Jenn McKinlay

New York Times Bestselling Author

MARKED DOWN FOR MURDER

Chapter One

“More flowers?” Ginger Lancaster asked as she walked into My Sister’s Closet, her best friend’s second hand store, behind Henry Dawson, the local florist. Joanne Claramotta and Claire Freemont followed right behind her.
The women belonged to a self-titled group called the Good Buy Girls. They were friends who were all about bargain hunting and thrift and since Maggie had opened her shop, it had become the hub of their operation and their unofficial meeting place.
“Yep, she’s got another one,” Henry said. “Looks like someone’s got quite the admirer.”
For the past three days, Henry had delivered a single red rose to Maggie Gerber with a card with one word on it. Maggie took the rose from Henry and felt her face grow warm. She was embarrassed but also a bit giddy from the attention.
“Thank you so much,” she said. She tried to offer him a tip but he waved her away.
“You keep your money, Maggie,” he said. “I’ve been paid more than enough.”
Maggie gave him a chagrinned look and his wrinkled, old face split into a grin that showed off his dentures.
“Well, don’t hold back,” Joanne said. “What’s the word of the day?”
Maggie put the red rose in a vase with two others and opened the small card. The word You was scrawled in a blocky script in a black felt tip pen. She knew that handwriting. It belonged to her boyfriend Sam Collins, who happened to be the police chief of their small Virginia town called St. Stanley. Of course when she had questioned him the previous two days, he had denied all knowledge of any flowers or cards.
When put together in order the cards read, Maggie, Will You.
“Squee!” Joanne let out a squeal. Her long brown pony tail swung back and forth as she bounced up and down on her feet.
“That is just the most romantic gesture ever,” Claire sighed. She pushed her black rectangular glasses up on her nose. “I wonder what he’s going to ask you.”
“I don’t know,” Henry said. “But I’m betting I’ll see you tomorrow and every day right up until Valentine’s Day.”
Maggie and the others waved to him as he left the shop. Ginger turned back to face Maggie and rested her chin on her hand as she leaned on the counter and studied the cards.
“So, what do you think he’s going to ask you?” Her teeth flashed white against her brown skin and her dark eyes gleamed with delight.
“I don’t know,” Maggie said. “I keep asking him, but he keeps denying that it’s him.”
Ginger’s eyebrows rose. “Do you think it’s someone else?”
“No,” Maggie said. “I recognize the handwriting.”
“Don’t freak out on me,” Claire said. “But do you think he’s going to propose?”
“No!” Maggie said. “No, no, no.”
“Well, don’t beat around the bush,” Ginger said. “Tell us how you feel.”
“We’ve only been dating for two months, not even, a proposal would be…”
“Romantic?” Joanne sighed and the others did, too.
“I was thinking premature,” Maggie said. She frowned at them. “Besides, logically speaking it doesn’t work.”
“What do you mean?” Ginger asked.
Maggie leaned over the cards and a hank of her auburn hair fell over her face. She tucked it behind her ear as she tapped the counter with her index finger.
“There are three more days to Valentine’s day,” she said. “So if he did have a rose and a card delivered every day then a proposal really wouldn’t work because marry and me would only be two more days.”
“Unless he’s planning something even more spectacular for the next two days,” Joanne said. She started jumping up and down again and Ginger put an arm around her.
“Settle down girl,” she said. “You are going to jiggle that baby right out.”
Joanne instantly put her hands on her belly and her eyes grew wide. “You think so?”
“No,” Ginger said as she gave her a half hug. “I’m just teasing.”
“How long now?” Claire asked.
“I’m eight months give or take a few days,” Joanne said. “My obstetrician says it could be any time if baby decides to come early.”
“A baby,” Maggie sighed. “It seems like ages since I’ve held a wee one.”
“So, if this whole card and flower thing does turn out to be a proposal, and you and Sam do get married, will you have another baby?” Claire asked.
“I…uh…huh?” Maggie stammered. “I’m sorry, I think I just swallowed my tongue.”
Ginger hooted with laughter. “You could, you know. You’re only forty-one. Why, there are women having babies well into their fifties now.”
“But then I’d be in my sixties by the time it went to college,” Maggie said. “And given that I already have a daughter in college, I don’t really want to do that again. The financial aid forms alone are a solid case for birth control.”
