Excerpt: A Fashionable Fatality
Updated: Nov 4, 2022
The Cotswolds, England
"An evocative setting, realistic relationships, and a nicely crafted plot." Publishers Weekly
Phoebe never learned. In recent years, that much had become clear. Try as she might to gain wisdom from her experiences, some inner stubbornness refused to allow life’s lessons to sink in. Take today, for instance. What had begun as an exciting and hopeful morning as she’d set out on a trip to visit her newly remarried sister and spend time with her baby nephew had ended here, in Julia’s drawing room, with a slender Frenchwoman rapidly clucking her tongue in disapproval as only Frenchwomen could.
“Ah, non, non, non. Julia”—the woman pronounced it Zhoo-lee-a—“how right you are about your poor sister. But we shall fix her, non?”
Not only had Phoebe not known she needed fixing, she didn’t want fixing. Moreover, this pronouncement had been made before she and this individual had even been introduced. The woman, at least ten to fifteen years older than Julia, possessed a sharp, discerning gaze, the eyes nearly black in color; a straight, pert nose and a pointed chin; and she wore her cropped dark hair in soft waves drawn back from her face. She had come at Phoebe just now like a bombardment, making short work of the carpet between them, her hands outstretched and a look of almost painful dismay on her face.
Call it “hope,” that tenacious inner quality that had set Phoebe up for today’s abasement. Julia, formerly the Viscountess Annondale but now, due to her second and much happier marriage, the Marchioness of Allerton, had telephoned a week ago to invite Phoebe to Allerton Place for an extended weekend. Julia rarely telephoned. No, that wasn’t true. She telephoned all the time to speak with their younger sister Amelia or with Grams or Grampapa. But as for Phoebe . . .
She had accepted the invitation eagerly . . . but she had forgotten there would be strings attached. She had forgotten that nothing was ever easy between Julia and herself.
The Frenchwoman now began plucking at the attached sash that circled the waist of Phoebe’s dress. “It is too wide for this year. So passe. Cut it off! Either a thin belt, or nothing and allow the fabric to skim the figure. Do you see?”
No, Phoebe didn’t see. She liked this frock. Very much, and she had seen something just like it on the pages of the April edition of La Mode. With its pintucked blouson bodice, wide silk sash, and velvet piping, all in varying shades of russet, she thought it not only charming but suitable to her coloring and shape. Judging by their expressions, however, Julia and her mystery friend had other notions.
And to think, her biggest qualm about coming to Allerton Place had been the expected presence of Julia’s mother-in-law, Lucille Leighton, Dowager Marchioness of Allerton. It must be admitted that the elder Lady Allerton had a way of vexing everyone within hearing range with her frequent complaints. But she and her late husband’s aunt, Lady Cecily, had not only taken up residence at the Dower house since Julia and Theo’s wedding, but were currently on a tour of the West Country and weren’t expected back until early next month.
As it turned out, though, Phoebe hadn’t escaped criticisms and complaints.
Fingering the curve of her blond hair where it swooped away from her face and curled over her ear, Julia strode closer. A tolerant smile tilted her lightly rouged lips. “Phoebe, I’m delighted to introduce you to Mademoiselle Gabrielle Chanel. Coco, my sister, Phoebe Renshaw.”
“Oh. Mademoiselle Chanel, a pleasure,” Phoebe managed, though she wasn’t sure it was. A pleasure, that is. She offered the woman her hand. She knew Gabrielle Chanel by reputation. Actually, by Julia having discovered Maison Chanel’s clothing designs only a few years prior—during the war when the designer had been featured in Harpers Bazaar. Julia had immediately decided the modern, clean lines and soft jersey fabrics were perfect for her long, lean figure.
Julia wore one such suit today, a waistless, calf-skimming dress in royal blue covered by a jersey cardigan, the sleeves loose-fitting and three-quarters in length. A flowing beige jacket and darker pleated skirt swayed around Mademoiselle Chanel’s slight figure when she moved, as did the long strands of pearls around her neck, transforming what might have been a frumpy ensemble into an elegant statement.
Phoebe’s murmured greeting brought on another clucking of Mademoiselle Chanel’s tongue. The woman forewent shaking hands and instead shook her head and waggled her forefinger. Her gaze dropped to Phoebe’s feet—would she find fault in the leather pumps as well?—and slowly slithered back up to her face. She commented to Julia, “I would have known this was Phoebe even if you had not told me. She is very much as you described her.”
