Read an Excerpt
“What are we waiting for?” I said. “Let’s go.”
GRACE TAKES OFF—JULIE HYZY
“Iknow we are here to celebrate Stephanie’s birthday, and I do not want to take any of the shine away from your day, honey, but I was wondering if we could take a few minutes to go over the final plans for next weekend.” Molly Mathews looked around the table at the other three women, Lizzie Turner, Sally-Jo Baker and Stephanie Lowe, and they all nodded their agreement.
“Good. But first off, a most happy birthday to you, Stephanie. You have had quite the year and, I say this truly, I am so happy you have become part of our book club. No, it is more than that. I am happy you are our friend. I hope this coming year will bring you true happiness.” Molly lifted her wineglass in a toast. “To Stephanie.”
Stephanie’s grin covered most of her face. Lizzie hadn’t seen her so excited since her baby, Wendy, was born the previous Christmas. Once again she looked so much younger than her now twenty years. Her shoulder-length brown hair was pulled back in a ponytail showing off her new dangly red earrings, a gift from Lizzie; she’d started wearing more colorful eye makeup after the birth; and her figure had quickly gone back to a size six, as emphasized by the clingy white tunic top and black stretch pants she was wearing.
“To Stephanie,” Lizzie repeated. “I can’t imagine the Ashton Corners Mystery Readers and Cheese Straws Society without you.”
“Nor A Novel Plot,” Molly added. “You are my star bookseller.”
“Oh, stop it all now. Y’all are going to make me start crying. I don’t know what I did to deserve such wonderful friends.” Stephanie swiped at the corner of her eye before a tear could fall.
Sally-Jo clinked her glass against Stephanie’s. “It’s all true. However, I’d be cautious if I were you. Never know what extra duties might flow your way next weekend once we have you good and buttered up,” she added with a chuckle.
Stephanie waited until the server had placed the three-tier cake stand filled with fancy tea sandwiches and scones in the center of the table. “I’ve always wanted to come to the high tea here at the Jefferson Hotel. It’s all so elegant and”—she spied the dessert tray at the next table—“fattening.”
They all laughed. “But I gotta tell y’all,” Stephanie continued, “I’m so excited about the mystery fair that I’m starting to lose sleep. It will be such fun meeting big-name authors and spending the whole day just talking mysteries. I’m sure glad you decided to do it, Molly.”
“It was not my decision entirely. I would not have taken it on if the entire book club had not been so enthusiastic. Even with everyone pitching in, I had no idea how much work it would be.” She said it with a smile but Lizzie felt concerned that the oldest member was the one doing the most work.
“Is there something else we can be doing, Molly?” Lizzie asked. Not that Molly couldn’t handle it. At seventy, she could match even Andie Mason, the youngest member of the book club, in the stamina department any day. Of that, Lizzie was certain.
Molly shuffled through the papers on the table next to her place setting. Lizzie could hear the clatter of teacups threaded with the soft din of voices. One didn’t want to speak too loudly in the hotel’s Echo Lounge.
“I don’t think so,” Molly finally answered, having found the page she was searching for. “You will be able to stop by the Quilt Patch Bed and Breakfast on Thursday after school? I’ll try to get there by about two P.M. I can’t imagine that Margaret Farrow and her husband will arrive any earlier. They said they would be leaving Columbus after lunch and just take a leisurely drive over.”
“I’ll be there. You can just text me when they arrive.” She grinned as Molly frowned. Although Molly was resisting learning to text, Lizzie had a feeling that she was also secretly intrigued by the idea. Lizzie would get her on board sooner than later. “When did you say the other authors are arriving?”
“Well, A.J. Pruitt said in the evening and Lorelie Oliver won’t be there until Friday afternoon. I sure hope she arrives in plenty of time for the evening dinner I have planned. Gigi Briggs should also be arriving early Friday afternoon. That’s the four of them. I can’t imagine keeping track of any more authors than that.” Molly sipped her tea.
Sally-Jo moved the sandwiches closer to Stephanie and, after she’d chosen a smoked salmon pinwheel, helped herself to one of the same before passing the tiered stand over to Lizzie. “I’ve heard there’s often a bit of tension between Lorelie Oliver and Margaret Farrow, or Caroline Cummings as she’s known in the mystery world.”
“Really?” Molly asked. “I hadn’t heard that. Oh dear. Let’s hope we do not have a couple of divas on our hands.”
“Well they both have series with a Southern belle as protagonist,” Lizzie said. “That could put them in competition, don’t you think?”
“They do, but Lorelie Oliver has a fashionista and Caroline Cummings writes about a caterer. You’d think that would provide enough distinction between the two,” Sally-Jo ventured. “I understand they’re pretty much Southern belles themselves.”
