Murder's in the mix for mystery bookstore owner and amateur sleuth Tricia Miles, in the latest entry of Lorna Barrett's New York Times best-selling Booktown series.
With her assistant, Pixie, picking up more responsibility around the shop, Tricia Miles suddenly has a lot more time on her hands. Tricia decides to join the local animal-rescue board and enter the Great Stoneham Bake-Off, but neither pans out as smoothly as she'd hoped.
Balancing a bake-off that's heating up with a frosty reception from the board, Tricia stops by Joyce Whitman's romance bookstore looking for a book to get her fired up. She stumbles on something hot, but it's an argument between Joyce and her neighbor Vera Olson instead of a steamy read. When Vera turns up dead in Joyce's garden hours later, Tricia has to wonder - could Joyce be the killer? Or is the culprit still lurking in town?
One thing is for sure, someone in Stoneham is stirring up something more sinister than sweet. Tricia is determined to win the cutthroat cooking contest, but first she will have to make sure no one else is in danger of getting burned....
Release date: August 13, 2019
Print pages: 320
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A Killer Edition
Copyright © 2019 Lorna Barrett
Tricia Miles gripped the steering wheel so tightly, her fingers were white. A death grip like that wasn’t healthy, not if one intended to use one’s fingers for other purposes—like turning the page of a book or holding a cup filled with coffee. Or perhaps strangling someone.
Okay, strangulation was perhaps too harsh a punishment for someone who supposedly had your best interests at heart, but of late, Dr. Kendra Vought had inspired thoughts of little else. Her specialty was grief counseling, but she didn’t seem particularly good at her profession. Though she said things like “Time is your greatest friend,” her body language, bored expression, and an eye on the clock conveyed another message: “Move on, already.”
Moving on was proving to be a lot more difficult than Tricia had anticipated. Not that she hadn’t already experienced a prolonged period of grief when her beloved grandmother had died—and at far too young an age. But she had been older than Tricia’s ex-husband, Christopher Benson, who hadn’t died of disease but had been murdered.
Maybe that was why after almost two years, Tricia still thought about him daily. And it wasn’t like he had been an everyday part of her life. After their divorce, it got so that she thought of him only now and then—until he’d reappeared practically on her doorstep with requests to “get back together,” all of which she had ignored.
But it wasn’t Christopher who was on her mind just then. After that morning’s session, Tricia and Dr. Vought were officially through. Her last piece of advice had been ludicrous, to say the least. “Go read a sexy romance novel, and then visit your friend with benefits.”
Friend with benefits? That wasn’t how Tricia thought of her relationship with Marshall Cambridge. Okay, they were friends, and they did sometimes have the occasional sleepover, but that didn’t mean . . .
Good grief, Tricia realized. She and Marshall were friends with benefits!
And oddly enough, that was all Tricia really wanted from the relationship.
At least . . . for now.
But read a sexy romance?
Tricia braked as she approached the Stoneham municipal parking lot, which was pretty full on that sunny morning in late June—a morning that was quickly slipping toward noon. After locking the Lexus, Tricia headed for the sidewalk along Main Street, but first she had to pass the Have a Heart romance bookstore, run by her fellow shopkeeper Joyce Widman.
Tricia paused in front of the big display window.
It had been a long time since romance had been part of her life. For her, romance had died when Christopher had asked for a divorce. Not counseling, not a trial separation, but divorce. Then he’d gone to the Colorado Rockies to contemplate his navel for several years until he realized what and whom he had discarded.
Tricia took in the book covers of the paperbacks that populated the display. Bare-chested Scottish heroes with six-pack abs dressed in bold tartan kilts appeared to ravish long-tressed heroines in flowing gowns that flaunted their heaving bosoms. Bold romances reflecting a bolder time. But she wasn’t into historicals and knew the store stocked more than just that subgenre.
Romantic suspense . . . now, that she would enjoy. A kick-ass story with an adventurous heroine who could not only take care of herself but save the day and have a successful romantic relationship as well. Not with a man who’d abandon her. Not with someone who would turn on and stalk her. Not with a man who feared commitment.
