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A Scone To Die For - Excerpt

A Scone To Die For - Excerpt

Book 1: The Oxford Tearoom Mysteries

CHAPTER ONE

I never thought I’d end the week facing an American with a sharp knife.

It started normally enough, with the usual influx of tourists and visitors to our tiny Cotswolds’ village of Meadowford-on-Smythe. Filled with winding cobbled lanes and pretty thatched cottages, Meadowford was like a picture-perfect postcard of rural England. But quaint and gorgeous as the village was, it would probably never have got much notice if it hadn’t sat on the outskirts of the most famous university city in the world.

Over nine million tourists came to visit Oxford each year, and after they’d posed for photos in the college quadrangles and wandered reverently through the cloisters of the oldest university in the English-speaking world, they drifted out into the surrounding Cotswolds countryside. Here, they would coo over the quaint antique shops and village markets, and look forward to rounding everything off with some authentic English “afternoon tea”.

That’s where I came in. Or rather, my new business: the Little Stables Tearoom. Offering the best in traditional English refreshments, from warm buttery scones with jam and clotted cream, to home-made sticky toffee pudding and hot cross buns, all served with fragrant Earl Grey or English Breakfast tea—proper leaf tea—in delicate bone china… my little tearoom was a must-stop on any visitor’s itinerary.

Well, okay, right now, my little tearoom was more of a “must go next time”—but we all have to start somewhere, right?

And so far, things were looking pretty promising. I’d opened three weeks ago, just at the beginning of October and the start of the Michaelmas Term (a fancy name for the first term in the school year; hey, this is Oxford—at least it wasn’t in Latin) and I’d been lucky to catch the end-of-the-summer tourist trade, as well as the flood of new students arriving with their families. My tearoom had even got a write-up in the local student magazine as one of the “Top Places to Take Your Parents” and looked set on its way to becoming a success.

And I desperately needed it to succeed. I’d given up a top executive job in Sydney—much to the horror of family and friends—on a crazy whim to come back home and follow this dream. I’d sunk every last penny of my savings into this place and I needed it to work. Besides, if my venture didn’t become profitable soon, I’d never be able to afford a place of my own, and seriously, after being home for six weeks, I realised that moving back to live with your parents when you’re twenty-nine is a fate worse than death.

But standing at the counter surveying my tearoom that Saturday morning, I was feeling happy and hopeful. It was still an hour till lunchtime but already the place was almost full. There was a warm cosy atmosphere, permeated by the cheerful hum of conversation, the dainty clink of china, and that gorgeous smell of fresh baking. People were poring over their menus, happily stuffing their faces, or pointing and looking around the room in admiration.

The tearoom was housed in a 15th-century Tudor building, with the distinctive dark half-timber framing and walls painted white. With its thatched roof and cross gables, it looked just like the quintessential English cottages featured on chocolate box tins. Inside, the period charm continued with flagstone floors and thick, exposed wood beams, matched by mullioned windows facing the street and an inglenook fireplace.

It hadn’t looked like this when I took it over. The last owner had let things go badly, due to a combination of money troubles and personal lethargy (otherwise known as laziness), and it had taken a lot of effort and dedication—not to mention all my savings—to restore this place to its former glory. But looking around now, I felt as great a sense of achievement as I had done the day I graduated with a First from that world-famous university nearby.

I scanned the tables, noting that we were starting to get some “regulars” and feeling a rush of pleasure at the thought. Getting someone to try you once—especially when they were tired and hungry and just wanted somewhere to sit down—was one thing; getting them to add you to their weekly routine was a different honour altogether. Especially when that honour was handed out by the residents of Meadowford-on-Smythe who viewed all newcomers with deep suspicion.

Not that I was really a “newcomer”—I’d lived here as a little girl and, even after my family had moved to North Oxford in my teens, we’d always popped back to visit on school holidays and long weekends. But I’d been gone long enough to be considered an “outsider” now and I knew that I would have to work hard to earn back my place in the village. 

Still, it looked like I was taking my first steps. Sitting at the heavy oak table by the window were four little old ladies with their heads together, like a group of finicky hens deciding which unfortunate worm to peck first. Fluffy white hair, woolly cardigans, and spectacles perched on the ends of their noses… they looked like the stereotype of sweet, old grannies. But don’t be fooled. These four could have given MI5 a run for their money. They made it their business to know everybody’s business (that was just the basic service—interfering in other people’s business was extra). It was rumoured that even the Mayor of Oxford was in their power.

But the fact that they were sitting in my tearoom was a good sign, I told myself hopefully. It meant that there was a chance I was being accepted and approved of. Then my heart sank as I saw one of them frown and point to an item on the menu. The other three leaned closer and there were ominous nods all around.

Uh-oh. I grabbed an order pad and hurried over to their table.

“Good morning, ladies.” I pinned a bright smile to my face. “What can I get you today?”

They turned their heads in unison and looked up at me, four pairs of bright beady eyes and pursed lips.

“You’re looking a bit peaky, Gemma,” said Mabel Cooke in her booming voice. “Are you sure you’re getting enough fibre, dear? There’s a wonderful new type of bran you can take in the mornings, you know, to help you get ‘regular’. Dr Foster recommended it to me. Just a spoon on your cereal and you’ll be in the loo, regular as clockwork. Works marvellously to clear you out.” She leaned closer and added in a stage whisper, which was loud enough for the entire room to hear, “So much cheaper than that colon irritation thing they do, dear.”

I saw the couple at the next table turn wide eyes on me and felt myself flushing. “Er… thank you, Mrs Cooke. Now, can I take—”

“I saw your mother in Oxford yesterday,” Glenda Bailey spoke up from across the table. As usual, she was wearing bright pink lipstick, which clashed badly with the rouge on her cheeks, but somehow the overall effect was charming. Glenda was eighty going on eighteen, with a coquettish manner that went perfectly with her girlish looks. “Has she had her hair done recently?”

To be honest, I had no idea. I had only been back six weeks and I thought my mother looked pretty much the same. But I suppose her hair was in a different style to the last time I’d returned to England.

“Er… yes, I think so.”

Glenda clucked her tongue and fluttered her eyelashes in distress. “Oh, it was shocking. So flat and shapeless. I suppose she went to one of those fancy new hairdressers in Oxford?”

“I… I think she did.”

There were gasps from around the table.

“She should have come to Bridget here in the village,” said Mabel disapprovingly. “Nobody can do a wash and blow dry like our Bridget. She even gave me a blue rinse for free the last time I was there.” She patted her head with satisfaction, then turned back to me with a scowl. “Really, Gemma! Young hairdressers nowadays know nothing about lift and volume. I don’t know why your mother is going to these fancy new hair salons.”

Maybe because not everyone wants to walk around wearing a cotton wool helmet on their heads, I thought, but I bit back the retort.

“It’s because they have no concept of ‘staying power’,” Florence Doyle spoke up. Her simple, placid face was unusually earnest. “They’ve never been through the war and have no idea of rationing. They don’t know how to make things last as long as possible. People wash their hair so frequently these days.” She gave a shudder.

“Well, a wash and set once a week was good enough for my mother and it’s good enough for me,” said Mabel with an emphatic nod. She eyed me suspiciously. “How often do you wash your hair, Gemma?”

“I… um… only when I need to,” I stammered, thinking guiltily of my daily shower and shampoo. With a determined effort, I changed the subject. “What would you like to order for morning tea?”

“I’d like some of your delicious warm scones with jam and clotted cream—and a pot of English Breakfast, please,” Ethel Webb spoke up.

The quietest of the group, Ethel was a kindly, absent-minded spinster who used to be the librarian at the local library until she retired a few years ago. I remembered her gentle face smiling at me as she stamped the return date on my books when I was a little girl.

She gave me that same gentle smile now. “And I think you’ve done a lovely job with the tearoom, Gemma. I’m really proud of you.”

I looked at her in surprise, a sudden tightness coming to my throat. Since announcing my decision to ditch my high-flying corporate career for a village tearoom, the reactions I’d received had ranged from aghast disbelief to horrified disapproval. I hadn’t realised until now how much a bit of support meant to me.

“Thank you…” I said, blinking rapidly. “Thank you, Miss Webb. I… I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your words.”

