In the charming Scottish shire of Nairn, sweater shop owner Paislee Shaw must root out a garden variety killer. . . Paislee’s custom sweater and yarn business, Cashmere Crush, is the sole support for not only the single mum and her ten-year-old son Brody, but also her eccentric Gramps and Wallace, their black Scottish terrier.So when her landlord, Shawn Marcus, serves her an eviction notice and then pulls a disappearing act, she’ll go to any lengths to find the man and reason with him. Shawn is heir to the Leery Estate, which Brody’s class will be visiting on a field trip. So Paislee volunteers to chaperone in the hopes of tracking down Shawn and killing two birds with one stone. Unfortunately, the only one killed is a man Paislee sees falling out of the hedges after being shot. It’s not her missing landlord, but Lady Leery’s nephew, Charles Thomson. Gruff DI Mack Zeffer is on the case, but Paislee also has a stake in flushing out the shooter. With suspects sprouting up like weeds, Paislee may need to hedge her bets until she can determine who is trying to lead her down the garden path . . .
Release date: May 25, 2021
Publisher: Kensington Books
Print pages: 304
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Murder in a Scottish Garden
Mrs. Martin, Brody’s P6 teacher, peered over her tortoiseshell glasses in reproof at the oblivious driver. “Almost there, dear,” the older woman murmured to Paislee before turning to check on the sixty students aboard for the Fordythe Primary class field trip.
Paislee scanned the gray sky from her window and prayed it wouldn’t rain. The dreich spring day was multiple shades of drab without even a hint of blue. She had rain gear for her and Brody, no matter. If folks cancelled activities due to the Scottish weather, they’d never leave the house.
“Did ye read the article in last weekend’s paper?” Paislee asked Mrs. Martin once the teacher swung back around. “There was a full page about the life-size stag sculpture in the center of the maze.”
“Aye. I clipped it oot for the class scrapbook. I’m keen tae see the wildflower garden,” Mrs. Martin said. “I’ve a plot at home with spring bulbs, and this always inspires me. Do you grow flowers?”
“My gran had a container garden that I’ve let nature have its way with”—Paislee shrugged to show her acceptance that she couldn’t do it all—“and it’s still better than my brown thumb.”
Mrs. Martin chuckled and patted Paislee’s hand. The woman had dyed golden-blond hair and a square body in her brown and cream blazer and chestnut slacks. “My granddaughter is eight this year and ready tae help.”
“You’re sure tae get ideas here,” Paislee said. The driver slowed as they rounded a traffic circle, then stomped on the gas pedal, lurching them forward. She gripped the seatback in front of her.
Her gaze traveled to Headmaster McCall in the row across from them, Hamish when they weren’t at school. His dark brown hair was styled short and neat, his face was clean-shaven, his dark blue suit jacket unbuttoned to reveal khaki slacks.
They exchanged quick smiles. He’d become a friend over the last month or so, and the relationship, the friendship, was very new.
Bennett Maclean, Edwyn’s dad, sprawled in the bench seat behind him. Bennett, single, owned a comic book store/arcade, which made Edwyn very popular. Father and son shared shaggy blond hair and jade-green eyes.
“Is this yer first time at the estate?” Mrs. Martin asked.
“Third as a chaperone,” Paislee said. “I hope someday they’ll open the manor house tae tours, and not just the gardens, but I understand. Can you imagine always having tae keep things tidy? I’ve a hard enough time picking up after Brody and Wallace.”
“Wallace? Is that yer grandfather?”
“Our Scottish terrier—he’s better behaved.” And Wallace didn’t always have an opinion, like Grandpa.
The noise on the bus from sixty excited children grew in volume as they left the business section of Nairn for homes with larger plots of land and more trees. Mrs. Martin shifted so that she faced the back, her knee on the seat.
The kids quieted with just a look.
Paislee’s anticipation to visit the Leery Estate was twofold this morning. Aye, she wanted to wander the formal gardens and admire the stag sculpture, but she also hoped to get a message to Shawn Marcus, landlord of her knitting shop and son to Lady Leery.
