A ruined abbey on a beautiful estate in Derbyshire, a murdered peer, and a most unlikely romance make New York Times bestseller Tasha Alexander's new novel absolutely irresistible
Anglemore Park is the ancestral home of Lady Emily Hargreave's husband Colin. But the stately calm of country life is destroyed when their neighbor, the Marquess of Montagu, bursts through the French doors from the garden and falls down dead in front of the shocked gathering. But who has a motive for murdering the young aristocrat? The lovely cousin who was threatened by his engagement, the Oxford friend he falsely accused of cheating, the scheming vicar's daughter he shamelessly seduced or the relative no one knew existed who appears to claim the Montagu title? Who is the mysterious woman seen walking with him moments before he was brutally attacked?
The trail takes readers into the gilded world of a British manor house and below stairs to the servants who know all the secrets. One family's hidden past and a forbidden passion are the clues to a puzzle only Lady Emily can solve.
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The daughter of two philosophy professors, I grew up surrounded by books. I was convinced from an early age that I was born in the wrong century and spent much of my childhood under the dining room table pretending it was a covered wagon. Even there, I was never without a book in hand and loved reading and history more than anything. I studied English Literature and Medieval History at the University of Notre Dame. Writing is a natural offshoot of reading, and my first novel, And Only to Deceive, was published in 2005. I'm the author of the long-running Lady Emily Series as well as the novel Elizabeth: The Golden Age. One of the best parts of being an author is seeing your books translated, and I'm currently in love with the Japanese editions of the Emily books.
I played nomad for a long time, living in Indiana, Amsterdam, London, Wyoming, Vermont, Connecticut, and Tennessee before settling down. My husband, the brilliant British novelist Andrew Grant (I may be biased but that doesn't mean I'm wrong) and I now divide our time between Chicago and Wyoming. He makes sure I get my English characters right, and I make sure his American ones sound American.
“This, Emily, goes beyond bad manners.” Lady Catherine Bromley squared her shoulders, shook her head without displacing a single silver hair, and glowered at me, her only daughter. “One cannot have gentlemen falling down dead in the library, especially on an eighteenth-century Axminster carpet! It is entirely ruined; there is no possibility that bloodstain will come out. Such a thing would never be tolerated at Darnley House. What would your father say? I thank heaven that estate business took him home before he could see this.”
“The dead are notoriously unreliable when it comes to standards of behavior,” I said. “Particularly murder victims. They have no sense of decorum at all.”
Another evening en famille at Anglemore Park.
Anglemore, prettily situated in Derbyshire in the midst of the Peak District, had been the seat of the Hargreaves family since Henry V’s victory at Agincourt, after which the land had been given by the grateful king to one of my husband’s ancestors for bravery in battle. During the reign of Henry VIII, the grounds, through a royal grant, expanded to include a nearby abbey, defunct after the reformation and all but destroyed by Cromwell’s men. Its ruins, perched near a large lake, were some of the most picturesque in all of England, as if the structure had crumbled with deliberately artistic intent. The main house, originally built in the fifteenth century, had been added to and altered over the years, leaving it now with an Elizabethan exterior replete with rows of the most charming bay windows giving nearly every room a perfect nook for reading and none of the museum-like feel of so many great estates.
Anglemore was a house that was loved, a house that had sheltered the same family for more than four centuries. Generations of Hargreaves children (all born on the estate—no other location would be tolerated, even today) had carved their initials in the wooden bannister on the back stairs leading to the nursery. The family was rooted here, passionate about the land, deeply connected to their tenants, and confident beyond doubt that there was no better place to serve as one’s anchor. Most of the family married in the chapel, and all of them were buried on the grounds in a towering mausoleum built in the late seventeenth century by a Hargreaves gentleman who, horrified by the Great Plague, determined he must make every effort to see his mortal remains well placed. In a letter written during the height of the epidemic, his wife, angry with him for spending what she viewed as too much time hunting, had threatened him with plague pits.
Today, despite tens of thousands of acres of land, a sizable house, and enough outbuildings to hold several villages, the estate felt nothing but crowded. Crowded by my visiting mother, the Countess Catherine Bromley, whose inflexible views on child rearing, wholly at odds with my own, had not contributed to a state one could describe as domestic bliss. She had come to Anglemore months ago, following the birth of our twins, but had not stayed long, informing us she would return once the London Season had finished and after she had hosted at least two shooting parties. Only then, she said, would she have the presence of mind and clarity of concentration to ensure the children were being looked after properly. Now we were bearing the full brunt of this mission. Her visit had weeks ago taken on the feeling of an endless tour through one of Dante’s less pleasant circles of hell.
