What would happen if you combined all of Austen's characters into one modern-day novel?
Murder, of course.
When Caty Morland's roommate, Isabella, falls to her death on Initiation Night, Austen University is quick to cover up the scandal and call it a tragic accident. But avid true-crime lover Caty remains convinced that Isabella didn't fall; she was murdered. With the help of Pi Kappa Sigma President Emma Woodhouse, Caty organizes a dinner party with the most likely suspects, including familiar faces such as Darcy, Elizabeth Bennet, Knightley, and Marianne Dashwood. The theme of the night is murder, and Caty has three courses to find out what happened to Isabella—and to try to keep the killer from striking again.
What Happened on Box Hill is Book 1 of the Austen University Mysteries series.
1st 2 chapters:
After weeks of rushing, pledging, bonding, and participating in mandatory fun, at long last came the night of the Kappa Initiation. The night that everything would change, though not for the reason most of the hopeful young pledges believed. Most anticipated they would be entering a lifelong sisterhood, a bond that would only end when they went to the grave.
True enough, though for some of them, this eventuality would prove to be much sooner than for others.
But now the night was still young, bright with nubile, unwrinkled promise. For Pi Kappa Sigma president Emma Woodhouse (resplendent in a powder-blue sheath dress) the night signaled a silent victory—that somehow, against all the odds, she’d managed to keep the Kappa ship afloat. Vice-president Karoline Bingley (still deciding between the black and red cocktail dresses just arrived from Milan) was celebrating a different kind of triumph, a thorn in her side that would soon be removed. Graduate Resident Advisor Anne Elías (in the same dress she’d worn for last year’s ceremony) was just relieved that all the activities would settle down so she could get back to her dissertation. Pledge Jane Fairfax (also in a repeat white dress, which she hoped no one would notice) prayed that tonight’s ceremony would put an end to so much forced sisterhood, freeing up her time for other, more pleasant activities. Pledge Caty Morland (wearing an A-line dress that her parents saved up to buy and surprised her with at dinner the night before) couldn’t wait to be a Kappa, and to put all the weirdness with Isabella behind her now that they were sisters.
And Pledge Isabella Thorpe (who hadn’t yet changed out of her robe, not after that last text) was deciding she wouldn’t go down, not without a fight.
In one of the many shared bathrooms of the Kappa house, Caty finished curling the last strand of her hair, brushing it into the style that Emma had informed her was the most flattering to her face shape. Her roommate Isabella appeared in the mirror next to her, applying a dark red shade of lipstick.
Caty had thought the whole point of the night was to look innocent and (for lack of a less creepy term) bride-like, but Isabella had chosen a different aesthetic. Her slip dress looked more like an actual slip, tight and low-cut and sheer enough that it was obvious she wasn’t wearing a bra. Her makeup was thick and intense, more of a mask than the “natural, fresh” look they’d been advised to adopt for the evening. In short, it looked like Isabella was going to war, not Initiation.
It was a bold move, considering how tense everything had been in the days following the Talent Show That They Weren’t Supposed to Talk About, rumors swirling throughout the house—about the intense meetings of the Kappa leadership, with Karoline Bingley screaming herself hoarse about the stain on the Kappas’ reputation. The Kappa House Mother, Mrs. Norris, pushing to get rid of “trouble” before it took them all down. Anne suggesting mercy, that they all give Isabella another chance. Emma an uncharacteristically quiet wild card.
Throughout it all, Caty waited for Isabella to open up to her. But there was only nervous, cagey silence from her friend, even after it was ruled that Isabella could continue to pledge, but on probation. Caty thought this would bring an end to Isabella’s odd behavior, but if anything, her moodiness increased in the days that followed.
“What?” Isabella snapped at Caty now, glaring at her roommate through her reflection.
Caty turned to her friend, waiting until at last, reluctantly, Isabella faced her. “I don’t know what’s going on, but I miss you. I’m worried about you. You’ve been acting so strange lately. I don’t know if it’s something to do with James, or something else that you feel like you can’t tell me. But I love you, Bella. You can talk to me. I’ll help you; I promise.” And she embraced her, holding on until the tension in Isabella’s shoulders at last melted away, and the two of them were hugging for real, for the first time in so long.
At least, this was what Caty wished she’d done later, when it was no longer an option. In the moment, all she felt was resentment, that Isabella was shutting her out yet again, trying to ruin what was no doubt going to be one of the best nights of her life.
