• Alyssa Maxwell

Excerpt: A Deadly Endowment


The Cotswolds, England, 1921


Sometimes a woman had to stand alone and do what needed to be done regardless of what others thought of her. Regardless of their refusal to rally around her. Luckily for Phoebe Renshaw, such was not the case. Not entirely.


But even knowing she had an ally or two didn’t make sitting down to breakfast that Friday morning any easier. The family was using the Petite Salon today rather than the dining room, which had been tidied and readied for today’s experimental event. The Petite Salon was among her favorite rooms at Foxwood Hall, but today even the cheerfulness of its pale green walls, crisp white wainscoting, and the bay of windows overlooking the south gardens, a happy circumstance owing to the room being tucked into the turret of the original portion of the house, failed to calm her nerves. Likewise, the china service gracing the table, a unique design incorporating the Wroxly crest within a pastural, Cotswold setting, commissioned by Phoebe and her siblings as an anniversary gift for their grandparents’ anniversary, did little to lift her spirits.


She put off facing the rest of the family as long as she could by going straight to the sideboard and selecting a light variety of fruit and grilled tomatoes. At the last minute she scooped a generous portion of kedgeree, a curried mixture of fish, eggs, and rice, onto her plate. She would need to keep up her strength.


There was nothing for it now but to take her seat at the table. “Good morning, everyone. Grams, Grampapa. How are you today?”


“Quite well, thank you, dear.” Grampapa, the Earl of Wroxly, came to his feet and offered her a kindly smile, which Phoebe eagerly returned as the footman, Douglas, held her chair for her. Grampapa resumed his seat. Her brother, Fox, had stood as well, but only because Grampapa insisted a gentleman always stood to greet a lady. As for the others around the table . . .


Grams pinched her lips, sparing Phoebe the merest of nods. Once he resumed his seat, sixteen-year-old Fox grunted and dug with vigor into his scrambled eggs and black pudding, as if perhaps there were precious jewels hiding within their depths. And Julia . . .

Phoebe’s eldest sister, the undisputedly beauty of the family, raised her perfect chin, flared her delicate nose, and from beneath her carefully delineated eyebrows pierced Phoebe with a sapphire-blue glare obviously meant to quash any further attempt Phoebe might make at pleasantries.


She retaliated by turning to Amelia. “All ready for today?”


“I’m so excited. I can hardly wait to put your plan in action, Phoebe.” Her younger sister, eighteen now and newly graduated from the local finishing school, somehow managed to convey a youthful exuberance combined with the self-assured poise of a grown woman. She said to their grandmother, “You’ll soon see, Grams, that Phoebe’s idea of opening the house to tours will help the villagers and the tenant farmers, and bring enjoyment to countless more. After all, if we’re merely the custodians of this estate, as darling Grampapa is always saying, why should we keep it all to ourselves?”


Phoebe beamed at her from cross the table.


Owen Seabright had said as much last night when Phoebe spoke with him on the telephone, the crackling of the wires across the many miles between them unable to strip the warmth and reassurance from his voice. She feared she had come to depend on him rather too much in the past year, a circumstance that gave her pause. A woman of this modern age should be able to stand on her own two feet, be resilient and astute in her own right and not need to go running to a man whenever difficulties arose.


Then again, he had telephoned her—not the other way around—to wish her luck and congratulate her, again, on her ingenuity in facing a growing problem head on. He wished he could be here today, but as Phoebe well knew his business concerns kept him in Yorkshire for the moment and she would certainly not have him drop pressing matters at his woolen mills to run down to Little Barlow and hold her hand. However much she enjoyed holding hands with him.


That left her and Amelia to face down the opposition together. “Thank you, Amellie. I could not have put it better myself.”


To that, Fox snorted. Julia scowled. Grams huffed and placed her napkin beside her plate, a signal that had Douglas circling the table to gently slide back her chair as she unfolded her nearly six-foot length. “I suppose we’ll see, won’t we? Today may be the first and last day of these so-called tours.” Then, under her breath but still clearly audible, “One can only hope.”

How Phoebe loathed making Grams unhappy, but she simply couldn’t sit idly by while the rest of the world sped forward, steadfastly leaving Foxwood Hall, and those who occupied it, in a quagmire of old-world traditions that no longer served any good purpose. The estate’s function had always been to help support the village of Little Barlow and surrounding region of farms; it must continue to do so even if it meant tucking a bit of one’s pride into one’s pocket.


Chin up, shoulders straight, Grams swept from the Petite Parlor at a sedate pace, probably resisting the urge to storm out. But that would be undignified and, of all the virtues, Grams held dignity in highest esteem. Once the trailing hems of her morning gown had cleared the threshold, Grampapa reached his hand out to Phoebe. She leaned toward him to place her hand in his.


“Don’t take your grandmother’s displeasure too much to heart, my dear. She’ll come around.”


