Summer no longer held sway in the low country of South Carolina. Golds and russets had replaced vivid greens, while a cerulean blue sky offered the promise of cooler weather.
Then, suddenly . . . BANG! BANG! And another BANG! BANG! A series of gunshots exploded like a riff of Black Cat firecrackers, the retorts echoing off sweeping vistas of yarrow and pine forests.
"Got one!" a woman's voice called out, triumphant.
"You seriously got one?" a male voice responded, surprise mixed with admiration.
Theodosia Browning lowered her shotgun and nodded. This wasn't her first shooting party. She'd hunted game birds before, especially quail and grouse. Spending childhood summers at nearby Cane Ridge Plantation, she'd also once shot a wild turkey, along with a few varmints that had overstepped their bounds and tried to make a tasty meal out of her aunt Libby's exotic French Crvecoeur chickens.
"Well done," Drayton said. "Obviously, you have a much keener eye and steadier aim than I do. I haven't managed to hit a single thing."
"It helps if you actually pick up the gun," Theodosia said. An amused smile danced across her face.
"Well." Drayton fingered his bow tie nervously. "I'm not sure I really want to do that."
It was a fine Sunday afternoon, and tea shop owner Theodosia and her tea sommelier Drayton Conneley were tromping through the vast fields of Creekmore Plantation at the kind invitation of Drayton's good friend, Reginald Doyle. Doyle had previously served on the board of Charleston's Heritage Society with Drayton and was CEO of Celantis Pharmaceuticals as well as part owner of Trollope's Restaurant.
Doyle and his wife, Meredith, were also rabid Anglophiles. Thus, this entire day had been styled in the precise manner of a traditional English shooting party. Which meant elevenses (in this case glasses of bourbon and gin fizzes), gun loaders, five fine-looking bird dogs, and shooting costumes of tweed, herringbone, and suede. All teams had drawn "pegs" to determine which area they'd be hunting in.
"You very much look the part today," Theodosia said to Drayton. "As if you just stepped out of an episode of Downton Abbey."
"I feel like I just did," he said.
Drayton was sixty-something with a kind face, a slightly arched nose, and a patrician bearing. He was kitted out today in a tweed jacket, wool slacks, and English Wellington boots. Drayton had added his trademark gentleman's bow tie to the outfit, and at the last minute, Theodosia had presented him with a shooting vest from Huntley's Ltd. in Charleston. A traditional Balmoral cap completed his outfit.
Theodosia, on the other hand, was wearing a tailored suede jacket, white shirt, tweed slacks, and low walking boots. Being outdoors today, reveling in the abundant sunshine and cool breezes, seemed to impart an extra sparkle to her crystalline blue eyes and an excited flush to her peaches and cream complexion. Theodosia once mused that her abundant halo of auburn hair might have come compliments of ginger-bearded Vikings who'd long ago arrived on English shores and found themselves smitten by her distant English relatives of the female persuasion.
"So how should I be carrying this thing?" Drayton asked. He was referring to the shotgun that Reginald Doyle had loaned him and that he held gingerly, as if it were a plague-infested rat.
"Always break your gun while walking and keep the barrels pointed down," Theodosia said. "That way there's no chance of an accidental discharge."
Drayton grimaced. "Heaven forbid."
"Beautiful out here, isn't it?" Theodosia said. A line of poplars stretched off to their left, silvered leaves fluttering in the wind. To their right was an undulating hillside of tall golden grasses. Beyond that, a line of purple stretched to the sky.
"Lavender," Theodosia murmured. "I believe that's a field of lavender."
"Beg pardon?" Drayton said. Then, suddenly, his face lit up, and he let loose a hearty wave and a loud, "Hello!"
"Hey ho!" Reginald Doyle hailed back as he emerged from the trees along with Jack Grimes, his caretaker. "You two having any luck?"
"Theo got a bird," Drayton said as the two men joined them.
"A grouse," Theodosia said.
"Excellent. Well done," Doyle said. He was ruddy faced and breathing hard, an older gent who'd made his fortune in pharmaceuticals and enjoyed his role as lord of the manor. Grinning, Doyle pulled out a silver flask and offered it to them. "Have a celebratory nip, then?"
"No, thank you," Theodosia said. She didn't think it was particularly wise to drink and shoot, even though she was guilty of sipping a single gin fizz at elevenses.
"None for me, either," Drayton said, holding up a hand.
"Then I shall help myself," Doyle said. He unscrewed the top of his flask, raised it in a kind of salute, and tipped it back.
