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Stone Barrington is back, in fine form, in the newest thriller from the #1 New York Times–bestselling author.
After a series of nonstop adventures, Stone Barrington is eager for some peace and quiet in a rustic British setting. But no sooner does he land in England than he’s beset by an outrageous demand from a beautiful lady, and an offer he can’t refuse.
Unfortunately, Stone quickly learns that his new acquisition comes with some undesired strings attached—namely, a deadly mystery involving the complex relationships of the local gentry, and a relentless adversary who raises the stakes with every encounter. Stone’s restful country vacation is looking like yet another troublesome situation, but with his tireless aplomb—and the help of a few friends—he is more than up to the challenge.
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Stuart Woods is the author of more than sixty novels, including the #1 New York Times bestselling Stone Barrington series. He is a native of Georgia and began his writing career in the advertising industry. Chiefs, his debut in 1981, won the Edgar Award. An avid sailor and pilot, Woods lives in Florida, Maine, and New Mexico.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Stone landed his airplane at Southampton International Airport, in England, and taxied to the FBO, Signature Aviation. As he came to a halt and shut down his engines, an Aston Martin coupe drew up alongside the airplane, closely followed by a sinister-looking black Range Rover with darkened windows, as was Felicity’s due as director of MI6, the British foreign intelligence service. As Stone opened the cabin door and came down the steps, Dame Felicity Devonshire got out of the Aston Martin and flung herself into his arms.
After a kiss and a hug, Stone stowed the cabin steps, closed and locked the door, and got his bags out of the forward luggage compartment. A man in a dark suit got out of the Range Rover, took his luggage, and stowed it in the SUV.
“What airplane is this?” Felicity asked.
“The new one: a Citation CJ3 Plus.”
“I love the paint job.”
“Thanks, it’s my own. You can always spot me on a ramp by the stars on the tail.” He walked around the car. “And what Aston Martin is this?”
“It’s the DBS, brand-new. I recently sold my father’s estate in Kent, so I splurged.”
“You certainly did.” Stone got into the passenger seat. “I should check in at the FBO.”
“Don’t bother, it’s taken care of. They’ll put it in the hangar straightaway and refuel it whenever you like.”
“So what’s the big surprise?”
“You’ll have to wait a little while and take a boat ride, before all is revealed.” She drove quickly out of town and onto a motorway for a short distance, which she covered in record time. Soon they were driving through the village of Beaulieu (pronounced “Bewley” in England), then down the eastern side of the Beaulieu River, a tidal estuary that flowed into the Solent, the body of water separating the Isle of Wight from the mainland. Soon she used a remote control to open a wrought-iron gate, hung on old stone pillars, and drove down a driveway lined with ancient trees until a large stone cottage with a slate roof revealed itself.
“Come with me,” she said. “My housekeeper will take your bags upstairs and press your dinner suit.” She led him through a handsomely decorated living room and out a rear door, and they walked down a stone path to a dock, where a charming old wooden cabin cruiser was moored. She got the engines started while Stone dealt with the lines, and they proceeded downstream half a mile and tied up at another dock, where a sign read: WINDWARD HALL. They walked up from the floating pontoon and were met by a man in an electric vehicle who took them down a shaded drive.
“Stop here, Stan,” Felicity said. “Come on, Stone, we’ll walk.”
Stone got down from the cart and followed her farther along the narrow road. Without warning they emerged from the trees, and there before them, in a lovely meadow, dotted with old oaks and half a dozen grazing horses, was the most beautiful Georgian house Stone had ever seen. It was not overly large and it was symmetrical, with wings extending from either side. In the center was a white portico supported by four slender columns. Stone’s breath was taken away. “I’ve never seen anything so perfect,” he said.
“That was my reaction, too, when I first saw this house as a child. The owner was a friend of my father.”
“Who lives here?”
“Sir Charles Bourne,” she said. “Come, let’s go inside.”
“Is he expecting us?”
“He’s in London this afternoon. He’ll join us for dinner at the Royal Yacht Squadron in Cowes tonight, but someone else is expecting us.” They walked up the steps, and the door was opened by a butler in his shirtsleeves and an apron, who stuffed a cleaning cloth into his pocket. “Hello, Geoffrey,” she said. “This is Mr. Barrington. He’s come to see the house.”
“Of course, Dame Felicity,” the man said in a beautifully modulated voice. “Ms. Blackburn is in the library. Shall I escort you?”
“No, Geoffrey, we’ll find our way.” They entered a central hall; the pictures had been removed, and scaffolding set up. “It’s undergoing a major renovation, which is not yet quite done,” she said, showing him a drawing room to his left and a library to his right, which had had all the books removed. “He’s having many of the books rebound at a country bindery nearby, and the paneling sanded with two new coats of varnish. There are probably ten or twelve coats present already.”
