On a dull and dreary October day, Lori Shepherd and her husband Bill set off for the historic town of Rye, on the southeast coast of England, for a quiet weekend together without the kids. Bill must first pay a visit to a reclusive client--but after Lori drops him off, a powerful storm drives her off course and leaves her stranded in an ancient, rambling inn called The King's Ransom. When Lori is spooked by ghostly noises in the night, Aunt Dimity reminds her rather tartly that not all ghosts intend to harm the living.
But the longer Lori is stuck at the inn, the stranger things seem. She learns that the inn was once a hangout for smugglers, and that it's riddled with secret tunnels the smugglers used to reach a network of hidden caves. Then there's the inn's cook--a brawny, gruff ex-con--who seems to have a beef with a mysterious French guest. Are the noises Lori hears made by the spirits of long dead smugglers? Or should she be more worried by the inn's living inhabitants? Joining forces with her new friend Bishop Wyndham, and guided by Aunt Dimity's wise counsel, Lori sets out to discover once and for all who--or what--is haunting The King's Ransom.
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It was half past eleven on a blustery Tuesday night in mid-October. My ten-year-old sons were asleep in their room, my baby daughter was asleep in the nursery, and the family cat was asleep in my husband's favorite armchair. After a tumultuous evening involving a dead mouse, an emergency diaper change, and an illicit game of cricket in the living room, my husband and I had retreated to the master bedroom, but we weren't asleep.
Bill was sitting upright against his pillows, perusing a sheaf of densely printed legal documents. It wasn't my idea of a riveting bedtime read, but as an estate attorney with a wealthy and demanding clientele, Bill sometimes had to bring his work to bed with him.
I didn't mind. I was so tired that I wouldn't have cared if Bill had brought his bicycle to bed with him. I wasn't sure why I felt so weary, and I hoped that a good night's sleep would cure whatever ailed me, but in the meantime, I was beat.
I turned off the light in the bathroom, climbed into bed, and flopped back on my pillows with a heavy sigh. At the sound of my sigh, Bill set aside his papers and eyed me warily. Twelve years of married life had taught him to choose his next words with care.
"Something wrong, Lori?" he asked cautiously. "Besides the mouse, the exploding diaper, and the smashed vase, I mean."
"No," I said, staring fixedly at the ceiling. "Nothing's wrong. Not one thing." I sighed again. "My life is perfect."
I wasn't exaggerating. Apart from an occasional domestic disaster, my life was nothing short of a dream come true. My husband was the best of men, my children were as bright as they were healthy, and our cat was an excellent mouser. We lived in a fairy-tale cottage made of honey-colored stone near a picture-postcard village nestled snugly among the rolling hills and the patchwork fields of the Cotswolds, one of England's prettiest rural regions.
Although Bill and I were Americans, as were our twin boys, Will and Rob, and our baby, Bess, we'd lived near the small English village of Finch for more than a decade. Bill ran the international branch of his family's venerable Boston law firm from an office overlooking the village green; Will and Rob attended Morningside School in the nearby market town of Upper Deeping; and I juggled the ever-changing roles of wife, mother, friend, neighbor, and community volunteer. Nineteen-month-old Bess did what nineteen-month-olds do, which meant that Stanley, our sleek black cat, spent much of his time avoiding her.
Bill's father, William Willis, Sr., had made our happiness complete when he'd retired from his position as the head of the family firm and moved to England to be near his grandchildren. A handsome widower with courtly manners and a sizable bank account, Willis, Sr., had broken many a hopeful heart in Finch when he'd met and married his second wife, the well-known watercolorist Amelia Bowen. The pair lived in Fairworth House, a graceful Georgian mansion just up the lane from our cottage.
Finch was no more than a stone's throw from Willis, Sr.'s modest estate, across a humpbacked bridge that spanned the Little Deeping River. A stranger might mistake the village for a somnolent backwater, but those of us who called it home were never at a loss for something to do.
In our spare time we fished from the banks of the Little Deeping, hiked the network of footpaths that crisscrossed the countryside, cycled sedately along the hedge-lined lanes, or took to the bridle paths on horseback. Bird-watching, metal detecting, and gardening were among the most popular hobbies in Finch, but a few of us made quilts or collected model trains or produced paintings that would never be mistaken for Amelia Bowen's.
