Charli can’t believe writer Lucy Barton has agreed to promote her latest Midnight Poet Society novel at The Book Barn Princess—or that there’s only a week-and-a-half to prepare for the signing. It’s all because of The Book Seekers, a smartphone app created by her cousin Jamal exclusively for Charli’s bookstore, which sends fans on a virtual scavenger hunt around town for a chance to meet the bestselling author. But as soon as it goes live, people turn up dead . . .
Someone’s using The Book Seekers to track victims and copycat the fictional Midnight Poet Society homicides, and horrified locals suspect Jamal could be the mastermind behind the crimes. While Charli readies the Barn for a stampede of new customers, it’ll take true grit to shelve the culprit before her brainy cousin gets locked behind bars, Ms. Barton backs out of the visit, and she finds herself up a creek—with a serial killer holding the paddle!
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
"Your eye is twitching."
"It is not." My lashes fluttered against my cheek — twice. I rubbed my hand over my face and continued to deny the obvious. "I've got dust in my eye. Someone needs to clean this barn."
Daddy sighed. "You did that yesterday — on your day off."
"What? Yesterday wasn't my day off." I turned away from the view of an empty Main Street and picked up one of the delivery boxes from the counter. I'd put the box down when my ex walked by our store just now without stopping. Cade Calloway had strolled on by like he hadn't been promising to take me out to dinner for the past couple months after he got reelected as mayor — two weeks ago.
It was humiliating.
Obviously, we both remembered his invitation. Only one of us thought it'd been sincere. I started to growl and then covered the noise with a cough. My daddy didn't need to know that Cade had let me down, again. Cade and I hadn't been together since high school — and if I was being honest, he really didn't even rate the status of ex.
He was part of my childhood. Over and done with. Growing older meant moving forward. It was time I did that.
The front door of our bookstore swished open and the little buzzer dinged, signaling the arrival of customers. I shivered from the cool, damp breeze that came in with the two women. It was the breeze that caused goose bumps to form on my arms, not my anticipation that Cade had turned his all-American, apple-pie good looks around and walked into the Book Barn Princess. That was not something I wanted with every fiber of my being.
I also have a habit of lying to myself. My life had never been rosy. It'd been good, but not charmed. I yearned for charmed. Or maybe I just wanted a date ... any date.
Daddy approached the two middle-aged ladies who were staring up at our over-sized loft filled with books and upon request, showed them our Poetry & Literature section in one of the Barn's old horse stalls. The front of the section was whitewashed and had Poetry painted in bold black letters with a tree growing out of the letter t. Literature was offset to the right in scrolling black calligraphy lettering with a feather pen and an inkwell emphasizing its beauty. It gave our rustic setting a touch of class.
I heard Daddy ask if they were looking for a present, and began to worry about being behind with our holiday stock. This was the first year in a long time that I actually wanted everything to be perfectly decorated to capture the festive nature of the season. For most of my life, holidays had always been a bummer with a capital B. I mean, sure, when I was a little kid, they were awesome. Toys and scrumptious food were in abundance, but the best part? My family was a family. My mom was alive and we would bake for hours, days, weeks ... even months. The baking began in September when the holiday cookbooks would start to arrive at our family bookstore. My mom would open the boxes and her smile would light up her face.
She'd turn to me and say, "Charli Rae, I think we need to test these recipes before we tell our customers that these here books are full of recipes to die for, don't you?" In her voice, there would be that rich, heavenly tone she always had when we shared our favorite family holiday treat. It was like she was experiencing the burst of flavor on her taste buds as soon as she saw the covers of the cookbooks. It was the same look she had when my dad made peppermint milkshakes while we decorated the Christmas tree.
With one difference. If Dad was making his famous peppermint milkshakes, my mom would mosey on over to where he stood at the kitchen counter, her hips moving back and forth with a sassy sway, and she'd look up into my daddy's eyes and tell him no one could tempt her to sin the way he did as she took that first sip. Little did I know at the age of ten that her tone had more to do about the passion between them than the homemade milkshake. For me, it was all about the dessert.
I loved it.
There was nothing special about the ingredients — Homemade Vanilla Blue Bell Ice Cream, with milk, peppermint extract, and candy canes blended into one cool, scintillating dessert that I'd savor until the very last drop I didn't want to reach but couldn't wait to devour. To this day, I associate peppermint shakes with family and love.
All the wonder, however, disappeared after my tenth Christmas, after Momma died from cancer. Our first holiday was brutal. Dad made peppermint shakes in an attempt to give me normalcy. But I misunderstood the gesture and thought he was saying life would go on without Momma — nothing would change. I ended up throwing my milkshake, glass and all, across the apartment we lived in above the store. I shocked my dad as I screamed and stomped through the kitchen to my bedroom.
