USA Today bestselling author Marty Wingate’s Potting Shed series continues as expert gardener Pru Parke digs up a Nazi warplane—and a fresh murder.
Texas transplant Pru Parke has put down roots in England, but she never dreamed she’d live in a grand place such as Greenoak. When her former employers offer Pru and her new husband, former Detective Chief Inspector Christopher Pearse, the use of their nineteenth-century estate while they’re away for a year, she jumps at the chance. Sweetening the deal is the prospect of further bonding with her long-lost brother, Simon, who happens to be Greenoak’s head gardener. But the majestic manor has at least one skeleton in its closet—or, rather, its garden.
Working on renovations to the extensive grounds, siblings Pru and Simon squabble about everything from boxwood to bay hedges. But when the removal of a half-dead tree turns up the wreckage of a World War II–era German fighter plane and a pile of bones, the arguments stop. That is, until a rival from Simon’s past pays a surprise visit and creates even more upheaval. It’s suddenly clear someone is unhappy their secrets have been unearthed. Still, Pru’s not about to sit back and let Simon take the fall for the dirty deed without a fight.
In Marty Wingate’s The Skeleton Garden (Potting Shed mystery #4), protagonist Pru Parke is up to her ears in a murder investigation (“helping” her husband, Inspector Christopher Pearse), but she takes a break to get ready for Christmas. Pru – although a great gardener – is no cook, but to help engender some holiday spirit, she decides to tackle the kitchen. She just hopes their housekeeper/cook, Evelyn,
doesn’t hear about it.
Sunday morning the last shreds of uneasiness were banished by yellow autumn sunlight shooting through the window. Pru had a big afternoon ahead of her, a solo task. Christopher stuck close by until midday, when she told him, “I need to go into Romsey and do a bit of food shopping.”
“I’ll come with you,” he said.
“There’s no need.”
“Yes, there is.”
“I’m going to Waitrose—I’ll be in the middle of a crowd—and I’ll come straight back. You stay here.”
He narrowed his eyes at her. “All right. You have your phone?”
Two hours later, she made a show of arriving home and setting her few shopping bags on the kitchen table. “Look, safe and sound.”
Christopher leaned over to peer inside a bag, but Pru took them away. “Now,” she said, “I’m going to be busy in here awhile, so you should . . . go read a book. Start a fire. Watch a movie. I’ll let you know when you can come back in.”
He glanced into the mudroom.
“The door is locked.” She took his face in her hands and kissed him. “I love you,” she said. “Now, go away.”
After he left, Pru inhaled deeply and spread her Waitrose goods out on the table—all the ingredients for Christmas pudding, that dense, intensely spiced, steamed cake she knew would cinch their family holiday. She could do this. Self-rising flour, bread crumbs, sugar, apple, citrus, raisins, currants, candied peel, almonds, suet, eggs, spices. Where was the brandy? She glanced at the door—she’d have to make a foray to the drinks cabinet in the sitting room. Christopher looked up from the fireplace when she came in, but she didn’t engage, and he went back to his project. She took the brandy— almost a full bottle—back to the kitchen and poured herself a shot.
She had shopped carefully, checking the photocopied recipe against each item. Now, she checked each ingredient again and read through the recipe for the hundredth time.
She needed one of those thick, ceramic pudding bowls. Rummaging through the cupboards, she found a stack, chose the largest one, and heaved it up onto the counter. She had decided to double the pudding recipe, because they’d have so many for Christmas.
Now, get a clear head. She knew that food recipes went by weights in England, so this should be easy.
After all, how many times had she weighed out and mixed up batches of fertilizer? She could recite that recipe by heart—four parts cottonseed meal, one part bonemeal, a half part kelp meal . . . this was the same thing.
Pru weighed each item and set it aside. The piles of dried fruit on the table began to resemble the painted, salt-and-flour map of North America she had made in fourth grade. She glanced back at the recipe. Crap, she thought—she should’ve set the dried fruit in the brandy the night before. Well, a quick soak now should be fine, she decided, scooping the fruit into a small bowl and pouring a generous amount of brandy over it. Too small a bowl—the brandy slopped over the edge. She took out a larger container and dumped the concoction in, after which she poured herself another measure and took a sip. There, that’s better.
