Liz Bennet hummed to herself as she stood under the steaming-hot shower. In fact, she came close to purring. It was really too bad that Darcy had needed to leave early to helicopter into the city for a morning appointment. They weren’t showering together, as they often did, but he had certainly seen to her total satisfaction a bit earlier this morning. He was a confirmed morning person anyway, and their pre-dawn lovemaking always seemed to energize him just as it left her pleasantly exhausted and ready for another couple of hours of sleep. This morning, he had crept down to the kitchen and made her coffee, delivering the steaming cup of life with a scorching kiss that left her ready for another round—a round that, unfortunately, would have to wait until they were alone together that evening. He was the dearest, sweetest man, reflected Liz. And he was all hers, just as she was most assuredly all his. In fact, they would be making it official in just two weeks, three days before Christmas, in a candle-lit ceremony right here in their comfortable home.
Liz felt a little stab of sorrow as she toweled herself off and began her daily ritual of beating her dark, unruly curls into something that looked like businesslike submission. Today would be her last day as a paralegal at the firm of Gardiner and Phillips. She would miss her bosses. The two partners, brothers-in-law, were as different as they could be in appearance and manner. Nevertheless, they had built up a successful practice as country lawyers, handling the affairs of the citizens of Bright Hope Township with discretion, decency, and large measures of kindness and commonsense. Liz would miss them, and she would miss working with her good friend, Charlotte Lucas, who worked as secretary to both men. Charlotte was an intelligent young woman, working to study law at night, and there was every expectation that one day she would be asked to join the firm as an associate. As she finished dressing and headed downstairs, Liz reminded herself that she was not saying long goodbyes to any of her work associates, for they were all fairly near neighbors in Bright Hope.
Liz paused as she reached the foot of the beautiful, curved staircase. Manners, who served as driver and occasional butler to the household, was carrying a large, heavy box down the center hallway towards the kitchen at the back of the house. Liz observed that the box was the width and depth of a casket, though only about four feet long, that it carried the large notation U5 on the side, and that it was further embellished with the “smile” emblem of America’s largest online retailer. She waited until Manners had disappeared into the kitchen before following him. The box looked heavy.
Mrs. Reynolds, the housekeeper, stood in the middle of her granite-countered domain looking very pleased. “Just put it in the pantry, please, Manners. Miss Bennet will want her breakfast shortly, and then you will need to drive her to work. Come back here when you return home, please, and we can put it together. I am so thankful that you foiled the porch pirates!”
Porch pirates had become a serious problem in Bright Hope as more and more families became two-career ventures with no one at home during the day. People had resorted to hidden cameras, booby-trapped dummy packages, loud noisemakers, and in some cases, allowing the packages to be delivered inside their homes. Darcy was old-fashioned enough to despise the idea of hidden cameras around the beautiful old Victorian house. Mrs. Reynolds and Manners tried to keep an eye on things, but even the Darcy mansion had fallen victim to thefts from its deep, wide front porch. Although the large retailer tried to replace stolen items, the thefts had been nothing but trouble for Bright Hope’s three-person police force. No one could catch the thieves.
“Good morning, Mrs. Reynolds. Mr. Manners.” Liz announced her presence from the doorway. “What on earth was delivered? That’s the biggest box I’ve ever seen.”
“Good morning, Miss Bennet,” replied the housekeeper in her soft, southern accent. “I ordered a small baker’s rack for the pantry. The extra storage and workspace will come in handy for the wedding. Please sit down, and I’ll get you your breakfast. It’s all ready. She reached into the massive double-door refrigerator, and Liz was soon enjoying a slice of honeydew, a parfait of her favorite Brown Cow yogurt with blueberries, two slices of toast, and her one weakness, a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice. These items were soon joined by a steaming mug of coffee.
