The fall harvest may be just about over, but orchard owner Meg Corey is busier than ever planning her wedding to Seth Chapin. Who knew picking apples would be less work than picking out rings and a dress? And even though the happy couple has invited most of Granford, Massachusetts, to the ceremony, they might have to make room for one more guest…
Ex-con Aaron Eastman has unexpectedly reappeared in his hometown, searching for answers to the tragic fire in his family’s past that put him behind bars twenty-five years ago. Moved by his sincerity, Meg vows to do everything she can to help him solve the cold case. As she cobbles together the clues, it becomes increasingly clear that Aaron may have been considered the bad seed of the family, but someone else was one bad apple…
Includes Delicious Recipes!
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
“Hey, ladies, how’re you doing?” Meg Corey leaned on the fence that surrounded the goat pen outside her house and watched her two goats, Dorcas and Isabel, munching on their hay. They stared back with their weird eyes, then returned to pulling out clumps of hay from the bale.
“I know, food is more interesting than I am,” Meg said. Still, she kept watching, mostly because she could: for the first time in the past few months, she had the leisure to pursue unimportant things, like goat-watching. The harvest from her orchard was almost complete, with only a few apples lingering on the trees now in November. She’d put in plenty of hours picking apples alongside her hired pickers and her orchard manager, Bree, and now she gave herself the right to take a break. She was management, wasn’t she? Not that the goats seemed to care, as long as their food showed up on time.
But after a few more minutes, she was feeling the chill in the autumn air. A cup of coffee sounded good. Meg turned around to head for her kitchen door—and came face-to-face with an unfamiliar creature. Its head was about five feet off the ground, and it was covered with fuzzy wool. Not a sheep—she would recognize that, and besides, its neck was too long. Short ears, doe-like eyes. It regarded her steadily, checking her out much as she was checking it out.
“Seth?” she called out. The last time she’d seen her fiancé, Seth Chapin, he’d gone up the stairs to his office over the shed at the back end of the driveway. Of course, if the windows were shut he probably couldn’t hear her. At the sound of her voice, the animal had taken a startled step backward, but it was still staring at her. “Seth?” she called a bit more loudly.
She heard a window opening, and Seth stuck his head out. “You want something?”
“Uh, we have company?” she told him, waving her hand at Large Fuzzy Creature. Creature had turned its head toward Seth at the sound of his voice, but now returned to its steady contemplation of Meg.
She could have sworn that Seth smiled, but all he said was, “Be right down.” She heard the window shut again. The goats had come over to the fence line and were now doing their own checking out of the newcomer, who showed no particular interest in them. He—or she?—seemed to prefer Meg. She thought briefly about trying to shoo it away, but it didn’t look hostile, or seem afraid of humans, and she wasn’t sure where it belonged or which way it would go.
Seth came up behind her, now definitely smiling. “Oh, I forgot to tell you—we have new neighbors. This is one of them.”
“Yes, you did forget to mention that. First of all, what is it?”
“It’s an alpaca.”
“What I know about alpacas might fill an index card. Don’t they produce yarn?”
“So I’m told. I can’t speak from experience.”
“Okay, Alpaca, nice to meet you,” Meg said, in the interest of interspecies friendship. “I assume the alpaca didn’t sign a lease or take out a mortgage?”
“No, that would be the Gardners. They retired from city jobs and decided to find a place in the country and raise alpacas. They bought a chunk of land up toward Amherst—it’s too steep for most farmers to bother with, but apparently alpacas like hills, at least sometimes. I think they originated in Peru—that’s where the Andes are, if you recall.”
“Should we tell the Gardners that one of their, uh, flock is here?”
“Probably—and I think it’s called a herd. They aren’t supposed to roam around. I’m pretty sure there’s a town ordinance about livestock getting loose, although I can’t remember if it says anything specific about alpacas.”
“A phone number for the Gardners would help, Seth, unless you want to make friends with this fine specimen of alpaca here. Although I think it likes me better than you, but I wouldn’t want Dorcas and Isabel to get jealous.”
“I’ve probably got it in my office—I’ll be just a sec.” With that he turned and walked quickly toward the stairs to his office, leaving Meg face-to-face with the alpaca, who did not seem at all disconcerted. At least it wasn’t a bull or something large and hostile. “I wish I knew your name. How’d you get loose, anyway? I bet your people miss you. And your friends.” How many alpacas were there in the herd? Meg wondered.
The alpaca appeared to become bored with Meg, and wandered over to the goat pen, where the animals exchanged tentative sniffs across the fence. At least they weren’t fighting.
Seth reappeared quickly. “Someone is on the way. Their place is only a couple of miles from here, as the crow flies. Or, in this case, as the alpaca . . . what? Lopes? Trots? Shambles?”
“Take your pick. I’d offer you some coffee or something, but I don’t want this lovely creature to get into any trouble or wander off. I don’t know anything about their habits, and I’d hate to see it end up in front of a car on the road. It seems kind of trusting.” Meg eyed the animal’s shaggy fur. “I’d like to pet it, but I’m not sure it would be happy about that.”
