Compton Chase, Compton-Under-Wood,
Gloucestershire, a Saturday in late August 1924
Once upon a time, Lady Adelaide Mary Merrill, daughter of the Marquess of Broughton, was married to Major Rupert Charles Cressleigh Compton, hero of the Somme. It was not a happy union, and there was no one in Britain more relieved than Addie when Rupert smashed up his Hispano-Suiza on a quiet Cotswold country road with Mademoiselle Claudette Labelle in the passenger seat. If one could scream with a French accent, it was Claudette, and it was said her terrified shrieks as they hit the stone wall were still heard on occasion by superstitious farmers and their livestock near midnight when the moon was full.
Addie was just getting used to her widowhood when Rupert inconveniently turned up six months after she had him sealed in the Compton family vault in the village churchyard. The unentailed house was hers to do as she pleased, and she had decided to open it up to her family and a few convivial friends for the weekend now that she’d made some much-needed improvements. Rupert had always been stingy with her money, and with him gone on to his doubtful reward, she had employed most of the district’s laborers in an attempt to bring Compton Chase into the twentieth century.
True, it was early in her mourning period to entertain, but she made the concession to wear black, even if there wasn’t much of it in yardage, thank God, because it was so bloody hot. And her mother was there to chaperone.
When Rupert appeared, Addie was dressing for her house party, and dropped the diamond spray for her hair on the Aubusson.
“That dress is ridiculous, Addie,” Rupert intoned from a dim corner. He was wearing the dark suit with the maroon foulard tie she’d had him laid out in, and apart from being rather pale, was still a handsome devil, emphasis on the devil. If he’d been in his uniform, she might even contemplate marrying him again.
Oh, she was going mad. Too much stressing over the seating arrangements in the dining room. Who was billeted next to who. Or was it whom? She’d tried to make it easy for those who wished to be naughty tonight to be successful. Then there was the bother over her sister turning vegetarian and ruining the menus at the last minute. Cook was cross and was apt to get crosser.
Addie was already sitting at her vanity table so she didn’t collapse alongside the diamonds. She shut her eyes.
“I’ll be here when you open them. And believe me, it’s no picnic for me, either.”
Addie did open them, and her mouth, but found herself incapable of uttering anything sensible.
“Yes, I’m back. But, one hopes, not to stay. Apparently, I have to perform a few good deeds before the Fellow Upstairs will let me into heaven. It will be a frightful bore for you, I’m sure.”
She told the truth as she knew it, feeling absurd to even speak to someone who couldn’t possibly be there. “You’re dead.”
“As a doornail. What does that mean, anyway? The expression dates from the fourteenth century. Langland, Shakespeare, and Dickens all used it. Dickens was of the opinion that a coffin nail is deader, but there you are.”
Addie reached for her cup of cold tea and downed it in one gulp, wishing it was gin, brandy, anything to make Rupert go away. But if she were drunk, more Ruperts, like those fabled pink elephants, might actually appear. It was a conundrum.
“I’ll try to stay out of your hair as much as possible. Speaking of which, thank God you haven’t cut it into one of those awful shingles. I always did like your hair.”
Addie’s hand went up involuntarily to the golden roll she’d so recently pinned up without her maid’s assistance. Beckett was seeing to Addie’s impulsive sister Cecilia, who, apart from her sudden conversion to vegetarianism, had cut her hair into a bob that was more or less untamable because of the stubborn Merrill curls. Beckett had her work cut out for her. Cee resembled someone who had stuck their finger in the newly rewired sockets of Compton Chase and lived to tell the tale.
“What’s wrong with my dress?” Addie asked, peeved. Though she knew he wasn’t truly there—that he was dead—he still had the ability to irritate her, even in her imagination.
“It’s far too flimsy and sheer and short. I can practically see your nipples if I squint hard enough. I admit you do have lovely legs, but everyone and his brother doesn’t have to see them. Your father would not be pleased.”
“My father is dead.” Panicked, she looked around her bedroom. “My God, he’s not going to turn up too, is he?”
“Only one ghost at a time, I believe. I’m still not entirely conversant with the rules. It’s been a confusing few months.”
