Bookstore owner Samantha Washington sells and solves mysteries in North Harbor, Michigan—including the murder of her mother's wedding planner . . .
Sam's mother can't wait to wed her wealthy beau, Harold Robertson. The big mystery is how they're going to pull off a lavish wedding in three weeks. Harold's snobby sister-in-law proposes a solution: engage flamboyant wedding planner Lydia Lighthouse. But their beacon of hope quickly sends everyone into a blind rage, most of all the groom-to-be. So when the maddening micromanager is strangled with her own scarf, it's a shock, but not a surprise.
It’s a case of art imitating life as Sam pens her next historical mystery set in England between the wars. Lady Daphne Marsh insists on marrying Lord James Browning on Christmas Eve, three weeks hence. But when the fop planning their wedding ends up with a knife in his back, she vows to nab the backstabber before she walks down the aisle.
Meanwhile, when she’s not writing, Sam and her beloved and boisterous Nana Jo rush to shine a light on Lydia's killer—so her mother's new husband won't spend his honeymoon behind bars . . .
Praise for The Plot Is Murder
“Readers of Carolyn Hart and Vicki Delany will appreciate the lively seniors, the humor, and the bookstore environment.”
—Library Journal (Starred Review)
About the Author
V.M. Burns is the acclaimed author of screenplays, children’s books, and cozy mysteries, including the Dog Club Mysteries, the RJ Franklin Mysteries, and the Mystery Bookshop Series. Born and raised in South Bend, Indiana, V.M. Burns currently resides in Tennessee with her poodles. She is a member of Mystery Writers of America, Dog Writers Association of America, Thriller Writers International, and a lifetime member of Sisters in Crime. She can be found online at www.VMBurns.com.
Read an Excerpt
"If you don't get your fanny out of that dressing room in the next thirty seconds, I'll come in and drag you out."
I recognized the tone in my grandmother's voice well enough to realize she meant business. Three hours of trying on every bubblegum-pink bridesmaid dress in South Harbor's one and only wedding shop had left all of us in a foul mood. I took one last look at my reflection in the mirror and resigned myself to my fate. The hoopskirt under my ballroom gown was so large I had to turn sideways and wiggle to get through the dressing room door, but given this was the seventh or eighth dress I'd tried on, I had mastered the technique fairly well.
In the main viewing area at the back of the large store, I walked up the two stairs and stood atop the platform designed to look like a wedding cake to showcase the dresses to loved ones. I stood atop the platform of shame and waited for the laughter I knew was inevitable.
My timing was impeccable. Three other brides and their guests had just walked to the back of the store, so my audience had tripled since my last humiliation. I heard snickers and one guffaw from the store personnel. Initially, the sales consultants had contained their reaction much the same as the queen's guard outside of Buckingham Palace, not showing one iota of a smile. However, three dresses ago that all changed. Now, they smiled and snickered openly.
My grandmother, Nana Jo, and my mother, the impending bride and source of my current embarrassment, sat on a comfy sofa sipping champagne. Nana Jo had just taken a sip when she looked up and saw my latest ensemble.
Nana Jo snorted and champagne squirted from her nose. "You look like a giant pink piñata."
I turned and stomped down the stairs and headed back to my dressing room.
In between the laughter, my mom said in a confused voice, "I don't understand it. It looked so cute on the hanger."
I squeezed back into the dressing room, caring little if this satin and tulle monstrosity got snagged or not. My sales consultant helped me get out of the dress while she avoided making eye contact. I suspected a few of the chuckles I'd heard had come from her, although I couldn't be sure.
"Your mom has a very distinct taste." She picked the pink piñata off the floor and made sure it was returned to its protective plastic.
"You can say that again." I took a drink from the glass of champagne she'd snagged for me after I'd walked out in a hot pink version of the velvet draperies Scarlett O'Hara had fashioned into a ball gown in Gone with the Wind. "How many more?"
I should have been suspicious when she didn't respond and quickly turned away, but I was too busy texting my missing sister, Jenna, who'd managed to back out of today's humiliation by declaring she had an important legal brief to write. Her day would come and revenge would be sweet. When I turned around and saw the next fluffy pink concoction, I nearly spit my champagne. Instead, I grabbed the champagne bottle and took a long swig.
