I hope you are all keeping well during our enforced Lockdown during this Coronavirus pandemic.
I am working my way through the final proofs for Maid for Murder, and it’s well on track for publication in September. In the meantime, I thought I’d share the first few pages with you to whet your appetite.
Also, watch this space as later this week I will announce a promotion for some of my other books, making the kindle editions Free for a short period to those who don’t have Amazon Prime. So stay tuned for that.
In the meantime, here is the prologue and first chapter from Maid for Murder.
MAID FOR MURDER – THE FIRST GERTRUDE HARRINGTON PREQUEL
There was silence in the room, save the ticking of the clock above the mantel. Tasteful floral curtains remained resolutely closed against the sunshine, and the resultant darkness matched the bleak mood of the room’s sole occupant.
Gertrude Harrington wept silent tears into her handkerchief as she awaited her sisters. If today they hadn’t been burying their recently departed brother, then she mightn’t have even made the effort to climb out of the warm and comforting embrace of sleep.
She hadn’t slept at all well in the days since Geoffrey’s murder, so it came as something of a surprise to her this morning when her alarm clock awakened her at eight o’clock with its incessant ringing. The irony of her restful slumber wasn’t lost on her: today was the day she would lay to rest the past and begin anew – again. It wasn’t the first time she’d had to start her life afresh. She’d lost more than her fair share of relatives to untimely death, of whom Geoffrey was the latest victim of murder.
As much as she preferred not to dwell on past events, Gertrude couldn’t help thinking back to the last time that someone in her family was cruelly robbed of their life.
As her mind began to drift once more into melancholy, the sound of knocking from the front door brought her back to reality. With a sigh she dabbed her eyes as she stood, then straightened her black crinoline dress and made her way across the small sitting room. She could always rely on her sisters to be punctual.
Opening the door, Gertrude was somewhat surprised to see Lavinia Rushbrook standing in the morning sun, resplendent in black silk and with a coordinated wide-brimmed hat and veil obscuring most of her face.
It was typical of her really, Gertrude thought with a trace of bitterness. Mrs Rushbrook managed to bring all attention onto herself at any occasion.
In spite of her surprise, through her grief Gertrude managed a reticent smile. ‘Mrs Rushbrook, this is a surprise.’ she said in a neutral voice, ‘I was expecting my sisters.’
Lavinia lifted her veil, revealing her steel grey eyes, which were unusually warm with kindness and affection. ‘I sent them on to the church. I wanted an opportunity to talk with you privately before the funeral, if you’d permit it?’
Gertrude stepped aside to allow her unexpected guest entry to her home. She closed the door with a soft click and followed Lavinia into the sitting room. She drew back the curtains allowing sunlight into the room, then turned to watch as her former employer removed her gloves whilst surveying her surroundings.
‘Your home is very – cosy,’ Lavinia said as she turned to Gertrude once more.
Gertrude managed a smile, indicating that her guest should sit. ‘It’s exactly the cottage I always longed for.’
‘Well then I’m pleased that I was able to buy it for you.’
‘And the Tea Room,’ Gertrude added softly, chuckling as she watched Lavinia dust the chair before seating herself upon it.
‘This chair is a little lumpy,’ Lavinia muttered irritably, shifting to get more comfortable.
With a sigh, Gertrude sat upon the small sofa beneath the front window. ‘It is what it is, and it happens to be my chair and I find it comfy, Mrs Rushbrook. Usually no-one sits in it but me.’
Too late Lavinia realised her insensitivity and blustered an apology. ‘I really didn’t come here to be rude to you, Gertrude.’ She paused for a moment, and then looked Gertrude directly in the eye. ‘I never really thanked you properly for your help, all those years ago, and I have come to regret that.’
Gertrude leant back on the sofa but remained silent, determined not to make any forthcoming apology or thanks an easy task.
