Ever since her business partner, Shauna, fell for a wealthy landowner in town, Cat has been working double time to keep her writers’ retreat running. And with the January session almost underway, that spells trouble. As if scheduling mishaps aren’t disastrous enough, Shauna skips out on kitchen duties one morning, forcing Cat to serve unsuspecting guests store-bought muffins . . .
But best laid plans really go awry when Shauna discovers her beau missing from their bed. When his body later turns up in the horse barn, they quickly find out the victim’s scandalous lifestyle left many dying for revenge. While balancing an eccentric group of aspiring writers and a suspect list for the record books, Cat soon finds herself on the heels of a killer—and authoring her most deadly conclusion yet . . .
Praise for Lynn Cahoon
“Better get your flashlight handy, A Story to Kill will keep you reading all night.” —Laura Bradford, author of the Amish Mysteries
“Lynn Cahoon has created an absorbing, good fun mystery in Mission to Murder.” —Fresh Fiction
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Trust. It was a hard word to put into practice. Especially when you applied it to humans, who — with the little thing called free will — didn't seem to worry about breaking promises.
Cat Latimer sank into the leather chair her ex-husband — well, now deceased ex-husband — Michael had purchased through an online estate sale. The soft leather chair had been advertised as part of Tom Clancy's writing office. She had a feeling that, at the price Michael had paid for the item, it probably was just an old chair. But it was lovely and comfortable, and still, after almost a year, smelled like Michael's aftershave.
The television was turned on to the Cooking Channel and a celebrity chef whom Cat didn't recognize was making cinnamon rolls. Normally, the house would smell like baked goods since they had a new group of writers coming in for the January retreat, but Shauna Mary Clodagh wasn't baking in the kitchen. Her best friend and partner in the retreat business wasn't even in the house. Shauna had promised to be here late tonight so there would be fresh baked goods available as soon as guests started arriving sometime around two. She'd talked Seth into doing the airport runs so all she had to do was cook and manage the lodging part of the retreat.
Cat wasn't holding her breath.
Shauna had moved to Aspen Hills, Colorado, with Cat last summer after Michael died. Because Michael had failed to change his will post-divorce, Cat had inherited the large Victorian she'd walked away from during the divorce. Since she was making okay money at this author gig, putting on a monthly writers' retreat had seemed like an easy way to supplement her cash flow.
The first couple of sessions had been rocky, to say the least, with one guest being stabbed in a second-floor bedroom and in the next, a guest accused of murder. Since then, they had gotten through the December retreat without anyone dying or going to jail. Cat thought they were getting the hang of this guest services business. Or people had been on their best behavior because of the holiday.
Seth Howard, Cat's high school sweetheart and current boyfriend, had become an almost full-time figure during retreat weeks. Which worked for him since his small self-employed business as a handyman often left him without enough jobs to fill a full month, especially in the winter. Seth had always been there. A friend she could trust, even when they weren't a couple.
Cat pulled the crocheted throw closer to ward off a chill as the wind whipped the snow outside the window. Colorado winter weather was completely trustworthy. Snow had covered the ground for months. Spring would be a welcome sight when it finally arrived.
Glancing at the half-emptied desk drawer open to her left, she pushed away her rambling thoughts and returned to the task at hand: cleaning out Michael's study. She'd found out more about the man in the last six months than she'd known in their entire marriage. She had one last drawer to go through and the desk would finally be cleared out. Michael had been an economics professor at the same college where she'd gotten a master's in English and had her first teaching job. Michael had been tops in his field, at least locally. Knowing his potential legacy, Cat didn't want to trash his papers before she'd had a chance to go through them.
And then there was the matter of the side project he'd been working on when he died. A project that could have been the reason for his death. No, it was better all around for Cat to box everything up and take it to her office, where she could go through stuff at her leisure.
"Working hard, I see." Her Uncle Pete stood in the doorway. He walked over and sat in what she always thought of as her chair. "I thought you were getting this room ready for your guests, not learning how to bake."
"I may have to learn if Shauna doesn't stop playing house with Kevin Shield and get back here for the retreat." That had come out harsher than she'd wanted it to. She really needed to learn to hide her feelings, just a bit. "Anyway, I'm almost done boxing things up. The shelves have been cleared of the books I'll be donating to the library, and in a few hours, this room will be a writer's dream."
Cat had moved her craft books down from her personal library for the retreat guests to use while they were there. The one thing this house wasn't shy on was bookcases. Her office upstairs had ceiling-to-floor built-in bookcases across the one wall that didn't have windows. Michael's office — the study, she corrected herself — had a wall of bookcases. Now, with the economics tomes all boxed up and ready to deliver to the library, there was more room for writing books, as well as fiction.
Even with the memories of their brief marriage still floating in the air here and there, the house was room by room becoming her own. She stood and stretched, laying the throw over the leather chair. "What are you doing here anyway?"
"You're always so welcoming." He laughed at the look that must have filled Cat's face. "No response needed — I was kidding. Anyway, I got a call from an Alaskan detective who wanted to let me know she was coming into town. Doing some research on a cold case apparently."
