A Scone to Die For
"Scones, a tea shop in England, a kitty & a murder - yes, please!"
This book follows British English spelling and usage.
Clean read: no graphic violence, sex, or strong language.
Genre: humorous culinary cozy mysteries, cat cozy mystery series / women amateur sleuth / British detective mystery
OXFORD TEAROOM MYSTERIES
A Scone To Die For (Book 1)
Tea with Milk and Murder (Book 2)
Two Down, Bun To Go (Book 3)
Till Death Do Us Tart (Book 4)
Muffins and Mourning Tea (Book 5)
Four Puddings and a Funeral (Book 6)
Another One Bites the Crust (Book 7)
Apple Strudel Alibi (Book 8)
The Dough Must Go On (Book 9)
All-Butter ShortDead (Prequel)
Release date: January 17, 2016
Publisher: Wisheart Press
Print pages: 328
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A Scone to Die For
I never thought I’d end the week facing an American with a sharp knife.
It started normally enough, with the usual influx of tourists and visitors to our tiny Cotswolds’ village of Meadowford-on-Smythe. Filled with winding cobbled lanes and pretty thatched cottages, Meadowford was like a picture-perfect postcard of rural England. But quaint and gorgeous as the village was, it would probably never have got much notice if it hadn’t sat on the outskirts of the most famous university city in the world.
Over nine million tourists came to visit Oxford each year, and after they’d posed for photos in the college quadrangles and wandered reverently through the cloisters of the oldest university in the English-speaking world, they drifted out into the surrounding Cotswolds countryside. Here, they would coo over the quaint antique shops and village markets, and look forward to rounding everything off with some authentic English “afternoon tea”.
That’s where I came in. Or rather, my new business: the Little Stables Tearoom. Offering the best in traditional English refreshments, from warm buttery scones with jam and clotted cream, to home-made sticky toffee pudding and hot cross buns, all served with fragrant Earl Grey or English Breakfast tea—proper leaf tea—in delicate bone china… my little tearoom was a must-stop on any visitor’s itinerary.
Well, okay, right now, my little tearoom was more of a “must go next time”—but we all have to start somewhere, right?
And so far, things were looking pretty promising. I’d opened three weeks ago, just at the beginning of October and the start of the Michaelmas Term (a fancy name for the first term in the school year; hey, this is Oxford—at least it wasn’t in Latin) and I’d been lucky to catch the end-of-the-summer tourist trade, as well as the flood of new students arriving with their families. My tearoom had even got a write-up in the local student magazine as one of the “Top Places to Take Your Parents” and looked set on its way to becoming a success.
And I desperately needed it to succeed. I’d given up a top executive job in Sydney—much to the horror of family and friends—on a crazy whim to come back home and follow this dream. I’d sunk every last penny of my savings into this place and I needed it to work. Besides, if my venture didn’t become profitable soon, I’d never be able to afford a place of my own, and seriously, after being home for six weeks, I realised that moving back to live with your parents when you’re twenty-nine is a fate worse than death.
But standing at the counter surveying my tearoom that Saturday morning, I was feeling happy and hopeful. It was still an hour till lunchtime but already the place was almost full. There was a warm cosy atmosphere, permeated by the cheerful hum of conversation, the dainty clink of china, and that gorgeous smell of fresh baking. People were poring over their menus, happily stuffing their faces, or pointing and looking around the room in admiration.
The tearoom was housed in a 15th-century Tudor building, with the distinctive dark half-timber framing and walls painted white. With its thatched roof and cross gables, it looked just like the quintessential English cottages featured on chocolate box tins. Inside, the period charm continued with flagstone floors and thick, exposed wood beams, matched by mullioned windows facing the street and an inglenook fireplace.
It hadn’t looked like this when I took it over. The last owner had let things go badly, due to a combination of money troubles and personal lethargy (otherwise known as laziness), and it had taken a lot of effort and dedication—not to mention all my savings—to restore this place to its former glory. But looking around now, I felt as great a sense of achievement as I had done the day I graduated with a First from that world-famous university nearby.
