Fronds and Enemies
Join gardening sleuth Poppy and the talkative ginger kitty Oren as they weed out murder suspects in their new horticultural mystery!
Books in the English Cottage Garden Mysteries:
Deadhead and Buried (Book 1)
Silent Bud Deadly (Book 2)
Doom and Bloom (Book 3)
Trowel and Error (Book 4)
Release date: March 28, 2021
Publisher: Wisheart Press
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Fronds and Enemies
Spring has come at last with cheerful daffodils and plump crocus blooms, and Poppy is hoping that the new season will magically resurrect the cottage garden nursery she's inherited. But with her stock failing to grow and a mysterious "peeping Tom" stalking the village, she's got her gardening gloves full... and that's even before her visit to the local doctor ends with her stumbling on a dead body! Then her friend and neighbour - crime author Nick Forrest - suddenly finds himself the top suspect, and a missing garden gnome is the only lead in the case. Determined to find the real killer, Poppy sets out to do some horticultural sleuthing - helped by eccentric old inventor Bertie and a posse of nosy villagers. All she finds, however, are more questions. Was the murder simply a "crime of passion" or was it something more sinister? Is there a link to the recent spate of creepy lingerie thefts in the village? And could the naughty ginger tomcat Oren be the key to solving the mystery?
As she grapples with spindly seedlings and cryptic clues, Poppy discovers that even a sleepy English village can be a hotbed of deceit and death...
Poppy Lancaster held her breath as she watched the woman on the other side of the wooden trestle table. Her anxious gaze followed the woman’s hands as they hovered indecisively over several pots of young primroses and she felt a surge of hope as the woman lifted one of the pots at last.
“It’s very small, isn’t it?” said the woman with a sniff as she eyed the plant critically.
Poppy flushed. She knew that her bedding plants were on the small side, with spindly stems and small leaves that flopped over the edges of the pots. Somehow, despite her determined efforts and her careful study of textbooks and websites through the long winter months, she hadn’t managed to produce the trays bursting with vigorous, bushy plants that she’d hoped to offer for sale as spring bedding.
Still, she tried not to let her chagrin show. Instead, she plastered a bright smile to her face and said, “They… they’ve got a bit of catching up to do, but once you get them in the ground or in a container, they’ll take off and grow very quickly.”
“Hmm…” The woman didn’t look convinced. “There isn’t much choice either, is there? You’ve only got two colours.” She dropped the pot back onto the bench and turned away.
Poppy’s heart sank and she struggled to keep the smile on her face. “I do have other colours, but they’re… um… still growing and not quite ready for sale yet.”
The woman cast a disparaging eye across the rest of the trestle table. “Is this it? Do you have any other stock?”
“Not at the moment,” said Poppy apologetically. “But I have more plants growing in the greenhouse and they should be ready for sale by next week or the week after—”
“What good is that to me now?” grumbled the woman. She glanced again at the pots laid out on the trestle table. “So… how much are these?”
Poppy named the price that she had finally decided on after weeks of deliberation and agonising over her business accounts.
The woman scowled. “That’s practically daylight robbery!” she complained. “I can get plants double the size for half that price at the big garden centres.”
Poppy flushed again. “Well, you see, it’s harder for small nurseries,” she tried to explain. “We haven’t got the economies of scale like the big garden centres and—”
“Spare me the sob story,” the woman cut in. “I came here because I’d been told that it’s one of the best local nurseries, with a top selection of plants and good value for money.” She cast a contemptuous look around. “I don’t know what they were talking about!”
She turned to leave. Poppy bit her lip, then called after the woman:
“I can give you a special deal: two for the price of one! Just to make up for the… um… slightly smaller size.”
“No thanks,” the woman said over her shoulder. “I’m going to one of the big garden centres, where I should have gone in the first place!”
Poppy stood and watched miserably as the woman marched towards the front gate. The path wound past flowerbeds which were just coming out of their winter slumber and beginning to show the lush growth and colourful blooms for which the cottage garden was famous. The roses might just be growing their first leaves, and the other perennials only beginning to produce new shoots, but swathes of flowering bulbs were already filling the beds with rich colour.
