London, 1923. Newly minted research assistant Saffron Everleigh is the first woman to hold the position at University College of London. When she attends a dinner party for the school, she expects to engage in conversations about the university's large expedition to the Amazon. What she doesn’t expect is for Mrs. Henry, one of the professors’ wives, to drop to the floor, poisoned by an unknown toxin. Dr. Maxwell, Saffron’s mentor, is the main suspect, and evidence quickly mounts. Joined by flirtatious fellow researcher Alexander Ashton, Saffron uses her knowledge of botany as she explores steamy greenhouses, dark gardens, and deadly poisons to clear Maxwell's name. Will she be able to uncover the truth, or will her investigation land her on the murderer’s list? In this entertaining examination of society’s expectations, debut author Kate Khavari deftly sheds a light on the struggles of women in a male-dominated field, wrapped in mystery and murder.
Release date: June 7, 2022
Publisher: Crooked Lane Books
Print pages: 272
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A Botanist's Guide to Parties and Poisons
Light poured from the windows of the grand house, illuminating the front steps and graveled drive. The taxi rolled to a stop and Saffron emerged, then was led up the stairs by a liveried footman. A maid took her coat, and for a moment, Saffron stood in the doorway to the lavish sitting room, where about twenty people were gathered. The room was vast and cool despite a fire in the large marble hearth. With tall walls papered with green silk and countless pieces of highly polished heirloom furniture, it reminded her very much of her grandparents’ house; it was the sort of place that was heaped with family treasures that were ignored by everyone but the maids.
A ripple of anxiety went through her as she looked at the large group, scanning the faces for the one she wanted to avoid. It was hardly necessary; if Dr. Berking were already here, she would hear his booming voice. Scolding herself for her cowardice, Saffron straightened her shoulders. There was little danger in a dinner party.
Saffron stepped forward and offered her name to the butler. A few curious faces turned to her as he announced her arrival in dignified tones, and an older man moved to greet her. He introduced himself as Sir Edward Leister.
Saffron smiled at her host and said, “I’m pleased to meet you, sir. I understand that you are in large part to thank for making the Amazonian expedition possible.”
Sir Edward waved off her comment. His dull eyes barely took her in as he replied, “Of course, I’m happy to share my funds with University College.” He spoke a little too loudly to be genuine.
Sir Edward guided her toward several members of the university’s staff with whom Saffron was already acquainted. Their inquisitive eyes swept over her. Those that knew her were probably surprised to see her in clothing not marred by soil or dust. Saffron smoothed a hand over the beaded dress. Although the deep cornflower blue, the precise color of her eyes,
was understated, the shimmering beading was definitely flashier than anything Saffron would have normally worn. Her limited wardrobe no longer stocked gowns for such occasions, so her flatmate had borrowed the frock from another receptionist in her office. It fell straight from shoulder to below the knees, flattening her figure and leaving her arms bare. She and Elizabeth, her flatmate and oldest friend, had done their best to curl and pin Saffron’s brunette hair into a stylish arrangement, and unearthed their best set of silk evening gloves for the occasion.
A tall man with dark hair was looking at her with a serious expression. As their eyes met, he joined her.
“I’m Alexander Ashton,” he said. “We’re on the same floor in the North Wing. I believe you’re Dr. Maxwell’s assistant.”
The introduction was unnecessary, as it would be nearly impossible for any member of the close-knit biology department of University College London to be unknown to another. Not only that, but Saffron was the only woman currently employed by the department and had been the topic of unpleasant rumors lately.
As for Mr. Ashton, Saffron knew exactly who he was. Saffron remembered him from the beginning of her days as a student, another vaguely intimidating figure in the background as she struggled to settle into her studies and then, in the past year, her work. People spoke of Alexander Ashton with respect, because he had completed his graduate courses in half the time others required, and had crossed the globe to complete studies in exotic locations. She hadn’t heard much about his current research, either because the gossips had little interest in his work or because Mr. Ashton didn’t bandy about his publications as others did.
