I’m delighted to announce that Till Death Do Us Tart – Book 4 in the Oxford Tearoom Mysteries is out now!
(currently exclusive to Amazon and not available at other retailers)
Till Death Do Us Tart
(Oxford Tearoom Mysteries ~ Book 4)
When Oxfordshire tearoom owner, Gemma Rose, enters her little tabby, Muesli, in the cat show at the local village fair, the last thing she expects is to stumble across a murder. And when her meddling mother and the nosy Old Biddies decide to start their own investigation, Gemma has no choice but to join in the sleuthing. She soon finds there’s something much more sinister sandwiched between the home-made Victoria sponge cakes and luscious jam tarts … But murder isn’t the only thing on Gemma’s mind: there’s her desperate house-hunting that’s going nowhere, the freaky kitchen explosions at her quaint English tearoom and an offer from her handsome detective boyfriend that she can’t refuse! With things about to reach boiling point, can Gemma solve the mystery before the killer strikes again?
** Traditional Victoria sponge cake recipe at the end of the story!
Amazon | Amazon UK |Print edition US | Print edition UK
And for those who enjoy a little taster, here is an excerpt:
If there was one person who could go to an English village fête and end up stumbling on a murder, it would be me.
To be honest, murder was already on my mind even before I started for the village fair—the murder of my mother, that is. I stood in my parents’ front hallway, weighed down with litter tray, food bowl, water bowl, blankets, salmon treats, vaccination certificate, toy mice, and baby wipes… and wondered how I’d got myself into this mess. I had been looking forward to a rare weekend off—the first holiday I’d had since opening my little tearoom in the nearby Cotswolds village of Meadowford-on-Smythe over six months ago—and, in particular, to spending some time with my long-lost, recently-found-again boyfriend, Devlin O’Connor.
Devlin was in the Oxfordshire CID and, like most detectives, worked all the hours that God sent—and then some. And I wasn’t exactly a 9-to-5 office girl either. The Little Stables Tearoom was my pride and joy, but it was also a black hole that ate up all my free time and energy. With the coming of the warmer spring weather and tourists flooding into Oxford and the surrounding Cotswolds countryside, business had boomed and I could barely keep up. Aside from the usual serving hours at the tearoom, there were now catering orders which kept me busy well after closing time. Oh, it was wonderful that business was growing like this—it was what I had dreamed of when I’d left my high-flying corporate job to sink all my savings into the tearoom—but it did mean that I barely had a moment to catch my breath, never mind think about a romantic assignation with my boyfriend.
So what with Devlin’s long work hours and mine, we’d hardly spent much time together since we’d “found each other again” (long story!) and you can imagine how delighted I was when he told me a few weeks ago that he had put in for special leave to take this weekend off. Ooh! I’d instantly started daydreaming of romantic escapes together—a weekend in Paris, maybe? Or a visit to Tuscany? Or wasn’t Copenhagen meant to be really nice this time of the year? Honestly, even just two days ensconced in a cottage somewhere here in the Cotswolds would have been heavenly!
And then came the blow. Earlier this week, Devlin had rung me and, even before he had said anything, I could tell from the tone of his voice that it was going to be bad news. He had been asked to do an extra shift this weekend and we had to cancel our plans.
“But why can’t you just tell them to sod off?” I asked, my temper getting the better of me. “You put in for that leave ages ago and it was all approved and everything! They have no right to ask you to do this now!”
“Gemma…” Devlin’s deep voice was regretful. “I could have said no but I decided it was better to accept.”
“The Detective Superintendent specifically asked for me. You see, there’s been an increase in ‘agri-crime’ lately. It’s something that’s been getting worse in the past few years and we seem to be having an epidemic of it in Oxfordshire in particular.”
“Agri-crime? What’s that?”
“Agricultural crime. Thefts from farms and rural properties. Livestock, equipment, fuel, tools… it’s quite a serious problem. Costs the country tens of millions of pounds each year.”
“What does that have to do with you?” I demanded. “You’re CID! You don’t deal with petty crime like theft!”
“No, we don’t normally, but in this instance, one of the recent victims was Julian Greco.”
The name stirred a memory. “Julian Greco? The actor?”
“The multi-billionaire top Hollywood actor. He’s also a personal friend of the Superintendent and he decided that he wasn’t happy with just Uniform branch dealing with it. He wanted the best man in the CID to be put on the case and he’d heard about me after the recent murder investigations, especially that stabbing of Professor Barrow in Wadsworth College. That was a pretty high profile case.” Devlin paused, then added, his voice dry, “And you know, when rich, famous people want something, they usually get it.”
“I still think it’s stupid and unfair,” I grumbled.