Her eyes twinkled at me. “Now that you’re nearly thirty, Gemma, do you think you could call me Ethel, dear? I’m not behind the library desk anymore, you know.”

I returned her smile. “I’ll try, Miss… Ethel.”

I managed to take the rest of the orders without further comment on my bowels, my mother’s hair follicles or the young generation’s lack of economy, and hurried back to the counter in relief. My best friend, Cassie, met me on the way. She had been looking after a large group of American tourists, which had just arrived by coach and was now settled in the tables along the far wall. 

“Looks like you survived another encounter with the Old Biddies,” she said with a grin as we both rounded the counter.

I rolled my eyes. “If I have to hear one more thing about Mabel’s ‘regular’ bowel habits, I think I’m going to take a running jump.”

“You’ll get no sympathy from me,” said Cassie. “You’ve only had to put up with them for three weeks so far. I’ve been putting up with them for the past eight years while you’ve been gallivanting off Down Under.”

Cassie and I had known each other from the time we both believed in Santa Claus. That moment when we’d first sat down next to each other in the classroom of our village school had been the start of an unexpected but wonderful friendship. Unexpected because you couldn’t have found two people more un-alike than Cassie and me. She was one of five siblings in a large, rowdy family where everyone talked constantly—when they weren’t singing, dancing, painting, or sculpting—and the house was in a constant state of cluttered chaos. Cassie’s parents were “artists” in the true sense of the word and believed that the most important things in life were creative freedom and personal expression. It was no surprise that Cassie had done Fine Art at Oxford.

I, meanwhile, was the only child of an upper-middle-class household where nobody spoke at any volume above a well-modulated murmur and certainly never with excessive emotion. My house was always a perfectly ordered sanctuary of cream furniture and matching curtains. My parents were “British” in the true sense of the word and believed that the most important things in life were a stiff upper lip and correct etiquette. You couldn’t do “Ladylike Decorum” as a degree at Oxford so my mother had had to settle for me doing English Language and Literature.

Like most artists, Cassie worked a series of part-time jobs to help make ends meet. When she learned about my plans to return to Meadowford-on-Smythe and re-open the tearoom, it had taken very little to convince her to ditch her usual day job and come work with me. In fact, her past waitressing experience had been invaluable. Even now, I watched in admiration as she expertly balanced several plates laden with scones, cheesecake, and crumpets—as well as a pot of tea and two teacups—and started to make her way to the table of Japanese tourists by the door.

A strange snapping noise caught my attention and I turned towards the sound. It was coming from a large man who seemed to be part of the tour group that had just come in. He was sitting alone at a table at the edge of the group and had his left hand in the air, snapping it impatiently, like someone calling a disobedient dog. I frowned at his rudeness, but reminded myself that I was in the hospitality industry now. Professional, friendly service no matter what. I took a deep breath and went over to him. 

“Can I help you, sir?”        

“Yeah, I wanna glass of water.”

He had a strong American accent and an aggressive manner, which put me instantly on edge, but I kept my smile in place.

“Certainly.” I started to turn away but paused as he spoke again.

“Wait—is it tap? I only drink filtered water.”

“I’m afraid we don’t have a filter, sir. It’s plain tap water. But it’s very safe to drink tap water in the U.K. We do have bottled water on the menu, if you prefer.”

He scowled. “What a rip-off. Water should be free.”

I stifled a sigh. “You can certainly have water for free, but it’ll be tap water. We have to pay for the bottled water so I have to charge you for that.”

“All right, all right…” He waved a hand. “Get me a glass of tap water. And put some ice in it.”

I turned to go but was stopped again by his voice.

“Hey, by the way, the service is terrible. I’ve been sitting here forever and no one’s come to take my order!”

I stared at him, wondering if he was serious. Surely he realised that he had only just come in a few minutes ago? The rest of the group were still looking at their menus. One of the women in the group, sitting at the next table with her little boy, met my eyes and gave me a sympathetic smile. I took a deep breath and let it out through my nose.

“I’ll just grab my order pad, sir.”

“Yeah, well, be quick about it. I haven’t got all day.”

Gritting my teeth, I headed back to the counter. My mood was not improved when I got there to find Cassie with an exasperated look on her face.

“The shop’s empty again.”

“Arrrrgghh!” I said under my breath. “Muesli, I’m going to kill you!”

No, I don’t have an abnormal hatred of cereals. Muesli is a cat and, like all cats, she delights in doing the exact opposite of what you want. The Food Standards Agency inspector had been adamant: the only way I’d be allowed to have a cat on the premises was if it stayed out of the kitchen and dining areas. Easy, I’d thought. I’ll just keep Muesli in the extension where we had a little shop selling Oxford souvenirs and English tea paraphernalia. The fact that I thought of the words “easy” and “cat” in the same sentence probably tells you that I don’t know much about felines.

Okay, I’ll be the first to admit—I’ve always been more of a dog person. I think cats are fascinating and beautiful and look great on greeting cards. But not on my lap leaving hairs everywhere and certainly not in my tearoom, getting under everyone’s feet. So why, you wonder, is the tabby terror even here? Well, she came as a packaged deal with my chef. And Fletcher Wilson is a magician with a mixer and a spatula. Trust me, once you’ve tasted his sticky toffee pudding, you’d be ready to give him your first born child. So agreeing to let him have his cat with him at work seemed like a small price to pay in exchange for his culinary expertise.

The problem was, I hadn’t counted on the cat being quite so sociable. Or such a great escape artist. Muesli had quickly decided that there was no way she was going to remain in the shop area when all the real fun was going on here in the dining room and she made it her life’s mission to escape at any opportunity. I couldn’t really blame her. In fact, I felt guilty every time I saw that little tabby face—with her pink nose pressed up to the glass—peering wistfully through the door that separated the shop from the dining room. But food hygiene laws were one thing I couldn’t ignore if I didn’t want to lose my licence.

“One of the Japanese tourists must have gone in the shop to check out some of the stuff and she slipped out when they opened the door,” commented Cassie.

I sighed and scanned the room, looking for a little tabby shape between the tables. I couldn’t see her. I crouched down to get a better view. All I could see was a forest of legs… I bit my lip. Where was that cat? I had to find her before any of the customers noticed her loose in here. The last thing I needed was for Mabel and her cronies to discover my Food Standards violation; the news would be halfway across Oxfordshire before the day ended.

“Hey! Can I get some service around here?” came an irate American voice.

I straightened up hurriedly. Oh God, I’d forgotten about Mr Charming. I gave Cassie a harassed look. “Keep looking for her, will you?”

I grabbed the order pad—then, on an impulse, also picked up a plate of fresh blackberry cheesecake, which had just come through the hatch from the kitchen. Well, they did say the way to a man’s heart was through his stomach. I added a knife and fork, and a dollop of cream, then walked over and set it down in front of him.

“Sorry for the wait, sir. Compliments of the house. This is one of our specialties.”

“Huh.” He looked surprised. He picked up the fork and cut the corner off the soft, creamy cake, putting it cautiously into his mouth. His eyes glazed over slightly and his face softened. “Say… this is not bad.”

I suppressed the urge to roll my eyes. Coming from him, that was probably considered high praise. Still, trying to be charitable, I told myself that maybe he was just one of those people who got really grouchy when hungry. I observed him surreptitiously as I took his order. He was a large, thickset man, with a blocky, almost square-shaped head, fleshy cheeks and prominent ears. His mouth drooped slightly on one side as he talked—the result of a stroke?—and I put him in his early forties, though he looked older. He seemed slightly incongruous sitting there with the other tourists. He was certainly dressed like a tourist in chinos, a loud shirt, and sports jacket, and he had a sort of knapsack on the chair next to him, but somehow he didn’t quite fit in.

“…and I gotta have the bread soft, d’you hear? I don’t want any hard crusts on the sandwiches.”

 “All our tea sandwiches are made the traditional way with untoasted bread and the crusts cut off, so they’re all very soft to eat,” I assured him. I noticed the tourist map of Oxford spread out on the table in front of him and gave him a polite smile. “Visiting Oxford, sir?”

“What?” He glanced down at the map. “Oh… oh, yeah.” He gave me a sheepish grin. “Yeah, first-time visitor here; never been to Oxford before. Gotta figure out how to get around. Say, you know how long it takes to walk from the Bodleian Library to Magdalen College?”

