It’s June, the roses are in bloom, and the small English village of Finch may be in big trouble. Two cottages are for sale, but something—or someone—is driving buyers away. Has a developer targeted Finch? Will property values skyrocket? Will a wave of wealthy weekenders drive out the longtime locals?
Lori Shepherd has a lot on her plate—a brand-new baby daughter, her father-in-law’s impending nuptials, and a visit from her dreaded aunts-in-law—but she refuses to stand back and watch while big money destroys her beloved village. Lori suspects that a local real estate agent is illicitly lining her pockets at Finch’s expense, but before she can prove it, she’s sidetracked by a chance encounter with an eccentric inventor. Arthur Hargreaves, dubbed the Summer King by his quirky family, is as warmhearted as the summer sun. In his presence, Lori forgets her troubles—and Finch’s. Lori snaps out of her happy trance when a series of unsettling discoveries shakes her faith in Arthur Hargreaves. She stumbles across a detailed map of Finch in Hillfont Abbey. An ancient feud between Finch and the Hargreaves family comes to light. Arthur appears to be making secret deals with the shady realtor. Is the Summer King as kind as he seems?
With Aunt Dimity’s otherworldly help—and her new baby girl in her arms—Lori mounts a crusade to save her village from the Summer King’s scorching greed.
Look out for Aunt Dimity and the Buried Treasure, the next in the series, coming from Viking on May 24, 2016.
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Every back road is somebody’s main road. No matter how rough or remote it might be, a road always leads somewhere, and for someone, that somewhere is home.
I lived on a back road, a narrow, twisting lane bordered by hedgerows, lush pastures, and shadowy woodlands. My home was a honey-colored cottage in the Cotswolds, a region of rolling hills and patchwork fields in England’s West Midlands, and my little lane was used chiefly by my family, my friends, and my neighbors.
Bewildered strangers occasionally knocked on my door to ask for directions, but they left as quickly as they came. They had no reason to linger—no castle, no cathedral, no Bronze Age barrow or seaside promenade to pique their interest. There was nothing special about my corner of the Cotswolds, apart from its tranquil beauty and the unchanging, ever-changing cycle of country life.
My husband, Bill, and I were Americans, as were our nine-year-old twins, Will and Rob, but we’d lived in England long enough to be accepted as honorary natives by our neighbors. Our cottage was situated near the small village of Finch, a place so tiny and of so little consequence to the world at large that most mapmakers forgot to include it on their maps.
Finch was, of course, of tremendous consequence to those of us who lived there. It was the center of our universe, the hub around which we revolved. We might not be able to name the newest celebrity, but we knew everything worth knowing about one another.
We knew whose dog had acquired fleas, whose roof had sprung a leak, and whose chrysanthemums had been fatally stricken with root rot mere moments after such catastrophes took place. We knew who could be relied upon to make six dozen flawless strawberry tarts for the flower show’s bake sale and who couldn’t be trusted to bake a single macaroon without setting the oven ablaze. We knew whose children and grandchildren were delightful and whose were to be avoided like the plague, and we shared our knowledge with a diligence that put the Internet to shame.
Local gossip was the stuff of life in Finch, a sport, an art form, a currency that never lost its value. We didn’t need celebrities to entertain us. We found ourselves endlessly fascinating.
Finch wouldn’t suit everyone—those desiring privacy, for example, would find the lack of it hard to bear—but it suited Bill and me down to the ground. Bill ran the European 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 a multitude of roles—wife, mother, friend, neighbor, community volunteer, gossip gatherer, and devoted daughter-in-law.
Bill’s father, William Willis, Sr., lived up the lane from us, in Fairworth House, a splendidly restored Georgian mansion surrounded by an impeccably maintained estate. Willis, Sr., had spent most of his adult life in Boston as the head of the family firm, but he’d moved to England upon his retirement in order to be near his grandchildren.