“Well, sometimes in life, you have to remember which side your bread is buttered on. This could be a huge point in my favour when it comes time for my promotion to Chief Inspector. In any case, it’s an honour to be selected as ‘the best man in the CID’—and it’s a matter of ‘face’ for my Superintendent. I can’t let him down, Gemma.”
“So you decided you could let me down?” I said sharply.
Devlin sighed. “You know I’ve been looking forward to this weekend as much as you. I’m just as disappointed as you are. But there will be other weekends, sweetheart. In fact, I’ve already spoken to the Super and he’s promised me a weekend at the end of next month. It’s only a few weeks more and the weather will be even better in May.”
He was right, I knew, and I was probably being childish and unreasonable, but I couldn’t help the feeling of bitter disappointment. I had been looking forward to this weekend so much and now it was being snatched away from me at the last minute.
Wait… at the last minute…
Suddenly I thought of something else. “I’ve given everyone this weekend off,” I said. “So now I can’t even open the tearoom—”
Devlin groaned. “Can’t you ring Cassie and Dora and asked them to swap around to a weekend next month?”
“Cassie might but Dora can’t. She’s gone off to visit her sister in Bournemouth. I can’t ask her to change her plans now and we can’t do without our baking chef because we haven’t got any supplies for this weekend. In fact, I asked her to bake less this week so we wouldn’t have too much leftover food. Oh, and actually, Cassie is going to be busy too. There’s the annual village fête in Meadowford this weekend. When Cassie heard that I was closing the tearoom, she decided to get a stall there to sell her paintings.”
Devlin groaned again. “I’m sorry, Gemma. I really am. I wouldn’t be doing this if it wasn’t important.”
I heard the genuine contrition in his voice and my heart softened. It wasn’t as if Devlin didn’t want to spend time with me. I knew the importance of a promotion at this stage in his career. Wasn’t I being selfish not to support him?
“How about if we go out to dinner on Sunday night?” said Devlin. “I should be free by six. I know it’s not the same… but I promise I’ll make it up to you, Gemma. We’ll go somewhere nice next month—make it a really special weekend.”
I softened even further. “All right,” I said at last. “I’ll see you on Sunday then.”
I hung up, still feeling a bit peeved, and my mood was not improved when I told my mother the change in plans.
“But that’s wonderful, darling!” she said. “You can come to the village fête with me and Muesli!”
I looked at her in surprise. “What are you and Muesli going to do there?”
“Don’t you remember? I told you—Audrey Simmons from the village fête committee has been telling me all about the Show.”
“The Cotswolds Cat Fancy Club Show, darling! It’s held every year at the Meadowford village fête. There’s a marvellous cash prize donated by English Country Pets, that big pet food manufacturer, and it’s such an honour to be picked as ‘Best in Show’. Anyway, I’ve entered Muesli.”
I gaped at her. “You’ve what? But, Mother, cat shows are for pure breeds. Muesli is a moggie and—”
My mother waved a hand dismissively. “I’m sure they’ll never know, darling. Muesli is so pretty, the judges are bound to fall in love with her.”
“But they’ll be looking to see what kind of breed she is—”
“Oh, I’m sure Muesli can lay claim to all sorts of breeds in her heritage. In fact, Audrey was telling me about some of the cat breeds and I’m sure I can see all the traits she was describing! Muesli is remarkably clever and loves to explore, just like an Abyssinian… she has the white ‘gloves’ on her front paws, just like a Birman… she loves talking back to you, just like a Siamese … and her lovely stripes and spots are just like a Bengal’s…” My mother indicated my little tabby cat who was sleeping on her lap. “And there’s even a bit of curl to her coat, just like a Cornish Rex! Don’t you think?”
What I thought was that my mother was completely delusional. Muesli looked like nothing more than a common farmhouse moggie. A very pretty farmhouse moggie but a moggie all the same. Still, my mother was not to be dissuaded. Once she got an idea into her head, it set like cement.
“And now that you’re free this weekend, darling, it’s ideal! You can come and help me at the show.”
So that was how I found myself being dragged out of bed early this morning to help my mother wash, groom, and primp Muesli in readiness for her big day. After the bath and blow dry—which left me more traumatised than my cat—my mother brushed Muesli’s short, plush coat until it gleamed and even I had to admit that the little cat had never looked so good. Her dove-grey fur looked almost silver and her beautiful dark stripes spiralled out in perfect symmetry on either side of her spine.
“Meorrw…!” said Muesli, regarding herself with smug satisfaction in the mirror of my mother’s bathroom.
“Now, I will just have time to get dressed and do my hair…” My mother looked at me with disapproval. “You’re not going to wear that to the village fête, are you?”
I looked down at my comfy old chenille sweater and faded jeans. “Yeah, why not?”