I scanned the tables, noting that we were starting to get some “regulars” and feeling a rush of pleasure at the thought. Getting someone to try you once—especially when they were tired and hungry and just wanted somewhere to sit down—was one thing; getting them to add you to their weekly routine was a different honour altogether. Especially when that honour was handed out by the residents of Meadowford-on-Smythe who viewed all newcomers with deep suspicion.
Not that I was really a “newcomer”—I’d lived here as a little girl and, even after my family had moved to North Oxford in my teens, we’d always popped back to visit on school holidays and long weekends. But I’d been gone long enough to be considered an “outsider” now and I knew that I would have to work hard to earn back my place in the village.
Still, it looked like I was taking my first steps. Sitting at the heavy oak table by the window were four little old ladies with their heads together, like a group of finicky hens deciding which unfortunate worm to peck first. Fluffy white hair, woolly cardigans, and spectacles perched on the ends of their noses… they looked like the stereotype of sweet, old grannies. But don’t be fooled. These four could have given MI5 a run for their money. They made it their business to know everybody’s business (that was just the basic service—interfering in other people’s business was extra). It was rumoured that even the Mayor of Oxford was in their power.
But the fact that they were sitting in my tearoom was a good sign, I told myself hopefully. It meant that there was a chance I was being accepted and approved of. Then my heart sank as I saw one of them frown and point to an item on the menu. The other three leaned closer and there were ominous nods all around.
Uh-oh. I grabbed an order pad and hurried over to their table.
“Good morning, ladies.” I pinned a bright smile to my face. “What can I get you today?”
They turned their heads in unison and looked up at me, four pairs of bright beady eyes and pursed lips.
“You’re looking a bit peaky, Gemma,” said Mabel Cooke in her booming voice. “Are you sure you’re getting enough fibre, dear? There’s a wonderful new type of bran you can take in the mornings, you know, to help you get ‘regular’. Dr Foster recommended it to me. Just a spoon on your cereal and you’ll be in the loo, regular as clockwork. Works marvellously to clear you out.” She leaned closer and added in a stage whisper, which was loud enough for the entire room to hear, “So much cheaper than that colon irritation thing they do, dear.”
I saw the couple at the next table turn wide eyes on me and felt myself flushing. “Er… thank you, Mrs Cooke. Now, can I take—”
“I saw your mother in Oxford yesterday,” Glenda Bailey spoke up from across the table. As usual, she was wearing bright pink lipstick, which clashed badly with the rouge on her cheeks, but somehow the overall effect was charming. Glenda was eighty going on eighteen, with a coquettish manner that went perfectly with her girlish looks. “Has she had her hair done recently?”
To be honest, I had no idea. I had only been back six weeks and I thought my mother looked pretty much the same. But I suppose her hair was in a different style to the last time I’d returned to England.
“Er… yes, I think so.”
Glenda clucked her tongue and fluttered her eyelashes in distress. “Oh, it was shocking. So flat and shapeless. I suppose she went to one of those fancy new hairdressers in Oxford?”
“I… I think she did.”
There were gasps from around the table.
“She should have come to Bridget here in the village,” said Mabel disapprovingly. “Nobody can do a wash and blow dry like our Bridget. She even gave me a blue rinse for free the last time I was there.” She patted her head with satisfaction, then turned back to me with a scowl. “Really, Gemma! Young hairdressers nowadays know nothing about lift and volume. I don’t know why your mother is going to these fancy new hair salons.”
Maybe because not everyone wants to walk around wearing a cotton wool helmet on their heads, I thought, but I bit back the retort.
“It’s because they have no concept of ‘staying power’,” Florence Doyle spoke up. Her simple, placid face was unusually earnest. “They’ve never been through the war and have no idea of rationing. They don’t know how to make things last as long as possible. People wash their hair so frequently these days.” She gave a shudder.
“Well, a wash and set once a week was good enough for my mother and it’s good enough for me,” said Mabel with an emphatic nod. She eyed me suspiciously. “How often do you wash your hair, Gemma?”
