It’s here! The 5th book in the Oxford Tearoom Mysteries – wait until you see what the Old Biddies get up to in the new story (hint: it involves Krav Maga!)

Muffins and Mourning Tea
(Oxford Tearoom Mysteries ~ Book 5)

Muffins and Mourning Tea coverCotswolds tearoom owner, Gemma Rose is excited to join the May Day celebrations in Oxford… until the beautiful spring morning ends in murder. Now, she’s embroiled in a deadly mystery—with four nosy old ladies determined to help in the sleuthing!

Before she knows it, Gemma finds herself stalking a Russian “princess” and keeping up with the Old Biddies in Krav Maga class, while still trying to serve delicious cakes and buttery scones at her quaint English tearoom.

And that’s just the start of her worries: there’s her little tabby, Muesli, who is causing havoc at the local nursing home… and what should she do with the creepy plants that her mother keeps buying for her new cottage?

But the mystery that’s really bothering Gemma is her boyfriend’s odd behaviour. Devlin O’Connor has always been enigmatic but recently, the handsome CID detective has been strangely distant and evasive. Could he be lying to her? But why?
(** Classic Banoffee pie recipe included!)

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And for those who enjoy a little taster, here is an excerpt:

Chapter 1

May Day was always a big event in the Oxford calendar and this year it was extra special—after all, nothing makes a morning as memorable as when it ends in murder.

But even before I had any inkling of what was in store, I already regretted succumbing to my best friend Cassie’s enthusiasm to “relive our student days” and join the May morning celebrations—in particular, the tradition of getting up at the crack of dawn to listen to the Magdalen College Choir sing from the top of their great bell tower. It was the kind of thing that seemed like a good idea after a couple of drinks at the pub, but now—as I stumbled around in the dark, struggling to get dressed, at 4:45 a.m.—I just wanted to kick myself for agreeing to the stupid suggestion.

I didn’t know why I had been mad enough to agree. I suppose we all liked to secretly believe (especially when we were approaching the big 3-0!) that no matter what our age, we were still the same person inside—that we still had the same energy and zest of our youth. Sadly, I was rapidly discovering that what was “good fun” when you were nineteen, and a carefree student at university, was very different when you were heading into your thirties and running a tearoom business which kept you on your feet all day.

Yes, as I hopped around on one foot, looking for my other sock and cursing under my breath, I was more than happy to concede that I was older and wiser and… better at knowing when to conserve my energies (okay, I got tired a lot more easily). Still, I had promised my best friend and I knew that she would never forgive me if I didn’t turn up now.

At least I had put my foot down when Cassie—buoyed by a wave of nostalgia—had suggested that we go the whole hog and really emulate our student days, including staying up the entire night before May morning. Stay up the whole night? I would be struggling to keep my eyes open today as it was. And it would be business as usual at the Little Stables Tearoom—I doubted the tourists who came from far and wide to sample my famous traditional English scones would appreciate me falling asleep in their teacups!

I fumbled my way to the bedroom door, biting off a yelp of pain as I smacked against the side of the dresser. Ow! I was going to have a nasty bruise there tomorrow. I really needed to get a lamp for my bedside table. In fact, I needed to get a lot of things for my new cottage but I hadn’t had a spare moment since moving in last weekend. I’d barely managed to get the essentials unpacked and the place was still a mess of chaos and cardboard boxes. My fingers finally found the switch by the door and a dim light illuminated the bedroom.

Meorrw?” came a sleepy little voice.

I looked back towards the bed where my grey tabby cat, Muesli, was curled up amongst the rumpled bedding. She blinked at me, gave a delicate yawn, showing the depths of her little pink mouth, then turned and snuggled deeper into the blankets.

I wished I could join her. Instead, I stooped down and found the missing sock and put it on. Then, pausing only long enough to throw on an extra woolly jumper, I left the room and groped my way down the rickety wooden staircase. Downstairs, there were more teetering piles of cardboard boxes threatening to ambush me, as well as random bits of furniture that hadn’t found their proper parking spots yet. Somehow, I made it to the front door without stubbing any toes or toppling any boxes, and shrugged into my duffle coat. Then with a last look around, I stepped out into the chilly May morning.

