As a newly minted private eye, Juliet Langley has sworn to leave homicide to the authorities, limiting the scope of her investigations to cheating spouses and dirty business partners . . . like her ex-fiancé, Scott O’Malley. When Scott shows up unannounced at her coffeehouse, Java Jive, Juliet’s first instinct is to punch him in the nose. Her second is to turn down his desperate plea for help with a case that’s way too dangerous for her liking. But when Scott drops dead before her eyes, Juliet isn’t going to wait around for someone else to clear her name.
It’s only a matter of time before her tumultuous past with her ex-fiancé comes out, so Juliet teams up with her ex-boyfriend, police detective Ryder Hamilton, to figure out who poisoned Scott. They soon confirm that Scott was involved in an illegal scheme that’s definitely grounds for concern.
Just as romance is finally beginning to percolate for Juliet and her best friend, Pete Bennett, she has no choice but to head back to her hometown to seek out the truth. And she’ll need help from the locals to find the real killer—otherwise her happily ever after could easily end up including an actual ball and chain.
Caroline Fardig’s thrilling Java Jive mysteries can be read together or separately:
DEATH BEFORE DECAF | MUG SHOT | A WHOLE LATTE MURDER | BREW OR DIE | MURDER OVER MOCHAS
“I was hooked from the first page. I loved it!”—Dorothy Cannell, award-winning author of the Ellie Haskell mysteries, on Death Before Decaf
“This series is delightful, well written, and wildly entertaining.”—Suspense Magazine
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“You want me to go where with you?” I asked, arching one eyebrow and hoping I’d misheard over the din of chattering customers, sputtering espresso machines, and mellow jazz music inside the Java Jive Coffeehouse.
“The gun and knife show,” Ryder repeated.
Unfortunately, I hadn’t misheard. I wiped at a coffee stain on the counter between us while I tried to invent a polite excuse as to why I couldn’t go. Unable to come up with anything nice, I blurted out the only thing that came to mind. “Hard pass.”
His face fell. “Why don’t you want to go with me?”
I pretended to think. “Um . . . let me see . . .” I started ticking off the reasons on my fingers. “I hate guns. Knives aren’t much better. Oh, and I always have to do boy stuff with you, and you never do girl stuff with me.”
His brow furrowed as he took a sip of his coffee. “Boy stuff?”
“Yeah. You know—hiking, going to the gun range, going to the gym, watching sports. In all fairness, Maya should have to take some of those activities. I shouldn’t have to shoulder the boy stuff alone.” My closest girlfriend, Maya Huxley, was dating my ex-boyfriend-turned-friend, Ryder Hamilton.
“Maya and I are at a point in our relationship where I still need to woo her a little. You, I don’t need to woo.”
Didn’t I know it. I’d kind of fallen for Ryder again a few months back after he took a bullet trying to save my life. I’d been working really hard to put my feelings for him out of my mind, especially since he was dating my friend, who was also sort of my boss at my second job. My life had become quite the tangled web.
“Still not fair.”
He shrugged. “You have plenty of friends who’ll do girl stuff with you. Besides, my ‘boy stuff,’ as you call it, is good for you. Character building.”
“How exactly does looking at a gazillion boring guns and knives build character? If I don’t feel the overwhelming urge to use one to off myself during the show, then I’m a better person for it?”
His handsome face fighting a grin, he said, “Your brand of logic leaves something to be desired sometimes, Juliet.”
I rolled my eyes at him and went to go grab a carafe so I could freshen his coffee. When I came back and began to top off his mug, a familiar voice saying, “Hey, Juliet,” startled me so much my hand jerked and splashed coffee all over the counter. I glanced up, just past Ryder’s shoulder, and when I laid eyes on the owner of that voice, my blood began to boil.
“Scott,” I spat out between gritted teeth.
In the time it took Ryder to say, “Hey, you okay?” I had already flown around the side of the counter. I headed straight for Scott, whose face was a picture of apprehension with a slight hint of terror, as well it should have been.
