Malice at the Palace (A Royal Spyness Mystery)

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9780425260388: Malice at the Palace (A Royal Spyness Mystery)

Thirty-fifth in line for the British throne, Lady Georgiana Rannoch becomes embroiled in royal wrongdoing in the ninth mystery from the New York Times bestselling author of Crowned and Dangerous.

Caught between her high birth and empty purse, Georgie is relieved to receive a new assignment from the Queen. The King’s youngest son, George, is to wed Princess Marina of Greece, and the Queen wants Georgie to be her companion: showing her the best of London—and dispelling any rumors about George’s libertine history.

The prince is known for his many affairs with women as well as men—including the great songwriter Noel Coward. But things truly get complicated when one of his supposed mistresses is murdered.

The Queen wants the whole matter hushed. But as the case unfolds—and Georgie's beau Darcy, as always, turns up in the most unlikely of places—their investigation brings them precariously close to the prince himself.

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About the Author:

Rhys Bowen, a New York Times bestselling author, has been nominated for every major award in mystery writing, including the Edgar®, and has won many, including both the Agatha and Anthony awards. She is the author of the Royal Spyness Mysteries, set in 1930s London, the Molly Murphy Mysteries, set in turn-of-the-century New York, and the Constable Evans Mysteries, set in Wales. She was born in England and now divides her time between Northern California and Arizona.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

 

Chapter 1

SUNDAY, OCTOBER 28, 1934

CLABON MEWS, LONDON S.W.7.

Weather outside: utterly bloody! Weather inside: cozy and warm.

Enjoying life for once, or would be if Darcy hadn’t gone off somewhere secret again . . .

Why must he be so annoying!

By London standards, it was a dark and stormy night. Nothing like the wild gales that battered our castle in the Scottish Highlands, of course, but violent enough to make me glad I was safely indoors. Rain peppered the windows and drummed on the slates on the roof while a wild wind howled down the chimney. If I’d been at Castle Rannoch, where I grew up, the wind would also have sent icy drafts rushing down the corridors, making tapestries flap and billow out so that it was almost as unpleasant indoors as it was out. But on this particular night I lay listening to the storm feeling snug, warm, comfortable and very thankful that I wasn’t at Castle Rannoch. I was instead in my friend Belinda’s mews cottage in Knightsbridge and enjoying every moment of it.

When I returned from America at the end of August—having been dragged there by my mother who was seeking a quickie divorce from one of her husbands—Mummy had immediately flitted away with the very briefest of good-byes as usual. She had abandoned her only child with monotonous regularity and barely a backward glance since that first time she bolted when I was two. But on this occasion she had actually demonstrated a spark of maternal feeling I hadn’t known she possessed. As she left Brown’s hotel she handed me a generous check. “Georgie, darling, I want you to know that I think you behaved splendidly in Hollywood,” she said. “I simply couldn’t have survived without you in that savage place.”

I went pink and didn’t quite know what to say as this was so out of character. “Golly, thanks awfully,” I managed to mumble.

“I have to go back to Max in Germany, darling,” she said, kissing me on the cheek, “but I don’t want you to think I’m running out on you. You do know you are very welcome to come and stay whenever you want to.”

“Thank you, but I don’t think Berlin would be to my liking,” I said. “Not since that horrible little Hitler chappie came into power. Too much shouting and strutting.”

She gave that tinkling laugh that had delighted audiences across the world. “Oh, darling. Nobody takes him seriously. I mean, who could with a mustache like that. He once kissed my hand and it was like an encounter with a hedgehog. Max says he’s good for German morale at the moment but he can’t last.”

“All the same, I’d rather stay in good old England for a while,” I said. “That time in America was quite enough excitement for me.”

“You don’t mean to go home to Scotland?” she asked.

“Actually no,” I said. “I’m not exactly welcome at Castle Rannoch these days, and Belinda told me I could use her London house while she stays on in Hollywood.” I added, “And now you’ve given me this check, I can actually afford to eat for a while.”

A frown crossed that lovely face. “Darling, have there been times when you couldn’t afford to eat?”

“Oodles of them. I once survived for a month on tea and baked beans.”

“How disgusting. Really, Georgie, if you need something just ask. Max is revoltingly rich, you know. I could get him to make you an allowance, I’m sure.”

“I can’t live off Max’s money, Mummy. Granddad wouldn’t approve, for one thing. Not German money. You know how Granddad would hate that after your brother was killed in the war.”

“One must learn to forgive and forget, as I keep telling your grandfather. And once we’re married—well, it will be my money too, won’t it?” She raised her hands excitedly. “You must come over for the wedding! You can be my maid of honor.”

“Do you really intend to marry him?” I couldn’t bring myself to look at her.

