She’d never been much of a sleeper. A good thing, she supposed, since getting by with little rest was a major requirement for a cook. That morning, she’d been up well before the September dawn. She’d made the farm runs, picking up the day’s fresh veg for the pub. Then, home again, she’d made breakfast for her eleven-year-old daughter, Grace, before taking her to school. She treasured those quiet mornings with her daughter. Often it was the only time they managed to spend together outside of the restaurant kitchen.

Her brief hour on her own in the pub kitchen before the staff arrived for lunch service was priceless as well, and today doubly so. She’d scrubbed the walk-in fridge, organized the supplies, handwritten the day’s menu for Bea, her manager, to copy. Now, apron-clad, she sat on the kitchen’s back step, looking out over the little service area between the pub and the cottage that was the chef’s attached accommodation. Sipping her first espresso of the day from the pub’s machine, she ran over her to-do list for tomorrow’s charity luncheon at Beck House, the Talbots’ place.

Sudden doubt assailed her. What had she been thinking to commit to such a thing, catering an outdoor lunch for four dozen of the local well-to-do, as well as national food bloggers and restaurant critics?

When she’d come here with Grace, three years ago, glad of a regular job that put a roof over their heads and food in her daughter’s mouth, she’d sworn to keep it simple. Good pub food. Pies, fish and chips, seasonal soups, a Sunday-roast lunch. She had done that, and done it well, judging by the daily packed house. Why, then, had she let herself be seduced into stretching past those self-imposed boundaries? “Something memorable, Viv. Something only you can do,” Addie had said, with utter, breezy confidence. She’d taken the bait.

Well, she was in for it now, regardless, and she couldn’t stop the little fizz of excitement in her veins. Everything, from starter to pudding, was made with local produce, and she’d spent weeks refining the menu.

That morning she’d already prepped the pub’s smoker—a poor man’s Kamado Joe—and put in one last lamb shoulder. Over the past few weeks she’d cooked and frozen more than half a dozen joints, but last night, in an attack of panic, she’d decided to do one more. The white beans with fennel that would accompany the meat had also been cooked and frozen, and were now defrosting in the cottage kitchen. She had a few things to finish up that afternoon, and a few that could only be done tomorrow morning, but overall she thought she was in good shape.

Taking a last sip of her coffee, she gazed absently beyond the mellow Cotswold stone of the storage shed and adjoining cottage to the hills rising away from the gentle valley of the River Eye. This was her favorite time of year, early autumn, had been since she was a child, growing up in these same Gloucestershire valleys. She’d never thought, after fifteen years in London, that she’d end up back here. But maybe it was a good thing. And maybe the charity lunch would be a good thing, too. She’d certainly paid her dues the last few years between catering jobs and the pub, and if she was totally honest, she missed the buzz of the bigger food world. Maybe it was time she stuck a toe back in those waters. What harm could it do, after all this time?

She tipped the dregs of her cup into the potted geranium by the back door. On with it, then, and let tomorrow bring what it would.

She was pushing herself up from the step when a tall shadow fell across the yard, blocking the morning sun, and when she looked up, her heart nearly stopped.

 

Nell Greene pushed a few bites of chicken-and-tarragon pie about on her plate. You could always count on the pub’s made-from-scratch pies. Chef Viv’s short-crust pastry was divine and a cold snap in the late-September weather had made Nell crave that sort of comfort. The pub’s open fire beckoned as well, so she’d taken a seat in the bar near the hearth, rather than in the more formal dining areas on either side of the cozy center room.

But she’d felt odd, alone, in the midst of the Friday-night bustle, and had toyed with her food as she watched the evening sun slant through the pub’s mullioned windows. Since her divorce, she’d found that she quite liked living on her own, but she had not got used to dining alone in public places. Watching couples always made her feel more awkward, and the sight of the two middle-aged and obviously married couples chatting over gins and newspapers brought a familiar twinge of jealousy. But tonight the young man and woman at the next table took the prize. They sat with their legs intertwined, kissing and nuzzling. When the blond woman ran her hand up inside the leg of the man’s football shorts, Nell looked away, cringing with embarrassment. She suspected they were both married—but to other people. Nothing else would explain such a brazen display of—well, she supposed you could call it affection. At least she wasn’t the only one alone tonight, she thought, glancing at the tall man in the fedora who had claimed the comfortably worn leather sofa in the corner.

