Praise for Nancy Atherton and Her Aunt Dimity Series
Aunt Dimity and the Wishing Well
Aunt Dimity and the Lost Prince
Aunt Dimity and the Village Witch
Aunt Dimity and the Family Tree
Aunt Dimity’s Death
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
It was a fine day for a funeral. Rain plummeted from a leaden sky and a blustery wind blew the chill of mortality through the mourners clustered in St. George’s churchyard. It was early May, but it felt like the raw end of March.
The funeral was well attended, despite the dismal weather. CLOSED signs dangled in shop windows throughout the small village of Finch, and cottage curtains, so often twitched aside to allow one inquisitive neighbor to observe another, hung motionless. Everyone who was anyone stood shivering in the churchyard, and in Finch, everyone was someone.
Short, plump Sally Pyne, tearoom owner and baker extraordinaire, shared an umbrella with her equally plump fiancé, Henry Cook. Christine and Dick Peacock, the pub’s well-fed proprietors, served as a human windbreak for the more slightly built retired railroad employee, George Wetherhead. Ruddy-cheeked Mr. Malvern, a local dairy farmer, stood beside Grant Tavistock and Charles Bellingham, whose business was the purchase, sale, and restoration of fine art.
Near the three men, draped in a black woolen cape that hung to her ankles, stood Finch’s resident witch, Miranda Morrow, who’d left her holistic health hotline unattended in order to pay her respects to the deceased. The presence of a pagan at a Christian burial might have raised eyebrows in a less tightly knit community, but Miranda’s neighbors were accustomed to her funny little ways.
Four women—two widows and two spinsters, all retired—huddled together for warmth in the lee of a marble angel. Elspeth Binney, Opal Taylor, Selena Buxton, and Millicent Scroggins never missed a funeral if they could help it, but their patented piety was, on this occasion, undercut by the volley of resentful glances they cast at a fifth woman, Amelia Thistle. Amelia had wounded them grievously by winning the heart of the village’s most eligible widower, who happened to be my father-in-law. The quarrelsome quartet had almost forgiven Amelia for succeeding so spectacularly where they had failed, but the cold rain had made them cranky.
Peggy and Jasper Taxman occupied their usual positions at the forefront of the assembly. Mild-mannered Jasper Taxman was a mere blip on the village’s radar, but his wife was a supernova. Peggy Taxman ran the post office, the general store, the greengrocer’s shop, and every village-wide event in Finch, and she did so imperiously, with an iron hand and a voice that could crack granite. None but the brave would dare to question Peggy’s right to plant her Wellington-booted feet wherever she chose to plant them.
By contrast, Mr. Barlow, who was the church sexton and village handyman, stood at a respectful distance from the grave, while Bree Pym, the twenty-year-old New Zealander who’d helped Mr. Barlow to lower the coffin into its final resting place, rested her muddy hands on the headstone shared by her great-grandaunts, Ruth and Louise Pym, whose house and modest fortune she had inherited. Brave Bree rarely missed an opportunity to goad Peggy Taxman, but she’d sheathed her sharp wit for the day and watched the proceedings in solemn silence.
I, too, stood in the churchyard, along with my husband, Bill, and our eight-year-old twins, Will and Rob. My father-in-law, William Willis, Sr., had hoped to join us, but as he’d only recently recovered from a nasty inflammation of the lungs, he’d been ordered by his physician, his housekeeper, his gardener, his son, his daughter-in-law, and his sweetheart to stay at home.
My best friend, Emma Harris, had also been unable to attend the funeral because of illness, though in her case it was a horse’s illness rather than her own. Pegasus, Emma’s beloved chestnut mare, had been diagnosed with a mild case of colic, which had been all the excuse Emma had needed to spend the day in a nice, dry barn. She’d acknowledged the gravity of the occasion by canceling the day’s classes at her riding academy, but since horses could not be relied upon to clean their own stalls, her staff and stable hands had been too busy to come to St. George’s.
Theodore Bunting, Finch’s vicar, stood in his customary place at the foot of the grave. While he struggled to control his prayer book’s flapping pages, his wife, Lilian Bunting, attempted to shield him from the worst of the wind with a large black umbrella.
As the vicar spoke of dust and ashes, the eyes of the congregation darted furtively from the rain-dappled coffin to Lilian’s umbrella, which tilted alarmingly with each passing gust. The men and women in the churchyard were too mature to speak their thoughts aloud, but my sons were not.
