Fairchild House, London
Lady Fairchild’s ball was one of the premier entertainments of the Season; everyone who was anyone attended, and the event was widely regarded as the true opening of the Season for the haut ton.
Standing to one side of her ladyship’s ballroom, Penelope Adair looked about with genuine interest. Heavy with gilt and laden with crystal, with its walls a brilliant white and the parquet floor glowing with the warm tones of old oak, the room was a spectacular sight. It was nearly eleven o’clock, and a goodly crowd had gathered; the buzz of myriad conversations filled the air, the vivid hues of this Season’s gowns scintillating under the light of the chandeliers, the men providing stark contrast in their regulation black and white.
Somewhat to her surprise, Penelope felt a certain smug pleasure on registering that her own gown of plum-colored silk, with its pleated organza ruffle at hem and neckline and its tightly fitting sleeves, placed her very much at the forefront in the fashionable-young-matron stakes.
The diamonds clasped about her throat were a stunning final touch.
It seemed odd to think of herself as a matron, yet her son, Oliver, was over a year old.
And while she also found it odd that she, who had never previously paid all that much attention to her appearance, should even register her fashionable standing, perhaps that was an outcome of her recently embarked-on personal quest to better balance the various aspects of her life.
Beside her stood her husband, the Honorable Barnaby Adair, third son of the Earl of Cothelstone and occasional consultant to the Metropolitan Police; he was presently talking earnestly with his father, the earl, and Lord Carnegie, a senior peer. It was through an investigation Penelope had assisted with, late the previous year, that she had come to understand the need to actively manage the time she spent on her various endeavors in order to achieve the success her personality demanded in each sphere. Unless she met her own standards, satisfaction in life would elude her.
That realization had left her much more aware of the different roles she played and the degree of attention each role demanded.
For instance, tonight, she was Barnaby Adair’s wife, but as she was also Viscount Calverton’s sister, first cousin to the Earl of Dexter, and connected by marriage to a host of other noble families, her social standing had a very wide base. More, because of her excellent memory for details, she had been unanimously elected by her family and wider connections as the principal keeper of family information and all social stories—and also, as she mentally termed it, the chronicler of skeletons.
What exactly said social skeletons were, who they related to, and how and where they’d been buried.
Lady Osbaldestone had even dubbed Penelope as that august lady’s successor in that role.
Consequently, Penelope was currently listening to her mother, Minerva, Dowager Viscountess Calverton, and Helena, Dowager Duchess of St. Ives, as they shared the information each had gleaned on the latest indiscretion of the highly placed son of one of their peers.
Another skeleton for Penelope’s closet; one never knew when such knowledge might prove useful.
Minerva concluded her confidences with, “Mind you, I have no idea if his poor wife knows.”
Penelope swiftly reviewed the pertinent facts. “Oh, she knows.”
Her mother and Helena fixed avid gazes on her face.
“How can you be sure?” Helena asked. “She hasn’t given any sign—has she?”
“Well,” Penelope temporized, “she has had Lord Cranborne squiring her about, both in the Park and in Regent Street, and I know they’re old friends, but she walked into the ballroom tonight on Cranborne’s arm, while as far as I’ve seen, her husband has yet to show his face.”
“And how do you read that, if I might ask?” Her dark eyes twinkling, Honoria, Duchess of St. Ives, had come up in time to hear Penelope’s last remark. Touching cheeks with her mama-in-law, Helena, then with Minerva, who Honoria knew well, Honoria arched a questioning brow Penelope’s way; although older than Penelope by some years, Honoria was one of Penelope’s staunchest supporters and in some respects a mentor.
“I assume,” Penelope said, rising to the challenge, “that her ladyship intends it as a statement, as a reminder to her husband of just who in their marriage wields the social clout. She does. And if he wants to continue to sail under her banner and reap the social rewards, so to speak, he needs to reassess his behavior.”
Her lips curving, Honoria nodded. “I agree.” She glanced at the milling crowd. “At the very least he needs to exercise significantly greater discretion. It will be interesting to see if he can read and interpret her message as clearly as you.”
The two older ladies were eager to learn what other snippets of social news Honoria had to impart. The conversation broadened into a general recounting of observations, all of which Penelope dutifully absorbed, catalogued, and stored.
Devil Cynster, Duke of St. Ives, ambled up in his wife’s wake. As dangerously charming as ever, he greeted the ladies, then moved on to join Barnaby, who was still talking with his father and two others about politics as they impacted the police. Knowing she would hear a summation later, Penelope remained focused on the ladies’ discussions.
Various others joined their group, then Lady Fairchild swept up. Their hostess was in fine fettle, happy and delighted with the way her ball was progressing. “It’s so gratifying to see everyone here.” Touching cheeks and pressing fingers, Lady Fairchild accepted the ladies’ compliments with becoming assurance.