“It sounds like a good idea. It’s a good thing Mr. Manners got it in here before it could be stolen. I’ve no doubt the pirates could have found a way to make off with it.” Liz sipped her coffee appreciatively. Her eyes were drawn to a thing—an object—wrapped in white cloth and waxed paper and situated on the drain board. “What on earth is that?” she asked, frankly puzzled. “It looks a little like an old-fashioned wooden leg. Something the pirates left behind?”
Mrs. Reynolds laughed, then beamed. “No indeed. That is a genuine Virginia ham. None of this pink stuff full of water and chemicals for our Mr. Darcy. That ham was dry-cured the old-fashioned way. With lots of pepper. Only a few small farmers in southern Virginia know how to make this ham nowadays. The hogs are allowed to root in the fields after the peanut harvests, and the meat is delicious.” In response to a puzzled look from Liz, she elaborated. “It’s very much like prosciutto or some other dry-cured ham. I’ll prepare it today by scrubbing it and setting it to soak for twenty-four hours. Tomorrow, I will slow-simmer it. Then I will glaze it with sherry and breadcrumbs, which is my grandmother’s recipe. Closer to the day, I’ll make my biscuits. Mr. Darcy has specifically requested ham biscuits on the buffet table for your wedding supper.” Mrs. Reynolds smiled. “I’ll probably serve a few while Miss Georgiana is home. She loves them, too.”
“I’m glad you told me, Mrs. Reynolds.” Liz finished her coffee just as Manners arrived to announce that he had brought the car around. “I’ll be home from work at mid-afternoon. They’re treating me to a farewell luncheon at the Sawmill Inn.”
Manners added, “Don’t forget, Mrs. Reynolds. I have to stop by A Rose is a Rose and pick up those poinsettia plants. Mrs. Turner called, and her driver is out sick. She’s distracted. I should be back a little after ten.”
“That’s fine, Mr. Manners.” Miss Bennet left with Manners, and Sarah Reynolds was alone in her kitchen. She loved everything about this kitchen—the sleek granite, the restaurant-style stove, the walk-in freezer, the gleaming refrigerator. She loved the pleasant table in the sunny breakfast nook, and the efficient desk with its upgraded laptop computer (a Mac, of course) where she could plan menus and research new recipes to her heart’s content—not to mention keeping up a lively email correspondence with her numerous family back in Southside Virginia. She sometimes felt she could spend her life in this kitchen, but she had a household to run and a staff to manage. Mrs. Lucy Ruxton, the cook, was taking the day off today, and Miss Betty Martin, the lady who helped so ably with the cleaning, had called her this morning with a dental emergency. A scratch at the back door told her that she was not entirely alone, and she let in Murphy, the large American Staffordshire terrier. He greeted her with a whuff and a wag, inhaled his rather large breakfast, and settled contentedly in his basket by the breakfast nook. Murph was getting on a little, and he would nap contentedly until noon.
She was just beginning to look at the ham when the doorbell rang. Perhaps it was an unexpected delivery. She hurried to answer it before the porch pirates could do their work and was startled and dismayed to see a familiar, insolent face on the other side of the door. “Why hello, Sarah Belle. What kind of welcome is that for an old friend? He pushed past her, kissing her insolently on the cheek, and said, “I surely could use a cup of that coffee. It smells delicious. George Wickham pushed past her and headed down the hallway to the kitchen.
Sarah Reynolds followed him, trying to keep from shaking. Although she had helped to raise him, she despised George Wickham with every fiber of her being. It was he who had tried to injure her sweet little Georgiana. And it was he who continued to blackmail her beloved Mr. Darcy. She saw with great satisfaction that Murphy’s hackles were up and that he was growling from his basket. He had not gotten up, nor had he begun to actually snarl. She did not know how she could control him if he did. Murphy was the soul of gentleness and loving-kindness, but Wickham had teased him unmercifully in the past.