“Mrs. Bunting is going to fly straight over the church if she doesn’t let go of that umbrella,” Rob observed dispassionately.
“Like Mary Poppins,” added Will. “Only older.”
Bill emitted a brief but regrettably audible snort of laughter. I elbowed him in the ribs and quelled Will and Rob with a look, but the damage was done. Mr. Barlow snickered, Bree Pym giggled, and soon the only shoulders that weren’t quivering with suppressed mirth belonged to Peggy Taxman, whose gimlet gaze eventually silenced the unseemly tittering.
The good people of Finch weren’t given to giggling at funerals. Finch was a tiny hamlet set amid the rolling hills and the patchwork fields of England’s Cotswolds region. Although Bill and I were Americans, we’d lived in a honey-colored cottage near Finch for a decade. Our sons had never known another home.
Bill’s widowed father completed our family circle. Will and Rob had the run of their grandfather’s splendidly restored Georgian mansion, but the wrought-iron gates guarding his estate kept less welcome visitors—Elspeth Binney, Opal Taylor, Selena Buxton, and Millicent Scroggins, to be precise—at bay.
While Willis, Sr., tended his orchids and courted Amelia Thistle, Bill ran the international branch of his family’s venerable law firm from an office overlooking the village green, the twins attended Morningside School in the nearby market town of Upper Deeping, and I juggled the ever-changing roles of wife, mother, daughter-in-law, friend, neighbor, gossip monitor, and community volunteer. Over the years, Bill, Will, Rob, Willis, Sr., and I had become vital threads in the fabric of our village and we did our best to keep the cloth intact.
We could do little, however, to repair the gaping hole left by a villager’s death. In a tiny place like Finch, the loss of a neighbor usually sent shock waves of grief through every household. As a rule, a death in Finch was regarded as a death in the family, and no one with the faintest sense of decency would laugh during a family funeral.
Mr. Hector Huggins, however, was the exception that proved the rule. His death hadn’t sent so much as a ripple of grief through Finch, not because he’d been disliked, but because he’d lived among us as a stranger. In a village where everyone knew virtually everything about everyone else, Mr. Huggins had managed the miraculous feat of remaining anonymous.
A few useless things were, of course, known about him. He’d been a senior partner in an accounting firm in Upper Deeping. He’d patronized local businesses, attended local events, and never missed a Sunday service at St. George’s, but he’d made neither friends nor enemies in the village. He’d simply made no impression at all. Bill had once described him as a wallpaper man, someone who hovered quietly in the background, unable or unwilling to involve himself in other people’s lives.
Upon his retirement, Mr. Huggins had taken to spending his afternoons sitting silently on the bench near the war memorial and his evenings fishing silently from atop the humpbacked bridge at the south end of the village green. No one knew how he’d spent his mornings, but it seemed likely that he’d spent them in silence.
Mr. Huggins had lived in Ivy Cottage, a modest stone dwelling across the lane from my father-in-law’s estate, but since Ivy Cottage was completely hidden from view by a tall hedgerow, it was possible to drive past it many times without knowing it was there. Neighborly concern had prompted me to call on Mr. Huggins from time to time, but I’d never set foot inside his front gate. He’d always turned me away at the gate with a gentle smile and the soft-spoken assurance that he required no assistance.
Neither I nor my neighbors had known that Mr. Huggins was ailing until an ambulance had arrived at Ivy Cottage to take him on what had proved to be his final journey. He’d died ten days later in the hospital in Upper Deeping. Shortly thereafter, the vicar had received a letter from a London solicitor containing the payment as well as the arrangements for Mr. Huggins’s funeral, but whether the same solicitor would handle the disposal of his late client’s worldly goods, no one could tell.
A faint communal memory suggested that Mr. Huggins had relatives living abroad, but none had shown up to bury him. Mr. Malvern, Dick Peacock, Henry Cook, and Grant Tavistock had volunteered to serve as Mr. Huggins’s pallbearers, but it had been left to the vicar to eulogize him because no one else could think of anything to say.
The vicar had done what he could with an awkward situation, basing his sermon on a pair of verses in which St. Paul exhorted his brethren “to aspire to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands . . . so that you may command the respect of outsiders, and be dependent on nobody.”
