A room without books is like a body without a soul.
—MARCUS TULLIUS CICERO
WELCOME TO STORYTON HALL
Our staff is here to serve you
Resort Manager—Jane Steward
Head Librarian—Mr. Sinclair
Head Chauffeur—Mr. Sterling
Head of Recreation—Mr. Gavin
Head of Housekeeping—Mrs. Pimpernel
Head Chef—Mrs. Hubbard
Select Merchants of Storyton Village
Run for Cover Bookshop—Eloise Alcott
Cheshire Cat Pub—Bob and Betty Carmichael
The Canvas Creamery—Phoebe Doyle
La Grande Dame Clothing Boutique—Mabel Wimberly
Tresses Hair Salon—Violet Osborne
The Pickled Pig Market—the Hogg brothers
Geppetto’s Toy Shop—Barnaby Nicholas
The Potter’s Shed—Tom Green
There were books everywhere. Hundreds of books. Thousands of books. There were books of every size, shape, and color. They lined the walls from floor to ceiling, standing straight and rigid as soldiers on the polished mahogany shelves, the gilt lettering on their worn spines glinting in the soft light, the scent of supple leather and aging paper filling the air.
To Jane Steward, there was no sweeter perfume on earth. Of all the libraries in Storyton Hall, this was her favorite. Unlike the other libraries, which were open to the hotel’s paying guests, this was the personal reading room of her great-uncle Aloysius and great-aunt Octavia.
“Are you ready, Sinclair?” Jane mounted the rolling book ladder and looked back over her shoulder.
A small, portly man with a cloud of white hair and ruddy cheeks wrung his hands in agitation. “Oh, Miss Jane. I wish you wouldn’t ask me to do this. It doesn’t seem prudent.”
Jane shrugged. “You heard what Gavin said at our last staff meeting. The greenhouse is in disrepair, the orchard needs pruning, the hedge maze is overgrown, the folly is hidden in brambles, and the roof above the staff quarters is rotting away. I have to come up with funds somehow. Lots of funds. What I need, Sinclair, is inspiration.” She held out her arms as if she could embrace every book in the room. “What better place to find it than here?”
“Can’t you just shut your eyes, reach out your hand, and choose a volume from the closest shelf?” Sinclair stuck a finger under his collar, loosening his bow tie. Unlike Storyton’s other staff members, he didn’t wear the hotel’s royal blue and gold livery. As the resort’s head librarian, he distinguished himself by dressing in tweed suits every day of the year. The only spot of color that appeared on his person came in the form of a striped, spotted, floral, or checkered bow tie. Today’s was canary yellow with prim little brown dots.
Jane shook her head at the older gentleman she’d known since childhood. “You know that doesn’t work, Sinclair. I have to lose all sense of where I am in the room. The book must choose me, not me, it.” She smiled down at him. “Mrs. Pimpernel tells me that the rails have recently been oiled, so you should be able to push me around in circles with ease.”
“In squares, you mean.” Sinclair sighed in defeat. “Very well, Miss Jane. Kindly hold on.”
Grinning like a little girl, Jane gripped the sides of the ladder and closed her eyes. Sinclair pushed on the ladder, hesitantly at first, until Jane encouraged him to go faster, faster.
“Are you quite muddled yet?” he asked after a minute or so.
Jane descended by two rungs but didn’t open her eyes. “I think I’m still in the Twentieth-Century American Authors section. If I’m right, we need to keep going.”
Sinclair grunted. “It’s getting harder and harder to confuse you, Miss Jane. You know where every book in this library is shelved.”
“Just a few more spins around the room. Please?”
The ladder began to move again. This time, however, Sinclair stopped and started without warning and changed direction more than once. Eventually, he succeeded in disorientating her.
“Excellent!” Jane exclaimed and reached out her right hand. Her fingertips touched cloth and leather. They traced the embossed letters marching up and down the spines for a few brief seconds before traveling to the next book. “Inspire me,” she whispered.
But nothing spoke to her, so she shifted to the left side of the ladder, stretching her arm overhead until her hand brushed against a book that was smaller and shorter than its neighbors. “I believe you have something to tell me,” she said and pulled it from the shelf.
Sinclair craned his neck as if he might be able to read the title from his vantage point on the ground. “Which one chose you, Miss Jane?”
“A British mystery,” she said, frowning. “But I don’t see how—”
At that moment, two boys burst into the room, infusing the air with screams, scuffles, and shouts. The first, who had transformed himself into a knight using a stainless steel salad bowl as a helm and a gray T-shirt covered with silver duct tape as armor, brandished a wooden yardstick. The second boy, who was identical to the first in every way except for his costume, wore a green raincoat. He had the hood pulled up and tied under his chin and he carried two hand rakes. His lips were closed around a New Year’s Eve party favor, and every time he exhaled, its multicolored paper tongue would uncurl with a shrill squeak.
“Boys!” Jane called out to no effect. Her sons dashed around chairs and side tables, nearly overturning the coffee table and its collection of paperweights and framed family photos.
Sinclair tried to get between the knight and the dragon. “Saint George,” he said in a voice that rang with authority, though it was no more than a whisper. “Might I suggest that you conquer this terrifying serpent outdoors? Things are likely to get broken in the fierce struggle between man and beast.”
The first boy bowed gallantly and pointed his sword at Jane. “Fair maid, I’ve come to rescue you from your tower.”