My mother tutted. “Girls are so slapdash these days, with no sense of feminine pride. Presentation is everything! One must always make the effort to look one’s best at all times.”
“I think I look fine.”
“Nonsense! You look like something even a cat wouldn’t want to drag in. Why don’t you wear that nice wool dress I bought you, darling—such a lovely style and suits your colouring so admirably.”
“What will the judge think if he sees you looking like that? Such a lack of proper respect for the occasion. We must do everything to improve Muesli’s chances.”
The only thing that would have improved Muesli’s chances at this point were genetic mutation and total body transformation but I kept my mouth shut and took myself off to my room to change. With mothers, sometimes it was easier to give in than to argue. Besides, I had already written the day off in service of “making my mother happy” so why not humour her all the way?
But now as I stood waiting for her in the hallway, pulling at the scratchy collar of my “nice wool dress”, I was feeling irritable and peeved. I should have been strolling hand-in-hand with Devlin through some gorgeous European city. Instead, I was going to be staggering hand-in-hand with my mother and sixteen kilos of cat paraphernalia through some smelly community hall.
Then my mother’s elegant figure appeared at the top of the stairs and she came down slowly, carrying Muesli in her cage. I had to grudgingly admit that they made a very smart pair. Okay, I admit—I might have also begun to feel a pleasant anticipation for the show. In fact, as we drove out into the countryside and approached the quaint, picturesque village of Meadowford-on-Smythe, I found it hard to stay in a grumpy mood any longer.
It had been years since I’d been to a proper village fête, although I remembered them vividly from childhood: the egg-and-spoon races and tug-o-war games, the Home-made Cake and Jam stall where I stuffed my face, the coconut shy, where I could never hit the coconuts on the poles, no matter how hard I tried, the shaggy Shetland ponies offering rides around the village green… I smiled to myself as the memories came rushing back: how excited I’d been, running from stall to stall, eagerly trying everything!
As we stepped out of the car, I breathed deeply of the fresh country air and felt my smile widen. Yes, this weekend might not have turned out the way I’d planned, but maybe coming to a traditional English village fête wasn’t such a bad substitute after all.
“Oh good, there’s our spot,” my mother said as she led the way across the pavilion.
Contrary to my bad-tempered musings earlier, the cat show was not being held in some faded community hall but in a large medieval-style pavilion erected in one corner of the village green. I looked around with interest as I followed my mother between the long tables, all draped in white cloth and holding rows upon rows of cat cages, containing every conceivable type of cat. Big cats, small cats, fluffy cats, sleek cats, spotted cats, striped cats, cats with eyes like huge sapphires, and cats with faces like squashed teddy bears… I never realised cats came in so many shapes, colours, and sizes!
My mother stopped in front of an empty cage at the end of a row and began unpacking our things. I transferred Muesli from her carrier to the show cage and the little tabby peered eagerly around, her whiskers quivering with excitement. The cage to her right seemed to be empty except for a large, fluffy white cushion, but in the cage to her left, two biscuit-coloured Siamese cats untangled themselves from their bed and came over to stare at her insolently.
“Meorrw?” said Muesli, giving them an inquisitive sniff through the bars.
The larger Siamese narrowed his blue eyes and gave a hiss. “Maaa-ooowww!” he snarled.
I didn’t need to speak Cat to know that it was something very rude. Muesli stiffened, then flattened her ears and puffed up.
“Meeeeorrw!” she said indignantly.
The Siamese gave a contemptuous twitch of his tail and let out an even louder: “MAAAA-OOOWWW!”
Not to be outdone, Muesli puffed herself up even bigger and thrust her little nose in his face.
“MEEOOO—” she started to say but I cut in hastily.
“Er… NICE kitties! Nice kitties… come on, now… let’s be friends…” I raised my hand towards the Siamese’s cage and made a cooing noise.
“What are you doing to my cats?” a voice snapped behind me.
I jumped and turned around. A thin, middle-aged woman, with a pinched face and wispy brown hair escaping from a dishevelled bun, stood in front of me, glaring.
“Nothing,” I said in surprise. “Nothing… I was just saying hello.”
She gave me a suspicious look. “I saw you put your hand in their cage. Were you adding something to their water?”
“What? No—why would I do that?”
She narrowed her eyes. “Don’t think you’ll get away with it.”
“Get away with what?” I said, exasperated.
“Poisoning my cats,” she snapped. “Oh, yes, I know what you’re all trying to do—all the tricks used to sabotage me. Everyone knows my cats are the best in the show and people will stop at nothing to prevent me from winning.”
I stared at her. Okay, this was a crazy cat lady in person.
She wagged her finger at me. She had a weird pale lavender nail polish which made the skin on her hands look sallow and sickly. “A young woman like you, resorting to such disgusting, devious methods—you ought to be ashamed of yourself!”