“Better not to, for now. We can ask its owner if it’s friendly. Although I see what you mean—you kind of want to bury your fingers in the fur.”
Only a few minutes had passed when a battered car towing a small animal trailer crept into Meg’s driveway. A large woman with short, silvery hair climbed out. “Sorry, sorry—I hope she didn’t cause you any trouble. Lulu, get your hairy butt over here!” The alpaca just stared at her. “Well, it was worth a try—they seldom come when called, unless there’s food involved. I’ve got a bridle. Mind opening the back gate on the carrier, Seth?”
“No problem, Patty.” Seth walked over and opened the gate, while the woman sweet-talked Lulu the alpaca while slipping the bridle over her head. Meg almost giggled, because it looked like the alpaca gave a small sigh of regret at losing her short-lived freedom.
“Come on, baby, be a good girl,” the older woman said, leading the animal to the carrier. It walked in peacefully enough, and the woman secured the gate behind it, checking it twice. Then she came back to where Seth and Meg were standing. “I’m really sorry about that. Oh, I’m Patty Gardner—I just moved in a couple of weeks ago, a mile or two north of here. You must be Meg—Seth’s mentioned you. Our house is in pretty good shape, and there’s some okay pasture, but the fences leave a lot to be desired, and we haven’t had time to make the full circuit and patch them. But I didn’t mean to barge in on you like this.”
“Don’t worry about it, please. Yes, I’m Meg Corey—I live here, and I have an orchard up the hill, as you can see. I haven’t even been here two years myself. I’d ask you in for coffee or tea, but I’m guessing you want to get Lulu home again?”
Patty smiled. “Yes, I do, and I need to figure out where she broke through the fence and if any of her pals followed her—I could be chasing alpacas all night.”
“How many do you have?”
“Fifteen at the moment. It’s a small herd by most standards—what they call a foundation herd. We’re pretty new at this, so we’re starting small, but we’ll be breeding them. We want to expand once we get the hang of it, and get some more of the pasture fenced in.”
“Why alpacas, if you don’t mind my asking?” Meg said. Seth had said the woman was retired, but she looked strong enough to handle an alpaca.
“Well, they’re not too big—Lulu here is full-grown—and they’re sociable, at least with each other. They can look after themselves. They’re pretty quiet, except they hum now and then. They don’t eat too much. And there’s a market for their wool. And I should warn you—they spit, mostly at each other, but sometimes at people. It can be kind of nasty.”
“Got it. So if I see another alpaca wander by, I should call you?”
“I’m the only herder around, as far as I know. Right, Seth?”
“At least within town limits. You’re breaking new ground here, Patty.”
“Beats wrangling government regulations—I’ve had my fill of that.” Patty turned to Meg. “Can I get a rain check on that coffee? I’d like to get to know my neighbors.”
“Sure. My harvest is almost over, and now all I have to worry about is planning our wedding, which is less than a month away. Right, Seth?”
“You’ve got it.” Seth smiled. Meg smiled back.
“Then I guess congratulations are in order. Look, I’d better get Lulu back and hope she doesn’t tell all her herd buddies how much fun it is out here. Thanks for snagging her. See you later, I hope.” Patty strode off to her car, carefully maneuvered the trailer behind until she was pointed toward the road, then pulled away. Meg and Seth watched them go.
“Well, that was fun,” Meg said when they were out of sight. “Is it just me, or is an alpaca a supremely silly-looking creature?”
“What, you’re judging solely on appearance?” Seth exclaimed in mock horror. “As Patty informed us, they’re fairly nice animals. You’ve been lucky with Dorcas and Isabel, right?”
“I have, although I don’t think goats and alpacas are related. But I stand corrected: I will reserve judgment about the nature of alpacas, especially since now I have to live with them as neighbors. Can we go inside now? I’m freezing.”
“Shoot, I was hoping to get something done this afternoon. Never does seem to work out that way, does it?”
“Not often enough. But the alpaca invasion was not my fault. If anything, it’s yours. Doesn’t Granford have a fence-walker or something?”
“Not for the past couple of centuries. I vote for coffee—I think you’re turning blue.”
“Not my best color,” Meg said, leading the way into the kitchen. Once inside, she shucked off her coat and set about boiling water. “Would you rather have tea?” she asked Seth.
“Coffee’s good. Where’s Bree?”
“Still up the hill, I think. But we’re down to the last couple of varieties. Maybe she’s hiding out just to avoid the paperwork. She owes me the year-end summary, or at least an estimate. Maybe it’s bad news and she doesn’t want to know.”
“I can sympathize—I hate the paperwork part of my business, but if I don’t send invoices, I don’t get paid. Where are we on . . . well, everything else?”
“East of nowhere, I’m afraid.” Meg poured water over coffee grounds. “We’ve asked Christopher to officiate, but I don’t know if he’s done anything about getting the special license, and I’m not sure how long that takes.” Christopher was a professor at the nearby University of Massachusetts campus and had managed the orchard, mainly as a teaching tool, before she had shown up and decided to take it on. And he’d recommended Bree, for which she would be forever grateful to him. “I told Nicky and Brian to hold the date at the restaurant, but we haven’t talked about food or drink or even set the time. You and I need to get our own paperwork in order, for the state. Have you decided what to do about a best man?”