“Now that could make things mighty interesting,” Molly reflected. “Does anyone know anything about A.J. Pruitt?”
“Only that Bob is extremely happy that we’ve got one writer on the list who has a police procedural. I haven’t heard any gossip about him,” Sally-Jo added as she tucked a stray strand of auburn hair behind her ear. She’d started growing out her pixie cut but constantly complained about it getting in the way. Lizzie secretly hoped she’d go back to the shorter style, which totally suited her small build and large green eyes and hot pink glasses frames.
“According to their promotional flyer, the three of them have appeared together before, so it seems to me that they should be able to cope. I just hope Gigi Briggs doesn’t get lost in the fray.” Lizzie had worried about adding the much younger author to the guest list but it had been hard to turn down an enthusiastic writer who made such an earnest appeal to be included.
“Well, we’ll all see that that does not happen. Isabel Fox is moderating their panel on Saturday morning and she will just have to keep them under control. Perhaps you could give her a heads-up, Lizzie?” Molly suggested.
“Yes’m,” Lizzie managed to say, her mouth full of goat cheese and watercress sandwich. She glanced around the room as she ate. She was lucky to have been able to schedule all her appointments for the morning, which proved easy enough to do since most people, she realized, have an aversion to Friday afternoon commitments. Except if they involve food. As the reading specialist with the Ashton Corners Elementary School, her days consisted mainly of meetings with students, parents and teachers. A far cry from the very chic lounge where they now sat, enjoying the ever-so-special high tea.
Trust Molly to choose something so beyond Stephanie’s usual activities as a birthday treat. In fact, Molly had insisted on treating them all. The room was full even on this Friday afternoon and the variety in ages spoke to the fact that gracious rituals still appealed to a wide range of women. The crisp white linen tablecloths, edged in a taupe trim, the plush taupe chairs, the crystal chandeliers and the expanse of window overlooking the back gardens made the setting idyllic. Lizzie realized how happy she felt to be in this place, at this time, and with her close friends.
“The food arrangements are all confirmed, Sally-Jo?” Molly asked, pulling Lizzie out of her reverie.
“They are. The Ladies’ Guild of St. John’s will prepare a salad and cold cuts buffet for lunch for the participants, and the Baptist Women’s Group at Bethany Church have a yummy menu for the afternoon tea break.”
“Now, try to visualize it,” she continued. “You’re in the Picton Hall at the Eagles Center. We’ll have the authors sitting onstage and the audience seated theater-style facing them. That should take up about half the floor space. At the opposite end of the room, we’ll set up the tables for lunch and leave them up for the break, too. It’s really spacious, so nobody should be crowded.”
“That’s excellent. And both groups will attend to cleanup?”
“They will. And they’ll supply all the dishes and linens. I think we really lucked out here.”
Lizzie snagged another sandwich before the serving plate was removed and a bone china tray filled with squares, cookies and cakes put in its place. “I managed to get some great donated items for our gift basket draw at the end of the day. And, I confirmed with George Havers at the Colonist that he’ll have both a reporter and a photographer at the hall first thing next Saturday morning. We’ll do a photo op with the authors to start and then he’ll wander around and take pictures of the attendees for a couple of hours. If there’s space, George will devote about half a page to the event in the following Thursday’s newspaper.”
“The authors should be very pleased,” Molly said, adding, “not to mention that it’s great publicity for the bookstore.” Since Molly had bought the closed store several months before, she and Lizzie had been working on rebranding the store away from the former owner and her misdeeds. It even had a new name, A Novel Plot. The fact that almost everyone in Ashton Corners knew Molly and thought well of her for her many philanthropic ventures made the task easier than it might otherwise have been.
Stephanie let out a low moan. “Oops, I’m so sorry,” she whispered, looking sheepishly at them. “It’s this chocolate thingy. It’s just the most delicious treat I’ve ever tasted. I had no idea. What’s it called?”
Lizzie looked at the menu. “That must be the Viennese Chocolate Sable. I’ll have to try some, too.”
Molly reached over and snagged the final mini vanilla meringue and placed it on Stephanie’s plate. “Enjoy this, too, my dear. In fact, all of you enjoy today because come next Thursday, we are headed for a weekend of mystery and mayhem.”
The important thing was I wouldn’t have to do it alone.
ARSENIC AND OLD CAKE—JACKLYN BRADY
Lizzie pushed herself from a yoga-style sitting position on the floor, where she’d been reading off book titles to Sally-Jo, who perched on a wicker chair with the master list in hand. “What a difference a day or two makes,” she said with a grin. “Friday we’re taking tea, all posh and gentle, today we’re taking inventory in Molly’s store, dressed in jeans and T-shirts.”
Sally-Jo laughed. “We can’t do glam every day, Lizzie.”
