For ex-accountant Emma Reed and her beloved corgi, Oliver, opening Reed’s Classic Tea & Cakes in the idyllic village of Trevena in Cornwall has been the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. Her cakes are popular, she has a host of wonderful new friends, and even a potential new romance. There’s even time left over for plenty of long country walks with Oliver, who is not only the cutest corgi on record (at least to Emma), he happens to talk (at least to Emma). What could be better?
How about being asked to help cater the local Daphne DuMaurier literary festival?
But when the festival organizer is found dead and foul play is suspected, Emma, Oliver and their friends are plunged deep into a poisonous mix of village jealousy, family tension, money troubles, and secret love affairs. Emma quickly realizes it’s up to her and her intrepid corgi to discover a canny killer whose bite is worse than their bark.
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"You are kidding me!"
Emma Reed jumped, scattering the tea leaves across the polished oak bar.
"No, no, wait, Daphne, say that again!" Pearl Delgado pressed her finger against one ear and held her mobile phone closer to the other to shut out the B&B's background chatter. Emma glared at her and swept the spilled Ceylon leaves into the bin.
Pearl jerked her chin toward the tea leaves and mouthed "Sorry!"
Around them, the great room of the King's Rest Bed & Breakfast bustled with activity. The third seating for afternoon tea was well under way. Scents of warm butter, vanilla, sugar and tea filled the air. Customers clustered around tables, enjoying slices of cake, finger sandwiches and Emma's rapidly-becoming-famous-around-the-village scones. It was a pretty good turnout, considering this was a dampish spring day on the Cornish coast with the tourist season only just starting up.
Once, the King's Rest had been a tavern and a hideout for smugglers. Now it was a popular bed and breakfast run by Angelique Delgado and her daughter Pearl. Every morning, its U-shaped oak bar served as the staging area for a (truly amazing) breakfast buffet. Three afternoons a week, it was also the place where vintage teapots were filled with select blends to be enjoyed alongside treats furnished by Reed's Tea & Cakes.
Just now, Angelique herself was behind the bar, helping Emma fill the latest round of tea orders, and eyeing her daughter. Pearl continued to listen intently to whatever was being said on the other end of the phone.
"You're sure about this, Daph?" said Pearl. "No, no, I'm do . . . that is . . ." Pearl looked up to see Emma and her mum, staring back at her. "Hang on just a tick." With the phone still pressed to her ear, Pearl hurried down the back hallway toward the office.
"Now what do you suppose that was all about?" Emma asked.
"Girl stuff," Angelique said. Angelique was a broad, tall woman with dark brown skin. Her family had emigrated from Jamaica when she was a girl and she still retained a hint of her original accent. This morning, she wore her black braids swept into a heavy coronet. She had a strong face with high cheekbones, and brown eyes that could look straight through you. This skill probably came from raising four children all while running a successful business.
Angelique and Pearl had invited Emma to open her tearoom inside the B&B almost eight months ago. Emma (with Oliver) had left the mad world of London finance to settle in Trevena village. At forty-five, she had decided it was finally time to live out her dream of opening her own tea shop. She'd originally planned on finding a space of her own. Pearl, however, had stepped up with a new idea to help Emma, diversify the family business and make use of space in the B&B that sat mostly empty during the day.
Emma and the Delgados had spent the winter refurbishing the great room and orchestrating the "soft launch." Winter in Cornwall had turned out to be everything Emma had heard-gray, cold, filled with squalls and storms, including waves that broke so far up the beach, the B&B's car park flooded. When Emma's brother quizzed her about it during Christmas, she'd been within an inch of deciding to chuck it all and moving back to London.
But then Henry'd shaken his head and said, "Still don't understand why you'd want to throw over a good career and go mucking about with something as silly as cakes."
Which sent Emma straight back to Trevena with renewed determination to make her silly cakes into a success.
Now, spring was turning to summer. Reed's Tea & Cakes was up and running. They served cream teas on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, with plans to ramp up as demand grew. In addition to the sit-down service, they had a bakery counter for those who wanted a nice cuppa and a sweet treat to enjoy at one of the tables or take home.
When the takeaway counter and tea service were happening at the same time, it could get a bit mad, but Emma wouldn't trade her new life for anything. Baking cakes and tarts, serving perfectly brewed pots of tea and inventing new varieties of finger sandwiches were Emma's idea of the good life. As a bonus, she got to have her corgi, Oliver, with her all day instead of having to leave him at home or with a dog-sitter.