Now, towering over her in a well-fitted dinner jacket, with his attention fixed on her, he was just as intimidating. Dark brows framed darker eyes, and his mouth was held firmly beneath a slightly curved nose. Compared to the other men in the room, his complexion stood out against the crisp white of his shirt, as if he’d recently come back from a holiday spent outdoors. The only part of his appearance that was less than tidy was the curl of his hair that his pomade fought against.
“Yes, I am Dr. Maxwell’s research assistant,” she said. Mr. Ashton took her offered hand, warming her gloved fingers with his. “Saffron Everleigh.”
He looked at her blankly. “Your name is Saffron?”
Saffron sighed. Apparently the department gossips did not include her Christian name when they churned the rumor mill. “Yes, of course, how appropriate. A botanist named for a stigma and style of a flower. Very amusing,” she said.
A smile threatened in the corners of Mr. Ashton’s mouth. “I’m definitely not amused at all.”
Unsure of his response, she smoothed a hand over her dress once more. “Yes, well, better than Buttercup or Azalea.”
“Perhaps I should change my name to reflect my area of study too. Brucella melitensis might do.” He slipped his hands into his pockets and looked down at her thoughtfully. “Bacillus cereus sounds a little formal. Leishmania donovani, perhaps.” Though he said it without inflection, there was a hint of mirth in his voice.
“Leishmania Donovani would be perfect,” Saffron said, allowing herself a smile. “We might call you Donovan for short, and no one would be the wiser.”
“Considering that strain of Leishmania is a parasite that causes anemia and, in some cases, warty eruptions, I don’t think I’ll choose that one.”
Disgust warred with delight at Mr. Ashton’s deadpan delivery, and Saffron was almost sorry to see her mentor, Dr. Maxwell, enter the room alongside his friend, Dr. Aster.
Mr. Ashton leaned down to her ear as they drew near and murmured, “Dr. Aster, another aptly named botanist.”
She had said the same thing to Dr. Aster as a young girl during a rare visit to the university with her father, and she thought he still remembered her imprudent remark. Saffron stifled a laugh as the professors approached them.
Though the two men were similar in age, both being along the lines of ancient, they looked the opposite of each other. Maxwell’s fluff of flyaway hair and overgrown eyebrows made him look warm and grandfatherly, whereas Aster’s appearance was so polished and clean as to be severe, rather more like Saffron’s actual grandfather.
“Everleigh,” Maxwell said warmly, taking her hand.
Saffron smiled at the professor, not missing Mr. Ashton’s upticked brow at Maxwell referring to her by her surname. She loved it when he did; it made her feel as if she was just another member of the department rather than a novelty. “How was your trip, Professor?”
“Enjoyable as always, though one always forgets how exhausting it can be, entertaining children,” he replied in his breathless voice. “My grandchildren seem to think that I have as much energy as they do!”
Saffron turned to the other professor as Maxwell greeted Mr. Ashton. “Nice to see you, Dr. Aster.”
His gray eyes seemed to glint in disapproval, as usual. “Good evening.”
Maxwell scoffed lightly at him before saying, “Aster, you remember Alexander Ashton.” They shook hands. “Everleigh, you will be working with Mr. Ashton over the next few weeks to ensure he gets whatever materials he needs for the chlorophyll study. He is responsible for making preparations for botany since Chesterfield retired to see to his ailing brother.”
sudden departure had left their small department scrambling, especially considering the expedition had been pulled together on such short notice. Nodding, she asked, “Are you on the expedition team, Mr. Ashton?”
“Not this time,” he replied. “Julian Ericson and Martin Gardiner will be collecting the samples for botany.”
The professors were absorbed in their own discussion of Dr. Maxwell’s fern collection, so Saffron, eager to hear more, said, “But you’ve gone on other expeditions, I believe. It must be fascinating to travel all over.”
“It can be.”
“What exactly do you study?”
