Authors: Hannah Dennison
“He's off chasing rabbits, darling.” Lavinia buckled up Harry's seat belt and closed the car door.
Rupert drove away with Harry's face pressed against the glassâa picture of pure misery. It was awful. I couldn't see Lavinia's expression since she was already hurrying back to the tack room.
I waited until the coast was clear before stepping back into the yard where I was greeted by a burst of frenetic barking. Mr. Chips, the Jack Russell terrier, tore around the corner and bounded up to me. His tan and white body was coated with mud and he smelled terrible.
He dropped a stone that was coated in drool at my feet and looked up expectantly, his stump tail wagging furiously.
I leaned down to fondle his ears and he licked my hand then nosed the stone toward me.
“You want me to throw this, boy?” I said and gingerly picked it up between my fingers.
Mr. Chips danced about on his hind legs, barking with excitement as I threw the stone as far as I could. He bounded after it and was back within minutes to drop the stone at my feet again.
“You've started something now.” Edith emerged from the tack room wearing her usual sidesaddle habit. Like Lavinia, even when hatless, she wore her hair clamped under a hairnet. “He won't let you alone.”
I threw the stone again and yet again, he was tearing back for another go.
“You bad dog!” Edith scolded. “Where have you been?”
Despite her age and small frame, the dowager countess was a formidable woman.
Mr. Chips sank to the ground, his ears drooped, and he gave her such a look of sorrow that we both laughed.
“He's been down a badger sett again,” said Edith, the relief in her voice evident. “One of these days he'll get trapped.”
“Can't you block the holes?” I suggested.
“Block up the
! Good heavens, no!” Edith sounded appalled. “Protection of Badgers Act, 1992. Can't touch them.”
“I didn't know that,” I said. “I've lived in London all my life. They say, âYou can take the girl out of the city but not the city out of the girl.'”
“Do they?” Edith regarded me with curiosity. “Pity you're going back to London. You've been such a help with William away.”
There it was again. As far as Edith was concerned, William was “away.” I really hoped she wasn't going to elaborate on William's sabbatical. It was all so horribly awkward. I wasn't sure if Edith had convinced herself that William was in the Himalayas or if perhaps the Himalayas was upper-class slang for “prison.” The more time I spent with the gentryâas Mum called themâthe more I realized that Mum was right. Even in today's modern world there is still a “them and an us.”
“How is Jupiter?”
Someone else who is missing William,
“Still not eating. Completely off her food.” Edith gave a heavy sigh. “She's lost without William. We all are.” She fell quiet for a moment. “Tell me about this uncle of yours.”
“Uncle?” My mind went blank before I realized whom she was talking about. “You mean Alfred?”
“I remember him,” said Edith. “Awful boy. Nothing like his brother, Billy. They camped here every summer, you know.”
Of course I knew. It was the main reason why my mother had been drawn back to a place she loved during her unconventional childhood.
I scrambled for something positive to say about Alfred, a man I'd never met. “Mum tells me Alfred has changed.”
“I should jolly well hope so,” Edith said. “We all knew he was stealing but what does one expect from a gypsy?”
“Oh!” I wracked my brains again. “I thought they were all part of a traveling boxing emporium.”
“Those people are all much the same,” said Edith with a sniff.
“Did my mother tell you what Alfred has been doing for the past few decades?”
“Of course. Working for a home for retired circus horses on The Continent,” said Edith. “Very noble of him. Very noble, indeed.”
I hadn't heard that quaint British phrase for years. I guessed it was yet another story that my mother had invented.
“Where in Europe was it?” I said. “I've forgotten.”
“Spain. The Spanish can be so cruel to their animals.” Edith went on, “I think we could offer homes for a few of those horses here. Especially now your mother is restoring the stalls in the Carriage House.”
“What a good idea.” Outwardly I pretended to be enthusiastic but inwardly I predicted troubles ahead. There were so many lies being told at Honeychurch Hall, I was having trouble keeping them straight.
“I did make it very clear to your mother that Alfred's position is only until William returns,” said Edith.