My father-in-law was an old-fashioned, courtly gentleman, a handsome widower, and a doting grandfather. I adored him, as did nearly every widow and spinster in Finch. Many a heart had been broken when Willis, Sr., had bestowed his upon the celebrated watercolorist Amelia Thistle. Amelia had taken nearly two years to return the favor, but Willis, Sr.’s patient pursuit of her had eventually paid off. He had proposed, she had accepted, and the date of the wedding had been set.
Bill was delighted by the match. He looked forward to being his father’s best man as eagerly as I looked forward to being Amelia’s matron of honor. Will and Rob were somewhat less enthusiastic about fulfilling their forthcoming roles as Grandpa’s ring-bearers, but Amelia had bought their cooperation by promising to hide a handful of their favorite cookies in her bouquet. For a woman who’d never had children of her own, Amelia possessed a rare gift for dealing with nine-year-olds.
Although Willis, Sr., was no longer the head of the family firm,he was still regarded as the head of the family and attendance at his nuptials was considered compulsory. Flocks of aunts, uncles, and cousins would soon be descending on Finch to pay homage to the paterfamilias, an event that did not fill Bill with unalloyed joy. While he got along well with most of his relatives, he actively disliked two of his aunts. He referred to them as the Harpies, but only when Will, Rob, and his father were out of earshot.
Though Aunt Honoria and Aunt Charlotte had been widowed for many years, they had, in their youth, married men from their own social milieu. They believed that Bill had let his old-money Boston Brahmin family down when he’d married a middle-class girl from Chicago. Had they been openly hostile to me, Willis, Sr., would have come down on them like a ton of bricks, so they disguised their disdain with artful expressions of “concern” for me, the unfortunate outsider.
They criticized my posture, my table manners, my dress sense, and my speech, but they did so solicitously, as if they were bringing enlightenment to a savage who’d been raised on a desert island by a troop of baboons. Willis, Sr., who could usually spot a hidden agenda from a mile off, was blind to his sisters’ shenanigans. He saw Charlotte and Honoria through rose-colored glasses, but they made my easygoing husband see red.
Bill’s aunts had never darkened our doorway in England—they rarely left Boston—and he was not looking forward to their first visit. He made his misgivings known to me as we strolled along our little lane one day, three weeks before the wedding.
It was a glorious Saturday morning in early June. After dropping the boys off at the local stables for their weekly riding lessons, Bill had decided to clear up some neglected paperwork that awaited him at his office in Finch. He didn’t usually walk to the village and I didn’t usually accompany him, but the weather was superb and we’d both felt like stretching our legs.
My mind was on other things when Bill spoke, so his words seemed to come out of nowhere, like a bolt from the blue.
“If the Harpies are rude to you,” he declared, “I’ll strangle them.”
“I should hope so,” I said lightly, but one glance at my husband’s thunderous expression told me that he was not in the mood for levity. “What brought your aunts to mind?”
“A phone call from Father,” he replied. “Honoria and Charlotte will be arriving at Fairworth House on Monday.”
“Monday?” I said, my heart sinking. “Why so soon?”
“They say they’re coming early to help Amelia with the wedding, but you and I know they’ll do nothing but nitpick and nag.” Bill laughed bitterly. “I wouldn’t put it past them to spend the next three weeks trying to talk Father out of marrying Amelia.”
“Fat chance,” I said scornfully.
“‘An artist in the family,’” said Bill, mimicking Honoria’s penetrating nasal drawl. “‘What on earth were you thinking, William? We could understand it if she dabbled. Everyone dabbles. But she sells her paintings. For money. My dear, it simply isn’t done!’”
“They wouldn’t be stupid enough to talk like that in front of your father, would they?” I asked incredulously.
“I almost wish they would,” said Bill. “It’d be a treat to watch Father kick them out of Fairworth.”
“If they spout off about Amelia, he will,” I said. “And they won’t be able to stay with us because we don’t have a guest room anymore.”
“Yet another reason to be thankful for my beautiful wife,” Bill acknowledged, “and my beautiful, beautiful daughter.”
My husband’s entire aspect changed as he gazed down at the precious passenger I was pushing along in the pram. His shoulders relaxed, his fists unclenched, and his thunderous expression gave way to one of pure adoration. Bill was in love as he had never been in love before and I felt not the slightest twinge of jealousy because I, too, was besotted.
