It was mid-July in Little Chiswick, South Gloucestershire and Ginger Burnet was slowly melting.
The sun was scorching the back of her head even through the thick curtain of her dark brown hair. On the exposed skin of her shoulders and thighs, she could feel the tell-tale tightness that told her that she hadn’t put on enough sunscreen. She ruefully reflected that she probably should have taken her boyfriend Rhys up on his offer to put the sunscreen on for her rather than unsuccessfully twisting herself into various shapes to cover the hard-to-reach spots. Which she’d apparently failed at anyway.
Although balanced precariously at the top of a slightly rickety, wooden A-frame ladder, she took a moment to rest, looking away from the task at hand and out over the currently quiet High Street of Little Chiswick. The picturesque village nestled in the hills and valleys of the Cotswolds, demurely boasting adorable stone cottages, a plethora of high-quality local produce providers, and a strong arts scene.
It really was the perfect place for a bakery like hers, Ginger thought with a satisfied smile.
It had been a long, arduous road for her to be balanced on a ladder, painting the name of her bakery onto the building. It was difficult to believe that the year before she had still been working at the elite Chiswick Park Academy only a few miles from where she was now, teaching an art course on baking and dessert decoration. Even more difficult to believe now, looking back, was that she had thought she had found her calling.
But as her thirtieth birthday approached, Ginger had experienced the kind of life shift that could only seem to happen to her. It had involved several murders, being told her course was being discontinued, not one but two serial killers, her relationship with Rhys nearly collapsing, and in the midst of it all a chance encounter with the previous owner of this very bakery.
The former owner had sold the building to a local developer and Ginger had been fortunate enough to convince the new owner of the building that her baking endeavours made her a more than worthy new tenant. So, for the whole of her thirtieth year, Ginger had put every scrap of money, time, and energy into overhauling the tired old bakery and turning it into what she hoped would be the latest jewel of Little Chiswick.
And now, somehow, the grand launch of her bakery had arrived, and everything had to be perfect. Particularly the sign. It was the first thing that people were going to see of her establishment, after all.
Turning back to look at the half-painted sign stretching across the lintel of her shop, she frowned when she noticed that she’d smudged some of the gold edging onto the white lettering.
“I’ve been refurbishing and planning this grand opening for a year,” she muttered to herself, taking a fine tipped paint brush from behind her ear and dipping it into a pot of white paint balanced among others on the flat top of the ladder.
The name had taken her some time to settle on. After all, it was the first thing people would see of the shop; it was what she would use to advertise on social media; it was a crucial representation of her brand. Did she want to come across as elegant and high class? Did she want to be cutesy and bubbly? Did she want a hipster, arty vibe to her shop?
Eventually, after market research, doodling typographical designs, and staring at the ceiling in the middle of the night saying different names over and over until they became numb on her tongue, she’d found the perfect choice.
The Gingerbread House.
It had a touch of fairy tale about it, a feeling she’d encouraged by painting the window frames as if they were edged with candies and icing. It had her name in it, which was a nice touch, and Ginger liked how the name reminded her of the fancy buildings up at Chiswick Park Academy, like Melville House or the West Court Dormitory.
The Gingerbread House was a perfect name.
Below her, just out of sight, the front door of the bakery was opened from the inside, sending the bell she hung just that morning jingling merrily. Her assistant, Amelia, who was currently on summer break from her baking and confectionary degree, carefully poked her head out.
“I think the ice cream machine has finished throwing its tantrum and has actually made the ice cream,” she said, hands hovering above the puffs of the space buns she’d pulled her dark brown afro into for that day. “Want to come and try it?”
Ginger squinted down at her, aware that she probably had paint on her nose and that she was rather sunburnt.
“Do I want to come in out of the scorching sun to eat freshly made ice cream?” she asked slowly. “I’m going to be honest, Amelia, but I think you might have just found the most pointless question there is.”
Amelia grinned, chuckling as Ginger descended the ladder after putting the lids safely on the pots of paint.
“I thought you might say that,” she said, pointing back into the beckoning cool of the bakery. “I’ve already got two scoops served up and a cold drink waiting for you.”
“I think I love you,” Ginger said gratefully, hurrying inside, unable to stop her sigh of relief as she finally got out of the sun.
Despite the cold drink and ice cream calling her name, Ginger couldn’t help but slow as she walked through the service space of her bakery. There were still minor changes and adjustments to make, but the surge of pride she felt looking around the room was unparalleled with anything else she had done so far in life.
After much careful restoration, the walls had been stripped back to the original brick, leaving the different shades of dark red, orange, and almost black on display to fill the room with a homey aura. Ginger had deliberated with various trusted people in her life about what colours to use in the interior that would complement the warm tones of the brick. On the list had been her mother, Rhys, her art teacher friend Bonnie, and her Scottish baker friend Maggie who had asked the advice of the art department at the theatre she worked at.
“I’m glad we went with this pale, milky green,” Ginger said absently, trailing her fingers across the painted wood of the display cabinets.
“It came out looking wonderful,” Amelia agreed, using her sleeve to buff out a smudge on the stainless-steel serving counter. “Even if we did screw up our timings by painting it during that cold, rainy stretch back in May.”
The two exchanged a knowing grimace and a laugh.
“But I am glad we went for the beech wood for the shelves,” Amelia added, gesturing to the floating shelves cascading down one wall. “It really ties the brick and the cabinets together in the colour palette.”
