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Ham to the Slaughter: The Epic

Chapter Text

Chapter 1

“No, Sergeant. I don’t have the slightest idea what anyone would want with it. It’s a hormone we use to treat pregnant cows. Any vet who looks after large animals would have a supply on hand.” Liz Bennet’s hair was coming loose from the bun she had constructed so carefully at four-thirty that morning. It was an aggravation she didn’t need.

“And it’s some kind of narcotic?”

“No, it’s not a narcotic. It’s a hormone.”

Charlotte Lucas tapped on the frame of the open door to the tiny office. “Sorry to disturb you. We have an emergency coming in. Seventy pound Staffie ate a five-pound box of Godiva chocolates. We’re ready for him, and I’ve asked them to bring him in the back way.”

The clinic waiting room was covered with shards of glass from the break-in. Since it was Saturday, Charlotte was having a tough time persuading the glass people that it was an emergency. The broken windows rendered the air-conditioning useless, and they were all sweltering in the sticky late-June humidity. Meanwhile, they could hear blood-curdling howls from the kennel. Liz’s Beagle, Travis, had been confined there so that he wouldn’t injure his paws on the broken glass. Judging from the noise, he was experiencing separation anxiety.

“Do you need anything else, Sergeant?”

“No, ma’am. These guys are becoming a problem for the doctors around here, and I guess it was only a matter of time until they branched off and tried a vet. They’re basically looking for money, but if they think they can get drugs, they’ll take those, too. If they’re stealing cow hormones, we can be pretty sure they’re not the sharpest knives in the drawer.” He signed the paper he was writing and handed it to her. “Here’s the report, and here’s my card. That’ll at least help you with your insurance company. I’ll keep you posted, but we’re not getting much help from the state with this. Bright Hope, New Jersey is not exactly the crime capital of the world.”

They both stood, and Liz extended her hand. “Thank you, sergeant. I appreciate your stopping by, and good luck with catching these people. They won’t get too far trying to peddle Oxytocin on the street. You may want to step out of the back door. Avoid all that glass.”

“’Scuse me, Doc.” Roland, the kennel assistant, stood in the corridor. “Murphy Darcy is here. I’ve put them in Examining Room 2.”

Doctor Liz Bennet replaced a couple of pins in her hair, squared her shoulders, and marched down the corridor to meet her new patient.

* * *

The slightly overweight, American Staffordshire Terrier sitting on the examining table greeted Liz with a thump of his tail and the usual Amstaff smile. “Did you enjoy that chocolate, big guy?” Liz addressed the dog, ignoring the man, who was neither middle-aged nor overweight. “I’m afraid you’re not going to enjoy what happens next.”

She turned and extended her hand to the human. “I’m Dr. Bennet. How do you do.”

Ignoring the hand, the man replied, “Where is Dr. Gardiner? Are you filling in for him?”

“No. Dr. Gardiner is my uncle, and he has retired. I’ve taken over his practice.”

“And you are a veterinarian? A doctor of veterinary medicine?” The accent was British. Upper-class British.

“Well, I have a piece of paper from NC State that says I am. Last time I checked, they were one of the top five nationwide. I’d be happy to show it to you if you’d care to step into my office. Or, we could save a lot of time and just take care of your dog. He’s going to need our help.” She pulled on a pair of gloves and turned back to Murphy, who was considerably more polite than his human. She didn’t even know the man’s name. “Now, Murphy. Just what have you gotten into.”

Mr. Darcy, or whoever he was, reached into a plastic bag he was carrying and produced the chewed-up remains of what had been a large, festive gold box, still festooned with a forlorn red ribbon. “As you can see, he has devoured the entire five pounds, including all the little papers.”

“How long ago?”

“Just this morning. It’s Saturday, and we had a late breakfast. The chocolates were intended as a birthday gift for my housekeeper. I would say perhaps an hour ago. I brought him directly here.

“And they were the usual chocolates with the assorted luscious fillings? Not solid chocolate?”

“Precisely.”