Unsure whether to be amused or annoyed at his sudden reticence, Saffron said, “I did gather that. What in particular?”
She thought she caught a flash of surprise in his expression before he replied, “I was developing a system of rapid identification of new bacteria. Because of my previous work with soil, they gave me botany when they divvied up each of the subdepartments for the expedition preparations.”
Now he was speaking in full sentences again, Saffron hoped to keep Mr. Ashton talking. She was here to hobnob with her colleagues and university higher-ups, but she did want to hear more about his experience in the department. “How did you come to work in biology? Or microbiology, rather.”
But dinner was announced a moment later. Her question went unanswered, as Dr. Maxwell offered her his arm and guided her into the impressive dining room, where a white-clad table heavily laden with silver and china shimmered in the candlelight.
Half of the table was filled with professors and researchers from the university, some with their wives, and the other half were administrators and benefactors of the university, like Sir Edward. Dr. Lawrence Henry, the man who was to lead the expedition team, sat at the center of the table. Next to him, an auburn-haired woman swatted his arm playfully. From where Saffron sat, it seemed that the woman had a great deal of skin on display, with only a bit of black silk with gold embroidery covering her shoulders and chest. She had a rather adoring look on her heavily made-up face. Saffron could understand the woman’s fawning attention. Dr. Henry certainly cut a dashing figure for a history professor. Blue eyes shone from a tanned, rugged face, and his black dinner jacket stretched tight over his broad shoulders. If university rumors were to be believed, he often received such admiration from women young and old.
An elegant woman across the table seemed to be the exception. She was watching Dr. Henry and his dinner companion from the corner of her eye, black hair framing a slightly older face with sharp, dark eyes. The man she was speaking to, a professor of ecology, was talking on and on without noticing his audience was preoccupied. Given the withering look she gave the woman in black and Dr. Henry, Saffron guessed the older woman was Mrs. Henry.
Mr. Ashton was seated at the far end of the table, in conversation with a serious-looking young man. The man he spoke to could have been on the university’s staff, though it was hard to be sure. Blond and pleasant-looking, he closely resembled the masses on campus.
Mr. Ashton noticed her looking at him and smiled slightly. Saffron briefly returned his smile and looked away. In her experience, it was best not to encourage her colleagues.
Dr. Berking had, at last, made his appearance, but sat far to the other end of the table, out of Saffron’s sight. Saffron sat next to Dr. Maxwell, far down the table near Lady Agatha, Sir Edward’s wife. Full of recent discoveries, plans for publications, and university news, the conversation surrounding her distracted her from Berking’s odious presence. Saffron mostly listened, hungry for further details about the expedition and what the researchers would do while they were there. The trip had been announced just a month ago, giving the departments hardly any time to prepare.
Harry Snyder, Dr. Henry’s assistant, was seated on her other side. With small brown eyes behind wire-rimmed glasses, and thin lips that emphasized his large, impeccable teeth, he looked rather like a rodent. His demeanor, skittish and reticent, matched his mousy appearance.
“Mr. Snyder, will you be joining Dr. Henry on the expedition?” Saffron asked.
“Yes,” Snyder replied, his eyes not leaving his plate.
“I understand Dr. Henry visited both India and Spain in the last few years. Have you accompanied him on previous expeditions?”
To this, Snyder only nodded, his black hair slick with pomade bobbing over his plate. Saffron considered her own plate of delicately cut roast beef, wondering if the meal was really that interesting or if Harry Snyder really didn’t want to speak with her.
“What do you do for Dr. Henry while abroad?” she asked.
Snyder frowned at her from behind his glasses. “Assist him, of course.”
Saffron sighed into her water glass. Dr. Maxwell was occupied in a conversation with another professor on her other side, and so Saffron continued extracting answers from Snyder, like pulling sore teeth.
“For how long will the team be gone? I’ve heard it’s sure to be more than six weeks, but no longer than four months.”
