Even with her life in ruins in New Mexico, Shay feels uneasy about settling into the small seaside town where she grew up on California's Monterey Peninsula, and taking over an estate bequeathed to her by Bridget Early, a woman she had barely known. Her heightened senses—an empathic gift she's had since childhood—go into overdrive upon touring Crystals & CuriosiTEAS, Bridget's eclectic tea and psychic shop brimming with Irish lore and Celtic symbols. They reach a boiling point when Shay looks up to discover a stranger's body sprawled across the shop's greenhouse roof . . .
With her new business a crime scene and questions brewing over Bridget's so-called accidental death, Shay fears she's also inherited the attention of a killer. The terrifying realization sets her on an impractical investigation for answers aided by her sister, an elusive pure-white German Shepherd, a strikingly handsome pub owner who speaks in a gentle brogue, and a misunderstood young woman with perceptive talents of her own. As Shay struggles to figure out her true purpose in Bray Harbor and the powerful connection she has with the tea shop, she must trust her judgment above all else to identify a ruthless murderer and save herself from becoming victim number three.
Release date: November 29, 2022
Publisher: Kensington Books
Print pages: 304
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Steeped in Secrets
At first glance, she couldn’t see that much had changed. The entire town of Bray Harbor, but especially High Street, was still the same. The Victorian-styled streetlamps; colorful, historic buildings in wood-clad, brick, and stone; and the cobblestone roadway always reminded her of a picture straight out of a storybook. Today . . . well . . . it allowed her to linger comfortably in the past—even for a split second—and forget all the heartache she had endured since she had last set foot on the redbrick sidewalk leading down High Street.
A revitalizing energy coursed through her as she stood appreciating the sights. Here she was again, that once precocious teenager who was going to go out and conquer the world. For that instant, there was no sign of the broke midthirties divorcée she had become. The forces surging through her were like soap bubbles that magically washed all those heartbreaking years away.
Then her daydream bubble burst.
“What in the world happened to Molly’s Tavern?”
Instead of the familiar Molly’s sign, a marquee advertising Madigan’s Pub stood in its place. Her heart sank further when she took a closer look and realized that many of her other favorite shops were also gone—like Gertie’s Grounds, the coffee shop where she and her high school friends used to hang out. All those comforting thoughts she had about how nothing had changed—except her—quickly faded. It was clear that time had not stood still here while her life had gone on. Like it or not, this was her new reality.
She tapped the documents she had tucked in her handbag. It was apparent that today was going to need a good kick start if she was to make it through, and that would begin with a coffee. Yes, a large mug of strong, dark coffee. She judged by the image on the sign, a steaming cup and the name Cuppa-Jo, in the old Gertie’s location, that they still served the elixir of the gods. Her gaze darted to the MADIGAN’S PUB sign across the road from it, and she shivered. Yup, if she ever needed some fortification to make it through the day, she was going to need some, and now.
As she made her way down the sidewalk toward the coffee shop, light coastal breezes tickled her cheeks, and the briny air left a hint of sea salt on her lips. The forgotten taste stirred warm memories of her childhood and her once carefree life in this little artsy town just down the coast from its sister city, Carmel-by-the-Sea. She mentally crossed her fingers in the hope that the coffee shop still had the same fifties décor that Gertie’s had, which was like a set out of the Happy Days television show. She desperately needed the comfort of knowing not everything in her world had changed.
Shay dropped into a faux-wicker chair on the coffee shop’s street-side patio and closed her eyes, reveling in the smell of fresh sea air and the sun warming her face. If she had been born a cat, she’d have started purring. These were all the little things she’d taken for granted growing up on the West Coast and forgotten about while living in hot, dry New Mexico for the last decade and a half.
“Would you like a menu?”
Shay sat up and shielded her eyes from the sun, cursing herself for having left her sunglasses in the SUV. She squinted into the face of a young platinum-blond woman sporting a tousled asymmetric haircut, and winced at the sparks of light glistening off her diamond nose ring and eyebrow studs that made her entire face appear to glow. Was it the sun, or was Shay glimpsing the girl’s feelings? Sometimes Shay couldn’t tell the difference between what she thought and the feelings she had when something stirred within her.
“The sun’s right in your eyes, isn’t it? Here, let me tilt the umbrella a bit for you.” The server started to make an adjustment to the pole, casting shade over Shay.
