Best of Fiona Harper
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I wanted to tell her it wasn’t true, that we were all throwing ourselves into the murder-mystery weekend as hard as we could, but Izzi was right. I had only given thought to Constance, Harry and the grisly murder of Lord Southerby if it had helped me in my plans to snare her brother. I hadn’t been thinking about Izzi and what she wanted from the weekend at all.
She waved a hand in the air. ‘There are all these stupid clues laid out around the house. Look, there’s one—’ She picked up an envelope addressed to Lord Southerby, which had been sitting rather obviously on a blotter in the centre of an otherwise empty desk. ‘And do you think even one wretched clue has been found? No. Because everyone is too busy messing about.’
Her eyes started to glisten, and it made my stomach go cold. I’d never seen Izzi even close to tears before. I sat down on the edge of the desk and waited for her to look at me. ‘But surely as well as solving the murder, the reason everyone is here is to enjoy themselves? Have some fun?’
The rest of Izzi’s anger bled out of her face, leaving her looking closer to Lady Southerby’s age than I’d have thought possible. ‘Yes, I know. But how lame is it going to look when they all disappear back to London and tell their friends they went on murder-mystery weekend and nobody bothered to solve the murder?’
I swallowed. She had a point there.
‘Take a good look at me, Coreen,’ she said in a weary voice. ‘I’m not like you.’
I was just about to tell her that was a good thing, but she cut me off with a roll of her eyes. ‘I’m twenty-six and I have no qualifications to speak of. I can’t run my own business, like you do. I couldn’t even hold down a job! All I have is my reputation for being the most creative hostess in the South East of England. If this weekend is a disaster, I can kiss goodbye to all that.’ She stopped fiddling with the clue envelope and placed it squarely back in the centre of the blotter on top of the desk. ‘You’re lucky you don’t live in my world,’ she said, sighing. ‘The women are so vicious—always looking for an opportunity to trample you so they can be top dog—and in this world position is everything.’
She sat back in the desk chair and let out a dry laugh. ‘I might be close to being useless, but at least I’m the best at it—you know what I mean?’
I smiled and nodded, and then I stood up.
Izzi looked worried. ‘Where are you going?’
‘I’m going back upstairs to change,’ I said. ‘And after that you and I are going to whip those layabouts into shape and make sure they not only catch the killer, but have the time of their lives doing it!’
Once again they were all staring at me, speechless. It could have been the ugly beige floral dress I’d flung on, so I could run downstairs and catch them all before they went upstairs to get changed for dinner, but I suspected the silence was more a reaction to the lecture I’d just delivered on Getting the Most Out Of Your Murder-Mystery Weekend.
‘Come on,’ I said, in a slightly schoolmarmish voice.There were aspects of Constance’s character that lent themselves rather well to severity, and I was quite enjoying myself. For once, a whole room full of people was taking me seriously. ‘It’ll be fun to dust a few of those mental cobwebs off and use our little grey cells for once. And don’t these clothes just get you in the mood?’
There was a sheepish mumble from most of the group—all except Nicholas and Adam. The former was smiling and the latter was staring at me with an expression on his face that looked very much like pride.
Nicholas stood up. ‘Well, if there are clues to be found round this draughty old house we’d better go and find them.’
Of course once Nicholas was on his feet everyone else followed. They put down their cocktails and headed for the hallway. As he passed by me Nicholas paused, placed his fingertips on my bare arm and bent forward to speak words intended for my ears only.
‘Good on you,’ he said. ‘I thought this thing of Izzi’s was going to be a total waste of time, but now I think I’m actually going to enjoy myself.’
I stood and watched him leave the room, my mouth hanging open slightly more than could be considered attractive.
Nicholas Chatterton-Jones had just touched me of his own free will. Miracles really did happen.
Izzi had decreed that this evening we would all wear formal dress to dinner—evening gowns for the girls and dinner suits for the boys. After an hour of clue-solving we’d all broken off to get ready, promising to get right back to sleuthing as soon as we could. As I came out of my room I spotted Adam, his hand on a doorknob on the first-floor landing.
‘I don’t think you’re supposed to go in there,’ I said, coming up behind him. ‘I think that’s Nicholas’s room.’
He turned, his fingers stilled curled round the brass knob, and I had a reprise of the sensation I’d had when I’d first seen him in his costume yesterday evening, only this time it was ten times stronger. Adam and vintage dinner suits? They went together incredibly well. So well that my mouth dried.
‘This isn’t Lord Southerby’s bedchamber?’ he asked, frowning.
