Death Wears a Mask: New Excerpt

Death Wears a Mask by Ashley Weaver
Death Wears a Mask by Ashley Weaver
Death Wears a Mask by Ashley Weaver is the 2nd historical cozy in the Amory Ames mystery series set in 1932 London (available October 13, 2015).

Amory Ames is looking forward to a tranquil period of reconnecting with reformed playboy husband Milo after an unexpected reconciliation following the murderous events at the Brightwell Hotel. Amory hopes a quiet stay at their London flat will help mend their dysfunctional relationship. However, she soon finds herself drawn into another investigation when Serena Barrington asks her to look into the disappearance of valuable jewelry snatched at a dinner party.

Unable to say no to an old family friend, Amory agrees to help lay a trap to catch the culprit at a lavish masked ball hosted by the notorious Viscount Dunmore. But when one of the illustrious party guests is murdered, Amory is pulled back into the world of detection, enlisted by old ally Detective Inspector Jones. As she works through the suspect list, she struggles to fend off the advances of the very persistent viscount even as rumors swirl about Milo and a French film star. Once again, Amory and Milo must work together to solve a mystery where nothing is as it seems, set in the heart of 1930s society London.

1
LONDON, AUGUST 1932

It was amazing, really, what murder had done for my marriage.

Not that I wished to speak flippantly of such tragedy, of course, but I couldn’t help but marvel at the way in which a brush with death had done wonders to improve things between my husband and me.

It had been two months since the events at the Brightwell Hotel, in which a holiday at the seaside had evolved into a double homicide and my nearly being killed. Murder was the last thing on my mind as I sat at my dressing table sipping a strong cup of tea in an attempt to fortify myself for the long evening ahead. Milo and I had been in town for less than a week, and I was still adjusting to the hours required by reemergence into society after an extended period of quiet country living.

A retreat to the country had been necessary after that dreadful holiday. Murder alone was enough to try anyone’s nerves. But coupled with that awful event was the fact that my marriage had very nearly dissolved over the same period—not to mention that the entire thing had played out in lurid detail in every gossip rag in the country. Needless to say, it had proved to be a singularly unpleasant trip. It hadn’t helped matters that I had very briefly and quite erroneously suspected that my husband might be a murderer.

We all make mistakes.

The mystery solved and misunderstandings resolved, we had departed for Thornecrest, our country home, and managed to smooth out the majority of our differences. However, such idylls couldn’t last forever. Milo’s occasional visits to town increasing in length and frequency, it had become apparent to me that he was growing restless. Though I suspected London society was not exactly the place to live down such events in quiet anonymity, I thought it better to accompany him back to our London flat than leave him to his own devices.

Things weren’t yet perfect, perhaps, but I was happy. We were happier together than we had been in a very long time.

I glanced at Milo’s reflection as I powdered my nose. He was seated behind me on an ebony velvet chair, resplendent in his evening clothes, flipping through a magazine while he waited for me to finish dressing.

“Have you seen this issue of The Mirror?” he asked.

“You know I don’t like to read that tripe,” I replied. “Why? Are you in it? I shouldn’t think you’ve been in town long enough to garner any such attention.”

“You are, in fact, wrong. But this time I am not alone. Allow me to read you this rather juicy bit of gossip.” He cleared his throat for dramatic emphasis. “Mr. and Mrs. Milo Ames have been seen together in public again after the Brightwell Hotel Affair, quelling, at least temporarily, the speculation that a split is imminent.”

“Does it really say that?” I asked, horrified. Despite my hopes that things would have died down by now, it appeared the gossipmongers were still atwitter.

“It certainly does,” he answered, “complete with photographic evidence of our blissful reunion. It’s a rather good picture of you, Amory.” He folded the paper and held it up so I could see the photograph of the two of us emerging from a restaurant two nights before. I turned from the mirror for a closer inspection. I was certainly not the person to whom the eye was drawn. That honor, as usual, belonged to Milo. He looked superb in his evening clothes, his smooth, handsome features in three-quarter profile, light from the flashbulbs glinting off his black hair. It was absurd, really, how well he photographed.

“The prime minister went out just before us,” I said. “I thought they were photographing him.”

“Nonsense,” Milo said dismissively. “Why should they want MacDonald when they could photograph you?”

