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A NEW SERIES FROM ACCLAIMED MYSTERY AUTHOR AMY PATRICIA MEADE
In bucolic small-town Vermont, tapestries expert Stella Thornton Buckley feels out of her element—and not just because she’s fresh from Manhattan. Mere hours after moving to maple syrup country, she and her husband, Nick, find a dead man, Allen Weston, in a well on their property. The police investigation forces the couple out of their lovely vintage farmhouse and—since the motels are packed with leafpeepers—into a ...
A NEW SERIES FROM ACCLAIMED MYSTERY AUTHOR AMY PATRICIA MEADE
In bucolic small-town Vermont, tapestries expert Stella Thornton Buckley feels out of her element—and not just because she’s fresh from Manhattan. Mere hours after moving to maple syrup country, she and her husband, Nick, find a dead man, Allen Weston, in a well on their property. The police investigation forces the couple out of their lovely vintage farmhouse and—since the motels are packed with leafpeepers—into a less than luxurious deer camp. Instead of mourning the loss of electricity and running water, Stella and Nick drive their Smart car all over the Vermont hamlet to question the quirky locals about Weston, a shrewd businessman who rubbed a lot of folks the wrong way.
Stella and Nick may never shed their flatlander reputation in this close-knit community, but can they get enough information from the taciturn townspeople to help Sheriff Mills solve the murder and sew up the investigation?
White-knuckled, Stella gripped the steering wheel and cringed as she felt her stomach churn and her heart rate rise with each teeth-rattling bump and dip. She didn't recall the driveway being in such bad repair during their last visit, but it was certainly something that she and Nick would need to address. "Let the homeowner's remorse begin," she said to herself as she brought the diminutive vehicle to a stop directly in front of the farmhouse's extensive wraparound porch, just a few yards behind the massive U-Haul moving truck operated by her husband.
Dressed in a New York Giants T-shirt and a pair of well-worn jeans, Graham Nicholas Buckley—Nick to all who knew him—stepped down from the driver's seat and, with a deep yawn, stretched his arms above his solid six-foot-two-inch-tall frame.
Stella, meanwhile, retrieved her cell phone from its place on the passenger seat and stared blankly at the last-received-call display. Home repairs were the least of her concerns. As if the drive from New York City and the subsequent house closing hadn't been tiring enough, the call she had received while on the road had left her feeling completely depleted. The Shelburne Museum, home to one of the nation's most diverse collections of Americana, had given their textiles curator position—the only available job of its type within the state of Vermont—to another applicant.
Fighting back tears, Stella switched off the phone and watched through the front windshield as Nick, sporting a boyish grin, sprinted to the front of the U-Haul. She had mentioned nothing to him about the Shelburne call. This move, the farmhouse, the Forest Service job that was to start the following Monday—all of it—had been Nick's dream for as long as she'd known him. That dream was finally coming true, and Stella was determined not to allow her personal disappointment to mar the occasion.
Her resolve strengthened, she withdrew the keys from the Smart car's ignition. Upon snatching her sweatshirt from the back of the driver's seat, she leapt from behind the wheel and rushed to the front of the truck where Nick now stood, arms folded across his chest, surveying the structure before him.
"I can't believe we did it," he remarked in amazement. "I can't believe we're here."
"Not only are we here," she dangled a single gold key in front of her husband's face, "but we're here to stay."
Nick grabbed the key in one hand and placed the other on the small of Stella's back. "Homeowners," he said, meditatively turning the key over in the palm of his hand.
"Vermont homeowners," she amended.
Nick turned his gaze to the seemingly endless forest of brightly colored trees that surrounded the back of the farmhouse. Beyond them, the rounded gray peaks of the Green Mountains, like a row of balding elder statesmen, stood sentinel over the valley below. "Helluva better view than the one on Murray Hill, isn't it?"
"Oh, I don't know. When Mr. Yang got his annual shipment of chrysanthemums in, that corner market was just as colorful." The early October air had grown damp and chilly, prompting Stella to don her hooded sweatshirt and pull the zipper up tightly against her chin. "Perhaps not as picturesque as this, mind you, but—"
Nick pulled his wife closer and laughed. "Yeah, you look like you're enjoying the scenery. Come on, let's get inside before it rains." He led her up the porch steps to the front door, which, after a bit of key-jiggling, unlocked and then swung wide open.
Eager to escape the bone-chilling wind, Stella stepped toward the doorsill, only to feel Nick's strong arms lift her off the ground and playfully throw her over his shoulder. "Watch your head."
"What are you doing?" Stella ducked and giggled as he carried her across the threshold.
"It's tradition for a husband to carry his wife into their new home, isn't it?" He continued through the foyer, past the spindled staircase, and into the first room on the right.
"Yes, but typically not in a fireman carry. And not all the way into—" From her unique, upside-down vantage point, Stella could see that the living room—which had, upon last inspection, been empty—now bore a large air mattress piled high with blankets, a basket of firewood and matches, and, on the hearth, a bottle of champagne with two glasses. "What—? What's all this? How did you—?"
