I’m delighted to announce that Book 6 in the Oxford Tearoom Mysteries is out now! Join Gemma, Muesli and the Old Biddies on their latest adventure! Delicious puddings, deadly arsenic – and a prickly little new friend… Available in ebook and paperback (Large Print edition to follow soon):
Four Puddings and a Funeral
(Oxford Tearoom Mysteries ~ Book 6)
Business is going well at Gemma Rose’s quaint English teashop and she’s delighted about her first big catering job at a local village funeral… until the day ends with a second body and one of the Old Biddies accused of murder! Now the resourceful tearoom sleuth must find out which delicious pudding contained the deadly arsenic–and who might have wanted the wealthy widow dead…
But Gemma has other troubles to contend with, from her naughty cat, Muesli, running loose in her tearoom to an unexpected hedgehog guest in her home–and that’s before the all-important “meet the parents” dinner with her handsome detective boyfriend turns into a total disaster!
With so many things on her plate, can Gemma solve the mystery in time to catch the murderer or will she come to a sticky end?
(* Sticky Toffee Pudding recipe at the end of the story!)
And here’s an excerpt:
Nobody likes going to a funeral—especially when the person being buried isn’t the only dead body.
Of course, I didn’t have any inkling of what was in store as I headed towards the church that Saturday morning. In fact, I was looking forward to the event. Oh, not in some kind of ghoulish way. No, it was simply because I—or rather, my business, the Little Stables Tearoom—had been asked to cater for the funeral reception. This was the largest catering job we had received so far and I was excited.
People were already coming from far and wide to the quaint Cotswolds village of Meadowford-on-Smythe to sample my famous English scones and traditional afternoon tea, and my tearoom business had been going from strength to strength since my starting it eight months ago. But I knew that getting a foot on the catering ladder would be the next big step. Especially as—with Oxford University on my doorstep—there would be all the associated colleges, departmental faculties, and university societies, with their luncheons, receptions, and parties all offering a wealth of catering opportunities.
And today’s job at the funeral would help too—even though it was taking place in Meadowford rather than Oxford. Rex Clifford had been a prominent local businessman with many ties to the historic university city. I knew there would be a lot of “important” guests at the post-funeral reception who could help spread the word about my tearoom’s delicious baking.
As long as I impress them, I thought, looking worriedly at the trays of food lining the rear compartment of the car. Carefully arranged on trays and platters were an assortment of traditional afternoon tea treats, from dainty finger sandwiches filled with cucumber and mint, and honey-glazed ham with English mustard, to a moist, fluffy Victoria sponge cake bursting with juicy strawberries. And of course—perhaps the most important item on the menu—a large platter filled with freshly baked scones, alongside mini pots of home-made jam and clotted cream.
“Do you think the scones look okay?” I asked anxiously. “You know, they are our signature dish.”
My best friend Cassie straightened from the back of the car and gave me a playful punch on the arm.
“Relax, Gemma. Dora’s really outdone herself today—I think these are some of the best scones she’s ever baked. Mmm… perfect buttery goodness with a rich golden crust… and those mini lemon meringue pies look so delicious too. I’m dying to pinch one. Oh, and the sticky toffee pudding! Now, I did sneak a taste of that before we loaded up in the kitchen. Oh my God… divine. If you’re not careful, one of the big London hotels will be pinching your baking chef to go and work for them,” Cassie chuckled. She tilted her head to one side and considered the trays in front of us. “Hmm… the only thing I was wondering is: do you think there are too many puddings? I mean, do we really need a treacle tart, lemon meringue pies, a sticky toffee pudding, and the Victoria sponge?”
“You know how much people love desserts,” I said. “And this order came in so last-minute, we had to make do with what Dora could rustle up at short notice. I didn’t have the chance to plan a menu properly. Anyway, the widow—Adele Clifford—specifically told me that her husband had always had a sweet tooth, so she wanted to have as many cakes and sweet treats as possible, in his honour.”
“Well, she’s certainly getting the best puddings in Oxfordshire,” said Cassie with a smile. Then she put a hand on her hip and regarded me curiously. “Speaking of the best, how was your dinner last night with the handsome detective?”
I avoided her gaze. “Oh, the food was fabulous. You can see why the Cherwell Boathouse is often voted one of the top restaurants in Oxford. Their butternut squash soup was—”
“Oh, stuff the butternut squash soup!” said Cassie. “I want to hear about the romantic date with Devlin.”
“It… it was great.”
Cassie raised her eyebrows at my flat tone. “And…?”
“Aww, come on! Give us the sordid details, Gemma! I know you guys were going through a bit of a rough patch—so did you kiss and make up?” She winked and leered at me.
I blushed slightly. “I told you… it was a lovely time. The food was great, the setting was really romantic, and Devlin didn’t even talk about work once. We just spent a lot of time reminiscing about our college days together and laughing at the old jokes—”
“And what about that mysterious blonde he was seen with? Did you ask Devlin about that?”
Cassie rolled her eyes, “Yes, that. You said you were finally going to ask him about it and get a proper answer.” As I hesitated, she grinned. “Don’t tell me—I was right, yeah? It was nothing and you’re feeling embarrassed now for being so paranoid.”
I shifted uncomfortably. “Actually… I… er… sort of forgot to ask Devlin about that.”
Cassie stared at me. “What do you mean? How can you forget to ask about something like that? It’s been bothering you day and night for the past week!”
“Well, I…” I twisted my hands together. “Okay, I didn’t forget, but I just decided… well, I decided it wasn’t really the right time to bring it up.”