“It’s the very latest style,” Addie said to herself—and only to herself—tugging down the beaded skirt. It really could have been much shorter. She’d had it sent over from Paris after a flurry of letters and telegrams back and forth from Charles Frederick Worth’s grandson Jacques, who had recently taken over the famous fashion house. Addie had sketched the initial design herself, not that she had any pretensions to become a couturier. A marquess’ daughter was supposed to be decorative, and possibly witty and wise, but never work.
“I don’t like it, but then so little appeals to me nowadays. Ennui is my middle name, but I hope this little visit changes things up. Who have you put in my room? That bounder Waring?”
“I understand it takes one to know one. Lucas is not a bounder, as you must know. Why am I talking? You are not here.”
Lucas was, in fact, assigned a bedroom across the hall. Addie didn’t trust a mere connecting door to stay shut all night long, and in her well-run household, servants were apt to be scurrying down the corridor at any moment at a guest’s whim, discouraging all attempts of Addie’s to be naughty herself. She was not ready to be a merry widow anyway, despite Lucas’ tentative blandishments. Rupert wasn’t cold in his grave.
Apparently, Rupert wasn’t in his grave.
Rupert smiled ruefully. Could an apparition be rueful? Or was Addie really unconscious, perhaps on her deathbed, suffering from heat stroke or a regular stroke or some kind of tea-induced hallucination? Cook could easily have put poisonous leaves in the pot in retaliation for the menu adjustments. She was set in her ways, and had been at Compton Chase since the dawn of time.
Addie had only just turned thirty-one, much too young to die in the usual course of things. However, the past few months had been more than difficult for her too, even apart from Rupert’s death.
“I admit I bounded in my time. Poor Addie. I wasn’t much of a husband, was I?”
“Please go away. I haven’t time for this.” In ten minutes, there would be a dozen houseguests downstairs in the Great Hall admiring its two-story, multi-paned window and having cocktails without her, and Lord knows, she needed one. Or three. She bent over, picked up the pin and stuck it behind an ear.
“Tut. Let me help you with that.” Before she could say a word, she felt his hands in her hair. Cold hands. Really quite icy. He moved the diamonds over a few inches, and she began to see spots dance the tarantella before her eyes.
Good. She was going to faint and stop all this. Addie knew how to faint like a champion—her mother, the Dowager Marchioness of Broughton, a short but formidable woman, had indoctrinated both her daughters in all the ladylike accomplishments. She slid with ease off her slipper chair to the thick carpet and waited to black out, knowing her limbs to be in perfect order, and the hem of her dress where it should be, not riding up to show Rupert her French silk knickers.
Not that he’d care.
“Dash it, Addie! You have more spine than this! I recognize the situation is hardly ideal, but you’re stuck with me for the foreseeable future, so buck up, my girl. I’ll leave you alone for now, but look for me before bedtime for a little chat. No finky-diddling with that Waring chap, no matter how much he bats those baby-blues in your direction. I know what he’s up to—you’re a rich and attractive widow, ripe for the fuc—um, plucking. Don’t fall for his innocent act.”
“I’ve known Lucas since I was six years old. He is innocent,” Addie said from the floor. You couldn’t find a nicer man than Lucas, not that she’d tried. No, she’d allowed herself to be lured away by Major Rupert Charles Cressleigh Compton of Compton Chase, an ancient Jacobean pile in dire need of restoration. The house, not Rupert. Rupert had been unbearably handsome and fit and had shone with good health and bonhomie. If he could live through the horrors of the Great War, he should have lived forever, were it not for too many French 75 cocktails, unnecessary speed, and that Cotswold stone wall.
“That’s what he wants you to believe. All men are the same, perfect hounds.”
“You’re giving dogs a bad name.” Idly, she wondered where her terrier Fitz was. Would he be able to see Rupert, or would he be barking at the shadows? Fitz had never met Rupert; he was Cee’s crackpot idea of a mourning present and arrived with a big black bow around his scrawny neck a week after the funeral. The fleas in her bed had been an unforeseen complication.
Fitz’s neck was thicker now, the fleas a distant memory. Addie supposed that since she had no children, the dog was the next best thing to distract her from her lonely state.
