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  • Writer's pictureAlyssa Maxwell

A MURDEROUS MARRIAGE, A Lady & Lady's Maid Mystery #4 - an Excerpt

Releases Jan. 29, 2019

Cowes, Isle of Wight, April 1920

Phoebe Renshaw pressed a hand to her stomach in a futile attempt to ease the incessant gnawing inside. At a stern look from the countess, her grandmother, she remembered she shouldn’t set so much as a finger against her frock, lest she wrinkle the ivory silk organza and ruin the effect of the folds and tucks and artful draping. Despite Phoebe turning twenty-one on her next birthday, her grandmother still had the ability to command her behavior with a twitch of a silvery crescent eyebrow.

Her sister, sixteen-year-old Amelia, wore the same frock, and they sported matching cloche hats covered in organza, lace, and coral silk roses, which seemed rather much for Phoebe’s plain features but on Amelia looked a picture of springtime beauty, as if she had stepped off the cover of the latest edition of La Mode. Yet Amelia’s features mirrored Phoebe’s own ominous sentiments, which continued to tie her stomach into impossible knots.

Phoebe braved a glance at Eva, hoping Grams didn’t notice. The lady’s maid who had served the Renshaw sisters these past eight years had eschewed her dependable black today in favor of a deep blue, neatly tailored suit that accented her trim figure and whose pleated skirt swayed smartly just below her calves.

Eva’s gaze collided with Phoebe’s for the barest instant, but that instant told all. Eva’s expression loomed as overcast as the sky outside, as steely as the choppy waters of the Solent, that wide waterway between the Isle of Wight and the mainland, spread out before the Royal Yacht Squadron clubhouse. They had borrowed a room on the upper floor, in which to ready themselves for the coming ordeal. . . .

The irony that the original tower of this building had been commissioned by Henry VIII was not lost on Phoebe. Cowes Castle hadn’t been a home to kings, but rather a fortress commanding the Solent and the entrance to the river Medina to keep out invaders from France and the Holy Roman Empire. This had been intended as a place of war, and its connection to that particular monarch seemed terribly ill omened. Six wives, two of whom met horrible ends . . .

Phoebe tried to shake the morbid thoughts away. What right had she to judge Julia’s actions, much less whether those actions would bring her beautiful eldest sister happiness?

“Phoebe, come here and help with this.” Grams flicked a slender, long-fingered hand impatiently. Unlike Eva, Grams had adhered to basic black, her wardrobe having varied little since Papa died, though today her mourning was softened by the sheen of silk trimmed with deep lavender velvet.

Grams was determined that the next few hours would take place with smooth precision, and for a moment resentment rose up in Phoebe. Julia wouldn’t be doing this if not for Grams. An ember burned against Phoebe’s heart, and the words she’d tamped down last night and all morning threated to leap, flaming, from her tongue.

It felt awful to be so angry with someone you loved so much.

Grams beckoned again with a jerky motion of her hand. Yes, even she was feeling her nerves today, though for entirely different reasons than the rest of them. And Julia?

Phoebe didn’t know what she was feeling. They had enjoyed a brief few months last year of getting along as sisters should. Then everything had changed, and Julia’s manner had returned to the cool disregard of previously. And her admitting—finally—the reason for her derision hadn’t helped. If anything, it had made matters worse, for Julia seemed to go out of her way to avoid Phoebe, or at least avoid being alone with her.

She crossed the room to the small circle gathered around her sister and gingerly grasped the edges of the lace veil while Eva and Hetta, Julia’s new maid, secured it to the platinum and diamond circlet that embraced her golden, upswept hair. While the circlet had been in the Renshaw family for many generations, the veil had been Grams’s mother’s, the Honiton lace made in Devon and designed by the same William Dyce who designed the lace for Queen Victoria’s wedding gown. But that was the only harkening back to a bygone age. Julia’s dress, a sleek garment of ivory satin with an overlay of beaded lace, a drop waist, and whisper-sheer sleeves, represented the very latest in bridal fashion. Phoebe’s and Amelia’s frocks had been designed to complement, but not overshadow, Julia’s.

Julia didn’t speak as they fussed around her, but gazed placidly out the wide window overlooking the Solent. In the middle of the harbor, a steamer yacht weathered the tossing waters with barely a wobble. Even from here, it appeared a small ocean liner, with its stacks and masts and tiered decks. And yet how grim a scene it made, Phoebe thought. Though newly refurbished after its service during the war, the vessel took on the dismal pallor of the sky and the waterway surrounding it and made no promise of happy sailing. Another omen? Phoebe wondered how Julia felt about spending her honeymoon on the twelve-hundred-ton, three-masted steamer named Georgiana, after her soon-to-be husband’s first wife.

“There now.” Grams smoothed her fingertips down Julia’s sleeves and stepped back with a satisfied, if slightly cunning, smile. “Let’s have a look at you. Oh, Julia, you’re stunning.”

“You are, Julia, truly,” Amelia agreed. Phoebe heard her frail attempt to infuse the comment with enthusiasm. “Just beautiful.”