“I hear you gals. I might remind you that the men in the book club were not included in Friday’s outing,” Bob Miller said with an exaggerated air of aggrievement.
“Am I to believe you would have actually enjoyed high tea at the Jefferson Hotel, Bob Miller?” Molly asked as she walked past the girls on her way to the front desk, her arms filled with books.
“That would be carrying togetherness a bit too far,” Bob said quickly. “Now, this here is more my style. Where would you like this box deposited?”
Molly took a moment to brush back a stray strand of gray hair that had escaped the French roll that had been a tidy hairdo earlier that morning. “I guess right by the back door, Bob. I think I’ll end up with several boxes to be tossed. I thought I’d donate some to the Bargain Bin. I like that their profits go to help the food bank. The rest will go to the library. It seems their budget is never quite elastic enough.”
“Great idea, Molly,” said Jacob Smith, from his perch on top of the ladder. He’d been busy dusting off the top of the shelves, a task that needed to be done on a more regular basis, Molly always said, though she could never quite follow through on it.
“Well, y’all know how grateful I am to you for giving up your Sunday to help with this inventory. Lizzie and I did it when I bought the store but I guess it does make sense to do it twice a year. That way, I can keep better track of inventory changes.”
“Uh, you mean losses, don’t you?” Stephanie asked. She and Andie had just finished with the children’s section and she presented the paperwork to Molly. “I just can’t get my head around the fact that people really do swipe books. I mean, they’re books, for crumbs’ sake. Aren’t all readers honest people?”
Molly patted her arm. “I’d like to think so, honey, but you never know what some people will do.” She looked around at the store walls. “It looks like we’re making good progress here. How about if I send you two across the street to the deli to pick up the lunch and drinks I’ve ordered? Then we’ll all take a much-deserved break.”
By the time the girls arrived back, bags of food in hand, Molly had cleared off the worktable in the back room. They set the dishes of food out along with paper plates and plastic cutlery.
“This is just like a picnic,” Andie exclaimed, spooning some pasta and artichoke salad onto her plate.
Molly laughed. “Without the blanket and the ants. Just grab a seat anywhere and enjoy your meals. Sally-Jo, maybe while you are eating you could fill the boys in on our plans for the book fair.”
“Happy to, Molly.” She filled her plate, grabbed a can of cranberry juice and sat on the wicker love seat in the rear of the store. “You do know it’s in the Picton Hall at the Eagles Center, which has a stage, a large floor space and a kitchen at the opposite end of the room. We’ll have chairs set up onstage for the morning panel portion of the day, along with theater seating for the audience. And it should be easy to switch it up to an intimate setting with two easy chairs, one for the author and one for the interviewer, for the afternoon program.”
She scanned the faces of the members of the Ashton Corners Mystery Readers and Cheese Straws Society to make sure they were all in agreement.
“What about someplace to sell the books?” asked Lizzie.
“I’m thinking along the right-hand wall. There’s plenty of room for a few tables and chairs for Stephanie and Andie. They’ll want to sit down in between dealing with customers. And the signing tables can be on the opposite wall, the one with the entry door. We’ll also set up the registration desk along that wall, too. Does that sound about right?”
“I think that will work out perfectly,” Molly enthused. “Do you foresee any problems, Bob? You are our logistics person, after all.”
He took a while to answer, looking like he was enjoying his food. “Nope. I think it’ll be an easy setup, which is good since it’s only Jacob and me doing the heavyweight stuff.” He grinned. “The chairs will take the longest but I’m sure we can get it all done if we get there, say, an hour before the doors open.” He looked over at Jacob, who nodded.
“Will all those heavy book boxes be here at the store for pickup?”
Molly shook her head. “No, I had them delivered to my home. They’re in the garage. That worked out well for Teensy Coldicutt’s launch, except for the initial glitch.” She smiled ruefully. “The back room here is so crowded already, as you can see.”
This was Molly’s first big event as new owner of the only independent bookstore in town. Molly had spent the last few months doing some rejiggering of the floor plan and redecorating the store while the book club members had been delighted with their various new roles. Bob Miller handled the bookkeeping end of it; Stephanie Lowe took on the role of manager and worked in the store most weekdays; seventeen-year-old Andrea Mason worked part-time, mainly on weekends and a couple of days after school; Jacob kept his eyes on all things legal; and Lizzie handled the promotional end of things and enjoyed doing the occasional shift selling books.
The Ashton Corners reading community had embraced the store in all its newness, especially the fact that Molly was the new owner. And now, she was venturing a bit further afield with her first major daylong event.
Sally-Jo was anxious to continue when it looked like they’d finished processing those details. “Now, remember I said there’s a kitchen at one end of the room? The luncheon will be held in that area. That makes it easier to set up the food that will be offered buffet style. We can leave the tables at the ready all day and it won’t interfere with the author events. How does that sound to y’all?”
