Murder at the Mayfair Hotel – C. J. Archer

Moving into a luxury hotel in the world’s most dynamic city was just the tonic I needed. If I had to live with relatives I hardly knew, what better place than The Mayfair Hotel? From the look of its magnificent façade, I wouldn’t have to worry about bumping into them at every turn. I planted a hand on my hat and tipped my head back to take it all in. Like most old mansions, it was both elegant and imposing; a grand dame that inspired admiration and awe in equal measure. The top of the fifth level appeared to butt against the dense gray clouds, and I counted seven arches spanning the width of the ground floor. I headed for the central arch, sheltered by a burgundy canopy printed with the hotel’s emblem of an M inside a circle. I recognized it from the stationery my aunt used for her infrequent letters. “Miss,” said one of the two doormen. “Miss, can you hear me?” “I’m sorry, were you speaking to me?” I asked. The doorman regarded me down his nose. “Are you sure you’re at the right place?” “Is this The Mayfair Hotel?” “It is.” “Then I am at the right place.” I frowned. “Why would you think I’m not?” His gaze held mine a moment longer than necessary. He was assessing me, no doubt trying to determine how a young woman alone could afford to stay in a luxury hotel when she wore a black cloak with frayed cuffs and a hat that was at least two seasons out of fashion.

I did not look away. “Would you like to put down your luggage? I’ll have it sent to your room with your trunk.” The doorman gave a pointed look at my battered brown leather bag, his mouth turned down in distaste. The bag had belonged to my grandfather. Thinking about him brought tears to my eyes, but I breathed through my sorrow until they disappeared. He may have died three years ago, but I’d thought about him a lot this last month. “Miss?” The word came out as an irritated hiss. I clutched the bag tighter. “Thank you, but I’ll keep it with me.” The doorman signaled to an extraordinarily tall porter dressed in a smart red jacket and a rimless hat.

The porter picked up my trunk and hat box and placed them on a trolley. Another doorman opened the door for him to push it through. I adjusted my grip on my bag and hurried after the porter. I stopped in the foyer, suddenly out of breath, not from the exertion of a few steps, but from the spectacular sight. I didn’t know where to look first; there was so much to take in, and the space was vast. A Christmas tree festooned with glass baubles, garlands and candles stood proudly in the center of the tiled floor. It reached an impressive height but still fell short of the crystal chandelier suspended above it. Three chandeliers hung in the wide foyer, all ablaze with what appeared to be electric bulbs. The bright light staved off the mid-afternoon gloom and reflected on the shiny tiled floor. Several armchairs in burgundy leather were positioned here and there.

Two of them were occupied by elegantly dressed ladies chatting amiably to one another. Roses arranged in large black vases trimmed with gold added a splash of pink to the foyer’s cream, black and burgundy color scheme. Considering roses were not in season, the displays were even more impressive. The tall porter cleared his throat. He stood with my luggage at a counter behind which another man stood, smiling patiently. “Would miss like to check in?” he asked. I approached the counter. “Yes. Or no. I’m not quite sure.

” “Perhaps I can assist you to make up your mind. The Mayfair Hotel is a boutique family-owned establishment of one hundred well-appointed rooms. We pride ourselves on our friendly service, family values, and modern amenities.” The porter’s head turned to the front desk clerk and an eyebrow arched ever so slightly. The clerk kept his gaze on me and his smile didn’t waver, but I suspected he knew the porter silently challenged his spiel. I couldn’t determine which of the points made by the clerk was in question. Perhaps it was all three. From what my paternal grandparents had told me of my mother’s relatives, family values were in short supply here. “The Mayfair offers all the comforts of home and more,” the clerk went on. A small laugh bubbled out of me.

I couldn’t help it. If he’d known my previous home was smaller than the hotel’s foyer, he would have found it amusing too. But he did not. The smile disappeared and a blush infused his cheeks. He looked to the porter, who merely blinked at me. I pressed my lips together until my smile flattened. “I’m sorry for my outburst. I’m sure the hotel is wonderful. I am very impressed with what I’ve seen so far, and the service is excellent.” The porter puffed out his chest and the smile returned to the clerk’s face.

“However, you don’t need to sell the hotel’s qualities to me any further. I won’t be going to one of your competitors. I have no choice but to stay here.” A small crease connected the clerk’s dark brows. “No choice?” “I am Miss Fox.” The clerk glanced down at his reservation book. “Did you telephone ahead? I recall a Miss Fox…” “Miss Cleopatra Fox,” I clarified. He flipped the page and ran his finger down the first column. “No Miss Foxes here. Perhaps there has been a mistake.