Vivid hyacinths in jewel tones, surrounded by plump crocus blooms… clumps of jonquils and daffodils, their creamy white and lemony yellow flowers highlighted by dainty dwarf irises… and intermingled amongst the bulbs were mounds of violas, their happy little “faces” turned towards the sun, as well as clusters of forget-me-nots providing a carpet of soft blue. For Poppy—who had no idea that all these bulbs had been lying dormant beneath the soil during the long, cold winter—seeing them emerge in the past couple of weeks and transform the bare garden had been like watching a magical spectacle unfold.
The wonder was lost on the woman, though, who walked past the flowerbeds without a single glance and pushed her way impatiently out of the wooden front gate, swinging it shut behind her with a rattle that made Poppy wince. Sighing, she turned back to the trestle table and rearranged the pots into neat rows once again. Her shoulders slumped as she felt a wave of doubt wash over her.
Was I crazy to think that I could do this? she wondered bleakly. I could never keep anything green alive before—why did I think I could suddenly run a garden nursery, just because I’d inherited one?
When that letter had arrived from a strange solicitor last year, telling Poppy that she had inherited Hollyhock Cottage Gardens and Nursery, it had seemed like a gift from a fairy godmother. Or—as it turned out—an estranged grandmother, in this case. Poppy had just lost her job and her place to live in London, and she’d been needing a fresh start: a new home and new life somewhere. The quaint old cottage with its romantic, overgrown garden, in the bustling village of Bunnington, situated in the heart of the Oxfordshire countryside, had been everything Poppy could have wished for.
And she had soon discovered that she’d inherited not just a property but a legacy too. Her grandmother, Mary Lancaster, had been a renowned plantswoman and Hollyhock Cottage had gained a reputation far and wide for not only being one of the best examples of a traditional English cottage garden, but also for selling some of the healthiest, most vigorous plants in the country.
Poppy had nurtured a dream that she, too, could live up to the Lancaster name and had thrown herself into reviving her grandmother’s nursery business, which had been sadly neglected during the latter’s long illness. And—despite her inexperience—for a while, it had looked like it wasn’t an empty dream. The summer months had been glorious, with the cottage gardens at their most beautiful, and Poppy had plunged into the world of gardening with delight. She’d embraced the Latin names of all the plants she’d come across, eagerly learned gardening skills like planting and pruning, and discovered a talent for creating gorgeous arrangements of fresh flowers cut from the garden—which had turned into an unexpected source of additional income.
Even when autumn had arrived, with the prospect of little income over the cold months of winter, Poppy had been undaunted. She had thought—naively perhaps—that if she could just sow several batches of seeds and root ample cuttings, she could produce enough young plants to be ready for sale in spring. Somehow, she had clung to the belief that if she could just get through the winter, then things would magically fall into place when the days grew longer and warmer weather arrived.
Poppy sighed again as she looked down at the rows of spindly little plants in front of her. The reality hadn’t quite matched up to her fantasies. Producing enough healthy plants, grown to a good size and of consistent quality, had been much harder than she’d expected. Even though she had followed all the instructions she’d found both online and in textbooks, it had still been a challenge keeping the seedlings alive and thriving in her grandmother’s greenhouse over the winter. And horticultural expertise aside, the simple business skills of managing stock and inventory were something that she had no experience in.
But she was living on the last of her savings now and she would need the nursery to start earning a decent income soon, in order to pay her bills and basic living expenses, never mind keep the business going…
Her thoughts were interrupted by the sound of the front gate opening, and Poppy looked up hopefully. An elderly lady pulling a shopping trolley stepped in. She looked timidly around, then her face brightened as she spied the colourful bulbs in the flowerbeds.
Feeling her spirits lifting once more, Poppy hurried up the path to greet the old lady, saying in her best “customer service” voice:
“Welcome to Hollyhock Cottage Gardens and Nursery! Is there something in particular that I can help you with?”
“Oh yes, my dear. I was hoping to pick up some new flowers for my containers,” said the old lady, smiling at her. “I live in the village, you see, and I don’t have a car. Normally my nephew, Dennis, comes to take me to one of the big garden centres… such a good boy! Well, I say boy, but, of course, he’s really a man now, and well into his fifties…” She wagged a finger at Poppy. “I can still remember the day he was born, you know, as clearly as if it were yesterday! We were all so excited as he was the first grandchild in the family and my sister had been trying for such a long time. And then Dennis arrived early, and my sister was horrified because he came out with his wee willy all bent on one side! Can you imagine that?”
