A murder at the flower shop. An uncle suspected by the cops. Savanna and her sisters are on the case. Savanna Shepherd, a former art authenticator turned grade school art teacher, is delighted when her Uncle Max and Uncle Freddie move to Carson. Uncle Max takes a job at Libby’s Blooms, where Savanna teaches a still life painting class for adults. But one morning, Uncle Max finds a dead body in the rooftop greenhouse…and even worse, it looks like an inside job. Savanna and her sisters—Skylar, a lawyer, and Sydney, the owner of a pet shop and grooming salon—dig in to find the real murderer. With their connections to the community and Savanna’s keen eye for details, they uncover longstanding resentments and horticultural clues. Meanwhile, Savanna’s dating local doctor Aidan Gallager, but she worries it’ll cause a scandal, since his daughter is in her class. As Savanna’s investigation leads her into thorny situations, the killer may be arranging another murder: her own. This cozy mystery includes a free original Hallmark recipe.
Release date: August 10, 2021
Publisher: Hallmark Publishing
Print pages: 328
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Still Life and Death
When Savanna Shepherd came through the door after work, she was nearly knocked off her feet. Fonzie, her wiggling, yipping Boston Terrier, greeted her like he hadn’t seen her in days.
He was ready for his walk on the beach, but it would have to wait. They were headed to the roof of Libby’s Blooms. After a day of teaching art lessons at Carson Elementary, Savanna was going to lead her still life painting class for adults.
She grabbed her well-worn smock from the hook in the hallway and maneuvered through the unpacked moving boxes in the front room. She’d seen her set of acrylic paints somewhere in here, but where? She shuffled through boxes until she finally found them.
To keep her long, auburn-brown waves out of her face, she pulled them back and fastened them with a barrette. With Fonzie at her heels, she went out the door again, locked it behind her...and paused.
Her wide front deck, complete with seating around a fire pit in the center, faced west over the dunes of Lake Michigan. It was her favorite part of the house. When she’d spotted this place last summer while walking the beach with Aidan, she’d known it’d be a fixer-upper; she didn’t mind. Two years ago when she’d returned to her hometown, she’d moved in with her sister Sydney, but she loved finally having her own place.
Her dog took off, kicking up sand behind him as he sprinted toward the lake. Though it was only early May, the deep blue waves were dotted with boats.
“Fonzie!” She whistled sharply, and he ran back to her. She ushered him into the back seat of her car, and in two minutes, she was on Carson’s quaint, inviting Main Street.
The bell jingled over the door to as she entered her younger sister’s dog grooming salon. The only pet-centric establishment in Carson, Fancy Tails & Treats was wildly successful. Overstuffed aqua seating and a vintage red-and-chrome café table sat in front of the large window overlooking Main Street. Savanna and her two sisters met here for lunch at least weekly, taking turns at bringing carryout. Sydney lived right behind the shop, and it was centered between Skylar’s law office and Savanna’s school, making it the perfect place for a quick catch-up.
Sydney smiled at her from the gourmet treat display case. “You brought my buddy back!” She bent down to scratch Fonzie’s ears and slipped the dog one of her signature Chicken Churros.
“Do you mind if I leave him here during class?”
“Of course not—he loves it here. He’ll get to see his friends. Willow has Caroline Carson’s poodles in the bath right now. Jack is picking them up later.”
“Nice!” Savanna had become friends with Jack, the librarian at Carson Elementary, when she’d painted a mural in his grandmother Caroline’s mansion. “He’s in my class tonight. I bugged him until he signed up. You should have Willow close up and come join us.”
Syd laughed. “No, thanks. You’re the artist in the family. I’d just embarrass you.”
“Whatever. You’re very artsy—these are gorgeous!” Savanna pointed at the variety of elaborately decorated goodies in the display case, all of which looked good enough to eat...if you were a dog.
“That’s different than painting a picture,” Sydney replied. “Maybe I’ll try a class next week, just for fun.”
“You should. Libby would love seeing you in the class. Maybe it’d get her to try it too.”
“She’s even more paintbrush-shy than I am,” Sydney said. “But I don’t buy it. Anyone gifted enough to create her flower arrangements would probably be great with a canvas. I’ll work on convincing her next time we have our rooftop tea. If she does it, I will too.”