“Nothing,” she said, and walked away.
The Kappas gathered in the ceremonial room in the basement, the pledges in their white dresses, the others in their ceremonial robes. Each held a candle, the only light in the otherwise darkened room, and as Caty looked around, she felt an overwhelming sense of awe, that this was happening to her.
The ceremony itself is a secret, sacred (albeit, slightly boring) thing, and some vows of sisterhood should not be broken. Suffice it to say, the girls began the night as separate pledges, from different backgrounds and families, with disparate hopes and dreams; but by the end of it, they were sisters.
As the rites reached their conclusion, Emma motioned behind her to a stack of thin jewelry boxes. “Each girl will now receive her Kappa pearls. By accepting these pearls, y’all are agreeing to join this sisterhood, and to become a Pi Kappa Sigma sister for life.”
They formed a line, each girl accepting her necklace. Caty took her pearls and promptly burst into tears, which made Emma and the other older sisters laugh and circle her in an embrace.
Isabella accepted hers with almost giddy relief, her nervous energy palpable. It was clear that despite her bravado, Isabella—like everyone else—hadn’t been quite certain that the vote would pass in her favor.
Afterward, there was a vegetable tray and sparkling cider in the foyer. The girls chattered, complimented each other on the dresses that were now visible without their thick ceremonial robes, and sipped at their sparkling cider as Vivaldi played over the speakers.
Then, when Mrs. Norris excused herself to go to bed, and Anne went up to her room to study (giving the girls a knowing look as she left), the undergraduates slipped out of the house, making their way to Box Hill, where the real afterparty would be.
Other sororities and fraternities who’d finished their ceremonies were already there, the music blaring through the thick, rolling fog, and the booze flowing freely. They weren’t on school property, so no single house could get into too much trouble, and it was something of a well-known understanding in the small campus town that tonight everyone would look the other way.
The last time that Caty saw Isabella, alive, she was dancing with a group of Kappa girls, her spirits too high to be entirely produced by nature alone. “This is the best day of my life!” Isabella shouted over the beat of the music, and a chorus of resounding cheers echoed after her.
In a few hours, Isabella would be dead, but she didn’t know it then. For a brief moment, she was able to forget about the father who left them without looking back, and the mother more concerned with trying to recapture her youth than helping her daughter through hers. For a brief moment, she didn’t have to think about how sad she felt when boys didn’t text back after they promised they would, how small she felt when she heard other girls whispering about her behind her back.
Later, Caty would think back on this moment with fondness, relieved that Isabella had found at least a small window of happiness before what happened to her. At the time, though, she felt consumed with bitterness, watching Isabella laugh and toss her head. Thinking of James sitting at home alone, brokenhearted and feeling like he wasn’t enough, Caty hated the callous, cruel-hearted girl who had done this to her brother.
Determined to enjoy herself that night, Caty celebrated with other acquaintances, soon made fast friends in the giddy exhilaration of the night. At some point, Caty’s crush Tilney found her in the crowd, and the two of them danced badly but enthusiastically and drank in much the same spirit until she couldn’t quite believe it was already two in the morning.
It was only then that Caty realized she hadn’t seen Isabella for hours—not since that earlier spotting. Some people were already calling it a night, heading to the designated drivers waiting near the bottom of the footpath, but Caty doubted Isabella would be one of them. She always saw a party through to the very end.
“She’s probably just finding someone to make out with for attention,” Tilney snarked at first, but when he saw that Caty was really concerned, he offered to help her look. “Have you seen Isabella?” the two of them asked as they made the rounds, and the more people who hadn’t, the stranger it started to seem. A girl who was always the life of the party was nowhere to be found, and no one seemed to be able to remember having seen her slip away.
Was it foreboding that made Caty enlist some of the Theta boys, and ask them to spread out through the forest? Was it intuition that prompted her to follow the running path she’d taken with Emma a few weeks before, to search the base of the hill, just in case Isabella had somehow gotten lost?
The fog was even thicker down at ground level than it was up at the peak, and Caty soon found herself wishing she’d brought somebody else along with her. But Tilney was asking the D.D.s if they’d seen anything, and Emma was overseeing the search through the woods, and Caty was just being silly. Most mysteries had a reasonable explanation. Most missing girls eventually found their way home again, no harm done. There was nothing lurking in the fog, waiting to reach out and grasp her.