May Day officially marked the first day of spring in England but the morning was still cold enough that my breath formed clouds of condensation before me as I walked briskly up the towpath by the river. My cottage was situated by Folly Bridge, which spanned the River Thames at the south end of Oxford. I followed the road up from the bridge and turned right through the giant iron gates which led into Christ Church Meadow. This was a good shortcut to get to the High Street, the main boulevard which ran through the centre of Oxford and where most of the May Day celebrations would be concentrated.

The sky was still a hazy indigo blue, but already you could see the pale blush of pink on the eastern horizon. An early morning mist lay low on the ground and, through it, I could see the humped forms of the herd of English Longhorn cattle which grazed on the Meadow. Quickening my steps, I turned off the wide Broad Walk bordering the north side of the meadow and followed the footpath to join Dead Man’s Walk—so called because it was the former coffin route to the Jewish cemetery in medieval times. Despite its ghoulish name and that fact that it was supposedly haunted, it was actually one of the prettiest pathways in Oxford, running alongside the ancient stone wall of Merton College, with its rambling roses and clumps of wild daisies bursting through the cracks, and the green of Christ Church Meadow stretching out in the distance.

It was getting lighter now. The faint sounds of music and laughter drifted through the air, growing louder and clearer with every step I took, and in the distance, silhouetted sharply against the pale dawn sky, was the great bell tower of Magdalen, guarding the eastern entrance to the city. I reached the end of the walk and went through the kissing gates into Rose Lane and then, at last, burst out onto the High Street.

Normally, the wide boulevard would have been empty and silent at this time of the morning, but today there was a carnival atmosphere as crowds of people—tourists, students, and residents alike—milled past, talking and laughing excitedly. They were moving en masse towards the eastern end of the High Street where it joined Magdalen Bridge, just beneath the great tower of Magdalen College. Everybody wanted to find a prime spot at the base of the tower to listen to the choir sing.

I looked around, searching for a sign of Cassie. It was hard to make out faces in the crowd. Everyone was wrapped up in similar dark coats and anoraks, many with hoods or woolly hats to protect their ears against the cold. There seemed to be even more people than I remembered from my student days. The entire street was packed shoulder to shoulder with people shuffling along. I wondered suddenly if we should have come a bit earlier—at this rate, we’d never get a good spot under the tower…

“Gemma!”

I turned around and saw Cassie waving excitedly as she pushed her way through the crowd towards me. She was looking disgustingly bright-eyed and cheerful for this ungodly hour of the morning. Her luxuriant dark hair was pulled back into a low ponytail and tucked into her hooded anorak, and she had a thick scarf wrapped warmly around her neck. She stopped in front of me and gave a little shiver.

“Brrr! It’s chilly, isn’t it? I don’t remember it being this cold when we did this back in college.”

“I don’t remember it being this hard to get up at 4:30 a.m. either,” I grumbled.

“Oh, you’re not going to be a spoilsport, are you, Gemma? I should have known better than to ask you to come—you’re such a grouch in the mornings.” Cassie grinned.

“If Seth hadn’t gone away to that research conference, I would have let him be dragged into this instead of me,” I said.

Seth Browning was my other closest friend from college days. Shy, sweet, and studious, Seth had remained in academia and was now a Senior Research Fellow and a tutor at one of the Oxford colleges. Aside from the fact that he had a secret crush on Cassie and would have done anything for her, taking part in an ancient Oxford tradition like this would have been just another day in his life at the University.

“Well, instead, you can tell him all about it when he gets back,” said Cassie cheerfully. “Come on! We’ve got to get going otherwise we’ll never get a good spot under the tower!” She turned and plunged back into the crowd.

Hurriedly, I followed her. As I pushed my way through the bodies, trying to keep Cassie in view, I had to admit that I was actually beginning to enjoy myself. The carnival atmosphere and sense of gaiety were infectious, and it was hard not to respond to the exuberant smiles and eager faces around me. Several people had dressed up for the occasion—some obviously in costume for the traditional Morris dancing, which was to be performed in the streets later that morning—and others decked out with garlands of flowers and leaves, as walking trees and wood nymphs and other pagan figures.

