Pru’s life in England is coming full circle. A Texas transplant, she’s married to the love of her life, thriving in the plum gardening position she shares with her long-lost brother, and prepping a Chelsea Flower Show exhibit featuring the beloved bluebonnets of the Texas hill country. Technically, Twyla Woodford, the president of a gardening club in the Lone Star State, is in charge of the London event, but Pru seems to be the one getting her hands dirty. When they finally do meet, Pru senses a kindred spirit—until Twyla turns up dead.
Although Twyla’s body was half buried under a wall in their display, Pru remains determined to mount a spectacular show. Twyla would have insisted. So Pru recruits her husband, former Detective Chief Inspector Christopher Pearse, to go undercover and do a bit of unofficial digging into Twyla’s final hours. If Pru has anything to say about it, this killer is going to learn the hard way not to mess with Texas.
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’s Potting Shed mysteries
“Marty Wingate plants clever clues with a dash of romantic spice to satisfy any hungry mystery reader.”—Mary Daheim, bestselling author of The Alpine Zen
“Classy, clever, and utterly charming . . . Brew a pot of tea and settle in with this immensely enjoyable mystery.”—Rosemary Harris, author of Pushing Up Daisies and The Bitches of Brooklyn, on The Garden Plot
“Just know that Marty Wingate knows how to write a cozy mystery very well and that you will be hooked from page one.”—A Bookish Way of Life, on The Red Book of Primrose House
“Pru Parke is one of my favorite cozy mystery heroines.”—Michelle’s Romantic Tangle, on Between a Rock and a Hard Place
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Pru stood at the open gate of the Bull Ring entrance, the river Thames and the Embankment at her back—the air thick with the noise and exhaust from London morning commuters—and laid out before her, the Royal Chelsea Hospital grounds, home of military pensioners. Her heart went pitter-pat and her breath quickened as she paused to take in her good fortune. She could hardly believe it—here she was, Pru Parke, transplanted only two years ago—or was it three?—from Texas to England, hoping for a new life in her mother’s homeland, longing to find family connections, aspiring to work at her passion, gardening. With only a few stumbles along the way, she had achieved it all, and more. Married for the first time at fifty-something, and now this—building a garden at the world-famous Chelsea Flower Show.
She had, quite possibly, taken temporary leave of her senses when she’d agreed to step in at the last minute. Only three days ago she’d received a pleading email from Ivory Braswell, a woman she had known casually twenty years before at the Dallas Arboretum. Pru might have relegated an email “From Ivory” to spam, but one that read, A Texas garden at the Chelsea Flower Show! in the subject line sucked her in. Ivory reintroduced herself and offered a brief history of her life—I landed in Austin and love it!—and wrote that she had thought the stars aligned when a mutual acquaintance recently mentioned Pru’s name. Ivory’s garden club—she was vice president—was building a garden at the Chelsea Flower Show and desperately needed Pru to save their bacon.
“Chelsea!” Pru said to Christopher as she stood in the kitchen holding her open laptop. She had read the email three times before showing it to her husband. But she sobered up instantly after. “Of course, I can’t just up and leave here with no warning or planning . . .”
“Yes, you can,” he had replied, slipping his arms round her waist. “It’s only for a few weeks—it’ll all be over by the end of May.”
The summer before, just after they’d married, Pru and Christopher had taken up residence at Greenoak in Hampshire, the house of friends who remained abroad on an archaeological dig. Pru now gardened there with her brother, Simon, while Christopher, formerly a detective chief inspector with the London Met, assisted the local police constabulary. It had taken them no time at all to settle into Greenoak—it had become home to Pru quicker than she’d ever thought possible.
“But Simon and I are renovating the Mediterranean garden.” This themed landscape had seemed ideal for a sunny area at the southwest corner of the terrace, but an exceptionally wet winter had drowned many of their specialty plants. They had decided to install better drainage before replanting.
“I can help him out for a few days until I come up to London to meet you, and he can hire someone for the rest of the month,” Christopher said.