Ginger hummed in agreement, feeling a swell of satisfaction as she noted that the black, industrial style of the spotlight lamps on the ceiling was echoed in the black cast iron handles of the doors and drawers.
“Did you remember to check in with Katrina from Blythe Spirit about when she’s delivering the jams and chutneys?” she asked, drifting toward the kitchen, her throat begging for a drink. “I know we had to delay because the display shelves were being difficult and took forever to put up, but I really want her products on the shelves for the opening tomorrow.”
“I’ll give her a call while you cool down,” Amelia said, pulling her phone out of the front pocket of her apron. “Go eat your ice cream and hydrate yourself. Then we’ll find you some more sunscreen before you finish the sign.”
“I have no quarrels with this plan,” Ginger said, still feeling the prickle of her sunburnt skin.
The newly refurbished kitchen was, for once, cool and quiet except for the whir and hum of the ice cream machines. For the opening event, and taking into consideration the oppressive heat, Ginger had decided to create several delicious ice cream flavours to serve at the party. Initially, she’d used the ice cream machine she usually had buried at the back of her cookware cupboard, but she quickly realised she would need something a little more industrial now she was operating on a professional scale.
So, Ginger had tracked down two ice cream machines as quickly as she could, eventually renting them from a local dairy that had run a shop for one summer before throwing in the towel. She also got a discount because she agreed to use their milk and cream for the recipes, a fact that had quickly earned her an enthusiastic ally.
Now, Ginger found herself drooling just a little as she picked up the tasting pot of ice cream that Amelia had left out for her. This particular recipe was her favourite, and one she had been working on for some time: rosewater and honey, using fresh, thick Cotswold clotted cream.
The first touch on her tongue made her shiver with delight, the fragrance of the rosewater mixing perfectly with the sweet, lavender-infused honey from a local beekeeper. The ice cream itself was silky smooth, rich in taste, and not too sweet. It was perfect.
The spoon still in her mouth, Ginger allowed herself a triumphant fist pump and a quick twirl on one foot in celebration. As she consumed a second spoonful, however, there came a gentle knock at the bakery’s back door.
“Knock knock, anybody around?”
Ginger immediately recognised the voice and turned to see Nathan Hannigan stepping through the back door. He was a fairly small man in his early to mid-sixties, not quite as tall as Ginger, but with an imposingly broad set of shoulders. He was the owner of the building in which her bakery was housed, as well as various other properties around Greater and Little Chiswick that his company was in the process of developing.
“Ah, is that the latest batch of ice cream?” he asked, using a large blue handkerchief to mop the sweat from a forehead made generous by a receding hairline.
Ginger nodded, finding a second spoon and offering him the tasting pot.
“I think I’ve nailed the balance of rosewater and honey,” she said, starting to scoop the ice cream out of the machine and into several large tubs. “The floral taste isn’t too overpowering anymore. It just complements the sweet creaminess now.”
Nathan hummed appreciatively as he took a taste. In all honesty, Ginger hadn’t expected to form such a close bond with her landlord, but when Nathan had learned she was renovating the bakery to fulfil her dream of running her own shop, he had been incredibly supportive. Specifically, supportive in a very hands-on way.
It started by coming by the shop every now and again to see how things were going with gutting the place. Then he said he could ask his electrician to come and redo the wiring for a reduced cost, and that the guy was the best in the county for working with older buildings (he did in fact turn out to be truly excellent and, thanks to Nathan, affordable).
Soon, however, Ginger found herself appreciating the older man’s advice more and more. The scale of renovation she was attempting was intimidating and so Nathan was often a steadying hand on the wheel when it felt like things were flying out of control. In no time, she considered him a friend that she just happened to pay commercial rent to.
“Still happy with your title of Official Taste Tester?” Ginger asked, carrying the several large tubs of ice cream to the walk-in freezer and squeezing them into a tiny space on the packed shelves.
“Very much so,” Nathan said with the familiar twinkle in his eye as he finished the ice cream. “Now, how is everything going for the grand opening tomorrow? I don’t see a lot of frantic action in here, but I do see a half-painted sign.”
“Geez,” Ginger grumbled, taking a long, grateful drink of ice cold elderflower cordial, “are you sure you weren’t a drill sergeant?”
Nathan chuckled. “Nah, I’ve just been working on construction crews since my teens and running them since my mid-twenties, young lady,” he said, the warmth of his Yorkshire accent coming through his apparent gruffness. “I won’t step on your toes if you’ve got everything under control, but you know I’ll help however I can. This is a big day and you’ve earned all the acclaim you’re going to receive.”
“Maybe,” Ginger said tentatively, hopping up to sit on one of the movable metal workstations, giving a little whimper of relief as her sunburned skin touched the cool surface. “But I’m a little nervous about having press here. Bit nervous in general about stepping into the limelight again, you know?”
Nathan nodded gravely, furrows deepening on his forehead and around his eyes as if someone had just run a rake across his skin. “After everything you went through last year, I can’t blame you,” he said, linking his hands behind his back and beginning to wander around the kitchen, examining how all the cupboards and appliances had been fitted with a professional eye. “You went nose to nose with a literal serial killer and had self-proclaimed journalists hounding you for weeks.”
“I think I’m mostly under the radar now, though I still get the odd trolling comment on my Instagram or my YouTube,” Ginger admitted, taking another drink. “Honestly, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to thank you enough for clearing out those bloggers who were harassing me while we were working on the bakery last autumn.”
His cheeks flushed slightly red, and he waved off the thanks.
“They were irritating little twerps,” he said dismissively. “As if I was going to let them hang around one of my properties bothering my favourite tenant!”
