The owner of the Novel Idea Literary Agency is thrilled when former local boy and popular television show host Damian York returns to Inspiration Valley, North Carolina, to launch his new gardening book. But Lila is less than excited about the hubbub when she sees her mounting to-do list. Between planning York’s gala and sprucing up her yard for another event, she’s spread too thin—especially after she finds a skull buried in her flowerbeds.
As Lila’s macabre discovery leads to other secrets hidden in Inspiration Valley’s past, a member of the local garden club is found slumped over her prize roses—murdered. Now it’s up to Lila to dig through old mysteries and new clues to unearth a murderer before someone else is found pushing up daisies…
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
I was completely engrossed in reading my latest proposal, a cozy mystery set in a charming English hamlet, when a couple of specks of dirt fell across my paper. I looked up just in time to see a blue ceramic pot coming down fast.
“Dead,” Bentley bemoaned, setting the pot down with a thud on my desk and sliding it under my nose. “Dead as a doornail,” she added for emphasis.
I brushed away the stray soil and examined what looked like a brown stick with a pair of shriveled leaves. “Did you water it?”
My esteemed boss, Ms. Bentley Burlington-Duke, founder and president of Novel Idea Literary Agency, hardly ever looked perplexed. Even though she now resided in North Carolina, Bentley maintained her Manhattan façade. At this moment, however, she stared down at me with a strange, quizzical expression. Then, she took the diamond-studded readers that dangled on a bejeweled chain around her neck and placed them on the end of her nose, giving the plant another inspection.
I cleared my throat. “Water?” I asked again.
“Well, of course I watered it,” she replied indignantly.
I stuck my finger in the soil. Dry as a bone. “And, what year was that?”
Her eyes shifted a bit before she started backtracking. “The problem is that plants need a lot of nurturing and I’m just not the nurturing type. Unlike you—you’re a nurturer. And, you have a green thumb.” She pointed out the rhododendron that I’d received from my son, Trey, last Mother’s Day. The vine was practically taking over the top of my file credenza.
“Anyone can grow a rhododendron,” I said, wondering what it was she had in mind this time. In the course of my employment I’d carried out my share of minion duties: fetching her coffee, catering to her most demanding authors, and unpacking hundreds of boxes of books. Was she going to add nursing a dead stick to that list? “They grow like weeds,” I continued, hoping to distract her. “Which, speaking of weeds, you wouldn’t think much of my gardening skills if you saw my flower beds. They’re a mess.”
She folded her arms and stared down her regal nose at me with a stern look. “That simply won’t do, Lila! You’ll need to whip them into shape right away.”
I did a double take. “Huh?” The truth be known, I’d intended to create a charming English garden after moving into my little cottage. But after a nearly fatal encounter with a murderous woman in that garden only two months ago, I got the shivers every time I even thought about touching the very trowel or rake that had been brandished against me. Was Bentley, in her own way, suggesting I move on from that trauma? I looked at her imperious posture and suspected a less nurturing motive. I asked hesitantly, “Why’s that?”
“Didn’t Franklin tell you?”
Franklin was Novel Idea’s nonfiction agent. A mild-mannered, older gentleman whom I’d grown quite fond of over the past year. “Tell me what?”
“Well, you know Damian York’s book, Perfect Outdoor Spaces?”
I nodded. Of course I knew about it. Perfect Outdoor Spaces had been the main focus of our status meetings for the entire past month. Its author, Damian York, was one of Franklin’s newest and most promising clients. As the host of a popular public television series, he was quickly becoming a rising star in the home and garden entertainment industry. Not only that, but Damian was a homegrown celebrity, born and raised in nearby in Dunston, which is partly the reason he chose Novel Idea Literary Agency to represent the first in his series of gardening books. Lucky for us that he did. Perfect Outdoor Spaces was destined to be a bestseller.
Bentley lowered her voice and spoke deliberately. “You’re going to help Franklin host a signing for Damian’s book during Inspiration Valley’s Annual Garden Walk.”
I leaned back in my chair and drew in my breath. “Isn’t that just two weeks away?” Flyers for the garden walk were plastered in the front window of every business in town. I was kind of flattered that she’d ask me to help a senior agent plan a signing for such an important client, even though it was on short notice. I could see her point, though. The garden walk was the perfect venue for an author like Damian York. I’d already planned on attending the walk and was hoping to talk my boyfriend, police detective Sean Griffiths, into taking a day off from work to accompany me. So, it really wasn’t that big of a deal to line up a simple signing.
Bentley smiled slyly. “Which should be plenty of time for you and Franklin to put together a dinner event.”
I lurched forward. “A book signing and a dinner event?” Sure, I’d planned many events like these, but never two at once and with so little time.
Bentley had taken to pacing in front of my desk, her well-manicured hands gesturing as she talked. She had that intense look she often assumed when she was scheming a new plan. “Yes, of course you’d have to plan a dinner event. Half of his book features outside dining areas.” Her eyes lit up. “I can just imagine how you’ll set it up. An afternoon signing, perhaps set in a garden, followed by a meet and greet dinner where Damian can interact with . . . oh, let’s say . . . a hundred of his biggest fans.”
“A hundred?” I croaked. I’d retrieved a legal pad from my top drawer and was frantically jotting down her expectations.
She continued on, her wide-leg trousers flowing gracefully as she paced. As usual, Bentley looked cool, fresh, and perfectly put together. The outfit she was wearing probably cost more than I earned in a month. “Yes, I can see it now. It’ll be the perfect fusion between rustic and elegant—earthy tablescapes and candlelight . . . well, you can figure out the details,” she finished with a final wave of her slim hand. “Just make it fabulous. Oh, and of course, you and Franklin will need to coordinate all your plans with this year’s garden walk chairwoman, Alice Peabody.”
I jotted down the name.
Bentley continued, “She’s the president of Inspiration Valley’s garden club, the Dirty Dozen. She’ll be coming by to look at your gardens the first part of next week.”
“That’s why you need to get that garden of yours into tip-top shape; you’re garden number thirteen on this year’s garden walk. The original entrant had some sort of family emergency and had to withdraw from the lineup.”
