In Sea Harbor, the holidays mean cozy fires, festive carols, and soft skeins of yarn waiting to become hats and sweaters and scarves. And this year, Izzy and the other Seaside Knitters are also knitting tiny ornaments to decorate a tree for the first annual tree-trimming contest.
Their holiday cheer is multiplied when Izzy’s younger brother, Charlie Chambers, unexpectedly arrives to volunteer at a local clinic. He brings with him outspoken hitchhiker Amber Hanson, who is returning to Sea Harbor to claim an inheritance. She quickly reacquaints herself with the area—and forms an unlikely friendship with Charlie. But their bond is shattered when her body is found beneath the undecorated trees on the Harbor Green.
Charlie is a suspect in the murder, so Izzy and her fellow Knitters step in to uncover the truth. Their journey takes them into Charlie’s past and tests their fierce love for him. But it’s only by peeling away long-buried secrets that they can hope to restore joy to the season and enjoy the shining lights of the newly decorated trees....
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Nell Endicott: Former Boston nonprofit director, lives in Sea Harbor with her husband, Ben
Izzy (Isabel Chambers Perry): Boston attorney, now owner of the Seaside Knitting Studio; Nell and Ben Endicott’s niece; married to Sam Perry
Cass (Catherine Mary Theresa Halloran): Lobster fisherwoman
Birdie (Bernadette Favazza): Sea Harbor’s wealthy, wise, and generous silver-haired grand dame
Ben Endicott: Nell’s husband
Sam Perry: Award-winning photojournalist, married to Izzy
Danny Brandley: Mystery novelist and son of bookstore owners
Sonny Favazza: Birdie’s first husband
Charlie Chambers: Izzy’s younger brother
Andy Risso: Drummer in Pete Halloran’s band; son of the Gull Tavern owner
Don and Rachel Wooten: Owner of the Ocean’s Edge restaurant (Don) and city attorney (Rachel)
Ella and Harold Sampson: Birdie’s housekeeper and groundsman/driver
Gracie Santos: Owner of Gracie’s Lazy Lobster Café
Jane and Ham Brewster: Artists and cofounders of the Canary Cove Art Colony
Mary Halloran: Pete and Cass’s mother; secretary of Our Lady of Safe Seas Church
Pete Halloran: Cass’s younger brother and lead guitarist in the Fractured Fish band
Willow Adams: Fiber artist, Fishtail Gallery; Pete Halloran’s girlfriend
Alan Hamilton, MD: Family doctor
Alphonso Santos: Owner of construction company; chamber of commerce cochair; married to Liz Palazola Santos
Amber Harper: Hitchhiker whom Charlie Chambers picks up and drives to Sea Harbor
Annabelle Palazola: Owner of the Sweet Petunia Restaurant
Archie and Harriet Brandley: Owners of the Sea Harbor Bookstore
Barbara Cummings: Co-owner of Cummings Northshore Nurseries
Beatrice Scaglia: Mayor of Sea Harbor
Carly Schultz: Nurse at Ocean View
Ellie Harper: Amber Harper’s deceased mother
Esther Gibson: Police dispatcher (and Mrs. Santa Claus in season)
Father Lawrence Northcutt: Pastor of Our Lady of Safe Seas Church
Garrett O’Neal: Accountant at Cummings Northshore Nurseries
Harry and Margaret Garozzo: Owners of Garozzo’s Deli
Helen Cummings: Wife of co-owner of Cummings Northshore Nurseries
Henrietta O’Neal: Longtime resident; Garrett O’Neal’s aunt
Janie Levin: Nurse practitioner in the Sea Harbor Free Health Clinic; Tommy Porter’s girlfriend
Jerry Thompson: Police chief
Laura Danvers: Young socialite and philanthropist, mother of three; married to banker Elliot Danvers
Lydia Cummings: Owner of Cummings Northshore Nurseries
Mae Anderson: Izzy’s shop manager; twin teenage nieces, Jillian and Rose
Mary Pisano: Middle-aged newspaper columnist; owner of Ravenswood-by-the-Sea B&B
Merry Jackson: Owner of the Artist’s Palate Bar and Grill; keyboard/singer in the Fractured Fish
Polly Farrell: Owner of Polly’s Tea Shoppe
Richard Gibson: Esther’s retired husband
Stella Palazola: Realtor in Sea Harbor; Annabelle’s daughter
Stuart Cummings: Co-owner of Cummings Northshore Nurseries
Tommy Porter: Policeman
Charlie hadn’t yet reached the bridge that crossed over onto Cape Ann proper when he decided it was all a terrible mistake. A cruel joke his conscience had played on him, punishing him for all the wrongs in his life.
But it was too late to turn back. He’d vowed that in this grown-up chapter of his life he’d keep promises, honor commitments. Even if the truth was that it might not matter to anyone. No one was expecting him, not tonight, at least. And maybe the doctor had exaggerated the need in her clinic. But the fact was that he had said he would come. So he would.
Gripping the steering wheel until his fingers hurt, he squinted into the black wintry night. The highway was narrow and full of curves, unfamiliar to him.
And there was the rain that had begun about the time he’d passed a big mall at the Danvers exit. It was coming down harder now, fat sloppy drops that splattered on the windshield and spread across the glass. An angry wind pulled and pushed the car across the road, and the wild trees, swaying with weather’s elemental force, seemed to reach out toward him until he found himself hugging the center line, avoiding their touch.
He approached another curve, his eyes stinging, focusing on the yellow line, the bend ahead.
He slowed slightly, pulling the wheel to the right. The shadows beside the road grew thicker here, the trees dense. At first he thought it was a sapling, a bare, slender tree bending along with its taller peers like naked dancers in the frigid, icy night.
But suddenly the road straightened and his headlights sliced through the darkness—catching the swaying figure as it stepped directly into the car’s path.
