As wedding bells chime in Kurland St. Mary, a motley group of visitors descends on the village—and with a murderer on the prowl, some of them may not be returning home…
Lucy Harrington has returned to Kurland St. Mary to help with her friend Sophia Giffin’s wedding. But her homecoming is made disagreeable by the presence of Major Robert Kurland, whose bungled proposal has ruffled Lucy’s composure, and a meddling widow who has designs on her father, the village rector.
Wary of the cloying Mrs. Chingsford from the start, Lucy has doubts about the busybody’s intentions with her father. But everyone else seems to think they make an ideal match—until the courtship is curtailed when Mrs. Chingsford is found dead at the bottom of a staircase. It’s clear that it wasn’t an accident, and in hopes of finding the culprit, Lucy and Robert call a truce and begin scrutinizing the wedding guests.
But the widow left behind plenty of enemies, and when one of them is the next to turn up dead, Lucy and Robert discover that the truth is far more scandalous than anyone could have imagined…
“Lucy, my dear, you cannot ignore Major Kurland forever.”
“I know that.”
Lucy Harrington sighed and turned away from the window where she had just watched the major retreat down the tree-lined drive in his carriage. He’d sat with Sophia for a correct fifteen minutes, while Lucy had hidden cravenly in the library until she was certain he had gone.
“In a village as small as this, I am already finding it difficult to avoid him. When I return to the rectory, I’ll be right next door to Kurland Hall.”
Sophia patted her dog and then looked up at Lucy. “I still don’t understand what he did to provoke such a response from you.” She hesitated. “Did something happen on the way back from London? You barely spoke to each other for the entire journey. I ended up chattering all the time just to fill the silence. Major Kurland probably thinks I am an absolute fool.”
“I’m sure he doesn’t. I hoped you wouldn’t notice that we were at odds.”
“It was rather difficult to miss. You do tend to provoke each other, but you are rarely silent about it. I’m not sure which is worse, the bickering or the sulking.” Sophia sighed. “I do hope you will mend your fences soon, or my wedding is going to be very difficult indeed. Andrew asked Major Kurland to stand up with him and be his chief supporter at the altar. That’s what he came to tell me today.”
Lucy sat on the couch beside Sophia, almost dislodging Hunter, the dog, who ceded his place with obvious reluctance. “I swear I will not do anything to adversely affect your wedding. If that means treating Major Sir Robert Kurland, baronet, as if he was the Prince Regent himself, I will do it.” She squeezed Sophia’s hand. “I never meant for you to suffer from my stupidity.”
“Your stupidity?” Sophia raised her eyebrows. “What on earth did you do, Lucy? Throw yourself at him?”
“Ha! I almost threw something at him.” Lucy rose and paced the carpet, her hands locked together at her waist. “He … asked me to marry him.”
“Good Lord!” Sophia chuckled. “I thought his broken engagement with Miss Chingford had put that notion out of his head for good. What did you say?”
“What do you think? As you pointed out, we were hardly smelling of April and May for the remainder of the journey, were we?”
“You declined his offer?”
Lucy raised her chin. “Obviously, seeing as it was made under duress.”
“Someone held a gun to his head?”
“Of course not.” She fixed her friend with a severe glance. “Only a metaphorical pistol, in that my uncle asked Major Kurland to declare his intentions toward me.”
“I suppose the earl was trying to do his duty when your own father was absent. Major Kurland was rather particular in his attentions to you. Many people remarked on it.”
Lucy took another agitated turn around the room. “You know why he sought my company. It was everything to do with solving a murder, and nothing to do with him having any romantical notions about me whatsoever.”
Sophia patted the seat beside her. “Do sit down, Lucy, dear. You are giving me a headache with all that pacing. I assume Major Kurland made no effort to be romantic when he proposed?”
“As if I would’ve believed him if he had.” Lucy sat down again with a thump. “In truth, he suggested that he owed me an offer of marriage.”