Then she turned to Penelope, who was something of a favorite. “And it’s lovely to see you, my dear, and looking so well. How is little Oliver?”
Penelope felt her face light, as it always did when her thoughts shifted to her son. “He’s well and growing, and walking now, too.”
“Excellent!” Lady Fairchild shot a glance at Barnaby. “He’ll be following your dear husband around soon, wanting to get into everything.”
Penelope grinned. “Actually, at present, Oliver’s more interested in getting into my desk.”
Honoria nodded. “He has good instincts—your desk is where all the really fascinating things are hidden.”
All the ladies laughed.
Sensing the presence of a large body looming between her and Barnaby, Penelope glanced over her shoulder—and up, into the face of her cousin-in-law, Hugo, Barnaby’s uncle’s second son, and, until recently, something of a black sheep. Hugo had joined the cavalry at an early age and, by all accounts, had led a colorful life as a rakish, debonair, and reckless hellion. But he’d sold out last year and was, the family felt, quietening down and somewhat tentatively finding his way into more acceptable social circles.
So Hugo being there didn’t surprise Penelope; what made her blink, then focus her considerable acuity on him, was the ashen pallor of his handsome face.
His dark brown hair looked as if he’d run his fingers through it. Briefly, he met her gaze; his dark blue eyes looked…stunned. Shocked. But his attention deflected to Barnaby. Hugo raised a hand, gripped Barnaby’s sleeve at the elbow, and tugged.
Sliding out of the ongoing conversation, Barnaby turned to Penelope, brows arching—then he followed her gaze to Hugo’s face.
Barnaby’s features sharpened. “What is it?”
Hugo met Barnaby’s eyes, then tipped his head toward the far end of the room. “I went out to smoke a cheroot. On the side terrace…” Hugo dragged in a tight breath. “There’s a body—some lady—on the path. I think you’d better take a look.”
* * *
He’d been watching Lord Fairchild, waiting to see someone come and whisper in his lordship’s ear, reasoning that, sooner or later, the body lying on the path below the terrace would be found. An hour had passed since he’d returned to the ballroom, and he’d started to fall prey to rising anxiety—but, at last, a fair-haired gentleman with a sober and serious Lady Fairchild on his arm approached his lordship.
The pair were followed by a short, dark-haired lady accompanied by another gentleman and two others he recognized as the Earl of Cothelstone and the Duke of St. Ives.
The group waited until Lord Fairchild, noting them, excused himself from those with whom he’d been conversing and joined them. A short conference ensued, and then, now distinctly sober himself, Lord Fairchild turned and led the small group from the ballroom.
He tried to imagine the scene—what the group would see when they reached the side terrace, what they would think—but his mind shied, refusing to dwell for more than a split second on the images burned into his brain.
Without conscious direction, his eyes hunted for his beloved. He spotted her through a gap in the crowd.
From across the room, she stared pointedly at him; although he couldn’t see the question in her eyes, he knew what it would be. Why hadn’t he said anything? Why hadn’t he raised the alarm?
The answer was simple: He couldn’t think. Shock and more still had him reeling. He didn’t know what anything meant.
Given the secrecy of their betrothal, a connection that not even their nearest and dearest knew of or even suspected, and given the implications of what he and she had seen…
He needed to think, but he couldn’t yet think.
If, in the meantime, the authorities could learn anything about the murderer….
He didn’t want to be—simply couldn’t be—the one to point the finger.
* * *
Barnaby crouched beside the body, which was lying sprawled face up, with limbs twisted a little to the left, on the gravel path below the side terrace. An older lady, unquestionably one of the Fairchilds’ guests and therefore a member of the ton’s elite, her life had ended when a stone ball had fallen—or, more accurately, been dropped—on her head.
The size of a cannonball, the stone had come from the top of a pillar in the terrace’s balustrade, specifically the pillar at the head of the steps leading down to the path. The ball had formed the finial but, apparently, had not been attached to the pillar’s top.
The impact had crushed the upper left front quadrant of the lady’s skull. “Death would, most likely, have been instantaneous.” Barnaby glanced up at the men lining the terrace balustrade and looking down on the scene. “Does anyone know who she is?”
Penelope was standing behind him, peering over his shoulder. She didn’t make a sound. Hugo had halted a yard behind her, unwilling to draw closer; he, too, remained mute.
Barnaby knew that his cousin was slightly squeamish; although Hugo had been in the cavalry, he’d joined long after the wars had ended, and he had never been in any battle. For his part, Barnaby had learned the knack of observing victims in an emotionally detached way—clinically, dispassionately—the better to bring them justice.
