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Authors: Lorna Barrett

Murder Is Binding

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A Form in the Fire

“Do you smell something burning?” Angelica asked.

“No.” The truth was, after being sealed in the car with Angie's perfume, Tricia wondered if she'd ever be able to smell anything again.

“Something's definitely burning…or maybe smoldering,” Angelica insisted. Shading her eyes, she turned her head from right to left and sniffed loudly, her nose wrinkling. Tricia watched as her sister moved a few steps toward the Cookery, where a thin veil of smoke drifted from the painted flap in the door.

“Dial nine-one-one,” Tricia ordered, shoving her cell phone into her sister's hands.

She grasped the Cookery's door handle, which yielded to her touch. The smoke was thick, but there was no sign of flames. Tricia took a deep breath and plunged inside. “Doris?” she called, and coughed. “Doris, are you in here?”

Grateful for the security lighting, Tricia searched behind the sales counter. No sign of Doris. But a glance to her right showed that the little Lucite case that less than an hour before had housed Doris's treasured cookbook was no longer perched on top of the shelf. Tricia stumbled over something and fell to her knees. The air was definitely better down here. Righting herself, Tricia pivoted to see what had tripped her. She gasped as she focused on a still form half hidden behind the kitchen island, a knife jutting from its back…

M
URDER
I
S
B
INDING
Lorna Barrett

THE BERKLEY PUBLISHING GROUP
Published by the Penguin Group
Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, USA
Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario M4P 2Y3, Canada (a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.)
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Penguin Books (South Africa) (Pty.) Ltd., 24 Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank, Johannesburg 2196, South Africa

Penguin Books Ltd., Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.

PUBLISHER'S NOTE: The recipes contained in this book are to be followed exactly as written. The publisher is not responsible for your specific health or allergy needs that may require medical supervision. The publisher is not responsible for any adverse reactions to the recipes contained in this book.

MURDER IS BINDING

A Berkley Prime Crime Book / published by arrangement with the author

Copyright © 2008 by The Berkley Publishing Group.

All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author's rights. Purchase only authorized editions.
For information, address: The Berkley Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.,
375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014

ISBN: 1-101-14746-6

BERKLEY® PRIME CRIME
Berkley Prime Crime Books are published by The Berkley Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.,
375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.
The name BERKLEY PRIME CRIME and the BERKLEY PRIME CRIME design are trademarks belonging to Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

For Valerie Bartlett

Thank you for introducing me to
the wonderful world of mystery novels.

A
CKNOWLEDGMENTS

Many generous friends (most of them members of my Sisters in Crime chapter, The Guppies), helped me with this first book in the Booktown Mystery series. Deb Baker, Marilyn Levinson, Nan Higginson, and Doranna Durgin were invaluable first readers during the proposal stage of
Murder Is Binding
, and Nan and Marilyn gave wonderful feedback on the final version of the book. My thanks to Elizabeth Becka for forensic information. Michelle Sampson, Wadleigh Memorial Library Director, Milford, New Hampshire, supplied me with local color, as did Nancy Cooper.

Hank Phillippi Ryan volunteered the services of her husband, Jonathan Shapiro, Esquire, for legal advice (any mistakes in that regard are entirely my own). Go Hank and Jonathan! Local bookseller Rebecca Budinger at the Greece Ridge Barnes & Noble was invaluable for sharing information on booksellers. Sharon Wildwind continues to amaze me with the depth of her knowledge and her willingness to share it.

My local critique partners Gwen Nelson and Liz Eng are tireless cheerleaders. They've been with me through thick and thin. (Don't go away, guys, I need you!) Thanks, too, to my tireless IM buddy, Sheila Connolly (also known as Sarah Atwell) for her marvelous brainstorming and cheerleading ability.

Thanks also go to my editor, Tom Colgan, and his assistant, Sandy Harding, for making the process run so smoothly. And most of all I'd like to thank my wonderful agent, Jacky Sach, without whom this book would never have been written.

ONE

“I tell
you, Trish, we're
all
victims.”

