Saturday, March 06, 2010

False Pretences by Veronica Heley and Rachel's Garden by Marta Perry

False Pretences
By Veronica Heley

Bea Abbot ran a domestic agency which didn't `do' murder – except that every now and then she found herself dealing with just that. At sixty years of age, she thought she ought to take it easy and let others handle routine cases, but what might be routine to some could be murder to others.


Heley's cast of intriguing characters from every walk of life will
please British cozy fans.

Thursday evening

He confessed the moment he got back. Perhaps, if she hadn't that minute returned from decimating the rabbit population, she wouldn't have thought of scaring him with the shotgun.

She aimed at his head.

`No, no! Honoria, no!' A scream. `No, please! No one knows that it was you who . . . where's my medication?'

He dived into one pocket after another but in his panic only succeeded in scattering keys, cash and the all-important pills on the ground around him.

She booted tmhe packet beyond his reach.

He collapsed, clutching at his heart. She lowered the shotgun to watch him die.

A week later, Friday afternoon

Bea couldn't concentrate.

Sometimes she could go for a whole day and not think about her dead husband. And then, wham! Down she went.

She needed a break.

She walked out of her office into her back garden. Wrestling a reclining chair into the shade, she collapsed onto it. Prompt on cue, there was an interruption.

A handsome man with a warm brown skin stood in the doorway, holding a large cardboard box.

Zander, short for Alexander. A man who'd refused to help a criminal some months ago, and in consequence ended up in hospital.

`Mrs Abbot. Could you spare ten minutes? I've been responsible for a man's death, and I need help.' He set the box down on the flagstones and from it withdrew a bronze figurine of a dancer.

`Signed. Art deco. Worth a bit.'

Smooth and classy, like him. One by one he produced a silver photograph frame, a gold pen, and a leather diary; pieces which must have cost someone a small fortune. `I need a witness, someone impartial but with a sharp mind, to go with me when I return these things to the dead man's widow. Let me explain. I'm the office manager for the Tudor Trust, a l9th century housing trust. It's old-fashioned, upright and well-meaning, but . . .'
She prompted him. `It's your personal Garden of Eden – with a snake in the undergrowth?'

`I admit I was naïve, but so were most of the board. They don't take a salary; just an honorarium and expenses. When one director retires or dies, someone of similar background is suggested to take their place. Noblesse oblige, they said. One of them was kind enough to explain it to me.' A tight smile.

Bea grunted, all disbelief. `Not sensible. Let me guess. Somebody from the real world exploded their bubble. Auditors?'

`A new man discovered the Trust was operating at a loss and, it being a trust, all the directors were liable to make it up. What a tempest that raised! They had never, ever. . .couldn't understand, etcetera. I started to look at the figures myself.

The biggest outgoing – and it's huge – is on maintenance. For years the work has gone to a contractor called Corcoran & Sons, who's been charging astronomical sums for changing a couple of light bulbs. The repair of a door hinge would pay a family's gas bill for a quarter.'

He braced himself. `The only person who could have swung such a scam was the director in charge of maintenance, who was on excellent terms with Corcorans. He – er – referred to me by names that, well, if I'd wanted to make trouble, I could have taken him to a race tribunal. I told myself it was a cultural thing, that he'd been brought up to think that way.'

Bea nodded. `A public school type who wasn't trained for the job but thought the world owed him a good living? Someone with a triple-barrelled name such as Montgomery-Peniston-Farquahar?'

A dimple appeared on Zander's cheek. He really was a most attractive man. `You've missed something. He's an Honourable, and his wife is a Lady.'

`So you took your research to the board of directors. And . . .?'

`He put up a brilliant defence. I wondered – I still wonder – if he was more stupid than sly. I can hear him now, saying that good workmanship always costs more but is economic in the long run. He pointed out that he'd given the best years of his life to the Trust, had done his best, had been tearing his hair out trying to make ends meet. It nearly worked.'

`They preferred to think him incompetent rather than criminal? Hmm. Ignorance is no defence in law, and usually gets thumped for it.'

`I could see they were going to close ranks against me, so I asked if he'd show his bank statements to the chairman, proving that he'd not received any kickbacks from the builders. He collapsed, and I was sent home. That evening he had a heart attack and died. The verdict of heart failure was accepted with some relief by all and sundry. But, his widow is a formidable person. She said that we'd driven her husband to his grave and vowed to sue the Trust for libel, slander and the cost of dry-cleaning the clothes he died in. The Trust couldn't afford to pay her off. Delegates of directors traipsed out to see her, trying to resolve the situation. Eventually they succeeded . . . but . . .'

He flicked a finger at the cardboard box. `Lady Honoria wants me to take her husband's things out to her, when she'll decide whether or not I'm to keep my job. I understand she shares her husband's view of people of mixed race, and I'm not sure how much more racial abuse I can take. But if you come with me . . .?'

Bea remembered that this man believed in a loving God, and tried to do the right thing in a world which didn't much care about right and wrong any more. If it ever had done, which she thought unlikely.

`When do you have to visit her?'

`Tomorrow at eleven.' He stood, smiling. `The only thing is, can you drive me? I haven't a car.'

