Chapter 1

“All right, students, step away from your final projects, please.”

Ginger Burnet, baker extraordinaire and part-time solver of murders and mysteries, watched with pride as all her students put down their various tools and stepped away from their creations.

It was the final day of the final exam for the specialist Baking as Art class that she ran at the illustrious Chiswick Park Academy. The academy, set amongst the rolling green hills and fields of Gloucestershire in the southwest of England, was deep in the throes of exam season. For Ginger’s students, that had meant planning an artistic, showstopping baking project that demonstrated the skills and techniques they had learned over the course of the year.

Now, after eight hours spread over the course of three days, Ginger felt her heart swell with pride as she looked at the incredible creations her students had produced. There were towering layer cakes decorated with intricate buttercream piping; another worktop presented a life-sized cat made of delicately baked sponge cake with fur made with sculpted fondant then painstakingly painted; someone else had gone wild with their chocolatier techniques, turning a collection of different flavoured cupcakes into a sinuous forest topped with curling chocolate flora.

“I can’t believe it’s finally over,” Amelia announced dramatically, sliding down the front of her workstation to sit on the cool tiled floor.

Ginger got a bottle of water out of the fridge and passed it to her student and former assistant from when she was the academy’s resident baker.

“You did so well,” Ginger said, admiring the intricate mirror glazed cake that Amelia had then adorned with chocolate flowers of different colours, each of the petals individually cut out and stuck into place with buttercream. “All of you did.”

“How did it manage to feel like I’ve been working on this for eternity and also feel rushed the whole time?” Sam asked, crouching so their eyeline was level with the worktop, peering critically at the construction of cake, colourful macarons, and artfully painted chocolate shapes that made up their rendition of a tableau from Alice in Wonderland.

“Time works differently during exam season,” Amelia said wearily, getting to her feet and draining the rest of the bottle of water. “So if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go and sleep for the rest of the day, while trying to convince myself that I’ll still have time tomorrow to prep for my biology exam.”

One by one, the weary students murmured their goodbyes and filed out of the classroom. Some looked satisfied, looking at their projects with pride. Others shook their heads mournfully or nibbled nervously on their fingertips.

Just as the final few students exited, there came a light rapping on the door. Ginger turned, a smile stretching across her face. Rhys Morgan, history teacher and heartthrob of Chiswick Park Academy, was leaning easily against the doorframe. The seams of his crisp blue shirt struggled to contain his muscled biceps as he crossed his arms, and Ginger let her eyes linger for a few extra moments. It had been a long day, she deserved a treat.

“How has your day been, Miss Burnet?” Rhys asked, pushing off from the doorframe and sauntering over to her, a smirk tugging at his lips.

Ginger laughed, biting her lip as she felt herself flush. She and Rhys had started dating a few months before, but they’d been taking things slow, especially after Ginger’s almost deadly run-in with a vengeful poisoner at the beginning of the school year the previous September.

But it was now May and things were going… very well. In fact, she flushed even more as she remembered some specific moments that had gone spectacularly well. Which was why she backed up from Rhys, waving a warning finger at him playfully as she put her cooking station between them.

“Mr Morgan!” she chastised, squeaking out a surprised laugh as he darted around the worktop to wrap his arms around her from behind. “We agreed to no flirting at work. Did you bring your camera with you or are you just happy to see me?”

He hummed regretfully against her neck and pulled back, showing her the camera hung around his neck. “Technically both?”

Slipping free of the arm that he kept loosely around her waist, Ginger gave him a pointed look, raising one eyebrow. Quickly she threw up her hands with a huff.

“It’s irritatingly difficult to stay annoyed at you when you look so good,” she grumbled. “I’m a sweaty, flour-dusted mess and you look like you just stepped out of a menswear catalogue.”

She couldn’t help but grin as it was now Rhys’ turn to flush. He tugged self-consciously at his loosened tie and fussed at the few dark brown curls that fell forward onto his forehead.

“So, you wanted me to take photos of all the final projects?” he asked, quickly clearing his throat.

“You’re cute when you’re flustered,” Ginger said with a wink, before crossing to the closest magnificent creation. “We need to get these photographed and filmed and then into a fridge. I’ll mark them on taste later.”

“I wish my exams had a cake tasting portion,” Rhys said, beginning to take detailed, close-up photos. “I don’t suppose you want any help with the tasting portion, do you?”

“There will be plenty of sweet treats left over after I’m done marking,” Ginger said with a laugh, prepping the next project for Rhys’ attention. “Hey, I can ask the students, but I’m sure they won’t mind donating portions of their bakes to your mum’s new assisted living centre? It would certainly make her popular.”

Rhys chuckled. “She’s already plenty popular. I was meant to have a phone call with her last night, but she cancelled on me. Apparently, she had several dinner invitations to choose between.”

“Ah Rosanna,” Ginger said, shaking her head with amusement. “Ever the charmer. Such a shame she didn’t pass any of that onto you.”

Rhys flicked her a dry look as he moved onto photographing Amelia’s beautiful creation. “I’m cooking dinner tonight, remember? You should probably be slightly nicer to me.”

Ginger sidled up behind him, pressing a quick kiss on his shirt between his shoulder blades.

“I’m always very, very nice to you,” she said, ruffling his hair before moving away to clear away the detritus from around the next cake.

However, before she reached the workstation, a high-pitched ringing surged in her ears. Next thing she knew, Ginger was on hands and knees down on the floor, the tile cold against her cheek. Her vision blurred. An overwhelming sense of dread sank its claws into the back of her neck and her breath came in ragged gasps.

