Just Make Believe
Lady Adelaide Mystery, Book 3
July 14, 2020
A week-long house party in the country—why not? Lady Adelaide Compton has nothing else to do, now that the year of mourning for her unfaithful husband is up and plans to rekindle her romantic life have backfired. But when her hostess is found dead on the conservatory floor, Addie knows just who to call—Detective Inspector Devenand Hunter of Scotland Yard.
Dev may not want to kiss Addie again, but he’s anxious to solve the crime. Who would want to kill Pamela, the beautiful wife of one of Britain’s greatest Great War heroes? Certainly not her devoted, disabled husband, Sir Hugh Fernald. The other guests seem equally innocent and improbable.
But despite all appearances, something is very wrong at Fernald Hall—there’s a body buried in the garden, and the governess has fallen down the stairs to her death. Who’s next? Addie and Dev must work together to stop another murder, and they have some help thanks to Rupert, Addie’s late and unlamented husband. Rupert needs to make amends for his louche life on earth, and what better way to earn his celestial wings than to catch a killer?
Read an Excerpt
Hugh and I hope you can join us for a week at Fernald Hall Saturday next. We’ll have a small congenial group—a few old army chums of Hugh’s and a pair of pretty twins who remind me of our debutante days . Such girlish glory. How time marches on.
Lucas agreed to be torn from his farming duties for most of the week, and I count on you to keep him out of trouble and away from disobliging sheep and reluctant root vegetables. It will be heaven to have dear friends here again. We’ve missed you!
Bring your riding togs. We’ll have three new additions to our stables, brought all the way from Ireland. I can’t wait for you to see the improvements I plan for the grounds here and will welcome your suggestions. I do hope you can come despite the late notice.
Fernald Hall, Broughton Magna, Gloucestershire
A Saturday afternoon in June, 1925
The brick stableyard was clattering with laughing guests and lofty horses, the equines’ blindingly shiny tack redolent of harness oil, brass polish, and saddle soap. The humans were equally well turned-out, and Lady Adelaide Compton was glad she’d had a new riding habit made. The jade tweed brought out the green of her hazel eyes. Even if she disgraced herself riding, she’d look damn good doing it.
She waited for her mount to be brought out to her from its box with just a touch of nervous excitement. It had been quite some time since she’d sat on a horse. Major Rupert Charles Cressleigh Compton, her late and sincerely unlamented husband, had converted their stables at Compton Chase into a garage to hold his car collection.
To be frank, she now preferred an automobile’s horse power to the real thing. Much to her late—and sincerely lamented—father’s disappointment, despite years of Pony Club, she’d never been a natural horsewoman. It was doubtful she’d turn into Boudicca one month shy of turning thirty-two.
She swallowed as a horse was led to her. It was very…tall. Glossy as the rest of Hugh’s mounts, perhaps even glossier. A lovely color, rather like an Irish setter, which made sense, since he was an Irish horse. But still…
Addie had reservations. Her reluctance must have shown, for the Irish horse stud owner Patrick Cassidy, as glossy and burnished as the horse itself, touched her shoulder. Ordinarily she would have stiffened at the familiarity; she’d only met the man at lunch. But this week she was trying to be the woman everyone expected her to be.
A merry widow. Sophisticated. Rich and titled. Not a care in the world. Closets full of first-class fashion, half of which she’d apparently brought with her for the week-long house party, since her maid Beckett wanted her to make a good impression. Even if she changed ten times a day, she’d never repeat herself.
With her usual cheeky candor, Beckett had informed Addie that she needed some fun. A flirtation was just the ticket, one that might even turn into a fling, as was de rigueur at so many country house parties.
Naughty nocturnal navigations.
What her maid left unsaid: something to take away the sting of Addie’s unsuccessful attempt to seduce Detective Inspector Devenand Hunter of Scotland Yard. She had thrown herself at the man two months ago and he’d resolutely refused to catch her.
Patrick Cassidy looked more than capable of fielding flying females.
“I picked him out specially for you, Lady Adelaide,” Mr. Cassidy said. He’s a touch over seventeen hands. Isn’t he grand? And as gentle as any lovely young woman such as yourself could wish.”