‘You could have revealed the truth about what happened that weekend at any point in the past – what is it, five years?’ Lavinia stared up at the ceiling as she clucked, shaking her head in disbelief. ‘Six years, isn’t it?’ She returned her gaze to Gertrude’s inscrutable face. ‘My, doesn’t the time just fly by? Anyway, I know I came away from that experience worse off – and not just financially. But your continued silence has preserved my family’s good name, and for that I shall always be grateful. I just wanted to say thank you, Gertrude.’
Gertrude managed a genuine smile, leaning forward to grasp Lavinia’s outstretched hand of friendship. ‘It’s a little late Mrs Rushbrook, but I accept your apology.’
‘Please, from now on you must call me Lavinia – I insist!’
‘Well, that’s most kind of you.’
‘I know you appreciated the money I gave to you, but money doesn’t really say thank you like the words themselves, does it?’
Gertrude shook her head. ‘Indeed not. So, what brought about this sudden act of kindness?’
Lavinia sighed. ‘Your brother’s death rekindled old memories and made me think of the choices I’ve made over the years.’ She leant close to whisper, even though there was no-one else in the room: ‘I wasn’t a nice person back then, was I?’
‘Well, you were my employer, and I can’t say you were ever unkind or rude to me, but I did sometimes bear witness to your other side. It was never my place to pass judgment on you then, and I won’t do so now. However, I would like to go on from this day forward as a friend.’
Lavinia grasped Gertrude’s hand more tightly. ‘So would I. You know, Geoffrey’s death really brought Easter of 1949 back into sharp focus. Your poor niece–’ She broke off, shaking her head sadly. ‘I thought you’d never get over her death.’
‘I didn’t. I think about Mabel every day. Each night, before I go to bed, I say a little prayer for her soul. And I now also say a prayer for Geoffrey each night. But one cannot live in the past. To live a life of regret is to not live at all.’
‘I agree, which is why I’ve decided to contact Simone.’
Gertrude looked up sharply at the mention of the name. ‘Do you think that wise?’
Lavinia shrugged. ‘I don’t know, to be honest. If I see her and she hates me, then I shall be no worse off – she’s not a part of my life at the moment anyway. But if I don’t visit her, then I feel I might regret it for the rest of my life.’ She looked into Gertrude’s eyes, her own filled with pain. ‘I cannot live a life of regret, Gertrude.’
Gertrude pursed her lips thoughtfully. It didn’t matter what she thought of Lavinia’s decision; Lavinia was old enough and perhaps wise enough to know the potential consequences of her actions.
Every action has consequences, not all of them pleasant.
To this day, she herself still had to live with the consequences of her actions that fateful night, six years ago.
Saturday, April 16th, 1949
Gertrude awoke before dawn on the crisp Saturday morning, knowing she had a huge party to cook for over the coming Easter weekend. In her mind she already had the menu mapped out; all the ingredients were awaiting her in the kitchen of Templemead Hall. Her methodical manner had allowed her to plan well in advance, and all provisions had been acquired over the past month, with only the fresh dairy, meat and vegetables due for delivery later that morning.
Mr Bagshawe the butcher and Mr Pennings the grocer had better not let her down. Before the War, Mr Bagshawe had once been late with his supplies and had felt the unexpected wrath of Gertrude’s uncharacteristically acid tongue. It was something he had no wish to experience again, and he’d made certain the other suppliers to Templemead Hall knew the consequences of failure to meet their deadlines.
She might not be averse to dishing out terrible tongue-lashings when required, but Gertrude never dished up anything less than perfect meals. Her reputation had done wonders for Lavinia Rushbrook’s own position in the community.
As she washed and dressed, going over the menu in her mind one final time, Gertrude thought back fondly to when Templemead Hall had been home to Charles and Elizabeth Templemead.
When the couple had fallen on hard times in the years following the Great War – which had resulted in Charles’ death and Elizabeth’s reluctant sale of their home to outsiders – it had been a bitter blow to the villagers who lived in Clyst St James. Rumours concerning Charles’ gambling and suicide abounded, but those who knew and admired the stoic widow could never believe such a thing of her late husband.
