Authors: Paige Shelton
PRAISE FOR THE FARMERS’ MARKET MYSTERIES
A Killer Maize
“Masterfully plotted, just masterful . . . Head to the bookstores online or brick and mortar and harvest the homegrown mystery today. A jam-packed whodunit that will ‘a-maize’ you!”
Escape with Dollycas into a Good Book
“[A] darn good murder mystery.”
“The mystery is complex and captivating . . . The pace is quick. The plot is tight and fun. And Shelton’s writing is a joy to read; her prose has an easy rhythm to it, her narrative style is both witty and engaging, and her dialogue is snappy and rings true.”
Crops and Robbers
“Shelton has dished up yet another tasty mystery . . . Readers will also get a nice taste of a potential love triangle between Becca’s artsy love interest and the principled police officer who’s willing to wait in the wings.”
Mojave Desert News
“Very fascinating . . . First-class writing and characterizations along with a lot of homegrown food and jam and jellies that will make your mouth water.”
Once Upon a Romance
“I have loved this entire series . . . No matter the weather outside it is always a perfect time to visit Bailey’s Farmers’ Market and catch up with all the characters that have sprouted warmly in our hearts.”
Escape with Dollycas into a Good Book
Fruit of All Evil
“A delicious mystery to be savored . . . [A] delightful continuation of the story line featuring feisty and smart amateur sleuth Becca Robins.”
“Spunky Becca should appeal to fans of Laura Childs and Joanne Fluke.”
“Fun characters and a great setting are the highlights of this series full of homegrown goodness.”
The Mystery Reader
“A unique setting and interesting characters . . . You can enjoy Paige Shelton’s Farmers’ Market Mysteries for the stories, the characters, the humor.
Fruit of All Evil
beautifully blends all of those elements in a delightful mystery.”
Lesa’s Book Critiques
Farm Fresh Murder
“Watching jam-maker Becca Robins handle sticky situations is a tasty delight.”
New York Times
“Becca is a genial heroine, and Shelton fashions a puzzling and satisfying whodunit. The first in a projected series,
Farm Fresh Murder
is a tasty treat.”
“An appealing heroine . . . As satisfying as visiting the farmers’ market on a sunny afternoon.”
—Claudia Bishop, author of
A Fete Worse Than Death
“A breath of summer freshness that is an absolute delight to read and savor . . . A feast of a mystery.”
Berkley Prime Crime titles by Paige Shelton
Farmers’ Market Mysteries
FARM FRESH MURDER
FRUIT OF ALL EVIL
CROPS AND ROBBERS
A KILLER MAIZE
MERRY MARKET MURDER
Country Cooking School Mysteries
IF FRIED CHICKEN COULD FLY
IF MASHED POTATOES COULD DANCE
IF BREAD COULD RISE TO THE OCCASION
RED HOT DEADLY PEPPERS
THE BERKLEY PUBLISHING GROUP
Published by the Penguin Group
Penguin Group (USA) LLC
375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014
USA • Canada • UK • Ireland • Australia • New Zealand • India • South Africa • China
A Penguin Random House Company
MERRY MARKET MURDER
A Berkley Prime Crime Book / published by arrangement with the author
Copyright © 2013 by Paige Shelton-Ferrell.
Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices,
promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized
edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning,
or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers
and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.
Berkley Prime Crime Books are published by The Berkley Publishing Group.
PRIME CRIME and the PRIME CRIME logo are trademarks of
Penguin Group (USA) LLC.
For information, address: The Berkley Publishing Group,
a division of Penguin Group (USA) LLC,
375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.
eBook ISBN: 978-1-101-62718-1
Berkley Prime Crime mass-market edition / December 2013
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.
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.
For Uncle Tim—you were one of the first ones to welcome me to the family. I’ll never forget your kindness and silliness and your genuine enthusiasm over each new Becca story. Thank you. Until we meet again.
