Mistletoe and murder at Honeychurch Hall... It's ten days before Christmas at Honeychurch Hall and Kat Stanford has persuaded the Earl of Grenville to open the Museum Room to the villagers in an effort to raise money for rooftop repairs. For the price of a ticket visitors will be able to view an unusual display of antiques - including the legendary Bleeding Hawk of Honeychurch Hall. When an obnoxious young couple drive 200 miles from London to view the treasures it's not just Kate who is suspicious of their intentions; Mr Chips, the estate's feisty Jack Russell makes his feelings plain by taking a bite out of the man's trousers. But then a suit of armour inexplicably falls on the ancient butler, killing him, and when a second body is found near a quarry nearby Kat becomes entangled in a world of feuds and jealousies, finally encountering a cold-blooded killer who will stop at nothing to keep the past at bay. Praise for Hannah Dennison 'Will delight fans and new readers alike' People's Friend 'The perfect classic English village mystery but with the addition of charm, wit and a thoroughly modern touch' Rhys Bowen 'Downton Abbey was yesterday. Murder at Honeychurch Hall lifts the lid on today's grand country estate in all its tarnished, scheming, inbred, deranged glory' Catriona McPherson 'A fun read' Carola Dunn 'Sparkles like a glass of Devon cider on a summer afternoon' Elizabeth Duncan
Release date: October 20, 2020
Publisher: Little, Brown Book Group
Print pages: 320
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Tidings of Death at Honeychurch Hall
Proud wasn’t the word. Relieved was more like it. After a great deal of persuasion, Lord Rupert Honeychurch had agreed to my suggestion of opening the museum room to visitors in order to raise funds to make critical repairs to the east wing.
Honeychurch Hall had never been open to the public before, and even he seemed surprised by the number of people who had streamed through the imposing granite gateposts of the six-hundred-year-old house. The entrance fee was ten pounds and included unlimited mulled wine, my mother’s home-made gin and Peggy Cropper’s famous mince pies.
‘Although I do think this had something to do with it.’ Mum gave a nod to the silver tray she was carrying that held a half-litre bottle labelled Honeychurch Gin and six cut-glass tumblers frosted with fake snowflakes and adorned with stirrers in the shape of fir trees. ‘We’ve sold twenty-five bottles just this past week – do have a glass, darling. You can relax now. You’ve done your bit.’
‘All right,’ I said, and took one.
I’d been on edge all day because Rupert had insisted that no security was necessary. He maintained that Seth Cropper, the ageing butler who stood sentinel next to the 3rd Earl of Grenville’s heavy jousting suit by the entrance, could keep watch. He had even refused to put Do Not Touch signs in the dozen or so open display cabinets, claiming that his ‘people’ would never have done such a thing.
As the day drew to a close, it looked as if my fears had been groundless. No priceless artefacts had been damaged, no one had spilled mulled wine over the stuffed white polar bear, and more importantly, the star attraction in the form of a ghoulish mummified hawk had not disintegrated into a pile of dust.
Officially known as the Bleeding Hawk of Honeychurch Hall, the bone-dry creature was thought to be over two thousand years old and was exhibited on a pedestal in the centre of the room. The wooden sarcophagus containing the bird had allegedly been stolen from an Egyptian tomb by the 9th Earl of Grenville and sneaked illegally into England in the 1850s. The hawk supposedly oozed a blood-like substance to warn of an impending death, and it was believed that anyone who touched it would suffer a terrible misfortune.
Since the bird had been sealed in its coffin for over a hundred and fifty years, it was hard to know if this had ever happened, but today, the lid was off for all to see.
As well as the hawk and a variety of stuffed wild animals festooned in tinsel, there were African relics, rare ostrich and osprey eggs, maritime ship models, scrimshaw, and exotic butterflies set out in specimen boxes. There was also a collection of antique pocket watches, and unusual curios including a nineteenth-century Polyphon music box, an armadillo handbag and a stuffed giraffe head.
‘That giraffe looks traumatised,’ Mum said, glancing at the red clown nose and red-and-white-striped scarf that the animal was sporting.
