Mistletoe and Mayhem
Pennyfoot Hotel Special Series: Book 2
Mistletoe and Mayem
Copyright © 2010 by Doreen Roberts Hight.
All rights reserved
The Berkley Publishing Group
Published by the Penguin Group
Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
375 Hudson Street, New York, NY 10014, USA
Penguin Books Ltd., Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0R1, England
First Edition: November 2010
This book is an original publication of The Berkley Publishing Group
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental
To Bill, for being the love of my life.
I have been so fortunate with my editors, all of whom have been supportive, understanding, and encouraging. My new editor, Faith Black, is no exception. Thank you for making the transition so smooth and enjoyable, and for so quickly accommodating the inhabitants of Badgers End. They appreciate it as much as I do.
Grateful thanks to my agent, Paige Wheeler, for all your support and understanding in a difficult year. Your efforts on my behalf are so greatly appreciated.
Again I’m blessed with yet another incredible cover from Judith Murello and her talented team in the art department. I’ve loved each and every one of my covers, and I can’t thank you enough for all your hard work.
Thanks to my lifelong friend, Ann Wraight, who keeps me in touch with my homeland and helps me keep my facts straight.
My deepest thanks to all my wonderful fans. Your e-mails mean so much, and I hope you all know how very much I enjoy them. By the time you read this, another year will have passed. None of us know what the future holds, and this year promises to be an even more uncertain one for me. I hope this isn’t the last of the Pennyfoot books, but just in case it is, I want to tell you all that writing for you has been one of the greatest joys of my life. Thank you for letting me know how much you have enjoyed the lives of the staff and guests at the Pennyfoot Hotel.
Lastly, as always, my thanks to my dear husband, Bill. I could not have done any of it without you.CHAPTER 1
The chill wind from the ocean had brought gray skies and the threat of rain earlier that morning. In fact, the Pennyfoot’s chief housemaid thought she smelled snow in the salty air as she stepped out into the kitchen yard.
Above Gertie McBride’s head, seagulls circled in search of food, their shrill cries echoing across the smoking chimneys. It wasn’t the hungry gulls that caught her attention, however. It was the sound of raised voices, one shrill, the other harsh and grating.
Gertie recognized them both. The high-pitched voice belonged to the new maid, Ellie. Gertie didn’t like Ellie. She was the sort that acted sweet and innocent in front of Mrs. Chubb, but behind her back was as saucy as a concubine.
Gertie, on the other hand, believed in saying what she thought, no matter who could hear her. All that putting on airs and graces was nothing better than lying, and Gertie couldn’t stand a liar.
The other voice, even harsher now, Gertie knew belonged to the coal man, Stan Whittle. She’d recognize his Scottish accent anywhere. She’d been married to a Scot, and knew what one sounded like. From the sound of it, Stan was really angry with Ellie, for some reason.
The maid, however, seemed more than capable of holding her own. Her voice rising, she shouted words that made even Gertie blush. Deciding that the last thing she wanted to do was get in the middle of an argument, Gertie determined that the wine cellar could wait. They wouldn’t need the sherry for another two hours. She’d come back later.
Leaving the two voices to their battle, she turned around and went back inside the kitchen.
No one would ever guess, when first glimpsing the red roofs of the Pennyfoot Country Club, that the sparkling white walls hid a dark and menacing secret. Indeed, upon first sight, the tastefully decorated foyer offered a warm welcome to all who ventured inside.
Met with bright crimson ribbons, boughs of holly, and wreaths of lush green fir adorning the staircase, not to mention the graceful Christmas tree glowing with white lace angels and silver balls, one was immediately engulfed in the best of the Edwardian Christmas spirit.
A tantalizing aroma of spicy boiled Christmas puddings, tangy mince pies, and roasting chestnuts lured the visitor even deeper into the hallways, where anxious staff members, eager to please, extended a guiding hand.
Since long before the turn of the century, the Christmas season at the Pennyfoot had offered its visitors an enjoyable week or so of appetizing food, warm hospitality, and exciting entertainment.
Perhaps too much excitement for some, as a few previous guests might have attested. For all who entered the Pennyfoot’s walls in December did so at the risk of falling prey to the infamous Christmas curse.
Not that such misfortunes were ever advertised, of course. In fact, everyone employed at the club looked forward to the Christmas season with the firm belief that this year would prove to be the exception.
Cecily Sinclair Baxter was especially determined that no misfortune should mar the festivities, regardless of the Christmas curse. Having once owned the Pennyfoot when it was a hotel, she had sold it to her cousin who had then turned it into the country club.
Cecily had taken over the management and now it was her job to see that each and every guest enjoyed a pleasant and rewarding visit and returned home with many happy memories that would last a lifetime.
She would allow no forbidding thoughts to surface, in the hopes that an optimistic outlook would bring positive results. Nevertheless, her resolve was somewhat shaken when her husband arrived home that evening from his office in London with an ominous declaration.
“He has struck again,” Baxter announced, throwing his homburg onto the bed in the boudoir.
Seated at her dressing table, Cecily stared at his image in the mirror. “Who has struck what, darling?”
