Murder at the Ice Ball – Leighann Dobbs

“YOU COULD HAVE worn something a touch more appealing,” whispered Prudence Burwick, Lady Katherine Irvine’s dear friend and confidante. Katherine most certainly could not have worn something more appealing. After her stay in the holiday town of Bath a couple months ago, the Marquess of Bath’s elderly grandmother had for some unfathomable reason fixated upon her as the marquess’s future bride. Katherine would sooner marry her pug than she would marry Lord Bath. Not because he was so very much older than her—her father and stepmother were of a similar age gap and blissfully happy—but because Katherine Irvine did not wish to marry. Anyone. No, her aspirations resided not in happily wedded bliss but in following in her father’s footsteps and becoming a detective of some renown. After the fiasco in Bath, she felt the need to redeem herself acutely. Yes, the Burglar of Bath had been uncovered in the end, but she cringed every time she had to admit she’d had her hand in the cessation of the thefts. Fortunately, the investigative arts were not seen as appropriate to her gender, so the majority of her acquaintances had no notion of her pursuit of criminals. For once, she was glad of that fact. Pru, a woman every bit as tall as Katherine, with a solid frame and a sharp cast to her nose and chin when she frowned, gave Katherine an assessing look as she toyed with a lock of her brown hair. “Pink might bring out your complexion.” “I don’t need to bring out my complexion.” “Green makes you look sallow.

Honestly, you should burn that dress.” All the better, for as long as Grandma Bath was in London and her grandson unwed, Katherine intended to look as unappealing as possible. “Perhaps if I added a few flowershaped buttons to the bodice,” she quipped. Pru grimaced. Pru’s mother had gone wild for the ugliest floral buttons in existence and was even trying to convince Pru to add some to her wedding dress as decoration. For all that Pru’s groom, the Marquess of Annandale, had seen these notorious buttons and opted to propose anyway, Pru bristled every time her mother’s fashion tastes were mentioned. Katherine pointedly raised her eyebrow at her friend. “Or perhaps we ought to try to enjoy the festivities without worrying about how we look. It isn’t every day someone holds an ice ball.” Tucking her hair behind her ear, Pru narrowed her eyes slyly.

“Are you not concerned with your appearance because a certain someone is not in attendance?” Snapping her eyes from surveilling the gathering, Katherine glanced at Pru. Did she know something Katherine didn’t? Feigning a smile, she quipped, “You mean Lord Annandale? I assure you, I haven’t set my cap for him.” Pru raised her eyebrows. “Neither he nor I are concerned that you have. You know of whom I speak.” Captain Dorian Wayland. Katherine fought the urge to search the gathering again. She hadn’t seen him since their escapade in Bath, and she didn’t look forward to seeing him tonight. In fact, it was best if they crossed paths only in the Royal Society for Investigative Techniques. Even then, their contact ought to be minimal.

Even if Katherine wanted to extend their association, which she didn’t, her father would never approve. The Earl of Dorchester hated Wayland to such an extent that Katherine had once loathed the very sight of him as well. However, after the help he’d provided on the last two cases she’d investigated, she’d had to admit her father’s explanation seemed a bit thin. From what she had observed of Wayland, he had an even stricter moral guideline than she when it came to investigating suspects. What could he possibly have done to make her father think otherwise? Desperate to change the subject, Katherine said, “Yes, where is Lord Bath?” Pru made a face but no longer nettled her friend about Wayland’s absence, at the very least. “I believe I saw him near the doors to the garden.” “What would possess him to stand there?” Lady Dalhousie, whom Katherine knew to have a penchant for exaggeration and dramatics, had turned the ballroom of her London manor into an ice fortress. The fact that her servants had been unable to wedge the glass garden doors open any farther than a hand span hadn’t deterred her in the least. Now, a ghastly ice swan perched in front of the doors, so thin that ice had encroached on the inside and sealed them to the floor. The door had been propped open so the ice didn’t melt from the heat of the hearth on the far side of the room, where Katherine stood.