Cassie gave me a severe look. “Gemma.”
“I couldn’t do it, okay?” I burst out. “It was all so beautiful and romantic, and Devlin had sent me roses, and the food was delicious and we were laughing and I just… I couldn’t bring myself to spoil the mood.”
“I bet it was spoiled for you anyway because that question was burning in your head the whole time.”
I dropped my eyes. Cassie was right.
“I can’t believe you sat through the whole of dinner without asking, just because you were afraid… What were you afraid of?” she demanded. “For goodness’ sake, you don’t really think that Devlin is cheating on y—”
“No!” I said quickly. “No, I’m sure he’s not. I mean, I’m sure he can’t be. I know Devlin isn’t that kind of man. I’m sure he’s not having an affair and there’s a good reason why he’s been acting so weird and distant recently… But…” I paused, then looked at her miserably and said in a small voice, “What if… what if I’m wrong?”
“Well, avoiding the subject isn’t going to help you get answers,” said Cassie in exasperation. “Gemma, this is getting ridiculous.”
I gave her a wan smile. “You know, Robert Louis Stevenson said: ‘to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive’.”
“Oh, that’s pants!” said Cassie impatiently. “I just don’t understand—what could be so terrible about asking? Don’t you want to find out the truth?”
“I do… but I’m… I’m scared about what the truth might be.” I sighed. “It’s hard to explain, Cassie, but a part of me feels like… like it’s better to live in fear than to know for certain.”
Cassie’s expression softened. “I suppose I can understand that.” She gave my arm a squeeze and said gently, “But you can’t keep brushing it under the carpet forever, Gemma. It won’t go away, you know. It’ll fester inside you and destroy the trust in your relationship. You’ve got to have it out with Devlin.”
I knew she was right. I was being a coward. But still, I shrank from the thought of confrontation. I took a deep breath, then let it out.
“I… I will ask him about it,” I said. “I promise. I just need to find the right time to do it.”
Cassie threw her hands up in a gesture of surrender and turned back to the trays of food. “All right… I suppose we’d better move these things into the hall.”
I helped her lift some trays out of the boot of the car, and together we walked into the small parish hall adjoining the village church. This was a later addition, but it had been designed to blend with the Saxon architecture of the church. In fact, with its traditional oak-wood flower boxes and air of country charm, the parish hall was frequently as photographed by the tourists visiting Meadowford as the church itself.
The interior was a large space with high, vaulted ceilings, often used for village community events and weddings. Today, it had been solemnly decorated for a funeral reception, with large white candles and arrangements of white lilies, carnations, and ivory roses scattered about the room. A long buffet table with a linen tablecloth had been erected at one end of the hall, and Cassie and I set our heavy trays down on this gratefully.
“We should probably put some of this in the fridge,” said Cassie, eyeing the food on the trays. “Do you know how long the service is going to take?”
I shook my head. “No, but you’re right—even if it’s only a short one, it’s going to be a while before people are eating and it’s quite warm today.” I glanced at the window next to us, which showed blue skies and bright sunshine, then looked across the hall. “I remember Adele telling me there’s a fridge in the kitchen that we can use. I’m not sure how big it is, though.”
“Okay, well, let’s put these in,” said Cassie, grouping some items together on two trays. “The scones and teacakes should be okay to stay outside—we’ll just need to cover them. You go and put these in the fridge. I’ll bring the rest of the stuff.”
Carefully, I balanced the two trays on top of each other and carried them across the hall, making my way to a door at the far end. I found myself in a short hallway with various doors leading off from it. They were all shut and none were clearly marked as the kitchen. I was about to open the door nearest to me to check when I heard the sound of raised voices coming from behind the last door in the corridor.
Ah. That must be the kitchen. Most likely place for people to congregate, I decided. Perhaps some of the family are here already…
I walked to the last door, then paused as I realised that it was slightly ajar. I caught a glimpse of the interior of the room. Yes, it was the kitchen, including a dining area on one side with a large round table encircled by chairs. Several people were huddled around the table, all dressed in mourning black: a dark-haired young woman with a pinched, angry face, another young woman of similar age with short blonde hair and an even deeper scowl on her face, an older, distinguished-looking man with grey hair and a trim beard, and—my eyes widened—a formidable-looking old lady with a helmet of woolly white hair and sharp, shrewd eyes.
Mabel Cooke. What was she doing here?
Mabel was the leader of a group of senior ladies, known affectionately as the “Old Biddies”, who ruled the village of Meadowford-on-Smythe with a meddling fist and prying nose. Like many retired pensioners, Mabel and her three friends—Glenda, Florence, and Ethel—had time on their hands and energy to spare. The problem was, instead of directing it towards knitting, gardening, and grandchildren, the Old Biddies seemed to have developed an unhealthy interest in crime. When they weren’t reading Agatha Christie novels, they were busy trying to re-enact one, and their meddling in recent murder cases had already given local police a big headache.
“…but there must be some mistake!” Mabel was saying, her usually booming voice becoming even louder with incredulity. “I have known your father for years and he was always a great supporter of the Happy Hedgehog Friends Society. He had always pledged to leave a large sum to the charity in his will. Rex Clifford would never go back on his word. There must be some misunderstanding. You should insist that your solicitor check things again.”
“There’s no mistake,” said the dark-haired young woman bitterly. “We saw the solicitor yesterday and it seems that Dad has left his entire estate to that woman.” She nearly spat out the last two words.
“But we’re going to contest the will, aren’t we, darling?” said the other young woman, reaching out to rub her back.