“Ginger!” Rhys’ hands were warm and reassuring on her upper arms. “Come on, sit up for me. Slowly now. That’s it.”

She leaned back against Rhys’ broad chest, staring at her slightly shaking hands without recognition. It felt as if the top of her skull was floating away from the rest of her head.

“Deep breaths.” Rhys scooted her gently to lean against the base of one of the workstations. “I’ll be right back.”

“I’m fine,” Ginger murmured, blinking rapidly to try and clear the floating shapes from her vision. “It’s just been a long day.”

Rhys crouched down in front of her, pressing a cold bottle of water into her hands. “Is this the first time this has happened?”

“Ever?” Ginger asked, taking a long drink. “Or the first time this has happened since I got hit over the head with a shovel?”

“The second one.” Rhys sat on the floor beside her. “I know it’s been months, but there might be something that’s only just developing now—”

“Rhys, my love,” Ginger said, patting him gently on his stubbled cheek. “I’m fine. It’s not some kind of slow-moving brain damage. I just didn’t eat lunch today because I was busy, it’s hot, and I’ve been on my feet marking a live exam all afternoon.”

He frowned, the familiar little swirl forming between his eyebrows. “That makes sense,” he reluctantly agreed. “I just worry, you know? Seeing you drop like that just now reminded me too much of when you passed out on the roof of Ava’s house and…”

Gently, Ginger took his hand, pressing a kiss to his knuckles. “I’m fine,” she assured him. “Now, help me to my feet so we can finish photographing my darling students’ hard work. Then we’ll load the ones in risk of melting into the fridges, I’ll clean up the mess while you close up your classroom, and then we’ll head back to mine for dinner. Sound good?”

“The tidying up can wait until tomorrow,” Rhys said, standing up but not pulling her with him. “You can stay on the floor and finish that water, I’ll do the photos, we’ll turn down the aircon in here to keep everything cool, and then we’ll leave.” He started photographing the next cake. “This isn’t a discussion. Drink your water.”

Ginger mock grumbled for a minute, sipping on the water. In truth, however, she was grateful for Rhys. It felt good to be able to take the time to let the feeling come back into her hands and for that feeling of panicky disconnect to fade. The only thing that sent a stab of guilt into her throat was that she’d skirted Rhys’ question for a reason.

This wasn’t the first time this had happened recently. A few times at home she’d found her vision going hazy and once she’d nearly fallen down the stairs when the feeling hit mid-step. But she didn’t want to worry him. No doubt it was all just stress-related and would fade once exam season was over.

Enjoying the quiet click of Rhys’ camera shutter going off over and over again, Ginger looked around as best she could from the floor, mentally cataloguing the mess she would need to tackle the next day. The several sinks were full of last minute bowls and utensils, and the worktops were littered with modelling tools, knives, piping bags, and stencils.

Glancing to the front of the classroom, Ginger mentally made a note to find where she’d put the knives from her special set. She remembered loaning the small, sharp knives to one student or another to help make a particularly delicate cut, but who knew where they’d ended up. The bowl from the mechanical mixer on her workstation was missing too, as were both of her favourite work whisks.

“Utter chaos,” she muttered to herself, finishing the bottle of water. “I really need to plan better for next year.”

“And I’m sure you will,” Rhys said, finishing the last of the photos and helping Ginger to her feet. “Well, that’s Friday finished for us. Let’s leave this place icy cold and go enjoy our weekend, shall we?”

“I like how you think.” Ginger turned down the air conditioning before closing and locking the classroom. “Lead the way, Mr. Morgan. I’m expecting great things from this dinner you’ve promised me.”

“Well, that was your first mistake,” Rhys said wryly, hooking an arm around her waist. “I make no promises but one: if it goes badly, I’ll be the one to pay for takeaway.”

“I’m never going to say no to free food,” Ginger teased, resting her head on his shoulder, determinedly blinking away a few errant black spots in her vision as they walked down the corridor and out into the open air.



Chapter 2

A mist hung over the fields surrounding Ginger’s cottage. Dawn nudged at the droplets of dew hanging on the ripening wheat stalks. Silvery spiderwebs draped in the hedgerows glistened like spun sugar. Several tiny birds, blue tits and wagtails and song thrushes, came to the large bird bath in Ginger’s garden, several of them crowding into the water at once to take a brisk, early morning dip.

Strolling out the French doors that led from the open plan kitchen to the patio, Ginger gave a sigh of contentment as she settled on the swinging bench with her second cup of fresh mint tea. Beside her on the patio, her two blue shorthair cats Miles and Nina watched the fluttery gathering in the birdbath with interest.

“Don’t even think about it,” Ginger warned, her bare feet scuffing the cool Cotswold stone patio as she swung gently back and forth. “We don’t eat guests.”

Nina, her golden eyes glowing in the fresh daylight, gave her an unamused, flat stare at having her liberties so encroached upon. Miles, her brother, was more magnanimous, hopping up onto the bench beside Ginger and starting to knead her thigh. Although blind in one eye, the pleased comfort was obvious on his round, fluffy face as he purred.

“You should be more like your brother,” Ginger said, petting Miles as he settled down on her lap.

In response, Nina flicked her tail and began climbing the sturdy wooden trellis that supported the swinging bench. Honeysuckle and wisteria shivered some pollen loose as the haughty cat sprawled out on top of the trellis, turning her silvery blue face to the rapidly warming morning sun.

