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The Cottage Garden Mysteries

Here’s a sneak peek of the first few chapters!

(These are taken from my working draft and haven’t been to my editor or proofreaders yet, so please excuse any errors!)

 

CHAPTER ONE

Poppy Lancaster rushed out of the train station and paused as her eyes fell on the opposite street corner. Her heart sank. The queue at the popular espresso bar was usually pretty long but this morning, it stretched out of sight around the block. She glanced at her watch—she was definitely going to be late if she joined that line—then she remembered the terse message on her phone and, taking a deep breath, crossed the street to take her place the end of the queue.

“Looks like you’re going to be in for a long wait, luv,” said a kindly-faced, middle-aged woman standing on the corner. She had a cardboard tray in one hand, filled with brightly-coloured pins, and a collecting tin in the other. A sash emblazoned with the logo of a well-known cancer charity covered her chest.

She smiled hopefully at Poppy. “Fancy buying a pin while you’re waiting?”

Poppy gave the woman a shame-faced look. “I… I’m really sorry. I don’t have enough change—”

“Oh, that’s all right, luv. Some other time then,” said the woman cheerfully, making Poppy feel even worse.

She bit her lip and almost reached into her handbag—but she thought of the small pile of change in her purse and knew that she wouldn’t have enough to spare. Sighing, she joined the queue and dutifully shuffled along the pavement, getting slowly closer to the open window where a barista was busily taking orders and handing out cups of fragrant, steaming coffee. When it came to her turn, she reeled off the order she had learned by heart, whilst her stomach growled as she caught sight of a tray of freshly-baked pastries.

“A decaf, non-fat, no foam, soy cappuccino with raw sugar and extra whipped cream, please.”

“Bloody hell—what kind of order is that?” grumbled the man in the queue behind her. He looked at his watch with exaggerated impatience and blew a loud sigh. “Can’t you order something simpler? That’s going to take ages!”

“Um… it’s not for me,” Poppy mumbled.

The barista frowned at the man, then turned back to Poppy and said with a smile: “And what about you? What would you like?”

Poppy watched the other baristas at the huge espresso machine, filling jugs with frothy milk, sprinkling chocolate flakes over creamy cappuccinos, whilst steam billowed in great clouds around them. The heavenly aroma of freshly-brewed coffee filled her nostrils and she wished desperately that she could order a cup. But she knew that takeaway coffee was a luxury she couldn’t afford.

She raised her chin and gave the barista a wan smile. “Nothing, thanks.”

Poppy paid and waited for her order, trying to ignore the scowling businessman behind her, who kept sighing and making irate noises, whilst constantly looking at his watch. Finally, he cursed loudly, glared at Poppy and left the queue, shoving her aside roughly. He barged down the pavement, knocking into the charity volunteer standing on the corner and sending her tray flying, scattering pins everywhere. The woman cried out, but the man didn’t even give her a backward glance as he rounded the corner and disappeared.

“Here you are…” The barista leaned over the counter.

Poppy mumbled her thanks, grabbed the cup, then hurried over to the charity volunteer. “Are you all right?” she asked.

“Y-yes… fine. Just got a nasty surprise.”

The woman took a few calming breaths, then crouched down painfully to begin gathering the spilled pins. Poppy glanced at her watch and hesitated, then placed her coffee on a nearby ledge and dropped to her knees to help.

“Oh… ta… that’s really kind of you, luv,” said the woman, beaming at her. “It would have taken me ages… and I’ve got a bit of a dodgy knee…”

It took longer than expected to gather all the pins but finally, they were all safely back in the tray. Poppy picked up her coffee cup again, noting uneasily that it no longer felt so hot anymore, and was about to leave when the woman caught her arm.

“Wait, luv… here… as a small thank you.” The woman smiled and handed her a pin.

Poppy looked down and realised that the pin was actually fashioned in the shape of a sprig of heather, with feathery lavender blooms along the grey-green stem. Despite being made of papier-mâché, it was incredibly life-like and beautiful.

“Flowers have meanings associated with them, you know,” said the woman. “Heather symbolises transformative change—from the mundane to the extraordinary. It’s a lovely meaning, don’t you think?”

