A Novel Death—Chapter 1

 

CHAPTER ONE

The bell chimed as I pushed open the front door to Dangerous Reads, and the familiar scent greeted me—books. Lots of them. Mixed with a hint of fresh-cut wood from the new bookshelves that had just been installed last week. Beneath that, I could even detect a bit of something deeper. Shalimar, my grandmother’s favorite perfume. She’d worn it every day, and the notes of spice and vanilla had seeped into the wood shelves and the plaster walls of the bookstore.

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000032_00026]Despite my best efforts to steel myself, my heart twisted in my chest with the reminder that she was gone. That I’d never walk into Dangerous Reads and see her among the stacks of books or behind the counter. Never hear her humming along to the music while she restocked shelves or hear her laughter as she directed a customer to the perfect book. She’d been gone for two months, and my grief felt as raw as it had when I’d gotten the call that she’d died in her sleep.

With a deep breath, I flipped on the lights and illuminated the store, chasing away the shadows and trying in vain to do the same with the grief.

Grandma Ruth wanted me to have this, her life’s work. Not only the storefront on Main Street in Danger Cove and all the inventory but also something more than that. She wanted me to have her place in this community.

“So don’t mess this up, Meri,” I told myself. My voice echoed in the empty store. “You can do this.”

It hadn’t been a complete surprise that I’d inherited Dangerous Reads. I was the only child of my father, who had also been my grandmother’s only child. As he had died 20 years earlier, it made sense that I was the only heir. But Grandma Ruth’s death had been sudden, with no health issues preceding it that would have given me warning.

I walked back to the break room-slash-stockroom, my boot heels echoing on the hardwood floors. I hung up my coat, made a pot of coffee, and turned on the heat. My staff would be coming in early for a meeting, our first all-staff meeting since I’d become the new owner of Dangerous Reads.

I shouldn’t be worried, yet here I was, wiping damp palms on my gray wool skirt. It wasn’t like I hadn’t been in charge of things before. I’d once held a very responsible position as director of public relations for a major tech start-up in Seattle. I had confidently held forth with reporters from major publications and on television and radio. This was just a meeting of me and my three part-time employees at Dangerous Reads. So why was I so nervous?

Maybe because I’d screwed up and gotten fired from that responsible position. No one could fire me from this job, I reminded myself. The worst thing that could happen would be that I’d run my beloved grandmother’s bookstore into the ground and destroy everything she had built over her lifetime.

So, no pressure.

The bell chimed, and I poked my head out to see Alicia Holmes walk in, carrying a signature box from the Cinnamon Sugar Bakery. Bless her heart. Alicia always knew the perfect accessory for any occasion.

“I hope that coffee’s ready, because I was up until after midnight sewing a skirt for Jessa’s ballet recital, which she told me she needed only yesterday,” Alicia said, placing the box on the counter next to the coffeepot. She shrugged out of her long wool coat, hung it in the small closet, and then adjusted her silk scarf and smoothed her long brown hair away from her face. “How are you doing? I know this is a big day for you. Your first staff meeting. That’s why I brought donuts.”

I took two cups down and filled them with the dark brew while Alicia set donuts out on a plate for our meeting. Alicia liked celebrating milestones. I was still working off the sweets she’d brought over the last month for “Meri’s first day,” “Meri’s first book club meeting,” and “Meri’s first tax inventory.” She’d at least brought wine for that last one. I hadn’t been in charge of Dangerous Reads very long, and I hoped the inaugural celebrations would start to die out, because I wasn’t a fan of exercise.

“Thanks for bringing the food,” I said, finding a stack of paper napkins in the drawer.

“It’s not just your first staff meeting. None of us have had one of these before. Ruth never had a staff meeting. This is exciting,” she said.

Alicia was in her mid-40s and had worked for my grandmother for seven years, ever since the youngest of her five children went to kindergarten. Her husband was a successful tech consultant, and Alicia didn’t need the part-time work. But she loved the bookstore as much as I did. My grandmother used to joke that Alicia probably spent her entire paycheck to support her book habit.

“It’s just a meeting,” I cautioned. “And we’ll be done in time to open at ten.”

“Is there an agenda?”