Don’t get me wrong. We loved our sons ferociously, but our baby girl had come to us long after we’d abandoned hope of having another child. Her late arrival had secured a special place in our hearts for her. Because of her, Bill had done the unthinkable: He’d cut back on his workload in order to spend less time at the beck and call of his demanding clients and more time at home with his family. It was a choice the Harpies would never understand, but I did, and I approved of it with all my heart.
Our daughter had been christened Elizabeth Dimity, after my late mother and a dear friend, but Will and Rob had dubbed her Bess. I suspected they’d done so for the pleasure of calling her Bessy Boots, Messy Bessy, and a host of other big-brotherly nicknames, but Bess she had been from that day forward.
Bess had entered the world on a stormy, snowy night in late February—a scant fifteen weeks ago—but we felt as if we’d known her forever. She had her father’s velvety brown eyes, my rosy complexion, and a wispy crop of silky, softly curling dark-brown hair.
“She is beautiful, isn’t she?” I crooned.
“She’s incomparably beautiful,” Bill agreed, “and highly intelligent.”
“And even-tempered,” I added.
“And healthy and strong and good-humored,” Bill continued.
“And kind and patient and wise,” I went on.
“Our Bess,” Bill concluded, “is as perfectly perfect as perfect can be.”
We looked at each other and laughed. We wouldn’t allow ourselves to become baby-bores in public, but we were free to sing Bess’s praises in private, secure in the knowledge that every word we said was true.
“She’s also considerate,” I pointed out. “If we hadn’t turned our guest room into her nursery, we would have had to offer it to one of your cousins.”
“Thank God for small blessings,” Bill murmured, beaming at Bess. “I don’t know where Father will put everyone,” he added, shaking his head. “Fairworth House is big, but it isn’t big enough to accomodate his out-of-town guests as well as Amelia’s.”
“He could put someone in the old nursery,” I suggested facetiously. Willis, Sr., had refurbished the nursery in Fairworth House with his granddaughter’s comfort in mind. It came in handy when our visits coincided with Bess’s nap times, but it wasn’t a bedroom for grown-ups.
“Are you serious?” Bill asked, eyeing me doubtfully.
“I was attempting to be humorous,” I said, sighing. “An attempt which has clearly failed. The serious answer is: Amelia has booked hotel rooms in Oxford and Upper Deeping for those who accepted their invitations promptly. Late responders will have to fend for themselves.”
“I suppose they could rent the empty cottages,” said Bill.
A sense of unease rippled through me. The empty cottages worried me far more than Bill’s aunts. Honoria and Charlotte would be gone shortly after the wedding, but the cottages were part of a troubling trend.
Two cottages stood empty in Finch and they had done so for five months. Their former owners had either passed away or moved away, and though the little dwellings were attractive and in good repair, no new owners had come to claim them.
I couldn’t understand it. Finch might be small, but it was not without resources. Taxman’s Emporium stocked everything from baked beans to freckle cream, Peacock’s pub was renowned for its pub grub and ales, and Sally Cook’s tearoom was a pastry lover’s delight. Finch had its own church, post office, and greengrocer’s shop and it boasted the finest handyman in the county. Mr. Barlow, the retired mechanic who served as our church sexton, could turn his hand to just about any job.
Finch even had an international contingent. Bree Pym was from New Zealand, Jack MacBride was from Australia, and my family represented the United States, as did my best friend, Emma Harris, who lived up the lane from us in Anscombe Manor, where she’d established the riding academy Will and Rob attended. Our village was, in its own way, quite cosmopolitan.
Granted, there was no school, but the old schoolhouse was still very much in use as our village hall. The flower show, the Nativity play, and numerous bake sales were held there, and committees met beneath its roof to plan the year’s village activities.
Finch was surrounded by farmland, but Oxford wasn’t far away and Upper Deeping was even closer. It seemed to me that a relatively short drive to work was a small price to pay for a home in such a beautiful setting.