Jane giggled. “Thank you, Sir Fitz, but I am quite happy up here.”
Refusing to be upstaged by his twin brother, the other boy growled and circled around a leather chair and ottoman, a writing desk, and a globe on a stand in order to position himself directly under the ladder. “If you don’t give me all of your gold, then I’ll eat you!” he snarled and held out his hand rakes.
Doing her best to appear frightened, Jane clutched at her chest. “Please, oh fearsome and powerful dragon. I have no gold. In fact, my castle is falling apart around me. I was just wishing for a fairy godmother to float down and—”
“There aren’t any fairies in this story!” the dragon interrupted crossly. “Fairies are for girls.”
“Yeah,” the knight echoed indignantly.
Jane knew she had offended her six-year-old sons, but before she could make amends, her eye fell on the ruler in Fitz’s hands and an idea struck her.
“Fitz, Hem, you are my heroes!” she cried, hurrying down the ladder.
The boys exchanged befuddled glances. “We are?” They spoke in unison, as they so often did.
“But I’m supposed to be a monster,” Hem objected.
Jane touched his cheek. “And you’ve both been so convincing that you can go straight to the kitchen and tell Mrs. Hubbard that I’ve given my permission for you both to have an extra piece of chocolate-dipped shortbread at tea this afternoon.”
Their gray eyes grew round with delight, but then Fitz whispered something in Hem’s ear. Pushing back his salad bowl helm, he gave his mother a mournful look. “Mrs. Hubbard won’t believe us. She’ll tell us that story about the boy who cried wolf again.”
“I’ll write a note,” Jane said. The boys exchanged highfives as she scribbled a few lines on an index card.
“Shall I tuck this under one of your scales, Mr. Dragon?” She shoved the note into the pocket of Hem’s raincoat. “Now run along. Sinclair and I have a party to plan.”
Sinclair waited for the boys to leave before seating himself at his desk chair. He uncapped a fountain pen and held it over a clean notepad. “A party, Miss Jane?”
Jane flounced in the chair across from him and rubbed her palm over the cover of the small book in her hands. “This is Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile.”
“Are we having a Halloween party then?” Sinclair asked. “With pharaohs and mummies and such?” He furrowed his shaggy brows. “Did the boys’ getups influence your decision?”
“Not just a costume party. Think bigger.” Jane hugged the book to her chest with one hand and gestured theatrically with the other. “An entire week of murder and mayhem. We’ll have a fancy dress ball and award prizes to those who most closely emulate their favorite fictional detective. Just think,” she continued, warming to her idea. “We’ll have Hercule Poirot, Sherlock Holmes, Sam Spade, Lord Peter Wimsey, Nick and Nora Charles, Brother Cadfael, Miss Marple, and so on. We’ll have readings and skits and teas and banquets. We’ll have mystery scavenger hunts and trivia games! Imagine it, Sinclair.”
He grimaced. “I’m trying, Miss Jane, but it sounds like an awful lot of hubbub and work. And for what purpose?”
“Money,” Jane said simply. “Storyton Hall will be bursting at the seams with paying guests. They’ll have the time of their lives and will go home and tell all of their friends how wonderful it was to stay at the nation’s only resort catering specifically to readers. We need to let the world know that while we’re a place of peace and tranquility, we also offer excitement and adventure.”
Sinclair fidgeted with his bow tie again. “Miss Jane, forgive me for saying so, but I believe our guests are interested in three things: comfort, quiet, and good food. I’m not certain they’re interested in adventure.”
“Our readers aren’t sedentary,” Jane argued. “I’ve seen them playing croquet and lawn tennis. I’ve met them on the hiking and horseback riding trails. I’ve watched them row across the lake in our little skiffs and walk into Storyton Village. Why wouldn’t they enjoy a weekend filled with mystery, glamor, and entertainment?”
The carriage clock on Sinclair’s desk chimed three times. “Perhaps you should mention the proposal to your great-aunt and -uncle over tea?”
Jane nodded in agreement. “Brilliant idea. Aunt Octavia is most malleable when she has a plate piled high with scones and lemon cakes. Thank you, Sinclair!” She stood up, walked around the desk, and kissed him lightly on the cheek.
He touched the spot where his skin had turned a rosy shade of pink. “You’re welcome, Miss Jane, though I don’t think I was of much help.”
“You’re a librarian,” she said on her way out. “To me, that makes you a bigger hero than Saint George, Sir William Wallace, and all of the Knights of the Round Table put together.”
“I love my job,” Jane heard Sinclair say before she closed the door.
• • •
Jane turned in the opposite direction of the main elevator and headed for the staircase at the other end of a long corridor carpeted in a lush crimson. She was accustomed to traveling a different route than the paying guests of Storyton Hall. Like the rest of the staff, Jane moved noiselessly through a maze of narrow passageways, underground tunnels, dim stairways, attic accesses, and hidden doors in order to be as unobtrusive as possible.
Storyton had fifty bedrooms, eleven of which were on the main floor. And even though Jane’s great-aunt and -uncle were in their late seventies, they preferred to remain in their third-story suite of apartments, which included their private library and cozy sitting room, where her aunt liked to spend her evenings reading.
