An Invitation to Murder
Lady Katherine Regency Mysteries: Book 1
Lady Katherine only has one week to catch the Pink Ribbon Killer. Not only to stop the killing but also to prove her skills at detection to her father and win her dowry and independence.
There’s only one catch—she has to take one last matchmaking job to do it. Never mind that the match is impossible, all the better because if she fails, then no one will seek her services again. The job provides the perfect cover especially when her peculiar investigatory techniques are mistaken for unconventional matchmaking attempts.
Things would go a lot smoother if she weren’t knee-deep in suspects and thwarted at every turn by a rival matchmaker. But when the killer strikes again, Katherine’s investigation leads down a dangerous path. Too late, she discovers that she has a lot more to lose than her dowry…
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Thursday, August 22, 1816.
Irvine House, London, England.
Lady Katherine Irvine, daughter of one of the most brilliant detective minds of Britain, the Earl of Dorchester, stared the villain in the eye and pointed at the toe of her embroidered slipper. “Drop it, thief, or you won’t like the consequences.”
Her pet pug, Emma, spat out the slim leather-bound notebook and wagged her curly tail. Her dark eyes glimmered with mischief.
“Good girl. Come here and I’ll give you a rub.”
As Katherine knelt to retrieve her notes on the hair-raising murder case that had eluded even her father, Emma hunched down on her haunches. The dog snatched the notebook and made off with it.
“That isn’t a toy!” Katherine hiked her dove-gray skirts to her knees and still managed to trip over an errant obstacle. In truth, her bedchamber was riddled with them. Her notes on the recent deluge of crime in and around London decorated every available surface, including the floor. It made for slippery footing.
She winced at the crumple of paper as she landed on one knee. Had she destroyed her theories on the pink ribbon murders? Two murders at two separate house parties had the ton so up in arms that they’d cancelled their scheduled string of house parties. A sensible decision for once, for with the crime scenes disturbed and the guests too deep in their cups or entrenched in frivolity to recall much at all, even Papa hadn’t been able to solve the murders.
But Katherine would. She and her father had a wager. If she could solve a murder investigation on her own before her twenty-fifth birthday in less than ten days, he would award her with her dowry to use however she pleased. It would please her greatly to depart from her father and stepmother’s incessant cooing as they snuck about in one last attempt to give the earldom an heir. All the better if she could manage such independence without having to rely on anyone but herself.
However, Emma could shred her hopes just as easily as the notebook she held between her teeth. Katherine had poured the bulk of her theories on the pink ribbon murders into that book.
“Emma.” Her voice held a note of warning, not that the little pug took heed in any way. The dog dove beneath the coverlet hanging askew off the bed. Out of sight, out of mind it seemed, for Emma didn’t seem to notice that her rump wasn’t as warm as her front. Her tail wagged vigorously in the open air above her golden rump.
Holding her breath, Katherine crept near her. Please don’t chew on those notes, she prayed. I’ll never give you another bone if you do.
Two steps remained between her and the ornery dog. One.
As she bent to seize Emma’s back end, the dog dove beneath the bed. Katherine flattened on her stomach and wriggled in after her, her arms outstretched. Her hips wedged against the bedframe, immobilizing her.
“Oh, tarnation!” She and her oldest sister had both inherited her late mother’s figure, wider in the hips than around the chest. She didn’t fit beneath the bed. “That deuced dog!”
With a short, plaintive whine, Emma halted her retreat just out of reach and dropped the notebook. Blessed be! If Katherine could only reach a little further…
The door latch jiggled. Muffled footsteps abruptly stopped. From behind her, a familiar voice exclaimed, “Lady Katherine! What have you done to this room?”
Eureka, she had something! Katherine gripped the slippery item between her fingers and drew back so quickly, she walloped her head on the hard wooden bedframe. Wincing, she sat back on her heels and held up her prize, triumphant.
Not a notebook, but the puce silk ribbon her lady’s maid, Harriet, had tied around Emma’s neck. “Sard it all,” Katherine swore.
Harriet’s expression turned every bit as dark as her hair. “You’re learning too much foul language from your Bow Street Runner friend.”
Katherine raised an eyebrow. Her foray beneath the bed had tugged several locks of brown hair out of her coif and into her eyes. She brushed them aside with her free hand. “I believe he prefers to be called one of Sir John’s Men.”
“I believe he prefers to be called Lyle,” Harriet countered. She stepped forward, her hands on her round hips. “Now, what are you doing beneath the bed, my lady?”
With a disgusted sigh, Katherine rose and dusted off her dress. “Emma’s stolen something again.”
