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Authors: Vivian Conroy

A Proposal to Die For

BOOK: A Proposal to Die For
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A murderous beginning

With her father away in India, Lady Alkmene Callender finds being left to her own devices in London intolerably dull, until the glamorous Broadway star Evelyn Steinbeck arrives in town! Gossip abounds about the New York socialite, but when Ms Steinbeck's wealthy uncle, Silas Norwhich, is found dead Lady Alkmene finds her interest is piqued. Because this death sounds a lot to her like murder…

Desperate to uncover the truth, Lady Alkmene begins to look into Ms Steinbeck's past – only to be hampered by the arrival of journalist Jake Dubois – who believes she is merely an amateur lady-detective meddling in matters she knows nothing about!

But Lady Alkmene refuses to be deterred from the case and together they dig deeper, only to discover that some secrets should never come to light…

The twenties have never been so dangerous…

Available from Vivian Conroy

A Lady Alkmene Callender Mystery
series

A Proposal to Die For

Diamonds of Death

Deadly Treasures

A PROPOSAL TO DIE FOR

Vivian Conroy

www.CarinaUK.com

VIVIAN CONROY

discovered Agatha Christie at thirteen and quickly devoured all the Poirot and Miss Marple stories. Over time Lord Peter Wimsey and Brother Cadfael joined her favourite sleuths. Even more fun than reading was thinking up her own fog-filled alleys, missing heirs and priceless artefacts. So Vivian created feisty Lady Alkmene and enigmatic reporter Jake Dubois sleuthing in 1920s' London and the countryside, first appearing in
A Proposal to Die For
. For the latest on #LadyAlkmene, with a dash of dogs and chocolate, follow Vivian on Twitter via
@VivWrites

Thanks to all editors, agents and authors who share insights into the writing and publishing process.

A special thanks to my fantastic editor at Carina UK/HarperCollins Victoria Oundjian, for loving Lady Alkmene from the first chapter of
A Proposal to Die For
– read off Carina's
Will You Marry Me?
special call – and to the design team for the amazing cover that reflects the era so well.

Note

Writing mysteries set in the 1920s, I'm grateful for all online information – think dress, transportation, etiquette and much more – to ensure an authentic period feel. Still, Lady Alkmene's world remains fictional, including street addresses, establishments and even entire villages of my invention.

Contents

Cover

Blurb

Book List

Title Page

Author Bio

Acknowledgements

Note

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Excerpt

Endpages

Copyright

Chapter One

‘Marry me.'

The whispered words reached Lady Alkmene Callender's ears just as she was reaching for the gold lighter on the mantelpiece to relight the cigarette in her ivory holder.

Freddie used to be a dear and bring her Turkish ones, but since he had been disinherited by his father for his gambling debts, his opportunities to travel had been significantly reduced, as had Alkmene's stash of cigarettes. These ones, obtained from a tobacconist on Callenburg Square, had the taste of propriety about them that made them decidedly less appetizing than the exotic ones she had to hide from her housekeeper – who always complained the lace curtains got yellowish from the smoke.

‘Marry me,' the insistent voice repeated, and Alkmene's gaze wandered from the mirror over the mantelpiece to the table with drinks beside it.

Behind that table was a screen of Chinese silk, decorated with tiny figures tiptoeing over bridges between temples and blossoming cherry trees.

The voice seemed to emerge from behind the screen.

Another voice replied, in an almost callous tone, ‘You know I cannot. The old man would die of apoplexy.'

‘Not that he doesn't deserve it. If he died, you'd inherit his entire fortune and we could elope.'

‘Where to?'

‘Gretna Green, I suppose. Where else does one elope to?'

Alkmene decided on the spot that the male speaker had a lack of fantasy, which would make him unsuitable for her adventurous mind. If you did elope, you'd better do it the right way, boarding the Orient Express.

‘I mean,' the female said, in an impatient tone, ‘where would we live, how would we live? Off my fortune I suppose? I don't think the major would give me a dime.'

‘What has the major got to do with it? Once the old man is dead and we are married, the money is yours.'

There was a particular interest in money in this young man's approach that was disconcerting, Alkmene decided, but if the female on the other side of the Chinese silk didn't notice or care, it was none of her business.

‘Alkmene,
dushka
…'

Alkmene turned on her heel to find the countess of Veveine smiling up at her from under too much make-up. The tiny Russian princess, who had married down to be with the love of her life, wore a striking dark green gown with a waterfall of diamonds around her neck. Matching earrings almost hung to her shoulders, and a tiara graced her silver hair. ‘I had expected to see you at the theatre last week. Everybody who is somebody was there.'

‘I was…'
reading up on the fastest-working exotic poisons
‘…detained unfortunately. But I trust you had a pleasant night?'

‘The new baritone from Greece was a revelation.' The tiny woman winked. ‘You should meet him some time. Just the right height for you. Never marry a man who is shorter. You will always have to look down on him, and it is never wise to marry a man on whom one must look down.'