‘Blame Harry,’ I said.
The eight-year-old heir to the Honeychurch estate – otherwise known as Squadron Leader James Bigglesworth – had been put in charge of decorating the room along with his friend Special Agent Fleur Moreau, who seemed to spend more and more time at Honeychurch Hall since her parents had started working out in China.
‘Rather over the top if you ask me,’ said Mum.
I laughed. If anything was over the top it was my mother’s attire. She was wearing a sequinned jumper emblazoned with a reindeer’s head, and a pair of red and green tartan trousers that were far too tight. Silver baubles dangled from her ear lobes.
‘I love this time of year,’ Mum enthused, giving my black tunic, leggings and ankle boots a critical glance. ‘You could have tried harder to get into the spirit of things, Katherine.’
I lifted my hair to point to my miniature snowman earrings.
‘You can’t see them under all that,’ Mum grumbled. ‘That was the idea,’ I said. ‘Nick Bond from the Dipperton Deal should be here any minute to take photographs of the hawk, and if I’m going to end up in the newspaper, I don’t want to look silly.’ Our local weekly newspaper would always feature the winner of the largest marrow competition over a sensational ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ story. Although in this case, Nick had told me that he was hoping the hawk would do just that.
‘Oh, I shouldn’t worry about looking silly,’ said Mum airily. ‘Your days of Fakes & Treasures fame are old news now.’
‘Said with your usual tact. Thanks, Mum.’
But my mother was right. As the former host of Fakes & Treasures, a popular reality TV show, I had been followed for years by the paparazzi, who were always determined to catch me in embarrassing situations. But ever since I had resigned and moved two hundred miles away from my old life in London, the media had left me well alone. I was now happily following my dream of running my own antique business – Kat’s Collectibles & Mobile Valuation Services.
‘And let’s not forget Major Leonard Evans,’ Mum said with a tinge of malice. ‘He’ll want his photo taken next to the hawk. He won’t miss an opportunity to look brave.’
‘You should be happy for your best friend’s husband,’ I said. When Lenny’s name had been put forward to receive the Queen’s Gallantry Medal in the New Year’s Honours list, Mum had admitted she was just a tiny bit jealous. As a diehard monarchist, my mother’s dream was to meet the Queen, and now Delia was going to beat her to it. But I was sure their friendship would survive. The two shared a great passion for Marks & Spencer and drinking gin. In fact it was during one of their boozy lunches that they decided to make their own, and so the Honeychurch Gin label was born.
‘Pity the dowager countess isn’t here,’ Mum said, changing the subject. ‘I think she would have enjoyed it after all.’
‘I doubt it.’ Lady Edith Honeychurch had been so horrified at the idea of opening the Hall to the ‘great unwashed’, as she called anyone not of her class, that the formidable octogenarian had taken the train and gone to visit friends in London for a few days.
‘His lordship looks happy, though.’ Mum pointed to where Rupert was holding court with a group of estate workers in the far corner by the polar bear. Balding, and with a trim military moustache, the 15th Earl of Grenville was an attractive man. Dressed as always in beige cords and a green tweed jacket with leather elbow patches, he stood tall and carried himself with an air of entitlement. Occasionally some brave soul would approach their master, reverentially doff a cap or drop a curtsey and then beat a hasty retreat.
‘Oh, here comes Nick now,’ I said as an earnest young man in his early twenties, dressed in a black leather jacket and jeans, came rushing through the door. His attempt at designer stubble barely covered an unfortunate case of acne.
‘Sorry I’m late, Kat,’ he said as he joined us by the window. ‘I had two weddings to photograph this afternoon and the last bride insisted on a retake. God, I hate doing weddings.’
‘We all have to start somewhere,’ said Mum. ‘Kat’s first job was working in a toy shop on a Saturday.’
‘Yeah, well I’ve been in that somewhere now for four years and I’m sick of it,’ said Nick, scanning the room. ‘Has the hawk started to bleed yet? I grew up on that legend. We all did around here. Do you think it’s the real thing?’