Victims? In the town voted safest in all of New Hampshire? Tricia Miles raised an eyebrow and studied the septuagenarian bookseller before her over the rim of her cardboard coffee cup.
Here it comes
, she thought with dread,
the pitch.

Doris Gleason would never be called subtle. Everything about her screamed excess—from her bulky frame clad in a bright pink polyester dress, her dyed, jet-black pageboy haircut, to the overlarge glasses that perched on her nose. She leaned closer over the oak-and-glass display case, making Tricia glad she'd taken refuge behind the antique register as a way of guaranteeing her personal space. Too often Doris was in her face.

“If we all negotiate together, we can beat that bastard.”

Tricia drained her cup and sighed. “I assume you're referring to Bob Kelly, our mutual benefactor?” President of the local chamber of commerce and owner of Kelly Realty, Bob had recruited Doris, Tricia, and all the other booksellers to relocate to the picturesque village of Stoneham, New Hampshire.

“Benefactor my ass,” Doris grated, pink spots appearing on her cheeks. She removed her glasses, exhaled on one of the lenses, and polished it with the ribbed edge of her dingy white sweater. Half-moon indentations marred the ridge of her cheeks where they'd rested. “That chiseler owns or has a share in every storefront on Main Street. He controls our rents, tries to control our stock
and
the quality of our customers. I nearly lost my voice after our last shouting match. It was all I could do not to throttle him.”

From her perch on a shelf above the register, Miss Marple, the store's resident cat, a regal, gray domestic longhair, glared down at the older woman—disapproving of her temper. Tricia had to agree, yet she understood Doris's anger. Bob Kelly had charged her extra to transform the facade of her shop front even though the changes had incorporated much-needed repairs to the century-old building.

Most of the village revered Bob. Bringing in antiquarian and specialty booksellers—and the tourist dollars they attracted—had saved the little town from financial collapse. His ideas, commitment, and even a bit of sweat equity, had turned a forgotten hamlet on the New Hampshire–Massachusetts border into a tourist mecca for readers in a world dominated by the Internet and other instant-gratification entertainment. The fact that he could also be the most demanding, insufferable bore on the face of the Earth…

Tricia forced a patient smile. “Now, Doris, you know we can't participate in collective bargaining. None of our leases come up at the same time.”

Doris pulled off her glasses, set them on the counter as her lips twisted into a sneer. “I
knew
you wouldn't cooperate. The rumors about you must be true!”

Tricia felt her face start to burn. “What rumors?”

“That you're incredibly rich. That you don't
have
to worry about paying your rent. You don't
have
to worry about stock or overhead.” Doris glanced around the well-appointed store, the richly paneled walls decorated with prints and photos of long-dead mystery authors, the expensive upholstered armchairs and large square coffee table that made up the seating nook and allowed patrons the comforts of home while they perused Tricia's stock of vintage first-edition mysteries and newly minted best sellers.

A fat lot Doris knew. Tricia struggled to quell her ire. “I have the same worries as you and every other bookseller in the village. This store isn't a hobby for me. I resent the implication that I conspired against you and the other booksellers. I didn't know Bob Kelly before I came to this town, and I'm sure my rent is probably triple or quadruple what you're currently paying.”

“That's my point,” Doris insisted. “If you hadn't agreed to pay such an exorbitant price, the rest of us wouldn't be in this mess.”

It was true Tricia hadn't done much haggling before she signed on as the village's newest bookseller, but then she'd been used to the idea of Manhattan rents and the contrast made the deal she'd been offered seem like a steal.

“I'm sorry, Doris,” Tricia said and disposed of her disposable coffee cup in the wastebasket beneath the counter, “but I really don't see how I can be of any help.”

Doris straightened, her contempt palpable. “We'll see.” She turned and plodded for the exit, wrenched open the door. The little bell overhead gave a cheerful tinkle, an absurd end to an unpleasant conversation.

“Don't tell me the old crab was in here carping about her rent again.”