“No more than ten or fifteen minutes, I should think. You can take the shortcut through Catte Street onto High Street, and then just turn left and walk straight down to the bridge.”

“Catte Street… that comes out opposite the bank, doesn’t it?”

I frowned. “You mean, the Old Bank Hotel?”

He blinked and a look of confusion flashed across his face, to be replaced quickly by a bland smile. “Sure, yeah, that’s what I mean.” He folded up the map. “Well, thanks for that. You gotta restroom here?”

I directed him to the door beside the shop, then hurried back to the counter to put his order through. I could hear raised voices in the kitchen and winced. I wondered if Cassie was telling Fletcher about his missing cat. I hoped it wouldn’t upset him too much. Fletcher was… “sensitive”, for want of a better word. He was painfully shy and didn’t relate to people like most of us did—in fact, he found it difficult to even make eye contact when he spoke to you. Animals seemed to be the only thing that helped him come out of his shell and I knew that having Muesli here played a big role in calming his nerves and helping him cope with things.

Remembering the request for water, I hurriedly poured a glass and added a few ice-cubes, then took it back to the American man’s table. As I was putting it down, the little boy at the next table jumped up with a yell and jostled my elbow. Water sloshed out of the glass and onto the man’s knapsack.

“Blast!” I muttered.

“Oh, I’m so sorry!” said the woman at the next table. “Hunter, apologise to the lady.”

I gave the little boy a distracted smile. “That’s okay. It was an accident.”

I set the glass down and picked up the knapsack, trying to shake the water off. It was unzipped and a lot of water had spilled onto a folder inside. I hesitated a second, then pulled the folder out and grabbed a napkin from the holder on the table to mop up the moisture. My heart sank as I saw that water had seeped into the folder and wet the sheaf of papers inside. I could just imagine the American’s reaction when he came out and saw what had happened.

Hastily, I pulled out the sheets and dabbed at them with more napkins. The water had soaked through the first page. I hoped it wasn’t anything important. It had the look of an official letter, with the University of Oxford letterhead at the top, but what I was more worried about was the bottom where the signature—obviously done in fountain pen—had smeared across the page. I dabbed at it, thinking to myself frantically: most signatures were illegible anyway, weren’t they? This one, for instance, you could hardly make out what the name was. It looked like a “G” and then “Hayes” or “Hughes”, but in any case—

“WHAT THE HELL DO YOU THINK YOU’RE DOING?”

I gasped as a hand grabbed my wrist and yanked me back from the table. Conversation at the next table ceased and the whole room went silent as everyone turned to stare. The American towered over me, one hand clamped on my wrist, the other holding something that gleamed dully. My eyes widened as I realised that it was a knife.

 

CHAPTER TWO

“N-n-nothing…” I said, stammering in surprise. I tried to pull my hand out of his grip. “I spilled some water on your papers and I was just trying to mop up the mess.”

By now, the American had become aware of the whole room staring at him. He released my wrist, laid the knife back down on the cheesecake dish, and made an attempt at a smile.

“Oh… oh yeah. Sorry… can’t be too careful these days, you know, especially when you’re travelling. All this identity theft stuff…”

I rubbed my wrist. “Well, I can assure you, sir, I wasn’t attempting to steal your identity. I was just trying to mop up the water as quickly as possible.”

He gave an awkward wave. “It’s no big deal anyway. Just some tourist brochures and stuff.” He shuffled the papers back into the folder and closed it firmly.

I took the half empty glass and promised to return with another one, then retreated. But my interest was piqued. Why was he lying? It was obvious the papers were not just some tourist brochures. Bloody hell, he’d acted like they were state secrets or something!  Still, I reminded myself that it was none of my business. One thing I’d learnt since opening this tearoom was that you met all sorts of people in the hospitality industry and it was best to turn a blind eye to their eccentricities. All I cared about was that they ordered my food and paid their bills.

Besides, I had bigger problems than some cranky American. I looked at Cassie hopefully as I returned to the counter but she shook her head.

“Still can’t find her—though I can’t look under the tables properly unless I get on my knees and crawl around.” She nodded over my shoulder. “What’s with American Psycho?”

I shrugged. “Heaven knows. Got out of the wrong side of the Atlantic this morning. Anyway, forget him… I’m more worried about the cat.”

“I had to tell Fletcher,” said Cassie uneasily. “I went into the kitchen to see if Muesli might have slipped in there and he asked me what I was up to.”

“How did he take it?”

“Not good.” Cassie made a face. “He was all ready to come out and look for her himself, but I assured him that we had it covered. He’s in the middle of plating up the orders for the tables by the window, and then he’s got to do that big tour group and we can’t have them delayed. Their coach will be leaving for Oxford in forty-five minutes.”

I sighed and turned to scan the room again. Suddenly, I froze.

“Cassie!” I hissed. “What’s that over there?”

Cassie’s eyes widened. I knew she’d seen what I’d seen: a little grey tail flicking behind Mabel Cooke’s chair, by the wall.

“Nooo…” Cassie groaned. “Of all the tables in the place, the little minx had to choose that one? What are you going to do?”

Luckily, at that moment, the order for the Old Biddies came through the hatch. I loaded it onto a tray and hurried across the room.

“Here you are…” I said as I rested the tray on the table. I leaned to the side slightly and tried to look behind Mabel’s chair. The tail twitched back and forth, then flicked out of sight underneath the table.

“Are you all right, dear?” said Glenda. “You look a bit odd.”

“Oh, no, I’m fine,” I said hastily. I unloaded their order from the tray, then shifted my weight from foot to foot, wondering how I could find an excuse to reach under the table and grab the cat. The four old ladies looked at me expectantly.

“So… um… Is there anything else I can get you?”

They shook their heads.

“No, dear. You run along; we can see you have lots of customers to look after.”

“Um… Yes… it’s lovely and busy today, isn’t it? It’s great to be so busy—although I suppose it’s only to be expected, since it’s Saturday and that’s always the busiest time of the week,” I babbled. “Not that you want to be too busy, of course, but it’s good to be a bit busy and find a balance…”

They stared at me, obviously wondering if I had lost my wits. In desperation, I grabbed the edge of the table and gave it a little jiggle.

“Oh, it looks like your table isn’t very steady. I think one of the legs might need a bit of propping.”

Mabel Cook gave the sturdy oak table a good shove. “It feels all right to me,” she said doubtfully

“Really? Because it seems really shaky to me,” I said. “In fact, I think I’ll just slip a wad of paper under one of the legs. Excuse me while I do that…” I grabbed a napkin, then dropped to my knees and crawled under the table before they could react. The table was positioned with its short end against the wall, jutting out with two chairs on either side. Muesli sat at the other end, with her back to the wall, looking at me with bright green eyes.

“Muesli!” I hissed under my breath. “Come here!”

She blinked at me innocently.

“Come here, you blasted cat!”

 She gave me a disdainful look, lifted a paw and languidly began to wash it.

Grrrr. I debated what to do. I could try to reach out and grab her by the collar, but that would mean sticking my hand through the row of legs in front of me, and even if I caught her, I would have to pull her through the legs. If the Old Biddies felt the cat’s furry body brush against them, they would probably all erupt in screams.

“Gemma, dear, are you all right?”

“Oh! Uh… Yes, of course… Just a moment longer…”

“Would you like some help?”

“No, no,” I said desperately. “I’m fine, thank you.”

I turned my attention back to the cat. I decided to try a different tactic. Making a monumental effort, I forced my voice into a gentle whisper. “Muesli… here kitty, kitty, kitty…”

The cat paused in her washing and regarded me curiously. “Meorrw?”

“Gemma, dear, did you say ‘meow’?”

“Uh… no! No, I said ‘no-ow’. I said I’m almost done now.”

“Well, you’re obviously having trouble. Let me come and help you,” came Mabel’s booming voice. I saw her chair being pushed back.

“No! No!” I yelped, jerking up in alarm. I smacked my head on the underside of the table. “Ow!”

The loud bang startled the cat; she shot out from under the table and scampered across the room towards the tour group. I crawled out backwards and stood up, rubbing my sore head.

“Gemma, dear… Are you sure you’re all right?”