“I figure it’s got to be Art.”
Meg filled two mugs with coffee and brought them to the kitchen table. She sat down with a sigh of relief. “That’s fine with me, although of course it’s your choice. And if anything goes wrong, we’ll have the law on hand to handle it.”
“Heaven forbid. What about you?” Seth asked.
“Maid of honor? Or matron? Normally I’d ask Rachel, but either she’ll be about to pop with the baby, or she’ll be exhausted from dealing with a newborn. Of course she and her family are invited, but I’ll leave it up to her to decide whether she can face coming and how long to stay. So that kind of leaves Gail, who’s the best friend I’ve got around here. Do you know, I’ve probably spent more time with her than almost anyone else in Granford? Except you, of course. But I haven’t asked her yet.”
“I like Gail. See? We’ve made a pair of decisions already: Art and Gail. You know, it’s a wonder we ever managed to get invitations sent out.”
“Don’t remind me,” Meg said fervently. “I cringe every time I go into town, worrying that I forgot to invite someone. But the restaurant holds only so many people safely. Anyway, it’s your fault—you grew up here, and you know everybody in town. I think my own list had about ten names on it.”
“They’ll understand, I’m sure. If it turns out that the other half of the population of Granford is miffed at us, then we’ll just have to throw another party. Maybe a solstice party.”
“You can plan that one,” Meg said. “But I guess we’re making progress. I’ve alerted my parents, but we haven’t pinned down when they’re going to arrive. I’d really rather they didn’t stay here. Oh, and we need rings, don’t we? And I have no idea what I’m wearing.”
“About them staying here . . .” Seth began slowly.
“You don’t want them to? Or you do?” Meg protested before he could finish. She wasn’t sure which answer she wanted to hear.
“No, I’m happy to have them. But I’m guessing that one reason you don’t want to put them up is because of the bathroom situation.”
“You’d be right. The one bath is barely adequate for the three of us, and I can’t imagine adding two more people to the mix. Why do you bring that up?”
“I’ve been thinking . . . I want to give you something special as a wedding present, and I thought maybe an overhaul of the plumbing of this place would be good. Are you horrified?” Seth looked uncharacteristically uncertain.
Meg was momentarily speechless, and then she burst out laughing. “I love it! Nothing says true love like plumbing.” Seth looked bewildered, as if unsure of what she was saying, so she took pity on him. “Seriously, Seth, I think it’s a terrific idea. What did you have in mind?” And when will you find the time? Meg added to herself.
“I was thinking that I could carve out a smaller bath from that niche in the master bedroom—shower only—without taking anything away from the main bathroom. Although all the pipes there definitely need to be replaced. And if I’m going to have things opened up anyway, I thought I could add a powder room directly beneath it at the same time.”
“That would be amazing, Seth,” Meg said, and meant it. “But we will have one functional bathroom throughout the whole construction process, right?”
“Of course. And everything that shows will be historically accurate, at least on the surface. I figured you’d want some say in picking out the fixtures. Whenever you have the time.”
“I love the way you think, Seth Chapin. I think it’s a brilliant idea. And I have no idea how I’m going to match it.”
He smiled, clearly pleased by the success of his suggestion. “Don’t worry about it. This is kind of a shared gift anyway—I’ll be happy not to have to fight either you or Bree for time at the mirror while I’m trying to shave.”
“I haven’t dared ask Bree what she wants to do about living arrangements. I’m sure she’d rather not intrude in our newlywed bliss, but I can’t afford to pay her enough to rent someplace nearby. Or at least, I don’t think I can. I won’t know until after she’s run the numbers for our sales and expenses. Are we really supposed to figure all this out in the next couple of weeks? Oh, and by the way, are we planning a honeymoon?”
Seth looked stricken. “Do you want one?” he said anxiously.
Meg burst out laughing at the look on his face. “If you could see yourself! Sure, you know me—I’m pining for a week in the Bahamas, with well-oiled pool boys bringing me endless fruity drinks with umbrellas in them.”
“Then you shouldn’t be marrying a plumber,” Seth responded.
“Excuse me, a specialist in period home renovations with a growing client list,” Meg corrected him. “And don’t worry about it. The idea of sitting here and catching up on the last six months’ worth of . . . well, just about everything sounds like perfection to me.”
“Amen,” Seth said. “Although maybe we could try a restaurant or two.”
“Or a weekend in Boston?”
“Don’t get ahead of yourself, woman!” he said in mock anger. Then his tone softened. “Happy?”
Meg smiled. “I am. Very. It will all work out.”
Meg’s cell phone rang as they were finishing their coffee. She fished it out of her pocket to see the restaurant’s number. “Hey, Nicky or Brian. What’s up?”
“It’s Nicky. Things are quiet at the moment, and we wondered if you wanted to come over and discuss wedding plans now?”
Meg checked her watch: just past three. “Sounds great—Seth and I were just talking about all the planning we still have to do. You want him there?” She looked up to see Seth shaking his head vigorously. “Or maybe we should rough out something and I can show it to him.”