“Er… no… not really,” stammered Poppy.
“The doctors assured her that it wouldn’t affect the function, so to speak, but my sister was still worried anyway. How was Dennis going to get a girl? After all, what woman would want a husband with a bent willy?”
“Er…” Poppy stared at the old lady, lost for words.
“Well, as it turned out, he’s been happily married for over twenty years now and has four strapping sons, so I suppose the doctors were right after all and being a bit crooked doesn’t really matter between the sheets—”
“Um… so what kind of flowers do you like?” interrupted Poppy, desperate not to hear any more about Dennis’s misshapen member.
“Ooh, I do love anything pink, dear,” the old lady declared. “Although mauve is wonderful too.”
“I’ve got some lovely purple pansies that are all ready to go in the ground, or in a pot,” said Poppy eagerly. “And some beautiful primroses too, in a bright fuchsia pink. Or if you’d like something in a more pastel shade, I’ve got some gorgeous little cyclamens. Here, let me show you…”
She led the old lady up the path to the stone cottage in the centre of the gardens. A long trestle table had been set up in front of the cottage, with various pots of bedding plants and early flowering annuals displayed in neat rows on it. Poppy watched anxiously as the old lady went up to the table and examined the selection with interest.
“Ooh, yes, these do look lovely,” said the old lady, picking up two pots of dainty pink cyclamens. “The pale pink flowers look so pretty against the dark green leaves.”
Poppy, who had been bracing herself for another barrage of criticism like she’d received from the last customer, relaxed and beamed at the old lady.
“Thank you! Yes, I love that shade of pink too.”
“Ooh, and you have johnny-jump-ups… aren’t they lovely?” said the old lady, moving down the trestle table and admiring the punnets of trailing violas with their distinctive yellow and purple markings. “I always think they’re so much nicer than the bigger pansies, even though their flowers aren’t as large. They produce so many more blooms and they keep going, even when the weather gets warmer.” She moved on a few steps and picked up the primula that the previous customer had rejected. “And look at these primroses! I don’t think I’ve seen that shade of pink before… lovely!”
Watching her, Poppy felt her hopes rising. Encouraged by the old lady’s enthusiastic attitude, she mentally added up all the plants the other had admired and calculated what she would make from the total sale. Smiling with delight, Poppy said eagerly:
“Would you like two of each colour? Then you could mix and match in the different containers—”
“Oh, bless you, child, I can’t buy them all,” said the old lady, giving her a regretful smile. “I would love to, but I’m afraid my pension doesn’t leave me with very much spending money.” She reached out. “I’ll just take these two cyclamen first. Perhaps next week, I’ll be able to pop back for some more.”
“Yes… of course…” said Poppy, trying to hide her disappointment.
Still, she was delighted to have made a sale at last, even if it was a small one, and she carefully deposited the two potted cyclamen into a shallow cardboard box, then helped the old lady place them into her shopping trolley. Then she walked her to the front gate and stood watching as the old lady trundled away up the lane, pulling her shopping trolley behind her.
Poppy returned to the trestle table and spent a few moments fussing over the remaining pots on display, rearranging them in the most attractive fashion. Her efforts were for naught, though, as the minutes stretched slowly into hours and no new customers came through the gates. Finally, Poppy glanced at her watch and sighed. It was nearly four-thirty—still half an hour before the nursery’s official closing time—but with the chance of anyone arriving looking slimmer by the minute, she wondered if she should call it a day.
She shivered as she stood up from the stool by the trestle table. The temperature seemed to be dropping rapidly too. Although spring was officially here, the weather was still unpredictable, and the nights could still be on the chilly side. Poppy checked over the pots one last time, then began packing up the small, portable cash till that she’d set up at one end of the trestle table. She was just scooping the paltry amount of notes and coins out of the cash drawer when a loud rustling behind her made her pause and look over her shoulder.