Ginger beamed, pressing a hand over her heart. “I’m your favourite?” she gushed, playing up her enthusiasm. “Well, gosh, do the other tenants know? Or do I have to keep it a secret?”
A laugh billowed up out of Nathan like the warm, comforting steam rising off a fresh loaf of bread.
“Best to keep it a secret for now,” he said, tapping the side of his nose conspiratorially. “Besides, it’s fun to be the secret favourite. Stops any fights.”
Ginger arched an eyebrow. “That’s got some ‘I was a philanderer in the 80s’ vibes there, Nathan. Don’t bring that energy around me, thank you very much.”
Nathan gave a small bow of apology. “You’re right, of course, I’m sorry,” he said, dark brown eyes sincere. “You know, I wasn’t a philanderer. Back then or ever, actually, despite what the tabloids might have said. I just spent a lot of time playing that part, you know? The man about town.” He shrugged, frowning. “I always found it curious how investors always ate it up. I was in some pretty major circles for a while, Ginny. Was a big name in construction and property development. But I never liked the business meetings and the fancy dinners and the wining and dining of these monied bigwigs who couldn’t wait to tear down homes people had lived in for generations to build a shopping centre.”
“You still made your money off it,” Ginger said pointedly, taking another drink. “A lot of people would call you a monied bigwig too.”
“I did,” Nathan said softly, tucking his hands into the pockets of his white linen trousers. “It’s easy to point fingers after the fact, I suppose, even though it was my wrecking ball taking the place down.”
He shook himself as if to send the sombre mood scattering. “My most recent ex-wife would like you,” he said, pointing at Ginger with a smile. “Calling me on my rubbish. You’re a fine woman, Ginger Burnet.”
“And you’re a sweetheart with a morally grey past, Nathan Hannigan,” Ginger said sweetly, finishing her drink and hopping down off the counter. “Now, get out of here. I need to put another batch of ice cream on and then finish the sign.”
“Let me know if you need any extra kitchen equipment,” Nathan said as he drifted toward the door, hands raised in surrender. “I just took a load of stuff out of a restaurant I’m doing up over toward Lambington. Got some stuff in one of the outbuildings I can lend you for the day if needed. Freezers, storage racks, extra tables and chairs, that kind of thing.”
“I’ll keep the offer in mind, thank you,” Ginger said, patting him on the shoulder as he passed by.
As he did so, she spotted a sweet little pride pin tucked under the collar of his polo shirt, an accessory she hadn’t seen him wear before.
“Nice to see you carrying on the support for pride outside of pride month,” she said, tapping the pin. “My very bisexual brother took me to a pride event in Bristol last month and the corporate sponsors there who you just knew were going to stop caring on July 1st were plentiful.”
Nathan looked a little startled, glancing down as if he’d forgotten that he’d been wearing it.
“Oh, yes,” he said distantly, fiddling with the pin as if he was about to take it off but changed his mind. “A… niece of mine came out recently. I’m trying to be supportive and all that.”
Ginger cocked her head, wondering why he suddenly seemed so reserved. It was as if he was stuck in the doorway, but he made no sign of moving forward or back.
“Well,” she said gently, “I need to get on, but tell your niece congratulations from me. It must be wonderful to be able to live as her true self.”
“Yes, it must be,” Nathan said, with an unusually soft smile. “I imagine it must be freeing for her.”
Then he gave a vague wave of farewell and stepped back out into the burning sun, leaving Ginger standing in the doorway, thoroughly heart-warmed.
“Do you think I’m actually ready to open?” Ginger asked Rhys that evening.
“What makes you think you’re not?” Rhys asked, pressing a kiss to the top of her head as he came to sit beside her.
She’d got home at nearly nine at night, staying late to put the final touches to the bakery. Back at the charmingly old wonky cottage that she called home, Ginger had been surprised to see Rhys’ car parked in the drive and the sound of the Velvet Underground trickling from the open front windows.
Inside, she’d been even more surprised to see Rhys in the kitchen putting together the final parts of a delicious summertime dinner. There was baked lemon and parsley salmon, asparagus with flaked almonds, and steamed new potatoes bathed in olive oil, flaked sea salt, and chives taken fresh from the garden.
“You’ve done everything on the six-page to-do list we wrote, right?” he asked, settling stretching out beside her on the grass.
After dinner, as the blissful cool of the evening finally arrived, the two of them had taken a quilt and laid it out on the lawn. The honeysuckle which languidly draped itself over the tall brick wall that marked the bottom of the cottage’s garden filled the night with a heady scent, complemented by the full-figured roses grown by her neighbour John. Safe from the sun for a few hours, it felt as if the plants had relaxed.
Ginger pulled up the soft green blades with her bare toes as she thought back over the to-do list. It had haunted her days and nights for weeks on end, each completed item a triumph and one more terrifying step closer to the reality of being open.
“If there’s anything I’ve missed then it wasn’t on the list to begin with,” she admitted, tipping her head back to stare at a sky rich with stars.
The tables and chairs were stacked and ready to go, the shelves were stacked with products from three or four different local providers, and the shop’s name was fully painted and dry. The walk-in freezer was filled to bursting with tubs of unique, delicious ice cream, bags and bags of ice for drinks, and huge tubs of frozen fruit that would be used for smoothies, baking, and garnishing in the coming days.
