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Chapter 1: Night of the Cupid


Book cover: Night of the Cupid, on a crime scene tape background. Coming 10/31/22

Nothing says romance like red roses.


I stepped back and admired the petals scattered artfully across the white coverlet. True, the flowers were not a gift from an admirer. My admirer knew I had plenty in my garden, even if it was February in the Sierras. (I have strangely behaving roses. I can’t explain why they bloom all year. It’s definitely not because of magic, as townsfolk have joked.)


I scanned the room one more time. The UFO photos on the walls were straight. The window curtains were neatly tied back. Chocolates sat centered on each pillow.


The Victorian smelled of vanilla and cinnamon. Bottles of champagne were chilling in my refrigerator. Every single room was booked. My B&B was as ready as it was going to be for our Valentine’s special.


Pleasure bubbled in my chest. If the rest of the year continued this way, I might have the money to finally repair Wits’ End’s aging roof. Also, I love romance as much as the next girl.

A door closed downstairs, and cheerful voices floated from the foyer to me. I checked my watch. It was precisely one o’clock, the start of check-in. I frowned. Hardly anyone ever showed up on the dot.


It was as good a foreshadowing of trouble as I was going to get. But I shrugged, assuming I had delightfully punctual guests, and strode into the green-carpeted hallway.


At the top of the stairs, I tugged down the hem of my blue blouse and smoothed my slacks. “Valentine’s romance or bust,” I murmured and hurried down the steps. I stopped short on the third stair from the bottom.


The foyer was packed with couples. They were bundled in identical hunter green parkas and scarves and hats. Piles of luggage blocked the front door and spilled toward the dining area.

My hand clenched on the banister. They’d all arrived at once? And color coordinated?


“Hi, I’m Susan Witsend.” Bemused, I descended the remaining steps. “Welcome to Wits’ End.”

A rosy cheeked older man stepped forward smartly. “Good afternoon. I’m Carl Carter, with the Bigfoot contingent.” Colored light from the stained-glass transom slanted across his wrinkled face.


My neck tensed. “Bigfoot...?”


Oh, drat. Small-town Doyle was attempting to introduce Bigfoot as a tourist attraction. Most of my guests were still UFO aficionados (or Unidentified Arial Phenomena, i.e. UAP aficionados, as it had become fashionable to call them). But we did get the occasional Bigfoot hunter. I’d even introduced Bigfoot-UFO socks and t-shirts on the shelving inset into the stairs beside the front desk.


But the B&B was booked for the Valentine’s special this week. My heart thumped unevenly. Had I messed up the bookings?


I hurried around the scarred wooden desk and checked my computer. Carl Carter had indeed booked a room, and my stomach plunged. Bigfoot hunters. My special hadn’t attracted pairs of hopeless romantics. My advertising for the special had been a complete waste.


A rosy-cheeked white-haired woman stepped to the man’s side. “We’re so looking forward to the Valentine’s Special.”


“But no champagne on the job.” Her husband wagged his finger playfully at her. “I’m afraid for my wife this is a bit of a working vacation. She’s a writer.”


Maybe my advertising hadn’t been a total fail after all. “What do you write?” I asked.

“Romance,” she said. “I’m hoping to get some inspiration.”


I straightened from the computer. “And the rest of you are here for a Bigfoot hunt?”


“We prefer not to call it a hunt,” Mr. Carter said. “We’re not actually hunting one down to mount his head on a wall.”


“That would be impolite,” his wife agreed.


“We call ourselves seekers,” he said.


“Of course.” I shook myself. It didn’t matter. They were guests. They were here to enjoy the Valentine’s Day special and search for Sasquatch. Bigfoot might not shriek romance, but it took all sorts to make the world go round. “I like your uniforms.”


“Carl owns an outdoor-wear company.” His wife beamed.


“It’s not all me.” He slid his arm around her waist. “You’re part of marketing. And contributing gear to our team was the least I could do.”


I did a quick headcount. I was short one couple and a solo traveler. I hoped she wouldn’t feel overwhelmed by the Bigfoot fans when she arrived.


A middle-aged woman with frosted hair pushed her way forward. “I’ve booked a double room.”


A man of the same age, with sunburnt cheeks and his arm in a sling edged beside her and glared. “Me too.”


The rooms were all doubles, but I smiled. “And you are...?” I checked the computer.

“Brooke Piper,” she said.


“Finley Nicholson,” the man said.


“Yes,” I said, “I have you both down for rooms with queen beds.” If they were each on their own, I wasn’t short a couple after all. “How many keys would you like?” It was the polite way to get at how many people were staying in a room, but the trick didn’t always work.


Brooke raised her chin. “One. I’m on my own. At last.”


“Same here,” Finley said. “And about time.”


“Divorcées,” Mrs. Carter murmured.


“Do we get the Valentine’s special too?” she asked. “I was really looking forward to those chocolate-covered strawberries.”


Her ex-husband eyed her curvaceous hips. “Maybe you should lay off the sugar,” Finley muttered.


“What?” Brooke asked.