And not with somebody like Marshall Cambridge?
That was a tougher question. Their relationship was satisfying in so many ways—but mostly because Marshall let her do her own thing because he was busy doing his own thing. For both of them, it meant running their businesses and their lives without asking permission and without making excuses.
But if she was honest, Tricia did miss the romance. The weekend trips to quaint locales. Dinners in exclusive restaurants. Snow skiing in the winter, water-skiing in the summer. Giving and receiving little gestures of affection that made her heart sing.
Tricia sighed. Maybe Dr. Vought was right. Maybe what she needed was to lose herself in the pages of a romance novel. At least temporarily. Because she knew what the real problem was.
Tricia Miles was bored. Ever since she had given her assistant, Pixie Poe, the job of assistant manager of her vintage mystery bookshop, Haven’t Got a Clue, she’d felt rather lost. And oddly enough, Dr. Vought just couldn’t seem to accept that. Well, it wasn’t her problem.
Heaving another sigh, Tricia entered the bookshop.
Joyce had done a nice job decorating her shop with pastel-colored walls, comfortable upholstered chairs in reading nooks, romantic prints decorating the walls, and lots and lots of shelves filled with paperback novels, stock that had been carefully sorted according to genre.
“Tricia, fancy seeing you here.”
The voice had come from behind the cash desk. “Hi, Joyce. I came by to find a little reading material.”
Joyce did a classic double take. “Really?”
Did she have to sound so skeptical?
“Yes. Something a little—”
“Racy?” Joyce suggested and giggled.
“Not exactly. Something with a lot of suspense and with a heroine who can take on the world.”
“I should have known you’d like some intrigue.”
“I can recommend a number of different series and stand-alone books by a variety of wonderful authors.”
Before Joyce could walk around the counter to help Tricia, the door burst open and a matronly woman with a mop of gray hair and an expression filled with fury bounded into the shop.
“You had to call that tree surgeon when I specifically asked you not to!” the woman protested in what was definitely an outside voice.
“Hello, Vera,” Joyce said politely, if curtly. “And yes, I did. We talked about it and I told you what my insurance company said. That limb was over my yard and fence and legally I had the right to trim it and its branches.”
Tricia started to edge away from what might well become a confrontation, but Joyce’s voice stopped her. “Vera, have you met Tricia Miles? She owns the Haven’t Got a Clue mystery bookstore down the street.”
“No, I haven’t—and why would I care? I don’t have time to read stupid books.”
Them was fightin’ words, but Tricia didn’t respond to them. She simply said, “Hello.”
Vera ignored her.
“That giant limb could have come down in my yard during the next windstorm, and when it did—!”
“You would have been compensated by insurance. I spoke to my insurance agent, too. But I specifically asked you to wait—”
“Well, my garden couldn’t wait. It needs full sunlight if I’m to grow vegetables to can for the winter.”
“Don’t give me that bull. You can buy vegetables at the grocery store or the farmers’ market for a lot less money and effort.”
Joyce let out a sigh of disgust and looked away.
“If you touch anything else that grows in my yard, I will sue you for every penny you have. I’ll take this precious shop of yours, too, you—you smut peddler!”
Vera may as well have slapped Joyce across the cheek as insult her beloved romance novels. Joyce’s mouth dropped open and her cheeks went a vivid pink, but despite that, she did not raise her voice. “I’m afraid I’ll have to ask you to leave.”
Vera defiantly crossed her arms across her chest. “I’m not going anywhere.”
It was then that the newest hire at the Stoneham Police Department stepped around one of the tall shelves. “Is there a problem here?” asked Officer Cindy Pearson. She looked to be in her mid- to late twenties and stood five ten or so, with a blonde ponytail that stuck out the back of her ball cap with the Stoneham Police Department emblem emblazoned on the front, and her thumbs hooked on her thick leather belt, her service revolver resting on her right hip.
Vera’s eyes widened in anger, and for a moment Tricia thought the woman might explode, but then she averted her gaze. “The problem is Joyce’s.”