Fishermen could cast their lures into the Little Deeping River, cyclists could pedal in peace along uncrowded lanes, hikers could ramble to their hearts’ content on a network of lovely trails, and children could play in safety on the village green while the elderly swapped stories on the bench near the war memorial. All in all, Finch had a lot to offer.
Yet the two cottages remained empty.
“There shouldn’t be any empty cottages in Finch,” I said. “They should’ve been snapped up ages ago. What’s wrong with people, Bill? Why doesn’t anyone want to live here?”
“No idea,” said Bill. “And it’s too nice a day to waste fretting over a problem we can’t solve.”
I fell silent, but I didn’t stop fretting. It distressed me to see Ivy Cottage and Rose Cottage uninhabited. Their blank windows seemed to peer reproachfully at passersby, as if the village had somehow let them down. Amelia’s home, Pussywillows, would soon be on the market as well and I couldn’t help wondering if it would find a buyer. The thought of three perfectly good cottages standing vacant for months on end was as depressing as it was perplexing.
Bill spoke of everything but the empty cottages as we strolled past Emma Harris’s long, curving drive, Bree Pym’s redbrick house, and the wrought-iron gates guarding the entrance to Willis, Sr.’s estate. We were within a few yards of the humpbacked bridge that crossed the Little Deeping when I came to a halt.
“Here’s where we part ways,” I said to Bill, nodding toward the trees on our right. “If you squint, you’ll see an old cart track hidden away in there. Bess and I are heading for parts unknown.”
Bill pushed aside the branches of the bushy bay tree that concealed the track’s narrow entrance.
“I’m glad I bought an all-terrain pram,” he said, eyeing the track’s deep ruts doubtfully. “Do you have your cell phone with you, in case you get lost?”
“I do have my cell phone with me,” I said, “but I won’t need it. According to Emma, the track hugs the northern boundary of your father’s property, so I can’t possibly get lost.”
Emma Harris was not merely a good friend and an accomplished equestrian. She was a master map-reader as well. She’d spotted the disused farm track on an old ordnance survey map, but though she’d told me of her discovery, she hadn’t yet explored it. It cheered me to think of Bess and I going boldly where no Emma had gone before.
“Don’t walk too far,” Bill cautioned.
“Forty minutes out, forty minutes back,” I promised. “Unless the track vanishes before our out-time is up, in which case we’ll turn around sooner.”
“A sensible plan,” said Bill, adding under his breath, “if only you’d stick to it . . .” He gave me a kiss and bent low to kiss our sleeping daughter, but as he headed for the humpbacked bridge he couldn’t resist calling over his shoulder, “Ring me when you get lost!”
I gave him a dark look as I steered the pram through the opening in the trees and onto the bumpy track. I didn’t need Bill to remind me that my map-reading skills were less highly developed than Emma’s, but I didn’t need map-reading skills to follow the old track’s twin ruts. And no map on earth could have warned me—or Emma—of what lay ahead.
None of us could have known that Bess and I were about to enter the strange and mysterious realm of the Summer King.
I felt almost giddy with freedom as I stepped onto Emma’s track. The wild winds and the drenching rains that had kept me indoors throughout March, April, and May had at last given way to soft breezes and shimmering sunshine.
The air was filled with the delicate scents of violets and primroses. Wild strawberries climbed the hedgerows, bluebells carpeted the woods, buttercups gilded the meadows, and birds twittered in the trees. Spring teetered on the edge of summer and I was ready to greet it with open arms.
Inclement weather alone hadn’t kept me cooped up in the cottage for weeks on end. A month of strict bed rest culminating in a prolonged and complicated delivery had produced a gratifyingly healthy baby, but it had also put a serious strain on my forty-one-year-old body. In a way, I’d been pleased by my postpartum feebleness, for it had allowed me to spend many guilt-free hours alone with my baby girl.
While a phalanx of friends filled my fridge with casseroles, took care of my household chores, and helped Bill to look after the boys, I tottered from bedroom to nursery and back again, with my daughter in my arms, barely conscious of a world beyond the one I shared with her. She and I weren’t completely alone, of course. Bill changed Bess’s diapers more often than I did, while Will and Rob, our self-appointed knights errant, kept us fully supplied with cookies, drawings, and dinosaurs.
