Chapter 1 - "The Case at Barton Manor"

Erin Emily

Book Description:

1920’s London

If one more person gives Rosemary Lillywhite unwanted advice on when to stop mourning the loss of her beloved husband, she fears she will lose control of her sensibilities. All she wants is to be left alone to drown her misery in a glass of gin and tonic, but when Grace Barton knocks on the door of her dead husband’s investigative office, Rosemary faces a choice: come out of hiding or turn away someone in need of help.

As Grace recounts her tale of intrigue, Rosemary discovers a shared connection with the woman that has her accepting an invitation she can’t refuse. With bright young thing, Vera Blackburn, by her side Rosemary trades her widow weeds for a party dress and heads to a fancy do at Barton Manor where the drinks flow freely, but there’s an undercurrent of unease.

The night ends in a murder for which Rosemary’s brother is the prime suspect. What’s worse, the handsome chief inspector on the case is a man Rosemary knows well. He was her husband’s best mate, and he takes a dim view of lady detectives. Or maybe just of Rosemary becoming one.

What will it take for Rosemary to solve the crime before her brother hangs for a murder he didn’t commit?

SW Barton Chapter 1 - "The Case at Barton Manor"
Available to read for FREE with your Kindle Unlimited subscription

Chapter 1 Excerpt

Rosemary Lillywhite kicked off her patent-leather T-strap heels, brushed a lock of honey-colored hair out of her eyes, and pushed on the corner of the desk with all her might, letting out a harrumph when it refused to budge even an inch.
“Wadsworth!” she called, straightening the bodice of her dress while soft footsteps descended the stairs. By the time the butler entered the room, she’d set herself back to rights—or, at least, what accounted for rights to Rosemary. According to her mother, she’d become far too comfortable with her staff. Evelyn Woolridge would never be caught bare-footed in front of her butler!
“Madam?” Wadsworth bowed slightly towards his mistress, his expression unwavering, but with an effort. “Are you in need of assistance?”
Rosemary glanced back at the desk and then again at Wadsworth, suddenly uncertain whether the task was beyond a man of his years. “I’ll need a crate for Mr. Lillywhite’s things, and then we’ll discuss the furniture.”
“Yes, of course, madam. Right away.” He appeared to have an opinion on the subject but wisely kept it to himself as he strode back out the door, closing it softly behind him. He needn’t have commented anyway, because his expression indicated the direction his thoughts had taken.
Maybe Wadsworth is right, Rosemary thought. Perhaps I’m not quite ready. It had been less than a year since her husband, Andrew, had passed away, and still the shock had yet to dissipate. Each time she left the townhouse, she was forced to walk past the sign out the front reading Lillywhite Investigations, and each time it was a knife to the heart. The ground-floor office would be better used as an art studio and would carry far fewer memories of Andrew.
That was precisely why Rosemary couldn’t make up her mind. Forgetting Andrew himself was not the goal, only leaving behind the pain of his loss. At a mere twenty-five years of age, and still in possession of her youthful beauty, Rosemary was unlikely to remain a widow for long. However, the idea of moving on with her life made the hole in her heart throb miserably. No other man could ever live up to Andrew.
Stalwart and true, her late husband had been a rose among the thorns. He supported the suffragette movement, encouraged Rosemary in any endeavor to which she aspired, and had rarely met her with so much as a harsh word. In fact, he’d seen the potential in her artistic ability and bucked tradition by insisting she take part in his work as a private investigator.
Andrew had been a man who appreciated a woman’s unique perspective.
The hours they’d spent discussing cases—he sprawled on the chaise longue in one corner and she sketching away at her easel in the other—were some of Rosemary’s happiest memories, and part of why redecorating the office presented such a conundrum.
She circled the room now, seeing ghosts in every corner until her gaze alighted on a large clock placed above the door. The audible click it made with each ticking of the second hand had always irritated Rosemary, and it was the one item in the room she would not be sad to see removed.
Biting her lower lip, Rosemary glanced at a ladder-backed chair positioned against the wall adjacent to the door. Making up her mind this was the place to begin the transformation, she pushed the chair against the door and gathered her skirt around her knees. With a jerk, she heaved herself onto the chair and reached up towards the casing.
The tips of her fingers reached only the lower rim of the clock, and it took considerable effort to wrench the piece free of the nail on which it hung. With impeccable timing, Wadsworth attempted to reenter from the other side, knocking the door into the chair and sending Rosemary to the ground with a grunt.
“Oh, my lady, are you hurt?” Wadsworth exclaimed, his normally pink, chubby cheeks blushing bright red as he reached down to help his mistress. Rosemary’s shoulders shook as she laid the miraculously unbroken clock down upon the carpet.
“Do you need me to summon Dr. Barrow?” The butler’s voice wavered with concern, but then his spine straightened and his eyes narrowed. “Have you gone mad, madam?”