This last thought happened to be spectacularly ill-timed, as Caty stumbled over something that very much felt as though it were reaching and grasping. It was only a branch, Caty told herself as she rose, shaking, to her feet once more.
But it wasn’t a branch, Caty saw with no little horror as the fog parted enough to reveal the ground beneath her. It was an arm.
And there was Isabella, lying on her back, hair matted with dark blood, eyes frozen open, with her Pi Kappa Sigma pearls scattered around her on the forest floor.
From the Files of Caty Morland:
[Official information from the Pi Kappa Sigma Handbook]
MOTTO: Qui audit adispiscitur [She who dares, wins]
FLOWER: Hollyhock [Symbolizing ambition]
My sister is my family; my sister is my friend.
My sister is my duty I’ll see through to the end.
My sister gives me aid, a much-needed lifeline,
And when my sister stumbles, her troubles become mine.
Before her body had even begun to decompose, Isabella Thorpe had been branded by the press, the public, and her peers as a slut. Had young Isabella lived to see her newfound fame, she would have been tickled pink, instead of the grayish-bluish tint of her current color palette. She might have been delighted by the sight of her photographs plastered across the media, even if her carefully applied makeup and the outfit she’d spent hours choosing proved to be ultimately less than durable. Seeing her name pop up on multiple threads and comments—some sympathetic, but others making her the punchline of a slew of wincingly morbid jokes—might have made her giggle, because the Internet was forever and she was, like, totally famous now.
Even the word “slut” itself might not have given her much pause, because wasn’t she always yelling that at her sorority sisters as they laughed and danced and put on a show? It didn’t mean what it used to. It was a term of endearment now, empowerment.
But not, as it turned out, when it was being whispered behind her back—or, to be more accurate, over her dead body. Not when armchair detectives were discussing, in detail, the number of people she’d hooked up with during her brief time as a freshman at Austen University; and boys were coming out of the woodwork to testify she’d been the aggressive one, pursuing them; and the same girls who’d laughingly grinded with her only weeks before were giving “special interviews” about how out of control she’d been. Anything for those fifteen minutes of fame.
It all started out innocently enough, this frenzied piranha-feeding of Isabella’s reputation. Before the school issued a formal warning to the students about commenting to the press, Isabella’s roommate, Catherine Morland, was ambushed as she left the sorority house. Petite, wide-eyed Caty looked terrified in the video clip that eventually went viral, and the wolves circled in on her, expecting her to be easy prey. Indeed, when asked about her relationship to Isabella, Caty was barely able to stammer out she was her “best friend” and that “Bella” had been girlfriend to her brother James. (Both claims were later torn to shreds in online forums, in which people speculated why a girl like Isabella who had a “boyfriend” also had an active Tinder profile, and why Caty would claim to be her best friend when she appeared in hardly any of her social media.)
But the moment that pushed the video into viral fame was when one of the reporters asked Caty if she had any idea what happened to Isabella. Suddenly small, trembling Caty went still, looking straight into the camera. “Of course I do. She was murdered.”
That was when the president of Pi Kappa Sigma, Emma Woodhouse—tall, blonde, and with a formidable Southern-belle glare—swooped in to wrap a protective arm around Caty. “No more comment, y’all,” she insisted before guiding the younger girl to the safety of her waiting Mercedes. Online, however, no one could protect Caty or Isabella from the ensuing media circus.
Perhaps in the end, even Isabella would have shied away from this kind of attention—regardless that her name briefly became the top “Isabella” in search engines in North America and trended in hashtags, too. The kind of fame she daydreamed about in her lifetime came through merit or achievement: Miss Louisiana, for example, or winner of a televised singing competition, or top Pharma rep in the Southeast U.S. Division.
This kind of fame? It was not earned—it was taken, and turned against you. Voyeurs, gobbling up every gory, illicit detail, just so they could teeter to the edge of danger, then pull back at the last minute. All the while reassuring themselves they were okay, this could never happen to them.
Isabella could have told them differently, of course. This couldn’t have happened to her, either, until it did.
From the Files of Caty Morland:
[Isabella Thorpe’s last Instagram post, published roughly three and a half hours before her death.]
POST: Secrets, secrets are no fun. Secrets, secrets hurt someone.