“Yes,” said Poppy with a smile, touching the tiny flowers with her fingertips.

“Here… it will look beautiful on your lapel… and it really brings out your blue eyes,” said the woman, reaching out to pin it on her.

“Oh… but I don’t have any money to give you—” Poppy protested.

The woman waved a hand. “You’ve done more than enough to deserve a pin. Take it, dear—and I hope it brings you luck.”

Poppy looked down at the pin, then smiled at the woman. “Thank you. I will treasure it.” Then she glanced at her watch again and gasped. “Oh my God—I’ve got to go! It was lovely to meet you—and good luck with the collection!”

Giving the woman a wave and clutching the coffee cup to her, Poppy hurried away. Several minutes later, she raced into the foyer of a small office block and jabbed frantically at the button for the lift. It seemed to take an interminably long time to arrive and as she waited, shifting from foot to foot, she noted anxiously that the cup in her hands now felt distinctly lukewarm. By the time, she arrived on the seventh floor and rushed through the open plan office to the large executive desk in the corner, she was breathless and tense with nerves.

A tall, thin woman looked up from the desk and regarded her coldly. “What time do you call this?”

“I’m sorry, Amanda. I know I’m a bit late but there was a terribly long queue at the espresso bar and then—”

“Spare me your excuses! All I expect is for my assistant to pick up a cup of coffee for me in the mornings—is that too much to ask for?”

“No, but—”

“And if you know there’s going to be a queue, then it’s simply a matter of leaving your place a few minutes earlier to account for the wait. Surely even someone with your lack of qualifications can figure that out?”

Poppy winced. It was a low blow and it wasn’t the first time that her boss had jeered at her anaemic resumé, but she didn’t feel that she could make any comeback. She knew that her CV was weak compared to most other working women her age and that she had been lucky to get this position, considering her lack of training and professional skills. So she swallowed the retort that sprang to her lips and instead, said meekly:

“I’m sorry. It won’t happen again. I’ll make sure to leave earlier from now on.”

Amanda held out one hand. “Well… is that my coffee?”

“Oh—oh, yes…” Poppy stepped forwards to place the coffee on the desk, then watched nervously as her boss raised the cup to her lips.

“It’s stone cold!” Amanda cried, curling her lips back in disgust.

“I’m sorry… There was this man who knocked over a lady—a charity volunteer—so I had to stop and help her; she’d dropped all her…” She trailed off as she met Amanda’s contemptuous gaze. Everybody in the office was watching and she felt her cheeks flush.

“You’re paid to be my assistant, not some bloody Mother Theresa on the streets,” Amanda snapped. “So I’m supposed to just sit here waiting while you’re busy doing your good works?”

Again, Poppy opened her mouth, then took a deep breath and shut it again. She counted slowly to five, then said in a neutral voice:

“Would you like me to make you a fresh coffee in the kitchen?”

“Ah… forget it! And take this away!” Amanda gestured at the paper cup in disgust. 

Poppy picked up the unwanted cup, then hesitated by the desk. “Um… Amanda? The money for your coffee… well, you didn’t give me any petty cash…”

Amanda looked at her blankly.

Poppy felt her face burning with embarrassment, but she continued doggedly, “I… um… I thought you would reimburse me—”

Amanda rolled her eyes. “For God’s sake, it was only a couple of quid.”

“Actually, it was a bit more than that… and the coffee wasn’t for me…” Poppy gritted her teeth. “It’s just that… I don’t get paid until the end of next week and I’m quite low on cash…”

Amanda regarded her coldly. “Really, Poppy, considering that you were late and the coffee was cold and totally undrinkable, I’m amazed you have the cheek to ask for the money. Anyone else would have seen it as a justified forfeit.”

Poppy’s hands clenched, and she felt something hot and angry surge in her chest. She opened her mouth to speak, then a voice screamed in her head: You can’t afford to lose this job! The words trembled on her lips, then she shut her jaws with a click.

Taking a deep shuddering breath, she turned and was about to walk away when Stan from Accounts rushed up, holding a potted plant. A small, fussy man who seemed only able to have a functional relationship with his calculator, Stan rarely left his office, avoided eye contact, and never spoke to Poppy unless he had something to say about her wages. Now, however, he was looking at her accusingly as he shoved the pot towards her.

