It's Sample Sunday and I'm offering an excerpt from my latest mystery, A Rose Before Dying. This is the second mystery in the Second Sons Inquiry Agency mystery series and although Mr. Knighton Gaunt, the founder of Second Sons, is involved, the main investigator is not an inquiry agent at all, it's an earl trying to exonerate his uncle.
It's 1821 and Sir Edward Marlowe has been accused of killing his ex-mistress, Lady Banks. His nephew, Charles Vance, Earl of Castlemoor, is convinced his uncle is innocent and decides to investigate. The killer has left a taunting note and a rose, indicating that another murder will soon take place. Charles has taken the rose to an expert in hopes of identifying it and preventing the tragedy.
The butler stared at the card and then intoned, “Lord Castlemoor, Miss Wellfleet.”
She wiped her hands on a towel resting on the table and faced him. A tan apron covered the front of her dress from neat collar to hem, and dark, rich earth liberally smeared it in long, sweeping streaks.
“I’m afraid we must disappoint him.” She stared at Charles, but her movements placed the lamp behind her and left her face in darkness. Her expression was hidden, but the light behind her set her hair on fire. The thick coils glowed deep, golden brown in a halo around her shadowed face.
“Are you sure Mr. Lee sent you? Here?” she asked.
“Yes, quite sure.” Charles had the uncomfortable feeling that Mr. Wellfleet was either gone from this house, or worse, from this world. “I take it Mr. Wellfleet is unavailable?”
“You might say that,” she said dryly. “He’s been rather unavailable for the past six months. My father, Mr. Wellfleet, is dead, my lord.”
“I’m sorry. However, I assure you Mr. Lee did send me. And I freely admit it may have been my fault to assume he sent me to speak to Mr. Wellfleet.” His voice slowed as he realized his hopes had faded along with the daylight. Mr. Lee had sent him on a fruitless mission to see a man who had died months ago.
Bitter anger gripped him, clogging his throat. He stared at the woman, unable to speak through his frustration. Someone would die—and soon—because he was unable to identify a single, ridiculous rose.
“Is this your daughter?” she asked, breaking the silence. Her lovely face remained impassive as she eyed the little girl.
“What? No—good heavens, no.”
“Then…who is she?”
“Her name is Rose.” He bit the words off, thinking furiously of a way to identify the next target. There had to be a way, even without knowing the true name of the rose.
“And did you bring her here for a reason, my lord?”
“Well, her name is Rose,” he replied absently.
Rosa collina, Lee had said. Someone named Collins? That had to be the answer.
“I see. So you thought you could plant her in the garden, perhaps? Next to the chrysanthemums?” She paused as if in thought. “Well, Mr. Gibson dug a new bed this morning. I suppose we can plant her there, assuming she will fit. What color are her blooms? I hope they aren’t too garish. I was planning a display of pale pinks and murray-purple in that particular spot. It’s too late to change now. I’ve already begun planting.”
He stared at her only to realize that despite her solemn expression, her hazel eyes glowed with laughter. She looked at the small girl clinging to him and smiled.
Rose stared back, her blue eyes wide before she nodded and said with firm resolution, “Pink.”
“You’re sure? You look rather like one of the mad Gallicas to me. Perhaps you’re a rich red streaked with a few patches of the palest-of-pale pink?”
The little girl shook her head vigorously before stepping over to Miss Wellfleet and taking her hand. “Pink. I’m pink.”
“Then I just may have the perfect bed for you.” Her wide mouth trembled with suppressed mirth. She glanced back to Charles. “Since it seems, despite all appearances and the company you keep, you aren’t quite mad after all.”
She clearly wasn’t convinced of his sanity, however.
He flushed. “I beg your pardon. But truly, I didn’t know where else to take her…”
“And just where are her parents? Her mother?”
“She’s an orphan.”
“That’s certainly convenient, isn’t it?”
“I don’t know what you mean,” he replied stiffly.
She sighed and dipped a corner of the towel into a small, tin pitcher of water on the table. She washed a smudge of dirt from the girl’s cheek, revealing the soft, rosy skin. “Do you even know who her mother is? Or was?”
“Yes. She resides just a few blocks from here.” If she could joke about the situation, he could, too.
“Where?” she asked warily. “Oh, you mean St. Michael’s, I suppose.”
“Yes. At least, that’s what I understand.”
“Workhouse. Would you really ask me to take her there?”
She studied him. “No, I suppose not. But you—”
“I can’t keep her.” He paused. “Can I?”
“It does look odd.” The speculative gleam in her eyes brought out their rich brown color. “And most improper. What I don’t quite understand is your concern for her. Why, out of all the dozens of children wandering the streets of London, did you choose her? Are you certain she’s not yours?”
“No. In truth, I never knew of her existence before today,” he replied honestly. “I just stumbled over her and brought her along.” He raised his hands in a helpless gesture. “There’s no compelling logic or reason.”
“I see. However, I fear I must ask again, are you sure she’s not yours?”
“No. Truly. I never meet her until today.”