I realised suddenly that I had been so busy gawking at the costumes, I had lost sight of Cassie. I peered ahead but couldn’t see her in the mass of heads milling in front of me. I hesitated for a moment, then pushed on, deciding to just keep heading for Magdalen Bridge—I was sure I would catch up with her when I got there.

Magdalen Tower loomed up above, sitting at the juncture where the High Street merged onto Magdalen Bridge. The crowd was getting even thicker now, people jostling each other excitedly, talking and laughing, and gazing up avidly at the tower. I followed their gazes and saw movement at the very top—white-robed figures assembling behind the battlements: the choristers taking their places. It was almost 6 a.m. The choir would begin singing soon. Already, a hushed sense of anticipation was descending upon the crowd.

I looked around for Cassie but couldn’t see her. Perhaps she’s moved farther along, out onto the bridge? I shuffled forwards, joining the crowds packing the width of the bridge, which had been closed to traffic for May morning. Still no sign of Cassie. In fact, I couldn’t see much of anything, sandwiched here in the thick of the crowd. This is a terrible spot, I thought irritably. A sense of claustrophobia gripped me and I wanted suddenly to get out from the crush of bodies. I turned and spotted a gap next to a group of Japanese tourists and dived through. As I came out on the other side, I found myself at the edge of the crowd, up against the stone balustrade that ran along the side of Magdalen Bridge. There was a bit more space here and I breathed a sigh of relief.

A posh male voice with a deep, plummy accent said next to me: “D’you see Damian anywhere? Can’t believe he didn’t meet us. Lazy sod must have overslept…”

“It does not matter. We do not need him.”

I turned my head to glance at the couple next to me. The boy looked like the typical cliché for an Oxford student, with his tailored Harris tweed blazer, designer jeans, and striped college scarf wrapped around his neck. The only thing that was slightly incongruous was the rainbow-coloured knitted beanie cap on his head, which would have looked more at home on Bob Marley’s dreadlocks. I suppose—like many students—it was his “fashion quirk”: something to make a statement and display his personality. Especially if you came from a conservative upper-middle-class background, you probably felt the need to assert your fashion individuality even more (I speak from experience here, having spent a large part of my student days in flannel red overalls from Oxfam).

It was the girl, however, who had drawn my attention when she spoke—mainly because of her deep husky voice and exotic accent: a sort of breathy, throaty intonation. I couldn’t quite work out what it was—not German, not French… Russian? She certainly had a Slavic look about her, with her high cheek bones, defined jawline, and deep-set, almond-shaped eyes beneath dark arching eyebrows that contrasted sharply with her pale skin. Her hair was long and blonde, loosely plaited over one shoulder, with wisps escaping around her forehead, and her eyes were a clear grey, fringed by thick lashes. She was stunningly beautiful and could easily have graced any fashion show in Paris or Milan. The only thing which marred her looks was her bored, cynical expression and her air of weary contempt. I wondered why she had bothered to come this morning if she was so apathetic to it all.

Then I forgot everything else as above me, the bells in Magdalen Tower began to toll—rich, deep, sonorous—the sound clear and carrying in the bright morning air. We all waited, listening, enchanted, as the bells rang out above us.

Then they stopped. There was a beat of silence.

I was surprised at how quiet the crowd had gone. It seemed that even the birds had stopped singing as we all held our breaths, waiting.

Then, in that golden silence, came the sweet sound of voices raised in harmony, drifting down from the tower above. The Magdalen College Choir singing the Latin hymn, Hymnus Eucharisticus, as they had done every May morning for the last five hundred years, to herald the arrival of spring. Rich and pure, the voices of the choirboys and student choristers rose and swelled, filling the air and bringing unexpected goosebumps to my skin. Suddenly, I was very glad that I had agreed to come after all. It had been more than eleven years since I had last stood here, underneath this tower, but the magic was the same as that very first time.

The last verse was sung and the last voice died away. There was a soft sigh from the crowd—which burst suddenly into a roar as everyone yelled and whistled and clapped and cheered. People hugged impulsively, waved their arms, tossed things into the air, as a sense of exhilaration swept the crowd.