When our menfolk were away, however, I enjoyed the luxury of having Bess all to myself. My earliest days with the twins had passed in a blur of new-mother panic and blinding fatigue and I didn’t want history to repeat itself. Bess would, I knew, be my last child, and I cherished the chance to devote myself to her, body and soul, during the first fleeting weeks of her infancy.
Feeble tottering was not, however, the best way to get back into shape after a difficult pregnancy, a fact that had been made painfully clear to me when I’d tried on my matron of honor gown at a fitting. Amelia’s bridesmaids, a quartet of whippet-slim art students who were half my age and who’d never given birth to anything bigger than an idea, had also attended the fitting, and though I wasn’t abnormally vain, I couldn’t help noticing that, while the seamstress had taken their dresses in, she’d gone to great lengths—literally—to let mine out.
I knew I would never be whippet-thin again, but I had no intention of becoming a too matronly matron of honor. The fitting inspired me to get off my backside before it became any broader. As soon as the weather calmed down, I began to take Bess for long walks through the countryside, exploring the web of pathways and lanes that spread outward in all directions from the village. I was so pleased to be outdoors and so intent on my tiny companion that I sometimes lost track of the time. And the mileage. And my whereabouts.
Once—only once—I’d ended up in an unfamiliar, deserted farmyard, too exhausted to walk any farther. The cell phone had come in handy on that occasion, but Bill had never let me forget the number of farmyards he’d had to search before he’d found his lost wife and his daughter, a full seven miles from home and sound asleep in the shade of a cow barn.
I blamed my farmyard adventure, in part, on the “all-terrain pram” Bill had bought for me when I’d told him of my new exercise program. The pram was an engineering marvel—convertible, collapsible, lightweight, yet sturdy, and so easy to maneuver that it tempted me to outwalk my stamina. Its three oversized wheels were more than a match for the potholes, rocks, and ruts of Emma’s track, while its clever suspension and harness systems ensured a smooth, safe ride for Bess. Best of all, the bassinet could face either forward or backward. I preferred the backward position because it allowed me to have face-to-face conversations with Bess, who enjoyed using Bill’s pram as much as I did.
I would not, however, allow it to mislead me again.
The moment I lost sight of Bill, I set the alarm on my cell phone to go off in precisely forty minutes. I explained to Bess that we would turn for home at its first beep, then forged ahead, feeling as though I’d saved myself from repeating the error that had given Bill the right to say, “Six farmyards! Six!” to anyone who would listen.
My fitness regimen wasn’t entirely for my own benefit. It seemed to me that a baby born during a blizzard would appreciate the sun’s warmth more keenly than most. After so many weeks indoors, I reasoned, the outdoors would stir her senses. She could hear the skylarks, smell the wild thyme, and see a crayon box of colors in the big world beyond the cottage. She might not remember the details of our first walks together, but I hoped they would kindle in her a lifelong love of nature.
“On the other hand, you could grow up to be a rock star,” I said to her as I pushed the pram carefully over a tangled mass of twisted tree roots that stretched across the track. “Our walks may give you a taste for rocking and rolling.”
Bess’s eyelids fluttered open at the sound of my voice, then closed again as the pram’s bouncing lulled her to sleep. I couldn’t yet tell if she was a placid child or a fearless one, but I looked forward to finding out.
I’d been confined to the cottage for so long that I positively reveled in the challenges the old track presented to me. I skirted ruts that resembled crevasses, ducked beneath low-hanging tree branches, splashed through rivulets, and nudged overgrown bushes aside with the same kind of fierce, joyous energy Will and Rob displayed while riding their ponies cross-country. When the old cart track veered to the left, I veered with it, and when the cell phone’s alarm sounded, I shut it off and kept walking. I was much too happy to turn back.