“Now, look here…” I said, starting to get annoyed. Then I stopped. Her hands were clenched tightly together and her face was pale, and I realised that there was genuine fear in her eyes. I felt a wave of compassion. Whatever her reasons, she was not being unpleasant on purpose. This woman was terrified.
I softened my voice. “I promise you, I’m not trying to do anything to harm you. I’m just here to show my cat… look, this is her. Her name’s Muesli.” I pointed to Muesli in her cage.
The woman hesitated, then relaxed slightly, although her eyes still darted anxiously around. She sidled closer and inclined her head towards mine.
“You have to help me,” she said urgently. “Nobody seems to believe me but it’s true.”
“What’s true?” I said, completely confused now.
She dropped her voice to a whisper. “There have been attempts to kill me. Somebody wants me dead.”
I stared at the woman in front of me. Was she serious? Or was she completely off her trolley?
“Er… um… are you sure?” I said at last.
She jerked back and glared at me. “Of course I’m sure! Do you think I would joke about a thing like that?”
“Well, it’s just… why would anyone want to kill you?” I asked helplessly. “It seems a bit incredible—”
“So you don’t believe me either!” She drew herself up to her full height, quivering with indignation. “Fine! But just you wait… one of these days, my body will turn up horribly murdered and then you’ll be sorry you doubted me!”
She gave me another glare then turned her back on me and began talking to the Siamese cats in a baby voice, to which they responded with ear-splitting yowls and cries.
I stared at her for a moment longer. Bloody weirdo. Then I heaved a sigh and turned back to my own table. Audrey Simmons from the village fête committee had arrived while I was distracted by the Siamese cats and was now chatting to my mother. I’d met Audrey once or twice before: a pleasant, mousy woman who seemed to be perpetually volunteering for things and running around being a general dogsbody for everyone. She was the Vicar’s sister and lived with him at the Vicarage; in fact, it was at the Vicar’s recent wedding that I’d met her for the first time. The Vicar was in his forties and everyone had expected him to remain an eternal bachelor. His engagement had come as a complete surprise and had provided the senior residents of Meadowford with weeks—months—of pleasurable gossip.
My mother gestured to me as I joined them. “…and of course you must know my daughter, Gemma.”
Audrey smiled at me vaguely. “Yes, of course—you own the Little Stables Tearoom. I haven’t had a chance to pop in yet but I hear so many people talk about it. Your scones are the best in Oxfordshire, I hear!”
I flushed with pleasure. “Thank you. You can try the scones here at the fête actually—I’ve donated several batches to the Cream Tea Stall.”
“Oh, yes, that’s right,” said Audrey. “Mabel Cooke and her friends are manning that stall. They were doing brisk business, I can tell you! I hope there will still be some left when I go back later.” She glanced at the table next to us with the Siamese cats, then lowered her voice. “By the way, Gemma, I saw you talking to Theresa Bell. Don’t worry if she… er… makes some accusations. She can have quite a… uh… vivid imagination.”
I grinned. “Thanks. I wasn’t quite sure… She did seem very… uh… ‘worried’. So is there no basis for her fears?”
“Well, there was quite a fuss at the last show—she claimed that someone was trying to poison her cats’ water—”
A contemptuous snort came from the table on our right. I realised that there was now a large, middle-aged woman standing next to the empty cage with the white cushion. She had obviously been listening to our conversation.
Audrey gave an exclamation. “Oh, how remiss of me! I haven’t introduced you to my very dear friend, Clare Eccleston.” She gave a little laugh. “Or I should really say, Dame Clare Eccleston.”
“Dame Clare?” said my mother. “Not the DameCalre who is the Tutor for Admissions at St Cecilia’s College in Oxford? I’ve heard my husband mention her.”
The large woman turned around to face us. “Yes, I am she.”
She had a deep, almost manly voice, a long, aristocratic nose, and piercing dark eyes. Her hair was steel grey and also drawn up in a bun, although nothing like Theresa Bell’s wispy mess. No, this was a sophisticated coiffure, piled atop her head and held in place by a tortoiseshell comb. She was dressed in a silk blouse, with a high ruffled collar and a cameo brooch at her throat, and looked as if she belonged in some severe Victorian portrait.
As she came forwards, I realised that she was a very large woman—not just in terms of weight but also in terms of presence. A very grand dame indeed. I could just imagine dogs, no matter how big and ferocious, instantly dropping on their bums if she said “SIT” (and probably quite a few humans too!). Next to her domineering presence, Audrey Simmons faded like an insipid watercolour. She was speaking in a faint voice now, saying something about Dame Clare’s champion show cats.
“Oh, where are they?” I said, trying to show friendly interest. I peered into the cage next to us. “Are they underneath that big cushion?”
