It's Christmastime, but not everyone is jollyespecially not Vonne Barnett. Her dead body has been found in Victoria Square. Katie Bonner, the manager of Artisan's Alley, happens to be at the tea shop Vonne's mother, Francine, owns when the news is delivered.
Vonne left a trail of men behind her so the suspects are manybut the clues are few. A broken teacup leads Katie to one of the suspects, but before she can investigate, she's attacked. Katie may be closing in on a murderer, but time is ticking because the murderer is definitely closing in on her.
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For several seconds after her former mother-in-law had ended their call, Katie Bonner stared at her phone. What kind of sick joke was this? When Katie's husband, Chad, had been alive, one hour with Katie had been too much for Margo Bonner-and that hour had been used to make passive-aggressive digs at the woman who could never be good enough for her darling Chad.
And now-now?-after Chad had been dead for nearly two years, Margo would be "passing through" and wanted to spend a couple of days with Katie? Why? And even stranger, why had Katie agreed to host the persnickety woman in her tiny one-bedroom apartment? She could've said no, could've made up an excuse, could've suddenly booked a one-way ticket to Bolivia.
But she'd found herself saying, "Sure, that'll be fine."
Why in the world . . . ?
Because of Chad. Because I still miss him, too.
Katie sighed as she pushed away from her desk. She grabbed a peppermint from the jar before heading out of her office at Artisans Alley, her long skirt swishing as she walked. She, and the rest of the vendors, was dressed in nineteenth-century garb for the Dickens Festival, the Alley's second annual celebration of the holiday season. The other merchants on Victoria Square had also adopted the custom-and it was paying off in spades.
Since Katie had taken over running the former applesauce warehouse now known as Artisans Alley-Chad's pet project-it had grown from being an unorganized, failing group of artisans to a profitable configuration of artists and vendors. Maybe that was another reason Katie hadn't refused Margo's offer. She wanted her former mother-in-law to see what she'd done with her son's legacy.
"Katie, Vance just called," Rose Nash said, the spryest seventy-something-year-old Katie had ever met. Today, she was manning cash desk one, a cute bonnet covering her blonde curls, her blue eyes sparkling with pleasure. "His church's choir will be here to sing on Saturday from one until four. Oh, I can't wait to hear those heavenly voices filling the Alley with song."
Katie smiled. The customers loved it, too. "That's great. I was just going over to the tea shop for a minute. May I bring you back anything?"
"Oh, no, thanks. It's . . . um . . ." Rose scrunched up her softly wrinkled face. "I've heard complaints about the food, and they don't seem to be doing much business lately."
Rose had a point. 'Twas the season, and all the other businesses in Victoria Square were bustling. From what Katie could see as she walked across the parking lot, there wasn't a single customer inside the tea shop. Something was definitely going on there. Two months ago, the tea shop seemed to have been thriving. Now, when it should have been at its busiest, the place was as dead as Jacob Marley.
Although the bell over the door tinkled merrily when Katie walked into the shop, no one came out to greet her right away. It gave her the opportunity to consider the display case. There were some blueberry scones, but they looked slightly burned around the edges. Some miniature chicken salad croissants looked okay, but she wondered how long they'd been sitting there.
Francine Barnett finally emerged from the back of the shop, sliding her palms down the front of her soiled white apron. "Hi, Katie. How are you?"
"I'm fine, thanks. Will you be open late for the lighting of the big Christmas tree on the Square on Saturday night?"
"I don't think so." Francine looked as though she'd been through the wringer. Her light brown eyes were red rimmed, as though she'd been crying, and black circles were evident on her pale skin.
"Is anything wrong?"
She sighed. "It's that obvious, huh?"
Katie chose her words carefully. "Probably not to anyone but me. You always seem lively and upbeat, but today . . ."
"Today I look like I've been crying my eyes out? That's because I have, dear. When we bought this place, Vonne swore to me that she'd help me run Afternoon Tea-that together we'd make it a grand success. And we did for a few months. Then Vonne got bored with it. It's too much for me to handle by myself, Katie."
She began to cry, and Katie hurried around the counter to put an arm around her and lead her to one of the tables. She pulled out a chair and eased her into it.
"Everything will be all right," Katie said. "May I get you some tea?"
