After the end of WWI Geraldine Brunton has worked hard to erase all traces of the woman she used t0 be. Her quest to disappear seems almost complete when she is hired as the companion to the elderly, bed-ridden Mrs. Stubbs, a very wealthy woman who in spite of her disabilities rules the roost with an iron hand which the younger members of the Stubbs family do not like in the least.
Despite every effort to remain an outsider, when a murder rocks the household Geraldine Brunton is propelled into the center of the crisis in spite of the fact it threatens to expose the woman she used to be. Caught in the dark and dangerous web that extends far beyond the Stubbs family, she must identify the killer living in the Stubbs house or the living hell she has been running from for months will finally become her reality.
Edging his elegant robin’s egg blue Cadillac Victoria Coupe to the curb, Milton called my name several times before I realized that he was speaking to me—a mistake that must not happen again.
“Good morning, Mr. Congreave.”
“Going home for lunch? Allow me to give you a ride.”
“Thank you very much.” With a sigh of relief I heaved the parcel of books onto the floor and endeavored to get my legs in beside them in a ladylike fashion. For all its reputed power and elegance, the Cadillac did not have the interior room of a respectable carriage. “I was not looking forward to the walk.”
“Surely you wouldn’t have walked all the way home with that. It looks like you bought out the bookstore. You know, they will deliver if you request it.” He put the motor into gear and we shot off at a pace little better than a snail’s crawl.
When I was fortunate enough to ride in a motor, I liked to go fast. Once I had been injudicious enough to declare that I should like to learn to drive one so I could go as fast as I liked. The aftermath was so vicious I never mentioned motors again.
“I’ll remember that, since we do go through books at a rapid rate. Mrs. Stubbs loves to be read to.”
“Yes, poor thing. One of the few pleasures left to her. I’m surprised you left her alone, especially after last night.” His voice held no censure, only a slight question.
“I didn’t particularly want to, but she ordered me. And we were out of books, so it was easier to go.”
“Oh, yes,” he said with a gusty laugh. “I know how she gets when she gives orders. You really had no choice.”
“Besides, Annie said she would check in on her from time to time.”
Riding in the Cadillac was disorienting. It might look like an elegant carriage, but the large glass windows gave one the impression of riding in a transparent teacup. The interior seemed frightfully close after the great open touring cars I had known. This was not the auto I would have chosen, had such a choice been mine. Now, of course, it seemed that such choices would always be beyond my reach.
“My mother-in-law will come to no harm, as long as we can keep her away from the spirits.”
I pulled myself back from the dangerous realms of memory. “I did get another bottle of tonic. The doctor said…”
“A jigger of that stuff at night won’t hurt her. It might even be helpful. It’s when she chug-a-lugs a whole bottle that there’s a problem.”
“Has she done that sort of thing before?”
“Once. Not long after old Jamie died. But we were lucky, and Eustacia found her in time.”
“You were married when Mr. Stubbs died?” Somehow that was not the impression I had gotten from Mrs. O’Toole.
“Yes, but just barely—less than a year. I’m surprised the old coot lasted that long.”
“Had he been ill?”
Milton gave a bark of laughter. “Yes, for years. Of alcohol. Thought he could handle a spirited pair of horses up on the mountain. Of course, he’d never driven that pair before. He said they were truly remarkable animals. I wouldn’t know. I prefer motors myself. So much less temperamental. He’d just bought them,” he added with the first note of real regret I’d heard, “and insisted on taking them out. Probably was drunk as a skunk, too. Anyway, they went up to the old Lodestar mine for a picnic or something, and he couldn’t control the horses and over the edge they went.”
“Was Mrs. Stubbs injured?”
I don’t know why I pretended ignorance of the tale. As something of a servant myself now, I wouldn’t get into trouble for gossiping with the cook. Still I held my tongue.
“No. She’d gotten out of the carriage to pick flowers or some such thing. She almost did die, though. I never saw a woman grieve so. That’s why we have to watch her so carefully. She’s not as… normal as she might seem,” he said in suitably subdued tones. “That’s why we have to keep her quiet and calm. She gets these weird flights of fancy. Does all sorts of strange things. Or tries to get someone else to do them for her. Did she ask you to do anything for her today?”
It was too arch a question and asked in too ostentatiously casual a tone.
“To buy her books. And to get her tonic. She wasn’t happy when I told her what the doctor said about keeping it in my room. She gave me quite an enormous amount of money,” I said, delicately trying to swing the conversation in a different direction. “I was almost alarmed carrying it. I brought her the change back, of course, and the receipts.”
This time his laughter was gentle. “No one’s going to accuse you of pocketing the shopping change, Mrs. Brunton. I’m just going to ask you that if Mother Stubbs does ask you to do something…out of the ordinary…that you will tell us. We all want to protect her, and I know we can depend on you.”
I smiled. “Of course I will, Mr. Congreave.”
There was absolutely nothing out of the ordinary in asking someone to mail a letter, even in a household where letters were placed on the hall table for pickup. I had not liked Milton Congreave from the moment of our meeting, and as he was not my employer, I felt no compunction to tell him anything.
“It will probably be just a light lunch today,” he said with a tinge of regret. “It usually is on my wife’s tea days.”
“Today? I didn’t know.” Of course, there was no reason I should remember exactly which day was Mrs. Congreave’s tea day. For me all the days were remarkable only in their similarity.
“Yes, once a week, like clockwork. I try to be well away before the ladies start arriving. Here we are,” he said, pulling to the curb with a flourish. “I’ll drop you here, then take the car around back. Do you need some help with that package?”
Already out of the car, I pulled the books onto the sidewalk. “No, I can manage fine, thank you, but I do appreciate the ride.”
“Anytime,” he said jauntily and the car pulled away.
I wondered if he thought I would fail to notice that he took a much longer route getting back to the house than I had walking down in the first place.