Snyder glanced down the table to where Dr. Henry was still entertaining the woman in black. “The plan is to be in Brazil for five months, with two weeks of travel time on either end.”
Saffron raised a brow at the cagey way Snyder spoke and, matching his hushed voice, asked, “What sort of work requires the team to be gone for so long?”
He bit his lip, eyes darting down to Dr. Henry once again. “Five departments have representatives going, in addition to those who are going to complete data collection independently.”
Saffron was coming to enjoy taunting Snyder with her questions. He seemed to think it all a big secret, and Saffron loved uncovering secrets. She added, “Where, precisely, are you going in Brazil?”
Snyder looked torn. He patted his mouth with his napkin, then examined his wineglass as he said, “I don’t think I can … er, well, I shouldn’t say …” When it became clear Saffron would continue to look at him expectantly, her eyes wide and inviting, he cleared his throat. “We’ll be focused mostly on the mouth of the river and Marajó Island. Keeping close to civilization, that is.”
“Why is that, Mr. Snyder? Certainly a lot of exploration has already been done in that part of the world. Alexander Van Humboldt sent back nearly fifteen thousand species from his travels. And he was hardly the first nor the last to explore there.”
He looked mildly affronted, his hesitation to speak on the subject evaporating. “Not everything about an area can be learned in one go. Besides, if you’ve had the benefit of examining a map, you will find that Venezuela is quite a distance from Brazil.”
With patience she didn’t feel, Saffron replied, “What I mean is that the Amazon, which extends far beyond the limits of Brazil, has been a focal point of exploration for hundreds of years. Has Dr. Henry been in contact with Percy Fawcett? His descriptions of the lost city of Z are fascinating. It sounds like a terrestrial Atlantis.”
Snyder snorted. “Fawcett isn’t a true academic. The things he claims to have seen are hardly worth contemplating. A dog with two noses? A snake the length of an autobus? I think not. Dr. Henry believes there is quite a bit about the real history and culture of the indigenous people in the area that has yet to be discovered.” With a sneer, he added, “The animal and plant people can always find more to look at.”
Snyder clearly didn’t recognize her as one of the “plant people.”
Dr. Maxwell turned toward their conversation and smiled wryly. “Yes, indeed. Thousands and thousands of organisms in every square meter of land over there. A most intriguing place. I’m sure Dr. Henry will find more than what he is looking for there.”
last words looked to taste a little sour to Maxwell, Saffron noted. His eyes lacked their usual softness, and he quickly turned back to his supper.
Snyder seemed to think this was the end of the conversation, which was fine with Saffron. As she ate bites of Waldorf salad, her eyes fell again on the woman she suspected to be Mrs. Henry. She was now looking down the table to the man Mr. Ashton had spoken to earlier. The man seemed to smirk back at her. Though no doubt a decade older than him, her returning look was sly, almost smiling.
Saffron realized Mr. Snyder was speaking to her again.
“I’m always so shocked by who wants to come on these grueling trips. Dr. Henry has to reject most applications just based on lack of experience in the field alone.” He leaned closer to her, near enough that Saffron could see the fingerprint marring the shine of his eyeglasses. “Although there are other considerations. Take Dr. Maxwell, next to you. Dr. Henry rejected his offer to join the expedition outright.”
Snyder shot a glance to her left at Dr. Maxwell, deep in conversation with a professor of mineralogy.
“Dr. Maxwell?” Saffron repeated, trying not to sound surprised. Dr. Maxwell surely hadn’t applied to go on the expedition. He was far too old to be traveling down a great river in the heat of the equator! She’d thought his comment about his wife declaring he couldn’t go was a joke.
