Murder Bites – Addison Moore, Bellamy Bloom

My name is Bizzy Baker and I read minds. Not every mind, not every time, but it happens, and believe me when I say, it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Like now for instance. Great news—Georgie Conner leans over the marble counter of the reception area in the Country Cottage Inn—I found the perfect vacation spot up north. They serve three hot meals a day, have a sundeck available every afternoon, and a library with the complete works of Shakespeare. They have a craft center and yoga classes. It’s lights on at five in the morning and lights out at nine. I think I can really dig a place like that. I make a face over at the wiry-haired woman before me whom I’ve grown to love like a grandmother. She’s donned a red sequin kaftan in honor of tonight’s heart-shaped festivities and she has that twinkle in her blue eyes that tells me she’s already having a good time. Georgie is an older woman who I couldn’t love more if she was family, and in a way she’s just that. My father has married more women over the years than I care to count, and Georgie was once officially his mother-in-law. But unlike the many exmothers-in-law my father has amassed that have drifted away, Georgie stayed put, and I’m glad about it, too. Georgie is one of the very few people who knows I have the ability to read minds, and she does love to put me to the test every now and again—like now for example. “Georgie, that place you just described sounds either like a psychiatric ward or a prison.

I suggest you stay out of both.” She waves me off. “It’s a place called Collinsworth.” “Oh my God.” I nearly drop the pen right out of my hand. “Georgie, Collinsworth is a women’s correctional facility right here in northern Maine. It is a prison.” “ A what?” She inches back. “Well, what’s my precious Juniper Moonbeam doing there?” “What’s a Juniper Moonbeam?” “My daughter. The one that was momentarily detained by way of matrimony to your wedding-hungry father.

” “Oh, that’s right. Juni.” I like to tease that I got Georgie in the divorce. And honest to God, I almost always forget about Juni being the very reason why I got her. Georgie glowers at the ballroom a moment. “I’ll see you at the dance, Biz.” It’s not quite a dance we’re hosting here tonight at the Country Cottage Inn. I’m not entirely sure what tonight’s Cupid-centered chaos could be classified as. But I do know that I can lay the blame squarely on Georgie Conner’s colorful shoulders. Georgie met some online love match guru last month who owns and operates a dating app called Dependable.

His name is Elvis Hendrix and he’s about as artificial and yet colorful as his made-up moniker suggests. Anyway, he asked if he could have the ballroom for a dating event this evening and it seemed harmless enough, so I guess at the end of the day the blame falls squarely on my shoulders instead. Hopefully, some good will come of it and all of the singles in Cider Cove will succumb to Cupid’s arrows. We could use a little more lovin’ and a lot less murder around these parts. Lord knows we’ve had our fair share of homicides as of late. Georgie takes off in a fury just as Deputy Leo Granger strides into the reception area looking dapper with a pair of jeans and a sports coat on top. Leo is a tall, dark-haired man with a wily smile and a devious gleam in his eyes. He’s the only other person on the planet that I’ve openly admitted my mindreading quirk to, but only because he can do it, too. And by his side stands Mayor Mackenzie Woods, my one time best friend who thought it was a good idea to try to drown me while we were in middle school, thus landing me in this mind reading predicament to begin with. Hello, Bizzy.

Leo smiles my way as they pass me. I hope you’ll join the fun. Just because you’re dating Jasper doesn’t mean you can’t have a good time. Very funny. I make a face at him. Leo and Jasper used to be best friends once upon a time until Leo thought it was a good idea to steal Jasper’s fiancée away from him. They’ve been on the outs ever since. I nod over to both Leo and Mackenzie as they proceed to the singles mingle event taking place in the ballroom. Technically, Leo and Mack are already an established couple. I’m betting they’re here because Mackenzie feels the need to say a few words.

Cider Cove has endured a long line of mayors with the surname Woods, stemming all the way back to her great-grandfather. Let’s be honest. Nostalgia secured her the position when she ran for office, and her own incessant need for attention was the driving force that led her to run in the first place. Mack is no mayoral angel. Not only did she try to kill me when we were kids, but she proceeded to steal every boyfriend I had in high school. Thankfully, my latest and greatest boyfriend is virtually swipe-proof. I just so happen to be dating the hottest homicide detective in all of Maine, maybe the country, so I’m not single by a long shot. But since I happen to run the Country Cottage Inn, I’ll be heading into the ballroom to see what the singles mingle shenanigans are all about. I sigh dreamily just thinking about Jasper—Detective Jasper Wilder. Tall, dark hair, icy gray eyes that demand the attention of every woman in a ten-mile radius, a body built for a SEAL team, and a dangerous smile that you need to work to extract from him.

