Excerpt

A Lady’s Guide to Gossip and Murder

Dianne Freeman

The following is an exclusive excerpt from A Lady’s Guide to Gossip and Murder, the second installment in Dianne Freeman’s “A Countess of Harleigh Mystery” series. Frances Wynn, American by birth and a widowed member of the British aristocracy, finds herself embroiled in the murder of her friend, Mary Archer, who, it turned out, harbored countless secrets incriminating England’s elite.

Murdered? I snatched the newspaper from Hetty’s hands and spread it on my lap. “Show me where you read this.”

Hetty leaned forward and ran her finger down one of the columns of newsprint, landing on Mary’s name. It was one paragraph. “‘Found dead in her home,’” I read. The sentence was followed by Mary’s name, age, and family connections.

“‘No details given by the police, but foul play is suspected.’”

“If the reporter has no details, why does he suspect foul play?” Lily asked.

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“I think what he means is, the police implied they suspect foul play.” I crumpled the paper and stared up at my companions.

“Why would anyone murder Mary?”

Lottie leaned forward in her seat and squeezed my arm. “I’m so sorry, Lady Harleigh. Was Mrs. Archer a close friend?”

Now that’s the strange thing. I’d known Mary for several years and wouldn’t say I knew her well. Yet I already felt her loss and regretted we hadn’t been closer. I patted Lottie’s gloved hand with my own. “More acquaintances, I suppose, but I liked and respected her.”

I didn’t notice we’d already arrived at Chester Street and drawn up in front of my house until the driver opened the carriage door. I climbed out first and waited on the pavement while he assisted the others, turning to gaze at my house. The pride of ownership still gave me a thrill. Though it was the smallest in the block of terrace houses, it was all mine.

Mary must have felt much the same about her home, as she never returned to her family after her husband’s death. The thought of some criminal breaking in and murdering her made gooseflesh rise on my arms. But she lived completely alone, I reminded myself, while I had family and servants with me.

The driver turned the carriage around the corner to the mews and the four of us proceeded into the house where Mrs. Thompson, my housekeeper, waited in the foyer. Her stiff spine and crisp black dress, buttoned up to the neck, gave her the appearance of a guard.

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“Inspector Delaney is here to see you, my lady,” she said, shaking her salt-and-pepper head.

I took a step back. “Delaney? Whatever for?”

“He wouldn’t say, ma’am, but he was insistent about waiting for you. He’s been in the drawing room at least a quarter of an hour now.” Her hand was unsteady when she took my hat and bag.

“I’m sure it’s nothing you need trouble yourself about, Mrs. Thompson.”

The housekeeper pursed her lips but stopped short of revealing her doubts. Of course, she didn’t believe me. Delaney had never stopped by for nothing before. In fact, I hadn’t seen him for months, since the occasion of a particularly gruesome murder in my garden. His calling on me now set butterflies off in my stomach.

Hetty laid a hand on my arm. “Perhaps he’s here about Mrs. Archer.”

“I can’t imagine why he would come to me on that account.”

I took a step toward the drawing room and stopped as all three of my companions crowded behind me. “Inspector Delaney asked to see me and I’m quite capable of speaking to him on my own.” I turned to Mrs. Thompson. “Please have Jenny bring in tea.”

Hetty appeared ready to argue but backed down as I raised my brows. “Fine. We’ll wait for you in the library.”

Delaney had never stopped by for nothing before. In fact, I hadn’t seen him for months, since the occasion of a particularly gruesome murder in my garden.

I opened the door to the drawing room and stepped inside, no more eager to speak to the inspector than Mrs. Thompson had been. Like Hetty, I wondered if his visit had anything to do with Mary’s murder.

He was seated in one of the wingback chairs by the window and stood as I walked toward him, extending my hand in greeting.

Heavens, if I wasn’t struck with an odd wave of affection for the man. To say he’d been kind to me in our past encounters would be a great breach of the truth. He’d been gruff and domineering, but he’d also provided me with a sense of almost parental security, though he was only perhaps a dozen years older than myself.

I noted he wore a new, shapeless suit, this one in a dark shade of gray. Delaney was a tall man, so the lack of cut made him appear rather lanky. His complexion was a warmer hue than I remembered, as if he’d just had a holiday in the sun, and his brown-gray hair and eyebrows, as usual, had a life all their own.

He returned my welcome with a warm smile, hinting that he recalled me with some affection as well.

“Inspector Delaney,” I said, leading him to a conversational grouping of sofa and chairs around the tea table. “May I offer you some refreshment?”

“A cup of tea would be most welcome, my lady.” He waited for me to choose a seat before folding himself into the chair next to mine.

“Excellent. It should be here momentarily. In the meantime, tell me, how have you been faring? Has the newest Delaney made his appearance yet?”

A smile broke across his face like a sunrise, crinkling the eyes beneath those bushy brows. “She arrived about a month ago,” he said. “After two boys, my wife was hoping for a girl this time and I’ve never seen her happier.”

It appeared to me his wife was not the only one. “My congratulations, Inspector. My own daughter has brought me nothing but joy. I hope the same is true for you.”

A knock at the door warned of Jenny, my housemaid, entering with our tea. I had bribed Jenny away from my brother-in-law’s household when I moved to Belgravia. A buxom, sweet-natured, country girl with more intellect and curiosity than I’d first given her credit for. After placing the tray on the table, she reached for the pot, as if to serve us. I could tell she was hoping to pick up a bit of gossip.

“Thank you, Jenny,” I said firmly. “I’ll take care of this.”

With a bob of her head, she slipped out of the room and I poured Delaney a cup, waiting for him to tell me why he’d called.

