Pet-sitter Belinda Blake doesn't rattle easily, but move-in day has been eventful, to say the least. The python in her care tried to slither to freedom-just as she met Stone Carrington V, her landlords' disarmingly handsome son. With the constrictor back in its cage, she heads out to the garden, only to discover a designer shoe poking out of the boxwood hedge-attached to a woman's dead body.
The victim, Margo Fenton, was a Carrington family friend, and no one in their circle seems above suspicion. Between client trips to Manhattan and visits to her family in upstate New York, Belinda begins to put the pieces together. But though she's falling for Stone's numerous charms, Belinda wonders if she's cozying up to a killer. And soon, daily contact with a deadly reptile might be the least dangerous part of her life . . .
"A humorous series debut with exotic pets and a zany cast of characters. Gilbert's cozy will make you smile."
-Amanda Flower, USA Today bestselling author of Premeditated Peppermint
"Cozy fans will root for pet-sitter Belinda Blake as she unravels this cleverly-crafted mystery in a delightfully-deadly new series by Heather Day Gilbert."
-Elizabeth Spann Craig, author of the bestselling Myrtle Clover Mysteries
"Smart and fresh, with a compelling mystery at its heart, Belinda Blake and the Snake in the Grass is an enchanting cozy that will hook you from page one. As will amateur sleuth Belinda Blake, a delightfully original heroine you'll want to meet again and again."
-Karin Kaufman, author of the bestselling Juniper Grove Cozy Mystery Series
"Snakes rank only slightly more favorably with me than spiders, leeches, and ticks. So you can imagine my surprise when, by the end of this book, the snake was my second favorite character after Belinda herself. On top of being a great book for animal-lovers (trust me, you'll love even the snake), this was a fun read with a smart sleuth. I can't wait to see what Belinda does next, where both pets and perps are concerned."
-Emily James, award-winning and bestselling cozy mystery author
About the Author
HEATHER DAY GILBERT, an ECPA Christy award finalist and Grace award winner, writes contemporary mysteries and Viking historicals. Her novels feature small towns, family relationships, and women who aren't afraid to protect those they love. Publisher's Weekly gave Heather's Viking historical Forest Child a starred review, saying it is "an engaging story depicting timeless human struggles with faith, love, loyalty, and leadership." Find out more at heatherdaygilbert.com.
Read an Excerpt
The first time I saw Stone Carrington the fifth, I had a snake wrapped around my neck.
Now granted, he acted as if it was something he saw every day, a girl with unwanted snakeskin accents in her curly blonde hair.
"Pet-sitting," I explained, trying to extricate myself from the ball python I had agreed to "walk" for his owner. "They're supposedly a relatively mild breed," I continued.
"I should hope so." He dipped his tennis visor in a fake bow. Unfortunately, he had emerged from the tennis courts at the exact moment the snake had started climbing me like a tree. "Stone Carrington. And you are?"
"Belinda Blake." I felt the need to over-explain, one of my persistent habits. "I'm your new tenant. In the carriage house. It's lovely, by the way." The snake had stopped wriggling, so I walked a bit faster toward my small house. Why had I chosen to walk up the main drive for another gape at the Carringtons' mansion?
Stone gave me a once-over as the snake moved again. I was sure my ripped jeans, worn Crocs, and gamer T-shirt didn't impress, but I was yanked from my self-conscious musings as the python slithered over my shoulder and disappeared down my shirt. I launched into the dance of death, jerking about like Elaine from Seinfeld.
"Here, let me help," Stone said, making an arguably decent attempt to extricate the wriggling creature from my shirt by wrapping both hands around its tail.
The snake gave a low hiss and slid down further.
"Never mind," I said hastily, pulling my shirt up and throwing modesty to the wind so I could see the snake's beady eyes. "Grab its head! We have to grab it!"
Stone was a bit too hesitant as he obliged, and the snake lunged at him.
"It can sense our fear! Just call animal control or something!" I shouted. The snake's patience was probably exhausted and soon he would start nibbling on me.
Stone did as I said, pulling an expensive-looking cell phone from his white shorts, which must've been a bit chilly in November. Still, the shorts managed to show off his naturally tan legs.
The snake continued his horrifying quest to cozy up somewhere on my torso until one of the older gardeners approached us.