Grimes, a weathered, outdoorsy-looking man dressed in a barn jacket, khakis, and mud-streaked leather boots, looked on with faint disapproval.
"Sir," Grimes finally said. "We need to move on. Check on Mr. Jacoby and Mr. Thorne."
"Right you are," Doyle said in a jovial tone. He capped his flask and said, "And we need to let our friends here get back to their shooting."
"Yes, sir," Grimes said.
When the two of them were alone again, Drayton glanced about nervously.
"I hope no one sends a wayward shot in our direction."
"This is a big, sprawling plantation," Theodosia said. "So I doubt that's going to happen. Besides, we all drew pegs to determine our own particular area."
They traipsed along a faint trail for a half mile or so but didn't flush any birds. As they stopped to mull things over, a few faint shots sounded ahead of them, but still far off in the distance. Then, as if in response, two chocolate brown Boykin Spaniels suddenly flew past them, amber eyes gleaming, feathered ears streaming out behind.
"Someone must be having a good day," Theodosia said.
"If your aunt Libby knew we were out shooting birds she'd have a royal conniption," Drayton said.
Theodosia had to agree with him. Her aunt Libby, who lived nearby, was a bird lover of the first magnitude, always putting out suet, seed, and her ubiquitous cracklins. Yes, this part of the county teemed with all manner of birds. They fluttered, flew, nested in the grasses, perched in the trees. In fact . . .
"There!" Theodosia shouted as a pair of grouse flew up directly in front of them. "Drayton, take a shot!"
The grouse continued on their flight path, not a feather touched.
"You have to aim," Theodosia said.
Drayton looked uncomfortable. "I did aim."
"I meant at the birds."
"Well . . ."
"I get it, Drayton. You're not a natural-born hunter."
"Sweet Fanny Adams, no, I am not," Drayton declared.
"That's okay. We'll just . . ."
Theodosia's words trailed off with a sharp intake of breath. That was a single shot off to her right that she'd just heard. Not the loud boom of a shotgun, but a faint pop, like the distinctive retort of a handgun. And how strange that it sounded so near to them in an area where not many game birds had been flushed. An area they were supposed to have all to themselves.
Drayton's head jerked toward Theodosia. "Was that a shot?" He glanced around again, looking even more skittish.
"I think so," Theodosia said. "But I don't believe anyone in our hunting party is over this way. Much less shooting with a . . ." Her voice trailed off again as she lowered her shotgun. That had been a handgun she'd heard. But who could have fired it?
Could it be a distress signal? she wondered. Was someone injured? A twisted leg or something worse?
After a few moments' hesitation, Theodosia said, "Give me a minute. You stay here while I check this out." She struck off in the direction of the gunshot.
"Where are you going?" Drayton called after her.
Theodosia waved a hand without turning around. "I want to investigate that shot."
"I'll be back in two minutes, tops."
Theodosia tromped through long grasses for sixty, then seventy yards. She was out of sight of Drayton now, but it was slow going. The ground had turned hilly and uneven, and she was forced to traverse around a miniature forest of shrubs and small trees. Another five minutes of bushwhacking, and she was almost at the lavender field.
But that isn't part of Reginald Doyle's property.
Still, she'd heard that gunshot.
I can't believe anyone was hunting over here. And yet . . .
Topping a small rise, Theodosia came to a stop and peered around carefully. And saw . . . nothing. A few insects buzzed nearby; off in the distance a hawk circled lazily in a robin's-egg-blue sky. Perhaps she hadn't heard a pistol shot at all, but rather a . . .
A sudden chill trickled down Theodosia's spine as she was overcome by a weird, preternatural warning.
Did something happen? Is something about to happen?
Theodosia bent her head forward cautiously, walked another ten feet, and abruptly dropped her gaze. That's when she saw him. A man. Lying in the grass some twenty feet in front of her.
He was half-hidden by the sway of gold, looking crumpled and broken, like a bird that had fallen from its nest.
As Theodosia rushed toward the man, she heard him let loose a terrible moan.
Oh no! He's been shot . . . and it's . . .
Reginald Doyle was lying there as if he'd been steamrollered. He was on his back, eyes half-open and dark with pain as they floated, practically unseeing, back and forth in his head. His mouth was pulled into a horrible scowl, and his pale lips trembled uncontrollably. The poor man seemed unable to frame any actual, meaningful words, so only a low, continuous moan seeped out. One hand, twisted into a claw, clutched at his shotgun as if he still hoped to defend himself from whatever had happened.
