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Julia Lanchester must defend her love nest from an invasive species: her boyfriend’s sister. And then there’s the little matter of murder . . .
“The cuckoo comes in April and sings its song in May. In June it changes tune and July it flies away.”
Wedding bells are ringing in the small British village of Smeaton-under-Lyme. Julia Lanchester’s second-in-command at the local tourist center is finally getting married, and the lovebirds are giving Julia and her live-in boyfriend, Michael Sedgwick, ideas about their own future. But before anyone can say “Will you,” Michael’s flighty older sister, Pammy, crashes the party, fresh off a breakup and lugging all her worldly possessions around with her in a tangle of plastic bags.
Before long, Julia’s cozy cottage starts feeling more like Pammy’s bachelorette pad. To keep herself from going cuckoo, Julia throws herself into her pet projects at work—until death disrupts her plans. First a body is found on the estate. Then the police discover that Pammy was the last one to see the man alive. And soon Julia gets the feeling that if she ever wants her home—or her boyfriend—back, she’ll have to get to the bottom of this mystery, even if it means breaking a few eggs.
Marty Wingate’s captivating mysteries can be enjoyed together or separately, in any order:
The Birds of a Feather series: THE RHYME OF THE MAGPIE | EMPTY NEST | EVERY TRICK IN THE ROOK | FAREWELL, MY CUCKOO
“Marty Wingate’s Birds of a Feather mysteries provide a perfect blend of quirky characters and atmosphere.”—Christine Goff, bestselling author of the Birdwatcher’s Mystery series
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
Under the Cover
An excerpt from Farewell, My Cuckoo
The cuckoo comes in April, And sings its song in May, In June it changes tune, And July it flies away.
The sun poured through the tall Gothic windows of St. Swithun’s, backlighting the vases of cornflowers and columbine on each deep sill and illuminating the towering altar arrangement—a glowing mass of deep-pink roses, china-blue delphinium spears, and lacy cow parsley. Although a gorgeous June day outdoors, the sun’s warmth had yet to penetrate the thick flint-and-stone church walls, and my bare arms were peppered with gooseflesh. Not the best look—it was all I could do not to edge over to a pool of sunshine just to my right. But of course, I couldn’t move—not an inch. Not now.
“Marriage is a blessed event.”
As he spoke, Reverend Eccles spread his arms wide to include not only those of us at the altar, but the entire congregation. “It is a gift from God that as man and woman grow together in love and trust, they shall be united . . .”
I paid great attention to what the vicar said, but still stole a glance at Michael, who stood across from me. He ignored Reverend Eccles and had his eyes—the color of midnight studded with stars—locked on me. He looked gorgeous in his dark suit, black hair always a bit shaggy and tousled. The corner of his mouth tugged up into a smile. I blushed, a warmth rushing through me that banished my gooseflesh.
“. . . if anyone present knows a reason why these persons may not lawfully marry . . .”
As if. I cut my eyes out to the congregation and saw my dad, Rupert Lanchester, and stepmum, Beryl, beaming. My dad winked at me. They had been married not three years ago—they understood what this day meant.
“The vows you are about to take . . .”
The flower girl—only four years old—had tired of the affair, plopped herself onto the stone step at the vicar’s feet, and overturned her basket, shaking the remaining rose petals onto the floor. She bent over her treasure, showing off the details of her hat—a thin gold circlet onto which was attached a tiny robin fashioned out of dried mushrooms and painted in bright colors. An arts-and-crafts project from the mind and fingers of Willow Wynn-Finch, of course. The flower girl began to stack her petals, counting to herself as she did so, “One, two, five, elevens.” She was precious.
I jerked to attention.
“Julia,” Reverend Eccles repeated. “The ring.”
The ring? What happened to the vows? My thoughts had wandered, and now I looked round to see that all eyes were on me.
“Sorry,” I whispered, shifting the wedding bouquet with its dripping tendrils of honeysuckle to my other hand as I slipped the loose gold band off my right pinkie finger and gave it to the vicar.
Holding up the Bible, he continued. “Let these rings be a symbol . . .”
It was too beautiful for words. My eyes blurred with tears, and I only hoped I could finish the ceremony without making a fool of myself. At last came the glorious end.
“And now,” Reverend Eccles proclaimed, “Akash Kumar and Vesta Widdersham, I pronounce you husband and wife.”
