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It was the ghost nonsense that started it.
Lily Teagarden had seen the phantom lights herself at night, flickering among the wide strip of trees that divided Thistlethwaite, her family's property, from the estate belonging to their absentee neighbor, Viscount Roxham. The trees belonged to him as well.
She did not believe in ghosts or spirits of any kind.
But most of Highcross village did, doubtless in part because as children they'd been told of the two people who'd met a dastardly end in the Mayfield woods fifty years before. Since no trace of the villain had ever been found, legend held that the crime had been done by an evil spirit-one who might still linger among the shadowy underbrush. Generations of misbehaving children had been warned that the barbarous Woods Fiend would find them if they didn't mend their ways.
That well-developed fear was doubtless behind what had just been delivered to the little stone building at the back of Thistlethwaite Manor, where Lily was currently standing with her hands folded tightly in front of her and frustration deepening her breath. Before her stood a large crate of neatly folded shawls over which she'd toiled with persistence and a deep sense of purpose. A note had been sent with them, which read in part:
I regret that I must return these unsold shawls, but I can no longer have them in my shop. Because of the situation near your property and its proximity to the sheep that produce the yarn, ladies no longer wish to be seen wearing them. Mrs. Croat was actually followed by a small crowd who forced her to take her shawl off and burn it.
Doubtless things would not have gotten to such a state had Mary Wortham not been wearing one of the shawls when the little tree fell on her, but with the rumors circulating about the Thistlethwaite sheep, superstitious people can talk of nothing else.
Perhaps in the future if the problem is resolved, we might again do business. Until then, I see no market for your shawls.
Lily folded the letter and creased it sharply. This was doubtless the reason Helen hadn't come to work for the last three days. Helen was the one who'd seen Parsley coming out of the woods-the sheep had been rolling her eyes and Helen had said, in a quivering voice, that Parsley had been taken over by the Woods Fiend. Lily had said it was midges.
Apparently, Helen had been talking.
The September afternoon carried late summer warmth, and the back of one of Lily's sticky hands was covered with fluff from the wool she'd been picking through. As she considered the crate of shawls, she meticulously picked the fluff off her hands and gathered it into a neat puff that she put on the table. An unruly trickle of perspiration slid downward from the immaculate knot that kept her white-blond hair tidy and threatened to soak into the collar of her pale blue frock, but she brushed it away with a precise swipe of her index finger.
"So our sheep are possessed," she said aloud, giving vent to her frustration. "What, are they going to float into our rooms at night and nibble us all to death?"
"Oh, Li-ly," her younger sister Delia sang out as she rushed through the door of the little house, "I have the most amazing news." At fifteen, Delia never walked when she could rush. "Wait, what do you mean we're going to be nibbled to death?"
"Apparently everyone thinks our sheep are haunted or possessed or some such."
Delia let out a bark of laughter before clapping her hand over her mouth.
"I'm sorry, Lil," she said when she had collected herself, "it's just that Rosemary and Thyme would make such adorable ghosts." She saw the crate of shawls. "But what's all this?"
Lily found that she was clenching her teeth, and she made herself relax. This would be-surely it must be-resolved if only the Mayfield estate would do its part. She'd gone there last week when Helen had first suggested the Woods Fiend was responsible for the phantom lights, and Mr. Prescott, the estate manager, had listened and nodded, but there'd been no result. She'd even considered investigating herself, but if something nefarious were going on in the woods, she'd be ill equipped to respond.
She couldn't do without the money the shawls made.
"Mr. Trent sent them back," she explained. "Between Helen gossiping about evil spirits and what happened to Mary Wortham, our shawls are now very much non grata." Lily sat down at the table and dropped her chin onto her upraised palm and considered what to do. She forced herself not to dwell on the owner of Mayfield, even though it was no surprise that Roxham should be a neglectful landlord.
"Oh, dear. That is bad news," Delia said as she moved closer and perched on the edge of the table. Her blond hair was a few shades darker than Lily's-of the four Teagarden siblings, Lily had the lightest hair-and arranged in a pretty style that Delia had devised herself.