Francine laughed through her tears. "See? You're better at this than I am. Why don't you buy the shop? I'm sure you could make a success of it."
"Don't be ridiculous. You're just upset."
"I'm not," she said. "I've actually been considering putting the tea shop up for sale now for weeks. I remember your telling me one time that you'd once considered running a bed-and-breakfast. Wouldn't a tea shop be the next-best thing?"
Katie had wanted to serve afternoon tea at her B and B, the English Ivy Inn. But she'd been rudely awakened from that pipe dream when Chad invested nearly all their money into Artisans Alley and then died in a car accident, leaving her to make the best of "their" investment. She looked around the shop. There were so many things she could do to spruce up the place: fresh paint in a light pink with burgundy trim . . . delicate floral curtains . . .
She snapped out of her reverie and apologized to Francine. "You caught me woolgathering."
"I caught you considering the possibilities."
Katie inclined her head. "You did. But I'm not sure buying a tea shop is a viable option for me right now."
"Of course it is! Look how you've turned around Artisans Alley in such a short amount of time. You'd have no problem here. You'd simply take over the lease, buy out our inventory and equipment-"
"Which might not be as easy as you make it sound," Katie said. "Getting a bank loan is no small feat."
"I know, but at least say you'll consider it."
"I . . . Have you talked with Vonne about this? Is she willing to give up the shop?"
Francine scoffed. "I don't know where Vonne's head is these days, but she certainly isn't concerned with the day-to-day running of this shop. I'm the one who put up the capital to open this place, and I'm the one who's going to sell it."
The thought gave Katie pause. Could she make a go of the tea shop? What would the vendors at Artisans Alley say? Would they think she was abandoning them?
The bells over the door signaled a new arrival.
Francine dabbed at her eyes with a napkin. "Thank you for listening, Katie. Let me greet this customer, and I'll get you your tea."
Katie recognized the man: Detective Schuler of the Monroe County Sheriff's Office. He strode over to meet Francine with his thumbs tucked into his belt, and appeared to be ever so full of self-importance. Sure, it was great that he'd been promoted from deputy, but that promotion had come only because Ray Davenport had retired from the force.
"I'm sorry, Ms. Barnett, but this is not a social call," he said, jerking his head in the direction of the tables. "I think you should sit down for this."
Naturally, that soothed Francine's nerves as well as you might imagine it would.
"What is it? What's wrong?"
"Is there somewhere we can speak privately?" Detective Schuler asked.
"Say whatever you came to say in front of Katie. It's not like all of Victoria Square won't hear whatever it is by sundown anyway." She glanced at Katie. "I'm not saying you'd mention it, but gossip just seems to spread around this place like warm butter."
Katie nodded her understanding.
"All right, then. Well . . . it's Vonne."
"I figured as much." Francine shook her head. "What now? Reckless driving? Another DUI? Can I even bail her out of trouble this time?"
"Um . . . actually . . ." Detective Schuler's bravado seemed to have left him. "Well . . . there was an accident. I'm sorry to be the one to tell you, but Vonne is dead."
Katie was shaken as she left Afternoon Tea . . . so shaken, in fact, that she ran headlong into Ray Davenport.
"Whoa, there!" He'd dropped the bag he was carrying in order to grasp Katie's shoulders to steady her.
To her dismay, Katie saw that the cinnamon bun he'd been carrying had fallen onto the pavement. She picked it up. "I'm sorry, Ray."
Ray had retired as a homicide detective in the Sheriff's Office some five months before, and he was now operating Wood U, a gift shop featuring wood products, on Victoria Square. When Ray and Katie first met, they'd had the antagonistic relationship of investigator and murder suspect, but they'd eventually become friends. Now the stocky man was looking down at her with concern, his bushy brows drawn together like a chubby caterpillar.
"Are you all right?" he asked. "You're pale as a ghost."
"Let's talk while we walk." She held up the destroyed, sticky cinnamon bun. "I'll get you a replacement."
"That's not necessary." He seemed to realize that his hands were still resting on Katie's shoulders, and he removed them, took a step back, and retrieved the cinnamon bun. He dropped it into the bag and then in the nearest trash can. "I probably didn't need it anyway."
"I beg to differ. And, as a matter of fact, I need one, too. Come on."