Yes, all right, it wasn’t my wedding, but love was in the air, as they say, and so high time that I, Julia Lanchester, and my boyfriend of two years, Michael Sedgwick, took that next step. The feeling had been building between us all week as Vesta and Akash’s wedding approached, occupying my every waking moment. It had caught Michael up, too—I could see it in his swift glances toward me, as if assessing the situation and his chances. But he must know his chances were extremely good. We had dropped the heaviest of hints to each other—saying how Vesta and Akash, both well into their sixties, knew they couldn’t let life pass them by and how a commitment in front of God and the village meant a strengthening of a relationship. All comments concerned the happy couple, but the subtext was clear: It was time for us, too. Weddings—they’ll do that to you.
“You look the perfect bride,” I said to Vesta as we walked into the garden at the Stoat and Hare pub, just down Church Lane. She’d found a lovely linen suit, a blue that matched the delphinium and complemented the pearly pink frames of her glasses and the subtle pink tint to her pixie haircut.
“You’re not so bad yourself,” Vesta replied.
My dress, polished cotton with cap sleeves, a princess neckline, and a short bell skirt, was a riot of flowers in purples, blues, and pinks—I loved it, although I did feel as if I were a garden on the move. “I hope it wasn’t too much—but, at least I matched the altar arrangement.”
“It was so good of His Lordship to let you close the TIC on a Saturday,” Vesta said as she laid her bouquet next to the guest book and straightened the jacket on her dress.
I gave her a hug and a kiss on the cheek. “Linus knows what’s important.”
Although I was manager of the Tourist Information Center in our village, Smeaton-under-Lyme, and Vesta was my second-in-command, it was Lord Fotheringill—Linus—who called the shots. It was, after all, his estate, comprising not only the village, but also his home, Hoggin Hall; several outlying hamlets; the abbey ruins; and various farms, fields, orchards, and woods. Not the largest estate in Britain or even in Suffolk, but still, a considerable responsibility—and yet he knew the lives of his tenants came first.
“And your husband looks gorgeous,” I commented, nodding to the bar where he stood chatting with the vicar. Over dark trousers, Akash had worn a kurta—a men’s collarless shirt that came to his knees, traditional in India—made from a red jacquard overlaid with black brocade. It set off his dark hair shot through with silver.
The groom’s day off had not been a problem, either—Akash ran the village shop, where we could buy everything from a pint of milk to freshly prepared lasagna in the cold case. Akash had left his assistant manager, Gwen Gunn, behind the till for his wedding day and honeymoon weekend.
Reverend Eccles lifted a glass for the first toast. He and his wife were on the threshold of a two-week fishing holiday in the Highlands—he fished, she painted landscapes—but had stayed an extra day at home just for the nuptials. I’d seen their packed car at the curb, and knew they were eager to be off.
After each glass had been refilled, I gave Vesta a nudge. “Go on now—Nuala’s cake awaits.”
Nuala Darke, proprietor of Nuala’s Tea Room and baker extraordinaire, stood chatting with Linus as she hovered over the three-tiered beauty she had spent the past fortnight creating. Just the sight of the cake induced “oohs” and “aahs”—heavy with spices and sultanas, each tier encased in marzipan, and covered in filigreed royal icing with candied violets circling the edges, and a dome of fresh roses at the top. I’d been dreaming about it all week and intended to be first in line for a slice. After the bride and groom, of course.
“Aren’t they the most incredibly lovely couple you’ve ever seen?” Willow sighed as she stood next to me, and we watched friends queue up to congratulate the bride and groom. “It’s a truly happy beginning for them.”
Willow, who had a strong but unique sense of style, had dressed with a decided wood-fairy appeal—wearing several gauzy layers in shades of green and, amid her brown curls, her own thin circlet of gold, this one decorated with bits of moss and a tiny nuthatch, also made from a dried mushroom and painted in sleek lines. She’d offered such a creation to me, but I had begged off, saying it might not stay well in my chin-length, dark blond bob.
“You and Cecil will look just as lovely when your turn comes,” I assured her. Willow and Lord Fotheringill’s son, Cecil, had become officially engaged a few months ago and had set the wedding date for two years hence. She smiled, revealing a small gap between her front teeth, and scrunched up her freckled face. “And you and Michael?”
I blushed. “Oh, I don’t know.” I tried for a cavalier tone, but it sounded false even in my own ears.