I could feel my eyes bugging out. “But . . .”
Bentley wagged her finger at me. “No buts, Lila. We need the garden club to help facilitate this event. In this business it’s all about paying it forward. You scratch their back and they’ll scratch yours.”
Oh yeah, well, my back isn’t itchy, I thought, struggling to maintain a civil attitude. This was not part of my job description. I’d happily weed through thousands of queries, prune hundreds of manuscripts, and nurture several promising new authors; but keeping a real garden trim and neat? Well, that was asking too much.
I held my breath for a few counts and then released it slowly, relenting to the fact that I was stuck. Once Bentley set her mind to something there was no dissuading her. So, instead of arguing, I simply nodded in agreement.
It’s true that Bentley could be a taskmaster, but despite my sometimes overly demanding boss, I loved my job as Novel Idea’s newest literary agent. After being laid off from the Dunston Herald—a daunting situation for a forty-five-year-old divorcée with a son heading to college—I’d taken a chance and responded to the agency’s help wanted ad. After cutting my teeth on a few hundred query letters, and bringing The Alexandria Society, a blockbuster novel written by Marlette Robbins, to the agency, Bentley had offered me my dream position. I’d been assigned to mysteries, from cozy and romantic suspense to hard-boiled and soft-boiled, which gave me the daily thrill of traipsing through manuscripts looking for the next bestseller. Sometimes I just couldn’t believe my luck. After all, what other job would pay me to travel in my mind’s eye to exotic locations, meet captivating characters, and ride the roller coaster of fast-paced plots with twists and turns so unexpected that they kept me spellbound until the last page?
Bentley made her way to my office door. “Oh, and Lila, be prepared to discuss your plans at Monday’s status meeting. We’re all here to help you in any way we can. Have a good weekend,” she added as she breezed out of my office.
I shoved aside the dead plant she’d left behind and collapsed on top of my desk. “Impossible,” I muttered. I sat there for a second, my mind reeling with doubt. How could I possibly pull together an event of such magnitude in two weeks? Not to mention, tame my unruly flower beds. Impossible. Absolutely impossible.
A quote from Mark Twain popped into my head. “There are thousands of excuses for every failure, but never a good reason.” I sat up and repeated the quote out loud, drawing inspiration from Twain’s wisely spoken words before snatching up my legal pad and heading to find Franklin.
I was in such a hurry, I didn’t bother to look before entering the hallway and ran smack-dab into one of the other agents, Jude Hudson. “Oops! Sorry,” I said, stumbling backward.
He reached out to steady me, placing his hands on my shoulders. The unexpected contact kicked my heart rate into high gear as his sculpted arms revealed themselves under his snug and immaculately tailored shirt. Much to my annoyance, I still hadn’t been able to shake the spark left over from a kiss that we’d foolishly shared during my first month at the agency.
“No problem. Running into you is always a pleasure,” he said playfully, keeping his hands in place and holding me at arm’s length. As always, his eyes kind of shimmered when in close proximity to any woman (how did he do that?) but this time those sparkly chocolate brown eyes studied me with concern. “You look stressed.”
“Bentley just dumped a load of work in my lap,” I replied, shaking off his hands and reminding myself that I was a one-man type of girl, and that man was definitely Sean.
A swatch of dark wavy hair fell over his forehead as he lowered his gaze. “I’m sorry to hear that. Is there something I can help with?”
“There might be.” I was touched that he’d offered. “I’ll be discussing it at Monday’s status meeting. I may need to delegate a few tasks for a meet and greet dinner I’ll be planning for Damian York.”
“Count me in,” he said, throwing me a wink. Then with a mischievous grin, he reached down and snatched up my left hand. “I see there’s no ring on that finger yet. If Griffiths doesn’t put one there soon, I might just take care of it myself.”
“Give it a break, Jude!” I said, ripping my hand away and stomping down the hallway. I knew he was only kidding, but I just wasn’t in the mood. Truth be told, his words hit on a nerve. It’d been a couple of months since I’d overheard Sean ask Trey for his permission for my hand in marriage—a wonderfully romantic gesture that sent me into an immediate tizzy. Ever since, I’d fantasized about my dream wedding—a literary-themed wedding: simple glass candle votives arranged on stacks of vintage books, copies of Browning’s love poems splayed open for guests to read, and my treasured copy of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice prominently displayed next to the wedding cake. Why, I’d practically planned the whole wedding in my mind, everything from my bouquet—roses much like those that must have grown in the Capulets’ garden where Romeo stole away to speak to Juliet—to my dress, which of course would be a 1920s flapper-inspired gown, reminiscent of The Great Gatsby. The only problem was, Sean still hadn’t popped the question. To make matters worse, Sean’s new promotion from officer to detective was keeping him so busy we’d barely had any time together, which was just going to get worse now that Bentley had given me all this extra work.
I knocked on Franklin’s door harder than necessary and walked straight in, not even waiting for his invitation.
“Bentley talked to you?” he asked with a sheepish look.
I nodded, walking over to his wall that displayed all his clients’ framed book covers. I located Damian York’s cover, which showed a table set for two in a romantic English garden, with candles flickering inside hurricane glass and paper lanterns strung on overhead branches. For one wistful second, I thought of how such a table would be a perfect setting for a proposal, then I snapped back to reality. “Yes, Bentley talked to me.” I pointed up to Damian’s framed cover. “She wants a signing for Perfect Outdoor Spaces followed by a dinner for a hundred of his fans.” I rolled my eyes up to the ceiling. “‘Rustic but elegant,’ I think she said. And, of course, she wants everything to be fabulous,” I added, waving my hands in a mock gesture.
Franklin shook his head. “Oh my, she’s been scheming again. I’m sorry, Lila. I should have warned you.”
I looked across the desk at my friend. Franklin Stafford was one of the sweetest men I knew, the definition of the term “Southern gentleman.” I could never be angry with him. “It’s okay.” I sighed. “If we divide and conquer, I think it’ll be doable.”
He seemed relieved. “I have to admit, I’m not the best at planning dinner events.”
