Leah is accused of a crime she didn’t commit. Dumped by Adam, the man she planned to marry, she escapes to Aunt Jayne’s smallholding in the Kent village of Winkleigh Marsh. Heartbroken and homeless, she strives to clear her name and deal with her emotions.
Jayne treats Leah’s unhappiness with herbal remedies, cowslip wine and common sense in equal measure. In return Leah works hard for the delicious home-cooked meals they share. She wrestles with sheep, breaks nails and gets stuck in the mud – learning as much about herself as she does about farming. Soon Leah is happy milking cows, mucking out pigs and falling halfway in love with Duncan, a dishy tractor driver.
Back in London, steps are being taken to investigate what’s happened to the missing money. It looks as though the real embezzler must soon be unmasked and Leah will have to choose between resuming her old life or starting a new one.
That’s when her problems really start.
Review extracts –
Wow! What a fab must read story, which I was unable to put down!
What sets this story apart from the usual romance/mystery are the delightful country scenes and details of life on a farm.
I loved this book.
This actually had me looking forwards to my train journeys while I was reading it.
a superb introduction to country life!
It hooked me in and the twist at the end was great.
It’s a great story with characters that are written so well that you really care about them. I laughed, I cried and I shouted “no” at them several times as I joined them on their journey. I also got rather hungry with some of the food descriptions!
Here are the opening few pages –
With a sigh of relief, Leah indicated to exit the motorway. It seemed she really was going to escape from the city. She couldn’t run away from herself, but there were plenty of things she could leave behind, such as the office at Prophet Margin where she’d worked until she’d been suspended yesterday morning. She was also leaving Adam behind.
She blinked several times to clear the moisture that formed in her eyes as she thought of Adam. If she could just get him to come down to Kent, away from the stress and strains of his job, maybe he’d be able to concentrate on his feelings and they’d recapture some of the love and passion they’d once shared. Until then, a short separation might do them both good. Adam would miss her after a day or two, wouldn’t he? Leah wasn’t yet ready to give up on the relationship and her hopes for their future.
It was no good her worrying; much better to think of something positive. It will be great to see her aunt again. Leah hadn’t really spoken to Jayne for ages. Not since… well not since she’d met Adam, come to think of it. She hadn’t visited Jayne’s smallholding for an even longer period. Back then, it had been Jayne’s parents – Leah’s Granny and Granddad who’d run the place and Leah had been a visiting schoolgirl. She sighed again as she remembered how carefree and happy she’d been then.
A chat with Jayne would soon cheer her up and then Leah could relax in scented bath water before giggling the evening away over a glass of home-made wine. Her worries stood no chance against competition like that.
Leah wondered why she hadn’t come down to Winkleigh Marsh before. Jayne frequently invited her but Adam had never found a free weekend.
“Come on your own then, Leah. I can always fix you up with a dishy tractor driver or the lad who mucks out the pigs,” Jayne had urged.
“You’ve got staff now?” Surely the tiny farm couldn’t need a full time tractor driver.
Jayne laughed. “Of course not. I do have neighbours though. Lots of strong, fit male neighbours.”
“Tempting, but no. Hopefully we’ll be able to come next month,” Leah had replied, but somehow they’d always had other more pressing invitations; golf matches with Adam’s acquaintances or dinner parties with people he hoped to impress.
Yesterday evening though, when he’d seen how upset she was by her suspension from work, Adam had suggested a break might do her good. Leah immediately thought of visiting her aunt at Primrose Cottage. Leah had rung Jayne to say she unexpectedly had some free time.
Jayne must have realised, from Leah’s subdued tone, something was wrong but she hadn’t asked any difficult questions, instead urging Leah to come as soon as she liked.
“If you came now, the roads would be quiet.”
“I can’t just drive down now.”
“Oh, all right then. I’ll see you for lunch tomorrow.”
Leah had almost laughed with relief. Just like that, she’d been offered the chance to escape. There would be problems in the countryside too, but they wouldn’t be caused by irregularities in complicated financial dealings or a man scared of commitment and, as she was a visitor, they wouldn’t affect Leah.
