Wednesday, October 03, 2012

The Amish Bride

Mindy Starns Clark
And Leslie Gould
A beautiful coming-of-age tale about the headstrong Mennonite-raised Ella Bayer
and the handsome young Amish man she thought she would love forever.
"TOP PICK! This wonderful Women of Lancaster County novel gives outsiders a glimpse at what life is like for Amish and Mennonite young people. There are twists and turns and even a mysterious journal that will keep readers interested. The characters are well rounded and well thought out by two amazing authors."
--RT Book Reviews Magazine
Chapter One
My grandmother was stalling like a little kid at bedtime. I bent down to kiss her a second time. "Mammi, I really need to go. Ezra's waiting for me." He was at the end of the lane on his motorcycle.
"But I have something for you." She forced her recliner down and struggled to a standing position. "It's important."
Afraid she might fall, I hurried to her side. "Tell me where it is," I said. "I'll get it myself."
She plopped back down into her chair. "Let me see…it's a book…"
Oh, boy. This wasn't a good time from Mammi to start on a new topic. I sent Ezra a quick text as she spoke, telling him to give me another minute, knowing it was bound to be even longer than that.
"I think it's in my room," she said. "On the dresser. Or maybe the nightstand."
"I'm on it." I hurried down the narrow hall, darting into her bedroom. It was tidy as a pin, and the dresser was bare except for Mammi's hairbrush. On the nightstand was her Bible and another leather-bound book. At first I thought it was a second Bible, it was that big and thick. But when I picked it up, I noted there was nothing written on the front. I opened the worn cover. On the first page was the name "Sarah Gingrich." If I was recalling my family history correctly, that was the name of Mammi's mother.
I carefully flipped through the book as I moved back up the hall, intrigued by the quirky things I saw inside. It held a mix of drawings both large and small, recipes, an occasional journal entry, and other miscellaneous writings, many of the entries bearing dates that spanned decades in total.
The whole book was offbeat, but some of the pages were especially so. They held an odd mix of numbers and letters—or at least I thought they were letters at first glance. Pausing in the hallway to take a closer look, I realized they weren't letters at all but instead some sort of intricate, squiggly lines. Bizarre.
"Mammi, this is so cool," I said as I closed the book and entered the living room. "Did this belong to my great-grandmother?"
"Yes, and I want you to have it."
"Seriously? Wow. Thanks, Mammi." I held the book against my chest. "I can't wait to read it."
My phone beeped. Ezra! I'd forgotten all about him. Trying not to feel guilty, I told Mammi I was sorry but I really had to go.
She nodded. "Next time you're over, I'll tell you more about my mother. She was quite the…oh, how would you say it?" She was quiet for a moment then her faded blue eyes lit up. "Free spirit."
"Free spirit," I echoed, looking at her. My time there was up, but I made no move to go as she continued.
"She was stubborn and feisty too. Sound familiar?" Her eyebrows raised, but when I chose to ignore her implication, she added, "Just like you."
"I'm not sure that's a compliment."
"Oh, it is. You're also smart like she was, and oh, so pretty. You have her thick hair and lovely skin. You're even gifted creatively. Mostly, though, you have her spunk."
I wasn't used to receiving compliments from family members and felt too awkward to respond.
Mammi didn't seem to notice, though. Instead, her eyes moved back to the book in my hands. Gazing at it, her face began to cloud over, and I could see she was troubled. "There's another thing, about the book," she said. "Just between us. Something unique about it that you have to understand. And there's something important I need you to do for me."
Curious, I lowered myself to the chair on her left and waited for her to elaborate. She gestured, so I opened up the book, angled it so that she could see the pages, and began flipping through.
"All of those tiny drawings at the tops and bottoms…" Her voice trailed off.
"These nifty little doodles?" Glancing down, I tilted the heavy tome my way. "It's funny, but they kind of remind me of icons. You know, like for a phone app?"
She stared at me blankly. Of course she didn't know what a phone app was.
"They're symbols," she said. "Each one represents something."
I flipped through more pages and saw that the various icons weren't just random—they were repeated the exact same way in different places. She was right. Symbols.
"What are they for?"
"I'm not sure. But there's more."
She again gestured with her hand, so I tilted the book back toward her and continued flipping until she placed a pointed finger on the page to stop me.
