A stranger who appears on Kat's doorstep turns out to be one Charlotte Bristow, legal wife of Joe Bristow, the man Kat once believed herself married to—who she thought died at sea twelve years ago. Kat is jolted by Charlotte’s claims that not only was Joe murdered, but he had amassed a small fortune before he died. Charlotte makes the cook an offer she cannot refuse—if Kat can discover the identity of Joe's murderer, Charlotte will give her a share of the fortune Joe left behind.
With the help of Daniel McAdam, her attractive and charismatic confidante, Kat plunges into her own past to investigate. When it becomes apparent that the case of Joe’s death goes far deeper than simple, opportunistic theft, Kat and Daniel's relationship is put to the test, and Kat herself comes under scrutiny as her connection to Joe is uncovered. She must race to catch the real killer before she loses her job and possibly her life.
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Woman's asking for you, Mrs. Holloway." Elsie, the scullery maid, popped her head into the kitchen one Wednesday morning after breakfast service to make this announcement. "She's waiting up on the street."
"What woman?" I was much distracted, having had to serve a larger than usual breakfast. The family in the Mount Street house had returned unexpectedly early from their summer wanderings, and the lady of the house had presumed they'd slide back into day-to-day life without a hiccup.
Little did they know of my mad scramble to the markets, my despair over the bizarre notes Mrs. Bywater, the mistress, had sent down to me about the new dishes she'd learned of while on holiday. How my assistant, Tess, and I had chopped and boiled and baked and tested recipes until we'd nearly collapsed in the roasting heat of the kitchen. Mrs. Bywater had no understanding of food, and everything she'd suggested had to be rethought and remade until it was edible.
"Don't know, Mrs. Holloway." Elsie tucked her dishcloth into her apron and retreated to her sink. "She only said she wanted to speak to the cook. It's important, she says."
I glanced out the high windows that gave on to the outside stairs, but I could see nothing beyond the grating and the stone sills that needed to be scraped of summer grime.
Earlier in my life, when I'd first become a cook, I'd have dismissed a woman who didn't leave her name and gone about my business. But these days, as an acquaintance of Daniel McAdam, who had the habit of sending all sorts to me for my help, I felt an obligation to discover what this person needed. Daniel did not always explain clearly what he wished me to do, but perhaps I could learn this from the woman.
"Very well," I said. "Tess, please set that bread in the oven. It will overflow its pan if it sits any longer and be ruined. Give it an egg white wash and sprinkle a bit of those seeds on first. That will be tasty, I think."
Tess, of the freckled face and lively eyes, set to work without arguing or bothering to comment, which told me how much she'd settled since coming to work for me.
Tess separated an egg without mishap and whisked up the white. "If there's another evil person what needs nabbing, you'll let me help, won't you?" she said as her fork clinked against the sides of the bowl. "I'll be staying well out of the way if they're dangerous, of course."
"It is not likely to be anything so dire. Do not overbeat the whites, Tess—you want a thin coating to make the seeds stick, not a meringue."
"Right you are, Mrs. H." Tess hummed happily as she continued to whisk.
I tucked a stray lock of hair into my cap and departed the kitchen for the back door. Anyone arriving at the kitchen instead of the main house was no one I'd need to change my frock for, and I was too busy to even remove my apron.
Cool air wafted to me as I hurried up the stairs, the heat of summer finally broken. My kitchen had often been as hot as my oven these past few months. A sensible person would have found a way to leave London for the summer, but I had a reason to stay, and I did not mean my post as cook in a Mount Street home.
I assumed the woman who stood in a sunny patch next to the house's railings was the lady who wished to speak to me. Her back was to me as she idly watched delivery wagons pass, so all I saw was her serviceable dark brown frock, a straw-colored shawl to keep out the wind, and a hat with one limp ribbon.
"Madam?" I called as I reached the top stair. "I am Mrs. Holloway. What may I help you with?"
She turned and faced me.
My cheerful greeting died as my lips grew numb, my mouth dry. My heart beat in strange little jerks, and I tightened my hand on the railing beside me. If I'd not clutched it, I'd have tumbled back down the steps.
