It was supposed to be a quiet afternoon.
Bill and I had spent the morning imbibing vast quantities of fresh air while endeavoring to keep our three-year-old twins from becoming too closely acquainted with all creatures, great and small, at the Cotswolds Farm Park. It had been no easy task. Will and Rob had made heroic efforts to pet each and every one of the park's polka-dotted sheep, crested hens, and striped pigs, and it had taken brute force to prevent them from climbing into the pens to shake hooves with the gentle but gigantic Shire horses.
My husband had chosen to recuperate from his exertions by joining the boys in an afternoon nap, but I'd opted for a cup of tea before the fire in the living room. Quiet moments had become as rare as polka-dotted sheep since the twins had learned to trot and I wanted to savor the tranquillity while it lasted.
It lasted for precisely seven minutes.
The mantel clock was chiming the hour when a thunderous knocking sounded at my front door. I jumped, splashed my hand with scalding tea, and vowed to throttle the nitwit whose thoughtless pounding threatened to rouse my slumbering menfolk. Infuriated, indignant, and in pain, I charged into the hallway, flung the front door wide, and froze.
My friend and neighbor Emma Harris stood on the doorstep, but it was not the Emma Harris I knew. My Emma wasn't given to displays of strong emotion, but the Emma standing on my doorstep looked angry enough to chew barbed wire.
"Lori, let me in or there'll be bloodshed."
I looked down at her clenched fists, decided to avoid the shedding of my own personal blood, and stepped aside.
As Emma stormed past me and into the living room, I glanced outside, saw neither horse nor car, and concluded that she'd walked the mile-long path that wound from her fourteenth-century manor house to my cottage. Emma usually savored woodland walks, but something told me that today's outing had been more of a quick march than a pleasant stroll.
I closed the door, crept cautiously back to the living room, and sank onto the sofa in cowed silence while Emma paced back and forth before the fire, caught up in what appeared to be deeply unpleasant thoughts.
Emma had shed some forty pounds of excess weight over the past year and cut her flowing gray-blond hair to shoulder length. The woman who had once resembled a cuddly koala now moved with the contained ferocity of a caged lioness. When she came to an abrupt halt before me, I had to restrain the urge to shrink back out of reach of her claws.
"What," she demanded, "is your husband's name?"
"Bill," I replied obediently, adding for good measure, "Bill Willis. William Arthur Willis, Junior, to be precise."
"Are you sure?" she snapped. "The only reason I ask is that, until this morning, I thought I knew my husband's name."
I blinked. "It's not Derek Harris?"
"Ha." Emma glared at me through her wire-rimmed glasses. "The husband formerly known as Derek Harris is, in fact, Anthony Evelyn Armstrong Seton, Viscount Hailesham."
Emma gave the title the correct upper-crust English pronunciation, which involved swallowing half the vowels and producing something that sounded vaguely like a sneeze: "Hell-shm."
"Your husband is Viscount Hailesham," I said somberly. "Of course he is. And I am Marie of Romania."
Emma's gray eyes flashed. "This is no time for your silly jokes, Lori."
"Then it must be time for a sedative because you're talking crazy, Emma." I got to my feet and met her glare with a potent one of my own. "Now sit down, calm down, and explain to me why your husband of ten years, a man who respects, admires, and loves you beyond reason, would bother to lie to you about his identity."
"Because," she came back crisply, "he hates his father."
Emma turned on her heel and stalked over to sit in my favorite armchair, leaving me to connect the dots while she seethed.
My glare faded to a thoughtful glimmer as I resumed my seat. Derek Harris had never said much to me about his background. I had the faint notion that his father was an earl and that the two had been estranged for many years, but beyond that I knew very little.
"Do you know where he got the name Derek Harris?" Emma asked, then rushed on without waiting for a reply. "From a carpenter on the family estate. My husband the viscount became Mr. Derek Harris as an act of defiance after his father threatened to disinherit him."
"Why did his father threaten to disinherit him?" I asked.
"Because Derek wanted to work with his hands," Emma replied. "The ninth Earl Elstyn couldn't bear the thought of his son and heir becoming a manual laborer."
"A manual laborer?" My eyebrows rose. Emma's husband was a contractor who specialized in the restoration of historic buildings. He was one of the most highly respected authorities in his field. No one but the most narrow-minded of snobs would dismiss him as a mere manual laborer. "Does the earl have a clear idea of what Derek does for a living?"
"How would I know?" said Emma. "The two haven't spoken in twenty years. That's when Derek defied his father a second time by marrying Mary." She tossed her head in disdain. "Evidently Mary's blood wasn't blue enough to suit Lord Elstyn."
I curled my legs beneath me, intrigued by the unfolding family saga. I was familiar with the tragic story of Mary, Derek's first wife, who'd died shortly after giving birth to their second child. Derek had once told me that it had taken years for him to recover from the loss, and a minor miracle for him to find Emma and fall in love all over again.