Jasper doesn’t know that I have the uncanny ability to pry into his mind, but he does know I have a deep secret I’ve been keeping from him. And just about a week ago, I let him know that it was time I shared my secret. And as soon as the moon, the sun, the planets, and the stars line up—and maybe a few shots of something strong that will burn its way down my esophagus—I’ll do just that. Here’s hoping I don’t chicken out. I won’t, but believe me I want to. Jasper is out at the moment helping his mother assess her condo. His mother’s place flooded a few months back and she’s been staying right here at the inn while her home gets an overhaul. His mother, Gwyneth, and I had a rocky start to our relationship, but it’s been a bit better as of late. She was actually going to marry my father on Christmas Eve, after an all too brief whirlwind—romance would be too strong of a word—more like a casual hello, but cooler heads prevailed and they’re going to try out this thing called an engagement. I’ll admit, the thought of my father engaged to my boyfriend’s mother is just plain weird.

A woman bustles through the crowd as she edges her way to the reception counter. Her pale hair is slightly frazzled. Her complexion is pale, too, for the most part, but she has a pop of bright pink lipstick that breathes some life into her face. She gives a sideways glance toward the ballroom where a majority of the welldressed crowd is funneling its way into. I’d bet good money I was the only one here tonight in an effort to please my mother. The wary blonde adjusts her dark blazer. She has a button-down blouse underneath that rises to her neck, and she seems dressed more for a business meeting than she is a night of flirtatious fun. She looks a touch older than me. Early thirties, I’m guessing. “Hello, welcome to the Country Cottage Inn,” I trill in the same sing-songy voice I’ve used for the last half hour straight to greet the masses.

“Are you here for the singles event?” I point toward the ballroom where a large banner reads Welcome to the Blind Date with Cupid Singles Mingle! I bet it was her mother who told her all about it and then forced her to come. I was single for a good long while and my own mother tried her best to find me a perfect match. Lucky for me, I happened to stumble upon one last fall, right after I stumbled upon a dead body. My fingers ride to my lips as if I had spoken the words out loud. That’s not exactly what I was trying to say. It may have happened in that order, but I’d like to think Jasper and I would have landed in one another’s arms whether or not there was a corpse to bring us together. The blonde in front of me sheds a tight smile. “Yes, I am here for the event.” She leans in. There’s a hint of anger in her coffee-colored eyes, but she has an open face and lips that easily glide in the right direction.

She seems nice enough. “You wouldn’t happen to know if Lad Warner has arrived yet, do you? He’s one of the developers of Dependable.” She makes a face. “It’s the dating app that’s sponsoring the event. Their slogan is romance on demand.” “Lad?” I shake my head, unaware of any other developer for that dating app that’s responsible for tonight’s couples’ catastrophe in the making. “Do you mean Elvis? Elvis Hendrix?” I still can’t get past his dicey pseudonym. This is his party tonight and the guests are all people who subscribe to his dating app, Dependable. She shakes her head. “Lad is his partner in Cupid crime.

I’m sure I’ll find him soon enough.” She glares over at the ballroom. And when I do, I just might kill him. A bemused smile quivers on my lips. She takes off with the rest of the crowd streaming toward the ballroom, and a part of me wonders how worried I should be. It’s not like Cider Cove hasn’t had its fair share of homicides in the last few months. But then again, saying you’re going to kill someone is nothing more than a well-worn euphemism these days. I take a look around at the interior of the inn. Valentine’s Day is just a couple of weeks away and we’ve gone all out with the pink and red metallic hearts pasted up in every free space. The inn itself has a dark wooden interior that gives it a cozy feel, and every time I set foot inside, it feels as if the inn itself were giving me a hug.

