Chapter 1 Excerpt - Gingerbread Dead

“Face it, Abigail. I love Christmas more,” Hyperion caroled in front of the white quartz counter. He brought a cup of sugar plum tea to his lips. A Santa hat perched rakishly on his sleek, dark head.


“Ya think so?” From behind the counter, I motioned at the full tearoom.

Waitstaff passed beneath snowflakes dusted with glitter and dangling from the chandeliers. Guests sat around white-clothed table with Christmas tree centerpieces. Pine boughs dotted with twinkle lights swagged the front windows and the walls.


My partner’s Santa hat, fisherman’s sweater, and fashion-model good looks might have said, “I’m a quirky holiday aficionado.” But my tearoom roared holiday spirit? Bring it on!


A massive gingerbread house, lit from within, stood on one end of the counter. Smaller houses found places between the brushed-nickel tea cannisters on the shelves behind me. Originally, each table had boasted a gingerbread house centerpiece. But guests had assumed they were part of the tea and nibbled on the peppermint windows and iced roofs.


We were hip for the holidays, right down to my frilly red and white checked apron. The problem was, I wasn’t feeling the spirit. And I wasn’t one of those people who loathed the commercial excesses of the season. Especially when it was my commercial excess.


Hyperion arched a brow. “Being an elf doesn’t count.”


I laughed. “Oh, come on. Now you’re just being mean.” It wasn’t my fault I was height challenged.


Absently, he reached for the gingerbread house with one long arm.


“Uh-uh.” I smacked his hand. “That’s not for eating.”


He rubbed the back of his hand. “Then what’s the point?” His brows lowered over his expressive brown eyes. “It’s all faux ho-ho-ho. Eating a gingerbread house is way more in the holiday spirit than simply displaying one.”


“It’s also more expensive.” The gingerbread house had taken me ages to make. And though the tearoom was doing well now, I expected a post-holiday slump. We’d started Beanblossom’s less than a year ago, and I still couldn’t quite believe it seemed to be succeeding.


The thought sent a quiver through my insides. I checked my bun, making sure my longish caramel-colored hair was still tucked away.


“Whatevs.” He checked his watch and frowned. “Why isn’t Sierra back yet?”

Since Hyperion managed the Tarot readers at Beanblossom’s Tea and Tarot, the question was rhetorical. The Tarot readers weren’t on a clock. They were contractors and gave my business partner Hyperion a cut of their earnings. Their services had grown even more popular as the year was drawing to an end. And Sierra was never late.


I glanced at the oversized clock on the far wall. “She may have gotten hung up in traffic,” I said. “I heard a tomato truck overturned on 101.”


“She wasn’t on 101. She was just going down the block to buy a last-minute gift. And that’s another thing. I’ll bet you’ve already done your Christmas shopping.”


“I had it done by December first.” Mostly. I was trying to get more organized. You had to be organized when you ran a tearoom, or the tearoom would run you. Besides, I wanted time to enjoy the season. I’d spent too much time this year racing around like a madwoman.


He shook his head. “Talk about a snooze fest. You can’t plan Christmas spirit.”

A police car raced silently down the drizzly street outside. Its blue and red lights flashed, a mockery of holiday lights.


I smoothed my checked apron. “Says who? And how is last-minute shopping spirited? By getting so much shopping done in advance, I had time to put thought into my gifts.” I shifted my weight.


I’d recently begun dating a local attorney, Gino Redmond. I’d only gotten him a bottle of wine. Since we hadn’t been seeing each other long and he liked wine, I’d thought it sensible at the time. Now the gift seemed a little impersonal.


“But you’re missing the holiday shopping experience,” he said. “The bustle. The hustle. The holiday lights. The kids screaming on Santa’s lap. I’ll bet you haven’t even been to the Christmas market on the pier yet.”


My face heated as fast as our industrial dishwasher. My grandfather and his best friend, Tomas, were sharing a booth at the pier. The Christmas market was competitive, and they’d worked hard to get that booth. I really did need to get down there and show some support.


Hyperion braced his elbows on the counter. “So what’d you get me?”


“I’m not telling.”


His eyes narrowed. “I bet you got me a Tarot deck.”


Two more police cars, lights flashing, sped past outside. Uneasily, I pulled my gaze from the window. We didn’t usually see that much police action on Main Street.


