Cut to the Quick (1993) by Kate Ross
Julian Kestrel--dandy, man about town. Devoted to the gaming tables and the latest Regency-era fashion. Underneath his dandified pose, he's also a man of honor with more concern for others than he cares to let on. And now--he's about to turn amateur detective. When Kestrel rescues young, inexperienced Hugh Fontclair from entangling himself too deeply at the gaming tables, he never dreamed he'd wind up invited to the man's wedding...and not as a guest, but as best man! Since he doesn't really know Fontclair from Adam, Kestrel is tempted to say no, but his curiosity gets the better of him. If he doesn't go to the Fontclair's country estate he'll never know why he's been asked.
From the moment he arrives it becomes obvious that there is more to this wedding than meets the eye. Mark Craddock, the bride's father, has some sort of secret hold over the Fontclairs and he's using it to force a marriage between his daughter and Hugh. The secret is so terrible that Hugh is willing to sacrifice his happiness to save the family honor. But--whatever that secret is, could it possibly be worse than murder? For on the evening of the second day, Kestrel returns from an afternoon of exploring the grounds (with Hugh) to find a dead girl tucked up in his bed.
Initially, his manservant is arrested. Dipper, a former pickpocket with an instinct for lying under pressure, is caught out in a few mild untruths and suspected of lying about something much worse. Even Kestrel, as an outsider, is preferable as a suspect. With his own honor at stake and his servant already arrested, Julian dives into the investigation. He soon discovers the dreadful secret behind the arranged marriage--but that isn't the only secret being kept hidden in the confines of the Fontclair estate. In order to save Dipper from the hangman, Kestrel will have to decide which secret was worth killing for.
Kestrel makes for a very clever and humane investigator. While he has no qualms about questioning his host's family in the effort to exonerate his innocent servant, he regrets the pain he has to cause others in the search for the truth. It was also interesting to watch him go through several rounds of thinking he had finally gotten to the bottom of who-dunnit only to discover that the secret the current suspect was hiding wasn't the ultimate secret of murder. I thoroughly enjoyed his interactions with the doctor and the way he won over the crusty, country medico. It would be nice if Dr. MacGregor would become his Watson, but I don't believe that's in the cards.
A highly entertaining historical mystery. ★★★★
First line: Mark Craddock paced slowly, deliberately, back and forth behind the desk in his study.
This waiting is worse than anything. It's like one of those nightmares where you know something terrible is going to happen and you don't know what it is, but you there's nothing you can do to stop it. (Hugh Fontclair; p. 55)
Last line: "I promise," he said.
Deaths = 4 (two stabbed; two natural)