Mr. Huggins hadn’t worked with his hands, exactly, and the villagers had bristled slightly at the suggestion that they might have been regarded as “outsiders” by a man who’d never made the least effort to become a part of the community, but they couldn’t deny that their late neighbor had lived quietly, minded his own affairs, and depended on nobody but himself. The general feeling seemed to be that, if self-reliance were a virtue, then Mr. Huggins had earned his place in Heaven.
What he had not earned was a place in our hearts. I doubted that anyone in the churchyard felt a deep and abiding sense of loss at his passing. They might have felt pity for a man whose family had, apparently, abandoned him. They might have regretted their failure to get to know him better. They might even have felt sorry for not feeling sorrier about his death. But no one was heartbroken.
I suspected that the vast majority of my neighbors had, like myself, come to Mr. Huggins’s funeral out of a sense of duty, and a sense of duty could hardly be counted on to inoculate them against a contagious bout of giggling. Even so, we all looked a bit shamefaced after our indecorous descent into comedy, and redoubled our efforts to appear somber. A neighbor had died, he had no one to mourn him, and we owed it to the honor of our village to see him off properly.
The vicar was about to drop a morsel of mud on the coffin when he was distracted by a commotion in the lane. Heads that had been bowed rose alertly as a white Ford Focus splashed to a halt on the grassy verge beyond the lych-gate, and the vicar’s hand fell to his side as a tall figure leapt from the car, vaulted the churchyard’s low stone wall, and sprinted across the sodden grass, dodging nimbly between headstones and skidding to a halt mere inches from Mr. Huggins’s open grave.
The newcomer was a young man—in his midtwenties, perhaps. He was dressed in a dark-brown rain jacket, khaki cargo shorts, and a pair of rugged hiking sandals, and though his clothes were slightly shabby, he was much more than slightly good-looking. His blond hair was like tousled corn silk, his eyes were as blue as a summer sky, and his deeply tanned face made his teeth seem almost too white. Even his toes, which were rapidly turning pink in the cold air, were handsome. As he paused to catch his breath I could sense hearts fluttering among the faithful, but though many mouths had fallen open, words seemed to be in short supply.
Once again, a child led us.
“Hello,” Will said brightly. “Who are you?”
“I’m Jack MacBride,” the young man replied in a broad Australian accent. “And I’ve come to say good-bye to Uncle Hector.”
The young man gave Will a friendly wink, then turned to face the vicar.
“I’m in the right place, aren’t I, Padre?” he inquired anxiously. “St. George’s church? In Finch? Only, Finch wasn’t on my map, so I had to stop in Upper Deeping for directions and the bloke who gave them to me was a bit of a wally.”
“Calm yourself, Mr. MacBride,” the vicar said gently. “You are in the correct place. You may, if you wish, be the first to cast earth into your uncle’s grave.”
“Beauty,” said Jack.
He scooped a heaping handful of mud from the mound near the grave and let it fall with a mighty splat on the coffin lid. The gruesome noise broke the spell he’d cast over the churchyard. Gaping mouths snapped shut, astonished gazes were averted, and the ancient ritual continued as if a golden-haired Adonis hadn’t burst upon the scene like a ray of sunshine.
The women stepped forward to drop damp posies into the grave and the men contributed modest lumps of dirt, but Will and Rob, delighted by Jack MacBride’s exuberance, had to be restrained from hurling great gobs of mud in the grave’s general direction. Bill and I clamped our hands onto their shoulders until the vicar had pronounced the final blessing.
Amelia Thistle nodded sympathetically to Jack, then strode off to visit her recuperating beau in his graceful Georgian home, but the rest of the villagers formed a line and shuffled past the newcomer, studying him covertly while murmuring impromptu words of condolence. Bill and I allowed the boys to throw one small mud-ball apiece into the grave, then joined the vicar and Lilian at the end of the line, while our neighbors lingered near the lych-gate to await developments.
“I’m very sorry for your loss, Mr. MacBride,” the vicar began.
“Jack’ll do,” the young man interjected. “Mr. MacBride’s my dad.”
“I’m very sorry for your loss, Jack,” the vicar began anew. “I’m Theodore Bunting, vicar of the parish.”
