Note: My friend Alyssa Maxwell has a new mystery, Murder at the Breakers. Thanks to her generosity we have an except below--and one lucky person will win an autographed copy.
Your friend, Joanna
Midnight approached. At twenty minutes to twelve, liveried footmen and hired waiters began moving like a silent army through the Great Hall, wielding trays filled with glasses of Uncle Cornelius’s finest champagne. In the confusion, I lost sight of Neily. I spotted Grace’s rich, bejeweled coif across the room, but only briefly. Then she, too, disappeared from view, though she might merely have been obscured by the crowd. If the two were up to something, Aunt Alice would have to catch them at it herself. I had more pressing concerns.
Aunt Alice herself fueled my unease when she appeared at my shoulder. “We’re nearly ready to toast Gertrude and I can’t find Cornelius anywhere. Did you see which way he went?”
Oh, no. I’d been so concerned with Neily, Reggie, and Katie, I’d let Uncle Cornelius slip away. With less than twenty minutes now before midnight, surely he’d return any moment. But if he didn’t . . .
Brady might just then be making his way up one of the service staircases. Should I try to warn him that Uncle Cornelius was nowhere to be found? But how could I do that when I had no idea which room marked Brady’s destination? I thought back to what he’d told me that morning. He wished to return something he’d taken . . . borrowed . . . stolen . . . something to do with railroad business. Then it had to have come from either of two places: Uncle Cornelius’s office, or his bedroom, both on the second floor.
I might have gone running up the grand staircase to search for Brady, but the second-floor rooms all opened onto a gallery that looked down over the Great Hall. I couldn’t risk being seen and followed, especially by a family member.
Aunt Alice gave me the perfect excuse to leave the Great Hall and devise a plan. “Emmaline, be an angel and check the billiard room. Tell that husband of mine if he doesn’t come at once he’ll spoil Gertrude’s night.”
I set off at nearly a run, my haste raising numerous eyebrows. Several men occupied the billiard room, but Uncle Cornelius wasn’t one of them. Instead of seeking him elsewhere on the first floor, I slipped quickly out through the double doors onto the rear piazza and then down the steps onto the lawn. The day’s rain had left the grass sodden, and moisture instantly soaked through my embroidered dancing slippers. They’d be ruined, but I hadn’t time to lament the fact. Toes squelching, I circled the side of the house, looking up as I neared the front. The second story was dark except . . . there! A beam of light passed across the windows of Uncle Cornelius’s bedroom. Brady must be inside.
I was about to hoist my skirts, scamper around to the front door, steal inside and up the service stairs when the light suddenly went out. I waited, staring into the darkness, my ears pricked. “Brady,” I whispered—stupidly, for at that distance and through the closed balcony door he could not have heard me. A minute or two passed. I decided my best course was indeed to run inside, but just then a sharp thwack from above rooted me to the spot. Two or three more clunks followed. Moments later, the balcony door swung open and sounds of a scuffle burst from inside the room.
“What? You!” a man’s voice exclaimed.
“Brady?” I cried out hoarsely, too frightened now for discretion.
There came a grunt, more scuffling, another thwack—louder and sharper now, like a gunshot piercing the quiet—and then the thud of something or someone hitting the stone balustrade. My heart pounding, I scrambled backward to get a better view, and as I looked up again, a dark silhouette tumbled over the railing and plummeted to the ground at my feet.
I cried out, then pressed both hands to my mouth. My heart pummeled inside my chest, and I stood motionless, breathless, staring down at the black heap before me, my brain thrashing to make sense of what had just happened.
With trembling fingers I lifted my hems from the wet ground and tiptoed closer, afraid to look, unable to turn away. The night closed around me like a fist, blocking out the house, the lawns, the nearby drive crowded with sleek horses and posh carriages. The music and lively hum of voices drifting from the piazza doorway faded. The crickets were silenced. I heard only the distant rumble of the ocean striking the cliffs at the base of the property.
A haze swam before my eyes, and through it I could make out scant details about the figure sprawled facedown on the ground: the formal tailcoat and tapering black trousers, the buffed dress shoes, the dark but graying hair. A notion rose like bile to choke me.
“Uncle Cornelius? Oh, God. Oh, no . . .”
* * *
To learn more about Alyssa, go to
* * *
Want to win a copy? Click here: a Rafflecopter giveaway