“They’ll miss you at the station,” Pru protested. Although they joked that his special constable position in Romsey was more traffic warden than policeman, the detective inspector there had called on Christopher more than once for help in serious investigations. “And what would Simon say if I abandoned him?”
“Why don’t you ask him and see?”
Simon was chuffed that his sister would be involved in a garden at Chelsea. “Are you joking? You can’t say no to that!”
It was true; she couldn’t. As mad as it sounded to step in at the last minute—buildup had actually started days before—to help create a display she knew nothing about at the world’s most prestigious garden event, it would be even crazier to decline the offer. Pru shrugged off the idea that she would have any real power. “I’ll just be the women’s representative, a stand-in. Twyla Woodford is in charge—she’s president of the Austin Rock Garden Society. Ivory said I’d be sort of a liaison with the designer and contractor until the group arrives. They’re sorry they can’t get here in time for the first day of buildup.” Although she remained unclear as to how the Austin group had scored a show garden at Chelsea, it gave Pru a thrill to think she’d have even the tiniest hand in its creation.
Two days and a flurry of emails flew past as Pru tried to secure details. Ivory sent design plans and plant lists, but otherwise responded with Twyla will explain it all when she gets there and Twyla loves England! She’s one of those, you know, those people who are just crazy about England. You’ll love her, she’s a doll!
Pru had thrown some clothes in a bag and Christopher had driven her to the train station in Romsey. Her destination: his flat—now their flat—in the Chiswick neighborhood, which Christopher had held on to for their occasional trips into London. Usually, the first thing she’d do in London would be to schedule a long chat over a bottle of wine with her dear friend Jo Howard—good thing Jo was on a Baltic cruise, because Pru expected to be busy every day and exhausted each evening and not terribly lively company.
Christopher was well used to her in that state. “I’ll see you soon,” Pru told him, as they stood on the platform, her arms holding him tight.
Now, here she was on her first day of buildup to the show, which would debut the third week of May. On the far side of the grounds stood the pensioners’ home—called the Royal Chelsea Hospital, even though it wasn’t one—but here, in front of her, lay the eleven empty acres that would become the Chelsea Flower Show. She had seen the hospital grounds in November, sans flower show—the expanse an enormous empty lawn marked only by a cenotaph at its center. The transformation from nothing in November to showtime the third week of May was close to impossible to imagine.
Standing at the open wrought-iron gates, Pru saw the grounds as they would be in less than a month. The Great Pavilion, as big as two football fields, would rise up straight ahead of her, full to the brim with exquisite, colorful nursery displays of clematis, sweet peas, delphinium, roses, fuchsias—the thought of it took her breath away.
Entire buildings would appear, housing fancy restaurants. The crowds of people strolling the avenue with their flutes of champagne and glasses of Pimm’s, the men in their striped jackets and boaters, women wearing skimpy summer dresses and impossibly high heels even though May weather in London could be iffy at best. Rows of stalls lining Eastern Avenue, selling every sort of garden accessory, the small artisan displays and the bandstand below in the area known as Ranelagh Gardens, and there, to her right just inside the gates, Main Avenue and Rock Garden Bank—the landscapes created by icons of the British garden world as well as hotshot new designers. That’s where she would be. Not as a designer, of course. And actually, only as a stand-in until Twyla arrived.
“You going in or do you plan on standing there and admiring the weather?” the guard at the gate asked. As he spoke, rain cascaded off the bill of his cap and splashed onto the shoulders of his mackintosh.
Pru woke from her reverie, shaking her head and flinging water off like a dog. The vision of the Chelsea Flower Show as it would be in three weeks’ time vanished, and reality set in. Turf had been stripped from the hospital grounds, rolled up and moved off, out of the public’s eye, and now controlled chaos reigned. The Great Pavilion consisted of stacks of steel girders, and the roadways—currently not much more than rivers of muddy water—teemed with flatbed lorries delivering wood and stone for the gardens.
