Read Berried Secrets Online

Authors: Peg Cochran

Tags: #Mystery

Berried Secrets (12 page)

BOOK: Berried Secrets
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“Sure.” Monica started to get up from her chair.

“Don't mind me,” Gina said. “I think a trip to the ladies' room to freshen up is in order. I'm sure I've bitten off most of my lipstick by now.”

Lauren watched her go then slid into Gina's vacant seat.

“It's about Jeff.”

Monica could see the tears forming in Lauren's eyes. They hung on the edge of her lower lids, threatening to spill at any moment, like water over a dam.

Monica made a noncommittal noise. She cringed at the thought of getting involved in other people's business, especially when it involved romance. Her girlfriends used to talk for hours about the men they were dating—how often they called, what they said when they did call, what did it mean if they asked you out on Friday night but not Saturday. Monica had had no patience for any of it. She had been more than
happy to retreat from the dating scene when she became engaged to Ted.

Lauren glanced around the room and then leaned closer to Monica. Her blond hair fell across her face, partially obscuring her expression.

“Do you have any idea what's up with Jeff?” Her lower lip began to quiver, and she bit it. “Is he seeing someone else?”

Monica saw Lauren's hands clench and her knuckles turn white.

“I'm so sorry,” Monica said, feeling as if she needed to apologize for Jeff. She was silent for a moment debating how much to tell Lauren. She felt Lauren deserved the truth, but was it her place to reveal it?

Monica stared at her hands for a moment and then made up her mind. “No, there isn't anyone else.” She looked up to see Lauren's face brighten. “The problem is with Jeff.” Monica licked her lips to wet them. “He . . . he doesn't feel worthy of you. Because of his arm and the fact that the farm is skating on such thin financial ice.”

Lauren's face brightened even more—like the sun coming out from behind a cloud. “Why would he . . . I don't care . . . that's ridiculous,” she sputtered. “I mean I don't care about his arm. It doesn't make any difference to me and never has. And as for the farm . . .” She shrugged her shoulders. “If things don't work out, Jeff can always sell and move on to something else.”

Monica had a sudden pang at the thought of Jeff selling the farm. It meant so much to him. And it was beginning to mean a lot to her, too.

“Will you talk to him?” Lauren stared into Monica's eyes. “Please?”

“I think it's a little more . . . complicated than that.” How much should she say to Lauren? “I think,” and again she hesitated, “I think that what Jeff really needs is some counseling. To come to grips with his injury and all the terrible things he must have seen when he was in Afghanistan. There's no shame in it—many returning veterans are doing the same.” She looked up. Lauren was watching her intently. “As for the farm . . . I think it is going to be a success. Jeff needs to gain a little confidence that he can do it.”

“What do you think I should do?” While they were talking, Lauren had shredded Gina's discarded napkin. She brushed the pieces together into a pile.

“Wait. I know that isn't the easiest thing to do and probably not what you want to hear. But I plan to talk to Jeff about seeing a therapist as soon as the time is right.”

“So you don't think I should call him and—”

“No.” Monica shook her head. “I think the best thing is to give him some space and, as hard as it is, some time.”

Lauren looked both relieved and disappointed. “At least I know there isn't another girl.” She attempted a smile. “I guess I'll just wait, like you said.” She got up from her seat and turned to look at Monica. “Thanks. Thanks for telling me the truth.” This time she gave a real smile. “Jeff is worth waiting for.”

Chapter 12

Monica was taking a batch of cranberry bread out of the oven when there was a knock on her back door. She pulled it open and was shocked to find Gina standing there. She looked at her kitchen clock, thinking for a moment that she had lost track of time and somehow it was already past noon.

“Surprise,” Gina said as she followed Monica into the kitchen. “I know I'm not usually up this early, but if I'm going to be running a store, I'd better get used to it, so I thought I'd start practicing now. Besides, those darn birds make such a racket in the morning. And I thought the country was going to be quiet.” She put a hand to her mouth to stifle a yawn. “I don't suppose you have any coffee?”

“Certainly.” Monica opened a cupboard, grabbed a mug and filled it from the pot sitting on the warmer.

She was surprised to observe that Gina wasn't in her
trademark short skirt but rather had on black leggings, a long, knit sweater and a pair of low-heeled booties.

“I'm meeting the architect and the contractor at my shop this morning to go over our plans,” she said, as if she'd noticed Monica's astonished glance. Suddenly she buried her face in her hands. “I just wish this whole thing with Jeff would be settled. It's keeping me up at night.”

Monica poured herself a cup of coffee and joined Gina at the table. She took a closer look at her stepmother. Gina looked older than she had a couple of days ago—drawn and pale with dark circles under her eyes—the kind of tired that no amount of Botox could erase.