“I believe Ms. Widman is correct about her right to take care of her property as she sees fit. If you have questions, feel free to contact the Stoneham Police Department to clarify your homeowner rights,” Officer Pearson said.
Joyce let out a breath and gave the officer a grateful smile. Vera, however, wasn’t placated. She turned her baleful gaze on the bookseller. “You haven’t heard the last of this, Joyce.” And with that parting shot, she turned and bolted from the shop.
For a long moment, Joyce and the officer just looked at each other, and then the cop spoke. “My lunch break is over. I need to get going. I’ll come back another time to get some books. Feel free to let me or the department know if you have any other problems with your neighbor.”
“Will do. And thank you,” Joyce said gratefully.
Officer Pearson touched the brim of her hat and headed out the door.
“Wow,” Tricia said, “that was uncomfortable. I’m glad the officer was here to defuse the situation.”
“So am I,” Joyce said. She gave herself a little shake. “Living next to Vera has been a trial. She’s angry that her good friend no longer lives next door and that I bought the property.”
Frannie Mae Armstrong, who had been Tricia’s sister Angelica’s assistant at the Cookery for almost six years, had had to sell the house in order to pay her legal team’s fees. They had so far not been able to get her released from the county lockup after she’d killed someone and then attempted to kill another. Joyce had swooped in to buy the property and had moved in just after the vernal equinox. Since then, she’d been taking time off from work to make the house and garden her own. Like Tricia, she had a dependable assistant in Lauren Squire.
“So, you enjoy gardening?” Tricia said, eager to change the subject.
Joyce nodded. “My parents were organic gardeners long before it became a trend. Their flower gardens were magnificent, but they weren’t much into growing vegetables. I like to do both.”
“I’m afraid I don’t have much of a green thumb,” Tricia admitted. “I have a couple of pots of herbs on my balcony, but I’d like to try something more ambitious. Would you be willing to give me some pointers?”
“I’d be happy to. I have some errands to run this afternoon but will be home around three. Why don’t you drop by then and I’ll give you some lettuce and herbs fresh from my garden.”
“That’s very generous of you. Thank you. See you then.”
“Wait! What about that book you wanted?”
Tricia laughed, having forgotten why she’d come into the store in the first place. “Yes, please pick out a few titles for me.”
“I’m happy to do so,” Joyce said and led Tricia to the nearest bookshelf.
It was almost noon when Tricia entered her vintage mystery store, Haven’t Got a Clue. As usual, her former assistant and now assistant manager, Pixie, was speaking with a customer. Tricia’s sister, Angelica, also known as the owner of Nigela Ricita Associates, albeit by not too many—had wanted to poach Pixie, whose checkered, lady-of-the-night past couldn’t belie the fact that she was an extraordinarily talented woman. So Tricia had elevated Pixie from assistant to assistant manager, giving her the responsibility that went with the title, and Pixie had excelled far beyond Tricia’s expectations. So much so that Tricia now felt like an extraneous cog in the machinery that was Haven’t Got a Clue. Tricia had no husband, and now she didn’t seem to have a store to run, either. Oh, she still handled the bookkeeping and other sundry tasks for the business, but Pixie had quite successfully taken over the rest of the operation.
With more free time on her hands, Tricia’s original idea had been to volunteer with the local animal shelter—and she’d hoped to become an integral part of the operation. Unfortunately, her overtures to help had been met with a cool—one might even say glacial—reception, despite the fact that she’d been a generous donor in the past. Had they thought she was trying to buy her way into a position of authority? That hadn’t been the case, but that seemed to be the assumption. The fact that she had successfully run a nonprofit for nearly a decade in Manhattan gave her credentials most organizations could only hope to exploit.
Tricia closed the store’s door behind her and saw that her cat, Miss Marple, was asleep on her usual perch above and behind the glass display case that doubled as a cash desk. No welcome there. As it was Monday, her other employee, elderly Mr. Everett, had the day off.
Tricia stood near the register, pretending to inspect the stuffers that went into the bags that would hopefully be filled with vintage and current mysteries. A minute or so later, Pixie had finished speaking with the customer and joined her.