"Pardon my intrusion, but you are having trouble, no?"
"Yes. Could you help get this thing off me?"
The swarthy-skinned man began to tell a story with his hands.
"When I was a boy, I spent many hours playing with snakes. You have to sort of sneak up on them and" — here he grabbed the snake by the head, tugging gently until it loosened its grip on my shoulders — "you grab their neck, like so." He held it aloft, triumphant.
"Thank you, Jacques." Stone slipped his phone back into his pocket and crossed his arms, probably hoping Jacques wouldn't hand him the snake.
"Let's get him back in the cage," I suggested.
"Perfect," Stone said. Relief showed in his aqua eyes.
I led them into my house, which was still full of half-unpacked boxes. I hadn't even unrolled my favorite, albeit threadbare Indian rug. It would add a nice touch to the wide-plank pine floors.
The snake's cage was more like an oversized fish tank and the top was tricky to open, but it didn't take long for Jacques to transfer the willing captive into his preferred bed.
"Thank you so much," I said. "Are you around often?" I wanted to send him a thank you card.
"Most days I am, mademoiselle."
I found Jacques's French accent charming and I dusted off some of my high school French. "Merci beaucoup for your help today."
Jacques extended a rough hand and I placed mine in it. He lifted my hand to his lips for a brief kiss. "Enchanté." Giving me a wide smile, he strode back to his work.
Stone seemed a bit shell-shocked, watching the snake winding his way into a ball. "You really are a pet-sitter? For snakes?"
I nodded. "And other animals. I try to be flexible — it pulls in a different clientele than your average dog or cat sitter, though they're on my roster, too."
"Greenwich clients?" He pushed his visor up to see me better, which shoved his dark bangs into an artless puff that was adorable.
Although Greenwich, Connecticut, had its share of wealthy pet owners, I'd already built up my business in Manhattan. "So far, my jobs have been in the city, but I do plan to start advertising locally."
Stone nodded seriously. "Word of mouth is likely the best advertisement. I'm happy to put in a good word for you with my friends. Just give me the go-ahead — you can call up to the house and ask for Stone." He paused. "Well, you'll need to ask for Stone the fifth, otherwise they'll connect you with my father."
I maintained a straight face. Stone the fifth. I didn't have to guess what a boon Stone the fifth's word of mouth would likely be. He was doubtless well-connected in Greenwich, with a name like that and a mansion like the one behind my carriage house.
I walked him outside, grinning. "Sure. If nothing else, you can see I'm really hands-on with my clients."
He raised an eyebrow. "How long are you on duty with the snake? And why aren't you watching him at his own home if you're sitting him?"
"I agreed to take him for outings," I muttered.
"I mentioned I had moved to Greenwich and his owner thought that would be an excellent way for ..." I struggled to remember the snake's name. "For Rasputin here to enjoy life, with nice long walks in the sunlight and extended sleepovers in Greenwich."
Stone laughed. "You're kidding me."
"No, he really did believe it would be therapeutic for this aging reptile, like a spa day."
"Actually, I meant you're kidding me that someone named his snake after a sadistic maniac like Rasputin."
"Takes all kinds," I said, trying to tamp down a full-on grin.
"Okay, well, I was on my way to a match, but I hope I'll see you around again. You're quite an interesting tenant, Belinda Blake. Enjoy your new home."
I waved. "I'm sure we'll run into each other."
He nodded before loping off in an elegant, tennis player way.
After walking inside and giving Rasputin a major scolding through the Plexiglas, I brewed myself a third cup of coffee before deciding I could use more sunlight. Ever since I'd moved to Greenwich, I'd had a hankering to be outside. It was a nice switch from my previous studio apartment in Manhattan.
I'd tried to maximize my small yard space by setting up a cheap red bistro table on the stone pavers on the back side of the house. It did bring a sort of international flair to my humble new abode. Anticipating a warm cup of coffee and time to wind down from the snake incident, I threw on a lightweight hoodie and walked around to the back patio.
I dusted off the metal chair and sat down. Taking a long drink of creamy coffee, I found my thoughts returning to Stone Carrington the fifth. The initial impressions I got from him were: wealthy but humble, friendly but cautious, and handsome but not obsessed with his looks.
