In the California coastal town of South Cove, Jill Gardner, owner of Coffee, Books, and More, becomes more engaged in sleuthing than wedding preparations when there’s a murder in a dress shop . . .
Jill couldn’t love police chief Greg King more—so why does that engagement ring still feel funny on her finger? At least she’ll have a chance to show it off this Saturday at their engagement party. Just in time for the event, a new dress shop has opened in town, Exquisite Gowns for You, specializing in designer wedding gowns and other custom-fit dresses.
But Jill’s excitement turns to shock when she comes by to pick up her dress for the party and discovers a dead body in the shop. New owner Harper Sanchez is behaving strangely and becoming more mysterious than anyone expected. Despite Greg’s warnings to leave the case to him, Jill can’t help looking into the murder. Somebody in South Cove is dressed to kill—and if Jill’s not careful, she may not live to wear her wedding gown . . .
Wedding Bell Blues by Lynn Cahoon
SERIES Tourist Trap Mystery | GENRE Adult Cozy Mystery
PUBLISHER Lyrical Press | PUBLICATION DATE March 1, 2022
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WEDDING BELL BLUES
A Tourist Trap Mystery Novel
© 2022 Lynn Cahoon
Spring in South Cove, California, is beautiful. The days are warm, the nights cool enough for a firepit in your backyard or a bonfire on the beach. Now that we were out of the rainy season, which seemed to get shorter and shorter every year, I could count on clear days to take Emma, my golden retriever, running after I got off work. It was a great stress reliever and helped to offset my other stress activity, eating. Eating sweets, specifically.
Times like today I regretted putting in the treat bar at my bookstore/coffee shop, Coffee, Books, and More. It was the first Tuesday of the month, and my shop swarmed with local business owners, city council reps, and worse, Mayor Baylor and his wife, Tina. I hosted and ran the business-to-business meeting as one of my side gigs. A job I really didn’t need to do anymore for the money. But I couldn’t seem to walk away. As I sat listening today, I vowed that next year, when Amy sent me the annual contract, I’d send it back unsigned with a big “Thanks, but No Thanks” in red pen over the top.
Of course, I wouldn’t. Amy Newman—no, now Amy Newman-Cross—was my best friend and sitting right next to me. I guess misery loves company.
Tina Baylor was at the podium introducing this month’s speaker. Harper Sanchez was the owner/operator of our newest South Cove business, Exquisite Gowns for You—a special occasion and wedding gown designer. I loved her shop. Located down the street across from the Train Station, and on the other side of town from Vintage Duds, Exquisite Gowns was the only other clothing shop in South Cove. Vintage Duds sold gently used designer creations and was run by Sherry King and Pat Williams. Sherry was my fiancé’s ex-wife. But Pat was the one who was usually at the store and in town where I could run into her. I wasn’t sure what Sherry did as her part of the team, but as long as she wasn’t around much, I didn’t care.
Oh, the joys of living in a small town.
“And I’m sure you’ll all be as fascinated as I am on today’s topic, picking the perfect outfit for your shape, age, and event.” Tina crooned into the microphone. “Harper? Come on up here and let’s get this show on the road.”
Harper followed Tina’s instructions and set a pile of index cards on the stand. She cleared her throat and scanned the room. She hit the microphone as she straightened the cards a second time, and it squealed its discomfort. “Sorry, I’m a little rusty on this talking thing. I don’t think I’ve done an hour talk since I was in college speech class. And I wasn’t very good then.”
“Great, put us in a receptive mood,” Amy whispered in my ear. “I’m already tired enough to take a nap. Justin was up until one last night talking online to his history group. You would think just the topic would put me to sleep.”
I shushed her. We were getting the glare from Tina. Man, that woman knew how to put the evil eye on someone. Deek Kerr came over and refilled our coffee mugs, leaving the carafe near us. At least we’d be caffeinated.
What felt like a lifetime later, Harper finally stopped talking. I knew more about her and her path to being a designer than I knew about my newest barista, Evie Marshall. And Evie had been in town for months.
Darla Jones, the town event planner, hurried up to the podium before Harper could start another story. “Well, wasn’t that interesting. Thank you for being here, Harper, and welcome to South Cove. Now, we really have to talk about our Welcome Spring Saturday festival that will occur in two weeks. I’ve got a list of committee assignments that still need filled. In addition, I wanted you all to know that Jill and Coffee, Books, and More will be sponsoring a read-a-thon for the local schools’ arts and cultural funding. We all know how strapped the schools are, and typically, the first to lose their extras are our band, choir, and art kids. So if you want to support the kids, be sure to pick up a pledge sheet. Jill’s keeping the store open overnight to keep the excitement going.”
