It was a dark and stormy afternoon on the high moors of Northumberland. A cold October rain battered the Range Rover's roof and the fog was as thick as porridge. I hoped my hosts at Wyrdhurst Hall would hold high tea for me, because it looked as though I might be a bit late.
Thanks to the murky weather, I'd almost certainly missed the turnoff for Wyrdhurst's gated drive. To judge by the Rover's lurching progress, I'd somehow left the paved road altogether and veered onto a narrow, muddy track that seemed to be climbing straight into the clouds.
I could do nothing but climb with it. The moorland rose steeply to my right and fell sharply to my left. There was no place to turn around and I had no intention of backing down a road I could barely see.
I had even less intention of using my handy cell phone to inform my husband of the vehicular pickle I'd gotten myself into. Bill had already expressed grave reservations about my ability to drive without incident from our home in the Cotswolds to a remote location near the Scottish border. If I called to tell him where I wasor more precisely, where I wasn'the wouldn't say "I told you so," but he'd think it loudly enough for me to hear.
Apart from that, there was nothing Bill could do to help, short of sending a Hercules helicopter to airlift me to safety, and I couldn't imagine even the most intrepid chopper pilot volunteering to fly in such wretched weather.
The only phone call I was tempted to make was a transatlantic one to Boston, to pour my frustration intothe ear of Dr. Stanford J. Finderman, my former boss. The farther I climbed, the more willing I was to blame Stan for every splash of rain that blurred my windshield. After all, the trip had been his idea. I ground my teeth as I recalled the way in which he'd goaded me into driving to a distant corner of northeastern England in the monsoon month of October.
"Shepherd! How the hell are ya?" Stan was the curator of my alma mater's rare-book collection, but his colorful language owed more to a stint in the navy than to his years in the rarefied world of rare books. "You remember Dickie Byrd?"
I shook the cobwebs from my professional memory and came up with: Richard Fleetwood Byrd; head of a thriving family firm based in northern England; a hardnosed, irascible rascal with a soft spot for illuminated manuscripts. I hadn't laid eyes on him for the past eight years, but I doubted that he'd changed much since then.
"The scrap-iron king of Newcastle?" I sat at the desk in the study, where I'd taken the call. "Sure, I remember him. What's up with Dickie?"
"His niece Nicole just got married," Stan informed me. "Goes by the name Nicole Hollander now. Hubby's called Jared."
"You want me to drop off a wedding present?" I asked.
"Just listen up, will ya?" Stan replied testily. "Dickie's Nicole's legal guardian and she's the apple of his eye. Little Nickie wanted a country house for a wedding present, so Dickie let her choose one of the family estates. She chose a big old Victorian heap way the hell up in Northumberland. It's called Wyrdhurst Hall."
"Weird hearse?" I echoed, grimacing. "Creepy name for a wedding present."
"Dust off your Old English dictionary, Shepherd. It's spelled W-Y-R-D-H-U-R-S-T. Means 'watch-place on the wooded hill.' Dickie's grandpa built it. Came complete with its own librarymore than a thousand books, Dickie tells me."
"Now, that's a nice wedding present," I observed.
"I thought so, too," Stan agreed, "but Dickie doesn't think the books in the library are classy enough for his princess. Wants a professional to decide whether to keep 'em or replace 'em with something better. I'd go myself, but I've got to chair a frigging conservation conference at Yale. Besides, my department's budget ..."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah," I muttered. I'd heard it all before. Whenever Stan caught the scent of a book deal in England, he called on me to check it out. My old boss seemed to be under the impression that I'd moved my family from Boston to a tiny Cotswolds village for the sole purpose of stretching his travel budget. "What's Dickie offering in return for our services?"
"The Serenissima," Stan replied.
I gave a low whistle. The Serenissima was a fifteenth-century prayer book adorned with gold leaf, semiprecious stones, and lots of bright enamel. It was the kind of thing Stan could show off proudly at donors' dinners. "Isn't that a pretty big payoff for such a little favor?"
"What can I say? Dickie wants the best bookman in the business to work for his niece. That's why he called me. And that's why I'm calling you. Will ya help me out, Shepherd? Northumberland's right up your alleyall the scenery you can eat."
I was tempted, sorely tempted, by Stan's offer. It had been ages since I'd prowled a really juicy private library, and I'd never set foot in Northumberland. The Gypsy in me kicked up her heels at the thought of roaming those misty, myth-filled hills, but the responsible mother in me put her foot down.
"How long will it take?" I asked.
"A week, tops," Stan assured me. "The Hollanders are already in residence. They'll put you up in style."
"A week?" I sighed. "That's an awfully long time for me to be away. Bill might not want to spend a whole week on his own with the twins, now that they're walking and talking and teething and"
"Your new nanny a stinker?" Stan interrupted.
My new nanny was, in fact, worth more to me than the Serenissima would ever be. Annelise Sciaparelli had inherited the job from her older sister, who'd married and moved to Oxford. Childminding skills evidently ran in the family, because Annelise was every bit as caring and competent as Francesca had been.