All this added up to one conclusion. Stone was some kind of delicious enigma. It was strangely comforting to run into a wealthy person with nuance.
I stroked the glossy top of a nearby rhododendron leaf, glancing around. The carriage house was bordered by a small grassy plot, surrounded by well-kept flowerbeds that backed up to an old stone wall. Although the house secretary had told me I didn't have to weed my flowerbeds, I had an itch to do just that. Flower gardening was a passion I'd developed as a teen in Upstate New York, where I had acres to experiment with color groupings and flowerbed styles. But today I'd have to settle for yanking those nuisance blackberry sprouts the gardeners had missed.
I ducked inside to grab my work gloves, then set about pulling the lemony-green, thorny weeds up from the roots. I had worked my way halfway down the bed when I noticed something tucked into the thick boxwood hedge that ran along the stone wall. The red sole on the heel gave me pause. Could it really be a Louboutin? And only one of them? Maybe some of these nouveau riche youth had wild parties outside and didn't even notice when they lost such an expensive shoe. How very Gatsby.
I snickered. I wouldn't know the difference between a nouveau riche and an established gent in this town. It hadn't taken me long to realize that even though my family was well-respected in Larches Corner, New York, no one cared who I was in Greenwich, Connecticut.
I grabbed for the patent leather heel, but it took only a split-second for me to realize it was connected to something else. A tan foot.
And the foot was connected to a sleek, tan leg.
I dropped the heel like it was on fire, then stumbled backward onto the stone patio. I couldn't make sense of what had just happened.
There was a body lying in my flowerbed.
Struggling to my feet, I didn't take time to clear my head. I ran, willy-nilly, toward the manor house. I needed to let my wealthy landlords know there was a dead body in my back yard.CHAPTER 2
The first person I saw was Jacques, who was driving a lawnmower directly up an incline that made me hold my breath for his safety. He appeared to be chopping and bagging the few leaves that had dared fall onto the sweeping Carrington lawn overnight. The Frenchman seemed to be quite fearless, just what I needed in this unbelievable situation.
I positioned myself directly in his path, waving my arms like a lunatic. The moment he caught sight of me, he geared down.
"There's a dead woman in my flowerbed," I shouted, gesturing to my carriage house.
"A what?" He turned off the mower and walked my way.
"A dead woman. What do we do?" My heart was pounding.
"Sacré bleu!" He grabbed my arm. "Who was it?"
"I have no idea. I didn't look at her face. I didn't know the ... protocol ... for finding a dead body outside my rental house."
Jacques took off his work gloves and shoved them in the pocket of his navy coveralls. "I will tell Mrs. Lewis and she can call the police. Perhaps you should come in with me."
Mrs. Lewis. I had forgotten the name of the house secretary, a thin, older woman with the brisk air of someone who never veered from schedule.
Today might be a bit of a shock for her.
As for me, I felt a little under-terrified. But my ability to distance myself from gruesome situations was a habit I'd perfected as I'd helped my dad with his veterinary procedures. I was able to maintain a relatively decent level of detachment unless something horrible was touching me, like a snake that wrapped its way into my hair and clothing.
Jacques led me around to a flagstone patio behind the mansion. Fountains burbled and birds chirped politely from the hedges. It really was an idyllic place, save for the dead body over in my yard.
We walked onto a fully furnished, covered porch that spanned a considerable length. Jacques pushed open a charming red Dutch door that gave onto a kitchen gleaming with steel and granite. By the time we'd made our way through five or six impeccably decorated sitting rooms, I was thoroughly lost.
Jacques took an abrupt turn into a smaller room where Mrs. Lewis sat at an antique desk, pecking at an ancient computer keyboard.
"There has been an incident," he said.
Jacques struck me as a master of calm and understatement.
I waited as he explained to Mrs. Lewis, who in turn shot several dubious looks my way. Even I had to admit it seemed strange that this body showed up at the exact time I was moving into my rental house.
Without getting my side of the story, Mrs. Lewis first called Security, then the police. Did most families in Greenwich retain their own security forces?
Her task finished, she finally walked over to me, her dainty kitten heels clicking on the dark wood floor. "Thank you so much for bringing this to our attention."
"Of course," I said, rather bemused. She'd chosen an odd turn of phrase under the circumstances. I couldn't think of one good reason I'd keep a dead body a secret.