Eva nodded her concurrence. “Indeed, my lady. There can never have been a lovelier bride.”

“Oh, ja.” Hetta Brauer had been Julia’s personal maid for several months now, but her English remained barely existent. Julia preferred it that way after discovering her last lady’s maid eavesdropping and selling secrets to the scandal sheets. A sturdy, good-natured girl with a hearty flush to her cheeks and thick blond braids she wore looped about her ears, she looked as though she might have been plucked only that morning from a flower-carpeted mountainside in her native Switzerland. “Lieblich.”

While the others gushed their approval, Phoebe struggled for words but found none she could, in good conscience, speak. Yes, Julia looked beautiful, but then with her golden hair, deep blue eyes, and classic features, she always did. That wasn’t the point.

Phoebe merely smiled and hoped the gesture appeared sincere.

“Thank you,” Julia said simply.

Grams made another adjustment to the veil. “A shame he’s only a viscount. I had hoped for an earl at the least, perhaps a marquess. But, of course, Gil is a very wealthy viscount. You’ll have a good life, my dear.”

While the fortunes of many of the landed families had dwindled in recent years, Gil’s had burgeoned, thanks to early investments in motorcar engines. During the war his factories had produced munitions and airplane engines, and he continued with the latter in peacetime. No one could accuse Gil Townsend of not taking advantage of opportunities when he saw them.

“Yes.” A little tick contracted the skin around Julia’s right eye. “And, after all, I had my chance at a marquess, Grams, and look how that turned out.”

Grams pursed her lips tightly and said nothing. True, Julia had very nearly become engaged to Henry Leighton, Marquess of Allerton, the Christmas before last. That is, everyone had believed they were about to become engaged—all except Julia, who’d had other ideas. It turned out Julia had been right, but it was all a moot point now, anyway. Henry was no longer the Marquess of Allerton. Henry was simply . . . no longer.

“What time is it?” Julia averted her face when Grams tried to adjust a pin curl framing her cheek. “Is it time to go yet?”

Eva consulted a porcelain clock ticking pleasantly on a nearby table. “Not just yet, my lady.”

Julia frowned. “Then I’m ready too early. I can’t very well sit and make myself comfortable until we leave.”

“Don’t you dare sit.” Grams darted a scandalized glance at each sister. “None of you may sit, not even for a moment. I won’t have you looking like wilted washerwomen. Eva, would you please watch for the cars and let us know when they arrive?”

Eva nodded and slipped out of the room.

“Oh, dear, how are you all going to ride in your grandfather’s motorcar without wrinkling? I hadn’t thought about that.” Grams’s expression registered something approaching horror. “What shall we do? Good heavens . . . Oh, I know. We could all walk up to the church.”

“Arrive at my wedding on foot? Are we peasants now?” Julia aped Grams’s scandalized look of a moment ago. “Shall I take off my shoes and stockings and go barefoot?”

“Oh, Julia, don’t be ridiculous. I simply don’t want you to wrinkle.”

Julia tossed her head, but only slightly so as not to dislodge her headpiece and veil. “What would people think? No, I’m going in the Rolls-Royce, and there’s an end to it.”

A storm gathered between Grams’s brows, and she looked about to retort. She wasn’t used to being spoken to in such adamant terms by her granddaughters. By anyone, for that matter. But in this instance, she obviously agreed with Julia. An earl’s granddaughter surely could not arrive at her wedding on foot. “Yes, yes, well, I suppose your grandfather mustn’t walk even a short distance these days. You girls will go in his motor, and he and I, along with Fox, will ride in Gil’s sedan.”

This reminder of Grampapa’s health sent a cold fear through Phoebe. He had suffered chest pains last summer, a symptom of his ongoing heart condition. He seemed thinner of late, paler, his zest for life on the wane. . . .

“You must try not to sit too . . .” Grams was saying. She paused, searching for words. “Rigidly.”

“Perhaps you should lay us out on the seat and stack us one on the other,” Julia muttered under her breath. Luckily, Grams appeared not to have heard.

Amelia went to her and sweetly said, “We’ll try our best, Grams.”

Grams nodded and looked about her, as if searching for something. “I’m going down to telephone the church and make sure everything there is ready. And then I’m going to make sure Fox hasn’t gotten up to any of his usual nonsense.” Grams left Phoebe and Amelia alone with their sister, except for Hetta, of course, but she apparently understood little of what they said.

Julia strolled to the window, her short train swishing across the area rug. A sigh came from deep within her. “Well. It won’t be long now.”

Phoebe had promised herself she wouldn’t do this, but at the eleventh hour, she simply couldn’t help herself. She practically launched herself at her sister, knowing she might have only moments before Grams returned. “Julia, are you certain—quite certain about this?”

Julia didn’t bother looking around. “What are you talking about?”

“It’s not too late to change your mind.”

Julia chuckled. “Tell that to the church full of people and the caterer who is even now setting up the buffet on Gil’s steamer.”

