Aunt Dimity and the Lost Prince

BOOK: Aunt Dimity and the Lost Prince
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ALSO BY NANCY ATHERTON

Aunt Dimity’s Death

Aunt Dimity and the Duke

Aunt Dimity’s Good Deed

Aunt Dimity Digs In

Aunt Dimity’s Christmas

Aunt Dimity Beats the Devil

Aunt Dimity: Detective

Aunt Dimity Takes a Holiday

Aunt Dimity: Snowbound

Aunt Dimity and the Next of Kin

Aunt Dimity and the Deep Blue Sea

Aunt Dimity Goes West

Aunt Dimity: Vampire Hunter

Aunt Dimity Slays the Dragon

Aunt Dimity Down Under

Aunt Dimity and the Family Tree

Aunt Dimity and the Village Witch

VIKING

Published by the Penguin Group

Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street,

New York, New York 10014, U.S.A

USA / Canada / UK / Ireland / Australia / New Zealand / India / South Africa / China

Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

For more information about the Penguin Group visit penguin.com

Copyright © Nancy T. Atherton, 2013

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed
in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in
or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights.
Purchase only authorized editions.

ISBN: 978-1-101-60629-2

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the
product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance
to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is
entirely coincidental.

 

For

the wildland firefighters of

Harvey’s Great Basin Team,

with my profound thanks

One

I
’ve heard it said that when the poet T. S. Eliot was writing
The W
asteland
, he chose February as the cruelest month, then changed it to April in revisions.
If you ask me, he got it right the first time. As far as I’m concerned, February’s
only redeeming feature is its brevity. If it were any longer, I would tear it from
my calendar in protest.

Leap years? Don’t talk to me about leap years. I suppose they serve a useful purpose,
but if we must add an extra day to the calendar every now and again, why not add it
to July? Or August? Or September? Why prolong the most miserable month of the year
when we have so many pleasant months to choose from? Leap years, I’m convinced, were
invented solely to torment me.

January isn’t so bad. January offers a pleasant return to routine after the hectic
holiday season. The Christmas tree has been mulched or planted or turned into a bird
feeder. The twinkly lights and the ornaments have been stored in the attic. The living
room is spacious again, the dining room tidy, the kitchen organized. With the cessation
of gift shopping, card writing, cookie baking, crèche building, church decorating,
and Nativity play rehearsing, time itself is uncluttered. Grown-ups are back at work,
children are back in school, and life ticks along with the soothing regularity of
a well-oiled grandfather clock.

By the first of February, however, the novelty of normalcy has worn off. Christmas
is but a distant memory and spring isn’t even a glimmer on the horizon. It seems as
though it has always been and will always be winter—bleak, cold, gray, dismal winter—with
no respite in sight. If one lived in New Zealand, one might regard the second month
of the year as the jewel in summer’s crown, but I lived in England and I regarded
February as the lump of coal in my Christmas stocking.

It seemed churlish to grumble as yet another February hove into view because my life
was in so many ways idyllic. I was married to a wonderful man, we had two beautiful
children, and we lived in a honey-colored stone cottage in the Cotswolds, a rural
region in England’s West Midlands.

The nearest hub of civilization was Finch, a tiny village surrounded by rolling hills,
patchwork fields, and not much else. Traffic jams were unknown in Finch, litter was
seldom seen, and crime was virtually nonexistent. The villagers’ lives revolved around
local events and a never ending stream of delicious gossip. A better woman might have
turned a deaf ear to the tittle-tattle, but I wasn’t a better woman. I believed quite
strongly that inquisitive neighbors were preferable to indifferent ones and I behaved
accordingly.

Though my husband and I were American, we’d called England home for almost a decade
and our nearly eight-year-old sons had never lived anywhere else. Bill ran the European
branch of his family’s venerable law firm from a building overlooking Finch’s village
green, Will and Rob attended Morningside School in the nearby market town of Upper
Deeping, and I scrambled to keep up with the myriad roles of wife, mother, community
volunteer, busybody-in-training, and chairwoman of the Westwood Trust, a nonprofit
organization that funded worthy projects.

Stanley, who lived with us in the cottage, did little but eat, sleep, frolic, and
strike elegant poses, but since he had four paws and a tail, nothing more was expected
of him. Stanley was a gleaming black cat with dandelion-yellow eyes and a dog-like
devotion to Bill.