Shay thrust out her hand and stopped the girl’s final adjustment. “Honestly, it was fine, and I’d rather keep it the way it was.” She gazed into the girl’s face, noting shade had also been cast over her, and she no longer appeared to be glowing. Shay always did have what some people called uncanny heightened senses. Not many people she met were empathic enough to sense other people’s energy like she did, and what she saw in her dimming aura and felt from the girl right now definitely were no longer rays of sunshine.
“Fine, whatever.” The young woman thrust out one hip, pulled a pen from behind her ear, and suspended it over an order pad. “Coffee?” she asked, obviously forcing a smile across her black-lipstick-covered mouth.
“Please,” Shay said. “Just cream, thanks,” she added quickly, anticipating the young woman’s next question.
The server gave her a curt nod, turned swiftly on her heel, and headed for the shop door. Shay flinched from the trail of fiery vibrations the girl produced. Certainly, Shay couldn’t have been the cause of the young server’s dark explosion of energy. She thought she had handled the umbrella incident and the shade being cast over her rather well. She tried to shake it off. The girl was most likely just having an all-around bad morning, and what Shay thought she saw when she first looked at her was clearly only the sunshine glistening off her diamond facial adornments.
When the door closed behind the server, the energy in the air rapidly shifted. Shivers prickled at Shay’s skin. She glanced around. What she was sensing now wasn’t related to the young server. Someone was watching her.
She scanned the street but couldn’t see anyone who might be focused enough on her to induce her tingling sensations. Then an unseen magnet pulled her gaze across the road to a sign that read CRYSTALS & CURIOSITEAS, and her chest constricted with uneasiness.
The red banner over the shop entrance was faded and weatherworn, but the storefront was still in fairly good condition. The old rustic wooden benches she remembered sat on each side of the door under the bay windows. An array of summer flowers spilled out of large ceramic pots at each end. The shop really didn’t look like it had changed much over the years. Nothing about it stood out as being the potential source of the heightened ripples of unrest rolling through her. Then the ripples swelled. Their intensity grew into a tidal wave that shot a tremor through her.
Sitting, unmoving in the doorway alcove between the two bay windows, was a pure white German shepherd. At least, she hoped it was a dog because based on its size and build, it could easily have been a wolf.
Their eyes locked, and a shockwave surged through her. The dog stood up. Its gaze never wavered as it stalked across the road and sat back on its haunches at the edge of the outdoor patio. The stare from its crystal-blue eyes overpowered her. It was as if he could see into the depths of her soul. Despite the warmth of the morning, she shivered with the surging pulses of electricity racing between them.
“I see you’ve met Spirit.” A woman’s voice broke through her thoughts, severing Shay’s connection with the dog.
Shay jerked and swung around, coming face-to-face with a woman sporting short salt-and-pepper hair, which showed her to be slightly older than Shay’s own thirty-five years.
“Joanne?” Shay leapt to her feet.
She couldn’t believe that the first familiar face she saw in town was her sister Jen’s oldest and dearest friend. Although Shay was two years younger, Jen’s friends had always treated her as an equal and had been her friends too.
“I knew it had to be you.” Joanne embraced Shay in a bear hug. “I’d know that long red hair anywhere, but I never thought I’d see the day you’d come back to town, Shay Myers.”
“You didn’t think you’d see the day?” Shay replied with a short laugh.
Joanne grabbed her hand and pulled Shay back down into her seat and took the chair beside her. “So, what brings you back to Bray Harbor? You couldn’t get out of here fast enough when you left.”
“I know.” Shay chuckled uneasily, recalling the dark days after her parents were killed in a boating accident the summer just before her eighteenth birthday. “But you remember what it was like when my aunt came to stay with me and Jen. Jen was starting at the college in the fall, but I had one more year of high school.” Shay hung her head and whispered, “It was just a tough time. Grief can be complicated, all the emotions, pain, anger . . .”
An image of her aunt’s face popped into Shay’s mind. Their aunt, bless her heart, really did try to step in and mother the two headstrong young women, but to eighteen-year-old Shay, she was a constant reminder of what they had lost, and she resented her for it.