Ray fell into step beside her. "So, are you going to tell me what has you so addled?"
"I dropped into the tea shop for a snack because, well . . . I was supposed to meet Andy for lunch, but he got busy . . . and then I got busy . . . and then-"
"Spit it out already."
"Vonne Barnett is dead."
Katie explained that Detective Schuler had come into the tea shop just moments ago to inform Francine of Vonne's death. "Naturally, she closed the shop, and Schuler took her to Rochester and the morgue to make a positive identification."
Ray shook his head. "What a shame. I was afraid her reckless driving would catch up with her one day. Some people never learn."
"So Vonne had a bad driving record?" She recalled Francine's comments about DUI and reckless driving to the detective.
"When I was on the force, I seem to recall she was about one citation away from losing her license for good."
By then, they'd reached Angelo's Pizzeria. Going to a pizzeria for a cinnamon bun might sound odd, but Andy Rust-who also happened to be Katie's boyfriend and landlord-made the best cinnamon buns around. In fact, he was known on Victoria Square as the Cinnamon Bun King.
Ray opened the door for Katie and then followed her into the pizzeria.
Andy's blue T-shirt emphasized his muscular torso, and his eyes lit up as he stepped out from around the counter and gave Katie a peck on the lips. "What brings you by?" He gave Ray a quizzical look. "And did you eat that cinnamon bun already?"
"No, he didn't. I wasn't watching where I was going, and I knocked it out of his hands," Katie said. "So, I'd like two to go please."
"Coming right up." Andy got them the cinnamon buns, and Katie paid for them.
"I have to get back to work," he said, "but I'm looking forward to seeing you tonight." He gave Katie another quick kiss, glanced at Ray, and then went into the back room.
Out on the asphalt apron outside the shop, Ray assured Katie again that replacing his cinnamon bun hadn't been necessary.
"It certainly was," she said. "Would you care to eat with me in my office? Or we can go back to your shop, if you'd rather. I'd just like to talk with you for a minute."
"Let's go to Artisans Alley. Your coffee is better than mine."
Katie was relieved that Rose wasn't at her post when she and Ray strode into the Alley's main showroom and down the aisle to the vendors' lounge. Rose must have taken a break to check her booth. Katie got the coffee quickly, so she'd be safely back in her office before Rose noticed her return. She didn't feel like explaining to Rose-or any of the other Artisans Alley vendors or patrons-why there had been a sheriff's cruiser at Afternoon Tea.
Katie doctored the cups of coffee: milk for both and two sugars for Ray. He liked his coffee sweet. She slipped into the cramped office where Ray sat on the chair near her desk. He'd spread paper towels out for their cinnamon buns.
"What did you want to talk about? Is it Vonne?"
Katie shook her head. "No. I don't want any news of Vonne's accident coming from me. Francine made it clear that she doesn't like the fact that news spreads so quickly in the Square."
He shrugged. "That's small-town life."
"I wanted to talk with you about your in-laws."
His bushy brows shot up. "I must admit, I wasn't expecting that. What do you want to know?"
"Did your relationship with them change after Rachel died?"
"No. Her parents have always been supportive and involved in the girls' lives, and Rachel's death did nothing to diminish that. If anything, it made their bond with them stronger."
Of course. Ray had three teenage daughters. His situation was much different than hers.
After a pause, he said, "I can't help you if you won't talk to me, Katie."
She smiled slightly. "It's Chad's mom . . . Margo. She and I never got along, but she called me this morning, said she was going to be in the area and wants to spend a couple of days with me."
Ray's lips twitched. "You and a woman you don't like in a teensy apartment. I'm trying to decide whether or not I'd like to be a fly on the wall for that."
Katie scoffed. "Trust me, you would not. Why? Why, after all this time, would she want to visit me?"
"You're her last tie to her son."
Tears pricked the backs of her eyes, and Katie quickly blinked them away. But, then, not much got past Ray.
"I'm sorry," he said. "I didn't mean to make you feel worse."
"You didn't. I simply hadn't looked at it from her point of view."
He patted her hand. "Give the woman a chance. She's reaching out to you for a reason. You owe it to yourself-and to her and even Chad-to spend some time with her."
Excerpted from "Yule Be Dead"
Copyright © 2018 Lorraine Bartlett.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
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