Authors: Marty Wingate
is a work of fiction. Names, places, and incidents either are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
An Alibi eBook Original
Copyright Â© 2015 by Martha Wingate
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Alibi, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.
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Cover design: Tatiana Sayig
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A blackbird announced my late arrival. His silhouette, barely discernible against the twilight sky, perched atop a turret of Hoggin Hall on the north wing, directly above my bedroom. His
cut through the late-October eveningâtwilight in Suffolk. It was a mild rebuke, but I couldn't ignore it. “Late, Julia Lanchester, you're late!”
“Hush,” I called up to him in a stage whisper. “I knowâgone seven o'clock. No need to broadcast.”
I shut the door of my Fiat and dashed between the other cars, glancing up at the outline of the Hall. A formidable brick edifice, the Fotheringill family home comprised a central building with two wings that extended like arms at ninety-degree angles, creating the courtyard. At each end of the south and north wings was a turret. Had the seventeenth-century architect been influenced by a holiday in Moorish Spain? No records remained detailing his inspiration. The Hall's design resisted categorization, and, unable to pigeonhole its style, our leaflets at the Tourist Information Center described it only as the five-hundred-year-old seat of the Fotheringill family.
The moment my foot touched the flagstone entrance, the great oak door creaked open.
“Ms. Lanchester,” Thorne said, panting slightly at the exertion as he pushed the door closed behind me. Thorne, with cotton-ball hair, silver-framed glasses, and a face like crepe paper, had been butler to Lord Fotheringill since sometime before the Dark Ages.
He caught my coat as I slipped out of it. “I was held up,” I said, a bit out of breath myself, offering him my excuse first, to see if it would fly. “The Christmas Marketâthe third week of November is only a month away and there's so much to do.”
I could go no further. The Smeaton-under-Lyme Christmas Market had been my idea, and so I couldn't exactly complain about my workload. It had been a hard sell to LinusâLord Fotheringill. He worried about the estate, and fell on the cautious side of decisions on how to increase revenue, while Iâmanager of the Tourist Information Center in the villageâhad taken to jumping to the opposite extreme.
“Has everyone arrived?” I asked.
Thorne gave a single nod as I piled scarf, gloves, and hat on top of my coat, draped across his arms. “Lord Fotheringill is showing the guests his father's collection of nineteenth-century boxwood-and-ebony chess pieces, followed by drinks in the library. Mrs. Bugg is waiting in your room to help you dress.”
I glanced up the stairs, my eyes as ever drawn to the massive chandelier that hung from the three-story-high vaulted ceiling. But my ear caught low voices from an open doorway beyond the entry. “I'd best be on my way,” I said to Thorne. “I don't want to be late for our guests.”
I darted to the staircase, circling the vast entry table, which held a glass vase the size of a cauldron that overflowed with autumnal leaves, berried stems, and lichen-covered twigs. I took my heels off and ran up to the first landing where the stairs splitâthe left side leading to the south wing, the right, to the north. I took the set to the right, all the while chastising myselfâ
Don't say “our” guests, Julia.
They were Linus's guests, as was I. The difference being that I lived hereâtemporarily.
I ran down the corridor of the north wing to my room and hesitated in the doorway. Mrs. Bugg sat in a chair by the window, her feet stretched out in front of her, arms folded across her stomach, and eyes closed. In her early fifties, the gray in her thick brown hair looked like threads of frost combed through. She wore it twisted into a generous, untidy swirl on top of her head. Mrs. Bugg, that is, SheilaâI was uncertain whether I should use her Christian nameâkept to plain, solid-colored dresses and unremarkable aprons that, although they weren't strictly uniforms, always gave that impression. Her sensible shoes told the tale of being on her feet for most of every day.
She had lit the fire for me. The applewood hissed, and the flames threw out a warm light across the floor and onto the four-poster bed. The far corner of the room opened into an octagonal-shaped alcove with windows all roundâpart of the turret at this end of the north wing, and just big enough for a bench seat, a few shelves, and a table.
Mrs. Bugg opened her eyes and leapt up. “I thought I heard you arrive,” she said, smiling.
“I'm late, I know,” I said, hastily dropping my bag in a chair and my heels on the floor. I stripped off my uniformânavy pencil skirt, tailored white blouse, and thin cardiganâand threw the pieces on the bed. “Has his Lordship been asking for me?”
“Only because he's concerned that you work too hard,” she said, collecting my castoffs. “Here now, a fresh cup of tea for you.”
“Oh, you didn't need to do that,” I said in total insincerity.
“It was no trouble. And I've your dress waitingâwould you like to freshen up before you put it on?”
