Marblestone mansion book.., p.1

Marblestone Mansion, Book 6, page 1

 

Marblestone Mansion, Book 6
 


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Marblestone Mansion, Book 6


  MARBLESTONE MANSION

  BOOK 6

  (Scandalous Duchess Series)

  by

  Marti Talbott

  © all rights reserved

  Cover art by Book Cover Art

  Editor: Frankie Sutton

  Table of Contents

  More Marti Talbott Books

  CHAPTER 1

  “How dreadful to have all your luggage stolen, Lady Schaeffer,” said the positively gushing dressmaker. As small south London dress shops went, hers had the usual sewing and fitting room in the back, and four rows of bolted material in the front. She prided herself on looking her best, kept her brown hair neatly pinned up and wore a simple, but fashionable brown frock with a small hat to match.

  “I assure you my heart is broken. I cannot bear to think of someone else wearing my clothing,” said Kate Wagner.

  Kate Wagner, of course, was not the real Lady Schaeffer, nor was she truly Kate Wagner. It was just another in a long list of names the duchess used to get what she wanted. Fortunately, Lord and Lady Schaeffer were not due back from their honeymoon in Paris for another week; a detail the shop matron apparently did not know.

  “I do not often have someone with your connections come into my shop. How is it you have chosen me?”

  Kate ignored the pesky, round woman’s propensity to stand too close to her, and moved on down the row of cloth bolts. Considered by many a man as having unmatched beauty, Kate had black hair, from which she had plucked a few gray strands that very morning. Her facial features were well defined, her eyes were blue and her waist was the smallest it had ever been. At length, she put her hand on a bolt of dark blue. “A suit of this, perhaps, with a light blue blouse?”

  “Of course.” The dressmaker jotted it down on her list and followed as the duchess moved to the last row. “As I was asking, what…”

  “It makes perfect sense to come here,” she answered. “I suspect you are not as busy as the north London clothiers, and I do need something to wear in a hurry. You understand, do you not?”

  The dressmaker beamed. “I do indeed.”

  Finished with her selections, the duchess went to the door, and then turned back. “I shall need them in three days.”

  “Three days? But, I…”

  “I assure you my husband will be most happy to pay extra. He prefers me to wear clothing…in public.” When her comment got the giggle she hoped for, the duchess returned with her sweetest smile, walked out the door, and didn’t look back.

  She was no longer a duchess either, a circumstance she intended to set right in the near future. Ex-duchess of Glenartair, Olivia MacGreagor, saw the long black skirt, matching jacket, and fashionable, lace-trimmed white blouse she wore as borrowed and not stolen, which of course they were. After being abducted by her second husband and carried off to Ireland, she was most unkindly deposited on the shores of Scotland with no clothes, save those on her back, and nary a sixpence to her name. Therefore, she needed positively everything, and if ‘borrowing’ a few things and pretending to be someone else was the only way to supply her needs, she could and most definitely would do it.

  On her way home, she stopped at a newsstand and purchased the latest paper. She saw newspapers as the key to her future and when she read of Lord Schaeffer’s marriage and intended honeymoon destination a few days ago, she knew it was the golden opportunity she had waited for. His bride was Lady Louise Kensington, a woman so ordinary in appearance, few would remember her face, even after her picture was printed in the paper. That Louise Kensington managed to marry wealth was incomprehensible, but the duchess learned long ago that there was no explaining the desires of men.

  All over London’s south end, she passed herself off as Lady Louise Schaeffer, bought clothes, her favorite perfume, luggage, shoes, and even an umbrella. Signing a name that was not hers came natural to the duchess too, considering she changed names as often as she changed husbands.

  Her birth name was Gormilia, which she hated almost as much as she hated her first husband, George Graham. She was Elizabeth when she married the Irish Lord, Alexandra when she married Mr. Sinclair, Alice when she married Lord Edward Bayington, Olivia when she married Hannish MacGreagor, Duke of Glenartair, Alexandra again when she married Charles Whitfield, Eleanor when she married Mr. Nelson, a California shipping magnate, and Caroline when she married the only man she ever loved – the train robber, Jedediah Tanner.