The evening had started badly, with her complaining bitterly about each course at dinner. She had found fault with the game dish in particular, objecting to pheasant stuffed with foie gras for reasons wholly indecipherable to me. Afterward, we had retired to the library, where our second houseguest, Simon Lancaster, Earl Flyte, offered his apologies and went to bed after having been interrogated by her on the subject of politics. One could hardly blame the poor man. Unhappy with his views, she had hounded him, all but following him to his room when he at last excused himself. My husband, Colin Hargreaves, buried himself in James’s The Portrait of a Lady, ignoring with deft skill my mother’s litany of questions about his views on how our boys ought to be raised. She had, it seemed, either grown fatigued of political discussion or realized she would be incapable of besting him on the subject. Eventually forced to accept that she was quite unable to penetrate his wall, she turned her attention to reprimanding a housemaid for not having tended adequately to the fire—a fire I was not convinced we needed on such a fine night.
“There are infants in the house,” my mother said. “I shall not allow Henry or Richard to catch a chill.”
“Or Tom, Mother,” I said. “You mustn’t forget Tom.” It was the presence of this third child, our ward, that caused my mother considerable agitation. “They are all two floors and one wing removed from us, not to mention in the care of an exceptionally capable nanny and her staff. I shouldn’t worry if I were you. Furthermore, it is an unusually warm evening. They are more likely to be overheated than cold.” To demonstrate the point, I crossed the room and flung open all six sets of French doors overlooking the neatly manicured terrace, its beds full of bright dahlias, chrysanthemums, and late asters. Autumn was at its best, a perfect September night. The sun had disappeared while we were in the dining room, leaving only a few streaks of gold in the inky sky. I pulled something to read down from the shelf without glancing at the title and installed myself in an overstuffed chair as far from the fireplace as possible. Nothing, I vowed silently, would distract me from this book.
Should it have become necessary, honoring this promise would have proved exceedingly difficult. The volume I had so carelessly chosen, a treatise on advanced mathematical theorems, had no hope of holding my attention for long, but it did not need to. No sooner had I soldiered through the introductory pages than the previously mentioned gentleman, tall and broad in his evening kit, staggered through one of the French doors. He braced himself on the frame, looked at Colin, took one step in his direction, and collapsed facedown on the floor.
My mother shrieked in a fashion so decidedly unladylike she would have been horrified to hear it. She swayed, unsteady on her feet, and appeared on the verge of fainting. I dashed to her side, took her firmly by the shoulders, and turned her to face me.
“Now is not the time, Mother,” I said. “Do try to remember there are no smelling salts allowed in this house. Perish any thought you had of fainting.”
The words—and, no doubt, my tone—shocked her into compliance, just as I had hoped. The color did not return to her visage, but she steeled herself, pulled her back straight, and looked away from the scene developing before us. There was no time to comfort her. We needed to focus on the injured man.
My husband, a trusted agent of the Crown and, hence, no stranger to trauma, disruption, and brutality, motioned for me to stay back while he knelt beside the prostrate stranger.
“His heart is not beating,” Colin said, “and he is not breathing.” His lips firm in a tight line, he closed the man’s eyes. “I am afraid there is nothing to be done.” I moved closer, standing behind him, watching as he carefully inspected the corpse for injuries.
“He is dead?” My mother’s voice was rising to a screech. She pressed with trembling hands a linen handkerchief to her face. “This is too dreadful. I cannot bear it.”
“Do try to be calm, Lady Bromley,” Colin said. “Hysteria will help no one.”
“There’s a fierce scratch on his left hand,” I said, ignoring my mother, who had started to sway again. This time I was willing to let her faint, although I doubted she would bother when the odds of anyone catching her were so low.
“He may have been fighting.” Colin lifted the man’s head to reveal a deep gash splitting the skull, blood congealing on the carpet beneath it.
“Have you any idea who he is?” I asked. “He is wholly unfamiliar to me.”
“None,” Colin said.
This admission revived my mother. She took a step towards us, made a point of forcing herself to look at the unfortunate corpse, and spoke, her voice loaded with a mixture of disgust and condescension. “That is Archibald Scolfield, the new Marquess of Montagu. He arrived from London yesterday. You ought to have known that, Emily, given that he’s to be your nearest—and titled—neighbor. His cousin Matilda was hosting a party for him this evening. A party I believe you didn’t bother to attend.”
“No, I sent her our regrets,” I said, noticing that my mother’s face had gone an alarming shade of gray as she approached the body. She, unlike me, was not used to violent death. I had initially become close to Colin while trying to solve the murder of my first husband, Philip, Viscount Ashton. While embroiled in the case, I discovered I possessed a certain aptitude for the work, and had subsequently contributed to the arrests of six more violent criminals, earning for myself a reputation as a solid investigator. Colin and I, now married, made an excellent team, as even the queen herself had been forced to admit on more than one occasion.
I stepped to the marble fireplace, over which hung a fragment of a Roman fresco depicting a joyful scene of marriage, and rang the bell next to it. “We ought to summon the authorities.”
