Coming March, 2024
London, early June, 1926
Ever since arriving in London, Christopher Astley, in the guise of his alter ego Kitty Dupree, has attended a monthly drag ball in the metropolis.
For obvious reasons—the buggery laws that are still on the books, and public opinion, which is slow to change—things have to be clandestine. Last month, for instance, the ball was interrupted by a police raid that Christopher escaped by the skin of his teeth, only because he was yanked out of the venue before the raid started by someone who knew that it was going to happen.
This month, the gathering has moved from the last Friday of the month to the first Saturday of the next, and the arranger has found a new venue. On the first weekend in June, everyone gathers in the old Rectors Club on Tottenham Court Road for a grand old time.
All this is why Christopher’s cousin Philippa Darling is alone in the flat she shares with Christopher when Christopher’s other cousin Crispin, Lord St George, shows up three sheets to the wind from celebrating his twenty-third birthday with his usual crowd of extremely fast Bright Young People.
And when a sozzled St George, along with an always-inquisitive Pippa, decide to get dressed up and crash Christopher’s drag ball, the evening ends with the dead body of a tabloid reporter at a flat in Mayfair, and enough motives for murder to populate an entire wing of Wormwood Scrubs penal institution.
Now Pippa and Christopher must determine who wanted the gossip hound dead badly enough to do something about it, all while trying to keep Crispin’s name out of the press and their own heads above water.
It was just before nine o’clock when Evans rang up from the lobby and destroyed my evening.
“Miss Darling? Lord St George to see Mr. Astley.”
“Christopher’s out,” I said, since my flat-mate and cousin had dressed up as his alter ego Kitty Dupree and gone off to his monthly engagement—a drag ball—about an hour ago.
After the police raid the last weekend of April—a raid Christopher had escaped by the skin of his teeth—the event had moved from the last Friday of the month to the first Saturday of the next, and so here we were, on Saturday the 5th of June.
As soon as the date registered, I rolled my eyes. “Let me guess, Evans. He’s sozzled?”
“Absolutely potted,” Evans confirmed. “I don’t know if it’s safe to allow him to go off on his own, Miss Darling.”
No, it definitely wasn’t. The Honorable Crispin Astley, Viscount St George, Christopher’s other cousin (on his father’s side) and heir to the Sutherland dukedom, had recently—as in within the past six months—managed to wrap his previous automobile, a Ballot 2 LTS racing car, around a light pole in the West End. He had walked away from that mishap with no worse injury than a bump on the head, while the Ballot was a complete loss. Now he was driving a Hispano-Suiza H6, with 195 horsepower, and I dreaded to think what trouble he could get up to with it in his condition.
“Better send him up,” I told Evans. Against my better judgment, I might add. I’m slightly more fond of Crispin than I used to be, but he’s still not my favorite person—that honor would go to Christopher—and in his current condition, he would undoubtedly prove to be even more of a trial than usual. “I’ll go out to meet the lift.”
“Very well, Miss Darling.”
Evans disconnected. I unlocked the front door to the flat—Christopher and I share a service flat in the Essex House Mansions in London, where Evans is our doorman—and proceeded down the hallway toward the lift door. I could hear the whirring of the gears start as I was halfway there. It must have taken Evans a bit of time to maneuver St George into the box and shut the grille.
As soon as the metal door slid back, I had expected to see St George’s pretty face smirking at me through the grille in his usual impudent fashion, but there was no sign of him. I pulled the grille open and stuck my head into the brass box. “St George…? Are you… oh, for God’s sake!”
There was a titter, and then Florence Schlomsky, our resident American manhunter, turned away from Crispin, whom she had backed into the corner of the lift next to the button panel. “Hullo, Pippa!”
“Florence,” I said severely. “Would you mind unhanding St George so I might have him?”
She had a palm against his chest still, keeping him in place, and there was quite a lot of her lipstick—bright red—on and around his mouth.
He must not realize it, because he smirked. “Evening, Darling. I thought you’d never ask!”
“I’m not asking now,” I told him. “You look ridiculous, St George. Wipe your face and come along.”
I had to physically enter the lift and push Florence out of the way to appropriate him, which I did by grasping him by the lapel and tugging him after me. He came along as docilely as a lamb, although Florence pouted. “Not fair, Pippa. I saw him first.”
