Death at Sagehollow: Chapter 1

After reaching 1k followers on Twitter, the Regency era novelette is ready to be released. I will post one chapter each week, and there are three chapters in total. Thank you to the Twitter writing community for your encouragement and support. Enjoy!

Death at Sagehollow

Chapter 1/3

December 1818

After the final guests from Monday night supper at Mirabella Hall went home, the Duke of Kent teetered back and forth on his brown leather boots and stumbled past a gold-lacquered urn on his way to the chaise lounge.

“Drunk again, Edward?” Lady Isabel stifled a laugh, clearing her throat as she loosened the black curls held in a tight bun on top of her head.

“Cousin, you underestimate me. I’m only mildly drunk,” Edward hiccuped. “Besides, how else shall I pass the time during yet another inane ball.”

“Oh, yes, it’s so boring to enjoy meat pie while making conversation with new people.” Isabel rolled her eyes.

“Another parade of women for me to peruse, sent by our grandmother,” Edward let out a hearty belch. “I don’t understand her urgency.”

“Well, you will be thirty years of age in January. You’re practically a family relic.”

“Hush, cousin, someone may hear you say that,” Edward sat up tall. “I shall be nine and twenty years perpetually.”

“Good luck finding the fountain of youth,” Isabel grinned.

“I wouldn’t look so smug. Granny won’t rest until the two of us marry each other.”

Isabel raised an eyebrow. “She can rest when she’s dead.”

“Cousin!” Edward’s jaw dropped. “Is that any way to speak of Granny?”

They paused and burst into a fit of laughter.

“It’s a shame you don’t appreciate the lovely ladies sent your way. They’re wasted on you,” Isabel rubbed her chin. “The one in the turquoise gown was stunning.”

“Which one was that again?”

“She had a peacock feather in her brown wavy hair, um, Lady Tabitha, I believe,” Isabel feigned to not recall her too vividly. “Your new wallpaper with the golden vertical lines delighted her.”

“Yes, er, Lady Tabitha,” Edward scratched his forehead, having no recollection of any peacock feathers or turquoise gowns. Her taste in wallpaper was commendable, however.

“Pardon the interruption, Your Grace,” the butler’s tenor voice echoed in Edward’s dizzy head.

“It’s fine, Windham, but not so loud,” the Duke massaged his temples and squeezed his eyes shut.

“Forgive me, sir,” the older man replied, the lines in his forehead deepening as his brows drew together. “There was a distressed young man pounding incessantly.at the door. I checked for robbers, but it’s Thomas Grove, the farmer with land on your estate, sir.”

“Bring him in, if you must, Windham.”  

Edward opened his eyes to see a handsome young man with messy brown hair and a suntanned face cradling a sleeping baby.

“Your Grace, I apologize for this intrusion on your beautiful home,” tears streamed from his deep brown eyes. “I’m Tommy Grove, and this is my daughter Lucy. My wife’s just been murdered.”

“Murdered?” Edward echoed as he stood up, astounded. He took a second glimpse at the baby slumbering in her father’s brawny arms, unaware of her mother’s death.

Isabel turned to look at Edward and raised her eyebrows.

“I have a private investigator who can solve this heinous crime,” Edward glanced at his cousin. “His name is Oliver Cooper. I shall send him to your home at once. Touch nothing. Better yet, stay here with your child in the parlor. We don’t want someone to blame you for a crime you did not commit, correct?”

“I didn’t kill my wife,” tears slid down his bruised face. “I tried to keep hold of the man who did this, but he was like a bull, using all his force against me. I couldn’t see his face in the dark, so I let go of ‘im, grabbed Lucy and hid. And then, he was gone. And my dear Matilda, she was gone, too, dead in our bed.”

Upon closer inspection, Edward noted rips in the farmer’s pajamas and a minor gash on his leg.

Isabel put a hand to her mouth. “This is far too violent for a woman’s ears. I must excuse myself.” She stood, curtsied and hurried to the guest room.