She saw nothing and, after a moment, returned to her task. But within seconds, the loud rustling came again, and this time Poppy felt the hairs rise on the back of her neck. She spun around and stared into the shadows of the garden. Goosebumps prickled across her arms and she felt her pulse quicken as a sudden unnerving feeling swept over her. Someone was out there, watching her…
Poppy strained her eyes as she scanned the area around her. A light breeze stirred the leaves in the trees and rustled through the bushes lining the back of the beds. Shadows loomed large between the shrubs, morphing and shifting into ominous shapes.
It’s just your imagination, she told herself sharply. There’s nothing there, no one watching you.
But still, she couldn’t quite shake off the sense of unease. She had been by herself at the nursery all afternoon and hadn’t minded the solitude, but now, suddenly, she felt very alone.
“He-hello?” she called, her voice coming out slightly squeaky. She cleared her throat and tried again. “Is anyone there?”
There was nothing but the soft murmur of the wind and the rustle of the leaves in the trees—sounds which should have been soothing and yet now seemed to take on a menacing tone. Poppy swallowed and wondered if she could muster up the courage to walk deeper into the garden and check if anyone was out there. The loud rustling came again, and her heart began to race. She could see tall grasses moving, bushes shivering, stems bending… something was moving through the undergrowth towards her.
She tensed, her hands unconsciously groping on the trestle table next to her for a weapon. She came up with nothing but a miniature pink watering can. Great, she thought. Someone’s coming to attack me and all I can do is water him to death.
Then the rustling ceased as suddenly as it had begun. Everything was silent for a moment. But Poppy knew that someone was still out there. She could feel eyes watching her every move.
“C-come out!” she called, sounding braver than she felt. “I know you’re out there! Stop skulking like a… a cowardly weasel and show yourself!”
The bushes near her parted and an enormous ginger tomcat stepped out. Poppy felt the breath leave her body in a rush of relief.
“Oren!” she cried, sagging against the trestle table. “My God, you gave me a scare! It was you, wasn’t it, hiding out there, watching me? You bloody cat—I thought you were some kind of creepy stalker!”
Oren gave her a disdainful look, then strolled over to stand next to her. When Poppy didn’t move, he butted his head against her knees and looked up at her expectantly.
“You cheeky monkey!” said Poppy with an exasperated laugh. “After all that, you expect me to give you a chin rub?”
“N-ow,” said Oren complacently.
Poppy rolled her eyes, but somehow she found herself crouching down to stroke the ginger tom.
Why do cats always get their own way? she wondered with a resigned grin as she rubbed Oren’s battle-scarred ears and tickled him under his chin. She heard him purr happily in response. In spite of her exasperation, she had to admit that the big orange tabby cat was a charmer, and had wormed his way into her heart since her arrival in Bunnington. Oren actually belonged to her neighbour—the crime author Nick Forrest—who lived in the beautiful Georgian house in the large grounds adjoining Hollyhock Cottage, but it seemed to Poppy that the ginger tom spent just as much time on her side of the wall. When he wasn’t loudly demanding pats or bossily telling her how to do her gardening jobs, he was waiting in the kitchen for tasty titbits or making himself comfortable on the best armchair in the sitting room. She had even taken to leaving a window in the greenhouse attachment, at the back of the cottage, propped open, so that Oren could get in and out as he pleased.
Now, as Poppy rose to her feet once more and turned towards the cottage, she expected Oren to trot ahead of her, ready to demand an early dinner. But to her surprise, the ginger tom slunk away instead, heading once more into the bushes from which he had emerged. It was so unlike him that she paused to watch, and she saw his head dip down as he pushed his way behind some tall grass. A minute later, he raised it again and she caught sight of something soft held in his mouth. It was light brown, almost flesh-coloured, and Poppy shuddered as she wondered if it was a rat that Oren had caught.
She knew that there were rats in the area—in fact, she’d had the misfortune of uncovering a rats’ nest in a shed at the rear of the property, and she still had nightmares about the experience. Maybe Oren got fed up with that bland prescription food from the vet and decided to start hunting for his own dinner, she thought with a wry smile. Well, she was glad that the tomcat was heading for his own home, across the stone wall, with his rodent prize, and not to her cottage.