Charlie slammed his foot on the pedal, the repeated pulsing of the ABS brakes sending vibrations through his body. His body shook, his mind ragged with fear. He’d almost hit someone, or maybe an animal. It couldn’t be happening . . . not again . . . not . . .
His thoughts froze in the air. With white fingers clutching the steering wheel, he leaned forward, staring through the windshield, his eyes straining to see beyond the flapping wipers.
But there was no time to process what he was seeing. Seconds later the passenger door flew open. A rush of wind and rain filled the heated car, followed in seconds by a hooded body that slid onto the passenger seat.
The door slammed shut.
At first he felt confusion, a ringing in his ears so loud it blocked out the wind that rocked the small car. He pushed against his door, staring at the stranger.
Finally facial features appeared under the folds of the hood and he saw that it was a woman—sopping wet and disheveled—her face barely visible, but striking gray eyes luminous as they stared at him.
He glanced down at the slushy pools of water collecting on the leather car seats and dripping onto the floor of his BMW. An old backpack fell onto the floor, landing in a sea of leaves and frozen rain.
She followed his look and he thought he heard the trace of a laugh. Then she looked at him again, her eyes going up and down his body. “I thought big guys like you drove trucks.”
He ignored the comment. Instead he concentrated on the girl herself, and his medical training kicked in. He couldn’t see blood, just a wet, nondescript woman staring back at him. Was she hurt? Mentally ill?
She pushed back the hood of her parka, revealing a narrow, pale face and brown hair touching her shoulders in damp, limp strands.
But it was her eyes that stunned him, staring, challenging him. They reminded him of a piece of granite he had in his old stone collection. Granite with a touch of mica. A touch of glitter.
“Well?” she asked. “What are you waiting for?”
“Waiting for? Who the hell are you?” A foolish question—but the words came out of nowhere.
The smell of freezing rain and wet leather filled the car.
It was a strong laugh, but youthful. She was younger than he was, but not much. Late twenties, maybe. Lean, pretty, if she’d let herself be.
“What’s your name?” Charlie asked.
“Jane Doe,” she snapped, then buckled her seat belt and looked through the windshield at the road ahead. “Come on. Let’s go. It’s freezing.”
Charlie’s hands were on the wheel, but he kept staring at this peculiar woman who had somehow taken over his car. He forked one hand through thick, slightly curly hair. “Go where?”
Her face contorted into a frown. Then she released it, and spoke slowly, as if to a child. “From the signs along this road and the exit sign back there, I’d say we were headed for Sea Harbor.”
Charlie shifted the car into first and pulled slowly back onto the road, his head turning now and then to get a better look at his passenger. Or maybe to be sure she wasn’t slipping his phone or wallet, sitting on the console between them, into her pocket or backpack.
“You shouldn’t be hitchhiking,” he said finally. His voice was tight, with an unexpected paternalistic tone. “It’s dangerous.”
She laughed, mocking him, then said in a low tone, matching his, “You shouldn’t be picking up hitchhikers. It’s dangerous, young man.”
He glanced over, unsure if she was joking or ridiculing him.
She pulled off her soggy gloves and dropped them on the floor, then slipped one hand into the pocket of her parka while she warmed the other in front of a heat vent. She twisted in the seat, her body turning toward his.
The movement pulled Charlie’s eyes from the road again. He watched the bulge beneath the jacket grow as her fingers curled beneath the fabric.
“How do you know I’m not about to off you?” she said, her hand still in her pocket. “Maybe I’ll take your money and your Bimmer and leave you by the side of the road.”
Her look was focused and direct. It was so concentrated and sharp that Charlie squirmed in the seat. She was crazy. He was twice her bulk, a football player’s body visible even beneath his heavy jacket—but she made him nervous. He wondered briefly if she’d wandered off the grounds of a mental health place somewhere along the highway.
“Or maybe worse—maybe I’ll ravage you first,” she said. She pulled her hand out of her pocket and walked her fingers across the console, over to his leg, crawling up his thigh.
“Cut it out,” Charlie said through clenched teeth. His foot pushed down on the gas pedal, and the car skidded across the road. He held tight to the wheel and brought it back under control.
The girl pulled her hand away.
Charlie could feel the smile on her face and it irritated him.
“No gun,” she said. “No nothing. Just me.”
He swallowed a sudden swell of anger and drove across the bridge in silence. The rain was letting up slightly and on both sides of the river houses sparkled with holiday lights, cheerful and alive, defying the weather. Charlie glanced at the GPS and drove along the river road for a way, then followed the signs that welcomed him into Sea Harbor, home of the fighting Cool Cods.
The girl read the sign out loud. “I remember that. High school mascot.”
“You’re from Sea Harbor?”
“No. Well, sorta.” She kept her eyes glued to the passing neighborhoods, houses lit up for the holidays. “I haven’t been here since I was a kid. It looks different. You?”
Charlie shook his head. He felt as if he’d been there, though. All those pictures from his mother. Guilt pictures. He should have come over those many years. But he hadn’t visited. Not once. Not when his whole family came to Boston for his sister’s graduation. Not when she married their older brother’s best friend—and his good friend, too.
He couldn’t come, not then. Those were dark times for Charlie. His wandering years. Flings, morose moods. Anger. There was no room for darkness at a wedding. He’d done everyone a favor by staying away, or at least that was how he justified it in his head.
“So, why are you here?” Her voice had softened slightly and was almost friendly. He looked over. Her face had softened, too—her eyes brighter, her cheeks slightly flushed from the cold. A long straight nose. Her features fit together more pleasingly, as if the car heater had warmed more than her skin, bringing her face to life.
He looked back at the road and said, “A job.”
She nodded and repeated his words. “A job. Okay. What kind of job?”
Charlie was quiet.
“Cat got your tongue?”
