When real life starts mimicking the plot of one of the romance books that line the shelves in her bookstore, it's up to Lizzie Hale to catch the killer, in this riveting new Love is Murder mystery.
Lizzie Hale thought mail-order brides existed only between the pages of the historical romances she stocks in her bookstore, Love Under the Covers. But when not one, but two local men introduce her to their respective new wives, she's forced to reevaluate that notion.
Lizzie is surprised when Al Little, the owner of the local hardware store, asks Lizzie and her aunt Charmaine to help Svetlana, his new bride straight from Russia, to settle into Tinker's Creek, but they agree.
Everything is going swimmingly—until a wrench gets thrown into their plans when Svetlana is found drowned in the creek.
With Al's suspicious best friend—who has his own mysterious mail-order bride—and the secretive matchmaker who put them together, Lizzie's got more suspects than she knows what to do with. But she'll have to nail down who the killer is fast, before someone else winds up dead.
Release date: August 2, 2022
Print pages: 272
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Murder of a Mail-Order Bride
Svetlana floated facedown in the water.
Her arms drifted out from her body and over her head. Her hands bobbed up and down on the current like she was waving a final goodbye.
Her long white gown was stained with the muck that gathered along the sides of the canal. A brown blotch traveled waist to hemline, a Rorschach stain that looked like a bat, its wings flapping when the water moved. There was a green blob of algae on her left sleeve. Her right shoe was missing. Her gossamer veil trailed in the water behind her, leaves and twigs already caught in the dainty lace.
It wasn't me. That would have been just about impossible, what with all the air being pushed from my lungs by the surprise. Not to mention the horror.
Besides, I was too busy to do any screaming. I kicked off my cute peep-toe sling-backs and scrambled down the embankment. It was September, and the water in the Ohio and Erie Canal had already lost the summer warmth that attracted flocks of ducks and the gray herons that used the canal as their own private fishing hole. When I took the plunge that was both literal and figurative, the chilly brown water slapped my knees and soaked my fuchsia chiffon dress. (For the record, I am so not a chiffon person, but let's face it, when a girl has twenty-four hours to find a maid of honor dress and orders from the bride that it must be pink, there aren't a lot of choices.) A few more steps and I was soaked to the V-neck. Skitters raced across my skin and all that chiffon, light and swingy on dry land, clung to me like wet tissue paper.
Here in the national park, the depth of the water in the canal was controlled by a system of locks and gates. That meant it wasn't too deep. Thank goodness. I ignored the shock of the water hitting my collarbone and the muck on the canal floor squishing between my toes, and in spite of the fact that I'm not very tall, I was able to wade toward Svetlana. It wasn't until I was a couple feet from dry land that I heard splashing next to me and realized Al Little, the happy groom who had been a maybe-not-so-happy husband for the last three hours, was at my side, paddling toward his bride, the white carnation in his buttonhole already soaked and drooping.
What with us floundering and the canal's current, the usually calm water gushed and surged. Svetlana floated farther from our grasps.
Al was taller than me. His arms were longer. "Try to grab hold of the hem of her gown," I yelled, my voice tight with panic. He didn't answer. When I dared pull my gaze from his bobbing bride to glance his way, I saw that Al's expression was blank, his eyes glazed. Al Little, who everyone in Tinker's Creek, Ohio, considered a smart businessman, an upstanding citizen, and a good friend, looked like a man who'd just woken and found out the nightmare he'd thought he was trapped in wasn't a dream.
"I've called the police!" someone yelled from up on the towpath alongside the canal.
"Joe's going to the car for a rope," another person called out.
"You need to stop her floating away!" I recognized that voice as belonging to self-righteous Meghan Watkins, our town librarian, and if I'd had the energy and wasn't afraid if I opened my mouth, I'd swallow a boatload of gunk, I would have told her to keep her two cents to herself.
I didn't have that luxury.
I stood on tiptoe, swayed, and flapped my arms to keep from getting tugged over by the current, then flung out a hand to catch Svetlana's wedding gown, and when I had an inch of it pinched between my thumb and forefinger, I turned and looked over my shoulder at Al. "Here." Another tug and I was able to lug bride and gown closer to him. "Hang on. I'll go around to her head and stand there to keep her from floating away."