“It must be something important.”
“My notebook, the one I’ve been using to record my impressions of the pink ribbon murders.”
Harriet tossed her thick braid over one shoulder. “I know it. Why don’t I promise to glue it back together for you while you attend to your guest?”
Katherine didn’t care for the falsely sweet smile her longtime maid wore, nor the twinkle in her ebony-dark eyes. “Is Lyle here?” she asked as she raked her gaze over Harriet’s attire. She wore a faded sunshine-yellow dress, one of Katherine’s cast-offs. Nothing about her appearance indicated that she had formed a sudden tendre for Katherine’s dearest friend, more’s the pity. Lyle could use a guiding hand.
“Are you expecting him?” Harriet asked, her voice as sweet as her smile. “I’ll fix your hair if you’d care to go down.”
“No need.” Katherine used the ribbon in her hand to tie back the errant strands of her hair. “Help me catch that thieving dog. Lyle and I have an investigative society meeting to attend tonight and I cannot be late.” Not only did she owe a colleague her notes on a case he had trouble pursuing, but she wanted to learn as much as she could about the pink ribbon murders. The next society meeting wouldn’t be for a month.
Harriet retrieved a foot-long, brass shoehorn from near the wardrobe and approached the bed, bending as if she meant to sweep it underneath like a broom. Katherine took up a post on the opposite side.
Casually, the maid added, “I fear you’ll be late even if we manage to wrangle Emma into behaving.”
Katherine chewed on her lower lip as she bent beneath the lip of the bed once more. All she saw were the lamplight reflections of two beady eyes squarely in the center of the large mattress, out of reach. With disgust, she let the coverlet drop into place once more. She had more important matters to which to attend.
Such as the bevy of notes scattered across the room. Oh, dear. Perhaps she would be late, after all. Abandoning her post, she hurried to collect the pages. She skimmed each, searching for the ones pertaining to tonight’s meeting. Her efforts to solve the pink ribbon murders would be much more fruitful if the string of house parties had continued—and if she could have somehow secured an invitation without having to pretend to join the husband hunt. How tedious.
“Perhaps we can entice Emma out with a treat,” Katherine answered, her voice absent-minded. The drawer to her writing desk creaked as she opened it to stuff the pages out of sight. Lodged in one corner was the reticule stuffed full of dried dog treats. As she plucked it out, Katherine put a wheedling tone. “Would you like that Emma, darling, to be rewarded for your misbehavior?”
Harriet snorted as she straightened. She tossed the shoehorn onto the mattress with a wry shake of the head. “She’s a dog, my lady. She doesn’t understand English.”
“Nonsense.” Katherine dipped her fingers between the strings of the reticule to break off a small morsel of the dried meat in the pouch. “She understands plenty of English words. Ball, walk, supper, bed.”
Dusting off her hands, Harriet said, “Well, in that case, perhaps she’ll understand when I tell her that if she doesn’t come out of there, I’ll see she’s made into cat food!”
Katherine laughed as she returned the treat bag to the drawer, not expecting an answer from the threatened canine. To her surprise, Emma yipped as she scurried out from beneath the bed. She barreled to Katherine, tripping over her short legs along the way. As she scrambled to get all her feet under her before she sat, she tipped her eager face up and let her pink tongue loll out the side of her mouth. The notebook was nowhere to be seen.
“Please tell me you haven’t eaten it,” Katherine muttered as she knelt to feed her pet the morsel. Emma lapped it up and sniffed her hands for more.
Meanwhile, Harriet crouched to peek under the bed. “It’s under here. Why don’t you entertain Mrs. Pickering while I fetch it for you and straighten up?”
“Mrs. Pickering?” Katherine searched out the sensitive spot behind Emma’s ear. The dog thumped her tail on the floor in glee. Katherine groped for another fallen sheaf of notes with her free hand.
Her voice muffled, the maid answered, “Indeed. She called asking after your expertise.”
“Mine?” Katherine straightened, fighting a smile as she clutched the papers to her chest. “Not Papa’s?” How could Mrs. Pickering have learned about her? The daughters of earls did not openly solve crimes, not even when said earl was known for his eccentricities.
Harriet resurfaced with the notebook in hand. She stood too far away for Katherine to judge whether or not the notes within would still be legible.
Smirking, Harriet answered, “I doubt your father would prove a very good matchmaker.”
“Matchmaking?” The word tasted foul. “No. Never again. Send her away.”
