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End of the line, p.1
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       End of the Line, p.1

           Emily James
 
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End of the Line


  End of the Line

  Maple Syrup Mysteries

  Emily James

  Stronghold Books

  Copyright © 2018 by Emily James

  All rights reserved.

  No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author. It’s okay to quote a small section for a review or in a school paper. To put this in plain language, this means you can’t copy my work and profit from it as if it were your own. When you copy someone’s work, it’s stealing. No one likes a thief, so don’t do it. Pirates are not nearly as cool in real life as they are in fiction.

  For permission requests, write to the author at the address below.

  Emily James

  [email protected]

  www.authoremilyjames.com

  This is a work of fiction. I made it up. You are not in my book. I probably don’t even know you. If you’re confused about the difference between real life and fiction, you might want to call a counselor rather than a lawyer because names, characters, places, and incidents in this book are a product of my twisted imagination. Real locales and public names are sometimes used for atmospheric purposes. Any resemblance to actual people, living or dead, or to businesses, companies, events, and institutions is completely coincidental.

  Editor: Christopher Saylor at www.saylorediting.wordpress.com/services/

  Cover Design: Deranged Doctor Design at www.derangeddoctordesign.com

  Published March 2018 by Stronghold Books

  Ebook ISBN: 978-1-988480-18-3

  Print ISBN: 978-1-988480-19-0

  Created with Vellum

  Contents

  Free Book Offer

  Also by Emily James

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Chapter 20

  Chapter 21

  Chapter 22

  Chapter 23

  Chapter 24

  Chapter 25

  Bonus Recipe: Nicole’s Wedding Cupcakes

  Letter from the Author

  About the Author

  Free Book Offer

  Sign up for the author's mailing list and get a free copy of Sapped, the prequel to A Sticky Inheritance.

  Click here to get started or visit www.authoremilyjames.com

  Also by Emily James

  Maple Syrup Mysteries

  Sapped: A Maple Syrup Mysteries Prequel

  A Sticky Inheritance

  Bushwhacked

  Almost Sleighed

  Murder on Tap

  Deadly Arms

  Capital Obsession

  Tapped Out

  Bucket List

  End of the Line

  Cupcake Truck Mysteries

  Sugar and Vice (coming June 2018)

  For Susan. When you reach a point that you’ve been friends for more than half your lives, you become more like family. Thank you for always having my back no matter what life throws at us.

  With lies you may get ahead in the world — but you can never go back.

  Russian Proverb

  1

  I was starting to think I should have driven back to Washington, DC, to buy my wedding dress. Even though I’d never been a bride before, I suspected that my dress should fit better than it did by the fourth fitting—especially since my wedding was less than a month away.

  “Don’t worry.” Mark’s mom tugged at the side of my bodice. The large gap in the front that would have allowed me room to hide tissues—or a small cat—vanished. “We’ll get them to fix this. There’s still time.”

  She’d said the same thing when they’d hemmed my skirt two inches too long, assuming I was going to wear stilettos to my wedding, and when they sewed straps into my strapless gown. I was starting to lose faith, especially considering this wasn’t the first time we’d pointed out that the bust of my dress was gaping in the front.

  But Ever After was the only bridal shop in Fair Haven. A grandmother-granddaughter team owned and ran it. The granddaughter had been the one to help me select my dress, instilling confidence in me with how she helped me find a dress to fit my style.

  Then her grandmother the seamstress took over. From that point on, what I wanted hadn’t seemed to matter.

  Mark’s mom released my dress. “Wait here. I’ll go talk to them.”

  She marched off toward the counter, where the grandmother owner rang up a purchase for another customer. Mark’s mom had no daughters of her own. Since my own mom was over six hundred miles away, Mark’s mom had launched herself into this wedding as if she were the mother of the bride rather than the mother of the groom. I couldn’t have organized this wedding without her.

  The faint tones of my cell phone ringing carried from where my purse nestled on a chair.

  Mark’s mom was still waiting to speak to the store owner. I grabbed the sides of my bodice to keep my dress from slipping off and picked my way carefully down from the display stand they’d had me climb onto. I had a suspicion that bridal stores used them to make brides look taller and therefore skinnier in their dresses so they’d like them better.

  I snagged my phone from my purse without even stopping to look at the display.

  “This is…” I started to say Nikki, but now that I was officially a partner in Anderson Taylor’s law firm, I should get back into the habit of answering my phone more professionally. “Nicole Fitzhenry-Dawes.”

  “Don’t let on that anything’s wrong,” Mark said. “I don’t want to scare my mom.”