I took out my legal pad and started adding to my notes. “Okay, then. I’ll handle the dinner if you want to take on the book signing. Bentley has a garden venue in mind.”
Franklin nodded. “She told me as much. I was thinking the Secret Garden.” The Secret Garden, in keeping with Inspiration Valley’s literary theme, was the perfect name for the local nursery, which was located on Sweetbay Road just past the railway station. Its enchanting acres were surrounded by a hand-stacked stone wall covered in trumpet vines. Patrons entered through carved wooden doors under a double-arched gate covered with pastel climbing roses and made their way around the nursery’s beautifully orchestrated settings on pea-gravel pathways defined with colorful beds of perennials.
I jotted it down. “Perfect! That would work for both the signing and the dinner. I could arrange to have a large tent brought in and set up in the gardens. It would be a lovely location.”
“We should do flowers on every table,” he added.
“Wildflowers, perhaps.” Field lilies, hibiscus, and mallow popped into mind, but I couldn’t quite picture them all together. I made a note to check with Damian to see which flowers would suit both the book and the occasion. Or perhaps my friend Addison Eckhart, manager of the Secret Garden, would give me some advice.
“Yes, and we’ll use some of the repurposed containers that he suggests in his book.” Franklin’s voice rose an octave as he described his ideas. “I like the idea of tinted mason jars or vintage boxes and tins. It adds a sort of an earthy charm, don’t you think?”
I started to reply, but he jumped back in with more ideas. “Oh, and I saw in his book that Damian likes to fill small metal buckets with a mixture of herb plants and place them on the table where guests can clip fresh herbs if they want. Isn’t that clever? As for the other containers, we could pop by Beyond and Back to see what they have.”
Beyond and Back was a new home décor store that sold gently used home decorating items. “Good idea,” I agreed, then went on, tapping my pen excitedly as another thought came to mind. “You know, I bet we could get How Green Was My Valley to cater the event with a fresh-from-the-garden menu.”
“Damian would love that,” Franklin agreed. “His book features several ideas for hosting garden-to-table dinner events featuring in-season vegetables.”
I sat up a little straighter, making a note to read the book right away and check out some of those menus. “Speaking of Damian, when’s he coming into town?”
Franklin’s face brightened. “I’ll be picking him up tomorrow. I reserved a room for him at the Magnolia Bed and Breakfast.”
“Good, that’s the best place in town.” It wasn’t always that way, though. Mother had told me that when she first moved to the area, called Illumination Valley at the time, the Magnolia Bed and Breakfast was nothing more than a dilapidated old Victorian, close to ruin. Not much more than a hangout for freethinkers and New Agers. Illumination Valley had practically dried up during a hard-hitting recession. That’s when Bentley came onto the scene, establishing her agency in the center of town. The success of the agency soon carried the town out of its slump. Then, jumping on the bandwagon, the town reinvented itself, changed its name to Inspiration Valley, and adopted literary-like themes for many of its small businesses.
Franklin nodded. “I’m anxious for you to meet him. He’s simply . . .” A hint of red showed in his cheeks. “Simply bigger than life.”
I couldn’t help but smile at Franklin’s enthusiasm over his client, wondering if it was only a professional interest or something more personal. He must have realized his description of Damian was a bit overzealous, because his eyes grew wide and he suddenly took interest in tidying up his desk. A while back, I’d stumbled upon a secret Franklin had worked hard to keep from his friends and coworkers. And, while I’d discovered the truth about Franklin’s love life, I’d never talked about it with anyone, including him, out of respect for his privacy.
When he finally spoke again, his tone was all business. “I’m afraid that you’ll have to do most of the initial planning for this event on your own, Lila.”
My brows shot up. It was unlike Franklin to skirt responsibility.
“I’ll be spending most of tomorrow with Damian and Ruthie Watson from Sherlock Holmes Realty. Damian is moving back to the area and is looking for a large piece of land to build a home. He wants me along for a second opinion.”
“Really? But what about filming his show? Doesn’t he do that on the West Coast?”
Franklin’s voice was tinged with excitement as he began to explain. “That’s just the thing. He’s planning on building a home that will showcase his design ideas. It’ll be like a live-in set for his show. In fact, Damian says that if he finds the perfect spot, he may be able to talk the network into doing a spin-off show that features the construction of his new home and the expansive gardens that will surround it.”
“What a great concept,” I commented, thinking of all the possibilities for Novel Idea and the Valley’s art community. “Ruthie will find him the perfect place. She’s the agent who helped me buy my cottage.” I remembered that tumultuous time like it was yesterday. Trey and I had been living in nearby Dunston at the time when a combination of events—me losing my job and Trey, along with several rowdy buddies, causing a boatload of damage to Dunston High School’s football field—forced me into selling my home. Luckily, my mother let us move in with her. Finally, after I landed my job at Novel Idea Agency, I was able to pay off my debt and save enough for a down payment on my dream home—a charming butter yellow cottage with periwinkle shutters.
“That’s right. You’re over in Walden Woods Circle—a lovely location,” Franklin complimented me. Although, thinking of my cottage and my unsightly flower gardens brought on a whole new level of anxiety. Now that Bentley had added me to the garden walk, I was going to have to face down my garden with its tangled mess of weeds, overgrown perennials, and the attention-starved primroses. I started rubbing at a kink that was forming in my neck.
Franklin must have picked up on my stress. “Don’t worry, Lila. I know this seems overwhelming now, but it’ll all come together in the end. It always does.”
I nodded, still working on my neck. For some reason, I had an uneasy feeling. Perhaps I was just leery of this current disruption to the prosaic rhythm my life had assumed over the past couple of months. The monotony of late was a welcome change from my first year in Inspiration Valley, which had been tainted with more violence than I’d ever experienced while living in Dunston.
I shuddered at the memories, although those days were behind me. Thankfully, ever since the deathly events at this spring’s Taste of the Town, my steady and uneventful routine had brought back a sense of harmony to my life. Except for the fact that my relationship with Sean was in some sort of weird funk, things were on the upswing: After a successful freshman year at UNC Wilmington, my son, Trey, was on task, working hard this summer as a barista at Espresso Yourself; my wacky mother, the Amazing Althea, local clairvoyant and tarot reader, was behaving herself; my best friend, Makayla, was hopelessly in love; and my professional life had never been more stimulating or rewarding.