He’d rescinded the leases on hers and five other businesses a month prior, giving them thirty days’ notice of eviction, and then had the gall to disappear, ignoring all phone calls, emails, and attempts to find him. What better way to track Mr. Marcus down than through his own mum?
Her shop, Cashmere Crush, was Paislee’s sole source of income to keep food in the Shaw family’s mouths. She had five days to appeal to his compassion and stop him from going through with the sale. Paislee was tempted to petition Lady Shannon Leery herself, if Shawn kept playing games.
“Here we are,” Mrs. Martin said. They turned off the main street at a wooden sign that read Leery Estate, rumbling down a narrower road barely wide enough for the bus.
The tires skidded on the packed dirt until the long vehicle slid into the strip of brownish-green grass to Paislee’s right and a drop-off of about five feet to a rocky stream. She swallowed her alarm as the driver righted the bus.
The kids cheered like they were on a roller coaster.
She peered back at her son to give him a warning to behave. Brody’s auburn hair made him easy to spot in the back of the bus—though he and Edwyn appeared to be arguing. Brody’s cheeks were flushed, his head bent toward Edwyn’s.
“That fence seems ready to drop at the next brisk wind,” Hamish observed.
To her left was an emerald expanse of lawn, corralled with faded wood slats, running horizontally between slightly listing posts. With a minimum of effort both horse and deer could jump it, or knock it over.
By contrast the two ten-foot-tall stone columns on either side of the narrow road meant business although the wrought-iron gate was open. “Was the property surrounded once with stone walls?”
“Guid question,” Mrs. Martin said. “We’ll ask the guide.”
They drove slowly down the dirt road, the stream to the right now blocked by a thick hedge of dark green yew bushes that separated the land from the water, all around to the back before trailing out of sight. The car park was empty, but it was early still, not even nine, and the estate had just opened today for seasonal tours of the gardens.
Paislee pressed her forehead to the glass. The slate roof matched the charcoal skies—the solid home a tribute to Scots durability. A wide stone porch with a four-foot railing was central to the three-story mansion, and had a staircase on either side. The old beige sandstone held a greenish tint from moss grouted between the rocks. A nymph statue spewed water into a pond centered directly below the porch.
She knew from past tours that the building had been erected in the eighteen hundreds with stone quarried from the nearby stream. The rock had turned light gray with age. They hadn’t needed a garage in the old days, but a covered carport to the right protected four fancy cars. Two Mercedes, an Audi, and a Ferrari.
Paislee searched for signs of activity in the manor, but the lace curtains on the second floor didn’t even twitch.
The driver reversed into a parking spot so they faced the sculpted green bushes and the horse stable. An arch of lavender bougainvillea marked the tour’s entrance.
The volume from the kids’ clapping and whistling grew louder now that the bus had stopped. Paislee returned her attention to Brody—he and Edwyn were all smiles again.
Headmaster McCall stood up and faced the kids, meeting each child’s eye. “We’ve gone over the rules for the day. I expect guid behavior. Mind your manners, listen tae the chaperones, and stay together.”
A little girl with braces asked, “Can we bring our backpacks?”
“No, Keira. Backpacks and lunches will stay on the bus.” The headmaster spoke patiently even though this was the tenth time he’d addressed the lunch issue. “Yes, Brad?”
“Can we go straight tae the maze?”
“We’re going tae follow the tour guide.” The headmaster paused to let that sink in. “We’ll have a quiz afterward, with prizes, on what flowers we’ve seen.”
The driver opened the bus door with a whoosh, and Paislee filed out after Mrs. Martin, tugging her thick cardigan sweater around her waist at the chill in the air. The scent of roses drifted from the gardens.
“Ms. Shaw, please stand by the bench,” Mrs. Martin instructed. “I’ll send yer group of lasses tae you as they exit.”