“Thanks for opening this morning,” Tricia said by way of greeting.
“It’s never a problem,” Pixie said cheerfully, her gold canine tooth sparkling under the halogen lights above. That day she was dressed in a pumpkin-colored vintage dress that mimicked the carrot color of her hair, which changed with the seasons or Pixie’s whims. “We had a bus at ten and scored at least eight pretty good sales.”
“I’m sorry you had to handle it on your own,” Tricia said sincerely.
Pixie waved a hand as though to brush off the apology. “It wasn’t a problem. I always feel psyched when we have a good influx of customers. It’s so invigorating,” she gushed.
Tricia used to know that feeling when she’d been the one ringing up the sales, but Pixie insisted that it was now her job to take care of customers so that Tricia could concentrate on the more important parts of the business.
Okay, Tricia had invested in some additional promotional materials, but that had happened long before the tourist season had commenced over Memorial Day weekend. Instead of laboring over promotion, she’d often found herself exiled to her lovely apartment, where she’d restlessly paced or indulged in a new hobby: baking.
During the previous three or four years, Tricia had depended on purchases of cookies from the Patisserie to accompany the complimentary coffee she provided to her customers. But after a particularly nasty conversation with the bakery’s owner, Nikki Brimfield-Smith, some months before, she decided that she would no longer frequent the business and would bake the treats she gave to her patrons as a thank-you for their support.
“The mail’s on the counter,” Pixie said, and pointed.
Tricia had completely missed it. She picked it up and leafed through the envelopes and circulars. Buried within it was yet another flyer for the upcoming Great Booktown Bake-Off. Her gaze lingered over the text.
“You know, you ought to enter,” Pixie said, her tone sincere.
Tricia looked up. “Why?”
“Because you’ve come so far this past year cooking and baking. I think you could give Angelica a run for her money.”
No way, Tricia thought. Then . . . “Really?”
“Definitely!” Pixie said enthusiastically.
Of course, most of what Tricia knew about cooking and baking had come because her sister had mentored her. But then, once you got the hang of it, following a recipe to the letter usually made for a pretty foolproof result. That is, if you could trust the recipe.
“The deadline is tomorrow,” Pixie pointed out. “I really think you should enter. I mean, what have you got to lose?”
What did she have to lose? Since Tricia was already known as the village jinx, perhaps some might think her entry could be looked on with suspicion—maybe even poisonous. Then again, maybe if she did well in such a competition, perhaps coming in third or fourth, it might help to repair the unfortunate reputation she had never deserved. It wasn’t her fault that she seemed to be a corpse magnet or that since her arrival in Stoneham, once the safest village in New Hampshire, it had become homicide central—at least when compared to burgs with the same population.
“I’ll think about it,” Tricia promised, folding the flyer and pocketing it.
“Do you mind if I take off for an hour or so this afternoon? Joyce over at the Have a Heart bookstore invited me to come over to her house and score some fresh vegetables. I thought it would make a great salad for dinner tonight.”
“Go right ahead. And if you’re late, closing won’t be a problem. You go ahead and have fun. You deserve it,” Pixie said.
“I should probably text Angelica to tell her I’ll be contributing to our dinner.”
Tricia pulled out her phone, tapped the keys, and sent her sister a quick message. Almost immediately she got a reply that said,
Yay! I never turned down fresh veggies. You can make a salad. It’ll go great with pasta.
Tricia and Angelica—her sister, fellow bookseller, and entrepreneur—tended to have dinners together so that they could not only share a martini or two but talk about the trials and tribulations of the day as well. In fact, it had become Tricia’s favorite part of the day. They usually had lunch together, too, but that day Angelica had canceled because she was interviewing potential employees for the day spa she intended to open in just weeks. After dinner, Tricia would be seeing Marshall, too. She couldn’t help the smile that crept over her lips. Yes, she certainly had a lot to look forward to.
The door opened, bringing in a fresh wave of customers. Before Tricia could greet them, Pixie sprang into action. “Welcome to Haven’t Got a Clue. I’m Pixie. Let me know if you need any help.”
