High Marks for Murder (A Bellehaven House Mystery Book 1)

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High Marks for
Murder

A Bellehaven House
Mystery

By Kate Kingsbury

Copyright 2008 by Doreen Roberts Hight
Cover by Rachel High

To Bill,
for giving me the gifts of love and laughter.

A Disturbance in the Dandelions

Tom stood just inside the door, twisting his white panama in his gnarled hands. His rumpled silver hair suggested he'd snatched the hat from his head in a hurry. Felicity stood at his side, a flush of red staining her cheeks.

"I asked him what he wanted," she said, as Meredith paused in front of them. "The silly fool won't say a word."

Meredith could tell something had highly agitated the elderly gardener. His gaze roamed over the spacious, polished floor of the lobby as if seeking the answer to some troubling question. "Tom, is there something you want to tell me?"

His gray eyes focused on her, growing wide as his mouth trembled. "M-miss Duncan." He waved his bony, sun-scorched arm at the door. "Out there."

"Out where, Tom? Is there something wrong with Miss Duncan?"

Instead of answering, he raised his hat in both hands and pressed it to his mouth.

"Oh, for heaven's sake." Felicity stood in front of him and spoke each word as though she were dictating to a dull-witted secretary. "Where . . . is . . . Miss . . . Duncan? What . . . does . . . she . . . want?"

Tom shook his head and his wild gaze sought Meredith's face.

"Show me," Meredith said sharply.

Tom scurried out of the door. Meredith followed his lopsided gait across the lawn.

She saw the crumpled heap of clothes long before she reached the rockery. Fearing the worst, she hurried forward, passing Tom in her haste. Kathleen still wore the dark blue skirt and lace waist she'd worn to supper the evening before.

For a moment Meredith stood transfixed, shock rendering her unable to think or move. Felicity reached her first, uttering an unladylike oath as she took in the scene. . . .

Acknowledgments

Producing a book is team work, and I'm fortunate enough to work with the best team out there.

My astute editor, Sandy Harding, who so diligently guides my hand when my brain fails to connect with my keyboard, and whose patience, support, and expertise are invaluable to me.

My agent, Paige Wheeler, who never fails to encourage, advise, and make me feel important, even if I'm not.

My lifetime friend Ann Wraight, who provides me with fascinating research and tidbits impossible for me to find on my own. Thank you, Ann.

My fellow author Edie Hanes, who sympathizes when I whine, applauds my achievements, and understands what it is to be a writer.

The incredible art department at Berkley, who always interpret my vague descriptions and produce exactly what I had in mind. Their covers are phenomenal.

My wonderful readers, who enjoy my books and take the time to tell me so. Your notes give me so much pleasure.

My husband, Bill, who is everything I want and need.

I am indeed blessed.

CONTENTS

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 1

Under normal circumstances Meredith Llewellyn
enjoyed the Sunday services at St. Edmund's. Reverend Geoffrey Wright had a mellow voice, and once in a while his sermons actually made sense.

The hymns were always a pleasure to sing, and after a week of trials and tribulations as headmistress of Bellehaven Finishing School, Meredith relished the peaceful tranquillity of the surroundings. That particular morning, however, she entered the crowded church with an eerie sense of impending doom.

Having rarely paid attention to such pranks of the mind, she made an effort to shake off her disquiet as she took her place between her colleagues. Her resolve faltered when she noticed the empty space in front of her.

Every week, Kathleen Duncan arrived early to claim her seat in the front pew. Meredith couldn't remember a Sunday morning without the familiar sight of frothy peacock feathers waving gently from the wide brim of Kathleen's
hat. Since the vicar's wife had already sat down at the organ, it would appear the service was about to begin. Had all been well, Kathleen would most certainly have arrived before now.

Clutching her hymnbook in both her gloved hands, Meredith reassured herself. Kathleen had seemed perfectly well the evening before. She'd joined the rest of the tutors for supper, spouting complaints about a pupil's ineptitude for distinguishing weeds from flowers. Most likely she had slept late and would arrive, breathless and apologetic, in just a few moments.

A loud blast from the organ pipes jolted Meredith out of her musings. The musician's enthusiasm greatly outweighed her talent. In spite of the odd mangled chord, however, the majestic tones echoing in the soaring rafters helped Meredith forget her worries. The sight of brightly hued sunlight pouring through the stained glass windows often served to remind her of the centuries that had passed inside the illustrious walls.

The church must have looked then much as it did today, she thought. As if time had stood still. Yet in the years between, thousands of wedding ceremonies had taken place inside the ancient limestone walls, and indignant babies had wailed at countless christenings.

Now here they were, already five years into the twentieth century. Hard to believe. She still caught herself starting to write eighteen hundred instead of nineteen. Then again, she had trouble accepting the fact that she had passed her thirtieth birthday.

Time was such an intangible thing, swift to pass when looking back, yet sometimes interminable when trapped inside her classroom at Bellehaven.

Aware that her companions had opened their hymn-
books, Meredith hastily flipped pages as she rose to her feet. One more glance confirmed that Kathleen still hadn't arrived. Meredith did her best to drown her concerns in the familiar phrases of the hymn. The voice on her left made it difficult.

Although younger than Meredith by five years, many people mistook Felicity Cross for the elder of the two, most likely because she did everything with gusto. She wore her auburn hair scraped back in a bun, and her angular face with its prominent nose could conjure up the fiercest frown imaginable.