“That’s still a substantial amount of chocolate. You were wise to bring him in. Chocolate contains a substance that is toxic to dogs. The problem is that they can’t digest it, either. It just sits there in the stomach giving off more poison and refusing to move along so that it can be eliminated. Murphy has had a large dose of it, and we’ll go ahead and wash out his stomach with activated charcoal rather than trying anything else. Time is of the essence at this point.”

Indeed, Murphy appeared to be drooping. “It’s okay, big guy. You’re going to be fine.” She turned to Mr. Whoever Darcy. “I’ll call in my assistant, and we’ll take care of this immediately. My waiting room is out of order at the moment. We had a break-in, and there’s glass everywhere. But Barista Brava is right next door, and you may wait there.”

“Thank you, no. I would prefer to remain with the dog.” He reached over and fondled Murphy’s ears. “My experience is that animals rely on us for their comfort. I do not wish even to appear to abandon him.”

Score one for Mr. Whoever. He loves his dog. “That will be fine, then. You may remain as long as you don’t find the procedure too distressing. I’ll just call my assistant, and we’ll get started.”

Travis continued to howl his misery from the depths of the kennel. Elizabeth ignored him, but Mr. Whoever winced at each new cry. She left the examining room in search of Charlotte.

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Chapter 2

“Liz, aren’t you ready yet?” Charlotte had taken four pieces—a pair of skinny cutoffs, a striped shirt, a hat, and a pair of sandals—and turned herself into a miracle of LA street fashion. Her hair and makeup were perfect, her tan was coming along nicely, and she smelled divine.

Liz, on the other hand, had been outfitted for the day by Carhartt. She wore utility jeans of no particular style or wash, a sleeveless t-shirt, a wide-brimmed Western hat, and of course her lace-up boots with the protective steel toes. Her face, innocent of makeup, was starting to sunburn because she had sweated off her SPF protection. She was developing a trucker’s tan because she hated the air-conditioning in her pickup. She smelled of disinfectant and barnyard. Travis, who cared little for such matters, sat on his leash beside her.

“Char, I’m going to have to beg off. I’m exhausted. It may have been the Fourth of July for everybody else, but for me it was the day I had to treat the Rollins’ flatulent mare. Do you have any idea what it’s like to treat a horse who simply won’t stop farting?”

Charlotte rolled her eyes. “Liz, this picnic will be your first opportunity to meet a lot of important people here in town. Everybody knew your uncle, but you can’t get by on that forever. You’re going to have to start making a name for yourself.” She held up a large wicker basket. “Come on, now. I’ve got some of Mom’s fried chicken that you love. And there’s apple pie in here, too. We’ll watch the parade, listen to a speech or two, shake a few hands, and you can be home in bed by nine if you want.”

“You win. But I’m not going home to change, and I’m bringing Travis with me. It’s too hot to think about anything else.”

The merchants of Main Street had not surrendered to the large Mart that had sprung up like a toadstool out on the highway. They omitted no opportunity to promote their businesses. Hardly a month went by without some kind of craft show or festival or marketplace, and of course the Glorious Fourth was no exception. The entire town had turned out for the kickoff of Grand Old-Fashioned Fourth Week. The extravaganza would include arts and crafts booths, food vendors, free band concerts, and of course the merchants themselves. Every shop was decked out for the patriotic holiday. There was red, white, and blue bunting as far as the eye could see, and a military band rendered selections from John Philip Sousa.

Liz and Charlotte strolled up and down Main Street with Travis in tow, sipping on iced lemonade and shaking hands with everyone Charlotte knew. “You were right,” admitted Liz. “I’m meeting all kinds of people. And more than half of them have pets. This turned out to be a good idea.” Travis, with his sweet expression and soulful brown eyes, was a magnet for men, women, and children alike. Women exclaimed over his soft coat, children begged to pet him, and men were overcome by nostalgia for a simpler time. “You know, my granddad/uncle Charlie/cousins/neighbors had a Beagle out in the country. Great hunting dogs. Great with kids. Haven’t seen one in years.”

