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Deadhead And Buried - Excerpt

Deadhead And Buried - Excerpt

Book 1: The English Cottage Garden Mysteries

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 at 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 shamefaced 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:

“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. Then all of a sudden, 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-coloured blooms along the grey-green stem. Despite being made of papier-mâché, it was incredibly lifelike 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 education 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 qualifications, but she didn’t feel that she could make any comeback. She knew that her background 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 a lady over—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 Teresa 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 to 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. Stan was a small, fussy man who seemed only able to have a functional relationship with his calculator; he 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 shrivelled 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 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? That’s why they’re dying—they’ve been completely overwatered! 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 toolbelt for Father’s Day next week. He’s been wanting it 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.

“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. “Seriously? 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 LA 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 left over for a small treat.

As she was walking to the sandwich shop, however, Poppy caught sight of the bookshop across the street and her feet moved as if of their own accord, carrying her over to the shop 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 bookshop to browse through the shelves and wistfully read the blurbs on the backs of the novels. 

The shop was normally fairly quiet during lunchtimes on a weekday. 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 it 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 is 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 crimewriting”, in a way which had made Poppy roll her eyes. 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 bookshop.

 

CHAPTER THREE

“Poppy, is that you, dear? The dragon keeping you late at work again, is she? And probably not for any proper office business either. That woman is a selfish cow! I’ll have words with her one day—see if I don’t!”

Poppy paused inside the door of the shabby terraced townhouse and smiled as she heard the motherly voice.

 “Are you hungry? Did you get a proper lunch? You probably just rushed out this morning without eating any breakfast, as usual. It’s not right, you know. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, they say, and besides, you need some fattening up. Look at you—you’re practically skin and bones! Being too thin is terribly ageing, you know, and it will ruin your looks. And then how are you going to get a man?”

The speaker of this torrent of words came bustling down the hallway, stepping into the light of the dusty bulb in the foyer. She was a woman in her sixties, with grey hair curling in a halo around her head and plump cheeks split by a wide smile. Poppy thought again how lucky it was that she had met Nell Hopkins. When her mother had become ill and they’d needed a place to live that was close to the hospital, this run-down sublet had been the only place they could afford. Poppy had been nervous about who they’d have to share the small townhouse with and when she had first met the talkative cleaning lady, she had been taken aback.

But she had soon discovered that Nell’s loquacious manner was matched by a generous spirit and a warm heart. In fact, she didn’t know how she would have got through the final months of her mother’s illness if it hadn’t been for her kindly landlady. Nell had helped to provide the home-nursing that her mother had needed; her job as a cleaner for many of the businesses in town meant that she worked in the evenings, after offices were closed, and was free for most of the day—a perfect arrangement that enabled Poppy to go out to work.

And when Holly Lancaster had passed away, Nell had stepped into the motherly void with ease, nagging Poppy to eat properly and constantly worrying about her (non-existent!) love life—as she was doing now:

“…and I know you’re only in your twenties, Poppy, but it won’t be long before you’re over thirty and you know what they say: everything goes downhill after thirty! What are you going to do if you don’t meet a nice man by then?” Nell wagged a finger. “Don’t you roll your eyes at me, dear—you need someone in your life. Someone to cuddle and look after and give you a baby to bounce on your knee—”

“Nell!” Poppy burst out, with an exasperated laugh. “Which century are you living in? Women don’t need men in their lives to feel fulfilled and happy.”

“Ah… that’s what they all say but I’m telling you, no one’s truly happy until they have someone to love—and you never know when it’s going to happen! That’s why you need to be open to the possibilities. I mean, you could meet the love of your life when you least expect it! I knew a girl who was travelling in Australia and got bitten by a poisonous spider. She ended up in hospital in a coma and the doctor who was looking after her found a notebook of poetry that she’d written in her bag. Well, he started reading it to her, while she lay unconscious, and he fell in love with her—just through her words! And then when she woke up a few days later, he asked her to have dinner with him.” Nell gave a dreamy sigh. “And they got married a year later.”

“Is that really true or is it from the latest romance novel you’re reading?” asked Poppy suspiciously.

Nell looked a bit cagey. “Well, all right, it was from a book—but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen!” she added quickly. “Mrs Simpson from next door told me that her daughter Jilly met her boyfriend while she was working as his nurse at the hospital. Jilly wasn’t in a coma, of course, but she did have the flu and she fainted right into Stuart’s arms when they were operating in theatre together—so romantic, don’t you think?—and now they’re getting engaged…”

Poppy hid a smile as the older woman rambled on. If there was one thing Nell loved more than anything else, it was a romance—whether in real life or in the pages of a novel. In fact, her landlady seemed to spend all her free time speculating about the love lives of various neighbours… when she wasn’t fussing around Poppy like an anxious mother hen.

“Well, now… I’ve just boiled the kettle; you’ll have a cuppa, won’t you?” said Nell, turning to lead the way to the kitchen on her side of the house. “And you can tell me about your day. Here, give me your bag…” Nell reached out and dragged Poppy’s handbag off her shoulder. “Oh my lordy Lord, Poppy, what are you carrying in here? It weighs a ton! You really need to sort out your handbag and take all the junk out. I watched this programme on telly that said women’s handbags have more bacteria than the average toilet… I couldn’t believe it but they’d done tests and everything…”

Poppy felt a mixture of affection, exasperation, and gratitude as Nell started up again, fussing and worrying. In a way, Nell was more of a mother than Holly Lancaster had ever been. Even after giving birth to a baby, her mother had remained very much the same reckless teenager who had run away from home to become a rock-star groupie. Poppy had spent most of her childhood on the move, drifting around England as her mother chased the next “big dream” that was going to make their fortunes.

And in the meantime, Holly had thought nothing of putting impulsive, extravagant purchases on the credit card. As a little girl, Poppy had loved her mother’s “fun surprises”; it was only as she’d got older that she started to worry about how they could afford them, and it wasn’t until after her mother’s funeral that she realised how many bills were outstanding, how much debt was unpaid.

Which is why I can’t give up my job, no matter how awful Amanda is, she reminded herself. Still, it helped to have someone to share her woes with, and now she followed Nell gratefully to her kitchen. She accepted a cup of tea and sat down to recount the details of her terrible day.