Andie finished off her can of root beer and set it down on the floor. “I can’t believe it’s almost here. One more week,” she beat a pair of invisible drumsticks in the air, “and we’re holding our very first mystery conference.”
Lizzie nodded. “It’s not really a conference, more like a festival, but since the authors are coming directly from the Readers and Riters Festival in Atlanta, we’ve decided to call it a fair.”
Andie waved her hand. “Conference, festival, fair . . . doesn’t matter. I can hardly wait. Aren’t ya just bursting?”
Lizzie grinned, happy that Andie seemed ready to dive into another new project. The book club had been Lizzie’s method of turning her former tutoree onto reading. And although the club presented a variety of reading tastes and opinions, it seemed like they had also bonded as a fairly effective gang of sleuths, too. She just hoped this latest venture wouldn’t end up with another dead body count.
“I once again have to thank y’all for embracing yet another of my pet projects,” Molly said, helping herself to some more green salad. “When I took over the store I had no idea how much work it would be but it is because of you that I can try out something as ambitious as a daylong mystery fair. I’m also truly amazed that we have gotten such a good response from the authors.”
“Well, why in tarnation wouldn’t we?” Bob Miller asked, huffing up as he spoke. “We’re a legitimate mystery book club and you own a very popular bookstore.”
Molly gave him a warm smile. “You really do put the best spin on everything, Bob. Especially things to do with the store. Of course, we’re not paying them, but have put together a nice little package for them as a thank-you.”
“Such as?” Bob asked.
“Well, we’ve booked them at the Quilt Patch for an extra couple of nights after the book fair so they can take in the sights of our wonderful town. And while canvassing for items for our big draw at the end of the day, Lizzie managed to get extra contributions for the authors such as gift certificates for meals and the like. Plus, we have guest passes to the local museums. I think we’re treating our authors quite nicely.”
Lizzie jumped in. “The merchants are all delighted to help out. They’re in favor of anything new in town that might grow into a yearly event and bring in some tourists.”
Molly groaned. “Grow? Yearly? One event at a time, please. I’m really in such a tizzy about this fair, you would think it was a whole week long rather than just one day.”
“That’s understandable, Molly,” said Lizzie, reaching over to touch her hand. “It’s the first time you’ve put on an event like this. You’ve had so many firsts since buying the bookstore and you’ve handled them all so professionally. I’m sure this event will be every bit as successful.”
“That’s nice of you to say, honey. I really did jump in with both feet and not much in the way of eyeglasses, buying that store. But you know, I have loved every minute of it and so much more having y’all involved in it. The little book club that could.”
“Do you need help with anything besides the bookselling, Molly?” Stephanie asked. “Mrs. Sanchez is staying over at my house for the Friday night and Saturday so that I can attend. I’m really looking forward to it. It’ll be the first time in a long time that I’m out at something other than work or a book club meeting. Not that I don’t enjoy being here with y’all today,” she added quickly.
Bob chuckled. “Even if you don’t, you know you can’t get out of it. You’re part of our book club, little lady.”
“And Stephanie, I do not know what I would do without you running the store. You have turned out to be an amazing manager,” Molly said.
Stephanie turned a bright pink and grinned from ear to ear. “So, what’s the agenda for the fair, Molly?” she asked.
“Well, I went and asked Teensy Coldicutt to be the emcee for the day.”
“I thought she was busy house hunting,” Sally-Jo said. “She might not have time for us.”
“Pshaw. Teensy’s a social butterfly at heart and she’ll have fun meeting the authors. Who knows, she may get some publicity out of it. After the huge amount of sales her book had in the summer when it came out, it is just languishing on the shelves these days. Not that Teensy is not trying her best to promote it, but there are not many more opportunities here in Ashton Corners and she is not very keen on doing any touring herself.”
“Maybe these authors will just sweep her up with them,” Stephanie suggested. “Didn’t you say they often do events together?”
Molly looked thoughtful. “You are right, my dear. They do and she just might find them to her liking. But as you said, she is busy looking for a house, so we will see.”
Jacob sat down beside Sally-Jo on the wicker love seat that resided in the travel section of the store. He took one of two pecan balls from his plate and placed it on hers. She flashed him a smile that made Lizzie feel like she was intruding on a special moment, even in the midst of the entire Ashton Corners Mystery Readers and Cheese Straws Society. Sally-Jo and Jacob had met at the first meeting of the book club and had quickly become an item, much to the delight of all. Nothing like a romance right in their midst.
Molly gave Lizzie a smile that said she felt the same way, before she continued. “As Lizzie suggested, I also asked Isabel Fox from the library to be the moderator of the morning panel and she is thrilled. I have left the questions she’ll ask them entirely in her hands.”