Leah was glad of the sat nav Adam had fitted in her car. Although she’d spent much of her childhood at Winkleigh Marsh, she hadn’t visited since. The device directed her down yet another narrow lane, warning her of the sharp bend ahead, but not the tractor which made it impossible for Leah to get around that bend anytime soon. She didn’t mind driving slowly. It was pleasant to look at the scenery as she drove along. Even in the depths of winter, and despite a few lumps of mud on the road, the country lane was attractive. She spotted a deep green holly bush and ivy growing into the crowns of trees which had shed their leaves. They weren’t oaks or silver birches, the only trees Leah could confidently identify. She recognised several landmarks on the way to Aunt Jayne’s smallholding. The watermill, a milestone and even an old signpost looked exactly as she remembered. She’d been away too long, but not so long she felt a stranger.
The tractor pulled over into a field entrance, allowing Leah to pass. She drove slowly, partly to avoid scratching her car’s shiny pink paintwork and partly to get a good look at the driver and tease her aunt about her idea of good looking men.
Leah looked straight into the cab at the driver’s smiling face, registering an abundance of curly brown hair and broad shoulders. Very nice! She’d thought Jayne had been kidding about the presence of a dishy tractor driver, but apparently not. There’d be no teasing now, just admiration of her aunt’s excellent taste.
Leah waved to the driver in thanks for his consideration in allowing her to overtake. He returned her acknowledgement. Leah was sorry that concentrating on the road ahead meant she couldn’t fully appreciate his cheeky grin.
Jayne must have heard or seen Leah’s car because she was waiting in the yard, dog at her side, to yank open the door and hug Leah the moment she stopped.
“It’s so good to see you, lovey. My but you’ve got thin. Don’t they have any food up there in London then?”
Leah hugged Jayne in return and kissed her cheek. “It’s good to see you, too.” She bent to stroke the dog whose front end was trying desperately to stay still under the immense pressure of the waggy tail. “You must be Tarragon.”
As Leah made a fuss of the English Setter, she studied her aunt. Jayne’s rich red hair was cut short for practicality, but the choppy style suited her and showed off her lively, heart shaped face. Leah wasn’t sure if she was wearing mascara, but if so it was her only trace of make up. Jayne’s clothes weren’t at all fashionable, but the bright colours were cheerful and drew attention to her neat curves. There were no bags or dark circles under her eyes and the faint lines on her face were definitely laughter lines not wrinkles.
Leah had much longer hair in the same vibrant shade, was fifteen years younger, fashionably dressed and immaculately made up, but she didn’t put Jayne in the shade. Leah felt they could easily have passed for sisters.
“How long’s it been?” Jayne asked.
“Too long,” Leah admitted. They’d met in London and at various family functions, but not often.
“It has. And for your parents. I know they’re loving life in New Zealand, but I miss my big brother. Letters and e-mails are great, but no substitute for a hug.”
“They say the same. I know they want to come and see you.”
Jayne helped Leah carry in her bags and showed her to her room. Tarragon came into the house, but didn’t accompany them upstairs. Unlike the bedroom Leah shared with Adam, in this room there was no TV, no phone socket, no computer. Just a big comfy bed, wardrobe and bedside table.
“You sort yourself out, lovey and I’ll put the kettle on.”
Leah didn’t bother to unpack. She just shoved her cases into the bottom of the wardrobe and took her wash bag into the bathroom. Once she’d freshened up, she sat on the bed and put her alarm clock on the bedside table next to the vase of evergreens and snowdrops Jayne had picked to welcome her. Force of habit had made her pack the clock, but Leah doubted she’d be setting the alarm during her stay.
On the wall was a photograph of May, Leah’s grandmother and Jayne’s mother. Although Leah had seen the picture before, she was still startled by May’s beauty. It wasn’t just the woman’s name that had seen her crowned May Queen several times in her youth. Granddad had always assured Leah, and probably Jayne too, that she was just as pretty, but he’d have said the same whatever she’d looked like. It was still hard to believe she’d never see them again except in photographs.