“And I’m Lilian Bunting, Teddy’s wife,” said Lilian, furling her troublesome umbrella. “Please allow me to introduce our friends: Bill Willis, his wife, Lori, and their sons, Will and Rob.”
“G’day,” said Jack, with a nod to each of us.
“Your feet look cold,” said Rob.
“They are, a bit,” Jack admitted.
“Why don’t you have socks on?” inquired Will.
“And why are you wearing shorts?” Rob added.
“Because it’s hot where I come from,” said Jack. “My warm clothes are at the bottom of my pack and I didn’t have time to fish them out.” He looked apologetically at the vicar. “Sorry for buggering up the ceremony, Mr. Bunting. I’d’ve been here sooner, but my plane was late getting into Heathrow and it took for-bloody-ever to rent a halfway decent car and traffic was a bloody nightmare because half the bloody roads were flooded and—”
“Apology accepted,” the vicar broke in, with a sidelong glance at the children. Will and Rob were gazing up at Jack with stars in their eyes. Bloody wasn’t a word they heard often, especially in a churchyard. To hear a grown-up use it three times in one sentence at a funeral was an undreamt-of treat. I exchanged looks with Bill and silently added a refresher course in appropriate language to the day’s schedule.
“Mrs. Bunting and I are hosting an informal gathering in the schoolhouse in remembrance of your late uncle,” the vicar continued. “We would be honored if you would join us, Jack.”
“There’s cake,” Will piped up.
“And hot chocolate,” Rob said, staring at Jack’s pink toes.
“Gallons of hot chocolate,” Will confirmed.
“Sounds like a proper feast,” said Jack, grinning at the boys. “Lead the way, mates!”
Will and Rob grabbed Jack’s outstretched hands and bounced along on either side of him, talking a mile a minute. As if on cue, the villagers flowed through the lych-gate and up the cobbled lane toward the old schoolhouse, which served as Finch’s village hall. The Buntings, Bill, and I followed at a more sedate pace while Mr. Barlow and Bree stayed behind to fill in the grave.
“Did you know he was coming?” I asked Lilian.
“I didn’t know he existed,” Lilian replied.
“Mr. Huggins’s family wasn’t mentioned in the letter I received from the solicitor,” said the vicar.
“Maybe Mr. Huggins didn’t mention his family to his solicitor,” I said.
“It seems an odd sort of thing to keep from one’s legal adviser,” said the vicar.
“Mr. Huggins was an odd man,” said Lilian. “May he rest in peace.”
“Amen,” said the vicar.
“There have been rumors floating around,” I said thoughtfully, “about relatives living overseas. If Jack MacBride is Hector Huggins’s nephew and if he’s as Australian as he sounds, he’d count as an overseas relative.”
“I suspect our questions will be answered before too long,” said Bill. “Young Jack doesn’t know it yet, but he’s about to be interrogated by the entire village.”
Whether consciously or unconsciously, our foursome picked up its pace. I wasn’t sure about the others, but I wanted to be on hand to hear my neighbors give young Jack the third degree.
• • •
The schoolhouse was blessedly warm and dry after the churchyard. We stashed our rain gear in the cloakroom and hurried into the schoolroom to help ourselves to steaming cups of tea. A coterie of influential women usually supervised the tea urn, so I was surprised to find a group of men lounging near it. Henry Cook, Dick Peacock, Jasper Taxman, and Grant Tavistock watched patiently while their significant others piled food on Jack MacBride’s already crowded plate.
“Can’t blame them, really,” Henry said philosophically. “He’s a good-looking lad.”
“The accent helps, of course,” said Grant. “Charles has always had a soft spot for Aussies.”
“Peggy can’t abide Australians,” said Jasper. “She thinks they’re loud and vulgar.”
“It looks as though Jack’s changed her mind,” Dick observed.
“He hasn’t,” said Jasper, shaking his head. “She just doesn’t want Sally’s cake to outshine hers.”
“She’s fighting a losing battle there,” Henry asserted. “My Sally is the best baker in the county.”
“You’ll get no argument from me,” Jasper said morosely. “But you’ll definitely get one from my wife.”
“Perhaps there’ll be a food fight,” Dick said hopefully, and his companions perked up.
