In the first in an engaging new mystery series from USA Today bestselling author Sarah Fox, the owner of a charming literary pub finds her fresh start on the rocks thanks to a case of murder.
Booklover Sadie Coleman knows that in life, as in fiction, the right setting can make a world of difference. The small town of Shady Creek, Vermont, seems like the perfect place to start over after losing her Boston job to a merger and her relationship to her ex’s gambling addiction. She’s bought and redecorated the old grist mill pub, transforming the Inkwell into a cozy spot where tourists and regulars alike can enjoy a pint or a literary-themed cocktail, or join one of several book clubs.
Little by little, Sadie is adjusting to the rhythms of her new home. Fall in Shady Creek is bookmarked by the much-anticipated Autumn Festival, complete with a pumpkin catapult competition and pie bake-off. Unfortunately, the season also brings an unwelcome visitor—Sadie’s ex, Eric, who’s angling for a second chance . . .
Before Sadie can tell Eric to leave, he’s found dead near the Inkwell. When the local antique shop catches fire on the same night, it’s clear the town is harboring at least one unsavory character. Now, with her Aunt Gilda, her friend Shontelle, and the pub’s patrons all in the mix, Sadie must uncover the truth . . . before a killer declares last call.
About the Author
Sarah Fox is the author of the Music Lover's Mystery series and the USA Today bestselling Pancake House Mystery series. When not writing novels or working as a legal writer, she can often be found reading her way through a stack of books or spending time outdoors with her English Springer Spaniel. Sarah lives in British Columbia and is a member of Crime Writers of Canada. Visit her online at AuthorSarahFox.com.
Read an Excerpt
The crisp autumn breeze rustled through the colorful maple trees flanking the old grist mill. I stood back from the red-trimmed stone building, near the edge of the road, so I could get a full view of the property. A creek flowed along in front of the mill, gurgling and splashing, turning the old red water wheel, and a wooden bridge led the way from the wide footpath to the flagstone walkway that ended at the building's main door.
Beyond the mill a forest of sugar maples, beech trees, and conifers formed a serene backdrop, birdsong audible even from where I stood. Overhead, the bold blue sky was cloudless, and the early October sunshine brightened the entire scene before me.
It was postcard-perfect.
I'd thought that the moment I'd first laid eyes on the grist mill four months earlier. Now, with the fall colors at their most intense, I often found myself stopping to soak in the view of my new home and to revel in the fact that it was really mine.
That wasn't my purpose at the moment, however. In only four days, the town of Shady Creek, Vermont's annual Autumn Festival would get under way. Although I was new to town, the importance of the upcoming event hadn't escaped me. The residents had made it clear that the festival was Shady Creek's event of the year, and for any local business not to participate was simply unthinkable.
That's why I stood by the road, shading my eyes from the sun, assessing the picturesque building with a critical eye. I lived on the upper floor of the renovated mill, while the main level was dedicated to my literary-themed pub, the Inkwell.
I'd only had possession of the property for three months, and I was determined to make a success of the business. To do that, I needed the townsfolk on my side, and showing anything but enthusiasm for the Autumn Festival would be akin to shooting myself in the foot. Not that I wouldn't have been enthusiastic. I was looking forward to the festival. I was also looking forward to making a good impression on the town of Shady Creek.
"You're looking awfully serious, Sadie."
I dropped my hand from my eyes as Melanie Costas, one of the pub's employees, arrived at my side. Her bleached-blond and electric-blue hair was spiked straight up, and the silver stud in her nose glinted in the sunlight.
"Don't tell me there's something wrong with the building," she said, squinting through the sunlight at the mill.
"No," I assured her. "At least, I sure hope not. I'm thinking about how to decorate for the Autumn Festival."
"You and the whole town." Mel shaded her eyes as I had done moments ago. "Got any ideas?"
I tucked my red hair behind my ear as I thought about my response. "Pumpkins and decorative gourds, of course. Maybe some bales of straw, and a fall wreath for the main door. A scarecrow too, as long as it's not a creepy one."