  Her most prestigious accomplishment afforded her the title of Duchess of Glenartair, by way of her marriage to Hannish MacGreagor…a Scotsman, of all things. It couldn’t be helped, not if she wanted to be a duchess, which was exactly what she desperately wanted to be.

  The title and the privileges that went with it were lost to her now. The duke tricked her, gave over his title to his brother, and allowed the duchess little more than a meager monthly allowance. That would not do, not for one who ardently believed she deserved more than her fair share of the world’s wealth. Indeed, it would not do, and she soon set out to make the acquaintance of other eligible dukes – a marriage to any one of whom would restore her to her previous position in London society.

  The duchess strolled, rather than briskly walked, back to the dreary boardinghouse room she temporarily called home. She tried not to think about the years she spent as the duchess of Glenartair. Back then, she lived in a Scottish castle, had a ball gown in every conceivable color, and while her husband was gone off to America to make his fortune in silver mining, many a man was willing to escort her to those divine London balls. Alas, three short, splendid seasons were long gone and she was now left destitute.

  Nevertheless, the duchess devised a plan, just as she had many times before. This time, she chose the name Kate Wagner, a common enough name that would draw little, if any attention. Her aim was to reenter London Society on the arm of a man no one would dare challenge, and all she needed was the right clothes, a few ready funds, and the opportunity to meet the perfect man – a duke naturally, and she cared not which one.

  The front door of the boardinghouse creaked when she opened it, just as it always did, even though she voiced her strong opinion on the matter often and loudly. How was she to slip in and out without notice, if the creaking front door announced every coming and going? A touch of bacon grease would solve the problem if the proprietor were not such a lazy, disagreeable man. Keeping the warped boards on the stairs quiet was yet another matter, one for which she had no remedy, save tearing the vile building down and starting over. The whole place smelled musty, paint was peeling off the walls, the worn-out carpet had to be more than a hundred years old, and there was no hint of respectability for blocks around.

  No matter, she would not have to endure her circumstances, or the manager’s constant pestering for the rent much longer. Her accommodations, if one could call them that, were at the end of a very long hallway. The key she was given did not fit, which was just as well, the door didn’t lock anyway. As she always did, she slowly and cautiously pushed the door open with her fingertips, just in case an intruder lay in wait for her. Thankfully, the room was empty.

  Yet, someone had definitely been there. On her table, the one with one leg a full inch shorter than the others, sat a hatbox – and not just any hatbox, but one that had come from the most famous and prestigious hat maker in all of London.

  The duchess quickly removed her white gloves, and then eased the hatbox open. Inside was a very fine black hat with a wide brim, but it was no ordinary hat; it also had black widow’s netting attached to the brim. It was the perfect disguise and she wondered why she had not thought of buying one before. Excited, she went to the small, cracked mirror on the wall, put the hat on, and then lowered the veil over her fa
ce. It was indeed perfect – but who sent it?

  She rushed back to the table, and just as she hoped, there was a note inside.

  My dearest Kate Wagner,

  Please allow me to send a carriage for you precisely at noon tomorrow, at which time you shall be delivered to my home in London, whereupon, we may spend a leisurely afternoon discussing a matter of upmost importance.

  Lady Estelle Husher

  For a long moment, the duchess stared at the name on the bottom of the note. Estelle Husher was the envy of all who knew her, and having married far above her rank, was as close to the throne of England as any non-royal could be. Furthermore, she was counted among the close friends of King Edward VII. As near as the duchess could remember, she had only seen Lady Husher once, and even then, she was not formally introduced to her. What, therefore, could such a woman possibly want to discuss?

  Lineage was vastly important to those in the upper class, and for several minutes, Kate pondered the idea that Lady Husher was related to one of the men she most thoughtlessly married. If that were the case, Kate could be in for a major tongue-lashing, which would end in a threat of some sort – or worse, she would be run out of town, and might possibly find herself behind bars.