There was a commotion next to me—the crowd surging around the balustrade, people shouting excitedly as somebody lurched against the side of the stone railing and heaved up over the top. I turned swiftly, just in time to see a body roll over the ledge and go over the other side, followed by the resounding splash of water. I jumped forwards and leaned over the balustrade, smiling to myself as I looked down at the river below.

It seemed that another Oxford May Day tradition was still going strong: each year, students took great delight in jumping off Magdalen Bridge into the River Cherwell below, usually fully clothed—sometimes even in ball gowns and black tie! No matter how many pleas and warnings the authorities issued about the dangers of jumping into such a shallow river, high-spirited students persisted in following this thrilling ritual.

A cheer rose from the crowd now as everyone leaned eagerly over the side of the bridge to applaud the first jumper. I saw something break the surface of the water and recognised the Harris tweed blazer of the boy who had been standing next to me.

Then I frowned. Around me, the crowd began to fall silent as they too realised that something was wrong.

Instead of the usual head bobbing up and the student waving cheerily to the crowd above, the body floated silently, face down in the water.

There was a gasp from next to me and I turned to see the blonde girl with a hand to her mouth, her grey eyes wide and staring. She let out a strangled cry, then turned and pushed her way through the crowds until she reached the end of the bridge and ran down to the bank of the river below.

A man in a neon vest was already there—one of the posse of security guards deployed by the city council to keep the May morning crowds safe—and he was reaching out to pull the motionless body in. The girl thrust him aside, wading into the water to throw her arms around the boy and haul him onto the bank.

Then the air was split by a wrenching scream. Even from the top of the bridge, I could see the ominous red stain spreading across the boy’s lower back.

The crowd had gone silent again, although this time it was the hush of foreboding. Into the silence came the girl’s voice, choked and sobbing:

O bozhe moi! He is dead! He is dead!”

 

Chapter 2

“I love trying out your traditional English cakes and buns, and I think we’ve had all the famous ones, but I don’t think I’ve come across banoffee pie yet—what’s that?”

I smiled at the middle-aged American man and his wife. “Oh, it’s one of the most popular British desserts. It’s basically a sweet pie made with a crumbly biscuit base, covered with a layer of sticky toffee and sliced bananas, then topped with fresh whipped cream and, often, little curls of chocolate shavings on top. It’s really decadent and heavenly, especially if you have a sweet tooth.”

“Oh my, that sounds absolutely delicious!” exclaimed the American wife. “I think I’ve got to have a slice of that.”

“It sounds a bit too rich for me,” said the husband with a laugh. “I think I’ll stick to the lemon meringue pie. That’s always been one of my favourites.”

“And would you like a pot of tea with that? We have a selection of premium loose leaf teas, from the traditional English breakfast to Earl Grey and…” I stifled a yawn and gave them an embarrassed smile. “I’m sorry, excuse me! I had a really early start this morning—”

“Oh! Did you go down to listen to the choir at Magdalen Tower?” asked the American wife. “We were there! Our hotel told us that we just had to get up to see it and we were so glad we did. It’s apparently one of the biggest May Day celebrations in England.”

“Yes, that’s right,” I agreed. “It’s a really unique experience. I went the first time when I was still an undergraduate at Oxford, and my friend and I went back this morning to ‘relive our student days’—and I have to say, it was just as special this time around.”

“But so awful about that student falling off the bridge and getting killed,” said the wife with a shudder. “We weren’t close enough to see what happened—we didn’t get a spot under the tower—but we heard everyone talking about it in the crowd afterwards and we saw the commotion up ahead. Was it an accident or something?”

I thought for a moment of that still body floating in the water and the ominous red stain spreading slowly across the boy’s back. No, that had been no accident. But I didn’t want to add to the gossip mill. Until the police released an official statement, the rumours would be spreading like wildfire already.

“Well, I heard that it wasn’t an accident,” said the American husband. “A couple of German tourists we met walking back told us that they were near the bridge and that the boy had jumped into the water himself. And that wasn’t all! They said they were sure they saw blood. Seems like the boy could have been stabbed.” He shook his head. “Shame we don’t know anyone in the police force—could have got the inside scoop on things.”