Locking the door behind her, she slipped out of her white Empire gown. She opened the garment bag on the bed and pulled out a pinstriped dark blue suit complete with a vest, pantaloons, boots, and hat. After dressing and pinning up her hair, tucking it under her hat, she scrubbed the rouge from her face. One last glance at the mirror and she saw Oliver Cooper staring back at her. Isabel smiled, but only slightly since Oliver was a serious private investigator. She rushed through the hallway and went out the servants’ door. The familiar smell of the stable greeted her nose as she sought her favorite horse, Midnight the black mare, and together they headed for the farmer’s cottage.

“Whoa, girl,” Isabel spoke as she tugged on the reins. “Here we are.”

Someone had left the cottage door ajar. Her body shivered as she stepped inside, but the chill of the winter night did not distract her. She saw the body of Matilda Grove frozen in a horrifying position on the bed. Her head had been bleeding, staining the white bed linens. Matilda’s light blue eyes were wide with shock, even in death. Isabel paused and let out a deep sigh, taking a moment to close the woman’s eyes. She had seen her share of dead people, but the frequency never made it easier on her.

“I will help you rest. I’ll find your murderer, I promise you, Mrs. Grove,” Isabel lit a lamp with a match at the bedside, sidestepping the cradle. She peered around the dark room, barely illuminated by the torch. A handkerchief splattered with blood rested on Matilda’s feet. Isabel picked it up and placed it into her bag. She searched the room for more clues, but it was too dark to notice anything else out of the ordinary. Disappointed, Isabel blew out the lamp and set it on the nightstand. Leaving the cottage, she nearly stepped on a pair of eyeglasses. Isabel knelt to pick them up and assumed they shattered earlier tonight. She placed the glasses into the small evidence bag and returned to Midnight. After mounting the horse, she threw the bag over her shoulder, wrinkling her suit jacket.

“This should be plenty for now.” 

On Tuesday morning, Windham led Tommy to a dining room, while a nurse tended to Lucy. The farmer had been touched by Edward’s offer to stay at Mirabella Hall as long as necessary during this tragic time in his life. The butler had set up a room for Mr. Grove and his daughter last night, complete with a cradle and plenty of soft, thick blankets to ward off the winter chill. 

“Care to join me for a little breakfast?” the Duke stood at the table and pointed to the spread of fresh rolls, ham, hard-boiled eggs, and hot cocoa. “I told Windham to serve it as a buffet, so we wouldn’t be disturbed.”

Edward was waiting for a response from Constable Wright after contacting him about the murder, but he hid his concern in front of Tommy. He had little faith in the Sagehollow police’s ability to catch the killer since they never solved a previous case that had afflicted his family, but he felt at ease keeping them aware of the situation.

“This smells delicious, Your Grace, but I’m not very hungry,” his big brown eyes lit up at the generous meal, but his broken heart overruled the grumbles of his stomach.

“I understand that perfectly well, but you must eat to keep up your strength, for Lucy’s sake,” the farmer’s lack of gratitude irritated the Duke. It wasn’t every day he had a commoner as a guest for such a splendid breakfast.

“I appreciate that, sir. Maybe a little,” Tommy took a seat at the head of the table.

The butler stepped into the dining room and his eyes widened to observe the farmer in the Duke’s chair. “Mr. Grove, begging your pardon, but you-”

Edward waved him away. “Never mind, Windham. Thank you. And tell Oliver to meet me after breakfast.”

“Very good, sir,” he bowed and left the dining area.

“Matilda’s sister, Miss Selina Hawkins, was on her way to visit us this weekend. I would send her a letter not to come, but I’m too late,” he reached for a warm slice of toast.

“Your sister-in-law is more than welcome to be a guest at Mirabella. The police will have blocked off the cottage before she arrives, so she can‘t enter to see anything,” he paused. “Please don’t cry, Tommy.”

The younger man wiped his eyes, comforted by the gentle baritone of the Duke’s voice. “Your kindness means a lot,” he took out a navy blue handkerchief and blew his nose. “Permission to speak freely, sir?”

“Of course.”

“To be honest, I’m a little surprised, sir. You’ve never given me the time of day before all this,” Tommy spread raspberry jam on the toast.

Edward choked on his tea, the hot black liquid spilling onto his white pantaloons. “Beg your pardon!”