Many thanks to:
My continually amazing agent, Jessica Faust, and editor, Michelle Vega. I’m sure I frequently test their patience, but they never show it.
My family—whose support and humor are always perfectly timed. Please don’t ever change.
And an extra-special thank-you to the Farmers’ Market Mysteries’ readers. I can’t even begin to tell you how much I appreciate your support and friendship.
“The rumors are true. He does look a little like Santa Claus,” I said to Allison as we watched the bearded man working inside the cargo box on the back of the short freight truck.
“He’s a sweetheart. I really like him. I’m glad he’ll be here this year. I can only imagine what this week’s going to be like,” Allison said.
“But in the best way possible.”
Allison—my fraternal twin sister—and I stood next to each other in the Bailey’s Farmers’ Market parking lot, right outside the building that housed Allison’s manager’s office. The temperature was cool but not cold, just about right for our pocket of South Carolina in late December. Even though Bailey’s wasn’t currently stocked with harvest-season fresh-from-the-farm fruits and produce, holiday shopping at the market had been brisk all month. Christmas was now a week and a day away, and comfortable temperatures, along with the white-bearded man’s freshly grown and recently harvested trees, probably meant we’d all be even busier than we had already been.
“Having a Christmas tree farmer here is a perfect fit,” I said.
“I agree. I can’t believe we haven’t done it before. When I heard that Denny”—she nodded toward the man with the beard—“was donating all the trees for the parade, the idea of asking if he wanted to sell at Bailey’s seemed so obvious. I was so glad he wanted to join us that I gave him an exclusive contract with no space rental fees.”
The parade was Monson’s annual Christmas Tree Parade, held on our short but quaint downtown Main Street. For two evenings every December, the town came together to celebrate the season by consuming holiday goodies and walking up and down the street to admire and bid on decorated trees. Before this year, those who wanted to donate a tree to the parade purchased their own trees and ornaments, placed their creations on display, and then hoped for big, lively bids on their masterpieces. All money made from the auction was donated to a local charity, and the winners got to take home their trees, decorations and all. I’d never once decorated a tree for the parade; I was a bidder, not a tree artist. And though I’d never bid high enough to win, all of the town’s residents found a way to donate a little something to the cause. I loved everything about the parade, even the part I’d been volunteered for this year—baking a few hundred jam-filled cookies.
“I guess he looks like Santa would look if Santa were a little thinner and wore jeans.” I amended my earlier appraisal.
“Yes, that’s true.”
Denny Ridgeway hefted a huge, perfect green tree from inside the truck and handed it down to a woman waiting below. She was tall and thin underneath her plaid flannel shirt and khakis, but she handled the tree expertly. She turned and transferred it to a shorter, wider, beardless version of Denny, who carried it into a roped-off area next to the truck. By the time the shorter man came back to the truck, Denny had passed another tree to the woman, and their relay continued. Their movements were seamless, but they’d probably done such a maneuver more than a few times before.
Denny’s white, bushy hair, beard, and eyebrows did not disappoint. He was as close to a natural Santa as anyone I’d ever seen. I’d heard about him and his farm for years; they were both legendary. He was the best pine tree farmer in the state; the trees were the best trees in the entire world, at least according to some. He didn’t emphasize the fact that he looked a lot like Santa by wearing red suits and a big black belt, but I’d heard that he never shaved the beard. His paunch wasn’t as paunchy as it should be, either—about twenty more pounds would be needed to accomplish the look perfectly.
Today, he wore jeans, a long-sleeved black T-shirt, and tennis shoes. He also wore a woven cord choker necklace, which reminded me of my hippie father. Something about the entire three-person troupe reminded me of my parents, actually.
“You have to get Dad and Mom down here to meet him. I bet they’d get along,” I said.
“Probably,” Allison said. “Come on, I’ll introduce you.”
I followed Allison around parked cars to the side of the parking lot.
