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A lovely mystery story which keeps you guessing, set in an amazingly beautiful part of the world. The characters are amazing and beautifully written. This is my first book I have read of Phillips Nefri Clark and it certainly won't be the last.DS Jones
Amazon 5 star review
Starting over has never been more dangerous...
Charlotte loves her new job at Rosie's bookshop in the small town of Kingfisher Falls. One day she will buy the bookshop but for now she's content to learn the ropes and forget her troubled past. Even the snobby book club ladies can't dampen her spirits.
A strange series of crimes casts suspicion on all the wrong people... Charlotte for one. But as prominent members of the town point fingers at a struggling local family, Charlotte can't stand back and watch. She begins her own investigation and Rosie is more than happy to help.
With the community divided and criminals on the loose, the annual Christmas Eve street party is about to change lives forever, and Charlotte is the only one who can prevent a disaster. So much for keeping her head down.
The Charlotte Dean Mysteries are from the author of The Stationmaster's Cottage. Set amongst Victoria's beautiful Macedon Ranges featuring a quirky cast of characters and a dash of danger, they are small town mysteries with a unique Australian twist.
NEW TITLE AND COVER. Same great story.
Deadly Start (formerly called The Christmas Tree Thief)
The Giving Tree
Author's note: The Charlotte Dean Mysteries are linked to the River's End series by Charlotte. She first appeared in Jasmine Sea, stayed for The Secrets of Palmerston House, then moved to Kingfisher Falls. It is not necessary to read these first, but will add to her backstory. Please visit my Amazon Author page to find all my books.
Release date: December 3, 2019
Publisher: Phillipa Nefri Clark
Print pages: 237
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Phillipa Nefri Clark
A long, low rumble of thunder woke Charlotte Dean. She pulled the sheet up to her chin, her sleepy eyes seeking the window beside the bed. For a moment, she’d thought she was in her room at Palmerston House, back in River’s End where summer storms often swept in from the Great Southern Ocean. But the view here was over the main street of the small town she now called home.
Despite the humid night, Charlotte shivered. She reached for the dressing gown on the end of the bed and threw it on as her toes fumbled around bare floorboards for slippers. Light flickered with the loud crash as thunder rolled again and the windows shook. She hurried out of the bedroom.
In the old kitchen, she filled the kettle. Tea was her go-to response during a storm, or any other stressful situation. The clock said it was almost four. Sleep time was over.
With her cup of tea warming her hands, Charlotte wandered around the house. Or was it an apartment? Whatever its designation, it sprawled over the top of the bookshop she’d moved here to work at. Three bedrooms, a large living room with a balcony over the street, two bathrooms—although one doubled as a laundry, and a small dining room through an archway. It was far too big for one person, but nobody had lived here in a long time and as Rosie Sibbritt, her new employer had insisted, it was time someone did.
How strange to live alone again after almost a year in a guest house with its revolving door of visitors.
She stared through the sliding door out to the balcony as rain began. The locals would rejoice. All she’d heard for the past few days was how dry the region was. Weeks ago, she’d visited Kingfisher Falls with Rosie’s son, Trev, driving up from River’s End for the day. Even then, the difference between the green coast of Victoria and inland landscape was noticeable, but now, with Christmas days away, long stretches of dry, hot weather had turned any sparse greenness to brown.
More thunder, and now, a flash of lightning forked into the trees at the top of the valley. Charlotte turned her back on the storm. After flicking on the one lamp in the place, she settled into an armchair with a book. Time to disappear into a world without storms and half-sad memories of her previous life.
The storm was replaced by sunshine by the time Charlotte ran down the stairs and unlocked the back door of the bookshop. One week in and she was opening the shop without Rosie’s guidance for the first time.
Lights on. Float for the day from the safe in the kitchen. She counted the money quickly as she filled the register drawer. Start the computers. She checked the time. Half past eight—half an hour until opening.
Charlotte swept the polished floorboards, then vacuumed the large, dark red carpet in the centre of the shop that housed a reading island. At one end, two small sofas faced each other over a coffee table. Then, an eclectic mix of armchairs dotted the rest of the area, some with small tables at their side, others with reading lamps.
The bookshelves hugged the walls, and in a bright children’s area, more chairs and tables but colourful and small for the little visitors. A box of picture books, well loved, was placed among them.
Charlotte collected a heavy-duty broom from the kitchen and unlocked the front door to sweep the pavement. When she caught her reflection in one of the windows, she paused.
Both hands on the broom, the woman smiling back at her was a surprise. Who smiles when they’re sweeping? Dressed in a white blouse and dark blue pants, blonde hair neat behind a hairband, she’d have fitted in at an office except for the sensible black shoes. No heels when you’re on your feet all day.
