In the bestselling tradition of Anne Perry, Catherine Lloyd’s historical mystery debut brilliantly combines an authentic snapshot of the picturesque manor houses dotting the Regency English countryside, a high-handed war hero, and a mystery with revelations that will shock even 21st century readers.
When Major Robert Kurland returns badly wounded from the battlefields of France, he is completely confined to bed. One night he spies a mysterious figure near the parish church carrying a heavy load, and suspects foul play. Reluctant to share his experience with his staff, he turns to an old childhood acquaintance, Miss Lucy Harrington, the Rector’s daughter.
When Lucy mentions the recent disappearance of two young serving girls, Robert wonders if one of the girls has met with a terrible end. As they struggle to solve the mystery, the unlikely pair find themselves revealing far more to each other than they had ever imagined. But setting a trap to force a confession out of the suspected murderer will put them both in mortal danger…
Major Robert Kurland jerked awake from his uneasy half-sleep to the hoot of a barn owl and glared out into the darkness, his breathing uneven, his mouth dry.
When he was able to walk, he was going to take a gun out to the woods and slaughter every nocturnal creature that had disturbed his sleep for the past few months. Selfish, perhaps, but when sleep was as precious to him as water to a dying man, completely justified.
He levered himself upright against his pillows, aware of a fresh pain pounding in his head and the now familiar dragging ache of his broken leg. Foolishly, he’d instructed his valet to leave the curtains open, and now the entire landscape beyond his windows was bathed in moonlight. His gaze turned to the black bottle of laudanum and glass of water on his nightstand. He could dose himself, slide back down into the warmth of his bed and sink into oblivion…
It was tempting. But despite his doctor’s advice, Robert was reluctant to take too much of the opiate. Its siren call dulled his senses and made him forgetful and quite unlike himself. Resolutely, he turned his attention to the problem at hand. He would never get back to sleep unless he closed the curtains. The old clock on the mantelpiece wheezed and struck twice. If he rang the bell, Bookman would come, but it seemed wrong to disturb the other man’s rest. He would simply have to manage for himself.
Robert drew back the covers and studied his bandaged and splinted left leg. If he’d been a horse, they would have shot him, rather than painstakingly trying to reset his shattered bones. Sometimes during the last hellish months, he wondered if that would’ve been for the best. Even after all this time, his leg was still pretty damn useless. He used his upper body strength to pivot and placed both his feet on the floor. Even such a small effort made him sweat and curse like the lowest class of soldier he’d commanded.
He grabbed hold of the dresser next to his bed, and lifted himself upright, carefully placing the majority of his weight over his right side. It wasn’t that far to the windows, and there were plenty of objects he could use to support himself along the way. Part of him was revolted by the spectacle he made, dragging his wounded body around. The rest of him refused to give up. If he stayed in bed, he was afraid he would eventually lose the will to rise again.
He staggered from the dresser to the wing chair by the fireside and sat long enough to regain his breath and determination. In the distance, the squat tower of the Norman church that divided his property from the village proper stood stark against the night sky. There was a path from the side of Kurland Hall that led directly to the church and the boxed pew his family had occupied for Sunday worship for generations. Not that he believed in God anymore, but appearances had to be maintained.
When he recovered, he would certainly take his seat in his appointed place at the front of the church. He’d learned the value of setting a good example, first from his father and then from the army.
If he recovered…
Robert set his teeth and stood up again, his attention fixed on the large bay windows. Three more lurching steps brought him up against a small desk that creaked rather ominously when he rested his weight against it. His chest was heaving as if he’d run a race and his heart pounded so loudly he could hear it over the ticking of the clock. A shadow flickered over the full moon and Robert saw the soaring outline of one of the owls.
He transferred his gaze to the heavy silk embroidered curtains. If he leaned forward, could he at least draw one of them closed? He reached out his hand, overbalanced, and had to rock back on his heels, sending an excruciating stab of pain up his left leg. The desk swayed along with him on its equally spindly legs. He propped himself up against the wall to regroup. Sweat ran down his face and his vision blurred.
He focused on the reassuring bulk of the church until his breathing steadied. He could do this. He had to do this. The ability to close his own damned curtains was a symbol of all his frustrations over the past few months. There was another chair close to the center of the two windows. If he could just reach that, he would achieve his aim. He stumbled forward and clutched at the back of the dainty chair, half bent over it. As he straightened, his attention was caught by another shadow flitting across the park below.
