Table of Contents
A PENGUIN MYSTERY
AUNT DIMITY’S GOOD DEED
Nancy Atherton is also the author of
Aunt Dimity’s Death
(the winner of the
New Discovery Award),
Aunt Dimity and the Duke, Aunt
Digs In, Aunt Dimity’s Christmas, Aunt Dimity Beats the Devil, and most recently Aunt Dimity: Detective.
She lives next door to a cornfield in central Illinois.
Published by the Penguin Group
Penguin Putnam Inc., 375 Hudson Street,
New York, New York 10014, U.S.A.
Penguin Books Ltd, 27 Wrights Lane,
London W8 5TZ, England
Penguin Books Australia Ltd, Ringwood,
Penguin Books Canada Ltd, 10 Alcorn Avenue,
Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4V 3B2
Penguin Books (N.Z.) Ltd, 182-190 Wairau Road,
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Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices:
Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England
First published in the United States of America by Viking Penguin,
a division of Penguin Books USA Inc. 1996
Published in Penguin Books 1998
Copyright © Nancy T. Atherton, 1996
All rights reserved
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, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
eISBN : 978-1-101-12799-5
1. Women detectives—England—Fiction. 2. Inheritance and succession—
Fiction. 3. Family—Fiction. 4. England—Fiction. I. Title.
Mark G. McMenamin,
Patron of the Arts
They say that three wishes are never enough, and maybe what they say is true. There’d been a time when, given a genie and a lamp, I’d have wished for nothing more than a job I didn’t hate and a rent-controlled apartment in the part of Boston that reminded me of England, a country I’d loved since childhood.
My third wish—the result, no doubt, of a dreary first marriage and an even drearier divorce—would have been for a more or less stable relationship with a guy who wasn’t a total creep, who would tell me the truth at least as often as he picked up his socks. Back then no one could have accused me of having great expectations. In those days my wildest dreams were so tame they’d eat out of your hand.
But when Aunt Dimity died, all of my wishes came true in ways I’d never dreamt possible. Aunt Dimity left me a honey-colored cottage that actually
in England, and enough money to ensure that I’d never have to work again. She also saw to it that her will was administered by a guy who was not only honest and scrupulously considerate about his socks, but head over heels in love with me.
Thanks to Aunt Dimity, I’d had a fairy-tale courtship, complete with a Handsome Prince—for so Bill Willis appeared to me, though he was neither handsome nor a prince—and a cozy, honey-colored castle in which he had finally popped the question. It all happened so quickly, so effortlessly, that I’d fallen deeply in love with Bill before I knew who he really was. And maybe that’s where I made my mistake.
Because the trouble with a fairy-tale romance is everything that comes after. I’d been married before, so I wasn’t naive—I knew we’d run into rough seas on occasion—but I never suspected that my own sweet Bill would try to sink the boat.
I thought I knew all there was to know about him. During our time together in Aunt Dimity’s cottage, I watched expectantly for a fatal character flaw to surface, but it never did. Despite his slightly warped sense of humor, Bill Willis had been a comfortable, easygoing companion, a genuinely decent guy, and he remained that way—as long as we were in the cottage.
The problem was that I’d never observed Bill in his natural environment. I’d never seen him sitting behind his desk during regular working hours. He’d been on a vacation of sorts when I’d met him, a long leave of absence from his family’s law firm—a condition of Aunt Dimity’s will—and our courtship had taken place in strange and romantic surroundings. It had been a wonderful idyll, but it had in no way prepared me for life back in the States, where my relaxed and carefree fiance became a work-obsessed, absentee husband.
Even our honeymoon had been interrupted by a flurry of faxes from the firm. It had seemed amusing at the time, but in retrospect I saw it as an early sign of less amusing things to come.
Bill’s native habitat wasn’t a cozy cottage, after all. He’d grown up in the Willis mansion, a national historic landmark occupying some of the priciest real estate in downtown Boston. We lived with Bill’s father, William Willis, Sr., in the mansion’s west wing and central block, but the east wing was devoted to the offices of Willis & Willis, one of the oldest and most prestigious law firms in New England. Willis & Willis could trace its roots back to before the Revolution, and so could most of its clientele, a fusty lot of old Bostonians whose litigious habits had made the Willis family rich beyond the dreams of avarice.
Bill had been born to serve a demanding bunch of blue-bloods, and the moment we got back to Boston, he vaulted into an endless round of phone calls, meetings, luncheons, banquets, and paperwork. Up before dawn and in bed after midnight, Bill ran like a rat in a cage, losing weight and adding lines of worry to a brow I seldom had the opportunity to smooth.
