In the innocent pre-war days, an invitation to stay at the stately country home of a family friend means a new case for amateur sleuths Jonty Stewart and Orlando Coppersmith. In fact, with two apparently unrelated suicides to investigate there, a double chase is on.
But things never run smoothly for the Cambridge fellows. In an era when their love dare not speak its name, the risk of discovery and disgrace is ever present. How, for example, does one explain oneself when discovered by a servant during a midnight run along the corridor?
Things get even rougher for Orlando when the case brings back memories of his father’s suicide and the search for the identity of his grandfather. Worse, when they work out who the murderer is, they are confronted with one of the most difficult moral decisions they’ve ever had to make.
Excerpt: (on Riptide website)
Cambridge, June 1909
“Post, Dr. Coppersmith, Dr. Stewart.” Mrs. Ward, the housekeeper at Forsythia Cottage, bustled through the dining room door before neatly arranging the morning post on the table for her gentlemen to read once they’d dealt with their bacon and eggs.
“Thank you.” Jonty Stewart eyed his post eagerly. “That looks like Lavinia’s writing. I’ll save her epistle as a postprandial treat.”
“Unless you’re in trouble with your sister, again, in which case it’ll be a postprandial punishment.” Orlando Coppersmith, having put away the last bit of egg, picked up the other letter. It was addressed to him even though the handwriting was clearly that of Jonty’s mother. Her style could have been spotted a mile off, let alone from the other side of the table.
“Why’s Mama writing to you?”
“Not having the ability to see through paper, nor being able to read her mind, I couldn’t say.” Orlando deliberately took his time in opening the envelope and reading the contents, aware of Jonty almost bouncing with curiosity. It would do the man good to develop some patience. “We’ve been summoned. July. A visit to London and then off to somewhere called Fyfield. I’ve never heard of it.”
“Fyfield?” Jonty almost dropped his bacon in surprise. “It’s a house. Well, a house with a great big estate. I’ve not been there since I was a boy. Mama’s godmother lived there.”
“She still does, if she’s a dowager duchess. Alexandra Temple?”
“That’s the very one.”
“I thought as much, as your mother says she’s a very old friend of the Forsters. Is this Fyfield a nice place?”
“Nice?” Jonty consumed the bacon before it got either cold or dropped again. “It’s spectacular. Knocks the Old Manor into a cocked hat.”
“Oh.” The Stewarts’ country home in Sussex, an unfinished Tudor castle with later additions (ones never envisaged by the original owner, even before he—literally—lost his head), had seemed to Orlando the height of class and opulence. If Fyfield was better, it must be spectacular indeed. “Sounds like a treat, then.”
“Sounds like a case.”
Orlando looked up sharpish. A case. There’d been a steady stream of them over the last few months. Two had involved breaking old codes—which was meat and drink for him—and another had been solved by Jonty finding a parallel with Shakespeare and producing an outrageous piece of what he said was deduction and what Orlando vowed was pure luck. There was always room for another.
“What do you know that I don’t?” he asked.
“Nothing in the way of facts, but much regarding how my parents’ minds work.” Jonty made a face. “Must we go?”
Orlando could have sworn he’d heard his lover—colleague, best friend, fellow detective, everything that mattered—express a lack of enthusiasm for the invitation. He must have misheard. “I beg your pardon?”
“Must we go? To Fyfield.”
“Yes, we must.” Orlando tapped the letter. “This is articulated in the most forceful yet polite of terms, staying just this side of a three-line whip. And if there’s the chance of a case to investigate, we’d be mad not to go.”
“But I’ve a million things to do.” Jonty tapped the table with his fork, defiance writ large over his handsome face, although he seemed to be evading Orlando’s gaze. Could the contents of the man’s teacup suddenly have become sofascinating?
Orlando thought awhile before replying. This wasn’t how things usually went between the inhabitants of Forsythia Cottage. He was usually the one reluctant to take up offers of holidays or other novel, exhilarating experiences.
Drawing a bow at a venture and trying to hit bull seemed the best way forward. “This is not like you. You’re hiding something. When you act out of character, you’re usually up to no good.” How couldn’t Orlando know when he was being given the runaround? Especially when he’d seen that belligerently innocent look used many a time on the rugby pitch, usually when Jonty had dirty work afoot at the base of the scrum. “Out with it.”