As Katherine’s attention waned, Emma returned to her mischief by vigorously smelling the nearest page of notes. Oh, no she wouldn’t! Katherine grasped her around her middle and lifted her, thrusting her out as she crossed the room.
Tapping the leather-bound book idly against her palm, Harriet looked smug. “I tried telling her you were not at home, but she insisted on waiting for your return. She’s heard so much about your success with your sisters.”
Katherine narrowed her eyes. “Is this punishment for messing my room?”
Harriet laughed. “It’s the truth. Go downstairs and see for yourself.”
The sky would freeze over before Katherine did that. She thrust Emma into her maid’s arms. “Trade me that book for this ornery dog.”
“Of course, my lady. We’ll have heaps of fun together.”
The moment Harriet clasped the pug’s middle, Emma pumped her legs as if hoping to outrun her in midair.
Katherine examined the book for teeth marks. Small indentations showed some wear, but the dog hadn’t torn or punctured the pages. Thank Zeus. Katherine carefully inserted the notebook into her bulging reticule.
Balancing the feisty dog on her hip, Harriet added, “I sent a pot of tea in to warm Mrs. Pickering but that’s bound to get cold if you tarry too much longer.”
Katherine glared. “I shan’t be meeting with her, nor taking a confounded matchmaking job.”
“Not even if she pays you? I’d do it.”
Katherine wasn’t quite that desperate to leave her father’s house. She could wait nine days for her dowry, when she’d have funds aplenty to let a cozy townhouse of her own.
“If you’re so eager, then why don’t you take the job?” Turning, Katherine gathered up the last of the pages and thumbed through them to find the particular notes she needed.
“I would, but I seem to have my hands full.”
When Katherine offered her friend an arch stare, Harriet lifted the pug as if offering proof. That dog could be a handful at times.
“I’ll be late to my meeting with Lyle if I don’t depart immediately.”
Harriet shrugged. “Very well. If you mean to avoid her, you’ll have to go out the window. She’s in the blue parlor, next to the door.”
She must have situated her in such a central location on purpose. Katherine glared.
Her smile widening, Harriet added, “Don’t fret. I left Lyle in with her for entertainment.”
Katherine’s heart skipped a beat. “Please tell me you’re jesting.”
“Not at all. Best not keep them waiting.”
Tarnation, what could Lyle have found to talk about—the rate of decay of a drowned corpse? The smell and consistency of rat droppings if poison had been ingested? The only thing her dear friend did worse than make small talk was flirt. Although Mrs. Pickering wasn’t the most powerful of peers, she had enough clout to wrangle a Season for her daughter, which made her far more powerful than the Bow Street Runners at whom she no doubt turned her nose up.
“Ensure Emma doesn’t chew on my notes,” Katherine ordered, breathless. Before Lyle caused an incident that might reflect poorly on her and cause Papa to retract his wager for her dowry, she bolted down two flights of stairs and into the blue parlor.
The moment she entered the room, she found Lyle’s long-limbed form squeezed into a spindly chintz-upholstered chair better suited to a lady’s frame. He held a delicate teacup between two fingers as if it would attack him. His carroty hair flew in all directions and splotches of pink covered the freckles on his cheeks.
Katherine pinned a smile in place, though inwardly she quavered. “How nice to see you, Mrs. Pickering. Please forgive the delay.”
“No need,” Lyle said, his voice weak as he stood from the chair. He still handled the teacup as if it would shatter with any greater force. “We entertained ourselves with a scintillating conversation about”—he glanced at Mrs. Pickering and swallowed visibly, his Adam’s apple bobbing—“ladies’ undergarments.”
Good grief! How had he managed that?
“Harriet’s begged me to convince you to let her straighten your cravat. She’s up on the third floor.”
Bald relief crossed his face. He set the teacup on the table, bending nearly in half to do so. Not many men stretched as tall as Lyle, nor managed to look so gangly in the process. With his lack of coordination and absentminded air, he half reminded her of a marionette, not that she would ever insult him to his face.
As he tripped over his tongue excusing himself, Katherine held out the sheaf of papers she’d collected. “Would you mind looking after these for me? I shan’t be long.”
“Of course.” He bolted from the room, pulling at the cravat he wore only for society meetings.
Katherine lowered herself into his seat. The moment her rump kissed the chair, Mrs. Pickering’s manner turned from ennui to accusation.
“If you thought sending him in as entertainment would dissuade me from staying, you are wrong.”
What else did he talk about before settling on undergarments? Knowing Lyle, the topics were inexhaustible. He was one of the most brilliant minds she knew. Unfortunately, a flair for inventions and investigations did not lend itself to easy manners.