“Then you haven’t got anything to worry about,” Rhys murmured, propping a forearm under the back of his head so he could look at her better. “You’re amazing and everything is going to be wonderful. All the work you’ve done to get this far has more than proved that you’re capable of running your own shop. You’re determined, talented, and I know you’ll succeed.”
“Sweet talker,” Ginger chastised gently, lying down beside him. “What kind of monster are you? Giving me compliments and encouragement like that to make me feel better.”
Rhys huffed a laugh through his nose. “Oh, the horror.”
Ginger tucked herself closer into his side, enjoying his familiar presence.
“I really was lucky to get Nathan as the landlord,” she mused, feeling sleep tugging at her eyelids but not wanting this peaceful, perfect experience to end quite yet. “He was a bit of a gruff guy when we first met but he seems to have… softened somehow over the last year, I guess. He’s become so supportive, kind, and encouraging.”
“Not what you’d expect from a millionaire property mogul who clawed his way up from the bottom!” Rhys agreed. “I don’t think he liked me very much to begin with, but he seems to have mellowed.”
“He didn’t like you?” Ginger asked, surprised, rolling onto her side and propping herself up on one elbow.
She could see the vague shape of Rhys’ face in the low light drifting from the kitchen out of the open patio doors. With her eyes, and then her fingertip, Ginger traced the lines of his eye sockets, his cheekbones, and his jaw where it was partially hidden beneath his carefully groomed chestnut brown beard. She twirled one of his soft brown curls around her finger, secretly satisfied that he had embraced them and no longer kept his hair quite as short.
“How could he possibly not like any of this?” she asked before dipping her head and giving him a soft kiss. “I like it all very much.”
Rhys chuckled, turning his head slightly to look at her. “Oh, do you really? I hadn’t noticed in the nearly year and a bit we’ve been dating.”
Ginger flicked him on the nose in response. He grunted but quickly chuckled, batting away her hand when she went to do it again. Their laughter and scuffling drew the attention of two smallish dark shapes that had, until now, been stalking around the flowerbeds.
Letting out little chirps of curiosity, Ginger’s two Blue Shorthair cats came trotting over the grass toward the couple. The leader, as usual, was Nina. Her yellow eyes glowed in the low light, giving her an almost otherworldly appearance. Not for the first time, Ginger wondered if her cats were secretly some kind of faerie creatures temporarily inhabiting this plane of existence.
Following close behind was Nina’s brother, Miles. The two feline siblings looked very similar, with the only difference being the eyes: Miles’ eyes were more of an oxidised copper green and one carried the milky white film of blindness. He’d never allowed his injury to slow him down, mostly because he was the far more relaxed and easier-going of the two and he tended to go nowhere fast. It was just entirely out of choice rather than because he was inhibited.
Tonight appeared to be one of the rare occasions when both cats were in a playfully manic mood, as they both leaped into the rough and tumble. Rhys grunted again as Nina landed on his stomach, knocking the air from his lungs, and Ginger shrieked out a giggle as Miles leaped onto her legs.
“I told you they were scheming against us!” Rhys choked out, groaning as Nina used his belly as a springboard to launch herself at her brother. “Just waiting for us to let our guard down!”
Ginger flopped back on the quilt, breathless with laughter as the two cats began wrestling and chasing one another around the garden, up onto the patio, and then into the house.
“We’d better get inside too,” she gasped out, clambering to her feet and then offering Rhys a hand to help him up. “Before the little rascals come back out. You just know it’ll take me hours to get them back inside after that and I need to sleep at some point.”
“Then let’s run for it,” Rhys said, snatching up the quilt they’d been lying on and cradling it against his bruised stomach. “Run. Run!”
Grabbing her by the hand, he bolted for the back doors of the cottage. Ginger followed, nearly losing her balance from being so giddy with laughter. As soon as they were inside, they closed the large French windows, shutting themselves and the cats inside.
“I was actually enjoying the cool out there,” Ginger sighed, sagging back against the pale blue cupboards of her kitchen. “It was so quiet. And romantic.”
Dropping the quilt, Rhys stepped up in front of her. Putting two fingers under her chin, he lifted her face toward his and gave her a long, lingering kiss that had her sighing with pleasure into his mouth.
“I’ll take you stargazing one evening, I promise,” he said, tucking some strands of her long brown hair behind her ears. “It’ll just be you and me in a field, miles from anywhere, with a blanket, snacks, and…” he glanced around suspiciously, “no furry little critters to assault us during tender moments.”
Ginger laughed softly, ignoring the sounds of zooming cats by nuzzling into Rhys’ neck and breathing in the scent of his new soap: lavender and orange peel.
“You never answered my question, you know?” she said. “About if I’m ready to open the bakery. And no charming flattery now, Mr Morgan. I want your honest opinion.”
Rhys sighed, nodding in understanding.
“Well,” he said, looping his arms around her neck, his expression becoming thoughtful, “I’m assuming that what you’re worried about isn’t the baking part. You’ve been creating incredible custom cakes for people for over a year now and you’ve built a strong social media presence that brings in more commissions every day. So we know there’s no reason to worry about the baking.”
Ginger silently shook her head, smiling into his chest as he continued his thorough analysis.
“If it’s managing the business you’re worried about, then I don’t think you’ve got a lot to worry about there either. All the events you’ve catered for people around the village, the work you put in for the village fête both last year and this year, are all examples of your event management skills, budgeting, and the ability to estimate how much food you’ll need for a certain number of people. Sure, running a bakery and café day in and day out is more of an endurance test and you’ve got overhead costs that you wouldn’t get with a one-off event, but you’ve got your business plan, lots of family and friends to help if needed, and a decent chunk of… what do they call it? Seed money? Anyway, money that will tide you over during any rough spots you might have while starting up.”