Glancing down, I saw that she was indicating one of the pages of weird squiggly lines. They reminded me of letters or numbers but were unreadable, like a foreign language that used a completely different alphabet.
"What is this?"
She sat back and clasped her hands in her lap. "It's a code. My mother didn't want just anyone reading her journal. So she invented a code to keep parts of it private."
"Cool." I was really starting to like my great-grandmother Sarah.
I was studying the squiggles more closely when I realized Mammi was leaning toward me in her chair, her expression intense.
"Ella, I need you to decipher that code. Figure out how to make sense of it. The symbols too. I want you to translate the code and the symbols into words. I need to know what it says."
My first reaction was to giggle, but her face was so serious I held it in. What was this, James Bond or something?
"I'm not exactly good at this sort of thing. I mean, Zed's way smarter than I am. Why don't you ask him?"
Mammi placed a hand on my arm and gave it a firm squeeze. "Never mind him. I'm asking you, Ella. You can do this. You have to do this."
"But why?" I looked into her eyes and was surprised to see pain there. Deep pain. "What is it, Mammi? Why is this so important to you?"
Without responding, she broke our gaze, released my arm, and let herself fall back against the chair. Eyes brimming with sadness, she turned her face away and spoke in a soft voice. "Just let me know when you figure it out, will you? It's important to me." Clearly, she wasn't going to elaborate.
I sat there for a long moment, resisting the urge to insist she explain. It was no big surprise that she wouldn't tell me, nor that she'd asked me not to tell anyone else. Our family was known for its secrets. I hadn't imagined there were any left, but it looked as though I was wrong.
"I…I'll give it a shot, Mammi, but I'm not making any promises."
She nodded. "If it would help, maybe you could even go visit the Home Place. It's still in the family, you know. One of your distant cousins lives there now, and I'm sure she'd be happy for you to come out."
Visit the Home Place? In Indiana? It was a neat idea, but there was no way I could take a trip like that any time soon. There were other things in my life that were much more pressing.
"My mother grew up there, you know," she said dreamily, not catching the reluctance in my expression. "You'll see she drew it in the book a lot. Sometimes the whole farm, sometimes just a particular tree or piece of furniture or view from a certain window. I don't know the significance of those drawings, but they are obviously tied in with the symbols and the code somehow. Maybe if you went there yourself, it would be easier to figure it all out."
I looked down at the book in my hands, feeling the weight of my grandmother's request—and her memories—pressing down on me.
"Let's take this one step at a time, okay? I'll see what I can do here first. You never know. I might just crack this baby wide open without having to go anywhere at all."
Mammi's eyes met mine. "Thank you, Ella" she whispered.
"No problem."
My cell phone buzzed yet again. Poor Ezra had to be going stir-crazy by now. I closed the book and carefully squeezed it into my backpack for safekeeping. Then I stood and gave Mammi a quick kiss on the cheek. As I turned to go, she wrapped a cold hand around my wrist. I paused and looked down at her.
"Do whatever it takes, Ella," she said, her voice tinged with desperation. "I'm an old woman, and the Lord has numbered my days, but before I go to my grave, I simply have to know what my mother wrote in that book."
Mindy Starns Clark is the #1 bestselling author of twenty books, fiction and nonfiction, including Whispers of the Bayou, Beauty to Die For, and the ever-popular nonfiction guide The House that Cleans Itself. She and her husband John live with their two daughters near Valley Forge, PA. Visit her website at
Leslie Gould is the award-winning author of fifteen novels, including Beyond the Blue, winner of RT Book Club Magazine's Reviewer's Choice Award for Best Inspirational Novel. Leslie received her master of fine arts in creative writing from Portland State University in 2009 and has taught fiction as an adjunct professor at Multnomah University. She, her husband, Peter, and their four children live in Portland, Oregon. Visit her website at
Books in the Women of Lancaster County Series include:
The Amish Midwife, winner of the Christy Award for Best Contemporary Novel in a Series
The Amish Nanny
The Amish Bride
The Amish Seamstress, to be released in 2013
The Amish Bride is available wherever books are sold, including,, and
Copyright ©2012 by Mindy Starns Clark and Leslie Gould