“But you’re a very young forty-one. I mean how many people think your grand-nephew Josh is your son?”
“A fair few,” Maggie admitted.
Maggie watched her niece’s three year old often, and while she loved him dearly, he was another reason she knew she was done bearing children. After an afternoon spent with her Josh-by-gosh and she was exhausted.
“See? You’re still young enough,” Joanne said. “Just think, our babies would be close enough in age to play together. We could have mommy and me time together.”
“Aw,” Claire said. “That would be so cute. You could put them in matching outfits and have teddy bear picnics and tea parties. Adorable!”
Maggie frowned at Claire. “Don’t you start. You’re younger than me. You and Pete could get married and have kid, too, you know.”
Claire shook her head. “No, that’s not in the cards for me. I realized long ago that I was not mother material. I never even babysat when I was a teen because the sound of a baby crying gives me hives. There’s a reason I’m a adult services librarian and not a children’s librarian, you know. My cat Mr. Tumnus is all the dependent I can handle, thank you very much.”
“Is Pete okay with that?” Joanne asked. “I mean, doesn’t he want to have a family of his own?”
“Thankfully, no,” Claire said. “We had a long frank talk when we first started dating and we both decided that parenting was not our calling, so it looks like it’s all on Maggie and you, unless of course Ginger wants to try again for a girl.”
“Lord-a-mercy, no,” Ginger said. “Four boys are all I can handle, besides after Dante came along, I had them take out all of my plumbing since it had begun to collapse. So, it’s just Maggie then.”
Maggie put a hand to her forehead as a sudden attack of woozy hit her like a freight train. Did Sam want kids? She had no idea. They’d never discussed it. What if he wanted to be a dad? What if he wanted more than one? Oh, man, how had this topic of conversation never come up?
The bells on the front door jangled and Maggie glanced up, willing someone, anyone, to arrive and save her from this conversation.
The woman who arrived was not her first or even her last pick but times being desperate she decided not to quibble.
“Summer Phillips,” Maggie cried. She came around the counter and greeted the woman who had been her lifelong nemesis with a wide warm smile. “Come in, how are you, dear?”
Summer froze in mid-step. She looked at Maggie as if she was worried that she was ill with something that could be contagious or deadly or both.
“You look deranged” Summer said in her usual abrasive tone. She tossed her long, bottle bleached hair over her shoulder and held up a well-manicured hand to ward Maggie off. “You’re not going to hug me, are you?”
“No!” Maggie protested. Although, she was grateful enough for the interruption that she might give her a half hug or an air kiss. The sour look on Summer’s face checked that impulse.
“What’s wrong with you?” Summer asked.
“Nothing,” Maggie lied.
“She’s panicking,” Ginger whispered to the Claire in a voice loud enough to be heard by everyone. Maggie heard them all giggle.
“I’m just being neighborly. What can I do for you, Summer?” Maggie asked.
“Nothing,” Summer said. “Believe me, I don’t want anything from you.”
“Then why are you in my shop?” Maggie asked. “You have your own consignment store across the street. Why are you visiting mine?”
A woman nudged her way into the shop behind Summer. She had the same pretty face as Summer, with an upturned nose and prominent cheek bones, but she was obviously older with very fine lines around her eyes and mouth. Her hair was cut in a dark brown bob and it swung about her face in graceful sweeps as she looked Maggie up from head to toe.
“Mom, this is Maggie Gerber,” Summer said. She stood aside and crossed her arms over her chest. “Now that you’ve met her, can we please go? This shop gives me the heebie-jeebies.”
“Your mother?” Maggie asked. She blinked. It wasn’t like she thought Summer had been spawned from a pine cone, still, she hadn’t seen Summer’s mother in ages.
Maggie glanced at the woman still scrutinizing her. Yes, she vaguely remembered Summer’s mother Blair Phillips from their high school days, but she knew Blair had been married at least three times since then and she had no idea what her surname was now.
Blair’s lips pursed to the side in a scowl and her eyes narrowed. Then she shook her head. “No, no, I refuse to believe it. There is absolutely no way that Sam Collins threw you over for this.”