Turning back to the trestle table, Poppy collected her things and made her way around the side of the cottage towards the rear. She entered via the greenhouse built on to the back of the cottage and paused for a moment to look up and admire the gleaming new glass panes and solid wooden frame. When one of the trees in the garden had come down during a wild storm at the beginning of winter and had smashed through the greenhouse roof, Poppy had thought that she’d lost everything. Her grandmother’s greenhouse might have been old and dilapidated, but it had still been fully functional and, without it, there was no way she could have got a head start on growing the seedlings and annuals necessary for sale in spring.
Thank goodness Hubert came to the rescue, she thought, feeling a surge of gratitude. She still didn’t quite understand why her normally self-serving cousin had suddenly made the generous offer of funds to pay for a brand-new greenhouse, but she certainly wasn’t about to look a gift horse in the mouth.
Still, if I don’t manage to sell more plants, even the best greenhouse in the world isn’t going to help me, Poppy reflected gloomily as she walked through the connecting door which led into the kitchen of the main cottage.
“My lordy Lord, Poppy… why the long face?” asked the middle-aged woman sitting at the kitchen table, busily mending an old apron.
She had a round, kindly face, with rosy cheeks and a mop of curly grey hair, and looked exactly like the picture of Mrs Claus often seen on Christmas cards. Like Santa’s wife, too, she was the epitome of maternal caring, and now Poppy looked at Nell Hopkins with love and affection. Once her landlady when she had been living in London, Nell had since become one of her dearest friends and the only “family” Poppy had after her mother had passed away last year.
Now Poppy sank into one of the chairs opposite Nell and fell into the familiar and comforting ritual of telling the older woman all her worries and frustrations.
“…I don’t know what I’m going to do,” she concluded with a sigh. “Selling a couple of cyclamen plants a day is hardly going to keep the nursery going.”
“Maybe you could offer some of the plants at a discount and advertise that?” suggested Nell.
Poppy shook her head. “I already need every penny I make from each sale to cover the costs. Although I did get desperate and offer one of the customers ‘two-for-the-price-of-one’,” she admitted. “Maybe if I knew how much I could afford to lower the prices to, I could run some sales.”
“What you need is a good accountant,” said Nell. “That’s what every business needs, but especially when you’re inexperienced and starting out.”
“Yes, you’re right, although I don’t know anyone. I suppose I ought to just look in the local business directory.”
“Best to get a recommendation,” said Nell. “You should ask around the village. What about Martin?”
“You know, the owner of the Lucky Ladybird. Very shrewd chap he is, and the village pub always does great business.”
“That’s a good idea. I’ll pop in the next time I’m passing by and ask Martin who does his accounts,” said Poppy, absentmindedly scratching her arm.
Nell’s gaze sharpened as she followed the motion and she said: “I noticed you scratching at your arm last night as well. Do you have a rash?”
“N-no… not a rash,” said Poppy, rolling up her sleeve to expose a nasty red swelling on her forearm.
Nell gave a little cry of dismay. “Oh my lordy Lord, Poppy! What on earth happened?”
Poppy shrugged. “It’s nothing, Nell—just a scratch I got in the garden. I think I might have brushed against one of the rose bushes and got caught on one of the thorns.” She peered at her reddened skin. “I suppose the area around it has got a bit inflamed.”
“How long has it been like that?”
“I don’t know… a couple of days? I actually thought it would get better, but it seems to have got more swollen and it’s starting to itch like mad too.”
Nell tutted. “It looks like it’s getting infected. You need to go to the doctor and get that looked at, dear.”
“Oh Nell, it’s just a scratch—”
“A scratch can turn into something serious if you’re not careful! No, don’t shake your head at me, young lady. I’ve heard dreadful stories of people losing their hands or ending up in hospital for weeks because of a small scratch while gardening.” Nell nodded her head emphatically. “There are all sorts of horrible fungi and bacteria in the soil—”
“It’s a garden, Nell,” said Poppy, laughing. “Of course there’re going to be bacteria and fungi in the soil! I thought that was the whole point—you’re supposed to encourage that in the soil; it’s good for your plants.”
“But not for your skin,” Nell declared. “I’m telling you, if you don’t get that checked out, you might end up very sorry. I read about a poor man in the Sunday papers once: got necrotising fasciitis, he did. The flesh on his hand was all eaten away! And then he ended up in hospital with septicaemia and organ failure. They said he was lucky not to lose his life!”
