Charli agrees to sell off the family bookstore, housed in a barn, and settle her estranged dad's debt--if only so she can ride into the sunset and cut ties with Hazel Rock forever. But the trip is extended when Charli finds her realtor dead in the store, strangled by a bedazzled belt. And with daddy suspiciously MIA, father and daughter are topping the most wanted list . . .
Forging an unlikely alliance with the town beauty queen, the old beau who tore her family apart, and one ugly armadillo, Charli's intent on protecting what's left of her past . . . and wrangling the lone killer who's fixin' to destroy her future . . .
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By Kym Roberts
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 Kym Roberts
All rights reserved.
Life has a way of putting some people in the wrong place at the wrong time. Take me, for example. I happen to be one of those unlucky souls who finds themselves in bad situations more often than not. My parents should have tattooed a bull's-eye of doom on my forehead at birth. My luck can be that bad, and today was proving how rotten my karma could be.
The cab ride to town cost thirty-eight dollars. I had forty-five dollars in my purse. There was one credit card in my matching leather wallet, but I'd charged it to the max when I'd purchased my plane ticket that morning. I'm sorry to say that tipping the cabby hurt — a lot. And my driver was less than happy with his two-dollar tip. He pulled away from the curb spitting gravel and dust all over my black dress, causing me to sputter and choke as dirt filled the dry, hot air. I turned away, hoping I still looked my best, and faced my childhood playground. The family business I swore I'd never come back to, yet here I was — standing in front of the biggest eyesore in town, while the rest of the shops looked like picturesque postcards.
Back when I was a kid, the store was kind of quaint. The Book Barn had been a blast from the past: a faded red dairy barn with the washed-out logo, "Livery & Feed Stable" painted across the face of the second-story hayloft door. It had fit in perfectly with the rest of the town's Wild West atmosphere. My parents had displayed the books in the old stable stalls, separating the categories and creating havens for me to disappear in for hours. The second-story hayloft was a thing of awe — a never-ending library of used books overlooking the center of the barn. The entire building had been decorated with antique western gear and paraphernalia. It was historic and allowed visitors to imagine what it must have been like for a cowboy who drifted into town. His first stop would be at the stable, where he'd drop off his horse for the night before crossing the dirt road to wet his whistle in the saloon.
The saloon, however, hadn't served drinks since the Prohibition era. It was now a salon that produced trademarked big Texas hairstyles and offered manis and pedis instead of shots of rotgut whiskey. No doubt they also had a tanning bed inside from the look of the leathery hide of the blonde currently exiting the store while talking on her cell phone.
My skin would never need a tanning bed, my ethnicity giving my complexion a naturally golden tone that had been the envy of every girl on the cheer squad in high school. But if I stayed in town too long, I'd have to revert back to my teen years and make an appointment for a hot oil treatment at the Beaus and Beauties salon to keep my brown curls from turning brittle in the dry Texas heat.
I turned my attention back to The Book Barn. Its newly remodeled exterior was an eye-catching monstrosity in a bright shade of fuchsia with glowing white trim. The fresh coat of paint erased all remnants of the stable's original logo and punctuated the store's new name, The Book Barn Princess. What made it unique was the cute — or tacky — armadillo that formed the letter i as it stood on its hind legs with a tiara dotting the letter, almost like a suspended halo. In effect, the new design ruined the Old West image the town had held for decades.
There was absolutely nothing picturesque about the store's current color, which was brighter than the pink purse draped across my chest. It was horrible, in a girlie kind of way ... and part of me melted. My dad had remodeled the family bookstore in my favorite color — despite the fact that the business was centrally located in the heart of downtown Hazel Rock, Texas, population 2,093, where the new color stuck out like a displaced neon sign in the middle of the Wild West show.
And he'd named it after me.
My eyes moistened. After a dozen-and-a-half-years, my dad was trying to make amends to his "little princess."
Then I remembered the cab ride that had cleaned out my wallet and allowed the pain from the past to close the door on my heart.
Pink won't erase the past, Daddy.
I ignored the speculative looks from two more blondes with big hair exiting the salon and stomped to the front door. I would've slammed the front door wide open and let it bang against the wall, but Dad had installed automatic doors that glided open with a soft swish. A little buzzer, low and unobtrusive, sounded as I stepped inside — nothing like the slap of my boots as I crossed the freshly stained concrete floor. The voice of a popular country singer who'd made it big on one of those reality TV talent search programs streamed through the store's deserted sales floor. Not a soul wandered through the rows of new and used books for sale.
Obviously some things never changed.
"Are you hiding from me? 'Cause if you brought me down here to make a laughingstock out of me, I will make sure you regret it ... Daddy." My tone wasn't pleasant. If anything, it was downright threatening.
I knew I shouldn't talk to my father that way, and part of me felt bad. The other part, the living-in-reality part, only remembered the pain I'd experienced during my junior year of high school and I couldn't let it slide. I leaned over the bright white counter, cluttered with princess knickknacks for sale in every shade of pink imaginable, expecting to find him cowering down behind it.
