Coloring book creator and Washington, DC, bookstore owner Florrie Fox is attending the wedding of her wealthy boss and a famous romance author, who are taking their vows—for the second time—on the grounds of the gorgeous Maxwell mansion. But it soon becomes clear that the soothing vibe of coloring books is very different from the stress and backstabbing in some corners of the literary world.
Arthur Bedlingham, for example, barely makes a living despite the many awards he's won—and his chances for better sales haven't been helped by the vicious review he just got from another guest at the party. Then there's an ex-FBI agent whose popular thrillers are a magnet for female fans; a less-successful romance writer; and an ambitious waitress who's intent on a career in journalism.
When Arthur's assistant, an aspiring writer, is murdered during the festivities, Florrie realizes this is no color-by-numbers case, and she'll have to sort out the complicated secrets among this creative crowd of suspects . . .
Release date: August 30, 2022
Publisher: Kensington Books
Print pages: 336
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A Colorful Scheme
It was most uncharacteristic of Mr. DuBois. He had been trained as a proper butler. Pounding on doors and shouting ranked right up there with the most egregious sins in his mind. But that only made his question and behavior more worrisome.
My sister, Veronica, who was acting as the wedding coordinator, leaped out of her chair, spilling coffee on her bathrobe. She reminded me of our mother when she took a moment to catch her breath and then with forced composure asked sweetly, “Did you lose our bride?”
Mr. DuBois, who watched far too much true-crime TV and was prone to seeing murder everywhere, closed the door behind him. “She is not in the mansion. I have searched from the basement to the attic. She is simply gone.”
I froze for a moment. Was she being followed, too? “When is the last time anyone saw her?” I asked.
Veronica nodded at me, her head bobbing with too much vigor, thus exposing her true level of anxiety. “Excellent, Florrie!”
“I last saw her yesterday evening around nine, I believe. I asked if they wanted anything before I retired for the night.”
Elderly Mr. DuBois was petite, always impeccable. He had worked as the butler for the Maxwell family for decades. John Maxwell, adventurer, professor, and heir to the Maxwell fortune, was my boss, which was how I came to reside in the small carriage house behind the mansion. He owned the Color Me Read bookstore but had neither the time nor the inclination to manage it and relied on me to do it all, from payroll to selecting stock, hiring, and paying the bills. At night and on my days off, I indulged my artistic side by drawing adult coloring books.
“I trust you have seen the professor this morning?” I asked.
At that moment, there was a brisk knock at the door. Mr. DuBois opened it and John Maxwell strode in. Tall and dignified, he was the type of man who commanded attention. Despite his age, he remained decidedly handsome. His well-trimmed beard was black at the bottom but curiously changed to snow-white along his jawline and sideburns, then his hair morphed back to black at the top of his head. He glanced around the open room. “She’s not here?”
“I’m afraid not,” I said. “Are you sure Jacquie didn’t have plans? Breakfast with a friend? Some kind of spa treatment?”
Veronica frowned at me. “I would have known about anything like that.”
Somewhat bashfully, Professor Maxwell asked, “You’re not hiding her here? That silly thing about not seeing the bride on the wedding day?”
“I’m afraid not,” I said. “Have you notified the police?”
“No!” cried Veronica.
We all looked at her.
“Not yet. It’s her wedding day. I’ll admit that it’s usually the groom who takes a runner, but maybe she has cold feet. Maybe she just needs a breather before everything gets underway.”
Professor Maxwell gazed at Veronica silently. “Perhaps you’re correct. DuBois, did you hear anything in the night?”
“I’m afraid I slept soundly.”
“What about the alarm system?” I asked.
DuBois glanced at Professor Maxwell. “We didn’t turn it on. With so many guests in the house, we were afraid someone might trigger it if they wandered out for a breath of fresh air or for a cigarette. I believe a few of them are smokers.”
Professor Maxwell turned to look at my clock collection. “We’ll give her two hours. If she hasn’t called or turned up, then we’ll go to the police.”
I wondered if he was thinking about Jacquie’s previous disappearance. Jacquie was Jacqueline Liebhaber, the well-known romance and women’s fiction author. She had been Professor Maxwell’s second wife.