“Tried speaking to you before at the summer picnics you have for us common folk every June. You turned your nose up at me, sir.”

“We haven’t met until yesterday. I remember your parents, God rest their souls, but I certainly would have recalled meeting you.”

“To be fair, you were usually drunk, but-”

“Hold your tongue,” Edward spat. “Don’t forget your station. I understand you lost your wife in a most violent way last night, but show me respect after taking you and Lucy into Mirabella Hall.”

“I meant no disrespect, sir. I’m not too good with words. All I’m saying is I tried talking with you a few years ago about the ewes and rams I was raising, but you laughed at me with your cousins.”

“Why would I be interested in sheep?” Edward rolled his eyes as he blotted uselessly at the stain on his clothing.

“See, like that, sir,” Tommy pointed out.

“Oh, quite. I think I understand,” the Duke blushed.

“Speaking of which, who’ll take care of them while I stay here?”

“I’m sure they can fend for themselves a few days,” he rolled his eyes.

“The sheep like music in the morning. I usually sing when I brush them,” Tommy rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Matilda used to make cheese from their milk. I’ll miss that.”

The Duke cleared his throat to fill the silence.

“I know I’m not noble or anything, but you’re no better than me. You got a title I’d never have the chance to earn, sir. If you don’t mind, I’d like to visit Lucy,” Tommy stood and left the dining room.

Edward sat flabbergasted, staring at the dark stain from the spilled tea that had ruined his silk pantaloons.

“Mr. Oliver Cooper, sir,” Windham’s voice boomed.

“Thank you, Windham. Send a footman to wait at the cottage for Miss Selina Hawkins. She’s the victim’s sister, expected to arrive shortly. See that she is escorted here.”

“Very good, sir.”

“Oh, and Windham? Have the groundskeeper check on Mr. Grove’s sheep. Make sure they’re watered, fed, and brushed.”

“How thoughtful of you,” the butler held back a smile before leaving.

“So what have you found, Oliver?” Edward winked at his cousin. “You’re looking dashing this morning. New coat?”

Isabel nodded as she placed her bag on the table. “Only two clues but enough to solve it before the police muck it up.”

“Well, open it, then. The suspense is killing me.”

She removed the bloodstained floral-printed handkerchief and broken eyeglasses and set them a few inches from her cousin. “Obviously the murderer will stumble around Sagehollow without these,” Isabel picked up the spectacles and held them to her eyes, squinting. “The lenses are thick.”

“That’s excellent, Oliver. Now for the-”

“Miss Selina Hawkins, sir,” Windham interrupted.

Edward and Isabel stood up from their chairs.

The Duke gazed at the floor, uncomfortable in the presence of another mourner. “I am so very sorry for your loss.”

Selina took a pink hankie and dabbed at her eyes. “Thank you, Your Grace.”

“May I introduce Mr. Oliver Cooper? He’s my private investigator, and he is diligently working to solve the case.”

Selina offered her hand to Isabel.

She kissed the soft skin, damp with tears that had fallen. “I wish it were on better terms, but I am pleased to make your acquaintance, Miss Hawkins.”

“Please, call me, Selina, Mr. Cooper.”

“Oliver.” 

Even in a plain country dress, Selina was breathtaking to behold. The hem was higher than most gowns, which kept it clean during muddy strolls, revealing shapely ankles. Isabel hoped she was not blushing, thankful the suit covered her neck better than her feminine attire.

“I won’t be able to rest until that murderer has been found and hanged,” Selina growled.

“I will find him.” 

“My sister, although we did not always see eye to eye, was my only sibling. I never wanted her to marry that farmer, stuck doing backbreaking work for hours every day, and now she’s gone. All those years wasted quarreling…”

“I was heading to the village square in Sagehollow to investigate. I’d love to have you accompany me. I understand, however, you’re in mourning.”

“Here I am wearing pink when I should be in black,” Selina looked at her muddy shoes. “I wish to join you. I need to keep busy and find my sister’s killer.”

“Then it’s settled. I have a coach waiting,” she offered her elbow.

Selina paused and then accepted, linking her arm with Isabel’s.