Tricia turned. Ginny Wilson, a lithe, twentysomething redhead and Tricia's only employee, staggered under the weight of a carton of books and dumped it on the counter. “Word is that Daww-ris”—she said the name with such disdain—“has been all over town, badgering the merchants to hop on her ‘let's save the Cookery' bandwagon. She claims she's going to have to go out of business if she can't negotiate a better lease.” She waved a hand in dismissal. “I say good riddance.”

A glance around the area proved at least one of the shop's regular patrons, Mr. Everett, a silver-haired elderly gent who showed up at opening and often had to be chased out at night, had been eavesdropping on the conversations. Tricia placed a finger to her lips and frowned.

“You never had to work for her,” Ginny hissed and removed a sheathed box cutter from the pocket of her hunter green apron, opened it, and slit the tape on the carton. Haven't Got a Clue, the bookshop's name, was embroidered in yellow across the apron's top. Pinned to the neck strap was Ginny's name tag.

Tricia, too, wore a tag, but not an apron. She wanted some distinction made between the owner and the help—not that she didn't do her share of the hefting and carrying around the store, though she tried to do it after business hours. Slacks and sweater sets were her current dress code, and today she'd chosen a raspberry combination, which seemed to accent her blue eyes and complement her light brown hair.

“Oh, before I forget,” Ginny said, dipping into her apron pocket once again. “I found this in a copy of Patricia Cornwell's newest release.”

Tricia took the small folded piece of paper and sighed: another religious tract. Often visitors would hide them in books, hoping to spread the good word, but as she scanned the text Tricia's eyes went wide. “Nudists?”

Ginny grinned. “Is that weird or what?”

Tricia crumpled the leaflet and tossed it, too, into the wastebasket. “We'd better be on the lookout. If we find one, there's usually ten more hidden amongst the stock.”

The circa 1935 black telephone by the register rang. Tricia picked up the heavy handset, noticing Doris had left her glasses on the counter. “Haven't Got a Clue—Tricia speaking. How can I help you?”

“Darling Trish. I'm so glad it was you who answered. I despise speaking to that little helper of yours. She never wants to put me through to you.”

The apprehension Tricia had felt when talking with Doris blossomed into full-fledged dread as she recognized her sister's voice. “Angelica?”

“Of course it's me, and I've been trying to get ahold of you for a week. Doesn't that girl ever give you messages?”

“It must have slipped her mind.” Which was a lie. Tricia had given Ginny orders to screen calls and to never put Angelica through. It wasn't that the sisters couldn't get along; it was just that Tricia chose not to. Growing up in Angelica's shadow had been painful enough; putting up with her in adulthood was simply out of the question.

“You should give me your cell number,” Angelica badgered.

No way! “We're really very busy today, Ange; can I call you back later?” Another lie. The store was practically empty at only ten fifteen on a Tuesday morning.

“Oh no, you're not cutting me off again. I only called to tell you that I've booked a room in the sweetest little bed-and-breakfast in Stoneham, the Brookview Inn. I hear it's very quaint.”

Hardly. The Brookview was Stoneham's finest show palace, boasting a French chef, spa facilities, and catering to a very exclusive clientele. Angelica had the money, of course, but the rest of her personal résumé was definitely lacking. Okay, maybe that was untrue, otherwise how would she have attracted so many husbands? Still, being near her sister seemed to bring out the worst in Tricia.

“What do you want to come here for? It's deadly dull. The shopping isn't up to your usual standards. There's nothing to do here but
read.
You'll only be bored.”

“I'm coming to see you, dear—and your
little
shop.”

Tricia ground her teeth at the descriptor.

“I had Drew pull up your website on the computer,” Angelica continued. “You know how challenged I am when it comes to anything electrical. The pictures are just darling, and you look so stunningly slim and successful, as we all knew you would be.”

Tricia cringed at the second dig. On the other side of the counter, Ginny suppressed a giggle. Tricia's gaze swiveled and she pointed to a puzzled-looking patron standing by one of the shelves. Ginny gave a resigned shrug and left the counter. Tricia balanced the heavy receiver on her shoulder and took over emptying the box Ginny had started. “This really isn't a good time, Ange. We're already gearing up for the Christmas rush.”