“I hope Chloe’s father comes up with a good idea for the office plants,” she said at last. “Do you think they might just dry out and recover?”

“Well, I know what to do with a pot of herbs but I’m not much good with those fancy plants they have in offices nowadays. I always keep well away from them when I’m cleaning,” said Nell. “Your mother, now—she would have known what to do.”

“Yes,” said Poppy wistfully. “I wish I’d inherited Mum’s skill with plants. She was amazing; she could make anything grow. She didn’t just have green fingers—she was practically a green goddess.” Poppy shook her head sadly. “Whereas me… well, I could kill a plastic plant from IKEA.”

Nell laughed. “There are worse faults to have, dear.” She rose from the kitchen table and went to the stove. “Now, I’ve made a nice leek and potato soup, and there’s a fresh loaf of bread—would you like to have some supper?”

Poppy was tempted. Her hasty lunch was hours ago and she realised now that she was starving. Nell was a fantastic cook and a bowl of hot soup sounded wonderfully comforting after the day she’d had. But she felt bad about how often she ate Nell’s food, and her landlady would never accept any kind of monetary reimbursement, despite the fact that Nell only earned a modest income herself from her cleaning jobs.

“No, thank you—although that’s really sweet of you to offer,” Poppy said with a smile as she rose as well. “I’ve… um… got some things in the fridge that I need to finish up.”

Like a piece of mouldy cheese, she thought, wincing internally. But she gave Nell a cheerful wave and turned to leave.

Nell put out a hand. “Oh! Hang on, dear… I nearly forgot—this came for you today.”

Poppy looked curiously at the letter that Nell handed to her. It was made of heavy, expensive paper, and looked official, with a typed address and the logo of a solicitor’s firm in Oxford printed in the top left-hand corner.

“For me?” she said.

Nell nodded. “It came by registered post. I signed for it—I didn’t think you’d mind. Saves you having to go to the post office to collect it.”

“Oh, yes, of course…” murmured Poppy distractedly as she turned the envelope over. Slowly, she peeled the flap open and drew out the single sheet of thick cream paper. It was a typed letter, with an embossed letterhead at the top and an elegant signature next to the name “Charles Mannering Esq.” at the bottom. Her eyes widened as she read the contents.

“Well? What is it?” demanded Nell.

“It’s… it’s a letter from a lawyer,” said Poppy in a slight daze.

“And? What does it say?” Without waiting for Poppy to answer, Nell leaned over her shoulder and read the letter out loud:

“…writing to inform you that as Mary Lancaster’s only granddaughter, you are the sole benefactor of her estate… Please contact me at your earliest convenience to arrange a meeting to discuss—Oh my lordy Lord!” she cried, clutching Poppy’s arm.

“Poppy, what have you inherited?”

 

CHAPTER FOUR

The next morning, Poppy risked Amanda’s displeasure and delayed leaving for work so that she could ring the lawyer’s office in Oxford when it opened. She asked to speak to Charles Mannering, and when she hung up again a short while later, it was as if everything had taken on a sense of the surreal.

“Well?” Nell asked breathlessly. She had been hovering in the doorway of Poppy’s room, unable to contain herself, and now she came forwards eagerly. “What did he say? What are you inheriting? Is it money? Jewels? A house in the country?”

“Nell!” Poppy gave an exasperated laugh. “I’m not an heiress in a Regency romance novel!” She took a deep breath. “But in fact—yes, it is a house in the country. Not a grand house,” she hastened to add. “Just a cottage—a little cottage on a large piece of land in Oxfordshire. Apparently, my grandmother had a thriving garden nursery business—”

“A cottage garden nursery!” cried Nell, her eyes glowing. “Oh Poppy! Just think—you’ll be able to grow your own fruit and vegetables, raise little potted plants to sell, have a beautiful cutting garden to make your own flower bouquets, and live in a quaint little cottage with gorgeous climbing roses and—”

 “Nell, I can’t even keep a couple of office plants alive! There’s no way I’d be able to run a garden business.”

“You could learn. It can’t be that hard.”

For a moment, Poppy indulged in a fantasy of herself as the owner of a thriving garden nursery, attached to a beautiful cottage surrounded by a wild, romantic English garden bursting with flowers, with billowing lavender lining the path and wafting perfume in the breeze…

Abruptly, she snapped out of the daydream. She remembered the yellowed, drooping plants in the office—what on earth was she thinking?

“No,” she said with a sigh. “It’s nice to dream but, at the end of the day, I have to be realistic. I’d be a fool to think I could do it, what with my track record with plants.”

Nell pursed her lips but didn’t argue. Instead, she said, “Well, you could still live at the cottage. At least you’ve got your own home now and—”

“Er… actually, it’s not quite so simple.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, Mr Mannering said that my grandmother left a condition in her will: I can only live at the cottage if I agree to continue the family business and keep the garden nursery running. Otherwise, the property will have to be sold—although I would get the proceeds of the sale, of course.”

“But that’s ridiculous! It’s your property now, so you should be able to do as you see fit. Your grandmother was always a hard, unreasonable woman,” Nell declared. “Looks like she hadn’t mellowed with age.”

“Do you know anything about her?” asked Poppy, looking up in surprise. “Mum would never talk to me about her.”

Nell shook her head. “Your mother never told me much either. All I know is that your grandmother was very strict and they were always at each other’s throats, what with your mum being such a rebel and all. It was bad enough when Holly joined the other groupies and ran off to America, but when she got pregnant with you—well! That was the last straw! I don’t think your grandmother ever spoke to your mum again.” Nell made a sound of disapproval. “Imagine! Her own daughter, and with a grandchild on the way! Well, that tells you what kind of hard, unreasonable woman she was.”

“But… if she never tried to contact Mum or see us in all these years, why would she suddenly think of me in her will?”

“Guilt, probably,” said Nell with a knowing look. “People start regretting all sorts of things on their deathbeds. Maybe she wanted to contact you but her pride wouldn’t let her. Your mum was just as bad, you know. Many’s a time I told her that she should just let bygones be bygones, but she wouldn’t budge. Said she wasn’t going crawling back—”

“Yes, even when she became ill and we were struggling, Mum wouldn’t let me try to find her family to ask for help.” Poppy sighed. “I do feel a bit disloyal accepting this—”

“Nonsense! Don’t you dare think like that,” said Nell sternly. “Your mother was a wonderful woman, bless her soul, but she was too proud and stubborn for her own good. If your grandmother wanted to mend fences at last, then you should grab the opportunity. Don’t look a gift horse in the stomach, is what I say.”