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Friday, September 28, 2012

Where the Trail Ends

"A lovely, well-paced novel with enchanting characters and surprising plot twists. This is not your typical Oregon Trail story—there is more love than loss and more hope than grief on this wagon train west. Melanie Dobson gives her readers the delight of what happens after people arrived in the Oregon Territory, with the assurance that the end of the trail is really not the end after all."—Jane Kirkpatrick, bestselling author of All Together in One Place

"… this book will have readers feeling like they are part of the harrowing wagon train heading west on an exciting, amazing journey that they won't want
to end." —RT Book Review

A young woman traveling the Oregon Trail in 1842 must rely on a stranger to bring her to safety. But whom can she trust with her heart?

For two thousand miles along the trail to Oregon Country, Samantha Waldron and her family must overcome tremendous challenges to reach the Willamette Valley before winter. But when their canoe capsizes on the Columbia River, they must rely on handsome British exporter Alexander Clarke to rescue them from the icy water. Samantha is overwhelmed with men vying for her affections at Fort Vancouver, but the only one who intrigues her—Alex—is the one she cannot have.

Melanie Dobson is the award-winning author of twelve novels. She recently won ACFW Carol Awards for Love Finds You in Homestead, Iowa and The Silent Order, and in 2010, Love Finds You in Liberty, Indiana was chosen as the Best Book of Indiana (fiction). Born and raised in the Midwest, she has lived all over America and now resides with her husband and two daughters near Portland, Oregon. Where the Trail Ends is her first novel set in Oregon, and she and her daughters had fun exploring the Oregon Trail together as she researched for this novel. Approximately three hundred thousand Americans traveled West on the Oregon Trail. About thirty thousand of them lost their lives to accidents, drowning, and cholera—one grave, it is said, for every eighty yards of the trail.

Where the Trail Ends is available at,, and bookstores across the country. The author's website is

Where the Trail Ends

Melanie Dobson

Excerpt from Chapter One

September 1842

"Come on," Samantha whispered.

On past river crossings, their company had waited for hours until one of their gentle but often stubborn oxen decided to move forward. They couldn't afford to wait here for hours—it would be dark soon, and they needed to set up their camp and cook supper while it was still light. If their oxen wouldn't budge, the thirty-two people already on shore would have to continue on and circle up for camp without them. The Waldrons would catch up once the oxen decided to move.

Boaz nipped at the hindquarters of the nigh ox, George, and he bellowed, stepping forward with Abe, the ox yoked beside him. Then they stopped again.

Jack rode back into the river, steering his horse toward their raft. Samantha couldn't see his dark brown hair under his wide-brimmed hat, but she could see the focus in his face, the strength of his arms as he guided his horse.

When he glanced over at her, she blushed.

Micah elbowed her. "Someone's sweet on you."

"Hush," she whispered.

"Papa says you're going to marry him."

She elbowed him back. "I told you to hush."

Micah tipped his hat low over his shaggy hair, but she could still see the grin on his face. Jack whipped the oxen, yelling at them to move.

Samantha winced every time the whip hit their backs. She knew it was necessary to prod them forward—an ox refused to be led—but she hated seeing any animal in pain, especially these oxen that had pulled almost two tons of weight for more than a thousand miles.