"So who's Daphne?" Emma asked Angelique. Along with cakes, curiosity was Emma's defining trait.
"Daphne Cochrane. She's been friends with Pearl since they were girls." Angelique checked the temperature readout on the electric kettle and filled the quirky cabbage leaf pot. "Probably she has some life-and-death gossip about the girls up at uni."
"Should I go follow Pearl, Emma?" Oliver, the final, furry-and extremely vital member of the service team was currently snuffling around the floor mats, attempting to zero in on Pearl's otherwise invisible footprints. "I can find out what she's doing!"
"Not now, good boy," said Emma. "We'll let Pearl have her space."
Oliver plumped down on his hindquarters and scratched his ear and sneezed. "Okay, Emma."
Reflexively, Emma glanced to see if anyone else had noticed anything . . . odd in this little exchange. There was nothing outwardly unusual about Oliver. He looked to be a standard white and tan Welsh Pembroke corgi, with all the usual off-the-chart levels of cuteness. But to Emma, Oliver spoke-perfectly intelligible, Welsh-accented English that nobody else heard or understood.
Being able to talk with their dogs was a trait that tiptoed through Emma's family. Of course, nobody ever actually said anything about it. At least not where they might be overheard. Except maybe by the dogs.
Oliver was the only animal Emma could understand. That was disconcerting enough, thank you very much. She loved her loyal, intelligent, boisterous, occasionally hyperactive corgi, but she did not feel a need to communicate with anybody else's pet or the local wildlife.
Of course, the situation did have its drawbacks. Oliver might talk, and he might be extraordinarily well-behaved by corgi standards, but he was still very much a dog. He saw the world from an entirely different angle than Emma, or any human. That, in turn, meant Emma could sometimes have a hard time understanding what Oliver was actually talking about.
Just now, Oliver was back to sniffing the trail only he could detect. "Nope, nope, nope. Kitchen, here, kitchen, upstairs . . . nope . . . ooo . . . what's that?" Nose to the floorboards, he trotted out into the main seating area. He did not get very far before one of the guests reached down to give him a pat, which he accepted with a happy, full-bum wag.
Angelique set the tea tray she'd just finished on the bar for their server Becca to pick up. "Oh, Emma, I've been meaning to ask, have you finalized our menu for during the du Maurier festival? We should be getting a good lot of foot traffic those days. I want to put it up on the website as soon as possible to lure them in."
Like a lot of villages, Trevena's summer calendar was filled with fetes and festivals, and the season kicked off in just over two weeks.
"Just about there," Emma told her. "But I'm worried about whether we've got enough help for the extra seatings we've planned."
Angelique added the matching cups to the tray she had set out. "I've made some calls, but let's sit down this evening, all right? Daniel won't be back until tomorrow, so the evening is clear." Pearl's husband, Daniel, ran a fishing and tourist boat that took campers and holidaymakers out to the islands off the coast.
Before Emma could add anything else, the door from the car park opened to let in a middle-aged man in a blue work shirt.
"Oho," murmured Angelique. "You'd better take this one, Emma."
Emma attempted to roll her eyes. Why was that so much harder to do when she was blushing?
Emma reached the glass bakery counter about the same time as the new guest did. He made a show of stopping short and bowing for her to go first.
This time Emma did roll her eyes.
"Hullo, Brian." Emma took her place behind the case of cakes and buns. Oliver, of course, came over to check out the new arrival.
Brian Prowse ran Trevena's one-car taxi service, and was also the local mechanic and vintage car salesman. He was a fit man going gray at the temples with a snarky sense of humor, bright blue eyes and an infectious smile.
"All right, Emma?" said Brian. "Busy day? And hullo to you, Oliver." Brian bent down and rubbed the corgi's head.
Oliver sniffed at Brian's boots. "Dirt and asphalt and oil," he reported. "And that collie dog. And coffee."
Emma listened to her dog with half an ear. Brian had straightened up and turned his sunny smile on her. Since she'd come to Trevena, Emma and Brian had fallen into a bantering friendship, and she had to admit he could give her tummy the sorts of warm fluttery feelings she'd thought she'd left behind in adolescence.
No, I do not have to admit that, Emma told herself sternly. I do not have to admit it on any level.
"What can I get you?" Emma asked him. "Apple cake?"
"If you would, please. I just can't seem to stay away from it."
Emma pulled the cinnamon-scented loaf out of the case and cut a slice to package up. As she did, Angelique picked a couple canisters of tea off the bar and brought them to the takeaway counter, placing them into the appropriate gaps on the new shelves full of similar tins. The move reminded Emma of nothing so much as when her mum would casually come into the living room to tidy up when Emma had a boyfriend over.