Poppy smiled. “I think you mean ‘mouth’.”

Nell waved a hand. “Stomach, mouth, it’s all the same. Take the gift and count your blessings.”

“Yes… and you know what?” Poppy brightened. “It doesn’t matter that I can’t live there. I can just sell the place, take the money, and go travelling! Maybe even go to America and find my fa—” She broke off and hastily amended it to: “—er… well, just do all the things I could never afford to do. I’m sure I can ask Mr Mannering when I see him—”

“Well, what are you waiting for?” cried Nell, making a shooing motion. “You can hop on a train and be in Oxford in an hour.”

“But I’m supposed to be at work—”

“Oh, bosh!” Nell waved a contemptuous hand. “Amanda hasn’t given you any of the paid leave you’re due… I think you’re entitled to take a sickie.”

Feeling emboldened, Poppy rang her office and asked for the day off, pleading a bad migraine, then—armed with her birth certificate and other identity documents—she jumped on a train for Oxford.

***

The lawyer, Charles Mannering, turned out to be a dapper gentleman in his early sixties with a cut-glass accent that matched his distinguished appearance. He wore a sombre three piece suit, with old-fashioned gold cufflinks at his wrists and a traditional tie-pin carefully displayed on his chest—and would have looked slightly intimidating, had Poppy not found herself instantly warming to his kind, fatherly manner. However, as he took her patiently through a long meeting full of dry legal language and dozens of forms to sign, her hopes of a sudden cash windfall were dashed as she discovered that there was very little ready money left after the outstanding bills had been settled.

“Most of the capital in the estate is tied up in the cottage and gardens,” Charles Mannering explained. “And I am afraid that it might be a tricky property to sell. You see, there have been extensive changes made to the house and grounds over the years, to support a working garden nursery, and so any family looking to move in would have to do some major renovation in order to turn the layout back into a more traditional residence.” Mannering adjusted his spectacles and made a tutting sound. “In addition, the cottage itself is actually quite small, with fixtures that have not been upgraded in decades. The bathtub, I believe, could be a relic from Victorian times!”

“What about trying to sell it as a garden business?” Poppy asked hesitantly.

“Hmm… hmm… well, we could certainly try,” said Mannering in a tone which suggested that it would be an even greater challenge. “However, you must be aware that a very large garden centre has just opened nearby and—as is usual with these large chains—it has the advantage of lower prices.” He looked apologetic. “I must say, I have been guilty of going there myself, just because it is easier, and they have a larger range. This has been happening up and down the country, and it is difficult for small, independent nurseries to compete.”

Poppy sighed. “Well, I’ll leave it with you and keep my fingers crossed.” She started to rise, then paused as she spotted the bunch of keys on the table in front of her.

“Those are the keys to the cottage,” said Mannering. “Perhaps you would like to go and look at the property? It is in a village in south Oxfordshire.”

Poppy hesitated. She knew it was silly, but despite what Nell had said, she still felt a niggling sense of disloyalty to her mother, and going to visit her grandmother’s cottage in person seemed somehow to be an even bigger betrayal. Besides, if she was going to sell it anyway, what was the point?

“Um… no, I don’t think so… I’ve… er… got to get back to London,” she said.

“Well, they’ll be here in the office, should you change your mind, Miss Lancaster,” said the lawyer, rising as well and coming around his enormous mahogany desk to shake her hand with old-fashioned formality. “And I shall keep you informed of developments.”

 

CHAPTER FIVE

Poppy stepped out of the train station and felt a sense of déjà vu as she hurried across the road and joined the queue outside the espresso bar. Was it only one week ago that she had been standing here, waiting to buy Amanda’s morning coffee, unaware that a letter was going to arrive that day and change her life completely?

Not that much has changed as yet, Poppy reflected wryly. Nell might have had visions of her being swept off—Little Orphan Annie-style—to a glamorous makeover and a new life in a luxurious mansion, but the reality was a bit more mundane than that. In fact, very little had happened since her meeting with Charles Mannering and life seemed to have quickly returned to its dreary old routines.

She glanced idly around as she shuffled down the line; she couldn’t see the charity volunteer today—instead a flower seller had taken up residence on the street corner, with a makeshift stall and bundles of colourful flowers spilling out of plastic buckets arranged in a row. Poppy watched enviously as a woman stopped to select a generous bunch of colourful blooms. She sighed. How she would have loved to buy a bouquet herself. Other women might love jewellery or designer shoes, but for Poppy, it was fresh-cut flowers. Beautiful, romantic, perfumed—and horribly expensive—they’d always seemed like the ultimate extravagance. They were certainly a luxury that she could never afford. Even for her birthdays, she could never justify spending her hard-earned cash on something that would fade in just a few days.

A vision of a cottage garden bursting with flowers flashed in her mind and Nell’s voice came back to her: “…you’ll be able to have a beautiful cutting garden to make your own flower bouquets, and live in a quaint little cottage with gorgeous climbing roses…”

“Next!” called an impatient voice.

Poppy snapped out of her thoughts and hurried up to the counter. Once she got the coffee, she raced to get to Amanda’s desk before it got cold—but to her chagrin, she discovered that her boss was not in the office that morning. How nice of her to bother to tell me, she thought irritably. Still, it meant that she was able to get on with her work in peace and she finished in time to leave early for her lunch break.

On her way out, she paused to examine some of the plants around the office and was delighted to see that they seemed to be recovering. A few had even started growing new leaves! Her good mood made her slightly complacent and she lingered too long over her sandwich as she sat on a bench in the sun. When she rushed back, however, she found to her surprise that Amanda’s desk was still empty.

“Don’t worry—Her Majesty won’t be back for a while yet,” said Chloe with a smirk.

“I didn’t realise her meetings today would be so long,” Poppy said.

Chloe made a rude sound. “Meetings? Huh! Amanda’s not gone to see any clients—she’s gone to a day spa.”