I sighed and put on a smile. My apprehensiveness was silly and completely unfounded. “You’re right, Franklin,” I said, trying to relax. “This event will be like a walk in the park . . . or should I say garden.” I giggled. “After all, it’s just a signing and dinner. What could possibly go wrong?”
Still, my uneasiness grew. Even as I headed back to my office to wrap up my work for the day, I couldn’t shake the feeling of dread that had settled over me. Instead of dwelling on it, I busied myself with the manuscript I’d started on before Bentley’s interruption. It was the first of a proposed English cozy mystery series. It featured a feisty female pub owner who, after ferreting out a local murderer, served up a little justice with her whiskey and beer. The author had done such a lovely job of describing the quaint English hamlet and developing its quirky inhabitants that I never wanted the story to end. That’s the thing I love most about a well-crafted story: The story line and characters stay with me even after the last page.
In this case, the author’s talent had given me a much needed reprieve from my current worries. So much so, I’d decided the uneasiness I was feeling was all in my imagination. I was just stressed after being caught off guard by the extra workload, a problem which could be easily solved.
I glanced over at my desk phone. It was time to call in the big guns.
“Hello, Mama. Are you busy this evening?”
“Of course not, hon. You and I have plans.”
I searched my brain. “We do?” I knew we’d discussed trying out the new Italian restaurant in town, Machiavelli’s, but I didn’t recall setting a date.
“Yes, I knew that you would be needin’ me, so I cleared the whole evening. It was in the cards.”
Aw . . . I should have seen that coming. My mother, the Amazing Althea, made her living by reading palms and tarot cards. And not a bad living, at that. Although I’m not sure if her clients referred to her as “amazing” because of her fortune-telling or her baking skills, because every person who came by her home for a reading was treated to a slice of her famous banana bread. Althea’s banana bread had become legendary in these parts.
“So, what is it we’re doing?” she asked.
I sat back, enjoying the moment. “Why don’t you tell me?”
“Don’t get ornery with me, Lila Wilkins! You know darn well the cards don’t tell me everything.”
I stifled a chuckle and got on with the reason I’d called. “Actually, I need a favor.”
“Can you take your truck by the Secret Garden and pick up a few items for me? I’ll throw in a pizza and beverage of your choice.” I needed to strike a bargain because there was very little I could haul on my Vespa. My sporty yellow Vespa scooter was great for jaunting back and forth to work and easy on my gas budget, but not always the most practical mode of transportation, especially when it came to things like grocery shopping. Although, I’d been known to use packing twine laced through the bars of the rear seat rack to haul home sizable purchases from the monthly artisan fair.
“Well, if you’re planning on invitin’ my ol’ friend Jim Beam, then we’ve got a deal.” My mother had enjoyed an ongoing relationship with Mr. Jim Beam for as long as I could remember. I was just sure her veins flowed with the stuff by now.
I finished the conversation by giving her a list of things I needed and agreeing to meet at my place around six o’clock. That would give me enough time to run by and pick up her “friend” and still get home in plenty of time to change and call in a pizza order.
Sean was next. I dialed his cell, but had to leave a message. He’d been hard to reach lately. Since major crime incidents had been on a decrease, his sergeant had allocated Sean’s time to assisting the specialized narcotics unit. Narcotic trafficking was on the rise in Dunston due to an uptick in gang activity. The city’s department was dedicating half its force to trying to get the situation in check before things spiraled out of control. As a result, Sean had been working a lot of overtime. I couldn’t even recall when we’d last had an evening together.
Frustrated that he wasn’t available—yet again!—I gathered my stuff, took one last glance at the dead plant Bentley had left behind, and flipped off my office light. On the way down the agency’s back stairs, I decided to take a detour by Espresso Yourself.
Walking into Espresso Yourself was like walking into a feast for the senses. The first thing that always hit me was the spicy blend of coffee, cinnamon, and chocolate. Then my eyes would alight on all the artistic creations displayed on the walls and shelves, their textures and colors stealing away my imagination. All that, combined with the soft whirring of the espresso machine, piped-in acoustic guitar music, and the sound of the owner’s—Makayla’s—melodic laugh were enough to abate my strongest worries. I could already feel my shoulders relaxing.
As Makayla greeted me from behind the counter, I noticed her chocolate-colored skin was practically glowing. Probably the effects of a blossoming relationship with the local bookstore owner, Jay Coleman. He’d wooed her last spring by slipping anonymous love poems into her tip jar. Then he finally revealed himself as her secret admirer in the most romantic gesture I’d ever witnessed. It started with a single violinist and a rose at Espresso Yourself and ended in a dozen roses, and that many or more musicians later, at the Nine Muses fountain, where Jay serenaded her with a touching rendition of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” They’d been seeing each other ever since, and I’d never seen my friend happier.
She gave me a once-over, shook her head, then turned back to her machine. “You’ve been working too hard, I can tell. Looks like you’ve had a bad day,” she said over her shoulder. “Let me get your usual.”
I sidled up to the counter. “Thanks, I could use a boost, but make it a small cup. I won’t be here long. I really came by just to ask Trey a quick question.”
“Sure, let me get your coffee and then I’ll get him. He’s in the back working on today’s dishes.”
I laughed. “He does dishes?”
She glanced back over her shoulder again, her fern green eyes twinkling. “He’s a wonderful worker, Lila. I just don’t know what I ever did without him.”
I beamed. “Just what every mother wants to hear.” Over spring break, Trey had stepped in to help Makayla during the busy Taste of the Town events. He’d done such a good job, Makayla offered him summer employment, a real boon to a college boy.
“So what’s going on tonight? A date?” she asked.
My shoulders slumped. “No, afraid not. Work stuff.”
She slid my cup across the counter. “Work stuff? On a Friday night? Something big going on?”