“That’s hardly convincing, is it?” She asked in her driest voice.
“I assure you, I don’t have a passel of…well, love children, wandering the streets of London.” He flushed with embarrassment. The hot color deepened when he realized she seemed just wayward enough to believe he was more embarrassed that he didn’t have a vast collection of by-blows, than he was by the suggestion he had only one.
Despite his best efforts to educate himself about females, they remained mysterious and largely incomprehensible at best.
This disadvantage struck him disagreeably.
“I couldn’t just leave her to starve.”
“This is most irregular, my lord. Any decent woman would flatly refuse to accept an orphan thrust upon her by a stranger—even one who is an earl.” She sighed. “However, I’m tired and perhaps not at my most sensible. So I suppose she can stay—”
“Thank you!” He leaned forward and almost gripped her hand. “I sincerely appreciate it.”
Miss Wellfleet folded the towel with restless hands. “May I ask if your sole reason for coming here was to divest yourself of Rose?”
“I supposed you’re only asking me as a last resort. Because my father is no longer with us.” She held out a peremptory hand. “Let me see it.”
Her face was a smooth, expressionless mask. However, he detected traces of tired resignation at the implication that she could not be expected to have the depth of knowledge exhibited by a man.
When he placed the limp spray in her palm, she held it up to her nose and breathed in several times with closed eyes, cupping the flowers in her hands. Then she gave it a cursory examination before pulling the petals off of one flower.
“Stop!” He reached over to wrench it out of her hand. She turned her shoulder, blocking him. “What are you doing?”
“Counting the petals. Why?”
“You’re destroying it! How shall I identify it if you ruin it?”
She held it out. “Take it. Plant it, or allow me to root it. Or graft it. If it grows, you can ask your friend, Mr. Lee, to identify it in two or three years from the shape of the bush and bloom habit. Most men who grow roses agree that it takes at least one cycle of blooming to identify a rose with any assurance.”
“Yes—if you want to be sure. And isn’t that why you wish to identify it? So you can purchase a specimen for your own garden?”
He gazed into her coolly discerning eyes and realized she was aware that he was not being open with her. But given Mr. Lee’s reaction, he could not bring himself to tell the complete truth. The rose wouldn’t last long enough to find another master gardener, assuming he could even locate one in London. “It’s…a wager. Silly, I know, but one of my friends said I couldn’t identify this rose.” The tips of his ears burned.
“I see.” Her eyes grew colder. “This is all a wager?” She glanced at Rose.
“No, of course not. Not Rose—she’s not part of it.”
Miss Wellfleet’s fingers pushed the petals into a line on the table and hovered over them. Thirteen petals, thin and wilting, spread in a tattered line. The slender spray was dying. The small, tight buds had already blackened and hung limply. His chest tightened with frustration.
Then with a theatrical gesture that suggested more defiance than scientific inquiry, she ripped apart the remaining flowers. She arranged the petals in three parallel lines, one for each flower. The roses didn’t all have the same number of petals. The first had thirteen petals. The next had eleven. The final rose had seventeen.
After examining what remained of the stalk, the yellow stamens, and leaves, she looked at him.
Although she didn’t precisely shrug, there was a quality in her expression that spoke of disdain when she said, “Rosa Collina fastigiata.”
“That’s it?” His tired disappointment reminded him of the lateness of the hour. Useless. He needn’t have come here at all. Lee had it right the first time.
“Well, yes. What were you expecting?”
“Something…more. A name…”
“That is a name.” Irritation sharpened her voice. “Or Flat-Flowered Hill Rose, if you prefer an English one.”
Her eyes hardened. “As sure as I can be from this small spray.” She flung the petals and twig onto the table. “No one can be absolutely sure without seeing the bush and knowing the growth habit and bloom cycles. Have you any idea how many roses there are?”
“That’s why your friend made a clever wager—if wager it was. My lord. And if the true wager wasn’t bringing that girl, Rose, to a spinster plantsman.”
“No. Truly, I apologize. I sincerely appreciate the name. And Rose was an accidental meeting on my way. She was nearly killed in the road a few blocks from here. I couldn’t just leave her—for God’s sake—she’s just a child!”
“No, I don’t suppose you could,” she replied grudgingly. One of her slender hands rested on the girl’s lank hair. “It’s late. You have your name. I hope you win your wager.”
With a coolness he deserved but saddened him nonetheless, she gestured for him to leave. The butler, Mr. Abbott, waited just outside the French doors to the greenhouse. His silent presence ensured Miss Wellfleet had never been truly alone with Charles. Somehow, this reminded him of how attractive he found her, and he flushed when he caught Mr. Abbott’s curious gaze.
However, his embarrassment faded as he remembered his purpose.
A life could be saved if he interpreted Rosa Collina fastigiata properly.
How many people named Collins lived in London? Unless the clue rested with the English name, Flat-Flowered Hill Rose. Did this blossom point to a location instead of a person?
Time was slipping away.
A Rose Before Dying is available at Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, and Smashwords.