“Nothing,” he said.


“Because I’ll eat as many chocolate strawberries as I want,” she snapped.


“Yes, they’re included,” I said before the tension could grow any thicker.


I checked everyone in without further incident and got them to their rooms. My cousin Dixie had inconveniently made herself scarce. Fortunately, the men insisted on carrying the heaviest luggage. I guessed it was full of delicate equipment for their Bigfoot search.


Finally, I trotted down the stairs to the empty foyer and sat behind the desk. I was still waiting on one solo traveler.


The kitchen door creaked open. Wagging his tail, Bailey trotted over and sat beside me. I bent to scratch behind the aging beagle’s ears.


The swinging door creaked open again. Dixie peered out, her curling dark hair tipped with pink. “Are they gone?”


“Yes,” I said testily. “No thanks to you.”


“I can’t believe you’re stooping to the old Valentine’s Day lure.” She made a face and strode into the foyer. In her Army-green Henley top and cargo pants, she could have been part of the Bigfoot group. “It’s gross. I don’t know how you can stand all the pink hearts and flowers.”

Said the woman who’d switched her hair dye of the month to pink. “You’re in luck then,” I said. “They’re not romantic couples. Well, some of them are. They’re a group of Bigfoot hunters. Seekers,” I corrected. I flipped through my planner on the reception desk.


She rolled her eyes. “Even worse. Do they know this is a UFO B&B?”


“I expect that was part of the attraction.” In my experience, there was a lot of overlap when it came to interest in the supernatural. Though I still wasn’t sure if UFOs fell under the supernatural or super-science classification.


The front door bumped open. A man wearing a navy fleece jacket and jeans walked into the foyer. His face was hidden behind the wooden crate he carried. “Ice sculpture?” he asked.

I bounced from my chair and closed the computer window. “That’s us.” I’d never ordered an ice sculpture before. The box was a little taller than I’d expected.


Dixie huffed a laugh. “An ice sculpture? Are you kidding me?” She squinted. “Victor? Is that you?”


He grunted an assent. “Where do you want it?”


“Right this way.” I led him into the kitchen and into the laundry room, where I had a small extra freezer.


He set the crate on the floor and straightened.


Whoa. Brawny shoulders. Chiseled cheekbones. Wide azure eyes a girl could drown in. Not that I would. I was madly in love with the best guy in town. But still. I wasn’t blind.


“The crate won’t fit inside your freezer,” Victor said. He looked to be about Dixie’s age, in his mid-twenties. “We’ll have to remove the sculpture. I’ll get the crowbar.” He strode from the cramped room.


Dixie appeared in the doorway. “Don’t you think you’re going a little overboard with this Valentine’s Day business?”


I leaned against the industrial washing machine. “I wanted a chocolate sculpture, but it cost too much.” Also, the ice sculptress was local. I believed in supporting my fellow Doyle business owners when I could.


She arched a dark eyebrow. “They’re Bigfoot hunters.”


“Seekers, not hunters. And I promised a romantic Valentine’s special.” I folded my arms. “So that’s what the guests are getting.” I believed in the power of the planner and in keeping my word. Even when I don’t want to.


“I dunno. This kind of reeks of desperation. You sure you’re not compensating for something?”

I sniffed. What was that supposed to mean? “I’m not desperate for romance. My relationship with Arsen is perfect.”


“Sure.”


It wasn’t a cheerful, confident sure. There’d definitely been a tone in her voice. “What d—?”

Victor reappeared in the doorway, and she edged aside to let him pass. “So when did you become a deliveryman?” she asked him.


“The things we do for love,” he said.


“Ah...” She nodded wisely.


Clueless, I shrugged. What the ice sculpture delivery man did in his free time was none of my business.


He pried off the top of the box. The four sides fell away.


Dixie and I stared. It was… This was… Oh boy.


“Want me to put it in the freezer for you?” He pulled a pair of work gloves from the rear pocket of his jeans.


“That’s, ah, not what I ordered.” I pointed at the sculpture—a naked man posed like Michelangelo’s David. But this guy was better looking than the famous Florentine statue. And better... er… well.


“Whoa.” Dixie gaped. “Is that to scale?”


Victor glowered at me. “Kelsey told me to deliver the sculpture. I delivered the sculpture. It’s your problem now.”


I stepped backward and bumped against the dryer. “But I ordered a swan inside a bed of roses,” I said. “Not a...” centerfold. “I mean. He’s... It’s...”


“All yours.” He stomped into the kitchen.


“No, wait.” I hurried after him, my hands clenching spasmodically. “You have to take it back.”


But he was already through the foyer and outside. I pushed through the double porch doors and stopped at the top of the steps. My breath steamed the air. Snow lay in drifts, icing the lawn and dotting the rose bushes beside the picket fence.


“But what am I supposed to do with it?” I called after him.


“Watch it melt, like every other ice sculpture.” He climbed into his red van, slammed the door, and backed from the driveway.


I stamped my foot, and an icicle plunged from the far end of the porch to shatter on the hard ground. “Well, that’s just...”