Potluck meals were competitive events in Finch, and since my neighbors had expected the schoolhouse gathering to be the highlight of Mr. Huggins’s funeral, they’d gone all out to show off their culinary skills. The trestle tables along the walls trembled beneath the weight of savory casseroles, sausage rolls, quiches, and sandwiches, while the tables on the dais held a cornucopia of cookies as well as a truly magnificent parade of cakes. My own contribution, a modest seed cake, paled by comparison with the Dundee, Eccles, Madeira, and coconut cakes surrounding it. Devil’s food cake, I’d learned through hard experience, was regarded as unsuitable fare at a funeral luncheon.
“Has Jack said anything interesting?” Bill asked the tea urn’s guardians.
“He told us a pretty good joke before he was swept away,” said Dick, “but he hasn’t been able to get a word in edgewise since then.”
“Your nippers are having a high old time of it,” Henry observed. “They’re like baby birds catching the crumbs falling from Jack’s plate.”
“Except that, in this case, the crumbs are macaroons, meringues, and brandy snaps,” said Grant.
Visions of sugar shock danced in my head. I promptly abandoned Bill and scurried across the room to pull Will and Rob from the scrum surrounding their idol. After wiping powdered sugar from the boys’ chins and whipped cream from their sticky fingers, I sent them straight home with their father. Bill didn’t object to the prospect of being stuck in the cottage on a rainy day with a pair of hyperglycemic eight-year-olds because he knew it would be pointless. Nothing short of a burst appendix would pry me away from what promised to be the main topic of conversation in Finch for months, if not years, to come.
“Enough is enough,” Lilian murmured. “The poor boy will be crushed to death if we don’t rescue him.” Raising her voice to be heard above the din, she called, “Ladies and gentleman!”
The babble of voices ceased.
“Shall we give our honored guest a chance to breathe?”
Before anyone could reply, Lilian marched across the room, and gently but firmly extracted Jack from his legion of admirers. She then tucked his free hand into the crook of her elbow and guided him to a chair in a corner of the room. The vicar and I promptly slid into the chairs flanking Jack’s and Lilian pulled one over to face his.
The legion, realizing that it had wasted a golden opportunity to question the newcomer, surveyed our defensive perimeter crossly and began to sidle slowly in our direction.
Jack brushed cake, cookie, and bread crumbs from his rumpled blue pullover and smiled gratefully at Henry Cook, who’d brought him a cup of tea.
“Eat up,” said Lilian. “You must be famished.”
“I could eat a horse and chase the jockey,” Jack acknowledged. “Haven’t had a decent bite since Bangkok.”
He tried to balance his overladen plate on his knee, but finally gave up and placed it on the floor. We allowed him to wolf down a ham sandwich, three sausage rolls, a bacon butty, and a gargantuan hunk of Sally Pyne’s Madeira cake before we got down to business.
“You must be tired after your long journey,” the vicar began. “To come all the way from Bangkok—”
“I came all the way from Sydney,” Jack corrected him. “Bangkok was a layover.”
“Do you live in Sydney?” Lilian asked.
“Sometimes,” Jack replied, “but I was born in Malua Bay—about 300 k’s south of Sydney.”
“Do your parents still live there?” I inquired. Behind the question lay several others: Were Jack’s parents alive? If so, why hadn’t they come to the funeral? Had there been a rift in the family? Was that why Mr. Huggins had lived in England while his closest blood relations lived in Australia? And so on.
Sadly, Jack answered only the question I’d actually asked.
“You couldn’t pry my parents away from Malua Bay with a crowbar. It’s their little slice of paradise.” Jack drank his tea, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and regarded me quizzically. “I can give you their phone number, if you want to check up on me.”
I blushed, but Lilian chuckled.
“You must forgive our curiosity, Jack,” she said. “Your late uncle never spoke of his family, and his solicitor failed to inform us of your plans to attend the funeral. If we’d known you were coming, we would have postponed it for another day, to allow you time to arrive at your leisure.”
“No worries,” said Jack. “I didn’t know I was coming until a few days ago. It was all a bit of a rush. Aldous Winterbottom—”
“Your uncle’s solicitor,” the vicar interjected.
“Right,” said Jack. “Old Aldous tottered out to meet me at Heathrow with the keys to Uncle Hector’s digs and a pile of papers. He can vouch for me.” He plunged a hand into a pocket in his cargo shorts. “I’ve got his number here somewhere.”