Alkmene returned her smile. ‘I will remember that.'

She heard a light scratch of wood and turned her head to see a young woman adjusting the Chinese screen. She wore a bright blue dress and matching diadem, her platinum blonde hair shining under the light of the chandelier.

She looked up and caught Alkmene's eye. ‘The thing always tips over to the side. Would crash the table and destroy all of those marvellous crystal glasses.'

She had a heavy American accent, but Alkmene recognized her voice anyway. It was the woman who had moments ago been discussing her marital prospects and a possible elopement with a man behind the screen. Her accent had been a lot less obvious then. But her reference to the major not giving her ‘a dime' did suggest she was American.

Intrigued, Alkmene came over and said, ‘Let me give you a hand with that. It is huge.'

She glanced behind the screen, but there was nothing to be seen. Nobody – hardly room enough for two persons to stand. If she wasn't perfectly sure she had heard the conspiring voices, she'd have deemed it impossible.

She pretended to test the screen's stability by grabbing the top and pulling at it. ‘It seems solid enough to me.'

The young lady smiled at her. ‘Why, thank you, much obliged. A drink perhaps?' She had already gestured to a waiter to bring them fresh glasses of champagne.

Outside a car horn honked, and someone lifted the curtain to look out and see who was arriving so late to the party. Alkmene didn't have to look to know. Self-made millionaire Buck Seaton liked to be noticed wherever he arrived. No doubt upon his entrance he'd be hollering about a terrible traffic jam in Piccadilly, to make sure he could spend the next hour talking about his new automobile. It would probably be American, like this young lady by her side.

As the blonde handed her a glass of bubbles, Alkmene said, ‘How do you like London? Have you been here long?'

‘Just a few weeks.' The blonde took a sip of her champagne, careful not to smudge her bright red lipstick. The colour might be cheap on another, but with her it underlined her stark classic beauty. As of a silver screen icon.

Alkmene said, ‘There is a wonderful exhibition right now in a renowned art gallery on Regent Street.'

‘I've already been there,' the blonde said with a weak smile. ‘My uncle is an admirer of art. Sculptures, paintings. He even said he might hire someone to have my portrait done. A bit old-fashioned if you ask me. I'd rather have him hire me a star photographer. In the time I'd have to sit still for a portrait he could have taken my picture a hundred times. And not in front of some dull old bookcase either, but balancing on the railing of London Bridge.'

At Alkmene's stunned expression the other woman burst into heartfelt laughter.

There was commotion at the door as Buck Seaton emerged, still wearing the preposterous goggles he always used when driving an open automobile. Pulling them off, he stretched his already impressive
height to look around the room and spotted the blonde. ‘Evelyn!' He waved the goggles in the air.

The blonde's face lit at once, and she took a hurried leave, readjusting her long gloves as she made her way over to the millionaire. He leaned over confidently, kissing her on the cheek and speaking to her in an urgent manner.

‘I saw her last week at the theatre,' the countess said in a pensive tone. ‘She was with a much older man.'

‘Must be the uncle she just mentioned to me,' Alkmene said. ‘The art lover. You did not know him?'

The countess shook her head. ‘He has never been introduced to me. I actually thought they must both have been new to London for I had never seen either of them before and I do see people everywhere, you know. It was very odd. They came when the performance had already begun and they left during the break.'

‘Maybe they just didn't like the singing,' Alkmene concluded.

The countess shook her head. ‘It was not the performance. I think there was an argument in their box. A young man arrived, and there was a heated discussion.'

Ah. The countess had been training her opera glasses on the other boxes instead of on the stage. Alkmene also found it difficult to concentrate on sung love triangles for long stretches, even if the baritone was a tall dark Greek. ‘This young man, can he have been her fiancé or something?' She was still curious about the man who had been with the blonde behind the Chinese screen just now.

Elopement rather suggested the relationship was illicit, but who knew, he might be a long-suffering fiancé who finally wanted to marry the girl and be done with it.

The countess's fine brows drew together in concentration. ‘I do not think so. The old man seemed very surprised to see him – and upset. I think almost…startled. Like he had seen a man returned from the dead.'

Alkmene hitched a brow. ‘Returned from the dead? You mean, like he didn't want to meet him?'

‘No, literally.' The countess waved a breakable hand covered with a thin web of green veins. ‘Like he had seen someone whom he believed to be dead and all of a sudden he was there, in his life again. Making demands on him.'

Alkmene pursed her lips. ‘That sounds rather intriguing. I wish I had been there, and could have seen them for myself.' Their gestures during the argument, or just the clothes of the unexpected arrival, could have told her so much. Leaning over eagerly, she asked, ‘This man returned from the dead, was he a gentleman, well dressed, in place there, or rather different? A foreigner perhaps?'

‘He was young, tall, broad in the shoulders. Well dressed, but not rich, if you know what I mean. Not like all of those sons of earls and dukes, running about.'

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