“Guilty as charged.” Jonty smiled, then folded his hands together as if in prayer. “Forgive me my dissemblance. A sin of both commission—wanting to get out of the trip—and omission—not telling you about some of the things that happened there in my childhood years.”
“Oh.” The wind was taken out of Orlando’s sails. He knew how Jonty’s schooldays had been terribly blighted by bullying of the worst kind. Was this more of the same?
“No, not that,” Jonty said quickly, evidently reading his mind. “They’re a formidable family, the Temples. They always made me feel like a seven-year-old who’d been caught scrumping apples. Even when I wasn’t and hadn’t.”
Orlando grinned, delighted at seeing his lover’s discomfort. “You’ll just have to be brave.” How could either of them turn down a summons from Jonty’s mother, especially if it involved a commission? Even Admiral Nelson himself would have quaked in his shoes at the thought of crossing Helena Stewart. “We’ll have to discharge our responsibilities.”
“Our familial responsibilities? You’re a Stewart now?” Jonty grinned.
“As good as. We may not have spoken vows in a church, but am I not as wedded to you as your Lavinia is wed to her Ralph?”
“I suppose you’re right.” Jonty sighed. “And it’s been an age since I’ve seen Mama’s godmother. I suspect I was barely above being dandled on her knee. At least I don’t recall her being overpowering.”
“How old is the dowager duchess? And how has she avoided contact with such a gregarious rogue as you?”
Jonty lifted the lid of the teapot, looked disappointed, got up, and rang the little bell on the mantelpiece. “None of your business, and the Atlantic.”
“Atlantic?” Orlando frowned, as the housekeeper bustled in.
“Atlantic, Dr. Coppersmith? It’s an ocean.” Mrs. Ward smiled indulgently, as if doctors of mathematics had no knowledge of geography. In the case of most Cambridge mathematicians she might well have been right, but Orlando was that rare beast who occasionally got his nose out of Euclid and into an atlas. “Are you thinking of sailing it single-handed?”
“No such luck, Mrs. Ward.” Jonty grinned. “Could you oblige us with a pot of tea—we need more sustenance.”
“Coffee for me, please.” Orlando forced a smile, not sure whether he’d murder Jonty or their housekeeper first. Not that he’d ever commit the deed, but devising undetectable ways of doing it always gave him intellectual satisfaction.
“My pleasure. Any more toast?”
“No, thank you,” Orlando replied, just as Jonty piped up, “Yes, please.”
“Right you are, then.” Mrs. Ward, used by now to the contrasting ways of her two gentlemen, took it all in her stride. Half a rack of toast would appear with the tea and the coffee just as, on notable occasions, an apple crumble might appear on the table alongside a treacle tart.
“Where do you put it all?” It must be the umpteenth time Orlando had posed the question. Why Jonty wasn’t the size of St. Bride’s chapel was a mystery in itself, given the quantity of fodder he stuck away.
“Bottomless boots.” Jonty took his rightful place again at the breakfast table.
“And the significance of the Atlantic?”
“Alexandra Temple—the dowager duchess, remember?—has been living in America, Boston, I believe, the last few years, with her younger son. And before that she was globe-trotting. Getting over the shock of being made a widow at . . . at an age too young to be made one.” Jonty waved his hand airily.
“What did her family think of that? Plenty of scope for scandalous speculation, I’d have thought.”
“You’ve not met her, Orlando. Not yet, anyway. She’s such a pillar of rectitude she should be exhibited in Trafalgar Square as an example to the young people of today. She’ll be behind this commission, whatever it is. She likes righting wrongs.”
Orlando groaned. If the whole family were like that, no wonder Jonty felt cowed by them. “If she’s so self-righteous, I’m not sure I want to meet her.”
“I didn’t say she was self-righteous. Do you really think Mama would want somebody like that in charge of her favourite son’s spiritual welfare, even at one remove?” Jonty’s voice was laden with affection. “She probably went round the world doing good deeds—the sort of ones people actually want done to them as opposed to the usual kind—and hiding her light under a bushel en route.”