Dame Clare gave me an icy look. “That cushion, as you call it, is my prize Persian, Champion Camilla Diamonds Are Forever.”
“Oh! Sorry…” I stammered. “It wasn’t moving so I thought…”
She reached into the cage and lifted out a fluffy white cat with a snub nose and a sweet, placid expression. She turned and glared at me. “Persians are renowned for their serene, dignified demeanours. They do not make fools of themselves, running around and climbing everywhere or caterwauling constantly, unlike some cat breeds I could name.” She glanced with disdain over at the Siamese cats in their cage, raising her voice slightly so as to be sure to be overheard.
“How dare you!” cried Theresa. “I’ll have you know that the Siamese are descended from the royal felines who acted as sacred guardians in the ancient Thai temples. They are also the most loyal, affectionate, and intelligent of cat breeds—whereas everyone knows that Persians are the stupidest cats in the world!”
“Now, now, ladies…” said Audrey hastily, stepping between them. “I’m sure every breed is wonderful in its own way. That is why we’re here today—to celebrate the marvellous diversity in the cat world.”
Dame Clare sniffed, then turned her attention to our cage. She peered down her long nose at Muesli.
“And what—may I ask—is that?” She drew back in disgust. “Audrey, I cannot believe the committee is letting common riff-raff into the show!”
My mother bristled. “Muesli is not riff-raff! She is a… a rare prized tabby!”
“Rare prized tabby, my foot!” Dame Clare laughed, a high-pitched sound like a horse neighing. “That cat is a common garden variety moggie! Absolutely no breeding or quality whatsoever!”
My mother got very red in the face and snapped, “Perhaps you are not qualified to recognise real quality when you see it but I’m sure the judge will have no such problems!”
Audrey gave a nervous laugh and said quickly, “Ahh… Clare, have you got anything to donate to the Cake & Jam Stall?” She held up a wicker basket that was slung over one arm. There were various pots of jam and preserves, as well as a few plates of cakes and buns nestled at the bottom. “I’m just collecting things to take over.”
“Oh, yes! We do,” came a small voice.
I realised with surprise that there was a plump young woman standing behind Dame Clare. She had been so quiet that I hadn’t noticed her until now. From the strong physical resemblance, I guessed that this must be a daughter and I was proven right a moment later when the girl said softly:
“I’ve baked Mummy’s favourite Victoria sponge and some jam tarts for the stall. Here, let me get them for you…”
She bent over a picnic hamper and lifted out the ultimate classic British cake: a beautiful round of double-layered golden sponge cake, with home-made strawberry jam and snowy white whipped cream sandwiched between the top and bottom layers, all finished off with sliced fresh strawberries to garnish and a dainty dusting of icing sugar on top. The jam tarts that followed looked equally delicious, their scalloped pastry edges surrounding a rich centre of dark red jam filled with plump fruit pieces. The heavenly smell of buttery baking wafted over.
“My… those look fabulous, Mary,” said Audrey, eyeing them appreciatively. “I’m sure they’ll be snapped up immediately at the stall!” She lifted the wicker basket closer. “Do you think you could balance the cake on top of these jars?”
“There are two actually,” said Mary, lifting out a second Victoria sponge cake. “I might be able to squeeze them both in next to each other—”
“One,” Dame Clare spoke up. “We are only donating one.”
Her daughter looked at her in dismay. “Oh, but Mummy—”
“Are you stupid, girl? I told you before we left the house—the second cake is for ourselves. There is no other cake here to match the quality of ours and I am certainlynot going to the stall to buy a slice of my own cake for tea.”
“But Mummy—are you sure you should be having any?” Mary said anxiously. “I mean, remember… your heart… Dr Foster did say that you shouldn’t eat so much rich, creamy—”
“Poppycock!” said Dame Clare. “What does that old fossil know? I shall eat what I like and enjoy doing it.”
“Clare… Mary is right,” said Audrey feebly. “It’s really not advisable. In fact, Dr Foster was saying that it would be a good idea perhaps if you lost some weight…” She faltered as her friend gave her a withering glare.
“I beg your pardon?” Dame Clare drew herself up to her full height and said in a booming voice, “The women in my family have always been large. There is no shame in that! And Mary is continuing the tradition—she always requires the largest size available, at least an Extra-Large. In fact, sometimes they don’t make the trousers big enough for her hips!” She gave a whoop of laughter. Glancing at her daughter, she barked, “Isn’t that right?”
Mary flushed red to the roots of her hair as several people in the tables around us turned to stare at her. “I… I… I think so, Mummy,” she whispered, looking like she wanted to die.
My heart went out to her. No girl wants to have her dress size discussed in public, especially a larger, curvy girl like Mary. I couldn’t believe her mother’s insensitivity.