I stood and pointed out Deek. “This was Deek’s brainchild, so make sure you sign up on my sponsorship page since he’s got two pages of sponsors already.”
“Now, Jill, it’s not nice to try to poach my sponsors.” Deek stepped toward the table. He was California-surfer-boy cute with blond dreadlocks and a killer tan for March to complete the look. He struck a pose and put on a blinding smile. “I’m sure supporting the cause is much more important than supporting either one of us, even though I am taking selfies with my crew.”
The table laughed, but I saw at least one of the women near me fan herself. Yep, I wasn’t going to beat out Deek for pledges, but as he said, it was all for a good cause. I just didn’t like to lose.
“Anyway, we’ll see you all next month. If you have time, be sure to volunteer. Spring Saturday is only two weeks away.” Darla held up the signup sheets, then spread them on the front table. “They’ll be right here, on your way out. We’re done here.”
The entire group seemed to rise at once and race out of the café’s front doors. I saw a few people stop and sign up, but Darla would have to do her famous face-to-face method of finishing the committees. She was strong willed, and not many people could tell her no to her face. Which was why so many people were trying to get out of the shop without making eye contact.
Loud voices from the bookstore section of the café drew my attention. Sherry King, my least favorite business owner, stood in front of Harper, shaking her finger at the poor woman. I hurried over to stand between them. “Sherry, what are you doing?”
“You just stay out of this. It’s not your fight. I can’t believe she even had the nerve to open a shop in my town. We already have a clothing shop, Vintage Duds. And we sell designer clothes. What am I supposed to do when people decide to buy new gowns instead of my used stuff? You’re going to drive me out of business. You should have opened a store in the valley. They have a lot of celebrities who need dresses. Here, we have to deal with weddings and such.” Sherry took a breath.
“Sherry, leave her alone. We’ll be fine.” Pat Williams hurried over and took Sherry by the arm. She glanced over at me, lowering her voice. “Sorry, she’s been a little upset since she heard the news.”
Sherry glared at me as they walked out, and I figured the news Pat was talking about had nothing to do with the new business moving into town. I glanced down at my hands, but the ring was at home, on the kitchen window. I’d forgotten to put it back on after rinsing out the coffeepot this morning.
Deek stood next to me, watching them leave. “That woman has a bad aura. Not completely black, but on its way.”
I ignored his comment and turned toward Harper. “Are you all right? I’m so sorry about Sherry. She can get a little emotional about things.”
“She tried to get into my shop yesterday morning. I thought I had a delivery, so I went out front when I heard the banging, but it was her, screaming about my shop driving hers out of business. Should I report her to the police? She’s scaring me.” Harper took the glass of water that Amy had poured for her and drank it down. “Thanks, I needed that.”
“Who needs to report what to the police?” Greg King, South Cove’s police chief in all but the name and my boyfriend—no, fiancé—stood behind me. I hadn’t seen him come in through the crowd.
Deek and Amy looked at each other, then Deek stepped away. Amy took Harper by the arm. “Come sit down with me for a few minutes. Let’s get you a brownie to calm your nerves. Nothing like a treat to get your sugar level back up.”
I turned to Greg and led him back to the office behind the coffee bar. I sat on my desk and took a deep breath.
“Okay, you’re scaring me. What’s going on?” Greg took my hands, but then he dropped them. “Hold on a minute, I’ve got something for you.”
“What?” I watched as he dug in his pants pocket and pulled out my ring.
He slipped it on my hand, then kissed me. “You left this at home, again. That’s the third time this week. Is there something you need to tell me?”
“No. I mean, yes, but not about the ring.” Now he had me flustered.
He studied me. “So leaving it at home isn’t a passive-aggressive way of telling me you don’t want to marry me?”
“No. I don’t think so.” I sighed and ran my hand through my hair. “Look, I love you, and yes, I want to marry you. So stop asking. Anyway, we have bigger problems.”
He sat in one of the other chairs. “Okay, tell me what’s going on, then. Why did Amy and Deek take off like they were afraid I was going to throw everyone into my small two-man jail cell?”
“Well, before you came in, Sherry started yelling at that other woman. She’s Harper Sanchez, and she opened that clothing design shop down near Harrold’s Train Station. Sherry thinks she’s trying to run Vintage Duds out of town.” The words spilled out of my mouth, and I stood and went to the cooler to grab a bottle of water.