Poppy shifted uneasily. She didn’t want to admit it, but Nell’s words were beginning to make her nervous. “I suppose I could go and see the village GP tomorrow, if I have time—”
“No, you’re going to see him now. I know his clinic is open late today. It’s only a short walk across the village—it won’t take you more than ten or fifteen minutes. I’m sure Dr Seymour will squeeze you in if you just go down there and explain that it’s an emergency.”
“But it’s not an emergency,” protested Poppy.
“It will be if you don’t do something about it,” said Nell darkly.
Poppy sighed. There was no arguing with her friend when her mind was set like this.
“Fine, fine… I’ll go,” she said, rising from the table. Slipping on a cardigan to ward off the evening chill, she set off across the village for the GP’s clinic.
Dr Ralph Seymour, the village doctor, had eschewed the more common practice of joining an established General Practice surgery when he completed his training. Instead, he’d converted an outbuilding in the grounds of his large property at the edge of the village and set up his own practice in the purpose-built surgery there. It had caused quite a stir in Bunnington and there had been several heads shaking at the idea of a doctor with a clinic practically in his own sitting room. But the villagers had soon begun to appreciate having medical advice on their own doorstep. In fact, the bright, modern surgery, with its tasteful décor, comfortable waiting room, and inner consulting office—not to mention Dr Seymour’s sensitive and sympathetic bedside manner—soon had patients coming to see him from far and wide beyond the village.
As Poppy made her way slowly through the village lanes which meandered past beautiful country houses and old cottages with mellow limestone walls, she reflected that she was glad not to have to drive to one of the surrounding towns to see a doctor. And she found that she was enjoying the walk across the village in the gathering twilight. It was actually far lighter than she had thought; the garden at Hollyhock Cottage, encircled as it was by the high stone wall and rows of mature trees, had been filled with shadows, but now that she was walking more in the open, she found that there was still plenty of light. Certainly enough for her to admire the gardens that she passed, and she had to stop herself from pausing at each one to ogle and try to identify the plants growing in the beds.
Poppy had walked through the village looking at the gardens before, of course, but she was discovering that there were unexpected changes and delights that appeared with each passing season. She had never experienced spring as a “gardener” before and she found that she was looking at everything with fresh eyes. She was also new enough to gardening that even the most common plants were still fascinating to her. Most of all, she loved seeing the different styles of gardens—from the traditional cottage gardens like her own to the more minimalist, modern designs, with their geometric beds dominated by tall architectural grasses and foliage plants. There were even a few where the owners had opted for full courtyards, with neatly clipped shrubs and trees in half wine barrels, and large troughs of herbs by the door.
Poppy loved looking at the different garden ornaments on display too, and speculating about the personality of the residents based on their tastes. Surely the owner of the rambling garden filled with pretty flowering annuals planted in rustic wheelbarrows had to be an old-fashioned romantic at heart? And the owner of that carefully clipped lawn with the strange modern sculptures… perhaps a trendy professional or an art gallery owner? And she didn’t even dare guess what kind of person lived in the house with the flock of pink inflatable flamingos positioned around a Buddha fountain!
The one ornament that seemed almost ubiquitous was the garden gnome. Everywhere she looked, Poppy could see little statues of bearded men in pointy red hats, wearing the traditional belted coat, dark trousers, and big black shoes. She was surprised, though, to notice several variations from the conventional type, with a variety of gnomes in modern costumes and poses: surfing, fishing, playing the guitar, doing yoga… even one bending over and “mooning” passers-by. Poppy giggled at the sight of the last one.
Well, one thing I know about the owner of that house, she thought as she walked past. They’ve got a naughty sense of humour!
She rounded the corner of the lane and came at last to a large handsome house. It was modern, but with classic lines, and it was surrounded by large, elegantly landscaped gardens (although Poppy noted with amusement that here, too, there were a couple of garden gnomes tucked into the corners). She followed the signs and walked up the path leading around the side of the main house to the self-contained surgery surrounded by carefully clipped shrubs. Stepping inside, she found herself in a cheerfully decorated waiting room with a young woman sitting behind a desk on one side and a row of chairs on the other.
