Autumn Leaves by Rosie Chambers

Chapter One

 

Chloe surveyed the Cream Tea Café whilst she waited for her chocolate and pecan brownies to bake. Even without the burble of her customers’ cheerful chatter, the room still resonated with warmth, comfort and contentment. However, Chloe felt far from contented and comfortable because she knew she needed to broach the thorny subject of that night’s approaching escapades with Faye before she exploded from an overdose of anxiety.

‘So, what do you think of the blackberry and apple roulades?’

‘I think they’re amazing! They’re definitely going on the menu for the Autumn Leaves Hallowe’en party on Saturday,’ declared Faye, cramming a third mini Swiss roll into her mouth and rolling her eyes in confectionery ecstasy.

Chloe smiled. ‘And the pumpkin and treacle tartlets? Do they make it onto your list?’

‘Absolutely, and the apricot and cranberry brownies, and the gingerbread with lemon icing, and the red velvet cupcakes with the raspberry coulis that looks just like blood! You know, I really wish you’d reconsider my fabulous idea to hide eyeball gobstoppers inside the Boston Scream pie.’

‘Health and safety, Faye. Don’t you think we’ve had enough contact with the food inspectors to last us a lifetime? Okay, so that just leaves us with the punch to finalize.’

Chloe leaned over the huge copper jam pan she had been adding spices to all day. She inhaled a deep breath, savouring the heady fragrance of warm red wine, cinnamon sticks and cloves that sent her taste buds tingling. She gave the dark crimson liquor a stir before sampling it, gasping as the alcohol hit the back of her throat. Maybe if she downed a couple of glasses of the lethal brew she would find the courage to confess her swirling trepidation to Faye.

‘Well, if it tastes as good as it smells, we’re onto a winner,’ said Faye. ‘And we’re definitely having the hot chocolate with marshmallow ghosts and the green slime smoothies for the kids. I take it, then, that you’ve also vetoed my idea to float plastic spiders in the pomegranate cocktails?’

‘Yes! Of course I have!’

Chloe rolled her eyes in mock chastisement, but after what had happened at their summer garden party in June, she was even more nervous than usual about hosting this celebration of all things scary – she didn’t think she could cope with a second drama. It hadn’t been her fault that one of their guests had been poisoned, but she’d still insisted on triple-testing every recipe for their Autumn Leaves party before it was granted a place on the menu, stipulating that only the most delicious, mouth-watering creations would be allowed to feature.

The celebration was also billed as a farewell bash for Faye, her friend and fellow baking fanatic, before she embarked on her foray into the field of outdoor sports. She was going to train as a zip wire instructor at the outward-bound centre, Willerby Quests, over the winter season when the café was only open at the weekends. Chloe knew she would miss Faye’s daily dose of chirpy banter, but she consoled herself with the fact that Faye was following one of her long-held dreams. And anyway, they would still be able to meet up in the local pub, the Drunken Duck, whenever they wanted to partake in the trio of female solace: cocktails, cake and gossip.

She slid the last batch of cupcakes onto a wire rack to cool and plunged the baking sheet into a sink of hot soapy water, relishing the loud sizzle. She scrubbed the tray clean, dried it, and returned it to its allocated place in the drawer below the oven, before reaching for the antibacterial spray to wipe down the marble countertops one last time.

Chloe saw Faye smirk and shake her head in exasperation but her friend chose to say nothing, and Chloe’s heart ballooned with gratitude. Faye understood the reasons behind her constant battle with the cleanliness demons, and the way she was unable to relax until every surface of her beloved café was spotless and sparkled under the overhead lights. She returned the spray to her box of deodorizing goodies, shoved her copper curls behind her ears where they burgeoned like inflated candy floss, and untied her apron strings, watching in amusement as Faye did the same.

‘I’m loving the autumnal theme you’ve got going on today, Faye! Black cats and witches’ hats are a perfect choice for our Hallowe’en bake-a-thon,’ she said, referring to her friend’s very unique apron.

‘And what did you think of the pumpkin one I wore yesterday?’

Chloe thought back to the previous day when she had struggled to keep a straight face as Faye – Queen of Quirky Culinary Attire – had produced an apron bedecked with pairs of pumpkins divided by what looked like courgettes, giving the unsuspecting onlooker pause for thought. She had politely declined Faye’s offer to make one for her so they could present a united front, insisting she preferred to stick with the Cream Tea Café’s signature aprons made from candy pink and white striped linen and embroidered with a very tasteful collection of cupcakes.

As Chloe performed her final check of the electric plugs and switches, the pirouette of unease that had curled through her veins all day tightened and she knew she couldn’t ignore her mounting apprehension any longer. She needed to just come straight out and say what was on her mind.