Mama believed in angels—the fiery messengers mentioned in the book of Hebrews who were sent to care for those on the road to salvation. Mama would have asked God to send these angels to help both the oxen and the men, so Samantha did as well, quietly asking God to send help in nudging the oxen forward.

The two men continued shouting, goading with their whips and sticks, but the oxen fought them, almost as if they were afraid of dangers on the other side of this river. More men joined them, trying to coax the animals to move.

Samantha breathed with relief when the oxen stepped again, heaving as they moved toward the shore. She'd spent much of this trip holding her breath, not knowing what might happen next, but with Papa and Jack and perhaps a host of angels at the helm, they would make it safely to the end of this journey.

The wagon shook, the hitch chain clanking, as the oxen tugged again. This time they didn't stop pulling until they reached the other side.

Micah hopped off the wagon with a loud cheer and waded beside Boaz through the shallow water and up the bank. Before she jumped to the ground, Samantha slipped off her moccasins and dropped them into her apron pocket. Jack dismounted, and she took his proffered hand, thanking him as she slid off the bench.

She tried to focus, dipping her feet into the blessed coolness of the river before wading to shore. "I think our oxen are afraid of you."

He laughed. "Not me as much as my stick." "They certainly obeyed you." He helped her climb up the muddy bank. "We had a dozen oxen back home."

She glanced over at him. "You miss your farm, don't you?"

"It was my parents' farm, not mine. And no, I don't miss it."

She stepped onto the land and turned toward him. "But you miss your family."

He released her hand with a slight bow of his head. "Very much."

She wished they had hours to linger, talk. But Jack moved away quickly, back among the company of the other men as they prodded the Waldrons' oxen forward again. Their wagon clamored, the contents banging, as the oxen heaved it up the bank.

Boaz rushed down to her, like he was needed to escort her now that Jack had gone, and she bent to pet him before they joined more than a dozen women, four children, and a swarm of animals on the flat land.

"Get that dog out of here," the captain barked behind her.

She turned around, glaring at the man down the bank. She wished Boaz would bark back.

"We're going," she said, but she didn't think he heard, as he ordered the men to stock up with water. Even after five months on this journey, she didn't believe the captain knew the name of her dog...or even Samantha's first name, for that matter. She supposed she should be glad he was keenly focused on the details of the journey rather than the names of the people and their pets, but he could at least try to be polite.

Lucille McLean waved, but Samantha thought she saw a trace of jealousy behind her friend's smile. She waved back, trying to shrug off the feeling that she'd done something wrong. It wasn't like she'd asked Jack Doyle for help off the wagon. The man did make her heart flutter a bit, but she hadn't determined whether she liked the fluttering, nor had she confided her conflicting feelings to Lucille. Her friend was convinced that she would be changing her name to Lucille Doyle when they reached the end of their journey.

Lucille lifted the muddy hem of her skirt, but not a single strand of blond hair escaped her pink bonnet as she moved toward Samantha. "I'll be perfectly fine if I never have to cross another river again."

Samantha grinned. "You didn't enjoy the ride?"

"Hardly." Lucille nodded toward the Waldrons' wagon as it emerged on the hill. "Did you fill your barrel with water?"

She shook her head. "Papa will fill it."

Oxen and dogs milled around the people and the contents from the wagons scattered among the sagebrush. After boxes and barrels were jostled in the river crossing, most of the emigrants wanted to repack their loads before they continued.

"I need to fill my canteen," Gerty Morrison said, holding out her two-year-old daughter to Lucille. Lucille welcomed the child into her arms.

As Gerty climbed into the back of her family's emptied wagon, wind stole over the river, rustling the canvas bonnets on the wagons. Colt barked, and Mrs. Kneedler hushed him.

Samantha scanned the barren hills around them, but she didn't see anything unusual. Several companies of Indians had followed them along their journey—curious, she supposed, about the white men and women who traveled through their lands. The captain had traded shirts and fishhooks for food, and one of the Indians had tried to barter with Papa to exchange Samantha for three horses. Fortunately, Papa declined.