“In the FYI department,” Molly continued, “Caroline Cummings, whose real name is Margaret Farrow, by the way, and her husband are arriving at the bed and breakfast next Thursday. And, as Margaret Farrow, she has a very popular romance series.”
“That’s that woman who writes a cozy or something, isn’t it?” Bob asked. Bob’s nose actually crinkled as he said it.
“It is. She has a Southern belle who is a caterer as her amateur sleuth. Bob, you are more than welcome to be part of the welcoming party, too.”
Bob guffawed. “Not on your life, Molly. I’ll wait until that fella who writes about the sheriff gets here. What’s his name?”
“That’s the one. Now he’s writing what I want to read. I’ll be mighty pleased to make his acquaintance.” Bob winked at her.
Molly grimaced. “Continuing. A.J. Pruitt,” she looked pointedly over at Bob, “will arrive after supper on Thursday, he said. Lorelie Oliver will come in on Friday and Gigi Briggs will be flying in from Boston the same day. Bob, would you be able to pick her up at the airport? I think her plane comes in at three.”
“That’s all of them then, and we will have dinner at my place, of course. I’m having it catered by Food Lovers’ Delight, so it will be an easy evening. Now, have I missed anything?”
Bob shrugged and the others just looked at one another, saying nothing.
“Good. Then, I guess we’re all set. Oh yes, I wanted to remind everyone that even though this mystery fair has been a lot of work, we have all agreed to still hold our regular book club meeting. Bob has chosen Shoot the Dog by Brad Smith, which is now out in trade paperback and on our shelves, although you should have finished reading it by now,” she said with a smile.
Lizzie stood and stretched. “I’ll gather up all the dirty dishes, since they don’t have to be washed,” she added with a grin, “and the rest of you can resume inventorying.”
“Inventorying? Huh. Well, you see what working in a bookstore will do for you?” Bob joked, pulling a garbage bag off one of the shelves in back. “It’ll help expand your vocabulary.”
Lizzie laughed. “That may be, Bob, but I know one thing that works even better. Reading. I’ve got my eye on the latest Cookbook Nook mystery, Inherit the Word, by Daryl Wood Gerber, and I’ll be taking her home with me today.”
Her “to be read” pile was getting much too low these days.
HOW THE LIGHT GETS IN—LOUISE PENNY
The following Thursday, Lizzie tapped the steering wheel of her Mazda 3 as she waited for the traffic light to change. An instrumental version of a song by Christina Aguilera that was popular in the mid-nineties played on the radio and she realized she was humming along. She’d recently watched the DVD ofBurlesque for about the fifth time, loving the music and her once-favorite singer. She slowed to make a right onto Tay Street. Molly had given her a quick call a couple of hours earlier but had to leave a message since Lizzie was in a meeting with the teaching staff at the Ashton Corners Elementary School, where she was a reading specialist. A phone call, Lizzie noted. No texting yet.
Her message had been brief. The Farrows had arrived and now Lizzie was headed to the Quilt Patch Bed and Breakfast to help welcome them, as Molly had asked. She’d spent the previous evening reading the bios of all four authors who had been invited to the mystery fair, wanting to sound knowledgeable when she talked to them. As she remembered, Margaret Farrow wrote several romance series over the years but switched to her pen name, Caroline Cummings, for her mysteries. Lizzie had noted that the Southern Caterer Mysteries were popular enough to have won a couple of Silver Teaspoon Awards for Best Novel over the years at the CozyCon conference.
Also arriving in town today, A.J. Pruitt had a prolific career writing police procedurals, as Bob so often told anyone who would listen. Lizzie wondered if he realized they weren’t the edgy Dirty Harry type he so enjoyed, but rather were heavier on the humor and the puzzle to qualify as a cozy. Probably not.
Lorelie Oliver, another Southerner with a belle protagonist, this one the Southern Fashionista series, seemed to attend every conference going on; and Gigi Briggs was a travel agent by day with the third book in her series, the Big Top Mysteries, featuring a circus trapeze artist, just out. An interesting mix, for sure.
Lizzie parked on the street in front of the B and B and noticed an older, silver-haired man standing on the large wraparound porch smoking a cigar. He watched as she approached the stairs and then stuck out his hand as she drew level to him.
“Carter Farrow, ma’am, at your service. I’m assuming you are the Lizzie Turner we keep hearing so much about.” His smile was warm and friendly.
Lizzie shook his hand. “That depends on what you hear. If it’s good, then that’s me.”
Carter guffawed. “I think this will be a very delightful weekend indeed.” He gave her a wink, and Lizzie thought his hand was aiming at her backside as she hurried past into the hall.