Leah wandered over to the window and looked out. The lovely view over farmland and woods Leah remembered from her childhood was still much the same. Leah sent Adam a text, to let him know she’d arrived safely, before going back downstairs.
Jayne had made a pot of tea and set the table for lunch. She served a big slice of home-baked steak pie. Leah accepted the offered plate and helped herself to vegetables. It wasn’t true that Leah had lost weight, in fact for the last few weeks she’d been comfort eating. She sighed.
“Something wrong?” Jayne asked.
“No, this looks and smells delicious.” Leah knew Jayne hadn’t really been asking about the food, but wasn’t ready to admit her problem was more than a silly misunderstanding at work. That she’d known for a while things weren’t right. Leah took a bite of crisp pastry and succulent meat. It was delicious.
“I’m glad this is home-made,” she said as Jayne encouraged her to have a second helping. “There’s no panel on the pack to tell me how much saturated fat and how many calories per 100g.”
“There’s no need to worry about that anyway as you’re here for a change, not a rest, my girl. I intend making you work for your supper, lovey.”
Great; physical work might help Leah get things into perspective. With any luck she’d be working hard enough to burn off all the food she’d eat. Not that it mattered for a few days; Jayne wouldn’t make any sarcastic comments even if her clothes were a little more filled out than the designer would have liked.
“Do you want to talk, or just chat?” Jayne asked.
“Chat, for now,” Leah replied. If possible she was going to forget her problems just long enough for her to gather the strength to tackle them.
“Suits me – there’s plenty of gossip to catch up on. G-B has made some changes and you remember my friend Chantelle? Well, you’re never going to believe what she’s been getting up to and…”
As Leah listened to an outline of the forthcoming gossip-fest she studied her aunt.
“You look great, Jayne.”
“Nothing like as good as you’re going to look once you’ve got a decent night’s sleep, some fresh air and tried a few of my lotions and potions.”
“You’ve got a herbal remedy to cure accusations of fraud?”
“Fraud! Leah who could say such a thing about you? You’ve always been completely honest, even as a little kid. I remember times when a little white lie would have got you out of trouble but you wouldn’t say it. Remember when you tripped and broke a whole basket of eggs?”
Leah started to shake her head, but stopped as the memory of smashed shells burst yolks and a feeling of guilt came back to her. “Yes. I’d seen Granddad carrying a bucket down to the lambs and I thought I’d miss feeding them. I ran after him instead of taking the eggs in as I’d been told.”
“Yes and you admitted as much and gave Mum your pocket money to try to make up for it. There’s no way you’d commit fraud, Leah.”
“Oh, Jayne, I’m so glad I came.” She wanted to cry at the relief of being believed.
“It’ll be all right, lovey. I know I don’t yet know exactly what’s wrong or how it can be put right, but I’m sure we’ll think of something.”
“Everything is wrong, that’s what.”
Tears trickled down Leah’s cheeks as Jayne pulled her into a hug.
Why, when she’d stumbled into Adam’s office, after her boss had told her about the irregularities in her biggest account, hadn’t Adam done that? His ‘let’s wait and see and look into all the facts before doing anything’ approach might be realistic and no doubt he was working behind the scenes at Prophet Margin right now in ways of which she was unaware, but when she’d told him, all she’d wanted him to do was hug her and say everything was going to be OK.
After a few minutes of crying, Leah felt calmer. She blew her nose. “Sorry, Aunt Jayne.”
“Leah, you can’t keep calling me Aunt. It was OK when you were a kid, but now it makes me feel grey haired and wrinkly, like Miss Marple.”
“The fluffy old lady who solved half the crimes in the Agatha Christie books.”
“Thought that was Hercule Poirot.”
“He solved the other half.”
Leah had a feeling Jayne might be able to help with half of her problems too. Of course she could, wasn’t that why Leah had rushed down here?