I met four pairs of sceptical eyes. “Yes, fine… sorry, so clumsy of me. Right, I’ll leave you to have your tea in peace now!”

I beat a hasty retreat across the room, heading for the tour group. I stopped short. I could see a little tabby face peeking from between two of the chairs. I swear, the cat stuck her tongue out at me.

Little minx. I scowled. Strolling over as nonchalantly as I could, I bent down slowly as I approached the cat. She looked up at me with her big green eyes, her tail wrapped around her front paws, but just as I reached out to grab her, she darted under the table.

“Blast!” I muttered under my breath.

“Is there a problem?”

I looked up to see a woman turning around on the chair that Muesli had been sitting next to. It was the mother with the little boy, Hunter—the one who had given me the sympathetic smile earlier.

“No, no problem,” I said hastily. “Has anyone taken your order yet?”

“Yes, that other nice young woman came and did it a moment ago.” She smiled at me, then her face clouded and she glanced sideways at the American man at the next table. She lowered her voice. “I hope you don’t think all Americans are like him.”

I returned her smile. “As long as you don’t think all English men are like Mr Bean.”

She laughed but whatever she was about to say was cut off as her son suddenly sprang up in his chair and pointed an excited finger.

“Hey, Mom, look! There’s a cat!”

I groaned.

Half the tour group stood up to look and the sudden scraping of so many chairs scared Muesli out from underneath the table. I made a lunge for her but she darted nimbly past.

“I’ll catch it!” cried the boy, jumping after her.

Muesli easily evaded his grasping hands. She dived between his legs, around his chair, and across to the next table where the American man was sitting. He had glanced up at the commotion and was now rising from his chair.

“What the…” he growled.

I ran over to him. “I’m so sorry, sir! Just give me a moment and I’ll catch her—”

“Say, why is that animal in here? What kind of place is this?”

“Sorry! Sorry!” I panted, diving around him to try and grab a furry tail. “There’s been a bit of a… um… accident. The cat isn’t normally in here.”

Muesli scooted sideways around the table, then made an attempt to rush past the American. He screwed his face up in disgust and kicked at the cat as she ran past him.

“Mangy animal!”

There was a loud gasp. I jerked around to find Fletcher standing in the kitchen doorway. His eyes bulged as he stared at the American.

“Fletcher…” I put up a placating hand. “Fletcher, I’m sure Mr… um… didn’t mean to hurt Muesli…”

I glanced at the American, half expecting him to jump in with his own apologies and excuses but, to my surprise, what I saw was not a look of remorse but a smile of satisfaction. I felt a wave of dislike for him. It was obvious that he was enjoying the distress he was causing. The man was a bully and, like all bullies, he got pleasure from watching others squirm.

“That was uncalled for, sir,” I said sharply. “I realise that the cat should not have been in here but that doesn’t give you the right to kick her.”

He swung back to me. “Oh yeah? Well, why don’t you tell that to the Health Department,” he sneered “I can report you and get this place shut down tomorrow.”

“I—”

I bit off the words. He was right. At the end of the day, food and hygiene laws would trump the RSPCA. I swallowed and took a deep breath, forcing an apologetic look to my face. “I’m very sorry sir. I… I can offer you your meal free of charge, to make up for the inconvenience.”

“Yeah, that’s more like it.” He grinned, then with a last glance at Fletcher—who was being hustled back into the kitchen by Cassie—he sat back down at the table.

I was relieved to see that the ruckus had scared Muesli enough that she had run back into the shop of her own accord. At least there was one silver lining to this fiasco. Slowly, peace returned to the tearoom and I hoped fervently that this was the end of dramas for the day.

 

CHAPTER THREE

The next half hour was a race to serve the tour group before their coach departed. I was looking forward to the American man leaving with them—his rude demands and obnoxious behaviour had continued, and it was all I could do to hold on to my temper. To my surprise, however, he got up before the rest of the group had finished and made his way over to the counter.

“Your meal is complimentary, sir,” I reminded him. “But the rest of your group haven’t finished yet.”

“Huh?” He glanced towards the tour group, then turned back to me. “Nah, it’s all right. I’m going to head off first. Hey, I hear that you’re famous for your scones. Can I get some to take out?”

“Sure—how many?”

“Give me half a dozen.”

Cassie joined us and began preparing the takeaway order of scones. I saw the American make a great show of eyeing her up and down. She was wearing a simple black T-shirt and faded jeans, with a frilly pale pink apron over the top. I had an identical apron but in pale blue. I had found them at a local market and decided they did pretty well as a sort of unofficial uniform. Hopefully when I had a bit more money, I could get some aprons custom-made with the tearoom’s name and logo embroidered on the edge. But for now, these would have to do.

The American winked at Cassie and said, “I like your outfit… sorta like a kinky French maid, huh?”

“No,” Cassie snapped. “Not unless you have a dirty min—”

“Ahhh… what she means is that isn’t quite the look we had in mind,” I interrupted hastily, giving my friend a quelling look.

He guffawed. “You English chicks are so uptight. What you need is a good…” He trailed off, waggling his eyebrows suggestively.

I recoiled in distaste. Cassie gave him an icy glare, then turned and bent over to retrieve a paper bag for his scones from the cupboard behind us. Suddenly, he reached over the counter and grabbed her bum, giving it a squeeze.

 She yelped and whirled around. “What the hell are you doing?” she snapped.

“Aw, don’t be such a prude. I was just admiring your butt in those tight jeans and couldn’t help myself.” He smirked.

“You creep! I have half a mind to report you for sexual harassment!” Cassie seethed. She caught my horrified look and took a deep breath, then said with cold dignity, “But I wouldn’t want to waste time on a rotter like you.” She shoved the bag of scones at him, obviously just wanting him to be gone.

I gave the American an icy look. “I’d appreciate you keeping your hands to yourself, sir.”

He laughed uproariously. “Maybe if you get to know me better, you’d change your mind.” He leaned across the counter towards Cassie. “Listen, why don’t you come over to my room tonight? I’m staying at the Cotswolds Manor Hotel on the outskirts of the village. I could have a great time with a feisty girl like you…”

Cassie’s hand twitched and I grabbed it before she could slap his face.

“Thanks for the offer, but I think I’ll pass,” she said through gritted teeth.

He shrugged. “Your loss, hon. Anyway… I’ll see you tomorrow. I think I’ll come back for some breakfast.” He winked at her. “But you know where to find me tonight if you change your mind.” He included me in his parting smirk, then picked up the bag of scones and strolled out of the tearoom.

Cassie let out a growl of frustration. “I hope he bloody chokes on those scones!”

I realised that the entire dining room was silent and looked up to see everyone staring at us. I felt my cheeks redden, but forced a smile to my face and said as breezily as I could, “Show’s over, folks!”

A few people laughed awkwardly and the moment passed. I gave Cassie a sympathetic pat on the shoulder as she went off into the kitchen to fetch the next order. Then I turned to deal with the next customers at the counter. It was the Old Biddies, coming to settle their bill as they were hurrying off to catch a matinee show at the cinema in Oxford.

Glenda held out a half-finished plate of scones. “Can you put these in a bag for me, dear? I couldn’t quite finish them, but I know my great-nephew would love to have some.”

I wrapped up the scones, put their bills through, and watched them leave with some relief. The rest of the lunch hour passed in a blur as Cassie and I raced to take orders and serve the tables. I was pleased that the place was so busy—it was a great sign. Still, I was glad when the lunchtime rush was over and I could sit down and catch my breath. My stomach growled and I glanced at the clock on the wall. It was nearly three o’clock. I hadn’t eaten since early that morning. I threw a quick look around the room. There were only two tables occupied at present: an elderly couple by the windows and a lone young man poring over a map of the Cotswolds in the corner. They had both been served and would not need attention for a while. In any case, there was a little hand-held bell on the counter for them to call for service.

Rising wearily, I made my way into the kitchen, hoping that I might be able to scrounge some sandwiches. I pushed open the swinging door to the kitchen and was instantly enveloped by the wonderful smell of baking—sweet cinnamon and rich chocolate and that delicious fragrance that comes from fresh bread and warm, buttery pastries. Cassie and Fletcher were sitting at the large wooden table in the centre, the former stuffing her face with toasted teacakes and the latter putting the finishing touches to a batch of traditional English shortbread.