“Yeah.” Joanne nodded, her eyes softening. “It was a difficult time for both of you, but especially for you, I guess, because besides college, Jen had started dating Dean, so she had him to help her through it.” She pinned her gaze on Shay. “You know, I always thought you and your best friend Adam Ward would marry after high school. I was shocked when you suddenly packed up and left the next year right after you graduated.”
“Adam?” Shay tossed her head back, laughing. “No.” She struggled to compose herself with the thought. “That wasn’t that kind of relationship.” Joanne’s words brought back the memory of her old friend and how they had drifted apart in high school when Shay started to hang out with Jen and her friends.
“Really?” Joanne said in awe. “I always thought your leaving had something to do with him, because he moped around for over a year after you left.”
Joanne shook her head.
“No, as far as I was concerned, Adam and I were just friends, and with Jen making a life of her own, going away to college in New Mexico seemed to me like a good alternative to living in that house with our aunt and the family ghosts. Anyway . . .” Shay shifted uncomfortably in her chair. “Tell me about the dog. You called him Spirit.” Shay looked back to where the German shepherd had been sitting. “That’s weird.” She looked up and down the street. “Where did he go?”
Joanne eyed her curiously, very likely because of the abrupt change of subject, but reached over and patted Shay’s hand. “Don’t you go worrying about him,” she said with a reassuring smile. “He has a habit of doing that. Here one minute and gone the next.”
“But don’t you worry about him?”
“Not mine to worry about.”
“He’s not yours?”
“He belongs to no one. Comes and goes as he pleases.”
“Really? He’s a stray? But he looks so well taken care of. Surely someone must look after him.”
Joanne shook her head. “The only person he ever took to was Bridget Early. He kind of adopted her one day, and the two became inseparable. As a matter of fact”—Joanne leaned closer, tucking breeze-blown strands of her short bobbed hair behind her ear—“the day she disappeared, he did too. This is the first time I’ve seen him around since then. Although, I heard that the day her body washed up on the beach by the pier, he was seen standing guard over it until it was found, and then he disappeared again, at least, until today.”
“How long ago was that?”
“Maybe about a month ago. I’m not really sure.”
Shay frowned and studied Joanne’s face. “What can you tell me about Bridget?”
“Not much to tell, really. You knew her too.”
“Not really. I remember her vaguely. I went into Crystals & CuriosiTEAS a few times when I was a kid, but she said something strange to me the last time I was in there, and it scared me.”
Shay couldn’t recall now exactly what the tea shop lady had said to her, but she did remember going home and telling her mother what happened and how dark her mother’s face grew. Then all she said was, You shouldn’t go there. It’s not a place for children, and you’ll see things that you won’t understand. Her mother’s words were all she needed at the time to confirm her own feelings about Bridget and the shop, and she soon forgot about it. It was funny how the recollection came back to her now though.
“So I never went back,” Shay added. “I used to see Bridget around, but she was always staring at me.” She shuddered with the memory. “From then on, I avoided her as much as I could.”
“I remember how oddly she treated you when we’d all go in and poke around all the weird stuff she sold in there. It was like something out of this world to us kids, wasn’t it? We couldn’t resist it.” Joanne faintly smiled at the recollection. “And let me tell you, neither she nor her shop ever changed over the years. She was a strange duck, that’s for sure. The only person I knew she ever mixed much with was Pearl Hammond, two of the most unlikely people you’d ever think of as being friends. You remember Pearl, don’t you?”
Shay shook her head.
“She lived next door to Bridget and runs the ice cream shop down on the boardwalk?”
“Oh right,” Shay said with a chuckle. “I vaguely remember her, but I’ll never forget her homemade ice cream.”
“How could you? I think we all lived on her sprinkle cones more than one summer, as I recall,” Joanne added with a soft laugh. “Actually, I heard through the grapevine that Pearl came across Bridget’s body under the pier. I guess it must have really freaked her out because we don’t see much of her on High Street these days. She sticks pretty close to home and her ice cream shop now. You might go ask her about Bridget if you’re that interested.” She eyed Shay curiously.
“Thanks, I will.” Shay smiled and glanced at her cell phone to check the time. She pushed it to the side and sighed. She’d forgotten that driving anywhere in Bray Harbor took only a few minutes instead of the hour or so Santa Fe and Albuquerque required. There was still thirty minutes until her appointment with Julia, another old high school friend of her sister’s and now a local real estate agent. She surveyed the open seating area. “I like the changes out here. This outdoor patio is a great idea.”