“He sounded as if he was being led to the gallows and had accepted that his fate was to hang.”
Sophia stifled a sound behind her hand.
Lucy frowned at her. “Are you laughing at me?”
“I … am trying not to. I can just picture Major Kurland saying those words. I’m surprised you didn’t throw something at him.”
“I thought about it, but I was reluctant to cause a scene at the inn.”
Sophia angled her head to one side and observed Lucy rather too closely. “You don’t find it amusing, do you?”
“No. It was hideously embarrassing.”
“Then I’m sorry I laughed,” Sophia said contritely. “Perhaps if he had presented his case in a different way, you —”
Lucy shot to her feet as the butler entered the room and bowed.
“Mr. Stanford is here, ma’am. Do you wish to see him?”
“That would be delightful. Please send him in.” Sophia’s pleasure in the arrival of her intended shone in her face. At one point Lucy had wondered if Andrew Stanford would make her a good husband. After discovering he meant to reside mainly in London — a city she couldn’t bear to live in permanently — she was almost relieved when she discovered he had fallen in love with Sophia.
His ready smile widened when he came into the drawing room and saw Lucy.
“Miss Harrington, what a surprise! When I passed Robert on the drive, he told me you were not at home.”
Lucy felt herself blush. “I just returned from a walk, Mr. Stanford.”
“So I see.” His amused gaze swept over her gauzy morning dress and thin slippers, attire that was hardly suitable for a trip outside. “Did you hide in the attics to avoid the wretched man?”
“Andrew! Don’t tease dear Lucy,” Sophia said.
“Well, it is rather amusing to see Robert balked of his prey. Whatever did he do to deserve such treatment, Miss Harrington?”
Lucy forced a smile. “Major Kurland has done nothing wrong. Please excuse me. I have to go and finish packing.” She nodded at Sophia. “I will be back tomorrow to help you with the last of the invitations, but it might not be until the afternoon. I’m sure my father will have a thousand things he wishes me to do for him.”
“I’m sure he will.” Sophia made a sympathetic face. “My mother will be here in a day or so, which will make matters proceed far more speedily.”
Lucy curtsied to Mr. Stanford and made her way up to her bedchamber, which faced the home park of Hathaway House. Her bags were already packed, but she’d wanted to get away from the affianced couple before Sophia felt obliged to tell Mr. Stanford exactly what Major Kurland had done. Sophia was normally very discreet, but she seemed incapable of keeping anything from Mr. Stanford, which was perhaps as it should be.
As it was a pleasant afternoon, Lucy decided to walk over to the rectory instead of riding in the cart with her bags. She’d already sent a note to her rather peevish father to reassure him that after two weeks with Sophia, she was finally coming home. She’d decided it was good for him to feel a certain sense of uncertainty about her whereabouts, because she no longer intended to be taken quite so much for granted at the rectory.
After consulting with the butler about the removal of her bags and boxes, she put on her stoutest boots and the old bonnet that matched her favorite blue pelisse and went down the stairs and out into the park beyond. As she walked, she took deep breaths of the clean country air, which was so much more invigorating than the sooty, smelly haze of London. Cutting across the corner of the park, she came out on the country lane and turned right.
She was glad to be home. It was unfortunate that Major Kurland had proven to be right about her ability to survive in London. As she stomped along, she reminded herself that he hadn’t been right about everything. It wasn’t her inability to secure a husband that had drawn her home to Kurland St. Mary, but lack of freedom and pure boredom.
Behind her, she heard a horse and moved closer to the hedge, glancing over her shoulder to see who was driving by.
“Miss Harrington.” Major Kurland’s voice was used to carrying on battlefields and couldn’t be ignored. “Miss Harrington.”
Lucy stopped walking and waited for the gig to pull up alongside her.
“Good afternoon, Miss Harrington. May I offer you a lift?”