Two more dogs began barking, and then one growled. Her skin prickled. If the dogs had spotted a rabbit or a prairie dog, one of them would have chased it down by now.

Something else was wrong.

Samantha didn't know exactly what happened next, but Colt charged at an ox as if it were a wolf or bear.

"No!" Mr. Kneedler shouted, chasing after his dog, but it was too late.

The ox lumbered forward, no one to guide him. And then another ox followed.

Dust billowed into a maddening cloud and Samantha waved her hands in front of her face, trying to see. The oxen bellowed in unison as a thundering sound rippled across the company.

"Stampede!" someone yelled.

People scattered as the oxen pushed toward the hills. Clods of dirt flew off the ground; bows cracked as oxen broke loose of their yokes.

She couldn't see. Couldn't breathe.

All the dogs were barking now, and the oxen harnessed to the Morrisons' wagon took off after the others. Gerty screamed, and through the dust, Samantha saw Gerty peeking out of the back flap as though trying to determine whether she should jump.

Men ran toward the oxen. Lucille and the other women ran away from the wagons, their screams echoing in Samantha's ears.

Samantha ran toward her father.

"Steady," she heard Papa say as he clung to the oxbow on the lead team, his voice a controlled calm in the midst of the chaos.

"Where's Micah?" she shouted.

"Hold on to them!" Papa yelled. She reached for the bow on the other side, trying to anchor the large animals to the ground.

A child cried out from the storm of dust, and she turned around, searching for her brother. "I have to find Micah!"

"Steady," Papa said again before he looked across at her. "Go, Samantha."

A horse raced past her, and she jumped back, coughing as she scanned the chaos. She glimpsed her brother's blond hair close to a rock, but then he was gone.

"Micah!" she yelled as she tore through the confusion. God help all of them.

© Melanie Dobson, 2012

Friday, September 21, 2012

A Hidden Truth

a Home to Amana novel
by Judith Miller
Released September 1, 2012
In the closed communities of the Amana Colonies, hidden truths are about to change everything for two young women...

When Karlina Richter discovers that a new shepherd will be sent to her village, she fears she'll no longer be allowed to help her father with the sheep. She'll be relegated back to kitchen work, stuck inside all day. Her fears increase when the new shepherd shows little interest in the flock--or in divulging why he's suddenly been sent to East. Is he keeping secrets that will impact Karlina's family?

Dovie Cates visits the Amana Colonies to learn more about the place where her mother grew up. But when Dovie begins to ask questions about her mother's past, no one seems willing to reveal anything, so she decides to take matters into her own hands. Will the answers she finds spell disaster for her future plans and the longings of her heart?