“So, all bases covered there too, huh?” Ginger said, resting her cheek on Rhys’ shoulder and glancing sideways at him. “It’s like I’ve really put some thought into this or something, huh?”
“I know,” Rhys said, with mock amazement. “Like you’ve been rigorously planning this for just over a year.”
His gaze softened and he pulled her a little closer, enveloping her in his arms.
“So, if it’s not any of that,” he murmured, “then I’m guessing it’s stepping out into the public eye a bit more that has you spooked?”
“There is still an entire conspiracy theory blog that has people debating if I committed several terrible murders or not,” Ginger said dryly. “Every time I’ve been in the news before this, it’s been because someone I was close to was horribly killed or I was pulled into a case somehow. That kind of attention isn’t fun.”
“Well, things have seemed to quieten down recently?” Rhys said, reaching for a bright spot. “You haven’t been getting trolling comments or messages or stuff like that nearly as much. Unless you’re getting faster at deleting them and I just haven’t seen.”
Ginger shook her head. “No, it’s been much quieter. A bunch of my followers actually banded together to mass report all the social media of the guy who runs BAD. Got him suspended and his accounts deleted in just a few days.”
“BAD?” Rhys asked, frowning in confusion. “Has he finally settled on a name for the blog?”
Ginger nodded grimly. “BAD is short for Burnet All Down, which despite the punny wordplay is… ominous.”
“I swear, every day he’s just providing more evidence for a libel case,” Rhys growled, squeezing her close as if he could protect her from the fanatics on the internet who were so convinced Ginger was a murderer.
“I don’t want to think about it anymore,” Ginger said, burying her face into Rhys’ shoulder again. “Because, yeah, that’s the thing I’m nervous about. For tomorrow and then pretty much every day after that.”
“Well,” Rhys said, pressing a kiss to the top of her head, “I can think of a few ways I can take your mind off that particular topic.”
Ginger pulled back, giving him a knowing look. “If your plan is sex and then some of that salted caramel and dark chocolate mousse that is in the fridge, then I like your plan.”
Rhys laughed, his eyes as dark as the aforementioned chocolate and warm with affection.
“And that,” he said, giving her a swift kiss, “is why I love you. Great minds clearly think alike.”
Ginger grinned, her heart so full of love for this man and excitement for what the next day held. “I love you too. Now… get that ass up those stairs swiftly, my love. I’ve got some stress I need to work out before I sleep.”
Rhys gave a sly smile. “Whatever you command, darling.”
Ginger planted a firm slap on his, admittedly excellent, backside and then pushed him toward the door that led to the stairs. “Smart boy. Get moving.”
Rhys took several steps out of the kitchen, his gaze becoming molten in anticipation, but then paused when she didn’t immediately follow him.
“Are you coming?” he asked, eyebrows quirking suggestively.
“That’s the plan,” Ginger winked, opening the fridge. “I’m just getting the mousse out for us pre-emptively. I’m sure we can combine our two treats for some extra… flavour.”
Rhys’ eyes went wide in delight and then he bolted for the stairs.
“I promise I’ll even take my socks off this time!” he yelled back down to her.
Ginger, carrying the bowl, couldn’t help but laugh, feeling incredibly lucky indeed as she followed her darling Rhys up to the bedroom.
“There’s already quite the crowd gathered out there,” Amelia said, nervously spooning some final drips of syrup onto a plateful of summer berry tartlets. “Do you think we’ve got enough for everyone?”
“I’m absolutely positive we do,” Ginger said firmly, deciding to add a few more macaroons to the garden of the fairy tale cake version of the bakery she had made for the launch.
Although decorated to look like a gingerbread house, like something from the story of Hansel and Gretel, in reality the interior was three layers of sweet, fluffy sponge: dark chocolate, expresso, and vanilla, all layered together with a banana buttercream frosting. The exterior was gingerbread brown fondant icing that she had then painted and decorated with sweets, windows and doors made of cookies, and a chimney made of wafer biscuits. In the garden was a path made of macaroons, a fishpond of glistening blue jelly, and a fence made of more wafers.
It had taken days, but Ginger was endlessly proud of it. The perfect centrepiece for the other delicious delights she and Amelia had prepared.
“Let’s move the ice cream from the main freezer into the cooler in the shop,” Ginger said. “You bring the bowls and I’ll take the tubs. Then I think we’ll be ready to open the doors.”
As she opened the freezer, however, she was met with a distinctly warmer gust of air than she was expecting.
“Oh, that’s not good,” she muttered, noting that the light didn’t come on either. “Please tell me that the freezer hasn’t broken today of all days.”
“Is everything ruined?” Amelia asked, rushing to Ginger’s side. “The ice cream!”
“Looks like it’s fine,” Ginger said, cracking open one of the tubs of chocolate, orange, and sea salt. “I think everything was cold enough that it’s maintained the temperature in here. But that’s not going to last long with us having to be in and out of here all day.”
“Knock knock,” Nathan called from the back door. “You about ready to go? The buzz is really building out there but it’s hot as hell. Ice creams and cold drinks are sorely needed.”
“We’re almost ready,” Ginger said, hauling several ice cream tubs off the shelves. “But we’ve hit a slight snag. The freezer appears to have packed it in overnight. We’re going to start having problems soon with things defrosting.”