  A zing of pride hit me that he felt I could handle whatever was coming, then my blood felt like it pounded through my body hard enough to burst my skin. The Cavanaugh family tended to view keeping secrets as akin to treason. He wouldn’t ask me to keep his call from his mom unless the consequences of her finding out would be worse than the fallout from not telling her. No, not fallout. He expected her to be afraid.

  “What’s going on?” I called on all my training as a lawyer to keep my tone steady and light as my words even though it was the opposite of what I felt. “We’re still at the bridal shop.”

  “I need you to make up an excuse to leave right away and come to my place.”

  Voices approached from behind me—Mark’s mom returning with the shop owner. I couldn’t even press him for more details.

  But I trusted that he wouldn’t do something like this unless it was important. Had we been another engaged couple, I might have thought it was a ruse to surprise me with something good, but Mark knew I didn’t like surprises. The nervous lead-up to them was rarely worth the payoff.

  “I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

  I disconnected the call, dropped my phone into my purse, and turned around, trying to act as if I’d only been checking my text messages.

  “Who was that?” Mark’s mom asked. She had the owner with her.

  “Scammers,” I blurted, then struggled to lower my heart rate and hoped my vocal pitch would follow. “Trying to tell me there was a problem with my Windows PC.” I rolled my eyes. “I own a Mac.”

  Great. Lying to my future mother-in-law. It was a good thing I didn’t believe in karma because that would have definitely earned me a black mark in return. But Mark had been insistent, and even
I couldn’t come up with a near-truth that fast.

  “I got a call from Latvia the other day.” Mark’s mom made a brushing motion as if she could shoo away the callers. Her slightly amused expression vanished, and she pointed a finger at my chest, then made a go-ahead motion toward the seamstress like she would forcefully move her toward me if the woman didn’t move on her own. “You can see for yourself. There’s still too big a gap. It looks like she’s wearing a dress that’s two sizes too large.”

  The shop owner was even shorter than I was, with frizzy hair that she styled into almost a bulb around her head. I’d put her age at somewhere around sixty.

  She pursed her lips and shook her head. “The problem is not with the dress.” Her accent sounded German or Austrian. “She’s wearing it wrong.”

  She wriggled my chest and the dress around until half of my bosoms bulged out the top. All the ideas I’d been working on for escaping from here and getting to Mark slipped out of my head as if she’d pushed them out along with my bust. I could not walk into my church on my wedding day with that much cleavage showing. Forget church. My bathing suit covered more skin than this.

  I laid a hand across my exposed cleavage.

  Mark’s mom looked a bit like she was choking on her tongue. “She’s practically falling out of her dress like that.”

  “It’s sexy,” the shop owner said. “That’s what she’s paying the big bucks for.”

  “That’s not what she’s paying for,” Mark’s mom said at the same time as I said, “That’s not what I’m paying for.”

  I tugged my dress back up into the place where I, at least, thought it belonged. I didn’t have time right now to argue with a woman who wanted me to look like an exotic dancer in a fancy gown on my wedding day. Mark had said I needed to hurry.

  Time to channel my mom. I knew what she would say. “What I’m paying for is for you to alter this dress the way I want it to be. Until that’s done, I don’t need to be here.”

  I hiked up my skirt and headed for the dressing room. The shop owner hustled after me. One thing no one told you about being a bride was that strangers who ran dress shops would manhandle your bosoms and expect to help you dress and undress. Being a bride really should come with a warning label.

  “Wait,” the woman said from behind me. “I need to fit the dress.”

  She’d already measured twice. “My measurements haven’t changed since the last time.”

  “Brides always lose weight before their wedding from all the stress.”

  I held back a snort. Escaping from a sinking car as the water closed in over us—that was stressful. Having a gun held on me—that was stressful. Being trapped in a burning building—that was stressful.

  Organizing a wedding to the best man I’d ever known was the least stressful thing I’d done in a year. In fact, not knowing what was wrong with Mark right now was more stressful than planning this wedding had been.

  Mark’s mom grabbed my hand. “Nikki, sweetie, it won’t take long. What she really needs to do is pin your top, not take your measurements again.”

  Her tone was soft and overly patient, like she thought I was about to turn into a bridezilla.

  That was fine. Mark had told me not to tell his mom. I’d let her think I was freaking out about the dress. The problem was, I couldn’t think of a good reason not to go back and let her pin my top. If I was upset about my dress, it made sense to allow her to do what she needed to in order to fix it.

  If I’d thought about it sooner, I could have made up some story about a client needing to speak to me. I couldn’t throw that out now retroactively. She’d know I was making it up.

  But Mark also told me I needed to leave right away. Which one would he want me to follow if I could only do one—leave quickly or hide the truth from his mom? He’d led with asking me not to tell his mom, so I’d have to assume that was the more important of the two if I couldn’t do both.