He was, she guessed, a good ten years younger than she, perhaps in his midforties. Beneath the brown hat, his unruly dark blond hair curled to his shoulders. His beard, full but neatly trimmed, was a shade darker than his hair, but it failed to hide his strikingly deep dimples, visible when he’d smiled at the waitress. At first, she’d thought he must be meeting someone, but a half hour had passed and he was still alone.

Now, as though sensing her notice, he glanced up. Raising his eyebrows in the direction of the snogging couple, he gave her a small conspiratorial smile. Blushing, Nell managed to nod back. Then, slowly and deliberately, the man winked at her before turning his attention back to his food.

Nell felt mortified. Had he been mocking her? But there hadn’t seemed any malice in his gesture, and after another moment spent nibbling at the remains of her pie, curiosity got the better of her and she glanced his way again. What was such a good-looking man doing on his own in the village pub on a Friday evening? Strangers weren’t unusual, as the village was a draw for tourists and holidaymakers, but you seldom saw someone unfamiliar on their own.

He caught the barman’s eye and touched his coffee cup. There was something in his manner that made her think he was used to getting what he wanted, and quickly. Well, why not? In spite of the slight eccentricity of the hat and the shoulder-length hair, his clothes were obviously expensive. Perhaps he was a guest at the posh manor house hotel in the village.

Nell watched as Jack, the bar manager, brought a fresh coffee from the kitchen and whisked away the man’s empty cup. Why only coffee? Nell wondered.

Having found alcohol too easy a crutch in the early days of her divorce, she’d given it up except for the occasional social glass of wine. Now she no longer drank alone, and she felt a little more warmly disposed towards a fellow abstainer. She’d readied another smile when she saw that he was looking, not at her, but towards the kitchen.

Bea Abbott, the pub’s manager, came through the kitchen door at the back of the bar. With a murmured word to Jack, she came round the bar and crossed the room towards the exit leading to the pub’s small garden. It was odd, thought Nell, that she didn’t stop to speak to any of the customers. Bea, with her dark curly hair and rimless glasses, was usually efficiently chatty. Nell had been glad to see her so well situated here.

In the corner, the man with the fedora watched the door close after Bea, then uncrossed his long legs and drummed his fingers on the table. His face was intent now, abstracted, and when his gaze passed over her, she knew she’d become invisible. Suddenly, he set his coffee cup down with a click and stood. He strode across the room, going round the bar and through the kitchen door without so much as a by-your-leave to Jack.

Nell sat openmouthed in surprise, but Jack merely frowned and went on wiping glasses with more force than necessary.

The snogging couple got up and went out the car park door, still entwined. The dining rooms on either side of the bar had begun to fill as Sarah, one of the servers, showed arriving customers to their tables. But over the increasing hum of conversation, Nell heard rising voices from the kitchen.

At first the voices were indistinct. Then Viv Holland said quite clearly, “You can’t just waltz in here like this, demanding things. Who the hell do you think you are?” Nell was surprised. She’d never heard Viv, the spikily blond creator of the perfect pastry, raise her voice.

There was an answering rumble, indecipherable. The man in the hat, Nell guessed.

“No, you can’t,” said Viv, her voice now high and furious. “I won’t do it. I told you—”

“Viv, come on, be reasonable.” The man again, more clearly now, with a hint of cajoling. His accent, Nell decided, was Irish.

Viv muttered something.

“Well, if you’re going to be a stubborn cow,” the man said, sounding less patient now, “at least consider—”

“No.” There was a crash, as if Viv had dropped something. Or thrown something. “You have no bloody right to ask it,” she said, close to shouting. “Now get out. I mean it.”

Conversation had died in the bar as the other patrons turned, wide-eyed, towards the kitchen. Jack stood, his hand frozen on the beer pull.

What on earth? wondered Nell, feeling terribly uncomfortable. She’d been intending to speak to Viv about Lady Adelaide’s harvest lunch tomorrow, but now she didn’t want to intrude.