These books may be obtained from good bookshops everywhere. The publisher is Severn

House, and the ISBN is 9780727 868336

Please do not reproduce without permission.

Veronica Heley

It has been almost a year since the Amish community of Pleasant Valley lost Ezra Brand to a tragic accident—a year in which Rachel Brand has struggled to raise their three children and run their dairy farm. The community has come forward to help, including Gideon Zook, Ezra's best friend, who survived the accident that took Ezra, but all their well-intentioned advice just puts more pressure on Rachel. As spring turns to summer, can Rachel discover the courage to make her own choices...and embrace new beginnings?

Second in the Pleasant Valley Amish series by Marta Perry, published by Berkley Books, March,

Do not reproduce without permission.


By Marta Perry

Chapter One

A flicker of movement from the lane beyond the kitchen window of the old farmhouse caught Rachel Brand's eye as she leaned against the sink, washing up the bowl she'd used to make a batch of snickerdoodles. A buggy—ja, it must be Leah Glick, bringing Rachel's two older kinder home from the birthday party for their teacher already.

Quickly she set the bowl down and splashed cold water on her eyes. It wouldn't do to let her young ones suspect that their mamm had been crying while she baked. Smoothing her hair back under her kapp and arranging a smile on her lips, she went to the back door.

But the visitor was not Leah. It was a man, alone, driving the buggy.

Shock shattered her curiosity when she recognized the strong face under the brim of the black Amish hat. Gideon Zook. Her fingers clenched, wrinkling the fabric of her dark apron. What did he want from her?

She stood motionless for a moment, her left hand tight on the door frame. Then she grabbed the black wool shawl that hung by the door, threw it around her shoulders, and stepped outside.

The cold air sent a shiver through her. It was mid-March already, but winter had not released its grip on Pleasant Valley, Pennsylvania. The snowdrops she had planted last fall quivered against the back step, their white cups a mute testimony that spring would come eventually.

Everything else was as brown and barren as her heart felt these days.

A fierce longing for spring swept through her as she crossed the still-hard ground. If she could be in the midst of growing things, planting and nurturing her beloved garden—ach, there she might find the peace she longed for.

Everything was too quiet on the farm now. Even the barn was empty, the dairy cows moved to the far field already, taken care of by her young brother-in-law William in the early morning hours.

The Belgian draft horses Ezra had been so pleased to be able to buy were spending the winter at the farm of his oldest brother, Isaac. Only Dolly, six-year-old Joseph's pet goat, bleated forlornly from her pen, protesting his absence.

Gideon had tethered his horse to the hitching post. Removing something from his buggy, he began pacing across the lawn, as if he measured something.

Then he saw her. He stopped, waiting. His hat was pushed back, and he lifted his face slightly, as if in appreciation of the watery sunshine. But Gideon's broad shoulders were stiff under his black jacket, his eyes wary and his mouth set above his beard.

Reluctance slowed her steps. Perhaps Gideon felt that same reluctance. Aside from the formal words of condolence he'd spoken to her once he was well enough to be out again after the accident, she and Gideon had managed to avoid talking to each other for months. That was no easy thing in a tight-knit Amish community.

She forced a smile. "Gideon, wilkom. I didn't expect to be seeing you today."

What are you doing here? That was what she really wanted to say.

"Rachel." He inclined his head slightly, studying her as if trying to read her feelings in her face.

His own face gave little away—all strong planes and straight lines, like the wood he worked with in his carpentry business. Lines of tension radiated from his brown eyes, making him look older than the thirty-two she knew him to be. His work-hardened hands tightened on the objects he grasped—small wooden stakes.

He cleared his throat, as if not sure what to say to her now that they were face to face. "How are you? And the young ones?"

"I'm well." Except that her heart twisted with pain at the sight of him, at the reminder he brought of all she had lost. "The kinder also. Mary is napping, and Leah Glick took Joseph and Becky to a birthday luncheon the scholars are having for Mary Yoder."

"Gut, gut."

He moved a step closer to her, and she realized that his left leg was still stiff—a daily reminder for him, probably, of the accident.

For an instant the scene she'd imagined so many times flashed yet again through her mind, stealing her breath away. She seemed to see Ezra, high in the rafters of a barn; Gideon below him; the old timbers creaking, then breaking, Ezra falling as the barn collapsed like a house of cards...

She gasped a strangled breath, like a fish struggling on the bank of the pond. Revulsion wrung her stomach, and she slammed the door shut on her imagination.

She could not let herself think about that, not now. It was not Gideon's fault that she couldn't see him without imagining the accident that had taken Ezra away from them. She had to talk to him sensibly, had to find out what had brought him here. And how she could get him to go away again.

She clutched the shawl tighter around her. "Is there something I can do for you, Gideon?"

"I am here to measure for the greenhouse."

She could only stare at him, her mind fumbling to process his words. The greenhouse—the greenhouse Ezra had promised her as a birthday present. That had to be what Gideon meant.

"How do you know about the greenhouse?"

The words came out unexpectedly harsh. Ezra was gone, and plans for the greenhouse had slipped away, too, swamped in the struggle just to get through the days.

He blinked, apparently surprised. "You didn't know? Ezra and I went together to buy the materials for your greenhouse. He asked me to build it for you."

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