Chuckling, Ginger shook her head at her cat’s antics, scratching Miles under the chin. “And so Her Majesty graces us with her presence, eh?”

He purred softly in response, rubbing his face against the quilt draped over Ginger’s lap to ward off the predawn chill.

It was perfectly blissful. Ginger took a deep breath of the clean morning air, feeling some lingering tension from the day before melting away as she exhaled. She needed to go into the academy briefly today, even though it was Saturday, to tidy up the mess but that didn’t bother her.

With the exam now done, she could see the end of an incredibly stressful year almost in sight. Her thirtieth birthday loomed in just over a week, an age Ginger had briefly wondered if she’d ever get to see. Not only had it been her first year teaching a very experimental and high-risk art elective, but the year had started out with a poisoner on the loose, bent on revenge.

Without thinking, Ginger lifted a hand to touch the spot on the back of her head where she’d been struck with a shovel by the killer when she’d once again found herself in the middle of the investigation, only this time very much not by choice.

That little flutter of guilt from the day before returned anew as Ginger recalled her lie of omission to Rhys.

“Why didn’t I just tell him about them?” she asked the two cats. “It would have been really easy to bring it up.”

She wasn’t entirely sure why she hadn’t told him the truth, that the dizzy spells had started off slowly not long after her blow to the head. They had been almost unnoticeable at first, but had gotten slowly more intense during the winter. It had reached a point where Ginger was concerned for the same reason as Rhys and had gone for a head scan at the local hospital. But they’d found nothing out of the ordinary and wrote it off as stress.

“I could have told him I got the all clear on the scan,” she said to Miles, running a finger from the tip of his nose to the top of his head over and over in a soothing motion. “Why didn’t I reassure him?”

But Ginger knew why she hadn’t told him. If she told him that she’d been having these dizzy spells and mini blackouts for months, but that there was no evidence that the shovel had been the instigator, then Rhys would start worrying about what else it could be. Part of her loved him for that urge he had to care for her.

Ginger took another sip of her tea, watching a robin skip around the edge of the bird bath before diving in. She was skipping around telling Rhys the truth in a similar way and, as much as she hated to admit it, she knew why.

It was a simple fact that the past few years hadn’t been easy. Ginger flickered her eyes closed for a moment as the memories of too many murders and too much loss and pain assaulted her all at once. She’d been flung and forced into desperate, bloody situations more times than any one person should have to be in a lifetime.

Now she was facing the end of an incredibly formative decade of her life and the beginning of another. Did she really want to step into a new era of life with all these worries and secrets clinging to her like shadows?

What Ginger didn’t want to admit out loud, not even to her cats, was that she was afraid that these dizzy spells and mini blackouts weren’t a sign of physical injury. She was afraid it was a sign that she was reaching a mental breaking point that had nothing to do with exam season stress and everything to do with being caught up in three murder investigations over the past eighteen months.

No doubt Rhys’ offer to listen to her to try and understand what she’d been through was genuine. What Ginger doubted was her own ability to go poking at those memories and still be able to keep herself together.

“He might be an excellent boyfriend,” she said to the cats, “but I can barely handle everything going on in my head. I don’t think I could explain it to him in a way that wouldn’t make him… give up on me.”

All at once, Ginger felt an oppressive sense of panic start to crawl up her spine. It had her glancing around the garden and staring back into the house, her heart pounding. The sun suddenly felt searing hot and the quilt around her legs became a vise, pinning her in place.

“There’s no one watching,” she told herself quietly, trying to calm her pulse as black spots started floating into the edges of her vision. “You’re safe. Everything is fine.”

Sensing Ginger’s change in mood, Nina gracefully leapt from the top of the trellis, down onto the patio table. She then swiftly joined her brother curled up against Ginger’s side.

Slowly, Ginger got her breathing under control. Chuckling weakly, she scratched both cats behind the ears, their familiar softness quickly grounding her.

“How can I linger on anything bad when I’ve got you two adorable ruffians to keep me distracted?” she said in response to the enthusiastic purrs. “Well, you two and this village fête buffet my dear mother put me in charge of.”

Nina seemed to smirk, entirely unsympathetic.

The following Saturday, May 24th, was the annual village fête for Little and Greater Chiswick. Ginger’s mother, Dorothy, was part of the planning committee this year for the first time. She had graciously volunteered Ginger to not only run the afternoon tea buffet, but to also head up the team of people baking and preparing the buffet.

In some ways, Ginger was excited to get to show off her skills to both villages in such a public setting. Mostly because she hoped it would bring her some more opportunities to cater private events and encourage people to order custom cakes from her. However, the planning process was proving to be a logistical nightmare.

Not only was Ginger trying to plan a celebration for her thirtieth birthday, but she had also entered into two categories of the baking competition: Best Victoria Sponge and Best Cookies.

“I apologise,” Ginger said to the cats as she gently pushed them aside, forcing herself to ignore their disgruntled mews. “I’ve got things to do today or else I would definitely spend all day petting you adorable monsters.”

With a flick of her tail, Nina hopped down off the bench and returned to the top of the trellis. Miles simply nestled into the quilt Ginger left behind, rolling onto his back to let the morning sun pet his belly.

Ginger rolled her eyes fondly. “Got a tough life, you two, don’t you?”

The next hour for Ginger was filled with a quick breakfast of overnight oats and fresh plum compote, getting showered and dressed, then settling down to answer some emails before she set off to the school.