He sat expectantly at the counter stool that had just been vacated by Miss Bennet and looked at Mrs. Reynolds expectantly. Grudgingly, she poured the second cup of Miss Bennet’s coffee from the French press into a plain earthenware mug, shoved it into the microwave for a minute and a half, and set it in front of him with the cream pitcher, sugar bowl, and a paper towel in lieu of a napkin. Wickham raised his eyebrows but sipped greedily at the coffee. “Thanks, Sarah Belle, that hit the spot. Where’s Darcy?”
How she hated that he had found out her middle name—and had the temerity to use it. She gritted her teeth. “Mr. Darcy is from home today. If you would care to leave him a message, I will see that he gets it upon his return.” Please, Lord, where was Manners? She heard Murphy growl again, deep in his chest. At least she had blue-chip protection.
“I guess they’re busy getting ready for the wedding of the year,” said Wickham. “When will my sweet little Georgiana be home?”
Mrs. Reynolds’ face hardened with that. “Mr. Wickham, I am certainly not going to discuss this family’s private affairs, their comings and goings, or their whereabouts with you. Now, if you have finished your coffee, I will be happy to take a message for Mr. Darcy and show you out.”
“I haven’t quite finished my coffee, Sarah Belle. And I believe I will wait for Darcy. I have a business proposition for him, and he’s going to want to hear it.”
Mrs. Reynolds said nothing, merely opening the cupboard where the large pots and pans were stored and extracting the ham boiler. This special vessel was a large rectangle fitted with a glass lid. It occupied two burners of the restaurant-style range and was large enough accommodate a whole ham quite easily. She began to fill it with water from the tall faucet conveniently located by the range, and when it was half-full, she set it on the counter beside the range. She needed to prepare the ham for its long simmering, and she did not care to be engaged in that task while Wickham was present.
“What’s that? My, oh my, Miz Sarah Belle, I do believe you’re fixin’ to cook a Virginia ham. That there’s mighty good eatin’. Darcy must be in high cotton if he can lay out two hundred dollars for a piece of meat.” Mrs. Reynolds bit her tongue. He had always insulted her Virginia roots by making fun of her Southern accent. Why should this time be any different?
She went to the pantry and got removed the jacket of the simple skirted suit she wore. After rolling up the sleeves on her tailored Oxford cloth shirt, she got out an immaculately fresh, white chef’s apron and tied it around her slim waist. Still a size six, she reflected. At least she had kept her figure. Her eye fell on the large box. Oh Lord, she prayed. Please let Manners get home soon.
“How about a little more coffee, Miz Sarah Belle? And make a fresh pot this time. You really, really don’t want to cross me, darlin’. Not with your boss getting married in two weeks. And let’s have a couple of cookies or something to go with it. I’m hungry.”
She filled the teakettle full to capacity and set it on to boil. It would take some time, and she hoped that either Wickham would leave or Manners would return home.
Wickham stood up and began to wander around the kitchen, peering in drawers and opening cupboards. Murphy, who had remained quiet for a while, began to growl again, and the growl took on elements of a snarl. “Now Murphy,” said Wickham. “I know you’re a good dog. You’re not going to bite me, are you, big guy? Not when I’ve brought a special treat for you. He crouched down in front of the growling dog and extracted what looked like a bar of chocolate from his pocket. “Eighty percent pure cacao, Murphy. And I’ve brought you a whole pound of the stuff. Now, who’s a good boy?”
Murphy’s pink nose busily sniffed at the luscious treat. He knew what was good. It was only too bad that he did not know what was good for him. Wickham broke off two squares of the four-ounce bar and fed them to the dog.
“Murphy! Drop it!” Alas, Mrs. Reynolds’ cry came too late, as Murphy consumed a half-ounce of the toxic treat. “Stop it, you brute! Why would you want to hurt an innocent animal? But then you were always mean to animals. I’m calling the police.”
“Ah-ah, Mrs. Reynolds. I wouldn’t do that if I were you. I can get the whole four bars of this stuff down him before the police can be here. It would be a real shame.” He turned to the dog. “Wouldn’t it, you vicious bastard?”