  Was it possible Lady Husher knew about all of her husbands?

  Of course she knew – Lord Okerman was on the Scottish shore when Hannish MacGreagor and a few other husbands, she couldn’t remember which ones precisely, confronted her. Lord Okerman surely told his wife, and if there was one consistency in the world the duchess could count on, it was that Lady Okerman loved a good scandal. If Lady Okerman knew, all of London Society knew.

  The duchess took off the hat, tossed it in the box, flung herself on the bed, and buried her head in a pillow. She should have gone to Paris as she originally planned. Now it was too late. Somehow, Lady Husher had found her and it wouldn’t be long before others found her too.

  Why, oh why, did nothing ever go her way?

  *

  If asked, sixteen-year-old Miss Sharon Green would have sworn the rooster intentionally chose the spot right below her second floor window, under which to loudly crow each morning. The bedroom she shared with her sister on a farm east of Colorado Springs had not cooled much over night, and already the bright August sun was beginning to heat up the new day.

  There was no point in resisting, for when the rooster crowed, their father expected them to get up. Grudgingly, Sharon yawned, stretched, moved her sheet out of the way, and then worked herself into a sitting position on the edge of the bed. “Patella, it is time to get up.”

  Her older sister, she noticed, did not stir, so she tried again. “Patella, you best get up. The cow needs milking and you know how Father hates slothfulness…Patella, do you hear me?”

  Still, her sister did not move. “I swear, I shall never marry a farmer, and if I ever get my hands on that rooster...” Sharon stood up. As always, her nightgown was twisted around her body, so she took a second to unwind it before she walked to her sister’s bedside. “Momma says your baby has dropped, whatever that means, and it shall come any time now. Patella?”

  She meant to shake her sister awake, but when she took hold of Patella’s arm, it was oddly cold. It took a moment for her to understand, and when she did, she rushed to the door, yanked it open and yelled, “Father, come quick!”

  Miss Patella Green, at not yet eighteen and heavy with child, was dead in her bed. Distraught beyond measure, her father placed a call to the sheriff for he, as many others would soon suspect, was not so sure she died of natural causes.

  *

  Sheriff Thompson couldn’t remember a time when anyone had a reason to call him at the crack of dawn, but the mention of such an untimely death in Colorado Springs was enough to bring him right out of his sleepy condition. He quickly dressed in the same dark suit, vest and jacket he always wore; made certain his gold badge was securely fastened to his wide lapel, and then put on his Bowler hat.

  It was not the first time someone was found dead in their bed, but this one was the most suspicious – this one could be the very first genuine murder case of his career, so he wasted no time riding his horse toward Mr. and Mrs. Bruce Green’s small farmhouse.

  A slight morning breeze wasn’t doing much to cool air that promised to be even hotter than the day before. Located not far from the edge of town, the Green place was no different from dozens of other farms, upon which men worked the land and tried to keep their families clothed and fed. Last year’s crops had failed, prompting the community to pray for a better yield this year, and as the sheriff continued down the road, rows and rows of nearly ready to harvest wheat, looked as though their prayers were being answered. He noticed Mr. Green’s cow had gotten into the field again, but no one would care about that just now.

  Doc. Parker’s buggy was already at the house when the sheriff dismounted and tied his horse to a tree. As most farmhouses were, this two-story structure was in need of repair and displayed a twice-patched roof. Five of the Green’s six children sat in a row on the edge of the porch with tears in their eyes, and it was enough to melt the heart of any grown man. Respectfully, the sheriff removed his hat, walked up the steps, crossed the porch, lightly knocked on the door, and went in.

  The house had several rooms both upstairs and down, including a parlor that was kept especially clean for guests and special occasions, but the parlor was empty. The whole house smelled of a bacon and egg breakfast that was getting cold, and at the kitchen table, he found Mr. and Mrs. Green silently holding hands.