Anyone who opted to stand near the swan risked frostbite. Despite the fact that access to the garden had been detoured down the narrow servants’ corridor that ran the length of the manor to an innocuous exit, Lady Dalhousie’s extravagance had continued into the garden. The early, bitter winter hadn’t deterred her one bit. She’d sensationalized the cold by commissioning ice sculptures in various shapes, not only that of feathered pests. A footman stood post by the exit to the garden, ready to offer cloaks and muffs to anyone who wished to tour the exhibit. Katherine was not among that number. Indoors, Lady Dalhousie had strewn strings of cheap crystals to reflect the light of the chandelier. They were reminiscent of icicles, very like the prized diamond-andaquamarine necklace the hostess wore constantly. The result was a room that sparkled like the falling snow in the gaslight of the streetlamps on Pall Mall Street. Pru shrugged.

“How should I know Lord Bath’s inclinations? Isn’t that your task?” When Lord Bath and his grandmother had come to London once more, Katherine’s father had invited them both to dinner. Frankly, Katherine had been astonished to find Grandma Bath in London given how difficult she must find traveling at her advanced age. As it turned out, she had accompanied her grandson to London because she had an agenda—to marry him off. In order to keep herself off the top of the list of marriageable candidates, Katherine had agreed at once to become his matchmaker even though that did not seem to deter Grandma Bath from trying to persuade her to marry Lord Bath. The bigger problem was that Grandma Bath did not want him to know she was trying to find him a match. And trying to discover what sort of woman would suit Lord Bath without his guessing at the aim of her questions had been a puzzle in itself. A frustrating puzzle. If the marquess was to be believed, he hadn’t the faintest idea of what sort of woman attracted him. I’ll know the right woman when I see her was not a helpful answer. Neither was suggesting that Katherine’s curiosity would be better applied to finding herself a husband.

At least he, unlike his grandmother, didn’t consider her a candidate. Katherine would accept her small blessings where they came. “I don’t see him.” The only men near the swan were a pair of young bucks who appeared thoroughly soused. One gestured to the swan as if flirting with it while the second pressed his hand to his mouth to stifle his laughter. Slyly, Pru asked, “Lord Bath or Captain Wayland?” Katherine glared at her friend. “Lord Bath.” “So you say.” Pru lengthened her words. “But I never saw you so concerned with his whereabouts while in Bath.

” “I wasn’t attempting to find him a match in Bath, now was I? That honor was reserved for a different woman.” Katherine raised her eyebrows, rewarded by Pru’s blush. “Why are you so concerned all of a sudden?” The question chased the color from Pru’s cheeks. She looked down, playing with a lock of her hair once more. “You haven’t seemed the least bit troubled since we returned from Bath.” Katherine stiffened. “Should I be?” They’d found the Burglar of Bath, and the thefts would stop, so what was there to be troubled about? With a shrug, Pru pretended to pay more mind to the mingling crowd and enthusiastic dancers. “I have to wonder why you don’t seem to find London so dreadfully dull. In Bath, we had excitement every night. Since coming home, the only thrilling thing that’s happened has been the early return of our peers to town.

And not even all of them.” She lowered her eyes, her eyelashes tickling her cheeks. “You miss Annandale.” “Not only!” Pru exclaimed, raising her head as she colored up again. She was in love. Katherine had seen it blossom in Bath, and to be honest, she encouraged it. She was a matchmaker, if a reluctant one at times, since she primarily used the role to veil her investigations so she didn’t raise suspicions by asking questions. She had no objections to falling in love—for other people. Katherine had a name to make for herself yet, and she had no intention of hiding in a man’s shadow, her husband’s or her father’s. Pru added, “The investigation in Bath was rather heady as well.