Trotting down a flight of stairs, Jane paused to straighten her skirt before entering the main hallway. Along the wood-paneled walls hung gilt-framed mirrors, brass sconces, and valuable oil paintings in ornate frames. Massive oak doors stood open, inviting guests to while away the hours reading in the Jane Austen Parlor, the Ian Fleming Lounge, the Isak Dinesen Safari Room, the Daphne du Maurier Morning Room, and so on. There was also a Beatrix Potter Playroom for children, but that was located on the basement level as most of the guests preferred not to hear the shrieks and squeals of children when they were trying to lose themselves in a riveting story.
Jane greeted every guest with a hello and a smile though her mind was focused on other things. She made a mental checklist as she walked. The door handles need polishing. A lightbulb’s gone out by the entrance to Shakespeare’s Theater. Eliza needs to stop putting goldenrod in the flower vases. There’s pollen on all the tables and half the guests are sneezing.
She’d almost reached the sunporch when the tiny speakers mounted along the crown molding in the main hallway began to play a recording of bells chiming. Jane glanced at her watch. It was exactly three o’clock.
“Oh, it’s teatime!” a woman examining an attractive still life of cherry blossoms exclaimed. Taking the book from a man sitting in one of the dozens of wing chairs lining the hall, she gestured for him to get to his feet. “Come on, Bernard! I want to be the first one in today.”
Jane knew there was slim chance of that happening. Guests began congregating at the door of the Agatha Christie Tearoom at half past two. Bobbing her head at the eager pair, she walked past the chattering men, women, and children heading to tea and arrived at the back terrace to find her great-aunt and -uncle seated at a round table with the twins. The table was covered with a snowy white cloth, a vase stuffed with pink peonies, and her aunt’s Wedgwood tea set.
“There you are, dear!” Aunt Octavia lifted one of her massive arms and waved regally. Octavia was a very large, very formidable woman. She adored food and loathed exercise. As a result, she’d steadily grown in circumference over the decades and showed no predisposition toward changing her habits, much to her doctor’s consternation.
As Jane drew closer, she noticed a rotund tuxedo cat nestled on Aunt Octavia’s expansive lap. The feline, who often took tea with the family, had arrived at Storyton Hall during a thunderstorm the previous spring. The twins had discovered the tiny, shivering, half-starved kitten in a corner of the garage, and assuming it was female because of its long eyelashes and stunning gold eyes, named the pathetic creature Miss Muffet. The local veterinarian later informed them that not only was Miss Muffet a male, but judging from the size of his paws, was likely to grow into a very large cat. By this time, everyone had gotten used to calling the cat Miss Muffet. The twins insisted the name be altered to preserve the cat’s dignity and so Miss Muffet became Muffet Cat.
Muffet Cat had the run of the resort. He came and went as he pleased, darting through doorways between the feet of startled guests and indulgent staff members. During the day, he vacillated between hunting, napping on the sunporch, and begging for treats, but he spent every night with Aunt Octavia. For half a year, the twins complained that Muffet Cat was a traitor. They claimed they’d rescued him from certain death and he owed them his allegiance, but Muffet Cat merely tolerated them. Aunt Octavia was the center of his feline universe.
“You can’t command a cat’s affections,” Aunt Octavia had explained to the boys. “Muffet Cat prefers the gentler sex. He’s a very intelligent animal and knows that he only has to gaze up at a lady with those big yellow eyes and she feels compelled to feed him a tasty morsel or two.”
It was true. Muffet Cat had so perfected this plaintive look that he’d gone from an emaciated kitten to a portly cat within a matter of months.
As Jane took a seat at the table, Muffet Cat opened his eyes into slits, licked a dot of cream from his whiskers, and went back to sleep.
“Hello, everyone,” Jane said as she put her napkin on her lap. This was the only time during the day in which she would sit in view of the guests. Very few people noticed the Steward family gathering for tea, being far too busy filling their own plates with sandwiches, scones, cookies, and cakes inside the main house.
Fitz plucked her sleeve. “Mom, can I have another lemon cake?” He glanced at his brother. “Hem too?”
“Fitzgerald Steward,” Aunt Octavia said in a low growl. “You’ve already had enough for six boys. So has Hemingway. Let your mother pour herself some tea before you start demanding seconds. And you should say ‘may I’ not ‘can I.’”
Nodding solemnly, Fitz sat up straight in his chair and cleared his throat. Doing his best to sound like an English aristocrat, he said, “Madam, may we please have another cake?”
This time, the question was directed at Aunt Octavia. Before she could answer, Hem piped up in a Cockney accent, “Please, mum. We’re ever so ’ungry.”
Aunt Octavia burst out laughing and passed the platter of sweets. “Incorrigible,” she said and put a wrinkled hand over Jane’s. “Are you going to the village after tea? Mabel called to say that my new dress is ready and I can’t wait to see it. Bright fuchsia with sequins and brown leopard spots. Can you imagine?”
Jane could. Her great-aunt wore voluminous housedresses fashioned from the most exotic prints and the boldest colors available. She ordered bolts of cloth from an assortment of catalogs and had Mabel Wimberly, a talented seamstress who lived in Storyton Village, sew the fabric into a garment she could slip over her head. Each dress had to come complete with several pockets as Aunt Octavia walked with the aid of a rhinestone-studded cane and liked to load her pockets with gum, hard candy, pens, a notepad, bookmarks, a nail file, treats for Muffet Cat, and other miscellanea. Today, she wore a black and lime zebra-stripe dress and a black sunhat decorated with ostrich feathers.
