Happy New Year! Welcome to Mystery Playground's very first Tea Time Excerpt. There is nothing better on a cold winter afternoon than cozying up with a great book and a hot cup of tea.
So Sunday afternoons throughout January and February we will be running excerpts from some of our favorite novels from some of our favorite authors and matching them with wonderful tea. We're starting the feature with Amanda Flowers' new cozy mystery from Penguin. The first novel in the magical bookshop series.
I've selected Twinings Ultra Spice Chai tea to match to Amanda's book. This tea has flavors of cinnamon, cardamom, cloves and ginger. It has just the right zest to pair with the magical bookshop in Amanda's mystery. It warms you from the inside on a cold day.
Prose and Cons
By Amanda Flower
I set a stack of picture books decorated with smiling pumpkins and mischievous squirrels on the top of one of the lower bookshelves a few feet from her. “Can I help you?” I asked in my most polite bookseller voice. The trick was to sound friendly and helpful, not too eager for a sale.
The girl turned to me, and tears glistened in her big green eyes. “I don’t know. I’m supposed to pick up a gift for my boyfriend’s father. It’s his birthday, and the party starts in a half hour. I’m doomed!”
“I’m sure he would love any book that you give him,” I said encouragingly. “It’s the thought that counts, right?”
She shook her head and her brown hair covered her face. “You don’t know his parents. They’re horrible. Nothing I do is right. I just want them to like me or at least pretend to.”
I straightened a row of books that sat unevenly on the shelf. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if Grandma Daisy had moved the books just a little to drive me crazy. She and I had different ideas on the proper way to keep the books organized. I wanted everything in its place, preferably in alphabetical order. Grandma Daisy was satisfied if books were on the correct floor of the shop. She always said the books would find the person who needed them most no matter where they were in the shop, so precision didn’t matter. That might be literally true in Charming Books, but still the alphabetizer in me couldn’t handle the lackadaisical shelving method. After the books’ spines were all sitting precisely at the edge, I said, “That sounds familiar.”
She wrinkled her nose. “What does that mean?”
I gave her a half smile. “My high school boyfriend’s parents didn’t like me either.”
“What would they have bad to say about you?” She blinked at me. “You’re so tall and pretty.”
I chuckled. “Being tall isn’t everything. Neither is being pretty. That’s sweet of you to say that I am, though. You’re a beautiful girl, so if that argument didn’t work for you, it most certainly wouldn’t work for me.”
She blushed at the compliment and said, “If your boyfriend’s parents didn’t like you, I really am in trouble. Maybe I should just go to his birthday party empty-handed. Why waste my money when it’s not going to do any good?”
“Maybe you just need to let your subconscious pick the book,” I said.
She wrinkled her smooth brow. “What do you mean?”
“Close your eyes and reach for the books. I think the right book will find you.”
She gave me a dubious look.
I shrugged. “It’s just a hunch. What do you have to lose?”
“Oh-kay.” Her voice was still heavy with doubt.
While the girl’s eyes were closed, a book flew across the shop from the history section and appeared in her hand.
Her eyes snapped open, and she stared at the tome with Abraham Lincoln on the cover. “How did this get in the sports section?”
“Oh,” I said unconcernedly. “It must have been misplaced. Would you prefer a sports-related title?” I moved to take the book from her.
“No!” She jerked the book away from me and held it to her chest. “No, this is perfect. His father is a history buff, and I’ve seen a picture of Lincoln in his office. I’m only afraid he might have already read this one.”
I fought to hide a smile. “I’m pretty sure he hasn’t read it.”
“How do you know?” She stared up at me with those big green eyes again.
“Call it bookseller intuition.” I smiled.
She hugged the book more tightly to her chest. “This is the right book. I just know it. Thank you so much . . .” She trailed off.
“Violet,” I said.
“You really saved my life with this.”
“Happy to help. Let’s ring you up, then, so you can make that party.” I led her across the room to the sales counter.
Faulkner, the shop crow, walked across the counter. His talons made a clicking sound on the aged wood. I clapped my hands at him, and he flew over the girl’s head, cawing, “Four score and seven years ago!”
She ducked, and her eyes went round. “Was the crow quoting the Gettysburg Address? Does he know about this book?”
I forced a laugh. “We’ve been playing a lot of historical audiobooks in the shop lately. He must have picked it up from that.”
While she reached in her purse for her wallet, I glared at Faulkner, who landed on one of the low branches of the birch tree. The crow smoothed his silky black feathers with his sharp beak and ignored me. I wondered where my tuxedo cat, Emerson, had gone off to. He usually was able to keep the crow in line. Also it was never a good sign when Emerson wandered off. The cat was up to something or wandering around the neighborhood. I hadn’t yet figured out how to keep my cat in the shop. His previous owner took him all around town.