She wasn’t lonely now. There were far too many people in her house for comfort, starting with the man who was disappearing right in front of her. Going, going…
She swallowed back a little cry and struggled to sit up, the room still spinning a bit. That afternoon nap hadn’t helped. It had been a long day, perhaps way too hot to play tennis. Far too much sun had roasted her cheeks and brought out her freckles. She was rubbish at tennis anyhow, being too vain to wear the glasses Dr. Bergman had prescribed before he retired two years ago. Maybe if she put those glasses on—
Addie leaped up and rummaged through the dressing table drawer. Wrapped in an embroidered lace handkerchief, the dratted tortoise shell spectacles were still as ugly as ever. But they would help her see clearly, wouldn’t they? To not see things or dead husbands that really weren’t there. The mirror came into focus and she noticed at once that the diamond pin was dangling from a strand of loosened hair. She’d have to start again, this time with no assistance from the man who’d made their five-year marriage a living hell.
Ha. So he thought he’d eventually wind up in heaven? It would take more than “a few good deeds” to send him to the front of the queue. If he hadn’t died six months ago, Addie might have been tempted to shoot him herself. Her father had done his bit and taught her and Cecilia all the unladylike accomplishments, and when she wore her glasses, she was a very fair shot.
Addie had been vastly tired of the faux sympathy she received from her so-called friends as she tried to hold her head up and pretend Rupert was a faithful husband. Despite the potential scandal, the exhortations of her mother, and reservations of her sister, she’d been close to demanding a divorce from Rupert when he’d skidded off the slippery road with that French wh—hussy.
She pulled out all the pins with a certain amount of viciousness, her hair tumbling down her bare shoulders and catching on the jet and sequins and cobwebby lace. Picking up the silver-backed brush, she tried to smooth the curls and her life back into some semblance of control.
By God, she was going to need something more than a hairbrush.
“What on earth have you put on your face?”
If she had been wearing her own cheaters, Constance, the Dowager Marchioness of Broughton, wouldn’t have to ask such a silly question. All the women in the family were plagued by poor eyesight, but Addie’s father had forbidden them from visibly correcting their vision while he was alive—he liked his women to be pretty, posh, and perfect. If he couldn’t have sons, then his exquisite blond daughters and enchanting blond wife must be the envy of his set. So what if they had the occasional bruise from bumping into things, or an inability to find a valuable dropped earring on the Oriental rug before it was hoovered up?
“My glasses, Mama. I was getting a headache.” A tall one named Rupert, well over six feet, with dark hair and dark eyes and that stupid tickly mustache that made him look like a gigolo. Or Ramon Novarro, if one really reached for comparison. Addie wasn’t much for the cinema, but her maid Beckett kept her abreast of the latest sensations and left her magazines all over the house. Even when the coal strike froze patrons in the theaters three years ago, Beckett borrowed Addie’s second-best fur coat, attended loyally twice a week, and reported reel-by-reel. Addie knew who the current heartthrobs were, not that she’d ever fall in love with a handsome man again.
A plain one either.
“You’ll never catch another husband looking like a frump,” her mama complained.
“I don’t want another husband.” Addie was sure she meant it. If one marriage could make her lose her mind, then what would two do? She took a sip of sherry to calm her nerves.
She had decided that she’d been sleepwalking earlier, kind of in a waking dream state, even if she’d been sitting down. She’d always had a full fantasy life, had she not? Playing fairies in the woods around Broughton Park with little Cee, sure every dragonfly was a sign. Believing in Father Christmas long past his prime. Thinking her pony could talk if she listened hard enough. Keeping Rupert faithful if she anticipated his every need. The latter had proved more difficult than communicating with bugs or horses. French silk knickers couldn’t do it all.
Addie’s inadvertent summoning of Rupert was an indication that she’d overdone in all her planning. Spent too much time in the hot sun chasing a tennis ball, too. Hot weather made people go crazy; everyone knew that. There were riots and uprisings and crimes of passion and murders. Addie didn’t have any idea how a proper English person could survive in India or the Argentine; she had enough trouble right here at Compton-Under-Wood, where the weather was temperate, if a little rainy.
The French doors to the garden were open to let in a pleasant breeze. Now that the sun was setting over the Cotswold Hills, the air was cooler, and her guests looked comfortable, having moved from the impressive Great Hall to the more modest proportions of the drawing room for the second round of drinks. There were squashy sofas to sit on just in case one’s liquor consumption had gone to one’s head, and more substantial nibbles were being passed around while they waited for Forbes to announce dinner.