She reached for Lily's hand. "I know how much you like your clandestine shawl-making. All that special knitting, even late at night. And it's worked out having Helen as the public face of the business all these years." She squeezed Lily's hand as if to shore her up. "But now that every penny from the business doesn't need to be saved anymore..."
Oh, yes, every penny did need to be saved, Lily thought. But her plans for her proceeds from the business were her secret.
"The shawl business is important to me," she said, though she knew Delia didn't see why. Their brothers, Rob and Ian, didn't understand either why she persisted in making the shawls herself. The business had been started four years before, as part of the siblings' efforts to pay off the large debts that were discovered when their father died. The fact that Lily did much of the work herself had always been kept secret so it wouldn't be known she was engaged in trade. But now that the debts had been paid and Lily continued to work, her siblings looked on it as her odd secret hobby. Though Lily loved them, she wasn't ready to say why she needed to keep working.
"But it's not genteel," Delia said with a faint air of impatience.
To the devil with genteel, Lily wanted to say. Genteel was about papering over what really went on in people's lives. But it wasn't Delia's fault that she knew little of the unpresentable side of life, and Lily was glad that she didn't.
"Well," Delia went on, "with Mr. Trent not wanting to sell the shawls... maybe this is a good time to give up the business."
"Oh, I'm not going to give it up," Lily said, "and certainly not over this Woods Fiend nonsense."
"But what else is there to do if nobody wants to buy the shawls?"
"Nobody wants to buy them because they think they're tainted. But if someone from Mayfield would resolve the problem, people would want the shawls again." Lily stood up.
Delia stopped swinging her leg and narrowed her eyes. "You're not going to do something strident, are you?"
"Strident? It's perfectly acceptable to ask that our neighbor do the right thing."
Delia hopped off the table and took hold of Lily's sleeve. "But you can't do that! It's-it's unseemly. At least wait a few days, until Rob and Ian come back."
"I'm too annoyed to wait. Mayfield has been a careless neighbor of late, and something must be done."
"But what will Roxham think?"
"He won't think a thing-he's never there. As far as I can tell, he's washed his hands of the estate."
"But that's what I came to tell you," Delia said, giving Lily's sleeve an urgent shake. "He's here, with a party of ladies and gentlemen." She finally released the fabric and threw her arms in the air. "There's going to be a ball at Mayfield-and we're invited!"
Lily blinked at this gust of information. "What? After years away, the lord has come back to the manor? It can't be true."
"But it is! His sister herself came just now to deliver the invitation. And, oh, Eloise Waverly is unbelievably fashionable and charming."
"Of course she is."
Delia tilted her head. "Didn't you like Eloise when they used to be at Mayfield?"
"I suppose she was nice enough."
Privately, Lily admitted that perhaps she'd let her animosity toward Hal-no, Viscount Roxham, as she made sure to think of him now-color her feelings about his younger sister. She'd known his family from childhood-their families were neighbors and the two most important families in the area, even if the Teagardens were far lower on the social scale than the viscount's family.
"Well, I like her so far," Delia said. "And she's sixteen, too-only a bit older than me, so I hope we'll be great friends."
"You'd be great friends with a kitten if she were sixteen, you're so starved for company. I'll just go and have a quick word with the viscount."
Delia's face fell. "Oh, Lily, no. I'm begging you not to go to him over the Woods Fiend. He's a viscount now, for goodness' sake-he needn't concern himself with something like this. Besides, they've just invited us to a ball, and it will seem ungrateful to complain."
"I am ungrateful if they're not going to be good neighbors."
Delia crossed her arms. "Rob wouldn't like it, your going over there about this."
Lily didn't exactly like the idea of approaching Roxham either; she couldn't think of the last time she'd seen him without shuddering from the bottom of her soul.
"Rob needn't even know."
"Oh," Delia fairly wailed, "but you are so uninterested in being pleasing to gentlemen. I still squirm when I think of how you wouldn't let Mr. Easton give you flowers last week at the fair."
"He was going to pick them from a bush where they were growing so beautifully. It was wrong."
"No, he wanted to do something gallant because he thinks you are pretty."
"There, you see. I don't want Mr. Easton to think I'm pretty."
