Unfair Exchange - by Marian Babson (1974)
You can't really blame Zita Fulbridge for acquiescing to her husband's first wife -- Caroline has a way of steamrolling over people to get what she wants. What Caroline wanted was for Zita to look after her nine-year-old daughter from an even earlier marriage for a few weeks while Caroline sails off on her current boyfriend's yacht. What is implied (although Caroline never said it) was that Caroline's wealthy boyfriend was going to pop the question during the voyage. It happened that Zita's husband had just left London on a business trip to New York for three weeks, the same three weeks that Caroline wants Zita to watch over the girl. Zita's first instinct was to refuse, but did I mention Caroline's steamrolling technique?
Zita felt sorry for Fanny, the girl. She had been living with her father, an American, but he had been assigned to a job in India and had shipped Fanny off to her mother while he made arrangements for housing and schooling in India. No sooner had Fanny arrived in London than she was turfed off to Zita, a complete stranger. Zita had hoped to make the best of it but soon discovered that Fanny was an obnoxious little horror.
And there was this sense that Zita and Fanny were being followed. And the stranger in the shadows watching her house. And those phone calls with no one on the other end. Finally, of course, Zita gets kidnapped. Then Zita learns that Caroline was not on a Mediterranean cruise with her boyfriend -- she had been holed up in hiding on a small boat on a canal just outside London. And Caroline's beau? He's a Brazilian gangster with no intention of leaving his wife. And there was the dead man whose body seemed to pop up wherever Zita went. Doing a favor for Caroline was very dangerous business.
Unfair Exchange, an early book by the author, is a fast, enjoyable read with enough twists to overcome a well-worn theme. Babson, a New Englander who lives in England, has a light touch on darker materials. I've read several dozen of her novels and have never been disappointed. Even her latest novels, which all seem to have the word "Cat" in the titles, are worth reading. If you are in the mood for a cozy-ish, sometimes thriller-ish sort of read, Babson is for you.