Read on for an exclusive extract from ‘Murder at the Gorge’ by Frances Evesham.
Murder at the Gorge
Sand blew fiercely across Exham on Sea beach, slicing into any intrepid walker brave enough to venture out. Max Ramshore shivered, despite the padded jacket he’d zipped right up to his chin. The late-November wind from the sea always found the slightest chink in his clothing. He pulled his beanie lower over his forehead and made a mental note to buy a warmer scarf.
In summer, the eight miles of sand were a delight, the air tangy with ozone and fish and chips, and the beach dotted with cheerful holidaymakers eating ice cream, balancing small children on obliging, mild-tempered donkeys, and helping to build sandcastles.
In winter, the seafront belonged once more to the locals.
Max and Libby were determined, today, to reach the wooden Low Lighthouse. ‘I have mixed feelings when I walk here,’ Libby said. She pointed. ‘Look, that’s where I found the first body, lying against one of the wooden legs. It still sends shivers down my spine to remember poor Susie, slumped there like a sack of coal. At least her murder brought us together.’
‘Ramshore and Forest, detectives extraordinaire,’ Max teased.
‘Forest and Ramshore,’ Libby insisted, as she always did. No wonder they’d never agreed on a letterhead or logo for their private investigation business, even though it now took up almost as much time as producing her famous cakes and chocolates.
Libby stood by Max’s side, watching the two dogs cavorting in the sand. She had a smile on her lips. That smile was almost constant, these days.
Max forgot the cold seeping into his neck, and counted his blessings.
In almost two weeks, they’d be married.
Bear, Max’s huge, now rather elderly, Carpathian sheepdog decided an interesting morsel lay just beneath the sand under the lighthouse and dug furiously with giant paws, sand flying in every direction.
‘Watch out,’ Max shouted, too late, as sand hit him squarely in the left eye. Blinking furiously, trying not to rub the eye, he staggered upwind of Bear just as Shipley, his springer spaniel, dropped a stick twice his own size at Max’s feet.
Max’s curse was lost in Shipley’s excited barking and Libby’s shout of laughter. She retrieved the stick and threw it for Shipley to chase.
‘Come here,’ she told Max, ‘let me wash the sand out of your eye.’
His back to the wind, Max let her dribble bottled water from her rucksack into his eye and scrub around it with a tissue. She’d never make a nurse, but he decided the embrace that followed was worth the pain.
‘I shall enjoy married life if you look after me like that,’ he murmured. ‘You’re a useful person to have around.’
‘For the first aid or the cooking?’
‘Both. I’m expecting to sample every single one of the cake recipes in your “Baking at the Beach” books.’
Libby pulled back a little to look into his face, ducking as the breeze hurled more sand their way. ‘Baking at the Beach is a great title, but not a sensible activity in November,’ she admitted.
‘You can call book three, Baking in a nice warm kitchen.’
She laughed. How he loved that sound; a proper, deep chortle. His ex-wife had laughed with an affected noise designed, he was sure, to sound like tinkling bells.
He took Libby’s arm, whistling for the dogs. Shipley, who’d recently undergone strict retraining, returned at once, but Bear went on digging.
‘Do you think he’s getting deaf?’ Libby asked. ‘He used to come when I called, but lately he’s been ignoring me.’
Max studied Bear. ‘Hard to say. He’s not as young as he used to be and I’ve noticed he limps a little. Rheumatism, maybe.’
Libby was frowning. ‘I know twelve is old for a Carpathian, but I can’t imagine life without him. Maybe he needs a visit to the vet? To be checked out?’
‘I’ll take him, if you’ll please agree we can go home now and get out of this wind?’
The wind blew them back to Max’s Land Rover, parked near the jetty, in half the time it had taken them to reach the lighthouse.
As they flung open the doors and the dogs scrambled on board, Max’s phone rang. He shot a glance at the screen and his stomach lurched. Stella. His ex-wife. He hadn’t heard from her for years. His finger hovered over the red button for a second, but he knew she’d just call again. Reluctantly, he answered.
‘Max, I need your help. I’m in Bristol. Come and see me. Now.’
Max stared at the phone, stunned into silence.
Libby climbed into the passenger seat. ‘Who is it? Business?’
Max croaked into the phone, ‘I’ll call you back,’ ended the call and dropped the phone into his pocket as though it had burned his fingers.
Libby pulled her seat belt tight. ‘That was a bit abrupt. You’ll frighten customers away. You could take a lesson from the way Mandy answers the phone at work. Butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth, these days.’
She chattered happily about Mandy, her lodger and chocolate-making apprentice, soon to become the sole tenant of Hope Cottage when Libby moved into Max’s house near the sand dunes. She didn’t seem to notice that Max still stood by the open driver’s door, answering in grunts, not hearing a word she said.
Stella. After all these years?
‘Well, let’s go,’ Libby said.
He made an effort to pull himself together, climbed into the car and started the engine.
‘Who was it, anyway?’ Libby asked.
He couldn’t tell her, not now. He couldn’t spoil her excitement over the wedding. ‘Old colleague,’ he muttered, and the lie seemed to hang in the air, like a cloud.
‘One of your old business mates? Did you get cut off?’
‘That’s right. Might be some work coming my way. I’ll call back, later.’
* * *
For once, Max wished he were anywhere in the world rather than inside Libby’s cosy Hope Cottage.
They were alone, for Mandy was at Brown’s Bakery, keeping the business turning over until it moved to its newer, bigger, swankier premises in Exham.
Usually, Max loved to sit at the breakfast bar, smelling Libby’s cooking and guessing wildly at the ingredients of her recipes.
‘Is that saffron?’
‘In free cakes for the History Society? Not likely. Have you any idea how much saffron costs?’