What?

Chloe nodded. “I made the appointments for her myself. Getting some kind of micro-whatsit for her face. Y’know, when they pour on acid to burn the dead skin away… or something like that. It was some package that the spa was offering—together with a body polish and massage and this special treatment for cellulite.” She looked ruefully down at her own thighs. “Wish I could afford to do that—I’ve got cellulite something chronic! Must be nice to just lie there and have someone massage it all away, while you’re relaxing and listening to music…”

“But… I thought Amanda said… I’m sure she told me that she would be busy going to client meetings all day,” said Poppy, frowning.

Chloe gave a cynical laugh. “Well, of course she’d say that. Not going to admit that she’s lounging around, enjoying massages and facials, while we’re here working our arses off, is she? But I told you—I made the bookings: she’s at the day spa today and she’s going back tomorrow morning.”

Poppy felt a surge of disgust for the woman’s hypocrisy, but before she could say anything, Amanda herself sashayed into the office, her clothing slightly rumpled and her complexion suspiciously glowing. She saw the girls watching her and her eyes narrowed.

“I don’t pay you to sit around and chitchat, you know,” she snapped. “I’ve had an exhausting day, running around seeing clients, and I’d have hoped that my staff would have the decency to at least look like they’re working when I return.” She stalked past them and went over to her desk.

“Bloody hell, wouldn’t I love to throw that back in her face,” muttered Chloe under her breath. “But it’s more than my job’s worth, unfortunately.”

Poppy had a few letters that she needed her boss to sign and she knew she couldn’t delay. Sighing, she picked up the sheaf of typed pages and walked across the office to Amanda’s desk. She found the woman sitting back in her big leather chair, with her eyes closed and an expression of weary resignation on her face, for all the world as if she really had just had an exhausting day liaising with clients. Poppy felt another surge of disgust, but she kept her expression carefully neutral as she waited for Amanda to sign the letters. As she was turning to leave, however, her boss said:

“Oh, by the way, Poppy, I’ll need you to come in early tomorrow morning. There’s a conference call planned with the Portugal office and I’m out at a meeting all morning. So I’ll need you to take the call for me—they’ll want the updated figures from the charity account and you know where the spreadsheets are—”

“Tomorrow morning? But I’ve asked for leave,” said Poppy.

Amanda frowned. “What do you mean?”

“I asked you a few weeks ago—remember? I asked to have the morning off and you agreed.”

“I don’t remember that.”

“You did,” Poppy insisted. “I even had to speak to Accounts about it because you said I had to take it as unpaid leave and get Stan to calculate the deduction from my wages.”

Amanda scowled. “Well, you’ll just have to change your plans—”

“I can’t. I have to go to—”

“Oh, for God’s sake, I’m sure you can rearrange whatever it is you’re doing.”

“No, I have to go tomorrow. It’s the anniversary of my mother’s death and I want to visit her grave—”

“She’s dead already! What does one more day matter?”

Poppy was so taken aback by the woman’s insensitivity and rudeness that she was speechless for a moment.

“No, you don’t understand—it’s the first anniversary of her death and I made a promise to go and lay fresh flowers on her grave. It’s really important to me. That’s why I especially asked for leave—”

“Oh, cry me a river… you’re not the first person to lose their mother, you know,” said Amanda with an exaggerated sigh. “Really, Poppy, if you hope to get anywhere in your career, you’ll have to start acting with professionalism. That means not letting your selfish desires or petty personal issues stand in the way of your work ethic. We all have to make sacrifices, you know.”

Poppy stared at her, too shocked and furious to even reply. How dare the woman talk about sacrifices and professionalism when she was bunking off herself to go to a day spa during work hours! The hypocrisy was unbelievable! Taking several deep breaths, Poppy turned on her heel and began to walk away. But with every step she took, she felt herself seething more and more, until it felt as if her head would explode.

Suddenly she swung around and faced her boss again. “Actually, Amanda, since you mentioned it… I have been following your lead.”

Amanda glanced up carelessly. “What?”

“Well, you set such a brilliant example of how to behave with professionalism—I’m sure you won’t be sacrificing your work ethic when you’re at the day spa tomorrow morning.”

Amanda flushed bright red.

Poppy gave her a breezy smile. “But unfortunately, you will have to find some other mug to cover your arse—oops, I mean, take your place in the conference call—because I won’t be here.”

“What do you mean?” snarled Amanda. “I just told you, I’m not approving your leave—”

“That’s all right. You won’t need to. I won’t be here because I’m handing in my notice. You’ll have my resignation letter within the hour.”

Her head held high, Poppy turned and strode away.

 

CHAPTER SIX

An hour later, Poppy walked trembling out of the office building and onto the street, her thoughts spinning. Oh my God, she thought. I can’t believe what I’ve done! She had stood up to Amanda at last! For a moment, she felt a rush of exhilaration and a deep sense of satisfaction at finally putting the horrible woman in her place. Then she came back down to earth with a thump: she had also walked out of a job and was now unemployed with no references and no qualifications, in a time of recession, when jobs were hard to come by…

Poppy felt her heart give a sickening lurch as reality began to sink in. Then she took a deep breath and hitched her handbag higher up her shoulder. There was no point standing in the street, worrying about it. She would go home first, have some lunch, and then consider her next steps.

It was strange taking the train home: the carriages that were normally so packed during rush hour were now empty, save for the occasional pensioner or mother and toddler out on a day trip. Poppy stared out of the window and tried not to worry about the future, although now that her temper had cooled and the enormity of what she’d done was hitting her, she was really beginning to panic. Self-righteous vindication might feel great, but it didn’t put food on the table.

She sighed, fiddling nervously with the buttons on her jacket, then paused as her fingers brushed something soft and feathery. She looked down. It was the pin that the charity volunteer had given her last week—the sprig of heather flowers, made of papier-mâché. She had completely forgotten that it was still pinned on her jacket. She stared at the delicate lavender-coloured blooms as the woman’s words came back to her: “…heather symbolises transformative change—from the mundane to the extraordinary…”

Poppy pulled a face. Well, her life was certainly going through transformative change, all right, although right now it looked more like it was going from the mundane to the disastrous!