She kept her gaze straight ahead. “There is no need, Major Kurland. I am almost at the village.”
“But I do believe it is going to rain. I couldn’t leave you to struggle through a storm.”
There was an implacable note in the major’s voice that she knew all too well.
She sighed. “Thank you.”
He leaned across and opened the door for her. Gathering her skirts, she stepped up and sat opposite him, her gaze fixed firmly on her lap.
With a jerk, the gig moved off, the sides brushing against the cow parsley that grew in the ditches on either side of the lane.
“You do realize that you are being ridiculous, Miss Harrington?”
“I wasn’t aware of that, Major, or that your opinion of me mattered in the slightest.”
His gloved hand tightened on his cane. “I suppose you expect me to apologize to you again.”
“Like you supposed I expected you to propose to me?” Lucy gave a gasp and slapped her gloved hand over her mouth. “I do beg your pardon. That was quite inexcusable.”
“For God’s sake, don’t apologize for the first honest answer you’ve given me in weeks.”
Lucy cast an anguished glance at the back of the groom managing the horses.
“Don’t worry about old Reg. He’s as deaf as a post.” Major Kurland eased forward in his seat. “Let me make myself clear. I apologize unreservedly for proposing to you. I wish I’d never said anything, and I want to continue our friendship. I don’t want to spoil the upcoming wedding, an event we will both be heavily involved in.”
“Neither do I.”
“Then perhaps we should declare a truce. I’ll refrain from embarrassing you with any more marriage proposals, and perhaps you will stop treating me like a leper.”
“I wasn’t embarrassed.”
He sighed. “Angry then. But will you at least agree to let the past go?”
She studied the shine on his top boots for a long while. He seemed oblivious to the notion that his proposal might have hurt her feelings. But had it? Had she truly believed he might consider her as a suitable wife, after all? If he’d come to her on bended knee and sworn that he loved her, she wouldn’t have believed him. She was well aware that managing females such as herself rarely raised such passionate feelings in a gentleman. They preferred women who treated them like demigods.
She raised her eyes to meet his irascible dark blue gaze. “For Sophia and Mr. Stanford’s sake, I am prepared to let the past go.”
“Thank goodness for that.” Major Kurland sat back against the seat. “Now on to more important matters. I want to offer Kurland Hall as the venue for the breakfast and the evening party after the wedding. It is far larger than Hathaway House and can accommodate all the expected guests.”
“I think Mrs. Hathaway would be delighted to accept your kind offer. She and Sophia have been wondering how to manage such a large crowd.”
“Then I will consult with her when she returns home. I’m also …”
Major Kurland talked on, and Lucy nodded at the appropriate places and silently marveled at the changes in him. A year ago he’d been bedridden and making everyone pay for it. Now he was emerging as a formidable organizer and local leader, which was excellent news for everyone who depended on the Kurland estate for their living. She also wasn’t sure how she viewed his ability to move on so easily from their unfortunate disagreement over marriage.
“Are you listening to me, Miss Harrington?”
He frowned. “But you aren’t interrupting.”
“That’s because I have nothing to suggest. You seem to have everything well in hand.”
He looked slightly embarrassed. “That’s because of Thomas Fairfax, my new estate manager. He keeps me on task.”
“I cannot wait to meet this paragon.”
“You’ll like him. He’s intelligent, hardworking, and adept at managing me.” His rare smile flashed out. “Rather like you, actually.” His gaze shifted to the approaching village, and he raised his voice. “Stop at the rectory for Miss Harrington, Reg.” He turned back to Lucy. “Is your father expecting you?”
“I told him I would be back today.” Lucy gathered her skirts and found her reticule as Reg came around to open the carriage door for her. Major Kurland alighted first and held out his hand to her.
“You don’t need to come in, Major Kurland.”
“I most certainly do. I have instructions from Andrew about the wedding ceremony to deliver to your father. Didn’t Mrs. Giffin tell you that was one of the reasons I asked about you when I called? I always intended to offer you a lift home.”