This afternoon, Bear and Shipley looked on sadly from the doorway, knowing dogs were not allowed in this professional-grade kitchen.
Max hadn’t so much as glanced at their mournful faces, this afternoon. He felt like a fraud, hiding secrets from Libby.
Just tell her, then.
He knew he should. It was no secret he had an ex-wife. He’d told Libby all about Stella, long ago, so why couldn’t he find the words to explain she’d contacted him?
Somehow, he couldn’t bring himself to do it. Libby looked so happy, pottering round the kitchen, spooning coffee into a cafetière, opening tins, clattering plates and cups, humming quietly with contentment.
He couldn’t spoil things for her, not just now.
He made up his mind. He’d meet with Stella, see what she wanted, and then decide how to tell Libby.
A weight seemed to have lodged in his stomach. Stella must be in a bad mess, if she needed to contact Max. They hadn’t spoken face-to-face for at least ten years, and their divorce had been acrimonious and painful.
He accepted a slice of apple cake – lovely, plenty of spice, though probably not saffron – and considered how best to meet Stella without telling Libby.
He turned over various scenarios in his mind. A trip to Cribb’s Causeway shopping centre, just this side of Bristol, to buy new clothes for the wedding? No, Libby loved shopping there. They’d sipped Prosecco at the bar, many times, and eaten Italian food in one of the restaurants, Libby criticising the carbonara sauce as too salty. She’d insist on joining him.
Maybe he’d suggest he had a business meeting with one of his clients, needing financial advice, which wasn’t unusual, and say he’d take the dogs into the woods at the Avon Gorge afterwards, to make up for cutting their beach walk short.
His phone pinged with a text message, and at almost the same moment, Libby’s did the same.
They grinned at each other.
‘Jinx?’ Libby said, as she pulled out her phone.
‘What’s the matter? What’s wrong?’
Libby’s eyes scanned her phone. ‘Nothing,’ she gasped, waving a hand to shush him.
‘Come on. Tell me.’
She raised shining eyes to his. ‘It’s Ali. She’s coming home.’
‘You’re kidding. For the wedding?’
Libby’s eyes sparkled. Her daughter had been in South America for over a year, working for a voluntary agency, after abruptly abandoning her university degree.
‘Saving the rainforest, singlehanded,’ as her older brother, Robert, described his sister’s activities from his advanced age of twenty-seven.
Ali had missed Robert’s wedding, so Max didn’t blame him for being unsympathetic. He secretly thought Libby’s daughter needed what his own mother would have called, ‘a good talking-to’. Not that it was his place to offer one – he’d only met her once, just before she left the country.
‘Oh.’ Libby’s face fell.
Now what’s Ali up to?
‘She can’t get here until the nineteenth of December. That’s almost three weeks away.’ Libby’s hand was at her mouth, muffling her words. ‘What are we going to do? The wedding’s on the fifteenth. She’ll still miss it. Unless…’
‘We’ll see her when we get back from honeymoon.’ As soon as the words were out of his mouth, Max knew he’d made a big mistake.
Libby’s eyes opened wide in horror. ‘But… but she’s coming especially. It’s only a matter of a few days. We could postpone, couldn’t we? Please? I really want her there. She’s my only daughter and I miss her,’ she wailed.
Max could hardly bear to meet her gaze. Her excitement, her happy mood, her smiles, had all vanished. There were genuine tears in her eyes as she sniffed and wiped her nose on the back of her hand. Did Ali not realise how difficult she was being?
‘I’m sorry,’ Libby said. ‘I’m being selfish, aren’t I? We’ll stick to our decision and get married as we planned. We’ve wasted enough time, already, wondering whether to keep our relationship confined to business. And there would be so much to reorganise…’
Max might not be too good at understanding women – after all, the marriage with Stella had ended in acrimonious divorce – but even he recognised that pleading tone, and the look in Libby’s eyes. Any fool could see she was going to be broken-hearted if her daughter wasn’t at the wedding.
‘She can’t get here any earlier?’ It was a last-ditch hope.
Libby showed him the text message.
All flights booked because of Christmas.
Max raised an eyebrow. Oh yeah?
Silently, he counted to ten. That didn’t sound like the full story. What was Ali up to? Still, his priority was Libby. He wanted her to be happy on the day they began their new life together. He gave in. ‘We’ll rearrange the wedding. I’m sure it’s possible. Good job we didn’t invite too many guests. But you have to promise, even if a dire tree emergency crops up and Ali can’t get here, we’ll go ahead.’ He sighed. This meant another round of organisation. ‘We’ll have to see if we can find a date when your Robert, my son, Joe, and their wives can be there.’
Libby jumped up, flung her arms around Max’s neck and hugged him tight. ‘I’ll talk to Angela. We’re planning to meet in half an hour at the new café premises, before this evening’s History Society meeting. She’s a fanatical organiser and she’ll help me with the planning. I suppose you won’t be sorry to miss the History Society meeting?’
Max gave an exaggerated shudder. ‘You know how those History Society members terrify me. Talk about formidable citizens – and if it weren’t for them, we’d have had fewer incidents to investigate in Exham.’
Libby chuckled. ‘I think the bad eggs have left. We were sadly depleted at the last meeting, but Angela’s determined to pull in new members – preferably ones with no secrets in their past.’
‘Good luck with that,’ Max snorted.
‘I can’t wait to tell Angela about Ali’s plans. She’ll be so pleased – she hasn’t met Ali.’
That’s because your daughter doesn’t bother to visit her mother.
Maybe he’d give Ali that talking-to, after all, but he’d wait until after the wedding.
We hope you enjoyed this extract. To read more, purchase the full novel here: https://amzn.to/3cnJN1F