He frowned. Not flitting. Whatever was out there was moving rather slowly, as if overburdened. Robert squinted and realized he wasn’t looking at an animal, but at a person carrying something heavy, either in his arms, or over his shoulder. The unknown being continued toward the church, his shadow thrown up against the old flint wall into gigantic proportions.
“What the devil is going on?” Robert wondered aloud, as he craned his neck to get a better look. The chair tipped and he fell, his hands grabbing uselessly for purchase. Like a wounded animal, he turned, so that his right side hit the floor first and absorbed the sudden impact that made him want to puke up his guts. He came to rest on his back staring up at the white stucco ceiling. Considering the noise he’d made, he expected half his household to come tearing into his bedroom.
All remained quiet apart from the derisive hooting of the owls.
Robert wanted to laugh. He’d reached his goal, but still hadn’t managed to draw the curtains, and he was destined for an incredibly uncomfortable night on the floor. So much for the gallant major. He threw his forearm over his eyes and pressed hard. He hadn’t cried since he was seven and been sent away to boarding school. Dignity be damned. He’d crawl back to bed.
* * *
“Now, don’t forget to visit Major Kurland today, Lucy.”
Lucy Harrington glanced at her father as he sat serenely drinking tea and eating boiled ham at the head of the table. Breakfast at the rectory was always a noisy affair, and this fine spring morning was no exception. Anna and Anthony were arguing about the weather, and the twins were throwing crusts of bread at each other. Sunlight gleamed through the bow windows, glancing off the silver coffee pot and the blond hair of the rector’s two youngest children. Not that anything could make the twins look angelic. Before she could frame an appropriate answer, she coaxed the dripping honey-covered spoon from young Michael’s fierce grip and endeavored to wipe his sticky face.
“Did you hear me, Lucy?”
“Yes, Papa, I did.” She patted her youngest brother on the head, and poured him some more milk. “Are you not able to attend the major yourself?”
He frowned at her over the top of his spectacles. “I have to go to the horse fair at Saffron Walden. I need a new hunter.”
Of course, her father’s passion for horseflesh would always trump his other duties. Lucy nodded at the twins, and they hurriedly got down from the table and disappeared through the door. Moments later, Lucy heard their nurse calling them and the clatter of two sets of boots stealing down the backstairs. She supposed she should go and find the boys before they escaped into the woods, but her father gazed at her as though he expected an answer.
“I don’t think Major Kurland enjoys my company, Papa.” She placed her knife on her plate. “He much prefers to converse with you.”
“Nonsense, my dear.” The rector rose to his feet and surveyed the ruins of the breakfast table. “It is your duty to succor the sick and the poor, regardless of your own selfish desires.”
Lucy raised her chin. “It is wash day. Who will supervise the staff if I am off visiting the sick?”
“You will contrive, Lucy. You always do.” The rector folded his newspaper and laid it on the linen tablecloth. “I have the latest London papers in my study. Perhaps you might take them to Major Kurland and amuse him by reading the court scandal. It cannot be easy for a man of action such as our esteemed major to be laid up.”
“I’m sure it isn’t Papa, but—”
The rector pushed in his chair. “I will be back for dinner, my dear. Please tell Cook that I cannot stomach any more mutton.”
“I’ll take out a line and fish for our dinner if you like,” Anthony cut in with a wink at Lucy.
The rector paused to look down his long, aristocratic nose at his son. “You, sir, will be studying with Mr. Galton for your entrance exams for Cambridge.”
“Not all day. I’ll find time to fish. That is, if Lucy doesn’t make me do the laundry.”
Lucy smiled at her brother. “I wouldn’t dare take you away from your studies.”
Anthony grinned and returned his attention to his plate. Like most young men, his appetite was inexhaustible and quite indifferent to the ebb and flow of emotion around the rectory table.
“Well, whatever you put in front of me tonight, it had better not be mutton.” The rector placed his spectacles in his waistcoat pocket. “I’ll take Harris with me. You don’t need him, do you?”
“No, Papa.” Lucy started gathering up the dishes the twins had abandoned. “And I’ll make sure Cook understands about your requirements for dinner.”