Katherine bit her tongue to keep from defending her friend. If she wanted to eject Mrs. Pickering from her home posthaste, she didn’t have time for an argument. She clasped her hands in her lap.
“I’m afraid I’m not taking on matchmaking clients at this time. Thank you for your inquiry, but I must insist that you find someone else.”
A bald look of panic crossed Mrs. Pickering’s face. As Katherine started to rise, the older woman—nearing fifty, by Katherine estimate—laid her hand over Katherine’s on her lap, thereby pinning her in place.
“Please, hear out my offer, I beg of you.”
Katherine tried to harden her heart against the note of desperation in the woman’s demeanor. She wasn’t the only matchmaking mama to despair of making an advantageous marriage for her daughter. Although Katherine tried to disentangle herself, the woman’s grip was like iron.
“We’ll pay. Whatever fee you name.”
The ragged edges of the woman’s fingernails dug into Katherine’s skin. With a wince, she glanced down just as Mrs. Pickering retracted her hand. Her fingernails were not buffed. The edges were a bit tattered, as if she did manual labor.
Impossible…or was it? Her fingernails weren’t the only sign of wear. Her threadbare dress hung loose as if she’d lost weight. It was darned in places along the sleeve, a testament to how often she wore it. Her slippers were scuffed, some of the embroidery coming loose or fraying. She wore no jewelry save for the modest wedding ring she twisted on her left hand—no earrings, no necklace. Judging by the slackness in the reticule hanging from her wrist, she didn’t carry much about her person. These signs, coupled with the pronounced worry lines around her eyes and nose, indicated that Mrs. Pickering was a step away from poverty. Her polite façade covered more desperation than only for her daughter.
After pressing her lips together, her nostrils flaring, Mrs. Pickering confessed, “You found such wonderful matches for your sisters. Love matches, even.”
Her motive had been selfish. If Susanna, her stepmother, had a wedding to plan, she wouldn’t have time to turn her matrimonial eye to Katherine. Not to mention, she would have more time alone with her father to learn the nuances of their chosen profession.
“Please, you’re my last hope,” Mrs. Pickering begged. “This is Annie’s only Season. If she isn’t wed soon…”
Katherine didn’t want to hear of Mrs. Pickering’s financial difficulties. If she hadn’t thrown her daughter a Season, her funds likely would have lasted years. With the fashions and entertainments, a London Season cost a small fortune. Once she was financially independent, such frivolity would be the first thing she cut from her budget.
“The Season is over, madam. Everyone and their dogs have retreated to their country estates. I don’t know what you’d have me do.”
Hope broke through Mrs. Pickering’s expression like the sun through clouds. “The Earl of Northbrook is throwing a house party as planned. Rumor has it, his mother is bent upon marrying him off so he can beget the estate an heir. Annie could be that wife, if only you’ll agree to help.”
When she reached forward to clasp Katherine’s hands once more, Katherine moved them out of reach. “I wish you the best of luck, but the answer remains—”
Wait, a house party? She frowned as she thought. Papa had obtained a thorough guest list from the last two house parties, both of which had contained fatalities.
“Was Lord Northbrook one of those who attended the Duke of Somerset’s house party?” That had been the first murder, mere days after the Season had come to a close.
Mrs. Pickering nodded. “He was. Such a shame about that poor girl. And he was at the second calamity as well. I feared that would be the end of our plan to extend the Season into the country…” She pressed her lips together, her eyes clouding over. “If not for our situation, I’d never let Annie attend another house party this summer. But…”
Katherine’s trepidation faded in the swell of jubilance that struck her. Papa had claimed that he would be unable to solve the pink ribbon murders unless the killer struck again. Although she didn’t wish that, surely gathering together the guests once more would give her an opportunity to solve the murder herself! She bit the inside of her cheek to keep from grinning, an uncouth reaction given the grief of the circumstances.
“There’s one problem,” she said, hoping that Mrs. Pickering would have a solution. “After Lord Somerset’s party, I tried to get an invitation to the next, but I was declined seeing as the tour was already underway. How do you propose I gain entry to Lord Northbrook’s party?”
Mrs. Pickering’s face lit up. The worry etched into her wrinkles faded away as optimism spilled from her pores. “If that is your only concern, give it no thought at all. I’ll pretend to be sick and you can take my place as Annie’s chaperone.”
Perhaps there was some merit to this matchmaking job after all. It was a small price to pay if it would help her earn her dowry. Katherine held out her hand.
“Very well, Mrs. Pickering. I accept.”