"I could put together a scarecrow for you," Mel offered as we started along the pathway toward the bridge.
"Sure. I've made a couple before. And I promise it won't be creepy."
I smiled as we crossed the creek, the water babbling cheerfully beneath the bridge. "That would be fantastic."
Mel was a talented artist, so I knew she'd come up with something great, and that was one item I could take off my to-do list.
"I'll go to the pumpkin patch tomorrow morning," I said, opening the pub's large red door and holding it for Mel. Before following her through it, I flipped the wooden CLOSED sign hanging on the outside of the door so the OPEN side faced outward.
"How's the catapult coming along?"
"Er," was all I could come up with as the door fell shut behind me.
"That bad?" Mel said with a grin.
"With Damien out of town the past couple of days, progress has ... stalled."
Mel shrugged out of her green military surplus jacket. "I'll come early tomorrow to lend a hand," she promised.
"Thank you. We're going to need all the hands we can get."
Although the entire Autumn Festival was a highly anticipated event in Shady Creek, the most popular part of it was the pumpkin catapult competition held at the end of the nine-day festival. Local businesses and other groups formed teams, with each one building its own catapult. Distance and accuracy were important when it came to catapulting the pumpkins, and the winning team would receive a trophy and, more importantly, bragging rights for the next twelve months.
I'd never anticipated that I'd need construction skills when I'd purchased the pub, but participation in the competition was expected. Luckily, Damien — another of my employees — did carpentry on the side and had designed the catapult for the Inkwell's team. The actual construction had yet to begin, however.
I wasn't overly concerned. Damien would be back to work on the catapult the next day, and I figured that as long as we had one good enough to allow us to participate in the competition, that would suffice. I had enough on my plate without worrying about winning a contest that was all about having fun.
"How about the book clubs?" Mel asked. "Are you having more luck with them?"
"Definitely." I couldn't help but smile. "The first one is tomorrow night. Six people have signed up."
"Sounds like a great start."
That was my thought exactly. The idea of hosting book clubs at the Inkwell excited me to no end, and so far, the local response had pleasantly surprised me. The next night's romance book club had the most people signed up at the moment, but there had also been interest in the mystery book club starting up in a couple of weeks, and I was hoping to organize another one for science fiction and fantasy readers.
As Mel disappeared into the back of the pub, where the kitchen and tiny cloakroom were located, I remained by the front door, surveying the main room. When I'd purchased the building and business, the pub had been quite ordinary, aside from the beautiful historic building that housed it. It was a place for townsfolk to gather and chat over a pint or two, but it wasn't much beyond that. As soon as it had passed into my possession, I'd made sure to change that.
I'd long dreamed of owning my own bookstore, but when I'd arrived in Shady Creek, trying to escape the ruins of my former life in Boston, I'd fallen in love with the renovated grist mill as soon as I'd seen it. When I found out that it was for sale, it seemed like a sign from the universe, and I'd used nearly all of my savings to purchase the mill and business, setting my life on a new course that I'd never anticipated.
Briefly, I'd considered transforming the pub into a bookstore, but once I'd realized that it was a favorite gathering place for the locals, I changed my mind, and instead incorporated my passion for books into the existing business.
I'd been a bibliophile for as long as I could remember; since before I could even read the words on the pages. My dad had read to me every night as a young child, and his home library — though housed in a small room — had seemed like such a magical place to me while growing up. Once I could read on my own, I'd devoured story after story, working my way through books by C. S. Lewis, Enid Blyton, Kit Pearson, and many others. I'd feasted on series like Nancy Drew and the Baby-Sitters Club, and once I'd discovered Agatha Christie's novels, I was hooked on mysteries for life.
My dad had passed away a few years ago, and I still missed him all the time, but I knew I'd never lose the love for books he'd instilled in me. That's why it seemed so right to work books into my new business, even if not in the way I'd imagined while growing up and dreaming of one day having my own bookshop.