It was then that Mrs. Reynolds remembered. As a young dog, Murphy had bitten Wickham soundly in the seat of his pants—and had not let go—when the dog saw Wickham teasing Georgiana most cruelly. He was here to get his revenge. She had to act.
The Virginia ham weighed a good twenty-five pounds. Dry cured, it had little water content. In fact, it was as hard as a rock. Although it came in a traditional white muslin cover, she had wrapped it carefully in waxed paper to protect it. Murphy whined and thumped his tail, and she heard Wickham making “mmm-mmm” sounds as he fed the dog another square of the chocolate. Murphy, a full grown and slightly overweight male, weighed about seventy pounds. She had to act before he consumed enough chocolate to do himself genuine harm. She seized the ham by the shank end and brought it squarely down on Wickham’s head with a resounding WHACK! The square of chocolate he had been preparing to feed the hapless dog skittered across the floor, and when she shouted, “Murphy, Stay!” her voice carried enough authority, or panic, that Murphy stayed.
Just then she heard the back door open and in walked Manners, arms laden with poinsettia plants. “You had better put those on the island, Mr. Manners, and come and help me. I’ve just killed Mr. Wickham.”
“Have you now?” Manners felt for a pulse and found none. “I say, well done, Mrs. Reynolds. He was a right bastard, that one was.” Mr. Manners’ London roots came to the fore when he was under stress, for he had been born within the sound of the Bow bells.
“I should prepare to turn myself in,” said Mrs. Reynolds sadly.
“If you don’t mind my asking, how did you do it?” Manners looked over at her and noticed that she was still holding the ham. “You never did, did you?”
Sadly, she laid the ham on the counter. “I did,” she sniffed. “He was asking for Georgiana and wanting to talk business with Mr. Darcy. And then he began feeding Murphy chocolate. It was eighty percent cacao. I felt I had no choice but to act.” Mrs. Reynolds’ usual sangfroid deserted her entirely, and she wept into her clean handkerchief. “Whatever shall I do? I’ve ruined everything.”
“Not so fast, Mrs. Reynolds. First of all, get on the phone to the vet’s and tell them how much of that chocolate Murphy ate. They’ll know what to do.” Murphy had consumed twelve precious ounces of Godiva chocolates the previous year. He had been saved from serious repercussions by the fact that they had been filled with other things, but he had needed to have his stomach pumped on Christmas Eve. Apparently, he had failed to learn his lesson, though it had left quite an impression on those humans who had been present. “While you are doing that, I shall deal with taking out this garbage. I know just what to do.”
As they talked, the dog in question had decided that the chocolate gave him a queasy stomach. He crouched in a corner and began quietly getting rid of all four squares of the evil chocolate—all over the gleaming tile floor. Mrs. Reynolds ignored him and placed her call to the vet. She reported everything to the technician who answered the phone and was advised to let him get rid of anything he wanted to get rid of. It would not be necessary to bring him in, but he should be kept quiet and given a bland diet for the next couple of days. Mrs. Reynolds had their emergency number and was of course free to call at any hour, day or night. She hung up the phone with great relief, looked reproachfully at the dog, who looked guiltily back, and cleaned up the mess. Wickham’s body had disappeared. She could hear Manners banging around in the pantry.
Eventually, he emerged. “Do we have any of that clear shipping tape?”
“Utility room,” she replied vaguely. “With the brown wrapping paper.”
“Mrs. Reynolds, you had best get to work on that ham. Don’t they take hours and hours?”
“Mr. Manners, surely you do not mean that I should cook this! It’s a murder weapon!”
“Yes, and who’s going to know? You go ahead and prepare that ham, though God knows why Mr. Darcy likes it.”
“Mr. Darcy is accustomed to the very best in pork.”