When it came to communal activities, we were spoiled for choice. Art shows, flower shows, church fetes, and gymkhanas were but a few of the events that dotted the village calendar, and a plethora of committee meetings ensured that each event was well organized and well attended.
When we weren't fishing, hiking, cycling, horseback riding, pursuing our hobbies, or participating in villagewide events, we attended services at St. George's Church; shared pots of tea at Sally Cook's tearoom; shopped at Taxman's Emporium, Finch's grandly named general store; and dozed through committee meetings in the old schoolhouse, which served as our village hall.
Everywhere we went, we gossiped. Gossip was a way of life in Finch, and though it could at times be moderately mean-spirited, it was never cruel. More often than not the village grapevine was simply the most efficient way to spread local news, which was the only news we really cared about.
I simply couldn't imagine a better place to live. My neighbors weren't angels, by any means, but they were fundamentally good. They'd welcomed Bill and me to their tight-knit community with open arms, and they'd opened them even wider to welcome our children. Will and Rob had the run of every cookie jar in Finch, and Bess was treated like everyone's favorite granddaughter. We could depend on our neighbors to come to our aid in any emergency, and they knew that they could always count on us.
I even had a best friend living nearby. Like me, Emma Harris was an American, though, unlike me, she'd married an Englishman. Emma ran the riding school where Will and Rob took lessons and where we boarded their gray ponies, Thunder and Storm. Even-tempered and rational, Emma was in many ways my polar opposite, but in our case as in so many others, opposites attracted.
"My life is perfect," I repeated to Bill. "I have a family who loves me and whom I adore. I live in a beautiful place among wonderful people. I'm valued at home and in my community, and my best friend lives five minutes away. I have no reason-and certainly no right-to complain about anything."
"But . . . ?" Bill coaxed.
"But instead of looking forward to making four dozen butterscotch brownies for the bake sale on Saturday, I feel like a prisoner who's been sentenced to four dozen years of hard labor," I said, still gazing dully at the ceiling. "I don't know why. I usually enjoy baking."
Bill studied my profile in silence, then hunkered down beside me and whispered in my ear, "Run away with me."
"What?" I said, startled out of my lassitude.
"You need a break," he said, resting his head on his hand. "Even a perfect life gets old after a while. However pleasant a routine, it's still a routine, and routines are meant to be broken. You haven't been away from home since the long weekend we spent at The White Hart in Old Cowerton, and that was way back in July. You need a change of scene, a breath of fresh air, a chance to recharge your batteries."
"Easier said than done," I muttered.
"Most things are," Bill retorted. "This particular thing, however, will be as easy as pie to accomplish."
"I doubt it," I said. "I have an awful lot to do this week. It's not just the bake sale. I have to repaint the palm trees for the Nativity play, bottle jam with Emma, distribute books and magazines at the hospital, sort donations at the thrift shop-and that's on top of everything I have to do at home."
"There isn't much empty space in my datebook, either," Bill said, "but if I can make room in it for a romantic getaway, so can you." He brushed a tousled curl back from my forehead. "I'm not taking no for an answer, Lori."
"Apparently not." I rolled over to face him. "Are you about to reveal a cunning plan?"
"Naturally." He cocked his head toward the sheaf of legal papers he'd placed on the bedside table. "I have to drive down to East Sussex on Thursday to meet with a client. You can come with me. We'll stay at The Mermaid Inn in Rye, and we won't come home until Sunday."
My eyes widened. "The Mermaid Inn? I've always wanted to stay at The Mermaid Inn. It's supposed to be one of England's great historic inns."
"So I've heard," said Bill. "We'll find out together. We'll explore Rye, too. There's a nature reserve on the edge of town that stretches right down to the sea. We can stroll along the shore and search the horizon for pirate ships or wander through Rye's cobbled streets and soak up its history."
I gazed at him rapturously. "A hotel oozing with atmosphere in a town reeking of history, all within sight of the sea? It sounds too good to be true."
"I haven't mentioned the food yet," Bill went on. "The Mermaid Inn's restaurant has a stellar reputation. We can gorge on fine dining there, or we can sample the local fish and chips, or we can have every meal served to us in bed."