Nathan muttered a curse under his breath and pulled out his phone. “I’ve got a guy who can bring a spare freezer out in an hour or two. I’ll call O’Hara to arrange it. Will you manage until then?”
O’Hara was Timothy O’Hara, Nathan’s slightly haughty but extremely competent assistant. Internally, Ginger winced, knowing he wouldn’t appreciate being called in on his day off to deal with such a thing.
“You’re a lifesaver, but don’t bother Tim on a Saturday.” Ginger pushed the door closed with her hip, breathing deeply to keep her mounting stress at bay. “I can ask Colin to go and pick it up in his van in a little while.”
“You’ll do no such thing,” Nathan said, tapping out another text. “You’re right that I don’t need to bother O’Hara. I’ve got a crew working on a site nearby. One of them can take an hour or so to swing by my estate to pick up one of the freezers from the outbuilding for you. They’re supposed to be shipped off to be recycled on Monday but one of them can tide you over until we get this freezer fixed.”
“We’re just waiting on the ice cream,” Amelia said, poking her head through the double swinging doors of the kitchen. “I’ve got everything set up and ready to go.”
Ginger nodded, taking a deep breath, very aware that the moment was finally here. “Get the freezer here as soon as you can, Nathan. For now, however, let’s get the doors open and welcome these people inside. It’s time for me to open my bakery.”
* * *
It felt like everyone Ginger had ever known came pouring into the shop when she opened the door. There were both teachers and students from Chiswick Park Academy, easily a dozen members of the indoor bowls club that Ginger used to cater for every Saturday, and people from around the village she knew by sight. Most important, however, were the friends and family from every corner of her life who now beamed back at her as she stood in front of the gathered crowd.
There were a few people she didn’t recognise that she quickly flagged as press, but Ginger kept her breathing slow and even. There was nothing to fear. She hadn’t done anything wrong, there was no way for this event to be twisted into something that could harm her, and the press was only here to spread word about her success.
She sought out Rhys, locking eyes with him as she felt her confidence waver slightly. He gave her a wink and a nod, looking so proud and sure of her that all of Ginger’s fear melted away. Standing up straight, she squared her shoulders and waved to catch the attention of the chattering people.
“I want to thank you all so much for coming today,” Ginger said, enjoying how her voice filled the space she had worked so hard on for so long. “The launch of The Gingerbread House has taken so much work, time, money, and dedication that part of me can’t really believe that the day is finally here. This whole business has been such a labour of love and I couldn’t have done it without the help and support of my family, my boyfriend Rhys, my excellent assistant Amelia, and my more than generous landlord and friend, Nathan Hannigan.”
Claps and cheers followed each special mention, the recipients of her thanks all flushing various shades of red. Nathan, who had come through from the kitchen to stand in the far back corner of the crowd, rolled his eyes fondly at her gratitude.
“I want you to enjoy yourselves today and sample a few of the delights that The Gingerbread House will have on offer throughout the summer,” Ginger said, stepping back and gesturing to the display cases packed with mouth-watering cakes and treats.
The crowd shuffled forward a little, clearly eager to get a taste. Several cameras clicked and flashed, making Ginger’s pulse leap, but she kept the smile on her face.
“The special star of today is the homemade ice cream I was inspired to create by this heatwave.” She pointed toward the sweet little ice cream cart with a built-in freezer that she’d hired for the launch. “We’ve got four flavours for you today. Flavour one is dark chocolate, orange, and sea salt.”
The crowd made a noise of appreciation that made Ginger chuckle.
“There’s rosewater, honey, and vanilla.” She paused for another drawn out hum of interest. “Strawberry and candied mint, made with jams provided by the lovely Katrina Blythe of the Blythe Spirit fruit farm.”
Katrina, who Ginger had originally met during a murder case and had slowly become friends with, waved shyly from the side. Beside her was George Harvey, her husband and former headmaster of Chiswick Park Academy.
“And finally, toffee, banana, and rum for a slightly more grownup taste.” Ginger let the chuckles settle before continuing. “You are welcome to mix and match, although each has its own unique flavour to appreciate. There will also be cold drinks available, fresh fruit smoothies, as well as tea and coffee.”
Ginger took a moment, looking around her shop and at the people who had come together to support her. Tears of pure joy pricked at the back of her eyes, but she kept them back for now. There were too many exciting things to do for her to waste time crying.
“Thank you all so much for coming to the opening of The Gingerbread House,” she said, spreading her arms wide in welcome. “I hope you enjoy yourselves!”
The applause was thunderous and long-lasting, to the point where Ginger laughingly had to wave for them to stop.
“I’m so unbelievably proud of you,” Dorothy, her mother, said, sweeping Ginger up into a hug. “We all are.”
‘All’ seemed to encompass not only her husband Colin, Ginger’s stepfather since her mid-teens, and her brother Valerian ‘Ryan’ Burnet, but also her biological father Ian.
“I didn’t know you were coming!” Ginger shrieked, throwing herself into her father’s arms after hugging the rest of her family. “I thought you were still in Greece for a few more weeks?”
“As if I was going to miss out on such a big moment for you!” he replied, his smile blindingly white against his deeply tanned skin and bushy brown beard.
As always, he looked larger than life. Not for the first time, Ginger wondered if the aura was perhaps created more by his sporadic presence than by his actual actions and personality. Right now, however, she didn’t care. It had been over a year since she’d last seen her father, and now here he was for the biggest day of her life so far.
“And we know how much Dad likes a dramatic entrance,” Ryan said with a grin, clapping his father on the shoulder.