Savanna loved that her sister had made such close friends with some of Carson’s small business owners. Sydney and Libby met in Libby’s greenhouse once or twice a week before their shops opened. She imagined early mornings must be peaceful and pretty up there, looking out over Main Street and the lake beyond.
She left Fonzie with Syd and crossed the street to Carson’s flower shop, Libby’s Blooms. Uncle Max circled the reception desk inside the store, coming around to hand her the colorful bouquet he’d preserved from Tuesday’s class to continue work on today’s canvases. He held the door open to the staircase, which provided access to second-floor storage for all of the building’s business owners, and also to Libby’s rooftop greenhouse.
She kissed him on his slightly scruffy cheek as she passed. “Thanks! Will you be here when I’m done, or are you heading out?”
“I’m closing tonight—I’ll be here. Libby’s been up there all afternoon working on a super-secret project. Go make artists of those students, love. Have fun!”
Savanna could listen to him speak all day. Uncle Max had left London years ago but hadn’t lost his British accent. Today, repotting plants and working with the soil, Max was nevertheless dapper and put-together, his slim frame dressed in a double-breasted plaid vest and rolled-up shirt sleeves under his florist’s apron. His short, dark hair was streaked with silver, though not much for his sixty years. Libby Kent had hired Max on the spot last fall after learning he was a botanist. Uncle Max hadn’t even begun looking for a job yet after his move to Carson, but he’d immediately fit right in at Libby’s Blooms, and he clearly enjoyed it.
Savanna wondered what kind of super-secret project a florist might be working on. She climbed the two flights to the rooftop greenhouse. Libby had pitched the still life class idea to her as a way for the flower shop to gain new customers, and for Savanna to make a little money exercising her creative muscles. The course ran Tuesday and Friday evenings over four weeks. Today was just the second class, but she was pleased to see all eleven of her students present. They were an eclectic group—more women than men, with a wide age range. She’d had them all introduce themselves at the last class, though she knew a few of them. Jack was seated in the front and was already working on his canvas. One woman, Jodie, had the same last name as fourth grade teacher Missy Vonkowski at Carson Elementary. Savanna would have to ask how they were related when she got the chance.
Counting herself, twelve people and their easels filled the space Libby had cleared. The florist was busy working at the far end of the greenhouse, nearly obscured by an abundance of flowering plants. Savanna greeted the group and set up the flower arrangement. Once she’d provided some instruction, she circulated with the new paints and admired the renderings in various stages.
Libby stopped to chat before heading toward the exit. “These are all so lovely!” She beamed at the small group and then at Savanna, her eyes crinkling at the corners above plump rosy cheeks. “This turned out to be a great idea. It goes until six-thirty, right? Do you need anything before I head down to the shop? These stairs kill me, but I’ll send Max up with more supplies if you’re missing something.”
“No, we should be all set, but thank you. And yes, six-thirty. I’m so glad you had the idea, Libby.” Savanna smiled warmly at the older woman. “You know, in case I haven’t said it, I’m also happy you hired my uncle. He really seems to love it here.”
Libby carefully took off her florist’s gloves. “Don’t thank me for that. He’s fabulous. He’s got the eye, the customers love his arrangements, and look. All of my plants are thriving under his care.” She made a sweeping motion with one hand across the greenhouse. “I’ve got to run. I’m so happy my Rachel’s coming home for dinner tonight! Anthony’s making my favorite—lasagna.” Then she shook her head. “I should get home before he ruins it. The poor man thinks he can cook.” She removed her apron and fluffed her short, curly blond hair.
Libby’s husband Anthony handled the books for Libby’s shop. Savanna had only met him once, last year, when Libby had been gone visiting her mother and he’d had to run the shop with help from their daughter Rachel. They’d made a good team, Rachel handling the flower orders and Anthony running the register.
“I hope you have a nice evening,” Savanna said. “I’ll stop by before work Monday morning to pick up those flowers for the kids’ still life paintings.”
“I’ll be here,” the florist promised. “Oh, if you see Sydney, tell her I’ll call her. I can’t wait to hear all about tonight’s date. That beau of hers won’t even give her a clue about where he’s taking her!”
Savanna chuckled. “Sounds about right. I think he does it just to drive her crazy. Have a nice dinner!”