“In fact…” Dame Clare indicated one of the Victoria sponge cakes, obviously deciding to make a point. “I’ve decided that I don’t want to wait until afternoon tea to have the cake. Cut me a piece now,” she commanded.
Mary Eccleston bit her lip and something flashed in her dark eyes. For a split second, the submissive girl was replaced by an angry young woman, her face filled with bitterness and resentment, then she blinked and the impression was gone. In fact, I wondered if I had imagined it.
She lowered her head submissively. “Yes, Mummy.” She shot Audrey an embarrassed glance. “I’m sorry,” she added in an undertone.
“That’s quite all right,” Audrey reassured the girl. “One cake for the stall is already a generous donation. I quite understand your mother wanting to keep one for herself.”
“Would you like a piece too?” Mary asked her. “You always come and have tea with us in the afternoon anyway, Aunt Audrey…”
“Oh, all right.” Audrey gave a guilty smile. “I shouldn’t really, but yes, I’d love a small slice now. I didn’t have time for breakfast this morning and I’m ravenous!”
Mary carefully placed one of the Victoria sponge cakes into Audrey’s basket, then turned back to the other one on the table. She nearly collided with Theresa Bell who had drifted over from her own table and was now eyeing the Victoria sponge cake greedily.
“Oh! I’m sorry…” Mary hesitated, then said, “Would you like some cake too, Theresa?”
The older woman sniffed and hunched a shoulder. “No, thank you. I had better not.”
“Probably worried there’s poison in it!” guffawed Dame Clare.
Theresa glared at her. “It is no laughing matter! I am being victimised in the most dreadful manner.”
“What a lot of nonsense!” said Dame Clare scornfully.
“It is not nonsense!” cried Theresa, trembling with anger and indignation. “I know that someone is after me! I know someone tried to poison my poor Moo-Goo and Yum-Yum! And… I know it had to be you!” she hissed suddenly, narrowing her eyes at the other woman. “You were the only person close enough to me at the last show. I know you’d do anything to stop my cats from winning!”
Audrey looked around desperately for some way to distract them. I felt sorry for her and stepped in.
“That Victoria sponge looks absolutely delicious,” I said to Mary Eccleston. “We have it on the menu at my tearoom and it’s always very popular, although I must say, yours looks a lot lighter than ours. Do you follow a particular recipe?”
The girl looked grateful for my interruption. “Yes, it’s one that’s been in my family for generations. Would… would you like a slice? And your mother too?”
I looked at her in pleasant surprise. “Oh, thanks—that’s really kind of you. Yeah, I’d love a taste.”
Things calmed down a bit and peace was restored as Mary cut the slices and passed them around. Audrey sat down on one of the canvas chairs next to Dame Clare and invited my mother to sit down next to her. I leaned against the table and took a large mouthful of the cake. It was as delicious as it looked: the vanilla sponge was moist and fluffy, the strawberries and jam filling sweet and luscious, and the fresh whipped cream bursting out of the sides of the cake sandwich.
Over Mary’s shoulder, I could see Theresa Bell pretending to fuss over her cat cage, all the while eyeing us enviously. I felt slightly sorry for the woman—she was obviously desperate to have a taste of the cake but was too stubborn to back down from her ridiculous claims of persecution.
“This is absolutely delicious, Mary,” I said, licking the jam and cream off my fork appreciatively. “I might have to beg you for a recipe.”
The girl flushed with pleasure. “Oh, of course…”
“The home-made strawberry jam makes all the difference, doesn’t it?” said Audrey, beaming. “I know you can grow strawberries in greenhouses, but really, I don’t know how you manage—”
“You need Joseph,” Dame Clare said. “I have told you time and time again, Audrey—you need to get Joseph to come and redo the Vicarage gardens.”
“Oh, I’m not sure they need that much work,” Audrey protested gently. “I was thinking maybe just a bit of re-bedding in the borders—”
“The gardens need to be redone. Completely,” declared Dame Clare. “Ring Joseph on Monday and organise for him to go to the Vicarage. And tell him I want the borders redone like ours at Eccleston House.”
“I—” Audrey started to protest again, then sighed. “I suppose you know best, Clare.” Hastily, she stood up and put down her empty plate. “Now, I’d better get going and take these things to the Cake Stall.”
“I’ll come with you,” I said impulsively, licking the last bits of cream from my fork. “I want to pop out and get a drink.”
Leaving my mother finishing off her cake next to Dame Clare and hoping that they could remain civil to each other, I followed Audrey out of the pavilion tent. It had been hot and stuffy in there and I took a grateful breath of the cooler, fresh air outside. I let Audrey hurry off whilst I took a slower route to the refreshment tent, enjoying the sights and sounds of the fête.
