolutely divine.”
He hustled across the room on men’s size 42 patent leather pumps. Christopher has elegant feet, small for a man and with high arches.
I pivoted on the bed, so I could watch as he pulled open the doors to my wardrobe and reached in, turning with a pale blue confection of scalloped edge and beaded body clutched to his non-existent bosom. “Just look at this, Pippa! Isn’t it the most stunning thing?”
It certainly was. “Lovely,” I said, with the barest hint of envy that I hoped Christopher didn’t notice. I didn’t have the money for a new gown, and wouldn’t have spent it on one if I had. “You’ll be the best dressed wo…” Oops. “—man there.”
“That’s the plan.” He tossed the hanger on the bed before he pulled the dress over his head. “Give me a hand?” his disembodied voice requested from inside the beaded creation.
“Of course.” I went over and helped him smooth the dress into place before stepping back. “Oh, that’s gorgeous. It does a beautiful job of bringing out your eyes.”
Christopher is just about average height for a man, so he makes for a tall, but not outsized, woman. And he’s slender, with that figure we’re all longing for these days: totally flat fore and aft, leaving the nice, drop-waist gown to fall becomingly from the shoulders to the hem without getting caught up on anything unfashionable like breasts or bum.
“Thank you, Pippa.” He turned this way and that in front of the full length mirror.
I bit my lip. “I don’t suppose you’d let me come with you?”
I was curious about the ball, I admit it. (I’m curious about most things.) But I was also a little bit worried, and I admit that, too. Something was scratching at the back of my neck in an unpleasant way, and it wasn’t the label in my blouse.
Christopher turned from the mirror to give me a look. “Something wrong?”
“Just a bad feeling. Something feels like it’s about to happen. Something… not-good.”
“You mean something bad?”
“I don’t know what I mean. I’m just… uneasy. I’d feel better if I were going with you.”
Christopher was the closest thing I had to a brother, slightly younger by a few months, and the idea of sending him alone into something I had reservations about, worried me.
Christopher nodded, but said, “Well, you can’t. Not only is it not a place for a well-bred young lady, but what if you’re right and something happens, and I need you to come get me from gaol? If you’re in there with me, I’ll have to call Father to stand our bail, and that would definitely be not-good.”
Definitely. For one thing, Uncle Herbert would yank Christopher back to Wiltshire so fast my hair would flutter in the breeze, and for another, he’d probably disinherit him. He might even lock him up in a sanitarium or asylum or monastery or something, and that would be the end of life as we knew it for both of us.
“I’ll be prepared,” I said. “Although it would be ever so much better if you could refrain from getting arrested in the first place. Are you sure I can’t convince you to stay home tonight?”
He shook his head. “I can’t, Pippa. Although I’ll be as careful as I know how to be. I promise. And now I guess I’d better—”
He stopped at the sound of a knock on the flat door, and glanced at me. “Expecting someone?”
“Not me. Shouldn’t Evans ring up before he admits anyone?”
Evans was the doorman in the mansion block in which Christopher and I shared a flat, and part of his job was to announce visitors before sending them upstairs, in the event the tenants should wish to be not-in to visitors.
Not-in as opposed to actually out, you understand. In the same way that not-good doesn’t necessarily equate to wholly bad.
“He should,” Christopher agreed. “Perhaps it’s that young woman from down the hall. The American one, with all the teeth.”
Perhaps it was. Or if not her, someone else who was already inside the building, and who wouldn’t need to be announced. Perhaps Evans himself with a delivery of a package. But just in case— “You’d better hide. I’ll go get rid of her.”
“Bless you, my child,” Christopher said. “I don’t mind admitting she gives me the pip.”
She didn’t give me the pip, but then I wasn’t the eligible grandson of a duke, and one who had no desire to marry.
“Just stay here. I’ll protect you.”
I pulled the bedroom door shut behind me, and marched across the foyer to the front door. Which I yanked open without even peering out, so sure was I that on the other side would be the American manhunter with the teeth, heiress to a dime-store dynasty somewhere she called Toledo.