“I… um… only when I need to,” I stammered, thinking guiltily of my daily shower and shampoo. With a determined effort, I changed the subject. “What would you like to order for morning tea?”
“I’d like some of your delicious warm scones with jam and clotted cream—and a pot of English Breakfast, please,” Ethel Webb spoke up.
The quietest of the group, Ethel was a kindly, absent-minded spinster who used to be the librarian at the local library until she retired a few years ago. I remembered her gentle face smiling at me as she stamped the return date on my books when I was a little girl.
She gave me that same gentle smile now. “And I think you’ve done a lovely job with the tearoom, Gemma. I’m really proud of you.”
I looked at her in surprise, a sudden tightness coming to my throat. Since announcing my decision to ditch my high-flying corporate career for a village tearoom, the reactions I’d received had ranged from aghast disbelief to horrified disapproval. I hadn’t realised until now how much a bit of support meant to me.
“Thank you…” I said, blinking rapidly. “Thank you, Miss Webb. I… I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your words.”
Her eyes twinkled at me. “Now that you’re nearly thirty, Gemma, do you think you could call me Ethel, dear? I’m not behind the library desk anymore, you know.”
I returned her smile. “I’ll try, Miss… Ethel.”
I managed to take the rest of the orders without further comment on my bowels, my mother’s hair follicles or the young generation’s lack of economy, and hurried back to the counter in relief. My best friend, Cassie, met me on the way. She had been looking after a large group of American tourists, which had just arrived by coach and was now settled in the tables along the far wall.
“Looks like you survived another encounter with the Old Biddies,” she said with a grin as we both rounded the counter.
I rolled my eyes. “If I have to hear one more thing about Mabel’s ‘regular’ bowel habits, I think I’m going to take a running jump.”
“You’ll get no sympathy from me,” said Cassie. “You’ve only had to put up with them for three weeks so far. I’ve been putting up with them for the past eight years while you’ve been gallivanting off Down Under.”
Cassie and I had known each other from the time we both believed in Santa Claus. That moment when we’d first sat down next to each other in the classroom of our village school had been the start of an unexpected but wonderful friendship. Unexpected because you couldn’t have found two people more un-alike than Cassie and me. She was one of five siblings in a large, rowdy family where everyone talked constantly—when they weren’t singing, dancing, painting, or sculpting—and the house was in a constant state of cluttered chaos. Cassie’s parents were “artists” in the true sense of the word and believed that the most important things in life were creative freedom and personal expression. It was no surprise that Cassie had done Fine Art at Oxford.
I, meanwhile, was the only child of an upper-middle-class household where nobody spoke at any volume above a well-modulated murmur and certainly never with excessive emotion. My house was always a perfectly ordered sanctuary of cream furniture and matching curtains. My parents were “British” in the true sense of the word and believed that the most important things in life were a stiff upper lip and correct etiquette. You couldn’t do “Ladylike Decorum” as a degree at Oxford so my mother had had to settle for me doing English Language and Literature.
Like most artists, Cassie worked a series of part-time jobs to help make ends meet. When she learned about my plans to return to Meadowford-on-Smythe and re-open the tearoom, it had taken very little to convince her to ditch her usual day job and come work with me. In fact, her past waitressing experience had been invaluable. Even now, I watched in admiration as she expertly balanced several plates laden with scones, cheesecake, and crumpets—as well as a pot of tea and two teacups—and started to make her way to the table of Japanese tourists by the door.
A strange snapping noise caught my attention and I turned towards the sound. It was coming from a large man who seemed to be part of the tour group that had just come in. He was sitting alone at a table at the edge of the group and had his left hand in the air, snapping it impatiently, like someone calling a disobedient dog. I frowned at his rudeness, but reminded myself that I was in the hospitality industry now. Professional, friendly service no matter what. I took a deep breath and went over to him.
“Can I help you, sir?”
“Yeah, I wanna glass of water.”
He had a strong American accent and an aggressive manner, which put me instantly on edge, but I kept my smile in place.
“Certainly.” I started to turn away but paused as he spoke again.