Rupert wasn’t lurking in any corner of the freshly papered space. Wallpaper had gone out of fashion during the war because of the paper shortage, but the drawing room now had sedate cream and gold stripes on the walls, with a few modern paintings that were just avant-garde enough without being inscrutable. Addie had convinced noted decorator Elsie de Wolfe to help her with the renovations, and was very pleased with the results.
She wondered what Rupert would have thought of the redecoration. More than half the rambling house was still shut up—Addie was not made of money, despite what everyone thought—but on the whole she was glad she was able to bring new life to the old place. It wasn’t too modern; that would have been sacrilege. The house had been in Rupert’s family for generations, hopscotching between uncles and cousins and grandmothers. Rupert’s own granny had left it to him when she died right before the war, and Addie had been brought here as a youngish bride after.
Then it had been cold and cheerless, its furniture rotting, the carpets moth-eaten, the curtains shredding, a definite smell of rheumatism liniment and mouse everywhere. Addie had done what she could at the time, but Rupert was far more interested in collecting motor cars to put in the newly repurposed stables. If he’d purchased a decent period dining table instead of the Hispano-Suiza, he might be sitting at the head of it tonight, she thought somewhat unkindly.
Addie supposed at some point she should try to sell the house back to one of Rupert’s relatives, but for now she was very much enjoying being the lady of the manor. Her spacious flat in London was gathering dust, and her friends there had wondered if she had died right along with Rupert. Thus the reason for the house party.
“Who are these people?” her mother asked myopically. She hadn’t joined them at lunchtime, pleading her own headache.
There would be thirteen at dinner, unlucky, but it couldn’t be helped. Edward Rivers, the young vicar from the village, had bowed out at the last minute, claiming he was sitting with an ailing parishioner. Addie had no reason to disbelieve him, but she remained annoyed at the unknown parishioner’s thoughtlessness in falling ill when she’d gone to all this trouble to get the numbers right.
“You know most of them. Lucas, of course. His cousin, Eloise. The Shipmans—he’s a financial wizard in London and they live next door to me on Mount Street. The man by the fireplace talking to Pansy and George is Colonel Mellard, who was Rupert’s commanding officer. You met him at the funeral. Barbara and her new fiancé.”
Addie couldn’t remember the name of this one. There had been four previous fellows. Two had died in the war and two had discovered their feet were very cold, and no amount of Barbara’s money spent on socks would alleviate the problem. Barbara was not the easiest of fiancées or friends, but Addie was nothing if not loyal.
Her mother sighed. “I wish you hadn’t invited David Grant.”
Addie had deliberately not pointed him out. “Cee likes him.”
“That is the problem, Adelaide. Surely you know my objections.”
Yes, she did. Sir David Grant was divorced, with three young sons. His ex-wife Kathleen was so infamous he’d had no trouble about the custody of the children. And he was almost fifty, far more suited to Lady Broughton than her twenty-five-year-old daughter.
“You know as well as I do, if you forbid her, she’ll think she loves him all the more. She hasn’t met the children yet. That might put her off.” Three boys! Addie shuddered. Not that girls were any better, or at least she and Cee hadn’t been. Addie had done her best to lead her little sister astray from the time Cee could crawl.
Her mother launched into the speech Addie had heard several times already over the past few days. “This house party is all very ill-advised. In my day, one mourned one’s deceased husband for two solid years before one allowed oneself any sort of amusement. I don’t know what the world is coming to. You young people with your cacophonous music and barely-there skirts—smoking and lip rouge! It’s a very good thing your father is dead.”
No, it wasn’t. Addie had a feeling her papa would get right into the swing of things. He’d always enjoyed a glimpse of a lady’s ankle. And after the privations of the war and the misery of all those young men’s deaths, followed by the fatal sweep of influenza, wasn’t it past time for some fun? A whole generation lost. But she said nothing, just took another sip of sherry and watched as one of the maids passed around a silver tray of shrimp toasts and olives.
“Your sister will be the end of me yet. Do you know she’s joined the Vegetarian Society? I ask you, lentil cutlet in tomato sauce! Plum pudding without the suet! She wants me to tear up my flowerbeds at the Dower House and expand the kitchen garden. I won’t do it.”