One email was to Ginger’s dear friend and casual rival on the local baking circuit, Susan Ford. A kindly grandma in her fifties, Susan and Ginger had met during the murderous game show they had both inadvertently got trapped in at Arlington Manor nearly two years before. Following the press attention surrounding the case, Susan had actually stepped into the limelight, shaking off her previous shyness to become somewhat of a small-time celebrity. She even had her own YouTube show now.

Ginger, however, was in touch with her to ask for tips and tricks for the perfect Victoria sponge cake, a recipe that Susan was notorious for across the whole county. If Susan arrived at the baking contest tent with her Victoria sponge, it wasn’t unheard of for other contestants to withdraw their entries.

“Ah, keep your secrets,” Ginger muttered with a wry grin as Susan’s reply was as cryptic and vague as usual. “I’ll just destroy everyone in the cookie competition with my gingersnaps.”

Sending off a few more quick emails to the village fête committee, asking for clarification on what kind of numbers she should expect to be baking for, Ginger turned her attention to practicing her cookies.

Soon the warm, spicy scent of ginger and dark brown sugar wafted out of the open patio doors. It was accompanied by the gentle sounds of jazz trickling from the turntable in the living room.

By the time noon rolled around, any hint of the worry and panic Ginger had felt early had completely disappeared. She set her third experimental batch of gingersnaps onto a cooling rack and loaded the first, now cool, batch onto a plate.

Strolling out the back door, Ginger slipped out of the tall, dark green gate set into the rear wall of her garden. It let out onto a rarely used footpath that was currently shrouded in tall spring grass. Just a few steps to the right was a second, similar gate though blue instead of green.

Knocking loudly, Ginger reached over the top of the gate to undo the bolt.

“John?” she called as she opened it, “it’s just me. I’ve got a treat for you.”

Ginger only made it about halfway down the delicately curling flagstone path before her elderly neighbour, John O’Reilly, came puttering out of his cottage.

“Ginger dear,” he said, a lifetime’s worth of lines carving around his eyes as he smiled, bushy eyebrows curling like two delighted caterpillars. “What perfect timing! I just put the kettle on. Shall I get a second mug out?”

“Not today, John,” Ginger said, passing over the plate filled with perfectly crisp gingersnaps. “I need to deal with some things at the academy and then I’ve got a date with Rhys over in Lambington. There’s a jazz concert in the park this evening.”

Rhys had surprised her with the tickets at the beginning of the week and she’d been looking forward to it ever since. All the makings of a delightful picnic dinner waited in the fridge: delicate mini quiches, crisp salads, tangy chutney, homemade elderflower and strawberry cordial, and more of the experimental gingersnaps.

“Well, you youngsters enjoy yourselves,” John said, taking the plate and eyeing up the cookies with delight. “And I’ll keep an ear out for the kitties, don’t you worry.”

“I never do,” Ginger said, backing down the path, hoping the words didn’t sound as hollow to her neighbour as they did in her own ears.

After Miles nearly got poisoned the previous year, there was always a tiny part of Ginger that worried for her cats when she left the house.

“Oh, will you ask your mother if they’ve found space for me and my watercolours at the fête?” John called after her. “I’ve got some precious pieces to sell. If there’s room for my little stall that would be wonderful.”

“I’ll ask!” Ginger shouted back over her shoulder as she exited through the gate, fondly rolling her eyes as she muttered under breath, “Can’t wait to see the committee’s mini meltdown when they try to find space for another stall though.”


Chapter 3

“This seems like a good spot,” Rhys said, surveying the ground like he was about to start panning for gold and not just settle down for a picnic. “We’re up on a bit of a ridge so we can see over people. Close to the band, but not so close we can’t talk without distracting them… Yes, I think this is perfect. What?”

He looked at her quizzically, a smile tugging at his lips. Ginger knew that her affection for him was clear on her face, but she didn’t mind in the slightest.

“You’re adorable when you’re earnest,” she said instead, spreading out the quilt she had brought from the car for them to sit on. “Come on, let’s try to get the food set out before the music starts.”

Rhys set down the picnic basket, kneeling down beside it and beginning to unload its treasure.

“I will be forever grateful to you for saving me from a life of unseasoned food,” he said, setting down a pot of freshly made roasted red pepper hummus and a box of crisp crudités. “And if it means I have to run an extra mile or so, then so be it.”

“The thought of those lunches you used to bring in of plain chicken, couscous, and kale still make me cry inside,” Ginger said with an overdramatic shudder as she popped the lid off the tub of the mini quiches. “Although I do have to thank you as well for getting me out on more bike rides and hikes. Makes me feel better about the amount of butter I put in my pastry.”

“Here’s to a healthy relationship with food and exercise, dearest.” Rhys passed her a bottle of the cordial and took a sip of his own. “I lived far too long treating food like an enemy when really it’s a very delicious friend.”

“Do you tend to eat your friends?” Ginger teased, tossing him a plate.

“Well, you started out as a friend, so come to your own conclusions,” he shot back, wiggling his eyebrows.

Ginger half-choked on her drink as she tried to laugh and swallow simultaneously.

“You’re a horrific flirt,” she gasped, coughing uncontrollably for a moment as she wiped up the spillage with a napkin.

Rhys laughed uproariously, drawing the amused glances of a few other members of the audience. Ginger flushed, ducking her head and trying not to feel watched. She didn’t have the best experience of being recognised in public, especially after several brushes with gossip rag newspapers.

“I’ll behave,” Rhys promised, scooting across the quilt to press a kiss to her cheek. “Look, the band is about to start. Come curl up against me so we can both share the hummus. Come on.”