Patsy Kindall, owner of the Quilt Patch, stepped out of the kitchen and greeted her. “Hey, Lizzie. They’re in the front room enjoying a sherry, if you’d like to join them.”
“Thanks, Patsy. How are things?”
“Getting busy. I don’t want to complain as we’re getting into the low season, but I’ll be hopping all weekend.” She sighed as she pulled back a stray lock of light brown hair that had fallen across her cheek. Her smile looked forced as she added, “Now that Sarah has moved away, I’m going to have to hire someone, I think.”
“How is Sarah? Enjoying her new job?” Lizzie knew that Patsy missed her daughter for many reasons, among them the invaluable help she provided at the B and B.
The phone rang before Patsy had a chance to answer. She waved Lizzie into the room to the right and scurried back down the hall.
“Lizzie, I’m so glad you’re here,” Molly said, rising to greet her. She hooked an arm around Lizzie’s waist and introduced her to Margaret Farrow.
“I’m very pleased to meet you and we’re grateful you could work our new fair into your schedule,” Lizzie said.
Margaret was just what Lizzie had expected. In fact, she looked surprisingly like the photo on the jacket cover of her book. Her dark brown hair, showing no hints of graying even though she was well into middle age, had been swept up in a French roll, the top obviously backcombed, and a fringe of wavy bangs. She wore a powder blue knee-length dress in a jersey material that clung to her lean body.
“I’m the one who’s just tickled pink to have been sought out like this. Y’all know how to make a struggling writer feel special.” Margaret punctuated the sentence with a giggle, which seemed to surprise her. “And, I prefer to be called Caroline while I’m here, please. It helps me stay in character.”
The front screen door slammed and Carter Farrow brushed past Lizzie, although Lizzie noted there was lots of space in the room. “I’ve already met this charming young lady outside. Can I pour you some sherry?” He looked at Lizzie. She noticed he held a glass of something else in his left hand. Obviously not a sherry drinker.
“No, not right now. I’m fine, thanks.”
“Oh, I don’t doubt that,” Carter answered.
Embarrassed, Lizzie glanced over at Caroline in time to see the look of disgust on her face. It quickly changed into a benign smile as Carter settled himself on a Queen Anne chair at the far side of the room.
Caroline cleared her throat. “I wonder what time A.J. will be joining us. When we left the conference in Atlanta last Sunday, he said he was planning a long drive and stopovers on his way here. It seems he used to live in the area and wants to try to track down some old friends.”
“Why, I did not know that,” Molly said. “I hope he will be able to find them, although not much changes around these parts. Where are you from, Caroline?”
“Why, I’m a Louisiana girl, through and through.”
“Hence the Southern belle part of your series,” Lizzie threw in.
Caroline gave her a genuine smile this time. “How lovely that you know it. Of course, I’m writing about what I know, as they say. I’ve been considered quite the chef in my time.”
Molly nodded. “I’m sure.”
“It’s a winning combination,” Caroline continued, almost as if Molly hadn’t spoken. “My latest book won a Silver Teaspoon earlier this year, you know.”
“Yes,” Lizzie assured her. “I did know that. For Best Contemporary Novel, wasn’t it? And your romance novels are also award winners, aren’t they?”
Caroline was positively beaming by this time. “You are so right, my dear. I’m so happy you’re a fan of my work.”
Not what I’d said. Uh-oh. Better change the subject. “How long have you known A.J. Pruitt?”
“Oh, the better part of twenty years, I’d say. You know, when I started out writing, we were an awfully small, tightly knit group. Now look at all the authors who turn up for CozyCon. They had so many, to hear the organizers tell it, that some didn’t even get on panels. I think there were some who were mighty upset by that. Of course, I also go to the National Romantic Writers annual conference, as myself, and have won two Heart and Dagger Awards over the years.”
“My goodness, you certainly keep yourselves busy with all these conferences and festivals and such,” Molly enthused. “How did the one in Atlanta turn out?”
“It’s always such a popular event with readers. They’re sold out for weeks in advance. And it’s well worth an author’s time attending. The book sales are phenomenal.”
Patsy entered with a tray of thimble cookies and shortbread. “I thought you’d like some sweets with your sherry. Now, did you want me to make those dinner reservations for you and Mr. Farrow at the Black Tomato tonight?”
Caroline nodded. “Yes, please do. For six o’clock.”
They all looked toward the front door as heavy footsteps crossed the porch and the door buzzer rang. Patsy scurried from the room.
“Oh my, that’s A.J.’s voice,” Caroline said. “A.J., dear . . . we’re in here,” she called out.
Molly and Lizzie exchanged glances.
A few minutes and some muffled words later, the doorframe filled with a large male, salt-and-pepper hair on the long side, round face with a very pleasant smile on it. He looked to be big-boned rather than fat, Lizzie realized. And she would never have taken him to be the sixty-six years attributed to him in his biography.
