EARLY APRIL, 1883
I stood, that bleak day, in the graveyard in the village near Winton Park. The chapel’s stone gargoyles, pitted and blinded by the elements, nonetheless mocked our mortality with their jeering grins. Mrs. W tarried beside me; it was only we two mourners. An awkward funeral had been held in London a few days earlier—why had so few attended?—and the interment was just as lonely and isolating.
Nearby, the grass over my mother’s grave crept outward, erasing the decades-old rectangular spade edges. My grandmother’s burial plot was a few years younger than Mamma’s, and the grass atop it was sparse, thin, and blanched, like hair on an old woman’s head. Grandfather’s headstone looked like nothing so much as the king from a chess board. No grass grew near his. It was fittingly edged with gravel.
“Miss Young?” The vicar cleared his throat. “Are you ready?”
I nodded. Mrs. W took my elbow to steady me.
“The Lord is full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger and of great goodness.
“As a father is tender toward his children, so is the Lord tender to those that fear Him,” the vicar softly began.
I knelt down, blinking back tears, and sifted the first handful of dirt onto my father’s coffin. It mingled with a cold drizzle, black and white, dark and light, into a slurry. “Yes, you were tender to me and to all who knew you,” I whispered.
I love you, Papa.
“We have entrusted our brother Andrew Young to God’s mercy, and we now commit his body to the ground: earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”
With that, the laborers began their work. I quickly turned away, but there was no blocking the sound of the first shuddering shovelful hitting the casket. I waited a moment for a sign of comfort: a dove flying in the distance, a sunbeam mysteriously piercing the clouds, a soothing song teasing forth in my mind.
I waited in vain.
We carefully picked our way out of the cemetery. It was slippery with moss, the only plant cunning enough to grow throughout the winter. An early-spring wind harried us forward, and we settled into the carriage and then returned to my crumbling country home. As we alighted I saw, in the distance, a man on horseback, stationary and watching.
“Who is that?” I asked the driver. And why is he out at this hostile hour?
“Why, that’s Lord Lockwood, of course.” The driver’s voice reflected surprise. “He is your near neighbor and, er, a man of distinction in these parts. You have not met?”
“Not that I can recall, no.” And yet, his name . . .
“His father, long passed, and your mother . . .” Mrs. W spoke softly, wanting to remind me, certainly, but not desirous of raising a topic that might seem indelicate.
Yes, then I recalled. Lord Lockwood the elder had courted my mother, the young Victoria Palmer. My grandfather had surprised everyone and allowed her to decline Lockwood’s proposal. Certainly the old man had repented of that a half dozen years later when she married my papa instead.
Mamma. How I long for you.
Once inside the house we lingered in the Red Drawing Room, one of the few rooms in which the dust sheets had been hastily removed from the velvet furniture. The dark red flocked wallpaper made the room appear as though it were covered in bloodshot eyes; the pattern seemed to shift and follow me as I walked. Davidson, the caretaker, had seen to it that a fire was lit as soon as we’d arrived that morning.
There soon came a knock on the front door. Davidson moved faster than I’d expected for a man his age.
“Lord Lockwood!” Davidson’s voice reflected deference as he opened the door. “Please . . .”
Mrs. W and I stood as the aforementioned man of distinction entered my home, a maid following behind him, the manservant next to her hefting a large wooden hamper.
Davidson seemed dumbstruck. I moved forward to greet my guest, out of my element but not wanting to reveal that. “I’m sorry there is no butler to properly announce you,” I said. “We are not often here, of course.” And I don’t employ a butler.
Lockwood held my gaze with his own. It was strong and steady, but not impertinent. He stood straight, like a military man or a man in the police force . . . like Papa had been . . . I pushed away the sorrowful thought.
My guest removed his hat, which he handed to the manservant, and held out one gloved hand. “Thomas, Lord Lockwood,” he said. “How do you do?”
“Miss Gillian Young. How do you do?” I replied. His rusty-brown hair tumbled in a slightly unruly manner, in direct contrast with his person, and I found that unexpectedly appealing.
“My mother sent a hamper.” He indicated the manservant and his load.
“Truly considerate. How did she know we would be here?”
Davidson found his voice. “I told her, miss. She likes to know everything that is going on.”
She did, did she?
I indicated the comestibles should be brought into the drawing room.
The maid set the tea, contained in a silver samovar, upon a creaking console table that was covered with tired blue and white delft tiles. Mrs. W, with a sniff toward Lord Lockwood, served. Lady Lockwood’s bone china was very fine indeed.
“Your mother is too kind,” I said. Lockwood appeared bemused and a dry look passed between the maid and the manservant.
“She is a”—Lockwood seemed to struggle to find the right word—“a purposeful woman. You don’t remember meeting her, I take it?”
“No.” I sipped my tea, which was still warm. “I don’t think you and I have met before, either, have we?”
Lockwood took a perfunctory sip of his tea before setting it down on the side table. He had a presence and fitted—but only just—in the Queen Anne chair next to mine, its matching ottoman having been neatly pushed aside. His boots were impossibly clean for a man who had been riding in the wet and he emanated confidence and control.
“We haven’t met per se,” he replied. “But I remember you very well indeed.”
I set my cup down in surprise. “From when, if I may ask?”
He stood, and indicated that I should do likewise. “May I?”
I rose, and he took my hand and led me to the tall, twisted oak staircase, once highly polished, now thirsty and cracked.
“Your grandparents held an annual ball. I was seventeen years old, down for the summer, an extraordinarily poor dancer and wishing to return to school with all speed. You and your parents attended, an unusual occurrence, I understand?”