“Sherry’s Sherry. I can talk to this Harper and see if she wants to press charges, but if Sherry was just upset, it’s kind of a stretch.” Greg grabbed my water bottle and took a drink before handing it back.
“That’s not all. Harper said Sherry came over yesterday to her shop and tried to break in. Harper’s scared. You need to talk to Sherry and tell her to knock it off before Harper does press charges.”
He took my hand and squeezed it. “I will. But you do me a favor and keep that ring on. I didn’t spend all that money to have to cut it out of your dog when Emma thinks it’s a treat you left lying around.”
“Greg, there’s more.” The ring, with its large marquise stone, felt heavy on my finger. I bit my lip before telling him what Pat had said. “I think Sherry’s upset about our engagement. Pat said she hasn’t been herself since she found out.”
He shook his head. “No. She can’t lay that on me or you. We’re divorced. That’s what she wanted, so she got it. And now I’m happy, so she’s feeling bad? Jill, it’s typical Sherry. She only wants what she can’t have.”
“I know, but I figured you needed to hear it before you fell into one of her traps.” I leaned down to kiss him.
“Sherry’s traps don’t work on me anymore. I’ve gotten attached to a new female who knows all new tricks to play on me.” He stood and pulled me into a hug. “You let me worry about Sherry. You just keep that ring on your finger and get ready to have a huge engagement party this weekend. I even bought a new suit.”
By the time we came back into the main dining room, Harper and Amy were gone. Deek had moved the tables back into their regular spot and was now serving up regular customers who’d been waiting for the meeting to finish.
Greg slapped him on the back and headed to the door to go back to work. He’d promised to go talk to Sherry and tell her to leave the new designer alone. I didn’t think it would be that easy.
I checked the ticket Deek was working on, and after washing my hands and pulling on a clean apron, I dished up two of Pies on the Fly’s new cheesecake brownies. I was kind of surprised we even had any left to sell since I’d been mainlining them since Sadie, Pies on the Fly’s owner and local baker, had dropped them off on Friday with our weekly delivery. Since we were friends, she knew I was a stress eater.
The woman at the register beamed at me. “It’s about time you two got hitched. You make such a lovely couple. Are babies on their way? Is that why you’re getting married now?”
I about choked. “I’m sorry, what?”
Deek snickered next to me. “Mrs. Landstrom, I can assure you that Jill and Greg aren’t expecting. I hear they’re planning on at least a year-long engagement.”
My face felt hot as I glanced around the room. Everyone was watching me now. I took off the apron I’d just put on. “Deek’s right, no babies on the way. Maybe a second puppy soon. But I do need to leave. I just remembered I have a lunch date.”
In the back room, I sank into my desk chair and laid my head on the desk. Seriously? Was that what everyone was thinking? That I was pregnant? I glanced over at a batch of double Dutch cookies that Deek had pulled out of the cooler to warm up before putting them in the sale case out front. They were better at room temperature, but I went and grabbed one anyway. It was cold to the touch, and I really wanted a cup of coffee to dunk it in. But I didn’t want to go back out to the dining room in case I’d be asked more questions.
I wondered if Amy had been getting these same questions about her recent marriage? Or maybe it was just at the engagement stage that people liked messing with the newly engaged. I dialed city hall, hoping Amy was back from wherever she and Harper had taken off to.
She picked up on the first ring. “South Cove Mayoral Office. Amy Newman speaking. How may I help you today?”
“I thought you were taking Justin’s last name?” Ouch, maybe everyone was too involved in this marriage convention, even me. “Never mind. I didn’t mean that. Anyway, are you free for lunch? I need to clear my head.”
“I saw Greg give your ring to you. Did you forget it at home again?” Amy’s tone dropped from professional to that of a caring friend. Way different that the random woman at the counter.
Deek knew her name, I just knew her coffee order. Large regular coffee with two squirts of chocolate sauce to add some flavor, like a mocha without as many calories. I’d even suggested she try it when she’d been complaining about needing to give up the sweet coffee treat for her diet plan. Now that I thought about it, there were a lot of customers that I could rattle off their coffee and treat preferences and even the last book they’d bought, but I had no idea what their names were. Or their stories. I needed to get better about that.
LYNN CAHOON is the author of the NYT and USA Today best-selling Tourist Trap cozy mystery series. She also pens the Cat Latimer series, the Farm to Fork series, and the Kitchen Witch series. Small town setting, big time fun with a bit of murder to keep it interesting. Romance novels are published under the pen name, Lynn Collins. She lives in a small river town like Mark Twain with her husband and three fur kids.