A Claw-some Affair (Meow for Murder 3)
By Addison Moore & Bellamy Bloom
Can be read all by its lonesome so hop on in!
A highly inaccurate psychic. A grumpy writer. And a corpse. Welcome to Starry Falls. Running from the mob can be murder.
Fall is in the air, and to celebrate, there’s a masquerade ball at the Mortimer Manor, where socialites and dapper men abound. But when someone drops dead in the middle of the dance floor, fingers are pointed at everyone—including the deceased.
Shep is as ornery as ever. Whoever keeps sending me those threatening notes has grown far more brazen, and my insights to the future have not only increased, but I’ve just seen a glimpse of something that I want no part of. With my luck—that will be the only vision that comes to fruition, just the way it’s threatened to.
Living in Starry Falls is proving to be deadly.
“We’ll need two to three bartenders and all waitresses on deck to rove around the ballroom serving canapés. I’ll make sure this is one masquerade ball no one will forget.” Opal Mortimer presses out her very best smile, one that looks as if she’s just sucked on a lemon as she strokes the back of the brown and black spotted Bengal cat named King.
Any conversation that starts off with hard liquor has the power to pique my attention. Not that I drink. I can’t with my condition. And no, I’m not in the family way. But you could say that my family got me in this supernatural predicament to begin with.
My name is Stella Santini, or at least it was until I got caught up in one heck of a hot mess that involved both the feds and the mob, not to mention one rather idiotic boyfriend. I’m known as Bowie Binx now, and I’ve got long black hair, light brown eyes, stand at an average height of five-foot-five, and I can see the future.
Confession: I’m no psychic. Nor have I ever come close to predicting what the future might hold—not with any accuracy anyway.
You see, ever since I was a little girl, I had what my Nana Rose called the shakes. Technically, it’s more of a shiver, and when you get down to it, there’s a warm, fuzzy feeling involved that makes me want to forget about the world around me for a moment and retreat to the dark recesses of my mind where a thought plays out like a movie and I see things. And trust me when I say I have been wrong about interpreting the things I see on more than one occasion.
“Consider it done, Opal.” I nod over to the older woman with all of the confidence I don’t have.
I’m the manager of the Manor Café, and it’s my responsibility to make sure anything to do with this quirky eatery works like a well-oiled machine. The café itself has seen better days, with its red Naugahyde booths and chairs, the chipped tables, and dizzying black and white square floor tile. But we have our fair share of regulars and I take their culinary happiness personally.
Opal burst into the Manor Café this morning and let me know that her son is hosting a ritzy masquerade ball this evening, and the venue in which he was to host the event flooded due to bad plumbing. So he did what any red-blooded American would do. He called up his mommy and demanded the use of the ballroom in her manor.
Opal Mortimer is an eighty-something divorcee with gray wiry curls that sit over her shoulders, and wears what some might say is a dramatic amount of cosmetics on her face. She has dark kohl ringed around her eyes, traffic cone orange lipstick, and wears a paper-white foundation that gives her that unearthly glow I’m not sure she was shooting for. But my favorite part about this eccentric, kindhearted woman is the fact her accouterments tend to lean toward the avant-garde. I’ve never seen so much lace, leather, and spikes worn by a woman of any age, let alone all at once. It’s inspiring.
It turns out, Opal’s ex-husband took her for a financial ride and left her with nothing but this manor and the couture clothes that take up the entire second story. The manor itself looks as if it was pulled brick by brick from England and sits crooked on a tiny hill at the end of Main Street right here in Starry Falls. And it just so happens to be home to well over a hundred cats.
Opal is a self-professed cat lady who not only cares for the cats of the manor, but every feline stray in the great state of Vermont as well.
Tilly bounces on her heels as she stands by my side. “Bowie and I have it all under control. Don’t worry, Opal. Your billionaire son will be blown away when he sees the level of sophistication the Manor Café is able to provide.”
“Wonderful.” Opal shakes her head at the two of us as if she were in awe. She leans my way. “Have you had any visions regarding the event that you’d like to share?” She purses her lips. “Perhaps I’ll be meeting a wealthy earl this evening who will sweep me off my feet with his trillions?”
Suffice it to say, Opal isn’t too comfortable with her newly minted cash-strapped status, and I can’t blame her. She was born with a silver spoon in her mouth straight from in utero. She’s not used to trying to hustle for a dollar, and I think that’s why she appreciates me so much. Ever since I’ve been in Starry Falls running from the feds and mob—both of which have landed targets on my back—I’ve helped her squeeze an extra dollar or two from the kind residents of this one cow town.