He stammered, “J-Juliet, I know it’s sudden for me to—to show up here, but I need your help.”
In my blind rage, I didn’t process a word he said. Instead, I came at him, shouting, “You son of a bitch!” Then I reeled my fist back and slammed it straight into his nose.
Amid a chorus of gasps from my horrified staff and customers, Scott groaned in pain and covered his nose with his hands.
“Whoa, whoa!” Ryder yelled, jumping off his stool and grabbing me around the waist just in time to keep me from lunging at Scott again.
Struggling to get free, I cried, “Let me go! I’m not finished with him.”
“Oh, yes you are,” Ryder replied, literally dragging me out of the room full of staring faces.
I fought him all the way back to Java Jive’s office, where he finally released me but stood guard in front of the closed door. My whole body shaking with unbridled anger, I couldn’t do anything but glare at him.
He was unfazed by my tantrum. “What the hell was that?” he asked calmly.
“Scott,” I managed to choke out.
His eyebrows shot up. “Your ex-fiancé, Scott?”
I nodded, still breathing heavily.
“The one who stole all your money and everything you owned and left you with a dying café, Scott?”
“That’s the one.”
His expression softening, he walked over and enveloped me in a hug. “Now I get why you went full Hulk on him. I probably would have done the same thing in your shoes.” He let me go but held my gaze with his intense blue eyes. “But I wouldn’t have assaulted him in front of a police officer and a room full of witnesses. Rookie mistake.”
I smiled in spite of myself. “I’m hoping the police officer in question will cut me some slack, especially since he’s off duty.”
Ryder had been “off duty” for a few months now as he recovered from a gunshot wound that had shattered the bone in his upper arm. Not one to sit around and do nothing while waiting for his doctor and the department to clear him and reinstate his full active status, he’d been keeping himself busy by helping Maya and me with our private investigation business. It had really broadened my investigative skills to work with an actual police detective.
“Yeah, I can do that. But I think you should go talk to the guy.”
I let out a bark of laughter. “Like hell I will.” I hadn’t seen or spoken to Scott since he’d walked out on me over a year ago. I didn’t want to start now.
“I’m serious. Did you hear what he said before you clocked him?”
“He said he needed your help.”
“I’ll help him out the door.”
Ryder smiled. “Come on. The Juliet Langley I know never turns down a person in need.”
“Scott is not a person. He’s a slimy, cheating, no-good son of a—”
He held up a hand. “I know. You mentioned that.”
I crossed my arms. “I’m not talking to him. End of discussion.”
“Okay, then I’ll talk to him.”
“Knock yourself out!” I snapped as he slipped out the door. “Argh!” I cried, grabbing the nearest thing—a pillow off the couch—and chucking it across the room.
Why in the world would Scott O’Malley have come crawling back to me of all people for help? Was he stupid enough to think I’d lift a finger to do anything for him? He’d ruined my life. After cheating on me with a waitress from the café we owned together, he wiped out our bank account and the café’s bank account, stole all of my belongings, and skipped town. I was left with an empty apartment I still had to make rent on and a café with no capital to buy supplies or pay employees. I’d had to close the café, which hurt more than anything. To add insult to injury, if my best friend, Pete Bennett, hadn’t stepped in when he did and offered me the manager’s job at Java Jive, I would have had to move back in with my parents. That was why I was even here in Nashville in the first place. If none of this had gone down, I’d be back in my hometown, probably married to that weasel Scott.
I shuddered at the thought and poured myself a shot of the vodka Pete and I kept in the office for celebrations and emergencies. It burned all the way down, but it took the edge off a little. As I was storing the bottle away in the desk drawer, Ryder came back in and eyed it and my used shot glass, but made no comment.
“Well?” I asked. “Did you have a nice chat?”
Ryder’s lip curled slightly. “That guy is a real asshat.”
“And he carries a purse.”
