Business is booming at the Scottish Emporium in Moosetookalook, Maine, and Liss MacCrimmon Ruskin couldn't be happier--or busier. A romantic getaway at a rustic Christmas tree farm is just what she needs. But the property's mysterious past has her feeling less than merry. . .
Liss is surprised when an old friend from high school asks her to spend a week at the Christmas tree farm she recently inherited from a great-uncle. Realizing it would be the perfect chance for her and her husband Dan to get away from work, Liss happily accepts the offer and packs her bags for the tiny town of New Boston.
Upon their arrival, Liss and Dan are greeted by a ramshackle farmhouse and unfriendly townsfolk. It's hardly the idyllic vacation locale they'd hoped for, especially when needling neighbors start raising questions about the farm's dark history. Who was the man whose body was found neatly netted in a shipment of Scotch pine? Why did the owner vanish into thin air? And why are the trees growing so close together, forming a maze more twisted than a Celtic knot?
The rumors pile up faster than snowdrifts in a blizzard, and as Liss starts un-wrapping the truth, she discovers something even more scandalous than murder hiding beneath the town's humdrum façade. When a series of "accidents" strikes the farm, she'll have to spring into action faster than a Highland Fling to find the killer who's been lurking among the pines--before she ends up in a pine box herself. . .
Praise for Kaitlyn Dunnett and her Liss MacCrimmon Mysteries!
Vampires, Bones, And Treacle Scones
"Spooky. . .Cozy fans are in for a Halloween treat." --Publishers Weekly
Bagpipes, Brides, And Homicides
"Fans of Scottish lore or bookstore mysteries like Lorna Barrett's and Carolyn Hart's will enjoy this one." --Booklist
"A satisfying entry in the series." --Booklist
"This well-plotted novel provides pure entertainment." --RT Book Reviews
A Wee Christmas Homicide
"The blend of romance and cozy mystery will please lovers of all things Scottish." --Kirkus Reviews
Scone Cold Dead
"Enjoyable. . .vivid descriptions of Maine during mud season and a quirky cast of characters lift this cozy." --Publishers Weekly
"If you have an affinity for all things Scottish, this is the book for you." --Deadly Pleasures
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
By KAITLYN DUNNETT
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2014 Kathy Lynn Emerson
All rights reserved.
Liss MacCrimmon Ruskin emerged from the back room of Moosetookalook Scottish Emporium, where she'd been packing orders for shipment. A professional smile lit her face, and the words "Good morning. How may I help you?" were on the tip of her tongue. They never made it out of her mouth.
The last person Liss expected to see at ten o'clock on a Wednesday morning in early November was her BFF from high school, Gina Snowe. They'd long since drifted apart. Gina hadn't even come to Liss's wedding. In the nearly five and a half years since, their only regular contact had been an occasional Christmas card.
"The one and only," Gina said.
She was a walking advertisement for the successful, high-profile businesswoman — power suit in a muted shade of red, perfectly manicured fingernails, exquisitely applied makeup, and light but expensive perfume. Liss didn't need to look down at Gina's feet to know she was wearing a designer brand of shoes with heels high enough to cause any ordinary woman to break an ankle. Not only could Gina walk in them, but she also thought they were comfortable!
In jeans and a loose pullover sweater, Liss felt decidedly underdressed.
They engaged in a brief hug. The gesture felt awkward, but it was a better alternative than air kissing. Liss retreated behind the sales counter as soon as Gina released her.
"This is a surprise."
"A good one, I hope. This place looks exactly as I remember it," Gina added as her gaze swept over the shop.
The shelves and tables were filled with Scottish-themed gift items, many of them imported from Scotland. Racks held ready-made kilts and tartan skirts. The walls were hung with colorful plaids and framed prints of heather-covered hills and rugged Highland peaks.
"It even smells the same."
"Lemon-scented furniture polish." Liss shoved a stray strand of dark brown hair behind her ear. "As the saying goes, if it ain't broke, don't fix it."
When Gina gave a toss of her head and laughed, Liss couldn't help but notice that her expertly styled black locks fell effortlessly back into place, not a single strand awry. Betsy Twining at the Clip and Curl, located in the back half of the building that housed the post office, couldn't have achieved such perfection if she'd had a month of Sundays in which to practice.