Well, actually—although I wasn’t going to admit it out loud—I did have an inside track on things: my boyfriend, Devlin O’Connor, was a CID detective and one of the leading investigators in the Oxfordshire police force. I hadn’t seen him arrive this morning—the uniformed constables had quickly moved me, along with the rest of the crowd, away from the bridge and closed off that section of the High Street—but I was sure that Devlin would have been the first to be called to the scene.

Aloud, I said, “I think the police are still investigating. They’ll probably release a statement on the news this evening.”

“Well, I have to say—it’s very tragic for the poor boy but this is quite exciting in a way. I almost feel like I’m in one of those British crime dramas we love watching back in the States,” said the wife with a laugh. “I half expect to see Inspector Morse or that nice detective from the Midsomer Murders walk into this tearoom and start questioning witnesses!”

And they’d have their job cut out for them, I thought dryly, as I completed the couple’s order and started making my way back towards the counter. The whole tearoom was buzzing with talk of the boy’s death. It seemed like every table was filled with tourists who had been out to the May morning celebrations and everyone was eagerly recounting what they had seen and heard. Snatches of conversation came to me as I walked between the tables and I had to hide a smile at the ludicrous accounts and theories being bandied about.

“He was shot. No doubt about it. Hmm…? No, I didn’t hear a gunshot either but it was obviously done with a sniper rifle and a silencer. Probably from the top of the tower…”

“…and these secret college societies, you know, they make their members do the most dangerous things…”

“Suicide pact. Definitely suicide pact. Boy probably had depression. I knew a guy once…”

“…and I’m sure he was pushed! Didn’t they say he went backwards over the side of the bridge? No? That’s what I heard…”

“…I’m telling you, it must have been the girl! The blonde one! She’s probably the girlfriend. Yeah, I know she was very upset, but people can fake it, you know…”

I paused by a table of Australian backpackers and began clearing their empty plates as they talked excitedly around me.

“… I was standing so close to them—right next to the girl—when the choir was singing. I had no idea!” said one guy.

“Did you see him go over, mate?” his friend asked eagerly.

“No, it was only after I heard the cry—”

“Ah! Reckon he said something about his attacker?” a third guy said.

“Could be! I heard someone cry out—sounded like ‘Bloody hell, why me?’ or somethin’ like that—”

“No, you drongo, that was me,” said his friend. “I stepped in some dog poo with my new shoes.”

Loud guffaws. “Ha! Ha! Ha! I thought that was a weird thing to say—”

“Well, I heard a weird cry too—something like ‘Aagh! NATO joy evict!’” a fourth guy said.

“Huh? What’s that mean?”

He shrugged. “Dunno. I’m just repeating what I heard: NATO… joy… evict.”

“Why would the boy say that?”

“It wasn’t the boy—it was someone next to him. But it was just before he went over the bridge.”

“Was it the blonde girl?” I spoke up.

They all turned to look at me in surprise, aware of my presence for the first time. I flushed slightly. “Sorry—I couldn’t help overhearing.”

“Hey, no worries,” said the first guy with a grin as he lifted his empty plate. “When the grub is this good, you can overhear anything you like. Best blueberry cheesecake I’ve had in years.”

My flush deepened, this time with pleasure. “Thank you—I’m glad you enjoyed it.”

The others turned back to the fourth guy. “So he shouted out something to do with NATO, eh? Think it was a political crime?”

“I told you, it wasn’t the boy himself. It was somebody next to him,” said the fourth guy.

“Not the girl?” I asked again.

He shrugged. “Might have been her. It was a deeper voice, though.”

I remembered the girl’s husky tones and her throaty accent. That could easily have been mistaken for a masculine voice in the heat of the moment.

The first Australian leaned forwards, his eyes shining. “I reckon it was some kind of government conspiracy. Maybe the boy was a spy!”

I suppressed the urge to roll my eyes and headed back towards the counter, a stack of plates in my arms. When I got there, I found Cassie trying to load a tray with scones, jam, and clotted cream, while also fending off questions from four little old ladies who had just come into the tearoom. I smiled fondly as I saw them. Mabel Cooke, Glenda Bailey, Florence Doyle, and Ethel Webb. Known affectionately as the “Old Biddies”, they were the reigning gossip monarchs of the little Cotswolds village of Meadowford-on-Smythe where my tearoom was situated. In particular, they prided themselves on knowing everything that went on—every morsel of rumour, every titbit of scandal—and they were very miffed at having missed out on one of the biggest news sensations of the day.