Shivering, I retreated inside and fumed. He had a lot of nerve dumping a pornographic ice sculpture on me. Now I’d have to take it back myself to get my swan.I stormed through the kitchen to the laundry room.


Dixie circled the sculpture. “You know, if you don’t want it, I’ll keep it.”


“No, you will not. I’m returning it for my swan.” I picked up the top of the crate. Belatedly, I realized I’d have to reconstruct the entire thing. But it looked simple enough.


Thirty minutes later, I was cursing at six wooden slats. They refused to stay together. What kind of fiend made a crate that couldn’t be easily assembled? What was the point?


“We’ll just have to take it back without the crate,” I told Dixie.


She wrenched her gaze from the sculpture. “We? I’ve got an online UFO seminar in twenty minutes.”


“I thought they were UAPs now.”


She jammed her hands on the hips of her cargo pants. “Calling them phenomena rather than objects implies they may be non-corporeal. And calling them aerial rather than flying implies no one is actually flying them. They’re UFOs.”


“Gotcha. Now help me get it out to my car, will you?”


“Whatever.”


We bundled up. I took the head and shoulders, and Dixie grabbed the base. We lugged the sculpture down the porch steps.


Its icy sides slithered in my gloved hands. My heart gave a lurch, and I grasped the shoulders more tightly.


Something crunched on my right, and I glanced over my shoulder. My neighbor Sarah pulled her daughter on a plastic sled across her yard, clotted with children’s toys.


“Oh, hi Susan.” Sarah waved with her free hand.


Her daughter bounced off the sled. She toddled to the fence between the properties. “Hi, Susan. What’s that?”


Her mother’s eyes widened. She clapped her mittened hands over the girl’s eyes.


“A mistake,” I said, cheeks burning, and duckwalked backward to my blue Crosstrek. One stupid mis-delivery, and I was contributing to the delinquency of a minor.


I opened the passenger door one-handed. Carefully, we laid the sculpture on the passenger seat where I could keep an eye on it.


“Okay, bye.” Rubbing her arms, Dixie trotted into the Victorian.


“But—” My mouth pinched. Never mind. I could get it back to the sculptress without my cousin’s help.


I returned for my purse and planner, got into the SUV, and backed from the driveway. Snow still clung to the pine branches and eves of the modest neighborhood homes. Though the skies were mercury, the streets were clear of ice as I drove into Doyle.


Paper valentine hearts and twinkle lights brightened the shop windows on the old-west Main Street. Snow frosted the tops of the wooden buildings’ false fronts.


I slowed, anticipating a stop sign, and cast another glance at the sculpture. So far, it hadn’t shifted much, which was good because I needed to get it to the studio in one piece. I gnawed my bottom lip and hoped the sculptor hadn’t given my swan to someone else.


I drove over the humpbacked stone bridge. A blur of brown darted in front of my SUV. I sucked in a breath and slammed on the brakes. Tires screeched. The sculpture flew forward. I grabbed blindly. “Don’t, don’t—”


Plink.


Horrified, I rocked back in my seat and stared at the piece of ice in my hand. My gaze ping-ponged from the sculpture to my palm. “No, no, no...” I muttered.


I’d broken it.


Maybe Kelsey wouldn’t notice?


My shoulders slumped. Who was I kidding? It was the first thing anyone with eyes would notice about this sculpture.


The squirrel bounded across the other side of the road and over a split-rail fence. It flicked its tail at me and vanished up a nearby pine. My jaw tightened. I was starting to understand Bailey’s dislike of the furry rodents.


A horn blared behind me. Glancing in the rearview mirror, I waved an apology.I drove on, turning up a narrow, winding road. Deep in a wooded hillside, I turned down a long dirt driveway to a cheerful red barn.


I parked and hurried to the door in the barn’s side. Stamping my feet, I knocked. The door swung open.


“Hello? Kelsey?” I stepped inside and closed the door behind me, but my attempt to keep the cold air out was foolish. The barn was freezing. Of course it was. How else would she keep the ice cold?


“The door was open,” I hollered and walked deeper inside.


Straw covered the floor, as it should in any good barn. Tall blocks of ice stood sentry. I wove between them like an explorer in an arctic Stonehenge.


“Hello?” I called. “So it turns out I got the wrong sculpture.” Slightly damaged. Would she try to charge me for it? But she couldn’t. It was her mistake. Or her deliveryman’s.


I rounded a corner of ice and the tension between my shoulders released. My ice swan sat amid a bed of carved ice roses on a wooden table. An electric hand saw lay beside it.


“There it is,” I said loudly. And now to give her the bad news. I swallowed. “Ah, I’m afraid there was an accident with the, er, David. Or whoever it was...” I turned and stumbled backward into the table.


Kelsey lay on the straw beside a massive ice sculpture—a cupid inside a starburst of ice. Red darkened her thick vest, a spear of ice jutting from her chest.


Night of the Cupid launches October 31st! You can still get the pre-order discount and buy the ebook at only $3.99 if you order now!


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