“No. Sorry.” I had never met anyone so enthusiastic about a meeting before. Before Grandma Ruth died and I got myself fired, my life had seemed to consist only of meetings. If I wasn’t in a meeting, the odds were good I was trying to schedule one. And no one I knew ever looked forward to them. It was nice to just call a casual meeting of my entire staff—and we could all sit around the round oak table in the break room.

I heard the back door open, and a second later Burt Lewis walked into the break room. Like Alicia, he had worked for my grandmother for nearly a decade after he retired from the military. An avid reader of mysteries, history, and biographies, he was a great resource to the bookstore. And despite his gruff exterior, he was a softie on the inside. Or so I suspected. I hadn’t actually seen too much of that soft-on-the-inside aspect of Burt yet.

“Morning, ladies,” he said in his gravelly voice. “I brought more receipts.”

He dropped a stack of carbonless paper receipts on the break room table. It was a point of contention between us.

“We’ve got the computer tablets all set up now, Burt. No need for this.”

“I prefer paper,” he said, pouring himself a cup of coffee. “The customers do, too.”

We’d had this discussion several times before, and it never failed to leave me flustered. Sure, I was about one-half his age and his size, but I was the owner of the bookstore now, and I should be able to choose whether to adopt new technologies.

“The computerized system will help with inventory, taxes, and other paperwork,” I said, giving him my sternest look.

“It’s okay,” Burt said. “I save the receipts for Katya, and she puts them in your fancy new computer.”

Frustration filled my chest, and I took a deep breath. It’s my store, I told myself. Burt works for me.

But I also knew that Burt didn’t need the paycheck, and I did need him—locals relied on his recommendations for nonfiction books, and tourists loved his knowledge of Danger Cove’s history.

The back door opened again, and the last employee skipped in.

“Good morning!” Katya Potter said, her blonde ponytail swinging as she bounced into the break room, which was now at capacity. She took the last seat at the round table. For a 17-year-old high school student, she was incredibly responsible and mature. And she had the energy of 10 adults. Somehow she managed a full schedule of classes, plenty of extracurricular activities, cheerleading practice, and working a part-time job on the weekends.

“Katya, you’re entering Burt’s sales into the computer system?” I asked.

“Sure, it’s no problem,” she said, grabbing a donut off the plate. “It takes him forever to do. It’s just faster if I do it.”

That was probably true, but it still bothered me that Burt was ignoring me and my “fancy” new computerized inventory system. As his precision crew cut would imply, he was a military man. What happened to his respect for chain of command?

“See? Everyone’s happy,” Burt said with a short nod of his head.

I tried to keep the frown off my face and focus on the purpose of the meeting.

“We’ll talk about that another time,” I said. “The reason I asked you all to come in early today was because of the new promotions we’re going to be doing.”

Katya perked up. “I had an idea. We should get a bookshop cat! Lots of bookstores have a cat. Customers love them.”

“That’s a nice idea, but I’m allergic to cats,” I said.

Her face fell. “Oh, I’m so sorry. Cats are great.”

“I’m sure they are,” I said, eager to keep on track. “Anyway, there’s been a small change to the upcoming author visits.”

This was my attempt at jump-starting my management of Dangerous Reads. I had immediately updated the cash registers to tablet computers that took up less space on the counter and also kept better track of the purchases and ordering. And in consultation with Alicia and Burt, I’d rearranged the layout of the floor—moving the children’s section to a corner in the back, sale books to the narrow upstairs loft, and adding more shelves to accommodate new releases in the front of the store.

But the series of author visits was the biggest change. In the next few months, we’d have multiple authors speaking and signing books at Dangerous Reads. Some of the authors had connections to the area, and others were just happy to come to Danger Cove for a little break on their West Coast tours.

“We have a new author who has agreed to come here as the first stop on his national book tour,” I said. I couldn’t help but pat myself on the back for landing this one too. Those PR skills were proving very handy.

“Who is it?” Alicia asked with an excited smile.

“He’s a Danger Cove native who became very successful and famous,” I said.

This was met with blank stares, and then my employees exchanged curious looks with each other.

“Who would that be?” Burt asked.

“He’s an actor. He’s been in hundreds of films in the last forty years.”

Burt shook his head. Alicia tilted her head. Katya shrugged. I pushed my chair away from the table, grabbed a box of books from the floor, and pulled out a hardback copy of an autobiography.

“It’s Cal Montague.” I held up the book Tales I Shouldn’t Tell. The cover was a black-and-white photo of the man’s face, so there was no way they could say they didn’t know who he was.