A very rare mistake, you understand. This sort of thing almost never happens.” His frown returned. “Although your name certainly rings a bell.” His gaze slipped past me and he stood straighter. “Mr. Armitage, sir, would you mind offering your assistance in the matter of Miss Fox. It seems she telephoned ahead and made a reservation, however I have no record of it.” I turned to see a dashing figure dressed in formal black coat with tails. He was tall with dark hair brushed back off a face that an admirer would call chiseled and a detractor call sharp.

I couldn’t imagine he had too many detractors, however. Certainly not of the female variety, and particularly when he gave them his full attention, as he did now to me. “Miss Fox.” He held out his hand and I shook it. “I’m delighted to meet you. We’ve been expecting you.” The clerk frowned down at his reservation book again, only to emit a soft “Ah”. He’d realized why my name sounded familiar yet wasn’t in the book. It seemed he’d forgotten about my arrival. Mr.

Armitage had not. “I’m Harry Armitage, the assistant manager. Welcome to The Mayfair Hotel.” “Thank you. It seems my arrival has confused your staff. I am sorry,” I said to the clerk. “I was about to tell you that I don’t have a reservation because I’ve come to live here, but you summoned Mr. Armitage before I had the chance. I hope you forgive me.” The clerk blushed again.

“Yes, Miss Fox, you are certainly forgiven. In my defense, I’d like to point out that you’re a day early.” “No, I wrote that I would arrive today, Christmas Eve.” “I was told Christmas Day.” The clerk’s gaze flicked to Mr. Armitage. Mr. Armitage signaled for a second porter to join us. “Please inform Mrs. Kettering that Miss Fox has arrived.

There appears to have been a mistake and she is a day early.” “Actually, I’m on time,” I said as the second porter disappeared into the wing of the foyer. “I wrote to my aunt that I would arrive on the twenty-fourth.” “Your aunt?” the clerk asked. “Lady Bainbridge? Well then.” I waited for more, but the clerk merely blushed again as Mr. Armitage turned the full force of a stern glare onto him. “Thank you, Peter, you have a guest waiting,” Mr. Armitage said. Peter the clerk nodded quickly then turned on his smile for the next guest.

I stepped aside so he could serve the newcomer. Mr. Armitage instructed the tall porter to take my trunk and hat box up to my room. I passed him my bag, feeling somewhat foolish now for refusing to do so outside. It wasn’t going to be stolen in a place like this. The porter headed off with my things, but not to the nearby stairs. He disappeared around the corner at the far end of the foyer. If my things were to be taken up to my room, why did the porter not take the stairs? “May I offer my deepest condolences on the loss of your grandmother,” Mr. Armitage said. The warmth in his eyes and voice almost undid me, then and there.

I muttered my thanks and quickly looked away, determined not to cry in the middle of the hotel foyer. It helped to change the subject. “Why did Peter not seem surprised by my aunt’s mistake about my arrival?” The assistant manager blinked, caught unawares by my question. “I’m very sorry for the mix up. You won’t find us usually so flustered.” “You don’t appear flustered, Mr. Armitage. You seem quite composed.” “This is my flustered face.” I laughed softly.

His face hadn’t changed in the least. He still smiled and regarded me as if I were the most important person in the foyer. His smile widened just a little, however. I leaned in conspiratorially. “Nice avoidance tactic.” He tilted his head to the side, all innocence. But there was no innocence in his dark eyes. He’d deliberately tried to use his handsome face and charms to distract me from my pursuit of an answer. I suspected it worked on most women. It wouldn’t work on me.

“It’s quite all right,” I said. “You don’t have to answer if you don’t wish to. My aunt is married to your employer, and I wouldn’t want you to jeopardize your position by gossiping about her.” He drew himself up to an even more impressive height. “My position wouldn’t be jeopardized. It’s my principles I prefer not to compromise. I don’t gossip, Miss Fox. I’m sorry if that frustrates you.” “As I said, it’s quite all right. I’ll get to know my aunt soon enough and will be able to make my own judgements about her.

” “I’m sure you will,” he said with a sharp edge to his tone. I sighed. This wasn’t going at all well. I wished I’d kept my mouth shut. In my defense, I wasn’t ordinarily so prickly, but it had been a long day—a long month—and part of me wanted to see Mr. Armitage’s smooth façade crack just a little. “We’ve got off on the wrong foot,” I said. “I’m sorry. Perhaps I wrote the wrong date in my letter to my aunt. It certainly is of no consequence to me that I wasn’t expected until tomorrow, but I feel awful that your staff have been put out.