It was as empty as the dry creek bed I'd passed on the way into town.
I turned toward the back of the store, still stomping, making my way through the aisles of books that made me want to stop and browse. I resisted the temptation and headed for the storeroom, calling throughout the cavernous space on my way. "If you had Marlene call me so you could finally sell this place, why are you hiding?" My voice carried through the store, punctuating the fact that I was alone.
But I wasn't. I couldn't be. The store was open for business, a coffeepot was on behind the counter, and the place was filled with the aroma of my father's favorite vice: rich, dark Colombian coffee beans.
I yanked back the soft pink velvet curtain hanging across the doorway to the stockroom, the material heavy and luxurious in my hand, and got the shock of my life. Marlene Duncan, the Realtor who'd contacted me and convinced me to fly down and get my daddy out of the financial mess he'd created with the tacky remodel, was in front of me — wearing the pink bejeweled belt I'd cherished in high school.
But it wasn't around her waist. It was tightened around her neck and she was deader than a doornail.CHAPTER 2
I stood frozen to my spot. Unable to believe I was in my hometown looking at the body of the woman who'd been the only one able to convince me to return to Hazel Rock in over twelve years. A woman who had spoken with so much life and animation on the phone less than six hours before was now dead.
That's when I heard it. The sound of paper tearing. The slow, painful rip of someone maliciously destroying the work that had poured from an author's heart and soul. I looked up at the loft. A book slammed to the floor somewhere above me.
My feet thawed faster than an ice cube in July. I ran for the front of the store. The bell dinged, the doors swished, and I was down the two steps on the porch before I could scream. I did what came naturally — I ran for the salon across the street and burst through the door.
Six pairs of eyes turned and looked at me.
"Charli Rae Warren, is that you? There is no way I could ever forget those curls."
Trying to calm myself, I pulled my purse up on my shoulder and gulped the fresh scent of perm and fingernail polish. I swung around to the voice I should have recognized but didn't. The redhead with a pair of scissors in her hand looked vaguely familiar, but I didn't remember anyone with that vibrant hair color or that smile. Then I took another breath and realized her hair was probably chemically treated. I squinted, as if that would help me figure out who she was — but it wasn't helping in my current state.
"Welcome home, Princess."
"No one calls me Princess anymore. It's just Charli." I breathed, still unable to place her despite her bright smile. "Can I use your phone?"
She continued as if I hadn't said anything. "I didn't have red hair in high school. It was boring brown." She turned and started cutting the hair of the older woman in the chair in front of her. "Is that all you need, a phone? Or do you need to get your hair done?"
Unable to process a word she said, I dug in my purse for my cell. The woman I apparently should have recognized rambled on about me finally coming home to visit as I pulled my phone from my purse and dialed 911 with shaking hands.
I turned away and waited for the dispatcher to answer as my breathing slowed down. I stared out the front window toward the big pink barn. A deep voice answered my call and I found myself trying to convince the male dispatcher that there really was a dead body in the storage room across the street while keeping my voice low enough so the beauty shop occupants wouldn't hear about my gruesome discovery. The last thing I wanted to do was break the news of someone's death.
"Did Bobby Ray put you up to this? That guy is a regular prankster," the dispatcher said.
I lost it. The composure I'd struggled to maintain flew out the window and my angry tongue took over. About the time I blurted out my fourth expletive, he finally got a clue that I was telling the truth and that a killer could still be in the store. It was either that or he believed I was crazier than a two-headed sow eating out of a trough for one. He cleared his throat and advised me the sheriff would be "en route." He further directed me not to leave the salon. I was to sit and wait right where I was.
Considering my legs were wobbling like a newborn filly's, I didn't argue ... much. I plopped down in an empty chair and briefly closed my eyes as I hung up the phone. That's when I realized the background noise had disappeared. Voices were silent. Scissors weren't snipping, and the juiciest gossip that had hit this town in more than a decade was forming into front-page news right before the beauty crew's very eyes. I peeked through the slit of my left eyelid at the six women staring in my direction. They couldn't possibly have heard my conversation, but they definitely caught my cussing.
Suddenly the identity of the stunning redhead standing with her scissors frozen in midair hit me. It was the current faint smile she wore, the calm one that had lost some of its sparkle, kind of like Mona Lisa; she saw everything but gave nothing away. That coupled with the constant jibber-jabbering she'd done when I ran in knocked my memory into gear.
"Scarlet." My voice sounded a little breathless as I said her name. She had been the principal's assistant back in high school, the girl with the overbearing glasses, an IQ of about 180, who could talk your ear off about nothing and not hear a word you said in return. Scarlet Jenkins, little Miss Bookworm had transformed. She still wore glasses, but they were in vogue and trendy, and her hair was a gorgeous auburn with soft, short curls around her face that complimented her alabaster complexion, the exact opposite of my biracial heritage. Her sense of style was right out of a fashion magazine. She was beautiful, with curves I didn't have.