She swiped her credit card through the machine.
“Would you like me to gift wrap the book for you?”
“Can you? That would be great and save me so much time. I’m already running late as it is.”
“Of course.” I cut off a piece of brown paper stamped with orange and red leaves from the roll behind the counter.
After the girl took the newly wrapped biography out the front door, I locked the door behind her and winked at the birch tree that grew in the middle of the bookshop. A spiral staircase led up to the second floor of Charming Books, where the children’s fairy book loft and my one-room apartment were. My ancestress Rosalee had built the original house around the tree after the War of 1812. “Nice work.” I gave the tree a thumbs-up.
My seventy something grandmother, who with her trim figure could easily pass for a woman half her age if not for the sleek silver bob that fell to her chin, came around the side of the tree, shaking her head. “Violet, my dear, you’re becoming a little showy with helping customers choose books. What if another customer was in the shop when you pulled that stunt? It would not do for customers to see books flying across the shop.” As usual, she wore jeans and a Charming Books sweatshirt, which was orange that day in celebration of the nearness of Halloween. To complete the outfit, she’d added a gauzy infinity scarf decorated with cheerful jack-o’-lanterns.
“Grandma Daisy, it’s after seven. The shop was supposed to close fifteen minutes ago. There was no else in the shop.”
“Still, you need to be careful.” She tucked a lock of silver hair behind her ear. “Remember the most important job of the Caretaker is to keep the shop’s secret. No one outside of the family can know.”
“Four months ago you were arguing with me because I didn’t believe in the shop’s essence. Now I’m in trouble because I do and make use of it.” I couldn’t keep the whine out of my voice. I knew I sounded like a stubborn four-year-old, and I knew it wasn’t attractive on a woman nearing her thirtieth birthday.
Grandma Daisy adjusted her cat’s-eye glasses on her nose. “You’re not in trouble. I just want you to remember your duty as the Caretaker.” She turned and headed in the direction of the kitchen, which was separated from the shop by a thick swinging door.
Like I could forget? Being the Caretaker of the huge Queen Anne Victorian house and its birch tree had been a duty of the women in my family for the last two centuries, ever since Rosalee watered the tree with the mystical and healing waters from the local natural springs. The water manifested itself in the shop and the books, and now the essence of the water was able to communicate with the Caretaker through cryptic messages sent through the books themselves. Trust me—I know how unbelievable that sounds.
My mother should have been the Caretaker after my grandmother was relieved of her post, but fate had other plans, stealing her from me when I was only thirteen. As a result, the Caretakership skipped a generation and landed directly on my shoulders. Since I had no children, female or otherwise, it was unknown what would happen to the shop when it was time for me to pass it on to the next generation. I would love to have a child . . . someday. I rolled my eyes at Grandma Daisy’s receding back. There was really no way I could forget my duty as the Caretaker of Charming Books even if I wanted to.
“I saw you roll your eyes at me,” Grandma Daisy called over her shoulder.
“The essence doesn’t give you the ability to see out the back of your head,” I countered.
She glanced over her shoulder. “How do you know? You’ve only been the Caretaker for a few months. How do you know everything the essence can and cannot do?” Before I could think of a smart remark, she said, “Don’t you have some cookies to be picked up from La Crepe Jolie for the Poe-try Reading tomorrow?”
I smacked myself on the forehead. “Oh, right, I forgot. I’ll go collect them now.”
She nodded. “The Red Inkers should be here by the time you return. Be careful. The traffic will be horrid on River Road with the start of the Food and Wine Festival tomorrow.”
“I’ll be careful,” I promised.
The Cascade Springs Food and Wine Festival was the biggest event for the small village, which depended on tourism for its survival. It was held annually the third week of October. This year at Grandma Daisy’s urging, Charming Books was participating in the festivities by hosting a Poe-try Reading, highlighting the work and life of the master of the macabre, Edgar Allan Poe. I couldn’t think of a more perfect author to showcase this close to Halloween. Grandma Daisy and I were able to recruit the help of the Red Inkers, a local writers’ group that regularly met in Charming Books after shop hours to discuss their work.
I grabbed my coat from the coat-tree by the kitchen door. “I should be going, then.”
“Don’t be too long, I know everyone in the group is looking forward to seeing you . . . ,” she said in a teasing voice.
This time I rolled my eyes to her face, so there was no mistaking it. Grandma Daisy’s bell-chime laugh rang through the empty shop, and Faulkner joined in on the chuckle fest. Her comment about the group wanting to see me was much more pointed than it sounded. She implied—not so subtly, might I add—that the village police chief, David Rainwater, wanted to see me.
The truth was I was looking forward to seeing him too.
The excerpts were provided by the publishers after we asked for them and the tea is all mine. I love different flavored teas and get many as gifts.