When a literary icon stays with the Dickinson family, Emily and her housemaid Willa find themselves embroiled in a shocking murder in this new mystery from USA Today bestselling and Agatha Award–winning author Amanda Flower.
August 1856. The Dickinson family is comfortably settled in their homestead on Main Street. Emily’s brother, Austin Dickinson, and his new wife are delighted when famous thinker and writer Ralph Waldo Emerson comes to Amherst to speak at a local literary society and decides he and his young secretary, Luther Howard, will stay with the newlyweds. Emily has been a longtime admirer of Emerson’s writing and is thrilled at the chance to meet her idol. She is determined to impress him with her quick wit, and if she can gather the courage, a poem. Willa Noble, the second maid in the Dickinson home and Emily's friend, encourages her to speak to the famous but stern man. But his secretary, Luther, intrigues Willa more because of his clear fondness for the Dickinson sisters.
Willa does not know if Luther truly cares for one of the Dickinson girls or if he just sees marrying one of them as a way to raise himself up in society. After a few days in his company, Willa starts to believe it’s the latter. Miss Lavinia, Emily’s sister, appears to be enchanted by Luther; a fact that bothers Emily greatly. However, Emily’s fears are squashed when Luther turns up dead in the Dickinson’s garden. It seems that he was poisoned. Emerson, aghast at the death of his secretary, demands answers. Emily and Willa set out to find them in order to save the Dickinson family reputation and stop a cold-blooded fiend from killing again.
Release date: November 14, 2023
Print pages: 352
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I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died
Ithrust the tip of my spade into the earth and had images flash through my mind of digging a grave, a grave dug in stone. The tiniest bit of dirt came loose from the combination of my force and the steel blade. The small amount of soil hardly seemed worth the effort. I closed my eyes for a moment. Trying to plant these daylilies in August was a bad idea. This was the driest and hottest month of the year, not a good time for planting much of anything. However, when my mistress, Emily Dickinson, saw the lilies growing on the side of an abandoned road, she had to have them for her new garden at the Dickinson homestead. One way or another, I had to get them in the ground before they languished in the heat.
Sweat trickled down both sides of my face. My only recourse was to wet the ground and then plant the daylilies. I knew Emily would not want to change the location of the plants. When she made up her mind about something, it was as good as done. The only trouble being when I was the one who was supposed to make sure it got done. At least I wasn’t alone on this particular assignment.
Cody Carey, the family’s yardman, stood a few feet away and looked as hot as I felt. He wiped at his brow. The pair of us had toiled in companionable silence for a long while. Cody was a few years younger than my twenty-one years. He had a dusting of freckles across the bridge of his nose and cheeks. The blond mustache on his upper lip could only be seen when the light hit it directly. His attempt at a mustache was the same straw color of his hair. He had just started to work at the Dickinson home that summer, and Emily hoped to train him up as a proper gardener, both for the homestead and for the Evergreens, the neighboring property that was home to Emily’s brother and his new wife.
“Willa!” a breathy voice called.
I jumped and dropped my spade onto the hard ground. The handle bounced and struck me in the ankle. I bit my lip to keep from crying out.
“Willa!” Emily called again. “Susan and Austin are home!” The jubilation in her voice was clear. My mistress Emily wasn’t one to do anything by halves. If you were someone she loved, like her family, then it was wholly and fiercely.
Emily’s brother, Austin, had married Susan the month before in a private ceremony. Not even the Dickinson family had been included.
Susan Dickinson née Gilbert was Emily’s dearest friend, and I thought, as such, Emily would be thrilled to now be able to call Susan not just her friend but her sister. However, when she’d learned that Susan and Austin were to marry privately, she had seemed relieved.
“I don’t think I could bear to watch. It’s like a death. Death causes division and change, and I sense that coming,” she’d told me.
To this day, I don’t understand why she felt that way. Did she fear losing her brother to marriage or did she fear losing her friend? In any case, they were both with her now, living in a grand house that Emily’s father had built for the newlyweds. I could not fathom what the loss, or “death” as Emily called it, could be.