I'd like to take a long, hot bath and get in bed, that's what I'd like. But instead I would splash water on my face, put on a dress far fancier than I was accustomed to, and go down to mingle with some of Linus's contemporaries. Three earls and a baronet, if I remembered correctly, plus wives. Also attendingâat my request and a huge relief to meâmy friend and co-worker Vesta Widdersham, and her date, Akash Kumar, who ran a shop in the village. At least I'd know someone.
Mrs. Bugg hugged my clothes to her chest for a moment and beamed at me. “I know I've said it before, Ms. Lanchester, and I hope you don't mind my repeating myself, but it's so lovely to have a woman living at the Hall again to do for.” She caught my panicked look and added, “However temporary.”
Just how temporary depended on the time it took for workmen to carry out repairs on an entire row of cottages in the villageâincluding my Pipit Cottage. Toxic mold had been found in the walls in August. The discovery of the mold at least answered the question of why my front door had never closed properlyâit had been the damp.
I had had to move out on the spotâhealth and safety, the Environment Agency, I still didn't know who decided these things. Homeless, but with no time to consider my options, Linus had taken me slightly off guard when he had insisted I move into Hoggin Hall. I'd had other offersâmy dad and stepmother, Beryl, begged me to stay with them in Cambridge. Too far away. Vesta told me her box room would be ideal and I'd be no trouble, but Vesta and Akash had only just started seeing each other, and I would not be the gooseberry in that relationship. And besides, a box room isn't good for much other than boxes. The Stoat and Hare had a few rooms above the pub, but they had been booked up to begin with. Once I'd moved into the Hall, it seemed ungrateful to pack up and leave after a week. And it was convenientâI was only a twenty-minute walk to the TIC, five on bicycleâLinus's preferred method of travel round the estate. It meant I could pass my cottage each day on my way to workâmy poor, abandoned cozy nest of a cottage. It looked so forlorn that after the first week, I'd gone out of my way to avoid it, walking down Mill Lane and behind Nuala's Tea Room before coming back out onto the high street.
“I'm only increasing your workload, Mrs. Bugg. I don't see how you keep up with the household duties you already have. Now with me to look afterâI'm only another chore.”
“Not a bit of it. It brings back such lovely memories to be able to help youâeven for a small gathering like this evening. I still remember the excitement of getting ready for large dinner parties when my mother was lady's maid for Lord Fotheringill's mother. When I came on as lady's maid,” she said, and hesitated, “well, it was never quite the same with his Lordship's first wife.”
I didn't like her using the term “first wife.” After all, Linus had been married only once, to Isabel. Although they had divorced twenty years ago, she retained use of her title Lady Fotheringill forever, as long as she didn't remarry. But “first wife” made it sound as if the vacancy had been advertised and Mrs. Bugg assumed I had applied for the post.
She continued wistfully. “And, of course, no little ones since the young master.”
The young master. I'd yet to meet Linus's thirty-year-old son, Cecil, but I noted that both Mrs. Bugg and Thorne talked about him as if he were still in short trousers.
As she zipped me up, she took a more businesslike approach to prepping me for the evening. “You'll be such a help to his Lordshipâexplaining to his friends all the ambitious plans for the estateâthe farmshop and the Christmas Market.”
The farmshop was currently represented by a few derelict stone buildings on the far side of the estate; they had yet to be converted into anything resembling a shop. The market, like a ticking time bomb set to go off in four weeks, consumed my work days and spilled into after hours.
“Well, I shall do my best,” I said, tugging at the short hem as I checked myself out in the mirror. A new frockâI had decided that was what I needed to give me confidence to face this swarm of titled gentry at dinner. And although I enjoyed a good day out shopping in Cambridge or Oxford, with lunch and then late-afternoon tea or a glass of fizzy wine, I'd had not a moment to spare recently.
Forced to limit myself to village shops, I had dashed into the unlikely but sole offeringâDresses by Dot. The window display rarely changed at Dot's, and although the dresses looked well made, they also looked as if they belonged on an eighty-year-old. But matronly Dot had given me a wink and taken me to the back of the shop, where I'd found this shocking-pink lace number with a high neck, a low back, long sleeves, and a snug fit.
I loved itâjust the sort of thing that I so rarely splurged on. The perfect dress, Dot said with a nod, for a fancy dinner out with that special someone.
It would be just, I had thought. But now that I saw myself in the gilded French mirror on the nineteenth-century mahogany wardrobe in my room, I realized the dress might be too short, too tight, and too low for a dinner at Hoggin Hall.
I sighed. “Right, well, better get to it.”