“I’m afraid she is,” Julia replied brightly, as if Phoebe weren’t there. “That’s why I was so excited for the two of you to meet. In your hands, there will finally be hope for my little sister.” She turned one of her patented, enchanting smiles on Phoebe, though its effects on her were rather less fruitful than with most people. “Phoebe, surely you remember I had the wonderful fortune of meeting Coco during Theo’s and my honeymoon.”
With the war a memory and France continuing to heal, Julia and Theo had decided to travel through the country with a stopover in Paris before continuing south to Marseilles and then Monte Carlo. The family had received postcards along each stage of the trip, including a gushing report of meeting the fashion designer and spending an afternoon at her couture shop at 31 Rue Cambon in Paris.
Phoebe forced a smile. “Yes, I remember. It’s lovely to meet you, Mademoiselle.”
“Mais non, it is Coco to my friends. And next time, you must accompany your sister to Paris, yes?” She pronounced the city’s name in the French way: Par-ee. “Oh, what we couldn’t do for you at Maison Chanel.” Once again, she plucked at Phoebe’s frock, tsking and sighing.
Phoebe was saved from further assessment by the arrival of two men who stepped in from the hall laughing at some joke between them. They fell silent at the sight of the women, but only for an instant.
“Phoebe! You made it in one piece.” Theo Leighton, Phoebe’s new brother-in-law, held out his arms and she gratefully entered his embrace. His comment referred to her preference for driving herself places in her two-seater Vauxhall, much to her grandmother’s dismay. “You’re looking splendid and none the worse for wear. How did the roads treat you?”
“They were quite passable, although I did notice Eva clutching the seat more than once.” Her lady’s maid had yet to embrace motor travel, and though she never complained about riding in Phoebe’s motorcar, she nearly always emerged with a chewed lip and white knuckles.
“Good, good,” Theo said and hugged her again. “So very glad you could join us.”
He said this with something of a conspiratorial tone, making Phoebe wonder if he, too, had come under Mademoiselle Chanel’s critical scrutiny.
“I wouldn’t have missed it,” she assured him, “even if it had threated rain and hail all the way.”
It had been a somewhat challenging drive, if the truth be told. Although the borders of Allerton Place nearly touched the farthest reaches of the Renshaws’ estate of Foxwood Hall, their entrances lay in two separate Cotswold villages nearly twenty hilly, twisting miles apart. Which meant Julia didn’t simply pop over daily to see her grandparents and siblings, and nor did they in turn embark on the trip here without some thorough planning beforehand.
“Let me look at you.” Theo grasped Phoebe’s hand and twirled her. “Lovely, as always. You’re like a picture in a fashion magazine.”
She thought surely he must be teasing, that perhaps he had overheard Mademoiselle Chanel’s lamenting, until she remembered Theo didn’t tease when giving compliments. A more sincere man she had rarely met. It hadn’t always been so. He’d come home from the war injured, the poisonous gasses rolling across the battlefields of the Somme having scarred his lungs, face, and hands. Even now, having undergone procedures to restore the skin, the left side of his mouth tugged downward and the flesh beside his chin and down onto his neck had been left pink and puckered. He had regained the use of his fingers for the most part, but his occasional coughing remained a source of concern.
The ordeal had initially left Theo withdrawn and often ill-tempered, but only temporarily. And to be honest, Phoebe believed much of his peevishness had stemmed not from frustration over his wounds, but from Julia having nearly married his elder brother, Henry, and then actually marrying Gilbert Townsend, Viscount Annondale, the previous year.
As for Theo’s transformation to the jovial, kindhearted gentleman who stood grinning before Phoebe now? Again, it was admittedly due to Julia, and the revelation that it had been Theo she had loved all along. Now, he not only had Julia, but also his deceased brother’s title of Marquess of Allerton.
But barely a penny to go with it, relatively speaking.
“I hope you brought riding clothes,” he added after a moment.
“I did,” she said, “and I’m so looking forward to being in the saddle again.” It had been a rather long while. So many horses had been taken to the continent to be used in battle . . .
“I’m glad you kept a few.”
“Yes, well, we sold off most of them, as you know, but I couldn’t bring myself to part with all of them. Oh, but good grief,” he exclaimed suddenly, his scarred mouth contorting, “where are my manners? I see you’ve already met Coco.” He gestured to the man waiting slightly behind him, who had been watching with an amused gleam. “Phoebe, meet our other guest for the weekend, Ralph Hewett-Davies, Earl of Chesterhaven. Chessy, this is Julia’s sister, Phoebe.”
