Today's Reading

Conversation had died in the bar as the other patrons turned, wide- eyed, towards the kitchen. Jack stood, his hand frozen on the beer pull.

What on earth? wondered Nell, feeling terribly uncomfortable. She'd been intending to speak to Viv about Lady Adelaide's harvest lunch tomorrow, but now she didn't want to intrude.

The man came through the door into the bar, his expression grim. He pushed past Nell's table without a glance of acknowledgment and slammed his way out the garden door with a force that left it banging behind him. His camel hair coat remained behind, crumpled on the sofa.

"Are you certain your parents have room for us all?" From the passenger seat, Gemma James gave an anxious glance at her companion.

Melody Talbot laughed and shook her head. "Gemma, I told you not to worry. The house has eight bedrooms."

This brought Gemma little comfort. Eight bedrooms. What the bloody hell did someone do with eight bedrooms? Gemma had grown up in a two- bedroom flat over her parents' bakery in north London, sharing a room—not always amicably—with her sister. Although she now lived in a very nice house in Notting Hill, the accommodation was due more to circumstance than means, and she was still intimidated by real wealth. She was a working cop, a detective inspector, and such trappings didn't come with an ordinary copper's salary. Unless, of course, you were Melody Talbot.

She studied her friend. Small-framed, pretty, her dark hair growing out a bit from last spring's boy-short cut, Melody drove with confidence, her hands relaxed on the wheel of her little Renault Clio. Melody was Gemma's detective sergeant, but it was only after they'd worked together for some time that Gemma had learned anything about Melody's background. There was good reason for Melody's reticence, Gemma now knew. Melody's father was the publisher of a major London newspaper, one known for investigative journalism that did not always favor the police. Melody had kept herself to herself, afraid of being ostracized if her colleagues learned of her connection, until the events of the last few months had forced her to open up a bit. Still, Gemma had only recently been invited to Melody's flat, and had never met her parents.

The invitation for Gemma and her family, and their friend Doug Cullen, to spend the weekend at Melody's parents' country house had come as a surprise. "Mum's putting on this big harvest festival do," Melody had said. "She wants to meet you and Duncan. And Doug, too, God knows why. Do come. Seriously." Moved by an unexpected vulnerability in Melody's expression, Gemma had impulsively agreed.

Now she wondered what on earth she'd been thinking.

They'd had to split up; Gemma and their almost four-year-old, Charlotte, traveling with Melody, while Duncan was coming on his own in the family car later that night. Their boys, Toby, seven, and Kit, fifteen, would come on the train tomorrow with Doug. Duncan and Doug, who worked on the same team at Holborn CID in central London, had been finishing up a case that afternoon, while Toby had not wanted to miss his Saturday-morning ballet class.

"Mummy," Charlotte said sleepily from the backseat, "are we there yet?"

"Almost, lovey," Gemma answered, although she had no idea. It had gone six, and they'd bypassed Oxford more than an hour ago and were now well into the Cotswold Hills. "Did you have a good sleep?" she asked, reaching back to give Charlotte a pat.

"I want my tea," Charlotte said plaintively.

"Soon, darling," Melody assured her. "And it will be a lovely tea, too. We really are almost there. You're going to love it."

Charlotte might, but Gemma was not at all certain about this country-house lark. She was a townie through and through. The city fit her like an old shoe, made her feel safe and comfortable. Outside of its confines she wasn't quite sure what to do with herself.

But she had to admit, as she watched the evening light fall across the rolling hills and sheep-strewn fields of Gloucestershire, that it was beautiful. They passed the turning for Bourton-on-the-Water, and a few minutes later Melody took a sharp left into a lane signposted THE SLAUGHTERS.

"Slaughters?" said Gemma, frowning. "You're taking the piss."

Melody grinned. "It doesn't mean what you think. It's a modernization of an Old English word for slough, or boggy place. At least that's one interpretation. There's Lower Slaughter and Upper Slaughter, and we are somewhere in between."

The lane was narrow, banked by hedges, and as the incline gently dropped it was increasingly covered by overarching trees. Gemma began to see long, low limestone cottages on either side of the lane, then a large manor house set back from the lane on the right. "Is that—"

...

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