Tricia sighed and decided to retreat to her basement office until Pixie’s lunch break to see what trouble she could get into there, as she didn’t have to be at Joyce’s house for at least another three hours. And she might just peruse the bake-off’s rudimentary web page once again to remind herself of the rules and think about what recipe she might potentially enter. No doubt about it, with Pixie’s encouragement, she felt better about the idea of joining the contest. And despite the unhappy beginning of her day, Tricia was pretty sure the latter part would be well worth waiting for.
Of course, every time she thought along those lines, something usually went drastically wrong.
Tricia arrived at Joyce’s house no more than two minutes late. She rang the bell and it was only seconds before Joyce answered. “Hey, come on in.” She threw back the door and motioned Tricia to enter.
Although the house had been familiar on the outside—Tricia passed by it many times on her walks with Angelica’s dog, Sarge—she’d never been inside the little Cape Cod when it had been owned by Frannie Armstrong. Joyce had furnished the place with contemporary pieces, heavy on a particular shade of beige. That is, except for the art that decorated the walls. They were prints of the same sort that hung in her romance bookstore, by artists such as William Waterhouse and Alphonse Mucha. It was definitely a woman’s home, and why not, since Joyce was divorced and lived alone. Perhaps she’d been looking forward to decorating her new home for herself with only objects and pictures she loved. Or maybe she just went to Target and furnished the place in a weekend. Who knew? Maybe one day Tricia would ask; right now they weren’t close enough for that kind of a conversation, but maybe that would change, too.
“I don’t want to keep you,” Tricia said, “but I’m dying to see your garden—especially your vegetables. I almost wish I had a little garden of my own. I think it would be fun to grow food that I could eat and share with friends and family.”
“But you can. Before I bought this place, I had a fine container garden. I grew cherry tomatoes, peppers, and plenty of leaf lettuce, as well as herbs. Although I must admit my patio was bigger than your balcony. Have you thought about hanging window boxes?”
“No. What a great idea. Maybe I’ll go to the garden shop tomorrow and buy something like that. I wonder if I could have someone install them, too.”
“What about your friend Marshall?” Joyce asked with the hint of a smile.
Tricia shook her head. Marshall was a man of many talents, but she wasn’t sure he would be up to that task.
“Come out back and I’ll show you my little farm,” Joyce said, and led the way through the small but updated kitchen to the door that led to the backyard.
The smell of sawdust was heavy in the air. While the north side of the yard had obviously been raked, the evidence of wood chips in the grass was unmistakable. So was the raw wound on the now lopsided maple in the yard next door. No wonder Vera had been upset. The once symmetrical tree looked as though it had been butchered. A couple of purple finches hopped from limb to limb, chirping away as though to disparage the destruction. Tricia shook her head and turned away.
Joyce must have started her garden early, for there were tendrils of beans winding their way up sturdy green metal poles that acted as a curtain in the middle of her yard. In front of them was a row of six tomato plants, which were already standing at least eighteen inches high. Had she grown them from seed or bought half-grown plants at the nursery? At each end of the row were what looked like pepper plants, and, of course, the plot along the fence on the south side of her yard was her herb garden. The chives, parsley, and several large basil plants grew in full sun, as the center garden would now do also. When the basil fully matured, Joyce would be able to make a heck of a lot of pesto. Roses were just about to bloom along the back of the house, but they had obviously been established years before.
“Oh, my,” Tricia said. “You really are into gardening.
Joyce laughed. “But of course.” Then her brow furrowed and she looked to one side.
Tricia turned. “Is something wrong?”
Joyce frowned. “The fence gate is open.”
Tricia looked and saw that indeed there was a gate in the fence between Joyce’s and Vera’s yards and it was ajar.
Joyce said nothing, but her expression was anything but pleased. Without a word, she stomped over to the gate, slammed it shut, and threw back two shiny silver-hued bolts at the top and the bottom. Then she turned on her heel and started, her mouth dropping open as she let out a stifled scream. Tricia rushed forward, but Joyce pushed her aside, her shaking arm raised and pointing at what could only be a body lying in the grass. Unfortunately, there was a pitchfork thrust through its midsection.