I went over to join them and helped myself to a teacake from Cassie’s plate. I slathered some butter on it before biting into the soft, chewy bun. Like a lot of British desserts, teacakes had a slightly misleading name. They weren’t cakes at all but a type of lightly spiced sweet bun, often filled with juicy raisins, currants, and sultanas. You cut them in half and popped them under a grill (or over an open fire if you were of a romantic bent), so that they became soft and puffy, with crisp golden edges. Topped with oozing melted butter and accompanied by a hot cup of tea, they were one of the ultimate comfort foods. I sat back with a contented sigh as I enjoyed my teacake and sipped the hot mug of tea that Cassie had placed in front of me.

“Hey… Fletcher, sorry about what happened earlier,” I said.

He nodded. “I saw Muesli. She’s okay.”

“Yeah, I just looked in on her again and she’s curled up in her little bed, sleeping. I don’t think that guy actually touched her with his foot when he tried to kick her.”

“Rotten swine,” Cassie muttered.

“Let’s hope that’s the last we see of him,” I said with a sigh.

“Didn’t he say he was coming back tomorrow morning?” Cassie made a face.

“I’ll serve him,” I promised. “You don’t have to go anywhere near him.” I looked around the kitchen, noting the trays of freshly baked scones and butter crumpets. “Things are probably going to be quiet now for the rest of the afternoon and I can see that we’ve got lots of supplies.” I turned to Fletcher. “Why don’t you take Muesli and go home early today?”

He thought a moment, then nodded and stood up, shuffling to the back of the room to collect his things and the cat carrier. I’d been meaning to speak to him about the feasibility of continuing to bring Muesli to work every day—especially after the disaster this morning— so I followed him as he went to get her.

Muesli woke up as we entered the shop area and arched her back in a perfect cat stretch, then yawned widely, showing sharp white fangs in a little pink mouth. She looked none the worse for wear after her adventures that morning. She came trotting up to me with her tail in the air and rubbed herself against my legs. I wanted to be mad at her—if it hadn’t been for her, none of the fiasco would have happened—but looking down at that cheeky little face, with her bright green eyes and tiny, heart-shaped nose, I felt myself soften. Almost involuntarily, I crouched down and reached out to stroke her. Her fur was silky soft, a pale dove grey patterned with a series of darker grey stripes across her body, broken only by the white on her chest and paws. She climbed onto my lap, kneading with her front paws and purring like an engine.

“She likes you,” said Fletcher.

“Yeah, I like her too,” I said automatically. Then I realised to my surprise that I was actually speaking the truth. I did like the mischievous little cat. Friends had warned me that felines could worm their way into your heart, but I hadn’t believed them. How could you like anything as infuriating and contrary as a cat? And yet I had to admit that even in my short acquaintance with Muesli, her saucy impudence had won me over. It was ridiculous, but there was something very appealing about the way cats walked around, acting as if they owned the place.

I lifted Muesli off my lap and deposited her gently into the carrier. She didn’t resist—used to the routine by now—and simply pressed her little face against the bars as we shut the door and latched it securely. Then Fletcher lifted the carrier and stood up.

“I will see you tomorrow,” he said solemnly.

I started to say something about Muesli, then changed my mind. Maybe I’ll talk to him about it tomorrow. I knew I was just being a chicken. The truth was, I was so grateful I’d found him—I didn’t want to do anything to rock the boat. Fletcher was the baking godmother to my tearoom Cinderella and, without him, my little business would never have had a chance. Cassie had been the one who had suggested him when I was looking for a chef for the tearoom. She taught occasional classes at the dance studio in the village—another of her many jobs—and she’d met Fletcher when he came in to fix the broken ceiling fan. He was sort of an unofficial handyman in Meadowford—helping the local residents with odd jobs—but he was also known for being a brilliant baker. Cassie had insisted that I consider hiring him for the tearoom.

I’d been doubtful at first: after all, Fletcher wasn’t a trained chef and I’d been thinking of getting someone with a proper qualification. But when I’d tasted one of his scones, I hired him on the spot. Cassie was right, his baking was divine. And funnily enough, giving Fletcher the job had won me brownie points with the villagers, who had been bracing themselves for some snooty chef from London.

The arrival of a group of Chinese tourists put a stop to my reminiscing and I hurried to seat them and hand out menus.

 

***

 

“Whew!” said Cassie, sinking down into one of the chairs at the tables. “I’m knackered.”

I gave her a grateful look. “Thanks so much for helping out today, Cassie. It’s been really full on, I know.”

She waved my thanks away. “It’s what you want! And tomorrow should hopefully be even busier because loads of local tourists come to the Cotswolds for the weekend, so we’ll have them on top of the internationals…”

“As long as there aren’t any more visitors like that American today,” I said with a dark look.

“Yeah, he was an obnoxious plonker, wasn’t he? Still, he made a good subject.”

“You sketched him?”

She shrugged. “You know I like to do quick sketches of interesting faces if I have a moment free. I’ve actually had a couple of customers ask me if they can buy theirs—maybe I should start a sideline business in portraits.” She grinned.

“I’m surprised you want to remember his face,” I said.

“Yeah, he’s got an ugly mug, all right, but quite interesting from an artistic point of view. I did one of him from memory this afternoon—look…” She got up and went to the counter, returning in a moment with a piece of paper.

I took it and looked down at the sketch. Cassie was really talented. She had managed to capture the American’s likeness with a few swift strokes, from his block-like head to his jutting ears and fleshy cheeks. There was something hard and cruel about his eyes.

I shuddered and pushed the sketch away. “He gives me a bad vibe.”

“You mean, aside from being a lecherous old git?”

I nodded. “There was something that just didn’t add up… I mean, he was trying really hard to put on this image of a hale and hearty American tourist but he seemed fake somehow.”

Cassie laughed. “Fake tourist? Why would anyone want to fake being a tourist?”

“That’s just it—I don’t know! It seems such a stupid thing to do, doesn’t it? And yet, I’m sure he was lying. For example, he asked me directions to Magdalen College.”

“So?”

“Well, he called it ‘Maud-lin’! Not ‘Mag-da-len’, which is how most tourists—especially American tourists—say it. Only locals and students who’ve been to Oxford know that it should be pronounced ‘Maud-lin’. It’s one of the first things that flags you as a foreign tourist—when you can’t say the college names correctly.”

Cassie shrugged. “Maybe he read about the pronunciation in a guidebook somewhere. It’s hardly a state secret.”

“I suppose so…” I said. “But it wasn’t just that. When we were talking about directions to Magdalen, he also mentioned Catte Street being opposite the bank.”

Cassie looked at me blankly.

“He meant an actual bank,” I explained. “Not the Old Bank Hotel, which is what’s there now. He tried to cover it up but I could tell that that was what he meant.”

Cassie frowned. “So? Gemma, I really don’t see what you’re getting at…”

I leaned forwards. “My point is, he wouldn’t have known that the Old Bank Hotel used to be a bank, unless he was actually here in Oxford when it was a bank—before they turned it into a hotel.”

Cassie shook her head in exasperation. “Well, he could have read about that as well! I mean, there’s a reason it’s called the Old Bank Hotel, isn’t there? It would be logical to assume that there used to be a bank there.”

“But it’s not the way you’d talk if you were a tourist and read the information on Wikipedia or Trip Advisor,” I said stubbornly. “You would have just said Old Bank Hotel, not ‘the bank’. That suggests someone who used to see it as a bank. It’s that kind of casual assumption you use when you’ve walked past a place loads of times. And we know that the hotel used to be a branch of Barclays. My parents bank with Barclays and my father had his account there before it shut down. I remember going in with him as a little girl to see the tellers in that old Georgian building.”

“I think you’re splitting hairs,” said Cassie impatiently. “Or letting your imagination run away with you.”

“Well, I wasn’t imagining his crazy psycho behaviour when he jumped on me with that knife!” I said. “That was totally over the top. And he wasn’t just being careful about identity theft, in spite of what he said. I think he got upset because he thought I was looking at his papers.”

“So? A lot of people would get upset if you looked at their private papers.”

“Yeah, but they wouldn’t jump on you and threaten you with a knife!”

“Well, maybe he over-reacted. Or maybe it was a kind of reflex thing. You know, like he just grabbed anything within reach on the table.”