The men on the terrace glanced at each other, then stepped aside, giving way to two ladies—Lady Fairchild and Barnaby’s mother, the Countess of Cothelstone. Lady Fairchild gripped the balustrade and looked over, then drew back with a faint gasp. Barnaby’s mother looked and paled, but she forced herself to look long enough to see… “Lady Galbraith.” His mother glanced at Lady Fairchild. “That’s who it is, isn’t it?”
Lady Fairchild drew in a huge breath, held it, and briefly glanced down again. Drawing back, she nodded. “Yes. It’s Marjorie Galbraith.” Lady Fairchild moistened her lips. “Her husband and, I believe, all their children are inside. One son, three daughters.”
“None married,” Barnaby’s mother added.
Barnaby rose. He turned to Penelope.
Faint moonlight glinted on her spectacles as she simply said, “Stokes.”
Barnaby glanced at Hugo and nodded. Giving thanks that his father was present, he looked up at the men on the terrace. “We need to send to Scotland Yard, for Inspector Stokes.”
Lord Fairchild would have equivocated, but the earl, and Devil, too, convinced his lordship that there really was no option. Lady Galbraith had been murdered, and the murderer had to be found.
With that settled, including Lady Fairchild and his mother with a glance, Barnaby said, “While it might be closing the stable door after the horse has bolted, we should ensure that no one leaves—or, indeed, arrives, at least until Stokes gets here and decides what needs to be done.”
Barnaby caught his mother’s gaze. After a moment’s hesitation, of inner debate, the countess turned to Lady Fairchild. “Sadly, Delia, Barnaby is right—for the moment, we need to keep everyone here.”
Lady Fairchild drew a deep breath. Spine straightening, she raised her head. “Yes. All right.” The mantle of a great hostess almost visibly settled on her shoulders once more. “I’d best get back to the ballroom and make arrangements to ensure that everyone continues to be entertained.” She glanced at her husband, then looked down at Barnaby. “After that…do you want us to round up the Galbraiths?”
Barnaby hadn’t thought that far ahead.
From beside him, Penelope said, “It would be helpful if you could collect them all—in the drawing room, perhaps? Somewhere away from the hubbub. And”—she glanced at Barnaby, then looked back at Lady Fairchild—“at this point, it would be best if we all avoided saying anything to anyone about Lady Galbraith’s murder. If you’re pushed by the family and must say something, just say she’s had an accident.”
Lady Fairchild visibly quelled a shudder. “Murder. Good God.”
“Indeed,” Penelope said. “There’s really no need to create a furor just yet.”
In complete agreement, Lady Fairchild and the countess retreated into the house.
Lord Fairchild nodded to Barnaby. “I’ll send for the inspector, and make sure the staff shut the doors and know to discourage anyone thinking to leave—although, thankfully, it’s a bit early yet for that.”
“Thank you.” Barnaby glanced around. The gardens were extensive. “Is there a garden gate?”
Lord Fairchild waved to the right. “In the wall that way, but it should be locked.”
“We’ll check it,” Barnaby said. “We’ll keep an eye on things out here until Stokes arrives.”
Lord Fairchild nodded. “Thank you.” His lordship turned away.
The earl and Devil grimly nodded to the three of them still standing on the grass by the path, then followed Lord Fairchild into the house.
Hugo drew in a short breath, shook himself like an overgrown dog, then turned away. “I’ll go and look at the gate.”
Barnaby glanced down at the corpse, fixing all the details of the scene in his mind, then he looked along the path. “We can all go.” Sliding his hands into his pockets, he walked past the body. Stepping onto the path, he started ambling, with a glance confirming that Penelope was all right and that she was coming. Slipping a hand into the crook of his arm, she fell into step beside him. Looking ahead, he said, “I think we can rely on the pater and Devil to ensure that no one comes outside to gawp.”
Pacing on Barnaby’s other side, Hugo shook his head. “They could, for all I care, but I take your point. Hysteria at a ball might be memorable, but is unlikely to be pleasant.”
They found the gate and confirmed that it was locked, but a quick survey of the stone wall surrounding the huge garden showed that any man of reasonable agility could have scaled it in several spots. They wandered further, through areas cultivated in various styles, eventually reaching an ornamental lake with a marble folly set to one side. Continuing on via yet another path, they traversed a walled rose garden and ultimately emerged on the other side of the house.
Walking back along a promenade running parallel to the rear façade of the huge house, Barnaby looked up at the long windows of the ballroom. “Anyone who approached the side terrace from this direction, or left this way, would have risked being seen by people in the ballroom.”
“Hmm. And I’ve been thinking.” Penelope glanced up and met his eyes. “The murderer had to be standing on the terrace to pick up the ball and drop it on Lady Galbraith. I have difficulty imagining someone coming from this direction, much less a man climbing over the garden wall and stealing through the gardens, then somehow managing to walk up the terrace steps all the way to the top and pick up that stone ball without Lady Galbraith noticing. And she hadn’t noticed, had she?”