I nodded and the memory of that evening eleven years earlier came back to me in a rush. In spite of the solemnity of the day, I found myself smiling. “We were all together, here for once.” In spite of our rare visits, Winton had felt welcoming to me. I remembered Grandmamma patting my smooth hand with her liver-spotted one when Grandfather wasn’t looking.
Lockwood smiled back and as he did his face infused with such warmth it was difficult to look away. I caught my breath and he continued. “Your grandparents greeted those arriving. I stood in the corner looking to make an early escape. Then—you walked down the stairs, grandly, as I recall, your blond hair awkwardly pulled back, wearing gaudy, bejeweled slippers a size or two too large. You tripped . . .”
I laughed, enchanted that he had remembered so many details. “I did. They were my mother’s stage shoes. She was an actress.”
“Yes,” he said. “My own mother reminded me of that just today.”
So you’ll know, then, I thought, that Mamma’s father had shunned her for it, had little to do with her once she left for London and the stage, thought to be only for those of ill repute and easy morals. You know that the fact that she made a middle-class marriage is the reason we were rarely invited.
I cleared my throat and continued. “The shoes were from a play she had just finished. My grandfather was horrified.” I’d been thirteen years old, sashaying down that staircase. A quick movement of my grandmother’s gloved hand had covered her grin but she couldn’t hide the smile in her eyes.
“He may have been horrified,” Lockwood acknowledged, his voice softening. “But I was truly charmed.” He held my gaze for a moment, and then his face turned somber again. “I’m very sorry for your recent loss.”
A veil slipped over me once more. “I, too.”
We returned to the drawing room. “The house is yours now,” he stated. But there was enough of a lift at the end to make me wonder if it was a question, instead.
I nodded. “It is.”
“Would you like me to show you the property?”
My back flexed. How brash! It was not his to show.
“It is in critical need of repair,” Lockwood continued. “A few years have passed since your grandmother died, and even then she was not able to care for it on her own. Your father was here six months ago . . .”
I nodded. “To store my mother’s costume trunks.”
He did not answer that, but continued, “And then perhaps a fortnight ago, again. His police colleague visited, too. A . . . Collingsworth?”
Mrs. W looked up, as surprised, I gathered, as was I. “My father was here, again? Recently?” I asked.
Lockwood nodded. “Yes. You did not know?”
“I did not.” I’d thought Papa and I held no secrets.
Silence threaded its way through the room before Lockwood spoke again. “Perhaps your father was somewhat taken aback by the size of the property, and the maintenance and household commitments of a large country home and estate.”
Was that a comment on Papa’s social status, or simply an observation? It seemed oddly timed and did not address the conversation at hand.
Lockwood turned toward me. “I would be happy to escort you. Perhaps after the sleet relents?” He glanced out of the window.
Mrs. W took her brass watch necklace in hand, indicating the time.
“I’m sorry. I have every intention of exploring my house and the land, which I hold in affection and plan to restore to beautiful functionality as soon as I may. Winton Park is very dear to me indeed, as it was to my mother. But we have a train to meet.” I held my head proudly. “I am a costume designer and a seamstress. I have work to return to meet my obligations.”
Although now the heiress to Winton Park, I was also the daughter of a decidedly middle-class marriage. In addition to my theater work, I designed and sewed for a wealthy lady who was, I suspected, very much like his purposeful mother.
“May I be of service? Perhaps to have a look round and compile a list of what I see requires attention?” Lockwood asked. “I am mostly in London, tending to investments and other concerns. I could call on you.”
His cordiality and helpfulness rebuked me; he had only intended to escort and assist. I did not need to look for disdain in every statement spoken. In truth, it was clear that maintenance and general upkeep had been long deferred. I had no idea where I would find the resources required, along with paying what would be considerable death duties. I lived by my needle. I nodded, and stood, indicating that our time together was drawing to a close.
“That would be much appreciated. Thank you. I mean to do well by Winton, for my mother’s sake. She gave up this life”—I used my arm to sweep around the house— “for my father. And then she nearly lost her life giving birth to me.”
At that, he winced, and I blushed. Oh dear. What an indelicate matter to mention to a man I hardly knew. Middle-class indeed, Gillian!
We saw them out, and Davidson saw us, shortly thereafter, to the hired carriage that would return us to the train station.
After boarding I looked out of the window as the train heaved forward to gain momentum.
Papa. Dearest Papa. Why were you here secretly two weeks ago and with Inspector Collingsworth? Collingsworth had, to the best of my knowledge, never been interested in nor welcomed at Winton Park.
A Lady in Disguise
After the mysterious death of her father, Miss Gillian Young takes a new job as the principal costume designer at the renowned Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. But while she remembers her father as a kind, well-respected man of the Police Force, clues she uncovers indicate he’d been living a double life: a haunting photograph of a young woman; train stubs for secret trips just before his death; and a receipt for a large sum of money. Are these items evidence of her father’s guilty secrets? His longtime police partner thinks so.
Then Gillian meets the dashing Viscount Thomas Lockwood. Their attraction is instant and inescapable. As their romantic involvement grows, Gillian begins to suspect even Lockwood’s motives. Does Lord Lockwood truly love her? Or is his interest a front for the desire to own her newly inherited property? And what should she make of her friend’s suggestion that Lockwood or men like him were involved in the murder of her father?
Soon Gillian is convinced that her father has left evidence somewhere that can prove his innocence and reveal the guilty party. But someone wants to stop her from discovering it. The closer she comes to uncovering it, the more menacing her opposition grows. With her life on the line, Gillian takes on an ingenious disguise and takes on the role of a lifetime to reveal the true killer—before it’s too late both for her and for those that she loves.
- Howard Books |
- 384 pages |
- ISBN 9781476717937 |
- March 2017