In marked contrast to Aunt Octavia’s flamboyant attire, Uncle Aloysius dressed like the country gentleman he was. His slacks and shirt were perfectly pressed, and he always had a handkerchief peeking from the pocket of his suit. The only deviation from this conservative ensemble was his hat. Aloysius wore his fishing hat, complete with hooks, baits, and flies, all day long. He even wore it to church, and Aunt Octavia was forever reminding him to remove it before the service got under way. Some of the staff whispered that he wore the hat to bed as well, but Jane didn’t believe it. After all, several of the hooks looked rather sharp.
“What sandwiches did Mrs. Hubbard make today?” she asked her great-uncle.
He patted his flat stomach. Uncle Aloysius was as tall and slender as his wife was squat and round. He was all points and angles to her curves and rolls. Despite their physical dissimilarities and the passage of multiple decades, the two were still very much in love. Jane’s great-uncle liked to tell people that he was on a fifty-five-year honeymoon. “My darling wife will tell you that the egg salad and chive is the best,” he said. “I started with the brie, watercress, and walnut.” He handed Jane the plate of sandwiches and a pair of silver tongs. “That was lovely, but not as good as the fig and goat cheese.”
“In that case, I’ll have one of each.” Jane helped herself to the diminutive sandwiches. “And a raisin scone.” Her gaze alighted on the jar of preserves near Aunt Octavia’s elbow. “Is that Mrs. Hubbard’s blackberry jam?”
“Yes, and it’s magnificent. But don’t go looking for the Devonshire cream. Muffet Cat and I ate every last dollop.” Her great-aunt sat back in her chair, stroked Muffet Cat’s glossy fur, and studied Jane. “You’ve got a spark about you, my girl. Care to enlighten us as to why you have a skip in your step and a twinkle in your eye?”
Jane told her great-aunt and -uncle about her Murder and Mayhem Week idea.
Uncle Aloysius leaned forward and listened without interruption, nodding from time to time. Instantly bored by the topic, Fitz and Hem scooted back their chairs and resumed their knight and dragon personas by skirmishing a few feet from the table until Aunt Octavia shooed them off.
“Go paint some seashells green,” she told Hem. “You can’t be a decent dragon without scales. We have an entire bucket of shells in the craft closet.”
“What about me?” Fitz asked. “What else do I need to be a knight?”
Aunt Octavia examined him closely. “A proper knight needs a horse. Get a mop and paint a pair of eyes on the handle.”
Without another word, the twins sprinted for the basement stairs. Jane saw their sandy heads disappear and grinned. Her aunt had encouraged her to play similar games when she was a child, and it gave her a great deal of satisfaction to see her sons following in her footsteps.
“Imagination is more important than knowledge,” was Aunt Octavia’s favorite quote, and she repeated it often. She said it again now and then waved for Jane to continue.
Throughout the interruption, Uncle Aloysius hadn’t taken his eyes off Jane. When she’d finished outlining her plan, he rubbed the white whiskers on his chin and gazed out across the wide lawn. “I like your idea, my dear. I like it very much. We can charge our guests a special weekly rate. And by special, I mean higher. We’d have to ask a pretty penny for the additional events because I expect we’ll need to hire extra help.”
“But do you think it will work?”
“I do indeed. It’s quite splendid.” He smiled. “In fact, it could be the start of a new tradition. Mystery buffs in October, Western readers in July, fantasy fans for May Day.”
“A celebration of romance novels for Valentine’s!” Aunt Octavia finished with a sweep of her arm.
Uncle Aloysius grabbed hold of his wife’s hand and planted a kiss on her palm. “It’s Valentine’s Day all year long with you, my love.”
Watching her great-aunt and -uncle exchange tender looks, Jane felt a familiar stab of pain. It was during moments like this that she missed her husband most. She’d been a widow for six years and had never been able to think of William Elliot without a pang of sorrow and agony. While her great-uncle and -aunt exchanged whispered endearments, Jane wondered if ten years would be enough time to completely heal the hole in her heart left by her husband’s passing.
“Jane? Are you gathering wool?” Aunt Octavia asked.
Shaking off her melancholy, Jane reached for the teapot and poured herself a nice cup of Earl Grey. “I’m afraid I was. Sorry.”
“No time for drifting off,” Uncle Aloysius said. “There’s much to be done to prepare for this Murder and Mayhem Week of yours. And might I say . . .” He paused to collect himself, and Jane knew that he was about to pay her a compliment. Her uncle was always very deliberate when it came to words of praise or criticism. “Your dedication to Storyton Hall does the Steward name proud. I couldn’t have asked for a more devoted heir.”
Jane thanked him, drank some of her tea, and went into the manor house through the kitchen. She tarried for a moment to tell the staff how delicious the tea service was and then walked down the former servants’ passage to her small, cozy office.
Sitting behind her desk, Jane flexed her fingers over her computer keyboard and began to type a list of possible events, meals, and decorating ideas for the Murder and Mayhem Week. Satisfied that Storyton Hall’s future guests would have a wide range of activities and dining choices during the mystery week, she set about composing a newsletter announcing the dates and room rates. She made the special events appear even more enticing by inserting colorful stock photos of bubbling champagne glasses, people laughing, and couples dancing at a costume ball. She also included the book covers of popular mystery novels from the past century as well as tantalizing photographs of Storyton’s most mouthwatering dinner and dessert buffets.