Chapter 1
Saturday, October 29, 1892
Over-the-Rhine District, cincinnati, Ohio
Dovie Cates
"I won't be going with you."
My breath evaporated in thin, ghostlike whorls as I uttered the words.
The skirt of my black mourning dress whipped in the brisk breeze, and I pressed a gloved hand against the fabric before turning to meet my father's steely gaze.
Never before had I spoken with such authority. But life had changed. And not for the better.
I had questions. Questions that couldn't be answered by my father.
"Dovie Cates, you become more like your mother every day." My father's eyes softened.
His reaction surprised me. I was nothing like my mother. At least not in my mind. We had shared the same thick chestnut-brown hair and hazel eyes, but my mother had been quiet and unassuming, unwilling to speak of her past or consider the future. Traits that were nothing like my own. I fought back tears and the lump that threatened to lodge in my throat. In retrospect, it was likely best Mother hadn't worried about the future, for her life had been shorter than most. A future cut short nearly two months ago when she'd succumbed to the ravages of influenza.
Death had robbed her of a future, and it had robbed me of answers. Answers I'd been seeking. Answers about her past—her life before she'd left Iowa, before she'd met my father, and before I'd been born. Answers about her time in the Amana Colonies.
Father and I progressed along a sidewalk that fronted the narrow brick-and-frame houses built flush with the streets in the Over-the-Rhine district of Cincinnati. Sidewalks mopped or scrubbed clean each day by the German immigrants who lived in the tidy houses with backyard flower and vegetable gardens. Houses similar to the one in which I'd lived all of my twenty-two years.
My father reached inside his coat and withdrew his pipe. "Well, you can't remain in Cincinnati. I've arranged for the sale of the house, and a single young woman with no means of support, alone in the city . . ." His unfinished sentence hung in the wintry air, defying argument.
Hoping to gain his accord, I nodded my agreement. "I don't want to remain in Cincinnati, either."
He slowed his step and cupped his hand around the bowl of his pipe. Holding a match to the bowl, he puffed until the tobacco glowed red and smoke lifted toward the azure sky. "If you don't want to go to Texas with me and you don't plan to remain in Cincinnati, what is it you have in mind?"
There was no telling how my father would react to the idea. Before speaking, I clenched my hands and sent a silent prayer heavenward. "I want to go to Iowa—to the Amana Colonies—and learn of Mother's past."
His jaw went slack and the pipe slipped a notch before he clamped his lips tight around the stem. Confusion clouded his dark eyes, and he shook his head. "Foolishness."
"It isn't!" I argued. "I've given the matter a great deal of thought, and I believe it is an excellent idea."
Could my father not realize how lonely I would be in Texas? While he would be at work during the day and even out of town for short periods of time, I would be left alone in a strange city with nothing to occupy my time, without any friends—and without my mother.
"Tell me, how did you come to such a conclusion?"
"Mother would never tell me about her past—nothing before her marriage to you. Only once did she mention she had lived in the Amana Colonies, but whenever I tried to learn more, she refused to tell me. What can you tell me about her life back then?"
"Not much. And maybe your mother didn't talk about the past because it wasn't of any importance to her." My father blew a ring of smoke into the air.
When I didn't respond, he sighed.
"She did have a cousin, Louise, and they wrote to each other for a number of years." His brows furrowed. "Your mother and this Louise lived in the village known as East Amana, and they were as close as sisters—at least that's what your mother told me. When your grandparents decided to leave Iowa, your mother was forlorn. I was never certain what caused them to leave, but I know it had something to do with your grandfather. I didn't ask a lot of questions."
"Why? Weren't you inquisitive?" A strand of hair escaped, and I tucked it beneath my black bonnet.
A house Frau with bucket in hand opened her front door and prepared to scrub the steps leading to the border of sidewalk. She smiled a toothy grin. "Guten Morgen."
"Guten Morgen," my father and I replied in unison.
He took another puff from his pipe as we continued onward. "No, I wasn't particularly curious, and your mother never had any desire to discuss the past. Still, I knew her German roots were important to her. When she asked to settle in the Over-the-Rhine district rather than in another section of Cincinnati, I didn't argue. My work kept me away long hours, and I knew that until she learned English, she would be more comfortable among other Germans." He shrugged. "I knew there was no way to change anything that had happened in her past."
His answer surprised me. "Maybe not change it, but perhaps you could have better understood her, if you'd learned of her past." He shook his head as if to disagree, but I didn't stop. "What we learn from the past can help us form the future, don't you think?"
"Miller's Daughters of Amana is historical romance at its best. The characters are determined to find where they belong, sometimes with unanticipated results." –Romantic Times
"Steeped in period details that only a seasoned historical novelist can provide, this heartwarming story will meet the expectations of her fans as well as please critics. Extensive research backs every page of this meticulous, well—crafted work." –ForeWord Reviews on More Than Words
Visit Judith's website at
Visit her on Facebook at
A Hidden Truth is available wherever books are sold, including,, and
Copyright 2012 by Judith Miller