Perhaps I was looking at this from the perspective of my own pain. Over a year ago, my brother, Henry, had been brutally murdered. He’d been the
only family I had left in this world…the only family worth mentioning at least. I’d experienced real death and loss, so the comparison chafed at my own grief.
“We must go over to the Evergreens to greet them,” Emily declared. “I know they will be tired from their journey, but it cannot be helped. I have to see them straightaway. I can’t wait until the evening meal. That is hours from now.”
“You should go,” I said.
“I want you to go with me.”
I picked up my spade and noticed that Cody had wandered off when Emily appeared. I hoped he didn’t think I was going to plant all these daylilies myself. He was the yardman, not me. “I don’t know why you’d like me to go with you.”
“They will want to see you,” she insisted.
I wiped sweat from my brow with the back of my hand, certain I would have dirt on my face. I doubted Austin Dickinson and the newly married Susan Gilbert Dickinson would be so eager to see me upon their return to Amherst.
Austin had spoken less than twenty words to me in the last year and a half I had been under the Dickinson family employ, and Susan scoffed at my friendship with Emily like I was her competition. This I could not quite understand. Susan was Emily’s dearest friend and now her sister. I could never compete with that, nor would I want to. I was a maid. I knew my station. Emily may be amused by my friendship, but I was still a servant first. I was there to do her bidding and the bidding of the family.
“Please, Willa, come with me.” Emily’s small hands fluttered in front of her face. Emily was a petite woman with a tiny waist, reddish hair, and deep-set dark eyes. At the moment those eyes were afraid. Maybe not afraid, but certainly anxious. What could possibly strain her nerves about seeing her brother and Susan, two people whom she knew and loved best in the world?
“Are friends delight or pain? Could bounty but remain,” Emily said.
I had become accustomed to Emily speaking so. When she spoke in that tone, she wasn’t speaking to me but to herself. She was working through a poem. She murmured the words again and added, “Riches are good.”
I picked up my spade and set it into the metal pail I used to carry my gardening tools around the yard. “I will come, miss. If it will be a help to you.”
Emily’s eyes cleared. The faraway look that seemed to overtake her every so often faded. “Thank you, Willa. You are a true delight.”
I glanced at the large yellow house where I lived with the Dickinson family and their head maid, Margaret O’Brien. “I should go wash up. I have been digging in the garden for the better part of an hour. I’m
sure I’m covered in dirt.”
Emily waved this idea away. “Do not bother. It is my brother and Susan. There is no reason to keep up appearances. Now come. Just remove your apron and you will be presentable enough.”
I glanced up at the house, where it seemed to loom over the garden. “I can’t be long. Miss O’Brien was expecting me to come in soon to assist with dinner. She will be quite upset if I’m not there on time. Your father likes to eat at the same hour every evening for his digestion.”
“I have already told Miss O’Brien that I have need of you and you will clean the kitchen top to bottom after dinner to make up for the lost time.”
I dug my fingernails into the palms of my hands. I typically cleaned the kitchen top to bottom every night, but with Miss O’Brien’s help. Without her help it would take twice as long, which meant I wouldn’t have any time to read The Scarlet Letter, the novel Emily lent me. When she’d learned of my love of reading, she’d given me access to her personal library. Many nights, I had to force myself to blow out the candle and go to sleep. I would have much rather stayed up and read, but the time I had outside of working was limited. My only day off during the week was Sunday. Often after church, I would walk through Amherst with a book under my arm.
At times, I would allow Matthew Thomas, a local police officer and friend, to accompany me on my walks. He would like to join me every Sunday, but as much as I enjoyed his companionship, I wanted nothing more than friendship from him. He felt differently and had made his intentions known. For his sake, I wished he would look elsewhere for a wife. I did not want him to waste his time on me when he could find happiness with someone new.
I removed my apron as Emily instructed, folded it, and placed it neatly onto the garden stool I used while weeding. Perhaps while I was gone, Cody would return and finish planting the daylilies. That would be a great gift.
Emily grabbed my hand. “Come, Willa. There’s not a moment to waste.” She pulled me along the grass and released my hand when we reached the younger Dickinsons’ property. I slowed and took in the new house.
