Excerpt: A Murder at Oxford | Kitty Worthington Mysteries | Author Magda Alexander Excerpt: A Murder at Oxford | Kitty Worthington Mysteries | Author Magda Alexander
Magda Alexander

Excerpt: A Murder at Oxford

Chapter 1

January 1924

Worthington House, Mayfair, London

“Good morning,” I said rushing into the dining room. At fifteen past eight, it was neither early enough to endure an inquisition from Mother, nor tardy enough for her to comment about my late arrival.

“Morning, dear,” Mother answered, a greeting that was echoed by the other occupants in the room.

Father, as always, was deep into The Financial Times. As head of Worthington & Son, it was of vital importance he kept abreast of financial news.

Ladies Lily and Melissande, seated opposite from Mother, were chatting away about their upcoming debut which would occur in but two months’ time. My sister Margaret, now the Duchess of Wynchcombe and Lady Lily’s sister-in-law, would present both at court in front of their royal majesties. But given she was newly married and finishing her degree at Oxford, Mother had volunteered to take on chaperone duties for the two debutantes, a gesture appreciated by all concerned. This, of course, meant that both young ladies would remain with us for the course of the season. It wasn’t a hardship for either of them, as they already resided with us.

Lady Lily had come to us during a moment of crisis. We’d offered not only sanctuary but moral support. As a result, she’d blossomed from an extremely shy person to one whose laughter regularly rang through our home. Lady Melissande had ended up at our doors when her chaperone had broken her hip. Her brother, Lord Hollingsworth, had asked us to shelter her until he could find a new one. As matters turned out, there was no need to find a replacement. Mother was more than happy to perform escort duties for her as well. She’d determined two debutantes to esquire about would be no more onerous than one. Not only would Mother hold at-homes for them, but would accompany them to every ball, breakfast al fresco, theatre attendance, and pig races, if any were held. I sincerely hoped no such event was scheduled this season as everyone ended up dirty and smelling like, well, pigs.

After I helped myself to breakfast consisting of shirred eggs, bacon, mushrooms, beans, and tomatoes, I took a seat next to Mother. “So, what’s on the schedule for today?” I inquired of Lady Lily.

“We have fittings at Angelique’s for our court presentation gowns.” Her eyes glowed with excitement.

After years of being abandoned at Wynchcombe Castle by her horrible grandfather with only servants for company, she deserved every good thing. With her beauty and charm, never mind her illustrious lineage, she was bound to make a glorious debut into London society. 

“Don’t we, Melly?” She asked of the young lady sitting next to her. Since they’d both come to live with us, they’d become the stoutest of friends.

“We most certainly do, Lil,” Lady Melissande responded with a soft smile. 

Their upbringings had been similar. And yet, different. It had been Lady Melissande’s mother’s dying wish she be raised in a French convent. So she, as much as Lady Lily, had grown up away from society. But she hadn’t suffered the loneliness Lady Lily had. The nuns had not only provided her with a classical education but encouraged her love of music which seemed to provide an emotional outlet for her. Consequently, she was everything a well-brought-up young lady should be.

“The two of you are going to take London by storm,” I said, after biting into a rasher of bacon. Their distinctive coloring—Lady Lily’s blonde, blue-eyed beauty, and Lady Melissande’s auburn tresses and eyes the color of the ocean—would ensure their success. 

“You think so, Kitty?” Lady Lily asked.

“Absolutely. London society won’t know what hit them when the two of you make your debut.”

“Will you be able to attend balls and such?” Lady Melissande asked.

“Absolutely,” Mother said.

It was impolite to disagree with her, but I had to qualify her answer. “Some of them. Most certainly, the ball Margaret is holding in your honor. But other events will depend on my schedule. The Ladies of Distinction Detective Agency is quite busy these days.” As co-partner in the agency, it was my duty to attend to that enterprise. After our last investigation had been resolved successfully, our business had exploded almost overnight. We barely kept up with the matters brought to us. I couldn’t very well promise to attend every event of the season when my responsibilities at the agency might prevent me from doing so.

Father, ever the businessman, rested the newspaper on the table. “How is that venture proceeding, Kitty?”

I was stopped from answering by Lady Emma’s breathless arrival. “My apologies for my tardiness. It was a rather late evening.”