I snickered. As long as I’d known Scott, he’d always had a small messenger bag slung around one shoulder. And, yes, it kind of looked like a purse. If you wanted to get technical about it, since he kept his wallet, keys, phone, spare change, and lip balm in there, it was a purse. “He likes for people to call it a satchel.”
“Whatever. He seems to be pretty adamant about talking to you. He wouldn’t tell me any particulars, but he says he’s in trouble and you’re the only one he trusts to help him.”
“Did you relay the message that I couldn’t give a flying crap about his problems?”
Ryder cracked a smile. “I’m pretty sure his nose is broken. I think you got your point across.”
“Good. Is he gone?”
Wincing, he said, “Sort of. He’s coming back tonight after you’ve had some time to cool off.”
“What?” I cried.
Ryder put both hands in front of his face. “Don’t punch the messenger.”
I rolled my eyes. “Ha, ha.”
His expression became serious. “Hey, I think you should hear him out. He seemed genuinely upset. I’m taking Maya to a movie later, so I won’t be able to play referee. You think you can keep those fists of fury under control without me? Will Pete be here to have your back?”
“He should be. Although I have to warn you—he knows Scott, and he doesn’t like him any more than I do.”
“Surely the two of you can be adults about this.”
“Pete and me? Doubtful.”
He pinched the bridge of his nose in frustration. “If I get a call in the middle of my date to come bail you out of jail . . .”
I didn’t even want to think about getting thrown in jail (again), so I changed the subject. “So what movie are you going to see?”
Shrugging, he replied, “I don’t know. Some chick flick. Maya picked it.”
My jaw dropped. “See? Girl stuff!”
“Why are you griping? You don’t even like those kinds of movies.”
Well, he had me there.
Unable to shake the unsettled feeling I had about Scott showing up out of the blue at Java Jive, I headed home for a while to try to chill out. I trudged up the rusty steps to my second floor apartment, grumbling to myself as I thought about how it was all Scott’s fault that I had to live in this crummy building crawling with loud college kids because I couldn’t afford anything better.
As I passed my new neighbor Cooper’s open window, he called out, “Hey, Juliet!”
I gave him a halfhearted smile and a wave, but kept walking.
Cooper caught up with me at my door. “You okay? You don’t look happy.” He reached out and gave my shoulder a squeeze as he looked at me with concern. I gave his hand a meaningful glance, and he quickly removed it. “Sorry. I wasn’t thinking. Want to talk about whatever’s bothering you?”
I sighed. Cooper Milford was a great listener. He was a psych grad student at Vanderbilt, after all. “That would probably help. Thanks.”
He followed me into my apartment. Once the door was closed, he took my hand, and this time I didn’t push him away. “What’s up?”
I launched into my sad story, and Cooper listened, never interrupting or throwing in his two cents. When I was finished, I said, “This is probably more drama than you signed up for with me.”
Chuckling, he said, “Are you kidding? Drama is my job. Or rather, it will be once I finish up this year.”
I pulled my hand out of his as I was reminded how young he was—way too young for me. I’d just turned thirty-one, and he was only twenty-three. What was I thinking with this secret arrangement we had going on? Oh, right. He was adorable and amazing in the sack. I was lonely and one cat away from becoming a spinster. Pathetic? You betcha.
He ran his hands through his brown hair. “Juliet, I hate that face you make every time our age difference comes up. You know we’re not doing anything wrong here. We’re both adults.”
I scrunched up my nose. “It freaks me out when you read my facial expressions, Coop. But I have to admit you’re going to make one seriously good head-shrinker.”
“It’s a blessing and a curse. Great for my future career, not so great for relationships.”
“Luckily you don’t have to worry about that with me.”
Cooper moved closer and put his arms around me. “Right. You know, I’ve been meaning to ask you—”
I was tired of talking. “If I want to move this discussion to the bedroom?”
After hesitating for only a split second, he smiled. “Yeah.”