The 12th book in the Oxford Tearoom Mysteries is set to be released in Feb 2023! Here’s a little taster…
** (taken from Chapter 1 of the (unedited) working draft, so please excuse any mistakes and typos!)
When life deals you lemons… head to the Scottish Highlands.
Well, I’m sure the original speaker of that quote never expected that variation, but it was certainly apt in this case. It wasn’t an abundance of sour citrus fruits, though, but rather a flood of sewage water that threatened the mundane peacefulness of my life…
“It’s totally gone, luv. Rusted right through. You’re goin’ to need a whole new system,” said the plumber as he sat back on his heels, wiped his hands on a dirty rag and eyed the twisted network of old pipes with relish (no doubt thinking of what the “whole new system” was going to put in his pocket). “Reckon I could squeeze you in before my next job, but you’re goin’ to have to close for a week.”
“A week?” I stared at him in horror. “You want me to shut the tearoom for a week?”
The plumber shrugged. “No other way. Not unless you want your customers smellin’ everything I bring up.”
I shuddered. It had been bad enough the last few days when I’d had to explain to irate customers that there was no working toilet available—not something you want to be announcing to big tour groups and families with young children after you’d been plying them with multiple cups of tea!
And people might rave about how much they loved the period features and quaint atmosphere of the converted Tudor inn that housed my tearoom, but somehow, they drew the line at experiencing authentic 15th century plumbing. I knew the Little Stables Tearoom had already copped some negative reviews online because of this; its reputation would sink completely if things got worse.
“All right,” I sighed. “Just… can you please do it as fast as you can?”
“Sure, luv. I’ll have it done for you in a jiffy,” he said cheerfully.
Which—as anyone who has had experience of British tradesmen knows—probably meant he would only drink seventeen cups of tea a day, have twelve cigarette breaks and knock off at three-thirty instead of three.
Still, I didn’t have much choice and after I showed the plumber out the front door and readjusted the “CLOSED” sign, I went into the kitchen to break the news. Two women looked up expectantly as I stepped inside the door: Dora my tearoom chef, a stocky, grey-haired matron with a wonderful knack for creating gorgeous baked treats and a brisk manner that belied her kindly heart… and Cassie my best friend and partner-in-waitressing, whose sensual resemblance to an artist’s muse belied her own brilliant talent with the paintbrush. While they could not have been more different, at the moment they were both wearing identical expectant expressions on their faces.
“Well?” said Cassie. “What did the plumber say?”
I relayed the bad news, bracing myself for their dismay. After all, both Dora and Cassie had worked as hard as I had over the past year to make the tearoom a success, and I knew they’d both be appalled at the prospect of being forced to close for business. To my surprise, though, Cassie beamed and exclaimed:
“Actually, that’s brilliant! You can come with me!”
I looked at her blankly. “Come where?”
“To Scotland, of course,” said Cassie. “I’m heading off this weekend, remember? I’m teaching that painting workshop at Aberglinn Castle in the Highlands.”
“Oh… yeah, that’s right,” I said, wondering how I could have forgotten when I’d had to make changes to the menu and seating arrangements, to ensure that we could manage while Cassie was away.
“My contract comes with room and board,” Cassie continued excitedly. “And there are twin beds in my room, so you can stay with me. I’m sure they won’t mind. It’ll be perfect: you can just lounge around and relax, or go and explore the castle grounds while I’m teaching the workshop. The castle’s been converted into a posh hotel, you know, and it’s up in the Highlands, at the foot of the mountains. The countryside around is spectacular. You could try fly-fishing or go hiking—”
“Cassie, I can’t go gallivanting off to Scotland while work is being done on my tearoom!”
“Why not? It’s not like you’re going to be holding the spanner for the plumber, are you?” Cassie said. “You can’t do anything while this place is closed, so you might as well take advantage of the situation. And you’re well overdue for a holiday.”
“Cassie’s right, dear,” Dora chimed in. “You’ve been working so hard; it’s high time you took a break.”
“It’s not a break that I need, it’s a new plumbing system,” I muttered. “Besides, you’ve both been putting in long hours too—”
“Not like you,” said Cassie. “You’ve been working like a madwoman, especially in the past few weeks. It’s not healthy, Gemma! Do you realise you haven’t taken any time off since the tearoom opened nearly eighteen months ago? And don’t mention that trip to Vienna,” she added, giving me a mock glower. “Spending most of your time investigating a murder doesn’t count as a proper holiday.”
“It’s not like I haven’t tried to take a holiday,” I said irritably. “But every time I organised something, it ended up being cancelled because Devlin—” I broke off.
There was an awkward silence. Then Cassie took a breath and said, in a determinedly cheerful voice, “Well, let me tell you, that’s one of the perks of being a single girl. No more worrying about the stupid workaholic boyfriend, no more contorting your life to match another person’s schedule. You just suit yourself.” She grabbed my arm. “Come on, Gemma—it’ll be a great ‘girls’ trip’! We’ll have a brilliant time.”
I shook my head but inside, I could feel myself beginning to waver. It was true that I had been working like a maniac in recent months. But I had desperately needed to keep busy—to distract myself and take my mind off a certain Detective Inspector Devlin O’Connor who had turned my world upside-down when he suggested that we “take a break” from our relationship. Okay, so Devlin had nearly lost his job and his chance at an all-important promotion because of my meddling—er—I mean, attempts to help in an investigation, so perhaps it had been understandable. And he had been right that we needed to sort out the various thorny issues between us, including my tendency to get personally involved in other people’s troubles, and his tendency to dedicate every waking hour to his job. It was ironic, really, because the reason we clashed so often was because we both tended to put strangers’ needs before our own, albeit in different ways.