Monica cupped her hands around her mug to warm them. The old kitchen was drafty and chilly, even with the oven going. “Jeff can't be the only suspect. Mauricio doesn't have an alibi, as we've discovered. If Charlie was at the hospital with her mother, Mauricio could have easily left the Inn and no one would have been the wiser.”

Gina's face brightened slightly.

“Sam Culbert wasn't very well liked,” Monica continued. “The VanVelsen sisters—”

Gina looked blank.

“They're the identical twins who were at the spaghetti supper last night.”

“Of course. I'm afraid I'm never going to keep all these names straight.”

“According to them, Culbert put the local beauty salon out of business when he raised their rent. The former owner, Cora, is now working at the Cranberry Cove Diner.”

“That sure would make me angry.” Gina drummed her fingers on the table.

“Also, according to the VanVelsens, Culbert's wife probably isn't too sorry to see him gone. Sounds like he was something of a bully and an abuser.” Monica took a sip of her coffee.

“Those sisters really have their ear to the ground, don't they?” Gina pointed a finger at Monica. “If they're right about the wife then I'm betting she did it. A woman can only stand so much before she snaps.” Her face brightened considerably.

Monica smiled. “We don't exactly have any proof. I thought I would go by the diner later and talk to this Cora.”

“Good plan. Are you going to check to see if she has an alibi?”

“I can hardly come right out and ask her. But maybe I can get a feel for what she's like and how much she really hated Sam Culbert.”

Monica finished her coffee and got up to put her mug in the sink.

“I wish I could go with you, but I've got my meeting.” Gina looked at her watch. “In . . . five minutes ago.” She stood up and took her empty cup to the counter. “Let me know what you find out.”

Monica closed the door behind Gina and began to pack her baskets full of the goodies she'd baked that morning. She certainly hoped she'd learn something from Cora because even though she didn't want to admit it, she was as worried about Jeff as Gina was.

Monica crested the hill into town and paused for a moment. Dark clouds were moving in from the west, hovering over the lake menacingly, and an increasingly strong wind was whipping the water into white-capped waves. She wasn't surprised—she had felt the sharp edge in the air when
she went out to her car. She shivered thinking of Jeff and his crew standing thigh deep in cold water.

There were a few drops of rain on her windshield as she turned onto Beach Hollow Road. One of the VanVelsen sisters—Monica couldn't tell them apart without their name tags—was out in front of Gumdrops sweeping up the dried autumn leaves that had collected in the corners of the shop's doorway.

A red pickup truck backed out of a space in front of the Cranberry Cove Diner, and Monica quickly pulled in. The smell of bacon frying hit her as soon as she opened the car door. She felt her stomach grumble. Breakfast had been at six thirty a.m., and it was now almost noon. Maybe today she would have a chance to treat herself to a bowl of the diner's famous chili.

The cook, Gus, was behind the grill flipping burgers and frying eggs with casual ease while keeping his eye on a pile of hash browns and some French fries spitting and sizzling in the fryer behind him. He had wavy dark hair, strong forearms and a broad chest and shoulders. He gave Monica a barely perceptible nod. Monica was pleased to note that since she was now living in Cranberry Cove full time, she warranted some personal acknowledgment of her presence from Gus. But the VanVelsen sisters had warned her that it would be years, if ever, before she got the smile that Gus reserved for locals. According to them, he had a complicated hierarchy of greetings ranging from none at all for the summer tourists right up to coming out from behind the counter to shake someone's hand and slap them on the back. Apparently, there were only one or two people in all of Cranberry Cove who merited that level of enthusiasm. The irony that Gus himself was a transplant was no doubt lost on him.

A counter with stools ran in front of the grill. Two men sat at one end nursing cups of coffee with newspapers spread open in front of them. The red leather booths on the other side of the room were already filled with customers eating lunch. A waitress with short, gray-streaked hair was leaning on the counter waiting for her order.
She had a pencil behind one ear and a weary expression on her face. Gus slid a dish in her direction, and when she didn't immediately pick it up, he stabbed a stubby finger toward it and scowled at her.

All heads had turned in Monica's direction when she walked in. She was still a stranger as far as the people of Cranberry Cove were concerned, especially those whose families had been living there for generations. Suddenly Monica heard someone call her name. She glanced toward the booths to see Greg Harper sitting in one of them. He had a plate of bacon and eggs in front of him and the newspaper propped open on the table. He motioned to Monica.

“Good afternoon,” he said, then glanced quickly at his watch. “Well, it will be shortly. The noon whistle will be going off in five minutes.” He pointed to the seat opposite him. “Please join me,” he said as Monica hesitated.

Monica slid into the other seat as Greg folded up his newspaper and tucked it beside him.

“I was sorry to miss you at the spaghetti supper the other night.”

Greg made a face. “What a nightmare! I was getting ready to leave the store when one of my bookshelves collapsed. Guess I shouldn't try to stuff so much on them. The manufacturer claimed they were heavy duty, but obviously they're not.” He gave a rueful smile. “It took me until almost midnight to repair the shelves and reorganize the books.”