“They’ll come in droves,” she said to herself, absurdly pleased by the end result of the newsletter. “Uncle Aloysius is right. If this event is a resounding success, we can add more and more themed events over the course of the year. Then we’ll be able to fix this old pile of stones until it’s just like it was when crazy Walter Egerton Steward had it dismantled, brick by brick, and shipped across the Atlantic. We’ll restore the folly and the hedge maze and the orchards.” Her eyes grew glassy and she gazed off into the middle distance. “It’ll be as he dreamed it would be. An English estate hidden away in the wilds of the Virginia mountains. An oasis for book lovers. A reader’s paradise amid the pines.”
She reread the newsletter once more, searching for typos or grammatical errors and, finding none, saved the document. She then opened a new e-mail message and typed “newsletter recipients” in the address line. It gave her a little thrill to know that thousands of people would soon read about Storyton Hall’s first annual Murder and Mayhem Week.
After composing a short e-mail, Jane hit send, releasing her invitation into the world. Within seconds, former guests, future guests, and her newspaper and magazine contacts would catch a glimpse of what promised to be an unforgettable seven days. Tomorrow, she’d order print brochures to be mailed to the people on her contact list who preferred a more old-fashioned form of communication.
I’ll have contacted thousands of people by the end of the week, Jane thought happily. Thousands of potential guests. Thousands of lovely readers.
Closing the open windows on her screen, Jane found herself staring at one of the book covers she’d used for the newsletter. It was Agatha Christie’s The Body in the Library, and this version from 1960 featured the silhouette of a woman standing in front of shelves of colorful books. Her hands were raised in an effort to fend off an attacker, but the assailant’s hands were almost at her throat. The woman’s demise was clearly imminent.
“Yes, I’m sure they’re lovely people. Each and every one,” Jane murmured firmly. “We’ll have no scenes bearing any resemblance to this cover. After all, this is a work of fiction.”
Before riding her bike to the village of Storyton, Jane stopped by her cottage to change into jeans and a T-shirt. Most of the ancillary buildings on the resort’s property had been built within the last two decades to house the department heads, but Jane’s cottage, which was once the estate’s hunting lodge, was much older. Like the rest of Storyton Hall, it had been dismantled in the 1830s and transported from its original seat in the English countryside to an isolated valley in western Virginia.
When Jane moved in, the house hadn’t been used as a hunting lodge for years, but there had still been enough animal heads mounted to the walls to give her the creeps. Following her husband’s death and her acceptance of her great-aunt and -uncle’s offer to take over as resort manager, Jane had done much to lighten up the lodge’s dark, masculine décor. The house was markedly different from what it had been the day she’d shown up at Storyton Hall, newly widowed and pregnant. Aunt Octavia and Uncle Aloysius had welcomed her with open arms and immediately began grooming her to inherit Mr. Blake’s position. Mr. Blake had run the resort for thirty years and was ready to retire to Florida.
“Fitz! Hem!” Jane called as she opened the door and stepped into the kitchen. She and the boys lived in the back half of the house. Mr. Sterling, the head chauffer, occupied the front half. He had the main entrance and the garages while the Steward family shared three bedrooms, two baths, a kitchen with breakfast nook, and a cozy living room with a fireplace, lots of bookshelves, and a window seat overlooking the orchard. Jane loved their house. Her favorite room in any home was the kitchen, and hers was large, sunlit, merry, and constantly filled with wildflowers, delicious aromas, and commotion.
“We’re upstairs!” Hem yelled after such a long pause that Jane knew he and Fitz were up to no good. This was hardly a surprise, seeing as the twins spent most of their time getting into mischief.
“I’m going into the village,” she said. “And it’s Saturday, which means I owe a certain pair of boys their allowance.”
A resounding cheer arose from the top of the stairs and the boys barreled down, leaping from the fourth step from the bottom and landing with loud thuds on the hardwood floor. “Can we go to Geppetto’s?” Fitz asked, holding out a dirt-encrusted palm for his earnings.
The twins’ hands had been spotless at teatime, but the boys were hopelessly attracted to all things muddy, sticky, gooey, slimy, and grime covered. Jane spent a small fortune on laundry detergent and stain-fighting products each week and had given up trying to keep her sons clean until it was time for baths and bed.
“Yes, we can go to Geppetto’s. I also have to pop into La Grand Dame and pick up Aunt Octavia’s new dress.”
The twins let out a unified groan. “Not clothes again!”
“Oh, please.” Jane cuffed the closer boy lightly on the head. “You only have to go clothes shopping twice a year.”
Fitz grimaced. “That’s two times too much. We should wear ours until we look like characters from Robinson Crusoe.”
Jane glanced at his tattered army shorts and soiled T-shirt. “Mission complete. Come on, get your bikes.”
The three of them took their bikes from the shed and started for the village. This was a regular outing for the family and one of Jane’s favorite pastimes. She never grew tired of the quiet country lane that wound its way through tree-covered hills, rolling cow pastures, and cornfields. The grassy shoulders were dotted with wildflowers and, just before they reached the little bridge straddling the Red Fox River, a chestnut pony would be waiting at the fence, hoping for an apple or a lump of sugar.
The last bend was a sharp one, so Jane and the boys would squawk the horns affixed to their handlebars to alert other cyclists or motorists of their presence. Many a tourist had driven off the road at that curve, plunging into thickets of blackberry bushes and poison ivy if they were lucky or slamming into a tree if they weren’t. Dubbed Broken Arm Bend by the locals, that bit of road had the village’s only doctor stocking fiberglass for casts all year long.