Liss eased herself onto the high wooden stool behind the sales counter and rested her elbows on its smooth, glossy surface. "What's up, Gina?"
"Up? Why should you think anything is up?"
"Oh, I don't know." Gina's "Little Miss Innocence" act didn't fool Liss for a second. The look in Gina's almond-shaped eyes was calculating rather than naive. "Maybe because you're a hotshot lawyer in Chicago and I run what you'd probably call a mom-and-pop tourist trap in rural Maine? You didn't drop by to buy kilt hose or a thistle pin."
"We were good buddies once. Maybe I want to catch up with an old friend." Gina feigned interest in the small revolving display case on one end of the counter. It held an assortment of thistle jewelry, not only pins but also earrings, necklaces, and charms.
"That was half a lifetime ago," Liss reminded her. And even at seventeen, the two of them had never had a great deal in common. Just one thing, really. They'd each been deeply involved in extracurricular activities that nobody else in their high school understood or appreciated.
Back in the day, Gina had claimed they broadened each other's horizons. While Liss had spent all her spare time at Scottish festivals, entering, and usually winning, dance competitions, Gina had been on the beauty pageant circuit. She'd earned enough scholarship money to put herself through college and law school.
Gina batted the display case, setting it whirling. "Okay. Okay. I have an agenda. So, sue me!"
"I'm listening." With one hand, Liss stopped the spin, but she didn't take her eyes off Gina's face.
"I need a favor." The admission didn't sit well. Gina snapped out her next words, impatient and out of sorts. "Get something to write on. Knowing you, you'll want to take notes."
Liss's clipboard was on the open shelf beneath the sales counter. Without comment, she extracted it and fished a felt-tip pen out of the cracked mug she used to hold pens, pencils, and markers. Holding it poised, she waited, curious to learn what had happened to shake the cool-as-a-cucumber composure of Ms. Gina Snowe.
"I'm here," Gina said, "to offer you and Dan an all-expenses-paid week's vacation in an idyllic location."
At the word vacation, Liss felt her interest quicken. She doodled a palm tree on the yellow, college-ruled page. "Define idyllic."
"Exactly your thing — rural, remote, and quiet."
Liss waved a hand toward the scene beyond the Emporium's display window. "Take a look outside. Moosetookalook already offers me all that and more." The village had a population of just over a thousand and was located in the scenic Western Maine mountains. It was close, but not too close, to several major ski areas.
Gina didn't bother to turn around. Instead she leaned in. "Here's the thing, Liss. I came to Maine to inspect a Christmas tree farm I inherited from a great-uncle. The original plan was to stop by your place for a visit, maybe even try to persuade you and Dan to join me for a few days."
"Uh-huh." Liss took the part about the invitation with a grain of salt. It hadn't escaped her notice that the other woman hadn't once asked after Dan. For all Gina knew, Liss and Dan could have separated months ago. Or be encumbered by small children. Or have one on the way.
Still, the words Christmas tree farm struck a chord. Liss cherished fond memories of the annual pilgrimage to find the perfect Christmas tree. When she was a girl, she and her parents had tromped all over a local farmer's fields. When they finally agreed on one, her father had always let her help cut it down with a handsaw. Beside her first doodle, Liss drew a tiny Christmas tree.
"I no sooner arrived," Gina went on, "intending to stay for two weeks, than I was called back to Chicago. I'm needed there to handle a major criminal case. I don't know when I'm going to be able to return to Maine."
Gina's plight didn't spark Liss's sympathy, not when Gina was highly paid to be at her clients' beck and call. "I'm not sure I understand the problem. Reschedule your stay."
"One issue to do with the property is time-sensitive."
"It's a Christmas tree farm. I need to know if there's any chance to make money off the place this year. If you and Dan will spend a little time there in my stead — just a week — you can evaluate its potential for me."
"We don't know anything about trees." Liss's protest was automatic, but she had to admit that her curiosity was piqued.
"You know how to make a success of a small business."
"Sure. Work ten-hour days, seven days a week. I don't have time to —"
Gina cut her off. "Some of the Christmas trees are Scotch pines. You can bring back as many boughs as you like to decorate the Emporium for the holidays."