He leaned forward on the chair. "She's one of your writer guests. I was just checking in to see if she'd arrived yet."
"No one's coming in until tomorrow." Shauna had left Cat a schedule of Seth's airport runs and when the guests would be arriving.
Uncle Pete checked his phone. "That's not what I have in my notes. She said her plane was arriving this morning. I guess she was planning on taking a cab out here."
"That's going to cost her a fortune." Cat grabbed her phone. "What time does her flight arrive? I can see if Seth can run into Denver really quick."
"Ten this morning." They both looked at the large clock on the wall. It was three. Even with the possibility of bad roads, the woman should be here any minute.
"Look, she said she had cleared this early arrival with someone here. I guess it was Shauna?" They both looked at the television, where a smiling home chef was explaining how to make muffins. Uncle Pete shook his head. "Maybe you could take her to The Diner for breakfast tomorrow? I'll take her somewhere for dinner tonight, professional courtesy and all."
"Are you sure? I mean, if you're busy, I don't want you to have to babysit our guests because of a mix-up." Cat was going to have a long heart-to-heart with Shauna about at least letting Cat know what was going on. True love or not, she was depending on Shauna to help run this place.
"I wouldn't have offered if I didn't want to. Besides, I'd love to hear what she's working on and if it's connected to Aspen Hills." He let the subject hang in the air as they both knew that the writer's cold case being connected to the small college community wasn't totally unlikely. With the history Cat had just recently discovered about the town where she'd grown up, she knew that "connected" probably had multiple meanings here. It could mean that the victim had a connection here or the suspect had committed the crime here or, more likely, that the incident or the players had Mob connections.
"I believe I was happier before I knew Covington College's little secret." She walked around the desk. "Do you want to stay around to greet her?"
"If you don't mind." He looked around the room. "If you have things to do, I can hang out here. I'm sure I'll find something to read while I wait."
"I'll just run upstairs and make sure at least one of the rooms is ready. What did you say her name was?" Cat frowned. She really needed to be more on top of the guest list, especially with Shauna's new interests.
"Shirley. Shirley Mann." He stood and crossed the room, pausing to give her a hard stare as he did. "Don't tell me you didn't have Harry Bowman run a background check this session. I thought it was going to be a standard practice?"
"Don't lecture me. Besides, I did get the checks." She flushed, envisioning the envelope on her desk upstairs, unopened. "I just didn't read the report yet."
Her uncle sighed. "One of these days, you're going to regret not being more careful. You realize you had a murderer masquerade as a writer just a few months ago, right? You could have hindered his access if you'd at least read the report before letting him into the house."
"I'll read it this evening. I suppose I can trust the woman who used to be a cop, right? The others, I'll read their background checks before Seth puts them in the shuttle tomorrow." She followed him to the doorway. "Besides, my uncle is the police chief. What kind of trouble can I get into?"
"Seriously?" He gave her a quick hug. "You are kidding me, right?"
Cat shut the door to the study behind them. "You'd think. Go get some coffee and hang out in the living room. Let me know when Shirley arrives."
She grabbed a welcome kit out of the hall closet and took the stairs to the second floor two at a time. Shauna had cleaned the rooms last week, but typically they did a quick run-through together before the guests arrived. The welcome kit held a map of the town, one of the college, a notebook with the retreat's name on the front, pens, and an assortment of local treats including teas and hot cocoa. Shauna had put a plate of fresh cookies in everyone's room during the last retreat, but Shirley was going to have to deal with the Colorado delicacies in the basket if she wanted any snacks. At least until tomorrow, when the chef-in-residence would actually be back in residence. Cat checked the towels and bath items and fluffed the pillows. Walking over to the window, she opened the drapes to let the sunshine in. She glanced around. The room looked lovely. She hoped Shirley would arrive before the sun disappeared for the day.
The writers' retreat was the one way she could continue to pay the utilities and the remodeling loan on the Victorian. She'd sunk most of her savings into the furniture and other amenities that the retreat needed. If she had to hire someone to take over Shauna's role, she didn't know how she could afford to pay for all the things that her friend took care of now.
"No use worrying about something that hasn't happened yet," she told the reflection of herself in the mirror. She pushed her brown hair back behind her ears and peered at her image. A quick shower, some makeup, and some clean clothes might make her look a little more like a professional author. An image she didn't feel totally comfortable with, at least not yet. If they really wanted to meet the author persona, she should wear yoga pants, a cami, and her old sweat jacket. That's what she typically wore, especially when she was on deadline, like she had been a few weeks ago. Now, she had a few weeks before she had to start up a new story. Time to let it percolate in her head.
She headed upstairs to her room and quickly got ready for her new guest. On the way back downstairs, she heard laughter coming from the living room. Cat put on a smile and took a deep breath. Time to be perky and cheerful for another week.
Or at least friendly.
Uncle Pete sat on the couch. Shauna sat next to him and waved Cat over. "There you are."
"I've been here. You're the one that's been MIA." Cat bit her tongue, hoping the words wouldn't come out as a complaint. "Did you know we had a guest showing up today?"