Bill’s manic schedule was designed, in part, to ease his father’s workload. Willis, Sr., hadn’t asked for a lighter workload, but Bill wasn’t convinced that his father knew what was best for him. My sixty-five-year-old father-in-law was usually in blooming good health, but he had a history of heart trouble, and Bill dreaded the thought of losing him. Gradually, Bill took over much of the day-today running of the firm, in order to reassure his father that all would be well with Willis & Willis should the old man decide to retire.
I suspected that Bill was trying to prove something to himself, as well. It wasn’t always easy being the son of the great William Willis, Sr. It wasn’t always easy being a Willis, period. Bill’s predecessors had been bringing glory to the Willis name since they’d come over from England; some had been judges, others had been congressmen, but all had done something remarkable. It was a weighty tradition to uphold, and Bill had reached an age, in his mid-thirties, when he felt the need to demonstrate that he was worthy of wearing the Willis mantle.
So my husband had good and understandable reasons for working himself into an early grave, and I had good and understandable reasons for tearing my hair out. The Handsome Prince Handbook is mute on the subject of chronic workaholism—Prince Charming, apparently, knew how to delegate—and I didn’t know where else to turn for help. What do you do when life begins to go wrong and you’ve used up all three wishes?
I refused to sit around the mansion, pining. My friend and former boss, Dr. Stanford J. Finderman, had plenty of jobs for me to do. Stan was the curator of the rare-book collection at my alma mater’s library, and he was more than happy to stretch his tight academic budget by dispatching me to England—at my own expense—to attend auctions or evaluate private collections.
For two long years, I threw myself into my work. I met scores of fascinating people and visited hundreds of beautiful places, and each assignment served to distract me from the low-pitched, incessant, and wholly irrational voice that murmured insidiously in the back of my mind:
It’s you. You’re why Bill’s keeping such long hours. He’s wondering why on earth he married you.
It was an absurd, ridiculous thought, yet it wouldn’t go away, and as months flew by in which a dent in Bill’s pillow was the only sign I had that he’d been to bed at all, I began to think it might contain a tiny germ of truth.
However much we had in common, Bill and I didn’t share the same background. He’d been raised in a national historic landmark, for pity’s sake, whereas I’d grown up in a nondescript apartment building on Chicago’s west side. He came from a long line of distinguished men and women who’d sailed first-class from England before the United States was united. I came from Joe and Beth Shepherd, an overworked businessman and a schoolteacher, whose ancestors had probably paid for their passage to America by scrubbing decks. I’d gone to a good college, but it was Bill who wore the Harvard crimson, and if it hadn’t been for Aunt Dimity, my net worth wouldn’t have equaled what my husband spent annually on shoelaces.
I’d lost all the family I had when my mother died, but Bill still had his father, several cousins out on the West Coast, and two aunts who lived nearby in Boston. I hadn’t met Bill’s cousins, but his father was an absolute peach, and we got along famously.
His aunts, however, were a different kettle of fish. Honoria and Charlotte were pencil-thin, silver-haired widows in their late fifties, and the moment I met them I understood why Bill’s cousins had fled to California and never returned. My aunts-in-law were as thin-lipped as they were slim-hipped, and they’d welcomed me into the family with all the warmth you’d expect from two women whose hopes of finding a suitable match for their favorite nephew had been dashed when he’d proposed to me.
They objected to me on any number of grounds, but the front-runner seemed to be that, although I was thirty-two years old and had been married once before, I still had no track record as a potential brood mare for the Willis stables. They didn’t put it quite so baldly, but if looks could impregnate, I‘d’ve had twins every Christmas.
The galling truth was that, as a brood mare, I wasn’t likely to win any prizes. I was the only child of two only children who’d taken a decade to produce me, so my chances in the fertility sweepstakes weren’t overwhelmingly favorable.
It didn’t worry me. Much. I won’t deny that I spent more than a few mornings staring at Bill’s dented pillow and wondering if I’d ever hear the patter of his big feet, let alone little ones, but I never admitted it to anyone except to my friend Emma Harris, in England, once, in a moment of abysmal weakness, and she’d promised never to mention it again. But Honoria and Charlotte mentioned it, often. “Have you any happy news for us today, Lori?” was a question I’d come to loathe, because I’d had no happy news for anyone for two long years.
I could have had triplets, though, and Bill’s aunts would have gone on resenting me. Thanks to Aunt Dimity’s bequest, they couldn’t accuse me outright of being a gold digger, but the suggestion of social climbing was always in the air, and they never failed to comment acidly on my numerous gaffes and blunders.