Another woman walked into the room, bearing a canvas carryall and a large drawing pad.
“Stone, this is Susan Blackburn, one of Britain’s finest interior designers.”
Stone took her hand. “I know your work from pictures in magazines,” he said. “It’s a pleasure.”
“How do you do, Mr. Barrington?” she said coolly. She was tall, perhaps five-ten, and was wearing jeans and a chambray work shirt. Somehow, she made the clothes look elegant.
“Susan, will you show us what you’re doing?”
“Of course.” She walked them through the library and the drawing room, then took them to a lovely old kitchen with brand-new appliances, then upstairs and to the master suite, which was without furniture or curtains. “We’ve taken a small bedroom next door and turned it into a dressing room and bath, so there will be two of each. I think that arrangement preserves relationships.”
“I agree,” Stone said. “I have a similar arrangement in my New York house.”
“There are four other bedrooms, each with en suite baths. The present house is the third on a very old property and was built in the 1920s. During the war, the RAF requisitioned it for a bomber base. They didn’t give it up until the sixties. Sir Charles bought the place at that time and gave it a thorough systems upgrade, and all mod cons were installed, even air-conditioning. The house got pretty run-down and is now undergoing its first full renovation since that time.” Some of the rooms were very nearly complete and Stone was impressed with the beauty of the fabrics and wallpapers the designer had employed. “The original estate was more than two thousand acres, in the eighteenth century, but now it’s only around sixty. There are four cottages, a stable, and a greenhouse on the property.”
They spent an hour seeing the house and the beautifully tended gardens. “The renovation is on schedule to be completed in six months’ time,” Susan said. “Sir Charles has moved into one of the cottages for the duration. Now, if you’ll forgive me, I have to return to London for a meeting.” She shook hands and departed.
“There’s one more thing I want to show you,” Felicity said. She took him back to the waiting cart, and they drove half a mile or so, through a grove of large trees, and emerged into a wide space bisected by a runway.
“I didn’t know Brits had private airfields,” Stone said.
“As Susan said, the RAF built it as a bomber base during the war, and Charles has maintained it as a fully functioning airfield. It even has a published GPS instrument approach, I’m told. Charles owned and flew a King Air, which he has recently sold.”
“Is he getting too old to fly?”
“Too ill,” Felicity said. “His doctors have given him only a few months to live. You wouldn’t know it to see him, but he’s really quite sick—his heart. They’ve told him that when the end comes, it will come quickly.”
“I’m very sorry to hear that,” Stone said. “It’s sad that he won’t get to enjoy the house when the work is complete.”
“Yes, it is.”
“Does he have family who will inherit?”
“He has a son and a daughter from whom he has been estranged for at least twenty years. Both are childless, and he won’t leave the house to the National Trust, which he regards as some sort of communist institution that robs the wealthy of their property.”
Stone waved a hand. “And this is your secret?”
“And why are you showing it to me?”
“Because I expect you to buy the place.”
They sat, dressed for dinner, before a fire with a drink as the day waned. Stone had not reacted to Felicity’s suggestion that he should buy the place, but while he was showering and dressing he could not think of anything else.
“Let me tell you all I know,” Felicity said when they were settled.
“Charles has a very carefully thought-out plan: he and his children despise each other. There’s no point in going into that history, but he says that if his son inherited, he would immediately apply for planning permission to build two hundred awful cottages on the property, and Charles won’t have that. He says that his daughter would redecorate the house garishly and sell it to the first person to make a reasonable offer, without regard to what sort of person that might be. Charles, like many Englishmen of his generation and his class, has a long list of persons in mind who qualify as unsuitable, among them Arabs and Russians, who are driving the market in expensive properties these days. Fortunately, Beaulieu is too far from London to have attracted their attention.
“Charles knows that if he dies owning the house, no matter who he leaves it to, a battle will ensue between his children and the unfortunate inheritor. Therefore, he wants to sell it prior to his death to keep it out of their hands, retaining a lifetime tenancy. As I have pointed out, that will likely be no more than a few months.
“You have a number of qualities that would cause Charles to consider you an attractive buyer: One, he would prefer an American gentleman to an unsuitable English spiv—that is, a flashy person of dubious means—who, to Charles’s way of thinking, doesn’t deserve the money he has somehow made. Two, you are clearly a gentleman, one with an affinity for things English, who will turn up tonight in a dinner suit, instead of a boldly striped nightmare. Three, you are already a person of considerable property, which indicates to Charles that you know how to manage it. Four, you fly an airplane, and he would hate to see his airfield meet the plow. And five, you can write a check for the property, with no delays for obtaining financing or other burdensome requirements that give the opportunity for local gossip, which he has always despised. He would like to sell it as quietly as possible, then present his neighbors and his children with a fait accompli.”