  I’d try one more thing to get me out of here quickly. “I’ll come back tomorrow and do it,” I whispered as if I didn’t want the owner to hear me. “I feel like I’m going to say something unkind if I stay here any longer.”

  It was true enough. This woman’s ineptitude made me want to say very rude things. I’d held them in and tried to be patient because I knew it was the right thing to do to be kind to her anyway.

  Mark’s mom patted our clasped hands with her free one. “I know, sweetie. I really do. But tomorrow you’re already meeting with your cupcake baker. Besides,” she lowered her voice to a whisper as well, “we need to leave her as much time to get your dress right as possible.”

  That was the truest statement made today.

  I let her lead me back to the stand. Hopefully I’d made the right choice about prioritizing secrecy over speed.

  For the next five minutes, I tried hard not to squirm. Moving would only make the task last longer. Tried being the key word, unfortunately. Not only were horrible scenarios starting to run through my head—like that Mark’s house had burned down—but the shop owner also pricked me with every other pin. If Ever After was a place of fairy tales, she was my evil stepmother in disguise.

  By the time she finished, a text from Mark waited on my phone. How close are you?

  I left Mark’s mom making our next appointment and sprinted to my car. My hands shook, and my keys rattled as I scratched them into the ignition. I forced myself to take a few deep, slow breaths before I started the car. Getting into an accident on the way to Mark’s house wouldn’t help anything. I sent him a message right before I put the car into gear that I was on my way.

  The situation couldn’t be as bad as I was imagining. If he were injured or seriously ill, he would have called an ambulance rather than calling me. If something bad had happened to someone we cared about, he wouldn’t have asked me to come to his house. He would have picked me up and taken me to wherever we needed to go. In either case, we would have included his mom.

  That left his house or truck. Maybe there’d been a break-in or a fire. That would be frustrating and upsetting and could make his mom worry.

  He’d already moved a lot of the items he didn’t need on a daily basis to my house in preparation for our wedding. Hopefully nothing he valued had been lost.

  Even if it had, Mark had called me, which meant he was alright. Anything else we could deal with. Stuff was just stuff. Only living beings were irreplaceable.

  I turned onto his street. Mark’s truck sat parked in his driveway, but another car I didn’t recognize and two police cruisers lined the street.

  Since his house looked intact and there wasn’t a fire truck as well, a fire was out. It had to be a break-in.

  I parked my car on the road behind one of the cruisers. Two cars seemed a bit much, as well as whoever had driven the regular car here. That number of people had to be most of the on-duty officers in Fair Haven.

  A chill slid over my spine like a spider made of ice had rappelled down my back.

  Don’t panic, Nik. He’s a member of law enforcement in a sense, and the police take care of their own. That’s probably why.

  That had to be it. The Fair Haven police worked diligently on every case they received, but you looked out in a special way for the people who served with you.

  No one was watching the front door. They hadn’t even put up the crime scene tape yet. Everyone must be engaged inside and recently arrived. Mark must have called me right after calling the police. Voices came from the direction of either the kitchen or living room. I couldn’t be sure from outside the front door.

  I’d find Mark and figure out exactly what had happened. He’d probably called me to have some emotional support as he filled out the paperwork for a break-in, and he hadn’t wanted me to tell his mom yet because there was nothing she could do.

  I passed through the entryway and into the living room.

  A man’s body sat on Mark’s couch, in the same spot where we’d worked my Uncle Stan’s case the first time he brought me here.
The man’s head lolled back, exposing exactly how he’d died.

  Someone had slit his neck.

  2

  The house felt like it shifted underneath me, like I was standing on a dock in a storm rather than on solid land. And I wasn’t sure I was steady enough to keep my footing.

  There was a dead man on Mark’s couch.

  My brain kept coming back to it and rejecting it as impossible. It wanted to tell me I was dreaming. Or watching a movie. That this was not real. This couldn’t be real.

  From my angle, I couldn’t see the man’s face. His build looked familiar. Intellectually I knew it couldn’t be Mark. Mark texted me less than fifteen minutes ago, and based on how dark the blood on the dead man’s shirt was, he’d been dead well over an hour. Besides, this man was more muscular than Mark.

  But my heart wasn’t listening to my brain. Instead, it felt like I’d been running on a treadmill for the past half hour.

  I had to see who the man was for myself.

  Because if it wasn’t Mark, it still had to be someone we knew. As unreal as it seemed that Mark had a dead man on his couch, it seemed completely unbelievable that Mark would have a dead stranger on his couch.

  I inched forward. I knew I was holding my breath from the way my chest burned, but my lungs didn’t seem to want any air.

  I averted my gaze from the man’s wound. There was too much blood. If I looked at it, I wasn’t going to make it close enough to see who it was.

 
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