It felt almost like stepping back in time—there was still the bouncy castle full of screaming children, the hoopla games and apple bobbing; there was the Hand-knitted Crafts Stall and antique knick-knacks, the Largest Vegetable competition and the lucky hamper raffle, the shaggy Shetland ponies giving rides around the green, the garlands of British flags—miniature Union Jacks—strung across the stalls and fluttering in the breeze… and most of all, there was still that wonderful sense of camaraderie, the sense of a local community coming together to have fun and raise funds for the village. (This year, they were hoping to raise enough to renovate the school library.) Everywhere I looked, I could see neighbours enjoying a good gossip and tourists avidly photographing this slice of English country life.
As I turned a corner, I saw my best friend standing behind a stall displaying several of her paintings. Cassie was a brilliant artist but unfortunately, like most artists, found that talent alone didn’t quite pay the bills—so she worked at my tearoom most of the time and painted on the side. Still, it was really nice to see her in her element, sharing her work with the public. She was beaming now as she wrapped up a canvas for a young couple with a pram; I caught her eye and waved but didn’t stop.
A bit beyond her was the Cream Tea Stall—the stalwart of a traditional village fête—selling cups of hot tea and freshly baked scones, accompanied by lashings of jam and clotted cream. Four little old ladies stood behind the table there, busily taking orders and serving a long queue of people. They were (secretly) called the “Old Biddies” by Cassie and me, and were exactly the sort of bossy, meddling, nosy old aunts that everyone dreaded having… except that I had to admit that they’d grown on me. In fact, I thought of Mabel Cooke and her friends, Glenda, Florence, and Ethel, more often now with affection than irritation.
Still, the Old Biddies were best taken in small doses and I gave their stall a wide berth as I passed. I was just approaching a second-hand books stall and wondering if I had time to stop and have a quick look when a strong arm snaked around my waist and hauled me close to a hard male body.
I gave a squeal of surprise, then laughed as a deep baritone said in my ear, “I think I might have to arrest you, Miss Rose, on grounds of suspicious behaviour.”
I whirled around and looked up at Devlin O’Connor—and felt my heart give a little flip-flop, like it always did whenever I saw him. He was looking very different from his usual detective persona—instead of a classic tailored suit, he was wearing faded jeans and a pale grey Henley T-shirt which moulded itself to the muscular contours of his chest and shoulders. His black hair was slightly ruffled by the breeze and there was a shadow of dark stubble along his jaw. He looked handsome, relaxed, and incredibly sexy.
“What are you doing here?” I said.
“We’ve had a tip-off. We think there’s a gang behind the recent ‘agri-crime’ thefts and it sounds like they might chance their luck at the fête.” He jerked his head towards the other side of the village green. “There’s a display of quad bikes, tractors, and other farm equipment over there, next to the pony rides. They would be a likely target, so I’m here to keep an eye on things. I’ve got a team here too, mingling in plainclothes, so that if the gang do strike, we’ll be ready. If this is an organised crime job, then breaking into the ring would be a big coup.”
I glanced at the crowd milling around us. “So any sign of potential thieves so far?”
Devlin made a rueful face. “Not even a sniff of a pickpocket. But that’s all good,” he added quickly. “This is exactly how a village fête should be: happy, safe, and peaceful.” He smiled. “And it gives me a chance to sneak some time with my girlfriend.”
He pulled me to him and pressed a kiss to my lips.
“Devlin!” I cried, looking quickly around and stifling a giggle. “Stop! Everyone will see!”
“So what? It’s not as if we aren’t already the talk of the village. I’m sure everybody is gossiping about us all the time anyway. Did you know that Susan Bromley asked me the other day whether we would name our son after your father or mine?”
“She didn’t!” I gasped.
“She did,” said Devlin, his blue eyes alight with laughter. “And Mrs Sutton at the post office asked when we were planning to move in together.”
I made a sound of exasperation. “That’s really none of their business! Why is everybody so nosy in the village?”
“So why don’t we give them something to really talk about?” said Devlin with a wicked grin as he pulled me close again.
I shook my head and pushed him gently away. “Sorry, I need to get back to the cat show. The judging is about to start any minute. I only came out to grab a drink.”
He looked bemused. “Cat show?”
I rolled my eyes. “Don’t ask. I’ll tell you later.” I reached up on tiptoe to give him a peck on the cheek. “I’ll come find you when we’re done.”
Hurrying back to the pavilion several minutes later, carefully carrying two full cups of home-made lemonade, I hoped desperately that the judging hadn’t started. The queue for the lemonade had been horrendous and I’d been away much longer than I’d planned. As I was ducking in the pavilion entrance, I nearly crashed into a tall, thin man coming out.
