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Murder at Westminster Excerpt

Book 2: Kitty Worthington Mysteries

Chapter 1

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Worthington. House, Mayfair
London 1923

LONDON’S SOCIAL SEASON WAS NOT FOR THE FAINT OF HEART.

Debutantes required the stamina of a Boadicea to endure the endless rounds of balls, afternoon teas, picnics alfresco, scavenger hunts, and whatever other festivities a clever hostess devised. Paraded as they were like prize mares at county shows for eligible bachelors to consider their worth as a wife, it was a wonder they weren’t weighed, measured, and asked to show their teeth. And all done for the sake of securing a husband. As if that was a goal devoutly to be achieved.

Such a frantic pace was bound to take its toll. Barely a month into it, we’d already experienced several casualties. Lady Gertrude Stanley, who suffered from a nervous complaint, collapsed weeping in the middle of a quadrille. Apparently, the intricate dance steps had proven too much for her. She’d subsequently withdrawn to her Yorkshire country estate where her only companions were sheep. And they, of course, did not dance.

Lady Lydia Campbell, on the other hand, had proven a luminary on the ballroom floor. She’d mastered not only the old-fashioned dances the grand dames so dearly loved, but the more modern ones they eschewed. Unfortunately, she hadn’t reckoned with that clodhopper of an earl, Lord Gardiner and Tyne. During a Viennese waltz, he’d trodden on every one of her toes breaking her left foot. Not one to go down in defeat, for she was made of sterner stuff, she’d insisted on keeping to the demanding schedule. Until, that is, her physician warned her she risked losing the ability to walk altogether if she carried on this way. And so, she’d returned to her remote castle in the Scottish Highlands where she would live to dance another day.

Miss Sara Cogsburn, our third casualty, was the only child of an investor who’d made pots of money on railroads and tin mines. She’d suffered no injuries, at least none that were visible to the naked eye. But without so much as a soupçon of a warning, she’d suddenly fled town. Rumors, of course, ran rampant about the cause, which only grew to a frenzy when her engagement to Baron Donne’s third son was announced. But soon that particular mystery was solved. While the gentleman in question had neither fine prospects nor an admirable physique to boast of, he possessed something which some ladies prized. He was an expert in the amorous arts. A fact which, gossip had it, Lady Lydia had learned first-hand. One could only hope her connubial bliss made up for his deficiencies in other areas.

While as for me, I kept to the furious gallop, for Mother would not have it any other way. As a result, my season had become a resounding success. Much to my consternation, hardly a week went by that Father didn’t entertain numerous requests for my hand in marriage. While some were issued by respectable lords and gentlemen who were serious in their pursuit, others were offered by rogues, rakes, and ne’er do wells who were more interested in my substantial dowry than my humble self. Regardless of the intent, every proposal was respectfully turned down after Father consulted me. But the thing of it was every refusal somehow spurred others to do the same, as if they’d determined it a contest to see who would win the prize mare, er, me. 

Of course, Mother was in her glory, for she devoutly wished to see me walking down the aisle, preferably to someone with a title attached to his name. It didn’t matter which. Any title would do. Alas, I was bound to disappoint her for I had no wish to marry. At least not at this time. But hope sprung ever eternal in Mother’s breast.

As I approached the dining room for the chief reason which had driven me to rise this morning—breakfast—its door opened, and my sister Margaret emerged, followed as ever by her faithful squire, Sebastian Dalrymple. The militant expression on her face told me I was truly in the soup.

“Have you just risen?” she asked, all pinched mouth and scrunched brow. “It’s after nine.”

“I didn’t make my bed until three. You know how late balls go.” Having experienced her own season two years ago, she was familiar with its hectic nature.

“We have much to do for the women’s march, Kitty.” That august event, part and parcel of the social agenda Margaret embraced while at Oxford, sought to gain suffrage for women over the age of twenty-one. As the law currently stood, only women who had attained the age of thirty and owned property were entitled to vote. That left out many a shop girl, factory worker, and domestic servant, never mind myriads of others who toiled for a living. “You knew I needed you bright and early, fresh and ready to go. You should have come home sooner.” 

If she was trying to make me feel guilty, she was doing a brilliant job. “I’ll be there. Just let me enjoy breakfast first.”

The edges of her mouth turned down with disapproval. “Very well. Join us as soon as you can.” And then she veered toward the ballroom where the march preparations were being made. An amused Sebastian winked at me before trailing in her wake.

He was a dear, truly. One would think he would resent Margaret ordering him about. But he never did. His easy-going style was the opposite of Margaret’s martinet ways. But then she was carrying a lot on her shoulders since the women’s march was to take place in little more than a week. While the leaders handled the publicity, garnering the public’s support through the press, Margaret had volunteered herself and our home to organize the effort. During the last two weeks, she’d trained volunteers and managed supplies, while ensuring the work proceeded smoothly. She was to be lauded for her efforts, and I admired her for them. I just wished she was less forceful about it.