"Argh, Lily. You always have to be so focused on things being worthy."
Lily laughed. "Very well, I promise to do at least one unworthy thing in the coming week. See how agreeable I am?"
Delia sighed. "Well, if you really must go, put on something pretty first. That blue frock is so plain. You want to look your best if you are going to see Roxham. And be your most winning. He's-"
"Yes, I know. Lord Perfect. All the ladies adore him, et cetera, even though he's vowed not to marry until he's fifty-one. I know perfectly well what he looks like and that he knows how to charm," Lily said, cherishing a hope that he was getting fat by now, or was a wasted wreck of a man, or at the very least in constant despair over the fact that he was a shallow person. It would only be fair, really, if he'd developed a case of persistent boils.
Delia, gazing off into space, missed the scorn in her sister's voice. "First a dashing, brave army captain, and now he's a viscount. I can barely remember him, but he must be so handsome now, like Achilles."
"Achilles wasn't even real! Honestly, Delia. I just want him to see to his property so we don't all suffer."
And in fact, as she set out toward Mayfield with her dog, Buck, beside her, Lily was glad that she wasn't finely turned out. If she'd looked her best, she might have been tempted to try to charm Lord Perfect herself. But she was a different person now from the silly sixteen-year-old she'd been when last she'd seen him.
And she didn't need him to like her anymore.
Under the domed, ornate roof of the small rotunda on the eastern edge of the Mayfield estate, Hal, Viscount Roxham, crouched next to his young nephew, Freddy, who had eyes for nothing but the burning length of a slow match on the stone floor before them and the twist of paper in his uncle's hand.
Sitting on tall-backed chairs that servants had brought were Freddy's mother, Diana, and Hyacinth Whyte, a pretty widow. Occasional faint bursts of Italian, along with clattering sounds, came from a site somewhat distant where two men were at work amid a pile of stones.
"I really don't know that a child of five ought to be lighting things, Hal," Diana said.
"Nonsense," he said. "It's a rite of passage. Men love fire, don't we?"
"Yes!" Freddy said gleefully, doubtless thinking of his napping brother. "It's only for men."
The firecracker felt insignificant in Hal's hand; he was aware of an itching desire for something larger, like a rocket.
"Roxham is very good at setting things on fire," Hyacinth said suggestively. Hal could feel his sister-in-law lifting an eyebrow in his direction. The firecracker lesson had been partly motivated by a wish for less time alone with Hyacinth, which was shabby of him, as he was the one who'd invited her. He'd thought he might enjoy her silliness and chatter, but he hadn't. Which didn't necessarily have anything to do with her.
"So, Freddy," Hal said, "take the firecracker"-Freddy took hold eagerly-"and you're going to press the part that's sticking up on the slow ma-"
Freddy pressed the firecracker to the match before Hal could finish instructing.
"Throw it, boy!"
The firecracker sailed from the rotunda, emitting a loud crack. This was immediately followed by a sharp cry that came from behind the rotunda, along with a series of barks.
"Heavens," Diana said as they all turned to see Mayfield's butler approaching them in company with a petite, pale-haired woman and a black-and-white hound. "Who is that?"
At first glance, Hal didn't know-and then, as she drew closer and the detail of the prim set of her mouth could be added to the near-whiteness of her hair, recognition dawned, along with a spurt of gratitude at the diversion she would represent.
"Miss Teagarden to see you, my lord," Johnson said. Hal was already walking toward her.
"Lily Teagarden." He bowed. Teagardens... he'd forgotten all about them. It had been ages since he'd seen any of them.
"My lord." Her curtsy was a sketch, a brisk reference to what was owed a viscount. He wouldn't expect formality from such close neighbors as the Teagardens, and the last time he'd seen her he'd been merely a captain in the Foot Guards and the younger brother of a viscount. Still, there was no warmth in her greeting either. Her eyes flicked to the floor of the rotunda, where the still-burning slow match was gradually disappearing.
"I'm sorry about your brother," she said. "He was a fine man."
"Yes, he was," he said, an inadequate reply he'd made countless times in the last six months since acceding to a title that never should have been his. "And how is your family?"