"If Lord Elstyn disapproved of Mary, God knows what he'll make of me," Emma said fretfully. "At least she was English. I'm not only a commoner, I'm an American."
"Which means that he defied his father yet again when he married you," I pointed out. "What does Derek's mother think?"
"Derek's mother died when he was a child," Emma replied. "His father never remarried. He must have figured he'd produced an heir, so why bother going through that again?"
I rubbed my nose, bemused. "I have to confess that I never thought of Derek as a rebel."
"I never thought of him as a viscount," Emma grumbled.
"What about the children?" I asked. "Peter and Nell have always gotten along with their grandfather, haven't they? They stay with him often enough." Sixteen-year-old Nell had, in fact, spent most of the past summer at Lord Elstyn's estate. "Why would Derek allow them to visit a father he hates?"
"That's Mary's doing." Emma's stormy expression softened. "As she lay dying, Mary made Derek promise to keep their children out of his quarrel with his father. Derek couldn't go back on a deathbed promise, so Peter and Nell have always been allowed to spend as much time with their grandfather as they wished."
"I don't understand why the earl would want to spend time with Peter and Nell," I said. "He rejected Mary as a commoner. What's kept him from rejecting her children?"
"He doesn't have much choice," Emma explained. "Peter and Nell are his only legitimate grandchildren. It's either accept them or leave Hailesham to some distant cousin."
"Hailesham?" My jaw dropped. "As in Hailesham Park? The place in Wiltshire you told me about? The place with the amazing gardens?"
Emma's eyes narrowed dangerously. "I've avoided those gardens for years, for Derek's sake, but now that I know they belong to him-"
"Hailesham Park belongs to Derek?" I squeaked.
"Not yet," said Emma, "but it will when he inherits the title."
"Which title?" I said breathlessly.
"You haven't been paying attention, Lori," Emma scolded. "Derek isn't simply Lord Elstyn's oldest son, he's Lord Elstyn's only son-his only child. When the earl dies, Derek will inherit everything."
"How?" I wrinkled my nose in confusion. "I'd have thought-"
"Me, too," Emma interrupted. "But apparently no one minds if you change your name, loathe your father, and abandon your family for twenty years, so long as you don't relinquish your titles."
"Which Derek hasn't done," I ventured, and when Emma bridled impatiently, I hurried on. "Okay. Let me get this straight." I leaned forward, elbows on knees, and concentrated. "Derek is Viscount Hailesham, his father is the ninth Earl Elstyn, and the family seat is Hailesham Park, which Derek will inherit when his father dies." I gazed at Emma in wonderment. "And this somehow escaped your attention until this morning?"
"Derek's always been tight-lipped about his family, and I respected his right to keep that part of his life separate from ours," Emma said. "I knew his father was an earl, but I didn't think it meant anything. I didn't think it had anything to do with me. But it does." She gulped. "Derek explained the situation to me this morning because he had to, Lori. We've been summoned to Hailesham Park."
I nearly laughed. "How can Lord Elstyn summon a son he hasn't spoken to in twenty years?"
"By making Nell his messenger," Emma answered.
I smiled wryly. "Derek's never been able to say no to Lady Nell."
"Nell's not a lady," Emma informed me. "She's only an honorable until Derek inherits his father's title."
"An honorable?" I felt as if I were being pummeled with a copy of Debrett's Peerage. "Sorry, Emma, you're losing me again."
"I know how you feel." She breathed a wistful sigh. "Yesterday I was plain old Mrs. Derek Harris. Today I'm the Right Honorable the Viscountess Hailesham. Lori," she said, "I don't know how to be a viscountess!"
It wasn't until I heard the desperation in Emma's voice that I finally understood why she was behaving so strangely. She wasn't angry. She was terrified. I wondered if I'd feel the same way if I awoke one day to find myself married to an English peer, but since Bill and I were both Americans, I doubted I'd ever get the chance to find out.
"Just, er, be yourself," I offered.
"Be myself?" Emma exclaimed. "I'm a gardener, Lori. If I were myself, I'd spend the next ten days manuring my roses. Instead I have to spend them getting ready to face a hostile tribe of aristocrats on their home turf. It's a family reunion, for heaven's sake. It's supposed to last five days. I don't know what to wear or what to say or how to act." She buried her face in her hands. "I just know I'm going to make a fool of myself."
A surge of envy made me less sympathetic to her plight than I might otherwise have been.
"You get to spend five days at Hailesham?" I sighed rapturously. "I'd give my eyeteeth to spend five days in that house."
Emma raised her head. "Hand them over, then," she said, "because I want you to come with me."
I could scarcely believe my ears. "Don't toy with me, Emma."
"I'm not toying with you. I need moral support. Besides," she added pensively, "I may need your help to prevent a murder."
from Aunt Dimity Takes a Holiday by Nancy Atherton, Copyright © 2003 Nancy Atherton, Published by Viking Press, a member of the Penguin Group (USA) Inc., all rights reserved, reprinted with permission from the publisher.