“I guess it does.” He made a right turn, following signs that routed traffic to the harbor. COMMERCIAL AREA, one read. He pressed his foot on the gas and picked up some speed.
He hadn’t intended to arrive in town so late, but the rain and an accident on 95 had slowed traffic to a crawl. Since no one was expecting him, it didn’t really matter when he showed up, he supposed. The doctor had said she’d help him get settled when he arrived, but he hadn’t told her exactly when he was coming—sometime around mid-December was as close as he came to nailing it down. A cowardly act. What he was really doing was giving himself time to change his mind.
But no matter, he couldn’t show up on her doorstep unannounced, not to mention that he had no idea where her doorstep was. The only address on her card had been that of a community center. He’d find a place in town to spend the night.
Charlie looked out the side window, as if to hide his thoughts from the woman sitting inches away. There were other people living in Sea Harbor whom he could call to put him up for a night or two until he got organized. But he wouldn’t. He couldn’t. He pushed the discomforting thought to the back of his head.
“Amber,” the woman said, pulling his attention back into the car. “You can call me Amber.”
He nodded. “Charlie,” he said, and took a curve faster than necessary. “Okay, Amber. It looks like we’re in Sea Harbor. So, where can I drop you?”
She didn’t answer. She was nibbling on her bottom lip, her eyes scanning the streets as if trying to match them to a memory.
“You okay?” Charlie asked.
“I hate this place,” she said.
“But you’re here.”
“Briefly.” Her look told Charlie to stop asking questions.
Charlie nodded. Briefly. It might be the same for him. No plans beyond the month he’d promised the clinic.
The houses were starting to give way to small shops. Straight ahead, beyond the harbor lights and spread out as far as Charlie could see, lay the ocean, its only definition a series of whitecaps that repeated themselves, over and over. He pulled to the left, turning onto Harbor Road, a street lined with old-fashioned lampposts fronting bars and cafés and retail shops. Sparkling white lights wound around the posts and up and down the street, giant red bows and boughs of evergreen-decorated storefronts, restaurants, and signs.
It was a scene from a Disney movie with one exception: the streets were nearly empty of people.
• • •
Tommy Porter, his uniform jacket smelling of wet polyester, stood in front of Jake Risso’s Gull Tavern, just beneath the green awning. The rain had turned into a freezing drizzle and he pulled up his collar against the wet cold. Snow, Tommy predicted.
He thought about his fiancée, Janie, helping out at the big community center party in Anya Angelina Park, and he wished for the umpteenth time that night that he was with her. But then, he always wished that. And the wish made him smile. It was okay—Janie’d be ultrabusy tonight, helping run the darn thing, too busy to pay attention to him. She’d pulled her brother, Zack, into helping tonight, too—trying as always to keep the college kid on the straight and narrow path.
He couldn’t complain about not being there anyway—he had volunteered to take the Harbor Road shift tonight, knowing no one else wanted it. It’d be a cinch, there’d be no crime. The weather was too bad for bar fights. Too cold for thieves or derelicts passing through. Too close to the holidays for people to entertain ill will.
He half listened to the canned music escaping from the bar as a few fishermen straggled out. Tommy waved and watched them lumber across the street, then spotted an unfamiliar car out of the corner of his eye. It was driving toward him on Harbor Road. Not that Tommy knew every car that came in and out of Sea Harbor, but this one didn’t look homegrown. A red BMW, not new but well cared for, stood out.
And it was going too fast for the slick streets, was his second thought.
He took a few steps from beneath the awning, but before he could register anything, the car pulled over to the curb and came to a sudden stop, water spitting up around the wheels and sloshing over the curb.
Drunk driver? Probably not. Unless he was so drunk it didn’t register to him that he was pulling up in front of a policeman in full uniform.
The driver left the car running, but opened the door, stepped out, and pressed his gloved hands on the roof, calling over to the policeman, “Hey—where is everyone? It’s like a ghost town around here.”
Tommy hunched up his shoulders against the drizzle and walked over to the car, his eyes not leaving the driver. He was a decent-sized guy, shoulders wide and with a thick head of hair that blew in all directions as the wind picked up. A little older than himself, he thought. Nice-looking in a collegiate sort of way—strong cheekbones and chin, a straight nose, inquisitive blue eyes set wide apart—features that probably got him carded in a bar now and then.
Not that thieves or killers or lowlifes had a certain look, but Tommy suspected this guy wasn’t one of them.
Just then the passenger door opened and a woman climbed out, boots and jeaned legs coming first, then followed by a parka-clad figure that seemed to unfold with a certain grace from the car. Her hood was pushed back and she swept away strands of brown hair from her cheeks and eyes as she looked around, her gaze settling finally on the policeman.
She nodded, a brief and silent greeting.
Tommy held out an umbrella, but she shook her head, looking up into the black sky and letting the icy rain fall onto her cheeks.
The driver still stood on the other side of the car. Tommy looked back at him. “There’s a big event at our community center. Most everyone’s there. What do you guys need? Who are you looking for?”
It was the woman who spoke up. “Esther Gibson.”
Tommy’s eyebrows lifted. He looked more closely at her. She was attractive in a rough-around-the-edges way, maybe a little too skinny. “Esther?” He’d worked with the longtime police dispatcher since joining the force as a rookie ten years before—and he knew Esther’s granddaughter. Nieces. This woman wasn’t any of them.
“She’d be at the party.” He pointed a finger toward the far end of Harbor Road, where signs pointed out to a spit of forested land that held the center, a park, hiking trails, and picnic spots along the shore.
“Party?” Amber said.
“Yeah. It marks the beginning of the holiday season. Everyone’s there, out at the community center.”
“Is that where the free clinic is?” Charlie asked.
Tommy nodded. “Yep. Why? Are you sick?” Silly question. The dude’s driving a BMW and looks healthy as a horse.
