Frances Wynn, the American-born Countess of Harleigh, enjoys more freedom as a widow than she did as a wife. After an obligatory year spent mourning her philandering husband, Reggie, she puts aside her drab black gowns, leaving the countryside and her money-grubbing in-laws behind. With her young daughter in tow, Frances rents a home in Belgravia and prepares to welcome her sister, Lily, arriving from New York—for her first London season. No sooner has Frances begun her new life than the ghosts of her old one make an unwelcome appearance. The Metropolitan police receive an anonymous letter implicating Frances in her husband’s death. Frances assures Inspector Delaney of her innocence, but she’s also keen to keep him from learning the scandalous circumstances of Reggie’s demise. As fate would have it, her dashing new neighbor, George Hazelton, is one of only two other people aware of the full story. While busy with social engagements on Lily’s behalf, and worrying if Reggie really was murdered, Frances learns of mysterious burglaries plaguing London’s elite. The investigation brings death to her doorstep, and Frances rallies her wits, a circle of gossips, and the ever-chivalrous Mr. Hazelton to uncover the truth. A killer is in their midst, perhaps even among her sister’s suitors. And Frances must unmask the villain before Lily’s season—and their lives—come to a most unseemly end . . .
When you’re the Countess of Harleigh, even the widowed Countess of Harleigh there are certain things that are expected of you. You are expected to be a proper lady, you are expected to participate in society, and you’re expected to fully and financially support your extended family. You are not expected to refuse funding, you are not expected to leave the family estate, you’re not expected to live alone with just your young daughter, and you’re certainly not expected to get yourself involved in mystery.
Frances Wynn, the widowed Countess of Harleigh has decided to live her life far differently as a widow than she did as a wife. As a wife, Frances tended to bury her head in the sand. Oh, she knew her husband was unfaithful, but she never expected to be confronted with it so bluntly and blatantly as the night he died in another woman’s bed. During her year of mourning, Frances made some serious decisions about her life: she was moving out of the estate home she shared with her dead husband, she would no longer indulge in her in-laws by allowing them to request more funds from her trust, and she would certainly never marry again. With her plans in place and a solicitor willing to work for her interests, Frances moves herself and her young daughter into a modest home in London.
Unfortunately, the fresh start Frances was hoping for doesn’t quite work out according to her plans. Within hours of settling into her new home, her past comes calling! Only two other people know what really happened the night Frances’ husband died, and one of those two people is now her next-door neighbor, Mr. Hazelton. What’s more, the police have also come calling regarding the manner of her late husband’s death, there have been a series of robberies among her upper crust friends, her younger sister and aunt have come to stay for the duration of the Season, AND, her greedy brother-in-law has decided to sue for access the Frances’ money! As a proper lady of society, Frances should step away from all the scandal, all the drama and allow the proper authorities to sort it all out on her behalf. But, that’s not the type of woman Frances Wynn, Countess of Harleigh has decided she wants to be.
With decisions made and a course set, Frances, with the help of her dogged aunt, Mr. Hazelton, her husband’s last mistress, and her best friend, begins asking questions and sussing out motives and motivations for the players in a most dangerous game. Though she isn’t a professional investigator, Frances is smart, curious, and has access to certain levels of society the police just can’t get to. The deeper Frances delves into the hearts and minds of men, the closer she gets to flushing out a killer, resolving nearly all her problems, and risking her own precious life.
The Bottom Line: I have always liked books featuring women ahead of their time and place and the Countess of Harleigh certainly fits that description. Frances Wynn isn’t looking to cause scandal or be a scandal, but she is determined to live her life on her terms. What I particularly liked about Frances is her willingness to admit when she’s in over her head and needs help. Though she’s brazen and bold, she isn’t stupid and has no desire to leave her daughter alone in the world. As a result, Frances has surrounded herself with a whole host of interesting and loyal people which are going to make for fun reading in future installments of this historical cozy mystery series.