The rest of the class time flew by. Savanna gave a few demonstrations of shading and adding depth. By six-thirty, the still life paintings were vibrant and colorful, some quite realistic-looking. The easels remained in the greenhouse at the end of each session. She followed her class down the two flights of stairs and into the flower shop again, saying goodbye to them as they exited through the back to the parking lot.
Uncle Max reached past her to turn the key in the stairway access door. He moved through the shop, straightening displays and locking the front door as well, before turning out the lights at the rear entrance. “Ready? The blooms are all tucked in for the night.”
Savanna walked with him out into the parking lot behind the shops. Libby’s Blooms shared a brick building with Kate’s Yoga on the westernmost side and was flanked on the other side by Priscilla’s Dance Academy, where Savanna and her sisters had taken ballet and other dance classes in their youth. Savanna’s older sister Skylar’s law office was in the next building over, just before the Carson Village Offices, which housed law enforcement and township offices. Fancy Tails & Treats was kitty-corner across the street from Libby’s. Savanna had often thought there must be a path worn by now between Fancy Tails and the coffee house in the next block, she and Sydney were there so often.
Beyond the picturesque downtown was Carson Park, at the end of the road before the walkways to the beaches of Lake Michigan. If you see Sydney, would you let her know I’m coming ’round tomorrow to replenish Lady Bella’s biscuits?”
“I’ll tell her. Have a good night!” She waved as he pulled away. Lady Bella fit her name. She was the most adorable, regal Corgi Savanna had ever met. To say she was spoiled was an understatement.
Savanna walked across the parking lot to head around the block and pick up Fonzie. There were still several cars in the dance school’s designated parking area, and she caught the faint sound of classical music as she turned the corner onto Main Street.
Jack Carson was on his way out of Fancy Tails, both poodles leading the way and tangling their leashes together. He held the door open for Savanna. “I’m loving the class. I can’t wait to show Grandmother my painting,” he said, smiling. “You know her—she’ll tell me it’s beautiful even if she thinks it looks like Princess and Duke painted it.”
She crouched down to pet both the poodles. “Give Caroline a hug from me. I owe her a visit.”
“I promise I will.” His trademark khakis and button-down oxford bore no trace of paint, which didn’t surprise Savanna at all.
Her sister Sydney had a visitor, even though Fancy Tails was now closed. Finn Gallager stood in the doorway to the grooming area, one hand resting on a broom.
“Hey there, stranger,” he said, grinning. She still found it startling how much Finn looked like his older brother Aidan, though Finn was a bit slighter. Both brothers had thick black hair, Finn’s stick-straight while Aidan’s was wavy, and Finn’s eyes as bright green as Aidan’s were sky blue.
“Finn! How are you? How was Phoenix?”
“Hot and dry. How’re things here? Other than furry.” He cocked an eyebrow and said it over his shoulder to Sydney. His usual navy-blue Air Med Lifeteam jacket and aviators had been replaced tonight with an all-black ensemble. He was dressed up, right down to his shirt and tie and black high-sheen oxfords.
“It doesn’t look like you’re sweeping. I might have to fire you,” Sydney said, moving past him to her desk.
“All done, darlin’. And you can’t fire me. I’m free labor. Are we ready?”
“Almost.” Sydney swapped out the ankle boots she’d worn to work for strappy heels that complemented her boho-chic dress. Her trademark collection of bracelets jangled on her wrists as she pulled the pin that held up her hair, and loose red curls cascaded down her back. “Ready.” She added to Savanna, “We’re going to dinner.”
Syd looked up at Finn. “She wants to know where. See?” She tilted her head, straightening his collar. “People like to know where they’re going for dinner.”
He shrugged. “Too bad.”
“Do you even have a plan? You don’t know the area. You’ve spent a total of, like, five weeks here since last summer.”
“More than that,” he argued. “Trust me. I know things.”
Finn had come to Carson last year to visit Aidan, and had ended up delaying leaving on his next Med Flight job after he’d connected with Sydney. It was also a win for Aidan’s daughter, who seemed to believe the sun rose and set on Uncle Finn. Savanna had glimpsed the two of them watching The Princess Bride together last summer, sharing popcorn with the dog and poking fun at Wesley’s “As you wish.” Aidan had cautioned Sydney that his brother never stayed anywhere long, making a career of lucrative short-term paramedic assignments all over the country. So far, though, Finn and Sydney seemed to be making it work. Finn had been taking shorter travel contracts, though he was still gone a month or two at a time, and he worked for the ambulance service affiliated with the local hospital as a temp in between assignments.