Joyce seemed frozen in place, and Tricia crept forward, but it was obvious the person was no longer alive.
And that person was Vera Olson.
It was Tricia, of course, who reported the body. Joyce was far too upset to be thinking or speaking coherently. Tricia pulled Joyce over to the patio and pushed her into a seat before the poor woman fainted. And of course, the 911 dispatcher didn’t seem at all surprised when Tricia identified herself. Tricia gritted her teeth but managed to stay calm and gave what few facts she knew, and then ended the call to wait for the sirens of the police cruisers she knew would soon arrive.
Joyce was too upset to make conversation, and Tricia took the time to go back to look at the body once more. Surprisingly there was very little blood, which could have meant two different things. Either Vera had died very quickly, or she’d been dead before she’d been run through. The dead woman didn’t look much different than she had in life. Her features were twisted in what was either anger or fear or terrible pain when she died—not unlike the angry expression she’d worn at the Have a Heart bookstore earlier that day. Tricia frowned. Could that mean she’d been surprised by the identity of her attacker? Bending low and squinting, Tricia saw that Vera’s neck was ringed with red blotches. Strangulation?
Trying hard to be dispassionate, Tricia took note of the position of the body, the area surrounding it, and the state of the back side of the garden, which had been hidden from sight when they’d first entered the yard. She was about to walk the perimeter when Joyce called, “Tricia?” her voice sounding shaky.
Tricia returned to stand beside her business neighbor. “It might be a good idea for me to wait in the driveway for the police. Will you be okay on your own?”
Joyce looked terrified and reached for Tricia’s arm, clasping it in what could only be called a death grip. “Please don’t leave me alone with that—that—” But she couldn’t seem to finish the sentence.
“Why don’t I stand by the gate to the front yard. I’ll only be a few feet away. You wouldn’t want them breaking down your front door.”
Joyce looked horrified, as though she’d already been through enough and couldn’t bear the idea of having to repair the entrance of her home as well. “Go ahead. I guess I’ll be all right. I have to be all right.”
Tricia knew exactly what she meant.
As expected, the first police cruiser came screaming down the street and stopped in front of the house, leaving a patch of rubber. The siren was cut off and the armed officer bounded toward the house. Tricia called to him, diverting him to the backyard, but the gate was locked. Ready or not, Joyce was going to have to pull herself together and help the officers begin their investigation. She produced a key and handed it to the officer, who opened the gate and entered the yard. Tricia led him to where Vera lay. With his hand resting on the unfastened clasp over his service revolver, the officer took in the body, pursed his lips, and looked around the yard as though seeking the perpetrator, but said nothing.
“She can’t have been dead long,” Tricia said.
“Is this how you found her?”
“Yes. We both found her.”
The officer looked from Tricia to Joyce and frowned.
His question about finding the body was to be asked at least another ten or twenty times during the next hour by a number of sources, and more than once by each. But of course, upon arriving, it was Police Chief Grant Baker who seemed to ask it the most. Tricia and Baker had a history, which everyone seemed to know about, and he was once again very unhappy to be standing by her side and near yet another corpse.
“You really are a jinx,” he said unkindly. It was an unwelcome word and an equally unwelcome reputation that Tricia seemed to have to bear.
“And you are a—” But Tricia didn’t finish the sentence. Instead, her blood came near the boiling point.
“What am I going to do with you?” Baker asked, chagrined.
“Nothing.” Tricia turned and started to walk away when something on the ground caught her attention. She was about to investigate further when Joyce called her and she headed back to the patio, where the woman still sat huddled in one of the padded lawn chairs. Standing next to her was Officer Cindy Pearson, the same woman who had been in the Have a Heart bookshop earlier that day. There hadn’t yet been an opportunity for either Joyce or Pearson to mention Vera’s visit to the bookshop and her threats. Was it up to Tricia to relay that information?
Looking at her feet, Pearson seemed as though she wanted to say something but didn’t.
A male officer Tricia knew to be named Henderson pulled Baker aside and spoke to him in a lo
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