“Oh, of course,” Alicia said.

“Oh, him,” Burt said with a grimace.

“Who’s that?” Katya asked.

That wasn’t the chorus of awe at my coup that I was hoping for, but granted, Cal Montague wasn’t exactly a household name. He was one of those actors who had been in a ton of movies but never as the star. His career was as a solid B-list actor. Constantly working but never the leading man.

“He’s a character actor. He’s been a working actor since the early 1970s,” I said. “And he’s a Danger Cove native. He grew up here.”

Katya took the book from me and squinted at the face on the cover. “Yeah, he sort of looks familiar. Was he that guy in that thing? The mob movie? You know, about Vegas?”

I actually didn’t know much about Cal’s career, but I didn’t want to admit that, so I bluffed. “You’ll have to read the book to find out.”

“That’s an interesting choice, Meri,” Alicia said with less enthusiasm than she usually showed. “He hasn’t been back here in years.”

Burt snorted. “Cal Montague is a jerk who has a head shaped like a butternut squash.”

Katya giggled and flipped the book back to look at the photo, then nodded in agreement. The man was a little jowly, but—okay, I could see the resemblance to a gourd. Still, he was an actor and a Danger Cove native and my chance to kick off the new series of author appearances with a bang. Or at least with the closest thing Danger Cove had to a celebrity.

“Well, he’s bringing his squash-shaped head here, and I’ve ordered a lot of copies for him to sign,” I said, handing books to everyone. “We all should read the book so we can answer customers’ questions. Who knows—maybe he writes about growing up in Danger Cove.”

Burt frowned, the tan skin on his face wrinkling around his mouth and eyes. “I don’t need to read the book to know it’s gonna be Cal rambling on about how great he is and how everyone loves him.”

“Do you know him?” Alicia asked.

“Sure do. He was a couple years ahead of me in school,” Burt said. “Always thought he was a bigger deal than he was.”

“Now he is a big deal,” I reminded him.

Burt took the book like I was handing him a full diaper or a live grenade.

“Also, because this was a last-minute addition to his schedule, he’s coming next weekend, so we don’t have a lot of time to get ready.” I handed a book to Alicia, who read the back-cover copy with a raised eyebrow. “I’m going to need everyone to work on Saturday. Is that okay?”

Katya nodded but kept her eyes on the first page of Cal’s book. “I was already scheduled to work on Saturday, so it’s fine with me. Maybe there will be other Hollywood actors here.”

“Sure, who knows?” The odds that Cal traveled with an entourage of celebrities were nearly nonexistent, but I didn’t want to dampen her enthusiasm.

“I’ll call the bakery and order some refreshments,” Alicia said. “And we can use the front area for the reading, where the tables are. Those will be easy to move around.”

“Thanks, Alicia. That’s what I was thinking too. I’ll order some rental chairs, and we can have Cal stand at the podium near the bookshelves,” I said, starting to feel something that was at once familiar and yet had been absent from my world for two months—perhaps it was excitement. I had always loved having a large event to organize, and I did miss that part of my former job.

I took a folder out of my black leather bag and handed out stacks of flyers announcing the event. “Feel free to hand these out.”

I set a stack aside to take to The Clip and Sip when I went to get my hair cut later in the morning and glanced at my watch.

“I’ll go unlock the front door,” I said. “I have a list of things that need to be done this week, starting with a display for Cal’s book.”

Burt snorted again but picked up the box of books. “I guess we should put them in the front window for maximum exposure.”

“Thank you, Burt,” I said.

I put a copy of the Tales I Shouldn’t Tell into my bag to read later. When I walked through the shop, I saw my mother on the other side of the glass door.

“Good morning, Mom,” I said, letting her in. “What brings you downtown so early on a Saturday?”

“Garden club meeting, of course,” she said. “And I wanted to see the new layout you were talking about.”

She swept into the store in a long wool coat in a stunning shade of ivory, with a cloud of Chanel perfume trailing behind her. She was tall and slender, and her blonde hair was perfectly coiffed into a French twist. Her makeup was subtle and tasteful. And that was just for a meeting of the garden club.

Despite her professed interest in the bookshop, I had my doubts. Kimberly Sinclair wasn’t much of a reader, and the only thing she and my grandmother had had in common was their love for me.