Thursday, September 06, 2012

Dying to Read


Book 1, The Cate Kinkaid Files
Lorena McCourtney

"Lorena McCourtney's lively cozy mysteries hit all the right notes for me, and her newest doesn't miss a chord. A quirky, likable heroine, a handsome guy, and oh, a murder. Don't miss Cate Kinkaid's first case as a PI. It's a killer."--Lyn Cote, author of La Belle Christiane

Cate Kinkaid, desperate for a job, goes to work as an assistant private investigator. Her first assignment is supposed to be easy and uncomplicated, no danger or mayhem, and murder isn't even a possibility. Instead, she finds herself up to her elbows in Whodunit ladies, a paint-blobbed hunk, a deaf white cat - and killers.

Chapter One

Cate glanced at the identification card her Uncle Joe had printed out just before she left his office. Cate Kinkaid, Assistant Private Investigator. Complete with the photo he'd snapped, which showed a spike of red hair growing out of her left ear, and the address and phone number of Belmont Investigations.
An identification card that made her – what? An overage Nancy Drew? An underage Jessica Fletcher? A clueless Stephanie Plum?
Whatever, she was getting desperate, and the job was only temporary, not a lifetime commitment. She was, as Uncle Joe had put it, just dipping her toe into the world of private investigation. Just until one of the many résumés she had floating around brought results. All she had to do today was check on a woman named Willow Bishop living at an address on Meisman Street here in Eugene, Oregon, and then write up a brief report for the files.
Although Cate hadn't expected the house to look as if it had jumped off the cover of some old Gothic novel. She parked at the bottom of the steep driveway and stared up at the unlikely old place sitting on an oversized parcel among a subdivision of modest homes. Not dilapidated, but weathered and brooding, with oddly-shaped windows tucked into unlikely nooks , and several upper windows painted over. A witch, or maybe a vampire or vulture, wouldn't look out of place peeking over the peaked roof of a corner turret.
No witches, vampires, or vultures lurking today, Cate decided as she walked up the driveway. Not unless they'd taken to using Lincolns or Buicks as transportation. A handful of older women milled around the front porch. One woman was punching the doorbell with open-up-or-else ferocity. Another had her hands pressed to the sides of her face as she peered in a window.
A plump, blond woman in pink spotted Cate and immediately charged out to meet her. "Willow, thank goodness you're here! We've been waiting twenty minutes and—" She stopped and peered at Cate with disapproval. "Oh, you're not Willow, are you?"
"Actually, I'm looking for Willow myself. Willow Bishop?"
"I don't know that I've ever heard her last name. Are you her sister?"
"Does she have a sister?"
"I don't know. You look like a sister."
Cate had realized the description Joe had given her for Willow Bishop, age 26, 5'4", 120 pounds, red hair, blue eyes, came close to fitting Cate too, but apparently the similarity was even closer than the numbers suggested. Although she was nearer the dreaded 30 than 26.
"No, I'm no relation. It's a business matter." Joe had emphasized that the work Belmont Investigations did was strictly confidential. "And you are?"
"Fiona Maxwell."
Another woman, tall and gaunt and clothed in more purple than Cate had ever seen on one person, said, "We're the Whodunit Book Club. We read a mystery and meet every other week to discuss it. Today we're meeting here at Amelia's house."

"She's our club president this year," a short woman with a squeaky voice added.

"Someone named Amelia, not Willow, lives here?" Cate asked.
"Willow lives here, but she works for Amelia.," Fiona said. "We're supposed to have lunch here at 12:00, and it's already—"
Purple Woman filled in a time. "12:30." The broad brim of her purple hat flopped with indignation as she spoke.
"Amelia can be so rude. Making us wait out here like this." This woman, in a long, suede skirt, cowboy boots, and spur earrings, waved the book in her hand. "And insisting we read Wuthering Heights was ridiculous. It's no whodunit."