“And how large a check would Sir Charles expect me to write?”
“Ten million pounds, and let me remind you that the pound is down against the dollar. I need hardly tell you that that constitutes a screaming bargain in this market, especially with the fresh renovation.”
“I should think he could get twice that,” Stone observed.
“Yes, but you’re not reckoning on Charles’s way of calculating. What he wants is the house in proper hands, with the renovation and death duties paid and his loyal staff kept on, and a bit left over for distribution to a few charities he is fond of. Of course, he has other wealth—investments in stocks and business properties in London—but that doesn’t come into the equation.”
“How many staff?”
“A butler, a cook, and a property manager, and five others in the house, and eight or ten on the property—gardeners, stablemen, and laborers. He would like it if his horses lived out their lives on the estate, but he won’t insist.”
“Think about this carefully, Felicity, before you answer: Is there a catch in all this?”
Felicity laughed. “Two: his son and daughter will go out of their way to spread awful rumors about you, and you’ll have to put up with me as a neighbor.”
Stone laughed. “I think I can handle that.”
“I’ll defend you to the neighbors, and since I’m in London most of the time, anyway, I won’t care who you sleep with. You’ll have to buy me dinner now and then, though.”
With the sun sinking, Felicity took them down the Beaulieu River and across the Solent. There was little wind, and the sea was calm. They fetched up at the little marina maintained by the Royal Yacht Squadron. A tall, slender man in a beautifully cut suit awaited them and helped Felicity ashore, while a uniformed boatman took their lines.
“Charles,” Felicity said, “allow me to introduce you to Stone Barrington, of New York. Stone, this is Sir Charles Bourne.”
Both men said, “How do you do,” simultaneously, then they walked up the path to an old stone castle nestled close by the Solent. Sir Charles took them into a comfortable sitting room and rang for a steward, who took their drinks order. “Please give me a moment to change,” Charles said. “I’m fresh off the ferry from Southampton.” He vanished.
“Sir Charles seems to be everything he should be,” Stone said.
“He thinks the same of you,” Felicity replied. “I can tell. An upper-class English gentleman can feign a chilly warmth, but an Englishwoman will know the real thing when she sees it.”
“This is quite a place,” Stone said, looking around.
“The castle was built by Henry the Eighth, to repel the odious French, who never showed up. The Squadron is celebrating its bicentennial, having been founded in 1815, and is the second-oldest yacht club in the world, after the Royal Cork, which goes back to 1720. Sir Charles and I were practically born into it, both of us having fathers and grandfathers who were members. I was a Lady Associate member, until women were accepted as full members, and I became one of the first.”
Sir Charles returned, dressed in a Squadron Mess Kit, in the naval style.
“Well, now, Mr. Barrington,” he said, “are you enjoying your stay in England?”
“Please, it’s Stone, and I am very much enjoying my stay, although I arrived only this afternoon. I spent much of it enjoying your very beautiful property.”
“I’m sorry it didn’t greet you in its finished state, but we’re getting there. Susan Blackburn is actually a bit ahead of schedule, but I’m sure something will go wrong to correct that.”
“May I inquire about the origins of your title?” Stone asked.
“Oh, that arrived some thirty-odd years ago, at a time when I was giving rather too much money to the Conservative Party. Margaret Thatcher, who was a good friend, saw to it.”
“Somehow, I had thought it more ancient.”
“Like me, you mean?”
Stone smiled. “Hardly.”
The steward appeared and announced dinner.
They dined in the Members Dining Room, the only people there, and they were surrounded by portraits of former commodores of the Squadron gazing down on them, some of whom were kings. The conversation flowed freely.
“It’s nice that we have the place to ourselves,” Sir Charles said, when their dishes had been taken away, to be replaced by port and Stilton. “It will be crowded at the weekend, and I’m happy to have had the opportunity to get to know you, Stone.”
“Stone was very impressed with your property, Charles,” Felicity said.
“Particularly the airfield,” Stone said. He took his checkbook from his pocket and tore out one, already filled out. He signed it and handed it to Sir Charles. “I believe that is the correct amount?” he said.
Sir Charles put on his glasses and read the check carefully. “We have the same bank,” he said, tucking the check into a pocket and offering his hand.
Stone shook it. “Please give me a week to move the funds from New York.”
“In the me...
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