They settled at a picnic table, spread out a tablecloth, and laid out the contents of Mrs. Lucas’ elegant hamper. “Look at this! She’s even included snackies for Travis. Your mom is the best, Char!” Liz was hungry—starving, really—and she did full justice to the fried chicken, salad, deviled eggs, watermelon chunks, and even the apple pie. Finally, feeling as though she should loosen her belt, she settled back with a sigh of contentment.

“It’s getting dark. There will be a few speeches, and then we’ll get to the main event—the fireworks display.” Charlotte smiled “I know I’m supposed to be an adult, but I love the fireworks.”

Fireworks? Ohh,. Travis! Liz gave herself a mental shake. He was doing worlds better after all her careful training, but he still had a fear of loud, percussive noises. It was common enough in dogs. She would just have to watch him carefully. It was less than a block back to her office, so she could get him into her truck and drive home if things got too bad.

The speeches droned on, the sky grew darker, and eventually, the Mayor said the magic words: “And now, without further ado . . .”

Ohh, Travis! The poor beleaguered dog began to shake. He leaned against Liz—hard—and hid his face in her leg. And when he could stand it no longer, he loosed a howl that seemed to originate from the very depths of hell.

Liz, full of sympathy for her friend, leaned over and scooped him up, cradling him against her shoulder like an unwieldy infant. Shaking her head at Charlotte, she began to carry him back to the clinic and her truck.

“Dr. Bennet!” Still carrying Travis, she all but collided with Mr. Whoever Darcy. He had Murphy on a leash, and on his arm was a youngish, attractive blonde woman whom Liz had never seen. “Is the dog injured? Do you require assistance?”

“No, thank you, Mr. ah, Mr. Darcy. Travis is my own dog. He gets a little nervous around fireworks and other loud noises. I’m just going to take him home.”

“Oh, a Beagle,” cried the blonde. “How sweet. Does he like to be petted?”

“Yes. Let me put him on his own feet. The fireworks seem to be over.” Liz put the dog down, and the blonde was down on her knee, petting and crooning to him.”

“So how’s Murphy? Any ill effects after his little gourmet treat last week?”

“He seems fine. We followed your instructions concerning his diet, and he seems actually to have lost a pound or two.”

“That’s not a bad thing, though I don’t recommend the chocolate as a dietary aid. There’s nothing sadder than an athletic dog who’s put on a few pounds too many. It’s bad for their backs, too.”

“I shall take note of your advice.”

At that moment, there was a menacing growl, followed by a snarl. A slight snarl, but a snarl nevertheless. The blonde jumped to her feet. Murphy, the perfect gentleman, sat immediately and looked anywhere but at Travis. Travis, ears back and teeth bared, gave one more growl and subsided.”

“I thought Beagles were supposed to be friendly and sweet,” said the blonde. “All Murphy did was come over to say hello.”

“Oh, Travis.” Liz’s voice took on a deep, censorious tone. “You baaaaad dog! Sit.” She tugged on his leash.to show she meant business, and Travis sat. “Sorry,” she said to Darcy and the blonde. “Travis tends to be a bit touchy sometimes around dogs that are larger than he is.”

“Hmm. Aggressive. Haven’t you provided him with obedience training?”

Liz bristled. “Travis is a Canine Good Citizen. He and I have had plenty of training.”

“Yes, I can see that.” He offered his arm to the blonde. “Shall we go?”

Since they were all walking in the same direction, Liz dropped back in order to avoid any further conversation. She heard the blonde say, “I think I should take Agnes to see Dr. Bennet. She seems nice. Agnes isn’t a kitten anymore, and she should be spayed before there’s trouble. She probably needs some shots, too.”

“Take her there if you please, Georgiana. I plan to look for other care for Murphy. I am in no mood to give consequence to a veterinarian who can’t or won’t even handle her own dog properly.”