It’s dull having nothing to do.” Pru was right, but Katherine had occupied herself by searching for a reasonably priced townhouse in a respectable neighborhood so she could slip away from the other sickeningly in love couple in her life: her parents. Papa and Susanna, her stepmother, were again trying to produce an heir, cooing and sneaking kisses in every corner. As heartwarming as it was to see them happy, Katherine also found it nauseating. “If you enjoy investigating so well, why don’t you come with me and Lyle to the next Society meeting?” Lyle Murphy, Katherine’s closest friend, worked on Bow Street as one of Sir John’s Men. He hated the term Bow Street Runner, even if it was accurate. He was forever chasing criminals throughout the streets of London and producing inventions and establishing never-before-used forensic techniques to help the search at the same time. They had met when she’d accompanied her father to a monthly meeting of the Royal Society for Investigative Techniques. “Can I?” Pru brightened for a moment before she dimmed. “But I don’t have the blunt for a membership.

Mama would never approve the expense.” “I’ll sponsor you this time, and we’ll start on the application. The paperwork takes ages to finalize. By then, you’ll be Lady Annandale, and I’m certain you’ll have the funds for the annual membership.” She winked, coaxing a coy smile from Pru. “Very well, but if I’m to accompany you to the meeting, then you must accompany me to the dressmaker.” “That hardly seems like a fair exchange.” “I need you,” Pru insisted, her voice carrying above the swell of music. “You just finished mocking my attire.” “I don’t need your fashion advice.

” Katherine stifled a sigh. She didn’t have bad taste in fashion. She dressed unappealingly on purpose to avoid the gaze of any men who thought her an interesting target. Since her sisters had married off, the tactic had worked swimmingly. Pru caught Katherine’s hand and gave it a squeeze. “I need your companionship.” How could Katherine say no to that? “And to keep my mother from choosing the style of my wedding gown.” Katherine laughed. “There’s the true reason.” “Please,” Pru begged, her eyes wide.

Her hand tightened almost painfully on Katherine’s. The main reason Katherine had convinced Pru to keep her company while she accompanied Lord Bath and his grandmother to the ice ball was so that Pru could escape her mother’s clutches. Despite the fact that Pru and Annandale had agreed to a long engagement, if Mrs. Burwick had her way, her daughter would be married by Christmas in a wedding to rival the Prince Regent’s. “Very well, I’ll go.” After another quick squeeze, Pru released Katherine’s hand. “Thank you.” Katherine nodded in acknowledgment and changed the subject. “Now, will you help me search for Lord Bath? I can’t find him a match if he doesn’t socialize with anyone.” “I know I saw him by the doors.

” “Well, he isn’t there now.” “Perhaps he went out to view the sculptures?” If Grandma Bath had wanted to go outdoors to view the sculptures, Katherine had no doubt that Lord Bath would have been hovering at her elbow. He doted on his grandmother, one of his many admirable qualities. He had a good heart and did things for the right reasons, even if he could be a bit misguided at times. “I am not going outside,” Katherine answered. “Even Emma has a difficult time convincing me, and you know how the little pug has a tiny bladder.” “Very well. We’ll stay in here and weather Mrs. Fairchild’s glare for the rest of the evening.” Katherine stifled a groan and the urge to search the grounds.

She didn’t want her rival matchmaker to find any reason to come over and nettle her. That vicious woman had accused Katherine twice of crimes she hadn’t committed. In public! Katherine wished her matchmaking clients a lifetime of happiness, whereas Mrs. Fairchild only saw status and didn’t understand the power of the heart. After skillfully arranging for Mrs. Fairchild to make the better match in Bath, at least in terms of status, Katherine had hoped to appease the cantankerous woman. Unfortunately, she must have fallen short of the mark. To Pru, Katherine said, “Perhaps we’ll just peek out the garden doors and see if we glimpse anyone of import.” Pru only smiled, which made Katherine wonder if she’d seen Mrs. Fairchild at all.

Nevertheless, if Lord Bath was idling in the garden, it would behoove her to make some effort to find him. As they reached the intoxicated young men, Katherine quipped, “I’m afraid you’ll have to do better than that, friend. She’s a notorious ice queen.” “Oh?” The one with the blond hair falling into his eyes seemed thoroughly foxed, so much so that he appeared to have trouble deciphering Katherine’s words. His companion, on the other hand, didn’t seem nearly so far into his cups. Tall, lean, and dressed like a dandy, the man smiled. “And do you have firsthand knowledge, Miss…” “Lady,” Katherine corrected, her voice crisp. “Katherine.” “Lord,” he answered, raising an eyebrow in challenge. “Lord Conyers.