“No. Just wondering.”
“The community center sits at the edge of a park—close to the water. They have all kinds of programs out there, parties, a great place for cross-country skiers to get warm. But the big to-do tonight is to make money for the free health clinic. It’s a great program Doc Virgilio brought to town. I guess you’ve heard of it?”
Tommy nodded. Dr. Virgilio. That was Charlie’s contact, the doctor who had spoken to his nursing school class and passed out her card. She could always use volunteers for her free clinic, she’d said. The clinic was in Massachusetts, a little town right on the water. Sea Harbor. That was when he had raised his head that day—at the words Sea Harbor.
So Charlie had taken a card when she passed them out and stuck it in his wallet. He looked out toward the water, remembering. But right now, at this very moment, he had no idea why he’d finally pulled out the card when he did all those months later. And even less why he had given the doctor a call. He must have been crazy.
He shook away the thoughts and concentrated on the man standing on the curb. The cop had answered one question anyway. He wouldn’t be able to reach the doc tonight even if he wanted to. She’d most certainly be at the benefit. “So, is there a motel around here?” he asked. He glanced over at Amber. She had pulled her backpack out of the car and was standing on the sidewalk, taking in the gaslights along the street, the sheets of rain changing the glow into panels of light. He wondered what her plans were. She seemed unconcerned about where she would be spending the night.
“Yes and no,” Tommy said. “There’s a great B and B not far from here. Ravenswood-by-the-Sea. But it’s booked solid, probably until after the New Year. There’re some places in Rockport and Gloucester, but my bet is they’re filled, too—there is some convention going on over in Gloucester, plus, people came in for our benefit here.”
Charlie looked up and down the street, thinking. It wouldn’t be the first time he had spent the night in a car. Maybe not in this weather, but it wouldn’t kill him. He’d find a parking lot somewhere, pull out the blanket in the backseat that his dog used to use.
“Hop back in your car and follow me,” Tommy said. “The community center has a few cabins that might not be full—they’re rustic, bare-bones, but they have heat and beat the sidewalk or beach. Or I can find someone at the party who can put you up. Not usually a problem.”
Amber shrugged, but Charlie didn’t move. “Yeah, well, thanks, but there’s no need for that,” he said. “Maybe you can take the girl there to find Eloise or whoever she’s looking for. I’ll be fine—”
“Call me Tommy,” he said, “and let’s go. Neither of you should be wandering around in this weather. Besides, you were driving too fast and it’s my bet you don’t have a clue where you’re going.”
Before Charlie could argue, Tommy turned and headed over to a police car parked in a narrow drive beside the bar. In the next minute he had backed out, and was waiting in the middle of the empty street for Charlie to follow.
Charlie glanced inside the car, then looked over the roof to the curb.
Amber was gone.
Amber Harper stood against the side of McClucken’s hardware store in the narrow alley that ran alongside the stone building. It wasn’t more than a slice of gravel, wide enough for a Dumpster, leaving just enough room for a skinny kid or two to hide with a pack of stolen cigarettes.
A skinny kid with wild hair who didn’t quite fit in Sea Harbor.
Amber’s thoughts slid uneasily back to those years of feeling lost and angry. A gangly teenager, mad at the world. Her once-edgy hormones were more level now, her mind clear, her anger under control. And she didn’t smoke any longer; she’d grown up. But the feelings seemed to lurk in the shadows, sneaking up on her and reminding her that it’s difficult to revisit one’s past. And maybe not even a good thing.
She rummaged through her pockets for gloves but came up empty. The car, she remembered now. She had pulled them off to warm her hands on the car vent. Good gloves, too.
She stepped out from behind the metal refuse can, rubbed her hands together, and looked through the sleet and wind, watching the taillights of the police car and BMW driving away from where she stood. The cop drove slowly, carefully, probably looking for her, until both cars finally disappeared around the bend in the road.
She wasn’t sure why she’d walked away. The cop was friendly enough and wanting to help. But facing a mass of people celebrating good cheer in a community center that hadn’t existed in her other life wasn’t where she wanted to be tonight. Not to mention the possibility of seeing people she had worked at avoiding nearly her whole life, even when she lived under their roofs. Tonight was definitely not the night to break her pattern.
She needed time to adjust, to figure out why she’d even come.
She shivered, hunched her shoulders up to her ears, and walked into the wind, her backpack moving slightly back and forth.
Harbor Road was the same—but different, she thought.
The old bookstore across the street was still there. Her gray eyes lingered on the familiar sign and took her back to the hours and hours that she had spent sitting on the floor on the store’s upper level, her legs folded like a pretzel. She’d lose herself in Nancy Drew, Anne of Green Gables, A Secret Garden, and every Judy Blume she could get her hands on.
There were new stores, too—a yarn shop across the street where a beat-up bait shop once stood. Amber stared at it, thinking about Esther Gibson and her piles of yarn, the fat needles she’d used to teach Amber to knit as they sat side by side in the nursing home.
Amber shook off the memory and concentrated instead on a brightly decorated sign with a giant scooper. It was outlined in lights—an ice-cream shop. SCOOPERS, it read. Nice. And it didn’t close for the winter as some on Cape Ann did. That was nice, too. A coffee shop with a patio was nearby. Apparently life hadn’t stood still since the night that she packed the North Face backpack Esther Gibson had given her and hitchhiked her way out of Sea Harbor and into a new life.
Her hometown had grown up some.
Amber pulled up her hood and tucked a handful of wet hair beneath it, then shoved her hands into her pockets and began walking again, down Harbor Road toward the Gull Tavern. It would be warm at least. And unlike the many times she’d snuck up to the bar’s rooftop patio, this time she’d be legit. Photo ID and all. Not that anyone would card check an almost thirty-year-old who looked every bit her age and then some.