Ginger did so, and soon found herself relaxing into the music and the atmosphere. Although usually a busy market town, Lambington quieted in the evening. The little amphitheatre where the band was placed and the area in front were both set well back from the road, so the music wasn’t spoiled by traffic noise.

Soon the warm notes of jazz were floating through the park, seeming to make the paper lanterns hanging from the trees shine a little brighter. Ginger and Rhys slowly sipped and nibbled their way through the picnic, sometimes murmuring quietly to one another as a thought occurred to them. They chatted about the cats, about the latest antics of Rosanna in her new home, of students struggling with exam stress, and of their various mutual friends.

“Did I tell you that Maggie got asked to join the tech team for a show up in Edinburgh for a month?” Ginger asked, gathering up the remnants of the food while the band took a break partway through the evening. “Apparently the director is a pretty big deal, so she dropped everything to go and work with them.”

Maggie MacFelder was a dear friend of both Ginger and Rhys, although Ginger had met the charmingly blunt Filipino Scot in a slightly more unorthodox manner than Rhys. Maggie had been another victim of the horrors of Arlington Manor, and had been one of the main reasons Ginger and several others had been able to escape alive. When she wasn’t baking or stopping homicidal maniacs, Maggie worked as a sound engineer on whatever theatre production she could in Stratford-upon-Avon, an hour or so drive from Little Chiswick.

“Good for her.” Rhys tossed a grape into the air and caught it in his mouth. “Have you heard from her much?”

“The last thing she texted me was a gif that seemed to indicate she hadn’t really slept in several days,” Ginger said, putting away the last of the tubs into the picnic basket. “I sent her a cookie care package.”

“Ah, you saw an opportunity to get rid of even more of your practice gingersnaps and seized it.” Rhys saluted her with his nearly empty bottle of cordial. “I respect that.”

“Hey,” Ginger protested. “I was doing a nice thing for a friend.”

“That also got rid of cookies,” Rhys added with a smirk.

“You’re not still trying to dispose of excess gingersnaps, are you?”

The voice came from just behind the ridge where Ginger and Rhys had set up their picnic. Turning, Ginger was surprised to see her brother, Valerian, or Ryan as he preferred, standing on the tarmac path that ran along the edge of the grassy area where the concert was set up.

He was still in his suit, which meant he’d only just got off shift from the police station where he was a Detective Inspector. Beside him, looking both curious and shy, was a woman with short black hair who Ginger hadn’t met before.

“If you complain about the free baked goods I drop off at the station, I can just stop bringing them,” Ginger threatened playfully, clambering down onto the path to give her brother a hug.

“He’s not complaining,” the woman chipped in, giving Ryan a sharply teasing look. “And neither is anyone else at the station, I can assure you. Although I work in the IT department and we rarely get a look in at any treats, not if the front desk and the detectives have anything to do with it.”

“Hey,” Ryan mumbled, glancing down at his shoes almost shyly, “I saved a bunch for you last time.”

At this, Ginger arched a brow, all at once realising that her brother was also on a date. Apparently, things hadn’t lasted with Darren… or was it Michelle… or Ben?

“Well, I’ll be sure to label a box specifically for IT next time I drop by,” she promised, holding out a hand to the woman. “I’m Ginger, Ryan’s sister, in case that wasn’t already obvious.”

“Addison,” the woman replied with a warm smile. “We’ll leave you to your own date. Sorry for interrupting.”

“Not at all,” Rhys said, waving from the top of the ridge. “I’m sure you saved me from being forcibly fed more cookies.”

“A truly terrible fate,” Ryan agreed gravely, the smirk twisting one side of his mouth betraying his amusement. “You still on for some sparring tomorrow evening, Rhys?”

“I certainly am,” he replied, holding out a hand to help Ginger climb back up onto the ridge. “And I promise to go easy on you.”

“Oh, those are fighting words,” Ryan said, now openly grinning. “I was going to be nice but now you’ll have to explain to your students Monday morning why you look like you had your arse handed to you.”

Ginger and Adison exchanged long suffering looks, but the amusement quickly drained away at the sound of angry raised voices.

Looking out across the other picnickers in the slowly descending twilight, Ginger’s stomach tightened as she saw a familiar figure stumbling unsteadily across the grass toward her and Rhys.

“Whose wife have you stolen this time, Mr Morgan?” the tall, scrawny man sneered, his once crisp white business shirt now wrinkled and stained.

It was James Fox, the disgraced former husband of one of the teachers at Chiswick Park Academy and he looked like he was ready to cause trouble.

Chapter 4

Before Ginger could fully process that James was really there, the man charged forward with a warbling yell. He crashed into Rhys, fists flailing with poorly choreographed punches. Rhys, somehow, stayed upright, using every scrap of core strength and grit he’d picked up in his time on the rugby pitch.

“What are you doing?” Rhys snapped, throwing James off to the side, then trying to catch his balance. “We were having a nice evening here.”

“It was you two,” James slurred, making another rush at Rhys, who quickly stepped to the side. “You turned my wife against me! Made her say all those things that weren’t true! Got me sent to jail for nothing!”

Ginger flushed, feeling the eyes of the gathered music crowd shift toward the sudden scene of violence. The band stopped playing, making James’ wild accusations carry in the sudden silence.

“Rhys and I didn’t do anything,” she hissed, dodging out of the way as James tackled Rhys again, this time knocking her boyfriend back several steps. “You nearly killed Aurora and dumped her in the woods to die. If it were up to me, you’d still be in prison.”