Just like the homestead, where Emily lived with her parents and younger sister Lavinia, the Evergreens was an impressive home. It was so new that the paint on the shutters gleamed in the sunlight. I’d heard Emily say it was an Italianate-style home, which made me think it must have been inspired by grand buildings in Italy. I’d never
seen any structure like it. It was large, but the most impressive thing was the tower that rose out of the middle of it. It looked like a clock tower looming over the joint grounds of the Evergreens and the homestead.
Emily called the house a “bribe tied into a threat.” Her brother had wanted to move west after his marriage to make his own way in the world and discover his fortune. Miss Susan had not wished for that. She wanted to stay in Amherst near friends and most of all near Emily. Mr. Dickinson made his son an offer that he couldn’t walk away from: a grand new home and work at the family law firm. He would find nothing like this house in the wilderness. It was a gilded cage meant to keep him close, and Mr. Dickinson had succeeded.
Emily was running now. She was so eager to greet her brother and new sister. It made me wonder why she insisted I come along at all. It was clear she didn’t need me. I had found Emily always had a purpose for everything she did, even if she was the only one who understood it.
Austin Dickinson stood next to a carriage and offered a hand to his new bride as she stepped out. Miss Susan looked up at the house, and her lips curved with pleasure as if some sort of dream had been fulfilled. It must have been a great comfort for her to know she was now secure and would always have a home. From the snippets I had overhead from the family, I gathered Miss Susan hadn’t had the same upbringing as the Dickinson children. Her parents were dead, and she’d been handed off from aunt to aunt. As luck or providence would have it, she and Emily struck up a friendship several years ago, and from that relationship, Miss Susan became acquainted with Austin. Now, she was a member of one of the most prominent families in Amherst. It was a great change of fortune.
“You’re home!” Emily cried, and ran to her brother and Miss Susan. “I thought I should die before you returned. It was so long, and you did not write me nearly as much as you should have.”
“Emily.” Her brother laughed. “We are to dine at the homestead tonight and greet you properly then. There is no reason to make a scene.”
From the light shining in Austin’s eyes, he was pleased to see his sister.
Emily hugged her brother and Miss Susan in turn. “I don’t need a proper greeting. I could not wait one more second without seeing you. You can greet Mother and Father under the stiff confines of the dining table. But me, I want to be greeted in the open air with only heaven looking down.”
“Oh, Emily, Sister,” Miss Susan said. “I have missed you so. I’m certain I longed to see you as much as you longed to see me.”
Austin wrinkled his brow. “Yes, we have both missed you, Sister.”
The porter removed the couple’s trunks from the back of the carriage, and Austin seemed to accept this as a time to escape. “I will show you where to put those. The house is still being put in order, and not all the furniture is in place.”
“Yes, sir,” the man murmured. His thick Irish accent was noticeable when he spoke. Austin led the green-eyed porter into the house. It was then that Miss Susan noticed me for the first time. “And why did you bring the maid with you?” Miss Susan asked. Her intelligent eyes bored into me.
“She was in the garden and wanted to welcome you home too. I see no reason to turn a warm welcome away, do you, dear Sister?” She sighed happily. “What a thrill it is for me to call you that. I feel as if I have been waiting for this day for so many years. I have dreamed it, prayed for it, and now it is here. We will be together each and every day, as we were meant to be.”
Miss Susan’s gaze softened when she looked at Emily. “This is what I have wished and prayed for too. I’m grateful to be married to your brother, but I wish…” She trailed off and then looked at me again. “It is no matter. This is the best solution.” Miss Susan’s demeanor changed. “We have news.”
“You are with child already?” Emily gasped.
Miss Susan clapped her hands as if Emily’s thought were a fly that must be squashed. “Heavens no. We’re going to have our first guests to the Evergreens here in just a week’s time. There is a literary society meeting at the college just before the new term begins, and Mr. Emerson will be the honored guest. I learned of this while we were on our wedding trip, and wrote to extend an invitation. He accepted, and he and his secretary will be staying here with us.”
Emily laid a hand to her chest. “Ralph Waldo Emerson, the writer?”