“I have Mr. Winterbottom’s telephone number,” the vicar assured him, “but I feel no compulsion to ring him. You wouldn’t have gone to so much trouble to be here if you weren’t who you say you are.”
“Have you a place to stay this evening?” Lilian inquired. “If not, you’re more than welcome to spend the night with Teddy and me at the vicarage. We have bedrooms to spare.”
“Kind of you, Mrs. Bunting,” said Jack, “but I’ll be kipping at Uncle Hector’s for the next little while. Aldous Winterbottom tells me the electric’s still on and the phone’s still working, so I should be snug as a tick on a sheep’s backside.” His forehead wrinkled as he looked from the vicar to Lilian. “Trouble is, I’m not sure where Uncle Hector lived.”
“He lived in Ivy Cottage,” I informed him. “It’s not far from here. If you’ll drive me home, I’ll point it out to you.”
“Deal,” said Jack. His brilliant grin widened suddenly into a gaping yawn. “Sorry,” he muttered, raising a hand to cover a second yawn. “I reckon jet lag’s caught up with me. I’m knackered.”
“If you’ll come to the vicarage, I’ll give you tea, eggs, bacon—whatever you need for breakfast,” said Lilian. “You can stock your pantry properly when you’ve recovered from your travels.”
“You’re one out of the box, Mrs. Bunting,” said Jack, clapping her on the shoulder.
Sally Pyne stepped forward and said timidly, “I could pack up a bite or two for you, too, Jack.”
“So could I,” Opal Taylor said, sliding neatly in front of Sally. “You’ll be too tired to shop tomorrow—”
“And we can’t let you starve!” gushed Selena Buxton, jostling Opal to one side.
“Cheers, ladies, that’d be great,” said Jack, winking at them.
Sally, Opal, Selena, and the rest of Jack’s fans dispersed to prepare their special offerings for transport. Jack smiled good-naturedly, then focused his attention on a single, unassuming cookie on the edge of his plate. He picked it up and studied it for a moment, then popped the whole thing into his mouth. A faraway look came to his eyes as he chewed.
“Magic,” he said, smacking his lips appreciatively. “I don’t suppose you can tell me who made the Anzac biscuits.”
“That would be Bree Pym,” Lilian informed him. “You may have noticed her in the churchyard—the dark-haired girl with the nose ring.”
“Bree’s from New Zealand,” I said.
“That would explain it,” said Jack. “No one but a true blue Aussie or a can-do Kiwi can make a proper Anzac biscuit. I’ll have to thank Bree for giving me a taste of home.” He craned his neck to scan the room. “Is she here?”
“I’m afraid not,” said Lilian. “Bree remained in the churchyard with our sexton, to fill in your uncle’s grave.”
“Bree helped Mr. Barlow to dig it, too,” said the vicar. “She and Mr. Barlow shared the task of lowering the coffin into its final resting place.”
“That little girl dug a grave?” Jack exclaimed. “She must be stronger than she looks.”
“Word to the wise,” I said. “Don’t call Bree a little girl. She won’t appreciate it and you might live to regret it because, yes, she’s a whole lot stronger than she looks.”
“Point taken,” said Jack.
“Bree’s very fit,” the vicar observed, “but Mr. Barlow is of the opinion that coffin-lowering is a matter of technique rather than strength.”
“Either way, I have a hell of a lot to thank Bree Pym for,” said Jack. “And Mr. Barlow, too. Good thing I’ll be staying on for a bit.” He yawned again and a tide of tiredness dimmed his bright blue eyes.
“Come along,” said Lilian, getting to her feet. “It won’t take me a moment to fill a basket for you at the vicarage. Then you and Lori can be on your way.”
“If Ivy Cottage is in any way deficient,” said the vicar, “please feel free to accept my wife’s invitation to stay with us.”
“Thanks, Mr. Bunting,” said Jack, “but to do my job, I need to be on the spot.”
“Your job?” inquired the vicar.
“Didn’t I say?” said Jack. “I’m here to settle Uncle Hector’s affairs.”
Try as I might, I couldn’t imagine what kind of affairs a quiet, retiring man like Hector Huggins would leave unsettled, but I didn’t press Jack for details. The drive home would give me ample time to conduct a proper interrogation.