“Have you come around, Grampapa?” She harbored no doubts as to his initial sentiments toward her plan. And she understood their reservations perfectly. Allowing strangers to troop through the house, gawking and snapping photographs, after paying a fee for the privilege of doing so? Money, in exchange for a glimpse into the private life of an earl and his family? The outlandishness of such a notion had nearly given Grams the vapors, and Grams had never suffered an attack of the vapors in her life. She had put her foot down and adamantly forbade it; had refused to hear another word about it. Meanwhile, at the time, Grampapa had remained quiet. Contemplative. A bit brooding. And then . . .


“I do see its merit,” he had quietly ventured at the time, and then fell silent while Grams had launched another argumentative assault on why such a vulgarity must never, could never, be permitted at Foxwood Hall. While Grams had raged on, Grampapa had taken Phoebe’s hand in both of his wide, very reassuring ones and whispered, “I shall think on it, and let you know.”


For the next week, there hadn’t been another word said about the matter. Even Grams had carried on as if nothing had ever been amiss. Fox, home for a brief school holiday, had made himself scarce. Julia had kept herself busy. Phoebe had almost been content to let the matter drop. And then Grampapa had made his decision.


“It’s certainly not the idea solution, but circumstances these days are less than ideal, aren’t they? The tenant farms need repairs. The village businesses need a new influx of visitors. And money isn’t what it was before the war.”


Thus the battle lines had been drawn, with Phoebe, Amelia, and Grampapa on one side, and Grams, Julia, and Fox firmly entrenched on the other. Would today end the war, or escalate it?

“Tourists . . . in our home. Good heavens, what next?” Julia drained her teacup cup and came to her feet, Douglas arriving at her chair almost too late to assist her. “Shall we open the dining room as a stopover for travelers? I’ve a good mind to take little Charles and leave. Go to Lyndale Park.” She patted a perfect sweep of blond hair framing her face. “It’s becoming more and more apparent that’s where we belong.”


“Oh, Julia, don’t be like that,” Amelia pleaded, truly taken aback at the threat. If Julia was the beautiful one of the family, Amelia claimed the distinction of sweetest. Ingenuous and trusting, Amelia believed the best of someone until proven wrong, and her hazel eyes, honey blond hair, and lovely complexion mirrored her agreeable nature. But all that didn’t mean she wouldn’t speak up for herself whenever she deemed it necessary. “Charles belongs here, with all of us. He needs his aunties and uncle, and Grams and Grampapa, and we need him. I shall be wretched if you take him away. You mustn’t do it, Julia. Promise you won’t.”


Charles Gilbert Townsend had been born on the eighth of January that year, the longed-for son that had settled the matter of who would inherit Julia’s deceased husband’s title and estate. His arrival into the world had also settled Julia’s own inheritance, in question all those months since her husband’s death. Whether she remarried or not, she would never need worry about the future, could lead an independent and luxurious life. Charles was now Viscount Annondale, with an estate called Lyndale Park in Staffordshire, a townhouse in London, and several manufactories that produced both automobile and aeroplane engines. Julia’s child would never lack for anything.


Except, perhaps, his Renshaw relatives, should Julia make good on her threat. Phoebe wished to add her protests to Amelia’s, but knew better than to utter a word. Julia often liked to do the exact opposite of Phoebe’s expressed desires. But if Julia was the beautiful sister, and Amelia the sweet sister, Phoebe had learned, in the years since their father had died in the Great War, that she was the sister who recognized a problem for what it was and refused to sit still until a solution had been found. Hence today’s endeavor.


“Exams or no, I’ll be happy to get back to school. That’s all I can say.” Fox shoveled a last, heaping forkful of eggs and sausages into his mouth, realized his lack of decorum, and darted a glance at Grampapa. With a gulp he swallowed it all down, attempting to hide his indiscretion behind his napkin. “But since that won’t be until Sunday night, I’d like to take Fairfax on an especially long walk today.” He darted another glance at Grampapa from beneath a shock of tawny hair. “If that would be all right, sir?”


Fairfax, another newish member of the Renshaw family, was a Staffordshire bull terrier they had adopted back in the fall. Still a puppy at heart, he had grown to nearly full size, being all muscle and sinew and boundless energy.


“It would,” Grampapa said with an approving nod. “Fairfax love his walks and I think you could both use a good jaunt about the place. Why not take him on a round of the tenant farms and see if there are new repairs to be added to the list after all the recent rains.”


Grampapa could be strict with Fox—far stricter than he ever was with Phoebe and her sisters—but he also understood when a sixteen-year-old boy needed to be made to feel like a man, and a useful one at that. Fox would be Earl of Wroxly someday . . . a thought Phoebe never liked to contemplate for the loss it would mean to them all.


Her brother hurried away and Grampapa turned his attention back to Phoebe and Amelia. “Well, you two, you’d best go prepare.”


Amelia clapped her hands together once and sprang up from her chair. With a little squeal of glee, she grabbed Phoebe’s hand, drew her to her feet, and practically hauled her from the room. “This is going to be such fun.”


***************************************************

A Deadly Endowment will be available on Dec. 28th in hardcover and ebook; audiobook to follow!


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Alyssa Maxwell

 

  Author of the Gilded Newport Mysteries

and

A Lady and Lady's Maid Mysteries

Alyssa Maxwell, Author of the Gilded Newport Mysteries