“So, we do a few chores this afternoon, then after supper we can have a glass or two of cowslip wine and you can tell me all about it, how’s that sound?” Jayne asked.
“Like an excellent plan.”
“You wash up then and I’ll go and find you some clothes for you to work in. I don’t suppose you’ve got anything suitable?”
“Not unless you want me to take dictation or update a few spreadsheets?”
“I could do with some help on the computer, but that’s not what I’ve got in mind for you.”
Leah knew her clothes were unsuitable, but they were all she had. Adam’s idea of getting close to nature was to watch a documentary or hang bird feeders on their balcony, so she didn’t have any use for practical outdoor wear. Jayne lent her some scruffy jeans, a thick sweater and a warm coat, all of which fitted very well and were surprisingly comfortable and a pair of wellingtons which didn’t and weren’t.
“I think you’re going to need extra socks to hold those on your feet,” Jayne said.
Jayne’s idea of a few chores started with repairs to a fence around the chicken run. Leah broke two finger nails in as many minutes and went inside to file the others down. It wasn’t just in terms of clothing that she was unprepared for a stay on a farm.
The next little job was to chop and stack firewood. After that, they fed the pigs. Tarragon lolloped along with them, managing to stay mud free as he criss-crossed the small yard and dodged in and out of animal pens. Leah stopped occasionally to stroke his grey silky head and check her phone. There was no message from Adam. Each time Jayne saw Leah snap shut the phone and thrust it into her pocket, she dragged her off to a new task.
“I’m getting on much quicker with you to help me; I think we’ll have time to sort out the sheep before we deal with Rosemary.”
First they had to catch the six sheep which was a job in itself, then Leah had to stand with a leg each side of the squirming animal and wrap her arms around its neck so Jayne could trim its feet. Once each was released it bounded away, evidently delighted with its pedicure. Leah didn’t have the energy to bound away after the job was done. She was convinced she’d be needing the cowslip wine intravenously.
“What sort of animal is Rosemary?” she gasped once the last woolly wrestling partner had joined his tag team.
“A beautiful Jersey cow. You’re going to love her.”
“I’m sorry, Jayne, but there’s no way I can hold a cow down.”
Jayne shrieked with laughter which Leah hoped was a sign she was mistaken in her belief she’d have to manhandle the creature.
“Come on, you townie,” Jayne said. “Don’t worry, we’re just going to milk her.”
Rosemary was indeed beautiful. She had the most amazing chocolate eyes with long lashes which made Leah remember the tractor driver she’d seen earlier. True she’d not been close enough to see his lashes, but she had enough imagination to picture them. Unlike the dishy tractor driver, Rosemary also had a soft velvety nose which snuffled at the hand Leah was coaxed into holding out. The cow was dainty and incredibly calm. She stood still whilst Jayne sat on the floor of her stable and milked her into a large bucket. Rosemary looked as though she was chewing an especially good toffee.
“Chewing the cud,” Jayne explained. “They have to do that to properly digest their food. You know a cow or sheep is relaxed if they chew.”
Leah should probably be chewing as she was relaxed enough to pass out.
Once Jayne had enough milk in her bucket, she let two young calves into Rosemary’s pen.
“Twins?” Leah guessed.
“No. These are a couple of Angus bulls, I’ve bought in.”
“So neither are hers?” The cow was licking them as though she was fond of them.
“No. She had a heifer. I don’t need another cow to keep as I already have Rosepetal, Rosemary’s calf from a couple of years ago and a jersey heifer’s not much good for meat, so I sold it and bought these two.”
“So these will become roast beef?” It seemed sad, but Jayne had to make a living somehow.
“Not just any roast beef; the finest locally reared, organic roast beef. I sell all my animals and eggs direct to a local butcher now. He knows for sure where the meat comes from and that it’s great quality and I actually get a decent price.”
Leah nodded, but really she was too tired to take in details of Jayne’s business plan. Her muscles ached, joints felt hot and hands stung as Leah hauled herself up off the barn floor.