“Ms. Reynolds, always nice to see you,” Denny said as he jumped off the back of the truck and wiped his hands on the front of his jeans. The woman and man with him seemed relieved to have a momentary break in the action. They looked at each other and smiled. The woman stepped back a little and the man pulled an arm across his chest as if to stretch his shoulder.
“Allison, please,” she said as she shook Denny’s hand. “And this is my sister, Becca Robins. She has a jam and preserve stall in the market.”
“Any chance you make strawberry?” Denny asked.
“It’s my specialty,” I said.
“I’ll be by to get some today. I love fresh strawberry preserves.”
“Great. I look forward to it.” I smiled. His face was ruddy—not from the bite of North Pole cold, but from the labor of moving the trees. I really didn’t want to notice that his bright green eyes twinkled when he spoke. I was sure it was my imagination anyway.
“This is my sister, Billie, and my brother, Ned.” Denny nodded at his coworkers, bringing them back toward us.
“You all look thirsty,” Allison said.
“We brought some water bottles,” Denny said.
“We have a water hose we’re going to connect and run out to you for the trees, but you’re more than welcome to fill any of your drinking jugs or cups from water inside the office building. We have vendors inside the market who also sell soft drinks. Make sure you tell them you’re working here. The market owners like to help reimburse any drink discounts the vendors give.”
“That’s great. Thank you,” Billie said, her own bright green eyes twinkling, but not as much as Denny’s. Up close, she was still tall and skinny, but also strikingly pretty, with a heart-shaped face and only slightly wrinkled, milky-white skin. She wasn’t young, but she still pulled off “fresh-faced” as if she were. She wore a green beret over short, brown hair, which curled up around her ears and away from her face.
“You’re welcome,” Allison said.
“This is a great place,” Ned, the only brown-eyed sibling, added. “I’ve heard about Bailey’s for a long time. I’m sorry I haven’t been here before. We’re just far enough away that we don’t come around very often.”
Ridgeway Farm was about a half hour away from Monson. I’d never taken the trip up into the hills to see the farm that I’d heard described as, among other stellar things, stunningly beautiful and a sight to behold.
“We’re very proud of Bailey’s,” Allison said. “And we’re thrilled to have you all here.”
Billie and Ned excused themselves and set out in search of the soft drinks. As Allison and Denny discussed the logistics involved in having a space at the market, my interest wandered to the trees and the other items still inside the truck. Most of the trees had been unloaded, but there were still a few waiting, their green branches forming a dark mini-forest in a back corner. I also noticed five or six tree stands, an ax, and some wicked-looking spiked implements about ten inches or so long, which had rolled to the edge of the opening.
The air in the immediate area smelled so delicious that I kept taking deep pulls through my nose. I’d had moments with many things pine scented, but I’d never been around such a high concentration of the real stuff. The trees smelled so fresh and . . . piney. This smell could never be mistaken for a cleanser or a car deodorizer. There was something more to it, something that was mixed with natural elements like dirt and oxygen to form its own smell that was easy and comforting to the senses.
“You okay?” Allison asked with a laugh.
Until I opened them, I hadn’t realized that I’d closed my eyes.
“Oh. Sorry. The smell. I don’t think I can get enough,” I said.
“Never smelled a pine tree?” Denny asked with a smile.
“Well, I suppose I have, but I’ve never had . . .” Suddenly it seemed disloyal to my family to tell Denny Ridgway the reason I’d never had a real pine tree for Christmas. Fortunately, Allison jumped in.
“Our mother’s allergic to them. Sneezes like crazy when she’s around them. We grew up with artificial.”
Denny laughed, but it didn’t sound like ho, ho, ho.
“That happens,” he said.
“And then . . . well, Becca’s life hasn’t made a real tree all that convenient. She’s getting there, I suppose,” Allison said.
“Well, if you’d like a real tree this year, you may find one here, or come up to the farm. I’ll give you a personal tour and we’ll cut one down together.”
I looked at Denny for a long moment. Finally, I said, “I can honestly say that right at this moment I can’t think of anything I’d rather do. That sounds just wonderful.”