It was her. Charlotte. Mrs. Joseph Bristow.
The woman who'd been married to my husband in the years I believed I'd been his wife.
I recognized her because after Joe had died and I'd discovered Charlotte's existence, I'd found out all I could about her. I'd never introduced myself or spoken to her or even made myself known to her. I'd discovered that she lived in Bristol but had come to London to wrap up Joe's affairs. I knew where she'd taken rooms and what she looked like, and realized with dismay that the little boy who followed her closely must be Joe's son. His legitimate son.
I'd learned quite a lot about Charlotte before I convinced myself that I should put her from my mind. She'd returned to Bristol before long, and I'd shifted my focus to my own troubles. I'd been about to bear a child, and I needed to find a way to keep my daughter—his daughter—fed.
Charlotte pinned me with eyes that were hard and brown under her dark straw hat. "You know me?"
For a long moment I could not move, could not speak. At last, I managed a nod.
Charlotte studied me in every detail, as I had studied her twelve years ago. She'd been quite pretty then, with sleek dark hair parted in the middle and swept back in wings on either side of her face. Pink cheeked, fresh-faced, slightly plump, pleasant looking.
She'd resembled me a bit, I'd realized, in a superficial manner. Similar hair and eye color, neither of us tall or lean. She'd been in mourning black but had smiled at her son with fondness.
I'd watched her from the other side of a street with my throat closed, not certain why I'd wanted to know anything about her. If I encountered her, what would I say? The sight of the boy, a lad so small and vulnerable, had convinced me to not approach her at all. He was innocent in all Joe's machinations, as innocent as Grace.
The thought of Grace gave me courage. "Do you know me?" I countered.
"You call yourself Miss Holloway," she said stiffly.
"Mrs. Holloway," I corrected her. "Cooks and housekeepers are Mrs., regardless."
Charlotte eyed me, unimpressed.
The years had not been kind to her, I noted with an unbecoming flicker of satisfaction. Her complexion had grown sallow, her hair now more frizzled than sleek, and she had lines of exhaustion about her red-rimmed eyes. Joe had left me penniless—he'd specified nothing to me in his will, naming only his legitimate wife. He could not have left Charlotte much better off, as the man had never had many coins to rub together.
"You were Joe's paramour," Charlotte said. "His bit on the side. I hated you for a long time, but I must put that aside and ask for your help."
She spoke as though each word singed her tongue. The last barely emerged at all.
I regarded her in amazement. "My help? Why on earth should I help you?"
I'd meant to inquire why she'd sought me, of all people, for assistance, but the sentence leapt from me in all bitterness.
"Because you stand to make a few quid from it," Charlotte said.
Her answer made my curiosity flicker, but old anger that should have died years ago flared anew. I'd been quite unhappy living with Joe, but to discover that I'd stayed with him only because of a lie had nearly destroyed me. I'd blamed Joe squarely, but I'd also blamed this woman for stealing the life that ought to have been mine.
"I hardly need your money," I said with all my dignity. "I have a respectable position and want for nothing."
I could have explained that households in Mayfair would offer me the highest wages in order to put my food on their tables, and that I was rarely out a position for long. Also that I could demand a day and a half out a week as a condition of my employment and be granted it without argument.
But I held my tongue. I would not compete with Charlotte Bristow for accolades. My life had turned out far better than it would have done had Joe lived, I was well aware. I'd gain nothing from crowing about that.
"This might be more than a few quid," she snapped.
I tightened my hand on the railing. "Please explain yourself. I have much to do."
Charlotte scowled. "Give me a minute. I've had to work out what to say, and seeing you sent it all out of my head."
"Do hurry," I said coolly. "My mistress will be expecting me."
My mistress was at the moment deep in conversation with her friends who'd arrived after breakfast, at a very unfashionable hour, to welcome her home to London. Mr. Bywater had fled the female chatter to his office in the City, and Lady Cynthia, Mr. Bywater's niece, had barricaded herself in her chamber. Mrs. Bywater would hardly notice what I did until she wanted her luncheon, but Charlotte did not need to know this.