‘No.’ I shook my head gently. ‘Next one along.’
There were only a certain number of rooms in Inglewood Manor earmarked for our weekend of sleuthing, and the weekend organisers had prepared and ‘dressed’ them carefully. The rest of the house was supposed to stay undisturbed. Just as well, really. Otherwise it would have taken us a month to search Inglewood Manor for clues.
A wicked grin lit up the face of the man who was supposed to be a vicar. ‘Shall we take a peek anyway?’
I slapped his fingers away from the doorknob. And then I grabbed the hand that had touched him, clasped my other hand round it and hugged it to my chest. I’m not quite sure why I did that. I’d been slapping, elbowing, nudging and thumping Adam for most of my life and had never given it a second thought, but touching him just then had felt like crossing a line I hadn’t realised had been there before.
‘I was only kidding!’ He rubbed his hand. ‘And haven’t you got all turbo-powered about mystery solving all of a sudden?’
‘Turbo-powered is my middle name,’ I said haughtily, and stalked along the landing to the right door. When I turned to look back at Adam, he hadn’t moved.
‘Don’t I know it,’ he said, a hint of hoarseness in his tone.
Now, I’m used to telling exactly where men’s eyes have been resting while I’ve had my back to them. What’s the point of perfecting a sway that reduces them to dribbling wrecks if you can’t tell if it’s had the desired effect?
Was it my imagination, or had Adam’s eyes just flickered back from being much farther south than I’d expected them to be?
That awkward, not-sure-what-to-do-now feeling crashed back over me in a second wave, turning the thermostat in my cheeks to high. I waited for Adam to join me, and my hand felt slippery against the antique knob as I opened the heavy bedroom door and let it swing open.
I assumed he’d go past me, but he stopped opposite me, filling the rest of the doorframe. I don’t think we were even remotely close to touching, but somehow it felt as if we were just about to. He stood there looking at me for a few seconds.
‘I thought you were going to change.’
I looked down at the simple cream evening dress—not a patch on the red one hanging up in my room. It had short puff sleeves, a demure little collar, and beautiful little covered buttons than ran from waist to collarbone. I’d even been angelic enough to do all but the top four up, and my cleavage was completely going to waste.
It was obvious I had changed. But I hadn’t ended up in the sort of dress I normally would have chosen, given half a chance. Was that what Adam meant?
‘I did change,’ I said, the tips of my arched eyebrows drawing together.
Adam didn’t reply. He just looked at me. As if he was trying to see past the powder and foundation, past the restrained blusher and barely-there lipstick. As if he wanted to turn me inside out with the sheer weight of his stare. I slithered away from him, out of the doorway and into the room, and started hunting for clues, all the while feeling his eyes on me.
Eventually I turned and glared at him. ‘Well, don’t just stand there! Help me out!’
It didn’t take us long to find an ancient-looking piece of paper, folded carefully and hidden in an otherwise empty bedside cabinet. I unfolded it and let my eyes rove over what looked like an old-fashioned birth certificate. Before I’d even read to the bottom, I gasped.
‘It’s mine! I mean Constance’s! And look! There’s a space where the father’s name should be!’ I turned to look at him. ‘Does that mean what I think it means?’
Adam took the certificate from me and our fingers brushed.
It wasn’t an accident. I’d done it on purpose.
And, from the way our gazes locked and held, so had he.
I held my breath while the air stilled around us and my heart bumped loudly in my ears. If this had been anyone else staring down at me, his eyes darkening, I would have sworn he was thinking about kissing me. Odder still, I wasn’t the one to back away. It was Adam who wrenched his focus back onto the yellowing document.
‘Of course we have to ask ourselves not just why there is a blank space where the father’s name should be, but why a copy of your birth certificate is in Lord Southerby’s bedroom in the first place,’ he said, not looking at me.
I heard the words, but they slipped through my brain without taking root. Something weird was going on. It was as if I’d emerged from that lake into a parallel universe—a world that was deceptively similar, yet where ‘normal’ was a topsy-turvy version of itself. It made it very hard to think straight.
While I was trying to process the information Adam had given me, the dinner gong sounded somewhere in the distance. There were footsteps on the landing outside, and the sound of other people rushing back downstairs.
I waved the crinkly bit of paper in my hand. ‘I finally have a clue,’ I said, and folded it back into quarters once more. ‘It’s time we did something about it.’
Adam was giving me another one of his inside-out looks. And then he held out his hand. When I offered him the birth certificate he laughed, softly plucked it out of my fingers, and then slid it into his pocket. He repeated the gesture with his hand, and this time his large, warm fingers closed around mine.