Before answering, I let my nose hover over the rim, closing my eyes and inhaling one of my favorite smells. “You ever heard the expression ‘Where flowers bloom so does hope’?”
Makayla smiled. “Lady Bird Johnson.”
I nodded. “Well, I’m changing it to ‘Where weeds grow so does despair.’”
Makayla tipped her head back and laughed, a sound that always reminded me of wind chimes. “Having garden problems?”
“Garden problems, work problems, boyfriend problems . . . you name it, I’ve got it.”
She leaned over, resting her chin in her palm. “Oh boy. That bad, huh? Tell me about it.”
I waved it off. “I’m just tired. Sorry.” I suddenly felt bad for unloading.
“Don’t be. What’s going on?” For being in only her midtwenties, Makayla possessed the confidence and diplomacy of a much older woman. Since I moved to Inspiration Valley, she’d become my dearest friend and best confidante.
I drew in a deep breath and began giving her a quick rundown on my latest project. “And, I was hoping to have some time with Sean, but he’s tied up with work, and now it looks like I’ll be swamped for the next couple of weeks,” I finished.
My friend straightened up and smiled. Pointing to herself, she said, “Girl, you are now looking at your official decorating committee. All you have to do is tell me what you want and I’ll see that it gets done. Jay will help me and Trey can cover for me here if things get too crazy.”
I shook my head. “Oh, Makayla, that’s too much. I can’t ask you—”
She reached across the counter and placed a graceful hand over mine. “Don’t argue. What are friends for?” She beamed. “Besides, I’m a huge Damian York fan. It’ll be the perfect opportunity to meet him in person.”
My eyes slid over to a set of bookshelves that Makayla kept full of worn paperbacks so that her customers could help themselves. I made a note to myself to bring down Damian’s new book for her to display. Not only would it be a nice gesture, but it would provide some extra exposure, since practically everyone in Inspiration Valley got their caffeine fix at Espresso Yourself. “And Jay? How’s he going to feel about being volunteered for all this?” I asked. Not only was Jay Coleman the proprietor of the Valley’s only bookstore, the Constant Reader, he was also one of the agency’s best clients. Just that past spring, Jay had signed on to write the sequel to The Alexandria Society. The first book, a bestseller, was created by Marlette Robbins, an extremely talented local who’d lived his final years as a recluse before his unfortunate death.
A broad smile played across her face. “Are you kidding? A new author in the area, and a celebrity to boot? Think of all the possibilities for Jay and his bookstore.”
“Okay, then.” I gratefully relented. “You’re hired. We’ll have a meeting of the heads early next week and get everything planned out.”
“Everything what?” I looked over to see Trey coming out of the back. He had on an apron and a long dish towel draped over his shoulder. He looked so young and vulnerable that I fought hard not to jump up and hug him. I stayed put, teasing him instead. “If the girls could see you now.”
He snapped the towel in my direction and flashed a good-natured grin. “What’s up, Mom?”
“Are you hungry?”
His dark brown eyes lit up. “You bet!”
“Careful now,” Makayla warned. “She’s setting a trap.”
Trey eyed me suspiciously. “A trap?”
Makayla and I exchanged a glance and laughed.
“No, not really,” I replied, feeling a sense of warmth at my son’s youthful gullibility. “I thought maybe I could make you a trade. Your muscles for a couple of large pizzas.”
His chest puffed out at the compliment, but he remained hesitant. “What exactly do you have in mind?”
Makayla turned over the Closed sign in the front door and busied herself with wiping down tables.
“I need you to help me remove those three hawthorn bushes in the back garden.”
He stared at me blankly.
“You know, the ugly brown bushes under the windows,” I explained.
“Oh sure. Why?”
“Our house has been added to the Annual Garden Walk and we need to spruce things up a bit.”
“The Annual Garden Walk? Us?”
“I know it sounds crazy, but it’s something I have to do for work. It’s important, Trey.” When I purchased my charming little cottage on Walden Woods Circle, I’d harbored fantasies about converting the gardens into a scene worthy of the great Impressionists: van Gogh’s soft irises, Matisse’s dahlias, and splatterings of Manet’s pastel roses. Unfortunately, life—and a few bad memories—had got in the way. What I had now was something that might inspire a painting more along the lines of Munch’s The Scream.
Trey shifted his feet, dipping his chin and shoving his hands into his jean pockets. “Is anyone else coming to help out?”
The corners of his mouth tipped upward and his brown eyes gleamed mischievously. “In that case, throw in a couple more pizzas and I’ll see if I can round up a few friends to help. I’ll tell them to bring their shovels.”
I couldn’t hold back any longer. I leapt from my chair and engulfed my son in a huge bear hug. Not an easy feat since his normally thin frame had filled out during his time at college. “You’re the best, Trey, you know that?” I said, planting a kiss on his cheek and ruffling his chestnut brown hair.
He stiffened, immediately wiping his cheek and mumbling something under his breath as he disappeared back into the kitchen area. I stared after him affectionately before draining the last bit of my latte and bidding Makayla good-bye.
* * *
TALK ABOUT GOOD timing—the pizza and the extra help arrived simultaneously. After filling the stomachs of Trey and three of his buddies, I put them to work digging out the roots of the damaged shrubs. I planned to replace them with a combination of spirea and barberry. I was thinking that the deep red barberry foliage would contrast nicely against the light green leaves of the Gold Mound spirea.
As they dug away, I got to work on weeding my flower beds. I hadn’t made it far when my efforts were interrupted by the sound of my mother’s truck rumbling down the street. Her turquoise 1970s C10 pickup, complete with Patsy Cline blaring out the windows and two magnetic signs boasting Amazing Althea’s Psychic Services, always seemed to announce her arrival with an air of slightly eccentric flamboyancy. Well, maybe more distinct than “slightly.”
She climbed out, tossed me a wave, and shouted, “Come give me a hand unloadin’ this stuff, boys. Show me what you’re made of.” She slammed the door and moved around to the back of the truck to open the tailgate.
“Holy crap!” I heard Trey exclaim from his digging site.
I spun around to see him stooped over, staring at something in the ground.