For as long as anyone could remember there had been a Templemead at the Hall, but Elizabeth moved out of the main house and into the former lodge back in 1933, and Professor William Rushbrook and his wife Lavinia moved in.
The villagers had disliked the new owners on principle alone.
No-one but a Templemead should live at the Hall – and that was that.
Everything changed during the Second World War, and suddenly all petty animosities were buried along with the dead, and finally Professor and Mrs Rushbrook became a part of village life.
That didn’t mean the villagers always made it easy for Lavinia, who so desperately wanted to fit in that she publicly vowed never to change the name of the Hall, even though she and her husband mentioned the notion often in private.
‘Thank God for Mrs Harrington and her marvellous food!’ Lavinia was often heard to cry as she marched around the grand old stone house, dishing out commands as though her very life depended upon it.
Even now, Gertrude still couldn’t get to grips with being referred to as Mrs Harrington. She was a confirmed spinster and believed she would remain so until her dying day, but tradition stated that the head cook of any ‘Big House’ should be referred to thus, and so it was with her.
Tradition be damned!
Gertrude vowed that if she ever left the employ of the Rushbrooks then she would be forever called Gertrude – by everyone.
Her fabulous dinner parties were ultimately what Lavinia Rushbrook became famous for – or more specifically, the food prepared by her head cook.
Gertrude had started out as a kitchen maid under the tutelage of Mrs Lawson, who’d been head cook to Mr and Mrs Templemead, but when Professor Rushbrook and his overbearing wife had moved in Mrs Lawson quit her position. It wouldn’t have mattered if Lavinia was the nicest person on Earth: Mrs Lawson’s loyalty lay with the Templemead family – and she would rather eke out a meagre wage elsewhere than continue under the new owners.
In a way, Gertrude couldn’t blame Mrs Lawson for her reluctance to remain, but when Lavinia had gathered the kitchen staff together and asked if anyone had the experience to take on the mantle, Gertrude had stuck her arm straight up. Never one to turn down an opportunity and make a success of it, she hadn’t regretted it for a day.
It was hard work. She arose at dawn and seldom went to bed much before eleven of a night, and only rarely allowed herself a day off – but Gertrude thrived on the hard work. She had such a passion for cooking that it seldom felt like work to her.
When Lavinia took her to one side and asked her to come up with an exquisite menu for her first lavish dinner party, Gertrude hadn’t disappointed.
Neither Lavinia nor Gertrude had looked back.
The challenge was to come up with ever more intricate menus for each subsequent social occasion, and in the 15 years she had been head cook, Gertrude had never once failed to deliver – not even when rationing had forced her to be ever more creative.
Last month, Gertrude had been given instructions to start preparing for an Easter extravaganza to help celebrate the launch of Lavinia Rushbrook’s debut novel. She was told there would be movie stars, singers, politicians and other dignitaries in attendance, and that she simply must provide her best menu yet.
Gertrude was very glad to have such a lead-in to the occasion. It wasn’t difficult to come up with the menu – but to her chagrin Lavinia ripped into her saying it didn’t pass muster.
Didn’t pass muster?
Gertrude snorted in contempt once Lavinia was out of earshot, and ten minutes later presented a completely different menu at which the mistress of the house took one look, smiled broadly and said: ‘Now that’s a knockout, Mrs Harrington.’
A knockout, however, was not what Gertrude would have called Lavinia Rushbrook’s debut novel.
So proud was she of her literary effort that Lavinia gifted a signed presentation copy to each member of staff. Gertrude read the first few chapters and gave up, branding it drivel. She remained careful not to upset Lavinia, and had so far managed to avoid all mention of the book, stating only that she didn’t have the time to read it whilst preparing for the party and that she would read it at a later date.