“William is coming
?” I tried to hide my astonishment. “When?”
“I know the justice of the peace. We ride to hounds,” said Edith. “It won't be for a while butâ” She tapped the side of her nose and gave a mischievous smile. “I've got a plan.”
Two criminals on the property! Lovely!
I wondered what Rupert thought about his mother's plan. I knew that he was convinced Edith was suffering from a form of dementia. Perhaps he was right, after all.
“Alfred can use William's flat whilst he is working here,” Edith declared.
“That's very kind. My mother will be pleased,” I said as the stable yard clock chimed six. “Was there anything else you needed me to do tonight?”
“Yes. There is.” Edith fixed me with one of her unnerving stares. “Harry mentioned he saw a man putting placards in the two fields by Cavalier Copse below Hopton's Crest.”
“Oh, you know Harry, Edith.” Lavinia was suddenly beside us. I noticed her face was even paler than usual and her eyes looked red. I guessed that she had been crying. “He loves telling stories, doesn't he, Katherine?”
“Harry has definitely got a vivid imagination,” I said carefully.
Edith's eyes narrowed. “Is there something you aren't telling me?”
“No!” we chorused.
“Oh, thank heavens you found Mr. Chips,” Lavinia said, quickly changing the subject. “I didn't see him sitting over there. It looks like he's been burrowing underground. And goodness, he does smell.”
“We're going to have a bath, aren't we, boy?” Edith snapped her fingers and Mr. Chips leapt to attention. He took up his position close behind her feet. “And Kat,” Edith said. “Tomorrow, we will ride to Cavalier Copse and see what Harry was talking about. Come at eleven.”
Edith strode off with Mr. Chips trotting behind her.
“I'm frightfully sorry to put you in such a ghastly position,” said Lavinia. “Rupert feels there is no reason for Edith to know about this awful train business. It'll only distress her. Ever since Vera's frightfulÂ â¦
Â â¦ Edith has not been herself. I meanâ” Lavinia lowered her voice, “She's even been visiting William. In
“I can't see how she won't find out,” I said. “There are flyers all over the village.”
Lavinia bit her lip. “I know.”
“And placards in the fields, too.”
“What do they say?” said Lavinia. “Will she know what they mean?”
“They're pretty obvious.” I said. “
CROSSES FROM HERE
“I'll talk to Eric. He can get rid of them tonight.”
“Did you hear about the shooting incident?” I asked.
“I heard Harry's version of it,” said Lavinia. “Joyce and Patty are barking mad. Frightful people. Frightful.”
I quickly filled her in.
“Good heavens!” Lavinia actually cracked a smile. “Valentine Prince-Avery! What a name! It sounds like something from one of your mother's novels!”
“Mum and I got a laugh out of that one,” I said. “Valentine gave me his business card. Seems he's a consultant who assesses properties for compensation. I think we should talk to him about our options.”
“We could,” said Lavinia slowly. “But really, he's the enemy, isn't he?”
“But wouldn't it be helpful to know what we're up against?”
“No. I have a better idea. I wanted to talk to Iris about it, too. An old chum of mineâBenedict Scroopeâis an environmentalist. Comes highly recommended and is frightfully well connected with all the right people. He even saved an entire village in Kent from being demolished when the Channel Tunnel was built in the early nineties. Managed to get the line diverted.”
“That's encouraging news!”
“I think Benedict can be persuaded to take our case,” Lavinia went on. “In fact, I told Eric to get in touch with him. I believe he is organizing a meeting in the village but of course, I can't possibly go. One needs to keep a certain air of mystery and distance from one's people. It would be frightfully good if you could go on my behalf.”
“I will if I'm still here,” I said. “My mother will definitely want to get involved.”
“Excellent.” Lavinia hesitated for a moment. “I was hoping I could introduce Benedict to your mother tomorrow. We could meet at the Carriage House. Do you think she'd mind frightfully? Such a bore, I know.”
“Why don't you call and ask her?”