Ryan and Addison both scrambled up the ridge and stepped into the fray. James began to curl in on himself, shrinking into a cowardly hunch as he realised that he was now outnumbered.

“I only got angry with her because she was sleeping with you,” James whined at Rhys. “She humiliated me. What was I supposed to do?”

Rhys backed behind Ryan, leaving the conflict resolution to the professionals. “Maybe not nearly beat her to death? Besides, like I pointed out at the trial, Aurora and I weren’t having any kind of affair.”

The hairs on the back of Ginger’s neck prickled as she heard whispers start behind her. Her shoulders tensed as she glanced back and saw people taking photos and videos of the confrontation. James continued to rant and rave and fling himself around even as Ryan and Addison tried to de-escalate the situation.

Ginger hated this. She hated the feeling of being watched, of unwillingly becoming a spectacle for people. From painful, first-hand experience, she knew how cruel people could be online. People enjoyed watching other people’s worst moments dragged across the vast expanse of the internet.

“Okay, you’re going to walk away right now, or you’re spending the night in the drunk tank again,” Ryan said coolly, pressing an unmoving, warning hand to James’ chest.

“But they… those two turned Aurora against me,” James slurred, staggering back several steps and falling over the picnic basket Ginger had set aside.

There came some scattered laughter from some of the people watching and filming. Ginger felt her pulse begin to roar in her ears, the feeling of being watched, feeling like she was being suffocated by the unwanted attention, growing unbearable.

Before she could quell the urge, she whirled on the closest person filming the scuffle.

“Would you just stop filming?” she snapped, hearing the desperate edge to her voice but not being able to stop the words. “There’s nothing to see. You’re being a vulture, and for what?”

The person, a woman a few years older than Ginger, gave a startled look and lowered her phone but didn’t stop filming.

“Do you ever stop and think about how it feels for the people getting filmed against their will?” Ginger asked, knowing that her voice was getting louder. “Having that footage of their worst moments just out there in the world? Have you no compassion?”

Looking around, Ginger felt herself go lightheaded as she saw the various phones were now trained on her like so many sniper rifles. Getting air into her lungs became an impossible task. The web of impassive, electronic gazes wrapped around her, making her heart flutter and twist like a butterfly trying to escape a spider’s clutches.

All at once, Ginger felt her vision begin to swim and, with a feeling of sickening horror, she realised she was about to black out again. On camera. In front of all these people. Tears of shame flooded her eyes. She didn’t need to imagine what would happen when those who had followed her every mishap since the Arlington Manor case got wind of this footage.

Warm, strong arms caught her from behind, steadying her as she swayed in place.

“I’ve got you,” Rhys whispered in her ear. “Deep breaths. Come on. We’re okay.”

Humiliated, Ginger had no choice but to lean on him as he steered her back toward their picnic quilt that was now marred with various dirty footprints. She saw James wandering away deeper into the park, waving his arms around, clearly still talking to himself.

“Are you all right?” her brother asked quietly as Ginger and Rhys got closer. His jacket was rumpled as if James had tried grabbing him.

Hesitantly, the band began to play again, which Ginger was grateful for, but it still felt as if all eyes remained fixed on her and Rhys. Finally, in response to her brother’s question, she shook her head.

“I just want to go home,” she said quietly. “I don’t want to be here anymore with everyone staring.”

“I’ll take you home, don’t worry,” Rhys said, and Ginger could hear the worry in his voice.

On the edge of her peripheral vision, she saw Addison awkwardly standing to the side. A bitter laugh bubbled in her chest that she had to force down. Of course, the first time she met her brother’s new date, some unhinged abuser came crashing into the picture, starting a fight.

Tentatively, Rhys let go of her to roll up the quilt and take the picnic basket from Ryan, who had retrieved it from where James had kicked it.

“Sorry, Addison,” Ginger said, mustering all the strength she had to speak. “As you can tell, I’m the more drama-prone of the Burnet siblings.”

Addison shook her head insistently. “No, no, please don’t apologise. That guy is a nightmare for ruining your date night like that.”

“It’s not the first time I’ve heard about him disturbing the peace,” Ryan added, subtly putting himself between Ginger and the few people still filming from a distance. “Guy only got out of prison a few weeks ago, but he seems determined to get sent straight back.”

“Wouldn’t be the worst thing,” Ginger muttered, wishing she could still enjoy the jazz filling the night, but now the scattered piano notes only made her heart race with anxiety. “He’s an entitled bully. The world would be better off without him.”

“Are you ready to go?” Rhys asked, sliding an arm around her waist.

Involuntarily, Ginger tensed at his touch. She knew Rhys felt it too because he gave her a confused, wounded look and withdrew his arm.

“Let’s go,” Ginger said, cursing her own twitchiness.

She hoped she’d be able to find the words to explain to him that his touch didn’t scare or disgust her. Right now, she didn’t want to be in contact with anything, even her own clothing. Everything felt far too constricting.

“I’ll talk to you soon,” Ryan promised, squeezing her arm quickly, the action making Ginger minutely recoil. “And if you want to get some kind of restraining order for James, I can go about making that happen.”

All Ginger could manage was a noncommittal shrug before starting the slow walk of shame through the crowd back toward where Rhys had parked the car. A few times, her vision threatened to tunnel into pinpoints again. She could feel Rhys’ free hand hovering around her elbow, ready to grab her if she began to fall.

With every step, the spectre of his hand began to irritate Ginger more and more. It began to make her skin twitch as if she was constantly braced for impact. As they stepped off the grassy park and onto the cobblestones of the car park, she couldn’t take it any longer.

