CHAPTER 1 EXCERPT
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“Lady Gold, will you do me the honour of being my wife?”
Ginger stared down at the handsome man as he risked a grass stain on his knee. He looked up with hopeful hazel eyes.
For the briefest of moments, they became Basil Reed’s eyes—his face, his earnest gaze—before Captain William Beale’s face returned. Ginger and the Canadian naval captain had met through Ginger’s friend Reverend Oliver Hill shortly after Basil had left for his furlough of undetermined length. She’d heard from Basil only once in the six weeks he’d been gone, a letter that let her know that he’d arrived in Cape Town safely, but not much more.
“Ginger?” the captain prompted. The hope in his eyes had made way for worry.
The setting for the marriage proposal, the flower garden at St. George’s Church, was quaint. Oliver Hill was to be married tomorrow, and she and the captain had arrived early to help set up and decorate. Captain Beale—a pleasant-looking man with a ready smile, and untameable wavy hair—had been quite determined to steer her away from the sanctuary to get her alone in the garden. Now Ginger knew why.
“Lady Gold?” Captain Beale’s voice had taken on a distinct tinge of distress. “An answer would be nice.”
“I’m sorry. It’s just . . . this is so unexpected. I didn’t realise you’d been considering marriage. We’ve only just met.”
“It’s been a glorious month, Ginger. Enough for me to know I want to spend the rest of my life with you.”
Ginger’s heart spat and sputtered. William Beale was a wonderful man who would make a fine husband. Yet—
William Beale sighed. “Shall I get up off my knee?”
“Oh, William! I really need some time to think about it.”
William shifted up off the ground and brushed grass from his trousers. “I suppose that is better than a firm ‘no.’”
“No need to apologise, my dear.” William took her hands and cupped them with both of his. “It was presumptuous of me to spring this on you without proper warning. Might I ask again in two weeks?”
A horse and carriage delivering pink and white roses had parked in front of the church.
“The floral arrangements are here,” Ginger said, thankful for a task that gave her and William something to do other than soak in the pool of ill ease they suddenly found themselves in. How had Ginger not seen that proposal coming? Surely, she hadn’t been emitting marital signals—had she? William was a good man, handsome, and monied, so she didn’t have to worry about his motivations in that regard. So what was it that kept her from saying yes?
Blast that man!
Well, the good inspector had had his chance. How was she to know if he would even return to London? Perhaps the exotically scented air of sun-drenched South Africa was the cure for all that ailed him. Including Ginger!
He wasn’t here, and William was. That should tell her something.
“They’re beautiful!” Ginger said as the deliverymen carried the flowers inside.
“Let me help,” William offered as he made long, quick strides towards the carriage, deftly keeping a full six feet between himself and the rear of the horse.
Ginger had volunteered to oversee the flower order and delivery. She wished the happy couple tremendous goodwill and wanted to do what she could to make their day the best.
St. George’s Anglican Church was an eighteenth-century structure built of limestone. A square turret edged with castle-like battlement merlons rose above the end of the sanctuary. The building was simple but beautiful, and Ginger imagined a great many wedding ceremonies had taken place here over the centuries.
Inside, St. George’s was a modest sanctuary with rows of wooden pews facing the intricate stained-glass window—vibrant reds, yellows, and blues—which made up images of Jesus and the saints. A narrow wooden door on the far left of the vestry led to the balcony above. The free-standing pipe organ, situated at the back of the balcony, was currently being played by Mrs. Esme Edwards. Ginger couldn’t help but wince. Here was a lady who really wanted to be a good musician but didn’t actually have the talent. Oliver was too kindhearted to turn her away, but Ginger worried a less compassionate parishioner might not be so gracious.
Someone such as the organist’s husband and choir director, Mr. Theodore Edwards, who was there to prepare for the forthcoming choir rehearsal. A more unsuitable couple couldn’t be found at St. George’s. Mr. Edwards was a fairly attractive man in his forties, having kept his trim physique and most of his hair. His wife didn’t fare quite as well with age, her figure having swelled and her hair turning a noticeable salt and pepper. Mr. Edwards had eyes for the fairer sex, but not a kind word left for his wife. She wore her contempt for her husband like a shield. They were the cautionary tale all couples walking the aisle to a “happily ever after” should heed.
A small pit of worry spun in Ginger’s stomach. Privately, she held deep concerns for Oliver and his choice of bride. Not that they weren’t both wonderful people, but she felt the marriage plans had come on too suddenly, and she couldn’t help but feel they were ill-suited for long-term bliss. She wished she could say something, but she knew neither party was open to hearing any sort of dissent, and now with the wedding only a day away, it was too late.
Mr. Edwards lifted his chin to the back of the nave. “Esme! Are you stomping on the keys?”
Mrs. Edwards’ response was to pound even louder with an added wrong note.
William shared a startled look with Ginger. “Oh, my.”
Mr. Edwards, seemingly unaware that he and his wife were being observed, disappeared through the vestry door that opened to steps that led to the balcony, and charged towards the organ loft. In moments, he stood face-to-face with his wife exchanging words that Ginger didn’t wish to overhear.
“Oh, my,” William repeated.
Ready to be hung and strung, roses and bunches of tiny white baby’s breath filled the entrance area.
“Where did Felicia go?” Ginger said, more to herself than the captain. “She’s supposed to help me decorate.”
“I’m afraid I don’t know,” William answered.
Ginger walked toward the exterior door that was a shortcut to the parish hall. “I believe all the fun is happening in the kitchen.”
Angry voices travelled along the spring breeze. Ginger could make out a man and woman having words. The man was Mr. Edwards, again, but the woman was too tall to be his wife. Ginger squinted and made out the face of Miss Marjorie Bertram. Soon Miss Bertram disappeared around the corner, and Mr. Edwards walked heavily in their direction, stopping short when he saw he wasn’t alone.