Buildup was well under way. Excavators ate away at the bare soil and crews placed guidelines in their gardens, marking out what would become pools, fountains, terraces, walls, hedges. From mud pit to established landscapes—or the appearance thereof—in such a brief time was nothing short of a miracle.
She clipped her work pass to her acid-yellow high-visibility vest, which she had put on over her waterproofs, and cinched up the close-fitting hood so that only her face would get the rain. As she stepped through the gate, her steel-toed boots sloshing through a puddle, she felt a trickle run down between her breasts as water insinuated itself between her skin and the plastic.
An engine roared, and Pru stepped out of the way to let a lorry pass. On its flatbed were enormous poly bags of stone. She peered at the letters scrawled on the sides of the bags: ARGS. The Austin Rock Garden Society—those were her rocks. She already felt the responsibility of being the only American on-site. That is, until the ARGS women arrived. She followed the lorry, which pulled up at the bottom of Main Avenue where it met the Rock Garden Bank, so named for that time in the 1920s and ’30s when rock gardens were all the rage, and where now a Texas landscape would echo that era. The site, thirty feet long and twenty feet deep, looked vast. And almost empty.
Beyond the ARGS garden, the “Welcome to Oz” garden, sponsored by the Australian Visitors Bureau, buzzed with a crew of at least a dozen, as did the other sites up Main Avenue. Here at the ARGS site Pru counted four people: a wiry figure who waved his arms like semaphores, fiercely directing as a forklift shifted the pallets to the ground, two at the back working on the foundations of a small building, and a tall figure observing the proceedings.
Pru would bet the one watching was the designer, Roddy MacWeeks. She’d read up on him before she left Hampshire—reports were he had a bit of an ego about him and a sizable female following.
Roddy, although not young, fit the other requirements of a hotshot British designer. He had come to the garden scene from his work in outdoor art installations. In the past few years, as he shifted into landscape design, he had caught the gardening public’s fancy at smaller shows with his unconventional, controversial creations. At Tatton Park, he’d installed a fifteen-foot-high water tap—running full on and splashing merrily into a landscaped pool below—sponsored by a company that marketed a bladder-control drug. A year ago at the Malvern Spring Festival, he’d created a mountain of diamonds for a large insurance company—the display actually consisted of heaps of cut glass on white sand. The garden had garnered criticism for its lack of color and plants, but it had also scored him a design project in Singapore.
Sponsors were important at Chelsea. It would be impossible for a designer alone—or a garden society—to cover the costs of building a display. Sponsors—from charities and banks to drug companies and wineries—counted on the exposure a garden at Chelsea would get them. The barrage of reports appeared in newspapers and on radio, online sources, and nightly television coverage for at least two weeks in Britain and abroad. Sponsors might spend tens of thousands of pounds, but even so, as an advertising venue, Chelsea was terrific value.
The wiry fellow waving his arms must be the contractor from A. Chiverton Gardens. His company not only did the heavy lifting—building the garden—but also grew the plants.
For there would be plants in this garden and plenty of color—the ARGS display would star the Texas bluebonnet—Lupinus texensis. The descriptive “blue” didn’t do the small flower justice, Pru thought. It wasn’t just blue, it was blue—intense, bright, saturated, each flower set off with a white dot. Bluebonnets were the color of the sky, the color of a lake. Ivory had sent Pru a copy of the plans and Pru had printed them out, studying every detail. “More Than Rock and Stone” they’d titled it—a spring day in the Texas hill country. A serpentine stacked stone wall snaked through the landscape, with a spring bubbling out of the rocky soil. Solid swaths of bluebonnets, accented with strings and pockets of yellow tickseed, orange Texas paintbrush, and golden blanketflower, surrounded—almost drowning—an ancient, rusting gas pump set in the front of a weathered wooden building.
It was a typical scene Pru remembered from her childhood, when she and her parents would drive from Dallas down to the hill country for family outings in late March, staying in roadside motels, hunting for the best fields of bluebonnets, and coming across ghost towns along the way. By the 1960s, Texas wildflower populations had suffered as their habitats had been paved over and herbicides used on ranches, but the iconic hill country landscape had been saved on the brink of obliteration thanks to Lady Bird Johnson and her Highway Beautification Act. The ARGS’s Chelsea show garden would demonstrate the beauty and importance of a fragile native landscape.