"Annelise is a gem," I replied, "but"
"When's the last time Bill hightailed it off on one of his business trips?" Stan pressed. "What's sauce for the goose ..."
"That's unfair," I protested. "Bill's work is important and"
"And yours isn't? I get the picture, Shepherd. Just let me know what your lord and master decides, will ya?" My old boss snorted derisively and hung up.
I returned the phone to its cradle and gazed pensively through the study's ivy-webbed window. I should have ignored Stan's cheap shots, treated them with the contempt they deserved, and I would have, if they hadn't contained one tiny particle of truth.
I hadn't gotten out much, lately, whereas Bill had gotten out quite a lot.
In the nineteen months since the twins had been born, I'd spent exactly one night apart from them. Bill, on the other hand, had been gone for weeks on end, supervising the European branch of his family's law firm. I'd agreed to the arrangement willingly enoughno job was more important to me than motherhoodbut Stan's pointed comments made it seem a smidge unfair.
It certainly wasn't healthy. Will and Rob were pearls beyond price, but after a year and a half in their company, I was beginning to sink to their level. As proof, I recalled a fifth-wedding-anniversary dinner at a swanky restaurant in Oxford. Neither Bill nor I would ever forget the pained look on the sommelier's face when I sipped the wine, grimaced horribly, and declared it "yucky."
Clearly, my brain was stagnating. I needed to spend more time among grownups, for the sake of my vocabulary, if nothing else.
While the mother in me dithered, the Gypsy danced, stirred by the lure of those misty hills. By the time I sat down to discuss the trip with my husband, the Gypsy had won out.
"Bill," I began with steely determination, "Stan has a project for me, up in Northumberland."
"That's great!" Bill exclaimed. "It'll do you a world of good to get away from the cottage for a while, and frankly, I'd love to spend some time alone with the boys. I don't want them to grow up thinking fatherhood's a part-time job."
"B-but I'll be gone for at least a week," I sputtered, disconcerted by Bill's support. It was like slamming a fist into a pile of whipped cream.
"No problem," said Bill. "I'll rearrange my schedule, and Gerald can take care of any urgent business that comes up. With Annelise on hand to help with the boys, there'll be nothing for you to worry about."
"True," I acknowledged weakly.
"I can join you when you've finished the job," Bill enthused. "We'll drive up to Edinburgh together and take in a session of the new Scottish Parliament. I've been wanting to see it in action. It's the first time in nearly three hundred years that the Scots" He broke off in midstream to eye me curiously. "For heaven's sake, Lori, you don't have to ask my permission to go. Who do you think I am? Your lord and master?"
"I think," I said, melting, "you're just about perfect."
After kissing my husband as thoroughly as I knew how, I picked up the phone to call Stan, who was tickled pink by the news.
"Knew I could count on you, Shepherd. I'll fax the details and let the Hollanders know you're on your way. Enjoy the scenery."
What scenery? I fumed as the Range Rover continued its precarious ascent. I couldn't see much farther than the white knuckles of my hands gripping the steering wheel. The weatherman on the car radio informed me cheerfully that it had been raining heavily in the north for the past month and seemed to suggest that it would go on raining well into the foreseeable future. I hoped the sun had shone on the Hollanders' wedding day, because I was willing to bet they hadn't seen it since.
There was no point in blaming Stan for my predicament. He might have goaded me into going to Northumberland, but he hadn't made it rain, so I left the cell phone in my shoulder bag, beneath the jacket I'd tossed on the passenger's seat.
Something small and pebbly bounced off the Rover's roof. "Hail," I muttered, rolling my eyes. "What's next? Locusts?"
I glanced over my shoulder at the spots usually occupied by the twins' safety seats, thanked heaven that my boys were safe at home, and nearly swerved off the road as a shower of rocks smacked into the Rover, cracking the windshield and splintering the side windows into a million jagged shards. Scared witless, I jammed on the brakes and skidded to the brink of a landslide that had obliterated the muddy track.
Even as I watched, a spitting, roiling cataract crashed down the steep hillside, devouring the narrow lane and sweeping debris down into the mist. Gingerly, I reached for the gear lever, to shift into reverse, but before I could get hold of it, the car gave a sickening shudder and tilted crazily toward the churning torrent. The ground was giving way beneath my wheels.
My hand froze in midair, then returned slowly, carefully, to release the seat belt. Scarcely daring to breathe, I reached for the door handle, nudged the door open with my elbow, and flung myself onto the muddy track, where blind panic sent me scrambling away from the precipice. Panting with fear, I swung around just in time to see the Range Rover turn tail-up and plunge, like a breaching whale, into the fogbound valley.
I sank limply into the mud, choking back terrified sobs while a tiny, rational corner of my brain stood back calmly and took stock of my situation.
No car, no phone, no coat, and no umbrella. No broken bones, granted, but also no idea of where I was or where I might find shelter.
High tea at Wyrdhurst Hall was looking iffy.