A pleasure to make your acquaintance.” Katherine stifled a sigh. “We’ve met.” The number of lords and ladies was a small one. At one point or another, Katherine had met them all. Though Lord Conyers didn’t warrant remembering. The last time she’d encountered him, he’d been intoxicated. It appeared to be a pattern. She’d pegged him as a rake and a hedonist, and it seemed that time hadn’t changed him much. His smile grew, though it didn’t warm his gaze at all.

“Ah, yes. Dorchester’s daughter, aren’t you? You have more fire than your sisters.” “And you have a better chance with the swan. If you’ll excuse me, gentlemen.” Katherine used her wide hips to her advantage to shove the statue between herself and the men before she turned to the glass door, which stood slightly ajar. “Help me push,” she said with a grunt. “The heat in here must have loosened the ice by now.” They managed to widen the door enough to peer out. Katherine shivered from the chill. “Do you see him?” “I don’t see any—” A scream and a horrendous crunch ended Pru’s answer as she yelped.

Katherine moved close enough to peer over her shoulder. Her blood turned as icy as the outdoor air. In the snow just beyond the shadow of the balcony was the body of a woman, facedown and unmoving. It looked as though Pru had gotten an evening of excitement and investigation after all. H CHAPTER TWO er heart in her throat, Katherine wedged her hip into the gap between the glass doors, throwing her weight into the movement. The doors grated against the packed snow and ice on the ground as they opened farther. Katherine stumbled, slipping on the slick winter coating as she approached the body. She stopped out of arm’s reach. “Oh my word,” Pru gasped. “Is she…” “Out of the way!” An unfamiliar woman’s harsh words were loud in the sudden hush of the room behind them.

Katherine could all but hear the guests crane their necks to see the commotion. The slight woman, who was of neat appearance and had hair that appeared at once dark and golden in the mix of shadow and light sifting from the ballroom, elbowed between Katherine and Pru. Fear crossed her face for a moment, her eyes widening as she beheld the woman’s dead body. She glanced upward. “She must have slipped on the balcony.” Katherine followed her gaze. A balcony hung ominously above them. If it was covered with snow and ice, it could be very slippery, but… A gasp rent the air behind Katherine, and she turned to see another woman had joined them in the outdoor air. It was Lady Dalhousie, the hostess of the ice ball and the most notorious gossip that Katherine knew. If ever there was someone who would exaggerate an accident into a malicious tragedy, it was her.

“Oh my.” The back of Lady Dalhousie’s hand flew to her forehead dramatically, and Katherine waited for her to start wailing. The stranger remained undaunted in the face of the old woman’s dramatics. She turned, her eyes hard in an expression schooled into indifference. “She must have slipped,” she said, stressing the word. “What a dreadful accident.” She tapped Katherine on the arm as she passed. Seemingly calm in the face of calamity, she said, “Hurry. She might have survived the fall. We must help her.

” Of course. Katherine had to stop seeing murder around every corner. There were more innocent explanations, especially during such a frigid winter. But why would someone seek refuge on an upstairs balcony to begin with? Aside from the danger, it was abominably cold. The balcony, unlike the garden, didn’t hold the lure of viewing the magnificent ice sculptures, either. The woman in the snow lay still, facedown, with her blond hair spilling in an ominous halo from the coiffure on the back of her head. Where the strands ended, tendrils and splatters of sickly bright-red blood radiated. She’s dead. She must be. Her legs were splayed at odd angles, along with her arms to either side as if she’d tried to stop her fall.