Pru jumped. The wiry fellow approached, and when he got close enough she could see from the small oval opening of his hood a thin, hooked nose, sharp eyes, and weathered skin.
“Can I help you?” he asked, sounding as if helping her was the last thing he wanted to do.
“Good morning,” she replied brightly. “I’m Pru Parke. I’m here to work. Austin Rock Garden Society?”
The man leaned to the side and looked behind her. “Are you it? Where are the rest of them?”
Pru glanced over her shoulder. “Oh, well, you didn’t hear that part? The group isn’t able to arrive until Saturday. But I live here—just down in Hampshire—and they’ve asked me to . . . you know, step in . . . in case you have any questions.”
“What about Twyla?” he asked.
Pru wondered if he expected her to pull Twyla Woodford out of her pocket. “She isn’t here yet. Saturday—they’re arriving on Saturday. Are you Mr. Chiverton?”
“Chiv,” he corrected, yanking his hood back to reveal thin, curly hair matted down by the damp, a dark brown shade fading into gray. Pru noticed the rain had let up and peeled her hood off, too, removing the clip from her shoulder-length, light brown hair—also fading—combing it through her frizz, and reclipping.
“Good to meet you, Chiv. I’m ready to do anything you need during buildup, and although I’m just filling in until the group arrives, I’m quite eager to help in any way possible.”
“Well, well, who have we here?” The tall fellow walked over. He ran his hand through his brown hair, straightening it, then gave it a rub, which messed it up again. He took off his glasses, pulled out a cloth, wiped the rain off, and set them back on. “I’m Roddy MacWeeks—the designer of this piece of America we’re building on the right side of the pond. How can I help you?” He lifted an eyebrow and smiled at her, accenting the dimple in his chin. He squinted at Pru’s work pass and his face fell slightly. “Oh, not the media.”
“Pru Parke.” She temporarily raised her voice as a digger rolled past behind her, beeping a warning. “I’m here for the garden club—just as a liaison until they arrive.” Roddy looked past her.
“She isn’t here,” Chiv told him.
“Why not? Where is she?”
“Do you mean Twyla?” Pru asked. “Do you know her?”
“She’s the one in charge of this project, isn’t she?” Chiv asked. “We expected her to make an appearance at the very least.”
“She’ll be here—Saturday. Well, I suppose they won’t show up here until Sunday at the earliest—jet lag. But look, isn’t there something I can do? I’ve studied the plans and I know what the garden will look like. I can work.”
“Pru Parke.” Roddy rolled her name over his tongue. “Yes, oh yes,” he said, gaining enthusiasm. “I’m sure you can help. Listen, does the press office know you’re involved? We could build quite a story around my design and your name.”
Pru took a step back. She knew what he meant—her name had been in the news occasionally—mentioned in regards to certain events, not all of them concerning gardening. But this was not her show. “No, they don’t know and there’s no reason to tell them. I’m here to work for ARGS—just one of the crew.”
“Fine.” Roddy turned away from her. “You’ve everything under control here, Chiv. I must return a few phone calls—I won’t be long.” He walked away, then stopped and turned. “I say, Pru, you wouldn’t mind giving me your mobile number, would you? It would be good to keep in touch.”
This was what she was here for. They exchanged numbers, and he left. Pru pulled her hood back on as the rain returned and watched as a couple of the Aussies left by way of the exit on Chelsea Bridge Road—not one of the main entrances, but a useful access for equipment and materials. She took a moment to drink it all in and once again to be amazed at her extraordinary fortune.
“Isn’t it a fascinating process?” she asked Chiv. “And you’re the contractor as well as the grower. How are those bluebonnets looking?”
Chiv cut his eyes at her. “You’ll have to ask Mr. Bloody MacWeeks that question. Now, you said you’re here to work?”