Rosemary nodded, and after another few moments of silent laughter, she reached out a hand and allowed Wadsworth to raise her from the floor. “I’m perfectly fine, though perhaps a tiny bit hysterical.” Another giggle emerged from between her lips and had Wadsworth’s settling into a thin, unamused line.
“You could have been injured, my lady. Should you have wanted me to remove that clock, you had only to ask.”
Had even this mild admonishment come from Rosemary’s mother’s butler, she would not have wasted a moment before sending him packing, in search of another post. However, since Wadsworth had been more than just a servant in Andrew’s eyes, Rosemary allowed him a certain amount of leniency.
To hell with what her mother thought, anyway. Rosemary had long since realized they would never see eye to eye. Though she would do nothing to publicly shame the Woolridge family, she certainly had no intention of betraying her beliefs in the privacy of her own home.
“Oh, Wadsworth, stop your grumbling. I’m none the worse for wear. But I would like a cup of tea now if you don’t mind. You can thank me later for sparing you the chore of winding that monstrosity.”
“Of course.” He exited, taking a surreptitious look around before doing so as if searching for any other decorative pieces upon which his mistress might injure herself.
While she waited, Rosemary busied herself by drawing a sketch of the office as she envisioned it when completed. The room looked smaller than its actual dimensions due to a folding screen she and Andrew had picked out during a holiday to the Amalfi coast. Stowing it in a corner allowed for a proper assessment of the room's potential.
“Needs more light,” she muttered. “Replace the heavy curtains with sheer fabrics.” Yes, with the proper furnishings and decor, the walls would hold enough pieces to justify the room as a proper gallery.
Calculating the cost of such an endeavor, Rosemary jotted a list of the necessary changes. Her nose scrunched as she imagined writing out the number of cheques it would take to finance the endeavor. Since there was no one there, she needn’t admit to feeling guilty about the idea of redecorating a room that had been furnished relatively recently and gently used.
If it means I don’t have to avoid this space, it’s worth it, she thought. The money was not a factor as Andrew had left her with enough to cover her living expenses for the foreseeable future. Even with paying the staff—Wadsworth, her lady’s maid, Anna, the housekeeper, and the cook—Rosemary could live comfortably without using a penny of the stipend her parents had set aside for her. Should she decide to dip into those funds, however, redecorating the office wouldn’t make a dent in the amount.
Rosemary deeply appreciated being solvent enough to do what she pleased, but would never be one to throw her money around like many of her generation. A penny saved is a penny earned, her late husband had always insisted.
To ensure she knew how to take care of herself, he’d included her when it came time to choose investments or pay bills. The value of money was something with which Rosemary was well acquainted, and she had no intention of wasting any of hers.
Where is that tea? Rosemary wondered when a sufficient amount of time had passed, and Wadsworth remained absent. She opened the office door and climbed the short set of stairs leading into a covered hallway housing both an exit to the street and an entrance into the house proper. The fervent sound of a woman’s voice lilted towards her, along with the lower register of Wadsworth’s replies.
“Miss, I do wish I could help you, but you see, Lillywhite Investigations is closed. Permanently.” The word ‘permanently’ sent grief shuddering through Rosemary’s chest, but what affected her more was the intensity of the woman’s cries.
“Please, let me talk to Mr. Lillywhite. I’m certain we can work out some kind of arrangement,” she begged.
“Unfortunately Mr. Lillywhite is …” Wadsworth grumbled, reluctant to say the words neither of them wanted to believe were true.
“What my butler is trying to say,” Rosemary said, circling around Wadsworth’s back and veritably shoving him aside, “is that my husband, Andrew Lillywhite, is no longer with us. So you see, there’s no Lillywhite Investigations without him.” She kept her tone matter-of-fact while she surveyed the woman occupying the doorstep.
Beneath a fresh application of powder, her nose was red and blotchy, her eyes ringed with a touch of kohl that failed to hide the evidence of her misery. Aside from that, the woman appeared to be about Rosemary's age and wore a drop waist dress that did nothing to detract from an enviably slim waistline.
“My apologies, Mrs. Lillywhite, I had no idea. I’m so sorry to have bothered you.” The woman turned and bustled down the steps, and Rosemary nearly raced to follow before she realized she still wasn’t wearing any shoes.
“Wait, Miss—” she called. The woman turned and returned to the doorstep with an uncertain look upon her face.
“It’s Barton. Grace Barton.” The name Barton struck Rosemary as vaguely familiar, but she couldn’t place it from memory.
“Hello, Miss Barton. Would you please come in and join me for a cup of tea?” Rosemary pierced Wadsworth with a pointed glance, indicating that not only ought he to retrieve the tray but also provide the ladies with some privacy.