Maybe she should have gotten back into the car with the Charlie guy. He was nice enough, even in the face of her rude behavior. Lack of sleep had a habit of bringing out the worst in her. At first she hadn’t been able to gauge his age easily—something she was usually good at. The few freckles sprinkled across his nose didn’t fit well with the worried look in his blue eyes or the concerned wrinkle in his forehead. So she’d flipped open his wallet when he was concentrating on the highway signs. Half a dozen years older than she was, if she’d read it right.
The cop reminded her of some of the nice people she’d known in Sea Harbor. He’d have found Esther for her, probably, and Esther would have hugged her close against her big ample breasts, the light flowery scent of her lavender lotion bringing a strange comfort. She would have insisted on giving her the wide bed in the back of the house—and probably a glass of warm milk.
It was an easy answer to the freezing rain and no place to sleep.
But she’d be fine, she’d find a place to sleep somewhere. And she would stay in town long enough to do what she had to do—to meet with the lawyer Esther had mentioned in the e-mail, and the priest her grandmother prayed with and confessed to, and all those other things church people did.
Father Northcutt. His name came to her suddenly. He was the only person in Amber’s recollection that Lydia Cummings ever deferred to. And he was probably the reason Amber hadn’t ended up in an orphanage.
So she’d see them, sign some papers, collect whatever it was that her grandmother had left her—a toothbrush, maybe, if she was lucky.
But mostly she’d say a final good-bye to her mother.
And then she’d be on her way.
The door to the Gull Tavern opened and a noisy group of kids younger than she exited into the night. Amber slipped in as the door closed behind them, cutting off the harsh wind.
She paused just inside the door, sinking back against the wall as her eyes adjusted to the dim light. Small groups sat around the tall round tables scattered throughout the room. The long shelf that ran along the window wall was partly full, couples passing baskets of calamari and fried clams between them and washing it down with beer. Others stood or sat at the bar, elbows rubbing against elbows as they drank beer and screamed at a football game playing out on the big-screen TV above the bar. The smell of grilled burgers and fried onions filled the air.
Some were college kids home for the winter break, feeling their oats with the relief of finished exams behind them, Amber guessed. The older guys in slickers had probably come right off the lobster, cod, and tuna boats, now moored in the choppy waters near the harbor. It was a good crowd—one that wouldn’t have any idea who she was: the college kids would be too young, the fishermen too old and unconcerned.
She made her way to the bar and ordered a beer.
But Amber hadn’t considered the person behind the bar. A sudden jolt shot through her and she held back a gasp. The bartender’s shoulders bent forward as he pulled down on the tap handle, filling a mug with beer. His hair was white, thin, and straggly, his profile etched with age. He turned around slowly and set the beer in front of her, its froth curling over the mug and running down the sides.
Amber waited for him to look up.
Finally he did, his eyes scanning her face, his large nose filling a ruddy, weathered face. He kept his head still and then his eyes locked in to hers, holding her there as his face softened in recognition. His lips pulled up into a wry, lopsided smile, deep wrinkles spreading out in all directions. His voice was raspy, more weary than Amber remembered.
“So,” he finally said, “you still trying to sneak your way into my bar, you skinny rascal? Got your ID ready?”
In the next breath he leaned over the sticky bar, pushed the beer and a bucket of peanuts to the side, and wrapped Amber in a hug.
Jake Risso never forgot a face.
No matter that winds howled through the pine trees and freezing rain continued to pelt Sea Harbor, inside the lodgelike community center, a winter fairyland warmed the welcoming lobby.
“Oh, the weather outside is frightful,” sang Birdie Favazza, her small, veined hands keeping rhythm with the band playing in the distance. She smiled up at Ben Endicott and coaxed him into joining her as she wound her way through the crowd, a slight jig shaking her body.
“Holiday fever or holiday punch?” Ben said, his words warm with affection for the woman at his side, her white cap of hair barely reaching his shoulder.
“Maybe a bit of each, Ben, dear.” She moved toward an elaborate display a few feet in front of them. “How could you not feel good holiday vibes looking at this magical sight?”
A low round platform was set up in the middle of the foyer. But looking at it, one didn’t see a platform; instead a magical scene hovered directly above the wooden floor. It was a replica of the parklike space near the town pier—the Harbor Green, as locals called it. But tonight the miniature scene wasn’t green, it was wintry white, created from soft yards of snowy fleece. A gazebo stood in the center, its gables bright with tiny lights. Doll-sized park benches and picnic tables sat in the snowy folds, and narrow pathways meandered through the park, lit by black lampposts casting shadows across the snow. The entire scene evoked memories from every single person who had ever walked the Harbor Green, the well-loved wide-open space that hosted Fourth of July fireworks, summer picnics, seafood fests, open markets, and winter carnivals. It was where children would gather in a few weeks to cheer Santa on as he approached Sea Harbor in a lobster boat filled with cheery elves. Scattered throughout the snowy park, around the gazebo and among the benches and tables, were miniature Christmas trees, no more than ten inches high. They mirrored the recently planted trees down on the harbor, waiting to enter into the field of battle—waiting to be trimmed. A small white card rested at the base of each miniature tree, bearing names of the decorating teams.
Magical. Sea Harbor. Christmas.
“Well, what do you think?” Laura Danvers walked up to Ben and Birdie just as Sam Perry and Nell inched their way in to see the display. “The Canary Cove artists built the whole thing. It’s amazing. And thanks to Cummings Northshore Nurseries, each of those tiny trees has a real counterpart planted over at the harbor.” She stopped for a breath, her excitement coloring her cheeks, and looked at the faces of the crowd as people gathered for a glimpse of the scene.
“It’s beautiful,” Nell Endicott said. “You have such a gift for tugging on people’s memories, their emotions, and their purse strings, all at the same time—and you do it in such a charming way, Laura.”