The good people of Finch bestowed a whole week’s worth of food upon Jack MacBride as he exited the schoolhouse. The vicar and I helped him to tote the bulging bags and the brimming baskets to his rental car and I watched with interest as he pushed aside a beat-up khaki backpack and a rectangular black box to make room for his bounty.
The black box instantly caught and held my attention. It reminded me of the boxes Bill used to store legal papers for his English clients. I wondered if it contained the papers Aldous Winterbottom had delivered to Jack at Heathrow and whether those papers concerned Hector Huggins’s unsettled affairs. Given half a chance, I would have taken a quick peek inside, but I wasn’t given any chance at all.
Before I could so much as bend down for a closer look at the box, Lilian was beside me, placing the promised supply of staples in the trunk. With a sigh, I closed the trunk, climbed into the car, and waited for Jack to say his good-byes to the Buntings. I waved to Lilian and the vicar as Jack took his place behind the steering wheel, then directed him to drive toward the humpbacked bridge.
“I appreciate the lift,” I said. “Bill took the boys home in our car. If it weren’t for you, I’d have a damp two-mile walk ahead of me.”
“My pleasure, Mrs. Willis,” said Jack.
“I’m Lori Shepherd,” I informed him. “I didn’t change my last name when I married Bill, but it hardly matters because everyone calls me Lori. I hope you will, too, Jack.”
“Right you are, Lori,” he said with an amiable nod.
“Sorry about the lousy weather,” I said.
“We have our fair share of rain in Oz,” he said. “It buckets down during the monsoon. Rivers break their banks, flood towns. Rain’s a bloody nuisance in the wet.”
“The wet?” I repeated.
“The monsoon season,” Jack explained. “We call it ‘the wet’ and it is. It’s not so cold, though.” He smiled ruefully. “Wish I’d taken the time to find my socks. My feet are bloody frozen.”
“I prescribe a hot bath and a roaring fire,” I said. “And a nice cup of tea. A cat in your lap would warm you up, too, but I don’t think your uncle owned a cat.”
“No,” said Jack. “Uncle Hector wasn’t one for pets.”
We bumped over the humpbacked bridge and I advised Jack to slow to a crawl. “See the big, shaggy hedgerow?” I said, pointing ahead and to my right. “Ivy Cottage is behind it. The narrow gap is for the front gate and the wider one is for the driveway.”
“Ta,” said Jack.
I gestured to my left. “My father-in-law lives across the lane. He wanted to attend your uncle’s funeral, but he’s recovering from a bad chest cold and we didn’t want him to risk a relapse. To tell you the truth, we had to lock him in his bedroom and hide the key.”
“Really?” said Jack, looking surprised.
“No, not really,” I admitted. “But he does regret missing the funeral. He has strong feelings about participating in communal rituals.”
“Poor old cobber,” said Jack. “Hope he’s fighting fit again soon.”
“Thanks,” I said, smiling at the mental image of my genteel father-in-law brandishing boxing gloves at a brutish opponent. “William’s housekeeper would have been there, too, but she had to stay at home to keep an eye on him.”
“In case he found the key, eh?” said Jack.
“More or less,” I said. “Her name is Deirdre Donovan. If you need anything—a cup of sugar, directions to the gas station—she’ll be happy to help.”
“Helpful sort of place, Finch,” Jack commented.
“We try.” And we try a lot harder for someone with your good looks and sunny disposition, I added silently. Aloud, I said, “Two miles to go to my cottage. Then you can drive straight back to Ivy Cottage and hit the sack.”
“That’s the plan,” he said.
“I hope your uncle didn’t leave too much for you to do,” I said.
“Not too much.” Jack shrugged nonchalantly. “No worries.”
“Excellent,” I said, hiding my disappointment behind another smile. A generalized “not too much” wasn’t the sort of in-depth personal information I’d hoped to glean from Jack during our time together, but I gave it another shot. “Did you know him well?”
“Well enough,” Jack replied.
I began to suspect that Jack was too tired to give my questions the answers they deserved, but before I could try again, he turned the tables on me.
“You’re a Yank, aren’t you?” he asked. “A Pom would’ve said ‘petrol’ station.”
“I am a Yank,” I confirmed. “Bill is, too, but we’ve spent the past ten years in England.”
“Why?” he asked.
“I inherited property here, and since my husband’s clients live in Europe, we decided to make England our home base,” I replied. “But, mainly, we moved here because we fell in love with Finch. It’s a great place to raise a family.”