“Sophia didn’t mention it.”
Lucy took his hand and descended from the carriage. In truth, having Major Kurland with her when she entered the rectory might work to her advantage and stop her father from quizzing her about her sudden return from London.
Within moments, despite her determined attempts to disengage herself from her companion’s side, they were both seated in the rector’s study while Major Kurland explained his errand and passed over Mr. Stanford’s letter. Lucy knew her father disliked officiating at weddings, and wondered how he would react to being given orders by the groom. He seemed very amiable, and Lucy began to relax.
“Mr. Stanford and Mrs. Giffin also asked me to inquire if you might be prepared to accommodate a couple of wedding guests if Hathaway House and Kurland Hall are full.”
The rector looked at Lucy. “Do we have space for guests, my dear?”
Lucy considered. “We have at least four vacant bedchambers until my siblings return home.” She missed the twins; her sister, Anna; and her brother Anthony quite dreadfully. It would be pleasant to have the rectory full of people again for a week or so.
The rector rubbed his hands together and smiled. “Then we shall look forward to greeting our new guests and becoming acquainted with them. It can be dull here without the pleasure of new company. Not all of us are able to gad about and go off to London on a whim, are we, Major?” His gaze rested on Lucy. “Or come back when we realize our father’s predictions of our lack of success were correct.” He chuckled. “I’m sure Lucy will be more than willing to settle back down to the tasks God obviously designed her for. Home and family must come first.”
Lucy stiffened, but Major Kurland spoke over her.
“From what I could tell when I was briefly in London myself, sir, your eldest daughter was much admired and sought after. I suspect she left more than one broken heart behind when she decided to come home and help Mrs. Giffin organize her wedding.”
“So I understand.” Her father’s expression became serious. “Lucy, my dear, perhaps you might go and find out what has happened to our promised pot of tea.”
After Miss Harrington reluctantly left, the rector glanced down at a letter on his desk. “My brother says that both my daughters were successful in attracting the attention of suitable men. He mentioned your particular attentions to Lucy, Major.”
“He did?” Robert tried to look surprised. “I certainly enjoyed Miss Harrington’s company. We are old friends.”
“My brother believed it ran deeper than that, but then he is somewhat of a stickler for society’s more archaic rules.” The rector took off his spectacles, his gaze considering. “Is there something you wish to ask me?”
There was a second of silence, broken by the chiming of the quarter hour by the clock on the mantelpiece. Robert made himself look the rector in the eye.
“If matters do develop between Miss Harrington and myself, sir, you will be the first to know.”
“I’m glad to hear that, Major. A woman’s reputation is a precious and fragile thing.” He folded up the letter. “Although the idea of a man in your new position courting my Lucy is somewhat unlikely.”
“I understand that, sir.” Robert used his cane to rise out of his chair. “I am far beneath her touch. I must be getting on. Mr. Stanford’s children are arriving today, and I promised to be there to greet them.”
“How delightful.” The rector rose, too, and came around to shake Robert’s hand. “What an occasion for our village, eh? A grand ton wedding.”
“And a lot of extra work and worry for all of us,” Robert couldn’t help but remark. He still wasn’t happy with having his peace disturbed, especially in the countryside, where his inability to join in any gentlemanly sports would be glaringly obvious.
“I believe most of the work and the excitement will be generated by our womenfolk, Major Kurland, which leaves us men with more time to hunt and fish. All you and Mr. Stanford have to do is remember to turn up at the church at the correct time.” The rector chuckled at his own joke and held the door open for Robert to depart. “Good afternoon, Major.”
As Robert climbed back up into the gig and Reg set off toward Kurland Hall, it finally started to rain. He glanced up at the leaden sky and grimaced. His land-draining schemes were only drawings at the moment, which meant that if the rain kept up all month, his lower pasturelands would be flooded again.