Her father paused to kiss the top of her head before departing for the stables, his loud, cheerful voice boomed through the hallways, calling for Harris to bring his horse around. Lucy rested her chin on her hand and stared down at the crumbled remains of her toast and marmalade.
“It’s all right, sis. I’ll find time to go and fish whatever Father says.”
She looked up at Anthony. “I’d appreciate it if you did. Unfortunately, unless you catch a whale, the rest of us will still be eating mutton. Cook has a whole side to get rid of.”
Anthony groaned. “Can’t you give that to the poor? I’m sure Major Kurland would love a bowl of mutton stew.”
“He’d probably throw it at my head.” Lucy put the lid on the butter dish. “A more ill-tempered man I have never met.”
“But Lucy!” exclaimed her sister Anna. “He was wounded fighting for his king and country at Waterloo. You can hardly expect him to be pleasant.”
“He was pleasant enough when I first visited him with Father. It is only since I’ve taken up the burden of visiting him alone that he appears to think he owes me no courtesy whatsoever.”
Anna reached across to squeeze Lucy’s hand. At twenty, she was the acknowledged beauty of the family and only five years younger than Lucy. Her temperament was sunny and obliging and, unlike Lucy, she always saw the good in everyone. She was fair like the twins, whereas Lucy and her brother favored their dark-haired father.
“He can’t help being difficult. Have you tried to cheer him up?”
“Of course, I haven’t. I sit there and sob into my handkerchief and bemoan his wounds.”
“There is no need to be flippant.” Anna glanced across at Anthony. “I just wondered if perhaps you were a little ‘sharp’ with him.”
“As I am with my family?” Lucy raised her eyebrows. “Anna, if you want to visit the man in my stead, please, be my guest.”
A delicate flush blossomed on Anna’s cheeks. “Oh, no, I’m sure he wouldn’t want to see me.”
“Fancy yourself lady of the manor do you, Anna?” Anthony nudged his sister. “Even when you were a little girl, you always idolized Major Kurland.”
Lucy sat back to survey her blushing sister. “That’s true. I’d forgotten. You used to follow him around like an acolyte.”
Anna sipped at her tea and kept her gaze demurely downcast. “Despite the great disparity in our ages, he was always very kind to me.”
Lucy finished her toast. “Then perhaps you should go. I’ll wager he won’t snap at you for trying to make conversation.”
“So that she can swoon over him?” Anthony snorted. “He’s fifteen years older than her.”
“So? Father was fifteen years older than Mother. It’s quite common for a husband to be older than a wife.”
“And yet she died before him because she had too many children.” Anna’s smile disappeared. “She was simply worn out with it.”
Lucy reached for Anna’s hand. “That might be true, but, as Father will no doubt remind you, that is a woman’s lot in life.”
Anna snatched her hand free. “That doesn’t make it any better though, does it?”
Lucy could only agree. The loss of their mother in childbed almost seven years ago had devastated their family and left nineteen-year-old Lucy in charge of two squalling infants. As her mother became a distant memory, Lucy sometimes felt as if the twins were her children. They certainly treated her as their mother. She would be devastated when they were sent away to school in the autumn.
Lucy rose to her feet. There was no point sitting around moping. She’d learned long ago that achieved nothing. “Anna, if you don’t wish to visit Major Kurland, you will have to supervise Betty and Mary while they do the laundry.”
She tried not to look hopeful. Perhaps that would make Anna change her mind and take on her least favorite obligation of the day. To her disappointment, her sister merely nodded.
“Of course, I’ll help. Shall I ring for Betty to clear the table?”
“No, I’ll do it myself. ” Lucy glanced out the window at the bright sky. “Betty is already stripping the beds, and I don’t want to disturb her. Best to start on the washing before this fine weather disappears.”
“I’ll help too,” Anthony offered. “Mr. Galton won’t be here for another hour.”
“But aren’t you supposed to be aiding Edward in the church?”
Anthony’s charming smile flashed out, reminding Lucy of her father. “Oh, Edward will manage. He doesn’t like my assistance anyway. He worries that Father might give me his job.” He snorted. “As if I would want to be a poor curate in a village like this.”
“Hush, Anthony,” Lucy admonished her brother. “Edward can hardly help his circumstances, can he? And if it weren’t for him, Father couldn’t avoid all the more onerous duties of being the rector of several small parishes.”