Laura laughed, pleased. She worked ferociously hard on events like these, pulling in family and friends and anyone else who might make the events more successful. The young mother and civic leader was the consummate fund-raiser. She pointed across the crowded lobby to where Janie Levin was directing people to the coatroom and passed the accolade along. Janie’s red curls bounced as she greeted group after group. “Janie gets tons of credit for this. She was a huge help. She even talked her brother into helping.”
“Janie’s a gem,” Lily Virgilio said, leaning into the conversation. “The best nurse I ever had. You two are a dynamic duo, Laura, but I forbid you to steal her away from me.”
Laura brushed off the compliments. “The free clinic is essential to this town.” She looked over at a group standing near the bar and nodded their way. “I think having civic leaders like Alphonso Santos and Stuart Cummings come on board so quickly is proof of how highly people regard it.”
It was especially generous of Stuart, Nell thought. In spite of his jovial, good-fellow manner, there was a sadness on his face that reflected the family’s recent loss. Lydia Cummings’s death had been expected, following a lingering illness, but nevertheless the family matriarch’s passing had been a blow to her two grown children and to the entire north shore.
“I hesitated to approach Stuart so soon after his mother’s death,” Laura said, “but then he approached me and insisted Cummings Nurseries support it. He said his mother was completely behind the free clinic and she’d want her family involved.”
“That’s true,” Birdie said. “Lydia was nothing if not generous with her money.” She waved Laura off as she was called to another group.
“Where’s Iz?” Sam asked, looking over the heads of the women. “She was with me a minute ago. Then she disappeared.”
“She’s probably in the ladies’ room or caught up with friends,” Nell said. “If you can’t find her, come back and help Ben and me ‘work the crowd,’ as Laura put it. A handsome man on each arm makes it ever so much easier.”
• • •
Izzy Perry stood at the edge of the crowd, far enough away to be swallowed up in the groups of people swarming about the lobby. She saw Sam looking for her and ducked around the corner, her cell phone in her hand.
“Our daughter is fine,” Sam had insisted a few minutes earlier. “She’s in good hands. Trust me. Trust the sitter. Relax and enjoy yourself, m’love.”
He was right. Of course he was right. But between the community center and her home on the other side of town, a storm raged. And suddenly that placed a whole menacing world between her and her small daughter.
She cupped a hand over one ear and pressed her cell phone against the other, listening carefully to what she knew she’d hear when the ringing stopped and Stella Palazola picked up the phone. And it was exactly what she heard.
She ended the conversation and slipped the phone back into her purse. Abby was fine, ate a whole bowl of Izzy’s homemade brown rice with carrots, and Stella was in heaven playing blocks with the toddler.
Why was she being such a worrywart? It was the weather, she told herself. The rain was turning to sleet and the sound of pellets beating against the large windows was disconcerting. Each time the door opened to welcome more guests, the sleet pounded louder, more persistent. Determined to be heard.
She stepped into the crowded lobby and looked around for her aunt and uncle, but it was Sam she spotted first, his sandy hair still wet and glistening. He must have gone briefly outside, wondering if that was where she was. She felt a twinge of guilt, but he was happily listening to something her aunt Nell was saying now, his head held low and his warm brown eyes looking up every now and then, scanning the tops of heads.
Sam. Her Sam.
Sam Perry had been in and out of Izzy’s life for as long as she could remember—a friend of her older brother, Jack, he’d spent many summers with the Chambers family. An only child adopted by an older couple, Sam loved the chaotic family life of the Chambers brood. He was the one who sometimes stood up for her when her older and younger brothers teased her mercilessly. Sometimes he teased her right back. But he was always there, it seemed. Always a part of the pack.
But back then he was inconsequential to her life. And when she had headed east to college and law school—and finally abandoned her law practice for a new life in Sea Harbor—he was removed from it almost completely, except for a few random encounters over the years and mentions now and then from her mother or her brother Jack. And then, even those mentions became fewer.
Inconsequential. That was what he had been. Until that summer day when he’d come to Sea Harbor as a guest of the Canary Cove Art Colony. He’d been invited to be a guest lecturer for a photography class—and he had never left.
Izzy took a deep breath as the memories swirled around her. And then the door to the community center opened again, people hurried in, and the frigid night air gusted into the room, pressing against her heart and pushing her memories back into their pockets.
More people joined Sam and the others now as the crowd swelled, with Birdie waving to friends and neighbors she’d known for decades, making people feel at home, talking up the benefit as they praised Lily Virgilio’s free health clinic.
Holiday cheer—they were scattering it everywhere, like rose petals at a wedding.
Izzy waited for it to touch her, to wrap her up in its warmth. Instead she felt the cold, the freezing rain.
And she wasn’t sure why.
“Come on, Scrooge,” Cass Halloran whispered near her shoulder. “Let’s party.” She wrapped one arm around Izzy’s waist and spun her around. “Who can resist dancing to ‘Frosty the Snowman’?”
Izzy laughed in spite of herself. Cass knew her inside and out. She knew not to pry, not to scold. It’s just an Izzy mood, she’d be telling herself and anyone else who might ask. She’d shake it off soon.
And Cass also knew that sometimes, every now and then, Izzy’s mood portended something unexpected. Sometimes something good, sometimes not so good.
“So, did you see our Seaside Knitters’ name on one of those miniature trees? The real ones are going to be more of a challenge to decorate.”
“Yep,” Cass said. She grabbed two glasses of punch from a passing waiter and handed one to Izzy. “But I’m going to be between the devil and the raging sea on this one. Some of the Halloran crew members have bought a tree and they’re threatening to win the whole competition.”