The earl’s gaze dipped and rose much as Coco’s had done, though without the disapproval. “Ah, another Renshaw granddaughter. The old Earl of Wroxly certainly has lovely faces to gaze upon at his breakfast table each morning, doesn’t he?” This earl, Chessy, was approaching middle age yet remained handsome and, at present, deeply tanned. Obviously an outdoorsman. He stood several inches taller than Theo, but something in his bearing suggested he would always seem the tallest man in the room, even if, in fact, he was not. He extended a manicured hand and grasped Phoebe’s firmly. “A pleasure, my dear. An absolute pleasure.”
He continued to hold her hand as he performed another brisk assessment—at least, Phoebe had the sense that he was taking her measure. He might as well, since everyone else had. And she took his. Yes, though he must be approaching forty or perhaps more, he was blond and fit, tall and straight, with broad shoulders and a narrow waist. Yes, an athlete, and an aristocrat through and through. She hadn’t needed to be told of his title to perceive that much. He continued to hold her in his gaze, as if he had asked a question and waited for the answer.
She began to grow uncomfortable . . .
“Ahem.” Coco was suddenly beside him, looping her arm through his and drawing him away from Phoebe until he had no choice but to release her hand. Coco simpered up at him. “Did you enjoy your tour of the stables? The horse—does it meet with your approval?”
“Chessy is interested in the filly born here a year ago last spring,” Theo explained.
“Oh. Are you going to buy her?” Phoebe’s stomach sank. She had, in fact, hoped Grampapa might purchase her for the Foxwood Hall stables. It had been three years since the Armistice, and Phoebe hoped they might finally keep a horse or two. She so missed riding along the woodland trails and the fields bordering the tenant farms.
“Yes, the chestnut,” the earl confirmed. Though Coco continued to exert pressure on his arm to set him walking, he stood his ground and stared into Phoebe’s eyes in a way that nearly brought a blush to her countenance—and would have, several years earlier. “Do I detect a bit of disappointment, Phoebe? Do you want the filly?”
“Oh . . . no.” She could make no claim on it, after all, not having ample funds of her own to make the purchase. If only Grampapa had taken the several hints she and Amelia had dropped . . . “She’s yours, if you want her.”
“Bon, then it is settled. Chessy shall have his filly.” Coco effectively dismissed Phoebe and appealed to Julia. “It is time for tea, non? You English and your tea.” She gave a brittle laugh.
“We shall adjourn to the garden, if I remember correctly. Oui?”
“You are correct. Tea will be served on the terrace. The weather is so lovely today.” Julia strolled forward, stopping when she reached Theo and taking his arm, though in a much more relaxed manner than Coco’s possessive clutch on Chessy. Neither did Julia glower at Phoebe or flash a warning with her dark blue eyes, as Coco’s brown ones currently were.
Curious. Only moments ago, the Frenchwoman had fussed over Phoebe like a mother hen—clucking and all. She couldn’t wait to “fix” Phoebe. Now she seemed eager to separate herself—and Chessy—from Phoebe’s side as quickly as possible.
Could she be . . . was it possible . . . jealous? Of the little sister with no style?
Eva moved the last of Lady Phoebe’s things into the armoire and shut the paneled doors. Turning, she surveyed the guestroom and decided its pale wood furnishings and toile fabrics were charming, if ever-so-slightly shabby. But then, much of Allerton Place showed signs of wear, despite it being the family seat of the marquesses of Allerton these many generations.
Well, she supposed that was the point, wasn’t it? As for so many families, the Renshaws included, the war, taxes, tumbling agricultural prices, the abandonment of the countryside as young people flocked to the cities, and simply time itself had worn great fortunes away much as rivers wear away their own banks.
The marriage of the Marquess of Allerton and Lady Julia Renshaw had brought renewed hope to the estate, as her previous husband had provided most generously for her in his will. And, of course, though he did not yet know it, her son, baby Charles, was Gilbert Townsend’s heir and already the master of a vast fortune—one based on business and industry and not on old family money passed down through the generations.