“Yes,” said the first young woman, sitting up straighter. “Yes, we’re not going to just sit back and accept it! We’re going to appeal.”
“I’m not sure that would be wise, Rachel,” murmured the older man.
She turned towards him angrily. “You can’t expect me to just sit here and do nothing! The money is mine by right!” She gave him a contemptuous look. “I should have known that you’d take Adele’s side. I suppose she’s got her claws into you too, Uncle Miles? Batted her false eyelashes at you and had you falling for her helpless little woman act?”
The older man didn’t react to her taunting. “I merely meant that it might be very difficult to contest the will and you could find yourself with an expensive fight on your hands,” he said.
“But I’m sure there would be grounds for an appeal!” cried Rachel. “After all, you have to be of sound mind when you sign a will, don’t you? Well, I can’t believe that Dad was of sound mind. He would never have cut his only daughter out of his will and left everything to that… that floozy! I mean, for heaven’s sake, they’d only known each other three months before they got married, and she was nearly twenty years younger than him.”
“There’s no fool like an old fool,” said Mabel, pursing her lips.
“This wasn’t just foolish—it was crazy! I’m sure Dad can’t have really approved that will,” declared Rachel.
“I think you’re going to find that very hard to prove, my dear,” said her uncle Miles Clifford gently. “For one thing, there must have been a witness who also signed the will and who can testify that my brother acted under his own volition. I’m sure the lawyers would have made sure that everything was legal and above board.”
Rachel’s bottom lip jutted out. “I don’t care. Witnesses can be bribed, can’t they? Besides…” She glanced at her friend. “Kate says it just doesn’t make sense why Dad would suddenly change his mind like that. Did something happen? If he was angry at me for something I’d done—enough to cut me out of his will—why didn’t he say anything to me about it?”
“I’m sure it’s not anything you’ve done, Rachel,” said Miles Clifford quickly. “It might have nothing to do with you at all—”
“You mean it was just Adele somehow getting her sticky fingers into the whole thing and convincing Dad to change the will in her favour? That’s called ‘undue influence’, isn’t it?”
Her friend nodded. “That’s more than enough for an appeal!”
Miles Clifford shot the other girl a look of dislike, but addressed his niece. “Rachel, I know the situation seems unfair but I don’t see how anything can be done. Sometimes—”
“I’m not giving in!” she insisted. “I’m not! I’ve got to do something—I can’t just let that woman win. I don’t care what it takes—I’m not letting Adele get the money!”
At that moment, the door in the hallway behind me swung open and I jumped, guilty at being caught skulking and eavesdropping outside the kitchen. I whirled around to see Adele Clifford coming towards me. The widow was an undeniably attractive woman, somewhere in her mid-fifties, with a carefully preserved face and figure, and dark hair that had been expertly tinted and styled. She was wearing a black silk dress and matching stilettos, which clearly had designer labels attached to them.
However, as she came towards me, saying: “Ah, there you are. I saw your friend settin’ up outside…”—her voice gave her away. As any Brit will tell you, class is defined as much by your accent as the clothes you wear and the car you drive, and Adele Clifford’s sugary voice betrayed her East London Cockney origins. And the fact that she was trying very hard to alter her pronunciation and speak with an exaggerated “posh” intonation showed that she was self-conscious about it.
“I was just about to put these in the fridge,” I said quickly, nodding to the trays in my hands. I shouldered my way through the kitchen door and walked in to find the room’s occupants already on their feet, their expressions wary as Adele followed me in.
“Oh, you’re all ’ere!” said Adele with a tinkling laugh. “What a cosy little family gatherin’. I ’ope I was invited too…?”
Rachel maintained a stony silence but her uncle hastily stepped into the breach.
“It was just an impromptu affair,” he said. “We were having a private moment to remember Rex before the official service.”
“Darlin’ Rex…” Adele made a great show of wiping an imaginary tear from one eye. Then her gaze narrowed on Mabel. “What are you doin’ ’ere, Mrs Cooke?” she asked, her voice changing.
Mabel bristled at her tone. “I beg your pardon?”
“Well, you’re not family,” said Adele pointedly.
“I have been a friend of dear Rex for years,” said Mabel indignantly.
Adele gave a sneering laugh. “Friend? Don’t kid yourself. Just ’cause Rex took pity on your pathetic little charities and tossed a few quid to your latest Save-the-Fuzzy-Dormouse or wha’ever campaign doesn’t mean that ’e saw you as a friend. ’E wouldn’t—”
“I saw Mrs Cooke outside and invited her to join us,” Rachel cut in, her voice tight and angry. She added with false sweetness, “I realise that you’re the mistress of Clifford House now, but I assume—the parish hall being public village property—that I don’t need your permission to invite people in here?”
Adele flushed, then quickly recovered her aplomb. “Oh, sure… I suppose you ’ave to make allowances for these sad old pensioners who wouldn’t otherwise ’ave anythin’ else to do. Poor dears. I can just imagine ’ow desperate they are to fill their days and find events to go to. I suppose they bore their own families and now ’ave to look for someone else to latch on to.” She gave a theatrical sigh. “And your father was always such a kind, generous man—no matter ’ow tedious ’e found these old biddies, ’e always made time for them. I suppose today, of all days, we should ’umour them one last time.”
Mabel went red and began spluttering in anger. Hastily, I stepped forwards and held up the trays of food. “Um… is it all right if I put these in the fridge?”
“Cor, those look delicious!” said Adele, stepping closer and reaching a hand out, her fingers flickering over the tray. “I’m just itchin’ to taste one! But I can’t. I’ve just put on my lippie so I’ll ’ave to resist!” She gave me a coy smile and dabbed at the corners of her bright red lips.