“Such a fine coat,” she admired the heavy, blue fabric.

“Thank you, it’s new. From the compliments I’ve received thus far, I should have had it made sooner,” Isabel chuckled in the deeper tones of her voice.

One of the footmen assisted Selina into the coach and Isabel followed unaided. “If you need to take a break from this, please don’t hesitate to mention it.”

“It’s refreshing that I get to investigate with you. The policemen ignored me completely, even as I hit them with questions. You’re the only man who acknowledged me in all of Sagehollow.”

“Well, I know how it feels to lose someone, so I suppose-” she sneezed. “Pardon me.”

“Take this,” Selina handed her pink handkerchief across the coach.

Isabel grasped the rosy silk square and wiped, imitating the way she had seen Edward blow his nose, unafraid to disturb the peace.

“Thank you, Miss,” she reached across to return the wrinkled hankie.

“Keep it.”

“But it’s silk, must be your finest one.”

“A gift from my sister. But I want you to have it, Oliver. Think of it as a reminder to solve the case.”

Isabel folded up the square and placed it in her suit pocket. “Thank you. I won’t let you down.”

Back at Mirabella Hall, Edward ignored the growing stack of correspondence on his desk. He searched his residence for any sign of Lucy or Tommy. The baby had not cried since her arrival, but laughter came from his childhood nursery.

He stood from a distance as the nurse and the maids fawned over the giggling infant, who offered them a gummy smile. The young girls, one only thirteen and working to pay her parents’ debt, sang as they patted the blond curls on her head. He scanned the room and noticed Tommy looking out the window, lost in thought.

“I presume you have fulfilled your duties for the morning?” the Duke entered the nursery.

“Your Grace!” they shouted in unison.

The nurse stepped forward. “I‘m afraid the fault is mine, sir. I let the girls come to visit the baby. She had been fussing, and I couldn’t soothe her. I felt a little company would do her fine.” The wrinkles that lined her face deepened as she smiled at Edward.

The Duke sighed with irritation. “Very well, but consider this your break. Tommy, a word, if I may?”

The farmer turned at the sound of his name and nodded. He followed Edward into the hallway.

“I thought you could use a diversion. I’m hosting an art exhibit, and the paintings arrived early this morning, according to Windham’s report. How does an exclusive preview sound?”

“I don’t know much about art, but I’d like that. Thank you, sir.”

“Follow me,” Edward led the way to the wide staircase, checking if Tommy was still behind him every so often.

“Enjoy,” he pointed to the gallery.

Tommy walked around the canvases, studying them as the footmen finished unpacking the last of the crates. Edward admired how his forehead furrowed as he studied each piece of art.

“Hm, that is something,” he tapped a stubbled chin with his index finger, imagining how the nobility would respond to the artwork.

“I’d love to know what you’re thinking,” Edward stood beside the shorter man, who smelled of fresh soap.

“They’re a bit, well, boring, sir,” Tommy raked his fingers through chestnut curls.

“Boring?!” He gasped. “But they’re watercolors of landscapes, the composition is exquisite, the choice of color…” Edward looked at a few of the paintings with new eyes. “I suppose you’re right. They’re insufferable!”

“Not so terrible, but not too exciting. I’d wanna look at something with people in it or places I haven’t visited.”

“And the gallery show is tomorrow evening. What shall I do now?” the older man chuckled, smoothing his slick black hair. “Perhaps my guests won’t mind it if we offer sweetmeats and wine.”

“Maybe so. Good food helps bad things feel a little better,” Tommy recalled the generous breakfast presented to him earlier. He had never tasted a drink as rich and comforting as cocoa.

“Quite,” Edward grinned.

In the small village of Sagehollow, Selina and Isabel made several stops in the square. She had a list in her mind of anyone strong who relied on eyeglasses. Although Matilda Grove had appeared petite in the bed, it would have taken a great force to strike her in the head to death. Isabel presumed it was the way she died because of the trauma she had observed.

She doubted the elderly tailor had anything to do with the murder, but he wore glasses, so they made a stop to be thorough. He wore his trusty bifocals as he measured a banker for a coat.