The floors are a distressed shade of gray, and there’s a grand wrought iron stairwell that leads to the second story. The doors and wainscoting of the expansive foyer are a rich, dark wood heavily inlaid with carvings. The ballroom to my right has seen just about every celebration you can imagine, and there’s even a formal dining room for the guests of the facility. The Cottage Café that sits on the back end of the building leads right to the sandy shores of Cider Cove and is open to guests and the public as well. And just like the inn itself, all animals are welcome there, too. The entry to the inn is framed with pink twinkle lights and an oversized tulle wreathe dotted with pink and red hearts sits over each door. I love how frilly the world gets as we collectively lose our minds in the name of love this time of year. And lucky for me, it’s my first year in a long time that I actually get to celebrate it with a love of my own. “Bizzy?” Nessa Crosby strides up from the ballroom. “You should check out that shindig.

And then after you’re done checking it out, I want to check it out again. Unlike you, I’m still single, you know.” She snips out that last part as if it were entirely my fault. Nessa is a pretty brunette with lashes longer than should ever be legal, a pert little nose, and perfect bowtie lips. I’ve known Nessa all my life. I went to school with both her sister and her cousin, Emmie—the latter of which is officially my BFF. Grady pops up behind her. “Why don’t you both head on over? I’ve seen about all I need.” Grady Pennington is a dark-haired, blue-eyed Irish heartbreaker. Both he and Nessa have been working at the inn ever since they graduated from college a while back.

They keep insisting this is just a stepping-stone on the way to their real careers, but if they ever leave the inn I’ll be lost without them. They’re not only handy to have around, but after all the blood, sweat, and tears we’ve been through—and with the killings that have taken place here—they’ve become like family. “By the way”— Grady lifts a finger my way—“I just saw the email you sent about the new gazebo that’s being delivered. Great idea.” “Brilliant idea,” Nessa adds. “A gazebo overlooking the bluff? Couples will be lining up to use it as a wedding venue. Consider the inn booked into the foreseeable future.” “That’s what I like to hear. And thanks for watching the front desk, Grady. I won’t be long,” I say as I head on over to the ballroom with Nessa.

I’ve been the manager here at the inn for years now and I consider it my baby. It’s actually owned by a wealthy earl in England, but he has little to nothing to do with it. I’ve fallen in love with this expansive mansion whose grounds cover acres and acres. Outside of the inn there are over three dozen cottages that dot the vicinity and I happen to live in one. Jasper lives right in front of me and I rather like the proximity. Nessa giggles as we come upon the entry to the saucy soiree. “I can’t believe you got Fish and Sherlock to sit at the door like that. There’s not a soul who’s passed by that can resist them,” she says as she heads on into the venue without me. A giggle rides up my own throat at the sight of the adorable twosome. Fish happens to be the stray kitten I found and fell in love with almost a year ago.

She’s a black and white longhaired tabby who is both witty and sharp as a whip. And Sherlock Bones is a red and white freckled mixed-breed pup that happens to belong to Jasper. Thankfully, Fish and Sherlock seem to get along fine—for the most part. Fish lets out a yowl. Whose idea was this light up collar? My lips curve with a private smile. There certainly is a perk to hearing people’s thoughts—I can hear the thoughts of animals, too. And believe me when I say, nine times out of ten I’d rather listen to what they have to say instead of my human counterparts. Fish wraps herself around my ankles. I’m going to dream in pink and red, Bizzy. And we both know if I don’t have a good night’s rest, neither will you.

“Good Lord, nothing is truer than that,” I whisper. Especially considering the fact she sleeps right on top of my head on most nights. I pick her up and offer a quick kiss just above her nose. “How about one more hour and then I’ll take you straight home and give you an extra helping of dinner?” She purrs as loud as a jet engine. The things I do for love. “And for your Fancy Beast cat food,” I whisper as I land her back to the ground. Sherlock gives a little bark. I’m not sure how, but they seem to understand one another just fine. Sherlock has a bright red bow around his neck and looks every bit the special gift he is. I don’t mind staying, Bizzy, Sherlock howls.

And I don’t mind the bow, either. I know you’ll more than bacon up for it. I’d correct him on his grammar, but we all know he’s right. With some pets, their currency is love. With Sherlock, it is very much bacon. “You bet,” I say before giving him a quick pat between the ears. I’m about to head on in when Fish jumps in my path. One more thing, Bizzy. Her whiskers twitch. I have a very dark feeling about tonight.

