Ring In the Year with Murder: New Excerpt
Ring In the Year with Murder by Auralee Wallace is the fourth book in the Otter Lake Mystery series.
It’s been a tough year for Erica Bloom. And with hours left on the clock and a killer crashing the party, it’s not over yet…
This New Year’s Eve, Erica’s resolution is to have a great night—even if it kills her. She is, after all, at the party to end all parties: a Great Gatsby—themed gala sure to be the talk of Otter Lake, New Hampshire. With her perfectly finger-waved hair, borrowed pearls, and scarlet flapper dress, Erica is determined to be unflappable, despite the presence of her ex, Sheriff Grady Forrester, and his hot date, a bubbly blonde who has a hard time holding her drink. Literally…
In a plot twist as bizarre as a game of Clue, Grady’s girlfriend almost drops dead after her drink is poisoned. Who put the killer ingredient in her appletini? Suddenly the tables have turned and the sheriff has become the prime suspect. Now Erica has until midnight to clear the man she still loves—and in so doing just maybe win him back. That’s if the killer doesn’t pop the cork again … and turn a New Year’s smooch into a kiss of death…
“The Year of the Adult?”
“Yeah,” I said, carefully navigating my way up the stone steps of the stately home. They were well salted, but my low strappy heels weren’t great climbing shoes. “And it’s not so much a resolution as a theme.”
“A theme?” Freddie asked, stopping to look at me. He was having his own trouble with the steps given the furry bundle in his arms.
“For the New Year.”
Once I got safely to the top, I took a moment to look around. It was so pretty out here tonight. Floodlights, half buried in snow, lit up the house while twinkly lights sparkled in the trees. Hemlock Estate was always impressive, but tonight, all lit up, it was magical. Well, except for maybe the ice carvings left over from the winter carnival that took place here last week. They were looking a little worse for wear. The temperature had gone up and down quite a bit in the past few days. In fact, the moose carving kind of looked like it needed to be put out of its misery. The ice slide for the kids was looking a little warped too.
“So what exactly does this theme entail?”
“I think the title is pretty self-explanatory. This is going to be the year I get myself together. You know, practice adulting.” I smiled at the little French bulldog in Freddie’s arms. He was much easier to talk to with his nonjudgey dog face. “I’m going to make good decisions. I’m going to take that contract court-reporting job in—”
Freddie swatted me on the arm. “What about Otter Lake Security?”
“Um, ow,” I said, rubbing the spot where he’d smacked me. Otter Lake Security. Our fledgling company. Our fledgling company that we were having a really hard time getting off the ground. The main problem was that we weren’t legally allowed to do much more than watch over farmer’s markets, and, really, farmer’s markets didn’t need a whole lot of security. We wanted to get into more private investigation—cheating spouses and insurance fraud, that’s where the money was—but our other partner, Rhonda Cooke, was the only one of us who qualified for a license. She had applied for it a while back, but it still hadn’t come through. Once it did, though, we’d be taking pictures of people in motel rooms and picking through garbage like nobody’s business. “If you’re worried about this job taking away from all the time we spend discussing the business while eating pizza and drinking beer, I’m pretty sure we can still fit that in.”
“No, I don’t like this idea,” Freddie said. “I’ve got big plans for us.”
“Hey, I do too,” I said. “But in the meantime, I’m almost out of savings, and I need to find a place of my own. I really can’t live at the retreat anymore.” Currently I was living with my mother in my childhood home, which also doubled as her business—an island getaway for spiritual healing. And while I was really grateful to be home, let’s just say my mother and I were on much better terms when we had more space. The other day she accidentally jammed her baby finger up my nose while breaking into a spontaneous tree pose. “Then after I find my own place, I’ll start exercising, eating healthy—”
“Oh! And I’m going to start taking care of myself. You know, be one of those women who never forgets to shave her legs and uses hand cream and always has those small packages of tissues ready to go. Those women really have it together.”
Freddie frowned at me a moment before finally saying, “That sounds awful. You’re terrible at resolutions.”
“Hey! No I’m not. And it’s not a resolution. It’s a theme.” A pretty awesome theme. “In fact, I think you should do the Year of the Adult with me.” I stamped my feet lightly. My toes were going numb.