Eva straightened Lady Phoebe’s things on the dressing table, arranging the jewelry box, hair accessories, and cosmetics as Lady Phoebe liked them, took one more look around the room, and let herself out. On her way to the service staircase, she noticed the door of another guestroom ajar, and heard the sounds of someone performing similar tasks to those she had just completed. Curious as to who it was, she peeked in. It wouldn’t hurt to get to know the other servants who had traveled here with their employers.
A youngish brunette, about Eva’s own age and dressed similarly to Eva—that was, all in black serge with hems that skimmed just below her calves and sleeves reaching to her wrist—was laying out evening clothes across a four-poster bed. Eva checked the locket watch pinned to her bodice and noted the time, though in truth she had already known it was merely midafternoon.
She stuck her head in the doorway and said with a smile, “A bit early for that, isn’t it?”
The woman gasped, obviously startled. She whisked her hands to her bosom and dropped the pair of stockings she’d been holding. She said nothing as she focused her gray eyes on Eva with something approaching fear—which in turn startled Eva.
She stepped into the room. “I’m terribly sorry, I didn’t mean to frighten you.” She held out a hand and went closer. “My name’s Eva Huntford, Phoebe Renshaw’s maid. We just arrived this afternoon.”
While that would have been the other woman’s cue to introduce herself, she seemed utterly unaware of the proper response. She ignored Eva’s hand and ducked to retrieve the fallen stockings. She shook them out and scrutinized each one as if expecting to find some shocking aberration lurking in the silk weave.
Eva didn’t quite know what to do. Try again? Turn around and leave?
The former won out. “Is there anything I can help you with?”
The woman gently laid the stockings on the bed, taking special care that each lay smooth, without the slightest wrinkle or crease. Then, with a sigh, she regarded Eva. “Bonjour, madame.”
She murmured on in French for several sentences, only part of which Eva understood. She had studied the language during her years at the Haverleigh School for Young Ladies, which she had attended on scholarship. But an accident at home had made it necessary for her to cut short her lessons and help out on her parents’ farm, before she had quite mastered tense and syntax.
Besides, this individual’s tone gave no indication of either friendliness or annoyance, nor did her countenance give away her sentiments. Eva had a sense only of an efficient worker with an underlying current of trepidation.
Hmm . . .
“Have you a name?” She shook her head at her own attempt to communicate and then asked the same question in poorly executed French.
“Remie,” the other lady’s maid replied with a nod that could have been, if one were optimistic, interpreted as cordial.
“Eva.” She stuck out her hand again. Remie stared at it an instant, shook it briefly, and turned back to the clothing on the bed.
Eva studied the ensemble Remi had laid out for her mistress—whoever that might be. The evening dress consisted of a beige silk under gown with an overlay of beaded, sheer black chiffon. The front dipped in a low V to a barely existing waistline, while the hem flowed to a short train in back. But for the beading, the garment was sublimely simple yet undeniably elegant, and nothing a woman with a curving figure could ever consider wearing. Lady Julia could manage it, she thought, and even Lady Phoebe, though it was rather too sophisticated for the latter.
“As I said, it’s rather early to be laying out dinner clothes, no?” Not rather early, she silently amended, but extremely so. How odd that any woman would want her evening attire lying around collecting dust hours before it was needed.
“Mademoiselle insists,” Remie said in English. “She must . . . ap . . . approve, yes?”
Though she barely worked her tongue around the sound of an English R, Eva understood her. “She must approve of what you’ve laid out? Didn’t you agree on what she would be wearing ahead of time? This morning, perhaps?” For the most part Eva knew what Lady Phoebe would be wearing during every phase of this visit. If Lady Phoebe changed her mind, she and Eva would discuss it in the morning, while Eva helped her dress for the day.
Remie looked perplexed and didn’t reply, and Eva realized that, just as she couldn’t follow the Frenchwoman when she spoke too fast, neither could Remie follow Eva’s English. Footsteps thudded on the runner in the corridor, and Remie looked up, her eyes widening in fear. She went so far as to give Eva a little push.
“You go. Now.”
Eva felt half tempted to push her back. “All right. I’ll see you later, then, below stairs, perhaps, for dinner.”
“Oui, go. Go.”
The footsteps stopped somewhere outside the room. A door opened and closed, and Remie let out a relieved breath. But the look she sent Eva left no room for doubt. Remie wanted her gone.
She began backing toward the door. “It was lovely meeting you,” she lied. “If you need anything . . .”
Remie fluttered her hand in the air. Once Eva had stepped into the corridor, Remie shut the door on her.