“You can enjoy them at the reception later,” I said, reflecting that Adele was hardly behaving like a grieving widow. And from the disapproving looks the other occupants in the room were giving her, they shared my thoughts.
I hurried across to the fridge and carefully stowed the trays inside, then escaped the tense atmosphere in that room with some relief. Outside, I found that Cassie had brought the rest of the food from the car and I helped her arrange the platters attractively across the buffet table. Then my best friend gave me a cheerful wave and left to return to the tearoom.
I watched her go slightly anxiously. Weekends were usually our busiest times as not only the tourists but many of the locals also arrived at the Little Stables Tearoom for their fix of delicious baking. I hoped Cassie would be all right coping on her own. The Old Biddies usually helped out—they loved the chance to gossip with everyone, and tourists seemed to enjoy their nosy, chatty style—so we’d worked out an arrangement where they lent a hand during busy times, in return for treating the tearoom as their personal HQ and helping themselves from the menu. But with all of them attending the funeral this morning, Cassie would be completely on her own. Still, a lot of the village residents would probably be at the funeral too, I remembered, so the tearoom shouldn’t be as busy as normal.
Glancing at my watch, I realised that the funeral service was about to begin. I left the parish hall and made my way out to the adjoining cemetery, where a substantial crowd was gathering around a freshly dug plot. I found a position at a discreet distance from the group and watched as the vicar greeted Rachel Clifford and her friend, and made space for them next to the gleaming mahogany coffin. The rest of the mourners shuffled to form a semi-circle around the grave and I saw Mabel with the other Old Biddies—Glenda Bailey, Florence Doyle, and Ethel Webb—jostling for a position at the front of the crowd.
Minutes passed. The mourners began fidgeting, whispering, peering around the cemetery. The vicar glanced back towards the church, an expression of puzzlement and slight annoyance on his face. The service couldn’t start without Adele Clifford, the deceased’s widow—but where was she?
Then a couple in black stepped out of the parish hall and began walking towards the crowd. It was Adele, escorted by her brother-in-law, Miles. She was hastily re-applying lipstick and making a great show of dabbing her eyes with a tissue. I wondered cynically if the whole thing was an act. From the coy glances she kept darting at the crowd, it seemed like she enjoyed the attention. In fact, I wouldn’t have been surprised if Adele had purposefully delayed her arrival until everyone had gathered by the graveside, so that she could make a grand entrance.
All eyes were on her as she sashayed around the coffin to stand next to Rachel, sniffing loudly as she did so. Miles Clifford took a position behind her, his tall distinguished figure dwarfing those around him. He clasped his hands behind his back and lowered his head, his expression unreadable. Whatever he might have thought of his sister-in-law’s theatrics, he was too courteous to comment on them. His niece, however, was not so tolerant. Rachel Clifford flushed angrily as she watched her stepmother continue the exaggerated show of grief; she opened her mouth as if to say something, then her friend put a protective arm around her shoulders and the two girls pointedly turned their backs on the widow.
Looking slightly uncomfortable, the vicar cleared his throat and raised his arms to begin the service. It was a fairly short one—it seemed that Rex Clifford was a man who didn’t like pomp and ceremony, and he had asked for a simple graveside service in his will. As the vicar’s solemn voice rose and filled the quiet of the cemetery, I was touched to notice that many of the mourners were in tears, their genuine grief easy to see. Rex Clifford’s widow might have been more show than substance, but it was obvious that many residents of the village and the wider Oxford community would really miss him.
Then, as the vicar began the familiar prayer of: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want…”—I noticed something beyond the crowd.
I squinted into the distance. It was a tall figure—a man—lurking behind the row of yew trees on the far side of the cemetery. His face was in the shadows and I couldn’t see his expression properly, although I could see his dark gaze trained on the coffin. Like the rest of the mourners, he was dressed all in black, but his outfit had something of the feel of a “costume” about it. In fact, with his long black trench coat and sleek black hair, he reminded me of Keanu Reeves in The Matrix. I half expected him to pull out a sinister black machine gun or similar weapon from behind his back! Then I gave a self-deprecating laugh and chided myself for my overactive imagination.
Still, as the vicar continued the prayer—“…Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil…”—I found my gaze returning to the mysterious stranger and, for some reason, I shivered.
The service was over faster than I expected and I hurried to get back into the hall ahead of the crowd, and in particular to retrieve the rest of the food from the fridge and arrange it on the buffet table. Stepping back to survey my efforts, I smiled in satisfaction. The platters of cakes, finger sandwiches, scones, and pies looked elegant and professional, while still retaining a home-made appeal, and the lovely buttery smell of fresh baking was mouth-watering.
I walked around the table to check it from every angle, pausing to adjust the tray of lemon meringue pies which showed a gap in their midst. I smiled to myself and shook my head. Cassie must have pinched one after all. Then I smiled again as I saw that she had thoughtfully left a stack of the tearoom’s business cards in the centre of the table. Good ol’ Cass! I was so grateful to my best friend for taking over the marketing of the tearoom. Not only had she set up the website, but she’d also personally designed the business cards, providing one of her own beautiful illustrations as the tearoom’s logo.
The hubbub of voices behind me told me that the mourners were arriving. I turned around and saw them entering via the open double doors at the other end of the hall, many of them making a beeline for the food. I moved back from the buffet table, hovering at a discreet distance to watch people’s reactions, then relaxing slightly as I saw many begin to eat enthusiastically.