“No, thank you. I don’t want to shave my legs, and I’d actually like to have fun this year.” Freddie thrust the dog in his arms toward me. “Here, hold this thing for a second. My tux is all twisted from the ride over.”
I reached out for the pup. “Come here, you.” He was such a wee little furry piglet with the most adorable white and brown patches. “Hey,” I said, looking back up, “you never told me his name.”
Freddie reached under one of the cuffs of his overcoat and tugged at the sleeves of his suit jacket before straightening the white silk scarf that fell over his lapels. “Stanley? Sully? Steve? I don’t remember.”
I blinked at him. “You don’t remember?”
“Why would I remember the name of a dog that’s going to the pound asap?”
Freddie Ng. Best friend. Business partner. One-time online fortune-teller. Also temporary dog owner, which, I guess, made him a likely candidate for the next Disney cartoon villain. In all seriousness, though, Freddie had a painful history with dogs, so I was willing to cut him some slack. In fact, it was that painful history that got him into his current temporary dog ownership predicament. “Okay, but in the meantime, we have to call him something.” I brought my nose closer to the dog’s button one. “I think we should call you Killer. Because you’re so cute.”
“Killer? Really?” Freddie shuddered. “Don’t ever have children.” He brushed some nonexistent dirt from his arm. “Let’s just go with Stanley.”
I peered into the dog’s big round eyes. “Is that your name? Stanley?”
The dog licked my face. Unfortunately it was one of those dog licks that catches you right under your top lip and ends up at your nostrils.
“And that’s how you get flesh-eating disease,” Freddie said, reaching for the door. He suddenly stopped mid-motion and squinted at me. “You’re oddly cheery tonight. What’s going on with you?”
“What do you mean, what’s going on with me? It’s New Year’s Eve! Time for new beginnings. Fresh starts. Of course I’m cheery.”
“You weren’t this cheery a couple of days ago,” Freddie said, raising a suspicious eyebrow. “In fact, I’m pretty sure you said something about New Year’s always being a letdown. That it was a whole bunch of hype for something that lasts ten seconds. I remember because it got me worried about your sex life.”
“What’s more,” Freddie went on, “you were the one who originally suggested we skip this party and spend the night watching Japanese game shows where people get knocked off of inflatable gauntlets into lakes.”
“That was before we got hired to keep an eye on things here. And by the way, I stand by my original idea. Game shows are an awesome way to spend New Year’s.” I blew some warm air into my hands, Stanley still huddled in my arms. “But, you know, this is good too.”
“No. No.” Freddie’s eyebrow was still cocked. “I think you might have even said that you hated New Year’s.”
“I did not. That’s ridiculous.”
“And I suppose you’re not the least bit worried about seeing Grady and Candace ring in the New Year? With their lips?”
I frowned again. “Well, I could have done without the image,” I said, scratching Stanley behind the ear, “but no, I am not.”
Grady Forrester. Sheriff. Most handsome man in the universe. My ex-something. Now half of the cutest couple in Otter Lake. The other half? Candace Carmichael. Blond. Sweet. Dimpled-cheeked Candace Carmichael. Who would have thought that Candace, the woman I had once accused of murder—in fairness, I wasn’t the only one—would now be Grady’s girlfriend? Well, actually a lot of people might have thought that. But I was pretty sure nobody thought that they would still be together. I certainly didn’t.
I could see why Freddie might be concerned. Okay, yes, a week ago I was a little anti-New Year’s. After all, this time last year Grady and I were pretty rock solid. While we hadn’t actually spent New Year’s together because he had to be in Otter Lake for work, we had spent an amazing Christmas with one another as a couple in Chicago. But that was last year. This year I’d spent Christmas eating tofu turkey with my mother. So there was that. But I’d made it through. The worst was over now. It was time to move on.
Freddie threw his hands in the air. “Just like that? You’re over it.”
“Yes. Just like that. Can we please go inside now?” Stanley was giving off a little body heat, but my nose was still starting to run.
Freddie pinched his lips and shook his head. “Yeah, I’m not buying it.”
“Look, you and I both know that you’ve never really talked about how things ended between you and Grady, probably because at first we all thought that this thing with Candace wouldn’t last, and then you were pretty distracted with the move home, but now—”
“There’s nothing to talk about, Freddie,” I said with a shrug. “I’ve accepted that sometimes relationships just don’t work out.”