  “Up there,” said Mr. Green in a choked up voice. He pointed at the floor above and then bowed his head again.

  The tears in Mr. Green’s eyes made the sheriff get a lump in his throat, so he quickly nodded, and headed up the creaky staircase. The door to the first room he came to was open, so he peeked in and saw Doc Parker standing next to the girl’s bed. Still holding his hat in his hand, the sheriff moved closer and got a good look at the pretty, but no longer lively, Patella Green.

  Her blonde hair was not mussed, as it would have been had she slept through the night, her eyes were closed and her lips had already turned blue. All the way there, he suspected she had been murdered, but now he wasn’t so sure. He saw no wounds, no blood, and in fact, nothing that could explain why she died.

  The gray-haired Doc Parker reverently pulled the sheet up over Miss Green’s lifeless face. “Been dead most of the night, I ‘spect.” He frowned, slowly removed his spectacles, and shook his head. “Found her too late to save the baby.”

  “What killed her, Doc?”

  “Can’t say exactly.” He closed his medical bag, retrieved his jacket from the back of a nearby chair and put it on.

  “A sickness, a heart attack, what?”

  Doc Parker took a moment to survey the look on the Sheriff’s face, and then lowered his voice to a whisper. “Hoping for a murder case, are you?”

  Sheriff Thompson reached over, closed the door, and lowered his voice accordingly. “Of course not, Doc, but you heard what happened the same as me. Douglas Swinton suddenly married Loretta Collins, and the next thing we know, Patella Green is at the wedding reception accusing Douglas Swinton of fathering her child.”

  “Yes, yes, I heard. Mrs. Whitfield talks of little else.”

  “You don’t think it odd that Swinton suddenly married a woman he hardly noticed for nigh on to a year? He married Loretta just so he wouldn’t have to marry Miss Green, and everyone knows it.”

  “That doesn’t mean he killed Miss Green.”

  “It doesn’t mean he didn’t either.”

  Doc Parker glanced at the other bed in the room. “You think Douglas Swinton snuck in here in the middle of the night, and did her in, with her parents sleeping in the next room and her sister in that bed?”

  “Look at it this way, Doc. Not too long ago, the Whitfield and MacGreagor warehouse burned down, and it was no accident – we could smell kerosene, and plenty of it. No one knows where Dou
glas Swinton came from, or where he got enough money to buy goldmines, sell them, and then set up a house building business in direct competition to Whitfield and MacGreagor. Now this... this healthy young woman claims to be carrying his illegitimate child, and she turns up dead. I tell you, Doc, there is something going on here.”

  “Even Mr. Swinton, as nefarious as everyone seems to think he is, couldn’t have gotten up and down those squeaky stairs without getting caught.”

  “Well, something must have killed her.” The sheriff spotted a broken teacup on the floor, leaned down, and picked up the pieces. “Could be, she knocked it off trying to defend herself.”

  Always levelheaded and slow to make up his mind, the doctor considered that for a moment. “Could be she broke it earlier in the day and didn’t pick it up.”

  “She could have been smothered with her own pillow too. Is there no way to tell?”

  “Well now, I could open her up and see if there is any air in her lungs, but the people in these parts are against cutting up the dead, and I don’t blame them. It is gruesome as well as disrespectful, and her father would have me shot for doing it. Sorry, Sheriff, I can’t help you with this one.”

  Sheriff Thompson watched the doctor pick up his medical bag, open the door and walk out. Alone in the room, he lifted the corner of the sheet off Patella’s face and took one more look. At length, he put the sheet down, and then thoughtfully stroked the overnight stubble on his chin. For Douglas Swinton, the death of Patella and his unborn child was just too convenient to be a coincidence – far, far too convenient, to the Sherriff’s way of thinking.

  CHAPTER 2

  That the train from Denver was right on schedule when it began to slow before pulling into the station in Colorado Springs was a sure sign of progress. The days of outlaws, shootouts and gun-slinging bounty hunters were making way for civility, industry, architecture, and on-time trains.

 
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