They had one child, a girl named Caroline, who had been kidnapped at a young age and never found. The loss of Caroline had worked its way between them with Jacquie pursuing psychics and John partaking in wild adventures, all of which eventually led to divorce. Years later, when Jacquie found herself in a troubling situation, she sought John’s help, which brought the two of them together again.
That time she had been missing for days. Her agent had been so worried that she hired a private detective to find Jacquie. That she had vanished before was concerning yet something of a relief as well. It worried me because I hated to imagine that she had had a change of heart about the professor and was now an aging runaway bride. He would be devastated. She could at least have told one of us so we wouldn’t worry all day, wondering if we should cancel the minister and wedding accoutrements.
I nodded and hoped I sounded reassuring when I said, “I bet she turns up.”
Professor Maxwell stiffened. “I’m going out to look for her.”
“I shall stay by the phone in case she calls,” said Mr. DuBois, holding up a wireless landline phone as though it were proof of his intentions.
The minute the professor was gone, Mr. DuBois said, “I’ll bring coffee over.”
Half an hour later, he rolled a serving cart into the carriage house. Coffee turned out to be croissants, eggs Benedict, and a fruit salad in jewel tones. The reds, oranges, and greens glistened under a sauce. “I have left a buffet at the mansion for the few late-rising guests.”
Mr. DuBois had been formal but polite to me when I moved into the carriage house, but he made no secret of his disdain for my cat, Peaches. Since then, Peaches and I had wormed our way into his good graces.
Veronica vaulted toward the table and picked up a croissant. “Oh my! Does the professor eat like this every day?”
Mr. DuBois tsked at her. “Did you think I serve him boxed cereal in cold milk?” He busied himself, placing a covered plate in my oven.
For a moment Veronica appeared chastened, but her humor returned quickly. “How the other half live, eh?”
The three of us sat down to eat. Even though I was busy being indulged, I noticed that Mr. DuBois wasn’t eating.
“I, um, may have notified the police,” he said quietly. “Sort of. Not really. Not officially, you understand.”
Veronica choked on her breakfast. In between coughs, she croaked, “You didn’t! You know how they feel about the press. If they get wind of this . . .”
Mr. DuBois poured more coffee for her.
Normally a missing bride wouldn’t be of much interest to anyone outside the families and friends involved. But Jacquie’s books sold worldwide.
“How would one unofficially notify the police?” I inquired.
“One might have phoned a friend on the police force.”
Veronica’s eyes grew large. “Florrie and I aren’t properly dressed yet!” She jumped to her feet, but it was too late. Someone rapped on the door.
I tightened the sash on my own bathrobe of flowing silk the rich color of red plums, a gift from my parents. I peered out the window in the door. “I believe your police contact has arrived, Mr. DuBois. Relax, Veronica. It’s Eric.”
I opened the door and smiled at him. He planted a quick kiss on my lips, the polite sort employed in the presence of others. But the grin on his face told me how happy he was to see me.
I could feel a flush rising up my cheeks. I was a bookish type, perfectly content to stay home with my tabby cat, Peaches. All I needed was a good mystery or my sketch pad where I drew pictures for my coloring books. I loathed bars, dance clubs, and other noisy places packed with writhing people trying to meet Mr. or Ms. Right.
Growing up, I’d been called names like squirt, brains, and Goody Two-shoes. I was the big sister, yet the smaller one. Veronica and I were only a couple of years apart in age, but we couldn’t have been more different. Veronica had long slender legs, the kind short woman envied, and blond hair that she wore in a sassy cut. She was athletic and loved nothing more than a great party. She knew the trends, had always been popular everywhere she went, and frequented local bars and events.
The day I met Eric, I only dreamed that he might be interested in someone like me. His eyes were a bright cornflower blue, and his sandy hair fell in loose curls. He looked like the sun had kissed him, though I would never tell him that. It was an unbelievable stroke of good fortune that he had responded to my 911 call just over a year ago, and even more miraculous that he was as drawn to me as I was to him.
That I was dating a cop truly thrilled Mr. DuBois. For a short time, Eric had stayed with me while he recuperated from an accident. Mr. DuBois had waited on him hand and foot, serving incredible meals, and reveling in the company of Eric’s police friends who came by to visit. When Eric moved back to his apartment, the meals had come to an abrupt halt. I didn’t mind, but found it mildly amusing.