“We’ll see how kindhearted she is when she finds out what a rogue you’ve turned into. She’ll hand in her grand-godmotherly cards. Or whisk you off to a monastery. You’re certain there’s a case involved?”
“I’d put a tenner on it. Ah, thank you, Mrs. Ward!” The welcome arrival of the housekeeper with toast and tea took precedence over conversation.
“Coffee’s on its way, Dr. Coppersmith. I didn’t quite have enough hands.”
“Let me come and get it.” Orlando rose from the table, catching Jonty’s look of concern from the corner of his eye. What was that about?
By the time he’d returned, pot in hand, Jonty was buttering toast and getting crumbs everywhere—as usual—and reading the newspaper.
“Interesting article here about a man who lost his hat on a train and found it four days later in a cab.” Jonty pointed at the paper with a triangle of toast, signally thinking he’d changed the subject. Orlando wasn’t going to let the little toad get away with it.
“What’s up? Apart from having to go back to where you’ve clearly misbehaved as a boy?”
Jonty jerked his head away from the paper. “Why should there be something up? And I didn’t misbehave. I was angelic. If you want misbehaviour, talk to my brother Clarence.”
He was at it again, deflecting attention from where it should be. Same as on the rugby pitch, making it look like somebody else was playing dirty—usually one of the opposition.
“Come on. This isn’t like you, to be so reluctant to go somewhere.” Orlando leaned over and ruffled his lover’s hair. “No secrets, remember?”
Jonty smiled, leaning into the caress. “No secrets, then. I was just a touch worried you’d react to a new case in the wrong way. After last year and all the upset it caused after your grandmother died.”
Orlando rubbed his hand slowly and thoughtfully along Jonty’s cheek. His grandmother’s death, and the challenge she’d left him to identify the family who’d disowned her, had led to his finding he was the scion of a noble—and rather nice—Italian family. But it had almost lost him his reason, as it had probably cost his father his sanity. His great-grandfather’s rejection of his daughter had left a legacy of disquiet down the generations.
“You needn’t worry about me. I’m not a child.” Orlando felt inclined to slap Jonty’s backside for being such a fuss-box, but the chairs and the table precluded him. “I’ve never known you to refuse an invitation to join your parents, or one to visit somewhere you’ll be plied with food, drink, and recreation. No wonder the alarm bells started to ring.”
“I’m sorry. I really do have reservations about the Temples, but not about their cellar or kitchens. Nor their gardens.”
“Gardens?” Orlando rolled his eyes. “I won’t be dragged round them and given a long list of Latin plant names to bore me rigid?”
“Rigid? I love it when you’re rigid.” Jonty grinned.
“You can’t mollify me with smutty talk.” Not at that time of the morning, with their housekeeper in the offing, anyway. “And keep your voice down. Mrs. Ward will hear.”
“And do you think she would care? Do you think she doesn’t notice there’s only ever one bed slept in out of the nominal two?”
“I’m sure she does, but there’s a world of difference between us all knowing something and keeping quiet about it, and shouting the fact from the rooftops.” Discretion had always been their safety net—that and most people thinking they’d ended up having to share a house because no other sane person, woman or man, would put up with either for five minutes.
“Right, Fyfield. We’ll go, and we’ll take what we’re given, whether it be vintage champagne or a murder to solve.”
“Both, I’d hope. And some stunningly good vintage of red wine.” Jonty’s eagerness was waxing. “I’m almost looking forward to it.”
“Just so long as you don’t get so deep in your cups you spend all the time telling your grand-godmother about my foibles.” Orlando wrested one last cup of coffee from the pot.
“If I try to do that, she’ll soon knock some sense into me, as will Mama.”
“If your mother hasn’t managed to knock any sense into you by now, there’s no chance.” Orlando got up from the table with a yawn, a stretch, and a nod. “Summer’s sorted, then. Maybe for once we’ll get a nice, quiet holiday.”
“I really wish you hadn’t said that. Go out of the room, turn three times, and knock on the door to be let in or something.”
“I know I shouldn’t ask this, but I will. Why?”
Jonty pushed his cup and saucer from him with a sigh. “Because it’s as bad as mentioning Macbeth. Nice, quiet holiday? The universe will hear what you said and is bound to make us regret it.”