“It's only September,” Angelica growled. “One would almost think you're trying to discourage me from coming.”

“Don't be silly. I love it whenever you visit.” And love it more when you leave. “When are you arriving?”

“This afternoon—I'm already en route.” In the back of a limo, no doubt—zooming up I-95 even as they spoke. “I can't wait to see you. I should be arriving before dinner. I'll give you a ring. Now how about that cell number?”

“I'm sorry, I'll be right with you,” Tricia said to a nonexistent customer. “Excuse me, Ange—I really have to go.”

“Oh, all right then. Kiss, kiss—see you tonight.”

Tricia slammed the phone down and turned, startling the handsome, middle-aged man with a full head of sandy hair and dressed in the dark business suit who stood before her. “I'm so sorry, I didn't see you there. How can I help you?”

The man thrust his hand forward. “Mike Harris. I want to be your next selectman and I hope you'll consider voting for me.”

“Tricia Miles.” She shook hands, immediately noting the absence of a ring on the fourth finger of Mike's other hand. “The general election isn't for another two months.”

“It's never too soon to meet my future constituents.” Mike's white-toothed smile dazzled, making Tricia feel giddy. She giggled. It had been a long time since a man had inspired that reaction in her. Far too long.

Mike relinquished her hand and passed her a glossy color folder with his left, his expression growing serious. “I understand leases are an issue with the booksellers. I'd like to better understand the problem in case I can be of some assistance. I'm no attorney, but as an independent insurance agent I've read my share of pretty complicated contracts.”

Tricia studied his face, noted the fine lines around his eyes, the slight graying of his fair hair around the temples. He was maybe five years older than herself—putting him in his mid-forties, but without the girth so often associated with his age group. She'd escaped middle-age spread herself, thanks to inheriting genes from the paternal side of the family—about the only perk of growing up a Miles. Angelica hadn't fared so well and had never forgiven her for it.

She shook away thoughts of her sister, focusing again on the man before her. How had she gone six months in this town without meeting this feast for the eyes?

“I'm afraid the leases aren't an issue with me. You might want to visit my neighbor to the north over at the Cookery. She can give you all the facts as she perceives them.”

Mike frowned. “I've already spoken with Ms. Gleason. She has…an interesting perspective on the subject.”

“Yes.” Tricia left it at that.

“I take it you're new to our little village?” Mike asked.

“I've been here almost half a year. But I can't say I've seen you in my store before.”

“I'm not much of a fiction reader,” he admitted. “But I've spent a bundle over at History Repeats Itself. I'm fascinated by anything to do with World War Two, military aircraft being my special interest. As a kid I wanted to be a fighter pilot. That is until I figured out I have a fear of heights.”

Tricia laughed. “I can recommend some wonderful novels that take place during the war. Books by J. Robert Janes, Philip Kerr, and Greg Iles. And I'll bet I've got most of them in stock.” She indicated the tall oak shelves surrounding the walls and their lower counterparts that filled the center of the long, narrow store.

Mike dazzled her with his smile again. “Some other time, perhaps. I'm taking a day off work to introduce myself to all the merchants on Main Street. Very nice meeting you, Tricia. I'm sure I'll be back.” He offered his hand again, this time holding on longer.

“I'll look forward to it.” Tricia held on, too. Their gazes locked and she dazzled him with a smile of her own.

 

Tuesday night:
the slowest night of the week. Like most of the other merchants on Main Street, Tricia closed an hour early. That meant that she might actually get a chance to eat a decent dinner or truck on over to nearby Wilton to see a movie if she felt so inclined—which she usually didn't. More often than not she'd retire to her third-floor loft apartment, select a variety of CDs for the player, heat a frozen pizza, settle in her most comfy chair, and
read.
Since her divorce a year earlier, she hadn't often felt a need for male company. Then again, when she thought of Mike Harris's smile…

BOOK: Murder Is Binding
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