“Look! Look at this!”

Poppy stared at the plant in dismay. It was drooping badly, its leaves curled and brown. She reached out to touch one yellowed leaf and gasped as it fell off into her hands. It was limp and soft, almost mushy. There was a faint musty smell rising from the soggy soil in the pot.

“They’re all like this! All the plants in the office,” said Stan. He looked at Amanda and pointed at Poppy: “She was supposed to be looking after them!”

Amanda rounded on her. “Did you forget to water them?”

“No, no! I watered them every day!” cried Poppy.

“What? Every day?” Stan spluttered. “For heaven’s sake, don’t you know anything about plants? They’ve been completely over-watered! They’re probably all going to die now. Do you realise how much potted plants like these cost? We bought advanced specimens so that they would instantly green up the office and it’ll cost a fortune to replace them. I haven’t got the money in the budget!”

“I… I didn’t know… I mean…” Poppy stammered.

“Well, they’d better not die,” said Amanda, narrowing her eyes. “Or the cost of replacing every plant in this office will be coming out of your wages!”

 

CHAPTER TWO

Poppy flinched and stared at Amanda in horror. Pay to replace every plant in the office? That could run to hundreds of pounds!

“No… please, I…” she started to protest but Amanda had already turned away, obviously dismissing her, and begun texting on her phone.

Stan gave a disdainful sniff, then turned and stalked off. Poppy was left standing, trembling with humiliation. She could feel the eyes of all the other staff on her as she walked slowly back to her desk. As she sat down, however, she heard a voice speak beside her:

“Amanda’s a right cow.”

She looked up with surprise to see Chloe, one of the secretaries, lean over from the desk next to hers and give her a sympathetic smile. Poppy felt a flash of gratitude for the girl’s support.

“What am I going to do?” she whispered, feeling on the verge of tears. She was already struggling to pay her rent and the bills, not to mention the minimum payment on the credit card each month. She just couldn’t afford to lose any part of her wages.

Chloe snapped her fingers. “I tell you what—I’ll ask my Dad how to fix these plants. I’m sure he’ll know what to do. He’s got an allotment and he’s really into gardening.” She laughed. “In fact, I’m getting him this really cool garden tool belt for Father’s Day next week. He’s been wanting them for ages. I can’t wait to see his face when he opens his present!” She looked at Poppy. “So what have you got your dad for Father’s Day?”

“Oh… um… I don’t really… I never knew my father,” Poppy mumbled.

Chloe frowned. “You mean—he died when you were a baby?”

“No, I mean…” Poppy flushed. “I… I don’t know who he is.”

Chloe’s eyes rounded. “Serious? Like… your mum never told you?”

Poppy hesitated. She didn’t normally talk about this, but she was also incredibly touched by Chloe’s show of support. Maybe it was time she started opening up a bit about herself—it might mean that she’d finally make a friend.

“Um… my mother was a bit of a wild child in her teens and she… well, she was a groupie over in the States for a while.”

Chloe’s eyes went even rounder. “Ooh! You mean, those girls who get to hang out backstage with the band and travel around with them, going to all the parties? The whole sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll thing?”

Poppy shifted uncomfortably. “Yeah, I guess…”

Chloe squealed. “Oh my God—so your dad could be an American rock star?”

Poppy glanced around the office to see if anyone else was listening. She was beginning to regret opening up to Chloe.

“I can’t believe your mother never told you anything about him! Didn’t you ask her?”

“Of course, I did,” said Poppy, a bit tartly. “I tried to ask her loads of times but all she would tell me was that he was one of the musicians in the bands she was following around, and that he never knew about me. She left and came back to England when she got pregnant with me.”

“Well, do you know which bands? You could check out their members and see if you look like any of them!” said Chloe excitedly. “That’s what I’d be doing! I mean, imagine if you find out that your dad is some big rock star who’s got this mansion in L.A. and you could go and live with him and go to all these parties and meet celebrities… wouldn’t that be brilliant?”