“Either way is fine. So we’ll see you in a few?”
“I’ll be there.” Meg hung up and turned to Seth. “What, you don’t want to talk about menus?”
“I trust you. And I eat just about anything, as you know. Just include something for the vegetarians and vegans and we’ll be fine.”
“I don’t have to have carrot cake, do I? Because there’s a lot about traditional weddings that I won’t miss, but I want an indulgent, over-the-top cake.”
“I’m not going to argue.” Seth stood up. “Well, those invoices are calling my name. See you at dinner. Don’t go too crazy—but I haven’t had a bad dish at Gran’s since it opened.”
“I’ll try to control myself, and I’ll listen to Nicky’s ideas. I agree—she’s a great chef, and we’re lucky to have her in town. Happy invoicing!”
“Yeah, right,” Seth muttered as he went out the back door.
Meg was beginning to understand why people eloped: it was so simple. She had never been all that interested in weddings, and the few friends she’d kept in touch with from her pre-Granford days seemed to be avoiding marriage altogether, although most of them had a partner of some description. Meg had considered the idea of living with Seth—briefly—but rejected it. The reality was, Seth was spending about ninety percent of his time at her house, but that was not the same as standing up and declaring your intentions to spend your life together in front of your friends and your community. She and Seth hadn’t explored the concept in much detail—after all, he’d been married once before, and that hadn’t worked out. He was surprisingly unbitter about the end of that relationship, and would only go so far as to say that he and Nancy had discovered that they wanted different things from their lives, and had parted on reasonably good terms. But he wanted the public declaration of their joining now, maybe more than she did.
In an odd way, Meg felt like she was marrying the town by marrying Seth. His Chapin ancestors had helped settle the town of Granford over two centuries earlier. Of course, her Warrens hadn’t been far behind, but Meg hadn’t grown up in the town, the way Seth had. But Seth didn’t just live in Granford—he helped run the place, as an elected selectman, which was an unpaid and occasionally thankless task.
But she’d never pored over Brides magazine, never oohed and aahed about dresses and table decorations. She hadn’t talked any of this over with her mother, Elizabeth, but she had a sneaking feeling that Elizabeth was simply happy to see her getting married at all. Seth’s mother, Lydia, who lived just over the hill, was equally laid-back about the whole thing. So it was up to Meg to make the myriad of decisions about what and where and how this was going to happen. She realized that in her mind she visualized one large happy party that happened to include a small element that would make Seth and her a legal entity in the eyes of the state and country. Whatever that meant. With a sigh, she stood up, pulled on her jacket, and went out to her car to drive the couple of miles to the restaurant.
The sight of Gran’s, housed in a sturdy Victorian building perched on a low hill at the end of the town green, never failed to cheer her up. Meg was proud that she had played a role in creating it—not with the cooking (Nicky handled that brilliantly) but by figuring out a way to make it financially possible in a highly competitive area by involving local providers as partners. It had worked well, and the restaurant had been open a year now. It was even drawing visitors from the surrounding college-based communities like Amherst and Northampton, and that was high praise indeed from the local foodie community. She parked beside the building and walked up the front steps. Nicky opened the front door before Meg reached it.
“Welcome, blushing bride!” Nicky said, throwing her arms around Meg. “I’m so glad you chose us for this wonderful event.”
Apparently Nicky was more excited about the wedding than Meg was. “The blushing part I’ve got down pat—it’s the ‘bride’ part that still boggles me.”
“Ha! You and Seth are made for each other. Any dummy could see that.”
“Considering that I started my career in Granford with a murder in my backyard and by creating chaos at a town meeting, that’s a small miracle. How’ve you been, Nicky? How’s business?”
“Great, to both. Come in, sit down. I made some nibbles for us—this planning stuff is hungry work.”
Meg complied. “Will Brian be joining us?”
“Nah. I’ll tell him what the plan is, and he’ll make it happen. Besides, he thinks this is girly stuff.”
Meg smiled. “I have a sneaking suspicion that Seth feels the same way. He’s more or less said, ‘whatever you want.’”
“Well, what do you want?”
“I want a party where people have a good time.”
Nicky eyed her. “Oh, sure, no problem. We’ll just order up a bunch of good-time supplies. Okay, let’s start with the basics. The date is December fourth—that’s a Friday. Why not Saturday or Sunday?”
“It was my grandmother’s birthday, and she was one of my favorite people. I see it as kind of an easygoing event, after work for some people. I haven’t invited a lot of people from out of town, so it will be mostly the people Seth and I know around here.”
“Well, since we’re talking about Seth, that’s the entire town. How did you narrow down the list?”
“It wasn’t easy, believe me. I’m sure somebody’s feelings will be hurt. Or I’ll just blame it on you and Brian and those pesky fire regulations.”
Nicky grinned. “Okay, I’ll take the heat. And I wouldn’t expect Seth to bend the rules about capacity, even for his own wedding.”
“Don’t forget that the entire select board of Granford and the chief of police will be here, too,” Meg added.
“Exactly. We can’t just stuff people in willy-nilly. The place might collapse. How’re the RSVPs going?”