I don’t know why, but I feel as if something sinister is afoot. “A dark feeling?” I whisper. I’m about to reassure her everything will be just fine when I pick up an errant internal voice. It’s happening. And it’s happening tonight. And once they’re gone, I won’t have a single problem in the world. I straighten and quickly scan the area, but the crowd is so thick it could have come from anyone. I try my hardest to look directly at the crowd and try to pry into their minds, but most of them are mentally sizing one another up, wondering when the night will end and whether they’ll end it alone. I knew I’d be a lot of things… The voice goes off once again and I’m having a hard time deciphering if it’s from a man or a woman. Unless they’re standing right in front of me, they sound more or less monotone.

But I never thought I’d have the nerve to eliminate someone from the planet. I guess that will make me a killer. My heart seizes as I look into the sea of people congregating in the ballroom. Fish is right. Something sinister is afoot, and unless it’s stopped, it just might mean murder. T CHAPTER 2 he ballroom at the Country Cottage Inn is glammed up and ready for its close-up with Cupid. Despite the fact I’ve spent the majority of the day helping with the decorations, the sight of all the love-inspired grandeur takes my breath away. An entire sea of white twinkle lights is strung up above. The chandeliers that dot the cavernous ceiling are dimmed just enough to give the place a romantic appeal, there are long-stemmed red roses on the refreshment tables, and everywhere you look there are pink and white metallic heart-shaped balloons. I spot my best friend, Emmie Crosby, across the room, and I’m about to head that way when a mop of gray hair in a red sequin kaftan accosts me.

“Georgie.” I laugh as her firm embrace keeps me from falling. “Bizzy Baker, you’ve outdone yourself.” She holds out a hand to the crowd of couples who are mingling and laughing while soft rock music plays through the speakers. “The photo booth is a hit. And nice touch having riding crops and fuzzy pink handcuffs as parting gifts.” “What?” I squawk in horror. “I would never have handcuffs and riding crops as parting gifts.” I scan the area and, sure enough, I spot a handful of women playfully swatting away at their partners. “Elvis must have brought them.

” I’m not sure I would have okayed the event had I known there would be a decidedly naughty slant to the evening. Heck, I wouldn’t have invited my own mother to participate. Speaking of which, I spot her over at the refreshment table loading up on the sweetheart punch. Hopefully, she’s not the one spiking it. Although I wouldn’t put it past her. Georgie waves it off. “Elvis said he had nothing to do with those kinky trinkies. He thought it was a nice touch from the venue. Besides, we can’t put those fuzzy handcuffs back in the can. Macy is out there giving them away as we speak.

” “Macy.” I close my eyes at the mention of my sassy big sis. “Never mind. I know exactly how those handcuffs and riding crops ended up here.” And just like that, my blonde sister pops up with a knowing smile spread over her face. “You owe me three hundred dollars.” She gives a sly wink. “These naughty little bobbles didn’t come cheap, you know.” Macy is older than me by a year. She’s chosen to dye her dark hair blonde and wears it in a long bob around the base of her neck.

She has pretty blue eyes, and each one sparkles with its own special brand of mischief. She owns a soap and candle shop just down the way on Main Street called Lather and Light. It’s not the be-all and end-all for her, but it spits out a shiny dollar now and again, thus keeping her content enough to live in Cider Cove at the moment. Macy winks over at me. “Don’t worry, little sis. I’ve got you and the big, bad detective covered. You can take home the surplus. That way, the two of you can play good cop, bad cop all night long.” Georgie howls with approval. And I won’t lie, there’s a naughty part of me that wholeheartedly approves, too.

Macy glances around the vicinity. “Where is Detective Wilder, anyway? I’d keep tabs on him at an event like this. He’s a hot commodity and he’s not wearing a wedding ring. I’m sorry, Bizzy, but he’s still fair game.” I’d roll my eyes if a tiny part of me didn’t believe it was true. “He’s out helping his mother check on the progress of her condo.” “Bizzy!” Emmie runs up and offers me an impromptu hug. Emmie Crosby has been my best friend ever since preschool. We share the same dark wavy hair that hits just below our shoulders and same icy blue eyes. In fact, we share the same first name, too— Elizabeth, thus we’ve each opted to go with the nicknames our families have given us.