In other words, this particular horse was almost as big as horses grew. Addie swallowed again.
The man’s Irish accent was charming. He accompanied his horses to the Fernalds for the sale from Belfast a few days ago. According to Pamela, his horses were world-famous, and he was as much sought after as a dinner companion as a horse breeder.
He certainly was attractive, if overly optimistic about her riding skills. Addie smiled up at him. “I’m afraid I’m a bit rusty. I haven’t ridden in ages.”
“Well then, Timothy Hay is just your cup of tea. And it’s not as though we’re going foxhunting. Lady Fernald’s promised us a nice quiet ride on the estate. Wants to show us what that gardener chap is doing.”
That gardener chap was Simon Davies, well-known in society for refreshing the existing landscape, a modern-day Capability Brown. A gentleman with very green fingers, he truly was a gentleman, a baron’s cousin. Whether he took any remuneration or performed his magic as a hobby, Addie was uncertain. But one met him at the best houses, and he had been friends with her hostess’ parents and had known Pamela from childhood.
“How delightful,” Addie murmured. Truthfully, she’d much rather walk, but that would be a waste of her expensive habit, and blister her feet in her shiny new boots besides. And she told herself it was past time to take some risks. She’d been in a dreadful state since Rupert died, except for helping to solve six murders. One wouldn’t want to make a habit of that. It was…ghoulish for a proper marquess’ daughter, and required poor, unsuspecting people to be packed off early from earthly life.
Not to mention dangerous. She’d come much too near to knives and guns and poisons for comfort over the past year, and Rupert’s ominous return as a ghost made him as annoying in death as he had been when he was alive.
Being haunted by her dead husband made Addie cross and completely quiet about it. She didn’t want to be clapped in an asylum or strapped to a psychiatrist’s couch for the foreseeable future. Hooked up to electric wires or plunged into ice baths. Stuffed with large doses of drugs so she didn’t know who you were or who she was. Perhaps even, God forbid, lobotomized. There were all sorts of devilish ways to “cure” diseases of the mind. She still had her sanity, thank you very much, even if Rupert materialized to her dismay.
Though on several occasions, he had proved useful and turned up to “protect” her, acting as an unfortunate harbinger of death. But surely he was occupied somewhere else at the moment, far, far away in whichever direction he deserved to be.
The day was a stunner, with bright blue cloudless skies, much too perfect to think of Rupert or any other ghost. Addie drove over early this morning with Beckett and her over-packed suitcases, top down all the way. The journey was familiar—she wasn’t all that far from Broughton Park, where she grew up. But she hadn’t set foot over the threshold of her old home since she helped her mother and sister move to the Dower House five years ago after her father, the Marquess of Broughton, had died.
As a little girl, she’d dreamed of being married in the family chapel, and had been. That June day was a stunner too. She wore her mother’s trailing Brussels lace veil and carried masses of white peonies from the gardens, just as she imagined when she played dress-up with discarded curtains and dandelions. Her future groom was always a rather vague figure. The reality of Rupert in 1919 far exceeded her childhood expectations; his many medals blazing against his uniform promised a bright and shiny future.
But peacetime brought little peace to either of them. So much for romance.
According to Beckett, a fresh romance was just what Addie needed. There were at least three eligible men present to consider, and one could not dismiss Simon Davies, even if he was closer to her widowed mother’s age. It was too bad the Dowager Marchioness wasn’t here—she could use a romance herself.
“Allow me to help you mount,” Mr. Cassidy said, the pressure of his firm hands about her waist. Before she was entirely ready, she was atop Timothy Hay with very little effort on her part. It was rather heady being up so high, if somewhat horrifying.
“There. What a sight. You’re made for each other.” As he stroked the creature’s nose, Mr. Cassidy whispered something in what Addie presumed to be Gaelic. She hoped it translated to “please don’t break this foolish woman’s neck.” That would spoil the week ahead, wouldn’t it?
The riding party comprised of the Ladies Fernald—her hostess Pamela and her mother-in-law Evelyn; the very young Jordan twins, who at lunch appeared to be simpering idiots in Addie’s jaundiced opinion; Captain Dennis Clifford, in whose honor the week had been organized prior to his deployment to India; his friend Owen Bradbury; and Mr. Cassidy. Addie’s old flame Lord Lucas Waring was due to join them at dinner tonight—he had a farm auction in Cheltenham to attend—so the ladies outnumbered the gentlemen.