She sang and talked louder than anyone else, walked faster than any woman Meredith had ever met, and had a complete disregard for fashion. Since her profession demanded that she set an example for her pupils, these traits were a distinct disadvantage.

She did, however, possess a vast knowledge of literature and could speak three foreign languages fluently—a skill much sought after by the future debutantes. Out of the four instructresses at Bellehaven, Felicity's voice had the most control over the often wayward novices.

Meredith winced as the sour notes chimed in her right ear. On the other hand, Esmeralda Pickard's soft-spoken tones often proved a blessing, since she had no voice for singing.

The youngest of the tutors, Essie had recently turned twenty-one. Her wasp waist and blond curls accentuated her flair for style, and an aristocratic upbringing made her a valuable contributor to the Bellehaven girls' education in the social graces.

The absent Kathleen, who taught home management with a no-nonsense attitude that sometimes made her seem austere, had served at Bellehaven the longest. Since
Meredith's duties also included the instruction of fine arts, she relied a great deal on Kathleen to help her keep things running smoothly—a not so simple task when governing fifty exuberant young women.

Once more she glanced over at the empty pew. Only now it was no longer empty. White peacock feathers seemed to float above Kathleen's hat, and the gown she wore had a peculiar sheen to it. Wondering why she hadn't seen her friend pass by her, Meredith blinked . . . and blinked again. Kathleen had vanished.

A mere trick of the light, Meredith assured herself. Anxiety over the tutor had caused her to imagine things that weren't there. Nevertheless, a fluttering of misgiving troubled her midriff. Afraid that Kathleen might have suffered some kind of illness, she became impatient with the long sermon that followed.

"Whatever is the matter with you this morning?" Felicity hissed at her later as they filed out of the church into the blinding sunlight. "It isn't like you to fidget so. Is something troubling you?"

"It's Kathleen." Meredith paused to pay her respects to the vicar waiting in the porch. "Lovely sermon," she assured him. "Quite inspiring."

He nodded and smiled, though she was quite sure he'd noticed her lack of attention.

"What about Kathleen?"

Before Meredith could answer her, Felicity's long stride had taken her to the gate and out of earshot.

A steady stream of young girls poured down the steps, some sedately mindful of their headmistress as they passed, while others jostled each other in their eagerness to be out in the fresh air.

Chattering voices and ringing laughter echoed over the
faded gravestones as the pupils surged through the gate and spilled out into the road.

"Kathleen wasn't in church," Essie said, panting a little as she hurried to keep up with Meredith's quick steps.

"Yes, I noticed that, too." Meredith lifted her skirts to step over a puddle left by a dawn shower. "I find that somewhat disturbing."

"What's disturbing?" Waiting by the gate, Felicity's ferocious frown wrinkled her brow.

"I was just saying that Kathleen wasn't in church." Essie came to a halt by Felicity. "Really, do you have to walk so fast? I'm quite out of breath."

Ignoring her, Felicity scowled at Meredith. "What's the matter with Kathleen?"

"I really don't know." Meredith gave her a worried smile. "It's not like her to miss the Sunday service."

"More than likely overslept." Felicity opened the gate and charged through it, narrowly avoiding a collision with a stout gentleman on the other side. Treated to a sniff of disapproval, she tossed her head and turned her back on him. "Kathleen must have come in very late last night from her walk. I usually hear her pass my door, but I fell asleep before she came to bed."

Felicity's words only deepened Meredith's concern. "I shall look in on her the moment we arrive back at Bellehaven," she said.

"I'm quite sure she'll be up and about by then." Felicity stomped down the road toward the honey-colored roofs of the village.

St. Edmund's had stood sentinel on a hill overlooking the village of Crickling Green for centuries. Nestled in the heart of the English Cotswolds, the churchyard afforded a spectacular view of the village and beyond, where rolling
hills thick with sheep overlooked flower-studded grasslands.

Bellehaven House lay on the other side of the village square. Once the grand home of a nobleman, it had been purchased by an enterprising gentleman and turned into a select finishing school for young ladies.

The staff of Bellehaven were charged with taking raw adolescence and fashioning it into a fabric of maturity, grace, and refinement. At times the challenge could be overwhelming, especially since many of the pupils would rather chain themselves to fences in protest for women's rights than walk across a room with a book on their heads.

While Meredith fully sympathized with the suffragettes and their cause, at times she despaired of some of her students ever becoming ladies. Still, somehow the transformations eventually took place, and she could pride herself on the knowledge that her efforts and those of her colleagues had not been wasted.

With rare exception, every young woman left Bellehaven equipped to face the critical and often vindictive world awaiting her. Though watching the playful sparring of some of the girls occasionally raised doubts.

Half an hour of brisk walking brought Meredith and her fellow tutors to the gates of the school. After making sure all her charges were safely inside the grounds, she followed the women through the gates. By the time Meredith had securely fastened the latches, Felicity had stalked up the curving driveway.

Usually Meredith enjoyed the walk up to the main building. Bellehaven's gray walls glowed in the morning sun, providing a perfect background for the ornamental gardens. Flanked on either side by tall poplars swaying in
the breeze, she could listen to the heartfelt song of the thrushes while savoring the fragrance of lilacs and late summer roses.

Today her uneasiness would not allow her to enjoy the heavenly scents. Essie chattered at her side as they approached the thick oak doors at the top of the steps. Meredith paid scant attention.

After returning from church on Sunday mornings, Kathleen would linger in the gardens to instruct Tom Elliot in the placement of her latest bargains from the flower market. Or at the very least chide the gardener for failing to remove the weeds from her beloved flower beds.

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