“It was still an extreme reaction,” I insisted. “And besides, I did get a glimpse of one of the papers in the folder.”

“And?”

“And it looked like an official letter from someone at Oxford University.”

Cassie gave another impatient sigh. “So?”

“So he said that he had never been to Oxford before, right? He specifically told me that he was a first-time tourist and acted like he knew nothing about the place… so why did he have an official letter from the University?”

“Are you sure the letter was for him?”

“No, I’m not,” I admitted. “But if it wasn’t his, why was he so sensitive about it?”

“I don’t know!” Cassie threw her hands up in exasperation. “Honestly, Gemma, I think you’re letting the whole thing blow up into a huge deal in your head.” She got up and shoved her chair back under the table. “Come on, let’s get out of here. You coming to the pub for a drink?”

“I don’t know… I’m supposed to have dinner with my parents,” I said

Cassie threw a glance at the clock on the wall. “It’s only six. You’ve got time for a quick drink before heading back. Besides, after a day like today—you need a drink.”

She was right. Quickly, I helped to tidy up the room, then switched off all the lights and shut up the tearoom.

 

CHAPTER FOUR

We left by the back door which led out into the side courtyard. The building in which my tearoom was housed used to be a Tudor inn, with accompanying stabling for the guests’ horses. A long, narrow courtyard ran along the side of the building, paved with cobblestones and bounded by white-washed walls. It was probably where they used to saddle up and mount the horses, but now it made a valuable addition to the tearoom premises. Especially in the warm summer months, I could see lots of customers enjoying the open air and having their tea and food at the tables out here. I planned to dress the place up with some big wooden tubs of pansies, hanging flower baskets in the corners, and generally make it look so pretty and inviting that no tourist could resist if they walked past and looked in the courtyard entrance.

For now, though, with the chilly autumn weather, the courtyard was mostly empty and un-used. I kept the wrought iron gates open, though, so that anyone could use the tables and chairs if they just wanted somewhere to rest their weary feet or a quiet place to eat their packed lunch. I knew that the local dog owners appreciated having somewhere they could sit down together with their hounds, after a walk, and I made sure to always leave a bowl of fresh water by the back door of the tearoom.

There was a real nip in the air that night—a good reminder that winter was just around the corner—and I pulled the collar of my duffel coat up around my neck as I followed Cassie down the high street to the local village pub. Once the sun set, the Blue Boar was the place to be—it was the heart of the village and the place where all the locals congregated for a pint and a gossip.

I pulled the door open and stepped into the warmth, looking around me with appreciation. Like my tearoom, the pub was housed in a 15th-century Tudor house, although with lower ceilings, giving the place an almost cellar-like feel. And instead of a large open space, the interior was filled with cosy nooks and crannies—behind the pillars and around the fireplace—and dominated by a hand-carved, dark mahogany bar in the centre.

The place was heaving. With the typical English habit of heading straight to the pub after work and in the evening on the weekends, this was the busiest time of the evening—and the numbers were swelled by the visiting tourists. Many of them would be staying at the various B&Bs and hotels on the outskirts of the village and probably came here for an authentic English pub experience.

“Seth said he might meet us here, if he could get away in time…” Cassie scanned the room. “Ah, there he is! And he’s got a couple of seats for us by the window—good on him,” she said with satisfaction.

“I’ll get the drinks,” I said. “You go and join him first.”

Cassie nodded and headed across the room. I elbowed my way through the crowd to the front of the bar. Brian, the landlord, was busy at the beer tap, his sleeves rolled up to show his beefy arms as he pulled on a lever and filled a glass with foaming amber liquid. 

He glanced up and gave me a smile. “Gemma! What can I get ya?”

“Half a cider for Cassie, please, and a shandy for me.”

“Still a lightweight, eh? I would have thought that living in Australia would’ve cured you of that. On the other hand, Aussie beer…” He made a face. “Maybe I’m not surprised that you’re opting for soft drinks.”

I laughed. “Hey, the Aussies are pretty proud of their beers.”

“I stand by my opinion. A beer’s not a beer unless it’s a proper pint of English ale.”

I smiled, refusing to be drawn into that age-old debate. “Busy here tonight,” I commented, looking around the place.

He nodded, casting an experienced eye over the crowd. “Aye, a good bunch. A lot of tourists, but.”

I noticed his eyes were fixed on a particular figure on the other side of the bar and as I followed his gaze, my heart sank as I realised suddenly who it was: the American from that morning. He was standing at the bar with a pint of ale in his hand, arguing with another man. From the expression on their faces, it wasn’t a friendly debate. I could see the look of concern in Brian’s eyes. He had been a publican for thirty years and he could recognise trouble brewing.

“Some of these tourists ought to know when to keep their mouths shut,” he muttered as he pulled the lever and filled Cassie’s half pint, tilting the glass with expert skill so that the foam stopped just short of spilling over the edge. “And some of the locals should learn not to let others wind them up so easily.”

I looked over at the arguing men again and belatedly recognised the other punter. It was Mike Bailey, one of the local “troublemakers”. He was a belligerent young man in his early twenties, with a tendency to get violent when drunk—which was often. Long acquaintance and respect for his family, who had lived in the area for centuries, had led most of the villagers to ignore Mike’s sullen outbursts and put up with his behaviour. But when his surliness took a physical turn, Brian was quick to kick him off the premises. Cassie had told me that there had been a couple of incidents which had ended in assault charges, but so far, Mike Bailey had managed to stay out of Oxford Prison.

As I watched, he squared up to the American, jutting his chin out and jabbing a finger in the other man’s chest. A third man was standing between them, smiling weakly and attempting to calm the situation.

“I’m not sure you can blame Mike this time,” I said to Brian. “I had a run-in with that chap myself earlier today and I have to say, he’s pretty obnoxious.”

Brian grunted. “Obnoxious or not, he’s a customer. Mike had better watch himself. If they’ve got a problem, they can take it outside. I’m not having a fight in my pub.”

As we watched, the third man tried again, this time inserting himself bodily between the two arguing men. They seemed to calm down slightly and both stopped to take a drink from their glasses. I breathed a small sigh of relief. I didn’t think I could handle any more drama today.

Brian set my drinks in front of me, took the money I offered, and handed me a packet of pork scratchings. He gave me a wink. “On the house.”

I smiled my thanks, then tucked the packet under my arm, picked up the drinks, and, balancing them carefully, made my way over to join Cassie and Seth.

“I’ve just been telling Seth all about our day and our American Psycho,” said Cassie as I sat down. Her eyes flicked across the room. “And then I look up and he’s there! And as charming as ever, I see.”

I groaned. “I know; it’s like some kind of curse—I can’t get away from the man! When he said he was going into Oxford earlier, I was hoping that he wouldn’t be coming back any time soon.”

“Well, the coach probably brought the whole tour group back to the hotel this afternoon,” said Cassie. “Anyway, forget him.” She turned to Seth, sitting next to her. “So how’s life in the ‘dreaming spires’ these days?”

Seth cleared his throat and pushed his thick-framed glasses up his nose. It was a gesture I could remember from the day I met him when I first arrived as a Fresher in college. He had come up to read Chemistry, whilst I’d opted for the more genteel degree of English Literature. He had a room on my staircase in college and he had found me on that first day in Noughth Week, struggling with my suitcase at the bottom of the four-flight staircase. He had gallantly insisted on carrying my case up for me, in spite of nearly keeling over under the weight of it, and we had been firm friends ever since.

Seth was sweet and shy, although his earnest sharing of information could occasionally make him come across as pompous. Maybe because of this, he had opted to remain in the insular safety of academia and had gone straight from his undergraduate degree to a DPhil (PhD to the rest of the world), then a Junior Research Fellowship, and finally a Senior Research Fellow. I didn’t think it would be long before he was made Professor. I suspected that Seth harboured a secret crush on Cassie all these years, but was simply too shy to tell her.

He was blushing slightly now as he recounted a story about his adventures at High Table. All the Oxford colleges had stately halls where a communal dinner was served and the dons and “fellows”—the academic staff—normally sat at High Table, usually at the very top of the room. Politics at High Table could be treacherous, especially for a younger member of the Senior Common Room—as Seth was finding out. With his naturally diffident manner, he was an easy target for the more domineering members of the SCR.