“All right.” Paislee walked ten steps to the nymph fountain and the pond where orange and white koi swam.
A man strode from the gardens beneath the bougainvillea arch to meet them, a mobile phone in one hand as he called, “Fordythe Primary?”
Ten girls gathered before her. Paislee had met them at the school this morning and remembered Holly because of her happy smile with a wide gap between her teeth, and Britta, a blond cherub with pink cheeks. Kylie, a brunette with a constant sniffle, giggled with Moira, a freckled redhead. All the kids wore the school uniform of navy-blue pants and a white polo shirt. It was cool enough for them to have jackets on. Brody and Edwyn waited near Bennett.
“Yes,” Hamish answered the man. “We’re here for the tour. I’m Headmaster McCall.”
“Welcome! I’ll be yer guide today. Graham Reid.” He stopped in the center of the lot, between the bus and the pond. They all gathered round him. The guide was tall, in his thirties, and wore a white pirate shirt tucked into jeans. His long wavy hair was the color of dark honey and had a black knit cap anchored loosely to the back. He swiveled on a bootheel to smile at them all with sparkling blue eyes, scruff at his jaw.
“I can’t wait tae see the maze!” one of the boys said. “Will we get lost?”
“It’s a circular maze, aboot this high”—Graham patted his broad chest, the silver from his thumb ring shining—“with a stag bigger than me a beacon in the center. I’m the sculptor.” Graham’s cap tilted. Paislee wanted to warn him that he was going to lose it but realized it was part of his style.
Hamish buttoned his suit coat and braced his shoulders as if the artist’s laid-back demeanor might be as catchy as a cold.
Mrs. Martin sighed, smitten. “This means Mr. Reid created the stag from metal, himself. How lucky for us tae meet the artist.”
“It’s me first year givin’ the tours.” Graham bowed dramatically, his hat sweeping the gravel before he straightened. “Lady Leery thought it a fine opportunity tae speak about me work.”
Mrs. Martin smiled reassuringly. “We’ll have plenty of questions, tae be sure.”
Graham stuffed his mobile into his back pocket, and exchanged it for a bundle of brochures. “Anybody want one? There’s a map of the gardens, and the new hours. We hope tae expand even more by next year.”
The majority of the kids shuffled uncertainly. Paislee reached for one, as did Mrs. Martin.
“Why don’t I take them?” Hamish suggested. “We can pass them oot later.”
Graham released the stack, and Hamish tucked them in his inner suit pocket.
“Ye might want them for the maze. Ta.” The guide spread his arms out to the sides, his white shirt billowing like a pillowcase on a clothesline. “Who’s been here before?”
About forty arms shot straight into the air, followed by a chorus of children all speaking at once.
Mrs. Martin clapped twice, and the kids quieted.
“We’ve made some improvements. I’ll point them oot along the way.” Graham raised his hand and led them across the lot beneath the bougainvillea arch. The light purple blossoms were paper thin but abundant. “Let’s start with the first garden tae the left of the path.”
Paislee gathered her blue-jacketed chicks and followed behind Bennett’s group, so she could keep an eye on Brody. He and Edwyn were elbow to elbow, whatever they’d been arguing about forgotten in the excitement of a day away from the classroom. She warily scanned the darkening gray sky as it threatened to drizzle.
Graham opened a wooden gate to a rectangular lawn surrounded by weeping willow trees with long rope-like branches. Yellow and white daffodils created a border before a three-foot hedge, and a variety of tulips and other flowers she didn’t know beckoned them closer. “Go on and explore!”
“This is lovely,” Paislee said. The layout of the grounds was part of the artistry with varying levels of flowers and greenery. The kids raced around the grass, swinging the branches of the willow trees around.
“Can ye tell me what’s new?” Graham’s eyes flashed.
In the two years since Paislee’s last visit, scrolled metal benches had been added, inviting the guests to sit while they contemplated the birdbaths. “You created the benches?”