"Mr. Doyle!" Theodosia cried.
Theodosia wondered if he'd collapsed from a sudden heart attack-because he certainly wasn't a young man anymore. Or maybe he'd experienced a brain-jangling dizzy spell. Or worse, a brain aneurism.
Then Theodosia saw a faint spot of red dotting the front of Doyle's shooting jacket. And watched with morbid fascination as the blob grew bigger, brighter, and even more intense. That's when it all clicked into focus and she knew it had to be a gunshot wound. Retreating a few steps, Theodosia shouted, "Drayton, Drayton, Mr. Doyle's been shot! Round up anybody you can! We need help!"
Theodosia turned back to Doyle and threw herself down on her hands and knees, trying to figure out just how serious his injury might be. But as she stared down at him, red patches continued to bloom like errant poppies across his herringbone jacket.
Grasping his lapels, Theodosia ripped Doyle's jacket wide open, sending a row of brass buttons flying. And stared in awe at a gaping, gushing chest wound.
Center of mass. He's been shot directly in his heart.
And just as the human heart was biologically engineered to do, it continued to pump like crazy. With every beat of Doyle's failing, fluttering heart, red blood flowed copiously out of him. Theodosia wondered how long it would take before Doyle was in mortal danger. Soon. Too soon. She knew she had to act fast.
Ripping the white silk scarf from around her neck, Theodosia crumpled it into a tight ball and pressed it hard against Doyle's chest. If she could somehow stanch the flow of blood . . . then maybe . . .
"Help!" she cried again even as she fumbled for her cell phone. But she couldn't keep pressure on Doyle's chest wound and dial at the same time.
It seemed like an interminable wait, but it was probably only a few minutes before Theodosia heard loud shouts as well as footsteps pounding in her direction. Drayton had managed to alert some of the nearby shooters, thank goodness, and they were rushing to help!
"What happened?" Someone flung himself down beside her. She glanced over. It was Jack Grimes, the caretaker.
"He's been shot!" Theodosia cried. "A chest wound." She was dismayed that precious seconds continued to slip by. This man needed a trauma team, not just a few concerned friends.
"But I was just with him!" Grimes shouted back. He looked genuinely shattered at seeing his employer lying on the ground and practically bleeding to death.
"Oh my heavens!" came another voice, shrill and frantic with worry.
Then a pale face came into view, and Theodosia recognized Reginald's son, Alex, whom she'd been introduced to earlier in the day.
"Pop! Oh no, something's happened to Pop!" Alex stood there, frozen in place like a human statue, his face blanched white as if he were about to faint.
"What can I do?" Grimes asked as another half-dozen members of the shooting party suddenly rushed in to form a tight circle around a failing Reginald Doyle.
"Keep pressure on his wound while I call an ambulance," Theodosia said as she finally managed to punch 911 into her phone. "We have to get him to a hospital as soon as possible."
Seconds later, the dispatcher was on the line, listening to Theodosia's frantic plea for help. But even as the dispatcher assured her that an ambulance would be sent immediately, that she would radio the sheriff, Theodosia worried that it might be too late.
Through a jumble of shouted directions, and the dispatcher's urgent voice telling Theodosia to remain on the line, she focused her gaze on Doyle.
His face was ashen gray, and he lay almost motionless now. His eyes were wide open, but something had changed dramatically. His pupils appeared fixed, and there were none of the faint gurgling or breath sounds she'd heard moments earlier.
Jack Grimes grasped Doyle's hand and pleaded for him to hang on.
But it seemed there was little hope.
Theodosia let out a faint sigh even as the wind whooshed and whispered through nearby poplars. It looked to her that Reginald Doyle was clearly and unequivocally dead.
And then, of course, Doyle's poor wife came running up.
Meredith Doyle was one of those women who was high-strung bordering on a nervous wreck. With her doe eyes, pale complexion, sleek blond hair, and angular, almost anorexic, physique, she looked like she might have been one of those heroin-chic runway models that were popular some thirty years ago.
Meredith was also verging on full-blown hysterics. Horror animated her face as she watched Drayton kneel down, touch a hand to her husband's pulse, then put an ear to Doyle's chest and listen for breath sounds. When Drayton shook his head, indicating that Doyle was no more, she let loose a shrill, piercing cry that sounded like the death knell of a dying animal.
Copyright © 2020 by Laura Childs. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.