 “You should have just told him where to stuff it,” said Cassie heatedly as he finished his story. “I would have—”

“THAT’S A LOAD O’ BOLLOCKS!”

We all jerked our heads around. Mike Bailey was thrusting himself aggressively at the American, his face mottled with anger.

“Hey, don’t get mad at me just because you don’t like to hear the truth,” said the American loudly. “Your country is a sad relic of the last century, stuck in your stupid traditions and elitist attitudes, with crap food and miserable, stuck-up people. Come to the U.S. and see what real progress is!”

“I’ve had enough o’ you bloody Americans coming here, throwing your money around an’ thinking you know everything! I’m telling you—”

“Whoa, gentlemen…” Brian came hurriedly out from behind the bar, his hands raised in a placating manner. “Why don’t we step outside and talk this out—”

“I don’t need to step outside,” Mike snarled. “I know what I need to do right here!”

And he lunged forwards and punched the American in the face. Cries of alarm erupted around the room and several people sprang up from their seats. I noticed, though, that the men standing around Mike had expressions of satisfaction on their faces. Guess the American hadn’t been making himself too popular. No one stepped in to help him either as he slowly picked himself up off the floor.

Rubbing his jaw, he glared at Mike and said, “Is that your best shot, you drunk loser?”

“Why you—!” Mike went for him, his hands around the American’s throat. This time, some of the other men jumped in to try and separate them.

“Hey! Enough of that!” cried Brian, shoving his way between them and forcing them apart. The American said something with a sneer—too low for me to catch from the other side of the room—but it caused Mike to make another lunge for him.

“You bastard! I’ll make you pay for that!” he yelled, as several of his friends tried to restrain him.

Brian turned to the American. “Sir, you seem to be deliberately provoking him. I must ask you to leave.”

The American gave a shrug. “Sure, no skin off my nose. Don’t know what the big deal is about this place anyway.” He gave the room a contemptuous look as he adjusted the collar on his shirt. “Bet I’ll find better drinks for cheaper in Oxford.”

The door slammed shut behind him and there was an audible sigh of relief in the room.

“Good riddance,” said Cassie in disgust. “What a pillock.”

Brian was now talking to Mike Bailey and also asking him to leave. The latter was indignant.

“I can’t believe you’re taking that bloody American’s side in this!”

“I’m not taking anyone’s side,” said Brian wearily. “But I can’t have different rules for locals and tourists in my pub. You’ve caused trouble so I’m going to have to ask you to leave just like him.”

Mike swore viciously, then he turned and banged out of the pub. I hoped that the American was already a good distance away otherwise there was likely to be another brawl out on the street. Several of Mike’s friends must have shared the same thoughts because they hastily followed him out. The sudden clearing of the pub made the whole place seem a lot quieter and reminded me of my dinner appointment.

“Yikes!” I glanced at my watch and sprang to my feet. “I’d better get going. I’m going to be late for dinner!”

“It’s only your parents. I’m sure they won’t mind if you’re a few minutes late,” said Cassie.

“Are you kidding?” I gave her a look. “You know what my mother’s like. Punctuality is one of the Ten Commandments in her household.” I bent down and gave them both a peck on the cheek, then added to Cassie, “See you tomorrow.”

“Don’t forget Daylight Savings ends tonight,” Seth spoke up. “So remember to turn your clocks back, otherwise you’ll be getting up an hour early for nothing.”

Cassie groaned. “Oh my God, that’s what I did one year—and I got up and had showered and dressed for work before I realised it was still practically the middle of the night!”

I laughed. “I nearly did something similar in Sydney. Anyway, it’s great to know that I’ll get an extra hour of sleep tonight. See you!”

I gave them a smile and a cheery wave, and made my way out of the pub.

 

CHAPTER FIVE

I made it back to my parents’ house with a minute to spare but by the time I’d hung up my cycle helmet and dashed into the downstairs toilet to wash my hands, I was definitely late when I arrived at the table.

My parents were already seated—my father, Professor Philip Rose, at his customary place at the head of the table, with a full dinnerware place setting laid out in front of him and a linen napkin at his elbow. My mother, Evelyn Rose, had just served the first course: split pea soup with croutons and a drizzle of sour cream, in elegant porcelain bowls. No chipped crockery in my parents’ house or any stained mugs either. I don’t know how my mother did it but she kept all her china looking as pristine as the day she bought them from the Royal Doulton section in the local department store.

“Sorry I’m late!” I gasped as I dropped into my seat. “I was—”

“Darling, volume…” My mother frowned at me.

I sighed and made an effort to lower my voice. “Sorry, Mother—I was having a drink with Cassie and Seth at the Blue Boar.”

“Oh, how is Seth? Such a nice boy.”

“He’s not really a boy anymore, Mother. But yes, he’s fine. He’s having some teething troubles settling into his new college, but otherwise he seems on good form.”

“Which college has he transferred to?” My father spoke up for the first time. My father was an Oxford professor and the stereotype of the absent-minded academic, spending more time with his nose buried in his books than in the real world. Even though he was now semi-retired, he still kept an active interest in all things to do with the University.

“Gloucester College,” I informed him.

He nodded. “Good cricket team.” He lapsed into silence again, concentrating on his soup.

“Yes, well, I was thinking, dear…” my mother continued smoothly. “Perhaps you could ask Seth to help you.”

I looked at her in puzzlement. “Help me with what?”

“Why, find a job, of course!”

I gave her an exasperated look. “Mother, I have a job. I run a tearoom.”

She made a clucking sound with her tongue. “Yes, that’s nice, dear—but surely that’s not what you intend to do long term? I mean, you didn’t go to Oxford just to become a… a tea lady!”

I sighed. We’d already had this conversation a thousand times. While I shall always be grateful that I attended one of the best universities in the world, it did come with a lot of baggage—the main one being a nagging sense of failure if you didn’t win a Nobel Prize, become a multi-billionaire top CEO, or run for Prime Minister once you’d left Oxford. Somehow you were always dogged by the constant question of: “What have you achieved that’s worthy of your brilliant education? You’ve been to Oxford! Why aren’t you living up to your potential?”

I’d lived with that guilt for years—it was what had driven me to climb the corporate ladder, even though my heart wasn’t in it, and to remain in a career which had left me feeling empty and miserable—just so I could hold my head up and have an impressive title to whip out when people asked me what I had done since graduating from Oxford.

But three months ago—when I turned twenty-nine and realised that the big 3-0 was rushing towards me—I had one of those “Oh my God, what have I done with my life?” moments. Maybe it was an early mid-life crisis. Suddenly I was sick of doing what was expected of me; I wanted to rebel, to do something crazy, to be that person that family and friends whispered about—with horror and disapproval and yet also admiration and envy—for having the guts to just do what the hell they wanted to and not care what other people think.

The next day, I’d walked into my office in Sydney and handed in my resignation. A week later, I heard about the tearoom in Meadowford-on-Smythe while on an internet chat with Cassie: the owners were selling out and moving to the Costa del Sol, and the beautiful 15th-century institution was under threat. I didn’t know the first thing about running a food business—and I couldn’t bake to save my life—but I fancied a challenge… and I missed England.

So I made probably the first impulsive decision in my life: I sold my swanky penthouse apartment in Sydney, bought the Little Stables Tearoom, packed my things, and came home. Of course, once I’d tasted a couple of weeks of British weather and maternal smothering, the romance did begin to fade a bit… but still, I didn’t regret it.

I pulled myself out of my thoughts and back to the conversation at the dining table. “Why can’t I just run a tearoom if it makes me happy?”

My mother looked at me as if I had grown two heads, then she continued as if I hadn’t spoken.

“Dorothy Clarke told me that her daughter works for the University in their Alumni Office. She was having her highlights done at the hair salon when I was there last month and she told me all about Suzanne’s job. It sounds very glamorous and Suzanne gets to travel sometimes on University business. Wouldn’t you like a job like that, dear?”

“No,” I said firmly. “I had a job like that in Sydney, Mother. Don’t you remember? And I hated it.”

My mother tutted. “You didn’t hate it. How could you have done it for eight years if you hated it?”

 “Trust me, Mother. I’m much happier now. I’m proud of my little tearoom and I want to make a success of it. I don’t need another job.”