“Aye,” Graham said, his scruffy cheeks pink with genuine pleasure.
Holly squealed from the willow tree, then giggled. Paislee excused herself from the adults to share in whatever the lass had discovered—a butterfly. They spent half an hour in the garden and could’ve stayed longer, but Graham was eager to continue.
Almost every time Paislee looked his way, he was on his mobile. She wondered, since he worked for Lady Leery, if he might know Shawn.
On the way out, Mrs. Martin said, “I remember when Lady Leery used tae do the tours herself.”
Graham’s expression turned wistful. “She’s too busy for that, but mibbe I can convince her tae make an appearance after the tour. Nobody tells the history of this estate better—she knows it all in that beautiful head.”
Paislee followed him and his drooping hat out to the path. “That would be really great.” She had to find Shawn.
The coward had delivered the certified letters, his spray tan an off shade of orange, and then slunk away. Not even her best friend Lydia, who was a brilliant estate agent and had a right talent for uncovering gossip, had been able to discover the truth.
“I’ll try.” Graham clapped, silver rings clanging. “She is her own mistress,” he said cheery voiced, though Paislee detected a strain. Why would a sculptor conduct garden tours for Lady Leery? She’d never heard of Graham Reid before Lady Leery’s support. Maybe he suffered from poor starving-artist syndrome and needed the cash. Nothing wrong with earning your way, but he was a flirt—even winking at Mrs. Martin.
Holly attached herself to Graham’s side, not subtle in her crush. “Can I hold yer hand, Graham?”
Paislee clasped the little girl’s hand with a smile. “Hold mine instead.”
Graham darted ahead of them on the dirt path. “The second garden is here tae the left.” He opened a metal scrollwork gate.
“Why do they all have gates?” Britta asked, her blond hair in a crown of braids.
“Tae keep oot the rabbits.” He ushered her in. Holly passed on Britta’s heels, giggling up at Graham with her gap-toothed smile.
“I like rabbits,” Kylie said, arm in arm with Moira. “Don’t you, Moira?”
“I do, too,” Graham assured them. “But they eat the leaves of the garden. Then it wouldnae be quite this bonny, eh?”
Paislee drew in an awed breath as she absorbed the bright colors. This garden had been framed with eight-foot box hedges. Blue impatiens, red hydrangea, white and yellow daffodils—spring flowers exploded from clay planters and wooden crates. It was triple the size of her narrow back garden.
“We have an ant colony, a worm farm, and a glass box with a spider making a web.” Graham pulled his phone from his back pocket when it dinged a text. “See if ye can find where they are.” The kids scattered.
Hamish and a quartet of braver boys tapped the box with the spider. The girls mostly stood back and watched, wide-eyed. Mrs. Martin waved. “We’ve got the worms here—who wants tae see?”
To her surprise, Britta, Kylie, and Moira all knelt in the dirt.
Graham was busy texting. Would now be a good time to ask about Shawn?
“Mum!” Brody called. “Come see the ants.”
Paislee was not a fan of anything creepy-crawly, but as a single mum she knew she had to hide her fears.
Graham lifted his head at Brody’s call and quickly strode toward the farm. “Who here has eaten chocolate-covered ants?”
He won the children’s affections by offering to send them all a recipe that he swore was delicious. Graham held his ringed hand to his heart.
Holly touched the hem of his shirt and Britta tugged her back with a headshake.
Chocolate ants? Yuck.
After about thirty more minutes, Graham whistled for the kids to join him at the gate. “Next stop—the maze.”
One of the boys raised his hand. “Is there a bathroom?”
“Aye.” Graham looked to Mrs. Martin and the headmaster.
“A break before the maze is a guid idea,” Hamish said. “From what I remember, ye had portable toilets?”
Graham waited for them all to leave the garden. “See the blue roof? Used tae be a toolshed but is now a restroom.”
Paislee took a moment to get her bearings. If she faced the dense hedge from the garden, going left would be the toilets and the maze, and right would be the manor house.