“Sorry.” I wrinkle my nose over at her. “No visions about anything as of late. But as soon as I get one, you’ll be the first to know.”
“What about me?” Tilly bucks her hip into mine. “I thought we were certified besties now.”
“Oh, we are, sister.” I hold up a hand and she slaps me a high-five.
In the last couple months since I arrived, Tilly and I have already been involved in two murder investigations together.
Tilly is a touch shorter than me, dark hair with chunky blonde highlights. She’s a tough cookie who likes to flaunt her bodily wares by way of tight tops and even shorter skirts. We’re both in our late twenties and happen to share the same no-nonsense approach to life.
I think if I had met Tilly in New Jersey, where I originally hail from, we would have been best friends, too. I’m sort of like Opal in regards to my riches-to-rags story—or more to the point, cautionary tale. Throw a pending felony offense her way and we’d practically be twins.
Opal gasps and gives poor King a hard squeeze.
“I almost forgot,” she drags out that last word as if it had fourteen syllables. Opal definitely has an unidentifiable accent that can only be credited to her old tax bracket. “We’ll need the staff outfitted appropriately for the masquerade. I’ve picked out a gown for each of you girls to wear. You can find them in the library once you’re through here. Oh, we’re going to have such a ball.” She twitches her hand our way and her mouth squares out with the idea of a laugh. “Get it? Ball?”
The bell on the door chimes and into the café strides not one but two heart-stoppingly handsome men, one of which is Shepherd J. Wexler.
I can’t help but swoon at the sight of him. Shep is a tall, dark-haired, blue-eyed drink of water that I’ve been thirsty for ever since I showed up in Starry Falls. Not only is Shep dangerously handsome, but he’s a best-selling thriller writer who spends his time hunkered down right here in this café clicking away at his laptop while I keep him stocked with strong coffee and sweet muffins—he also happens to be my landlord. I rent a tiny cabin behind his much bigger cabin a few blocks over. And I won’t lie, I’ve tried my hand at being a genuine peeping Tom in hopes of catching him strutting around his place in his skivvies. So far no such luck.
Every female in this place pauses to give their full attention to the two hotties that just graced us with their presence.
The man next to Shep is a looker, too—dark hair tinged with auburn highlights, dark eyes, a dark smile, and that look in his eyes lets me know he’s filled with naughty intent.
Shep is in his early thirties, and I’m betting the mystery man in the dark suit is somewhere in that age range, too.
Opal tosses her arms in the air and poor King sails right out of them as he jumps onto a neighboring stool.
“Jackie!” Opal howls as she latches onto the handsome devil, and he quickly sheds a grin as he embraces her as well.
“Mother,” he says as he winks over at Tilly and me—and to be honest, it’s a bit unnerving. “I love what you’ve done to the place.” He plucks her off his person as he steps close to the counter, taking both Tilly and me in with a sly smile. “Well, well, what delicious treats do we have here?”
Before either of us can say a proper hello, all three of the waitresses on the floor materialize before us.
“Regina Valentine,” says the most notorious vulture in all of Starry Falls as she takes his hand and shakes it without any intention of letting go. Regina is a brunette stunner who used to date Shep, and I use the word date loosely when referencing the state of their late relationship. She used to run this place right up until Opal fired her and hired me. Regina is a bit of a drama mama, and we’re not exactly one another’s biggest fans. “At your service. Anything you need, all night long, I’ll be your personal liaison, Jackie.” She gives a cheeky wink his way and he chuckles.
Then there’s Thea, the corn fed, auburn-haired, freckle-faced girl with a sunshiny smile for one and all. And lastly, there’s Flo, Starry Falls’ own resident Goth princess, with her harshly dyed black hair and enough eyeliner to rival Opal’s.
“Ladies.” Opal’s son growls with delight. “Please—call me Jackson. I’m afraid I’m unable to make my mother do the same. I’ll forever be a child in her eyes.”
Opal gives his cheek a squeeze to prove his point.
“Would you look at this face?” she coos as if she were speaking to one of her cats. “Could you blame me for wanting to kiss those loveable cheeks?”
Regina moans, “No, I couldn’t.”
“Shep.” I offer him a flirtatious smile. “Nice to see you this afternoon. Will we see you at the masquerade ball tonight?”
