Best-Laid Plants

A Potting Shed Mystery

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A trip to the English countryside turns into a brush with death for Pru Parke, the only gardener whose holiday wouldn’t be complete without a murder to solve.

Pru and her husband, former Detective Chief Inspector Christopher Pearse, are long overdue for a getaway. So when Pru is invited to redesign an Arts and Crafts garden in the picturesque Cotswolds, she and Christopher jump at the chance. Unfortunately, their B&B is more ramshackle than charming, and the once thriving garden, with its lovely Thyme Walk, has fallen into heartbreaking neglect. With the garden’s owner and designer, Batsford Bede, under the weather, Pru tackles the renovation alone. But just as she’s starting to make headway, she stumbles upon Batsford’s body in the garden—dead and pinned beneath one of his limestone statues. 

With such a small police force in the area, Christopher is called upon to lead the investigation. Pru can’t imagine anyone murdering Batsford Bede, a gentle man who preferred to spend his time in quiet contemplation, surrounded by nature. But as her work on the garden turns up one ominous clue after another, Pru discovers that the scenery is more dangerous than she or Christopher could have anticipated.

Marty Wingate’s captivating mysteries can be enjoyed together or separately, in any order:
 
The Potting Shed series: THE GARDEN PLOT | THE RED BOOK OF PRIMROSE HOUSE | BETWEEN A ROCK AND A HARD PLACE | THE SKELETON GARDEN | THE BLUEBONNET BETRAYAL | BEST-LAID PLANTS
 
The Birds of a Feather series: THE RHYME OF THE MAGPIE | EMPTY NEST | EVERY TRICK IN THE ROOK | FAREWELL, MY CUCKOO

Praise for Marty Wingate

“Marty Wingate plants clever clues with a dash of romantic spice to satisfy any hungry mystery reader.”—Mary Daheim, bestselling author of the Emma Lord series

“Pru Parke is one of my favorite cozy mystery heroines.”—Michelle’s Romantic Tangle

Under the Cover

An excerpt from Best-Laid Plants

Chapter 1

Pru sat at the old pine table in the kitchen at Greenoak pretending to read a magazine with as much nonchalance as she could muster. As she was alone in the house, this impressed no one. Alone, that is, except for the two fat pork chops surrounded by apple slices and nestled in a deep pan with cider poured halfway up the sides that was at that moment baking in the oven of the Aga. She would finish the dish off with a sauce—even the word “sauce” sent a thrill of fear running through her body—which she would cook at the last minute. She swallowed hard. A thin sauce—easy, quick, tasty. It’s the sort of thing that will make a big impression for little effort.

That’s what Evelyn, their cook at Greenoak, had told her before handing her an apron—“here’s your pinny”—and departing with her husband, Peachey, leaving Pru to cook and serve the first meal she’d created from start to finish all by herself. Possibly not an enormously scary event to a twenty-something entertaining a boyfriend in her first flat, but Pru had that twenty-something beat by about thirty years. High time, she had decided, to take the plunge.

Not to worry, Evelyn had said. Not a word had been spoken about Pru’s first attempt at the pork chops, which had resulted in baked shoe leather sauced with charcoal. She’d got rid of the evidence and flung wide the windows and doors before her husband, Christopher, arrived home.

Good thing Christopher had told her that morning he’d be working until past seven o’clock. Good thing and just a wee bit suspicious, as he relished the couple of hours after his work at the Romsey constabulary and before dinner. Often, he would ask Pru to take him through the garden to see the latest she and her brother, Simon, had got up to. He’d chat with Peachey, a mechanic, about old cars. He’d stroll over to the Robber Blackbird, their local pub, for a swift half pint of ale. But this day, he’d said he had an online course to finish up, and he would see Pru just before dinner. Evelyn swore that she hadn’t breathed a word about the identity of the cook for the evening, but Pru couldn’t help thinking how convenient it was that she had this time to herself to fret over the pork chops. But if he did suspect, he’d kept it to himself.

In a moment of reckless optimism, she had decided to cook a starter—almond-rolled goat’s cheese balls with roasted beetroot. She and Christopher rarely had a starter course at home, and she hoped this wouldn’t tip him off that something was amiss—that is, different—from any other evening when their meals were expertly cooked by Evelyn and left for them. Pru hoped that it would be only after the meal that she could reveal her surprise. Ta-da—your chef tonight has been . . . There was also the damson plum crumble for pudding, which—thankfully—required no more than lining up the plum halves in a dish and mixing butter into oatmeal, flour, sugar, and a bit of cinnamon. Much like mixing up a fresh batch of potting soil, Pru decided. Anyone could’ve thrown that together—why had she never done it before?