Willow waved across the garden to Cecil and her aunt, Lottie Finch—it had been Willow’s mother who had created the double-barrel name of Wynn-Finch upon her marriage. Lottie ran Three Bags Full, the village wool shop, and departed to join them. Willow ostensibly still lived with her aunt, but I’d say there were a fair number of overnights at the Hall these days—and all concerned seemed quite happy with the situation.
I stayed where I was as Michael sidled up to me and handed over a glass of champagne. When I’d taken it, he slipped his free hand round my waist, resting it on my hip, and squeezed.
We’d both been asked to stand up for the wedding couple because Vesta’s daughter lived in New Zealand and Akash’s son had just been posted to Los Angeles—and we had been proud to do so. Now, having completed our duties for the day, we stood quiet for a moment and observed the scene. The bride and groom hadn’t wanted the usual sit-down dinner reception during which each of us gave a speech and a toast. Instead, they had preferred a quiet gathering at the pub.
“Are we staying long?” Michael asked.
“Why?” I gave him a sly look.
“Because,” he said, his lips close to my ear, “when we get back to the cottage, there’s something I want to ask you.”
“Oh.” The sound caught in my throat, and I took a sip of champagne but overshot, and a stream of fizz dribbled out of the corner of my mouth and down my chin. I wiped it away with the back of my hand. “We can leave anytime—it isn’t as if we’re the hosts. Of course, we should stay for the cake, don’t you think?”
“God, yes,” Michael replied. “We wouldn’t want to miss that.”
It was something he’d learned early on—never get between me and cake.
Just gone seven o’clock, and the sun hung low in the sky. We’d left the reception later than we’d planned, but no matter, we had the evening ahead of us. A pied wagtail darted ahead on the pavement, keeping us company as we walked hand in hand from the pub and down the high street toward Pipit Cottage, which sat middle in a row of what had been housing for flax weavers in centuries past. Accommodations were part of my pay package as manager of the TIC, and Michael had moved in with me a year ago autumn. The cottage was cozy, to say the least—tiny sitting room with fireplace, kitchen you could barely turn round in, bedroom and bath up a steep set of stairs—but it suited us, because we didn’t mind bumping elbows. French doors led to a stone terrace big enough for a bistro table and two chairs, and a deep back garden, which I let get a bit wild, as it suited the birds that way. I kept the seed table well stocked and fat balls in the wire feeder.
Pausing at the corner where Westbury Road headed out of the village, we took in the quiet. “It’s a fine evening,” Michael murmured. “When we get home, why don’t we sit in the garden for a while.”
It was a habit we’d formed quickly—relaxing in the back garden for a bird quiz. I’d let Michael page through my old copy of The Observer’s Book of British Birds as I asked, “What’s that now?” of a movement in the shrubbery or a swift on the wing. He would begin to rattle off his guesses—dunnock, linnet, redwing, blue tit, pied wagtail, blackcap, chaffinch.
Michael hadn’t known a great deal about birds two years earlier, when he had taken on the post as Rupert’s personal assistant and producer of his BBC Two television program, A Bird in the Hand. My dad—the Indiana Jones of ornithology—was popular with all ages and used his charisma for good, to enlist followers as citizen scientists, teaching them how to care about the world around them. Rupert had taken a chance on Michael—he’d needed to replace his previous assistant, aka me, rather quickly—but his gamble had paid off in spades. Michael, with a background in public relations, was a fantastic idea man.
Now, as we paused on the pavement with the evening sun turning everything gold, we basked in an atmosphere of intimacy, longing, and promise. The garden would be the perfect place to talk. I drew close to Michael until we were standing nose to nose.
“Yes,” I whispered, my lips grazing his. “The garden. That will be perfect.”
I glanced over his shoulder and down the road toward the cottage door and saw a woman sitting on our doorstep, face buried in her phone. With her black hair pulled up into a ragged bun, and her legs stretched out across the pavement, she was surrounded by plastic grocery-shopping bags and had a rucksack in her lap.
Michael caught the direction of my gaze and turned to look. “Pammy?” he muttered.
As if possessed of super hearing, her head snapped up from her phone and she looked toward us. She broke into a smile and clambered up, tugging on the hem of her microskirt, dropping her rucksack, and tripping on one of the shopping bags before righting herself. She held out her arms and said, “Surprise!”