The outside of the bookshop was every bit as appealing as the inside. Windows on either side of the door each had four panes, separated by timber painted the same dark green as the rest of the façade. A curved canopy proclaimed Kingfisher Falls Book Shop.
“Are you open?”
A young woman with a pram had come along the pavement from behind her. With a smile, Charlotte went to the front door. “We are. Please, come on in.”
By the time Rosie was expected in, Charlotte had served what felt like an endless procession of customers, gift wrapped five books, and introduced herself to several curious customers. During a brief lull, she latched the door open to let the cooler air from the earlier storm flow in.
“There you are, Mr Chen. Two beautiful gifts for your wife and daughter and all you need to do is add a card to each and put them under your tree.”
Charlotte handed a gift bag to a middle-aged man in a suit.
“You’ve been most helpful. Tell Rosie she’s done well.”
“Tell her yourself.” Rosie grinned from the doorway as she wheeled herself in. Grey-streaked brown hair pulled up in a messy bun, large glasses over sparkling eyes, Rosie’s face might be lined, but its genuine warmth made it beautiful.
“Hello, Rosie. What time do you call this, young lady?” Mr Chen laughed.
“I call it about time. What would you like to share about Charlie?”
Charlotte shook her head and went to tidy the shelves as they chatted for a moment or two. In the past week, almost all the customers were delightful, a few curious about her appearance, and the odd one or two quite stand-offish. Not much different from her reception in River’s End at the beginning of the year. Small towns.
Mr Chen left, and Rosie navigated her wheelchair to Charlotte’s side. “Everything looks wonderful, Charlie. No issues opening?”
“Not a one. So busy though!”
“Close to a week before Christmas, darling. Before we get too busy, I’d love a hand refreshing the windows.”
“I’ve never seen window displays as gorgeous as yours.”
Both windows were used for showcasing new books, or a theme. Charlotte couldn’t imagine making either of them better than they were right now, with their decorations and lights.
“Uh oh.” Rosie glanced at the front door. “Looks like the ladies from the book club are heading in. Smile. No matter what, just smile!”
“They look harmless.”
The slightly evil tone of Rosie’s laugh sent a small shiver up Charlotte’s spine. As Rosie wheeled toward the group, Charlotte pulled back her shoulders and smiled.
For the first time, Charlotte understood exactly how useful her doctorate in psychiatry was. The book club ladies were anything but harmless.
“I truly miss Braden.” Marguerite Browne complained as she looked Charlotte up and down. “Such a sweet, polite young man.”
I’ll show you sweet. With a side dish of polite.
“He sounds like a nice person.” Charlotte’s smile didn’t waver.
“What bookshops have you worked in before here? What qualifications do you hold?”
“Marguerite, don’t worry about the new help, come and see the book I told you about.” That was Mrs Octavia Morris, who Rosie had introduced as Octavia and was quickly corrected to Mrs Morris. Rosie simply nodded and smiled.
Only Glenys Lane showed any manners, but they’d already met when Charlotte visited with Trev. Mistaking Charlotte for Rosie’s assistant, she’d purchased a stack of books on Charlotte’s recommendation. Rosie had been amused, particularly as Glenys usually browsed in the bookshop then borrowed from the library.
The three women huddled around a new release in the reading area.
“Right, how are you at decorating Christmas trees?” Back at the counter, Rosie kept an eye on the ladies. “I want to replace the artificial tree in the window with a real one.”
“As in, a cut tree?”
“Potted. That way we can plant it once Christmas is over.”
“Oh, I love that idea! And to answer, I’ve never decorated one.”
Rosie’s eyes widened. “Never?”
“But, I’m a fast learner. If you don’t mind me needing some direction.”
“It will be my pleasure. Our tree will arrive soon, so would you remove the decorations from the one in the window? There’s a box in the storeroom.”
As Charlotte removed each decoration, she tried to memorise its place on the tree. The ornaments were beautiful, gold and red in two sizes. So simple but effective. The tree was empty by the time a small flatbed truck pulled up outside. In red letters across the side were the words ‘Christmas Tree Farm’ and a phone number.
“That’s young Darcy getting out. His family started the farm more than fifty years ago and he took over a few months back.”
Darcy was in his late twenties, thickset and smiling as he wandered in. Freckles covered his face beneath short red hair. “Morning, Rosie.”
“Hello, Darcy. Darcy, this is Charlotte Dean, who has come to work with me. Charlie, please meet Darcy Forest.”
They shook hands as Darcy grinned. “And it is fine to point out I own a tree farm with the surname of Forest. Everyone does.”