‘Yes, it’s genuine, but I wouldn’t hold your breath about it bleeding,’ I said.
Nick got out his iPhone. ‘I’ll do a few spot interviews first, maybe get a quote from his lordship. Where’s Major Evans? I need a photo of him – he’s quite the hero.’
‘Polishing his medals, I expect.’ Mum proffered her tray of drinks. ‘Can I interest you in some Honeychurch Gin? You’ll never taste anything like it.’
That was something I couldn’t contest. The proof had to be in the high sixties. I’d only had a sip and it felt like my throat had been ripped out.
‘Don’t mind if I do.’ Nick took a glass and a large gulp. ‘Blimey! This stuff is …’
‘Potent,’ Mum said smoothly.
‘I was going to say raw.’ Nick gave a boyish grin.
‘It was made on the estate by myself and Delia Evans, Major Evans’s wife … well … she is still his wife at the moment.’
‘What do you mean?’ Nick cocked his head. ‘At the moment?’
I shot Mum a warning look. Just because my mother didn’t agree with Delia giving Lenny a second chance after his short-lived extramarital affair did not mean that she should broadcast it to the press.
Nick knocked back the gin and gave a shudder of appreciation.
‘I hope you’re not driving,’ Mum put in. ‘The police are out in force.’
‘Don’t worry,’ Nick said. ‘I know all the shortcuts. I’m a green-laner.’
‘A what?’ Mum asked.
‘Off-road biking,’ he said. ‘It’s one of my passions. There are hundreds of miles of green lanes around here, good for avoiding the police after a few drinks at the pub … Blimey, is that kid still obsessed with Biggles? How old is he now, eight?’
Harry, dressed in his trademark World War I flying goggles and white scarf, along with Fleur in her sunglasses, French beret and oversized trench coat, was heading our way.
‘What about you?’ I said. ‘Didn’t you have a hero?’
‘Barry Sheene,’ said Nick. ‘At least when I wanted to be a professional motorcyclist.’
‘Has it started bleeding yet?’ Harry called out.
‘You mean since you last looked twenty minutes ago?’ I teased. ‘No.’
‘Oh good. Phew. We would hate to miss the show.’ Having stood guard by the hawk for most of the day, the children had gone to the kitchen for hot chocolate and marshmallows.
Nick offered his hand for Harry to shake. ‘Nick Bond, Dipperton Deal, and you must be …’
‘Squadron Leader James Bigglesworth,’ said Harry, reverting to his alter ego. ‘And this is Special Agent Fleur Moreau.’
‘Bonjour,’ said Fleur coyly.
‘It’s an honour to meet you, sir,’ said Nick. ‘I’ve come to photograph the bird.’
Harry’s eyes shone with excitement. ‘Would you like to see it? You can’t touch it, though. It’s cursed.’
‘Lead the way,’ said Nick.
‘Are we too late? Are you closing?’ came a woman’s breathless voice from the entrance. ‘We’ve been driving for hours and got hopelessly lost.’
I turned to greet the newcomer and smiled. ‘We’re not closing for an hour.’
‘You’re Kat Stanford, aren’t you?’ the woman said. ‘My husband and I used to watch Fakes & Treasures.’ She was in her mid twenties and strikingly pretty. With her flawless complexion, long blonde hair, huge china-blue eyes and impossibly long eyelashes, she reminded me of one of the bisque dolls that I bought and sold.
She was bundled up in a full-length Moncler parka and carried a Moncler velvet backpack from which dangled an adorable white unicorn bearing the signature Steiff button in one ear.
‘Ah! Someone after my own heart,’ I enthused. ‘I love the Steiff miniatures, in fact I have quite a collection myself.’
‘He is cute, isn’t he?’ she said. ‘As a matter of fact, it was you who got me interested in collecting Steiff miniature animals.’
‘Oh, lovely,’ I said. ‘And you are?’
‘Just call me Lala.’
I heard Mum mutter something derogatory under her breath that sounded like ‘a stripper’, and hoped the woman didn’t hear.