It was only when I heard him crying as he cleaned up the mess I'd made in the other room that I realized he was hurting just as much as I was. I returned to the living room and knelt beside him. He tried to hide his grief, but even at ten, there was no way I was going to let him. I needed to know I wasn't the only one utterly destroyed by her death ... and for the next six years we spent the holidays sharing only one shake on Christmas Eve to remember my mom in our own special way.
"Are you going to open that box, or sit there and wait for the books to break out like Black Bart broke out of Hazel Rock's jail?"
I laughed at the lean man who had more gray than pepper on the top of his head. Daddy liked the Old West history of Hazel Rock. It was how my momma convinced him to settle in the Barn when I was eight.
Daddy returned to his worn leather chair behind the counter and sat with his feet propped up on the counter and crossed at the ankles. He rested his chin in his hand as he leaned against the arm of the chair and pondered what the blue blazes I was up to.
"You're supposed to be manning the register, not spying on me," I told him.
"If I was spying, I'd be asleep. Your life is about as exciting as the wind blowing."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"It means get out of the Barn and live a little. Stop lollygagging around here on your day off."
"But the new books have arrived," I objected.
Daddy pulled his feet off the counter and stood. He was a handsome man just past his prime, with a laid-back manner and a twinkle in his eyes that belied his innocent expression. He was lean and fit, and could almost always be found wearing a plaid shirt with jeans and a pair of ancient cowboy boots. His skin had the weathered tan of a man who worked on a farm, or around a barn, like ours was before it was a bookstore. I'd idolized him as a child, demonized him as a teenager, and begun to appreciate him for the man, father, and husband he'd been as I approached thirty. He'd literally become my world once again.
Which didn't exactly say a whole lot for my social life. It was pathetic, and I was well aware of it.
"I'll have the new books on the shelves tomorrow when you come to work," he scolded.
"I want to open them today. Lucy Barton's book should be arriving any day ..."
"And here I thought you were looking for cookbooks."
I grinned. He knew me better than I'd expected considering I'd run away from home to live with my aunt at the age of seventeen. It'd taken me a dozen years to find my way back to my hometown, but I wasn't about to completely confess my weakness for a good holiday treat.
Princess squawked from under my daddy's feet.
"If we're disturbing your beauty sleep, Princess, you should have stayed upstairs," I replied. "Quit complaining."
Princess stuck her pointy pink little nose out from behind the counter, yawned, and then disappeared from my view. Before moving back home, I would have never, in a million Texas years, believed that I would live with a nine-banded armadillo, let alone talk to one, but she intruded on our conversations like a little toddler dying for attention. Sometimes she smelled like one too.
I'd inherited the little creature from my dad when I returned home and moved into the apartment above the store on the backside of the Barn overlooking the Bravos River. Princess wasn't your typical pet; she was pink, sometimes stinky, and had a hard shell. A freak of nature abandoned at birth that my dad took in and gave a home. Then he gave her to me when I returned because she liked the Barn. As much as I grumbled about the little thing, I'd fallen in love with her beady eyes and cocky attitude. We were pretty much inseparable — unless she was out back digging for grubs ... or stunk to high heaven and needed a bath ... or I decided to get out of bed and not sleep all day long.
Daddy scooted across the concrete floors. He stopped in front of me as I struggled with my box cutter that was about as sharp as a pair of kiddy scissors. In other words, it wouldn't cut a piece of construction paper if it was perforated.
Daddy swayed his head from side to side and his lips curved in a smile of surrender. He'd given up on telling me to replace the blade. "Let me help you with that." He pulled out his pocket knife from his well-worn Levi's and bent over to grab the edge of the box.
"Don't cut any of the books," I warned.
His lip quirked but he said nothing as his knife made a clean cut down the center of the box, the blade slicing through the thick packing tape like it was butter on a hot sunny day. He made two more cuts at the ends of the box and I didn't wait for him to get out of the way; I immediately started pulling out the cardboard and paper packing that protected the books from damage during shipping.
Daddy's cell phone rang and I waited for him to take the call. I knew he wanted to see the books as much as I did. When his expression turned somber, a bad feeling stirred in my gut. Something was wrong. I listened for any hint of what the caller had to say on the other end of the phone. It was only when he said, "I'm sorry for your loss" that I knew how bad it was.
I pulled Princess onto my lap and hugged her tight. Daddy told the caller not to worry, that there was no rush, and asked that they put us on the list before he hung up the phone.
Daddy clipped his phone to his belt and broke the bad news. "Matt Allen died this morning."
I couldn't place the name. I recognized it; I just wasn't sure who it belonged to.
Sensing my confusion, Daddy explained. "Matt was the electrician who was going to install the lights on the front of the store to light up the Book Barn Princess sign."
"What happened to him?"
"It seems he got electrocuted at a jobsite he was working on this morning. Now Warner Electric is short-handed and they're not sure when they can get someone out to install the lights."
"That's horrible. I hope they realized the lights weren't that important."