“He likes the income, though, doesn’t he?” Anthony finished his tea in one gulp.
“That’s none of our business,” Lucy said severely. “Despite his private income, Papa also has a large family to provide for. How do you think he pays for your tutor?”
Anthony’s mouth settled into a sulky line. “He pays more for his horses than he does for my education, and he barely pays his curate a pittance.”
The curate, Edward Calthrope, was a worthy man of about Lucy’s age who lived with them at the rectory. He performed all the mundane tasks associated with the parish of Kurland St. Mary and the adjoining parishes of Lower Kurland and Kurland St. Anne that the rector was supposed to spiritually mentor, but preferred to avoid. Lucy wasn’t quite sure of Edward’s background as he rarely spoke about his family. How he had found his way to Kurland was something of a mystery.
“You should go and help Edward,” Lucy admonished her brother. “He works far too hard.”
“And I don’t?” Anthony yawned, stretched out his legs and looked down at his top boots. “I am cramming for Cambridge, you know.”
Lucy picked up the nearest pile of plates and headed for the door. “And I have to visit Major Kurland. As Papa said, we all have to do things we’d rather not.” She studied her brother. “You might not be so tired if you slept at night. I heard you creeping up the stairs at dawn this morning.”
“Spying on me, Lucy? I didn’t think it of you.”
“Not spying, I was just getting up.” She paused, but Anthony made no effort to explain where he’d been, and why should he? As a young man he was perfectly entitled to disappear when it suited him.
Anthony picked up his cup and plate. “All right, my dearest sister. I’m off to the church to scrape off candlewax and reset the mousetraps.”
“Thank you.” Lucy paused to smile at him. Despite his exasperating male habits, he was a remarkably good brother. She’d be losing him too if he passed his examinations and went up to Cambridge. That wasn’t as worrying as the thought of losing the twins, but it still meant that her family was moving forward with their lives while she…
“Oh, Miss Lucy!”
She turned to find the twins’ nurse running down the main staircase of the house, her cap askew, and her skirts held up to her knees.
“What is it, Jane?”
“Them two young heathens have run off, again! Whatever am I to do with them?”
“Let them be for the moment. They’ll have to stop running wild soon enough.”
Jane mopped her brow with the corner of her apron. “That’s true enough, Miss, although how they will get on at school, I cannot imagine.”
Unfortunately, Lucy already knew from Anthony’s experiences that life at boarding school would soon beat any willfulness out of the twins. She hated the very thought, but there was nothing she could do about it. Her father insisted they needed to become English gentlemen and, apparently, a gentleman had to withstand anything his enemies cared to throw at him without flinching. Despite her father reading passages to her about how the English school system mimicked the finer points of the Spartan agoge, Lucy was still not convinced it was the best way to bring up a child.
“They’ll come back when they are hungry. Now, why don’t you help me clear the table and get Miss Anna started on that huge laundry pile?”
It wasn’t until much later that she remembered to search her father’s study for the latest London newspapers to bring for the edification of Major Kurland. Not that he would appreciate the gesture. If he wanted to know all the latest gossip from Town, he could certainly afford to have his own newspapers delivered. His father had married an heiress from the industrial north, and unlike many aristocratic estates, Kurland was thriving.
Lucy chided herself for her unchristian thoughts and gathered up the printed sheets. The study smelled of brandy, saddle leather and the bay rum her father’s valet used after he shaved him. She glanced at the rows of books and imagined herself in Anthony’s place being tutored for Cambridge. Her father always said she was far too intelligent for a girl, but he’d never stopped her from reading any of the books she requested, even the slightly scandalous ones. She replaced the stopper in the ink well. Perhaps with Anthony and the twins leaving, she might finally be able to talk to her father about her plans for the future.
After checking that her basket held everything she needed for her various visits in the village, Lucy set out. She kept a wary eye on the weather, which was still quite unpredictable and veered from sunshine to clouds within moments. She tied the ribbons of her plain straw bonnet firmly under her chin, and buttoned up her blue wool pelisse. She might look like the spinster aunt she was surely destined to become, but at least she was warm.