“I knocked at the kitchen door of the mansion,” Eric said. “No one answered. I thought I might find Mr. DuBois over here.”
Mr. DuBois rose to his feet. “Thank you for coming. I knew I could count on you.”
Mr. DuBois fetched the covered plate from my oven and lifted the top. “Won’t you join us?” He deftly set the additional plate of eggs Benedict at the table.
He had clearly been prepared for Eric’s visit.
Eric greeted Veronica. “Has Jacquie turned up yet?”
“Not a sign of her.”
We settled at the table again and Veronica whined in a stressed tone, “The professor said we should give her a couple of hours, but people will be arriving soon to set up.”
“Do you have any reason to think she didn’t go of her own free will?” asked Eric.
Mr. DuBois shook his head. “No. I suppose we should be thankful for that.”
“Does she still have an apartment somewhere? Maybe she went there for some reason.”
Mr. DuBois sighed. “She moved into the mansion months ago. I believe she still owns her condo but has rented it to someone, so it’s unlikely that she would have gone there.”
“What about the underground passage between the carriage house and the mansion?” I asked.
“Maxwell checked it this morning,” said Mr. DuBois. “She’s not hiding there, either.”
Veronica’s phone rang. She almost dropped it in her haste to answer the call. The rest of us watched her expectantly.
“That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” Veronica said into her phone. “She hadn’t even been born then.... Yes, I can prove that.” She disconnected the call and said to us, “It’s a shame there isn’t a way to slam a cell phone down when you hang up on a person. There was something satisfying about that. Kind of like punching someone in the face but without the violence. Disconnecting a call doesn’t have the same impact.”
“What was that about?” asked Mr. DuBois.
“Some news editor was calling to confirm that Florrie is the Maxwells’ missing daughter.”
I recoiled and then laughed. “People get the strangest ideas. At least they were smart enough to confirm it before blabbing about it.”
“Preposterous!” exclaimed Mr. DuBois.
“It’s crazy. I would have to be Mom’s age,” I protested. “I hope I don’t look that old yet.”
“I wouldn’t say that to her,” Veronica muttered.
Eric gazed at me. “I don’t understand. People think you’re related to the Maxwells just because you live in the carriage house?”
“You can’t imagine the preposterous things people have suggested about Miss Caroline over the years,” said Mr. DuBois. “That she was hidden in Europe. That the Maxwells kept her in their attic. That she grew up in another family and has finally come home. It’s ridiculous. Just the other day someone asked me if Florrie’s mother was Miss Caroline.”
“Mom?” Veronica sputtered. “I wouldn’t mind that. We’d be heiresses!”
“At least Mom is closer to Caroline’s age,” I pointed out.
“This is all because the Maxwells are wealthy?” Eric winced.
“It’s that social media gone amok,” said Mr. DuBois. “Did you know that perfect strangers post their absurd speculations about Miss Caroline? Some people claim to have seen her.”
“Really?” asked Veronica.
“That’s what they claim. It has always been this way. The Maxwells are a famous family with a good bit of scandal in their history. Miss Caroline’s disappearance is one more tragedy in their checkered past. And that, my dear Florrie, is why people want to believe that your mother could be Caroline Maxwell, keeping a low profile. Especially now that you live here and you run the bookstore. The Maxwells treat you like family.”
Veronica shot me a sideways glance. “They are very nice to us.”
“We’re not Maxwells!” I laughed. “We’re plain old everyday Foxes.”
“If I didn’t know better,” said Mr. DuBois thoughtfully, “I would presume that Maxwell’s sister, Miss Liddy, chased Miss Jacqueline off. She is remarkably adept at finagling her way into matters that don’t concern her.”
I had just raised a bit of croissant to my lips but stopped midair. Of course she was coming to the wedding. I had forgotten about her and now shuddered at the mere thought. Liddy, possibly the most despicable, pretentious, demanding woman I had ever met, blamed me for the death of her son.
I had nothing to do with his death, except for the great misfortune of finding his body. Liddy knew what her son was like and how many people he had conned. His father, a decent man, had been more realistic about his son’s devious behavior that led to his demise. Liddy, on the other hand, wanted desperately to place blame elsewhere and had irrationally landed on me as a scapegoat.