Nick put her down gently. "I called the real-estate office from the road and asked Alice to set it up."
"That's why she was late for closing."
"Uh-huh. I wanted it to be a surprise—as my way of saying thank you."
"It's a lovely surprise." Stella threw her arms around her husband's neck and embraced him tightly. "But why do you need to thank me?"
"For leaving New York. For moving here. For letting me pursue my career." Nick brushed his lips against her dark blond hair.
She took a step back and looked into his dark hazel eyes. "Hey, when we got married, we agreed that if, after five years, I still hadn't been promoted to curator, we'd move somewhere that would allow you to do fieldwork. That was the deal, right?"
"Yeah, but that was five years ago. Not many women would have stuck to it the way you did."
"I stuck to it because I love you," she said. "And because I know that working a government desk job wasn't what you had in mind when you got your degree in forestry. But you turned down a field position and put your career on hold so that I could continue on at the museum."
"And now you've put your career on hold for me."
It was tempting to disclose her recent failure, to tell her husband about the Shelburne job and then take solace in his sheltering arms. But Nick had waited five years for this day, and Stella was determined not to let anything ruin it. "What are you talking about? I haven't put anything on hold. I have a résumé in with the Shelburne Museum, remember? I'm just waiting to hear if the job will come through."
"And if it doesn't?"
"There are plenty of historical sites around that might need a curator."
"Of medieval tapestries?" Nick raised a skeptical eyebrow.
"Of something," Stella shrugged. "Tapestries are my specialty, but I'm sure this area offers a whole realm of items that are just as interesting."
"Yeah, I heard maple sugar buckets are fascinating. And then, of course, there's the farm equipment and milking machines."
"Don't forget the antique cheese molds."
"Why would someone visit a museum of moldy cheese?" Nick deadpanned.
Stella rolled her eyes. "Whatever I decide to specialize in, rest assured that it will be something I enjoy."
"I hope so. The new field position pays better than my desk job, so you don't have to settle for a job you don't like."
"I know. I won't; I promise. Right now, however, we're celebrating you and your career and our new home ... after we unload that truck, of course."
"No unloading the truck," Nick contradicted with a smile.
"What do you mean, no unloading the truck?"
"Just that: no unloading the truck. Not today, anyway. We only have a couple hours of daylight left and, if my outdoorsman instinct is correct, it's going to rain any second now."
Nick pointed to the set of twelve-over-twelve windows that punctuated the front of the living room window and paused, but the deluge he had predicted failed to materialize.
"Okay, maybe not any second," he revised with a grin. "Still, what you need—what we both need—is to relax. Between the going-away parties, packing, loading the truck, paperwork, the drive ... it's been crazy."
"You're right. It has been a whirlwind."
"Mmm-hmm." Nick wrapped his arms around her waist and tilted his head toward hers. "What do you say I start the fire, pour us some champagne, and then later on, we can grab a bite at that bar and grill we passed on the way into town?"
"And in between the champagne and dinner?" she asked coyly, her gray-blue eyes sparkling in the dwindling late afternoon light.
"We'll see if we can't warm you up." Nick unzipped his wife's sweatshirt and left her with a lingering kiss before starting to work on the fire.
Stella, meanwhile, set about draping one of the large woven blankets over the front windows. As she worked to obstruct the view of potential visitors, large drops of water came crashing down onto the driveway and the front porch steps. "Hey, it's raining."
"See? I wasn't too far off. My senses are just dulled from all the city noise and pollution. Give me a few months of living here and I'll be able to predict rainstorms, snow accumulations, and the sex of unborn calves."
"That's fabulous," Stella replied dryly. "I'm sure your folks in New Jersey will be very proud."
Nick laughed and looked up from the pile of wood he had stacked, in crisscross fashion, inside the hearth. "What are you doing?"
"Covering the window."
"I can see that. Why?"
"For some privacy."
"Uh ... you do realize the nearest house is over a half mile away, don't you?"
Stella tossed the last bit of blanket over the empty curtain rod and then stepped back to examine her work. "Yes, but this way, if someone drops by, they can't see us ... you know."
"Who's going to drop by? No one knows we're here."
"Well ... I don't know. I guess you can take the girl out of New York but you can't take the New York out of the girl." She sat on the edge of the air mattress and watched as Nick deftly lit the kindling. "But I, like you, will adjust. Yep, give me a few months and I'll be used to living in the middle of nowhere with dirt roads, no neighbors, and no blinds. In fact, I may even take to walking around the house naked."
"No complaints here," Nick replied as he stoked the fire with a long stick. "But your mother on Long Island will be horrified."
"You think maybe that will keep her from visiting?"
"Doubt it. If I were you, I'd say we moved to a small town where cigarettes, vermouth, and polyester stretch pants are outlawed. She'll never step foot near the place."
Stella pulled a face. "Eh ... I'm not sure that's enough."