“But she’d looked up,” Hugo said.
“Yes,” Penelope conceded, “but only at the last moment. She hadn’t tried to move away—she was struck down where she stood. If someone she hadn’t known had walked from the path to the terrace, she would have heard and seen them. She would have been watching them. She would have been suspicious.”
“Which is to say,” Barnaby dryly concluded, “that the murderer is almost certainly another of Lady Fairchild’s guests.”
After rounding the corner of the house, they returned to the side terrace and the body. All three of them looked up at the terrace, back at the path, around at the gardens.
Returning her gaze to the terrace, Penelope grimaced. “The murderer could not have come to the terrace via the paths or the garden. They had to have come via the house.”
“If they were another guest,” Barnaby said, also looking up, “Lady Galbraith wouldn’t have seen any reason to move—not until it was too late.”
A stir in the corridor beyond the terrace doors proved to be Stokes, accompanied by one of his sergeants, along with Barnaby’s father and Lord Fairchild.
Leaving the men to confer over the body, Penelope climbed the terrace steps. Pausing beside the pillar from which the lethal ball had been taken, she examined its top. The pillar ended in a stone hemisphere set round side down, but instead of being flat, the upper surface contained a shallow depression in which the ball had sat. There was no evidence of any additional fixture to hold the ball in place. A cushion of lichen had grown around where the ball had been, thickest on the side closest to the house. “Protected from the sun by the ball,” Penelope muttered.
She looked up as Hugo, having already been questioned by Stokes and then released, climbed the steps.
Halting beside her, Hugo looked down at Barnaby, then he met Penelope’s eyes. “I don’t know how you two do this.”
Penelope thought of telling him why they did—because they could help. There was, she was convinced, a great deal of good in Hugo, as in all the rest of his family, but he was still bumbling about, trying to find his way.
Instead of explaining, she smiled understandingly and patted his arm. “Go and have a brandy.”
Hugo blew out a breath. “Thank you. I rather think I’ll have three.”
With that, he headed into the house. Penelope turned and walked along the terrace balustrade. Pausing at each pillar topped by a stone ball—there were four in all, three still with balls—she confirmed that all were the same, with nothing actually anchoring the balls to the pillars’ tops.
Returning to the head of the steps, she heard Stokes say, “It seems clear enough. Someone—almost certainly some guest—lifted the ball from the pillar at the top of the steps and dropped it on Lady Galbraith.” Stokes paused, then added, “Which means this is murder.”
Lord Fairchild and the earl winced at the bald statement, but no one argued.
“We need to find out who did this and why,” Barnaby stated. “And with all possible speed.”
Again, there was general consensus. Looking over the balustrade, Penelope watched while Stokes, supported by Barnaby and the earl, and, however reluctantly, assisted by Lord Fairchild, discussed ways and means of achieving those goals. All agreed that there was no sense in even attempting to interview all the guests—there were far too many. It was determined that Stokes’s sergeant, O’Donnell, aided by the constables who would have arrived at the house by now, would collect the guests’ names and then let them go.
“That’s the best we can do regarding the who, at least for now.” Stokes looked down at the body.
Penelope bided her time while Lord Fairchild and the earl came up the steps and went into the house, followed by Sergeant O’Donnell, who recognized her and tipped his head respectfully. She waited until Barnaby and Stokes finally left the body and climbed the steps toward her.
As if sensing she was waiting with some purpose in mind, both halted two steps down, their faces level with hers.
She smiled a touch grimly. “There’s another question we need to ask, and I rather think it comes first.”
Barnaby and Stokes both raised their brows invitingly.
“Why did Lady Galbraith come outside?” Penelope glanced at the deserted gardens. No lanterns had been strung; it was too early in the season, the weather too often inclement to bother with such amenities. Looking back at Barnaby and Stokes, noting that both looked struck, she elaborated, “She’s been dead for how long? An hour or so before she was found? Why on earth would she leave one of the premier events of the Season, which had only just commenced, and come out here?”
Stokes slowly nodded. “Even I know that’s odd.” After a moment, he glanced at Barnaby, then looked at Penelope. “Our first step, I think, should be to interview her family. All those present.”
“According to Lady Fairchild and Barnaby’s mother,” Penelope said, “all Lady Galbraith’s immediate family is here.”
Stokes grimaced. “I’m not looking forward to breaking the news, but…” He drew breath. “After that’s done, we should see if we can turn up anyone who saw her ladyship leave the ballroom with anyone, or who has any idea why she left.”
Her expression resolute, Penelope nodded. “I’ll come and observe the family’s reactions, then I’ll find out who Lady Galbraith’s bosom-bows are and see if they know anything.”
“Right.” Clearly metaphorically girding his loins, Stokes turned to the house.
Penelope slid her arm through Barnaby’s and they followed Stokes inside.