"I will notify Mr. and Mrs. Carrington and I will let the police know you were the first on the scene. They did advise us not to touch anything ..." Her voice drifted off as she scrutinized my casual attire. For the second time today, I felt underdressed at my own new home.
"Of course," I repeated. I couldn't seem to come up with anything else to say.
* * *
Jacques stayed behind to help Mrs. Lewis as she broke the news to the family, so I had to find my own way out of the labyrinth of rooms in the manor house. By the time I got back to my own place, both Security and the police had descended on the crime scene.
I sat at the bistro table and gave my statement while keeping a curious eye on the corpse. When the officer left me to help pull the body out, I was shocked at how young the woman appeared — I had pictured a middle-aged, Botoxed housewife of Greenwich. This girl couldn't be far from my own age of twenty-six. She wore a chic miniskirt, flowing periwinkle blouse, and long gold necklace.
As they wheeled the gurney past me, I caught a closer glimpse of the body, which hadn't been zipped up yet. The woman was a bottle blonde — easy to spot since I'm a natural blonde. Her highlights were perfectly placed and well-maintained. Not cheap.
It also looked like her face was mottled — more like spotted. Either she'd had some kind of contagious disease, or all the blood vessels had burst. And given the raised red welts around her neck, it seemed pretty clear she must have been strangled.
As they cordoned off the flowerbed with police tape, my attention shifted to the security guard who had pulled up a seat next to me. The man was built like a bear, but his skin had paled and he looked like he was about to be sick.
"Do you want to come inside and get a glass of water?" I offered.
He shook his head, his eyes following the mystery woman as they zipped the body bag and loaded her into an ambulance. There would be no screaming sirens, no flashing lights for her today.
The shaky security guard spoke up. "I need to get back to the house. If you happen to remember anything else, my name's Val."
As he stood, he nearly knocked the tiny bistro chair over before hurrying toward my driveway. I heard an engine rev, then he ground the small truck into gear and took off down my gravel drive. Maybe he felt more nauseated than he'd let on.
I walked back to my front door, watching to make sure Val made it back okay. But to my surprise, he didn't head to the manor house. Instead, his blue and white security vehicle made a sharp turn and he whipped into a parking space right next to the tennis courts.
* * *
That night, as I crushed garlic for my penne arrabiata, I put my dad on speakerphone.
"How's the snake?" he asked.
"Doing okay, but he had a kind of rough day, so he's still curled up in his clay flowerpot. I'm going to keep him here tonight, then take him back to the city tomorrow."
"Makes sense. Don't forget to keep his water bowl full to provide a little extra humidity in the tank. You might want to mist the interior once in a while with a water bottle, too. And be sure to flip on that heat mat you told me about. How long have you been watching him?"
"A few days. His owner will be back next weekend, after Thanksgiving."
"So you'll be feeding him." Dad was subtly reminding me that snake food doesn't come neatly packaged in a can.
"I plan to give it a try when I get back to the apartment. Nothing like handling some frozen rats." I shivered, wishing I'd come up with a different career for myself. But this job paid the bills, when combined with my video game review articles. Not to mention, it allowed me to function as my gloriously introverted self. Most days.
"Hang on — your mom wants to talk."
I heard the front porch door slam, and I imagined a breeze blowing my way from Larches Corner. Mom was probably sitting in her favorite yellow Adirondack chair, smelling like the juba oil she'd worn since I was small.
My crunchy, organic mom had no greater dream than to get off-grid someday. She actively worked at it, too, much to my dad's dismay. Her latest attempt was to install a composting toilet, which Dad categorically refused to use, for fear the waste would somehow wind up fertilizing our tomato plants.
"Sweet girl," Mom said. "How are you? All settled in?"
Mom's alto voice unleashed the emotions I'd reined in tight throughout the day. I found myself spilling the entire story of the dead woman in the flowerbed, even though I knew what would happen — I'd rouse the Mama Bear.
Sure enough, Mom launched into a diatribe. "What kind of owners let a girl die on their grounds? Do you think they covered it up? Are they strange?"
I intuited her next question before she asked it.
"Should I come down there?" What was insinuated but not spoken was: "And kick some butt?"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Belinda Blake and the Snake in the Grass"
Copyright © 2019 Heather Day Gilbert.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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