“Wait—is it tap? I only drink filtered water.”
“I’m afraid we don’t have a filter, sir. It’s plain tap water. But it’s very safe to drink tap water in the U.K. We do have bottled water on the menu, if you prefer.”
He scowled. “What a rip-off. Water should be free.”
I stifled a sigh. “You can certainly have water for free, but it’ll be tap water. We have to pay for the bottled water so I have to charge you for that.”
“All right, all right…” He waved a hand. “Get me a glass of tap water. And put some ice in it.”
I turned to go but was stopped again by his voice.
“Hey, by the way, the service is terrible. I’ve been sitting here forever and no one’s come to take my order!”
I stared at him, wondering if he was serious. Surely he realised that he had only just come in a few minutes ago? The rest of the group were still looking at their menus. One of the women in the group, sitting at the next table with her little boy, met my eyes and gave me a sympathetic smile. I took a deep breath and let it out through my nose.
“I’ll just grab my order pad, sir.”
“Yeah, well, be quick about it. I haven’t got all day.”
Gritting my teeth, I headed back to the counter. My mood was not improved when I got there to find Cassie with an exasperated look on her face.
“The shop’s empty again.”
“Arrrrgghh!” I said under my breath. “Muesli, I’m going to kill you!”
No, I don’t have an abnormal hatred of cereals. Muesli is a cat and, like all cats, she delights in doing the exact opposite of what you want. The Food Standards Agency inspector had been adamant: the only way I’d be allowed to have a cat on the premises was if it stayed out of the kitchen and dining areas. Easy, I’d thought. I’ll just keep Muesli in the extension where we had a little shop selling Oxford souvenirs and English tea paraphernalia. The fact that I thought of the words “easy” and “cat” in the same sentence probably tells you that I don’t know much about felines.
Okay, I’ll be the first to admit—I’ve always been more of a dog person. I think cats are fascinating and beautiful and look great on greeting cards. But not on my lap leaving hairs everywhere and certainly not in my tearoom, getting under everyone’s feet. So why, you wonder, is the tabby terror even here? Well, she came as a packaged deal with my chef. And Fletcher Wilson is a magician with a mixer and a spatula. Trust me, once you’ve tasted his sticky toffee pudding, you’d be ready to give him your first born child. So agreeing to let him have his cat with him at work seemed like a small price to pay in exchange for his culinary expertise.
The problem was, I hadn’t counted on the cat being quite so sociable. Or such a great escape artist. Muesli had quickly decided that there was no way she was going to remain in the shop area when all the real fun was going on here in the dining room and she made it her life’s mission to escape at any opportunity. I couldn’t really blame her. In fact, I felt guilty every time I saw that little tabby face—with her pink nose pressed up to the glass—peering wistfully through the door that separated the shop from the dining room. But food hygiene laws were one thing I couldn’t ignore if I didn’t want to lose my licence.
“One of the Japanese tourists must have gone in the shop to check out some of the stuff and she slipped out when they opened the door,” commented Cassie.
I sighed and scanned the room, looking for a little tabby shape between the tables. I couldn’t see her. I crouched down to get a better view. All I could see was a forest of legs… I bit my lip. Where was that cat? I had to find her before any of the customers noticed her loose in here. The last thing I needed was for Mabel and her cronies to discover my Food Standards violation; the news would be halfway across Oxfordshire before the day ended.
“Hey! Can I get some service around here?” came an irate American voice.
I straightened up hurriedly. Oh God, I’d forgotten about Mr Charming. I gave Cassie a harassed look. “Keep looking for her, will you?”
I grabbed the order pad—then, on an impulse, also picked up a plate of fresh blackberry cheesecake, which had just come through the hatch from the kitchen. Well, they did say the way to a man’s heart was through his stomach. I added a knife and fork, and a dollop of cream, then walked over and set it down in front of him.
“Sorry for the wait, sir. Compliments of the house. This is one of our specialties.”
“Huh.” He looked surprised. He picked up the fork and cut the corner off the soft, creamy cake, putting it cautiously into his mouth. His eyes glazed over slightly and his face softened. “Say… this is not bad.”