“The authorities?” The color rushed back into my mother’s face. “Don’t be absurd. Lord Montagu fell and hit his head, probably on a rock. Why on earth would you involve the police or sheriff or whatever unseemly sort of authority is to be found? Send for your personal physician and insist he sign a death certificate at once and be done with the dreadful business. Gentlemen ought not to be so cavalier about wandering around the countryside after dark.”
“Nothing about this situation suggests an accident,” Colin said. “I’m afraid we’ve no choice but to summon the police, Lady Bromley.”
“Do you want a scandal?” she asked. “On your own estate?”
“Surely, Mother, you are not questioning my husband’s judgment?” I asked. “I can assure you he—”
“It is quite all right, Emily,” Colin said. “Your mother has nothing but the best of intentions. However, Lady Bromley, given my position, it is essential I report this incident with no delay. To do otherwise would be less than honorable. Perhaps you would like to retire upstairs for a bit? It will give you a chance to recover from the shock of what has transpired. I shall send for you when the police are ready to speak to you.”
“Speak to me?” My mother’s eyes bugged. “Speak to me? As if I would be involved in such a thing.”
“You saw Lord Montagu take his last breaths and collapse,” I said. “The police will need to hear your description of what happened.”
“I do not know why you are still standing here, Emily,” she said. “If you believe there is some sort of criminal on the loose in the neighborhood who is going about murdering people, you ought to be ensuring the safety of your boys rather than embroiling yourself in an unsavory debacle utterly inappropriate for a lady. Children are always a mother’s primary duty.”
I took a deep breath and paused before replying. First and foremost, I knew I need not worry about the boys because they were in the hands of a most trustworthy nanny. Second, the idea that my mother, who had limited her involvement with her children up to the age of twelve to formal visits made once daily for not more than a quarter of an hour, would condemn me for relying on said nanny struck me as not a little hypocritical. I had always forgiven her neglect because she and my father had lost so many of their offspring to illness. I, the youngest, was the only one of seven to survive to adulthood. My mother had recovered from the death from influenza of my twin brothers, the only of my siblings I had ever known, by distancing herself even further from me until it was time to mold me into a sparkling debutante. “Perhaps you could take care of that for me. Nanny should be put on alert.”
“I shall see to it at once,” my mother said. “Heaven knows someone in this household ought to be concerned about what matters, rather than getting distracted by the details of some ridiculous alleged crime.” She marched out, slamming the door behind her.
“I can’t think of less propitious circumstances in which to find ourselves. She could impede an investigation before having her first cup of tea in the morning.” I sighed. “One of us should go to Montagu and inform Matilda of what has happened.”
“Would you be so kind as to handle that?” Colin asked. “You are better acquainted with her than I. I shall have Flyte come down and inquire whether he heard anything and then deal with the police when they arrive.”
I nodded. “Of course. The police will doubtless respond better to you than to me. As for Matilda, I know all too well there is no good way to have this sort of conversation.”
Matilda and I were not close friends, but our political beliefs, particularly those regarding suffrage, had thrown us together at meetings of the Women’s Liberal Federation. We had worked to educate and enlighten the women in the district about their rights—that is, the rights we both believed they should have—and had organized several rallies on our estates. Our success could only be described as limited. While the women were captivated and energized, their husbands reacted to the issues with somewhat less enthusiasm. Through it all, our interactions had not escalated much beyond that of two business acquaintances. Nonetheless, it was appropriate that I, not my husband, speak to her about her cousin.
“Shall I bring her back here?” I asked. “She has a house full of guests whom I imagine the police will want to interview. It might be nicer for her to be in somewhat quieter surroundings.”
“Quite,” Colin said. “She may also wish to see Scolfield.”
I shuddered. Colin gave me a quick kiss, and I set off, dread consuming me. I would never grow comfortable with the task of informing someone of the violent death of a loved one.
* * *
Matilda Scolfield’s grandfather, the previous Marquess of Montagu, had outlived Matilda’s father, making her cousin Archibald next in line for the title. The old man had not seen fit to settle upon his heir the significant fortune he had amassed during his lifetime. Instead, he left his money, a house in London, two in Scotland, and a seaside cottage on the southern coast to his favorite granddaughter. The only part of his estate entailed was Montagu Manor itself, and that was all Archibald got. This had proved no hardship to him, as he stood to inherit a sizable sum from his parents and was already the recipient of a generous allowance. He was a capable young man, cheerful and eager, who had distinguished himself well enough at Oxford (knowing himself incapable of getting a first, he avoided the dreaded second and secured the third that perfectly reflected his academic ambitions) and now devoted much of his time to sport, earning a reputation as a fine rower. Had devoted much of his time. I reminded myself it was now necessary to use the past tense when referring to Archibald Scolfield.
A festive atmosphere still filled Montagu Manor when I arrived, no one inside knowing yet of its owner’s demise. I asked the butler to take me somewhere where I could speak privately to Matilda and informed her of the tragedy in the gentlest way I could. Her countenance did not change as I spoke, but a slight gasp escaped her lips. Maintaining her composure in the manner of ...
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