“Hello. I’m Yvonne, the practice manager. Can I help you?” the young woman said smoothly.
Poppy couldn’t help staring. At a glance, she and the young woman shared similar colouring and features: they both had the same shoulder-length, dark brown hair, slim figure, and pert nose with a smattering of freckles. But whereas Poppy had always felt that her looks only ranked as “passably pretty” in a girl-next-door kind of way, she saw wistfully that in the other girl, the same combination had produced something quite exotic and alluring. And it was enhanced by the way the young woman dressed, in a ruffled silk blouse with a deep V that revealed more than a hint of generous cleavage, paired with a tight pencil skirt that hugged every inch of her shapely hips, and completed by a pair of shiny patent stilettos. In fact, she looked almost too glamorous to be a practice manager in a village GP’s surgery!
Suddenly realising that the young woman was still waiting for her to respond, Poppy blinked and said hastily:
“Er… yes, I was hoping I could see Dr Seymour. I haven’t got an appointment, but it’s… it’s something that might be serious. You see, I scratched myself in the garden and I’m worried it might have got infected or something.” Poppy rolled up her sleeve for the young woman to inspect her forearm.
The other girl’s eyes widened. “Yeah, Ralph—I mean, Dr Seymour—had better take a look at that.” She glanced at the computer screen in front of her. “He’s got a pretty full clinic this afternoon but if you don’t mind waiting, I should be able to squeeze you in at the end. Is it your first time here?”
“Oh thanks! Yes, it is. I only moved to Oxfordshire last summer and I haven’t actually registered with a GP yet.”
“In that case, fill in these forms and then bring them back to me.”
Poppy took the clipboard and pen that had been handed to her and turned toward the row of seats on the other side of the waiting room. She dropped into a seat next to a young mother wrestling with a baby in her arms and a toddler beside her chair. The latter—a little boy of about two or three—looked red and flushed, his hair clinging damply to his forehead and his eyes unusually bright. He had a runny nose as well and was wailing and struggling as the young mother tried to get him to blow into a tissue. Suddenly, he squirmed free and jerked back, crashing into Poppy’s legs.
“Oh, Tommy!” cried the young mother, trying to grab him. She gave Poppy a flustered look of apology. “Sorry!”
“That’s okay.” Poppy smiled at her. Then, as she watched the young mother still struggling to get hold of the toddler while cradling the baby in her other arm, she added impulsively: “Here… would you like me to hold the baby?”
The young mother looked up in surprise, then gave Poppy a grateful smile. “Oh, that would be a big help. Ta!”
She held the baby out to Poppy, who took the warm little bundle in her arms and smiled at the cherubic face raised to hers. Wide, unblinking eyes stared at her, then the baby gurgled. Poppy tried to imitate the sound, which caused the baby to give her a gummy grin.
“You’re a happy little chap, aren’t you?” said Poppy, smiling.
“Yes, he’s always happy, that one, whereas Tommy…” The young mother sighed and looked down at the toddler who was now trying to climb into her lap, obviously wanting a cuddle. His nose was running again, and he opened his mouth in a loud wail.
“Aww… poor thing. He’s probably just feeling rotten,” said Poppy sympathetically.
“Yes, I suppose you’re right,” said the young mother, smoothing the toddler’s damp hair back from his forehead. “It’s just that, sometimes, it feels like it’s one thing after another. Last week it was an ear infection… the week before that, an allergy which led to conjunctivitis… and this week, he’s had a cold and hasn’t been able to sleep properly, which means that he’s grumpy all the time.” She heaved another sigh. “I thought he was getting better but, after lunch today, he started getting feverish so I thought I’d better bring him in. Yvonne—that’s the practice manager—said Dr Seymour only had the last appointment free, but I thought if I came in early, maybe he could squeeze Tommy in between some of the earlier patients—”
“You can go in before me, if you like,” a new voice spoke up.
They both turned to see a middle-aged woman sitting on Poppy’s other side. She was dressed in an old-fashioned tweed skirt, fastened with a large safety pin on one side, and a white blouse buttoned to the neck. The slightly garish pink lipstick that she had applied to her thin lips clashed badly with her sallow skin, as did the powder-blue eyeshadow she had dabbed liberally across her eyelids. It was obvious that she had taken some pains with her appearance, but unfortunately her efforts only seemed to make her look even more frumpy.