“We’ll plan on it then. How about the Sunday after the parade festivities?”
“May I bring a friend?” I asked.
“Of course! Bring anyone.” He looked at Allison. “You should come up, too.”
In the middle of the invitations, Brenton, Bailey’s homemade dog treat vendor, drove a path down the lot next to us. His truck was newer than most of the rest of the vendors’, but it was still faded and pocked with plenty of scratches and dings.
Brenton Jones was probably one of the nicest, most easygoing people I knew. He was quiet, friendly, and always wore a New York Yankees baseball cap. I didn’t know much about his personal life because he was usually more of a silent observer than a vocal contributor. I had never once heard him say a bad word about anyone. I had also never once seen him shoot a dirty or disgusted look at anyone. He might not have a perpetual smile on his face, but he certainly never looked hateful.
Until that very moment.
As he steered his truck slowly past us, his focus was on the side panel of Denny’s much bigger tree truck. No matter that the parking lot was precariously full of cars—Brenton had his eyes glued to the truck, so much so that I had an urge to step forward and see what it was he was looking at, but I stayed put.
Fortunately, Denny’s back was to Brenton so he didn’t see Brenton’s evil eye, but neither Allison nor I could have missed the disgust, followed by dismay, followed by what looked like a flash of anger cross Brenton’s face. And even when Brenton noticed we were watching him, his expression didn’t soften. In fact, his mouth tightened and he jerked the steering wheel so hard in the other direction that his tires squealed.
Denny turned when he heard the noise and stepped protectively in front of us. Of course, there was no real danger, and no damage was done, because all we saw at that point was the back of Brenton’s truck. Denny had no idea who the driver was.
“Thought something might be coming this way,” Denny explained as he turned back to face us.
Neither Allison nor I commented, but I had no doubt that she’d be in search of Brenton the second she was finished here. She continued the conversation like she hadn’t noticed anything unusual. I tried to follow her lead, but I was sure I wasn’t able to hide my distraction as well.
Maybe I’d misinterpreted the entire thing. Maybe Brenton didn’t want to spit on Denny’s truck. Maybe his dog biscuits hadn’t turned out well this morning and he couldn’t let go of the frustration. Maybe he was just in a bad mood.
But Brenton was never in a bad mood. Whatever was behind his behavior must have had something to do with the delivery truck, Ridgeway Farm, Denny, or perhaps someone else who worked there. What could have caused one of the most laid-back people I’d ever known to be so visibly perturbed?
My thoughts and Denny and Allison’s conversation were interrupted by the arrival of another vehicle. This time it was a Monson police cruiser moving slowly down the same aisle Brenton had taken. The driver moved carefully and purposefully toward the small office building. There was a spot there just for him. Well, there was a spot there just for the police. It was just that this officer visited the market more than any of the others.
Sam Brion, my “most recent love interest”—this is the way he introduced himself when I told him I thought I was too old to have a “boyfriend”—exited the cruiser. At first, he didn’t notice the three of us noticing him.
“Trouble?” Denny asked Allison.
“I doubt it. He and Becca are dating.” She sighed. “Though sometimes I suppose it’s troublesome for him.”
Denny laughed. I didn’t.
Once Sam was out of the cruiser, he looked around in that intense, police officer way he did whenever he arrived somewhere. He couldn’t help himself; he always had to get the lay of the land, even if there were no imminent threats.
He was in full cop mode, his uniform perfect and his hair slicked back with something I’d yet to be introduced to. He wasn’t telling me the product’s name. He only slicked back his hair when he wore the uniform. When he wasn’t working, his brown hair curled and made him look very non-police-like.
Sam turned and reached back into the cruiser. He pulled out a bright-red box with a large green-and-red bow.
“Ah, someone’s getting an early gift,” Denny said.
The look on Sam’s face made me smile. I didn’t know what was in the box, but I knew that whatever his reason for being at Bailey’s, it had nothing to do with police work. He was on an errand that included a big box that was far too flashy for his style.