“Mom, come here!” he added, waving frantically.
Both my mother and I rushed to his side, pushing our way through his huddled friends. “What is it, darlin’?” my mother asked, wrapping a protective arm around Trey’s trembling shoulders and peering down at the upturned earth.
Although she didn’t have to ask. It was obvious. Trey’s digging had unearthed a skull—a human skull.
After the gruesome discovery, the first person I thought of was Sean. Not only because he was a police officer and I knew the authorities should be informed, but because the sight of the skull completely unnerved me. I needed him there. So I borrowed Trey’s cell phone and after a few shaky attempts, managed to dial Sean’s number. For the second time that day, I couldn’t reach him. Half disgusted, I hung up without leaving a message and dialed 911.
As I waited for the call to be picked up, I glanced over at my mother. She seemed as upset as I was. Trey, on the other hand, now seemed okay. He and his friends had moved away from the hole and were huddled together talking. Bits and pieces of their conversation told me they were speculating about the origins of the skull.
“Ma’am?” I heard the 911 operator on the other end. “What’s your emergency?”
“We’ve dug up a dead body in our yard,” I replied, cringing. Couldn’t I have thought of a better way to put it? “I mean bones. Actually a skull. I think it’s a human skull. Can you send the police to look at it?”
I glanced back over to where my mother was hanging on my every word. Even from where I was standing, I could see that she’d begun shaking. I gave the 911 operator my address, disconnected, and went to my mother.
“Mama? You all right?” I placed my arm around her shoulders, her trembles unnerving me. My mother was the strongest person I’d ever known. She was my rock, always there to see me through the difficult times: my divorce from Bill, Trey’s adolescent stunts, losing my job, and even all the craziness that I’d been through since moving to the Valley. It just wasn’t like her to be so shaken. “What is it?” I asked again.
“Oh, Lila. I’m losin’ my touch, that’s what.” She pointed down at the skull. “Somethin’ as awful as this . . . well, I should have seen it comin’. I should have been able to warn you.”
“Don’t be silly. How could you have possibly predicted that we’d dig up a skull this afternoon? Besides, it could be a hundred years old, for all we know.” Although, even as I said it, I knew that probably wasn’t true. My cottage was built in the 1960s during the Illumination days when all the houses on Walden Woods Circle were built as rentals for a New Age retreat site. Since the town’s reinvention, they’d been renovated and turned into quaint little cottages. Unless my house was built on some sort of ancient burial ground, this body was probably buried sometime in the last thirty to forty years. The thought of it made my stomach churn. My eyes darted to my neighbors’ homes and then back to my own. Could this be the remains of the previous owner, or someone who lived nearby? Why would it be under my hawthorn bushes?
“Lila, don’t go tryin’ to sugarcoat this.” She shook off my arm. “It’s simply a fact that I’m losin’ my abilities. This poor soul, lying right under my nose and I didn’t even sense it?”
We both looked down at the skull and then backed away. I glanced around at my garden, once a place that I dreamed about renovating, a space full of hope and marked by ambitious goals. It was quickly becoming my least favorite part of my home. I let my eyes wander to the maple tree in the corner of the yard where, just a couple of months ago, I’d had a confrontation with a ruthless murderer. In a small way, today’s project was a step toward reclaiming the sense of tranquillity that I’d once felt about my garden—before a killer’s abhorrent actions had tainted it with dark memories. Now, I had to wonder if I’d ever feel at peace again in my own yard.
My mother had started pacing, a worried expression on her face. “Oh, hon. It’s not just this thing today, there’s been some other things, too. Like, just yesterday Fannie Walker came by for a readin’. She comes by every year about this time to have me predict whether or not her roses will take a prize in the garden walk competition. For the past ten years, my predictions have been spot-on, but this time when I laid out the cards they were all a mumble jumble. I couldn’t make neither hide nor hair out of them.” Her shoulders shriveled inward. “Then, of all things, I forgot to add the baking powder to my banana bread batter. It came out as flat as a pancake. Why, I don’t think I’ve ever messed up a batch of banana bread.”
That was troubling. My mother was a banana bread artisan, her baking skills finely honed over the years. Even as a youngster, I was fascinated by watching her expertly whip together ingredients without even using a measuring cup: “A pinch of this and a smattering of that,” she used to say, her graceful hands flying over the bowl. Then, for my seventh birthday, she got me a miniature-sized apron and a tiny loaf pan of my own and invited me to bake with her. It was one of the best memories of my childhood. In fact, that little apron still hung on a hook inside my pantry and I couldn’t look at it without recalling Mama’s hands guiding mine as I practiced cracking eggs over the banana bread bowl.
“How am I gonna to take care of you all if I don’t have my gift?” she continued, still pacing. “You know, Lila, some people take care of their loved ones with their physical strength, some with their money, some with their smarts. Well, I ain’t never been big on any of those things, but I’ve always had my gift. It’s how I care for y’all.”
Her words struck a chord and caused me to dip my head in shame. I’d always been half embarrassed by my mother’s gift; I’d never stopped to think of it as the way she’d shown her love all these years. Isn’t that the way it always is with parents and children? Trey had always hated my worrying and fussing, but I’d been telling him all this time that it was just the way I loved him. Why had it taken me so long to realize that my mother’s often dramatic predictions and warnings were the way she loved me?
I looked over at her, really looked at her, and noticed that the fine lines around her eyes were deeper than I’d remembered. “You haven’t been feeling ill, have you?” I asked, but before she could answer, the first of the police cars pulled in front of my house. I gave her a little squeeze and a peck on the cheek. “Take the boys inside, Mama, and get them some soda or something. I’ll be in as soon as I’m done out here. We’ll talk more then.”
She successfully herded the boys back into the house just as the two officers approached. The first, a young guy with close-cut dark hair, a strong jaw, and an enthusiastic bounce in his step, shot me a quick greeting before placing gloves on his hands and stooping over the hole to examine the skull.
“My son was trying to pry out the roots of that hawthorn bush when he dug it up,” I told him. “It looks human, so I called right away.”