“Please,” I said. “Do you think I’d be that obvious? You’ve got so many Tarot decks, odds are I’d just get you something you already had.” Rumor had it he had a storage locker for all his Tarot paraphernalia.


But I knew what I was getting Hyperion, and it was the best ever. He’d never see it coming. Once I figured out where I could buy it.


“Everyone’s making decks now,” he agreed. “It’s making me long for the classics just to be contrarian. Rider-Waite-Smith. Marseilles. The Thoth deck. OMG, have you heard? An academic has come up with some pretty good evidence that the 14th century Sola-Busca Tarot was based off Renaissance black magic. It’s totes creepy.”


“Beg all you want, I’m not getting that deck for you.” Black magic didn’t worry me. Maybe it should have, but it didn’t. But I could do better than a Tarot deck for a professional Tarot reader.


He shuddered. “I wouldn’t want it anyway. Bad mojo.”


A waitress in black and white zoomed to the counter. “Table six wants a tin of the spiced chai.”


“Sure thing.” I turned and reached for the brushed-nickel tin, jostling a lit pine bough in the process. It shivered, golden ornaments tinkling. Wary, I eyed the greenery.


I handed the tin across the counter. The waitress whirled and sped away, her elbow coming within a whisker of the gingerbread house. I nudged the house an inch closer to the center of the counter.


“What did you get me?” Hyperion asked.


“I’m not telling.”


“Is it bigger than a breadbox?”


“It cannot be compared to breadboxes.” Especially since his was the one present I hadn’t actually bought yet. At this point, it was only a vague idea.

“It’s non-corporeal?” He propped his chin on his fist. “Did you buy me a ghost?”


“Yes,” I said. “You nailed it. I bought you a ghost.”


“A service of some kind then.” He drummed his fingers on the white counter. “What sort of service could the man who does everything need?” He snapped his fingers. “New ideas for my Tarot blog.” He sighed. “It wouldn’t be a bad gift. I’m almost through writing about every card in the deck. What else am I supposed to write about?”


Since he was getting uncomfortably close to the truth, I changed the subject. To myself. “What did you get me?”


“I told you, I haven’t gotten anyone anything yet. I do all my shopping Christmas Eve.”


I gaped. “Are you nuts?” Who does that intentionally?


“I like the adrenaline rush. And speaking of which, what’s going on?”


“Hm?” I tracked his gaze to our front windows. A cluster of elderly guests had risen from their tables and peered through the drizzle outside. It was probably a fender bender. Nothing else ever happened on this street. “No idea.”


I walked around the counter and joined everyone at the window. “What’s happening?” In the early afternoon gloom, holiday lights glistened off the damp cars.


“The police are at your neighbor’s shop.” Mrs. Ingram touched her white hair, done up in a smooth chignon. “Do you think that old miser was robbed? It would serve him right.”


Her wrinkled companion shook her head. “Is it my imagination, or is the criminal element growing bolder?”


I angled myself to see better. Beneath cement skies, three police cars were parked pell-mell in front of the shop. It sold beach souvenirs to tourists and had the highest prices in San Borromeo. That many police cars could not be good.


I’d gone in there once, to introduce myself. The owner had been abrupt and disinterested. I’d left him a plate of scones and never heard from him again.

A spatter of rain drops pebbled on the windows. We gasped and took an involuntary step back, then glanced at each other with embarrassed smiles.

Hyperion nudged my side. “That’s a plainclothes detective’s car.” He pointed at a brown sedan, parked between the black-and-whites.


But it wasn’t our friend Tony’s car, and my heart gave a quick, spikey pinch. Tony Chase had recently quit the San Borromeo PD. He was closer to Hyperion than to me, but I liked him. And I’d gotten the sense that the ex-detective was floundering.


The phone rang on the hostess stand. Hyperion stepped smartly behind the podium and picked up the receiver. “Beanblossom’s Tea and Tarot, where the dress code is flashy and unapologetic.”


I rolled my eyes and snatched the phone from him. “How can I help you?” I asked.


“Er, I’d like to make a reservation?” a woman asked, hesitant.


I took the reservation for an afternoon tea, then turned to scowl at my partner. “You can’t answer the phone like that. People will take you seriously.”


“But wouldn’t you like the dress code to be flashy and unapologetic?” he asked, arch.


“That’s n