She found the largest stockpot she could, set it in the sink, and watched the water creep up the sides as it filled halfway. Even half full, she discovered, the pot was too heavy to lift out of the sink, and so she poured most of the water out, put it on the cooker, and refilled with the kettle. Don’t forget to chop the apple. Lemon and orange zest— what? She rearranged her ingredients, looked through drawers, and finally pulled out her phone.
“Hello, Ivy, it’s Pru.” Ivy Fox was not only a fantastic cook, but also a good friend. “When you get this message, perhaps you could give me a ring?” She saw that it was almost five o’clock, and the pudding should already be on to steam. She tried to keep the panic out of her voice. “You’ll never guess what I’ve decided to do—cook a Christmas pudding. But I’m a bit stuck, and I thought you might be able to give me some advice. So, I look forward to hearing from you soon. Cheers, bye!”
Pru didn’t feel all that cheery and poured herself a bit more brandy to counteract the creeping anxiety. At last she located a grater with tiny, tiny holes that must be the zester. She began on the citrus, managing twice to catch the skin on her finger, and shouting as the lemon got into the cut.
“Pru?” Christopher called from the hall.
“Fine, I’m fine,” she said through the door, running her finger under the cold-water tap. “I’ll come and get you in a few minutes.”
She got back on the phone. “Ivy, Pru again. Dredge? What is that—is it like dredging a pond? Why? Do I dredge the suet? Please ring as soon as you can.” She poured herself more brandy and grabbed the small bag of flour—forgetting it was already open—and showered the table, floor, and her feet with white powder. She brushed what fell on the table into her hand, and—a quick glance over her shoulder to make sure no one was spying—into the mixing bowl. Nothing’s cleaner than Evelyn’s table, she thought, pushing a strand of hair out of her face and leaving behind a bride-of-Frankenstein streak.
The pot steamed behind her, but the pudding was nowhere near ready to go on. Poking her finger into the bowl of brandy, she decided that the fruit had plumped up enough; she tipped the contents into the mixing bowl and stirred. When she held the spoon up and the batter dripped off like water, she realized her mistake. “Drain!” she screamed. “Drain it first!”
Two seconds later, Christopher burst into the kitchen and stopped short. “I heard you shout,” he said.
They regarded the disaster on the table.
“It’s stir-up Sunday,” Pru said in a little voice. Stir-up Sunday was an English tradition, each family member taking a turn with the spoon, so that everyone had a hand in the holiday creation, which needed to age a few weeks in the larder.
She saw that ghost of a smile. “You’re making Christmas pudding?” he asked.
“I thought it would be a grand surprise for everyone when I brought it out after Christmas dinner with the holly stuck in the top and the pudding flaming from the brandy.” Pru rubbed her nose, further spreading the flour. She gave the pudding another stir. “I think I need more brandy.”
“In the pudding or in you?” Christopher asked.
A hysterical giggle escaped. “Both.”
Pru sobered up fast when she heard the key in the door followed by Evelyn appearing in the mudroom—taking up much more space than even her tall figure should. Pru froze.
The cook took stock of the scene as Christopher began backing slowly toward the swinging door to the hallway.
“Hello, Evelyn, I’m surprised to see you,” Pru said, trying for bright nonchalance, but able to produce only a whisper.
“What’s all this?” Evelyn asked.
Pru cleared her throat, seeking her voice. “It’s stir-up Sunday, as I’m sure you know. And I wanted to . . . well, stir up our Christmas pudding. And I’m just rather in the middle of it now, and I realize it looks as if I’ve made a mess of your kitchen, but of course I’ll clean the entire thing up as soon as I’ve . . .”
Christopher had made it to the door. “I’ll just leave you two to sort this out,” he said. Coward, Pru thought.
The hallway door swung closed, and the kitchen was saturated in silence. Pru looked at Evelyn, and Evelyn looked at the floor. At last, she said, “Right, well, then, Ms. Parke. I’ll just be off.”