A footman carrying a tray of food drifted by capturing my attention.

“Is that bacon?” I asked. The enticing aroma wafting from the platter made my mouth salivate. 

“Yes, Miss.”

“Ummm.” I followed him into the dining room where I found my parents engaged in a spirited discussion.

“That young man seems to have become a fixture around the house,” Father said. “Can’t move two feet without stumbling into him.”

Mother cast a worried glance toward the door. “Edward, please keep your voice down. Sebastian may hear you.”

“He can’t, Mildred. He’s already left the room.”

Two weeks earlier, Sebastian had escorted Margaret to my birthday celebration and for all intents and purposes had practically moved in. Oh, he slept in his own bed for he had lodgings nearby. But he never missed a meal at our house, appearing daily before breakfast and remaining until after supper when he would bid adieu and go merrily on his way. Margaret referred to him as her ‘friend.’ Heaven forfend if my tongue slipped and call him her beau. Even though it certainly seemed that way. 

Mother, whose fondest desire was that at least one of her children married into the aristocracy, was overjoyed Sebastian continued to grace us with his presence. After all, he was the heir to a dukedom. Even though nary a hint had been dropped, she’d begun to hear wedding bells being pealed for Margaret and her beau. Pardon me, friend.

Father, on the other hand, seemed to have developed an objection to Sebastian’s presence. Odd, if you asked me, since they only came face to face at breakfast and supper times. Father was too busy with his financial business, Worthington & Son, which he managed along with my brother Ned, while Sebastian’s satellite revolved around Margaret’s sun. Still, Father did have a point.

As I approached the groaning sideboard, my heart leapt with joy. Laden as it was with shirred eggs, bacon, sausage, potatoes, mushrooms, and tomatoes, it was a wondrous sight to behold. 

“Why is he here anyway?” Father asked. “A young man with all his prospects should be out and about enjoying pursuits in London.” 

“He’s working with Margaret on her project, dear,” Mother said. “You know how important that is to her.”

“Women’s suffrage. Yes, I know.” He put down his fork. “I don’t see what all the fuss is about. They already have the vote.”

“Not all of them. Your own two daughters don’t.”

He pinned his gaze on me. “What could Margaret and Kitty possibly be concerned about that requires them to vote?” He was a dear, really, but he had no understanding of women’s plight.

“Employment equality, health issues, self-determination, just to name a few.” I took a seat at the table along with my plate of chosen fare. “Why, a woman cannot even open a bank account in her own name. She needs a man to do it for her. That’s a recipe for disaster.”

“But—”

“Try the coffee, Edward,” Mother suggested. “Cook managed to obtain a special blend—Colombian, I believe.” 

“Oh, jolly good.” As soon as he took a sip, contentment rolled over his face.

I smiled into my own cup at Mother’s clever ways. She’d mastered the art of dealing with Father a long time ago. Coffee, food, and a change of subject usually did the trick. 

Unfortunately, Father was not quite ready to let the Sebastian issue go. A few bites later, he returned to this morning’s topic du jour. “Where does he lay down his head at night?”

“Porchester Place,” I volunteered.

“Excellent,” he said slicing into a sausage. “Shouldn’t take him but a tick to drive there.” 

I took a bite of the bacon and sighed with bliss. “He doesn’t drive, Father. He walks.” 

Father paused with the sausage halfway to his mouth. “He walks?”

Mother, who preferred Father remain ignorant of Sebastian’s circumstances, tsked her disapproval at me.

“Why ever for?”  As far as he was concerned, a gentleman did not stroll anywhere. That’s what modern transportation was for. 

“He doesn’t own a motorcar,” I said, reaching for a blueberry muffin from the basket on the table.

Mother twitched a warning, a clear signal not to pursue the subject.

“Couldn’t he hail a taxicab?” His disconcerted gaze told me everything was not right with his view of the world.

“He would but—”

Mother’s twitching grew to a frantic pace.

“But?” Father prompted.

“He’s on a rather tight leash,” I said, tasting the muffin. Delicious. Cook had really outdone herself. 

“But he’s the heir to a dukedom. He should have plenty of funds to support a comfortable lifestyle.”

“I’m not familiar with the particulars of his situation, Father. But apparently his quarterly allowance does not extend to such luxuries.” Or as least, Sebastian had hinted that much without coming right out and saying so.

His mustache quivered with indignation. “That’s outrageous.” Deep in thought, he tore off a piece of sausage and fed it to Sir Winston, our Bassett Hound, under the table.