Pru, although an excellent gardener, had never been a cook. But that hadn’t fazed her husband, Christopher Pearse, in the least, not from the beginning a few years ago, when they’d met in London during a murder-for-gain case he’d investigated as detective chief inspector with the Metropolitan Police.

Christopher. The same moment she heard him at the door of the mudroom, Pru looked down at her pinny, smeared with purple-red beet juice and dotted with splashes of brown sizzled pork fat. Too blatant a clue, and so she whipped it off, took a frantic look round her and, at the last second, stashed it in the nearest cupboard. With the back of her hand, she pushed a slightly frizzed brown tendril off her face—hoping her dinner surprise hadn’t added another gray hair to the already alarming number that had started to appear—and met him as he stepped into the kitchen.

He kissed her and then put his nose in the air. “What’s that fantastic smell?”

She gave him a wary look—he didn’t usually talk about dinner as soon as he walked in. Did he suspect something—was it his detective nose, eyes, and brain that told him there had been a disturbance in the usual kitchen force? Or was it that he felt her nerves vibrating under his hands as he held her?

“Oh, I believe it’s baked pork chops in cider,” she replied. “And a sauce.” No sauce yet—she needed to cook it, and she certainly didn’t want to do it under his gaze. “Why don’t you go and change and find us a bottle of wine? I’ll get out the plates. We’ve a starter, too,” she added, under her breath.

He headed for their bedroom without comment and she laid the kitchen table as usual. Pru had worried that if she tried to move them to the dining room, which they never used except for company, he would surely cotton on that this would be no ordinary dinner. She’d already arranged the starter on small plates and hidden them in the pantry, where they sat next to canisters of wholemeal flour and Demerara sugar. Now she set them out, stood back to admire the table, and sighed. As much as she loved cozy meals in the kitchen at Greenoak, it came to her that really, dinner would look so much more impressive in the dining room. Perhaps Pru could tell Christopher that Evelyn had insisted on it, because . . . well, she could think of a reason before he got back down. Pru stuffed the utensils in her trouser pockets, flung the linen napkins over her shoulder, and carried the starter plates out to the dining room, keeping an eye on the goat’s cheese balls as they rolled round, gently knocking into beetroot cubes, flattening the sprigs of cress, and threatening to slide off the plates.

She found the dining table already laid with the good Staffordshire—an autumn pattern of leaves and acorns—with a low arrangement of rusty red chrysanthemums in the center and fat white candles ready to be lit. Evelyn, of course, had known all along that it would be the right place. Pru set the starter plates on the larger dinner plates and hurried back into the kitchen, the forks and knives in her pockets forgotten until they worked their way out and crashed to the floor in the front entry. She froze and listened—nothing from upstairs, so perhaps he hadn’t heard.

Back in the kitchen, she retrieved her wadded-up pinny, removed the chops from the oven, set the pan on the warming plate of the cooker, and drew out Evelyn’s note about the sauce. You can do this—I know you can, it read, and Pru’s eyes pricked with tears of gratitude at Evelyn’s confidence in her. Yes, she could do it—reduce the liquid, stir in the butter, cook until . . .

Pru had just dropped a knob of butter into the boiling cider—keep stirring, don’t let up—when Christopher pushed through the swinging door into the kitchen. Pru whirled round, and as she did, let go of the wooden spoon, which hit the side of the counter before landing on the floor and skittering under the table.

“You’re awfully quick,” she said as she dropped to the floor and crawled after the spoon, bumping her head on the table as she came back out. Pru stood up, looking down at her pinny. “It’s the sauce.” She mumbled the confession. She heard a hiss and a sizzle behind her, threw the spoon into the sink, grabbed another from the crock on the counter, and went back to stirring. “I can’t let it alone—I learned that well enough.”

Bless him. He didn’t ask the obvious—“Are you cooking?”—or exclaim, “You’re cooking!” or attempt a humorous remark about wifely duties. He kept to the other side of the table and asked, “What can I do for you?”

The sauce under control, she set it on the warmer and faced him. “I’m all right now. We’re eating in the dining room—I think Evelyn wanted it to be special.”

“Shall I open the wine?”

“Oh God, yes.”

The starter was quite good. She’d been afraid she hadn’t roasted the cubes of beetroot enough, but they were fine—soft on the inside with crisp corners.

Pru relaxed as soon as she saw Christopher begin on the pork—she knew when he ate food out of politeness and when he enjoyed it. And, she had to admit, the chops were quite fine. She’d done it. She’d even been able to find sweet potatoes in the market—not exactly a staple on the British table as they were in Texas where she grew up, but she had sought them out because they made the perfect accompaniment to an autumn meal.

When Christopher picked up the pork chop bone and asked permission to use his fingers—“You don’t mind, do you? I wouldn’t want to leave any behind”—she counted her first cooked meal a success. At least, it was the first one that she had cooked and also eaten.

