A treat for you all whilst you (patiently) await my next book(s).
The first chapter of MURDER BY THE BOOK, the second Gertrude Harrington Mystery.
I hope you enjoy it, and that it whets your appetite for the book.
Lavinia Rushbrook awoke later than usual, even though it was a weekend. As the author of several popular crime novels, weekends did not exist when she was in the middle of a new book. But she had been awoken repeatedly over the course of the last few nights by her wretched husband, and that lack of sleep had finally caught up with her.
Sitting up, she removed her eye mask, blinking slowly as she grew accustomed to the morning light. Throwing back her bedcovers, she pulled on her silk peignoir and slipped her feet into her fur-lined mules, crossing the cream deep-pile carpet to look out through the half-open drapes. Natalia, her maid, had laid out two outfits for her last evening, and Lavinia checked the weather to choose the most appropriate.
She had servants to take care of her every need, and she made certain they earned their keep. Natalia was certainly more efficient than the last few maids. Polish immigrants were patently more dedicated to their work than the English girls, who seemed only to have the knack of either being idle or getting themselves pregnant – or worse, killed.
What was that girl’s name – the one who died first? Mary? No; that was the name she had used in her first proper crime novel, but it was something like that. Lavinia couldn’t remember her name exactly, but the girl’s death had all but ruined things back in 1949.
Three dead bodies in one weekend.
On her estate.
The whole weekend had been a disaster as far as Lavinia was concerned.
The girl’s aunt had been the cook at the time. The woman was brilliant, helping to solve the crimes and doing her best to keep the dreadful events out of the press, but she had left after Marigold’s death, claiming she couldn’t bear to work in the house where her niece had died. In a way, Lavinia couldn’t blame her. The whole episode had been truly unpleasant, and it was something from which her husband had yet to fully recover.
Turning away from the morning scene once she had checked on the weather, Lavinia sat at her ornate dressing table set against the wall between the two windows and prepared her face for the day ahead. She had to keep her appearance to the standard of the photos adorning her books – just in case she should have the good fortune to bump into any of her ardent readers. It simply wouldn’t do to appear slovenly or unkempt, though some might churlishly say her make-up had been spread on thick with a trowel and that her hair was held resolutely in place with a whole can of lacquer.
Lavinia remained oblivious to it all: when she looked in the mirror she saw perfection – a quintessentially buxom, yet refined, English Lady of the Manor with impeccable taste in clothes and a great sense of the dramatic. What others saw was someone overly made-up and dressing two decades younger than her age – and not entirely getting away with it.
Following the furore six years ago, when she’d felt all eyes in the county were fixed upon her after the deaths at Templemead Hall, Lavinia believed that the public adored her and felt sympathy for her.
Whether her assumption was true or not mattered little to her. The Lavinia Rushbrook murder mysteries that came out every year were incredibly popular with the public, who seemed unable to get enough of stories where not necessarily nice people were murdered, and the handsome detective had to solve the crime with the help of his spinster housekeeper.
Lavinia felt immense pride that her name was up there with the likes of Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy L Sayers and Agatha Christie. It seemed that at the moment she could do no wrong, and the murders that might have dogged her were now little more than a footnote on her biography.
She had her secrets, of course; secrets she guarded jealously, often with the perfectly competent help of her writing assistant, Edgar.
Edgar was a godsend.
Unlike that idiot maid.
When the stupid girl Mavis got herself killed back in 1949, Lavinia had been terrified that her plethora of secrets would be revealed. To her inordinate relief, the police seemed to have little interest in her personal skeletons, just those of the murder victims and the guilty parties.
Martha had been the first of three maids over the course of four years to get themselves killed whilst under the roof of Templemead Hall. Lavinia managed to get the latter two hushed up by the local Chief Inspector. Lomax – that was his name, in her book. It was something similar in real life, she was certain, and he’d been so kind and considerate when Lavinia had boasted that her own detective had been based on him.