‘It’s time,’ he said, and kissed my knuckle ever so softly. Then he led me from the room. ‘Time for us to see what new developments these revelations will bring.’
No. 8—I don’t sing very often, and certainly not in public.
ADAM and I were seated apart at dinner. Maybe that was just as well. I had said I was going to help Izzi make this weekend a success, and random thoughts about Adam—how he’d looked at me upstairs in the bedroom, how he’d held my hand all the way down the stairs—were interrupting my clue solving. It would have been even worse if we’d been sitting next to each other. It was as if there was a new Adam here, a different one from the boy I’d watched grow into a man. And, while I knew the old Adam pretty well, I had absolutely no idea what this one was going to do next.
By the time the main courses had been served we’d hijacked the dinner table and made it our centre of investigations. It was amusing to see secret love letters, betting slips, a plastic revolver and a copy of Lord Southerby’s last will and testament strewn amongst the bone china, crystal glasses and silver candlesticks.
I did a fairly good job of paying attention as questions and accusations were shot across the dinner table and deflected back with equal speed and vehemence, but every time I looked down the other end of the table I caught Adam looking at me. To the untrained observer he probably looked quite serious, but down in the depths of those warm brown eyes was a smile. A just-for-Coreen smile. And I didn’t know what to do about it. Didn’t know if I wanted to see it there or not. Didn’t know if I was brave enough to ask myself what it meant.
I tried to ignore even the possibility of those questions by throwing myself into the investigation. We hadn’t pieced it together yet, but one thing was certain—the late Lord Southerby had been a very, very naughty boy during his lifetime.
It seemed his sons had good reason to worry about their inheritance, in danger as it was from money-grabbing illegitimate offspring and a gold-digging fianc?e. Not only that, but Giles’s rather unfortunate string of bad luck on the gee-gees had led to him dipping into the family fortune and then trying to cover his tracks.
Each and every one of us had a motive for wanting the lord of the manor dead, and those motives ranged from jealousy to greed, from revenge to the protection of loved ones. It was all quite thrilling, actually. We were still arguing about competing theories when we retired to the drawing room after desert. One camp thought Rupert had murdered his father, keen to inherit the lion’s share of the family money before his father changed his will, and another group were sure it was poor little Ruby the parlour maid, who’d been fending off the old goat’s unwanted advances for months now and had acted out of desperation to preserve her virtue and her income.
I looked across at Izzi, sitting once again in her high-backed winged armchair. She was smiling, watching a heated exchange between Marcus, of all people, and Jos, as they discussed the real reason for the discovery of Lord Southerby’s bow tie in the maid’s quarters. When Jos threatened to sue Marcus for defamation of character—and I think she half meant it—Izzi stepped in.
‘How about some music, Jules? We could do with some light entertainment to help us let off steam.’ She nodded towards the grand piano in the corner. ‘I’m sure you know a tune or two from the right era.’
Julian actually smiled. He jumped up and headed over to the piano. ‘I’ve rather been hoping you’d ask,’ he said, pulling the stool out, flapping the tails of his jacket back and settling himself on it. ‘I’ve practised a few specially.’
Izzi rapped with her cane on the floor. ‘And there’s no reason why you youngsters can’t foxtrot later, or do whatever new-fangled dances you do nowadays. We can move the settees and clear a space near the bay window.’ She fixed the rest of the men with her beady little eyes and rapped the cane once more. ‘Well, hop to it, boys!’
Marcus paused, and I suspected he was going to pull the ‘shoulder’ excuse out of the bag again, but he took one look at Izzi and thought better of it.
Julian flexed his fingers and set to work, impressing us with a selection of tunes by the likes of Cole Porter and Irving Berlin. Mum had done a whole set of this type of songs once. Half of me didn’t want to hear them. I hadn’t been able to listen to her favourites for a long time after she’d died, and a familiar churning-in-the-pit-of-my-stomach feeling crept up on me.
But after the first pang of fear and grief I relaxed, welcomed those notes and melodies. Maybe it was because enough time had passed, or maybe it was because being Constance gave me some distance, but hearing the songs again now felt like meeting old friends. I could remember Mum singing them with appreciation and joy instead of fear and dread. Before long I was humming along and tapping on the arm of the sofa.
Marcus, who had been self-medicating his shoulder pain all evening with the contents of Inglewood Manor’s wine cellar, drowned me out. I tried not to mind, but when he started to murder ‘At Last’, Mum’s absolute favourite, getting all the lyrics wrong, I couldn’t look at him. I turned away, still humming.