"My sister is well. Rob and Ian are away at present."
He was about to ask after her father when he remembered that Mr. Teagarden had died some years ago-of drink, it had been rumored, though he didn't remember the man being a sot.
He presented her to Diana, Hyacinth, and Freddy.
"We're lighting firecrackers," Freddy informed her.
"Yes, I heard."
"Wasn't it splendid?"
"I should think you'd like a demonstration up close," Hal said. Her primness was irresistible.
"N-" she started to say, but caught sight of Freddy's eager face. Her stiff smile softened into quite a kind look and she said, "Certainly."
"Oh Hal, he needn't do more," Diana said. "It is rather loud."
"Nonsense, I'm certain there's nothing Miss Teagarden would like better."
Hal handed Freddy a firecracker; Freddy pressed it immediately to the slow match and flung the burning twist of gunpowder away. The satisfying crack was followed by an equally satisfying yelp from Miss Teagarden.
"Well done, Freddy," she said a little tightly. "Most diverting."
Turning to Hal, she said, "Might I have a word with you in private, my lord?"
A private word with him? "Certainly, Miss Teagarden," he said, wondering why they were being so formal when it had been Hal and Lily when they were younger. He excused himself from the others and led her toward the shade provided by a copse of trees. Her dog followed them like a furry chaperone.
"It's about the woods between our properties. The villagers think the Woods Fiend is back."
"The Woods Fiend?" he said. "By Jove, I'd forgotten about him." As children, he and his elder brother, Everard, had gone on raids of the woods looking for the Fiend. Everard had always led the way, with Hal his faithful lieutenant.
If only Everard were still here, he thought for the thousandth time.
"People are saying that he's possessed our sheep, or haunted them, or some such." She made an impatient gesture as she uttered these bizarre words. "Thistlethwaite is known for the shawls made from our wool, but the rumors are hurting the business. So I ask that you find out what's going on in the woods at night so this silliness can be cleared up. Please."
He absorbed this slightly breathless request. Since he'd become viscount, many things had been asked of him, but this was certainly the strangest. "The Woods Fiend is believed to be possessing your sheep?"
"I'm not surprised you know nothing of this," she said with an air of accusation, as if to suggest that this trouble was his fault. "I've spoken to Mr. Prescott, but to no avail."
Ah. Prescott had managed Mayfield for decades, and as Everard had relied on him, Hal had known he could, too. However, since arriving at Mayfield yesterday, he'd become increasingly convinced that the man was going deaf, despite trying to carry off a charade that he could hear. So that was something else to contend with.
Since becoming viscount, Hal's respect for his brother had only grown as he'd seen the effort it took to meet all the needs of the role. Everard had been perfect for the task; all his life, Hal had known that his brilliant, unselfish, dedicated brother was the ideal person to be viscount. Hal hadn't even minded knowing that he himself was lacking in comparison-Everard was such a good man that he'd always wished him the best.
And, damn fate for the cruel idiot that it was, Everard had been carried off by a fever six months ago. Leaving Hal-the unsuitable brother, the one who made mistakes, the one who had so much trouble being serious-in a role that never should have been his. If he could have given the viscountcy to his steady younger brother John, he would have. But hereditary titles didn't work that way.
He cleared his throat. "Why do people think the Woods Fiend is in the neighborhood? And... tampering with your sheep?"
The flicker in her eyes dared him to laugh about the problem she'd brought to him. They were pretty eyes, of an intense if surprisingly soft blue.
It was funny, he thought, how you could forget a person entirely, and then years later meet that person again and there was that feeling you got from being around him or her. The feeling he'd always gotten around Lily was amusement tinged with irritation; she could be a killjoy.
But one thing had certainly changed in the intervening years. She used to be odd-looking. All the Teagardens had blond hair, but hers had been the palest, a white-blond that had made her seem fragile, a little unearthly, and not in a charming, pixie-ish way. Compared to the rest of her family, she'd been different, because her brothers were handsome and tall. She'd been too thin, which had doubtless been much of the problem with her looks, because the whole effect had been a sort of sickly almost-colorlessness.