 

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Chapter 3

One of the highlights of the day for Liz was the moment when she got to take off the heavy boots she wore on days when she had farm visits. On the night of Travis’ disgrace, she left the boots in the mudroom and stopped in the kitchen to feed Travis and pour herself a glass of wine. Bath next. Not a shower, but a full-out warm, fragrant, bubbly bath with the glass of wine to go with it. She stayed in the hot water until her skin started to prune up before getting out and wrapping herself in the old, ratty, but exquisitely comfortable terry robe that she refused to throw away. She settled on the couch under her quilt, Travis across her feet, and rejected Netflix in favor of the book she had been reading.

Mr. Whatever Darcy was a nervy bastard. To imply that she was an incompetent veterinarian and then to insult her to Blondie—whoever Blondie was. It was unspeakable. She had dedicated her life to looking after the well-being of animals just like Travis, and Mr. Whoever could simply take his insults—and his business—somewhere else. Besides, her dog might have anxiety issues but she’d never negligently poisoned him with five pounds of chocolate, expensive or not. Her eyelids began to droop. He certainly was good-looking, she mused as she drifted off. Maybe Charlotte could fill her in on his story.

* * *

“So who is this guy?” Elizabeth and Charlotte were grabbing a cup of coffee at the Bake Shop (now known as Barista Brava) after their last Saturday patient. “If he’s going to go around saying nasty things about me, I should at least know his name.” She had related an abbreviated version of her post-fireworks confrontation to her assistant. Charlotte had grown up in Bright Hope and knew everything and everybody

“Fitzwilliam Darcy?” Well, for openers, he’s probably the most eligible bachelor to land in Bright Hope in the past generation. He’s English, as you probably guessed, and he’s the CEO of the Pemberley Trust, which is a real estate investment trust located in New York City. He’s got more money than the Almighty, and he’s been very good about spreading it around here in Bright Hope.” Charlotte warmed to her story. She loved gossip. “He’s lived here about three years. He bought the old Cheswolde Mansion, which you must remember from visiting your aunt and uncle. It’s out at the end of Elm Street, up on the hill. We used to call it the Haunted House. Anyway, he bought it about four years ago and hired all kinds of architects and designers and—oh, I don’t know, construction companies and the like to renovate the place from top to bottom. When it was ready, he moved in with his sister and an entourage of hired help.”

“He has a sister?”

“Georgiana. She’s almost ten years younger than he is. I think she’s home for the summer—a pretty blonde girl. She’s some kind of musical prodigy. Studies at a prestigious music school in Boston even though she’s barely old enough to be in college.” Charlotte signaled the waitress for more coffee before continuing. “He’s been getting his dog looked after by your uncle since he moved into Cheswolde House.”

“Boy, when I offend somebody, I don’t do it by halves.” Elizabeth sighed. She stirred her coffee, which was now cold. “Still, what he said about Travis was totally uncalled-for. All Travis did was give the dog signal for ‘Get out of my grill.’”

“Murphy is a sweetheart. He’s much nicer than his human. Darcy has the reputation for being standoffish. Still, he got along well with Dr. Gardiner, and Murphy hasn’t ever misbehaved when he’s been brought in. He’s a little pudgy, but till the chocolates, he’s never had a sick day that I know of. Darcy’s a stickler for shots and preventive care.”

Liz smiled her thanks as the waitress replaced her coffee without being asked to. “Well, if he’s such a stickler, I hope he has a good time driving Murphy the twenty miles to the vet’s in Pets R Us. They’re the next nearest to me. Now, how was your date with Bill? I want details.”

* * *

“Oh, Travis. We really should clean house.” Liz had said goodbye to Charlotte, who had a date for the evening, and was now standing in the kitchen of the small Craftsman bungalow she called home. She sat down on the bench in the mudroom to begin pulling off her heavy boots. Travis said nothing. He hated days when Liz did not take him to the clinic with her, and though he had access to the fenced back yard through his dog door, he wanted a walk and a romp. Liz ignored him, thrust her feet into her shabby old zorries, and poured herself a glass of iced tea. Grabbing her tea, a sun hat and a book, she held the back door open for Travis and headed straight to the hammock in the shadiest part of the back yard. There was an old tennis ball lying on the ground, and Travis eyed it hopefully, but Liz was too smart to be taken in. Hounds, especially Beagles, cannot usually be bothered to play fetch.