"That's your best argument? You're slipping, Counselor. And isn't Scotch pine the variety that stinks to high heaven?"
"You're thinking of white spruce," Gina shot back, "and the branches smell bad only if you crush the needles."
"Been reading up on the subject, have you?" Quietly amused, Liss couldn't resist a bit more "needling."
"Come on, Liss. Be a sport and help out an old pal."
With a sigh, Liss abandoned the clipboard, hopped off her stool, and headed for the stockroom, leaving Gina to follow. "I wasn't kidding about the ten-hour days, Gina. The Emporium, especially the online and mail-order side of the business, keeps me plenty busy, and Dan —"
Gina caught her arm. "I'll make it worth your while. I'll pay you for your time, and I'll pay the salary of someone to keep this place open while you're gone." Liss turned to face her. "Seems to me that if you two are working as hard as you say, you need a vacation."
"Gina, I can't take money for —"
"Call it a birthday present, then."
Liss winced. She'd celebrated her thirty-fourth a few weeks earlier. By her thirty-fifth, she had a pretty big decision to make, one she'd been brooding about lately.
As if she sensed Liss was wavering, Gina abruptly changed tactics. "Think of the romantic possibilities," she argued, drawing Liss back into the main room of the shop. "You and Dan all alone — no interruptions by family or friends. Face it, Liss. You live in a fishbowl here."
When she'd hauled Liss to the front window, Gina came to a stop. A passing neighbor — Stu Burroughs from Stu's Ski Shop, on his way to the post office to pick up his mail — peered in at them and waved.
"Everybody in Moosetookalook knows everybody else's business. Wouldn't it be nice to get away for a bit to a place where nobody knows your name?"
There were some things she and Dan needed to talk about, Liss thought. And there was no question that they could do with a short vacation. From one heartbeat to the next, she came to a decision. "What do you want us to do?"
Liss retrieved her clipboard from the counter and scribbled down details as fast as Gina could rattle them off. As she wrote, her mind worked even more furiously. An hour later, Gina was on her way to the airport and Liss had committed herself ... and Dan ... to spending a week on a Christmas tree farm.
Now all she had to do was convince her overworked husband that he needed a vacation.
* * *
Liss stood in the doorway of what had once been an old carriage house. She told herself she was planning her strategy, but the honest truth was that she was taking advantage of an opportunity to admire the man she'd married.
Dan Ruskin was not movie-star handsome, nor was he athlete muscular. But he had a certain strength, both of character and in his person. That was what had drawn Liss to him even before they fell in love. He was, in the simplest terms, a nice guy.
That was not to say that they always agreed. Or that he was never irritated with her. But he accepted her as she was. He didn't try to change her. And when she was a bit too impulsive and committed them to something without running it by him first, he usually went along with it.
Dan had begun using the carriage house as a woodworking shop as soon as he bought the house behind which it was situated. When his custom woodwork started to sell well, he'd built onto the back, doubling the size of his work space. The long, narrow room contained nearly a dozen large pieces of equipment — saws, sanders, and who knew what all. An elaborate filtration system kept down the amount of sawdust in the air and dissipated the fumes from varnish and other smelly substances. A propane-fueled heater warmed the place in winter.
Dan worked at the far end of the shop, securing Styrofoam corners onto one of his custom-made jigsaw-puzzle tables with stretch wrap and strapping tape. When a lock of sandy brown hair fell over his eyes as he worked, he absentmindedly shoved it out of his way. Liss supposed she'd have to remind him to get a haircut. Dan never bothered with to-do lists of his own.
She must have made some small sound. She had no idea how he could hear it with stereo speakers blaring, but he glanced up, smiled when he saw her, reached over to flick a switch, and cut off Gordon Lightfoot just as the gales of November slashed the doomed freighter Edmund Fitzgerald. Sometimes Dan listened to folk music, sometimes hard rock, and sometimes classical, but he never worked to the sound of skirling bagpipes. That was the one passion he and Liss did not share.
"Sorry to interrupt," Liss said when silence had descended.
"I'm almost finished for the day. All I have left to do is get this box ready for UPS to pick up in the morning."