She was grateful when the train finally arrived at her stop and put an end to her brooding thoughts. She hurried the short distance back to the shabby old townhouse and let herself in, then hesitated outside the door to her own rooms, before turning and walking down the hallway to Nell’s part of the house.

“Poppy!” Nell said in surprise when she saw her. “What are you doing home? Is something wrong? Are you ill?”

“No, no, nothing—I’m fine,” Poppy assured her. She hesitated, then blurted, “Nell, I walked out!”

The older woman stared at her. “You what?”

“I told Amanda where to stuff it! Well, not in so many words, but she got my drift. I just couldn’t take it anymore. She’s an absolute selfish cow—and the most disgusting hypocrite too! She refused to let me have leave tomorrow morning to visit Mum’s grave, even though I—” Poppy broke off as she realised that Nell didn’t seem to be listening. “Is something wrong?”

Nell sighed, picked up a piece of paper from her coffee table, and handed it to Poppy. “This came today. It’s from the owner of this townhouse… my landlord. He’s claiming that I’ve broken the terms of the tenancy by subletting rooms—”

“But that’s rubbish!” cried Poppy. “I can remember clearly having a meeting with him before Mum and I moved in. He was fine about it, as long as he got a cut of our rent.”

“That’s what he said on the day. Now he’s denying that he ever agreed to it.”

“But he can’t! It must be down in writing somewhere—”                                              

“Actually…” Nell looked slightly shamefaced. “It’s not. He kept promising to bring me the amended contract but he never did and I guess I got busy and forgot about it. You know how it is—you just get on with life. You and your mum were living here anyway with no problems, and I suppose I just let things slide…”

Poppy looked down at the letter again, then said to Nell, “I’ve got to move out. Otherwise, he might evict you and then you’ll have nowhere to live and it’ll be my fault.”

“But where will you go?” asked Nell worriedly. “You’ll have to find somewhere cheap and that’s going to be really difficult in this area. So many people have moved here now, because of the easy commute into London—they’ve pushed the rental prices up. And now that you’re unemployed—”

“I have my grandmother’s cottage,” said Poppy suddenly.

Nell gaped at her. “But… but you’re selling that—”

“Yes, but until it’s sold, it’s still mine, isn’t it? I mean, I know there’s a condition attached to living there but I’m sure even my grandmother wouldn’t quibble if I just stayed there temporarily. It’s only for a few weeks, until I find another place to live. It’ll give me the breathing space I need and help save money too, since I won’t have to worry about paying rent while I’m living there.”

Nell still looked doubtful but Poppy smiled, feeling a sense of certainty for the first time since walking out of her job that morning. She reached out and gave Nell’s hand a squeeze.

“I’ll visit Mum’s grave tomorrow morning, then go up to Oxfordshire to check out this cottage.”

***

As Poppy boarded the train for Oxford the next morning, she was filled with a carefree abandonment that she hadn’t felt in a long time—like that delicious sense of freedom on the first day of a long summer holiday. Charles Mannering was away when she arrived at his office, but luckily his secretary remembered her and showed no surprise or curiosity when Poppy asked for the keys to the cottage. Perhaps the woman was used to clients making odd requests. At any rate, she got up from her desk without demur and want to rummage through a cabinet of drawers. She seemed to be a long time and straightened at last with a puzzled look on her face.

 “Strange…” she muttered.

“Is something wrong?” asked Poppy.

“The keys don’t seem to be here,” said the secretary, frowning.

“Perhaps Mr Mannering has taken them?”

“No, no, he’s up in London today… and in any case, he wouldn’t need to. He has a second set in his office safe. Excuse me… I’ll just go and fetch those for you.”

She returned from the inner office a few minutes later with a set of keys clutched in her hands. “Here they are. I must let Mr Mannering know that the main set is missing. I wonder who might have taken them?”

“Is the drawer that they’re kept in locked?” asked Poppy.

“No… but I’m usually here and the cabinet is behind my desk, so I would know if anyone was trying to get something.”

“Perhaps someone came during your lunch break?” suggested Poppy, thinking back to her London office. The receptionist’s desk there was often unattended for short periods during lunch. “Does Mr Mannering have a junior partner who might have taken the keys?”

“No, there is no other lawyer here; Mr Mannering works alone. No one else would have access except me… oh, and I suppose the cleaner who comes after office hours. I normally have my lunch here at the desk, so it’s never unattended for long periods but I suppose someone could have come in when I popped briefly to the loo. Still, why would a stranger take the keys to the cottage?” She shook her head, then gave Poppy a smooth, professional smile. “It’s certainly a bit of a mystery but no need for you to worry about it. This second set should work fine. If you could just sign for it here…”

A few minutes later, Poppy left the office, an ancient bunch of keys clutched in her hand and an address scrawled on a note in her pocket. Her grandmother’s cottage was situated in a village called Bunnington, about ten miles south of Oxford. It would probably only take twenty minutes to drive, but with no car, Poppy found that her only option was a slow local bus that seemed to stop at every town and village on the way. Still, it was a beautiful June morning and she enjoyed the ride through the pretty landscape of the south Oxfordshire countryside.

Arriving in the village at last, Poppy paused by the little Saxon church, situated at the edge of a wide triangle of grass—the traditional “village green”—and looked around. There were lots of tourists milling about and as she scanned her surroundings, she began to see why. Bunnington was absolutely picturesque, brimming with quaint timber-framed cottages and honey-coloured stone houses, as well as a mediaeval guesthouse—now doing duty as the village pub—and an ancient mill by the river that ran past the village.

There was a handy poster with a map of the village, right outside the post office, and Poppy paused to consult this. She was pleased to find that the cottage was in a lane just off the high street and should only be a short walk away. A few minutes later, she stood in front of a rickety wooden gate, hemmed in on either side by a crumbling stone wall. Overgrown vines and climbing roses draped over the wall and formed an arch above the top of the gate, leaving a gap through which to peek at the garden beyond. Poppy stepped closer and looked through the gap; she was taken aback to see a crazy profusion of overgrown bushes and shrubs, climbing vines, overhanging trees and weeds… weeds everywhere!