“Oh yes,” Snyder said, stabbing his salad with his fork. “Dr. Henry was surprised when he said he intended to come along, and he tried to let him down easy. Poor man seemed fairly cut up, though.” Obviously, he didn’t know that she worked for the professor he was gossiping about. Nor did he seem to mind talking about the expedition now he wasn’t revealing their plans. Before she could say anything, he pressed on. “They had a rather dreadful row, I’m afraid. Dr. Maxwell told Dr. Henry that we’d be lucky to return from the expedition with all our men alive, with so many dangerous things lurking in the jungle. Animals and natives everywhere! Just waiting to creep up on you …” His enthusiasm seemed to fade slightly. Then he perked back up, saying, “But that’s why Dr. Henry insisted on leading the crew. His experience and skills will no doubt ensure our safety.”
Luckily, Snyder had little else to say to her the rest of the meal. Irritation and confusion dampened her appetite, and Saffron spent the rest of the meal wondering if she’d regret venturing out of her little corner of university life.
At dinner’s end, Saffron stood carefully to ensure that none of the embellishments on her borrowed dress were caught on the chair, and followed the ladies to the drawing room. Electric lights glowed around the rose-red room, and a large fire had been constructed in the monolithic hearth to take the edge off the spring evening. Saffron chose a seat near the fire, not anticipating participating in the kind of conversation the other women were likely to share. Her grandmother had ruled such gatherings, always with a subtle but sharp barb ready to remind her that, given Saffron’s interests, her conversation was not welcome. Considering she was among ladies of similar class now, she wasn’t likely to be a great conversational partner. It had been years since she’d kept up with London gossip. She’d been far too willing to leave it behind when she’d began working in earnest toward her goal of becoming a botanist.
To her surprise, the hostess, Lady Agatha, brought her a cup of coffee. Her peach dress fluttered as she settled next to her. “My dear, I’m told you are Thomas Everleigh’s daughter. How wonderful to meet you.” She looked exactly like her grandmother’s compatriots: women of taste and means who had preserved their beauty to the best of their ability, but in the end looked like wilted flowers in silk and pearls. “Your father used to join us quite often when he was a professor, you know. What a charming man.”
“Oh, how nice,” Saffron replied with a noncommittal smile. Though she heard such comments often enough, it was usually from fellow scholars who were familiar with his work. She doubted Lady Agatha knew much about plant pathology.
“And such a gentleman! A great pity that we lost him well before his time. Dr. Everleigh put his colleagues to shame, those that were not brought up quite the same.” Lady Agatha gave Saffron a meaningful look. “I cannot imagine what it’s come to, when the halls of a prestigious institution such as University College are open to just anyone.”
To have her father’s death commented on so casually, to hear her father’s memory used to put others down, made Saffron’s insides roil. With saccharine sweetness, Saffron asked, “You mean those not brought up to have the same appreciation of academia?”
Lady Agatha’s frown was brief, covered by a brittle smile. “Of course, my dear.”
The hostess made a few more polite comments before joining a cluster of ladies on the other side of the room. Saffron watched her go with satisfaction.
Though he’d been raised in the upper class, thanks to her grandparents, Thomas Everleigh had all but rejected his status as heir to a viscountcy and taken up botany. His parents had indulged his studies, never thinking that he would make science into a profession. A life among the peerage hadn’t appealed to her father in the slightest, and that view had rubbed off on Saffron. She had been raised with a dual future in mind: her grandparents’
vision of a good marriage, and her parents’ hope that she would find her own way. So far, her way looked much like her father’s. She’d given up a lot to reach her goal, including the financial support of her grandparents, but she was reminded now of why she’d been so willing to turn her back on high society.
The woman who’d paid such attention to Dr. Henry during dinner sunk onto the couch next to Saffron. Black silk lavished with gold beading was held up by scant straps at her shoulders and gathered at her hips in a draping knot, mirroring the gold headband circling the crown of her meticulous russet waves. She was far more adorned than any of the other women and, despite heavily kohl around her hazel eyes and dark lipstick, was very young now that Saffron saw her up close. Her long red nails were wrapped about a cup of black coffee, and she wore an expression of practiced ennui. “Well, this is rather dull.”
Saffron waited for an introduction or some hint as to why this woman had chosen her to complain to, ...
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