He went over to Caroline and engulfed her in a bear hug. He next turned to Molly, who introduced herself and Lizzie.
“Why, I’m mighty pleased to make your acquaintance, Ms. Mathews, and you, too, Ms. Turner.” He gripped their hands in his large bear paws.
“It’s Lizzie, please,” she said when she’d found her voice.
“And I am A.J.” He looked to Molly.
“Molly will do me just fine.”
His smile showed real warmth and humor. “I hope I arrived at a good moment. I’ve been driving all around the countryside and didn’t have any idea as to how long it would take to arrive here.” He plunked himself down on the settee next to Caroline.
“Have you and Carter had an enjoyable few days since I last saw you?” he asked her.
“Of course. It’s such a rarity for us to just take some time and see the sights. My writing schedule is so busy and I find there’s one deadline after the other. I keep telling poor Carter that he should just go on a holiday on his own. But the poor dear says he’d be lost without me.”
She glanced over at Carter.
“Huh,” was all he said. He topped off his glass and helped himself to a couple of shortbread then took a seat at the far end of the room. He turned to A.J. “How’s that car of yours for touring?”
“Loving it. It just purrs along. Worth every single penny.” A.J. looked over at Molly and Lizzie and explained. “I just made the biggest splurge in my life and bought myself a 1971 911 T Targa Porsche in mint condition. Makes me feel like a million bucks when I drive it.”
Lizzie smiled politely, not having a clue as to anything he’d said other than Porsche.
“Oh, men and their cars,” Molly interjected. “My dear departed husband, Claydon, had himself a 1956 Corvette that he just babied like he was a proud papa.”
Carter whistled. “I feel really out of place in this company, me and my 2008 Chrysler Sebring. But it does us just fine, doesn’t it, sugar cakes?” All eyes turned to Caroline, whom Lizzie rightly assumed must be sugar cakes. She shrugged but there was a sour look on her face.
“I’m really not all that much into cars, as you know, Carter. As long as it gets me from signing to signing.”
“Huh,” Carter said again.
“So what does Caroline Cummings have on the go at the moment?” Lizzie asked, hoping to relieve the increasing tension in the room. She couldn’t quite figure out what brought it on . . . cars, books or men.
Obviously the right topic, Lizzie thought as Caroline’s face lit up.
“Why, I’m on the eighth Southern Caterer mystery, which will be coming out next June. Which reminds me, I really must get back to my editor on that. I’ve asked that the publication date be pushed up at least a month so it’s available for the CozyCon conference at the beginning of June. Have you ever been to it, either of you?”
Both Lizzie and Molly shook their heads.
“Well, if you’re going to be in the business of cozies, you really must attend.” She looked directly at Molly as she said this.
Molly smiled sweetly. “That is good advice. However, my bookstore is not a specialty shop. There are so many different types of books and conferences, I could spend all my time attending them and none running the shop.”
Lizzie swallowed a smile. The thought of Molly spending all her time at A Novel Plot just didn’t fly. She relied on Stephanie and the others stopping by whenever they were needed but not necessarily every day. However, Lizzie had to admit that Molly did have her fingers on the pulse of the store and knew everything about it.
“Well, yes,” said Caroline, leaning over to pat Molly on the hand. “It’s much like what I face as a writer. I have to be on top of all my series, writing all the time to meet deadlines, and yet, I also have to get out there and meet my public. The fans demand it of an author and there’s all that promotion that needs to take place, too.”
Caroline glanced at her watch. “My goodness, look at that. It’s four thirty already and I just have to go and have a short nap before getting ready to go out. It’s part of my regimen and what gives me the energy to attend to everything.”
“When is Lorelie expected?” A.J. asked as he reached over for a cookie.
Caroline’s smile slid into a scowl. “Soon enough, I’m sure. Now, if you’ll just excuse me. It was charming meeting you both. I guess I’ll be seeing you tomorrow.”
“Yes, you surely will,” Molly answered. “I have left my phone number in your rooms, along with directions to my house, where I will be hosting the welcoming dinner. Now, if you have any questions, just give me a call.”
Carter sauntered slowly out of the room behind Caroline. When they were out of earshot, A.J. said, “You’re in for a real show tomorrow night, let me assure you. The two divas around one table? Priceless.” He left them with a big wink.
The next day brought its own set of unpleasant surprises.
THE ETRUSCAN CHIMERA—LYN HAMILTON
Lizzie had just finished her cup of peppermint tea after supper and was settling back to her book, A Fashionable Death, when the phone rang. She had four chapters left to go in Lorelie Oliver’s latest book before meeting her at the author dinner the next evening.