“It’s what he wants, so I suppose the answer is yes. We’ll just have to see, won’t we? Well, I must be toddling off, darling, if I’m to catch the boat train. Take care of yourself and for God’s sake let that gorgeous Darcy take you to bed as soon as possible. Virginity simply isn’t fashionable or even acceptable after twenty.”

And with that she was gone. I had moved into Belinda’s lovely little London mews home and had enjoyed playing a lady of leisure for a while. The one aspect of my happiness that was lacking was that Darcy was off on another secret assignment and I had no idea when he’d return to London or how I could contact him. Really, he was the most infuriating man. I knew he did things that were often hush-hush (I suspected he might even occasionally work undercover for MI5) but an occasional postcard from Buenos Aires or Calcutta would have been nice.

A particularly violent gust of wind made the window frame rattle. I pulled the blankets up and curled into a little ball, enjoying the knowledge that I was safe and warm. The money that Mummy had given me wouldn’t last forever, but I hoped at least I could stretch it out until after Christmas. If only I could find some kind of job, I could go on living here until Belinda came home—and who knew when that would be if she became a successful costume designer in Hollywood. But jobs didn’t seem to exist for young women like me, trained only to snare a husband. I was even toying with the idea of applying for a temporary Christmas job at one of the department stores, if I didn’t think that the news might leak back to my relatives and cause a stink.

And in case you’re wondering why my relatives should care if I worked behind the counter in Selfridges or Gamages I should point out that they were not exactly your run-of-the-mill, ordinary people—they were the king and queen. My great-grandmother was Queen Victoria so I was half royal, expected to behave in a way that befitted my station without being given the means to do so. Jolly unfair, actually.

I pushed worrying thoughts aside. For the moment all was well. It had been remarkably peaceful, since my maid, Queenie, had been absent for the last few weeks. She had gone home to look after her mother, who had been hit by a tram while crossing Walthamtow High Street and broken her leg. But the leg had healed and Queenie was due to return to me any day now. I was anticipating it with mixed emotions since Queenie was the most utterly hopeless maid in the history of the universe. In fact I rather suspected that her family was urging her to hurry back to me, not because of any sense of duty but because they couldn’t wait to get rid of her. I sighed, settled down and let my mind drift to more pleasant subjects. I was half asleep when I heard a noise that jerked me instantly awake again.

Over the noise of the wind and rain I had heard the distinct metallic click of a latch, followed by the sound of a door being opened. Somebody was coming into the house. I wondered if I had forgotten to lock the door before I went to bed, but I definitely remembered doing so. I was out of bed in a flash. Belinda’s cottage was really tiny, with a flight of stairs leading up to the bedroom I was occupying, a bathroom and a minute maid’s room. I looked around desperately. There was nowhere to hide if burglars had broken in. I examined the bed, but Belinda had piled boxes and trunks under it. The wardrobe was still full of her clothes. I wondered if perhaps I could tiptoe across the hall to the box room, or better yet the bathroom. Surely no burglar would think of looking in the bath?

I opened the door cautiously and was about to peer around it when I heard the sound of low voices in the hallway down below. Golly. More than one of them. I glanced back into the room to see if there was anything I might use as a weapon—but I didn’t think the frail china table lamp would be much good, even if I could unplug it in time. Then I heard a laugh that I recognized. Belinda’s laugh. She had come home unexpectedly and she was probably talking to the taxi driver who was carrying in her luggage. I was about to step out to greet her when I heard her say, “Toby, you are so naughty. Now stop that, at least until I have my gloves off.”

“Can’t wait, you delectable creature,” said a deep man’s voice. “I’m going to rip off all your clothes, throw you down on that bed and give you one hell of a good ravishing.”

“You are certainly not going to rip anything,” Belinda said, laughing again. “I happen to like my clothes. But you may undress me as quickly as you like.”

“Good show,” he said. “I’ve been dying to bed you since we first danced together on the ship. But too many watchful eyes. It was dashed clever of you to suggest coming back here rather than a hotel. A man in my position can’t be too careful, don’t you know.”

Toby? I thought. Sir Toby Blenchley, cabinet minister? I had no time to consider this as they were now heading for the stairs. I stood behind that door in an agony of embarrassment and indecision. Surely she couldn’t have forgotten that I was occupying her house, and thus her bedroom, could she? Did she really think it would be acceptable to roll in the hay with a cabinet minister while I was there? Where did she expect me to go while they were thus engaged? I sighed in exasperation. How typically Belinda.

I heard her giggle and say, “My, but you are impatient, aren’t you?” as they came up the stairs. What on earth was I to do? Leap out on them and say, “Welcome home, Belinda, darling. Perhaps you had forgotten that you’d lent your house to your best friend?” Sir Toby wasn’t in the first flush of youth. What if the surprise brought on a heart attack? On the other hand, there was now no way I could cross the upstairs landing to the maid’s room, and I certainly didn’t want to be trapped in there listening to their hijinks.

