About the Author
Susan Boyce is the award-winning narrator of over 140 audiobooks. A veteran variety theater performer, she is also one half of the song-and-dance team of Jones & Boyce. Susan can be heard in phone trees, in computer games, and as the voice of the pink "Care Bear." She lives in St. Augustine, Florida.
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Dressed to Kill
A Tourist Trap Mystery
By LYNN CAHOON
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2015 Lynn Cahoon
All rights reserved.
Sometimes what you see is not what you get. The small building had its doors flung open, looking more like a gaping mouth posed to devour us than the entrance into South Cove's newest and only clothing business, Vintage Duds. Pots of flowers lined the sidewalk, giving the store what should have been a homey look. My aunt nudged me, and I took one halting step closer. I, Jill Gardner, owner of Coffee, Books, and More and South Cove's business community liaison to the city council, knew a trap when I saw it. And this tastefully decorated store selling upscale designer clothing at a ridiculous price for used threads was definitely a snare.
"What is wrong with you?" Aunt Jackie snapped. "Just because Greg was married to the woman doesn't mean the two of you have to be sworn enemies."
Yep, the new store owner was my boy toy's ex. Small towns are alike. You have to learn to forgive and forget because the person you fight with—or divorce—just doesn't move away. It's more than likely you'll run into them at the grocery, or the diner, or even at a meeting you're running. Life is messy that way. I turned away from the door, ready to sprint back to my shop down the street. "Maybe I don't have to attend every Business-to-Business meeting. You could say I was sick."
Jackie gently turned me around, linking her arm in mine. "You can do this. It's just a two-hour meeting. You can do anything for two hours."
As soon as we entered the store, I knew my aunt was dead wrong.
A hostess greeted us and gave us a swag bag. Aunt Jackie cooed and opened the silk ties. "A scarf, bubble bath beads, a coupon for a free glass of wine at Darla's winery, and"—she pulled out one last item—"jewelry."
The high school student grinned. "Keep digging. There's a little something from every store in South Cove."
"Except ours. Total waste of marketing money. You're preaching to the choir with this group," I muttered. Aunt Jackie quickly closed her bag and grabbed mine, as well, tucking them both into her purse.
"We'll save those for later." She smiled at our greeter and led me deeper into the store. Two chair-massage technicians had their area set up against the wall next to an eight-foot-square portrait of Marilyn Monroe. People lined up for their turn.
Bill Sullivan, our meeting chair, waved us over to where he waited in line. Bill was a member of the city council along with running South Cove Bed-and-Breakfast with his wife, Mary. "Great meeting, don't you think? Sherry went all-out."
"Is this a meeting or a party?" I waved away another high school student who had a plate of black caviar on crackers.
"Relax, Jill. We have plenty of time to get through the agenda." He glanced at the now empty chair. "Looks like it's my turn. You should get in line. You could use a massage."
"What's that supposed to mean?" I started to follow him, but again, I felt my aunt's hand on my arm.
"Leave it alone. There are enough rumors going on about you and Sherry. Can't you just pretend to enjoy yourself for a few hours?" my aunt asked, her voice low.
I took a deep breath. Jackie was right. No use getting upset. Sherry had been nice enough to volunteer to host this month's Business-to-Business meeting. Of course, when she'd offered, I'd expected her to serve cookies and coffee and for a freaking meeting to actually happen instead of this cocktail party. Apparently, I'd been delusional.
"I'm so glad to see you. I was beginning to think I was at the wrong place." Sadie Michaels came up on my right side and gave me a hug. She'd opened Pies on the Fly a few years ago, renovating her garage into a small bakery. Between Diamond Lille's and the coffee shop business, Sadie made a good income for the part-time-at-home venture. She was also one of my best friends.
I glanced around the room. Sherry had taken the entire clothing inventory out of the main showroom for our meeting. Two tables sat in the middle of the room, apparently for our use once we got done with our massages and caviar. White lights lined the room, giving the entire room a festive glow. A short runway in the center of the showroom featured models wearing designer gowns sold in the shop. If Sherry wasn't the owner, I would be enthralled with her collection. I saw some classic Chanel as well as a good dose of Michael Kors, the early years. Even though you couldn't tell it from a survey of my wardrobe, I loved watching designer trends. Just not buying them.
I focused on the conversation.
"So, I may be a little short on the pie order tomorrow, but you'll be caught up on Wednesday." Sadie smiled like she'd just solved a third world problem. "I'm going to grab some coffee."
"I don't understand. What happened to the pie order?" I called after Sadie, but my words were lost in the din. Or, more likely, she was ignoring me. I looked for my aunt but she'd stepped away. Scanning the room, I found her drinking a flute of champagne and talking to Kent Paine. Kent was dressed in a tailored black suit and looked more like a financial mogul than a small branch manager. His too-white teeth and salt-and-pepper hair added to his almost-perfect actor looks. He and Sherry had been dating for a few months now and gossip was they were made for each other. Both shallow and petty to the core.