A soak in bathwater containing a liberal quantity of Jayne’s home-made herbal bath oil revived her considerably. Her back and biceps stopped throbbing and the painful blisters on each palm subsided to a warm tingling.
“It’s a special mix to soothe aching muscles,” Jayne explained as she handed Leah the bottle. “I got the recipe from the book you sent me for my birthday.”
Leah remembered the book. She’d been unable to think of a suitable birthday gift and had asked Adam for inspiration.
“What does she like?” he’d asked.
Leah had reeled off a list of things she knew Jayne enjoyed or was interested in. Adam’s suggestion had been a garden centre voucher which hadn’t seemed a bad idea. A couple of days later though he’d returned from one of his regular trips around the local second-hand bookshops with an exquisite book on herbal remedies. It was antique and beautifully illustrated with hand coloured plates.
He hadn’t let her repay him, saying he was embarrassed to admit how much he’d spent on a lot of old mumbo jumbo. “From what you told me, it does seem perfect for her though.”
It did. The cover was of powder blue leather; Jayne’s favourite colour. The author’s surname was Jayne and inside the book was a bookmark decorated with pressed primroses. Jayne had still been squealing with delight when she’d called to thank Leah. Even better, the recipe actually seemed to work and the burning ache in Leah’s thighs and biceps melted away to a dull throb.
The chicken stew and dumplings followed by baked apple and thick Jersey cream further helped Leah’s recovery.
Life in the countryside was pretty much living up to her expectations. She had a comfortable room, the comfort of her aunt Jayne, good food and no more tasks for the day. Already she was almost as relaxed as Tarragon who pretended to snooze in his bed, but occasionally opened one big brown eye to check for dropped crumbs. Leah had enough sense to know this break wouldn’t be the same as the idyllic summer holidays she’d spent with Jayne, her grandparents and sometimes her own parents. Life on a smallholding in winter would be cold, muddy and hard work. Still there was a toasty fire in front of her and the promise of cowslip wine for now and the hope of working things out with Adam. It could be a lot worse.
Leah checked her phone and was pleased to see she’d received a text.
‘Heard wot happened. Dont believe it. Call if want 2 chat.’
She stared at it for several moments until realising it was from her colleague Rachel, not her boyfriend. Why would Rachel call? Leah couldn’t imagine wanting to chat to her about the problems she was facing. Still it was good to know not everyone assumed she was guilty. Leah made another attempt to contact Adam, but had to be content with leaving a message on his voicemail.
It was reassuring to know Adam had been mistaken and not everyone at work was shunning her. Maybe, after she’d enjoyed a few days with Jayne, all her problems would be resolved. The only potential fly in the ointment was the G-B Jayne had alluded to. Oliver Gilmore-Bunce was a client of Prophet Margin, the stockbrokers and investors she worked for, and a right pain even before he’d become the source of her current problem. The less Leah had to do with Oliver Gilmore-Bunce, the happier she’d be.
Jayne poured golden liquid into two tiny glasses. “They’re liqueur glasses really, so we’ll need a lot of refills, but they’re so pretty, I just have to use them for cowslip wine.”
“Is the wine really made from cowslips? I know there are always masses around the cottage, but I can’t imagine you picking buckets of them.”
“It really is made from cowslips… and a few other things. Actually, I buy a simple winemaking kit and just add a few cowslip flowers. Still tastes pretty good though, I think?”
Leah accepted her drink and took a sip. “Wonderful.” She inspected the glass. It was beautifully decorated with a posy of cowslips.
“What lovely engraving! Where did you get them?”
“It’s an etching actually, and I got them from a rather nice man who made them for me as a gift for services rendered.”
“It’s a very good story actually, but as you’ve called me Aunt again, you’ve made me feel too old to tell it you.”
“Sorry,” Leah said. She wasn’t particularly sorry. If it really was a good story, Jayne wouldn’t be able to resist telling her.
“So, what’s the matter then?” Jayne asked after refilling their glasses.