“Oh, please don’t leave on my account,” Pru said. “Were you stopping by to collect something?” Evelyn rarely appeared at Greenoak on a Sunday, one reason Pru had thought she could get away with her project.
“Doesn’t matter now.” Evelyn held her head high and kept her eyes on the wall just over Pru’s shoulder. “The kitchen is yours, of course. I’ll have Peachey gather the rest of my effects tomorrow.”
Alarm bells went off in Pru’s head. “What do you mean?”
Evelyn’s face revealed nothing. “I knew you would want to take over.”
“Take over . . . the cooking? Evelyn, why would you ever think that? Mrs. Wilson made all the arrangements with you. You’re the cook at Greenoak.” Pru realized she still held the wooden spoon, and it was dripping batter on the floor. She threw it back into the mixing bowl.
Hands stuck in her coat pockets, Evelyn glanced at Pru and then away. “It’s the same as it was with Mr. Alf.”
“Alf?” Pru said, her eyes widening and her voice shooting up into the stratosphere.
Evelyn’s fists punched around inside her coat pockets like two puppies trying to escape. “‘You’re the cook, Evelyn,’ he said to me when he arrived. ‘You’ll keep your job.’ But the next thing I knew, my services were no longer required.”
“You’re comparing me to Alf Saxsby?”
Caught out, Evelyn blushed. “No, certainly not,” she said. “It’s just, when you and Mr. Pearse arrived in the summer, I saw that you were a competent woman who would want to run her own house and kitchen when you were settled.”
“I don’t know how you ever got that impression,” Pru said. “I kept out of your way, didn’t I?”
“My ma always told me that if I applied myself and learned one thing well, it would serve me. And it has—until now.”
“But, Evelyn, I would never want you to leave.”
“Thirty years I’ve been here, but I knew it was just a matter of time.”
“Please, listen to me.” Pru felt as if she were waving her arms around, trying to get Evelyn’s attention from the other side of a crowded train station.
“Peachey and I will do all right—it isn’t as if we haven’t had to adjust before. He lost that railway job too . . . still, we carried on, didn’t we?”
“Evelyn, I can barely boil water!” Pru shouted. All quiet in the kitchen, except for the hissing of the pot, waiting for its pudding bowl.
Out of nowhere, they appeared—those deep dimples in Evelyn’s cheeks, accompanied by a twinkle in her blue eyes. “Well,” she said, “there’s that.”
Pru dived into the crack in Evelyn’s armor. “We both have our talents, Evelyn—mine is not in the kitchen. And besides, I had hoped we could be friends.” Or at least not enemies, Pru thought. “I have only Polly, you know, and I miss having a woman friend to talk with. Please don’t go.”
The dimples faded a bit, overtaken by a look of concentration. The cook surveyed the kitchen. She spied the recipe on the table, put a finger on the paper, pulled it over, and scanned it. She picked up the wooden spoon and let the batter drip off. At last, her eyes fell on Pru and stayed. “Don’t you worry, now—we’ll put this to right.”
The pudding steamed away in the pot on the cooker. They sat over cups of tea at the table in a clean kitchen—Evelyn had washed, and Pru had dried.
“Why is it that you don’t believe you can cook?” Evelyn asked, her voice soft and conversational, and her dimples still in sight. “Didn’t your mother cook?”
Pru nodded. “She did—she mastered Texas dishes as well as fixing food she remembered from England. But while she was cooking, I was always out in the garden with my dad. It was our one solid connection. He was a great gardener, not just with food but flowers, too. He was away a great deal—he worked for the highway department—and while he was gone, I was in charge of the garden. I was so proud to bring my mother a basketful of squash or beans, or a bunch of roses. She loved roses,” Pru said, getting a bit misty. “They reminded her of home.”
“And here you and Simon are both gardeners.”
“Do you think you can inherit a love of something?” It was an unfounded belief that Pru clung to, that the garden would be a connection between her brother and the parents he never knew.
Evelyn nodded. “Although my ma, now, she had to learn to be a gardener, she was never born to it. Came down here from South London to be a Land Girl, and it was entirely new. Ever after the war she had a veg plot—we had one out behind the Blackbird, where we lived. She was quite proud of her sprouts.”