Grassy banks gradually rose on either side of the track, but the banks were carpeted with such a profusion of wildflowers that I didn’t mind losing the view. Apart from their beauty, the banks also shielded us from a rising breeze that had begun to blow in from the west.
When it came time to change Bess’s diaper, I spread her blanket on a flower-strewn bank and went to work, hoping—in vain—that the pleasant scents would cancel out the not so pleasant ones. A little while later, we paused for a snack. Seated in the soft grass with Bess nestled to my breast, I felt as if I’d found paradise. I decided on the spot to reveal Emma’s splendid discovery to no one.
“Your brothers have their secret places,” I murmured to Bess, “and this place will be ours—yours and mine.” I thought for a moment before adding judiciously, “Though we may allow Emma to visit it with us.”
I’d planned to turn back after snack time, but curiosity got the better of me. I could see the corner of a stone wall in the distance. One segment of the wall ran parallel to the grassy bank on my right, while the other took off at a right angle and disappeared into a stand of trees. The wall was at least eight feet tall, and it seemed to go on for miles. I wondered whose property it was protecting.
“It’s not your grandfather’s,” I told Bess as we approached the formidable barrier. “Grandpa’s walls don’t stretch for more than fifty yards from his gates. This one must belong to his neighbor.”
As I spoke, I realized with a start that I didn’t know who Willis, Sr.’s neighbor was. He’d never mentioned having a neighbor and I’d never imagined him having one. My lack of imagination embarrassed me.
“I hate to break it to you, Bess, but your mother sometimes forgets to use her noggin,” I said. “Everyone has neighbors, even Grandpa William, and I was a fool to think otherwise.” I pursed my lips thoughtfully. “I wonder why he doesn’t talk about them?”
The sound of voices floated over the wall as we strolled and rolled beside it, the high-pitched squeals of excited children, the chatter of teenagers, and the deeper tones of a grown man who shared their elation.
“We have liftoff!” the man shouted.
I lifted my gaze automatically and felt a thrill of delight as six kites rose into the sky in quick succession, each one more fantastic than the last. A red dragon bobbed in the rising breeze beside a skeletal, bat-winged biplane. A goldfish swam sinuously beneath a tall ship with billowing sails. Above them all soared a pair of complex and colorful box kites, breathtaking examples of geometry in motion. I couldn’t see who the kite-flyers were, but I was grateful to them for adding such a marvelous spectacle to an already magical day.
If I hadn’t been entranced by the kite ballet, I might have avoided the pothole. As it was, I pushed the pram straight into the gnarly cavity, hit its jagged lip at an unfortunate angle, and watched helplessly as the front wheel parted company with its axle and bounced merrily down the track ahead of us.
Bess gave a cry of alarm. To avoid frightening her further, I swallowed my own startled yelp and as a result emitted a sound that wasn’t quite human. The jarring bump and the scary noise Mummy made were too much for a baby to bear. Bess opened her rosy mouth and began to wail.
The only thing that kept me from banging my stupid head against the stone wall was my need to comfort my child. I propped the pram’s front fork on the left-hand bank, undid Bess’s harness, lifted her into my arms, and sat with her beside the broken pram, murmuring soothing and deeply apologetic words to her as I rocked her from side to side. Another snack seemed advisable and as soon as Bess latched on to me, she relaxed.
While my daughter regained her composure, I contemplated our plight. I didn’t like the thought of pushing a two-wheeled pram all the way back to civilization, but I liked the thought of telephoning Bill even less.
“The track’s too rough for a car, so he’ll send a helicopter to rescue us,” I said bleakly to Bess. “Everyone in Finch will see it whirling over the village and they’ll know before nightfall that I got us into another scrape. Six farmyards and a helicopter?” I gave a self-pitying moan. “I’ll never hear the end of it.”
I was so absorbed in my gloomy thoughts that I paid scant attention to the grunts and the scraping noises coming from the far side of the wall until a deep voice spoke from on high.
“May I be of assistance?”