"Okay, tell her that all the elderly men in town lost their retirement funds in the banking crisis and now take turns working part-time shifts at the McDonald's in Rutland. If poverty doesn't keep your mother at bay, nothing else will."
Stella frowned, recalling the day her mother, Lila, filed for divorce from her father, Michael Thornton, citing irreconcilable differences. In truth, the only thing in their marriage that could not be reconciled was Michael's New York City police detective's paycheck with Lila's need to finance weekly hair appointments, shopping sprees, bridge clubs, cocktail parties, and the other female trappings of success she saw her society friends enjoying. But with custody a non-issue—Stella, their only child, was to start college that fall—Michael saw little reason to fight the divorce. Desolate, he agreed to Lila's demands and consequently wound up funding her gold-digging escapades for the next eighteen years, first through his alimony payments and then, more recently, through his widow's death benefit.
"And not a country club for miles. You know, honey, if we stick to that story, we may even be able to scare her into moving down to Boca."
"We should be that lucky." Satisfied with the fire he had produced, Nick grabbed the bottle of champagne from the ice bucket and started to remove the wire cage. "Now if we can only find a way to keep my parents from vacationing here—"
"I love your parents!" Stella interrupted.
"Of course you do. They worship the ground you walk on."
"No, they don't."
"Yes, they do. My mother is always calling to ask you for recipes and fashion advice."
"Who else is she going to call? She has two sons and only one daughter-in-law."
"And my dad? He thinks you're the greatest thing since La-Z-Boy started putting cup holders in their recliners."
"I don't know, he's awfully fond of those cup holders."
"They don't rate quite as high as you do, though."
"Oh, stop it," Stella laughed. "You know your parents love you."
"And I love them. But I don't want to have to remind myself of that every day of their four-week stay."
"Is that how long they stay with your brother?"
"Wow. Okay ... we'll just have to tell them that we don't have cable television and that pocketing Sweet'N Low from restaurants is a state offense."
"You know, you may be even more terrific than my parents claim." Nick wrapped the neck of the champagne bottle with the front of his shirt, revealing a smooth chest and stomach, both of which had been finely sculpted by hours of exercise and field training.
"You're, um, pretty terrific yourself."
Nick replied to the statement with a pop of the champagne cork. Once the initial spate of foam had subsided, he dispensed the bubbling, straw-colored beverage into the waiting glasses and passed a flute to Stella. "To you," he toasted and clinked the rim of his glass against hers.
"To us." She took a celebratory sip and felt her body warm as the citrusy effervescence of the champagne burst against her palate. "Mmm, very nice."
"Glad you like it. I asked Alice to pick it out, since, as you know, I'm"—Nick smacked his lips together and stuck his tongue out in an expression of distaste—"not a fan." He placed his glass on the hearth, rose to his feet, and disappeared down the hallway, only to return a few seconds later with a bottle of beer. "Fortunately, I also asked her to pick up six of these." He extracted a multifunction knife from his pocket and used it to pry off the cap before sitting back down.
"Domestic beer," Stella noted as she tilted her glass against the neck of the brown bottle. "To you and your budget-minded taste buds."
"New homeowners need to make sacrifices," he stated before taking another swig. "Besides, there are other ways of getting a buzz."
In the glow of the fire, Nick's eyes appeared deep brown instead of the green-laden tone they undertook in daylight. Stella was tempted to lean forward and bestow upon him a kiss that would overshadow all their previous kisses, but she decided instead to string him along just a bit longer.
"Oh yeah, I've heard about Vermont's reputation for illegal substances. But you know, honey, it's been nearly twenty years since you graduated college. Aren't you past that experimental age?"
"That's not exactly what I meant."
"Oh?" She sipped her champagne artlessly. "What did you have in mind?"
The half-empty beer bottle made a dull clunk as Nick set it down on the hardwood floor. Reaching his arms around Stella's narrow waist, he pulled her close to him and kissed her, nearly sending the contents of her glass spilling onto her sweatshirt.
"Ah, I give you a buzz, do I?" She set her champagne glass beside Nick's beer bottle.
"As if you need to ask. Now give me a kiss or I'll put you back in that fireman's carry and spank you."
"Promises, promises," she teased before complying with her husband's command.
Nick returned the kiss and then some. Removing her sweatshirt hungrily, he eased Stella back onto the air mattress and let his lips travel slowly from her mouth and to her chin, then down the length of her neck.
"I love you," she stated breathlessly. He sat up, pulled his shirt over his head, and flung it on the floor. "I love you too," he whispered as he leaned in for another kiss.
Just then, there was the sound of a distant knock.
Stella hoisted herself up on her elbows. "What was that?"
"Probably just the house settling," Nick dismissed, his focus concentrated upon the task of seducing his wife.
She sat motionless and waited for the noise to repeat itself, all the while trying to ignore her husband's fingertips as they travelled beneath her fitted black T-shirt, circled her navel, and then headed north.
Excerpted from Well-Offed in Vermont by Amy Patricia Meade Copyright © 2011 by Amy Patricia Meade. Excerpted by permission of Llewellyn. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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