“Yes, really.” I ignored the super skeptical look he was giving me and instead ran my hand over the bumps of my finger-waved, 1920s-styled tresses. It had been my greatest hair achievement to date, but I was concerned the snowmobile helmet I had worn on the way over had given it a mermaid silhouette—you know, skinny at the top, flared at the bottom. We hadn’t had a choice though. Freddie’s Jimmy was in the shop, and I didn’t have a car.
“Okay,” Freddie said. “Well, I’m willing to go along with your whole delusion du jour, but remember, we’re representing the company tonight. Who knows what rich, security-needing friends of Matthew’s might be here?”
“I won’t forget.”
Matthew Masterson, of course, owned Hemlock Estate, and yes, he did have rich friends. He had done pretty well for himself as an architect in New York before moving back to New Hampshire, but I couldn’t help but think Freddie was overstating the importance of this night as a business opportunity. That being said, I wasn’t going to argue with him. Again, the whole Stanley situation had him a little on edge.
“We need to be professional tonight,” Freddie went on. “It’s already bad enough that I had to bring the dog.”
Speak of the furry devil. “Why did you bring him?”
“Because he’s like eight thousand years old and sleeps all the time, but if I leave him alone for even two minutes”—Freddie jabbed two fingers into the air—“he pees all over the place. Every time.”
I looked down again into the dog’s big, sweet, bulbous eyes. “Don’t you listen to him, Stanley. Freddie can be super mean sometimes. I’d take you home with me, but right now, I’m living with my mother who has the most evil cat in the whole entire world.” I made some big scary eyes. “And he’d eat you right up. Yes, he would.”
“Okay, you’re really freaking me out right now.”
I blinked. “Why?”
“You don’t talk baby talk with animals, and—”
“Yes, I do,” I whispered down at Stanley.
“And I’m really concerned that you are overcompensating with all this sunshine because you’re actually really upset. And we both know that when you get upset, and put too tight a lid on your emotions, things tend to get a little crazy.”
“I have no idea what you are talk—”
Freddie and I turned to see Rhonda hurrying down the path toward us, hand up in greeting. Excellent. I didn’t like where Freddie was headed just then. Okay, so fine, back when we were teenagers, I may have had a bit of a reputation for losing it once or twice when my emotions got the better of me, but that was a long time ago. I was a kid. I was much better at handling my feelings now. I’d only slipped up once or twice in the past couple of years, and those had been in pretty extreme circumstances. Besides, I knew how important the business was to Freddie. It was important to me too. I didn’t want to go back to court reporting full-time. I wasn’t going to mess this night up.
“Hey, look who it is,” Freddie called out. “The captain of the Good Ship Lollipop.”
Rhonda shot him a look as she climbed the steps to join us on the veranda.
“Rhonda! Happy New Year!” I ignored the slightly startled look she gave in response to my greeting and subsequent one-armed, dog-holding hug. I’d never been much of a hugger in the past, but I was working on that too. “You look great!”
She pulled back, giving Stanley a scratch behind the ear. She must have already heard all about him from Freddie. “Do you really think so? It was the only thing the costume shop over in Honey Harbor had left.”
I took in her sailor’s outfit. With her red curly hair she did kind of look like a grown-up Shirley Temple. “Yeah, sorry, I think I got their last flapper dress. But I mean it. You look great. It’s super fun.”
“Thanks,” Rhonda said uncertainly. She exchanged a look with Freddie. “And how are you doing tonight, Erica? You okay?”
She gave me a sympathetic nod like a nurse might give to a terminal patient. “Really? I know this can’t be an easy night for you what with Grady and—”
“Oh my God. What is with you guys?” I asked, eyes darting back and forth between them. “Okay, yes, I will admit Grady and I never really had any closure. One minute we were together then poof!” I exploded my fingers in the air. “We weren’t. But it’s been almost a year now. And you know what? I’m young, I’m single, and I am working security at a fancy New Year’s Eve party. With all that going for me, how sad would it be if I were the type of person who was still all hung up on her ex-boyfriend after nearly a year had passed?”
Rhonda suddenly looked like she might cry. “It would be really, really sad, Erica. Especially if that type of person didn’t feel like she could talk about her feelings with her closest friends.”
