Lady Georgiana Rannoch is looking forward to her first ever turn as hostess for her very own house party when the festivities lead to murder…
Georgie, back home at her estate in Eynsleigh, impatiently awaits the birth of her baby. But she has plenty to occupy her: her new chef, Pierre, has arrived from Paris, and Sir Hubert, who owns Eynsleigh, is back from his latest expedition. It's time for Georgie to throw her first house party to celebrate his return and show off her new chef. The dinner party is a smashing success. Sir Mortimer Mordred—famous author of creepy Gothic horror novels—is one of the guests. He recently purchased a nearby Elizabethan manor nearby because it has a famous poison garden. After the dinner, Sir Mortimer approaches Georgie and asks to borrow her new chef for his upcoming party, and Georgie and Darcy, her dashing husband, are invited!
The tour of the poison garden is fascinating, as is Sir Mortimer’s laboratory. Shockingly, just after the banquet several of the guests become sick. And one dies, apparently poisoned by berries from the garden. But how could this be when they all ate the same meal and the same delectable dessert? Georgie has to find the culprit to save her new chef and her own reputation—all before her bundle of joy arrives!
Release date: November 7, 2023
Print pages: 304
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The Proof of the Pudding
June 25, 1936
Excited and nervous about the impending arrival. Oh golly, I hope it goes well. I hope Queenie behaves herself and doesn't make things too difficult.
You have probably heard that Darcy and I were expecting a baby in August, but that wasn't the arrival I was nervous about at that moment. It was still sufficiently far away that I was not considering the implications of childbirth. Every time I thought about the baby, I imagined holding him or her in my arms and seeing that adorable little face looking up at me-maybe with Darcy's blue eyes and dark curly hair. I had pushed images of the actual delivery and what that meant into the dark recesses of my mind. Actually I knew little about it. One isn't educated in such matters at school. Mummy had once said it was absolutely the worst thing one could imagine and she decided on the spot that she'd never do it again, but then Mummy did tend to be overdramatic about most things.
The arrival that was concerning me more at the moment was that of our new chef, Pierre. We had been living at Sir Hubert Anstruther's lovely Elizabethan house called Eynsleigh for almost a year now. Sir Hubert is my godfather and one of my mother's many husbands. As he spends most of his time climbing mountains, he invited Darcy and me to move in. It was a lovely invitation and we jumped at it, since we were both penniless and had been looking at ghastly flats in London.
After a rocky start we had loved living there. I've always been a country girl at heart, having grown up in a castle in the Scottish Highlands (my father being the Duke of Rannoch). It suited me well to look out on acres of parkland and to walk my dogs every morning. There had been a servant problem when we moved in, but luckily the former housekeeper, Mrs. Holbrook, had agreed to come back and take care of the place so that it now ran like clockwork. We had acquired a housemaid and a footman/chauffeur, a personal maid for me and a gardener, all of whom were local folk and most satisfactory. But the one thing we still didn't possess was a proper cook.
So far our only cook had been my former maid Queenie. Yes. That Queenie. Those of you who have been following my exploits might remember that Queenie was a walking disaster area. When she was my lady's maid she ironed my one good velvet dress and burned off the pile; she lost my shoes on my wedding day. In fact there were more disasters than I could now recall. I kept her on because she had been jolly brave on occasions and I knew full well that nobody else would ever hire her. However, as it turned out, she was not a bad cook. So she had taken over the kitchen at Eynsleigh and so far she hadn't burned it down. However, her cooking was limited to dishes that she knew from her Cockney upbringing, so we tended to eat a lot of suet puddings, toad-in-the-hole, shepherd's pie. Hardly the sort of elegant fare that one would expect at an upper-class household. One could not really entertain local gentry and serve them spotted dick.
Darcy had been pestering me to find a proper chef but I had put it off. I'm not very good at hiring servants. However, recently two things had happened: we had received a letter from Sir Hubert to say he had finished climbing everything in the Andes and would be coming home in time for the impending birth, and we had just returned from Paris, where I had met a chef in need of employment. Pierre had been acting as a waiter when I met him, unable to find a job as a chef in the competitive market of Paris. So I offered him the job at Eynsleigh. This was a bit of a risk, as I hadn't actually tasted his cooking. But I decided that anyone who had been to a culinary school in France would know how to cook better than Queenie. Frankly I didn't think he'd take the job, as he was an avowed communist, but he'd agreed and would be arriving shortly.