I do hope Mrs. Kettering isn’t too inconvenienced. I’ll apologize to her and to Peter again too.” My speech seemed to have achieved the desired effect of thawing the frostiness in Mr. Armitage’s gaze. “Don’t worry about Mrs. Kettering. The head of housekeeping is the most efficient woman I’ve ever met. Her maids might curse you, however—entirely under their breath, of course.” He leaned down and lowered his voice.

“Mrs. Kettering is a task master, so they tell me.” He straightened. “As to Peter, it’s almost impossible to get off on the wrong foot with him. He’s the friendliest member of staff. That’s why he’s on the front desk.” Mr. Armitage’s gaze moved past the couple checking in at the desk to another desk further afield where a staff member attended to a tall woman with a large hat trimmed with every type of trim imaginable, from lace and velvet to ribbon and feather. The long feathers fluttered as her head bobbed. The entire effect was of a hen pecking at the poor man.

Mr. Armitage emitted a small, almost imperceptible sigh. “Is there a problem?” I asked. “Not at all,” he said, suddenly giving me his attention again. “It’s all right, Mr. Armitage. You don’t have to treat me like a guest. If I am to make my way here, I’d like to be treated as one of the family, as someone with a purpose. I don’t yet know what role I can do, but I ought to learn as much about hotel life as I can so that I may find that role.” He stared at me for several moments, his lips slightly ajar as if he’d been about to say something but the words had suddenly escaped him, or he’d thought better of speaking them.

“You might as well tell me which are the difficult guests and what can be done about them,” I went on. “I assume family members are called upon from time to time to assuage them.” “I, uh, I see. Assuaging guests is the role of myself and the manager, not the owner’s niece.” “That’s a shame. I’m quite good with people. For some reason, they seem to trust me.” That smile returned, but this time it wasn’t the practiced one of an assistant manager of a luxury hotel. It was more genuine, and softer. “I don’t doubt it.

” I would have asked him what he meant, but a passerby caught his attention. “Mr. Hobart, do you have a moment?” Mr. Hobart was dressed in a tailcoat too and wore the same practiced smile the assistant manager had used to greet me. That was where the similarities between them ended. Where Mr. Armitage was tall and dark, Mr. Hobart was balding, shorter and older. I guessed him to be in his late fifties, whereas Mr. Armitage could be no older thirty, and perhaps younger.

Mr. Hobart had a friendly face, with bright blue eyes that sparkled and a web of red veins across rosy cheeks. “Allow me to introduce you to Miss Cleopatra Fox,” Mr. Armitage said. There was no confusion in Mr. Hobart’s demeanor. He knew my name instantly. He gave a brief bow, and when he straightened, his smile was kind. “Delighted to meet you, Miss Fox. Welcome to The Mayfair Hotel.

I see you’ve met Harry already.” “Mr. Armitage has been very kind clearing up the confusion surrounding my arrival date.” “I’m very sorry you weren’t met at the station. Sir Ronald wanted one of the porters to meet you in a hotel conveyance and assist with your luggage. He’ll be disappointed you had to make your own way here.” “It wasn’t terribly difficult. The cab driver knew the way.” Too late, I realized that wasn’t what the manager meant. He meant that my uncle wanted me to be met at the station because I was representing his family now, and a Bainbridge lady shouldn’t have to catch a hackney cab from the station and organize such mundane things like porters herself.

She had staff to do that for her. I could practically hear my grandparents’ voices saying as much. In our household, the Bainbridge snobbery was legendary. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that was why the staff were so concerned about such a trifling matter as my early arrival. They were worried my uncle might hear that my room wasn’t ready or that I wasn’t greeted properly. I also now understood the odd look Mr. Armitage had given me when I’d mentioned finding myself a role within the hotel. It was likely my aunt and cousin Florence had no role here except a decorative one. Even more reason for me to be of use. I needed a task, something that would not only stave off the boredom, but also take the burden of supporting me off my uncle’s shoulders.

I didn’t want to owe him a thing. “I’m sure Lady Bainbridge will be delighted to see you,” Mr. Hobart went on. “Harry, if you’d be so good as to inform her ladyship of Miss Fox’s arrival. Miss Fox, would you care to wait in the main sitting room just through there until your room is ready?” He indicated the door at one end of the foyer. “One of the waiters will be happy to serve you refreshments.” I thanked him and went to move off but Harry did not. “I think I’d better see to Mrs. Cavendish-Dyer.” He nodded at the woman with the elaborate hat, still pecking at the young man.