Poppy looked away. She was too embarrassed to admit that those were exactly the things she had secretly been wishing for all her life. Ever since she had been old enough to ask about her father and understand her background, she had dreamt of an older man turning up on her doorstep one day, giving her a hug and sweeping her off to a new glamorous life in Hollywood. No more overdue credit card bills to worry about, no more nasty boss, no more boring, dreary life in England…

But she knew they were just dreams and never likely to happen, and it was this bitterness which made her say, more sharply than she intended:

“I’ve got more sense than to indulge in stupid dreams like that!”

Chloe pulled back, her expression cooling. “Oh. Well, I think it’s nice to dream sometimes,” she said stiffly.

Poppy bit her lip. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean—”

“It’s all right. I’ve got to get on with this email anyway.” The other girl turned away.

Sighing, Poppy turned to her own computer. The morning dragged on and she was relieved when lunchtime finally rolled around. Maybe I’ll pick up something for Chloe—like a chocolate muffin or something, as a peace offering, thought Poppy. After shelling out for Amanda’s coffee, she had precious little cash left in her purse but if she chose a cheaper sandwich, she’d have enough money leftover for a small treat.

As she was walking to the sandwich shop, however, Poppy caught sight of the bookstore across the street and her feet moved as if of their own accord, carrying her over to the store window. She stared longingly at all the glossy book covers displayed under a sign saying “New Releases!”. Books were another luxury that she could rarely afford—she had to rely on the free offerings from her local library—but that didn’t stop her often coming to the bookstore to browse through the shelves and wistfully read the blurbs on the backs of the novels. 

The store was normally fairly quiet during lunchtimes on a week day. Today, however, she was surprised to find it filled with customers, all milling about in an excited fashion. Curious, she stepped inside and peered over the heads of the crowd to see what the commotion was about. A table and chair had been set up in the far corner, next to a stack of hardback novels, and there was a large poster featuring a book cover and the words “Nick Forrest’s thrilling new bestseller!” splashed across in bold letters.

The name sounded vaguely familiar, although Poppy didn’t think she had read any of his books. From the picture of the cover, it looked like a dark, gritty crime thriller and she usually preferred lighter reading—fantasy stories that allowed her to dream and escape. Still, looking at the line of people around the room, all clutching copies of novels for him to sign, this author was obviously incredibly popular.

A murmur of excitement rippled through the crowd and the next moment, a tall man entered the store from the rear entrance, flanked by the store manager and several other people, like a king accompanied by his entourage. He carried himself like a king, too—there was a commanding brusqueness to his manner as he strode across the room and sat down behind the table.

So this was Nick Forrest, the bestselling crime writer. Now that she thought about it, she had read about him in a couple of magazines. The articles had gushed about him as “the sexy face of crime-writing”, in a way which had made Poppy roll her eyes.

Now, she eyed him critically from across the room. It’s not as if he’s really handsome, she thought. Well, okay, there was something about him, if you liked the dark, brooding Heathcliff type—not that she did, she reminded herself. He was younger than she had expected—somewhere in his late thirties, she guessed—with silver edging the black hair at his temples and a cynical expression in his dark eyes. Poppy noticed several women in the crowd elbowing each other and giggling as they gave him coy looks, and she felt herself instantly dislike him. Maybe it was a silly reaction—she didn’t even know the man—but she couldn’t help it. The more hyped up a book, movie or celebrity, the more she took against them. Perhaps it was a subconscious thing, not wanting to become like her mother—a groupie slavishly following others like sheep, to worship at an idol’s feet.

Now, she watched askance as the store manager clapped his hands for attention and gave a short speech, detailing the crime writer’s impressive book sales and awards. Poppy felt her irritation growing. When the manager finally finished, she seized the chance to leave but she hadn’t gone a few steps when a masculine voice stopped her in her tracks.

She turned involuntarily around to look back at the table. Nick Forrest was reading from his book and his deep voice was mesmerising, conjuring up vivid pictures and fascinating characters from the words on the page. She had stood listening for several minutes before she realised it. Annoyed with herself, Poppy turned resolutely once more towards the door and this time, managed to push her way through the crowds and leave the bookstore.

(TO BE CONTINUED…)

 

Chapter Three coming soon!

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