It was so not the image she’d had in mind of a neat and pretty cottage garden filled with flowers that, for a moment, she wondered if she had come to the right place. Then she noticed something on the wall next to the gate—it looked like a sign, half-covered by twining stems. Carefully, she lifted some of the leaves to get a better look and found a beautiful old mosaic plaque, the faded tiles spelling out the words:

HOLLYHOCK COTTAGE & GARDENS

Garden Nursery and Fresh Cut Flowers

 The words were followed by the house number. Poppy pulled the note with the scrawled address out of her pocket and checked: yes, the numbers matched. This was her grandmother’s cottage.

 

CHAPTER SEVEN

Stuffing the note back into her pocket, Poppy took a deep breath and pushed the gate open. It was stiff, the hinges creaky and rusty, and she had to duck under the arch of climbing vines as she entered, so that there was a sense of stepping through a doorway into another world. She found herself surrounded by a dense tangle of grasses and shrubs. In the distance, she could see a stone cottage nestled deep in the centre of the garden, but she wondered how to reach it. Then, as she pushed a few bushy stalks aside, she realised that what had looked like an impenetrable wall of green was in fact two wide borders on either side of a winding gravel path. The plants had become so overgrown that they were spilling out of the beds and obscuring the pathway.

Slowly, she began to pick her way towards the cottage, shoving and heaving plants up and out of the way. Now that she was closer, she could see that there were flowers poking through the greenery—clumps of yellow and white daisies growing by the path, as well as several other flowers she didn’t know the names of, all mingling their bright, happy colours at her feet. In the distance, tall spires of foxgloves swayed gently in the shady corners under trees, and scattered through the tall grass were patches of vivid colour from the bright blooms of poppies.

But most of all, she saw the roses. Great big cabbage roses in shades of soft apricot and pink, romantic climbing roses that festooned the stone walls, cupped roses stuffed with petals that looked like ruffled tissues, and perfumed roses that nodded and scattered their fragrant petals in the breeze. Poppy had never seen roses like these before—they looked like the roses found in illustrated books of old fairy tales, like the antique roses that once tempted Beauty into the garden of the Beast… and somehow, they were all growing and blooming in this neglected garden.

She turned and caught sight of another climbing rose, this time clambering up a trellis on the side of the cottage, its trusses of pink and apricot blooms glowing softly in the afternoon sun. Beneath it, framing the cottage windows, was another plant with tall arching stems bearing sprays of dainty white flowers that swayed in the breeze like a cloud of white butterflies.

Poppy felt her breath catch in her throat as she stared at the scene in front of her. From this distance, the weeds and overgrowth seemed to recede, and it was as if she’d caught a glimpse of what the cottage garden could look like, of how beautiful and enchanting it could be. How amazing it would be to restore it to its former glory, she thought wistfully.

It was several minutes before Poppy realised that she had been standing there, gawping. Hastily, she continued along the path and arrived at last at the cottage. It was small, but quaint and charming, with low timbered ceilings, working fireplaces, and large bay windows looking out into the surrounding gardens. There were a few pieces of furniture in some of the rooms—a wooden table and chairs in the kitchen, a sagging sofa and old armchair by the fireplace in the sitting room, as well as single beds with lumpy mattresses in both the bedrooms—but most of her grandmother’s personal possessions seemed to have been removed. Poppy had hoped to find some photographs or other mementos to tell her more about her mother’s estranged family, but there was nothing. The mantelpiece was bare, the bookshelves empty.

She discovered that a large part of the rear of the cottage had been converted and an extension added, to create a large greenhouse working area, filled with rusty spades and trowels, old earthenware pots, stacks of empty seed trays, and an assortment of other garden paraphernalia. It was quite dusty, with cobwebs in the corners, and the whole place had the musty smell of a house that had been shut up for too long.

Still, the garden might have been overgrown, but the cottage itself seemed clean and liveable. The stove in the kitchen was in working order, and a few plates and cups, as well as some old cutlery, had been left in the cupboards. There was even an electric kettle—stained and rusty, but working—in one corner of the counter, several tins of beans, and a box of teabags left in the pantry. In the bathroom, the water ran clear and while the “H” tap, after much choking and spluttering, seemed only able to manage lukewarm at best, it was good enough for a quick bath. The bathtub itself—as Charles Mannering had said—looked ancient, but despite the cracked enamel, it didn’t seem to be leaking.

In the linen cupboard, Poppy found some old but clean bedsheets, and she was just reaching for them when she paused. Was she really going to spend the night here? Shouldn’t she book into a nearby bed and breakfast instead? Even if there wasn’t anything available in Bunnington itself, there was still time to take the next bus on to Wallingford, where she would be bound to find accommodation. But something in her resisted. For one thing, it would save money to spend the night here, but she knew that wasn’t the only reason. It was as if now that she was here, she felt a sense of ownership, a feeling of loyalty to this place which made her reluctant to abandon it for another.

Don’t get too used to it, she reminded herself. This place is going to be sold; it isn’t really going to be your home. Still, it wouldn’t hurt to spend a test night at the cottage, especially if she was hoping to live here for a while.

Poppy pulled the sheets out and headed back towards the bedroom. She had barely unfolded the top sheet, though, when the peace was shattered by an unearthly shriek. She froze, then dropped everything and rushed out of the front door.

The cry came again—a blood-curdling yowl that thinned into a shrill scream. It didn’t sound human and Poppy stopped in confusion, straining her ears and staring around the overgrown garden.

Another scream, this time followed by a loud growling. The sounds seemed to be coming from the rear section of the property, in the garden behind the cottage. Poppy hurried around the corner of the building, then faltered to a stop as she came upon a familiar scene of battle between two age-old enemies.

An enormous ginger tomcat stood in a face-off with a scruffy black terrier.

The cat’s back was hunched, his fur standing on end, as he glared at the dog, who glowered back. The ginger tom hissed and yelled an insult, and the terrier quivered with indignation. He growled a reply, baring his teeth and lunging forwards. The cat didn’t even flinch. He simply twitched his tail and gave another blood-curdling yowl. Not to be outdone, the terrier let loose with a volley of barking, hurling every canine obscenity he could think of.

“Hey!” Poppy shouted above the din, stepping forwards with her hands raised. She had never dealt with a dog-cat fight before and wasn’t quite sure what to do. “Hey! Um… no fighting!” she said lamely.