“Never mind that. Gil is almost forty years older than you. Julia, think. What you do today will affect the rest of your life.”

“The rest of Gil’s life, perhaps.”

“And what about Theo? You know you—”

Julia turned to Phoebe, her dark blue eyes sparking. “Forget about Theo. I have. A marriage between us would never work. Grams would never . . .” She let the thought go unfinished.

“No, perhaps Grams wouldn’t, but isn’t it time you stopped worrying about what Grams wants and do what you want?” The words stung of betrayal to her grandmother, for all they were justified. “This is your life, Julia. Your life.

“I’m marrying Gil, and there’s an end to it.” The same words she’d spoken to Grams about riding to church in the Rolls-Royce.

Unlike Grams, Phoebe wouldn’t be put off so easily, not about this.

Light footsteps brought Amelia to Julia’s other side. “Theo loves you, Julia, and you love him,” she said. “Isn’t that what marriage is? Gilbert Townsend is a good enough man, I suppose, but can you truly say you love him, enough to tie yourself to him for the rest of your life?”

The door opened, and Phoebe spun around, expecting to see her grandmother. But it was only a waitress, come to deliver more refreshments. Didn’t she know Grams would have an apoplexy if she caught them eating in these clothes before the wedding?

“The rest of Gil’s life,” Julia said yet again in reply to Amelia’s question. “He’s much older than I, as you’ve both already pointed out countless times. He’ll be gone soon enough, and then I may do as I please.”

Phoebe whispered a caution. “Julia.” With a flick of her gaze, she indicated the waitress setting down her tray on the low table near the sofa.

Julia remained oblivious to their audience. “If I can present him with a son before he goes, so much the better for me. Our child will inherit, and my place as Viscountess Annondale will be firmly established, and my fortune fixed for life.”

“Julia!” Amelia whisked a hand to her mouth, her eyes round and filled with the same dismay that raised the gorge in Phoebe’s throat.

“You don’t mean this,” Phoebe said, almost pleading. “You don’t have to do this. You—”

The door opened again, this time marking Eva’s return. She stopped short and stared across the room at them, no doubt sensing the strangling tension. Julia seemed not to notice her arrival as she spun fully around to face both Phoebe and Amelia. She reached out and seized Phoebe’s wrist.

“You listen to me and listen well. Grams didn’t want me to tell you this. She said you’d each learn in your own good time. But it’s high time you both knew the truth. Our family is no longer what it was. The money is dwindling. If each of us doesn’t marry well, Fox won’t be able to support us. He won’t be able to maintain the estate. We’ll lose everything.”

Julia spoke of their youngest sibling, fifteen-year-old Fletcher, whom everyone referred to as Fox or Foxwood—the estate he would one day inherit from their grandfather. Reminding Fox of his future inheritance and responsibilities had been a way to help him cope with losing his father in the war and having to grow up too quickly, and to prompt him to a better understanding of the role he’d one day assume—not that it had done much good. Fox remained an impertinent child who reveled in tormenting his sisters behind their grandparents’ backs.

But the thought of Fox inheriting an empty title, a bankrupt estate . . . Surely Julia couldn’t mean things were that bad. Phoebe understood that no family had emerged from the war quite as wealthy as they had been, and she knew Grams worried about that, but . . . She shook her head, unable to absorb Julia’s claim. “I know the war and the death duties—”

“It’s not just the war. It’s everything. Most especially how far agricultural prices have fallen in the past couple of decades. Foxwood Hall doesn’t support itself any longer and hasn’t for some time now. We’re slowly losing it. We certainly will if we girls don’t do our duty.”

“I know why you’re doing this,” Amelia whispered. Her eyes misted, and her shoulders shook beneath her ruched cap sleeves. “It’s because you love Theo, isn’t it? You think Gil will die soon, and then you can marry Theo and be happy. But, Julia, what if it doesn’t work out that way?”

Julia pressed her face close to Amelia’s and said in a voice she never used with her youngest sister, “Don’t you dare ever say that again, to anyone. You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

The door opened again, and this time Grams called out to them. “What are you lot doing huddled by the window? Come along. The motorcars are here. It’s time to go. Amelia, are you crying? My dear, sweet child, I know you’re overjoyed for your sister, but you don’t wish to arrive at the church all blotchy faced.”

Phoebe and her sisters grabbed their wraps and filed from the room. Eva leveled a look of sympathetic support on Phoebe and touched her arm as she passed by. The waitress, still standing by the sofa table, also watched them go. Good heavens, Phoebe had forgotten about her, while the woman had simply stood there eavesdropping and enjoying a good bit of family drama. Well, no matter. She could gossip with her fellow servants all she liked. The Renshaws would never see her again.

Outside, she, Julia, and Amelia accepted a footman’s help and slid carefully into the backseat of Grampapa’s Rolls-Royce. Her grandparents were driven to the church in Gil’s Mercedes-Knight tourer. The short ride along the Esplanade and up the hill to Holy Trinity Church seemed to take forever, but was over all too soon.

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