That had all changed. Her blue dress was not fashionable-he would have described it as adequate-but it skimmed a very fine figure that started with a set of shoulders held decisively upright. Her face had acquired an interesting definition, and he felt rewarded for his attention by something unique. Those sharply intelligent cornflower blue eyes, which had not seemed remarkable to him when he was younger, now struck him as compelling. In truth, she was a beauty.
"Lights have been observed in the woods at night," she said, "and people take that for a sign he's there. Though why a spirit should need lights, no one stops to think."
He would wager the foolishness of adults believing in spirits would annoy her-she had such a determined air, as if she had things to accomplish and the Woods Fiend was in her way. "Who knows, really," he said, "how well specters can see in the dark?"
She did not dignify that with anything more than a glare. Even her dog was glaring at him. But what a farce, and undeniably the only truly amusing thing that had been brought to him since he'd left the brotherhood of the army.
A heavy clatter came from the folly site, drawing her attention, and she squinted into the distance at the half-completed building. "What are you building over there?"
"A folly." The builders were a father and son, Italian mercenaries his men had captured in Portugal. The duo were soon deemed rather tenderhearted, and in the way that his troops often adopted stray dogs, the Italians had been adopted and trusted with small jobs. Not knowing how his replacement would look upon the two men, Hal had brought Giuseppe and Pietro with him when Everard's death had made him viscount. "It's to be a miniature ruined amphitheater."
"Doesn't Mayfield already have a folly by the lake?"
"Yes, but I can't see it from the manor."
She sniffed. "Another folly."
Her lips pressed together in disapproval; she seemed to have rather a lot of exasperation with him already. It was almost as if he'd offended her beforehand, which was ridiculous, since he hadn't seen her in...
A smile tugged his lips as he remembered. Her fair brows drew together.
"You know very well, my lord, that there's no Woods Fiend. It's obvious someone is up to something in your woods. I would appreciate it if you would please see to this problem as soon as possible."
"I'm surprised Rob and Ian haven't gone after the Fiend themselves."
"The problem developed after they left."
She was waiting for him to agree to help, and then she would turn on her heel and stride back to Thistlethwaite with her hound. But he wasn't ready for her to leave yet, perhaps because her acerbic presence was so interesting-he never got acerbic treatment from females, of any age.
"You know, Lily Teagarden, now that I see you here, I'm reminded of the last time I saw you. Because it was here at Mayfield, on the terrace, wasn't it? You can see the spot quite well from here. Look." She refused to turn her head, but he'd had his reaction in the spill of pink now suffusing her fair cheeks. A keener alertness sharpened the cornflower eyes.
"It was a fine summer evening, as I recall," he said. "There I was on the terrace, chatting with friends, not even aware of your presence. Understandable, in that you'd concealed yourself in the bushes." The color in her cheeks deepened.
"I'm not as entertained as you by memories of that night," she said tartly.
"Oh, come, it's amusing now, isn't it? You're all grown up, and you can have a laugh about your younger self."
"As you say, it was a long time ago. Now, if you'll promise to see to the woods, I'll be on my way."
But a commotion by the rotunda drew their attention; it was his brother John returning from a stroll with their sister, Eloise, and Hal's friend Colin, the Earl of Ivorwood. Everyone was looking at Hal and his visitor, no doubt wondering what they were discussing. Eloise, ever exuberant, came over, trailed by Freddy and the others.
"Why, Lily Teagarden!" she said. "How good to see you. It's been years."
Warmth softened Lily's heretofore stiff features. Cool, small, collected-with her white-blond hair, she was like a petite, pristine snowdrift. "Miss Eloise Waverly, it's-it's really quite lovely to see you again."
"Can we know the secret you were talking about?" Freddy asked.
"Secret?" Eloise said.
Hal could see Lily wanted to keep this Woods Fiend business quiet, but that would be closing the barn door after the horse was out since apparently the rest of the neighborhood was already atwitter with it. "Which secret did you mean?" he said innocently.
Eloise's eyes lit with interest. "Is there more than one?"
"Perhaps," Hal said. "What do you say, Miss Teagarden?"