I suppressed the urge to roll my eyes. Coming from him, that was probably considered high praise. Still, trying to be charitable, I told myself that maybe he was just one of those people who got really grouchy when hungry. I observed him surreptitiously as I took his order. He was a large, thickset man, with a blocky, almost square-shaped head, fleshy cheeks and prominent ears. His mouth drooped slightly on one side as he talked—the result of a stroke?—and I put him in his early forties, though he looked older. He seemed slightly incongruous sitting there with the other tourists. He was certainly dressed like a tourist in chinos, a loud shirt, and sports jacket, and he had a sort of knapsack on the chair next to him, but somehow he didn’t quite fit in.
“…and I gotta have the bread soft, d’you hear? I don’t want any hard crusts on the sandwiches.”
“All our tea sandwiches are made the traditional way with untoasted bread and the crusts cut off, so they’re all very soft to eat,” I assured him. I noticed the tourist map of Oxford spread out on the table in front of him and gave him a polite smile. “Visiting Oxford, sir?”
“What?” He glanced down at the map. “Oh… oh, yeah.” He gave me a sheepish grin. “Yeah, first-time visitor here; never been to Oxford before. Gotta figure out how to get around. Say, you know how long it takes to walk from the Bodleian Library to Magdalen College?”
“No more than ten or fifteen minutes, I should think. You can take the shortcut through Catte Street onto High Street, and then just turn left and walk straight down to the bridge.”
“Catte Street… that comes out opposite the bank, doesn’t it?”
I frowned. “You mean, the Old Bank Hotel?”
He blinked and a look of confusion flashed across his face, to be replaced quickly by a bland smile. “Sure, yeah, that’s what I mean.” He folded up the map. “Well, thanks for that. You gotta restroom here?”
I directed him to the door beside the shop, then hurried back to the counter to put his order through. I could hear raised voices in the kitchen and winced. I wondered if Cassie was telling Fletcher about his missing cat. I hoped it wouldn’t upset him too much. Fletcher was… “sensitive”, for want of a better word. He was painfully shy and didn’t relate to people like most of us did—in fact, he found it difficult to even make eye contact when he spoke to you. Animals seemed to be the only thing that helped him come out of his shell and I knew that having Muesli here played a big role in calming his nerves and helping him cope with things.
Remembering the request for water, I hurriedly poured a glass and added a few ice-cubes, then took it back to the American man’s table. As I was putting it down, the little boy at the next table jumped up with a yell and jostled my elbow. Water sloshed out of the glass and onto the man’s knapsack.
“Blast!” I muttered.
“Oh, I’m so sorry!” said the woman at the next table. “Hunter, apologise to the lady.”
I gave the little boy a distracted smile. “That’s okay. It was an accident.”
I set the glass down and picked up the knapsack, trying to shake the water off. It was unzipped and a lot of water had spilled onto a folder inside. I hesitated a second, then pulled the folder out and grabbed a napkin from the holder on the table to mop up the moisture. My heart sank as I saw that water had seeped into the folder and wet the sheaf of papers inside. I could just imagine the American’s reaction when he came out and saw what had happened.
Hastily, I pulled out the sheets and dabbed at them with more napkins. The water had soaked through the first page. I hoped it wasn’t anything important. It had the look of an official letter, with the University of Oxford letterhead at the top, but what I was more worried about was the bottom where the signature—obviously done in fountain pen—had smeared across the page. I dabbed at it, thinking to myself frantically: most signatures were illegible anyway, weren’t they? This one, for instance, you could hardly make out what the name was. It looked like a “G” and then “Hayes” or “Hughes”, but in any case—
“WHAT THE HELL DO YOU THINK YOU’RE DOING?”
I gasped as a hand grabbed my wrist and yanked me back from the table. Conversation at the next table ceased and the whole room went silent as everyone turned to stare. The American towered over me, one hand clamped on my wrist, the other holding something that gleamed dully. My eyes widened as I realised that it was a knife.
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