The man came through the door into the bar, his expression grim. He pushed past Nell’s table without a glance of acknowledgment and slammed his way out the garden door with a force that left it banging behind him. His camel hair coat remained behind, crumpled on the sofa.

 

“Are you certain your parents have room for us all?” From the passenger seat, Gemma James gave an anxious glance at her companion.

Melody Talbot laughed and shook her head. “Gemma, I told you not to worry. The house has eight bedrooms.”

This brought Gemma little comfort. Eight bedrooms. What the bloody hell did someone do with eight bedrooms? Gemma had grown up in a two-bedroom flat over her parents’ bakery in north London, sharing a room—not always amicably—with her sister. Although she now lived in a very nice house in Notting Hill, the accommodation was due more to circumstance than means, and she was still intimidated by real wealth. She was a working cop, a detective inspector, and such trappings didn’t come with an ordinary copper’s salary. Unless, of course, you were Melody Talbot.

She studied her friend. Small-framed, pretty, her dark hair growing out a bit from last spring’s boy-short cut, Melody drove with confidence, her hands relaxed on the wheel of her little Renault Clio. Melody was Gemma’s detective sergeant, but it was only after they’d worked together for some time that Gemma had learned anything about Melody’s background. There was good reason for Melody’s reticence, Gemma now knew. Melody’s father was the publisher of a major London newspaper, one known for investigative journalism that did not always favor the police. Melody had kept herself to herself, afraid of being ostracized if her colleagues learned of her connection, until the events of the last few months had forced her to open up a bit. Still, Gemma had only recently been invited to Melody’s flat, and had never met her parents.

The invitation for Gemma and her family, and their friend Doug Cullen, to spend the weekend at Melody’s parents’ country house had come as a surprise. “Mum’s putting on this big harvest festival do,” Melody had said. “She wants to meet you and Duncan. And Doug, too, God knows why. Do come. Seriously.” Moved by an unexpected vulnerability in Melody’s expression, Gemma had impulsively agreed.

Now she wondered what on earth she’d been thinking.

They’d had to split up; Gemma and their almost four-year-old, Charlotte, traveling with Melody, while Duncan was coming on his own in the family car later that night. Their boys, Toby, seven, and Kit, fifteen, would come on the train tomorrow with Doug. Duncan and Doug, who worked on the same team at Holborn CID in central London, had been finishing up a case that afternoon, while Toby had not wanted to miss his Saturday-morning ballet class.

“Mummy,” Charlotte said sleepily from the backseat, “are we there yet?”

“Almost, lovey,” Gemma answered, although she had no idea. It had gone six, and they’d bypassed Oxford more than an hour ago and were now well into the Cotswold Hills. “Did you have a good sleep?” she asked, reaching back to give Charlotte a pat.

“I want my tea,” Charlotte said plaintively.

“Soon, darling,” Melody assured her. “And it will be a lovely tea, too. We really are almost there. You’re going to love it.”

Charlotte might, but Gemma was not at all certain about this country-house lark. She was a townie through and through. The city fit her like an old shoe, made her feel safe and comfortable. Outside of its confines she wasn’t quite sure what to do with herself.

But she had to admit, as she watched the evening light fall across the rolling hills and sheep-strewn fields of Gloucestershire, that it was beautiful. They passed the turning for Bourton-on-the-Water, and a few minutes later Melody took a sharp left into a lane signposted the slaughters.

“Slaughters?” said Gemma, frowning. “You’re taking the piss.”

Melody grinned. “It doesn’t mean what you think. It’s a modernization of an Old English word for slough, or boggy place. At least that’s one interpretation. There’s Lower Slaughter and Upper Slaughter, and we are somewhere in between.”

The lane was narrow, banked by hedges, and as the incline gently dropped it was increasingly covered by overarching trees. Gemma began to see long, low limestone cottages on either side of the lane, then a large manor house set back from the lane on the right. “Is that—”

Melody was already shaking her head. “Oh, no. That’s the manor house. Seventeenth century. Much too grand for us. It’s quite a posh hotel now.”