“Have fun,” Savanna said, patting her thigh for Fonzie to come with her.
“I’ll lock up after you—we’re going out the back,” Sydney said, following her to the front door. “Wait, are we having coffee tomorrow morning? Have you heard from Skylar?”
“I’ll call her again. I’ll be here with coffee at eight-thirty, with or without our sister.” She frowned. Skylar was stretched thin these days. Having a four-year-old and a newborn must be exhausting.
Savanna stood on the sidewalk and watched her sister dance through the shop toward Finn. He stopped her with one hand at her waist, pulling her to him. Sydney melted into his embrace, tipping her face upward. Savanna looked away before Finn kissed her. She didn’t want to spy. But she’d never seen her sister smitten with anyone before.
Across the street, small clusters of people exited the Miss Priscilla’s dance studio, mostly in twos. A pang hit Savanna. She missed Aidan. They had planned to catch a movie, but he’d been called into surgery. Dating a top cardiothoracic surgeon definitely had its downside.
Years ago, Aidan Gallager had moved to Carson from New York with his new wife, but tragically, she’d passed away. He’d stayed in town so their daughter Mollie would be close to her grandparents. He and a business partner ran Carson’s family practice clinic, which never really cut into his off time, but the hospital was another story. Savanna saw him often during the week, at drop-offs and pick-ups in front of the school, but that didn’t count. She was always professional, careful to portray a normal parent-teacher relationship.
Well. Tomorrow couldn’t come soon enough.
She crossed the street, Fonzie by her side, and went around the corner to the parking lot behind the shops. Miss Priscilla was making her way to her car, her arms full with two large, stacked bins. A few pieces of sparkling material hung out one side—she must’ve been taking home costumes to alter. The tall, thin woman moved quickly, her posture erect despite all she was carrying. Even from several yards away, Savanna could see the scowl on her face, which instantly took her back to her childhood ballet classes and the admonishments for poor posture and lazy pliés. Miss Priscilla’s intimidating presence hadn’t diminished at all over the years. Savanna firmly quashed her childhood fear, knowing she should offer assistance.
“Um...Miss Priscilla?” Savanna cleared her throat, hurrying in her direction. “May I help you with that?”
The older woman halted and turned. Dark hair pulled tightly back into her usual bun and severe, angled eyebrows only added to her unapproachable air. “No, thank you. I’ve gothelp.” She spat the words, throwing a glance back toward the rear exit of the dance studio. “Such as it is.” She resumed her pace.
A door banged open against the brick of the building and two men came out with more costumes, the older gentleman pushing a garment rack. Savanna recognized Priscilla Blake’s husband, Dylan, and the younger man with him was the new tap instructor—she’d seen him when she’d taken Mollie to dance class after school. Miss Priscilla seemed to have plenty of help. Savanna reversed direction and went to her car.
As she was backing out of the parking space, Libby’s daughter Rachel pulled in next to her. Savanna rolled her window down, waiting until she got out. Wasn’t she supposed to be having lasagna right now with her parents?
“Hi, Ms. Shepherd!” Rachel bent down, peering into Savanna’s window. “How are you?”
“I’m great! Everything all right?”
“Sure. Oh—Mom forgot something. I’m just grabbing it for her.”
Savanna nodded. “Have a good night!”
Skylar was waiting outside the front door to Fancy Tails Saturday morning, baby stroller with her, when Sydney unlocked the shop. Savanna carried three coffees and a large white box to the table at the window, then rushed over to the stroller, peeking under the visor. “She’s awake! May I?” she asked Skylar.
“Sure! Here.” Skylar spritzed Savanna’s hands with sanitizer.
Baby Hannah was five months old, with a shock of fuzzy hair a little lighter than Skylar’s sleek blond bob. Savanna carefully lifted her from the stroller, saying, “Oh, look at you.” Hannah pedaled her tiny feet in her Winnie the Pooh sleeper, then settled against her aunt. Savanna bent her head and closed her eyes, breathing in Hannah’s scrumptious baby scent. “Ugh.” She met Skylar’s gaze. “How do you not just hug her constantly?”