“Bizzy. The men are h-o-t!” She gives a little hop, a daring feat in that tight pink dress she’s wearing. Georgie taps her elbow to Emmie’s side. “Yeah. And rumor has it, they can s-p-e-l-l, too.” She wrinkles her nose at my bestie. “Hey, wait a minute. I thought you were dating one of those h-o-t Wilder brothers?” It’s true. Emmie was dating Jasper’s brother, Jamison, for all of a hot Wilder minute. It’s a trend Macy started when she decided to date two of Jasper’s brothers virtually back to back, Jamison and Dalton.

But after she gave them the old college try—and I mean that in the drunken sorority girl party sense—she unceremoniously dumped them. Of course, Emmie was more than eager to pick up one of Macy’s leftovers, but she and Jamison have been hit-or-miss ever since. And don’t get me started on Jasper’s brother, Maximus. He not only owns a hot piece of real estate out in Seaview, a trendy restaurant that bears his moniker, but he owned my mother’s heart for a few solid weeks, too. Thankfully, they’ve decided to part ways. I’ll admit, it was a wee bit horrifying hearing all the heated stories Georgie pulled out of her. I’m all for my mother finding love and engaging in many more horrifying heated adventures so long as they take place outside of the Wilder family ecosystem. Emmie shakes her head. “Nope. Jamison and I have taken a step back.

” She shrugs my way. “It looks as if you’re the only one having a wild Wilder time.” She leans in. “Please tell me you’re having a wild time. That man is a god among men.” Macy offers a mischievous grin my way. “I’ve got just the thing to assure you have a wild time,” she says, plucking the riding crop out of the basket and handing it to me. “And on that note, I have to get back to work. I’m the self-appointed Valentine’s fairy.” “I thought that was Cupid’s job,” Emmie calls out as my sister gets right back to distributing her naughty knickknacks.

“Cupid’s stupid!” Macy shoots back, and at least ten different people laugh and raise their glasses full of sweetheart punch as if toasting the notion. Speaking of things we’re serving. “Emmie,” I say, glancing back at the dessert table. “Those raspberry cheesecake bites look amazing. Remind me to give you a raise.” Emmie is the manager of the Country Cottage Café and she also happens to be the head baker. You would think that since Baker is actually my surname, I might be pretty decent at wielding a whisk, but the opposite is true. As much as I long to create a scrumptious dessert that’s more than mildly palatable, I burn everything I touch in the kitchen. And no matter how hard Emmie has tried to teach me her Zen cooking ways, I find a way to turn even the simplest baking task into a marked disaster. Ironically, it’s the only thing I long to do—bake something edible that, for once, doesn’t send someone to the emergency room.

Although, in my defense, that was just once and my mother is just fine. “I’ll take the raise.” Emmie gives a little hop on the balls of her feet. “I’d better bring out the reserves. They’re going fast.” She takes off and Georgie elbows me in the ribs. “You know what else is going fast?” She furrows her gray brows my way. “Your relationship with that vampire you’re seeing.” The vampire in question would be Jasper. Emmie and I might have started the trend of referring to Jasper as a vampire, albeit innocently enough.

It stemmed from our love of a book series that centered on sexy undead night dwellers, and well, Georgie is slow to let the supernatural reference die. Not that I mind. Jasper makes one heck of a hot vampire, and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to looking forward to those neck bites he doles out on the regular. I wince her way. “Would you think less of me if I confessed that Jasper and I weren’t moving fast at all?” It’s true. In fact, we’re moving at a glacial pace. If we move any slower, we’ll have to reintroduce ourselves. Georgie narrows her gaze over me. “I wouldn’t only think less of you, Bizzy Baker, I’d b e wildly disappointed. See what I did there?” She elbows me again.

“See that? See that?” Before I can say a word in response, Elvis Hendrix himself steps into our midst. Elvis is about my father’s age, maybe early sixties, has a full head of dark hair and deep-welled laugh lines when he smiles. There’s a loveable quality to him in general, aside from his cheesy moniker, and people seem to gravitate to both him and his app—as evidenced by the outrageous turnout here tonight. “Elvis.” I offer a cheery smile. “Can you believe this crowd? I guess Cupid has his work cut out for himself.” He belts out a warm laugh. “If I have my way, he’ll be out of a job. I aim to please.” He pulls Georgie’s hand forward and kisses the back of it.