‘You said your mother was a singer, didn’t you?’ Izzi said to me from her high-backed chair. ‘Why don’t you get up and sing it properly for us? It would save us from Marcus’s warthog impression and I’d be forever grateful.’
Marcus had been lolling on one of the sofas while he’d been singing. He raised his head in inch. ‘I’m doing a perfectly fine job, thank you very much.’ He swigged back another mouthful of red wine and glared at me. ‘But if madam here can do better, I’d like to see it.’
I shook my head. ‘It wouldn’t be becoming for a vicar’s sister and would-be missionary to sing in public like that,’ I said sweetly, hoping to put him off. Humming along was one thing; making a complete spectacle of myself was something else entirely.
He looked me up and down, his wandering gaze letting me know just how much unlike a vicar’s sister he thought me. ‘Pretend it’s a hymn,’ he said with a sneer.
I was tempted to get up and give him what for—that was what Coreen would have done—but Constance might have other ideas on the matter, and I didn’t want to spoil Izzi’s evening when things had been going so well. As much as it hurt, I was just about to meekly admit defeat when a tug inside stopped me.
Constance Michaels might be a gauche twenty-something who’d led a sheltered life, but she was also prepared to trek halfway around the world on her own to live in a strange land where she didn’t know anyone or even speak the language. She wasn’t afraid to look poverty and deprivation in the eye and not turn away. She even had the guts to do something about it. I reckon Constance Michaels had a bit more gumption than I’d given her credit for.
Besides, it was only Marcus, Julian, Izzi and I who’d benefit from my performance. The other four had wandered out onto the terrace with their drinks after Robert had opened the French doors.
‘You’re on,’ I said, then stood up and walked over to the piano. Julian started the song again and, before I even had a chance to get stage fright, the introduction was over and I was singing.
I closed my eyes.
While I might not have had my mother’s training, I had inherited her voice. I’d always shied away from being like her, copying her in any way, but now I was singing words that I had heard her sing so many times, and I felt as if it brought me closer to her. And not in a scary seeing-her-in-the-mirror kind of way. My mind was flooded with happy memories. Mum smiling and laughing and singing. And loving.
I remembered how happy she had been before my father had left, how her eyes had lit up and fixed on him when he was in the room. Even though it was only a memory I felt the warmth of her love. For the first time I understood her a little better, understood how intoxicating that feeling must have been, and how she’d have done just about anything to hang onto it.
My courage grew as I started the second verse and I opened my eyes. Bad idea. I’d discovered my audience had grown. Adam, Jos, Louisa and Nicholas were standing just inside the French doors, watching me with open curiosity. I thought I might choke, or trip over the words, but somehow I just kept on singing.
When I got to the bit about looking at someone for the first time and realising that you’d finally found that someone, that soul mate, I plucked up the courage to look over in their direction.
The expression in Nicholas’s eyes was everything I had fantasised about seeing there, and I meant to hold his gaze and lock it down, but somehow I slid right past him and kept going, until I felt as if I’d run full pelt into a brick wall. Or was that just a pair of warm brown eyes?
My breathing went to pot and I missed a note. But then I had another one of those weird out-of-body experiences. Singing Coreen recovered nicely and kept going, her voice rich and smooth, but the other part of me was hardly aware of her, caught in a strange bubble where only two things weren’t fuzzy and out of focus—
I sang about smiling, and he smiled at me. I sang about magic, and he wove it around me just by holding my gaze. I sang about finding love, and something inside me warmed and melted. I couldn’t tear my eyes away until the last note had been sung and the piano had fallen silent.
The song was over. The feeling had gone. I was back inside myself, standing with my back pressing against the piano, the applause of my fellow house guests ringing in my ears.
Izzi stood up from her armchair. ‘I don’t think we can top that,’ she said. ‘So why don’t we stick some vinyl on the old gramophone and trip the light fantastic instead?’ She nodded to Robert, who made it so.
Julian prised himself from the piano stool and, very bravely for him, kissed me on the cheek. When he stepped away I saw Nicholas walking towards me. He came right up to me and offered his hand. ‘Would you do me the honour…?’
I nodded mutely and slid my hand into his. He led me to the space the men had cleared for dancing and drew me gently into his arms. Finally I was up-close-and-personal with Nicholas Chatterton-Jones. Exactly where I wanted to be.
Everything about dancing with Nicholas was perfect. His hand was warm and sure on my back as he guided me round the impromptu dance floor. He talked easily to me, all the while looking effortlessly drool-worthy and smiling into my eyes.
It was perfect. It was.
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