I looked up and saw a man seated atop the stone wall. His short hair was white, as were his closely clipped beard and mustache, and his gray eyes were surrounded by wrinkles, but he didn’t dress like a grizzled old man. His rumpled blue shirt, grass-stained khaki trousers, and soiled sneakers reminded me of the clothes worn by my energetic young sons, but his most striking adornment was a wreath of dried grapevines sprinkled with buttercups and wound around his head like a crown.
The sight of the garlanded figure silhouetted against a sky dotted with dancing kites left me temporarily speechless. While I gazed upward in mute astonishment, the man regarded me politely, as if he routinely clambered up walls to rescue nursing mothers in distress.
“I heard a baby’s cry,” he continued, “and thought I might help in some way.”
“Thanks,” I said, trying not to stare at his wreath, “but I’m not sure you can help us.” I tipped the pram back with one hand and swung it around to reveal the full extent of the tragedy. “Can you mend it?”
The man studied the pram’s empty fork for a moment, then nodded.
“Sit tight,” he said with a friendly wink. “Back in a jiffy.”
He dropped out of sight before I could ask his name.
I gazed at the spot where the man had been, wondering if I’d conjured him out of thin air. The sound of his voice advising the kite-flyers to “Keep your lines taut!” assured me that he wasn’t a figment of my imagination, but I still wasn’t sure what to make of him. Could he repair the pram? I asked myself. Would he make it possible for me to walk home on my own two feet, with my head held high?
I exchanged glances with Bess and chose to be optimistic. Though the man’s grapevine wreath was a bit peculiar, I wouldn’t have cared if he’d reappeared clad in a grass skirt and a bowler hat. If he could spare me the humiliation of calling on Bill for support, I decided, he would be my friend forever.
I propped the pram on the bank again and looked down at Bess.
“Your grandfather’s neighbor appears to be related to Bacchus,” I said. “Bacchus, for your information, is the god of wine and wild parties. Maybe that’s why Grandpa William never talks about him. Wild parties aren’t really your grandfather’s thing.”
Bess was too busy to vouchsafe an opinion, so I sang to her to pass the time. When she’d had her fill of cuddles and comfort food, I returned her to the pram, detached the hooded bassinet from the frame, and placed it gently on the ground.
“I’m preparing the work site,” I explained to her as I removed the all-important diaper bag from the frame and set it beside the bassinet. “We don’t want our mystery mechanic to think we’re entirely useless.”
I’d scarcely finished speaking when the white-haired man emerged from a distant opening in the wall, riding an old-fashioned, fat-tire bicycle hitched to a box trailer. He pedaled at a leisurely pace, his blue shirt rippling in the breeze, his buttercup-spangled wreath still firmly in place, seemingly untroubled by the track’s rough surface.
“I hope he’s better at avoiding potholes than I am,” I murmured to Bess.
She gurgled her agreement.
The man paused several times to retrieve the pram’s errant wheel as well as what appeared to be bits of axle, then rode on without incident, coming to a halt a few feet away from the pothole that had ambushed me. His wrinkled face and snowy hair had led me to believe that he was in Willis, Sr.’s age bracket, but a closer look suggested that he was younger—in his early sixties, perhaps. He seemed entirely unaware of his unusual headgear and I was reluctant to ask him about it. I didn’t want to offend a man who might be able to spare me the ignominy of bumping Bess home in a damaged pram.
“Hello again,” I said as he dismounted, wheel in hand. “I’m afraid you left before I could introduce myself. I’m Lori Shepherd, but everyone—”
“Everyone calls you Lori,” he interjected with a cheerful nod.
“That’s right,” I said. “How did you know?”
A tiny frown creased his forehead, as if I’d stumped him with a tough question, but it vanished almost as quickly as it had appeared.
“First impressions,” he replied. “You don’t strike me as the kind of woman who stands on ceremony, Lori. I don’t, either. Stand on ceremony, that is. Hargreaves,” he continued, pressing a hand to his chest. “Arthur Hargreaves, but I do hope you’ll call me Arthur. You’re from Finch, aren’t you?”
“I’m beginning to think you read minds, Arthur,” I said.
“No, no,” he said diffidently. “I merely made an educated guess based upon my knowledge of the local byways. Was I wrong?”
