Join My Newsletter
Subscribe Today

Murder at the Masked Ball Excerpt

Book 3: Kitty Worthington Mysteries

Chapter 1

_______________

Worthington House, Mayfair, London

July 1923

“LORD PELLEGRINE IS ENGAGED to Lady Mary Darby-Murton,” Mother said with a heavy sigh as she read the society column of The Tell-All, London’s premier gossip rag. 

“I sincerely hope she resembles his horse.” 

“Kitty!”

I gazed at her from my perch on the sofa where I’d been perusing today’s post. “It’s a compliment, Mother. Lord Pellegrine deems his horse the most beautiful creature he’s ever beheld. At least that’s what he told me at one of our at-homes.”

Mother stamped her finger on the engagement announcement. “This could have been you.”

“Not likely. I don’t ride horses.” Ever since I fell off my pony as a little girl, I’d eschewed all equine endeavors.

She turned toward me. “But you wouldn’t have to, dearest. Lord Pellegrine would have never asked such a thing of you.”

“Really, Mother?” I pierced her with a glance. “I’ve heard otherwise.” Rumor had it Lady Mary Darby-Murton, after a strong push from her mama to do whatever was necessary to obtain a proposal, had slipped away with Lord Pellegrine to his stable where he’d vigorously entertained her on his stallion. My imagination did not reach quite that far as I had no experience of the amorous congress between men and women. I mean, how did one even go about such a thing?

Her face flushed pink. “That rumor is not true. It can’t possibly be true.”

I arched a quizzing brow. “And yet, they’re engaged.”

“Well, if not Lord Pellegrine, someone else,” she asserted. “You’ve had many proposals. More than any other debutante this season. And you’ve turned down everyone.” And with that reproof, she resumed addressing invitations to our next supper party.

Poor thing was frustrated she hadn’t secured a titled spouse for me. Never mind I wasn’t interested in such a thing. But Mother firmly believed the acquisition of a husband was the ultimate achievement of any properly brought-up young lady, and her mind would not be changed.

One would think one victory would be enough. After all, my sister Margaret was now engaged to the Duke of Wynchcombe. But in all truth, Mother couldn’t take credit for that triumph. Margaret had met Sebastian at Oxford, where they’d subsequently fallen in love.

I rose from the couch and put my arms around her. “Dearest, you know I have no wish to marry. At least not at this time.”

“Nonsense. Every woman desires marriage to a gentleman.”

“Not me.” I kissed her cheek and returned to my seat where I’d been reading the latest spate of letters I’d received, every one of them asking for my help in looking into one matter or another. After our last investigation into the murder of an aristocrat, the papers had been full of praise for me, as well as my family and friends, for our work in identifying the murderer. As a result, people thought I was in the detective business and were writing notes begging for my help.

She put down her pen and glanced askance at me. “And what pray tell do you wish to do instead?”

“Excellent question.” She had cause to worry. All three of my siblings had achieved their life’s goals. Ned, the oldest, was a partner in Father’s investment firm, Worthington & Son. Next in line Richard had decamped to Egypt and become an archeologist. And Margaret was attending Oxford while furthering the cause of women’s issues. I, however, had not settled on any particular interest. The only thing I seemed to excel at was solving murders, and that couldn’t be a vocation. After all, one simply could not count on a murder to come along every week. But there were other matters I could investigate. The letters were proof of that. “I could become a lady detective. I’m rather good at figuring things out.”

“That’s not an occupation for a lady, Kitty,” she huffed.

“Maybe it should be.”

She studied me with careful thought. “You’re not seriously considering such a thing.”

“Ummm,” was my only answer, for I was indeed thinking about it.

“Young women of gentle birth do not involve themselves in tawdry matters.”

“I’ve already helped solve two murders, Mother. Doesn’t get much tawdrier than that.” Never mind she only knew the half of what I’d done. If she ever discovered my forays into the seedier side of town, she’d be horrified.

“But you had help. Your brother and sister, your friends. And those investigations were conducted for good reasons.”

“Well, these are good reasons, as well.” I waved one of the letters at her.

“What do you mean?”

“For the last two weeks, I’ve been getting requests to look into certain matters. Lost objects, missing persons.” I didn’t mention the ones that asked me to investigate circumstances involving blackmail or an errant husband, for she would definitely frown on those.

“It would be beyond the pale for you to become a lady detective. I forbid it.” And with that, she returned to her invitations, putting paid to our discussion.

I loved my mother, and I honestly sought to follow her wishes. But I was of age, having turned twenty-one in May, and I had the dowry Father had settled on me. So, I could carry out such an endeavor with or without her approval.

But the thing of it was I couldn’t simply hang out a shingle. I needed to have some instruction as to how to go on. Books would help. The lending library would almost certainly have some I could borrow. But I would need more than that, ideally personal instruction from someone who’d worked in the field. Maybe a retired inspector who would be willing to tutor me. But how to find one?

Inspector Crawford would be of no help as he would side with Mother on the issue. Chief Inspector Bolton might be more approachable, though. After all, I’d helped him solve a murder which had raised his standing at Scotland Yard. The least he could do was recommend someone. I would write and ask for a recommendation. With any luck, I could have an answer by tomorrow.

But before I could act on my decision, my sister Margaret sailed into Mother’s personal parlor, windblown from the blustery day, and promptly buzzed Mother’s cheek. “Hello, dearest.”

Mother offered my sibling her sweetest smile. “How was the clinic?”

A strong advocate of women’s issues, Margaret volunteered at a women’s health center which served those of modest means. As she did not have the medical expertise to treat those who sought its services, she performed the never-ending administrative tasks which needed doing as well as engaged in community outreach. 