I placed the bit of croissant on my plate and gulped coffee. Five hundred people would be in attendance, I reminded myself. Chances were good that at the most I would only have to smile or nod and pretend to be busy. But then a truly horrific thought sprang to mind. “She’s not staying here, is she?”
Mr. DuBois grimaced. “I confess I am not thrilled about her visit; however, it is her childhood home. Maxwell felt compelled to invite her and Miss Jacqueline encouraged him to do so.” A sly smile crossed Mr. DuBois’s lips. “I recall the fuss Miss Liddy made about your presence on the estate. I can only hope she will be less agitated and more gracious this time.”
I doubted that. Mr. DuBois had been so kind, defending me and throwing her out of the house.
“Just keep your distance,” Mr. DuBois advised. “And if she gives you any trouble, come to me. I’ve known Miss Liddy since she was a girl. It’s funny how different she is from Maxwell. They have the same parents and were raised the same way in the same household, yet they aren’t a bit similar.”
“Her husband was nice,” I mused. I hadn’t spent much time with him, but he clearly felt the death of his son deeply and had briefly reminisced about his son’s life and how he had become an odious man.
“Walter,” DuBois said softly. “Miss Liddy doesn’t deserve him. He was engaged to marry a friend of Miss Liddy’s, Annabelle Constantine, probably the most beautiful woman I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. Rich dark hair, ruby lips, and mischievous eyes. But Miss Liddy had set her sights on Walter, probably to irritate her father, as Walter did not come from money and had no particular plans to make a living. Well, Miss Liddy paid another young fellow to court Annabelle and made sure Walter saw them together. Liddy was standing by to comfort the brokenhearted Walter and promptly swept him off to the altar. That wedding took place so fast that people thought she was pregnant. Which she wasn’t. Her daddy took young Walter in hand and made sure he had a well-paying position at a local brokerage firm. Luckily, Walter was a good man, and he had a knack for the stock market.”
“So it all ended well,” said Eric.
“For everyone except poor Walter, who has had to put up with Miss Liddy for most of his life. He is the true image of a long-suffering man,” said Mr. DuBois.
“I didn’t know any of that,” I said. “It makes me feel much better about the way Liddy treated me. I’m lucky she didn’t do anything worse.”
After breakfast, Veronica changed into jeans and a T-shirt Jacquie had given her that said WEDDING COORDINATOR. It had been a joke gift, but Veronica took that job seriously, and as the minutes crawled by, she was in no mood for jesting.
“I have made a list,” she announced. “The chairs were set up yesterday. The florist will be here any moment now. It’s far too late to stop him or the baker who will be delivering the cake.”
“What about the guests?” asked Eric.
“Five hundred people are coming! I can’t possibly notify everyone.” Veronica winced. “Maybe they won’t notice that she’s not here?”
“Not notice that the bride is missing?” Eric asked. “Even I would realize that.”
“Most people don’t know this is the wedding,” Veronica explained. “Jacquie didn’t want any gifts, so she sent out invitations to a party. The wedding is, well, for lack of a better expression, part of the entertainment.” Veronica gasped. “The musicians! What should I do about the musicians?”
“Look,” I said in a gentle voice. “It seems to me that you have to decide whether the party will go on or not. You can’t possibly cancel five hundred guests, so you might as well continue as planned. If Jacquie doesn’t return, then all you really have to do is take off that T-shirt and very few guests will notice anything amiss.”
The corners of Veronica’s mouth twitched. “I don’t like it. I can’t imagine the party without Jacquie. But you’re right. Completely right. Okay, everyone. The party is on, with or without a wedding!”
At that exact moment, her phone dinged. “It’s a text from the bakery,” she said in a soft voice. She read aloud, “‘We are so sorry. Due to a power outage, your cupcake order will be delivered at seven p.m.’”
Veronica’s phone thudded as it hit the floor. She clasped her hands to her head as though she thought it might explode. “Trouble comes in threes,” she breathed. “First Jacquie, now the cupcakes. What’s next?”
“You’re having cupcakes instead of a wedding cake?” asked Eric.