“Let me get you all some ice cream and a drink,” Ginger said. “There’s so much to celebrate.”
From there, the next several hours flew by. Ginger felt as if she was everywhere at once. She spoke to friends who had been with her from the first day of renovation, like Bonnie and her wife Mariah and Maggie who had travelled to Little Chiswick just for the opening day.
With Amelia, she made dozens of drinks, served ice cream, and plated up tarts, muffins, cookies, and slices of the beautiful fairy tale house cake. The reporters left her alone for the most part, only taking her aside for a quick, friendly interview and asking permission to take photos of the bakery.
Everything was going perfectly, and Ginger couldn’t believe that she was finally living her dream.
Slowly, as the day developed, people began to trickle out, all with effusive promises that they would be back with family and friends for food and drinks another day.
When Nathan caught her gently by the arm, Ginger realised that she wasn’t sure what time it was or how long she’d been rushing around.
“The freezer has just arrived,” Nathan said, patting her shoulder. “You go and get the ice cream moved over and take a breather. You look like you’re about to drop. Maybe get a drink.”
“Good idea,” Ginger said, wiping sweat from her forehead but looking around at the tables packed with satisfied customers.
“Do you want a hand?” Rhys asked, strolling over from where he’d been examining several jars of jam on the display shelves.
“I’d appreciate it,” Ginger said, taking his hand and pulling him after her. “Won’t take as long with the two of us.”
Stepping into the kitchen, Ginger took in the large chest freezer, which was already plugged in, that had been wedged into the corner by the back door.
“Let’s line the bottom with bags of ice,” she said to Rhys over her shoulder as she pulled open the now almost room temperature freezer. “I think it’ll help the ice cream stay solid until the freezer is properly cold.”
“Sure,” Rhys said, following her in. “Just let me…”
Ginger squeaked as he unexpectedly pinned her up against the shelves and kissed her passionately.
“I’ve been wanting to do that all day,” he panted, peppering a few more kisses across her forehead. “So wildly proud of you.”
“Thank you,” Ginger said, giving him another quick kiss, “but ice, freezer, now please. I don’t want this ice cream getting ruined.”
Grumbling in mock outrage, Rhys picked up several large bags of ice off the shelves and exited the freezer. Ginger took a moment to grab several bags of frozen summer berries that were starting to drip ominously red juice onto the floor. By the time she stepped back into the kitchen, Rhys was already standing by the open chest freezer. However, he didn’t make a move to put the bags of ice inside, instead just staring down into the chest, unmoving.
“Rhys?” Ginger asked, a sinking sensation growing in her belly. “Rhys, what’s wrong?”
It only took a moment before she could see for herself and, when she did, the bags of ice slipped from her suddenly numb hands.
Stuffed into the freezer, covered in a fine layer of ice crystals, was a human body.
The energy at The Gingerbread House that evening was very different to what it had been that morning. Gone were the chattering friends, family, and fans. The press had been shunted away as swiftly as possible. In the little cart, the ice cream remnants slowly melted into sticky pools. The black, industrial-style lights that Ginger had immediately loved, now shone down as unforgiving spotlights on the disorganised chaos of abandoned plates, cups, and half-eaten pieces of cake.
Everyone but Rhys, Ryan, and Ginger’s three parents had gone home, and the bakery swarmed with police and forensic investigators. However, Ginger stayed away from all of them, curled into a small green armchair in the corner that she’d found at a furniture upcycling shop only a week or so before. She’d imagined people relaxing in it to read or talk to friends, not where she would sit while she watched the future of her bakery hang in the balance.
“Can I get you anything?”
She looked up to see Rhys crouched in front of her, concern written all over his face.
“I’m fine,” she said, shaking her head. “Is there anything you need? You just found a dead body after all. The first time is always a shock.”
Rhys gave a short, bewildered chuckle. “The fact that you not only know exactly what I’m going through but have extensive experience of it is… a unique kind of support that not many people would get in a relationship.”
“Any time.” Ginger gave a wry smile, taking his hand and pressing it to her cheek. “I just want all this to end so I can try to salvage what I can of my reputation.”
Rhys put a hand on her knee where she had them hugged to her chest. “This isn’t going to reflect badly on you. You had nothing to do with any of this.” He grimaced. “It’s Nathan who’s going to have some difficult questions to answer.”
“Someone will try to link it back to me,” Ginger said dryly. “Give it a week or two and BAD will be yammering their theories to one another.”
“You really need to stop looking at that site,” Rhys said quietly, standing again only to bend and press a kiss to the top of her head. “It will only make you feel worse.”
Ginger resisted the urge to snap that she only looked at the site to see if she needed to prepare for some kind of trolling attack, a pressure that he wouldn’t know anything about. Instead, she took a breath, and reminded herself that it wasn’t Rhys’ fault or her fault, and that her anger wasn’t directed at anyone except whoever had shoved that body in the freezer.
Her brother, Ryan, quietly approached the pair.
“I think Klimek is about ready to talk to us all,” he said, fiddling nervously with his phone and flicking glances toward a particular forensic technician.
Ginger vaguely recalled that Ryan and the technician, who she believed was called Declan, had dated one another for a while. Rolling her eyes, she got to her feet, nudging her brother as she passed.
“Please don’t awkwardly flirt with your ex while I talk to Klimek about the body in my bakery kitchen,” she said dryly, heading toward the trio of her parents.
“I can’t believe this has happened,” Dorothy said, squeezing Ginger protectively into her side. “Not again. Not to you.”