“Or you for that matter,” I replied, knowing from long experience that my husband was a favorite subject of the society columns. His cinema-star good looks and the endearing tendency to find himself in compromising situations had earned him that dubious distinction. I didn’t add aloud what I was really thinking: that it was nice to be the woman in the photograph with him for once. Things had certainly improved.

I turned back to the mirror and picked up the necklace of sapphires that lay on the dressing table, raising it to my throat. “Help me with this clasp, will you? It always sticks.”

“Certainly.” He tossed the magazine aside and rose from the chair.

Coming up beside me, he fastened the necklace, his fingers warm against my skin. This was one of my favorite pieces. The sapphires complemented the backless blue gown and emphasized my dark hair and fair coloring.

Milo’s bright blue eyes met my gray ones in the mirror. “You’re very beautiful, Amory,” he said.

Then, his hands on my arms, he leaned down to kiss my neck, sending a shiver clear through me. “Remind me again why we’re going to the Barringtons’ tonight,” he murmured against my ear.

At the moment I was having a hard time remembering. “Mrs. Barrington is an old friend of my mother’s,” I said.

“All the more reason to avoid her.”

I ignored this remark and went on, despite the fact that Milo was making it very difficult to concentrate. “When she found out we were in town, she was most anxious that we should come and dine with her, and I think it was very nice of her to ask us.”

She had been rather insistent on it, in fact. I had been a bit puzzled by her eagerness to see me, considering we had not crossed paths in years, but I thought it could certainly do no harm to spend an evening in her company.

“It will be a lovely evening,” I said in an unconvinced tone.

“It would be a much lovelier evening if we stayed at home.”

I turned to look disapprovingly at him, and he seized the opportunity of access to my mouth, kissing me even as he pulled me up from my seat and into his arms, knocking over the dressing table stool in the process.

I dimly heard the telephone in the foyer ring and Winnelda, my maid, answering it. A moment later, she tapped hesitantly on the door.

“She’ll go away,” Milo whispered.

“You’re quite incorrigible.” I laughed, pushing myself back from him.

He released me, somewhat reluctantly, and I turned to right the stool and smooth my dress and hair before calling, “Yes, Winnelda? Come in.”

She opened the door the barest of cracks, as though afraid to look in. “Your car is ready, madam.”

“Thank you. We’ll be right out.”

She closed the door, and I turned to my husband. “We’d better go.”

Milo sighed heavily; I couldn’t have agreed with him more.

*   *   *

A HALF HOUR later, we pulled up in front of the Barringtons’ home in one of the more fashionable districts of London and were welcomed into the marble-floored foyer, where my furs were whisked away by a silent maid as the butler led us toward the drawing room.

Before we could enter the room, however, Mrs. Barrington came sailing out of it, arms extended, the rings on her fingers flashing like flames in the light of the crystal chandelier.

“Mr. and Mrs. Ames, I’m delighted that you’ve come!” Mrs. Barrington was an attractive, buxom woman who looked remarkably hearty for her sixty-odd years. Her features were strong and distinct, keeping her from conventional beauty, but she was striking nonetheless. Her Christian name was Serena, but it was hearty robustness rather than serenity that radiated from her. As she came at me, I had the feeling that she might pull me into a tight embrace.

Instead, she squeezed my hand rather enthusiastically. “Amory, my dear, I’m so pleased to see you. I feel as though it’s been ages.”

“It has been rather a long time, Mrs. Barrington. Before my marriage, I think.”

“I believe you’re right. And speaking of your marriage, this charming gentleman must be your husband,” she said, turning to Milo.

“Yes. Mrs. Barrington: my husband, Milo Ames.”

She held out her hand and he took it. “How do you do, Mrs. Barrington,” he said.

She gave him an appraising look, and her approval was plain on her features.

“I’ve heard a great deal about you, Mr. Ames.” It seemed that she had decided to like him despite that fact, for she smiled brightly at him. “It is a pleasure to meet you at last.”

“The pleasure is mine, Mrs. Barrington, I assure you. You have a lovely home.”

“I’m sure it’s nothing compared to your house in Berkeley Square. Are you staying there now?”

“No, the house is closed for the time being. We’re at our flat. It’s much more convenient.”

“Yes, I’m sure it is. I’m sometimes of a mind to get a flat myself. So much less space to look after. Well, if you’ll come this way, I’ll introduce you to the others.”