The stranger knelt next to the victim’s far side. Despite the cold, she removed her gloves and stuffed them into the reticule hanging from her wrist, which she set out of the way behind her in the snow. Katherine followed her lead and knelt on the victim’s near side, close to her shoulder but far from the blood drenching the snow. The cold permeated her thin gown, and her knees felt the chill. Head wounds bled profusely; that didn’t mean that the woman was dead. Jolted to the present, Katherine tried to dredge up what meager knowledge she held of medicine and anatomy. “Should we turn her over to assess her wounds?” Frowning, the stranger answered, “There is a frightening amount of blood. We might do more harm than good if we tried. We should check her pulse and breathing first.” Katherine was astonished by how calm and authoritative this young woman acted.

“Are you a physician?” She looked much too young, not to mention an unusual gender for the role—although Katherine, as a female detective, knew how unnecessarily restrictive gender roles could be. “Me?” Surprised, the woman brushed an errant strand of hair out of her eyes. On the whole, she was a bit forgettable. Not pretty or plain enough to be remarked upon, hair not brown or gold but somewhere in between, wearing a long-sleeved dress similar to Katherine’s in cut and color. She was the sort of person apt to be overlooked but for her brazen attitude in a moment of chaos. “No, though my father is a physician. I’m Elizabeth. Elizabeth Verne.” “Katherine Irvine.” Given that the woman had dispensed with formality to offer her given name, Katherine saw no need to announce her title.

She’d rather be judged by her actions than by her pedigree. Nodding once in affirmation, the woman reached to press her fingers to the victim’s wrist. Katherine noticed the victim wore no gloves. Odd… if she’d planned to be out on the balcony, wouldn’t she have brought her gloves? And another thing—one of her fingers was scraped, a smidgen of fresh blood on the knuckle. Had that happened on impact or during a struggle? “I can’t feel a pulse,” Elizabeth announced. She looked grim but no closer to hysterics than when she’d urged Katherine to help. “Can you?” Katherine, impressed by Elizabeth’s pragmatism and her unflappable demeanor, sought to follow her lead, but the victim had landed on her other arm. Instead, she held her finger to the woman’s neck. Still warm, but for how long? “I can’t find a pulse. She doesn’t look to be breathing, either.

” Gingerly, Katherine inserted her fingers beneath the woman’s chin and tilted her head to see her face. Her expression was slack with death, her eyes wide. The front of her head was concave from the impact. She pulled her hand away with alacrity. Her stomach threatened to overturn itself. She breathed in shallowly through her nose, trying to ignore the coppery scent of blood mixing with the crisp air. Her hands shook as she fished a handkerchief out of her bodice and wiped away any residue that might have lingered. “She’s dead.” Of that, Katherine held no doubt. “Dead,” Lady Dalhousie wailed.

Elizabeth launched to her feet immediately, her expression set as though she meant to take the hostess in hand next. She would have made an admirable schoolteacher, undaunted by any calamity or dramatics. More people spilled out of the ballroom, among them Grandma Bath. She wore only a thin dress, like everyone else gathered, and looked as pale as the snow. Where was her grandson? Usually, when she was out, no one could pry him away. He was constantly assuring himself of her good health. At the moment, the elderly woman looked ready to faint dead away. “God help her… Lady Rochford!” The name Rochford rippled through the crowd. Could it be? Katherine’s ears rang as she stared at the back of the corpse’s head, the memory of the front altogether too prominent. Lady Rochford was a dear friend of Katherine’s stepmother.

“Katherine. Katherine!” She returned to the present, to the bone-deep chill numbing her cheeks, nose, ears, and fingertips. Pru jostled her again. “Are you all right? You look as though you might swoon.” Katherine drew herself up, trying to hide the way her knees trembled. “I will not swoon.” “Did you know her? Lady Rochford.” After a moment’s hesitation, Katherine murmured, “I didn’t. Not well. Susanna… She was a friend of my stepmother’s.

” “Celia?” A man’s voice cracked on the name. “No, it can’t be. Celia!” The gray-haired man shoved aside the women in his path, Katherine included, as he fell to his knees next to the deceased. She recognized Baron Rochford the moment she saw him. Nearing sixty, he seemed to age by twenty years the moment he beheld his wife. He reached for her hand, wailing over it, before he extended his arm toward her face. “No!” Katherine pulled herself away from Pru, catching hold of him before he turned the woman over. She squeezed between him and his wife, forcing him to look at her. “You don’t want to see. I’m sorry.