"It wasn't any worse than that awful spy thing you suggested last month, Texie," Fiona snapped.
"At least I had lunch on time," Texie snapped back.
Cate decided a prudent retreat was advisable before she found herself in the crossfire of a book war. Cowgirl-garbed Texie, more toned and tanned than the other women, looked as if she could be a tough adversary. Maybe she had a six-shooter tucked away in that outfit.

"Could Amelia be ill, and that's why she isn't answering the door?" Cate asked.
The women exchanged glances. What seemed a logical thought to Cate apparently hadn't occurred to them.

"I suppose it's possible," the woman in purple said, although the agreement sounded reluctant. "She's never sick, but she's always complaining about her fluttering heartbeat."
"It's her eyelashes that flutter. Whenever any good-looking male comes within flutter distance. And it doesn't matter who the male belongs to." Texie planted her fists on her hips. The venom in her voice suggested personal experience.
What Cate couldn't figure out was why this group bothered to meet, given the hostility billowing around them. Not her concern, however. She turned to go. She could come back tomorrow. Although it did seem odd that neither Amelia nor Willow was around to feed what was apparently an expected horde of hungry mystery readers.

"Is there someone you could call who would have a key so you could go in and see if everything's okay?" Cate asked.
"Actually," Fiona said slowly, with a wary glance at the others, "I have a key. I didn't want to mention it because when Amelia gave it to me she said not to let anyone else know I had it."
"But she gave me one and said the same thing!" Purple Woman dug in an oversized purple purse and whipped out a key on a metal ring.
Almost instantly, five identical keys on five identical metal rings dangled from five not-so-identical fingers. Purple nails on the gaunt woman. Short, bitten-to-the-quick nails on Texie. Elegant, silvery-pink on another woman who now said, "Well, isn't that just like Amelia?"

"Why is that like Amelia?" Cate asked.
Texie took a step forward to answer. "Because she's underhanded and sneaky, that's why." Texie sounded triumphant, as if this were something she'd wanted to proclaim for a long time.
Purple Woman tilted her head thoughtfully. "It's a psychological thing. A power play. She wants to make you feel special, so you'll be indebted to her."

"I was in a garden club that broke up because of one awful woman," Texie said. "So then we got together and reorganized without her." She glanced around as if looking for support for a reorganization.

"Amelia'd find out," Fiona said, her uneasy tone suggesting the consequences could be dire.
In spite of the dangling keys, the women didn't seem inclined to make use of them. When Cate suggested someone unlock the door, a discussion followed, the consensus being that Amelia would be outraged if she unexpectedly found them all inside her house.
Cate impatiently grabbed a key. "Tell her to blame me then." She marched up the front steps and stuck the key in the lock.
With the door open, the Whodunit ladies swarmed inside. They headed for the dining room, apparently hoping lunch would materialize there, but Cate took a moment to glance around the living room.
Unlike the Gothic-gloom exterior of the old house, the interior held sleek, Danish modern furniture, an oversized flat-panel TV, and recessed lighting. Bookcases winged out on either side of a white marble fireplace. A curtain of wooden beads hung over the entrance to the turret room. A curved staircase, more southern-plantation than Gothic, swept to the second floor. A flamboyant painting of three green eyes immersed in what looked like a cauldron of boiling beans hung over the fireplace. Cate wasn't knowledgeable enough about art to identify what style the painting represented, but this was definitely a house with a split personality.
"The table isn't even set for lunch!" the squeaky-voiced person squeaked from the dining room.
Another voice suggested they move the meeting to a nice tea-room over near the university.

"But it's Amelia's turn to provide lunch! She shouldn't get to just wiggle out of it. Sometimes she can be so cheap," Fiona said. "Remember that time she said she was serving lobster, but it turned out to be that imitation kind?"

"She's not cheap when she's buying shoes. Have you ever priced those Jimmy Choo's she likes?"
"Hey, wait." This voice came from farther back in the kitchen. "This is odd."

(Published by Revell. Copyright 2012, Lorena McCourtney. Do not reproduce without permission.)
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