“These are absolutely delicious!” declared one lady, biting into half a scone which had been generously slathered with jam and clotted cream. She swallowed, then licked her fingers. “I don’t think I’ve tasted such wonderful scones in years!”
“They are fabulous, aren’t they?” agreed the man next to her. “I wonder where they’re from?”
“Oh look, here’s a card…” said the woman, leaning across to lift one of the tearoom’s business cards from the stack at the centre of the table. “The Little Stables Tearoom, Meadowford-on-Smythe… Hmm, we should check it out the next time we come to Meadowford—what do you think, Harry?”
“Certainly, certainly,” said her companion, talking with his mouth full.
I retreated farther from the buffet table, a smile on my face and a warm feeling in my heart. My happy thoughts were interrupted, however, by the sound of Mabel’s familiar voice saying loudly:
“…well, of course she could be easily murdered!”
I turned in surprise and saw a group of senior village residents, all spectacles, white hair, and woolly cardigans, gathered eagerly around Mabel Cooke and the other Old Biddies. Curious, I drifted closer and joined the back of the group.
“It’s not a question of whether it could be done—it’s whether anyone would do it,” one of the old ladies closest to me was saying.
“Oh, I’m sure there are many who would love to murder her,” said another lady, shooting an acerbic look across the hall at the glamorous widow, who was chatting with a group of men. “I have never met a more unpleasant woman in my life. Did you hear what she did at bingo last week? Denise Palmer had just settled down in her usual chair when Adele arrived and insisted that was her seat! And she wouldn’t stop harassing poor Denise. We tried to intervene—we explained that Denise is going deaf and needs to sit closer to the caller to hear—but Adele wouldn’t listen. She even tried to shove Denise out of the chair. Poor Denise left in tears.”
“She tried to do something similar the week before, but Mabel stopped her,” said Florence Doyle, folding her plump arms and nodding with satisfaction.
“Yes,” said Mabel grimly. “And if I had been there last week, she wouldn’t have got away with such disgraceful behaviour towards Denise!”
I looked at Mabel with interest. So that was why Adele had seemed so hostile to her when they met in the kitchen earlier! The two women were obviously enemies, and, from the sound of things, had clashed several times already.
“I just don’t understand how Rex Clifford could have ever married her,” said one of the other pensioners, tutting and shaking her head. “I mean, his first wife, Susan, was such a lovely lady. And so different from Adele.”
“Perhaps she drugged him,” someone suggested.
“Or practised witchcraft on him!” said someone else with a laugh.
A soft voice spoke up. “People do get lonely as they get older, you know.” Ethel Webb, the gentlest of the Old Biddies, looked around the group. “When I used to work at the library, I saw that happen very often. People who were left alone after their spouses died would often come to the library just for some human contact. They weren’t really interested in the books—they just wanted someone to chat to. I spent hours recommending books to people before I realised that. There was one gentleman who had lost his wife and he came in almost every day, often staying by my desk for hours!”
“Perhaps it was a particular type of chat that he wanted, Ethel,” suggested Glenda Bailey with a giggle.
Ethel looked at her blankly. “What do you mean?”
“He wanted an up-chat,” said Glenda.
“An ‘up-chat’?” Ethel looked even more puzzled. As the only one of the Old Biddies who had never married, she was almost the cliché of the twittering spinster, with her fluffy white hair, gentle manners, and modest smile.
“Yes, that’s what the young people say these days. When somebody up-chats you,” Glenda simpered. The very opposite of Ethel, Glenda was eighty-going-on-eighteen, with a perpetual soft spot for handsome men and romance.
I cleared my throat and spoke up, “Er… Glenda, I think you mean, ‘chat you up’.” Turning to Ethel, I added, “That means they’re romantically interested in you.”
Ethel blushed a pretty pink and twisted the tissue in her hands. “Oh… I’m sure not…”
“Well, I certainly can sympathise with Rex Clifford if he was lonely, but I still say it was a terrible day for this village when he married Adele,” one of the pensioners said and several others nodded in agreement.
“I cross the street if I see her coming,” a woman said emphatically.
“Really, if somebody did murder her, it would be a community service!” another woman declared.
“But how would you do it?” asked the first senior eagerly. “I mean, it’s not so easy to kill someone by stabbing, is it? You have to stick the knife in at just the right place.”
“You could strangle them,” suggested another pensioner. “Though you’d want a pair of non-arthritic hands to get a good grip.”
I looked at them all in slight alarm. I might have been away from England for eight years, but since when had little old ladies become so bloodthirsty?
“Wait, wait… you ladies aren’t serious, are you?” I said, laughing weakly.
Several pairs of beady old eyes turned towards me. Nobody laughed. I gave them a nervous smile. “I mean, come on… it’s fun to talk about murdering someone you dislike but it’s not realistic—”
“Nonsense!” Mabel’s voice boomed. “As I said, it’s extremely easy to murder someone, if you know what you’re doing. And especially if you use poison. Then you would not even have to worry about providing an alibi—you could be at a safe distance away from the victim when they expire.”
Mabel’s voice carried across the hall and several of the other mourners at the reception turned around to stare.
“Er… ha-ha… they’re just joking,” I assured the other guests, waving a hand at the Old Biddies and trying to put on a jovial face. People gave me odd looks, but, to my relief, politely turned away after a moment.
I looked at Mabel and hissed, “Mabel, you can’t say things like that! People won’t realise that you’re joking.”
“But I’m not joking,” protested Mabel. “Poison is the perfect murder weapon. Agatha Christie once said: ‘Give me a decent bottle of poison and I’ll construct the perfect crime.’ You know, she used poisons in most of her mystery novels.”