“Pete and that motley crew of fishermen? Decorating a tree? Nah, not a chance. It’ll be trimmed with clumps of seaweed.” Izzy spotted Pete Halloran across the way, his blond head thrown back and laughing heartily at something tiny Willow Adams had said. Oh, my. She hadn’t considered Willow. The artist had Pete wrapped around her little finger, and as different as the two were, they were madly in love with each other, as least as far as anyone could tell. “Argh,” Izzy said. “I forgot those lugs have partners and friends and wives in their life who might actually be creative. Like Willow. Surely it’s not fair to let artists into this competition, is it?”
“Absolutely fair,” Laura Danvers said, passing by. The event coordinator was waving her hands in the air, encouraging the crowd to move into the wooden-beamed room off the lobby. “All’s fair in love and war and winning our first annual tree decorating contest,” she said with a grin.
In minutes Laura had all but a few groups of stragglers crowding into the large room, its floor-to-ceiling windows aglow with hanging stars and snowflakes. Ropes of greenery hung from one beam to the next, and candles in thick-glassed lanterns decorated the tables and seating areas scattered across the room.
Laura climbed the steps to a narrow stage at one end of the room and tapped on the microphone to quiet everyone.
Cass and Izzy made their way through the wide doors, trailing after the others. Sam took a step back and pulled Izzy into a hug, then leaned low and whispered in her ear, “So . . . how’s the sitter? Has the house burned down? Has our toddler whipped Stella at poker again?”
Izzy wrinkled her nose at him. Was she that transparent that she couldn’t make a phone call without Sam knowing it? “Shush,” she said, pointing to the other side of the room, where Laura was introducing Dr. Lily Virgilio and explaining the tree decorating project that was going to bring in sleighs full of money for the clinic. Laura’s excitement was contagious and the crowd cheered wildly as each team was announced—from the Altar Society ladies at Our Lady of Safe Seas Church to the Portuguese fishermen poker club to a local running club—and everything in between. The competition grew more boisterous and voices traveled all the way up to the high ceilings as burly fishermen and tiny white-haired women and a well-conditioned running club stood and waved and urged people to pledge to their team—the winning team.
Finally Laura tapped on the microphone and hushed everyone to silence again so she could introduce and thank the people behind the holiday competition—the Sea Harbor Chamber of Commerce, cochaired by Alphonso Santos and Stuart Cummings.
“Two generous men who have thrown themselves into this project wholeheartedly and completely,” Laura said in her polished voice.
The crowd cheered as the two men took the stage, the distinguished heads of Santos Construction Company and Cummings Northshore Nurseries.
Alphonso took the microphone first. “You’ve all seen the Cummings guys at work along the Harbor Green these past couple weeks? Not an easy task with this weather. They’ve been mulching and feeding and whatever else you do to the dozens of young trees that have been planted over there. If you haven’t seen them, they’ll be ready to admire in a week or so. So come on down, then, bring the kids. The Cummingses not only planted each of those trees; they donated every last one.” He paused for the applause, then continued.
“We’ll have name cards ready next week, a fine weatherproof holder for them in front of each tree. You’ll have a chance to pick your tree, and that’s the tree you’ll turn into a work of art. The chamber challenges each of you to make your tree the best lit, the best decorated—and, of course, the best funded—” He looked out over the audience, his eyebrows lifting. “Stu and I are thinking every last one of you can’t wait to scribble your name on a team’s pledge card, right?” He waited for the cheering to die down and handed the phone over to Stuart Cummings, who along with his wife and sister, Barbara, owned a fleet of successful nurseries up and down the north shore.
“We only have a few weeks, my friends,” Stuart intoned, his voice too loud for a microphone and his belly nearly touching the stand. “We’re keeping the rules simple. Those trees we planted down at the harbor are young and small—so treat them with care. No real lobster traps on these trees—that’ll have to wait till next year. But pick a theme and go with it.” He peered around the group, his eyebrows pulled together in fake severity. Finally he settled on a burly fisherman known to everyone in town as Cod and said with a scolding grin, “But we’ll keep it all in wicked good taste, you got that, Cod?”
The crowd laughed heartily as friends pounded on the fisherman’s broad back.
Laura came back to the mic next and finally quieted the crowd. She took a few questions and gave the dates for the final decorating event along with a reminder to show up a week from Saturday to pick out a tree.
“Now enjoy this delicious food being passed around along with the best eggnog on Cape Ann—or so the bartender tells me. And last but definitely not least, please welcome our very own Fractured Fish band.” The crowd erupted in applause as Pete Halloran, Merry Jackson, and drummer Andy Risso began tuning up in a corner of the room. “Take it away, Pete,” Laura said with a wave of her hands, and moved off the stage with the chamber cochairs following behind her.
In minutes, holiday music filled the air and waiters circled the room with steaming bowls of chowder, plates piled high with lobster rolls, and a dessert table groaning beneath chocolate pies and cakes and puddings.
Nell and Birdie found a spot near the fireplace and happily accepted bowls of chowder a waiter set down in front of them. Nell waved at Zack Levin, working as a server tonight. He was conscientiously picking up empty bowls of chili and taking them off to the kitchen. She remembered the days when she had witnessed the young man being reamed by a restaurant owner for not being so responsible. This new Zack made her smile.
Rachel Wooten wandered by and Nell waved the city attorney over.
“If you’re looking for your husband, he headed over to the bar with Sam and Ben,” Birdie said. “Sit with us. It’s much cozier here and we have a marvelous view of all the goings-on.”
Nell pulled up a chair for Rachel. She frowned as her friend sat down beside her. “You’ve been working too hard, Rachel. I see it in your eyes. Is everything all right?”
Rachel managed a smile. “I’m fine,” she said, sinking back into the chair. “Things at the courthouse actually slow down around the holidays. It’s another matter I’m caught up in that’s putting extra wrinkles on my face—” She stopped talking as several neighbors walked by.
“Ben mentioned you were executor of Lydia Cummings’s estate.”