“I first saw him when he was eleven,” I said, “so no joy, I’m afraid. Besides, he was on his way up to us. Hands off, Florence. Not yours to play with.”
“He didn’t seem to mind.”
She glanced at him under her lashes as she followed us into the hallway.
Florence is not unattractive—she has a wholesome, American face with pink apple cheeks and more than the usual number of teeth, exceptionally straight and white—but she’s not the shy and retiring type, coy looks notwithstanding. Her father has money, and she’s in England specifically to barter those dollars for a British title. She would love to snag St George, who is already a viscount at twenty-three, and who will eventually become a duke. It doesn’t hurt that he is, in addition to that, both young and handsome, as opposed to a few of the other eligible specimens of British nobles, who are neither.
“He never minds,” I told her. “He’s an incorrigible flirt, I’m afraid. I’m doing you a favor, really, keeping him away from you. He can’t be trusted around women.”
She gave him another playful glance. “I don’t mind.”
“You would if you married him and he kept trifling with every other woman he comes across. He just can’t help himself, it seems.”
The look I gave him was less commiserating than critical, since I absolutely think he should be able to help himself; he just doesn’t want to, and it was not coy at all.
“Not getting married,” Crispin announced. Whatever else the alcohol may have done to him, it hadn’t affected that public school accent. It was as crisp and clear as always, even if the grammar was a bit compromised. “Not ‘till you say you’ll marry me, Darling.”
He grinned at me, loose and uninhibited. “We’d have to go off and live in squalor on the Continent, though, ‘cause I’d have to renounce the title and estates.”
“That’s all right,” I told him, since tying myself to St George was pretty close to the bottom of the list as far as I was concerned. I might do it if he were dying and it was the only way to save his life, but not otherwise, and I can’t guarantee I would volunteer under those circumstances. “Keep the title and fortune, St George. I don’t want them, or you.”
I’d marry Christopher before I married Crispin, and that’s saying something, when Christopher has no interest in girls and is the closest thing I have to a brother.
Crispin pouted. “Aww, Darling…!”
I shook my head. “You’re terrible, St George. Save your flirtation for someone who appreciates it.”
“Like me,” Florence said brightly. “I’d be happy to marry you, Lord St George.”
I turned to her, and realized that—as usual when I was talking to Crispin—I hadn’t been paying attention to my surroundings. He’s clever enough that it takes effort to keep up with him, even while intoxicated, and so I’m in the habit of giving him my undivided attention whenever we banter.
It turned out that Florence hadn’t taken off down the hallway toward her own flat, the way any decent person would do after being dismissed. She still stood beside the lift, beaming at Crispin.
It would take stronger measures, I guessed.
“That’s right,” I told Crispin sweetly, “she’d be happy to marry you. So don’t say something like that to anyone else, ever again. Someone else might think you meant it, and then you’d end up having to marry some woman you don’t care about just because you got drunk and careless. If you had said to Miss Schlomsky what you said to me, you’d be on your way to the registrar’s office right now.”
Florence nodded eagerly. Crispin looked horrified.
“Come along,” I added, still with that death grip on his lapel. “Goodnight, Florence. Next time, don’t be so quick to attach your mouth to him, please. If I can’t get the lipstick out of his collar, I’ll be sending you the bill.”
I tugged him after me down the hallway in the direction of our—Christopher’s and mine—flat. Crispin, of course, couldn’t resist the last word. “Good night, Miss Schlomsky. You’ll have to forgive Darling, I’m afraid. She can be so possessive sometimes—”
The sentence was cut off when the flat door shut behind us. That was assuming he’d planned to say anything more, of course. He might not have.
“You’re horrible,” I told him, as I pulled him, stumbling, across the foyer and into the sitting room. “Over there, on the chair. Sit.”
I let go, and watched him make his way across the floor, a bit unsteadily, toward the chair I had pointed to. When he reached it, he fell upon it and sprawled, kicking his legs out. The grin he gave me was lazy and no doubt intended to be charming. “Evening, Darling.”
“Evening, St George,” I said, since there was nothing good about it so far that I could ascertain. “Do you want to use your own handkerchief on your face, or should I bring you something less expensive than a monogrammed linen square?”