“No,” I said. “My family and I live near Finch.”
“As I thought.” He strolled across the lane to peer into the bassinet. “The newest member of your family, I presume?”
“Right again,” I said. “Her name is Bess and she’ll be four months old in a couple of weeks.”
“Enchanting.” He bent low and offered his little finger to Bess, who cooed amiably as she grasped it. “A pleasure to meet you, Bess.”
“Do you live . . . there?” I asked, nodding toward the stone wall.
Arthur followed my gaze, reclaimed his finger from Bess, and straightened.
“I do,” he replied. “There’s been a Hargreaves at Hillfont Abbey for more than a hundred years.”
“Is that where we are? Hillfont Abbey?” I asked interestedly. “I’ve never been down this way before, so I’m not familiar with the landmarks. I believe my father-in-law’s property runs alongside yours. His name is William Willis and he owns Fairworth House.”
“Ah, yes,” said Arthur. “The retired attorney with a passion for orchids. He’s getting married, isn’t he?”
“He is,” I said, smiling. “I didn’t realize you knew him.”
“I don’t,” said Arthur. “I’ve set out to introduce myself to him any number of times, but I’ve never actually managed to get away.”
I blinked at him in confusion.
“If you’ve never met William,” I said slowly, “how do you know that he’s a retired attorney who’s fond of orchids?”
“How does one come to know anything in the country?” Arthur asked lightly. “One listens.”
“I’m a pretty good listener,” I said, eyeing him doubtfully, “but I’ve never heard of you.”
“You might have, if you lived in Tillcote,” he said, naming a village fifteen miles north of Finch. “The lane from Hillfont to Tillcote is paved and in good repair. The lane from Hillfont to Finch is neither. I prefer the safer route.”
“I don’t blame you,” I said ruefully. “The unpaved section is downright dangerous.”
“Indeed.” Arthur held up the detached wheel. “Shall we proceed?”
“By all means,” I said.
Arthur rolled up his sleeves and got to work. He turned the pram frame upside down, ran his hand along the front fork, poked his fingertips into the oily holes that had once housed an axle, and slid the wheel in and out of the fork. He then wiped his oily fingers on his trousers and turned to face me.
“On the plus side,” he said, “you didn’t damage the fork or the wheel. On the minus side, you shattered the axle.”
“I wasn’t watching where I was going,” I admitted guiltily.
“It’s not your fault,” Arthur assured me. “The axle was clearly defective. When I’m finished here, I’ll get on the blower and advise the manufacturer to issue a recall. You could, of course, sue the company for—”
“No, I couldn’t,” I interrupted. “My husband and I don’t believe in frivolous lawsuits. Bess and I were startled, yes, but there was no real harm done to either of us. As long as the manufacturer issues a recall, we won’t take anyone to court.”
“Good,” said Arthur. “I won’t have to preserve the evidence.”
“I don’t care if you bury the evidence in a deep, dark hole,” I told him, “as long as you can fix the axle.”
“I’m afraid it’s beyond repair,” Arthur replied, “but I can replace it with a better one.”
“How?” I said, taken aback. “Did you bring a non-defective pram axle with you, just in case?”
Arthur was about to answer when a renewed chorus of shouts and laughter reached us from beyond the stone wall. I glanced up and saw the goldfish chasing the red dragon across the sky.
“Who are the kite-flyers?” I asked.
“A veritable horde of Hargreaveses,” Arthur replied, smiling. “Grandchildren, mainly. They’ve designed and built the kites, so it would be a pity for them to miss launch day.”
“Do you throw a party on, er, launch day?” I inquired carefully. “Is that why you’re, um, dressed up?”
“Dressed up?” Arthur looked from his rolled shirtsleeves to his grease-and-grass–stained trousers, then peered at me questioningly. “I’m not sure I know what you mean.”
“I mean . . .” I pointed at my own head, then at his.
“Oh, I see,” he said as enlightenment dawned. “Sorry, I forgot.” He touched a finger to his grapevine wreath and smiled sheepishly. “I was crowned just an hour ago.”