“Last one to the Cheshire Cat is a rotten egg!” Hem taunted and shot off like a loosed arrow.
Fitz reacted to the challenge, pumping his thin legs—speckled with bruises and scrapes—as fast as he could.
“That’s how boys should look,” Aunt Octavia would say. “Let them wear themselves to the bone during the day and, at night, fall asleep with a book and flashlight in hand.”
Jane smiled. She loved that the twins would have a hard time deciding whether to spend their allowance on a toy or puzzle from Geppetto’s or a comic from Run for Cover Book Shop. Either purchase would do more to foster their burgeoning imaginations than the majority of the items at the sprawling shopping mall over the mountain.
Storyton Village looked like it belonged to another era. The buildings were made of brick or stone and had leaded windows with diamond-shaped panes and thick oak doors polished to a high gloss. Each cottage had its own small, but spectacular, garden. Herbs, roses, perennials, flowering vines, and vegetables vied for space and sunlight in front of every shop, office, and eatery. All the business owners tried to outshine their neighbors by crowding their gardens with benches, birdbaths, statuary, and gazing balls. This friendly competition lent the village an eclectic air.
For example, Storyton’s pub, the Cheshire Cat, had an enormous sculpture of a smiling feline in its garden. The cat’s famous toothy grin was made out of chipped dinner plates, which glimmered eerily in the dark. Betty, the publican’s wife, had planted five varieties of catnip around the base of the statue. As a result, most of Storyton’s tomcats crept to the pub after sundown to nibble the fragrant leaves. Jane had heard tales of inebriated men stumbling out of the pub to encounter a herd of felines high on catnip. According to local legend, the two species would sometimes join together in yowling at the moon. Their high-pitched keening often resulted in the sheriff being roused from his bed.
“I’m first!” Fitz shouted upon reaching the pub’s gate.
Without slowing, Jane pedaled past her son and called back over her shoulder, “Last one to touch Pinocchio’s nose is a rotten egg!”
She didn’t maintain the lead for long. Hem whizzed by her, his sandy brown hair forming two wings above his ears.
“Maybe we should stop at the barber’s!” she shouted at him, knowing the remark would only spur him into increasing his pace.
“No way!” Fitz protested as he drew up alongside her. “We had a haircut last month!”
Jane laughed. “You two truly belong in Neverland.”
“Yeah, then Hem could kiss a mermaid,” Fitz goaded his brother as he and Jane came to a stop in front of the toy shop.
Hem, who’d already dismounted and parked his bike against Geppetto’s picket fence, ran into the garden to touch the metal statue of Pinocchio. Standing on his tiptoes, he grabbed hold of the puppet’s steel nose and stuck his tongue out at his brother. “And you could kiss Wendy. I know you love her and want to marry her.” He began to blow raspberries against his palm.
Knowing this conversation would likely escalate into a full-blown fight, Jane held out a warning finger. “One more word, and I will revoke your allowances.”
Hem gave her a guileless stare. “What does revoke mean?”
“It means that I’ll take your money back,” she said.
The boys exchanged horrified glances.
“You can’t do that!” Fitz declared indignantly.
Jane smiled. “I’m your mother. I can do anything I want.”
Grumbling about the imbalance of power in the family, Fitz and Hem entered the shop. Barnaby Nicholas looked up from the pirate marionette he was painting and beamed.
“Ah, Ms. Steward! Master Fitz! Master Hem! How are we on this fine day?”
Hem brandished his leather wallet, which he’d sewn using a kit the toymaker had sold him. “We have money.”
Grinning at the boy over his half-moon reading glasses, Mr. Nicholas worked the strings on the marionette so that the wooden pirate bowed. “A man with gold coins in his pocket is me favorite kind of customer, to be sure,” he growled in his best swashbuckler voice.
“Can I leave them here for a bit?” Jane asked. “It always takes them forever to decide what to buy.”
“Certainly, my fair lady.” It was the pirate who replied. “And if they give me so much as a spot of trouble, I’ll make them walk the plank.”
Hem was unimpressed. “We’re not on a boat, so there’s nothing for us to be afraid of.”
“No?” Mr. Nicholas pivoted the pirate until the marionette faced the twins. “Come, me mateys, and I will tell you a tale of sharks and sirens, treasure and tragedy. And when I’m done, you will know much about fear.” His eyes sparkling, he nodded at Jane and led her captivated sons over to a display of wooden swords.
Jane left him to it and headed across the street to pick up Octavia’s dress. Mabel Wimberly’s shop, La Grande Dame, was located down a narrow lane between Merry Poppets Day Care and Spokes, the village’s center for bike rentals and sales. La Grande Dame’s first floor was dedicated to Mabel’s business. Her living space was divided between the second story, the kitchen, and a tiny backyard. Of all the shop gardens in Storyton, Mabel’s was the wildest. Throughout the growing season, her plants flourished in an untamed tangle of color and scent. Sunflowers towered above gladiolas while purple clematis wound its tendrils around stalks of bamboo. Jane gently pushed aside a cluster of hollyhocks obscuring the front path and stepped over the limb of a butterfly bush.
“Did you make it through the jungle?” Mabel asked when Jane entered the shop.