"Yeah, but they're a good, reliable company. They have a good safety record, and I know they must be having a hard time dealing with his death. Matt has been with them since he was a teenager. He was still just a kid, barely twenty-two."
We sat there for moment thinking of how precious life was and how quickly everything could change on a dirty dime. It was only when Princess squirmed off my lap that I returned my attention to the box and pulled out the latest Midnight Poet Society Mystery by Lucy Barton. A squeal may have escaped my lips. Lucy Barton had been my favorite murder mystery author since my aunt let me read her first Midnight Poet Society Mystery when I was seventeen. It was the perfect distraction from reality. When I was a teen, the gang of young dark poets became my best friends. It was also what we needed to keep us focused on the future right now.
I ran my hand across the hardback's cover sleeve. The sleek surface gave way to textured ridges across the title. The black and purple cover depicted a dark and eerie murder scene in a forest with a muted moon illuminating a dead body. The murder weapon was on prominent display in the middle of the book cover — an ax protruding from the bloodied chest of the victim, while forming the right arm of the letter X in the title, Waxing Moon. It was brilliant and spooky. Gruesome in thought, yet relatively tame in the actual image.
I oohed so loud, my dad couldn't resist taking a peek over my shoulder. I began to pull the books out of the box and realized the count was way off. I hadn't ordered that many books — in fact, I'd only ordered twenty because we had a midnight poetry reading scheduled for Friday night and were expecting at least ten people to be there. But from what I could see, there were at least thirty books in the one box.
"Something's wrong. I didn't order this many books." I looked over at the seven boxes that had been delivered. "Now that I think about it, I think this entire order is off. There's no way I should have this quantity."
The bell on the front door buzzed softly and the automatic barn door swooshed open, allowing a cool seasonal breeze to proceed the entrance of our customer.
"I'll get that," Daddy said before I could argue.
Except Daddy didn't move. His boots stayed rooted to the floor and I looked up to see what could possibly be the problem. His face had drained of color. His cheeks fell slack. But it was his eyes that really frightened me. They were full of pain — anguish that hit him at his core. A look I hadn't seen since my momma died —
I followed his gaze to the front door ... and had the opposite reaction. Glee flooded through me, wiping away all my fear.
I scrambled to my feet and made a beeline for the woman standing just inside the door, looking around like she'd gotten lost in time. Her expression changed; lightened and brightened when she caught sight of me. At fifty-eight, my Aunt Violet was tall and slender with curves that had filled out with age.
Violet dropped her purse and swung open her arms. "Honey child, you are a sight for sore eyes!"
Most women I hug are shorter than me by several inches. Aunt Violet, however, was taller than I am by an inch. She was the exact height my mom was before she died. They were nearly identical in every way ... except for their hair and personalities.
Before my momma died, she was the calming effect in my life. After she died, my daddy filled that role. When he and I split ways when I was seventeen, it was Violet's role to fill.
Except she couldn't. Aunt Violet was the wild child, like me. But whereas I changed during college, Violet could still burn a town to the ground with her antics. She took me in and gave me a loving home when I fled my hometown and everyone in it. But she could never fill the role I wanted most, just as my mom or dad could never have been my boisterous cheerleader that Aunt Violet became.
Aunt Violet had been all about teaching me to take the world by my own woman-made storm. To make a difference, I had to make the world see me. She insisted I leave my mark and strive toward a career that protected and served. If I'd followed her advice, I would have been working a beat on the Denver Police Department, and miserable as all get out. That was my Aunt Violet's career, not mine.
I did listen to her when she said I had a way of talking to people that calmed them, just like my momma did. I took her advice to heart — just not toward the path of law enforcement. I left all the bad guys, the conflict, and the spikes of adrenaline to my Aunt Violet, got my degree in education, and started teaching kindergarten instead. Teaching involved working day hours, with weekends off and summer vacations I couldn't pass up. And the wild child in me became the calming spirit in the household. I had to be, otherwise my cousin Jamal ...
"Where's Jamal? Is he okay?" I pulled back and considered her raven eyes accentuated by the sweeping arches of her eyebrows.
"Your cousin is parking the car. He'll be in in a minute."
I pulled my aunt away from the door and refused to let go of her hand. Looking at her inside my momma's dream store, I suddenly realized what it would be like to see my mom in her late fifties. Her hair would be shorter and straighter than my aunt's, who wore her hair with the curls tapered and uneven. Aunt Violet's bangs accentuated the long lines of her jaw on one side, while showcasing the beauty of her almond-shaped eyes on the other. And for a moment, I could see my momma cleaning out the Barn, the pure joy of building her dream evident on her face.
Then I remembered the shock my dad experienced when Violent walked in — she was my momma returning from the grave twenty years too late. I looked to him to offer comfort, but he'd recovered from seeing his wife's twin.
Excerpted from "Perilous Poetry"
Copyright © 2017 Kym Roberts.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.