The rest of us were devoted to Bill’s father, William Arthur Willis, Sr., a white-haired
widower with a fondness for orchids, antiquarian books, and long walks in the countryside.
Willis, Sr., was as wise as he was kind, an old-fashioned gentleman, and a doting
grandfather. When he retired from his position as head of the family firm and moved
into Fairworth House, a splendid Georgian mansion not far from the cottage, our family
circle was complete.

With so many blessings raining down on my head, I had no right to whine about February,
but when my husband was called away on the first of the month to attend to a client
in Majorca, I couldn’t help feeling hard done by.

I was, of course, accustomed to Bill’s frequent business trips. He was an estate attorney
with an international clientele and I couldn’t blame him for doing his job. I could,
however, blame him—severely—for basking in the sun on a flower-strewn Mediterranean
island while I was cooped up in the cottage with a pair of bored and irritable little
boys.

To be fair, Will and Rob were rarely bored or irritable. As identical twins, each
had a built-in playmate, and as my offspring, they weren’t lacking in imagination.
Under normal circumstances, my sons were cheerful, energetic, and eminently capable
of entertaining themselves. In winter, I could rely on them to spend their after-school
hours in the meadow behind our back garden, sledding, throwing snowballs, and constructing
everything from snow forts to snow dragons.

On Saturdays, I would drop them off next door at Anscombe Manor, where they would
be free to pursue their primary passion: horseback riding. Nothing on earth, including
my oatmeal cookies and Bill’s imitation of a
Tyrannosaurus rex
, pleased them more than a day spent galloping over hill and dale on their gray ponies,
Thunder and Storm.

Sundays were spent first at church, then at Fairworth House, where Will and Rob had
free rein to play hide-and-seek, explore the attics, and hone their shot-making skills
at their grandfather’s billiards table. If the spirit moved us, we’d go on a family
outing to a local attraction. All in all, my sons had little reason to complain that
their lives were dull, dreary, and confined.

February’s curse was upon us, however, and I could do nothing but stand by and watch
as our pleasant routine disintegrated. Bill’s departure coincided with a cold front
that swept in from the North Sea, plunging our region into a deep freeze that proved
to be too much for Morningside School’s high-tech heating system. The school’s headmistress
telephoned me on Sunday evening to inform me that classes would be suspended for at
least a week because the parts needed to repair the complex furnace were buried somewhere
in a snow-covered warehouse in Helsinki.

Will and Rob liked school very much, but they were quick to see the advantages of
an unscheduled vacation. Since dangerous wind chills prevented them from playing outdoors,
they found new and creative ways to blow off steam. Overnight, every chair in the
cottage became a trampoline, every table a launching pad, and every inch of floor
space an obstacle course of train tracks, model cars, building blocks, dinosaurs,
stuffed animals, and whatever else they could drag from their toy boxes and scatter
underfoot. In self-defense, Stanley retreated to the guest room and hid under the
bed, emerging only at night, when the boys were fast asleep and the coast was clear.

Unlike Stanley, I had nowhere to hide. On Wednesday, I imposed martial law, threatening
my sons with dire consequences if they continued to behave like barbarians. They dutifully
cleared the decks and settled down to more civilized pursuits, but drawing, reading,
writing, and other forms of quiet play were poor substitutes for racing around the
back meadow like a pair of untamed colts.

Unable to rid themselves of their pent-up energy, the twins’ tempers became frayed
and their imaginations ran dry. When they weren’t quarreling over crayons, books,
board games, and toys, they were sitting morosely on the window seat in the living
room, their identical noses pressed to the frigid panes, longing to be released from
bondage. I was run ragged, trying to calm them down one minute and cheer them up the
next.

I called Willis, Sr., for backup, but he’d contracted a nasty head cold, and his housekeeper,
a caring and capable young woman named Deirdre Donovan, had barred the door to visitors.
When I heard his hoarse voice, I agreed that peace and quiet would be his best medicines
and put away all thoughts of setting my sons loose at Fairworth House.

The germ afflicting Willis, Sr., had evidently spread far and wide because all of
the boys’ school friends were sick as well. Though a few beleaguered mothers offered
to offload their runny-nosed darlings on me, I was understandably reluctant to expose
Will and Rob to such a virulent virus and gently refused to set up playdates.