The drawing room was a large, lovely room with dark paneled walls, high molded ceilings, and parquet floors covered with very good rugs. There were several pieces of quality furniture scattered about, many of them occupied by our dinner companions.

“Delighted to see you again, Mrs. Ames,” said Mr. Lloyd Barrington, rising to greet us. He was a stout, mustachioed gentleman with graying dark hair, warm brown eyes, and a winning smile. There was something calm and steady about him that complemented his wife’s exuberance.

Mrs. Barrington introduced other guests in turn. They were Mr. Douglas-Hughes and his American wife, whose names were familiar due to the sensation their marriage had caused the previous year; the tennis star, Mr. Nigel Foster; Mrs. Barrington’s nephew, James Harker; pretty blond sisters, Marjorie and Felicity Echols; and a stunning, dark-eyed woman named Mrs. Vivian Garmond, whose name I had heard in some capacity I couldn’t quite recall.

In my head I counted off the guests and realized that we were still short one gentleman. I was only vaguely curious who it might be, which made the answer all that more surprising.

“Mrs. Barrington, I must insist that you introduce me at once to this lovely stranger in our midst.” These words were spoken in a low, pleasant tone by a gentleman who had just come in from the foyer.

“Oh, Lord Dunmore,” said Mrs. Barrington, and something in the way she said it made me feel as though his sudden presence was not quite a pleasant surprise. “I didn’t know you had arrived.”

Lord Dunmore. The name was very familiar. The increasingly outlandish exploits of Alexander Warrington, the Viscount Dunmore, were currently an excessively popular topic of London gossip, proving a welcome distraction from my own little scandal. A recent string of lavish parties had resulted in some particularly sordid rumors. I didn’t pay much heed to the details, so I was not certain of all the social improprieties of which he had been accused. I knew enough, however, to be slightly surprised at his presence.

“Only just, Mrs. Barrington, but I see I’ve come at the right time.” He walked to where Milo and I stood with our hostess.

His gaze flickered over the gathering, encompassing the other guests, and I took a moment to appraise him. He was indeed handsome, though there was nothing in particular that made him so. It was just an overall attractiveness, a combination of well-formed features, a rather nice figure, and an unmistakable air of confidence. His dark brown hair was neatly parted and fashionably slicked. Eyes of a pale blue that might have tended toward coolness were warmed by a pleasant expression. I could see at once why he was successful with women.

“Lord Dunmore, allow me to introduce you to Mr. and Mrs. Ames.”

“Mr. Ames and I know each other. How are you, Ames?” Lord Dunmore answered, glancing at Milo by way of greeting before coming back to me. “But Mrs. Ames and I”—he took my hand in his—“have not yet had the pleasure.”

“How do you do, Lord Dunmore.”

His eyes stayed on mine for a fraction longer than was customary, and his hand had not yet released mine when Mrs. Barrington spoke.

“I suppose now that everyone is here, we may as well go in to dinner.”

“You have assembled the usual group, I see,” Lord Dunmore observed, relinquishing his hold on me to cast his gaze around the room once more. He seemed to be looking at one person in particular, but when I turned to follow his gaze I could not determine on whom it had rested.

“Yes, I suppose I have,” Mrs. Barrington said absently. “Shall we?”

Everyone began rising from their chairs, preparing for the migration to the dining room. As a general hubbub ensued, Mrs. Barrington suddenly clutched my arm, pulling me slightly aside, and leaned to whisper in my ear. “Watch my guests, Mrs. Ames. I should like your opinion of them.”

I looked at her, my surprise and confusion apparent on my face.

“It’s a delicate matter. I’ll explain later,” she whispered as Lord Dunmore approached to escort her into the dining room.

I glanced at Milo to see if he had witnessed that rather strange interaction, but he was talking to one of the Miss Echols and didn’t seem to have noticed.

I took Mr. Barrington’s proffered arm somewhat distractedly. Very much perplexed by my hostess’s mysterious appeal, I cast a look around at my fellow guests, feeling vaguely uneasy as we all went in to dinner.

Copyright © 2015 Ashley Weaver.

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Ashley Weaver is the Technical Services Coordinator for the Allen Parish Libraries in Louisiana. Weaver has worked in libraries since she was 14; she was a page and then a clerk before obtaining her MLIS from Louisiana State University. She lives in Oakdale, Louisiana.

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