Liss threaded her way through the shop until she was near enough to see his muscles flex beneath his sweatshirt as he wrestled the heavy wooden table and its equally well-wrapped detached legs into a reinforced cardboard carton for the trip to California or Florida or New Jersey. He'd dispatched jigsaw-puzzle tables to almost every state in the country, and only the prohibitive cost of international shipping had discouraged potential buyers from as far away as England and Australia.
"I had a surprise visitor today," Liss began, plunging into a full confession of what she'd agreed to do.
She'd barely finished before Dan shook his head. "I can't take a week off. I've got six more orders waiting to be filled."
"You always have orders waiting to be filled. You made more than fifty jigsaw-puzzle tables last year."
Dan didn't look up from sealing the carton.
"You know you need a break. That's why you raised your prices six months ago. You were hoping that would result in fewer orders." The plan had backfired. Even more people had preordered custom-made jigsaw-puzzle tables. "Dan, are you listening to me? The world will not come to an end if we go away for a few days of R & R."
"I can't just drop everything. Besides, what if Dad needs me? Or Sam?"
When they'd first been married, Dan had been working three jobs — at Ruskin Construction with his brother Sam; at The Spruces, the hotel his father owned; and as a woodworker, making boxes, clocks, and other small items in his spare time. Within a year of the wedding, he'd opened his retail storefront. Little had he known then that one of his offerings, the jigsaw-puzzle table, would become so popular that it would end up being his only product.
Both the credit and the blame for his success went to Liss. She had been the one who'd designed his Web page. Soon after, people from all over the United States and Canada had started ordering his tables. He'd stumbled upon a niche market lucrative enough to allow him to earn a living supplying it ... so long as he was willing to work straight-out seven days a week, twelve months a year.
Hands on hips, Liss glared at her husband. "You have an overdeveloped sense of responsibility, Dan Ruskin. Right now, I'm the one who needs you."
At last she had his full attention. "You've got me, babe," he said with a grin and a glint in his eyes.
When he reached for her, she danced away, holding one hand in front of her in the traditional "halt" position. "Stop right there, mister. I'm trying to hold a rational discussion here."
"Oh, come on. Use your womanly wiles to seduce me into doing your bidding. Please?" This time he caught her and tugged her close for a kiss.
Dan Ruskin was a seriously good kisser. He was also six-foot-two to her five-foot-nine, broad shouldered to her slender, and she was crazy about him. For a brief interlude, Liss had a hard time remembering why she'd come looking for him.
"Rational," she repeated when they came up for air. The firmest tone of voice she could manage wouldn't have convinced a cat to roll in catnip, but Dan released her, anyway, and went back to his packing.
"Give it your best shot," he invited her.
Liss leaned back against one of Dan's worktables, arms crossed in front of her chest. "You and I have both been working straight-out ever since we got back from our honeymoon. No time off for good behavior. We need a vacation, and the timing is perfect. We're past leaf-peeper season, and it's too early for the pre-Christmas rush. I can close up shop for a week without losing much in the way of walk-in business. If we both set up 'out of office' e-mail responses, any new online customers will know when we'll be back and can plan accordingly. They'll still be able to send in orders."
"It's not a good idea to be unavailable. Customers expect fast service when they spend their hard-earned cash."
"Customers have to wait for the order to be filled, anyway. Seriously, Dan. Give me one good reason why we can't take a week's vacation. It's not like I want to go to Hawaii or Australia or Sri Lanka. Gina's Christmas tree farm is in New Boston. We'll be only a couple of hours away from home. If there's an emergency, we can hop in the car and come straight back."
"What would constitute an emergency?"
She came close to answering with a flip "Serious injury or death." In the nick of time, she realized that she might be tempting fate to joke about such a thing. It had been a long while since she'd last encountered sudden death — a little over five years, on a Halloween she'd never forget — but for several years before that she'd had an alarming tendency to stumble into murder investigations. She sincerely hoped she wouldn't have to deal withany sort of crime ever again.
Excerpted from Ho-Ho-Homicide by KAITLYN DUNNETT. Copyright © 2014 Kathy Lynn Emerson. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I enjoy this author and all of her series. This one is a great read.
I enjoyed this cozy mystery. I found the characters very real and the plot intriguing.
Was a real story in this. Just booged down toward the end.
Not great, but okay.
Very boring for a murder mystery. Couldn't finish it. Waste of my money. My opinion!