Both of the officers were kneeling now, peering down into the hole with interest. “Did you dig up anything else, ma’am?” the other officer asked. He was much older than the first guy, maybe in his midfifties, with a round shiny head and robust stature.
“No. That’s it; just the skull.” Thank goodness. The skull was bad enough. I was probably going to have a whopper of a nightmare as it was.
The officers remained silent as they stood and began examining the rest of the ground around the hole.
“How do you suppose it got there?” I asked.
Neither one of them answered that question. Instead they began asking questions of their own, like: How long had I lived in the house? How old were the hawthorn bushes? Did I know the previous residents? All questions that gave me the willies yet simultaneously incited my sense of curiosity. Nonetheless, I did my best to answer their questions and was still doing so a half hour later when Sean arrived on the scene.
He crossed the yard quickly, approaching with a concerned look. It had been a few days since I’d seen him and I wanted nothing more than to run into his arms, but the presence of the other officers made any display of affection seem inappropriate. “One of the guys recognized your address and called me,” he said, standing next to me and placing his hand on the small of my back. Then looking at the officers, he asked, “What’s going on?”
After getting the initial rundown, Sean sent me inside the house while he remained outside to assist the officers. Once inside, I found the boys in the family room playing video games, eating cold pizza, and finishing the last of the soda. I was glad to see they were carrying on, seemingly unfazed by their macabre discovery. Although I had no doubt that once word got out, I’d be spending most of tomorrow fielding questions from their concerned parents.
I worked my way around them and back to the kitchen, where my mother was. She was at the table, a set of tarot cards laid out in front of her. “Come over here and look at this, darlin’,” she beckoned.
Excerpted from "Played by the Book"
Copyright © 2015 Lucy Arlington.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
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.
What People are Saying About This
Praise for the New York Times Bestselling Novel Idea Mysteries
“Food fame can come at a price, as Paula Deen, Nigella Lawson, and Martha Stewart can testify. But death?...[A] suspenseful story written with delectable style.”—Richmond Times-Dispatch
“Nice plotting for the characters to work with, interesting sub-plots as well, and enough clues to make your head spin.”—Kings River Life Magazine
“Inspiration Valley is a town everyone would love to visit, from Walden Woods Circle to the Expresso Yourself Coffee Shop to the Magnolia B&B and everywhere in between. Lucy Arlington has created the perfect setting for this cozy series.”—Escape with Dollycas
“Mysteries, books, and food just go hand-in-hand…A charming story.”—Lesa’s Book Critiques
“A wonderfully crafted tome that kicked up the suspense a notch as the pages progressed towards a finale worthy of this terrific novel…[A] fabulous series.”—Dru’s Book Musings
“This cozy debut...excels at describing bucolic North Carolina. Think Kate Carlisle for her intergenerational ensemble style or Mark de Castrique’s series for regional Tar Heel flavor.”—Library Journal
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Played By The Book is the fourth book in the A Novel Idea Mystery series. This series has been taken over by Susan Furlong Bolliger, but is the same high quality story as the first three. Damien York has been signed to a contract and Bentley Burlington-Duke is having Lila Watkins and Frank Stafford planning an extravagant launch party for his first book and it is to coincide with annual Garden Walk and the awarding of the Van Gogh award for the Best Garden. York grew up in Inspiration Valley and is host of a popular television program, so everyone can expect to benefit from the launch party. But the bad news is that Lila and Frank have only two weeks to pull this off. Fiona, Jude and Zach, also agents at Novel Idea, all agree to help out with the party. Once Lila meets Alice Peabody, chairwoman of the Garden Walk and president of the gardening group, The Dirty Dozen, she is sure that this won't be a "walk in the park", by any means. Ms. Peabody is very demanding and seem to be willing to do whatever it take to win the Van Gogh award. As if planning the launch party and dinner wasn't enough, she needs to get busy sprucing up her garden so that she won't be the laughing stock of the Garden Walk. As she and her son Trey begin to remove a couple bushes, they find a human skull. Since the skull was found in her yard, she feels the need to help and find out who the skull belongs to. Unfortunately, this also leads to some calling her a "murder magnet". Then when Fannie May Walker, member of the Dirty Dozen, is bludgeoned to death in her back yard, Lila begins to wonder how successful the launch party will be if she can't help the police solve the murder. But when Lila's son has an accident, that is found to be no accident, and she receives a threatening note, it is time to find the murderer before any other deaths occur. Most all the characters from previous books are back once again to provide help or support while Lila is off sleuthing. Makayla, owner of Expresso Yourself is back and love is still in bloom with her and Jay, owner of The Constant Reader bookstore. And a wonderful engagement is in store for someone. I love this series and will be looking forward to the next book.
There are books that I love from the very first page. PLAYED BY THE BOOK is one of those books. I was drawn in to the story immediately and savored turning every page. Well, not the last page because that meant this wonderful read was over. Only a few pages in I laughed out loud when during a conversation, Lila's boos said, "You scratch their backs and they'll scratch yours." and Lila, whose point of view the story is from, thinks to herself, "Oh yeah, well, my back isn't itchy." LOL Loved it! The main character in the Novel Idea series is Lila. I really enjoyed her character and look forward to spending time with her again, as well as her family and friends when the next installment is released. (Do we really have to wait a year?) From the finding of the skull in Lila's flower bed, the murder of a garden club member, to the exciting conclusion, (Quoting Ms. Arlington's own words from a scene from this book), PLAYED BY THE BOOK had "twists and turns so unexpected that they kept me spellbound until the last page." I couldn't have said it better myself. Readers may or may not know that the first three books in this series were written under the pen name, Lucy Arlington, by authors Ellery Adams and Sylvia May, both of whom created the series. They have turned the writing duties over to the wonderful author, Susan Furlong. I mention this to assure fans of this series not to worry. Ms. Furlong has flawlessly transitioned into the role of Lucy Arlington and PLAYED BY THE BOOK is every bit as awesome as the first books in the series. I'll go so far as to say, she her voice has improved upon an already outstanding series. And make sure to check out the preview of PEACHES AND SCREAM by Susan Furlong which can be found at the end of the book. PEACHES AND SCREAM is book 1 in the new Georgia Peach Mystery series, due out July 2015!