It wasn't the only thing I intended to do, but really, was there any point in telling Al I wanted to check to see if Svetlana was breathing?
I grabbed a handful of veil and pushed it out of my way and when I finally got to where Svetlana's honey-colored hair floated around her in sagging curls, I carefully turned her head to the side.
Her lips were blue.
She didn't have a pulse.
There was an ugly raw abrasion around her neck.
All discouraging, but that didn't mean I was going to give up. On dry land, we could at least start CPR.
"I'll push from here," I yelled to Al. "You tug her dress. Let's get her closer to the path."
It took a minute for the message to sink in for Al, and I suppose in the great scheme of things that worked out all right. It gave me a chance to realize there was something clutched in Svetlana's left hand. Her fingers were curled tight around whatever it was, and, one by one, I straightened them, then snatched at the fragment of soggy paper that floated out from her hand before it had a chance to either drift away or sink to the bottom of the canal.
That paper now tucked into my palm, I guided Svetlana's body while Al tugged her gown. We managed to get to the side of the canal, where sticks and bird feathers and a McDonald's coffee cup clung to the bank, but there was that two-foot embankment, remember, the one I'd scrambled down to get where I was. It was one thing for a barefoot woman in a fuchsia chiffon dress to slip slide her way down into the water. It was another altogether to try and hoist a body back up on dry land.
It felt like forever, but I have a feeling it was just a few minutes until the Tinker's Creek Fire Department showed up. One firefighter offered Al a hand. Another scrambled down the embankment, caught me in the crook of his arm, and climbed up the embankment with me dangling like a wet, fuchsia fish. A couple more firefighters in high boots that in no way would keep them dry, slipped into the water and took charge of Svetlana.
Side by side, murky water pouring from our clothing and with hands and arms and faces covered with goo, Al and I watched the firefighters lift Svetlana from the water, lay her on the towpath, and administer CPR.
"I have to go to her." Al's words were bitten in two by his chattering teeth. He stepped forward.
I slipped my arm through his to keep him in place. "She'll be all right," I told him, even though I knew it was a lie. "But we have to give them room. We have to let them work."
How had word gone around the wedding so fast? About the missing bride. About the maid of honor who'd gone looking for her and found the last thing she expected. How did so many people know there was trouble there at the canal?
I never did find out. I can only say that suddenly there were people all around us, their grim expressions in stark contrast to the happy smiles they'd worn only a short time before back at the pavilion decorated with streamers and balloons. A few of them sniffled. Others slapped hands against Al's shoulder, mumbling words that were supposed to help heal the hurt. Someone grabbed a blanket one of the firefighters offered and draped it over my shoulders. Someone else slipped off his suit coat and put it on Al. The guests, the best man, our mayor, Cal Patrick, who only a short time before had pronounced the couple man and wife . . . all of them gathered around us, offering their comfort, warming us, sharing in our shock.
I wasn't surprised when my aunt Charmaine broke through the crowd and made a beeline for me. It was a special occasion and she'd pulled out all the stops. She was dressed in a flowing blue caftan, a pirate's treasure chest worth of cheap but showy jewelry, and a pink feather boa. That was for solidarity, she said, to make me feel better about the fuchsia dress. Her too-blond hair, a carefully coifed beehive when we'd left the house for the wedding, hung around her shoulders. But then, she couldn't stop tugging at it.
She didn't care a fig about getting her clothes ruined, either. She zipped over and folded me into a hug.
"You're all right? You're okay? Oh, Lizzie, you're not-"
"I'm fine. See?" I backstepped out of her embrace, threw out my hands, and drip, drip, dripped over everything in sight. It was no wonder the tag on my dress said dry clean only. Streaks of fuchsia dye snaked down my legs. My arms were the same lurid shade of pink. "I'm just"-I tugged the blanket closer at the same time I shivered-"cold."
"We'll get you home." She flung an arm over my shoulders. "There's no reason Lizzie has to stay here, is there?" she asked no one in particular. "She needs to get home. She needs to warm up."