Jane glanced around at the orderly baskets of yarn, the neat shelves of fabric bolts, and the meticulous displays of needles, pins, thread, scissors, and patterns lining the walls and said, “I think you’ve got a Jekyll and Hyde complex.”
Mabel let out a hearty laugh. She was a large woman with a mop of auburn hair going to gray, which she wore in an elaborate twist high on the top of her head. The twins called her hairstyle “the cinnamon bun.” Jane found the image quite accurate, especially since the blend of reds, browns, and grays gave the arrangement a striated appearance, reminding Jane of a sweet pastry dough drizzled with white icing.
“I have your aunt’s dress all wrapped and ready.” Mabel motioned for Jane to follow her into the sewing room. Tailor mannequins draped in a variety of incomplete outfits stood like stuffed sentries before a pair of sewing machines and a large worktable. The room was a riot of colors and prints. Fabrics were draped over every surface, and sunlight glinted off mounds of straight pins, safety pins, and needles stuck into velvet pincushions. Mabel handed Jane a gold La Grande Dame shopping bag.
“Aunt Octavia will be thrilled to add this to her wardrobe,” Jane said.
“One of these days, you’ll let me make you something.” Mabel wriggled her long fingers. “These are finely tuned instruments, my girl. I could craft you a gown that would have people swooning in the lobby or a cocktail dress as chic as any you’d see on a Paris runway.”
Jane shrugged. “There’s no call for me to own custom gowns or cocktail dresses. I wear work suits during the day and jeans and T-shirts when I’m off duty. I’m a waste of your talent, Mabel.”
“A beautiful woman should wear beautiful things. You have the perfect figure for finely tailored clothes. You’re tall and slim with a decent amount of cleavage and a long and lovely neck. You should pull all of that strawberry blond hair up and show it off.”
“I am wearing a ponytail,” Jane said, pivoting her head. “If I don’t, I can’t see a thing when I’m riding my bike.”
Mabel frowned. “I’m being serious. You should dress for you. No one else. All women deserve to look and feel beautiful. Take me, for instance.” She spread her plump arms wide and spun in a circle. Her dress, which was flamingo pink with a box pleat skirt and a bodice fastened with rhinestone buttons, flared as she twirled.
Jane smiled. “Fantastic.”
Mabel touched her on the arm. “I know you’ve tried to hide your freckles since you were a girl. Your aunt told me. But they’re a part of you, just like your gorgeous green eyes and those legs that go on for miles. Let people see a bit more skin.”
“I’ve gotten used to my freckles,” Jane assured her. “And I will order a dress from you. It’s probably not the kind of project you had in mind, but I need a late-1920s-style flapper dress. I’m trying to emulate Agatha Christie’s Tuppence, the feisty half of Christie’s famed Tommy and Tuppence detective partnership. I’m envisioning something tubular with a drop waist. But not fancy. A classy day dress. With a hat and gloves too, of course. I don’t need it now, but can you work your magic by mid-October?”
Mabel gazed into the middle distance, and Jane could tell she was already envisioning the cut and color of the fabric. “That’s appropriate attire for the daytime, but any lady worth her salt would have changed for dinner. I can see you in a sleek, backless number with fringes and frills. Garnet silk perhaps? Or gold with a bias cut?” She rubbed her hands together with glee. “When can I take your measurements?”
“As soon as the reservations start rolling in,” Jane said. “If this event is to be a success, then the whole village will have to be involved in some way or another.” Picking up the shopping bag, she thanked Mabel and headed back into the sunshine.
The moment she closed the door, she heard shouting coming from the main road. Quickening her pace, Jane silently prayed that her boys hadn’t gotten into too much mischief.
When she reached the end of the lane, she saw a bay mare galloping down the center of the street, a woman clinging to the saddle pommel. Her feet had come out of the stirrups and her face was a mask of terror. Jane heard someone shout “Stop!” but the mare flattened her ears and ran even faster, causing pedestrians and cyclists to rush for the sidewalk as the horse shot by.
Jane had barely taken in the scene before the sound of another set of hooves striking against the pavement caught her attention. A man riding a dapple gray was in pursuit of the spooked mare, crouched over the gray’s shoulders like a jockey. The man’s dark hair whipped off his forehead and his eyes were fixed on the bay horse ahead of him. Jane only saw him for a second before he flew past, but every fiber of his being was clearly focused on halting the mare and saving her rider from a dangerous fall.
In that brief flash of time in which Jane had seen the man’s face, she’d instantly recognized him. Not him per se, but his familiar features.
She moved toward Run for Cover, her best friend’s bookshop, but kept her gaze locked on the two riders. It was impossible not to be riveted by the mad dash of the horses, and Jane could practically feel the thundering of their hooves reverberating all the way up her spine. The people of Storyton were frozen. They stood with eyes wide and hands clenched, completely absorbed by the drama. No one made a sound.
After a few breathless seconds, the mare seemed to be tiring. The gray was closing fast and his rider stretched out an arm, reaching for the bay’s reins. In two more heartbeats, he had them in his grasp and quickly forced the sweat-covered horse to slow to a trot and then, finally, mercifully, to a walk.
The onlookers cheered and applauded the nimble horseman. Jane put her fingers in her mouth and whistled with relief and admiration. She then hurried down the bookstore’s front path, her feet treading on the familiar word stones her friend Eloise had placed throughout the garden. The twins loved to hop from one word to another, making up nonsense poems or silly songs as they leapt. Jane was in too much of a rush to pay attention to where her feet landed. She stepped on “hope” and “dream” but absently skipped over “wish” and “believe” to pause on “imagine” before pushing the heavy door open.