My mother looked around the store, and I could see the disapproval lurking below the surface. “It looks better,” she said. “Is there any way to, you know, maybe lessen the clutter?”

“That’s not clutter, Mom. It’s books,” I said.

“Of course, but maybe you could have fewer on display?”

“No. It’s a bookstore. The books stay.”

She sighed and forced a smile. “Of course, dear. It’s your store.”

That’s right, I thought but smiled back.

My mother picked up a book from the box Burt had left in the front window where he was starting to clean out the last display.

“Cal Montague wrote a book?” she asked. Her voice implied that she didn’t know he could write his name. “I think I might have to actually read this.”

“You should read it,” I said. I couldn’t remember her reading anything longer than an in-depth article on interior design in one of her fashion magazines. “And then bring it back here next weekend, and you can have him sign it.”

Mom’s eyes widened. “Cal Montague is coming back to Danger Cove?”

“He is, on next Saturday. Please tell your friends,” I said and rang up my mother’s purchase.

“Well, that is certainly news,” she said. “The Garden Club is going to want to hear about this.”

The last part of her statement seemed to be her talking to herself. I handed her a stack of flyers anyway. “Here, take these.”

She put them in her bag with the book and then smiled at me. “Do you have time for coffee?”

I shook my head. “I don’t. I have a haircut, and then I’m working until closing,” I said. “I can get away for lunch, if you’re free.”

“I’ll be by around noon,” she said. “It’s so nice having you back home.”

She reached out and smoothed my hair with a smile that meant she was thinking of my dad. I had inherited his dark hair and brown eyes. Twenty years and she was still not over his sudden loss. I never knew if my presence helped or hurt her in that regard.

“You should grow your hair long again,” she said, tilting her head. “You look so pretty with long hair.”

With her left-handed compliment, my well of sympathy started to dry up a little.

“I like it short,” I said.

“Maybe just a little longer,” she said. “I hear a long bob is coming back in style.”

My chin-length bob was very chic, according to the expensive stylist, to whom I used to pay a lot of money for the world’s most simple haircut. And it was easy. Wash, brush, and go. No muss, no fuss.

I made a show of looking at my watch. “Oh, wow, I should get over to The Clip and Sip. Have fun at your garden meeting,” I said, then grabbed my bag, waved to Burt, and left the store before my head exploded.

It was taking some adjustment coming home to Danger Cove. Part of the problem was that it hadn’t really been my choice. I’d had a perfect life in Seattle. I had a great job at HunTech, which was the technology start-up my boyfriend, Hunter, had founded. We’d had a fun social life, and things had been going so well.

And then my grandmother had died, and Hunter had e-mailed me to say he wasn’t going to go to the funeral with me, and by the way, he thought we should take a break from being exclusive.

Maybe it was the fact that he’d broken up with me by e-mail, or more likely, that he’d actually used this particular e-mail chain to break up with me—but I hadn’t handled it well. And unfortunately, in my haste to reply, I hadn’t noticed that my e-mail program had automatically filled in HunTechAll instead of Hunter, and the righteously angry response had gone out to the entire company. And then it had gone viral.

I’d been unemployed by sundown. Also, single. Obviously.

It had been a dark time.

Frankly, finding out that I was also the sole heir to my grandmother’s estate didn’t make me feel one bit better. I loved her so much, and now I was living in her house and running her business. I could understand how my mother never moved on, seeing a small version of her dead husband across the dinner table every night. Being around Grandma Ruth’s things was both comforting and a constant reminder of my loss.

I was a good 15 minutes early for my haircut at The Clip and Sip. It was a little early in the day to enjoy the complimentary wine and liqueurs, so I settled in with a coffee and my new book while I waited for Cassidi Conti to finish with her earlier appointment.

Cassidi was one of the newer additions to Danger Cove. The town hadn’t changed that much since I’d gone off to college. It was still the same charming coastal town that I loved. Cassidi, a sunny, blonde Texas transplant, had recently taken over The Clip and Sip salon and was bringing a fresh sense of style to my hometown.

It was nice being back in Danger Cove. I’d been gone for a little more than a decade, though I visited two or three times a year. I just wasn’t yet sold on the fact that I was back here on a permanent basis.