I don’t know if I should coo or puke. And just before I can decide which way my emotions want to run, Elvis flags someone down as a younger man about my age flashes a toothy grin as he leads an older woman this way. “Well, look who finally decided to show.” Elvis pulls the young man in and offers him a slap on the back. It’s only then I notice the adorable coffee-colored curly-haired puppy in his arms. Georgie and I break out into a choir of admiration for the tiny little sweet potato. Believe me, I’d much rather coo for the furry little angel than I would over the fact Elvis here aims to please Georgie with his hand-kissing innuendos. I don’t object to the fact he’s younger than her; I object to the fact he’s weirder than her. And with Georgie that’s hard to do. I love her weird—his weird? It weirds me out just a little too much.

The younger man bounces the dog in his arms. “This is Cinnamon,” he says. “She’s the newest addition to my household. A friend of mine had a litter of labradoodles and I took the runt of the bunch. Don’t tell her, though. I think she’s perfect.” The tiny pup lets out what sounds like a groan. If I had a biscuit for every time he says that joke, I’d have a box full of biscuits. And I’d prefer them to his jokes. I bite down on a smile.

She’s just so cute I can’t stand it. I’ll make sure to dig up a dog treat for her before the night is through. Georgie claps her hands. “Come on, don’t forget to introduce your mother.” She gives a wink to the older woman standing next to the man holding the dog. “They think they can forget about us just because we’ve ripened. But once we hit the dance floor, we’ll show these ageist elitists. Ain’t that right, toots?” Georgie bucks her hip into the woman’s thigh, and Dear God Almighty if it wasn’t a power thrust liable to break a pelvic girdle or two. Elvis gives an odd little grimace. “Georgie, this is my co-designer of the app, Lad Warner, and his fiancée, Emily Carter.

” Oh my stars above Cider Cove. If ever there were a good time for the earth to have one of those spontaneous sinkhole moments, it would be now. There just isn’t an elegant way to come back from that granny-based faux pas. Georgie didn’t just put her foot into her mouth. She somehow managed to invert her entire body. Emily Carter is a tall woman, unafraid to stand erect, with short silver-blonde hair and a series of soft lines around her eyes as she pulls a tight smile with her cardinal-colored lips. “Don’t worry. I’m not easily offended.” She nods to Georgie. “And since Lad doesn’t like to dance, I’ll take you up on the offer.

I agree. We need to show these ageists what we’re capable of.” Or kill them—Lad specifically for not defending me. My mouth falls open because innately I know I need to say something—something clever perhaps—but the only thing that’s currently emitting from me is a steady series of choking noises. Cinnamon yelps and squirms. “Here, let me,” I say, quickly taking the puppy into my arms. “Oh, you’re so soft. I just love you.” She gives my face a quick lick and a squeal of a laugh evicts from me. “I think we’re going to be good friends.

” I look up at Lad and smile. “So you helped develop the app?” He winces. “You could say I’m the brawn. Elvis is the brain.” Elvis rocks back on his heels with the accolade. If by brawn, he means dead weight, then he’s got that right. Emily nods to Lad. “And I might just invest in the app myself. I’m here to see what all the excitement is about. I have no use for the app itself since Cupid has already done his dirty work on me.

” She holds up a sizable engagement ring and Georgie and I gasp at its sheer girth. I offer Emily an approving nod. Good on her for finding a decent man to spend the rest of her life with. Who cares about the age difference? Nobody batted a lash when my father married that twenty-two-year-old a few years back. With the exception of my mother, of course. And I do believe there was a bat involved in there somewhere—it got her banned from the wedding, too. Typically, my mother attends those splashy soirees that feature my father. She always says it’s a great way to have a free meal with her children. She isn’t wrong. Emily winks at Georgie.