“Thanks.” Joanne beamed.
“Yup, after Gertie passed about four years ago, I bought it from the family. None of them were interested in keeping Gertie’s dream going, but I was. This place held a lot of special memories for me.” Her gaze dropped, and a soft smile formed on her lips. “Did you know my husband, Gary, proposed to me right there”—she pointed to the window—“at that table?”
“I remember you waving your ring finger in our faces when you met us all later at the beach party,” Shay said with a laugh.
“Yeah, that was a great night.” Joanne gazed wistfully at the café window. “Anyway, after I bought the place, I decided that after forty years of the same old, same old, it needed to be brought into the twenty-first century, and I made a few changes. I even got cappuccino and espresso machines. Go ahead and order any of those big-city Frappuccino, mochaccino blends you want. We can make them.” She grinned.
“Congratulations, I’m happy for you.” Shay squeezed her hand. “I can’t believe that Jen never told me. I had no idea when I sat down that you were the Jo in Cuppa-Jo.” Shay laughed and stared at the CuriosiTEAS sign.
“How rude of me to sit here gabbing and not get you a coffee.” Joanne began to stand up.
“That’s okay.” Shay placed her hand on Joanne’s arm. “Your server took my order.”
“And she hasn’t brought it yet?” Joanne glared at the shop door. “I’ll be right back after I deal with that girl.”
“No, don’t worry about it. Maybe she got busy inside with a customer or had to brew a fresh pot. I still have half an hour till my appointment. Sit and relax. It’s great catching up.”
Joanne dropped back down in her chair. “I really am sorry about the service,” she said, glancing back at the door. “Tassi, the server, is my sister Karen’s daughter, and wow, is she trouble. I thought it was challenging enough with a teenage boy; Caden’s sixteen now too, you know.”
“Is he really? Wow, I remember when he was born. It was just before I left. I can’t believe he’s sixteen now though. Where have all the years gone?”
“I know, right. So now I have two teenagers to raise.” Joanne shook her head, clearly showing her frustration.
Shay looked questioningly at her.
“For the past couple of years, Tassi had been coming from Carmel most weekends and holidays, but about six months ago Karen sent her here to live with us full-time. In the hope I’d be able to turn the girl around. It seems she was at her wit’s end with her. What else could I do? Karen’s my sister, and Tassi’s my niece, so I couldn’t really say no, could I?” She glanced back over at the door, and dropped her voice. “Ever since Karen and her slimy lawyer husband’s divorce was finalized last year, Tassi’s a girl-gone-wild, I’m afraid.”
“I take it your sister was married to Brad too?”
Joanne’s eyebrows shot straight up to her hairline, and then she snorted, stifling a giggle. “Trust you to lighten the mood. It’s refreshing to see that you haven’t lost your sense of humor.” She placed her hand on Shay’s and gave it a gentle squeeze. “Jen told me what happened to your marriage too. I’m so sorry.”
Shay had hoped to get through what was bound to be a surreal morning without reliving her past with anyone. However, Joanne’s words ignited a spark of her suppressed rage at Brad. Her scumbag accountant ex-husband—as she fondly called him—had taken everything she owned in his swindle of her gemstone and jewelry company. The company she started just before she met him. When they married he said, as her husband, he would come on as a silent partner and work behind the scenes as her financial consultant and accountant, but that it would remain her company. Ha, that was a good one. Love certainly is blind, and she’d been so naive in her belief in a happy ever after that she’d ignored the red flags. It seemed he had different plans from the onset and cooked the books accordingly.
She didn’t even want to dredge up the two-year affair he’d been having with her assistant. Shay took a deep breath and crammed her thoughts back into the box in her mind and shoved it high up on a shelf to be dealt with another day.
“What’s that old saying?” Shay waved off the look of sympathy in Joanne’s eyes. “When life gives you lemons . . . blah blah blah.” A fleeting smile touched her lips. “So, here I am back home squeezing those lemons, hoping something wonderful will come of it.”
“I admire your resilience,” said Joanne, her fingers tightening around Shay’s. “I know it can’t be easy for you to have a successful career pulled out from under you and having to start all over again.”