“About fifty percent so far,” Meg told her. “Not too many ‘nos’ either.”
“Of course there aren’t,” Nicky replied quickly. “People have been betting on when you two would figure things out for the past year—they wouldn’t miss it.” Nicky got a faraway look in her eye. “Of course, we might be able to enclose the porch with removable panels and some portable heaters—that would give you some more capacity. But we’d have to be sure the porch can take the weight. I’ll have to ask Brian about that.” Nicky made a note on the pad of paper she had brought to the table. “Okay, next. Sit-down or buffet?”
“Shoot, I don’t want a formal thing with fancy tablecloths and six forks and three-foot centerpieces on the tables. Buffet is fine. And no assigned seating—let people sit where they want and with whoever they want.”
“Open bar? Champagne only?”
Meg sighed. “Rough me out some numbers on that, will you?” She knew that an open bar could get expensive, but it seemed stingy to offer guests only one option for liquid refreshment, and cash bars were kind of tacky for a personal event.
“What kind of food?” Nicky was as relentless as a drill sergeant.
“Buffet food?” Meg ventured.
“Hot or cold?” Nicky snapped.
Meg held up a hand. “Nicky, I love your food. Why don’t you suggest a menu? And since this will be in December, I guess there had better be some hot food in there somewhere. But not too drippy.”
“Got it.” Nicky made another note. “I’ll e-mail you some choices. Decorations?”
“Well, it’s after Thanksgiving, but I don’t want a Christmas theme. Greenery?”
“How about pine boughs with a few nice red apples thrown in? That would look back to your harvest, and forward to the winter season.”
“Perfect. I’ll supply the apples, if you’ll tell me what you need.”
“Maybe a few real candles with hurricane globes—exposed candles always make me nervous, especially with greenery around. Too easy to tip over.”
“I hear you. Are we done yet?”
“Of course not. One big cake, or individual ones?”
“I told Seth I wanted an extravagant wedding cake. That’s the one thing I remember from most of the weddings I’ve ever been to. Can you do that here?”
“Of course I can. Flavor?”
“Whatever you do best. And like to make.”
“Red velvet cake? With white frosting and red sugar apples?” Now Nicky had a wicked gleam in her eye.
“Fine. Wonderful. How much is all of this going to cost us?” Meg said.
Nicky looked at her directly. “I wish I could say it’s on the house, since we both owe you so much. But the business can’t take that. How about I charge you what the ingredients cost us? Of course, additional waitstaff will be extra. And the liquor, of course. But our labor will be our gift to you two.”
Meg was touched. “Nicky, that seems more than fair to me. Thank you.”
Nicky grinned. “Don’t thank me until you’ve seen the bill. But I won’t load things up with filet mignon and truffles. Call it the best of New England, locally raised.”
“I love it. Is that all?”
“For now. I’ll send you over a proposal, and we can fine-tune it. How’s the harvest look?”
“Not bad, all things considered. We survived.” Despite a drought and an insect invasion and a small forest fire. “I’m hoping we can afford a pump for the wellhead this year, which will make our lives a whole lot easier in case we get hit by another drought.”
“And Seth’s business?”
“Still kind of transitional, I guess. Plumbing jobs pay the bills, but his heart is in historic renovations, which are rarer. He’s still getting his name out there. And then he gives time to things like the overhaul of the Historical Society, which he did pro bono. Have you been inside yet?”
“No time. But I have to say, I was impressed that it came in on time and on budget. That’s unusual anywhere. And Seth must have had a hand in that.”
“He has a hand in just about anything that goes on in Granford.” Meg checked the time—nearly five. “Nicky, I must be keeping you from your own work. Don’t you have to prep for tonight’s meal?”
“I do, but I wanted to make sure I got things squared away with you. Like I said, we owe you big-time, and I’ll do everything I can to make sure this event is something special.”
Meg felt the prick of tears. “Thank you, Nicky. That means a lot to me.”
Loud noises of clattering pans came from the kitchen, and Nicky stood up quickly. “Oops, gotta go. I’ll get you that estimate later this week, okay?”
“That’s fine. Thanks again.”
Outside on the porch, Meg took a deep breath of the autumn air. There was a hint of smoke—were people already using their fireplaces? Should she have hers cleaned? Did they have any firewood? Stop it, Meg! Just enjoy the moment, all right? The town green looked lovely. The light was already fading, now that it was past five. The steeple of the white church at the other end of the green soared into the deep blue twilight sky. Meg noticed that there were lights on at the Historical Society just down the hill from it. Was it still open? It shouldn’t be, but maybe Gail Seldon was trying to catch up on cataloging, or setting up the new exhibits. Renovation had been completed only a month or so earlier, and then they’d had to wait to install new shelving in the newly dug basement, and then they’d had to paint, and so on. So while Gail had gleefully assembled the Society’s collections from the buildings across the town, where they’d been “temporarily” stored, some for as long as a quarter century, she still hadn’t had time to update the cataloging so she knew what they had. But she also wanted to make the place welcoming, by arranging new exhibits that showcased the local historical objects. And somehow she had to squeeze in time for her husband and their two school-age children.