“We’re still capable of plenty. What do you do, Georgie?” Georgie nods. “I’m an artist who specializes in mosaics. I’m reconstructing the face of Main Street, right here in Cider Cove. Just because we’re over eighty doesn’t mean we need to curl up and knit.” She winces before leaning my way. “Which reminds me, I’m all out of that skein of lavender yarn I’m using to make your wedding blanket.” “I didn’t know you knew how to knit,” I say. “I don’t, but I figure by the time you get hitched I’ll have plenty of time to master the art.” “Thank you, I think.

” Why do I feel as if there was a slight in there somewhere? I turn to Emily. “I’m Bizzy Baker, and this is my friend, Georgie Conner. I’m the manager here at the inn.” Emily’s brows rise a notch. “That’s wonderful. I happen to own the Carter Art Centers. If you ever want to hold a class here at the inn for your guests, I would love to send over an instructor or two.” I take a quick breath. “Carter Art Centers? Wow, you’ve got a center in just about every other town. Hey! You do those couples’ classes, don’t you? The sip and paint and those spicy drawing classes? You’re really big.” A soft laugh bubbles from her. “That’s right. We’ve just opened our fiftieth store, and we’re franchising nationally as well.” Lad wraps an arm around her waist. “Carter Industries is looking to hit the three million dollar mark in sales this year.” Elvis bucks. “You’re sweeping the nation. Congratulations.” Another crowd moves in through the door and Elvis looks that way. “Excuse me. I’d better get out there and make sure things are moving and grooving in the right direction.” He takes off swiftly. “If you don’t mind”— Lad looks back at the crowd himself and does a double take—“I’d better do the same.” Great. It’s all about timing, and Colt has none. He takes off with a marked look of anger on his face. Emily nods. “I’m off to the little girls’ room to powder my nose.” And maybe hike my skirt a notch or two. I may be a woman of a certain age, but I’m not afraid of a little leg. And by the looks of it, neither is any other woman in this room. Excpet for Paige, of course. It would kill her to show a little skin. No sooner does she leave than the woman I saw earlier strides after Emily. “Oh,” I say. “I totally forgot there was a woman asking to see Lad. Oh well.” I shrug over at Georgie. “She’s found Emily. That’s close enough.” Both Emily and the young woman begin to argue and bicker right there in the middle of the room. I glance to the door and spot Lad talking to a man in a dark suit, neatly trimmed hair, and their conversation looks rather heated, too. Lad gets right in his face before giving the man a hard shove to the chest, and I give Cinnamon a protective squeeze. Lad turns and assesses the room until he spots Emily going at it with the younger woman and his features harden as if he were fit to kill. Something tells me tonight will have more hostility than it ever will love. And if we’re not careful, Cider Cove just might have another homicide on its hands, too. I head over to the dueling divas just as the lights dim a notch and the music grows livelier. A disco ball begins to spin overhead and sprays the room with metallic pink and red beams of fragmented light. “Excuse me, ladies.” I raise my voice just enough for them to hear me, and then a touch louder than that so they know I mean business. My hand lies protectively over the shivering pooch in my arms, trying my best to assure her she’s not the one in trouble here. “Is there something I can help you with?” I look to the two blondes and their resemblance is striking. “Bizzy”—Emily leans in—“this is my daughter, Paige.” I straighten and force a smile. Her daughter? Isn’t this the same woman who was internally threatening to kill someone when she barreled into the place? I try to rewind my mind, but the music and the lights are making me feel dizzy. Wait, wasn’t that someone Lad? “Nice to meet you.” I wrinkle my nose. “Actually, I think we met at the reception counter. Did you find who you were looking for?” I don’t dare say Lad’s name. She gives a reluctant nod. No, but I will soon enough. I glance to the door where I saw Lad last, the man Paige was asking for to begin with. I fully expect to see him in a full-blown brawl, but instead the man with the dark suit and neatly trimmed hair is near the refreshment table helping himself to Emmie’s raspberry cheesecake bites, and right about now, he’s the smartest person in the room. Not too far from him stands my mother with her feathered hair, her popped collar, and overall preppy appeal. If Ree Baker is anything, she’s a true-blue throwback to the eighties. She’s cuttingly beautiful, ageless in the most literal sense, and a strong woman in every capacity. The men here should be just a little afraid of her. Lord knows I am. I scan the back wall until I spot Lad cornering a redhead. She’s