Sherry floated into the conversation, took Kent by the arm, and moved him over to the side of the room. Aunt Jackie returned to our group. "You get dumped?" I teased.
She polished off the champagne and traded it with a full glass off the tray of a waiter she'd motioned over as she approached. I waved the guy off. I didn't need alcohol in my system this early in the day. "Just mingling. Kent's such a charismatic person, I don't understand what he sees in Sherry."
Raised voices from the side of the room had us turning to watch Sherry and Kent. "... keep it in your pants for an hour?"
"I was just being nice ..." Kent grabbed Sherry's arm and they disappeared into a doorway, away from the crowd and blocking their next words.
"Looks like there's trouble in paradise." I nudged my aunt.
"Maybe you have a shot?"
Her face turned beet red and she took a sip of her champagne. "Stop teasing. I feel bad for the guy, that's all."
"Looking for a new dancing partner?" Sadie rejoined the group, sipping a cup of coffee. "I thought you and Josh were almost exclusive."
Hearing his name, Josh lumbered toward the group in his normal attire, black suit, white dress shirt. He owned Antiques by Thomas and was Jackie's new beau. Josh looked as confused at the meeting events as I felt. He didn't say a word as he took a protective stand next to my aunt.
"Anyway, back to this week's order. Sherry came in with a last-minute order for the meeting. I just couldn't turn her down." Sadie led me toward the runway area, looking back at my aunt and Josh. "I almost put my foot in my mouth back there. I didn't know he was so close."
"When Jackie's around, Josh is never too far away. The man's besotted." I frowned, mentally calculating what Pies on the Fly product we had left at the shop. "I hope we don't get a tour bus stop, we'll be wiped out."
"Stop stressing. You'll have your order, just not tomorrow."
"I just can't win today," I muttered, allowing myself to be swept into the crowd. After a ten-minute show, Sherry walked out on stage to the thunderous applause of the group. She even bowed, as if she'd created each and every dress instead of the famous designers she stocked.
"I'm so blessed you all have opened your arms to welcome me and my little store into your community. When Greg told me how happy he was here in South Cove, I knew I was destined to become part of this amazing town." She paused, glancing through the crowd until she found me. Her smile widened. Instead of a woman, I saw a barracuda getting ready to attack her prey. "And now, I'm sure Bill wants to start the meeting. I've had coffee and pie set up at the main table. You'll find a place card with your name. Sue me, I love party planning."
The crowd laughed with her, turned, and found their way to their seats at the table. Typically I get maybe ten of the invited businesses to attend. Sherry's count seemed to be at least thirty. I didn't think I had thirty people on my invite fax list. My list of reasons why I hated Greg's ex-wife was growing by the minute.
When I sat down in front of my nameplate, I added two more reasons. Sherry had sat me on a corner of the table, next to Josh and Lille. Josh sighed when he saw me. I put on a council business smile and greeted the two. "Good morning."
I turned toward my left and Lille was scowling at me. She wore catlike frames today, making her eyes look larger than normal. "Figures I'd get stuck at the loser table."
Lille owned the other food establishment in town, a diner called Diamond Lille's. She also had been dating the town bad boy and thought I'd had a role in sending him up the river. Or whatever they called prison life these days. I guess she didn't think his dealings with the local motorcycle gang and being an accessory to the last murder in town actually should count against him. I squared my shoulders and made my smile even bigger, then lied. "I asked Sherry to seat us together. I think it's long past time to mend fences, don't you?"
Lille's eyes widened and she looked like she was going to tell me what I could do with my fence work when Bill Sullivan called the meeting to order.
"Quiet down, people, this is a meeting after all." Bill took a sip of champagne and waited for everyone to settle.
"Could have fooled me," I uttered a little too loud. Everyone turned their attention from Bill to me, then swiveled to see Sherry's reaction. Shut up, shut up, shut up. Aunt Jackie shook her head, warning me, again.
Kent Paine stepped up, blocking the icy stares between Sherry and me. "I'd love to stay for your little meeting, but the auditors are coming in and they'll be upset if I'm not there to welcome them." He glanced around the table. "Although if I'd known how much fun you have at these meetings, I would have come before."
Not like I hadn't personally asked him several times to attend or at least send a representative. I'd even brought cookies three times to tempt him. I guess all I'd had to do was put on a circus clown costume and promise him a good time.
I watched him exit the building, and then saw a woman follow him out. Probably one of the servers. No, most definitely one of the models, tall with long dark hair, the woman was gorgeous. I heard the tap of a gavel. The meeting was starting.
"Jill's right." Bill tried to smooth the waters. "It's more than time to get started. First up, a report from my Mary on the results of the Christmas Festival." He smiled down at his other half.