Glenda piped up, “Ooh, yes, my favourite one is Sparkling Cyanide—I always think Colonel Race sounds very dashing, don’t you? I do so like a military man.” She giggled. “Of course, he’s only a bit over sixty, it says in the book, and that’s a bit young for me—although I suppose he could be my ‘toy boy’. I haven’t ever had one of those! Marjorie Smith has one and she says he’s done wonders for her skin—”
“I didn’t like that book,” said Ethel with a shudder. “The deaths sounded horrible. Going blue in the face and fingers twitching from convulsions…”
“Well, I wouldn’t use cyanide,” said Mabel. “Arsenic is what I would choose.”
All eyes turned back on her. “Arsenic?”
Mabel nodded authoritatively. “It’s the ideal poison. Odourless, tasteless, and its symptoms are so similar to many common stomach ailments, no one would suspect.”
“But how would you get her to take the arsenic?”
“That’s easy. You simply add powdered arsenic to her food when she’s not looking. For example, any of those cakes there—” Mabel waved a hand towards the buffet table, “—could easily hide powdered arsenic in all that icing sugar and whipped cream.”
“Uh… not my cakes!” I said hastily. The last thing I needed was for the wrong rumours about my tearoom to start spreading!
“What a shame we can’t really poison Adele,” said a pensioner wistfully.
I glanced quickly across the room to where the widow was, wondering if Adele herself might have overheard, but thankfully she was engrossed in conversation with a middle-aged businessman. She was laughing and fluttering her eyelashes, one hand holding a wine glass and the other on his lapel. I felt slightly repulsed by her behaviour. Even if she didn’t really mourn her husband, it seemed in extremely bad taste for her to flirt at his funeral reception!
As if in response to my thoughts, I saw Rachel Clifford stride across the hall towards her stepmother, her face set in a scowl. She stopped beside Adele, yanked her aside and snapped:
“Can’t you show a bit of respect? This is my father’s funeral, for God’s sake!”
Adele gave her an insolent smile. “Your father wouldn’t want me to brood.”
“He wouldn’t want you trying to shag every man at his funeral either!” said Rachel.
Adele tossed her head. “I know you’re bitter about the terms of the will, Rachel, but there’s no need to take it out on me. I can’t ’elp it if your father decided I was more worthy, can I? Maybe if you’d been a better daughter, ’e wouldn’t ’ave cut you out of ’is will.”
Rachel drew back as if she had been slapped and I felt a rush of sympathy for her. Okay, so she didn’t seem like the most pleasant person from what I’d seen of her so far, but that had been an unnecessarily cruel comment, especially at her father’s funeral.
“I… I was a good daughter to him,” said Rachel, tears smarting in her eyes. “I’m sure my father didn’t intentionally cut me out of his will. It was you! You did something—you lied to him or conned him or something—and you made him change the will in your favour. That’s what I’m going to tell the courts!”
“Oh, you better think twice about doin’ anything,” said Adele with a superior smile. “You’ll lose the case. Just ask Gavin ’ere…” She reached out to a man standing nearby, grabbed his arm and hauled him close. “You’ve met Mr Sexton, right? ’E’ll tell you that the will is completely watertight and you’d end up makin’ a very expensive mistake.”
She looked at the lawyer, who shifted uncomfortably. “Er… I don’t feel it’s really appropriate to discuss such matters here today, Mrs Clifford.”
Adele laughed and turned back to Rachel. “’Course, if you’re very nice to me, I might consider lendin’ you some money. I know you’re desperate for some capital to expand your business… Well, I can be generous too. But you need to show me some proper respect. Don’t forget, I ’old the purse strings now!”
Rachel looked as if she might explode. She bit her lip, spun on her heels, and marched away with Adele’s jeering laughter following her.
There was an awkward silence, then Adele looked at me and said brightly, “Well! Now that’s out of the way… I’m lookin’ forward to tastin’ some of your nosh.” She rubbed her abdomen. “I’m so hungry, I’m gettin’ stomach cramps. Come and tell me what you recommend!”
She dragged me and Sexton over to the buffet table, and gestured to the spread in front of us. “So which one should I ‘ave?”
“The treacle tart would be my choice,” came a booming voice opposite.
I looked up to see Mabel Cooke facing us on the other side of the table. She was holding a cake knife and server, and had just cut a large wedge from a round pie with a golden pastry lattice covering.
“Treacle tarts were my favourite puddings as a boy,” Sexton spoke up, his serious face breaking into a smile. “They don’t seem to taste as good as they used to, though. I had some at a café recently and I was very disappointed.”
“That’s because they didn’t make it properly, young man,” said Mabel. “When they are made the traditional way, as we do at Gemma’s tearoom—with golden syrup, breadcrumbs, and a dash of lemon juice to cut through the sweetness—and served with a dollop of clotted cream or ice cream, there is nothing to beat it. Here…” She placed the wedge on a plate and thrust it across the table.
“Not for me, thanks—but you have some, Mrs Clifford,” said Sexton, handing the plate to her.
Adele hesitated, obviously reluctant to take something that Mabel had recommended, then she accepted the plate with bad grace. She picked up a fork from the table and was about to leave when another voice called her name.
“Adele… you must have some of this sticky toffee pudding. It’s absolutely delicious.”
I turned in surprise to see Rachel standing next to us, holding a plate out to Adele. But a very different Rachel from the girl who had stormed off a few moments ago. Instead of her habitual scowl, she had a bright smile pinned on her face and was looking at Adele invitingly.