The eighth, or was it ninth, dress was a tight-fitting mermaid-style gown with a super tight sequined gold bodice layered to look like scales that went down my hips to my knees and then the fluffy tulle skirt expanded in waves into a long train of pink, which puddled at my feet. I didn't even bother looking in the mirror. One look at the sales consultant's face told me everything I needed to know. From her raised eyebrows to the twitching lips, I knew I looked absolutely ridiculous. I contemplated taking it off and refusing to wear it out of the dressing room, but it was the last one. I might as well get it over with.
Mermaid dresses looked great on tall women, but I was only about five feet three, so the tight part of the dress fell lower on me. The sequined upper part of the gown was so tight I couldn't open my legs to walk and had to shuffle out of the dressing room. Climbing the stairs to get atop the platform required the help of two sales consultants and a great deal of tilting on my part.
Nana Jo laughed so hard and so long, she started gasping for breath and tears rolled from her face. My mom just stared at me as though I truly had just crawled out of the sea.
"Look, we've been at this for over three hours. I'm tired and hungry and my patience has waned," I announced to anyone listening.
I was about to turn and shuffle back to the dressing room when I looked up and saw my mom's fiancé, Harold Robertson, and my friend-who-is-more-than-a-friend, Frank Patterson, gawking at me from behind my mom's chair.
"You're just hungry, dear. I'm sure you'll feel better after you eat something. That's why I invited Harold and Frank to meet us for lunch." Mom smiled.
I stared openmouthed into Frank's eyes and saw the look of shock and mirth he tried to hide reflected back at me. I'd endured ridicule and degradation from my family and complete strangers, however, Frank Patterson was different. It had taken quite a while after my husband Leon's death before I was even ready to entertain the idea of a male friend, let alone a romantic relationship. So, I wasn't quite ready for Frank to see me in all of my mermaid glory.
I took a step backward in my haste to find a place to hide and tumbled off the back of the platform. My only consolation was if I'd still been wearing a ball gown with a Gone with the Wind hoopskirt, when I fell on my rear, my dress would have lifted like the rear hatch of my SUV. Instead, the long flowing train got wrapped around my feet and I lay trapped on my back like a mummy.
I didn't believe Nana Jo could have laughed harder, but she managed. After my first few seconds of stunned embarrassment, where I flopped and wiggled around on the floor like a fish out of water, Frank's arms went around my waist as he lifted me to my feet.
Once I was upright, I made the mistake of trying to walk and realized my legs were still trapped and nearly toppled over again. Thankfully, Frank was still there and grabbed me before I fell again. His soft brown eyes sparkled and his lips twitched as though a laugh was just seconds away.
"Laugh and you're a dead man," I whispered and gave him a look that had once brought a two-hundred-pound football player to tears when I taught in the public high schools.
The look worked, and Frank wiped the mirth off his face and helped the sales consultants untangle the fabric binding my feet. Once I was free, I turned and stomped, well, shuffled, back to the dressing room with as much dignity as I could muster. Oh, yes, my sister, Jenna, would pay dearly for leaving me to suffer alone.
Dressed, and in my own clothes, I marched out of the dressing room to find my audience had dwindled down to a party of one, Frank Patterson.
"Where'd they go?" I looked around.
Frank opened his arms and engulfed me in a warm hug. "You look like you could use a hug."
I sighed and snuggled closely. I took a deep breath and released the tension that had built up in the past few hours. Frank owned a restaurant a few doors down from my North Harbor bookstore and he always smelled of coffee, bacon, herbal Irish soap, and red wine. I took a large sniff and felt the ripple of laughter rise up inside him.
"Let me guess, I smell like bacon and coffee?"
I took a big whiff. "Don't forget the Irish soap and red wine."
He laughed. "It's a good thing I don't serve liver."
My stomach growled. "I'm so hungry I'd probably eat it if you did. Where'd they go?"
He pulled away. "I told them we'd meet them at the Avenue."
I raised an eyebrow. "Let me guess, that was Harold's idea?"