‘What was that?’ Lala said sharply.
‘I said try some gin, it will make you chipper,’ said Mum, all innocence.
‘I’m sorry, I’m not drinking.’ Lala pointed to her stomach. ‘I’m pregnant. Four and a half months left to go.’
‘Congratulations,’ I said.
‘Yes. We’re very excited. It’s our first – well, my first but not Angus’s.’ She opened her velvet rucksack and brought out a matching purse. I noticed a perfect French manicure. In fact, everything about Lala was neat. ‘Ten pounds each, isn’t it?’
‘Don’t worry about paying,’ I said.
‘Thanks.’ She put her purse away. ‘Ah, here’s hubby now.’ She waved to a stocky man who had to be at least a decade her senior. He looked Mediterranean, with olive skin and jet-black hair, and was wearing the same brand of jacket as his wife, but in black, with black trousers and black boots. The pair couldn’t have stuck out more in this room full of country folk if they’d tried.
‘This is Kat Stanford,’ said Lala to her husband.
‘Angus Fenwick.’ He gave a big smile. ‘We couldn’t find the place.’
‘Angus refused to ask for directions,’ Lala teased.
‘Men never do,’ Mum put in. ‘Do I detect a northern accent?’
‘That’s right,’ said Angus. ‘We’ve come from Richmond, North Yorkshire.’
‘Good heavens! That’s a long way to drive,’ Mum exclaimed. ‘Especially in this weather.’
‘Angus is interested in taxidermy,’ Lala said. ‘He’d drive a thousand miles to see a stuffed mouse.’
We all laughed.
‘I’m surprised you heard about the open day,’ I said, and I was. Although we’d done a small amount of publicity – an announcement in the Dipperton Deal and flyers distributed around the neighbouring villages – it had been very much touted as a local affair.
‘I can’t remember how we found out,’ Lala went on. ‘But here we are. We’re staying at a B and B in the village.’
‘Not Rose Cottage, I hope,’ Mum said darkly.
‘Yeah. Why?’ Lala asked.
‘Just make sure to ask for a fresh tea bag when Violet Green makes you a cuppa,’ Mum replied. Seventy-plus Violet, who ran the only tea room in the area, was frugal to a fault and notorious for re-using her bags until they resembled blobs of grey mush.
‘Who’s that?’ Lala pointed to Lady Lavinia, Rupert’s long-suffering wife, who had entered the room with a tray of mince pies and glasses of mulled wine.
‘That’s the lady of the house,’ said Mum. ‘Married to the 15th Earl of Grenville.’
Lavinia usually wore grubby jodhpurs and shoved her long blonde hair under a thick slumber net, but today she had made an effort. She sported a white angora sweater – circa 1980 – with large shoulder pads, and a flared red skirt. Her hair surrounded her head in a fuzz of static electricity.
Mr Chips, Edith’s Jack Russell, tore into the room after her, racing around in circles and barking before cocking his leg on a Victorian mahogany torchère.
Lala stiffened. ‘That dog looks vicious.’
‘He’s just high-spirited,’ I said, although Mr Chips was known for giving the odd friendly nip.
Lavinia sailed over, smiling at everyone she passed. ‘Good afternoon. Good afternoon! Goodness.’ She noticed Lala. ‘You haven’t got a glass, dear.’
‘She’s not drinking,’ said Angus. ‘She’s pregnant.’
‘Oh, how lovely,’ Lavinia trilled. ‘All you do is give a quick push and out they pop! Children can be such fun!’ She spoke with the strangled vowels of the upper classes, which often made her difficult to understand.
Lala looked bewildered. ‘Pop where?’
‘How much loot have we made, Iris?’ Lavinia enthused. ‘Hopefully thousands of pounds!’
‘We’ll know more at the end of the afternoon, m’lady,’ said Mum.
‘Good. Carry on, carry on.’ As Lavinia fluttered away, I could hear her chirping, ‘Mulled wine! Mulled wine! Let’s all get squiffy!’