“Don’t fuss, sweetheart,” Colin said to his wife, his warm Caribbean accent and gentle energy calming Ginger enough that she felt her shoulders descend from where they were bunched up around her ears. “Ginny knows what’s happening. You don’t need to restate it.”
“Sorry, love,” Dorothy whispered, giving her another squeeze.
Ian started tapping his foot impatiently and Ginger could tell her father’s past as a police officer had him wanting to be back there in the kitchen, not waiting in the other room.
Before she could tell him to settle down because he was making her more nervous, DCI Jacob Klimek came through from the kitchen into the main room.
It was strangely comforting for Ginger to see her long-time friend and teenage fling at a crime scene. They’d butted heads a few times over the years during cases, and had all but stopped being friends for a stretch of time. Ultimately, however, the two of them had reached an understanding: Ginger made sure she didn’t overstep in any cases she got caught up in and Klimek had come to trust her insight in particular instances.
So, when Ginger smiled at the sight of him, it didn’t feel all that odd.
“We need to stop meeting like this, Jacob,” she said, watching as he pulled back the hood of his white crime scene suit and removed his latex gloves.
“Then you need to stop finding dead bodies everywhere you go,” he fired back with a sympathetic smile. “Gosh, we really have the whole Burnet crew here tonight, don’t we?”
“Do you have any idea who the guy in the freezer is?” Ian asked, cutting straight to the point.
“Blunt as ever I see, Ian,” Klimek said, stepping out from behind the counter and ushering the group toward the largest empty table. “I don’t know much, but I’ll tell you what I can.”
Ginger distantly thought that the rest of the ice cream in the kitchen had probably melted by now. She hoped the takings from today would cover the loss of the spoiled food.
“There was no ID on the body so I can’t tell you who the guy is right now,” Klimek said, unzipping the suit and fanning at his sweating face. “So we’ll have to see what info we can get after the body is processed and autopsied. However, I’ve got a suspicion that we’re not going to get anything from his fingerprints simply because I’m pretty sure he doesn’t have any.”
“Well,” Ryan said, folding his arms, “I believe that is what those of us in the police business call… really weird.”
“Oh really?” Ginger said to her brother dryly, then turned back to the Klimek. “Do you think they’ve been deliberately removed or it’s just cold damage to the body?”
Klimek shrugged. “It’s hard to say, honestly. The ME estimates the body has been frozen for quite some time, anywhere from weeks to months, so the fingerprint issue might just be freezer burn or something more insidious.”
“Frozen for weeks or months?” Ian asked, mirroring his son by folding his arms. “So there’s no way Ginger is going to be a suspect in this?”
Klimek adamantly shook his head. “Not a chance. The freezer is only in the shop by pure chance. The one who should be most concerned is your landlord, Nathan Hannigan. He’s the one who’s going to have to explain why there’s a body in a freezer that was in his outbuilding until a few hours ago. We need to interview you about all this though, Rhys, since you found the body. You too, Ginny.”
“Of course you do,” Ginger said wearily, rubbing her forehead. “Just please tell me that I’ll get my bakery back sometime soon? I’m going to have to spend all of tomorrow cleaning the place top to bottom before I can start baking again.”
She stepped away from her mum, starting to pace.
“Please tell me that this will be kept far away from my name and the bakery?” she pleaded, not even sure who she was speaking to. Her chest started to tighten, and it became harder to breathe as the panic set in. “I’ve worked so hard for this I can’t have it crash and burn on day one.”
“Any press statements we get won’t have your name or the bakery name anywhere near them,” Klimek promised, rounding the table to step into the path of Ginger’s pacing. “Deep breaths.”
“Do we have to stay here?” Rhys asked Klimek, and Ginger could feel his worry. “I think Gin needs to go home.”
“I can decide if I need to go home,” Ginger snapped, guilt immediately flooding her when she saw hurt flash across Rhys’ face. “I’m sorry. It’s not your fault. I’m sorry.”
Rhys pulled her into a hug, tucking her into his shoulder. “It’s okay. I know you’re not actually angry at me.”
Ginger felt oddly exposed having such an intimate moment with her boyfriend with her family and Klimek standing so close by, but she was mostly too exhausted to care.
“I just want one thing in my life that doesn’t get spoiled by death,” she murmured, not even sure if he could hear her.
“Go home, Ginny,” Klimek said gently, prompting the pair to end the hug. “All of you should really go home. It’s been a long day, we’re going to be here for quite a while longer, and you honestly shouldn’t even be here while the scene is being processed.” He patted Ryan and Ian on the shoulder. “Go home, friends. I’ll send updates to those of you who need them.”
And so Ginger found herself driving home in the dark, alone. Rhys had offered to come home with her, but Ginger had to admit that she really needed some alone time to process everything. The two agreed to meet for breakfast at Rhys’ house the next morning after a night apart to get their thoughts in order.
The tears hit her as soon as she closed the door behind her. Dropping to the floor, Ginger leaned back and let herself cry. The exhaustion, the weariness, the disappointment, and the shock all washed over her, breaking free in uncontrollable sobs.
Soon, two warm furry bodies came to investigate. Both Miles and Nina purred softly as they nudged and curled around her, showing comfort in the way they knew she needed. Hugging her cats close, Ginger let herself surrender to the emotions, knowing that tomorrow she would wake up and begin the fight to pull her business back from the edge of scandal.
For now, however, she was just going to cry.
This Mystery is a part of Ginger Burnet Cozy Mysteries Series!
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