“Mr. Cooper, what do I owe the pleasure? Any clothing adjustments needed?”

“No, I’ve received a few remarks from the ladies, if you must know,” Isabel regretted her words when she saw a pink blush creep into Selina’s cheeks. “Fits perfectly.”

“I’m busy at the moment, young man, but I can help you tomorrow if you need anything else.”

“All I wished to do was thank you.” 

“You’re welcome, sir. Working a case, are you?”

“Well, yes, but it’s top secret for now,” she eyed the banker’s curious expression on his face. “Nothing too interesting: a stolen painting. I wanted to praise you for your fine work since I was in the village square.”

“We better get on, darling,” Selina reached for her arm.

“Where are your manners, Mr. Cooper, pardon me for saying so, but who is the lovely young lady?”

“I’m Miss Selina Hawkins, his fiancee.”

Isabel knocked over a few hangers with her elbow as she turned to Selina with wide eyes.

“Congratulations! Have an ale to celebrate. There are bottles in the back room.”

“We really mustn’t,” she replied with gritted teeth, pulling a giggling Selina out of the tailor’s shop.

“You should have seen your face!” Her laugh grew more hysterical.

“I beg your pardon, but the tailor is the town crier. In a few hours, everyone will think that Oliver Cooper is engaged to Selina Hawkins.”

“Good. I didn’t realize you were such an eligible bachelor, with so many women complimenting your suit,” she brought her hand to Isabel’s shoulder and stroked the fabric to the elbow.

Isabel ignored the pleasure from such a sensation, but this was no time to indulge in a lady’s flirtations. She must focus on the case. Selina would never accept who Oliver actually was. How inconvenient that she was so exquisite, clever and bold. 

“Oliver, I hope I wasn’t too impertinent. I only meant a bit of fun,” she looked at her shoes in shame.

“I need someone like you to keep me in line,” Isabel reassured. “One more stop, and then we return to Mirabella.”

“So soon?”

“Tis a pity the bakery is shut on Tuesday’s. He wears glasses,” she paused, visualizing her list again. “But the butcher does, too!”

“Well, what are we waiting for?”

“Don’t have time for visitors today,” Danny said the moment Isabel stepped over the threshold. “Very busy, got a whole hog delivered a few minutes ago to break down.”

“Pardon the interruption, Mr. O’Malley, this won’t take long,” Isabel stepped up to the counter.

“Who do ya think ya are?” the stocky man growled. “I don’t care if you’re the Duke of Kent! No visitors.”

“Name’s Oliver Cooper, the lady is Miss Selina Hawkins, and I have one question for you.”

“What’s that?”

“Where are your eyeglasses?”

“Ya came all the way from a fancy part of town to ask me about spectacles?!”

“Where are they? Please answer honestly and carefully.”

O’Malley slammed a meaty fist into his own palm. “Better go if ya know what’s best for ya. Cocky Englishmen think ya can do whatever pleases ya.” 

“It’s a simple question,” Isabel felt her palms grow hot, grateful for the suit to cover the sweat pooling on her back and under her arms.

“They’re broken. Happy now?” O’Malley went to reach for his cleaver to deal with the dead hog.

“Did you lose them?”

“That’s a second question. Ya promised one question, and you’ll only hear one answer.”

Isabel pulled out the cracked blood-splattered glasses from her coat pocket. “Are these yours?”

O’Malley slammed his fist on the glass counter. “Out of here!”

“It’s very important that you answer, or you will give me no choice but to send for the police.”

O’Malley’s freckled face was red, but the vein that had been pulsing on his forehead had stilled. “My glasses are broken, but they’re in the back. I’ll bring ‘em, ya nosy bastard.”

Within a few moments, he returned with a pair of eyeglasses that had bent out of shape. “I sat on ‘em.”

“Thank you. And I’m sorry to disturb your day, but you’ve really helped us.”

“Well, all’s the same, you got yourself a lovely lass. I wish ya the best of luck even if you’re a meddling Englishman,” O’Malley eyed the carcass of the pig behind him. “Now let me hack up this hog in peace.”

Isabel tipped her hat and took Selina by the hand as they rushed out of the shop before hearing the first chop.


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