My mother was silent as we finished the rest of our soup and I thought that she might have finally accepted my position on the subject. It was too much to hope for. As we began our main course (roast lamb with spiced parsnips, carrots, and crispy roast potatoes, accompanied by home-made mint sauce—ah, I’d missed a good traditional British roast) she launched a new attack from a different angle.

“Has Cassie got a boyfriend yet?”

I shook my head.

“Why is she never with a nice young man?”

I shrugged. “Cassie is just… a free spirit, I guess. Besides, you know her first love is her paintbrush.”

“Well, it’s about time she thought about settling down, you know…” She gave me a meaningful look. “I mean, Cassie isn’t as young as she used to be and everyone knows that once a woman passes thirty, everything starts to go downhill.”

I had a sneaking suspicion that she was not talking about my best friend, but I could be as obtuse as my mother when I chose to be.

“Oh, I wouldn’t worry about Cassie—I think everything is still very uphill with her,” I said cheerfully

My mother pursed her lips. “Yes, but it is so strange, dear. Such a pretty girl too. I would have thought that the men would be flocking around her.”

“They do flock around her,” I said. “The problem is that she’s not very interested in what they have to offer.”

My mother gave a gasp and put a hand up to her throat. “Do you mean Cassie is a lesbos?”

“Lesbian, Mother. The word is lesbian. Lesbos is an island in Greece. And no, Cassie is not lesbian. Not that there’s anything wrong with that anyway.” I glowered at her.

“No, of course not, dear. I’m sure lesbians are lovely people.”

Argh. Argh. Argh. I wanted to face plant on the table, but resisted.

“Anyway, I was thinking…” my mother continued airily. “Perhaps you’re right, after all. Career isn’t everything. There are other things a woman can do that are very worthwhile—perhaps even more worthwhile. Such as making a home and starting a family…”

“You could be right,” I said dryly. “But she usually needs someone to make a home and start a family with.”

My mother pounced on me. “I’m so glad you say that, darling, because I’ve been thinking the very same thing! You’ll never meet anyone stuck out there in Meadowford-on-Smythe all day. Why, most of the men in the village are old enough to be your grandfather! So I was thinking, perhaps I can help you become acquainted with some of the young men in Oxford.”

I gave her a wary look. “Mother, I don’t need you to set up blind dates for me.”

“Who said anything about blind dates?” She gave a shudder. “What a horrible, common word. No, no, you see… I was chatting with Helen Green the other day and she mentioned that Lincoln is back in Oxford now. He’s got a consultant position at the John Radcliffe, in their ICU Department. And I thought: what a wonderful coincidence! You’re both back again after a long time away—perhaps it would be a good idea for you to get together and swap notes—”

“Mother!” I said, forgetting the rule about restrained, ladylike volume. “I do not need you to set up a date for me with Lincoln Green!”

“Oh, but it’s not a date, really. It’s just sort of… socialising. He’s ever so nice—and Helen tells me that he’s one of the top Intensive Care specialists in the U.K., you know. He’s bought a townhouse here in North Oxford—a beautiful Victorian maisonette.” She looked around distractedly. “Helen gave me his number and if I can just get into my iPad, I could find it for you… I don’t know why, darling, but my password isn’t working…”

“Did you capitalise the first letter? You know that the first letter is always a capital in your Apple ID password.”

“Oh… is it, dear? Well, you’ll have to show me after dinner.”

That would be the sixth time I’d showed her this week. I sighed. I don’t know what had possessed me to suggest that my mother should get an iPad.

My mother was continuing, “Helen sent me a recent photo of Lincoln and my, he’s grown up into such a handsome young man! It seems like only yesterday that he was that adorable little boy going off to Eton and now he’s a dashing young doctor.” She sighed dreamily.

I rolled my eyes. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe her. I was sure Lincoln Green was a lovely chap. In fact, I’d sort of known him since childhood. Helen Green was my mother’s closest friend and Lincoln and his younger sister, Vanessa, had been frequent visitors to our house when we were growing up. I remembered a tall, serious-looking boy with impeccable manners. I was sure he had grown up into a very nice young man but I had no particular desire to renew the acquaintance. Nevertheless, from the look my mother was giving me, I could see that I was not going to avoid this acquaintance easily. I wondered if it might be easier just to have the date with him and get it over with.

My mother was saying something which brought me back to the present. Something about a book club and her turn to host the meeting this coming Monday.

“I’m sure you’d like to join the club, now that you’re back,” she said.

I groaned. “Mother, I’m not really into book clubs. I like to read what I fancy, when I fancy—the minute I get told I must read something, it totally puts me off the book.”

“Well, I think you should get involved with some local community activities,” said my mother severely. “It is the best way to make connections and meet the right sort of people. We’re very exclusive in our book club and only admit a certain class of member.”

I shuddered. The last thing I wanted to do was sit around for a couple of hours making small talk with my mother’s snooty middle-class friends.

“Well, I don’t want to sit around with a bunch of strangers, arguing over whether the author meant the blue curtains to signify depression or hope—when it probably didn’t have any special meaning at all and he just liked the colour.”

“Oh, but they’re not all strangers. You do know some of them—like Dorothy Clarke and Eliza Whitfield… oh, and Mabel Cooke has just joined too.”

There was no way I was going to join this book club now!

“Monday mornings I’m busy,” I said quickly. “I’ve got the tearoom, remember? I’ve got a full time job now.”

My mother frowned. “Really, Gemma… This ludicrous business with the tearoom…”

I sighed and tuned her out as I focused on finishing the rest of my dinner. For dessert, we had a spotted dick—that wonderful British classic made with delicious sponge cake filled with juicy currants, steamed to perfection, and served with a dollop of custard. In spite of my irritation with my mother, I had to admit that her culinary skills were exemplary. Shame that the domestic gene seemed to have skipped a generation. Considering how bad I was at baking anything, it was probably a joke that I wanted to run a tearoom. Still, I enjoyed eating the items, which I considered half the qualification for the job.

I put the last spoonful in my mouth and licked my lips appreciatively, wondering if I should ask my mother for the recipe. Perhaps Fletcher had one of his own already. I would have to check with him tomorrow…

 

***

 

The next morning, I discovered a flat tyre on my bike and had to swap my usual routine of cycling to the tearoom for a bus ride into Meadowford-on-Smythe. As I alighted from the bus, I took a deep breath of the fresh morning air, a smile coming to my face. Much as I hated early starts, I had to admit that there was something nice about being awake at this time, when the streets were still empty, the air was quiet except for the chirping of birds, and everywhere was that hushed feeling of waiting for the day to begin.

I crossed the village high street and walked the few hundred yards down to the Little Stables Tearoom, feeling the same rush of pride as I did every morning when I saw the sign hanging above the front door. I was looking forward to another busy day. And it seemed that customers were arriving already. As I approached the entrance of the tearoom courtyard, I saw someone sitting at one of the outdoor tables, facing away from me. Blimey, they’re early. The tearoom didn’t officially open until nine o’clock—nearly another thirty minutes—but I decided I didn’t mind starting a bit earlier to keep a customer happy.

“Be with you in a minute!” I called.

I glanced at the figure again as I walked past and my heart sank as I recognised those heavy-set shoulders and square-shaped head with the large, prominent ears. It was the American from yesterday. I had been hoping that he would have changed his mind about coming back here for breakfast. Still, a customer was a customer.

I hurried into the tearoom and bustled about, putting on my apron, pulling back the curtains, re-arranging some tables and chairs. Fletcher wasn’t in yet, which was a bit odd. Normally, he would be here already to get an early start on the day’s baking. Never mind, I could offer the American some coffee while he was waiting. Grabbing a menu, I let myself out the back door and into the courtyard.

“You can come and sit inside the tearoom now, if you like, sir. It’s a bit chilly out here.…”

I trailed off as I walked around his chair and turned to face him.

The American was leaning back, his eyes staring and his face a strange mottled colour. There was something wedged in his mouth—a scone, I realised—and his face was contorted painfully around it, with crumbs littering the front of his shirt.

My first thought was: “Oh my God, he’s choking!” and I sprang forward to help him, even as my brain finally made sense of what I was seeing. My fingers brushed the clammy skin of his neck and I jerked back.

He wasn’t choking.

He was dead.