“Mr. Edwards,” Ginger said. “Is everything all right?”
Theo Edwards pasted a smile over his scowl. “Simply splendid.” Noting Ginger’s doubtful frown, he added, “Oh, you heard that.” His gaze shifted to the floor. “Just a disagreement on hymn choice.”
“Doesn’t the bride choose the hymns?” Ginger asked.
Theo Edwards grabbed the lifeline Ginger had unintentionally thrown to him. “Yes, yes, that’s what I was saying to Miss Bertram. It’s up to the bride, now if you’ll excuse me, I—” Mr. Edwards darted off before finishing his sentence.
“Odd fellow,” William said. “Not well liked, I gather.”
“He seems friendly enough to me,” Ginger said with a shrug. “Quite a competent choir director. Certainly having an off day, I’d say.”
As Ginger had expected, Felicia was in the kitchen, a simply designed but efficient room for creating large quantities of food and baking—an abundance of which covered every available counter and tabletop surface. Mrs. Davies—the spry, grey-haired church secretary—and the slim and pretty Matilda Hanson—a former resident of Hartigan House—bustled about with aprons on and flour in their hair as they baked yet another batch of shortbread.
“There you are, Felicia,” Ginger said brightly. “The roses have arrived.”
“Oh, Ginger,” Felicia said. “Look at all these lovely cakes! An angel cake, a Dundee, a French gateau. The coconut macaroons are simply smashing!”
Felicia Gold had dark hair cut in a trendy bob and wore a white and violet afternoon frock of printed chiffon, with a one-sided material tie. A crossed bodice trimmed with open stitching joined a flared skirt, which had a butterfly bow on the hip. Almost a decade younger than Ginger, not even twenty-two, Felicia had the playful energy to show for it. There was a smudge of flour on the chin of her teardrop face, which Ginger wiped off with her handkerchief.
“Thank you, Ginger,” Felicia said. “Mrs. Davies was so kind to allow me to test a sample. It’s frightfully delicious!”
“It smells heavenly,” Ginger said. “So nice of you, Mrs. Davies. I hope my sister-in-law hasn’t been getting underfoot.”
“Not at all,” Mrs. Davies said, though Ginger wasn’t sure if she was being completely honest. Mrs. Davies, seeing William at Ginger’s side, said, “Hello, Captain Beale.”
William, hat in hand, bowed his head. “Good day, Mrs. Davies, Miss Hanson, and Miss Gold.”
“Come now, Felicia,” Ginger beckoned. “We’ve got work to do.” Just as they approached the kitchen door, a young lady bounded through. Ginger recognised her as Miss Bertram, also a choir member and the lady who’d supposedly been arguing with Theo Edwards about hymn choice. From the redness evident in Miss Bertram’s eyes, Ginger was even more inclined to disbelieve Mr. Edwards’ story.
“Miss Bertram,” Ginger said. “Is everything all right?”
“Oh yes, Lady Gold,” she said with a slight dip to her knees, a habit formed from when Miss Bertram worked in service. “Just chopping onions.” She hurried to Mrs. Davies’ side. “Put me to work, Mrs. Davies.”
Once they were out of earshot, Ginger said, “I didn’t see any onions out. The kitchen smelt sweet not savoury.” Whatever had brought Miss Bertram to tears, it wasn’t something that had happened whilst baking shortbread.
“A personal matter, I suppose,” William said. His voice had lost its normal chipper ring. A failed proposal could do that, Ginger thought. Interestingly, she’d completely forgotten about the affair with just a simple distraction. That didn’t necessarily mean she should decline his offer. Experience had trained Ginger to keep heart and mystery matters separated in her mind, and Miss Bertram’s lie, along with Theo Edwards’ lie, was indeed a mystery, albeit a minor one. Her American friend, Haley Higgins, would be quick to tell her that this was none of her business.
Felicia let out a gasp of exhilaration on seeing the mass of pink and white roses. “This sanctuary is going to be so beautiful when we’ve finished.”
“It is indeed, miss.” The voice came from behind them, and was that of a young lady—Anna Howard, another choir member—with a broom in her hand. These ladies were a helpful bunch.
“Miss Howard,” Ginger said. “I see you’ve come prepared.”
“Dust and debris from the floral arrangements shall need sweeping up once we have them hung.” She sighed. “I do envy the bride.” She looked up at Ginger, William, and Felicia with a shocked look, as if she hadn’t meant to say that last bit aloud. Her face grew crimson enough to compete with Oliver on a normal day. “I mean,” she rushed to explain, “what shall us single ladies do now that we don’t have an unmarried vicar to gossip about.” She giggled awkwardly and picked up a bundle of roses, effectively hiding her face.
Ginger and Felicia shared a commiserative glance.
They combined roses, white with pink, added sprigs of baby’s breath, and tied small bouquets with long strands of white ribbon. Each bunch was attached to the end of the aisle-facing pews. William worked on setting up candelabra stands, and Miss Howard opened a box of fresh unlit candles.
When they had finished, they stood at the back of the sanctuary to admire the results.
“The bride is sure to love it,” Ginger declared.
The trio turned on their heels at the sound of the lady’s voice. The bride’s voice.
Ginger smiled warmly. “Hello, Mary.”
Mary Blythe, a quiet dentist’s receptionist, was Oliver Hill’s choice for a bride. She was pretty in a wholesome way, with clear skin and round eyes. Her hair was short and tucked in under her yellow felt cloche hat. She stared beyond Ginger to the beautiful floral display.
“What do you think?” Ginger asked.
Her dainty hand flew to her mouth. “I think I’m going to be sick.”