Leah took a deep breath. Where should she start? “I’ve been suspended from work. There are discrepancies in a customer’s account which they need to investigate and the computer records seem to show I’ve been defrauding him of tens of thousands of pounds.”
“But you haven’t?” She asked it as a question, but Leah knew she wasn’t being accused.
“So they’ll find out that it’s all a mistake. I’m no computer or finance expert, but I’m sure that if you’ve not done something nobody’ll be able to prove you did.”
“No, I suppose not.”
“Are you in a union or anything?”
“I do belong to a professional organisation and I’ve let them know. They’ll ensure the situation is properly investigated and I’m not dismissed without cause. Prophet Margin have to keep me on full pay, so it’s in their interests to get this resolved as soon as possible.” Put like that, it didn’t seem as though she was in too much trouble. True, embezzlement was a serious crime that could lead to imprisonment. It was equally true that she was innocent.
“And what’s that Adam doing about it? He’s a computer expert, supposedly. Didn’t he go and tell them he knows you’d never do such a thing and show them where they’d gone wrong?”
Jayne was getting close to the real problem.
“No. I thought he might. He can’t really though. He’s in charge of I.T. but the investment side is separate and he can’t get involved. He said it was better to be patient and that if they knew about us they’d just think he was biased or might believe he was involved or…”
“He didn’t stick up for you at all?”
“Well, it’s complicated.”
“I bet. And what’s that about knowing about you? Has he kept it secret that you’re living together?”
“Not secret, just…”
It sounded weak, even to Leah.
“Your whole life seems complicated since you’ve met him.”
“I know.” Leah took another sip of her drink. It was only recently she’d admitted, even to herself, that her relationship with Adam wasn’t making her happy. She still wasn’t sure what she wanted to do about that. “He wanted to keep his personal and professional lives separate.”
“What? He’s a computer geek, not a pop star.”
Leah didn’t reply as she’d often had the same thought. His insistence on keeping his distance at work might seem perfectly natural to him, but it hurt her. It felt as though he was almost ashamed of her.
“You expect him to stick up for your reputation when he’s not honest with them?” Jayne continued.
“It wasn’t like that,” she mumbled. She wasn’t even convincing herself. She longed to confess her worries to Jayne, but that meant facing up to the truth and she wasn’t quite ready for that.
Adam said their relationship wasn’t anyone’s business but theirs. Business was the right word to use. Adam bought their flat as an investment; Leah wanted it to be a home. Adam wanted a pre-nup agreement before he’d commit to marriage. While Leah could see it was sensible, she didn’t want to be planning the divorce before they’d even picked a date for the wedding.
Jayne said, “His weird behaviour is none of my business either. Your happiness is, so let’s see what we can do to cheer you up.”
“A refill might help,” Leah suggested, holding out her glass.
Jayne took the hint. As that didn’t seem enough to distract Jayne from probing deeper into Leah’s problems, she got up and stroked Tarragon. She remembered that as a child, the only animals she’d heard Jayne say a bad word about were dogs. Even then she put the blame on irresponsible owners, rather than creatures who were just doing what came naturally.
“I was surprised when you told me you’d got a dog,” Leah said, “But now I’ve met him it makes much more sense. He really is adorable.”
“Useful too. I don’t get other people’s dogs wandering all over the place now. The owners see he’s about and put theirs on leads. Tarragon actually helps round up the sheep. You saw that today.”
“He was helpful, yes.”
“Everyone needs a little help,” Jayne said.
“That’s why I’ve come to you. Is there any more helpful stuff left in that bottle?”
As Leah got ready for bed, she thought over what Jayne had said. Jayne trusted that as Leah was innocent then her problems would soon be solved. Leah was less sure. She might get her job back, but her hopes of a happy marriage and, eventually, children had never seemed further away. Leah wasn’t going to let unhappy thoughts spoil her visit before it had begun, so tried to picture something pleasant as she went to sleep. For some reason, the image that came to mind was that of a tractor on a country lane and a curly haired driver waving to her.