“Busy, as always. It’s all we can do to keep up with the flow of patients.” Straightening, she put a hand to her back as if it ached. “Just wish we could do more.”

“Maybe Kitty could help.”

I could see the wheels turning in Mother’s head. Keep Kitty busy with the women’s clinic, and she won’t think about becoming a lady detective. “I don’t think I’d be much good since I faint at the sight of blood.”

“Thank you for the offer,” Margaret said, “but we need money more than volunteers so we can build additional health centers.” Unfortunately, the government refused to permit any access to birth control information through government-funded programs. That left the work of family planning to private clinics, such as the one at which Margaret volunteered. Since there was only one in all of London, the demand was much higher than the clinic could meet. 

“We could hold a fundraiser,” I suggested. Excited about the idea, I jumped to my feet. “Mother could advise us since she has a great deal of expertise in that area.” She was the chair of the Ladies Benevolent Society, after all, and had planned many an event.

“Of course. Anything I can do to help,” Mother responded. 

“That’s a grand suggestion, Kitty.” Margaret pressed my hand. “But the timing is not right. It’ll take at least two months to organize such a thing. By that time, everyone will have left town. It would be better to hold it next year.”

“But you’ll be busy with your wedding plans then, dear,” Mother reminded her.

After Sebastian proposed, they’d decided on a June date for their wedding. Sebastian had flat out stated that he couldn’t wait for Margaret to become his wife longer than that, an incredibly romantic thing for him to say.

“We’ll figure something out,” Margaret said. “Speaking of Sebastian, I must dash. He’s picking me up in half an hour, and I desperately need a wash. We’re going to the Royal Botanic Gardens. Apparently, they have a new bloom.”

“A new bloom at the Royal Botanic Gardens? Will wonders never cease?” I teased.

“Oh, stop. It’s a rare orchid from Borneo, or some such place.”

“What will you wear, dearest?” Mother asked, always cognizant of the face one must present in public.

Margaret scrunched her brow. “I hadn’t given it much thought. Something brown, I think, to camouflage the dirt.” Unlike Mother, Margaret had never given two figs about clothes.

“I wish you’d allow me to refresh your wardrobe, dear,” Mother said. “Your gowns are at least two years old.”

“I don’t need new outfits, Mother, to study at Oxford. As a matter of fact, they frown on ostentatious fashion.”

“You will be back for supper?” Mother asked, seemingly giving up on her argument. But it was bound to be a temporary reprieve for she was a strong proponent of dressing well.

“Of course. We’ll stop at Wynchcombe House and collect Lily on the way back. Now I simply must bathe.” And with a wave of her hand, she was gone.

Mother’s knitted brow evidenced her disappointment. “Most gentlemen take their fiancées to the theatre or the opera.”

“Either would bore them to tears. Sebastian loves nature, and Margaret loves Sebastian.”

“But they will be seen, and there she’ll be wearing a gown years out of date. The thought is not to be borne.”

She had a point. Fashions had changed drastically from two seasons ago. Skirts were shorter for one, and for another, they were better tailored. “You must give her a reason to obtain a new wardrobe, Mother.”

“Being engaged to a duke is not enough?”

“Not when the duke is Sebastian. She could be wearing sackcloth and ashes, and he would not notice.”

“But the world would.”

“So, take a different tack.”

“Such as?”

“Margaret is passionate about women’s causes—health, equality, and, of course, suffrage. As hard as she works, she can’t do it all on her own. Funds are needed to build more clinics. But society ladies are not going to donate money to someone dressed in unfashionable attire. Obnoxious, I know. But they don’t want to be seen with someone who’s garbed in outdated clothes. Once she’s seen in the latest thing, socialites will happily attend any events she sponsors as they will want to claim they’re friends with the Duchess of Wynchcombe. So, explain she’ll get better results if she dresses in style. I’m sure you’ll be able to extend those orders not only to tea frocks, but ball gowns and anything else.”

Mother’s gaze softened. “How very clever you are, Kitty.”

“Thank you, Mother.” I took the compliment in stride. “I got it from you. And Father, of course. But mostly from you.”

“Ummmm. Before I get a cavity from all the sugar you’re pouring over me, why don’t you get some rest? You want to look your best for supper tonight.”

Mother had originally held at-homes every Tuesday to encourage admirers. Many gentlemen had attended, and many had proposed. All of which I turned down. Not one to go down in defeat, she’d recently changed her strategy to holding supper parties twice a week. And she always made sure to include an eligible bachelor with a title attached to his name.

Suspicious, I narrowed my gaze. “Who did you invite, Mother?”

“Lord Marlowe and Lady Emma. And her mother, of course. Lord Rutledge. The Winthrops. They’re clients of your father’s.” 

She loved to seat fourteen to dinner whenever we entertained, and she was a stickler for even numbers. Once you added our family, Sebastian, his sister, Lily, and me, it left her one gentleman shy. “And someone else.”

“Lord Hollingsworth.”

The newest aristocrat in town. He’d been absent through most of the season as he’d been adventuring somewhere in the South Seas. As busy as I’d been last month in my quest to discover a murderer, I’d barely caught a glimpse of him. But he was handsome and definitely of marriageable age. And, if memory served me right, Lord Hollingsworth was a marquis. “I didn’t know we were acquainted with him.”

“Lord Rutledge suggested we invite him. Apparently, he’s looking for someone to manage his finances.”

A perfectly reasonable explanation, which I didn’t believe for a second. Mother had a scheme up her sleeve.