Queenie knew starting a new romance in late September was a bad idea, but without Mitch Kingsolver, her fledgeling business, Queen of Tarts, would never have been so successful. When October comes, Queenie’s life is swallowed up in what she knows as the Caledonian Curse, when a cranky Scotswoman persona takes her over all the way to Halloween. Hiding away is the only way Queenie knows to deal with the Curse, but she had hoped Mitch would support her. Instead, Mitch has vanished, and Queenie has to deal with a not-quite-stranger. When she first met James Stuart, she thought he was her ideal man, but James and Mitch are inextricably entwined. It’s up to Queenie, burdened as she is, to get James to the Halloween Ball and hope she can unravel the mess. Dressed as the Queen of Tarts, Queenie has just one chance to make it work for them all.
Queenie Hart, Late September, 2021
Queenie Hart woke with a start and stretched out her hand. She was alone in the bed.
She sat up, feeling bereft, and saw a breakfast tray on her nightstand. It bore brown bread and cheese, and a pink grapefruit with a silver spoon she didn’t recognise. An envelope was propped against a glass of apple juice with a strawberry slotted over the rim.
Queenie opened it and found a printed photograph of a smiling young man in a dull green shirt. She frowned. He looked lovely, but she had no sense of knowing him.
Don’t be daft, lassie. Ye ken fine who that must be.
She woke her phone and looked at a photo in her gallery, comparing the two.
The bus driver. The delivery man. The Fixer. Mitchell Kingsolver. My friend, and now my lover.
Except that she paid him.
But she hadn’t paid him for the last few times he’d driven her to and from the market stall at the festival.
Or had she?
Bedding the Queen of Tarts must be expensive.
He’d said that, or something like it, as a joke, and he’d apologised after she’d unleashed a stream of what an admiring bystander had dubbed lassie haggis at him.
And she did trade as the Queen of Tarts, with a steady stream of orders for her luxury tarts.
But… Bedding the Queen of Tarts?
I enjoyed it at least as much as he did. I invited him. And he said he was here because he wanted to be. He was lovely to me.
The envelope had a ridge in it, so she slid her fingers in and pulled out his pen—a distinctive implement made of polished bamboo-like wood. It had a strip of paper wrapped around it in a spiral.
Queenie unwound it and flattened it out.
Not assuming anything, my love, but I suggest you write an aide-mémoire to remind you of who the photo represents. I wouldn’t want you to suppose you have photos of random men on your breakfast tray. By the way, it’s a portrait of me—Mitchell Kingsolver. I hope you’ll look at it often when I’m not able to be with you. XOX
He could have written on it himself.
She turned the photo face up and wrote across the pale shirt…
I should frame it and keep it by the bed. Or is that assuming too much?
Why on earth she couldn’t remember his face when he wasn’t in front of her was a puzzle neither of them could solve. Mitch didn’t seem too troubled, but Queenie went through agonies about it. It was bad enough that she had to spend the month of October speaking cod Scottish and making herself unpopular, and worst of all, having to guard against spending her small nest egg on inappropriate Scottish luxuries and peculiar ethnic trifles.
She’d lately learned that her affliction was probably a manifestation, or second self, a legacy from the small percentage of fay blood in her veins.
Until the month before, she had known almost nothing about the fay, but her father’s half-fay cousin and his wife had explained some things to her. Her new landlords at Porthwellian Tredennick had explained more, and the housewarming present they had sent her, a set of books called Orders of the Fay and The Fay Companion, had proved a mine of information.
Knowing what the Caledonian Curse probably was didn’t help her to solve its problems, however.
She must tell Mitch about the Curse.
She was amazed he hadn’t questioned her about it already. Normally, it hit on October the first. This year, it was getting in early.
She ate her breakfast and showered.
Mitch’s note had not mentioned if or when he was coming back to The Belfry, although the gift of the photograph and the affectionate closing line on his note implied he would see her soon, and often.
She hoped so.
Queenie, unwilling to wait in a lovelorn manner, employed herself by sorting out the aftermath of the Oakengrove Festival.
She already had the new orders in sequence, so she went to inspect her stores.
Time to start baking.
She made a batch of Raspberry Relish for the remainder of Oliver Porthwellian’s order, and she added an extra-large Queen of Hearts as a sorry-present for being late. He could slice it up and eat a piece every now and again.
Oliver was ninety-six. He was one of her landlords, and he lived in Victoria. Because he was a pisky man—the same order of fairy as her dad’s Cousin Branok and his wife—he was able to conjure items to and from his old home at The Belfry. He had startled Queenie very much when he’d conjured the lease agreement.
His talent was useful when it came to delivering his orders for tarts. He had Queenie put them in a big tureen and leave them on a table at an agreed time.
This morning, his tureen was waiting in the usual place, with a tart little note suggesting savouries were tasty but a man of his age enjoyed the sweeter things of life.
Queenie wrote a note back to inform him she was about to experiment with currants, as he had suggested in one of his notes. She asked whether he meant the small, dried grapes usually sold as currants or true currants of the Ribes genus…and if so, whether he wanted red, black, or white. I wish to please, not to annoy, she added, and the Ribes tribe is not known for sweetness.
The tureen remained where it was for a few hours and then vanished. It reappeared twenty minutes later with a new note from Oliver, written in his cultured hand with his dip pen.
Queenie rolled her eyes.
Men and their cryptic notes!
She would make tarts using some of each.