There was only one problem, and that was Queenie. When she heard I was bringing in a French chef she got very upset. She didn't want no foreigners cooking foreign muck in her kitchen, she said. She was hurt that her cooking wasn't good enough for me. She thought I liked her cakes and biscuits. I seemed to tuck into them readily enough!
I did, I told her. She was good at baking and her cakes were delicious. But when Sir Hubert came home he would want to hold dinner parties. There was no way that Queenie would be able to create a multicourse meal for twenty, was there?
She agreed that she'd probably find that a bit beyond her, especially if they wanted fancy muck like that cocky-van she'd had to cook at Christmastime. Then she told me she wouldn't mind so much if I got in a proper English cook, a nice lady like that one we had worked with in Norfolk. But not some foreign bloke who was going to boss her around.
"If he comes, then I quit," she said.
Oh golly. That did put me in a bind. I wouldn't actually be sad to see her go, in many ways, and she could now probably get a job as a cook in someone else's house, but then she changed her mind. "I'll just go back to being your lady's maid," she said. "You can tell that Maisie girl that she can go back to dusting and sweeping, or she can be the scullery maid in the kitchen and wait on the foreign bloke."
Then she stomped off, making the ornaments on the shelves jingle and rattle as she passed. She was a hefty girl and she always walked as if she were an advancing army. I went through into the drawing room, hoping to find my grandfather there. He had been staying at Eynsleigh for a while following another attack of bronchitis, and I had persuaded him to come and be looked after. He had taken a lot of persuading, as he felt ill at ease in a great house, especially with servants waiting on him. It was quite out of character for a former Cockney policeman. And in case you are wondering why I had a father who was a duke with a castle and a grandfather who was a Cockney, I had better explain that while my father was Queen Victoria's grandson, he had married my mother, who was a famous actress and beauty but came from humble beginnings (which she now chose to forget).
He had been reading the local newspaper when I entered the room. He looked up and saw my face. "What's wrong, ducks?" he asked. "Your face looks like you could curdle milk."
"It's Queenie." I sank into the armchair opposite him.
"What's she done now?" He looked amused. "Forgotten to put the toad in the toad-in-the-hole?"
I sighed. "She hasn't done anything, except for making it quite clear that she will resign as cook if I bring in Pierre from Paris."
My grandfather continued to smile. "Well, that's not the worst thing in the world, is it? I don't think she'd be too great a loss. And didn't you tell me that those relatives of Darcy's thought a lot of her? She could go back to work for them."
"That wasn't all she said." I gave another sigh. "She said she'd just have to go back to being my lady's maid and I could get rid of Maisie." I gave him an imploring look. "What am I going to do, Granddad? I don't want her as my maid. I like Maisie. She's sweet. She's efficient. The only thing wrong with her is that she won't leave her mother, which makes it hard for me when I travel, but I'm not going to be going anywhere with a new baby, am I?"
"Then you have to be honest with Queenie," he said. "You tell her that you are quite satisfied with your current maid and have no plans to replace her." He reached across and patted my knee. "You are the boss, after all, ducks. You show her who's in charge."
"I know," I said. "I'm just not good at ordering servants around. I know it should come easily to people like me, but it never has. My sister-in-law, Fig, thinks nothing of bossing everyone, but I always feel guilty."
"You're too kindhearted," he said. "You get that from me. Although your mum don't seem to mind bossing everyone around either, does she?"
I had to laugh at this. "She certainly doesn't," I said. "She makes the most of being the dowager duchess, even if she isn't officially entitled to call herself that any longer."
Granddad frowned. "Well, that's one of the things she'll have to give up when she marries that German bloke, won't she? She'll be plain old Frau. And I won't be going to the wedding, that's for sure. Not to some Kraut. I think she's making a big mistake, don't you?"