Mr. Davies was to meet them later at the new water feature at the bottom of the parterres, a fountain that shot up to the heavens. Addie hoped he wouldn’t be dreary and attempt to explain the mechanics of its plumbing functions; never mind how it got there as long as the water sparkled in the sunlight and cooled the air. The modern world was a marvel she could appreciate without knowing all the details.
But first, they would ramble across the countryside. The local hunt passed over Fernald Hall land, and as she remembered it, all was groomed to the nth degree. She’d visited Hugh since childhood, and the property was almost as familiar to her as Broughton Park had been.
Hugh, of course, couldn’t ride anymore. But that didn’t lessen his stewardship over the land, and his attention to detail was peerless. Between them, Hugh and Pamela had created an idyllic country showcase that was the envy of their neighbors.
Timothy Hay was uninterested, sidestepping and tossing his head in impatience as Pamela touted the delights of a future gingerbread folly. Addie held the reins in a death grip as they rode by Corinthian columns intended to support a wisteria walk to the heated swimming pool that Hugh used for physiotherapy. To the west was the expanded orchard, its new fruit trees balled in burlap and waiting to be planted.
All the projects were ambitious, and Addie squelched a smidgen of jealousy. Her own gardener Jack Robertson—and Beckett’s swain—was managing to bring Compton Chase up to snuff after the austere war years, but not to this level.
A wide swath of grass opened before them, and with a whoop, Pamela took off, belying her promise of a nice quiet ride. There might as well have been baying hounds and a frightened fox. She was immediately followed by the giggling Jordan sisters. Not to be outdone, the men challenged each other with some good-natured shouts, and were soon in hot pursuit.
Addie couldn’t help but admire them as they raced off, crouched low on their mounts, giving new meaning to the term “good seat.” She’d never much noticed a man’s bottom before, but three of them were hard to ignore.
Only Evelyn Fernald hung back to wait for her.
“All right, dear?” Addie and Lucas had come here by pony trap since they were little to play with Hugh, and Evelyn was as good as a second mother.
“Oh, yes. Don’t linger on my account. I know how much you love the thrill of the chase.”
“I’d only be chasing Pamela,” she said dryly. “I don’t want to leave you behind.”
“Oh, please do!” Addie said, feeling guilty. Evelyn was an accomplished horsewoman, every bit as keen as her daughter-in-law. Riding was a release to them both from their somewhat constrained life. “It’s been yonks since I’ve ridden. We’re just finding our way, Timothy Hay and I.” She patted his sleek neck, and he whickered in approval.
“He is a magnificent beast, isn’t he? Well, if you’re sure—”
“I am,” Addie nodded stoically, feeling no such thing.
Evelyn took off with a little wave, and Addie willed herself to relax. The horse had enough confidence for both of them, and it wasn’t long before she was cantering after the others, though with their considerable head start, they were not yet in sight.
She jolted over mowed emerald fields, warm sun on her face, the scent of sweet grass tickling her nose. This was…rather fun. Perhaps she should think about getting one or two horses for Compton Chase—riding was marvelous exercise, and would allow her to eat more of Cook’s cream puffs. She might ask Mr. Cassidy—
Suddenly Addie inhaled sharply four times and then sneezed in a most explosive—and unladylike—fashion. And found herself flying through the air, as Timothy Hay startled at the sound and reared up like the statue of Boudicca’s horses on Victoria Embankment.
Her initial misgivings were proving true. Well, she’d had a good life and would make an attractive corpse in her new riding habit if she remembered how to fall as gracefully as she learned to faint. Maybe with luck she’d only break a leg or two. Timothy Hay’s four legs were working perfectly well as he galloped off on the greensward, leaving her tumbling through space. Addie allowed herself a brief prayer, and then landed on something surprisingly soft.
“Rath-er. Have you put on weight?”
Rupert! Addie was sitting on his pin-striped lap, all in one piece, comfortably held. Her glasses had flown off in her somersault, but she didn’t need them to see the smug expression on her dead husband’s face.