Mabel Cooke—a formidable woman in her early 80s with a helmet of woolly white hair, a booming voice, and a bossy manner—pursed her lips in annoyance. “If only we had known that there was going to be a murder there, we would have made sure to attend the May Day celebrations,” she said, sounding like someone lamenting a missed show at the matinee.

“Yeah—shame they didn’t announce it as part of the schedule of events,” I said, hiding a smile.

“Cassie was just telling us that you were standing right next to the boy on the bridge!” said Florence Doyle, her plump figure quivering with excitement. “Did you hear him scream in agony, dear?”

“Was there a lot of blood?” asked Glenda Bailey, her pretty wrinkled face pink with excitement—as well as the rouge she applied so lavishly to her cheeks.

Ethel Webb, normally the quietest and gentlest of the group, piped up eagerly: “What about the weapon, dear? What was he stabbed with? I read a book once—when I was still working at the village library—about a lady who was stabbed by a knitting needle. Most creative! I didn’t think one could kill anyone with a knitting needle… although I suppose if it was suitably sharpened…” She trailed off thoughtfully.

I looked at them in bewilderment. I could never understand how four little senior ladies, who looked so much like the stereotype of sweet old grannies, could have such a ghoulish appetite for mayhem and murder.

“I didn’t really see or hear much of anything,” I said. “There was just a commotion next to me and, the next thing I knew, I heard a splash and I realised that someone had gone over the bridge. I thought it was just one of the students following the jumping tradition—until I saw the body floating in the water…” I gave a shrug. “Anyway, we’re not even sure if it’s murder yet. The police haven’t released an official statement.”

“Oh, tosh—of course it was murder!” said Mabel, waving her hand impatiently. “When you next speak to that young man of yours, make sure you ask him everything about the case and then come back and tell us immediately!”

I certainly wasn’t going to do anything of the kind. Devlin was exasperated enough with the Old Biddies’ attempts to muscle in on police investigations in the past. He wouldn’t take kindly to them trying to interfere again. Thankfully, the Old Biddies seemed happy to change the subject. They gathered around and beckoned me forwards eagerly.

“Now, dear,” said Mabel, lifting up a plastic bag, “we must show you what we’ve got you for your new cottage.”

“Oh, that’s really sweet of you,” I said, surprised and touched. “You know, you really didn’t have to—”

“Well, we saw these at the weekend markets and we knew it would be absolutely perfect for your new home,” Glenda gushed.

I smiled at her enthusiasm and watched as Florence reached a hand into the plastic bag and drew out something peach-coloured and knitted. My smile faltered.

“Er… that’s… that’s nice…” I said as I accepted the object into my hands. “Um… where are you supposed to put it?”

“In the toilet, of course!” boomed Mabel.

“Oh… uh… right…” I stared down at the hideous thing I was holding. One end of it was a plastic doll, which vaguely resembled a Barbie (Manic-Grinning Barbie) wearing some kind of lumpy knitted dress with a huge ruffled skirt, in a puke-worthy shade of peach. But what was particularly worrying was that where her legs should have been, there was a stumpy wooden rod instead.

“It’s a crocheted doll toilet roll holder!” Ethel burst out proudly. “There, you see? You slide the toilet paper roll over the stick and then her dress comes down around it, to cover it discreetly.” She demonstrated with a roll of toilet paper she had helpfully brought along as well.

“All the best toilets have them,” declared Mabel.

“And look—you can move her arms too so you can have her in different positions,” said Florence helpfully, showing me the doll’s full range of creepy poses.

“It’s… er… it’s lovely,” I croaked.

“We were wondering whether to get you two, dear, but you only have one bathroom at the cottage, don’t you? Although perhaps you’d like a second one just in case—”

“No, no, one is more than enough. Thank you,” I said hastily. “It’s very sweet of you all to go to the trouble—”

“We’re not finished yet!” said Mabel, reaching into the plastic bag again.