"I do, actually," I said. "I quite like Max, but I don't like what's going on in Germany these days. You should have seen the Germans I met in Paris, Granddad. When Mummy went shopping she had a minder-a terrifying woman who watched over everything she did."
"Nothing good ever came out of Germany," he said. Rather a sweeping statement, as I happened to like quite a few German wines and composers. But Granddad was biased, as his only son, my uncle Jimmy, whom I had never met, was killed in the Great War. "I don't know why she wants to marry this bloke. She's quite happy living in sin with most of them, isn't she?"
"It's Max," I said. "He's very prim and proper and wants to do the right thing."
"She'll regret it, you mark my words," he said, wagging a finger at me. "When she becomes Frau whatsit she'll have to give up her British nationality, won't she? And then she won't be able to leave even if she wants to."
"Oh golly. You're right," I said. "I wouldn't want to be trapped in Germany right now, even if she will be one of the favored few."
Granddad gave a sigh. "Not that she'll listen to any of us. She never has done up to now. Is she coming over for the birth of your baby?"
"She promised to."
He chuckled. "I can't see her being any use as a grandma. Never lifted a finger to take care of her own child, did she? I think she was back in the South of France right after you were born."
I thought about this. I had few recollections of my mother, certainly none from the days when I was in the nursery. It was Nanny who took care of me, who tucked me in and sang to me. Thank heavens she was a kind and loving woman, or who knows how I would have grown up. I planned to be much more involved with my own child.
Granddad folded his newspaper. "So when's this Froggy bloke arriving?" he asked.
"By the end of the week."
"And would you want Queenie to stay on in the kitchen, as his helper?"
"That would be ideal," I said. "I can't expect a proper chef to do all his own preparation and cleanup."
"So you'll be reducing Queenie to scullery maid?"
I stared out of the window, watching the trees in the park dance in the stiff breeze. Why did life have to be so complicated?
Today is the day. Pierre is arriving. I was expecting to have a few days to sort things out with Queenie, but I got a telegram yesterday to say he was catching the boat train and asking for someone to meet him at the station. Not exactly the humble servant, then, who would be prepared to walk the miles from the station if they couldn't hitch a lift on a farm cart. If I can't control Queenie, how am I going to manage with him? I'm beginning to wonder if this whole thing isn't a big mistake. After all, spotted dick isn't so bad, is it?
Darcy was up early when Maisie brought my morning tea. When Queenie had been my maid it was never certain that morning tea would arrive at the right time, slopped into the saucer, or at all. But Maisie was as punctual as clockwork, and good-natured too.
"Good morning, my lady. It's another lovely day," she said as she placed the tray on my bedside table before going across to draw the curtains.
Darcy came from his dressing room, trying to tie his tie as he walked. He paused in front of the dressing table mirror and finished the job. He looked exceedingly handsome, as usual. I watched him, wondering how such a dashing man could have chosen me. He caught me looking at him and winked, making me blush.
"This girl's certainly an improvement on the last one, isn't she?" he asked. "Well, that's a stupid thing to say, because anybody with two legs and two arms would be an improvement."
He saw my face fall. "What on earth's wrong?"
"Oh, Darcy. I'm not quite sure what to do," I said. "You know the new chef is arriving. Queenie says she's not going to work with some foreign bloke and she'll go back to being my maid."
"I don't see what's so hard about that." Darcy patted my shoulder as he walked past me. "Tell her you already have a satisfactory maid and she's welcome to stay on in the kitchen or find employment elsewhere."
"But that's the trouble," I said. "Who would want to employ her? I know she's not a bad cook, but she does have more than her fair share of mishaps."
"We can send her back to my aunt," Darcy said. "They actually liked her."
"I suppose so." I swung my legs over the side of the bed and reached for my teacup. "I'm just not sure I want to get rid of her. She saved my life once, you know."
"I know. Never mind. You'll figure it out. You are mistress of a great house now. You have to step into the role."
I took a gulp of tea. "I suppose so," I repeated.
"I'm off, then," he said.
"May one ask where?" With Darcy it could be anywhere-France, South America . . . He didn't officially work for the British government but he did a lot of undercover, hush-hush, and dangerous sort of stuff, which he enjoyed and I worried about.
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