Along the driveway that led up to the rectory, some straggling spring flowers raised their heads toward the bright sunlight. In a few weeks the rest would follow and the flowerbeds would be a sea of yellow and purple. About ten years previously, her father had rebuilt the rectory in a soft yellow stone that reminded Lucy of the houses in Bath. It was a square and symmetrical building with four rectangular windows to each side of the white front door, very much in the classical style of Robert Adam, whom he had greatly admired.
The rector had given up trying to repair the two hundred year old house that stood there previously, and had it demolished. Lucy still fondly remembered the older rectory with its diamond-paned windows, wooden beams, sloping ceilings and winding staircases. As a child, it had felt like living in a fairytale castle. She was practical enough to admit that it must have been difficult to maintain for a man with a young and ever-increasing family. The new house still seemed a little ill at ease and out of place, the scars of its construction evident in the hard edges of the new pathways and the lack of large trees.
Lucy did appreciate that the roof no longer leaked, and that the kitchen had both a proper chimney and a closed stove rather than the huge open medieval fireplace that belched smoke and soot over the food being prepared. Her mother had loved having fires in every room and the light the big rectangular windows provided.
At the bottom of the driveway, Lucy turned right and headed along the main thoroughfare to Kurland Village. The ground was wet and muddy and she was glad she had worn her stout boots. There was no one else visible on the road but that was to be expected in the middle of the day. Despite the sunshine, her breath condensed as she exhaled and she could still feel the brush of winter’s icy fingers against her cheeks.
She walked past the first of the thatched cottages that housed the laborers who worked the fields of the Kurland estate. A woman was hanging washing out to dry, and nodded at Lucy through a mouthful of pegs. Lucy smiled and nodded back, aware as the wind picked up and flattened the woman’s gown to her belly that she was expecting another child. Mentally, Lucy added another set of birthing clothes to the list of garments she needed to knit or sew for upcoming happy events.
The cottages grew closer together until Lucy was in the village proper facing the green and the square of buildings huddled around it. The ice had finally thawed on the duck pond, and Lucy was pleased to see that several of the local birds had returned to claim their spots at the side of the weed-choked pond. Something large Lucy couldn’t quite identify stuck out above the surface of the water like an awkward elbow. She should speak to Major Kurland about that. It was his responsibility to keep the pond from becoming stagnant and overgrown.
In truth, she had no inclination to speak to Major Kurland about anything that might raise his ire. Perhaps it would be better to take her concerns to his rather obnoxious land agent. At least he might listen to her, even if he chose not to do anything.
Lucy turned from her contemplation of the duck pond to find Mrs. Weeks, the wife of the baker, waving at her from the door of her shop. The fragrant scent of baking bread laced with a hint of cinnamon sugar tantalized Lucy’s nostrils. When she was a child, Lucy had often saved her pennies and sneaked down to the village just to buy an iced bun or an eccles cake from the bakery.
“Good morning, Mrs. Weeks.” Lucy stepped into the baker’s store and closed the door against the chill. “Is there something I can do for you?”
Mrs. Weeks folded her arms across her chest. “I was wondering if you wanted me to make the cake for the rector’s birthday.”
“I would love you to make it, Mrs. Weeks, but there is the little matter that Mrs. Fielding might take offense.”
“She always takes offense, but there is no denying that her cakes aren’t as light as mine.”
Lucy had heard variations of this argument her entire life. The rivalry between the baker’s shop and the rector’s cook had started before Lucy was born when her mother had inadvertently began the tradition of having a special cake made as a surprise for her husband’s birthday. She’d asked Mrs. Weeks to make it, and Mrs. Fielding had never forgiven her. The problem was that Mrs. Weeks did make a far superior cake, which Lucy’s father much preferred.
“Please make the cake, Mrs. Weeks.” Lucy said, cutting through the other woman’s long discourse on what Mrs. Fielding had said to her, and what she had said back. “I’m sure it will be as delightful as always.”
She’d placate Mrs. Fielding by keeping her busy cooking a sumptuous dinner of all the rector’s favorite foods, and hope she wouldn’t notice the addition of an extra cake. Of course, she’d notice it eventually, but by then it would be too late for her to do anything about it. The strategy had worked quite successfully in the past few years and Lucy was confident it would be successful again—as long as Mrs. Weeks didn’t boast of her triumph too loudly after church on Sundays.
Lucy realized that Mrs. Weeks was still speaking and tried to pay attention.