Bloody hell, if anyone is ripe for a makeover, she is, thought Poppy, then immediately felt ashamed of her uncharitable thought when the woman was obviously a kind soul.
“I don’t mind waiting a bit longer,” she was saying to the young mother.
“Oh, really? That’s really kind of you,” said the young mother. “Are you sure you don’t mind? If you’ve got something urgent—”
“No, no.” The woman smiled at her. “I’ve only got a bit of a tummy ache. It’s been bothering me for days now, which is why I thought I’d better come and get it checked out. But it’s not terrible or anything.”
“Well, if you’re sure… ta very much!” said the young mother, beaming. “It means I can get home earlier. I’ll be able to get tea ready before my husband gets home.”
The other woman turned to Poppy and said, “You can go before me, too, if you like.”
“Oh no, I’m happy to wait. But thanks for the offer.”
The other woman eyed the red swelling on Poppy’s exposed forearm. “That looks really nasty, if you don’t mind me saying so. I heard you talking to the receptionist… get that gardening, did you?”
“Yes,” Poppy admitted. “I think I scratched myself on a rose thorn. It’s probably nothing but I thought I’d better get it checked out, just in case.”
“Well, I’m sure Dr Seymour will be able to put you right,” the woman declared. “He’s wonderful. Always so patient and so kind—”
“And so dishy too,” added the young mother with a smirk.
The middle-aged woman looked slightly scandalised. “I’m not sure we should be discussing him that way,” she said primly.
“Aww, come on,” said the young mother. “Anyone with eyes can see that our good doctor is drop-dead gorgeous. I tell you, if I was single…” She trailed off with a suggestive giggle.
At that moment, the door to the inner consulting room opened and a tall man stepped out, ushering a heavily pregnant woman. He led her over to his practice manager, saying:
“Yvonne, make Mrs Seymour an appointment for two weeks’ time, will you? And please make sure that her blood tests are sent off as soon as possible as well.”
“Yes, Dr Seymour,” said the practice manager, fluttering her eyelashes at him.
Poppy eyed the doctor covertly and she had to agree that the young mother was right: Ralph Seymour was extremely handsome, in a male-model kind of way. He must have been in his late forties to early fifties, but he had the kind of suave good looks which only seemed to improve with age. In fact, like Yvonne, he looked almost too glamorous to be in a small village GP clinic.
They would make a good couple for a fashion magazine spread, posing against a stormy sky, thought Poppy, watching the two of them together. Or maybe even on the cover of one of those bodice-rippers that Nell loves to read…
The doctor straightened and swung around to face the room. His gaze passed over Poppy and she flushed guiltily, hoping that her runaway imagination wasn’t showing on her face. She was relieved when he gave her a polite smile, then turned to the elderly gentleman sitting on the other side of the waiting room and said:
“Colonel Bradley? Would you like to come in now?”
The elderly gentleman stood up stiffly and, with the help of his cane, followed the doctor into the inner office. As soon as the door had shut behind them, the young mother leaned towards Poppy and the middle-aged woman, and said with a wink:
“Definitely a dish! And what’s more—” She glanced towards the reception desk, where the pregnant woman was still talking to Yvonne, and lowered her voice: “—I’ll bet there’s something going on between him and the practice manager.”
“No, surely not,” said the middle-aged woman, looking even more scandalised.
“Ooh, yes,” said the young mother, smiling with relish. “Just watch their body language… and the way they look at each other…”
“But she must be half his age!”
“So what?” said the young mother, shrugging. “A lot of women like older men.” She glanced at Yvonne again, her eyes sliding over the other girl’s revealing outfit. “No woman comes to work looking like that unless she’s trying to entice a man.”
“Dr Seymour would never… He’s married and he’s an honourable man,” said the middle-aged woman stiffly.
The young mother gave a cynical laugh. “He’s still a man, isn’t he? Any man can be led astray, especially by a girl who knows how to tease and seduce him.” She nodded, her eyes sparkling. “I’ll bet they’re having a passionate affair, right under his wife’s nose!”
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