“Didn’t occur to me.” Charlotte lied.
“Darcy, would you help Charlie remove the artificial tree from the window?”
“Sure. Actually, tell me where it goes, and I’ll do it and set up the other one. Looks like you’re needed.” He nodded toward Marguerite, who had stood and was waving.
For an instant, Charlotte considered simply waving back. She hoped these so-called ladies treated Rosie with more respect than they were showing today. She hurried over.
“Mrs Browne, how may I help?”
Marguerite looked put out. “I’d expected Rosie to help us.”
“She asked me to look after you.”
“But you probably don’t know.”
“Charlotte was most helpful when we first met.” Glenys said. “She put me onto…” her voice lowered to a loud whisper, “Misti McCann’s books. You know!”
The other two women reddened. Charlotte remembered suggesting a rather steamy mystery novel to Glenys and warning her to read the blurb first. From the look of things, she’d shared it around.
“Very well, what do you know about the author of this new release? We are considering this for our book of the month in January.”
For a few minutes, Charlotte answered questions and made suggestions. Darcy emerged from the window with a large box, presumably holding the disassembled tree. Hiking it onto a shoulder, he headed for the storeroom. As he passed, his smile disappeared as he saw Octavia, who glared at him.
What’s that about?
Charlotte excused herself as soon as she could and joined Rosie at the counter as Darcy returned. She watched closely and again, there was that glare, and pursed lips, from the woman. Rosie tapped her arm and shook her head slightly.
“Thanks, Darcy. Will your tree fit in the same spot?” Rosie wheeled around the counter. “We can make a bit more space.”
“Nope, think that’ll be perfect. Two secs and I’ll have it in.”
His smile was back as he went out to his truck.
“Charlie, give him a hand and I’ll keep the book club ladies busy.”
Darcy was in the truck, removing a pottery plate from a box. “Oh, I’m fine if you need to do stuff.”
“Happy to help. Is this to go down first? Anything else under it?”
“It is a bit heavy, if you’re sure? And I’ve already put a rubber mat down so this goes on top.”
Plate on the rubber mat, Charlotte stepped back as Darcy carried a dark green pine tree in as though it weighed nothing. He placed it down with surprising gentleness, ensuring the pot didn’t damage the plate. Then, he fanned the branches until it was full. “Being in the window, it’ll need regular watering, but watch it doesn’t overflow.”
They left the window. The book club ladies were at the door, still chatting amongst themselves. Rosie was behind the counter and Darcy stopped for a moment. “Let me know after Christmas what day suits and I’ll move it for you.”
“Thank you, Darcy. It is a lovely tree.” The corners of Rosie’s mouth lifted.
“Shouldn’t be using real trees, if you ask me. What about our environment?” Octavia had her hands on her hips, scowling at Darcy.
He slipped past the ladies and back to his truck without a word.
“For many years, my husband and I bought a potted pine, and every year it was donated after Christmas to where it was most needed. I’m doing this again because the farm needs our support, and it seems quite environmentally friendly. To me.” Rose spoke with a calm tone, but her fingers tapped the sides of the wheelchair.
“But most of the trees from that…that place, are cut down, so you tell me how that is a good thing?” With that, Octavia flounced out, the others trailing behind.
Charlotte didn’t know what to make of it all. River’s End had its share of quirky people, but this little town might just outdo it for odd people with strange ideas.
It took almost the whole day for Charlotte to decorate the tree between customers, answering phone calls, and forcing Rosie to take a lunch break.
“But I always eat behind the counter.”
Rosie’s protest lasted for all of one minute, then she agreed it was a lovely day to sit in the park and enjoy her sandwiches. Watching Rosie wheel up the road warmed Charlotte’s heart. This wonderful woman had worked hard her entire life and deserved a chance to enjoy the sun.
Once the tree was finished, Charlotte stepped outside to see it as part of the whole display. She gasped. The tree was gorgeous. Overflowing with the ornaments, and lit from around its trunk, she couldn’t believe she’d never put a tree up for herself. And even though she could come and look at this one anytime she wanted, she filed away the thought of buying something a lot smaller from Darcy for upstairs.
Behind the tree was a wall running almost all the way behind the window. A picture of Santa with kangaroos instead of reindeer added an Australian touch. But in what she was beginning to recognise as true Rosie style, the flooring was covered in soft white fabric, and what looked like hundreds of crystal snowflakes hung at different heights from the ceiling. All in all, the window was a perfect mix of traditional and Aussie and it made Charlotte clap her hands.
Then, she quickly looked around to ensure nobody saw such an impulsive action. Impulsive and Charlotte Dean did not belong together. But the street was minding its own business, with pedestrians and cars.