“Not what. Whom.” Baxter pulled off his cravat and ran a finger around his starched collar. “Another young girl, brutally slain. It’s disgusting. You’d think Scotland Yard could have caught the scoundrel by now.”
Cecily felt a shiver of fear. “Oh, dear. You’re talking about London’s latest serial killer.”
“I am, indeed.” Baxter sank heavily onto the bed. “He’s got most of the city terrified out of their wits.”
“Are they so sure it’s a serial killer? Couldn’t it just be more than one murderer?”
“Unlikely. The victims are all young women and all similar in appearance. The trademark of a serial killer. Not only that, with each victim the murderer has left a memento behind.”
“Yes. You know, the sort of badge that distinguishes him as the perpetrator of the crime.”
Cecily shuddered. “As if he’s proud of his gruesome handiwork.”
“He usually is,” Baxter muttered darkly.
“So what kind of memento is he leaving?”
“No one knows. Scotland Yard refuses to disclose a description. They call him the Mayfair Murderer. Apparently all the bodies have been found on or close by Savile Row.”
“Good heavens.” She sat up. “That is a very nice part of town. Whatever is the city coming to, harboring a murderer in such a respectable area?”
“Which makes one wonder what it was about that place the killer hated so much.” The clip-clop of horses’ hooves and the rumble of carriage wheels outside caught his attention. He rose and walked over to the window. “Looks as if some more guests are arriving.”
“Most of them are here now.” Cecily leaned forward and dabbed at her nose with her powder puff. “The honeymoon couple arrived first. Geoffrey and Caroline Danville. They are such a precious couple and so obviously in love. The very first thing they did was kiss under the kissing bough. Just so adorable.”
Baxter raised his eyebrows. “Kissing bough?”
“Yes, dear. That big round ball of greenery hanging in the foyer. Surely you must have seen it? It’s enormous!”
Baxter merely grunted. “Another of Madeline’s works of art, I presume.”
“You presume right, dear.” Cecily decided to ignore the hint of derision in her husband’s tone. Madeline Pengrath Prestwick was one of Cecily’s best friends.
Tall and slim, Madeline resembled a woodland nymph rather than a doctor’s wife. Her frocks were of the finest linen, but flowed to her bare feet without any of the confining tucks and seams that fashion demanded. With great disregard to protocol, she often left her black hair unbound, allowing it to fall to her waist. It pained Cecily that not one hint of gray appeared in the gleaming locks. In fact, Madeline had not seemed to age at all in the years Cecily had known her.
That her perpetual youth was due to her mysterious powers with herbs and wild flowers was never in question, and Cecily had often been tempted to ask for a bottle of whatever magical potion kept her friend looking twenty years younger than her age.
Only pride had kept her tongue still. Pride and the knowledge that if Baxter were to ever find out, she would never hear the last of it. Madeline was considered a witch and feared by many of the inhabitants of Badgers End. Baxter shared in that belief. He tolerated the woman solely because she was a beloved friend of his wife’s.
Cecily leaned forward and studied her face in the mirror. No matter how much cold cream she smeared on her skin at night, the little lines at the sides of her eyes seemed to grow deeper every day. Just a few short years now until her fiftieth birthday, and the closer she got, the less she liked it.
She glanced at her husband’s image again. Baxter looked no older than the day she’d met him. Drat the man. Why was it that men appeared better looking with age, while women just became old and decrepit?
“Isn’t that in questionable taste?”
Having forgotten the point of their discussion, Cecily blinked. “I beg your pardon?”
“The kissing ball thing. Do you really want people to put on a public exhibition in the foyer? Don’t you think that might give the Pennyfoot a somewhat unsavory image?”
Cecily swung around on her stool. “Bax! How terribly unromantic of you! The kissing bough has been an English Christmas tradition for hundreds of years. Besides, we’ve always had a sprig of mistletoe hanging in the foyer. You’ve never found that unsavory.”
Baxter shrugged. “Maybe because it wasn’t quite so obvious as a monstrous ball of the stuff. I have visions of our guests fighting to slobber all over each other in full view of the front door. I can’t imagine that would enhance our reputation.”
“In case you haven’t noticed, the Pennyfoot’s reputation has never been exactly pristine. It’s common knowledge that the aristocracy use our facilities for illicit relationships, and may I remind you that it’s only recently that we have had a license to conduct card games. Until then, if you remember, we were forced to keep our illegal card rooms underground. I hardly think a kissing bough compares to any of that.”
He must have heard the resentment in her voice, as he moved over to her and laid a warm hand on her shoulder. “Forgive me, my dear. I’m being overly critical.”
“Yes, you are.” She peered up at him. “Are you, perhaps, not well?”
Shaking his head, Baxter walked over to the wardrobe and opened it. “I am disturbed, that is all. I happened to see a picture this morning of the Mayfair Murderer’s latest unfortunate victim.”
Cecily was surprised to see her husband visibly shudder. Baxter was usually complacent in the face of adversity, and it troubled her to see him so upset. “That must have been quite horrifying.”
“It was.” Pulling a black dress coat from the wardrobe, Baxter muttered, “Diabolical. I hope they catch the wretch before he butchers someone else.”
Cecily ignored her little flutter of apprehension. “Well, thank goodness we are far from the city. We have no such worries here.”