‘She must be so rich to live in this big house,’ said Lala wistfully. ‘They must be billionaires!’
I wanted to tell her that the landed gentry were often land rich but cash poor. I’d seen first-hand what a struggle it was to keep up with the maintenance of these vast country estates. The dowager countess had told me that following her husband’s death and subsequent crippling inheritance tax, she’d had to seal off two entire wings at the Hall, one being the east wing and the reason for today’s event, because they couldn’t afford the repairs.
‘But where are the servants?’ Lala went on.
‘They call them staff these days,’ I said.
‘Here’s a servant.’ Mum pointed at Delia as she entered with yet another tray of mulled wine and mince pies. She was wearing a bright red dress and a necklace of silver tinsel, and had topped her outfit off with a reindeer antler Alice band. Her face was flushed. ‘She’s the housekeeper,’ Mum went on.
‘Oh so that’s Delia, is it?’ I heard Lala say to Angus. ‘She’s not what I expected at all – a frump and plump. Is that a wig?’
Poor Delia suffered from alopecia, and frankly, I thought Lala’s comments unkind.
And then it all made sense. ‘You know Delia?’ I asked. ‘Is that how you heard about the open house?’
‘Yeah, well, no. Not really,’ said Angus quickly. ‘We know her daughter, Laurie. She lives in Scotland.’
‘You mean Linda,’ corrected Mum.
‘That’s right, Linda.’ Lala rolled her eyes and nudged her husband. ‘Angus is hopeless with names and hopeless with directions.’ She paused for a moment before snapping her fingers. ‘Isn’t Delia married to a famous war hero? Saved some kids in a cave or something?’
‘Major Evans,’ I said. ‘That’s right. He’s been awarded the Queen’s Gallantry Medal.’
Lala scanned the room. ‘Shouldn’t he be here?’
‘Don’t worry,’ said Mum. ‘He’ll make a grand entrance, just you see.’
‘I would have thought Delia would wear a uniform,’ Lala said suddenly. ‘You know, like Mrs Hughes in Downton Abbey.’
‘He’s wearing a uniform.’ Mum pointed out Seth Cropper, who was indeed garbed in traditional attire of starched collar, grey-striped trousers and tails. With his oiled thinning grey hair, he looked the epitome of an Edwardian butler. His eyes were closed.
‘Looks like he’s asleep,’ said Lala with a nasty laugh.
‘He pretends to be, but I can assure you he doesn’t miss a trick,’ said Mum.
On cue, his eyes snapped open. He scanned the room, then retrieved a glass of water from the windowsill behind him and drained it in one go, before putting the glass back and resuming his position.
‘What should we look at first?’ said Lala.
I gestured to where Harry and Fleur stood with Nick, who was taking photographs of the hawk. ‘Well … that, of course.’
‘What is it?’ said Angus.
He looked blank. ‘Hawk?’
There was an awkward pause until Lala gave him yet another nudge. ‘Blimey, you need caffeine. The hawk! That’s the whole reason why we drove all this way.’
‘Yeah, yeah! That’s it. The hawk.’ Angus gave a foolish grin. ‘Forget the caffeine. Maybe one of these will sharpen me up.’ He reached for Mum’s tray and took two glasses, handing one to Lala.
‘I’m pregnant, remember?’ She replaced the glass, rolled her eyes and mouthed the word ‘hopeless’ before steering Angus away.
‘What a strange couple.’ Mum echoed my thoughts. ‘Fancy coming all this way, and in this awful weather too.’
It was hard to believe that anyone would have driven what had to be a distance of three hundred miles from North Yorkshire to Little Dipperton. Even though most of the snow had thawed, motorists had been advised not to travel unless strictly necessary because of the possibility of black ice on the roads.
Here in deepest Devon, ninety per cent of the country lanes never saw a speck of grit in the winter months, and the steep, narrow roads were notoriously treacherous and inaccessible to snowploughs. Luckily Little Dipperton had the services of Eric Pugsley, Mum’s neighbour, w. . .
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