She’d already finished the books of the other three involved in the mystery fair. She’d left Lorelie’s for last, knowing it was more romancey than the others, thinking it would be a faster read. It had proven not to be and, in fact, was so complex in some scenes that Lizzie had to reread entire paragraphs. The phone was not a welcome interruption.
“Lizzie, it’s Patsy Kindall over here at the Quilt Patch. I’ve been trying to reach Molly but I guess she’s not at home. I’ve got a bit of a situation here and I was hoping, as part of the fair committee, you could come over and tend to it.”
“Sure, Patsy. What’s the problem?”
“Well, Miss High-and-Mighty Lorelie Oliver has arrived, early, I might add, and in talking with the Farrows, realized her room is much smaller than theirs and demands another, large, comparable room. I just don’t have it.” Lizzie could picture Patsy throwing up her hands in despair. “I’ve tried to explain I have only the one suite, but she says I’m insulting her by offering her a small one. I don’t need this, believe me.”
“No, and you don’t deserve it. I’ll be right over, Patsy. Give her a glass of sherry or something and sit her down to wait for me.”
Lizzie sighed as she set the book aside, slipped her Keds runners back on and grabbed her denim jacket and handbag. She yelled out a good-bye to her cats, Brie and Edam, the only other living things in her tiny house, and left.
The B and B was only three blocks away and Lizzie didn’t even have time to come up with a plan on the drive over. She noted the Cape Cod house was ablaze in lights. She could hear a woman’s loud voice, dripping in Southern sarcasm, as she opened the front door.
“Apparently popularity and book sales are not factors taken into consideration by these fair people when allocating rooms.”
Lizzie cringed and took a minute to take a calming breath before entering the sitting room. Patsy spotted her instantly. “Ah, Lizzie Turner. So glad to see you. This is one of the women organizing the fair. And this”—she pointed out a tall, well-endowed woman to Lizzie—“is Lorelie Oliver.”
Lorelie ignored Lizzie’s outstretched hand and launched into a tirade. “I do not appreciate being snubbed like this, Ms. Turner. I have three Heart and Daggers and a Silver Teaspoon. My books are always on the bestseller lists and, really, I’m doing ya’ll a big favor by even being here.” She stopped for a breath and straightened her red and white tunic top that had ridden up on one hip. Her flowing red pants looked festive. She wore her platinum blonde hair in a pageboy, swept over to one side.
“I do know that this little event of yours is sold out,” she continued, “and I dare say that’s due in large part to my books.”
Lizzie thought to herself, it’s because it’s a unique event, first time it’s been tried in this town. That’s why.
Caroline struggled to push her way out of the soft-cushioned love seat. She stood a good three inches shorter than Lorelie and lacked the girth. Gaunt, as Mama used to say. “As usual, you are way too full of yourself, Lorelie.”
Lizzie couldn’t think of a thing to say. She spotted A.J. seated in a leather La-Z-Boy chair over in a far corner, a big grin on his face. He’s thoroughly enjoying this spectacle, Lizzie realized. Carter Farrow sat in the shadows beside the front window, the light shining around him rather than on him. She couldn’t figure out what his expression meant. Definitely not mirth. Maybe even a little bit scared?
“Now ladies,” Lizzie said, realizing she had to take charge. “You can’t imagine just how pleased we are to have you both with us, and room allocation has nothing whatsoever to do with anything other than . . .” she glanced helplessly at Patsy.
“The suite is for the Farrows because there are two of them,” she offered, and added under her breath, “as I’d already mentioned.”
“Yes, that’s right. Two people get the larger room and the others are allocated according to whomever arrives first.” She hoped it didn’t sound too much like a question. Since Molly had handled booking the rooms, Lizzie wasn’t too sure how things had been arranged. Patsy nodded as Lizzie’s eyes sought her out.
Lizzie took a deep breath. “We did choose the Quilt Patch because it’s our finest bed and breakfast in town and we know Patsy, as host, will treat you just royally. And you must take the time to have a look at all her wonderful quilts on display. She’s also a multi–award winner, you know.” It’s also close to the Eagles Center, Lizzie thought, but didn’t want to confuse them with too many details. “Now, we do so much appreciate you joining us here and we have planned a wonderful fair with lots of adoring fans. I’m certain you’ll feel the love of those fans.”
Was she laying it on too thick?
All eyes were on Lorelie. After a few short moments of silence, which felt like an hour to Lizzie, she smiled and said, “That will be just fine then.”
What had that been about? Lizzie glanced at A.J., who gave her a big wink. She noticed Patsy serving the tray of sherry, her hands shaking ever so slightly, and decided she could definitely do with one. Lizzie took a sip and turned back to face the room, at which point Lorelie sat down on the love seat and pulled Caroline down beside her. They seemed in deep discussion.