It didn’t take long. “Are you acquainted with Mrs. Mary Archer, ma’am?” Delaney asked, leaning forward to place his cup on the table.

My teacup rattled on its saucer and a tiny amount of the dark liquid slipped over the side. I quickly placed it on the table.

“So, you are here about Mary. Yes, I am acquainted with her, and I must confess, we read of her death just a few moments ago. Is it true she was murdered?”

“I’m sorry to say she was, ma’am.” Delaney flashed me a warning look. I wasn’t sure I wanted any of the details of her murder, but he made it clear there’d be no point in asking for them. I waited, assuming he’d get to the point, eventually.

“How well did you know her?”

“We were friends,” I said, surprised by the intensity of his gaze. “In a social way. We attended the same events, met occasionally at mutual friends’ homes for a salon or afternoon tea.”

“Forgive me, Lady Harleigh, but you were visibly shaken when I mentioned her name. Are you certain you didn’t have more than a nodding acquaintance?”

“Heavens, Inspector, of course I was shaken. I suppose because I’d just heard of her death and had not really absorbed it yet. The murder of a friend, whether close or not, comes as a shock to me. Indeed, we had more than a nodding acquaintance. Over the course of several years, I’ve come to think of her quite highly, but I’d still not say we were close friends.”

He leaned forward in his seat, sliding to the edge of the chair.

“So, if you needed someone to confide in, share your troubles with, you would not have turned to Mrs. Archer?”

I blinked. “No, we were certainly not that close.”

Delaney reached into his pocket and removed a small notebook, which he seemed to carry at all times. From the notebook he removed a folded sheet of paper. Reaching across the table he handed it to me. “Any idea how she might have come by this information?”

Curious, I took the sheet, noting the elegant writing as I first scanned the contents, then gave it a second, more thorough reading. I dropped my hand to my lap, the paper still tucked in my fingers, while my other hand drifted up to my mouth, seemingly of its own volition, likely for the purpose of containing the foul curses trembling on my tongue.

I dropped my hand to my lap, the paper still tucked in my fingers, while my other hand drifted up to my mouth, seemingly of its own volition, likely for the purpose of containing the foul curses trembling on my tongue.

The note contained a complete summary of what I referred to as the battle of my bank account. A bitter and hard-fought battle with my brother-in-law, Graham, the Earl of Harleigh. We eventually forged a truce and Graham withdrew his suit, but the matter was of such a personal nature only my immediate family and two close friends knew of it—well, and Inspector Delaney. I lifted my gaze to find him observing me closely.

“This was in Mary’s possession? However did she learn of it?”

“You never told her about this dispute?”

“Of course not.”

“Is there any chance that the earl did, or perhaps his late wife might have done so?”

I would have dismissed the idea but Delaney’s penetrating stare forced me to give it some consideration. “Obviously I couldn’t say for certain, but I can’t imagine either of them sharing this information with her, or anyone else. It does not reflect well on them. I should think they’d be even more careful than I to ensure no one heard of it.”

“That’s rather what I thought.” He let out a weary breath.

“Would the earl have been careful enough to pay Mrs. Archer for her silence on the matter?”

I leaned back as if I could distance myself from such a distasteful implication. “Are you suggesting blackmail? I can’t believe Mary would do such a thing.” I glanced down at the paper in my hands, assailed by confusion. How had she come by this information, and why would she document it? Perhaps the inspector was correct in his assumption.

Delaney tapped his pencil against the open page of his book, waiting for an answer. Had Mary committed blackmail and been murdered for her effort? Heavens, he wasn’t here to tell me of her murder; he was investigating it. I drew a breath, releasing it with a shudder. “She never approached me with the threat of exposure. Graham is a grieving widower.” I raised my hands in confusion. “No one with any decency would threaten someone in that state.”

Delaney reached out for the note. Much as I wanted to burn it, I handed it back. I suppose he’d need it as evidence. “I’m inclined to agree with you,” he said. “But I’ll have to speak to the earl before I can eliminate him as a suspect.”

“As a suspect in Mary’s murder? You can’t be serious.”

The furrows in Delaney’s brow told me he was dead serious.

A chill came over me as I felt a moment of doubt. Graham and I had been on opposite sides of a battle in the past. He was not an easy man to deal with when thwarted. But murder? Well, I simply couldn’t imagine it. For one thing, it would require entirely too much effort on his part.

I pressed a finger against my temple as I watched him fold the page, and my secrets, back into the book. “Well, I must say I’ve had far too many shocks for one day. I’ve just learned my friend has been murdered. You announce she may have been a blackmailer. And to top things off, I learn my brother-in-law may be a suspect. I suppose I should be relieved you don’t consider me as one.”

He gave me a wry smile. “I can’t see you committing this crime, no. You shouldn’t worry overmuch about the earl being a suspect either. He’s only one of perhaps a hundred.”

It took a moment for his words to register. “A hundred suspects?”

I gave my head a shake in an attempt to clear it. “Are you saying you found more of these potential blackmail notes?”

He stood to take his leave and gave me a stony glare. “I’m saying nothing of the kind, and though I doubt I can keep you from sharing this information with your brother-in-law, I would greatly appreciate it if you would otherwise keep this conversation to yourself.” He released a sigh that spoke of mental exhaustion. “It might take weeks to interview all the suspects, and I would prefer they have no advance warning.”

Lord, there were other notes. “How had I misjudged her character to such a degree? Heavens, to think I was trying to make a match between Mary and my cousin.” My shoulders drooped. “Well, no wonder things didn’t work out.”

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From A LADY’S GUIDE TO GOSSIP AND MURDER. Used with the permission of the publisher, Kensington. Copyright © 2019 by Dianne Freeman.




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