“You’d better speak to Lady Bainbridge, sir. She prefers you anyway.” He flashed a quick grin that seemed quite at odds with his formal smoothness. Perhaps he’d already decided to drop the façade in front of me, considering I wasn’t a guest. The manager looked a little uncomfortable by this change in his assistant, though not cross. More awkward than anything, as if he hadn’t quite made up his mind how to act in front of me. It seemed none of us were sure where I fitted into the hotel’s community. Mr. Armitage strode off towards Mrs. Cavendish-Dyer, and Mr.

Hobart departed too, so I made my way to the sitting room. It was a large airy space, filled with comfortable chairs, sofas and tables. A three-piece ensemble played in the corner, the sound soft enough that conversations could still be had but loud enough that one group couldn’t eavesdrop on another. The décor was lighter than the foyer, with no burgundy or black vases in sight. It was mostly cream with some gold and more splashes of pink from the roses in the white marble vases. It was the epitome of elegance. Grandmama would have loved it, although she would have felt out of place. Grandpapa would have liked the two rooms off the sitting room. The door to one was labeled LIBRARY and the other labeled WRITING ROOM. My father would have liked those rooms too.

My most vivid memories of him were with his nose in a book in his study. A waiter dressed in crisp white waist apron greeted me and guided me to a spare seat in the bay window. It looked out over the side street with a bookshop opposite. My father would definitely have liked this place. My mother even more so. She would have taken the hotel’s elegant grandness in her stride. It was easy when one was born into luxury as she had been. “May I bring you a cup of tea?” the waiter asked. “Sponge cake?” I was about to enthusiastically agree. My stomach felt hollow after not eating anything since breakfast in Cambridge.

“Just a cup of tea,” I said, however. Until I spoke to my uncle, I didn’t know what he expected me to pay for out of my allowance and what was free. I eyed another passing waiter carrying a tray with slices of cream sponge cake and cups of tea. The cake did look delicious, but no doubt it was expensive in a hotel like this. I needed to save every bit of my allowance if I was to become independent. The waiter brought over the tea on a tray and asked me for my room number. “I don’t have a room yet. The housekeeper is having it made up now.” I bit the inside of my lip, considering how to proceed. I didn’t want to boast that I was the hotel owner’s niece, yet I didn’t want to cause the waiter embarrassment as I’d caused Peter.

I was saved by a pretty young woman with strawberry blonde hair and a delicate spray of freckles across her pug nose. Her blue eyes were the color of a summer sky and matched her dress. “Is it you?” she asked in a girlish voice. “Are you my cousin Cleopatra? Mr. Hobart said I’d find her here and you are the only female sitting alone.” “I am. You must be Florence.” I stood but was almost knocked off my feet by her enthusiastic hug. She drew away and caught both my hands in hers. “I am so thrilled to finally meet you!” It was a relief to receive such a warm welcome.

Until this moment, I hadn’t realized how worried I’d been about seeing my relatives. If the rest of the family were as friendly as Florence, perhaps the knot in my chest would finally loosen. It might be too much to ask, however. From the way this girl’s parents had treated my mother after she married my father, I was quite sure their reception would be different. “Do sit down and enjoy your tea, Cleopatra. Gregory, would you mind bringing me a cup too? And a slice of cake each, of course. The sponge here is the airiest in London,” she added as Gregory headed off. “Now, Cleopatra, tell me all about yourself. I want to know everything.” “Call me Cleo,” I said.

“Cleopatra is such a mouthful.” “And you must call me Flossy.” She reached across the space and patted my knee. “We are so alike, you and I, are we not? I could see the family resemblance immediately. You have my brother’s coloring and he takes after mother, so I suspect you must take after your mother.” She suddenly gasped. “Oh dear, I forgot. My condolences on the death of your parents and grandparents. I know your parents’ deaths occurred many years ago and your grandfather was last year—” “Three years ago, actually.” “But your grandmother’s is very recent.

” She patted my knee again. “It must still feel raw.” I swallowed the lump threatening to clog my throat. Raw wasn’t a strong enough word to describe the overwhelming sense of loss I’d felt all month. There was a measure of trepidation mixed with the grief, too. Ever since learning I had to leave my home in Cambridge and move in with an uncle and aunt I’d met only once—and at my parents’ funerals at that—I’d been anxious. Flossy’s enthusiastic greeting and sympathetic gaze went some way to easing my mind, but it wouldn’t be completely at ease until I’d gauged my uncle and aunt’s reactions to my presence and dependency. “Thank you, Flossy,” I said. “You’re very kind. Everyone here has been kind so far.