Meg decided to walk over and say hi to Gail, if it was indeed her. It could be one or another of the Society’s board members, but she knew most of them as well. If it was Gail and she was alone, maybe Meg would have the chance to ask her about being matron of honor. Meg walked down the porch steps, then crossed the road and the length of the green.
Only a few of the lights inside were on—saving electricity?—and the door stood partially open. Meg rapped on it. “Hello? Gail?” she called out. There was no answering voice from inside, but Meg could hear a peculiar mewling sound. Human? Animal? She pushed the door open and stepped inside, through the unlit foyer, into the single big room beyond. And stopped in her tracks.
Gail was at the far end of the room, leaning heavily on an old kitchen table—the corner was given over to a mock-up of a kitchen circa 1900. The strange noises were coming from her, and as Meg took in the scene she realized that Gail was covered with blood.
Meg rushed across the room and grabbed Gail gently by her arms. “Gail? What happened?” Even as she asked, she scanned Gail’s body for any injuries—and didn’t find any.
It took Gail a moment to stop hyperventilating and focus on Meg. “Meg?” she whispered. “What are you doing here?”
“I saw the lights on and I thought I’d stop by. Is all this blood yours?”
Gail looked down at herself. “Oh my God! No, it’s not mine!”
Both she and Meg seemed to realize at the same moment that Gail was clutching an odd object in her hand, something that Meg couldn’t immediately identify. But it was clear that it was completely covered with blood. “Gail, can you put that down, please?” Meg said softly.
Gail reacted with horror and dropped it suddenly. It clattered on the tabletop and spun for a moment. But Meg was distracted when Gail slumped against her, and she guided her to the nearest chair. If it was a priceless antique, she didn’t care, because Gail’s legs didn’t seem to support her. “Are you sure you’re not hurt?”
“No, I’m fine,” she said, her voice stronger. She took a deep breath. “There was a man . . .”
Meg stopped her. “If all this blood is his, I think we need to call Art. Is that okay?”
“Wait! Check and see if he’s anywhere in the building. He must be hurt, bleeding like this.”
Gail had a point. The man could be dying in a dark corner in the building, or outside. Art could wait for two minutes while Meg took a brief look around. “Will you be okay if I go look, Gail?”
Gail nodded without speaking.
Meg took a quick scan of the room, then crossed to the door to the foyer and turned on the lights—all the lights. She looked around again, and immediately saw a trail of blood drops leading from the kitchen corner to the front door, where she had entered. She felt a surge of relief: the man wasn’t in the building. He’d left. She thought for a moment: when she’d been standing on the porch at the restaurant, had she seen anybody on or near the green? She couldn’t remember noticing any movement, apart from the cars on the main road. So he’d been gone for a few minutes, the time it had taken her to cross the green. But how far could he have gone, if he was losing that much blood?
She went back to the corner where Gail was sitting, At least her breathing had returned to normal, but she had her arms wrapped around herself. She looked up when Meg approached. “Anything?”
“No. Looks like he went out the front. Gail, I want to hear your story, but let me get Art over here so you don’t have to repeat yourself. Is your family expecting you at home?”
“No, thank God. I told my husband I wanted to work late, and he said he’d pick up the kids and feed them and take them to a movie. I’d hate to have them see me like this.” She looked down at the blood that covered her front, now darkening and stiffening.
“I’ll call Art. Can I get you something first? A glass of water? A cup of tea?” Meg tried to recall what you were supposed to do for shock and came up blank. Sugar? “Are you warm enough?”
“Meg, just call, will you? The heat works fine,” Gail snapped.
Meg stepped into the foyer to make the call. After five; would he still be in his office? Luckily he was, and Meg was put through quickly. “Hey, Meg. How’re things going?” he said. “I don’t see much of that guy of yours.”
“Art, no time for small talk,” Meg spoke quickly. “There’s a problem at the Historical Society, and I think you’d better get over here.”
“What’s wrong?” Art’s tone had changed quickly, and now he was the Granford chief of police instead of a friend.
“I came by and found the door open, and when I walked in, I found Gail Selden here, covered with blood. Not hers—somebody else’s. But whoever it was isn’t in the building now.”
“I’m on my way.” He hung up abruptly. Meg calculated it would take him no more than five minutes to get to the town green. Should she call Seth? She almost laughed: Why should she call Seth? What was he supposed to do? After she’d talked to Art, or watched Gail talk to Art, if he let her stay, then she could call to say she’d be late for dinner. She could explain then.
She went back to Gail’s side. “He’ll be right over. Are you sure you’re all right?”
“I’m not hurt, if that’s what you mean. I’m scared and rattled and pissed at the whole situation. What could anybody want here? It’s not like we’ve got any money—maybe twenty bucks in singles for the souvenirs up front. And it’s not like we’ve got scads of valuable antiques, either.”
“Maybe a homeless guy looking for someplace to keep warm? It is getting cold out there,” Meg suggested.
Gail just shrugged. They waited in silence until they heard a car pull up outside. Meg went to open the front door. When Art climbed out of his car, Meg said, “There’s a blood trail on the front steps here. I didn’t notice it when I came in, so I’ve already tramped through it.”