‘Do you think there is any way at all we can get out of going wild camping tonight? I’ve still got a long list of things to organise for the Autumn Leaves party, not to mention having to be around in case the remaining guests in the lodges and the shepherd’s hut need me for anything.’

Faye grinned, a glint of mischief appearing in her dark mahogany eyes.

‘You’ll need to come up with a much better excuse than that, Chloe! Matt and Ethan have been looking forward to this expedition for weeks. Anyway, how can you possibly consider giving up the chance to spend a night under the stars with Devon’s very own version of Bear Grylls? It’s the perfect opportunity for you to cement your relationship.’

‘Faye, I keep telling you, Matt and I are just friends!’

‘Friends who worked together to save the Cream Tea Café from certain disaster. If you and Matt hadn’t turned super-sleuth and uncovered who was responsible for poisoning Sasha, then we wouldn’t even be having this conversation. Did Matt complain when he came to our aid in our time of need?’

‘No, of course he didn’t, but—’

‘So, now we’re repaying the favour. Matt needs us to go with him and Ethan to balance out the numbers. Only four of our lodge guests have signed up for the Wild Camping and Medieval Myths expedition; that’s all three of the guys, and Brad’s girlfriend, Zara, is coming too. Without us tagging along, it would mean Zara would be the only woman, so this way it’s a good mix with Matt and Ethan as our extremely hunky guides. Perfect!’

Faye removed her apron, shoved it into her handbag and slotted her arms into her white denim jacket, which she had hand-embroidered with a garland of custard-yellow buttercups. More hippie than yuppie, Faye had definitely been born in the wrong era, with her love of all things flower-power, from the daisies in her hair to her gem-encrusted Vans.

Chloe adored her new friend and partner in culinary creation. She was well aware that the only reason she had been able to progress from dejected interior designer to contented café manager was down to the eternally optimistic support of Faye Williams. In fact, it had now been months since Chloe had tortured herself with the memory of discovering that her ex-boyfriend and former boss, Jacques Devereaux of Claude Devereaux Studios, had been cheating on her the whole time they’d been together. Her new home in the eaves of the white-washed Cream Tea Café with a view of the South Devon coast had turned out to be the perfect place to put her life back on track. She had moved on.

In fact – though she didn’t intend to admit this to Faye any time soon – she had even started to toy with the possibility of dating again. Just because she’d had her fingers burnt once didn’t mean she should avoid every encounter with a cosy log-burning fire for the rest of her life, did it?

However, there was still one thing she needed to work on and that was her attachment to her good old friend and enemy – the anti-bacterial spray. No matter how hard she tried to contain her ever-present urge to clean, she just couldn’t relax until she was satisfied that not a single germ lingered anywhere in the café waiting for its chance to pounce on the gullible. She suspected that her obsession with hygiene required the attention that only a professional therapist could provide – especially after the heightened anxieties her recent brush with a potential food-poisoning scare had caused.

‘Right. I’ll let you go upstairs and get packed and I’ll see you over at Willerby Quests at seven o’clock. I know I don’t have to say this to you, Chloe, but I will anyway. Don’t be late! It’s a good hour and a half hike to where Matt and Ethan want us to set up camp for the night. And don’t forget to bring a torch… and maybe a few of those brownies, too! Bye-ee.’

Chloe waved Faye off in her cute little Fiat 500 then locked the Cream Tea Café’s French doors behind her. Faye was right. They did have to return the favour for the kindness and support – not to mention the Poirot-esque tenacity – with which Matt had helped her hunt down the person responsible for the poisoning scandal that had almost brought her idyllic Devonshire sojourn to an end. If she had lost her job at the café, then she would also have lost her home.

Not only that, but she would have never been able to forgive herself for letting her friend Henry down after he’d shown such faith in her ability to take over the reins at his sister’s café so that Debs could head off for a new life in Melbourne. She knew that Henry was behind Debs’ decision to put the sale of the Cream Tea Café on hold until the spring, and her heart gave a nip of affection for her former London neighbour. She also couldn’t help but smile at the memory of the conversation she’d had with Debs in the summer when she had spoken excitedly about her Australian odyssey, and her belief that Brian – the man she had followed half way across the world – was about to propose.

So, it was thanks to several people that she was still in Willerby, baking scones, roulades and tartlets for the hungry hordes who were about to attend the inaugural Autumn Leaves party on Saturday night, but mainly to Matt Wilson, the handsome and intrepid owner of Willerby Quests.

Chloe made her way up the spiral staircase that led to her tiny studio flat. She had only made a lacklustre start on packing for her night under the stars. More like nightmare under the stars, she thought as she groaned out loud. How on earth had she got herself into this? She really wasn’t an outdoorsy kind of a girl, the sort who relished the chance to commune with nature. She was more Countess of Cupcakes than Connoisseur of Camping.

Oh well, all she had to do was tip her hesitation over the parapet and launch herself into the unknown – again!