“Rhys, I’m fine,” she snapped. “Just… stop flapping your hand around, waiting for me to fall. Makes me want to peel my skin off.”

The ghostly feeling of his hand finally withdrew, and Ginger breathed a sigh of relief.

“Sorry,” Rhys muttered, digging through his pockets for the car keys. “Excuse me for wanting to make sure you wouldn’t hit the ground if you passed out.”

“I’m fine,” Ginger said, leaning against one of the wrought iron bollards while Rhys unlocked the car. Her heart rate was finally slowing, but now she just felt achingly weary. “I just want to go to bed. Be done with today.”

Rhys tossed the quilt and basket onto the back seat, then opened the passenger side door for Ginger.

“I’m sorry he ruined our date,” he said quietly as she slid into the car. “Let’s arrange something else to wipe away the memory?”

“Sure,” Ginger said, aware she sounded disinterested but too exhausted to summon any extra energy.

The drive back to Ginger’s cottage was silent. As much as she wanted to bridge the void that she could feel stretching open between her and Rhys, Ginger just couldn’t summon the energy to do so. So instead, she stared out at the dark countryside, trying to tell herself that tomorrow was a new day, a fresh start. But she couldn’t forget all the phones pointed at her, robbing her of her autonomy.

How long until someone online figured out who she was in the video? It would be yet more ammunition for those gossip rags and blogs that seemed intent on milking every drop of misery from her life that they could.

“I’ll give you a call in the morning,” Rhys said as he pulled up outside the gate to the cottage. “Hope you sleep well.”

Ginger could only nod, reaching back for the picnic basket and quilt.

“Hey,” Rhys said, hand half-reaching for her but pausing. “Things are going to be okay. I promise.”

At this, something in Ginger’s chest loosened, and she took her first easy breath in hours. Then, taking his hand, she squeezed it gently, pressing a kiss to the knuckles.

“I know,” she managed to whisper. “It’s just… a lot. It’s been a lot for a while.”

“I know.” He matched her volume, the cloak of darkness in the car making the enclosed space feel like a confessional booth. “And although I’ve been there for some of it, I have no idea how it must feel to have experienced what you have. The manor. The whole situation with Callum. Then all the stuff last September….”

The tension began to increase again, crushing her ribs, and Ginger released his hand. It was too much to think about all at once.

“I’ll speak to you tomorrow,” she said, the weariness crashing over her again. “I’m sure I’ll feel better in the morning.”

* * *

The insistent ringing of her phone woke Ginger. Forcing her eyes open with a groan, she rolled over in bed to look at the clock. It was three in the morning. Phone calls at this time were never good.

Picking up her phone, Ginger sat up, trying to remember how to speak.

“Hello?” she mumbled, turning on her bedside lamp.

“Ginger, it’s me.” The voice was her brother’s. It was heavily weighted with something she couldn’t quite decipher.

“Ryan?” She sat up straighter, fear immediately making her more awake. “What’s wrong? Is it Mum? Dad? Rhys?”

“No, it’s something else.” In the background of wherever Ryan was, Ginger could hear police sirens. “It’s James Fox.”

“That was not the name I was expecting you to say,” Ginger said, shoulders relaxing a fraction. “What about him?”

From the silence that followed, Ginger could tell her brother was trying to find the right words.

“He’s dead,” Ryan said eventually. “And it’s pretty clear someone killed him.”


Chapter 5

Ginger’s heart lurched, a strange swirl of emotions scattering around inside her chest. “Why have you called me to tell me that James Fox is dead? I mean, it’s awful, but I wouldn’t say I'm at the top of the list of people who need to know.”

There was a long, heavy pause that made Ginger’s stomach sink.

“What haven’t you told me yet?” she said quietly, staring out of her open bedroom door but not seeing anything.

“There are two knives at the crime scene,” Ryan said slowly, sounding as if he was cupping a hand around his mouth to stop his words from carrying to anyone but her. “And I recognise both of them. They’re from the fancy set I bought for you last Christmas. They have your initials on them, Gin, for goodness sake.”

It felt as if she’d been hit over the head with a shovel for the second time.

“They’re the ones I use at the academy,” she said, her voice sounding as if it was coming from far away. “I washed them up and then packed them with my other stuff into my car now exams are over.” She paused, reaching for the memory to back up the claim, but finding nothing solid. “Well... at least I think I did?”

“Don’t say anything else to me,” Ryan said quickly. “I’m probably going to end up on this case and I can’t muddy the waters any more than I already have.”

“What should I do?” Ginger asked blankly. “Should I come to the station?”

“You don’t need to turn yourself in if you didn’t do anything,” Ryan replied, lowering his voice. “Which you didn’t… right?”

Ginger opened her mouth to respond, wounded that her brother would even ask such a thing, but then a tiny voice whispered in the back of her head.

Do you actually remember coming into the house?

With a sinking feeling, Ginger realised that she didn’t. She remembered shutting the door to Rhys’ car. She remembered stepping through her front gate. Then she remembered waking up in bed several hours later with her phone ringing.

Had she gone into the house? Or had she waited for Rhys to leave, then driven back to Lambington and searched out James Fox? The knives had been in her car after all. Maybe? Had she put them there? Or were they at the school? Or had someone taken them?

At this point, Ginger realised her hair was damp.

She didn’t recall taking a shower.

Was there a chance she might have done this? It seemed impossible that she would have been able to murder someone and not know it, but… why couldn’t she remember coming into the house?