"Please don't ask me to decide where we should eat," I said, groaning. "I don't have the energy."
"You will," Bill declared. "Until then, you can leave the decisions to me. How does a luxury suite with a fireplace and a four-poster bed sound?"
"A working fireplace?" I asked hopefully.
"Naturally. Then there's the claw-foot tub, the fluffy towels, the designer toiletries, the chocolates-"
"Stop!" I broke in, smiling. "Don't spoil the surprises!"
"I'll make an online reservation tonight," said Bill, "and I'll speak with Father in the morning. He and Amelia having been champing at the bit to have the children all to themselves for a few days."
"We'll be lucky if they give them back," I said.
"We won't have to worry about Stanley, either," said Bill. "Amelia likes looking after him."
"Amelia spoils him rotten," I said. "He'll feast on salmon, tuna, and minced shrimp while we're gone and go into mourning when we get back. But he'll get over it. He always does."
"We'll take my Mercedes instead of your Range Rover," Bill proposed. "It'll make a nice change for you to travel in a car that isn't equipped with child safety seats."
"Or littered with dinosaurs, cricket bats, and sippy cups," I added. "Good thinking."
"The weather may not be optimal during our getaway," Bill cautioned. "It may be a bit drizzly in Rye."
"If we were afraid of rain, we wouldn't live in England," I reminded him. "And if the weather's too miserable, we'll light a fire in the hearth, curl up in our four-poster, and-"
"Stop," Bill interrupted, nuzzling my neck. "Don't spoil the surprises."
There was a brief intermission during which my gray mood lifted considerably.
When we were able to talk again, Bill's brow furrowed slightly.
"There's only one catch," he said.
"I knew it," I said as my murky mood threatened to return. "I knew there'd be a catch."
"It's a tiny catch," he assured me, "and it has to do with my client."
"Your client?" I said, baffled. "The client you're seeing on Thursday?"
"That's the one," Bill confirmed. "His name is Sir Roger Blayne and he lives in an Elizabethan manor house called Blayne Hall."
"I don't see the catch," I said.
"The catch is that he's a recluse-a serious recluse," Bill explained. "The first time I met with Sir Roger, Father had to come with me to vouch for my identity."
"Charming," I said.
"Our relationship has progressed by leaps and bounds since then," Bill assured me. "Instead of regarding me with distaste, Sir Roger tolerates me."
"Fairly small leaps and bounds, then," I observed drily.
"My point is that Sir Roger sees no one but his physicians, his attorneys, and a handful of faithful retainers," said Bill. "Since you don't fall into any of those categories, I doubt that he'll let you into Blayne Hall."
"I'll wait for you in the car," I suggested.
"I have a better idea," Bill said. "You can drop me off on Sir Roger's doorstep, drive to Rye, check into The Mermaid Inn, and enjoy a long, lazy bubble bath in your claw-foot tub. When I'm done with Sir Roger, his chauffeur can drive me to Rye."
"How far is it from Blayne Hall to Rye?" I queried. I wasn't wildly enthused about driving in the south of England, where the roads tended to resemble green trenches.
"No more than ten miles," Bill replied, "and the route is well signposted."
"Ten miles on well-marked roads?" I said. "That's hardly a catch at all." I snuggled closer to my husband. "I haven't taken a proper bubble bath since Bess was born."
"I may join you in it," he warned.
"I'll keep the water hot for you," I purred.
"Hold that thought," he said. "I have to make a reservation!"
As he rolled out of bed and reached for his laptop, I wrapped my arms around his pillow and heaved a blissful sigh. The elation I felt at the mere thought of running away from home told me that Bill's diagnosis was correct: I was badly in need of a break. I loved Finch dearly, but a change of scene would do me a world of good, especially when the scene encompassed bubble baths, seaside strolls, and a four-poster bed in a romantic inn.
"Who cares if it rains?" I murmured sleepily.
As it turned out, I would.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Outstanding read as always. Here is hoping Ms Atherton keeps the story alive and thriving!
Loved the book and the adventure
Although I missed the villagers and family it was fun to make new friends in a strange village.
Can't wait for the next one!