She closed her eyes. So Mr. Whoever Darcy had a name. Fitzwilliam was a mouthful, but it somehow suited him. He was a good-looking guy. Even though she had never seen him smile, she imagined he must have a nice smile. Too bad he had that stick up his arse. A man who couldn’t smile and relax was certainly not a man who would ever be interested in Liz Bennet. Such a shame. Liz closed her eyes and drifted off in the shady hammock. Travis eyed her with a sigh, stationed himself where he could see her, and was soon asleep himself.

* * *

Cheswolde House, set on a grassy lawn among tall old trees, was always cool and shady. The large windows stood open because Fitzwilliam Darcy could not abide air conditioning unless the temperature was brutal. Mrs. Reynolds, the housekeeper, was doing her normal Saturday shopping at the farmers’ market, and Darcy and Georgiana were perched on stools at the large kitchen island devouring sandwiches and a tall pitcher of fresh lemonade. Murphy lay in his special corner of the huge kitchen. His full water-bowl stood nearby, and he was sprawled in a comical position on the floor, trying to bring the cool stones into maximum contact with his belly.

“You know,” mused Georgiana. “He’s ridiculous for such an impressive breed of dog. Look at him.”

“Impressive? How can you call him impressive, Georgie? He’s got a heart-shaped marking on his, uh, posterior.” Darcy threw his chest out and mimicked one of Georgiana’s favorite stories from childhood. “I am Murphy, the great and terrible. Who are you and why do you seek me? Except that my natural expression is a smile and I’ve got a heart on my bum.” His eyes twinkled.

Georgiana laughed. Murphy, from somewhere deep in his slumber, heard his name, groaned, and flipped over on his back, paws flopping in every possible direction.

Agnes, the moggy, threaded her way through their lunch plates on elegant little cat feet. Every inch a lady, the cat had been adopted—rescued, really—by Georgiana and her roommate when far too young to leave her mother. Though not quite six months old, she graciously allowed the two girls to share their apartment in Boston with her and had made the necessary adjustments to spending her first summer in the mansion with the dog and all the humans. She settled herself in Georgiana’s lap.

“I’m going to call first thing Monday and get her an appointment,” said Georgiana. “Did you ever find another vet?”

“No. The next nearest veterinary clinic is at least twenty miles from here.” Darcy finished his sandwich and drank some lemonade. “It’s a long way to drive in the event of an emergency. I suppose I’ll just have to overlook Dr. Bennet’s negligent handling of her own animal. She seems to have known how to treat Murphy during the recent episode.”

“I’ve been talking to Maria Lucas. Her older sister Charlotte is Dr. Bennet’s technician. Dr. Bennet is Dr. Gardiner’s niece, and she spent most summers of her life here as a child.” Georgiana warmed to her story. “According to Maria, she showed herself to be a genius with animals, and it wasn’t too long until she was assisting her uncle with his practice. He encouraged her to enter the field and study veterinary medicine. She attended the vet school somewhere in North Carolina. Wherever it was, Maria says it’s first-rate.”

“Umm. I only met Dr. Gardiner once or twice, though I liked him and found him quite competent. He seems rather young to be retired. And wasn’t there a Mrs. Gardiner?”

“Yes, and four little Gardiners. As I understand it, Dr. Gardiner had a heart attack. Oh, he recovered from it, but his doctor said that he needed diet, exercise, and a less stressful lifestyle if he wanted to live to walk the littlest Gardiner down the aisle. She’s a junior at—well, I forget where.”

“So Dr. Bennet took over her uncle’s practice.”

“Oh, according to Maria, she bought it fair and square. She’ll be paying her uncle off for as long as she’s paying off her student loans, but they made some sort of a deal. Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner had a beautiful home, which they sold. Dr. Bennet lives in one of those cute Craftsman bungalows where workmen used to live, just off Main Street.” Georgiana drank the rest of the lemonade. “I’d like to get to know her a little better. She’s a woman who’s making a career for herself, and that’s what I want to do.”