Susan chuckled and lovingly touched Emily’s cheek. “My girl, yes, is there any other Emerson of literary importance in this world? He will be arriving from Concord by carriage a week from today. As you can imagine, this does not give me much time to prepare. My own maid is in a complete panic over it because, yes, I expect everything to be perfect. I will not have my first esteemed guest reporting back to the wider world that I neither knew how to keep a home, nor was a proper hostess.” She lowered her hand from Emily’s cheek.
Emily rested her own palm in the place where Miss Susan’s had been, as if she missed its warmth.
Miss Susan looked to me. “I could use an extra maid this week. I have only the one. It is a shame considering this is such a large home, but Austin is not one to overspend. He is too afraid of following in your grandfather’s footsteps in that regard.”
Emily made a face. “Austin has good reason to be concerned. Everyone says he is much like our grandfather in temperament and thought.”
“Yes, and now as his wife it is my job to keep him on a more practical path.” She said this with more than a little pride. “In no time at all, the Evergreens will become the cultural center of Amherst, and Mr. Emerson will be the first guest to make that dream happen.”
“Willa should help you,” Emily said. “Just for this week, to ensure everything is ready and prepared for Mr. Emerson’s arrival. I’m sure Mother and Father will agree. How you impress Mr. Emerson will reflect on them as well. I believe it will benefit the entire family if you can put on a nice show for such a learned man.”
Miss Susan pinched her lips together. “Very good. Willa,” Miss Susan said. “I expect you to report to the Evergreens at five in the morning. We have just a few days to make the home welcoming to Mr. Emerson.”
“But what about Miss O’Brien?” I asked. “She will be left alone in the homestead to care for it herself.”
Miss Susan scowled as if she was annoyed I would dare question her. She was the lady of a house now and wanted to be treated as such.
“Miss O’Brien will be fine,” Emily said. “She has made do with no help many times before. It’s only a few days, and you can help her in the evenings when you’re finished at the Evergreens.”
Help in the evenings, after putting in a full day’s work starting at five a.m.? I was certainly game to help this family, regardless of which house required more immediate assistance, but I didn’t want to think about doing double the work for the next week.
I folded my hands in front of myself and said nothing, just like any servant would in my place. It sounded as if the visit of Mr. Emerson was going to mean one thing only. Trouble. At the time, I had no idea just how much trouble it would actually become.
When I returned to the homestead, I dreaded telling Margaret O’Brien that I would be working at the Evergreens from morning to night for the next week. I was already walking on eggshells with the head maid because of how much time I spent tending Emily’s flowers and plants in the garden. Margaret was very much looking forward to the first frost, when I would not be helping in the garden any longer.
Thankfully while I was at the Evergreens, Cody finished planting the daylilies with the help of the gardener, Horace Church. Horace was a tall man in his thirties with a full beard and a long list of convictions. If you got the gardener on a topic he was passionate about, he would speak about it for days if allowed. He cared deeply for the Dickinsons’ gardens and was also the sexton at the Congregational church on the other side of Main Street, where all the Dickinsons except for Emily attended.
“Wet the ground first, Willa, if your mistress gets the idea in her head to plant during the hottest part of an August day,” Horace called grumpily.
I waved to let him know that I had heard him. I was too nervous about the conversation that I had to have with Margaret to stop and chat.
The news that I had to share with the head maid would not go well. This I knew. I sympathized with her. When she left for a few days to care for her ailing mother, it was all I could do to keep the house running. Being responsible for such a large home right after the family had moved in and didn’t know where all their belongings were was daunting. Thankfully both Emily and Miss Lavinia chipped in to help with the cooking during that time.
However, Miss Lavinia did it with a scowl on her face. Miss Emily’s younger sister didn’t care for me. With so much activity at the Evergreens, I didn’t think that Margaret would receive their help this time. The entire family would be in a flurry preparing for Mr. Emerson’s arrival. The meals at the homestead would be Margaret’s problem and hers alone.
I tentatively stepped into the kitchen and grabbed my spare apron from the hook. My other apron was still in the garden. I hoped Margaret wouldn’t notice it was missing. I promised myself that I would run out and collect it the first chance I had.
Margaret was at the stove stirring a summer soup as the Dickinsons’ first course. Since Austin and Miss Susan had returned home, ...
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