“I’ve already got some treacle tart, thanks,” said Adele, indicating the plate in her hands.
“Oh, but you must try some of this too!” exclaimed Rachel, leaning forwards and using her fork to slide the piece of sticky toffee pudding from her plate onto Adele’s. “It’s the perfect mix of gooey moist sponge and lovely chopped dates… mmm, and the toffee sauce on top…”
Adele started to protest, then caught a whiff of the rich toffee smell and capitulated. “All right. It does look really good.”
“Would you like a napkin?” asked Rachel as Adele took a generous bite with her fork.
“No, I’m all right. I’m goin’ to look for a place to sit down for a while,” said Adele. She massaged her temples and frowned. “This funeral is givin’ me a splittin’ ’eadache.”
I winced slightly at the disrespect to her dead husband and glanced at Rachel, but the girl’s face remained bland.
“There are some chairs by the wall there,” I said, pointing to a spot nearby.
Adele nodded and walked off. Rachel helped herself to another piece of sticky toffee pudding, then grabbed a glass of wine and went to join her friend, Kate, on the other side of the hall. I was left alone with the lawyer. He was a solemn-looking man in his mid-forties, with a weak chin and pale blue eyes behind thin, wire-rimmed glasses. He cleared his throat now, obviously unsure how to continue the conversation.
“So… you’re the one responsible for providing the food today?” he asked politely.
I smiled. “Yes, I’m catering the event. I own the Little Stables Tearoom in the village. And you… are you with Sexton, Lovell & Billingsley, by any chance?”
He held his hand out. “Yes, I’m Gavin Sexton.”
I shook his hand. “My parents are with your firm, although I thought it was ‘Richard Sexton’? That’s who my mother usually mentions seeing.”
“He’s my uncle,” said Sexton. “He’s due to retire this year and hasn’t been in good health, so I’ve been taking over many of the responsibilities and dealing with most of his clients.”
“Like Rex Clifford,” I said.
He inclined his head. “Yes, Mr Clifford was one of my uncle’s oldest clients. I’ve been looking after his estate this past year.”
“Was his death unexpected?” I asked.
“Well, everyone knew that he had a weak heart, although, after the last operation, they were hopeful that he would recover and live for many years longer. I think his heart attack took everyone by surprise.”
“And… er… I understand that the way he left his affairs took everyone by surprise as well?”
He gave me a dry look. “You’re referring to the will, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” I admitted with a sheepish smile. “I couldn’t help overhearing some of the family members discussing it earlier. Actually, I was a bit surprised that they knew the details of the will already. I always thought the will wasn’t read out until after the funeral—”
Sexton chuckled. “You’ve been watching too many old movies. It might have been done that way in the past, but nowadays wills are usually read as soon as the death is confirmed. There’s no need to wait until after the funeral for everyone to ‘gather together in the library’. In fact, the beneficiaries are often not even present—it’s up to the executors to inform them about the bequests, by letter or phone afterwards.”
“And… do you think there would be grounds for contesting the will?”
The smile left Gavin Sexton’s face. “I wouldn’t advise it. That’s what I’ve told Miss Clifford, although whether she will heed my advice is another matter. She is understandably very angry about the situation—but unfortunately, if Rex Clifford wished to leave all his money to his widow, there’s nothing anyone can do about it, however unjust it might seem.”
“Rachel—Miss Clifford—seemed to feel that she could cite ‘undue influence’ in this case—”
“She could try but I doubt the case would stand up in court. There was a witness to the signing of the new will, who could verify that Rex Clifford was of sound mind.” Sexton shrugged. “Really, the only way Miss Clifford could get her hands on the money now would be if Adele were to die. The terms of the will state that the estate would fall to the next of kin and—as Rex Clifford’s only child—Miss Clifford would inherit the whole lot. In fact…”
He trailed off suddenly as his attention was distracted by something over my shoulder. I saw an expression of dismay mingled with anger cross his face. I turned around to see what he was looking at and my own eyes widened as I caught sight of a figure moving through the crowd.
It was the young man in the black trench coat, who I had observed in the cemetery earlier. He was sauntering along, making his way towards the front of the room, and as he came closer I was struck by how handsome he was. Almost too handsome—like a male model in a magazine, with high cheekbones and slanting dark eyes, a tall, slim physique, and jet black hair, styled long and slicked back from his face. There was something faintly Oriental about his looks and I wondered if he was of Eurasian descent—the child of a mixed marriage, perhaps. He certainly moved with the smooth confidence of a model and, combined with his almost theatrical clothing and his air of mystery, he was drawing a lot of attention from the other guests.
“Excuse me,” said Gavin Sexton suddenly, turning and walking away.
I barely heard him, all my attention riveted on the handsome stranger. I wondered what he was doing at the funeral and I could see my thoughts reflected on several of the faces around me, especially those of the local residents. Meadowford was a small village and all newcomers were greeted with interest, even if they were just tourists. The sight of such a mysterious and dramatic-looking stranger at a resident’s funeral was enough to send the local gossips into overdrive.
The stranger walked past where Adele was sitting and seemed to trip just as he passed her chair. He stumbled, put out a hand to catch himself, then fell heavily against her, knocking her plate off her lap.
“Oh!” Adele cried as the plate smashed on the floor, spilling flaky pastry and toffee sauce everywhere. I winced to see my food squashed on the floor and wasted.
“Ah! Sorry!” the young man cried. He bent to pick up the pieces of broken china, then said earnestly, “I’ll get you a new one!” He hurried past me to the buffet table and returned to Adele a moment later with a large slice of Victoria sponge cake.