“You have plenty of women in your own family to use as role models without resorting to country vets. What about your Aunt Catherine?”

Georgiana rolled her eyes. “I’m into music, Wills. Not resort wear for elderly ladies.”

“Point taken, though I believe our aunt would be mortally offended.”

Darcy stood and was taking his dishes to the sink, when Mrs. Reynolds entered through the back of the house. She was followed by Mr. Mannington, who served the family as driver and general man-about-the-house. He carried several bags of what looked to be fresh produce from the market.

“Mr. Darcy,” said the tiny woman. “May I have a word with you in private, please?”

“I was just going to practice for an hour or so.” Georgiana stood and took her dishes to the sink before leaving the room. Murphy stirred, opened an eye, and followed her.”

“I shall put these in the pantry refrigerator, Mrs. Reynolds. That way they will stay cold until you are ready to deal with them.” Mr. Mannington took the bags and disappeared into the large pantry at the back of the kitchen. His own rooms were back there, so he would not need to re-enter the room.

“Mrs. Reynolds, you look pale.” Darcy handed her a glass of the cold lemonade, which she accepted and drank gratefully. “Now, please sit down and tell me what has caused you such worry.”

“Wickham, Mr. Darcy. I saw him quite clearly in the next row of stalls at the farmer’s market. He was drinking a can of beer, and the girl on his arm did not look—well, she was not quite covered up enough to be out in public. And I would stake my life she was underage.”

“And you’re sure it was Wickham.”

“I would recognize him anywhere, Mr. Darcy.”

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“I’m not even going to ask you if you’re sure, Mrs. Reynolds. You’re like me. You would recognize him anywhere. What was he doing? How was he behaving? Was he with anyone else besides this underage girl?”

Judith Reynolds nodded her thanks as Darcy refilled her glass with lemonade. “He was just strolling, Mr. Darcy. As if he didn’t have a care in the world. He was weaving a bit, which made me think he’d had one beer too many. And the young girl was hanging on his arm, giggling. She was wearing a man’s sleeveless undershirt with nothing underneath it, and a pair of cut-off jeans that did not extend as far as the bottom of her rear end. She was certainly well endowed, and people were staring.” She sipped her drink. “And before you ask, I didn’t see where they went. I tried to follow them inconspicuously, but I’m so short, I was cut off from them by a crowd. Oh, he was also wearing jeans, full length ones, and a sleeveless undershirt similar to hers. I thought it better to find Mr. Mannington and come straight home.”

“You did well, Mrs. Reynolds. Very observant. Wouldn’t you like to take the rest of the day off? Put your feet up and rest? This can’t have been easy for you.”

“No, thank you. I found some delicious fruit at the market. The early peaches are in, and I feel a shortcake coming on. I’ll be perfectly fine.” Mrs. Reynolds commonly took Sundays off, and Mondays if she could be coerced into doing so.”

“If making a shortcake will help you feel better, then you’ll get no argument from me. I’ll be delighted to help eat it.” He smiled down at the woman who had been looking after him since his fifth birthday. “I’ll be in my study if you need me.”

The sound of Georgiana’s piano drifted in as Darcy settled himself in his study, avoiding the comfortable couch in favor of the seat behind his desk. He had a great deal to think about and a great deal to do.

His first call was to his executive assistant, though Nancy Olsen preferred the old-fashioned title “executive secretary.” She listened carefully to what Darcy had to say. “You’ll no doubt wish to work from home, at least for this week,” she replied. “I should probably stay here. I’m out in my garden and not near my calendar, but you have at least three key meetings scheduled early in the week. I could probably come down on Wednesday if need be.”

“No need for that, Mrs. Olsen. Bingley can handle the Monday and Tuesday meetings, but I’d like him down here by Tuesday evening. Of course, I’ll attend all three meetings from here.”