Jackson slaps him on the shoulder. “Are you kidding? I’m not letting my favorite author miss it. And don’t any of you worry. I’ve got a surplus of masks. No one will go without.” He leans in and adds a bit of extra drama to that last word.
Shep’s cheek rises on one side. He’s the strong, serious type who is more than a little rough around the edges. Along with being a best-selling author, he used to work as a homicide detective at the Woodley County Sheriff’s Department, and just last week he informed me that he was going part-time with the force, more of a consulting position than anything else.
Shep is the only one who knows about my real identity and that whole money laundering mess that landed me on a runaway train to Starry Falls to begin with.
And speaking of secrets, only Tilly and Opal know about my ability to peer into the future. As much as I feel bad for not spilling it all to the three of them, I still go by that old adage—what they don’t know won’t hurt them. And if anyone else finds out I’m not really Bowie Binx, it might just come back to bite me.
A whole new crop of customers walks into the café, and Thea and Flor are off to the races.
Regina steps in close to Jackson and glides her finger down his mint green tie.
“Save a dance for me, later, would you, Jackie?” She walks past Shep and gives him a light scratch over the chest. “You, too, big boy. Don’t think I’ve forgotten about you.” She turns my way and shoots me a look that could slice my head off.
Jackson steps in close, his eyes steadying over mine.
“I can hardly wait to see the two of you in costume.” He inches closer. “And perhaps without.”
Opal chortles, pulling her dashing son to the side while mentioning something about a caviar bar.
Shep tips his head back a notch.
“Tilly.” He nods her way. “Bowie. I take it you’re both excited about the evening about to unfold.”
Tilly pushes out a dry laugh. “You bet your baby blue peepers. That is, unless Bowie here has some kooky spooky vision of what’s to come. And if what’s to come is a bona fide murder, I’ll be sure to make a run for Jackson Mortimer’s strong, billionaire arms. Just because his daddy cut Opal off at the wallet doesn’t mean he’s suffered the same disastrous financial fate.”
“Good to know,” I say it curt as I threaten her with my crazy-eyed stare. How could she all but out me that way? She knows that I don’t want Shep in on my supernatural secret, and here she’s all but spelled it out for him.
Tilly squints before her eyes grow large. Her hand claps over her mouth as she comes to the realization of what she’s just done.
“I meant—what a great vision you have for the manor, Bowie.” She shrugs over at me. “In fact, I’ll go make sure everything is coming along in the kitchen. I’d hate for the canapés not to canappen.” She blows me an apologetic kiss.
I’m about to let some smart-aleck remark fly just as that old, familiar, warm, fuzzy feeling grips me, and I fall into a slightly vegetative state.
A picture begins to form in my mind. It’s the ballroom in the back of the manor. Elegantly dressed women swirl in the background and I can see Tilly’s skunky highlights to my right as Jackson leans in hard. The scene grows fuzzy as if it were going in and out of focus.
“Meet me in the library, sweetheart,” he whispers. “I’ve got something special to show you that I think you’ll really appreciate.”
Tilly giggles like a schoolgirl, and soon the café comes back into focus and Shep is staring sternly into my eyes.
“Bowie, are you okay?” He steps around the counter and pulls me over to him and I blush as his hand warms my back.
“Oh yeah, I’m fine.” I try to shake the remnants of that supernatural trance away. “I just—I guess I was daydreaming about the ball.” I bite down a smile over my lip. “How about it, big boy?” I tease. “Save a dance for me?”
He leans back. A devilish grin struggles to break out on his face, but he’s successful in taming it.
“Maybe.” He nods my way. “I’ll see you tonight.”
Shep Wexler is tough, and ornery, and has a history with half the women in the state of Vermont. He’s the exact type of man I swore off after ditching my louse of an ex.
And ironically, he’s the one my heart is pining for most.
I lean over and give King a scratch on his fuzzy little head.
“I guess you can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” I whisper as I look up to see Jackson licking his chops as he looks my way. I quickly glance to my left to avoid his gaze, only to spot Shep glaring at Jackson for drooling in my direction.
Well, well. It looks as if I’ve found a kink in Shepherd Wexler’s armor.
Shep looks as if he’s ready and willing to break Jackson’s legs for openly lusting after me.
Is that a spark of jealousy I see?
Now there is something I can work with.
I shed a toothy smile in Jackson’s direction before walking boldly past Shep as I head into the dining room.
I have a feeling tonight’s masquerade will be one to remember.