” Except the doorman. The wicked part of me was quite looking forward to seeing his face when he learned I lived here now. “You clearly haven’t met everyone then.” She wrinkled her nose. “The housekeeper, Mrs. Kettering, is the devil incarnate. I think even Father’s afraid of her. Obviously you met Mr. Hobart, the manager. If Father is the head of the hotel, Mr.

Hobart is its heart. He’s been here from the beginning. The Mayfair couldn’t run without him at the helm. He knows everything there is to know about this place, and probably some things there aren’t to know.” She pulled a face. “That doesn’t make sense, but you know what I mean. Ah, our cake.” Gregory handed us plates with slices of sponge and poured a cup of tea for Flossy before quietly melting away. There was no mention of room numbers. Flossy murmured her approval of the cake as she took her first bite.

“I adore the sponge here. I could eat a slice a day, but of course I mustn’t. Just on special occasions such as this.” This was information I needed to know if I were to live here. “Is there a restriction on how often family can partake of the afternoon tea?” She giggled into her hand. “No, silly. You can come in here and eat cake to your heart’s content. I only mean I can’t have a slice every day or I’ll get fat. You won’t have to worry, of course. You’re so slim! How do you manage such a tiny waist?” “I don’t eat cake as good as this every day,” I said.

Flossy giggled again then finished the rest of her slice before setting the plate down and picking up her teacup. “Mr. Hobart mentioned you’d met his nephew.” “Have I?” “Harry Armitage.” “I didn’t realize Mr. Armitage was his nephew. Neither of them mentioned it.” “They would have eventually. They like to act professionally in the presence of guests, so they refer to each other as mister this and mister that, but all the staff know. Harry has worked here for years, not always as assistant to his uncle, though.

He’s devilishly handsome, don’t you think? All the maids are in love with him.” “Are they?” She set down her teacup and clasped her hands. “Isn’t this lovely? I’ve always wanted a sister; someone to share all my secrets with, go shopping together… We’re going to have so much fun, Cleo. It’s wonderful that you made it in time for Christmas. Oh, and I can’t wait to show you off at the ball.” “Ball?” “Our New Year’s Eve ball.” She tilted her head to the side. “Mother didn’t tell you, did she?” “Our correspondence has been very brief.” “I’m sure it has.” Her ominous tone was the first sign of seriousness she’d displayed.

The spark also briefly left her eyes, but it quickly returned again as she cast aside whatever bothered her. “I do hope you have something to wear to the ball. There isn’t enough time to get a proper gown made.” “I don’t own any ball gowns,” I said with an apologetic shrug. Her assessing gaze took in my simple dress and her nose wrinkled ever so slightly. She was probably wondering how someone so plainly clothed could have anything remotely pretty in her luggage. She would be right. I didn’t own anything as fine as the silk dress trimmed with white lace that she wore. Like all the ladies in the hotel sitting room, her clothes were in the latest style. My mourning outfit might be well made, but it was certainly not in the current fashion.

“I have several ball gowns,” she said. “You can wear one of mine. We’ll have one of the maids take it in to fit you. We’re a similar height but our figures are quite different.” She thrust out her considerable bosom, just in case I hadn’t noticed it. “That’s kind of you, but unless it’s in black, I’ll have to decline.” “Yes, of course, you’re in mourning.” She studied my outfit again. “I’m sure one night off from black won’t matter, will it? Ah, here’s Mr. Armitage, come to solve our dilemma.” She smiled up at the assistant manager as he approached. “I’m happy to help in any way I can, Miss Bainbridge,” he said, using the formal politeness I thought he reserved just for guests. Despite having known one another for years, there was no casual familiarity between them. “It’s all right for Cleo to take one night off from wearing mourning, isn’t it? Her grandmother died a month ago, and Cleo is quite young, after all. It ought to be a sin for someone so young to be in full mourning for anything longer than a week or two. You agree with me that she ought to wear something nice to the ball, don’t you?” Mr. Armitage had a tightrope to walk. Disagreeing with Flossy would likely upset his employer’s daughter, but disagreeing with me would go against societal rules. I was rather looking forward to seeing him traverse it and gave him my full attention. His gaze slid sideways to me before returning to Flossy. “I believe six to nine months is the usual mourning period for a woman for her grandparent, but you’re right, Miss Bainbridge. It would be unfortunate to see someone as young as Miss Fox in full black at a ball.” Flossy beamed. “So you agree.” “I think the decision should be left to Miss Fox.”


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