The heady perfume of blossoming lilacs permeated the rooms of Hartfield Cottage. As the sun shone across the glossy hardwood floor of the hallway, fairy dust danced in the shaft of light. Keys jingled as one slipped into the lock. Shoes tapped across the floors and down the hallway, adding music to the sights and scents of the cottage. In her guest room, Alexa Hartfield ran her hands over her spring clothing, pleased. Soft blouses, silky gowns, crisp skirts, and gauzy dresses delighted her fingertips. Moments later, she bopped through the house, crooning off-key at the top of her lungs.
A knock stopped her butchered rendition of Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood.”
Alexa half-danced to it and opened it, smiling at Hunter Badgerton. “Hey, I’m glad you came by. I was going to call you. Did you still want to do the pruning and yard work this spring and summer, or will you be too busy?”
“Hey, Miss Lexie. Um, yeah. I was hoping to do it again this year. My uncle is letting me buy his car—gonna show me how to fix it, but of course, I have to pay for it and the parts.”
As he shuffled his feet, Alexa thought she understood the reason for his visit. “Oh, is it collection time already? Let me get my purse. I always forget—”
“Oh, no. You paid me last week, remember? It’s just—oh, man. I hate this.” He took a deep breath and blurted out his errand. “My drama class is doing Music Man, and everyone is required to sell ten tickets. I was hoping you would—”
“What role did you get?”
Hunter’s face drooped. “Marcellus Washburn.”
Now she understood. A boy like Hunter would prefer a role like Harold Hill or Tommy Djilas. He wouldn’t see that getting a role like Washburn was a compliment. “You’re going to be amazing. Not everyone can do that role justice. I can’t wait.”
“Yeah, I guess. He’s just not going to look as good on a college application.” He sighed. “And now I have to sing that stupid song.”
“Well, I’ll take four tickets and give you a standing ovation.” She smiled. “But you have to do two things first.”
“Take two of the tickets to the chief and earn that ovation.”
Hunter grinned. “I’ll do it. Thanks.”
She scrawled out a check and exchanged it for the tickets. “If you don’t sell out before Wes gets here, come back. He might take four for him, Heather, and the kids.”
Alexa closed the door behind her, reading the tickets. A plot formed in her mind as she tucked them into her purse. Despite his love for older music, Joe didn’t like musicals. She might just have to find a way to bait him into escorting her—before she told him where they’d go.
Determined to make it work, she called his phone and left a message. “Officer Freidan. Citizen Alexa Hartfield here, calling to request a house visit during your lunch break. I promise to surprise you with a special gift if you can spare the time to stop by.”
That done, she glanced around her and decided to call her housekeeper and arrange for spring house cleaning. Before she could dial, her phone rang. Startled, her hands fumbled the phone, almost dropping it. “Hello?”
“Ms. Hartfield? This is Silva from the Cutting Room Floor.”
She found the call a bit awkward; Silva had never called her unless related to an order. “You know, I was just thinking about you today. I pulled out my spring wardrobe to see what gaps I might need to fill in and realized that I don’t have anything formal—well, nothing I want, that is.”
Silva sounded uncertain as she said, “You sound out of breath. Did I interrupt—”
“Not at all. I was just holding the phone when you called and it startled me. What can I do for you?”
Well…” Silva hesitated before she charged ahead with a “do or die” tone to her voice. “I have a business proposition for you and wondered if you were planning a trip to the city anytime soon.”
Smiling at the New York tendency to consider only New York City as “the city,” she shook her head as she spoke. “Not before fall. What kind of proposition?”
Silva briefly outlined a plan for a nationwide clothing line that would merge the best of vintage styles, modern construction techniques, and the latest in fabrics to create a classic look that, by novelty alone, would be slightly trendy.
“All clothes are rehashes of other eras—we’re not pretending to do anything original—what is original is how closely my designer has managed to copy actual vintage dresses while keeping a cohesiveness to the line. I think you’ll be impressed.” A second or two passed before she rushed on, as if she’d taken a drink or a deep breath to steady herself. “I thought of you because of your interest in retro-vintage fashion. When Rhette brought me the sketches, I knew these were the kinds of clothes you’d love to see in stores.”
The enthusiasm building in Alexa dimmed suddenly. This was a business proposition. She couldn’t allow herself to be swept away by ideas; she had to think. “What would be the purpose in my coming to New York?”
“Well, if you thought you might be interested, we’d fax a prospectus. If you’re still interested, we’ll make prototypes of debut ensembles in the line and arrange a meeting for you to have a private viewing.”
Alexa saw Joe open her gate, and her eyes grew wide. “Um, yeah. Hey, Silva, can you fax that prospectus this afternoon? I have to go. Thanks for calling. I like the idea. Bye.”
Only vaguely aware of how rude she must have seemed, Alexa dashed out the front door. “Joe! Where is your mustache?”
“I’m fine, thank you. It’s a gorgeous afternoon, isn’t it? I hope you included lunch in that message, because I’m on beat today, and I won’t have time to walk home before I have to get back on the streets.”
“You’re not getting anything until you tell me what you did with your mustache. I almost didn’t recognize you!” Hands on hips, Alexa stared at Joe.