Lady Emma, my co-partner at the Ladies of Distinction, had resided in the top floor of our agency’s building. But when matters grew dangerous during a previous investigation, Mother and I had convinced her to come live with us. Though there was no longer any peril, she’d remained, something for which we were all thankful. 

“Case in point, Father,” I said. “Lady Emma was doing a spot of investigation for a client.” 

“Ummm.” Mother said, “Young ladies should not involve themselves in matters that need to be handled at night.”

“It couldn’t be helped, Mrs. Worthington,” Lady Emma replied approaching the sideboard. “It was the only time we could observe this particular gentleman.”

“Where did you go?” Father asked.

“Salvattore’s. A gambling establishment.”

Mother bristled. “That’s no place for a lady of good breeding.”

“Oh, you’d be surprised, ma’am,” Lady Emma said, “at how many ladies of good breeding were present.”

“You did not go by yourself?” Father asked. He was more concerned with her safety than the propriety of the thing.

“No, sir.” Lady Emma said, taking a seat next to me. “Lord Marlowe accompanied me. He likes to lend a hand when the occasion calls for it.”

The occasion called for it more often than not in matters that Lady Emma managed, so much so we’d taken to assigning cases with that in mind to give him an opportunity to assist. Of course, Lady Emma did not protest such maneuvering for she was deeply in love with him, and he with her, even if both were too stubborn to admit it. So, any opportunity that caused them to be thrown together was eagerly welcomed by both.

“Take the Rolls, Kitty,” Father suggested, cutting into a sausage. “It’s much too cold for you ladies to venture out in your roadster.” 

He was right, and I was thankful for the offer. But it did beg the question, “Don’t you need it to go to the office?” Worthington & Son was in the City of London. Neville, our chauffeur, drove Father there every day.

“I’m working on a new client’s financial portfolio, and this afternoon I have a couple of transatlantic telephone calls. I can do all that from home. Ned can deal with anything that comes up at the office.” He most certainly could. My brother Ned was an equal partner at the financial firm.

“What about your visit to Angelique’s, Mother?” I asked.

“Our appointment is not until eleven. Plenty of time for Neville to drive you to your place of business and return.”

“I thank you both then. We are more than happy to take you up on the offer.” I did wonder if Father’s decision to work from home had been a rather sudden one, or if it had been on his schedule. I supposed I would never find out. What I did know was that he and Mother were loving parents who deeply cared for their children and anyone else who lived under their roof.

A knock on the door preceded a footman’s entrance. 

“What is it, James?” Mister Carlton, our butler, inquired. He remained in the dining room during all our meals to ensure everything proceeded smoothly.

“The morning post has arrived, Sir, and there’s a letter Mrs. Worthington might be eager to read.”

“Oh?” Mother said taking the letter from the salver James carried.

One look at the envelope with its foreign stamps, and my stomach sank. It could be from only one person—my brother, the archaeologist.

“It’s from Richard,” Mother said in a censorious tone.

I glanced at Father whose dismayed expression must have mirrored mine. Richard had not only missed Margaret’s wedding but hadn’t bothered to send his regret. He’d left it to his assistant to apologize. That letter explained Richard was at a critical part of an excavation and would not be able to attend. Mother had been so upset she’d forbidden us from mentioning his name at Wynchcombe Castle before Margaret’s wedding.

She handed the envelope back to James. “Thank you. Would you put it with the rest of the post on my desk? I’ll read it after breakfast.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Are you sure, Mildred?” Father asked.

“It’s bound to ruin my digestion, Edward. Might as well do it in the privacy of my parlor.”

He covered her hand with his own. “As you wish, dear.”

A woof from the door alerted us to yet another arrival—Sir Winston, father’s beloved basset hound. 

“Edward!” Mother cried out. “You know that dog is not welcome in the dining room.”

“Not to worry, dear. I asked Peter to bring him after his morning walk. He’ll keep me company in my study.”

“Woof!” Sir Winston seemed to be as excited as Father. He must have spotted the sausages Father had slipped into a napkin. No doubt they would be given to him as a treat.

With Father drawing fire, now was the perfect time to make our getaway. I turned to Lady Emma. “Ready?”

“As I’ll ever be.” She took a last sip of her tea and together we exited the dining room before Mother took further aim at us.

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