There was a brief silence. “There’s a problem with that, sir. Mr. Bingley called me early this morning. There is a family emergency, and he’ll be taking the first three days of the coming week off to deal with it.”

“No one’s sick, I hope.” Charles Bingley was one of Darcy’s oldest friends.

“No. Some sort of emergency in his wife’s family. Should I call him back?”

“An emergency’s an emergency. We have other competent staff.”

There was a sharp knock, and Mr. Mannington put his head around the door. Darcy waved him to a chair while he finished talking with Mrs. Olsen. “Very well, sir,” she was saying. “I’ll notify everyone and get back to you tomorrow afternoon. I’m assuming you don’t want me to mention the reason?”

“No, ‘emergency’ will do just fine. The only staff member besides you who needs to know is Bingley, and I will take care of that.”

After thanking his assistant and ending the call, Darcy turned to the man sitting in front of him. Ed Mannington, in his mid-forties, lean, and fit, was more than the Darcys’ driver and occasional butler. Retired after twenty years of service in the Navy, about which he never spoke, Manning was in charge of the personal security of family members making up the Darcy Trust. As such, he was in charge of a network of people—operatives, agents, whatever one might wish to call them—based in New York and in London. After the latest Wickham sighting, his place would be at the side of Georgiana Darcy until the reinforcements arrived.

“I’ve contacted New York and London,” he began. “I’ve also been in touch with Stacey, and she’s on her way here. She was on a hiking trip.” Eustacia Annesley, whose youthful looks belied her tough inner maturity, was in charge of Georgiana’s protection during the school year and spent the summers working for the company in New York. She had managed to accommodate almost perfectly to Georgiana’s student lifestyle, and the girl regarded her more as a friend than anything else. “She’s on her way, but it’ll take her until about ten tonight to get here. Until then, I’m with Georgiana.” Mannington paused. “Have you told her yet?”

“No, and I’m not looking forward to it. How in hell did he put together enough money to get out of England, much less fly over here? Georgiana is going to be none too thrilled about this. I’ll go and speak with her now.”

* * *

“Ma . . . Ma, please calm down. I can’t understand what you’re saying to me.” Liz stood in her kitchen, which was beginning to swelter, wishing she had turned on her air-conditioning. She maintained a landline, “plain old telephone service” to be used to contact her in the event of a long-term power failure. Her secondary reason for keeping the old phone was that her mother steadfastly refused to use a cell phone.

“You’re going to have to take a deep breath and start at the beginning. Where is Dad?”

“Your father is with the police,” her mother finally managed. Fanny Bennet was always at her best in a crisis. It afforded her the opportunity to bring all her frustrated dramatic skills into play.”

“So he’s with the police right now. Are they there at the house?”

“Yes, but if you ask me they ought to be out looking for my poor girl. Oh, how could this have happened. I—I am feeling rather short of breath. I certainly hope those police officers know how to do CPR. I may need it.”

“Relax, Ma. You’re fine. How long has she been missing?”

“We realized this morning that her bed hadn’t been slept in. She was at a party last night with some of her little friends from school. One of them, the Raggsdale girl, says—oh, she says that she met a boy and went off somewhere. Oh, my poor girl. She’s probably being held for ransom. I know she wants her mommy. What am I going to do?” Liz could hear her mother drawing a deep breath, winding up for another onslaught. “Lizzy, you must leave that ridiculous job and come home at once!”

“I can’t do that, Ma. It’s more than just a ridiculous job. It’s a full-scale veterinary practice. If I do leave, I’ll have to arrange for coverage first. Besides, where is everybody else?”

“Jane is on her way here. Mary and Kitty are visiting your grandparents this week. There’s nobody but you, Lizzy. You must come.”

“Have Gram and Gramps bring the girls home. They’re less than twenty miles away.”

“You’re unspeakable. You’re an unspeakable, ungrateful girl, and I’m sorry it was poor Lydia who was kidnapped. It should have been you!”

As Liz jerked the phone away from her ear, she reflected that old-fashioned phones had a distinct advantage. You can’t slam down the receiver on a cell phone the way her mother had just done.