Rosie joined Charlotte. She gazed at the tree, then up at Charlotte. “If this truly is the first tree you’ve decorated, then I’ve discovered a new talent. Well done, darling.”
Although she’d told Rosie she was happy to close the store, Charlotte was secretly relieved to finish first. She’d not shopped at all since her first day here, only running out to buy the absolute basics and lots of takeaways, but now she wanted to fill the fridge and pantry.
Kingfisher Falls had two supermarkets. The closest one was also the largest, so after writing a shopping list, which was for everything except tea, coffee, and milk, Charlotte grabbed some reusable bags and walked up the road.
The pavement was still busy. People walked their dogs, or strolled hand in hand window shopping. Seeing several people outside the bookshop, looking in thrilled her. She pushed a trolley around, listening to the Christmas music as she put a lot less in than she expected. Too many years living from day to day. Halfway around, she stopped and told herself off.
This is your home now. And it is Christmas, so start acting like it.
She did a U-turn and started shopping in the fresh produce area. Lots of lovely vegetables, eggs, and crispy fresh bread. She wasn’t a big meat eater, so chose some fish from the deli, along with a selection of cheese and ready-made salads.
Charlotte lingered over a display of Christmas cakes, shortbreads, and other goodies, then went looking for the more practical aisles with cleaning products and some extra plates and cups. She didn’t need Christmas fare.
Walking home loaded up with her bags of shopping, Charlotte stopped at a few shop windows to check out their displays. The travel agency was impressive, turning the top deck of the cruise ship into an outdoor Christmas party. A ladies’ boutique featured mannequins with Christmas attire around an artificial tree. But then she found one of Darcy’s trees at a gift shop. Well, it looked like the one in the bookshop.
Earlier in the day, after the book club ladies had left, and Charlotte had finished the tree, she’d got coffee for Rosie and herself.
“You know I have no retail background, Rosie, so did I handle the ladies well enough? Or, how could I improve?”
Rosie shook her head. “They are the minority. All are a bit selfish and when they come in together, they make each other worse. You did great.”
“I got the feeling Mrs Morris disliked Darcy. She was quite rude about his farm.”
“There is a history. The Morris and Forest families were close, very close friends, until Octavia’s husband…well, he took too much of a liking to the Mrs Forest of the time. Two divorces later, they moved away leaving both families shattered.”
“Oh, how awful!”
“Well, you’ve met Octavia.” Rosie smiled. “I’ve known her since high school. Divorce didn’t make her that way, but she now has a grudge against the Christmas Tree farm.”
Charlotte climbed the stairs to her apartment, mulling over the earlier conversation. Rosie had explained how Darcy came home from the city after his father passed away, bringing his own young family to a property allowed to deteriorate since the divorce.
She unlocked the door and carried everything inside. How sad that the poor decisions of one generation in a family were now impacting on the next. As she closed the door and locked it, Charlotte rested her forehead on the timber.
This isn’t about you.
So why was her stomach tensed up? Time to stop worrying about the past. Being here was about making a new life. Not living with the sins of her parents.
In an attempt to lighten her mood, Charlotte played Christmas songs on her phone as she created a salad with a side of homemade chips. She made notes about which songs might be added to the bookshop’s playlist.
The evening was warm, so Charlotte sat out on the large balcony to eat. Rosie had mentioned in passing that the apartment was built by the family who originally owned the building so they could run what was then a bakery and be close to work.
Imagine the smells wafting up.
Directly across the road, an alley ran between two old buildings to the next street. A car park was on a corner. For such a small population, the town sprawled with shops and cafes over four or five blocks. Further up was the small park where Rosie had lunch. Charlotte really needed to go for a long walk and get to know the town better.
What made the town special though were the decorations. Not only in the shops, but the streets. Streetlamps and trees were covered in fairy lights. At the far end of the main road was a roundabout and, in its centre, a tall Christmas tree. Artificial, but quite impressive with layers of purple and silver baubles the size of basketballs and a giant star on the top. At night, it was brightly lit.
Dinner finished, Charlotte washed up, yawning enough to decide an early night was in order. Perhaps a chapter or two of her book first. Or three.
This time it wasn’t a clap of thunder rousing Charlotte from sleep, but shattering glass. A lot of it. Not even bothering to find her errant slippers, she had the dressing gown around herself in seconds and was peering through the window. The sky was clear, and the main road was quiet. But she hadn’t imagined the sound.