“Obviously I can't bring Benedict to the Hall because of Edith, and Mrs. Cropper can be a frightful gossip. And then there's the new housekeeper, Parks. One must be circumspect.” Lavinia hesitated again. “And I'd rather you didn't mention this to Rupert.”
“Won't he find out if you're organizing a campaign?”
“No.” Lavinia's pale face turned pink. “Rupert is spending some timeâ” She made a peculiar gulping sound. “Rupert has had to go to London. On business.” She blinked back tears. “Goodness, a fly flew straight into my eye.”
“It must have been hard saying good-bye to Harry,” I said. “I'm so sorry.”
Lavinia looked startled. “Harry? Why? He's fine.
fine. Has never been better, actually.”
“I wanted to apologize,” I said firmly. “I should never have mentioned the local school option. I hope it didn't cause any trouble between you and Rupert.”
Lavinia's face turned even pinker. She seemed horrified at being asked such a personal question. “Trouble? Why would it? Everything is perfectly fine.
“I'm sure you must miss Harry,” I persisted. “I know I do!”
“Miss him?” Lavinia forced a laugh. “Well, one would but one's so busy, isn't one? To miss anything.” She gave a bright smile. “Must get on. Good night.”
It was dark as I headed for home along the former service road and through the pine forest. When I first took the shortcut, the muffled silence used to spook me. It wasn't just the Hall that had ghosts-in-residence, but the grounds and surrounding fields, too.
My thoughts turned to my life in London that seemed so simple compared to those at Honeychurch Hall. I thought of Mum and her secret identity and now, here she was introducing Alfred, her stepbrother, under false pretenses. Working with retired circus horses in Spain! She may as well claim that Alfred was a champion matador! Or better yet, said that Alfred had returned from the Himalayas! Then, there was the charade between Edith, Rupert, and Lavinia, each hiding something from the other. And mixed up in this was poor Harry, bundled off to boarding school.
And what of Valentine Prince-Avery? My mother wouldn't be pleased if she found out I was planning on meeting him tonight even though I had her best interests at heart. She'd be furiousâunless I lied.
But before I could give my social plans any more thought I left the pine forest behind me, slipped through the latch gate, and entered the courtyard to find Mum sitting on the top step of the stone mounting block.
“Where on earth have you been?” she demanded.
“I told you I was at the yard with the horses,” I said. “Why? What on earth's the matter?”
“Something terrible has happened.”
“Take a deep breath and calm down,” I said.
We were sitting at the pine kitchen table and Mum refused to say anything until she had poured us large gin and tonics. This “sun over the yardarm” lark was becoming a bit of a habit but I told myself that once I was back in London, I wouldn't be reaching for the gin bottle every time the bird clock struck six or there was a problem that only alcohol could solve.
“It can't be that bad,” I said. “You haven't run out of gin. Oh!” I spotted the mailing box labeled Goldfinch Press on one of the countertops. “Did they hate the manuscript?”
“Of course they didn't hate the manuscript!” Mum snapped. “Graham, my editor loved it.”
“I just thoughtâ”
“I've got to make a few changes and spice up the tiffinâ”
“The tiffin, darling. Nooky.
I sniggered. “I've never heard that term before.”
“But that's not the real problem.” Mum took a large sip and gave a heavy sigh. She pushed a sheet of heavily embossed paper with the logo of a goldfinch toward me. “Look at this.”
“Let me see.” I read aloud. “
Win a romantic weekend for two on the spectacular Amalfi Coast with Krystalle Storm, the international best-selling author of the Star-Crossed Lovers Series. Stroll through the gardens of her beautiful Italian villa, meet the delightful Pekinese, Truly Scrumptiousâ
“I know what it says!” Mum exclaimed.
“Given that Vera had won the contest and nowâwell, she's dead, isn't sheâwhy wouldn't my publisher have canceled the prize out of respect?”
I skimmed the rest of the letter. “Gosh. There were over five thousand entries,” I said. “I know! You'll just have to rent a villa in Italy and borrow a dog.”