It hadn’t occurred to Lavinia that the Chief Inspector might have been a fan of her books. Surely the police didn’t have time to read, being too busy chasing criminals and solving murders. They certainly didn’t have time for a private life. She had been stunned yet gratified when he had presented one of her books for her to autograph, but when he’d mentioned the interminable Mandy who had been murdered she had stopped listening.
Why did everything have to keep coming back to that bloody murder? The girl was dead. The other deaths were no longer mentioned, so it was time to put the incident to sleep and stop mentioning it.
The fact that she now had an efficient maid was naturally a blessing to Lavinia – so something good had come out of the unfortunate incident.
Thank you Mabel! Mabel – that was the poor wretch’s name.
Having finished with her makeup and tortured her hair to the point of death, Lavinia hastily dressed in the deep-purple trouser-suit that had been laid out, and then left her room. She descended the stairs to find her husband wandering around in the hallway, mumbling incoherently to himself.
She momentarily felt a little pity towards him, but the moment was fleeting and the sentiment was gone, replaced with a derision that bordered on anger when she remembered that he was the reason she was so late rising today. “For heaven’s sake, William, pull yourself together,” she snapped, wanting to add that if he didn’t then she would ship him off to the funny farm.
Professor William Rushbrook looked through his wife as though she wasn’t there. He scarcely appeared to have even heard her and continued his wandering as if she had said nothing.
Lavinia sighed deeply. If it wasn’t for a codicil to the last Will and Testament of William’s father, she would have disposed of her husband some time ago. She didn’t care what others might think of her cold-heartedness. Why should she have to put up with the incoherent ramblings of someone who had clearly lost his mind?
The first murders had hit Professor Rushbrook hard, understandably. Those deaths could be regarded as an aberration, but then the murder of the second maid had taken place, re-opening the old wound and sending Lavinia’s husband into a depression from which he barely recovered.
The third maid to die at Templemead Hall had been the final straw. William thought someone had it in for him and just about lost his mind.
Neither crime had been solved, and had been cleverly brushed under the carpet by Chief Inspector Lennox – that was his name: Lennox.
A truly loving wife would have taken care of William, attempted to nurse him back to health.
A truly loving wife would have sought out the best head doctors to help him through his time of need – no matter the cost.
A truly loving wife Lavinia was not.
Remorselessly self-obsessed, she cared only for herself and for outward appearances: all that mattered was what the public thought of her.
That and the fact that if she so much as thought about divorce then the family lawyer – who watched her every move like a hawk – would invoke the damned codicil in her late father-in-law’s will quicker than she could have said her husband’s name.
William’s father had seen to that.
From the very start of the marriage he had disliked and mistrusted Lavinia, and had done everything in his power to destroy his son’s love for her. It hadn’t worked, and he had died a bitter and twisted old man – his revenge wrought out in his will.
There were several watertight codicils to his will, but it was the one that prevented her from removing William from her life that infuriated Lavinia. She was not about to have her lifestyle threatened, so she had to put up with it – for the moment at least.
She was wealthy enough in her own right now to afford her own lawyer, and he was hard at work trying to break those clauses in Old Man Rushbrook’s will.
Lavinia was nothing if not tenacious.
Templemead Hall might have been purchased some years ago by Lavinia and William, but it had been purchased with Old Man Rushbrook’s money, and his will stipulated that the house must be sold should his daughter-in-law instigate divorce proceedings, or treat her husband in any other way unfairly – unless she acquired the money to buy it outright at full market value. No amount of legal wrangling could change that fact, and no matter what the state of their marriage or his health, Lavinia was still William’s wife, and would remain so until his death.
Lavinia had every intention of inheriting the estate on her husband’s death, and when that day arrived she would certainly be making some changes, not only to the house itself, but also to the staff. None showed her any respect; none save Natalia, whom she had personally selected from a dozen girls.
Natalia was her one ally in a house of enemies. But if there was one thing Lavinia had learned over the years it was that while your enemies could be counted on to try to destroy you, your friends could also turn against you at any given moment – which made them ten times more dangerous.
Natalia therefore was not to be trusted.