As our options for escape narrowed, the cottage seemed to close in around us, becoming
smaller and smaller with the passing of each spat-filled hour. During a brief moment
of calm, I considered building a recreation center in the back meadow, equipped with
a swimming pool, a cricket pitch, a riding ring, and miles of monkey bars. It seemed
like a perfectly rational plan to me, but it also seemed likely that Bill would wish
to have a say in it, so I shelved it for the moment and returned to the living room
to keep peace among the pirates storming the sofa.

By Friday morning, the only weapon left in my maternal arsenal was the promise of
spending Saturday at the stables. I unsheathed it during breakfast, reminding the
boys that in less than twenty-four hours we would be on our way to the Anscombe Riding
Center for a full day of horsey fun. Even if the cold snap prevented them from riding
their ponies, I told them, they could spend the day cleaning tack, climbing hay bales,
talking horse with their fellow equestrians, and grooming Thunder and Storm.

My pep talk worked like magic. Will and Rob bounced upstairs to play checkers in their
room and I spent much of the morning singing, smiling, and baking cookies for them
to share with their stable mates. I blithely disregarded February’s malevolent influence
until the telephone rang and I stiffened, gripped by a chilling sense of impending
doom.

“Lori?” The voice on the other end of the line belonged to my best friend, Emma Harris,
owner of the Anscombe Riding Center. “I hate to say it—”

I groaned inwardly and braced myself for bad news.

“—but the stables will be closed for the foreseeable future,” Emma continued.

“Stables?” I echoed weakly. “Closed?” I cast a haunted glance at the wall calendar,
sank onto a kitchen chair, and put a weary hand to my forehead. “How could you do
this to me, Emma? Will and Rob have been bouncing off the walls
all week
. They
need
to see their ponies. Do you have the slightest inkling of what will happen when I
tell them they
can’t
?” I covered my eyes and heaved a dolorous sigh. “You have condemned me to a foreseeable
future filled with terminal crankiness.”

“I’m sorry to inconvenience you, Lori,” Emma said tartly, “but we’re suffering a few
inconveniences ourselves. The water pipes leading to the stables are frozen solid
and one has burst. Derek and his crew are working on it, but at the moment, the stable
yard is a skating rink.”

Derek Harris was Emma’s husband. Since he restored old buildings for a living, he
had the tools, the skills, and the manpower needed to deal with just about any household
emergency. If Derek couldn’t repair or replace the damaged pipes quickly, no one could.

“It’s the curse,” I muttered.

“Oh, Lori,” Emma said impatiently. “You’re not going on about February again, are
you?”

“What month is it, my friend?” I retorted. “And what has happened to your pipes?”

“Pure coincidence,” Emma replied. “Cold spells happen in winter and pipes sometimes
freeze during cold spells. It has nothing to do with a curse.”

“What about the school’s broken furnace and the universal head cold?” I demanded.

“Coincidence,” Emma said airily.

“So you say,” I grumbled, but even as I spoke it occurred to me that I might not be
responding as a best friend should in a crisis. With a heroic effort, I thrust my
own troubles aside and focused on Emma’s. “You poor thing. How can I help? Hot soup?
Warm beds? A truckload of blowtorches? Name it and it shall be yours.”

Emma chuckled. “Thanks, Lori, but we’re managing. It’s a big job, though, and it’ll
take time to put everything back together again. The stables are high and dry, thank
heavens, so we won’t have to move the horses.”

“Are the horses okay?” I asked.

“They’re jittery because of the noise and the commotion,” Emma replied, “but they’ll
settle down once they get used to it. Tell Will and Rob not to worry about their ponies.
We’ll look after them.”

“I know you will, and so do the boys,” I said. “You must be up to your eyebrows in
emergency management, Emma, so I’ll let you go. If you need anything, day or night,
you know who to call.”

“I have your number on speed dial,” Emma assured me, and hung up.

I returned the receiver to its cradle and searched my mind for an alternate activity
that would placate a pair of profoundly disappointed seven-year-olds, but for once
my imagination failed me. I could think of absolutely nothing that would compensate
Will and Rob for a Saturday devoid of horsiness. With my brain running on empty, I
sat paralyzed at the kitchen table, unable to bring myself to break the disastrous
news to my unsuspecting sons. I was still in a state of suspended animation when the
doorbell rang.

I flew up the hallway to answer it, hoping to find a magician or an acrobat or a troupe
of juggling chimpanzees on my doorstep, but what I found there was even more astonishing
than a passing circus.

When I flung the front door open, I saw flames.

BOOK: Aunt Dimity and the Lost Prince
11.77Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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