“Uh… I’m not sure I want any more pudding,” she said, looking slightly queasy as she accepted the fork and plate. Then she glanced down at the moist sponge cake, bursting with fresh whipped cream and juicy strawberries, and licked her lips. “Mm… this does look good, though. I ’aven’t tasted the Victoria sponge yet and I ’ad my eye on it earlier…”
“Yeah, go on—why don’t you try some?” said the stranger. “Anyway, sorry again.”
He made her a sort of bow, then drifted to the other side of the room. I watched him curiously as he paused beside a table where a framed photograph of Rex Clifford was on display next to candles and a large flower arrangement. A minute later, Gavin Sexton walked up to him. I couldn’t see the lawyer’s face—he had his back to me—but from the tension in his shoulders, it was not a friendly conversation. I wondered if he was checking whether the stranger was gate-crashing the funeral. The handsome Eurasian’s face darkened and he seemed to be arguing with Sexton, but before I could ponder further, a clinking sound rang out across the hall.
As the hubbub faded and guests turned expectantly towards the sound, I saw Rachel Clifford standing by the table with the photograph, a raised glass in her hand. She was holding a fork in her other hand and tapping it against the rim of her glass. The crowd fell silent.
Rachel raised her voice. “Thank you so much, everyone, for coming today. I’m sure my father would have been touched to see how many people had come to remember him.”
There was a rumble of agreement from the crowd and several people raised their glasses, as if in a toast. I darted a look at Adele, wondering how she was taking this. By assuming the role of hostess and addressing the guests, Rachel was usurping her stepmother’s position as the new mistress of Clifford House. The widow didn’t look happy about it. She was flushed, her expression slightly nauseated, as she leaned against the opposite wall.
“… and now I’d like to propose a toast to my father,” Rachel said, raising her glass to the framed photo on the table next to her. “To Rex Clifford, who—”
“Hey… can I say a few words?” a new voice spoke up.
Rachel stopped and everyone turned towards the speaker. It was the handsome stranger. He was standing on the other side of the table, a hand placed lovingly on the framed photo.
“I beg your pardon… Who are you?” asked Rachel, looking at him askance.
He gave her a tentative smile. “My name’s Tyler. Tyler Lee… I’m your brother. Well, your half-brother, actually.”
There were gasps around the room and I saw several eyebrows waggling wildly.
“My brother?” said Rachel. She stared at him, then gave an incredulous laugh. “You’ve got to be joking. I’m an only child—”
“Yeah, well, you wouldn’t know about me,” said the handsome stranger with a sad smile. “Even our dad didn’t know. My mother was a proud woman and she knew that he had a family back here in England. I mean, it was tough for us—we didn’t have much and she had to work really hard—but she didn’t want to beg.” He took a step forwards and raised a clenched fist. “But I know he really loved her! They didn’t have much time together but you don’t see passion like that every day and… and I’m sure he would have looked after me—after us—if he’d known.”
People’s eyes were practically popping out of theirs sockets now. Everyone was holding their breath—it was so still, you could almost hear a pin drop in the room. Rachel Clifford had her mouth hanging open and she looked as if she didn’t know how to respond.
“My mother told me all about my dad, from the time I was a baby,” Tyler Lee continued, unperturbed by the reaction around him. “She said he was a good man—really kind and generous… and I always wanted to find him one day.” He sighed dramatically. “Who knew that when I finally found him, it would be too late?”
There came a sound like a choking sob nearby. I glanced over to see Adele staring at the young man, her face convulsed and her hand clutching her middle.
Blimey. I didn’t think that she would be the type to be moved by a sob story. I guess I was wrong.
Tyler Lee reached a hand out to Rachel across the table. She recoiled from him.
“It’s wonderful to know I have a sister,” he said, his voice quavering with emotion. “Especially now that my mother is gone too. At least I know I’m not alone anymore!”
It was a moving speech but I couldn’t help feeling that it had been carefully rehearsed. Tyler Lee obviously had a flair for drama and, although his words were directed at Rachel, I noticed that he faced the crowd, projecting his voice so that it carried to the farthest reaches of the hall. This was a man used to “working” an audience and who enjoyed the attention. I wondered again whether he might be an actor or a model…
He leaned across the table and caught Rachel’s limp hand. “I can’t wait to get to know my new family. We can share memories of the wonderful man who was my fa—”
His speech was suddenly interrupted by a strangled cry.
I turned to see Adele stagger forwards, then slump over the buffet table, face down in the sticky toffee pudding. Someone next to her screamed as her body began to jerk spasmodically.
“She’s having a seizure!” someone shouted.
Adele rolled off the table and fell to the floor, dragging the tablecloth with her and pulling half the food off the table. There were more screams, mingled with the sound of shattering china, as scones, cakes, and sandwiches fell to the floor, and fresh cream splattered everywhere. I rushed towards Adele just as several other people ran forwards as well. She was retching and moaning, clutching her abdomen and twisting in agony.
“Call an ambulance!” I yelled as I bent down next to Adele and helped others roll her over.
“Is there a doctor here?” cried a woman next to me.
“Yes, I’m a doctor!” said a short, balding man, elbowing his way through the crowd. He crouched down beside me and examined Adele, who seemed to have stopped vomiting and was moving less and less now, her moaning fading away. But her stillness and silence were not reassuring.
“Is she all right?” someone asked in a hushed voice.
The doctor looked up, his face grim. “I hope the ambulance gets here quickly. It doesn’t look good.”