Then it was decided for me. Belinda ran up the rest of the stairs calling, “Come on then, last one into bed is a sissy!” She pushed open the bedroom door with full force, trapping me behind it. She had several robes hanging from the back of that door and these were now in my face. I heard the sounds of two people undressing hurriedly. Maybe if I kept quiet and didn’t move he’d have his way with her and then go, I decided. Better still, maybe they’d both fall asleep and I could creep out and take refuge in the box room.

“God, you really are delectable,” I heard him say. “Those neat little breasts. Enough to drive a man wild. Come here.”

I heard bedsprings creak, a grunt, a sigh. Then something terrible happened. One of Belinda’s robes was trimmed with feathers. And one of these feathers was now tickling my nose. To my horror I realized I was going to sneeze. I was pinned so tightly behind the door that it was hard for me to get my hand up to my nose. I managed it just in time and clamped my fingers over my nose and mouth. The noises on the bed were getting more violent and urgent. The sneeze was still lingering, waiting to come out the moment I let go. I willed it to go away but I had to breathe. And then, in spite of everything, it came out, a great big “A—choo,” just at the moment when Belinda was moaning “Oh yes, oh yes.”

It was amazing how quickly the room fell silent.

“What the devil was that?” Sir Toby asked.

“Someone’s in the house.” I heard the bed creak as Belinda got up.

“I thought you said there’d be nobody here.”

“It must be my maid, although I didn’t tell her I was coming home,” Belinda said. “How could she have known? I’ll go and see if she’s sleeping in her room.” Then she lowered her voice. “Don’t go away, you big brute. I’ll be back and we can continue from where we left off.”

“I don’t know about that,” he said. “Not if your maid’s in the house. Is she likely to gossip?”

“My maid is paid very well to close her eyes to anything that goes on in my bedroom,” Belinda said. “You don’t have to worry, Toby, I promise you. I’ll just get my robe. . . .”

And she swung the door open. . . .

Chapter 2

It was fortunate that the storm outside was making such a racket or her scream would have been heard all the way to Victoria Station and maybe even across the Thames.

“Belinda, it’s all right,” I said, reaching out to touch her. “It’s me. Georgie.”

“Oh God.” She was gasping now, her hand over her naked heart. “Georgie. Have you gone mad? What on earth are you doing hiding in my bedroom?”

“I’m sorry if I scared you, Belinda,” I said. “I didn’t intend to hide, but by the time I’d woken up and heard you coming up the stairs it was too late to do anything sensible. And you were the one who pushed the door open so hard, trapping me behind it.”

Sir Toby was standing up beside the bed and had obviously just realized he was naked in the presence of a strange female. He grabbed a lace-trimmed, heart-shaped pillow and attempted to hold it over the important parts. He looked old and ridiculous and quite unlike the masterful, dapper man whose picture I had seen on newsreels and in magazines. “You know this person, Belinda?” he demanded. “Should we call the police?”

“Oh no, of course not,” Belinda said. “She’s my best friend—Georgiana Rannoch.”

“Lady Georgiana, sister of the Duke of Rannoch?” Sir Toby said. “Good God. But what’s she doing in your house? In your bedroom, for God’s sake?”

“I’ve no idea, Toby.”

I’d had enough. They were both looking at me with horror and suspicion as if I were a dangerous cornered animal. “Perhaps in the heat of passion you forgot that you invited me to stay in your house while you were away, Belinda,” I said. “And you might have given me advance warning that you were coming back.”

Belinda had taken down one of the robes and was in the process of trying to put it on. I noticed that her body was curvier than when we had shared a room as teenagers at a finishing school in Switzerland. No wonder men were so attracted to her.

“I remember mentioning that you could use my house,” Belinda said as she successfully pulled on the robe and tied it at her waist, “but I’d no idea that you’d taken me up on it. You might have dropped me a note to tell me.”

“Dropped you a note?” I was fully indignant now. “Belinda, I wrote you two letters. And since I didn’t know where you’d be staying, I addressed one to you, care of Golden Pictures, and one, care of the Beverly Hills Hotel. Do you mean to tell me you didn’t receive either of them?”

“Of course I didn’t receive them. I never went back to Golden Pictures. It’s been virtually shut down by Mr. Goldman’s widow; at least all work is halted for now. And my budget certainly didn’t run to the Beverly Hills Hotel.”

Sir Toby cleared his throat. “Given the circumstances, Belinda, I think I should depart as rapidly as possible. So if you young ladies don’t mind stepping outside while I get dressed . . .”

Belinda followed me out onto the landing. “Honestly, Georgie. You’ve spoiled everything.”

She stood there, glaring at me while I squirmed in embarrassment.

“I’m sorry, but you did offer and I did write to tell you. And I’m not about to walk out into the storm at this hour so that you can finish your little tryst with a cabinet minister.”

Sir Toby emerged, now looking more like himself i...

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