When I’d lost my boyfriend and my job, I knew that my cute one-bedroom loft in downtown Seattle would soon be out of my budget. My grandmother’s bequest solved those problems—well, not the boyfriend one. But still, a solution had fallen into my lap, and I hadn’t had much choice but to return to Danger Cove. It wasn’t where I thought I’d be at this point in my life, but I was determined to make the best of it. Having a fresh start was what I needed.

And I was pretty close to believing my internal pep talk. I’d even convinced myself to come up with the author events. If nothing else, it was definitely keeping me busy.

It was a fairly quiet morning at The Clip and Sip, so I jumped into Cal Montague’s book, starting with the dedication—a vague appreciation of his family’s support through the years. I was just starting the lengthy acknowledgments, when I noticed the stout, older woman next to me craning her head to look at the cover. When she realized I caught her, she gave me a knowing stare.

“That’s Cal Montague.”

I nodded and held up the book. “Yes, his autobiography. He’s coming next Saturday to sign his book at Dangerous Reads.”

Before she could object, I shoved a flyer into her hands and introduced myself.

“Oh, yes, Meri Sinclair. I knew your grandma, may she rest in peace. I’m Donna Bocca,” she said, shaking my hand with a bone-crushing grip. “So you’re running the bookshop now? Why on earth did you invite Cal Montague back to Danger Cove?”

Donna took the book from my hand without asking and studied the cover with a frown that emphasized her faint mustache.

“Well, it’s his hometown,” I said. “Do you know him?”

She smirked, and her wide nostrils flared. “Years ago, sure. And I know his ex-wife.”

Gia Di Mitri, a young and flashy stylist, teetered over to us on stiletto heels that made me nervous just watching her. She took the book out of Donna’s hands with a curious look. “Who’s this?”

“Cal Montague,” I said. “He’s an actor. Grew up here in Danger Cove.”

I stuffed a flyer into Gia’s hand, too, just for good measure.

“An actor, huh?” Gia said, tossing her hair as she flipped to the back cover.

“He used to be married to Pippa Montague,” Donna said with a knowing nod at Gia before she ripped the book away from the stylist. “And I have to tell you, Pippa Montague is not going to be happy about this.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“Oh, honey. Their divorce was legendary back in the day. It was all anyone talked about for months,” Donna said, handing me the book. “This could get interesting. I may have to come by the bookstore and check it out.”

“It’s been a long time since the divorce, right? I’m sure things have settled down,” I said, handing Gia a stack of the flyers. “The reading will be fun. Can I leave these here for your clients?”

“Oh, yeah,” she said, putting the papers on the counter near the cash register. “Sounds like fun. Especially if Pippa Montague comes.”

“What do you mean?”

Donna and Gia exchanged a glance, and the stylist tilted her head a little. “Pippa’s a little, I don’t know, uptight?”

“Angry. Bitter. Snooty,” Donna said, helping round out the description of Cal’s ex-wife. “And let’s just say that Cal isn’t the only overly dramatic one in that family. You’re too young to remember the drama. But it was a big deal when Cal married Pippa. She was just out of high school, and he was off working in movies. Then they moved off to New York City for a time, but she hated it there. He got a part in Hollywood, so they moved there, and oh, she really hated that.”

Gia plopped down on a padded ottoman like it was story time at the library. “What happened next?”

Donna leaned forward, happy to have an audience. “When their son was born, they moved back to Danger Cove and bought a house in Craggy Hills Estates. But Cal was rarely there—always flying off to Los Angeles or New York or London.”

“Is that why they divorced?” I asked.

Donna shrugged. “I heard it was because Cal was quite the ladies’ man. But you know, that’s just gossip. Pippa made out like a bandit in the divorce though. Which was only right, after a decade of putting up with Cal.”

I was beginning to think that Cal’s book might be more interesting than I originally estimated, and it sounded like it was of particular interest to the local community.

“Well, I’m just so excited that we’ll get to hear him read portions of it at Dangerous Reads, six o’clock on Saturday.” I gave them my best public relations professional smile, and they each tucked a flyer into their pockets.

“Meri, I’m all ready for you,” Cassidi said, walking to the front of the salon and greeting me with a warm, lopsided smile. “Your mom says you’re growing your hair out.”

Of course she did. I stuffed Cal’s book into my bag and headed back to the shampoo center. “No, I am not. In fact, take another inch off.”

_________

A Novel Death is available now at all major online booksellers!

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