Brian noticed too. He grinned at Emma and leaned both elbows on the counter.
"Are we still on for tomorrow?" he asked softly.
Emma leaned in close. "You do know I've never done this before?"
"What, you mean never?"
"Not even once."
He touched her hand. "I promise I'll be gentle."
"All right, the pair of you," said Angelique. "If you're trying to shock the old lady, you're going to have to do better than that."
They all laughed. "So what is really going on?" asked Angelique.
"Emma's thinking of buying a car," said Brian. "I told her to stop by tomorrow and I'd show her what's on offer."
"Yes, I'm sure you did." Angelique's tone was far too bland.
Brian laughed, paid and said goodbye. Emma's gaze followed him as he walked out the door.
"Well, somebody works fast," remarked Angelique.
"What?" Emma blinked. Focus, Emma. "Oh, come on, Angelique-he just really likes my apple cake."
"Is that what the kids are calling it these days?"
Fortunately, before Emma had a chance to say anything rash, Pearl came back into the dining room. She had a kind of dazed look on her face, like she'd been spending too long in the sun.
"Pearl?" said Angelique as her daughter reached the counter. "Is everything all right?"
"I don't know, Ma."
"Well, what was it Daphne had to say?"
Instead of answering her mother, Pearl turned to Emma. "Em, have we got an extra table for tea?"
"Should do," said Emma. "We were only about half booked. For how many?"
"And it's on today? I mean, the cakes and all? They're all on point, yeah?"
Emma pulled back, confused.
"Pearl," said Angelique. "What's going on?"
Pearl looked at the room; people were beginning to steal glances in their direction. She straightened up and smoothed down her apron. She also gestured frantically toward the kitchen.
Emma nodded at Becca. The server returned a quick salute, indicating she and her sister, Bella, had everything in hand. Reassured, Emma followed Angelique and Pearl into the kitchen. Oliver, of course, was not going to be left out and scampered to catch up.
"All right now, Pearl," said Angelique. "What is it?"
"Is anything wrong?" added Emma.
"Not yet," Pearl said. "Only I've just been told the governing board of the Daphne du Maurier Literary and Appreciation Society is going to walk through our door in about ten minutes."
"And they want tea?" prompted Angelique.
"They want more than that." Pearl turned to Emma. "Em, how would you feel about helping cater Trevena's biggest annual tourist festival?"
"Ah, erm, unk," replied Emma.
"What is it, Emma? What?" barked Oliver.
"Slow down, Pearl," said Angelique. "What is it you're talking about?"
Pearl held up her phone. "The Daphne du Maurier Literary Festival just lost its caterer, and Daphne said her aunt is in a real pickle."
"Chicken would be better," mumbled Oliver.
Daphne du Maurier was one of Cornwall's best-loved authors. Her most famous books, Rebecca and Jamaica Inn, brought a steady stream of tourists to the southwest every year. Emma had been looking forward to the festival since she moved here. Not only did it celebrate her absolute all-time favorite writer, but every single tea service had been booked solid for the entire festival weekend. She'd added three extra seatings, and they'd still had to start a waiting list.
Her only worry up until now had been how to keep up with the increased business and still find time to visit the festival herself.
"Your friend is involved with the festival?" asked Emma.
"Not her. Her aunt," said Pearl. "Daphne's aunt is Marcia Cochrane," she added. "She owns Truscott Grange, and they host the du Maurier festival every year. They always get Weber's Catering from over in Treknow to do the food. But Daphne says this year Weber's pulled out."
"Pulled out?" echoed Angelique, shocked. "With barely two weeks to go?"
"I know, right?" said Pearl. "Anyway, Daphne and her mum and Marcie were down here for tea last week. I told her that we were looking to expand the B and B's catering operation, and between that and Emma's lemon drizzle cake, they decided they want to talk to us about filling in."
"Emma?" Oliver poked her in the calf with his surprisingly hard nose. "Is everything okay, Emma?"
Before Emma could say anything to anybody, the kitchen door swung open, and Becca rushed in. "Oh, sorry, everyone. I just, um, Emma, we've got a party of six wanting a table. Where should I put them?"
"That's the board," said Pearl.
Angelique immediately swung into action. "Put them in the private parlor, Becca. I'll be right out. Pearl, find us some notepads and pens. If they want to talk business, we need to be ready. Emma, we might be needing an extra treat or three for our special guests."