Addie had heard this story too. “Of course you won’t. Flowers bring you so much pleasure,” she murmured. Her own simple borders were at their peak, the scent of lavender wafting in through the open windows. Since the war, Compton Chase’s gardens had been turned over to vegetables, first for the country, then for the household. Cee would approve. With just one elderly man and a handful of village boys to help, flowers were an indulgence. Addie had spent almost as much time on her knees this spring as her gardener Mr. McGrath.
Sometimes she’d been praying. For what, she wasn’t sure.
“You need to talk to her. It will come better from you.”
Addie raised a plucked eyebrow. “It?”
“You know. Sisterly advice. What she owes the family name. Her appropriate place in the world. She’s going to waste away like those suffragettes who starved themselves in prison and had to be force-fed. People already think she’s peculiar since she reads so much. What she needs is red meat and a good rogering. But not from David Grant.”
Addie nearly spit out her sherry at her mother’s bluntness. Prior to this evening, Lady Broughton had been a staunch proponent of virginity. Addie remembered the endless lectures from her pre-war debutante days, and had mostly heeded them until Rupert came along. “I’m hardly an expert in anything, Mama. How can I advise Cee, or anyone?” An hour ago, she was under the influence of a powerful mania that made her doubt her very sanity.
“You made what looked like an excellent marriage, on paper at any rate. Rupert was perfectly desirable. Charm personified. Eton. Cambridge. A decorated war hero. Related, distantly I admit, to the Duke of Sheringham. The Comptons are one of the oldest families in England. Why, the whole village is named for them. In another era, people wouldn’t have blinked even once at Rupert’s indiscretions.”
“I did a lot of blinking, Mama.” Glasses or not, the evidence of Rupert’s perfidy was strewn across the county.
Her mother patted her bare arm. “A man was meant to have his way in the old days, although if your father had got up to a quarter of Rupert’s hijinks, I would have resorted to a dull kitchen knife. You kept your head and composure and have nothing to be ashamed of.”
And consequently hadn’t been hanged for mariticide. “Well, we’ve moved on, haven’t we? It’s a new age. If you’ll excuse me, I need to move on at the moment and circulate amongst my guests again.”
“Of course, dear. You always do the right thing, except for this party. Now if only your sister could follow in your footsteps.”
Little chance of that. Cee had a mind of her own now, erratic as it sometimes was. Addie wondered if Sir David and his sons would settle her down.
Did the man know he was in Cee’s hunting grounds? He was speaking to Eloise Waring, and looked rather weary, circles under his dark eyes. His light brown hair was fading to white, giving him a bleached-out look, and beneath his summer tan, his skin had a gray cast.
Perhaps he’d been up all night with one of his children—did divorced fathers do that? He had to be both parents now, not that Kathleen had ever been much of a mother. Addie didn’t know her well—well enough to know they had little in common—but Rupert had known her quite well. If she could ask him, he’d probably be able to describe her every mole and freckle.
“A heart-shaped spot right next to her left nipple. It was very intriguing.”
Addie dropped her glass. Rupert yanked her back so that her new frock wouldn’t be splashed with Amontillado, and she nearly screamed.
“Sorry,” he whispered in her ear. “I couldn’t help myself. Aside from your blood-thirsty mama’s hair-raising revelations—dull knife, indeed—this party is putting me to sleep, my dear. I’ll leave you to it.”
Addie looked behind her. There was nothing but a table and a lamp on it whose fringe wiggled very slightly.
Lucas rushed across the room and clasped her empty hands. “Are you all right? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
“Ah…silly me. The glass slipped right out of my fingers. I must be getting arthritis at my advanced age.” She waved to one of the maids and pointed to the stain on the new carpet. Fortunately, the heavy Waterford glass had not shattered.
“Nonsense. If you’re ancient, what does that make me? I’m three months older. You’re as fresh as springtime! That dress is awfully, um, becoming. I expect your mama doesn’t like it much.”
“She didn’t say. You don’t think it’s too short, do you?” Rupert was not here. Rupert was not here. Rupert was not here. Rupert was not here. Rupert was nowhere, as it should be.
“I think you may wear anything you want,” Lucas replied, ever the diplomat.
Lucas would always support her decisions. He had a history of it. Whether it was locking Cee up in the family chapel or climbing the tallest tree in Broughton Wood, Lucas was right by her side in her every youthful endeavor. Why hadn’t she married him?
Well, the truth was, he’d never asked.