“Nice to see you, too, Meg. Duly noted. Gail inside?” Art stepped carefully only on the edges of the massive granite slab that made up the front step.
“Yes. She seems to be holding up okay. I haven’t asked her anything, once I was sure that she wasn’t the one who was bleeding.”
“Thanks, Meg.” Art preceded her into the big main room and stopped in his tracks; apparently he hadn’t expected to see quite so much blood. Meg suppressed a smile, which was wildly inappropriate: had he thought she was exaggerating?
“Gail, you okay?” he said, advancing cautiously, watching where he put his feet.
“Hi, Art. Physically, yes. Otherwise . . . I’ll let you know later.”
“What can you tell me?”
Apparently he wasn’t going to throw her out, so Meg went to what she knew was a small storage closet at the back of the room and brought out two folding chairs. She gave one to Art, who nodded, then sat in the other, next to Gail.
Gail took a deep breath. “I was working on setting up the kitchen exhibit, unpacking some stuff I hadn’t seen before. There was no one else here. It was just before five, but I hadn’t locked up yet. I mean, why would I? There’s nothing here worth stealing. So I’m pulling stuff out of the packing box, and I look up and there’s this guy standing in the doorway. I say, ‘We’re closed,’ or something like that, but he just keeps standing there. Finally he says, ‘You run this place?’ and I say, ‘Yes, but you’ll have to come back some other day.’ I mean, if it was somebody I knew, I wouldn’t mind chatting, but this guy was kind of weird.”
“Can you describe him?” Art asked.
“Tall, maybe a bit over six feet—I’m just guessing. Skinny. Older than me. Dark hair with a lot of gray in it, short but badly cut. His clothes were kind of nondescript—I mean, there was nothing much to notice. He wore clothes. Jeans, shirt, jacket, running shoes. Nothing that stood out. But he acted odd—he just kept staring at me. Then he said, ‘You keep all the stuff from Granford here?’ And I told him again, ‘You’ll have to come back some other time.’ But he just looked at me. So I came out from behind the table and said, ‘I’m closing up now. You’ll have to leave,’ and he wouldn’t go. And then he took a step closer, and I backed up. When I put my hand on the table behind me, it landed on that.” Gail pointed toward the bloody object lying on the table.
“What the heck is that?” Art asked.
“It’s a food chopper, circa 1880. It was part of the collection that I was unpacking.”
“So you picked up the chopper. Then what?”
“The guy took another step closer, until he was about two feet away from me. And I guess I panicked, and I just slashed out at him with that chopper. It has a really sharp blade.”
“I’ll bet it does. I’m guessing you connected with him?”
“I did. If you ask me where, I can’t tell you. He was so startled, I don’t think he even tried to defend himself. I may have shut my eyes and swung at him a couple of times. When I opened my eyes again, he was standing there, staring at his hands, which were covered with blood. And then he looked at me, and turned and ran out the front door.”
“How’d you end up with all that blood on you?” Art asked carefully.
Gail looked down at herself and finally realized the implications. “Oh God, I must have hit something important! He could be out there bleeding to death, if he’s not already dead. You’ve got to find him!”
“Gail, keep it together,” Art said. “Yes, you might have hit an artery, but that doesn’t mean he’s dead. I’ll call a couple of guys from the station and we’ll look for him. Too bad it’s getting dark out there.”
“Find him! Please?”
“We will, Gail. Meg, you have anything to add?”
She shook her head. “No. I was up at Gran’s, and I took a moment to look out at the green, and saw the lights on here. Then I walked over from there. I didn’t see anyone. I stopped in here because I thought it was probably Gail inside. That was just after five. So this guy has to have left before that, though not by much. And he’s been out there bleeding for over half an hour now.” Unless he was already dead, in which case he would have stopped bleeding. No, Meg wasn’t about to say that out loud.
“I’ll call the station,” Art said, then walked a few feet away.
“What if I killed him?” Gail whispered. “What possessed me? I mean, it wasn’t like he was threatening me or anything. I didn’t see anything in his hands. I was just so surprised to see anybody else in the building. He seemed kind of . . . lost. Confused. And all I could do was lash out at him. And when he left, I couldn’t even get it together to call 911.”
Meg put an arm around Gail’s shoulders. “Don’t beat yourself up over this, Gail. He frightened you. He was coming toward you, even after you’d warned him off. All you did was defend yourself. And we don’t know that he’s dead.” Or who he is, or what he wanted here. “Art and his guys will find him.”
Art returned quickly. “Gail, if you can’t think of anything else I should know, why don’t you go home now? Get cleaned up? Unless, of course, you don’t want the kids to see you like that?”
“They’re out at a movie with my husband,” Gail said. “Thanks, Art—I’d feel a whole lot better if I could get out of these.” She looked down at her clothes. “Should I save them? I mean, do you need them for evidence or something?”
“Might as well keep them, I guess.”
“Art,” Meg interrupted, “Maybe I should drive Gail home? I don’t think she’s in any shape to handle driving right now. Then I could bring the clothes back to you.”