Eloise was bent over a coffee-table book on the Appalachian Mountains. The woman standing beside her pointed to a photograph of a bald eagle and then gesticulated with both arms, her expression one of awe and delight. Jane assumed she was a guest at Storyton Hall and had just returned from a memorable nature hike. Eloise glanced up from the page and winked at Jane. It was her way of saying “Give me a minute. I need to close this sale.”
Jane wandered over to the cookbook section, where she was easily distracted by a collection of bound recipes from The Storyton Sewing Circle, 1951. She turned to the table of contents, intrigued by recipes like lemonade fried chicken, sardine and bacon rolls, Mexican corn sauté, and Pepsi-Cola Cake.
“Are you going to make the boys a rainbow Jell-O delight?” Eloise asked after her customer left with a bag in hand and a satisfied expression on her face.
Jane closed the book. “You didn’t tell me your brother was coming to town.”
Eloise looked stunned. “How did you—”
“He tore past me on the street a few seconds ago on a gray horse. He just rescued some woman on a runaway mare.”
“That’s Edwin for you. Full of surprises.” Eloise moved to the window. “Like the way he showed up at my house last night. No phone call, no e-mail, nothing. Just rings the doorbell at half past ten. He’s forgotten that we country folks don’t take well to unexpected guests. I had one hand on the knob and the other on my rifle.”
“I can’t believe I’m finally going to meet the mysterious Edwin Alcott,” Jane said in a dreamy voice, fluttering her lashes like a lovesick teen. “He’s become like a book character in my mind. A young Radcliffe Emerson or Dirk Pitt.”
“He’s a food writer, Jane. Check your Indiana Jones fantasies at the door,” Eloise said. “Seriously, don’t envision him as some dashing hero, even if he did rescue that woman. Edwin’s moody, self-centered, and secretive. He doesn’t have good manners, rarely bothers with pleasantries, refuses to participate in small talk, and always looks like he disapproves of whatever it is you’re doing. If he weren’t my brother and didn’t send me the most amazing gifts from the most amazing places, then I’d probably hate him.”
At that moment, Fitz and Hem burst into the shop, their cheeks flushed and their chests rising and falling rapidly.
“Mom!” Fitz rushed over to Jane. “Did you see those people on the horses?”
“I did,” she said. “Exciting, right? And a little scary too. Ms. Alcott’s brother was the rider on the gray horse. He saved the lady on the bay mare.”
The twins shot a curious glance at Eloise and then turned back to their mother. “He didn’t save her,” Hem said. “He tried, but he couldn’t.”
Both women stared at the little boy. Jane put a hand on his shoulder. “Catch your breath, Hem, and then tell us what you mean.”
Fitz didn’t wait for his brother to speak. “She slid right off the horse. Plop!” He pulled a blue and green hacky sack from his pocket and dropped it on the floor. “Like that. She didn’t move after she hit the ground either.” He gestured at the footbag he’d probably just purchased at Geppetto’s.
“It’s true,” Hem said in case the women doubted his twin. “Someone ran to get Doc Lydgate. He told the man who stopped her horse to carry her into his office.”
Nodding gravely, Fitz picked up his new toy and returned it to his pocket. “Your brother is really strong, Miss Alcott. He looked like Superman carrying Lois Lane.”
“The lady probably fainted,” Eloise said airily. “I wouldn’t worry about it too much.”
The boys looked disappointed by the notion and immediately drifted over to the spinner rack of comic books and graphic novels.
However, the next customer through the door was quick to dispel Eloise’s theory. It was Mrs. Eugenia Pratt, the biggest gossip in Storyton. She was so puffed up with news that she looked like an overinflated balloon. Her round cheeks were flushed, and her beady eyes glimmered with delight.
“Oh, Eloise!” she exclaimed. “Did you hear?”
Eloise put on a patient smile. Mrs. Pratt was forever trying to set her up with every single man in Storyton. The older woman was also fond of cautioning Eloise about the hazards of becoming an old maid. Like Jane, Eloise was in her mid-thirties and resented being told that her beauty, charm, and the likelihood of her producing a brood of healthy children were swiftly diminishing. Still, Mrs. Pratt was a regular customer and a member of Jane’s book club. She faithfully purchased half a dozen romance novels each week, so Eloise did her best to be friendly to the cantankerous gossipmonger.
“About the asphalt steeplechase?” Jane asked.
“Yes.” Mrs. Pratt’s enthusiasm waned in the face of Jane’s reply, but then she brightened. “But do you know how it ended?”
Eloise shrugged, trying to appear disinterested. “Judging by what the twins said, the woman fainted and had to be carried into Doc Lydgate’s office.”
“Fainted?” Mrs. Pratt took out the Japanese fan she kept in her purse, opened it with a practiced flick of her wrist, and began to wave it in front of her face. “No, no, my dear. Well, she might have fainted at one point, but by the time your brother”—she stopped her narrative and cocked her head like an inquisitive bird—“Edwin, is it? He’s very handsome. Why hasn’t he visited before? And what brings him to our sleepy little village now? You two certainly look alike, but he got all the height while you got all that curly hair. I’d say there’s about three years separating you. Maybe four. Am I right?”