“I hope you’re pleased,” he said at last, “because I am.”

“Pfft,” Pru said, waving her hand, but blushing deep red. “Evelyn is an amazing teacher—I couldn’t’ve done it without her. Still, it’s good to get over this first hurdle. And it really was fun. Sort of.”

They took their damson crumble with cream—Pru hadn’t any desire to cook up a custard sauce, even if it did come out of a package—into the library and opened the terrace door to let the last of the light and a bit of evening air in.

“I’ve had a letter today,” Pru said.

She retrieved the correspondence from the library table and handed it over. Christopher patted his pockets until Pru reached behind them to the sofa table and handed him reading glasses.

“Upper Oddington. That brings back a few memories,” he said when he’d finished. He took off the glasses and watched her with those penetrating brown eyes he had—one of the first things she had noticed about him. She knew the letter’s mention of Grenadine Hall had sparked his memories of the autumn fête that they had both attended three years earlier.

“I can still see you standing at the Badger Care stall,” she said.

“And I can see you walking across the field—I couldn’t keep my eyes off you.”

She could well remember that moment. They fell into one of those lovely “Do you remember the first time we met?” conversations. Although, the annual autumn fête at Grenadine Hall had not been their first meeting—they were in the middle of a murder investigation at that point. It was, however, the first time they each had acknowledged—at least to themselves—that there might be more to this than detective and witness.

They hadn’t expected to meet in the Cotswolds. Pru had gone with her friend Jo Howard—along with Jo’s daughter, Cordelia, and her partner, Lucy—for the weekend and the fête and then there he was, Detective Chief Inspector Christopher Pearse. And, with only a stumbling block or two, that was that.

As the conversation progressed, Pru and Christopher cuddled up on the sofa, his arms round her and her hand resting on his chest.

“You walked out on me Sunday lunch at the Horse & Groom,” Christopher said. “I was left with two meals.”

“You accused me of obstructing your investigation,” Pru replied. “That set me off. But, you were right, of course.”

They were quiet for a moment, and through the open door, Pru heard a blackbird begin its evening song.

“Do you know this garden?” Christopher asked.

Pru nodded. “Glebe House. I’ve done a bit of research this afternoon. It’s in this book about Arts and Crafts gardens”—she’d marked several pages in a slim volume she’d left on the coffee table—“and there he is, Batsford Bede—he’s the owner and designer. The place was written up in Gardens Illustrated and The Telegraph—but there’s been no mention of it in the past ten or twelve years. An Arts and Crafts garden.” Pru repeated the phrase in a reverential tone. It might possibly be her favorite style. In architecture and interiors, it meant careful attention to detail, handmade items that were both useful and beautiful. The style’s interpretation in the landscape came out as intimate spaces round the house, even rather formal, with one place leading to another, so that within the garden as a whole lay many smaller gardens—“rooms,” as they were called. That lovely, honey-colored Cotswold stone and the views of hills, fields, and the escarpment. She sighed, thinking of Hidcote Manor and Rodmarton Manor, two of many fine examples. The concentration of Arts and Crafts houses and gardens in the Cotswolds was because the leader of the movement—William Morris—had loved the area and took a house in Gloucestershire.

“You’ve made quite a name for yourself.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Pru said, shaking her head. But she was chuffed, no denying it. To be asked to consult on such a project at a well-respected garden—well, wasn’t this why she’d come to England in the first place?

“What do you think of her offer?”

But Coral Summersun’s condescending tone—all those things you gardeners do—had not escaped Pru’s eye. “Well, she’s no gardener, that’s obvious. And it’s odd that, if she knows Natalie and John, she didn’t ask Oliver to help out—he knows a great deal, too—he’d be quite capable. And he’s right nearby.” Oliver had given Pru a tour of the grounds at Grenadine Hall on her one visit, and they’d had a good garden chat.

“She isn’t in possession of the place yet?”

“Doesn’t sound like it,” Pru replied. “But Batsford Bede must be in his eighties by now and from what the letter says, in poor health. Maybe she’ll want to sell up when she inherits and so wants to get the gardens in order.”

“She’d like you there quite soon,” Christopher said. “And if we time it just right, we’d be there for the fête.”

Pru saw that ghost of a smile around his mouth and she traced his lips with a fingertip.

“Fancy a little holiday, Inspector?”

- About the author -

Marty Wingate is the USA Today bestselling author of the Birds of a Feather mysteries and the Potting Shed mysteries. Wingate is a regular contributor to Country Gardens and other magazines. She also leads gardening tours throughout England, Scotland, Ireland, France, and North America. More Birds of a Feather and Potting Shed mysteries are planned.

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