Tassi appeared over her aunt’s shoulder, placed two cups on the table, and smiled at Joanne. “I guessed you’d want one too.”
“Thank you.” Joanne nodded. “And you’d be right.” She flashed an apologetic glance at Shay. “But I wish you’d serve the customers as quick as you do me.”
Tassi’s gunmetal-gray eyes darkened, matching her charcoal eyeliner, and locked with Shay’s. “I was brewing a fresh pot.” She spun around and headed toward a young couple who had just sat down.
The chill in the air Tassi left behind her made Shay edgy. She shifted in her chair, sensing that the disturbance she felt from Tassi went deeper than a girl-gone-wild.
“See what I mean?” Joanne laughed.
“Shay!” A tall, professionally dressed, flaxen-blond-haired woman dashed across the narrow street. “You’re over here? I expected to meet you at the shop.” The woman flashed a nod of acknowledgment toward Shay’s table companion. “Joanne,” she said with a frosty edge to her voice as she pulled a chair closer to Shay’s.
“Julia.” Joanne acknowledged her with a bob of the head and returned an equally cool greeting as Julia made herself comfortable at their table.
“I’m guessing that this is an exciting day for you, isn’t it?” Julia said, shoving a large brown envelope across the table toward Shay. “These are the land title transfer documents.” She glanced coolly at Joanne as she clasped her hands in front of her. Her blood-red manicured fingernails contrasted against the white tablecloth.
Joanne glanced questioningly at Shay. “Why, what’s happening? What land is she talking about?” She looked at Julia. A knife could have sliced the tension-filled air. Julia ignored Joanne’s questions, turned her chin to the side, highlighting the back s-waved bun of her coiffured hair, and gazed down the street.
“I’m really not exactly certain of the details right now.” Shay tapped the envelope. “That’s why I’m meeting with Julia.” Her heart sank at the look of betrayal on Joanne’s face. “Joanne, it’s just that—”
“Never mind,” Joanne said with a wave of her hand. “It’s none of my business anyway. It’s not like you and I have kept in touch over the years.” She shoved her chair back, causing Julia to jump. “I’ll leave you to it then. I have to get back inside anyway. Drop by again soon, Shay.” She smiled, and then her normally soft-chocolate-brown eyes glowered at Julia as she stood up and turned on her heel.
Julia opened her mouth to retort but quickly snapped it shut when Joanne stalked off.
Shay blew out a deep, noisy breath, hoping to dispel the bristling air that surrounded their table. She knew that despite whatever else had transpired between these two old friends, she was partly to blame for the negativity engulfing them now. Shay wanted to run after Joanne to explain why she couldn’t answer her question and let her know it had nothing to do with not wanting to tell her about the land title and the real reason she was back in Bray Harbor.
The fact was, Shay didn’t know how to explain any of what was going on now to anyone. Even her own sister was oblivious as to why Shay had returned to her hometown. She couldn’t explain it to Jen last night when she showed up unannounced on her doorstep. Nor again, this morning when Jen grilled her over coffee. Shay had feigned being late for an appointment, grabbed her sister’s keys to the Explorer, and took off to meet Julia in the hopes of finding some answers for herself.
She barely knew how to process the news of receiving a mysterious inheritance from Bridget Early, a woman she scarcely knew in her youth. It must be an error. She’d already told a team of lawyers that, and they assured her it wasn’t. Until she knew what was going on, there was nothing she could tell anyone that would satisfy them or make them understand any more than she did. It was all weird and mysterious, and hopefully the woman sitting at her elbow could shed some much-needed light on the subject.
Julia pasted a saccharine smile on her ruby-red lips. “Shall we get on with our business, then?” Her chair grated on the patio surface as she pushed it back.
“Yeah, good plan.” Shay wedged a five-dollar bill under the sugar jar on the table, hoping the breezes wouldn’t snatch it away, and followed behind her sister’s old friend.
She recalled how Jen, Julia, and Joanne were fondly known in high school as the Three J-Birds. However, after the exchange she had witnessed between two of those so-called old friends, she had her doubts that the once inseparable threesome answered to that anymore. She bristled with curiosity to find out what had happened and how this affected her sister’s relationship with them. But she couldn’t let their issues concern her. She forced herself to breathe deeply as she follow. . .
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