"Joe might have had a powerful lot of money," Charlotte surprised me by saying. "And someone murdered him for it. We'll find the money when we find the killer, I'll wager."
Murdered him?" I repeated the words in amazement. "For a powerful lot of money? What are you talking about? Joe died at sea. So said the solicitor who came to me after his death." To explain I was not truly Joe's wife and that none of his things belonged to me.
"Joe did die. But not from his ship going down, like they told me, and like they told you."
I made myself release the railing and move closer to her. The rumbling of wheels on cobblestones would ensure we weren't overheard, but I did not want to shout this business on the street.
"How do you know?" I demanded. "Anyone can feed you a rigmarole."
Charlotte was about the same height as me. She stared straight at me, her chin at a stubborn tilt.
"A friend of Joe's has visited me now and then over the years. He's always said something weren't right with Joe's death."
Charlotte spoke the words as though reciting a speech, jaw stiff, hands clenched. She had a haunted look about her, I thought, as though she was unhappy but determined not to reveal any misery to the world.
"What friend?" I asked.
"I'm getting to that. Joe had a man who worked for him, apparently. Fellow doted on Joe, would do anything for him, so this other friend says. After Joe died, the man'disappeared' and so did the cash Joe's friend knows Joe had. The solicitors searched for everything Joe had left, but there never was much. I got what they found, as was my right as the widow."
Unlike me, who deserved nothing, the flash in her eyes said.
A bailiff and constable had accompanied the solicitor when he'd come to search my house for any goods Joe might have left behind, intent on carrying off whatever they could to give to Charlotte and her son. That was the day I'd learned about my husband's true wife.
"He never had any money when he was with me," I said.
"No, he went through it fast enough." Charlotte's expression told me she hated to agree with me. "But that was his pocket money. Seems that Joe had much more, stashed away, entrusted to someone, maybe, for the day he quit sailing and retired. This devoted assistant of his stole it—he must have done—and I think he killed Joe while he was at it." Charlotte's bosom, in its drab brown cotton, rose with determination. "If you help me find the money, I'll give you a portion of it."
I digested the story but did not give much credit to it. "I asked you before: Why on earth come to me? Why would you tell me these things and then offer me compensation for my assistance?"
Charlotte's scowl became fierce. "I've heard things, haven't I? On the street, like. I went to Bow Lane and asked about you, and everyone there told me that you were now a snooty cook in a grand house in Mayfair, and that you've helped the police find out a thing or two. I decided you'd be the one person who'd be interested in what happened to Joe's money. Working in a house like this ain't the same as living in it, is it?" Charlotte cast Number 43 Mount Street a disparaging glance.
"You went to Bow Lane?" A chill touched my heart. No one in my old street knew I'd been tricked into a bigamous marriage-they only knew I'd lost my husband and gone to work to support my child.
"That's where the bailiffs said you came from." Charlotte's stare held no remorse. "So that's where I went."
"You had no business doing so." My lips were stiff. "No business coming here."
Charlotte cocked her head. "You going to help me, or not? There's plenty in it for ya. Joe, they say, stashed away a good bit before he fell off his perch. Was pushed off, I think, by that rat."
So many emotions chased through me that I wondered how I could remain standing at all.
"Your husband never had money in his life," I said sharply. "Even if he had acquired some, it would have slipped through his fingers or been poured down his throat before long. I want nothing to do with him, or the few coins he might have found by the wayside. And I want nothing to do with you."
My jaw so rigid I feared it might break, I turned on my heel and made for the stairs to the kitchen.
"You're a frosty bitch, ain't ya?" Charlotte called to me. "Joe only wanted you on your back. But he came home to me."
I refused to listen any longer. I marched down the stairs, pretending dignity, but my heart pounded and bile roiled in my stomach.
Charlotte called me another unflattering name, then stomped away, her boots crunching on loose stones in the street, her footsteps fading into the rumbling of wheels.
I retained the proud lift of my head until I reached the bottom step, out of sight of the road. There, my legs gave way, and I collapsed to the stairs, my arms pressed tightly over my stomach as I gasped desperately for breath.