Still, I had always thought that we’d work through those “thorny issues” together, and I was shocked and hurt when Devlin had suggested some time and space apart, to help us find some answers. Not that I showed him how shocked and hurt I was, of course. Oh no—growing up in a repressed, upper-middle class household had provided me with the perfect training for the classic British “stiff-upper lip” and I’d made sure to maintain a cool, nonchalant façade ever since. It was exhausting, though, and I knew that Cassie could see the strain. One thing about having a best friend who had known you since primary school was that they could see right through you.
“Well, okay, maybe I could do with a break,” I conceded. “But I could just stay in Oxford, so that I’m nearby, in case there’s a problem with the renovations and—”
“No, no, you must come to Scotland with me,” insisted Cassie. “There’s a reason the plumbing packed up right now. It’s like it’s meant to be!”
I stopped and looked at her, surprised by her vehemence. “Why are you so keen for me to go to Scotland?”
Cassie blinked. “I… well, like I said, I’ve already got this place sorted so it’s the perfect arrangement—”
“Yes, but… you sounded like there’s a specific reason you need me to go.”
“Well, of course, there’s a reason—the reason is because you need a holiday!”
I narrowed my eyes at her. The thing about childhood best friends is that it works both ways. “No, there’s something else—something you’re not telling me, Cassandra Jenkins.”
She opened her eyes wide. “What do you mean? I don’t know what you’re talking about. I… I just think it’s a fantastic opportunity and you should seize it. Not just to have a break but also to… to do some research!”
“Research?” I said, momentarily distracted.
“Yes, you could see it as a sort of… er… business development trip. You know, a chance to check out the baking in the Scottish Highlands, maybe pick up a few tips and ideas from local tearooms and bakeries.” She snapped her fingers. “In fact, now that I think about it, I seem to remember that Aberglinn Castle offers a special Afternoon Tea to its guests. Wouldn’t you love to try that, see how they do things?”
“Well…” It was true that I loved sampling and comparing offerings by other establishments. Part of it was professional curiosity and part of it was that I just loved the ritual of English afternoon tea: the beautiful fine bone china, the fragrant tea leaves steeped just long enough to produce the perfect cup, the delicious, freshly baked buns, and tarts, and the warm, buttery scones… I would have loved to see the Scottish interpretation of this classic tradition and Cassie was painting a very tempting picture; a “work” reason for the trip certainly made it seem more acceptable to abandon my tearoom and go.
“Well, I would love to sample some traditional Scottish baking,” declared Dora, smacking her lips. “They do all these scrumptious cakes and desserts… I love clootie dumplings, with all the flavours from the dried fruits and treacle and cinnamon … mmm… and that lovely, moist, rich Dundee cake… oh, and cranachan, of course. You’d think is just like a trifle but is so much nicer! Maybe it’s the Scottish raspberries or maybe it’s the whisky,” she chuckled. “And of course, nothing beats their famous shortcakes. It’s one of those things that seems so simple—only three ingredients!—but it’s so tricky to get perfectly right.”
“I think your shortbreads are delicious, Dora,” said Cassie loyally.
Dora waved a hand. “Oh, they’re not bad, I suppose. I’ve got a good recipe. But I’m sure they can’t compare to proper shortbread, made in Scotland. Plus there’s nothing like learning from a local baker.” She turned to me and nodded emphatically. “I’ll be sending you with some homework, Gemma. You can use some of your time to take notes for me.”
“I haven’t said I’m going yet,” I protested.
“Aww, come on!” said Cassie impatiently. “Look, if you don’t get away—I mean, completely away—you’ll never have a real break from things. You know how it is: if you stay in Oxford, you’ll just end up getting sucked back into stuff. You’ll be doing emails, admin, accounting, and you won’t be able to help yourself coming out to Meadowford-on-Smyth to check on the progress in the tearoom…” She paused, then added with a sly look, “And you’ll be roped into your mother’s latest crazy schemes”
Oh God. She was right. The thought of being at loose end for a week, with no way of escaping my mother’s bossing and interference, was more than enough to sway me.
“What about Muesli?” I asked, glancing across at my little tabby cat who had—once again—sneaked into the tearoom kitchen despite our best efforts and was now happily curled up on one of the chairs by the table.
“She can stay with your parents, can’t she?” said Cassie.
“I think they were planning to go away this weekend. Mother said something about being invited to stay with friends in the Cotswolds.”
“I would offer to look after Muesli, except that I think I’ll use this chance to visit my sister in Bournemouth,” said Dora apologetically. “I was planning to go next month but since I won’t be needed here, I might as well go now.”
“Don’t worry, I’m sure the Old Biddies will be happy to have Muesli. It’s only for a few days,” said Cassie. She looked at me eagerly. “So that’s all sorted and all you need to do is think about what you’re going to pack!”
Her excitement was infections and in spite of myself, I felt a flutter of anticipation. Suddenly, the thought of getting away from the tearoom, Oxford, the stresses of everyday life—of having a complete change of scene—was incredibly appealing.
“All right,” I said, smiling at my best friend. “Scottish Highlands here we come!”
I would love to have tea tearoom series in my bookshelf to enjoy over and over.
Thank you, Gee – good luck in the giveaway!
I just got the kindle book and going to read it in-between my work and studies–excited to read the next story!