“Yes, well, if you’re at all squeamish about serving it, get it out of the soaking water and say it’s gone off or something. Seems like quite a waste to me. You’ve wrapped it in waxed paper, and it’s in that cloth bag they always come in, and inside that is all that greasy paper, and then you’ve got to scrub all that muck off the ham before it’s fit to eat, and you’ll even take the skin off eventually. But it is entirely up to you. I have a few more things to do, and then I am prepared to help you any way I can.”
“I am deeply, sincerely grateful to you, Mr. Manners. I shall get to work immediately.”
“Spoken like a true champion, Mrs. Reynolds.”
A few minutes later, Manners emerged from the pantry. He was dragging a heavy furniture blanket upon which was laid a massive, heavy box from America’s largest online retailer. The box was plainly marked U5, and it bore the smile logo and was addressed to Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy. The heavy blanket would protect the gleaming hardwood floors of the center hallway and front vestibule from any wayward scratches.
Mrs. Reynolds was busy scrubbing the heavy mixture of pepper, mold, and Lord knows what else that is the true hallmark of a Virginia ham. The ham must be immaculate before going in for its 24-hour soak. Nevertheless, she heard the front door open and close, and a few minutes later, it opened again and Mr. Manners appeared in the kitchen. “I give it about an hour, maybe less,” he said cheerfully. “Untied Parcel doesn’t deliver until late afternoon, and Mr. McFeely from the Post Office has his day off on Friday, so the mail will be late. The baker’s rack was delivered this morning by Amazing’s Logistics.” Mr. Darcy’s Victorian mansion was at the end of a quiet street, and the large property surrounding it, plus the large trees, made it extremely unlikely that anyone had seen Mr. Manners deposit the box on the front porch.”
“Any chance of getting a cup of coffee, Mrs. Reynolds?”
“The water should be just about boiling by now. Let me put this ham into soak.”
“I’ll go and wash up.”
A half-hour later, as they were seated companionably at the counter with their fresh coffee and a plate of cookies, they heard a single set of footsteps on the front porch. The footsteps paused, and then went away. Five minutes later, the wooden porch resounded with the noise of four or five sets of footsteps. There was a pause, and the footsteps moved slowly away, as though their owners were carrying a heavy burden. Murphy growled, deep in his chest, but did not snarl. Mr. Manners got up, walked quietly to the front door, and peered through the sheer curtains that covered the sidelights. He returned to the kitchen, smiled, and said simply, “Bob’s your uncle.”
Liz Bennet got home at about half-past five, dropped off by Charlotte Lucas. Her cheeks were pink, and her dark eyes sparkled with the cold. She carried many large shopping bags, which she secreted carefully in the utility room before re-entering the kitchen to beg for a cup of coffee. “Gracious, Mrs. Reynolds, the kitchen is sparkling. I love the cleaner you use. It smells of fresh lemons. ‘Lemony fresh,’ my mother would say. Were you able to get the ham started?”
Mrs. Reynolds smiled. “Yes, thank you. It looks like a good one, too. I will be cooking it most of the day tomorrow.”
Just then, Mr. Darcy arrived carrying several parcels from America’s largest online retailer. “Looks like we beat out the porch pirates today,” he said cheerfully. After placing them on the counter and kissing his bride-to-be, he turned to Mrs. Reynolds and said, “Any chance I could get a cup of that coffee?”
Smiling, she poured him a cup, and set out a large plate of gingerbread cookies. Just then, Manners emerged from the pantry. “Your baker’s rack is assembled, Mrs. Reynolds, and is ready for you to move in.”
“I thank you, Mr. Manners. May I pour you a cup of coffee?”
He seated himself at the counter, thanked her for the coffee, and the four people gathered in the warm kitchen drank a laughing toast to Christmas, weddings, and the ultimate defeat of the porch pirates. Murphy, from his basket, opened one eye, cocked one ear, gave a “whuff,” and settled quietly to await his dinner.