“That’s an improvement,” Mrs. Martin said with approval.
“Aye, right?” Graham herded them all down the path. Hamish was already at the bathroom facility, directing the boys and girls to either side. “Lady Leery plans on expanding.”
“What a delight!” Mrs. Martin said. “Janet, dinnae eat that grass.”
Paislee’s group of lasses had picked buttercups to see if a yellow reflection could be seen under the other girl’s chin. “Let’s all stop at the restroom.”
“I don’t have tae go,” Holly proclaimed. Her brown hair had fallen out of its single long braid.
“I do,” Britta said.
“How about everybody just try?” Paislee said.
Graham had walked ahead and now waited with Hamish and Bennett. Hamish passed out maps to the kids who wanted one—Brody and Edwyn each had their hands raised.
Paislee joined Hamish and Graham. “Stand in queue, girls.”
Holly and Britta whispered back and forth. “Bossy” she heard Holly say, with a jerk of her chin toward Paislee.
She didn’t take it personally. “Brody, what’s your favorite thing so far?”
“The ants! Can I really make some at home?”
Bennett chuckled. “If ye do, Paislee, mind if I send Edwyn over? I dinnae want ants in my kitchen.”
Graham’s blue eyes shimmered. “Would ye like the recipe with nuts?” His tone teased Paislee, his manner charming. “It hides the crunch.”
She pressed her hand to her stomach. “Thanks.”
Moira and Kylie came out of the restroom, and Britta and Holly went in. The girls had gathered around Mrs. Martin as she talked about butterflies.
Faster than Paislee could blink, Holly exited the bathroom to join Mrs. Martin.
She shook her head. No way Holly was that fast. Oh well.
“. . . but can’t ye imagine a fall festival here? Or a Christmas-themed event?” Graham was saying. “Shannon has a host of ideas tae bring Leery Estate into the twenty-first century.”
“I hope the manor doesn’t lose its charm,” Paislee said. “When I think of old Nairn, as a shire, I think of here.” Beech trees and Scots pine had been cultivated behind the maze, and she could see the tall trees from where she stood. “The forest is so green.”
“And full of deer.” Graham scowled. “Shannon’s thinking of culling the trees. We have tae balance the old with the new. Now, who’s ready for the maze?”
Graham’s casual use of Shannon’s name, rather than Lady Leery, made her wonder if they were on friendly terms. She cleared her throat to ask about Shawn, when Brody raced by, followed by Edwyn.
Graham strode ahead to speak with Hamish, and she lost her chance.
The path followed a curve, the hedge of seven-foot-tall bushes at her right like a retaining wall that provided privacy from the stream on the other side. A three-sided gardening shed held a wheelbarrow and other garden tools.
After the shed, the bushes on the right had been cut back to reveal the water. There was a pavilion with ten wooden tables, where they’d eat their packed lunches after completing the maze. The beech trees shaded a trail into the woods.
Graham clasped his hands together with an infectious grin as he stopped before the chest-high hedge of the circular maze. “Get out yer maps, everyone. There are smaller sculptures, such as the stag and nymph, throughout. You’ll get a point if ye find all ten, before reaching the center.” His cap dangled down his hair like a loose thread.
“Pair up,” Mrs. Martin instructed. “We’ll go into the maze twenty kids at once. Mr. Maclean, will ye manage the first group?” She lifted her wrist to show her gold watch. “We’ll see who has the best time.”
Paislee counted her ten girls, from Holly to Britta. Brody and Edwyn were studying their unfolded maps like wildlife explorers as they lined up behind Bennett.
“Is there a prize?” Brody asked.
Graham scratched his scruffy chin. “Aye. Two free admissions back tae the gardens. You can bring your family.” A beep sounded from his back pocket, and he answered his phone with a pink flush to his cheeks. “Excuse me a moment.”
Holly suddenly held her stomach and pranced in place. Paislee recognized the potty dance. She’d thought the lass had been too quick.