“My Daisy, Miss Harrington.”
“I’m sorry, what about your Daisy?”
“She’ll be wanting a new job soon and I was wondering if you’d have anything up at the rectory for her. She’s a sturdy, hard-working girl and she knows her place.”
Lucy tried to recall Daisy and remembered thick braids, brown eyes and a permanent scowl. “Does she not wish to work in the shop with you?”
“Not any more, Miss. She says she wants to go up to London and become a lady’s maid.”
“And you do not want her to do that?”
“She’s my youngest, I was hoping to keep her by me for a while. I don’t think she is ready to move up to London yet. She disagrees with me, of course. In fact, she’s still sulking in her bed upstairs after our latest argument.”
“How old is she?”
Lucy reviewed the current staff of the rectory. “If my brother goes up to Cambridge, and the twins leave for school in the autumn, I will probably have to reduce the staff rather than increase it. I’m sorry, Mrs. Weeks. But I will inquire among the neighboring houses as to whether anyone needs a new maid.”
“Never mind, Miss. It can’t be helped.” Mrs. Weeks wiped her hands on her apron. “I’m sure with God’s help, she’ll find something. Now is there anything I can get you while you’re here?”
Lucy departed with half a dozen iced buns and went next door to the haberdasher’s and general store to replenish the contents of her sewing box. She chatted with the proprietor and then spent another quarter of an hour talking to the butcher about the excellence of the Christmas goose and tactfully mentioning that they would not require any more mutton in the foreseeable future. She was aware that she was dawdling because she didn’t want to retrace her steps to Kurland Manor but, eventually, even she ran out of things to say.
As a child, she’d loved visiting the manor house. The major’s mother had been a charming, welcoming hostess who had encouraged the rector’s children to treat her home as an extension of their own. Of course, Lucy’s mother had gently suggested that this was because Mrs. Kurland was not wellborn and rather too familiar, but Lucy hadn’t cared about that. She’d enjoyed getting away from her mother and running after the two Kurland boys.
Even then, Robert Kurland had been rather aloof and above their childish games. As the oldest son and heir he’d had none of his younger brother’s carefree spirit and had stopped taking any notice of the crowd of village children who gathered to swim and play in the extensive grounds of Kurland Hall. And, after starting at Eton and his brother’s death, he’d withdrawn from them completely.
She trudged up the long drive to the major’s ancestral home with all the anticipation of a cavalry unit sent uphill to dislodge some enemy cannon. The military cant made her catch her breath and wish painfully for Tom, her other brother, the one who now lay in the family crypt by the church awaiting the resurrection.
She forced herself to think of more cheerful matters. She was secretly glad that Major Kurland hadn’t followed her father’s example and replaced the Elizabethan manor with a modern stucco box. The house was shaped like an E, with thick beams, narrow windows and fantastically tall lopsided Elizabethan chimneys in the grand manner of Hampton Court. Local legend said that many of the internal beams had been salvaged from the destruction of King Henry VIII’s naval ships, which would explain both their thickness and their inconvenient curves.
Generations of Kurlands had added to the manor house, some more successfully than others. It now resembled something of a hodgepodge with stairs that led to nowhere, large windows where once had been arrow slits, and a beautiful park laid out by Capability Brown.
Lucy knocked on the old oak door and frowned fiercely at the worn Kurland family crest carved into the panel. She should have more sympathy with Major Kurland. He had survived Waterloo, even if her brother hadn’t.
Foley, the butler, opened the door for her and smiled. “Good afternoon, Miss Harrington. Have you come to visit the Major? He’s tucked up in bed again.”
“Then I won’t disturb him,” Lucy said rapidly. “Perhaps you might like to give him these newspapers when he wakes up.”
“Oh, no, Miss. He’s awake and I’m certain he’ll want to see you.” He lowered his voice. “The doctor called, and the major’s been grumpy as a bear and complaining about a lack of decent company all morning.”
Lucy tried to hang back, but Foley somehow had a firm grip on her elbow and was maneuvering her up the stairs. For such a slight man, he was difficult to stop. She readjusted her basket and stripped off her gloves. It was an opportunity to show Christian charity and she should embrace it.
Foley knocked on the major’s bedroom door and opened it wide. “Miss Harrington to see you, sir. I’ll bring up some tea.”