It's almost Christmas in the small English village of Finchand everyone is sick. Though many of the villagers regretfully decline their invitations to Emma Harris's annual Christmas bash, Lori Shepherd has no intention of missing it. When the winter weather takes a turn for the worse, it's agreed that none of the guests will leave until morning. There's general merriment as the Christmas party becomes a pajama partyuntil a car appears in the winding driveway and promptly slides off the slick pavement and into a ditch.
Matilda "Tilly" Trouta lost and scatterbrained, middle-aged womanis mercifully unhurt and invited to stay the night. While she catches her breath, Emma asks her other guests if they would like a tour of the Manorincluding an odd room that puzzles her. Several guests put forth guesses as to its purpose, but it's Tilly who correctly identifies the room as a chapel. Placing a palm on one of the ornately-carved panels, Tilly finds a hidden compartment concealing a pile of glittering treasureincluding an exquisitely decorated heart made of solid gold. Where did it come from, and why does it look so different from everything else in the chapel? Why didn't Emma even know about this hidden compartment in her own home until nowand how did Tilly?
With Aunt Dimity's otherworldly help and Tilly's bewildering store of knowledge, Lori and friends set out to unravel the mystery behind the heart of gold. And, against all oddsand Christmas finally comes to Finch!
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Christmas was coming and the weather was appalling. The pristine counterpane of snow that should have blanketed my little corner of the English countryside was nowhere to be seen. Dense fog infused with a ceaseless grizzly drizzle had turned my winter wonderland into a murky, mucky mess.
Although my husband, Bill, and I were Americans, as were our twin sons and our baby daughter, we lived in the Cotswolds, a pastoral haven described in countless guidebooks as one of the prettiest regions in England. Bill ran the European branch of his family's venerable Boston law firm from an office in the nearby village of Finch; ten-year-old Will and Rob attended Morningside School in the bustling market town of Upper Deeping; and I juggled the ever-changing roles of wife, mother, friend, neighbor, gossipmonger par excellence, and community volunteer.
Our daughter, Bess, who would turn two in February, was busier than the rest of us combined. She had walking down pat, but running was still a risky proposition, and her vocabulary, while growing by leaps and bounds, wasn't expanding fast enough to satisfy her need for self-expression. Her dogged attempts to keep up with her big brothers and to communicate with her doltish parents led to occasional meltdowns that sent our sleek black cat, Stanley, running for cover. On the bright side, the vast amount of energy Bess expended during the day allowed her to sleep like a lamb at night. Every cloud . . .
I saw no silver lining in the shroud of fog that enveloped our honey-colored stone cottage. Having endured the vagaries of English weather for more than a decade, I knew better than to expect blue skies and bright sunshine at Christmastime, but the extended run of gray December days was beginning to get me down.
My late mother would have called it rheumatism weather, and I knew exactly what she meant. The frigid dampness seemed to creep into every joint in my body, creating aches and pains I associated with senior citizenship. An old bullet wound in my left shoulder made its presence known by throbbing intermittently, but my physical discomfort was as nothing compared with the mental dejection brought on by ten sunless days in a row.
I wasn't the only one feeling the effects of the rotten weather. Though the rain hadn't fallen hard enough to trigger floods in our river valley, it had put a definite damper on the festive season in Finch. A gray veil of mist clung to the picturesque buildings that bordered the village green, obscuring the twinkling lights and the glittering baubles that should have brightened our long winter nights.
To make matters worse, more than half of the villagers had been laid low by head colds or chest colds or head-and-chest colds, and though no one was at death's door, the afflicted felt as if they were. The rest found it increasingly difficult to exude Christmas cheer while scraping mud from their boots and wiping cold droplets of fog from their ruddy faces.
The Yuletide Blight, as my husband had dubbed the outbreak of upper-respiratory infections in Finch, had hit families in outlying farms as well. A scant handful of farmers straggled into the village each evening to enjoy a comforting pint at Peacock's pub, but those who came seeking respite from farmhouses filled with runny-nosed offspring were doomed to disappointment. Christine and Dick Peacock, the pub's hospitable proprietors, were distinctly under par. Their red noses, rheumy eyes, and hacking coughs made the pub feel homey, but not in a good way.
Peggy Taxman, the imperious tyrant who, with her meek husband, Jasper, ran the post office, the greengrocer's shop, and Taxman's Emporium, Finch's grandly named general store, and who, without Jasper's aid, chaired every community meeting in Finch, had been struck down by a crippling case of laryngitis. Since Peggy used her stentorian voice to intimidate anyone who dared to challenge her authority, her affliction had sent an unseemly ripple of mirth through the village, but it had also resulted in canceled meetings, reduced hours at the Emporium, and delayed deliveries of Christmas cards.