Mrs. Martin slid her brochure into her blazer pocket. “Ms. Shaw, why don’t ye escort Holly to the restroom? I can watch yer group. Girls, gather around.”
“I don’t have tae go,” Holly whinged.
“It won’t take long,” Paislee assured her.
“I dinnae want tae miss the race.”
It was her own fault she might miss the fun, but Paislee didn’t say so. “We’ll catch up with the others.” She urged the reluctant Holly back the way they’d come.
Holly raced ahead, but Paislee could see her so she didn’t say anything. A few minutes later, the girl barged into the restroom, the door slamming. Paislee waited outside, taking her phone from the pocket of her cardigan sweater. No calls—a good thing, since Grandpa was manning Cashmere Crush.
Graham’s news that Shannon Leery might speak with them after the tour could be the golden opportunity for Paislee to ask about Shawn. Birds chirped from their hiding spots in the trees and bushes, the faint rush of the stream behind the tall thicket was as soothing as a fountain.
What a peaceful day.
A butterfly flitted from one daffodil to the next. Paislee relaxed her shoulders for the first time all morning.
What size was this girl’s bladder, for heaven’s sake?
A muffled pop sounded to Paislee’s right, and the chirping birds scattered into the sky with angry caws.
Six feet down the path something rustled in the thick bushes. A branch snapped. The tall hedge bowed outward as if supporting a great weight.
Goose bumps dotted her skin. Her pulse raced. She instinctively stepped in front of the bathroom door, searching the path. Even the butterflies had gone. Things went eerily quiet.
“I’m here, Holly.” Apprehension tickled her nape.
The strain of weight against the interwoven hedges gave way, and a man with dark brown hair crashed backward onto the dirt, eyes closed, pale face in a grimace. He wore a dark blue Oxford, denims, and loafers. His profile seemed familiar—oh no!
Paislee sucked in a shocked breath, taking a step toward the man in panic. From six feet away she could see that he didn’t have Shawn’s spray tan. His skin was pale, and getting paler.
“Ms. Shaw? What was that?”
“Uh, I’m not sure.” She couldn’t leave the restroom and allow Holly to walk into an uncertain situation. “Take your time, lass.”
The toilet flushed. Not what she was hoping for.
She squinted to bring the man into focus—he lay on his back, arm outstretched on the dirt path, the skin on his hands scraped. Broken branches from the hedge bent down. Relief filled her that the man wasn’t Shawn—but who was he? Was he injured?
Paislee couldn’t see a wound, or his chest rising. She searched frantically for someone to explain what was happening. She picked up her phone. Two minutes had passed. Should she call emergency services? What if he’d had a stroke? She’d been trained in CPR as part of the process to be a chaperone at Fordythe.
“Stay here, Holly.” Paislee stepped toward the supine man. If possible, he was getting paler.
Holly spoke from the threshold of the bathroom. “What was that?” The lass twisted the knob, not listening to Paislee’s instruction to remain inside. “Fireworks?”
“Maybe.” Paislee moved back and gripped the doorknob to keep Holly there. No way could she let the girl out! Paislee heard another rustling of the hedge—someone was on the other side. Hand on the knob, she peered into the brush to see who it was. A man, she’d guess. Someone about six feet. Was that brown hair? “Hey! What’s going on?” The shadowy figure fled.
Hamish ran from the direction of the maze, followed by a man wearing a black canvas apron, rubber Wellington boots, and a broad-brimmed hat that shielded his face. She assumed he was the gardener, coming from the shed they’d passed. Graham arrived out of breath from a different direction, his knit cap gone.
The headmaster regarded the immobile figure and herded the curious kids who’d followed him back to the circle maze, leaving Paislee with Holly, the gardener, Graham, and the man.
“Ms. Shaw!” Holly rattled the doorknob, but Paislee wouldn’t let go. The pale body was limp as a wet sock and the eyes partially open. Was the man all right?
The gardener yanked o. . .
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