The animals turned, distracted, then, to her surprise, they both came eagerly towards her. The ginger tomcat stopped beside her and sniffed her leg, then rubbed himself against her jeans. He was a handsome fellow, with a thick orange pelt, big yellow eyes and scars on his ears that showed he could take care of himself in a fight. He let Poppy scratch his chin, purring with smug satisfaction, all while shooting dirty looks at the dog on her other side. The terrier bounced up and down, wagging his tail and whining loudly, and Poppy laughed, reaching out with her other hand to pat him.

“All right, all right… you too …” she said, rubbing the dog’s scruffy head. “What’s your name?”

Rufff!

Poppy noticed that he was wearing a collar but no tag. She looked around, wondering how he had got into the property. Then she saw that the soil in the flowerbed next to them had been disturbed. Had the dog been digging there?

She stood up and walked over to take a closer look. Unlike the wide borders at the front which were heavily planted with all kinds of shrubs and flowers, and had a very natural look, this rectangular bed was clearly edged in straight lines and filled with a dark, rich soil that was bare, except for several plants scattered here and there. They seemed to be growing in an odd way and, after a while, Poppy saw that it was because they were growing more or less in rows. She realised suddenly that this must have been some kind of functional garden—a vegetable patch, perhaps? She peered closer. No, not vegetables… flowers. She could see the tall stems, thick with buds, and several were already blooming.

A cutting garden, she thought excitedly. Yes, of course! She remembered the sign outside the gate. Her grandmother must have grown cut flowers to sell. These must either be the survivors of the last batch sown, or plants that had self-seeded and grown from last year’s crop. She reached out to pluck a large pink bloom, then a sound made her turn quickly around.

The noise seemed to come from the front of the property; it sounded like shattering glass. From her position by the flowerbed, the cottage blocked her view of the gate and the front garden, so she couldn’t see if anyone else had arrived at the property.

The tinkle of glass came again, and this time Poppy had an uneasy thought. It sounded like a window breaking… was someone trying to break in?

 

CHAPTER EIGHT

Poppy sprang up and ran around the side of the cottage. She reached the front garden just in time to see a dark figure lurking by one of the windows. It was a man—somewhere in his late twenties, by the look of it—with heavily gelled hair, a dark hooded top, and baggy jeans. He was holding a chisel in one hand and pushing the window frame with the other, but at the sound of her footsteps, he swung around. Poppy caught a glimpse of a narrow, sullen face before he turned and bolted for the gate. She hesitated, not sure whether to chase after him or not, and by the time she’d made up her mind and run to the gate, the lane was empty.

Slowly, Poppy walked back to the cottage and examined the window. It was an old-fashioned lattice type, with several rows of small glass panels instead of one large pane. The man had obviously been trying to lever it open but had only succeeded in shattering one of the glass panels. She tested the window—it was still solidly locked—and the broken panel was too small to allow anything bigger than a child’s hand through. Besides, no one in their right mind would put their hand through that hole lined with jagged glass fragments. She decided it was secure enough for the time being, and was just wondering how to find a window repair service locally when her mobile rang. It was Charles Mannering:

“My dear… I have just returned from London and my secretary tells me that you have come up to view your grandmother’s property!” he said, sounding quite agitated. “I am sorry I wasn’t here to take you down myself. If I had known that you were coming—”

“Oh, don’t worry, Mr Mannering,” Poppy reassured him. “It was a bit of a spur-of-the moment thing, and your secretary gave me very good directions, so I found it no problem. I’m here now, actually.”

“Ah! I’m afraid the gardens have been quite neglected and the cottage is not in the best state—”

“Oh, it’s not too bad. In fact, everything seems to be in working order—more than good enough for me, anyway. I’m sure I’ll manage fine tonight—”

“I… I beg your pardon?”

“Um… well, I was planning to stay the night here at the cottage—maybe even a few days—”

“But my dear! I don’t think it will be very comfortable—”

“Oh, don’t worry—as I said, I’m used to not having a lot of mod cons. The place I sublet in London doesn’t have many luxuries either. I’m sure I’ll be fine.”

“But what about safety? You’ll be all alone… I’d heard rumours in the village about a tramp seen lurking thereabouts and furthermore—”

“I’ll lock all the doors and windows, and keep all the lights on,” Poppy promised. “My grandmother lived here on her own, didn’t she?”

Mannering sighed. “Well… if you insist, my dear. But do be careful—especially in the garden. It has been neglected for a long time, what with your grandmother being ill and then having an extended stay in hospital. It’s very overgrown and there are some prickly old roses and other shrubs with very nasty thorns. I’d hate for you to hurt yourself; perhaps it would be best if you didn’t go wandering in there until—”

“I promise I won’t venture too far from the cottage,” said Poppy, touched by his fatherly concern.

She had meant to tell him about the strange man trying to break in the window and ask for a recommendation for a local repair service, but the old lawyer seemed so upset already, she decided not to add to his anxiety. In any case, it had probably just been some opportunistic small-time thief who had thought that the house was empty and tried his chances. With the lights on and obvious movement about the place, petty criminals were unlikely to try again.

So she assured Mannering again that she would be fine and promised to call him if she needed anything. As she hung up, she suddenly remembered the ginger tomcat and the little terrier she’d met. She had completely forgotten about them in the excitement, but now she made her way back around the outside of the cottage to the flowerbed at the rear. It was empty. Poppy turned around, scanning the area, but the dog and cat were nowhere to be seen. She shrugged. Well, they both looked too well fed and healthy to be strays. She assumed that they must have gone back to their respective homes.

Returning to the cottage, she unpacked her small overnight bag and toiletries, made up the bed, then filled the old kettle in the kitchen and set it to boil. Twilight was drawing in and she went around carefully switching on all the lights and drawing the curtains, as well as double-checking that the front door was locked. As she was returning to the kitchen, she was startled by a clatter from the rear of the house.

Poppy froze. It had sounded a bit like shattering crockery, and reminded her of the sound of the breaking glass from earlier. Surely someone couldn’t be trying to be break in again? Nervously, she made her way to the large greenhouse extension at the back of the cottage and was startled to see the door leading out to the rear garden standing slightly ajar.