Shauna's eyes widened. "Oh, no. Shirley's coming in early. I totally forgot. Did Seth pick her up at the airport yet?" She glanced at her watch, then back up at their faces. "Did I forget to ask Seth to go get her too?"
"Apparently, she's getting her own transportation." Uncle Pete patted Shauna's knee. "I chatted with her last night on the phone and the woman seems to have a solid head on her shoulders. I think she'll be fine."
"That's not the point." Shauna stood. "I need to set up her room."
Cat sat down. "I already did. I could use some help with the food for tomorrow morning though. Uncle Pete says he's taking her out to dinner, so we just have to have a breakfast ready for her."
"No problem. I can whip up something before I head back to the ranch." Shauna sank back onto the couch. "All you'll have to do is heat it up in the oven."
"You're going back to the ranch tonight?" Cat rubbed her eyes, feeling the stress build.
"I have to. I told Kevin I'd be there for dinner so we can celebrate." Shauna smiled and held out her hand. A large diamond twinkled on her ring finger. "He asked me to marry him. Can you believe it? I thought we were breaking up over Christmas — I didn't see him at all. And then out of the blue, he asks me to marry him."
Cat's breath caught. She didn't want to burst Shauna's bubble, but Kevin had been a total jerk to her friend the entire time they'd dated. And now, he wanted to marry her? "But you've only known each other a few months."
"Six months, exactly." Shauna stared at the ring. "I didn't quite say yes, not yet. But he told me to wear the ring anyway. I think he wants me to get attached so I have to say yes to keep it."
"Do you want to marry him?" Cat was still in shock. All the things she'd worried about were happening. She was losing her friend and her partner in the retreat.
Shauna didn't look up. "I'm not sure."
"Well, I'm happy for you, no matter what you decide. It's about time Kevin manned up and did something right. Although, you know, if he hurts you, I'll be there to put him in his place." Uncle Pete pulled Shauna into a hug. "We're very happy for you, dear. Aren't we, Cat?"
Cat met her uncle's gaze and saw his warning not to be a jerk to her best friend about the proposal. "If you're happy, I'm happy."
Shauna turned toward her and hugged Cat. "I'm so glad to hear that. I was so worried you'd be upset."
"How can I be upset when you're getting married? We'll figure things out with the retreat. And I can deal with breakfast tomorrow as long as you can do the rest of the time." She patted Shauna's back and rolled her eyes in her uncle's direction.
Shauna pulled away and wiped her eyes. "I better get in the kitchen and get the muffins started. I'll do a breakfast casserole and start some soup for your dinner tonight."
"I can feed myself, you know." Cat smiled as Shauna stood and focused on her ring, again. "The ring is pretty."
"I know, right? For once, Kevin did good." Shauna smiled and disappeared into the hallway.
Uncle Pete and Cat sat on the couch, not talking for a few seconds. Then he shook his head. "That boy's going to break her heart, you know that, right?"
Cat nodded. "I'd lay money on it. But if he does, I'm going to make him pay."
Before Uncle Pete could lecture her about leaving things, especially relationships, alone, Cat heard the front door open. A strong female voice called out, "Hello? Is anyone here?"
"Sounds like our guest is here." Cat popped up and started walking to the front lobby.
Uncle Pete caught up with her and put a hand on her arm, stopping her. "Cat, you need to let Shauna deal with this engagement. Good or bad, it's her life."
Cat pressed her lips together and nodded. She didn't like it, but her uncle was right. Nothing good would come of her trying to keep Shauna away from Kevin. She would just have to pick up the pieces once he blew up Shauna's life and walked out the door. "I'll be nice."
"I'll believe that when I see it." Uncle Pete released her arm. "Let's go meet our new friend. I have a feeling she's going to be very interesting."
Shirley Mann stood at the counter, her bags at her feet. She had steel-grey hair, cut shorter than Cat's, and deep blue eyes that watched as Cat and Uncle Pete walked toward her. Cop's eyes.
"Looks like I'm in the right place. The cab driver didn't realize there was even a bed-and-breakfast here in town."
"We're not really a bed-and-breakfast — we're only open for the writers' retreat. I don't know if I could deal with a house full of people all the time. I'd never get anything done." Cat held out a hand. "Shirley? I'm Cat Latimer, and this is my uncle, Pete Edward."
They shook, and Shirley turned toward Uncle Pete. "I enjoyed talking with you last night. Thank you, again, for letting me visit your lovely town. I never want to just walk in without permission from the local law enforcement department. I would have expected the same courtesy when I was on the job."
"We do have a set of codes, don't we? Anyway, I'd love to come visit Alaska someday. I never seem to take a vacation from the job though. You know how it is." He leaned against the registration desk. "I'd like to take you to dinner tonight, if you're feeling up to it. The place isn't fancy, but it has good beer and an excellent steak dinner and we can talk about that cold case you're looking into."
Excerpted from "Of Murder and Men"
Copyright © 2017 Lynn Cahoon.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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