“I’ll bet it is,” said Jack. “Quiet, safe, lots of room for the kiddies to run about, no yobbos to set them a bad example.”
“No,” I agreed. “No yobbos.”
“Except for me,” said Jack, giving me a sheepish glance. “I’ll have to clean up my act while I’m here. Wouldn’t want the ankle biters picking up my bad habits.”
“Well,” I allowed, “if you could use words like bloody sparingly, or not at all, Bill and I would be grateful. We know our children hear worse language in the school yard, but we do our best to cultivate civility at home.”
“Consider it done,” said Jack.
“No offense,” I added anxiously.
“None taken,” he said. “When in Rome—”
He interrupted himself with a gigantic yawn and I brought the question-and-answer session to a close. There was nothing to be gained from hammering away at a man who was too sleepy to finish his sentences, so I spent the rest of the short trip pointing out notable landmarks. Jack studied Bree’s redbrick house carefully as we passed it, but he barely glanced at Emma’s curving drive, and he seemed unmoved by the lush, green, sheep-dotted pastures that popped into view between the dripping hedgerows.
“I’d rather be counting them than looking at them,” he admitted. “Jet lag’s a bugger.”
I winced inwardly, but Jack seemed to hear himself because he immediately rephrased his comment.
“That is to say,” he said, in a plummy English accent, “jet lag’s a dreadful bore.”
I grinned and gave him an approving thumbs-up, then suggested that he slow down again as we approached my cottage. A moment later, he pulled into the graveled drive, switched off the ignition, and turned to face me. Upon closer inspection, his sky-blue eyes were bloodshot and there was a hint of pallor beneath his deep tan. The sooner he went to bed, I thought, the better.
“May I beg a favor, Lori?” he asked.
“Beg away,” I told him.
“The thing is,” he said, “I’ll never finish all the tucker the ladies piled onto me. Would they mind if I asked you to take some of it off my hands?”
“Yes,” I said without a moment’s hesitation. “Gifts, once given, may not be re-gifted and they must never, under any circumstances, be returned. Not in Finch, at any rate.”
“It could be our little secret,” he said imploringly. “No one would have to know.”
“Everyone would know within the hour,” I said flatly. “Don’t ask me how it happens. It just happens. There are no secrets in Finch, Jack, and the sooner you accept this fact of life, the better off you’ll be. If you want to get rid of the excess, uh, tucker, I suggest you bury it in the woods in the dead of night, but even then there’s a fifty-fifty chance that someone will see you.”
He frowned for a moment, then brightened.
“I could invite people to lunch,” he suggested. “Are you and Bill and the twins free tomorrow?”
“Sorry,” I said, shaking my head. “Sundays are family days. We spend them with Bill’s father.”
“Just as well, really,” Jack said resignedly. “I’ll be bumping into walls until I adjust to the time change. How about Monday?”
“The boys will be in school and Bill will be at the office,” I said, “but I’d be happy to join you for lunch on Monday.”
“You think Bree Pym might come, too?” Jack asked. “It’d give me a chance to thank her for looking after Uncle Hector’s grave.”
“I’ll extend an invitation to her in your name. In the meantime . . .” I took a pen from my purse, scribbled my phone number on a scrap of paper scrounged from the bottom of my trench coat pocket, and handed it to Jack. “If you need anything, give me a call. We may be temporary neighbors, but we’re still neighbors.”
“And in Finch, neighbors help neighbors.” Jack nodded. “I’m beginning to see why Uncle Hector loved it here. See you on Monday, then, around noon or thereabouts?”
“I’ll be there.” I opened the car door. “Are you sure you’re alert enough to get back to Ivy Cottage in one piece? The curve by Bree’s house can be a little tricky, especially when the roads are slick.”
“No worries,” he assured me. “Thanks for the tour, Lori.”
“Thanks for the lift,” I said, getting out of the car. “And welcome to Finch.”
I waited to make sure he was driving toward the village rather than away from it, then splashed up the flagstone path and let myself into the cottage.
An ominous silence greeted me.
I hung my trench coat on the coat rack, stepped out of my rain boots, placed my shoulder bag on the hall table, and tiptoed into the living room, where I found my menfolk—including our sleek black cat, Stanley—asleep in a heap on the couch.