Monica thought back to her visit to Book 'Em.
wasn't a word she would use in conjunction with the haphazard array of stock in the store.

“But enough about my sad tales of woe. How did you like the Agatha Christie? Have you finished it yet?”

Monica laughed. “One of the benefits of country living is that the lack of nightlife leaves plenty of time for reading.”

“Do you miss Chicago?” Greg put a hand toward his fork and then paused.

“Please don't stop eating on my account.” Monica leaned back as a waitress, not the one Monica had noticed earlier, slid a glass of water and a napkin-wrapped bundle of silverware in front of her.

“To answer your question,” she said when the waitress left after dropping a menu on the table, “sometimes. I enjoyed city life—the museums, concerts, art galleries and things like that—but the country does have its compensations.”

“I hear you,” Greg said, forking up the last bite of his eggs. “I moved here from Minneapolis myself, and while it's not as large as Chicago, it's still a long way from Cranberry Cove.”

“What brought you here?” Monica took a sip of the ice water the waitress had left. “If you don't mind my asking,” she added hurriedly.

Greg grimaced. “I was a victim of the dot-com bust. A friend and I had the mistaken notion that we could take on Amazon. We started an online bookstore, but neither of us had any experience in fulfillment.”

“What's that?”

“In a nutshell, getting the product to the buyer in a somewhat timely fashion. I'm afraid we failed spectacularly.”

“But why Cranberry Cove? There must have been a lot more opportunities in Minneapolis.”

Greg ducked his head briefly. “Frankly, I was embarrassed, so I crept away with my tail between my legs. I couldn't keep up with the friends I'd made in the city—successful lawyers, bankers and other professionals. I came here to lick my wounds. The bookstore was for sale, and I used what little money I had left to buy it. And you know what?”

Monica shook her head.

“I like dealing with real books a lot more than virtual ones. It's a lot more satisfying to interact one-on-one with a customer. Plus I get to talk about my favorite subject all day long—authors and their books.” He pushed his plate away and leaned his elbows on the table. “Speaking of which, you didn't say. How did you like the Christie?”

“I liked it very much. I've been meaning to stop by to pick up something new.”

“Looks like we have our own mystery right here in Cranberry Cove. Has there been any more news about Sam Culbert's murder? There wasn't much of anything in the paper.”

“Nothing new that I know of, I'm afraid.”

Greg glanced at his watch again. “Sorry. I'd better shove off. I've got this young girl working for me part time, and she expects to go to lunch on the dot of noon, even if the store is full of people and there's a line at the register. Good help is hard to find.”

Monica thought of Darlene. “That's for sure.”

“Let's get together one of these days. I'll give you a call.” Greg tapped her on the shoulder as he walked past and headed to the cash register.

Greg was paying his bill when the gray-haired waitress
stopped by Monica's table to take her order. Monica glanced at the name tag pinned to her uniform.
was written on it in fading letters.

Monica ordered a bowl of chili and an iced tea then opened her mouth to say something to Cora, but she had already turned around and was scurrying to the counter to place the order.

Monica looked out the window while she waited. She saw Bart Dykma hurry past, looking more like himself in his butcher's apron than he had in his somber black suit at Culbert's funeral. From this angle she could see the empty storefront next to the hardware store Gina was renting for her aromatherapy shop. She was going to have to depend on business from the tourists because Monica couldn't see the locals going for it. They were down-to-earth folk with old-fashioned values. Many of the shops, like Danielle's Boutique and Twilight, were open only on weekends during the winter, their only business being the tourists who came to see the Christmas decorations.

Monica didn't have long to wait for her order. Cora was back almost immediately with a steaming bowl of chili and a frosted glass of iced tea. She placed them in front of Monica. Monica spoke quickly, before Cora could turn around.

“I want to ask you about Sam Culbert.”

Cora looked startled and glanced over her shoulder at Gus, who was plating a hamburger and fries.

“What about him?” Cora's mouth set in a bitter line. “He was a miserable wretch, pure and simple. What else can I tell you?”

Cora looked over her shoulder again. Gus had the plate ready and was looking for Cora.

“Listen, I've got to go. Gus doesn't like it if we spend too much time talking to the customers, especially not when we're busy.”

Monica looked around. The booths were full and all but one of the stools at the counter was occupied.

“I'd like to talk to you. Can we meet after you're finished working?”

Cora sighed and pulled her order pad from the pocket of her apron. She wrote briefly, tore the sheet off and handed it to Monica. “Here's my address. I get off at five. Come by any time after. I don't have plans for the evening. By the time I get home from here, I'm too tired to go anywhere.”

Gus cleared his throat and Cora scurried off. Monica put the paper in her purse and started in on her chili.

BOOK: Berried Secrets
2.98Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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