The silence was broken as tyres squealed and a motor revved. Charlotte sprinted to the balcony, wrinkling her nose at the stench of burnt rubber. Below, a car streaked past. A dark coloured ute, with of all things, a Christmas tree in the back, tinsel trailing behind. It turned the next corner with another screech and ornaments bounced down the road.
What on earth?
Charlotte stared back where it came from. Huge shards of glass covered the footpath and road outside the ladies’ boutique.
There was no clanging alarm. Nobody else was around. And Charlotte didn’t even know if Kingfisher Falls had a police station.
She threw on jeans, T-shirt and runners, grabbed her keys and phone, and tore down the stairs. At the bottom, she dialled police emergency, then headed for the boutique.
Emergency services answered and put her through to the police. She answered their questions as she hurried there. They asked her to wait near the scene.
Sure, where else would I want to be in the middle of the night?
After hanging up, she checked the time. Three in the morning. Not promising for getting back to sleep.
She took a lot of photographs. Glass spread across every surface in the radius of the shop was from a full pane. There was glass inside as well, but she wasn’t going to do more than zoom in with the phone camera. Charlotte searched on the internet for the shop but there was no website, after hours number, or even an email address to be found, only the landline. She dialled this in the hope it might be redirected at night, but after hearing it ring out in the shop gave up.
The minutes ticked past. Charlotte planted herself under a streetlamp a little further up the street. Running out here alone in a town she didn’t know just after a break-in, was beginning to feel like a stupid decision. She could have called the police from the balcony. Instead, she was by herself with not another soul in sight.
The sound of a car approached. What if it was the thief coming back for a second go? Her heartbeat increased as the car came through the roundabout. But it was a police car, which pulled over on the opposite side of the road.
Charlotte shoved the phone into her pocket and began to cross.
The car door swung open. “Stay where you are!” A heavyset man in tracksuit pants and singlet hauled himself out, eyes on Charlotte.
Planning on shooting me if I don’t?
Telling her sarcasm to stay quiet, she stopped as he strapped a police belt around his gut. If she was the perpetrator, she’d be long gone at this rate. He finally slammed the door and lumbered toward her.
“Is your accomplice inside?”
“Don’t smart mouth me, missy. Who else did this with you?”
Charlotte rolled her eyes. “For goodness sake. I phoned you. The person who did this drove that way,” she pointed. “in a dark coloured ute. With a Christmas tree on the back.”
Up close, the man smelt of sweat and was in his fifties. Maybe older.
“Identify yourself.” He barked.
“No. You show me identification. For all I know, you stole the police car.”
Great. One minute in a new town and you’ll be arrested.
She forced her voice to be calm. “I heard the glass break and phoned the police.”
He looked her up and down. “I’m Senior Constable Sid Browne.”
Browne? Surely not.
“Nice to meet you. I am Charlotte Dean.”
“Did you say Christmas tree?” He crunched his way to the open window.
“There’s ornaments all the way along the road.”
Sid pulled a flashlight from the belt and stepped inside. “You sure nobody’s in here?”
“Not at all. I’ve told you what I saw. I’m hardly going to interfere with a crime scene by stepping all over it.”
“Crime scene.” He laughed. “Everyone’s an amateur sleuth.”
“No, but I’ve been around crime scenes and there are protocols to follow.”
“Like getting someone at this hour to clean this mess up.” He came back outside, scrolled through his phone, and dialled a number.
He turned what Charlotte decided were beady eyes on her again. She stared back. His shoulders were hairy. Funny the things one notices.
“This is Senior Constable Sid Browne. Someone’s broken into your shop, so I need you down here.” He listened, looking bored. “Instead of having a meltdown, hurry up and bring a broom. It’s a mess.” He hung up.
Charlotte knew her eyes widened.
“What is it with you females? Hysterical over nothing.”
“Right. I’ll be going home now.”
“I need your details. But I haven’t got my notebook.”
“Pity. Anyway, I work at the bookshop, so am easy to find.”
Sid crossed his arms, his face even sourer. “So, you’re the new girl. When’s Rose leaving then?”
“You’d need to ask her. Goodnight.” Charlotte walked away, not trusting herself to stay near the man for a second longer. She’d dealt with many police officers over the years through the course of her work, not only as an expert witness, but counselling people on both sides of the law. This was the first time she’d wanted to punch one.
And then there was Trev. The corners of her mouth involuntarily lifted. Rosie’s son, and the sole police officer in River’s End. And nothing like the one here.
Outside the bookshop, Charlotte stopped and glanced back. Sid still watched her.
Creepy, nasty man.
Perhaps she should stay to make sure he didn’t bully the poor woman whose shop was violated. From the alley across the road, a sound, a crunch sounded. Charlotte pulled her keys out and climbed back up the stairs.
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