The tearoom's owner, Sally Cook, wasn't faring much better. Her husband, Henry, had ordered her to stay in bed after a prolonged sneezing fit had contaminated a batch of gingerbread men, two dozen freshly frosted Christmas bonbons, and a towering ziggurat of miniature mince pies.
Bree Pym, the young New Zealander who'd inherited a house near Finch, had gamely volunteered to wait tables and to manage the cash register while Henry took Sally's place in the kitchen, but with so many villagers down for the count, Henry didn't need Bree's help. He was more than capable of handling the trickle of customers who dragged themselves into the tearoom to purchase a box of uncontaminated Christmas treats.
The Handmaidens-my husband's pet name for the quartet of middle-aged women who'd once harbored hopes of riding off into the sunset with my well-mannered and well-heeled father-in-law-were the Blight's latest victims. By isolating Elspeth Binney, Opal Taylor, Millicent Scroggins, and Selena Buxton in their separate cottages, the virus had made it impossible for them to pursue their favorite pastime: meeting at the tearoom to share a pot of tea, a plate of scones, and a heaping helping of gossip.
Unfortunately, gossip, too, had taken a turn for the worse. In happier times, the village grapevine thrummed with all manner of local news. Hairstyles, clothing choices, ongoing feuds, upcoming events, behavioral quirks, and questionable horticultural decisions were just a few of the topics that would be discussed and dissected for days-sometimes for months-on end.
Ever since the Yuletide Blight had barreled into town, however, the only topic my neighbors and I discussed was . . . the Yuletide Blight. Who had a cold? Who didn't have a cold? How bad were the colds? How long would the colds last? Did old- fashioned cough syrups work, or should the sick put their faith in modern nostrums? Miranda Morrow, Finch's freckle-faced witch and a notable herbal healer, espoused natural remedies, but their efficacy was called into question when she, too, succumbed to the Blight.
A few lucky villagers had escaped Finch before the virus arrived. Old Mrs. Craven's good-hearted sister-in-law had swept her off to the South of France for the holidays, and George Wetherhead, the bashful model-train enthusiast who lived in the old schoolmaster's house, had gone to Brighton to attend a convention of model-train enthusiasts. When a timely telephone call alerted George to the dismal state of affairs in the village, he wisely accepted an invitation to spend Christmas with a fellow enthusiast who lived well beyond sneezing distance of Finch.
To my great relief, the nasty bug hadn't yet infected my genteel father-in-law, William Willis, Sr., or Amelia, the splendid widow he'd married after spending much of his adult life as a widower. The happy couple lived up the lane from us in Fairworth House, the gracious Georgian mansion Willis, Sr., had purchased in order to be near his grandchildren after his retirement from the family firm.
With the coming of the Yuletide Blight, Amelia had taken the precaution of imposing a strict isolation policy on Fairworth House. Until the virus had run its course, she would allow no one-not even family members-to pass through the wrought-iron gates that guarded the entrance to the Fairworth estate. I couldn't fault her for barring the door to visitors. Will, Rob, and Bess missed their grandfather almost as much as he missed them, but as human petri dishes, they were potentially hazardous to his somewhat fragile health.
So far, the potential hazard had not been realized. For reasons surpassing my understanding, my brood hadn't fallen ill. Although Bill and I were on high alert for the slightest hint of a sniffle, we detected nothing. In the midst of so much misery, we were almost ashamed to admit that our cottage appeared to be a virus-free zone. When our neighbors brought up the subject, which they did, often, we found ourselves apologizing for our conspicuous lack of ill health. We felt as if we were letting the side down.
The vicar and his wife had also been spared, but the Nativity play had not. For the first time in living memory, an event that brought the whole village together had been canceled due to the limited number of villagers who could participate onstage, backstage, or in the audience without coughing their lungs up.
Since church attendance was at an all-time low, the Reverend Theodore Bunting had cut services at St. George's Church to a bare minimum in order to concentrate on home visits. While he ministered to the spiritual needs of his stricken parishioners, his wife, Lilian, who was of a more practical turn of mind, tidied their cottages, changed their bed linens, and made sure that their bills were paid on time.
Lilian and the vicar were ably assisted in their good works by the few villagers who weren't beset by illness. Mr. Barlow, the retired car mechanic who served as the church sexton as well as the village handyman, bustled from cottage to cottage, repairing furnaces, sealing leaky windows, and chopping firewood. Charles Bellingham and Grant Tavistock, who ran an art appraisal and restoration business from their home in Finch, went from door to door in the village, delivering gallons of homemade soup to the afflicted.