Once the purchase of the mill was finalized, I renamed the pub and gave it a literary theme, with drinks named for famous books and fictional characters. I was hoping to add some literary-themed food to the menu soon too, and my extensive collection of books lined the shelf that ran along the upper portion of the exposed stone walls, adding coziness to the pub's rustic charm. The wide plank floors and wood beams were original to the building, and vintage metal-banded barrels had been incorporated into the structure of the bar at the far end of the room, like stout pillars. The lighting in the pub wasn't bright, but I thought the warm glow added to the charm of the place.
Before my arrival in Shady Creek, I'd never imagined myself as a pub owner, but I was enjoying my new role, despite the stresses that came with learning the ropes of the business and staying afloat financially. So far, I was managing, if not exactly prospering.
Behind me, the front door opened, letting in a current of cool air tinged with wood smoke.
"Enjoying the view again?" a man said from over my shoulder.
I turned to see Harvey Jelinek — one of the Inkwell's regulars — grinning at me.
"Hi, Harvey," I greeted as he shut the door behind him. "I can't seem to help myself."
"I don't think anyone's going to blame you for that. It's a great place."
"It is, isn't it?" I smiled as we headed for the bar. "What can I get you?"
"Just a coffee." He took up his perch on his favorite stool at the end of the bar. "I'm meeting Rhonda here in a bit, and then we're heading to Rutland to have a late lunch with my sister."
"That sounds nice." I grabbed a clean mug and the coffeepot I'd put on to brew earlier.
"It will be as long as my sister doesn't hassle me and Rhonda about when we're getting married."
I filled the mug and slid it across the bar to Harvey. "You two are engaged?"
"No. That's just it. We're not at that point. But my sister doesn't always know how to mind her own business."
"Family can be like that," I said with understanding.
While my Aunt Gilda and my younger brother, Taylor, had supported me every step of the way, my mother and older brother hadn't held back when it came to expressing their negative views about all the changes I'd made to my life in the past four months. Words like "rash" and "shortsighted" had been tossed about. But what had stung the most was my mother's declaration that my new life would fall to pieces within the year, that I'd soon come to see the foolishness of my recent decisions. She was steadfast in her opinion, but I was just as resolute that she was wrong. At least, most days I was.
Two more of the Inkwell's regulars came into the pub then, thankfully distracting me from the unpleasant turn my thoughts had taken. I greeted the newcomers and pulled pints of beer for them as they settled onto stools at the bar. Mel emerged from the back and immediately joined the conversation about football that the patrons had struck up.
I was completely out of my depth with that topic, so I wandered down to the far end of the bar and called out a greeting to Rhonda Hogarth, who'd just arrived carrying a cardboard box. Rhonda lived in the nearest house to the mill — a weathered old Queen Anne — and was the daughter of the man who'd sold me the pub. She was also one of the first friends I'd made in Shady Creek.
"What have you got there?" I asked her after Harvey greeted her with a kiss on the cheek.
She tipped the box my way so I could see the mason jars inside. Each one was decorated with colorful artificial leaves.
"Decorations," she said. "I got the idea from Pinterest and thought you might like some for the pub's interior during the festival. They've got LED lights inside."
She passed me one of the jars for closer inspection.
"These look great," I told her, turning the jar in my hands. I reached inside and flicked on the small light. The leaves glowed, highlighting their autumn colors. "I love them. How much do you want for the lot?"
Rhonda set the box on the bar and brushed her short dark hair off her forehead. "They're a gift."
"Let me pay you something," I protested.
"Nope. You know how I love this place. It makes me happy to lend a hand. That's all the payment I need."
"You're amazing, Rhonda. Thank you."
I took the box in my arms and hugged it to me as Harvey got up off his stool. He put some money on the bar for his coffee and rested his arm across Rhonda's shoulders.
"We'd better be off now," he said.