Veronica turned toward him. The placid face of my mom had vanished. In an angry, yet controlled tone, she said, “They’re the favors. The little gift each person gets to take home.”
Eric picked up on the slight snarl in her voice and crossed his arms in front of his face, pretending to cower. “At least they’ll be here in time.”
“They have to be placed in boxes.”
“That’s not so bad. I’ll help.” Eric smiled at her.
“Over five hundred!” she squealed. “I ordered extra just to be sure we had enough.”
“It’s okay,” I said. “All hands on deck at seven, everyone. Eric, Mr. DuBois, Mom, and I will pitch in. We can do this!”
Veronica didn’t even try to hide her frustration. “I suppose that’s all we can do. Thanks for helping out. Florrie, I’m counting on you to stay on top of the Jacquie situation. I can’t imagine what she’s thinking. Be sure to give me all updates. Okay?” She frowned and looked at my clocks. “Where is that man with the carpet?” She dashed outside, and the three of us who remained sighed with relief.
“Maybe being a wedding coordinator wouldn’t be the best career for Miss Veronica after all.” Mr. DuBois rolled his serving cart toward the door. “I hope Miss Jacquie returns soon. In any event, tea will be served at two o’clock as previously planned.”
Eric opened the door for him, then closed it. “Do you think he’ll ever stop calling you Miss Florrie?”
I held my finger up across my lips. “He’s slipped a few times. I didn’t think it would ever happen, but now I’m hopeful. After all, he does call the professor Maxwell.”
Eric wrapped his arms around me. “Oooh. Maybe he’ll call you Fox. That’s sort of cute.” He became more serious. “Do you think the professor wants to file a missing person’s report on Jacquie?”
“Maybe, if she’s not back soon. She has a history of running when she’s in danger. But I can’t understand her taking off on the day of her wedding. She wanted this and I know for certain that she loves the professor. The way she looks at him tells me that she adores him.”
“Is that how you look at me?” Eric teased.
“You’ll have to figure that one out for yourself.”
He kissed me in a way that made my toes tingle.
“I’ll be back at six, Florrie. Let me know if Jacquie turns up.”
He left and I closed the door behind him, wondering anew how I had gotten so lucky. The door opened again immediately. Veronica stormed in to pour herself an ill-advised fortieth cup of coffee. I didn’t dare mention that she probably didn’t need more caffeine.
“I honestly thought I might want to be a professional wedding planner. I don’t mind putting out fires, but this is nerve-racking. Did you see this coming? Jacquie, I mean.”
“No. I don’t think anyone anticipated this.”
In spite of our differences, Veronica and I were close. I had hired her to work at the bookstore when she was in a pinch, even though she wasn’t much of a reader. Her social media skills had proven magical, propelling the bookstore to new heights of popularity. She had taken two weeks off to focus on Jacquie’s party. I knew her days at Color Me Read were probably numbered. Veronica’s outgoing personality lent itself better to a job such as a wedding coordinator. But she would have to learn to cope with unexpected developments.
I had taken the day off from the bookstore. Our longtime employee, Bob Turpin, was in charge, assisted by Professor Goldblum, a regular at the store. He hung out there almost every day anyway and knew Color Me Read as well as any of the employees. I was on the verge of hiring new employees. We were open seven days a week, and the three of us were struggling to cover all the shifts. Bob and Professor Goldblum would be closing the store at five to join us. That freed me up to spend the next few hours helping Veronica with details.
At ten in the morning, Professor Maxwell popped in to inform us that he had returned from the police station, where he’d reported Jacquie missing. I noted that he hadn’t waited two hours after all. He must have been sick with worry.
I had finished drawing a floral design around a seating chart to help people find their tables for dinner and was carrying an easel to the mansion when the professor barreled out the back door and into the driveway where I was walking.
“As if it’s not bad enough that I have no idea what has happened to Jacquie, now the house is overflowing with people unloading dishes and sundry for tonight’s party.” His gruff voice grew softer when he said, “I don’t know how we’ll manage to get through tonight if she doesn’t come home.”
I set the easel down, and despite knowing it wasn’t socially acceptable to hug one’s boss, I did it anyway. “She’ll be back.” I meant it, too. It was inconceivable to me that she would just walk away.
Professor Maxwell didn’t seem offended by my. . .
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