After Henry Cook declined her offer of help, Bree Pym became an errand girl, retrieving mail, purchasing groceries, and generally making herself useful to her ailing neighbors. James and Felicity Hobson, the retired schoolteachers who lived in Ivy Cottage, brought the bedridden armfuls of books and magazines, which they gladly read aloud upon request.
As the mother of a toddler whose immune system was still a work in progress, I was exempt from house calls, but I contributed my mite by decorating St. George's. It took ten times longer than usual because Bess insisted on helping me, but I eventually managed to set up the old-fashioned cr?che, tie red ribbons to the pews, hang evergreen swags on the altar, arrange Christmas roses in the font, place sprigs of holly on the deep window embrasures, and decorate the stout fir tree Bill had erected beside the pulpit. While I worked I hoped and prayed that all of my neighbors would be well enough by Christmas Day to discuss and dissect my handiwork with their customary zeal.
My horse-mad sons spent most of their waking hours at Anscombe Manor, where my best friend, Emma Harris, lived and where she ran a well-respected riding school. Under her tutelage, the twins had become such accomplished equestrians that we'd had to stash most of their blue ribbons in a cedar chest. They were avid cricketers as well, but not even the thrill of a well-bowled googly could compare to the exhilaration they felt while galloping over hill and dale on their beloved gray ponies, Thunder and Storm.
Sadly, the foul weather had derailed their plans to spend Christmas break in the saddle. Emma couldn't in good conscience allow her star pupils to gallop through dense fog over slick hills and muddy dales, but they didn't rail against her restrictions. As true horsemen, Will and Rob were content to clean tack, muck out stalls, fill hayracks, tend water troughs, groom horses, and exercise them in the indoor arena all day long. They would have slept in the hayloft if Bill hadn't hauled them home every evening.
My husband and I were spared the parental purgatory of being cooped up in the cottage with a pair of crotchety ten-year-olds and a tempestuous toddler because the Yuletide Blight hadn't blighted Anscombe Manor. The antivirus force field that hovered over our cottage seemed to protect Emma's property as well, though she'd enhanced its effects by closing the riding school two weeks early and giving her hired hands ten unscheduled days of paid vacation.
Her isolation techniques weren't as extreme as Amelia's, but they produced similar results. Emma lived in the sprawling manor house with her husband, Derek, her grown stepchildren, Peter and Nell, and their spouses, Cassie and Kit, all of whom were as fit as fleas. As a construction expert who specialized in the restoration of historic buildings, Derek Harris had his own business to run, but since Peter, Cassie, Nell, and Kit knew their way around horses, Emma could depend on them-and on my horse-mad sons-to fill in for the stable hands.
Thanks to Emma and her blessedly healthy family, peace reigned in our home, or as much peace as could be expected with a nearly-two-year-old ruling the roost, but Bill and I weren't grateful to them for purely selfish reasons. We were pleased for our community as well. With the Nativity play's cancellation, the brightest light on Finch's foggy horizon was the annual Christmas party at Anscombe Manor. If it, too, had been canceled, Finch's collective cup of Christmas cheer would have been drained to the dregs.
Happily, Emma hadn't let us down. Her party would go ahead as planned, though on a more modest scale than usual since none of the Blight-struck villagers would attend. The news was like a breath of fresh air for those of us who weren't housebound. After doing our duty and behaving as we ought, we were in desperate need of a little frivolity.
Emma Harris's Christmas parties were as predictable as they were enjoyable. They always took place a week before Christmas; they always started at five o'clock in the evening; and they never ended before midnight. My sons could cope with the late hours, but Bess wasn't an all-night raver, which was why Emma always made sure that one of the manor's many bedrooms would be fit for a sleepy princess.
A pre-Christmas Christmas dinner with roast goose and all the trimmings would be followed by an evening filled with convivial conversation, silly games, and the telling of tall tales around the great hall's roaring fire. Although Emma insisted on doing the bulk of the cooking, she gave the rest of us leave to bring finger foods that would be consumed by the insatiable before and after the sit-down feast.
My cheese straws always went over well, but I'd decided that desperate times called for extra effort. In the Year of the Blight, I was determined to surprise my neighbors with an appetizer I'd never made before, and spinach-and-goat-cheese tartlets seemed like just the thing.
As I bustled about my kitchen on Saturday morning, preparing the phyllo dough and the savory filling, I couldn't have known that my tartlets would be the least of the surprises that would make our annual gathering unforgettable.
My tartlets turned out splendidly, so splendidly, in fact, that I had to give my menfolk a stern lecture to keep them from gobbling up the fruits of my labor before we left the cottage. After sealing my culinary masterpieces in fog-proof storage containers and threatening Bill and the boys with grievous bodily harm if so much as a crumb went missing while my back was turned, I repaired to the nursery to dress Bess in her party frock.