“I’ve got a better idea,” Art countered. “Let me tell the guys what they’re looking for, and then you drive Gail’s car to her house. I’ll follow you and collect the clothes there. Chain of evidence, you know. And I’ll bring you back to your car here.”
Evidence of what? Being bled on? But the clothes would certainly show how much blood had been spilled. “That works. Gail, you okay with that?”
“Sure. I want the clothes out of the house as soon as possible.”
“Then it’s a plan.” Art went out the front to greet the arriving officers, and spent a couple of minutes explaining the situation. Then he sent them out to look around the grounds. Would there be a blood trail? The light outside was all but gone—could they even see it? Which way would this person have run?
Art came back in. “Sorry to bother you again, Gail, but did you hear any cars near the building? When the guy arrived, or after he left?”
Gail shrugged. “No, but I wasn’t exactly paying attention. You think this guy drove away?”
“We can’t eliminate that possibility. Meg, why don’t we leave now? I’ll come back and give ’em a hand once we’ve dropped Gail off.”
“Can it wait until I’ve cleaned up a bit?” Gail asked. “I want to wash . . . this off.” She held up her arms.
“Of course, Gail,” Art said gently. “Take your time.”
Gail disappeared into the bathroom that had recently been added—by Seth, of course—and they could hear running water. “Hell of a thing,” Art said in a low voice. “I can’t remember anything like this happening in Granford. At least Gail’s all right, although I’m not so sure about the other guy.”
“It seemed like a lot of blood. You think it was someone just passing through? Looking for some quick cash? No, that wouldn’t be right. Gail said the man asked about Granford records, so he must know the town.”
Gail emerged from the bathroom and retrieved her bag from somewhere in the back of the building, and wordlessly handed the car keys to Meg. At least Meg knew the way to Gail’s house, so she didn’t have to give directions. Mostly they were silent, until they neared the house. “What am I going to tell my husband?” Gail whispered.
“Wait until the kids are in bed, and tell him the truth. You can decide how to explain it to the kids in the morning.”
“There’s bound to be something in the news,” Gail protested. “If Art doesn’t find him tonight, they’ll have to put out a bulletin, won’t they?”
“Probably. But I don’t think Art’s in any hurry to call the press. Let’s just take it one step at a time.”
Meg pulled into Gail’s driveway. Before she got out of the car, Gail laid a hand on her arm. “Thanks, Meg. I’m glad you were there.”
“We’ll talk tomorrow.” Meg climbed out of the car and handed the keys back to Gail. She stood watching until Gail had let herself into the house, then turned and walked over to where Art was waiting in his car. Once she was settled, she asked, “Anything new?”
“Nope. So you just happened to walk into this scene?”
“Yes, Art, I did. Find the guy, will you? I know Gail doesn’t want you to find him dead, and neither do I.”
“I’ll do my best, Meg.”
Gail reappeared at the door, with a large brown paper bag. Art went to the door to take it from her, said something to her, then came back to the car to drive Meg back to the green.
Meg finally made it home close to seven. “You’re late,” Bree said. “I cooked.”
Meg didn’t want to discourage her orchard manager and housemate when she had made one of her rare efforts to cook. “Sorry. I meant to call, but things got a little complicated.” She hung up her jacket and dropped heavily into a chair at the kitchen table.
Seth walked in through the outside door, took one look at her and said, “What’s wrong?”
Bree turned around from the stove, startled by Seth’s question. “What? What’re you talking about?” She gave Meg a harder look. “Okay, what’s going on?”
Am I really so easy to read? Meg wondered. “I went to Gran’s this afternoon to talk with Nicky about plans for the wedding—I’ll fill you in later, Seth. After we were done there, I noticed the lights were on at the Historical Society, and I thought Gail might be there, so I went over to say hi. When I got there, she was there, but she was covered with blood, and it looked to me like she was in shock.”
Seth sat down next to Meg and took her hand. “Is she all right?”
Meg nodded. “The weird thing is, it wasn’t her blood. She said a man came in, and when he approached her and got too close, she grabbed the first thing she put her hand on, which happened to be a wickedly sharp antique chopper, and slashed at him. It looks like she connected, based on the blood all over her. She had to have hit something important, with that much spatter.”
“Is the guy dead?” Bree asked.
Excerpted from "A Gala Event"
Copyright © 2015 Sheila Connolly.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
What People are Saying About This
Praise for the New York Times bestselling Orchard mysteries
“Meg Corey is a fresh and appealing sleuth with a bushelful of entertaining problems… One crisp, delicious read.”—Claudia Bishop, bestselling author of the Inn at Hemlock Falls Mysteries
“A delightful look at small-town New England, with an intriguing puzzle thrown in.”—JoAnna Carl, national bestselling author of the Chocoholic Mysteries
“The premise and plot are solid, and Meg seems a perfect fit for her role.”—Publishers Weekly
“A reliable cast of characters support Meg and make this a strong series that continues its streak of compelling plots.”—Kings River Life
“Really well written…I was constantly kept guessing. This series is in its stride, and I’m eagerly awaiting the next book in this series.”—Fresh Fiction