One of the firefighters poked a thumb over her shoulder. "She can wait in the ambulance," she said and I guess that meant no, I couldn't leave. After all, I was first on the scene. I had plenty of questions to answer.
"Ambulance. Ambulance." Mumbling, Charmaine shuffled me in the right direction. Because of the narrowness of the towpath here alongside the canal, the ambulance couldn't get near, but we saw its flashing lights around a corner and up a rise where I knew there was a public parking lot. We were halfway there when I stepped on a stone and winced.
"Your shoes!" Just like that, Charmaine was off to find them and I was left to watch the firefighters exchange looks and small bleak shakes of their heads over Svetlana's still body.
One of them went over to talk to Al, but I knew he had bad news to deliver and I couldn't watch. My heart breaking for Al, my body trembling, and my eyes on the path in the hopes of avoiding any more stones, I stumbled in the direction of the ambulance's flashing lights.
I was just about there when I slammed into what felt like a brick wall.
Startled, I let out a gasp and automatically stepped back.
At least until I realized the brick wall in question was actually park ranger Max Alverez.
I have to admit, my normal reaction in a situation like this would not be flattering. See, I may be the owner of the most successful romance bookstore in the Midwest. And I may know everything there is to know about romance in books. But when it comes to real life, romance and I are the equivalent of chiffon and scummy water. And when it comes to Max . . . well, could anyone blame me? When I thought about Max, romance was the first thing that popped into my mind.
Max was tall. Max was dark haired and dark eyed, athletic, and gorgeous. Since he'd arrived in Tinker's Creek, he'd made it clear he wanted to get to know me better and, believe me, if I wasn't such a nonstarter when it came to hearts and flowers, I would have liked nothing more. I couldn't take the chance. I had a bad history with cute guys. I didn't want to have to worry about saying dumb things and looking like a dork.
There was, however, a small silver lining to the very dark cloud of events happening around us. There was nothing normal about this situation, and even reluctant-to-commit-to-anything-more-than-small-talk me had bigger things to worry about than the cutest/nicest/sexiest guy I'd ever met. One look at the concern that flashed in Max's chocolate eyes and I burst into tears.
I guess Max was just as unconcerned about his trim park ranger uniform as Charmaine was about her caftan. He pulled me into a hug.
"Oh, Max!" I sniffled into the front of his olive jacket. "I was worried about tripping on my way up the aisle. I was worried about forgetting to adjust Svetlana's veil before she and Al exchanged vows. I was worried about dribbling something on my dress at dinner. I shouldn't have worried about any of those stupid things. I should have . . ." I burbled. "I should have . . ." I wailed. "Oh, Max!"
He rubbed my back and shushed me with soft words.
"You're freezing." Max's arms tightened around me.
They were good arms. Strong arms. But, then, I didn't expect anything else from a man who'd once played professional baseball.
When the murmur of voices from the wedding crowd grew louder, closer, Max hitched an arm around my shoulders and guided me into the parking lot and to his waiting cruiser.
He set my blanket on the seat, settled me in the passenger seat, and went to the trunk for two more blankets that he tucked around me, then turned on the car and cranked the heat full blast.
"I'll be right back," he said, and went to talk to the paramedics.
He was as good as his word, back in a few minutes, his expression grim. "There are bruises on her arms and shoulders," he said. "And I'm sure you saw the strangulation marks on her neck."
It could only mean one thing, but I hoped I was wrong. "Murder?"
"Then . . ." I pushed the blankets off me and held out my hand, offering the slip of wet paper in it to Max. "She was holding it," I said. "I don't know what it is."
He grabbed an evidence bag from the glove box and when he had the paper properly stored, he squinted through the plastic at it. "All I see is lines and shapes, no writing." He slanted me a look. "There was nothing else?"
I shook my head. "Just Svetlana. She was blue, Max."
His nod was barely perceptible. "You're going to be blue, too, if we don't get you home and out of those wet clothes." He put the car into gear and headed out of the parking lot. "I'll take you home. You start at the beginning," he said. "Tell me what happened."
The Wednesday before
Lizzie, I need you."
I was behind the front counter at the bookstore, re-arranging the books featured near the register and my back was to the store.
Maybe that's why my heart skipped a beat when I heard a male voice speak those words.
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