"Enjoy your day," I said to them as they went on their way.
I spent the next while wandering around the pub with the box of jars, placing the decorative light holders here and there. When I was done, I stood near the bar to admire the effect. I needed more decorations to make the place look truly festive, but the mason jars were a good start.
As the afternoon progressed, the number of patrons in the pub grew. Many were locals, but there were also several unfamiliar faces. With leaf-peeper season underway, busloads of tourists arrived daily, bringing smiles to the faces of all local business owners, including myself. I knew this would be the most prosperous season for the Inkwell, and the more visitors who came in for a drink or two, the more likely I'd be able to make the payments on my business loan in the upcoming months.
After exchanging a few words with one group of tourists, I cleared empty pint glasses from a vacated table.
"Don't you need to leave for your aunt's birthday dinner soon?" Mel asked when I reached the bar.
I glanced up at the Guinness wall clock. "Yes. I'll go get ready once Damien is here."
I continued on into the kitchen and deposited the glasses in the dishwasher. When I returned out front, Damien was making his way behind the bar, shrugging out of his black leather jacket.
"It looks like we're getting a good crowd," he remarked as he passed by me and into the back.
He reappeared a moment later without his jacket, wearing his usual outfit of jeans and a T-shirt, the tattoos on his muscular arms visible. Originally from England, Damien had an accent I loved listening to, but though we'd been working together for weeks now, I wouldn't have called us friends. The truth was that I wasn't entirely sure if he liked working for me or not. He'd come with the pub, so to speak, and had proved to be a valuable source of information and advice on many occasions, but I didn't think he had a whole lot of confidence in me as his boss.
I, however, had plenty of confidence in him and Mel. I didn't often take off during business hours, but that evening I was making an exception for a special occasion, and it was a relief to know I didn't have to worry about leaving the Inkwell in the hands of my employees.
A flash of red caught my eye, and I waved when I saw my friend Shontelle Williams threading her way through the tables toward the bar, unbuttoning her cherry-colored coat. Shontelle, a single mother of an eight-year-old girl, owned the gift shop across the village green from the Inkwell and had quickly become my closest friend in Shady Creek.
"Shouldn't you be getting ready?" she said, eyeing my jeans and V- neck sweater when she reached the bar.
"I'm just about to head upstairs."
I turned toward Mel, but she made a shooing motion with her hands before I could say anything.
"Go," she said. "We've got everything under control."
Shontelle hooked her arm through mine and steered me toward the door marked PRIVATE.
"Call me if you need me," I said over my shoulder, barely getting the words out before Shontelle nudged me through the door.
I hastened up the creaking stairs that led to my apartment, Shontelle's high heels clacking on the steps behind me.
"Did you remember to pick up the cake?" she asked as I opened the door at the top of the stairs and stepped into my cozy living room.
"Yes, it's in the fridge." I went straight to my bedroom and grabbed the blue wrap dress I'd left hanging on the back of the door.
My white, long-haired cat was lying on the corner of my queen bed, watching me with his blue eyes. I paused to stroke his silky fur.
"Hello, Wimsey. Did you have a nice snooze?"
He purred and closed his eyes. I gave him a quick kiss on the top of his head and kicked off my shoes.
"Guess who I saw on my way over here," Shontelle called from the other room.
"I have no idea." I shed my clothes and slipped into the dress.
"That delicious Grayson Blake."
I poked my head out the bedroom door. "Don't you mean Grumpy- Pants Blake?"
"What did you do to make him grumpy?"
"Why do you assume I made him grumpy?" I asked, heading for my dresser and the jewelry box sitting on top of it. "I strongly suspect he was born that way." I switched out my silver stud earrings for a set of small hoops.
Shontelle appeared in the doorway and leaned against the frame. "I've never known him to be anything but a courteous gentleman. And one tall glass of delicious."
"Hrmph," was all I had to say to that.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Wine and Punishment"
Copyright © 2019 Sarah Fox.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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