Mary Sullivan had rounded up the troops to pull together the decorations at the last minute for a true South Cove Christmas after the mayor's wife had dumped the project. Then she'd run the entire festival, scheduling carolers, school visits, and setting up a Santa's workshop on the lawn of City Hall. The woman was amazing in my eyes.
Mary stood, her warm smile enveloping me. She seemed to know exactly how I felt. "Repeating the brief I gave last month, we had a terrific festival. Every business owner I talked to saw an increase in profits over last year this time. I know our bed-and-breakfast is still working bookings we got during December." She passed out a stack of folders. "This is the final report for the festival numbers and accounting. At the end, there's a questionnaire for you to complete with ideas for our next festival. Please be honest. Many hands make light work."
When I got my folder and opened it, my eyes widened. Not only did she have an executive summary I could forward to the council, daily revenues were listed along with a description of the festival activities so we could see what brought in the visitors. At first glance, the Santa visits were high-profit days. Mary needed to be doing this analysis full-time rather than serving breakfast muffins to her guests.
"This is amazing." Holding the book open to one of the pages for the table to see, I pointed. "Mary's broken our store traffic down to events and times. We can use this to make staffing decisions next year rather than just guessing."
Bill beamed at his wife. "Mary used to be in market research before we moved here."
I didn't know that. Why didn't I know that? I thumbed through a few more pages. "We should do this for all of our festivals. We could get a grant from the city to pay for her time. This insight is promotion gold."
Mary's cheeks turned a bright pink when I gave her my usuallyreserved-for- chocolate grin.
"My store isn't listed in the book." Sherry slammed her copy of the report back on the table. She looked toward Bill. "She didn't include Vintage Duds."
I didn't wait for him or Mary to speak. Have mouth, insert leg is my motto. "That's because your store hadn't opened yet. She's not a mind reader, Sherry."
Tension flowed down the table as Sherry turned toward me. If the girl had any supernatural power, I'd be stone now, holding purses or necklaces, forever stuck in this three ring circus she called a shop. Instead, I got the evil eye. Compared to the glares I got from my aunt at times, Sherry's scowl had no power on me.
Bill must have been concerned we would jump on the table and give the group a version of a catfight from the women's prison. He coughed, then continued like Sherry and I hadn't even spoken. "Mary, do you want to respond to Jill's suggestion?"
The woman's eyes got as big as two saucers. "What suggestion?"
"That you could do this for the business community. Maybe you and Jill should talk after the meeting and iron out a proposal. Then we'll vote on it here and take it to the council." He patted his wife's hand. "Next order of business"—he glanced down at the paper—"Josh Thomas would like to discuss the amount of trash floating around the streets." Bill waved his hand toward Josh and he took it for his cue to stand.
Josh Thomas moved his antique business, Antiques by Thomas, to South Cove last year. Since joining the Business-to-Business group, all he'd done was complain. Okay, he did call the police and save my life last year, but typically, getting involved was not his forte.
He passed out pages of blown-up pictures of trash, flyers, and mostly cups, including a few with Coffee, Books, and More's logo, on the streets of South Cove. Unfortunately for me, the amount of trash also showed my customer base compared to Lille's. Her cups outnumbered mine at least two to one. More drinks equaled more revenue, and the hope to make my store profitable on the long term.
"That's my car," an artist who ran his own minigallery sat up straighter. Conner McBride was his name, but his Irish ancestry was in doubt, as his accent only came out for the paying customers. "You took a picture of the inside of my car."
Josh shrugged. "It was disgustingly dirty. You are leaking this trash all over South Cove every time you drive that rattrap."
"Uncool, man. Way uncool." The artist shook his head sadly then leaned back, his large sunglasses covering his eyes. If the meeting had been back at the shop, I would have bet money that the guy was asleep behind the sunglasses. Power-napping through the day. It's a good model. And there's plenty of mentors in our little town.
Bill's shoulders were coming close to squeezing his ears off his head. The meeting wasn't going well, even with the relaxing massage and wine. "Look, Josh. Let's not start a fight over a little thing like trash. We're all in the same lifeboat and we can't be having people punching holes in the bottom of it."
"He started it." Josh pointed at Conner.
The young man popped up out of his chair. "I can finish it."
A hand gently pushed him back in his seat. "So can I."
Greg King, South Cove police detective and my hunky boy toy, stood behind Conner. He caught my eye and winked. Then he went back to saving Josh's life.
"Man, I wasn't going to hurt the dude. I'm not that type of guy." Conner glowered at Josh. "He needs to stop putting his nose into things where it doesn't belong."
"If you can't calm down, you'll have to leave." Greg's voice was calm, but his words hard.
Excerpted from Dressed to Kill by LYNN CAHOON. Copyright © 2015 Lynn Cahoon. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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