"Actually, I think Grace suggested it. Your mom wants you to taste some pastries or cake or something."
I sighed. "I thought when they said they wanted a small wedding, it would be simple."
We walked to the front of the store and Frank held the door. "Small doesn't necessarily mean simple."
I should have known my mother well enough to know better. She'd always had grand taste. Nana Jo blamed my grandfather. He'd always referred to my mom as his little princess and she'd spent her entire life living up to it. My father had been equally guilty of perpetuating the princess mind-set. He'd done everything for her. When he died, she couldn't write a check or pump her own gas and she had never paid a single bill. Jenna and I spent quite a bit of time arranging her finances so her rent and utilities were automatically withdrawn. Jenna took away her credit cards and arranged for Mom to have a weekly allowance, which was the only way she seemed to grasp the concept of budgeting. Now, she'd met and fallen for Harold Robertson, one of the wealthiest families in Southwestern Michigan. Harold was a widower who seemed content to continue the princess legacy.
Frank drove us the short distance to the Avenue hotel, one of the finest hotels in South Harbor. The Avenue was an older building that sat atop the bluffs and looked out over the Lake Michigan shoreline. From a distance, the hotel looked grand and imposing. Up close and personal, the wear and tear of chipped paint, cracked marble floor tiles, and wallpaper that had once been white but was now yellow showed. The bones were there, but the building needed an update. Despite these shortfalls, the grand staircase that greeted guests at the entry was still quite impressive.
Guests entering the building from the semicircular driveway found themselves on the landing and could ascend to the lobby or descend to the dining area. We spotted Mom and Nana Jo and followed the downward path to the restaurant. Waiters hovered around in red livery with gold braids and black pants. Frankly, it seemed a bit much for lunch, in my opinion, but my mom loved it and smiled brightly at the young freckle-faced youth who brought her iced tea.
"Are you sure you're warm enough, Grace?" Harold took my mother's hand and stared into her eyes.
Mom shivered and looked into Harold's eyes like a lost fawn in a vast forest. "It is rather chilly, but I don't like to be a bother."
Harold hopped up and removed his jacket. With a flourish, he draped his suit coat around her shoulders. Then he turned and got the attention of a passing waiter. "Can you please see the heat is turned up?"
The waiter practically snapped to attention and hurried off to see the heat was increased.
Before Harold was settled back into his seat, the manager came to the table, apologized for the inconvenience, and offered a complementary hotel blanket to go over her lap, and another log was added to a nearby fireplace.
I felt drenched just watching all of the activity.
Nana Jo picked up a menu and fanned herself. "Grace it's an oven in here. Your hormones must be out of whack. You need the patch."
Mom ignored her mother, a skill she'd honed over the decades, and I removed my cardigan and drank a half glass of ice water to help lower my core temperature.
Ignoring Nana Jo wasn't an easy task. She was tall, loud, and very opinionated. Few people would recognize Grace Hamilton as a relative, let alone the only child of Josephine Thomas. Nana Jo was tall, while my mom was petite, barely five feet tall. Nana Jo was about a hundred fifty pounds heavier than Mom, who weighed an even one hundred pounds. However, the two women were alike in their ability to annoy and aggravate their children.
Lunch itself was uneventful, apart from seeing the attention the hotel and restaurant waitstaff dedicated to Harold and consequently to Harold's guests. Harold Robertson was a tall, white-haired, bearded man who was one of the only people I had ever met I would describe as jolly. He had been a successful aeronautical engineer with NASA for over forty years. However, his brain power wasn't the reason the waitstaff were falling over themselves to ensure his every wish was fulfilled. Harold's claim to fame in Southwestern Michigan was that he had the good sense to be born into one of the wealthiest families in either North or South Harbor. Robertson's Department Store had been the premiere store in this area for over one hundred years. The store catered to the lakeshore elite. As a child, I remembered the grand building with its high ceilings, crystal chandeliers, and marble columns. Even though we couldn't afford to shop on the upper floors, I remembered the red-coated doormen and elevator operators. My excursions to Robertson's were limited to the bargain basement. The store had weathered the economic downturn of North Harbor better than most and had only closed its doors completely about ten years ago. In fact, I went to the liquidation sale, expecting to finally buy things like furs and jeweled evening gowns like the ones I'd dreamt about as a child. Unfortunately, the old building had lost its charm. I was underwhelmed and depressed by the yellowed, peeling wallpaper, the threadbare carpets, and the smell of mothballs that assaulted my senses when I stepped through the door. The world had changed, but Robertson's had failed to adapt. The old cage-styled elevators were a fallback to a time that no longer existed.