“The fact that you haven’t said anything is more than a little worrying,” Ryan said, his voice suddenly much more serious. “But we’ll figure this out, Gin. Just go about things as usual. We’ll be in touch when we need to talk to you.”

“Okay,” Ginger said faintly, staying on the line long after her brother had hung up.

* * *

If a watched pot doesn’t boil, then a watched clock doesn’t tick. It certainly felt that way to Ginger for the whole of Sunday.

With the realisation that she had lost a chunk of time between stepping through her front gate to waking up in bed, came a sudden obsession to always know the time. By the end of the day, Ginger became hyperaware of every minute as it passed and had begun noting down the time she started and finished any task.

She told herself that there were lots of reasons it was good to keep a record of such things. If her dizzy spells were evolving into something more serious, having evidence to take to a doctor would perhaps speed up her chances of getting help.

The little voice in the back of her head reminded her in a whisper that accounting for every minute now wouldn’t bring back the chunk of time she’d lost, but Ginger tried to ignore it.

When she arrived at the academy on Monday morning, ready to begin writing up the results of the exams, Ginger had her system perfected. She would record the time stamps in her phone, then write up the full day in a notebook in the evening. The final thing she would do before sleeping would be to note the time and what state she was in — what she was wearing, if she’d showered or not, where certain items were in the room, etc. — then note the time she woke up and see if the details matched from the night before.

“Stress affects people in lots of weird ways,” she muttered to herself, wandering through the eerily quiet corridors of the academy.

With exam season in full swing, most classes were over, and so students only came into school at their designated exam periods. As Ginger approached her classroom, she had to pass by the room of Bonnie Natt, her close friend and fellow art teacher.

The door carried a bright red sign with white writing saying “QUIET: Exam in Progress”. Ginger only quickly peeked in through the window in the door. She saw Bonnie sitting at her desk in the corner of the room, her short, chaotic auburn hair partially wrapped in a blue and green scarf. The rest of the room was filled with students hunched over their easels, faces frozen in masks of intense concentration.

Not wishing to disturb, Ginger moved on. Just as she was approaching the door to her classroom, however, she was stopped in her tracks by a smooth but commanding voice.

“Ah, Ginger, can I have a word?”

Turning on her heel, Ginger saw the new head of Chiswick Park Academy at the other end of the corridor.

Miranda Morningside was relatively new to the school, only coming in as headmistress the previous October. The previous head, George Harvey, had resigned following a nearly deadly brush with the poisoner who had briefly terrorised the school at the beginning of the school year.

She gave Ginger an expectant look, one neat eyebrow raising in question.

“Of course,” Ginger said, retracing her steps.

Miranda, who was the wife of the beloved former mayor of Little and Greater Chiswick, Gregory Morningside, was a unanimous choice by the school board. Ginger had to admit that the reasons why were clear. Miranda was strict but fair with a refreshing no-nonsense attitude. Considering the nightmare roller-coaster the academy had just stumbled off, she brought everything back to an even keel in only a few weeks.

But there was a focused intensity to Miranda that always made Ginger feel nervous. It made her painfully aware that this was her first time teaching a class that was more than a little experimental. As Bonnie had put it after the first faculty meeting they’d had with the new head, “I’ve been teaching for years but she’s so knowledgeable and put together that it makes me feel like an imposter.”

An imposter was exactly what Ginger felt like as she followed Miranda into an empty study room. The expression on the head mistress’ face was open and welcoming. Yet, there was something about her flawless, natural make-up, perfectly coordinated charcoal grey skirt and white collared shirt, and delicate accents of golden jewellery that made Ginger feel disorganised and scruffy.

“I had a peek into the classroom this morning,” Miranda said, leaning easily on the edge of the table, crossing her legs at the ankle. “It looks like the students did excellently.”

Caught off guard, it took Ginger a moment to respond.

“They all did very well,” she stammered out, glancing at her watch. She made a mental note of the time. “I’m starting the final write-ups today.”

“It’s certainly been an interesting experiment,” Miranda said, tucking a strand of her sleek, shoulder-length blonde bob behind her ear. “Do you have plans for it next year or are you looking to move onto other things?”

At this, Ginger cocked her head, a sinking feeling growing in her belly as she began to suspect what this conversation was really about.

“I’ve got a few vague plans,” she said slowly, crossing her arms tightly. “Since I’ll have a better idea of how to run the course next year, I’m hoping to take on more private cake commissions in my spare time. Maybe. I haven’t thought about it too much. Just been trying to get through exam season.”

Miranda nodded, her expression balanced to be interested and understanding but not disingenuous. Ginger wondered how many years it had taken for the headmistress to perfect that look.

“Is there something specific you wanted to talk about?” Ginger risked prompting when it seemed Miranda didn’t have any immediate follow-up to her response.

The sigh that Miranda let out solidified the roiling suspicion in Ginger’s gut into a sharp, icy worry.

“There’s no easy way to say this,” Miranda said, seeming genuinely regretful. “But I received a call from the police this morning. They are requesting access to your classroom. It would appear you are, once again, involved in a murder investigation.”

This Mystery is a part of Ginger Burnet Cozy Mysteries Series!

Find out more... Just click Here!

Follow me on Bookbub!

Help me grow my followers on Bookbub and I will recommend you some awesome books very soon!

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}
Murder Brew Mysteries Box Set 2
Murder Brew Mysteries Box Set 1
Easy As Pie

Page [tcb_pagination_current_page] of [tcb_pagination_total_pages]