As a result, when I found myself face to face with an elegant young gentleman in evening kit, I fell back a step.
“Oh!” Good Lord. “How did you get up here?”
The young man took my involuntary recoil as an invitation to cross the threshold. Not my intention at all, I assure you. And he probably knew that, but he didn’t let it stop him. Instead, he glanced around the foyer with guarded interest and a bit of a condescending smirk before he answered my question. “Lift, of course. You didn’t think I would climb the stairs, did you?”
Of course not. “You know that wasn’t what I meant. Why didn’t Evans call up to announce you?”
Not that I needed to ask, really. While I had never had a problem telling Christopher and his cousin Crispin apart, the truth was that to a lot of people they looked the same, at least as long as they didn’t stand next to each other. Evans, who to my knowledge had never encountered Crispin before, would have seen him come through the front door in his evening kit and top hat, assumed he was Christopher, and waved him through. Politely.
Crispin’s next words confirmed it. “He said, ‘Good evening, Mr. Astley,’ and went back to his newspaper. I decided not to quibble.” He smirked.
“Of course you didn’t.” I folded my arms across my chest. “What do you want, St George?”
It wasn’t technically his title yet, and wouldn’t be until his grandfather, the Duke of Sutherland, breathed his last and Crispin’s father, the current Viscount St George, moved into the duke’s shoes, but it differentiated Crispin from Christopher when they were both Mr. Astley, so I used it. It was better than curling my tongue around the syllables of his first name. Too familiar by half, especially when he didn’t use mine.
The smirk spread. “Can’t I come see my favorite cousin without incurring your suspicions, Darling?”
“You absolutely cannot. And why do you insist on addressing me like I’m your mother’s lady’s maid?”
He chuckled. “Because it’s your name, Darling. Isn’t it?”
It was, in a sense. Or at least it was a close approximation of it.
It’s a long story, which goes back to the turn of the century and my late mother. She had been the younger sister of Christopher’s mother, and while Aunt Roslyn had done the expected thing and married Uncle Herbert and proceeded to give birth to Cousin Francis, Cousin Robert, and, eventually, Cousin Christopher, my mother had run off to Germany and married a commoner. My parents had been very much in love, thank you, and my childhood had been as idyllic as anyone could ask for, but of course when I was eleven, The Great War started. Life on the Continent was no longer pleasant, nor was it safe, and I had been packed off to my aunt and uncle in England for my safety. Mother refused to leave Father, who had been drafted for the war effort, so it was just me. And since German sympathies were at an all-time low in England, Uncle Herbert and Aunt Roz determined that it would be better to turn my last name of Schatz into English. It’s German for treasure, something cherished, and it is also used informally as the equivalent of beloved or darling. Thus I was known as Philippa Darling from the moment I arrived on English soil.
If I had realized that I would one day have the Honorable Crispin Astley, future Viscount St George, standing in my foyer, smirking at me, calling me Darling in a way that set my teeth on edge, I would have put my foot down back then.
But there was absolutely nothing I could do about it now, so I rolled my eyes and asked him again, “What do you want, St George?”
And miracle of miracles, he stopped trying to antagonize me and came to the point. “Message from Grandfather. Kit is expected at Sutherland Hall tomorrow afternoon for tea and conversation.”
“Just Christopher? Not me?” warred with “Why?” in my head. I settled for the latter.
Crispin raised an elegant shoulder. “Mine is not to reason why. I was coming up to Town anyway. Grandfather said to let Kit know he has an audience with His Grace.”
“A little more notice might have been nice.” Since Christopher was on his way out and it was sure to be a late night. Lady Austin’s soirees always were.
“You’re lucky I decided to indulge the old man in the first place,” Crispin said callously. “But if you don’t like it, you could always choose not to show up and see what happens.”
Oh, yes. Brilliant idea.