Rachel nodded. “Yes. Ben’s been a help to me. I don’t often take on private clients, but I’ve helped Lydia over the years with legal matters. Trusts and wills. That sort of thing. Somehow details that seemed simple when someone is alive can become more complicated once they’re gone.”
“I’m sure the family is relieved Lydia’s affairs are in good hands.” Nell looked over at Stuart Cummings, standing next to his sister. His head was lowered as he listened intently to whatever Barbara was saying. She seemed to have something other than decorating trees on her mind.
Rachel followed Nell’s look. “I hope so. They knew I handled legal matters for their mother. But they’d like the estate settled soon. I don’t blame them. But sometimes there are complications, especially with all the properties Cummings Northshore Nurseries now has.”
A waitress approached with a tray of eggnog and set three glasses down on the small table in front of them.
“To the holidays,” Birdie said, lifting her glass. “And to the town we love.” She nodded across the room to the band area, where the Fractured Fish had begun playing a medley of holiday favorites. Her eyes crinkled with laughter as she watched Henrietta O’Neal, as wide as she was tall, balancing her portly frame on her nephew Garrett’s arm, moving slowly in a semblance of a dance. Garrett was looking down at his feet, as if counting the steps to a dance. The glass in his tortoiseshell frames caught the light from the ceiling and turned them transparent.
Soon Esther and Richard Gibson joined the couple, moving into the small cleared space in front of the band and dancing very slowly to “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” their gray heads touching and eyes nearly closed.
“Esther needed a break tonight,” Rachel said, watching them over the rim of her eggnog glass.
“Lydia’s death has been difficult for her,” Birdie said.
“And then some. She seems to know the most about Lydia’s life—intimate things that Lydia didn’t share with her children. She’s been wonderful helping me sort through things. That, in addition to helping Father Northcutt with that massive funeral.”
“And grieving her friend at the same time,” Birdie added.
Rachel nodded, her eyes tired.
“But you’ll figure it all out, Rachel. You always do,” Nell said.
• • •
From their spot near a giant wreath, Izzy and Cass were also watching the dancing couples. Henrietta had finally hobbled over to a chair and insisted Barbara Cummings take her place on the dance floor. She seemed relieved to sit, and watched briefly while her fifty-year-old nephew, Garrett, stumbled through a dance with Barbara.
Barbara and Garrett’s names were often tossed about in Izzy’s shop as customers gathered in the back room to knit and purl and discuss the town’s secrets and transgressions. The sturdy businesswoman and the quiet accountant, at least ten years her junior, were an odd couple. It almost sounded like the stuff of cinema, someone had said. Not in terms of romantic movies, but in terms of “not real.” Pretend. But they were nearly always together, whether discussing successful financial reports or things more intimate was anyone’s guess. They both seemed comfortable with the arrangement, whatever it was.
The couple danced briefly before Garrett trailed Barbara off the dance floor and to the bar, leaving Esther and Richard dancing alone in the shadow of a giant Christmas tree.
Izzy looked over at the Christmas tree, so high it nearly touched the beams crisscrossing the vaulted cedar ceiling. “That tree makes me think of the one my dad cut down every year and helped us decorate. Then he’d wire up speakers outside and play Christmas songs for the whole neighborhood to hear, like it or not. My ornery brothers would try to switch the music, put on Pink Floyd or Michael Jackson.”
Cass laughed. “Your brothers were brats. So was mine. Are your parents coming for Christmas?”
“Dad is taking Mom to Hawaii this year. Escape the Kansas cold. Maybe that’s why I’m melancholy tonight—not having family here for the holidays.”
A flash of light beyond the Christmas tree interrupted the memories. They glanced out the tall windows. A police car was pulling up to the front door.
“I hope no one’s sick,” Cass said, looking around. But the music was still playing, people were laughing and moving around, and the small dance floor was now crowded with people swirling and dipping along with Esther and Richard.
Janie Levin had seen the car pull up, too, and smiled a secret smile as she paused near Cass and Izzy. Her green eyes were bright. “It’s probably Tommy,” she whispered. “He’s on duty tonight and said he’d try to stop by if things were slow.”
“Hmm,” Cass said, her eyebrows lifting. “So, do I have this right? Our hard-earned taxes are supporting a lovers’ tryst, is that what’s going on here?”
“Oh, Cass,” Janie laughed, her cheeks turning as red as her hair. “Come say hi.”
Cass and Izzy followed her into the lobby where people were milling about in the less-crowded area, drinking wine and eggnog, and taking selfies in front of the miniature harbor display.
They were steps from the door when it opened, bringing in a wild rush of wind and freezing rain.
Izzy stepped back, her eyes watering, blurring her vision. She blinked against the cold and then watched Tommy Porter walk in, pulling the heavy door closed behind him.
Janie hurried over, unconcerned with the cold and wet that saturated Tommy’s uniform. She hugged him tightly. “Boring night on Harbor Road?” she asked, her face just an inch away from his. “Or is it that you simply can’t stay away from me?”
Behind her, Cass laughed, about to tease the police officer fiercely. Babysitting Tommy Porter before he grew into one of Sea Harbor’s finest brought with it some rights, she always told him. Besides, their early start had grown a deep friendship between the two, and Tommy always teased her right back.
But Cass stopped short of embarrassing the policeman when he stepped aside and revealed that he hadn’t walked in alone. Following him through the door was a man equally wet and shivering, his hands shoved into the pockets of a heavy jacket, his cheeks red, and his head bare. Wet hair fell across his forehead.
He was taller than Tommy, with broad football-player shoulders. He stood a few steps behind the policeman, an uncomfortable look on his face, as if he was unsure of why he was there or what was going to happen next.
What happened next was totally unexpected.
Excerpted from "Trimmed with Murder"
Copyright © 2015 Sally Goldenbaum.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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