“The annual mustache-a-thon starts next week.”
Alexa hurried ahead of him, through the house, across the dining room, and into the kitchen. She pulled a retro apron from the pantry and slipped it over her neck, covering the all-white dress. As she assembled sandwiches, Joe described the annual fundraising drive—something that felt vaguely familiar to her.
“It’s for the prom. There just aren’t any places in town large enough to hold it other than the gym. But prom is such a big deal everywhere else, so we raise all the money we can so we can rent a nicer place for the kids—in Rockland.”
“And shaving off your mustache will cut it?”
“Funny play on words there,” he teased. “The businesses do what they can to raise funds, but people give more if they can see the mustached men of this town shave it off and look ridiculous for six weeks.”
Alexa nodded as she grilled the sandwiches on her griddle and assembled a salad. “I don’t understand the big hoopla over proms these days. Honestly, kids spend more on their proms than their parents or grandparents did on their weddings.”
Joe shrugged. “I think the prom took over those formal parties of the fifties and sixties—you know, where they wore those poufy dresses and stuff. Sweet Sixteen parties or coming out parties. I think more recent generations just mushed all those into one—or two, if the kid’s lucky—big bash.”
She handed him a bowl of salad and put a mound of cottage cheese on each plate before transferring their sandwiches to their plates. “I can’t believe I’ve never seen you without that mustache before. How did I miss that?”
Joe mumbled something behind his sandwich, but Alexa didn’t hear. They ate with few words punctuating the quiet of the house. Alexa got up to refill their glasses and to make Joe another sandwich, but the majority of the meal remained conversation free.
At last, Joe blurted, “What is wrong with you? It’ll grow back. It’s just a mustache.”
“What?” Alexa tore herself from her reverie.
“You keep staring at my lip! It’s just a mustache.”
Heat rushed to her face. She tried to hide it, rising under the pretext of grabbing more napkins, but Joe grabbed her wrist. “Sit down. I’ve seen you cry and blush, and I’ve heard you sing. Eat. Your food’s getting cold.”
“It’s a salad. It’s supposed to be cold,” she muttered, retaking her seat as her face cooled. She chanced another glance at his face. His eyes twinkled with repressed laughter, making her defensive. “Well, it’s just different! It takes some getting used to.”
“I get it. Keep the mustache.” He nudged her foot. “You know, if you were civic-minded and wanted to prove your loyalty to the mustache, you’d sponsor me with a hefty donation.”
Alexa shook her head. “Oh, no. I’m not loyal to the mustache at all. Can I sponsor you to shave it back off once the contest is over?” She took a bite of salad and concentrated on finding the right lettuce, spinach, crouton, and tomato combination for her next bite.
“You don’t like the mustache?”
She struggled to find an answer that didn’t seem bizarre. Whether or not he wore a mustache wasn’t exactly any of her business. A girlfriend could—well, possibly—expect to have something to say about her boyfriend’s facial hair, but Joe wasn’t a boyfriend.
He saw her glance at him and self-consciously scratched his upper lip. As her eyebrow rose, he said, “What! I don’t get it. You seemed bothered by the lack of facial hair and now you tell me you don’t want it back.”
Alexa swallowed, took a sip of her lemonade, and grinned. “I’ve always said you’re a very good-looking man. In that suit and hat last winter, you were downright debonair.” She shook her head. “But you’ve been hiding an incredibly handsome face behind a swath of fuzz.”
“Really. I think it’s positively criminal, which, you have to admit, is not a very good example in a police officer.”
He rested his elbow on the table, covered his mouth with his hand, and stared across the table at her as if he didn’t know her. She smiled and even arched her eyebrow again for effect. Joe shook his head. “If I didn’t know you as well as I think I do, I’d say you were flirting, Miss Hartfield. However, I think that’s irrelevant at the moment.”
That flattened Alexa’s comeback. How could she toss back a witty remark after his comment on relevance? “Huh?” She groaned inwardly at her stunning eloquence.
“Well, I’m curious, of course. I’ve never imagined the famous Alexa Hartfield flirting with anyone, so it seems unlikely. Even so, once you discover the piece of spinach in your front tooth, you’ll forget about me. Leafy vegetables like that particular tooth, don’t they?”
“If this is payback, it worked.” She stood, untied her apron, and snapped it at him on her way to extricate the offending greenery from her teeth.
While flossing, brushing, and picking to dislodge the spinach, Alexa glanced at her face. The blotchiness that always followed a deep blush seemed nearly gone. As she rinsed her mouth, Joe called out to her. “My lunch hour is almost up, or will be if I add on the walk back. Why did you call me over here?”
She hurried back to the kitchen and removed two cupcakes from the cake dome. She cut the top off one, turned it upside down, and created a “sandwich” with it, the frosting in the middle. “Here—no cyanide.”
“Wilma made them?”
She shook her head, smiling. “No, I did. But I’m sure she’d make you some if you asked. She’s convinced you’re the town’s very own Colombo since you caught the guy who killed her mail carrier.”
“Why’d you cut off the top like that?”