She punched his shoulder. “What are you doing here?”
“Saving your life once again. Honestly, you could show more regard for my perfect timing. I wasn’t due to arrive until tomorrow.”
Addie’s wildly beating heart thudded to a stop. “T-tomorrow?”
“As I said. Do pay attention. I so hate to repeat myself. You mortals have remarkably short attention spans.”
When Rupert turned up, it meant only one thing, and it was not good.
She punched him again. “No!”
He shrugged. “I cannot help my presence here no matter how much you abuse my hospitality. Sit still or you’ll step on your spectacles. Isn’t this just like old times?” he beamed, the sunlight glinting on his dark hair.
“I never sat in your lap in my life!”
“More’s the pity. Perhaps if we’d communed with nature thusly things might have ended differently. And no, don’t hit me again—I know absolutely everything was my fault. I was a cad. A rotter. A rogue.”
“A weasel,” Addie muttered.
“Yes, that too, I’m sure. And any other Mustelidae you might mention. Stoats, badgers, etcetera. Nasty little brutes. Pointy teeth and very bad breath, I’m told. Are you all right? No bruises or bones broken? Good. Stay put while I search for your specs.”
Addie slid onto the grass as Rupert stood and brushed himself off. He still cut a fine figure, wearing the very same bespoke Savile Row suit she’d buried him in, although his complexion was unusually pale.
Unusual for a live person, at any rate.
Who else was about to join him in in the afterlife? Unfortunately, she supposed she would find out tomorrow.
And that meant murder…and a murderer.
She heard the thunder of hooves behind them.
“Here they are,” Rupert said, cleaning her glasses with his pristine handkerchief. “Good as new.”
“Scram,” Addie hissed.
“You could say thank you. It’s only that Cassidy person, and he can’t see me unless I want him to. Why should I leave?” sniffed Rupert.
“I can’t concentrate with you here. He’ll think I’m mad.” Rupert was known to be deliberately distracting. He loved to interrupt her conversations, and her “short attention span” couldn’t cope.
“Spoilsport. I’d watch out for him if I were you. Never trust a red-headed man. They’re never the heroes.” In a blink he was gone.
What rot. If she didn’t know better, Addie would think Rupert was jealous, which he had absolutely no right to be. Rupert had broken his wedding vows left, right, and center before he plowed into that stone wall and killed himself.
And Claudette Labelle, his French mistress.
Thank the Fellow Upstairs the woman wasn’t haunting Addie too. That really would have been insufferable.
Mr. Cassidy reined in his horse, leaped to the ground and pulled her up. “Lady Adelaide! Thank God! When old Tim came after us riderless, we all thought the worst. The rest of the party is right behind me, but I flew. You are all right, aren’t you?”
“Only my dignity is bruised. I did tell you I haven’t ridden in a while. I think I may have developed an allergy.”
“To horses?” Mr. Cassidy asked, aghast. A fate worse than death for him, Addie supposed.
She felt that tickle in her nose again. “Possibly. I’m afraid I frightened Timothy Hay with my gasps and sneezes. It’s not his fault.”
“Rubbish. I’ll have to retrain him. A hunter is useless if he can’t ignore the unusual sounds around him. You’ve done me a great favor. I would hate to sell an animal that could harm my clients. Timothy Hay is intended for their son John, you know. If anything happened to Sir Hugh’s heir, I couldn’t live with myself.”
Addie was fond of young John herself. He’d arrived nine month’s to the day of his parents’ wedding, a blessing since his father was wounded soon after in the war. She wasn’t really experienced dealing with children—one couldn’t count her sister Cee, who was twenty-five even if she sometimes acted like a spoiled five-year-old—but John had always shown both his parents’ easy charm.
She spotted the others coming towards them, clouds of dust in their wake. It had been dry for early summer, and the farmers in the county were grumbling. Addie gave a violent sneeze. “I’m sorry I’m such a nuisance.”
Pamela dismounted at once and rushed toward her, enveloping her in a hug. “Oh! We were so worried! Thank heavens you’re not injured.”
That would have cast a dreadful pall upon the house party. Addie didn’t have the heart to tell her that, according to Rupert, much worse was coming.