No matter how bad it might be, there was no denying the amount of effort Lavinia had lavished upon her work and Gertrude hoped she wouldn’t be dismayed when the obvious book reviews started trickling back down to her.
As she made her way down to the kitchen to start her long day, Gertrude vowed to give Lavinia the best banquet to help soften the blow that she knew was looming.
She passed her young niece on her way down the back stairs. ‘Good morning, Mabel.’
Mabel wiped soot from her nose and smiled at her. ‘Morning, Aunt Gertie. Today’s the big day.’
Gertrude tucked a stray lock of black hair back behind Mabel’s ear, feeling oddly maternal towards the sixteen-year-old. ‘How have you found your first week here?’
Mabel sighed quite theatrically. ‘Jolly hard work, Aunt Gertie, but I promise I won’t let you down.’
Gertrude smiled at her. ‘I know you won’t. We must all do our part to make sure Mrs Rushbrook’s household runs smoothly. You’ll get the hang of things soon enough. How are the other staff treating you?’
Mabel leant in close. ‘Simone’s a bit odd. She keeps saying I should feel privileged to work for Mrs Rushbrook like she’s the Queen of Sheba or something!’
Gertrude chuckled. ‘That girl always thought she was a bit above her station if you ask me. She’s never been very good at her job, but for some reason Mrs Rushbrook refuses to dismiss her.’
‘Why do you suppose that is?’ whispered Mabel.
Gertrude patted her niece’s head. ‘We should never question the decisions made by our employers. Now get on with your duties. We don’t want you getting dismissed after only one week. I stuck my neck out, asking Mrs Rushbrook to give you a chance.’
Mabel smiled again as she skipped gaily up the stairs, calling over her shoulder: ‘Like I said, I promise not to let you down, Aunt Gertie.’
Gertrude watched Mabel disappear off into the distance.
She’d never once before asked Mrs Rushbrook for any favours, and when her sister Gladys had sent Mabel down from the Lake District with a letter asking her to help find work for the young girl, it had taken Gertrude the best part of a week to pluck up the courage to speak to Lavinia.
Without a second of hesitation, Lavinia had agreed to employ Mabel as one of the housemaids, stating – without mentioning anyone in particular – that she was finding it hard to find anyone reliable. ‘She’ll have to start at the bottom, mind,’ Lavinia had said.
Gertrude wasn’t about to fawn over her mistress with grateful thanks, but she made her appreciation known by preparing a special breakfast that morning – and every morning since.
Lavinia had asked Gertrude only one question about Mabel’s mother. ‘I have heard you speak of your family often enough, but apart from those in America and Australia, you’ve only mentioned one niece – Juliet. I remember, because she shares the same name as the heroine in my book, who I named after Shakespeare’s heroine from Romeo and Juliet. So why have you not mentioned Mabel before? Whose daughter is she?’
Gertrude couldn’t lie, but could barely bring herself to tell the truth about her fallen sister, Gladys; Gladys who’d apparently slept with so many men that she’d said she didn’t know who had fathered Mabel; Gladys who’d so scandalised the family that they’d paid for her to go to the Lake District and had never spoken of her again.
That was the official version, but Gertrude knew the truth: a secret never to be revealed – to anyone.
Gertrude often wondered what her siblings would think if they knew that from within her room at Templemead Hall she’d kept in monthly contact with Gladys. As far as she was aware, they didn’t even know that Mabel was now working with her.
When Gertrude had spoken briefly but frankly to Lavinia about the accepted circumstances surrounding Mabel’s birth, she had been a little surprised by the look of compassion and understanding on her employer’s face.
She hadn’t asked – such a question would have been too impertinent – but she quietly supposed that such silent understanding could only come from a woman of similar circumstance.
Gertrude firmly believed that there would come a day when Mrs Rushbrook might open up to her, but she knew that day was a long way off yet. And if she ever discovered the real circumstances of Mabel’s birth…?
It was something to worry about another time.
First things first: there was an Easter banquet to prepare.