“Oh for the love of—” I threw my free hand up in the air as she and Freddie exchanged another look.
“Would you two stop looking at each other! What do you think is going to happen tonight? I’m going to burst into tears when Grady and Candace kiss at midnight? Knock a few glasses out of people’s hands as they pretend to know the words to “Auld Lang Syne”? Maybe flip a table filled with champagne bottles?”
“That was scarily specific,” Freddie said.
Stanley groaned in my arms. Perhaps I was holding him a little tight. “For the last time,” I said, taking a breath. “Thank you, but I’m fine. Really. Just freezing to death.”
“Okay, well … good,” Rhonda said.
“Great,” Freddie added.
“Perfect,” I finished.
“You two should go on ahead,” Rhonda said. “I saw you when I was parking the car. I just wanted to say hi.”
“Where are you going?” I asked.
“I’m, uh, just going to meet my cousin,” Rhonda said, her eyes darting away from mine. “She’s almost here.”
Rhonda’s infamous cousin.
The cousin she was always threatening to set up with every eligible bachelor in town—including Grady when he was eligible. My guess was that she had her matchmaking sights set on Matthew now. Which was totally fine. Because Matthew and I were just friends. I mean, yes, we did have some sort of connection. But with everything that had happened with Grady, the timing never felt right. And while I may have been thinking that we were getting closer to the right time—what with Grady and Candace coming up on a year—I wasn’t ready to make a move yet. And it certainly wasn’t fair to ask Matthew to wait any longer. If that’s even what he was doing. So yeah, it was fine. Totally fine. “I didn’t know she was coming,” I said with a smile. “Aren’t we working?”
“Rhonda’s not,” Freddie said, jumping in. “She was already coming to the party as a guest before we got the call, so it’s just you and me keeping an eye on things. Besides,” he said to me under his breath, “they’re only giving us two free meals at the Dawg, so—” He made a quick “cut it out” gesture with his hand.
That’s right. We were getting paid in gift certificates. But it wasn’t actually a bad deal given that we weren’t expected to do anything tonight but keep an eye on things. Whatever that meant. The whole situation was kind of strange though. Freddie and I had both found it weird that the historical society had made a point of asking us to come last-minute. Otter Lake didn’t exactly have a lot of crime … well, aside from the recent spate of murders. Three to be exact. Over the period of like a year and a half. But that was crazy high. “Hey, did you ever find out what made them ask us to come?”
“Possibly,” Freddie said with a knowing twinkle in his eye. “I tried asking a few more members of the society, but they just kept saying stuff like, It wouldn’t be a party without Otter Lake Security, so I started asking some questions around town and—” He leaned toward us and gave a completely unnecessary side-to-side look. “Rumor has it that someone in town received a threatening letter.” He then leaned back and folded his arms across his chest.
“What?” Rhonda and I both asked at the same time.
“What kind of threatening letter?” I went on. “To who? Why would somebody do that?”
Freddie shook his head. “I couldn’t find out any more details. But I figured we’d ask around tonight.”
Huh, I wasn’t sure exactly how I felt about all this. I mean, until we had more details, there wasn’t any reason to get all freaked out. Otter Lake thrived on gossip—the more outrageous the better. Facts sometimes got lost in the mix. But, even so, I didn’t like the idea of someone sending threatening letters. That was just not cool. Otter Lake wasn’t like that … again, murders aside.
“Well, if anything exciting happens tonight,” Rhonda said. “You’d better tell me. Jessica will understand if I have to work. She’ll be fine on her own. She’s really good at making friends.”
I found myself rolling my eyes again for some unknown reason.
“I should probably go find her,” Rhonda said, looking out to the driveway. “She’s coming on her own. She had a work emergency. A mare went into early labor.”
Oh yeah, that’s right. Rhonda’s cousin was a vet. And Matthew was an architect. That was a cute professional match. They could live in a fabulous house with lots of healthy animals … and nice doghouses. Probably end up on the cover of a magazine.
“Okay, well, we’ll see you inside,” Freddie said.
Rhonda waved and hustled back down the front steps.
“You still good?” Freddie asked.
“Yeah. Totally. Why wouldn’t I be?”
“No reason.” Freddie held open the front door for me. I ignored the explosion sound he made as I passed by.
Copyright © 2017 Auralee Wallace.