“I’m sure you’d like that.” One of the main aspects of his and Christopher’s relationship has always been one of one-upmanship, the need for one of them to outdo the other. Or at least it has always seemed to be one of Crispin’s main desires to outdo Christopher. Christopher is a bit more laissez faire, I suppose, live and let live. He’s more concerned with his own life than Crispin’s. But in this situation, for Christopher not to answer his grandfather’s summons would give Crispin the upper hand, a position he dearly loves.
He smirked, but didn’t rise to the bait. “I have the H6, if you need help getting there.”
As if I would voluntarily exile myself to several hours in a closed automobile with Crispin St George. Even if the Hispano-Suiza would likely get us there in half the time it would take to travel by train, I’d take the longer trip over sharing space with Crispin. “We’ll manage on our own, thank you.”
“Don’t mention it,” Crispin said, and glanced over my shoulder.
I winced, but gave in to the inevitable. To not offer would be rude, and I would surely hear about it later if I didn’t. My standing with the duke, and with Crispin’s parents, was already low enough. “May I offer you a cup of tea or something stronger?”
I was sure he’d jump on the opportunity to sit down and kick his feet up and drink Christopher’s liquor and keep on annoying me for as long as I allowed it. I was rather surprised when he said, “I’m afraid I’m in a bit of a hurry. Although a quick look around can’t hurt. You know Mother and Grandfather will ask me whether you and Kit are sharing.”
Of all the cheek! But of course, if I refused to show him around, then he’d go home and tell them that, and then they’d think there had to be a reason why I was being secretive… and so I really was better served by letting him look, no matter how little I wanted to.
“Through there is the sitting room. Feel free to step through.”
He did, and I followed, gesturing to the openings on both sides. “Kitchen and dining room to the right. Hall with two bedrooms and bath to the left.”
“Cozy,” Crispin commented. His vocal inflection was the equivalent of a sneer, but his face was mostly impassive. As such, it was difficult to determine whether it was simply a comment on the size of the place—the whole flat could have fit into half a wing of Sutherland Hall, where Crispin still lived with his mother, father, and grandfather—or whether it was a comment on how closely Christopher and I shared space.
To be honest, I wasn’t sure whether to take offense or not. It’s usually safe to do so when dealing with Crispin, but then there are those times when I jump to the wrong conclusion and he gets to smirk about it.
So I sniffed, but forbore to respond. “Mine is the closed door. Christopher’s bedroom is at the end of the hall, with the bath between.”
Crispin nodded, ambling down the hall to stick his head into Christopher’s room. “Kit isn’t home?”
I knew that Crispin could tell that someone lived in Christopher’s room. All of Christopher’s male paraphernalia was there: his clothes, his shoes, his shaving kit, and his suspenders. Anything Kitty used had always been kept in my room. Christopher had insisted. Now I was rather pleased by his foresight.
“He went out for the evening,” I said.
Christopher had been as quiet as a mouse the whole time I’d been talking to Crispin. He no doubt knew his cousin was here, and figured that if anyone was liable to see through his makeup and wig, it was a boy who had known him since he was in nappies. I wasn’t sure whether Crispin was observant enough for that, but even if not, it was much better for Christopher to stay out of the way until Crispin was gone.
The latter eyed my closed door in silence for a moment before he arched a brow. “Not going to invite me to see your bedroom, Darling?”
“Absolutely not. Have you lost your mind?”
“Clearly,” Crispin said dryly, and turned back toward the foyer and front door. “I’ll be at Sutherland House until tomorrow morning if you change your mind about the motorcar. Rogers will pass on a message.”
I thought about telling him we wouldn’t change our minds, that there was no way I would willingly volunteer for several hours in a car with him when I didn’t have to, but in the end, I bit my tongue on the impulse and informed him, placidly, that I’d consult Christopher before we made a decision and then let him know if his services were required.
Then I followed Crispin across the foyer. “I’ll see you down.” And have a chat with Evans about the difference between Crispin and Christopher, and not to let the wrong Mr. Astley back upstairs without notice again.
Crispin smirked, like he knew exactly what I was thinking, but all he said was, “Delighted.” And then he proceeded to hold the door for me so I could pass in front of him, and to close it gently behind me once I was through.