I looked at her in horror, then relaxed slightly as she pulled out a cardboard box and I heard the clink of china. It must be a set of mugs. Whew. Okay, that wasn’t too bad. After all, you could always do with more mugs around the house, right?

“These are a special limited edition.” Ethel beamed. “The lady at the stall said they are so unique, each will be an investment piece.”

I opened the box and looked at the lurid red, white, and blue mugs, my heart sinking. It was a set featuring the British Royal Family, with each member’s head cut off by bad Photoshop and stuck crooked onto the side of the mug: the Queen, Prince Phillip, Prince Charles, Camilla, Prince William, and Prince Harry, all with their faces set in a rictus grin.

“A cup of tea with the picture of our dear Queen,” said Mabel with satisfaction. “There is no better way to start the day!”

I groped for something to say. Now, don’t get me wrong—I liked the Royal Family as much as the next person, and I had a great respect and admiration for the Queen—but mornings were hard enough for me without having to cope with her face grinning at me from my breakfast mug.

“These… um… these are really… uh… unique,” I said. “In fact, they’re so valuable… I’ll… um… only save them for special occasions.”

“Oh, don’t worry, dear—the lady who makes them said she has many more in stock,” said Glenda, patting my arm. “We can always get you another set. She even does teapots and milk jugs with them too. Oh, and soup tureens. Would you like one of those for Christmas?”

“NO!” I lowered my voice hastily. “No, thank you. That’s really kind of you but… um… I’m all set for Royal Family crockery now.”

 

Chapter 3

It wasn’t until well after two o’clock that the rush died down, and Cassie and I had a moment to catch our breaths. With just two tables occupied in the dining area—and both having been served—we grabbed the chance to sit down behind the counter and get a bite to eat.

“Got anything nice planned for this weekend?” asked Cassie with her mouth full as she tucked into a toasted buttered muffin.

“No… Devlin will probably be working late again.”

Something in my voice caught her attention and she eyed me sharply. “Everything okay, Gemma?”

I avoided her eyes and looked down at the jam tart I was eating. “Yes, sure… why wouldn’t it be?”

She put the muffin down. “Come on, Gemma—you can’t fob me off. Something is bothering you… something to do with Devlin? Have you guys had a fight or something?”

“No, no, nothing like that.”

“Well, then?”

I hesitated, feeling a bit silly to voice it out loud. “I don’t know… He just seems a bit… distant and preoccupied lately. Like, sometimes we’d be sitting together and he seems miles away… and if I ask him a question, I often have to repeat myself because he didn’t hear it the first time. And when I ask him what’s wrong, he always says it’s nothing—that he’s just a bit tired.”

Cassie shrugged. “Maybe that is all it is. He does have a really tough job with crazy hours, you know.”

“I know, I know that,” I said quickly. “And I try to be understanding about it. I mean, I’ve lost count of how many missed dinners and last-minute cancellations I’ve had to put up with… and we still haven’t even taken that weekend away that he promised!” I sighed with irritation. “But I get the feeling that this is about more than his workload—it’s something else that he’s not telling me.”

“You don’t think he’s upset about you deciding not to live with him and moving into your own place instead?”

“I don’t think so… I mean, we talked about it and he seemed fine with my decision. He seemed to understand that I needed my own space and was happy with that. At least, I thought so at the time.” I frowned. “Maybe it bothered him more than he let on?”

“Have you tried asking him directly?”

“Yes, but like I said, he always just brushes it off. Says that he’s preoccupied with work… if you can believe him.”

Cassie raised an eyebrow. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Before I could answer, my phone beeped in my pocket. I pulled it out and glanced at the text message.

“Bad news?” asked Cassie, looking at my face.

I shrugged. “I was sort of expecting it. It’s Devlin saying he’s going to have to cancel dinner tonight because of the new murder case.” I shoved the phone back into my pocket, muttering, “At least this time I know it’s true…”

“What do you mean?”

“Nothing,” I said, fiddling with my jam tart again.

Cassie gave me a severe look. “Wait a minute, Gemma—you can’t make a loaded comment like that and then leave me hanging! What’s going on?”

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