” She’d never seen a man fall to pieces so completely in front of her eyes. For a moment, it seemed to her as though he might simply fade away. Grandma Bath took him in hand, urging him away from his wife’s body and encouraging him to return inside. Elizabeth, having calmed Lady Dalhousie well enough that she wouldn’t devolve into hysterics, even if she didn’t seem capable of marshaling her common sense and ending the evening’s festivities, accompanied the grieving man. Katherine stared after them, half wondering if she should go as well. When a wife was murdered, the culprit was almost always her husband. Could Lord Rochford have done this? He seemed unraveled in his grief. So much so that even if Katherine attempted to question him, she doubted she would receive a coherent answer. It might be remorse. Perhaps he pushed his wife in a heated moment and… Then again, she wasn’t sure the woman had been murdered.

She could have simply slipped. Katherine shouldn’t let her investigative inclinations carry her away. But what was she doing out on the balcony in the first place? And the railing was waist high, so how could she have fallen over? Stepping up next to her, Pru seemed to read her thoughts. She craned her neck back to look at the balcony overhead. “Do you think she fell or was pushed?” Katherine let out a long breath, one that fogged in front of her face in a stream. “That is something we need to discover.” She strode briskly toward the glass doors, which were still ajar, her slippers crunching in the snow. When she reached it, she turned to see Pru looking at her, confused. “Whatever are you doing?” Pru asked. “I’m measuring Lady Rochford’s position from the house.

For Lyle.” Katherine carefully lifted her foot again and placed it heel to toe in front of the last, counting in her head. “He was working on a mathematical technique to ascertain the odds of whether someone was pushed, jumped, or fell from a certain height based on how far they are from the edge of the place they fell from. I don’t know if he’s used the formula in an investigation yet, but we might need it.” She walked four steps before the colder shadow of the balcony washed over her. Could that be right? She glanced back, but she hadn’t miscalculated. She continued on until she reached the doors, just in case Lyle needed that number as well. “I have a letter you can use to write down the figures if you have a pencil.” Katherine paused and glanced up. “A letter?” Pru colored up.

“From Annandale. I was reading it as you pulled up in the carriage.” “I have a pencil in my reticule. Give me a moment.” By the time Katherine reached the wall, ten more steps away, Pru had fished out the letter. Katherine scribbled down the numbers in the margin, but unfortunately the letter was written on both sides of the page. Although she tried her best to lightly sketch the position of the body in case it was needed, she doubted she did the best rendition, as she tried to leave the words largely untouched. When she finished, she offered the letter back to Pru. “Keep this safe until I’m able to copy it onto a clean page.” Still blushing, Pru nodded and tucked the letter out of sight.

“Shall we hurry to the balcony? There’s no telling when someone will have the presence of mind to send everyone home.” Katherine nodded. Fearing that there was still a footman stationed on the other door to the garden, she and Pru entered by means of the glass doors. The majority of the guests were clustered around the hostess, who seemed to be recounting something. Could she have regained her senses so soon? She did love to be the center of attention. Katherine urged Pru down the nearest corridor. Although the manor was unfamiliar to them, it was painfully easy to find the balcony over the ballroom. The nearest staircase led to the third floor, and the first door on the right opened into a small sitting room facing more glass doors. These were ajar, gaining Katherine and Pru entrance to the balcony. “There’s nothing here,” Pru announced.

She sounded disappointed. Indeed, there was nothing on the balcony. No clue that might point to who had pushed Lady Rochford. But there was also no ice or snow. It must have been cleared in preparation for the party. Katherine strode to the railing. It was sturdy, nothing broken. Given the height and the fact there was no ice present, Katherine had no doubt. “You’re right, Pru. There’s no reason why Lady Rochford might have slipped.

It looks as though we’ll have a murder to investigate after all.”

.

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