She stiffened and looked quickly around. The greenhouse seemed empty. Then her gaze sharpened as she saw what had caused the noise: a column of terracotta pots had toppled over, with several smashing and breaking on the worn stone floor. That must have been the sound that she’d heard. She walked over and picked the intact pots back up, restacking them on the bench again. There were several other columns of pots there and they all seemed to be secure. Why had this one suddenly toppled like that?

Something brushed against her leg and she shrieked and jumped. Then she looked down and clutched her chest in relief as she saw a large ginger tomcat at her feet, staring up at her with wide yellow eyes.

“Oh, it’s you…!” she said in a shaky voice.

He meowed—Poppy had never heard any cat sound like that. He had a deep, insistent voice and sounded for all the world as if he was saying: “N-ow… N-ow!

He sprang up suddenly onto the bench, so that he was closer to her face, and rubbed his chin against her shoulder. Then he walked along the bench to the stacks of pots, weaving between them.

Ah… Poppy smiled. She was beginning to have an inkling as to why the pots had fallen.

“You’re a troublemaker, aren’t you?” she said with a chuckle.

N-ow!” said the ginger tom.

She reached out to pat him but he evaded her hands, jumping down nimbly and trotting over to the back door.

N-ow?” he said, looking back at her.

She followed him to the door, wondering again why it was ajar. It was obviously how the cat had got in, but she didn’t think even his feline resourcefulness extended to opening locked doors. Then she peered closer and realised what must have happened: it was a self-latching door and whoever had last pushed it shut, hadn’t made sure that it had clicked into place. The door must have swung ajar again in the breeze, and the cat had pushed it open easily.

She watched as the ginger tom slipped through the gap and out into the rear garden. She was about to shut the door after him when she heard him call insistently again.

N-ow! N-OW!

 What on earth does he want? Poppy stepped outside. Night had almost completely fallen and the garden was just a mass of dark shapes moving in the breeze. She hesitated, then walked farther out, leaving the door wide open behind her so that light from the greenhouse would spill out. It didn’t help much, barely penetrating more than a few feet, and seemed only to make the rest of the garden beyond even blacker.

Poppy walked to the edge of the light and peered out into the darkness. She could just make out the cat—a paler shape against the black background—a short distance away.

N-ow!” he called again.

Poppy wished that she had a torch, but she couldn’t be bothered to go back in to search for one; in any case, she didn’t know if there was one in the cottage. Besides, her eyes were acclimatising a bit now and she could make out a bit of the darkened landscape around them: the big trees at the back, the large mounds of shrubbery around, and the straight lines of the rectangular cutting flowerbed, where the terrier had been digging earlier…

N-ow!” came the insistent voice.

“All right, all right… I’m coming…” muttered Poppy, picking her way carefully through the weeds.

She saw that the cat was in the middle of the cutting flowerbed, his tail twitching impatiently. Climbing over the prickly stems of some kind of bushy plant, she stepped into the bed. The soil here was softer than she’d expected and she lost her balance as the loose earth settled beneath her weight. Poppy stumbled sideways, her ankle catching against a vine of some sort, and the next moment, she pitched forwards, facedown into the dirt.

“Ommpphh!”

She lay winded for a moment, then raised herself slowly onto her elbows. There was soil on her face, neck, clothes… She sat up and tried to brush it off. “Ugh!”

N-ow?” said the ginger tom, coming over and eyeing her curiously.

“It’s all your fault!” grumbled Poppy, pushing herself to her knees and attempting to stand up.

The crumbly earth beneath her made it difficult and she groped around for a handhold—anything to give her a bit of support. Her fingers scrabbled through the soil, brushing against fuzzy stems and floppy leaves, and then they encountered something soft and clammy.

Poppy recoiled with a gasp. It sounded crazy, but it had felt like… skin.

She panicked, scooting backwards on her bum and kicking up clods of earth everywhere. The ginger tom gave a hiss of annoyance and jumped out of the way.

N-ooow!” he said, looking at her reproachfully.

The cat’s cry brought her back to her senses and Poppy gave a sheepish laugh. Of course, it can’t be skin! What am I thinking?

She peered at the bed in front of her, straining her eyes in the darkness. In the faint light spilling out from the greenhouse, she could see nothing other than mounds of disturbed earth, and a few broken flower stalks. She leaned forwards and poked the soil in a few places. There was a glint of metal—it was the tines of a little handheld garden fork which had been left in the bed—but nothing that resembled any part of a human body.

Poppy sat back. It must have been her overactive imagination. The lonely surroundings of the cottage, together with the wild, overgrown garden and Charles Mannering’s anxiety had combined to create an eerie atmosphere that was putting sinister ideas in her head. Getting to her feet, she brushed herself off and stepped carefully out of the bed, making sure to avoid the vine that had tripped her previously. She turned back towards the cottage, but she hadn’t gone two steps when that familiar plaintive wail came again:

N-ow! N-ooow!

She whirled around with an impatient sigh. “For goodness’ sake, what do you want?”

The cat trotted over and sat down at her feet, looking up at her with wide, unblinking eyes. She stood at a loss for a moment. Was he lost? Hungry? She didn’t have anything in the cottage to feed him, and besides, she was sure he was somebody’s pet. She bent down to examine him again, and this time she realised that he was actually wearing a collar—a thin leather band with a small tag attached. She turned this over eagerly and peered at the engraved information. There was no name, just an address. She was surprised to see that it was the number right before the cottage on the lane. The ginger tom belonged to her next-door neighbour!

N-ow!” he said again.

Poppy stood and looked at him indecisively, wondering what to do. She didn’t have the heart to just walk into the cottage and shut the door in his face. She also didn’t want him to stand out here, wailing “N-ooow!” all night.

She made a sweeping gesture with her hand. “Shoo… Go home!” she said.

N-ow…?”

“Yes, now. Go home. Go on… it’s just there, over that wall…” Poppy pointed.

N-ow? N-ow…?”

Poppy sighed. On an impulse, she reached down and scooped the cat up. He squirmed for a moment, and then, to her surprise, settled in her arms and even began purring. She carried him into the cottage, through the house, and out the front door… heading for the lane and the house next door.

***

Who does the ginger tom belong to? What had Poppy really touched in the flower bed? Will she sell her grandmother’s cottage?
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