Harold inherited the store and the family fortune, but he had pursued his dreams by becoming an engineer with NASA. He'd only returned after his wife became ill and he wanted to be close to family. He nursed her until she took her last breath. He now seemed dedicated to caring for my mom in much the same way.
I couldn't help but smile as I watched the way he catered to her every whim. No detail was too small.
Nana Jo leaned close and whispered in my ear, "I wonder how she manages to find men who fall over themselves to make her happy."
I shrugged. "Luck, I guess."
Nana Jo snorted. "Luck, my big toe. More like a curse, if you ask me." She shuddered. "Who wants that kind of attention?" I agreed with Nana Jo. Harold's constant attention, no matter how well-meaning, would drive me batty. However, my mother was a different breed.
"I prefer a man with more spunk, someone you can argue with." She laughed. "You should have seen some of the fights your grandpa and I had." She gazed off into the distance. "Makes a marriage stronger." She tsked. "Of course, then you get the fun of making up." She guffawed.
"Nana Jo, I don't want that image in my brain." I shook my head as if trying to erase an Etch A Sketch.
Lunch was tasty. Good food and a glass of wine restored my humor. After lunch, we ate cake. In fact, cake was the main reason Mom wanted us to eat at The Avenue. The pastry chef presented us with samples from three different cakes as possible choices for the reception.
The pastry chef was a tiny little woman with electric-blue hair. She presented the first sample. "This is a chocolate almond cake with raspberry mousse filling topped with chocolate ganache." She watched our faces as we tasted.
"This is delicious. Chocolate cake is my favorite." Harold's eyes sparkled, but then he turned to my mother. "What do you think, Grace?"
Mom took a small bite and then washed it down with a long drink of water. "It's very good, and I know a lot of people like chocolate, but ... well, I was hoping for something a little more ... well, unique."
Harold promptly nodded in agreement. "Of course, you're right. It's delicious, but you can eat chocolate cake anywhere. A wedding is a special occasion." He gazed at my mother as though she was the first person to entertain the idea the earth was round.
For the second tasting, we were presented with a white cake. "This is a traditional white cake with vanilla mousse filling and white fondant topping."
I'd never quite understood if you're supposed to eat fondant. It made the cake look nice and smooth, but it wasn't the tastiest topping I'd ever had. This one was no exception.
Based on the look on my mom's face, she wasn't a fan of this one either. "White is definitely traditional, but not very unique, is it?"
I agreed with her on that one.
The third tasting was presented. "This is a pink champagne cake with a filling of rum-infused custard and whipped cream frosting."
"Hmm. That's good stuff." Nana Jo licked her fork.
Harold turned to see my mom's reaction so he could know what his opinion should be.
Mom took a bite and smiled. "I really like the pink, don't you, Harold? It will go with the color scheme."
The cake wasn't the bubble gum color my mom seemed to like best, but it was definitely pink. Regardless of the cake's color, it was by far the tastiest of the selections. The chef explained she used champagne in place of water for the cake. I struggled to think of anything that wouldn't taste good if it was doused in champagne.
Cake choice made, we moved on to the ballroom, which was massive. The crystal chandeliers and marble columns, with views of Lake Michigan from nearly every window, would be an ideal space for a large wedding.
"Grace, I thought you wanted a small wedding? You could hogtie cattle in this room," Nana Jo said.
Mom fluttered her hands around. "Well, we want to make sure the guests have room to dance, but maybe you're right."
"Our library can accommodate up to thirty-six guests comfortably and the patio could be used for cocktails," the manager continued his sales pitch.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Wed, Read & Dead"
Copyright © 2019 Valerie Burns.
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.
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