considerably shorter than he is and looks to be wearing a raincoat. “It was nice meeting you, Paige,” I say. “I hope you both have a great time.” I take off into the bustling crowd until I hit the back of the room, but both Lad and the redhead are gone. I’m about to head out into the main hall to get some respite from the noise when a short brunette in a neon green dress strides up and gives Cinnamon a warm pat on the back. Boy, that chartreuse number she has on is one way to differentiate yourself from a sea of little black dresses. “Hey there, cutie pie.” She gives the dog a kiss on one of its fuzzy floppy ears. If you’re here, that means he’s here, and we are back in business, baby. Or at least we will be, if I have my way. She offers me an amicable smile. Her nose is wide and prominent, her cheeks highcut, and she has a squirrely look in her eyes as if you couldn’t quite trust her. “So, where’s the dog’s owner?” She bats her lashes up at me as if she were trying to pull a fast one. “Lad?” I try to act as if I didn’t just pry into her inner diatribe. “If he’s smart, he’s at the dessert table.” I nod that way and she’s off to the races. I tuck my lips near the puppy’s ear. “Your daddy just might be the most popular person in the room.” Cinnamon gives a moan that sounds like a tiny laugh. That man never has a free moment. In fact, I was hoping to get to know him better tonight myself. A tiny laugh bubbles from me. “I know this comes as a surprise, but I can hear your thoughts and understand them, too.” Cinnamon gives a sharp bark. Really? I didn’t think anyone could understand what I was saying, let alone thinking. “Well, I can—and believe me when I say, I’m thrilled to communicate with you. I much prefer speaking to pets than some people. And as for you getting to spend time with Lad tonight, I think you’ll have to get in line, Cinnamon. And I have a feeling it’s a very long line.” He seems quite nice when he’s not busy arguing with someone. I think arguing is one of his favorite pastimes. I have a feeling she’s right. Between Paige’s anger toward him and his shoving match with the man in the suit, I’d say Lad has more than a few issues on his plate. An hour races by. Jasper just texted to let me know he just got back to his cottage and would be at the inn soon enough. And being the official president of the Jasper Wilder Fan Club, I decide to head out to the front of the inn to intercept him with a kiss before we get tangled up in this singles-mingles madness. This group date with Cupid is turning into one big rowdy party, with both my mother and Georgie leading the pack on the dance floor. I head out one of the side exits that leads to an overgrown fountain sitting to the left of the inn. The Country Cottage Inn is a two-story structure covered in ivy. There’s a blue, stone cobbled path that leads around the building and circles all the way to a white sandy beach. The Country Cottage Café is attached to the ocean side of the inn as well and boasts of expansive views of the Atlantic from its sunroom. The icy air hits me as soon as I step out into the clear starry night. The scent of night jasmine perfumes the vicinity as I take in the peace and calm the outdoors bring, compared to the riot going on inside. A three-tiered fountain stands prominent before me. It’s at least ten feet of verdigris copper, and the water raining down from tier to tier is backlit a gorgeous shade of cobalt. The sound of its trickling is a welcome relief to my tired ears. Cinnamon begins to whimper and squirm, so I let her down and she heads off for the grass nearby to do her business. And as I straighten from the effort, something metallic catches my eyes near the cobbled path that leads to the parking lot. “What the…” I head on over and seize in horror at what I find. A gun sits abandoned, gleaming in the moonlight as if kissed by the stars itself to showcase its danger. Instinctually, I pick it up. The metal is so cold, it shocks the flesh on the palm of my hand. I turn toward the inn and take a breath. I’ll need to take this to Jasper. My feet start in that direction, and just as I’m about to come upon the fountain, I see it, or rather him. Lying partially in the fountain itself is a man who looks as if he’s fallen backward into the pool of water. His legs are hooked over the side as he floats on his back, his arms spread wide. The bright pink imprint of a kiss stains the side of his cheek, his last kiss. There’s a dark crimson stain in the middle of his chest, and to my fright his eyes remain wide open as he stares vacantly into the sky. “Bizzy?” Jasper calls out in a warm voice as he jogs on over, his feet slowing as he observes my hand cradling the gun, the body in the fountain. But it’s not just any body. It’s Lad. And he won’t be arguing with anyone else ever again. Lad Warner is dead.

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