Mother put down her fork. “Edward, I wish you would stop feeding that dog. You know what sausages do to him.”

As did everyone in the household. Sir Winston suffered from digestive issues. When given food that did not agree with him, he emitted malodorous airs noxious enough to clear a room. But Father being Father tended to ignore such home truths.

He tossed another piece of sausage to Sir Winston. “No hound should live off a bland diet. He needs spice in his life. Don’t you, boy?” 

The hound in question barked while adoringly gazing at him.

Mother’s downturned brow evidenced her disapproval, but she said no more on the subject.

“I’ll have Ned look into it,” Father said.

“The veterinarian has already done that, dear,” Mother said.

A frown line surfaced between his eyes. “What does the veterinarian have to do with Sebastian?”

“What are you talking about, Edward?” Mother asked.

I bit down on my lip to keep from smiling. Not the first time they’d talked at cross purposes, nor would it be the last.

“Sebastian’s situation,” Father said. “It makes no sense that young man has to traipse about London on foot and eat his meals at someone else’s house. Not when his grandfather’s the Duke of Wynchcombe.”

Dismay reigned in Mother’s visage. “I wish you wouldn’t meddle in his affairs, Edward. Surely, it’s not our concern.”

“Isn’t it, Mildred?” he gazed fondly at her. “We must understand his situation before things progress between Margaret and him. No sense letting her get her hopes up if his finances are not what they ought to be.”

Not hard to see where he was coming from. Upon Margaret’s twenty-first birthday, he’d settled a quite generous amount on her, same as he’d done with me. Even if Sebastian proved poor as a church mouse, which I extremely doubted, she would be able to afford a comfortable lifestyle. Still, he did not wish anyone to marry my sister for her dowry.

Mother let out a long-suffering sigh. “Yes, dear.”

Father laid down his serviette. “By the way, Kitty, two more of your admirers approached me seeking permission to call on you. One, I turned down, clearly a loose screw. There’s bad blood in that family. But the other might be worth considering.”

“Which gentleman?”

“Lord Fairbottom. A Marquis.”

I shuddered. Lord Fairbottom suffered from a squint, and he sniffed all the time. “Please offer my regrets.”

Mother grumbled under her breath.

“Are you certain?” Father asked. “Townhouse in London off Eaton Square. Family seat in Kent. Adequate fortune. No skeletons in the closet, as far as I can tell.”

“His mother is a harridan, Father. A widow who’s set her mind on being part of her son’s household. Aside from that, I couldn’t stand to be addressed as Lady Fairbottom the rest of my life.”

“Ummm, a fair point. Very well. I’ll offer your regrets.” Done with his meal, he rose. “Well, I better go. Ned must be wondering where I am. Excellent breakfast, my dear. My compliments to Cook.” After dropping a kiss on Mother’s cheek, he strolled out whistling ‘Yes, We Have no Bananas,’ his faithful hound by his side.

For a few minutes, silence filled the space while Mother and I addressed our meal. But the quiet did not last long. “Don’t forget, dear. We have an at-home today.”

How could I ever forget? We held them every Tuesday. “Yes, Mother.”

“Lord Pippin appears to be quite smitten with you.” She was hedging her bets in case Margaret and Sebastian’s ‘friendship’ came to naught. But that was Mother all over. Why settle for one bird in the bush when there could be two in the hand?

“Umm,” I murmured. Lord Pippin was a dear, but he did not excite my intellect, or any other part of me for that matter. Although I’d remained civil, for that was the proper thing to do, at no time had I encouraged his attentions. Unfortunately, he’d misconstrued my politeness for interest and pressed his suit at every social event I attended, including every one of my at-homes. That, of course, had given Mother room to hope.

Last thing I wished was to be tied to a dreary marriage where I was expected to pop out an heir and a spare—in double quick time if you please. I wanted to visit jazz clubs, drink fizzy cocktails, dance the Charleston. Last month, I’d put aside those ambitions to investigate a murder that threatened to put a noose around my brother Ned’s neck. But since that had been satisfactorily solved by yours truly, I was now free to have a jolly good time. Well, as much of a jolly good time as I could manage while attending all the events of the season which, heaven help me, included every one of my at-homes. Four down, eight to go.

“Wear your deep rose chiffon, Kitty. It looks splendid on you. Oh, and your pearls.” On my birthday, Lord Rutledge, one of Father’s dearest friends, had presented me with quite a stunning necklace of perfectly matched pearls. It’d been handed down through generations of his family. But since he was unmarried and had no relatives to inherit it, he’d gifted it to me.

“Don’t you think it’d be a tad ostentatious to wear them during the day?”

“Nonsense, dear. Pearls are meant to be displayed, not tucked away in some dusty drawer.”

I sighed. “Yes, Mother.”