They came into the village proper. Gemma saw a venerable church, and across from it, a long, low pub, its windows beginning to glow with lamplight. A glimpse of the hanging wooden sign showed a lamb on a green field. To their left, a pretty river ran under an arched bridge. “There’s the other hotel, there, the inn,” said Melody, pointing to a building covered with bright creeper on the far side of the bridge. “But the pub is definitely the place to eat for casual fare.”

Their road crossed the bridge and followed alongside the river. All the buildings were the same honey-colored stone, except for a redbrick mill on the river’s bend.

“What’s that, Mummy?” asked Charlotte, pointing. “The round thing.”

“It’s a water wheel, sweetie. Is it still in use?” Gemma added to Melody.

“It’s a museum. With a tea shop. Maybe we can go tomorrow.” Melody glanced in her rearview mirror. “Would you like that, Char?”

“Yeah.” Charlotte nodded, her halo of caramel ringlets bouncing.

They had left the village and were climbing now, the river lost to sight beyond green fields. The evening sun lay gold and flat across the hills rising away to either side.

As the road climbed, the hedges drew in until they were running through a tunnel of trees. At its end, Melody slowed and turned into a narrow drive. Before them, open parkland sloped down towards the river, but an avenue of trees lined the winding drive and shielded the distant view.

Gemma noticed Melody’s hands tighten on the wheel as they entered a deeper wood. “The Woodland,” said Melody. “Then the Wild Garden and the house. All very Arts and Crafts.”

“Are we there? Are we there?” Charlotte jiggled in her car seat with excitement. Gemma found she was holding her breath.

The trees thinned, the drive dipped, and as they came out into the sunlight, Gemma gasped at the riot of color before her. Oranges, yellows, and purples filled the garden that rose in gentle terraces towards the house.

And the house! Built of the same pale Cotswold stone she’d seen in the village, it glowed in the late-evening light. There was a central gabled porch that rose to the height of the second-story slate-tiled roof, with wings either side. Leaded glass winked from the windows and a lazy spiral of wood smoke drifted from the central chimney. Blowsy pink roses climbed up either side of the porch.

“Oh, it’s gorgeous,” whispered Gemma. “Not at all the grand mansion I was picturing.”

“Thank you. I think,” Melody added, a wry twist to her lips. The drive swooped left round the garden, then the tires crunched as Melody pulled up the Renault on the graveled forecourt.

“Welcome to Beck House.”

 

Duncan Kincaid watched the sun set from the A40. He had plenty of time to admire the spectacle, as the traffic was creeping along in annoying stops and starts. He’d rung Gemma to let her know he was held up. According to the radio, there was a major traffic incident just short of his exit. He supposed it was a good thing after all that the family hadn’t traveled together, although he hadn’t been thrilled about leaving the boys in London.

Of course, they would be all right tonight. Their family friend Wesley Howard had offered to stay with them. Then Kit would walk Toby to his ballet class in the morning, after which they’d meet Doug Cullen at Paddington for the train. Not that Kit and Toby couldn’t have traveled down alone, but Kincaid felt better knowing they’d have adult supervision.

The thought of Doug as “adult supervision” made him smile. Not that Doug wasn’t past thirty now, but somehow he couldn’t see his sergeant in a parental role. Doug had said he had a sculling event in the morning, but Kincaid suspected he was more reluctant to lose a Saturday morning in his garden. Since the spring, the garden had become Doug’s new passion and he talked about it with the tediousness of the convert.

Kincaid also wondered how comfortable Doug felt about the visit to the Talbots’ country home. They had both worked with Sir Ivan after the events of the spring, but neither had met his wife, and from Melody’s description Lady Adelaide sounded quite formidable.

The sun sank below the horizon and he shifted restlessly, wishing he’d at least had the forethought to grab a sandwich and a bottle of water. But, hungry as he was, he was more concerned about his old car than his stomach. The Astra’s engine had seemed a bit rough lately. He hoped the car didn’t overheat with all the idling.

When the traffic finally began to move, he breathed a sigh of relief. It looked like the old beast would make it, after all. And perhaps he would even reach the Talbots’ in time for dinner.

A Bitter Feast (Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James Series #18)