Then she smiled that five-hundred-watt smile again, the one she'd given me when I first walked in. The one I definitely wouldn't have forgotten if she'd used it back in high school, which she hadn't.
"You remembered! So are you in town to say good-bye to the store? It's a little different than what it used to be." The woman in the chair getting her hair cut snorted, but Scarlet continued. "I know it was probably a shock when you saw it. It pretty much shocks everyone, but people like to take their pictures in front of it, and for the most part it's been a good draw for tourists. Some of the locals grumble and complain ..." The woman in the chair snorted again and I wondered if I should know her, but my brain was focused on one thing:
Marlene was dead.
"Get her a cup of coffee, Joellen." Scarlet patted the bony shoulder of the older woman in her chair, who was eyeing me like a serial killer incarnate. Scarlet put her scissors down at her station and approached me while the blonde, Joellen, who'd been doing her own nails when I walked in, glanced down at her work and then jumped up and went into the back room.
Searching my face, Scarlet saw something. What, I'm not sure, but she suddenly turned toward the hairdresser applying the perm solution on her customer's hair. "Aubrey said she didn't go in to work at The Barn until after school, right, Mary?"
The beautician didn't look up from the bottle she was squirting on her customer's curlers. Her scratchy voice fit the wrinkles on her face, despite the fact that she couldn't have been more than forty. "Yes, she said she had a test this morning and she had a term paper to work on before she went to work at four."
Scarlet turned back to me, studying my expression, which I desperately tried to keep neutral ... I failed. She saw what the other women didn't and knew something was seriously wrong. The conclusion she came to, however, was awry. She pulled me into an embrace that felt awkward and comforting at the same time. Standing almost a head taller, I bent over to return it like we were long-lost buddies. That's when she whispered in my ear, "Is something wrong with your daddy? Do I need to go over to The Barn with you?"
My panicked outburst caused Mary's customer to jump. The hairdresser just rolled her eyes and continued wrapping a piece of the woman's hair in foil.
Scarlet pulled me close once more, her voice too low for the others to hear. "OMW. Charli, it's okay. Everything will be okay." Her voice hitched with emotion and she patted my back.
After I'd unleashed enough filth out of my mouth to fill the county sewage plant, Scarlet was using an acronym for "Oh my word." I cringed as she continued. "Don't you worry. Marlene will help make sure the sale of the store goes through. She's the best real estate woman this side of Abilene. She'll take care of you."
Nodding, I didn't say a word. Scarlet had obviously drawn the conclusion that something horrible had happened to my dad, and for some reason, I was content to let her believe it ... for now.
Then I remembered how Scarlet talked and talked while I sat in the principal's office as a kid. At the time I'd thought she was trying to get me to confess my sins, but all she did was fill the void my silence left. Just like she was doing now, and there was no way I was going to break the news to anyone that Marlene was the one who was dead. That the woman who had been a Realtor in Hazel Rock for as long as I could remember had been murdered in The Book Barn ... Princess.
I stared at the tiara on the front of the building. The new look was everything my mom would have hated, everything I might have loved as a teenager still trying to figure out my style. Or at least everything my dad would have thought I'd like.
Joellen came out of the back room with a steaming cup of coffee and I took it, attempting to smile at the young woman and grateful for something to do with my hands while Scarlet rambled on about Texas pecan coffee, which you could only find in the Lone Star State.
I thought about telling her, "It's available on Amazon," but kept my mouth shut and took a sip. If I was going to be stuck waiting for the county sheriff, who I'd been avoiding most of my life, while listening to Scarlet, I was going to do my best to get my thoughts in order. This fiasco was costing me a day's wages, a plane ticket, and cab fare my dad obviously wasn't going to reimburse me for. Even though Marlene had promised he would.
And the fact that I was worrying about money when poor Marlene was lying on the floor across the street in need of a makeover, a manicure, and a beating heart, made me feel about as low as cow manure smeared between the sole and heel of a cowboy boot.
Closing my eyes, I took another drink of the steaming brew, aware that even my lips were trembling. A glance at the clock told me it'd been seven minutes since I'd dialed 911. Scarlet continued talking through it all. She was currently touching on the subject of family plots in the town's cemetery while I convinced myself the killer had snuck out the back door and was long gone.
A police cruiser pulled up and parked two stores down. I watched a cop I didn't recognize cautiously enter The Book Barn with his gun drawn. He didn't wear the standard issue cowboy hat, and his uniform fit snuggly across a broad chest and chiseled physique.
All the women stopped what they were doing to watch the cop, who definitely wasn't the old-as-dirt sheriff I remembered, and then they turned to look at me. Waiting for me to answer the questions they weren't asking. Everyone, that is, except Scarlet. She'd returned to her customer and was cutting her hair as if nothing was wrong. Her sniffle proved otherwise.
Excerpted from Fatal Fiction by Kym Roberts. Copyright © 2016 Kym Roberts. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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