“Cleaner to eat on your way back to work.”
She turned to cut the top off hers too when Joe’s tone dropped low and insistent. “Why am I here, Lex?” She’d only heard that tone a few times and always when concerned about someone. Sarah had declared it to be the most soothing sound in the world, “just like the shower when you’re really dirty and stinky.”
“Well, it’s nothing serious or anything. You know that house Wes wants me to buy?”
“He got them to agree to sell, and now he’s working on a price. Honestly, I don’t understand why this is such a big deal to him.”
“He’d be close to Heather, Zach, and Sarah without feeling like an intruder in his sister’s house. It’s a guy thing.”
“Anyway,” she continued, “I wondered if you knew who I should talk to about the place. I don’t want to get stuck with a money pit. My handyman was recently arrested for killing my characters, after all, and I don’t have a backup to help me.”
“I know a guy who can either help or tell us who can. You wouldn’t believe how many are without a handyman.” Joe rinsed his plate and tossed his napkin in the kitchen laundry basket. He guzzled the last of his lemonade and checked his watch. “Oh, man. I’m going to have to hurry or I won’t make it to work on time.”
Alexa walked him to the door, and as he stepped onto the walkway, she called after him. “Wait, there’s one more thing!”
Late, and in typical male fashion, Joe tried to expedite the leaving process. “What?”
“I need a favor.”
“Anything. Just leave a message on my voicemail. I really have to go.”
She watched him half-jog toward the end of the street, slowing as he neared the corner. At the corner, he waved before disappearing around the corner fence. “Oh, man, he set himself up good for that one! He didn’t even think to have me call and tell him while he walked to work.”
Joe collapsed on his couch that evening, exhausted. Walking the beat was Chief Varney’s idea of keeping a presence among the tourists that flocked to Fairbury for its excellent produce, handcrafted gifts, and small town atmosphere. For the cops, it just meant an exhausting day.
He punched his voicemail and speakerphone and listened. Jeremy rambled for half a minute, hung up, and called again—several times. Why his little brother thought he could help with dating advice when he hadn’t had a real date in months, he didn’t know. Two calls from his mother asked about Easter. He’d never get it off, but she wouldn’t stop trying to find a way until the Monday following. He saved Alexa’s message for last. As he listened, his droopy eyes widened and he bolted upright. “What! Oh, man, she set me up.”
He punched her number, ignoring the side of him that knew he might wake her up. If not, she deserves to be woken up, he groused to himself. The moment he heard her voice, Joe pounced. “Alexa? That was low.”
“I tried to ask you, but you just ran off!”
“You planned it that way!” he accused.
“Well, actually, I wish I could say I did.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“Don’t or do, but it’s the truth,” she snickered. “I would have if I had thought of it. I thought I’d have to beg, wheedle, beg, plead, beg—”
“Yeah, I get the idea.” Seconds ticked past as he wrestled between auditory tortures and keeping his word. Integrity won. “Okay, I’ll go but with one condition.”
“What is that?”
“No Shirley-Jones-beauty-parlor-hair-dryer hats.”
“Aw, I just found the cutest one too! It looks like a ball of cotton candy.”
Somehow, he pictured her mentally pumping her fist and couldn’t stand it. “Sorry, it’s me or the hat.”
“What if I counter?”
Joe groaned inwardly. It’d be about the mustache. He knew it. “What is it?”
“What if I say it’s the hat or the mustache?”
“Then I guess I’ll have to see the hat before I can answer it.”
Joe stared at the dead phone in his hand, growing more nervous with each passing second.
Alexa flipped open her laptop and pulled up her email program. She began typing the name of her seamstress and hit enter as auto-fill did the work for her.
Subject: Can you sew a hair dryer?
I need an enormous favor. Do you have time to make me the most hideous pink hat you can dream up? I’m talking tulle or stiff voile—anything that will stay poufed up in a muffin hat style. I want it to look like I have a pink hairdryer on my head. If you can do it (and it doesn’t have to be well made—just put-on-able) and overnight it, I would really be obliged. Send me an invoice and I’ll pay you immediately.
Fashionably in your debt,
Crime of Fashion
New. All is new in Alexa's world. New home, new friendships, new business venture, new feelings. But when a new murder and murderer surface, Alexa finds herself ready to close the book on all things new. Can Joe convince her of her need for his friendship and protection before it's too late?
Manuscript for Murder showed mystery author Alexa Hartfield an uglier side of life—one she would have been thrilled to avoid. Relieved that the horror is over, she settles back into her quiet life in Fairbury and begins work on her next novel, confident that the Fairbury police force—and Officer Joe Friedan—can and will keep any other crime far from her doorstep.
And they do.
However, life is full of change, and if Alexa thought everything would go back to normal, she’ll be disappointed! Her life just got a makeover—new house, new and changing friendships, new business venture—and with it, a new murder to rock her world.
When things start going wrong with the new business, Alexa grows concerned. When someone dies and others are threatened, Joe and Alexa begin to wonder if her life isn’t in danger as well. As they race to discover who could possibly want to hurt the new fashion line and her business partners, Alexa begins to fear for the safety of her heart as well.