“I do! Hug her quick—I stole her from Travis, but I’m going into the office to catch up on some things. He’ll be here soon to get her.” At thirty-three, Skylar was the oldest of the three sisters. A mom of two, with four-year-old Nolan and now baby Hannah, plus her career as attorney in one of Michigan’s largest law firms, she somehow was still presentable at eight-thirty in the morning. Silver ballet flats and dark denim jeans were topped with a crisp pink blouse. Skylar reminded Savanna of one of her childhood business-themed Barbies, an organized, put-together, highly driven go-getter who looked equally comfortable in a courtroom or behind a stroller.
“You have to let us babysit eventually, you know,” Sydney said. “Don’t you and Travis need a date night?”
“We’ll work as a team,” Savanna added. “They’ll be in good hands, I promise.” She let Sydney take Hannah from her and distributed the coffees: black for Skylar, and caramel with whipped cream for herself and Sydney.
“Okay,” Skylar said, sitting back in her chair.
“Yay!” Sydney squealed. “When?”
“Anytime. Really. I’m so tired. Hannah’s not even much work at this point, but Nolan is sure giving us a run for our money. We enrolled him in the pre-K theater class at Miss Priscilla’s, hoping to redirect some of his energy, but every time I turn around, he’s up to no good!”
“Aw. Well, that makes sense,” Savanna said. “He’s competing for your attention.”
Skylar nodded. “I know. Believe me. We make sure he gets lots of one-on-one time. I think it’s a tough adjustment for him.”
Sydney gasped. “Oh my God.”
“What? The pediatrician says it’s normal—” Skylar stopped midsentence at the sound of sirens.
Sydney stood, cradling Hannah, and stared out the front window. A police car pulled up across the street, siren screaming. An ambulance was close behind.
“What in the world?” They went out front, watching the action from the sidewalk in front of Fancy Tails. A uniformed officer entered the building across the street, weapon drawn, followed by Savanna’s friend, Detective Nick Jordan, and his partner. Finn Gallager and a fellow paramedic waited just outside the door, their large red Med-Kit bag at the ready. Shop owners up and down Main Street emerged to see what was happening.
“They’re going into Libby’s,” Savanna said.
Sydney frowned. “Is Uncle Max working this morning?”
“Is Libby?” Skylar asked.
“Oh, no. I think Uncle Max might be,” Savanna said. “What if—what if something happened? What if he or Libby are hurt?” She’d never seen anything like this. It was broad daylight on quaint, idyllic Main Street, and an officer had just stormed into the flower shop with his gun drawn. Her stomach lurched. She didn’t know what she’d do if something awful had happened to Uncle Max. Or Libby. She glanced at Sydney.
Her younger sister’s face was drawn in fear as she stared at the scene across the street. “She wanted to have tea today,” Sydney whispered.
Sydney met Savanna’s gaze. Her mouth was drawn down, and she looked agonized. “She asked me last night if we could have rooftop tea this morning. She wanted to hear about my date. And I told her no! I could’ve changed our plans—you two wouldn’t have cared. I should’ve been there.”
Skylar’s husband Travis pulled up to the curb amid the chaos. He came around to the passenger side and asked, “What happened?”
Skylar shook her head. “We don’t know. Everything was quiet until two minutes ago.”
Travis turned and took in the scene across the street. His chiseled profile could’ve been cut from a GQ ad. He and Skylar made a striking couple. “I’ll get her out of here. Are you coming? All of you? It might not be safe.”
“No. Uncle Max or Libby might be in there. I’ll call you, okay?” Skylar put a hand on his forearm and leaned up to kiss him. “Don’t worry.”
He frowned at her as he took the baby. “Call me. Soon.”
She nodded. The sisters were across the street in seconds, stopped at the entrance to Libby’s Blooms by a Carson police officer.
“What’s going on?” Skylar demanded. “Our uncle works here with Libby. We need to know if they’re inside.” Sydney was talking with Finn, still on standby outside the building.
“I can’t say,” the officer replied. “You’ll have to wait out here. They’re sweeping the place now.”
“Is he hurt? Is Libby?
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