Dollycas’s Thoughts Lila Wilkens has my dream job. I would even love to do a bit of sleuthing. We return to Inspiration Valley for the 4th time and Lila is helping to organize a grand affair to help launch Damian York’s new gardening book. As part of the event Lila’s own garden is to be featured but when she is pulling out some old shrubs she makes a terrible discovery. A human skull, thought to be a young woman. As if that isn’t enough across town another woman is found dead/murdered in her garden. So in addition to her workload Lila now needs to get down and dirty to solve an old mystery and a new one. The first three books in this series were written by a writing team of Ellery Adams and Sylvia May. Susan Furlong becomes Lucy Arlington for this story and I truthfully didn’t notice much of a change in writing style, which is good, but not an easy feat, so kudos to Ms. Furlong. I really enjoyed the behind the scenes look at an book agent’s job and the joy Lily has when she can tell an author she has sold their book to a publisher. Then the way she helps their stories shine with some really good advice and nurturing. In a time when big publishers are cutting back on their cozy mystery contacts Lila gives us insight to the publishing process. I just hope this series continues to survive the cuts. I really treasure the relationship Lila has with her son Trey. I will not lie, it made me miss my son Kris a lot. In addition to the mysteries there is some romance with Sean and Lila and Makayla and Jay. Sean may not be moving fast enough in the direction Lila would like but Jay has pulled out all the stops to move his relationship with Makayla forward. The mysteries themselves are very interesting. Are the connected in some way? or is it just a coincidence that the skull/skeleton was found as another murder happened. Lila wants to get justice for the young girl buried on her property but she is also invested in finding the killer that left a garden club member smelling her roses for the last time. I was completely captivated by this cozy. We are given just a little tease for the next what to expect for Lila in the next installment. The good thing about reviewing this book right now is that Off the Books was released this past February and it on my shelf calling me. I see some juggling in my reading schedule happening soon.
This writer's language is all over the place. "Cezanne nailed exactly how I feel about my yard" then "There's no need to exacerbate the situation." Also, I felt there are too many descriptions of things not needing long descriptions. The mystery took a long time to set up, I thought, and I guessed the murderer early on. It is in a series of books set in a town with a literary theme (restaurants and shop names tied to books) - too cutesy for me.
Lila and her Co agents at the Novel Idea Literary Agency have told by their boss to put on a gala for their newest author. He is a tv garden host. Lila"s boss wants her to be part of the garden tour. Just as Lila is fixing her garden they find a dead body. The body has been there for a long time. Next her boss want the author to fix her garden as part of the gala. One of the women from the garden club is murdered. You need to read this book to figure out who did it. Recommend
Inspiration Valley , North Carolina is just the kind of place you would love to live it. I small town with a literary theme. All the business have names which adds to my delight. My favorite is a very unique sandwich shop The Cather in the Rye. And our heroine Lila Wilkins has the ideal job as a literary agent at Novel Ideas Mysteries. Her boss there is a bit like Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada- but deep down is likable. Lila's mother is very quirky and very interesting. Althea reads tarot cards for a living and is never without her two friends Jim Beam and Rusty- her shotgun. And Lila has a to die for boyfriend who just happens to be police officer. And than there is the skull that shows up in Lila's garden followed by the murder of an elderly member of the garden club. All of this just as the town is getting ready for a gala event to honor a native son and television star. In this, the fourth book in the series the action is lively and the mystery a page turner. I will sum up by agreeing with the words of the author herself. " That's the thing I love most about a well-crafted story; The story line and characters stay with me even after the last page
Lila Wilkins, literary agent at the Novel Idea Literacy Agency, is asked to help with an event planning for their new client, Damian York, to celebrate the publication of his new gardening book. Damian is not only a popular television show host but also a former resident from Dunstan, a neighboring town, and is in negotiation for the purchase of property that he would like to showcase on his television show for renovation and gardening ideas. In addition to helping plan a book signing and dinner for the gardening book launch, Lila is also working on Inspiration Valley's Annual Garden Walk Event, which is now scheduled to include Lila's own garden as the last of the garden properties to be reviewed and judged. But when Lila, her son Trey and his friends start to clear out some of the debris in her garden, they unearth a human skull. Lila's boyfriend, Sean, is assigned to discover the identity of the victim, but this is just the beginning of a series of incidents which includes the murder of a member of the local garden club. Can Lila uncover the truth after all these years or will this be her last mystery? And where does Lila's relationship with Sean stand? Although she secretly overheard him ask her son for permission to propose to her, nothing has happened. In fact, with his new assignments, he barely has any time to see her. Adding to this concern, Lila's mother, the Amazing Althea, is worried that her gift is fading. The murder victim was one of Althea's clients and she saw nothing in the cards that would have foretold this tragedy. I really enjoy this series and the characters and businesses created for it. The mystery provides enough twists and turns to keep one guessing the who and why until the end. I look forward to the next book in this series. Disclosure: I was provided with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
This is the fourth book in the series and is the best one yet. It will keep you guessing until the end.
This is another great read in the Novel Idea Mystery series. I was hooked from the very first page and was even more thrilled when the ending was a complete surprise. I didn't put this one down until I was finished with it. There is just the right amount of mystery, intrigue, suspense and romance in this book. I can't wait for the next one to come out.
Once again Ms. Lucy Arlington hit the ball out of the park! The cover is simply gorgeous! With each installment of this series the books get better and better. She is one of the few authors out there that can make you feel like you are really there. I could smell the coffee shop when Lila went for her daily Caramel Latte. I could smell the fresh bread at Catcher in the Rye, which I must admit I really wish I could visit. You can feel the humid heat of North Carolina, as well as the cool breeze after a rain storm. With just a few words she makes the town of Inspiration Valley North Carolina come alive and urge you to want to plan a vacation to see the sites. I feel honored that she asked me to read the book for an honest review. This is a must have book for my shelves. I do warn that you should have tissues ready for the ending. This is mystery that will keep you guessing to the end.