With some hesitation Grace nodded and trailed Rosemary into the office where she deftly sidestepped Andrew’s chair and took a spot next to Grace on the client side of the desk.
“Would you like to tell me what’s got you so upset?” Rosemary asked conversationally.
For a moment, she wondered if Grace would refuse to confide in her, but eventually, the words tumbled from her lips. “It's my father. I—I think his life is in danger. I didn’t know where else to turn, so I came here. You see, I met your husband on a train back from Lyon. He gave me his card, which I never imagined I’d have reason to use. He was a good man. I’m so sorry for your loss.”
“He was, and thank you.” Rosemary was grateful she hadn’t had to ask Grace how the two had met, and vaguely remembered him telling her about a woman on the train a few weeks before his untimely death. Not that she’d suspected anything untoward; Andrew had been a proper gentleman in every way.
It was more that meeting someone who had known her husband made her feel closer to him, and yet somehow even further away. The notion that people were walking around with stories about Andrew that she would never hear made her sad—and, at the same time happy, for that meant he lived on in memory.
Rosemary choked back her emotions and found herself asking all the important questions just as he would have done. She prodded Grace until she had all the details, even while wondering why she felt compelled to go through the motions given the investigative business was closed for good.
“I found a letter; an anonymous note addressed to my father.” Grace gulped, but explained, “It was written in red ink and said you’ll pay in blood.” She shook her head to erase the memory, but Rosemary merely nodded. As far as death threats went, this one was fairly tame.
“Was there a request for money in the letter?” she asked curiously. Blackmail would be a simple solution; it usually was, because the blackmailer often succumbed to greed and gave himself away.
Grace sighed. “No, that's the odd part. It was just a threat, which is even worse. If they wanted something, Father could just give it to them, and this whole thing would be over. What kind of person does something like this?” she wailed.
Rosemary pulled a handkerchief from her pocket and passed it to the sobbing woman. “This type of thing happens all too often. Sadly, it’s quite likely someone close to him. A business associate, possibly.”
Or a family member, Rosemary thought to herself but didn’t say out loud. “Did you happen to bring the letter with you?”
“No,” Grace said. “I wouldn’t dare remove anything from Father’s desk drawer.”
Yet you have no qualms about snooping, thought Rosemary. Out loud she agreed, “That was probably for the best,” though she would have liked to examine the letter. One could tell a lot from analyzing handwriting and, as an artist, the study of loops and whorls was something of a specialty of hers.
“Whatever shall I do?” Grace asked, the panic in her voice fading to resignation. “I felt as though coming here was my only hope. Father would either skin me alive or cut me off if he were to find out I’d gone behind his back like this.”
That was a sentiment Rosemary could wholeheartedly understand. Some men felt that women were meant to look attractive and keep their mouths shut; feats Rosemary frequently found herself unable to manage. It seemed deferring to a man wasn’t one of Grace’s strengths, either.
Rosemary suspected, also, that Mr. Barton would prefer to handle his own affairs without his daughter’s interference. She’d no intention of inserting herself into the equation, and instead offered a platitude that did nothing to calm Grace’s nerves. “Perhaps your father has the situation under control. Is it possible the threat is merely a harmless joke?”
Without pausing to consider Grace replied, “Father can hardly be described as whimsical, and even if he could, there was something sinister about that letter. I’m sure of it.” She spent a moment in quiet contemplation and then declared, “I shall simply return to Pardington and pray that nothing terrible happens before I gather the nerve to talk with Father.”
“Pardington? Are you one of the Bartons who lives at Barton Manor?” Rosemary asked, suddenly realizing why she had recognized the name.
Grace nodded. “Yes, I am.”
“Well, then the saying about this being a small world has once again proved to be true. My maiden name is Woolridge,” Rosemary explained.
The other woman appeared somewhat flummoxed and cast an odd look at Rosemary. “Your family is on the guest list for my parents’ wedding anniversary celebration this weekend. I do not, however, know the status of their RSVP.”
Weighing the pros and cons of getting involved even marginally, particularly with a case adjacent to her parents’ home, Rosemary made a quick decision. She had to admit she was intrigued, and it couldn’t hurt to take a quick trip to Pardington and poke around a bit.
Should she feel there was a legitimate threat to Mr. Barton’s life, she would advise Grace to alert the police and wash her hands of the whole affair.
“I’ll help however I can. But remember, I’m not licensed and I can’t get involved in any official capacity.” She found herself making a promise she’d never intended to make, but since she’d given it, she’d uphold it if for nothing more than to honor Andrew’s memory.
“Thank you, thank you so much.”

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