“Oomph!” I stumbled backwards and overturned one cup of lemonade, nearly spilling it down my dress. I managed to save the other one, although not without losing a large portion of it.
“I beg your pardon…” the man said, in an irate tone that completely belied his apology.
He shuffled left and right, just as I did the same, each blocking the other.
He made another sound of irritation, caught hold of my arm to hold me in place and stepped around me, hurrying off without a backward glance. I gave his departing back a dirty look. Okay, so he might have been in a hurry but he didn’t have to manhandle me like that!
Heaving an irritable sigh, I hurried into the pavilion, back down the rows towards our table. I was relieved to note that the judging didn’t seem to have started yet, although the excitement had reached fever pitch and everywhere I looked was a hive of activity as people dashed around brushing coats, fluffing tails, sprinkling powders…
My goodness, they really take this seriously, I thought, as I walked past cages where owners were practising holding their cats up for the judge to examine. The tension in the air was palpable. When I got back to our table, I could see that even the great Dame Clare was affected. Her beloved Victoria sponge cake was all forgotten now, a half-eaten plate sitting next to the cat cage, as she manically gave Camilla one final brush and her daughter hovered anxiously around her.
My mother, however, looked serene and confident as she stood next to our table. I marvelled at her calm complacency and thought uneasily again of Muesli’s ineligibility to be in a show like this. There was no way that was going to escape notice when the judge arrived. I hoped he wouldn’t be too harsh. No matter how exasperating I found her, I hated the thought of my mother being humiliated in front of everyone.
The judging began and I joined everybody else in anxiously watching the judge’s progress as he made his way slowly down each row of tables. The pavilion seemed even hotter and more airless now, and I felt myself sweating in my wool dress.
“He’s coming this way!”
The murmurs rolled across the pavilion and I straightened hurriedly as I saw a small bald man begin to make his way down our row. Owners watched tensely as he paused by each table to examine the cat, lift it up, look into its face to gauge its expression. His hands moved deftly over each cat’s body, feeling the shoulders, spine, haunches, gliding over the length of the tail, checking the line of the jaw. Nothing escaped his expert eye and I swallowed nervously as I thought of his critical gaze on Muesli, with her slightly over-long tail and her mismatched white paws. Her shortcomings would be even more glaring after he had seen all these fine specimens of beautiful purebreds.
He was coming closer—he was only a couple of cages away now—and I felt my heart pounding in my chest. This is ridiculous, I told myself. I didn’t get this nervous when I was taking my final exams at Oxford! It was only a stupid cat show—who cared what one little man thought? It didn’t mean that Muesli was a lesser cat or less beautiful than any of the other felines here just because she wasn’t awarded a blue ribbon.
Still, it was hard to control my nerves. And looking around, I could see that I wasn’t the only one. In fact, even Dame Clare, a veteran of cat shows, looked flushed and uneasy, beads of sweat standing out on her forehead. She tugged at the high collar of her Victorian blouse and I could see her breathing with effort. I glanced at my mother and marvelled again at her serene demeanour. She looked supremely unconcerned, her hands gently holding Muesli, her head tilted back gracefully and an expectant smile on her lips. If you could get marks for poise and elegance, my mother would have won the show already.
The judge stopped at the table just before the Siamese, where a large Ragdoll cat sat placidly, waiting to be examined. But as he moved forward to pick up the cat, the air was suddenly rent by a shriek of distress.
“It’s gone! It’s gone! Someone’s snatched it!”
Theresa Bell reeled back from her own cage, clutching her neck frantically. She stumbled sideways past our table and tripped, crashing into Dame Clare behind us.
“Aaaaaaah!” she screamed, as both women fell to the ground.
Everyone turned to stare and several people started forwards to help the two women. The judge was the quickest and he bent down gallantly to help Theresa to her feet. But as he leaned down again to Dame Clare, he stiffened suddenly and froze.
There was a gasp. “Mummy?” cried Mary, dropping down by the inert form of her mother. “Mummy? Are you all right?”
More people rushed forwards and a crowd surrounded the fallen woman. Shouts and cries of panic filled the air. People were yelling for a doctor, an ambulance, for someone to start CPR… and through it all, you could hear Mary’s breathless voice crying:
“Mummy? Mummy! Speak to me!”
Then suddenly, in the middle of mayhem, came a deep voice I recognised. It was Devlin. He was there in the pavilion, his calm, authoritative voice quelling the panic, asking the crowd to move back, commanding someone to call an ambulance. Then he knelt down besides Dame Clare. I saw him put a hand to her neck to feel for a pulse. There was a pause, then he sat back on his heels and looked up at us.
Silence filled the pavilion. He didn’t need to say it. We all knew. She was dead.